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. Two small caveats before I continue:
- This is a partial list. Today are entries 50-41, followed by 40-31, and so on. BYT will release the partial list every Friday.
- This is my list. Many others are like it, but this one is mine, etc. Many outlets take a survey of their contributors, creating an aggregated list. This one is not like those. It is more idiosyncratic – you’ll find films here you will not find anywhere else – which make it even more likely that your favorites did not make the cut. Feel free to @ me on twitter about how wrong I am.
Few things are more suspenseful than watching someone that’s in way over their head. That feeling is even worse when the situation is deadly, and that is the anxiety behind the French thriller Stranger by the Lake. It follows Franck, a young gay man who cruises on a beach for other men. He strikes up a relationship with Michel, who may or may not be a murderer. This plot and the homoerotic tension has echoes of Hitchcock – writer/director Alain Guiraudie wants you to think of Rope and Strangers on a Train – but he creates tactile tension through explicit sexual content. Like the recent Knife + Heart, this film uses gay sex as more than mere titillation. Guiraudie finds real intimacy among his characters, although they barely speak, so the inevitable final moments have real stakes. Absent a sleazy gaze, there is vulnerability to these bodies, and the murder mystery plot only heightens it.
Too many films about alcohol abuse are “issue” movies. You know there is a problem from the get-go, so the anxiety is whether the hero will wise up. The Spectacular Now starts off like a comedy, only to become a sad, brutally honest story about young love. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley play Sutter and Aimee, high school classmates who are barely aware of each other. They strike up a relationship in their senior year, and neither is prepared for when they become emotionally involved in each other’s lives. Director James Ponsoldt teases out that idea through long takes of natural dialogue, and his ability to conjure great performances (both Teller and Woodley would go on to have successful film careers). Sutter’s drinking is the proverbial elephant – or maybe it’s a bottle of Delirium Tremens – and it is heartbreaking how Aimee does not have the experience or strength to see it. By the time she finally sees through Sutter, it is too late. You may think that The Spectacular Now has an ambiguous ending, but watch it again. We know what Aimee is thinking, and it will be a bummer once Sutter realizes it.
48. Beyond the Hills
Ever since the release of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the Romanian New Wave has quietly been one of the most important movies in European cinema. These films take patience – there is little music, and a reliance on ambient light – and they adhere to genre convention in the most minimal way possible. Beyond the Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s attempt at a horror movie. It follows Alina, a poor Romanian girl who visits her friend Voichita at a convent. Alina does not follow the norms and procedure of a pious life, and so the clergy at the convent are quick to assume something is wrong with her. Their solution is not kicking her out, or even providing her with mental health she needs. The solution is an exorcism, and Mungiu films it with depressing clarity. It is a miserable display, with no character having the wherewithal to say, “This is wrong.” There are no jump scares, and yet Beyond the Hills has a sinister energy to it. It has outrage at organized religion and provincial life, although there is sympathy for everyone as well. The convent failed Alina, but bigger institutions failed everyone.
47. I Am Love*
Luca Guadagnino really came out of nowhere, didn’t he? Sure, he had two features under his belt before the sensual melodrama I Am Love, but rarely has an art film been this bold, confident, and bizarre. Part of the appeal, of course, is Tilda Swinton’s mesmerizing performance. She plays a Russian immigrant in Italy, and for the film she speaks seemingly fluent Italian and Russian. This sounds like a stunt – I have no idea how much of either language she can actually speak – and it is to her credit that you simply accept her in this world of European privilege. The story follows a romantic series of triumphs, affairs, betrayals, and escapes. Few melodramas have such release in their final minutes – Swinton’s character Emma seems like little more than prop in her family – so the ending is all about how passion matters more than comfort. Guadagnino would eventually direct Call Me By Your Name, another film oozing with romantic possibility, but I Am Love soars thanks to Swinton’s unique desire to challenge herself
* Yes, I am aware this is technically a 2009 release since it premiered at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, but it opened worldwide in 2010. This is my list!
