When reflecting on the past ten years of movies, it all depends on how you look at it. On one hand, virtually all of the top-grossing films from the decade are sequels, with a focus on fantasy, space opera, and superheroes. Disney has effectively created a monoculture: the Department of Justice should seriously look into breaking it up, along with other media conglomerates, because many movie fans effectively have the illusion of choice. But streaming services are also releasing all kinds of weird-ass titles, plus you can take any given year from the 2010s, and find greatness in it. The 2010s are also the first complete decade I’ve worked as a film critic, mostly for BYT. I’ve reviewed hundreds and hundreds of films – duds, triumphs, everything in between – and while the futures of the movies can sometime seem grim, a reflection on the 2010s helps me realize we have been fortunate, too. In that spirit, here is the list of the decade’s fifty best films.
10. World of Tomorrow
Other than maybe Paul Thomas Anderson, Don Hertzfeldt might the only director whose short films can generate genuine excitement. Animated films were always popular in the 2010s, but the shapes and designs always had the familiar Disney mold (slightly exaggerated, but in a cute way). World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt’s greatest film, eschews all the tropes of traditional animation, and instead tells a hilarious, ultimately moving story that’s full of brilliant ideas. It follows Emily, an adult woman who takes a clone of herself (who is still a child) on a tour of what the future is like. Cloning is one of many heady concepts explored here; there is also the idea of interplanetary travel, the nature of art, and transferring consciousness from one body into another. Like the best science fiction, World of Tomorrow recognizes that technology is really an opportunity to explore deeper subjects, and Hertzfeldt expertly veers into a meditation on regret, what makes us human, and whether we should hope for the future. That is enough material for dozens of science fiction films, and yet Hertzfeldt manages to touch on these subjects thoughtfully in under twenty minutes, all while maintaining the deadpan dark humor that defines all his work. World of Tomorrow is the sort of miracle that you could revisit at any age, and find something that applies to your own life – no matter how despairing or uplifting that something may be.
Years before Moonlight became the decade’s finest Best Picture winner, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney was telling stories about poor black people in the South. His plays are not issue-driven, at least not directly, and he instead looks at institutional decay and how that might impact young people who are unusual, either because they are too sensitive or curious about a world that meets them with indifference. Moonlight, his remarkable collaboration with co-writer and director Barry Jenkins, is about three chapters in one young black man’s life, each one happening years apart from the other. Neglect and fear are what define him, to the point where we meet the young man as an adult, he has created so many shields and barriers that no one can ever get through and hurt him again. The psychological insight here is staggering, although the storytelling masterstroke is to provide the viewer with little context between one chapter and the other. The shift between the second and third chapters is the most audacious storytelling conceits in years, and the actors convincingly echo each other is heartbreaking, recognizable ways. By the time someone finally connects with this young man, seeing and acknowledging the good-natured sensitive boy that’s always been there, it comes as a sense of relief. Love and connection is not possible unless we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and no one needs that affection more than those who put up walls.
8. Under the Skin
The premise to Under the Skin is so alienating and bizarre that it sounds like B-movie schlock: “Scarlett Johansson plays an alien succubus who wanders the Scottish countryside, looking for hapless men she can trap to drain their essence.” But like every movie on this list, the “how” matters more than the “what.” In only his third feature film – his second was the underrated thriller Birth – director Jonathon Glazer uses the same practiced detachment to find what’s relatable in such an inhuman story. Johansson’s performance is key to its success: her unnamed character only has any charisma when she is seducing a man, and her utter lack of the self-awareness suggests she is an automaton the rest of the time. Some of the imagery is startling, aided in no small part by Mica Levi’s hopelessly discordant score. No one who sees Under the Skin will forget how Johansson and her victims disappear to a void of inky black nothingness. But once you get past all the formal rigor and semi-improvised weirdness, the film ultimately reveals itself as the decade’s most unlikely feminist allegory. This alien has all the trappings of an attractive women, except she does not understand the society in which she operates. The succubus is ultimately a victim as well, and because she has no agency or context, her inability to grapple with the world is an askew reflection, because living as a woman is that much harder and more dangerous.
