A more qualitatively accurate but far longer title would lead to this writer’s murder by harried Beyond Chron staff, so shorter but somewhat inaccurate it is. Honesty compels inserting a note that several highly praised films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” or all of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” revival have not been seen by this writer, so the following lists’ reliability should be regarded with some caution. On the other hand, championing of Hollywood entertainment product will not be found here.
- Best Documentaries
The documentaries selected for this list delivered more than just glorified CCTV footage. They frequently provided cinematic deep dives revealing truths about human nature, which in some cases also challenged the interests of the Powers That Be. Forgetfulness and creative rewrites of history may be the cultural weapons of choice by (among others) the Orange Skull and his right-wing enablers. But honest remembering of the past is the 99%’s equally powerful weapon, and these films generally show why that ability to remember without blinders matters.
- Leviathan–A large commercial fishing vessel plies the treacherous New England coastal waters that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. That’s the setting for this documentary from the team of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. But the environment the filmmakers capture on film isn’t one where humans master nature’s chaos. Footage filmed not only on the ship itself but above, under, in front of, and behind it captures a feeling of human activity having as much importance as the fish that swim underneath the vessel and the seagulls that fly overhead in a persistent cloud. “Leviathan”’s semi-hallucinogenic yet hypnotic audio and visual cacophony ultimately shows the viewer that nature offers a richer and livelier world worth witnessing once humanity leaves its “dominate nature” attitude at the door.
- The Act Of Killing–This decidedly twisted take on the “movie star in his own mind” mentality made Joshua Oppenheimer’s film the decade’s most disturbing documentary. Its subjects are a group of men who helped the Indonesian military kill nearly a million suspected Indonesian Communists between 1965 to 1966. These former killers are still feared decades after the fact and convinced they’ll never be held to account for their crimes. Given that Oppenheimer’s camera captures quite a few supposed pillars of Indonesian society rationalizing the atrocities of film subjects Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, and their fellow mass murderers, these former killers may appear right. Yet Oppenheimer’s making of a film recreation of his subjects’ mass murder work shows political institutions aren’t the only means of breaking through these ex-criminals’ sense of invulnerabiity.
- How To Survive A Plague–Early on in David France’s blistering yet inspiring chronicle, Larry Kramer’s angry “no B.S. suffered here” voice cuts through the babel of a contentious ACT-UP New York meeting. The famed playwright reminds his fellow attendees of what they’re ultimately fighting against: a plague that has claimed the lives of friends, lovers, and family members. France’s film expands on Kramer’s point by showing the fight against AIDS was also a fight against public homophobia and indifference. Using period-era footage and interviews with some of the key participants from the time, a powerful portrait emerges of funerals for fallen activists, unforgettable protests (e.g. the condom on arch-homophobe Jesse Helms’ home) and unfortunate self-inflicted wounds (e.g. the TAG controversy). Present-day scolds preaching political and social civility would have decried ACT-UP’s protest tactics. But France’s film shows why the urgency of ACT-UP’s cause outweighed adherence to sociopolitical niceties.
- Kate Plays Christine–How can a movie explain or understand the notorious on-air suicide of TV news reporter Christine Chubbick? If you’re director Robert Greene, your answer is to follow indie film actress Kate Lyn Shiel as she researches the late news reporter’s life to understand the milieu Chubbick lived and worked in. As the film’s title indicates, all of Shiel’s work is ostensibly about preparing to perform in a film about her late subject. But as the actress’ research even takes her to a particular Florida gun shop, understanding the motives behind Chubbick’s act seems to drift further away. The disturbing thought that underlies Shiel’s journey is whether the late TV reporter’s suicide was ultimately utterly pointless. Greene thankfully does not satisfy those seeking pre-digested answers.
- The Missing Picture–Why did Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge dictatorship try to stamp out those who suffered from what they called “memory sickness?” Because Cambodians “afflicted” with that sickness could remember a better existence than the one the Khmer Rouge would allow. Destroying old films and records recounting such times and maintaining tight control over film cameras and other recording devices was the dictatorship’s way of controlling popular memory. But even without photographs or other records of life before and during the Khmer Rouge’s reign, filmmaker Rithy Panh’s powerful film stands by its director’s own memory sickness. For he and a team of artists have created clay figures and dioramas to bring back to visual life the privileged life that was lost with the Khmer Rouge’s takeover and the daily sufferings in the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. The resulting film’s details raises questions about what other things remain missing from any true account of Khmer Rouge labor camp life.
