With the decade coming to a close, I decided to take the time and make a list of my choices for the 20 best films of the past ten years. 20 films for 2020 was kind of the idea. Of course, this is entirely subjective and just felt like a fun thing to do. I’ve included some links to reviews by professional critics who are far smarter than me and can hopefully convince you to check out some of these movies if I failed to sell them properly. I also included a few honorable mentions at the end because I like a lot of movies! Without further ado, here are my choices, starting with my pick for the best movie of the last ten years:
I’ve thought about this movie every day since I saw it, and that was quite a few years ago now. Pawel Pawlikowski’s lyrical drama about a young nun confronting her past appears simple and straightforward on the surface. It clocks in at a scant 82 minutes, contains minimal dialogue, and little in the way of major plot developments. Underneath the surface though, this is a film with greats wells of emotion and a righteous anger towards historical atrocities and the systems that support them. As the title character, Agata Trzebuckowska leaves a striking impression despite not appearing to do much of anything at all. This is a woman who has grown up in isolation, trusting and understanding only the conventions and rituals of her religious order. As she travels the stark countryside with her Aunt (Agata Kulesza, in a devastating performance), the camera takes long moments to simply stare at her face, allowing the viewer to share in her wonder, disillusionment, and confusion about the world she is confronted with. The black and white photography makes the landscape and places she visits seem alien and mysterious even if they are somewhat banal in reality. Her journey is a universal one, fraught with revelations about the past that make her question her resolve while deepening her understanding of her place in the world. There’s a quiet moment towards the end of the film that remains one of the most unadulterated illustrations of pure joy ever captured on film. And the conclusion, with Ida refusing to go with the current and instead choosing to forge her own path forward, is both profoundly moving and incredibly well-earned. The film is also hauntingly gorgeous with shots of such stellar composition you just want to cry. This is a film worth revisiting over and over again and one that is well-worthy of your attention if you’ve never seen it. As film critic Dana Stevens wrote in her review for Slate, ” The truths this young nun and her aunt discover in the Polish countryside are terrible, but the journey they undertake together to unearth those secrets is hauntingly beautiful. Take it with them.”
Part fable, part coming of age story, part romantic comedy, and all charm, John Crowley’s Brooklyn is the kind of populist entertainment that we could use a lot more of nowadays. It also cements Saoirse Ronan’s place as one of the finest performers of her (or any) generation. There’s a lightness to the tone of Brooklyn that most films would struggle to create but feels effortless here. The film deals with heavy subjects such as immigration, loss, and displacement but never loses its light footing. Which is not to suggest that it dismisses any of those subjects either. Granted, this is a narrow look at immigration that offers an upbeat perspective on the process that many would not share today. Still, the idea that moving to another country does not have to be as harrowing or tragic as most think it would be is an idea worth embracing. Vince Mancini summed up the films’ main thesis in his review for Uproxx: “Emigration is hard, but not tragic, liberating, but not without sacrifice, and at a certain point, inexorable”. Beyond that, there’s all the little pleasures the movie has in store for the viewer, from Emory Cohen’s warm performance to the hilarious dinner conversations that occur at the boarding house where Ronan’s character lives for most of the narrative (I would have watched a whole movie set at that dinner table). It also has one of those grand, upbeat Hollywood endings that feels perfectly placed and genuine rather than cynical and calculated. I would hug this movie if I could.
3. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden is so deliciously entertaining it almost feels like a crime. There’s not a dull moment in its near three hour run time. Ostensibly a lurid melodrama about con artists, the wealthy elite, and decadent rituals, it has its roots in pulp fiction as much as the more stately period novel its loosely based on. It speaks about class issues without ever talking down to the viewer, melds traditional romance with indescribable passion, and has such a wickedly clever and dark sense of humor there are moments when all you can do is gawk at it. It also functions as a superbly entertaining mystery, with so many secrets and clever plot twists it’s difficult to keep up with all of them. The camera sweeps through the South Korean countryside and mansions that the characters navigate with reckless abandon, creating a distinct feeling of otherworldliness. It should have won all the Oscars when it came out and illustrates that many South Korean films are making ‘classical’ but modern Hollywood movies far better than anyone in Hollywood actually is. Not without controversy, the movie was criticized by some for its sex scenes which many found to be exploitative. I think they’re missing the point but I’m going to leave the last word to the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino who pointed out that, “Sex is an essential tool in each character’s deception—but the women, unlike the men, are wrenching themselves toward self-actualization.”
