You never know what you might have missed, Getintothis’ Chris Leathley picks out ten films from the last decade that any cinema enthusiast should investigate.
As we all know, the pace of modern life is pretty unforgiving, especially so if you are seeking to keep up with recent cinematic releases. At a time when all a filmmaker needs is an imagination and an iPhone, the sheer number of productions can be overwhelming.
Add to this the fact that we now face a plethora of reissues on Blu-ray and newly discovered/restored ‘lost classics’ and you can forgive everybody for feeling swamped by cinematic media. Worse still, much of it is bloody good and therefore warrants our attention even if we don’t often get the chance to give it.
Thus, in order to spare you all the despair and impossible expense of trying to acquire all these damn films, Getintothis is here to lend a hand. The last decade has produced some spellbinding films, much of which will only gradually come to be appreciated in the years to come.
Most excitingly of all, the finest movies that have emerged in recent years have regularly originated from outside the often facile, frequently tedious, Hollywood bubble.
Of the ten that we deem to be essential, five are not English language films. A further two of our picks, whilst in the common English vernacular, still fall well outside the cinematic mainstream. This is something to be celebrated by all moviegoers who relish hearing new voices, seeing via unique perspectives and learning from innovative narratives upon the global human condition.
Perhaps more crucially, these films are often fun, crammed with ribald humour or droll asides on the precarious nature of our existence and our presumed environments. Where they are not so, these are movies that frame new windows on the world and do so in exciting and visionary ways.
We confidently predict that these are films that will reinvigorate your love for the cinematic medium, challenge complacent expectations and stimulate many questions that will extend far beyond ‘Was it any good?’…
White Material – Claire Denis (2009)
There can be few more talented filmmakers at work today than Claire Denis. In White Material, she tackles the French, and by extension the British/Western European nations’, colonial legacy in Africa. Isabelle Huppert is a force of nature as Maria Vial, a plantation owner in a former French colony, now riven by conflict and violence.
Obdurate in the face of the civil catastrophe, Maria is also tragically oblivious to the fault lines within her own family, fault lines which threaten to swallow up all that she holds dear. It is a film shot through with hazy heat, wasted landscapes and disorientated peoples. Colours are almost fluorescent in their intensity, providing an exotic backdrop to the human dramas depicted with such taut and capable precision by Denis.
Indeed, Denis ensures that the moral compromises and communal tensions inherent within colonial and post-colonial relationships are displayed in all their hubristic emotional gore alongside similarly painful domestic traumas. It amounts to an extraordinary cinematic statement by a fine director.
Double Take – Johan Grimonprez (2009)
Part documentary, part celluloid essay, Double Take is a completely bewitching experience. Conceived by Johan Grimonprez alongside celebrated author Tom McCarthy, the film takes us through a story of dopplegangers and murderous conspiracy.
Most striking of all is the fact that the main protagonist in the story is none other than Alfred Hitchcock. Woven within this suspense-laden tale is an irreverent (but nevertheless menacing and uneasy) dissection of the Cold War, told via archival footage and vintage advertising. The film morphs from an enticing fictional proposition into a broad assessment of competing ideologies, attitudes and the challenges posed by modernity.
The fact that Grimonprez manages to make all of this narrative complexity appear both simple and hilarious is a testament to the film’s splendour and his consummate flair for cinema.
The Turin Horse – Bela Tarr (2011)
We’ve written about Bela Tarr’s 2011 masterpiece before, but it certainly belongs here on this list of future classics. A monochrome capsule of existential despair, Tarr deconstructs cinema…no, wait, he deconstructs being. In attempting this impossible task, he contrives to produce a film more horrifying and compelling than any genre flick could muster, just without CGI or naff conventions.
The story, if it can be so called, is a bare bones scenario that often takes place within the narrow confines of a peasant hovel and does not consist of much physical movement beyond the repetitious domesticity of life. It depicts the creeping fear that wells up amongst a father and daughter as the world that they have come to know, have become lazily accustomed to, starts to fragment and close in on them. The terrible psychodrama of The Turin Horse lies within the reduction of life to this ritualistic banality, casual cruelty and odd moments of introspection by the two implacable leads.
As ever, the natural elements are utilised to their fullest extent by Tarr to summon an atmosphere of brooding apprehension along with austere lighting and photography. All of these aspects are cultivated by Tarr, a genuine celluloid philosopher, with withering success. It is no exaggeration to suggest that this is one of the greatest films ever made.
The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)
How is Paul Thomas Anderson still getting Hollywood to play ball? His cinematic career provides a surprising counter-narrative to the usual studio constraints imposed on so many other aspirant directors in America today. No doubt, he is helped both by the loyalty of the critical community and the acting fraternity, often attracting casts that are the envy of others. Nevertheless, the nature and direction of his career arc remains unexpected to say the least.
