Top Movies of the Decade (2010-2019) — 2015

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.

 

For every 2015 movie that ultimately made this list, there’s another one that I liked but which never had the energy to climb aboard. For a long time, Spotlight, The Big Short, and 45 Years were hanging out in the bottom twenty spots, and the more movies I caught up with from last decade the harder it was to justify keeping any of them on the list. They were tough cuts. In particular I really like Spotlight, which is so unpretentious and so precise. There’s an old-fashioned quality about making a movie filled with recognizable names and faces in a battle for justice, but there is something very new about the way that movie does not pretend that the problem is solved. Maybe throwing Keaton-Ruffalo-McAdams-Schreiber-Tucci at a movie is less starry than Redford-Hoffman-Robards-Holbrook; I also think there’s something much more meaningful in the text ending of Spotlight compared to the text ending of All the President’s Men, as the former recognizes a problem that is almost too great to ever be solved, and the latter basically puts a bow on its proceedings. That energy is there in The Big Short as well, which I always like but on my judgier days I find too gimmicky to call a success. If nothing else, The Big Short comes to a basically negative conclusion not just about the way the stock market imploded some years before (which, no duh), but it also comes to a basically negative conclusion about the way the American economy works in general. 45 Years, Knight of Cups, The FitsInside Out: there’s a melancholy or a pessimism in all of them, and while the first two were much more in consideration than the latter two, I like all four of them a great deal. It’s a year of favorites for me even if it’s not a year that I think we’re likely to look back on and say, “Ah, yes, this is a historically great one.”

 

5) Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

If you asked me to pick the best thirty seconds I’ve ever had watching a movie, it would come from Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa, by now leading a small army of cars intent on bringing her war rig back to Immortan Joe, has entered the sandstorm. The music changed about half a minute before; it’s no longer the rumbling of the chase but something more elegiac, using strings to make the music sadder and more moving. Some War Boys are close to Furiosa, close enough that they start to make their move. She makes hers first. Using the weight of her rig, she pushes the car into a swirling tornado of dust, where it’s swept up. The car is on fire, pinwheeling but wrapped up in this whirlwind and thus following Furiosa and Nux yet. It explodes over and over again. Bodies flare into the sky, and one bounces off the ground and almost takes Max off of Nux’s car. “Oh, what a day,” Nux cries. “What a lovely day!” His little dash ornament, the skeletal head of a bird, nods wildly in agreement. I might die without ever having another thirty seconds that good ever again at the movies, and I think I’m okay with it. Every time I’m overwhelmed, awestruck at this colossal waste of life and the purging, deadly beauty of how it all looks, of how the camera rises up to follow that car into the sky, but lingers from a safe distance—so we think!—to see the fireworks until a human rocket crosses our bow like a warning shot. What a warning shot it is, at that, a warning that this movie might just be omnipotent. It’s a plot so simple that a child might come up with it. Chase one way, stop, chase the other way. It’s an action movie with cars, a subgenre which you don’t even need to have seen movies to understand the appeal of, or the fatigue within. But in those thirty seconds, everything changes. It’s not just a chase; it’s a pilgrimages which comes with a body count and the rockets’ red glare. It’s not just a car movie; cars don’t do that in other movies. Fury Road plants its flag in this sequence, and while there are more impressive stunts to come—in the words of Steven Soderbergh, “I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead”—there’s never a moment with this kind of ludicrous, defiant grandeur again. You couldn’t make a two-hour movie out of thirty-second clips that outrageous, though, because the audiences would die historic. I’m still trying to recover from it five years later. If Metacritic is to be believed, the critical firmament has had a hard time, too; by their reckoning, it is the top-rated movie of the decade based on decade-end lists.

