The 50 Best Films of the 2010s: Part One
Over the past month, we here at Goomba Stomp have compiled a number of lists, including the best games of the past three decades, the best TV shows of the last ten years, the best TV shows of 2019, and the best video games we played this year. There were also other lists, such as the best movie trailers, the best video game soundtracks, the best movie posters, and so on — but no other lists received as many nominations as the list that follows. Whittling a decade of great cinema down into a ‘Best of’ list is a difficult task, and making it even more difficult was having to choose only fifty films. We originally set out to produce a list of 100 movies, but after careful consideration, we decided that there were only fifty most of our team could agree on, with another hundred or so splitting the remaining votes.
It was tough — to say the least — but after hours and hours of agonizing, we’ve dwindled it down to the movies of the 2010s that left the biggest impression on us. What follows is a list of those that we wrote about, spoke about, and viewed the most times over the past decade.
50.) Cabin in the Woods
The clever, high-concept Cabin in The Woods is without a doubt the best and most inventive cabin-in-the-woods picture since Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2. It is also the cleverest genre deconstruction since Wes Craven’s Scream. Screenwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon tease us with a simple set-up, only to turn the joke upside down and on its head. Crammed with small, unanticipated incidents and comical twists, director Drew Goddard defies conventions while demonstrating a strong understanding of modern horror.
With two interwoven narratives taking place at once, Goddard’s multi-layered approach is ambitious, digging deeper than a self-reflexive game of name-checking while also putting a clever spin on Whedon’s longstanding obsession with violence and voyeurism. A horror film embedded in a conspiracy flick embedded within another horror movie, Cabin in the Woods is a must-see, if only for the final 20 minutes in which all Hell breaks loose. (Ricky D)
Few films in the decade exhibited the power to transport audiences more than Alfonso Cuarón’s frank depiction of 1970s Mexico in and around his childhood neighborhood. Inspired by many of his own experiences, Roma follows a young woman named Cleo who works as a maid for an upper-class family in the titular borough. But while the events in her life are certainly of dramatic interest, Cuarón has placed Cleo in the middle of tumultuous times, and it’s the edges of the frame that contain Roma’s real riches.
Utilizing impeccable black-and-white compositions and probing long takes, Roma is visually mesmerizing, shot on location and filled to the brim with human details and nuances, given ample time to live and breathe. City streets are abuzz with activity, a powder keg that we soon learn is ready to blow, while a seemingly tranquil home mirrors the uneasiness with destructive tension lurking just below the surface. The director views events both large and small through the same non-judgmental lens, ignoring contrived plot points and giving as much weight to the uncomfortable end of a relationship as he does to the beginning of a new life — as much consideration to a family Christmas party as he does to the Corpus Christi massacre.
Serving as his own director of photography, Cuarón has captured life itself, filled with moments both quiet and noisy alike, and though his perspective may come off as a bit on the clinical side, he still finds time to see the beauty in the mundane. It’s these asides that can have a hypnotic effect, these weird tangents that feel the most authentic, as if the camera were simply set down in the middle of reality without anyone noticing. Firing pistols during a picnic, catching a matinee movie, a day at the beach, waking the kids for school; we are there, and it’s captivating. (Patrick Murphy)
Alex Garland’s followup to Ex Machina may be an even more confident and thought-provoking piece of cult sci-fi. It’s certainly more terrifying, trading anxiety about human replacement by machine for human replacement by something less defined — an alien mutation of nature at the very least. Annihilation expands on the Jeff Vandermeer novel, using the basic story as an outline for an adventure into the unknown that recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but with more automatic weapons and a feminist bent.
A team of five women is sent into the Shimmer, an alien aura surrounding a patch of Florida swamp where flora and fauna have become genetically altered. Peculiar lapses in time, Cronenbergian body growths, and bastardized versions of God’s creations (including the grizzliest “bear” ever put on film) ensue as our heroines cope with their physical and emotional defects as human beings (guilt, grief, depression, disease, and fear). The alien itself is almost like cancer, expanding and consuming and transmogrifying every living thing it touches.