4. You Were Never Really Here
Despite having only made four feature films, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay is an absolute master and You Were Never Really Here might be her finest work and most impressive tightrope act. A brutal deconstruction and criticism of the “lone badass wolf seeks revenge” type of movie that gets churned out by the system every other day, the film also manages to be a deft and touching exploration of trauma and loneliness. Joaquin Phoenix has never been better as Joe, a hired gun who specializes in brutality and whose gruff exterior masks a deep seeded sense of isolation and despair. Usually these types of characters are presented as the essence of ‘cool’ but there is nothing cool about Joe. It’s a pleasure to watch Ramsay and Phoenix point out just how profoundly disturbed these types of guys would be in real life while still treating the character with great empathy. Ramsay handles violence beautifully, hardly ever showing the action but lingering on the disturbing aftermath. There’s also a role reversal at the film’s climax that is just pitch-perfect. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the movie is how economical it is. Ramsay apparently hacked the thing to pieces, cutting out any scene or shot that didn’t add to the overall narrative, and the result, as film Sheila O’Malley said, is, “a taut and almost unbearably intense 90-minutes, without an ounce of fat on it. Ramsay doesn’t give you a second to breathe.”
Bong Joon-ho’s films defy easy categorization and Mother is no exception. As a thriller, its relentlessly tense and disturbing, with shocking reveals lurking around every corner. As a study in class differences, its ferociously angry and still all too topical. However, it works best as a character study with the focus squarely on Kim Hye-ja’s unnamed title character. A widow living on the edges of the lower middle class with a mentally disturbed young son to take care of, this is a portrait of the type of person movies so rarely focus on and it’s quite a welcome change of pace. This woman seems unassuming and somewhat anonymous at first but once her son is arrested for murder and co-erced into signing a confession, years or repressed rage and determination comes rising to the surface of her personality turning her into an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. As the late great Roger Ebert said, “So much depends on Kim Hye-ja’s performance as a remorseless parent defending her fledgling. Likely she has spent years helping her clueless son escape one dilemma after another, and now she rises to the great occasion of her life.” As she doggedly searches for the truth, Bong Joon-ho’s film pulls off one last great trick with the final reveal, transforming the narrative from a deep character study into a dark mediation on the depths people will go to in order to protect the ones they love. It’s a movie that piles on idea after idea and when the hauntingly beautiful final shot dances onto the screen, our minds are still reeling.
The most shocking thing about Elle–a movie made up of almost only shocking things–is how deceptively complex and nuanced it is when talking about such taboo topics as rape and consent. Any movie that starts mid-rape is going to be provocative at the very least and exploitative at the very worst. But director Paul Verhoeven and lead performer Isabelle Huppert are asking the audience to go with them on a dark and twisted journey through the corridors of sexual power dynamics. They provide no easy answers and ask difficult questions meant to make viewers uncomfortable. Huppert’s character does not behave as a traditional rape victim and the movie asks you to engage with her reasoning and logic rather than rail at her for not doing what you would do in the same situation. I’m going to let Sheila O’Malley once again speak on the very complicated and troubling ideas the film is dealing with. When discussing a moment late in the film when Huppert’s character is turned on by sexual violence and her partner becomes disturbed, O’Malley writes, “He’s almost turned off by her sexual agency. And that, ultimately, is the most cutting observation in “Elle,” and Verhoeven’s aim is accurate and deadly. Men not knowing what to do with a woman who wants sex and knows how she wants it, men needing to be the “top,” always, threatened by a woman taking the “top” role (not in sexual positions, but in attitude) … well. These issues have been with us from the beginning of time, and won’t be solved overnight. But “Elle” is one of the smartest films about consent I’ve ever seen.” That a film as disturbing as Elle is also manages to be funny and even moving at times is a testament to how well Verhoeven and Huppert handle the material. And despite him being behind the camera, I believe most of the film’s success is due to Huppert. She’s a performer who makes you work to understand what’s going on behind her eyes, who gives nothing away easily but is totally in command of the screen. It’s incredible what she can do with the twitch of an eye or a subtle shift in body language. Not every performance needs to spell everything out for the viewer.
7. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s revisionist and thoroughly modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel works both as a revitalization of the story while retaining everything that made it such a crowd-pleaser to begin with. Every performance is stellar but I think it’s Florence Pugh who steals the show as Amy, the sister long thought of the most frustrating of the March family. The scene where she confesses to Laurie that she is not as talented as she once hoped she’d be is so quietly devastating it deserves applause. Pugh also gets the film’s biggest laughs and gets to show off the most range as she chronicles Amy’s journey from self-absorbed and jealous to caring and content. The empathy Gerwig affords to Amy applies to every character in the piece, making much of the film feel like a warm embrace straight from the heart. The ending of the film is already causing think pieces to pop up all over the internet (here’s the best one I’ve read, from Caroline Siede of the AV Club) and whether or not you like Gerwig’s choice is somewhat immaterial. What it deftly illustrates no matter how you feel about it, is that this is a rich text that deserves a new and updated adaptation every twenty years or so.
Alfonso Cuaron uses Roma as a means to chronicle the history of his country while looking back on his childhood without nostalgia and from the perspective of someone he always knew but maybe never understood. This is the kind of autobiographical work that would come off as hollow and selfish if it weren’t so wise and empathetic. As Cleo, the hard working maid at the center of the film, Yalitza Aparacio, does something similar to what Isabelle Huppert does in Elle: she betrays nothing. There is hardly a second when she is not on screen and very few moments where we can pinpoint exactly what she is thinking. She is never presented as a magical figure, as a shining example of an ‘other’, or as some sort of epitome of grace. There’s the lingering sense that she is completely trapped in her role as caregiver to the family she serves and is maybe only breaking out of it at the very end. Writer Slavoj Zizek has an interesting take on the film’s climactic moment after Cleo saves the children from drowning and is embraced, calling it, “a moment of false solidarity if there ever was one, a moment which simply confirms that Cleo is caught into the trap that enslaves her”. You can feel Cuaron’s palpable sense of guilt at having figures like Cleo in his life and taking them for granted. Is his film an apology or a celebration? I think it’s neither and works better as a stark portrait of the kind of a life that most people never even think about.
I’ve heard many criticisms that Zootopia’s take on racism is too simplistic and reductive to be truly effective. I understand that and agree in some ways but also think that a children’s movie even attempting to handle such a complex topic is commendable and worth celebrating. Beyond that, Zootopia is a triumph of world building. The sequence where Hops takes the train into the big city for the first time should be shown in film classes as the shining example of why the insistence that movies should “show and not tell” is 100% accurate. Zootopia is fun without being silly and trivial, smart without being condescending, and manages to create a fully realized world in a manner that seems completely effortless. If you’ve dismissed this one out of hand, I cannot recommend enough giving it another shot. After all, as the movie says, try everything.
10. John Wick
If You Were Never Really Here is the sharp deconstruction of the cool anti-hero, then John Wick is the righteous celebration. Nothing wrong with that when the movie is this well-done and performed. Keanu Reeves has long been an under appreciated movie star (IMO) and has found the role of lifetime here, one that highlights his strengths while kicking all of his weaknesses to the curb. Watching the 55 year old plow through action scene after action scene like a 20 year old dancer at the top of their game is nothing short of exhilarating. As film writer, Angelica Jade Bastien said in her review of the second film, “Cinema was created so Keanu Reeves could wear a fine black suit and slice through people with the same grace as Fred Astaire.” To say I agree is a grotesque understatement. The John Wick films are also slightly more nuanced than most people give them credit for, offering an interesting and fatalistic look at the world of these hyper violent assassins while acting as a quiet advocate for the process of grieving in peace. Their aesthetic is also gorgeous, with bright colors and stunning visuals lurking around every frame. These are high art films very cleverly disguised as low art.
