Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Top 100 Films of the 2010s - 40-31

40. American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)
I kind of love it when European filmmakers come to America and appear mesmerized by its wide open spaces. The best film in this vein is Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas (1984) – and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey deserves to be mentioned right alongside that masterpiece. This is a long film – nearly three hours – and stars Sasha Lane, as a lower income young woman, who joins up with a group of travelling magazine salespeople – those people who go door-to-door, which is of course, possibly a scam. The travel from one place to another in a rundown van, living in rundown hotels – partying, fucking, drinking, drugging when they aren’t selling their wares. This is a film made at the beginning of the Trump era – and it is a perfect portrait of this America, an America that isn’t working for everyone. The film constantly seems to be in danger of falling over a cliff of darkness and danger from which it won’t recover – but it never quite gets there. The cumulative power of this movie is quite something – it’s a long trip, but one well worth taking.
39. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a deeply empathetic film – shot on location on a seedy, rundown motel in the shadow of Disney Land in Orlando. At its center, is one of the best child performances I have ever seen – by six-year-old Brooklyn Prince, who lives with her mother (Bria Vinaite) – a single mom, who makes her living with a variety of scams, and sometimes as a prostitute. Prince and her friends wonder around – getting into trouble and mischief. She is truly a life force in the film. Willem Dafoe gives one of his very best performances as the motel manager – a man who truly does care for all these people, who live on the margins here, but can only do so much. The film is naturalistic throughout – and even if the ending is pure fantasy, it works remarkably well. The film is alive in many ways – the joy that Prince exudes is contagious, while at the same time, you realize it very well may not last into adulthood. A beautiful, empathetic, sad film.
38. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)
Sometimes it feels like a director is put here to direct one specific film – such is the case with Nicholas Winding Refn and Drive – an ultraviolent fairy tale, disguised as a crime thriller. Ryan Gosling gives one of his best performances – turning down his charm to nothing – playing a getaway driver in L.A. – who decides it is his duty to protect a mother and her child for some ruthless gangster – led by Albert Brooks, doing some of the best work of his career. The film is ultra-stylish – bringing to mind Michael Mann or Jean-Pierre Melville, with one stunning sequence after another. The film is violent and disturbing – but the key to it all is that Winding Refn structures it all as a fairy tale more than anything else. Winding Refn’s career hasn’t been great since – I hate Only God Forgives, and while I really like The Neon Demon, I am seemingly alone on that one. But this is the one film he got exactly right.
37. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is rare for a Spielberg film – because the best thing about the film is the masterful screenplay by Tony Kushner, that weaves together a complex story about how Lincoln was able to bring together a very strange group in order to pass the 13th Amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an outstanding performance (for most actors, this would be the crowning achievement of their career – but not for him). Spielberg’s attention to detail is great here – and the casting is impeccable (not just Day-Lewis, but Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field and a host of others). This is a long film – of course – and a complex one. It’s basically a lot of men in rooms talking – and yet it never drags for a second. The ending is perhaps not the best (a weakness for Spielberg sometimes – but not all the ones people don’t seem to like). It was very smart to concentrate on this narrow aspect of Lincoln’s career – and even narrow in regards to this moment in history, even if it did lead to some (silly, in my opinion) controversy about not showing slavery. Spielberg had a solid decade – he directed 7 films after all – but this is clearly his best of those. It was made in 2012 – as a hope for Obama’s second term, which now seems so distant – but it should stand as a reminder of what America could be.
36. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Pretty much all of Darren Aronofsky’s films are essentially a descent into madness – from Pi to Requiem for a Dream onward, things typically do not end well for his protagonists. If Black Swan isn’t his finest achievement (and I’d still argue Requiem for a Dream is his best) – it may be his most focused. Natalie Portman won a well-deserved Oscar as a talented ballet dancer whose descent starts when she is cast in the lead of Swan Lake. It’s a brilliant, high wire act of a performance by Portman – perhaps the real start of her taking on bigger and bigger risks this decade that have divided audiences. Here, though, she is perfect – and the supporting cast is all great as well – especially Mila Kunis as her friend/rival/doppelganger. Aronofsky has a tendency to drift into excess and insanity himself in his films – and sometimes he loses control. He’s at his best here – walking that fine line between control and insanity, and the whole things spins close to out of control, but doesn’t get there. A brilliant portrait of art and insanity – and their overlap.
35. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
Quentin Tarantino went further back into history than ever before – making his ultra-violent slavery epic but as a revenge epic. You can question whether Tarantino really should be making this – whether he has the right to dive into this history, particularly in this way – but I think he crafted a film that is both hugely entertaining, but didn’t skimp on the true brutality of slavery. The violence here can be as over-the-top as in many other Tarantino films – but at just the right moments, he pushes it into hard-to-watch territory. But basically, this is an entertaining Tarantino Western – with Jamie Foxx as the title character – a slave, trying to save his wife from bondage, who teams up with a Good German (Christoph Waltz – who is excellent, but really shouldn’t have won a second Oscar for this – especially when Leonardo DiCaprio and especially Samuel L. Jackson were as good as they were in this film). This is the first film Tarantino made since the death of his editor Sally Menke – and it shows at a few moments – but overall, this is still an excellent Tarantino film.
34. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
The story behind Kenneth Lonergan’s long delayed second feature is almost as fascinating as the film itself – as it basically resulted in a four-year battle between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight over final cut of the film – which was finally resolved (kind of) in 2011 when the film finally hit theaters – and then the next year when an even longer cut hit home video (either version is a masterpiece, and I’m not sure which I prefer). But the film itself is even better – a complex look at a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) – who causes a bus accident that kills a woman, gets away with no charge, and then is consumed by guilt – and then makes everyone’s life around her miserable. That’s a summary, but I’m know it doesn’t do the film justice – it is an incredibly complex portrait of Paquin’s character – and everyone in her orbit, and the world they inhabit. The film is a big, bold, beautiful, deliberate mess, and perhaps the most complicated moral puzzle of the decade. It was worth the wait.
33. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
In 2010, I thought Derek Cianfrance was going to become one of the great American filmmakers of the decade – and even if that didn’t quite happen, this, his breakthrough film, is still one of the best films ever made about an ending marriage. The film cuts back and forth in time between a couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) as they fall in love and later as their marriage ends. The fascinating thing about the film is how the structure – the cutting back and forth in times – shows you how the root of their problem could be seen from the beginning of it, but in the beginning, we are all wearing blinders (or in the words of Bojack Horseman, if you’re wearing rose colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags). The film got a NC-17 rating because of three sex scenes in it – but those sex scenes, showing Williams with another man early, contrasted against her first scene with Gosling to show the difference, the depth of feeling in the second compared to the first, and then the final one where all that tenderness is now gone. Gosling and Williams – two of the best actors in the world – have never been better than they were here. I think sometimes we focus too much on the undeniably great directors – I’m as guilt as that as anyone (just look at the filmmakers on this list) – but sometimes, someone like Cianfrance completely nails one film.
32. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
I said in my 2014 top 10 list that Only Lovers Left Alive had only grown in my mind in the months since I saw it – and that is even truer now, as the film just continues to age better and better, and become a truly haunting film. On a plot level, the film is a vampire film about a pair of lovers – Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton – who are centuries old are getting fed up with humanity – him more than her, and are hiding out. It is a film that could only be made by someone at the stage of his life and career as Jarmusch is here – it is a late period film in almost every way. It is the immortality and age and wisdom of vampires that fascinates Jarmusch more than their bloodlust – although there is something there. The film is a haunting elegy, but one that still finds at least a little bit of hope for the future. One of Jarmusch’s absolute best films.
31. Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)
The sophomore horror film from Aster – following up his brilliant Hereditary from the year previous – Aster pulls off a more difficult trick his second time out. Hereditary was an intensely scary movie – with lots of great scary moments – but what Aster does in Midsommar instead is gradually build a mounting sense of dread for two-and-a-half hours, often in the beautiful, blinding sunlight of the seemingly idyllic setting. He is aided greatly by a great performance by Florence Pugh – a young woman, trapped in a horrible relationship that she somehow thinks is entirely her fault (when she apologizes to him, it is infuriating, in large part because it rings so true). It all climaxes with one of the best ending of a film this decade. Truly, Aster is a special director – even after only two films.

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