The MVPs of the 2010s

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Movies are like any other art: they are made by people and so susceptible to representing their personalities and ideals. That door swings several ways: much as I am happy to use the auteur theory as a baseline to discuss movies, cinema is a collaborative process in the end. Everybody who gets involved in whatever capacity has a fingerprint on the result… no matter how small it may be.

With that known, I wanted to take a moment to recognize ten of the people leaving those fingerprints in many of my favorite works of 2010s cinema – all of them from various angles and roles and backgrounds and providing a familiar sense of entertainment and challenge and revelation…

The MVPs of the 2010s

(Presented in alphabetical order)

Tom Cruise

Feels really awkward to open with the figure who I strongly object to on a personal and moral level, but the fact is that Tom Cruise’s late attempts to fully reinvent himself as an action star have proven a reliability in popcorn cinema that I can’t resist. I know it’s easy to attach that simply to the Mission: Impossible franchise, but that determination clearly extended far beyond that with Edge of TomorrowJack ReacherOblivion, and American Made to various levels of success (or failure in the case of Knight and Day and The Mummy, but who’s talking about those?). And credit should be given to Christopher McQuarrie and Doug Liman and Joseph Kosinski for helming those projects (Kosinski gets pre-emptive credit for Top Gun: Maverick, which I am extremely excited for) but they’re not the ones jumping off of planes and breaking their ankles like Cruise is, overshadowing fellow actor-who-learned-he’s-best-at-screen-action Keanu Reeves in the complete willingness to put himself through heart-stopping experiences on camera for unnecessary verisimilitude and possibly to convince himself that evil is such great power armor for laughing in the face of certain death. It’s already surprising enough that he’s willing to play with his star persona in such glib ways – the insincerity behind his character’s posturing at the beginning of Edge of Tomorrow is a wild if inadvertent self-own and the energy behind the stunts and their presentation feels like an intense extension of his well-known psychoticness – but all of the impossible-to-dismiss active danger in his stunts within the Mission: Impossible films earn my repetition of this statement: Tom Cruise is the long lost member of Jackass and I await the moment where he violently chops off and cannibalizes his own arm on-camera at this point.

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Jean-Luc Godard

It is really not a good look opening up with two guys who are fucking assholes (how was I was supposed to realize the alphabetical arrangement would land this way?) and I promise that Godard is the last of them. But I really don’t regret having to say that Godard has been making movies unlike anybody else for the past 10 years (which also happens to be the case for another person on this list), using his old cynical worldview to try to indict the state of modern moviemaking technology with Film SocialismeHommage á Éric Rohmer, Goodbye to Language, and The Image Book. It just so happens to be that his attempts at criticism-via-mishandling result in some of the most exciting juxtapositions in imagery and experimentation of that tech, most playfully the case in Goodbye to Language‘s 3D with the help of photographer Fabrice Aragno – who feels just as responsible for Godard’s place here as anybody else – but still present in various different ways within all four named films and encouragingly playful because of how Godard tries to put together broken filmmaking. It is absolutely not the case that Godard stopped being interesting at the end of the ’60s… he has the same critical eye and attitude towards the medium as he’s ever had.

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Mica Levi

The SINGLE biggest reason that I imposed that 1 score per composer rule on my Best Scores list. I don’t know where exactly Levi came from but over the past ten years they’ve scored four features I loved and in all four instances the music was a huge part of those pictures’ impact without overshadowing the rest of the impressive craft (five if we count the short film The Fall, which is technically a 2019 movie though I got to see it this year). And that music collectively feels like they’re coming from the same creative processes – tonal experiments that are intent on transforming abstract sounds into emotional states – but the variety and complexity of those emotional states they’re communicated is jawdropping whether it be the emptiness of Monos, the grim nostalgia of Marjorie Prime, the unwieldy grief of Jackie, the alien dissociation of Under the Skin, or the pure terror of The Fall. I am sold on whatever movie they decides to score next just on the basis of their involvement as I am excited to see what moods they can conjure out of thin fucking air on the next try.

