Best Films of the ’10s: #10-1

Richard Linklater’s best films dissect how the passage of time shapes our perception of narrative (Dazed and Confused,The Before Trilogy, Slacker); this is arguably more ambitious than all of them, and even more blatantly driven by a gimmick. But the cumulative effect of Boyhood is unprecedented, realizing a new way of seeing and storytelling only possible via the moving image; through his deft use of this structure, Linklater enables us to witness something both so singular and universal.

As innovative as Kubrick and enigmatic as Malick, The Master builds on the sharp turn Paul Thomas Anderson took with There Will Be Blood, scrutinizing post-World War II America while often playing like a fever dream come down to earth. Joaquin Phoenix’s meticulous, intriguing performance is but one of many he gave this decade, so look to one of the last great ones from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—his L. Ron Hubbard-esque figure perhaps the key to this film’s slippery, near-unknowable soul.

As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner about a family of sorts up there with Nobody Knows and Still Walking and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.)

Peter Strickland’s strange, arresting film is not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story. Come for the dizzying homage to Italian horror and soft-core erotica and stay for a fascinating, eloquent exploration of what it means to play a role in a loving, sexual relationship—and how not fulfilling your partner’s expectations throws everything out of whack.

This film follows a man on a one-day leave from rehab. We see him drift through a city (and traces of a former existence) teeming with life and pleasures running the gamut from the mundane to the sublime. And yet, director Joachim Trier never makes light of the conundrum of addiction and how effusively it colors both one’s surroundings and perceptions. Cold and unsentimental, yet affirmative and at times unexpectedly buoyant, Oslo, August 31 is a one-of-a-kind meditation on life itself.

Anyone can make a documentary about one’s own family; for her first nonfiction feature, actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley does just that, but she also explores how such a story can be told, considering differing points of view from each family member, the abundance (or absence) of found documentation available and how all that information is shaped into a narrative (what’s emphasized, what’s left out). As these details accumulate and overlap, Polley crafts a hybrid that does nothing less than open up and redefine what the genre’s capable of.

What more is there to say about Parasite? That it genuinely lives up to all the hype and then some? That it’s so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control? Is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror story? Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that? I won’t be surprised when I revisit this in another five or ten years if it feels more like a definitive record of its time than any documentary.

At first glance, Frances Ha shouldn’t work. It’s full of precious anachronisms like black-and-white cinematography, deliberately old-fashioned opening titles and a jarring soundtrack. Besides, the world did not need another tale of a single 27-year-old white woman in New York. And yet, for all of its quirks, actor Greta Gerwig (prefiguring her subsequent work as a filmmaker) and director Noah Baumbach’s collaboration is an utter delight—especially whenever Frances/Gerwig is paired with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), transforming the film into a closely observed study of female friendship.

Reining in the excess that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches, from a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg to the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score to Armie Hammer’s solid presence to Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough here is iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. Beyond that, however, this film locates something vital and deeply affecting at the core of giving yourself completely over to love, and also loss.

I’ve loved all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films since Tropical Malady, but none have stayed with me like this one. Set in a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers, it’s another magical realist mood piece. He draws connections between psychic mediums, ghosts, mythic sites and dreams, feeling both familiar and otherworldly. The film practically glides from scene to scene, concerned with such ephemera as the light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldiers’ beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s like nothing else I saw this decade.

The Best Films of 2016


I’ve loved all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films since Tropical Malady from over a decade ago, but none have stayed with me like this one has since first seeing it last spring. Set in a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers, it’s another magical realist mood piece. This time, he draws connections between psychic mediums, ghosts, mythic sites and dreams, feeling both familiar and otherworldly. The film practically glides from scene to scene, concerned with such ephemera as the light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldier’s beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s like nothing else I saw this year.


Retired music critic Clara (Sonia Braga) has lived in the two-story Recife, Brazil apartment building that gives this film its title for most of her life after inheriting it from her aunt; currently its sole tenant, she’s pressured by developers trying to force her out so they can replace it with a commercial high rise structure. While Aquarius is yet another story of one person determinedly holding on to a way of life in the face of change and gentrification, it’s more elegiac than nostalgic and driven by mystique instead of melodrama. It’s no overstatement to say Braga delivers a monumental, career-best performance, but the rest of the film is very much up to her level, from its diverse, playful soundtrack to how masterfully it builds up to its shocking, gloriously cathartic finale.


