Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Forty-Two

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#42 — We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)

“Hate the Sport,” the signature song from Sweden’s finest teen punk trio, properly carries the rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll inside it. Written as a direct challenge to the bullying, patriarchal bullshit that constantly presses in on the band’s three girl members — Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin), and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) — the song is tough and unadorned, all the barnacles of rock excess knocked away, which fulfills the most important mandate of punk. Better yet, the song’s simplicity allows it to be highly adapted, the ire of the lyrics switched from general athletic endeavors to, say, the name of the town in which the band is performing, which is precisely the sort of savage insolence Johnny Rotten might have opted for back in his messy, bloody heyday.

The film that is home to “Hate the Sport,” Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, doesn’t have quite the same cavalier abrasiveness as the tune, but it does share a thrilling sense of freedom. Based on the graphic novel created by his wife, Coco Moodysson, the film traces the sparkler-burst career of the amateur band populate by three classmates, each testing out the claimed autonomy of pending adulthood. All around the age of thirteen, the girls are still somewhat guileless, banging out their feelings with the unchecked urgency of youth. There are innocents ablaze, but their battles remain small-scale. The intra-act skirmishes are over family-imposed belief systems and boys’ attentions. At that age, though, such concerns loom large, and Moodysson and his charismatic young actresses convey the emotional intensity with bright honesty.

Perhaps the primary way We Are the Best! mirrors its bright, brash protagonists is in its freewheeling spirit. Without sacrificing any amount of professional assurance, Moodysson riles the film with the strands of indie flick ingenuity that come from to-the-bone resources. The film crackles like an amp that’s been properly blasted by music played ferociously at top volume. As in that simile, the ramshackle rawness is an indication of pure determination, a thrill in plying art for the sake of doing it, with maybe a touch of provers doubters wrong. And if the doubters can’t be proved wrong, at least they can be pummeled into submission. The joyful satisfaction of creation and collaboration is more valuable anyway.

Then Playing — Cold Pursuit; The Book of Henry; The Naked Spur

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Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland, 2019). Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland makes his English-language debut with a remake of one of his own previous features, presumably because the narrative framework was well-suite to the very-particular-set-of-skills era of Liam Neeson’s career. Neeson brings his Stonehenge-slab self to the role of Nels Coxman, a Colorado snowplow driver whose son (Micheál Richardson) is killed by members of a drug cartel. Nels launches himself into an obsessive scavenger hunt in which each new clues leads to a new outer orbit thug to dispatch as he moves ever closer to the kingpin (Tom Bateman) in charge of it all. The film is made slightly more distinctive than the usual Neeson action romp by its bleak sense of humor, manifested most clearly in the epitaph title cards that follow the howling death of each adversary. Bateman labels mightily but finally unsuccessful to inject the heavy with Alan Rickman levels of personality. Emmy Rossum fares better as a police officer whose enthused by the prospect of a major crime taking place in her sleepy mountain town.


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The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow, 2017). This is a movie so disastrous in conception and execution that, by all appearances, it likely contributed to Colin Trevorrow getting ousted from the director’s chair for the ninth episode of the Star Wars saga. (It’s worth noting that Trevorrow’s plans for wrapping up the space-spanning series, leaked earlier this year, sound so much better than the inanities J.J. Abrams slopped onto the screen.) This drama with Spielbergian aspirations and a thoroughly warped sensibility concerns a single-parent household with two brothers, one a sweet, bullied kid (Jacob Tremblay, who’s really cornered the market on terrorized boys) and one an ultra-capable genius (Jaeden Martell) who plays the stock market in his spare time. When tragedy befalls the latter, he sends his frazzled, video game–loving mother (Naomi Watts) on a bizarre mission to rescue the pretty neighbor girl (Maddie Ziegler) from her abusive stepfather (Dean Norris). Wildly misguided in practically every way, The Book of Henry is the sort of film that leads to speculation about what sort of filmmaker’s-new-clothes scenario transpired that allowed it to get made in the first place. I’ve rarely seen such a bonkers narrative presented with inexplicable sincerity. By the time Watts’s matriarch is traipsing casually into mercenary mode, I found myself wishing for the cinematic equivalent of a mercy rule, freeing all involved from having to see this thing through.


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The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953). This vicious Western stars James Stewart as Howard Kemp, an irritable bounty hunter who’s determined to collect the $5000 reward offered for bringing in murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). The task is complicated by the shifting motives of others who wind up in the traveling party, including a luckless prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a military man (Ralph Meeker) who was recently given his dishonorable discharge. Vandergroat nurtures the dissension in the group, sometimes aided by his comely traveling companion, Lina (Janet Leigh). Inevitably, The Naked Spur is hampered by some of the stodginess of its era — not to mention the unpleasant gender dynamics that send Lina tumbling into Howard’s arms for no reason other than Stewart’s top billing — but the lean storytelling often engages, especially as Ben plies his psychological manipulations with joyful malice. If it’s not particularly subtle villainy, Ryan having the time of his life in the role is fine compensation for the lack of nuance.