Mad Max: Fury Road defies measured language, and that’s because the movie itself is a defiance of half-measures. That’s true as a technical assessment of the movie, which knows that we’ll react more strongly to someone crashing a semi than someone animating a digital version of a semi to crash; it knows that sending Max flying through the air as it seems the entire world behind him is exploding at one time, looking back as amazed as someone like him can be, is the kind of thing that makes you laugh because there’s no other way to react. (It’s also, to some extent, what put this movie in production hell for so many years, and why the process of making the movie was so harrowing for everyone involved.) Aside from “enormous jawdropping action,” it believes wholly in people. The debate about whether Fury Road is a feminist movie or an environmentalist movie or any other kind of -ist movie doesn’t miss the point, exactly, but I don’t think Fury Road asks for us to feel as strongly about systems as it does about individuals. In the beginning, an ailing Nux pledges that if he dies, he will die historic on the Fury Road. He does just that, but not in the way he intended to the first time. Or the second time. Much has been made of Nux’s redemption, of the way that he begins the story entranced by the insane dogma that the other War Boys believe in and ends by sacrificing himself in order to ensure that Furiosa’s group escapes back to the Citadel. It’s an inspiring little nugget (especially if one does read the War Boys as being politically adjacent to like, Proud Boys), but flattening Nux out as a story about how a boy becomes a man loses what makes him especially interesting. He is redeemed, but it is because he was repurposed first. Nux dreams of driving, and perhaps one day of getting a shot to drive the war rig itself. He longs to impress his commander. When he stops doing those jobs for Immortan Joe and begins to do those things for Furiosa, he changes. He puts his mechanical ability to work in order to maintain the rig, and even though he is pretty clearly the most expendable person aboard once he sticks with them full time, he makes himself useful on every remaining leg of the journey. When Furiosa, still reeling from the knife to her gut, prepares to jump to the Immortan’s car to take him out and bring back Toast, the one she turns to is Nux. I need you to drive the rig, she says, and from then on no one else touches that steering wheel but Nux. He does all the same kind of things that he wanted to do before his conversion, but in his new role under Furiosa he’s doing them for a noble purpose. Other people find that goodness, or get to express it in bold ways, in those same situations. There’s a moment fairly early in the chase where Immortan Joe has a clear shot at Furiosa, but Splendid busts open the door and stands in his firing line, using her body (and her unborn child) as a shield she knows that her rapist will not break. It’s an enormously courageous thing to do, and probably she always had this strain in her but never had the chance to put herself so wholly on the line as she does in that moment. Max is, as he had to be, the clearest example of this sentiment. For him (and this is true even when you subtract earlier iterations of the character), violence is what he’s good at. I haven’t gone through the movie to figure out how many people he waxes on his own, but it’s not a small number. As an individual, that violence does not benefit him. In the early scenes of the picture, he is taken prisoner, and he spends a long time strapped to the front of Nux’s car like the world’s ugliest figurehead. It’s only when he teams up with Furiosa and the wives that his violence begins to become effective, whether he is beating people with tools, shooting them down, or blowing them up as a form of “retaliation.” He also recognizes that the best violence might not star him as its chief wreaker, either. For me, one of the single most memorable moments in the movie occurs when he is setting up a shot with a rifle and then hands the gun over to Furiosa, who uses his shoulder to steady her aim. It’s the kind of action that leads Furiosa to give him (and Nux) the highest praise she can. When asked who the men are, she replies, “They’re reliable.”

 

13) Embrace of the Serpent, directed by Ciro Guerra

When the Blank Check podcast did their episode on Mad Max: Fury Road, the Black and Chrome version came up, and of the three people aboard only Griffin Newman had any sympathy for it (for some interesting reasons I won’t detail here, because you’re already listening to that Blank Check). David Sims was particularly against it for the same reasons it has no charm for me. It was made in color and designed for color, so why would you take away that particular slice of richness that’s already baked into the movie? Embrace of the Serpent is operating catty-corner to that premise. The film was made in black and white and shot in black and white, but to do so when you’re making a movie about the Amazon is a ludicrous risk. The Lost City of Z, another Amazon movie, has beautiful color cinematography that I’m not sure the movie could survive without. Yet Ciro Guerra (who has been accused by, at last count, eight women of sexual misconduct after I made this list) and DP David Gallego opt for black and white, and it’s what makes this movie as incredible as it is. It focuses the movie. The drug trip in color that Evan goes on at the end of the movie is an element I’m agnostic about, and if it was all just buildup for the contrast this movie would not rank nearly as high on my list. The choice to shoot Embrace of the Serpent in black and white, most basically, is about decentralizing the beauty of the Amazon. It’s not about the Amazon the place, really, but about the people of the Amazon. We are not Percy Fawcett looking awestruck at the majesty of the River by dusk, but through the eyes of Karamakate, who is not merely a native to the rainforest but the last of a people who were wiped out when the Europeans came. His suspicions and notions and beliefs dominate the film. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Theo looks for his compass as he prepares to depart. The night before, his native friend and servant Manduca (who wears western clothes and looks at Karamakate sideways) had joined him in a sort of vaudeville routine for the Indians, and Theo seems as at ease with them as they do with him. It’s when his compass is missing and it’s clear that it’s been stolen by the Indians that he lets them have it. He refuses to leave the village until it’s returned to him, maintaining that the theft was wrong and the compass is not a toy, but an irreplaceable tool. They leave without it when Karamakate explains to Theo why he wants it back so badly: it’s the proof of his superiority. It’s a scene that shoves all of Theo’s paternalism (and any sympathy we might feel for it!) down his ailing throat. Karamakate’s people are gone, and when someday he dies as well, he will be far more irreplaceable and knowing than that compass.

