Since I don’t see enough new films each year to justify year-end lists (though I have consistently chosen one favorite film), I’ve instead decided to celebrate the end of 2014 by looking back over the past five years. Halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, there have been numerous beautiful, affecting, memorable, and challenging films that I’ve had the privilege to see. New voices have emerged, and well-established ones have strengthened theirs.
American titan Terrence Malick has crafted his finest achievement yet and sits comfortably atop this list. Iran’s most recognizable directors – Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi – also appear with some of their best work. The U.S.’s Richard Linklater, who has been a quiet mainstay of both commercial and indie filmmaking for more than two decades, has two of his best works listed here. Younger artists like Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, and the U.S.’s David Fincher who are finding their niche within the world of film are each represented here. And, finally the beloved worldwide sensation Hayao Miyazaki rounds out the list with his last and perhaps most personal film.
There’s cinematic gold in these ten films. And, it’s likely I’ll continue watching them well into the next decade and beyond. Since ten is such a small number, I’ve included a list of honorable mentions at the end of other worthwhile films from the past five years. It would be a fool’s errand to somehow ascribe some overarching theme or meaning to tie these films together. The first years of the 2010s have been as varied as the works represented here. And, as always, the films that tried the hardest to define our time have already fallen by the wayside. The ten below rarely seek to do that, but in avoiding the temptation to achieve relevance, several of them actually do speak to how we live now (though this is of course no requisite for crafting meaningful cinema). Each of them is important and beautiful in its own way, and the only way to celebrate the achievement of each of these films is to keep discussing and watching them. So, here’s to another five years full of cinematic glory!
1. The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2011)
Nearly every film – from this decade or any other really – looks miniscule when placed alongside Terrence Malick’s gift of artistry The Tree of Life. That’s not to say no other film really matters when compared for that is unfair and untrue. But, with the exception of a small few – Kubrick’s 2001 comes to mind – there aren’t many films with as grand a scope as Malick’s greatest work. In one film, he recreates the spectacle of the beginning of life itself, splices together millions of years of growth and evolution in one breathtaking montage, tenderly portrays one insignificant family as they grapple with life’s curveballs, questions the existence of God, imagines what the afterlife might look like, and makes a convincing case for espousing grace and love in the face of hardship with the promise of beauty. Even writing about it overwhelms. It’s visual poetry in the least pretentious way imaginable. Malick seems to speak a cinematic language only he knows, and has thus created a film only he could create. His long takes, exquisitely edited sequences, attention to nature and metaphor, symphonic accompaniments, and voiceover narration are all on full display here. There’s power in each image and every wonderful sound. It’s a film for both the senses and probably the best example in history of film as art.
2. Certified Copy (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/Italy, 2010)
“Have we met before?” This all too familiar question raised between two likely strangers takes on a whole new meaning in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. About halfway through the Iranian filmmaker’s first venture outside his native country, the two strangers at film’s center are mistaken for a married couple. What the characters at first brush off as a simple error quickly takes root in the narrative and redirects this pair’s rhetoric as they begin to take on the roles of husband and wife. The inexplicable shift might shock a casual moviegoer, but longtime fans of Kiarostami know he has much more on his mind than what appears on screen. Melding fact and fiction into docu-drama hybrids has been a decades-spanning mainstay of the director’s work, and yet Certified Copy reveals his penchant for juxtaposing the two has not grown stale. We’re firmly planted in fictional territory here, but the character’s incessant verbal ruminations and disagreements against the backdrop of a gorgeous Italian countryside – delightfully reminiscent of Linklater’s Before trilogy – speak for Kiarostami’s constant theme where his previous films would show us. The two wonder aloud whether or not a replica, a copy, or even art have any real value when placed alongside the original. It’s a fascinating exploration for an artist who has spent an entire career perpetuating the illusion inherent in cinema. So, in the end do he and she know each other? Are they lovers or strangers? Thankfully, Kiarostami never tells. As always, he allows us to decide.
3. This Is Not a Film (Dir. Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)
Imprisoned in his own home and banned from filmmaking, director Jafar Panahi reveals that an artist, even under oppression, cannot be squelched of his greatest passion – the intrinsic need to create. Thus, in defying the ban This Is Not a Film was born. The tongue-in-cheek title nearly says it all: it’s not a film in what we as viewers have come to expect from movies. It follows no basic plot nor does it play like a traditional documentary. If anything, it gives the impression of a video diary entry of sorts. Panahi has been under house arrest, and This Is Not a Film fills us in on what he’s missed. At first he moves about the apartment in no hurried manner (Where can he go? What can he do?), then he directly addresses the camera referencing his own work, and later he attempts to recreate the film he’d be working on if permitted only to sigh with defeat, “Why even make a film if you can just tell it?” It’s a soul-crushing moment; an artist stripped of the tools he uses to create, punished for creating. With such an on-point allusion to his film The Mirror and the very subject of his would-be film that he sketches on the carpet, it’s clear the scenes in This Is Not a Film are a bit more calculated than first we perceived. Of course, this is not to say the film loses any of its potency or hard-won sympathy, but it reveals that Panahi is a brilliantly clever filmmaker that simply will not let a twenty-year ban keep him from exercising his artistic vision. With this filmic diary, he’s crafted something wholly unique and entirely necessary in light of how much of this world still suffers from the lack of freedom of expression.
4. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2014)
Richard Linklater’s one-of-a-kind biography of a boy filmed over the course of twelve years feels like an instant classic and it most certainly is. Because of its singular construction, Boyhood is many things to many people – it’s a touching coming-of-age tale, a beautiful celebration of the everyday, an astounding cinematic experiment of time, an inherently nostalgic trip through the early years of this new century. Perhaps Linklater’s greatest accomplishment here is in Boyhood’s ability to evoke pathos sans any climactic familial shouting matches or documented major life events. Most of the action takes place off screen. Instead, time is a trigger for our emotions; we’re nearly just as crushed as Mason’s mother when he heads off to college because it feels as though we’ve known him so long. We don’t care for Mason because Linklater tells us to, but because we’ve experienced so much with him. In that way, time wrote just as much of Boyhood as Linklater or his principal actors. It’s a masterstroke of a film and one we’ll likely keep watching for years to come.
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)
The spirits and ghosts of animals and humans alike gather as the titular character approaches death in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s enchanting Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. A lot of adjectives were thrown around in the wake of Boonmee’s surprise success at Cannes back in 2010 – confusing, deep, surreal, revelatory, nonsensical, pretentious, boring – but the descriptor I found most fitting was simply playful. Despite the art house averse backlash, Weerasethakul’s film is not overly complicated or intentionally confounding. Yes, it features numerous long takes, follows a non-linear narrative structure, and features some truly bizarre images and characters, but Boonmee never begs to be taken too seriously. Perhaps it’s not meant to inspire over analysis; it’s simple but certainly not simplistic. As with each of his works, Boonmee is very personal – its setting evokes the director’s childhood home, the main character’s illness a mirror image of his own father’s death, characters inspired by childhood cartoons. The film is a wondrous collage of hallmarks from the filmmaker’s past peppered with knowing winks at how strange some of it all must register for his audience. One character comments on the furry figure that’s interrupted a pleasant dinner, “Why did you let your hair grow so long?” forgoing a much more obvious question: “Why do you look like Bigfoot?” Moments like these richen Weerasethakul’s film and keep the exploration of his solemn subject matter fittingly light-hearted.
6. Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2010)
Over time we may come to remember Mother as a film of the first decade of this century what with its original 2009 Korean release, but it didn’t hit U.S. theatres until 2010, so for now it will be considered for this decade. As a fan of Bong Joon-ho’s varied and exceptional work, it’s irksome that he’s so often cast off (even by other fans) as merely an accomplished genre filmmaker. Yes, both The Host and Snowpiercer represent exercises in over-saturated genre explorations, but what to make of Mother? It’s a thriller, but it also mixes in comedy, familial drama, horror, and fascinating character study; not to mention it’s easily the most artfully composed murder mystery in years. Bong is in complete control of what happens on screen, and Mother is all the better for it. Its tightly wound narrative constantly upends our expectations as it weaves in and out of multiple twists and turns. In the titular mother, Kim Hye-ja creates both a sympathetic homespun sleuth as well as a terrifying monster of dangerously overprotective parental love. We’re just as much invested in her as we are in this thoroughly gripping story. Mother proves that when Bong’s in control, the only thing for us to do is relinquish ours and sit back and enjoy this first rate thriller.
7. Before Midnight (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2013)
It’s only fitting that director Richard Linklater should have two films on this list. He’s been an important fixture of American cinema for the past two decades, but he’s mostly operated on the fringes. Fortunately, the release of a third installment in his Before trilogy in 2013 and his likely magnum opus Boyhood garnering widespread acclaim in 2014 have the international film community celebrating his name. For long-time Linklater fans, it’s about time. But, it also makes sense now as both those films are easily two of his greatest. If Before Sunset upended expectations of a fanciful future for Celine and Jesse, then Before Midnight has fittingly done that yet again. Another nine years later, Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy converged again to keep telling the story of this loquacious pair who serendipitously met and fell in love one night in Vienna long ago. At the beginning of Midnight, the two are together. They live in Paris and have two children. That revelation alone is enough to keep us firmly planted in our seats. What follows is a touching, life-like portrait of a relationship gone sour over years of over-exposure and aging. The honeymoon of new love in Sunrise has ended, the thrill of possibly reigniting that spark in Sunset has gone out, and Midnight shows what happens when reality sets in. In one expertly composed sequence near film’s end, Celine and Jesse are uncharacteristically entombed in a claustrophobic hotel room so unlike any of their filmed interactions before. Here their love is tested and their tolerance for the other is brought to its limits. It’s an effectively suffocating scene, and it’s only when the pair is outside once more that we and they are reminded of what brought them together in the first place. There’s nothing sappy about Before Midnight, but it provides apt and welcome closure to a couple we’ve rooted for for nearly two decades.