Then Playing — A Fantastic Woman; The Quiet Man; Blow the Man Down

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A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017). Marina (Daniela Vega) is Chilean who works as a waitress and sometimes moonlights as a singer. She’s engaged in a romance with an older gentleman named Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who dies of a brain aneurysm on a night when he and Daniela were together. Because Daniela is a transgender woman, Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim), view her with an attitude that is a thin layer above contempt. There’s not much plot to A Fantastic Woman, but there’s an abundance of empathy, as Lelio trains his attention on the ache felt by Marina and all the ways those around her target her with callous disregard for her identity. Vega is quietly marvelous in the role, opting for tender restraint at all the right moments. The film’s occasional trafficking in magical realism is too halfhearted to make the proper impact. The simpler Lelio keeps his storytelling, the better it is.

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The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952). The movie John Ford spent almost twenty years trying to make is an absolute charmer. The director’s regular collaborator John Wayne stars as Sean Thornton, a strapping fellow who returns from the U.S.A. to the small Irish town where he was born, quickly achieving his goal of reacquiring the family homestead. Before long, his to do list expands to include courting Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), to the consternation of her bull-headed brother (Victor McLaglen). The film is strongest across the first half, as Ford takes obvious pleasure in depicting the scrappy charms of the Irish community, especially tippling matchmaker Óge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerland). The storytelling beats become a bit too familiar in the second half — and the retrograde gender norms of the era drain the entertaining verve out O’Hara’s character and performance — and least until the beating becomes quite literal in an extended brawl that is a feat of comic excess.


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Blow the Man Down (Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, 2020). With a wryly bleak attitude, a shrugging-shoulder assessment of humanity’s worst instincts, and a confident inventiveness, Blow the Man Down recalls Blood Simple, the blazing beacon of a debut from the Coen Brothers. Co-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy (who also share credit on the original screenplay) add tremor of feminist empowerment that deepens the story. Sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) are in mourning after the death of their mother, and collectively uncertain about the future. When Mary Beth’s barroom pick-up takes an ill turn, the young woman are struggle to clean up the resulting mess, unearthing some of the darker secrets of the town in the process. Both Saylor and Lowe are terrific, and Margo Martindale is given the welcome opportunity to revisit her capacity for menace first exhibited, to great effect, in the best season of Justified. Mostly, though, Blow the Man Down is notable as an assertion of talent by exciting new filmmakers.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Forty-Three

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#43 — Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017)

Ten years is a long time, so it’s hardly remarkable to survey that length of time in a chunk of cinema history and discern major differences between the respective creative landscape and the starting and end points. It is still a little dizzying to consider how rapidly some of the changes emerged on the business side of moviemaking during the twenty-tens, as studio consolidation and the unpredictable dynamics of theater exhibition and home video could render healthy studios moribund in the dying flicker of a projector with physical film strung through it. To chose a single example of transformative change, in 2010, Netflix was still entirely reliant of other company’s content to populate their distribution avenues, including a still-fledgling streaming service. By the time 2019 was through, it was pouring money into production and acquisition, practically the only outlet willing to step up and give established filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach the resources needed to realize their creative visions.

Netflix as purveyors of serious cinema art — as something more than a firehose of content that occasionally spit out a couple droplets the glimmered impressively — began, I’d argue, with Mudbound, from writer-director Dee Rees. The project didn’t originate with Netflix. Like Miramax at the beginning of the indie boom, Netflix went to the Sundance Film Festival itching to write big numbers on checks. But choosing Mudbound was itself a statement, a commitment to sort of serious-minded, artistically committed filmmaking the major studios had by that point almost entirely abandoned, deciding flailing attempts at interlocking franchises was a better business model than aiming for the minor box office uptick that came from chasing awards glory. Mudbound seems like a throwback, and that is its great strength.

Based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is set in the Mississippi delta in that years around World War II. It is primarily concerned with two families: black sharecroppers and white transplants that own their farm outright but are beset with their own significant struggles in taming the land. But the plot particulars — grueling and heartbreaking as they might be  — are less critical than the cumulative power of social tensions at play, which Rees depicts with acute understanding of the schisms that develop, tremor, and explode wide open because humans collide in moments of agonizing worry and uncertainty. In particular, Rees is powerfully uncompromising in her depiction of the racism of the time and place, when even war heroes are susceptible to the insidious weight of oppression.

Rees’s storytelling is impeccable, weaving together multiple story threads into a clear, compelling narrative. And her command of the more technical aspects of the film is even more impressive. Aided by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Rees crafts absolutely ravishing visuals. In the one cruel turn of Netflix providing the means for Rees’s film to reach more people than it otherwise would have, Mudbound is made for a big screen, where its precision and lush splendor could weaken knees and elicit awestruck gasps. It’s a regret but not a tragedy that Mudbound wasn’t more often seen that way. Rees’s achievement dazzles at any size.

