Directors of the Decade
There are so many great directors who made great films throughout the past decade. Men and women who have come to define this decade in cinema. We couldn’t possibly list them all. Instead, here’s a small selection of directors that we feel fit the bill, from obvious names (at least in cinephile circles) to entries you might not be familiar with. Typical for Frameland, all but one are Asian.
Hong Sang-soo is synonymous with the 2010s in the same way Johnnie To defined the 2000s: not only was he the most prolific major director (even with taking 2019 off, he made thirteen features and two shorts), he also made the best films, by my rough estimate, twelve of the top 200. He started the decade making his best ever film, Oki’s Movie (2010), and then proceeded to only get better. After spending the first half of his career spinning tales built around aggressive and pathetic men, in the 2010s he shifted focus to the women who had to deal with those men. First in a series of movies starring Jung Yoomi, then in films with Kim Minhee (with whom he formed one of the great cinephile-celebrity couples of the decade, a veritable Rosselini-Bergman for our time).
With these women at his centre, Hong’s cinema became less about the terrible things men do in the name of what they claim is love, and more about the ways we can use narrative to escape the limitations of our social roles (in the Jung films Oki’s Movie, List (2011), In Another Country (2012), and Our Sunhi (2013)) and then about how maybe we’re probably better off just skipping out of the game altogether (the Kim films Right Now Wrong Then (2015), On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), The Day After (2017), Claire’s Camera (2017), Grass (2018), and Hotel by the River (2018)). He saved his most breathtaking experiments for films without Jung and Kim, however: the intertwined but never intersecting narrative of Hahaha (2010), the repetitions of The Day He Arrives (2011), the dreams within dreams of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013), the jumbled epistolary structure of Hill of Freedom (2014), the romantic identification games of Yourself and Yours (2016). Everything seemingly overheated in the 2010s, and no one has more incisively interrogated how we can function in this new reality where infinite worlds are possible than Hong Sang-soo.
Terrence Malick began this decade by creating the kind of work that gave people permission to be nakedly earnest in newly formed diaristic and expressionistic idioms, allowing experimental grammar into mainstream drama, and inspiring legions of imitators still hard at work trying to capture his lightning in their bottle. The Tree of Life (2011) seems like an impossible act to follow and yet he did. Several times. To The Wonder (2012) was the second of Malick’s films directly inspired by his own life and it’s heartbreaking for the things it can’t express as much as what it can. Song to Song (2017) recast the story of Adam and Eve as a Star Is Born-style musical melodrama, Knight of Cups (2015) took a hundred years of pre-Christian storytelling and turned it into one man’s moral free fall, Voyage of Time (2016) showed the boomerang of existence from the dawn of creation to the modern era and back again. Malick took his style, by now trademarked after 50 years of refining it, to every imaginable corner of experience and he’s still not done wrestling with the things he can’t change or explain. A model of humility and curiosity as a filmmaker and thinker. The man who perfected one form of visual art.
Caste in India cinema has either remained “unseen” or has mostly been portrayed through the limited and distant gaze of earnest filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, and Bimal Roy. The 2000s changed that; Nagraj Manjule’s Pistulya (2009), Fandry (2014) and Sairat (2016) turned out to be bold and radical reclaiming of the Dalit (the so-called “untouchables” of the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system) space within Indian cinema, which has always been the playground from higher-caste filmmakers and narratives. This reclamation was not just limited to the commercial film space but also extended to the allegedly more intellectual festival space (Sairat premiered at Berlinale).
Of course Manjule has an agenda but he doesn’t sacrifice the aesthetics in the shrine of propaganda. His films are lyrical with perfectly-composed and startling shots, so it’s not just about creating a Dalit consciousness and aesthetic for film but also creating an aesthetic that is deliberate, genuine, and objectively rewarded for its merit.
Manjule, for me, is one of the most important filmmakers of this decade because he fights for and claims a niche within Indian cinema that has systematically been denied: a Dalit visual register laid down by Dalits.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury
With the high-profile success of Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan, among others, you could almost forget that it’s been a tough decade for serious-minded Chinese cinema. Xi Jiping’s government has been increasingly active in discouraging ‘undesirable’ types of filmmaking: from Shanghai to Berlin, it is now absolutely common for a confirmed, state-approved Chinese film to be pulled before premiering, and at least one entire local indie festival has been effectively shut down. Moreover, the treatment of individual directors perceived to be a threat like Ying Liang and Pema Tseden has been truly shocking. In this climate, it’s very gratifying that producer-turned-director Vivian Qu has so far managed to make two outstanding features which are not exactly uncritical of the authorities. Trap Street (2013) is surely the best film made anywhere yet about 21st-century surveillance culture: it uses a doomed romance as an entry point into a mysterious conspiracy in a way more credible, and more gripping, than any of the American paranoia thrillers from the 1970s. And Angels Wear White (2016), Qu’s lucid, fact-based take on the multi-level forces of corruption involved in covering up the sexual abuse of teenagers, is equally believable, smartly written and well-acted. These are strong achievements in their own right, but the current challenges faced by Chinese filmmakers make them essential.