It is remarkable that Martin Scorsese made The Wolf of Wall Street in his early seventies. Unlike The Irishman, it does not seem like the work of an aging filmmaker. At three hours, the film almost never slackens its pace, unfolding like a riot of comedic excess. It follows Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a down on his luck trader who figures out how to cheat his way to the top. The rise-fall structure is common to Scorsese’s work, although he rarely makes a film this funny. So many scenes stand their own, a carefully observed study of base human nature. Audiences first found the film exhausting – at least, I sure did – and it was not until subsequent viewings that I could fully grasp what Scorsese and his team accomplished. In between the nonstop profanity and bad behavior, there is a morally rigorous drama about the American dream and how it dovetails from basic decency. Throughout his career, Scorsese critics have argued that he celebrates the lifestyle he depicts. Similar arguments were made about The Wolf of Wall Street, along with concern-trolling that audiences could get the wrong idea from the film. But like any dizzying rush, the thrills of this film are fleeting, just like Belfort’s early attempts to behave ethically. The floor of Belfort’s trading firm is the ultimate critique of late stage capitalism: savage, unruly, with tribalism barely serving as a code to hold everyone together. That flimsy camaraderie, however pathetic, is a hell of a drug, to the point that Belfort confronts oblivion in order to hold onto it just a moment longer.
6. I Am Not Your Negro
James Baldwin is arguably the most important American intellectual of the twentieth century. In interviews and talk show appearances, he made sophisticated arguments that most listeners – white ones, in particular – were not ready to hear. I Am Not Your Negro is not a Baldwin biography, nor is it an attempt to summarize his tremendous writing. It is more like an acknowledgment of Baldwin’s contribution to American life, and a pitiless reminder that all his ideas are still relevant today. This past decade we have had “The Case for Reparations,” the opening of The African American History museum, Black Lives Matter, and several prominent black intellectuals pushed to the forefront of our national debate. None of this would be possible without Baldwin, who made the key observation to understanding America: white people need whiteness in order to preserve their status quo, and they debase themselves with those they treat as an “other.” Still, this is not a dry documentary. Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s words, and his simmering anger is his best performance in years. Peck also shows us how Baldwin was a peerless film critic, talking in particular about how Sidney Poitier fit into the twentieth century’s reckoning of race relations. His point of view – detached, droll, incisive, a little resigned – is now the popular way of looking at our current political and cultural moment (the “This is fine” dog is a meme version of several Baldwin’s ideas). Although he ultimately chose life as an expatriate, Baldwin never gave up fighting against the rampant hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance within America, and his ongoing relevance today quietly makes the case that we should not, either.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Steven Soderbergh has this to say about Mad Max Fury Road. It is worth revisiting in detail:
I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road again last week, and I tell you I couldn’t direct 30 seconds of that. I’d put a gun in my mouth. I don’t understand how [George Miller] does that, I really don’t, and it’s my job to understand it. I don’t understand two things: I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead… But [Miller] is off the chart. I guarantee that the handful of people who are even in range of [him], when they saw Fury Road, had blood squirting out of their eyes.
Soderbergh is one of our sharpest filmmakers, and his bafflement helps explain why Fury Road is a singular achievement. Ever since Buster Keaton made The General, the chase film has thrilled audiences, filling us with suspense and a rare sense of awe. It is hard to imagine a chase film better than Fury Road. It is such an aggressive, stylized depiction of coordinated violence and mayhem that some imagery is breathtaking, even beautiful. No one has even attempted anything like it because, well, George Miller is just that good. What deepens Fury Road is its sense of mythology: few details are flushed out, including another mostly silent version of Max (Tom Hard), so our imagination runs wild with how this post-apocalyptic patriarchy got where it was. There is also a much-needed feminist anger to this film: one character cries out, “We are not things!” Charlize Theron is terrific as Furiosa, who struggles to maintain her sanity, wits, and grip on reality for just a moment longer, even though the odds are impossible. There is not much plot to Fury Road, just like the other Mad Max films, and the naysayers never understood such concerns are ancillary. This is cinema at its most primal, a battle cry of light and sound that have the power to make us feel like we can ride a motorcycle onto a speeding convoy of post-apocalyptic murder fiends.
