I posted a list like this, broken out into 5 parts, earlier this year, then took it down again. I was triggered by a couple of other publications that dared to make their lists so early.
This is an updated version. Long, but snugly housed all in the one post. It just requires a lot of scrolling is all. And of course, it’s imperfect. Half of 2019’s best films will be released here in the UK next year, and who knows how long the dust will need to settle on those to work out their ‘worth’.
And, as ever, there’s an amount of arbitrary uselessness in this endeavour. So instead lets just call it a celebration, and a possible work in progress. With that in mind then, check off the ones you’ve seen and make a list of the ones you need to catch up on. I saw over 1,300 new films between the start of 2010 and now. These were some of the best of them…
100. Kubo & The Two Strings (2016, Travis Knight)
The stop-motion animation gurus over at Laika Studios outdid themselves with this one; a Japanese-inflected folk tale of an orphaned boy on a fantastic quest. Mixing infectious adventure with uncanny little details, Kubo & The Two Strings might be a touch too scary for the very young, but is otherwise a wonderful journey for all.
99. Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)
Ari Aster’s sun-scorched Wicker Man-riffing follow-up to the critically acclaimed Hereditary is balls-to-the-wall strange. Long, indulgent, funny (!?) and with an unwavering appetite for provocation. At its centre is Florence Pugh, giving one of the most striking interpretations of intense grief since, well, Toni Collette. First pass I was a little overwhelmed. It took a rewatch (of the Director’s Cut) to realise this is Aster/Pugh on their absolute A-game.
98. The Fits (2015, Anna Rose Holmer)
Anna Rose Holmer’s debut is fleet of foot and promises great things to come. Young Royalty Hightower stars as 11-year-old Toni; training to box but inexorably drawn to an extracurricular class in urban dancing. This coincides with a spate of fits among the dancers. Dialogue is kept to a minimum as Holmer exhibits her dexterity at documenting the human body, as well as providing a neat metaphor for the changes of puberty.
97. Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)
Damien Chazelle’s thrilling debut caused quite a stir and struck a chord with the public, rocketing up imdb’s Top 250. With good reason. An expansion of his own short film, Chazelle burrows into two battling egos at a prestigious New York music school. J.K. Simmons swept the 2015 awards season for his supporting role as the maniacal Fletcher, but Miles Teller holds his own as the arrogant apt pupil.
96. The Tale (2018, Jennifer Fox)
Bravely confessional, Jennifer Fox exorcised demons with this frank depiction of her own experiences of abuse. Laura Dern became the avatar for Fox’s grown self in this split narrative; a profoundly uncomfortable but necessary watch from HBO Films. Sometimes the most vital films are also the most confrontational.
95. Only God Forgives (2013, Nicolas Winding Refn)
After the overwhelmingly positive response to his slick superhero movie Drive, Refn could only disappoint or baffle his new legion of fair-weather fans. Only God Forgives is far more in-keeping with his uncompromising cinematic world view, revelling in the dark hearts of humanity and favouring ruin and corruption over his previous film’s sense of vigilante justice. For those along for the ride, this was a neon-drenched descent into hell. His best film.
94. Belle (2013, Amma Asante)
Of all the topics generally approached in polite, prestigious costume drama, race is rarely near top of the deck. Amma Asante cried bull on that with her earnest depiction of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle in the 18th century. Gugu Mbatha-Raw added another heartfelt performance to her résumé, while the film at large documented important reform in the slave trade.
93. Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
Ava DuVernay’s Selma was such an obvious Oscar front-runner that its absence from most categories added fuel to the #OscarSoWhite backlash of early 2015. With the dust settled, Selma remains perhaps the most peerless biopic of the last 10 years; impassioned, coolly angry and boasting great factual integrity. And, in David Oyelowo, a performance that transcends the limits of the genre.
92. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston)
One might argue – for better or worse – that the defining moment for movies this decade was the release of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, setting in motion Marvel’s agenda for years to come. But the studio’s most simply enjoyable, gung-ho installment remains this one. An origin story and adventure with bags of heart. Black Panther came very close to bettering it, but this is my pick for the best MCU movie.
91. Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
Nolan’s high-water mark of the decade came early with this ‘small’ sci-fi yarn sandwiched between entries in his Batman trilogy. Here his tendency for movies-as-architecture felt most at home. The inventive effects work impresses as much as the Matryoshka plotting.
90. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)
Be still, protective crybaby SW nerds. After J.J. Abrams played it safe with The Force Awakens (and got stick for it), Rian Johnson stepped in, stepped up and started ruthlessly playing with expectations (and got a lot more stick for it). The result? The strangest, most interesting and (whisper it) best Star Wars film yet.
89. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos)
Lanthimos’ films either side of this (The Lobster, The Favourite) proved far more popular, and maybe they are better, but my pick of the litter is this wickedly dry and warped tale of vengeance. Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan and Raffey Cassidy navigate the Greek auteur’s deadpan material in a film eerily reminiscent of Kubrick at his coldest.
88. First Man (2018, Damien Chazelle)
With La La Land under his belt, Damien Chazelle’s First Man looked for all the world like so much more Oscar bait. It wasn’t. A surprisingly introspective and touching excavation of grief, Ryan Gosling’s sad quiet eyes were put to best use in this nostalgia-tinged triumph. Chazelle’s best work yet.
87. Zero Dark Thirty (2012. Kathryn Bigelow)
Jessica Chastain appears a few times on this list in notable supporting roles, but her lead for Kathryn Bigelow is her finest two hours on screen. This rigorous version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is the perfect vehicle for Chastain’s tough cookie persona… as well as the fragile heart lurking beneath.
86. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin)
In contention for the decade’s most gasp-worthy final shot is Sean Durkin’s insidious thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which Elizabeth Olsen gave a career-best performance as Martha, newly ‘escaped’ from a self-sufficient commune in upstate New York and traumatised by her experiences there. Durkin’s film asks the viewer to pay close attention, and rewards with an ending as ambiguous as it is downright chilling.
85. Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)
Gaining a quick reputation for its labyrinthine sex scenes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour should be remembered for much more than that. Over three languid, often exquisite hours, the film encompasses all aspects of falling in (and out) of love. Adele Exarchopoulos’ central turn is frank, open and astonishing in its generosity. A rare Palme d’Or winner that has managed to crossover into the popular cinematic lexicon. It’s a shame Kechiche’s methods have proven increasingly controversial and troubling.
84. The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s gigantic Netflix Original The Irishman has arrived a little too recently for placement on this list. Almost as epic is his riotous retelling of the amoral misadventures of Wall Street scoundrel Jordan Belfort. One of the most beloved films of the decade, Scorsese’s fascination with the male ego is as bristling as it ever was.
83. Minding The Gap (2018, Bing Liu)
Made by a skater kid barely in his twenties, Minding The Gap needs to be seen to be believed. What initially seems like a fluid and nimble doc on skateboarding quickly reveals itself to be an inquiry into systemic domestic abuse. This secondary mission statement eclipses the first, providing something of ambition, heart and great worth. A diamond.
82. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015, Hong Sang-Soo)
Sang-Soo’s work often pleasingly recalls the deft explorations of Éric Rohmer. The jewel in the crown of his recent offerings is Right Now, Wrong Then which dares to depict a brief encounter between two people, then zips back in time to tell it all again… with minor differences. A wry essay on the subtleties of performance and the bittersweet nature of regret.
81. Gone Girl (2014, David Fincher)
Fincher’s TV hit Mindhunter might be one of the best Originals on Netflix, but his feature releases are sorely missed. His last rekindled fond memories of a time when Hollywood made thrillers for grown-ups. Sleek and stylish as we’ve come to expect from him, and boasting a crackerjack central turn from Rosamund Pike.
80. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)
Ramsay’s features appear irregularly, but they’re always worth your investment. We Need To Talk About Kevin confronted some typically dark material. Tilda Swinton scorched the screen as a shell-shocked mother, while the audience were left in an appreciative state once the narrative revealed the cause of her distress. Chilling and frustratingly topical ever since.
79. It Follows (2014, David Robert Mitchell)
It seems as though every year there’s a breakthrough indie horror that takes critics (and audiences) by storm. For 2015 it was David Robert Mitchell’s eerie It Follows. Inspired in part by the photography of Gregory Crewdson, and shot through with a mood equidistant between John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, the conceit is simple and deadly; after sex an unstoppable force will stalk and kill you unless you pass the ‘infection’ on. A musing on loss of innocence and mortality that makes for a true one-off.
