The Canon

“The news is momentary and ephemeral. But the artistic realm, this is something deeper. It can stay in people’s minds forever.” So said Konstantin Ernst, Vladimir Putin’s unofficial propaganda minister, in a recent profile in the New Yorker.

In that spirit, here are my 30 favorite movies of the last decade—the ones that, for better or worse, have burrowed deepest into my memory and absolutely refuse to leave.

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis

A fable by Joel and Ethan Coen about an early-1960s New York folk singer (Oscar Isaac) who would rather maintain his artistic integrity while being poor, homeless and forgotten than sell out his talents and become rich, comfortable and famous. And then there’s the cat.

  1. The Social Network

The origin story of arguably the most culturally powerful human being on Earth, Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg), written by Aaron Sorkin as not quite a villain but far less than a hero. We didn’t know the half of it.

  1. Before Midnight

The deepest, wisest and most fraught encounter yet with Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke), as their 18-year relationship threatens to disintegrate during an idyllic vacation amidst the ruins of ancient Greece. Director Richard Linklater has not guaranteed a fourth installment in this saga, so the future of Celine and Jesse’s partnership may need to remain between them.

  1. Moonlight

I cannot say whether Barry Jenkins’ meditative triptych accurately reflects the experience of being poor, young, black and gay in Miami in the 21st century. All I can do is note the stunned silence that washed over the sold-out auditorium during the end credits on opening night.

  1. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s thinly-veiled depiction of the Church of Scientology features a volcanic performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic head of a mysterious cult and Joaquin Phoenix as his most troubled and vulnerable mark. Any resemblance to current personality cults is coincidental and more than a little alarming.

  1. Django Unchained

Following “Inglourious Basterds,” in which we got to see the entire Third Reich massacred by a merry band of warrior Jews, it seemed only fair that Quentin Tarantino would use his artistic license to imagine a Nat Turner-like revenge plot against a had-it-coming slaveowner in the antebellum American South. Retaining the services of Christoph Waltz was a nice touch.

  1. The King’s Speech

A thoroughly engrossing and hilarious recreation of the battle between King George VI (Colin Firth) and his fear of public speaking, with reinforcements provided by his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and whimsical Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Cinematic comfort food at its most sublime.

  1. Hell or High Water

The half-despairing, half-comical journey of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob their way across West Texas in the hopes of paying down the mortgage that was issued by the very bank they’re knocking off. With Jeff Bridges as the over-the-hill ranger hot on their trail who, with his partner (Gil Birmingham), finds out the perils of ordering off-menu at a steakhouse that only serves T-bones and iced tea.

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s fun house of an adventure film concerning the history of a nonexistent hotel in a nonexistent country, which nonetheless turns the titular inn into one of the most indelible interior spaces in modern cinema, anchored by its prim, proper and priceless owner, Gustav H., essayed with juicy relish by Ralph Fiennes.

  1. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

If you are not immediately tickled by the notion of Melissa McCarthy as a frumpy, alcoholic New York writer who sells forged documents to gullible booksellers in order to pay her rent and feed her cat, there’s not much I can do for you, pal.

  1. Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s other recent portrait of a hypnotic, overbearing mid-century cultural influencer. This time it’s the legendary passive-aggressive (fictional) dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), who meets his match in a seemingly meek-and-mild waitress (Vicky Krieps), instigating a relationship that only grows weirder by the minute. Beware the yellow mushrooms; they’ll get you every time.

  1. Boyhood

Except for Michael Apted and his “Up” series, no one but Richard Linklater would think—or dare—to spend 12 years following around an adolescent boy just to see him grow up. That the boy is, in fact, a fictional character (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane) doesn’t make the experience of watching it any less curious or profound.

  1. Spotlight

Perhaps the best movie about journalism since “All the President’s Men,” and for the same reasons. It is well worth debating whether the Boston Globe exposé of industrial-scale pedophilia in the Catholic Church was ultimately more significant than the Washington Post exposure of the Watergate caper three decades earlier. It’s one thing to bring down a president; it’s quite another to bring a 2,000-year-old institution oh-so-deservingly to its knees.

