Post-truth. It’s the compound term that has annoyingly bombarded us in news reporting of all forms throughout this decade, and it’s the term that has set into motion a global feeling in cinema that reality and fiction are dizzyingly colliding. In a sobering response to this feeling where reality is fictionalized and fiction is realized, this past decade has given us a bold new type of film: the hybridized documentary, where elements of documentary are weaved together with fiction storytelling techniques, evoking a fundamental question that we all must face in the digital age: If everything we see and hear can be manipulated, then what can we trust to be the truth?
According to most of the films that you will find on this best of the decade list, the answer is simple–yourself. Given that so much of our lives are spent in front of screens with content that is biased, we can only really trust our own perceptions, our own memories, our own dreams, and our own emotions, and of course, these are all inherently flawed, but they are all we have.
This list consists of our favorite twenty-nine films over the past decade. Why? Well, Robert Johnson only recorded twenty-nine distinct songs, and there has always been a hope that the magical thirtieth song can be found. So, even though we watched hundreds of films over the course of the decade, we feel there is a magical thirtieth film that we may have missed for some reason—lack of distribution, lack of appearances at more publicity generating festivals, etc.—and as thus, we’re going to leave a placeholder at thirty for this unknown film.
In selecting these twenty-nine, we had to define some criteria to allow us to filter and rank our favorite films that we’ve seen over the past ten years. For eligibility on this list, we considered three criteria that we tried to make as mutually exclusive as possible:
- Concept: What is trying to be accomplished? How unique is it?
- Execution: How is the concept realized? How innovative is the execution?
- Impact: Has the film been so singular in its vision that people have tried to copy it?
Each film was graded on an A-D adjusted scale, keeping in mind that lower grades in this context were not representative of outright failures but rather weaknesses compared to other favorites, and then these grades were used to inform rank order. Below is the outcome of this process.
We hope you enjoy our list of our favorite twenty-nine films from 2010 to 2019. Let’s start off with our favorite of the decade…
1) Arabian Nights (As Mil e uma Noites) / Portugal / Dir: Miguel Gomes
In 2013, we placed Miguel Gomes’ Tabu at the number two spot on our best of list of that year. After that magnificent, romantic mess disguised as a postcolonial statement that featured snippets of The Ramones and a sad crocodile, we had patiently waited for Arabian Nights to be released in the US, almost a year after it had debuted at Cannes, and three years after Tabu came to our local theater, it arrived, and it was well worth the wait. To prepare for the film, Gomes sent out reporters throughout Portugal to acquire stories, and these people returned with tales from everyday life, some quiet and nuanced and others so absurd, and ultimately heartbreaking, that for Gomes, the question of making anything remotely near a traditional narrative became impossible for him to do, as evidenced in the first twenty minutes of the film when we witness the director actually running away from his own film crew when faced with the task of making a narrative film under the overwhelming presence of Portugal’s economic crisis that has been brought on through brutal austerity measures. That funny but honest moment is soon followed by the sumptuous image of Scheherazade crossing your screen with the sound of Phyllis Dillon’s rocksteady version of Alberto Domínguez’s “Perfidia” in the background, which is followed by “The Men With Hard-Ons,” a Bertrand Blier-esque comical scene where bankers and government officials appear to be sexually revelling in the work of financially screwing over humanity. As jarring as these moments are in their depiction and sequencing, they only serve to better set up the gut-punching reality of stories such as “The Bath of the Magnificents,” which centers on the annual trip to the ice cold ocean for the unemployed, a Portuguese version of the Polar Bear Swim Club.
Gomes borrowed/stole Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to lens Arabian Nights, and the combined efforts of Mukdeeprom and Gomes led to an outcome that is years ahead of what we saw in the decade. Gomes’ never loses sight of the fact that he gets to make art for a living while those around him are suffering, and in turn, he has made an epic work that is multifaceted, audacious, and even wild in its approach but is absolutely clear in its urgency to tell the stories of people who are living in desperate situations. Be prepared to ask yourself: “Why am I looking at this?” repeatedly through viewings, and each time, you will find a better answer, especially when you see the chaffinches of the third volume or the ghosts in the second volume. Gomes understands the full range of every human emotion in times of strife, and the stories in Arabian Nights collectively capture how strong, weak, happy, sad, insane, and reasonable we can be.
2) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat) / Thailand/ dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
There are fewer ways to measure the impact of a filmmaker than the increasing use of the director’s name to describe a specific approach to cinema. In the 2000s, Apichatpong Weerasethakul made films that made him one of the pillars of contemporary Thai cinema, but upon the release of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Weerasethakul became the king, one whose construction, subjects, and aesthetics have since been imitated and never successfully replicated. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is magical, bizarre, dream-like, languorous, whimsical, and if you look back on original reviews of the film, many describe it in experiential terms, like basking in a foreign world far outside of one’s usual frame of reference. Yet, despite the great attention given to its fantastical elements, Uncle Boonmee is grounded in something incredibly real–memory and perception. Boonmee is on his deathbed and in his final days, his memories and his current reality fuse together, and this merging allows us to see into Boonmee’s past, his current conscience, and eventually into how he too will be remembered and remain in reality through other’s memories and sights. Buddha, upon attaining nirvana, could recall his past lives. Boonmee, despite the title, does not (and perhaps cannot) recall his past rebirths; however, in looking into his memories and seeing incarnations of them realized as he’s dying, he sees into his past lives as a husband, father, and soldier in his current total life, and altogether, he reaches a different kind of enlightenment where the perceptual barriers between what’s inside of him, what’s in front of him, and what’s beyond fall, and everything merges into one sumptuous plane of being that we, as the audience, amazingly get to experience too.
