This tale of a struggling Greenwich Village folk singer is just like a discarded record you come to love: the jacket is frayed (Llewyn, played with prickly aplomb by Oscar Isaac), and the vinyl has a few warps and pops (the Coen Brothers' dry comic relief inhabits the beatnik bodies of John Goodman, Adam Driver, and the hopelessly square joy of Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett). But the songs (of an underdog overcoming the grief of a friend's death) are personal, poetic, and sparse. Its perhaps the most human film that the Brothers have made.
There’s a moment about halfway through The Guest when every audience member starts to giggle, then laugh, then realize that this might just be one of the perfect movies. Adam Wingard’s deft and canny thriller stars Dan Stevens as “David,” a veteran who returns home to the family of a fallen comrade, gets embroiled in their daily lives, and starts solving their problems the only way he knows how. They’re so busy reaping the benefits that they don’t even question his methods. And in the middle of this damning indictment of our passive acceptance of the U.S. first strike military strategy we learn the reason for “David’s” madness, and it’s everything we ever hoped it could be, shooting The Guest into a high gear from whence it never returns. It’s a hoot - in fact, it’s all of the hoots - but it’s so damned smart and self aware that it eventually elevates itself into high art through the sheer force of moxie.
Two 12-year-old girls living in Sweden in the 1980s want to be punkers so badly. Despite the fact that they cannot play instruments, nor can they sing, they form a band that they never bother to name. They have to enlist the talents of a third girl, a devout Christian, to actually teach them to play. They play a song about hating gym class. We Are the Best! is a gorgeously warm and utterly amusing film about the nature of pre-teen friendship, and the true spirit of teen anarchy, even if that anarchy hasn't yet matured into something hard-edge. For now, playing with stolen yarn will have to do.
This powerful drama rightfully won SXSW 2013, and then kind of disappeared. Without major marketing dollars for an awards campaign, it falls to word of mouth to tell everyone how great it is. This drama about the kids and workers in the foster care system is emotionally powerful, but never heavy handed about an important message. Brie Larson gives an intense, Oscar-worthy performance as a woman who’s been through the system herself, fighting for one of her charges (Kaitlyn Dever). This is what drama is for, to explore the human side of issues we hear about and may agree or disagree with in broad strokes, but need to think about in more complexity. Again, not a message movie. Rather, it’s the essence of drama itself from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, a harrowing emotional journey worth taking.
Pixar’s beloved, influential Toy Story told children everywhere that their toys have feelings, and that they love being played with. But when the time came to produce Toy Story 3, those children had grown up, and like most children they started leaving their toys behind. The genius of Toy Story 3 is in its confrontation: those toys you once loved were trashed, given away, and abused. You abandoned them, and they suffered, and director Lee Unkrich forces you to watch as they become warped by that torture and eventually accept their inevitable doom. But it’s still funny! And somehow, it even finds room for hope. The ending of Toy Story 3 is unbelievably touching because holy cow, did the rest of this movie make you work for it.
Much has been written - and will continue to be written - about Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The layers upon layers of carefully crafted ideas, do they symbolize our complex psyche or the nature of filmmaking itself? Probably both. Fortunately, Nolan is such a consummate showman that deciphering his puzzles is always a pleasure. Leonardo DiCaprio heads up an elite team of thieves who break into your dreams, robbing you of secrets and sometimes leaving something behind. Innovative visual effects, daring editing and an ending that’s as infuriating as it is exciting combine to make Inception one of the greatest, smartest blockbusters.
I get such a kick out of Quentin Dupieux’s meta deconstruction of how we view movies and visual stories. But wait, that’s not the hook. The simple and brilliant logline is: a killer tire. A tire kills people telepathically, which is absurdly hilarious, but what really sustains Rubber is a group of spectators brought together to watch the story of Robert, the killer tire. As they comment on what they’re seeing and some spectators break the rules, the characters have to keep up with a changing narrative. As someone who thinks about our relationship to visual stories all the time, Rubber is a personal manifesto, but you need not take it so analytically. It’s hilarious as a purely ridiculous romp.
