2010: Black Swan
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Premise: A dancer (Natalie Portman) descends into paranoia and madness as she buries herself in the lead role of the ballet Swan Lake.
Why It Made the List: Many of the films this year dealt with the plastic nature of reality, whether it took the form of an imaginary dream state, revelations regarding our biological or sexual identity, or experiencing social relationships on a digital platform. Black Swan represents the pinnacle of this theme in 2010’s crop of films. This is a story working in many dimensions at once, with each of these dimensions intertwined with each other. Firstly, Black Swan is an exploration of the relationship between art and the artist, as the storyline of Swan Lake becomes the storyline of the dancers and their director. While this parallel is fairly obvious, the filmmakers use it to realize a sometimes problematic relationship between our life and the art we create or consume. In Black Swan the distinction between art and life erodes away and from that a new reality emerges. Secondly, Black Swan is a study of ambition and the pursuit of perfection. This is where Natalie Portman’s performance impresses the most, as she embodies a person who has forgone all other needs in the pursuit of perfection. The story of Black Swan puts Portman’s character through an emotional and physical gauntlet; watching the emaciated Portman literally rehearse her body to death and observing how the deterioration of her body occurs in tandem with the collapse of her mind is a frightening and tragic display. Lastly, Black Swan is a tale of lust, jealousy and sexual awakening. The commitment that Portman’s character makes to her art is all consuming, restricting her own emotional development, which has the ironic effect of limiting her ability as an artist because she is unfamiliar with her own feelings and desires. As Portman’s ballerina immerses herself in the role, she is transformed by her art physically but also emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually and by the time the curtain falls on her final performance, Black Swan takes her and the audience to places of great beauty and great horror.
2011: Margin Call
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Premise: Set at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, risk analysts and executives at a major investment bank realize that the firm is headed for a collapse and try to find a solution.
Why It Made the List: One of the recent trends in movies over the past few years has been the subgenre of recession cinema. Some of these pictures deal with the experiences of those losing jobs or homes, such as Up in the Air, while others dramatize the actions of major players in the political and financial world. Margin Call fits into the latter category and even though it is entirely fictionalized, this picture succeeds in ways that similar films like Too Big To Fail or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps fell short. Although Margin Call is not as in depth as those films in terms of the financial details, Margin Call does its job as a dramatization far more effectively. (The kinds of economic and political details that some critics may wrongfully demand from a film like this are much better addressed in the documentary form, and have been in Inside Job and Client 9.) A dramatization of something as academic and mathematical as the 2008 financial collapse must be about the human issues and Margin Call does exactly that. The film presents a group of characters at various levels of the bank’s hierarchy, from risk analysts up to the bank president, and within the twenty-four hours in which the story takes place these people are confronted with serious ethical challenges in which issues like greed, ambition, integrity, and loyalty come into play. This comes out especially well through the characters played by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. Spacey's character realizes the ethical implications of all this while Irons' CEO, in what is an extraordinary performance, embodies corporate survivalism and will sink his customers and even the whole economy in order to save the firm. Margin Call is ultimately about the relationship between individuals and financial institutions, and the arbitrary way those individuals might be rewarded or destroyed based on little more than circumstance. The film's layered and sophisticated portrait of corporate culture and its intelligent and complex ethical subtext makes Margin Call one of the most impressive films about capitalism in the post-TARP era and the best film of 2011.
Directed by: Ron Fricke
Premise: A non-narrative documentary that cross-cuts people and locations across the globe, drawing broad parallels and suggesting that human civilization is trapped in a vicious cycle.
