The Best Edited Movies of the 2010s

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So – barring the next post, which will be a general list of superlatives for the rest – why did I save this for last of all the featured lists regarding components of movie making in the 2010s? Because it’s actually the component to me.

I did call cinematography essential to cinema in the last, but frankly editing is more essential. It is the single most distinguishing feature of the medium: the fact that we are able to mandate what the audience sees and how, creating rhythms and developing vocabulary out of that. The most formative pictures in cinema history were mostly due to their utilization of the cut – just look at all that Soviet cinema from the 1920s – and recognizing the power of its impact. Even the early actualities that have no cuts and are just tests of the medium have one particular principle of cutting, duration (and boy oh boy will I sound like that guy if I say L’arrivee d’un Train a la Ciotat is overlong… so let’s pretend I didn’t).

Thereby a constant since the dawn of the medium and the thing that makes a movie speak the way it does, let us recognize…

THE BEST EDITED MOVIES OF THE 2010s

Disqualified Simply Because The Circumstances Felt Like Cheating Even Though I Do Highly Admire These Works of Cutting:
Evan & Galen Johnson – The Green Fog. For basically being glorified YouTube poop made up of pre-existing material, much as it results in some brilliant associative results.
Bob Murawski & Orson Welles – The Other Side of the Wind. For being the after-the-fact completion of a masterpiece film without the final say of the movie’s creator… even as exciting as the results are.

30. Sandra Adair – Boyhood (2014)

Those who mock that it took 12 years to make can go fuck off. Adair’s work for Boyhood feels not just like 12 years, but the exact way that will look back on a span of time… capturing the sense of breeze that one gets journeying through old memories, picking up small incidents and large wopping arcs in various levels of emphasis and underlining. Even the way that the duration of the whole film overstays its welcome (only by a bit) helps gives us the sense of coming back to the present and looking towards the future.

29. Brett W. Bachman – Mandy (2018)

If clarity’s what you want, you won’t particularly get it here. While the opening sequences have a patient meditative rhythm to them in establishing a character’s very own piece of heaven, once Bachman gets the ball rolling, it rolls fast and hard. Beginning the first sequence of aggression in cutting with a moment that uses strobe lighting as a indicator of where to lose track of characters’ movements and orientations to each other put us on the right foot for all the ways that Bachman tries to favor impact over continuity. Which is just as well for a movie about a one-track minded quest for vengeance.

28. James Herbert & Laura Jennings – Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

A little bit like what Boyhood is going for – trying to collect a vast span of time experienced (if not particularly really moving) into something compact and experiential – but now it gets to mix in other tricks: the erratic and stressful state of combat, the elliptical way of communicating fatigue, the rhythms and repetitions building momentum, and of course what’s really surprised me enough to fall in love with this movie is the way Herbert & Jennings take the Groundhog Day-like premise to stick in some really good jokes, making this a highly amusing experience just as much as a video game-like one where we build up to being badasses.

27. Alfonso Cuarón & Mark Sanger – Gravity (2013)

Patiently allowing shots to float for long stretches of time is kind of a no-brainer thing to do in space and it’s especially the sort of approach you’d expect for a Cuarón movie, but I think there’s a lot more rhythm in the selection of when those long takes should be applied here than other Cuarón’s films that have the time. It’s a thriller (which to be fair, so is Children of Men, but that one is trying to feel like an endless chase in ways Gravity isn’t) and so that means that when the peril grows, it’s time to get punchy but Cuarón and Sanger find a way to let that stress be maintained without losing that afloatness and even letting it add to the unsettling effect. Plus, isn’t it so fucking nice to have a 3D movie actually allow us to just live in the 3D shot for a minute rather than get in a rush?

26. Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall – The Social Network (2010)

I can’t remember the source – I would have thought it was Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar acceptance speech for the same movie, but I just replayed it and it wasn’t that – but SOMEBODY involved with the movie in their award speech noted Baxter & Wall’s work as being the sort of magic that turns typing keys into the same kind of excitement as a bank heist and I just can’t put it better than that. I can give it a try though in acknowledging how the editing for The Social Network plays exceptionally well as a visual dance with Reznor & Ross’ screenplay, which shouldn’t be a surprise when they both bring the same nervous energy of somebody analytical and cold at the same time. I’m pretty sure that no movie has been subject to fawning internet aesthetic analysis than The Social Network, so you can probably find plenty of examples on how Baxter and Wall pace a conversation to let us know where Zuckerberg loses somebody’s appreciation or the way that they cut through Harvard bro events like some sort of dark underworld. I feel like I’d be preaching to the choir if I said anymore about this movie.

25. Yang Jin-mo – Parasite (2019)

Parasite is the sort of precise movie that earns every bit of its acclaim and Yang’s cutting is no exception. It’s one thing to just know – outside of the last two minutes of the movie sadly – exactly what shot is needed and how long to have it so that Bong’s genre-fluid work can have that enviable tonal control through out. But it’s another thing to arrange those shots exactly in a way that invites the audience to recognize the major differences between each shot’s subject whether it’s a shot-reverse shot of two characters on different wavelengths, a consideration of two spaces and perspectives from them, or just calling attention to the doomed state of fatalism for two particular events happening simultaneously. I have to admit… when Parasite‘s loss of Best Film Editing and Best Production Design at the Oscars almost got me as mad as the win for Best Director and Best Picture got me happy.

24. Ted Guard, Yorgos Mavropsaridis, & Santiago Otherguy – Monos (2019)

These lists’ rankings are mostly arbitrary, I confess, and I don’t know I just decided to land with Parasite to Monos, but I’ll just go and lean with it because I think there’s a nice juxtaposition here: Parasite‘s editing is an example of precision in the service of objectivity and Monos‘ editing is an example of precision in the service of subjectivity (they also both happen to have fucking garbage endings, but let’s ignore that part and focus on the positive). Everything Monos chooses to do feels exactly right and that’s a thrilling thing in consideration of how it all functions to let us fly between several different perspectives without any real anchor for most of the runtime. Instead, it just makes sense that suddenly our focus is on the water because this character is swimming, but then we don’t get a whiplash when the next shot is looking up at the jungle covered sky because somebody is laying on guard and so it all goes so that he feel a bunch of experiences at one.

23. Anne McCabe – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

The best conversation scenes – in fact, the best way to cut conversation scenes – of the decade from the invisible job of McCabe silently coaxing us to recognize when one of Mr. Rogers’ talks with Vogel hits a moment of profundity regarding each others’ character, while also allowing that roadblocks receive the same underlining, and the manner in which the dynamics of the conversation shift. All it has to do is deal with the orientation of our characters and decide on how those can be adopted to certain beats and states and McCabe does so better than any movie I had seen since… well, since The Social Network in fact. Plus, that minute of silence doesn’t get to be a minute of silence without McCabe and what she decide to embed inside that moment only makes it astoundingly warm.

22. Job ter Burg – Elle (2016)

That dinner party scene is just wonderfully cut and paced. It’s the moment where the editing gets to take its nasty sense of humor – adopted from a movie that has been happy to adapt to its lead character antagonistic and critical nature by how it looks at characters – and translate it into a timebomb where the explosion is defused by one extremely well-timed joke. And yet outside of that, we still have that wonderful staring daggers perspective that ter Burg’s job here facilitates to get us in Michèle’s headspace and recognize the moments that tension and trauma will creep up in that space. That’s the major thing that makes this movie very hard to recommend: the manner in which ter Burg and Paul Verhoeven communicate the impact of these flashbacks to the central rape that knock Michèle out of her usually cool rhythm, but it’s also extremely effective cutting as psychology and it’s reflexive of the triggering nature of such a memory.

21. Megan Gill – Eye in the Sky (2015)

A confession: I was in a stage production back in college of a not-yet-produced screenplay (which since has been produced into a film, Drones, that I have not yet seen) and as you can probably tell by the title… it kind of reflects the same subject matter and even tensions as Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky. Obviously, that background is going to color my attitude of the movie a bit but how that did so was to make me fascinated of what Gill’s work did in building up the anticipation of something happening the more and more, it doesn’t. The nervous energy of having to jump between several rooms trying to see how the buck is passed and expect who is going to eventually bring the discussion to a decisive end is ideally agonizing as much as it is what thrillers are made up of. Gill keeps that momentum raising in speed and then lets the anticlimax of certain decisions cool down without assuaging us of the grim anxiety of the scenario and that’s just something to be respected.

20. Steven Soderbergh – Magic Mike (2012)

It’s a dance movie so that alone will demand Soderbergh (under his mother’s name of Mary Ann Bernard as he often credits himself) is on his best behavior in editing and he certainly maintains that same sense of spectator adoration to the strip routines as one would have in a sports event. But it’s also a comedy and a lot of that comedy comes by the form of reaction shots to the wild world and drama of this strip club backstage – I’ve hit upon my favorite in the Best Movie Moments, but a very close second is a moment between one guy watching a penis pump be used – and Soderbergh’s playful utilization of the basic way editing gives us comedy just charms me even more.

19. Leslie Jones & Peter McNulty – The Master (2012)

I know that if I haven’t said “psychology as cutting” a lot by this point, I’m going to say “psychology as cutting” in this list a lot. I think Jones and McNulty though have accomplished something very potent in understanding a troubled mindset like Freddie Quell and what goes into his mind and more importantly, the casualness of these cuts allowing us to slip into these uncomfortable revelations solely by the basis of what they are and not the abruptness of their digression.

18. Paul Tothill – Hanna (2011)

Hey, it’s a glorified music video for that same score I honored in the Best Scores list, just finding more and more ways to be a partner with the blasting rhythms of the Chemical Brothers. Can’t complain at all – it’s the most engaging I’ve ever found a Joe Wright picture and that line is exactly what hooks me into it. It’s dizzying excellent popcorn stuff.

17. Paul Machliss & Jonathan Amos – Baby Driver (2017)

Showy as hell, probably the showiest editing of Edgar Wright’s wonderful career of comedy through editing (just look at the Every Frame a Painting video about his visual comedy). But it is the manner by which the movie is dedicated to transforming every moment into a miniature music video just like Hanna above. I mean, the first scene is imitating the exact shot patterns of the “Blue Song” video, but that doesn’t mean the editing isn’t finding places to surprise us after that wonderful tease. Whether car chase setpiece or just grabbing coffee, Machliss & Amos’ work allows the cutting to feel just as much a dance move as the camera movements is a major part of what made Baby Driver such a flighty joy.

16. Mo Stoebe – Kedi (2016)

Not necessarily that it creates a narrative out of shots of stray cats, but it certainly creates a sense of… recurring characters. Recognizable cats that we can pass by while following another one and just spend some time with before catching up with another cat that we’ve already seen before. And it’s that sort of wandering nature of Stoebe’s work on Kedi that gives it a real charm, but we also all of a sudden find ourselves impressed upon with a new and unorthodox vision of Istanbul wholly tied to the places that cats go and the experiences they have.

Also, of course I will have the movie that is mostly shots of cats up in here. They know their bread and butter.

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15. Mohamed A. Gawad, Vartan Avakian, & Barbra Bousset – In the Last Days of the City (2016)

What really surprised about this movie – despite the title kind of giving it away – was how it gave me the same vibe of those “Portrait of a City” movies like ManhattaMan with a Movie CameraBerlin: Symphony of a Great City, and… well, Kedi up above, without trying to really emulate it. It’s a narrative film and Gawad, Avakian, and Bousset keep that sense of narrative structure intact but aren’t afraid to divert into tangeants in a manner that seems distracted for the film. And yet the result is a collage of Cairo at a time and place and even… I’d dare to say a state of mind, giving me the excitement of a Foreign-film constructing its own vocabulary that I don’t think we’ve received since the Soviet editing experiments. But not at all an idiosyncratic one that would discourage people from watching the film.

14. Eddie Hamilton – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

I’m going to sound like a complete fucking fool when I say this, but outside of the disqualified Green Fog, my favorite bit of editing joke was in Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘s climax. Tom Cruise has just climbed up to a helicopter that he intends to hijack and it is such an incredible feat that he needs to catch his breath when he gets up there… except the door is open so he swings in full view of the enemy sitting there and the movie takes a beat to show the man reacting to this. And then to Cruise hanging out the door awkwardly staring at the guy. And then back to the guy scoping up and down him trying to figure out what the fuck is happening and how. And then back to Cruise still looking fucking awkward. Each one of these shot-reverse shot cuts have the same obnoxiously shocker musical horn cue. And then the fight begins. I laugh like a maniac every time I see that moment, the way the editing comments on the absurdity of the situation and its hero’s endurance. And certainly the rest of Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘s intelligent sense of when to just linger and the maddening stunts that the characters are indulging in or when to continue the film’s committed sense of momentum pads this movie’s placement here quite nicely but that one moment is the cream of the crop for editing with a personality in my eyes.

13. Joe Walker – Sicario (2015)

I don’t know how many of y’all play guitar but there’s a really tense vibe I get when it comes to tuning an old string. Particularly the way that sometimes you need to tighten or slack up the string depending on how the note can land but each time, I’m also taking a single pluck out of it to see what note its on. When I slacken, it lets me breathe out a little bit but not too much because there’s still a danger to it for me. That pluck feels like poking at a land mine to me and I’m occasionally hesitating to pluck because I’m afraid it just might snap. And sometimes it does and when that happens my previous apprehension just peaks into a flinch and shock at what just occurred to me that is only leavened by then turning into disappointment that I need to buy a new string.

It sounds like an exaggeration of what should a mundane task and it’s really not that deep (I don’t really feel like I’ll lose an eye because I’m careful enough), but that is the feeling I get tuning a guitar string and Walker’s editing on Sicario gives me that exact same tension. Seen it twice now and it hasn’t failed.

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12. Frederick Wiseman – National Gallery (2014)

Frederick Wiseman has been one of my newest discoveries of the decade and there is at least one movie this decade that I’ve admired more than National Gallery, I think National Gallery is the one where I really admired what he was doing with his post-production process. Obviously it’s admirable enough to take a Goliath amount of film and shape it into something (there will be many other entries below that also accomplish this), but National Gallery also leads us – more than any other Wiseman film – towards a logical sense of progression without implying any narrative or theme. It only wants to be able to nudge your interest from one area of the museum to another and I found it working remarkably well for me while leaving space for my own musings on what I’m witnessing. Engaging without coercion in invisible ways and all the more impressive on how this principle allows the movie to never feel boring for the entirety of its 3 hours.

11. Gareth Evans – The Raid 2 (2014)

Don’t know if it took you guys as long over the decade to learn this as it took me, but a lot of great action cinema is just the product of great action editing as this list illustrates (and will continue to illustrate). And when you’re like Gareth Evans and editing the very action picture you direct and co-choreograph, then I can’t help thinking that there’s going to be a real clarity of approach and capture. I sense it in moments like the prison mudfight where on top of maintaining the chaos of it all, we get this eager need to capture all these mini-stories of death. I sense it in the focused momentum of the car chase, the sense of direction and impact dancing around each other nicely so that we can get both without undercutting either. And even when it’s not the action setpieces that are showcasing the precision of staging and perspective that Evans put work into, there is still the way that the construction of this long movie is just tense build-up of its gangster premise that doubles as build-up to the next brawl.

10. Walter Fasano – Suspiria (2018)

It kind of makes sense to me that Luca Guadagnino and Fasano here worked together on Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria at the same time, but I honestly think Fasano’s disinterest or inability to establish coherent spacing or adapt to visual rhythm has a lot more merit being used in the hallucinatory horror movie about dancing witches than in the nostalgic movie about summertime romance. Here Fasano gets to allow all this confusion to function to disorient us as we spiral into the atmosphere of the characters both dealing with something hard to get a mental hold of and a historical time of intense stress. The fact that the editing is appropriate and welcome here. More importantly, since we can’t get a handle on what’s going on, the decisions on when to punctuate the intense violence of moments becomes that much more upsetting and blindsiding, which is the stuff of good fucking horror movies to do.

9. Kim Sun-min – The Wailing (2016)

Listen, this is mostly on the power of that cross-cutting ritual scene and the intensity and modulation it gets from that and you can read all about that scene in my Best Movie Moments list, so go there if you please. I’m going to approach Kim’s work here from a different angle. Do you realize how many 2 and a half fucking hour horror movies we’ve had in the last year alone? More than necessary, none of them knowing what the fuck to do with that runtime except fill themselves with “stuff” to try to justify the impression that they need to waste my time. And Kim’s The Wailing has that same massive runtime and doesn’t need to shed a single second of it. Kim effortlessly allows every moment to play a part in establish the sense of growing helplessness, the quiet town atmosphere, and cod-Exorcist fears about being the parent of such a doomed child. It’s all part of the same rhythm to him and even the movie makes me tired by the end via design, I never made me feel unengaged.

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8. Atanas Georgiev – Honeyland (2019)

To somebody else, the obviousness with which Georgiev editorializes the documentary footage in Honeyland could be a problem. Sucks to be them, because I think what is a huge virtue of Georgiev’s work is how he is able to establish the sequence of events and the characters involved that sequence and leave it at that. We are given pure drama… but the drama is so mutable as to impose pull our own social observations from it all. And it is rich with potential social observation, I’m not sure that somebody could pick just one particular reading. Whatever it is, there’s no way a viewer can’t find an angle for this to speak to them.

7. Todd Douglas Miller – Apollo 11 (2019)

Ahhhh, the other miracle of 2019 in constructing documentary footage together into a narrative with its own interesting angles: this is pre-existing footage that was obviously taken for the sake of institutional archive and more importantly, this is an event that we already know about. So you wouldn’t expect it to be easy to construct into the stuff of a procedural thriller, but Miller finds a way… by God, he finds a way and at the end of it all, doesn’t impose any personal presence in the material. Just lets us sweat while watch these people try not to crash on the way to the moon and back.

6. Kayla Emter – Hustlers (2019)

I promised myself I’d give myself the challenge of not naming you-know-who and you-know-what-movie-of-his (or hers if you’re thinking of the editor and not the director). An excellent utilization of cutting to define the energy the two central characters exude, one of them exciting and dazzling and kinetic and the other hesitant being somebody who is a bit more scrutinizing to this new world of hers and so taking more time between moments. Which establishes this tug-of-war in codes in such an underlining way. But that’s just the tight way in which Emter establishes character-based tension with her editing. This is also just as much a hang out film about girls having a found family and because of that Emter knows when to relax from the sort of gangster-movie poppiness that the rest of the film would demand. And there’s also the way that Emter allows the aftermath guilt of certain perspectives in the films to sink in with shots that feel sedate in their wallowing. Overall, it’s a movie where Emter pulls out a bag a lot of tricks to keep the movie as fun as it is emotionally engaging and in actively modern ways that make the movie stand out separate from its obvious influences.

5. Steven Soderbergh – Haywire (2011)

Steven Soderbergh beating Steven Soderbergh on this very list (or Mary Ann Bernard beating Mary Ann Bernard if you want to go with that). Much as I noted that great action cinema is great action cutting, Soderbergh uses Haywire as a license to go ahead and do his genre-breaking thing. It’s not necessarily breaking the rules, so much as how he applies the rules: the action sequences have the feel of distant longeurs at this point (save for the excellent impact of the Fassbender fight) but the dialogue scenes are where all the clippy momentum starts happening. Hell of a way to turn our expectations around and give us a visual accompaniment to this character study on violence.

4. Pete Beaudreau – All Is Lost (2013)

You get one single setting for the entire runtime, so there’s no real sense of journey especially since the idea of the picture is to feel stranded. But there is a sense of urgency and that’s all thanks to the way that Beaudreau allows certain gestures to have the gravity of escalating survivalism. And the fact that he constructs these incidents in a manner that can still retain this movie’s blessedly slim duration means that we’re never particularly lo– uh, out of the loop on which beats brought us to this point and it adds to the exhilarating hope that all of these thing will build to a success.

3. Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, & Mark Yoshikawa – The Tree of Life (2011)

The final one of these “Massive Mounds of Footage Formed Together Into a Movie” entries and I think it’s very easy to see the scale of that by how many editors are involved in it. And yet we’ve received something deeply resonant with this work by so many authors – three of whom had worked with Terrence Malick before, but all of whom bring a different perspective to the scattered thoughts of one singular mind. And the editing maintains that singularity by the associative logic of the whole thing, the most obvious Malick touch and the logical evolution of what Corwin and Yoshikawa brought on their work in The New World and an exciting precursor to what experiments Malick would push forward on later in his career (reuniting with some of these editors). It never crosses the line from sprawling to messy, there’s always an emotional center to everything it is presenting us and the intensity with which it is doing so… an intensity that hits me right in my heart despite being made almost entirely out of matters I do not personally relate to. Abstract and profound at once in its treatment of space and time as a mutable concept.

Plus as a bonus, I don’t know if any of these editors are responsible for the Extended Cut that premiere in the Criterion Blu-Ray, but there’s now a brand new dichotomy to how each cut approaches the central setpiece of Creation and the flashbacks to post-war Austin… the theatrical cut has the austerity of a movie from the point of view of God answering the central question, but the more human and visually grounded extended cut now gives us the hope the characters developing their own answers. Having both of those at the same time for me to indulge in is brilliant.

2. Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir – Atomic Blonde (2017)

I don’t know if Chad Stahelski and David Leitch played rock-paper-scissors for who got Ronaldsdóttir to join in their career after the first John Wick or if there was no fight or whatever but however it happened, Leitch lucked out. Ronaldsdóttir doesn’t just bring an incredible intensity to the fight scenes of Atomic Blonde, though of course every moment of impact is felt almost exclusively by how Ronaldsdóttir stresses those landing blows. She brings the same intensity to the moments where characters are just lying to each other or following each other or just doing shady shit, they shouldn’t be doing… presenting all of these moments like a waiting game for things to collapse. It’s a key component of how Atomic Blonde works as a movie made up of attitude just as much as it is made of action, something that adds to its presentation of this cold fantasy Berlin as the color collected photography and the excellent costumes and the performances, just in a less thanked way.

