Sinema’s Ten Favourite Films of the Decade
It used to be that television programmes were just a way to fill in the time while broadcasters earned their keep through advertising. It used to be that films were where people would go for storytelling, breathtaking visuals, and thought-provoking entertainment.
A sea change has descended on all of us this decade with the advent of streaming and an all-around bigger emphasis on television shows. It seemed like the roles have reversed. More and more so, cinema is now home to movies that are either feature-length commercials for toys, or big budget consumables looking for a quick first weekend box office cash in. Meanwhile, television series shines on as the premier platform for spectacular storytelling with budgets to match Hollywood.
It is with this role reversal where it is difficult not to ask, “why are there still cinemas around?” It is within these uncertain times where the Sinema team determines to answer that question. Take away the unavoidable fireworks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the almost endless dirge of pointless remakes – there is a still a lot to love in cinema. Be it because of incredible cinematography or brilliantly nuanced stories, these are just some of the reasons why we loved this decade of film.
Nicholas Lee, Content Writer
Reign of Assassins 劍雨 (2010)
Director: Su Chao-Bin 蘇照彬
As a fan of the Wuxia genre, which literally translates to “martial heroes”, the past decade has been a huge surprise. After its popularity in the 70s and revival in the 90s, the wuxia genre has been pretty stagnant, with the exception of a few surprising gems in the 2000s, the most notable being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And so, just as I thought the wuxia genre was coming to an end (again), the 2010s proved me wrong.
Besides the usual wuxia film directors like Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-ping, this decade saw a number of already famous directors making their first wuxia film, such as Peter Chan’s Wu Xia, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin and Derek Yee’s Sword Master.
However, my favourite, though not the best, would have to be screenwriter turned director Su Chao-Bin’s 2010 wuxia film Reign of Assassins. Its mystery elements give a fresh perspective when paired with the genre, and its emphasis on zen Buddhism and humanity reflects the roots of wuxia novels and films of the past. While most wuxia films centre around the villain planning world domination or attaining supreme powers, Reign of Assassins goes in a completely opposite direction, where the villain stirs up so much chaos all for a very personal reason that when revealed, seems both comical yet tragic at the same time.
And this is where Su’s script shines. He presents the villain as just an ordinary human being instead of an over the top maniac, and gets audiences to empathise with him. All the characters in Reign of Assassins have a duality to them, bringing out the darkest and brightest sides of humanity. While creating stylish and breath-taking sword fighting sequences, Su doesn’t forget to craft complex characters with depth and emotional moments throughout the film.
Drug War 毒戰 (2013)
Director: Johnnie To 杜琪峯
For a director who has spent most of his career promoting Hong Kong cinema, Johnnie To’s Drug War seemed a little worrying when it was announced to be a co-production with mainland China, due to the strict censorship and the film’s themes on crime and drugs. However, once the film started, it was obvious there was nothing to worry about. In fact, Drug War is Johnnie To outdoing Johnnie To.
Crime dramas tend to develop in one of two directions: the first is to let audiences support the police characters as they uphold justice and take down the criminals, the second is to humanise the criminals and let audiences empathise with them. Undercover films are a little more complicated, having to balance both directions and make audiences support the police while also understanding the brotherhood and humanity in the criminals.
On the surface, Drug War seems to develop in the first direction, with the main character being a police captain and the hero of the film, but it actually develops in the second direction, with Louis Koo as the face of the criminals and also an allegory of the collaboration of Hong Kong’s and China’s film industries. With the drug syndicate being Hong Kong characters and the police being mainland characters, it’s not difficult to see the hidden metaphor of the film. And when the film reaches its intense finale, it is like watching a master filmmaker flex his skills, presenting a devastating shootout with such clarity and precision without the help of excess dialogue and music.
The Handmaiden 아가씨 (2016)
Director: Park Chan-wook 박찬욱
Adapted from the English novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden was Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film, marking his return to Korean cinema after his 2013 English-language debut, Stoker. Having read the novel before watching the film, a Korean adaptation of an English novel sounded like a disaster waiting to happen, due to the difference in culture and history. However, with a history of adapting mangas and novels (Oldboy and Thirst), Park proves once again to be fantastic at making film adaptations of books. Replacing the Victorian era Britain in the novel with 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule, Park effectively takes a foreign novel and infuses it with an original flavor that makes the adaptation stand as its own film. Luckily for fans of the novel, despite the changes in historical settings and surprising twists added to the film, The Handmaiden still remains faithful to the essence of the novel.
The Handmaiden is an erotic thriller that tackles social and class taboos through a lesbian love story of a pickpocket-turned-maid and a noble lady. While the physical acts between the two lovers in the film may seem like pornography, the film actually examines sexuality and love through their daily interactions, and lust is no longer purely lust when love and affection is added into the mix. Park also uses the love of two women to critique patriarchy in society, and The Handmaiden delivers a tense and heartwarming tale of love, betrayal and redemption.
Rigor Mortis 殭屍 (2013)
Director: Juno Mak 麥浚龍
Any fan of Hong Kong cinema will definitely have watched, or at least heard of, the jiangshi (literally translated as “stiff corpse”, though more commonly known as hopping vampires) films popular in the 80s and 90s. Sadly, the jiangshi genre declined in popularity in the mid 90s, and with the death of actor Lam Ching-ying, known for his iconic portrayals of Taoist priests in many jiangshi films, the jiangshi genre never made it back to its feet. Though there have been attempts at reviving the genre, none have succeeded so far. And so, when I watched Rigor Mortis, I was thrilled.