Embrace of the Serpent is a religious movie in its own way, although I’d probably lean more toward “traditionalist” than “spiritual.” Karamakate believes firmly in the gods and omens of his particular faith, and it’s what underpins his beliefs in what is proper. When in 1909 he finds the yakruna being used casually by drunks rather than solemnly by adherents, he acts decisively. Theo has journeyed so far in order to take some yakruna, hoping that it will be what cures his illness. Karamakate has helped him to get that far; thirty years later, he will administer some yakruna to Evan, who is changed by the experience, but in a totally different part of the country. In 1909, rather than see the plant profaned by people who do not respect it, he destroys the tree himself. As enemy troops fall on the outpost where the yakruna lies, Karamakate is Christlike. Rather than abide a temple where the laws of God are perverted, he destroys the means by which the holy place is being destroyed. That burning tree is one of the great images of the last decade. Karamakate, even though he is still a young man in the aughts, has lived through so much degradation, has maintained whatever kind of power over his own life he can by living apart from literally everyone else. (People who want to speak to him must seek him out like he is some hermit prophet of yore.) When that tree burns, we can practically hear the sound of him tearing at the fabric of the place itself, grasping it as if to say, “I have the strength to take this much back.” We’ve already seen religion eroded into cruelty in the 1909 story, where a mission mixes physical beatings with the kind of cultural erasure that white people have inflicted on people of color across the globe. In 1940, those same children will worship a false Christ complete with a crown; it’s a sequence which is deeply frightening because there is absolutely no order in a situation where, supposedly, there ought to be some kind of hierarchy. The purest faith, the one which does not bend for misapplications and which unifies itself with a day-to-day life, belongs to Karamakate. Only he could have burned down this singular tree and made it a kind of sacrament, and it makes for a truly electrifying moment.

 

26) Carol, directed by Todd Haynes

When we describe a movie as “ambitious,” it’s usually a statement about technique, or about a story that ends up being too big to chew. Then there’s Carol, a movie which says, “Say, what if we spent the first five to seven minutes recreating Brief Encounter from the perspective of Dolly Messiter?” It’s more than ambitious. It’s psychotic. It should not be possible for a movie to recover from a choice that arrogant, and yet Carol, unbelievably, manages to hit the bank shot. It’s not Brief Encounter, and we’ll all die waiting for another one; it’s different, though, announcing itself in a different way than Brief Encounter does, and it works on a different set of circumstances. (Of course, if there was someone who was going to put a little twist on Brief Encounter, why shouldn’t it be Todd Haynes, who approached All That Heaven Allows with a similar lens?) What keeps Alec and Laura apart is some combination of polite pressure and personal decency. What keeps Carol and Therese apart is a brilliantly wielded weapon forged from legal pressure and social prejudice. In 2020, Carol gets a divorce from Harge (there’s a red flag if ever there was one, “Harge”), gets joint custody of Rindy, and gets together with Therese without anyone blinking an eye. In the early ’50s, nearly the same thing happens. Carol does get the divorce, finally, although she cedes custody of Rindy to Harge to avoid an ugly court battle, and although the movie ends with a very positive pair of gazes, it’s preceded by a period where Therese wanders aimlessly looking for a connection as rich as what she had with Carol. The world weighs heavily on both of them, and yet there is such a balance; in its own way, it’s a kind of rebuke to this insistence on gay suicide in movies. For as much as Carol has suffered in her marriage with Harge (who thinks he’s Mitch but is actually Stanley), she delights in her daughter. Although Carol does not easily socialize with the other women of her high New York society, she has a reliable friend in Abby. And of course there’s Therese. The attraction between them is, I think, a little surprising. The movie does not spend a lot of time getting into what the two of them see in one another, but it’s not an issue; sometimes things just are, and they just work, and the movie has more than enough ammunition to successfully create that chemistry.

