In this portion of the countdown we find some of the decade’s most pleasing trends; the rise of Jordan Peele; continuing innovation in documentary film; major directors experimenting with form and a curious strand of American cinema using Florida to evoke the strange, multifaceted energy of our times – from disaffected youth to what it means to be a man. Contentious choices abound as we travel from 40 to 21…
40. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)
One of the greatest surprises of the decade. Superbly marketed, this Cloverfield-adjacent film improved wildly on the original by playing to opposite strengths. With a script polished by Damien (Whiplash) Chazelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane boasts marvellous designs, supreme intrigue, wonderful visual storytelling and great performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman particularly. And mark my words; Dan Trachtenberg is a director to watch.
39. The Act Of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn)
Few documentaries this decade were as impactful as The Act Of Killing. Interviewing the remorseless perpetrators of Indonesian genocide, Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and scores of the uncredited (for their own protection) invited the national ‘heroes’ to recreate their atrocities in the style of Hollywood. Where it goes from there represents an audacious descent into the surreal and the genuinely gut-punching.
38. Post Tenebras Lux (2012, Carlos Reygadas)
Post Tenebras Lux explores issues of social class and family in Mexico, but the experience of seeing it is otherworldly. Reygadas opts for the old Academy aspect ratio, blurring out the corners of his frame. In its incredible opening sequence – the best of the decade – his own daughter wanders a field as a genuine lightning storm takes over. Peaks and troughs. But what peaks.
37. Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine)
Korine has always favoured a garish world view, but his hues that bleed and blur into his hedonistic Spring Breakers are among the most beautiful seen in film this decade. Is it too early to hold this up as a document of teenage unrest in the 2010s? Spring Breakers feels not only iconic but like a postcard of our times.
36. Leviathan (2012, Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
Leviathan is a fly-on-the-wall documentary set aboard an Atlantic trawler, and it is terrifying. Using the camera in ways hitherto unseen, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor find new points of view from which to depict a way of life as a gripping, seasick nightmare. There are no interviews (really no dialogue to speak of). Just the play of image. In the process, something vile and beautiful is constructed. If only Hollywood had the balls to put such techniques into use.
35. mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)
I went on quite a journey with mother!, from being confounded to becoming hopelessly enamoured with Aronofsky’s galling, idiosyncratic, wholly uncompromising film. I wasn’t alone. Casual moviegoers were suckered in, assuming this Jennifer Lawrence/Javier Bardem thriller would tick the usual boxes. Instead it stands as one of the most pompous and wildly improbable art films of the decade, one that richly rewards repeat viewings.
34. Burning (2018, Lee Chang-Dong)
Lee Chang-Dong’s insidious mystery film sprawls well past the two hour mark, but the lasting impact is far more substantial. It infects your day to day thoughts for weeks after, appearing out of nowhere; a cinematic spectre. Male entitlement; female independence; the existence (or not) of a domestic house cat in a small flat… Burning not only burns, it simmers long after.
33. The Look Of Silence (2014, Joshua Oppenheimer)
Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the remarkable (and recently featured) The Act Of Killing is a shorter, more subdued experience, but equally as emotionally devastating and, over time, the more slyly impressionable of the two. The manifesto is slightly less high-concept this time, but the risks greater. A masterpiece of confrontation. Too vague? Just watch the thing.
32. Knight Of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick)
Controversial placement, this. Landing higher than The Tree Of Life is Terrence Malick’s third film in his recent cycle, featuring Christian Bale as a Hollywood screenwriter adrift in his own complacency. As this playboy figure drifts from thinly-sketched woman to thinly-sketched woman, it comes dangerously close to seeming misogynistic. But to label it so would be to miss the point. This is a tone poem about emotional vacuity; it’s about absence filled, temporarily, by decadence. And the hollows in-between.
31. Suspiria (2018, Luca Guadagnino)
This feels like another choice that’s daring you to blink, but honestly Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is astonishingly good. Sharing only the basic bones of Dario Argento’s notorious 1977 original, Guadagnino’s film is a dour, twisted sigh of a film; an ode to the mesmeric art of dance; an essay on division. And, in its final stretches, as batshit a movie as you’ll find.
