The Top 50 Films of the 2010s

Like many things, ten years ago it seemed like we all had a pretty solid idea of movies — what they can do, who they’re for, how they’re made, and where they’re watched. It was an idea that was inflexible, and supported by a century of precedent. It was a clear added benefit for the people in charge that the idea that cinema’s future wouldn’t look all that different from its past. DVD (and the rising Blu Ray) sales were strong, Netflix was still just that impish little envelope at the bottom of your mailbox, and China was starting to give studios a safety net they ever had. Perhaps it was the arrival of James Cameron’s Avatar at the tail end of 2009 that was a harbinger of the strange things to come, but no one in Hollywood has ever lost sleep over a movie that grossed nearly $3 billion. But things definitely changed. Cinema is in a constant of flux, but it’s never mutated faster or more relentlessly than it has over the past ten years. And while the decade will undoubtedly be remembered for the model shifts caused by streaming and monolithic superhero movies, in hindsight it’s definitely clear that the definition of film itself is exponentially wider now than it was a decade ago. They’re places, products, a mirror, a window. Reflections of who we are. Visions of who we want to be. A way of capturing reality. A way of changing it. If the last decade of films made one thing clear, it was that movies have never been more things to more people than they are today. And now it’s time count down my favorite, the best, the most vital work of the 2010s.

 

Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order): 

  • 45 Years (2015)
  • Arrival (2016)
  • Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [2014]
  • Carlos (2010)
  • Columbus (2017)
  • First Man (2018)
  • Get Out (2017)
  • The Lighthouse (2019)
  • The Loneliest Planet (2012)
  • The Lost City of Z (2017)
  • Marriage Story (2019)
  • Parasite (2019)
  • A Touch of Sin (2013)
  • Toy Story 3 (2010)
  • The Turin Horse (2012)
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011)
  • Uncut Gems (2019)

50. Foxcatcher (2014)

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Image via Sony Pictures Classics

If you had to pick one word to characterize the nauseating, atmospheric nightmare that is Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, haunting would seem pretty fair. Falling right in line with Miller’s incredible knack for crafting superb character-driven works of nonfiction, Foxcatcher shined in the limelight for a time — the movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and Miller won Best Director at Cannes in 2014 — before it was summarily swept away by the wind and, for some reason, suddenly undeservingly forgotten. Featuring career-best transformative performances — Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo are unrecognizable, both figuratively and literally — this razor-sharp study of obsessive American striving establishes a distinctly unnerving ambience that lingers in your mind like a decaying pathogen. It’s a mesmerizing, slow-motion tragedy, a darkly comic satire of power and privilege, and a tightly coiled psychological triangle where the balance of power keeps shifting from one man to the next, the movie is above all a singularly haunting experience — a chilling look at American exceptionalism that deserves to be remembered.

49. The Duke of Burgundy (2015)

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Image via IFC Films

A sumptuous and visually evocative tribute to ’70s European sexploitation films, Peter Strickland’s erotic drama flutters deeper and deeper into the sadomasochistic relationship between two lesbian entomologists. The film is as precise in its artistry as its dual heroines are in the humiliating ways they punish each other punishments, as Cynthia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) exchange power in ways both lovingly tender and hardcore in their kinkiness. The lighting from cinematographer Nic Knowland is sensuous, his camera charged, the chic and glamorous costuming (from Andrea Flesch) titillating. Strickland realization that the keys are imagination and anticipation; most of the naughty business takes place offscreen, every touch adding to the Hitchcockian psychodrama that’s taking place just beneath that upon layers of fetishistic beauty.

48. Rust and Bone (2012)

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Image via Sony Pictures Classic

A film that’s both emotionally gripping with a dose of engrossing meandering, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone is a drama marked by its steady, powerful lead performances from Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenarts. A movie that defies categorization, slips convenient genre boundaries, and leaves viewers feeling haunted and actually inspiring in some equal measures.

47. Roma (2018)

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Image via Netflix

Seamlessly engrossing, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is part memory piece, part observational drama. Roma is a film that’s meticulous in its pacing, as it sets up each beat so well, as Cuarón seemingly waits for the film to swell and knock its audience down like a wave. It’s a look at someone who’s overlooked in not just many stories, but in life. A film where we find ourselves watching the ghosts of the past reliving through all their pain and all their pleasures.

46. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Image via Annapurna Pictures

The cinematic encapsulation of a love letter, If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that brilliantly interweaves the political and the personal. It’s love letter that is written in the moody, swirling score of Nicholas Britell, in the glowing, warm cinematography of James Laxton, and in the dreamy close-ups of Barry Jenkins. It’s a film of magnificent warmth, that’s a stunning achievement in lyrical storytelling, loaded with ravishing poetic visuals and a rich plea to find love in times of despair.

45. White Material (2010)

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Image via IFC Films

Simultaneously tactile and intangible, you don’t really watch the films of Claire Denis as much as you feel them and then process them for hours on end. One of cinema’s foremost sensualists, even when her work is as alienating and potentially disturbingly off-putting, it remains engulfing. One of Denis’ finest films, White Material is a work whose superficial plot outline does little to indicate the dark, sweeping magnetism of its execution. This is a poetically nonlinear, captivating jewel of a film that’s simultaneously about estrangement and abandonment. It stars the phenomenal Isabelle Huppert as a French émigré who refuses to leave her family’s Africa-set coffee plantation in the midst of a civil uprising, and also the essential Isaac de Bankolé as a mysterious, wraithlike rebel known as “The Boxer.” In many ways, with much help from Yann Dedet’s editing,  White Material feels like a half-remembered dream. One that lingers and steadily haunts you, as it sears itself into the dark corners of your brain.

44. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015)

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Image via Magnolia Pictures

Arriving fifteen years after his modern classic Songs From the Second Floor, Swedish director Roy Andersson returned to complete his trilogy of dark, absurdist comedies about “being a human being,” with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. It’s a film that sees Andersson sticking to his signature style — locked-off, immaculately composed tableaux, that generally stand-alone but unite mostly through bone-dry humor and a drained color scheme that even David Fincher would feel could use some primaries. Themes run and recur, mostly about the puzzlement that we exist at all, and the frames are perhaps even more splendid-looking than ever before. But it’s far from one-note as Andersson introducing new textures of awe (the scene where a café is invaded by the army of King Charles XII is staggering) and horror (a late sequence that jabs at the Swedish mining company Boliden is quite haunting) into his palette. To put it simply, it’s one of the finest comedies of the decade.

43. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012)

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Image via The Cinema Guild

Writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has long been hailed as Turkey’s answer to Ingmar Bergman — a moral dramatist whose enigmatic, apparently realistic films explore the paradoxes of life in contemporary Turkey. They often come in long, slow moving forms but are utterly captivating and linger with you heavily. And Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is no different, as strikes a chord on a masterful level. It’s a metaphysical road movie about life, death and the limits of knowledge. But that’s not to say there isn’t multiple viewpoints and-or layers: in one way it’s a police procedural that’s heavy on subtleties but also artfully suggests that evidence always contains lies; look at it the other way and it’s an existential fairy tale set in a nocturnal netherworld. Ceylan’s calculated withholding is a large part of that, as the film never jumps out and provides answers or explains itself, rather instead delivering free-ranging conversations that offer some suggestion. Ceylan’s confident, controlled direction is something almost in a league of its own in how he owns his pacing and environment. You have to really lock-in to the structure and get on its wavelength with the rhythm, but once you do, you reap the benefits.

42. The Act of Killing (2012)

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Image via Drafthouse Films

It’s hard to think of many films this past decade that have changed the way we look at films and narrative like The Act of Killing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent years crafting his searing indictment of the 1960s Indonesian genocide that history almost erased, interviewing black market-turned-genocidal war criminals Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry about their part in wiping out upwards of three million communist Indonesians and Chinese from 1965-1966. But Oppenheimer decided to play with the very notion of what a documentary can be, asking Congo and Zulkadry to recreate their crimes on movie sets designed to replicate the types of films they grew up adoring (westerns, musicals, and gangster dramas). By allowing Congo and Zulkadry to reflect on their crimes through the lens of genres that helped normalize warfare and violence, Oppenheimer prods the paradox of warfare as entertainment, and places blame not only the men responsible, but the systems that perpetuate the never-ending cycles of violence. It’s an undeniably brutal but absolutely essential piece of filmmaking, admirably seeking to uncover the atrocities that history wants us to forget.

41. Boyhood (2014)

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Image via IFC Films

One of the biggest cinematic achievements of all time, Boyhood is epic in a technical scale alone. The narrative scope alone will take your breath away, as we watch our performers age right before our eyes. Linklater continued to show how unconcerned he is about being flashy, but concerned about giving a compassionate, intimate look at a wide assortment of characters. It’s a quiet stunner of a film that runs nearly at three hours long, yet it is captivating for every second of it; a film that expands on what movies can express and will undoubtedly be talked about for many more decades to come.

40. Silence (2016)

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Silence may not boast the chest-thumping kineticism of The Wolf of Wall Street or the epic metatextual scope of The Irishman, but this long-gestating passion project for Martin Scorsese about a pair Portuguese Jesuit priests searching for their mentor in 17th century Japan is arguably Scorsese’s most personally defining artistic statement of the last decade. An slow-burn, introspective, theological knockout from one of, if not the, greatest living American director.

39. Spotlight (2015)

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Image via Open Road Films

Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s newsroom insta-classic, is a drama minutely attuned to process, allergic to sensationalism, and unwilling to exaggerate heroics or exploit victimhood for the sake of its eminently worthy message. And with such a fantastic ensemble, it’s easy to overlook the unadorned expertise of McCarthy’s filmmaking, precisely suited to the unexceptional environs that produce the most exceptional, world-changing work.

38. Sicario (2015)

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Image via Lionsgate

A film that takes a descent into moral chaos, Sicario is one of the finest thrillers (and for some, misunderstood films) of the decade. Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins, together created an aesthetic that blended the arthouse with grimy unnerving tension. While Villeneuve handles each of the films action sequences with such visual flair and showed masterclass work of controlling a slow build, Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro turned in quite possibly their best performances to date, each displaying each side of the morality clash. With the film being so tightly wound up throughout the runtime, it finally unleashes a finale of visceral horror that reveals the pungent smell of social failure. It’s a film of deep pessimism about the near-impossibility of overcoming institutional corruption that’s so tactile you’ll feel the need to take a shower afterwards.