This is Rooney Mara looking more wide-eyed and naive than we’ve ever seen her before—compared to the harder edge that much of her other work takes on, even without taking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into account, this is an incredible transformation—and it’s Cate Blanchett, quite possibly at her best. She wants something and cannot quite express what it is she wants, only that it isn’t what she has. Perhaps her divorce, or her loaded friendship with Abby, might have gone on indefinitely, until she’d had a thousand plates of creamed spinach and poached eggs and twice as many martinis. But she leaves her gloves at the counter at Frankenburg’s, and a starstruck shopgirl enters the void. It’s almost impossible to make someone spiraling like Carol is spiraling into a compelling person, let alone a sympathetic one, but all it takes is one conversation over Christmas shopping until we are almost as rapt with her as Therese is. Then Edward Lachman’s photography for this movie has to be in the conversation for the best of the decade, because it’s snuggling right up against unique. That scene in the department store where Therese talks to Carol about train sets is in the sickliest color I’ve ever seen. It was such a putrescent yellow-green that I could taste it, a sour sickly-sweet, burning at the back of the throat. It’s like if the world had been smeared with bile, and for as bleak as things are for Therese and Carol when they meet one another, why shouldn’t it be? The movie recoils at too much bright lighting, or too much warmth in a room. We get Therese so often right next to a window, obscuring her behind the natural barrier of the glass as well as whatever smudges might be there, or in some cases the sights of the road superimposed on her. Or, sometimes, we get her from behind a camera, a view which by definition focuses on a part to spite the whole. It’s a movie that is always very mindful about who’s looking at who, and it so often keeps us, who look at them, trying to get a glimpse through a haze.

 

40) Brooklyn (2015), directed by John Crowley

This is my favorite movie of the past decade, and as is the case with most stuff I really love, I have a hard time explaining what makes it great. I think the ache of the movie is in two very similar scenes. In the first, Tony takes Eilis to an empty plot of land on Long Island and explains that he and his brothers intend to go into business together working on houses, and that they mean to build homes on this meadow. They’re both wearing mostly blue outfits; he’s got a brown jacket over his clothes, and she’s wearing a robin’s egg cardigan and a pale blue skirt. Against the sky and the green grass they are angels. It’s about as romantic a moment as I can imagine: Tony, hopeful and motivated, believes he can see the rest of his life from this spot, and he believes that he sees Eilis there with him. She agrees. They decide to get married. Two weeks, a month later, she’s back in Ireland. No one there knows that she’s married Tony at this point, and her childhood friend is eager to set her up with Jim Farrell, the handsome, gentle, and well-off heir to a pub. Jim and Eilis look out at a completely abandoned beach, and Eilis has a moment. When she went to Coney Island with Tony, it was so crowded that there wasn’t room to swing a cat. This beach is the picture of peace, and when she voices that Jim responds by saying that there will no doubt be some more folks walking the beach. Eilis smiles and we smirk, but neither one of those lasts long; Jim knows he’s said something foolish, and he says to Eilis that Ireland must seem “backward” to her now. No, she says. It’s charming, and to say that Ireland is “charming” is to say that Jim Farrell—who will walk into a business where Tony will have to build his own, who knows Eilis’ mother and fondly remembers her late sister, and who has six inches on Tony—is charming, too. Brought out to a beautiful place devoid of development but brimming with possibility for the second time, Eilis takes a look. The first time someone else told her what her future would be. The second time she intimates a very different future, and one of her own choosing at that. The trouble, of course, is that she frankly leads Jim Farrell (and the whole town, by the sound of it) to believe that she’ll marry him, when she has already signed the papers tying her to Tony. Sometimes we feel for her in this awkward scenario, as when people try to push them together despite her protestations. Sometimes we hate her, like when she looks at Tony’s letter and puts it onto a stack of likewise unopened letters from her husband. It’s a loathsome five seconds in the movie, and yet it’s hard to condemn her totally. She left Ireland because there was no opportunity for her there. She comes back to Ireland, she gets a job almost instantly, her mother basks in having a daughter again, and a man with a secure future is head over heels for her. Thus the ache in Brooklyn that makes this movie special. It’s not a movie where someone chooses between two or more bad options, but one where choosing either good option means making some series of heartbreaking sacrifice.