What can about this film that hasn’t been said already? The path of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is the sort of thing that should restore your faith in the movies: it won the top prize at Cannes, became an international hit, and will likely win at least one Oscar next year. It is an entertaining thriller with a lot on its mind; yes, Joon-ho focuses on income inequality in South Korea, but it turns out that specific issue has universal resonance. The only reason Parasite is so low on here is to correct recency bias: it’s been less than two months since I saw it, and while I believe it is a perfect film, I might still be basking in its warm, harsh glow.
Denial and cognitive dissonance must be some of the most powerful forces in the world. That realization is central to The Act of Killing, a documentary about the perpetrators of an Indonesian genocide in the 1950s. Director Joshua Oppenheimer, along with an anonymous filmmaker from Indonesia, invite these perpetrators to recreate what they did for a movie within a movie. They are not shy about their crimes; in fact, they’re often celebrated for it. But these recreations slowly force the perpetrators to confront what they did, and while they do not arrive at a reckoning, the final scenes are harrowing. Many documentaries follow the 60 Minutes format: they’re a simple mix of talking heads, archival footage, graphics, and dramatizations. The Act of Killing is not quite journalistic in its approach, and can only exist as documentary art. By finding some shred of humanity in these killers, the film suggests that potential could exist in all of us.
44. Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is one of the great literary successes of the past twenty years. There was a period where seemingly everyone was reading it, and had strong opinions about its twists and turns. The storytelling masterstroke of Gone Girl, David Fincher’s adaptation of Flynn’s novel, is to take the thriller framework and turn it into a misanthropic romcom. Every character in the film, including Amy Dunne, are subject to Fincher’s dispassionate ridicule. The twists are ancillary to Fincher, since motivations interest him more (every character in the film in self-serving, especially the ones that seem the most virtuous). By the time it reaches its inexorable conclusion, the joke is on the folks who still take this seedy material seriously. In its weird way, what ultimately happens to Amy and Nick Dunne is a funhouse mirror of what a successful marriage looks like.
The elevator pitch for this one must have been hilarious: “It’s sort of like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with a dash of Lovecraftian horror.” Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead start off simply enough. An ordinary man visits his junkie best friend at a remote cabin, handcuffs him to the wall, and keeps him company as he gets sober. Their dialogue is naturalism to it, and yet there are flourishes with a sharp comic edge. As the film continues, however, the characters realize they may be stuck in some of kind hellish alternate dimension. Without a big budget, Benson and Moorhead are able to conjure the most satisfying kind of horror. Not the kind that makes you scream, but the kind that makes you shudder in pure terror.
Melissa McCarthy started off the 2010s with Bridesmaids, a comedy that would earn her an Academy Award Nomination. That is a rare achievement in comedy (particularly when the performance includes shitting in a sink). Her decade ended with Can You Ever Forgive Me, in a role that could not be more different. Those performances showcase the breadth of her range, but Spy is a testament to just how fucking funny she can be. As a CIA desk jockey who becomes a field agent, she is vulnerable, intense, charismatic, and brittle. The best scenes in Spy involve her dressing down idiots, and unleashing such a bizarre mix of profanity that I cannot help but marvel at her verbal dexterity. Spy is more than just an insult-driven comedy; it is also a terrific action film, with set-pieces that rival James Bond films, and even the Mission: Impossible franchise. Few comedies have strong replay value. This one has it in spades, and you’ll find something new to laugh at every time you see it.
Barry Jenkins is one of the few filmmakers who understands that films about love are inherently more involving than traditional romances. You see that in Medicine for Melancholy, his gentrification-tinged riff on Before Sunrise, and you see that in his masterpiece Moonlight. Still, If Beale Street Could Talk is the purest form that idea: an aching, carefully observed romance between two young people in a country that systemically oppresses them. Jenkins understands he cannot preserve the eloquence of the James Baldwin novella he adapts, so he finds that simple, striking beauty in cinematic terms. His camera observes and glides, capturing midcentury New York and the open, caring faces of his lovers. Still, much of the credit goes to composer Nicholas Brittell, whose jazz-kissed symphonic score is just as memorable as the cacophonies that we hear in countless action films.
That’s it for this round! Check back next week for films 40-31.