The Wind Rises is a different type of Hayao Miyazaki film. There are no witches, forest gods, or talking animals. The wizard instead is Miyazaki. In this animated biography of a Japanese airplane engineer—whose beautiful designs were commissioned during WWII—Miyazaki's animation is incredibly crisp and grounded. But Miyazaki does allow his imagination to go further than the sky by creating numerous scenarios within a shared dreamspace. Enjoy the ten years of being the top of your class, is his dreammate's advice—even though it is ravaged by war—because it’s the only window of opportunity you have to excel.
The best superhero movie of the decade so far - but not the best comic book movie (see #10) - is fluffier than Christopher Nolan’s hardboiled interrogations of social responsibility, or even Captain Ameria: The Winter Soldier. But it is also the most fun you could possibly have at a movie theater. James Gunn brought his special blend of humor to the high-flying space opera genre and filled his screen with unlovable characters: murderers, terrorists and a-holes. Then he made you love them. The 1970s pop soundtrack wasn’t a gimmick, it was a character all its own in Guardians of the Galaxy, following the eclectic and electric adventurers with the love of a doting mother, and of a filmmaker who cared enough to make this mission to find a simple MacGuffin (complete with raccoon and tree) into a film that feels just as personal as any art house darling.
Who would have thought a hard-hitting examination of the moral emptiness of America's most wealthy would also be so exhilarating? Also so bloody hysterical? Martin Scorsese, making his best film since, well, his last one, tackles the real-life story of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street tycoon who openly admitted that his ill-gained supra-wealth was specifically designed for him to break the law, take drugs, break shit, sleep with hookers, and basically be the worst human being he could. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a career-best performance as Belfort, and the film, well, soars through the muck with joyous glee.
A mystical tale of stories that are not traditional in their narrative construction, but are traditional in their achievement of zen, this Thai film weaves numerous tales of human beings who have re-emerged in different forms to guide humans to calmness. One is a catfish who goes down on a princess until she climaxes. One is an ape creature (with glowing red eyes) who helps a man with a disease cross over into the next life. Spirits gather like honeybees to a hive in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film—they appear initially as dangerous, but do work to assist the overall betterment of the colony.
I have always loved post-apocalyptic action movies, especially ones where the hero has to find supplies in the wasteland. Book of Eli doesn’t disappoint in that regard, as it shows KFC handy wipes are one of the few modern artifacts that survive 30 years after the nuclear apocalypse. But what makes The Book of Eli so special is how it talks about religion. It’s not a spoiler what book Eli (Denzel Washington) has in his possession, although they don’t actually name it until the end. It’s not even about the contents of the book. It’s about how the book could be used by different parties. Eli of course wants it to remain a neutral historical artifact, but Carnegie (Gary Oldman) sees its value for controlling the masses. This is a profound discussion that never becomes preachy. It elevates an already awesome action movie by the Hughes brothers.
Jacques Audiard's epic prison drama Un Prophète slipped into theaters shortly after it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, and quietly blew away those who were lucky enough to see it. Hard-boiled, hard-edged, and yet somehow exhaustingly tragic, A Prophet follows the moral breakdown of a young Arab man living in a French prison. Prison is not a place where he reflects or rehabilitates, but a venue for ambitious mob-based social climbing. Prison, Audiard is saying, is not meant to incarcerate, but to build up a resumé. Freedom is just where the business happens.
The gimmick of David Ayer’s End of Watch - a found-footage cop movie - is so unimportant that Ayer himself seems to forget all about it halfway through the movie, so that it no longer matters who’s filming or why. He probably got as wrapped up in the story as we did. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are fantastic together as beat cops who wind up on the wrong side of a drug cartel, mostly through circumstance. And although that plot builds to an incredible climax, it’s the characters who make End of Watch special. Two partners, their families, and the police who stand with them comprise a stellar cast of characters, all of them real and all of them fascinating.
Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is a good man with a pushy wife, a rebellious daughter and a failing aquarium supply store. How nice, then, that a rival fish supplier named Yukio Murata (Denden) enters his life and introduces him to absolute freedom, the kind that comes from rape and murder. Director Shion Sono’s shocking amorality play energizes the mind and drains the soul, challenging common decency with the overwhelming appeal of sociopathic selfishness. It’s a grotesque display of devilry that dares you not to look away, but rather to stare in awe. And you stare, and Cold Fish stares back, and it changes you.