I love so many smaller things about this movie (e.g., an overloaded group of big names in supporting roles, incredibly thoughtful costume design, “betches”), but of course the element that makes Brooklyn a wonderful movie is its biggest one. In a year where Charlize Theron played Furiosa and Cate Blanchett played Carol Aird, it is entirely possible that Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey is the year’s best performance. Eilis has four people inside of her, not just different moods or different tones. There is Eilis who gets on the boat to America too meek and weak-kneed to speak up for herself, to get through a thought about home without tearing up. She’s there when she’s spending what appears to be the worst night on a boat anyone’s had in a movie since you know when, but she’s also there when she’s at work and unable to make light conversation with the customers, wearing a black dress that makes her look like a ghost. There is Eilis who slowly accepts Tony’s love and goes with him places, who rides in streetcars with him and brings him into her separated apartment from the boarding house for her first sexual experience; she’s chatty and sarcastic and a little bold. There is Eilis who can put her husband’s letters into a drawer and pretend he doesn’t exist because he’s three thousand miles away; that Eilis is canny, as practical and selfish as an evil stepsister. Ronan makes all three of those people, from girl to woman, feel like a progression as opposed to a trio. We can connect the dots from the girl on the boat to the girl at the boarding house to the girl back in Ireland again, even though multiple people comment how much she’s changed. It’s the last Eilis which puts the performance over the top, and we only see her for a few moments. She’s the one who returns to Brooklyn and waits for Tony to leave work. She’s got her eyes closed, her chin raised a little bit, and as she opens them, there’s a pensive, frustrated look on her face. She blinks, and you can see it written on her face like it’s the mark of Cain: she’s thinking about Ireland, and that means she’s thinking about Jim. Tony and his brother walk out of a building, and he sees her across the street. (Emory Cohen’s performance is perfectly good, too, but heaven knows there’s not a lot of challenge for him to look at Saoirse Ronan the way he does.) Eilis returns the gaze, unblinking, with some memory of a smile on her mouth and no recollection of it in her eyes. He runs across the street. They pause. An embrace. The look on her face as he holds her is in that liminal spot between tears and laughter. I don’t know who else could play these all-important final seconds of the movie with more subtlety, using her face to filter the violence of the character’s emotions so that all we see is appreciative resignation.

 

42) The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Many of the scenes in The Lobster are simultaneously very funny, very sad, and very pointed. You could choose any number of scenes to illustrate that idea, but I’m fond of a scene that the short-sighted woman narrates deep into the movie, once she and David have ironically fallen in love while living among the militantly single people in the woods. To keep themselves safe from these people, who are just as dangerous as the militantly pro-couple people at the resort, the short-sighted woman lets us in on the sign language the two of them have cooked up. It’s a way for us to speak to one another without anyone else knowing what’s happening between us, she explains. Of course, any couple develops such an unspoken language, and the longer two people are together the more automatic that connection becomes. This is the way of people together, of people in love, to be able to read one another from certain physical cues. Their language is higher stakes than “When I pull my ear that means we should relieve the babysitter,” which makes whichever direction they turn their heads into quite a statement either way. To the left means “I love you more than anything,” and to the right means “We are in terrible danger.” The short-sighted woman deadpans that they’ve had some close calls between “I love you more than anything else” and “We are in terrible danger.” It’s a laugh out loud funny bit of explication, and given the fact that the two of them are killing time until someone does something awful to them because they’re in love, it’s also entirely sad. Practically speaking, David and the short-sighted woman have done exactly what people come out to this resort to do: find someone they love, and take it from there. The fact that neither one has gone about doing it in the way they were supposed to do it (and there’s the pointed) is what puts them on a razor’s edge of discovery by one party or another. Whether all this feels like a sharp interpretation of how courtship plays out in the context of the society the courtship is mandated by or like a sterile satire dictates how much mileage you get out of The Lobster.  For my part, every time I return to this movie I find more to think about. It doesn’t end at that pithy line Olivia Colman has about “If your relationship is flagging, we’ll assign you children because that usually helps.” The Lobster understands that so much of finding a partner, especially at the age that people like David and the short-sighted woman and John and the rest appear to be at, is based on fear. Given that fear and love are usually given as opposing forces, that’s a toughie!

