A decade later, it’s interesting to look back on 2008, something of a banner year for studios and independent filmmakers (as well as for Irish music magazines, of course), and to see the fruit borne by the seeds planted that year. In many respects, 2008 saw many notable beginnings, or breakthroughs, in popular cinema.
Iron Man launched what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe; seventeen films later, the hugely successful franchise is worth billions and its latest installment, Black Panther, is being celebrated as one of its best films to date. Ascendant directors Martin McDonagh and Christopher Nolan struck gold with In Bruges and The Dark Knight respectively, launching them into household name status; this year, both have seen tremendous awards-season success, Nolan with his technically triumphant Dunkirk, and McDonagh’s unstoppable Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The cultural phenomenon Twilight filled in the middle of the venn diagram opposing ‘young adult fiction’ and ‘paranormal romance’, changing the game for both genres for years to come; these days, franchise leads Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson prefer more low-key, arthouse fare – with not a sparkle in sight.
Looking back, our writers have picked ten of the best films of the past decade, while considering their legacy today…
Contributions from Stacy Grouden, David Cadwallader and Amy Clarkin.
There Will Be Blood – 2008
For all the cinematic milestones marked in 2008, Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic American capitalist origin story, There Will Be Blood, may be the film that has endured and retained its status as that year’s best. Broadly appraised as a masterpiece, drawing parallels with Citizen Kane, the film is technically astounding, Anderson’s formal style complemented by a revelatory soundtrack from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood and stark cinematography from Robert Elswit. Yet, the film’s plotting and characters are no less compelling.
A fiercely-fought treatise on oil, family, and greed in the early 20th century, the film follows Daniel Plainview, an obsessive prospector who ultimately sacrifices everything in pursuit of wealth. Despite its scope and ambition, there’s a noticeable intimacy in how the story is told, the episodic structure of the film akin to a bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel tracing formative moments in Plainview’s life, accenting his story with the perfect level of detail to engage us emotionally. A rightfully-acclaimed turn from Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview sees him dominate the screen, slurping up the scenery with the same vigor as a pastor’s milkshake, and give one of his most utterly unforgettable performances ever. (SG)
A Serious Man – 2009
When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies – then what? The darkly wacky existentialism at the heart of many Coen Brothers’ films reaches its manic, mid-life apex in A Serious Man. The Coens’ flair for blending mythology and Americana sees them mapping the Biblical story of Job onto middle-class suburbia. Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, feels his life is veering out of control amidst the lead-up to his son’s Bar Mitzvah as his wife ends their marriage, a problematic student attempts to blackmail him, and his eccentric brother gets arrested.
A then-newcomer, Michael Stuhlbarg gives a winning performance as the misanthropic, neurotic Larry, struggling to reconcile his view of the world and his own internal logic with his entropic surroundings, and some distinctly disinterested rabbis. A meditation on seeking guidance in times of crisis, the film leaves those answers exhilaratingly out of reach, ending instead by twisting towards chaos. Perhaps the only sure thing is that you’d better find somebody to love. (SG)
Toy Story 3 – 2010
Toy Story 3 was a resounding success for Pixar, a source of hope that sequels could live up to their predecessors if the right plot was developed. Following a run of well received films such as Wall- E and Up, Toy Story 3 once again proved the studio’s ability to balance pathos and joy. The plot examines the fate of Andy’s toys as he prepares to move away to college, in a tale that is as much about the importance of letting go and starting a new chapter as it is of looking back. After mistakenly thinking that Andy intended to throw them away, Andy’s toys go to Sunnyside Daycare, run by Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (“Lotso”). Woody, while attempting to return to Andy, learns the truth about Sunnyside Daycare and sets out to rescue his friends.
A nostalgic throwback for those who remembered the original from 1995 and its sequel in 1999, it appealed both to new youthful audiences and their parents and older siblings. A further demonstration of Pixar’s ability to merge both heart breaking emotion with an uplifting narrative, it was a standout film in 2010 with a heartfelt message. Who will forget the raw emotion of the furnace scene? Whatever about the children in the audience, many an adult had to linger in the cinema throughout the credits, composing themselves in the darkness before the lights came on. A perfect conclusion to the Toy Story arc, it both allowed its audiences to whimsically look back to the story from their childhood and to move on and pass the joy of it to a new generation – a reflection of the narrative of the film itself. (AC)
Drive – 2011
Looking back on Drive some seven years later, its lasting cultural impact – with, perhaps, an emphasis on the ’cult’ – can’t be understated. A film about a stuntman who lives a double life as a getaway driver, director Nicolas Winding-Refn’s greatest achievement may be the creation of the pure mood of a film that otherwise may have been a fairly straightforward genre piece. With its pounding synthwave soundtrack, neon pastel aesthetic, and lingering long shots of Ryan Gosling cruising around in his automobile, watching Drive is akin to being in a dream… or at times, a nightmare.
Mesmeric, stylish, with shocks of violence, it’s a dream from which you awake to see its remnants everywhere in our popular culture, from the video game Hotline Miami to the video for Hotline Bling. This was the role that truly marked the arrival of Gosling as an A-list superstar, and it’s hard to imagine him where he is today without Drive. Conversely, Albert Brooks’ scene-stealing and type-breaking appearance as a violent gangster turned his existing star image so completely on its head, that audiences may never see him the same way again. What a change in gear. (SG)
The Master – 2012
There is a central contradiction at the heart of the American myth that all that yearning to be free is intrinsically linked to a desire to be governed. From the Mayflower to the Wild West, the aim was not so much to escape being governed, but simply to change who was governing. In the previous century, this battle moved from the idea of a physical frontier to something a bit more spectral as religion entered the fray in a manner that it never had previously in American life. It is this contradiction that frames Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell is our drifter or cowboy. His Wild West is post-war America and a search for meaning in a world that just witnessed the destructive power of the atomic bomb and the inhuman horrors of the holocaust. Joining him as the leader and the guru promising to have all the answers is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. Most obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard, but he could just as easily be David Koresh, Jim Jones or even Timothy Leary. Quell becomes a devotee and semi-enforcer for Dodd, whilst Dodd himself is slowly exposed as the snake-oil salesman that he really is. The true power behind his movement and the true relentlessness of its global spread are shown to really be the drive of his wife Peggy, a never-better (and I don’t say that lightly) Amy Adams.
Misunderstood in some quarters upon its initial release, many expecting some critique or even just a retelling of the genesis of Scientology, the film has slowly come to be re-appreciated as the semi-western that it is. Like his most recent effort, Phantom Thread, this was a film that rewarded the viewer who was willing to pay attention to the small details and who was also willing to come back for repeat viewings. One also cannot talk about this film in a review of the last ten years without acknowledging its link to Megan Ellison and Annapurna Pictures. The Master was the second film released by her company, they would go on to give us, amongst others, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, Foxcatcher and Everybody Wants Some!! – American cinema has been a much richer place for their efforts these last ten years. (DC)