Garland attempts to do the same to his audience, recognizing that the most disturbing answer is a mirror reflected back on us — in this case, on a rainbow-colored humanoid mimic. Though the ending may be predictably opaque, it’s no less than what we want, demand, and deserve for our trippy sci-fi. (Shane Ramirez)
47.) Take Shelter
Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols’s sophomore feature and second collaboration with actor Michael Shannon (after Shotgun Stories), easily ranks among the decade’s best. A study of paranoia plaguing rural America, this psychological thriller hints at the director’s admiration of genre filmmaking, particularly in horror and natural disaster pics. Emotionally authentic and poignant, Take Shelter recalls the best of William Friedkin and Roman Polanski, tapping into inescapable anxiety as acutely as Friedkin’s Bug and Polanski’s Repulsion.
Michael Shannon delivers an unforgettable and powerful performance as Curtis LaForche; Shannon is famous for playing larger-than-life psychotics (Revolutionary Road, Bug to name a couple), but here his performance is subdued and restrained while shifting from stable to unstable. While struggling to come to terms with the truth, an explosive public breakdown (the film’s most intense moment) helps him see how little control he has over his life, and he realizes that the biggest threat to him and his family may just be himself. Shannon’s riveting lead performance is a prime example of his ability as an actor, proving yet again that he is one of the all-time greats.
Jeff Nichols has masterfully crafted a story that is both heartbreaking and harrowing, creating an aura of unease and uncertainty of how it will all end. Nichols opts for a slow burn, squeezing out every ounce of tension by carefully choosing which of his dreams he allows us to see in alarming detail, and which are kept offscreen and only spoken of. To add to the doubt, Nichols enriches his narrative with tiny details to expand on character development: Curtis’ dismissal of religion and church, the death of his father, his troubled past with his mother, a conflict with his brother, his managerial skills at work, and so on. Best of all, Nichols refuses to allegorize the narrative, and simply evaluates the onset of schizophrenia with an acute eye. There is no passing judgement, but there is also no clear understanding. (Ricky D)
46.) Green Room
By far one of the most economical works of the decade, Green Room is a barnburner of a film. With the pacing and grimy aesthetic of a grindcore or hardcore album, Jeremy Saulnier’s 2016 follow-up to the acclaimed Blue Ruin is a tight, visceral slash to the body. Featuring one of Anton Yelchin’s final (and best) performances, the film wastes no time placing its characters and the audience in a tense standoff between a punk band and neo-nazis. Where Green Room burns brightest in its trimming of fat from the screenplay, providing a non-stop thrill ride with no character lacking purpose.
Saulnier continues his penchant for violence in Green Room to extravagant effect. As the Ain’t Rights travel through the Pacific Northwest, they are eventually in desperate need of money, and are led to a sketchy bar outside of Portland. After finishing their set to an audience of neo-nazis and skinheads, the band heads to the titular green room only to find a dead body lying on the floor. What follows is a tense negotiation and standoff from band leader, Pat (Yelchin) and the leader of the skinheads (Patrick Stewart), ultimately culminating in a small-scale game of war as the band tries to push their way out of the venue and to freedom. Green Room isn’t just a film that wants to put an audience on the edge of their seat — it wants them to feel clammy, tense, and uneasy.
Saulnier structures the film like a game of chess, teasing out what dangers lie ahead by pushing characters logically forward and pulling them back once the opponent’s hand is seen. As the screws are turned, it becomes increasingly apparent how much of a role every single character has. No one is there purely to kill; each serves a greater purpose in the conflict, and Saulnier explores different personalities within the group of skinheads. These aren’t just neo-nazis, and that’s a thing other directors might not have tackled. It’s not to say they are sympathetic characters, but they are not one-dimensional. Watching group dynamics play out is Green Room’s strong suit, as the band wrestles with the futility of their situation while the skinheads try to keep their cool as the situation spirals further and further out of their grasp. The inclusion of Imogeen Poots’ uncertain ally adds a further wrinkle to the band’s rapport with one another.
