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 (you can view the first entry here).
Concert films are a dying art form. There have been some excellent examples over the years: The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, and Dave Chapelle’s Block Party are all memorable in different ways, and yet the rise of streaming has stopped concert films from having theatrical runs. Shut Up and the Play the Hits, a documentary about LCD Soundsystem’s “last” show in Madison Square Garden, belongs in the same canon. This film came out before the band would reunite, going on tour and releasing and another record, so it was originally meant to serve as a generation-defining moment (i.e. the beginning of the end of indie). This a deeply self-aware concert film – James Murphy constantly doubts his decision to end the band – but where it really shines is the concert footage itself. The directors somehow make Madison Square Garden look intimate, and yet there are moments where Murphy and his band stand above the fray like demigods. There’s no getting around that including this film here is more personal and subjective than usual, as I attended this concert, so it serves a time capsule of sorts. But whenever I’m in a bad mood, I can put on LCD Soundsystem’s version of “Jump Into the Fire,” and the ensuing raw catharsis never gets old. Sure, the band raised themselves back from the dead, but no funeral has ever been this much fun.
39. 45 Years
Andrew Haigh has quietly become our best chronicler of romantic relationships. His film Weekend is a terrific two-hander, while his contributions to the underrated HBO series Looking lead to some of the most moving television in years. Still, it is hard to imagine him topping 45 Years, a brutal drama about the unraveling of a marriage. Charlotte Rampling is intelligent and brittle as Kate, a woman who still has deep affection for her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay). But when Geoff learns about the fate of his former lover, one who died before he and Kate got together, this news awakes dormant feelings of passion and loss. 45 Years regards the couple as they struggle to deal with this development: Geoff becomes distant and alienating, while Kate tries to give her husband space. After so many years of marriage, spouses become observers of another, although that does not mean Kate has to sit idly while Geoff reverts to youthful abandon. Haigh handles this delicate material with subtlety, at least until the final brutal minutes. In one way, their relationship is not over, and yet we get the sense that nothing can ever be the same. Advanced age does not mean a life of resignation, or that passions disappears. That speaks to Geoff’s wistfulness, and Kate’s carefully-concealed resentment.
38. OJ: Made in America
Our collective fascination with true crime has reached a fever pitch. Films like The Thin Blue Line has always had an audience, but podcasts like Serial and Slow Burn created an audience for people to revisit crimes, pore over details, and theorize about what really happened. There have also been a rise in true crime documentaries and miniseries, and the exhaustive OJ: Made in America towers over them all. Over the course of eight fascinating hours – the film was released theatrically with two intermissions – director Ezra Edelman puts OJ in the context he belongs: you cannot separate his story from American race relations, and the role capitalism/celebrity plays in our culture. There is so much to his story that we did not understand, either through the media’s sensationalism or outright omissions, and there is even more we have forgotten. Edelman knows his material is dynamite, so his masterstroke is in his synthesis. OJ’s story is the story of a white Ford Bronco, and no docudrama starring Cuba Gooding Jr. could help explain why.
37. 13 Assassins
Takashi Miike is such a prolific filmmaker that it can be hard to keep his work straight. He released over twenty feature films in the 2010s, and while there are oddball curiosities like Yakuza Apocalypse, 13 Assassins is the sort of action epic that could help him new fans. In some ways, it is remarkably old-fashioned: set in feudal Japan, it is a sword and sandal thriller that also doubles as a classic “men on a mission” movie. But this is Miike we’re talking about, a director known for his stylized violence, so he heightens that classic storytelling with liberal gore and depictions of evil. There is also a sinister streak to the film, particularly in how Miike reveals the hypocrisies in the samurai code. 13 Assassins has ferocious commitment to intense action, although all that spectacle finally ends in a tense, brutal one on fight between the good-natured hero and his twisted adversary. So many films this past decade revised what an action can be, and while this film did that, Miike and his team also remember the genre’s history.
36. The Work
Many documentaries are eye-opening and thoughtful. They are rarely intense, and yet that’s the only word to describe The Work, a raw depiction of men trying to disabuse themselves of their toxic masculinity. Set entirely in Folsom Prison, director Jairus McLeary watches inmates and volunteers as they undergo group therapy sessions. There is no judgment here – convicts open up alongside civilians in equal measure – and the way they provoke each other is disarming. The leader creates physical obstacles for the people involved, usually involving pushing through some human obstacle, and it rare to see such naked emotion in adults. While we see many epiphanies and confrontations, The Work understands that what we see is just the beginning, and the men have a long, brutal ahead before anything resembling normalcy. Society has given up on all these men, not just those in a cage, so it is moving to watch them realize they cannot give up on each other.