  1. Whiplash

Wesley Morris has correctly observed that no one can end a movie like Damien Chazelle, and while I would recommend the entirety of his absurd and slightly terrifying profile of a band teacher from hell (J.K. Simmons) and the drummer who won’t go gently into that good night (Miles Teller), the exhilarating final 10 minutes of this insane dive into raw artistic ambition are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

  1. Lincoln

The dirty little secret about America’s 16th president is that, in addition to being a moral exemplar for the ages, he was also a brilliant—and often ruthless—political tactician. As portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, we are able to see how the former is useless without the latter. If you’re looking for purity in your leaders, you’ll never be anything but disappointed.

  1. Call Me By Your Name

As raw, honest and messy a depiction of young lust as you’ll ever see in a mainstream picture. I’ll never look at a peach the same way again.

  1. Parasite

A meditation about the gulf between the haves and have-nots in South Korea that begins as ironic social commentary and ends as…well, let’s just say the influence of Quentin Tarantino extends well beyond the Hollywood Hills.

  1. Brooklyn

An utterly charming, unpretentious, old-fashioned love story between a sweet Irish girl and a nice Italian boy in New York City in the years shortly after World War II. I’d mention the girl is played by 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan, but you probably figured that out already.

  1. The Florida Project

The trials and tribulations of impoverished, itinerant single motherhood from the point of view of a six-year-old girl and her friends, who have precious little sense of what trouble they’re in. As the motel owner who sees much and understands all, Willem Dafoe serves as the movie’s moral center and guardian angel.

  1. Personal Shopper

Having never seen a minute of the “Twilight” series, I’m as surprised as anyone that Kristen Stewart has, at 29, become one of the boldest and most compelling actresses in contemporary Hollywood. Not just anyone can play an insecure, overworked psychic medium without looking completely ridiculous, but Stewart is considerably more than just anyone.

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk

How does one follow up a work of unsurpassable beauty like “Moonlight” without letting the entire universe down? For Barry Jenkins, the answer could be found in a novel by James Baldwin and the most fruitful cinematic use of the color green since Kim Novak emerged from the fog in “Vertigo” in 1958.

  1. The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s most disposable film is also the easiest to enjoy, thanks to the Agatha Christie-like coziness inherent in a large group of homicidal maniacs hauled up in a haberdashery during a blizzard in the middle of nowhere in 1877. Remember: Don’t drink the coffee unless you know who brewed it.

  1. Hugo

Whoever wagered that the most enchanting, heartbreaking and humane children’s movie of the last decade would be directed by Martin Scorsese—yes, that Martin Scorsese—step right up and collect your prize.

  1. Krisha

A Thanksgiving dinner from hell, courtesy of the most volcanic—and underappreciated—performance in ages by one Krisha Fairchild, the aunt of the movie’s own director, Trey Edward Shults, in his feature-length debut.

  1. O.J.: Made in America

While debate still rages about whether a seven-and-a-half-hour documentary that first aired on ESPN can properly be classified as a movie, there is little question that Ezra Edelman’s deep dive into the life and times of O.J. Simpson is among the sharpest and most entertaining examinations of race—and racism—in the United States ever committed to film or television.

  1. Free Solo

The spellbinding story of Alex Honnold, the first person to successfully scale the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope or harness. They say you never feel more alive than when staring death directly in the eye, and Honnold seems to take this as a personal credo. So far, so good.

  1. A Separation

Domestic drama of a high order, as multiple generations of a family in modern-day Iran come to blows in pursuit of their own happiness, which only causes further misery for all. Funny how often that tends to happen, in art and in life.

  1. Marriage Story

Speaking of contemporary marital squabbles, here are Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver turning in the finest work of their careers to date as a soon-to-be-divorced pair of artists in the most Bergman-esque autopsy of a relationship since, well, Ingmar Bergman.