The Master was controversial from the outset, not least because it appeared to take pot-shots at Scientology and the life of L Ron Hubbard. As a mainstream production, it refused to apply logical linear storytelling, still a taboo approach in Hollywood. Indeed, as a complementary counter-intuitive route to cinematic triumph, it portrayed a rogue’s gallery of individuals, each deeply flawed, each resolutely determined to follow (potentially) self-destructive paths. No sympathetic leads are proffered unlike in the majority of American cinema.
The film might superficially be telling us about a suave charlatan (played with oleaginous charm by the much missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) conning rich, needy adherents to his bizarre pseudo-religion but it is also about the psychological consequences of war. In the shape of Freddie Quell (played with ferocity and conviction by Joaquin Phoenix – surely the finest actor in Hollywood today?), we see a world subverted by bitter experience and personality disorders.
Like so many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s best work, it is a movie blessed with an eerie Jonny Greenwood score that plays a hugely influential part in cementing the mood and exposition of the film’s focal themes. It is a marvel and a rare one at that.
Hard to be a God – Aleksei German (2013)
Alas, there are far too few films available by Aleksei German. This is a genuine tragedy, born as it is of years of political persecution and production calamities. Nonetheless, in his last movie, which was only released after his death, we have a valedictory statement worthy of this auteur.
Based upon the Strugatsky Brothers’ sci-fi novel of the same name, the film depicts a planet whose population is mired in an anachronistic medieval world of repression, Luddite sensibilities and bloody carnage. The bestial nature of this curious world is observed clandestinely by scientists who have infiltrated this feudal community, perhaps with the hope of altering the destiny of the ignorant populace.
Hard to be a God chooses an oblique, immersive style which, whilst not explicitly explaining every element of the story, chooses instead to place us at the heart of this troubled time and place and lets us draw our own conclusions. A combination of the expansive running time, the grimy drowned-in-mud sets, the dexterous camera-work and the visceral physicality of the cast all enable the viewer to feel directly connected to the brutal environment.
More than anything else, German’s visionary film is one that casts a baleful glare upon our savage natures and how, when unleashed by circumstance or intent, humanity has a fragile grip on progress that can all too easily be derailed.
For this writer at least, no better film has been produced in the last twenty years.
A Field in England – Ben Wheatley (2013)
British cinema has undergone a renaissance of late, with Ben Wheatley often leading the pack, blazing a celluloid trail with efforts like Kill List, Sightseers, High Rise and Free Fire. However, none of these films have quite the trippy qualities and guerrilla filmmaking elan of A Field in England.
The physical extremities of the movie (it really does just take place in a field, in England) are belied by the weird and magical explosion of history (on screen) that forms just one strand of Wheatley’s bravura exercise in experimental celluloid. A period piece only in the tangential sense of time and place (and believe me, these concepts are kept deliberately elastic in this phantasmagorical tale), A Field in England takes you on a dark hallucinatory ride into alchemy and evil, as deserters from a Civil War battle are manipulated into far more dangerous activities than martial combat.
Deceptively basic, A Field in England plays adeptly with themes of disorientation, control and perception. Moreover, it does so in a manner which refuses to take itself too seriously, allowing the audience to regard incoherent visuals with equanimity and no small amount of delight. Wheatley, more than anything else with his films, treads a fine path between referential homage and Arthouse indulgence.
He is a filmmaker who retains the heart and expectations of a giddy teen movie-goer and this ensures that his forays into film will always be, if nothing else, tremendous fun. That, in and of itself, is the best argument for watching a Ben Wheatley movie.
Under The Skin – Jonathan Glazer (2013)
Another British exponent of challenging but engaging cinema is Jonathan Glazer, although he been far less prolific than Wheatley. Under the Skin, despite being vaguely based upon Michel Faber’s book, is still very much Glazer’s baby.
Scarlett Johansson has, as yet, given no better performance as the strange loner who entices vulnerable (and not so vulnerable) men towards a fate that few can comprehend. In doing so, she is aided and abetted by equally inscrutable motorcyclists, sleek and black as the night that they often inhabit. The sheer intelligence of a film that could so easily have descended into cliché is apparent in the lurid night-time cinematography and the way in which Glazer is able to make the familiar people, landmarks and landscape appear far from comforting.
Once again, this is a film in which minimalism is the key and answers are not readily available. Indeed, any resolution as to why Scarlett’s character seeks these men or who/what the accompanying motorcyclists might be, would certainly have given way to illusions being rudely shattered. It is a boon for the viewer that this was not inflicted upon us. Special mention must also be made of the score by Mica Levi, a soundtrack as brooding and wistful as the characters.
