This is my list, that’s all. I, admittedly, could have stood to see more films by experimental and avant-garde; foreign; female; and documentary filmmakers this decade. But of the films I saw, these were my favorites. Enjoy.
25. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
Blade Runner is many things – an philosophical inquiry into the soul, a cautionary tale of the murky ethics of A.I., a neo-noir vision of corporate dystopia, etc. – but perhaps most of all, an examination of “what it is to be a slave,” in the words of the film’s tragic hero, Roy Batty. Villeneuve’s sequel, set in an even more squalid and somber vision of the future than the original, pushes this question further, envisioning a world in which slavery hasn’t been outlawed, but simply subsumed into the monolith of corporatism. (Gee, could you imagine?) In K.’s (Ryan Gosling) search for his own origins, he’s hunting as much for an explicit affirmation of purpose, a reason for living that isn’t as narrowly-defined as his function as a cog in a corporate machine. The purpose he ultimately finds may bring him peace, but it’s nonetheless heartbreaking in its selflessness.
24. INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
“Under the paving stones, the beach!” begins Thomas Pynchon’s stoner-mystery novel Inherent Vice, the tale of a private investigator who finds himself hopelessly entangled in a real estate conspiracy in 1970 Los Angeles. The soul of Pynchon’s novel is in its lament for the loss of the 60s dream, which gave way to the creeping spread of corporate conservatism and a reaffirmation of W.A.S.P. values, but he’s hardly a fool, and can’t help but feel his generation shares in the blame, having let opportunity slip through their fingers, only to eventually be bulldozed right over. Adapting even “light” Pynchon is no easy task, and for what Anderson may lack when it comes to Pynchon’s signature postmodern paranoia, his work perfectly captures that spirit of lament, from the vantage point of somebody who suspects that the high-water mark has already been reached, the waves broken for good. Larry (“Doc”) Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is sent down the proverbial rabbit hole by an old flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who has become involved with a local real estate magnate gone missing. At the same time, he’s hired by a former heroin addict (Jena Malone) to investigate the disappearance of her husband Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), presumed dead. What he comes to learn in the course of a journey that takes him across scores of different sects of freaks is that, while he may not be able to redeem the death of the 60s dream, he can at least redeem himself, and maybe one or two others. Maybe that’s the best any of us can do.
23. GREEN ROOM (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)
I read an observation on Jeremy Saulnier’s film once which noted: the narrative importance of a given action in his films has no bearing on the success or failure of that action. Which is to say, his films operate not by the coherent and symbolic logic of fiction, but by the messy chaos of everyday life. And when a group of twitchy, mostly-amateur people find themselves pitted in life-or-death violence against each other, things are going to turn unpredictable and ugly. It’s operating under these stakes that shows what each member of the Aint Rights, a punk band turned witnesses to murder, to hostages, to hunted animals, is really made of (even admitting their shamefully un-punk favorite bands to each other). And even besides its merits as a tightly-wound, tightly-plotted, unflinchingly-violent, sawn-off bottle thriller, it gave us Anton Yelchin during his brief ascendant peak, pitted against an atypically hostile and frightening Patrick Stewart, in an unfortunately resonant battle between a broke millennial and a dipshit Nazi.
22. FIRST REFORMED (Paul Schrader, 2017)
“A life without despair is a life without hope,” says Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man who more and more lately can see only the despair. Shaken to his core by his encounter with an eco-activist who distressingly lays out what the future of climate change holds for us (war, famine, pestilence, disease, mass migration, the disappearance of cities and homes: chaos), Toller can no longer find comfort in God or prayer, turning inwardly to a diary, in which he shares his confusion, anger, and grief at a world which makes increasingly less sense to him; in which the kind-hearted suffer and the very seeds of God’s creation are being snuffed out of existence by mankind’s endless capacity for greed and destruction. Which is what makes the film’s bold and unlikely ending such a radical act; real or not, it observes the only truth left in which Toller can possibly believe: love is hope, and God is love.
21. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is tired. Tired of being broke, tired of being rejected, tired of being unappreciated, tired of the same shitty gigs week after week at The Gaslight Cafe. And yet the Coens approach the mundane tragicomedy of his circumstances with such a deft touch that it never feels oppressive, even as he stubbornly remains his own worst enemy, allowing his own hubris and misplaced rage to sabotage whatever chance he may have of lasting success or peace. It’s a narrative ouroboros, poor Llewyn cursed forever to eat his own tail in a modern fable of the perpetual dusk of man’s soul, in New York, Winter, 1961. And its evocation of the 60s NYC folk scene feels as close to romantic longing as the Coens ever get.
