Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Twenty-Eight

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#28 — Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, 2013)

Most of the films of director Bong Joon Ho have been wholly original works, suffused with inspiration drawn from serious study of film, perhaps, but springing start to finish from his whirring brain. Part of the delirious miracle of Snowpiercer is that Bong found in the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige a work to adapt that skewed so close to his own sensibilities. In execution, Bong brought a lot of his own inventions to the story of a train on an endless global journey after a manmade attempt to thwart global warming results in a several climatological overcorrection. The co-creators of the original graphic novel laid the tracks, but it’s Bong who feverishly stoked the engine of the locomotive that runs on it.

The transport of the title is a train that is hundreds of cars long, holding the remaining members of the human race after the planet becomes uninhabitable due to the deadly cold. Over the years of cloistered travel, unyielding social segmenting has taken place. The wealthy riders are in cars near the front of the train, surrounded by luxuries exponentially more opulent than the those found on top tier cruise ships in the era of the Titanic. The poor ride in the rear cars, originally mean for storage are therefore of the most spartan design, like a series of enclosed back alleys. Any attempt made by those in the tail section to improve their living conditions — to literally more forward — is by totalitarian bullying that’s been misnamed justice.

As he would again a few years later with his historic Oscar-winner, Parasite, Bong combines scalding social satire with expert genre filmmaking. Snowpiercer has the pace and energy of a white-knuckle action movie, but Bong’s disinterest in the conventional keeps delivering jolts throughout the film. And the revolutionary charge from one train car to the next provides the opportunity to continues reinventing the story and finding new ways to underline the points, every door our heroes crash through providing entryway to a new devious twist of the narrative. Bong is courageous about exploring injustice, taking concepts to their bleakest logical conclusions.

As clear as his delight is in sharing his imaginings, Bong is not some cheap provocateur like some other directors that traffic in stomach-churning confrontation. He always has a point to make, and it’s usually grounded in deep humanity. Showing the ugliness that exists — and the power structures that perpetuate the ugliness in a callous bid to maintain their own comfort — is a means to appreciate how things could and should be better. Sometimes waging a fight and breaking some manmade symbols of oppression is the only way a true-hearted person can finally step out in a new world, likely finding out that everything that kept them bound previously was based on a fearful lie.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Twenty-Nine

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#29 — American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)

Rife with absurdity and energized by misguided bravado and crass capitalistic scheming, David O. Russell’s darkly comic rendering of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation would feel off if it didn’t have “American” in the title. This sort of conglomeration of criminality, opportunism, slippery morality, and rationalized hedonism could only be hatched in the land of the free, home of the brave, this place where delusion is a virtue as long as it is aligned with ruthless greed. The original title of the screenplay, as penned by Eric Warren Singer, was American Bullshit. When Russell took the acclaimed script and started reworking it to his own sensibility, the name was obviously going to need to change to find a place on theater marquees, but the rebranding to American Hustle isn’t a lamentable concession to social norms. American Hustle is better anyway, because the hustle truly never ends for the sort of hucksters that populate the story, whether they’re two-bit con artists or duly appointed law enforcement officials.

The event receiving the dramatization treatment unfolded as the venal nineteen-seventies evolved into the glossily empty nineteen-eighties, giving Russell plenty of garish trappings to work with, front disco collars to combustible microwaves. The Abscam sting involved luring elected representatives into a scenario where they took what they believed to be bribes from an Arabian company, with political largesse expected in return. In Russell’s rendering, this sordid business is presented with verve. Borrowing the shifting narrators and general rambunctious energy of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Russell depicts a milieu of anxious striving, of problem solving as the walls are closing in. Every character is splashing in flop sweat, desperately looking around for a hurled life preserver.

At the point he made American Hustle, Russell had completely rejuvenated his career with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Among other accolades, those two films resulted in seven nominations and three wins in Academy Awards acting categories. Performers came to Russell’s productions fully motivated to give their all, and American Hustle boasts an amazing set of performances. Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner are all terrific as schemers moving through this scramble of shaky ethics. The obvious standout, though, is Amy Adams. As Sydney Prosser, a woman whose situational duplicity is abetted by the men who can’t help falling for her, Adams has carbon-fiber strength and trembling vulnerability at the same time, the gears of her brain in perpetual motion as she surveys the emerging chaos around her and tries to figure out where her preferences and the most prudent strategic movies align. Sydney is casing her own life, and Adams shows the precise excitement of  that fraught and exciting approach to getting through each treacherous day.

