' ' Cinema Romantico: Moments that Made the Movies in the Twenty-Tens

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Moments that Made the Movies in the Twenty-Tens

On my friend Ryan McNeil’s movie-loving podcast of his movie-loving blog The Matinee, where I have guested a couple times, he likes to ask people what one souvenir, so to speak, they would take away from whatever new release was just discussed. Well, a decade is a lot bigger then just one movie. So here are fourteen total cinematic souvenirs I’m taking with me from the twenty-tens.

Sicario. Convoy to Juarez. 

The critic Adam Nayman, in an admittedly less than favorable review, deemed “Sicario” as akin to riding shotgun for America’s War on Drugs. And that’s essentially what Emily Blunt’s character, Kate, is doing when an American convoy of black SUVs crosses the border into Juarez. The entire sequence, though, feels less like a metaphorical crossing over than a nihilistic descent, the mood set by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s crunching, cacophonous score, the first notes truly feeling as they are pulling us under. And despite the spatial precision of the black SUVs snaking their way down the interstate, director Denis Villeneuve keeps us off balance, switching between aerial shots that seem to make us omniscient and ground level shots where anything could happen. And if the scene is all about tension, and building to a sudden release of it, Villeneuve also knows that movies are about, more than anything else, the human face, and so he returns to the face of Kate throughout, the bellwether of this scene (and of the movie). There was no better face at the movies in the twenty-tens.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout. HALO jump.

The moment when Tom Cruise’s IMF Agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt performs a low parachute opening HALO jump over Paris does not creep up on you because once Ethan and his CIA accomplice August Walker (Henry Cavill) are standing in the cargo bay of that plane, you know what’s coming given all the pre-release hoopla about Cruise performing his own stunt. And yet, once the alarm sounds indicating that it’s time to jump and the music on the soundtrack drops, sending your stomach dropping with it, and Ethan makes the great leap, the movie sweeps you along and sweeps production notes right out the door. And though the jump was wonderful, what provides the extra push over the cliff, turning it up to 11, is that their landing spot is the Grand Palais where they will change into some natty duds and infiltrate a party, meaning they – and I still, not even a year and half later, can’t get over this – HALO jumping into the club. I said it before, I’ll say it again, I’ll keep it saying it forever: it is the kind of joie de vivre we should demand from more of our movies. And it is the kind of joie de vivre that defined both “Fallout” and “Rogue Nation”, perhaps the twin peaks of pop movie-making this decade.

Paddington 2. Home Invasion.

If breaking into someone’s home only to have that someone unexpectedly return mid break-in leading to hijinks is absolutely nothing new it has never been rendered with spirited wit equal to “Paddington 2” when Mrs. (Sally Hawkins) and Mr. Brown’s (Hugh Bonneville) bout of breaking and entering is foiled by the requisite villain Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). And if “Paddington 2” is all about learning to get by with a little help from your friends, emblemized in Phoenix as a vain actor insistent on one-man shows, then this scene lives out the film’s truth, the ensemble working together to take some familiar sheet music and make it soar.

Creed. Max’s Steaks.

“Creed” was a good movie for a lot of reasons, and the scene where boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and his emergent love interest, the singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson), bond over proper cheese steaks was a good scene for a lot of reasons too, evincing a real sense of place through that place’s food. And if this moment, in its location, in the laid back vibe of the actors, in their plain-spoken dialogue belying so much pain, suggests something akin to an indie, it simultaneously evokes vintage Hollywood in so much as the self-evidently sensational chemistry of Thompson and Jordan, the intoxicating intermeshing rhythm of their exchange, makes the scene as much about their cooperative movie star magnetism as the characters so that, like any Movie, and all that the capital ‘M’ entails, for a moment, you wish you were at Max’s eating cheese steaks too.

Spy. Miranda Hart.

