Category Archives: Features

My Top 10 Films of the ‘10s

The chance to write a “best of the decade” list is pretty rare, and I tend to put an inordinate amount of weight on the task. (If you happen to be curious about the full 100-film list I put together for the 2010s while preparing, you can find it on my Letterboxd here.) It was actually helpful looking back at the “best of the 2000s” list I published a full 10 years ago and realizing that half of the films on that list wouldn’t make the cut if I re-made it today. Tastes change, but these sorts of lists, to me, are an interesting way to at least capture a moment in time.

So, without further ado, here are the 10 films that I (for now) consider my favourites of the decade that was the 2010s.

Fish Tank

10. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2010)

We’re starting with a slightly “controversial” choice, considering Fish Tank came out in the UK (and played quite a few film festivals) in late 2009. However, it didn’t get its North American theatrical release until January 2010, so I count it as a ‘10s film. And indeed, Fish Tank seemed to usher in a spate of films about economic disparity in the UK throughout the decade that followed. But it was Arnold’s naturalism in telling the story of young Mia (Katie Jarvis), a young woman fighting (often literally) to break out of the suppressive social class she’s been raised in, that had the biggest emotional impact on me. It is a quiet film full of extremely flawed characters who are given the empathy to simply exist as they are. It’s the film on this list that I’ve had the longest to sit with, and it’s haunted me since I first saw it.

Columbus

9. Columbus (Kogonoda, 2017)

Speaking of empathy, there was perhaps not a kinder film I saw all decade than Kogonoda’s stunning debut, Columbus. Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho play extremely warm, realistic characters and the pure bliss in watching them share ideas, learn from each other, and explore the unique architecture in the titular Columbus, Indiana is far stronger than it has any right to be in such a simple film. It’s a film that some absolutely adore and others shrug at. I just sat there in the theatre absorbing every beautiful frame.

Lore

8. Lore (Cate Shortland, 2013)

Cate Shortland is a director who doesn’t make nearly as many films as I’d like, having released just three in total since her debut in 2004. (Although she’s about to get a major bump in notoriety, given that her next project is 2020’s Black Widow.) Her second film, Lore, tells the harrowing tale of a group of young German siblings who must flee their home unaccompanied after the end of World War II. It is a quietly stressful adventure tale, a coming-of-age story, and an artfully told period piece all at once. It also boasts captivating performances from its young German leads, Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Malina, and pitch-perfect cinematography. This is the least well-known film on the list, but one that I think a lot of people would appreciate if they sought it out.

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7. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)

After this year’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, I’m going to put forward a motion that we retire the narrative structure of having a journalist interviewing a celebrity as the premise of a film. However, that structure was less overused when The End of the Tour was made, and Ponsoldt chooses it not out of convenience, but as the entire emotional crux of his story. It also helps that the two men being depicted (David Foster Wallace and journalist David Lipsky) are much more evenly-matched in their respective career accomplishments at the time the film takes place, acting as a mirror, an echo, and a sounding board for each other. (They also have a rich real-life text to draw from, as Lipsky published an entire book containing his conversations with Wallace during his book tour for Infinite Jest.) Ponsoldt depicts their relationship so cleanly, yet realistically, creating an incredibly emotionally rich film from conversations may on the surface sometimes seem offhanded or even banal. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg also turn in wonderful performances, seeming impressively unburdened by the “real life-ness” of the characters they’re playing. It’s a fun hangout film, as also one that sneaks up on you with an understated emotional wallop.

Oslo August 31

6. Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier, 2012)

I do tend to love depressing Scandinavian films, and Oslo, August 31 is a prime example. Set over the course of one day in the life of a man who’s been temporarily let out of rehab to attend a job interview, it’s a meditative, artful take on addiction. Trier levels up from his already impressive debut, 2007’s Reprise, and creates something even more beautiful and deeply felt. I only caught up with the film this past year, but I’m actually glad that I watched it now (rather than in my early 20’s when it first came out) because I found a relatable aspect (aside from the topic of drug addiction) that wouldn’t have hit me in the same way eight years ago; through the people that Anders interacts with in vignettes throughout the film, Trier perfectly illustrates that sense of feeling alienated from those around you by not having followed the path that you’re “supposed” to by the time you hit 30-ish. It’s not quite the main theme of the film, but it’s sprinkled as an undercurrent throughout, and it really hit me in a relatable, raw (though not necessarily sad) way. Oslo, August 31 is a stunner and, for me, was a great example of watching the right film at the right time.

