10. The Act of Killing
(Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director, 2012, Denmark / Norway / UK)
The Look of Silence
(Joshua Oppeheimer, 2014, Denmark / Indonesia / Finland / Norway / UK / Israel / France / USA / Germany / Netherlands)
Perhaps it’s cheating to include two films in one entry, and if I really wanted to be a dick about it, I could always play the “my website, my rules” card. But the thing is, I really do not know how to separate these two films in my mind: ever since I first saw The Look of Silence in 2014, it didn’t feel like a follow-up or a side project, but a necessary counterweight to the ideas being explored to such crushing effect in The Act of Killing.They are both, in very different ways, films about gathering historical testimonials, and coming to terms with the existence of a past so unspeakable vicious and destructive that to merely name it is a source of unspeakable pain. But they come at it from different angles and arrive at different end points. Act, somewhat controversially, finds the filmmakers attempting to force the perpetrators of a nation-wide mass killing to admit to their crimes and face them with full moral culpability, only to find instead inhuman depths of psychopathic evil staring back at them, perverting the very fabric of cinema itself in aggrandising themselves and their crimes.
Look is the more typical film, and less gutting (as it would almost have to be), but only in comparison. Another attempt to force a reckoning between killers and their crimes, this one comes not from outside but inside, as the son of a victimised family attempts to confront and challenge the people who have done him harm. Where the first film centers depravity, the second centers simple, everyday goodness. In both cases, the films are ugly and raw, ripping off scabs to stare, screaming at the oozing wounds beneath, but whereas Act is a descent into Hell, Look at least reminds us that there might be a Heaven. Combined, they tell a story of the Indonesian mass killings that cannot comprehend the scale of their evil, but at least, in the end, can pay some tribute to the humanity of the victims.
(Eduoardo Nunes, 2011, Brazil)
My abiding affection for this film is in part ruthlessly, unapologetically personal: it feels like my movie, one that nobody else knows about, and so I can love and cherish it on some deep individual level. That’s of course a very silly attitude to hold, and I should be extremely happy that I can, for example, point you all towards the film on Vimeo, so you can join me in enjoying Nunes’s terrific debut, a strangely abstract story about identity and cycles of time, told with the distance of a folktale and the slithery incoherence of a dream. It’s shot in glistening black-and-white, in a preposterously wide aspect ratio that gives it a pageant-like feeling, something akin to scanning over a medieval illuminated scroll whose story is told across images rather than through chronology. Which, given the film’s embrace of twisting, discordant time, feels like the way it must be told. Proceeding slowly and gracefully, the film allows its mysterious plot to present itself to us at whatever pace we’re ready to process it, all the better to allow its difficult metaphorical consideration of the individual set against society to register as an feeling, rather than a puzzle to solve.
8. Holy Motors
(Leos Carax, 2012, France / Germany)
There have been many movies about moviemaking, but very few have been about moviemaking so hard as Carax’s triumphant return to filmmaking after a 13 year break (we’re still waiting on his return to his return, but rumor holds that we should expect it in 2020). More than it has a plot, or a conflict, or even events, Holy Motors is a soppy love letter to the great Denis Lavant and Edith Scob, and by extension to all actors who are obliged to do weird shit to their bodies in order to create the illusions of cinema; along the way, the film pays tribute to the unsung heroes in the hair and make-up department, playfully suggests that motion capture is the death of art, and packs itself full of nods to film history. And in case we find any of this boring, it pauses in the middle for a hard rock accordion music video. One of those films that seems to have the whole medium hiding inside of itself, always surprising us with its creativity and vitality, offering one delightful audio-visual surprise after another. I can name nothing more cinematic than that.