Plus it IS fucking amazing action editing. Much as the John Wick sequels are better overall movies and have more impressive setpieces-qua-setpieces, they just do not pack the same “oomph” punch that Ronaldsdóttir brought here from the first.

  1. Margaret Sixel – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Again… great action cinema is great action editing. Great cinema is great editing. And at the end of it all, Sixel’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road is some of the most incredible editing around. When I watch that movie, I think of how George Miller wisely recruited her simply because “it won’t look like every other action movie.” I think of how Steven Soderbergh was awed from this: “We are talking about the ability in three dimensions to break a sequence into a series of shots in which no matter how fast you’re cutting, you know where you are geographically”. And I mean they are both right, Sixel’s incredible work is the kind of thing that has its cake and eats it too: it goes for the sort of clarity you want in an action movie but also maintains the sort of manic chaos you want from a post-apocalypse. She finds a way in the vocabulary to communicate both of these apparently opposite objectives. She establishes that continuity of what should be an abstract chase in an indefinable desert bit by bit, while still maintaining that Miller touch of impact. The judicious utilization of speed ramping, the power of the insert shot to suddenly throw a new wrench of concerns, the exhausting power of the dissolve, and I think there’s even a return of one of my favorite bits of action editing ever in Mad Max 2, the hard cut to white to emphasize a hit. All of these tools to let things feel out of control, while let us remain in control. It’s no surprise that she’s married to the director when their dispositions as artists are so perfectly in conversation with one another. And I have to admit… out of all of the Oscar wins I agreed with in the past decade, nothing gave me more joy than this one. They fucked nailed it.

The Best Shot Movies of the 2010s

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I mean what else can one say? It’s called the moving image for a reason. Cinema does not exist with the exposed light of a shot burning itself onto the physical film in itself and it is always worth it to recognize the personal responsible of that essential piece of the medium. For they’re also resemble for the visual language and the frequent beauty of those examples in the medium.

And of course, I’m sure most people would not be all that surprised by my selections based on knowing how my tastes are: monochromatic, sharp lines, tangible textures, neon heat, and solid blocks of color. And honestly because I’m boring and certain cinematographers are pretty fucking popular, it is safe to let you know that the usual suspects are going to pop in for an appearance. Still I hope you do find some surpise in my declaration of…

The Best Shot Movies of the 2010s

Disqualified on Account of Having No Credited Cinematographer but Absolutely Amongst the Best: Phantom Thread

Disqualified on Account of Being Animated Movies but Absolutely Worthy of Consideration: Rango, The Garden of Words, Your Name., Incredibles 2, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Weathering with You

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35. Roger Deakins – Skyfall (2012)

And lookie here, we have one of those usual suspects showing up right from the start. I would have never expected somebody like Deakins to be attached to a freaking James Bond movie, but the result is as expected: the best looking James Bond, one of the most gorgeous popcorn movies ever. And to be fair, it’s not any deeper that digital eye candy but for a franchise that is dedicated to providing lavish visual porn of exotic locations, it carries Skyfall among its most lavish. And even when it’s not trying to show off the globe-trotting, that silhouetted fight in Shanghai’s night skies against neon lights separated by glass is just *chef’s kiss*.

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34. Elisha Christian – Columbus (2017)

Admittedly I didn’t fall as in love with this movie as most of the film circles, but I did find myself falling in love with the way Christian captures the geometry of Columbus as a location into something visually transformative. He does happen to have his work leavened by the fact that he’s shooting in one of the most architecturally interesting places in the country, but frankly capturing beautiful subjects still yields that beauty and in all honesty I may not have considered Columbus such a place if I hadn’t encountered this film. I do expect that when I visit the city, it won’t live up to edifice feelings.

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33. Mihai Mălaimaire Jr. – The Master (2012)

It is more than a little bit frustrating that I arbitrarily disqualified Phantom Thread but this film does just as well to visually belong to an entirely different time than the one in which it is produced. Talking full charge of the 65mm film stock to provide the sort of empty landscape-as-psychology that fit into the uncertainty of its protagonist and retain a softness of a cod-Rockwellian time without needing to drown it in nostalgic colors, Mălaimaire’s work here is an excellent continuation of a more interesting visual direction for Paul Thomas Anderson’s period pieces. And watching this in 70mm (in a double feature with Phantom Thread) was an incredible experience of intense clarity, the only instance in which I was interested in rewatching.

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32. Emmanuel Lubezki – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

“It’s just a gimmick”, you will say about that extended long-take cinematography. But it’s a gimmick that the best living cinematographer of the 21st Century is particularly well suited complete to its most effective and it’s honestly the most psychologically compelling part of the movie, eschewing the concept of plausible space to let incidents blur. Plus I’m really impressed by how they find the space to still play with color and lighting without hiding how artificial and staged it all is.

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31. Łukasz Źal & Rysznard Lenczewski – Ida (2013)

It’s a chilly movie about the confines a woman is finding herself to be subjected to for her imminent life. So what if it picks the most obvious ways to visually portray that? The 1.37:1 35mm boxiness does just as well to trap our characters, but Źal and Lenczewski are also able to frame things within that aspect ratio with a firm impression that matches the sobriety of the black and white photography. A sobriety that lends itself to the chilliness of the tale without stealing the film from the rest of the collaborators.

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30. Jasper Wolf – Monos (2019)

Sure, it’s ostensibly cloudy and stormy landscope shots in the mountains and overly close textures in the rainforest and musty underwater shots from a river and the gorgeousness with which it brings witness to these things is enough to make it an all-timer for me, but it’s also the way those shots feel dense in physical attributes, no matter what scale the shot is. And all of these to subjectively jump within the eyes of these child soldiers with a real presence.

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29. David Gallego – Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

Ostensibly you’d expect some visual distinguishing between time periods for cinematography this precise but what I’m impressed is how Gallego and Ciro Guerra opted to just give enough work to sharp black-and-white to make it rich and reflective, but let one look fit onto the film entirely. Which is just as well to help with hazy dreaminess of it all, making the two time periods blend into each other in a very disorienting way.

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28. Rui Poças – Tabu (2012)

One of my favorite things for black-and-white photography to do – as you’ll probably see more examples in this list – is to focus its apparent visual monotony to surprise us with sudden turns of texture and Poças clearly took the variety of Tabu as a cinematic concept for license to use lighting and medium and prevent any consistency in the most impressively loopy way. It’s basically the opposite of what Gallego did with Embrace of the Serpent and I suppose it’s the extreme dynamic of it all that attracts me.

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27. Fabrice Aragno – Goodbye to Language (2014)

Speaking of dynamic… why don’t we add 3D to the mix of visual media dissection? Honestly, you do not get to do the things that Aragno and Godard put together in Goodbye to Language without a sense of playful innovation. And fortunately because they found the most overt ways possible to join us in on the fun, taking every possible opportunity to crack 3D and digital video like a goddamned egg.

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26. Łukasz Źal – Cold War (2018)

Źal’s return to work with Paweł Pawlikoski turns out to have been even better than Ida, despite exploring the exact same monochromatic black-and-white and aspect ratio that was used then. This time what’s really impressing upon me is how the frame is used in a way that calls attention to how open wide the rest of the composition is, particularly the blocking of the ostensible subject to be at the lower third so that we can watch a backdrop of people watching. Especially considering how much of this is involving music in a time of constant surveillance, so there are so many ways to fill up that space stressing that. And find ways it does.

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25. Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki – El Mar La Mar (2017)

It doesn’t get much more textured than Bonnetta & Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar. Shot with 16mm to catch as much of the dry and harsh experience of the Sonoran desert, complete with the impression of damage to such film to make the movie feel like it hasn’t made it entirely through the same journey it’s trying to communicate intact. And yet in order to avoid feeling exploitative during the subject matter, it opts to allow the actual stories of those who live through the stresses of crossing over to the U.S. with patient darkness and a light cutting through or nighttime landscapes so that we can focus on the people at the center of the story, making the cinematographer as gracious as it is experiential.

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24. Robby Baumgartner – Blindspotting (2018)

Translating the streets of Oakland into something like a cautionary nighttime fantasia turned occasional nightmare, defined specifically by what kind of lights are hitting our protagonists’ faces (specifically Daveed Diggs’) and what they indicate about the space they are in. Whether street lights, cop lights, porch lights, or industrial bright light, it plays enough against realism and plausible light sources that we don’t feel necessarily transported but we do feel like we are unexpectedly in the out as targets.

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23. John Seale – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

It’s adopting the same color palette as any other popcorn film from the 21st Century to have any screentime in the desert: hot orange sands, cool teal skies (with a bonus of interrupting greens and dark blue nights). But y’know what, Seale and George Miller obviously weren’t ashamed that the way that the color timing amps up to 11. They’re also particularly happy to have that visual palette define the horizon lines in a way that gives this an epic sense of dimension to an ostensibly flat concept. Plus who can resist the manic way it captures these monstrous machines, shinny and chrome!

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22. Christopher Blauvelt – Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

1.37:1? How about 1.33:1, sucker? The boxiest conventional aspect ratio you can go with and a welcome entrance into this period film stressing exactly the barren endlessness of the untamed Frontier West without romanticizing it. Instead, it feels husky, corpse-like, something to get lost in. Blauvelt’s lighting of the Western landscape is the kind of work that feels like the sole product of Meek’s Cutoff‘s modern production… showcasing every grain of sand to a degree that you can’t escape.

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21. Edward Lachman – Carol (2015)

“How does a Douglas Sirk noir look?” I guess Lachman and Todd Haynes asked themselves. And they provided an excellent answer, finding ways to balance shadow with post-war visual designs – notably Art Deco, but it’s most various than that. Particularly the colors maintaining as much liveliness as possible without losing the moodiness. Because Carol is, above all, a visually moody film, so y’know… get that…

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20. Yao Hung-i, Dong Jinsong, & David Chizallet – Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)

I’m not even gonna front: 90% of this entry is because of that incredible 50-something minute 3D long-take with its sense of spacing and its floating quality that feels the closest I’ve ever come to my dreams represented by a film. But even before that gamechanger of a sequence, we get the meditative usage of focus to let having moving backgrounds give a hypnotizing quality and the usage of fogs and shafows in urban landscapes give it the visual vocabulary of neo-noir without the dark tone of a noir. Phenomenal visual work, anybody who didn’t see it in theaters in 3D missed out on an experience.

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19. Lyle Vincent – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

I think the poster warned already about how the central character takes the form on screen of a solid black shape defined by her chador but Vincent makes sure that the inky blackness hits hard. This is done mostly by using the black-and-white cinematography to deepen the darkness of the Girl and let that hit against however much white background can be allowed in such a visually gloomy atmosphere. Gloomy, I do say, but still visually engaging.

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18. Inti Briones – The Loneliest Planet (2011)

I know that I called The Master out for landscape-as-psychology (and I think Columbus engages in it as well), but Briones’ work on The Loneliest Planet is definitely a more appropriate usage of that material for the unfair fact that it succeeds in sinking me into the headspace of its characters more than either of those examples. But on top of that, it has a more beautiful subject as Briones’ command of textures allows us to be hit in the fact with the lush makeup of the Eastern European country.

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17. Fejmi Daut & Samir Ljuma – Honeyland (2019)

It’s portraying a process that is not just quotidian but rough and uneasy and performed by people who do not have any glamour. And yet it’s all lovely to look at all the same, the Macedonian Mountains peeking in just enough sunlight to make the act look like magic against the pores of which it chisels from stone. And Daut & Ljuma (and their directors) are not afraid to also capture the life that Muratova lives in full intimacy, certainly a product of the generosity she performs throughout the film but also playing well enough off of the visual radiance in a mood setting way.

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16. Harris Savides & Christopher Blauvelt – The Bling Ring (2013)

You want a film about shallow things, you gotta be willing to shoot in a shallow way. Savides’ last work – completed by Blauvelt when he died mid-production – is all too aware of how to bleach the imagery with hot brightness and let surfaces add to the visual detachment of it all. And yet, I’m just biding time before I talk about how incredible the little biome presentation of the glass house at night while the lead characters bust through rooms with flickering lights and touring motions, all presented in a slow and precise zoom that maintains a curiosity to what’s occurring like something out of Discovery Channel.

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15. Bradford Young – Pariah (2011)

Honestly, practically everything Bradford Young shot this decade could qualify for this: the colors of Mother of George, the scale of Arrival, the age of Selma, the classicalism of A Most Violent Year (and anybody who tries to convince me that Young shot the underlit piece of shit that is Solo: A Star Wars Story gets a kick to the nuts). But at the end of it all, I had to hand it to the very start of his career and of the visual intelligence of Dee Rees. Her and Young end upwisely using the dichotomy between naturalistic lighting and abstract colorful splashes to let us know which state of emotions the titular character is and whether she has to put on an act for her strained home life or feeling free in the club with her friends and able to breathe. Either way, Young distinguishes this not only in the degree of the light, but whether the application called for is traditional or abstract and at the end of it all, it’s too exciting to witness to feel like the schematic it kind of is.

Plus, and it’s inarguably a part of the man’s identity, but Young just knows how to shoot black skin in a way that most other cinematographers are fucking clueless about. Real talk.

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14. Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity (2013)

I would like to apologize to all the mean things I said about Avatar winning the Best Cinematography Oscar claiming that there needs to be a physical camera, which is of course reductive. And of course, that’s just to set the stage for praising the complete translation of Lubezki and Cuarón’s usual habits in lighting and camera movement to an entirely digital environment. It’s recognizable as their signature styles that it’s impossible to argue it wouldn’t look the exact same if it was shot on a physical set, except that it would of course lack the sense of boundlessness and weightlessness that Gravity gets away with. And with all of this shit, it absolutely leaves Avatar in the dust. It leaves James Cameron in the dust, y’all.

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13. Roger Deakins – True Grit (2010)

I mean, Deakins’ best work of the 1990s (and also of his career and also potentially of color cinematography ever) was a Coen brothers movie. His best work of the 2000s was arguably a Coen brothers movie (and if it wasn’t, it was the second best). So it just goes to stand that the man’s best works of the 2010s will be a Coen brothers movie, the only part of the film that doesn’t feel like a disappointment. He takes the various seasons in which the journey of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn spans and lets them be amplified by the sort of mythic presentation that you don’t see Westerns receive anymore in this time of revisionism. Which probably explains how necessary it was to make sure this was shot on film, but I like to expect that the celluloid also maintains the sense of classicalism.

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12. Mark Lee Ping Bin – The Assassin (2015)

Yet another instance of two things we’ve seen prior on this list: a utilization of 1.37:1 and a sense of transporting to the time period of a piece, partially getting to the latter by the wise application of the former. The rest of the way it gets there is by limiting the colors and angles that Lee Ping Bin evidently felt were appropriate to the setting of the story but using it judiciously to amplify the full beauty and sense of entrapment that the film could be capable of even at its most abstract.

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11. Fred Kelemen – The Turin Horse (2011)

Admittedly, this isn’t necessarily something we haven’t seen before from Tarr Béla or Hranitsky Ágnes or Kelemen’s previous work with them: a bunch of sludgy thick black-and-white explored by patient tracking shots that become as cyclical as they are meditative. It’s been done for Sátántangó and it’s been done for Werckmeister Harmonies and if Tarr ever decides he was just kidding and returns to making movies, I’m sure it’ll be in the next one. But you know what? If it’s not broken, you don’t need to fix it and Kelemen’s muddy aesthetic for a muddy world feels just as appropriate for a story that is essentially about one man’s mental dive into darkness. And despite that moodiness in the muck, it’s impressive that Kelemen does find places to bring something gorgeous.

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10. Sofiane El Fani – Timbuktu (2014)

You would expect that such a harsh and unpleasant premise would reject any sense of beauty lest it end up undercutting or aestheticizing the severity of its content. Instead, Abderrahmane Sissako trusts his cinematographer El Fani to allow all the desperate precision he’s capable of dictate just how sad and in turn upsetting it is that such visual landscapes are forced to be the sites of cruelty and violence. The lake sequence where we watch a man crawl away against the glittering sunlight on the shore from an immobile body was the moment where it was clear El Fani and Sissako knew exactly what to do to represent the tragedy of this land with unexpected and undeserved beauty.

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9. Phillipe Le Sourd – The Beguiled (2017)

Wild that Le Sourd is able to take the steamy and humid basis of the Southern Gothic and let that showcase its adaptability to all the sorts of tones that this thriller would demand: the expressionist nightmares, the shady sexuality, the chilly chamber drama and so on that results in Sofia Coppola’s most unexpectedly pageant of rose-tinted feminine gloom, perfect for ennui of all occasion.

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8. Mauro Pinheiro Jr. – Southwest (2011)

And now we introduce the murky dreaminess of black-and-white cinematography with something I’ve never seen before: a wide motherfucking frame. Like the widest I’ve ever seen, it is fucking 3.66:1 and I don’t know how Pinheiro and Eduardo Nunes decided that should be the case but y’know what? It adds to weird vibe of the visuals, it brings the principle of composition to an extreme sense of focus, it plays extremely well with pans and from all that, I think there’s no film out of the decade that had its images burned so deeply out of the idiosyncratic nature of their presentation.

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7. Gökhan Tiryaki – Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

It can’t just be the digital nighttime photography. Tiryaki must be something of a wizard in the way that he’s able to use the gradations in darkness – only occasionally shaping the horizon with the headlights of police cars – to communicate that sense of fatigue and duration that defines the movie as an experience to begin with. I can’t think of well this must have been planned to get the exact state of the night that the darkness maps out so impressively well. I can’t even think by that point of how effectively that shadow and blackness establishes mood when combined with stuff as simple as candles illuminating faces or how it maintains an elegant sense of rustic beauty once the morning comes and lets us see everything clearly.

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6. Emmanuel Lubezki – Knight of Cups (2015)

Cinematography unlike anything else I’ve ever seen by design. Terrence Malick went and got Lubezki to eschew his normal long-take style and pre-set beauty to go ahead and explore the other capabilities of video capture in 2015. Which is a roundabout way of saying Lubezki was given prosumer cameras, GoPros, beautiful women, and urban environments varying from Hollywood to Las Vegas and told to go fucking wild. And the result is that every shot delivers something unique to its particular tools from entirely orthodox angles that turns these streets and alleys into a totally fantastical landscape. And y’all slept on this way too hard so you don’t get any of this visual beauty.

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5. Alfonso Cuarón & Galo Olivares – Roma (2018)

Whoever is responsible for the cinematography (and I see reason to believe both), it is the perfect balance of black-and-white softness and crispness to make the entire film feel like one singular memory but remove all the distance and make it feel present. And this time around, without his regular collaborator in Lubezki, there’s something about Cuarón’s personal approach to his signature long-take tableauxs to feel so much… slower. The movements feel like they are in no rush, wanting to take in as much of the length and scale of the moment as possible before we have to leave back to the real world.

4. Claire Mathon – Atlantics Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I could not pick just one, sue me. I am still highly intoxicated by the way that Claire Mathon has given us two of the decades’ best looking movies by different approaches: whether the intimacy by marshaling all the tools to craft an image of Portrait of a Lady on Fire or the translation of Dakar to a hazy ghost of a city. It’s just that the variety of the two are too arresting for me to commit to one of these films.

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3. Dick Pope – Mr. Turner (2014)

It’s about a painter. It better damn well be gorgeously at the least, painterly at the most. It accomplishes the latter while using the wholly modern technology of digital cinematography to bring a sense of living history and tangible paint for fantastical landscape looks that play against the domestic earthy look of J.M.W. Turner’s domestic scenes. Which is y’know… very very appropriate but also transformative to take us from the unattractive scenes of a harsh life to the unreal scenes of a moment of visual inspiration.

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2. Zach Kuperstein – The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

I swear, I promise this is the last black-and-white movies but I’m happy to commit to claiming that it is the best of them, despite probably being the least witnessed. It is… I’m sounding like a broken by this point… shockingly beautiful in how it brings out the wateriness of black imagery with very little lighting, only enough to portray lines that can define (not cut through) the blackness. And that beauty is shocking because of the grotesque horrors that it showing us, aestheticizing the gore and violence in such a way that makes it more affrontive than if they had just went with the overwhelming detail instead of obstructive shadow interrupted by the inky spurts. Which I’m guessing sounds like a horrible recommendation if you’re squeamish, but for someone like me fascinated by how imagery can be translated to a character’s mindset… it is excellent at giving us a bleak world as seen by a cold and analytical monster.

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  1. Emmanuel Lubezki – The Tree of Life (2011)

Obviously Knight of Cups is the more revolutionary collaboration between Lubezki and Malick, but the cigar absolutely belongs to the movie that reverently addresses light as something that can hardly be controlled or harnessed. Just patiently followed through the loving lens Lubezki gives Malick’s childhood home town or the faces that the light caresses or the inhabited through the translation of the windows and the halls and so on. It is the sort of classical naturalism that can yield warmth and claustrophobia depending on what the shot calls for and that it’s not even the second-best work of Lubezki’s career (fuck, it’s not even the best of his work with Malick – though it is the best overall film either person ever worked on) and yet snugly fits at the very top of the decade should hopefully indicate how at the tip of the iceberg the ecstatic visual poetics of this film are. Just go deeper from here.

The Best Film Performances of the 2010s

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I don’t know that this needs much more introduction.

