To see the entire list of my 100 top movies of last decade, or to find the landing page for the other years in this series, click here.
I don’t know that a great crowd of people is going out of their way to say this, but at least from where I’m sitting, 2018 has a real case as the best movie year of the decade. I’ve got seventeen movies from that year on my list, which puts it ahead of every other year pretty comfortably; the only year I think might be better is 2016, which has a more top-heavy collection and lost more movies in the late stages of this listmaking. The roll of 2018 movies that I had in serious consideration and which did not get into this parcel is on its own merits a stellar group: Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Peterloo, Support the Girls, Leave No Trace, The Rider, Eighth Grade, You Were Never Really Here, Vice, The Favourite. Even if you’re quibbling about my math for some of the titles I’ve just listed or will list below, 2018 was robbed of movies like Zama and The Death of Stalin based on my rule, too. For sheer depth, this was a great year to be a moviegoer, and for whatever reason, this is also a year with a serious social conscience. Virtually every movie I’ve included from 2018 is about some newsy issue, from the hyperactive lefty movie Sorry to Bother You, to a story like the one in Widows which puts the fire in observation and scenario, to something abstract but still like Transit, which reads cleanly as a moral, anti-authoritarian movie just like Petzold’s other movies from this decade. If in ten to fifteen years that makes this list of 2018 movies feel dated, I can appreciate that, but at the same time, scrolling through Twitter makes it seem pretty clear that we will have the same issues and more to deal with in that space of time. I think it’s more likely that in ten to fifteen years, the quality of some of these movies will be more fully realized than was the case in 2018. Movies like If Beale Street Could Talk, Sorry to Bother You, First Man, and The Nightingale, all of them among the first handful of pictures made by their respective directors and all of them a little quiet on initial impact compared to lesser and showier fare from the year (WE’RE FAR FROM THE SHALLOW NOW), should continue to gather acclaim as their directors, one hopes, go on to make similarly good movies.
Because of the volume of movies I’m trying to talk about, I am going to split 2018 into two posts, putting my top eight in this post and my back nine in another.
12) Cold War, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
The best love stories in movies hang on one moment, a portent of climax ripped away like lips turned away mid-kiss. The most potent feeling is not satisfaction or frustration but longing, the reaching out, the straining that cannot sustain itself. Cold War is about satisfaction in some short bursts, and in Paris it is more about frustration than anything else. But Cold War has the yearning and the claws to rate among the great love stories in cinema. Wiktor and Zula see each other for the first time in years in Paris; he defected to the West, and she could not bring herself to meet him at the rendezvous they’d chosen. Now she is in Paris with the group he helped to found, which she still performs with, and she will be leaving Paris in the morning. They stop near her hotel. She begins to walk away from him, gets down the street a little bit, and then can’t stay there. She rushes back to Wiktor, who has some of that Jimmy Stewart lank DNA in him, and she collides into this embrace. She disappears inside his arms, his coat, the kiss, the darkness, and before there can be any kind of satisfaction, she’s gone again, ripped out of him, pumping down the street, not looking back at all. Cold War is designed to be ruthless like this, with the smallest hints of joy suggesting something lovely, but mostly a series of brush-ups and disappointments that go with it; this is not pornographic, and we are not meant to be satisfied.
The movie invites us to wonder what Wiktor and Zula see in one another from the beginning, depicting them not as star-crossed, precisely, but as people who don’t translate as easy fits for one another. Wiktor is educated, a great pianist and musician, an ethnographer. The seeds of the dissident would have been in him even if he’d grown up in a different time when borders were easier to cross and governments less authoritarian; the twinkle in his eye is one of the man whose primary position is a little against, no matter what the starting point is. He speaks of her as the “woman of my life,” and makes an enormously rash and self-destructive decision to return to Poland in order to prove his devotion to her. Zula, it’s shown over and over again, is savvier, more of a survivor who is capable of sticking things out. She never rushes through the checkpoints in Berlin with Wiktor, but marries powerful men in order to move across borders and get key favors which probably save Wiktor’s life. In one scene where the two of them are together, she tells him matter-of-factly that she’s reporting on him to the government liaison to the folk troupe they’ve met through. She believes in God, although Wiktor doesn’t; she was arrested for, as she describes it, self-defense against her father, which is the kind of romantic color that nails Wiktor’s interest in her even further. The toll it takes on her is an internal one, pushing her to alcoholism where Wiktor keeps his cool in public and only shows off his mangled hand when it becomes unavoidable. The only similarity they have, the only place that continually signifies their unity with its own health, is “Dwa Serduszka,” a peasant song that Wiktor arranges and Zula takes a solo in in Poland before they turn it into a jazz single in Paris. “Two hearts, four eyes/Crying all day and night long/Dark eyes, you cry because you can’t be together.” It’s never happiness that binds the two of them together, but despair, and it’s only fitting that the movie’s tremendously sad final scenes see them together one final time.
