Revisiting Phoenix – The Best Film of the 2010s

Nina Hoss in Phoenix – The Performance and Film of the Decade
Denis Villenueve (directing Amy Adams in Arrival) – The Director of the Decade
Ryan Gosling in Drive – the Performer of the Decade

The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.

Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.

Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).

It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.

But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).

Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).

Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).

But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.

FilmYearDirectorDecade Rank
Phoenix2015Christian Petzold1
Phantom Thread2017Paul Thomas Anderson2
If Beale Street Could Talk2018Barry Jenkins3
Inception2010Christopher Nolan4
The Tree of Life2011Terrence Malick5
Mad Max: Fury Road2015George Miller6
Waves2019Trey Edward Shults7
Melancholia2011Lars Von Trier8
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives2011Apichatpong Weerasethakul9
Drive2011Nicolas Winding Refn10
The Irishman2019Martin Scorsese11
Arrival2016Denis Villeneuve12
12 Years a Slave2013Steve McQueen13
Winter’s Bone2010Debra Granik14
Interstellar2014Christopher Nolan15
Moonlight2016Barry Jenkins16
La La Land2016Damien Chazelle17
Cold War2018Pawel Pawlikowski18
Lean on Pete2018Andrew Haigh19
The Place Beyond the Pines2013Derek Cianfrance20
Take Shelter2011Jeff Nichols21
Biutiful2010Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu22
Transit2019Christian Petzold23
Us2019Jordan Peele24
Personal Shopper2017Olivier Assayas25
A Separation2011Asghar FarhadiHM
Lincoln2012Steven SpielbergHM
The Grey2012James CarnahanHM
The Impossible2012Juan Antonio BayonaHM
The Master2012Paul Thomas AndersonHM
Gravity2013Alfonso CuaronHM
Inside Llewyn Davis2013The Coen BrothersHM
Mud2013Jeff NicholsHM
Blue Ruin2014Jeremy SaulnierHM
Enemy2014Denis VilleneuveHM
Sicario2015Denis VilleneuveHM
The Salesman2016Asghar FarhadiHM
Dunkirk2017Christopher NolanHM
Blade Runner 20492017Denis VilleneuveHM
Wind River2017Taylor SheridanHM
BlacKkKlansman2018Spike LeeHM
Roma2018Alfonso CuaronHM

Written by D. H. Schleicher

I’m the Best One in Blade Runner 2049

“I’m the best one,” a coolly sinister replicant (Sylvia Hoeks) declares amidst haunting imagery of walking backwards into dark, surging water in Blade Runner 2049‘s chilling climax.

If one is to believe the declaration of a doctor (Carla Juri) who specializes in fabricating human memories for implantation into replicants earlier in the film… that there’s a little bit of the artist in each one…then one might draw the conclusion that replicant mentioned above is speaking for none other than director Denis Villeneuve.  He’s operating on a well-known (and much copied) property in this “30 years later” update of Ridley Scott’s classic neo-noir sci-fi…but he’s very much put his own stamp on it.  There’s also a bit of “killing your darlings” in his daring showmanship, symbolically murdering his forefather Scott along with his oft-compared contemporaries David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.  Yes, Denis…you are the best one.

But there’s more subtext (and context) than just “the mark of the artist” in Blade Runner 2049…there’s also philosophical pondering on artificial intelligence, slavery, and what it means to be human.  Meanwhile, on the surface, the film tick-tock’s through the motions of your traditional noir detective story. Continue reading

Let’s Have a Chat Upon Arrival

arrival_02

The arrival of Arrival in American theaters couldn’t have come at a more poignant time just after the most contentious and draining of elections. In cinema there has always been a fine line between entertainment and art, and the greatest of films are often rendered great through the cultural lens through which they are viewed.  I (and I’m sure many others) might read too much into the fact that the alien’s arrival on Earth occurs on an otherwise calm, fine Tuesday in Autumn. Fear and rioting ensues.

In steps a linguist (Amy Adams) and a scientist (Jeremy Renner) to help the US Government figure out why the aliens are here…and most importantly, do they mean us any harm? One of the central themes of the film is the importance of communication…cutting through language barriers to find common ground and how we have to work together to avoid disaster. One of the other central themes of the film is that the most common of grounds might be grief. It’s all at once timely, hopeful and a little bit sad.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s melancholic and seemingly always tracking camera (the opening shot scans under a dark ceiling stretching out toward the dull light coming through a window overlooking a beautifully serene lake) sucks you in from the get-go while Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” plays on the soundtrack before Amy Adams’ philosophical and heartbreaking voice-over begins. I breathed a deep sigh (of relief), as I knew instantly we were in the hands of a master at the height of his craft. Richter’s music has been used in many films before this, but here it sounded new. When not employing the Richter theme, master of minimalist tension Johan Johannsson seeps under the celluloid skin with nerve-shattering precision. Meanwhile, cinematographer Bradford Young’s use of light and color compliment Villeneuve’s probing eye. And all three – artist, musician, and cameraman – work cinematic wonders in those slow-burn scenes of our wondering wanderers wandering down that dark tunnel to the light…and the otherworldly conversation at the end. Continue reading

This is a Land of Wolves Now in Sicario

Sicario Poster

In Roman ruled Judea, Jewish zealots used daggers hidden in cloaks to kill their oppressors and were thus dubbed in Latin…”Sicarious”…or dagger men.  Though most of the killing in Denis Villeneuve’s latest master class in vexatious suspense is done with machine guns, there’s a climax building scene where cinematographer god Roger Deakins photographs the character Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) descending into the purple-hued darkness of a drug tunnel as he unsheathes a dagger that will make your skin scrawl.