I mean, it’s the movie stars that are out there in front of us. The actors! The performers! You don’t have your elderly mom call you up asking “who’s that guy who did the directing of that one movie?”. The rest of the people involved are unseen and mostly unheard, but the actors themselves are the faces of the movie. And indeed some may say that the human face and the emotions it can communicate with the intimacy that the camera allows is the single most cinematic thing possible, so let us for now assume that is the case and honor …

THE BEST FILM PERFORMANCES OF THE 2010s

(With a quick note that in following along the adjacent Indiewire list, I have opted to stick to one performance per actor and with one exception, one performance per movie)

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50. Lorraine Toussaint as Ruth in Middle of Nowhere (2012)

A film that admittedly relies on stock parts and gives the most overly familiar one to Toussaint, but she takes that role with enough tired cynicism trying hard to hide itself while delivering direct truths about the situation that we know are hard-learned and impossible to deny but told in a way that makes us understand the want to reject them. All the more impressive based on the extremely limited amount of screentime she has at the end of it all.

49. Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Only the second best performance of the film frankly (the actor who gives the best performance will come up shortly with a different performance) but nevertheless an overwhelming force of proud evil that prevents itself from seeming unrealistic largely because of how raw and crude his cruelty comes, a manner that can’t be mistaken for anything else but the sloppy human penchant to just be awful to people for the sake of how awfulness grants them a power trip in between drinks. And it allows him to be entitled to the suffering of black men and especially black women, but anybody can get it from him obligingly.

48. Trevante Rhodes as Black in Moonlight (2016)

All three of the leads who play the titular Chiron at different stages of his life are phenomenally good, but the third and final section of Moonlight is the best section and a lot of the reasons why can be specifically tied to Rhodes’ performance. It’s a role very obvious in its layers, a character who is in himself a performance for defensive purposes. Rhodes allows Black to exude burly stereotypes of black masculinity to the point that it’s clear the character is trying to convince not just others but also himself. Rhodes brings nuance to the act that can fool his screen partners to believe that’s how this character actually is, but also takes advantage of every opportunity to give off tells that Black is the same bruised child who transformed into this man when we blinked. I have no idea if Rhodes was aware of the performances of Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders when shooting this, but if he wasn’t, I’m even more impressed: it’s a terrific culmination of all the reservations and wounds collected from the previous two segments.

47. Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

I’ve heard on a podcast that Fiennes did not enjoy acting in Anderson’s direction very much, which is a real shame as I think it’s resulted in his best screen work. The way he moves and stands in a precise and fixated way feels like the perfect performing foil to Anderson’s fussy visual style: he embodies the sort of labored sophistication one gets from trying to get things in pleasant order – something I think we only see again in Rushmore – and does so with comic stuffiness that still maintains admirable dignity. And  the moments where Gustave gets vulgar or just loses control of himself are a cherry on top, feeling like the gleeful result of a wind-up.

46. Brendan Gleeson as Father James in Calvary (2014)

Both a witness and a subject, a performance where a character just sits and listens while also being someone to whom the events of this movie will HAPPEN, period. You’d think that the Christ allegory here is the most obvious possible one, especially for a film about a priest (and especially with a movie with THAT title), but Gleeson refuses to lean into it. He only finds new ways to respond to the stories he hears and the directions his investigation goes with a deeper and deeper visual sadness. He piles on to the weight that he carries with a physical shagginess that you have to assume his regular collaborator McDonagh knew he’d bring.

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45. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Carlton Pearson in Come Sunday (2018)

And here we have the actor to outdo Fassbender in 12 Years and then go right on to outdo THAT performance (in a career full of great performances, honestly!) with this man of extreme internal strife, disappointing himself in several different ways that he is unwilling to communicate to anyone else. Religious turmoil is not something new to anyone who has seen a Bergman or Bresson (and it’s even a character arc that will make another appearance here), but I don’t think we see it ever filled with the sort of convinced self-indictment we have here and Ejiofor uses that core for an unforgettable intellectual journey.

44. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green in Sorry to Bother You (2018)

It’s not just that over the past decade Stanfield has blown up as a screen personality that nobody has been able to avoid, but it’s also the ease with which he’s able to casually sink into the weirdest fucking situations and let that inform his characters. Sometimes that can be pained like in Get Out and sometimes that can be with ease like in Atlanta which happens to be his best work yet, but y’know this is a movie list so we have to give it up to his best film performance as Cash, the man who can one moment smugly display his ability to talk white, posture as one of the elite when he gets a bone thrown, and then have an ever growing sickened look in his eyes the deeper and deeper he digs. It’s a performance that whirls with the world around the character, but not without giving us the sense that… yeah, this is just how that world works and it sucks but he’ll roll with it up until the next rug is pulled out from under him.

43. John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters in The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Part of why John C. Reilly has been a reliable comic AND dramatic actor at once is how amazingly his broad face fits either the cartoonish or the sadness that a scene will call for. And I think his work in Jacques Audiard’s first English-language picture threads that line better than anything else in his career. Taking on the brutal backdrop of a very violent story even by neo-Western standards, Reilly delivers a man who is instinctively able to brutalize others on a drop but more importantly just wants warmth in a world and lifestyle that doesn’t allow for him to encounter it. It informs a lot of his excellent verbal dueling with Joaquin Phoenix (who will show up later on this list, don’t y’all worry) – not to mention how obvious it is that Eli is the one who gets violent to protect his otherwise unrestrained brother – but it’s also particularly whenever he is indoors that Reilly is able to betray how unbelonging Eli is in anywhere remotely resembling the domesticity he desires until a very generous final beat for the character.

42. Bernard Pruvost as Van der Weyden in Li’l Quinquin (2014)

He reminds me of a French Eugene Levy. Not particularly for how he acts but for his face and how he utilizes it to keep himself looking no less quirky and amusing than anybody else in the cast. It’s maybe that familiarity from the actor – other than the fact that he’s just trying to make as much sense of it all as the rest of us – that gets me to warm up to him as an anchor in all the craziness that ensures, if only for the fact that he feels just as much a part of the craziness as the others.

41. Ben Mendelsohn as Neville Love in Starred Up (2013)

You can’t trust any Ben Mendelsohn character, but his performance in Starred Up really gets you wishing you could. Neville is complete fiend of a person and if Mendelsohn only had to portray his brutality, he would already gladly succeed. But using that brutal nature as a launchpad for the internal conflict of how to reconstruct a paternal love for his son from a history of violence that clashes with how his son is working out his own violent norms gives Mendelsohn more room for complexity out of two firmly incompatible traits and that Mendelsohn doesn’t decide to put together a comfort zone for all that is no less admirable than any other complicated monster turn over the medium.

40. Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning in Widows (2018)

Eat your heart out, Fassbender. Sure, Kaluuya’s performance is much broader than anything Fassbender delivered for his long-time collaborator Steve McQueen, but it’s a pretty broad movie to begin with. The lip-smacking that Kaluuya is delivering with his intense eyes and his casual violence is among the most fun I’ve had being scared of a thriller villain in a long while, right down to the punchline of a final beat for the character after he spends the whole movie bullying anyone he can.

39. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

There’s this popular reading of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as being self-reflexive regarding its own masculinity and I honestly don’t think that’s necessarily something in Quentin Tarantino’s text of the film. I do have no problem believing that to be Pitt’s approach to Booth as a personality, though. He gives Booth a swagger that goes somewhere between aimless drifter who knows he’s a nobody and smug self-assuredness that feels like a dangerous yet sad combo. Overall, Pitt gives Booth a presence that is a conglomeration between quietly pathos, desperate camaraderie, and off-putting violence that makes for one of Tarantino’s most complex screen creations.

38. Barry Keoghan as Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

I’m sure that the cold curt dialogue of Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Fillippou – especially translated to English – is challenging to get a hold of, but by 2017 we had two movies with casts that could grasp that alien delivery and make it into the most remote language you could understand. When you’re surrounded by actors so comfortable in that mode, how do you turn it into something sinister and threatening within the very context of that environment? However that Keoghan figured it out, he figured it out but good. If I had to guess it’s the way everything Martin does feels like a fixation part of a network of fixations that adds an inhumanity and obsessive nature by how the monotony of his line deliveries just feel a bit more precise and knowing than the rest of the characters in the movie. It’s basically the Lanthimos version of a supervillain.

37. Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010)

Whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of the notorious Facebook creator (and if recent events are any indication, it is way too kind to him), it’s simply the case that Eisenberg embodies the kind of distance and anxiety that comes from wanting to be liked when you apparently have few if any redeeming qualities. With this kind of assholish genius role, it’d be very easy to present him as distanced from his surroundings and walk away but what Eisenberg’s style of acting brings to Zuckerberg is a wounded flicker every time somebody walks away from him, not necessarily because he knows he hurt them… just the knowledge that he didn’t win them over. And it could have been a hell of a wakeup call to the continued trope that intelligence is a virtue in and of itself, rather than something that has to be leavened with humanity.

36. Ryan Gosling as Dean Pereira in Blue Valentine (2010)

Now this is what method acting can ACTUALLY accomplish when it’s not just you being a prick to your castmates: a movie that portrays the raw and ugly sores of a relationship in conjuration and distintegration is going to rely very hard on the honesty and bravery of its lead actors. Gosling and co-star Michelle Williams (who is the slightly better performance, but not to worry… she will be back up here) meet that task with gusto, letting themselves drown in the intensity of falling in love and growing to hate in unsubtle but entirely heartbreaking ways.

35. Jennifer Lopez as Ramona Vegas in Hustlers (2019)

I don’t know what got in Lopez’s water to develop her into an actor of this caliber, but I’m glad it got there. We definitely wouldn’t have gotten this sort of warm maternal presence without the sort of experience Lopez brings to the role and her sudden deftness to turn dangerous and harsh as an escalation towards things makes for an excellent scene-stealing turn late in her career. But what really impresses is the way she’s willing to complicate both of these angles when it comes to conflicting with her co-protagonists, something that has to mix frustration and disappointment towards being pushed back by people she loves that sometimes wavers to betray a sense of broken trust.

34. Léa Seydoux as Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)

I’m not sure a single movie has aged worse in my eyes than Blue Is the Warmest Colour and not just because the director is a fucking creep. One of those reasons is because it’s clear that the performances do more work than anything else in the film and that doesn’t feel all that cinematic to me, but let’s not linger on my lamentations and focus on what excellent one of those two central performances is doing. It’s easy enough to recognize how Seydoux is being admired by a camera adopting her co-star’s perspective and that should ideally restrain the possibilities for the character from there. Except Seydoux does find new ways to imply a life outside of this framing of her and doesn’t care to give it all away, not out of impishness, but simply to give a plausible base for the emotional heights of the third act and until then allow us the presence of a full human being rather than treat as some Manic Pixie Dream Girl-like object.

33. Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here (2017)

One of my big pet peeves as of late: somehow everyone has decided that this performance needs to be compared to Joker to make a point. They share next to nothing in common and are attempting wildly different things and frankly Phoenix’s performance is more interesting to me because of how ostensibly empty it is. Joe is nothing but pain and trauma and his refusal to let that live in his head (the editing and sound design does more of the work informing us his thoughts) means that Phoenix maintains one blank stare on his face for so long that the moment it falters and gets defensive, it feels like the film made us flinch. Besides which I don’t think he’s ever used his whole body to better effect, likewise maintaining a specific posture until it’s either time to go home and he relaxes himself for a little while or to go to work and he becomes immovable and firmly aggressive. An excellent character that I found more personal response to than anywhere else, despite receiving little character information in return.

32. Daniel Giménez Cacho as Don Diego de Zama in Zama (2017)

It’s not easy to snobbishly act like you’re the smartest one in the room and still retain any pathos as a character, but Cacho gets it done. Part of it is how he shares the stage with bounds of mud and obnoxious animals, but it’s also just the fact that he has that look on his face like somebody stepped on his private lawn and it’s a look he maintains while the movie turns him into the world’s most bored punching bag, maintaining that same stand-offish attitude the more and more he’s buried. It’s not dense work, but it’s good work and I don’t know that much of the film’s observations on class and colonialism would land without such a stubborn presence.

31. Matthew McConaughey as Dallas in Magic Mike (2012)

Right there at the very dawn of the McConaissance, McConaughey invisibly returned to being an interesting dramatic actor by using Soderbergh’s reliable dissection of movie stars and their screen personas to manipulate his sex appeal, his beatific carriage, and smooth-talking Southern gentleman. The end result is a man who can appeal to the primal desires of people to see men dance naked around them and then turn around giving shady Judas ultimatums without even changing his tone of voice. He’s a salesman at the end of it all the way that the titular Mike is a worker and so delivers a fairly sleazy antagonist in the opposing way that he meets his ends.

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30. Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang in The Ghost Writer (2010)

It is really really hard to explain what about this performance works so well for without spoiling the whole thriller, but I’ll try. It’s ostensibly a shallow stereotype of a role – the bitter wife behind a controversial public figure – and Williams is definitely more than capable of delivering the sharpest version of that, but it’s also very clear that she used her knowledge of what’s going to warn us that this woman is going to be something extremely formidable as our protagonist dives deeper into rabbit holes he shouldn’t even be glancing at. When we get to the place where we’re gonna get, nothing about Williams’ foreshadowing dampens the shock of it all, largely because of how she still finds room to escalate things from that point. Excellent and intelligent genre acting that we need more of in our pulp cinema.

Also, fuck Roman Polanski. I have to say that until he dies. Fuck that little jit.

29. Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in Personal Shopper (2016)

It’s undeniable at this point that Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart work wonders on each other as director and actor. Nothing Stewart is doing in this movie is different from what she was doing in the Twilight movies, I don’t think. It’s just that this time around Stewart was able to hone her screen personality to something appropriately melancholy and in turn something that can be guided by her to whatever anxious or depressed tone is going to be. Stewart makes Personal Shopper‘s observations on death and the afterlife richer because how her reserved habits as an actor transform to nuance and in return Personal Shopper presents a side to Stewart’s acting style we haven’t seen before (or since, to be honest).

28. Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

A character that could easily be relegated to hysterics and parody with the familiar awakening archetype, except Weisz is no slouch and knows how to let those emotions throw Hester about but not restrain enough that we know most of the hurt is being internalized. And fortunately, Terence Davies is patient enough to follow along with Weisz’ performance rather than have the tale prescribe the path of emotional arc, which brings us to a more organic and stronger version of that character type.

27. Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years (2015)

Over the course of a few days, Rampling takes one bit of news and lets that snowball into a blow against an otherwise comfortable and certain life. If I greatly considering breaking my one-performance-per-film rule to include her co-star Tom Courtenay on this list, but as it is… I don’t regret having to select Rampling as she gets all of the film’s biggest acting moments and essentially the tension lives on whether or not she will suck it up and ask the big questions that are storming about. And particularly in the way that she continues that strife all the way past its apparent conclusion, thereby leaving us in the final shot with a hell of a lot of worries. It is the work of a very talented veteran knowing exactly how to get as much anxiety out of less physical work and just letting us stare at her conflicted face.

26. Emily Blunt as Kate Macer in Sicario (2015)

Holy shit, this list has a character named Kate Mercer and a character Kate Macer… Anyway, It perplexes me how Sicario came out and everyone was more interested in getting Benicio Del Toro or Josh Brolin awards instead of Blunt. She’s the one human center of the movie, introduced to the savagery of her apparent allies in direct way that puts us in the same shoes. Sicario doesn’t feel as complete an experience without her presence as surrogate, but even outside of that, her responses to what she witnesses are what make the character feel more involved than just stock type, whether its her shaky hands trying to light a cigarette or trying to control the pained grimace of what she smells in a house of death. The character has a purpose within Sheridan’s script but it’s how Blunt embodies the character between serving that purpose that makes it an all-timer for me.

25. Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna in Ida (2013)

Extremely challenging stuff: Trzebuchowska has to be the ground towards Anna’s journey into her true identity as Ida, which is a confusing and harrowing conflict to be faced at such a delicate moment in her life. She slips on each new discovery with shocking default and adopts every new trait into it with shocking ease, to the point that Trzebuchowska eventually illustrates the way a memory can become flesh and blood resurrection. And that’s before the movie gets deep into the decisions Anna/Ida has commit to and how Trzebuchowska faces those turns with surprising assurance that feels no less human than the quiet astonishment she swallowed prior.

24. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012)

You probably have some idea of how hard it was to pick between Day-Lewis’ performance in this or Phantom Thread, knocking it out of the park with his only two performances of the decade – his last two and almost certainly his best two. But I went with the Oscarbait one specifically because of how wisely Day-Lewis uses that Oscarbait element to his advantage: he plays a character who is – if not reflexively aware of his own gravitas, which would probably destroy the film otherwise – aware of his own stature in a local sense and the notoriety around how he is presented that he is able to cunningly used that to his own political means. That’s only one of several ways Day-Lewis takes the most mythologized figure in all of American history and reminds him that he’s a flesh-and-blood human being, but I think it’s the element that hooked me most to the performance as is… because it not only grounded the performance but gave the film a new angle in which to attack the legend of Lincoln. I am deeply going to miss Day-Lewis as an actor, whose intelligent application of concepts feels overlooked to the method acting hijinks.

23. Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock in Phantom Thread (2017)

Do you realize how good you have to be in a movie to outshine Daniel Day-Lewis in it? This isn’t like the Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave entry where I’m only going with the second best, Manville is the top of the cream of a very impressive crop of performances (Shout out to Vicky Krieps, who also deserves high praise as one of the decade’s best breakouts here). Manville seems to fit right into Anderson’s style of phrasing while bringing along the brittle humanity of her collaborations with Mike Leigh, fitting right into Cyril’s role as the person cleaning up her brother’s sloppy childish ass that refines the cruelty of their social practices while also surprising with a sharp vicious side of her own. It was so fucking obvious that the “don’t pick a fight with me” moment was going to be Awards Clip, but that Manville gained an Oscar nomination for a role (and film) that I thought was going to go ignored was one the moment I yelped for joy hearing the nominees.

22. Elizabeth Marvel as Jean Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

Probably the biggest frustration regarding The Meyerowitz Stories is how its choice in Meyerowitz to focus on never gets close to Jean. Probably by design given some particular scenes, but it doesn’t make me happy anyway. Marvel went and turned the forgotten Meyerowitz child into the most fleshed-out person in the backdrop of her brother’s back-and-forth fighting and the only thing Baumbach could think was to make her witness and commentator on their fuckery? It’s just not enough for me, yo.

21. Patricia Arquette as Olivia in Boyhood (2014)

Sometimes the consensus is just right: Arquette’s performance in Boyhood is one of the most surprisingly raw portrayals of parenthood I’ve seen in movies, not just in the last decade of movies. One only needs to point to the urgency of the famous “I just thought there’d be more” scene to get why she earned that Oscar, but that’s at risk of overshadowing how one of the best surprises in Boyhood is how we’re not just watching one boy grow but the world and people around him as well. And Arquette’s whiplashing between objectives of raising Mason, become her own individual, and deal with different domestic atmospheres in fractured presentations makes her far outshine her co-stars.

20. Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc and company in Suspiria (2018)

I’m gonna humblebrag a little bit up in here: this tweet is me. I’m the friend in that tweet. And I certainly stand by it: a lot of directors have been recognizing the versatility of Swinton as actor and presenting that by having her play multiple roles in a single film, but none more impressive than her latest collaboration with Luca Gudagnino. It’s a performance so full of surprises that I don’t dare to spoil them but I do want to point out that none of the characters share anything in common and yet it makes a complete sense to have Swinton bring each one to life: that Blanc herself is a stonefaced permutation of the idea of maternity and uses Swinton’s lanky frame to communicate the power of movement and dance is only one thing, but that Swinton finds ways to communicate gross monstrosity and toxic scars is another thing onward.

19. Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I don’t mean this as an insult, but Gary Oldman in general is a showboat. When we think of him, we think of the angry shouts of stuff like Léon, the anarchy of Sid & Nancy, the Texan cartoonery of The Fifth Element, the hissing monstrousness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the… pre-Post Malone-isms of True Romance. And it mostly works (I am personally very bitter that at his portrayal of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise because of he overspills on that loudness). And yet here he is, portraying one of my favorite characters in all of literature and I don’t think he raises his voice more than once. In fact, I don’t think his version of Smiley does much of anything except sit and watch and it frankly turns out to be the most interesting I’ve ever found the actor. His presentation of Smiley’s quiet is one that brings out apprehension, one that disarms us when he finally opens his mouth and reveals how many of the pieces he’s put together, and it even has a side of smug cruelty once he knows that he has an adversary cornered without ever doing much of anything at all. Alec Guinness is one of my favorite actors of all time, so it’s not surprise to anyone that prior to 2011, I would have claimed Guinness’ performance in the role back in the old miniseries to be one of the all-time great screen performances. I think… don’t hold me to it… but I think Oldman might have beaten it.

18. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012)

I don’t think we’ll see another actor of Hoffman’s caliber in my lifetime and it’s such a shame that he died so young. And much as I know we’ve come to consider Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the real crown jewel of The Master, I think I’ve grown to change my mind in retrospect and rewatch: Hoffman is pulling the same sorts of incredible work but in a less scene-stealing way that still maintains the consistency of a man who has to hold court wherever he goes, no matter how small the audience, and if he loses a little of control, he will snap petulantly. It’s the manner in which Hoffman tries to present a veneer of dignity to Dodd’s immaturity against Phoenix’s full-throttled animal and the way Hoffman allows that façade to peel back and wither at the worst possible moments that made Dodd the character I paid more attention to on rewatch and accept as the greatest performance in a career of great performances.

