Favorite Movies: 2010-2014

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I meant to rank my favorite films of this decade’s first half back in January, when it might’ve been more revelant (is it ever?), but hemmed and hawed at the idea, since I wasn’t sure I had a clear number one for that five-year period.

However, I’ve revived the idea in honor of this blog’s 4th anniversary (and 400th post!).

Based on instinct, Boyhood ends up at the top—an obvious, expected choice, I guess. Conceptually, it tries something no other film has ever done. Arguably, not every individual scene works, but the experience of viewing them all as a whole is where the film makes an impact. I’ve already noted I’m uncertain as to how well it will age, if the novelty will eventually wear off, or even how often I’ll go back and watch the whole damn thing again. For now, it still feels fresh and immense. We’ll see where it places on my end-of-the-decade list.

Other films are near the top for decidedly different reasons. Frances Ha isn’t flawless (which is why it ended up in the runner-up slot), but it was so unexpected—a throwback, for sure, but a lyrical one that managed to feel both timeless in style and of-the-moment in subject matter. I haven’t seen Oslo, August 31 a second time, but my recollection of it is still vivid and undiluted. Stories We Tell, on the other hand, I’ve seen three times, with each viewing more rewarding and revealing. Drive, Holy Motors, Exit Through The Gift Shop and Moonrise Kingdom remain films I can imagine returning to again and again; it’ll be interesting to see where The Act of Killing ends up on future lists given another viewing of companion film The Look of Silence (seen in Toronto last year but not included here due to a still-forthcoming theatrical release).

And then, we have The Master, only my #7 film of 2012 but perhaps the one I’ve thought about more than any other this decade. I’ve included an image of it here rather than Boyhood because it’s the film I most want to see again, right now, if I had nearly three hours to kill watching a movie. Chalk up not viewing it since 2012 to the fact that it is a demanding film, not to mention the task of being able to watch the late Philip Seymour Hoffman now without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. While I still wouldn’t rate it above There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s unclassifiable, post World War II cum Scientology epic is ambitious, radical and really weird—and I suspect, built to endure.

1. Boyhood
2. Frances Ha
3. Oslo, August 31
4. Holy Motors
5. Stories We Tell
6. Drive
7. Exit Through The Gift Shop
8. The Master
9. The Act of Killing
10. Moonrise Kingdom
11. Mommy
12. Weekend
13. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives
14. Under The Skin
15. Marwencol
16. Take This Waltz
17. The Arbor
18. How To Survive A Plague
19. Winter’s Bone
20. Dogtooth
21. Beasts of The Southern Wild
22. I Killed My Mother
23. Jack Goes Boating
24. Inside Llewyn Davis
25. The Past

Idle: ONLY GOD FORGIVES

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ONLY GOD FORGIVES is similar to DRIVE, only without any redeemable characters, narrative momentum, or moral structure whatsoever. That may sound a little glib, but sadly, it’s not much of an exaggeration. Once again working with director Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling is an American drug dealer in Thailand, seeking revenge for his reprehensible brother’s death at the goading of his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), an operatic villain (when posed with cigarette in hand, she rather resembles a bottle-blonde, 70s-era evil Cher). Gosling has a knack for conveying a lot with his minimalist technique, but here he has nothing to work with. Scott Thomas is far more committed in playing the vamp—it’s not a great performance but a ripe, juicy one along the lines of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, only with more control.

One can admire the film on a purely technical level: the darkened, neon-suffused locales all look great and Cliff Martinez’s score is as accomplished as the one he did for DRIVE but just different enough to not feel like a retread. In every other regard, however, the film is a mess. The story makes hardly any sense, the violence often seems present only for its shock value (why does Gosling drag a seemingly random guy down a hallway by his teeth?) and, most alarmingly, the editing and pacing are entirely off—for all of his stylistic confidence, Refn’s direction feels clumsy and confused. Look, DRIVE was my favorite film of 2011—it was seductive, convincing, and psychologically complex and it contained a discernible heart, even if it was submerged under a lot of surface gloss. Here, Refn’s so fixated on the surface he’s neglected everything else; the result is pretty but absolutely joyless and consequently, excruciating.  Grade: D+

DRIVE

BRONSON, the only other film I’ve seen from director Nicolas Winding Refn, dazzled me by depicting its subject in purely cinematic terms, favoring magical realism and stylistic collage over a more traditional, been-there-done-that approach. My only problem with it was that Bronson himself remained far too opaque, a masked figure for our amusement rather than a real-life person (which he in fact was).

Initially, I had the same problem with Refn’s latest film, DRIVE. Ryan Gosling stars as an enigmatic loner who works as a mechanic and a Hollywood vehicular stunt man by day and a getaway driver for criminals after dark. He’s opaque to the point where he’s only referred to by name as “Driver”–we know virtually nothing else about his life, apart from his interactions with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor with a young son and an incarcerated husband. Even then, Gosling seems coolly blank, revealing next to nothing about himself as becomes a presence in their lives.

Fortunately, it’s none other than Gosling that saves the film from devolving into an empty, flashy exercise. By the midway point, it resonates that Gosling is meant to be a blank slate: whether a male companion and protector for Irene or a submissive getaway driver for crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, unlikely but effortlessly playing a heavy, and with dignity too!), he becomes who others want him to be. Although he speaks little, you can see perceptible shifts in persona via his facial expressions and body language.

However, following an alarming, tragic chain of events, his mask partially, temporarily slips. When you catch more than a glimpse of what’s underneath, it’s not pretty. For the film’s increasingly, brutally violent remainder, you’re left to compromise this ugliness with the subsequent masks (one of them quite literal) Gosling puts on. More so than the film’s beguiling, icy, retro-electronic score or ravishing visual palette, this interference between a constructed persona and one’s own essence gives DRIVE its lift. With Refn providing Gosling the perfect environment for his perfect cipher of a character, and with Gosling masterfully imbuing that character with just enough nuance to keep us guessing, the two men prove a director-actor match made in heaven.

Score (out of 10): 9