Why It Made the List: Of the cinema of 2012, one of the predominant trends was the epic. Blockbusters like The Hobbit, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Breaking Dawn Part 2 had grand scope and large casts but they often fell short of their ambitions because the movies were trying to tell narrow stories on a broad palate. That is the conundrum of epic filmmaking; the bigger the scope, the duller the details. This highlights the achievement of Samsara. It is a film that is truly epic in its breadth and ambition but it works because the filmmakers untether themselves from the constraints of mainstream narrative moviemaking. The title of Samsara refers to a term in Buddhism meaning “circle” or “wheel” in which people are stuck in an endless cycle of ignorance. The filmmakers of Samsara have set about trying to illustrate that on a worldwide scale and in large measure they succeed. Filmed all over the globe and juxtaposing imagery of geography, architecture and industry to a slow, meditative score, Samsara has a panoramic view of space and time. The collage of images draws broad and provocative connections between places and peoples and the juxtapositions of the images and what they suggest—both individually and collectively—make this a challenging picture. But the challenging qualities of Samsara are precisely what distinguish it. Contemporary audiences have been conditioned to expect cinema to conform to a narrow narrative style with hyperkinetic camera movement and rapid edits. The filmmakers of Samsara challenge their audience by holding shots for lengthy periods of screen time, forcing viewers to study the images and consider their meaning. This picture demands attention in a way that mainstream cinema does not and what Samsara suggests about humanity is as challenging and engaging as its non-narrative form. Samsara is the kind of film that warrants multiple viewings but that ultimately speaks to why this film is so powerful. A truly epic piece of cinema ought to be so broad that it requires multiple passes by the viewer. In a culture that traffics in fragments and sound bites of artificial outrage and commoditized desire and in which so much of what is created is rapidly consumed and discarded, the patience and pensiveness of Samsara is a radical act. This film may not be suited for mediocre mainstream interests but it is a stunning piece of work whose ambition, intelligence, and skill are unparalleled in any other film of 2012.
2013: 12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Premise: Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Set before the Civil War, a free African American is abducted in New York and sold into slavery.
Why It Made the List: Despite the central place that slavery has in American history and in the history of Western civilization itself, the topic has not been dealt with very frequently in mainstream or independent films. 12 Years a Slave portrays that history on screen and does it in a way that acknowledges its horror and inhumanity while also capturing the human element of the people involved on both sides of the lash. When dealing with topics like slavery there is a tendency to oversimplify or ignore the interplay of institutional and personal responsibility but 12 Years a Slave deals with the subject in a sophisticated way. This isn’t just a movie about a bygone era; it is about how participating in a system of exploitation corrupts everyone and everything attached to it and that comes through in the central performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup and Ejiofor does not give himself over to the kind of theatrics usually found in a historical picture. Instead, the filmmakers allow the conflict of hope and despair to play quietly across Ejiofor's face. In a supporting role, but making nearly as strong of an impression, is actress Lupita Nyong'o as female slave Patsey. Nyong'o plays a character who is pushed to the very limit and her struggle to maintain her humanity makes Nyong'o's scenes some of the most heartbreaking of the picture. 12 Years a Slave also features Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as a married couple who run a plantation. As malevolent as the characters can be, their evil is palatable; the couple has a human frailty that is distinctly different from most movie villains. This complex portrayal of human suffering perpetuated by individuals and sustained by social and economic systems is a challenge to the way we think about our past but illuminates how we think about the inhumanities of the present. The best pieces of historical filmmaking bring viewers closer to history and 12 Years a Slave allows that connection while finding human dignity in a very dark place.
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Premise: The story of a boy (Ellar Coltrane), following his life from age five to eighteen.
Why It Made the List: A lot has been written about Boyhood since it opened in the summer of 2014 and much of that has focused on the way in which the movie was made. In short, the cast and crew convened about once a year for eleven years and segments of the movie were filmed a piece at a time. While that is a creative way of going about a film production, this unusual schedule is not what makes Boyhood a notable film. Motion pictures have to be judged by what is on the screen, not the behind the scenes wrangling, and it’s the content of the movie that really makes Boyhood extraordinary. Filmmaker Richard Linklater has managed to distill the formative years of a young man’s life into 165 minutes and constructed a fascinating portrait of adolescence and family life. While Boyhood has a story, the narrative is presented as a loosely associated collection of scenes. Normally that would be a detriment to the picture but because of its cinema verite style, the filmmakers are able to get away from the trappings of plot and in the process reveal something subversive about storytelling. Most narratives, whether on the screen or on the page, are tidy and unified and everything has a purpose and all events lead toward a conclusion. That cohesion is both aesthetically and psychologically satisfying but it isn’t true. Life is much more haphazard than that and Boyhood visualizes that chaotic quality of life. This is most apparent in the final scene in which the boy has become a man and he looks out into a future that is full of both uncertainty and possibility. This is why Boyhood is an extraordinary film. It captures something ephemeral but essential about life and the picture has a mysterious profundity about it. It’s that covertly stated truth that makes Boyhood the best film of 2014.
