The Wild Goose Lake

2020 hasn’t exactly been a great year for movies thus far, with so many releases being postponed. I am pleased to report that I finally saw a new release that I feel unbridled enthusiasm for: Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake. I watched it a few nights ago, stood up and pronounced “holy shit that was good!”, went to bed thinking about it, woke up thinking about it, watched it again, liked it even better, and then resolved to write a review. So here we are.

I’ll start with spoiler-free remarks and then get into some discussion of the plot, marked with a clear warning for spoilers.

The film is a neo-noir about a gangster who is the subject of an intense police manhunt. It opens with a meeting between him and a mysterious woman. Then we flash back to learn how we got to this point, who this woman is, and how she came to be involved. There are several big set pieces and a high degree of suspense throughout, which has prompted Hitchcock comparisons. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is an apt point of reference for the big shootout scene, but really The Wild Goose Lake is much closer to Lang than Hitchcock. In particular, it’s downstream of the numerous paranoid thrillers Lang made where the protagonist is the subject of an investigation or manhunt (most famously M, but there are lots of others, including Hangmen Also Die!, House by the River and The Blue Gardenia). Lang used these tropes to examine both the fascist police state he had fled in his home country of Germany and the appalling justice system he found in the USA (his first three movies upon arrival were about how messed up our justice system is). Diao similarly uses these tropes to critique Chinese authoritarianism, but with a satirical edge: the cops in this movie are for the most part bumbling and incompetent. They overwhelm through ubiquity and sheer numbers.

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Diao’s use of shadow and silhouette is frequently reminiscent of Lang:

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And contemporary points of comparison include Refn and Bi Gan (especially the tracking shots):

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No one planned it this way, but The Wild Goose Lake cannot help but gain an overwhelmingly haunting resonance in virtue of its setting: Wuhan. The film’s sense of place is extraordinary: the city pulses and throbs as we weave through seedy bars and menacing alleys. It’s a city with a fever, and the film presents us with a ready opportunity to vividly imagine the first waves of our current global crisis rippling through these streets.

Spoilers henceforth 

One of the protagonists, Zhou Zenong (television star Hu Ge), is in hiding because he shot a cop who he mistook for a rival gangster. This is one of those movies, like for example Resevoir Dogs, where a character is dying for basically the entire duration. He has been shot, there is a rich reward for capturing him dead or alive, and cops and rivals are closing in around him from all sides. Death is coming. His quest in the movie is not to escape it– it’s already fated– but rather to die the right death. In particular he seeks a degree of redemption by making sure the reward for his capture goes to his abandoned wife.

The other protagonist, Liu Aiai (Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun-mei, who also starred in Diao’s mystery noir Black Coal, Thin Ice) is a “bathing beauty,” that is, a sex worker from the lawless shores of the Wild Goose Lake. She is a bystander to the whole situation, but has been roped in by her manipulative boss to help facilitate Zhou Zenong getting himself turned in for the reward. We follow her point of view for much of the film, and she is an absolutely entrancing performer. By centering her perspective, Diao cleverly inverts the trope of the Unknown Woman.

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So while the film’s primary trajectory is Zhou Zenong’s march towards death, Aiai has her own arc, where she is swept into a nightmare and must balance an emergency of self-preservation with the competing demands of honor and humanity. I wouldn’t detract from anyone’s work here but her performance is particularly astonishing.

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I am extremely impressed by this film. It works as a pulpy genre exercise, but it is rich with subtext. Its politics are much subtler than Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, which is also worthwhile. The previous film (which won the Golden Bear) is clumsier about integrating its thematic concerns into its genre trappings. Wild Goose Lake is seemless. I’ve seen several new releases this year that I liked quite a bit, but this is the first one that blew me away. I don’t want to say anything else except that you should see it (and then see it again).

 

 

 

 

Streaming Recommendations, Vol 13: Plague Year Zero

Featured image from Daughters of Darkness.

Amazon Prime

Runaway Train (1985)

Bullet Points: Runaway Train – BULLETPROOF ACTION

One of the very best action movies of the 80’s, about a prison escape. It contains the single best Jon Voight performance, and I don’t say that lightly (yes, I’ve seen Anaconda). Also exceptional turns from Eric Roberts, John P. Ryan, and Rebecca De Mornay.

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

DREAMS ARE WHAT LE CINEMA IS FOR...: DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS 1971

Arthouse-grindhouse hybrid par excellence, with the inimitable Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Arguably the high point of 70’s vampire erotica.

Slugs (1988)

Retro Review - SLUGS (1988) - PopHorror

I love Slugs! Top-tier 80’s horror. This hits the “killer slugs” premise out of the park. Very sleazy. More lurid and violent than typical 80’s horror. Content warnings, etc.

King of the Ants (2003)

King of the Ants (2003)

Stuart Gordon died recently, and here’s a classic Gordon revenge-exploitation flick to celebrate his legacy. This is at the farthest extreme of mean, nasty grime in his filmography.

99 River Street (1953)

99 River Street (1953)Awesome B noir from the great Phil Karlson about a washed up boxer who gets tangled up in a web of trouble.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

An essential classic with all sorts of new resonances related to the rise of social media. I would be in favor of an Instagram remake with DJ Khaled as Burt Lancaster and Drake as Tony Curtis.

Death Wish 1-5

Death Wish 3

Be still my beating heart. The original Death Wish is actually probably the weakest entry in the whole series. The sequels totally rule. Quick rundown: II is the gnarliest of the bunch by a large margin. Full rape-revenge mayhem. III is the most over the top and absurd. It’s still pretty gnarly but so ridiculous that it’s not as likely to be upsetting. IV is the schlockiest and not at all gnarly or upsetting. V is all about the Michael Parks factor and the bizarre choice of setting: the Fashion District.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2018)

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc movie review (2018 ...

I think we’ve brought this up before, but in any case, we love it. It’s a head-banging metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. It’s a little long, but mesmerizing throughout.

Torso (1973)

Sergio Martino's 'Torso' Getting a Brand New 2K Restoration for ...

This came at the tail end of Sergio Martino’s run of all-time great gialli. It is a giallo, but on the proto-slasher side of the spectrum, with a psycho who stalks co-eds.

The Toxic Avenger (1986)

Pin on hillarious and weird movies colection

Restored version! I grew up with this hilarious and delightfully depraved spectacle. I just rewatched it and I found that it’s still very much to my liking. Peak 80’s trash.

Tromeo and Juliet (1997)

Tromeo & Juliet: Shakespeare at its Schlockiest | The Frida Cinema

I love it. Content warnings in spades. This is the most transgressive, distasteful, taboo-breaking Shakespeare adaptation out there, as far as I know.

Knightriders (1981)

How George Romero's Knightriders Gave Him the Independence He ...

George Romero’s singularly odd tale of a motorcycle gang with a medieval reenactment show. Essential for anyone interested in Romero. Peak Ed Harris.

Art School Confidential (2006)

art school confidential | Film Inquiry

Very funny and acrid art school satire from Terry Zwigoff.

Fear City (1985)

Classic Review – Fear City (1984) | Jordan and Eddie (The Movie Guys)

Early Abel Ferrara. One of his least ambitious movies, but it’s very appealing sleaze with Tom Berenger and Melanie Griffith and a killer targeting exotic dancers.

Netflix

NB, there’s some really excellent stuff coming later in the month: Michael Mann’s masterpiece Public Enemies on May 16th and (in case you’ve been under a rock for the last year) the Safdie Brothers’ total banger Uncut Gems on May 25th

The Core (2003)

The Citizen Kane of Awful: The Core - One Room With A ViewMy book (in progress) about love of good-bad movies begins with lots of swooning about The Core. This is one of my personal favorite good-bad movies. The core of the Earth has stopped spinning and so a crack team of fake scientists led by a very emotional Aaron Eckhart has to drive a special vehicle made out of Unobtanium into the center of the Earth to detonate all the nuclear bombs at once. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I’d watch it again right now.

She Hate Me (2004)

She Hate Me streaming: where to watch movie online?

Spike Lee’s most underrated movie. It’s widely disliked, which I take to be evidence not that it’s bad, but that it’s bold and aggressive. Not for everyone, but definitely for me. Give it a try.

Bloodsport (1988)

I’ve known every word of dialogue in this movie by heart since I was 9. I can still recite all of it, and I’m still not the least bit tired of the movie. This is the most essential Van Damme film.

Angel Has Fallen (2019)

Angel Has Fallen | Film Review | Consequence of Sound

Excellent mid-budget Gerard Butler action movie. This one leaves aside the dubious politics of the first two (to be clear, I like those as well, but the politics are messed up). If you like action movies and find yourself complaining that they don’t make ’em like they used to, here’s your movie. All the stuff with Nick Nolte is amazing.

Den of Thieves (2018)

For Better or Worse, “Den of Thieves” Gives Gerard Butler 140 ...

A pulpy, trashy version of Heat with the sweatiest, stinkiest performance of Gerard Butler’s career.

Dolemite is My Name (2019)

Dolemite Is My Name

This has been around for a while but we’ve never brought it up in a recommendation post. In case you skipped it: highly recommended. It was the most entertaining new release I saw last year. It’s frickin’ hilarious, but it’s also a joyous and very satisfying celebration of renegade movie-making and the rejection of constrictive mainstream notions of what it means to be “good” movie. I really, really do not like the practice of watching good-bad movies in the mode of mockery and ridicule. Love and affection is the higher path. This movie gets it.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

One of the most essential martial arts films. Make sure you switch the audio track to the original and watch it with subtitles. It’s too good to watch dubbed.

Blood Father (2016)

Blood Father is Dollar-Store Cartel-Infused Mad Max | Scene and ...

If you need a badass Mel Gibson fix, here you go. I always misremember the title of this movie as Anger Dad.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,' With Gary Oldman - Review - The New ...

This holds up. Austere and tightly constructed, it’s one of the better spy movies of the new millennium.

Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)

With Van Damme reduced to supporting role, 'Kickboxer: Vengeance ...

Much better than I expected it to be. It’s more or a less a DTV remake of the original Kickboxer, except now Van Damme is the trainer (Dave Bautista is Tong Po!). There is so much more Van Damme in this than I expected.

The Heartbreak Kid (2007)

The Heartbreak Kid (2007) directed by Bobby Farrelly, Peter ...

Certainly not as good as Elaine May’s classic, but the Farrelly Brothers’ remake is plenty frickin’ hilarious in its own right.

How to be a Latin Lover (2017)

I keep hammering this recommendation, but it’s because I feel I need to. I never in a million years would have guessed from the title and DVD cover that this would be any good. But it’s hilarious.

Just Friends (2005)

If and only if you like Ryan Reynolds romantic comedies (I know there aren’t a lot of us these days, but we’re out there), this is a nice little treat.

Hulu

Hulu is trash. Disney destroys everything it touches. But there are a few good titles.

Portrait of a Lady of Fire (2019)

On the Groundbreaking 'A Portrait of a Lady on Fire' | The Cornell ...

It is very rare that I agree with the Indiewire crowd about a movie, so I really want to relish this occasion. It ticks enough progressive film twitter boxes to appeal to them, but it’s got enough elegant neoclassicism to light me up. This is easily the best new release I’ve seen lately.

Misery (1990)

Fascinating Facts about Misery the Movie | Film adaptations ...

Already standing out as one of the best Stephen King adaptations, this has gained potent new resonances now that fans are trying to usurp more and more power over the creative process (eg., “redo this movie I didn’t like!” petitions everywhere, fan edits, etc.).

Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-Ho Season: 'Mother' (2010)

Probably my third favorite Bong Joon-ho movie after Memories of Murder and The Host. It’s closer to the former than to Bong’s other work.

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Bangkok Dangerous | Fandango

The Pang brothers were Hong Kong action directors who migrated to Thailand. It’s very fun to see Nicolas Cage in a proper Asian action movie.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Beale Street' Channels Baldwin's Vision of Black Love - The Atlantic

I’ve mentioned this a few times but I just want to gently nudge people again. Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is in my opinion by far the better of the two films.  It’s gorgeous and the acting is remarkable.

Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Star Trek': Khan Prequel Series Is Reportedly Being Developed

A bunch of the Star Trek movies are on Hulu. I’m not a huge Star Trek fan but even tourists like me should be able to appreciate this. Ricardo Montalbán is a perfect human specimen.

HBO

Never Back Down (2008)

Never Back Down - Review - Movies - The New York Times

Solid fighting movie.

Your Highness (2011)

Movie Review - 'Your Highness' - Low Comedy's Crowning Moment of ...

Skinemax fantasy throwback. Hilarious.

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

In a Valley of Violence movie review (2016) | Roger Ebert

One of the better latter day westerns.

Unstoppable (2010)

The Ace Black Blog: Movie Review: Unstoppable (2010)

Fantastic working class actioner from Tony Scott, starring Denzel and Chris Pine.

Cat People (1982)

Cat People (1982) directed by Paul Schrader • Reviews, film + cast ...

My favorite Paul Schrader movie. A hysterical masterpiece.

Happy Death Day (2017) and Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

Happy Death Day' Star Jessica Rothe Joins Amazon Series 'Utopia ...