Roma Cuaron

5. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

I would struggle to think, on a frame-by-frame basis, of a more beautiful film that came out this decade. There was something about Roma that I found so captivating, despite its seeming straightforwardness. I know some found it a bit emotionally disconnected, but I was right there with Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) from frame one through to the end of her quietly seismic journey. This is perhaps partly because Cuarón crafted it with so much love, and the autobiographical elements came through beautifully. I could have watched another of hour of his vibrant, wistful, clear-eyed point of view.

Lost City of Z Gray

4. The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2017)

James Gray was another director who succeeded at transporting viewers to a perfectly realized world, here with The Lost City of Z. Having caught up with it earlier this year (on gorgeous 35mm projection, no less) I immediately fell in love with how it evoked a sweeping historical epic, but depicted with a modern sensibility. Gray perfectly (yet deliberately) paced this tale of a single-minded adventurer, and I was along for the journey every step of the way.

The Social Network

3. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

I could write thousands of words on The Social Network (and maybe have, over the course of my various viewings throughout the decade). There was no film that I watched more in the ‘10s (five times, in case you were wondering), and The Social Network holds up perfectly every time I watch it. From the performances to the score to the cinematography to the Sorkin script, it’s one of the extremely few films that I would classify as close to perfect. There is a rhythm to it that is unlike any other film that came out in the past 10 years, and it seems to somehow only gain relevance as time goes on. When I think of why I love movies, this is a film that almost always pops into my mind.

OJ Made in America

2. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016)

The ’10s was definitely the first decade where I paid attention to documentaries. (Prior to this, my knowledge of docs pretty much started and ended with Supersize Me and March of the Penguins.) And I saw a lot of really great ones. But the one that eclipsed all the others (both in terms of my appreciation for it, and just it’s sheer length) was Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. It’s a film that feels daunting to write about, because it does so much over the course of its nearly 8 hours. (And yes, I do consider it a movie, rather than a miniseries.) It is an incisive examination of American culture, a compelling “true crime”-style story, and an extremely thorough dive into the psyche of one of the most inscrutable figures in pop culture. And it’s all constructed with such an elegance that it’s impossible not to admire its craft, even as you’re engrossed in the story. This is an accessible, definitive, and unique take on a story that many of us thought we already knew. And, on top of that, it’s a film that’ll probably make you question why you had been so quick to form your previously-held opinions on its central figure.

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1. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)

Lists like these are always extremely subjective (hence why I’ve called this post “MY Top 10 Films of the ‘10s”) but there’s no other way I can really explain putting The Place Beyond the Pines in my number one spot beyond to say that it was just my personal favourite film of the past 10 years. I think it’s incredibly well-constructed, expertly acted, and tells a gripping story. I do think it’s a quantifiably great film. But the simpler, non-critical way to describe it is that it just “clicked” with me. Cianfrance, coming off 2010’s emotionally thorny, almost uncomfortably intimate Blue Valentine, crafted a big, generation-sweeping family epic with The Place Beyond the Pines. He balances the film’s unique structure perfectly, dividing it into three distinct parts that are satisfying on their own, but that also resonate with each other in fascinating ways. And though it’s a film that has a “twist” that seems like it might lose its impact after seeing it once, I found the film has only gained complexity and impact on multiple subsequent viewings. I’ve been on a quest ever since to find other films that balance the same level of bold structure and craft with deeply humanistic storytelling.

The Place Beyond the Pines is not a film you’re likely to see on a lot of other “best of the decade” lists (let alone at the top), but for me, it’s the film that defined my movie-watching in the 2010s.

March 2019 Favourites

The Last Days of Disco

For the uninitiated, each month I break down a few of my favourite things from the previous month. I don’t limit it to film-related things, but this month’s list happens to be pretty heavy on that front. Here’s to a more diverse April?

At the Cinema: The Last Days of Disco with Whit Stillman
Despite being a pretty big fan of Stillman’s most recent film (2016’s Love & Friendship) and mostly liking the film he made prior to that (2012’s Damsels in Distress) I’d never delved into his pre-2000 filmography – arguably his most touted work. So when a 35mm screening of the final installment of his ‘90s loose trilogy, The Last Days of Disco, was announced (with Stillman in attendance, no less!) I knew it was a must-see. The film was as incisive and funny as I’d hoped, and the Q&A with Stillman afterwards a delight.

Depressing Viewing at the Cinema: Climax & High Life
This month, I checked out two A24 releases from French auteurs at the theatre, Gaspar Noe’s Climax and Claire Denis’ High Life (full review here). I can’t claim that either were especially fun viewing experiences, as both directors proved to be experts at ratcheting up the anxiety-inducing strangeness being depicted on screen. (The films actually had more in common than I would have predicted.) I came out of both with extremely mixed feelings, but in the days since I’ve thought about both of them a lot. Ultimately I think both are great – it just took me a bit longer to come to that conclusion.

