10 for the 2010s

[Also published on The Completist and Letterboxd]

  1. Certified Copy (2010)

  2. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016)

  3. Song to Song (2017)

  4. Vitalina Varela (2019)

  5. Godzilla (2014)

  6. Monrovia, Indiana (2018)

  7. The Green Fog (2017)

  8. Not Fade Away (2012)

  9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

  10. Step Up 3D (2010)

Any list worth its salt is idiosyncratic and inadequate. I'm sure many readers will look at the titles above — ten favorites spanning the 2010s — and play the "what about?" game. That, or rage against the machines (cultural, sexual, socioeconomic, political, etc) that my selections explicitly/implicitly endorse or extol. A tidal wave of response-riposte is more often the exception, of course. Deafening silence tends to be the rule, and I've increasingly found bliss in the collective hush. It doesn't mean the work isn't resonating; to those indeterminate ends, I'm more than happy to cede control.

I live in fear less and less these days, though I do feel more than a twinge of terror whenever the virtual hive mind begets literal mob rule, which is too often lately. That's me preemptively pleading that you put aside any thoughts of "consensus" or "authority" in my choices. I already look at the ten titles above and think of innumerable others, by artists from all walks of life. Say, Aaron Schimberg's Chained for Life (2018), which is so singular that "listing" it feels reductive. Or Pier Kids (2019), Elegance Bratton's disquieting documentary about homeless queer and trans youth, which should really be paired with my #10, the effusive stereoscopic teen musical Step Up 3D, as a yin-yang that exposes the fallaciousness of, and the horror underlying, Obama-era (p)optimism.

I submitted this list to publications that asked for theatrical releases only, so the most glaring omission — since I'm of the "motion picture" persuasion that considers theatrical, television, and gallery work equally — is the third season of Twin Peaks (2017). That and the death-obsessed yet teemingly alive finale of Deadwood (2019) are the decade's crowning achievements, while Too Old to Die Young (2019), Nicolas Winding Refn's exuberantly protracted study of toxic masculinity in descent, is the neon shit-stain on the king's assless chaps. (A compliment, yes. And, borrowing Brian Cox's description of his uproarious series Succession, an "absurd show for absurd times.")

At the galleries (a wide world in which I only recently developed an interest), nothing beat the Anthony McCall exhibit at Brooklyn's Pioneer Works, which featured recent examples of the "solid light" expanded cinema he's crafted since 1973's staggering Line Describing a Cone. Rather than passively observe images on a screen, you're encouraged to stare into and interact with the light creating them. The simplest proposition is sometimes the most profound, and McCall's work makes me feel like Roy Neary at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, perpetually on the edge of some alien enlightenment.

Other absences: The Assassin (2015), Peterloo (2018), La Flor (2018), The Gospel of Eureka (2018), Psychohydrography (2010), Almayer's Folly (2011), Bastards (2013), BoJack Horseman (2014-2020). Season One of The Terror (2018). All three seasons of Hannibal (2013-2015). Hideaki Anno's Shin Godzilla (2016), which would ideally be paired with my #5. The 145-video, 100% walkthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild by YouTuber "GamingForLife." (My 2020 survey might have to find a place for "Pineapple Express's" 90-video, 100% play-through of Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding.) Two Ira Sachs's: Love Is Strange (2014) and Frankie (2019). Just about any of the multi-sected/kaleidoscopic shorts by Tomonari Nishikawa (2016's Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon is where I started). And on it could go.

Which brings us to, "So why the ten above?" First, because each of these movies nestled enduringly in my subconscious. Long after first encounter, I'd recall scenes and moments, think back to a sensation elicited by a certain ineffable alchemy. Say the way John Hurt timidly peers out his apartment door at Mark Strong in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's opening shot ("You weren't followed?" he asks), which immediately lends that film its twin auras of societal- and self-imposed oppression. John Le Carré's already exemplary secret-agent-men opus is pointedly queered throughout, particularly in how it intertwines espionage and sublimated sexuality. In this iteration, the bespectacled George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a closeted reactionary, a policer of base impulses. The film feigns sympathy with his perspective right up to its "meet the new boss/same as the old boss" final beat, when the innumerable cracks in the status quo crest like a tidal wave, one that can only stay suspended for so long.

Another reason for these ten are the unconscious affinities. Only after putting them instinctively side by side did I notice certain cross-pollinations, such as the presence in both my #1 and my #5 of Juliette Binoche (integral in both a starring and a brief supporting role, respectively). Or the use of footage from #5 by Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson in their head-spinning hour-long pastiche The Green Fog, which makes explicit the mechanisms of the creative id. Using clips of films and television shows shot in and around San Francisco, The Green Fog evokes both the narrative arc and the misty ambience of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) with a terrifying, and oft-hilarious, uncanniness. It speaks to how Vertigo is so insinuated in the cinephilic and popular consciousnesses that James Stewart and Kim Novak's shellshocked wanderings can be summoned up so vividly via, among others, Rock Hudson, Kathy Najimy, Chuck Norris and — crooning among the Californian redwoods — 'N Sync.

