Some of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers continued their legacies this decade in films both monumental and intimate. Lav Diaz continued to push the boundaries of slow cinema, Hong Sang-soo released at least one new film every year, and the Palme d’Or victories awarded to Bong Joon-ho and Hirokazu Kore-eda has certainly cemented their place in their nation’s film history.
While we are proud to celebrate these filmmakers, it is also important to note that all the films in this category have been directed by men. This certainly isn’t meant to disparage the continued efforts of women in the business, however, it is worth keeping in mind that the filmmakers we have highlighted in this category have benefited from an unequal society and industry which has allowed them to be designated as ‘masters’ of their craft.
(2010, dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
As of writing, I get the sense that Poetry may be the close of one chapter in Lee’s filmmaking career – a chapter that first began with Oasis (2002) and Secret Sunshine (2007) – with Burning (2018) signalling the start of another. And if Poetry is truly the culmination of this chapter, then it certainly feels appropriate as the techniques he’s explored in Oasis and Secret Sunshine feel more studied here (see my video essay on Lee’s filmmaking).
Poetry is a tremendously empathetic picture and an angry indictment on the patriarchy. Where other directors might have put together an overly sentimental film based on its difficult subject matter, director Lee instead presents it as is. In doing so, Poetry lays bare the power imbalance between men and women through the film’s naturalistic and plain visual presentation.
Poetry’s emotional power is further strengthened by an immaculate performance from veteran actress Yoon Jeong-hee, who stars as Mi-ja, the elderly woman who must grapple with the knowledge that her grandson is involved in a heinous act of sexual violence.
If there’s one Lee Chang-dong film that must be remembered this decade then it should be this one. (Hieu Chau)
Norte, the End of History
(2013, dir. Lav Diaz, Philippines)
“What’s absolute is the need to destroy what’s wrong.” So begins Norte, the End of History, a four-hour retelling of Dostoevesky’s Crime and Punishment through the lens of Lav Diaz.
Slow and dense, yet filled with engaging and thoughtful insights on humanity, the film eases along at a subtle pace, allowing for times of reflection, and beautiful portraits of a country from decay to opulent. Shot over a series of wide long takes, filled to the brim with long conversations and deep silences, Norte is not an easy watch, and strays very far from any common idea of what entertainment should be. But what sets Norte apart from other adaptations is its devoted focal point, centered on class disparity and social dynamics within present day Philippines, rather than focusing on simply just a murder and its repercussions (or lack thereof).
This focus allows for a more enriching and compelling story as we’re benefited to not just one but three protagonists; a disillusioned law student who commits a violent act to make a point, the innocent working class husband jailed for the crime, and the wife who now struggles to survive with their child. Everyone is looking for their own form of salvation, whether that comes from toppling years of hypocrisy, making enough money to survive, or simply enduring the injustice of a broken justice system, Norte leaves enough to chew on long after it finishes. (Amir Muhammad)
Cemetery of Splendour
(2015, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
During a screening of her film Zama at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Lucretia Martel said that falling asleep was a perfectly acceptable response to watching even the greatest of films – a response “not about boredom, but a feeling of comfort.” Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with Cemetery of Splendour, seemed to have made a film that channeled the dreamscapes of sleep itself.
So much of this film feels like a haptic wander through the subconscious, with dream logic and the supernatural carrying just as much weight (if not more) than real world happenings. The Weerasethakul cinematic world is one where reality, dreams and the movings of the spirit world are all intertwined, and all need to be heeded. The sleepiness of Cemetery of Splendour is comfortable, but it also contains within it a warning: don’t sleep on injustice, otherwise you may be in danger of never waking up. (Hayley Inch)
Right Now, Wrong Then
(2015, dir. Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Pretty much any Hong Sang-soo film from the past decade could have taken out this slot (or all my slots, let’s be real). The Day He Arrives is a straight up masterpiece, Hong’s collaborations with the great Isabelle Huppert In Another Country and Claire’s Camera are buoyant tour-de-forces, and On the Beach at Night Alone and Hotel by the River both ripped emotional holes in the perception of what a Hong Sang-soo film can be.
