AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

9 MOVIE EXPERTS ON THEIR TOP 5 FILMS OF THE DECADE

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Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)

This year marks the end of the second decade of the 2000s. In honor of this, we thought we’d take a look back at our decade with an end-of-year series.

The internet loves lists, especially year-end ones, and we’ll feed that love a little bit this December. We’ll be hosting seven lists of expert Decade-Best picks. Expect movies, games, writing, television, music, traditional visual arts, and one surprise list at the end. Each will include philosophers working in these and related areas, but also other academics whose work concerns these topics and people working in the relevant media.

Of course, all lists are imperfect, and it’s probably a little bit silly to try to rank all of these things. But what would the internet be without a little silliness? We hope you’ll find them useful for adding things to your own lists: to-watch, to-read, to-listen, and all sorts of other to-consumes.

Now, let’s see what the 2010s had to offer us in film!


Our contributors are:


Aleksey Balotskiy

Aleksey Balotskiy works on aesthetics and philosophy of art, and is currently
finishing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

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Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

  1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
    Compulsively rewatchable and endlessly rewarding, Certified Copy begins with the presentation of a clear animating idea: with art, “forget the original, just get a good copy.” At first, this idea appears to be little more than something for our leads to argue about as they navigate the lush Tuscan countryside, but as the nature of their relationship grows more mysterious, the distinction between original and copy (authenticity and performance) takes on new significance, effectively modulating our responses to every aspect of what we’re watching.
  2. The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015)
    A cinephilic fever dream. Those willing to surrender themselves to this hilariously deranged, otherworldly pastiche of early cinema styles will be rewarded with an experience unlike any other.
  3. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
    Toni Erdmann’s comedic set pieces are some of the funniest, most memorable scenes of the decade, but it is Ade’s compassionate depiction of Ines and Winfried’s quiet desperation that prevents the movie from feeling contrived, even as it begins veering toward the absurd.
  4. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, 2013)
    The Strange Little Cat may seem slight, but no other movie this decade accomplishes more with less. With its rigorous, hyperobservant gaze and viscerally affecting sound design, The Strange Little Cat infuses a series of otherwise unremarkable domestic vignettes with a peculiar rhythmic tension (cathartically released, then rebuilt throughout) that never fails to mesmerize.
  5. Finding Frances (Nathan Fielder, 2017)
    I suspect it is my love for Certified Copy and the sensibility required to make something like it that explains my strange affection for Finding Frances, the medium-transcending feature-length conclusion to the television series Nathan for You. Ostensibly documenting Fielder’s attempts to reunite an aging Bill Gates impersonator with his high school sweetheart, Finding Frances surprises at every turn, raising more questions than it’s interested in answering.


Dieter Declercq

Dr. Dieter Declercq is a lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kent. He’s
currently writing a book on Satire, Comedy and Mental Health (forthcoming with Emerald).

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Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

  1. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
    Farhadi’s meticulously constructed plot lets you piece together a complex story about family conflict. In the end, everybody loses. The scene in which Nader, recently separated from his wife, breaks down crying, while he washes his incontinent and demented father, is profoundly sad—and really made me consider the mortality of my own parents.
  2. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
    Universal Pictures decided to submit Get Out in the comedy category for the Golden Globes. That’s hardly out of the ordinary for a satire. Yet, although Get Out is a satire about race in the US, it’s not a comedy, which makes it extraordinary as a satire. Despite some funny moments, Peele’s film stands out in its genre by harnessing the psychological discomfort of horror to make its satirical points.
  3. Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, 2014)
    An interesting companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (from a different decade). Girlhood revisits the Parisian banlieus about 10 years after Nicolas Sarkozy dismissed them as full of racaille (scum). Although life for Sciamma’s protagonists is tainted by structural injustice, her highly stylized cinematography makes them shine (like diamonds).
  4. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)
    Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It had brilliantly satirized the politics of spin, introducing the world to the Scottish Darth Vader, Malcolm Tucker. I similarly expected The Death of Stalin to comment on totalitarian tendencies in contemporary politics. Only on a second viewing, I appreciated that Iannucci attempted something more ballsy: the plain ridicule of evil.
  5. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)
    This is a perfect film for a Friday evening. Booksmart is a great comedy, with superb dialogue and acting. Amy and Molly are on a quest to attend at least one party before graduating high school. Made me feel oddly wistful about preferring philosophy to partying during my undergraduate years.