I’m still annoyed by the way Bridesmaids was marketed as “The Hangover for women”. First of all, no. Second of all, The Hangover is terrible and should be shot into the sun (I haven’t seen the sequels but go ahead and shoot those into the sun too). And finally, NOPE. For me, Bridesmaids is the comedy of the decade. It’s ferociously funny, very warm, and imminently rewatchable. Love the entire cast but think it’s Maya Rudolph who steals the show. Wish Kristen Wigg would write more scripts.
12. The Counselor
Writer Cormac McCarthy’s first original Hollywood script is lyrical, poetic, and completely insane. His characters are so verbose they barely even seem to understand what they are talking about. But if you can get into the rhythm of the words, The Counselor is a rich and haunting text that acts as the definitive illustration of the idea that ‘crime doesn’t pay’. It also features terrific performances all around and career best work from Cameron Diaz who somehow manages to be a bigger ham than Javier Bardem while still creating an intense, terrifying, and fascinating character.
Speaking of lyrical, poetic, and completely insane, we come to Luca Guadagino’s reimagining of the horror classic, Suspiria. Very much it’s own thing, it uses the Dario Argento film to craft a gory and grim piece of work that sees the horrors of history as mirrors for supernatural madness. There’s a lot going on in Suspiria, perhaps too much, but there’s something to be said for a film charging ahead and spilling blood all over the place before ending on a scene of quiet revelation and acceptance of pain for its two main characters. And those dance sequences are, forgive the pun, absolutely spellbinding.
14. We Need To Talk About Kevin
And we’re back to Lynne Ramsay once again. Her adaptation of the terrifying novel about a mother struggling to reconcile with her son after he commits terrible acts of murder, is one of the most disturbing films ever made. Ramsay does not shy away from the idea that the mother (perfectly played by Tilda Swinton) is somewhat responsible for her son’s actions. In fact, she embraces the idea, creating two main characters who are broken at their core and are left to pick up the pieces of the horrible damages they leave in their wake.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have made a career out of crafting small, humanist horror films that use the genre as a means to explore social issues like addiction, romance, sibling rivalry, and the perils of dating. Spring, a romance/horror hybrid, that follows the early excitement of a relationship and then starts navigating the differences between two people that make it so difficult for relationships to last, is their masterwork. Beautifully acted, gorgeously shot, and one of those movies that reaches the final moment and you say to the screen, “oh please end right now, this is the perfect last note” and it does.
16. It Follows
The concept of It Follows, that an STD can take physical form and move from person to person, is so good by itself that writer director David Robert Mitchell could have made a mediocre movie and simply gotten by on the strength of the premise alone. Instead, he made a masterpiece that is terrifying on a pure entertainment level while also being a stunning and dreamlike look on how weird and transitory that first summer after High School is.
17. Short Term 12
Brie Larson has had quite a decade but Short Term 12, her breakout film, might still be her finest work. As the young supervisor for a group home of troubled teenagers, she is as forceful and in command as she is quiet and reserved. The relationship she strikes up with a troubled girl, played by the always great Kaitlyn Dever, serves as the heart of the film but there’s so much to admire here. Writer director Destin Daniel Crettin creates a world that feels fully lived in and wonderfully observed.
18. Young Adult
It takes a lot of courage to be as nasty and unpleasant as Charlize Theron is in Young Adult and still expect the audience to follow you along for the ride. Theron pulls it off. Her character is one of the most thoroughly despicable protagonists to grace the screen in recent memory but Theron fills her with just enough humanity that we can stomach it. The same goes for the whole movie which sees director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody pulling off the best work of their career to create a comedy that gives a big middle finger everyone and everything while ripping every expected convention of a movie like this to absolute shreds.