News: High school theatre and Keanu Reeves
Good news is scarce these days but there were a pair of delightful, film-related stories that captured my – and many other people’s – imagination this past month. The first was this story about a high school in New Jersey that for their spring play chose to adapt, of all things, Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. The sheer ambition and creativity of such an endeavour is worthy of praise in itself, but this particular high school play also looks kind of amazing? And lest you roll eyes thinking about all of the money that was probably sunk into the production, fear not! Apparently it was all done extremely cheaply, with the impressive costuming made entirely out of recycled materials.

Also full of unassuming charm was this other story about Keanu Reeves. When a flight that Reeves was on had to make an emergency landing, he made the best of the situation and seemingly had a grand old time with his fellow passengers as they opted to take a bus for the last leg of their trip. Social media for once served a positive purpose, with one travelling companion sharing some delightful snippets from the journey on Instagram (video is in the article).

Song: “All Hands” by Tim Baker
For my money, Hey Rosetta! is one of the best bands to come out of Canada in the 21st century, so I was sad to hear that they’d decided to go on “indefinite hiatus” back in 2017. And while it may not be a reunion, the solo work coming out recently from Hey Rosetta! frontman Tim Baker helps somewhat fill the gap. His first full-length album comes out later in April, and the early tracks that have been released are sounding great. My favourite of the group (released in March) is “All Hands”, which has the same urgency and yearning of Hey Rosetta’s! best, but with a stamp that is unique to Baker as his own distinct artist.

Blank Check Podcast’s March Madness Bracket
For those who aren’t already familiar, Blank Check is a podcast where its hosts David Sims and Griffin Newman explore the career of filmmakers on a one-film-per-episode basis. They feature those who have earned the coveted “blank check” from Hollywood, which limits the pool slightly, and each March they turn the decision-making duties to the good people of Twitter. I followed their March Madness-style bracket all month (with one match-up per day decided via Twitter poll), which featured such inspired pairings as John Carpenter vs. Penny Marshall and Paul Thomas Anderson vs. Paul W.S. Anderson. A lot of the races were surprisingly close, and despite the fact that my picks lost almost every round, I suppose it ultimately didn’t matter, because Jonathan Demme, who ultimately emerged victorious, was my choice to win. The show’s Demme mini-series will apparently start in the fall, which means I have plenty of time to rectify the many blind spots I have in his filmography.

February 2019 Favourites

I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to say about February, as it’s the shortest month of the year and was a busy one for me personally between projects at work and hanging out with friends. But as I thought it about it, some clear highlights emerged. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve been watching and listening to this month.

Never Look Away

At the Cinema: Never Look Away

February was a big Oscars catch-up month for me, and one of those films that I caught up was Germany’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Never Look Away. For the uninitiated, this thing is over 3 hours long, so sitting in the theatre for that long felt like an event in itself. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that the 188 minutes flew by, I did really like the film. I’m also glad that I got to experience it in the theatre setting where you can avoid distraction and submerge yourself in what’s happening onscreen.

First Man OSTMusic: film scores

Speaking of Never Look Away, while watching it I really took note of the Max Richter score, which was lovely (even if I didn’t think it was always perfectly congruous with the film itself). This sent me down a wormhole of finding other Max Richter scores, and then compiling a playlist of samples from some of my favourite recent film scores. (If anyone happens to be curious, it can be found here.) All of this also led to the realization that Justin Hurwitz was robbed of an Original Score nomination for First Man. (“The Landing” is a personal fave.)

Podcast: Armchair Expert with Jake Johnson (Feb. 25) and Jason Mantzoukas (Feb. 11)

Armchair ExpertI’ve been dipping in and out of Dax Shepherd’s podcast, Armchair Expert, for a few months now. Generally I find it enjoyable, though (as with most conversational podcasts) I find the mileage varies depending on who the guest is. This month Shepherd had two excellent episodes thanks to guests Johnson and Mantzoukas. Both are actors I like but never knew anything about beyond what we see of them on screen. In the podcast setting, both proved to be thoughtful, funny, and open guests. If nothing else, listen to Jake’s episode for his story about the time he went to a party at Natalie Portman’s house.

Harmony HallSong: “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend

I love Vampire Weekend, and Vampire Weekend is back with a new extremely catchy, upbeat song. It’s perhaps a bit more straightforward (dare I say “basic”?) than a lot of their previous music, but it’s a promising first glimpse from their upcoming album. And I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it.

