And so onto the top 25. My favourite films to have appeared this decade so far. A couple of these might require justification. Mostly though they ought to speak for themselves. If anything compiling this list has made me very hopeful for the five-or-so years ahead. If they provide us with this many gems we’ll be very fortunate indeed. Anyway. Lets just get on with it.
25. The Wind Rises (2013, Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki’s swan song is another masterpiece for his repertoire. That makes about five, right? The Wind Rises, despite its name and subject matter, is Miyazaki’s most grounded work; a biopic that just happens to be animated. In dream sequences the fantasist in Miyazaki makes himself known, but the film’s greatest pleasures are its simplest, including one of the most touching screen romances of our times.
24. Nebraska (2013, Alexander Payne)
Nebraska plays to Payne’s strengths; folksy charm, sedate pacing, rich characters and a lilting, resigned sadness underpinning some great comedy. The monochrome palette reflects the bittersweet tone as Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant goes on likely his last road trip with his patient son David (Will Forte). My favourite Payne film. A pleasure to revisit.
23. Night Moves (2013, Kelly Reichardt)
Reichardt’s latest is her mostly overtly political; a methodical and suspenseful thriller in which a trio of would-be eco-terrorists conspire to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard are as good as each other in the lead roles, but Reichardt’s judiciously selected compositions and carefully honed pacing linger longest in the mind. Jeff Grace’s introspective guitar score is wonderful too.
22. Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)
Last year’s underdog turned good in the end. Walking off with a clutch of Oscars, pretty much every Best Supporting Actor gong going for J.K. Simmons and currently holding a mightily respectable 8.6 on imdb (ranking it 38th on their hallowed top 250), Chazelle’s Whiplash is electric and deserving of such celebration. And he’s only 30. Here’s to a career in the making. More of this quality please.
21. The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almadovar)
Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya stalk circles around each other as captor and prisoner in this twisty, exciting thriller from Almadovar, one which channels Cronenberg and Franju in equal measure. Talking about the plot of this movie is very difficult and so much of the enjoyment comes from how it unravels. If you like surprises, go into this one with an open mind.
20. Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
In the US now they’re sending copies of Selma to schools. And while some bemoan that it paints LBJ unfairly, this is pretty much the only criticism that sticks in an otherwise electrifying and important landmark in American cinema about a landmark time in modern American history, starkly resonating with our world today.
19. American Mary (2012, Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska)
While they’re presently busy fulfilling obligations for WWE with films like See No Evil 2 and Vendetta, many of us long for the Soska sisters to dip into their own well of success again following the supreme accomplishment that is American Mary. Katharine Isabelle shines in the lead role as a student nurse who gets drawn into the underground world of body modification. I keep coming back to this one. A modern cult classic in the making.
18. The Guest (2014, Adam Windgard)
Writer / director duo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard are becoming my favourite creative pair working today, if they aren’t already. The Guest marks the most recent entry in a career that seems bent to one watchword alone; entertainment. Harking back to the John Carpenter movies of the 80’s that followed the same philosophy, this one starts off straight-faced before corkscrewing into something far more outrageous. If you’re willing to go with it there’s so much fun to be had.
17. Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)
Appearing seemingly out of nowhere with the look of a Fast & Furious also-ran but becoming – very quickly – a classic modern thriller, Refn’s slick transformation of the superhero movie blends gorgeous visuals with a stunning soundtrack and Carey Mulligan’s Bambi eyes. Gosling puts a weird mask on and avenges injustice. Sort of. And the world in general goes gooey at the knees. And quite rightly. However…
16. Only God Forgives (2013, Nicolas Winding Refn)
Yeah. I prefer this one. The one everyone hated for, among other things, not-being-Drive. Refn followed up his sleeper hit with this return to his more ‘difficult’ roots, recasting Gosling as a man lost in his own personal hell. The violence is more appalling this time, the extremes are more extreme. It’s all a bit too weird for most, like Kristen Scott Thomas’ alarming potty-mouthed mother figure. But there are more levels this time, more meat on the bone. As misguided as it might often be, this is a fascinating “fuck you” to a newly won audience.
15. Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)
Look how fun this one looks? Seriously. No, actually, check this film out as soon as you can. Hotly in the running for the most beautifully shot film I’ve ever seen, Pawlikowski’s monochrome throwback feature follows the titular Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska, lighting up the screen) on a journey of self-awareness in the 60’s, discovering her Jewish heritage and, more than that, who she is as a woman. A quietly phenomenal work of art.
14. It Follows (2014, David Robert Mitchell)
I almost feel embarrassed to talk about It Follows for a couple of sentences here as I haven’t shut up about this movie lately. My apologies to the people in my actual life who have had to listen to me rhapsodise over the look and feel of this teen horror that single-handledly matures the genre, while feeling tonally connected to Halloween and the autumnal suburban creepers of the 80’s. I will stop talking about it soon, I promise…
13. The Tree Of Life (2012, Terrence Malick)
Movies are fun and that’s amazing, but sometimes film can be art. Malick pushed it there for his fifth feature and it divided audiences. Hell, it’s even divided me; on one viewing The Tree Of Life is inspiring, on another it’s meandering and maddening. On balance, however, the part of me that finds it sublime, light as air and kinda wondrous wins out. So few filmmakers aspire to anything of this scale. Even fewer achieve their aim. We should be less complacent about such ambitious work. It’s a sort of marvel.
12. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010, Edgar Wright)
Sometimes, of course, the art is how effortlessly a director makes a movie fun. Edgar Wright has pretty much constant form in this regard, and while his Cornetto features with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are great, his adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series is his brightest nugget of fried gold. It differs from the books, but few films feel quite like they’ve been ripped from the panels of black and white pages like this one. Is it a coincidence that O’Malley’s since issued his books in glorious colour? This hysterical fightsical is a geeky glory.
11. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
It’s very rare that a film totally transports you, but I can still vividly remember the first time I saw Uncle Boonmee. As the end credits rolled I found myself so completely relaxed that I didn’t move for half an hour. This Thai film moves at its own hypnotic pace and obeys its own set of rules. A breath of fresh air in contemporary cinema. Describing the sliver of plot here wouldn’t pay dividends. This is an experience of a film, one not suited to all, but which left a lasting impression on me.
10. Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Michael Shannon. When he wasn’t being the best thing about Boardwalk Empire, Michael Shannon appeared in a number of movie roles, but his lead in Take Shelter is his finest work. Nichols’ film plays on a number of fears; economic failure (it appeared at the height of the recession) is but one of these. Shannon portrays a man battling with the possibility that he might be mentally ill. His rational approach to the situation, vying with his own irrationality, is one of the film’s many strengths. An astonishingly tense third act and that ambiguous ending seal the deal. This is one to see.
9. The Act Of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous)
It’s rare that I stagger out of a cinema, drained, dumbfounded and slightly traumatised. In fact, really, it’s only happened the once; when I saw The Act Of Killing. Six months later I bought the DVD. I haven’t had the courage to watch it again yet, let alone the second disc with a three-hour version. This landmark, maverick documentary exposes one of the most notorious men behind untold genocide in Indonesia by giving him the absurd opportunity to recreate his crimes as Hollywood-style reconstructions. One to be seen to be believed.
8. The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The master, it turns out, is Paul Thomas Anderson. His most enigmatic picture sidelines rigorous plotting in favour of character portrait; in this case that of two different yet also very similar men; the head of a Scientology-esque cult, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and drifting shellshock victim Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Both are men searching for meaning in their worlds in post-war America, finding possible salvation in one another. But nothing is quite that easy in The Master. Stunningly photographed, Anderson’s technique cannot be faulted. I understand some people didn’t fully get with it. I don’t really understand why.
7. Excision (2012, Richard Bates, Jr)
Occasionally a film comes along that runs into you like a freight train. Excision was a bit like that for me. Barely an hour and a quarter long but delivering a body-blow of an ending, this quixotic sun-dappled suburban horror movie looks like American Beauty half the time, the other half it looks like Cronenberg directing a Vogue fashion shoot as outcast Pauline (Anna-Lynn McCord) lets her dreams of being a surgeon eclipse her increasingly warped reality. A twisted coming-of-age story with a goldmine supporting cast of cult faces, this is a slap in the face to those who think there’s no originality left in horror.
6. Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)
It seems as though Inherent Vice has largely been dismissed as lesser-Anderson. I’m hoping time will tell on that one. In sharp, some might say refreshing contrast to The Master, his faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is positively bursting with plot. Following it – hell, keeping up with it – is half the fun, but only half. The rest comes from the performances, the breezy dialogue, the exceptionally well crafted mix of source music and score, and the comedic tone that is part dopesmoker befuddlement ala The Big Lebowski, part ship-of-fools (if each Anderson movie equates to a Kubrick film, then this is his Dr Strangelove). A wonderful slice of noir. Keeping up with the plot is rewarding, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t; the greatest pleasure is the thing itself.
5. Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)
I went into Frances Ha very skeptical and came out an immediate convert. On paper this sounded like exactly the kind of overtly-twee indie New Yorker pseudo-intellectual crap that Baumbach so thoroughly alienated me with in The Squid And The Whale. 90 minutes of first world problems. In fact it’s a tour de force showcase for the eminent talents of Greta Gerwig, here playing a dancer of no fixed address growing frustrated that the world is growing up around her. Sure, it’s hipster tendencies threaten to derail it at every turn, but that never actually happens. Frances Ha turns out to be incredibly charming, and even more-so on repeat viewings, which is set to make it a surefire favourite for the immediate future at least.
4. You’re Next (2011, Adam Wingard)
You’re Next is the fucking bomb (excuse me; I’ve been rewatching Breaking Bad). Like an 18 certificate Home Alone starring Ellen Ripley, You’re Next takes some tired horror tropes (the home invasion set-up, the ‘last girl’ routine) and gleefully twists the knife. Because what if, when a bunch of crossbow wielding bad dudes attack a wealthy country estate, the pretty young woman stuck in the middle of it all turns out to be the best equipped person to deal with them? Sharni Vinson’s Erin is, at present, my favourite movie character. A total badass to cheer for in a movie I could watch any day of the week. As with The Guest, Wingard and his recurring scribe Simon Barrett deliver a film which gets your interest with a straight-face, then gamely invites you to have an absolute blast.
3. Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze’s two-hour poem about love is a sun-scorched sci-fi for the ages, talky as hell, but containing more insights and truisms than a hundred motivational memes. Joaquin Phoenix (tellingly appearing in this top ten for the third time) holds it all together as Jonze allows scenes to extend off into the distance, portraying a sensitive man building a relationship with an artificial intelligence. It’s not all brilliance in Jonze’s utopia though; he deftly pushes not just technology but social interaction on to its next logical step, presenting us a world in which everyone lives in their own little bubble; connected but not connecting. So much food for thought yet so much heart.
2. Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)
Carruth’s second feature tumbles into your consciousness like some languid, fluid waking dream, one in which ideas of co-dependency, life cycles, emotional connectivity and omnipotence intermingle, birthing new breeds in new combinations. There is a story here; a wildly imaginative one, but Carruth has removed many of the handholds. instead trusting the audience to put the pieces together. Some evidently find being asked to do this insulting, too much like hard work. But those game to take part in Carruth’s conversation have found a movie to revel in, and a method of filmmaking that hopefully gains momentum from this landmark feature.
1. Under The Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
Okay, spoiler alert! Scarlett Johansson plays an alien being hunting down single men who won’t be missed in Scotland, using the suggestion of sex to get them back to her dingy ‘home’, where they are then consumed in a black pool. Seemingly emotionless, she comes to feel sympathy for one of them and lets him go, thus beginning a tentative journey of evolution as this ultimate outsider attempts to understand what it might mean to be human.
Summing up Under The Skin by purely describing it’s opening narrative does nothing to prepare you for the sensory indulgence of watching the film. I’ve gone on at great length about the mastery here previously, the intelligence and thought that has gone into this movie, the technical skill both behind and in front of the camera. What’s worth reiterating more, however, is the emotional resonance of what can seem like a very cold experience. Johansson’s outsider comes to evoke incredible sympathy. We’ve all felt like outsiders, I suppose. That sensation is articulated here with incredible sophistication.
Now go away and watch some movies.