It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through this crazy decade we’re calling the 2010’s (Is that really what we’re calling it?) I started thinking about this when I noticed this list naming the top films of the decade so far as voted by film critics. The 25 movies, released between 2010 and 2014, offer a wide array, coming from around the world and from all types of genres. Then I started thinking about my favorite films of the decade so far, and somehow came up with a list. I say somehow because sticking to 10 is incredibly difficult, and any movie lover could include way more than that. But, I also like naming 10 because it forces me to pick out the very best of the best.
I’m calling this “my favorite” rather than “the best” because I readily acknowledge that there are many films I have yet to see. I hope to someday. But, in the meantime, here are the 10 movies that have stuck with me the longest from these past five years; they impressed me with their artistry, their innovation or simply the level with which they moved me. Here they are, in no particular order (because ranking them would be brutal).
Director Christopher Nolan’s films often reveal a fascinating struggle between the head and the heart. His Spielberg-esque emotions take over in movies like Interstellar, while the cold intellectualism of The Prestige and Memento bring to mind Paul Thomas Anderson or even Stanley Kubrick. The only film Nolan has made that I believe balances these two tendencies perfectly is his masterpiece Inception.
Nolan’s thrilling look into the dreamscape is both uncommonly intelligent and grandly emotional, dealing with complex themes and ideas through the accessible lens of a kick-ass action movie. Not one second of this cinematic wonder comes off as less than completely engrossing. It probably helps that it’s a technical marvel on the level of Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Seeing the city of Paris folding in on itself is a wonder of the highest order. Nolan has a great eye for actors, and he wisely cast some of the best, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard. The best action film of the decade so far easily earns its spot on this list. Oh, and did I mention that the ending is amazing? Because it is.
I regrettably didn’t see Her before making my top films of 2013 list, but if I had, it would have been right at the top. I’ve never been much of a Spike Jonze fan; Being John Malkovich was a bit out there even for my tastes, and Where the Wild Things Are lost me completely. But this one is just exquisite. Jonze imagines a very near future where every human has their own personal operating system (like a cell phone that can feel emotions and talk to you). Joaquin Phoenix gives a mind-blowing performance as Theodore, a lonely man unlucky in love who ends up developing a romantic relationship with his O.S., Samantha (brought to exhilarating life by Scarlett Johansson’s voice). What could come off as creepy ends up as an entirely sweet meditation on how far we are willing to go to feel loved in the digital age, and how isolated we will always be without real human contact.
There’s a scene where Samantha hires a “sex surragote,” a real woman who is willing to have sex with Theodore in order to simulate the contact he can never have with Samantha. It’s one of the saddest, most emotionally wrenching scenes in recent memory, and I was constantly amazed at how vulnerable Her left me feeling. Ultimately, the film is a vital reminder that life lived apart from community is not really life at all. That’s a message everyone needs to hear, and this is a film everyone needs to see.
THE TREE OF LIFE
This movie caused a good bit of controversy when it released, and understandably so. Terrence Malick’s ambitious meditation on faith in the midst of tragedy is likely the densest, most obtuse American film released so far this decade. It’s also an absolute masterpiece, in the strictest filmmaking sense. Malick’s propensity for ponderous nature shots reaches its apex here, with many gorgeous images having seemingly little connection to the main story at hand. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain give career-best performances as a couple reeling from the death of their son. It all comes off as a bit ponderous initially, but that’s kind of the point. Malick is reaching for something much grander than we’re accustomed to seeing. Through almost purely images and sound, he depicts the way that God’s grace is buried within the fabric of the universe itself. Our most spiritual filmmaker is using this small, intimate story as a springboard for a conversation on the meaning of existence. No pressure, right?
This conversation reaches its apex during a sequence that depicts the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present. It’s a breathtaking achievement, even if you’re not quite sure what it all is supposed to “mean.” The whole affair might have fallen apart if it weren’t for the pioneering work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who has not made his final appearance on this list). His camerawork is transcendent, much like the film itself. It’s perhaps the closest movies get to allowing us to experience God through the moving image. For that alone, The Tree of Life has my enduring gratitude and admiration.