In 2016, we had a chance to speak with Apichatpong Weerasethakul about his work. The interview can be read here
3) La Flor / Argentina / dir. Mariano Llinas
One could argue that La Flor belongs on this list simply because of its grand scale. In fourteen hours, director Mariano Llinás gives us six chapters that each separately examine the role of fictional storytelling and the necessity of actresses in cinema. Could the exercise have been tedious? Absolutely. Could it have been completely pretentious and unwatchable? Of course. However, every second of La Flor is captivating, for Llinás embeds his analysis on the nature and future of fictional filmmaking into rich stories gorgeously helmed by his four lead actresses: Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa. In doing so, we get to see kaleidoscopic performances from Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa as they flourish in a vast array of roles that demand something completely different from each other, and as a result, we understand the power of the actress as a muse for great creation and how this power can only manifest itself in fictional filmmaking. Much of this list consists of films that experiment with the lines between reality and fiction, and one of the chapters in La Flor does playfully examine Llinás’ own reality as the director of a massive film that required many years of dedication from his actresses, but overall, La Flor is a celebration of all that fiction can accomplish. It awes us. It underscores our fears. It makes us feel in an abstracted space away from our daily lives. It allows us to escape beyond the barriers of the self. And most importantly, it doesn’t lie to us, for it doesn’t pretend to be the truth, but it does hope to evoke true emotions. Our full review of La Flor is available here.
4) Holy Motors / France / dir. Leos Carax
Here, we are a bit biased as we truly love all of Carax’s films and have been especially pulling for him since the unfair critical drubbing that he received over Les amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers On The Bridge), which despite its well-publicised overly lavish and costly production, still contains two otherworldly performances from a young Juliette Binoche and Carax regular, Denis Lavant. After Lovers On The Bridge, eight years passed before Carax’s next feature, Pola X, an adaptation of Herman Melville’s defiant novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which marked Carax’s sole entry into the “New French Extremity” movement of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Though we so appreciated Carax’s statement, style change, and boldness with Pola X, it failed both critically and commercially, and thus, this failure, coupled with the death of Carax’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer, Jean-Yves Escoffier in 2003, meant that we would not see a new feature from Carax (minus his segment in the 2008 triptych, Tokyo) until 2012 when he masterfully returned with Holy Motors, his elegy to both his colleague Escoffier and film itself. In one of the most intentionally varied and brilliant performances of the decade, Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, an actor who travels around Paris in a limousine/dressing room to various parts of the city to assume a multitude of different “roles” including a drug dealer, a single dad, and our favorite role, a reprise of Monsieur Merde, the flower and money eating monster whom Carax created for his piece in Tokyo. With Holy Motors, Leos Carax, returned to assess the medium of film in a way that is as irreverent as his earliest efforts, but with an informed perspective and questioning that can only be accomplished by a master filmmaker.
5) A Prophet (Un prophète) /France / dir. Jacques Audiard
With his 2005 film The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s’est arrêté), director Jacques Audiard sharply reenvisioned James Toback’s deliriously deranged 1978 crime drama, Fingers, by expanding on the “lost love” aspect of Jimmy Finger’s childhood so as to create a richer portrait of a violent borderline sociopath who must balance his reinvigorated passions with his familial guilt and unspoken nefarious commitments. Though not directly an adaptation like The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard’s 2010 film, A Prophet, operates in many ways as a modern cinematic correction of the character of another 1970s gangster, Michael Corleone from The Godfather. In A Prophet, we follow Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a sheepish French teenager of Algerian descent, who is sentenced to six years in prison for the accidental injuring of a police officer during a robbery. Once inside, Malik meets Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mob boss who is in control of the prison and coerces Malik into the murder of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), a Muslim witness in a trial. Though Malik grudgefully carries out the killing, he is reluctant to engage in more crime, but he is again forced to assume a larger role in Luciani’s organization as its members are released from prison. In a smart contrast to The Godfather, as Malik ascends in power throughout the film, he is strengthened by his faith through the apparition of Reyeb, as opposed to Michael Corleone’s Faustian fall from God’s graces as he assumes control of his family. Furthermore, in A Prophet, we too watch the odious rise to power of a member of a contemporary marginalized ethnic group, but absent from Malik’s ascent is the lavish period detail and iconically dark Gordon Willis’ cinematography that surrounded Michael Corleone’s, and in its place is a bleak, desperate, claustrophobic prison and connected criminal world, making Malik’s eventual rise far uglier, yet more heroic. Key to Audiard’s execution of this narrative is the singular performance from young actor, Tahar Rahim, who delivers one of the most impactful performances of an actor of this decade in one of the finest crime films that you will ever see.