Maggie Hennefeld

Maggie Hennefeld is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature at
the University of Minnesota, author of
Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes,
and co-editor of
UnwatchableAbjection Incorporated, and Cultural Critique.

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Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

My Top 5 Non-Genre Film Comedies of the 2010s…

It’s a tough time for comedy. Lulz have become the lingua franca of alt-right trolls, political satire may have provoked the election of Donald Trump, and genre comedies are to the 2010s what Britpop was to the 2000s: ABD (all but dead). On that note, it’s an even worse time for lists—Elena Gorfinkel recently put the nail in the coffin with her eloquent manifesto, “Against Lists,” published in Another Gaze: A Feminist Film Journal in the aftermath of the BBC’s ridiculous attempt to catalog the 100 greatest films directed by women. Given the demise of comedy and obsolescence of lists, my own offering to this evocative prompt—list your Top 5 movies of the Decade!—is neither a superlative list nor particularly funny. Instead, I ask what can cinema give us to render new sense from these dead forms?

With those musings, here are my top 5 genre-hybrid films that thematize mirthless or pathological laughter as a response to neoliberal precarity, environmental apocalypse, economic exploitation, and/or social alienation. Because the power of cinema is its ability to envelop us in a world that makes all the fragments momentarily cohere.

IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:

Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
A horror/comedy about neo-slavery and structural racism, Get Out rips screams from our throats amid the explosion of laughter, while tragic characters banished to dwell in a Fanonian “sunken place” cackle through the cracks in their negated consciousness, exemplified by Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who tries to protest, “No, No, No.”

Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher, 2018)
A joyful fool named Lazzaro seems perfectly content living for the present amid a world where bourgeois libidinal greed runs roughshod over the survival drive of immiserated sharecroppers and nerve-shattered con artists. Though abused by everyone around him in this devastating “modern fairytale,” Lazzaro (as in “lazzo,” i.e. joke or witticism from the commedia dell’arte) has no need to laugh because he is truly happy.

Joker (Todd Phillipps, 2019)
In a parable ripped from the pages of Horkheimer & Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment, an alienated sociopath pacified by the droning laugh tracks of “the culture industry” loses what little footing remains from Gotham City’s disintegrating social safety net. “The Joker” (née Arthur Fleck) laughs off-cue, flashing his card “Forgive my laughter: I have a condition,” and triggers to crisis the affects of neoliberal “zany” enjoyment, while unleashing violent street mobs in joker masks whose figurehead is none other than Charlie Chaplin.

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
“First as farce, then as tragedy” could be a tagline for this broken genre comedy about crafty preciarats (i.e. gig-working proletariats) whose comic arc toward success unravels into harrowing violence and world-ending abyss. Racially marked by their corporeal smell, always descending into terrible spaces, the happy-go-lucky parasites of a sociopathic upper crust find that their own laughter runs dry.

Edited By (Su Friedrich, ongoing…)
This is not a joke. What do the films All About Eve, Man With A Movie Camera, Boyhood, Breathless, Enamorada, The Iron Horse, The Secret Life of Bees, Singin’ in the Rain, Moonlight, Jaws, Contempt, Persona, Lawrence of Arabia, and Rome, Open City all have in common? They’re are all edited by…WOMEN!!! Experimental feminist filmmaker Su Friedrich is compiling a definitive, unfinished list of female film editors, which she’s curated into a humorously edited documentary consisting of 1-minute clips that you can watch on Vimeo. As Friedrich reveals, it’s the unrealized histories that still make us laugh.

**With thanks to the students in my Ph.D. seminar, “Theory on the Brink of Laughter.”**


Brian Montgomery

Brian Montgomery is a philosopher who works on the philosophy of language and
related topics in aesthetics. He is currently writing about norms of taste.

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Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2010)

I don’t think that the last ten years have been a particularly strong for cinema, but there have been bright spots, particularly in the first few years of the decade.