Exceptionally clever 80’s throwback horror-comedy. Jessica Rothe is terrific.

Special Effects (1984)

Larry Cohen's Special Effects: A Sleazy Vertigo – We Minored in Film

Brilliant Larry Cohen Proto-metoo Hitchcockian thriller.

 

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 12: QUARANTINE

Featured image from Cat o’ Nine Tails

I’m going to make this recommendations post a little longer than usual, because I’m sure most people need lots of stuff to watch. I’m not going too far out of my way to recommend quarantine-themed movies, but there are a few on here. I also want to recommend two streaming services beyond the usual three that I write about: Starz and Criterion Channel. We subscribed to Starz because Angela is really into Outlander, and I’ve been absolutely blown away by their action and horror options. The one (huge) downside of Starz is that they stream everything in 1.85:1, which means that movies that are supposed to be in a different aspect ratio are cropped and should be avoided. It’s easy enough to google the title of the movie and the phrase “aspect ratio” to find out, but please do take this step when in doubt and especially be sure to avoid anything that is supposed to be in 2.35:1 or 2.4:1.  But yeah, their action section is a buffet of Cannon Group 80’s classics. I’ve revisited tons of them recently, and it’s been extremely nostalgic. I grew up on that stuff. Check out Chuck Norris movies like Invasion USA, Charles Bronson movies like the Death Wish sequels (which are all fantastic, though some of them are pretty content warning intensive), the first two American Ninja movies, and the action masterpiece Runaway Train (featuring peak performances from Jon Voight and Eric Roberts).

Criterion Channel is the best streaming service by many orders of magnitude. You can throw a dart at their options and hit something worth watching, but if you’re lost, I would just jump into the Rossellini or Kurosawa or Renoir movies, and also definitely check out Red River and His Girl Friday from Howard Hawks. Out of their rotating options, I would somewhat randomly call special attention to the wonderful Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth musical You Were Never Lovelier and the bizarro post-Sirkian Burt Lancaster apotheosis The Swimmer, which is a very unusual movie to come out of the US in the 60’s. It feels closer to British New Wave. For major Japanese swordplay binge viewing, try the enormous Zatoichi series about a blind swordsman, or the more violent and modestly-sized Lone Wolf and Cub series. Or for standalone swordplay movies, try Sword of Doom or Three Outlaw Samurai. 

A lot of the titles from my previous streaming recs are still available:

Vol. 9: Month of Horror

Vol. 10: Culture Wars

Vol. 11

And here are my new picks (some repeats from old posts but mostly new):

Amazon Prime

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

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One of the greatest and most iconic westerns, from John Ford. John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart star in three of their most essential roles.

The Conversation

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Coppola’s masterpiece about surveillance and paranoia has only gotten more relevant now that we basically live in the panopticon.

Cave horror double feature: The Descent and 47 Meters Down Uncaged

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Although I’m also a huge fan of the first 47 Meters Down (which is on Netflix), this one is a sequel in name only and you don’t need to watch them in order. The Descent is a modern classic of feminist horror. They go well together. Definitely watch The Descent first. Notice how gorgeous the underwater photography is in 47 Meters Down Uncaged. The vivid textures are really remarkable.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

My second favorite Transformers movie after Age of Extinction. It features the utterly jaw-dropping Battle of Chicago. I just revisited it recently and it totally holds up.  I appreciate Michael Bay’s greatness now more than ever in contrast to the bland Disney junk that’s taken over.

Magic Mike

If you haven’t seen this, what are you waiting for? The sequel is a paid rental as far as I know, but it’s even better.

Wake in Fright

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Not for people who can’t handle representations of violence against animals!!! This is gnarly Aussie psychological horror and it gets at something deep and dark about masculinity. The only thing I can think of that compares is Straw Dogs. 

Dead & Buried

Not a very well known movie, but it belongs in the socio-political horror pantheon. Certainly check it out if you’re into horror.

Night of the Demons

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Evil Dead meets Scooby-Doo, sort of. Great 80’s fun.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

One of the blackest black comedies ever made. So much so that I don’t think most people realized when it came out that it’s a comedy.

The Stuff

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Larry Cohen’s classic horror satire of consumerism. Essential. 

The Crazies (2010)

As horror remakes go, this is one of the better ones. Pandemic-apocalypse themed. The superior Romero original is on amazon as a .99 cent rental, but I can’t vouch for the quality. Edit: the Romero version is now free while the remake is a rental.

Bone Tomahawk

Ultra-gnarly mash-up of the Western and Italian Cannibal genres from the director of Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete. NOT FOR EVERYONE.

Monkey Shines

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George Romero’s classic holds up. Ultra-intelligent killer monkey.

Unsane

We have recommended this multiple times but I want to stress again that we think it’s one of the best modern thrillers and one of the edgiest #metoo movies.

Society

Extremely messed up late-80’s horror classic involving an orgy cult for the 1%.

Argento giallo double feature: Cat o’ Nine Tails and Deep Red

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This is some of my very favorite shit. These are top tier gialli and together they make for a perfect intro to the subgenre. Cat is milder and more story-driven while Deep Red is hyper-stylized. It’s a complicated topic, but a typical giallo involves two people (often a reporter and a tourist or resident foreigner, but not always) investigating a string of murders. The murders are shown from the killer’s perspective, and the killer typically wears a black glove. The ending usually involves a lurid twist. If you don’t like these, then you can safely abandon the subgenre. If you do like these, there is a whole lot more where that came from.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

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This is an excellent giallo that mixes a classic genre formula with more unorthodox supernatural elements. This is the Italian version with subtitles, which is a fine way to watch it (though the English dub is also fine in this case). The quality isn’t as good as the blu-ray but it’s within the range of acceptability. If you like the Argento gialli, this is a good direction to explore next.

The Church

Soavi was the last great auteur of the golden age of Italian horror. This is a complete and total banger in the spirit of Sam Raimi, but gothic.

Next

I could watch this 100 times. I’ve certainly recommended it before. Nic Cage is a Vegas magician who can see exactly two minutes into the future. Hijinx ensue.

Red Dawn

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John Milius classic where a rag tag gang of Real American Misfits fights back a Communist invasion.

Death Wish V: The Face of Death

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It’s not necessary to watch the Death Wish sequels in order but they are all great and the other ones are all on Starz in the proper aspect ratio. 2 is the gnarliest, 3 is the most over the top, 4 is the schlockiest, and this one is all about the Michael Parks factor. He is an amazing villain. He plays a gangster who rules the fashion district with an iron fist. As always with Death Wish (except maybe part 4), strong content warnings apply.

Office

Johnnie To’s adaptation of Sylvia Chang’s stage musical, starring Chang herself alongside a terrific ensemble cast. This is not going to appeal to everyone. The aesthetic might not work for people who haven’t acquired a taste for more commercial Hong Kong cinema. But the extraordinary sets alone make this an important entry in the To filmography.

Time Regained

Ruiz’s Proust fantasia. Probably impossible to follow if you haven’t read Proust. It’s a difficult movie. I like it a lot more now than I did when it came out. It’s dreamy and focuses less on narrative clarity and more on using formal experimentation to capture the emotional content of the later books of Proust and convey ideas about memory and the passage of time.

Netflix

Love is Blind

Believe the hype: this is peak reality TV. They basically created ideal conditions for people to become intensely infatuated with each other and then threw these people back into the real world with three weeks to get married and as much pressure and disruption as possible in an effort to generate histrionic drama, and it totally worked. I found it hard to take at first but ended up binging the last five episodes. Cultural decay as riveting TV.

Purple Rain

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YES! The Prince movie holds up extremely well. Just do it.

Popeye

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One of the best and strangest Hollywood productions of its era: Altman’s wonderful and bizarrely serious Popeye musical with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. You may notice that Carly Rae Jepsen sampled one of Duvall’s musical numbers.

Dirty Harry

There was a clip going around recently where Harry makes an extremely sexist speech. A lot of conservatives shared it approvingly. This is very dumb, because the whole point of the movie is that he’s totally wrong. This is one of the most influential crime movies ever made. The best entry in the series is Sudden Impact, which I believe is a paid rental. Clint directed that one himself and it’s extremely dark and lurid.

The Dirty Dozen

War movie classic by Robert Aldrich with a ridiculously good cast: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, John Cassavetes, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Robert Webber and Donald Sutherland.

The Wicker Man

Along with Blood on Satan’s Claw, this is peak British folk horror. Essential. Especially check it out if you haven’t seen it and you are into Midsommar. 

Ghost Rider

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Top-tier Cage performance. Peter Fonda as Satan. This is better than all the MCU movies combined.

Nightmare on Elm Street

Yep, it’s on Netflix.

Ip Man 1-3

Donnie Yen’s signature series, about the legendary folk hero who popularized kung fu and trained Bruce Lee.

Bad Boys I&II

One day, this era of action movies will come to be known as “Pre-Disney” in much the same way that movies from 1930-33 are known as “Pre-Code.” Bad Boys II especially is wildly offensive and a total hoot. It’s not merely offensive, though, it’s a virtuoso piece of action film-making. It’s probably the most extreme example of Bay’s distinctive style and it reveals how strongly he was influenced by John Woo. Within the first two minutes of the movie Will Smith is doing a full Chow Yun-fat akimbo two-gun dive in front of a flaming cross at a Klan rally.

Haywire

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Excellent Soderbergh R-rated action flick. It’s a vehicle for MMA star Gina Carano and it’s delicious.

The Bling Ring

Underrated. This, Marie Antoinette, and The Virgin Suicides are by far Sofia Coppola’s best work IMO.

Sliver

Trashy 90’s erotic thriller, penned by the one and only Joe Eszterhas, starring Sharon Stone and Billy Baldwin. I remember going to see this in the theater like it was yesterday. It’s not quite at the level of Eszterhas classics like Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Jade, but it’s delightful.

Season of the Witch

Reiterating this recommendation. Trashy B-movie fantasy-horror with a solid Cage performance and a FANTASTIC Claire Foy performance.

Triple Frontier

Narcos meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s a very solid genre movie with a great cast. The key to making good use of Affleck is to cast him as an asshole.

Hulu

Johnny Guitar

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One of my very favorite films, featuring Joan Crawford in one of my very favorite performances. This is one of the most essential American movies. Just watch it. Then maybe watch Once Upon a Time in the West (also one of my favorites), which was heavily influenced by this and is on Netflix.

The French Connection

Friedkin’s crime masterpiece features peak Gene Hackman giving probably his most intense performance. I revisited it not long ago and it totally holds up. Notice how closely Joker aped the train chase. Warning: abundant racial slurs.

Killer Joe

This is the uncensored version! (Netflix had the R-rated censored version, so I never recommended it before.) Watch it fast before Disney pulls the plug (they own Hulu now). NOT FOR EVERYONE. DO NOT WATCH THIS IF YOU CARE ABOUT CONTENT WARNINGS. If you like your movies slimy and sleazy, though, don’t miss it. This is peak southern sleaze from Friedkin

Vincere

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Marco Bellocchio’s more recent movies have featured a two-part structure where’s there’s a sharp shift in tone between the first and second halves. The first half of this is about pre-Duce Mussolini and his torrid love affair with Ida Dalser. It’s energetic and formally bold. The second half slows down to something closer to Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915, but IMO Bellocchio handles the asylum setting and the supporting cast far, far better than Dumont does. This is a rich movie that gets into highly resonant themes of political idolatry.

No Holds Barred

Peak 80’s camp featuring Hulk Hogan. It totally holds up, if you’re into this kind of thing.

Phase IV

My pal Brian Montgomery recently turned me on to this 1974 sci fi gem involving ants. It’s short and ultra-stylized. Essential viewing for sci fi fans.

The Office (UK)

I refuse to accept that there is such a thing as the US version of The Office. I tried it once and I found it unwatchable. THIS is The Office, and it’s great. The generation that skipped directly to the US version should go back and check this out.

Venus in Fur

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An adaptation of the kinky David Ives stage play. It feels very much like a play but it does have notably cinematic qualities (directed by Polanski). It’s a torrid psychosexual drama where Emmanuelle Seigner utterly dominates Mathieu Amalric. Definitely some shit.

A Hidden Life

Oof. This is not a film to approach lightly. I wouldn’t recommend just throwing it on casually. A Hidden Life demands to be watched in a distraction-free setting with no interruptions. It’s a difficult, painful movie that presents an opportunity to step outside of the flow of daily life and really put yourself through something. Watching it right now in March of 2020 invites a shift in perspective from petty bickering over the Democratic primary to dire contemplation of the imperative of resistance unto death. One of the things I appreciate about Malick is how utterly unconcerned he is with trends and fashions. This film is the polar opposite of the sort of cheap and easy political cinema that is currently popular with educated audiences in America. A Hidden Life is the inverse of Jojo Rabbit. If Jojo is the Happy Meal of Anti-Fascism, this is the Last Supper. 