20. A SEPARATION (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
The most heartbreaking aspect of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is that there is nobody you can root for without implicitly rooting against somebody else; the narrative tensions it elegantly constructs forces each of its characters into conflicts for which there is no easy resolution for any of the aggrieved parties. The plot centers on a young Iranian couple, who are seeking a divorce because the father, Nader (Payman Maādi), insists on remaining in the country to care for his own father, who has Alzheimer’s; whereas his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), wants to raise their daughter elsewhere. Things are further complicated when Nader hires a young, devoutly religious housekeeper (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father, behind the back of her own husband (Shahab Hosseini), who would never approve of his wife caring for another man. A series of ill-fated decisions results in a small-yet-shocking moment of violence which throws everybody’s affairs into violent disarray. It’s an explosive and tightly-wound thriller draped in the clothes of a domestic drama; Farhadi treats everyday life with the narrative import usually given to far larger – and far less important – stories. And yet he’s unwilling to allow us the release valve of easy resolutions, leaving us only with the hurt and broken-hearted victims of the human condition.
19. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
“I’m going straight to hell. Eternal damnation, the whole bit. Thanks for asking! Okay?” So believes Eva (Tilda Swinton), whose son Kevin has perpetrated a shocking and violent massacre, effectively casting her as a pariah: the kind of person whose gaze you avoid in public, a non-entity, better to just ignore her and she might go away. But, rather than let us off the hook, Ramsay is at least as concerned with the idea that Eva may have been responsible for her monstrous son, in a monkey’s-paw twist on the nature-vs.-nurture debate. Ramsay turns the comfortable trappings of a typical domestic life into stark images of violence and lurking horror (see the film’s most famous shot, Eva standing in front of an entire shelf of blood-red soup cans). What is the measure of a mother, when her child turns out to be a monster? And what monster could ever be more fearsome than that?
18. SICARIO (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)
The most razor-sharp and honest mainstream depiction yet of the extra-legal ways in which the American deep state operates: with little regard for life and less for law, as it extends each of its tentacles across boundary lines in order to better wrap them around the throats of friends and would-be allies alike. Whatever it takes, after all, to maintain control. Villeneuve flips the cop thriller on its head, as our ostensible hero Kate (Emily Blunt) finds herself increasingly bloodied and beaten down by the brutal machinations of a world which makes increasingly less sense to her and her by-the-book outlook, in which wolves like Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and Matt (Josh Brolin) are always closing in. It’s one of the few films smart enough to wonder out loud, not if we can win the War on Drugs, but whether we even want to, and for whose benefit the war is being fought in the first place.
17. SUSPIRIA (Luca Guadagnino, 2018)
Few film announcements have ever made me as skeptical as that of Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s fever-dream masterpiece Suspiria; few films have ever, then, left my jaw on the floor as much as this one, an utterly phantasmagoric reimagination of Argento’s film, which trades in the original’s candy-coated, sexy-slasher vibes for something more brutal, jarring, geometric: post-punk to the original’s Italo disco. Setting aside the (perhaps muddled) geopolitical background rumblings, the plot concerns a troupe of dancers in a prestigious academy in Berlin, which it’s rumored is in thrall to a coven of witches, who worship The Three Mothers: Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum. Dance becomes the crucible in which these young women are warped and transformed, for purposes more sinister and supernatural than they can yet imagine (one grisly centerpiece, which features a woman possessed by the movements of another dancer, is one of the most shockingly and daringly violent scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film). It’s the rare film to embrace an entirely female perspective for concerns outside the narrowly-defined genre of “women’s films” (romance, rom-coms, melodrama). And it has Tilda Swinton in multiple roles, which is statement enough in itself to know: this film fucks.
16. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (Lynne Ramsay, 2018)
When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; but what happens when there’s no more nails left to pound? Joe (Joaquin Phoenix cementing his status as the best actor alive) is a man consumed and defined by violence: his overseas tours have left him with post-traumatic stress, and he earns his living as a shadowy P.I., sent by night to deliver kidnapping victims from sexual slavery, most usually by beating the shit out of their captors until they lie in a pool of blood. But it’s the quiet stillness which follows that Joe can’t stand; he’s been so warped by violence, that in its absence, he’s unmoored, a ghost without purpose. Tellingly, Ramsay elides most of the most brutal violence, capturing instead the disquieting aftermath: broken bodies, broken men.