Russell’s film is enthralled by the nonsense of human interaction, particular the ways in which all the imperfections of various encounters mound into a trash heap of comic misery. American Hustle is about a particular event at  particular time, but its escalating tension was found again in any number of fumbling maneuvers in search of quick dollars in the many years that followed.  In the U.S., the type of scrambled aspiration depicted here never goes out of style.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty

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#30 — The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)

The best movies sit and resonate with a viewer, as if taking up permanent residence in the soul. Even as I write that, I understand the sentimental is almost unbearably syrupy, instilling in cinema a kind of cheap magic, the stuff of the most self-important, insufferable Academy Award ceremony clip packages. But it’s also the best means I have of explaining the way certain films can make a perfectly fine first impression and then slowly, surely blossom in the memory until full-scale adoration is the only proper response. There’s no other film on this list of mine that rose higher in my estimation between the first time I watched its closing credits crawl to the moment I put a number next to it than Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. I’m halfway convinced that another six months of rumination would prompt me to edge it up another five spaces or so.

The endlessly admirable artistry of The Farewell stems from its heartfelt reason for being. Wang based the story on a situation from her own family, centered on the culturally motivated concealment of a fatal diagnosis. In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is an adrift young adult living in New York who is devastated when she finds out her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shu-zhen) has terminal lung cancer, and her emotions are roiled further by the revelation that the family chooses not to tell here, adhering to a Chinese norm of not burdened a loved one with the knowledge of pending death. Against the wishes of her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), Billi tags along on the trip back to the family homeland of China, a congregation of far-flung family members under the masquerade of a wedding but truly to give the woman one last time with the extended clan before her expected departure.

The film mines some comedy from the efforts at deception, but Wang is more concerned with exploring all the large and small ways deception is deployed to preserve relationships and, occasionally, a preferred sense of self. And Wang, herself an immigrant from China, takes great care in detailing the cultural differences, large and small, the deeply American Billi sorts through in returning to the place where she was born but remembers only faintly. Her time in the U.S. has erased this part of her, but it’s left it smudged. Awkwafina perfectly embodies the struggles of a person in the part of the long arc of growing up when they realize there was a lie residing in the implicit promise of adulthood providing the certainty of a settled direction. With a downturned mouth and slumped gait, she gives the impression of an individual who has been partially collapsed by the weight of life, which works in conjunction beautifully with a story that poses questions about whether hard truth should impede enjoying every small, gifted moment.

Wang knew that some viewers might find her story’s central conceit to be implausible, so she asserts the autobiographical bona fides by opening the film with the words “Based on an actual lie.” One of the more intriguing aspects of The Farewell is the argument it makes that there are a lot of actual lies out there in the ether and that maybe, just maybe, that’s not so bad. It’s less the accuracy of the statement than the motivation behind it. And if kindness is the guidance principle, it might be okay for truth to exist on a sliding scale.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty-One

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#31 — Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

A common failing of first-time feature directors is a tendency to put every last notion they have into a film that can’t possibly hold them all. The opportunity to make a full-length movie is so rare and elusive that an understandable urge to pile in inventive techniques, themes, motifs, and other elements out of the belief — or fear, more precisely — that there won’t be a second chance. The cool trick shot that has been dreamed about for ages in wedged into the film, whether it does the duty of enhancing the narrative, or the scalding social commentary is slipped in edgewise, even if its is combat with other storytelling components. Perhaps that’s the core reason Jordan Peele’s Get Out feels like such a movie miracle. It is crammed to the sprocket holes with ideas without becoming toppling over from imbalance. It marvelously coheres, giving it a resonant power that feels like it’s revolutionarily discovering and conveying the social problems it identifies.

Melding horror with satire in a manner that accentuates the commonality between the two forms, Peele’s riveting film ruminates on prejudice and appropriation, police harassment and liberal virtue signaling. It makes it abundantly clear that a black man in the U.S. is always defined and understood first — and often exclusively — by the color of his skin and all the false assumptions fostered by ages of bad history. That doesn’t maintain entirely as bigotry and hatred. The eager ingratiation of announcing the desire to case a third ballot for Obama is just are surely an act of sorry reductionism. And, the film lays out clearly, the fumbling kindness of white people who are ostensibly allies is its own insidious deception, a trap concealed in a hug.

Peele infuses his film with a remarkable energy while remaining relaxed enough in his approach to give every contributor space to make a mark. A seasoned performer, Peele is especially generous to the actors, leading to skilled, impactful performances across the cast, especially Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, and Betty Gabriel. Because there are levels of deception built into the story, many of the actors get the opportunity to play sharp pivots of emotion — or, in the case of Williams and Gabriel, diametrically opposed emotions at the same time — and Peele’s attentive camera captures their astonishing ingenuity.