A Hidden Life is Malick’s most philosophically explicit film since at least Tree of Life, and the influences are unexpected. Of course it is a Christ parable, but it connects Christ with Socrates on the one hand and Kant on the other in a way I found both surprising and devastating. Kierkegaard is also an obvious point of reference, but I’ll leave that connection for someone more qualified than me to explain. It was clear to me early on that Malick was thinking about Plato and Socrates (particularly the Apology, Phaedo and Gorgias), but he eventually goes so far as to include a direct quotation from the Gorgias: “It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.” Socrates’ stance is that there is nothing that can be gained through injustice– not even the preservation of one’s own life– that outweighs the cost of doing injustice, which is nothing less than sickness and disease of the soul. When the Nazis commit injustices against Franz, they harm themselves more than they harm him, and for him to accede to their demands would be for him to harm himself far worse than they ever could. They merely threaten his body, but for Franz submit to them willingly would mean the corruption of his soul.

The Kantian influence in the film is manifested both in Franz’s conception of freedom and in Malick’s persistent attention to the fact that Franz’s sacrifice will have no positive impact. When Franz insists that he is free while he is in prison, he means he is free in the Kantian sense that he is following a law that has emerged from his own will. One of Malick’s most distinctive traits as a filmmaker is his ability to pose a question discursively and then answer it cinematically. The film asks quite explicitly whether it should matter to Franz that his choice will have no consequences either way beyond the loss his family will endure if he stands on principle. The answer to this question, however, is something that we are meant to feel rather than apprehend cognitively. Malick trusts the power of August Diehl and Valerie Pachner’s performances to convey the validity of Franz’s decision. 

What of Malick’s choice to have the bad characters speak unsubtitled German for the most part while the good characters speak English? Browsing reviews I see complaints that this makes Nazi evil ‘other’ in a simplistic way. I don’t think this is right. Austrian dialect is different from the German that most Nazis would have been speaking, and my impression after one viewing is that Malick has used English primarily for dialogue in Austrian (and perhaps for some non-Austrian German dialogue that is integral to the narrative), while he left the other German dialogue unsubtitled in part to convey Franz’s alienation and quasi-foreignness. There is not one bit of unsubtitled dialogue in the movie that I could not infer the meaning of from tone and context. I take Malick’s choice here to be akin to Godard and Straub-Huillet’s choices to leave some dialogue unsubtitled (or cryptically subtitled, in Godard’s case). It just doesn’t matter exactly what’s being said, and subtitles would be more of a distraction than a help.

If I have a significant quibble with the film it’s that I had a hard time getting used to some aspects of the cinematography. I felt that the fisheye lens was overused in the first half. It works much better in the claustrophobic interior spaces of the second half. I also found the camerawork to be jerkier and less elegant than what we’ve seen in Malick’s other late films. Again, this works better in the second half. I’m going to suspend judgment on this point until I get a chance to rewatch the movie, because my problems here could have been mostly a matter of misaligned expectations. On the plus side, the immediacy of the digital photography is compelling and a lot of the unorthodox framing choices are striking.

At the end of the day, I have to set aside any small faults I find in this, because it’s just so incredibly overwhelming in the emotional impact it builds over the course of three hours. Worrying about the fisheye lens feels tawdry in light of the movie’s cumulative weight. It’s a singularly powerful film.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 11

Featured image from Twins of Evil.

Amazon Prime

Amazon is again the clear winner. One does have to be careful, because they have many titles in poor quality that are available in better quality elsewhere, but I can vouch for the quality of these selections.

Ash is Purest White

This was in my top ten of the decade and I consider it a masterpiece. It is a film in the jianghu tradition, concerned with the alternative codes of honor of the criminal world. It appropriates tropes of this tradition to examine what it means to preserve one’s values amidst rapid, sweeping cultural change. It’s a funny, very strange movie that goes to surprising places. Jia’s direction is at once rigorously controlled and effortlessly fluid. Throughout the film, he uses digital cameras that would have been available at the time the action takes place (except for the prison section, which is on film), weaving the film’s themes into the shifting character of the cinematography.

Mr. Majestyk

Mandatory viewing for Bronson fans. It’s an extremely satisfying and fun revenge picture where a watermelon farmer finds himself simultaneously squaring off against racist yokels, asshole cops, and organized crime.

Revolver

One of my very favorite poliziotteschi. The score is by Ennio Morricone. This is a mean, nasty movie and lots of content warnings apply. Do not watch this if you are worried about content warnings. What makes this one really stand out is the great Oliver Reed, who brings all the wild intensity he is capable of. He plays a prison warden whose wife is kidnapped by a gang of crooks in order to force him to free a hood played by genre icon Fabio Testi. Things do not go well and it becomes a brutal revenge movie.

Note that a restored version of this movie came out on blu ray a couple months ago, whereas the version on Amazon appears to be pulled from the older dvd. If you really care, it’s worth seeking out the blu ray, but the version on Amazon is within the range of acceptability for a 70’s exploitation movie. It only has the English audio, but that’s fine, as the leads are speaking English and the dubbing isn’t terrible (in Italian exploitation movies from this era everyone usually spoke their own preferred language during the production and then the audio was dubbed in post production).

Ghosthouse (1989, not 2017)

Lenzi is a schlockmaster and this is pure schlock. It’s a totally incompetent and very fun mash up of Poltergeist and The Evil Dead. 

Twins of Evil

One of my favorite Hammer Horror titles. Peter Cushing plays a Puritan witch hunter who takes in his orphaned identical twin nieces as wards. Local libertine Count Karnstein gets into some weird erotic vampire occultism and one of the twins is drawn in (but which one????). This is exceptionally lurid and the production design is delicious. It’s actually the third part of the Karnstein Trilogy but the other two are paid rentals and there’s no need to watch them in order.

Detour

A new restoration of one of the best and strangest classic noirs. It’s short and wonderful and you should certainly see it.

The Terrorizers

I’ve recommended this before but I bring it up again because it’s probably the single best movie available on any of these three streaming services (unless Johnny Guitar is still available). Jameson famously called it the postmodern film. Antonioni’s Blow-Up is helpful context. I won’t even bother to describe this. If you’re seriously interested in film, I insist that you watch it.

The Tenant

This is the least well known of Polanski’s brilliant trilogy about people losing their minds in apartments (the other two parts are Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby). It’s the funniest and most bizarre of the three, and Polanski himself stars. This is one of his very best and most distinctive movies and absolutely essential for anyone interested in his work.

Ginger Snaps

I’m sure I’ve recommended this before but it bears repeating. This is one of my favorite modern horror movies and it was on the vanguard of the welcome trend of reversing gender power dynamics. Lycanthropy as puberty!

The Fanatic

Probably don’t watch this lol. I’m recommending it for anyone out there who really and truly loves bad movies. This is raw, uncut bad movie madness. I mean this is John Travolta fully leaning into some unnamed cognitive disability, directed by Fred Durst. This is a bad movie for people (like me!) who want to see boundaries of taste not just stretched but eviscerated.

Death Warrant

The sleaziest peak-era Van Damme flick. It’s a gnarly exploitation movie about a cop who goes undercover in prison to investigate a string of deaths.

The Stendhal Syndrome

This is on the late side for Argento, and some people think he fell off around this point in his career. Of course his earlier films are better, but in my opinion this is fantastic. It’s quite messed up and something you should skip if you care about content warnings (and it’s even more messed up to consider that he cast his own daughter in THIS role). But if you like Argento you’re probably not too worried about this sort of thing, whereas if you’re not familiar with his work you should start with the 70’s classics. In any case, this is a wild movie about trauma and the power of art and it features one of Asia Argento’s best performances.

The House of the Devil

An excellent retro 70’s style slow burn from 2009 about a babysitter who is hired for a very creepy and ominous assignment. It features the great Tom Noonan. Greta Gerwig makes an appearance. Ti West fell off after this, but it’s one of the best horror movies of the aughts.

The Love Witch

Anna Biller’s sexy, feminist, comic Jacques Demy-inspired lite horror movie is singular and delightful. There’s a ton of male and female full frontal nudity, fyi. Her concept here was to center the female gaze and her own sexual fantasies.

Get the Gringo

An excellent south of the border genre picture with Mel Gibson in full form. There have been precious few Mel Gibson movies the last decade, but at least we have this.

Flesh and Blood

Verhoeven’s first English language movie, starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh (!). It’s set in the 16th century and is stuffed to the gills with sex and violence. Very entertaining, if you’re into this kind of thing.

Netflix

The Witcher

I love The Witcher! I know it’s very popular, so you may not need the recommendation, but if you’ve been reading mixed things about it, consider Strohltopia an enthusiastic yes. I like it much, much better than game of thrones. It’s unapologetically trashy, with lots of shirtless Henry Cavill and gratuitous nudity and CGI monsters and magecraft and so on.

Gangs of New York

You probably saw this but I propose that it’s time for a rewatch. It’s aged extremely well. I consider it one of the very best movies of the aughts and also one of Scorsese’s two or three best movies (maybe his best, but I’d need to rewatch a couple things to be confident in that declaration). He said he was going for something like “Western on Mars,” but that doesn’t even begin to capture how bold and ambitious this film is. We start out with 19th century urban medievalism (?!) and transition to a gang of nativist mad hatters. This is the best Daniel Day Lewis performance by a fucking mile, but don’t miss how good Cameron Diaz is here (it takes a lot of sand to be a turtle dove). The intense, vitriolic nativism resonates much more strongly now than it did when this was first released.

Avengement

Peak Scott Adkins. This is like Bronson meets Brawl in Cell Block 99 meets early Guy Ritchie. It is brutal and bone-crunching and Adkins is over-the-top amazing.

Loving You

Poignant drama from Johnnie To. A derelict cop suffers a brain injury and becomes dependent on the wife who he previously mistreated. Lau Ching Wan and Carman Lee are extraordinary.

The World is Not Enough

Highly underrated. I think this is the best Bond film since Timothy Dalton (certainly a lot better than all the Daniel Craig entries). Sophie Marceau is one of the very best femme fatales in the series and Denise Richards is delightfully campy.

Five Elements Ninjas

I am able to stream this on Apple TV with the original audio and subtitles, but I’ve heard mixed reports from people using other devices. In any case, don’t watch it unless you can watch it with the original audio, as these Shaw Bros. movies are ruined by dubbing. This is peak Chang Cheh. It’s a borderline abstract set of battles with color coordinated groups of ninjas channeling each of the five elements.

Hulu

28 Weeks Later

I absolutely hate Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and I think it’s one of the worst things that ever happened to the horror genre, but this belated sequel is really good. It’s tense and violent and moves at a compelling pace.

Luce

I just recorded an appearance on Philosophy Talk where I discuss this film and Give Me Liberty with Joshua Landy and Jeremy Sabol. I think it’s certainly one of the most interesting contemporary topical films about race in America. It’s a 2019 film by Nigerian-American filmmaker Julius Onah, based on J.C. Lee’s 2013 play. It’s about a young black man who started out his life as a child solider in Eritrea, but who was adopted by a middle class white couple played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth (love the early-2000’s casting!). He’s become a star athlete and high school valedictorian, but after he writes an essay about Fanon (!) a teacher played by Octavia Spencer becomes suspicious of whether he’s hiding something dark. It’s a very original take on the bad seed movie. Amidst all the simplistic moralism that weighs down most topical films in the age of Trump, Luce stands out for its complexity and thorniness. I think one needs to relate it back to the birtherism controversy, as Luce is clearly a sort of Obama stand-in, but I won’t say more than that here to avoid spoilers. It’s a very interesting film, even if the dialogue is sometimes stagey.

The Prodigy

Another bad seed movie, but this one is fully trashy. Think Child’s Play meets Birth. Bad movie lovers only.

Baskin

Extremely bizarre, violent, surreal Turkish horror movie. It’s descended from stuff like In the Mouth of Madness but it’s more untethered. Not for everyone, but horror fans should see it.

A Score to Settle

Wild Nic Cage movie, for Cage fans only. It’s sort of like Scent of a Woman as a revenge movie, but except instead of being blind he can’t sleep AT ALL.

Running with the Devil

This has milder Cage factor but considerable Fishburne factor and is very fun as a bad movie. The story is basically “what’s the stupidest possible way to get a few kilos of cocaine from Columbia to Vancouver?”

High-Rise

One of Ben Wheatley’s best movies, based on the J.G. Ballard novel. It’s a surreal, conceptual depiction of class conflict in a high rise where the residents are blocked off from the outside world. Plenty violent.

 

 

 

 

The Decade in Film

Featured image from Guilty of Romance 

My primary aim in putting this retrospective together was honesty. There are tons and tons of aggregate lists going around from various large publications and critical institutions and most of them are similar to each other and very boring. Aggregation is boring. It irons out distinctness and pretends to objectivity when really it’s a nexus of groupthink and echo chamber effects. I don’t want to read critics polls, I want to read subjective lists from individual people. The quirks and eccentricities of a particular person’s taste are far more interesting to me than the lowest common denominator.