Another movie here where the cinematography is absolutely essential, and while Thimios Bakatatis’ work is not quite up to Lachman’s, there are dark tones in virtually every setting, from the forest where the singletons hide out to the clean, antiseptic rooms at the resort. The entire thing has a supple, almost musty kind of quality; it’s like someone’s draped the entire picture in a leather jacket. More than any of Lanthimos’ other films that I’ve come across, The Lobster relies on slow-motion as well, and so that scene where the people from the resort come out to the woods to hunt down the loners (with like, guns, and, in the case of the heartless woman, fists) really feels like we’re getting individual photographs of these people in that unusual light in which all the action is clear but the world is overwhelmingly black and brown and green. Some of those photographs are, in keeping with what the movie’s got going on, hilarious. I could watch John C. Reilly fall into every tree for a country mile and giggle the entire time. And some of them are frightening. When David takes aim at one of the loners, who dodges bullets the way seasoned husbands dodge taking out the trash, the camera moves so that the low sun is behind him. His gun is quite plain, but his face is now in shadow. It’s hard to believe that he might be emotional as he takes aim and tries to shoot down this fellow who happens to be a few weeks ahead of David’s own timeline, as David does not let his emotions out very much at all in this movie. All the same, it is entirely possible that there might be some regret or fear or distaste in his brow as he raises his gun, and that information is skillfully kept from us.

 

65) Happy Hour, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

The last movie I watched that made it onto this list, and like another long entry, O.J.: Made in America, very much episodic in a way that works more easily on television. (The only reason I could get to it at all is because it’s on Prime Video, but it comes in three parts which I don’t think Hamaguchi was in charge of fabricating.) The movie turns on two outsized sequences in which our main characters are relegated to support. In the first, Fumi has pulled her friends into a kind of consciousness-raising workshop for work; the joke, and it is a very quiet one, is that the only people who show up to see Ukai (who gained fame for balancing debris in curious ways after the 2012 quake) are his personal friends and Fumi’s personal friends. In the second, Fumi is the magnet once again, although the power of that magnetism has faded. Where there were four women at Ukai’s workshop, only Fumi and Sakurako attend the short story reading that is being given by a protege of Fumi’s editor husband, Takuya. Akari gets into a cab and leaves with Ukai (after he’s already struck out with Fumi) before the event even begins, and of course Jun, who had brought the four of them together in the first place, has already disappeared. The joke about the short story reading is that despite Takuya’s insistence on the young woman’s talent, the significant stretches of it that we hear are second-rate at best. Like Ukai, Kozue is a non-entity who happens to get an audience, and yet even from banal exercises like the ones Ukai puts the group through, or from sophomoric readings and discussions like Kozue and Jun’s ex-husband, Kohei, have for the group who has come to hear her, people still muster up little epiphanies. It is in the aftermath of Ukai’s session that Jun admits to the group at large that she’s getting a divorce from Kohei, a statement that sends the rest of the group into a delayed-reaction tailspin. It’s in the aftermath of Kozue’s reading that both Fumi and Sakurako realize that they can’t live with their husbands anymore, either. Stewing in their thoughts during pseudo-artistic exercises, venting more or less politely at the dinners which follow, it turns out that an experience does not need to be profound on its own merits to make these women start seriously contemplating what’s wrong in a more real world. The instigating event can be something which is weak art at best and charlatanism at worst; all one has to be is so open to the possibility of wanting something different that one will accept anything different. At the beginning of the movie when the four women are together on a little day trip, none of them appear to be down on the idea of the lives they’re living, but something about the way they talk about their schedules and what stands in the way of those schedules gives us a sense of what’s coming in the end.