Get Out often feels like a movie executing a critical mission. But it achieves this without the stultifying self-importance that so often dooms features about race relations, even those with a more insurrectionist spirit. It booms with the thrilling possibility of cinema, where the right creator can prove that there can never be too many ideas.

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

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#32 — Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)

Violence begets violence. In the longstanding cinematic algebra that posits the swinging of fists and the pulling of triggers as the readiest and surest solutions to all manner of problems — such as the narrative fixes on screen and the perceived necessity of speeding the pulses of assembled moviegoers — it is common to elide the true moral ramifications of inflicting harm on another human being. Snuffing the life out of someone is just another task for the hero on the way to eventual closing-act triumph, with perhaps a punny wisecrack to accompany the act of murder. Like many other action films that try to honestly grapple with the insidious repercussions of violent acts, Rian Johnson’s Looper isn’t without its moments of bang-bang sensationalism. It wants to have its cake and empty several rounds into it, too. Better than most, though, it wears the weight of its bruising clamor.

The title refers to hired killers whose targets are sent to them from the future, a time-travel workaround to hide the mortal crime. The last person killed under the contract is their future self. But time travel is tricky, and when a looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) initially fumbles the job of an older fellow with a familiar face (Bruce Willis), it sets off a series of events that eventually sets Joe upon a different mission, trying to prevent a future where a vicious, super-powered person bent on revenge is racking up a sizable body count.

Johnson’s screenplay is appropriately, wonderfully dizzying, blithely picking and choosing when it opts to go for hard science fiction and when it wants to shrug off the impossible paradoxes that immediately emerge when time travel drives a plot. Looper is energized by its filmmaker’s penchant for expertly adhering to trope-driven expectations only to heave the whole apparatus to the other side of a funhouse looking glass. He freely exposes the balderdash of his tricky narrative while simultaneously reveling in the sheer fun of it. Importantly, he never slumps to easy mockery, as best evidences by the firmly committed performances of the cast, especially Gordon-Levitt and, as a fierce, worn-down woman defending her rural homestead, Emily Blunt.

Working with his regular cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, Johnson makes Looper into a film of surprisingly tender artistry. The director practically caresses the textures in the film, whether the scraped squalor of the city or the sun-scorched farmland. The approach lends further veracity to the fantastical store because the world feels lived in. This is a place and time where people exist, where they make choices basic on an incomplete understanding of the circumstances before there. The choices aren’t easy or certain, but they must be made decisively. Because maybe if the choices are made correctly — with a thought to the harm they will exact or prevent — then maybe, just maybe, a better future can be forged.

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

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#33 — Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)

In the nineteen-fifties, a young woman from Ireland moves to the United States. Ellis (Saoirse Ronan) has few prospects and only the slenderest of connections to other Irish immigrants in the big city she decides to call home. She secures a room in a boarding house, receives counsel and support from a priest (Jim Broadbent), and gets a job at a department store under the watchful gaze of an unkind supervisor (Jessica Paré). The adjustment process is difficult until, by attrition, her prospects improve, in part due to a budding romance with a sweet Italian boy (Emory Cohen). Just as Ellis is claiming her place, good and proper, her life shifts and she must make a choice between the safe comfort of past and the uncertainty of her future.

In Brooklyn, an adaptation of a novel by Colm Tóibín, there’s no narrative insurrection, but the storytelling is sublime. Nick Hornby’s adapted screenplay and John Crowley’s direction take advantage of the sturdy blueprint Tóibín turned over. With expert skill — and supported by insightful performances across the cast — the filmmakers burrow into the characters so completely that even the most familiar story beats have the feel of life unfolding, the unpredictable tremors of being that quickly take on the inevitability of fate. The plot shifts as it does because of the established instincts of the characters, for kindness, for cunning, for endurance, for care. Or that’s the way it feels, anyway. Ronan is particularly strong at making Ellis’s choices into an expression of growth, learning, and personal evolution.

