The Best Films of the Decade So Far - Part II

Exit Through the Gift Shop
(Banksy, 2010)

Like many meta-films released this decade, you can waste a lot of useful time trying to figure out the validity of their subjects. In Exit Through the Gift Shop’s case, was Mr. Brainwash an orchestration of Banksy’s design or did he really explode into the art scene as a commercially successful gallery artist? What initially begins as Thierry Guetta/Mr. Brainwash recording his cousin’s late night tagging escapades turns into an impromptu tale of capitalist success. As Banksy notes late in the film: there’s probably a moral in there somewhere. Whatever you want to make of Guetta’s success depends on your own artistic inclinations, but there’s no doubting that this narrative thread is developed with so much nuance that it’s easy to see why some think it’s fictitious. Culling through reels (or in this case, tapes) of material is an obstacle many documentary filmmakers face but for first time filmmaker Bansky, the task amounts to something that truly feels effortless. From capturing breathless footage of artists posting graffiti through the streets of London, New York City, and Los Angeles, the film is a thrilling encapsulation about what the sacrifices an artist makes in their labor of love – with a moral probably tossed in there too.

Romancing in Thin Air
(Johnnie To, 2012)

American audiences, including myself, were introduced to Johnnie To through his 2012 cops and drugs thriller Drug War. It was enough to spur the desire to plunder through some of his other work – in my effort to find more of the same I ended up finding something much more potent. To’s definitively violent flourishes in Drug War are absent in some of the other films I’ve stumbled upon – though his stylistic mastery remains firmly intact in Romancing in Thin Air. One may mistake that it is his take on the romantic comedy genre, where an elegant though introverted beauty shelters the movie star of her fantasies. And it proceeds as such, ascribing to the narrative beats and absurd humor that one finds in these sorts of picture – with finer tuning placed on visual composition (the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains along the Northwestern Yunnan province make for some visually arresting sequences). But as the film unfolds, the narrative makes way for a touching statement on courtship and cinema. Cinema can inform our everyday discussions and bring people together, and in Romancing in Thin Air, that concept serves as the undercurrent that unites two would-be lovers. In what begins as a conventional love story between two unlikely partners evolves into a beautiful proclamation on what we look for in others and the lengths we go for people.

Goodbye First Love
(Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011)

A film like Boyhood, with the profound result of its production, may suggest that coming-of-age films that traverse long passages of time are obsolete. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love (and her new film Eden, which would’ve surely made the list had I screened it before committing to the outlined fifty films) refutes that claim. Hansen-Løve openly commits perceived limitations of the form – she frankly acknowledges passages of time by clearly defining the day or year, and imposes not-so-subtle changes to her lead actress’ appearance (Lola Créton). But Hansen-Løve unites these elements into a singular vision that explores the coming-of-age of young woman with such vitality. It at times feels shockingly personal, with the film overloaded with details that could only be experienced to be truly understood. The film takes something that can be deemed conventional and enriches it with personal affectations that result in something so incredibly vibrant. 

Two Days, One Night
(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

The premise is as cruel as any horror film and just as absurd, but in Two Days, One Night Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne submit yet another master-class exercise in predatory capitalism. The effortlessness found in their style, their fly-on-the-wall approach may suggest disengagement with the material. That couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly in how it pertains to the heavily structured nature of the film. The mechanics of seeing Sandra (Marion Cotillard) going from home to home, pleading with her coworkers to refuse a bonus in exchange for keeping her on the payroll, are narratively simple to follow. But it’s in how the Dardenne’s frame these sequences that are most interesting: when Sandra receives a phone call from a coworker insuring that she has their vote, the Dardennes fix the shot on Cotillard’s slender frame, slowly going in for the close-up as she receives the positive news. That scene amounts to everything in the film - how important Cotillard is to defining the dramatic stakes, how the Dardennes amplify that through technique, and the impact (and rarity) of a kind gesture.

Take Shelter
(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Not since David Lynch’s Eraserhead has the anxieties of fatherhood felt any more terrifying or palpable. Nichols film is broad in its concerns – the end of the world is brought on in a cocktail of environmental, fiscal, and mental concerns. And while its triptych approach may confuse audiences in its suggestion that the metaphorical storm that approaches is a literal one, I found Take Shelter most effecting as a statement on marriage and fatherhood, as the creases in life can best be ironed out with the right partner by your side. The passing glance that Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon share at the end of Take Shelter is an acknowledgement that any storm they face, they face it together – and only together will they survive it for their daughter.