30. American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold)
Sasha Lane stars in Andrea Arnold’s state-of-the-nation address of marginalised youth in Trump’s America. The focal teens of this wide-open road movie sell magazine subscriptions nobody wants, existing on the fringes of society like lepers, clawing indifferently at little scraps of the American Dream. A film that fizzes.
29. Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)
An exceedingly giving adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s labyrinthine novel, Paul Thomas Anderson’s comedic 70’s noir is hipper than The Big Lebowski and cooler than Pulp Fiction. That’s what I said at the time, and I stand by this now. Wickedly funny and possessing a surprising amount of soul, a stellar cast revolve around a typically on-form Joaquin Phoenix. Believe.
28. Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)
Get Out was that rare thing in cinema; a genuine zeitgeist grabbing game-changer. Black voices are notoriously underserved in the horror genre. Enter Jordan Peele – most commonly known for comedy – with this stunning opening salvo; a Twilight Zone-esque exploration of the black experience. Get Out gets better on repeat viewings (I’m slightly embarrassed by my initially cool 3.5 rating). An instant classic.
27. Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)
Before Midnight isn’t often cited as the best of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but I’d make the argument that it is. And an argument is the central reason why. Following the flush of first romance in Sunset and the cagey reunion in Sunset, Midnight finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) embedded in a relationship that has reached middle age. The two have a bust-up, and the third act threatens the end of everything. Spoiler; they make it through. But in acknowledging and exhibiting how couples do fall out, Linklater makes his trilogy feel more honest, and complete.
26. The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
Robert Eggers’ rigorous horror debut stands out from the pack for a number of reasons. It rejects the pop-horror trend for jump scares and family values; it infers rather than explains. With historically accurate dialogue, Eggers ratchets up the tension in the bleak New England midwinter. A career-maker for young star Anya Taylor-Joy and one hell of an opening shot from a director to watch.
25. The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Slippery one, this. Billed by many publications before being released as PT Anderson’s ‘Scientology movie’, The Master is an elusive requiem for masculinity in post-war America, and a curious, bewitching dual character study. Given equal footing are Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as two men from very different walks of life who become inexorably fascinated by one another. Artful, strange and oddly beautiful.
24. Us (2019, Jordan Peele)
Yes, Jordan Peele again. His follow-up to Get Out cleaved closer to horror staples, but showed an assured evolution in style and confidence; elements not exactly lacking in his debut. Us dared to be stranger and more ambitious, folding in and messing with tropes of the home invasion flick and even the disaster epic. It also gave us another barnstorming Lupita Nyong’o performance. Or two.
23. Our Little Sister (2015, Hirokazu Kore-Eda)
Our Little Sister was too saccharine for some, and its placement here above Shoplifters may be a bone of contention for any Kore-Eda aficionados out there but, simply, this is my go-to chill-out movie of recent years. Three adult siblings belated get to know their teenage half-sister. They all live together. It’s lovely. Bad day? Grab a blanket, curl up with this. You’ll be thankful for it.
22. Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs)
Yes, Magic Mike XXL is one of the greatest films of the decade. Yes, it is. Soderbergh’s first movie is fine. Forgettable at worst. But the Gregory Jacobs helmed follow-up is a feel-good marvel. Male empowerment might be the least important thing to celebrate in cinema right now, but still XXL feels triumphant and liberating. Its a road movie. Its a six-sided bromance. Its a blast from start to finish.
21. Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
Take Shelter was one of the best films of 2011, though not nearly enough people saw it. Starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (having the first of a number of great years), the film showcases Jeff Nichols’ patiently paced and grounded approach to tales of middle America. Shannon gives a career-best performance in this supernaturally-tinged thriller that bit into the recession fears that followed the financial crisis, morphing them into a tale of impending environmental catastrophe. It’s so much better than that sounds.