Before I dive into my ten favourite films of the 2010s, I need to be clear on one point: these are my ten “favourites”, not necessarily the “greatest”. However, I would add that these films I would consider masterpieces by any reasonable standard, and that in years to come, they may well be thought of as classics.
Cinema has evolved a great deal in the last ten years, and quite frankly not always for the better. Personally, I still mourn the loss of 35mm as the projected standard. Digital has never sat quite right with me, although given that so much is shot that way these days, perhaps it only really matters with re-releases of older films. On the other hand, digital has allowed for many more of said re-releases, so there is a silver lining.
Another way in which cinema has evolved in ways I do not approve of concerns the rise of Netflix. I think it’s great that Netflix give directors the chance to make the film they want on their terms with no interference. However, their policy of not adhering to the 90 day cinema window of release (standard elsewhere in the industry), and the knock-on effect, greatly bothers me. It is particularly galling when it results in films crying out for a big screen (such as Roma) being given miniscule, letter-of-the-law releases only, in order to qualify for awards.
I have ranted about these issues before many times on this blog, so I’ll spare you any more of my bile on this subject, and instead turn to more positive matters. This decade may have seen mainstream Hollywood become ever more creatively inert, increasingly reliant on sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes, but every so often these old studios still chuck out an interesting curveball. Even more encouragingly, independent cinema – in the US and around the world- is an increasingly potent force, with many if not most of films that have caught my interest this decade hailing from often humble origins. In that respect, cinema is as alive and well as it has ever been, with some of the most radical and incisive works frequently catching me unaware, out of left field.
Here then is a brief list of “honourable mentions” – films that didn’t quite make the final ten, but are worthy of special mention regardless: The Social Network, The Illusionist, Of Gods and Men, Looper, Love & Friendship, Skyfall, Philomena, Nightcrawler, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Toy Story 3, Interstellar, Boyhood, Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), Paddington, Paddington 2, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, Warrior, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, La La Land, Your Name, Under the Shadow, Arrival, Sicario, Dunkirk, The Dark Knight Rises, The Red Turtle, First Man, Baby Driver, The Death of Stalin, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Three Identical Strangers, They Shall Not Grow Old, Roma, and Mad Max Fury Road.
10. Gravity – Alfonso Cuaron has had a very strong decade, but whilst it would be trendy to opt for Roma in this list, for sheer big screen thrills this can’t be equalled. In essence the plot is little more than a survival B-movie is space, but it is done so well with great performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Obviously it must be seen on a big screen. On top of all this, the emotional and metaphysical aspects of the story – grief, death, rebirth- are every bit as powerful as the stomach flipping disaster sequences and astonishing visual effects. Great music score too (by Steven Price). A fantastic, emphatic rebuttal to those who claim TV is where it is at, and that cinema is a spent force.
9. Hugo – Martin Scorsese has had a very strong decade, with the likes of Silence and The Irishman also competing for space on this list. Nonetheless, of his work this decade it is Hugo for which I have greatest affection. This story of a mysterious orphan boy living within the clocks and walls of a Parisian railway station circa the 1930s features a great central performance from Asa Butterfield. There’s also fine support from Chloe Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kinglsey, Jude Law, and a rare, non-sinister Christopher Lee performance as a kindly bookshop owner. The visual effects are stunning, and for once the 3-D is a truly integral element of the film. Indeed, this is a film about film, film history, and as such is a very personal piece of work for Scorsese. But it is also a delightful, intelligent, and moving children’s story.
8. Victoria – This extraordinarily singular, gripping, gut-wrenching film owes as much if not more credit to cinematographer Sturla Brandth, as it does to director Sebastian Schipper, for the sheer audacity of shooting a two hour twenty minute film on multiple Berlin locations in the early hours of the morning, in one single, genuinely unbroken shot. Yet this is not merely an outstanding technical achievement. By living through the actions of the protagonists in real time – as they move from pulsing nightclub to talky Linklater-esque drama, love story, nail-biting heist and full blown melodramatic tragedy – the viewer undergoes an intense emotional rollercoaster. A vital, vibrant, cinematic out-of-body experience.
7. Captain America: Civil War – The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a major success story this decade, and ushered in something of a golden era for superhero films. With a large portfolio of consistently entertaining and playful films to choose from, I am opting for Captain America: Civil War as my top Marvel film for a number of reasons. For a start, it features a genuinely interesting moral dilemma. Captain America’s argument with Iron Man, regarding UN oversight of the Avengers, has no clear right answer. For the record, I’m with Captain America (ie belief in individuals over trusting government oversight will make the right choice). Great performances from Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans anchor the piece, and the Russo Brothers direct with flair, both in the more intimate moments and in action scenes (the airport set-piece remains a standout).