There’s great logic in the choice of Jun as the group’s tacit leader as well as its tacit destroyer. It takes a long time for us to find out exactly how the four women all came together, for they do not all work in the same field nor did they all go to school together. The answer is that it was Jun who knew all three of the other women first by one means or another—only Sakurako, who she has known since childhood, qualifies as an “old friend”—and who played matchmaker. When the four of them go to some hot springs together, planning to stay overnight together, the one who lives first is Jun. She gets on a bus and strikes up a conversation with someone the four of them had met casually the other day, and eventually it comes up that she’s just that kind of person. Sakurako’s son describes her as a busybody (and others do as well, including Jun herself), but Jun thinks of herself first as a person who loves to bring people together. She loves to stir the pot not for her own entertainment but because she believes in the benefits of a long simmer where many ingredients meld together. Watching her smile as she tells this virtual stranger about her strategy to bring people together is sweet. It’s easy to understand her charm in that scene, the reason why people are willing to follow her as they do. It was always easy to appreciate why she was unfaithful to Kohei, especially after we saw the guy in court for the first time, but even more than when she testified in front of her husband and the court and her three friends in the audience about why she believed her marriage died, we see in this bus the reason she cannot stay with her husband. She cannot tease out the spark any longer. Thus we see her getting on a boat in the later stages of the movie, and it is the last time we see her. Her absence triggers Kohei, who calmly but maniacally intends to track her and bring her back home; it also radicalizes her friends, who had mixed feelings about Jun’s divorce (and, in Akari’s case, about Jun keeping the plan from her longer than she kept it from Sakurako) but who all agree that they will not help Kohei find her. Over and over again, as they tell him that she is seeking independence, they begin to wonder who else might deserve some independence.

 

67) Son of Saul, directed by Laszlo Nemes

I don’t know that any narrative feature has done a better job of explaining the horror of the Holocaust in a single line than Schindler’s List, when Helen says, “The more you see of the Herr Kommandant the more you see there are no set rules you can live by. You cannot say to yourself, ‘If I follow these rules I will be safe.'” It’s a line which gets at the deep illogic of the genocide, how there was no appeal to reason for it, and only by appealing to absolute hatred could it be justified by evildoers. As a narrative feature, though, I’ve yet to come across a movie which does more to depict what it’s like to live under such a system. Schindler’s List, of course, applies order to the Holocaust in the form of that list. Son of Saul is about a Jewish man, Saul, who has only temporary protection. Being a Sonderkommando is as much a death sentence as being sent to the gas chambers straightaway. The difference is that Saul and the men like him have to clean up the human remains before they are, some day in the future, murdered themselves and cleaned up by a new set of men who are just as doomed, and so on. There is no safe distance for Saul to put himself at, and there are certainly no rules to follow which will guarantee his safety for even one day longer than the Nazis choose to keep him alive. What that means for him, and for many of the other Sonderkommandos, is that it is up to them to decide what the rules are. For some of them, that means the possibility of an armed rebellion in the camp. For others, that means using a camera to take photographs of the crematory and try to have the pictures smuggled out in the hopes of hastening an international response. An armed rebellion is not literally hopeless, and neither is the idea of documenting atrocities in order to make people do the right thing in response, but the likely response for anyone involved in either is still “dead without redress.” Saul must have known from the beginning of his mission to find this one dead kid in a literal pile of many dead people a rabbit to read the Kaddish over him that it would end with his own death. He’s also wearing a jacket with a red X painted on the back of it, and he is too experienced not to know that he’s going to be killed soon anyway. There is no set of rules that Saul can follow to be safe, but there is a set of rules he can make for himself and follow through on based on his own agency. Inhumanity has not taken away his fear, precisely, but it has taken away his need for self-preservation. This boy who survived the gas chamber, somehow, only to be killed by a Nazi who found him struggling to breathe, is the last person that Saul will put his effort into, and it’s not any more or less illogical than anything else his fellow Sonderkommandos are doing.

