The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
The Naked City
Lawrence Garcia on Margaret
It’s something of a miracle that Margaret exists at all. Saying this is not just a matter of reckoning with the outsized ambition and accomplishment of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore feature, which starts with a fatal bus accident inadvertently caused by 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), before spinning out into an entropic expanse of overlapping dramas. To reckon with the film, one must acknowledge its unusually arduous post-production travails. Though shot in 2005, Margaret was subsequently mired in a litany of lawsuits, sparked by Lonergan’s inability to satisfactorily winnow his film down to the 150-minute runtime stipulated by Fox Searchlight Pictures. The years following resulted in at least three different cuts: a version edited by Dylan Tichenor at the behest of producer Gary Gilbert, whose protracted litigation against Fox Searchlight and Lonergan ended only in 2014; a 165-minute cut edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, put together as both a personal favor (Lonergan previously co-wrote 2002’s Gangs of New York) and act of artistic advocacy; and the contractual 150-minute cut, finally assembled by Lonergan himself. It is this last version that was quietly released in the fall of 2011, at which point it was drowned in the deluge of awards-season favorites—that is, until it became a critical cause célèbre, culminating in a formal petition to Fox Searchlight to make the film more readily available. In July 2012, a three-hour “extended cut”—Lonergan has been careful not to call it a “director’s cut”—was released on home video, and if its place on this poll is any indication, Margaret’s reputation has risen steadily since.
At the time, this outcome might have seemed inspirational—proof that personal art can triumph within an inhospitable cinematic landscape. But apart from exemplifying the dangers of survivorship bias, the case gestures to a number of marketplace shifts that have occurred in the intervening time—foremost the fact that Fox Searchlight Pictures is now a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, which Scorsese took aim at when he called Marvel movies “not cinema.” Without relitigating the endless arguments incited by that pronouncement, it’s enough to observe that Margaret emerged, however belatedly, into a far less risk-averse landscape than now exists at the end of the decade. Lonergan received widespread acclaim for his 2016 follow-up Manchester by the Sea, a sorrow-stricken portrait of incalculable loss and Catholic guilt—but it’s no knock to say that, in at least its formal approach, it offers a less precarious proposition than its predecessor.
Indeed, it seems somehow wrong to even describe Margaret as finished. Appropriately enough given the wending paths of its volatile teenage heroine, the film occupies a state of arrested transformation, as if on the cusp of an epiphany that never quite arrives. Fragmentation and uncertainty dominate its narrative lines, and its world gives the impression of being constantly broken down and remade before our very eyes. Consider the early diner scene between Lisa and her admirer Darren (John Gallagher Jr.) that is regrettably missing from the film’s theatrical cut. From a high-angle shot of the restaurant space, the camera slowly zooms into the booth in which Lisa haltingly yet unambiguously rejects Darren’s tender advances—though what’s crucial is that, by means of a precisely layered soundscape, we hear the banal conversations unfolding all around. The shot’s steady spatial movement might bring to mind the graceful glide across a Berlin subway car in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), which is accompanied by hushed voiceover that transmits the thoughts of a set of weary commuters. But unlike Wenders, Lonergan here commits to the exterior viewpoint that cinema is naturally geared towards, offering not a set of mellifluous murmurings, but a discordant din. Later, in the midst of a talk between Lisa and her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), we cut to a shot that drifts across the facade of their apartment complex, the lateral movement set to conversational snippets of various New York stories.
The function of such passages is clear—they decenter Lisa from the narrative, and prevent Margaret from becoming her personal “moral gymnasium,” a phrase Lisa unwittingly borrows from George Bernard Shaw when talking to her absent father (Kenneth Lonergan) over the phone. Paquin’s ostensible heroine is self-absorbed, inconsiderate, changeable, obnoxious, prone to bouts of self-dramatization—a solipsistic teenager in other words—and Lonergan sets up what might seem like a clear dramatic trajectory for her. But he then proceeds to destabilize it with all manner of jagged movements and discursive developments, an approach that’s naturally more pronounced in the extended cut, where for lengthy stretches the inciting incident ceases to feel like an inciting incident at all. As Lisa becomes consumed by guilt for lying about whether or not the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) ran a red light, and attempts to become accountable for her role in the accident, the city itself—depicted in a series of symphonic interludes—seems to bear down on her, threatening to burst her privileged bubble. Most vividly, Lisa’s climactic outburst at a lawyer’s office, the on-screen endpoint of the arduous affair, leads into a Pakula-esque overhead shot of Lisa fleeing into the streets of Manhattan, her anguished burst of emotion amplified by a cue from Don Giovanni, then dispersed into a sea of anonymity.
