Original artwork by Julia Jarzyna When reflecting on the last decade of cinema, it is easy to concentrate solely on the turbulent socio-political context. From on-going recoveries from multiple financial crises, to the rise of authoritarian populism and the seeming collapse of a global liberal order, a certain social nihilism does appear to pervade all artistic mediums. While I think this is true, the case of 2010s cinema remains more complex. Beyond just societal disillusionment, the 2010s saw a myriad of aesthetic innovations that cause us question how we define a film.
We saw nostalgic yearnings for both classical European art cinema (in Phantom Thread and First Reformed) and 70s Hollywood New Wave film (in Margaret and Uncut Gems). Beyond mere pastiche, First Reformed recontextualised the European transcendental traditions of Bresson, Bergman and Dreyer into a defiant and spiritualistic cry against environmental destruction. Similarly, Margaret and Uncut Gems followed Cassavetes, Scorsese and Allen’s best New York-set examinations of societal alienation. Yet, both films updated this tradition to consider the changed context of an increasingly neurotic and pressuring post-modern society. These aesthetic reflections of societal change were equally echoed in Burning and An Elephant Sitting Still. These films respectively sought to express the new social reality of late capitalism in South Korea and China. Although independent directors in both countries had been using small-scale, realist aesthetics for decades, the 2010s saw an evolution in these stylistic approaches. Burning was simultaneously Lee Chang-Dong’s most overtly political commentary and his most aesthetically abstract. Rather than be content with a didactic approach, Burning’s political insights become far more powerful in a whirl of existential surrealism. In much the same way, An Elephant Sitting Still’s expression of late capitalist monotony is only achievable through its adherence to a slow cinema aesthetic and its monumental running time.
Finally, the decade saw genuine aesthetic experimentation in Right Now, Wrong Then, Upstream Colour, Tree of Life and Twin Peaks: The Return. Unquestionably, David Lynch’s 17-hour long revival of Twin Peaks was the most formally daring work of the decade. By writing and shooting the miniseries as a single film, The Return raises numerous questions as to how whether we can so clearly distinguish cinema from television. Such ambiguity is only intensified when considering that neither The Return, Upstream Colour or Right Now, Wrong Then were shot on film. All three films deliberately use the artificial sheen and lack of warmth that comes with shooting on relatively low-budget digital. The emotional responses that each of these films achieve is only possible through this conscious contradiction between the coldness of the digital medium and the warmth of their narratives. The 2010s wasn’t just a continuation of the debate over what now constitutes a film. The 2010s was the point when film consciously assimilated this anxiety and ambiguity over the medium into its aesthetic form itself.
Without further ado, here is my list of ten films that I believe most defined the 2010s: 1. Margaret (Lonergan, 2011, USA)
2. The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011, USA)
3. Upstream Colour (Carruth, 2013, USA)
4. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015, South Korea)
5. Twin Peaks: The Return (Lynch, 2017, USA)
6. First Reformed (Schrader, 2017, USA)
7. Phantom Thread (Anderson, 2017, USA)
8. Burning (Lee, 2018, South Korea)
9. An Elephant Sitting Still (Bo, 2018, China)
10. Uncut Gems (Safdies, 2019, USA)