- Faces Places–Some time before she recently left this earthly plane, late French New Wave director Agnes Varda gifted cinemagoers with this endearing whimsical gem. This unconventional (for Varda) film sees the famed director working with the young photomuralist JR. Despite coming from two different artistic worlds, both directors display a wonderfully curious love of people and travel. The occasional cat pron shot also helps. Varda’s and JR’s travels through the French countryside in various directions leads them to such places as a shipping port and a declining seaside resort. Their encounters with the ordinary people living and/or working in such places results in JR creating giant photo murals. “Faces Places” ultimately embodies a charming argument for the joys of being curious about the world outside your personal comfort zone.
- This Is Not A Film–Honors for the decade’s best cinematic middle finger to government censorship and repression goes to this Jafar Panahi documentary, which was partly shot on an iPhone. But the colorful story of how Panahi’s film was smuggled out of Iran and got to the Cannes Film Festival isn’t what’s important about this film. It’s a valuable cinematic document made under house arrest of an artist exploiting any loophole the government censors may have unintentionally left him (e.g. Panahi is not filming because he personally is not touching a camera). Yet the director’s game-playing ultimately feels hollow, as there are uncomfortable parallels between Panahi’s current situation and his aborted project about a young woman deliberately imprisoned in her home by relatives. Panahi is aware of that hollowness too. How he eventually deals with the reality that despite making this not-film he’s still under government-imposed house arrest makes this work particularly poignant.
- Hypernormalisation–Admittedly, seeing filmmaker Adam Curtis’ documentary in the US requires either a BBC iPlayer or the willingness to put up with blurry copies on YouTube. But this entertaining dissection of the forces and events that led to societal rejection of the complex real world and the embrace of a simpler normal fake world makes the effort worthwhile. Released during the last month of the US 2016 presidential election, this incredible alternate interpretation of recent history encompasses such people and events as Vladislav Surkov the avant garde theater director who earned his spot as Vladimir Putin’s close adviser, Jane Fonda’s shift from political activism to donning a leotard, and the link between Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and notorious U.S. Secretary of State (and some would say war criminal) Henry Kissinger. After watching this film, the viewer will start critically eying American voters and politicians who “know the system is failing yet embrace the status quo because they can’t envision a sociopolitical alternative.”
- Bisbee ‘17–A small Arizona town’s re-enactment of a notorious incident from its past raises old political wounds in Robert Greene’s powerful film. In 1917, immigrant miners living in Bisbee waged a strike for better working conditions. Their armed neighbors responded by rounding up the strikers and transporting them by railroad to die in the middle of the New Mexico desert. The centenary of the Bisbee Deportation, as the incident was locally known, gave Greene and his camera a chance to record the Deportation’s legacy on the town. Yet this baleful anniversary doesn’t inspire the townspeople to make modern day amends for what happened. Greene’s camera captures what the Bisbee residents do instead, and leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
- One Child Nation–Does a mere months-old theatrical release preclude consideration of Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang’s documentary as one of the decade’s best? This writer would argue the filmmakers’ treatment of its subject gives an accessible overview without overwhelming the viewer with its horrifying details. China’s One Child Policy personally affected Wang because she grew up at a time when the policy was in place. Yet she has enough emotional distance to capture the dirty details of its implementation (e.g. forced abortions) and the policy’s unintended harmful consequences (i.e. how Chinese culture’s devaluing of women worsened the policy’s effects). Even Westerners unfamiliar with the One Child Policy can ultimately relate to this real-life study of government social control pitted against individual desires.
- Best Features
There’s nothing wrong with using films to entertain people. But there’s even less wrong in creating movies which do a lot more than offer a moment’s laughter or thrills to its viewers. There are probably other unnamed feature films that came out in the 2010s whose admirers can claim do a better job of achieving this goal than the ones mentioned below. But all that this writer can offer in defense of his choices is a declaration of a reasonable effort to see what he could.
- Shoplifters–Many of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films concern family and interpersonal dynamics. But this Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner both deals with this theme while widening the canvas in an unexpected manner that will not be spoiled here. What can be said is that the Shibata family live on the margins of Japanese society. An act of compassion sparks a series of events which ultimately unbalances the Shibata clan’s existence. Fans of Armistead Maupin will probably disagree with the film’s resolution. But then Japanese social mores are different from the American ones for a reason.
- Holy Motors–Leos Carax creates an unforgettably dazzling tribute to the wonders of cinema. Actor Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) travels through the streets of Paris to keep various public and seemingly private performance “appointments.” Motion capture work and a hilarious take on “Beauty And The Beast” are just two of Oscar’s performances. For the genres Oscar’s day encompasses include domestic drama, crime, and even musicals. Don’t look to the film to explain such details as the identity of the audience for Oscar’s appointments. Just enjoy this film’s beautiful enigma.
