The Lobster (2015) | A24
The Lobster | A24

In 2019, it appears what we talk about when we talk about lists is incomplete without critique. We’re exhausted. In general for sure, but especially by the seasonal disproportion of the list’s ubiquity to its critical impotence, as every digital outlet piles another numbered log onto the fire, furthering projects of taste consolidation and free advertising, illuminating nothing. Elena Gorfinkel’s timely polemic, “Against Lists,” itself adopts a fragmentary form to warningly remind us, lists are—primarily and perhaps solely—metrics. “Lists do not enshrine your hallowed taste, they only dilute it,” by purporting to measure and assess that which is simultaneously already delimited (as the same familiar titles recur, Boggle-like, in gently modified order), and unknowably vast (haunted by works that are lost, narrowly circulated, under supported, misunderstood, forgotten, or simply uninvested in mass appeal). To love film is to resist its metrical assessment, to turn from year-end calcification. What we need is to build a new fire—or, “Burn the list to free your ass,” as Gorfinkel implores.

I love this piece. It got me thinking. Could the enumerative not weigh? Even in an operation of reduction, can a list promote elasticity or practice expansion, more an ongoing exquisite corpse than a receipt? Take the poetic catalog, which doesn’t so much compute as accumulate, fortifying the composed line’s capacity like the hopeful engineering of layered paper plates at a buffet. Can the list account without counting?

When I made the longlist of my favorite films from this decade, many were films I had taught. Despite my dear wish to protect things like my spectatorship from complete absorption by rubrics of labor and optimization, I realized the list I know most intimately is the syllabus: A form that fundamentally admits and negotiates its limits. You can build a course from sustained attention to only four films; you can cram 83 shorts and features into an “early” global survey, condensing six decades of planetary output into 14 more or less cohesive weeks. Though both resemble modes of something like aesthetic tourism (the former a brief, immersive homestay; the latter, a marathon bus tour), a syllabus isn’t quite an itinerary. Composed under the guilty pressure of unavoidable omission, it doesn’t let you pretend you’ve seen it all. Without exception, mine explicitly resist the pretense of comprehensiveness; they’re lists at tentative ease with their limits. 

In that spirit, if this is a list, let it be a syllabus, a series of entry points joined by common questions: What does it look and sound like to understand your life, previously envisioned as exclusively “ahead,” as incrementally, but increasingly, behind? What can a moment of emotional accuracy accomplish? What imperative pleasures does meticulousness afford?

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Natalie Portman in Black Swan | Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) – Sometimes when we call a movie “polarizing,” we also mean unifying, because the things people hate are the same things enthusiasts see and admire. Anemic color palette? Virgin/whore dichotomy? Mila Kunis’ flash of garter belt? Yes. Yes. Yes. Black Swan benefits from a continuity of vision unknown to Aronofsky’s later ventures; transmogrifying feather rashes flirt hard with body horror, but the commitment to grotesquerie at the level of texture extends to a chewed knit scarf, a sheet cake thick with buttercream. Strip back the demon-y histrionics and Black Swan is about Natalie Portman’s wan dancer Nina learning how to masturbate; add back the layers of backstage competition (a perennially powerful device, from All About Eve to Showgirls) and barely sublimated queer attraction (see previous), and you get a pretty mundane nightmare, worse than worrying you can’t make yourself come but less remarkable than hallucinating an evil doppelgänger: the notion that you, at your best, may only ever be the less compelling version of a more realized model—one who isn’t faking it. It’s no wonder a camp allegory of imposter syndrome is populated by women who all more or less look the same, large-eyed brunettes who pirouette into and age out of the role of “little princess.” Gratuitous is a bad word for art, but comes to us from the Latin gratus: pleasing; thankful. A decade on, I remain pleased by and even grateful for the measured hysteria on offer here.