37. The Irishman (2019)

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Image via Netflix

One day, Martin Scorsese will die. That’s a difficult thing to accept — difficult because it will be a staggering loss for the film culture, but also pretty hard to even believe. And yet to watch The Irishman, his gangster opus to end all gangster opuses, is to be constantly reminded of the promise of mortality — his, ours, everyone’s. Make no mistake, this is a remarkably brisk three-and-a-half-hours, dramatizing half a century of organized crime through dark-comic confrontations (a perfectly outsized Al Pacino performance) so deliriously funny, they’ve already generated a slew of memes. But right from his opening shot, Scorsese foregrounds the inevitable. As his film becomes, in its magnificently bleak final stretch, a meditation on the true consequences of the mob life, the ignoble end awaiting men like the film’s own protagonist, mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (a devastating Robert De Niro). However firmly planted on the vanguard Scorsese may be, however relevant and vital and, yes, alive he remains as an artist, his latest triumph is a stark acknowledgment of what’s coming. If we’re lucky, The Irishman says, we get to pick our coffin. Watching the movie, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Scorsese has picked his.

36. Dunkirk (2017)

dunkirk
Image via Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s WWII triptych is more like Old Hollywood avant-garde than a throwback to the glory days of 70mm celluloid that audaciously bends land, sea, and air — and also time, space, and narrative — to its will. It’s a symphony of a directorial tour de force that’s just as much a “technical achievement” as another war film that came out recently. The incredible trio of Nolan, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and editor Lee Smith, together display just how great original studio films can be.

35. The Immigrant (2014)

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Image via The Weinstein Company

Already a cult figure among cinephiles, the director James Gray cemented his status as an underappreciated American master with this drama about a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) who goes to work for a small-time pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) in 1920s New York to get her sister out of Ellis Island; eventually, she attracts the romantic attention of the pimp’s cousin, a magician (Jeremy Renner). Working in a style that recalls the tragic splendor of different eras of classic film, Gray creates a novelistic sense of the emotional and psychological compromises of his characters, who live a the edge of despair and in the shadow on the American dream. Its a film where it’s as if ghosts of an older, vanished New York have been freed from the cruel power of faded photographs and allowed to once again move, think, and feel.

34. A Ghost Story (2017)

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Image via A24

It sounds like a tough sell: a deliberately paced fairytale in which the star (Casey Affleck) is mostly silent and dressed like a Halloween-costumed ghost. But writer-director David Lowery threads the needle perfectly with A Ghost Story, carefully moving his bed-sheeted apparition through time and a lonely house with precision and poignancy. Though there is some light haunting, the film isn’t scary in any conventional way, though it might cause some existential terror in anyone who dwells on the bigger questions of grief, love, and legacy through the passages of time.

33. La La Land (2016)

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Image via Lionsgate

Sustained by witty direction, an eminently hummable score, and the screen chemistry of stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle’s homage to old-fashioned song-and-dance love stories is an exuberant musical about unhappiness; nearly every one of its razzle-dazzle flights of fancy is cued to a moment of anxiety, frustration, or disappointment. Set in a romanticized version of Los Angeles, the film has more in common with Whiplash and First Man, Chazelle’s earlier portraits of antisocial, obsessively driven men, than its Technicolor trappings might imply. La La Land builds to a bittersweet finale that suggests that even in a world of dreams, we’d still be wondering if things could have turned out better.

32. Certified Copy (2011)

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Image via MK2 Diffusion

Throughout his career, the late Abbas Kiarostami was obsessed with performance — with how we’re always playing a version of ourselves for the world. In his Persian-language films, Kiarostami reveled in shattering the fourth wall. His willingness to cas non-actors and his patience for letting long conversations play out between those individuals as they wondered about the purpose of art and life irreversibly expanded out understanding of cinema itself. Kiarostami’s preferred methods are on full display in the polished and playful Certified Copy, in which Juliette Binoche and opera-singer-turned-actor William Shimell portray seeming strangers engaging in debates about authenticity and artifice. At first, their conversations are externally focused, with arguments about creative motivation and the worthiness of forgery. But in time, their characters flirt with candid reflection, and the pair becomes entangled in a performance of seductive ambiguity. Kiarostami is determined to unravel how one can assume the identity of another, and Binoche and Shimell are devoted collaborators who build Certified Copy as a delicate maze that leads audiences down variously evocative paths in a search of human truth.

31. Secret Sunshine (2010)

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Image via IFC Films

Writer-director Lee Chang-dong is a filmmaker with a masterstroke. His elegant narrative constructions and unpredictably multifaceted characters are continually something to behold, and Secret Sunshine only affirms that more. Lead by a magnificent performance from Jeon Do-yeon, Secret Sunshine is a work of visceral emotions and abstract notions; a study of faith in all its power, strangeness, cruelty, and infinite mystery; a look at the particularities of human nature and the experiences that account for the existence, perhaps even the inevitability, of religion — all of which is to say that it’s an attempt to depict the invisible in what is foremost a visual medium. A challenge that Lee takes on and executes almost alarmingly well. It’s a film that is skeptical of organized religion, even often angry at its hypocrisy and opportunism, but never devolves into a mocking attack or a blanket statement. Maybe to a bigger point, it’s a film about the lies we tell ourselves in order to live — it suggests that there may be no lie bigger than religion, but also acknowledges that sometimes lies are necessary.