6) Meteors (Meteorlar) / Turkey, The Netherlands / dir. Gürcan Keltek
Weaving together scenic and tumultuous images from nature with footage of people in the midst of political action and violence, Meteors stunningly and repeatedly layers these images on top of each other to form an elaborate discourse about the transient, fleeting nature of peace and violence in our societies and in our world. Director Gürcan Keltek uses two specific political events, the Turkish military’s breaking of a ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers’ Party and the Women’s Initiative for Peace, as starting reference points to capture the emerging political landscape of conflict in southeast Turkey. With the footage from these events, Keltek lures you into believing that Meteors will be a political film that will offer first person insights into the context and history of these events, but when the images of hunters and prey, meteor showers, and even a solar eclipse takeover, and no deep explanations of the political conflicts are given, a larger conceptual discussion rises, asking the question: “Is violence a fundamental part of nature?” While the footage of aggressive moments across species (humans of course included), suggests that violence is inherent in our nature as animals, Keltek’s deft intertwining of more tranquil, meditative images reminds us that even though violence is part of us, we can have peace. Thus, like a meteor falling to earth, violence, though it catches our immediate attention, can and must fade, and it is our responsibility to remember that peace, like the meteor before it burned into non-existence, did exist and that the beauty of peace is something to be preserved, since we know it will end.
7) By the Time It Gets Dark (Dao khanong) / Thailand / dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong
Countering the current banal trend towards overly self-aware film referencing that many consider viable postmodernist cinema stands Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time it Gets Dark, which has no novelty in its allusions to the history of cinema, and yet, manages to maintain a lightness throughout its discourse on the role of cinema in capturing and retelling collective memories and realities. The film begins with a scene set in 1976, with a real event that is currently being suppressed in history books by the Thai government, Bangkok’s Thammasat University massacre, where a large number of student protesters were executed by the Thai military. This piece of history comes to the attention of Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a filmmaker who locates a survivor of the killings, a writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), whom Ann has invited to a secluded country home for an extended conversation. In this setting, we encounter another woman, who becomes a recurring character throughout the film, who drifts from job to job. After Ann interviews Taew, we are introduced to a handsome actor named Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) who is filming a more commercial film than the one that Ann is currently creating about the Thammasat University killings. With each of these characters’ stories, Suwichakornpong shows a different perspective and context of film history and its motivations. There is an ode to cinema and a chance for transformation; there is also an undercurrent of how film was viewed during different political and social climates within the timeline of the progression of cinema itself. The director, in order to accomplish this ambitious dissection of cinema, blurs the reality of what is in the film, or to be more specific, what is in the films within the film, to stress how changes of character or outcome have been mandated for purposes of entertainment or sadly have occured because of the failing of a nation’s collective memory about a real event that has been altered by the media itself.
8) The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo) / Philippines / Dir: Lav Diaz
Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio, our best actress pick for this year), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Despite this setup that seems more suitable for an action blockbuster, Diaz’s film slowly and gracefully unfolds into a final statement on fate and forgiveness through interactions with people who must live and try to survive in the face of corruption led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people. And though The Woman Who Left takes place in a Philippines of twenty years ago, you cannot divorce yourself from the relevance of the statements on the strangling arms of corruption raised in Diaz’s film when you see the devastation caused by the anti-drug bloodshed happening on the streets of Manila today.
9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) / Turkey / dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
In 2012, Ceylan followed the success of his tense familial drama from 2008, Three Monkeys (. Üç Maymun), with his understated masterpiece of a societal study disguised as a police procedural, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Based on the real life events of a doctor who was forced to work in the Anatolian town of Keskin in order to gain his licence, Ceylan slowly constructs his narrative around the search for a murder victim in the area around Keskin by a group of men including some grave diggers, policemen, and a doctor, all of whom are all led in their hunt by a police commissioner named Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan ) and a suspect named Kenan (Firat Tanis), who has confessed to the crime, but as he was badly intoxicated at the time of the killing, he cannot remember where he buried the body. The brilliance evidenced by Ceylan here is through his unique construction of the narrative that allows the audience to painstakingly examine the repetitive actions and small pieces of dialog that the characters exhibit during the myriad of conversations and stories which are seen and heard throughout the film. This technique, which is skillfully employed by Ceylan by way of small negative revelations of the characters which occur against the flow the natural environment where they all toil, ultimately suggests to the viewer that any progress the people in society would like to attain is inevitably thrown into chaos by their consistent inability to see what is in front of them.
10) Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv) / Romania / dir: Corneliu Porumboiu
Police, Adjective, the exceptional second feature film from Romanian New Wave auteur, Corneliu Porumboiu, picks up right where he left off with 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) in his framing of his native Romania, which is still mired in uncertainty many years after the revolution. Using Bressonian attention to even the smallest detail, this funny and, at times, dire Romanian dark crime comedy is as much about the letter of the word as it is about the letter of the law. Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young detective, questions the ethics of his mandated enforcement of a drug law, one born during the police state of Ceausescu, that will soon be changed once Romania joins the EU. As our dogged officer sets out to trail his suspects, a group of high school students with a tiny amount of hashish, he comes to grip with the reality that his execution of this draconian edict from the former dictator might possibly result in these teens serving serious jail time, which leads our detective into an almost fanatical dissection of language of everything from the laws that he must enforce to the crooked sentimentality inherent in the lyrics of his wife’s beloved pop song. Cristi’s hysterical examination of words soon leads him to doubt and question what he has witnessed with his own two eyes, leaving his chief no choice but to use the dictionary definition of the words about his charge as the only way to define reality against the definition of fairness that might be considered as truth within Cristi’s conscience.
11) Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da) / Korea / dir: Sang-soo Hong
Directors Sang-soo Hong and Nuri Bilge Ceylan seem to genuinely appreciate how vile and brilliant they are as human beings. Their films consistently take their worst intentions to task with the difference being that Sang-soo has a lot of fun pointing out the more lascivious aspects of his persona. Utilizing the same Jungian structure as his previous two films, The Hill Of Freedom and The Day He Arrives, where the outcome of one’s life comes down to small decisions, the protagonist of Right Now, Wrong Then plays out alternative courses of a day on screen in different segments prompted by contrasting neurotic interactions. Right Now Wrong Then’s fill-in for Hong’s alter ego is Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), an arthouse filmmaker who visits a small mountain town where he proceeds to spend the day trying to bed a beautiful but shy former model turned painter named Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee). The film is divided into two segments where Han uses opposite but similarly insincere techniques, one self-effacing and the other brutally honest, to get Hee-jung to love or at least sleep with him. Awkwardly painful in a way that a young Woody Allen would be proud of, Right Now, Wrong Then (which is actually reminiscent of Allen’s Melinda Melinda) is perfectly executed by the cast and Hong. You leave hating yourself for spending even one second hoping that Han and Hee-jung will hit it off, but you admire Hong for getting you to that point of recoil.
12) Occidental / France / dir. Neïl Beloufa
We saw Occidental in the first weeks of 2018, and it stayed as a highmark for us throughout last year. Nonchalant in its political ideas, audacious in its visuals, and purple-pink-soaked throughout, Occidental is a claustrophobic film of collisions that all take place in one night at the Hotel Occidental. With its set built entirely in director Neïl Beloufa’s studio, Occidental’s images are meticulously constructed with the hope that every character, every object, every sound will evoke a reaction from the viewer. Clashes based on race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality emerge, simply based on how different characters interact with each other, and the film maintains an unwavering hysteria from a prolonged feeling of entrapment due to the political uprising happening outside the hotel and the possibility of some terrorist activity inside the building. What makes Occidental exceptional is one very basic thing: you cannot look away from it. Beloufa, who is primarily a sculptor and installation artist, throws everything he has at Occidental, and the outcome is a piece of art that has the visual mystery of an installation with a deceptively minimal narrative that makes you want to soak yourself in its intriguing glow and not leave until Beloufa forces you out.
13) Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) / China / Dir: Gan Bi
Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues was the most impressive debut feature that we saw in 2016. Though Gan’s film borrows a small portion of its narrative and visual style from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, its uniquely constructed, forty-minute long, single take scene on a motorbike is so clever that it demands to be on this list of the best of the decade. At the beginning of the film, Gan displays the following Buddhist text from the Diamond Sutra: “the past mind cannot be attained, the present mind cannot be attained, the future mind cannot be attained.” The reasoning behind these words remains elusive through the first half of the film as we follow the story of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew who has been sold to a watchmaker, but, when the aforementioned gorgeous single take on the bike occurs, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Gan challenges the medium of film in a bold and compelling way that even few master directors dare to, and for that, Kaili Blues earns its spot on this list.
14) Zama / Argentina / dir. Lucrecia Martel
Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, Lucrecia Martel’s first feature since The Headless Woman in 2008, is set on the coast of Paraguay in the late 1700s. Zama explores the grotesque legacy of European colonialism in South America by witnessing the mental collapse of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cachoa), a Spanish officer, who fruitlessly awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires. Our protagonist saunters through one borderline surrealistically hideous example of imperialist exploitation after another and descends on a course of continuous rejection as he visits his other Spanish compatriots who never fully accept him, as he is not of Spanish birth, and as Zama’s mood declines, so grows the cards against him as he is severely disciplined by his superior officer and then rejected by the indigenous woman who gives birth to his child. Martel’s bold storytelling devices are the true strength of the film, as she incorporates hallucinatory visuals and sound constructed into intentionally overlayed conversations so that you can share Don Diego’s psychedelic journey into madness. Just as Martel masterfully did with her central figure in The Headless Woman, with Zama, she has created a film that expresses a sharp social statement while delving so deeply into her central characters’ minds as everything falls apart around them that you feel the regret in every poor choice they make.
15) The Wailing (Goksung) / Korea / Dir: Na Hong-jin
The Wailing was the first horror film since Neil Marshall’s 2005 scare, The Descent, that ranked this high on a top ten list of the year, and like The Descent, Na’s film transcends the genre. Na masterfully uses some fairly grotesque visuals and concepts as diversionary elements in The Wailing to throw you off the trail of not only the cause of evil in the film but also his core social critique of a nepotistic Korean society that chooses to direct anger towards ancient enemies while rotting from within due to outdated familial imperatives that keep people from forming the necessary communities to battle evil as a whole, united front. Na’s striking visuals and moments of intense suffering may cause you to feel a level of confusion due to your own empathy for individual characters and may also distract you from the director’s thesis detailed above, but that is indeed Na’s intention for his beautifully executed allegory. The Wailing will most likely go down as one of the finest uses of the horror genre as metaphor for a society’s woes, meeting (and maybe even surpassing by a tiny bit) the high standard set by George Romero’s use of the zombie trope in Night of the Living Dead to examine America’s issues during the civil rights movement.