Last Night (Massy Tadjedin, 2010) – Speaking of inferior copies: I’m not proud of this, but I used to feel, for my proverbial money, Keira Knightley was the poor man’s Portman. Last Night was crucial to changing my mind. In this modestly plotted infidelity drama, Knightley charms as Joanna, a writer who runs into her preposterously attractive ex (Guillaume Canet) while her husband is off getting parallel-tempted by his hot colleague, Laura (Eva Mendes). Like Sliding Doors or Julie & Julia, this is a dual narrative where one half radically out-compels the other. I don’t give a shit about Sam Worthington’s foray into extramarital night swimming. For me, it’s all about Joanna: a potentially despisable figure (effortless beauty, huge loft, collides with French ex on coffee run in SoHo) whose evident but not uncomplicated romantic regret makes her somehow…relatable? And gives an emotional center to the chemistry with Canet, already dense with remembered drink orders and casual face-touching. Tadjedin’s Night doesn’t reinvent a thing, but traces the grooves of a well-worn conflict with command and care. I always come back to the way Joanna gets dressed for her husband’s fairly fancy work party, pulling a thin sweater on over her cotton undershirt. The clothing itself is so memorably unmemorable—but that’s Last Night too, a staple: deceptively simple yet versatile, a movie I reach for again and again. 

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011) – If Trier’s 2006 Reprise nails the disenchantment of minor success, his follow-up Oslo pivots rather darkly to what remains after the worst has seemingly passed. Addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a self-admitted “spoilt brat” who emerges from rehab for a job interview we know he’ll skip or blow. He pokes around the old haunts, leaving a series of desperate, meandering voicemails for an ex-girlfriend we never see—a device I’d hate if the film exalted Anders, but the slant of its portrait is closer to the stance he suggests an old friend take toward their reunion: unsentimental. How does a friend, or a film, cultivate dispassion for a man who has survived but no longer wants to live? Oslo disperses moments of spontaneity and connection without forcing joy to be curative. This way, it’s not that Anders is wrong about the futility of existence (“Everything will be alright. Except it won’t, you know.”), so much as his hopelessness fatally estranges him from those who get on with it anyway.

Attack the Block | StudioCanal
StudioCanal

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) – Before Jodie Whittaker became the Doctor and John Boyega picked up a blaster, they were unlikely allies in a council estate under extraterrestrial siege. Attack the Block is a fleet little film that well understands the pleasure a fantastic genre can both offer (such as the terrific practical effects that substantiate and add palpable heft to the aliens’ simple digital design) and get away with (like an explicit critique of systemic negligence). When Boyega’s otherwise laconic Moses contemplates aloud whether the government has escalated their strategic supply of drugs and guns to the deployment of actual aliens to “kill Black boys,” we understand the real attack on fictional Wyndham Tower—or on the real council estates from which Wyndham is composited—is by the state. Between breakneck chases and lethargic weed comedy, Block risks tonal and rhythmic whiplash, but its bigger risk pays dividends: daring to center the young, poor, Black lawbreaker as not only a hero, but a neighbor.

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2012) – Art historian Svetlana Alpers describes “the museum effect” as follows: “The mixture of distance, on the one hand, with a sense of human affinity and common capacities, on the other…This, it seems to me, is a way of seeing that museums can encourage.” Cohen’s cool, quiet film explores precisely how the museum, as a concrete space and a portable lens, may “exercise” the eyes—from those of Anne, a Canadian woman newly in Vienna as the only reachable relative of a comatose cousin; to the kino-eye drifting over Bruegel’s paintings in the museum where she comes to pass her time; to the surveillant eyes of museum guard Johann, for whom Anne becomes an object of interest; to the spectatorial eye expressed and addressed by the film’s studious footage of the city. It’s one thing to watch and conclude, the city is a museum!, and quite another to sit with Cohen’s invitation to consider the nuance of what this means: how a painterly or personal detail announces itself to our attention, whether there’s a right way to display and consume works of art, with whom interpretive authority resides, and where everyday life ends and the curation of memory begins.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) and Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)Believe me when I say these films are opposing sides of the same coin. Both use anthropomorphic CG fauna in and out of captivity to think about racism and xenophobia, both build to the loaded question of human/animal coexistence—its viability and its value. In the first Rise, ape assimilation into human community is impossible. Following capture, Caesar’s solicitation and empowerment of his fellow apes is a process of radicalization. He teaches the others to communicate among each other and dissemble with humans, to exploit rather than exceed people’s low expectations. When Caesar evolves toward speech, he voices opposition: No. In the end, he chooses separatism—apes together, apes apart—leaving teary James Franco alone on the forest floor. Conversely, Paddington 2 upholds, longs for, and tunes its moral universe according to human acceptance. Its vision of intolerance is lighter, brighter, better cast, actually funny—though not at the expense of symbolic commentary. Even with an unwavering soft spot for Rise, I can see that Paddington is more consummately of its decade, concerned as it is with the insidiousness of contemporary prejudice and scapegoating, and with our not-coincidental stake in peak wholesomeness (a bear in pink prison stripes: “so pure”). To see clearly that one follows from the other is to, like Paddington, really get to grips with how things work.