We all want a good cup of coffee, we all want affordable health insurance that will not actively kill us, and we all want a few movie lines we can take with us into the afterlife, like Pharaohs and their belongings. And here, on the cusp of the twenty-twenties, I realize the one line I most want to bring with me from the twenty-tens is Melissa McCarthy in “Spy” being admonished by Miranda Hart: “I don’t condone this sexy yet reckless behavior!”

Salt. Semi-trucks.

“You, my friend, have a mole in your group.” This is what a CIA counterintelligence agent (Chiwetel Ejifor) says to a CIA agent (Liev Schreiber), a line that is not in any way funny out of context but that made me laugh as hard as anything in the twenty-tens because of what it directly follows. It directly follows Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), a super duper sleeper Russian spy (remember the innocence of 2010!), hurling herself off a freeway overpass onto a semi-truck, and then jumping from that semi to another one, and then from THAT semi to ANOTHER one, the trucks getting progressively smaller, like she’s an Olympic diver trying to hit more and more complicated dives with less and less splash. And even if “Salt” is about that spy turning coat and then turning coat again, with a whole lotta yada yada in-between, it’s mostly about Angelina Jolie doing stuff and us watching her do stuff, like jumping onto semi-trucks. It’s why they call them Motion Pictures.

Wonder Woman. No Man’s Land.

The impetus of this scene is a charge on a German platoon to liberate a village, illustrating the film’s nimbleness at continually segueing from big battles to smaller moments, the latter crucially underlining what’s at stake in the former. To get there, however, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and her crack team, including Capt. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), must cross the frightening width between trenches, “No Man’s Land”, as Steve explains it, a hopeless endeavor, he continues, that they would be wise not to even attempt. It’s a bout of mansplaining, really, one which Diana ignores, and thank God too because the ensuing scene, in which she emerges from the trench, the music seemingly carrying her, and spurs the attack, is such an astonishing jolt of pure cinema my eyes got misty. If so many movies in recent years, comic book or otherwise, have rendered untold faceless extras as mere collateral damage in the name of special effects, in this bravura sequence the faceless extras become the point as Diana refuses to write off their lives.

This is the End. Emma Watson.

The twenty-tens at the movies, whether we are discussing the movies themselves or the movie industry, was defined by the MeToo movement, Hollywood’s long, long overdue reckoning with its rampant misogyny and sexual malpractice. And though “This is the End” was directed by guys, and though it mostly featured just guys, including one who has been accused by several women of sexual assault, and was very much a guys movie, through and through, about a bunch of famous dudes playing themselves holed up in Los Angeles during what turns out to be nothing less the apocalypse, it both knowingly and inadvertently skewers Male Hollywood’s tendency not to have any idea what to do with female characters. Because when Emma Watson shows up as herself midway through wielding an axe, it suggests the guys writing the movie didn’t know any way to write her other than as Badass Lady. And they especially didn’t know what to do with her after that, which is why, when she goes to get some rest, they have an argument deliberately broaching uncomfortable territory and rather than deal with what that might mean in a broader context, panic and write her right back out of the movie.

Jurassic World. Margarita Guy.

Though “Jurassic World”, the 2015 box office champion, beating out “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in a real blockbuster Battle Royale, created a whole new dinosaur from scratch, the Indominus Rex, an inadvertent dinosauria representation of sequel-itis, what will stand the test of time isn’t Indominus Rex but Margarita Guy. He’s an extra who, when the eponymous theme park inevitably falls under attack from the beasts caged within, makes time to grab his margaritas when fleeing. He was played by none other than Jimmy Buffett, actual owner of Margaritaville, one of which is attached to the movie’s Jurassic World, a little joke that’s nominally supposed to neutralize the obvious corporate tie-in. And if it deftly illustrates where Hollywood movies are headed, if they aren’t there already, with corporate sponsors having as much creative control as, uh, the creators, the immediate proliferation of Margarita Guy memes across the Interwebs in the wake of the movie’s release embodied something else. From the endlessly recycled GIF of Leo as Jay Gatsby in 2013 offering a toast, a fundamental misunderstanding of the story’s inherent darkness, to just the other weekend when “Marriage Story” was released via Netflix and turned Twitter less into a conversation about the film’s aesthetics than an unrelenting opportunity for screenshots cum wacky, wacky GIFs, the future of the movie in the streaming age might well be cherry-picking images and then disseminating them as memes, stripping them of their original meaning and transforming them into fodder for social media comedy.

