The Best Films of the Decade So Far - Part I

Rust and Bone
(Jacques Audiard, 2012)

I start my list with a comprehensively messy film involving an orca trainer, amputation, a deadbeat father-cum-prizefighter, and sexual exploration. The melodrama is overflowing from this odd pool. But whether it’s Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts’ jibing with the material in a way that only highlights its tenderness or Jacques Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s visual sophistication, Rust and Bone is a film where its glaring intensity effectively conceals its dramatic absurdities. What initially begins as ridiculous takes shapes into something profound, ultimately capturing the very essence of tragedy.

(Joel Potrykus, 2014)

Concerns of predatory capitalism need not be confined to “serious” filmmakers or stymied within melodrama. Sometimes these concerns can be presented in a funny and at times surreal way, as evidenced by Joel Potrykus'’ Buzzard. Here’s a film about a young man eking by, content with the petty crimes that supplement his already meager income. But as those petty crimes escalate, so do their consequences, effectively setting off a slacker’s journey through the ruins of Detroit. Buzzard is sublime for its subdued wisdom: few films make the distinction between privilege and poverty with as much acuity and humor as a scene involving a $20 plate of spaghetti.

(Amat Escalante, 2013)

In what’s the best Mexican film since Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, Amat Escalante’s film on cartel violence and police corruption bares all the traits of stereotypical art-house cinema: long takes, nature shots, and an emphasis on the mundane. But Escalante exploits our familiarity with art-house tropes, stunning audiences with his brutal depictions of violence. Heli bares a strong kinship to Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, both stylistically and narratively. The terrain proves as volatile as its people, where a child’s mistake unleashes a nightmarish wrath of violence that never seems to cease the body count ticker. Yet it’s in the film’s final act where true horror is encapsulated – where one is asked to rebuild after having lost it all.

A Touch of Sin
(Jia Zhang-ke, 2013)

Four narrative arcs compose Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, as four characters contend with the plights of working class exploitation. This profound and at times violent portrait of socioeconomic oppression can be translated to any industrial nation, where the overwhelming sense of economic despotism has rendered its working class numb. As characters roam four Chinese provinces in a state of anomie, the film’s construction fulfills a circular logic upon the completion of each arc – as oppression nullifies our senses, our only response is opening the lid of repressed violence. Few films have so concisely and strategically laid out a manifesto against the exploitation of the working class, and it’s to Zhang-ke’s credit that he realizes A Touch of Sin without a sense of overt manipulation. Oppression, and the actions that follow, speak for itself.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
(Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

Let’s talk about how this film is shot. Certain sequences, notably in the film’s latter-history chronology, are set within an opulent suburban home. These are sequences shot on 35mm Cinemascope, odd given how that’s typically utilized to capture panorama shots in Westerns, not interior shots of the domestic sphere. And then there’s the color red, so predominant throughout the film that one can safely suggest that subtlety is not a word in Lynne Ramsay’s vernacular. But what Lynne Ramsay composes in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a domestic Western of sorts, where figurative guns are drawn and blood is shed within the context of a suburban battleground. And in accordance to the rich history of American Westerns, we see past inform present as a mother’s contemporary actions are guided and prohibited by the violence of her past.

(Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

As network news reports ad nauseam on the spread of Ebola or a measles outbreak, I can’t help but reflect on Jude Law’s smarmy Alan Krumwiede in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion: a blogger news reporter, it’s his fear-mongering that effectively deludes a willing public. Contagion departs from the usual pandemic-cinema fare through Soderbergh’s stylistic flourishes, where he intertwines narratives from across the globe in a concentrated effort to address a growing pandemic. To suggest that the film is compulsively watchable may sound like a disservice, but to elaborate: Contagion is entertaining as hell. Edited with such swiftness and shocking in its frankness (A-List actors die at a moments notice), this is a film that treats its subject seriously and has some fun doing so.

Django Unchained
(Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Amid his fight for celluloid, his acquisition of the New Beverley Theater, the lawsuit over the leak of his script for The Hateful Eight, the speculation of his retirement, and his denouncement of John Ford, one may forget that Quentin Tarantino actually released a film over the past five years. I’ve always been a Jackie Brown man over Pulp Fiction, and similarly, I’m more of a Django man over Inglourious Basterds. Much of what makes Django so vital is how Tarantino’s historical revisionism acknowledges the foundations of his own career – the man was weaned by black culture and his affectations for Blaxploitation films are prevalent throughout his filmography. And it’s in the film’s white characters where we see Tarantino’s oppositional frameworks come to play – both as a user and a collaborator of black culture. If it all comes across as suggestion, it may just be because the film is so breathlessly entertaining.

Holy Motors
(Leos Carax, 2012)

Pass through the threshold of a doorway, where a character unlocks the opening with a key for a hand, and descend into the mind of Leos Carax. The first decade of the millennium had not brought much luck for the French director, who was confined to making shorts and incapable of generating the funding for a feature. It was in his anthology contribution in Tokyo where he cast Denis Lavant as the monstrous Merde where people began to take notice. And in what had to be the director’s most terrifying gambit, he went all or nothing in Holy Motors, where Lavant and Carax open the doors of cinema and dive headfirst. At times a scathing critique on Hollywood filmmaking, other times a moving statement on the anxieties and strains placed on a filmmaker and an actor, Holy Motors is above all a celebration about everything we look for in cinema.

The Day He Arrives
(Hong Sang-soo, 2011)

I point to Kevin B. Lee’s excellent Key Frame video on Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives to help acknowledge my fascination and swelling admiration for the film. Lee’s video addresses, among many things, the structural form of the film that feeds into how an audience interprets the picture. Sang-soo’s use of repetition, the staging and positioning of actors, along with perceived visual misnomers (is this all happening in one day or several?) all compose a richly aware film that is as much about a return home as it is about wanting to fix the past. In a way, this film treats the past as something that only cinema can resolve – if a moment between two lovers doesn’t work out, perhaps we can restage it a different way? All of this is done with a subtlety and grace and invites questions but never overwhelms the viewer with its meta-ness. The Day He Arrives is more of a serene exercise in pontification than some mystery that needs to be unraveled. And for that, it’s all the more poignant.

Frances Ha
(Noah Baumbach, 2012)

When the plights of white adolescents and their arrested development is the topic for every other film, novel, or television show, it’s kind of a wonder that Frances Ha manages to stick out at all. Thankfully, Noah Baumbach’s film is riddled with tiny delights that amount to something truly substantial. From the joy of getting your tax return to the anguish of taking a job out of necessity, the film’s charms steadily amass themselves. The stark black and white photography aids in that growth, with Baumbach careful to capture his rueful lead character at her most intimate and lonely by expanding and contracting the canvass of the frame. In what was a film that I initially felt distanced by I’ve found myself holding closer than ever - if only because adulthood, for all its ups and downs, has revealed itself to me at last. 

Tomorrow:  Time Passes. Faux as Real. Real as Vicarious.