A towering technical achievement of music, direction, and performance, The Master is perhaps cut short of being a full-fledged masterpiece simply because Paul Thomas Anderson is in awe of his central performers (Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman). And he has every reason to be: they're phenomenal. Less about the origins of Scientology, The Master is more about the duality of man. Phoenix represents the id, a man who seeks no stability and follows impulses of indulgences in toxins and sex. Hoffman is the ego, a man who wants to indulge with everything, but only in a manner that maintains everyone still giving him respect. If The Master has any shortcoming its in the writing, but perhaps thats because Anderson is desiring more to observe than to write, similar to Lancaster (Hoffman) who seems more interested in figuring Freddie (Phoenix) out than completing his book.
It took nearly half the decade for this movie to make it to the States. It did the international festival circuit in 2010 and I saw it in 2011, finally hitting the States in 2013. I am so on Jaco Van Dormael’s wavelength with this nonlinear science fiction epic. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) lives to be well over 100 in the future, recalling his story and all the choices he’s made in life. A surreal vision of history gives the film a profound artistic look, and also challenges us with a mind-altering understanding of reality. Great to look at, great to think about, I came away feeling good about my life choices. That is the message of Mr. Nobody, and also the importance of the journey which Van Dormael presents in a creatively unique vision.
I happened to be a gamer in my childhood but I was a good decade out of the modern gaming world when I saw this documentary. It didn’t have to be about video game designers. It just happens that filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky found three examples that illustrate the universal struggles of any artist. How do you follow up a hit? How do you face setbacks? How do you deal with anticipation for your creation? How do you stay true to your artistic vision? It happens that the subjects of Indie Game: The Movie can articulate these themes thoughtfully, and they happened to capture harrowing personal struggles in all three main stories about video game development, but it could have been any creation. This is exactly what I’m looking for in any movie - narrative or documentary - but it certainly makes you want to explore this subculture of independent games on Xbox marketplace or Playstation Store.
I have seen few other films that are this frank about sex and sexuality. Mark O'Brien (Oscar-nominee John Hawkes) was a real-life poet and writer who spent much of his life confined to an iron lung. He was a witty wiseacre, as well as a devout Catholic. When he learns of the existence of sex surrogates - essentially women who train those with special needs in the art of lovemaking - he decides to hire one (his priest: "God's going to give you a pass on this one."). Helen Hunt plays his surrogate, and the bond they begin to form over their awkward physicality is frank, straightforward, warm, and even romantic. It's such a sweet, adult movie.
No movie this decade has spoken to me as personally as Detention. Having digested movies my whole life, and dug deep into independent cinema to satiate my increasing craving for something different, Joseph Kahn’s film showed me the movie I never even imagined I was looking for. In short, it is a teen slasher spoof with time travel. That’s enough to get me, but the more times I watched Detention (and I’ve seen it seven times now, more than I’ve watched any single movie as an adult), I’ve realized how the form has spoken to me. The script by Kahn and Mark Palermo blends these seemingly random genres in a reflexive way that uses the contract between filmmaker and audience to make something beyond passive enjoyment. Also, there’s a time traveling bear in it.
When we tell stories about technology, we tell stories about consequence. The things we lose as individuals and as a culture just because one part of our lives becomes more convenient, or the Orwellian nightmares that stem from ceding our personal agency to computers. Summer Wars dares to do something different, suggesting that the proliferation of social media has the power to unite humanity in a way we never before dreamed possible. Of course, it comes after a virus called “Love Machine” infects the internet, wreaking havoc. But rather than tell the tale of a world in turmoil, Mamoru Hosoda’s elegant and endearing Summer Wars focuses on a microcosmic family at the center of the conflict, who come together at a time when common sense dictates they should be torn apart. Summer Wars is that rare film that bestows upon its audience a genuine hope for humanity. Accept this gift and you will be inspired.