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Premise: A woman and her son have been held captive for years in a backyard shed. When the boy turns five they plot an escape.
Why It Made the List: Really great movies have the ability to shift our perspective of ourselves and the world. Room is a satisfying story of imprisonment and escape and even if that’s all it was, the movie would give viewers their money’s worth. But Room goes well beyond that and it reaches the audience on both conscious and subconscious levels. This story taps into the primal territory of parent-child relationships. There is no understating the impact of the performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as mother and son. These actors have a natural rapport and despite the strangeness of their situation there is something instantly and profoundly recognizable about them. That’s especially true of the noble lies that the mother tells her son to cope with their predicament. When the truth is finally revealed, the hurt of the mother and the shock in the boy is palatable. That’s the other remarkable aspect of Room: the way it shakes up our sense of reality. We, like the boy of this movie, go through life accepting what we experience as the truth of reality. This boy’s discovery of a bigger world is so profound because it acts out the process of disillusionment that we all go through as a matter of life. But Room complicates this further still with the mother’s struggle with freedom in the film’s second half. Without making any overtures to pretention, Room mixes an immediate drama of survival with philosophical complexity and it is one of those rare movies that we come out of seeing the world differently. That makes Room the best movie of 2015.
2016: Eye in the Sky
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Premise: British and American military forces and political officials coordinate a drone strike in Kenya. When a little girl occupies the kill zone, the soldiers and politicians debate whether or not to go through with the mission.
Why It Made the List: Despite Hollywood’s reputation as a den of liberalism, motion pictures and militarism have frequently gone hand-in-hand. From Objective, Burma! to Top Gun to Black Hawk Down, Hollywood has been the greatest champion of American military might. Eye in the Sky is quite different. For one thing, this movie presents warfare as an act of cooperation and negotiation as American service people in Nevada remote pilot a drone in Kenya while taking orders from British military officers in the UK. This is a different kind of warfare and it requires different rules of engagement. In so many films, violence is a foregone conclusion but Eye in the Sky weighs the legal consequences and the moral and strategic implications of the drone strike. And that leads to another unusual aspect of this film. Whereas many Hollywood war pictures regard civilian input and bureaucracy as an obstruction, Eye in the Sky gives the opinions of politicians and civilian officials equal consideration with those wearing a uniform. The film is a web of contrary opinions and Eye in the Sky raises difficult questions that do not have simplistic answers. But Eye in the Sky doesn’t hide behind the complexity either. Choices must be made and responsibility must be assumed. The filmmakers of Eye in the Sky embrace the complexity of the situation and find the drama in the moral stakes of both action and inaction. Eye in the Sky is a riveting motion picture that redefines the war film and it is an essential entry in the genre of post-9/11 cinema.
2017: The Florida Project
Directed by: Sean Baker
Premise: A single mother and her six year old daughter live in a pay-by-the-week motel located in Orlando, Florida. The daughter spends her days roaming the local grounds and getting into mischief while her mother attempts to make ends meet.
