Two weeks ago on The Rewatchables, Bill Simmons, Sean Fennessey, and Chris Ryan talked about The Social Network and whether it was the best film of the decade so far. For me, it’s not even the best David Fincher film of the decade: I love Gone Girl, a droll black comedy which is at least as sleekly elegant and severe as The Social Network but also includes Ben Affleck getting pelted with gummy bears for being a bad actor (the best movie-star troll job of the decade).
The podcast did get me thinking about what I’d put on my own list if the opportunity arose—and it will in two years, so I may as well start practicing now. For this column, I’ve already covered the movies of Apichatpong Weerasthakul (and I’d rate Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives pretty high), and a couple of the titles on my roundup of recent Cannes standouts would be contenders (especially Elle and A Touch of Sin); I’d also go with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which I covered here (and maybe also Phantom Thread, which keeps looking better and funnier in hindsight). What else would I pick, you ask? Read on.
Holy Motors (Sundance Now)
The French director Leos Carax makes movies with explosive energy. When Denis Lavant runs down the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Mauvais Sang, he builds up enough momentum that you half expect him to actually escape the frame entirely. Mauvais Sang was made when Carax was an up-and-comer and Lavant was a skinny, weird-looking kid; Holy Motors, which came out nearly 30 years later, is a meditation on where they both went from there and how far they can take things now that they’ve both artistically matured. Formally, the film is an excuse for Carax to try as many styles as he can—slapstick comedy, rock musical, monster movie—and reference a century’s worth of cinephilia. And Lavant is the vehicle for his director’s versatility, trying on a variety of (dis)guises—hit man, family man, dying man, rampaging human Godzilla abducting Eva Mendes—and proving himself in the process to be one of the wildest and most inventive physical comedians of all time.
One way to look at Holy Motors is as an arty exercise in sketch comedy or a sort of surreal highlight reel. But as spontaneous and surprising as it feels from moment to moment, it’s also a fully eloquent statement about the relationship between art and life. The more confusing that Monsieur Oscar’s true identity becomes, the easier it is to understand what Carax is saying about cinema, which is that he—and we—simply cannot live without it.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Amazon Prime)
Like the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? before it, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie steeped in American folk music. But there’s a twist: Instead of escaped convicts who unexpectedly become singing stars, it features a performer imprisoned by his commitment to tradition. “If it’s not new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song” says our hero. Eternal recurrence is a Coen specialty, and the filmmakers structure Llewyn’s story as a loop where every bit of bad luck and self-destruction is fated to recur through eternity, like a record player that won’t stop skipping.
A case could be made that Inside Llewyn Davis is the fraternal filmmakers’ most purely beautiful movie, featuring impeccable early-’60s production design and bathed in halos of soft, hot light. A case could also be made that Oscar Isaac puts in the best lead performance in a Coen brothers film. There’s plenty of competition—Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing, Frances McDormand in Fargo, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit—but Isaac’s soulful, hilarious work might just get the nod. Trudging from gig to gig through Greenwich Village, he has the squashed posture of a man who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he’s just good enough during the musical numbers to make us wonder if we really are watching a misunderstood genius instead of a self-impressed narcissist.
Kill List (Sundance Now)
Critics were quick to inventory which trace elements of classic British thrillers they saw swimming around in the DNA of Ben Wheatley’s stunning sophomore feature: a nod to The Wicker Man here, a touch of The Devils there. And don’t look now, but there’s a bit of Don’t Look Now in the mix as well.
Seven years later, though, Kill List itself looks less like a pastiche and more like a single work with its own legend and legacy. Two of this year’s most hyped releases evoke it in different ways—the battlefield trauma and hammer horror of You Were Never Really Here are maybe coincidental, while the tip of the cap (or the crown) during a key scene in Hereditary suggests a deliberate homage. But the reason Kill List makes my list is because, for all its influences and imitators, it remains a singular thing, joining together kitchen-sink realism, gangster-flick viciousness, and midnight-movie weirdness under the sign of pitch-black magic.