But what Right Now, Wrong Then represents is the perfect coalescence of Hong’s constant filmic preoccupations – looping timeframes, the ennui of relationships, the perils of communication – and gleefully presents us with everything that his filmic universe loves to explore. The 2010s proved again and again that Hong is a master at the zenith of his powers, ever evolving while creating a world full to the brim with delicious cinematic nourishment. (Hayley Inch)
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle
(2016, dir. Shunji Iwai, Japan)
A lonely school teacher named Nanami hires actors to play her friends for her wedding. Hijinks ensues. It is a simple premise that morphs itself over and over again, growing and becoming something else entirely by the end. A journey of self-discovery rendered beautifully, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is a magical movie about life’s eccentric qualities, the wild paths we ultimately take to end up where we’re meant to be, and the person we present versus the person we conceal.
I was completely mesmerised by it, taken in by its lush dream-like cinematography, wide array of rich and unique characters, and sense of wonder that lurks around its many corners. It’s at times both deeply cynical and life-affirming, devastating and joyful, sometimes within the same scene, much like real life. Yet it is Shunji Iwai’s heightened sense of reality and deep emotional empathy that elevate it to an almost fantastical quality.
The film is extremely literary, which is no surprise considering the film is based on a novel that Iwai himself wrote, adding to the film’s gravitas. While many praises can be extended to Iwai’s direction, it would be remiss of me not to mention the exceptional performances from Haru Kuroki, Go Ayano, and Japanese singer Cocco as a contributor to this film’s brilliance. By the time the credits rolled, my perspective of life had been significantly altered. I enjoyed every second of this movie, and I will carry it with me always. (Amir Muhammad)
After the Storm
(2016, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s eye for family dynamics span almost the entirety of his career, yet it’s never felt more fine-tuned and keenly observed than with After The Storm.
While not as high concept in the way Like Father, Like Son is, nor grand as Our Little Sister, After The Storm feels scaled down, almost minimalist, and maintains the barest of essentials. It’s far more understated in its storytelling, and yet manages to fit in many of Kore-eda’s trademark themes from familial reconciliation, effects of the past on the present, and parenthood.
All of this is led by a subtle performance from Hiroshi Abe who plays our protagonist with deep relatability. His character is merely trying to do his best to earn money for his child, and wants nothing more than to be good; a good father to his son, a good son to his mother (played by Kirin Kiki, may she rest in peace), a good person in general. Though he dwells on the past and what he should have been, we see how everyone around him has already made attempts to move on.
This is where Kore-eda shines, showcasing a deep examination on how the past keeps us held back from our true potential in the present. The shoulda, coulda, woulda’s that plague our protagonist are the very same thoughts that plague anyone, and it’s through Abe’s everyman performance that we see that in full effect. We may not get everything right, but life goes on, and thus we can always try again. (Amir Muhammad)
I Am Not Madame Bovary
(2016, dir. Feng Xiaogang, China)
Some films stand tall based on a single performance. Were a particular actor not involved, their presence absent for the story to cloak itself around, the film simply would not have anywhere near the power required to succeed. I Am Not Madame Bovary is Fan Bingbing. Fan’s stubborn, relentless peasant woman Li, who takes on ever ascending levels of authority in order to right a bureaucratic wrong, becomes a titanic figure of endurance as the film unfolds.
In a decade that, as always, saw many little people crushed under the weight of uncaring governments, to see Li push on doggedly in the face of setback, defeat and horrific levels of disrespect is both inspiring and a sober reflection on the continual need for the weak to rise and challenge the strong, indifferent and corrupt. (Hayley Inch)
Our Little Sister
(2016, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Our Little Sister, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, is about three sisters in their twenties living together who meet their 15 year old half-sister at their dad’s funeral and invite her to live with them, at their home in a distant town.
The film is adapted from the manga Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, and demonstrates how important kindness and acceptance are. Director Kore-eda shows us the growing understanding and complicity between the sisters, and also how the youngest step-sister, Suzu (played by Suzu Hirose), makes her place in a new town, a new family, during some of her most formative years.
There is something special about the imagery and scenery of Our Little Sister. It adds to the rhythm of the movie without making it distracting, just like the food scenes bringing the characters closer to each other.
Our Little Sister is part of this list, not only because it covers complex themes such as step-families and passing in a way that feels very balanced and considerate; the film also shows a lot of care for its characters, finding something special for each of them. (Claire Langlais)
Yourself and Yours
(2016, dir. Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Hong Sang-soo has kept himself plenty busy this decade by releasing a new film every year; sometimes several in one calendar year! Yet despite all the international acclaim that films like The Day He Arrives and On the Beach at Night Alone have received, it’s his 2016 film, Yourself and Yours, that remains a personal favourite of mine. I think that’s largely because it feels more distinguished from the writer-director’s usual offerings.