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Terrence Malick

The other guy besides Godard on this list who has spent most of the past decade trying to find an entirely new way to approach his films, to the chagrin of many it appears but to my absolute wonder. You’d think that there’s nowhere to go after a magnum opus like The Tree of Life, which perfects the associative structure and blows it up to grandiosity. And yet Malick decided not to move on to conventional structure – ’cause that’s boring, y’all – but to give a try to something tarot-based like in Knight of Cups… or you know what? How about letting the actors try to guide the story for Malick’s construction in To the Wonder and Song to Song and structuring around the logical mapping of their characters’ emotions? How about revisiting The Tree of Life from the entirely new perspective and approaches you’ve developed for a brand new cut, landing on yet another masterpiece from the same material? And that’s still neglecting the way he encouraged Emmanuel Lubezki – the greatest cinematographer alive – to be at his most playful with Knight of Cups or recognized with Jörg Widmer just how much beauty of the world could be captured in the warping panoramic nature of the widest possible lenses. Like Godard, Malick was basically trying to figure out a way to communicate thoughts and ideas in film in a manner that doesn’t abide by the rules that we’ve become comfortable to regarding the formation of cinematic storytelling – just that while Godard’s is cold and intellectual, Malick’s is spiritual and emotional. I don’t know who I would favor (spoiler alert: they both have multiple films in the Top 150 of the 2010s and each director has one in the top 5), but I think it says something that Malick is trying to appeal to the human spirit more with this visual language and given how A Hidden Life finally brought Malick back to public acclaim despite not throwing away a single thing he’s developed in the prior films, the 2010s ended with him succeeding. What a triumphant note to walk out of the decade with.

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Claire Mathon

To be quite honest, the two 2019 movies that Mathon has shot and I waxed rhapsodic about earlier on the cinematography list are in fact the only two pieces of work I’ve seen of hers from an evidently vast career spanning 2 decades. But when you provide a one-two punch of visuals that hit me so hard I consider you to have owned the entire year (2019), I think that’s fair enough call to put you up on this list. And while Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Atlantics both look distinct in mistakable ways, I find enough of a consistency in approaching color, in approaching lines, and in approaching qualities of light to recognize how her logic in shooting could be flexible for two very talented visual directors (Céline Sciamma and Mati Diop, give it up for them) to transform into their unique visual language. It’s the work of somebody who knows what she’s doing and plays well with fellow filmic minds who want a personal way to use her skills and those collaborations resulted in two of the best-looking movies I’ve ever seen.

Jafar Panahi

I mean, it’s kind of a given at this point. After being literally sentenced to never make films again, Panahi went and did it anyway FOUR fucking times, exercising noncompliance towards his government and receiving thankfully no severe consequences. And what does he risk his life and safety for? To deliver humane treatises and explorations of the artist and their essential place in a society: first for the sake of the artist’s soul (This Is Not a Film), for the sake of the art (Closed Curtain, admittedly the only one I don’t care for), for the sake of his culture (Taxi), and for the sake of the next generation (3 Faces), nearly all of them full of inspiration and life despite the labored and confined manner of their productions. And what’s probably the most encouraging thing is watching each film daringly take a step more and more into the open air – probably the most defiant aspect of these films as he not only succeeds in making his art but slowly involving himself once more as part of a community after once being imprisoned in his own apartment. It is freeing to watch Panahi’s recent films, in every sense of that word “free”.

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Margaret Sixel

Does it feel weird that Sixel is being placed on this list for one work? Kind of. But it is astonishing work she’s done, frankly my favorite thing that anyone has done in any capacity for 2010’s movies whatsoever. The editing for Mad Max: Fury Road dictates the fundamentals of action cinema and post-apocalyptic cinema with a force matching everything else in that wild wild movie but also a clarity aware of how viewers associate the arrangement of images. I think Sixel is a major part of what makes Mad Max: Fury Road unforgettably physical genre spectacle. Without Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road would probably still be a great movie as it has enough ambitious stuff going right. But with Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road feels like the cleanest collision you could slam us into in all the right ways.

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Frederick Wiseman

Maybe I’m just way too late to the train since the man has been a documentary staple since the 1960s and I have no reason to assume that there has been some grand shift to his approach: shooting for an extended amount of time within an institution and from there taking his sweet ass time to arrange that material into a structure that could be presented as film, whether 84 minutes or 4 hours. But, I got hooked onto Wiseman when I did – which happens to be 2013 – and late or not, I am never letting go. The comprehensive look at every possible nook and cranie and facet of his institutional subjects feels like its own reward. What really gets me not only satisfied at the time I spent but leaving the theater upwards of 2 1/2 hours later feeling more nourished as a member of society is the way that Wiseman quietly presents these things as their own little entity where even with the structures and sub-structures within. It allows so that we can be fascinated by how susceptible they are to human involvement or see where the flaws reveal themselves and so on. Exposure and investment to Wiseman’s movies have added in equal parts to both my fascination and disillusion with the concept and exercise of institutions and their place in America, just as much as any of my personal and direct experiences with those institutions.