  1. The Irishman

Speaking of Bergman-esque, who knew a three-and-a-half-hour crime saga about the inner circle of America’s most notorious union boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), would turn so elegiac and existential by its final act? While it’s likely that Martin Scorsese has several more tricks up his sleeve before he calls it a career, if this reunion of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel proves to be the master’s swan song, it’ll do.

  1. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

Speaking of swan songs, Quentin Tarantino has vowed to retire from directing after his tenth feature film, which makes this revisionist paean to the Summer of ’69 his penultimate project. Considering how his entire oeuvre has been one long love letter to the history of cinema, the mystery is how it took him nine movies to concentrate explicitly on the cultural and geographical mecca of the movie industry itself.

For good measure, here, in alphabetical order, are 30 runners-up, any of which could find their way into the first tier, possibly before New Years Day 2020.

Amour

Baby Driver

Black Swan

BlacKkKlansman

Blue Jasmine

Bridge of Spies

Calvary

Carol

The Death of Stalin

Dunkirk

The Edge of Seventeen

Elle

Enough Said

Everybody Wants Some!!

Eye in the Sky

Faces Places

The Favourite

56 Up / 63 Up

Get Out

Hail, Caesar!

Her

Lady Bird

Leave No Trace

Life Itself

Moonrise Kingdom

A Most Violent Year

Paterson

Silver Linings Playbook

Twelve Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

Act Naturally

What’s the sign of truly great acting?  It’s when you don’t realize it’s acting.

“The very best actors,” Roger Ebert once said, “are the ones who do the least.”  Given a decent script and adequate preparation, he explained, a player in a film need only perform the physical actions required of his or her character, and everything else will fall naturally into place.

Watching Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s most peculiar new movie, I spent a great deal of time regarding its protagonist, Mason, as a largely passive character.  In scene after scene, everybody else is talking and carrying on and being dramatic, and Mason just sits quietly—serenely, even—offering little more than a raised eyebrow or a subtle grin.  Things happen around and to him—indeed, other people seem all-too-eager to tell him how to live his life—and he just runs with it, content not to generate any sort of drama himself.

Most movies don’t allow themselves a passive hero, perhaps from fear of boring their audience.  Screenwriting professors forever caution against it, and Kurt Vonnegut neatly instructed budding writers that a character in a story “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

As Boyhood progressed, and the full measure of Mason’s personality gradually took shape, I realized I was mistaken.  Those early moments of introversion and pensiveness were not signs of a dull or lazily-written character.  Rather, they were the opening stages of an ongoing process that we might hazard to call a life.

Ten-year-old Mason’s silent wince when his dad talks to him about birth control is explained not by a timid screenplay.  It is explained by Mason being a prepubescent kid being cornered into an awkward sex chat with his father.  (Did I mention it occurs in a bowling alley and that Mason’s sister is there, too?)  His reaction is exactly what you would expect of anyone his age, albeit rarely in a movie character of any age.

A few years later, when he joins a group of shady schoolmates on a camping trip, quietly sipping cheap beer and allowing the others to dominate the conversation, it’s not that he has no personality.  Rather, it’s that he is a naturally reserved and easygoing person, and is perfectly fine not being the center of attention.

In high school, where he shows every sign of becoming a highly gifted photographer, a teacher gives him a tongue-lashing for spending too much time in the darkroom when he could be out there doing something lucrative and practical.  His response—shrugging the teacher off and sheepishly defending his work ethic against a charge of lackadaisicalness—might be dismissed by many script coaches as insufficiently confrontational.  In fact, what the scene underlines is Mason’s continued and determined effort to avoid confrontations.  It’s just who he is.

