Decade in Film: David’s Top 20

10. Inception (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away.

I vividly remember how it felt to walk out of the theater after seeing Inception for the first time: Disoriented, exhilarated, baffled, and immediately desiring to run back in and watch it again. And as the decade has gone on, Christopher Nolan’s mind-melting extravaganza has lost none of its ability to thrill and bewilder in equal measure. Remember how many we weeks we spent studying flow charts to make sense of all its timey-wimeyness? The heated debates about whether the final shot meant that Cobb was still dreaming, or that Nolan was just screwing with us (it’s the latter)? For a while, I re-watched the film trying to figure all of that out; now, I rewatch the film simply because I love it. I love Lee Smith’s slippery editing, and Hans Zimmer’s hypnotic score. I’m especially partial to the reading of the film as an allegory of the filmmaking process, with Cobb, Saiko, Ariadne, and Eames as the director, producer, writer, and actor respectively, all pulling together to create an unforgettable world.

9. Parasite (2019)

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago…

The decade’s not completely over yet, but I have some confidence that nothing coming down the pike in the next four weeks is operating at the same level of gonzo craft as Bong Joon-ho’s Cannes winner. As I wrote just last month, Parasite is an astonishing, layered masterwork, as good as or better than you’ve already heard, and you want to go into it as cold as possible. Bong has described this as his “staircase film” (compared to 2013’s Snowpiercer, his “hallway film”), and Parasite is a case study in composition and staging. It really is about eyelines, both literally and metaphorically — how the characters look up, or down, on each other informs the film’s dark vision of class warfare, and no one gets out clean. It also demands repeat viewings to pick up on all the clues dropped throughout the film’s first half. By the time the shockingly violent third act rolls into its poetic denouement, You’ll agree you’ve been watching something truly special.

8. Phantom Thread (2017)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.

Though PTA is highly revered — even deified — by most cinephiles, I’ve always felt somewhat detached from his work. Not so with the very accessible Phantom Thread, which is, at its heart, a blackly comic romance about an insufferable Genius and the woman who knows exactly how to deal with him. I honestly don’t know why it works on me so well, but it does — it’s not just Daniel Day-Lewis’s persnickety performance (“Are you a special agent sent here to ruin my evening, and possibly my entire life?”), or Anderson’s moody cinematography, or the sumptuous design of everything from the gowns to the Welsh rabbit on a plate, but an undefinable, alchemical fusion of script, direction, and cast. Phantom Thread’s many pleasures, the sublime and the absurd, the beautiful and the perverse, form a monument to not just haute couture but the extreme emotional neediness of anyone who designs anything, anywhere.

7. Whiplash (2014)

Directed by Damien Chazelle

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job.”

What does it take to be great? How much should you put yourself through just to find out if you have “it,” and if you do, how do you know it was worth it? Damien Chazelle’s incendiary, often troubling, ultimately exhilarating jazz drama doesn’t try to answer those questions; instead, the work speaks for itself. Whiplash’s final beats had me feeling like I could run straight through a brick wall, and the film’s rhythms (Tom Cross’s editing!), music, and provocative ideas about art and sacrifice have been bouncing around my mind ever since. Not a week has gone by that I haven’t thought about it, probably.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, as a young jazz drummer and his tyrannical teacher, give us one of cinema’s great face-offs; you sympathize with the young and determined Andrew, but the film doesn’t let you off the hook knowing what he will become as he chases Fletcher’s approval. Simmons meanwhile, seemingly all skull and scowl, eyes like a shark, spews his poisonous invective believing that’s what his pupil needs to be great. Is he right? No, but…maybe? Whiplash may not be not the single-greatest film of the decade, but it’s my favorite.

6. Get Out (2017)

Directed by Jordan Peele

Now you’re in the Sunken Place.

