The Best Films of the Decade So Far - Part III

Listen Up Philip
(Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

What makes Listen Up Philip successful is in the methods it takes to subverting expectations. It’s all in nuance, in taking the old and approaching it in a new and interesting way. A film like this would not afford its supporting female character with significant material, yet it’s Elisabeth Moss, along with the slew of other women in the film that dominate and direct the film’s trajectory. A film like Listen Up Philip would normally not employ an overseeing narrator in such liberal gestures as Perry does here. Yet it’s in this unseen narrator where the film offers complications in tense and mood, providing an entirely different dimension to its main character’s misanthropy - where the present is spoken of as the past and vice versa. And the decision to shoot on 16mm is the kind of bold choice that gives the film unprecedented warmth and humanity. In what’s only his third film, Perry has set himself up as a master-class American filmmaker.

The Immigrant
(James Gray, 2013)

Speaking of master-class filmmakers, James Gray’s name isn’t often considered in the same vein as other American auteurs such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, or Richard Linklater, but it should. His two most recent films, Two Lovers and The Immigrant are vibrant examples of a director with a distinct vernacular for film language, paying homage to his city (in his case, New York City) and culture (Judaism) in elegantly crafted and at times critical ways. It’s in The Immigrant where Gray’s America forces women into prostitution, where men and women operate under the principles of not a flag but a dollar. If the recurring narrative thread of the past five years saw America’s youth succumb to a materialistic American Dream that promoted vanity and hedonism, then it’s in Gray’s The Immigrant that cites the origins of this toxicity – as it is in the 2010s, it was in the 1920s.

A Dangerous Method
(David Cronenberg, 2011)

Among one of my greater critical errors was to listen to the echo chamber regarding A Dangerous Method’s perceived lack of “cinematic” qualities back when the film was released in 2011.  A rewarding rewatch proved that the film is truly exceptional and a complete filmmaking enterprise. The overt gross-out moments that most viewers are accustomed to in early Cronenberg films – the physical degradation of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly is a vivid example of the way Cronenberg would explicitly address his pet themes of the flesh and the mind – are no longer critical components to his modus operandi. Rather, a more didactic and formally rigorous template has replaced it, where Cronenberg stimulates through the densely cultivated formal aesthetic that he realizes. When viewing A Dangerous Method as an exercise in dominant and submissive behaviors, one can see the use of deep focus, the slight movements of the camera, and the position of characters through the frame as an evolution of thematic and formal intent operating in harmony.

(Xavier Dolan, 2014)

I mentioned in my write-up for Laurence Anyways that Xavier Dolan operates in big and brash strokes. Nothing about that film is small. But in Mommy, we see the director utilize a 1:1 square frame as opposed to a traditional wide-screen format. What good could this possibly do given that Dolan has thrived in excessive gestures? Well, plenty. Dolan has made numerous suggestions that he seeks to make films that one feels and that’s the barreling quality that one gathers from Mommy. It’s a modern A Woman Under the Influence, where the source of spontaneity is a troubled child. With a triptych of incredible actors – Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clement, and Antoine-Olivier Pilon – we see this square frame fill with such hysteric intensity. The square frame is not a limitation but a formal complement as we see that hysteric intensity reach a breaking point that sees it expand and contract to match its thematic ambitions. An immense work from a director who just seems to get better with subsequent films, Mommy is the closest we’ve gotten to a John Cassavetes film since Love Streams.

(Richard Ayoade, 2010)

The best Wes Anderson film of the decade so far came in the form of Richard Ayoade’s film, Submarine. Not to slight Ayoade’s masterful debut (among the decade’s very best), but the film’s verbal eccentricities recall an early Anderson, notably Rushmore. Yet there’s a visual dampness to Submarine – where literally everything about it feels cold and wet – that really sets itself apart visually. Like his sophomore effort The Double, Ayoade is unafraid to call upon his inspirations, where Anderson resides under one sleeve and Jean-Luc Godard under the other. But while the film’s coming of age narrative about a young boy and his first love borrows from the vocabulary of those filmmakers, its results are breezy and exciting, filled with an air of freshness. There’s a density to Submarine that suggests an even richer cinematic dialectic informing Ayoade’s decisions, advising that this is a director with a rich knowledge of cinema history. And because of this, it makes Submarine the sort of film that changes shape each time you return to it. 