7. Goodbye to Language
AKA Adieu au langage
(Jean-Luc Godard, 2014, Switzerland / France)
Another movie about movies, but where Holy Motors celebrates cinema’s creative potential, Godard (as is his wont) is much more interested in showing how it destroys. The language of the title is, of course, filmic language, and the “goodbye” can colloquially be rendered as either a farewell or a greeting, which seems exactly right, given that this is both attempting to reveal the limits of the existing cinematic vocabulary to describe modern digital filmmaking, as well as an attempt to invent a new way of looking and working with the image. And it certainly does that, creating new viewing experiences that I have never seen elsewhere and suppose I am unlikely to see in the future. Digital 3-D is obviously the star of the show, especially the bravura moments where the film sends totally distinct image tracks to our separate eyes, coming closer than anything I’ve ever seen to actually overloading my brain. But the whole thing is a sustained experiment in demanding that we watch and hear in ways we’re not used to, taking the structural incomprehensibility of Godard’s late-period essay films to their most aggressive extremes yet. Feels like stepping off a cliff and learning you can fly.
6. At Berkeley
(Frederick Wiseman, 2013, USA)
Here’s an interesting thing that I didn’t realise until I was finishing up this list: this movie is probably the reason that I’m in grad school. I saw it at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival, and it was during that same festival that I first had the oddly complete and articulated thought enter my brain, “wouldn’t it be fun to be a college professor? You should go get a Ph.D.” And I never quite figured out why then, after so many years of ignoring every friend in my life insisting that I should do just that. Now I think I have: Wiseman’s monumental 4-hour stroll through the classrooms and offices, janitor’s closets and lecture halls, lawns and libraries of a great institution of higher learning reveals the university as a complicated living organism. We see, in this luxurious, unhurried masterpiece, intellectual aspiration and bureaucratic pettiness alike in all their complexity and messy humanity, a portrait of UC-Berkeley that doesn’t valorise it, but grapples with what the role of higher education in society even is in the first place. And it is exciting and maddening and rich. So looks like I have another reason to be grateful for you, Mr. Wiseman.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
(George Miller, 2015, Australia / USA)
All these years and viewings later, and I still just don’t get it. You can break down the mechanics of how all the filmmaking works, but you can’t get to the point that you see where the filmmaking came from: what pushed Miller and his collaborators (especially his editor and wife, Margaret Sixel, whose accomplishment here is surely a candidate for the most impressive individual achievement in filmmaking in the 2010s) to create the apotheosis of spectacular action cinema. This almost feels like a brand new art form based on pure momentum – the first time I saw the movie, I was genuinely as exhausted as if I’d just spent the two hours running, and subsequent viewings have only slightly lessened its wonderfully punishing impact. There’s plenty to love in the wonderful performances, sharp social commentary, and presentation of a collective heroic unit rather than a lone-wolf protagonist, but those feel in some way like normal strengths, and Fury Road is absolutely not a normal movie: it is like having electricity run through your body for two straight hours as you’re looking at the most beautiful desert landscape photographs ever taken. Which is very much mean to be a compliment.
4. The Eagleman Stag
(Michael Please, 2011, UK)
From October 2011 until April 2015 (when I saw the film at #2 and realized that “Best Existential Short Cartoon of the Decade” was going to be a stiffer competition than I had anticipated), I had every intention of putting this film at the very top of this list. Even as late as the fall of 2019, I wondered how much I’d be That Guy if actually went ahead with it. I share this because it speaks to how much this offbeat little lark – Please’s MA film at the Royal College of Art, which potentially makes this the best student film in the history of cinema – had a Certain Something that burrowed deep into my brain and stayed there. It’s not just that it’s playing around with ideas about our perception of chronology that I’ve found to be the most deliciously heady shit in the world since I encountered it some years ago; it’s not just that Please has used white-on-white models with hard key lighting to make one of the most visually striking animated films I’ve ever seen. It’s that in nine minutes, the film tells me more about a lifetime of regret and uncertainty than other filmmakers have done with entire careers.
