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The 2010s in 10 Double Features

Holy Motors

“I can’t commit to a movie.” In the era of limitless streaming “content,” no phrase has more irrevocably warped our viewing habits. If a single film now represents a commitment, then a double feature might as well be a back-to-back life-sentence. Why trudge through all that first-act boredom, after all, when you’re already so behind on The Good Place? Despite the siren song of bingeable TV, the dual bill holds strong as a way to burn a night at the movies. Art-house theaters, digital programmers, and genre festivals still love them, as does any cinephile looking to hunker down with friends.

For the past four years, I’ve tallied potential double features from the year here at Filmmaker (click to see my pieces for 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015). To close out this series, and the decade, I offer 10 primo double bills among films released in the 2010s. You’ll find titles linked by subject matter, aesthetic approach, thematic obsession, and mad ambition. Some pairings are obvious; others less so. The pleasure is in finding how one film can enrich and play off another. Ask any 10 film writers for such a list, and you’re liable to get little if any overlap. Therein lies the fun of this curatorial exercise. Unlike the standard end-of-decade list, you won’t find the same 10 titles, reshuffled to taste, below.

Manifesto and Holy Motors: The Shape-Shifters

We begin with a bit of a cheat. Manifesto, in its true form, is a multi-screen installation that’s lived in museums across the world since 2015. It consists of 12 short films, each starring Cate Blanchett in a different role as she recites various artistic manifestos with the furious zeal of their original writers. We get Cate the conservative mother saying grace; Cate the punk holding court at a sloppy after hours; Cate the weather woman reporting to Cate the TV news anchor. Julian Rosefeldt abridged the work into a 95-minute film, but for this double bill you can view each short in full on his website. If there’s a screen actor alive who can match Blanchett’s gift for preternatural shape-shifting, it’s Denis Lavant, who slunk into 11 roles for Holy Motors. Lavant’s transformations are feats of physical metamorphosis, which contrast nicely with Blanchett’s more monologue- and accent-heavy work. Both films explore the outer limits of artistic creation – Manifesto in wordy theory, Holy Motors in primal practice. Such brain-scrambling showcases in actorly range and cinematic style come but once or twice a decade.

The Counselor (extended cut) and The Paperboy: Ensemble Boondoggles

Twenty-four Oscar nominations – and counting. That’s how many nods the directors and cast of The Counselor and The Paperboy have earned to date. Despite the pedigree on display – which includes a Pulitzer Prize for Counselor screenwriter Cormac McCarthy and eight Teen Choice Awards for Paperboy star Zac Efron – neither film found an audience in the U.S. Both stand defiant as heterodox, horny, and just aggressively weird. Take your pick for Most Depraved Moment: Cameron Diaz fucks Javier Bardem’s Ferrari; Nicole Kidman pees on Efron; Michael Fassbender tells Penelope Cruz she has “the most luscious pussy in all of Christendom”; Kidman pantomimes blowing John Cusack to completion. The mix of lurid, what-the-fuck energy and Hollywood A-listers gives these films their distinctively freakish flavor. Each title has more going for it than sheer camp value. The Counselor, in particular, is an outrageous vehicle for McCarthy’s wordplay (I’m partial to Bruno Ganz’s ASMR-inducing monologue about diamonds). Overwritten, star-studded smut? You say that like it’s a bad thing.

The Tale and Shirkers: Memories of a Childhood Trauma

Two major new works of cinematic memoir debuted at Sundance in 2018. Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox made her fiction premiere with The Tale, a film that’d surely be considered a landmark of the #MeToo era had it gotten a proper theatrical release. The film wrestles with issues of trauma, the power of personal narratives, and our changing definitions of abuse with a fearless lack of inhibition. “Brave” is an understatement for this mode of self-examination. Fox spelunks into her own past to create a fictionalized account of her childhood encounters with a charismatic older man. Like The Tale, Shirkers depicts an adult woman looking back on a traumatic flashpoint from her youth, when she put her faith in an older man. Imagine if your beloved childhood teacher turned out to be a sociopath, and you may begin to understand the emotional whiplash these women must have felt. Fox and Sandi Tan play with the medium – one in fiction, the other in documentary – to disentangle how we process, and bury, childhood trauma as adults.

The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence: Oppenheimer’s Opus

No version of this piece could exist without mention of Joshua Oppenheimer’s perverse and profound double bill on Indonesian genocide. The Act of Killing was, for many, an introduction to this scarcely acknowledged moment of 20th-century horror, which isn’t to say it functions at all as an educational “issue doc.” Oppenheimer all-but invents a new cinematic language here. He uses his remarkable access to the era’s mass murderers not to interrogate them, but to have them reenact their murders and arrive at remorse on their own terms. A perilous work – politically, morally, aesthetically – Killing brings an unclassifiable approach to the historical documentary. Its companion film, the far more sober The Look of Silence, highlights the victims and survivors of the mass killings. Oppenheimer films an optometrist, whose brother was killed during the communist purge, as he confronts the assassins under the pretense of an eye exam. It doesn’t take long for the metaphor to come into focus: These films force the murderers, and we as viewers, to look back at a moment in history to which we’d rather turn a blind eye.