30. Shame (2011)

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Image via Fox Searchlight

Michael Fassbender’s brave, uncompromising performance takes centerstage in Steve McQueen’s merciless film about sex addiction. He’s a loner with a good, steady job, who avoids relationships because of his addiction. His days are driven and centered around sex. Few filmmakers have plumbed the soul-churning depths of sexual addiction as fearlessly as McQueen does with Shame. A mesmerizing but uncompromising drama that fixes its gaze on the uses and abuses of the human body, as Fassbender literally and figuratively strips himself down in every way an actor can, for McQueen’s rigorous but human interrogation.

29. O.J.: Made in America (2016)

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Image via ESPN Films

Simultaneously fleet-footed and monolithic, Ezra Edelman’s documentary investigates the O.J. Simpson saga, peeling the layers from this giant, rotten cultural onion with forensic precision and intellectual rigor. It’s an absorbing study of race, class, sport, politics, and the media through the prism of one deeply troubles man. Turning Simpson’s entire life into a kaleidoscopic look at the U.S.’s history of racial prejudice — with a special eye towards the relationship between the LAPD and Los Angeles’ African-American community — Edelman peeled back decades of lurid gossip to reveal a raw mess of unhealed wounds. The film’s bottomless well of archival footage doesn’t footage serve as traditional b-roll, but instead becomes an emotional window into seeing the past through a different lens. Through Edelman’s intellect and rigorous vision, the long arc of Simpson’s life and that of America’s racial animus blend into one, revealing an uncomfortable spectrum of truths that people may not have expected to find in this story. And that’s why O.J.: Made in America feels like such a subversive: When it premiered, well over sixty-million American tuned in to ESPN to bask in the glow of a reheated history lesson, only to be confronted by an epic look at the conflicted soul of a country in perpetual crisis.

28. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

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Image via NEON

A thread of quiet rebellion runs throughout Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) challenges the limits placed on female artists in the 18th century, while young noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) refuses to sit for a portrait that’s part of an arranged marriage she doesn’t want. Together, the two women push past the boundaries of social propriety with their slow-burning romance. Writer-director Céline Sciamma tells all this through the power of observation, glances and gestures saying so much. The subtle lushness, the romance and period completely realized, Portrait of a Lady on Fire steadily carves out a space of its everlasting own.

27. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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Image via Paramount Pictures

It was back 2013 when Martin Scorsese held a magnifying glass up to the unhinged ego of Reagan-era capitalism and, for some reason, not everyone nodded in complete understanding. The most insistently misread entry in Marty’s canon, The Wolf of Wall Street works its magic by tricking the objects of its satirical jabs into telling on themselves; the Wall Street bros still idolzing the weak, impotent, psychotic stock-jockey Jordan Belfort (a reptilian Leonardo DiCaprio) confirm all the moral vacuity that Terence Winter’s script assigns them. The film’s generous assorted pleasures — everything involving Jonah Hill; the dance of the Quaaludes; the instantaneous invention of a movie star named Margot Robbie — can trip a person up. But the darkest moments betray this as an American horror story of addiction, to drugs or money or power, all of which seemingly are the same thing.

26. A Hidden Life (2019)

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Image via Fox Searchlight

Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a period piece where historical detail takes a backseat. The film tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a devout Austrian farmer who became a despised conscientious objector when he refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler. It’s a film of staggering emotional power, philosophical and spiritual heft, all brought to soul barring life by Malick, using light, movement, sound, and texture to portray a consciousness hovering between earthly reality and metaphysical conviction. And though Terrence Malick doesn’t give interviews, I don’t think we really need one to understand why he created and released a film of this nature in 2019, at a time when the United States is being torn apart over the issue of obedient support of an authority figure, and have the dialogue alternate German with English (for the most part). But A Hidden Life is rich and sturdy enough to transcend the contemporary one-to-one comparisons that it is sure to invite. The social dynamics at play are timeless. In the end, A Hidden Life is a soul grasping experience; a spiritual journey of solitude and resilience brought to life through light and sound; one that doesn’t transcend cinema, but truly sanctifies it.

25. Burning (2018)

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Image via Well Go USA

Loosely adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s finest film to date observes a vaguely dissatisfied aspruing writer named Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) as he develops a potential romance with an impulsive young woman, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and subsequently gets tossed into the orbit of Hae-mi’s extravagantly wealthy new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun, in on of the finest supporting performances of the decade). Initially playing as a low-key character study, Burning slowly metamorphoses into a highly unconventional thriller, built around a mysterious disappearance. The film’s emphasis on class warfare is impossible to miss, but Lee declines to offer facile conclusions. Even when Jong-su finally takes action in the last few minutes, it’s unclear whether he’s an avenging angel or just dangerously paranoid.

24. Son of Saul (2015)

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Image via Sony Pictures Classic

A grime, unforgettable viewing experience, Son of Saul is an extremely tight, practically first-person look inside of Auschwitz. Told with a visual language that never really takes its literal focus off our title character, and never turns it into a gimmick, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and director László Nemes find the way to make it central to our characters journey and deeply engrossing. But it’s the way Nemes injects such a cinematic energy into a concentration camp that makes this film such a harrowing vision built on an intense purpose that’s found in your final hours.

