While there’s no cut-and-dry definition of the best film of the decade, some measures are better than others. For me, a decade-defining movie must be more than technically, critically or commercially successful. Many films from the 2010s met all of these criteria, all competent, some more memorable than others. After all, even the most holistic and unambiguous appreciation is no guarantee that the product will persist in our collective conscious for years to come.
So what makes the difference then? What sets apart the momentarily great from the transcendent? In a word, dynamism. How can art, film or otherwise, define its time unless it pulls off a magic trick of transforming and warping right before our very eyes? For a film to say something meaningful about its era is one thing. To still have an incessant voice, a stamp on culture several years after its release, is another thing entirely.
With that broad metric in mind, there is a clear winner here. It might not even be a close contest — the best movie of the decade is David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” As both a wildly entertaining tragedy of deteriorating friendships and a diagnosis on the impending future of technological communication, “The Social Network” perfectly straddles the line between watchability and cultural dynamism in a way that no other film from the decade does.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once admitted, “I’ve heard of Facebook, in the same way I’ve heard of a carburetor. But if I opened the hood of my car I wouldn’t know how to find it.” This information is important; Sorkin explicitly distinguishes his story from reality. Not once do the words “Based on a true story” appear across the screen. Yet that fact is what makes the film so compelling as an artifact of this decade. What Sorkin intended as a human drama with Facebook in its periphery ultimately speaks for itself about the woes, dangers and evils of the tech conglomerates that rule our lives. In this way, “The Social Network” is an unintentionally oracular statement more than it is a testament to Sorkin’s predictive instincts.
“Gretchen, they’re best friends.”
The collaboration of Fincher and Sorkin is perplexing on its surface — Sorkin is most concerned about the depth of his content where Fincher prefers a focus on structure and tone. Sorkin’s characters are snappy and shrewd where Fincher’s are idiosyncratic and futile. And yet the marriage of their work manages not only to retain the best qualities of both, but also adds synergy to them. Fincher is notorious for being a rigid perfectionist, so Sorkin’s esoteric, game-theoretic dialogue plays out with striking clarity. “But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you are a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole,” Rooney Mara’s (“A Ghost Story”) Erica Albright hisses at the end of the first scene. And the precision of those words stings.
Moreover, Fincher’s attention to immaculate set design and tendency toward claustrophobically immersive camerawork never falters. In particular, the Henley Royal Regatta race is an adrenaline shot of a scene, depicting the athletes as vivid, imperfect figures amid blurry, dreamlike scenery. While every other scene in the film is essentially a conversation, Fincher never misses an opportunity to let his characters’ violent undertones rudely shift the camera, or their positions in the frame tell us something new. It’s an easy movie to direct with obvious choices. But Fincher’s direction takes more than enough risks to impress.
“What sound is he making? Is that like a tsk?”
A scrawny college student with a backpack and a hoodie is sprinting across campus. He weaves through arches and alleyways, a shortcut here, a sidestep there. His humility is present; several trios of piano notes that seem to float and hover in your ears. His rage is palpable too — it’s a sinister, soul-shaking hum in the background. Together, these sonic textures communicate the tender darkness of Mark Zuckerberg. I’ve studied to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Oscar-winning score more than I’ve studied to anything else. It is a thrumming electronic abyss peppered with deeply comforting melodies. The industrial-techno beat of “In Motion” is followed promptly by the squeaking grittiness of “A Familiar Taste.” Hopeful chords can exist, if only for a fleeting moment, taken over by dissonance. Our characters chase their ambitions and only falter when those ambitions incite sour consequences. Dreams can reach only so far, long enough until that droning buzzy emptiness subsumes all, until friendships are only burdens.
While Reznor and Ross have identified a style to their score compositions, they are probably better for their work in Nine Inch Nails. But what I find most remarkable about the movie’s score is how little of a departure it actually is from the industrial rock band. Reznor is no stranger to writing depraved, lonely music. He has an uncanny ability to affirm one while dragging them further into his dark orbit. And that quality is precisely how he gives the score its lasting edge. Sometimes, we are all the kid behind the computer, fingers clacking furiously away into the void.
“We don’t know what it is yet.”
“The Social Network” imagines the beginnings of Facebook as a youthful, enterprising endeavor. “TheFacebook is cool,” Justin Timberlake’s (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) Sean Parker says. “You don’t want to ruin it with ads because ads aren’t cool.” And for all the things that the real life Facebook has become since the movie’s release, “cool” and “ad-free” are certainly not accurate descriptors. In Sorkin’s optimistic imagination, the company was created by people who didn’t understand what it was. If anything, reality has affirmed this narrative; only since the Brexit vote and the Cambridge Analytica scandal has the world woken up to the actual extent of political and social power the site has.
Actual events affect how we rewatch the film, but interaction goes both ways. Watching Jesse Eisenberg’s (“The Hummingbird Project”) real-life counterpart and his blabbering testimony on Capitol Hill is fascinating. He carries all the high-strung, geeky energy, but without the ease or the nonchalance of the character. He in every way has become the worst version of a lonesome coder who got dumped in a bar; more accurately, lonesome coder with his tendrils in control of global communication. It doesn’t matter that Facebook wasn’t started over a breakup at a Harvard bar. Whether we like it or not, Jesse Eisenberg’s performance has irreversibly shaped our perception of one of the biggest figures in tech today.
What better way for this decade to end then for Sorkin himself to pen a New York Times opinion lambasting Mark Zuckerberg? “The Social Network” is a movie that has dramatically changed since its release. Its interaction with culture is a conversation, not a statement. How its impact will shift in the future is impossible to tell, so we need to keep watching it.
But the actual experience of watching it isn’t boring, or a chore. It’s a delightful example of talented craftspeople working at the peak of their respective potentials. Our need for communication will never end. And, unfortunately, the deluge of creepy hacker tech figures might not either. “The Social Network” is a half-open window into the kind of loneliness that drives our desire to stay connected with each other.