The cumulative effect of all these vignettes—the payoff, as it were—is a character not quite like any other in mainstream movies.  As Mason, Ellar Coltrane’s is an exemplary performance, because it never for a moment seems like a performance.  From the opening frame onward, Mason is simply a person we have the unusual opportunity of seeing evolve and grow.  (The movie was shot, little by little, over the course of 12 years.)  Yes, he is a fictional character, and yes, his lines were written down on a piece of paper.  But by the end of the story, we feel like we know him as intimately as many people in our own lives.  He has, through the magic of cinema, been transformed from a puppet into a real boy.

In the film vernacular, the word for this is “naturalism.”  There were points during Boyhood when I felt like I could go on watching it forever—not because its characters are exceptional (they’re not), but because they don’t feel like characters.  As with director Richard Linklater’s 2013 film Before Midnight (and its prequels, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), the movie plays like a real-time documentary, but with all the exciting drama and wit that actual documentaries rarely contain.

I don’t have children of my own, but Boyhood instilled in me the sense of paternalism that comes naturally to the job of parenthood.  Like his mom, played by Patricia Arquette, I became protective of Mason—anxious when he went off on his own; horrified when his drunk, abusive stepfather took him and his stepsiblings hostage; proud when he placed second in a high school photography competition.  I felt those things as I rarely do for a fictional person, but in this case they were earned because the person in question was made to seem real and worth rooting for.

As it turns out, the secret to garnering affection in the movies is the same as in real life:  Don’t put on an act.  Just be yourself.

A Day in the Life

Quentin Tarantino has proclaimed the biopic the film genre that least rouses his interest.  To make a movie that chronicles the life and times of a particular individual is, he assures us, not something to which he intends to expend his talents.

Tarantino does, however, permit himself an addendum on this subject:  He could be persuaded, in the right circumstances, to undertake a work of historical drama that concerns a particular event in a particular man’s journey from the cradle to the grave.  A day in the life, as it were.  A singular moment to reflect all the others.

What a curious conceit it is that by spending a mere hour or two in another’s company, one can be made to feel as if having peered into that person’s soul.

On this point, allow me to draw your attention to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the new movie starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke that checks in on the relationship that began in 1995’s Before Sunrise and rekindled in 2004’s Before Sunset.

Like all great film romances, the one in the Before saga fills its adoring audiences with a real sense of insight into what makes its characters tick.  After three films whose subjects started as 23-year-olds and are now 41, Celine and Jesse (Delpy and Hawke) seem as much like real people as any fictional couple in the cinema.

What makes this more intriguing still is the fact (easily overlooked) that none of the three movies encompasses more than 24 hours of Celine’s and Jesse’s lives.  Before Sunrise begins in the evening and ends the following morning, while Before Sunset and Before Midnight both exist within a single calendar day.  They are mere snap shots—the most fleeting of glimpses into the comings and goings of strangers.

The catch is that these are no ordinary days.  Rather, they are the moments of high drama—major turning points, in some cases—that command our attention in ways that a more typical slice of life might not.

The arresting third act of Before Midnight, in which Delpy and Hawke lay down their emotional cards in an elegant hotel room, is the sort of domestic squabble that we do not normally witness in real life, although we know bloody well that it really happens.  Even the most seemingly harmonious duos are susceptible to the occasional battle.  The days of wine and roses are even shorter than we might presume.

These fairly commonsensical facts have never not been true, but we might spend an extra moment or two reflecting upon them in light of the recent news—which, in point of fact, is neither news nor recent—that the U.S. government has granted itself the authority to tap our phones and read our e-mails whenever its heart desires.  Privacy as we know it, already in a highly fragile state, is rapidly becoming a thing of a past.

While reaction to this so-called revelation has hardly been uniform, an alarmingly high number of citizens have essentially shrugged off the prospect that whatever privacy they had left has been forfeited in the name of fighting evildoers.  The refrain “I’ve got nothing to hide” has become all too common in the national lexicon.

On this particular claim, I can only stand back in awe.

If you can genuinely assert that you would feel no discomfort were everything you say and do to be secretly recorded and splattered across the front page of the New York Times, then please accept my congratulations.  You possess a level of self-confidence to which I can only daydream.