Alejandro is man of mysterious motives and origins who with the aid of another “DOD consultant” – an eager and smiley Josh Brolin – is determined to ruffle some feathers of a cartel based in Juarez that’s been wreaking havoc as far north as Phoenix, where kidnap retrieval field agent Kate (a tense Emily Blunt) has been recently recruited for these clandestine missions after uncovering a cartel body-dump on her home turf.  Meanwhile on the other side of the border, mild-mannered and weary cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) tries to balance playing football with his adoring son with the unfortunate mechanics of working for the cartel from hell. Continue reading

The Art of Style as Substance in Enemy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and 300: Rise of an Empire

Style as Substance Example Number One: Enemy

Enemy Spider over Toronto Skyline Poster

Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set artsy psychological thriller, Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double) is one of those rare films of exacting creeping style that elicits audible gasps from the audience.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered university history professor who repeatedly lectures about the dangers of losing one’s individuality under totalitarian regimes and muses over the cyclical nature of history and the rise of these totalitarian states – first viewed as tragedy, later as farce.  The man oddly hates films, but he’s urged by a colleague to watch one in particular, and there he spots in a bit role as a bellhop his exact double.  It’s not long before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his doppelgänger.

Enemy Location Shot

The first audible gasp (coupled with nervous laughter) was unique to the location where I saw the film.  Enemy is boxed in by mesmerizing sepia-toned cinematography – grand scanning images of the Toronto skyline (never before used more monotonously menacing in a film).  For those who have never been to Toronto, it’s a blisteringly modern landscape riddled with areas constantly under construction, giant cranes towering in the sky dangling precipitously over highway off-ramps next to skeleton frames of new office or condo highrises.  Villeneuve (Canada’s premier auteur) perfectly captures this along with the city’s cold lakeside white-washed sheen (either by salt and snow in the winter, or heat in the summer – tinged deliberately yellow here by his camera).  I had the luck of seeing the film while working in Mississauga, Ontario – a suburb of Toronto with its own unique skyline (highlighted by the famous Marilyn Monroe Towers, surreal condo highrises with hourglass shapes) also featured in the film.  I experienced it at a Cineplex in downtown Mississauga right down the road from those lovely towers.  When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character discovers the home address of his exact double to be on Rathburn Rd. West (unbeknownst to me prior to this in-film revelation, the very road upon which we sat watching the film!) the laughter and gasp from the small audience was priceless, and I suddenly felt as if I was a part of this unnerving conspiracy as I could see Jake Gyllenhaal’s double’s apartment from the parking lot of the theater! Continue reading

Holding the Audience Captive in Prisoners

Prisoners

Anyone who sat through Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s well-crafted but morally repugnant Oscar-nominated film, Incendies, knows he’s a man who loves to play with the audience and turn the screws to the point of torture.  While going more mainstream with the kidnap thriller, Prisoners, he still finds way to tighten the ropes and hold an audience captive.  Red herrings, recurring visual motifs, carefully placed clues and masterful editing have become the director’s calling cards, and he stacks his deck in Prisoners with an A-list cast and sets the brooding atmosphere with Roger Deakins’ flawless photography shaded in blues and greys meant to mirror the moral ambiguities of this sordid tale.

Though it runs over two and a half hours, Prisoners is relentlessly compelling in a cold, calculated procedural kind of way.  Much of the film plays like the pilot episode of the next great TV crime thriller as it sets up the case of two missing girls and toggles itself between the families affected and the lead detective bent on finding the children.  Unfortunately it’s that same sensibility that leads Aaron Guzikowski’s disappointingly rote and too-tidy script awry.  We never really get to know the characters deeply as they are all composed of stock genre elements and would be better fleshed out in a long serial television format. Continue reading

The Incendiary Game

I spent the weekend visiting friends in NYC.

On Saturday night, I suggested we see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. They shot me down – I get it, not everyone wants to look at 30,000 year-old cave paintings – and then they suggested In a Better World. Darn – I’ve seen it already, and it’s not worth a repeat.

Wait!  They say, what about this movie Incendies?

Okay…I remember seeing the preview for that.  Looks dramatic as hell.  It’s gotten some great reviews.  It was nominated for an Oscar.  Let’s give it a shot.

There’s drama in hell.

Hot holy hell – what a trial it was to sit through this film.

– POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD –  Continue reading