19) Widows, directed by Steve McQueen
A movie that is already begging for reevaluation, Widows is in something of a pickle. This is a movie loaded with social commentary which wears the clothes of a heist film. It’s a difficult pair. Social commentary that comes to conclusions very rarely ends up being fun (with notable exceptions, obviously, some of which have made this list), and heist movies tend to be designed to be fun to a fault. Add to that the fact that Steve McQueen has never made a fun movie, including this one, and the problem must seem insoluble. Yet Widows remains one of the great movies of 2018 and one of the great movies of last decade because the heist itself—robbing the home of a Chicago alderman in order to pay off the straightfaced gangster who is running against him—is a MacGuffin, and a MacGuffin, as Hitchcock reminds us, is “nothing at all.” It’s why the heist itself feels fairly light in the course of the movie, although there are some really good moments during the theft and after the women get out of the house. It was not about whether or not these women would grab the money, but about whether they would be able to come to grips with doing the job at all. If there is a joy in this movie, it’s in seeing this group of brilliant actresses portraying women who are stretching muscles they have never stretched before. Alice, already having survived her overbearing mother and violent husband, turns into arguably the most resourceful member of this group. Linda, who seems to have to put the limits of her world in the walls of her shop, proves to be a cunning operator once those walls are taken from her. Belle, a single mother who spends more time babysitting other women’s children than with her own daughter in order to make ends meet, makes herself the engine of something larger than herself. And as for Veronica, who is threatened directly by Jamal and takes charge of the heist as her late husband ran a crew, she is forced to confront the falseness of her marriage. What I find so fascinating about the movie is that none of those things play out quite the way you would expect them to. Linda in particular is an enigma; there’s that scene where she’s trying to get information out of a grieving man, and her grief all of a sudden bubbles over in a way we haven’t seen before, and it makes for the movie’s most raw and vulnerable moments. I can think of better Viola Davis performances than this one, but only she could have played this role which turns out to be just as twisty as anything in Ocean’s 11. The husband she thought was dead turns out to be alive, having faked his own death to live with one of his crew members, raising a white child after his child with Veronica was murdered by a police officer. It takes ages for all of this to come out, and every realization is a gut punch. (The first one is at least softened a little bit by Olivia the dog, undoubtedly the most squeeworthy movie animal of the decade.) And the changes in the characters are…uplifting? “Uplift” is not a very McQueen emotion, but what else should we feel at the end of the movie when Veronica sees Alice, miraculously still kicking after taking a bullet during the heist, and smiles at her? Veronica of the days before could never have been so kind to someone beneath her, but she has been expanded by the ordeal, and that smile is as uncomplicated a feel-good moment as we might ever get out of McQueen.
The movie doesn’t necessarily need more than that to be successful—as a story about four women who rebuild themselves in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge, Widows is plenty successful—but it takes the extra chance and wins the extra wager. Arguably the movie’s most brilliant choice is to make Jamal the plot linchpin. His intention to be repaid for the money lost when Harry double-crossed him brings Veronica into the story; his campaign against Jack allows for the movie’s humdinger critiques to come to the fore. The Mulligans have been running this Chicago ward for decades, and since Jack’s father Tom held office, the demographics of the district have changed from majority white to majority minority. The movie raises pointed questions about why the Mulligans should maintain their grip on the ward, for what do two white men want, or even need, from this ward that has passed them by? But it also refuses easy heroes. Jamal would be representative of the population, but he would only use this newfound power to expand a criminal kingdom. (This is a more subtly accomplished debate about how black people hurt other black people than a similar one in Moonlight, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve got this movie higher.) The movie is optimistic about individuals, but it is significantly less sanguine about communities. Maybe there is a bittersweet ending for people like Alice and Veronica, but Widows does not act as if their success will bring the millennium to Chicago.
33) Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuaron
This is one of the movies from this decade which I’ve had a difficult time getting my teeth into, and despite the overwhelmingly positive consensus about Roma, I think that’s probably true for a lot of people. The little collection of decade-end lists that I’ve compiled favor Roma over Gravity by more than 2-to-1 margins, but I think if you asked people which movie they’d rather watch, it would go the opposite way by similar numbers. I think it’s inspired a reaction that I’ve seen only to Kubrick, and Cuaron does not have the benefit of cultish fanboys; he has created a movie that feels very cold to the touch and which is in fact deeply humane, deeply concerned about the ramifications of pain. I think it’s very easy to sort of leave the scene at the end of the movie, memorable as it is, in which Cleo braves the ocean to pull two of her charges out despite being unable to swim herself. She brings them back to safety. The entire family, including her, embraces tentlike on the beach. Yet if you read enough criticism, you find more talk about that shot at the beginning of the movie in which an airplane appears in a puddle of water to be mopped up. It’s easy to be swept up by the virtuoso touches, a category where few directors working today can outdor Cuaron. (I have two movies ahead of Roma for this year, obviously, but boy, it is really hard to say that Roma is not the best-directed picture of the year.) But the best moments, the ones that tell us far more about what the movie is trying to do, are not necessarily technical marvels but humanistic ones. The scene that will always stand out most to me in this movie, I expect, is the one Sofia tells her children that they should not expect their father on this vacation. They are not really old enough to appreciate why, but they are old enough to be suspicious and scared. There’s a shot of Sofia and her children on a bench. Cleo stands near them. In the background is this enormous statue of a fiddler crab, pointing its disproportionate left claw with a seemingly dangerous purpose, its pincer, by optical illusion, very near to Cleo’s head. A technically magnificent moment, sure, and a shot that I can see with my eyes closed, but what a moment of anguish this is. Everyone is so sad, and in the background is this crab which is ludicrously huge, so wrong that it’s almost funny, but the way it’s placed in the shot, it looms over the family in a way that’s more disquieting than anything else. Or maybe you prefer the scene in which she goes to the movies and seems so alone in that enormous theater even though she is emphatically with someone.
I have no idea what’s in Yalitza Aparicio’s head, but one wonders if this woman, who before Roma was more likely to be a teacher than an Academy Award-nominated actress, will appear in another movie. I like to think there’s more in store for her, but she reminds me of Katie Jarvis from Fish Tank a little bit. The roles and the movies are not similar in any real way, but there’s a completeness to who both of them are as performers already after one movie, which I mean as a compliment. Aparicio is so good in this movie, acting with the poise of someone twice her age and with many times more years of experience. What might have been a condescending kind of role, a noble savage update, is something much more human. Roma works to give Cleo an inner life as well as a life that extends beyond the surprisingly caged borders of the home she works for. Watching her try to keep the attentions of a guy who is too worked up about revolution to actually be in love with her, and to suffer from the fallout of her callow approach to romance, is as heartbreaking as anything else that happens in the movie. Aparicio has this wonderful face already, this resigned look of sadness, that is the difference between this movie being a modern masterpiece and being a beautiful but much too cold entry in Cuaron’s oeuvre.
38) If Beale Street Could Talk, directed by Barry Jenkins
Buoyed by what must be the best original score of the decade, lifted by two charismatic and fresh performances by Stephan James and KiKi Layne, Beale Street is stirring. The Harlem of the picture is autumnal and achingly rich. James Laxton’s cinematography is as essential to this movie as Nicholas Britell’s score, and the production design by Mark Friedberg is not far behind either. The movie’s dialogue and some of its traditionally showier scenes (like the fight with the women of Fonny’s family when Tish announces that she’s pregnant) rubbed me the wrong way when I first sat down to it, and on the second viewing I know why; the movie calls for dissonance between the perfect warmth of the Rivers’ home, and the clapback duel feels like an invading army in a haven of low voices and Thanksgiving colors. In no other scene does Jenkins approach his story with such candid interplay between safety and beauty, unless it is a sequence which is one of the most effective of the movie, when she stands behind the counter so people can smell the perfumes from her hand. The store is clean, white, chrome, brightly lit. It is a tedious place, where she stands without resting for many hours on end, but it is not an unattractive view. Women do not often take the smell from her hand. Black men, she notes, do not often take the smell from her hand either, choosing instead to spray some on themselves as a sign of respect. White men, indifferent and grabby, insist on taking her entire hand in theirs and putting their nose directly on her skin. “Thank you,” the man says, and walks off without making any kind of eye contact; the power he has in the situation is that he does not even have to think about it. There is no metacognition here, no sense of reflection. He takes because he wants. No wonder that Daniel, Fonny’s friend released from prison, says sotto voce to him: “The white man has got to be the devil.” In that scene, Fonny’s apartment is homey enough, if spare, but the lights are too dark and the looks on faces too fearful to be beautiful.