James Blake live

Live Music: James Blake at Sony Centre, Toronto (February 27, 2019)

I devoted a lot of time last month to gushing about James Blake’s new album, Assume Form, and that’s continued to be on heavy rotation for me in February. But the real treat was getting to see Blake live in concert. It was my first time seeing him live, and he actually exceeded expectations. His voice sounded amazing (only aided by the Sony Centre’s great acoustics) and he proved to also be a more dynamic performer than I anticipated. As well as performing most of Assume Form, he made my night by including “Love Me in Whatever Way” from his previous album, and “A Case of You” as a nod to Canadian icon Joni Mitchell. All around a fantastic show.

Top 5 first-time watches of February

  1. Never Look Away
  2. Free Solo
  3. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  4. Incredibles 2
  5. Vice

January 2019 Favourites

Maybe it’s the clean slate of a new year, but for me January has been a really good month. And that includes the things I was watching, listening to, and reading. Here’s a look at some of my favourite things from the past month.

James Blake

Album: Assume Form by James Blake

If there’s one thing I’ve been obsessed with this month, it’s the new album by James Blake, which came out on January 18. Even though it’s only been out for a couple weeks, I’ve been playing it constantly. I don’t usually listen to albums over and over again in a short period of time, but there is something so relaxing about this album. Blake has really grown as a songwriter and the most straightforward approach of Assume Form suits him beautifully. There’s no way this doesn’t end up being my favourite album of the year.

Lost City of ZAll things Lost City of Z

I caught a 35mm screening of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z in January, and MAN this thing blew me away. The movie had gotten a fair bit of praise when it came out in theatres last year, but I just couldn’t muster up enough excitement to watch it until now. But it’s exquisite, compelling, beautiful… All the complimentary adjectives. And while I’m usually not super tuned into the subtleties of film vs. digital, it looked amazing on 35mm. I also loved the Christopher Spelman score, and have found myself listening to it quite a bit in the weeks since. And just to cement my status as full-blown fangirl, I also have the Mark Grann audiobook queued up and waiting for me on Scribd.

Bad BloodBook: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

My favourite read of the month was John Carreyrou’s nonfiction book from just last year, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. It tells the story of Theranos, a biotech startup that claimed they found a way to test for a multitude of diseases using just a single drop of blood from the patient. Too bad the technology was bogus and their tests didn’t work. Carreyrou gives a detailed but extremely readable account of everything that went down when Theranos soldiered on and decided to pretend nothing was wrong. It’s a fascinating tale of how ambition and greed can bring out the worst in people, and it’s also just a highly entertaining read. Even if you don’t typically enjoy nonfiction, I think most people would find something to like with this.

The Yards

At the Cinema: The Yards (plus James Gray)

Yes, we’re back to James Gray. Along with The Lost City of Z, I also caught a 35mm screening of The Yards (which I’d also never seen), including a post-film Q&A with Gray himself. Gray proved to be an incisive, hilarious, and sassy guest. (He also accompanies every one of his anecdotes with an impression of the person he’s talking about.) It was definitely a treat. Previously, the only Gray films I’d seen were Two Lovers and The Immigrant, which both got a bit of a shrug from me, but I guess I now have to consider myself a convert. Patiently awaiting Ad Astra.

The Sixth SenseAt the Cinema: The Sixth Sense

This was a rewatch for me, but my first time seeing it on the big screen and only my second viewing. It of course plays completely differently on rewatch, but is a blast in its own right as you notice all the things you missed the first time around. Also fun was the fact that someone in the group I went with had never seen the film before, and miraculously made it to 2019 without having the twist spoiled.

Top 5 first-time watches of January

  1. The Lost City of Z (2017)
  2. Our Little Sister (2016)
  3. The Yards (2000)
  4. Stagecoach (1939)
  5. Beau Travail (1999)

Ranked: Best Animated Short Oscar Shortlist

Last year I discovered the wonderful world of Oscar shorts when, for the first time, I checked out the full lineup of nominated documentary and animated shorts. This year, I took things a step further and have now watched all ten animated shorts that made Oscar’s recently-announced shortlist.

Watching all ten shorts in a concentrated period illuminated some common themes (which will probably become clear) but also how much animation can vary. From the glossiest, most vibrant Pixar productions to some frankly, well, weird low-fi experiments, animation can encompass a lot.

Now, after just espousing how there’s room for everything in animation, I’m going to pit these vastly different shorts against each other. It’s worth noting that I enjoyed all 10 shorts (and they’re all better than last year’s WINNER in this category, the Kobe Bryant-produced Dear Basketball). But because this is how my brain works, below is how I rank them in terms of my own enjoyment. (Predictions for what I think will actually get nominated come at the end of the post.)