17. Agata Kulesza as Wanda Gruz in Ida (2013)

Yep, I couldn’t have just one performance from Ida. Kulesza’s Wanda is a more commanding screen presence than Trzebuchowska by default: she’s the most verbal figure in the movie, if not necessarily more active than Anna. Which is all the better since she’s a physical indicator of what awaits Anna in the real world: bitterness, coldness, cynicism all to such a magnitude that you eventually just stop fighting against and let it all cover you.

16. Raffey Cassidy as Celeste & Albertine Montgomery in Vox Lux (2018)

A bit obviously schematic, but Cassidy is evidently up to it as she presents two related characters and lets whatever we can watch them share indict them together. Certainly Cassidy does enough to distinguish the younger side of Celeste since she has more present trauma to respond to and let mold her in unexpected ways – sort of playing a bedrock for when Natalie Portman takes the role akin to the three leads of Moonlight, but in manner less indebted to realism – but Cassidy playing her own daughter means that some of that trauma has remnants within the way she responds to her mom as screen partner and the already fragile nature of their relationship. It’s an unexpectedly intelligent way to use simplicity in crafting two people and an arc between them.

15. Violet Nelson as Rosie in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Heartbreaking in its minimalism, astounding in its deflection. It’s still unjust to me how few people have watched this film (I’m not even sure it received a release in its native Canada), but in any case, Nelson fills this human drama with an inescapable sense of tragic loss of direction and a totally upsetting amount of pressure just from the way she holds her shoulders and has her eyes look everywhere but the woman following her and trying to comfort her. She navigates much more impressively around the didactic nature of the dialogue than you’d expect from an amateur actor with the same degree of restraint, electing to mumble her words like the racing thoughts are barely forming early enough to communicate. She paces the gradations of Rosie’s emotional state to develop over the course of one take so that even despite the apparent fixed stare, we see the progress. And overall, Nelson’s portrayal of the strife that abused indigenous women go through in the span of two hours feels more urgent than many other message movies can stand to accomplish.

14. Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell in Richard Jewell (2019)

We go into the movie knowing the true story of Jewell’s innocence and frankly Hauser never turns this into a mystery thriller with his demeanor. But he also doesn’t make it easy to like Jewell and presents to us a very uncomfortable figure: his lack of respect for personal space, the ease with which he can becoming bullying, the hair trigger way in which he can escalate a tiny thing, and the seeming lack of self-awareness he has regarding how exudes these things. It’s basically Hauser being able to turn his I, Tonya character into a flesh-and-blood misguided fool, finding ways to indict the character’s idolization of toxic and corrupt things while also allowing tiny flickers of doing the right thing.

13. Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle in Hail, Caesar! (2016)

I feel really bad for Ehrenreich, the man starred in a Coen brothers movie AND a Star Wars movie and has the Steven Spielberg seal approval and yet he still can’t become an A-lister. He definitely deserves it though: playing a movie star coincidentally gave Ehrenreich to show the world his comic timing, his physical ability, his musical talent, and even his chameleon-like way of sinking into a performance so deep that he’s convincing when THAT character has no chameleon ability whatsoever. I could holler “would that it were so simple?” ’til the cows come home with how much I love this performance, except my line wouldn’t sound exactly like that.

12. Cate Blanchett as Jasmine Francis in Blue Jasmine (2013)

The last time anybody felt comfortable admitting a Woody Allen movie was good and it’s not even Allen’s fucking movie. No, it’s his script but there’s nothing in Blanchett’s performance that resembles the sort of acting Allen has directed before or since: she’s too cold and distanced as a protagonist in a very clipped way that contains enough “I Am a Big Personality” magnetism to keep us fixed on her despite how her off-putting elitism and refusal to grant any psychological depth makes her impossible to root for. It’s just that her performance makes her impossible to turn away from to, demanding every amount of focus from beginning to end.

11. Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller in First Reformed (2017)

Now this is shocking, but not only did Hawke give a performance better than anything he did for Richard Linklater, but he gave it for Paul Schrader of all people. But y’know, I have to admit I don’t think this performance by anyone other than a Calvinist… it has too much internal turmoil, the kind that makes Hawke look like he’s poisoned and about to collapse any second. Since First Reformed basically plays off the “austere European art film about faith and suffering” playbook, Hawke decides to pull from that same playbook himself but since those are also movies from the 1950s and 60s, he has a pained modernity to his visual bleakness and it gives Toller as a character sense of being out of time that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on-screen. I would not be surprised if on rewatch I don’t consider this to be in my top ten, honestly.

10. Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

I feel like by this point, it’s being clear that this list is full of tragic asshole types, but what can one say? It gives actors a lot of interesting stuff to work with. And Isaac here has turned out to work with not just the material on the Coen brothers’ page – whose sarcastic dialogue fits him like a glove – but also bring a self-awareness that just isn’t enough to redeem Llewyn as a figure who ruins everything around him. It’s only enough to give him the knowledge that he could be better. And when he gets to play that against the sort of cyclical presentation of incident and failure that the Coens throw Llewyn in, well, at least Isaac’s irritable tongue against everything he meets keeps the movie from turning depressing. Plus for somebody who doesn’t like cats, he plays extremely well as a screen partner against one.

9. Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi in Toni Erdmann (2016)

I honestly think that if Hüller didn’t find the space to portray Ines’ feeling of losing herself within this cold impersonal world of hers, Toni Erdmann could have become pretty fucking grating of a film and could not survive. Instead, Hüller communicates exactly what’s at stake within her character and then continues to let herself get lost in the emotional tug-of-war with her dad while trying to decide for herself. It’s a performance that deeply wants to appreciate the influences in her life while also recognizing her own autonomy and Hüller acquits herself excellently. Plus, much as Peter Simonischek is an excellent comic foil with amazing energy… Hüller is funnier. Both of her big comic sequences are absolute slam dunks, two of the funniest scenes of the year for me.

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8. Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen in Margaret (2011)

Transforming the teenage lack of identity and form into the bombast of opera! But of course, it has to work as a teenager and Paquin is as excellent dealing with the sort of loud whirlwind of emotions and revelations that somebody has trouble with at that age. Which is maybe the closest to truth that a movie could get regarding that time of one’s life: you think you’ve absolutely figured yourself out and then get hit by some trauma that turns you into an entirely different person and then once more you learn some bitter lessons about how the world actually works and dive right into a different demeanor. And all while Paquin refuses to give Lisa the distance to recognize that she’s picking the worst possible scenario to dig her heels in regarding, so that all of Lisa’s flaws as a person feel honest. But also her strengths, let’s not forget, just ones that the movie recognizes rather than Lisa does.

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7. Leila Hatami as Simin in A Separation (2011)

More of a witness to things going wrong who is forced to be involved by the end of things rather than an active player, but Hatami uses that position in intensely involving ways. Even before everything gets fucked up, she shows herself to be one of the best subjects for the close-up style of direct address of the decade with the opening shot, addressing the audience with a firm indictment for judgments we haven’t made yet but knows we are capable of making (then again… she is staring at a judge in the shot). It’s so easy to say that it’s a performance that hits us directly with all the social implications of being a woman in Iran, but y’know, it’s the truth and it’s something that Simin as a character wouldn’t be able to do if Hatami wasn’t such a commanding screen presence.

6. Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (2016)

It’s kind of delightful to me that we saw two different portrayal of the great poet Dickinson that seek the same goals from different approaches (Shout out to a never-better Molly Shannon in Wild Nights with Emily only two years later), but I think the quieter film is the one that I found more cutting. For one thing, it plays fair with Terrence Davies’ and company’s gloomy aesthetic while being able to tear out of it. And how it tears itself out is by allowing the wit and intelligence of the character out of the shadow. Nixon keeps the recognition of Dickinson’s sufferings intact, but refuses to paint the miserable figure history has somehow prescribed Dickinson to be. Instead, she takes the only sources of which we know Dickinson by and delivers something with more fight in it.

5. Michelle Williams as Randi in Manchester by the Sea (2016)

She’s barely in it, but after spending a whole movie watching Casey Affleck lug around his life-long depression and sadness, Williams pops in out of nowhere and shows Affleck just how its done: the way her body crumples, the way she struggles to finish her lines, the way she tries so hard to convince her screen partner that there is a different way to go instead of drowning the way that they are. She makes a character who we feel so much for, we want to grab her hand and pull ourselves out of whatever self-punishment we’re going through.

4. Viola Davis as Rose Lee Maxson in Fences (2016)

Absolutely unfair since this is a role she’s played for 13-weeks straight so by the time she reclaimed it for the film adaptation, it was a person she knew like the back of her hand. But that means that she also brings in an experience to the character that informs so much how she swallows up every transgression she suffers under her husband and this roof, silently letting that weight paint the tragedy of the paths she didn’t take, and then finally letting all of these stopped reactions shake up and explode in that one scene. You know the scene. You really definitely know the scene. The one that won her the most deserved Oscar of the decade.

3. Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner (2014)

It’s a biopic but it’s a complex one and a lot of that complexity comes specifically from the crude way that Spall embodies the famous painter without an identifiable center. Spall’s Turner swings out different sides of him in response to what’s going on: one moment he’s a sensitive being who is brought to tears by how a thought materialized, one who shows a quiet intense interest into a piece he witnesses without any acknowledgement of the environment around him, deliver acts of cruel misogyny out of boredom, bully a man out of elitism and so on… there’s no active consistency within even the way that Turner snorts between two scenes. And somehow that crudeness about him, both as a personality and as a character, is what makes him feel no less believable as a human being as any other character from Mike Leigh’s film – a career with no shortage of complexity and understanding.

2. Denis Lavant as Mr. Oscar in Holy Motors (2012)

It’s unfair, isn’t it? Lavant has basically got a movie handed to him on a silver platter to just show off and flaunt his limitless versatility, weaving in and out of characters and personalities effortlessly just for the sake of portraying the transformative power that moviemaking can have one person. Which means that if Lavant wasn’t capable of doing all that shit with a smile (and even the one time he doesn’t smile – the obvious motion-capture diss track – wows us with the capabilities of his body to perform dizzying martial arts and indulge in off-putting but interesting poses of inhuman sexuality), the movie fall apart but Lavant gets to carry it all to the finish line. The fact that it never loses track of how we are in the end watching one man – both as actor and as character – only makes it more impressive that the performer has a continuous grab bag of tricks and ticks and looks to give us.

  1. Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse (2019)

I’m in absolute love. Practically everything about The Lighthouse appeals to all my conscious aesthetic loves but it even introduced me to some aesthetic loves I didn’t know I had deep inside and the biggest one is having famous New Yorker Willem Dafoe deliver Ye Olde English with the most obnoxious seaman’s voice and let every single line continue to crinkle the old age on his face, from the lines to hairs especially of that great big bushy beard. And he does it with unavoidable bombast, stealing every possible scene he can to the degree that even the movie has to oblige by the way it frames and lights him compared to his co-star. Wake is a complete character, pure presence, animated into the craggled black-and-white flesh by the force of will with which Dafoe’s spits salty sea insults like a German Expressionist Mr. Krabs. It’s all I’ve ever wanted from a movie character and god bless ye fer givin’ it to us!

The Best Movie Scores of the 2010s

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This is it, boys. The big time. From here on forth, we will only be doing ranked lists. Which isn’t to say that the rankings won’t be kind of arbitrary, but it does give a sense that we’re coming down to the final stretch of it all before the Big 150 list, don’t it? Anyway…

Almost as much as I am a movie-oriented fella, I also happen to be a music-oriented fella. I play musical instruments, I just as often have something on to fill the air as I comfortably sit in silence to think, and honestly I almost always have a song playing in my head. So it’s a tiny frustration to me that I sometimes can’t help paying attention to the music playing in a movie above most other elements but I can’t help that sometimes when the music in a movie is on… it is on. And we know that even in the days of silent cinema, filmmakers knew and appreciated the effect of a really good music cue to shape the tone and atmosphere – whether playing it on set or having it arranged for the theatrical audience, it was present even if we weren’t the ones hearing it (Big shoutout to Kino Video for constantly providing accompaniment music to their silent films that make me prefer muting the tv).

So, music is an essential element of the cinematic experience just like everything else and much like any other decade… there are scores that I had deeply burned into my soul, some even deeper than the movies attached. They transform, they elevate, they transport, and so much more. They’re not necessarily bangers (though some are), but the marriage of image and music was so effective that I close my eyes playing certain cues and recall the scene in question. Without further ado…

THE BEST MOVIE SCORES OF THE 2010s

(And a quick note that – following the Indiewire list that kind of influenced my desire to make this list and thereby my desire to make this whole list series when I decided not to limit it to Scores, Scenes, Performances, and Movies – I decided to limit it to one score per composer with only one clear exception and one cheat because the person in question co-composed. More variety, you see).

20. Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, & Reinhold Heil – Cloud Atlas (2012)

I mean, the book and movie are literally named after a piece of music that affects certain characters in an inspired way. So at the very least, that piece of music would have to be the most moving possible thing for its appearance to be as emotionally pulling to the viewer and I expect Tykwer’s background as musician allows him to be actively involved in the creation of the piece from the dual perspective of composer and co-director (I’m also pretty sure his segments – and not the Wachowskis’ – are the only ones that it shows up in). Anyway, the Sextet piece alone may be one of the major reasons that Cloud Atlas made it on this list, but it is absolutely not the only one: its wonderful weepiness is part of what makes the film such a irresistible journey between space and time, refusing to give any grounding for the constantly shifting narratives and instead acting like a passenger on the same ride as us.

19. Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Yet another score co-composed by the director of the movie in question. And also another score that is sweeping but in an entirely different way: it has classical principles but the manner in which it approaches them feel more appropriate to the rustic nature of the Louisiana setting (especially the horns busting in over the strings). And since the endgame is to sit us in the sense of fantastical awe that our young hero Hushpuppy is facing such grim situations with, I’d say it is a phenomenal success on that front.

18. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Wind River (2017)

It’s just a matter of fact that all of Cave’s work as a musician in the past five years has been harshly informed by the grief of his young son’s death and I wonder if he found himself relating to the character of Martin in this film, despite the difference in race and gender. Cave and Ellis not only found a way to carve complete desolation and emptiness out of simple tones and mostly non-verbal vocalizations that translate to a universal starkness, but they made it feel camouflaged within the shape of wind whistles and gusts so that it lays into the soundtrack and creeps up on our spine at the moments where we have to most recognize the harsh experiences portrayed in the cold winter snow. Listening to the score by itself doesn’t do the film justice, you have to hear it wander ghostly within the Wind River‘s sound mix.

17. Rob – Maniac (2012)

I think there’s just something about synthesizer’s artificial sound that makes them perfect for otherworldliness. You’d think that this score was made solely for sheer 80s homage, but I think it’s more than that… the score never feels pleasant in and of itself and sounds like a curdling of the sort of romance that the titular killer maniac would conjure in his head for justification of what he’s doing. Except y’know, it’s not coming from an orchestra, it’s coming from an inhuman robot instrument. It basically sounds to me like what Carpenter Brut would be if it wasn’t also trying to be really cool dance music (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Rob and Carpenter Brut knew each other since they’re both in the same dark French synthwave scene).

16. Daniel Hart – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

It’s basically sounding like a patchwork to me. One noise is happening and then Hart overlays it with another noise and then another one to make something like an emotional tapestry for certain moments (this is something he would also bring to great effect in another David Lowery film, A Ghost Story). And that it can just allow that collection of sounds to linger together long enough to make its mark once all the pieces are brought together is an impressive bit of sonic control.

15. Atticus Ross – Love & Mercy (2014)

We know the Beach Boys like the back of our hands for the most part. Ross counts on that and rewards us by conjuring up a fragmentary mash-up of samples and pieces of songs that we’ve never got a chance to hear but can recognize within the famous Beach Boys sound to become something else entirely. Something disorienting and wondrous, putting us in the distressed state of Brian Wilson while allowing us to hear something great just at the edge of these sounds if we could only grasp it and pin it down to a song. More than anything else in Love & Mercy, Ross’ score helps us understand just how an artist could go deep into their mind to snatch a stroke of genius but lose the trail back.

14. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network (2010)

Pretty sure this blog isn’t popular enough to receive the torches and pitchforks I think one would expect if they made a list of the best scores of the past ten years and didn’t acknowledge The Social Network. But y’know what, I don’t need to worry about that (maybe I would need to worry about putting it outside of the top ten, though) because here I am acknowledging how Reznor and Ross use their very distinctive industrial sound skills to put together something no less jittery and OCD-sounding as the movie’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, trying to solve life like the calculation it isn’t and keeping numbers juggling in his head.

13. Dario Marianelli – Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Does it sometimes dip its hand in orientalism? Yes, but also it’s a movie that literally has an instrument in its title and so the saving grace about Marianelli’s score as an essential part of Kubo and the Two Strings is the way that it is driven by not just music’s place in culture (whether Eastern or Western) but also its unspoken ability at storytelling. Just as important to not blink while Kubo is telling the story is to not cover your ears or you will skip an emotional beat.

12. M83 – Knife+Heart (2018)

Pretty much the same thing as Maniac, except a lot more polished in a way that makes sense for the doomed tragedy of Knife+Heart‘s romantic side. It transforms slasher vibes into opera and thankfully not in a completely clean transition, all the better to allow ourselves to still feel uncomfortable within the abstract sound of a heart breaking and bleeding at the same time.

11. Mychael & Jeff Danna – The Good Dinosaur (2015)

I don’t even like The Good Dinosaur THAT much, but there is so much going right within the film that I can’t help being a full-throated apologist for it. And one such thing going very right is the Danna brothers’ music film: taking the easy (but unmistakably successful) way to deliver a constantly shifting sense of ambling wonder and anxious trepidation towards Arlo’s world. And that it does so with fun little Western-style motifs like banjos and such is a cherry on top for me. It is exactly the kind of music that would play in my head as a child while I look up at the stars, even if I never got to hear it until I was 23.

10. Ruben Feffer & Gustavo Kurlat – Boy and the World (2013)

Indulges in the same happy primitivism as the film it scores – complete with occasional DIY instrumentation – but it also uses those limited resources to deliver something bigger and kaleidoscopic than you’d expect the sum of its parts to be. And I’m sure by this point, it’s obnoxious how many of these entries are coming from movies where music plays an essential part of the narrative, but that we’re meant to match up with what the titular boy is trying to recognize within the sounds of the Earth before him and are returned with such playful tunes is a glorious joy in and of itself.

9. Disasterpeace – It Follows (2014)

A score it took me way too long to warm up to, but as you can see… I did in fact warm up to it nicely. And sure, at the end of the day, it’s just a glorified tribute to that mackdaddy of horror movie synths John Carpenter. But for a movie that’s essentially about the loss of youth and the dangers of nostalgia, I honestly think Disasterpeace’s score for the film is the only part of it that holds up as thematically effective. Plus, doesn’t it make sense for a movie about being followed by something have that rhythmic drone to keep you looking back over your shoulders.

8. Mica Levi – Under the Skin (2013)

Mica Levi is the single biggest reason that I had to put my foot down on that “one score per composer” rule, even despite the fact that they have not done THAT many scores this past decade. In any case, the score to introduce me to their genius remains the best of their film work in my eyes: an extremely alien soundscape for an extremely alien picture about an extreme alien responding to an extremely alien environment. Just as responsible for turning the film into a tone poem as anything else, there’s a complete allergy to putting together a tune or something recognizable as music-qua-music even by avant-garde standards. But there IS progression and there IS a sharp focus and it is what maintains this score as a guide to whatever is putting the character in the probing state or in the defensive state within the accumulation of noises.

7. Alexandre Desplat – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

It’s basically like a cartoon of European concepts – that Viennese string work, the French piano progressions, the Romani swing of the drums – all mangled to something toy-like in its presentation. And somehow it fits in right well to Anderson’s precise style, following along with the lateral walks of its character with a bounciness yet adapting very well to the Zweigian elements of the tale in its own way (the choir voices particularly give the sense of something that would be mournful if it wasn’t for the continued tempo). The perfectly zany accompaniment to a desperately cheerful presentation of a world long gone.

6. The Chemical Brothers – Hanna (2011)

I mean, this is a movie that was advertising “MUSIC BY THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS” in its own title card and y’know what? I totally get it. The music is perhaps the most irreplaceable part of Joe Wright’s action thriller – maybe the single biggest reason it’s the only movie of his that I actively like – and it guides us in a poppy way through the cool (in both senses of the world) life of that otherwise distant badass that Saoirse Ronan plays in the film. Probably the score that I’m most likely to put on just because I wanted to listen to it.

5. Hans Zimmer – Rango (2011)

I am a snotty little prick who has almost no use for Hans Zimmer as a composer, but y’know what, he does have his occasional moments when he’s on. And when he’s on, he’s on fucking fire. And I guess something in Rango‘s cod-genre stylings meant that he found license to just indulge in any possible genre of music (and any genre of movie music) leading to the most amusing variety in styles that he could just throw in off the top of his head. And clearly when he couldn’t create it wholesale, he’d just happily steal it! (not for nothing did I elect to include the music cue that includes not ONE but two pieces of famous classical music making an appearance) It’s just part of the eagerness to just make you entertained by any means as the rest of Rango lives by and I’m not going to possibly complain if that means busting out the surf rock.

4. Cliff Martinez – The Neon Demon (2016)

Yep, these sorts of wobbling glittering electric tones are exactly what I would expect to heart on the catwalk to Hell. Martinez has already proven to be an excellent collaborator to Nicholas Winding Refn when it comes to different sides of Los Angeles, but Drive‘s music still had a sense of warmth to it that The Neon Demon has absolutely no time for and is all the better for it. For a movie trying to go between shallow beauty and encroaching threat, it’s the perfect accompaniment.