78. 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 smoulders long after.
77. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010, Edgar Wright)
Some of the gild has left the lily with Scott Pilgrim (the character really is kind of a douche bag…) yet, in spite of this, Edgar Wright’s first adventure across the Atlantic is a comedic win; the subject matter fitting his breakneck style perfectly. Like a musical with fights instead of songs, this has become a geek’s treasure.
76. Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)
A shot-in-the-arm for the teen movie, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is an absolute blast from start to finish, and a superb calling card for rising star Beanie Feldstein. There’s an optimistic streak to Wilde’s belief in these ambitious young ‘snowflakes’. It also helps that the flick is frequently, genuinely hilarious.
75. Mustang (2015, Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
A sun-dappled Turkish film about the troubles and injustices of arranged marriage that somehow still manages to feel light as air, recalling the twist of melancholy mixed with zest of youth found in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. The film is available/distributed in the UK by Curzon.
74. Support The Girls (2018, Andrew Bujalski)
Bujalski’s second critical darling of the decade (following 2013’s Computer Chess) and a real under-the-radar joy, Support The Girls charts a day-in-the-life of Hooters-style restaurant manager Lisa (supreme work from lead Regina Hall). Gently feminist and a satisfying rallying cry for the down-trodden who persevere. Stay a while at Double Whammies; you won’t regret you did.
73. Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach)
When Noah Baumbach collaborates with Greta Gerwig, his work is better. It seems to be that simple. If you’ve been enamoured by Frances Ha, skip While We’re Young and seek out this under-seen little number, which plays in broader screwball comedy territory… especially once it reaches its masterful third act. There is unfortunately still no UK physical release of this one, but it can be found on some streaming platforms. Gets better with every rewatch.
72. Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
Scarlett Johansson gives voice to sentient OS Samantha in Spike Jonze’s sensitive sci-fi parable Her. The heavier lifting comes from the remarkable performance given by Joaquin Phoenix – often the only person physically in a scene – who manages to make Jonze’s long, rambling (and award winning) dialogue exchanges feel effortless and entirely human. It’s a sun-dappled, airy and emotionally intelligent vision of the near future, and also the first dab on your Joaquin Phoenix / Rooney Mara bingo card.
71. Mommy (2014, Xavier Dolan)
Young French-Canadian maverick Xavier Dolan has already built an intimidating filmography during this, his first active decade of making features. Mommy is his crowning achievement thus far. A tale of volatile domestic relationships, Dolan cannily uses the frame itself to create and expel his intended claustrophobia.
70. 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.
69. The Farewell (2019, Lulu Wang)
Awkwafina slouches her way through Lulu Wang’s personal tale of family, pricking the idea of a good lie to find the truth. A delicately balanced and bittersweet drama, Wang observes the humour in specifically Chinese traditions, yet transcends cultural boundaries. A small wonder.
68. The Rider (2017, Chloé Zhao)
Speaking of small wonders, Chloé Zhao reconfigured the western into something empathetic and elegiac. Set on a South Dakota ranch, the film chronicles a gifted bronco rider’s struggle to move on after suffering a brain damaging injury. A metaphor for a way of life under threat and the inevitable eclipsing of time, The Rider impresses quietly. Quite what Zhao will do with her upcoming Marvel film is intriguing, to say the least.
67. Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)
Prepare to fall in love with Elsie Fisher. She’s the centre of Bo Burnham’s disarmingly empathetic exploration of what it means to be young in modern America. Mixing social media fixation with peer pressure, familial awkwardness and everything in between, this is an immensely giving piece of work, one that ought to resonate for years to come, in spite of its very deliberately current world view. It’s a time capsule, if you will.
66. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Picking up an Oscar for her troubles, the ever-versatile Natalie Portman dug deep for Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-sexual horror Black Swan. The film posed as a romantic thriller to fool audiences, then put them through the mill. One of the weirdest serious awards contenders of a decade pocked with unsuspecting strangeness.
65. The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almodóvar)
Here’s Spain’s most delicious export; Pedro Almodóvar. But in 2011 he cross-bred his usual flamboyance with the chilly body-horror shenanigans of David Cronenberg (via overt nods to Georges Franju’s nightmarish classic Eyes Without A Face). The Skin I Live In is a dastardly, twisty thriller, with a WTF conceit so strong that you’ll be re-watching it with friends to gauge their reactions.