At the time of publishing, all 10 shorts are currently available online through YouTube or Vimeo. Click each film title to watch.

bilby

10. Bilby

Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between an Australian bilby and a tiny (adorable) bird, Bilby feels like Dreamworks’ answer to the antic-filled shorts that used to be a staple of the Pixar canon. It’s very cute and features a stand-out montage (the two friends narrowly avoiding the various threats that nature poses), but ultimately feels a bit too light to be truly memorable.

age of sail

9. Age of Sail

Age of Sail is one of the few Animated Short contenders with some star power behind it, since it stars Ian McShane as a grizzled sailor whose search for solitude at sea is interrupted when he has to rescue a girl who has fallen overboard from a nearby passenger ship. It’s directed by John Kahrs, who is a previous winner in this category for 2012’s Paperman.  But while the illustration-style animation is used to great effect during a bravura shipwreck sequence, the film’s character-based storytelling it too simplistic to fully carry it for its 12-minute run.

bird karma

8. Bird Karma

At just 4:45 minutes long, Bird Karma is the shortest of the bunch by a fairly wide margin. And the brief runtime suits the simplicity of this morality tale about a greedy bird. The traditional animation style is used to colourful and creative effect, though it doesn’t necessarily push the limits of the medium.

one small step

7. One Small Step

This is the first of several shorts on the list that seem to take inspiration from the emotional tug of the opening of Up. It tells the years-long tale of a serious-minded girl who pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut, sometimes to the detriment to her family relationships. Animated by TAIKO Studios, One Small Step has an extremely vibrant, warm style. The story is a bit predictable, but that doesn’t lessen its emotional impact.

Late Afternoon

6. Late Afternoon

Another tearjerker, Late Afternoon follows Emily, an elderly woman whose memory is becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of Alzheimer’s. With vibrant, almost child-like animation, it does a great job of portraying the disjointed, impressionistic format Emily’s memories have assumed. It’s not subtle with the sentimentality of its storytelling, but it’s effective nonetheless.

animal behaviour

5. Animal Behaviour

Coming from the veteran animation team of Alison Snowden and David Fine (winners in this category for 1994’s Bob’s Birthday), this comedic short portrays what might happen if a variety of animal species came together for group therapy. It takes a more traditional storytelling approach than some of the other shortlist picks, relying on spirited vocal performances and sharp writing. The result is an engaging and funny romp that comes across as quite unique among the nominees.

lost and found

4. Lost & Found

Maybe the most adorable AND the saddest of a pretty uniformly adorable and sad bunch of films, I really loved the knitted stop-motion animation used in Lost & Found. (Apparently this is its own subgenre, which is news to me.) It’s part romance and part thriller, showing a daring rescue mission involving a fox and a dinosaur. It certainly pulls on the heartstrings (heart-yarn?) and the stop-motion animation is done with jaw-dropping precision. It’s a testament to the strength of these shorts that this only made it to #4 on my list.

bao

3. Bao

Likely the frontrunner to win this category, Bao would be a worthy champ. Domee Shi has crafted a layered look at maternal love wrapped in a rich animation style that shows Pixar is continuing to innovate. Heartfelt and more complicated than it originally appears.

weekends

2. Weekends

The top two films on the list landed where they are because, to me, they represent an extra little step of creativity and innovation. Weekends feels like a tone poem. It follows a young child of divorce as he splits his time between a neurotic mother living in the country and his “cool” dad who lives in downtown Toronto. Clocking in at 15:17, it’s the longest of the bunch and earns each second with its artistry and subtle emotion. Quietly beautiful, sad, and strange all at once, Weekends is perhaps the most significant artistic achievement of the bunch.

grandpa walrus

1. Grandpa Walrus

Taking the top spot for me by just a hair is Grandpa Walrus, from French animator Lucrece Andreae. It follows a family mourning the recent death of their family’s eccentric patriarch. Their visit to a favourite seaside spot of brings out a lot of simmering emotions, to say the least. With macabre touches and a unique hand-drawn animation style, Andeae has crafted something that feels deeply personal yet universal in its themes of family tensions and loss. It’s off-beat enough that it’ll probably be an underdog in this category, but it really worked for me.

Predictions

So which five from the shortlist will ultimately get nominated for an Oscar? If I had to guess, I’d put my money on Bao, Late Afternoon, Weekends, Lost & Found, and One Small Step.

Nominations are announced January 22.