Posts Tagged ‘Damien Chazelle’

Favourite films of the decade

September 8, 2020

Remember the 2010s? About nine months ago, at the turn of the new year, film buffs the world over were busily compiling lists of their favourite films of the decade that was. Even I, though but a middling buff, thought to do the same, but there was that handful of film I thought I’d like to see, or see again, before writing my list. Then 2020 happened, and that handful of films is still, for the most part, unseen by me.  Since the film-watching forecast doesn’t appear likely to change in the foreseeable future, I think the time is right to post my list and move on.

And so, here they are: my favourite films of the years 2010-2019.


1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprise here. Standing head and shoulders above anything else on this list is Terrence Malick’s magnificent The Tree of Life. My love for the film is unstinting. I have written appreciatively, and at moderate length, about it here.

I would go as far as to say this: if (and I emphasize if) the first century-or-so of cinema has produced anything worthy to rank with our greatest artistic achievements — we are moving here into the realm where we contemplate The Divine Comedy or King Lear or Don Giovanni or the Sistine Chapel or Apollo and Daphne — then I contend that among our leading candidates must be this film, which marshals all the many resources of the medium to explore the highest thoughts and the deepest reservoirs of memory and feeling. It is a film that traces the tendrils of regret and loss to the place, deep down, where they terminate in reconciliation and redemption. It is a film that not even the fortified immanent frame of modernity is able to contain, for no film has better apprehended the mystery of being. It is great in its many specific details — that house underwater, that cry of anguish, that homily, that dance, that light — and great in its vaulting ambition — that universe! The Tree of Life is a glorious, colossal masterpiece.


2. Arrival
(Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

When I praised Arrival on a previous occasion I described it as “a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie”, and I can’t improve on that. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric film, beautifully shot, and elevated by a superb lead performance from Amy Adams. I wish more science fiction films were as thoughtful and textured. I love the slow pacing, the nuts-and-bolts approach it takes to its subject matter, the dreamy cinematography, and the strong currents of feeling that it quietly cultivates. Acknowledging that it is first and foremost a worthy work of art, not a “message movie”, some readers might be interested to learn that it has a claim to be, by a considerable margin, the most subtle and unconventional and, arguably, the most powerful pro-life film of the decade.


3. Midnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

Comedies sometimes get short shrift when accolades are being dispensed, so I am happy to have two excellent examples on my list.  Midnight in Paris is that rare thing: a perfect romantic comedy, and, even better, one in which “romantic” can be taken in a wider sense than is usual. It’s a comedy about love, to be sure, but it’s also about the romance of Parisian streets, of midnight strolls, of magic, of wonder, and of dreams come to life.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to greater literary achievements, who has come to Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) on holiday. Gil feels as many North Americans do when they go to Europe: that its streets and sites are touched with the glory of those great men and women, his idols and heroes, who trod those stones before him. For Gil, Paris is perfumed with the memories of the golden age of the 1920s, when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein lived there. When, during one of his midnight walks, a 1920’s-vintage car rolls up to the curb and he is beckoned inside, he cannot resist, and so the delightful story unfolds…

The film is about nostalgia, its pleasures and its pitfalls, and is suffused with a spirit of humility and appreciation. Allen’s neuroses are present, but more moderate and winsome than usual. (It helps that Allen himself remains off-screen, although Wilson does a pretty decent imitation.) Is nostalgia a failure to face the world squarely? Is it possible to really love the past in a way that doesn’t distort it? Are we all prisoners of our own time? And, if so, what are we to do with our affection and admiration for times and places other than our own? Big questions, but handled with generosity and wit. It’s a golden film.


4. Brooklyn
(John Crowley, 2015)

Unlike some, or perhaps most, of the films on this list, Brooklyn has no grand ambitions and no particular sense of style. What it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan, playing a young Irish woman emigrating to New York in the 1950s, has a quiet but commanding presence, and that lilt is irresistible. I have a soft spot for stories about being away and returning home, and here, where it’s ambiguous whether Ireland or New York is home, that soft spot got prodded pretty often. It’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.


