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Movies in the 2010s largely captured, and warned of, our moments of reckoning

Looking back over a decade's worth of film, something stands out: A crumbling of the barriers separating cinema and reality.
Credit: Courtesy / Warner Bros., Paramount, A24

Spoiler alert for "Parasite" and other recent movies 

In “Parasite,” Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s newest masterwork that identifies class warfare as as much a fact of 21st-century life as Twitter and streaming entertainment, there’s no telling where a plan will get you.

For a time, a plan gets the destitute Kims – who can’t afford wi-fi and resort to constructing pizza boxes around the dinner table for scant income – into the cavernous home of the wealthy Park clan. The plan then, cruelly, leaves them homeless, having not been there to salvage what was in their sewer of a home when a biblical flood overtakes it.

“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all,” Song Kang-ho’s Kim Ki-taek tells his son when asked what the plan is going forward.

The domino effect that results from another invasive element having thrown the Kims’ lives into an even higher state of disarray than before is a bloody series of unfortunate events, one that leaves the Kim patriarch virtually imprisoned, his daughter dead and his son vowing to one day free him. “I made a fundamental plan…” he tells him in a message, and even before we see the best case scenario played out on the screen, “Parasite” has betrayed our yearning for catharsis. Joon-ho, after all, has just shown us where plans get people hoping to break out of the confines of systemic capitalism. Art has confronted reality. 

More than perhaps any other shared characteristic, this decade’s standout movies often reflected onto us the inevitability of a reckoning—of recognizing systems and histories whose massive consequences have started to be magnified through the communicative avenues of a world that has never been more connected. Movies have always been conversation-starters, but the medium takes on a different might when the conversation is everywhere, as the bullhorns of Twitter, acute polarization and slow erosion of privacy standards have ensured is the case this decade. And take on that power cinema has, in ways sometime subtle, in ways sometime extravagant and in ways almost always irrefutable. The line between fiction and non-fiction has never felt nimbler when it comes to the movies. 

Consider the increasingly (and exponentially) bleaker effects of worsening climate change – the most ubiquitous phenomena of today – and 2018’s existential outcry of a movie “First Reformed.” Once upon a time this century it was believed that those whom the effects of a warming planet would ultimately affect are from a generation not yet born; that line of thinking now seems like wishful thinking weeks after scientists in more than 150 countries warned of a climate emergency, and of a situation much more urgent than previously estimated. "First Reformed," Paul Schrader’s story of a small-town pastor (played by Ethan Hawke) made undone by clear and present dangers, dangers that include climate change, is incisive in its bluntness— Reverend Toller realizes that the storage shed of a church he’s in charge of can’t contain the mounting inevitability of cataclysm that is cut into his life after the death of his military-enlisted son, and infected after conversing with a radical environmentalist seeking an abortion for his wife so that their child won’t have to live with the outcomes of a changed planet. Schrader challenges us to refute his logic; Toller cannot.

Much like the extremist he meets with, the crisis is an isolated one for Toller, and we can empathize with why. The world of “First Reformed” reflects ours in its absence of widespread effort to stopping climate change, in a lethargy that will come back around with ever-swifter impact the longer it endures. In lamenting the environment – literal and proverbial – that younger church-goers must grow up in, Toller’s superior, Cedric Kyle’s Pastor Jeffers, says, “It’s a world without hope.” 

The distinction Schrader draws between Jeffers’s attitude and Toller’s grim diary entries (“Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?”) is marked by a satisfaction of passivity, of actively relying on a higher power, and only a higher power. But Reverend Toller isn’t so sure faith-driven complacency and complicity are mutually-exclusive; as “First Reformed” flies the viewer over landscapes overflowing with discarded tires and forests being eradicated by the machinery of economy – images as unsettling in their grimness as they are in their familiarity – we’re forced into his line of thinking. Schrader has laid bare what is inevitable in the natural world (the reckoning of climate change) and his religious one (a judgment day), and implores that we consider the correlation. 

Fast-forward several decades past the credits of “First Reformed” and we might find ourselves in the post-apocalyptic world of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Water is scarce and sanity scarcer in the aftermath of what is very subtly referred to as “the oil wars”; what brought about The End isn’t as vital as surviving its epilogue. 

George Miller’s 2015 epic is much more than the decade’s most enthralling action flick—it’s also a gasoline-drenched parable about what happens when a dictator who views the women locked away in his mountain abode as property rules over what’s left of civilization. Months before the #MeToo movement exploded onto front pages and nightly news headlines, Imperator Furiosa’s explicitly-stated search for redemption echoed real-world struggles by women across the world, and their continuing revolt against the status quo perpetuated by a male superiority complex.