15. UNCUT GEMS (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2019)
“For me, the action is the juice,” states a character in Michael Mann’s Heat, though he could just as well be speaking for the Safdies’ Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a compulsive gambling junkie who spends the two-plus frightfully stressful hours of Uncut Gems trying to miracle his way out of one jam after another, each of his own design, desperately attempting to straighten out each of the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul schemes he’s concurrently running to save his own ass. The titular gem, which holds superstitious sway over both Howard and prospective client (and NBA superstar) Kevin Garnett, is the MacGuffin at the film’s heart: staring into its center can supposedly reveal the whole universe, but down on earth, it’s at the center of untold violence and economic exploitation. It’s an anxiety attack of a film, with a score that pricks like needles under your skin and claustrophobic cinematography that threatens to box Howard in until he can’t breathe any more. All you can do is pray that he manages to not get buried alive, all the while muttering under your breath: You fucking idiot.
14. THE TURIN HORSE (Béla Tarr, 2011)
And thus with a whimper, not a bang, does the light go out of the world in Béla Tarr’s final film, a haunting endnote to a career which saw in life little besides the capacity for drudgery, misery, toil, and despair. A man and his daughter, living in a wind-blasted hellscape, with only their workhorse (which, it’s said, once drove Nietzsche to tears – and eventual insanity – as he witnessed the beast being mercilessly beaten) for company, find no reprieve from their daily misery, their life a dryly-comical repetition of joyless tasks. Such is their desolation that when one traveler passes by with a caravan, it seems a grotesque, vulgar intrusion on the comfortable cocoon of routine in which they will forever reside. And when the light goes out, who will be left to witness?
13. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
After spending most of the last decade exacting metafictional revenge on some of history’s greatest monsters (Nazis and slavers), Tarantino turns his eye towards his beloved Los Angeles and the Hollywood of his adolescence, where once lurked a sinister boogeyman named Charles Manson. But Tarantino’s triumph here isn’t revenging the deaths of Sharon Tate and company; it’s giving us the miracle of a vision of Tate, rescued from her unfortunate legacy as the most notable victim of a grisly tragedy, and seen simply as an effervescent and enchanting star (heartbreakingly brought to life by Margot Robbie) with a wonderful life ahead of her. And yet even Tarantino can’t deny the ways in which our own mortality makes itself known, no less painful for how utterly ordinary and inevitable they are, as we watch B-level star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best-friend/stuntman/gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) come to terms with their own obsolescence. It’s a shockingly somber and moving feature from a director typically not known for such, a comforting (and yes, occasionally violent and often hilarious) vision of a dreamland that dares to ask: Wouldn’t it be nice?
12. THE REVENANT (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2016)
Much was made of Leonardo DiCaprio’s arduous death-march towards Oscar glory, but it’s Emmanuel Lubezki who transforms this rather spartan tale of survival at the edges of the earth into a transcendent vision of nature as a proving ground for man’s soul. Its primitive intensity sustains a largely wordless tale for two and a half hours, with only occasional signposts to demarcate its minimal nods to narrative. (If I had my way, it’d have even less dialogue.) It’s as if Iñárritu saw Lubezki’s work on Malick’s The New World, and decided it should be rawer, more vivid, more immediate. He taps into a certain physical primacy – I am, I do, I will – that seems both quaint and formidable, if not profound. A simple tale, told extremely well: all you need.
11. DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
“I made action films, sexy stuff. One critic called them ‘European.’ I thought they were shit.” So says Albert Brooks’ Bernie – loan shark, mobster, genial businessman – of his former career as a film producer. But it’s just as much Nicolas Winding Refn’s wry observation of his own work, exemplified by Drive, which spins a pulp neo-noir novel into a languorous, moody art film, Michael Mann’s neon-dream Thief married to Jean-Pierre Melville’s spartan Le Samouraï. Our hero, the unswerving, unspeaking, and unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling), is Shane for the 21st century: riding into town on 300 horses, finding a damsel in distress, and violently inflicting retribution in defense of a love he knows he can never have. It’s a dreamy vision of Los Angeles’ less-haunted streets, occasionally punctuated with shocking bursts of gore-y violence. “European” seems fair.