On the other side, we have a very different, even opposing spiritual meditation from master filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Is The Master as good as Anderson’s previous classic, There Will Be Blood? No, but few films are. No matter, this is still a masterpiece of the highest caliber. Anderson applies his impeccable craft to a relentlessly bleak look at how religious fanaticism can tear a life apart. That life belongs to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix again), a sex-addicted, drifting WWII veteran who seemingly finds redemption at the hands of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, never better), the leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause,” and his obsessive wife (Amy Adams, making her second appearance on this list beside Her). Freddie is a faithful follower until things start to unravel.
I wouldn’t want to say more, but, like all of Anderson’s other brilliant films, you’ll never see where this one is headed next. The Cause was supposedly based off of Scientology, and, if so, Anderson certainly has no love for it. The ending seems to suggest the unsettling but nonetheless true fact that some people are simply beyond redemption, following the latest fad philosophy as a dog chases its tail, searching for answers but never finding them. This is probably the second most obtuse American film released so far this decade after The Tree of Life, and rarely are films this emotionally challenging. It’s never icy, but Anderson is going for something so deep and so disturbing that it’s a bit hard to process it all. Give it time (and multiple viewings) and see if you can get it out of your head.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
The Social Network may be my favorite David Fincher film. Given how much I love movies like Zodiac and Seven, that’s pretty high praise. But this potent satire of the ruthless business of modern technology earns it every step of the way. Fincher’s adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires looks at the founding of Facebook through the eyes of creators Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as it charts their meteoric rise to fame and fortune, and the shattered lives they left in their wake. Zuckerberg doesn’t come off as particularly likable here (okay, he’s a jerk) but he does come off as human. How would you feel if the suave co-founder of Napster (an excellent Justin Timberlake) came up to you and told you that you were, in essence, a god? Might you start to believe him once you saw how much power social media actually holds over people?
The movie is a cynical, biting critique of the way tech gurus are our new “gods,” in a way. We look up to them as a higher form of being as we grovel in submission at their life-changing products. I’m not saying Zuckerberg is a terrible person specifically, but a warped environment like this is bound to produce a few (filthy rich) monsters. Beyond the movie’s relevant themes, I’m a sucker for great cinematography and music, and this has some of the best of both. Jeff Cronenweth’s camerawork makes the movie look so much better than it should, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Oscar for Best Original Score was well-deserved. A pity the film lost to the more regal Oscar-bait The Kings Speech. In 10 years, this will be the one people are still talking about.
Jeff Nichols’ incredible indie is the best psychological thriller so far this decade. There’s something to be said about a movie that can really entrench the audience in a particular mood, and Take Shelter does a great job of making us feel the encroaching, all-encompassing dread that main character Curtis can’t seem to shake. His apocalyptic visions of a catastrophic storm are disturbing, but become even more so once we realize the film isn’t going to give us the easy answer as to whether he’s crazy or prophetic. Not until the insanely good twist ending, that is.
This is a vicious little gut punch of a movie, a rarity that entertains on every level without ever dumbing down its craft or its themes. It also blessedly features Michael Shannon in a lead role, showing off the underrated character actor for the brilliant performer he is. It also features Jessica Chastain as Curtis’ frazzled wife, during the year when she was literally in every movie and was somehow never less than stellar. If you’ve overlooked this one, now is a great time to rectify that. You will not be disappointed.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
12 Years a Slave is very obviously a “dignified” film, which usually means treacly Oscar bait. And, while Steve McQueen’s based-on-true-events tale of the life of Solomon Northup—a free black man sold into slavery in the American south—did win the Oscar for Best Picture, it’s far more complex, savage and beautiful than its prestigious pedigree would suggest. Anyone who is interested in the power of film to move us, to change our hearts and to make us strive to be better human beings would be foolish to dismiss the film on these claims.
McQueen’s masterpiece is a bold, uncompromising vision, and it’s brought to life by some of the most wonderful performances and music in recent film history. Chiwetel Ejiofor is towering as Northup, a man who maintains his almost violent hope in the midst of the worst circumstances imaginable. Michael Fassbender is great as the vicious slave owner Edwin Epps; he manages to make a monster believable, even human, a difficult task when it’s often easier to play a villainous stereotype. But it’s really Lupita Nyong’o, in an Oscar winning role as indomitable slave Patsey, who imbues the film with both its savage energy and its undeniable hope that humanity can strive to be better. From its nuanced performances to its impeccable filmmaking craft and powerful story, 12 Years is a hands-down classic. To ignore it is to sacrifice experiencing no less than a piece of film history.