16) The Duke Of Burgundy / England / dir: Peter Strickland
Since his 2009 debut, Katalin Varga, English director Peter Strickland has been on a roll. In 2012, Strickland took the nebbish Toby Jones to Italy to record foley splatters for giallos in the clever film, The Berberian Sound System. Strickland’s love of sound design comes to the forefront again early in The Duke Of Burgundy, as does his affinity for the mid-1960s brown hues you would recognize from British fare like The Collector. The Duke Of Burgundy follows a housemaid named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) who is sexually subjugated by a butterfly scholar and collector named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Is Cynthia actually in charge? We cannot be too sure based on the sexual role playing and alternating dominatrix play that occurs in their home. The Duke of Burgundy bears down on Evelyn and Cynthia’s idiosyncratic tendencies within their relationship and, in turn, what the pair is willing to do in order to maintain their myth of togetherness. This isn’t the worthless pap that is Fifty Shades Of Grey, which was essentially written to make middle American housewives rebel at their pathetic lifelong aversion to sexuality. Strickland expertly weaves his two characters together who are constantly redefining themselves both intellectually and sexually through what they view as growth. Both Cynthia and Evelyn strive to distance themselves away from developing into domicile, “bedroom and kitchen” women, but through their feigned intellectual study and trite sexual endeavors in role playing, the two, especially Cynthia, travel closer to what they are trying so hard to run away from.
17) Cemetery Of Splendour (Rak ti Khon Kaen) / Thailand / Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Much has happened in Thailand since Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century, which articulates the director’s reflections on his country’s shift in attitudes from the time of his birth to the present day as seen through the daily activities of a Bangkok hospital staff. In 2014, the Thai army launched a coup d’état and established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation, and to emphasize the contrast in his society from a decade ago, Weerasethakul has again chosen a hospital of sorts as the setting to reflect the current state of his nation—a nation that now sees an importance of the military as its first concern, leaving its citizens to fend for themselves and look towards the west for a means of survival during the military state that is the prevailing government. In Cemetery of Splendour, a ward of soldiers suffering from a sleeping sickness are being treated with the latest in medical technology in a makeshift clinic housed in a school that was built on an ancient site. We meet a volunteer named Jenjira (longtime Weerasethakul collaborator Jenjira Pongpas), who watches over a soldier without a family and then starts up a friendship with a young medium named Keng who uses her abilities to assist the unconscious soldiers communicate with their loved ones. In Syndromes and a Century, we see a country that is steadily favoriting western attitudes, whereas Cemetery Of Splendour shows a Thailand that has been put into a position where it must struggle to simply preserve its beliefs and identity as they are being rewritten by a military force that has its influence everywhere. Cemetery of Splendour is a masterfully realized film composed of understated performances and sublime visuals that have become the standard of Weerasethakul’s work these last twenty years.
18) Dogtooth ( Kynodontas) / Greece / dir: Giorgos Lanthimos
This bitingly dark and, at times shocking, satire fittingly begins with an audio tape playing a language lesson in which the word for “sea” is “armchair.” The parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) who recorded this tape are creating a world for their three innocent, yet elder captive children, a world where zombies are wild flowers, cats are deadly predators, and pussy is a bright light. Such is the reality created in this middle class fortress which is complete with its massive garden and giant walls. The children and their mother know full well the limits of their movement, which ends at the front gate, and they are told that the only safe travel is via the family car, which can only be used by the father. The father’s plan goes as well as can be expected until the only outside visitor to the home, a security guard from the father’s workplace named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), is brought in to satisfy the sexual needs of his teenage son, but when Christina is oddly left without parental supervision to interact with the daughters, she begins to plant the seeds of rebellion in them. Produced directly after the beginning of the Greek government-debt crisis of the late 00s, which led to a series of sudden reforms and austerity measures that caused a massive recession, Dogtooth suggests that, given our grim economic outlook and diminished ability to take part in society, we are fast approaching an era where people will withdraw even further from outside human interaction, leaving them only with the Web to create their own realities based on whatever online doctrine they need to accept as their own in order to make sense of the horror awaiting them in the future.
19) Tabu / Portugal / dir. Miguel Gomes
Miguel Gomes’ comically executed and insightful third feature, Tabu, begins during the era of the Murnau 1931 film of the same title, and here, we witness a lovelorn explorer and his native guides trudging through the thicket of the “dark continent” while on the search for a melancholic crocodile whom our passive adventurer gives himself up to willingly. The tribesmen who have accompanied our martyr to his end respond to this sacrificial moment by dancing with joy, and then, surprise! You are now in a movie theater in Lisbon and are face to face with the middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who sits alone with a bewildered stare as the title card above the scene introduces, “Part One: Paradise Lost,” the title of the second part of the homonymous Murnau film. The devoutly Catholic and beneficent Pilar resides in the same apartment as Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly woman who frequently gambles away all of her money and whose maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), is a Cape Verdean woman and voodoo practitioner who Aurora fears is plotting against her. As we examine the mistrustful interactions between Aurora and Santa, there exists a purposeful allusion to the barbarous remnants of Portugal’s colonial past. As part one of Tabu continues, Aurora’s health fades, and she tasks Pilar with locating a Gian-Luca, a man from Aurora’s past whom she believes is longing for her. When Pilar locates him, part two of Tabu begins, a segment entitled, Paradise (again, the inverse title from Part One of Murnau’s film), where Gian-Luca’s voice details his life with Aurora in early 1960s Africa before the Portuguese Colonial War began. It is in the second half of the film where Gomes employs the subjective nature of Gian-Luca’s memory during this ugly period of imperialism to recall moments from his past with Aurora, small moments in their lives that resulted in actual historical consequences. As Murnau’s film of forbidden love in Bora Bora exploited the colonial backdrop of that place and era for tragic romance, Gomes brilliantly transposes the narrative of Murnau’s film to stress contemporary Portugal’s selective memory when dealing with the evils of its colonial past.
20) Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan) / China / Dir: Gan Bi
In his impressive debut feature, Kaili Blues, Gan Bi told a story in two halves of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew, who has been sold to a watchmaker. In that film, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra he presents by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Like Kaili Blues, Gan Bi’s alluring and immensely enjoyable latest feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also divided into two segments, with each distinctively challenging our understanding of time, narrative, and character to setup a contrast that dares us to unravel all of our notions of cinema, storytelling, memory, and experience. Through a pastiche of scenes that seem all too familiar, Gan playfully utilizes cinematic language primarily through tropes found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that could be seen as homage, but serve more importantly as references that force us to draw from our memories of moments and characters in Vertigo and other film noirs so deeply embedded in our consciousness, to take us further away from the story that we are witnessing on our own, leading us to distort our interpretation of the main narrative with our recall of similar images and how they impacted us. As much as the first part of the Long Day’s Journey Into Night utilizes cinematic tropes and symbols, narrative construction, and memory recollection to assemble the characters’ disjointed realities, the second part of the film strips away all of that and becomes purely an experience, one that is languid and trance-like, but is perhaps the truest way that we navigate psychological representations assembled from reality, and in turn may be the way we interpret and understand reality itself. Whereas Godard’s recent film, The Image Book, addresses the failure of cinema to capture reality by using jarring images and sounds in an entirely experimental framework, Long Day’s Journey Into Night addresses this same problem with the contrast between the two parts of the film. Our full review of the film is available here.
21) Güeros / Mexico / dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios
Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is a teenage malcontent who lives in Veracruz with his mother. After pulling one nasty prank too many, mom sends Tomás to live with his layabout college student brother Federico/Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), who lives in a miserable apartment in Mexico City with another slack named Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris). Neither is actually in school because they are sitting out the student strike at their university caused by a change in policy that will now charge students for tuition for the first time in history. Shortly after arriving, Tomás tells his new roommates that his and Sombra’s favorite rock singer, Epigmeneo Cruz is dying in a hospital, and they have to see him before he goes, which is fine for the boys, since their large downstairs neighbor is about to kill them for stealing electricity. Set in 1999, their comedic voyage through the streets of Mexico City leads them to encounters with protests, dangerous gangs, and freaks on their quest to find their rock hero, and these elements on the surface appear to setup Güeros as a sentimental homage to both the raw looseness of the French New Wave and the embracing of the “experience” inherent in the American road films of the 1960s, but what Ruizpalacios cleverly presents to you instead is a cinematic bait and switch, as none of the grand cathartic moments that you’ve come to expect through the aforementioned setups actually transpire. You leave Güeros having enjoyed the humorous interactions of our leads, but after being served this seemingly nostalgic journey, you now question the value of cinema’s past efforts in romanticising crucial sociopolitical issues.
22) Jimmy P: The Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian ( Jimmy P: Psychothérapie d’un indien des plaines) / France / dir. Arnaud Desplechin
Since the beginning of his outstanding feature film career in the early 1990s which started with The Life of the Dead (La vie des morts), director Arnaud Desplechin has excelled in working with ensemble casts, but with his 2013 film, Jimmy P., Desplechin presents to us an intimate portrait of a real life doctor and patient relationship that breaks away from many of the previous cinematic depictions of psychological case studies. Jimmy P. is Jimmy Picard (portrayed by Benicio Del Toro who delivers one of his finest performances), a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe and a World War II veteran who suffers from hallucinations, headaches, temporary blindness, and anxiety attacks, and as a result, he is admitted to the Topeka Military Hospital, an institution that specializes in diseases of the brain. There, Jimmy is first diagnosed with schizophrenia, but this opinion is challenged by Georges Devereux (another bravura performance from Desplechin regular and frequent alter-ego, Mathieu Amalric), an ethnopsychiatrist who once lived with the Mojave. Devereux became a disciple of Freud after observing how crucial dreams were in Native American cultures that he lived with in the United States, and it is that aspect of his professional experience combined with the doctor’s own outsider cultural background as a converted Catholic who was born a Romanian Jew and whose family fled to France following World War I that provides him with the unique and necessary tools required to delve into the complex issues that are causing Jimmy to suffer. Desplechin never rushes towards dramatic climaxes, and he gives his two protagonists ample space to play off of one another as they work towards the root of Jimmy’s trauma, but nothing is resolved cleanly, and there is no miracle, curative breakthrough here. As Jimmy progresses in his treatment, what becomes the takeaway of Desplechin’s film is what we learn about Jimmy and the Blackfoot people and some of the many transgressions against them, transgressions which this soldier has internalized while trying to serve the country that has rejected him.
23) Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) / France | Belgium / dirs. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Before we say anything else about Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, let us say this: it’s not perfect by any means, but it is one of the most conceptually and visually daring films we saw in 2017. Cattet and Forzani’s blood-soaked feature is, at times, an outstanding display of ideas that draws visual and aural conventions from everything from low budget Euro-crime films of the 1970s to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s landmark novel of the same name that re-defined police stories, Let the Corpses Tan uses a violent heist as the galvanizing moment in the narrative, but the film is less about why the crime was committed and more about what each character sees, feels (in a tactile way rather than an emotional way), and hears as he or she has to deal with the consequences. As thus, there is an overwhelmingly impressive dedication by Cattet and Forzani to construct meticulous shots of the actions, big and small, of each character, which makes every scene in the film palpable. We can hear and see the paint that Luce (Elina Löwensohn), the owner of the home that doubles as the film’s stage, shoots onto a canvas. We can feel the sun beating down on the characters as they move around Luce’s sparse and desert-like property in Corsica. We see and hear shots fired from each perspective. We can even smell the pee that is part of Luce’s performance art. This action-focused approach bypasses any character development and exploration, but keeps you fully engaged because you would like to see, hear, and feel what is next, especially because Cattet and Forzani never present a less than intriguing scene. As part of the sensory explosion in Let the Corpses Tan, the directors include scenes from surreal performance artwork from Luce, and these moments emphasize why you should see the film: Let the Corpses Tan is a showcase of how the motifs that we know from genre cinema, when included and expanded in similar and contrasting contexts, can form their own kind of performance that is analogous to Luce’s strange, but also reference heavy, performances.
Let the Corpses Tan is a dazzling spectacle, and even if there are no characters and no firm narrative to hold onto, you’ll be mesmerized by all the sounds and images of liquid gold slathered on bodies, lamb meat being grabbed, bodies being beaten, and gunshots fired in close range and through windows interspersed with close ups of sweaty, furtive glances. As you can tell from that description, some of the scenes in the collage of Let the Corpses Tan may be overly masturbatory or fetishistic, which without key characters are made even more so, but as long as you give up trying to understand why this is all happening before you, you’ll have fun, too much fun, experiencing this film.
24) A Touch of Sin / China/ dir. Jia Zhangke
Babylon is burning, and violence is becoming people’s only solution to the desperation stemming from the widening income gap and surges of corruption in China. Inspired by four news stories representing a sample of this exponentially increasing trend for the worse, Jia Zhangke strips out any poetry, any breath of relief from A Touch of Sin, giving us one of the most deliberate and unrelenting films of the last decade. In four parts, we see how societal inequality is pushing people outside of the wealthy class towards destruction. A mine worker has had enough of his boss’s exploitation of his village. An angry man on a motorcycle returns home and sees the radical difference between the meager lives of his family and the lives of the wealthy in the city. A spa receptionist refuses to be abused any further when two local politicians beat her after she refuses to provide them with sexual services. A sweet young man arrives to the city, works at a brothel then a Foxconn factory, and finds out the bleakness of trying to survive. Every image in A Touch of Sin has a meaning, and together, they remind us of the forgotten beliefs in Communism and Buddhism and launch us into a broken world where the winners have it all and will push to retain their luxury goods and power by oppressing everyone below. A Touch of Sin is violent, urgent, angry, and it’s desperate to show the world the hearts of darkness behind China’s economic growth and national news media reports.
25) Night Moves / USA / dir. Kelly Reichardt
To us, Kelly Reichardt, is one of the few great voices left in American independent cinema. Since her debut film, River of Grass, some twenty years ago, Reichardt has established herself as the queen of minimalist filmmaking here in the States. She was noticeably absent for a period after her 2010 gem Meek’s Cutoff, but she returned after three years with her best film of the decade, Night Moves. With less of the pure observational construction of her earlier films such as Old Joy, Night Moves is a critical indictment of the modern environmental movement that Reichardt skillfully crafts from strong performances from her three leads. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) live among faux-liberal collective farms, ignoring their own privilege as they plot to destroy a seemingly unimportant hydroelectric dam with the help of Harmon (Peter Saarsgard), a hypocritical and marginalized Gulf War veteran. Josh and Dena seem to be existing in an era that no longer exists and only plot this destruction to prove to themselves and others that they are true believers in the cause. The film and the boat used for Josh, Dena, and Harmon’s terrorist action are interestingly named after the long lost Arthur Penn film from the 1970s when such explosive actions of protest were used and yielded mixed long-term results.