I don’t have kids yet, but I can say that when I do, I will be proud to have them watch Frozen on repeat 100 times. The story and themes are so progressive and healthy that it’s not only a great twist on princess stories, but on traditional live-action narratives as well. The positive message, that hiding one’s feelings is no solution, cannot be underestimated. It rings true for anyone who feels different, which is everyone. Calling out the Prince Charming myth is also a valuable lesson, but first and foremost Frozen is damn funny and entertaining, with beautiful animation and hummable music.
Of Lord and Miller’s two 2014 films, only this one made it onto our list, with The Lego Movie landing at #51. As brilliant as I find Lego, I can honestly say I’m happy the Jump Street sequel is the one to represent Lord and Miller here. After the surprise popularity of their TV remake 21 Jump Street, the sequel celebrated how awesome sequels can be, when conventional wisdom is that they are not, especially comedy sequels. With self-awareness for the repetitive structure, they were able to explore new issues for our undercover heroes, as well as revisit similar themes with new jokes. The finale is pretty much the final word on franchise sequels, and Jillian Bell is absolutely hilarious calling out Schmidt (Jonah Hill) every step of the way.
How do ultra-rich people think? According to David Cronenberg, they don't think much at all. Robert Pattinson plays a Wall Street tycoon of some sort who spends the bulk of Cosmopolis confined to his limousine, occasionally having baffling and ineffable meetings with a string of associates, all on the way to getting a haircut (which may be in Oz, for how long it takes them to get there). Cronenberg looks at the ultra-rich and drains them of blood, of passion, of personality, and even of basic humanity. He seems to see them as flesh machines that run on indifference. It's quiet, but it's somehow bluntly subversive and totally brilliant.
Frances Ha has a post-college malaise that is similar to Noam Baumbach's own Kicking & Screaming—except it’s made way more approachable and fun because Greta Gerwig is not abrasive, bemoaning, entitled or jaded. It's refreshing to view a coming of age film about a woman that has nothing to do with her sexuality. Frances wants to get by, but is struggling. In New York, she's perhaps not as talented of a dancer as her Sacramento parents and college friends might've made her feel. All of her choices are akin to square pegs being forced into circular holes. The hardest lesson to learn is that if our dreams get shaved off just a little bit, we can put that peg into the hole. And then you might just be able to slide your name into your own mailbox.
We all like to look at women's bodies. Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin takes our fascination with bodies, with skin, with nudity, and flips it into a bizarre, meditative object lesson in how we look at people. An alien takes possession of a woman's body, wears her skin, and seduces men into the back of her truck, where the men are swallowed up by an inky black something. By casting the notoriously beautiful Scarlett Johansson, Glazer is also talking specifically about how we, as audiences, have come to objectify her in particular. There is a lot going on in this quiet oddity, and it's all worth swallowing up.
It was the greatest manhunt in history, but director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t sensationalize a single moment of it. In Zero Dark Thirty, she films with exacting detail and immersive momentum the mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden. At the forefront is a woman named Maya, played with complex commitment by Jessica Chastain, who never gives up the search, seeing the impossible mission through to the end. Zero Dark Thirty never shies away, but it never lingers, and it never preaches. It’s the most important story possible, but all that dramatic weight carries itself. We just watch it play out, impressed and horrified and involved, and we come to our own conclusions because - odds are - we already have.
A father and mother have raised their children without ever letting them beyond their enclosed compound. They will be eaten if they get beyond the wall, they're told. Which is ridiculous, but it's all that they have ever been told. In this Greek oddity we watch as the grown children make awful choices, but we have to question if what they are doing is really awful when they don't know they're doing anything wrong. There is nature and there is no nurture in Dogtooth. There is also no explanation as to why this Greek family lives as they do, and that makes it much more terrifying. It also makes the actions of the adult children—who engage in bizarre talent shows and incest—impossible to finger wag. It's uncomfortable, but Dogtooth isn't morose. Unlike, say, Michael Haneke, you can tell that director Yorgos Lanthimos hopes his mice will be able to get outside the wall and experience life.