It’s in this spirit that I approached this list. I didn’t put anything on here because I felt like I was supposed to or because it has perceived consensus status or because I expect people would think better of me if I pretended to like it. Nor did I omit anything for any such reason. I did my best to pick the things I honestly like. The first half is a ranked list of my 50 favorite movies this decade. If something’s not on there, either I didn’t see it or I didn’t like it as much as these movies. The second half is an unranked list of 50 honorable mentions, diversified by genre.

Common reaction to lists of this sort include:

“But how could you not pick my own favorite?!”

“Pfffff this dumbbell doesn’t even have Fury Road.”

“Aren’t lists like this supposed to include Moonlight?

Feel free to react like this, but I don’t think it’s likely that I’m wrong about anything on this list, because it is a list of things that I personally like and I feel like I have a good handle on that.

Part of what I enjoy about writing lists like this one is the chance to revisit old opinions. Especially when one really loves a film, it’s a shame to see it once, form an opinion of it, and then file it away and never return to it. For each film on the list and many others, I considered how well I remember it and how sure I am of what I think of it. I revisited anything I was foggy or unsure about. It was very rewarding! It all felt worth another look, even if the result was that I liked some things less than I thought I did. A number of titles dropped off the list while a number of others jumped closer to the top.

My viewing in general was reasonably comprehensive. I’ve seen most of the stuff that’s shown up on other decade lists. The only filmmakers who I really wanted to catch up on but failed at were Frederick Wiseman and Wang Bing (both of whom made quite a few very long movies this decade). I also haven’t seen a number of significant films from 2019 that I don’t yet have access to.

I think it was a pretty great decade overall, though maybe not so great for American cinema. And alas, it was a terrible decade for my beloved horror genre–probably the worst decade in horror since the 50’s. (Though I guess it was a great decade in horror from the point of view of people who don’t generally like horror, as my big problem was that most horror was toothless and aimed at a crossover audience.) The most notable trend that I notice on my list is that I went for a lot of digital movies that embrace their character as digital. Digital is often for the worse when it’s used as a cheaper approximation of film. But there are things that one can do with digital photography that one can’t do with film, and many of my favorite movies of the decade were ones that exploit the unique capabilities of digital photography and foreground their digital character rather than trying to hide it.

Top 50

1) Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, 2010)

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Staggering. Ruiz made two films that seem to summarize many of his formal and thematic interests: this and Love Torn in a Dream. It’s fascinating that these two works fall at absolute polar extremes of his stylistic range. LTIAD is his densest and most frenetic film while this is his most languorous and elegant.

It’s built out of the materials of the 19th century novel: multi-generational webs of causal entanglement tied together by the sorts of coincidences that suggest that destiny has an aesthetic sensibility. Ruiz’s fantastical approach gradually sheds any sense of realism and reveals a foundation of dream logic. Mysteries of Lisbon finds the common ground between Manoel’s Destinies and Time Regained.

At the level of image and sound, this is pure, distilled essence of Ruiz. Four and a half hours of intoxicating cinematic bliss. The first time I saw it I was so enchanted that I watched it again the very next day. I’ve gone back and revisited it a few times and I’ve felt even more enamored with it each time.

2) Blackhat (Mann, 2015)

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No American film from this decade comes anywhere close to Blackhat for me. I don’t even know how many times I’ve watched it, but it has to be at least fifteen. The film makes absolutely stunning use of digital cinematography, and at the same time thematizes the materiality of the digital. Day to day, we experience the internet as a rarefied, disembodied presence. Blackhat emphasizes the physical groundedness of every aspect of cybercrime: the hacker as flesh and blood, hacking as infiltrating a physical system, the physical realization of the consequences. Casting Chris Hemsworth as the lead was a stroke of genius. The physical bearing of the ex-con is an important trope in Mann’s cinema, and I don’t know if any of his leads have nailed this sort of wary guardedness as well as Hemsworth does here.

But I think the best way to explain why I love Blackhat so much is just to direct you to this epic Michael Mann supercut. Blackhat isn’t in it, but if you know the film well you can see exactly which moments would have been included.

3) Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, 2012)

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When we see are sitting in the garage seeing Noriaki through three car windows while two different mirrors pointing behind us obliquely suggest the outside world, that might be peak Kiarostami. The Iranian master’s second international production (French-Japanese, in this case) is about a sort of love triangle between a young student moonlighting as a prostitute, an elderly professor who hires her for a night of asexual companionship, and her violently jealous boyfriend. It contains many of his most distinctive tropes and themes to an extreme degree: subjective experience of time, extraneous information, frames within the frame, looking in from the outside, looking out from inside, disorienting pairings of sound and image, oblique reflections, failures of understanding across social boundaries, the various roles of women in a patriarchal society, and of course, endless driving.

4) A Woman’s Revenge (Gomes, 2012)

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I get goosebumps just thinking about this movie. On the one hand, it is a triumph of classical mise-en-scène. Evoking Rivette, Resnais, and Oliveira in various respects, the staging is so refined and sumptuous that I can barely contain myself. A bored man of leisure accompanies a beautiful woman (Rita Durão) home, ostensibly for an evening tryst. But then she drops the fucking axe and this becomes an absolutely searing excoriation of a world (and a world cinema) that sees women in terms of their relations to men. Rita Azevedo Gomes has a new film, The Portuguese Woman, which I have not been able to see yet, but just looking at the trailer suggests that it’s a formidable work.

5) Mountains May Depart (Jia, 2015)

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No one working in film today surpasses Jia Zhangke in formal precision and efficiency. The micro level both instantiates and allegorizes the macro themes. Every shot, every cut, every use of music reflects a unified vision and meticulous attention to detail. For the connoisseur of controlled, exacting filmmaking, Jia’s cinema is a feast.

All of Jia’s films are about rapid economic and cultural change in China. Mountains is a triptych of stories about a woman in Shanxi (Zhao Tao) and her family, set in 1999, 2014, and 2025. There’s a veneer of realism, but it’s disrupted by jarring moments of surrealism. The shifts in time are matched by shifts in cinematic style. The aspect ratio gets progressively wider as the characters become more distant from each other. The jump to the bizarre and critically divisive third section, where Jia’s style leaps 10 years into the future, is the most exhilarating cinematic moment of the decade for me. The first time I watched the movie, I was standing bolt upright in the middle of my living room talking to myself: “Whaaaaaaaaat?!  Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!”

One other note: while nearly everything about the characters’ lives changes between the film’s three segments, the one repeating element is that Zhao Tao’s character makes dumplings. While it is a pessimistic film overall, the suggestion that food traditions can be a way for individuals to preserve cultural value through massive social transformations is very resonant and moving for me and reminds me of this short that Jia shot on an iPhone.

6) Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2010)

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The film begins with writer James (British opera singer William Shimell) giving a talk in Tuscany about authenticity and arguing that a copy can be just as good as the original. He spends the afternoon with a French antiques dealer Elle (Juliet Binoche), who he has ostensibly just met. Over the course of the film, their relationship abruptly transforms in surprising, surreal ways that relate to James’ theory of authenticity. For me it is a miraculous film, entrancing to watch and fascinating at every level. So much has been said about it already that I just want to call attention to one aspect that doesn’t get as much attention: the acting. Shimell, in his first screen acting performance, is marvelously abrasive. Binoche’s range here reaches from the shyest seduction to the most withering fury. I don’t know if any film more fully showcases her talent.

7) Ash Is Purest White (Jia, 2018)

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Ash is Purist White is in some ways a sister film to Mountains May Depart. Both follow Zhao Tao through recent Chinese history and both are about living through rapid change. While Mountains is the bolder, more ambitious film, Ash exhibits even tighter integration of formal and thematic elements. It is essentially a gangster movie, but takes the perspective of the gangster’s moll. When her beau is threatened by young upstarts, she makes a fateful decision that lands her in prison. Most of the story follows the events after she is released five years later. While the film evokes Hong Kong crime cinema in various ways (e.g., the use of the theme music from John Woo’s The Killer), I take it to also be closely connected with Japanese postwar yakuza movies. A very common theme of these Japanese movies is the way the economic desperation of the postwar era was instrumental in destroying traditional codes of honor. Old guard yakuza essentially had nothing protecting them except for these codes, which were cast aside as the starving younger generation usurped power. In Jia’s film, the same dynamic is driven not by economic desperation, but by rapid growth. It is the westernization of China—a sort of cultural atomic bomb—that destroys the old codes of honor.

Throughout the film, Jia uses digital cameras that would have been available at the time the action takes place. The one exception is the prison section, which is shot on film, suggesting timelessness. While the shifting digital photography conveys the passage of time, the film interlude suggests that time stood still for the character during her five years of incarceration. When she is released into a changed world, she navigates it the only way she knows how: as a jianghu gangster who lives outside the law but respects an increasingly outmoded code of honor. It should also be mentioned that Ash is Purest White is a very funny movie, especially as it follows the cons and hustles the protagonist deploys in her quest to get home.

8) Horse Money (Costa, 2014)

Perusing reviews I saw a lot of remarks like “don’t try to understand it, just let it wash over you.” This is pretty much always a bad take, but especially here. This movie is about something extremely specific, and one really needs a basic background understanding of the history of Cape Verde, the Fontainhaus neighborhood, and the Carnation Revolution to be able to situate it. Ideally, one also would have previously seen Costa’s Fontainhaus trilogy.

Horse Money feels like Straub-Huillet in purgatory, and the alternating use of abstract institutional spaces and near total darkness is mesmerizing. The two leads, Ventura and Vitalina Varela, are the most unforgettable performers to appear in any film this decade. There is also a companion film titled Vitalina Varela that I haven’t been able to see yet.

9) High Life (Denis, 2018)

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Juliette Binoche in High Life (2018)

It’s odd to see a Claire Denis movie without Agnès Godard’s cinematography, but I think Yorick Le Saux does a great job (he’s previously worked with Assayas and Ozon, among others). It certainly looks different from other Denis films, but the look suits the coldness of the production design. By the way, Denis totally read Foucault on prisons when thinking about the set design.

What most interests me about High Life is the way Denis orchestrates an emotional experience. Now, it’s not an emotional experience you’re necessarily going to want to have. I’m personally very interested in negative emotional responses to art, and I’m partial to art that disturbs me to the core. This is definitely that. I spent a couple hours aimlessly wandering the streets of Vancouver after a 10pm screening and then it chased me into my nightmares and hung around in the pit of my stomach for several more days.

Leading theories of disgust suggest that the emotion is an evolved response that alerts us to potential pathogens. This being the case, it makes sense that our reflexive response to the bodily fluids of strangers is typically disgust. Denis deploys copious bodily fluids throughout High Life to push the audience’s emotional buttons. There are few films outside of gross-out comedies and gory horror movies with this quantity of blood, semen, urine, and breast milk. The nonstop deluge of bodily fluids synergizes with the sublime creepiness of Juliet Binoche’s Medea-in-space and the ickiness of her reproductive experiments. The film achieves a sort of monotone of medical bleakness that lulls the audience into complacency only to set us up for some very aggressive catharses. I can’t think of another recent film that goes to such lengths to make the audience feel things that they surely would rather not feel. I’m 100% here for it.

10) Welcome to New York (Uncut Version) (Ferrara, 2014)

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“Bouillabaisse is like a sex party of the fish.”

Warning: the version of this released in the US was censored (20 minutes cut out) and should be avoided at all costs (Ferrara was adamantly against the cut version being released). There are European blu-rays with the correct 125 minute cut. Since cutting the film was an unforgivable betrayal, I think one would be entirely justified in resorting to internet shenanigans to see the proper version.

This is THE movie about the psychopathy of the global elite and my pick for the Zeitgeist film of the decade. Gerard Depardieu is absolutely revolting as Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He’s like a walking embodiment of the global finance system. It’s such a vile performance that Ferrara starts the film with a non-diegetic scene where Depardieu dissociates himself from the character. The movie has a genre-hopping three act structure: softcore porn, police procedural, and chamber drama. The most haunting moment is perhaps the brief glimpse we get of a very small group of protestors—women of color, easily ignored. This was still more than 3 years before #metoo. The amplified echo of that moment in our real world history is part of what makes this movie resonate so ferociously. And then there’s Jacqueline Bisset as Strauss-Kahn’s billionaire wife. She is at least as chilling as he is disgusting. Her rush to replace the art in her husband’s luxury prison and what she ends up replacing it with (revealed after a stunning fourth wall break) is just mind-blowing.

11) The Mule (Eastwood, 2018)

The Mule Movie Review

The Mule is a total banger. The premise is drawn from a true story: 90 year old horticulturist Earl Stone becomes a top cartel mule. At the surface level, it’s a film about white privilege. Being an old white guy is like a superpower. You can just walk right by the cops carrying the drugs and they won’t even see you. Anyone who has written Eastwood off as a partisan hack will be surprised by how confrontationally he depicts law enforcement mistreating nonwhite people. By the way, I have heard several complaints about the scenes in the movie where Earl says casually racist things to nonwhite people. Some people think that these scenes are themselves racist. I find this interpretation so silly that it’s hard for me to seriously respond to it, but nonetheless: c’mon! The point of these scenes is that an old white guy can do or say whatever he wants and the world will extend him deference by default. The relevant scenes reveal the way that nonwhite people feel awkwardly obliged to give casual racism from an old white guy a pass: he’s just an old white guy, what else can you expect?