Green Room does so much with so little that it defined itself as one of the most metal releases of the decade. A real DIY-attitude in almost every regard, there aren’t many films that can just keep moving without leaving the audience behind. It doesn’t smother you with its gore, instead letting it breathe for just long enough before breaking into another frenzy of violence and despair. A true contender for one of the best thrillers of the 2010s and a staple in any midnight madness programme. (Christopher Cross)
45.) The Florida Project
The Florida Project continues director Sean Baker’s realistic depiction of the unfortunate, but with a heartfelt look at the way our futures are shaped. The film pushes Brooklynn Prince into the limelight as another child star that hopefully maintains the same bravado throughout her career that she embodies in this. All the while, Baker captures the innocence of a child, as well as the factors that influence the person they’ll become — and whether that’s a good or bad result is up to you. Anchored by a brilliant performance from Willem Dafoe as a motel owner reining in a community of the lower class and less fortunate, The Florida Project shows the depravity and the goodness that can be found within the cracks of society. Utilizing bright colors infrequently ignored locations gives the film its sense of hope, where it would otherwise be easy to grab hold of desperation and let it drag you to your lowest lows.
While the film is primarily focused on Brooklynn Prince’s character and how she spends her days, the greatest impact comes from how her mother’s actions and behaviors influence and affect her daughter. You learn to dread the moments spent with the mom, but realize that decisions she makes are born out of a place of perceived desperation. And at the same time, you learn to love the relationship between the mom and daughter because it’s pure and real. The complications exist within their lives, but they power through them, even if it means dragging each other through the mud to get to the endpoint. The Florida Project mines the mother-daughter relationship for those brief moments that are relatable. It lets you care about its characters without having to like them, in a situation that is sometimes difficult to find joy within. The movie then caps itself off with one of the happiest tearjerker moments of the decade, which is why it stands as Sean Baker’s most fully realized film. (Christopher Cross)
Despite a premise that screams “Adam Sandler movie,” Spike Jonze’s Her is an insightful commentary, a great conversation starter, and one of the most thought-provoking movies about the nature of love that has ever been made. Whether this look at the relationship between a human being and an artificial intelligence is ultimately sweet or eerily prescient remains subjective, but a very intelligent script and a fantastic performance from Joaquin Phoenix toys with preconceived notions about romance by establishing a strong, happy connection in a world where people talk more to their various devices than they do to each other.
With a curiosity, humor, and intelligence that makes for a believably engaging essence, the A.I. called Samantha feels so lifelike that it’s easy to let slip that there’s actually no one on the other end. But Jonze never forgets to remind the audience that there’s a physical side to human connections; scenes of overt sexual nature and magical flashbacks depict fleeting moments and images of dazzling beauty that reveal more about love than any proclamation could. These wisps hit hard; deep feeling is the sum of many parts, some so microscopic that they seem insignificant until recalled many years later with a smile or tear. The emotion is something shared, rooted in existence, in being alive.
Can a machine love? The question has been posed in film since the Tin Man first acquired a
clock heart. Samantha is so plausible in its own curiosity, ambitions, and desires that audiences will likely want to believe. But every time the ruse begins to take over, Her provides a jolt that reacquaints us with the fact that its heartfelt voice stems from calculated, artful programming. Samantha has no body, no breath, no life; it knows why you cry, but it’s something that an operating system can never do. Without the constraint of gravity, can it feel the weight of another person? Is love more earthy than ethereal? One of the best things about Her is that it doesn’t lead to any sure conclusions. Different perspectives will lead to different results, making for something endlessly debatable and supremely fascinating. (Patrick Murphy)
43.) Holy Motors
In Holy Motors, the director makes a brief appearance at the start of the film. Awakening from his sleep, he wanders out of his bedroom and unlocks a barricaded door using a key fleshed into his index finger. The door opens, and he walks through a dimly lit corridor that leads him in the midst of a sold-out movie theater. It’s a dreamlike introduction that sets the tone for a succession of vignettes, a series of fantasies within fantasies and stories within stories, all punctuated through increasingly absurd set-ups that blur boundaries between life and art, acting and living, cinema and dreams.