The latest from longtime favorite director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Nobody Knows) is a Japanese manga adaptation about three grown sisters who take in their teenage half-sister after meeting her at their shared father’s funeral. One of the most admirable things about the film is how naturally compassionate the women are towards their newly discovered sibling, not seeing her as a rival or an unwanted surprise, but simply as family. Like all of Kore-eda’s best work, it focuses on our capacity to be humane, on how well we treat each other. The charming, unfussy narrative that unfolds rises to the same level as Yasujiro Ozu’s great mid-century domestic dramas; it’s all enough to make one wish a major American filmmaker could achieve something both so simple and profound (leading us to…)


Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) almost wholly unexpected second feature has garnered the acclaim and the audience you wish most films of its ilk could achieve. In following three life stages (child, teen and adult) of a black man from a rough Miami neighborhood, Moonlight could have easily succumbed to its potentially gimmicky structure or turned out an Issue Picture about how an outsider never truly escapes his confining environment. Instead, the end result is uncommonly lyrical in its fluid pace (and camera movement), often gorgeous imagery and narrative/structural leaps. However, what’s most admirable is the rare intimacy it achieves—particularly in those wonderfully observed and executed scenes at the neighborhood park, the beach at night, and the diner.


When news surfaced of the premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’ (Dogtooth) first English language film, I thought it sounded nothing less absolutely crazy and thank god, he didn’t disappoint. In fact, as English language debuts go, nothing about The Lobster feels compromised or diluted. A pitch-dark satire about the necessity to find one’s “soulmate” (or be turned into the animal of your choosing), it features an unrecognizable Colin Farrell (playing a schlub so convincingly that it’s revelatory) and a typically terrific Rachel Weisz, plus an inspired cast of weirdoes populating a narrative that sharply critiques two worlds that would seem to be wildly at odds but actually end up mirroring each other in their enforcement of conformity. And that ending is more brilliant (if not more grotesque) than anything Kubrick could’ve come up with.


Abe, a minister at a storefront Pentecostal church in Memphis attempts to help out recent convert and single mother Melva, whose mentally ill young child Benny is subject to terrifying fits of rage. It doesn’t go all that well as his attempts to spiritually heal the child test not only the mother’s faith but also his own. Exploring the controversial subject of faith healing without judgement, Jake Mahaffay’s film enables the worshippers’ actions and their consequences to speak for themselves. Featuring a trio of excellent performances (David Harewood, Edwina Findley and RaJay Chandler (a real find as Benny), Free In Deed is intense and unforgettable—it shook me to the core. Here’s hoping that it finds distribution beyond the festival circuit.


Unless I missed something by not seeing A Touch of Sin, this feels like a considerable leap forward for Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. Set over three time periods (the third one is too good to give away), it follows Shen Tao (his longtime muse Zhao Tao in perhaps her best role to date), a woman coming of age at the end of the 20th century whose choices create consequences both good and bad for those closest to her. A character-driven epic that’s more confident and efficient than Zhangke’s earlier work, it recalls the Zhang Yimou of To Live, while also coming off as more subtle and poignant; it also makes inspired use of a certain Pet Shop Boys song, of all things.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is one of the more honest filmmakers working today, both in the natural dialogue he writes and in his tendency not to sugarcoat absolutely anything. I’ve been telling people that this coastal Massachusetts-set drama is a tough watch, because it doesn’t shy away from the horrible thing that forever alters his protagonist’s (a never-better Casey Affleck) life, and even worse, reveals what happened when you least expect it. But I’m just as comfortable relaying how funny parts of this film are. Mournful, sweet, a little acerbic and moving without being outwardly manipulative, Manchester By The Sea both soothes and stings because it is so close to life as we recognize it. All I could ask for from this near-perfect picture is a less bombastic musical score.


A two-and-a-half-hour-plus road movie about teenagers selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door (in 2016?), with a first-time actress (Sasha Lane, another real find) expected to carry almost every scene and a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf (of all people) credibly playing the romantic lead? Only Andrea Arnold, the great British director behind Red Road and Fish Tank could have pulled this off. That she did gives American Honey some novelty, but its continuous momentum lends it its spirit and spark. You watch this film just waiting for it to take a wrong turn and go off the rails, but it doesn’t and you’re left with a rare, illuminating view about what a huge mid-section of this country really looks and feels like at the present moment.


It seems the simplest way to describe this film is “unclassifiable”, but let me try a little harder. Demon is about a wedding between a Polish woman and an Israeli man in the former’s home village; it is also about ghosts and an exorcism, with ties to Catholicism, World War II and the Jewish dybbuk legend. The tone wavers between kitchen sink realism, slapstick-like hilarity and all-out horror. It’s close to the best-looking film I’ve seen this year, but it’s not like anything else I’ve ever seen, or possibly ever will see again—its director, 32-year-old Marcin Wrona committed suicide days after the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

Immensely entertained by this, Schadenfreude!: The Motion Picture when I saw it last summer; would probably have a more complicated, possibly chilling response revisiting it post-election. Either way, fascinating for its very New York political point-of-view and unfiltered access, even in the social media age.