But The Mule is not just a sociopolitical commentary. It’s also Eastwood’s most personal film in a long time. Horticulture is a thinly veiled stand-in for filmmaking, and Earl is a thinly veiled stand-in for Eastwood himself. He confronts his greatest regret in life: losing his family. Eastwood cast his actual daughter as Earl’s daughter who hates his guts. Dianne Wiest brings down the fucking house as his ex-wife. Nothing made me cry harder this decade than her big scene. It’s not even close.

12) J. Edgar (Eastwood, 2011)

My pick for the most undervalued film of the decade. It’s an unqualified masterpiece and one of Clint’s greatest accomplishments of mise-en-scène. The lighting is stunning throughout. The theme of the duality of the individual is so strongly emphasized by the lighting that it doesn’t even need to be alluded to in dialogue or narration (and if it had been alluded to it would have come across as heavy-handed).

This is one of many cases in Eastwood’s filmography where he manages to achieve an ambivalent outlook on a subject that a lesser filmmaker would have used as a punching bag. It’s a marvel how masterfully Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black balance a critical stance towards Hoover with bottomless compassion. For context, Black also wrote Milk and is a notable gay rights activist who was involved in defeating California’s Proposition 8. Hoover’s repressed homosexuality is the film’s primary interest, though this theme mostly stays just beneath the surface and is only really foregrounded at the end.

The organizing hypothesis of the film is that the entire fucking FBI is an externalization of Hoover’s repressed sexuality. All of the identical, clean-shaven, precisely groomed agents in matching black suits with perfectly toned abs underneath? Narcissism. Ever more sophisticated surveillance techniques and curtailments of the fourth amendment? Voyeurism.

Meanwhile, Judi Dench is an exquisite mommy-from-hell and possible blueprint for Beatrice Horseman. J. Edgar’s futile quest for her approval transforms into a quest for the nation’s love and adoration…which is not forthcoming, because outlaws are far more romantic than cops. Another central concern of the film is the way Hoover’s craven need to be adored shaped the FBI’s midcentury public relations campaign, which was characterized by a very loose relationship with the truth. This is no doubt a comment on Hoover’s legacy and the present day FBI, taken up again in Eastwood’s recent film Richard Jewell.

Where the film ends up, though, is at a place of compassion for Hoover and his lifetime of self-denial. J. Edgar is perhaps the saddest American love story since Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, and the garish aging makeup used on Leonardo DiCaprio and his would-be lover Armie Hammer suggests the scarring and wear of decades of repression.

13) Romancing in Thin Air (To, 2012)

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No movie from this decade manifests a more profound belief in the power of cinema. It’s a love story between two broken people (Louis Koo and Sammi Cheng!) hiding from the world way up in the mountains—a jilted famous actor and a woman whose husband has gone missing—and you better believe it made me weep. It’s one of the greatest films of all time about the feedback loop between art and life.

14) You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, 2012)

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The ultimate late work. The setup is that a playwright has died and left instructions to summon famous French actors who appeared over the years in performances of the playwright’s Eurydice to watch and evaluate a recording of a young theatre troupe’s new staging of the play. As they watch, the actors slide into their old roles, which they are in some cases no longer anywhere close to the appropriate age for. I don’t even know how to express how much I love this film; it’s so much more magical than any description could possibly convey. It has the full weight of life.

15) A Touch of Sin (Jia, 2013)

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Both the English and Mandarin titles (the latter translates to “heavenly fate”) suggest the wuxia genre. A Touch of Sin uploads various tropes from the wuxia genre into a quartet of stories (based on true events) about violence as a response to ways that global capitalism is reshaping China. The four segments each have a distinct visual style that is adapted to the four different locales. I really appreciate the way that Jia declines to moralize about the violence depicted and instead focuses attention on the context from which it emerges.

16) The Turin Horse (Tarr, 2011)

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Jeanne Dielman if the intended audience were disgruntled horses. I’m here for it.

17) The Other Side of the Wind (Welles, 2018)

It’s hard to know what to do with this one. A legendary lost work from one of the medium’s greatest artists has finally been released in a compromised form, but the relevant compromises are actually highly appropriate to the subject matter. It’s intimidating, difficult, maddening, fiery, and essential.

18) Knight of Cups (Malick, 2015)

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Malick’s Antonioni movie. I rank this above the next two only because it’s more enigmatic and I have less of a grip on it, and so it’s the one I feel the strongest impulse to continue to watch over and over again. I know that a lot of people don’t like late Malick. We are going to have to agree to disagree. It’s not a close call for me. I can tell that these movies are great just by looking at them. The proof is right there on the screen. They are both immediately pleasant and endlessly rewarding.

19) Song to Song (Malick, 2017)

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Malick’s Faust. It’s arguably the purest Malick movie, and so the one that I expect haters to hate the most. Parts of it might seem a bit saccharin, but I’ve found that thinking of it as Faust really helps.

20) The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)

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A grand cinematic response to the problem of evil and part of what I see as an informal trilogy pairing events from Malick’s life with spiritual themes (To the Wonder: his marriage to a French woman/God’s silence; Knight of Cups: his unproductive period/sin and decadence; Tree of Life: his brother’s death/the problem of evil). I regret watching the extended cut on the Criterion DVD (which is an alternate cut, not meant to supersede the theatrical cut). It tries to balance Brad Pitt’s performance with Jessica Chastain’s and this seriously damages the movie.

21) 24 Frames (Kiarostami, 2017)

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This is perhaps the most abstract distillation of Kiarostami’s cinema. On the surface, it resembles Five Dedicated to Ozu more than his other recent work, but it can also be taken in close connection with his other digitial films as a meditation on the ontology of images in the digital age. Kiarostami takes one painting and 23 photographs and animates them using superimposition and digital animation. Glitches are often unfixed, which highlights the artificiality of certain elements of the images. An interest that pervades all of Kiarostami’s work is the function of frames in directing the attention of the viewer. He has said that it’s hard to get people to really look at something, and it seems to help a great deal if you put a frame around it. His films are full of imbedded frames: car windows, doorways, mirrors, etc. I take the title of the film to be a pun connecting a frame of film with a frame of the sort that encloses an image. Each of the 24 frames features a frame or some kind of a play on a frame: windows, a rectangular arrangement of trees, a fence, the ocean shore and horizon, etc.

22) Silence (Scorsese, 2016)

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Some of Scorsese’s best movies are about faith, and in particular the struggle to preserve faith through trials and temptations. Silence completes the trilogy about challenges to faith that began with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. It’s based on the same material as the 1971 Shinoda film with the same title, but the Scorsese film is more interested in the Catholic side of the story while the Shinoda film is more interested in the Japanese side.

Silence is about Jesuit missionaries in Japan who are compelled to abandon their faith under threat of torture and death. It’s a harrowing film, but also very beautiful. Andrew Garfield is surprisingly great. It’s not an easy film to approach, but once I actually got myself to sit down in front of it I was fully enraptured.

23) A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Diaz, 2016)

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It’s an 8-hour opus about the Philippine Revolution that weaves historic events, a famous novel, and folklore together into a surreal narrative with two main branches, one male-centric and one female-centric. The male branch eventually involves transporting a dying man an absurd distance while the female branch focuses on a search in the mountains for the body of revolutionary hero Andrés Bonifacio. The use of high contrast black and white is stunning, even compared to Diaz’s other films, and the expressionistic imagery is in a league of its own. I had to pause it multiple times to read up on the history of the Philippine Revolution (which I already knew a good deal about but not enough), the novel El filibusterismo, and the folklore concerning Bernardo Carpio and tikbalangs. I would advise doing some googling beforehand.

24) Norte, the End of History (Diaz, 2013)

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Certainly the best place to start with Lav Diaz. It’s missing his trademark high contrast B&W, but it has by far the most engaging narrative of any of his long form works and it’s only 250 minutes long. It’s downright entertaining compared to his more typical stuff. It’s a revisionary Crime and Punishment that interrogates the relationship between the intelligentsia and the peasantry and replaces Dostoevsky’s spiritual optimism with an apocalyptic negativism about the movement of history. It might be the most pessimistic film of the decade.

25) Essential Killing (Skolimowski, 2010)

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Elemental cinema. Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban fighter who is captured and then escapes in a snowy European wilderness. There’s very little context or dialogue. It’s just a focused study of a man in an impossible situation with an absolute will to survive. Turn off the lights and preempt any possible disruptions. This is about as intense as movies get. By the end I was standing bolt upright holding my breath. The images of blood on snow are unforgettable.

26) Guilty of Romance (Uncut Version) (Sono, 2011)

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The proper film is 145 minutes long. There is also a 113 minute version that should absolutely be avoided.

My favorite exploitation movie of the decade. It’s a pinku Belle de Jour combined with a gory serial killer police procedural and it centrally involves Kafka’s The Castle. It centers on the relationship between a bored housewife and a female college professor who moonlights as a street prostitute. All content warnings apply, this is a very transgressive movie.

27) Life Without Principle (To, 2011)

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A riff on Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie, set at the onset of the global financial crisis. It puts dreck like The Big Short to shame. Don’t expect To’s usual fireworks, there’s almost no action. This is a focused morality play about the way the amoral ravenousness of the global financial system plays out in the lives of particular individuals. It’s one of four movies that To made this decade examining the soul-killing forces exerted on upwardly mobile young professionals under 21st century capitalism. The other three appear as honorable mentions below: Office and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 1&2.

28) The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, 2013)

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The exhilaration of being horrible. No movie this decade has this level of propulsive energy. It took courage for Scorsese not to moralize. As though he needed to!

29) The Irishman (Scorsese, 2019)

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I don’t know where to put this. I expect I’ll need a few more viewings and a long period of reflection before my opinion of it crystalizes, but here’s a guess for now. It’s grim and fatalistic, overflowing with great acting.

30) SPL 2: A Time for Consequences [aka Kill Zone 2] (Cheang, 2015)

The best action movie of the decade. It’s a sequel in name only and you don’t need to see the first one beforehand (though it’s worth seeing in its own right). The black market trade in human organs is perfect subject matter for Cheang’s horror-influenced, brutal approach to Heroic Bloodshed. Tony Jaa and Wu Jing are two of the best martial artists in movies today and this is a stunning showcase for their skills. Louis Koo is unforgettable playing against type as the waifish villain. And you better believe there’s a CGI wolf.

31) Drug War (To, 2012)

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Lean and nasty. This was produced in mainland China, and To had to contend with government censors. It’s amazing how effectively he manages to critique Chinese authoritarianism given the circumstances. The driving force of the narrative is China’s draconian drug laws and the automatic death penalty for meth distribution. This gives meth traffickers an absolute incentive not to be captured alive and guarantees a maximally bloody drug war.

32) Bastards (Denis, 2013)

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This might have the blackest dark heart of darkness of any noir ever. A man who has mostly forsaken connections with his rotten family of origin is summoned back by his sister when his niece is the victim of a horrific sexual assault. Like many noirs, it’s a march towards annihilation dressed up as a search for answers. Denis’ use of digital video here dials up the sleazy feel of the various poorly lit spaces and dens of iniquity. Many content warnings apply, including the decade’s most disturbing use of a prop.

33)  La flor (Llinás, 2018)

This is the work of a deranged madman. I would certainly advise starting with Argentinian director Mariano Llinás’ first film, Extraordinary Stories, which is a four-hour movie consisting of three stories about piecing someone’s life together from their insane notebooks and maps (and sometimes getting it wrong). If you can’t handle that, forget about La Flor, which is 14 hours long and the most batshit movie of the decade. At one point maybe 2/3 of the way through the director comes out and thanks the audience for sticking with the movie. It has six parts, very uneven in length. The first four parts each contain the beginning and middle of a story but leave off before the ending. The fifth part is a full remake of Renoir’s A Day in the Country, which is itself an unfinished film. The sixth part begins in the middle and reaches a conclusion. The movie as a whole features four actresses, though there are tangents that they are left out of. The first part is a B movie about scientists investigating a cursed mummy, the second part combines a story about a musical couple with a story about a secret society trying to derive the secret to eternal life from the venom of a rare scorpion, the third part is a spy movie about four female spies where we get asbsurdly long digressions explaining the backstory of each, the fourth part goes off the rails into metafiction and returns to the themes of Extraordinary Stories, and by this point you’re like “ok fine, sure let’s just do a remake of A Day in the Country.” And then there’s that ending…

34) Good Time (Safdie Brothers, 2017)

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A throbbing, hallucinatory descent into hell. It’s one of the most intense movies of the decade and the score from Oneohtrix Point Never is pure fire. Good Time makes me feel enthralled about cinema.

35) On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong, 2017)

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Hong made a bunch of movies this decade starring Kim Min-hee about his real-life affair with Kim Min-hee. This is perhaps the most straightforward of the bunch, but also the most emotionally resonant. Kim is an exquisitely subtle actress and this film gives her the space to really show off what she is capable of. Hong likes to play with titles and the expectations they create, and knowing where Kim will eventually end up builds an odd sort of suspense. We imagine what lies beneath the veneer she puts up for others and what will be revealed when she’s finally on the beach at night alone.