When reflecting on the best films of the decade, there is a temptation to put Serious Important movies at the forefront. If you’ve made it this far, you (correctly) recognize I’m just as guilty about that impulse as anyone else. Unfortunately, such an impulse creates blinders toward more modest films that are flawlessly executed. Such is the case with Obvious Child, the best romantic comedy of the decade. If there was justice in this world, Jenny Slate would be mentioned in the same breath as Meg Ryan’s star-making performance in When Harry Met Sally. Slate plays Donna, a struggling comedian who accidentally gets pregnant during a one night stand. Donna plans to get an abortion, and the film’s masterstroke is how director and screenwriter Gillian Robespierre never once suggest Donna has second thoughts. The film treats the pregnancy as a problem that must be addressed, and while Donna’s choice is certain, the shambles of her personal life are where Obvious Child finds its warm humor. Her family is supportive only up to a point, while Donna’s maybe love interest Max (Jake Lacy) is sensitive, and actually nice without being a creep. There are so many ways this film could have gone wrong, whether it’s Donna being too pathetic or how it depicts women’s health. Somehow it always strikes the right tone, earning every laugh it attempts, so its heartwarming, wistful final moments are genuinely earned.
In my recent interview with Daniel J. Jones, the subject of the dynamite thriller The Report, Jones flat-out says Zero Dark Thirty is a fabrication. He calls the film propaganda, adding that screenwriter Mark Boal – along with director Kathryn Bigelow – are CIA pawns. There is no reason to doubt Jones, as Zero Dark Thirty is meant to highlight what is arguably the CIA’s greatest success, although that does not diminish the film’s artistic achievement. On one level, it is a terrific thriller, a detailed procedural about how one single-minded woman ultimately led to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound (Jessica Chastain, who plays the woman in question, has never been better). But what makes Zero Dark Thirty a great film is how it explores what is lost in the pursuit. Kathryn Bigelow famously quipped, “Depiction is not endorsement” when she asked about the torture that appears in the film, but enhanced interrogation is only part of it. In fact, maybe it was Bigelow and Boal who pulled a fast one, since this film is not pro-CIA by any stretch. It is about the limits of patriotism, and the sacrifices made by true believers, whether they pay with their life or unknowable psychological trauma. By the time Jessica Chastain’s character is finally asked an open-ended question, her silent reaction sums up America’s place in the twenty-first century better than any flag or angry tweet.
“It’s not going anywhere. And I’m tired.” That line and its corresponding thousand yard stare happen late in Inside Llewyn Davis, an acute drama about the perils of authenticity. In a career-defining role, Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn, a folk singer whose integrity costs him friendship and success. He flays his soul every time he performs, and the trouble is that no one seems to notice or care. The Coen Brothers wrote and directed this film, and while they mostly take the piss out of Llewyn, there is a deep sympathy for him. Part of what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so compelling is they never let him off the hook. He is an asshole, and there is no way he can shake his compulsion to alienate those who might be able to help. Aside from specificity in its character, this film is also a great musical. Isaac is a convincing musician, to the point where you can imagine Llewyn-like figures in the Village folk scene (Isaac got his start in punk, and folk is similar in its posturing over “I believe this more than you.”) All the songs are terrific, including the bizarre pop of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and yet Isaac singing/playing alone is where the film find its center. There are several times in Inside Llewyn Davis where Llewyn sings for an audience of one. They are never impressed – one character tells him “I don’t see a lot of money here” – and that is his tragedy. While folk music found its way into the mainstream in the 1960s, Llewyn’s integrity will keep him in small rooms where he will certainly wallow in obscurity. Every movement has figures like Llewyn Davis, not just those that involve music, and this film finally gives them the justice they will never see.
Fascism had a resurgence in the 2010s, so it follows the best film of the decade would be about Good Germans. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a quiet melodrama, although its implications have purpose and moral clarity that most films lack. It follows Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor and jazz singer who returns to postwar Berlin. She yearns for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), except when they finally reunite, he assumes she is some random woman who just happens to bear a semblance to her. She does not correct his mistake, and Phoenix follows the duplicity, with Nelly never quite being sure why she plays along. Maybe she resents Johnny, or maybe she thinks he will finally snap out of it. He never does, at least not until the film’s beautiful final minutes. Petzold borrows from Hollywood melodramas – there are echoes of Casablanca in Phoenix – except all the lies are in service of an ending where there is little hope, only acknowledgment. In the middle singing a jazz standard, Nelly finally reveals herself (the tattoo on her forearm is unmistakable). Slackjawed and pathetic, Johnny finally has to reckon with what the war and institutionalized antisemitism meant to his wife. She has the strength to walk away, her integrity intact, while Johnny and his audience of depraved onlookers have no choice but to reckon with what they have done. Not enough people have seen Phoenix, but those who have will never forget it.