Teen romance is a tricky topic for movies, as filmmakers tend to treat their teen charges as a sum of their clichés. The Spectacular Now does a massive service to teenagers by depicting them as whole human beings, complete with complex, difficult-to-traverse emotions, inner conflicts, and personality problems that don't necessarily define them. Miles Teller is amazing as a young superstar teen (and legitimate alcoholic) who elects to romance a mousy peer (Shailene Woodley) following a painful breakup. The two of them both find this new romance to be unexpectedly needed. Your heart will swell.
Just about the perfect action movie: loud, ludicrous and lovable. Fast Five unites the cast of the previous 4 1/2 installments of this unlikely franchise, and capitalizes on the fact that - after years of watching their dumb antics - we’ve actually started to care about them. Throw in two great antagonists, including a dogged pursuer played by the charming and formidable Dwayne Johnson, and some of the best damned action sequences of the decade and you’ve got a recipe for no holds barred, classic fun. The vault chase at the end is as creative as it is exhilarating, and one of the most entertaining scenes anyone has witnessed in many, many years.
Adam Wingard took the home invasion story and put it into a blender. Literally. While that accurately describes the best—and most darkly funny—death scene of this decade, it also describes more than a device that can scrambled brains in a pinch. In a meta-souffle move, Wingard cast two horrorcore (the indie horror offshoot of mumblecore) directors (Joe Swanberg and Ti West) to play the boyfriends of the girls who are coming home for the holidays (Wendy Glenn and Amy Seimetz, a director in her own right) and—over a family dinner—had them debate what's better: getting to make big budget commercials or have your documentary show at the Cleveland Underground Film Festival. This debate happens just before everyone starts getting killed by masked assailants. Funny that now Wingard is perched to be the most commercial of those four directors, after his crossover hit The Guest.
Richard Linklater probably never imagined his little experiment would be so divisive. He was probably just happy that no one lost the footage in 12 years. Boyhood transcended the gimmick of shooting once a year for over a decade. The technique was powerful as we watched a little boy and a little girl mature before our eyes, as well as the actors playing their parents. In typical Linklater fashion, the meat on those bones got at the human condition via naturalistic dialogue and articulate intellectual discussions. Not everyone’s life is so talky, but we can appreciate how this family talks about things we all went through, thought about or observed in our friends and neighbors.
What could have been a dry, straightforward biopic about our 16th president was transformed by director Steven Spielberg into a moving essay about the very nature of government and the amount of struggle it takes, under any circumstances, to ensure that civil rights can survive in America. Spielberg tells the story of how the 14th Amendment was passed, and how delicate a struggle it was. Although the film is directly about slavery, it's easy to see it as a modern metaphor for any and all current civil right struggles. It is both specific and universal. Also, Daniel Day Lewis, naturally, gives an amazing performance, turning Lincoln into a soulful hayseed in addition to being a brilliant politician.
Enormity. Awe. The vast reaches of space have never felt so huge, yet so terrifyingly intimate, as they do in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut stranded in the endless void of space after a catastrophe hits her space station. As a thriller it’s a corker, since never before has any movie protagonist ever been so utterly screwed. But as a piece of something bigger, as an entity itself floating in the vastness, her tale of survival becomes the incredible struggle we all must face. To simply survive becomes poignant, and the odds that filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron throws at her force everyone in the audience to question how far we ourselves might go to simply go on living, just for its own sake. Impeccably filmed and breathtakingly thrilling, Gravity is an example of pure, unadulterated, cinema. I left the theater shaking. I’m still shaken.
In two of the most interesting performances of this decade, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson both have fantastic chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix. He's a man who's fallen in love with his personal operating device—because it knows so much about him; and she's the all-knowing software who is knowledgeable, funny, and adaptable to his needs. Johansson never appears in the film outside of her voice, but her presence is felt. And Phoenix marvelously acted and reacted solo, prior to her casting. With Her, Spike Jonze made a joyful film about a man who struggles to find joy with other people.
It's about trauma. It's about the mind. It's about love. It's also hard to tell what it's about. Upstream Color is a baffling color-coded poem that is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. Shane Carruth, a true auteur, has constructed a tale that involves brain-washing, mysterious blue chemicals, the brains of piglets, psychic links, and Walden. It's hard to say what's going on, but I can say that it's deeply moving and wonderful.