Another of Jonathan Demme's consummate concert films (and, sadly, his final feature), Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids jubilantly explores the divide between idolatrous pageantry and individual expression, as the eponymous pop superstar and his onstage entourage hold laser-lit court at a Las Vegas New Year's concert. It's a multicultural end-times jamboree as much as Monrovia, Indiana — Frederick Wiseman's portrait of an American small town — is an almost exclusively (and pointedly) white one. Monrovia's graveyard finale made me weep (a first for Wiseman's peerless filmography). Though what exactly is dead or dying is left to the imagination; that's for the living to sort out.

Song to Song stands in for every one of the semi-autobiographical features made by its writer-director, Terrence Malick, during the 2010s. Malick sings the arc of his own philosophical and emotional life from childhood (2011's The Tree of Life) to failed marriage (2012's To the Wonder) to Hollywood exile (2015's Knight of Cups) to tempestuous present (Song to Song). Song has several added benefits: Michael Fassbender at his most fiendishly seductive, Val Kilmer dousing a hostile rockfest crowd in uranium, and a finale that seems to collapse space and time as the dilettante Adam and Eve (Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara) at the film's center flit through settings and situations that recall both Days of Heaven (1978) and Badlands (1973). It's Malick coming to terms — cosmically, intimately — with his own "big bang." Append the extended cut of The Tree of Life to the cycle for the dual feeling of going full circle and ascending to a higher plain. If A Hidden Life (2019) and Malick's upcoming life-of-Christ feature, The Last Planet, are any indication, his intent now is to play on the fields of the Lord.

Among their innumerable virtues, Certified Copy and Vitalena Varela feature my two favorite performances by actresses, both of them slippery variations on the self. In the late Abbas Kiarostami's Italy-set masterpiece (on which I've gone long for Reverse Shot's latest symposium), the mono-monikered "She" (Binoche) navigates the highs and lows of a relationship with an academic (William Shimell) who studies replicas and forgeries of works of art. Are the pair meeting for the first time? Or have they been married for fifteen years and are now playacting — over the course of a single, sun-dappled day — a first-blush romance that in reality is well past bloom-off-the-rose? Apt for Kiarostami's mutedly meta aesthetic, the "truth" remains a tantalizing mystery throughout.

It took me until Horse Money (2014) to get fully on Pedro Costa's wavelength; the inscrutability and opacity of that movie was exhilarating in the way of a dream that's minimized the more you talk about it. The intentions of his follow-up, Vitalena Varela, are much more direct. At heart it's about a woman in mourning, grieving the death of a husband that she hardly knew. The film may be an extension of Horse Money, as it focuses on one of that tale's supporting "characters." But Costa works more in the vein of Taiwan's Tsai Ming-liang, using recurring performers (many of them culled from slums in the Portuguese neighborhood of Fontainhas) who play variations on actual and fictional selves. The film's most surreal flourish — an inexplicably drenched Vitalena Varela walking barefoot down an airplane gangplank — comes early. Though Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões's imagery is its own form of unearthly, chiaroscuro plays of light and shadow that those of us straining for encomiums would term "painterly."

I suppose a sense of disaster or dread (though not 2012's beguilingly brutal Dredd, another omission) runs through a lot of these titles, as it runs through the lives of many people today. I think anxiously and often enough about where we are as a species, but I've never found doomsaying or fuck-it-all acquiescence helpful. (Nor am I preaching for the opposite — blissfully ignorant hope of the sort that gifts us the Marianne Williamsons of the world.) My philosophy distilled: If you're drawing breath, you have to figure out how to live, and hurt as few others as possible in the process. At this I've not always succeeded, to put it mildly. But that's the forge, and, though the sky may be on fire, it's a worthwhile one.

I see this struggle, strangely enough, in Godzilla, a Hollywood blockbuster of peculiarly distinctive depth in which the heavens are often literally aflame. Gareth Edwards's debut, Monsters (2010), impressed me with its one-man-band digi-visuals, even if its emo-end-times vibe (the Book of Revelation by way of Lost in Translation) often rankled. Godzilla front-loads the human emotion, via Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston's tragedy-ordained married couple, then leans hard into the single-minded reverence that we humans afford spectacle, even the kind that might kill us. People aren't exactly beside the point, but as in Monsters, Edwards constantly places them in a forced perspective where they are as likely to be crushed underfoot as to miraculously bear witness. Edwards himself was crushed underfoot, reportedly on both this production (on which his authorial personality is still extremely evident) and the atrocious 2016 Star Wars spin-off Rogue One (on which it most assuredly isn't). He hasn't made a movie since.

Neither, for that matter, has David Chase, whose directorial debut, Not Fade Away, met with crickets upon release, a far cry from the way his epochal TV series, The Sopranos (1999-2007), was discussed and dissected over its six seasons. A tragedy on the one hand. On the other, I'm happy to have this 1960s-set feature, which focuses on a callow New Jerseyan (John Magaro) who dreams of rock-'n'-roll glory, mostly to myself, the better to advocate for it slowly but surely. Though I've placed it at #8, I probably think of elements of Chase's bildungsroman more than anything else on this list. Could be a giggle-inducing line like "I left my roach clip at Oberlin." Or Sidney Wolinsky's All That Jazz-level editing, which cuts radically against every expected beat. The moment that moves me most, though, is when the great James Gandolfini, as the lead's tetchy yet tender dad, brushes away a tear while watching a TV broadcast of South Pacific (1958), overcome with emotions he clearly didn't anticipate. His is a gentle epiphany, one suffused equally with loss and gratitude. Even if only for a fleeting moment, art reveals life.