A GRIM DECADE, grimmer now in its passing. Not a lot of comedies on my list, and what laughter there is often dies strangled in the throat.
Do the films reflect that grimness? In ascending order:
Beginning with the three Andersons — can’t say this was Paul Thomas’ decade; The Master was well-made but emotionally opaque, Inherent Vice a slowed-down version of the sparkling Pynchon novel. Phantom Thread I enjoyed as a metaphor for the director’s micromanaging ways, the startlingly witty solution formulated to deal with those ways.
Wes is at first glance a lighter-flavored Anderson but no less inventive ideawise, a hermetically sealed filmmaker in whose aquarium films exotic creatures swim against intricate miniatures. Found his Moonrise Kingdom emotionally satisfying because, 1.) his stories seem to resonate best in childhood setting, and, 2.) he needs a romance to drive his often meandering narratives, and this particular love story appealed more than the others.
My favorite Anderson by far is the underrated Paul WS, and I’d argue Pompeii is his masterpiece — a historical melodrama in the Gladiator mode (albeit on a smaller budget) that improves on Ridley Scott’s elephantine dungheap by being fleetfootedly witty, pausing only to evoke an image straight out of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy before the final fadeout.
Tim Burton in the past 10 years has been hit or miss, mostly miss; that said, even his misbegotten Dumbo I prefer over any other Disney production, live action or animated, and his Big Eyes is a cunning little tale of misappropriated credit. Speaking of Disney, my favorite film involving the studio has to be hands down Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, about life lived in the margins of The Enchanted Kingdom — basically, not all that enchanting.
Joselito Altarejos’ Jino to Mari (Gino and Marie) takes the Boatman/Private Show sex performer’s story a step further, the real spectacle here being two people stripping away their sense of self — not a pretty sight. Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden is sexy evil fun. David Cronenberg in A Dangerous Method leaves prosthetic effects behind to depict the ultimate Cronenberg creature: Kiera Knightly as Sabina Spielrein, the catalyst and inspiration for two of the 20th century’s greatest minds, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
Atonette Jadaone’s Three Degrees of Separation from Lilian Cuntapay takes the one-of-a-kind presence of Lilian Cuntapay, veteran actress of Filipino horror films, and fashions a funny and poignant metafictional fable about her unappreciated acting career. Denise O’Hara’s Mamang takes a similar sense of comic morbidity and adds a touch of pathos, basing her story on her uncle — late filmmaker Mario O’Hara — and his close relationship with his mother.
Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster is his most popcorn effort yet, an enjoyably wayward take on Ip Man, the legendary martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee.
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite takes the class wars and spins them into fiercely engaging comedy, skewering lower and upper classes both.
Terence Malick’s Tree of Life is his 2001 — a cosmic vision both hypnotic and beautiful, but lacking the irony of Kubrick’s masterpiece; better in my opinion is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which more Thoreau-ly, less soppily (and on a far smaller budget) expresses the mystery of nature.
Claire Denis’ High Life is her 2001, her take on the crushing isolation of deep space after all other fellow space travelers have died, either by suicide or violent murder (If hell is other people, is being the sole survivor — with your baby daughter as companion — heaven?). Arden Rod Condez’s John Denver Trending is isolation of a different kind, enforced by a community driven to hysterical frenzy by social media.
Sari Lluch Dalena’s Ka Oryang depicts the institutionalized loneliness imposed on women political prisoners during the Philippine Martial Law period. Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Salvage suggests not just the dangers faced by telejournalists under the Duterte regime (military checkpoints and random killings and all) but the dangers of an increasingly pixilated world pulling loose of its moorings in reality. John Torres’ Ang Ninanais: Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song is a heady mix of fable and fiction presented secretly, intimately, like poetry whispered in your ear. David Gordon Green’s Joe is the plainspoken portrait of a lonely young man and his monstrous abusive father — and the alternative father figure that represents possible salvation.
Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria plays enigmatic narrative games with the viewer; his Personal Shopper is even more fun, a genre-bending mix of ghost story, psychological thriller, and conspicuous consumption vicariously experienced through the eyes of the eponymous shopper.
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer ratchets up the paranoia about hidden political scandals (a nation’s leader as foreign agent, which sounds distressingly familiar) and endangered scribes; Eduardo Dayao’s Violator — about a local jail where the Devil is possibly locked up — feels just as paranoid but even more inventive, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo as remade by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.
Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin is his most perverse: a wuxia romance that is also unapologetically a Hou film, leisurely paced and lyrically detailed. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a man and a woman meet and talk — that’s all; yet the film feels thrilling and mysterious.
Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s take on urban poverty, roils considerably less than Bong Joon Ho’s, but in my book feels more honest. Lee Chang Dong’s Poetry, about a grandmother dipping her toe in the realm of verse while trying to deal with the fact of her troublesome grandson is even more spare, even more, well, poetic.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a portrait of the gangster as a lonely old man, confronting not just mortality or his conscience but the relentlessly withering forces of time itself. Masaaki Yuasa’s The Tatami Galaxy is nominally an 11-episode anime TV series and not a film, but its use of repetition and mixed media (stylized animation, hyperealistic animation, live-action footage) is irreducibly cinematic, its often metaphysical comedy sharpening the isolation of the unnamed college upperclass protagonist.
I failed to see Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language in 3D as intended (arthouse 3D is, if anything, even more difficult to catch than ordinary arthouse) — still, the world’s most inventive living filmmaker at his most inventive. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is less inventive than he is singular — his films look and feel like no one else’s — and his Cemetery of Splendour is one of his most haunting works.
Janice O’Hara took her late uncle’s script and turned it into Rice Soldiers (Sundalong Kanin), her harrowing take on children struggling to survive World War 2 — her first and last film, sadly. Mario O’Hara’s The Trial of Andres Bonifacio is his independently produced, digitally shot, theatrically stylized take on one of the most infamous episodes in Philippine history, the railroaded trial and conviction of the founder of the Katipunan.
Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History takes the figure of Raskolnikov and fashions a Crime and Punishment that makes sense in a Filipino context. Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion fashions out of the life of Emily Browning a rhymed meditation between image and text that does the poet justice.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed retells his Taxi Driver narrative yet again, this time by way of Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) and Bergman (Winter Light), to find saving grace in Ozu’s ego-deflating sense of humor. Terence Davies’ Deep Blue Sea is a spare tale sparingly told: a few sets, a handful of actors, an unforgettable passion play. Lee Chang Dong again, this time with Burning, takes the class war anger smoldering in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and wields it like a scalpel to the jugular.
Khavn’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness is a different kind of anger, of the flamethrower variety — a creatively reimagined (to put it mildly) depiction of the American massacre at Balangiga, but is also a thinly veiled metaphor for Duterte’s bloody drug war.
James Gray’s The Immigrant (the very word feels politically loaded) dramatizes the sexism and xenophobia experienced by visitors to The New Land at the turn of the century, but could be happening just this morning. In Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE the very title suggests the abuse inflicted on the eponymous character (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a head injury usually found in football players) — the same time the protagonist comes to stand for the Philippine nation and its history of abuse.
Orson Welles died in 1985 but his reputation for miracles remains intact; his The Other Side of the Wind comes out 33 years after his passing and is as maddening and provocative as anything he’s ever done, a bittersweet valentine to the industry he came to hate and love.
Speaking of hate — Lav Diaz’s Panahon ng Halimaw is the filmmaker’s idea of a musical, a black-and-white rock opera with no musical instruments only unaccompanied voices, condemning the Marcos and Duterte regime both in an all-encompassing, all-consuming rant of rage.
Martin Scorsese — again — with Silence. Jesuit priest furtively practicing his faith in Japan, is caught and tortured. Scorsese’s film again wrestles with a crisis of faith and what for me is the real point is what happens after the climactic confrontation: the long wandering odyssey of a soul that has lost everything, even its sense of self. The final image, condemned as being unduly optimistic, is actually shrouded in ambiguity; there are no real answers here, only…
David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return is, yes, nominally cable television (though the first four episodes premiered in Cannes) but so radically out there it really isn’t television or film but its own creature. The subtext — running through Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — a classic noir admonition: Cherchez la femme, par dieu! Cherchez la femme!
Speaking of dieu, there’s Alexei German’s Hard to be a God, about a man secretly embedded in a muddied, bloodied, shit-smeared, vomit-stained rectum of an alien planet, as perfect a summation of my feelings about this past decade as any. Hopefully things get better than this — difficult to imagine how they can get any worse.
Beyond that? Isao Takahata has always admitted to the possibility that things can get bad, has made a World War 2 film — Grave of the Fireflies — where things get pretty bad. His The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a retelling of one of Japan’s oldest stories only with a more psychologically rounded heroine capable of feeling desire, guilt, love, despair, and in telling that story — in ruthlessly following the contours of the tale’s inexorable narrative — has us alternately plunging and soaring in sympathetic resonance with his heroine. A great film, and in my book the best of the decade.