The Best Films of the Decade So Far - Part IV

The Ghost Writer
(Roman Polanski, 2010)

The legacy of Roman Polanski is preordained to include his convictions and subsequent exile. It’s the shadowy trail that he leaves behind him, where its residual effect is cast over every one of his films. His best films tend to involve men or women in state of prolonged, sometimes literal, other times manifested, confinement. Whether it’s the apartment that shelters Wladyslaw Szpilman in Nazi-occupied Poland in The Pianist or the corridor of terror that Carol must overcome in Repulsion, in Polanski’s worldview, one’s domicile is both a shelter and a jail sentence. The Ghost Writer is among Polanski’s best efforts, and his best since The Pianist because it addresses concerns of confinement and security and identity in an incredibly sexy and smart way. The film sees Ewan McGregor’s ghostwriter character, a man with no name, undergo perpetual scrutiny as he’s placed within proximity to political controversy. Following a renowned politician in an attempt to piece together a memoir, much of The Ghost Writer sees its titular character holed up in one room or another, shuffling along in a political hullabaloo that he’s ill equipped to handle. An existential crisis forms within him, as his movements resemble that of a ghost – stripped of agency and confined to chasing shadows, The Ghost Writer is as much a tell-all from Polanski as it is an exquisite piece of filmmaking. 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
(Edgar Wright, 2010)

One can view a single Marvel Comics studio film and have seen them all. Regurgitating the same moral fables of good versus evil, they’re also films that ascribe to the same editing and narrative patterns; they’re exercises in redundancy, with the same script occupied by different bodies. But Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - now that’s a different beast entirely. Adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel, the film is not merely content with lifting comic panels and placing them on screen. Edgar Wright’s effort takes the surface pleasures of O’Malley’s work and invigorates them as pulsating images, drawing upon a wealth of mediums – comic books, video games, and films – to heighten the experience. Whereas contemporary comic book filmmaking sees pictures that all look the same to achieve some superficial degree of congruity between films, it’s Scott Pilgrim that looks uniquely realized. No film before it nor any after has achieved the level of visual singularity of Edgar Wright’s vision. In a medium where everything begins to look the same, something must be said about a film that looks like no other.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
(Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, 2011)

In this layered and often times ridiculous film, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai tinker with romantic comedy conventions in breathless and exciting ways. And in its exploitation of convention, a genuine degree of poetry is evoked, where love involves the confines of steel skyscrapers and toads. The film involves a triptych of characters: a flighty woman named Yen (Yuanyuan Gao), the privileged investor that tries to court her (Johnnie To mainstay Louis Koo) and a recluse trying to rebuild his life (Daniel Wu). As one would expect, the film involves Yen fending off advances and then embracing both men. But the magic is within the context of these relationships and the stunning compositions of To and Ka-Fai’s framing. Largely set within high-rise office buildings, it’s not since Jacques Tati’s Playtime where I see a director with a greater understanding of how to use architecture as a source for comic and even romantic exploration. Familiarity with the beats of romantic comedy films is the door that opens a maze of hijinks in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, where the contemporary wasteland of a genre is given a revitalized kick. 

The American
(Anton Corbijn, 2010)

As is the case with a lot of these top-tier citations, there’s a lot I could probably talk about when discussing The American. There’s the notably anti-George Clooney performance, one that hinges on an actor dialing down charisma in exchange for something more wounded. Or Anton Corbijn’s pristine visuals – still photographers may not always make the best directors, but they tend to compose some impressive images. But I’ll remark on what I admire most about The American, and that’s its emphasis on process. I gravitate toward films that emphasize process over narrative, particularly those that comment on the isolation often associated with perfecting a craft, and The American epitomizes that ideal. There’s a sequence in The American that shows Clooney’s master gunsmith (a trade as archaic as the term used to describe it) in the process of making a rifle. He details the barrel, carefully constructing the weapon with wordless precision. It’s a fascinating sequence that reverberates throughout the whole of the picture, where robotic process takes precedence over all actions. Yet as Clooney’s character strays from his regiment of reclusivity, it’s only then when he is capable of embracing a life beyond his craft. With its noticeable silence and spy-film theatrics, it might be silly to suggest that The American is upbeat, but one can’t help but feel a wave of joy when Clooney’s glower gives way to a degree of happiness when he embraces a woman that he wants to share his life with.

Zero Dark Thirty
(Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Not since David Fincher’s Zodiac has the thrill of obsession been more palpable. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a film about a woman and her search for Osama Bin Laden. It’s a film about the monsters we chase, and the dead ends that come from that search, along with the wherewithal to press on. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith in Zodiac, Jessica Chastain’s Maya is someone so dedicated to a cause and someone incapable of admitting failure, that their antisocial sense of purpose makes for good cinema. She’s also strikingly inhumane, someone who may has well have been conceived in the first sun-hued scene of the film, where her robotic dedication to national security makes her the least liked person in the room, but the toughest one of them all. Few films have felt more vital as a post 9/11 statement, where the price of security comes with great moralistic consequences. Zero Dark Thirty is as much about the process in which we find our demons as well as the process of becoming one.  