Immortan is stunned at Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, and his five “wives,” making decisions for themselves—and doing so with a vengeance. “This idea that she’s saving these women to me didn’t feel as interesting as they belonged to a man who hurt her incredibly, and she’s had enough,” Theron said of Furiosa’s intentions. “She’s going to take the most valuable thing away from him because he took the most valuable thing away from her.” Her defiance is itself a display of activism, her crusade for autonomy a declaration that women are more than the dutiful denizens the world order has diminished them into being. 

The world of “Fury Road” is one of fire and blood, as Max says at movie’s start. But it becomes one of individual liberty too, with the force of an earth-shaking chase propelled by the momentum of societal change. “Life isn’t just about taking in oxygen and giving out carbon dioxide,” the well-known Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai wrote in her 2013 memoir. Would Furiosa not agree? Her time of reckoning had not only arrived—she sparked it. It’s not too different from when Ashley Judd and Emily Nestor’s words sparked the downfall of Harvey Weinstein in 2017, lurching #MeToo into far-reaching motion.

What about the thing you’re staring at, at this moment? That is, whatever screen – iPhone, laptop, PC, tablet, Google Glasses – you’re using to read these words. Have we ever surrendered our attention and lives and privacy over to anything as quick as we’ve surrendered ourselves to technology? “Black Mirror” has examined this uninhibited devotion through short movies of its own, to effects sometimes forgettable and sometimes eerily on the money…er-bitcoin. But there was also Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” in which Oscar Isaac’s eccentric billionaire-genius Nathan mulls the role of God he created for himself through Alicia Vikander’s Ava, a robot so human-like in its (her ?) curiosities, motivations and – as we learn by movie’s end – her schemes and survival instincts, too.

The French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s haunting 2016 movie “Personal Shopper” exchanged the hardline sci-fi of “Ex Machina” for something spectral and primal in its examination of a twenty-something American (Kristen Stewart) contacted via text message by someone – or is it something? – while coping with the death of her twin brother in Paris. Is she being taunted? Assisted? Baited? The answer remains unclear when the credits roll. 

But Maureen's inability to separate her grief from being glued to her phone feels apt in an age when social media likes are ostensibly the antidote to loneliness. The new naturally-ingrained response to keeping the memory of someone alive is posting about it on Facebook and Instagram stories. I'm guilty of it, and so are you. Memories are now digitized – often out of desperation – lest we confront the silence of permanent departures, and of ruminating on things that live in our heads, not in pixels.

RELATED: The decade that horror came home: 10 movies that told the genre's story in the 2010s

Martin Scorsese’s 2016 religious epic “Silence” isn’t explicitly about technology; its story of a Jesuit priest pressured by Japanese captors to confront and eventually renounce the faith he dutifully upholds takes place about 360 years before the advent of the Internet. But parallels can be drawn between Father Rodrigues’s turmoil at not receiving guidance from God and the realities we tend to ignore about the human needs that technology – a modern-day deity – actually satisfies, or fails to, at the altar of convenience and contrivance. “Silence” was perhaps the least-watched of Scorsese’s five feature films this decade – it’s certainly the most challenging of that group – but it affirms the director’s artifactual New York Times op-ed from earlier this year about the increasing rarity of risk in big-studio Hollywood—a movie set in a distant time and place that allows us to confront our here and now.

And what would the here and now be if Facebook wasn’t a part of the picture? The online platform’s impact in 2019 is measured more by what has brought it scrutiny than how much it has brought the world together in nearly two decades. But David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s thrilling account of Facebook’s not-so-humble beginnings in “The Social Network” proves itself to be more prescient with each testimonial hearing. In 2010 we saw Jesse Eisenberg’s mile-a-minute Mark Zuckerberg begin to sketch out his mythos by disrupting Harvard’s sociological structure overnight with the impulsive invention of Facemash. Nine years later, Facebook has done the same for global democratic processes, to say nothing of the way we socialize with each other. 

Watch “The Social Network” today, and it hasn’t just taken on new meaning—it’s evolved from something that had fashioned itself a thriller into portraying the digitized Big Bang of a new age where the consequences of privacy loss may well out-live Facebook itself. “We lived on farms and then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet,” an inebriated, exuberant Sean Parker (a pitch-perfect, exuberant Justin Timberlake) declares in “The Social Network’s” final minutes, moments before he’s arrested for drug possession. Nobody was ready for how quickly world orders and lifestyles would be disrupted by Facebook (and other social media platforms later on), but everybody has been affected by the comeuppance.

