Wednesday, November 13, 2019

My Top 20 Films of the 2010s - Part One

Finally, I can announce the launch of my long-unawaited Best Films of the 2010s series. I should begin by noting that I watched far fewer films this decade than in the previous one, and far, far fewer in the second half of this decade than in the first half because I realized I needed to spend much more time reading books and studying for Jeopardy! even though I'll never get on the show. We love you, Alex!

Therefore, I can't claim any authority regarding what's actually best, but then again nobody else can either. So consider this my Top 20 Films of the Decade Out Of the Relatively Limited Selection I Saw And That I Can Remember Right Now.

20. ENTERTAINMENT (Alverson, 2015)

Most films that set out to provoke audiences fail to do so, in large part because they try to shock with content. Just try to forget our graphic gang-rape scene, so lovingly rendered in hand-held close-up for ten minutes! We can go fifteen minutes if that's what you want. Just pretend you don't know it's all pretend and you'll be absolutely appalled!

Rick Alverson's “Entertainment” provokes much more effectively through lack of content. Gregg Turkington portrays a stand-up comic condemned to a no-budget tour through the hollowed-out purgatory of Mojave Desert California, where both prisons and dive bars feature the same apathetic audiences. The film's long silences and unpopulated marginal spaces evoke “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) but now imagined as the comedy set to nowhere.

The Comedian's stage act is a mutated version of Turkington's real-life (if that's the right term) persona Neil Hamburger, the greasy-haired anti-comic whose phlegm-choked “epater la bourgeoisie” act is rendered impotent in this desperate hellscape. How do you puncture the illusions and delusions of consumerist society for audiences who've already abandoned all hope? How do you offend people who don't even care enough to pay attention anymore? Uncertain that his “mission” still has any relevance, The Comedian gradually cracks up which, to be fair, seems like an entirely reasonable reaction to the modern iteration of the American Dream.

I'm sure many viewers will stare blankly at this idiosyncratic film, perhaps the same ones who can't even begin to understand why Neil Hamburger is the funniest comedy act of the century. But “Entertainment” captures a sense of American malaise so vividly and so perceptively that I can't stop thinking about it more than four years later. I also love the fact that perhaps the single scene in American film this decade that so perfectly captures how I feel about the culture right now is currently indexed on YouTube as “Fart Trophy.”

“Entertainment” is the defining film for Fart Trophy America.

19. A QUIET PASSION (Davies, 2017)

I can understand just about any reaction to “Entertainment” from love to hate to boredom to bewilderment, but I'm completely baffled by viewers who found Cynthia Nixon's portrayal of Emily Dickinson to be alienating or unlikeable. I cannot think of a more moving performance this decade.

Director Terence Davies and his crew construct a formally restricted world, not just of tight interior spaces but also of a society of increasingly limited and unappealing choices, and Nixon's Dickinson is a spirit so expansive she can't help but slam into its walls every day, and every bruise she absorbs in the process draws us deeper into her experience. Her righteous anger at a world that can't accommodate her talent is perhaps the most lingering impression, but there's so much more to her performance, such as the simmering joy that struggles to find an appropriate outlet when she interacts with friends and family.

And, man, what a screenplay by Terence Davies. His dialogue is every bit as formally restricted as his sets and it's magnificent from start to finish. And all the more reason to shower praise on Cynthia Nixon because only a handful of actresses could have embraced that clipped diction with such, well, passion. I watched a few clips online to refresh my memory for this capsule write-up and I'm astonished anew at how brilliant Nixon is. I'm trying to think of a better author biopic, and not coming up with any obvious contenders. Though I suppose it's fair to resist applying the term “biopic” to a movie with so much more on its mind. Perhaps it's only appropriate that audiences failed this movie as badly as we all failed Emily Dickinson.

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