64. You’re Next (2011, Adam Wingard)
Adam Wingard’s home invasion horror wears a delicious rictus grin. Following a relatively conservative and dour set-up, this supremely entertaining flick starts unpicking genre staples as ‘Final Girl’ Erin (Sharni Vinson) proves more than capable at dealing with her would-be attackers. Look out for a roster of mumblecore veterans in the impressive supporting cast.
63. Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson)
Kirsten Johnson has been a documentary cinematographer for over 15 years. Cameraperson is a revelatory souvenir; a compilation of outtakes from her extraordinary and diverse career, juxtaposed against one another. This personal tapestry has the feel of both a career summation and a celebration of factual filmmaking itself. A document of documenting.
62. Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik)
Granik garnered justified plaudits for her 2010 breakout Winter’s Bone, but this belated follow-up also greatly deserves your attention. Ben Foster and startling newcomer Thomasin McKenzie are father and daughter, living in the woods, divorced from civilisation due to his post-war PTSD. The film charts their forced re-entry into society. It’s a bumpy ride, but do get aboard.
61. Knight Of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick’s third film in his recent cycle features Christian Bale as a Hollywood screenwriter adrift in his own complacency. As this playboy figure meanders 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.
60. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s ease with the camera is so unassuming its easy to forget how ambitious his output has been. From adventures in roto-scoping to following a relationship through the decades, he’s a quiet innovator. And so to Boyhood; a coming of age film with the audacity to be shot incrementally over the course of 12 years. Wise, affecting and universal, it became one of the best reviewed and most beloved films of the decade.
59. You Were Never Really Here (2017, Lynne Ramsay)
A grim rejoinder to the ‘strong silent killer’ trope as glamorised by (among others) Drive. Phoenix portrays an emotionally crippled hit man who gets more than he bargained for when he brutally breaks up a child sex ring. Ramsay’s spare approach to the material pays dividends. Another tough cookie from one of the most uncompromising directors working today.
58. No (2012, Pablo Larraín)
Larraín’s stirring true tale of the promotional campaign that turned the tide in overthrowing Chilean dictator Pinochet is shot on videotape, allowing him the ease and confidence to switch from archival footage to dramatic reconstruction. It’s a smart trick in a playful, slyly powerful film anchored by a superb lead performance from Gael Garcia Bernal.
57. Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade)
Putting any number of half-assed improvised American comedy films to shame, Maren Ade’s three-hour, scripted ode to the relationships between fathers and daughters is a skillfully executed – and hilarious – blast. Playing out patiently, it also delivers on an emotional level. The lead performances from Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller are pitch perfect.
56. Shame (2011, Steve McQueen)
There are many searing moments in Steve McQueen’s ode to urban isolation Shame. One could, for instance, pick out Michael Fassbender’s run through New York, tracked in profile across several blocks. But the film’s true showstopper – literally – belongs to Carey Mulligan, whose open-mike rendition of “New York, New York” commands complete attention as it allows a brittle window into both her character and Fassbender’s.
55. Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako)
A Moroccan film of artfully political persuasion, Sissako’s Timbuktu deconstructs the hypocrisy and arbitrary brutality of the extremist regime occupying its titular city. It does so with mockery, but there’s also a heartbreaking truth and tenderness to the film. It also features one of the truly great sequences of the entire decade. With football banned, the children play openly in front of their keepers, but with an imagined ball. An act of creative defiance rendered as a pure, cinematic celebration of play and movement.
54. Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Kore-Eda)
Kore-Eda picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his latest inquiry into what constitutes family in modern day Japan. Here he presents a group drawn together by circumstance on the fringes of society. The multi-generational cast provide pleasures aplenty, while the last half hour will break hearts. Great world cinema with the power and potential to cross into the mainstream.
53. Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)
Pawlikowski’s subsequent stylish romance Cold War garnered more love, but Ida is the more moving of his recent features and bagged the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; an austere depiction of personal discovery. Agata Trzebuchowska enchants as a Catholic nun learning her Jewish heritage in post-war Poland. Lightly infused with the sexiness of jazz, Ida is compact and beautifully framed, always.
52. Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
A woman disfigured in the concentration camps has reconstructive surgery that changes her face. Her husband (who gave her up) doesn’t recognise her, but asks her to pose as his wife to make a bid for her inheritance. She plays along… Petzold’s fantastic post-war melodrama is a Hitchcockian marvel, and one of the best German films of the decade.
51. 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.
50. Widows (2018, Steve McQueen)
Steve McQueen updated an 80’s ITV miniseries from Lynda La Plante and the results were searing and extraordinary. A complex bruise of a film, Widows paints a picture of an entire city; the fulcrum of which is Viola Davis’ impenetrable wall of grief and fury. The cast is stacked, too, featuring the likes of Colin Farrell, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez (on form) and Robert Duvall to name but a few.
49. Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
Abbas Kiarostami made three masterpieces this decade and then died. The first was this Before-style romantic ramble, with the slippery conceit that the audience is never entirely sure whether Juliette Binoche and William Schimell are a long-married couple, or have only just met.
48. Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso)
A Danish soldier posted in Argentina goes in search of his wayward daughter over increasingly haggard terrain. Viggo Mortensen – committed as ever – learned another language for Alonso’s mesmeric example of slow cinema. An art house triumph, Jauja is both an ordeal and a marvel, one that daringly challenges what we assume the movies are for.
47. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)
Nobody was waiting for a Cloverfield sequel, so the surprise release of 10 Cloverfield Lane – and the dramatic change-up in presentation – took audiences by surprise. Dan Trachtenberg’s pressure cooker paranoia-fest is miles better than the first movie, and built up the possibilities of a new sci-fi anthology series, interconnected by theme rather than situation. Too bad The Cloverfield Paradox quickly detonated that promise. But we still have this.
46. The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-Wook)
Following his mostly-successful English language debut Stoker, Park Chan-Wook returned to his native Korea and put together (arguably) his masterpiece. A twisting tale told from multiple perspectives that revels in debauchery and arcane pornography; this coiled snake of a film also provided some of the most sensual imagery of his career thus far.
45. Monos (2019, Alejandro Landes)
Monos is a pummeling experience in the cinema. As we follow the escapades/misadventures of a bunch of teenage guerrillas in the Colombian wilds, Mica Levi’s juddering score punishes and Alejandro Landes takes us places often reserved for the likes of Col. Kurtz in his heart of darkness. An adrenaline shot to the system.
44. Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)
Pixar’s team have exploded our imaginations for over two decades, bringing emotional weight and hilarity to all aspects of the world. Here they turn inward, creating an adventure out of a young girl’s neuroses, in which different personality facets are given form. Inside Out is a staggering achievement; both a fun and funny adventure story and an incredibly wise lesson in self-awareness for the young and old alike.
43. Like Father, Like Son (2013, Hirokazu Kore-Eda)
Hirokazu Kore-Eda is frequently compared to Yasujiro Ozu and for good reason. Both directors have a consistent interest in the family unit. And – as is becoming increasingly clear in Kore-Eda’s case – both are among the very finest artists of their respective generations. Kore-Eda may well be the ‘best’ director working today. For me, Like Father, Like Son is his masterpiece. Based on true accounts, the film explores what happens when two families (one rich, one poor) discover that their 6-year-old children were accidentally switched at birth. The film is available in the UK via Arrow Academy, and is well-worth your investigation. A deft emotional body blow.
42. 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.
41. Goodbye, First Love (2011, Mia Hansen-Løve)
French cinema’s hippest name (and partner to Olivier Assayas), Hansen-Løve’s work is often wise and pragmatic. The marvelous Lola Créton takes centre stage here as a young woman both in and out of love, opening up to the world and later thriving as a student of architecture. It’s an intimate-feeling character study.
40. 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 Sunrise 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.
39. Raw (2016, Julia Ducournau)
Julia Ducournau’s directorial debut is a stunner; pigeon-holed as horror for its extreme (cannibalistic!) content, but also a fine allegory for growing up and sexual exploration. A young woman attends the first year at a prestigious veterinary college, only to find herself lost in a maze of intense hazing activities and – against her vegetarian instincts – addicted to the taste of raw meat. Not for the faint-hearted, but arresting from start to finish. Bold cinema.