It’s what makes Son of Saul surprisingly busy for a movie set in a concentration camp, and I say “busy” as literally as possible. Saul is almost always going somewhere, doing something, carting some valuable, trying to rendezvous with someone, asking a favor of someone else. The movie is shot almost entirely from over Saul’s shoulder, and so we are as wrapped up in the missions Saul’s undertaking as he is, although our understanding is limited because we have to use our ears more than our eyes. Some of what we see from behind Saul’s head is somewhat confusing, as we lack visual context to understand more of the camp; he knows what he’s hearing, but much of this movie is a puzzle of figuring out what’s going on just from the noises around him. More of the puzzle is also in trying to sort out his relationships with other people in the camp, hitting its apex when he finds his way to the women’s part of the camp to pick up gunpowder for the upcoming insurrection. The woman with the package is Ella, and how she knows Saul is a mystery. She touches him, tries to talk to him. It’s the closest thing to a normal conversation that anyone has in this movie, and even then it is stilted because Saul refuses to reciprocate. Everything that Saul does in this movie is brushed with a numinous sense of how sacred life was, so much so that multiple decisions he makes end up with other people dying in order to get the dead person a proper burial service. It’s in this scene that we see how badly damaged Saul has been by what’s happened to him at Auschwitz thus far. Even though there is clearly some connection he has with this woman, the person who speaks most kindly and fondly with him, Saul looks away from her as if they’ve never met. He is a living scar, and in what we are given to understand are his last days, the blood begins to course again underneath the tissue.

 

85) The Witchdirected by Robert Eggers

After all the blood has been spilled, and cry mercy there has been a lot of blood spilled in this movie, Thomasin (named for the most famous doubter in Western history) receives a visitor. It’s Satan, though in more words than that, and in the movie’s final frames we witness Thomasin at her first witches’ sabbath, almost mirthful as she floats upwards. Anyone who goes to high school in this county comes across the Puritans at some point, and it’s not usually through their own literature. Overwhelmingly, to bring up the Puritans in history class means bringing up Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson; to talk about the Puritans in a lit course means The Scarlet LetterThe Crucible, or if the teacher has a death wish, both. (Full disclosure: I’ve had the death wish but once.) The Puritans do not get to be the good guys in high school past the first Thanksgiving (lol), and their religious scruples are treated with the kind of dismissive tone one usually saves for cultists and the superstitious. How extraordinary, then, that Robert Eggers has made a movie which takes the Puritans at their word. What if Satan is in the woods? What if the witches do use the forest as their home and use children as breathing apothecaries? What if straying from God, and just as importantly God’s chosen community in America, means ruination of a family led astray by a patriarch stained with sinful pride? All of those things come to pass in The Witch, which leaves a single surviving member of a family which numbered seven at one point. There are a number of turns in The Witch, but one that Eggers deserves a great deal of praise for is in finding the terror in what these people took seriously and letting us be frightened by it as well. He’s using the Puritans to make a point just as much as Hawthorne was, and I suppose more cynically than ol’ Nate did. No matter. It’s an incredible twist to make these people’s beliefs, superstitions, or what have you, which very few people take seriously any longer, into a deeply compelling and awfully real story. Only the Puritans could believe that the devil was lurking inside a particularly ornery goat and passing messages along to children? Fine, but that goat’s still going to sink its horns into a man’s belly and kill him before ultimately revealing that the devil was, indeed, residing inside the beast as a way to destabilize the family.

Aside from the twins, who are joined at the hip in a way that makes them significantly creepier, it’s incredible how often these people are alone, peeled off from the rest of the family. That opening scene which takes place in meeting with the entire town surrounding them is essential to the rest of the picture for that reason. Once they are on their own, they rapidly disintegrate from “alone together” to “alone alone.” Many of the movie’s best scenes isolate the individual characters from their group, including the film’s smartest and most rewarding scene: William prays to God to save his children, who are innocent of the sin of pride that pushed them all out into the wilderness. More than that, the movie’s most indelible frames are overwhelmingly those in which the characters are suddenly alone. Thomasin is playing peekaboo with Samuel, only to open her eyes and grin expectantly at an empty blanket. Caleb, trembling and alone in the woods, walks closer to a strange, beautiful woman, only for a withered hand to reach out for him. Katherine, who was cracking even before Samuel was kidnapped, chortles to herself as she imagines that she’s nursing Samuel when it is a crow that pecks at her breast. This is the most horror aspect of the movie, I think, even more than the supernatural beings waging an easy bombing campaign on unequipped mortals. When the slashers strike, there is never anyone else for any member of the family to call on for help. Left to their own devices, they are easy pickings, and scenes where two or more of them are gathered increasingly end in death. Caleb, surrounded by his family, goes to God having purged his soul of whatever wickedness was placed upon it by the coven; Thomasin, in self-defense, hacks her mother to death with a cleaver.

One thought on “Top Movies of the Decade (2010-2019) — 2015

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