5. Love & Friendship
(Whit Stillman, 2016)

I’ve now seen Love & Friendship three times, and its charms have not faded. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter. It’s a film that has humour in its very bones, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, the music, and the tone. Everything works together.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially, with one notable exception, are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to his comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.


6. Gravity
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Action films are usually not quiet and slow enough for me, but I make an exception for this thrill ride, which opens with one of the greatest long takes in the history of cinema — 17 minutes of swirling, vertigo-inducing movie magic — and pursues its relentless way through a sea of troubles. The movie is like an arrow released from a bow: once begun, it stops at nothing until it reaches its target, and I can’t think of another action film that kept me on the edge of my seat so effectively. With just enough background to humanize the characters, and just enough symbolism to hint at deeper significance, I found it very satisfying, even on re-watch. Sandra Bullock, of all people, is terrific in the lead role, but the film really belongs to Cuarón.


7. Paterson
(Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Not everyone shares my liking for slow, quiet films, but I am optimistic that most people would appreciate Paterson, a slow, quiet film about a New Jersey bus driver with an avocation as a poet — or is it the other way around?  Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life. The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At the heart of the film is a beautiful portrait of Paterson’s marriage — a June and December marriage if there ever was one, but one of the most attractive I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s an altogether lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart.


8. Phantom Thread
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. It is a love story, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. To be perfectly frank, it sickens and turns sour, leaving a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. But it appears on this list because I am trying to be honest, and nine-tenths of this were among the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft of the decade for me.


9. La La Land
(Damien Chazelle, 2016)

It’s a bittersweet picture; when first I saw it I tasted mostly the sweet, when next mostly the bitter, but in both cases I was left charmed and touched by this portrait of a pair whose course of love does not run smooth. Sebastian and Mia are caught between following their dreams and following their love. They can try to do both, but life is hard, and something has to give.

It’s a musical, of course, which adds a welcome splash of ebullience to what might otherwise be just sad, and the wonderful epilogue rings all the emotional changes you could wish for. It left me teary-eyed and elated, and that is a rare feat.


10. Personal Shopper
(Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Competition for this tenth spot on the list has been fierce. Bloodied and beaten films lie askew on the field, but rising slowly to its feet in their midst, a look of grim triumph on its face, is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, an alluring film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. Part ghost story, part study in grief, and part existential mystery, it makes it to this list mostly on the strength of several sequences that I simply haven’t been able to get out of my mind. I don’t think any other film I saw this decade involved me quite so thoroughly in its perplexing details, or provoked me to quite so many frame-by-frame re-examinations of particular scenes. It’s far from being a perfect film, and is in some respects downright vexing, but curiously satisfying too.


Honourable mentions: A Hidden Life (2019); Sudoeste (2012); Parasite (2019); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); First Reformed (2017); A Ghost Story (2017); La Sapienza (2014); Knight of Cups (2016); Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

Animated: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); 24 Frames (2017); Winnie the Pooh (2011).

Science Fiction: Never Let Me Go (2010); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014); A Quiet Place (2018).

Action: Inception (2013) ; Dunkirk (2017); Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Horror: The Witch (2015); It Follows (2014); The Conjuring (2013).

Documentaries: Tim’s Vermeer (2013); The Act of Killing (2012); They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).


Comments welcome!

Favourites of 2017: Film

January 8, 2018

This was another year in which I made an effort to get to know older films. The nice thing about older films is that there are so many of them, and, among the many, many good. But my tastes continued to skew recent, and the 10 films I’ve selected as my favourites from among those I saw this year are, mostly, of relatively recent vintage.

For want of a better method, I shall proceed alphabetically.


A highlight of my year was undoubtedly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie. I loved the slow, atmospheric pacing, and how the film used familiar film conventions to surprise us with an unexpected story. I’m giving my personal Best Actress award to Amy Adams.

As usual with science fiction movies, there were some not quite coherent ideas at play, but by the time that become clear the film had become so rich and moving that it hardly mattered. My wife and I talked about it for a long time afterwards, and our conversation eventually came around to a discussion of the inner life of the Blessed Virgin. Any alien invasion flick that can do that earns top marks from me.


