' ' Cinema Romantico: Films of the Decade

Friday, December 20, 2019

Films of the Decade

This was intended to be ten films. Then I decided to make it a dozen films before ultimately deciding I had no desire or reason (haven’t you heard, lists are pointless) to cut one. So, these are thirteen films of the decade. And that’s what they are. These are not the “best” films of the decade – God, no, not in any way, shape, or form. But neither are these my “favorite” films of the decade. That’s not to suggest I didn’t love them – I absolutely loved them – or that I didn’t enjoy them, which is to say I was merely impressed by them. I was impressed by them – SO MUCH – but I also enjoyed them, greatly. They are my favorites. But just calling them my favorites is not quite right. All I know is this: these were the films that stayed with me the longest, that I thought about the most, that best did, I think, what movies can and are supposed to do.

A couple notes: These films are not ranked, just in alphabetical order. No 2019 films were included if only because a list like this requires time and distance and, obviously, I’ve not gotten enough of either with any films from this year.

Films of the Decade

Cold Weather, Aaron Katz (2011)

“Cold Weather” was nominally director/writer/editor Aaron Katz’s first foray into genre filmmaking though its subdued shape-shifting was more evocative of something anti-genre, like if Richard Linklater channeled Robert Altman, or something. True to Katz’s Mumblecore roots, “Cold Weather” begins as an assortment of alternating awkward and lyrical moments between a brother, Doug (Cris Lankenau), and a sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who have are sort of rekindling their relationship as roommates. Gradually, though, as other characters are introduced, it morphs into a DIY detective story, giving the would-be forensic scientist Doug an opportunity to eschew his aimless air and find his calling even as, amidst so many whodunit details, Katz keeps focus on how Doug and Gail navigate this bizarre turn in their life, and how it affects them, so that the mystery and its attendant answer, without us even necessarily realizing it as it’s happening, becomes something else entirely, summarized in the simple yet mind-blowing final shot. Of Anne Tyler’s novel “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”, Nick Hornby wrote that he understood “every artistic decision, every impulse...(t)his is what I would sound like, if I ever I were to find a voice.” “Cold Weather” is what I would sound like if I were to find a voice.

Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater (2016)

Only a movie so tightly controlled could play so loose, a testament to writer/director Richard Linklater, as well as editor Sandra Adair, who craft a nearly flawless ode to the last lazy weekend before the new start of a freshman’s first semester at college. The film airdrops us into an extremely specific setting, that of ferocious male bonding, where ball busting is the native tongue and learning to give as good as you get is necessary for survival. Though do not presume that “Everybody Wants Some!!” is merely the latest visit to the frequent white male movie milieu. On the contrary, for all the machismo, this becomes an exploration of other cultural environments on campus, with the band’s good-hearted leader, Finn (Glen Powell), establishing himself as their semi-scholarly tour guide, espousing the necessity of opening one’s mind as he leads incursions into campus bars and parties where jockstraps are not the norm. Indeed, if “Everybody Wants Some!!” can be as crude as any campus comedy, it is never feebleminded, a sneak attack of sincerity and wisdom that acts its age.

Gimme the Loot, Adam Leon (2012)

We lost Jonathan Demme this decade, which I mention not just because Demme officially “presented” writer/director Adam Leon’s teeny-tiny indie about a pair of teenage of graffiti artists – Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) – but because “Gimme the Loot” possessed a generosity of spirit akin to Demme’s. If “Gimme the Loot” was mostly filmed in the Bronx, the same location of a certain scene that kicked up a lot of social media dust in 2019, culled from a movie that became famous for its cynical worldview, Leon’s movie forewent such cynicism. If Malcolm and Sofia’s attempts to infiltrate Citi Field to tag, in graffiti lingo, the infamous Home Run Apple becomes something of a MacGuffin, it also does not, evincing ideas of petty crime and race and class along the way, rendering explicit the difficulty Malcom and Sofia have in scraping up just $500 bucks to pay someone to get them into the Mets’ stadium in the first place. And if there is authenticity to the proceedings, it stems from the propulsive energy of the place, captured in Leon’s guerilla filmmaking, an effusive joy of living that manifests itself in the trash-talking performances of Hickson and Washington and how their characters don’t fall in love, per se, but realize how they feel about one another nonetheless, the kind of effortless humanism that undoubtedly did Demme proud.

Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh (2017)

“Logan Lucky” is a heist picture and the film’s own rendering, free from a traditional studio with actors working for scale, felt like a kind of heist too, director Steven Soderbergh delivering us a mid-budget genre picture that Hollywood has mostly forsaken for would-be blockbuster tentpoles. And even if “Logan Lucky” involves taking from the rich to give to the poor, robbing a corporate so and so (who might be British but whose constant gum-chewing reminded me of Jean Reno chewing gum in “Godzilla” to pose as a dumb American), emitting myriad notes of topicality along the way, this is no exercise in solemnity, forgoing kitchen sink realism to cut loose, letting oft-grim actors like Daniel Craig and Hilary Swank have fun. When Craig’s character, Joe Bang, stops for a beer mid-heist, it’s a throwaway and the movie in capsule. As LeeAnn Rimes belts out “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a NASCAR track, Joe Bang tosses back a cold one, crystallizing an America that “Logan Lucky” never condescends to, paying devout respect to where he comes from even as he steals a few moments for self-care.

Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt (2010)

In its frequent long takes detailing the painstaking efforts of an 1845 wagon train fording rivers and descending canyons, as well as its impressive devotion to naturalistic nighttime lighting in a pre-electricity landscape, not to mention how the buckskins and brawny voice of the group’s leader (Bruce Greenwood) are gradually unmasked as laughable hokum belying a directionless idiot, Kelly Reichardt’s magnum opus is sort of Showing How It Really Was. And yet, the further this wagon train goes without really going anywhere at all, the more the verité of “Meek’s Cutoff” gives way to the hauntingly metaphysical. That squared off aspect ratio ineffably closes in on the characters, making them feel as if they are wandering in a cosmic tunnel, the indelible closing lines rerouting Manifest Destiny from the Pacific to some inexplicable American abyss.

Mistress America, Noah Baumbach (2015)

Mistress America” suggests a screwball version of “The Great Gatsby” in so much as Noah Baumbach’s verbally witty, visually nimble, and robustly edited tour de force focuses on a self-invented socialite, Brooke Cardenas (Greta Gerwig). Prone toward self-regarding romanticizing rather than self-actualizing, she's seen here through the eyes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), her future stepsister and aspiring writer, whom Brooke essentially adopts as her understudy to the manifestation of the American dream. That ideal is one Baumbach gleefully deconstructs, exhibiting its illusory nature in the willful fantasies of Brooke even as the film’s multitudinous moments of joy render the dubious myth irresistible. It’s a paradox that Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote the script, are content to serve as the film’s ultimate truth, one embodied in Gerwig’s incredible livewire performance. If her character is often unlikable, Gerwig herself is not, employing a fount of bullish charisma that barrels past its foundation of lies to make us believe, as she does, and against all the odds, that some orgiastic future still beckons. As caustic as she is charming as she is clueless, Gerwig earns the title of Mistress America. (I will not be making a post to officially declare my favorite twenty-tens performance but pssssst.....it’s Gerwig’s.)

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson (2012)

Wes Anderson draws together his prominent themes of adults mourning for the innocence of childhood and children oblivious to their innocence and yearning for adulthood and then filters them through a variation of the Noah’s Flood parable. Here, on the fictional island of New Penzance, Anderson’s familiar, fastidious aesthetic belies institutions – family, marriage, the Khaki Scouts – with crumbling foundations, illustrating why two precocious kids, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), go to such extravagant lengths to flee them. And yet, there emerges a belief in institutions anyway, or least their inherent meaning, glimpsed in the best movie wedding of the twenty-tens which, to quote the officiant, isn’t even legally binding, not that it matters, true as it is in their hearts. And unlike Noah’s Flood, the impending New Penzance storm does not wipe away the people but leaves them behind. It’s up to us.

Museum Hours, Jem Cohen (2012)

It is tempting to compare director Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours” to “Before Sunrise’ given that it involves two strangers – a museum security guard, Johann (Bobby Sommer), and a Canadian woman, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), visiting a sick relative – unexpectedly bonding in Vienna. Yet even if “Before Sunrise” was interrogative, about two people getting to know each other, the characters were telling their stories and expressing their anxieties and passions and ideas whereas “Museum Hours” is more about examining and engaging with the world around them. Cohen gives this life through the setting, yes, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where we frequently hear Johann considering paintings and considering the people considering paintings. Yet gradually the distinctions between the gallery and the outside world are erased, like juxtaposing a busy street with sounds of a museum audio guide, lyrically invoking the idea that the surrounding world is worthy of emotional and aesthetic appraisal too. And while the lines are blurred, they never fall away completely, the characters and their relationship reminding us of life’s transitory nature, as if Cohen has managed, of all things, to bring a Monet still life to life and then let us watch it slip away.

Oslo, August 31st, Joachim Trier (2011)

The expository title of Joachim Trier’s Norwegian film makes clear the movie takes place over the course of one day, August 31st, as Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is released from a drug rehab clinic for 24 hours to take a job interview, with the hope of reintegrating into society, and see some friends. If his addiction in conjunction with the timeframe suggest the movie is put on a clock to tragedy, Trier is not really wondering When Will He Relapse? as Why Wouldn’t He? But if that sounds like a mere miserabilist set up, “Oslo August 31st”, without ignoring its character’s precarious emotional plight, underlined in just how evasive he remains – to his friends and to us – despite us spending the entire film in his company, proves strangely lyrical. The title suggests the last day of summer, when all our best laid plans have become fuzzy in the rearview as fall beckons, another cold hard winter right around the corner, an elegiac sensation embodied in the images, like the puff of a fire extinguisher under a night sky. The movie is not indifferent to the world’s beauty, in other words, and neither is Anders, though as the sort of two-part conclusion makes clear, that beauty, for him, is nevertheless not enough.