Bachelorette (Leslye Headland, 2012)For awhile Bachelorette seemed doomed to be superficially measured against (or, worse, eclipsed by) its predecessor, Bridesmaids. But where the bigger film merely flirts with the notion, Headland’s adaptation of her same-name play absolutely revels in unlikeable women, nailing the two-faced nature of (some) female friendship with polysemic grenades like, “I mean, she’s our friend. I love her.” Kirsten Dunst is tremendous as hiss-and-vinegar alpha bitch Regan, but I go back for Isla Fisher, who delivers the most irresistibly savvy performance of dumb since Marilyn’s conniver Lorelei Lee. I’ll never see Club Monaco the same way.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013) – I’ve written about it elsewhere, but Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut simmers with a spooky heat you never forget, like Nancy Sinatra’s seductive verses of “Summer Wine” just audible through discarded headphones. Not enough has been said about how Nicole Kidman (pre the Kidman-naissance of Big Little Lies!) vitalizes this incest thriller, pitting daffy yearning against Mia Wasikowska’s top button austerity. Look at the way her face slightly spasms after explaining of her own daughter, “She doesn’t like to be touched!” It’s part shrug, part grimace, a cry for help and an admission of helplessness, no less indelible for dissolving the instant that it’s read.

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)When her husband recruits a disfigured Auschwitz survivor to impersonate his dead wife—not realizing she is the very woman whose inheritance he seeks—Nelly plays along to make herself seen, expecting her dead-on handwriting or dyed hairstyle to jog his memory. But in submitting herself to Johnny’s subterranean bunker, she’s simply moved from one camp to another. The makeover that comprises most of the film echoes the sadism of Vertigo, down to the moment Nelly expects she’s done and finds herself subject to yet more critique (“What did you cake on?”). Thus Phoenix builds patiently to the truth of her husband’s betrayal—a revelation that occurs offscreen, holding space for the final scene’s painstaking decimation. There’s the impassive audience of Nelly’s former friends, and Johnny, nervous, not knowing why his wife’s facsimile would be so keen to sing, and then us: privy to the thinness of air in that room, to the glance that signals Nelly’s decision to reveal herself via the wound she’s been reluctant or unable to integrate. My eyes water, my pulse races, and the film is right—there’s nowhere left to go from here.

Phoenix | IFC Films

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)Amirpour has described her “Iranian vampire western” as an amalgamation of all the cool shit she loves: vamps, chiaroscuro, Sergio Leone, Wild at Heart. What’s amazing is the accessible resonance of this personal mood board. A Girl gives us hipster romance set to a Morricone-esque xylophonic score; written in Farsi and shot in SoCal, it eludes national legibility, generic purity, even narrative resolution—but what it may lack in an especially cogent ending (not complaining), it more than makes up for with its heart: a three-minute take in which our titular Girl gets close to crush Arash in her bedroom. Choreographed such that slow movement verges on slow motion, the disco ball-dappled scene pulls Arash into the frame, turns the Girl to face him in profile, and pauses as she inches his head backward, veering from his exposed throat to rest against his sternum as White Lies cries, This fear’s got a hold on me. As the film is transformed by the prolongation of this hold, so am I by meeting the demands of its duration.

Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015) It was odd to see critics laud La La Land’s Jonathan Adler-ized vision of Los Angeles (see variations on “love letter” to the city) when bona fide city symphony Tangerine hadn’t enjoyed the same treatment. No one wonders why. But a smaller thing at work in this is how a focus on filmmaking technology (in this case, the buzz around Baker’s shooting on iPhones) can upstage what the machinery actually captures: whether it’s nice looking, inventive, meaningful. By drawing a portrait of friendship through the screamy intersections of two women’s respective quests (Sin-Dee trailing the cis woman her pimp boyfriend’s allegedly seeing; Alexandra attempting to rein in her friend while promoting her Christmas Eve singing gig), Tangerine deftly, kinetically swings from revenge caper to musical to manic holiday ensemble drama, reaching for every possible nuance of “Tinseltown.” Its LA is visually and sonically loud the way actual LA is cloudless and unprotected in lieu of a car’s insulation. And when all that volume subsides, we’re left with Tangerine’s tender vision of Christmas spirit: two women holding hands in a laundromat.

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)The Lobster is basically The Bachelor in isolation. Like the reality franchise, Lanthimos’ film appears to depict a farcical dystopia, though what it does is ultimately as insightful as it is experimental. When David’s wife leaves him, he’s escorted to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a wife among his fellow single occupants. Should he succeed, he’ll be transitioned into partnered life in the city; should he fail, he’ll be transformed into the animal of his choosing and released into the wild. So here, as there, candidates are homogenized by their need to pair up, and the parameters of love are defined by competition. Instead of ambient societal hostility toward single people, a strident alarm sounds the hunt. Mandatorily attended roleplay exercises demonstrate the utility of partnership. Sameness, even at the level of affliction, is the sole guarantor of compatibility. If this sounds cynical, it’s not just—no more than the irrepressible charisma of Lanthimos’ actors is muted by the flatness of his film. There’s humor as well as cruelty; the elevation of minor kindnesses to the stuff of deep love. The way Rachel Weisz’s hand pauses in the midst of rubbing ointment into Colin Farrell’s back. The Lobster hyperbolizes love’s structures and protocols to demonstrate not their absurdity, but the extent of their reach: even when David and Weisz’s “Shortsighted Woman” develop a private gestural code for romantic communication, the language of amity and insecurity (“I love you more than anything in the world,” and “Watch out, we’re in danger”) is tellingly prone to confusion.

Moonlight | A24
A24

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) and Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) – The latter half of the past decade in film is defined by its insistence on articulating and complicating the value of on- and 0ff-screen representation. When we watch these movies, we see the radical newness of their visions alongside their conjurations of film history—we see this isn’t a strictly new critical or creative conversation brought by contemporary audiences and artists to cinema, so much as one that inheres to film’s inception and circulation, its ongoing innovation and cyclic states. There’s so much to notice about each film, including the space one hopes these works make for Black women and women of color filmmakers to enjoy comparable platforms for creation. I want to think about what both do with, and to, the close-up: between Moonlight and Beale Street, the direct address close-up has emerged a tenet of Jenkins’ style, a place he goes to make the spectacle of startling intimacy part of his storytelling rather than a diversion from its progress. Some of these shots are glamorous—André Holland’s grown Kevin exhaling smoke to camera like a stubbled Tony Leung—and some are grave, as when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) lifts his face from an ice-filled sink to study the bloodied reflection. All solicit our contemplation; all make good on Béla Balázs’ notion that the face on film opens up a new dimension, wherein “the ‘general impression’ fails to obscure what is betrayed by the detail.”

It’s relevant too to note/lament that Balázs’ fascination with the face in close-up encompassed his attribution of admirable unselfconsciousness to performers of “exotic races.” Helping Moonlight intervene on the inextricability of aesthetics and politics is Get Out, an ode and update to the horror genre’s knack for validating paranoid visions. Juxtaposing gaslighting and white liberal messiness with a cult bent on coercive surgery, Get Out replaces the Scream-era harbinger, “I’ll be right back,” with one more specific albeit utterly common: They treat us like family. In a terrifying close-up of movement without vitality, housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) smiles through tears, producing a shot that consolidates both quotidian and spectacular forms of possession. Later, like Moonlight, Get Out will answer its images of leakage and pain with the wish for a happy ending: kidnapped photographer Chris will escape with his vision intact, and, perhaps most fantastically, be seen and saved by the person who arrives in a police car.

The dream of survival is what we ride into 2020. May the next decade do justice to its beauty.