Some years ago I was at the National Gallery in Ottawa, wandering through the modern art section, looking at a pile of carefully laid out Cheezies, and at boards of plywood propped against the wall, and entertaining sobering thoughts about the end of civilization. For a respite I ducked into a small room in which a film was showing. There was one chair; I sat down. I watched some cows grazing in a field. I stayed about twenty minutes, until the film looped, and when I left that little room I was restored, and my faith in the continuance of civilization was revived. Indeed, more than that, I felt I was seeing the world with new eyes. That film of cows grazing in a field did it.

I was reminded of this experience as I watched Fog Line, a short film made by Larry Gottheim in 1970. It’s about 11 minutes long, and consists of one unbroken static shot of a valley in which fog is slowly drifting. At first one doesn’t see much, but almost imperceptibly the view changes. Trees are revealed and then concealed again. One sees grass, and notices, in time, a little shrub in the foreground. After a few minutes of this one’s thoughts begin to fasten on firmer fare than merely drifting fog. The world is a beautiful place, is it not? This valley scene has unfolded countless times before, without my knowing about it, and is no doubt unfolding still, and it’s all wonderfully, stupefyingly real, and new every morning. And bit by bit one’s mind trips up the ladder of being until it runs headlong into the gratuitous, unfathomable mystery of being itself. And that same mystery confronts us everywhere.

And all this on the strength of a simple, admittedly not very cinematic, just barely moving picture. Even so, I am grateful for the experience. Oh look, here it comes again:


Last year I praised La Sapienza, from director Eugène Green, as one of my favourites of the year. I liked it so much that this year I set about tracking down as many of his other films as I could. He had a new film in 2016, Le Fils de Joseph, and I also contrived to see Toutes les Nuits (2001), Le Pont des Arts (2004), and La Religieuse portugaise (2009). These are not yet all of his films, but they have given me, I think, a better idea of what he does.

I have had to revise, for instance, my interpretation of La Sapienza to some extent. In my reflections on that film, I placed particular thematic significance on the oddly unnatural acting style characterized by flat affect and muted intonation. It turns out that this same acting style is common to all of Green’s films, and so is probably not meant to convey all of the meaning I ascribed to it — unless the same significance is intended in all the films, which seems unlikely. In fact I’ve discovered that many of the directorial peculiarities I encountered in La Sapienza recur in his other films: symmetric compositions; a reliance on the gaze directly into the camera; an interest in architecture; patient filming of actors’ feet, which strikes me as a wry jest (and, perhaps, a self-depreciating reference to the comparisons made by critics between Green and Bresson, who showed a particular interest in hands); a cameo by the director; a musical flourish at the film’s opening and closing.

I’ve selected two of his films for this year-end discussion. Since they are not alphabetically adjacent, I would here run afoul of my alphabetical ordering, were I not cunningly grouping them together under G, for Green.


St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. We can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in La Religieuse portugaise (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine. Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of encounters, mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but also, crucially, a conversation with one woman; these encounters first chart her spiritual topography, and then help her find her way out of the dark wood in which she has been lost.

In Lisbon she is drawn at night to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly through the night before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness.

It is notable that religion seems to be important to Green; I know nothing about his personal piety, but I think that all of his films (that I have seen) have at least one scene in a church, and Christian imagery and ideas permeate his work. This is particularly true of this film, in which the key scene takes place not only in a church, but actually at the altar, where a kind of spiritual marriage takes place between our actress and the nun. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” And how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour. The film in which Julie is acting is directed by a man played by Eugène Green himself, and though the film is clearly not the film we are watching (this is not Adaptation), it bears a sufficiently close resemblance to permit Green to make good-natured jests about his own films: that they are intellectual, and boring, for instance. In the film-within-the-film the characters hardly say anything to one another, which is a nice foil for Green’s rather talky pictures. And a disco scene in which Green’s attempts at hipness fall flat is hilarious. “It’s so tiring to be hip,” he says the morning after. This must be why he avoids it.


Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) is in some respects reminiscent of La Sapienza inasmuch as it explores relationships between older and younger people and is interested in the role of fathers, and father-figures, in the lives of young men. We follow a teenaged boy, Vincent, who lives with his mother but has only recently discovered the identity of his father, whom he then proceeds to try to meet. It’s a film in which Green’s peculiar combination of delightful wit, semi-metaphorical abstraction, and stylistic oddness come together in a particularly successful way.