While accepting one of his many screenwriting awards that year, Jordan Peele snarked that “Saying you love Get Out is now the replacement for saying you would have voted Obama for a third term.” And, for all intents and purposes, that’s correct. I did a lot of self-interrogation in 2017 as to whether I was naming it the year’s top film because I genuinely believed it was, or because there was some performative woke-ness going on. We’ve all been guilty of that, consciously or not. The subversive brilliance of Get Out is in how it bares its fangs not at the baldly racist, but at those who say the right things while being all-too-eager to appropriate and exploit black culture — or, as in the film, their bodies. To the Armitage family, black lives only matter for how they can extend their own.

Get Out‘s terror is psychological, refracted through the life experiences each individual viewer brings to it. It’s incredibly assured filmmaking that never once winks to the audience, instead forcing everyone to see the story through the eyes of the exceptional Daniel Kaluuya; For all of these reasons and more besides, including the giddy, meme-generating screenings in every city across the country, Get Out will be remembered as not just a surefire genre classic, not just a phenomenon, but one of the decade’s most vitally important films. It may have been intended as a clapback to the smug liberalism of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but now the film’s message rings loud and clear: virtue signaling about Get Out’s greatness isn’t enough. Time to get to work. 

5. Moonlight (2016)

Directed by Barry Jenkins

At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Moonlight might be in the public consciousness as “The film that snagged Best Picture from La La Land in that incredible envelope blunder,” but don’t forget that Barry Jenkins’ art house triumph is a worthy film in its own right — not just the best film of its year, but one of the very best of the decade. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play, Jenkins’ script employs a striking three-part structure, an intimate tryptic about a young black man coming of age — and, perhaps, coming out — in sun-drenched Miami.

Of course the plot isn’t the point — Moonlight is experiential, a living, breathing, colorful document centered on Identity. Each act is its own “slice of life” drama, self-contained to a point, but when you step back and look at Moonlight as a whole its universality and transformational power become self-evident; masculinity, race, and class not just intersecting, but crashing into each other like the waves on Miami Beach. Through raw performances from Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali (who finds something wrenchingly unexpected in only a handful of scenes), and the talented trio of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, the film is a beacon of humanism, socially conscious yet deeply empathetic to everyone on screen.

4. Silence (2016)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

The price for your glory is their suffering.

It took 30 years for Scorsese to bring Shūsaku Endō’s seminal novel of faith and doubt to the screen, and the wait was worth it — Silence is a masterpiece. Where the vast majority of “spiritual” films deal in cheap platitudes and fake persecution complexes, Silence is a harrowing account of the real thing; yet, it’s staged with almost superhuman restraint, more in line with Scorsese’s Kundun (and this year’s The Irishman) than the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, leaving its audience to uncomfortably wrestle with unanswerable questions. When Christians suffer, why does God seem silent? Is renouncing your faith to save the lives of others truly renouncing it? What about the arrogance of spreading a Westernized doctrine of “universal truth” in a culture that has no frame of reference for its message? Or, as exemplified by the oft-betraying, oft-repenting Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka, skittering and pitiable), is it possible to test the limits of God’s forgiveness?

While the Jesuit priest Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) finds fulfillment in ministering to the poor farmers they find, he almost desires martyrdom. Yet what Nagasaki Inspector Inoue (played with reptilian cleverness by Issei Ogata, perhaps the most distinctive antagonist since Hans Landa) has in mind will shatter Rodrigues’ very definition of what it means to be a Christ follower. Unsurprisingly, the film couldn’t find an audience among American evangelicals who like being told what to think (see: God’s Not Dead, or better, don’t). But even more than a powerful and thought-provoking study in faith, Silence stands as a towering achievement in Scorsese’s illustrious career, evocatively photographed (I could write another paragraph just on its use of fog), somber in spirit, but bravely wading into the deepest waters of the human soul. If you couldn’t tell, it means a lot to me.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Directed by George Miller

I live, I die, I live again!

There simply aren’t very many great action movies. There are plenty of good ones, and scores more that we accept as “a good time” without interrogating further, but a truly great action film requires a number of difficult ingredients. You need a fiercely dedicated cast; you need writing that doesn’t insult the audience; most importantly, you need an escalating series of jaw-dropping sequences, clearly choreographed and cleanly edited, that leave your audience gobsmacked as to just how you pulled it all off. The Bourne movies redefined the genre in the aughts by sacrificing elegance for devilishly syncopated cutting, spawning legions of inferior imitators. The Mission: Impossible films, under the psychopathic eye of Tom Cruise, are the best possible version of classic derring-do, only pushing the genre forward as far as we’re willing to watch Cruise suffer for our entertainment.