Cristian Mungiu may already has a film in this list, but there’s no denying Graduation, his saga about Romanian corruption. Romeo is a familiar type to the Romanian new wave: flawed, single-minded, and without much of a moral compass. His goal? To get his daughter into a prestigious school in London so she can escape the mediocrity of her homeland. The only problem is that his daughter was the recent victim of an anonymous sexual assault, and while she was a model student, the trauma leaves her in no position to study. This means Romeo must grease the wheels even more than usual, and Graduation follows him in the myriad ways he compromises himself for his daughter’s future. It is not a stirring portrait of devotion, and more like a descent into the depressingly familiar. All the men in this film bulldoze over the hapless daughter – there is little attention paid to her feelings – as if they internalize there is no hope or truth in modern Romania. In a way, Romeo’s daughter already starts ahead of the pack, but her country still stymies her considerable advantage. This film is like the recent college bribery scandal in Hollywood, only much more desperate.
34. Before Midnight
Like the Up documentary series, which visits the same English men and women every seven years, the “Before” trilogy is an intriguing anthology. Movie audiences have known Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) since Before Sunrise, and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight shows them in the throes of marriage. Now in their forties, there is a lot more at stake, and parts of the film show their relationship on the verge of collapse. They are intriguing characters precisely because they’re so specific and flawed, and it is fascinating how their conversation drifts from kinship toward oblivion. So many love stories end during the honeymoon period, or on its precipice. This film has the determination and courage to show that love (in the long term, anyway) is a constant negotiation. Late in the film, there is a scene where Jesse tries to salvage his relationship with a cocktail napkin, only to collapse and say, “I give up.” His ultimatum is real, so how it resolves is both delicate and perfectly observed. It’s been over twenty years since Before Sunrise, leading to real pain in what happens to this Jesse and Celine. What makes the film so great is how Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater still find reserves of happiness, even joy.
No one hates Star Wars quite like fans of Star Wars fans, and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi created a clear fault line. To this day, people have strong, intense dislike for this movie because it somehow violated their idea of what this franchise should be. Their hatred is ironic, since it this quality that makes The Last Jedi such an exciting, playful pop cinema masterpiece. Johnson takes the standard space opera framework, and expands on it through world-building and thoughtful character development. It is well-acted, astonishingly filmed, and full of memorable action sequences. Sure, Mark Hamill is upset with how Johnson portrays Luke Skywalker, but the character as a cranky old man is the only arc that fits (just look at his father figures to see what I mean). Slovenly devotion to the “lore” is a boring way to think about art. Johnson surprises us wherever he can, while also giving the franchise the respect it deserves. The trouble is that his kind of honor does not jibe with myopic fans who somehow believe Admiral Ackbar, of all characters, deserves respect.
32. Get Out
In a decade where franchises and sequels dominated the box office, Jordan Peele did the impossible: he created an original film that was also a massive audience hit. The Sunken Place and the TSA handling shit are now ubiquitous in pop culture, but back when Get Out was unknown quantity, its comedy and thrills hid subversive criticism. It takes multiple viewings to appreciate how deftly Peele handles each twist and callback. Peele gets a big assist from Daniel Kaluuya – his performance was the announcement of a thoughtful, charismatic star – and from Allison Williams as the chilly personification of white privilege. Still, anyone who saw Get Out in a theater will never forget the moment the cop car pulls up on its hero, suggesting one ending, only to offer a much more pleasant surprise. That kind of push/pull is why we go to the movies, and establishes that Peele is a once-in-a-generation talent.
The heroes in Martin Scorsese films tend to be moral failures. He usually dresses up their failures with pop music and bravura filmmaking: that is why some critics think The Wolf of Wall Street celebrates the hijinks of its antihero. In Silence, an underseen Scorsese epic that was buried by its distributor, the moral failure is laid bare for the audience. Working from the novel by Shūsaku Endō, Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks follow two Portuguese priests in the seventeenth century who attempt to rescue their mentor in feudal Japan. They are not prepared for what they find: the priests are quickly captured, and forced to question their faith as they watch innocent believers undergo torment and suffering. This is an uncommonly thoughtful drama, asking questions despite knowing that answers are impossible. Silence is also Scorsese at his most restrained. There are no speed-ups or freeze frames here, and instead he regards his characters with dispassionate frustration and anger. In recent weeks, there has been flare ups in the movie world because Scorsese said that Marvel movies are not cinema. Many filmmakers rose to the defense to the MCU, but if cinema is so easy to create, then there would be more films like Silence: rigorously spiritual, and so personal it hurts.