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Bradford Young

Over the past 9 years, Bradford Young skyrocketed from being an indie secret weapon to being such a trusted name that he was engaged by rising names like J.C. Chandor and Denis Villeneuve to being recruited to shoot a fucking Star Wars movie. All of that success is earned since Young is responsible for some of the most breathtakingly idiosyncratic imagery, tapping into unconventional lighting choices that delivers a raw dynamic to the visual textures but also being mindful of every possible color he can retain in an existent shot. It’s too chromatically charged to be realism but too restrained from plausible light sources to be overt and that contradictory approach is exactly what makes Young’s images delectable and unlike anything else. And I also think that approach is what makes him such a phenomenal photographer of black people in general, which only goes to illustrate how diversity behind the camera is a net positive when it brings an intelligence and knowledge of how light reacts to one’s skin in a way that white cinematographers aren’t as certain to be aware of.

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Yuasa Masaaki

Miyazaki Hayao is still hard at work for his FOURTH “final movie” (albeit one that seems like it’ll stick this time and I hope he survives to finish How Do You Live? as it is my most-anticipated movie of the 2020s) but in the meantime, the world of Japanese animation was looking out for “the next Miyazaki” for the better part of the decade and attached that title to various anime directors. I submit Yuasa Masaaki to that conversation, in spite of how wildly different their styles are. Yuasa has an inexhaustible joy towards the medium, apparent in how he experiments with the possibilities of lines and color in animation to shamelessly embrace the cartoonery and still deliver strong emotions. And the methods he employs display a particular warmth he has for the long history of animation and drawing in itself, whether the wobbly Tex Avery character movements of Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (and The Tatami Galaxy), the dedicated kid-friendly Disney watercolors of Lu Over the Wall, the turn around on the aqua template to bittersweet romantic themes in Ride Your Wave, the sketch-textured Plympton physicality of Kick Punch, the operatic beastliness and Go Nagai proto-Evangelion dramatic violence of Devilman: Crybaby or the fascination with the process of manga inspired by Miyazaki himself in Keep Your Hands, Eizouken!. Every work by Yuasa is plainly the work of someone who loves every possible facet of their job and it only makes sense that such a man can carry the dedication and care towards the craft that Miyazaki displayed. If Yuasa’s streak only really started in 2017 (including Mind Game finally getting a legal release in the US, though I admittedly watched it a year prior), he still had a great past 3 years and here’s to watching his newly ignited star shoot further.

And just because it helps to spread the joy, here are some other people whose work throughout the decade I’ve found myself falling in love with:

  • Awkwafina
  • Hugh Bateup
  • Jenny Beavan
  • Bong Joon-ho
  • Mark Bridges
  • Ruth Carter
  • Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
  • J.C. Chandor
  • Panos Cosmatos
  • Daniel Day-Lewis
  • Robert Eggers
  • Michael Fassbender
  • Alex Garland
  • Danai Gurira
  • Jonny Greenwood
  • Don Hertzfeldt
  • Justin Hurwitz
  • Oscar Isaac
  • Michael B. Jordan
  • Abbas Kiarostami
  • Travis Knight
  • Vicky Krieps
  • Pablo Larraín
  • Yorgos Lantimos & Efthymis Fillipou
  • Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, & Daniel Barrett
  • Blake Lively
  • Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
  • Emmanuel Lubezki
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw
  • Kevin O’Connell
  • Joshua Oppenheimer
  • Jordan Peele
  • Joaquin Phoenix
  • Sandy Powell
  • Lynne Ramsay
  • Rihanna
  • Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
  • Céline Sciamma
  • Andy Serkis
  • Shinkai Makoto
  • Chad Stahelski
  • Adam Stockhausen
  • Agnès Varda
  • Lana & Lilly Wachowski
  • Taika Waititi
  • Rob Zombie

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