Whit Stillman was made to adapt Jane Austen. Sticking to one her less overly familiar works was a smart choice, as was realizing Tom Bennett’s comic potential by casting him as Sir James Martin (Kate, Chloe, Stephen, etc. are also very welcome); it’s all much to do about nothing, of course, but splendidly executed.

As essential as director Barbara Kopple’s Dixie Chicks doc from a decade ago. With a personality as massive as her talent, charismatic soul singer Jones and her struggle with pancreatic cancer was genuinely inspirational when this premiered at TIFF over a year ago. Now, following her death last November, it’s also a joyous tribute to an exceptional life.

14. BEING 17
Just when you thought the gay coming-of-age genre was dead, Andre Techine, whom arguably perfected it two decades ago with Wild Reeds, breathes new life into it by relegating it to the film’s subtext for its first half, all the while establishing a lived-in environment full of equally compelling stories to tell.

It goes somewhat bonkers at the end, but Trey Edward Shults’ film is still one of the year’s best and most original debuts—especially in its claustrophobic sound and production design, but also for the great lead performance from his own aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who has the unhinged yet oddly relatable intensity of a boomer Gena Rowlands.

Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s Montreal microindie is nearly the gem her earlier picture, Marion Bridge was, with good work from Imajyn Cardinal as its teen protagonist, an indigent orphan forced to crafty measures in order to care for herself. While it scrapes away at the miserablism of a Dardennes Brothers picture, it ultimately comes off as more hopeful than that.

Kirsten Johnson has worked as a cinematographer on documentaries for 25 years; in this experimental essay piece, she assembles footage she’s shot for these works along with that of her family and friends. More stream of consciousness than linear, it nonetheless sings due to her eye as a photographer and, almost more importantly, as an editor.

Not all parts of Kelly Reichardt’s Montana triptych work as beautifully as say, Meek’s Cutoff does as a whole (I thought the midsection with Michele Williams was a little slight). But the first third with Laura Dern and Jared Harris scans like a nifty true crime short story, and the last part soars thanks to Lily Gladstone’s unadorned and eventually heartbreaking sincerity.

If anything, Mike Mills honors his mother more fruitfully here than Beginners did his dad. Anchored by another expansive Annette Bening performance, this is an affable character study set in 1979 whose structure and purpose resembles an indie film from 1999 but feels thrillingly relevant. I haven’t liked Greta Gerwig so much since Frances Ha, or Billy Crudup since… 1999?

Jeff Nichols’ film proves too subtle for awards-bait as it focuses on the character’s ordinariness just as much as the social issues. However, there’s often beauty in subtlety and Joel Edgerton’s underrated work here clinches it—as do the conclusions one comes to draw between interracial marriage in the ‘60s and same-sex marriage in the past decade.

Chevalier, Chicken People, City of Gold, The Club, The Dying of the Light, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, Life Animated, Little Men, Morris From America, Neon Bull, Nuts!, Rams, Sing Street, Tickled

Halfway Through 2016: Movies

Cemetery of Splendour
Cemetery of Splendour

In direct contrast to a rather wishy-washy list of albums, at mid-year, there’s a clear candidate for my favorite movie of 2016 (so far). Like all other Apichatpong Weerasethakul* films, Cemetery of Splendour is a one-of-a-kind, meditative, polarizing fever dream that flew under the radars of all but the most stalwart art-film geeks (of which I am one). It centers on a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers. While a good chunk of it unfolds as dialogue-heavy traditional narrative, more often than not, the film practically glides from scene to scene, making time for lengthy passages full of such ephemera as the shifting light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldier’s beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s a film I can’t wait to watch a second and possibly third (or fourth) time.

As for the rest, four are festival titles, at least two of which (Little Men, Morris From America) will hit theaters before summer’s end. The Lobster may be the unlikeliest indieplex hit since Winter’s Bone (which it has already outgrossed at the cinema I work at), while Love and Friendship suggests Whit Stillman was born to adapt Austen.

My favorite 2016 films so far, in alphabetical order:

Being 17
Cemetery of Splendour
The Dying of the Light
Free In Deed
Little Men
The Lobster
Love and Friendship
Morris From America


*I still can’t bring myself to refer to Weerasethakul by his preferred nickname of “Joe”.