The raucous camaraderie between Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley as ex-military-men-turned-mercenaries working for deep-pocketed villains (the authors of the titular “kill list”) grounds things in everyday reality. And then Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump start chipping (and then pounding) away at everything and anything they can make contact with.
“They’re bad people,” says one of Wheatley’s assassins. “They should suffer.” The trick of this amazing film is how it turns those words around so that they acquire a sense of tragedy: As scary and surreal as Kill List is, it’s finally just sad—a melancholy horror masterpiece.
The heroine of Phoenix is hiding in plain sight. After getting facial reconstruction surgery to heal wounds suffered in a German concentration camp, Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns home to Berlin where her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who believes her dead, mistakes her for a stranger. To say more about the plot of Christian Petzold’s austere, brilliant post-Holocaust allegory would be unfair, but it’s impossible to oversell Phoenix’s intrigue because it exists on multiple levels. It’s twisty in a way that goes beyond the plot.
Petzold’s minimalism is deceptive because there are so many ideas at play here about history, identity, marriage, and revenge that it’s hard to keep up. There’s also a sense of film history: The shadow of Vertigo looms over the action. It’s in the way that Johnny tries to turn Nelly into his late wife (which, of course, she actually is) as well as a pervasive, Hitchcockian sense of dread that infects every moment. The Master of Suspense might have even envied Petzold’s execution in the climax, which ranks among the most simultaneously startling, devastating, and satisfying finales I’ve ever seen. But again, I’ve said too much.
They Came Together (Starz)
OK, so I picked They Came Together over Tree of Life. Sue me. I probably watch David Wain’s half-affectionate, half-contemptuous parody of late-’80s/early-’90s rom-coms once a month, and at this point I’ve pretty much memorized every joke, no matter how superfluous (i.e. the way that John Stamos gets not one but two subtitles identifying him during the mid-film Norah Jones music video “It Was the Last Thing on Your Mind”) or stupefying (Amy Poehler’s Molly trying on a suit of armor while preparing for a date with Paul Rudd’s Joel).
They Came Together’s anything-for-a-laugh mentality has more to do with Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker classics like Top Secret! and The Naked Gun than When Harry Met Sally. The relentless pacing of Wain and Michael Showalter’s visual and verbal gags (including incessant puns, quasi-vaudeville routines, and Michael Shannon with a sword) stands apart from the improv-based stasis of so many leaden Judd Apatow epics. Because it’s a cleaner and more mainstream piece of work than Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together won’t ever have as sizable a cult following, and that’s fine. For those of us who find Ken Marino yelling “two points” before bricking a jump shot during an Along Came Polly–style pickup basketball game inherently hilarious, this movie will never, ever leave our late-night viewing rotation.
Toni Erdmann (Starz)
German director Maren Ade specializes in embarrassment—scenes where characters are mortified by the behavior of others as well as their own. The comedic concept of Toni Erdmann is that one of its two protagonists—career woman Ines (Sandra Huller)—is given to cringing while the other—her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek)—has no visible sense of shame. Winfried has tortured Ines her since childhood with a relentless shtick that goes beyond dad jokes and into the realm of performance art. His transformation into the bucktoothed, bewigged life coach “Toni Erdmann” is his way of trying to teach Ines a lesson while keeping tabs on her living in a different city, but her refusal to call him out on his charade—and to humor him in public at risk to her personal and professional prospects—turns Ade’s film into a kind of absurdist thriller. Real life becomes an improv sketch where the players would rather die than break.
Ade is a niche figure in German cinema, so the fact Toni Erdmann broke through in North America (earning an Oscar nomination and remake plans) suggests that there’s something relatable about both its father-daughter pathos and the question of what it means to always be “on.” It also helps that, scene for scene, it’s one of the absolute funniest movies in decades, culminating in a party sequence that runs the gamut of Curb Your Enthusiasm–style awkwardness to taboo-pushing daring to an exhilarating, fable-like rush of emotion.