When is Tish narrating this story from? The past, clearly, and maybe it’s a past not all that far from the final scene where she and the child she carried throughout the movie visit the child’s father in prison. Knowing the precise moment wouldn’t “solve” the movie or anything, but it is so difficult to imagine the moment where she can look at the events of Fonny’s unjust arrest, his infuriating prison sentence, her own pregnancy, her mother’s impotent trip to Puerto Rico paid for by her father’s theft of luxury items from the docks, and tie all of them together with the controlled anger just short of seething that this movie carries around. As much as the movie revolves around Fonny, the movie is very much about Tish, and it is filtered through her disbelief and her recognition. At no time does it appear that Tish has somehow accepted the wickedness that befell Fonny because he had the audacity to protect Tish in front of a racist cop, but she gets it. She understood why when the lawyer they got to defend Fonny insisted on “Alonzo” until Tish insisted much more strongly for “Fonny.” She understood why when white men insisted on the aggressive, frightening gesture of taking her whole hand in theirs to smell the perfume, only to walk away and leave her fear in their wake. In the moments we see before Fonny is arrested, Tish’s shy joy peeks out in moments of much brilliant happiness: Fonny convinces her to move into an apartment that doesn’t exist yet when she gets him to heft more invisible furniture, she brings out dinner with some snark for Fonny and Daniel. Afterward, there is much less joy and much more shyness; everything turns on what’s inside her, and what’s inside her kicks so sharply and suddenly that she doubles over with pain and surprise.
46) Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley
In general this is not a term I like to use because I think it’s generally meaningless, but there’s a good argument to be made that Sorry to Bother You is the most underrated movie of the last decade. If that is the case, then the unabashed weirdness of the picture is what must turn people off; the unabashed weirdness, which feels much more like prophecy to me, is what makes Sorry to Bother You so appealing. Like Widows, the basic premise of the movie is good enough that I think it would hold even if it didn’t reach for more. Cash Green becomes a brilliant telemarketer (there’s a new combination of words) because he can change his voice; watching David Cross’ voice come out of Lakeith Stanfield’s mouth is a trip, but it’s also a fairly pointed comment about how ingrained racism is in this country. People continue listening to Cash when he calls them up because he “sounds” white, which is proof that people are so racist about skin color that they don’t even need to see someone’s skin color to do the wrong thing. Whether or not Cash will sell out is, for a time, the most important question the movie asks. He likes the perks of moving up the ladder at the company, the better benefits, the friendlier workspace, the money that allows him not just to get a better place and better stuff, but keeps his uncle out of a job that’s basically slavery. (WorryFree is like what you would get if you combined Google and Amazon, which, hey, we’ll see who buys out who in a few years.) Of course, Cash is also friends with people trying to unionize the company, and so doing the right thing by his uncle makes him a scab. There’s nuance here, and while Riley has a right answer for Cash in mind, he doesn’t pretend like it’s easy to resist temptation or to hurt one’s family in order to show solidarity with one’s fellow workers. Between all of that, there’s plenty of material for a movie eighty to ninety minutes long which would feel of a piece with something like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but with more jokes.