23. Amour (2012)

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Image via Sony Pictures Classic

Anyone familiar with the punishing work of Michael Haneke likely had to do a double-take when they heard he’d made a movie called “Amour.” After all, the Austrian provocateur dubbed his cruelest act of audience antagonism Funny Games. So the truly shocking thing about this unlikely Oscar winner is that its title is completely sincere. Tracing the slow but steady physical/mental decline of an elderly music teacher (Emmanuelle Riva) after she suffers a stroke, it may be the most gruelingly realistic movie ever made about the indignities of old age. Yet in witnessing the tireless care and devotion the woman’s husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Haneke also reaches for an expression of love at its purest and most selfless. Amour is completely unromantic on the subject of dying, which makes the undying romance at its center all the more powerful.

22. You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Image via Amazon Studios

In a more just world, Lynne Ramsay would have been more justly praised for her bruising, tightly-coiled 2018 thriller, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays an avenging hitman who becomes embroiled in the dark world of child sex trafficking in New York state. Adapting Jonathan Ames’ short story, Ramsay brings her unique fascination with bleary visual textures and extreme subjectivity, and the result is a powerful and personal revenger thriller that delves into a mind rattled with PTSD and a world where softness exists alongside unbearable brutality.

21. Before Midnight (2013)

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Image via Sony Pictures Classic

Each decade gets the Before movie it deserves. For the ’90s, it was the dreamily romantic Before Sunrise, for the ’00s it was the high-stakes reunion of Before Sunset, nd for the 2010s it was Before Midnight, the most grown-up entry in Richard Linklater’s ever-evolving portrait of modern love. While the first two film of the trilogy hinged on variations on the question pf whether Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) would see each other again, Before Midnight introduces a different set of stakes. The lovers are no longer at risk of losing touch, but there’s now a chance that the two will blow up the life they’ve painstakingly built together. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy build on everything that’s come before to craft a poignant snapshot of how youthful bliss transforms into long-term love, for better and worse.

20. Holy Motors (2012)

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Image via Indomina Releasing

Holy Motors just might the strangest film of the decade. What exactly is it about, anyway? French filmmaker Leos Carax ensures we never come close to a satisfying answer by constantly undercutting the rules of his game. The result is a manic multi-genre mishmash that flirts with cinema history and gestures toward its future. The film casts singular physical performer and Carax regular Denis Lavant as a gallivanting, shape-shifting everyman, inexplicably assuming a new identity — business executive, bag lady, assassin, sewer troll — in each of the film’s nine “appointments.” With each of them going to unexpected directions from a supermodel kidnapping, CGI-rendered phallic dragons, and a Kylie Minogue musical number — events so unthinkably random, it takes multiple viewings to detect the film’s guiding melancholic undercurrent. Abandoning the narrative comforts of his past work, Carax’s film takes a headfirst plunge into the creative impulses of the artist and everything horrifyingly inane, beautifully weird, and erotic that entails.

19. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Image via Warner Bros.

Blade Runner 2049 was the sequel that dared to dream it might surpass its creator. It was the blockbuster that breathed, the film replicant made flesh. In returning to the source material of the original Blade Runner (itself adapted from a 1968 Philip K. Dick novel), director Denis Villeneuve could by rights have got away with ticking the appropriate boxes and contentedly riding a wave of shared nostalgia. Instead, he opted for full immersion, a deep dive into its subject matter. The film finds us in the dystopian L.A. three decades after Ridley Scott’s classic. We find a replicant cop on a four-year time clock named K (a brilliant Ryan Gosling), who’s charged with hunting down the last of the more durable early models. In misty grounds of a protein farm, he finds a box of bones. The box, in turn, points the way towards a missing child and a vast existential mystery that could conceivably be a new creation myth, and will turn his life into a whirlwind. It very well could be redundant to note that a film about artificial life should itself be artificial? Do we need to be reminded that the world on screen is fake? Those rainswept urban canyons were concocted by technicians and awe-inspiringly framed by cinematographer Roger Deakins. So in many ways Villeneuve’s movie is a representation, an artificial landscape staffed with paid performers, just like every other fiction film ever made. But that’s the deal, it’s was cinema does. It’s just that this one is so layered and textured that it infects us, transports us. And somewhere along the way we become like K and Joi, K’s hologram lover, immersed in their drama, “more human than human.” Which is arguably the key test of every great movie. Audaciously, Blade Runner 2049 suggests it may be the key test of life. If we believe in the illusion, it means that, for us, it is real.

18. Under the Skin (2014)

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Image via A24

Jonathan Glazer labored for than a decade over the best way to adapt Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin, and it shows. His final product, light on dialogue and heavy on dread, strips back the sensational premise — an alien seductress who drugs men, and harvests their meat for her home planet — to the bare essentials, emphasizing the seduction over the exact purpose of that seduction. Scarlett Johansson stars as the nameless extraterrestrial, and Glazer, in a move as cruel as it is effective, secretively filmed her encounters and flirtations with real men to ensure they resonate with all the curiosity and giddiness one might feel when getting picked up by, well, someone that looks like Scarlett Johansson. The desolate tar pit that indifferently swallows her targets  frightenedly embodies Glazer’s themes of loneliness and isolation, but it’s the character’s own drift toward empathy and her tragic, empty fate that lingers. There’s also, of course, Mica Levi’s violent, unsettling score, which is alien enough to accompany Glazer’s Kubrickian glimpse of the cosmos, as well as his brief, gruesome look at the guts that flood the intergalactic assembly line.

