Thursday, December 26, 2019

My Decade in Movies: The 2010's - Part 1

Thinking back to the beginning of 2010 is almost unimaginable to me. I was in a different job, in a different home, and helping to care for my father. I didn't have a daughter yet; none of my close friends had kids. I'd made a bunch of games, but all of my most personal (and my first commercial) works would come later. I was running a monthly indie game magazine. I hadn't even considered owning a fish tank. The artists who would shape my musical tastes for the next ten years were just getting started. Social media wasn't a part of my life in any way, and I'd soon use it to reconnect with people I missed. I felt directionless and there was a lot of emptiness, but also a kind of freedom I could never have now. My one constant was my wife, helping to keep me grounded now as much as then. We've both grown into stronger people in the last ten years.

I wanted to go back and look at fifty movies and fifty games that meant something to me over the last ten years. Not necessarily the best or most important works released in these years, but the ones that personally meant the most to me. Each of these lists is divided into two articles and arranged by year.

Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) - A beautifully monstrous ballet-horror film, Black Swan's focus on identity and the confrontation with/embrace of one's hidden self became a theme that would resonate with me throughout the decade in both my own projects and the stories I'd seek out. Driven by an exceptionally strong Natalie Portman and excellent cinematography, the film's exploration of the destructive nature of art would show up again seven years later taken to a much harsher extreme in Aronofsky's Mother! Black Swan is a dizzying, delusional tale that manages to carefully walk the line between art film and mainstream.

Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn) - Refn's most accessible film (and, not coincidentally, the only one where he isn't credited as writer) follows an emotionally cold getaway driver who falls deeper and deeper into an underworld he can't escape from as he pursues his dreams. Ryan Gosling's driver is a romantic at heart in spite of his capacity for violence, setting him apart from the leads in some of Refn's other works. The film is propelled by a pulsing soundtrack with lyrics that put us directly in the head of Gosling's character, a man who believes he's earning his humanity even as it continues to slip away. Two years later, Refn would put Gosling in a very different and much more horrific setting in Only God Forgives.

Winnie the Pooh (2011, Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall) - Yes, I've got a Winnie the Pooh film on here following Black Swan and Drive. Of historical importance, it's Disney's last hand-drawn feature film. This is one that I didn't see until years after its release and I wasn't the only one; the film's domestic box office couldn't even break even with its $30 million budget. I checked this one out when my daughter started getting into Pooh stories and I never expected it to be as good as it is! Following almost two decades of mostly mediocre releases, 2011's Pooh movie is the first since 1977's compilation The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh to be animated by Walt Disney Animation Studios and it's wonderfully drawn, funny, and sweet. Other Pooh movies in between these two are saddled with weak, unmemorable music, but Pooh 2011 features the songwriting talents of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez right before their huge breakout with Frozen in 2013. There's a duet between Pooh and his semi-sentient stomach.

Chronicle (2012, Josh Trank) - Released the same year that Disney would conquer the world with Joss Whedon's aggressively mediocre Avengers, Trank's directorial debut is a small, personal look at super-powered kids discovering their abilities told through a series of found footage scenes. Featuring breakout film roles for both Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan, Chronicle feels more in line with stories like Akira and Carrie than it does with the Marvel comics that would soon utterly dominate the cultural landscape for the rest of the decade. Its quiet tone and grounded style keep Chronicle refreshingly original even as it tells an awakening story that's been told so many, many, many times in big budget movies since.

Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg) - Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel focuses on a finance industry billionaire on a voyage across a chaotic New York City in search of a good haircut. I hadn't seen and held no opinions on the Twilight films so I didn't know what to expect from Robert Pattinson's lead role as Eric Packer, but he completely captivated me here as a vampire in the economic sense. Funny, frightening, and farcical, Cosmopolis helped establish Pattinson as one of my favorite actors. His self-destructive odyssey introduces a wide cast of weirdos, culminating in a great, absurd confrontation with a former employee played by Paul Giamatti.

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross) - Whether it's Harry Potter or the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars sequel trilogy, the enduringly popular franchises of the 2010's focus heavily on the protection or resurrection of the status quo. They say that the world is pretty good, as long as we kick out the undesirable parts that threaten to upend it. The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins' 2008 novel, says "To hell with all that, burn the whole system to the ground." The first of these four films features the best art design, but the entire series is a powerful counter-argument to the prevailing pop culture of film in its moment in time. Dystopian fiction isn't anything new, especially in young adult fiction, but Hunger Games is elevated above its ilk by striking so angrily and pointedly not just at one individual or organization but against an entire complacent culture.

Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott) - 1979's Alien was a landmark moment for sci-fi horror and launched a major franchise, one that creator Ridley Scott would have no involvement with again for decades. His return to the series with 2012's Prometheus is one of those rare sequels with little concern for pleasing existing fans. Promoted as an origin story of Alien's iconic monsters, Prometheus is instead The Book of Job in Space, following Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist whose unwavering faith in God is tested in more and more progressively nightmarish scenarios. Along for the ride is Michael Fassbender as the android David, the film's breakout character and the focus of its less interesting sequel Alien: Covenant. David functions as the film's Satan figure, tempting our space crew and testing Shaw's devotion, played with such quiet glee that he's absolutely infectious to watch.

Frozen (2013, Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck) - The 2010's are a decade defined by Disney consuming everything in sight; Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox all came under Disney ownership and the studio is on track to have produced eight of the ten highest grossing films of 2019. Merchandising is a gigantic part of their strategy and six years, one sequel, and two short films since its original release, Frozen remains one of Disney's top marketing pillars. It's also one that's actually good. A story that examines shame, isolation, and anxiety in a way kids can understand and learn from is something of value. It's a film that reexamines Disney tropes like love at first sight without going full-on Shrek, and its sequel takes things further, examining traumatic grief and outright condemning colonialism in a way I never expected from a studio that's on a quest to devour the entertainment world. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are fantastic songwriters who've managed to continue writing compelling tunes even by the fourth appearance of these characters.

Her (2013, Spike Jonze) - It's hard to believe Jonze's most recent feature film was six years ago. A near-future sci-fi film in which a man falls in love with his computer's operating system AI is, surprisingly, an incredibly honest story about putting yourself back together after a loss and the need for acceptance. Joaquin Phoenix is always excellent and Scarlett Johansson brings a great deal of humanity to a computer program; the chemistry between these actors who never physically share a scene is delightful. Her's premise sounds silly at first but it's explored with great warmth and never feels anything less than authentic.

Pain & Gain (2013, Michael Bay) - Bay's best film, by a gigantic margin, is his garish satire of crime and punishment and fitness. Inspired by a true story of musclemen turning to a life of crime, Pain & Gain is an absurd black comedy that relentlessly condemns American idealism as a crass, stupid scam. There's an overlooked satirical side to a lot of Bay's work, even his much derided Transformers films, but here it's front and center and it's monstrous and magnificent.

Spring Breakers (2013, Harmony Korine) - Spring Breakers is a waking dream drenched in loud bass and louder colors. It drips with nostalgic melancholy and utter bitterness, telling a coming of age story that repurposes the American Dream into an American Nightmare. Its hazy visuals and slightly out of sequence events play wonderfully into the dreamland aesthetic of the film, as does its constant repetition of dialogue and events. As dreams often do, Spring Breakers snaps violently from pleasure to terror and back at a moment's whim. It's garishness, dirt, and sleaze combine to form one of the most interesting movies of the decade. This was one of the films that helped launch publisher A24, a new and powerful label for independent film makers.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese) - Rounding out 2013's trio of top tier "American Dream is bull" films, Scorsese's corporate sleaze drama is a revolting, hilarious film. It stands with Scorsese's best work is perfectly paced and wonderfully acted, with an incredible performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Few directors can make a three hour film work at all, let alone feel as necessary as Scorsese does. Scorsese's five films made this decade (Shutter Island, Hugo, Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, and The Irishman) cover a broad range of genre and tone, and among these great films Wolf remains my favorite.

Enemy (2014, Denis Villeneuve) - Villeneuve's five year run of excellent films is remarkably impressive; Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) exhibit such enormous emotional and genre range that it's hard to believe he directed so many films this good this fast. They're all potential picks for Best of the Decade lists, but Enemy and Arrival are the two that most stand out for me. Enemy follows Jake Gyllenhaal on a journey to confront his dark doppelganger, a great look at the range of one of my favorite actors. It's strange, spooky, and continuously unsettling.

Frank (2014, Lenny Abrahamson) - A sometimes kind of true biopic of Frank Sidebottom, a fictional persona created by musician/comedian Chris Sievey. Frank's titular character, played by Michael Fessbender, is an offbeat musician with a close-knit band of unhealthy misfits who treat him as a sort of zen master. Frank, of course, wears a gigantic fake head and eats through a straw. Jon, a young, uninspired musician played by Domhnall Gleeson, falls in with Frank's band and begins molding it to his will in an attempt to find a sort of artistic relevance in his own life, eventually becoming the band's manager and exploiting his friend's oddity for fame. It's sad, funny, and actually does have some pretty good songs, and presents a unique narrative structure, with Jon, as the lead character and audience focal point, serving as the story's antagonist more than anything else. Watch it as a pair with 2018's Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story.