The twist in Sorry to Bother You is, in my mind, every bit the equal of the twist in Parasite, but it is also as friggin’ scary as any other scene I watched in a movie this decade. Quite by accident, Cash wanders into a room full of what can only be called horse-people, who WorryFree founder Steve admits pretty freely to having bred in order to increase productivity at the company. The equisapiens, as Steve calls them, are real nightmare fuel, like what would happen if the boys transforming into donkeys in Pinocchio just kind of stopped halfway and were about two and a half times the size. They scream for help in much the same way that those naughty boys beg for their mothers. The reality of the situation is bone-chilling, so naturally when Steve shows Cash his sinister plan, it’s done in a cheerful and friendly animated style that elides the total horror of what Cash ran into when he was looking for a bathroom. Equally bone-chilling is what happens when Cash does everything he can to expose the equisapiens to the world in the hopes that doing so will destroy WorryFree. It is a fundamentally decent choice, and Cash suffers in multiple ways for making that decision. But the brilliance of this movie is to know that decency has been dead so long that even the bones are decaying; when the equisapiens become common knowledge, WorryFree is praised for making such a bold decision and the stock prices soar. Despite all this, the movie ends on an optimistic note that I think is about as bizarre as anything else that happens, both in execution and in timbre, but the film itself is an utter rarity. Usually it takes years, maybe even decades, to get a movie that just absolutely understands its time period this well. Sorry to Bother You has the perspicacity that one usually only finds in movies years down the pike, and gets there with irony, a tremendous script, and a really great cast. Stanfield’s laid-back charisma could have carried this movie in just about any direction Riley wanted to take it, I think, and supporting turns by Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun, and most of all Armie Hammer (playing Zuckerberg instead of a Winklevoss this time, and off the charts fantastic in an essential part) give the movie the edge that it needs.
59) First Reformed, directed by Paul Schrader
No movie on this list challenges my evaluation more from a structural perspective. How much do I value the ending of a movie compared to what’s come before? How much do I care about the movie’s willingness to follow so closely in the footsteps of superior movies? The answer to the first is that a bad ending can drop a movie double-digit spots down the list. I have tried so hard to like the ending. I have struggled to figure out why it rushes from possibility to possibility and then simply cuts off. I have never been able to get it to make sense, and if I were uncharitable I would suggest that Schrader ran out of runway to mimic the masters who got there before him. I don’t think that’s the case, but at the same time I don’t think I’ve ever been this confused by a choice in a movie. Why not end the movie ninety seconds earlier or ninety seconds later? As for the movie’s copycatting of Winter Light and Diary of a Country Priest (and, yes, a little The Sacrifice interlude), it’s so remarkably done that it thins out my dissatisfaction with the ending; genuinely it is the exception that proves the rule I have about a movie wearing its influences too boldly. In the early ’60s, Max von Sydow’s character is so terrified of nuclear holocaust that he cannot go on living. In the late ’10s, Philip Ettinger’s character is so despondent about climate catastrophe that he cannot go on living. The scene where Ethan Hawke’s Ernst Toller (the reliance on outside sources just keeps coming) finds Michael’s body is so like the on where Tomas finds Jonas in Winter Light, but there’s a real difference here that I’m not sure I’ve ever adequately credited before. Jonas is scared stiff, and that fear is so dominant—and for us in the present, who might reasonably wish that the Chinese had instigated a nuclear war that obliterated human life the way Jonas feared they would, that fear feels irrational in an ex post facto sort of way—in part because there is nothing he can do about it. What part could a rural Swede play in the geopolitical drama between three capitals, the vertices of a lean scalene triangle? Michael believes he can do something about climate change not because he believes he can stop it, or that it could be stopped at all. His discussion with Toller about whether or not people should even be having babies anymore is one that I find personally resonant, even if I would never hold anyone else to it. Based on what his widow Mary finds in their garage, Michael appeared to have believed that ecoterrorism is a possibility, that if the powerful cannot be made to change in time to avoid the worst of the upcoming devastation, then they could be made into fragments scattered across the county. As for the Diary of a Country Priest cosplay, which the movie uses as a skeleton rather than a basis for plot, I find the relationship between Toller and his superior, Jeffers (the totally unexpected Cedric the Entertainer, who is terrific in this role), to be more interesting than the one that Bresson presents between the eponymous priest and his boss. First Reformed, swung like a little person is swung by his parents (an otherwise dour pair, to be sure!), is so good at diverting from the course it appears to be following slavishly that it may be unique. I may never see another movie that borrows so blatantly from others and yet still manages to be very much its own story.