True, even with the powers now attained by the National Security Agency, it is fairly unlikely that a typical American will find his most sensitive personal business nationally broadcast without probable cause.  But the point is that it could be, and there would be very little one could do about it.

If one is prepared to surrender more and more of one’s civil liberties, this is the sort of culture one will need to accept.  When you say, “I have nothing to hide,” realize that soon enough this will become literally true:  You will not be able to hide anything, even if you want to.

Celine and Jesse’s midnight fight will no longer be between just them, and we will no longer feel like eavesdroppers in witnessing it.

Indeed, we will not require the penetrating power of film to peer into the lives of others.  We can simply ask the government.

Great Expectations

There is no term in the English language more overrated than “overrated,” and no approach to judging art more corrosive than on the basis of preconceived expectations.

This weekend sees the wide release of Richard Linklater’s new film Before Midnight, which has been riding a wave of critical euphoria since its premiere at Sundance in January.  The movie, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is the third in a series that began with Before Sunrise in 1995 and continued with Before Sunset in 2004.

Presumably, most audience members for the new installment have followed it from the start, swept up in the continuing story of Celine and Jesse, the characters played by Delpy and Hawke, whose on-again, off-again relationship is among the most intriguing and unusual of all cinematic couplings.

However, because the word-of-mouth for Before Midnight has been so ecstatic, it stands to reason that a fair number of curious moviegoers heretofore unfamiliar with the saga will wander into art houses showing it, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

My fear is that these late-arrivers will enter the theater with impossibly high expectations, fueled by the film’s near-universal critical acclaim, and exit in a state of profound disappointment.

It is inevitable:  When you are told the movie you are about to experience is the greatest thing since sliced bread, the only possible result is to feel let down—first, because nothing could truly be that good in any case; and second, because the bar has been set at a level that cannot conceivably be met.

The trend is so common and predicable in the American culture, you can set your watch to it:  A movie or TV show accrues a reputation for being unquestionably great, which in a few weeks’ time erodes into a reputation for being over-esteemed, as a second wave of viewers washes out the early enthusiasm of the first.

Speaking with the bias of someone who is often an early adopter of such cursed creative confections, I find it acutely irritating that Americans’ relationship with popular art functions in such a way with such frequency.

For starters, it strikes as profoundly unfair to the artists themselves, who produce the works in question long before the expectations game has been set into motion.  The average author or director often has no idea how his or her work will be judged by the public; the honest ones are simply trying their best to create something worthwhile, and might not even truly care if their audiences don’t like them.

In any case, these finished products ought to be considered with this dynamic in mind.  That is to say, they should be judged on their own merits, rather than being weighed against the opinions of those who happened to see them before you did.

To declare something “overrated” is, after all, nothing more than a critique of other people’s tastes, not a critique of the object itself.  The art is guilty of being liked more than it perhaps should be.  Why should this be the fault of the artist?

Gaze upon the brush strokes of Michelangelo and da Vinci as if six centuries had not passed since those men last roamed the earth.  Read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without your mind clogged by a hundred years’ worth of political correctness and academic canonization.  Watch the first five seasons of Mad Men without reading every last comment on every last goddamned message board, as if some anonymous stranger on the Internet had any more wisdom or taste than you do.

Of course, this is all easier said than done.  Such a feat as viewing a work of art with total objectivity and freshness would require one of two rather herculean feats:  Either draining one’s mind of everything one has ever heard about said work, or not hearing anything about it in the first place.  The former is impossible (or nearly so), and the latter is paradoxical (how could you know to see something of which you are unaware?).

All we can reasonably do is try the best we can to be fair and open-minded, which requires the much more modest task of not taking other people’s opinions too seriously, tuning out the prevailing view about a particular piece of pop art until one has digested it for oneself.

And if you have the chance, be sure to catch Before Midnight.  It is an extraordinary movie, and I know you’ll just love it.