120 Beats Per Minute
Robin Campillo’s outstanding 120 Beats Per Minute is a film that stays with you long after the credits have finished rolling. A thudding, loud, fist-clenching, fist-pumping, goosebump-inducing tour de force, it is as harrowing as it is hopeful, bursting with as much love as it is anger. This Cannes Grand Prix winner feels alarmingly urgent despite its setting of the 1990s and is definitely one of my top films of the decade.
Set in the early 1990s and starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois and Adèle Haenel as members of the Paris branch of ACT UP (an AIDS activism and advocacy group), the plot focuses on how pharmaceutical companies were looking at AIDS treatment in economic, not human terms, alongside the burgeoning relationship between two activists fighting for change. Hollywood films still shy away from showing queer sex scenes in films (this year’s Rocketman was the first studio film to show gay sex), let alone sex scenes featuring HIV-positive people. And yet 120 Beats Per Minute refuses to be just “an AIDS movie” and focuses on love – selfless, steamy, heart-wrenching love – that can nourish and support people even when their bodies are fighting for strength.
I could wax lyrical about various aspects of this film, but in particular, the sound design of 120 Beats Per Minute is exceptional, claustrophobic and urgent. Gay clubs were considered a rare safe haven in which LGBTQ+ people were able to express themselves in 1990s Paris, with the film’s title referring to the tempo of house music that popularized these spaces. But this music begins to slow down as the film progresses, as heartbeats grow weaker, as healthy T-cells diminish. Numbers decrease. The film’s main theme song comes in the form of Arnaud Rebotini’s remix of Bronski Beat’s 1984 rallying cry and gay anthem “Smalltown Boy.” Dave Haslam describes the clubbing scene it appears in, and the use of this song, perfectly in his piece for Curzon: how “the unsettling sense of yearning in the music of house music in the early 1990s […] married to the new club drug ecstasy, created a little sense of communal utopia.”
Martin Scorsese released 5 films this decade, and I haven’t chosen Silence, probably his least talked-about, just to be different. Boasting a range perhaps unparalleled elsewhere, the beloved director really won me over with his 2016 sprawling spiritual odyssey, a lifelong passion project and his third film about religious figures struggling with their faith. It stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two Jesuit priests in the 17th century who travel to Japan to locate their missing mentor and spread Catholicism, in a time where those who did so were tortured and murdered by the Buddhist authorities. Silence is both beautiful and gruesome. The cinematography bolsters in the beauty of the locations – the lush mountains and grasslands of Taiwan and Taipei, stylized close-ups of religious paraphernalia, clinical and affecting birds-eye shots – but it also highlights horror and torture in unapologetic abundance. Garfield is utterly phenomenal as Sebastiao Rodrigues, a tormented priest grappling with faith and arrogance, believably transforming from composed and pious to agonized and hallucinatory throughout the narrative.
Silence fascinatingly tackles various theological themes throughout that I won’t attempt to simplify, but an interesting notion in the film was the Japanese view of Christianity as more of a Western hegemonic force as opposed to a spiritual intrusion: the violence enacted upon the Christians seemed disjointed with the almost passive and mild-mannered Chief Inspector responsible for the unthinkable slaughter unfolding. This is perhaps mirrored in the fact that the Inspector’s character was played by a comedian, Issey Ogata. The otherwise lucid genre of the historical epic is undercut continuously choices like this, as well as the jarring surrealist apparitions of Jesus that haunt the fading Rodrigues, paralleling’ the priest’s physical likeness to Jesus. And, sound has perhaps never been so important in a film that has virtually no soundtrack. Literal silence is utilised in a deliciously effective way at the most climactic moments in the film; when Rodrigues demands “Christ is here… I just can’t hear him,” he metaphorically embodies what the title of the film is attempting to imply.
The Social Network
It’s pretty boring and predictable to include The Social Network as my favourite film of the decade: a critical darling, award-winning box office hit and overly meme-ified fan favourite that has already received plenty of love since its release at the start of the decade. I’m not sorry. In short, I believe that tonally, and as a whole, The Social Network is a perfect film. It’s thrilling yet never melodramatic, tightly controlled yet never dull, unlikeable yet never disengaging, specific yet never inaccessible. Simply everything, from Aaron Sorkin’s note-perfect screenplay to Fincher’s directing, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Oscar-winning score and the razor-sharp editing combine to produce a – I hate this word, but here we go – masterpiece.
What other film this decade has ticked every box, while still feeling like a risk, like so much is at stake? What other film has, with such nuance, imbued such quiet horror in its protagonist, grimly refusing to accept how he has created a monster, which has turned out to be horribly prescient nine years down the line? A parable on power, jealousy, masculinity, sociopathy, friendship, money, psychology and hatred, with acting masterclasses from Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, this two-hour gut-punch about men and their little games only grows larger and more uncontrollable on each watch. The world and its social sphere looks much different now, sure, but Eisenburg’s whiny incel, with his stony-eyed indifference and bad fashion, leaves such a sour taste in the mouth. Critic Peter Travers’ notion of this being a film that manages to juggle “scathing wit with an aching sadness” sums it up perfectly.
Words by Steph Green