Distinctive about this film are the Biblical motifs that pop up: the sacrifice of Isaac, the flight into Egypt, Mary and Joseph, the golden calf. Vincent finds himself, perhaps not quite entirely without his contrivance, enmeshed in a story saturated with Biblical typology. He is in the role of Issac, sacrificed by his father; in the role of Abraham, ready to sacrifice; as Moses, I suppose, observing the hedonism of those who are without God; and, finally, as the Christ-Child. What is going on? Is this a kind of metaphor for Providence, in which God reveals his presence in Vincent’s life using, as it were, tried and true signs? Is there something mystical at work in this film, which is stylistically so highly controlled and rational? Or, given Green’s penchant for whimsy, is it just that the director enjoyed dressing up an ordinary and sometimes tawdry tale in grand clothing? I admit I’m not sure; it is a film I’d definitely like to see again.

One last note: There is a scene in the middle of the film, of a performance of an early Italian opera in a church, that has a remarkably powerful numinous quality. It lasts maybe 5 or 10 minutes, and of course I cannot predict how it would affect anyone else, but for me it was like the rending of a veil, through which I caught a glimpse of an immense and powerful beauty. It was the best 5 or 10 minutes of cinema I saw this year, hands down. Eugène Green is a very good filmmaker.


My notes on La La Land were brief: “I need more films like this in my life.” It was the critical darling of 2016, and I think the plaudits were largely deserved. We can agree that it’s not in the same league as Swing Time, but it is refreshing to have a little song and dance in a big-time Hollywood picture.

The film has been criticized on the grounds that the protagonists, Sebastian and Mia, are both selfish and shallow. This is true, and is part of the point. The film’s epilogue, especially, is far from being a whimsical addendum, but is crucial to clarifying and completing the character arc of Sebastian, who sees, at last, what his selfishness cost him. I found the film quite touching, and I’m keen to see what Damien Chazelle does next.


With the possible exception of Chaplin’s City Lights — a very different film — I have never enjoyed a silent film more than F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924), which has, for some reason, been given the English title The Last Laugh. It tells the story of an older man who loses his job as doorman at a luxury hotel, and thereby loses the one thing that, so he thinks, gives him dignity.

The film is remarkable because it has essentially no dialogue, and therefore none of the intertitles that normally appear in silent films. Instead, the story is told entirely through visuals, and so feels less like a technically-deficient movie (as silent films sometimes feel to me) and more like an avant-garde experiment, immersing the viewer completely in the visual medium — or nearly completely, because the film does have an incredibly beautiful score, one of the best I’ve ever heard, led by a warm cello, tragic and noble in the best late Romantic mode. I loved it. I have tried to discover the composer, and based on the IMDB page I believe it was probably (because, like many silent films, this has more than one score) Giuseppe Becce.

The film gradually moves toward its tragic finale, but it has a surprising epilogue in store. An intertitle appears, not to convey dialogue, but to inform us that though “the story should end here” it will instead take an implausible turn in order to provide the audience a happy ending. Our tragic hero suddenly inherits vast wealth and proceeds to indulge to excess, turning into a glutton and buffoon. The score follows suite, abandoning its solemn gravitas for superficial ditties. I don’t know why Murnau decided to include this epilogue — was it under pressure from the producers? If so, it’s a startlingly acerbic swipe at them, which, naturally, one can appreciate, but also at the audience, which one can tolerate, but also at his character, which flirts with misanthropy. It’s witty, in its way, but I think the film would have been better without it.


I’d not have thought that Bergman, who gave us this scene and this scene, would have the right temperament to direct a film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but I stand corrected. He brings out the joyful playfulness of the piece alongside its (also joyful) fearfulness, and the results is the best opera film known to me. The recognition scene with Pagageno and Pagagena, which was the only section I’d seen previously, is still my favourite part, but I enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly, as did my kids (8 yo and 6 yo), who watched with me. Excellent singing throughout.