Paterson, Jim Jarmusch (2016)

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who’s a poet on the side – or, perhaps, paraphrasing the above “Moonrise Kingdom”, he’s a poet who’s a bus driver on the side – who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, home of the celebrated poet William Carlos Williams. That’s why the name and setting are not mere narrative coincidence but a kind of narrative rhyme, evocative of how writer/director Jim Jarmusch isn’t exactly making a movie about poetry but a movie that itself is poetry. Indeed, the almost preternaturally placid Driver exists in a state that you might mistake for aloof if he, in concert with what Jarmusch’s camera sees, quietly communicates how the character is totally in touch with the whole world around him, forever taking mental notes. And if ennui, that dangerous word, is often mined as material for ostensibly gritty, melancholy indies, here it become something beautiful, Paterson’s daily routine rendered not as drudgery but fuel for creativity, la raison d'être.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010)

In “Somewhere”, a man changes his outlook on life. That’s it. That’s the movie. Ah, but never in the twenty-tens was the old Roger Ebert adage that it’s not what a movie is about but how it’s about it lived out with as much moving flourish as in Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature film. It’s not so much in the narrative details, of which there are few anyway, as it is how Coppola subtly captures the shifts in mood and tone between a fictional movie star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) in isolation and then in the company of his daughter (Elle Fanning), taking similar moments of repose and altering them ever so slightly, like variations in light. A scene where dad watches daughter’s ice-skating routine is shown from afar, mostly over his shoulder, allowing us to virtually see as his perspective shifts, the fog lifting so he can see clearly now. And in doing so, Coppola is inviting us to do as Johnny does, see “Somewhere” as it is, recognize and accept its deliberate pace. Once you do, what might first seem monotonous, ignites.

Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2018)

The 1956 Antonio di Benedetto novel on which “Zama” is based takes place, by all accounts, entirely within the fraying mind of its main character, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Spanish magistrate assigned to remote South American colony. And director Lucrecia Martel brings that interior notion to life not through typical tools like voiceover but in the indelible, eccentric framing, like the opening shot where his full regalia imparts how he views himself in his own mind even if his distance in the shot and unremarkable landscape surrounding him expose his own inflated ego. Indeed, he is both an arrogant beneficiary of colonialism and the butt of its bureaucratic joke, repeatedly thwarted in the most insulting and innocuous ways in his attempt to receive a transfer, finally opting to lead a chase for a mystical bandit, almost as if he’s trying to fashion himself the adventurous ending he thinks he is deserved. Alas, the natural world, evoked throughout in the film’s eerie sound design, essentially swallows him up, the closing moments and its accompanying slack key guitar comically, cruelly suggesting a colonialist as an idiot tourist.

Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

Famously recounting America’s herculean efforts to find and kill Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, “Zero Dark Thirty”, while a marvel of editing and dramatizing information, engendered significant controversy for its factual accuracy and depiction of torture. I’m not here to relitigate that case, or even defend Kathryn Bigelow’s film from such accusations, but contend that its blatant failure to interrogate the ethics and purpose of torture in the name of going for straight-forward, gung-ho revenge rather, to paraphrase the critic David Thomson referencing “The Deer Hunter’s” own historical errors, proved its point. That’s why the movie ends conspicuously not with catharsis but with CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) sitting alone in the enormous and otherwise empty bay of that military plane, asked where she wants to go and having no response, Chastain’s hollow expression cracking “Zero Dark Thirty” wide open by reframing everything preceding it as a road to nowhere.


Derek Armstrong said...

My own top 25 is not going to include any of these films, yet I greatly admire some of the picks, which shows you just how hard it is to kill any of your babies. You turned me on to Gimme the Loot, for which I am profoundly grateful; unfortunately, when I rewatched it to consider it for my best of the decade, it had lost a little something for me. Thanks for reminding me of Oslo, a truly transformative experience (and yet it will also not make my shortlist). I love how idiosyncratic these things are, as I expect only one or two of the movies that will make my top ten to be something that almost anyone else would pick as the best of the decade. Then again, given that we had something like 3,000 movies to choose from, I suspect any crossover would be the exception rather than the rule.

Keeping make those lists, my friend, even if you don't order them.

Derek Armstrong said...

Forgot to mention that Meek's Cutoff was also one of the 82 (!) movies I rewatched starting in July of 2018 to consider for my top 25, a project I just finished last week. Alas, it also will not make the cut.