36) Phoenix (Petzold, 2014)

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Petzold’s recent films all take a core idea from some classic film and build a quietly devastating drama around it. Phoenix is Holocaust Vertigo and it will rip your heart out of your chest and show it to you. Nina Hoss is extraordinary.

37) Lover for a Day (Garrel, 2017)

One of the most beautiful films of the decade. I underrated it when I did my previous Garrel write-up, because I watched it alongside nearly his entire filmography and it is quite straightforward compared to his earlier works. I revisited it recently and it looks far more luminous against the comparison class of films from the last decade. It is indeed a simple film by Garrel’s standards, but this simplicity is integral to what he’s trying to achieve. He’s stripping his cinema down to the bare essentials: human bodies, light, 35mm B&W, and a palette of basic emotions. 76 minutes of minimalist perfection.

38) The Assassin (Hou, 2015)

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Also one of the most beautiful films of the decade. Hou is a filmmaker of quiet contemplation, whereas wuxia is a genre of sensory overload. This antinomy is at the center of this film, in much the same way as the tension between Hou’s style and the club scene is at the center of Millennium Mambo. All the shots through gauzy fabric are just astonishing.

39) Museum Hours (Cohen, 2012)

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Philosophy of art colleagues take note: here’s your movie. It centers around the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The narrator/co-lead is a thoughtful museum security guard who keeps to himself and enjoys the quiet and the chance to commune with art—especially the Bruegel paintings. The other lead is a Canadian woman who is visiting Vienna while her cousin is ill in the hospital. She spends her days wandering the museum and eventually the two become friends. There aren’t many events beyond the two leads hanging around and talking, but this is an exceptionally rich film. A visiting lecturer explains at length that one reason Bruegel is so important is that he documented peasant life at a time when such things weren’t documented. Although much of the film is spent in the museum, it’s also a city symphony that takes us on a tour of Vienna. Extrapolating from the musings about Bruegel, Cohen explores at length the possibility of looking at scenes from everyday life the way we look at paintings. It’s also a film about the way that art and shared aesthetic experiences can bring people together and create a context for rich and valuable interaction. And on top of all this, it’s a celebration of public institutions that make great art accessible for people outside the upper class.

40) First Reformed (Schrader, 2017)

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Here I would just send you to Francey Russell’s excellent piece on the film, which articulates its merits far better than I could. The one thing I want to add to discourse surrounding First Reformed is that discussion of its many influences (including Diary of a Country Priest, Winter Light, The Sacrifice, and Ordet) ought to consider Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, which I take to be central to what Schrader is up to here.

41) Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015)

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Another Hong film starring Kim Min-hee, but far more conceptual than On the Beach at Night Alone. A film director visits Suwon to screen his film at a festival but arrives a day early and spends the extra time hanging out with a young painter. The film tells the same basic story twice with one major difference: the first time the director tries to observe various social norms, whereas the second time he speaks and acts without any filters.

42) The Lords of Salem (Zombie, 2012)

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It was a good decade for witch horror. This was the best witch movie, followed by Hagazussa:  A Heathen’s Curse, followed by The Witch. This is a moody slow burn that rewards patience with thrilling satanic imagery. Filmed in 2.4:1 on 35mm but looking just as grimy as his 16mm flicks, I think it’s easily Zombie’s best and the best horror film of the decade.

43) Stray Dogs (Tsai, 2013)

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Tsai Ming-liang’s last feature film (he claims). It is very challenging. It’s a threadbare, surreal portrait of people living ghost-like lives on the margins of society and it’s not afraid to hold a painful moment far past the breaking point. I strongly prefer this to trendier attempts to approach similar subject matter through satire and gimmicky cleverness.

44) Twixt (Coppola, 2011)

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This tripped out horror gem was inspired by one of Coppola’s own nightmares. Val Kilmer plays Hall Baltimore, a writer of pulpy horror novels who lost his daughter in a speedboating accident (the exact same way Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo died). While trying to sling witch-hunter books at a hardware store, he meets Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (an utterly fantastic Bruce Dern), who draws him into a local murder mystery involving a vampire cult. Coppola relates Hall Baltimore’s huckster status to his own late career marginalization: this is a minor masterpiece that knows it’s headed to the bargain DVD bin.

45) Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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My favorite Refn film by far (but still not as good as his series Too Old to Die Young). It’s a neon pink martial arts film set in Thailand. Many content warnings apply. This is the central part of the trilogy that begins with Drive and ends with The Neon Demon. Whereas the former is about a masculinity and the latter is about femininity, this is about emasculation (the transition between the two, as it were). There were some good mommies from hell this decade, but Kristin Scott Thomas has to be the best.

46) Unstoppable (Scott, 2010)

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Tony Scott’s last film succeeds at every level, but what is perhaps most remarkable is the way it situates the action within the shitty workdays of ordinary people. Denzel Washington is being forced into early retirement, his wife his dead and his daughters are working at Hooters to pay their way through school, while Chris Pine is sleeping on his brother’s couch because he’s estranged from his wife. It’s understood that Pine is the sort of lower pay employee that the company is replacing lifers like Washington with. This sort of long term boosting of the bottom line without regard for the human cost is echoed in the fast-paced decisions that the company executives make as the crisis unfolds, where working people are treated as disposable and then left to clean up the mess. These power dynamics give the incredibly well-staged action a degree of poignancy unmatched in recent genre movies. Also: it’s a decidedly Hawksian film, and the train-chasing set pieces unmistakably evoke Hatari!.

47) From What Is Before (Diaz, 2014)

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Six hours of Lav Diaz. It bears some comparison to Sátántangó but it has a linear structure. It begins in a remote village in the months leading up to the Marcos martial law era. Odd occurrences and bad omens foreshadow the coming atrocity. This is not Diaz’s most difficult movie, but it is very difficult. It is slow cinema to the bone, with few significant plot events relative to its running time. The subject matter ranges from unsettling to intensely disturbing. It’s got an unearthly feel and finds some truly upsetting images. Various content warnings apply. If you can handle this sort of thing, though, it’s definitely worth it. Follow it up with Diaz’s Season of the Devil, which is about the martial law era that followed upon the events depicted in this film.

48) White Material (Denis, 2010)

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A difficult and confrontational film, my take is that it’s about Fanon’s idea that the colonized internalize and reenact the violence of the colonizer in the process of decolonization and also about the meaning of whiteness in such a context. Isabelle Huppert is great (as always), but Nicolas Duvauchelle may be even more unforgettable as her son.

49) Margaret (Extended Edition) (Lonergan, 2011)

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The proper cut of this movie is 3 hours long. I definitely prefer it to the 2.5 hour version that was initially released. The longer version in particular has an Edward Yang quality, which is the highest compliment that can be paid to an epic coming of age movie like this. Peak Anna Paquin.    

50) A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, 2011)

The wildest performance of the decade didn’t come from Nicolas Cage or John Travolta or even Tom Hardy. Nope: hands down, that award goes to Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein. It’s a fascinating film across the board, especially unusual in the way it is driven primarily by intellectual disagreements. Viggo Mortensen plays Freud while Michael Fassbender  plays Jung.

Honorable Mentions (unranked)

50 picks diversified by genre

Passion (De Palma, 2012)

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I’m so grateful to have another erotic thriller from the master. It’s not peak De Palma, but it’s still better than almost everything else. First of all you’ve got the always great Rachel McAdams reprising her character from Mean Girls in a corporate setting. Then you’ve got some kinky sex games involving creepy masks. And finally you have a full-on De Palma split screen set piece where he demonstrates his peerless sleight of hand by getting you to watch Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn on one side of the screen while the pivotal murder happens on the other side. *Italian chef kiss*

Office (To, 2015)

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Written by and starring the great Sylvia Chang, it’s based on her stage musical. It’s about several intertwining stories involving a billion dollar company that’s about to go public when the financial crisis hits. It has by far the best set design of the decade and the whole thing is a marvel of staging. It’s not as biting as Life Without Principle, but it’s perhaps the decade’s greatest showcase of To’s craft.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (To, 2011); Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (To, 2014)

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These two really need to be taken together and so I snuck in an extra movie. They are both office romantic comedies, but the former is upbeat while the latter is one of To’s bleakest movies. The real purpose of the first one, as delightful as it is in its own right, is to set you up for the brutal sequel.

Blind Detective  (To, 2013)

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The third film in the trilogy that began with Mad Detective and Running on Karma. They can be watched in any order. All three depict individuals using supernatural mental powers to aid investigations. This one is a romantic comedy where a blind detective is brought out of retirement by a young female officer (Sammi Cheng) to help with a cold case. It is zany, violent, and hilarious

Three (To, 2016)

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A recurrent trope in Johnnie To is the collision of three forces with different aims. In this case it’s medicine, law enforcement, and organized crime. A seriously wounded criminal is in the hospital, biding his time and postponing treatment to try to create a chance to escape while a cop looms over him. A female doctor jousts with the cop over the relative importance of saving his life vs. making sure justice is served. One thing that makes this movie special is its bizarre and enthusiastic hybridization of the medical procedural genre and the crime genre. There is tons and tons of graphic surgery. Another thing that makes it special is the absolutely berserk finale. It’s one of To’s greatest set pieces, and that’s really saying something.

American Sniper (Eastwood, 2014)

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The most misunderstood movie of the decade. Its reception reveals that our tribalism has become so deep that it’s no longer even possible to thematize ambivalence across tribal lines without being widely misunderstood. I’m sorry, but anyone who thinks this movie is Chris Kyle hagiography is plainly wrong. I have trouble imagining how anyone could interpret it that way. Critics from the left complain about Islamophobia in the movie, but this is a clear case of careless viewers focusing on surface content and failing to think about how this content actually functions. American Sniper does depict Islamophobia, but it clearly does not endorse Islamophobia. The first part of the movie depicts Kyle’s activities as a sniper and focuses on the way that dehumanization of outsiders (i.e., Islamophobia) is predicated on deep bonds of interpersonal loyalty between soldiers. Kyle’s absolute commitment to protecting his brethren and dire capacity for violence are two sides of the same coin. Once Kyle leaves the military, he is a totally dysfunctional person. He has become so one-dimensional that he can only function in the expression of his narrow loyalty to fellow soldiers. The film dares to neither condemn nor embrace him. It mourns him, and what it primarily mourns is what military service did to him. It transformed his fundamentally admirable capacity for profound loyalty into something inhuman.

Hereafter (Eastwood, 2010)

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One of Eastwood’s strangest movies. It’s about big themes–death, the afterlife, fear of death, the impulse to believe in the afterlife—but it approaches these themes through strenuous attention to the sorts of small details that are normally left out of a movie like this in favor of sweeping romance and weepy drama. It focuses on three stories: one centering on a well off French woman (Cécile de France), one centering on a lower middle class American (Matt Damon), and one centering on an impoverished young boy in England. Each of the three has experienced a close brush with death; the Reaper cares not about social and political boundaries. What’s really remarkable about this movie is how unconventional it is in the aspects of these stories it focuses on. For instance, we spend a lot of time on Damon going to cooking school and the fact that he’s really into Dickens.

Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, 2012)

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Retribution is focused and exhilarating: light on narrative and dense with both action and ideas. It is by far the most interesting entry in the series at the formal and conceptual level and it’s one of the best action movies of the decade. Alice is stuck in a simulation facility and must escape while coping with a crisis of self-knowledge that relates to vital philosophical questions about memory, authenticity and identity.

Pompeii (Anderson, 2014)

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Fully a natural disaster movie and fully a gladiator movie (also a star-crossed lovers movie and a political fable), Pompeii is a legit banger. I’m surprised it wasn’t more popular, given that it stars the beloved Jon Snow alongside Emily Browning AND has Kiefer Sutherland (!) as a villain.

Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2010)

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Nice and twisted with incredible dialogue in a sui generis style. This is Lanthimos at his most impishly original.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Hyams, 2012)

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The best true B movie from America this decade. Easily. I can’t even believe how much immersive nightmarish atmosphere this achieves with its budget. No spoilers, but several higher profile sci-fi movies and TV shows have attempted the same premise and none have come close to this. Van Damme goes full Marlon Brando. And the score is so frickin’ good! Turn up your subwoofer.

Barbara (Petzold, 2012)

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Petzold’s Klute, wherein a characteristically brilliant Nina Hoss is stuck in a podunk town under the watchful eye of the Stasi. It’s a small film, but not at all slight.

Lady J (aka Mademoiselle de Joncquières) (Mouret, 2018)

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I complained at the time about The Favourite being nowhere near wicked enough and keeping its emotions too close to the surface. Mademoiselle de Joncquières is exactly the movie I wanted to see when I made this complaint. Based on the same Diderot story as Bresson and Cocteau’s collaboration Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, it depicts a jilted woman’s cruel revenge plot. It keeps its emotions buried below a veneer of politeness so that when the underlying wickedness does surface, it is appropriately shocking. Cécile de France is as good as it gets. Mouret’s neoclassical mise-en-scène is ravishing throughout.