S.S. Rajamouli has had quite the decade, during which he went from a director mostly known in India for films like Vikramardu (2006), a Telugu-language film that was remade in Hindi and Tamil, to a filmmaker of worldwide renown for the period epic Bahuubali: The Beginning (2015) and its sequel Bahuubali 2: The Conclusion (2017). Two films that together truly lived up to the word epic, and in terms of epic spectacle and drama dwarved anything coming out of China, Russia or the United States.
But before Rajamouli made Bahuubali, he started out the decade with a far more humble production, the action comedy Maryada Ramanna (2010). In which the complicated plot boils down to a man being safe only from deathly revenge so long as he remains within the walls of his host’s house. This combination of slapstick comedy, an increasingly dramatic love story and bloody revenge returned in his next feature, in a far more heightened state: In Eega, a man is reincarnated as a fly to protect his lover from an evil gangster. It has to be seen to be believed, and why would you not want to see such a wonder?
It’s almost hard to believe that Rajamouli could scale so much higher heights still with the Baahubali films, a feat in epic action filmmaking with a touch of the fantastic, heightened even further by a melodrama of enormous proportions. The romances and family relations are as impressive and engrossing as the grand scale battle scenes or the music. Hollywood throws much more money at the screen, but has released nothing this decade as grand.
Kaj van Zoelen
With his four features to date, Korean writer/director Jo Sunghee has made a pretty remarkable transition from indie talent to, as a Variety scribe would put it, blockbuster helmer. The mid-length film Don’t Get Out of the House (2008) and the debut proper End Of Animal (2010) were apocalypse-tinged thrillers; both shot on a super-low budget, they made outstanding use of off-screen space to evoke by suggestion a world of horror, and offered a weird, uneasy mix of shocks and laughs. Jo then hit the big time with A Werewolf Boy (2012), a supernatural thriller-cum-love story. Hugely enjoyable, it was obviously made to draw crowds, but it also had enough wit to excite cinephiles. And though The Phantom Detective (2016) attracted ‘only’ a quarter of the previous film’s 6.5 million admissions, it’s a doozy as well: among other things, a very dark thriller and a hilarious pastiche of the ‘private eye’ genre. In neither of these two large-scale entertainments, Jo Sunghee has made concessions to mainstream commercial cinema: his unpredictable plotting, his penchant for darkness and his offbeat sense of humour remain wonderfully intact.
With a string of movies in the 80s and 90s, Mani Ratnam spearheaded a new categorisation of Indian cinema that became a template for what is now known as “middle cinema”. These films tackled deep social and cultural themes in the guise of a mainstream dramatic presentation with the trinity of Indian cinema – songs, dance, and romance. It is the formula that dominates the landscape in almost all of India’s various film industries today. It’s a hard line to tread and most filmmakers falter, but 2010s Rajeev Ravi is arguably, if not definitely, the best filmmaker to balance this middle path since 90s Ratnam.
Malayalam cinema, along with Marathi cinema, has made the largest leaps this decade in quality output and Ravi, predominantly a cinematographer and only a part-time director, is a prominent figure in this. His three films, Annayaum Rasoolum (2013), Njan Steve Lopez (2014), and for me, his greatest achievement so far, Kammatipaadam (2016), all point to a deft, near Scorsese-like ability to weave, duck, and tackle through a modern social upheaval in Kerala and translate it through a conjoined effort of artistic and commercial traditions. What we can call entertainment value or “masala” in his films is delivered through egalitarian means, always in the servitude of a greater cultural examination of communities and people.
Other filmmakers from the South do this too of course (or at least attempt to), but Ravi isn’t concerned with the entertainment of his movies being anything translatable across countries or even states. With filmmakers like S.S. Rajamouli, R. Balki, S. Shankar, or even Ravi’s closest cohort in talent, Lijo Jose Pelliserry, one can always fall back on technique, spectacle, and theatrics to carry them through. For Ravi, you need to dig deeper, and like Ratnam and the best of the “middle cinema” filmmakers, his movies’ infectious kinetic energy, in-jokes, and cultural peculiarities entice even the most casual film-watchers to take the effort. That is an invaluable ability in a nation where cinema is by and large still treated among traditionalists as a casual hobby.
In a decade where the blurring of documentary and fiction felt more real than ever, somehow the works of Roberto Minervini have fallen under the radar. Despite being some of the most experimental in form and effective in analysis.
Minervini’s films have tended to stray deeper into documentary over time. He moved from total recreations of experiences in his first features (The Passage, Low Tide, and Stop the Pounding Heart) to showing more and more moments that can only be captured as they happen. Like a pregnant woman shooting up heroin or a militia rally turning into a sex-fuelled party in The Other Side (2015). Or actual police brutality unveiling before your eyes in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018). Minervini’s films drop the audience into a spell, where the difference between real and recreation falls away, and for cinema’s sake they might as well be the same either way.
But apart from mild festival coverage and the occasional Mubi retrospective, Minervini’s docu-fictions haven’t taken hold the same way this decade as, say, Joshua Oppenheimer’s or other already established filmmakers. Maybe there isn’t much broad interest in taking a humanistic look at poverty in the American South, maybe they’re too experimental. Regardless, if Minervini’s films do take hold, they’ll be remembered as some of the most important of the decade.