Rigor Mortis is extremely gratifying for fans of the genre, but it can also be enjoyed by audiences with no experience with the jiangshi genre. Juno Mak’s directorial debut reunites numerous actors known for their works in the genre, but with a totally different mood. While the classic films are mostly comedic in nature, Rigor Mortis is a full-on horror film with little to no moments of humour in it. An interesting point is the film’s producer, Takashi Shimizu, the creator of the Ju-On franchise, and there are elements of his style in some scenes. This pairing of jiangshi and J-horror brings a fresh take on the classic genre, giving it a new perspective. But for fans of the genre, it is impossible to overlook the casting of Chin Siu-ho as the main lead. From Chin’s influence on the genre in its heyday to him being a washed-out actor, then being casted in Rigor Mortis to play a washed-out actor of jiangshi films, the film highlights the cruelty of the industry and Chin’s undeniable legacy, just like Sunset Boulevard and Gloria Swanson.
Zombiepura 屍殺軍營 (2018)
Director: Jacen Tan
Even with obvious references to zombie-comedy films like Shaun of the Dead, Zombiepura ties the zombie genre with the army concept and manages to blend in loads of local jokes, especially poking fun at certain military protocols. Despite its pacing and story issues, Zombiepura holds a special place in my heart for its passion for the zombie genre and its guts to create something we have yet to see in Singapore cinema.
While it is no Train to Busan or One Cut of the Dead, Zombiepura is an important film of the decade. Though it isn’t very original, it is still an entertaining attempt at the popular genre. More importantly, it’s an encouragement to filmmakers to attempt more varieties of genre films in Singapore. Hopefully it opens the doors to more daring attempts at genre films locally.
Matthaeus Choo, Content Writer
The Lobster (2015)
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Set in a dystopian world where being single is criminal, David (Colin Farrell) checks into a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new partner after his breakup. Singles failing to do so will be transformed into an animal of their choice. Yet, the hotel’s inmates are largely undaunted by their uncertain fate and seek partners over the most particular yet trivial of similarities.
The Lobster is so unabashedly cynical on its take of modern romance that it’s hard not to laugh along with the absurdities. Humour and shocking acts of brutality are delivered in equal tones, completely blurring the line between the serious and surreal. To describe the characters as deadpan would be an understatement but they serve as the perfect conduits for the film’s witty script and superb performances.The Lobster flirts oh-so-closely to pretentious territory with its themes but ultimately straddles the line by its end to deliver a perfectly executed black comedy that is both strangely profound and hilarious.
The Raid (2011)
Dir. Gareth Evans
Despite only having a budget of a little over a million dollars, The Raid set the bar for action films throughout the decade. A special forces squad is tasked with infiltrating an apartment block and bringing in the ruthless crime lord who owns it. After the botched operation, Rama (Iko Uwais), a rookie of the squad, has to survive and fight his way out of the block filled to the brim with thugs and goons.
Every element of The Raid – even the film’s razor-thin plot – has only one purpose: to allow for its spectacular choreography to be on full display. Its action scenes are not riddled by jump cuts like the usual big budget Hollywood fare, nor is the camera static to highlight the flashy styles of Chinese martial arts like in the Ip Man series. Pencak silat, the martial arts used in this film, is far from graceful, and director Gareth Evans captures every hard-hitting punch and slam to incredible effect. The Raid is a clean dose of adrenaline that might as well have been injected intravenously. It is easily the best action film of the decade.
Wet Season 热带雨(2019)
Dir. Anthony Chen
I cannot think of a film – especially one made in Singapore! – that has moved me and got me thinking as much as Wet Season in quite some time. It poetically unravels the tale of Ling (Yeo Yann Yann), a Chinese language teacher, who forms an unorthodox bond with one of her students, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler).
At its core Wet Season is a character study of a middle-aged woman’s pursuit to fill her sense of belonging in – quite literally – a cold and gloomy world. The thematic pairing of rain and this theme was brilliantly framed. Director Anthony Chen’s intricate and almost mathematical devotion to constructing every frame and every minute movement was incredible to experience on screen. Yann Yann’s award-winning performance never fails to move and rattle the audience. It is a film that dares to dream and challenge, almost effortlessly cementing Singapore cinema’s position on the world stage.
Dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Not to be confused with Tommy Wiseau’s masterpiece, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is, by far, the most heart wrenching film I have seen this decade. 24-year old Joy (Brie Larson) has been held captive in an enclosed shed for the last seven years. She shares the space with her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), where she creates – to the best of her ability – the best environment possible for her child’s growth.
Brie Larson has a career-defining performance here as Joy, determined to shield her son from the reality of their horrifying situation while just barely able to keep herself together. The breadth of emotions she supplies with her trembling voice and pain-filled eyes is palpable and unforgettable. And right when you feel like the most intense and heart-grabbing parts of the film are over, Room never relents with gut punch after gut punch right till the end credits. It’s an immensely moving film about a mother’s undying love for her child that is impossible to sit through without crying.
Midnight In Paris (2011)
Dir. Woody Allen
Midnight In Paris never fails to enchant and mesmerise me every time I watch it. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a young Hollywood screenwriter on holiday with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) while working on his first novel. After a boring night with his fiancée and her friends, Gil decides to take a walk down the streets of Paris at midnight and finds himself stumbling into the 1920s, meeting various icons of the era.
Owen Wilson basically plays Woody Allen here (the director casts himself as the lead in most of his films), capturing his awkward charm and stutters without coming off as a cheap impersonation. The whole film feels like a theme park with how authentic the writers and artists of the Lost Generation were portrayed, and to see these characters brought to life by Allen’s clever script is always a joy to experience. While it may not be as hilarious or even as deep as Allen’s previous efforts, Midnight In Paris more than makes up with its seemingly endless supply of charm.