Magic Mike
(Steven Soderbergh, 2012) 

Magic Mike is a film about money and the systems in place that allow us and deny us from having it. It’s a film about the legacy that someone leaves. And it’s about the value of youth in a world so preoccupied with vanity. It also involves strippers, but that’s incidental. Reid Carolin’s screenplay shares its kinship with All About Eve and Showgirls, but what elevates the picture is the crispness of Soderbergh’s framing and compositions. The opening credits sequences, a display of sepia-tone panning capturing the Tampa coastline, makes a strong argument that digital photography can hold its own against celluloid.  Nimble direction capturing dance sequences, with Soderbergh piecing together close-up and long shots with virtuoso grace, is composed with such effortlessness. And I suppose it’s easy to do so. After all, there’s a lot of ass shaking and hypnotic gyrating going on here.

Into the Abyss
(Werner Herzog, 2011)

It’s a surprise that the most potent line in Werner Herzog’s career comes from his documentary filmmaking. Fred Allen, a former prison executioner for the state of Texas, explains the concept of living your dash – on your tombstone you have your birthday and day of your death with a dash in between. “How are you gonna live your dash?” he asks. One can imagine all of Herzog’s characters, whether they be Aguirre in Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, asking themselves how they lived they dashed at the time of their deaths. It’s the ultimate encapsulation of Herzog’s thematic concerns and made all the more affecting when heard from a man whose job it was to murder inmates. Into the Abyss is as critical about the systems in place that executes citizens, as it is the environment that spawns murder in the first place. Filled with the typically outlandishness one associates with Herzog, Into the Abyss modulates the director’s eccentricities, if only because the somber material actually warrants such inflections.

(Richard Linklater, 2014)

Failing to win an Academy Award for Best Picture or Best Director one would hope that the silly accusations laid against the film – for being a gimmick, for being about nothing, for being about a privileged white kid, etc. – can be put to rest. For Boyhood is, above all, about the singular shared experience that we all have. Regardless of gender, sex, politics, upbringing, Boyhood a film about the passage of time. The audience watches young Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grown into an older Mason Jr. and observes the little moments along the way. We may share in those moments (the haircut you didn’t want, hanging out with friends doing and saying stupid things) and other times we may not (the revolving door of paternal figures, the Texas upbringing). But we understand these moments as being benchmarks in a child’s growth. Boyhood is not about your boyhood or mine, but Mason’s. That doesn’t make it any less vital.

True Grit
(Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)

Mattie Ross has every intention of capturing her father’s killer alongside her hired help, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). They, however, don’t especially see her need to tag along. As they set out of town without her, we see Ross diligently make her way to the duo. Her and her horse forge a river to catch up with the pair. It’s a riveting sequence, one that conveys Ross’ bravado and wherewithal that’s coupled with Roger Deakins’ stunning photography and the Coens’ penchant for formal excellence. The legacy of True Grit tends to be tied down to how it secured John Wayne an Academy Award – but from the scene noted above, it’s a legacy of how the Coens forged a new legacy that reshapes True Grit as a film about Mattie Ross’ unwavering spirit. 

Laurence Anyways
(Xavier Dolan, 2012)

Nothing about Laurence Anyways is small. It’s big, brash, loud, and aggressive – and needs to be. It tells it story over the course of ten years, where a teacher confesses his discomfort in his own skin. Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) asks his friend and lover Fred (Suzanne Clement) to stay by his side as he proceeds with his male-to-female transformation. The big gambit that Dolan makes is emphasizing not just Laurence’s transformation, but also its immediate effect on Fred, where her reasonable desire for convention is permanently shaken by this news. Epic in scale and emotionally exhausting, Laurence Anyways was my introduction to Xavier Dolan. Much has been discussed about his age. There’s a reason for that. It’s not simply that he is young. It’s that he is young AND has made some of the best films of the past five years.  He’s good, scarily so, and what he presents in Laurence Anyways is an effort that is completely unique to his sensibilities. With five films to his credit, there’s no mistaking a Dolan frame.

Tomorrow: Assholes and the women who put up with them. And those that don't.