If, to take a different route, we examine the refractive nature of movies in the 2010s through the lens of everyday routines propagated by cultural ideas already simmering for years, certainly much longer than Facebook's lifespan, we arrive at something like this year’s engrossing Netflix documentary “American Factory.” At a time when the world’s cultures and concepts are being shared more than ever, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s telescopic look into a former GM plant in Ohio re-opened by a Chinese company depicts the cacophonous clash that ensues when two cultures come into direct contact, and try (emphasis on "try") to find harmony. It’s a movie of the moment – and the moment is still unfolding so long as the world keeps constricting – and it’s near-impossible to sit through without examining our own work-life balances, and the loyalties that inherited systems have ingrained into our minds and lives without question.

Unless you’re skateboarder and filmmaker Bing Liu, who had plenty of questions – mostly for his own friends and family – about how our upbringing informs our eventual destinations as adults in his own revelatory documentary, 2018’s “Minding the Gap.” Taking place in a small, impoverished Illinois town constantly trying to catch up with the rest of the world, and focusing on three blossoming adults for whom skateboarding is the only means of escape from harsh home lives, the film is a syringe of harsh truths—truths drawn from interviews that border on self-confession, slow-revealing self-betrayal about who we say we’ll become when we grow into our agency, and reckoning with ourselves when we’re stuck in the same place we’ve always been. 

“Minding the Gap” shows how generational angst is hereditary, as its disarmingly intimate depiction of societal trappings comes into focus in a time when media bombards us with fantastical images of what life can actually be like. More and more, what could be is omnipresent.

It’s easy to become enamored with images of wealth and excess when they have a way of slipping into the views of everyday life. It’s easy to idolize the people in those images, too; the fact that Scorsese’s 2013 white-collar-gangster circus “The Wolf of Wall Street" ended up being one of the more misunderstood movies of the decade illuminates its intention as much as it clouds it. As the drug-fueled circuses of Stratton Oakmont increasingly resemble the dark side of capitalistic pageantry – as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort tunes the audience into a world of fast cars, corporate crime and no limits – Scorsese forces us to confront our guilty love for anti-heroes who pave their own path by bulldozing through the structures of law, order and ethics that stand in their way. Walter White’s personal greed may have led to the actual murder of fictional characters, but Belfort’s real-life antics were seemingly always in service of finding new levels for shameless white-collar debauchery, heralding something more systemic about the greed of business and business of greed, setting the time for a reckoning with it in the process.

That audiences, upon release, largely mistook the kaleidoscope of ridiculousness inhabited by Belfort and his cohorts as blind fascination on the parts of Scorsese and DiCaprio was foreseen by the director—what else is he doing in the final shot of the movie, turning from DiCaprio to the audience enamored by his presence at a talk even after his arrest? Who else is that if not us?

While “The Wolf of Wall Street” was a depiction of order being ignored, Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 Oscar winner “A Separation” showed how the friction between contemporary codes of law, faith and society can inhibit justice. A complex situation involving the miscalculated, but not necessarily antagonistic, actions of two families on the brink of splintering is oversimplified to the point that systems put in place to run things only end up spewing blinding plumes of smoke. 

Few opening scenes from the past 10 years match the balletic propulsion of “The Social Network’s” prologue, but “A Separation” – which also begins with two partners verbally sparring – is one of them. Over the course of a thrilling single take, Payman Maadi’s Nader and Leila Hatami’s Simin make their case to a judge (in this case the viewer, due to the way the shot is set up) about who is to blame for the impending titular separation. 

Yet the only thing they can point to are contradicting priorities—for him, it’s his sick father; for her, it’s a better life for their daughter. The murky greys of the movie’s narrative and emotional stakes are established early, as well as Farhadi's painful truth: More than ever, it’s our circumstances that victimize us, not other people.

That isn’t to say that circumstances never shape themselves to the attitudes of individuals. If “A Separation” pits people against the flaws of domestic infrastructure, Jordan Peele’s milestone debut “Get Out” places Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris at odds with domestic infrastructures constructed around the flaws of people, and against a backdrop exponentially less ambiguous. The result is a rare film that manages to strike a balance between being a crowd-pleasing and crowd-challenging genre offering, a mirror reflecting back onto audiences the diabolical insinuations found within the margins of our feigned optimism that came with the election of the United States’ first black president in 2008.