  1. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2010)
    Coming in at first place, I chose the disconcerting Greek drama, Dogtooth about a pair of parents who have sheltered their adult children from the outside world.  Its one of the most effective non-horror films I’ve ever seen at creating a sense of unease and dread.
  2. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
    It was difficult to pick just one film from Paul Thomas Anderson (his The Phantom Thread and Inherent Vice are my picks for the best films of 2017 and 2014), but I decided to go with The Master a retelling of the origins of Scientology with virtuoso performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  3. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
    Terrence Malick had a strong comeback and his most prolific decade in the 10’s, but in my estimation, his best was Tree of Life, which follows the life of a boy and tracks him up through his adult years where he experiences an existential crisis.
  4. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)
    Frances Ha, cowritten by and starring the supremely talented Greta Gerwig, is the best work of director Noah Baumbach’s career. It takes a very real and emotionally intimate look at the life of a 20-something drifter.
  5. How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)
    Finally, How to Survive a Plague is the best documentary of the decade, giving an emotional portrait of the heroes who saved lives in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.


Swetha Regunathan

Swetha Regunathan is a writer and filmmaker based in NYC. // IG: @regunomics

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Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018)

  1. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018)
    Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a quiet but deeply forceful coming of age story that resists lazy plot twists. A 13 year-old girl fumbles through her last days of middle school, bolstered by her well-meaning single dad and the subtle art of YouTubing. There couldn’t be a more apropos representation of what this decade’s culture has been: one long string of Instagram stories, vanishing as quickly as they were posted.
  2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
    Asghar Farhadi’s domestic drama is an arrow shot deep into contemporary Iran. Nader and Simin want a divorce. Their separation sets into motion a series of events that no one could have seen coming.
  3. OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016)This five-part documentary on the conditions that gave rise to OJ’s life and career, his trial of the century, and the aftermath is a post-mortem on the American dream. It is also binge-worthy, head-shaking true crime at its best.
  4. Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)
    In Lauren Greenfield’s delicious documentary, titular queen Jackie Siegel and her husband David aim to build the largest home in America, just outside Orlando. But the 2008 recession throws their real estate empire and family into chaos in a spectacular reversal of fortune. Greek tragedy gets the Real Housewives treatment, and – boy – is it painful to watch.
  5. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)
    Mike Mills’ snapshot of Santa Barbara in 1979 is sun-soaked, heartfelt and beautifully drawn. Archival montages of the SoCal punk scene complete this loving look into a mother and son trying to understand one another.

Francey Russell

Francey Russell is an assistant professor in the philosophy departments at
Barnard College and Columbia University, and occasionally writes about film and art.

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The Kid with a Bike (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2012)

These films explore possibilities for escaping, disrupting, or fighting the machineries of the dominant economic and social orders, and the extent and intimacy of our capture in them. In a small way, the films themselves provide minor aesthetic occasions for disruption, for exercises in political imagination, however brief.

  1. The Kid with a Bike (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2012)
    The extension of human care without violence or costs enacts a kind of real-world grace, an intervention of love in the trajectory of a small boy’s difficult life that is miraculous yet human. The Dardennes here use music for the first time, a repeated phrase of heartbreaking progress from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.
  2. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017)
    Ideas of grace, and martyrdom, are also explored in First Reformed, about a priest who pledges to keep a diary for one year, after which “it will be destroyed. Shredded, then burnt.” This is the first film I’ve seen to contemplate the as-yet-unthinkable spiritual costs of attempting to face up to a looming environmental apocalypse. Schrader keeps the pace measured until the final scene, where he sets the film aflame (“shredded, then burned”). Here one can glimpse Schrader’s irreverently trashy cinematic origins with movies like Cat People and The Canyons. To see that director make this weightiest of films is a dream sequence come true.
  3. BPM (Robin Campillo, 2017)
    BPM attends to the realities, and banalities, of political organizing, including scenes of the extended, frustrating, repetitive, urgent, and necessary debates at the ACT UP Paris meetings in 1992. In refusing to abbreviate the daily, collective mechanics of organizing, BPM demonstrates how a film’s manipulation of time can function to break cinema’s obsession with the individual and refocus attention on a genuine collective, so difficult for narrative film to render.
  4. Burning (Lee Chang-dong (이창동), 2018)
    In this film, a placid villain channels the intangible, intoxicating flows of global capital (played with exquisite blankness by Steven Yeun). He presents less as a specific individual than as a kind of noxious mist that goes unnoticed until you find yourself gasping for your last breath (or inhaling the fumes of a flaming car, as it happens).
  5. Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)
    Richard Dyer observes, “the notion of entertainment is in some sense utopian–expressing ideals about how human life could be organized and lived.” This film about precarious labor and friendships enacts a fantasy of the kinds of creative, supportive, joyful relations that might hold within and across social categories. What makes this film really magic rather than optimistic (which it isn’t) is that it imagines that such utopian possibilities might be enacted in the form of dance.