3. Alexandre Desplat – Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Ah now, we see the composer who made it in twice and confessedly I don’t feel so bad when Moonrise Kingdom is basically one giant piece of music in several variations. And a tough call it was to decide if I prefer the completeness of The Grand Budapest Hotel musical opus or the singularity of “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe”. I think I went with this at the higher place for the fact that it is maybe one of my favorite pieces of movie music ever made with a patient sense of progression and eagerness for you to recognize each little note popping in to say hi while knowing it’s building to something cosmic and large and letting you brace for it when it’s time. It’s the sound of opening rain drops in my head before a storm writ playfully, a musical reminder of the climactic hurricane to come, modulating well enough to ease us in and out while introducing a brand new arrangement with each appearance. And at the end of the day, it’s basically just a Benjamin Britten homage meant to be appealing to children so the fact that the very last few minutes of the music (and credits itself) lean into it just keep me from taking it too seriously after being swept up.

2. Daft Punk – TRON: Legacy (2010)

“The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture, clusters of information, as they move through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits freeways? I kept dreaming of a world, I thought I’d never see…” I think in those opening lines, I recognize what Daft Punk was trying to do with TRON: Legacy. They tried to apply the same principles of their electronic beats whenever they called for an orchestra and then apply the classical principles to their electronic elements like a topsy-turvy translation between the digital and the organic in music form. The attempts at flowing sweeps with Daft Punk’s sampling like when a movie score is journeying with its protagonist and the repetitions of patterns within the orchestra to simulate underlying beats brings a dynamic unlike anything I’ve ever heard prior in movie music. It’s a one-time thing, you can’t simulate that sense of surprise, but boy did it wallop when I first saw TRON: Legacy.

Anyway TRON: Legacy works as a glorified music video to Daft Punk more than anything else, including movie, so I just have to big it up to the most unforgettable part of one of my favorite movie theater experiences of the decade.

  1. Jóhann Jóhannsson – Mandy (2018)

I think in the Mandy review, I claimed that Jóhannsson’s penultimate score was the closest I’ll get to hearing a Buckethead feature score and now I feel like that’s just ridiculously reductive. Mandy‘s score is a beast of its own kind but absolutely everything I could possibly want from music, attached to a movie or otherwise. It’s between heart-hooking soft motifs and physically crushing dark tones, amped up to a degree that make you feel pushed deeper and deeper into the Earth by the heft of it all. It’s obviously recognizable at progressive metal (it would have to be since the protagonist and the namesake are both prog and metalheads), but it’s also doesn’t have the luxury of metal musical phrasing… it picks one note, the thickest and heaviest it can and buries you beneath it for the length of a scene. Or – in the moments of soft emotion – it picks an arpeggio chord and lets that comfort and embrace you before slamming right back into the violence of its sound. It speaks to me on a deep emotional level that few music does, but it’s so primal and bold enough that anybody can get hit by the full blast of overtly tragic emotions. It’s a very affective score. One of Jóhannsson’s last acts here was to dissect the brutal core of another musical genre and strip it down to a basic cosmic emotional tapestry. It may be the case that Jóhannsson could only do so for metal because he was certainly a metalhead, but I trust that he showed an intelligence in this score that I think could be applied to anything else. Just as much as Mandy‘s score has me walking away affected by it, it has me walking away thinking about how all sorts of music could be expanded in such a way.

And this is just the music… wait until I talk about the rest of the movie…

The Best Movie Moments of the 2010s

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And now we get the duel side. When I think of great movie moments, I think of the line from Barton Fink “Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to jump out and sing?” and I think there’s a lot of that and more in the following movie scenes. And somehow even when I did claim in the Worst Moments list that bad movie moments feel like an eternity, I don’t find the opposite to be true in moments of pure ecstasy in movies for me: the duration remains as is, but something about the leftover bliss from the moment feels timeless and weightless to me.

Maybe I’m just a weirdo. Anyway, let’s move right along. Just to note, I kind of tried to avoid as many movies that are going to be in my top 150 of the decade as possible (and that this list could have easily been longer), but honestly… sometimes you just gotta give it up and walk away.

The Best Movie Moments of the 2010s

(And one again… SPOILERS! but this time for good movie moments)

First Flight – How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

You never forget your first, do you? Even with improved resources for each subsequent movie neither the franchise or Dreamworks Animation ever came back to the emotional heights of the breezy first half of this test flight or the adrenaline rush of that return to control where Toothless and Hiccup zip into the rocks cutting through the wind with us there alongside John Powell’s wonderfully sweeping score cue.

We’ll All Burn Together – Toy Story 3 (2010)

I don’t even know what to say about this moment and the way that this movie stands besides Up as the ultimate Pixar “make you fucking cry!” movie that hasn’t already been said. All I can note is that it was a tough call between this scene and the curtain call Andy gives each character when he gives the toys away and I think I responded a lot more to the way that this uses infernal imagery and a sense of hopelessness to deliver a moment where the characters still decide that they’re a family together at the end of it all and the miraculous deus ex machina that relieves us of that sense of doom at the moment where it is most unbearable. Is it much for the grand finale of what was (originally) a trilogy? I don’t think so. I think it turned Toy Story 3 into opera.

“I See the Light” – Tangled (2010)

Not the best SONG in Tangled, just the best scene and frankly the one that convinced me to play ball for a while with Walt Disney Animation Studios’ turn to CG animation before they betrayed me with shit like Big Hero 6 and Ralph Breaks the Internet. The way that the warm and complex lighting plays around with the 2D/3D balance without losing track of how it’s supposed to be the source of all the visual romance sold me hard on the potentials of Disney sticking to this practice.

Arms Around Me – The Artist (2011)

Not that Jean DuJardin didn’t give an excellent performance in this weirdly forgotten Best Picture winner (sure, Hazanavicius has went on to suck but I still dig this movie and the first OSS 117 film), but it’s amazing that the world watched Bérénice Bejo deliver a one-man-show of sensuality with just a jacket sleeve and her arms and eyes exploring around and we decided to give her nothing.

The Case – Super 8 (2011)

I don’t know if it was easy for you guys to lose track of the fact that Super 8‘s whole inciting incident is kids in midwest trying to make their own home movie but I spent most of the mostly fine monster movie (it’s the only J.J. Abrams picture that I think I’d rewatch on a whim, simply because I’m a sucker for even cod-Spielbergians) hoping to Hell we’ll get to see the final product. Thankfully during the credits, my wish was granted. And it has all the sort of genuine charm you’d expect from watching a bunch of kids trying to make some backyard genre picture with enough polish from being in a real production that it doesn’t feel like you’re condescending to your neighbor’s kid for the sake of their encouragement.

“The Star-Spangled Man” – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Even in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (of which the arrow scene and opening credits of Vol. 2 are a close second and third), I don’t think there was ever a moment in Marvel Cinematic Universe since this film that had me so firmly on its wavelength. The musical number by Alan Menken, the eagerness to indulge and parody old-timey wartime patriotism, to parody the concept of the superhero itself as just a concept used for propaganda, and just the fact the old photography look of the moment feels more distinct than the cod-realism that the rest of the Earth-bound MCU (including this movie’s sequels, sadly) felt chained to. It’s the single most playful moment in the whole brand and I wish more of it had moments like this.

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Post-Coitus Clean-Up – Weekend (2011)

Sadly could not find the clip on YouTube (which probably has more than a little bit to do with how it’s immediately after a sex scene) but even for someone as prudish as I am who doesn’t care much for explicit sex on-screen (I expect the hangup’s the result of a pretty conservative Muslim upbringing, but on the bright side, it also means that Lubitsch and code-era screwball innuendos work WONDERS on me), there’s something wonderfully refreshing about a movie that is able to deliver a sex-positive sequence that also is candid about the fact that sex involves bodily fluids and sure, that’s gonna have to get cleaned up after we’ve all had fun. It’s one of many moments in this masterpiece (that I’m fearing is getting forgotten by everyone except the queer community) that mixes the erotic with the human.

“You’re gonna die… that’s what’s happening.” – The Grey (2011)

I’m not saying anything that anyone else in the world didn’t already know but The Grey gets a whole lot of its profundity from how soon Liam Neeson dived into a movie about mortality and accepting it after becoming a tragic widower in real life. Giving Neeson a moment where he has to watch a man die and talk him through the process in a way that is calming and serene is a hell of a thing to witness in that process, largely added by the yin-yang of the chilly threatening atmosphere of the entire movie and Neeson’s warm roast of a voice. I can’t imagine what went through his mind to do this scene, but the result is spiritually beautiful.

 

“Pony” – Magic Mike (2012)

Probably the most popular scene of the movie (I don’t know of anyone who discusses the movie at this point without mentioning the Ginuwine track), but it makes my list for a reason that I don’t think enough people mention: the back and forth with Cody Horn watching Channing Tatum show off his incredible dance moves, where Horn has the most neutral face you could possible have and thereby sort of acting as a continuous cleanse regarding our response to watching a sizzling striptease. Steven Soderbergh is always full of little experiments in cutting like this and the fact that he took a chance at doing so with his stripper movie is like Christmas in July for me. I think I saw this movie in July when it came out too…

“Let It Go” – Frozen (2013)

Yes, I get it. It’s overplayed by this point, especially if you’re the doomed parent of a child born around the year 2013 but… it works so fucking well. It is arguably the best song of either Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s career to begin with, containing the most evocative lyrics a Disney film has been blessed with since the master Howard Ashman died. It takes the fact that this movie is basically just Tangled on ice and rolls with that answer to blue lighting hard and it also has the most interesting character animation for Elsa (given that it’s the only time she does get to feel three-dimensional as a human with her own wants, weird for a crypto-antagonist but given the way the movie develops… this was the best way to be weird). It’s just all around big and wonderful in a way that earns your child screaming to play it over and over again like Ilsa from Hell.

“Caravan” – Whiplash (2014)

Try as hard as I might to pretend otherwise, my least favorite Damien Chazelle film has his single best sequence and keeps it at the very end so we’re stuck on the high of its existence (even La La Land tries to have its version of this sequence, but it gets closer to this height with the Freed Homage Finale or “Another Day of Sun” sequence). It’s the moment that Chazelle’s aesthetic finally breaks out of its limited shot scales and actively breaks away from the familiar rhythms in the cutting to turn this performance into a physically active piece of cinema, turning us all around the instrumentation, the notation, the sweats, even when the second half of this sequence (the drum solo itself) starts reverting back to the old ways. It’s an ambitious translation of camera movements and transitions to the untamable swing of jazz.

Prison Riot – The Raid 2 (2014)

Honestly, pick any fucking setpiece from either Raid movie. I was very close to going with either the car chase or the kitchen fight, but I think this won out for me simply on the brutal chaos of it all: listening to the sounds of people breaking apart and watching the carnage all get lost in the gray mud so that it’s just violent white noise – with the camera trying to catch everything at once and having to settle for “big moment” after “big moment” – not only ends up working as ambitious spectacle but also gives more credence towards the movie’s unexpected theme about how the fighting just becomes exhausting and unstoppable once it gets to a certain line. But also, fuck it, I’ll add the Kitchen Fight here so y’all can watch the bloody version of this type of “I’m tired of killing” moment.

The Story of Creation – Noah (2014)

The most I’ve ever been moved by a Darren Aronofsky film. It’s basically like if Guy Maddin had to adapt the universe sequence from The Tree of Life, delivering visual profundities with Russell Crowe’s grizzled narration at high speed chunks – that continuous slow motion kaleidoscope of death via silhouette particularly wows me – all for the sake of ending at the angry pessimism that this incarnation of Noah embodies after the movie tries to show us the wonders of the universe coming into birth. It’s the most complex and ambitious moment that Aronofsky has ever performed and I wish we’d see more of this side of his sloppy gung-ho style rather than mother!

“Diamonds” – Girlhood (2014)

Gorgeously rendered in cool blues, giving itself a visual arc from a single close-up to a four-shot medium, dancing around to feel as involved with this newfound sense of community as our young protagonist, and honestly this scene and the K Mart scene in American Honey convinced me for two years that Rihanna was the greatest ever (until I relistened to the involved songs without the visuals). Just as beautiful as spectacle as it as beautiful as empowering portrayal of found sisterhood. I would have never ever guessed that Céline Sciamma had it in her to outdo this movie but y’know what? We’ll get to that later.

Chase in the Chicago Skies – Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Here’s a thing about Jupiter Ascending that I really love: I think it’s the one movie where the Wachowskis actually found a way to mix between the overflowing fantasy and the mundane. And I think this is the moment that really visually indicates this, not just because it features basically an intense spaceship chase against some of the most loving photography regarding Chicago in the nighttime. It’s the selection of camera movements and refusal to retain one scale per shot – the way the z-axis exists, but our orientation to it is never the same because we have our two protagonists swinging at different angles while spinning around to avoid the alien assassins – that really sells that level of dedication to me: Jupiter Ascending‘s Chicago chase was basically trying to adapt the boundless of animation (or, be for fucking real, animé in particular knowing the Wachowskis’ tastes) to live-action photography and choreography, refusing to allow physics to constrain that (and why should they since it’s an effects-heavy spectacle?) It’s a brand-new vocabulary for action cinema that I didn’t see anywhere else this decade except (the animated) Incredibles 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I feel like it is a severe crime of mine that I didn’t see this movie in 3D given the physical sweep of this scene alone – I tried though, to the point of leaving the theater I originally bought tickets for and going to another one only to learn they had no 3D screenings that night either – but that’s nothing compared to the way you fools slept on this movie.

Dueling Rituals – The Wailing (2016)

Assaultive at a primal level, throwing us between fiery and loud blasts of sound and dancing to a deafeningly quiet and slow piece even before the actual aggression between the two enactors of these ritual begins and we start watching blood shed. It is truly understandable why any child who has to experience this would find it upsetting – possessed or not – and the fact that the movie uses cutting and noise to get us just as erratic and unnerved by it (to the point that her chilling screams are basically drowned out by everything else going on) crowns Na Hong-jin as a master of tension between three different scenes going on at once.

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New Messages – Personal Shopper (2016)

Shamefully another scene that I can’t get off of YouTube, but suffice it to say that watching Kristen Stewart receive unknown texts from a ghost and try to make sense of it all gave me more tension than anything else. Just watching three dots bump up and waiting for the results got me holding my breath.

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Triangle Land – World of Tomorrow: Episode 2 – The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017)

The sequence I can say the least about as it is amongst one of the best surprises of a year that I otherwise really didn’t care much for. All I can say is that it was totally affecting in a way that I did not expect even a master like Don Hertzfeldt was capable of.

Helicopter Chase – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Be for real, how the fuck was the scene where Tom Cruise pilots a fucking helicopter (and operates the helicopter’s cameras!!!) in the middle of a chase through mountainous terrain not going to fucking be on this list? What do you think, I’m clinically dead?!

The Birth of a Nation – BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Spike Lee is up there with Martin Scorsese as one of the great film students turned filmmakers and I think his knowledge of film history is frankly more present in his work than Scorsese’s movies. And yet I think the pinnacle of it all is where he utilizes one of the major innovations of D.W. Griffith – the cross-cut between two events – and alongside the help of Harry Belafonte’s long hardened delivery of an account regarding Jesse Washington’s horrifying lynching, indicts Griffith’s notorious The Birth of a Nation the first major narrative movie (at least for anybody who forgets Cabiria exists) for emboldening the sort of heinous violence that black people would suffer for the century and change since. And it’s such an angry and pointed usage of cinema as weapon against itself that I don’t just think it’s possibly the best scene of the decade, it may even be the best piece of film criticism of the decade.

“The Eagle Has Landed” – First Man (2018)/Apollo 11 (2019)

Shamefully the First Man version is the only one available on YouTube, but if you have an opportunity to see Apollo 11 (I think it’s on Hulu), I greatly encourage it (it’s also better than First Man). Side by side, these two scenes portray the exact same historical event as thrilling incidents from entirely different perspectives: First Man gives us that view inside of the shuttle hoping that we don’t crash as it begins shaking and vibrating and Justin Hurwitz’s score swells while Apollo 11 basically gives us the distance to watch this dot with hypnotic statistical rhythm for us to wait and see that we don’t witness some awful tragedy. And that’s just wild given that we know the outcome from the beginning, but I suppose making us hold our breath for moments that we already know will work is one of the best things to experience with documentaries or historical dramas.

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“Pump Up the Jam” – Synonyms (2019)

Sadly yet another scene where I can’t find the clip on YouTube (which is a shame because I know I had it linked for my 2019 Wrap-Up list so I guess that was taken down now) but suffice it to say that it a brilliant utilization of how camera levels can take the same moment and make them blow up in a moment of ecstatic clarity. It’s like a jump in escalation without taking time to rise and the way that the sequence trusts to catch up the sudden dancing heads and arms after being brought to that height. It brought a big smile out of my face, I must say.

Vivaldi – Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I feel like I’ve already given away the game by naming the composer, but the final extended shot of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a moment that utilizes one of the most overplayed pieces of classical music around effectively as underscore for a dramatically devastating singular moment that only needs a zoom and one very dedicated bit of acting to leave us a wreck. Especially in the context of the film, so like… if you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t watch this fucking clip. Go straight to Hulu and watch the whole fucking thing.

Cartagena Chase – Gemini Man (2019)

The single moment that convinced me that high frame rate was worth a damn and shamefully the YouTube clip can’t deliver it through 3D or 120 frames per second, but I like to hope that it still delivers enough of what made this sequence so present and threatening and zipping to earn this spot over the Fast Five cartoon safe chase scene or anything from John Wick 3: Parabellum.

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“Macarena” – Richard Jewell (2019)

I get that Clint Eastwood has lost favor with critics, but I’m damned if I can see why. I think he’s shown capable of plenty of surprises and one of them is how human-oriented this concert scene – which again no YouTube clip available – before the tragic event is: surveying faces smiling, having a good time, to the rhythm of one of the most obnoxiously familiar songs of the 1990s. It’s relaxed and unhurried and a reminder of how many living stories were saved by the future actions of our protagonist.

The Worst Movie Moments of the 2010s

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The fortunate thing about a moment in time is that it has an end. So when I come across a length of anything that is awful to experience, there’s always the knowledge that it’s not gonna last forever and that it can be put behind me too. But then again… you know how long time feels when you have to spend it with something fucking awful? Get Thee Behind Me, Shitty Movie Moments!

Anyway, I tried to pick moments of magnitude relevant to the movie surrounding them rather than just moments from the shittiest movies (ie. Birdemic: Shock and Terror – especially given how the movie is full of boring driving scenes and bad compositing of screensaver effects so there’s never just the ONE scene), which would be the easiest thing to do and not as fun an exercise. Those other shitty movies shall have their time, I promise you.

The 20 Worst Movie Moments of the 2010s

(OH AND SPOILER ALERTS FOR SEVERAL MOVIES, OBVIOUSLY)

Have a Slurpee – Step Up 3D (2010)

More a so-bad-it’s-good scene that especially felt so weirdly gnatty and like shit was getting stuck in my eyes watching it in 3D, which is probably the point but I’m not sure it’s a noble point to have. Anyway, the sheer delight on the actors’ faces make this a hard scene to hate anyway and that the movie thinks this is the perfect moment to button the central romance is kind of adorable. So admittedly this list does not get any tolerable from here.

Disqualified: I have in fact decided this scene does not belong anywhere near the list and replaced it with a more deserving scene that I will not point out from the list below. Please proceed.

“War” – Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

“Absolutely naught!” says Emily Blunt. “Absolutely not!” says I.

The Return of Leslie Chow – The Hangover Part II (2011)

I’m saying the same thing everyone else said when they mentioned that The Hangover Part II was just a ripe-ass recycling of The Hangover‘s plot and humor beats. But the re-invitation of Leslie Chow as a character is where I knew I was doomed for the next hour. I honestly don’t get Ken Jeong (as a comic! As a person, he seems like a phenomenally good guy). Even at his best – Community and Crazy Rich Asians – he finds a way to feel shrill.

The Smurfs (2011) meet Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays

I promise it’s not just because you’re watching it in 2020 that the Smurfs seem to barely exist on the same plane as the real world. I’m sure I can think of one worse instance of professional actors being unconvincing at interacting with a character that doesn’t have an on-camera presence, but it’s not coming to me and I just rewatched Neil Patrick Harris lose at it.

It’s a Jit! – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011)

In the words of Mean Girls, “Don’t have sex. Because you’ll get pregnant and then you’ll die.” This was wild, this was like PureFlix’s dark and gritty reboot.

“It’s the Slow Knife That Cuts the Deepest” – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

It’s very hard to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard in this movie and not find it frustrating that Christopher Nolan just wanted to reuse them for the exact same archetypes they performed in Inception but the lateness with which they decide to introduce Cotillard’s true identity in the film AND allow her to have an extensive supervillain monologue that just adds to the many many things about The Dark Knight Rises that makes little sense narratively – let alone ideologically as several viewers like to apply to it – and also curses us with the first time I’ve ever seen Cotillard give a bad performance. I wish the enclosed clip didn’t stop until after Bane goes on to give a supervillain hissy fit that doesn’t resemble anything about his character to that moment.

Praying for Death – Dracula 3D (2012)

You’re watching this shit for the first time on YouTube probably. Imagine seeing this in 3D. The latest work of master Dario Argento, ladies and gentlemen.