The Ghost Writer (Polanski, 2010)

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A Hitchcockian wrong man movie by way of a Polanski slow burn. Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter who travels to Martha’s Vineyard to write the memoir of a Tony Blair stand-in played by Pierce Brosnan. While working on the project, he begins to suspect that his predecessor was murdered for uncovering a dangerous secret. This is one of the best modern political thrillers and also a very fine example of Polanski’s craft. What he does better than anyone else is build a sense of dread out of ostensibly benign details. If there’s a guy sweeping a porch in the periphery, Polanski will somehow render him obtrusively creepy without necessarily implicating him in any proper foreshadowing.

Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010)

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Scorsese draws extensively on Italian cinema throughout his body of work, but this is the one time when he’s gotten into Italian Exploitation territory. The reductive psychological diagnoses and the overly neat ending that renders all of the movie’s chaos legible are straight out of the giallo genre (thanks to Peter Labuza for this observation). This is one of Scorsese’s wildest, strangest, riskiest movies and it deserves recognition for its boldness and maniacal energy.

Road to Nowhere (Hellman, 2010)

A mystery wrapped in an enigma. Almost the entire film consists in a film within the film about the making of the very same film. A director making a movie about a woman’s disappearance unknowingly casts the very woman who went missing in the role of herself.

The Counselor (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 2013)

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Who knew Ridley Scott could be this campy? The director’s cut of this is one of the most fun movies of the decade. It’s worth the price of admission just for Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz’s scenery chewing.

The Skin I Live In (Almodóvar, 2011)

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I like my Almodóvar movies maximally twisted, and this is definitely that. No spoilers, but many content warnings apply and I suspect that some people would find it gravely offensive. I think there’s room for debate on that, but in any case I find the transgressive flair thrilling. I’m with Pasolini: “To be scandalized is a pleasure.” A lot of Almodóvar is about translating the trashiest possible Euro-exploitation plots into polished art cinema, and nobody working today does it better than he does. I would advise going into this knowing as little as possible.

Hard to Be a God (German, 2013)

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The gnarliest foray into medieval futurism since On the Silver Globe. It’s about a group of scientists living on a planet much like ours except the renaissance never happened and humankind is violently opposed to any sort of progress. The whole thing reeks of death and excrement. It came out of Putin’s Russia but it feels entirely appropriate to this decade in total.

Raw (Ducournau, 2016)

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There are lots of movies about going away to school for the first time. What most of them undersell is the amount of bodily fluids and the general sense of bodily porosity involved.  Raw spins these elements into a sort of vampire movie stripped of every genre trope. I’m impressed by how seamlessly it connects the exhilaration and horror of bodily awakening. Cannibalism has rarely been so appealing. Julia Ducournau is the young horror director who I am most excited to see more from.

Killer Joe (Friedkin, 2011)

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The best Matthew McConaughey performance. It’s a southern-fried white trash exploitation noir based on a play by Tracy Letts. There are movies that are sleazier than this and movies that are stagier this but no movie that is at once this sleazy and this stagey. Many content warnings apply.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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Another sweaty, sleazy southern noir, this time in Florida. Nicole Kidman and John Cusack hit all-time highs, with delightful turns from Zac Efron and Macey Gray. And of course, it wouldn’t be a southern sleaze movie without McConaughey. I don’t know if the Cusack masturbation scene will ever be topped.

Unsane (Soderbergh, 2018)

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It’s like Shock Corridor for the #metoo era, filmed on an iPhone. Soderbergh is remarkably effective at building a sense of confinement and powerlessness. Claire Foy is great. This is an immensely stressful movie to watch.

If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins, 2018)

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What I find so remarkable about this film is that despite being based on a James Baldwin novel and having a novelistic narrative, it is so expressive that you could remove all dialogue and narration and every bit of it would still be legible. Certain elements may seem overwrought, but they are proportionate if you think of Jenkins as deploying silent movie grammar. The villainous cop, for instance, is a silent movie fiend.

Transformers: Age of Extinction  (Bay, 2014)

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Bay’s best action movies are like 21st century Abel Gance. Gance would pack his movies so densely with technical tricks that the audience couldn’t possibly apprehend them all (e.g., 100 superimpositions when only 10 are distinguishable). Swap the imagery of the American military for Napoleon and there you go. This is my favorite entry in the series. No one plays a fake scientist better than Mark Wahlberg.

It’s certainly Bay’s wokest movie: Autobots as undocumented immigrants, simultaneously exploited as a resource and vilified, persecuted, and targeted for genocide. “There are no good aliens and bad aliens, there’s only us and them.” Humans nearly precipitate their own extinction through short-sighted greed while deep and nefarious connections fester between state apparatus and corporate overlords. There are Transformer hyenas! Autobots ride dinobots—a locus of ancient untapped power now freed from bondage—into battle to face a soulless facsimile of themselves. The action climax lasts an hour and a half. No fucks given about audience endurance for skull-rattling mech-combat.

13 Assassins (Miike, 2010)

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An elite team of 12 assassins and a hunter attempt to kill the shogun’s sadistic half-brother, who is guarded by an army of 200+. The cast and action are terrific and this is a deeply satisfying genre movie.

As the Gods Will (Miike, 2014)

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A lot of movies try to integrate a video game structure but few succeed as well as this one, which isn’t even based on a video game. The premise is the gods suddenly decide to intervene in human affairs, and what they do is teleport all the highschool students to these floating structures where they have to face a series of lethal challenges. There is massive carnage, but Miike uses red beads in place of most of the blood so it’s really not all that upsetting. It’s imaginative and very fun and works both as a horror movie and a high school comedy.

Fast Five (Lin, 2011)

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The Oceans 11 of the series, it’s easily the best heist movie and the best car chase movie of the decade. The sequence where we round up a crack team is just delightful. The heist itself is absolutely thrilling and the various twists sustain a high level of suspense throughout. The main crew is great and Joaquim de Almeida is the best villain in the series.

The Fate of the Furious (Gray, 2017)

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The primary overarching theme of the F&F series is that family loyalty is a superpower. This movie has in some ways been the most controversial entry, because fans have questioned whether Dom violates the code of family by shaking hands with Shaw (who killed Han, certainly a part of Dom’s family). I would argue that the “Justice for Han” contingent who dislike this entry are misguided, and thinking through the argument is a good way to see how interesting this movie actually is.

Shaw’s rehabilitation is set up in Furious 7 when Shaw and Dom mutually declare, “you shouldn’t have messed with a man’s family.” Shaw has the same code of family that Dom’s crew does. Dom’s decision to shake Shaw’s hand at the end of Fate of the Furious is grounded in the pair’s mutual recognition that they have both been motivated by the same code. It’s just as big of a concession for Shaw to forgive Dom’s transgression as vice versa. Let’s not forget how we got to this point: in a desperate situation, Dom saw that he and Shaw had a common enemy and he knew that Shaw would be a formidable ally. He reached out to Shaw through his mom, played by Helen Mirren (!), appealing to the code of family. Shaw delivered, and in the process won the audience’s sympathy with the adorable, hilarious, astonishing baby-soothing airplane shootout. When Dom shakes his hand, it’s not as the man who killed Han, it’s as the man who pulled off a miracle rescue of his son. Shaw contributed more to this rescue than any other character and he followed through on his promise even though it forced him to let his own quarry escape. Dom knows it, and you’re damn right he shakes his hand.

The Handmaiden (Park, 2016)

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A very fine Fingersmith adaptation and one of the most purely and immediately pleasant cinematic experiences of the decade. Great cast, including Kim Min-hee, who also stars in the two Hong Sang-soo movies above.

Shin Godzilla (Anno and Higuchi, 2016)

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The best Godzilla movie since the original 1954 Gojira. It throws information at you at a dizzying pace from the very beginning and then still manages to escalate to a hysterical crescendo of practical effects and Japanese collectivism. One thing I really dislike about 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the way that it not only loses touch with the series’ origin as a postwar anti-nuclear weapons statement, but basically treats nukes as convenient batteries for a benevolent Godzilla. Shin Godzilla goes in a much more intelligent direction by instead relating Godzilla to a number of more recent disasters that have impacted Japan.

Pacific Rim (del Toro, 2013)

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I couldn’t count the number of evenings when my sentiment has been, “what I really want right now is to watch Pacific Rim for the first time again.” It’s all the Robot Jox vs kaiju I ever wanted. Please pour this all over my face.

Love & Peace (Sono, 2015)

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I picked Sono’s gnarly exploitation movie Guilty of Romance in my top 50 above. This is the exact opposite. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Godzilla meets Toy Story, and it’s a rock opera AND a Christmas movie. It’s the most family-appropriate movie on this list.

Army of One (Charles, 2016)

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The funniest comedy of the decade by a large margin and my favorite Nicolas Cage performance in recent memory. He plays a Trump supporter-type who has a vision that God wants him to go to Pakistan and single-handedly kill Osama bin Laden. The part at the beginning where he tromps around Home Depot giving unsolicited, casually racist advice to other customers is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Damsels in Distress (Stillman, 2011)

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Now this is my kind of Greta Gerwig movie. She plays a sort of campus Don Quixote who leads a clique of absurd do-gooders on a quest to prevent suicides and start the next big dance craze. Endlessly droll, it’s one of my favorite comedies of the decade.

The Shallows (Collet-Serra, 2016)

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Shark horror is my jam and this is top-tier shark horror (both 47 Meters Down movies are also very good—it was a solid decade in shark horror). Collet-Serra is better than just about anyone else at giving the viewer a clear sense of orientation in the space where the action takes place. Blake Lively is perfect as the resourceful, self-possessed protagonist.

Carlos (Assayas, 2010)

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339 minute version. Wildly entertaining throughout, this does for 20th century internationalist leftist militants what Scorsese did for Italian-American gangsters.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2010)

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The most accessible Weerasethakul flick and probably my personal favorite. His work is always hard to pin down and seems to emerge unfiltered from his subconscious. This one is engaging and imaginative throughout, full of ghosts and creatures pulled directly from the low budget fantasy TV shows he grew up with.

Jauja (Alonso, 2014)

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A trippy South American version of The Searchers where Viggo Mortensen plays a Danish captain in Argentina searching for his daughter, who has run off with a young soldier. This is my pick for the best use of landscape in a narrative film this decade.

Magic Mike XXL (Jacobs, 2015)

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Very funny, very poignant, and replete with fantastic dancing. It’s about mitigating alienation in working class life through self-expression and community. The hangout movie—the movie that mostly just consists in people hanging out and talking—is a dying art. This is a great example. It’s a hangout movie plus dance numbers.

3 From Hell (Zombie, 2019)

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We can all agree that ready-made cult cinema is the worst. The harder question is how to delineate between a real exploitation movie and canned junk in the post-ironic era. For me, Mandy is a clear example of ready-made cult cinema. It’s too self-conscious and it tries too hard. I know some will disagree but my emphatic stance is that 3 From Hell is the real thing. It was made under genuine conditions of economic constraint (Zombie’s previous 31 was crowdfunded and he only got money for this because he agreed to make a sequel to an established franchise with a built-in audience) and comes from a place of sincere irreverence and disdain for polite constraints.

It’s part women-in-prison movie, part hangout movie, and part fugitives-on-the-lam movie. Many movies interrogate our love for villains and outlaws. Many of them land on moralistic, critical explanations. 3 From Hell is a refreshing hot shower of unapologetic immoralism. Why do we love villains and outlaws? Because they are awesome. This is mean, grimy, anti-elevated horror and I love it. It’s definitely not for everyone. Start with House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects. If you don’t love those, forget about it.

Flight (Zemeckis, 2012)

No one crashes a plane like Zemeckis. This is one of the best and truest movies about alcoholism, and Denzel Washington is immense.

The Color Wheel (Perry, 2011)

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Perry trades in Post-Mumblecore Cinema of Cruelty, where he traps you with totally unbearable characters for longer than you can reasonably endure. This is easily his best and least painful movie, though it’s plenty abrasive. It depicts a brother and sister with a creepily intimate relationship going on a road trip to retrieve the sister’s belongings from the house of her ex-boyfriend/former professor. It’s a twisted movie and very dear to my heart.

Mr. Turner (Leigh, 2014)

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I don’t know how biographically accurate it is, but I really don’t care. I love Timothy Spall and his performance here is singular. He explores the tension between the ugliness of painter William Turner’s disposition and the beauty of his work.

The Woman Who Left (Diaz, 2016)

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This is based on Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits.” Much as he did in his revisionary Dostoevsky adaptation, Norte, The End of History (in the top 50 above), Diaz sheds Tolstoy’s spiritual optimism and takes the story in an entirely different direction. In this version, a woman who has been imprisoned for 30 years is released. She learns that she was framed by her jealous, wealthy ex-boyfriend. She moves to his neighborhood intent on taking revenge. News broadcasts repeatedly announce an epidemic of kidnappings in the Philippines and rich people like the protagonist’s ex live behind considerable fortifications and only leave the house with a crew of armed guards. The protagonist is left to wait and bide her time. Over the course of this nearly four hour movie, she naturally slides into the role of caretaker for the poor people who live side-by-side with the wealthy elite. It’s hard for me to take the critique of capitalism in a movie like Parasite seriously when I compare it to something like this. While Parasite focuses on inequity in creature comforts in a rich country, The Woman Who Left focuses on the way that violence and rape are part of the baseline living standard of the global poor (and are taken for granted while public discourse frets about any threat whatsoever to the rich). Attempts to claim justice or assert dignity are only met with the swift and violent exercise of state power.