Elizabeth Scarbrough

Elizabeth Scarbrough is a lecturer in philosophy at Florida International University.
She writes on the aesthetics and ethics of cultural heritage sites, and is a former
art house film projectionist.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

  1. Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan (毕赣), 2018)
    Like Bi Gan’s first film, Kaili Blues, you get a poetic sense of (physical) place and time that I’ve never experienced in other films. The last hour is one (unbroken) shot *in 3D.* In my mind, this is one of the two movies ever produced to justify its use of 3D (the other is Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams). It’s fragmented and hard to follow but magical.
  2. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)
    Not the director’s most famous movie, but my favorite. I remember projecting this film on film and having a hard time tearing my eyes away from the screen to the cigarette burns (for reel changes). Bizarre, boldly colored, beautiful…and bloody.
  3. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
    Sorrentino’s La Dolce Vita. Sure – the movie is indulgent (it’s about indulgence!). A love letter (Dear John?) to Rome. I thought I was sick of movies about rich white dudes until I saw this one.
  4. Shoplifters (Hirozaku Kore-eda (是枝 裕和), 2018)
    A prolific filmmaker of the past ten years, all his movies are accessible and visually stunning. Shoplifters speaks to ethical grey areas and ‘familial’ love. Just thinking about the last scene makes me teary.
  5. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
    Documentaries deserve their own list – but this surely would be at the top of any ‘best of’ documentaries of the 21st-century list. Surreal non-fiction about Indonesian death squads reenacting their crimes as Hollywood movies.


Paul Schofield

Paul Schofield is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bates College. He works
on moral and political philosophy, as well as philosophy of film. He has written
papers on
The Red Shoes, A New Leaf, and Funny Games.

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Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers, 2013)

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers, 2013)
    Like its protagonist, Inside Llewyn Davis proceeds in a circle, taking two hours to deliver the audience back where it began. This week in the life of a 60s folk singer who is going nowhere is one of the most affecting portrayals of futility, failure, and depression ever filmed.
  2. A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)
    That everything and everyone will eventually be destroyed and forgotten is at once distressing and comforting. A Ghost Story keeps both sentiments in view as it tells the story of a woman who loves her partner, grieves his loss, moves on, and disappears altogether.
  3. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
    Whether a lowly waitress can command equality in her relationship with a famous, overbearing dressmaker, and what such equality might look like, are the questions motivating this costume drama. Vicky Krieps matches the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, typically a domineering presence himself, reproducing at a meta-level the satisfactions one is likely to find in the film’s narrative.
  4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
    The themes of identity, originality, authenticity, and artifice are ones that film as a medium is particularly well-suited to explore. They are also themes Kiarostami has returned to throughout his career, and they sit at the center of this film about a couple whose relationship seems to morph in puzzling ways before our eyes.
  5. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
    With its colorful depiction of its characters’ inner lives, Inside Out makes better use of animation than any other Pixar film. By treating with uncommon seriousness a young girl’s emotions, and by unexpectedly portraying sadness as an essential constituent of a healthy inner life, the film transcends its gimmicky premise and becomes surprisingly profound.


Matthew Strohl

Matthew Strohl is Professor of Philosophy at University of Montana.
He also has a blog where he regularly writes about movies.

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Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, 2010)

These five titles were my personal favorites from the last decade. Putting them together in list form is a way of expressing what cinema means to me. If you’re interested, look for a much longer decade retrospective on my blog later in the month.