3. Certified Copy
AKA Copie conforme
(Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, France / Italy / Belgium)
Kiarostami never stopped exploring fundamental questions of how we pull narrative meaning out of constructed imagery until the end of his life (and arguably after), but something about this film still feels like the culmination of a thread stretching from Close-Up to Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry. The film isn’t about what the film is “about”, which is part of the point: if we’re being fed contradictory information from the acting, the visual style, and the script (which is itself already pointing in two incompatible directions, what do we do with the movie? One solution is to pull out ideas and feelings rather than plot points, which is part of why the movie works so well as an impressionistic depiction of the stages of a marriage without obviously depicting a single specific marriage. Another is to lean into what the film’s aesthetics are doing, which is why it’s such a pictorially gorgeous movie, drawing from Neo-realism, Iranian art films, and French art films to create a textured and rich version of a small town that’s realer than real. All in all, it’s a film I haven’t really stopped thinking about even once for nearly ten years, a strength it shares only with the #1 film on this list.
2. World of Tomorrow
(Don Hertzfeldt, 2015, USA)
World of Tomorrow, Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
(Don Hertzfeldt, 2017, USA)
Another cheat, and my defense is even flimsier: putting both films in the top ten at different points was just visually ugly to look at. I am somewhat kidding. Of course, the two films are intimately in dialogue with each other, even just as constructed objects: a substantial part of the reason for the differences in tone and focus is that the first film’s dialogue involved a four-year-old babbling incoherently, while the second film had a five-year old babbling semi-coherently. And, of course there’s the way that the two films tell much the same story, plumbing similar emotions of desperate loneliness and the need to define oneself by any means necessary, even in the face of the universe’s specific refusal to help with that definition. The first film looks outward, trying to find the individual’s place in history and society, while the second looks inward, to the discomfort we might feel trying to live comfortably with our most painful memories, but both are trying to grapple with the same kind of doubts about Who Am I, and Was I The Same Me Ten Years Ago, and that’s without mentioning how both films try to figure out whether we have given over our immortal souls to digital technology, and if so, whether or not that’s a bad thing.
The two parts describe a single arc, contained within the best moments of each individual film. In the first part, the deadpan, depressed clone Emily-3 announces “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive”, a brilliant line (maybe the best of the 2010s) that sums up all the mystery of human suffering in one tidy package. The second part responds with Triangle Land, an explosion of pure nonsensical joy that flips that line around on its head: but can we not also be proud of our happiness? In a grand total of 40 minutes put together, the two films explore sadness and happiness from every angle, packing ideas and emotions into some breathtakingly beautiful animation that combines Hertzfeldt’s scrawled drawings with digital effects and rich color, and leaving plenty of room for dry, dark jokes. Minute-for-minute, these are the densest movies of the decade and then some: every existentialist question you could name gets raised, explored, and turned into a note-perfect punchline. As short as they are, I’m convinced that these are two of the most inexhaustible films of their generation.
1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011, USA)
How could it possibly have been anything else? The film to which Malick’s entire career had been building, and which his entire subsequent career has been refining and re-arguing, this is a throwback to the glory days of art cinema, when directors like Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky were willing to put it all on the line to ask The Biggest Question Of Them All: how are we to live in a universe where God no longer exists? A cosmic question that deserves a cosmic answer, and the film situates that answer in one of the greatest extended sequences in the history of cinema, a depiction of the entire universe from the moment of its creation onward, a sprawl that ultimately telescopes all the way down to the fine creases in the flesh of a newborn baby’s foot. That there seems to be no difference between that foot and the tormented birth of entire galaxies is very much part of the film’s grand philosophy, which answers that Big Question about God’s existence by suggesting that we’ve simply forgotten how to properly look for God: not in the movement of planets and the heavens, but in the smell of grass, in the glint of sunlight through tree leaves, in the feeling of a parent’s hand touching our body. That might sound like a greeting card sentiment, but it is won only through suffering, death, the fear that one has completely lost all human connection, the hard assertion of one’s own responsibility and authority. The film does not elide pain: it indeed suggests that pain is inseparable from love (it’s no accident that the creation of the universe in all its unimaginable beauty and glory, is scored with the “Lacrimosa” from Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem for My Friend – weeping openly in the face of death). If it were not so good at depicting pain on every level from the birth agonies of the universe to the inadvertent nastiness of a distant father, it would not reach such genuinely transcendent heights when it finally washed that pain away at the end. And that transcendence, to me, is the highest function of art.