Season of the Devil (Diaz, 2018)

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A four hour musical about the martial law era in the Philippines. Imagine Trump supporters were given automatic weapons and effectively unlimited authority to keep the rest of us in line (and unlimited latitude to interpret what that means). Add the background context of a long post-colonial hangover and that’s basically a glimpse of the Marcos martial law era. Set that shit to music and that’s this movie. It’s about a woman who moves to a rural village to set up a medical practice but later disappears, and her husband’s search for answers about what happened to her (based on true events). There is an emphasis throughout on the way fascists exploit superstition to control the masses. Diaz might be the only filmmaker today whose work is as confrontational as the global political landscape warrants. This is an intensely disturbing film and the sung dialogue is extra, extra creepy.

Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, 2014)

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I never liked Bruno Dumont’s dramas but wow, do I love his comedies. This is certainly the strangest comedy I saw this decade. It’s an absurdist, deadpan 3.5 hour romp that follows two policemen as they investigate a series of bizarre killings where corpses were found inside of cows. They are pestered along the way by a gang of kids. This certainly wins the award for Best Use of Eyebrows.

Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, 2012)

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The filmmakers (associated with the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University) put a couple hundred Go Pro cameras on a Massachusetts-based commercial fishing boat and edited together a collage of footage that captures sensory details of life aboard the boat and fishing practices. There is no narration or interviews or exposition. There’s no moralizing about fishing or the environment or working conditions, but this is not to say that the movie paints a rosy picture. It is a swirling, churning, often disturbing work that might be labeled “Nautical Gothic.” It has that Melvillean man-against-nature darkness and doesn’t shy away from gruesome imagery of dying fish and evidence of polluted oceans.

Almayer’s Folly (Akerman, 2011)

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Chantal Akerman goes Herzog in this Joseph Conrad adaptation that moves the story from the late 19th century to the 1950’s. Almayer is a virulently racist Dutch trader in Malaysia who obsesses over the racial identity of the daughter he had with a Malay woman who he detests. It is a hypnotic tale of colonial purgatory that deserves much more attention than it’s gotten in America.

Split (Shyamalan, 2016)

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I really admire how bonkers this manages to be while still being commercial enough to make $280 million dollars and how risque it manages to be within the strictures of a PG-13 rating. James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy are both phenomenal. I didn’t even know I liked McAvoy until I saw this. One of Shyamalan’s best.

 

The Richard Jewell hot takes are garbage. And: the time I got polygraphed by the feds

The lead story on Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, released today, should be “Paul Walter Hauser gives breakthrough lead performance.” He’s amazing.

The actual lead story is infuriating: “Eastwood smears journalist by depicting her sleeping with an FBI agent for a tip.”

This is the primary hot take, and then there’s the secondary hot take: this is a right wing persecution fantasy straight from the heart of Trumpland. I just saw the movie and I can tell you with my highest level of confidence that both takes are hot garbage.

The primary hot take is more straightforward to dispense with.  Let’s be clear that the movie absolutely savages Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Kathy Scruggs. It savages her because she wrote and the newspaper printed a rushed, irresponsible story implicating Richard Jewell as a suspect in the bombing, when in fact he had discovered the bomb and saved lives. We have seen many, many examples of inadequately corroborated stories being published the last few years and reinforcing Trump’s “Fake News” narrative by in fact being fake news. We will get to the Trump issue below; suffice to say for now that I think that the journalist who wrote the story implicating Richard Jewell and the newspaper that printed it ought to be a fair target for critique.

But people aren’t mad that the movie savages her reputation as a journalist, they are mad that it suggests that she fucked Don Draper. The pearl-clutching horror is that a female journalist is depicted as sleeping with an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm in order to extract a tip. Seriously, this is what people are worried about: not whether she in fact irresponsibly published a story that put an innocent person through hell, but rather whether or not she fucked Don Draper for a tip.

In any case, this is not what happens in the movie! Reading it this way is willful bad faith. Very plainly, the two characters are depicted in a previous scene as already having a sexual relationship (or at least a flirtatious relationship that’s clearly on a sexual trajectory). Scruggs is depicted as playing up her thirst for information in a joking way as part of their flirtation. When she actually approaches him in the relevant scene, she does offer to have sex with him for a tip, but he clearly interprets her as joking. He gives her the tip, and when she suggests that they go have sex he indicates that he didn’t think she was serious and that sex isn’t necessary. She then indicates that she is actively interested in having sex with him.

Olivia Wilde herself has confirmed this interpretation in tweets today:

Here I want to ask the hot take folks: why is no one indignant about the reputation of the FBI agent? Isn’t it at least as bad to leak information for sex as it is to trade sex for information? (Though, again, I don’t even think the movie is depicting either thing as happening!) So, why is no one saying, “how dare Clint Eastwood smear the reputation of the FBI agent?”

I have a couple diagnoses. The first is ugly: implicit slut shaming. The hot takes that are so outraged by the way Scruggs is depicted are essentially slut shaming the fictionalized version of her. Why is it so horrible to be depicted as horny for Don Draper?

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The second is that this really isn’t about accuracy of biographical depiction or the sanctity of a person’s legacy, this is about tribalist flag waving. Ever since Eastwood’s Obama chair debacle, hipster critics and large swathes of the left have (very, very ignorantly) dismissed him as a right wing simpleton. I’ll get to that in a minute.

None of these people cared whether the depiction of Cheney in Vice was accurate and it’s highly unlikely they cared whether Ron Howard’s repugnant depiction of Max Baer in Cinderella Man was accurate. Nah, this is about sacrosanct idealization of journalists in the age of Trump, and it’s about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution exploiting the #metoo zeitgeist to divert attention from how bad they look in this movie.

So about that second hot take… is this a Trumpist tale of persecution by the media and FBI? Fuck no, it’s not. For one thing there is absolutely not a whiff of the “deep state.” But does it take up Trump’s Fake News narrative?

One could be excused for thinking such a thing if and only if one hasn’t seen Eastwood’s other movies (and if one hasn’t seen them I really don’t think one is qualified to sound off on this). Looking at the artistic context that Richard Jewell emerges from paints a clear picture. The movie is highly continuous with themes from previous works dating long, long before the age of Trump. I could write a dissertation on this topic but I will be as brief as possible and only discuss the most directly relevant examples:

Flags of Our Fathers (2006) unravels the mythology surrounding the famous photograph from Iwo Jima and the way that the government and media conspired to promote a false narrative while leaving the actual veterans without needed care and support.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is a movie in Japanese that sympathetically depicts the Japanese side of the battle. Eastwood said that he thought if was going to make a movie about the American side he should make a movie about the other side as well. (I know, such a dire jingoist!)

J. Edgar (2011) tells the story of the founding of the FBI and the way Hoover ruled it with an iron fist for decades, often exploiting its apparatus for his personal political aims. It is highly critical of the way that the FBI tries to sell itself to the pubic by glamorizing its activities and gaming the media. It is also highly critical of the FBI’s disregard for privacy and the Fourth Amendment

Sully (2016) depicts the bureaucratic nightmare that Sully was caught up in after the Miracle on the Hudson. It’s a kind of Rashomon riff that examines the sort of automatic, reflexive responses that actually saved the day and their incommensurability with bureaucratic codes and procedures, but also calls into question the capacity of individuals to assess their ability to achieve such responses.

The Mule (2018) is about a lot of things, but first and foremost it’s about white privilege and the way that an old white guy in a pickup truck is invisible to law enforcement. The movie very confrontationally depicts police mistreating nonwhite people and reveals a clear and nuanced understanding of the difference between the way that white people and nonwhite people experience interactions with the police.

It is against this backdrop that we must interpret Richard Jewell. Does that seem like a progression that would lead naturally to Trumpist flag waving? Does it suggest that Clint Eastwood is harboring a distinct white dude persecution complex? No!

The character of Richard Jewell is a schlub who wants to be a cop. He loves guns and belongs to the NRA. He’s a virgin and lives with his mom. Keeping in mind that Eastwood made a movie about the way that police disproportionately target minorities *LAST YEAR*, the natural thought is that he’s now turning to the alt-right basement dwellers and saying “it can happen to you, too. maybe you shouldn’t be so dismissive of police accountability movements.”

It seems dead obvious to me that this is what Clint is up to. He pokes pretty good fun at Jewell, revealing that he’s not afraid to laugh at a deplorable. But Eastwood is above all else a humanist, and so many of his films over the years have been about outsiders making connections in unusual circumstances (e.g., Honkey Tonk Man, A Perfect World). That’s also where he ends up with this material. He finds sympathy for Jewell: a fat guy who lives with his mom, who no one takes seriously and who everyone bullies and calls mean names. Of all people, the one character other than his mom who is genuinely decent to Jewell is Sam Rockwell’s back-alley lawyer, who struggles with Jewell’s difficult personality but comes to value his kindness and sincerity. This element is sweet and moving and very in line with Clint’s previous work. In perhaps the most telling moment in the entire film, when Rockwell learns that Jewell is moving on to a different job in hopes of eventually becoming a cop, he gifts him a crisp $100 in exchange for a promise: “Don’t become an asshole.”

Back to the big picture and the point about flag waving: if there is such a thing as Trump derangement syndrome, it is surely adopting the posture that anything that Trump attacks should be immune to attack. Trump has attacked the FBI and the media. I never thought I’d see the day when leftists would get all defensive because Clint Eastwood made a movie critiquing the FBI and media, but here we are. You can definitely leave me out of that shit. The FBI is not our friend, and although not ALL journalists are like Scruggs, it should certainly be fair game to depict the media harshly (I mean Nightcrawler? No rage there?).

And now to live up to my promise from the title: yes, I got polygraphed by the Feds. This experience certainly helped me relate to Richard Jewell, though it was a very minor incident by comparison.

I was in grad school in Princeton, NJ and I had just been grocery shopping at a very large, popular grocery store. I was making salsa, and I was aghast to slice into a tomato and find a frickin’ sewing needle. I immediately emailed the grad student listserve, knowing that most people shop at the same grocery store: “Yo double check your produce for sewing needles!” Within thirty seconds I got a response from a friend living in Philly: “holy shit call the police right this minute, there have been a string of food tampering incidents like this around here, but I don’t think anything has been reported in Jersey. This is a really big deal.”

So, I called the police and I called the store. Neither cared. The store offered me a refund for the tomato. My partner at the time had a friend whose mom worked for the FDA. We called her and got the number for the local FDA and called them. No one cared. We threw the needle away. The next morning I got a call from the store asking me to bring the needle in for investigation. They gave me 50 bucks and apologized. We also got an unexpected call telling us that a family friend’s mother had died. We drove straight down to the Baltimore area to console the friend and attend the funeral. Late that night I got a call from special agents from the FDA. They wanted to talk to me ASAP. I told them I was in Baltimore and they’d have to wait till I got back. They said they were driving down there right away and that they would be at my doorstep at 6am.

Very long story short: they pressured me to come with them to a field office. They threatened that they would make my life difficult if I refused. I got my partner to follow us with a separate car so I would have the option to leave, but they said that she could only stay on the premises if she agreed to be interviewed. Knowing what I know now, I would have lawyered up. But at the time my anti-authoritarianism was less developed and I hadn’t thought through what to do in such a situation. Knowing that I had nothing to hide, I agreed to be interviewed (as did my partner) and I answered all their questions honestly. They made it very clear that I was the primary suspect. They said that the person who reported the tampering is the culprit 97% of the time. They said they were the ones who busted the woman who lied about finding a finger in her Wendy’s chili. They repeatedly said that if I lie to them I would be going to jail that very day.  Eventually, they busted out the polygraph. They said that agreeing to take it would make my life a lot easier, and that if I refused they would make things as hard as possible for me going forward. I agreed. It was a farce. They kept asking me things like “have you ever lied to avoid trouble?” and I was like “I’m sure I have.” “When?” “I don’t know” “well in order to take anything you say seriously we need you to tell us that you’re not a rotten liar.” “I’m not a rotten liar.” “but have you ever lied to avoid trouble?” “I’m sure I have.” “When?” and so on. I eventually got them to rephrase the question as “Do you specifically remember at this very moment any occasions when you lied to avoid trouble other than that one time you lied to your mom about leaving the gate open?’ This version I was able to say “no” to and pass the test.

I walked away from this experience unscathed, but it gave Jewell’s speech special power for me when he asked the FBI agents (to paraphrase), “do you really think the next security guard is going to report what they find after seeing what happened to me?”  This is exactly how I felt after my experience. “Well, that teaches me to report something.” And that was the last time I ever reported anything.

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