Cast Against Hype

Reflections on film and other forms of storytelling from a Swedish wannabe-storyteller…

Tag: Darren Aronofsky

No Marvel Included – My 40 Favourite Films of the Decade

Fully aware of everything I haven’t seen, these are what I consider my 40 favourite films (all categories included), released in the decade now coming to an end. An era seemingly defined by the superhero genre, which, I might add, is not represented here. Now you know. It’s not that I can’t enjoy a Marvel or DC adventure now and then, but – how many of them are truly great cinema? SPOILER ALERT 2: a few filmmakers have stood out more than others in these last ten years; Nolan. Villeneuve. Garland. Cuarón. It will show. Also, I will emphasize the difficulty in ranking these films in a particular order. The difference in quality and impact between number one and, say, 20, is not really huge. These are all works of art and storytelling that I deeply appreciate for somewhat varying reasons. 

1. Spotlight (Directed by Thomas McCarthy, 2015). Classic storytelling. Traditional. Methodic. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Dealing with a sort of traditional, painstakingly thorough investigative journalism that might fall prey to the great extinction. Hopefully not. And hopefully these kinds of films are not a completely dying breed either. 

2. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010). Layers on layers of dreams and adventures in the subconscious. Maybe more than a strictly speaking healthy dose of food for thought. But it does provide lasting impressions of an ambivalent variety that clearly shows a master has been at work, playing with our minds and stirring our senses. 

3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). “Mean Girls”; 18th Century version. Could have been insufferable, but turns out so improbably right in all aspects that it becomes irresistible. 

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Basically all action and no plot, but what action! And what visual extravaganza! I surrender. 

5. The Handmaiden (Chan-wook Park, 2016). Basically all advanced plotting and no action, at least not action action. But consistently surprising, mesmerizing and maybe the working definition of infernal affairs. 

6. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014). Who is most real? What is conscience? And which is Alicia Vikander’s best role so far? Maybe this one. Maybe. 

7. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016 ). One of the decade’s most significant auteurs explores humanity confronting the unknown, but probably most of all, the very concept of time. Doesn’t have to be completely comprehensible to be absorbing and more or less unforgettable. 

8. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). More on the unknown. More on time and what it really means. Seemingly dystopian vision turns into something mindbendingly magnificent.

9. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016). War is coming. So is an evil spirit in the house. Mother and daughter struggle to maintain sanity and a grasp pf reality – whatever that means – in a sensational directorial debut that deserves a bigger audience. 

10. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013). Basically just about the urgent struggle for survival, alone in space, for 90 nail-biting minutes. 

11. Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón, 2014). Different tales, yet it seems like one coherent story about, well… people. Our fragile nature and sensitive ego. Entertaining and disturbing in equal measure. 

12. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017). Taking on a cultural heritage like this and moving forward with it demands a visionary mind equipped with nerves of steel. Like the intrepid monsieur Villeneuve.

13. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010). So sad, so unrelenting, so deeply existential and still beautiful in spite of telling a story about people growing up with no real future, or hope or being valued as individuals. 

14. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018). These impossible missions for Tom Cruise et al just keep on getting tougher. And the films are getting better and better. Sometime I guess they will have to pull the brakes and at least put a younger hero in harm’s way, but when? 

15. Coco (Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, 2017). Death. More colourful than ever. Still offering more depth and dimensions, not least regarding memory and how we handle the inevitable – like loss. 

16. Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2010). Films like these aren’t really being made. Especially not in Sweden. Probably it’s an illusion that it actually seems to exist, but I put it on my list anyway. Don’t wake me up and tell me it was just a dream.

17. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). So, this is how it all began? And now we’ve all handed our lives over to him? Interesting… 

18. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017). Some laughs but mostly horror in a directorial debut you didn’t see coming from one half of comedy act Key & Peele. 

19. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). Perfection until death, as told by a perfectionist who always seems to elicit strong reactions of the more polarized variety. He has to be rewarded here. 

20. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018). Rich, nuanced drama with an almost unparalleled attention to mundane details and subtle changes in relationship dynamics.

21. Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018). Another inspiring trend among the most memorable movies of late is the plot doesn’t have to be 100 percent comprehensible to be – yes, memorable. Not as long as it provides food for thought and intriguing impressions. 