Why It Made the List: Hollywood is a dream factory. The stories told on the screen allow us to experience fantasies of heroism, heartache, and virtue. Even the independent scene generally adheres to that principle. There’s certainly a place for escapist entertainment but a lot of American cinema is propaganda for the good life and reinforces the myths of prosperity and American exceptionalism. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project takes place on the cusp between fantasy and reality. The movie follows the impoverished residents of a cheap Florida motel where Walt Disney World—the icon of American fantasy—looms in the background. The tourist mecca of Orlando becomes the ironic backdrop for The Florida Project’s unsparing portrait of life on the margins. The residents of the motel tread just above homelessness and struggle to survive. But what could be a slog through economic deprivation takes on a light and even whimsical tone because it unfolds from the point of view of its child characters. They are mostly oblivious to their circumstances and that creates a fascinating tension between the audience’s horror at what they are seeing and what is normal in these people’s lives. The Florida Project has some extraordinary performances, in particular Brooklynn Prince as six year-old Moonee and Bria Vinaite as her mother Halley. Just as Hollywood movies spin fantasies of glamour and heroism they are also populated with characters who are upstanding and well groomed. The residents of The Florida Project are candidates for daytime tabloid talk shows, people who are usually ignored or discounted as trash, and yet the filmmakers find the humanity in these people even while they make bad choices. And while doing all of this, the filmmakers are neither pretentious nor self-congratulatory. The images—many of them capturing ugliness in a beautiful way—speak for themselves. The Florida Project is quietly profound, honest, and subversive. It’s a movie that tells the truth about American life that so much of our mainstream media diet obfuscates. That, and the excellence with which it is made, qualifies The Florida Project as the best film of 2017.
2018: If Beale Street Could Talk
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Premise: Based on the novel by James Baldwin. Set in 1970s Harlem, a young African American woman (KiKi Layne) becomes pregnant and the father of her child (Stephan James) is imprisoned. She tries to prove his innocence.
Why It Made the List: There were a lot of activist films released in 2018. Pictures such as The Hate U Give and Blindspotting and The First Purge channeled the culture’s anxieties and visualized them on the silver screen. If Beale Street Could Talk was less confrontational than those films but it was no less political and in fact it was far more effective than any of its contemporaries. This film put its story and filmmaking craft first and If Beale Street Could Talk uses the strengths of cinema to make its point. As Roger Ebert was fond of saying, cinema has the capacity to inspire empathy. It places the audience in another person’s point of view in a way that is immediate and immersive. If Beale Street Could Talk does exactly that. It makes the viewer a witness to the lives of Tish and Fonny, a young African American couple played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James, and it affirms their humanity through their love story and the struggles they must overcome to remain together. This film is about a couple hanging onto each other when the world seems bent upon tearing them apart and that’s where the politics of this film are found. If Beale Street Could Talk is about the African American experience and specifically the presumption of guilt that mainstream white culture casts on young black men. The political impact of If Beale Street Could Talk is in the contrast between that expectation and the humanity of the characters. Everything in this film is concentrated around the idea of empathy. The cinematography is natural and yet stylized, using shadows and colors to give scenes a specific emotional temperature and the people and places possess a visual texture that invites us to truly feel the images. The music score by Nicholas Britell works in concert with those images, underscoring the subtext but without beating us over the head with it. The narrative also works this way, taking us backward and forward on the timeline and juxtaposing better and worse times in the couple’s lives, colliding the expectations and hopes of their past with the realities and compromises of their future. All those elements cohere in a movie that is quietly subversive, deeply impactful, and stubbornly humane. It’s a delicate balance of skillful storytelling, political insight, and cinematic craftsmanship that makes If Beale Street Could Talk the best film of 2018.
2019: To Be Determined
There have been many great movies released in 2019 such as Ad Astra, The Farewell, Midsommer, and Waves among others. This Sounds of Cinema picks for the best and worst titles of 2019 will be announced on the episode scheduled for January 19, 2020.
Here are the worst films from each year this decade:
- 2010: The Last Airbender
- 2011: Jack and Jill
- 2012: Project X
- 2013: A Good Day to Die Hard
- 2014: America: Imagine the World Without Her
- 2015: Aloha
- 2016: Bad Santa 2
- 2017: A Cure for Wellness
- 2018: Acrimony
- 2019: To Be Determined