The most insidious thing about The Woman is not the finger-eating wild woman (Pollanna MacIntosh) chained to the wall in the fruit cellar, but the ever-encroaching threat of patriarchal violence. Director Lucky McKee is perhaps one of the most feminist filmmakers working today, and The Woman is his treatise on quiet, unspoken domestic abuse. The real villain of the piece is Dad (Sean Bridgers), a man who can be dismissed as a doofus, but who is controlling and emotionally abusing his family so casually, you may not notice at first. It's scary, wicked, and has a lot on its mind.
Some movies examine the stark realities of childhood. The Dance of Reality argues that those other movies are pointless. It may be right: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s poetic autobiography eschews realism in favor of a purely subjective trip through his own imagination. It doesn’t matter what really happened so much as how it made him feel, and his flights of fancy merge like swirls of paint to create the portrait of the man decades later. Immediacy is nothing, reflection is everything, and all of our experiences - real and imagined - are meaningless unless they eventually make us who we are. Jodorowsky reaches back into his memory to give his troubled young self a tender, heartfelt hug, and we all are warmed.
The Act of Killing is the most remarkable documentary of the decade. Joshua Oppenheimer takes people who are still revered by Indonesia for executing thousands of supposed communists, and asks them to re-enact their genocidal crimes in scenarios of American films that they love: gangster, musical, war, and western. The principal subject, Anwar Congo, obliges with glee, even doing a cha-cha-cha to a murderous tale. But after he's re-enacted many of his acts that he's told without any remorse, his body twists his initial glee into a wretching bodily display of disgust. The Act of Killing is a deft document about the power of film—and putting yourself in someone else's shoes.
Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson's most fully-realized film because it treats kids as kids and adults as adults—and not overgrown children. Here, two runaway kids (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) think they're in love because they share a desire to break from the units that put rules and boundaries on them. Adults (Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton), who have all experienced the diminished returns of adulthood by staying within units (a lonely policeman, rival lawyers in a loveless marriage, a those-are-the-rules orphanage worker, and an overgrown boy scout who leads boy scouts), search for the young sorta-lovers for various reasons of societal duty. Moonrise Kingdom is an adventure, a road movie, a fairytale, and—the most adult of all things—a dramedy.
Edgar Wright’s mostly faithful, always energetic adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s wonderful comic book series would have been fun based on the concept alone: a young dope (Michael Cera) must fight - and defeat - his new girlfriend’s seven “evil” exes in order to prove himself worthy of her affections. That fun and funny and action-packed premise is a note-perfect metaphor for overcoming the personal baggage that comes with any relationship. But the overwhelming style of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World becomes as much a point as the plot, depicting with whirligig virtuosity the way in which an entire generation interprets the world, as an endless series of pop culture references. The gags are hilarious when they’re not downright insightful, and the characters pop with a seemingly newfound energy. Scott Pilgrim might not be the future of filmmaking, but it certainly represents this strange new contemporary cultural landscape of the 21st century, perhaps better than any other film.
Ninth best film of the decade so far? Indeed. No apologies. Step Up 3D is the kind of bright colorful shot of sugar that reminds us why we like going to the movies in the first place. Its joy is unfettered and its clunky exploitation movie clichés are embraced without a hint of irony. What's more, the dancing in Step Up 3D is the best of any film in the series, focusing particularly on ersatz supporting player, now leading man, Moose (Adam G. Sevani) who steals every scene he's in, most particularly the single-take dance down a pleasant New York street with his ladylove Alyson Stoner. Happiness swells large, and that's not a pleasure to be denied.
Spring Breakers is the best pop song of the decade. At first, Harmony Korine's chronicle of bikini-clad robbers (Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudges, Selena Gomez, and Rachel Korine) and a dreaded-and-gold-teeth-grilled rapper (James Franco) might be a little annoying, but its repetitive chants and choruses (of free commerce and free will: “Spring break forever”) start to become catchy. The perfectly hazy sunset kissed-by-neon-lights cinematography allows you to be able to drift away and just go with it. The words to the song might be inane, but it is catchy as hell.