THE ACT OF KILLING
While we’re discussing historical accounts of the depths of man’s savagery, here’s a film even more disturbing than 12 Years a Slave. There have been a handful of great documentaries released so far this decade (probably enough to deserve their own list), but the one that will likely stick with you the longest is The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer’s buzzworthy doc focuses its lens on some of the major leaders of the Indonesian “death squads,” which are said to have killed over 500,000 people from 1965-66. Oppenheimer asked the men to reenact some of their murders in the style of their favorite film genres, including a gangster film and a musical. If this idea sounds appalling, that’s kind of the point. The men, including Anwar Congo, who is said to have personally killed 1,000 people, are at first too happy to oblige.
The film dives into some kind of horrific nightmare, where the audience is watching fictional, stylized accounts but very much thinking about the monsters who committed the real acts. This bizarre artifice leads to a viewing experience like no other, exploring the nature of memory, history and legacy in a manner never done before. What’s shocking is how little remorse these men feel, and worse, how their actions remain unpunished. They seem more concerned with protecting their image than dealing with any sort of guilt or reparations. That is, until the film’s climax: a horrified Congo, finally coming to terms with the weight of his actions, begins to vomit profusely. It’s sure to go down as one of the most shocking and memorable scenes in movie history. This film is an absolute knockout, barreling with a moral force as powerful as a runaway freight train. It’s strange and disturbing, and likely not for everyone. But for anyone who wants to see just how far the documentary form can stretch its artistic and philosophical limits, The Act of Killing is required viewing.
A film like Boyhood is a truly rare gift, a staggering achievement on every conceivable level. From concept to editing, music and performances, Richard Linklater’s bittersweet ode to adolescence defies every single expectation and averts every cliché you might fear a movie like this would contain.
The concept of filming actors over a 12 year period is an intriguing idea, but it honestly sounds like it would be a mess of a movie. Thankfully, Boyhood rises far above the hullabaloo over how it was made to achieve that rare sort of concoction: a movie epic in scope but painfully intimate in its execution. It’s the film’s small moments that work best, mostly because the movie is nothing but small moments. It’s the seemingly insignificant everyday conversations, the quiet moments of desperation and of joy, which define our lives, and this movie displays that concept brilliantly. It’s hard not to get all teary and nostalgic when I see main character Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) make his way through many of the same grand pop culture moments that defined my childhood. But the movie isn’t just for millennials. During its nearly three hour running time, I can’t imagine a single person who would find absolutely nothing to connect to here. What makes Mason and his family’s story so enduring is that it’s firmly rooted in time and place, yet completely universal in its experiences and implications. Because it’s a movie about life, in all its hideous beauty, it’s a movie for everyone. And, for my money, an instant classic.
I have written quite a lot about Birdman, so I don’t know how much more there is to say. I recently bought the film on Blu-Ray, and watching it again I was enraptured anew in every brilliant second of this insanely ambitious movie. What I said about Boyhood holds true here as well; there’s no greater thrill watching a movie that technically shouldn’t work at all completely blowing away your expectations and making movie history in the process. It’s rare to find a daring original vision in modern cinema, but I’m amazed how far director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his amazing team of collaborators were willing to run with this patently odd concept.
There are too many strokes of brilliance here to write about, but here’s a couple. The genius of casting Michael Keaton in the role of an actor who once played a superhero attempting a career renaissance on Broadway cannot be overstated. If not for the film’s playful fantasy elements, I could hear the concept of this movie and imagine it to be some kind of documentary. It’s certainly filmed like one. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for his work) films the movie as if it were one long take, with scenes and character interactions melding together into one complex rollercoaster of emotions. It’s an artificial technique that somehow manages to feel startlingly realistic. I’m still trying to figure out how they pulled that off.
Every acting choice here feels right, every shot framed for maximum impact, every line of dialogue hits with either its hilarity or its tragedy. The percussive soundtrack is one of the best ever. This is a movie that wears every conceivable hat and is amazing at everything it tries to do. There are no failures; nothing in this crazy grab-bag of cool rings false. It all adds up to one of the most thrilling and polished movies in a long, long time. I can’t wait to see what Inarritu and company do next, but this one will be tough to top.