17. First Reformed (2018)

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Image via A24

Megachurches aren’t just buildings; they’re faith institutions. That’s the case, at least, in First Reformed, a roaring, deeply felt meditation on spiritual purpose from the legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader, here trying his hand at the transcendental mode of cinema he dissected early in his career. A never-better Ethan Hawke stars as Toller, the shepherd of a historical church kept alive only by a corporate arm, who spiritual impotence finds a cure in a cause: global warming. What follows is a study in extremism and self-sabotage a condemnation of faith’s commodification that never lets its hero off the hook as the architect of his own downfall. Schrader’s trademark brutality asserts itself, physically and emotionally. But First Reformed is, first and foremost, a film investigating the shape of holiness in a modern world.

16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

fury road
Image via Warner Bros.

One contradiction of many roaring under the hood of George Miller’s flabbergasting road-rage spectacular: in a decade that saw Hollywood nearly give up on making entertainment that might double as art, here was an impossible blockbuster that restored faith in the very idea of the studio system as a dream factory, spending astronomical sums on passion projects. Fury Road, Miller’s triumphant return to the lawless dystopian future, fulfilled its mandate to restore a franchise left to rust in the IP junkyard. But the writer-director also rebooted Mad Max on his own cracked-visionary terms, redeeming the action genre in the CGI era through the lost arts of practical effects and stunt work. Going further still, Miller subverted his own series formula by taking the Road Warrior himself (Tom Hardy, capably filling in for Mel Gibson) out of the driver’s seat. With Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic Furiosa behind the wheel instead, this feature-length demolition derby became an unlikely race against fascism and toxic masculinity — a parable that only looked more and more relevant the further we sped into the 2010s.

15. A Separation (2011)

a separation
Image via Sony Pictures Classic

Right from its opening minutes, Asghar Farhadi’s film of staggering moral and dramatic complexity strands its audience in the middle, dividing our sympathies along the fault line of a faltering marriage. In the most literal sense, the title refers to the relationship status of Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), an Iranian couple at an impasse. Yet there are multiple separations at play in the film: of class, gender, and religion, all exacerbated by the legal and ethical crisis that opens like a sinkhole at the center of the movie. A Separation, which catapulted its writer-director into the upper echelons of world cinema, gradually transforms into a kind of thriller of culpability and deception, as conflict ripples out from that first courtroom confrontation and another family is pulled, slowly but forcefully, into the emotional wreckage of Nader and Simin’s broken home. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the movie is the way Farhadi sustains the balance of identification established in the first scene, withholding key information to put us all in the position of an impartial third party trying to sort out the whole mess. In a film about what divides people, he locates commonalties. Which is to say, for all A Separation may communicate about life in contemporary Iran, its insights into human nature are shatteringly universal.

14. Inherent Vice (2014)

inherent vice
Image via Warner Bros.

So dense and hazy that it was probably destined to be the most under-appreciated of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, Inherent Vice is a strung-out noir odyssey through the fog of late capitalism that grows a little clearer every time you watch it. A little sadder, too. Shot like a faded postcard, and as untethered from reality as its source material requires, this rare Thomas Pynchon adaptation borrows a lot from sun-dappled L.A. noir like The Long Goodbye, but it’s way sillier and sweeter than Philip Marlowe ever was. Per genre tradition, the central mystery is actually several different mysteries all knotted together; good luck untangling what a heroin addict’s missing husband has to do with a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann and a drug cartel that calls itself the Golden Fang. But while the plot may be hard to follow, PTA compensates by making the film’s emotional underpinnings as clear as Doc Sportello’s view of the California coastline. The lost love between hippie P.I. Sportello (a magnificently worn-out Joaquin Phoenix) and his ex (a bittersweet Katherine Waterson) is achingly well-realized in just a few short scenes, while the pervasive sense of a country in decline is suffused in to the atmosphere. Forget Boogie Nights and the illusion of American possibility, Inherent Vice burrows into the feeling that we’ve already let it get away from us — that we’re all out there chasing our own tails and waiting for the fog to burn off.

13. Her (2013)

her
Image via Warner Bros.

Spike Jonze’s sci-romance, drops you into a near-future story of a sad, lonely man named Teddy (a devastating Joaquin Phoenix) who enters into a romantic relationship with his computer’s operating system (expressively embodied, sans body, by Scarlett Johansson) should look sillier or scarier as real-life technology threatens to catch up with it. But while Her has its funny moments, Jonze takes his material seriously — not as a cautionary tale or an indictment of male entitlement, but as a sensitive, open-hearted relationship story about one partner growing beyond another.

12. Phantom Thread (2017)

phantomthread
Image via Focus Features

On its surface, Phantom Thread looks like Paul Thomas Anderson’s most conventional film — a simple romantic power-struggle, set in 1950s London, between fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (the legend Daniel Day-Lewis, in his final role) and his headstrong muse, Alma (Vickey Krieps, plucked from semi-obscurity). Their relationship revolves as much around food as it does clothes: Reynolds first meets Alma as she takes his ludicrously extravagant breakfast order at the restaurant where she works, and later heated arguments between them involve such niceties as the way she prepares asparagus. Eventually, there’s another, more sinister culinary development, which concludes with mutual decisions that strongly suggest a kinky subtext to all the very proper disputation. Plus, it’s just exciting to watch Krieps more than hold her own opposite perhaps the world’s greatest actor, as Alma tolerates, withstands, and finally upends Reynolds’ imperious bullying, recognizing what even he doesn’t know that he truly desires.

