Costume dramas and literary adaptations are so prone to being respectable: fastidiously and lifelessly breathing life into the surfaces of the past without remembering that people alive 200 years ago were people, with the same personalities as you or I. Odd that it would take such a fastidious director as Stillman to correct for that, making a Jane Austen adaptation that has as much snark, bracing wit, and catty attitude as a season’s worth of reality television. Kate Beckinsale, perpetually misused by filmmakers for her entire career, has never been remotely this good, turning a satiric caricature into a three-dimensional woman, with as much that’s relatable and likable as she is rotten and selfish. Plus, it’s frequently hilarious – always a huge challenge for period-set movies.
89. The Missing Picture
AKA L’Image manquante
(Rithy Panh, 2013, Cambodia / France)
A bravura memoir that combines personal history with national trauma, in which Panh attempts to reconstruct memories that were wiped clean by the Khmer Rouge by building crude dioramas. In watching him reclaim his story from official oblivion, the film becomes genuinely optimistic even in the face of extraordinary depravity; it’s an attempt to reconstruct documentary evidence and recontextualise existing footage to serve new purposes. Too raw and sober to be “inspiring”, but as a film of a victim reasserting his place in history, there’s something so invigorating in its humanity that it’s moving even as it depicts virtually nothing but suffering and despair. “Never forget” has long since become a cliché; this film powerfully insists on the necessary difficulty of putting that aphorism into practice.
(Kenneth Lonergan, 2011, USA)
Not just one of the best films of the 2010s, but the 2000s as well: Lonergan’s second feature emerged as an instant time capsule after years of contentious post-production bickering, with two similar but importantly different cuts depicting the confusion of a teenager in post-9/11 New York trying to carve out her place in the world. In either version, it’s a thorny, messy, broken, brilliant work, a cinematic novel full of richly-described characters and heady ideas. Anna Paquin’s career-best performance as Lisa Cohen is both profoundly sympathetic and frustratingly off-putting; she’s every teenager who is so close to figuring it out that it makes every adult in the movie and audience want to throttle her for not quite getting there. A gloriously flawed masterpiece.
87. Inside Llewyn Davis
(Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013, USA / France)
After wrapping up the 2000s with a one-two-three punch of outright masterpieces, my beloved Coens have spent the 2010s producing savvy genre experiments and brainy larks, but not much that I can say really rises up to the level of their best work. Except for this stunning musical odyssey about a talented asshole whose gift for making music is surpassed only by his gift for destroying his own life through egotistical petulance. Shot by Bruno Delbonnel in gloriously wintry hues that render the Greenwich folk music scene as a beautiful corpse, a special moment in history that’s ending in exactly the moment we’re watching, it’s no less cynical than any Coen film, yet also unusually philosophical and nostalgic as a tribute to a bygone New York.
86. Rhino Season
AKA فصل کرگدن
(Bahman Ghobadi, 2012, Iraq / Turkey)
A film that, I believe, remains formally unavailable in the United States. Don’t worry, it’s the only such film I’m including on this list, but I couldn’t bring myself to pass by something that so vigorously blew me away the one and only time I saw it, even through the haze of Film Fest Blindness. It’s a fantastic blend of art and message: a story about a poet that uses the devices of poetry (translated into visual form) to make sense of the world, wherein the world that needs to be made sense of is a totalitarian hell in which political dissidents can be disappeared and reappeared without rhyme or reason. It’s as aesthetically thrilling as it is morally righteous, the best possible combination.
85. First Reformed
(Paul Schrader, 2017, USA
One of the main criteria I’m using for this list is “stickiness”: movies that have set up permanent encampments in my brain, demanding that I constantly roll them around and re-evaluate them. Virtually nothing from the last few years has been stickier in this sense than Schrader’s moral parable about ethics in the age of climate change. I underestimated it as a solid homage to Winter Light, but hardly a week has gone by since where I haven’t caught myself pondering the way it uses its story and visuals to loom over Ethan Hawke’s splendidly tormented reverend, failing to cope with his own incapacity to change the world for the better. Curious to see how high I might rank it in another ten years…
(Pablo Larraín, 2012, Chile / France / USA)
The 2010s have been quite a decade for politically-minded cinema, and very nearly all of it has been, in my estimation, completely unawatchable. One of the most wonderful exceptions is this snappy procedural comedy about taking down Pinochet’s regime with the combined power of electoral politics and television advertisements. Without losing its moral compass for even a moment, the film treats activism as a source of fun, using a terrific screenplay and crisp, colorful, geometrically exciting images as the ways of turning fundamentally talky, grinding material into something entirely cinematic. Exceptionally lively and watchable by the standards of both historical satire and biopics, two deadly genres; Larraín’s gift for making these sluggish genres sing would only keep developing throughout the remainder of the decade.
83. National Gallery
(Frederick Wiseman, 2014, France / USA / UK)
There is much to love in any of Wiseman’s long documentaries about the way that different kinds of institutions function, and National Gallery is just as good as any of them on that level. What raises it past that, to make it one of the best films of Wiseman’s career, is the way it moves beyond the already rich question of how people use art museums to consider the more abstract, ineffable question of how people engage with art, period. There’s no one answer, of course, just a long string of moments of people stopping to look at a painting and forging a connection the leaps between them, the camera, and us. It’s as good a tribute to the power of art as you’ll find.
82. Your Name.
(Shinkai Makoto, 2016, Japan)
A gloppy teen fantasy-romance with an excess of dumb sentiment graced by the most beautiful lighting of any animated film, be it hand-drawn, computer-generated, or somewhere in-between (as we see in this film). And to be sure, as is usual with Shinkai’s films, the unutterable commitment with which he pursues that sentiment does work in its impossibly corny way. It’s the kind of story that is willing to meet hormonal teen angst on its own level and treat it with the kind of painterly grace once reserved for illustrations of the Gospel; there is maybe nobody working in cinema right now quite as willing to transform emotions into gloriously overwrought and overwhelming imagery, and the imagery here is very overwhelming and packed with emotions.
81. Apollo 11
(Todd Douglas Miller, 2019, USA)
An extraordinary act of post-production wizardry that turned a mountain of undifferentiated stock footage into an unbelievably tense adventure in space. The “you are there” approach to cinematic history has been done well before and will be done well again, but there’s something outrageously magical about how well this film places us into the Apollo 11 moon mission in real time, seeing and hearing it take place all around us without any sense of 50 years of history separating us from the triumphs and terrors of that event. An amazing document of a technological process, but even more, it’s a brilliant thriller, amplifying everything going in slightly wrong and letting us share the hopes and fears of the people trying to set it right again.