“I’ll put them motherfucking handcuffs on my motherfucking self!” – End of Watch (2012)

I swear to God, I hated this scene loooooong before recent events made this scene age like fucking ass (granted, the long history of police brutality is a big part of why I already hated this scene). Even if we’re willing to ignore the implications of police officers being glorified for beating up a black man in his own home because “lol there’re so real broo!” (and I beg you not to ignore that), David Ayer has many times proven himself to be as lacking in grace with his action cinema as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder and throwing him a pseudo-found footage movie just adds to constant obscuration of anything except chest and Michael Peña’s face. And the movie was already fucking ugly lit, but that’s like… most of Ayer’s movies, doesn’t even need the “bodycam” shit as an excuse.

“Bring Him Home” – Les Misérables (2012)

Heartbreaking to me. I love this movie a lot more than people would claim it deserves but I’m a deep devotée of Victor Hugo, the musical itself, and… honestly of Tom Hooper. And yet this is one of the few moments of this admittedly messy but still emotionally resonant movie that I just can’t defend: Jackman is fucking RUINING my favorite song in the musical. He starts at fucking 11 (aren’t the mics supposed to be on these actors? He can stand to, y’know, modulate the dynamics here) and constantly uses so much vibrato it would probably explode a soda can. I know this sounds like I’m nitpicking but it’s a pretty important song and moment to me and I just have to point out why my otherwise second-favorite adaptation (behind Bernard, baybee!) of one of my favorite books ended up falling flat for me.

All in the Family – Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

I know that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise has no good sequels and several that are amongst the worst movie experiences I’ve had (including this one – I’ve toyed with making a Best 3D of the 2010s list, which I don’t think will happen – but by God, this would make the opposite of that list) but surely there have to be enough devotées remaining to be legit outraged by how it’s finally taken Leatherface and domesticated him to a glorified pet with a chainsaw so that Alexandra Daddario’s character – who watched all her friends slaughtered by this beast of a man – can decide he’s actually pretty cuddly. Maybe the reason it didn’t make an uproar is because we’ve been scared off enough by the Matthew McConaughey one.

“I was wrong… I hate you after all.” – The Garden of Words (2013)

Pretty much all of Makoto Shinkai’s features have a final third act that crashes and burns with a vengeance, but this scene specifically has no peers between Your Name. and Weathering with You in “Oh my god no what the fuck are you doing?” I’m going to confess that this movie has raised in my esteem over the past few years (as you will see in a later list), but none of my rewatches have ever allowed me to brace enough for how fucking wrong-headed this entire scene is. I am tempted to use the word “toxic” about it: the age gap is already enough for pause, but the way that this kid turns to being a vehicle for something between negging and mansplaining and the movie treats this as virtuous enough to transform its Manic Pixie Dream Girl makes me feel sick. Thankfully, the movie kind of cools down in its limited time so that I can finish shuddering before the credits.

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” – Jersey Boys (2014)

They tried really hard to arrange the music so that it sounds like epic movie music and not only is that not convincing, it’s even less convincing when it’s placed against a voice that sounds like a helium balloon losing air. I was once interested in a Clint Eastwood musical, but y’know what? Never ever ever fucking ever again.

“2625” – Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Y’know, you wouldn’t guess it here but the first Kingsman was a pretty classy film up until about this point – very late in the game, the first half of the clip takes place in the last fifteen minutes and the second half is the outright end – and restrained itself from an sophomoric sex humor and then this happens. And I’d be less bothered if the joke was actually funny – the code to the door is the only part of the movie that I laughed at – but it’s not and all it does is continue that long line of male movie fantasies get to have sex with imprisoned women as a prize, this time with anal sex tossed in as an extra.

The pen is mightier than… nothing – Nine Lives (2016)

I mean, sure, this cat is fucking CGI but I still feel bad for it here. The way that body bends and its face morphs cannot be painless for even fake visual effects.

Take the Train – Darkest Hour (2017)

The worst of the Oscarbait moments from a decade full of astonishingly hokey treatments of controversial historic figures as just like the rest of us, bar fucking none. Worse than The Iron Lady, worse than Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s too visually depressed to feel as fun as it’s trying to be and the fact that we’re meant to buy Churchill in agreement with a black man and taking his “we will fight” speeches from children on the train like a moment profundity just brings out the “FUCK OFF!” in me.

Rinkside Freudian Therapy – Molly’s Game (2017)

The worst scene in a movie I liked, the worst scene of a year I hated, the worst writing for a woman character from a writer I otherwise dig who has long shown his ass in writing for women, and maybe even the worst scene of that writer’s entire career. Throw this sequence any possible “worst of” superlative and it fucking deserves it for how Aarok Sorkin takes one of his best protagonists puts her through some shitty dimestore Freudianism to reveal Molly Sorkin’s problem is that she hates men because her dad is a shitty husband (delivered by her dad no less). It is wild how much worse this scene gets as it goes on: the message movie hip quippery, the complete about face in tones, pseudo-psychology.

“OK, I’ll hold…” – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

To be fair to this scene, it is the precursor to maybe The Last Jedi‘s best sequence – the Dreadnought battle complete with bomber mini-story (although the Thone Room fight is a hard contender) – but having this moment is way too stiff to be actually funny and having it be THE opener promised me that the same sort of pseudo-irreverence and lack of commitment to any moment that The Force Awakens had still survives in the rest of the trilogy. And if you really wanted irreverence, you cannot convince me that this is funnier than anything Lord and Miller would have had in Solo.

 “That looks lit.” – Vice (2018)

Imagine being Adam McKay and thinking you’ve made movies smarter than the Fast & Furious franchise simply because you’ve known the same things about Dick Cheney that fucking everybody alive between 2000 and 2008 already knew. What an offputting moment of contempt for your audience.

A Night at the Opera – Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

Sure, TECHNICALLY the worst scene is where Peter accidentally tries to drone strike someone with Tony Stark weapons for hitting on MJ but also I don’t think a franchise that has had one good score motif in all of the music composed for it for the past 12 years gets to talk shit about Opera, son.

“Fuck you!” – It Chapter Two (2019)

You know exactly which moment of this movie I’m talking about. You know exactly which five seconds. Did the sound editor fall asleep with his IPod attached to the computer or something? Like where the hell did this needle drop decision come from? There’s 0 logic in it.

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A riot of a sex scene – Queen & Slim (2019)

The only movie moment on this list that I could not find a YouTube clip of, but take my word for it. I actually like Queen & Slim and was impressed by how far it got before it lost me but oh quickly it lost me once this moment rolled up. Some of the most “absolutely not, what the fuck is going on” cross-cutting happening I remember in a while.

Best Surprises of the 2010s

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When it comes to bad expectations, I like to think that everyone would like to be proven wrong. Nobody wants to go to a bad movie and everybody wants to like a movie they see. It’s always pleasant to find yourself having a good time, but that feeling just gets so much more amplified when delivered in ways that you weren’t expecting: whether due to your apprehension, lack of warning, or just by surpassing your imagination. Either way, a good time is a good time and an unexpected good time is a fucking great time. And the best kind of prize is a sur-prize so here we go looking at…

THE BEST SURPRISES OF THE 2010s

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Ramona & Beezus (2010, Elizabeth Allen, USA)

Probably doesn’t say very nice things about me that I expect little from modern children’s movies (largely because the preceding decade the 2000s – and being raised off of it – meant that I experienced first hand how little studios trust young audiences), but the treatment of Beverly Cleary’s work here as low-key intelligent and emotional really took me by surprise and that it was able to deliver this in the pleasant attitude that kids movies are have to have to work at all is just as endearing to me.

Insidious (2010, James Wan, USA & Canada) & The Conjuring (2013, James Wan, USA)

One great horror movie from the director of Saw? It must be a complete fluke, especially since Insidious crashes by the end. TWO great horror movies from the director of Saw? At that point, I have seen the light and outside of Insidious: Chapter 2 tripping the momentum a bit, Wan has reliably shown himself to be the better half of between him and Leigh Whannell as a creative team (though Whannell has lately proven himself to be a more thoughtful director than writer, so they both have talent in their own way).

Pariah and Mudbound (2011-’17, Dee Rees, USA)

The Last Thing He Wanted knocked a bit of the energy with which I would have followed Dee Rees wherever the hell she went after these two, but it’s still there. Mudbound was the one I was less optimistic about so there’s a bit more exceeding of expectations there, but Pariah also showed a controlled thoughtfulness on the application of color and soft light based on mood of the character that immensely transformed this character study into something dazzling. And it’s for that reason, I smugly feel ahead of the game when it took people up to Arrival to be on Team Bradford Young and meanwhile I was there from the beginning.

Winnie the Pooh (2011, Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall, USA)

I was honestly surprised that Walt Disney Animation Studios still had one more traditionally animated movie in them during their lamentable shift to full-time CG (and maybe the unfortunate box office performance of this movie played a part in them not having returned in the past 9 years) but I was even more surprised that they actively did as much as they could to re-create the warm power of the 1977 film rather than just coast on by with the brand-name to remind kids they still have Winnie the Pooh toys. It’s basically what the sort of magical reincarnation I wanted out of The Muppets.

Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish, UK) and The Kid Who Would Be King (2019, Joe Cornish, UK & USA)

I’m getting to the age where I start to think “I wish I had this movie in my life as a kid” with new releases and Joe Cornish has tapped into that inner child for me twice over. Attack the Block is frankly the only movie that has met John Boyega’s screen charisma with a worthy movie (you’re adorable, Star Wars fans) and also boasts some of the most excellent nighttime urban cinematography I’ve seen in a long time while The Kid Who Would Be King is so excited to adopt basic Arthuriana to a kids’ tale and to input some worthwhile bedtime horror movie aesthetics into it all. Joe Cornish is the most on-kids’-level person in cinema I can think of since Jack Black.

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21 Jump Street (2012, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA) and The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA Denmark & Australia)

Two can’t win concepts that are obviously conceived out of synergy and brand work. And Lord and Miller instead transformed them into wonderfully self-reflexive and energetic diversions in their own right – The Lego Movie being the denser film, but 21 Jump Street having an endless grab bag of comedy styles to throw in. I don’t entirely disbelieve that moving to a big-budget picture was a daunting task for the two of them, but I can’t help thinking they weren’t entirely playing ball with the Sacred Lore of the Star Wars franchise and that daring is what got them kicked off of Solo.

Antiviral (2012, Brandon Cronenberg, Canada & France)

Well, Brandon is definitely his father’s son – exploring the same concepts and genre staples that David had perfected upon in the decades prior – but it’s honestly promising to see him find a new avenue and perspective with which to dissect the appalling gruesomeness of the body horror genre and tie it to a future vision that has just the right concerns to feel present even in its sterile theatricality. Basically, yes, this is totally a movie by a Cronenberg, but it’s also a movie I don’t think David could have ever conceived upon.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012, John Hyams, USA)

I’ve mentioned this movie in, what, two previous lists by now? I swear this is the end of the mentions for this movie but it is sincerely shocking that such a smart and exciting piece of action cinema could come from… I repeat, a direct-to-video sequel to a Roland Emmerich film that stars Jean-Claude Van Damme. “Fine” would already be better than this movie should be, it is full-on thrilling.

American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell, USA)

I know that David O. Russell has fallen way out of favor critically (and that’s to say nothing of what a real piece of shit he is as a human being) but I can’t pretend I won’t miss the way he had a talent for just throwing characters in a blender of drama and trusted his actors to organically develop things from there (y’know, when he wasn’t yelling at them). And it really blows my mind that this movie of all pictures was the one that got us deciding that Russell was not a good storyteller, given how amazingly it juggles several different focuses (politics, gritty crime, romance, family) and delivers it in such a hilarious and messy but human package about people who hurt themselves and others by lying.

The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard, USA)

So there’s definitely a running theme in this list (as probably was going to be expected) regarding directors that I really don’t care delivering a movie that I found myself having a very good time with. And The Guest is very good fucking time and much as I’d love to credit it all strictly to Dan Stevens’ psychotic charisma, I also have to admit that it’s the first (and given Blair Witch and Death Note after it, the only) Wingard and Barrett movie that doesn’t feel above its trash cinema concept. Each time I’ve seen it – three times now – I find myself more and more pulled into the gleeful homage of it all and less of any cynicism that put me way the hell of the mumblegore group in the first place.

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Two Days, One Night (2014, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium France & Italy)

Feels weird to say this about a movie looking into paralyzing economic and emotional anxiety (especially at the current state of the world, which divebombed in a way that this movie did not foresee), but it’s honestly a quietly enjoyable and mildly optimistic film where the cast of almost entire unknowns (outside of Marion Cotillard, who I think is only the second time the Dardennes used a movie star) still portray the kinds of fears the working class have in their situation where capitalism pits them against each other in cruel ways but also have enough of a sense of community to try to do the right thing in smaller ways that can build up. So the surprise is that a movie I walked into the Cannes Palais fearing would make me feel desolate left me kind of inspired.

The President (2014, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia France UK & Germany)

I have to confess that of the major Iranian New Wave filmmakers around, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the one that I have the least familiarity with. But the impression I’ve gotten from his work is definitely not one of the bitter sarcasm of The President, which is a satire that holds no punches back towards brutal dictator regimes. And while Makhmalbaf does recognize that the central character of this film is a human – just as impressionable and reachable as the rest of us – it just goes to show that even the kindest of filmmakers can get really mean when he needs to be and Makhmalbaf would definitely know better than most what he’s talking about when it comes to the cruelty of dictators.

Zombeavers (2014, Jordan Rubin, USA)

You go to a movie titled Zombeavers expecting something so-bad-it’s-good. You don’t go in expecting to be unironically amused by it all but that’s exactly how Zombeavers with its game sense of horror movie parody and the loving craftsmanship of its titular monster puppets. I deeply deeply want a Zombeaver plush toy. Please make one.

John Wick (2014, Chad Stahelski & David Leitch, USA)

Oh yeah, it’s very easy to walk into a John Wick movie now and know you’re getting pure action movie excellence, but at first glance “Keanu Reeves kills people in vengeance for his baby puppy” seems like the kind of movie you buy off the bargain bin of a Walmart store (complete with me being able to picture it replacing Nicolas Cage instead of Keanu Reeves). Instead, it’s proven itself to build off unexpectedly sophisticated action setpieces with a sense of structure and humor to them that made me eager to see it again. Do you know how hard it was to convince Josh to watch this movie? I still haven’t convinced him and he’s already been a convert because of Parabellum but I promise he will one day see the light.

A Most Violent Year (2014, J.C. Chandor, USA)

Nothing about Chandor’s previous work – Margin Call and All Is Lost, both of which have been shown him to be one of the decade’s great breakout filmmakers – implied to me that Chandor was interested in looking back and delivering something with classicism in its makeup. But here we are with A Most Violent Year maintaining the same sense of thrilling urgency as his other pictures but now delivered in the clothes of post-New Hollywood 70s New York crime drama and all the chilliness surrounding it and somehow it’s able to balance that assured ambiance while still feeling wholly modern in its editing and shooting (hello again to our man Bradford Young!)? Mirabile dictu!

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Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick, USA)

That’s what I get for doubting Terrence Malick, but it’s not just the return to camp Malick that made this such a pleasant surprise. It was the revelation that Malick was done with his previous style of structuring his films and now was trying out brand new principles in this film. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but they were all fresh to my eyes and that Emmanuel Lubezki was willing to follow along with his most playful work to date just continues to make this music to my ears.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder, USA)

Look, I walked in expecting the worst popcorn movie of the decade. Possibly the century. If it was just that I didn’t get a movie as bad as I feared, this wouldn’t be on the list. It was how this movie almost totally reversed course from the newly-stale formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which was obviously expected the moment anyone saw a trailer and realized they couldn’t see a thing) but also how much of that approach landed. Not all of it, arguably not even most of it. But enough to feel like this was a more satisfying experience than I think people admit (and frankly that the DCEU refined – rather than abandoned – this aesthetic in the superior Wonder Woman and Aquaman).

Lost in Paris (2016, Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon, France & Belgium)

I had never even heard of Abel and Gordon but imagine my joy after walking out of this wonderful physical comedy, that they had plenty of earlier cinematic works for me to indulge in. You don’t really this kind of wonderfully charming comedy that much these days, the kind that knows the inherent amusement in the rhythm and shapes and movements of the human body, aspiring for the feats of living cartoon but still humbly utilizing elements that only live-action can deliver. They haven’t made anything new yet and there’s still one movie of theirs I can see for the first time, The Fairy, but boy am I going to get impatient once I have to wait for new Abel/Gordon.

Trolls, The Boss Baby, and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2016-’17, Mike Mitchell/Tom McGrath/David Soren, USA)

It feels like an eternity ago but it was mildly disappointing that Dreamworks Animation Studios was on the edge of closing down because Home looked like a surefire bomb. At that time, it was disappointing only because it would have been nice to have variety in one’s choice of CG animation powerhouse studio. Now, we have the hindset of 5 years later and we see exactly what our reward is for tolerating Home as a picture enough that its box office saved the studio: for the first time ever, Dreamworks Animation actually decided to explore different possibilities for their movies and the results are the best, most ambitious trio of works they’ve given us that don’t have the words Dragon or Panda in their title. The free-for-all of colors and textures that they indulged in between 2016 and 2019 (I didn’t list Kung Fu Panda 3How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, or Abominable because by that point it wasn’t a SURPRISE, but suffice to say that they’re just as or MORE satisfying) turned out to be one of the great redemption stories in animation in my eyes, even if Trolls: World Tour seems to have now seen the end of that era.

First They Killed My Father (2017, Angelina Jolie, Cambodia & USA)

Another filmmaker I didn’t care for before, largely due to her habit of all my least favorite narrative habits in Serious Cinema ™. And a dive into historical message picture especially brought me to fear the nadir of Jolie as a director, but turns out that she was capable of delivering emotional intensity and subjectivity from the perspective of child without even feinting towards all the Oscarbait clichés. I mean, there’s the opening Rolling Stones montage and the ending helicopter shot (or was it a crane?), but that’s literally the end of all the issues. Devastating and effective cinema and I honestly wonder if the fact that it’s a matter that she has personal stake in helped focus her as a filmmaker.

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Happy Death Day (2017, Christopher B. Landon, USA)

The PG-13 rating is often enough murder for horror movies in my eyes and it’s especially murder for slasher films since… the two reasons for their existence are now decidedly removed from the table. And yet Happy Death Day finds a way to work out as movie – if not necessarily as slasher – by taking its central premise of “slasher Groundhog Day” and letting that develop its central character Tree (with the help of a just-as-surprising lead performance from Jessica Rothe) in broad unsubtle but still nuanced ways towards a rootable protagonist. And when you’ve having enough fun with that, who’s gonna miss some silly ol’ boobs and blood subgenre anyway?

Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

Obviously I was sold on the basis that the last time Paul Thomas Anderson collaborated with Daniel Day-Lewis, it resulted in one of the only Paul Thomas Anderson movies I thought was worth a shit. And somehow, I was even confident that even Anderson could do well to translate the sensations of touching and visualizing fabric into the sweeping romantics of this story. But then I happened to be pleasantly surprised by how I couldn’t recognize any of Anderson’s boring late-90s-to-2000s modernism in the look and feel of the picture. And even more, what I was unprepared for whatsoever was how hilarious it was, leading to a mildly uncomfortable theater experience where I was the only one laughing myself to tears until eventually the whole audience started to join in halfway through. I might speculate if it was the most I’ve laughed at a movie in the entire damn year of 2017.

Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting (2018, Boots Riley/Carlos López Estrada, USA)

Two wholly different great pictures delivered from one single location. With Sorry to Bother You, we got to see the complete boundlessness of a first-time filmmaker with the resources to just make something loud and wild and with all the focus of a message picture with a dizzying and electrifying lack of hands on the wheel. Blindspotting, in the meantime, was watched completely on the recommendation of my friend (M.B., if you’re reading this dude) and turns out to have the same dedication to issues relevant today (and I fucking mean TODAY) while still maintaining the pleasant and sincere easiness of a buddy picture. Whether the irreverence of Sorry to Bother You or the humanity of Blindspotting, both movies end up feeling nothing like the medicine their premises would probably imply but instead invite you to see the world through their eyes and come to the observations they have yourself, straight from the heart of Oakland in 2018.

And none for Black Panther, bye… (just kidding, Ryan Coogler is also a cinematic pride of Oakland himself and frankly Creed is an honorable mention to this list).

Alpha (2018, Albert Hughes, USA)

The “boy and his dog” subgenre of either prehistoric (as in this movie’s case) or post-apocalyptic tales is way too old and stale to expect any new surprises from it, right? Well, you see what the title of this post says so you already know you’re wrong. I think Alpha is maybe the best that the subgenre has given us: it’s certainly the best looking for one, delivering the undeveloped environments in sharp detail. It has the tightest A-to-B adventure storytelling I’ve seen out of these stories, which already beggar a sparse and focused approach to be worth anything like a damn. And in general, it is the sort of movie with a sense of… attitude that feels appropriate to the time period it is set in rather than the time period it was produced and released in. Which sounds like nothing, but it makes me a lot more interested to see the sort of principles that its lead characters have to favor over others for the sense of survival. And in general, that sort of feel of time is something I think we get more from animation – where the style can be adapted specifically to period-appropriate visual concepts – than in live-action where you have to perform that solely by content rather than form so I can’t help being smitten with that.

A Simple Favor (2018, Paul Feig, USA)

To be quite fair, Paul Feig wanted us to go in expecting an entirely different movie. We’ve seen the trailers, we’ve seen the posters. He wanted us to come in with the thought “Oh whatever, just another comic director who wants to suddenly turn in a dramatic thriller to prove that he can be taken seriously”. So when I was suddenly slapped in the face with “Surprise, bitch! This is actually a comedy too but now taking the piss out of the post-Gone Girl subgenre of missing women with hidden secrets and even though we’re clowning on them, it still has characters with more interiority than that genre gives them and a more delicious sense of style!” I was just playing along, right? Right?