38. Heaven Knows What (2014, Benny Safdie, Joshua Safdie)
The Safdie Brothers’ extraordinary – nigh perfect – Heaven Knows What ought to have gained a lot more traction here in the UK. Ex-junkie Arielle Holmes stars as an iteration of herself, surviving on her wits in NYC, forever on the brink of disaster, usually thanks to her on-again/off-again beau Ilya (a career-defining turn from Caleb Landry Jones). The scuzzy energy of the filmmakers’ work is reflected in Arial Pink’s percolating score. A true under-seen gem.
37. Suspiria (2018, Luca Guadagnino)
This feels like a 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.
36. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers channeled a more melancholic vein following the high adventure of their western remake True Grit. In a star-making turn, Oscar Isaac took the lead as a disenchanted 60’s folk singer in wintry New York. The search for a lost cat acted as the loose string for a number of vignettes that the Coens wanted to play with. In combination, Inside Llewyn Davis became one of their most evocative experiences, and a scene shared between Isaac and Adam Driver also prefigured their coming Star Wars connection.
35. Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)
A simple tale of codependent people inexorably linked to a herd of pigs thanks to a drug that enhances suggestibility. Obvs. The belated follow-up to 2004’s time travel head-scratcher Primer, Upstream Color was a lightweight revelation brimming with ideas, one positively offended by the idea of conventional exposition. It’s director Shane Carruth is notoriously controlling of his films. Here he directs, writes, stars, acts as composer, and editor, and DP, he designed the marketing campaign… Film is a collaborative medium, but Carruth may be the first to eventually do everything himself. Whatever comes next will be, of course, interesting.
34. 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 gem from start to finish.
33. Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine)
Korine has always favoured a garish world view, but his hues that bleed and blur in 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.
32. 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 to use.
31. Lady Macbeth (2016, William Oldroyd)
I saw Lady Macbeth and it was good. Then it became an itch I had to scratch. I rewatched it. And then bought it. Florence Pugh (who you really ought to be looking out for) is magnificent in this keen dissection of a woman’s lot in the kind of situation so often skipped over by more blustery period dramas. Oldroyd’s approach feels thoroughly modern. A bitter bark of a film.
30. Jackie (2016, Pablo Larraín)
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie Kennedy biopic succeeds so beautifully because it zeroes in on just one week; the week following JFK’s assassination. The film is a bruised and tender essay on grief. Portman’s central turn is tightly calibrated, and there’s a Malickian quality to the final moments of the film, deftly underpinned by another great Mica Levi score. Folded into awards season as just another also-ran, its really one of the decade’s most impressive pieces of work.
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. Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)
I feel robbed. Annihilation was denied a cinematic release here in the UK; instead landing as a Netflix exclusive before journeying to the physical release market a year later. It’s a shame, as Alex Garland’s sophomore film is one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade and, in its psychedelic climax, one of the most visually arresting films this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
27. Embrace Of The Serpent (2015, Ciro Guerra)
A beguiling, dark and at times deadly descent into the heart of the Amazon. Guerra’s exploration features a dual narrative as German scientists of two generations search for a flower of mythical power. The film culminates in Kubrickian psychedelia, but along the way bares comparison to the great works of Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola. Impressively, Guerra bares the comparison with striking confidence. He could be one of the greats.
26. The Look Of Silence (2014, Joshua Oppenheimer)
Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the remarkable 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.
25. The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Terence Davies)
Terence Davies loves old things, and his films frequently weep for lost times, lost loves, and perceived lost values. The Deep Blue Sea is an aching melodrama of stiff-upper-lipped brooding, shrouded in darkness. Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz share a brief encounter in post-war Britain in a film smudged by candlelight and just as precious.
24. Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014, Olivier Assayas)
Juliette Binoche is an actress asked to star, again, in the play that made her famous – only this time in the role of the older woman. Chloe Grace Moretz is taking her spot and defies expectations as the starlet on the rise. Between the two of them is Kristen Stewart, stunning in the part of Binoche’s PA. This triptych of women talking, musing, debating and reminiscing is the fuel of Olivier Assayas’ wordy but wonderful drama. A sophisticated, underrated gem.
23. 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.