Then Playing — Gideon’s Army; They Drive By Night; Five Feet Apart

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Gideon’s Army (Dawn Porter, 2013). This documentary examines the grueling, perpetually disheartening work undertaken by public defenders, vital contributors to the principle of equal justice that are severely undervalued. The prevailing storytelling scheme of the day calls for picking a couple cases and follow them through. Director Dawn Porter doesn’t entirely set aside this approach, but the through line cases are visited and revisited in a more sidelong way. She’s concerned with the lawyers actually under the strain of serving the system, assessing their different relationships with the nobility of their work and the echoing inside their respective bank accounts. The film lacks polish, which somehow seems appropriate to the creative mission. Documentary filmmaking is its own form of serving the greater good with only the weakest hope of making a decent living. Gideon’s Army isn’t meant to stir or inspire. Instead, it offers a clear-eyed view of the willful neglect of a primary protections for U.S. citizens.


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They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940). Based on a 1938 novel by A.I. Bezzerides, this pulpy drama use the plight of truckers as a jumping off point, but eventually incorporates all manner of sordidness, including the requisite femme fatale (Ida Lupino, in a ferocious performance). Director Raoul Walsh knows his way around this sort of material more than most, and he crafts the film with the appropriate interplay of gallows humor and headlong conflict, coming up with the occasionally sly visual, probably smothered in shadows. The film is peppered with colorful performances, including Humphrey Bogart as a hangdog trucker, Alan Hale, Sr. as a guffawing company boss, and Ann Sheridan as a sardonic waitress who gets all the best lines until the dictates of the era relegate her to simpering love interest, a development that happens as quickly and easily as snapping on headlights.


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Five Feet Apart (Justin Baldoni, 2019). Built like an young adult novel adaptation, Five Feet Apart is actually an original work, albeit one based on a real couple that inspired the press to routinely evoke John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in covering their sad, lovely story. Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) are both teenaged cystic fibrosis patients accustomed to regular hospitalizations. She’s bravely optimistic and regimented. He’s pessimistic and sloppy about his own care. Naturally, they fall for each other, and the film is largely a chronicle of their bittersweet romance with conditions that mandate they stay six feet apart from one another at all times (the five feet of the title is an act of defiance). In his feature debut, director Justin Baldoni handles the material with care and just enough inventiveness to make the mundane, predictable story work, at least until the last act which amps up the drama to level of overt manipulation and, in turn, painful implausibility. Sprouse is solid in his role, but it’s Richardson who continues to prove herself one of the strongest young actors working regularly and prominently in film today. She brings an easy authenticity to every moment, including small, strategic flickers that convey major emotions. Given the chance, she could be her generation’s equivalent of Michelle Williams. She has that kind of talent and onscreen immediacy.

Outside Reading — See You on the Other Side edition


She Finds Meaning in the Dark by Manohla Dargis

In this strange, unsettled time, there are many who are facing far greater hardships than me and most of my friends. For this I am a grateful. But everyone’s context is their own, and few things make the wide-ranging shutdowns hit home for me like the indefinite closing of movie theaters. Writing for The New York Times, Dargis expresses the feelings of the change better than I could, probably in part because she has a lifelong relationship with moviegoing — including childhood trips to see French New Wave classics in the initial New York runs — that I can only fantasize about.


school nurse

Meet the Firefighters, Nurses and Janitors on the Front Lines by Sarah Mervosh

Also in The New York Times, Sarah Mervosh writes brief profiles of four different professionals who are ramping up as everyone else shuts down. When we cross through to the other side of this almost entirely unprecedented situation, these are the people who need to be celebrated and — if our economic system worked properly — rewarded properly. On a daily basis, we’re learning big lessons about which jobs are truly vital for the functioning of our system. Our collective relief when the pandemic abates should be joined by a demand for shifts in compensation structures, moving salary away from paper-shufflers and money-movers and to individuals who provide needed services every day.


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The Infuriating Story of How the Government Stalled Coronavirus Testing by Julia Ioffe

Just remember: When the morally bankrupt conservatives try to shift blame away from the inept slug to whom they’ve pledged their allegiance, this all could have been different if they executive branch weren’t filled with grifters whose sole interest is making money for themselves and their soul-curdling private-industry backers at the expense of citizenry that they see as either exploitable or expendable. For GQ, Julia Ioffe reports on the valiant efforts of researchers who persevered in the name of the public good, even as their efforts were consistently undermined by the gang that couldn’t govern straight.



The Vegetarian (2016) by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

Aching and elegant, Han Kang’s novel centers on a young wife who stops eating meat, to the immediate consternation and even outsized rage of her family. The book is divided into three different sections, as the woman’s choice grows more extreme and the situations around her similarly escalate into the bizarre. Kang’s prose is sharp and direct, conveying emotion with the simplest strokes. The story builds a cumulative power, conveying the multiple ways social structures force women to give up their autonomy, especially control over their own physical beings.

Laughing Matters — The Critic

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

The past few days have brought a few reminders that celebrities should probably think twice before participating in the discourse around a global crisis. But there have also been a few truly winning moments, none better than the quick, funny online video posted by author Max Brooks in which he expresses the importance of social distancing. Brooks explains that if he’s reckless about interacting with family members, he risked wiping out comedy legends, such as his father, Mel Brooks.

That prompt is enough to justify posting this beauty from 1963, an animated short based on an idea of Mel Brooks and featuring his grand vocal performance, reportedly improvised in studio. The Critic won the Academy Award in category for animated shorts.