Writer director Kogonada’s first feature is one of the most meticulously crafted films I’ve ever seen. The camera hardly ever moves, allowing each shot to fill up with glorious space while taking in the breathtaking architecture present in the title town. It’s a moving and tender portrait of two lost people (Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho) using architecture as a means to combat their grief and inner turmoil. If it seems simplistic as a narrative, that’s only because stories of genuine personal growth and positive change sometimes need room to breathe in order to gain their full impact.
20. Dragged Across Concrete
S. Craig’s Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete is a piece of work overflowing with hatred, a movie that seems as if it was baked in the worst attributes of 2019 and then came out of the oven as a perfectly formed distillation of every horrible idea celebrated by the trolls of the internet. Remember how Joker got everyone riled up? That movie is Sesame Street compared to this. And unlike Joker, Dragged Across Concrete actually deals with the controversial ideas it brings up, letting its main characters say hateful, misogynistic, and racist things without ever patting you on the back for condemning them. It’s a very difficult movie to like but one that is impossible to ignore. That it also works as a pure crime drama is a testament to Zahler’s skill as a director. It’s a film that’s stunningly cruel, featuring moments of violence so shocking and off-putting, there were several times where I needed to take a break. Writer Karen Han of Slate addressed the film’s cruelty quite well when discussing the aftermath of the film’s most brutal scene: “How cruel, and how unnecessary—but the world, as Zahler sees it, is cruel, and he knows exactly how to communicate that. And everyone gets their due in the end. That said, as much as I think of Dragged Across Concrete, it’s absolutely not a movie I’d go out of my way to recommend to … anyone else.” I’m with her on that but I cannot deny the film’s raw power. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Mel Gibson’s performance, which is frustratingly good. Gibson is not a guy I’d like to see again on my screen anytime soon but as someone who grew up watching the Lethal Weapon movies, it’s fascinating to see him and Zahler suggest that a guy like Martin Riggs would turn into the character Gibson plays in Dragged: bitter, lonely, reckless, selfish, and all to eager to solve every problem with violence.
And because I don’t feel like ending on such a sour note, here are a few honorable mentions, films that didn’t quite make the list but came damn close:
Nocturnal Animals is lurid, stupid, empty, meandering, reviled by most critics, and absolutely gorgeous to look at. I loved every second of it.
Whiplash is still one of the most nerve-wracking movies I’ve ever seen and lord does that ending stick the landing.
Arrival features Amy Adam’s best performance in a career made up of only great performances.
Cloud Atlas is achingly sincere, narratively insane, and completely involving.
The Babadook is one of the scariest movies ever made and a shockingly good look at a toxic mother and son dynamic.
Colossal, a movie that features Anne Hathaway controlling a Godzilla type monster, is wildly entertaining and a terrific examination of toxic masculinity.
Midnight Special is a great sci-fi road movie proudly in the tradition of John Carpenter’s Starman and about as good.
Midsommar is hilarious and terrifying in equal measure with another great performance by Florence Pugh. It really was her year.
The Farewell is so honest and heartfelt and they need to close the Best Supporting Actress category and just give the award to Diana Lin. She’s GREAT.
The Hunter is a surprisingly tender adventure film with career best work from Willem Dafoe.
The Master is sort of the epitome of Paul Thomas Anderson. I mean that as a compliment.
The Favourite is as deliriously entertaining as The Handmaiden and perhaps even funnier.
Support the Girls features two great performances by Regina Hall and Haley Lu Richardson and that final shot might be the greatest howl ever put on screen.
Spotlight is shockingly entertaining for such dark subject matter and so righteously angry that all you can do is shake your fist with the same sense of rage.
And finally, T2: Trainspotting is the rare sequel that builds upon the original without ever relying on it as a cloying attempt to recreate the same magic.