Phantom Thread and The Souvenir: Toxic Relationships, His and Hers

The double bill marries two of the decade’s slipperiest love stories. A pair of period dramas – both set in England, shot on film, and obsessed with the power dynamics between a domineering man and a younger woman – Phantom Thread and The Souvenir operate in near perfect tandem. The former approaches this dynamic from the male point of view; it takes place, after all, in the veritable “House of Woodcock.” It’s a vaporous work, either achingly romantic, kink-positive, or a trigger of past trauma, depending on your angle. Few films since Vertigo have captured the romantic failings of men with such overwhelming beauty. The Souvenir attacks this scenario from the perspective of the younger woman, here a film student based on writer/director Joanna Hogg’s own life story. From her vantage point, this dynamic is stripped of all nostalgia and plays as much more toxic. Far more than, “Phantom Thread from Alma’s point of view,” The Souvenir nonetheless gains an added richness for how it plays against that other great mysterious romance of the 2010s. 

Nocturama and First Reformed: “Somebody Has to Do Something”

We live in a time when desperate measures have started to feel like the only viable option. When your “ground game” and “phone-banking” efforts can’t defeat a troglodyte like Trump, you have to wonder what line you’re willing to cross to fight the intractable forces you oppose. Nocturama and First Reformed resonate, in part, because they prey on our current desperation. In the latter, the sense of political paralysis is concrete; we witness Rev. Toller’s transformation into eco-radical from start to finish. His actions horrify, but within the logic of the film we understand why a man might go to such extremes to oppose corporate America. The ideological struggle is stretched to abstraction in Nocturama. We never learn why these teenagers coordinate attacks across Paris, but Bertrand Bonello refuses to condemn them for it. As one character shrugs mid-way through: “It was bound to happen.” Maybe it’s a coincidence that two of the most seismic film events of the decade were not-unsympathetic portraits of political violence. Living in this era, it seems we’re primed to respond to material this dangerous.

If Beale Street Could Talk and Carol: Mid-Century Melodrama

When a melodrama works, words fail. A loud dress does the talking, or a graceful camera move, or a rapturous score. A stolen glance (over lunch with poached eggs and creamed spinach, perhaps, and a martini) conveys more than your awkward words ever could. This decade hosted two new all-timers to the melodrama canon. Based on novels by James Baldwin and Patricia Highsmith, If Beale Street Could Talk and Carol achieve a state of melodrama nirvana. Todd Haynes and Barry Jenkins bathe their portraits of mid-century NYC in delicious period detail. Each film has a score to stop your heart, and each is its own triumph in production design, cinematography, and acting. The sum of all these parts is their romantic lure. This is cinema to make you swoon. The films seduce with their sights and sounds, only to ravage you with their depictions of American persecution. “Love is so simple,” so the phrase goes, but not if you’re black or gay in America.

The Babadook and We Need to Talk About Kevin: The Horrors of Motherhood

“It is a very taboo subject,” Jennifer Kent said in a 2014 interview, “to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.” We witnessed an undeniable boon in non-traditional horror cinema this decade. From Jordan Peele’s “social thrillers” to A24’s “elevated horror,” the genre saw a spike in interest from voices not often heard in the arena. Chief among them were women, who wrote and directed a number of entries in the genre that confronted the horrors of being a woman today. Films by Julia Ducournau (Raw), Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), and Sophia Takal (Black Christmas) all come to mind, but this double feature pairs two films on the horrors of motherhood. The mothers of The Babadook and We Need to Talk About Kevin are both dogged by a scandalous resentment toward their sons (to be fair, one’s a handful and the other’s a sociopath). Kent and Lynne Ramsay explore the same unspeakable question – “What if I hate my child?” – steering horror onto uncomfortable, thrilling new terrain.

Good Time and Her Smell: Panic Attack Cinema

Film grain sprayed across the screen like viscera. Sound design clangs to make an MRI sound melodic. Repellent lead characters incapable of making a good decision. The films of this double feature induce a wondrous, near-nonstop panic. You either love it or you tap out within 10 minutes. Sean Price Williams, a chief architect of how American independent films looked this decade, shot both features. His images jitter with a prickly energy to match these self-destructive leads. The off-putting aesthetic has a genuine punk vigor; these films aren’t afraid to come on strong and weed people out. Just try listening to the score for either film outside of the movies themselves. You can’t do it. They are migraine mix-tapes. The aggressive style serves the substance of each film. One can’t fathom the escalating crime spree of Good Time or the manic meltdowns of Her Smell without the surrounding sensory assault. These films find young filmmakers at the top of their maximalist, more-is-more game. Their “mature periods” can wait.

The Tree of Life and Hale County This Morning, This Evening: American Life, In Fragments

Hale County and The Tree of Life epitomize a cinema of poetic fragments. The latter does so on a grand scale: Its cosmic scope, A-list talent, and VFX sequences make it arguably the most expensive experimental film ever made. Propelled by free-floating images of suburban childhood, the film unfolds more as a collection of romanticized memories than a traditional narrative. RaMell Ross achieves a comparable effect in a very different setting with Hale County, despite working in nonfiction and with no budget. Ross creates images with a DSLR camera that can suck the breath right out of your lungs. He filmed 1,300 hours of footage over five years for this project, which in final form runs little over 70 minutes. Like Malick, he shoots forever and finds the structure in the edit. And like Malick, he peppers his images with elegiac questions like “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” A feature debut for one director and a career culmination for another, Hale County and The Tree of Life reveal the possibilities still untapped for experimental narrative cinema.

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