In its warmth and wit, Brooklyn makes a convincing case — as only a set of foreigner filmmakers could do — of the U.S. as a land of true possibility. The stumbling blocks to understanding are only temporary nuisances, building the mettle of those they test, like a loving parent that lets a child safely learn from mistakes. The film isn’t all dewy-eyed innocence. It acknowledges the journey is hard, even if the most egregious sins of the nation are outside the story’s brief. But there is a core that justifies the troubles. The soul of the nation, the film reminds, is built from a collective of different perspectives, backgrounds, cultures. That vibrant inner heart is undeniably made up of immigrants, people who suffered indignities and heartaches out of a desire to better themselves, to mark their spot in a place that would have them and reward them for their voices. And the hope and knowledge, the ending suggests, is shared generously, as it should be.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty-Four

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#34 — True Grit (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2010)

The primacy of language in the work of Joel and Ethan Coen makes invites speculation about the meaning of the outside authors they choose to associated themselves with through their work. Excepting very broad swipes of prior stories as inspiration — such as Raymond Chandler’s detective novels living spiritually in The Big Lebowski or Homer’s The Odyssey providing ever so loose source material for O Brother, Where Art Thou? — the Coens spent the first long passage of their shared career as filmmakers tapping out original screenplays. They were eleven films and twenty years deep before their first true adaptation, a remake of the dark British comedy The Ladykillers. Since then, they’ve adapted two novels, and the fidelity of the resulting films is where the Coens reveal their inner sense of who they are and what they create. The first film was the masterful No Country for Old Men, which placed them in the company of the grim, formidable Cormac McCarthy. Just a few years later, the Coens looked to another novelist, less famous but perhaps even more of a kindred: Charles Portis.

When the Coen brothers’ version of Portis’s True Grit was released, the immediate association most observers had was with the 1969 film adaptation that famously won John Wayne an acting Oscar. The Coens don’t go out their way to dissuade comparisons with the earlier film, even added a couple visual nods to the feature directed by Henry Hathaway. But they’re not in thrall to the preceding Hollywood product either. Their prevailing appreciation for the Portis novel couldn’t be clearer than if they held up ink-stained fingers in front of the camera as the action plays out. Portis wrote with a properly focused curtness and a gift for language that was somehow at once ornate and bracingly direct. The resemblance to the Coens is such that his words are practically an ancestral photo to every script from Blood Simple on, and the siblings show a clear pride and reverence in bringing Portis’s story to the screen. The filmmakers’ rapscallion playfulness is largely replaced by a commitment to craft. Other films by the Coens might be better, but few are so elegant.

The Coens airtight screenplay and laudable care in directing are the primary characteristics that elevate True Grit among most other modern Westerns. But it is the totality of their craft, and their immense talent for picking collaborators, that further provide the air of classic about the film. The cinematography by Roger Deakins and the the score by Carter Burwell, both regular partners with the Coens, are equally extraordinary, and the directors couldn’t haven chosen better when casting their leads. Erstwhile El Duderino Jeff Bridges brings the right gruff gravity to hired gun Rooster Cogburn, and Hailee Steinfeld makes Mattie Ross, the revenge-seeking teen who hires him, into a paragon of determination and stubborn intelligence. Like the novelist they drew from, the Coens knew the right way to assemble their pieces. Words can fill a dictionary, or they can be strung together into marvelous sentences and paragraphs, for pages upon pages. They same is true for the grammar of film, and the Coens know better than most how to make grand components into an even better whole.

Top Fifty Films of 10s — Number Thirty-Five

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#35 — Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

It takes a peculiar skill to make a movie that’s utterly bonkers and yet marvelously lucid, simultaneously reckless and tightly controlled. French director Leos Carax went a long time between films before Holy Motors, with more than ten years absent from the cinema. At times, it seemed as though every last inkling he had during that spell is poured into the feature, and Carax does acknowledge he drew from aborted works. Logic is superseded by ambition. Consistently is cast aside in favor of grand invention. Why hone a narrative when it it far more enjoyable to render pure possibility?

It’s an abuse of language to say Holy Motors has a plot, but it does have a through line. There is a man named Oscar (Dennis Lavant) and he rides in a limousine, driven by Céline (Édith Scob). Oscar is going to work, and his job is shifting identity. He dons wigs and makeup and ventures back out into the city, perhaps orchestrating a kidnapping or pretending to die or maybe just pumping an accordion to lead an ad hoc band in a musical performance. If the shifts don’t fully track within the context of world Carax constructs, the journey of Oscar makes sense in the extended metaphor laid out. Oscar is an actor, moving from one performance to the next, as signaled by the opening sequence that finds a man (Carax gives himself the cameo role) awaking and entering, as if by magic, a movie theater. The whole world is cinema, cinema is the whole world, and storytelling is the lifeblood of it all.

