Combustible Celluloid

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A decade can seem like nothing, or it can be everything. Looking back, I see that my life in 2019 is almost totally different from my life in 2010. I'm with a new partner, and I have a new dog. My son went from getting his baby teeth at age 3 to getting ready for high school at age 13. Things seemed to improve, and I feel lucky every day for my life. But on a larger scale, the decade began with hope and ends in despair, and who knows how much longer it can all last? But through it all I have been reviewing films, and I have seen over 2200 of them since January 1, 2010 (less than some of my colleagues, but likely more than most). I have kept track of my favorites through the years, and the last six months have been spent changing and re-arranging the list. To tell the truth, it may take another decade to draw up a definitive list, but at the end, this is what I came up with: ten, plus twenty-two strong runners-up. Enjoy, and let's say a little prayer that the next decade, beginning in despair, ends in hope.

- The Top Ten -

1. Roma

Of all the movies I saw, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma came the closest to transcending the limitations of cinema, getting closer to the divine, to the realm of Bergman, Fellini, Welles, etc. It told a simple story, a year in the life of a maid in Mexico, but the telling of it was profound and cosmic, as well as intricate and poetic. It's the kind of movie that will last generations, though given that it was released on a streaming platform (could it have even been made by one of the studios?), it could point toward some kind of new future of cinema, as well as its past.

2. Boyhood

Shot over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater's Boyhood could have been merely a gimmick film, but instead it turned into a moving, existential masterpiece, effectively tying its narrative about a broken family with the concept of the passing of time; its achievement is even more impressive when you consider that Linklater wrote the script in pieces, over the course of that time, never quite knowing where it was all going. This turned into a freedom that allowed him to get away from typical screenplay mechanics and to find something much deeper.

3. Gravity

One of my usual rules is that, on lists like this, I allow only one film per director, but this time I had to make an exception, given that Cuaron, without question, made two out of the three films that affected me the most strongly this decade. I went into Gravity with not much expectation — I usually don't care much for "survival" films — and came away with an astonishment I'd only felt a few times before in my entire life (one of them was seeing Star Wars for the first time). Again, this was a movie that upped the ante on what cinema could possibly promise and deliver, and at the same time, it was a movie about life itself.

4. Certified Copy

We lost Abbas Kiarostami this decade, in 2016, at age 76. He may not have been a household name, but he was unquestionably one of the two or three greatest filmmakers that has worked during my time as a film critic. Far from his simple, poetic Iranian films, Certified Copy is one of his most complex, enigmatic works, a multi-cultural film shot in Italy, featuring a French star, and a British singer (making his acting debut). It's an in-depth exploration of the concept of copies, in every sense of the word, from art to offspring, and even to behaviors. It's a rich text that's worth re-watching and re-considering.

5. The Turin Horse

Another of the world's absolute greatest filmmakers, Tarr is still with us, but unfortunately announced his retirement after completing this film in 2011. The Turin Horse ostensibly refers to a late 19th century incident in which Friedrich Nietzsche tried to stop the whipping of a horse while visiting Turin, Italy (and perhaps caused a mental breakdown). The actual movie, relentlessly downbeat, consists of a farmer and his daughter waiting out a howling windstorm as more and more misery piles upon them, some of it seemingly unnatural. It's a dark poem whose meanings lie underneath its black-and-white surface, or perhaps just out the window.

6. Paterson

Here's a movie wherein, after it was over, I not only wanted it to keep going, but I wanted to live inside it. I wanted to be in this world that valued poetry, where characters had time to really look at things and appreciate them, maybe appreciate the parallels (or circles) that are everywhere in life. Jim Jarmusch's Paterson tells the story of a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, who is also named Paterson, and writes poetry just like his hero, former Paterson resident William Carlos Williams. Curtains, cupcakes, a guitar, a dog, a box of matches, and many other small things become important in beautiful ways.

7. Moonlight

At the end of 2016, I placed Barry Jenkins's Moonlight at #5 on my ten-best list, but not long after I filed that list, I ended up seeing the film twice more, and fell even more in love with it. There are any number of movies about drugs affecting black communities, but this movie, while veering scarily into violence, somehow remains so enchantingly gentle and tender. Throwing into the mix the concept of gayness in this community, the movie is elevated even more; the characters are doubly outsiders. When acceptance becomes even distantly possible, the mood is as delicate as a sigh.

8. Hereafter

This one will no doubt be my orphan pick; barely any other critics even like this film, let alone picked it as one of the year's best in 2010. It was my #1 film, and I still stand by that decision, although I confess it's probably due in large part to what I was going through in my life, and how Clint Eastwood's Hereafter lifted me up each time I saw it. It tells three stories that eventually connect, set in France, England, and San Francisco, dealing with characters that have been touched in some way by evidence of an afterlife. Eastwood's direction, as usual, is so classical and simple that the material is never sentimentalized, and it even suggests in its confident, matter-of-fact way that it's OK to believe in something more.

9. Somewhere

I admit I feel somewhat protective of Sofia Coppola, partly because of the way she's always (lazily) accused of nepotism, or underestimated because she's a woman, or because she tells stories about the wealthy and/or famous, and because she's rarely given the credit she deserves as one of the best filmmakers working today. She established a signature style early on, a dreamy softness dealing in boredom and waiting around, and yet finding the beauty and poetry in such things, the things between the things that actually happen. Her Somewhere moves me even more now than it did in 2010, almost lackadaisically tracing and repairing the relationship between a divorced actor father and his teen daughter that he barely knows.

10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

At the beginning of this decade, a critic friend passed away at far too young an age. I find myself thinking about how he used to save his #10 pick for something fun, something that he just enjoyed. In that spirit, Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a debut film, continues to fascinate me, not only because of its unique descriptor (a black-and-white, Iranian, vampire Western), but also because it's actually weird and bold enough to live up to that descriptor. I felt at the time that it was like some art house thing out of the 1960s, perhaps something by Godard or Resnais or Antonioni, that, as opposed to soothing, offered a challenge to curious and fervent moviegoers.

22 Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien), Burning (Lee Chang-dong), Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt), Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR), Get Out (Jordan Peele), The Innkeepers (Ti West), Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen), Inside Out (Pete Docter), The Irishman (Martin Scorsese), It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt), Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis), Leviathan (Vérena Paravel & Lucien Castain-Taylor), Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller), Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino), Parasite (Bong Joon-ho), Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman), This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi), The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick), True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen), Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

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