It is hard to believe that yet another decade is about to come to a close, and this partly may be down to the fact that not only does time go quicker as one gets older, but also that there seems to be nowhere near as much pomp or focus this time compared to all of the other decade-ends that I have experienced in my lifetime. Perhaps what may not help is that this current decade seems to be lacking any kind of particularly unique or distinctive name; the ‘twenty-tens’ or ‘two thousand and tens’ are not exactly catchy! In fact, many just seem to class the last twenty years as the ‘noughties’.
Either way, the fact is that we are all at the end of yet another decade, and so it seems perfectly appropriate for the usual ‘best of the decade’ lists to appear, and I feel an urge to join in – especially as some of my choices may well be very different from the other lists out there!
With these kinds of lists that span a fair period of time it is very easy to fall into the trap of having a short-term memory and having a rundown dominated by the second half of the decade. I have certainly tried to think long and hard about my choices (and trust me, it was not easy to whittle it down to twenty, let alone then rank the final twenty!). Likewise, with so many great films to include figuring out what length of list to go for was also a challenge; a top 10 felt too short, but then 50, 100 or even 200 seemed a bit too much (though I could certainly fill lists of all those sizes), so I felt a list of the 20 very best and then a list (in no particular order) of the plethora of other great films to have been released this decade seemed a good compromise.
There also may well be films from the same year being in a different order than they were in their respective ‘best of’ lists from that particular year at that time, but this is my personal favourite 20 films of the last 10 years in the order I have put them in at the time of writing, and I make no apologies for that!
The first of three documentaries in my top 20, and though many do dislike motor racing, Asif Kapadia’s thrilling and unforgettable documentary proved just how cinematic the sport can truly be when captured properly. I think it is fair to say that if it were not for the success of Senna, then Rush or Le Mans ’66 may never have been made. Detailing the life and career of Ayrton Senna (including his intense rivalry with Alain Prost and his almost god-like status in his native Brazil), Kapadia and his team skilfully made a documentary that is about so much more than motor racing, and one that ended up having deserved universal appeal.
When it was announced that Austrian auteur Michael Haneke was making a film called ‘Love’, most (including myself), expected the title to contain some form of irony. However, the result was something even better; a film that is about love in its very purest form and depicted in the trademark Michael Haneke way. His story of an elderly husband looking after his wife after she becomes increasingly ill and makes him promise to never take her to hospital is certainly not the easiest film to watch at times, but Haneke’s trademark matter-of-fact way of storytelling strips away the usual forced schmaltz that a mainstream film of this kind may have, and the result is a film of extreme, profound and unforgettable beauty.
18. Nocturnal Animals (review)
Fashion designer Tom Ford wowed us all with his debut film A Single Man in 2009; a film that was not only profoundly moving but visually stunning. He then surpassed even the standards of that film with his second feature; a dark, multi-layered and seductive revenge tale that truly got under the skin of the audience and certainly stayed long in the mind long after the credits rolled.
Christopher Nolan is surely one of the most important blockbuster filmmakers working at the moment; in the last decade or so he has been given increasingly big budgets to work with, but his films still contain the same creative originality and skilful storytelling of his earlier films, and what is most important is that he respects of the intelligence of film viewers! Dunkirk has a very simply story at its heart; the hundreds of thousands of soldiers trying to get evacuated from Dunkirk beach and return home. I have no doubt that other filmmakers would have made this a three hour epic and given all the various soldiers really patronising and clichéd backstories, but Nolan knows that is not necessary as the audience is smart enough to relate to the soldiers and their desperate situation without having exposition rammed down their throats. Nolan is certainly a director that has a penchant for making long films, but he is perceptive enough to know that would ruin Dunkirk. The result is a raw and visceral 106-minute blast of pure cinematic adrenaline, and for me the best blockbuster of the decade.
I do have a soft spot for a (good) Western, and Scott Cooper’s story of Christian Bale’s veteran war captain being tasked for his final mission to make a perilous journey escorting Wes Studi’s dying chief to his spiritual home may not be exactly an original storyline. However, the story can just be the vehicle for the narrative to then examine a huge number of themes and ideas, and Hostiles does that in a deeply profound and mature way. It is a film that is brutal when it needs to be, but for the most part is a film that examines it themes in a very understated, and therefore more poignant, way, and crucially the film makes its stance on killing very clear; killing another human being is only ever a bad thing. The pace may be intentionally slow, but this allows for great character development, and thanks to the superb performances and film’s immersive and deeply cinematic visuals Hostiles is a profound and cathartic cinematic experience.
15. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The Favourite may have been the film that got the commercial and awards success, but for me it is not the best film to be made by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos. This story of a successful surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell), whose friendship with Barry Keoghan’s fatherless teen turns increasingly sinister and threatens to destroy Steven’s seemingly idyllic family life by means of a curse is certainly not pleasant viewing, but is a masterclass in cinematic tension. The dark and sinister undertones of the plot are made all the worse by Lanthimos’ trademark idiosyncratic way of filmmaking, and the intentionally deadpan delivery of the dialogue from the likes of Colin Farrell. It is the film’s completely understated approach that makes it all the more unnerving, and it produces an occasionally horrific viewing experience that takes a very long time to forget.
14. Midsommar (review)
While Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary had some great moments, it did also have its flaws. Nevertheless, it did show some great potential, and in only his second full length feature Aster has delivered on that potential. In isolation, the plot of Midsommar that features a group of American students who go to visit a festival in a remote and seemingly idyllic village in Sweden that turns out to be a lot more than what they were expecting is certainly nothing new. However, Aster just uses this seemingly quite basic initial narrative framework to deliver an unforgettable experience that explores a variety of themes that takes the audience to some places that they will never forget (nor want to go back to). Midsommar is a film of great depth, it is visually stunning, told at a perfectly judged pace and a complete film that is the work of a director fully aware and in control of the vision he wants to put on screen.
13. Beyond the Hills (review)
Christian Mungiu’s epic and moving drama is about Alina, a young woman who returns home to the poverty stricken village that she grew up in to reconnect with Voichita, the woman she loves, and to try to take her back home with her, but discovers that Voichita has now become devoted to God. The subsequent 155 minutes (which is based on a true story) explores the roles of love and religion in society, and the potential conflict that can arise from the two with sometimes devastating consequences. Mungiu, like so many directors from the continent, allows the story to take its time to create a film of rich atmosphere and great emotional depth.
12. The Hunter
The Hunter, which centres around Willem Dafoe’s hardened hunter-for-hire that is sent to Tasmania by a mysterious company to hunt what is apparently the last remaining Tasmanian tiger is yet another film that proves that sometimes less can be much, much more. The Hunter is a deeply immersive and cathartic film that explores its emotive themes through skilfully utilising all the cinematic tools available, but in a suitably subtle way that makes it all the more profoundly rewarding and deeply moving.
Chung-dong Lee’s mystery about a young lonely drifter who bumps into (and falls in love with) a girl from his childhood who asks him to look after her cat while is away on a trip to Africa, but then returns with a mysterious man is an infinitely rewarding film for those willing to the invest into its 148 minute running time and enigmatic approach. Every line of dialogue or glance from one character to another could mean several things, and while this may sound like it could be frustrating, holding the film together is a relatable central protagonist which enables us to genuinely feel immersed within what is happening within the narrative and its exploration of the human condition. This is nuanced filmmaking of the highest standard.
10. Notes on Blindness (review)
This insightful and profound documentary about a man who goes blind is made all the more powerful and unforgettable by its unique approach. When writer John Hull went blind, he kept an audio diary of his experiences as he came to terms with this life changing event and to having to adjust accordingly to it. The film uses actors playing Hull and his wife while lip-syncing to the original recordings, and the result is a unique, raw and moving account that only the visual medium of film could deliver.
9. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
The first of three masterpieces on this list from Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan (and at 157 minutes by far the shortest!); the main plot of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia centres around a drive around the remote Anatolian steppes with a local prosecutor, police commissioner, doctor and murder suspect searching for the body of a murder victim. However, as this motley crew of characters talk amongst themselves and make various stops on their journey the film naturally evolves into something more; it becomes a meditation and examination on various aspects of the human condition and life itself. As with all of Ceylan’s films, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is stunningly shot and makes the landscape itself one of the film’s main characters in a film that is sometimes bleak, sometimes hilarious but deeply engaging from start to finish.
8. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (review)
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar winning film about a washed-up superhero attempting to revive his fading career by writing, directing and starring in his own Broadway play may not be universally loved, but for those willing to invest in it there are infinite rewards to be found. The visual style of the film alone is great and really sucks the viewer in to the world of the characters, but there is also an abundance of substance to go with it in a film, with all actors involved at the top of their game and a story that provides not only a razor sharp dissection of the film industry, but also many other more pertinent and relatable themes.
7. Son of Saul (review)
It is very difficult to find the appropriate superlatives for László Nemes’ drama about an Auschwitz prisoner who searches amongst the camp for a Rabi to give a proper burial to a dead boy. Even tackling such a complex and difficult subject of course poses a great risk, but Nemes’ judges everything about this film just right, and even the use of long-takes that have a constant intense closeup on the main character while being shot in a narrow ratio so not to show much of what is actually going on around him never feels gimmicky. Instead the audience is given an appropriate visual depiction of hellish chaos; Son of Saul is a very difficult and often suffocating experience, but so it should be, and is an unforgettable experience that grips tightly from start to finish.