Ethan Hawke gives one of the great performances of the decade in First Reformed, and he is so good that he makes you forget that he’s something of an unusual choice for the part. Hawke’s best work almost always lets him be funny, a little loose. It’s when his characters are most serious that he comes off as that pretentious tool that Gen Xers loved to hate. There is nothing loose about Toller. I love that early shot of him in the movie, as he sits on the floor of this Spartan bedroom, his knees hugged up against his breast. The feline compactness of the man is evident, and the way he seems to be crushing his insides with pressure is clear from the get-go. Even before Toller gets wrapped up in planning some minor ecoterrorism himself, he seems like the kind of person who could turn a lump of coal into a Pepto-Bismol-coated diamond in twenty-four hours, always a little hunched, his brow always a little furrowed. Hawke’s voice does things that I didn’t know he had in him for a whole movie; the growl he uses to effect in Before Midnight is here for the entire picture in First Reformed, and that too matches what’s catlike about Toller, as if he’s letting you know something’s wrong with a low, rattling noise that doesn’t seem like it should be able to come out of that body. It’s a fairly talky movie, although it’s shot in such a removed way that one remembers the look of it more than the words people use, and so Hawke’s tone is tied up with his body. As much as Toller says, it’s a story which is even more about his body. Mortification is part of it, a little unsurprisingly; anyone who wraps himself in barbed wire has something of the self-flagellating penitents of old in his system. And there is the cancer, too, the one plot element from Diary of a Country Priest that Schrader has carried over in a meaningful way. Hawke carries himself and wears the expression of someone who is living with, managing, losing the battle to pain throughout the movie, the way that it is worse in some moments than in others, the way that one tries to keep the worst of it inside when others can see, even if all that does is earn the pity of others. In the end, Hawke is as essential to First Reformed as Gunnar Bjornstrand was to Winter Light, and I can think of no higher praise than that.
61) Transit, directed by Christian Petzold
Several months ago, back when people were actually talking about best of 2019 and best of decade material, Adam Nayman was on The Big Picture podcast. He had Transit on his 2019 list, and he was using it as a springboard to talk about how Christian Petzold was, for him, the director of the decade. And while I do not have the stature or experience or knowledge of Adam Nayman, I have to say he may well be right. Petzold is one of three directors who has three entries on my decade list (the other two are Olivier Assayas and the Coen Brothers), and of those three, his movies average out to be furthest up the board. His visual style is an absolute marvel: you can identify one of his signature compositions immediately, but it’s never showoffish or pretentious, always in service of story and character. Transit feels like the least him of the three from this decade visually (a decision that has more to do with color and lighting than it does with the photography), but it’s also the broadest of them, the most ambitious in terms of concept. Petzold’s earlier work has already proved that he is more than capable of making a great period piece, but for this movie, based on a novel by the mid-century antifascist novelist Anna Seghers, Petzold does not return to the past. By making a World War II story into a World War II story that appears to be happening in contemporary Marseille, Petzold has done something Faulknerian. He has recognized the way that history intrudes and inflects the present, and skips metaphor or allegory en route to depicting a now that is not just tied to but chained to the past. The clothes are different, the streets are different, the trains are different, but it’s clearly fascism in Marseille that mirrors the Nazis; truly, this is the kind of thing that one finds in Absalom, Absalom! or Go Down, Moses, and very seldom otherwise. Transit makes it impossible for us to put aside the events of the movie as something old-fashioned, and instead focuses on the here and now of a still-potent past.
Transit is one of those movies which is so conceptually brilliant that it can overshadow what’s most outstanding about it, which in this case is one of the finest love stories of the decade. Even that love story is woven into a situation that is complex and completely unrelatable: Georg is impersonating Marie’s dead husband so he can get out of France, but cannot get himself to tell her that her husband committed suicide before Georg even got to Marseille. There’s a scene early in the movie where Georg avoids getting arrested by the skin of his teeth/his fist against an officer’s teeth, but for the most part he avoids trouble by tiptoeing through a booby-trapped world, relying on a fake passport, a visa, and the wherewithal that one cannot survive without. Georg may be clever, but he is not equipped for totalitarianism. He tries to rescue a friend from Paris by getting him on the train with him, but Heinz was too badly injured to survive the trip; Georg leaves Heinz’s corpse for the police to find. He makes friends with a kid over the kid’s old soccer ball, but does not adequately realize what friendliness to people so isolated and endangered might ultimately signify. The same kindness that keeps him from being able to tell Marie that her husband is dead and that there is no point in trying to start over with him is the reason that he is still in Marseille at the end of the movie when only the wicked or the stupid remain. In a world where he might be safe, where Marie might be safe with him, perhaps they might have had a chance to say and do the thing that the movie prefers to suggest in heavy whispers.
69) Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong
After 2018, I think most normies like me (e.g., people who have seen one Hong Sang-soo movie from this decade and not six or seven) would have laid down their bets that, apologies to The Handmaiden, Burning was going to be the finest Korean movie of the decade. And although I’ve got Parasite further up on my list, there is a coiled mystery in Burning that I find at least as engaging as the exposed subtext in Parasite. Lee had made a movie that feels genuinely noirish; it is an enormous pleasure to watch something which is not wearing “neo-” like a badge of honor or something that has to be aspired to because of a presumed insufficiency in the genre. The seedy protagonist who presumes to be basically moral, the woman he falls for who smudges the line between “mysterious” and “unreliable,” the man who comes between the two whose external charm is only the expression of internal menace. Lee would have gotten on just fine with the Hustons and Tourneurs and Langs of the world, I think. Burning knows that its characters are just kindling to light a particular mood, and even though this movie has at least forty-five minutes on most noir standards, it has the right performers to maintain that feeling. Yoo Ah-in has the most thankless job of the three leading actors, even though he gets to do some relatively juicy stuff to do by the end of the movie. There is a long stretch of time in the beginning of the movie where Hae-mi is in Africa and he is basically alone, without even her mysterious cat to come out and greet him. His confusion has to translate into our curiosity, and Yoo is so expressive without ever crossing the line into being unnatural. In the beginning of the movie, there is that outstanding back-to-back pair of tone-setting scenes where Hae-mi rigs a little giveaway in order to make sure that he has to come over to see her. It’s a scene which has more to say about Hae-mi, and fairly so, but it’s in the next one where Yoo is so quietly explaining everything he’s thinking with his face and body. He is so obviously attracted to her, but he is so nervous about anyone paying attention to him that he is unsuccessfully trying to play it cool. When Hae-mi looks at him, Jong-su looks away, following the path of his cigarette smoke with his eyes. When she looks somewhere else, his face lightens a little bit and his interest in being of interest shows. Jeon Jong-seo is wonderful as well, playing a role that is probably the most difficult one to play in the entire movie; she plays a woman who is a little feckless, mostly unmoored, The kind way to talk about her is to say she’s coy, and the accurate way to describe her is to call her a flake, but she is still a sympathetic character (as I think she has to be for the movie to work) because of her yearning. In moments where she appears to be telling an unvarnished truth, like when she freely admits that watching a sunset in the Kalahari was like being at the end of the world, we can sense how deeply she wants to be part of something meaningful, and how afraid she is of the meaningless mortality she’s counting in cigarette breaks and ignoring as credit card debt. This is a fundamentally irresponsible person, one who should not be relatable at all, but there is this scared person beneath that Jeon lets us in on.
As a critique of capitalism, Burning lays down the hammer about as well as a non-Sorry to Bother You movie can hope for. That critique is laid out through Ben, who the movie even describes as a Gatsby-ish character, rich for reasons that no one can pin down, at ease being at the periphery of a gathering that he might be paying for or have put together. Even when Ben seems more like a potential interloper in the moderately creepy love story that Jong-su is trying to write into existence about himself and this girl from the past he doesn’t really remember, there’s still something unsettling about the polyurethane calm he projects. While Hae-mi begins to sniffle in a restaurant about feeling so close to the end of the world, Ben’s got this placid little half-smile on his face and comments that he has never cried. It turns that scene on its head so abruptly, and yet Ben himself pretends to be unaware that what he’s said is troubling or even odd. What he reveals, in little chunks, only goes further to make the character unsettling. He likes committing arson out in the countryside once every couple months. Later in the movie, after Hae-mi has gone missing, Ben appears to have the cat that Jong-su was cleaning up after in Hae-mi’s place. What preserves Ben, it seems, is the respectability of wealth, of a gorgeous apartment, of a nice car, of being able to travel whenever he cares to. Yeun has probably gotten the most acclaim for his role in the movie out of anyone, and that’s not wrong; he is playing a sociopath without any of the annoyingly loud touches that win someone an Oscar for doing so, and on top of that great acting, Lee has found a way to make it clear that outside of swift and horrifying vigilante justice, being a rich sociopath is like a sinecure while others must struggle.