10. IT FOLLOWS (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
After his elegiac-albeit-precious debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, it was a bit surprising to see David Robert Mitchell turn towards horror. But rather than abandoning his tone, he instead adopted it for a sexy slasher, in which the villain – passed from character to character by sexual intercourse, like a particularly grim STD – can only be seen by the afflicted, its brutal nature written in the mangled corpses of its victims. Obvious though it might be, it’s a hauntingly potent metaphor for the inevitability of sexual maturation, lost innocence, and existential terror with which each of us must live every day, our only choice to not let it cow us into despair.
9. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)
Don Hertzfeldt’s career feels like a bar bet: how much beauty, profundity and pathos can a man convey using little more than stick figures? Turns out the answer is a lot, never demonstrated better than in his 2012 masterpiece (and debut feature film), It’s Such a Beautiful Day. It tells the story of Bill, a man beset by hallucinations and forgetfulness (stemming from a vague neurological disorder), who increasingly finds himself scattered across time and memory as his sense of self evolves and dissolves. It’s equal parts Pynchon and Vonnegut, Malick and Merry Melodies, with a dash of Lynch’s darkly-comic surrealism.
8. THE IRISHMAN (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
A three-and-a-half-hour cinematic funeral, mourning the passage of time and the crushing knowledge of a life poorly lived, which has left one old man more alone than he ever thought possible. Given its long and troubled production history (first announced in 2003), the massive budget ($150+ million), the epic length (3-and-a-half hours), and the controversial and still-very-new “de-aging” CGI technology that made it possible for the film’s primaries to play themselves across 40+ years of narrative, one could possibly be forgiven for expressing skepticism. In retrospect, I was a utter fool to doubt the combined powers of Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci (in possibly a career-best performance), and Pacino. What’s more, the combined stature of these men only enhances the film’s thematic concerns of aging and death, memory and nostalgia; no actors could remotely have embodied these characters anywhere near as powerfully, nor could any other director have made this film. It’s at once a history of the second half of the 20th century and of the past half-century of film, a work in such impossibly rich conversation with itself about so many things that I already know I’ll be revisiting it the rest of my life.
7. THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Critics may have proved hasty, crowning this as Terrence Malick’s career-defining work, given how much more he’s proven to have to say; but there’s no denying this film is as explicit and intimately personal a treatment of the themes and concerns which have defined him from the beginning as any of his work. Loosely autobiographical, the film portrays an idyllic Texas childhood – a peace forever shattered by the death of the family’s middle son – with same sense of rapt, cosmic awe as the formation of the universe. It’s a monument to the endless potentialities of life – not just beauty and wonder, but death and decay, anger, sadness, and the loss of innocence. The film’s opening dichotomy – nature vs. grace – is a false one; Malick is wise enough to know that life does not exist wholly in either, but rather as a consecration of all its elements, even the most painful and ugly, into a state of rapt divinity. Or, as stated by the titular character of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest: “What does it matter? All is grace.”
6. HEREDITARY (Ari Aster, 2018)
Much has been made recently of “elevated horror”: the films of Ari Aster, Jennifer Kent, Robert Eggers et al, which pair a knowledge and love of classic horror with the dramatic portentousness of an Ingmar Bergman film. And while this undersells the humor and self-awareness of these directors (not to mention Bergman), as well as the traditionally effective ways in which their films function as scary movies, it’s undeniable that what makes Hereditary in particular such a intensely affecting nightmare is the patience with which Aster slowly moves the chess pieces of the film’s central family into place, so that when (not counting one early and now-infamous twist) he finally begins to accelerate towards the endgame, the dread is exponentially amplified with each new revelation, all pointing the way towards a terrifying and hilariously grisly climax. And that’s saying nothing of Toni Collette’s all-timer performance as the put-upon matriarch of the Graham family, a whirlwind of chaotic energy: anger, grief, frustration, primal fear, silent seething, each fuse at all times perilously close to igniting.
