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.
Dark Night of the Soul
Jordan Cronk on Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia begins and ends with shots of windows. In the first, the camera, already close up to a smudged pane of glass, pushes in further until the focus adjusts and three anonymous men, seated around a small table in a rundown garage, come into clear view, their conversation inaudible. In the second, which comes 155 minutes and several revelations after the first, a man stares out the window of a coroner’s office, his profile situated at a sharp angle from the glass, before slowly turning to exit the frame. This time, the camera remains stationary as sounds from the medical facility fill the soundtrack and the scene cuts to black.
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s sixth feature, released in 2011, is structured around dozens of similarly banal moments. Each is of little consequence on its own but, taken together, these moments form something far greater. At once a diagnosis of humanity’s fundamentally existential plight and a formal inquiry into an entire lineage of cinematic modernism, Ceylan’s masterpiece feels, eight years on, strikingly prescient in its dissection of national identity (Turkey would enter the Syrian Civil War just months after the film’s premiere) and its appraisal of a filmic tradition on the brink of obsolescence. Bringing certain formal and conceptual conceits pioneered by the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Michelangelo Antonioni to bear on an age of nascent conflict in the Middle East, it’s the rare film openly built on the legacy of its forebears that itself has gone on to influence the look and feel of a wide variety of European art-house cinema. That Ceylan has used his approach here as a kind of template for his subsequent work, making mostly cosmetic alterations to its sprawling yet precise infrastructure, speaks as well as anything to the film’s singular accomplishments.
An almost metaphysical reconsideration of the police procedural, Anatolia follows for much of its runtime a group of government and law enforcement officials as they escort a murder suspect named Kenan (Firat Tanis) and his accomplice Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz) across the Central Anatolian steppe in search of a body they’ve buried somewhere amongst the rolling hillsides. Set over a single evening, the film’s extended first half picks up from the opening prologue, with Kenan and Ramazan, two of the three men seen through the window of the first shot, now under the watchful eye of a talkative police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan), a pensive prosecutor (Taner Birsel), and a world-weary doctor (Muhammet Uzuner). (While implied, it’s only later revealed that the third man, Yasar, played by Erol Erarslan, is indeed Kenan and Ramazan’s victim.) In these ravishingly shot and choreographed passages—many framed in long shot by the director’s frequent cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki—Ceylan establishes a patient rhythm and an air of unease by drawing on the inherent tedium and longueurs of the investigative process, something nine out of ten movies elide in favor of forced dramatics and convenient epiphanies.
Instead, Ceylan pushes the temporal dimensions of the investigation to the forefront, allowing entire scenes to play out as vehicles slowly weave their way through the landscape, or as characters wander free from the group to stare off into the night sky. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, the camera tracks an apple in real time as it falls from a tree and rolls down a hill into a nearby creek—a blatant nod to a similarly intrepid thigh bone in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).
While this description may make the film sound leaden or uneventful, the execution is thrilling, rarely lacking in narrative momentum. With a script by Ceylan, his wife and frequent collaborator Ebru Yapıcı Ceylan, and Ercan Kesal, Anatolia is as much a feat of formal ingenuity as it is a masterful display of writing qua writing, strung together as a series of lengthy and digressive conversations amongst the characters that touch on everything from prostate problems to the textural nuances of cheese and yogurt. Assuming many characteristics of what was, around the time of this film’s release, often disparagingly referred to as slow cinema, the film engages art-house tropes only to undermine and reorient them, resulting in multiple moments of deviously self-effacing humor. At one particularly tense juncture, a crime scene photographer points out the prosecutor’s resemblance to Clark Gable, an observation he initially brushes off but which, when said a second time, quickly instigates a fit of laughter among the entire group, as if a behind-the-scenes joke subliminally made its way into the drama. Looking just off-camera, the prosecutor composes himself and the scene continues. Anatolia is built around moments like these, set pieces that function at once as structural markers and as subtle conveyors of character detail.
The film’s centerpiece sequence is its most transcendent. Exhausted and hungry, the group arrives in the dead of night at the home of the local mayor (Ercan Kesal), where they’re welcomed for a warm meal and a quick rest. While they eat, the electricity goes out, tempering the convivial atmosphere. As the mood grows uneasy and conversations go quiet, the mayor’s daughter (Cansu Demirci) emerges from the shadows to serve tea to the guests. Bathed in candlelight, she appears like a vision, her presence angelic as she descends on this hyper-masculine parable with grace and serenity. Meanwhile, in the next room, Kenan is greeted by the ghost of the man he killed—another vision, this one several degrees more ominous. As he does throughout the film, Ceylan allows these scenes to breathe and unfold as if guided by the guilt-ridden souls of the characters rather than by the dictates of genre; not unlike Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, released just one year prior, Anatolia is a radical reproach to our morbid fascination with violence and human cruelty, and in that sense something like a preemptive rejoinder to the bevy of true crime dramas that have begun to seem like a cottage industry in its wake.
Told piecemeal over the course of the following day, the film’s second half details the discovery, transportation, and eventual dissection of the victim’s corpse. Here we see the absurdity of the bureaucratic process in action: a misplaced body bag, complaints over antiquated autopsy equipment, and the willful disregard of evidence (specifically dirt in the victim’s lungs) in order to expedite the postmortem examination. It’s funny, but then again, it’s not. Over and over, Ceylan asks the viewer to confront these sorts of contradictions and reflect on the ambiguities of the human condition (including the implications of Kenan’s tacitly acknowledged relationship with Yasar’s wife, played by Nihan Okutucu). Such a nuanced, even provocative dialectic would arguably be lost in the Bergmanesque melodrama and philosophical sweep, respectively, of the director’s subsequent Winter Sleep (2014) and The Wild Pear Tree (2018). Key to Anatolia’s success and resonance is its reflexive form of critique; a masterful interrogation of the notion of form verses function (not to mention a kind of working model of Deleuze’s concept of the time-image), the film constantly negotiates the terms of its own construction and its role as a window into the soul of our shared existence. Not so much conceptual as shrewdly conscious, it’s a work that reconciles its constituent parts on a scene-by-scene basis, never advancing until it has formally justified the narrative ideas put forth in any given sequence. Among other, more self-evident attributes, it may be the foremost work of film criticism produced this decade.