11. Call Me by Your Name (2017)

call me by your name cinematography
Image via Sony Pictures Classic

While the term “period romance” may not immediately conjure up the 1980s, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is lyrical enough to rival any great 19th-century love story. (It also helps that costume-drama connoisseur James Ivory wrote the screenplay.) The connection between sensitive, bookish teen Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and confident, charismatic grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) is one of unspoken longing, equal parts intellectual and physical. Yet the masterstroke of the film is the way it puts us firmly into the intimate headspace of Elio’s intoxicating erotic awakening, only to zoom out with a monologue from his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) that reminds us of the universality of heartbreak and all-too-rare gift of truly unconditional love.

10. Margaret (2011)

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Image via Fox Searchlight

Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious sophomore feature emerged from six years of post-production purgatory in a slightly mangled form, yet was nonetheless a master work. (Besides, Margaret was always intended to be a epic, messy, sprawling melodrama.) Anna Paquin delivers an uncommonly lacerating portrait of teenage self-denial, a high-schooler who accidentally causes a bus accident. That inciting incident is one the innumerable dramas she negotiates across the film’s epic New York canvas, while confronting the fact that she’s at the center of no one’s story but her own. Though Lonergan is a celebrated playwright, the film’s richly detailed soundscapes, alternately assaultive and symphonic, would be impossible to fully convey on the stage. Likewise, the film’s preoccupation with the essential separateness of people is uniquely suited to the exterior viewpoint that cinema so naturally provides. Taking its title from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Margaret is a film about the difficulties of truly connecting with another person. Words fail, emotion is limited. But in its moving final scene, which sees Lisa and her mother weeping at an opera house, the film suggests that perhaps art, after all, is the best thing we’ve got. This is the kind of rare, staggering vison that lives up to that suggestion.

9. Manchester by the Sea (2017)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, from left, Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, 2016. ph: Claire Folger. © Roadside
Image via Amazon Studios

How do you recover from a stupid, drunken mistake that destroys your entire world? Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating third feature (his second was just #10) has the bleak courage to acknowledge that sometimes you don’t, though maybe you can at least make partial amends in a roundabout way. Casey Affleck won an Oscar for his deeply internalized performance, in which grief functions as a parasite that almost but doesn’t quite paralyze its host; his climactic scene opposite Michelle Williams (equally superb) is true rip-your-guts-out stuff, insisting that some wounds just never heal, regardless of how good people’s intentions may be. Yet life goes one, While the film underscores via a film-length “subplot” in which Affleck’s self-exiled Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown — the place of the non-crime that haunts him — in order to care for his semi-orphaned teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). In the midst of life we are in death, but for Lonergan, the inverse is equally true, and he digs deep into that horrible dichotomy Few other American filmmakers are so willing to examine the necessary impossibility of simply enduring.

8. Dogtooth (2010)

dogtooth
Image via Kino International

By turns darkly funny and shockingly violent, the breakthrough feature by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos follows in the footsteps of pull-no-punches directors like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. Following a couple that keeps their adolescent children locked in their home/compound sheltered from the world and imprisoned not just by high fences but by fear and even language. One day, outside influence creeps in via painfully awkward sex and surreptitious smuggling of Hollywood movies on VHS, but any lighthearted moments are punctuated by awful fits of aggression, all the more brutal for how mundane they are. The father (a relentless Christos Stergioglou) never attempts to explain or justify his actions, and the almost clinical, detached eye of Lanthimos and his cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ camera only adds to the terror.

7. The Social Network (2010)

the-social-network-
Image via Sony Pictures

When The Social Network was released in 2010, some questioned whether David Fincher’s film was being too hard on poor Mark Zuckerberg. Nine years later, as Facebook’s true (alarming) potential to undermine democracy is finally under discussion, it seems the real question is whether the movie was hard enough. It certainly turned out to be prescient: as well as a warning against putting too much power in the hands of the petty and vindictive, The Social Network also diagnosed the bitterly misogynist, perpetually aggrieved cancer that was growing throughout nerd-bro tech culture while most observers were will in the thrall of millennial techo-utopianism. In retrospect, the film also turned out to be a coming out party for young actors whose careers were about to take-off, including Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, and Rooney Mara (the latter who later star in Fincher’s next film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). One thing about The Social Network that hasn’t changed is the remarkable skill with which Fincher spins suspense out of abstract ones and zeroes, and the continues snap of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue.

6. Anomalisa (2015)

ANOMALISA
Image via Paramount Pictures

Some of the most distinct visions of modern cinema often can come from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, and Anomalisa was yet another distinct piece into Kaufman’s filmography. This is a film that is wholeheartedly ponderous and a highlight of introspective cinema. (Anomalisa is as well, a brilliant example of showing how stop-motion animation is not a genre, but purely a medium; as the film takes advantage of it beautifully and brings such a natural sensibility.) Kaufman’s screenplay is one that slowly takes apart the brain and shows us the gears of the human emotion, putting us in the mind of our lead character Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a victim of the Fregoli delusion. A real, rare disorder, where a person holds the belief that everyone else is in fact the same person in disguise. Which Kaufman takes ahold masterfully and uses as a metaphor for persons inept ability to connect with people.

5. Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash-5547.cr2
Image via Sony Pictures Classic

“Suffering for your art” has rarely been given a more literal workout than in Damien Chazelle’s absorbing and propulsive psychodrama about a talented young drummer (Miles Teller) pulled into the orbit of a bitterly cruel instructor (J.K. Simmons). Edited with incredible rhythm by Tom Cross, and directed with a powerful verve, Chazelle, working from his own screenplay, impeccably captures the obsessive drive that pushes so many great artists past the boundaries of normal behavior, sacrificing everything in pursuit of greatness. Even more impressively, is the way the film remains cleverly ambiguous on the ultimate cost of the work, illuminating the darkly codependent nature of the two men’s relationship with nuance and understanding. Teller is excellent, but there’s a reason Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar: he terrifies and entrances in equal measure, demonstrating exactly why someone would willingly submit themselves to the force of his volcanic tutelage.

4. The Master (2012)

the master
Image via The Weinstein Company

Moonshine and therapy, past lives and postwar malaise, lust and trauma, the sea and the soul. Paul Thomas Anderson’s perplexing masterpiece about the search for meaning in America in the years after WWII is a film of elusive subjects, an allegory repressed into the ironies and human puzzles of its characters. An alcoholic, sex-obsessed sailor (Joaquin Phoenix) drifts into the inner circle of a charismatic cult leader (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) who bears more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard — yet the parallels to the beginnings of Scientology, while hard to miss, are just one part of the fabric of the film Even more so than the masterful There Will Be Blood, The Master announced Anderson’s transformation as a writer-director. Where earlier ensemble films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia dazzled, the movies of Anderson’s mature period (also represented by my #12 Phantom Thread) tantalize and transfix, focusing our attention on characters who are as psychological complex as they are ultimately mysterious. A master class in performance and direction, the film has lost none of its power to both enthrall and confound ever since I first saw it.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside-Llewyn-Davis..
Image via CBS Films

The Coen Brothers have always excelled at crafting intensely lovable losers, but even by their standards, Llewyn Davis (a brilliant Oscar Isaac) is one-of-a-kind. Loosely based on the life (and stalled-out) career of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the ’60s-set Inside Llewyn Davis follows its title character over the course of one week in his knockabout life. While the week itself — filled with bad shows, worse recording sessions, and a delightful orange cat — is emblematic of Llewyn’s everyday existence, the Coens never lose track of the fact that this is just one slice of his life. As entertaining and rich as the film is, many of is pleasures and truths work because it’s clear how much more is going on in both Llewyn’s life and the dirty, cold, magical NYC he’s trapped inside. Impeccably crafted from top to bottom, from a the Coens’ script that teeters between wrenching drama and “that’s life!” comedy to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s milky lensing of a period New York. And that’s to say nothing of the music from T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford that set Llewyn firmly into an era he never existed inside while also crafting a new musical legacy. Just like the film they inhabit, they zing from wacky jams to heartbreakers. It’s a film that’s got everything, and all of it feels achingly real.

2. Moonlight (2016)

moonlight
Image via A24

Movies at their best can show the viewer the world through the eyes of another human being, no matter how different that person’s circumstances might be from their own. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight does just that, sketching a sensual roadmap to the soul of a South Florida native as he grows up from a neglected child to a misunderstood man. Chiron, the film’s protagonist, is played by three different actors: Alex R. Hibbert as a ten-year-old “Little,” vulnerable as a baby bird; Ashton Sanders as a sixteen-year-old Chiron, terrified of his homosexuality; and Trevante Rhodes as young adult “Black,” hardened by years working in the drug trade that ruined the life of his mother (Naomie Harris) and may have killed his mentor (Mahershala Ali). Jenkins paints Chiron as a reserved person, with a limited number of lines to match. But in the absence of long monologues, moments of profound stillness speak just as eloquently: the floating feeling behind the eyes after a long day of swimming; the bracing clarity of ice water on a bruised face; the beating of waves against the sand like a heartbeat. Moonlight is cinema as its mot poetic, and its most empathetic.

1. The Tree of Life (2011)

the tree of life
Image via Fox Searchlight

The decade’s ultimate cinematic meditation, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life saw the fabled auteur pivot away from historical epics and towards the more intimate and confessional searches for meaning that he’s been making ever since. And yet, for obvious reasons, this remains his most personal film, and the one that best hones his free-wheeling approach into a hopeful cry for help. Reanimating the director’s own childhood in 1950s Texas, The Tree of Life ebbs and flows through time in a way that makes it possible to feel Malick wrestling with his faith in every frame. The story is anchored to a suburban couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) whose middle child dies under mysterious circumstances. Their eldest son (Hunter McKracken, as a stand-in for young Malick) bears mystified witness to his parents’ grief, and grows increasingly attuned to the discord that he hears between his idyllic home and the world around it. The Tree of Life has a vision that makes most movies look like crude stick-figure drawings; so vast and precise, Malick juxtaposes the internal strife with events as cosmic as the Big Bang, and as tactile as a mother feeling the softness of her newborn’s feet. The weightless aesthetic language that Malick created with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is tinged with the sweet pain of nostalgia and an interstellar feeling of nothingness all at once. Yet the question of why someone has to die is made to seem absurdly narrow, because a single life seems so insignificant in the vastness of time and space. Yet The Tree Of Life isn’t despairing about it in the least; it’s a genuine attempt to try to grasp the transcendent, it’s the rare film that’s truly a religious/spiritual experience. To watch The Tree of Life is to see someone locate their place in the universe, and find a humbling catharsis through it. It’s a film that envisions a lot, but most humbly, it arguably changed/altered my life.

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