Below you’ll find the FINAL entry in my 2016 update of The Top 75 Movies of the Decade so far, looking at the top 5.
#5) Upstream Color (2013)
Director: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz
Box Office: $587,000
Rotten Tomatoes/MetaCritic: 85%/81
Upstream Color is a film best enjoyed by NOT trying to make sense of it. It’s about a parasite of some sort that slowly ruins the lives of a man and a woman. That’s a very bare bones description, but it’s all that’s needed. This is a film very much about mood, and the unexplainable factors that create a mood.
Shane Carruth is an auteur in the truest sense of the term. He does everything for his films. Writes them, acts in them, edits them, even scores them. Upstream Color is a bit more technically polished than his outstanding debut, Primer. The film is very reliant on cutting to shots of wildlife in order to reaffirm the cyclical nature of things. And it’s music almost drives the editing with its peaks and troughs.
Upstream Color is more accessible than most things billed as “art films” (a horrible term, if I may). This isn’t a film that someone will tell you “you don’t get”. There’s nothing to “get”. It’s a collection of images and sounds pieced together to create reaction that’s wholly up to you. This isn’t a tidy film, and that’s not always a bad thing.
#4) Sicario (2015)
Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Box Office: $84 million
Rotten Tomatoes/MetaCritic: 93%/81
Dennis Villeneuve understands how to find tension in every scene, whether it be a border highway shootout or a simple conversation. Sicario is his best film yet. Structured as a simple crime mystery, it actually has a lot on its mind when it comes to the drug trade, but its apolitical “show you” approach never comes across too preachy. This is critical given that Sicario is also an action thriller featuring some of the most unnerving scenes put on film in recent memory.
Emily Blunt is great as a principled policewoman who finds herself being manipulated as part of a game she can’t begin to understand. Blunt plays the role quietly, allowing the outrageousness of certain scenes to never feel normal for her character. Josh Brolin is solid, as always, but the real standout is Benicio del Toro. As a mysterious figure with undecipherable intentions, Benicio’s character embodies the themes of the movie. He can be horrifying or comforting depending on the nature of the scene. Sicario features one of cinema’s great actors delivering his best work. That alone makes it worth your time.
On a technical level -like any Villeneuve film- Sicario understands how seemingly small details can add to the tension. The photography from the great Roger Deakins keeps every scene in perspective thanks to its use of birds-eye shots, and Villeneuve’s choice to shoot one of the film’s key sequences with a mixture of night vision and thermal vision allows Deakins to show off a bit. Johan Johansson’s score is perfectly static. Sicario is yet another film that shows Villeneuve in completely control of all artistic facets involved.
#3) The Lobster (2015)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw
Box Office: $6 million (running total)
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 90%/80
Have written pretty extensively about this one so I’ll be brief. I reviewed it, which you can read right here.
Actually, don’t read anything. Go see this movie in theatres while you can with as little knowledge as possible going in.
#2) Under the Skin (2013)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Box Office: $6 million
Rotten Tomatoes/MetaCritic: 85%/78
Similar to Upstream Color in a sense that it’s best consumed without over-wrought initial analysis, Under the Skin is absolutely transfixing. Scarlett Johansson stars as a not entirely human seductress who cruises the streets looking for men to prey on. There’s more to it than that, obviously, but that’s the meat and bones of it.
Many scenes were semi-improvised, with Johansson in character pulling up on random men. The result is a first-half that feels incredibly uncomfortable even when nothing’s really happening. That’s the point. As we slowly learn more about Johansson’s character and her motives, the spellbinding visual effects take over. This film is almost post-design on a visual level. It’s key setting is nothing. Just black. It contrasts the white skin of its European characters to create some gorgeous images.
On a plotting level it comes together a bit in the end, but it’s still very much a freeform movie about feeling. There is some payoff, but Under the Skin is primarily a fictional study of human tendencies. Instead of telling one story, it’s really a collection of trials. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.
#1) The Master (2012)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Box Office: $28 million
Rotten Tomatoes/MetaCritic: 85%/86
The Master isn’t about scientology. The Master is about sexual frustration and substance abuse and our inherent longing to belong to something larger than ourselves, even when logic says what we belong to may be more or less bullshit. The Master is about a sexually frustrated, substance dependent war veteran (Phoenix) who has nothing and heeds the words of a charismatic bullshitter (Hoffman) because AT LEAST THEY’RE WORDS. AT LEAST SOMEONE IS INTERESTED IN HIM.
The Master is tragic, but it’s also hilarious at times. Whatever sobering weight the film carries is partially subdued by its sheer awkwardness and beauty (it’s a perfectly shot and scored film). Paul Thomas Anderson has proven himself to be the premiere filmmaker of his generation with classics like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. I’d argue The Master is his most fully-realized film yet, even if it’s not quite as feverishly enjoyable as the two films I just mentioned.
Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance of his career. His slur, his gangly posture. I’m not sure I’ve seen an actor so immersed in a role that’s not a real-life person. Well, maybe Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman commands the screen. For the character to work you have to believe that the others hinge on his every word. I sure as hell did. Add in quiet but pitch perfect supporting work from Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, and Rami Malek and you’re looking at a film jam-packed with artistry. It rewards repeated viewings.
The Master remains my favorite movie of the decade so far, and I’m not sure anything other than another PTA masterpiece can change that (word to the very good but not THAT good Inherent Vice).