The Best Films of the Decade - The Top Ten

The Social Network
(David Fincher, 2010)

As of February 2010, there were 400 million active Facebook users. As of December 2014, that number increased to 1.39 billion. Facebook defines a generation, and as much as David Fincher may resist it, his film speaks to a climate that has accepted it as a tool for communication. But while the exponential numbers would indicate a rapidly growing empire, it’s Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay that does not lose sight of its dorm room origins. As much a capitalist fable as it is a love story, The Social Network is a film about our idols, about the people we admire and those we try to impress, and the consequences of our greed. It’s easy to glide over these traits, if only because of Fincher’s immersive filmmaking, Sorkin’s inspired dialogue, or Jesse Eisenberg’s rapid and candid delivery. The film, despite its conference room and dormitory setting, is motion incarnate. The click and clack of a keyboard informing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ dissonant score, all feeding into a toxic pool of American pragmatism. But in a recurring trend found in Fincher’s oeuvre, as Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg taps on the F5 refresh button, the film could be best described as an effort to get into the mind of a girl that broke his heart. Facebook may tell us what someone likes or what someone’s doing, but it doesn’t tell us what that person is thinking. 

It’s Such a Beautiful Day
(Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

Don Hertzfeldt’s short film, Everything Will Be Ok, was my first experience with the director and serves as the first chapter of It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Hertzfeldt’s short made a lasting impression on me and I would not hesitate to say that it was a life-changing film. But I never really imagined it as part of a tapestry – in a way, I felt that It’s Such a Beautiful Day compromised the universal serenity of Everything Will Be Okay by being too specific in its cosmic implications. Well, when I returned to Hertzfeldt’s film earlier this year, those initial objections were made to hash.

Composed of three chapters, It’s Such a Beautiful Day tells the tale of the crushing anxiety and existential dread that faces Bill. There’s something extremely profound in seeing Bill, a hand-drawn stick figure, roaming a universe that looks to be crumbling all around him. Bill’s concerns vary and extend from the proximity of supermarket fruit to customers’ crotches, the social ethics of hi-and-bye exchange, and his personal frailty when combating his failing health. Hertzfeldt articulates these concerns with such effortless grace, deploying everything from still photographs to in-camera special effects to design an environment so wholly unique – something both familiar yet existential. In Bill’s tiny, stick-figure frame we see a universe of insights that, coming from the singular mind of Don Hertzfeldt, is nothing short of astonishing.

Spring Breakers
(Harmony Korine, 2012)

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers might not be the best film of the past five years (though, as you can see, it’s pretty close) but it’s certainly the most representative of the preoccupations found over the past five years. 

It’s America. It’s volatile. It’s hedonistic. And it’s white. And when it’s not white, it’s black. Spring Breakers lures you in with its depictions sex and excess and trips you up from the start. Our institutions, dark rooms illuminated by laptop screens, are jail cells for free sprits. Spirituality and faith become devices for maintaining the status quo. Those who forge ahead are those who carry out the assault, who are willing to take control by bypassing social conventions. The capacity to exploit becomes a learned trade. Where access to the privileged class isn’t bought or birthed into, but rather forcibly entered. Spring Breakers isn’t some depiction of the American Dream where you pick yourself by your bootstraps to see yourself succeed. Spring Breakers is a depiction of the American Nightmare, where those boots were mugged off you while someone pointed a pistol in your face. Success, in America and for a millennial, is a birthright. Spring Break forever.  

The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

We often nostalgically lament on filmmakers’ peaks. What a time to be alive during the release of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Alfred Hitchcock’s run during the 50s, or Robert Altman’s masterpieces during the 70s. We often lose sight of the filmmakers standing in front of us. Case in point: Terrence Malick has been working sporadically since the 1970s yet never has he been more prolific than he has over the past five years. And with five more years left in the decade, I can say with a degree of certainty that Terrence Malick will stand as the most vital filmmaker of the 10s.