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
(Isao Takahata, 2013)

A gift from heaven, a young girl is found blossoming from a bamboo tree. Taken in by poor farmhands, she grows, and grows, and grows at an alarming rate. She has no name, but her parents, at awe with the gift of a child, believe in her divine right to the throne. She’s given a name – and her agency is stripped of her. The beauty and splendor of her parent’s farmland is replaced by the rigidity of society. While based on a 10th-century folktale, Isao Takahata’s adaptation is deceivingly more contemporary than its origins suggest. In The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, we see a young woman ridiculed and subject to display as men attempt to court her favor. While once harmoniously at peace with the nature around her, we now see a woman confined because of social convention. The film, realized with brilliant visual flourishes in what may just well be the most gorgeous Studio Ghibli production ever released, is as much pleasing to the eye as it is punishing to the soul. When Kaguya, overhearing remarks from men in a parallel room as they objectify her, storms out the castle in passionate fervor, we witness a disintegration of spirit, where the image becomes a blend of charcoal color that loses its structure. The absences of clear lines don’t conceal the film’s clarity, but rather amplifies it. Within the realm of animated filmmaking, it’s rare to see such an expressed and measured use of form and theme working conjointly. To see Takahata do so with such immense proficiency puts him in the same league as Miyazaki as far as being one of the best filmmakers, not just animators, in the world. 

The Master
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly very good at what he does. In The Master he submits the millennium’s Rorschach test. I’ve seen the film four, probably five, times – all at different stages in my life and in different states of mind, and The Master changes shape every single time. Exhausted on my first screening, I found the film dreamlike and serene. On a subsequent, more alert viewing, I discovered its structural beats, finding reason behind its dream logic. Other viewings saw me align perspective with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. A drunken viewing saw me align with Joaquin Phoenix’ Freddie Quell. The film is never what you expect it to be, and as a Paul Thomas Anderson film following There Will Be Blood, it is most certainly not the grand thematic piece of Americana that most thought it would be. It’s aloof and bizarre and esoteric, never content with providing you answers but constantly asking questions. But it’s a film that rewards you on every viewing, as frustrating and impenetrable as it may seem. Anderson’s exercises in abstractions continued in Inherent Vice, a film that I am still at frustrating but amused odds with. The Master revealed itself to me after many viewings; one would hope that Inherent Vice does the same. But the point is clear: Anderson is good at what he does and asks his audience to keep up with him. 

Gone Girl
(David Fincher, 2014)

Blasé images of suburban sprawl fill the opening credits of David Fincher’s Gone Girl. You see Ben Affleck’s sturdy frame carrying a board game - Mordecai Meirowitz’ obscure Mastermind – and then you see David Fincher’s directorial credit right beneath that: we’re going to have some fun here. These prankster winks are littered throughout this intricate film, whereby a husband becomes the prime suspect of his wife’s disappearance. Most films of this type will resolve its mystery by the picture’s end, so as someone unfamiliar with Gillian Flynn’s novel, it came as quite a surprise to see its mystery resolved within an hour, whereby the real mystery is something more intrinsically universal. As the film opens, we’re asked by Ben Affleck to ponder what our partner may be thinking. The question is flipped as the audience questions Affleck’s resolve. As perverse and macabre as Gone Girl may be, there’s a nugget of truth to its study of matrimony and relationships – what we are willing to do for our partners may have no boundaries. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene
(Sean Durkin, 2011)

In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin’s astounding debut, we see the physical present meld with memories past. It’s not a heavy-handed exploration of the memories that inform our present day choices. Rather, it’s a fluid exercise whereby a character will enter a dark corridor in the present, camera following her into the abyss, and her emergence from the other end of the hallway into the past. Without a trace of a cut and fluidly organized in its thematic intent and formal ambition, it would not be a stretch to suggest that Martha Marcy May Marlene is the best-edited film of the past five years. It’s all part of a concentrated effort by Durkin, who assembles a cast capable of realizing his terrifying vision of feminine subversion and cerebral distortion. The film genuinely feels like you’re roaming through the inner workings of a mind, in a terrifying exhibit of the effects of dependence, and how the most horrifying demons are those found within yourself.

Before Midnight
(Richard Linklater, 2013)

Some will want to remember Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) as the young couple who met on a train and spent the night in Vienna, before going their separate paths in Before Sunrise. Others might want to remember Celine and Jesse as the couple who, after nine years apart, meet again in Paris in Before Sunset. The two stroll through decadent Parisian walkways, all leading up to an incredible moment in Celine’s apartment. These are all romantic images of blossoming love that are so irresistibly cinematic, it’s easy to forgive people for not being too kind to Before Midnight. It’s nine years after Before Sunset and Celine and Jesse are now parents. Romance is replaced by practicality. The sweeping sense of finding your soul mate is replaced with familiarity. Before Midnight is not as easy to love as Linklater’s previous two films in his Before trilogy, if only because it is anchored in reality – a reality that does not necessarily prohibit its own sense of romantic gestures. 

Whereas philosophical discourse and confessional diatribes made up the bulk of conversations in Linklater’s first two films, Before Midnight pivots around a domestic argument, where Celine and Jesse come to terms with their own ambitions and that of their family. This argument may be a painful one to witness, especially for those who linger on the images of the Celine and Jesse as star-crossed lovers destined for an idyllic utopia. One can choose to remember Celine and Jesse by those terms – but in their argument in Before Midnight, we see the two as fully formed adults confronted with the strains of adulthood. We may cherish the characters as ideals, but if Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke reveal anything, it’s that the characters are intrinsically flawed humans. And it’s that quality that makes their romance all the more profound.

Tomorrow: In (searching, graceful, constant, toxic) Motion