We’re a little freaked out that it’s almost 2015. The decade is half over! To try and make sense of time passing the Recorder staff is going to write about their favorite stuff from the past 5 years in a few installments between now and the end of the year. This month we’ll geek out about the best movies that have been released since 2010.
My choice here was quite easy, despite this being a great couple of years for cinema. The Tree of Life is the best movie I’ve seen in the past five years and it’s not even a debate. Terrence Malick, who directed this, is an idiosyncratic director whose films are beloved by his cult and ignored or dismissed by almost all others. His focus on visual beauty, philosophical musing, elliptical narrative, and hushed voice-over in place of dialogue is built like a SNL parody of arthouse movies. But I’m in the cult. So there.
The film centers on a man’s memories of growing up in a small-town Texas family dominated by his stern father and loving mother. Their contrasting personalities define the film’s central philosophical conflict between the “way of nature” and the “way of grace,” but their familiar drama is only a small part of the whole. Instead, Malick creates a film of wondrous vignettes and digressions. The best example is a voice-over that asks “How did we get here?” so the film shows the creation of the universe. Sequences like that and others are so gorgeous and powerful that the film soars past conventional cinema.
My knee-jerk reaction is Her, a movie that didn’t have grand ambitions as it told a simple love story between two disaffected people in a near-future society, but also had grand ambitions as it commented upon our obsessions with technology, our capacity for limited interaction with one another, and what relationships actually mean. I went deeper into the film here – and stand by everything I said before. It’s a brilliant little movie.
There are no good words to describe my reaction to 12 Years a Slave. It would have been enough to be so starkly confronted with the weight and burden of our history, to witness humanity at both its most wretched and its most triumphant, which John Ridley’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography does to perfection. Director Steve McQueen goes farther, using crystalline cinematography, editing, and production design to compose images so compelling we cannot look away. His depictions of hangings, whippings, and so many kinds of torture are filmed with so much conviction that we know this is how it must have been. If the greatness of film (and other drama) is in making us recognize the truth, even when the truth is unpleasant, then few movies have done this to greater effect than 12 Years a Slave. (On a more prosaic note, the ensemble cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup is dynamically perfect.)
I adored 2013’s Enough Said more than I can express. It’s just a sweet little movie, and one of James Gandolfini’s last, in which he is paired with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She is the divorced mother of a teen girl about to leave for college, and he’s in a similar place in his life. Louis-Dreyfus’s character unwittingly befriends Gandolfini’s character’s ex-wife, but doesn’t come clean once she puts two and two together. I loved the characters, I loved the chemistry and the realistic interactions between Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini. It also had a pretty great soundtrack, including this gorgeous Neil Halstead song (and music video) I became completely obsessed with for a while.
In no way would I consider myself qualified to declare a film the best of anything. But I have watched the hell out of Dave Grohl’s 2013 ode to a dingy recording studio, Sound City. The studio saw the creation of some of rock music’s most influential albums of the last half-century, including Nirvana’s Nevermind. That record is when Grohl was introduced to the studio and it’s one-of-a-kind sound board, the Neve 8078. The film ostensibly is a documentary about the defunct studio’s sound board, but it becomes a narrative about collaboration and apprenticeship, wrapped in the debate about analog and digital recording of music. As a fan of music and of the creative process, I will always watch this film when it’s on — even if it’s 2:00 am on Palladia.
I’m adding In a World to this list, not because it was the most moving or touching or artistically awesome movie I’ve seen lately, but because it was a joy to watch. It’s a tightly written comedy that tugs at all the right strings: I laughed, I was frustrated and touched and sad, and I wanted to punch a couple douchey characters in the face. Carol, played by the phenomenal Lake Bell, is a laid-back voice coach and aspiring voice-over actor. She is passionate about her craft–she carries around a tape recorder to capture unique accents for her archives– but must fight an uphill battle to be a voice-over actor herself because the field is dominated by men, including her successful, dismissive father. Though that is the central narrative arc, the film also explores love and the ways in which we can either support or hurt the ones we love.