8. Closed Curtain (Dir. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Iran, 2014)
To challenge the notion that the unjust ban from filmmaking has somehow squelched Jafar Panahi’s creativity, the follow-up to his masterpiece of subversive cinema This Is Not a Film finds the director reaching new depths of personal expression and crafting utterly captivating art. While the video diary entry of This Is Not a Film captured the artist in limbo, awaiting a judge’s final decision, Closed Curtain details the aftermath and the reality of a twenty-year ban. It’s an intensely personal work that highlights the director’s resultant depression and own self-confessed thoughts of suicide. But, it’s also unexpectedly a work of triumph. There is no denying this (or its direct predecessor) is not the film Panahi wanted to make, but the one he was capable of making under the current circumstances. But, in defying the Iranian government’s ban, he’s also created one of the most complex and challenging narrative films in years. Taking cues from his former mentor Kiarostami, Panahi brilliantly blurs the line between fiction and reality to astounding effect. And, while Kiarostami often operates in strict binaries – documentary/narrative, urban/rural, before/after, and most recently, original/copy – Closed Curtain marks somewhat of a new exciting shift in these hybrids where fiction bleeds into reality, and the distinction between the two becomes nearly indistinguishable. If Curtain is any indication of what the great Panahi is capable of while restricted from filmmaking, the future certainly looks bright for his art whether or not he’s allowed to create it.
9. The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher, United States, 2010)
Ah, hyper-relevance; oh how it can quickly spoil a movie’s potential actual relevance. Remember when Crash and Babel threatened to say all there is to say about our post-globalized, ever connected, yet oh-so-disconnected world? I’m still trying to forget. They gobbled up end-of-the-year awards and accolades, but their lasting impact has been minimal at best. It may sound cynical, but by 2010 it only seemed a matter of time before someone thought we needed a Facebook movie. David Fincher – who’s committed one or two postmodern cinematic offenses in the past – seemed a likely candidate to bring the world altering story of the inception of one social media juggernaut to the big screen. Thankfully, the kinetic flourishes of both Seven and Fight Club were forgone in favor of the restraint he mastered with both Zodiac and (to less thrilling results) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Social Network, then, is easily the talented director’s greatest achievement yet; a piece of social commentary, yes, but one that resists getting high off its own importance. In fact, much of The Social Network isn’t really about Facebook per se, but more about the dissolution of friendships and the perceptions we carry about each other, especially under emotional pressure. Aaron Sorkin’s script is whip-smart, and all players (most notably Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg) convincingly speak fluent asshole like it’s their job. Fincher’s film is a signifier of its time – perhaps even in danger of some day fading in relevance – with its sharp digital cinematography, carefully polished color scheme, and of course, its engaging and relatable subject matter. There may come a time when we remember The Social Network less fondly, but for now it’s easily one of the most entertaining films of the new decade.
10. The Wind Rises (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)
One could only hope that The Wind Rises does not mark the end of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki’s career as the man himself claims it to be. But, if true then the film serves as a fitting swansong. Miyazaki eschews his typical outright fantastical elements – spirits, gods, creatures, alternate realms – in favor of a real life historical figure. But, it’s a Miyazaki film through and through. His fascination with flight comes to a head with a protagonist he’s injected all of his aeronautical passion into. Jiro may very well be a stand-in for Miyazaki who instead of crafting cinema pours his life into aviation. Both are visionary artists of the highest caliber, and it’s a delight to witness the inner-workings of a creator’s mind. The Wind Rises moves along at a graciously steady pace allowing Jiro’s passion to become ours over the course of the film. Its pacing also grants Miyazaki a few unprecedented animated long takes of gorgeously drawn Japanese countryside or cityscape. As with his best work, the film bears testament to the supreme talents of the animators at Studio Ghibli. If one should have any doubts, witness the breathtaking train sequence as a powerful earthquake turns the ground into an ocean of waves. It’s a film of beautiful images and the power – at times even destructive – of fulfilling our dreams. “Does the wind still rise?” Jiro’s idol and imagined mentor asks him. I’d like to think so.
The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, United States/Indonesia, 2013)
Alamar (Dir. Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico, 2010)
The Deep Blue Sea (Dir. Terence Davies, United Kingdom, 2011)
Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach, United States, 2012)
The Grandmaster (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2013)
Holy Motors (Dir. Leos Carax, France, 2012)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, United States, 2013)
The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, United States, 2012)
Meek’s Cutoff (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, United States, 2011)
Moonrise Kingdom (Dir. Wes Anderson, United States, 2012)
Nostalgia for the Light (Dir. Patricio Guzmán, Chile, 2010)
A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2011)
To the Wonder (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2012)