- Under The Skin–”Alien discovers what it means to be human” is admittedly a science fiction storytelling trope. But director Jonathan Glazer took the idea in a different direction, a feat more remarkable by having star Scarlett Johansson play the alien. Instead of being just a distant and disinterested observer, the arc of Johansson’s nameless character goes from a slaughterhouse worker indifferently killing animals to the fate of Timothy Treadwell. The purpose behind the use of the material harvested from unfortunate humans by the beings Johansson’s character works for may be left open to speculation. But what’s tragically obvious is the huge gap between blending in as human and actually being human.
- The Death Of Stalin–Stalin-era political terror might seem the most unlikely raw material for cinematic farce. But director Armando Iannucci makes his conceit work by jettisoning historical accuracy. By having the film’s Russian characters speak with British or even New York Bronx accents, the director creates a cognitive dissonance that draws the viewer’s attention to the often absurd chicanery these politicians undertake to cement their political power. Yes, characters still get murdered or worse in the course of the film. But creating farce out of ultimate life and death politics differs from creating something frivolously lightweight.
- White Material–An unnamed African country may be the setting for Clair Denis’ amazing film. But there’s nothing anonymous about Denis’ harrowing depiction of colonialism’s collapse and the failure to recognize ebbing white privilege. The great Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, the owner of a coffee plantation in this unnamed country. Vial’s crazed single-minded obsession with bringing in the coffee crop before it goes bad blinds her to the changing political winds in this country. The presence of Isaach de Bankole’s Boxer and his child soldier band only hints at the coming turmoil the plantation owner willfully ignores despite her ironic pride at living in this African country.
- Parasite–Even though Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy/crime drama/class satire came out theatrically a few months ago, it definitely isn’t “too soon” to rank it as one of the decade’s best films. The long-term success of the scams the poor Kim family use to become apparently unrelated household employees of the wealthy Park family isn’t the point. As the film’s title implies, it’s about the symbiotic relationship between rich and poor, and whether it can ever move beyond a zero sum game. Bong’s answer to that question involves such elements as flickering lights, a particular soap brand, and a rainstorm of Biblical proportions. Add to the film a pronounced shroud of moral greyness, and the result is a work whose skillful shifts in tone both entertains and spurs uncomfortable viewer thoughts.
- Moonlight–Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning drama questions how our society defines masculinity. Viewpoint character Chiron attempts to find his own answers about his masculinity in the most hardscrabble situation imaginable. Lack of stable family structure and being a constant bullying target definitely puts the social odds against him. Those odds are worsened by Chiron’s slowly emerging attraction to men and the eventual father figure being his mother’s drug dealer (the amazing Mahershala Ali). The film’s ultimately disturbing question is whether the willingness to intentionally harm a human being is the only measure of a man.
- The Florida Project–The shadow of economic desperation hangs over Sean Baker’s unforgettable portrait of childhood. Child protagonist Moonee, who’s spectacularly unlikely to afford entering through the gates of nearby Disney World, makes her own adventures in and around a very low end Florida motel. She can’t comprehend the increasingly desperate efforts of her mother Halley to keep a roof over their heads. Willem Dafoe’s harried but sympathetic motel manager Bobby successfully makes Moonee and Halley’s situation feel more painful.
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives–Apichatpong Weersethakul’s masterpiece resides in the emotional borderland between the modern day and the world of the supernatural. This is not surprising as the titular character is slowly dying. But in Weersethakul’s cinematic borderland, ghosts can visit for an evening chat and talking red-eyed forest creatures seem to detach themselves from the shadows. The film ultimately treats the supernatural not as an adversary to be kept at bay, but a part of the world to be accepted.
- Keep The Lights On–Ira Sachs’ rawly intimate and semi-autobiographical tale deals with the emotional difficulties of maintaining a relationship with a crack-addicted partner. Partially childlike filmmaker Erik clearly wants his rebound relationship with Paul to work out. Yet the frequency with which Paul’s addiction seems stronger than their love frays the emotional ties between the two men. Sachs’ film makes Erik’s painful journey towards equanimity a difficult yet necessary one. Arthur Russell’s incredible music serves as the film’s Greek chorus.
Here’s to the end of a decade which produced some incredible works of cinema. And here’s a toast to the hopes for the new decade to see films match or even better the quality of the films seen in the 2010s.
Filed under: Arts & Entertainment
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