5. KILLER JOE (William Friedkin, 2012)
Few fictional families have ever been as despicable as the Smiths in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, a volcanic black comedy in which the most brutal violence often lands as punchlines, adapted here by William Friedkin, still in full-shitkicker mode into his seventies. Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-time drug dealer, enlists the help of his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to secure the services of Joe, a Dallas PD detective who moonlights as a hitman, in order to murder Ansel’s ex-wife/Chris’s mother and secure her hefty life insurance policy, so that Chris might pay back the drug dealers to whom he’s so deeply in debt. When they can’t front Joe the money, he insists on taking Chris’ younger sister, the unprecocious Dottie (Juno Temple), as a “retainer.” Each character is dumber than the next, and you’d want to see them get everything coming to them, except you can’t help but pity just how badly they underestimated Joe (Matthew McConaughey at the peak of the “McConnaissance”). He’s one of the most frightening portraits of a pure psychopath in recent memory: a man whose primary pleasure in life is derived from toying with other humans like a cat would its prey. Watching this bunch of white trash tear itself apart is simultaneously exhilarating and horrifying, as each turn of the screw only finds a new bottom for these characters to attempt to pathetically claw their way out from. Ironically, it’s Dottie who emerges as our unlikely hero, in one of the most gleefully outrageous finales of the decade.
4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller, 2015)
3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
In which 72-year-old Martin Scorsese absolutely fucking floors it, cramming more chaotic energy into three exhilarating hours than directors half his age manage to wring out of their entire careers. It’s the Goodfellas “Sunday, May 12, 1980” sequence stretched out to feature length, as we watch Jordan Belfort – perhaps the most gleefully and unapologetically despicable protagonist Scorsese has ever given us – lie, cheat, and steal his way to unheard-of riches and luxury. Only occasionally, when Scorsese pulls back a bit, can we glimpse the full measure of the depravity on display: a grotesque, Bosch-ian portrait of society gone to seed in the pursuit of ever more earthly delights. To accuse of it glorifying the lifestyle is firmly missing the point: it falls squarely on us – who should, after all, know better – to resist those temptations (which the film’s closing shot delights in reminding us). And it’s here we finally learned that, no matter his pedigree, Leonardo DiCaprio is, above all, a born comic actor.
2. SPRING BREAKERS (Harmony Korine, 2013)
In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Harmony Korine offered two bits of wisdom which have stuck with me ever since: “there is beauty in all shit” and “to achieve greatness, live life like a criminal.” None of his films has better exemplified those twin mission statements than Spring Breakers, a hedonistic anthem to the glory of debauchery. It’s an extended ode to Terrence Malick’s Badlands, his star-crossed on-the-run back-country lovers replaced with a candy-coated coterie of ill-intentioned tween idols (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, and Korine’s own wife Rachel) and the liberating center of their universe, Alien: a posturing charlatan (a role James Franco was born to play) of a rapper, hustler and gangsta who finds in these girls his “motherfuckin’ soul mates.” Korine captures the trashy beauty of central Florida with a loving eye that’s nonetheless keenly aware of the lurking, omnipresent potential for violence. If Spring Breakers has a guiding moral, it’s that it’s all we can do while we still can to fight, fuck, and party as hard as possible before it’s too late. Nobody else could sell such a message with such delirious beauty.
1. UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
A black void, pierced by a single pin-prick of light, brilliantly bursting into a star, expanding then into an array of celestial objects which gradually collapse into a single being: an eye. On the soundtrack, eerie supernatural noises are punctuated by uncertain syllables, hesitantly forming into fragments of words. We’re watching a birth, or an act of creation. Eventually, this thing – not human, but… – stalks the Scottish countryside, seducing men to a lair, where she does…something to them. The broad plot points of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 masterpiece are amusingly close to the premise of 90s trash-horror Species, but he pairs with it the ambition and soaring vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the psychosexual sci-fi horror intensity of Alien, and his own capacity for seduction to create something that – incisively, hauntingly, devastatingly – probes at what it means to be human, in ways both daringly literal and archly symbolic. Glazer opts for a minimum of meaningful dialogue (the exception, a haunting exchange between Scarlett Johannson’s alien[?] protagonist and a deformed passenger, on whom she takes mercy), instead portraying the world and its dominant species as a catalogue of bizarre rituals, exchanges, interpersonal negotiations which paradoxically emphasize both the most pleasurable and pitiable aspects of our fragile humanity. It’s body horror underpinned with the transcendent search for meaning present in the best science fiction. Under the Skin was Glazer’s only film of the decade; let’s hope it’s not his last.