26) The Tree House (Nhà cây) / Singapore | Vietnam | Germany | France | China / dir. Quý Minh Trương
Part naturalist documentary, part space diary, part discourse on ethnography, part thesis on the value of physical media, The Tree House (Nhà cây) weaves stories about home from members of the HMong, Jarai, Ruc, and Kor people together with the reflections of a film director (portrayed by director Quý Minh Trương himself) on Mars in 2045 recalling his previous filming activities in Vietnam as he attempts to begin a new project documenting the red planet. In his film, Trương primarily focuses on Hậu Thị Cao, a Ruc woman who grew up in a remote cave system, and Lang Văn Hồ, a Kor man who grew up in a tree house deep in the jungle of Quảng Ngãi province. Both Ms. Cao and Mr. Hồ were displaced from their original homes by war or the ruling government, and in presenting their stories and memories of their original homes and their experiences of becoming outsiders in their own country, Trương opens up a line of questioning that first addresses the physical and mental representations of home as a concept, then naturally expands into the right to ownership of the physical, be it the home or the image, and then finally suggests the value of memory over the physical. By the end of The Tree House, Trương leaves us with many questions about the purpose of any attempt to document reality and the moral quandary of doing so in environments where we don’t belong, making us wonder about the purpose of his own work, yet forcing us to face our own tendency to document everything in our social media age and our desire to see into places far away where we have no investment, all of which lead us to fail to look and experience what’s in front of us and what’s in our own memories. Our full review of the film is available here.
27) The Image Book (Le livre d’image) / France / dir. Jean-Luc Godard
As with Godard’s work over the last few decades, The Image Book is a montage piece, editing together concepts and created with a narrative, or rather the creator’s personal thoughts, that appear selected by the current era. We must gaze upon this work as an installation piece, gathering the combination of sounds and visuals as a combined form in a single viewing and releasing any sense (and expectation) of traditional film language, as it has been Godard’s goal to further the language of film past any sense of where we feel entirely comfortable viewing it. When experiencing Godard’s construction here, you see attempts to look at the ability of sound and image capturing and playback to actually freeze, perceive, and repeat reality, and without being pessimistic about the form, for this may be the director’s way of dismissing the medium, The Image Book’s primary concern is whether or not film is an appropriate conduit to capture reality. We understand that we experience what is real and recall what is real in desperate ways, and fundamentally, if cinema does the same, then it may be the closest way to show how we understand our world, even though that recollection, that attempt to recall the real may result in a falsehood. Fundamentally, the overwhelming success of The Image Book, as with most of Godard’s work throughout his career, comes primarily from the experiments attempted. Successful or not as these experiments may be, they operate within the structure of the film to create a unique cinematic language. With his 47th feature, Godard, through the daring exploration and manipulation of old and new visuals and sound, has been able to duly note and thoughtfully deconstruct the core facets of cinema in order to find paths for its continued evolution as a vital device for interpreting reality. Our full review of the film is available here.
28) Interruption / Greece | France | Croatia / Dir: Dir: Yorgos Zois
Set in a theater in Athens, Zois’ daring film, Interruption, uses a post-modernist adaptation of Aeschylus’ classic Greek tragedy, Oresteia, as the center of his meditation on the Dubrovka Theatre incident. While a performance of the play is taking place, the armed Chorus, consisting of seven people, forcibly takes the stage and apologizes for the “interruption” and then soon calls out for a group of audience members to take the stage so that they can establish an order for the remaining narrative. Now, several more members of the audience mount the stage, which prompts the leader of the Chorus, who takes a seat in the front row, to interview this new assortment of audience volunteers one after another, asking about their professions and even going as far as asking some of them personal questions regarding their romantic relationships. In this group of audience volunteers is one professional actor whom the Chorus leader casts in the role of Orestes, who, based on the original text, has the intention to murder his own mother, Clytemnestra. Now onstage are two people portraying Orestes, and the line further blurs between spectator and actor, and with it, a debate that argues the necessity to carry out Orestes’ act of matricide from a moral standpoint against the original narrative of the play, further breaking down the structure between the intended goal of the author and the role of the spectator as a passive observer. So, what role does the filming of this event serve in this adaptation? As Zois explained at a screening: “I wanted to create a cinematic world where the viewer could use all his senses and experience a voyage to a world that blends the limits between life and art, fiction and reality, logic and absurdity—a cinematic enigma that offers no single solution but offers you the chance to see a different view each time you look through a different view. This film is about the art of viewing and what does viewing mean and the point of view, and no one sees the same thing in the same way.
29) Drug War (Du zhan) / China / Johnnie To
Johnnie To has made a career of cinematic one-upmanship, consistently challenging the limits of the action genre, and whether it’s The Mission (Cheung Foh) or A Hero Never Dies (Chan Sam Ying Hung), To seems to have an endless imagination in constructing characters and situations that make other director’s entries in the genre look tame by comparison. With 2012’s Drug War, To even surpasses his own oeuvre by making one of the most intensely nihilistic and downright nastiest crime films of this decade. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is a notorious drug lord and epic rat whom dedicated police captain, Zhang (Honglei Sun) milks for information so that he can get in tight with the top bosses. For the first portion of Drug War, To seamlessly allows the conflicts between Zhang and Timmy to build tension and drive the narrative towards the second half of the film where action completely takes over. Drug War then progresses in Johnnie To’s wheelhouse, that feverishly haywire space where the construction of the scenes feels shambolically put together, but To’s method successfully adds to the surprise that you feel when everything comes apart in a manner that you never see coming. Though Jia Zhangke’s vital 2013 film, A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) addresses a wider range of crucial criminal and social issues that are currently plaguing mainland China, To’s Drug War urgently delivers its singular message of the country’s rapidly growing dependence on illegal narcotics and the governmental response to that problem, which is being handled in a way that is more haphazard and deadly than the offense itself.