22. The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)
Shot frequently from the perspective of its child star, The Florida Project portrays close-to-the-edge poverty within throwing distance of Disneyland; a world of pastel colours and endless sunshine. Baker’s breakthrough picture is a sigil for his generous heart. Brash, sassy and sparkling with life and humanity; he’s fashioned a believable, funny, friendly and sad micro-climate here. Get caught up if you missed this one.
21. 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.
20. Certain Women (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s trio of short stories in the mid west amount to an earthy, deftly poetic vision of grounded Americana. And while there are minor victories and low-key dramas to be found with Laura Dern’s beleaguered lawyer and Michelle Williams’ landscaping wife, Certain Women becomes a smouldering fire at its end when Kristen Stewart’s night school teacher intersects with Lily Gladstone’s lonesome rancher. It isn’t for everyone, but the best things usually aren’t.
19. Madeline’s Madeline (2018, Josephine Decker)
Decker’s recent breakthrough is a dazzling and complex character study, an inquiry into the responsibility of the artist and a self-reflexive question about whose stories we’re legitimately able to tell. If that all sounds like an intellectual exercise, its not. The film itself is pure sensory entanglement and Helena Howard’s central turn is a revelation.
18. OJ: Made In America (2016, Ezra Edelman)
A sprawling Oscar winning exploration of OJ Simpson, unjustly overshadowed by the inferior Netflix miniseries. Edelman’s extensive document doesn’t just burrow deep into the crime and controversy of Simpson; he places it into greater societal context, painting a picture of not just a man, but a country at war with itself. Mighty.
17. Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)
Get Out was that rare thing in cinema; a genuine zeitgeist grabbing game-changer. Black voices are notoriously under-served 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.
16. 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.
15. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins)
Hot on the heels of Moonlight, Jenkins could have done anything he wanted. So he did, and he brought James Baldwin’s celebrated novel to gorgeous cinematic life. Nicholas Britell’s score swells like a bursting heart. KiKi Lane’s performance is an exposed bruise. In fact every member of this cast is bringing such generosity to the work. I can’t even figure what this director might achieve next. A major voice is here and we are fortunate to bare witness.
14. Holy Motors (2012, Léos Carax)
How Léos Carax’s mind works is a mystery, but so long as it generates work as vivid as this who are we to question? Carax’s sole feature of the decade was this beautiful, dark showcase for his lead actor Denis Lavant, playing a mysterious man with a set of tasks to accomplish on one long Parisian day. From assassinating his own doppelgänger to getting serenaded by Kyle Minogue, Holy Motors is dream cinema to wake you up.
13. 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.
12. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
When Tim Burton headed the Cannes jury that selected Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives for the prestigious Palme d’Or he explained that its “a movie that you normally don’t see… It is a beautiful strange dream” He was right. Thai culture is breathed throughout the airy, quiet fantasy of Uncle Boonmee; a film about death, but also about peace and stillness. Its a meditative experience all alone in a landscape of busy cinema.
11. Girlhood (2014, Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma lit up Cannes in 2019 with her new film Portrait Of A Lady On Fire; immediately rising to the top of my must-see list. If for no other reason that because Girlhood was *so good*. For her third feature, Sciamma examines the life of a young black woman growing up in an all-girl gang in the Parisian suburbs. Part of the brilliance of Girlhood is how it switches from naturalistic detachment to heightened genre cinema; witness a fourth-wall busting musical showstopper in which the girls lip-sync to Rihanna’s “Diamond”. One of the finest coming-of-age films there is.
10. 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.
9. Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)
I came to Frances Ha deeply suspicious. To my mind, Noah Baumbach was the none-more-hipster voice of whiny NY entitlement. One might well argue that he still is, but this film (along with 2015’s Mistress America) showed a spirited levity bolstered in no small way by his muse Greta Gerwig; the indie darling of the 2010’s. Gerwig’s directionless dancer Frances charms completely, and the movie as a whole skips along with effervescent exuberance. Bad day? Stick this on.
8. Like Someone In Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)
The Iranian director travelled to Japan for what I consider one of the outright masterpieces of the decade. Like Someone In Love dares the viewer to make judgments about what they’re seeing, then puts its characters in the same danger. Pocked with wry reveals and imbued throughout with a maverick’s playfulness, it’s a lightly surreal comedy of mistaken identities and (of course) driving.