  1. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, 2010)
    Mysterious parentage, multiple identities, cascading love triangles, multi-generational webs of causal entanglement and impossible coincidence, pirates, oaths of vengeance, nested flashbacks, elegant long takes spiraling through ballrooms and orphanages, light and shadow, memory and absence. Sublime.
  2. Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)
    A digital reverie about the materiality of the digital. Hemsworth refigures the hacker as another of Mann’s hyper-masculine existential convicts. The palpable chemistry between him and Tang Wei infuses the proceedings with ethereal romanticism.
  3. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)
    Subjective experience of time, extraneous information, frames within the frame, looking in from outside, looking out from inside, failures of understanding across social boundaries, oblique reflections, disorienting pairings of sound and image, the various roles of women in a patriarchal society, and of course, endless driving.
  4. A Woman’s Revenge (Rita Azevedo Gomes, 2012)
    It imbeds lush, embellished staging reminiscent of Rivette, Resnais, and Oliveira in a Brechtian framework that interrogates the default male point of view of cinema. Rita Durão is utterly withering, giving one of my favorite performances of the decade. Gorgeous and haunting.
  5. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯), 2015)
    Like all of Jia’s films, it’s about rapid economic and cultural change in China and it’s a marvel of precision without a wasted shot. It’s a triptych of stories about a woman in Fenyang (Zhao Tao) and her family, set in 1999, 2014, and 2025. There’s a veneer of realism, but it’s disrupted by jarring moments of surrealism. The shifts in time are matched by shifts in cinematic style. The jump to the bizarre and critically divisive third section, where Jia’s style leaps to what he imagines it might be like in 10 years, is the most exhilarating cinematic moment of the decade for me.

 

Edited by Alex King

15 thoughts on “9 MOVIE EXPERTS ON THEIR TOP 5 FILMS OF THE DECADE

  1. Hmm: nobody listed Moonlight—the first time I’ve seen that happen in posts of this kind.

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  2. Ben – if I had space for a top 10 Moonlight would have made it (so would Zhao’s The Rider)! I suspect others might have placed it in a top 10 list (just not top 5).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As I told Paul Schofield in a text that I hope really needled him, my list would include

    Nightcrawler
    Spring Breakers
    The Florida Project
    The Wolf of Wall Street

    …and something else. I’ll remember this as a decade of great films about the death spasms of American empire, ranging from Boschian nightmare (Spring Breakers) to bitter elegy (Florida) to demonic inversion of Horatio Alger (Nightcrawler).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a bit sorry to not see anything by Andrey Zvyagintsev make anyone’s list. I don’t get to see as many films as most people (certainly not the list makers) but Zvyaginstev is such a great film-maker, and Leviathan (and also Loveless, though a bit less, I think) is such a great movie, I would have been glad to see it get some recognition.

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  5. I wonder what you all would list as your most cinematically innovative film of the decade.

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    • Christy, great question! Two caveats: (1) I was only 19 at the beginning of the decade, so I’m probably not in a position to meaningfully evaluate how innovative the movies from the beginning of the decade actually were, and (2) I suspect most of the genuinely innovative stuff happens in shorter films, which I don’t keep up with as much as I should. That being said, of the feature-length things I’ve seen, the 3D stuff stands out as affording noticeably different experiences than what’s come before: Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014), Prototype (Williams, 2017), Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan, 2018) all come to mind. I also recently saw Pedro Costa’s most recent film, Vitalina Varela (2019), and although a lot of its distinguishing characteristics are already present in his earlier films, there’s definitely something about the starkness of the blacks in the digital photography that stands out to me. Leaving the movie theatre after seeing it completely warped my experience of the actual world for a good 30 minutes or so, which is not something I think I’ve experienced before.

      I don’t know if you two know each other, but one of your colleagues at UH, Michael Sicinski, is an excellent experimental/avant-garde film critic. He would probably have something much more interesting to say!

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    • The movies weren’t popular but the stuff that Ang Lee is doing with high frame rate 3D is pretty wild. I drove three hours to Spokane to see Gemini Man in HDR 3D and it was solidly astonishing. Like “oh well here I am in the same room as not one but two Will Smiths.” It’s an effective solution to the problem of CGI characters looking artificial: make the whole movie look artificial. I also think what Zemeckis has been doing with CGI is really interesting (Welcome 2 Marwen 4 life). Leaning into the artificiality and seeing what you can do with it seems like a more promising strategy than trying to make the artificial blend in.

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  6. Christy – my most cinematically innovative film would still be my top pic – Long Day’s Journal Into Night.

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