10. The Act of Killing & The Look of Silence (2012-’14, Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, & Anonymous, Denmark/Norway/UK/Finland/France/Germany/Indonesia/Israel/Netherlands/USA)
Yes, it is of course the sort of movie that investigates the oppressor and the oppressed of an underspoken atrocity with the former falling into several different traps to indict themselves and the latter having to face the historical silence with a quiet rage, but if that’s all it was… I’m not sure I would have considered it Top Ten Material. Indeed, The Look of Silence delivers this is all the upsetting anger that a survivor of the Pemuda Pancasila could carry for over 50 years and it absolutely earns a spot even without being tethered to The Act of Killing, but The Act of Killing sets its sights on more than just these individuals but also on cinema’s place in a culture such as this. That Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and the Indonesian co-director that tellingly decided not go credited for his work (the latter two are not credited in The Look of Silence but the timing of their filming makes me believe they also had a minimal amount of involvement it) offer to the beloved death squad leaders to recreate their favorite killings in a movie doesn’t just offer an auto-condemnation of their own actions but also gives us a dark look in how these men process cinema and how they reguritate in these horrifying images that try to glamorize atrocious crimes. Most people – good or evil – watch movies and they internalize them in some way and for the three major subjects of The Act of Killing, movies are a huge part of why they became what they became. So pulling through that medium their memories of all the awful things they did feels like a violation of the art in itself and in addition to documenting and publicizing crimes that these men will probably never answer for… it brings us to wonder how art and real-world horrors interact from the other side. That Oppenheimer opts to have the final word given to the survivors and lets them in turn capture their own sense of entrapment and inability to have closure when processing the trauma of it all with the camera in The Look of Silence is a necessary thing in conversation with the previous movie that I feel justifies pairing the two up (and I promise this is the last pairing) and makes each essential to anybody interested in the grapple between cinema and morality.
9. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma, France)
I am hard-pressed to think of a challenger to what I’m about to say, so I’ll just say it: no movie that I’ve seen yet so perfectly marries the point of view of artist and lover. It feels like the ultimate answer to what I think so many dramatic movies fail to do: communicate the experience of the emotion by focusing on the particularities of the form and Portrait of a Lady on Fire gets to do this on two separate layers in the focus it gives towards the fine art of its point of view character and in Céline Sciamma’s outstanding control over the cinematic medium as a director. It seems all too easy to credit this with how Sciamma and Marianne’s subject of affections and portrayal are essentially both the same – the character of Héloïse is played by Sciamma’s ex-girlfriend Adèle Haenel, which must have been testament to how they trust each other as artistic collaborators – and if we are being honest ourselves, it probably had more than a small hand in the intensity of how the film watches Haenel and the camera eye admires her intimately. But I also just think we are subject to one of the most impressive works of direction around, the color in which Sciamma and Claire Mathon pull from any given shot especially aided by the solid costume work, the delicacy of the lighting in more interior moments, the subjectivity of the cuts where Marianne (and I wouldn’t dare finish this entry without crediting Noémie Merlant as an excellent relatable performance) is more particularly taking personal note. The phrase “perfect movie” is tossed around a whole lot without care every time a widely beloved picture drops, but if I had to toss it at one movie…
8. Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)
In his late entrance to the European arthouse scene, Abbas Kiarostami performed possibly the greatest sleight of hand performed in 2010s cinema, one that I can’t possibly bring myself to spoil only that it suddenly shifts us to reconsider how we establish characters and perspectives in our mind and how movies are in the end a fluid and timeless thing. But even if you have no time for that kind of experimental poppycock (as it sadly appears more than a few film critics did have time for), the movie also works as a wonderful visual survey of Tuscany and a surprising examination of marriage as a concept and construct and the general lifespan it will have. I honestly find it amazing that Kiarostami with the help of Luca Bigazzi was able to foster such a visual familiarity with the streets of Tuscany as he was with the streets of Tehran, but perhaps that can be made to credit to either the inherent neorealism influence that the best of Iranian cinema perfected even beyond the Italians or to the versatile visual and structural poetry of a poet who could turn every artform he exercised into just that. In any case, we should give just as much credit to Juliette Binoche and (non-screen actor who apparently barely was familiar with the medium to begin with!!) William Shimell being able to play the game so deftly that it feels like they’re just as in control as Kiarostami was. In the end, we have hear an impressionistic film in a very solid stone place with fluid characters embodied by flesh-and-blood human beings.