Definitely the funniest film Feig has ever made and probably will ever make.

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The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018, Eli Roth, USA)

This is literally a Mad Libs exercise: “Eli Roth directs an Amblin’ Entertainment-produced children’s film based on John Bellairs’ beloved book starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.” But you know what? These things all mixed together well enough, not necessarily without concessions (for the good: Roth’s habits that make me dislike his movies are toned down, for the bad: some of the creepy and gloomy atmosphere in Bellairs’ books are left on the page rather than on the screen), but enough so that I can’t help being overjoyed to learn that Roth has an inner Spielberg-fanatic in him or effortless the chemistry between Black and Blanchett of all people could prove to be. Throw this up with the Joe Cornish entries as a movie I wish existed when I was a kid.

Atlantics (2019, Mati Diop, France Senegal & Belgium)

I know I said this already with Pariah and Antiviral and John Wick and Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, but I mean it here more than anywhere else: I am stunned that a feature debut could be so fucking capital-G Great. We’re talking tonal shifts here, we’re talking multi-genre approaches, we’re talking sounds that blanket us, we’re talking visuals that capture the exact balance between futurism and realism. I mean, it’s easy to say that Diop is already the niece of a fucking cinematic legend and that she had the best cinematographer of the year, but I think we really need to give it to what a singular voice she’s proven to have in filmmaking.

Child’s Play (2019, Lars Klevberg, USA & Canada)

They had to do A LOT of work to get me on-board with rebooting one of my favorite horror movie franchises without the people who made that franchise wonderful – no Dourif, no Tilly, no Mancini. And they actually accomplished it by walking and using all the knowledge we familiar with the franchise already have – no need to pretend this is more serious than it has to be, no need to have any illusions about who’s killing these folks – and having a unique approach to the character of Chucky that could only be possible by starting back from the drawing board and looking how America in 2019 differs from America in 1988. Plus, I mean… Mark Hamill is REAAALLY good as Chucky. Would I rather rewatch most of the old movies? Sure, but I might rather put this on than the original.

Hustlers (2019, Lorene Scafaria, USA)

I think it could get me shot to walk in on film twitter and say Hustlers is the best Scorsese movie since Hugo (and if Hugo didn’t exist, it would be the best Scorsese movie since The Age of Innocence), but I would mean every word. It delivers the sort of energy, the formalism, and the observations that I feel Scorsese’s latest movies have been receiving praise for without really bringing. And if we can put that comparison to bed, it’s also just a surprisingly effective story about women forming their own families and the sort of unfortunate pains and truths and conflicts that might grow between their own deep love for each other. And it’s really refreshing to find one that can maintain that honesty while being as flashy and superficial as this film succeeds at being in subjective ways.

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Gemini Man (2019, Ang Lee, USA)

Because I have eyes, like most people, I walked away from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fully decrying the evils of high frame rate as a cinematic “tool”. And because I still have eyes and unlike most people I opted to go see Ang Lee’s Gemini Man in the best possible presentation available to me as soon as possible (2K 120fps 3D Dolby Theatre, baybee!), I walked away from it now singing its praises to the highest level of heaven possible. A movie that uses that sort of “You Are There” technological setup to deliver an immediacy to surroundings in unexpected ways (especially water), to give us an unnerving clarity to high octane action, and to just make it all seem like a glorified video game we get to walk through deserves to reignite passion for such a previously misused concept. Honestly, I can’t wait to see what James Cameron fucking does with it next year… Avatar 2, let’s fucking do it baby, come on!

Biggest Disappointments of the 2010s

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Sometimes, we have great expectations for the movies we’re looking forward to seeing. Excitement, anticipation, and optimism are just parts of the human experience – film or otherwise – and sometimes they will grow to magnitudes that we just can’t help. And when movies can’t meet that intense eagerness with something that we feel earns it, is that truly the movie’s fault? Does that make those movies bad?

Yes.

My Biggest Disappointments of the 2010s

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Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese, USA)

OK, so like… even I was gonna be interested in a horror movie by Martin Scorsese of all people and we were riding high enough on The Departed having his most engaged feature film directing at the time since The Age of Innocence to dive right into this and… it maintained a gothic enough atmosphere to not be a total wash, but I also don’t know how the world’s most predictable psychological thriller could be found engaging by any viewer.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010, Steve Pink, USA) & Cowboy & Aliens (2011, Jon Favreau, USA)

Let’s start from the top: don’t make the same mistake as I did and get overhyped for movies based on their titles. Snakes on a Plane lived up to my expectations and more but that was a fluke. Just because a title is as straightforward and blunt and ridiculous as these two does not mean the movie won’t be a miserable thing to watch.

True Grit (2010, Joel & Ethan Coen, USA)

Remember when I said these were bad movies in the intro? Yeah, I was just being facetious. There’s going to be many movies up in here that are just fine but unimpressive to me and we have met the first on the list where that turns out to be the case. When we hear “Coen brothers Western”, we obviously have to expect better than this where it feels practically everyone except Hailee Steinfeld are recycling their best work (even if Roger Deakins is pretty close to career-best here). Especially as the follow-up to three masterpieces in a row.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Steven Spielberg, USA & New Zealand)

Once again, it’s ok as adventure movie but there’s a reason I went with The BFG instead of this on the Best Popcorn Movies list and that mostly has to do with how undercooked some of the special effects felt, even by 2011 standards, where the The BFG was able to fix up those kinks. But The BFG wasn’t a big damn release the way that Tintin was and while the movie in itself was amusing in the moment, I find so much of its adventure easily evaporates from my mind looking back outside of the famous one-shot chase.

The Muppets (2011, James Bobin, USA)

I’ll cop to being a weirdo on this who just feels like The Muppets aren’t really feeling like The Muppets here for me. And it’s bouncy and pleasant anyway and the new songs are nice and I did feel my heart soar when Animal rolled the drums for “Rainbow Connection”, but it delivered more an empty nostalgia rather than the sort of unexpected craft and zaniness and I just don’t feel Jim Henson or Frank Oz’s personalities under the felt is replaceable. And I think the brand’s attempt over the past ten years to restyle itself as The Office with puppets feels very wrong to me.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin, USA) and Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle, USA)

Sundance hype, dude. It’s setting you up so that even if the movie isn’t bad (as neither of these are), you’re still likely not going to catch something that lives up to it. And both movies happen to have aesthetical decisions that are… not my favorite things for them to have. In Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s case, it’s the most egregious utilization of shaky handheld camerawork since we’ve decided it was the new source for rustic realism and in Whiplash‘s case, it’s the overreliance on close-ups that doesn’t seem to have much value to a story that resembles any given teacher-based indie of the 1990s. I’m glad some good movies came out of Sundance (a rarity in my eyes), but I didn’t feel they were good enough.

John Dies at the End (2012, Don Coscarelli, USA)

“The book is better” is such a cop-out and I wonder if it would just be better to admit that it was a long-time dream project of mine to adapt this book and its sequels to film (though has been less of one since the namesake of John Cheese was revealed to be a creep). But in all honesty, it’s simply the case that I felt Don Coscarelli – a director I love and admire and am influenced by – just wasn’t particularly right for the sort of directions the story had to go. The cosmic elements feel small-scale, entire jokes are cut off mid-setup in a manner that makes me wonder if Coscarelli truly understands comedy, and there’s no sense of losing your mind in endless juvenilia the way that the book gave me.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan, USA & UK)

To be quite honest: I think the last few scenes stick the landing. I think that final montage is pretty much the perfect satisfying collection of beats to close out the trilogy with. But the movie beforehand? Yeesh. There’s an unfair mountain of expectation that the sequel to The Dark Knight had to face but that doesn’t stop me from feeling underwhelmed regardless of how superficially BIG it tried to aim for. It all felt less focused and weighty as the sum of its parts, those parts being sound and fury and nothing else.

Step Up Revolution (2012, Scott Speer, USA)

It’s not just that it’s the least of the Step Up movies but it’s also just the LEAST of the Step Up movies. Meaning that there’s less trashy melodrama, less ambitiously choreographer, less devoted or campy to get the kind of verve that a psycho like me has reliably received from the other five movies in this franchise. And especially so soon after Step Up 3D reached the pinnacle of guilty pleasure with me.

To the Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick, USA)

I still owe this a rewatch sometime soon so it is entirely possible that I won’t stand by it, especially in the wake of recognizing what sort of structural experimentation Malick had been going for between 2011 and 2019. That said, I feel like if To the Wonder was going to convince me that Malick was cooking some dope shit, it would have revealed it to me. And that’s ignoring what a huge feat it will be to ignore how Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck give the least interesting lead performances in Malick’s career.

A Field in EnglandHigh-Rise, & Free Fire (2013-’16, Ben Wheatley, UK)

Oof! Man, it has been an utter heartbreak to watch Ben Wheatley go from the most promising genre filmmaker on the strength of Kill List and Sightseers to… being the sort of guy who makes formalist exercises rather than formalist experiences. It’s clear that there is thought put into each one of these films, dedication to an internal schema, and each one has been less satisfying than the last and Free Fire outright has nothing to show for it by the end.

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Escape from Tomorrow (2013, Randy Moore, USA)

The most egregious and infuriating of these: we will probably never get another movie made this way again. There was one shot to use the concept of secretly shooting an entire motion picture in Disneyland and Walt Disney World (at least one that doesn’t look like complete ass like the ending of The Florida Project) and what was it all wasted on? Some pseudo-Lynchian nonsense that felt more like a glorified Adult Swim episode than an indictment of Disney as a brand or a compelling family drama.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (2013, Will Finn & Dan St. Pierre, USA & India)

Don’t listen to me, I’m a sick person who was really looking forward to the worst animated movie of all time and instead I got this forgettable trinket of a thing. Mediocrity is always less welcome to me than active garbage, screensaver look or not.

Winter Sleep (2014, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

Cannes 2014 was definitely one of the highlight experiences of my decade, but it really says something that this was the movie I was most excited to catch at the Palais based on the impressive utilization of duration that Ceylan has shown in his previous film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and then suddenly it turns out to have been made up of two great long exhausting scenes and a whole bunch of sincer material that nevertheless made me fear falling asleep (seriously, the seats at the Palais are that comfortable). The winning of the Palme d’Or was the beginning of my disillusion with that esteemed of film prizes.

Mr. Holmes (2015, Bill Condon, UK & USA)

Ian McKellan… as Sherlock Holmes? The possibilities are endless here. And instead we gave those keys to Bill Condon and he gave us the sleepiest picture you could possibly get out of the concept and maybe the sleepiest movie of Condon’s whole career. I felt more active in my utter hatred for Beauty and the Beast than I did watching McKellan waltz his way through a character with no challenge.

Jason Bourne (2016, Paul Greengrass, USA)

Even if I was firmly of the attitude that three movies is a nicely round enough number to leave the franchise at, I would have thought that Greengrass and Damon both returning would have brought the sense of frazzled urgency and sweat that said trilogy delivered if in shorter portions. And instead it didn’t have any of that urgency or a sense of surprise or anything. I’m now convinced that the missing link in Tony Gilroy is key to it and maybe if they make a sequel, they should get Gilroy back as writer but y’know what? Fool me once…

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The Fate of the Furious (2017, F. Gary Gray, USA)

Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw would almost belong as this list alongside the series’ eighth installment if it wasn’t for one thing: I was still able to have fun with that overlong broken movie. Fate never gives us the opportunity to smile once it jumps into the being the “dark chapter” of the series. There’s an excellent race sequence in Havana opening the film and almost as soon as Dom turns a corner around, the mood drops. And that is flatout murderous for any popcorn movie to be, let alone one that should be gleefully smiling about the chemistry between its familia ensemble. The absence of Paul Walker sadly cannot be helped (though attempting to replace him with Scott Eastwood was truly cringe-worthy) but manufacture Diesel’s separation from the group for an extended amount of time and it’s a scattered and moody piece that’s left.

Alien: Covenant (2017, Ridley Scott, USA & UK) & The Predator (2018, Shane Black, USA)

You’d think that these choices of directors would be the most can’t-miss choices to bring each franchise to its former glory and instead they get so close to the mark (both of them have top-tier gore and violence; there’s a capital G-Great performance in Fassbender for Covenant and Rhodes for Predator) that I had to walk out asking if that was really it. In Covenant‘s case, I’d blame Scott still stuck in his nihilistic “hate humanity” phase to a degree that he’s still convinced is profound enough to treat this potential sci-fi grindhouse shlock like an arthouse piece. In The Predator‘s case, it’s a reminder that Shane Black the writer takes priority over Shane Black the director and for some reason the latter believed that what a franchise about watched brawny men get ripped to shreds by a monster was missing was PLOT and MYTHOS.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017, Luc Besson, France)

I’m going to sound like a psycho putting this on my disappointments list since I’ve been pretty clear on the fact that I consider this a really great movie. I just always thought it had the makings of being a much better movie than it is and it bothers me like a fucking piece of food stuck in someone’s teeth that the solution is staring right there in front of us: it’s one of the few bad Dane DeHaan performances and that man needed to be replaced by Alden Ehrenreich or something.

The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro, USA)

Few feelings as awful as watching a director you deeply admire finally receive the boost in recognition you think he should have received all throughout his career and it ends up being for a movie you had very little use for. The monster himself is a miracle of effects and makeup and pantomime, but the story and its treatment feel like transients from some very dated post-war musing on bigotry, mixed in with the sort of distance and shallowness that made those films disinteresting as social commentary.

Disobedience (2017, Sebastién Lelio, UK Ireland & USA)

I have a friend who slowly tried to warn me that Lelio is useless as hell as filmmaker and I just had trouble buying into it because there was enough about Gloria and A Fantastic Woman that I thought worked, but then Disobedience and the announcement of Gloria Bell (that movie itself turning out to be useless too but at least in a way that I was prepared for) that brought me to sanity realizing just how little Lelio brings to his films and how his lead actresses appear to do almost as much heavy-lifting as Lars von Trier’s lead actresses. Disobedience had me reeled in with the promise of Rachel-on-Rachel romantic drama and they ended up having to carry that stale drama.

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Thor: Ragnarok Jojo Rabbit (2017-’19, Taika Waititi, USA)

In general, I think modern-day Disney has proven to corrupt so many filmmakers I hold dear but none of those filmmakers have proved to be as hard to let go as Taika Waititi. Thor: Ragnarok had occasional appearances of color and certainly more amusing irreverence than any of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies could hope to have, but it was still delivered in total visual flatness (delivered solely by production design rather than cinematography) and it also egregiously wastes Cate Blanchett in a way I can’t forgive. Meanwhile, Jojo Rabbit hits on the same premise and themes as the tremendous Boy except in complete tonal misfire for a topic that you don’t want to be nearly as inept regarding tone. It’s wild how strongly these two movies affected my goodwill to Waititi to the point that the words “Taika Waititi slated to direct Star Wars film made my heart sink” (though I am deeply hopeful that Next Goal Wins gets me back in his corner).

Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson, USA & Germany)

I love Wes Anderson. I love dogs. I love animation and ESPECIALLY stop-motion animation and ESPECIALLY the sort of stop-motion animation that Anderson showcased in Fantastic Mr. Fox. I love Japanese culture and aesthetic. And I especially love post-war Japanese cinema such as Kurosawa Akira (which Anderson shows an affinity for in the movie). So this was needless to say one of my most anticipated movies of the decade.

And I liked it. I ONLY liked it. Do you see how disproportionate a response that feels compared to what’s in this movie?

Mute (2018, Duncan Jones, UK & Germany)

It is probably the least interesting usage of neon-based cyberpunk future noir that such an aesthetic could possibly be, not even dynamic enough to be a lived-in future world the way that the best future noirs are. Maybe it was still the case that Jones was trying to cope with papa David Bowie’s death, but there’s only so many bad movies in the wake of his grief that I am capable of following hoping for another Moon or Source Code. And in any case, many of the character decisions are inexplicable enough to understand why studios didn’t want to touch the movie. I remember particularly thinking that this was going to be the best Blade Runner sequel of the decade and instead it ended up the worst Ghost in the Shell remake of the decade.

Greta (2018, Neil Jordan, USA & Ireland)

Isabelle Huppert was coming in from her greatest year knowing she could do any film and we as an audience would be able to eat it up. And among the things she decided to indulge in was this apparent can’t-miss concept of a crazy stalker thriller. Except if she had fun making it, I didn’t have remotely any fun watching it. It felt like Jordan et al. were committed to playing in the most miserable possible aesthetic and structural decisions to just let us be so far ahead of the situation that we wait for it to catch up. Is it too much to expect good fucking exploitation cinema from people that aren’t Rob Zombie and S. Craig Zahler?

Glass (2019, M. Night Shyamalan, USA)

Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and I happily will say what I will being no fan of them) but at least they have the good sense to have their cursed world-building occur in duration rather than at the very last fucking second like Glass somehow decided was necessary. And even if we dismiss such a misfire of an ending, it’s hard not to shake off the feeling that this movie felt more eager to act as Unbreakable sequel than Split sequel. Which good for anyone if that’s what they were looking for – your reward is a somnambulist performance by Bruce Willis, somebody should check his heartbeat – but I absolutely have no love for Unbreakable and find the declarations of it as great superhero cinema to be mad. Glass certainly shares Unbreakable‘s lack of narrative thrust.

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The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019, Mike Mitchell, USA Denmark & Australia)

You wouldn’t expect me to be disappointed by how many musical numbers they gave Tiffany Haddish but compared to how many jokes are definitely not in the movie, it feels like they came into this sequel with their priorities a bit wrong. Especially since those priorities felt like reeling in on the sort of ambitions that the first movie performed upon, which is a bigger disappointment considering how this movie revolved its plot around the one particular beat from the first movie that broke the narrative potential for sequels wide open. What does it say that I think The Lego Batman Movie played more with the twist (and more with the lighting) than this did?

The Curse of La Llorona (2019, Michael Chaves, USA)

It wasn’t even the connection to the reliable Conjuring universe that got me amped for this movie (given that the marketing for this film inexplicably buried that aspect, maybe they knew they had a stinker on their hands and wanted to keep hopes for Annabelle Comes Home‘s doomed box office), it was just the introduction of some non-white legend and Linda Cardellini’s potential as scream queen (especially for the folly of cultural appropriation). Well, I must say that… sure, the Conjuring movies don’t have the most sophisticated or innovative formula for their scares but they get a lot of mileage out of their application of those familiar scares (other than Annabelle which is even worse). The Curse of La Llorona gets absolutely no mileage out of its scares and it makes me fearful over Chaves directing the next Conjuring movie.

Ema (2019, Pablo Larraín, Chile)

If you’re going to try to deliver psychology and emotion through dance, it’s important that you don’t forget the psychology and that the emotion is more than just skin deep. And of all the filmmakers to forget that, I wouldn’t have expected it to be Larraín, who was one of my favorite new finds of the whole decade. Or more particularly his regular writing collaborator Guillermo Calderón, who shapes a pretty opaque central figure like he did before in The Club and Neruda (that The Club was also a film I disliked should have been a warning sign) and gives us no reason to keep pushing past the character’s film-long deflection from any interiority. The only reason to stick around is the gorgeous dance scenes and shockingly for me – the long-time devotée of ClimaxStep UpPina, Cunningham, etc. – it wasn’t enough this time around.

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Color Out of Space (2019, Richard Stanley, USA)

I’m going to ignore how spoiled Mandy made me as a viewer of cosmic Nicolas Cage and just call this an instance of a director’s eyes being a little bit too big for his stomach: the build-up is tremendous as a grab-bag of horror movie tones that wouldn’t make sense connecting together if it wasn’t for how erratic and confused the movie was supposed to feel in the first place, but the final payoff didn’t meet up what the film was promising (making this kind of a reverse of The Dark Knight Rises for me). Maybe Stanley will have a bigger budget with The Dunwich Horror, but based on the strength of Dust Devil and Hardware, I wonder if it’s to end up like a John Dies at the End scenario (which I totally forgot to add to this list) as a work by a filmmaker who is best working small-scale rather than large-scale.

The Best Popcorn Movies of the 2010s

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Oh ho, we have reached a true milestone here now. So shortly after shifting from parts of movies and their advertising to listing actual movies, now we have come to the lists where RANKINGS come into play. And I think, at least in this instance, it should be acknowledged that the ranking is based on the movies’ function as popcorn cinema rather than as cinema in and of itself, although that did have some factor. I hope this explanation will account for how low certain entries are on the list compared to when my 150 Best Movies of the 2010s List finally gets posted here.

In the meantime, the popcorn movie? Everybody sees them. They are a mainstay of the summer movie season, one of my favorite seasons of the movie year to both jump into the cinema to catch whatever is the big talking point AND to get a gauge on how I feel the movie year is progressing in my view* (and it is indeed a shame that 2020 now looks to be a year that will not have a popcorn movie season, if it happens to have a movie year at all).

Anyway, even despite my penchant for austere foreign art-films that have extremely limited releases and my general allergy to the overglut of superhero movies taking up filmgoing conversation, I do enjoy the pure spectacle and comfortable genre trappings of a good popcorn like any other. And for one thing, I think if the 2010s haven’t necessarily proven to be an extraordinarily good decade for popcorn cinema, they have been so for action cinema which makes up the grand majority of popcorn cinema. So much so that this list ended up with 35 whopping entries that I decided on. I am not made of stone.