It is true that Manchester by the Sea was among the best films I saw this year, but it hits like a punch in the gut. The story is about Lee, a man crippled by grief and regret who is, nonetheless, haltingly and partially, trying to overcome them and live again. The troubles he faces are formidable and probably finally permanent, but still he labours to stay afloat. There are no easy answers, no easy roads back.

A reason to prize this film is Kenneth Lonergan’s direction; it was important that he find a way to tell this story without cheap emotional manipulation, and, given the nature of the story, the manipulation-meter had a hair-trigger. I expect he did it about as well as it could be done.

Something should be said about the music, which, for such a bleak story, is surprisingly warm and rich. Lonergan’s decision to use Handel’s “He shall feed his flock” at a crucial juncture struck me as a bold one, but it worked. The music said that all was not lost.


My liking for slow, quiet films brought me to Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 homage to the slow, quiet life. Paterson, who lives in Paterson, NJ, is a bus driver for Paterson public transit. He is husband to Laura, a quirky, earnest woman whom he loves with all his heart. And he is a poet, pausing each day, at bus stops or on breaks, to write poems in his notebook.

Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life.

The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At one point a calamity besets him; true, it might seem a small thing to an outsider — indeed, his wife is the only one to whom it would mean anything at all. (Bless her, she knows it.) But then he is visited by something very like providential grace, and a new beginning.

It’s a lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart, let down only by the rather poor poetry he writes. A formalist he is not. But it doesn’t really matter.


Good movies about religion are uncommon, and great ones are rare indeed. Werner Herzog’s little — at just 18 minutes long — and little-seen documentary Pilgrimage, from 2001, is somewhere in that range: not truly great cinema, for it makes limited use of cinematic resources, yet all the same it is one of the best films about religion that I’ve seen.

A mercy is that Herzog stays out of the way; we get no commentary or questions from behind the camera. Instead, the film consists entirely of shots of pilgrims at the tomb of St Sergei in Russia and at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. We see them at their devotions, praying, weeping, crawling on their knees; we see faith in its agony and ecstasy; we see humanity at its vulnerable, determined best, longing for the transcendent and willing to suffer and sacrifice just to touch the hem of that garment. The film showed me how very complacent and self-satisfied I am myself.

Of course the hazards of religious devotion are real and evident here, as a subtext, and why not? There is danger whenever we love something greatly.

There is a striking scene in which Herzog shows us pilgrims stopping, looking up, and making their devotions. Their faces are engrossing, their devotion beguiling. But he never shows us what they are looking at. (I have a guess.) Is it because he thinks it doesn’t matter? If so, we have here a notable and, I suppose, poignant example of a film about transcendence that is itself trapped in immanence.


As for films actually showing in 2017, I saw only a handful. Among those, I liked Spider-Man: Homecoming the most; it had the rarest of rare things in superhero movies — a good villain — and, anyhow, I have a weakness for Spider-Man. David Lowery’s haunting fable A Ghost Story was a close second. I saw Get Out, which is emerging as the critical favourite of the year, but I didn’t much care for it. I was greatly disappointed by Malick’s Song to Song, and I wish somebody could take away my sorrow.


Concluding Trivia

Shortest films: The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979) [3m]; Father and Daughter (2000) [8m]; Begone Dull Care (1949) [8m].

Longest films: Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) [3h11m]; Toni Erdmann (2016) [2h42m]; Silence (2016) [2h41m].

Oldest films: The Phantom Carriage (1921); Girl Shy (1924); Der letzte Mann (1924).

Best re-visits: The Tree of Life (2011); In the Mood for Love (2000); There Will Be Blood (2007).

Favourite animated film: Your Name (2016).

Favourite literary adaptation: Coriolanus (2011).

Favourite feel-good movie: Queen of Katwe (2016).

Most films by the same director: 4 (Eugène Green); 3 (Malick, Kubrick, Bresson); 2 (Scorcese).

Watched, but not remembered: Sullivan’s Travels (1941); Ninotchka (1939); My Man Godfrey (1936).

Disappointments: Close-Up (1990); Dr Strangelove (1964); Blade Runner (1982); Song to Song (2017).