On paper, Margaret has all the trappings of high melodrama: Joan’s relationship with businessman Ramon (Jean Reno), which ends with his fatal heart attack and funeral; Lisa’s halting relationship with Darren, her infatuation with snobbish senior Paul (Kieran Culkin), and her affair with her high school math teacher (Matt Damon); her unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion; and her tenuous relationship with Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the best friend of the bus accident victim (Allison Janney). But counterposing the story’s expected emotional sweep, indicated by the film’s use of opera, classical music, and Nico Muhly’s symphonic score (more judiciously deployed in the extended cut), is its fine-grained attention to conflict. As Manchester by the Sea would further prove, Lonergan possesses an uncanny ability to modulate huge swaths of emotion with acute behavioral observations and his exacting ear for the cadences and syntax of dialogue. Nigh-unparalleled in American pictures this decade is Margaret’s commitment to delineating the countless convolutions of language and communication: Joan and Ramon’s abortive discussion on the distinctions between brava, bravi, and bravo; Emily and Lisa clashing over the latter’s use of the word “strident”; a heated restaurant discussion on Palestine that ends when one participant uses the phrase “the Jewish response.”
The last example points to a peculiar fact of Margaret’s inclusion in end-of-this-decade discussions, as its post-9/11 sociopolitical context places it in the last decade (a number of Lisa’s classroom debates revolve around the Iraq War and U.S. involvement in the Middle East). Its intended release, after all, was closer to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), another anguished post-9/11 reckoning in which Paquin also plays a significant role. No political allegory, Margaret nonetheless shows Lisa colliding with forces that have thus far remained abstract to her: the workings of the police force; the intricacies of the courts, the law, and litigation; as well as the unspoken boundaries of adult life. In her attempts to right a moral wrong, she finds herself unable to assert herself in a world where everything seems to conspire to stop her from doing so. But of course it’s worse than that, for as one of Lisa’s classmates suggests during a discussion of King Lear’s “flies to wanton boys” passage, if there is a higher consciousness, how can we, limited as we are, claim to ascribe intentionality to it? (Malevolence and cruelty are, after all, a kind of comfort, for they justify paranoia; more terrifying is a fatal indifference that we cannot even begin to comprehend.) And whether one accepts the interpretation or not, the salient aspect here is the impossibility of fully conveying one’s point of view to another.
What’s at stake in Margaret, then, is no less than the fact of Lisa’s existence in the world: not just the limitations of her youth but also the essential separateness of her being. (To put it another way, Lonergan’s film is concerned with the philosophical problem of other minds.) Amidst its nearly continuous accretion of conflicts, the film articulates the ways by which we attempt to bridge this gap, if such a thing is even possible. Through language, of course, in all its ineluctable imperfection—but also through emotion, which in turn comes with the knowledge that it dulls with age, directly addressed in the film’s title, which is taken from the poem “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. (“... It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”) We may wince at the intensity of Lisa’s impassioned outbursts, while also knowing that we may never again feel as fervently as she does—for despite what Emily says while chastising Lisa for “being very young,” the line between “caring more” and “caring more easily” is not so easily defined.
Essential to Margaret’s achievement is its uncanny transmission of experience—its acute ability to immerse the viewer into a veritable “pattern of life,” as Lonergan put it in a New Yorker interview on the film. But even more than that, it manages to convey the mysterious process of that very transmission: the underlying reason that we, as critics and viewers, return to such works, and why we engage in such fleeting, occasionally pointless-seeming grasps at consensus. After all, agreement in such things, despite the multiplicity of essentially separate, irreconcilable viewpoints involved, speaks to, at the very least, a sense of shared experience. It’s fitting, then, that Margaret ends where it does: in the grand halls of the Metropolitan Opera House, with Lisa and Joan, the film’s fractious mother-daughter pair, holding each other and weeping through a rendition of “Barcarolle” from Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. The notion that art might be able to vault barriers of language and emotion to become an act of communal catharsis is perhaps naïve. But the supreme delicacy and power of this sequence comes from the fact that, for as long as the film lasts, we fully believe that it can.