It’s part of the movie’s triumph that it forces self-examination in real-time; we laugh, cringe and jump when we watch “Get Out,” then we immediately put ourselves under the microscope.

“I was trying to bring a piece of the conversation I had never seen put on film before,” Peele said in late 2017, when the movie was in the early stages of an Oscar campaign that would garner a Best Picture nomination and Best Original Screenplay win. “I felt there was this void in the way we talk about race, especially at the time when I wrote it—we felt like racism was not being called out sufficiently enough.”

That the writer-director accomplished that with a plot that remains forthright and exacting even as it descends into depths increasingly colored with shades of the horror genre speaks to the legacy of “Get Out” as a film probing the modern implications of race relations with the simplicity of a camera flash. Two years later, Jennifer Kent’s grim, violent and underseen “The Nightingale” would examine those implications through a historical lens, condemning the condemnation of oppressed groups – namely women and the black indigenous peoples’ of colonized lands – with a virulent relevance that spans centuries.

2018’s “Sorry to Bother You” – Boots Riley’s caustic, cautious commentary about a society drunk on greed – was even less subtle about the systems it was targeting than Peele’s Sunken Place was. By the time the movie’s increasingly-deranged narrative pivots from LaKeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green using his “white man voice” to horse-human hybrids engineered to maximize corporate profits while minimizing humanity, Riley has made clear that overdoing it isn’t his point—the reality that capitalism can, and often does, is. It's especially true when class gaps continue to widen, with consequences that, according to the Los Angeles Times, are expected to reverberate into future generations.

What passes as maliciousness on the part of the wide-reaching WorryFree and Armie Hammer’s coke-snorting CEO isn’t malicious, at least not intentionally. It’s necessity – inevitability, even – to remain ahead in a capitalistically-minded world that leaves those unable to sniff a piece of the pie living in their uncle’s garage and paying for gas nickels at a time. Ludicrousness translates to success in the parallel universe of “Sorry to Bother You,” and the film’s hyperbolic energy fizzles out when the audience recognizes the corruptible power of money.  

Art wasn’t let off the hook for art’s sake. One of the decade’s other beguiling documentaries, “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond,” painted Jim Carrey’s comedic legend in a behind-the-scenes light, making us privy to the psychological mind-tricks Carrey put himself through for the sake of others’ amusement. Set against the backdrop of the making of “Man on the Moon” – the 1999 movie in which Carrey portrayed comedian Andy Kaufman – the documentary shares footage of Carrey as a man possessed, unwilling – or unable – to break character, to the success of the movie and the frustrations of those on set. “Jim and Andy” can easily be misconstrued as a spirited portrait of an artist pouring all he has into his work; in reality, it’s a disarmingly sad reflection on what entertainers do to themselves in order to entertain.

We’ve numbed somewhat to stories that drip from sets about the unruly and/or unhealthy tactics actors will undertake to get into character—think Jared Leto sending used condoms to his “Suicide Squad” costars or Christian Bale’s weight rollercoaster, which he recently said he’s finally disembarking. “Jim and Andy” took the conversation to a new place; Carrey, while speaking directly into the camera, seems to realize how much of his identity he may have chipped away at in order to slip into his comedic persona. For the first time, it seems, we’re seeing the man as he really is, decades after first being introduced to him. The film makes it feel as it we were complicit in never getting to know – or never getting to empathize with – the real Jim Carrey. Who else don’t we really know?

It’s the essence of art – the beauty of the movies – that cinema’s evolution in this decade wasn’t the result of a plan. But while Kim Ki-taek may praise the absence of one as the lesser of two evils, the medium is surely made all the better, and all the more challenging, when functioning in response to the things shaping our world, rather than in anticipation. There’s a value in watching superheroes travel through time and reunite half of the Earth’s population by taking down a purple alien with a jeweled glove, but there’s a universality in watching movies connect the dots between real and imaginary, familiar and fictional, us and them.

Cinema is at its best when its building on its epic history; in this decade, it seemed to have taken on new importance by building on our own. The result often has either been a new clarity about what the world is, or new questions about what it may be becoming. “We don’t need to make a plan for anything,” Kim Ki-taek says in “Parasite.” “It doesn’t matter what will happen next.” In the context of movies’ impact, he’s right and he’s wrong—films don’t need a plan for the next decade, nor does it matter how what happens next will dictate the medium’s future. Until, of course, the moment that it does.