6. Leviathan (review)
Andry Zvyagintsev’s allegorical drama centres around the resident of a small Russian costal town who asks for the help of his lawyer friend to fight against the corrupt local mayor against his house being demolished, but this unfortunately leads to even more misfortunate and devastating consequences for all involved. Though admittedly not the most uplifting of films, Leviathan is a stunningly complex drama about a rich variety of subjects; it is not only a commentary on political corruption and the failings of societal norms, but also more relatable issues such as the human condition, in which one initially small bad decision caused by pride and stubbornness can have severe and life-changing consequences.
5. Cold War (review)
Sometimes a film doesn’t have to be a sprawling three-hour epic to have a narrative that covers an extensive time frame and explore a rich variety of subjects. Pawel Pawlikowska’s stunning film is a cold war-set love story about the doomed romance between a seemingly very mismatched musician and singer that manages to be a heart breaking love story and visually stunning film that examines many universal themes along with the unique effects of the film’s time setting, and all in just 89 minutes!
4. The Wild Pear Tree
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s drama about a graduate and budding writer who returns to his hometown and becomes increasingly disillusioned with the town, the people in it and life itself is yet another epic opus about the complexities of the human condition. Told in Ceylan’s trademark style of having a film dominated by a series of single dialogue-heavy, long-take dominated individual sequences in which our main character discusses a wide variety of subjects with both various members of his family and the local community, The Wild Pear Tree is never anything less than fascinating and thought provoking.
3. The Act of Killing (review)
Josh Oppenheimer’s documentary about the Indonesian massacre during 1965 – 1966 is as unique as it is unforgettable. For the film Oppenheimer offered some of the perpetrators of the mass-killings the chance to re-enact the killings by making films of whatever genre and style they choose, and the result is a film that gives the viewer unflinching and unprecedented access directly to the mindset of someone who approved mass killings. The fact that a lot of the crew involved remain anonymous in the credits also confirms the great risks taken to make this film, and The Act of Killing is surely one of the most unique and unforgettable films in recent memory.
2. Winter Sleep (review)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s very best film of the last decade has quite a simple story at its centre; a former actor who now owns a hotel and is also a landlord to many local poverty stricken local residents lives in the hotel with his young wife and recently divorced sister. However, when in the hands of such a cinematic master less is always much, much more, and it is yet another deeply engaging meditation on the human condition that features three characters that are all relatable, but equally flawed. Set during the winter months in which the hotel is predominantly empty, Ceylan effectively captures the isolation and loneliness of the film’s setting. As with all of his films, the devil is often in the detail in terms of the dialogue, and in the lengthy scenes in which two of the three characters have a conversation sentences are often said that in isolation may seem perfectly innocuous, but because of the facial expressions and tone of voice it is clear there is a much deeper meaning to every word that is uttered. Winter Sleep is a film that explores so many themes and ideas, and despite its 196-minute running time, just flies by.
More than just a film about a sex addict, Shame is a profound and moving examination of human connection and how our experiences can shape who we are, as well as how living in a big city can be very isolating and lonely, and how addiction to a particular thing (in the case of the film’s protagonist it is sexual relief) can be someone’s only way of dealing with these various bad experiences and internal struggles. Despite its initial premise, Shame features characters who do have very relatable characteristics at the core, even if how these have developed within them and how they deal with them may necessarily not be.
The main thrust of the narrative (no pun intended) centres around Michael Fassbender’s Brandon, a highly successful executive living in New York (who happens to also be addicted to casual sex and porn) whose carefully ordered life is turned upside down by his wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Both are excellent in their roles, especially Fassbender, who manages to capture through his facial expressions and body language the look of an individual who has become a zombie completely unable to find any kind of genuine connection with other people on any kind of intimate or personal level.
Steve McQueen (now, Sir Steve McQueen) uses all the techniques that have become his trademark, such as long (often unnerving) takes to truly examine the fractured psyche of these two deeply troubled individuals and also their own deeply troubled relationship. Nothing is ever explained, and only subtle hints provided as to why they may be like they are, and this only serves to make Shame all the more an engaging and unforgettable experience, this is brave, provocative and unflinching cinema of the very highest order.
Other noteworthy mentions (in no particular order):
Blackfish, The Selfish Giant, Prisoners, Rush, 12 Years a Slave, The Golden Dream, Black Swan, The Look of Silence, Of Gods and Men, Happy End, Manchester by the Sea, A Monster Calls, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Frontier Blues, Beast, Life of Pi, Whiplash, Marriage Story, First Man, Berberian Sound Studio, Maps to the Stars, Tyrannosaur, Inception, Ex Machina, Anomolisa, The Social Network, Her, Leave no Trace, The Master, Loveless, The Square, The Revenant, I Wish, High Life, The Club, Force Majeure, Incendies, Ida, Paterson, Embrace of the Serpent