First Reformed. Ending.

In cribbing from Bergman’s “Winter Light”, Paul Schrader made a parable for our times by filtering the crisis of faith of a small town Reverend (Ethan Hawke) through the climate crisis as his attempts to help a conscious-stricken parishioner cause him to think about going full-fledged eco-terrorist. If that sounds melodramatic, Schrader’s presentation is much more straight-forward…until the end, that is, when so much pragmatism erupts into something like ecstatic ambiguity. That ambiguity, though, was not Schrader hedging. If the end defies explanation, well, that’s only because it’s an honest to goodness miracle.

Spring Breakers. Opening.

It shouldn’t work, this prologue, which is pure smut, a montage of drunken, leering, barely clad kids on the beach. Director Harmony Korine, though, pulls it off, not least by choosing the title track to the second EP by EDM wonderboy Skrillex, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, to accentuate the brief sequence. Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of Rock Critics, compared the song’s indelible groaning synthesizers to “doom dybbuks.” Dybbuks, in Jewish mythology, are believed to be the dislocated souls of the dead, which is to say Korine is painting these performative degenerate spring breakers as doom dybbuks themselves, signifying how a scene’s musical cue can transform a horrendous sight into a heavenly one.

Land Ho! Dinner.

In “Land Ho!”, two retirees, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson, who passed away in 2018), take a trip to Iceland to, as Mitch himself says, tongue partially in cheek, get their groove back, when they meet up with two young women, Ellen (Karrie Crouse) and Janet (Elizabeth McKee), for dinner, you’d be forgiven for thinking events are on the verge of taking a puerile turn. But as they do throughout, co-directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens subvert our expectations, transforming this into an honest, rhythmic getting-to-know-you give and take, the framing, maintaining intimacy by forgoing wide frames to simply cut between the four characters, all conveyed through a handheld camera that isn’t jittery, exactly, more enlivened, characters not on edge but in tune, the moment when the aged, spurred on by the youth’s mid-scene discursive monologue on Jewish Mysticism, reject the superficial reality embodied in the bittersweet acceptance of faded youth and tap into a divine energy rumbling just underneath.

Phantom Thread. Daniel Day-Lewis Ordering Breakfast.

We lost Daniel Day-Lewis in the twenty-tens. I mean, we didn’t lose him, of course. He didn’t die, he merely retired, but still. This is DDL, man. This is like when Hagler hung up his gloves and never came back. What do we do? What can we do? Let’s listen to him put in that breakfast order one more time.

Mistress America. “Welcome to The Great White Way!”

The American Dream probably was never much more than a huckster’s slogan to begin with considering that F. Scott Fitzgerald was taking it apart way back in 1925. Yet its myth survives because for so much cynicism inundating culture we nonetheless remain inherently romantic, the dueling notions at play in Brooke Cardenas (Greta Gerwig), protagonist of Noah Baumbach's “Mistress America.” She is introduced descending the staircase at the TKTS stand in Times Square, arms spread wide to greet her soon-to-be sorta protégé , exclaiming in the manner of a New World tour guide “Welcome to The Great White Way!” Alas, she’s misjudged the number of stairs and with several still to go is forced to wobbly maintain her starlet facade. And she does. She never relents; she never gives up on the persona; she will grin and bear it in the face of all obstacles. And in that moment, in Gerwig’s immaculate visage, we see The American Dream itself laid bare. She’s wholly sincere; she’s also full of shit.

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