22. Spring (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, 2014). Lost American hiding out in the south of Europe meets a woman that is anything but ordinary. Horror-romance story turns unexpectedly inspiring and frankly uplifting in the midst of a macabre premise. 

23. Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013). I am pretty sure Danny Boyle has directed objectively better films than this one, but more outright entertaining? I doubt it.

24. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013). The creative combination of sensible science fiction and sensitive relationship-oriented drama has been one of the most encouraging trends in filmmaking during this decade. And yeah, obviously it says something about us and our time. Something that may or may not be equally encouraging. 

25. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012). The rest of the quadrilogy didn’t fully deliver the same punch that this first instalment promised. It wasn’t bad, but not as gut-punchingly gorgeous in a weird way that made this first chapter a must-see. 

26. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010). Dennis Lehane wrote the story. Scorsese directed. DiCaprio starred. Questions?

27. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017). Priest with environmental angst struggles with just about everything. Films like these hardly ever get made. Let alone made this well. 

28. Vanishing Waves (Kristina Buozyte, 2012). ”The Cell”, the Lithuanian version. Only, I would say, even better. Has to be seen to be believed. 

29. Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 2012). What’s it about? What isn’t it about? An epic, challenging adventure anyway.

30. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011). Uplifting? Not so much. Definitely thought-provoking and in a weird way almost inspiring. Is it about the end of the world or is it a metaphor for something else? You make the call. 

31. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014). Over and over again, the same groundhoggish day fighting invading aliens. Underrated scifi-action piece, also one of Tom Cruise’s most underrated performances. 

32. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011). For some reason I like his darker side more than the lighter one, and his has to be one of the darkest things he ever did. Antonio Banderas might be doing his best work ever here, incidentally. 

33. Mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017). Yeah, you might hate it. Hate it, and I will not hold it against you. Personally I find it a magnicent mess, or rather spectacularly messy but in a magnificent way. 

34. Snowpiercer (Joon-Ho Bong, 2013). Ride this train! Well, if you’re still alive in this post-apocalyptic vision, you don’t have much choice. 

35. What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014). Vampires! Comedy! Vampires and comedy! Yeah, you’ve seen that combination before. But you didn’t see this combination before. 

36. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). Heavy, hard-hitting history that just about everyone ought to watch at least once. If you can stomach it. 

37. Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012). Probably not entirely truthful, but imminently entertaining about unlikely hostage rescue operation in Iran, post-revolution 1979. 

38. These Final Hours (Zak Hilditch, 2013). Heartbreaking rendition of a world about to end – yes, really end – and one man’s final attempt to do something meaningful for someone else before it’s all over. 

39. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014). Priest in a small town gets a very specific death threat. By whom? And how should he spend what might be his last week alive? 

40. The Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, 2011). Norwegian thriller set in some sort of corporate world, keeps the suspense going with nasty surprises, one after the other, until… You’ll see.

 

Some close competitors and honourable mentions:

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle), Four Lions (Chris Morris), The Secret in their Eyes (Juan José Campanella), Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo), 127 Hours (Danny Boyle), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy), Baby Driver (Edgar Wright), Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood), Snowden (Oliver Stone), Gone Girl (David Fincher), Kill the Messenger (Michael Cuesta), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos), Atomic Blonde (David Leitch), The Martian (Ridley Scott), Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley), Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow), Silence (Martin Scorsese), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve), Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson), Skyfall (Sam Mendes), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga), Contagion (Steven Soderbergh), Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)…

 

Coming soon: My Favourite TV Shows of the Decade. With or without superheroes.

Here Comes the Flood – ”Noah” Is Powerful But Eneven

Noah. The man once upon a time chosen by God in the Old Testament to save select parts of humanity and the animal kingdom from the flood intended to wipe out the rest. Most of us recognize the story, the framework at least. Or so we tend to think. Now Darren Aronofsky, the man behind ”Black Swan”, ”The Wrestler” and ”The Fountain” among other distinctive works, used a considerable budget  to realize his vision, an interpretation that definitely has managed to split opinion and provoke debate on a global level. As for myself, I ended up after the movie discussing it with a handful of other (yeah, well…) mature gentlemen who expressed wildly differing views of ”Noah”, based on everything from Biblical accuracy  to the overall quality (or lack of) in the CGI department. Someone estimated our average grade to be 4,8 (on an IMDb-based scale of 1-10). I was one of the more positively inclined viewers present at that table in the local branch of a global fast food establishment.