The Tree of Life, much like his following film To the Wonder, is an example of sensory filmmaking. With each subsequent film Malick has slowly eschewed narrative in favor of something more intensely visual. These elements begin The Tree of Life, a film of three parallel narratives that covers the creation of the universe, to boyhood, to coping with loss. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski offer an immersive depth of field that allows its audience to pinpoint what they look upon in each frame – whether it be an actor or the serenading movement of the background. And similarly, Malick’s sparse narrative and abstractions require its audience to meet it halfway – for everything that you bring to the film, its infinite rewards reveal themselves.  

(Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

A boy asks a girl out. He’s rejected. The city sprawl is heard with striking clarity on the soundscape. This rejection is an everyday occurrence that’s a seam mark into the tapestry of the metropolis, of New York City. The urban sprawl continues. And then it happens. The accident that serves as the critical narrative catalyst in Kenneth Lonergan’s overwhelming Margaret. And what happens to the soundscape? All you can hear is sound of Anna Paquin’s breathing – she is alone.

The Tree of Life Blu-ray suggests that you ought to play the film loud and that same warning ought to accompany Margaret. This is particularly the case for the film’s extended cut, which sees Lonergan’s ambitions for conveying the developing moral compass of a young woman in relation to a post-9/11 New York City more succinctly.  If it were not for the following film, Margaret would most certainly be the most complete rendering of a metropolis rebuilding, where New York City is shown as the thriving cultural epicenter that it is – but a wounded, bruised, and battered one. Lonergan’s dramaturgy lures you in with its calibrated brilliance (this is the best screenplay of the past five years so far). And Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Matt Damon, and Mark Ruffalo compose an ensemble that may as well function as the city as a whole - each bringing their cultural history into a film dependent on studying macro concerns on a micro level. Beset with contradictions and so emotionally exhaustive that it leaves you shaken for days on end, Lonergan’s profound epic is a film to cherish. 

Girl Walk // All Day
(Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

Jacob Krupnick’s film can easily be the point of ridicule. It features a young white woman (Anne Marson) running amok through the streets of New York City, invading people’s space, and being a general pest to your everyday commuter. If I were to encounter this young woman on my Chicago Brown Line commute I would most assuredly dismiss her as a loon. Yet, chalk it up to the vicarious nature of cinema, watching the girl dominate the city through dance is just about the most engrossing and joyous way of filling 75 minutes.

Girl Walk//All Day uses Greg “Girl Talk” Gillis’ All Day album as its soundscape. The mashup album informs the film’s editing patterns and movements to a degree, yet it’s New York City that serves as tantamount to the picture’s spontaneity and off-the-cuff construction. Among the more interesting uses of digital photography, beyond its ready availability, has been its capacity of blurring reality and fiction. Throughout Girl Walk there are clear examples of people witnessing Marson’s dancing as spectators, functioning as outside observers to the film’s celebration of the city and singularity. But other times, notably a Daft Punk sequence aboard a subway train, where the reality is blurred and turned onto itself. That sequence is among a series of “a-ha” moments within the picture – others involve an Occupy Wall Street section and a dance between would-be lovers set to a portion of Radiohead’s “Creep” - that not only allows Girl Walk to transcend its music video trappings, but effectively makes it transcendent in spirit.

To the Wonder
(Terrence Malick, 2012)

A production note that Terrence Malick gives Emmanuel Lubezski prior to shooting To the Wonder was to not read the script – come to locations as if you were a documentary filmmaker. Lubezski never did follow that bit of advice but the spirit of the recommendation lives on through the reflective shards that compose Terrence Malick’s best film.

Much like the aforementioned Girl Walk, there’s an incidental blurring of reality and fiction occurring through To the Wonder that’s the result of its spontaneous production. As a film about the pangs of love, it’s remarkably attuned to the internal catalog of emotions that pervade our actions. It’s in Malick and Lubezki’s capacity to capture spontaneous behavior where we see budding love and disenchantment at its most raw and vital. As immersive as The Tree of Life may be, To the Wonder proves to be the more sophisticated of the two – his form of sensory cinema jibing so pristinely with the overarching themes of the film. What comes out of the film is a form of confession, about reconciling the faults within oneself, and attempting to find a measure of joy in the lives we live. Whereas most filmmakers ascribe to a film language that will outright spell out its themes through narrative, it’s Malick who successfully visualizes the internal – guilt, shame, and joy without the aid of a word but through the movement of a camera and the reticence of the actors on screen. 