Godzilla (2014, Gareth Edwards) - I've written a lot about this one previously. Edwards' Godzilla revival is one of the decade's best action-blockbusters and one of my all-time favorite monster movies. It's beautifully shot, complex, and isn't interested in over-the-top appeals to fandom. In other words, it's the exact opposite of 2019's dire sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Gone Girl (2014, David Fincher) - Gone Girl is Fincher at the top of his game. Media manipulation and interpretation is the core villain of Gone Girl, in which a man searching for his missing wife shifts between villain, victim, and hero to meet the American people's demand. With great performances by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl is about who we are versus who we're forced to be, whether by family, society, or media pressures. It's a film that's both brutal and funny and both discomforting and cozy. It's one of those films where the twist (which happens and is revealed at almost exactly the film's midpoint and serves as a foundation for the remainder of the story) actually strengthens the entire piece, rather than existing for shock value. Pike, in a confessional scene, performs one of the most well-delivered monologues in recent film.

Under the Skin (2014, Jonathan Glazer) - A disturbing work of sci-fi/horror driven by a coldly alluring performance by Scarlett Johansson as an alien being come to Earth to prey on human men. This film follows an alien point of view that makes the whole thing feel unnatural and wrong; the soundtrack is unnerving and the cold, calculated nature of Johansson's character frames humanity in such a small, pitiable way. It's one of those great horror films that doesn't rely on loud scares and instead uses an unrelenting sense of dread and inevitable death to get under our skin.

Nightcrawler (2014, Dan Gilroy) - A grimy, neon-drenched Los Angeles serves as the home of Jake Gyllenhaal's sociopathic photojournalist Louis Bloom. Like Gone Girl, the media and its actors are the primary focus here, with Bloom coming up as a nobody and becoming a powerful force in exploitative crime journalism that cares more about capturing human suffering than uncovering any truth. It's a dark, tense film that nonetheless manages to be pretty funny, entirely through Gyllenhaal's perfect performance. Bloom is a pitiful, disgusting character that still manages to be compelling and charming in spite of his alien behavior. Where American Psycho captures the American Nightmare of 1980's business, Nightcrawler presents us with a similar tone and message, only this time dumped in a gutter in post-economic crash America.

99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani) - An intensely personal look at the American housing crisis with fantastic performances by Laura Dern, Andrew Garfield, and Michael Shannon. The film follows Garfield's Dennis Nash, a man recently evicted from his home who winds up in the employment of the very agency that foreclosed on him. It's a painfully real story of becoming a monster in order to provide for your family and of greed corrupting even the most well-intended souls.

Chi-raq (2015, Spike Lee) - Spike Lee's absurd modern adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata is the funniest film of 2015 while simultaneously being a blunt, sad condemnation of American violence. It's dirty, ridiculous, and charming, with standout performances by Teyonah Parris and a deranged Wesley Snipes. Samuel L. Jackson is the stand-in for the Greek chorus, leading us on a mad adventure of sexual denial and deflated machismo.

Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler) - The seventh film in the Rocky franchise, Ryan Coogler's Creed focuses on Michael B. Jordan's Adonis, son of famed boxer Apollo Creed, while series star Sylvester Stallone takes on a supporting mentor role in his return as Rocky. The film is divided between the young Creed's fight to find personal meaning and identity outside of his father's shadow and the new family bonds he begins to form with Rocky, who falls ill and needs to find his own resolve to keep fighting. Featuring incredible cinematography, Creed showcases the best boxing scenes in the series. My father was a huge Rocky fan; I saw Creed shortly after losing him and it hit me harder than anything I'd watched before.

It Follows (2015, David Robert Mitchell) - A surreal dreamscape where sexual disease/shame becomes a shambling corpse that stalks you until the day you die. It Follows is a horror film that relies on a thoroughly unpleasant atmosphere over anything else. It's filmed wonderfully and has some really gorgeous color and texture. The ultra saturated greens and blues help accentuate the dream-like feeling. The music is a John Carpenter tribute and the world is weirdly out of time; fashion is modern, but all of the movies we see people watching are from the 50's and 60's, no one has cell phones, and one of the girls has a futuristic e-reader inside of her makeup compact. Mitchell would go way, way weirder in his 2019 film Under the Silver Lake.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller) - Brash, weird, and wonderful, there's nothing else quite like Fury Road. In a nice reversal of expectations, the film focuses on Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, while Tom Hardy's Max plays a more supporting role. George Miller's fourth Max film is a funny departure from the director's last decade of work, where he focused largely on family films like Babe and Happy Feet. Incredible landscapes, ridiculous costumes and vehicles, and poetic, unnatural dialogue give Fury Road the feel of a waking dream.


Click here for Part 2, covering films released 2016-2019.

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