For one, it’s rare to see the male characters in a Hong Sang-soo looking like anything other than buffoons (to be fair, they usually are) which is perhaps why its delightful and refreshing to watch Kim Joo-hyuk’s performance as the remorseful boyfriend (sadly, this role would be among the last of Kim’s as he tragically lost his life in a car accident a year after Yourself and Yours was released). It’s also a film that isn’t burdened by Hong’s usual temporal experiments. Instead, Hong operates on a more ‘linear’ level which results in the performances from Kim and actress Lee Yoo-young (also fabulous in this film) to really shine in their roles.
Simply put, it’s one of Hong’s smaller but least fussy films and it’s better for it. I wish Hong would make stuff like this more often! (Hieu Chau)
(2017, dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
Parasite might be breaking global box office records, have universal acclaim and be the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or, but there’s one Bong Joon-ho film this decade I have a particular soft spot for – Okja. Sure, its pacing is a bit uneven and lacks the moral complexity or intrigue of Bong’s 2009 masterpiece Mother. But Okja’s central relationship between young girl Mija and her best friend super pig Okja evokes a sense of warmth and heart I feel Bong’s offerings since The Host have sorely lacked.
Even when considered in isolation from the rest of Bong’s filmography, Okja fills a niche in cinema which has been largely empty this decade – the ‘kids movie for adults’. While films like the recent It remakes have attempted to put kids at the centre of mature coming of age stories, nothing has quite captured that wacky, ’80s adolescent style as much as Okja. Poop jokes and cute CG animals not only coexist, but blend seemlessly with a story containing graphic torture and anti-capitalism satire to create a thrilling epic imbued with childlike wonder for its (hopefully) adult audience. That’s not even touching on the many layers of interesting social commentary permeating every aspect of the film, from the costuming to ensemble staging.
Most important, though, is that without Okja, we wouldn’t have been blessed with this performance. (Brooke Heinz)
Ash is Purest White
(2018, dir Jia Zhangke, China)
Jia Zhangke has spent the last two decades examining China’s revolutionary progress and its impact on people’s everyday lives, sometimes to uneven effect. Ash is Purest White is his most successful work, buoyed by a perfect performance from his frequent collaborator and wife, Zhao Tao. It is a film that is not afraid to transform, becoming something new every forty minutes as it sweeps us through multiple decades and yet never loses sight of its message.
For as much as the film reflects upon China’s changing socioeconomic landscape, it is more about how women are masters at adapting to change and any country that progresses forward would do well to remember to take all women along for the ride. (Aidan Djabarov)
(2018, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
The last Japanese family drama from Kore-eda Hirokazu before his switch to French filmmaking, Shoplifters feels like a culmination of the writer-director’s years of experience in the genre. Kore-eda’s mastery in exploring the many notions of family are highlighted through the day-to-day life of the poor and seemingly forgotten Shibata family, focusing on the strengths of their bond in the face of poverty.
Kore-eda has tackled similar subject matter before with Nobody Knows, but Shoplifters casts its net wider in terms of both viewpoint and commentary. While there are still the fantastic child performances we expect from a Kore-eda film, it is the adult perspective which adds a heart-wrenching edge to Shoplifters. From long-time Kore-eda collaborators Lily Franky and Kiki Kirin to new partnerships with acclaimed actors like Ando Sakura, each performance carries an underlying heaviness, perfectly counterpointing the naivety of the children who see shoplifting as a game.
Shoplifters seems to have hit quite the chord with global critics too, winning the Palme d’Or in 2018 and being nominated for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. For more on what makes Kore-eda’s musings on family so special this time around, I recommend this piece by fellow Filmed in Ether writer Natalie Ng. (Brooke Heinz)
(2019, dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is about two very different families meeting–the rich Parks, and the poor Kims–and how their lives incidentally get tangled up.
A commentary on today’s society, Parasite has many layers and is never arrogant in its execution, thanks to director Bong being a master in the art of mixing genres. Parasite is a thriller; it’s entertaining, funny at times without taking you to a too comfortable place, it’s suspenseful, and has at its heart a deeply sad story.
Brilliant performances from the cast also hold the film together. Parasite marks the fourth collaboration between director Bong and actor Song Kang-ho, which unsurprisingly is a success. It also stars the remarkable Lee Jung-eun, and rising stars Choi Woo-sik and Park So-dam.
In Parasite, you never know what will come next, and it is executed in a controlled, honest and beautiful way that only director Bong could have achieved for such a story. This was the first film I could think of for this best of the decade list, and I hope it will be in your list too! (Claire Langlais)