7. La Flor (2018, Mariano Llinás, Argentina)
Six stories for the price of one, except for that caveat of their incompletion and the nesting structure of the third story and the split of focus in the fourth story and the 13-hour running time commitment that the movie requires. In any case, it turns out to work marvelously as an extended experience – the subtle variety in visual and genre styles (even the ones that don’t satisfy me as much) and the apologetic sense of humor the entire thing has regarding its own scale makes almost every minute of that running time pass by like binging a tv show to the point that the way it challenges our expectations of storytelling structure, star personalities as anchors (in which case one absolutely has to give it up to versatility and stamina of Piel de Lava just as much we are in awe with the globetrotting manner of this ambitious piece of work), and how long our interest in a particular tangent lasts sneaks up on us before we even realize it. In a decade where I believe we’ve had more than a few movies reveal themselves as extended conversations with the audience, this one felt the most pleasant and relaxed even despite its changing and lengthy nature. Honestly, my biggest regret in making these lists is how I made the “Movies I Look Forward to Revisiting” list before I could enter this film.
6. The Green Fog (2017, Guy Maddin & Evan and Galen Johnson, USA/Canada)
I mean, it’s all recycling, isn’t it? Or more particularly, it’s glorified YouTube poop. But there’s also just so many angles to look at Guy Maddin and the Johnson brothers’ commissioned work here. Some of those angles are more obvious than others like the Vertigo remake and the adoring tribute to San Francisco as a city represented by cinema that anybody can cursorily recognize at a glance. But even further than that is the eagerness to reconstruct a genre film out of the abstract treatment of material and even more further than that is the manner in which The Green Fog invites us to examining the meaning in between the cut and how we process that. And for the filmmakers’ part, what that cut brings in the things said or shown or unsaid or not shown. There’s a continuous sense of humor (which again… it’s glorified YouTube poop so it HAS to be there) that feels open enough about the content and context of the clips it has selected that it’s hard to feel like a viewer (even one that has never seen Vertigo) could feel alienated by the experiment in and of itself because if the experiment works… you should be able to follow along with what’s happening. And at the very basic level, there has to be a pure kneeslapping amusement out of the decision of which clips to utilize for which moments with the sort of punctuation that I hope could translate to any kind of cinephile. For this is a movie by cinephiles for cinephiles and I’m pretty pleased with Maddin’s decision to finally – 2 years after I’d seen it – make it available to the world at large for free.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller, USA)
5 years since Mad Max: Fury Road and I don’t think there is a movie more effective in showcasing the sum of all the possible resources big movie studio money can buy and making us watch it all and then some. Give George Miller who has proven himself over his career to be one of the most efficient filmmakers working while also being one of the most assaultive filmmakers working once upon a time (I don’t think anything since Mad Max 2 could have foreseen what a fucking physical impact this movie would pack as a viewing experience, even with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Babe: Pig in the City foreseeing other aspects) 30 fucking years to think about what he wants to bring next to the table and this is the result: a mythic monster of a movie that exceeds at delivering ostensibly shallow action cinema thrills while also allowing itself to dissected by a viewer so inclined to consider the broad attitudes it has regarding war and gender and collectivism within a world that feels so rich and detailed even as so much of its made of the hot orange sand and the punishing blue sky. Its successes are far beyond just how it is possibly the greatest action movie of all time (with The Terminator, Die Hard, and Hard Boiled challenging that call) but its qualities in amplifying every mechanical aspect of cinema so it charges us forward like we’re chained to the front of a car into a sandstorm like Max.
4. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick, USA)
30 years for George Miller to consider what he wanted to make with Mad Max: Fury Road? Well, Terrence Malick had 33 for The Tree of Life and that seems about the minimum amount of time that even a director as impressive as he is will need to attempt the sort of things that The Tree of Life tries to do, which is to try to put together answers to such scary questions that watching The Tree of Life for the first time was probably the closest I would come since to a religious experience with a movie (impressive given how I hardly have any true common ground with Malick outside of the fact that we’re both men and have siblings). In any case, much as the experimentation for the rest of the decade felt like Malick’s test run before A Hidden Life, everything Malick had explored thematically and aesthetically for his first four film feels in retrospect like a stretch out for the sort of cosmic and spiritual exploration that The Tree of Life takes us for its runtime and using Malick’s autobiographical tales as a manner of trying to make sense of pain and beauty in the world (and what beauty as possibly the best work of Emmanuel Lubezki’s entire career barring Children of Men) while entrusting Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt to play the long-tired game of Mother and Father representing the contradictory temperaments of God with amazing human grounding and elegance. Does it posit its philosophical conclusions or profundities as THE answers? Not necessarily, not least because of the ephemeral communication of them – I’d probably be less inclined to adore it in that case – but it does grant them as a graceful solace for the filmmaker’s journey and that journey is so moving for me as a viewer that I find they comfort me as well when my feet reach the ground of the theater at the end of the movie. In consideration of how often I admire art that dares to grapple with our place in the universe, I find The Tree of Life to be the one that I feel most strongly gets to the answers I am most affected by and I’d like to credit that less to the message (though that is part of it) and more to cinematic persuasiveness that Malick has long maintained as a director.
3. The Eagleman Stag (2011, Mickey Please, UK)
Almost certainly the first instance where I personally saw myself and my anxieties in a movie and it all only lasted nine minutes. Still I have never shaken off the feeling of being seen inside of a short as much as I did here (and it was revisited again with the previously listed World of Tomorrow shorts and one final time in the movie at #1), the manner in which Mickey Please has been able to put a term to the recognition the accelerating speed with which time is passing us by and we need to reckon with that fact or face our own destruction without grace. It is a short that I think gave me a baseline to finally become a much calmer passenger in this ride of life than I was prior to the point where I first watched it (either 2014 or 2015) and so it felt like it was honestly potentially going to make my number one spot on this list up until 2018 happened. Still cinema is not simply the things that are said but how they say it, and the starkness with which its black-and-white maquette presentation of one man spiraling through this realization of time and our perception of it without even the things he truly finds filling to save him gives harder impact to the tragedy of the tale than if it had just settled with live-action or traditional animation styles (both of which I expect would have been easier). Eagleman’s folly is that he sees this threat as black-and-white and the moment where it gets to his violent response, we are hit with some incredibly creative and hypnotic imagery stress the psychological effect of it all. So yes, I do see myself in some prickish Biology graduate because he doesn’t know how to deal with something as simple as time.
2. Goodbye to Language (2014, Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)
In a decade of plenty of transformative pictures, no movie did more to succeed in changing the entire visual language contemporary cinema as Goodbye to Language did, not even the earlier Film Socialisme particularly for the unfair advantage of Goodbye to Language being so modern as to destroy 3D in its rampage. And I mean, DESTROY, constantly misusing the tool in a broken way without so much as a warning. But in that exploitation of the hard limits of even these things that are essentially meant to make the art of filmmaking more accessible to others, Godard – whether inadvertently or deliberately (and given how the turning of the medium on its head has been a major MO of his for 60+ years, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt that it seems some people wouldn’t) – has invented a one-of-a-kind mode in which to deliver ideas and images to the viewer. That mode doesn’t necessarily circumvents the flaws of the form so much as dives into them with absolute aplomb and gusto while still elaborating on the same old socialist ideologies he delivers so casually that it’s almost like he doesn’t notice an audio channel is missing or he’s delivering two incompatible images to each eye. In any case, I find myself thinking of that one Dave Chappelle skit where he looks the camera in the eye and says “modern problems require modern solutions” and Goodbye to Language looks like it’s really trying to present its collision of visuals and sounds like the modern solution to where we go with language, verbal or cinematic. And I find the way in which we watch them collide to be a whole lot of fun, probably more than I have any right to but I’m perfectly satisfied in my little world.
And my number one favorite movie of the 2010s…
Mandy (2018, Panos Cosmatos, USA/Belgium)
I just think it’s neat.