(Noah Baumbach, 2010)

It’s not easy to confess that the older I get the more Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg resonates as a film of universal truths. Or at the very least, masculine truths. As Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) returns to his hometown to housesit for his brother, he’s met by the rush of the past. But should it come as any surprise that everyone has moved on from the past – the possibilities of a band, the lure of conquests – and opted for something more regimented and practical. Roger’s preoccupations with the past feeds into his misanthropic ego – so driven to capture the magic of the past he loses sight of the wonders of the present, with a thoughtful woman (Greta Gerwig) and his old friend (Rhys Ifans) standing by, absorbing his abuse. It’s by no means a pleasant film, but Greenberg, much like Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, captures the salient truths of adulthood with such uncomfortable clarity.

Clouds of Sils Maria
(Oliver Assayas, 2014)

How does someone come to grips with their own frailty?  It’s the persistent theme found throughout Oliver Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, where an aging actress contends with an industry focused on vanity and youth. The door is closing for Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and within the film’s circular logic we see her return to the source of her stardom – the stage. But whereas she once played the vibrant ingénue, she now accepts the mature, co-starring role. And in this acceptance, she finds herself contesting with preordained notions of what it means to get older – she refuses to submit or give in to weakness. This is oft-charted terrain in cinema, but like how John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands enriched this dusty text with urgency in Opening Night, so do Oliver Assayas and Juliette Binoche. But in a formal gambit that only magnifies the marginalization of older women in favor of youth, you see Assayas stray away from Binoche’s character. A pop-star diva (Chloe Grace-Moretz) begins to dominate the frame, leaving Binoche on the outskirts of the frame – until she’s cut out entirely.

The Wolf of Wall Street
(Martin Scorsese, 2013)

With a rocket strapped to its back, The Wolf of Wall Street is ceaselessly moving. It barrels from scene to scene with such propulsive momentum that it almost conceals some of its technical blemishes (sloppy sound editing, imperfect match-on-action cuts). This gargantuan piece of hyperactive filmmaking would be expected from a young director, but coming from a 70-year old Martin Scorsese? It’s further reassurance that Scorsese is among the most vital filmmakers alive today, American or otherwise. And it further establishes Scorsese as a director with a better understanding of movement than any other. His camera operating as an instigator of time with his swift movements operate as montage, where the director barrels through long passages of time with quick efficiency. It also functions in conjunction with the rhythms of a high where film is sped up and slowed down to correspond with its characters. Scorsese’s not reinventing the cinematic wheel with these flourishes – but he sure as hell is making it more exciting. 

The Wind Rises
(Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

The films of Hayao Miyazaki, despite the painstaking details of every composed frame, have been matters of the heart. In The Wind Rises, the renowned Japanese director asks his audience and himself: are you designing from the heart?  In his decades of output, it’s undoubtedly the question he has asked of himself and of his Studio Ghibili compatriots. Notwithstanding its immaculate construction, The Wind Rises is quite unlike any of Miyazaki’s other films. It involves a male lead, a departure for a director known for his strong female characters. It’s also based on real events, a true change of pace given the fairy tale fables that Miyazaki has made a career on. But while subject of The Wind Rises may suggest that being set in 1920s Japan would anchor it reality, we do see escapes to fantasy, where our protagonist escapes from the war, famine, disease, death, and natural disasters through his capacities to dream and design. A potently personal film, The Wind Rises asks of its audience to continue to strive for their dreams, though acknowledges the perilous personal toll it may take in order to achieve them.

The Skin I Live In
(Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

There’s a difference between a film that involves a big twist and one that’s dependent on it. The better “mind-fuck” films, those that obliterate the worldview you have constructed within any given film’s confines, are the ones that reward on a second viewing. Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is such an example. I won’t go into specifics about the film’s narrative, other than to suggest that it is not for the faint of heart. Though I will note how impressively this film holds up on a second viewing. With the knowledge of the film’s twist present, one is able to glean over Almodóvar’s meticulous framing and exquisite editing. Attuned viewers who pay close attention to how the director utilizes dissolves and camera movement will see answers to the film’s puzzle within the film’s first act. But whether you’re gripped by the narrative juiciness of a first viewing or awing at Almodóvar’s production design and compositional framing on a second or third screening, you really can’t help but be impressed by how such pulpy material can make for such high-anxiety entertainment.

Tomorrow: Love is a battlefield.