Noah the Boatbuilder in this version is not always easy to sympathize with. Many times he comes off as a clear-cut misanthrope, but maybe not without reason, judging from what we learn of the circumstances where he finds himself and his family. The exposition part of the film might be a little too long and relies on a sort of visual poetry you can either admire or find distracting, too much show-off and seeking an immediate emotional impact. That, of course, will depend on your personal preferences. The whole foundation of the film is constantly a balancing act, between powerful and the possibly preposterous. Exactly how good an idea was that thing with the Watchers, these gigantic creatures seemingly made of stone, although supposedly they were once pure light, before they displeased the Creator and went on to live in sad seclusion until they decide to assist the stubborn survivalist in his quest? OK, there are giants mentioned in the Bible. Maybe it’s just that I find the look of these ones more weird than wonderous when attempting to get immersed in this ancient world.

The enemy manifests itself in the shape of belligerent tribes ruling an arid land, inhabited by nomads; a decadent and corrupt world where one man is trusted with the task of starting all over again. Reboot. Rebirth. But there are times when we as an audience will likely come to dislike him, even hate his guts, view him as a fanatic; maybe consistent in his lack of faith in humanity but still way too merciless and judgmental even towards his – supposedly – own loved ones. No wonder then, his wife and sons will be tempted to rebel against him as well.

Remember: this is not strictly told from the Bible, the source most people after all use as a starting point to form an opinion of their own about this iconic figure. Aronofsky definitely sees the story as a myth to rework and elaborate on. Interviewed by Christianity Today he and his scriptwriter Ari Handel reveals the influences from other ancient Jewish literature such as The Book of Enoch and other assorted scriptures meant to explain the Torah, the traditional Jewish religious texts. It’s also obvious that the two of them has put some thought into the issues of righteousness and what true justice really means. In the process they throw some anachronistic stuff into the mix, when it comes to weapons and clothing. But who can say anything for certain about a world apparently annihilated and gone for good?

Casting the film, the director also reunited Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly from ”A Beautiful Mind”. Crowe, as we all know, does have an impressive gravitas which, when needed, carries the film through dark valleys and faulty towers. He becomes the chosen one. With flaws, yes. This is no whitewashing and as I said, Noah is not always the life of the party (to put it mildly), but he is intriguing and possibly even credible. Who could really go through such an ordeal, such a completely and irrevocably life-changing event without being altered and affected by present traumatic stress disorder? His relationship with the elder sons Shem and Ham gets complicated. Ham is too curious for his own good in this context, he questions his father repeatedly which inevitably causes confrontations. Shem manages to be more loyal and and restrained, until he also will be tested once too many and find reasons to rebel. Shem, by the way, would later go on to found the first city in history, Sana’a in present-day Yemen – according to some historical accounts or rather mythmaking. But that’s another story. And another film, maybe.

Technically this is an advanced, well-funded film, but the CGI stuff apparently doesn’t impress everyone. Basically all the animals coming into the Ark are computer-generated but they will eventually be relegated to the background when the film focuses on the human conflicts. Ray Winstone represents the resistance as a self-appointed king from the fallen family tree of Cain. But sometimes he gets the opportunity to deliver seductive and deceptively ingenious arguments like an Al Pacino in ”The Devil’s Advocate”.

All in all, ”Noah” is often powerful but uneven, narratively as well as visually speaking. The protagonist is not simple but fascinating. What does he see as his real mission? His existential brooding regarding the question if there is something remotely good in the human race, will extend even to himself and his family. And if the job is about starting all over, does that mean that his blood will be the beginning of everything that will be hereafter, or should there really be any descendants? What is right and wrong in this existence, in these circumstances, and is there anything resembling mercy? Regardless of your opinion of the film, you can find plenty of fertilizer for philosophical debates afterwards.

A few other reviews of ”Noah”: The Daily Beast calls it a flawed film that you have to see. Christian site Sojourners says it’s ”deeply, passionately biblical” while Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com feels we has witnessed a ‘bizarre’ blockbuster, a ”a surrealist nightmare disaster movie” for better or worse. But he still seems to recommend it for what it is.

Related: American PBS is launching a documentary series on the importance of religion in the US, a development that is a bit different than here in Europe where I live. Seems interesting, if I find the time to watch it…

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