Under the Skin
(Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Cinema is an inherently visual and audial stimulate, provoking thought through the expanses of the frame. But with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the point of sensory stimulation comes from the truest sense of unknowing. It’s a film where the vessel is an alien disguised as a human being, where its study of human behavior and social activities stem from a foreign perspective. This objective perspective has a direct effect on the compositional construction of Under the Skin, where all the overt sensory qualities that come from music, framing, and mise-en-scène, combine to create a work of immaculate sensual and aural qualities.

The opening sequence establishes the sonic tonal dissonance of the film’s structure. The initial images that permeate the screen are meant to establish the visual discord that will compose the picture. Glazer lingers on a black screen with only the slightest hint of a white light off center on the frame. Mica Levi’s remarkable synth/primal percussion score establishes the tonal odyssey that the audience is embarking upon. The image startlingly (aided by Levi’s unpredictable score) shifts from black to white. Following such an immediate and powerful assault of one’s optical capacities, Glazer appropriately fixates on a close-up of an eye: the film will be about perspective, about sight, and about our capacities to render what we see and process it within an emotional, social, and most importantly, human context.

Certified Copy
(Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Richard Linklater has released three films over the past five years, but if one were to snidely remark on what’s the best Linklater film of the decade so far, it would be Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy. As reductive as it sounds, it’s difficult not to be reminded of Linklater’s Before trilogy when seeing Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel roam the Tuscan countryside, musing on art and its value, as kindred spirits to Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s Celine and Jesse. Yet Certified Copy’s gambit – it’s study of artistic authenticity – is the sort of rabbit hole that one plunders further and further into, unable to fully escape.

The discussion begins on the reproduction of art, on why value is placed on an “original” over its copy. It extends to the nature of that reproduction – isn’t a sculpture or a painting a reproduction of another image to begin with? And then it extends to our own biological makeup: does artistic value translate to human value as well? Make of those ideas what you will, as I’m probably not selling Certified Copy as breezy or light material. It’s not, but is it impenetrable though. The film’s central mystery, one that evolves as the picture unfolds, is to decide whether or not Binoche and Shimmel’s characters are really a couple or merely acting as a copy of one. The answer is not definitive. It doesn’t need to be. In the end, how you interpret the picture will probably have more to say about you then it does the film. 

Inside Llewyn Davis
(Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)

A blinking cursor followed by the text “01.” indicates what was a forgone conclusion since I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013. It’s my favorite film of the past five years and most assuredly the one film that I would implore any and all of my readers to check out if they have not seen the film already. To those who have seen it already: a rewatch could not hurt.

It’s a film that recalls an especially miserable week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). He’s a talented folk musician who we first see in the Greenwich Village venue, The Gaslight Café. It’s 1961 and Isaac’s angelic voice illuminates the smoke-filled dinginess of the Gaslight. What follows is a series of universal truths, as Davis is overwhelmed with confronting and coming to terms with the limitations of his talent and his quest for artistic singularity. Yet despite the Coens’ penchant for cruelty (such as the book of Job as a comedy in A Serious Man) there’s a warmth to Inside Llewyn Davis that’s completely unlike anything the Coens have done. To pinpoint where that warmth is derived from – the most intellectual thing I can come up with is that “it’s a gut thing” – can’t really be described. The cosmic curse that afflicts Davis eludes a pattern, where you can’t seem to catch a break and violence is a certainty. Yet the cycle of living continues. Confessing that he’s just about had it, that he’s “so fucking tired”, Llewyn performs at the Gaslight for a final gig. The shadow of a performer, his closest brush with greatness, looms over him as he soon is assaulted. Battered, he crawls to the end of the alleyway observing the getaway of the man who attacked him. His snide remark that closes the film affirms a measure of hope – the smartass may still have some life in him.

These writing enterprises were always intended to highlight and show people the films I value. They speak to my personal affectations, yes, but hopefully these selections could enrich a few hours of your day. Thanks for reading.