Carax’s uncommon visual styling is perhaps the element that most distinguishes Holy Motors from other films that employ metafictional tomfoolery and allegorical sleight of hand to celebrate the cinematic arts. The screen is alive with creativity, Carax seemingly bending light and color to his inexhaustible imagination. And yet the flourishes never feel indulgent. Somehow Carax makes every bold choice an organically sound realization of what has come before it. It is not a film without rules, but instead one that takes the rules and rewrites them to make them better, a more proper representation of the wide boundaries afforded by the medium. Despite its rambunctious inner spirit, Holy Motors doesn’t demolish. It fortifies.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty-Six

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#36 — Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)

After Destin Daniel Cretton graduated from college, he worked in a group home for at-risk youth. Firsthand experience with depicted subject matter isn’t entirely necessary to make a compelling feature film, but Cretton’s Short Term 12 shows how drawing on one’s own background can immensely help. Set in the kind of live-in facility where Cretton once toiled, the film has a level of verisimilitude that is almost disconcerting. The narrative turns navigated by the film’s young people — a description that suits the residents and also much of the staff — are not puffed-up drama. Instead, the powerful impact stems from the feeling of dreadful normalcy, that the negative experiences aren’t representative of the worst stretch in these individual’s life, but are instead reflective of an ongoing normalcy. The pain and woe are mundane.

The cast is studded with exceptional young performers in fine form — Kaitlyn Dever, Lakeith Stanfield, and Stephanie Beatriz among them — but the film invaluable emotional core is provided by Brie Larson, playing one of the counselors. She is tough but caring, worn down by the work but determined to see it through. A troubled personal history that gives her a greater ability to relate to the kids absolutely radiates off of her, like heat from a bad sunburn. These aren’t especially novel characteristics for the role, but Larson plays it with a deep honesty and idling combustibility that knocks familiarity aside. Through her commitment, Larson makes the fictions harshly real.

Larson’s fine, focused sensitivity is matched by Cretton, in both his writing and directing. He has a sharp visual sense, but he also understands the importance of getting out of the way, forgoing flash in favored of restrained intimacy. The film has the unpolished feel of conversations captured rather than staged, with billowing anger clacking hard against the bleak humor of beset survivors. It is a film populated by characters who are locking themselves away from everything outside their own being, all too aware of the way life mercilessly scalds the unguarded. Cretton gives the characters the valuable gift of letting them be more than clicking gears in a very-special-episode type of storytelling. Mixing divergent tones expertly and homing in on heartbreaking moments with loving empathy, Cretton commits to the real, hard as it may be. In that approach, Short Term 12 bestows grace and dignity on those it portrays.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty-Seven

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#37 — Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

In adapting movies from other works, fidelity to source material can trip up even the most skilled directors. There’s a natural instinct to hew closely to whatever is being transferred to the screen, supposing that its fundamental high quality was the reason it was chosen for adaptation in the first place. And then there’s the added pressure when the original work has a fiercely devoted fan base, ever at the ready to expound on the unquestionable superiority of this story they’ve declared their favorite. But remaining true to the prior creation that is fuel for the new film shouldn’t simply be a matter of moving pieces as intact as possible from one format to another, even when — especially when — the source already combined words and pictures. Instead, a wise filmmaker ascertain what makes the first work special and the avoids duplication, opting instead to discover the equivalent for their chosen medium.

In making the film version of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics, which were an outright sensation at the time production got underway, director Edgar Wright takes full and proper advantage of what he found on the page. O’Malley’s overarching plot is brought over more or less intact, and his drawings essentially serve as concept art.  But then Wright, with giddy cunning, applies the vernacular of cinema, figuring out how editing, sound design, off-screen space, split screens, and other elements of film narrative can be employed to mirror O’Malley’s ingenuity in page layout and sequential-art storytelling. Wright draws liberally from comics, video games, and music video, but his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is decisively and firmly a movie, and it couldn’t conceivably be anything but.

All that film-class pontificating could be misleading, suggesting Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is some sort of meta-narrative, artier-than-thou slog, But Wright’s rambunctious riffing on cinematic style is a fervent expression of love for all the possibilities held within movies. That affection extends to the actors, especially supporting players, many of whom take the turns on screen with popgun burst of playful joy. Michael Cera plays the title character, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is his beloved, who sets Scott on a quest to vanquish her six evil exes in order to win her hand. But are well-cast and full of charm, but the movie truly belongs to fleet of ringers around them: Kieren Culkin, Brie Larson, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Mae Whitman, Ellen Wong, and the invaluable Allison Pill. The script — co-credited to Wright and Michael Bacall — is filled with dandy comic lines, and they’re all delivered with rim-shot precision.

Every little bit that Wright funnels into Scott Pilgrim vs. the World gives it added energy, like creative rocket fuel. The movie races and careens without ever slipping out of its wide, gleaming lane.