Far from being a sci-fi horror of ordinary dimensions, Under the Skin is about identity, sexuality and how difficult it is to disentangle the mess of human desires and appetites that beset us all. That Britain can still boast directors willing to explore these noir-hued avenues is something to be thankful for.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)
There have been some wonderful reinventions of horror cinema in recent years, including It Follows, Let the Right One In and the recently released A Quiet Place, but few have been as exquisite as A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.
Amirpour decides to take a familiar character (vampires) and instead of revelling in gory depravity on the part of the infamous bloodsuckers, does something quite unexpected instead. She makes the central character just as sympathetic and exposed as any potential victim might be. In fact, any victims who are devoured during this movie are deliberately odious, compromising our moral compass and twisting our world-view.
Still, the film becomes even more refreshing as Amirpour engages in an exciting cross-pollination of cinematic ideas and tropes. The isolated crime-ridden town (Western), the lovelorn teen (Romance) and the bleak travails of addiction and prostitution (Noir) are all evidence that Amirpour is cinematically literate. She delights in teasing us over our understanding of the film and its protagonists.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a slick exercise in demanding more from tired storylines and making us all fall in love with those well-worn cinematic paths once again.
Cemetery of Splendour – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015)
There is an almost shamanic quality to the way in which Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema poses thoughtful questions and allows viewers to inhabit extraordinary filmic universes. From the improvisational wonder that is Mysterious Object at Noon, through to tropical mysticism in the form of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives, Weerasethakul has forged an individual cinematic furrow. Frankly, all his films are worthy of your immediate attention.
Our choice though is Cemetery of Splendour, a mesmerising consideration of people, their psyches and how they connect with each other and the natural world. A strange sleeping sickness has afflicted a number of young men. Having been placed in an experimental clinic, a variety of treatments are attempted in order to provide relief to the soporific patients, including psychic remedy.
As Jen, one of the helpers in the clinic, gets more intimately involved in the treatment of these lost souls, we begin to see an internal exploration ensue that demolishes the boundaries of reality. Everything is delicately poised inside an abstract spirituality that leaves you breathless at its gorgeous beauty and emotional intricacies.
It is hard to write in concrete terms about a director whose films epitomise fluid concepts of the self and existence. Likewise, much of what can be written may appear unduly pretentious as a result. That conclusion would be misguided though as Weerasethakul is a director who seeks, and finds, a universal cinematic language that we can all understand.
Far from needing an interpreter, you just need an open mind. If you have that, feel free to dive in and laze in the balmy waters of his filmic vision – you’ll never want to leave.
You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay (2018)
Our most contemporary choice is also probably our most immediately accessible. You Were Never Really Here is a lean, sinewy piece of cinema that is a timely reminder that Lynne Ramsay remains a shamefully underused cinematic talent.
The film depicts a hitman-cum-vigilante named Joe, a man damaged by both apparent abuse and a career in law enforcement and the military. His metier is the rescuing of young girls trafficked for abuse, some of whom appear to reside within places connected to the upper echelons of the political establishment. Joe’s life is strange, isolated and surprisingly imbued by affection for an increasingly senile mother (with whom he lives in suburban anonymity).
Ramsay’s movie centres upon Joe’s most recent rescue of a girl which unravels in a maelstrom of eviscerating violence and sinister conspiracy. So far, so predictable. Right?
Wrong. Ramsay takes this suspense laden premise in new directions, many of which are as tortured and fractured as Joe’s egg-shell persona. Seamless editing, neon-drenched photography and surprising points of cinematic view lift the subject matter above the gutter. Take the use of CCTV cameras as the main filter of sight for one of Joe’s operations or the submerged, almost balletic, depiction of a DIY funeral, and you realise that You Were Never Really Here is something defiantly contrary to the norm.
Ramsay insists on making this a film that extends beyond destructive retribution. It is, in fact, a movie that provides an emphatically believable psychological case study of profoundly damaged people. In conceiving of this approach, and with the evocative assistance of Jonny Greenwood’s atonal score and a brilliantly layered sound design, Ramsay has produced one of the most sensational thrillers in recent years.
It would be remiss of us not to suggest a few other films which missed the cut by a wafer thin mint…
- Tabu – Miguel Gomes (2012)
- The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino (2013)
- The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson (2014)
- Mustang – Deniz Gamze Erguven (2015)
- The Assassin – Hou Hsiao-hsien (2015)
- Aferim! – Radu Jude (2015)
- The Forbidden Room – Guy Maddin (2015)
- Love and Friendship – Whit Stillman (2016)
- The Love Witch – Anna Biller (2016)