7. Paddington 2 (2017, Paul King)
The best Wes Anderson movie not actually made by Wes Anderson. Going above and beyond the requirements of kid-friendly light entertainment, Paddington 2 is “The Godfather II of quasi-animated family caper films” (source, David Jenkins). I can’t top that. That’s exactly what it is. Oh, and Hugh Grant delivers the kind of supporting performance that ought to generate awards. The world is burning or collapsing, but we have this movie for when that’s just too much.
6. The Tree Of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
The opening salvo from Malick’s divisive run of free-floating memory formed montage films felt so light of touch that even its actors couldn’t be counted on to remain connected to terra firma. 2011’s The Tree Of Life featured a sequence of such angelic lift that Jessica Chastain left the ground, the purity of her maternal figure artfully made literal. It’s a graceful peak in a sun-dappled hymn to Malick’s own childhood.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
Edgar Wright calls Mad Max: Fury Road the greatest action movie ever made, a stance that doesn’t particularly require justification when looking at the thing. Miller’s film is glorious, from texture and pallet (Black & Chrome was curious but weaker), to performance, pacing and sheer technical bravado. Watching it now, it feels like it prefigured a cultural shift; a rallying cry that enough is enough. A recent critics poll named it the best film of the decade. If its not, then its sure up there for consideration.
4. Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Social media coven Film Twitter loves Phantom Thread; originator of a thousand memes and exasperated screen shots. With great reason. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is his swooning best; a 50’s set romance that warps into a tender and wise examination of the motivations behind a BDSM relationship, while coyly skirting the need to get freaky in the bedroom. Daniel Day-Lewis has called this his swan song. He’s towering as fusspot genius Reynolds Woodcock. Worth underscoring, however, is how strongly he is matched by Vicky Krieps as the obscure object of his desire; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And while we’re on that subject, see also Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ caustic sister Cyril. I could watch these three run circles around one another for decades.
3. Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
Jenkins’ second feature and the most righteous Best Picture winner in at least 20 years (and the way it won was just perfect), Moonlight is a hushed whisper of a film. Split into three chapters that layer the emotional resonance of one boy growing up, the net result is a humanistic symphony. Also – and this doesn’t get said enough – Janelle Monáe is amazing in this.
2. Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)
Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s landmark novel is a slow brood. Haynes’ love of the 50’s melodrama informs the narrative, but it also means that the film simmers with you rather than immediately wrenching you by the collars. It has its immediate charms; chiefly the chemistry and tender, flabbergasting performances from both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. But Carol is so much more giving on return. Carter Burwell’s score is his finest. The smudged reflections that pepper the film speak of Carol and Therese’s combined turmoils. This is one from the heart, and it is essentially tied as my favourite film of the decade, along with this terminally tricky customer…
1. Under The Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
Stalking out of the shadows, with eerie vacant spaces like empty parenthesis, Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic Under The Skin moves at an alien pace; defiantly a creature of unique genus. True enough, there are shades of Roeg and Kubrick in there, but Glazer’s radical reinterpretation of Michel Faber’s source novel feels like a genuine original. Casting Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien being roaming rural Scotland was, it transpires, a master-stroke. Her celebrity brings with it its own incredulity, its own otherness.
And otherness is where Under The Skin lives. The film charts a kind of slow thawing process to humanity. In the process, Glazer’s ability to channel the feelings of the outsider are razor sharp. In spite of its apparent coldness, there’s great empathy locked away inside this cruel beast. I find it oddly moving. This is a movie for black sheep, and who hasn’t felt ‘other’ at some point. It may feature an alien, but its all too human in the end.
Mica Levi’s score is a stunner; as iconic as Glazer’s crystalline lead. And you can already see the bold visual dynamics of the film impressing themselves upon other giants of popular culture. From the Sunken Place in Get Out to the Upside Down in Stranger Things and beyond, the sparse aesthetics of Under The Skin are rippling out from its deadly black lake.
It isn’t an easy film, and it won’t satisfy all. That’s fine. You can like art or not. If this isn’t your jam; that’s okay. There are 99 other choices above for your consideration. I’ve hopefully made something of a case for investigating each of them. The point of this countdown has been to illuminate and celebrate. To suggest that even if they don’t make them like they used to, they make them like they do now. And that is sometimes an astonishingly good thing.
We’re in a great age of cinema, even as what that even means is given new shape.
’til next time x