6. A Star is Born – Proof that not all remakes are bad. Indeed, although I enjoyed all previous versions of the film, this new take is my favourite. A passion project for Bradley Cooper, this sees him direct as well as act opposite Lady Gaga. Both leads are remarkable, as once great singer Jackson Maine, and as a diamond in the rough Ally respectively. Of course, when Lady Gaga sings, it is nothing less than electrifying. There are also noteworthy supporting roles, particularly in the form of the excellent Sam Elliot, whose gives a subtle and very moving performance. Tears are well and truly jerked in the inevitably tragic second half, but Jackson’s fall isn’t so much about bitterness and jealousy as a lifetime of trauma and addiction. The latter subject is treated compassionately and humanely, with Ally’s unconditional, sacrificial love in the face of Jackson’s drunken antics proving particularly powerful.
5. Senna – The inclusion of this documentary in my ten favourites of the decade is all the more remarkable considering I have no interest in Formula 1 racing whatsoever. Nonetheless, Asif Kapadia’s extraordinary documentary about racing legend Aryton Senna is a fascinating, gripping, thrilling, emotionally devastating, powerhouse of a film. Kapadia eschews talking heads pontificating on past events, and instead structures his film from racing footage, home movies, drivers meetings (a genuinely fascinating insight into Formula 1 politics), and so on. As a result, the film has the immediacy of an action film. However, what makes it great isn’t the sport, but the universally relatable human themes such as ambition, rivalry, faith, and loss. In short, Senna is a superb and fitting tribute to a racing legend and a Brazilian national hero.
4. The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece is a genuinely singular piece of work; a dazzlingly beautiful, stream of consciousness, cinematic meditation on suffering, the Book of Job, and nostalgic reminiscence of the wonders and traumas of childhood. The dialogue is mostly in voiceover, like a prayer to God, as Sean Penn looks back on his turbulent adolescent years, living with his stern father (Brad Pitt) and kindly mother (Jessica Chastain). The film arguably overreaches in its recreations of God creating the Universe and the sequences near the finale that (it is implied) take place in heaven (well, on a beach in heaven). However, you’ve got to give Malick points for sheer audacity, even if this does amount to little more than a very expensive way of soothingly saying “It’s all right”. Depending on your point of view this is either pretentious drivel or cinema as life-changing religious experience. For me it is the latter, for very personal reasons. I will just add that one story I read online spoke of how the film helped a couple come to terms with the tragic cot death of their baby. For that reason alone, God bless Terrence Malick.
3. Inside Out – Pixar had a golden decade in the 2000s, but their output over the last ten years has been decidedly inconsistent. However, the unquestionable stand-out in recent years is Inside Out, which as far as I’m concerned should have won Best Picture at the Oscars. This delightfully surreal, offbeat adventure takes place inside the mind of a young girl called Riley, and features characters based on her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. Funny, touching and very, very wise, this provokes floods of tears from yours truly every time I see it (the Bing-Bong moment in particular is an existential tragedy for the ages). It is also hilariously funny – for example, when Joy and companions made an ill-advised trip into the abstract thought part of Riley’s mind, and end up changing shape into various surreal forms (“Oh no! We’re non-figurative!”).
2. The Babadook – This decade has been a very good one for horror films. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, A Quiet Place, Raw, Midsommar, and Under the Shadow (a close second for this spot) and a few others have all been genuinely outstanding entries in the genre. However, for me Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook remains this decade’s horror stand-out. Featuring a pair of superb performances from Essie Davis and Daniel Henshall, the film concerns a struggling single mother and troubled young son who are tormented by a demonic force that manifests through a children’s book that refuses to be destroyed or cast out of their home. An exploration of grief and guilt, the film develops into something genuinely terrifying, but also deeply cathartic, and ultimately very moving. The Babadook will make your hair stand on end, but it is also a profoundly compassionate work that benefits from repeat viewings.
1. Inception – As far as I’m concerned, Christopher Nolan is the most interesting director working in mainstream Hollywood. His is a singular artistic voice and a stern rebuke to the idea that big blockbuster filmmaking needs to be pandering, dumbed down, or unintelligent. In the case of Inception, Nolan made a truly extraordinary, metaphysical heist action movie. With a nifty premise (dream infiltration to implant ideas in the subconscious), superb performances (including one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest), and stunningly realised action sequences (the exhilarating zero gravity fight sequence for instance), Inception remains one of the most influential, groundbreaking films of the decade. An endlessly rewatchable, visually iconic, mind-bending spectacle of dizzying proportions.
And that’s it from me. Who knows what the next ten years of cinema will bring? Exciting things, I hope. Look out for my ten best films of 2019 on the blog soon (I’m waiting to watch Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker before I compile it). It only remains for me to wish you all a Merry Christmas.