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy became a possible gimmick of time, the way it was with Boyhood. With these movies, the passage of time in the 9 years between films was the point. While Before Sunset explored the maturation of the characters we’d met in Before Sunrise, Before Midnight explored where they would be after nearly a decade together, instead of reuniting after years apart. The result is an intense examination of relationships, again more intellectual and articulate than most of us are able to be when we’re upset. Each of the previous films had intense moments but this one builds into what feels like the apocalypse, and it’s all between two people in a hotel room.
Perhaps the most achingly personal film of the decade, The Tree of Life is loved by many, and hated by more—but it is unquestionably a singular vision, made only as one filmmaker could make it, and without an apology or bending over backwards to a larger audience. We're obviously on the positive side, but I'm on the side that glows and cries with it. And who feels a little better about life for its existence. The Tree of Life is Terrance Malick's fear of shadows cast by the largeness of life (the creation of all things) cut against the fleeting fancies that make it worth living (sights, sounds, movements, tastes), set during a time of crossroads where the micro and macro of all things start to become apparent: childhood. It's dense, it's poetic—but it's also apologetic. To time, to mothers, to fathers, to brothers, and to everything else that came before us.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of human conflicts with this Academy Award winning film. His follow-up, The Past, is quite good too, but A Separation presents a conflict of Iranian culture to illustrate to the world that, at heart, it’s all the same human drama. Nader (Payman Moaadi) wants to keep his family in Iran to care for his father, prompting Simin (Leila Hatami) to seek divorce to take their daughter abroad. When Nader hires a caretaker (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father while he works, it opens up unfathomable conflicts we don’t want to spoil. This is the story of two people trying to do the right thing when a culture makes those right things mutually exclusive, and that is compelling drama.
Blue is the Warmest Color tells the story of a romance, but has the wherewithal and emotional honesty to include every pertinent detail. Not just the first meeting, not just the falling in love, not just the awesome sex (the film is rated NC-17), but the awkward family meetings, the new circles of friends, the new feelings of not fitting in, the slow move from passion to shared domesticity, the need to (perhaps unsuccessfully) incorporate your vocation and your passion into your relationship, the screaming matches, the catharses, the split, the reuniting, the moving on... it's all there in natural resplendent honesty. The two women at the head of this romance embody their roles and this relationship with full heft. They are both amazing, and the film is amazing.
Not enough films have the balls to be abstract, not even in the independent world. So Leos Carax’s series of vignettes is astounding on multiple levels. Firstly, each one is a vehicle for a powerhouse performance by Denis Lavant. There is a connective tissue, this service Holy Motors provides in which Lavant becomes whatever character the client needs. Is he an angel or something even more ethereal? It’s not even necessary to interpret. Just watching Lavant is the greatest show on earth, from his prosthetically enhanced feral man Mr. Merde, to an accordion intermission midway through. It’s an outrageous show full of themes and suggestions that stay with you long after.
To make a film about the nature of genius and fall even the tiniest bit short would have been a tragedy. Fortunately, writer/director Damien Chazelle has genius to spare in Whiplash, a film that challenges the mindset of an entire generation, who were taught that they’re special just because they are who they are. J.K. Simmons brings an instantly iconic anti-villain to life in Fletcher, the obsessed music conductor who demands greatness of his students, even at the cost of their health and sanity. Miles Teller matches him perfectly as the one pupil who actually sucks up Fletcher’s abuse like a sponge, leading to a percussive climax with a message so powerful, so challenging, that it seems damn near dangerous. Whiplash confronts its audience in a way few stories ever dare, and it does so with an exciting pace, and truly powerful performances.
No other film this decade has provided a more frank and salient commentary on the way we have come to communicate like David Fincher's The Social Network. Made only a few years after the inception of Facebook.com, The Social Network uncovers the bizarre legal battle behind the website, and the strange sociopathy that sparked the rise of social networking to begin with. Underneath the film's witty dialogue and legalese storytelling is a dark sociological essay about how simple social interaction has become quantified and quantifiable. This is a film about how we think in the modern age, and how that may be both a good and a bad thing. It is the best film of the decade so far.