The dream metaphor for film viewing is one of the most persistent metaphors in both classical and modern film theory and nobody knows this better than the French, who through the years have written countless theories of the topic. Leos Carax challenges our expectations of the narrative by indulging us in something else: a bizarre glimpse of the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the dream world. Holy Motors is the product of an expansive vision; it is ecstatic, provocative and a loving tribute to cinema as well. It’s also a carefully structured work of art — reflective, palpable, playful, absurd, precise and entirely engrossing. It is a prime reminder of why cinema is so treasured and celebrated.
In this film, as in life, nothing is explained, and things just get stranger by the minute. When most movies these days produce nothing but the ordinary, a movie like Holy Motors is a treasure to behold, and is worthy of multiple viewings. This preposterous piece of filmmaking is exhilarating, opaque, and heartbreaking — a truly unique work of art, and the sort that comes along once in a lifetime. Carax’s baroque imagination leads us into our own obsession to untangle the spools of film and dream. We are never sure of what just happened, but nonetheless, we leave mesmerized. (Ricky D)
Pantos Cosmatos’ second feature (after his criminally overlooked Beyond the Black Rainbow) is not especially easy viewing, and unquestionably is not for all tastes, but Mandy is an extraordinary film no less — one touched with moments of crazed inspiration and imagery that reaches beyond language to something primal and original. And while I can’t guarantee you will like it, Mandy will no doubt blow your mind, kick your ass, and burn in your subconscious long after the credits roll.
Cosmatos has gone on record to say that his 2010 debut film, Beyond the Black Rainbow (a brilliant pastiche of 1970s sci-fi and horror), was inspired by his childhood obsession with the VHS box art of horror movies that he wasn’t allowed to watch when he was a young boy. Mandy feels like a companion piece to Black Rainbow, if only more self-aware, and features a strong serving of heavy metal iconography, along with Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged. If a bloody, hallucinogenic nightmare featuring gooey practical effects and a chainsaw-wielding Nicolas Cage sounds like your cup of tea, then Mandy is a film you might want to see.
The revenge film is an over-saturated genre, but Mandy is in a class of its own; it’s safe to say that no one has ever made a revenge film quite like it. This is experimental genre filmmaking at its very best. It’s not for the faint-hearted and should be approached with caution, but if you don’t mind the copious amounts of bloodshed, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Expertly directed and superbly conceived, Mandy is an astonishing achievement that packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch. Only two films into his career, Cosmatos is poised to become one of the boldest filmmaking talents of his generation. (Ricky D)
41.) The Witch
Bringing folk horror to new heights, The Witch is an incredibly haunting beast that may move slow, but backs it up with immense strength at the right moments. When it came out in 2015, there was a kind of mini-renaissance going on in the horror genre, with indie films getting mainstream attention and unique ideas being put at the forefront of the genre. The Witch was amongst these, with folk horror being more of a general gimmick that didn’t quite pack a punch in most cases. This film breaks that down and puts forth something truly chilling.
A mysterious entity in the woods plagues an already struggling, isolated 17th-century family, and the supernatural side of the witch herself amplifies the uncomfortableness of family turmoil and a lack of food. The performances of the cast are put front and center, and the emotion that flows out is moving. It may be a slow burn of a horror film, but every minute of it oozes this tension and foreboding.
Imagery is always a big focus point in folk horror, as the unique creatures or supernatural events are often things just begging to be lavishly created. And with The Witch, we get that in spades, from the disturbing woman in the woods to a scene that brings forth strong parallels with Francisco Goya’s painting, Witches’ Flight.
It’s a special film in a lot of ways, from the twist on the genre to the full embrace of folk-horror, to the dialogue being influenced by or taken directly from historical sources surrounding witches. The Witch stands out not just at the very top of folk-horror, but amongst the most impactful horror films of the entire decade. (Shane Dover)
PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE | PART FOUR | PART FIVE
‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie
The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.
Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.
Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.
Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.
There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.
Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.
Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.
Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces
Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.
I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.
The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.
Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.
Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker
Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative life to startling effect.
Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young) are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.
Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.
Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.
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