George Miller’s exhilarating opus, Mad Max: Fury Road, is much bigger than that. It’s a mainline hit of pure cinema crystal, a mind-boggling Frankenstein’s monster of a film that shouldn’t work, that could have been (and nearly was) a complete fiasco, but nevertheless exuberantly detonates action movie conventions. It’s an editing masterclass from Margaret Sixel and a tour de force from Charlize Theron as the defiant Furiosa, but it all comes from the mind of the mad conductor of this speeding train barreling just along the edge of sanity. Miller tells a story that feels like it’s set on another planet, but is rich with significance for our own. For the riot of colors, war paint, kickass vehicles, and mythic characters like “The Doof Warrior,” this 2-hour chase sequence serves up urgent twin messages on environmentalism and feminism: the men who “killed the world” and the women who might yet save it. Which leads, fascinatingly, to…

2. Roma (2018)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.

Roma wrecked me in a way I hadn’t felt in quite some time. It’s an extraordinary experience that demands your full attention, the better to let Cuarón’s inestimable command of the camera and sense of place wash over you like the ocean waves. In a uncommonly courageous performance, non-actor Yalitzia Aparicio portrays Cleo, the hard-working maid for an upper-middle-class family in 1971 Mexico City — Cuarón’s, in fact. This attracted some criticism, accusing the film of white-washing class struggles by not allowing the heroic Cleo a chance at life beyond her annex, washing dog excrement off the driveway twice a day and taking heat for slights real and imagined by her employers, but I believe that was misguided. Instead, Roma is Cuaron’s good-faith effort to honor the woman who helped raise him by presenting the intimate struggles of her life with grace and empathy.

And the film, shot by the director himself in luminous black and white, is no mere manipulation; the production design, including the construction of multiple city blocks, is staggering. But it’s Cuarón’s masterful staging of chaos — a riot in the streets, a forest fire, a climactic beach rescue — that comes as close as cinema can to capturing the essence of life itself, in all its grandeur and mundanity, its joy and its devastation, fulfilling its role as what Roger Ebert once called “a machine that generates empathy.” I was deeply moved (I cried — twice), but moreover, I was awestruck.

1. The Social Network (2010)

Directed by David Fincher

You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

Ten years later, The Social Network was right about everything. It was right about the future of media; it was right about toxic masculinity; it was right about the nerds inheriting the earth; and it was definitely right about Mark Zuckerberg, who looks worse and worse every time he appears in a headline. But that alone doesn’t make it the defining film of the decade. It’s also just a damn great movie, a blistering tale of greed and immaturity at the dawn of what no longer seems like a new age of interconnectivity, but the beginning of civilization’s fall.

That starts with Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, which was the infamously didactic writer at his very best. In his hands, Zuckerberg is a whiny, entitled, sexist Genius; in Jesse Eisenberg’s hands, he’s all of that, but you can also see the loneliness and feelings of inadequacy eating away at him from the inside. In the film’s telling, Facebook started out of a fit of jealousy, and was nearly destroyed in its infancy for the same reason. That the accuracy of that story has been contested since the film’s release doesn’t diminish its effectiveness, or chilling prescience, a jot.

David Fincher also pushed his cast to set land-speed records to deliver Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue, dumping volumes of techspeak and lawyerly exposition on the audience without ever actually drowning them. The editing from Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall is breathless; the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is groundbreaking; Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer give outstanding supporting performances. But it all comes back to Eisenberg’s Mark: more Zuck than the real Zuck, an iconic marriage of actor and role, and — fictionalized or otherwise — one of the most important figures of the 21st century. How did we get here? Sorkin and Fincher knew then, and The Social Network provides all the data. Just like the real social network now has all of yours.

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