So – anticipating that my upcoming Best Movies of the 2010s list is not really going to have a lot of easily recommendable entries – I wanted to acknowledge the times when crowd-pleasers really did please me amongst the crowd. So for those of you who aren’t waiting to hear about 13-hour Argentinian pictures and quiet musings on crises of faith, I present…

The Best Popcorn Movies of the 2010s

Honorable Mentions I Wish I Had Room to Mention:
Pokémon Detective Pikachu, but then again I feel like I said all I’ve had to say in the Guiltiest Pleasures list, so I’m not too torn.
Baby Driver, but I still weirdly held up by how everything not driven by the music fails to me. Still definitely feature the second-best chase setpieces (not even necessarily just the car chases) of the decade.
Resident Evil: Afterlife and Retribution, I go hard in the motherfucking paint. Just not that hard.

Mentions That I Was Not Sure Qualified: Logan, DunkirkDredd, The Raid movies, The Conjuring-verse, Brawl in Cell Block 99, WidowsThe VillainessHaywireThe GreySnowpiercer, and Godzilla Resurgence
In which horror, political satire, gangster epic, surly bloodletting, and war picture are all at least somewhat dubious propositions to being popcorn cinema in my flawed eye.

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35. The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg, USA)

Maybe the biggest reason this list is 35 strong, it would feel criminal to make a popcorn movies list without at least one Spielberg on it. And admittedly, while it was no less a great decade for Spielberg (what with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies standing as all-timers), it also still gave us a warm and gentle treatment of maybe Roald Dahl’s least angry children’s story. And it’s a shame that it was so undercelebrated compared to Tintin and Ready Player One, as it hit the sweet spot of motion-capture animation for these giant limber creations with its relaxed CGI camerawork and Mark Rylance’s gentle presence. The perfect mix between the wonder of early Spielberg and the bleeding-edge visual work of Spielberg.

34. Pacific Rim (2013, Guillermo Del Toro, USA)

Every English-language Del Toro film is due to get blowback for not being as good as his Spanish-language films and certainly I understand that this movie really doesn’t bother with having a decent script or decent actors outside of Idris Elba, but all I came for was the “oh my wow, that’s so cool!” imagery of giant robots battling giant monsters and I received it, no matter how ridiculous it is that they would wait until literally dragged into space to activate the robot’s overpowered sword. On top of which, the implausible world-building around the existence of these beasts is a lovely bit of creativity from one of the most inspired fantasy filmmakers (and wonderfully realized by Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier), from the diverse designs of the Kaiju to the dual-minded interiors of the Jaegers.

33. Godzilla (2014, Gareth Edwards, USA)

Again, I got the complaints. I get where they’re coming from. That’s the exact opposite of my attitude, though, as I feel like the fact that Edwards wants us to feel the incomprehensible enormity of the beast for most of the movie’s runtime is facilitated by those teasing shots where we watch shadows and body parts of the beast and explore the aftermath of its presence before giving us that great weighty monster battle at the climax in San Francisco. Do I wish they had picked a better everyman lead than Aaron Taylor-Johnson? Certainly, but I also don’t know that the character needs to function as anything but the unluckiest guy in the world who happens to keep running right into the spot where the MUTOs attack. He’s our view from below.

32. Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin, USA)

The only one of the reboot series that brought active enjoyment out of me, maintaining the swashbuckling standalone adventure tone of some of my favorite Star Trek episodes while still finding room for some moral or existential interrogations (even if they’re not as in-depth as the tv show was). The perfect balance between modern summer filmmaking and quiet humanist optimism that I look for in one of my favorite sci-fi franchises.

31. Alita: Battle Angel (2019, Robert Rodriguez, USA)

Iron City is a complete miracle of a detailed world-building, feeling like a chaotic hodge-podge of mechanics and bazaar energy and lovingly aided by some of the finest CGI that James Cameron and Martin Landau could throw away post-Avatar. But what I really feel is underappreciated is Rosa Salazar’s leading performance as a protagonist, emoting behind some powerful CGI animation to balance earnest naivete with steadfast learn morality and then put that on a bedrock of what a violent machine she essentially is. These two things make the material of Alita – however rushed in its structural delivery – a lot more interesting than it is given credit for and frankly I wish we had a chance to re-explore this again.

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30. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012, John Hyams, USA)

Remember when post-JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme started trying to reinvent himself as a dramatic actor distanced from all the direct-to-video action movies and then that didn’t work out so he started going back to stuff like Universal Soldier? Who would have thought that it would lead to something again to the verbose mindfuck stuff of The Matrx while also trying to find new ways to mess with perspective based action setpieces. For a decade of incredible action cinema, I think the one-two-three-four punch of this movie, The Grey, Haywire, and The Raid may have had me leaving 2012 realizing we are entering a new age.

29. The Captain America trilogy (2011-’16, Joe Johnston/Anthony & Joe Russo, USA)

Look, it’s kind of impossible that we’re not going to run into at least one Marvel Cinematic Universe thing, let’s just get this over with. Admittedly even while it stood for more than half of the MCU’s run as the only mini-franchise I enjoyed within it (dethroned by a later entry), I feel diminishing returns with each entry. But there’s still enough to admire in each installment – Civil War has better chemistry and creativity in its action scenes to function as the secret best Avengers movie while even though the “political thriller” label on The Winter Soldier brings me to hearty laughter, it remains the movie finally leveled the previously shaky MCU on quality of crisp writing and weighty action up until it had to repeat that flavor over and over. But the real winner of this for me is the very First Avenger, which adopted that old-timey adventure serial style (improving on Johnston’s previous approach to The Rocketeer) and had a sense of gee-whiz comic book atmosphere that we do not get much of these days.

28. Deadpool 2 (2017, David Leitch, USA)

Quite possibly the most fun I had with a superhero movie prior to 2018 when a certain movie destroyed the game. But prior to that, it made a marginal step up from its annoying predecessor in practically every direction: it got a boost in humor from welcoming Julian Denisson and Zazie Beetz (among others) to its cast, it got a boost in action by having David Leitch and his reliable crew (including Jonathan Sela and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir), and somewhere down the line even it got a touch bit more engaging in its emotions. Not too engaging because it’s Deadpool but the boost in quality was staggering regardless.

27. TRON: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinski, USA)

Is it shallow? Yes. Is it overlong? Absolutely. But it remains one of the most impressive accomplishments in visual effects, featuring all the toys that Disney money could buy in the 2010s to provide something sleek and appealing and fast so that it’s something like experiencing a walk through a super clean nightclub glowing in whites and blues while they’re shooting a music video to Daft Punk, whose score I will have no small praise shortly. It seriously feels more surrounding and fun – even during Jeff Bridges pseudo-philosophical rambles – than Avengers: Endgame and The Lion King, which used technology 9 years evolved to miserable results. Like Avatar, it is my solemn belief that anybody who did not see this movie in IMAX 3D did themself a serious disservice. And while I get that that’s the reason people didn’t like Avatar, I can’t hear you over the sensory overload going from Banshee flying in the skies of Pandora to lightcycle racing on the surfaces of the Grid.

26. Aquaman (2018, James Wan, USA)

This has already been said a billion times by so many people, including me, but it really can’t be more on the nose: it’s basically underwater Jupiter Ascending as directed by a straight man. That probably has several people out the door, whether it’s the Jupiter Ascending part of the description or the straight man part of the description, but for me… it fulfills the promise of all this cosmic cartoonish operaness and that gives us the brightest and most enthusiastic entry of the DC Extended Universe to date. It’s the most I’ve been able to stand Jason Momoa on-screen and there’s an octopus playing drums and a sea monster voiced by Julie Andrews, guys. What do you want me to say?

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25. Hotel Artemis (2018, Drew Pearce, USA)

Basically a nice sizzling little mix of dystopian…. world-building? (Most of it takes place in one location, but what a location!) and pulp novella attitudes. An ensemble of hardened burly brawny types that makes for excellent company while waiting for everybody to start getting at each other’s throats, with Jodie Foster providing a nice and tetchy human thorough way to visit each room and find out what everyone’s deal is. It is a tiny bit overwritten to me, but I think the sets and the characters play well with all the material thrown at them to make it an excellent summer respite.

24. Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7, and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2011-’19, Justin Lin/James Wan/David Leitch, USA)

And none for F. Gary Gray, bye! I don’t know what went in the water but just around the turn of the decade, Vin Diesel and Neal Moritz’s long-time baby franchise NOS’d itself up to a globe-trotting adventure where Dominic Toretto took time between racing to deliver bromides about his ever-growing family with familiar faces recruited for all sorts of prior entries and also the combined antagonistic screen personalities of The Rock and Jason Statham. And that would be charming enough on its own, but then the way that the franchise also began gained a complete makeover into being an extended heist franchise that is so dedicated to remaining cars-oriented that it will bring about ridiculous setpiece concepts like skydiving cars, driving cars between buildings, having a blackhawk chase cars through downtown LA, drive a car through the cockpit of a crashing jumbo jet, battle a tank on the highway, and my personal favorite: dragging a safe through the streets of Rio de Janeiro with Looney Tunes physics. The best mix of sincerity and wackiness – something I think has been lost lately but hopefully will return with F9 – it’s hard not to fall in love with the franchise if you’re willing to take yourself less seriously.

23. The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black, USA)

Shane Black doing his Shane Black thing as we’ve expected from him and for some, that isn’t going to be much, but I can’t think of any other filmmaker I want making buddy mysteries. And even if it lacks the intense character stakes of Lethal Weapon, what The Nice Guys makes up that up for is with a nice shaggy hang-out vibe with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe putting their physical comic talents to work on a prickly chemistry with each other. It even has the best of Black’s precocious child characters in the form of Angourie Rice’s Holly being a voice of conscience against Gosling’s pathetic posture and Crowe’s violent presence. But complexity is only a nice side dish to a good old fashioned detective comedy.

22. Ready or Not (2019, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett, USA)

It is fucking mad to me that Knives Out got more attention than this: it’s more vicious against the wealthy elite without even trying. Mostly because that’s not Radio Silence’s M.O. in making this picture, it’s more using that as a pretext for a big bloody mousehunt through a creepy sickly looking mansion and in the middle of that allowing us to see just how comically lost the antagonists are as the protagonist without undercutting the threat they present. It’s more slapstick than satire but that’s all I wanted to begin with. Anyway, I can’t decide if the ignorance behind this movie is why Samara Weaving isn’t an instant star or if it’s because we can’t tell her apart from Margot Robbie.

21. Unstoppable (2010, Tony Scott, USA)

How could I possibly use a Tony Scott film as the header here without paying tribute to his tragically last movie, maybe the one that worked most to warm me up to him as an auteur? After all, if you’re going to make a movie about a runaway train, you better bring a sense of momentum and Scott does so leaving behind any other concern – storytelling, character, arguably morality – so that the movie can briskly be in and out. Denzel Washington helps by being able to just let loose and play a more action movie inverse of his Taking of Pelham 123 character and Ben Seresin makes this working-class nightmare have enough visual grit to let it usher in enough silly action cinema thrills so soon after The Dark Knight demanded every action movie has grit or die.

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20. Machete and Machete Kills (2013, Robert Rodriguez, USA)

More so the latter than the former. I don’t know if it was stretching out the grindhouse aesthetic to apply to a concept that used to be more trailer than movie or the deeply burning political core of the movie to begin with, but Machete was perfectly satisfying popcorn cinema with training wheels attached. Machete Kills blew those training wheels right the fuck off and I think it’s the fact that it has no shame about being purely vapid cartoonery that kept people from liking it but that’s exactly the sort of approach that enchants me about this. Everything about it is just a pretext for one of two things to happen: Danny Trejo gets to say something badass or he kills a man in gory fashion and if any actor had a more suitable or enjoyable vehicle given to them on a silver platter, I don’t want to know it.

19. Piranha 3D and Crawl (2019, Alexandre Aja, USA)

Any other film snob would consider going from the New French Extremity to American creature feature B-movies to be a significant downgrade, but I think it gave us Aja’s two best movies in a pretty underrated horror career. And in different flavors too: Piranha 3D satisfies the tasteless gimmick-based tawdriness of my lizard brain while Crawl is pretty straightforward meat-and-potatoes monster movie that also happens to capture life in Florida in some stereotypical Disneyland way that brings it closer to my heart.

18. Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler, USA)

Probably the closest we will ever get to a director having complete control over their Marvel project while still feeling like something Coogler wasn’t entirely behind the wheel of (you really expect me to buy that the director of Creed is responsible for action sequences THIS garbage?) but the fact remains that it is the single most aesthetically enjoyable of all the Earthbound MCU films, utilizing afrofuturism to invite color into the designs of Ruth Carter’s costume work and the utopia of Wakanda as a setting. Plus, it has the best supervillain performance since The Dark Knight in Michael B. Jordan’s charged version of Killmonger. It significantly the least of Coogler’s pictures and it’s not even a movie I am particularly enthusiastic about, but it felt somewhat dishonest to not recognize this as the first time in years that the MCU recognized “hey, maybe we can have our movies look good rather than cruise through it?”

17. The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott, USA/UK)

It’s pretty nice that amongst the numerous space program pictures we’ve received this past decade – Ad AstraFirst ManGravityInterstellar are the ones that immediately pop into my head – we got at least one that didn’t try to be a cerebral mood piece but just wanted to be something of a crowd-pleaser. Whether you consider it a feature or a bug of the lack of true tension in the story of a man stranded on Mars, spending time watching Matt Damon figure out solutions to stay alive and contact another planet turned out to be a real fun time at the movies and arguably the last time the elder Scott brother turned in a movie that wasn’t painfully misanthropic. I would have sworn that this movie would have evaporated from my mind once 2015 was over, but somehow it’s grown on me.

16. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, USA)

Pointedly the only Disney-era Star Wars movie that I enjoyed despite it wearing as many scars of those troubled productions as the rest of them – including the fact that its third and best act feels very divorced from the movie preceding it – but it is the first Star Wars movie since the 1977 original that truly feels lived-in and unpolished in its settings and attitudes that I find a breath of fresh air from space opera stylings. And quite frankly, I don’t think the Death Star has ever felt bigger.

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15. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2014-’17, James Gunn, USA)

Undeniably the two movies I’ve most enjoyed out of the MCU, largely out of the sense of surprise that something visually pulpy could come out of a sausage grinder of a comic book franchise. Part of that is how I think out of all the MCU sub-franchises, the Guardians of the Galaxy films have wriggled their way free out of being narratively connected as trailers for the next movie (barring appearances of Thanos in the first movie) but it’s mostly just the misfit energy of it all – Dave Bautista had not given any indication that he was this talented of an actor prior to 2014, Vin Diesel built a personality out of repeating three words, and there’s a zippiness here that is not received in any other MCU film besides Captain America: The First Avenger. And while I consider the second movie a serious downturn in narrative, it happens to boast the most deliciously colorful Kirby-esque setpieces of the whole MCU, basically delivering wondrous and irreverent music videos with every possible sequence it can so like… what part of a movie do you think I’m really interested in?

14. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, Bryan Singer, USA)

Fuck Bryan Singer and we are not going to miss his ass but there was once upon a time where he could make the best X-Men movies around and Days of Future Past is the last instance of that. Does it get by basically by copying a lot of the beats of X2 (including itsincredible opening chase scene)? Yes, sure. But that also gives a lot more of its operatic weight and stakes without feeling like it’s not fun seeing James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart finally interact and witness Evan Peters’ Quiksilver go to work as the most overpowered speedster ever needed for an extended joke. And it’s telling that no other X-Men movie has been able to deliver that between or since, whether Singer’s later overlabored fart Apocalypse or Kinberg’s attempt to cash in on non-existent character sentimentality Dark Phoenix or whatever the fuck The Last Stand was on about. Something went right with X2, the makers of the movies decided to mulligan it for Days of Future Past and that was that.

13. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017, Luc Besson, France)

I have to admit this is a movie I deeply feel could be better than it is with just two small changes, hell maybe even just one. But let’s not focus on the negative: this has one of the most dazzling word designs I’ve seen in sci fi cinema since… well, the last time Besson made a space opera in The Fifth Element. It’s a bubbly and sloppy bit of space pulp that just wants to look for ways to provide imagery more comic book than anything else on this list and the odd energy of it all only endear me further and further.

12. Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes, UK/USA)

Even the best Craig-era Bond film – Casino Royale – had a bit too much grim seriousness and devotion to the (admittedly excellent) thriller plotting to function as pure spectacle. But Craig’s third outing in the role, benefitting by throwing away the thorough arc until Spectre went and ruined that, finally got to be a breathtaking standalone action-adventure from the word go: the very opening sequence where Bond chases a man through the roofs of Istanbul into an ill-fated fist fight atop a train stands as one of the franchises best openers and the broad characters (particularly Judi Dench’s M) brought some of the biggest stakes to each surprising setpiece. And also, most action cinema does not have the benefit of being shot by Roger Deakins of all people so who could resist that?

11. The Shallows (2016, Jaume Collet-Serra, USA)

It’s basically All Is Lost except maybe a tiny bit less sophisticated (basically in the areas where it has to define Blake Lively’s character backstory) and now it’s a shark that will kill you instead of the sea. And because Collet-Serra is wise enough to rely on the basic fundamentals of a person trapped in a sea of blue and red – duration, compositions where the sea gets to fill out most, Blake Lively’s underrated skills as an actor – what we end up with is the first good shark movie since Jaws nailed that coffin 41 years prior. And all the better because The Shallows is less than 90 minutes long, which anybody who has ever had to tolerate my company will tell you makes it my favorite movies to ever exist. It’s the simple things in life like making friends with a seagull on a rock that will keep you from a shark’s gullet.

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10. Atomic Blonde (2017, David Leitch, USA)

Pure cool, but delivered with a purpose that should ostensibly make this one of the more miserable summer releases. And maybe an collection of the most European-sounding 1980s classics, some of the eye-candiest costumes playing with the exterior blues and whites and the interior neons, and the most brutal sounding dirty fighting sequences doesn’t keep things peppy on your end to ignore the ramification of what’s going on throughout this movie. For me, it’s like sinking into a cold bath of ice water on a summer day and losing mind of any bruises left.

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9. Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins, USA)

I mean, it’s largely on the power of a single scene but what an iconic scene it turned out to be: The No Man’s Land sequence as first proper big-screen introduction of Wonder Woman as character takes hold of all the DCEU’s bad habits – grey color scale, slow-motion, etc. – and brings it together to an undeniable singular moment of titanesque stature. And if the rest of the movie feels like Captain America: The First Avenger with DCEU clothes, it still manages to surpass by the weight with which it treats each moment: the “wow” where we see the shimmering Themyscira all the way down to the pain of watching WWI tear Belgium apart. And it’s all kept together by Gal Gadot and Chris Pine’s chemistry together as swashbuckling screen partners.

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8. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller, Australia)

It feels like the matter of contention would be less this movie’s entry and more this movie’s placement. I mean, if any movie turned popcorn cinema into an art, it’s Miller’s full-on 30-year-gestating ouevre of mechanical carnage in the hot desert sun and letting a simple tale of point A to B and back expand into a giant collage of sand and steel that delivers high octane thrills with no brakes. That there happen to be 7 movies I get purer unchallenging popcorn cinema enjoyment from should not take away from what an humbling accomplishment this movie turned out to be.

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7. Jupiter Ascending (2015, Lana & Lilly Wachowski, USA/Australia)

The only possible list where I can put this above Mad Max: Fury Road and… ok, I don’t think I’ll get away with it, but I’m not sure I care. I maintain that it is the best Star Wars movie of the entire decade, nay… of the century, nay! Of the last 40 years! Its visual ambitions know no bounds, its cheesy narrative knows no shame, it is entirely infatuated with itself and every insane decision it has made and the results are thrilling space opera moments from the Chicago cityscape chase to the speeding descent into Jupiter to the Brazil homage of ridiculous bureaucracy. And I think we need more movies willing to make such ridiculous choices and being in love with itself for it, if only we hadn’t punished the Wachowskis for accomplishing this.

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6. Incredibles 2 (2018, Brad Bird, USA)

I don’t know how many people allow themselves to factor animation when discussing action cinema, but frankly this has the best action setpieces of any animated movie I can name (honestly the only movie I think gets close is Kubo and the Two Strings) and I don’t know how memory has evaporated so quickly as to dismiss miracles like Elastigirl’s motorcycle-monorail chase where she physically expends herself all over the cityscape or the headache-inducing hurts-so-good pleasure of the strobe light trap battle or even the pure Looney Tune-ry of Jack Jack facing off against a raccoon. I think working in live-action easily stretched out Brad Bird’s feel for live-action physics enough that he got to have a lot of fun once animation got back in his doorstep and the results is a movie that I found a surprising blast.

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5. Edge of Tomorrow (2014, Doug Liman, USA)

The movie that convinced me that maybe Tom Cruise is back. Certainly the fact that it’s the most video game-like experience that one can have in a cinema is a big part of it, but the manner that the editing efficiently delivers the progress of that journey is one of this decade’s miracles of the cut and the willingness to have a sense of humor about itself and unexpectedly Cruise’s sycophantic presence as a movie star is a huge part of what makes this feel so comforting a summer watch.

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4. The Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy (2011-’17, Rupert Wyatt/Matt Reeves, USA)

Brainy action cinema, I called Day of Reckoning above? Say hello to the brainiest action cinema on this list and it’s the trilogy of movies about talking CGI monkeys that treats the concept as the basis for novel-esque speculative apocalypse storytelling. Not for nothing as that CGI lends itself to the steadily-improving peak of character animation work since Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies recognizing the personalities of the likes Caesar (the career-height of Andy Serkis) and Koba and all the others too. And what different flavors we get: the science-gone-wrong of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the tense tribalism of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the cold prison escape picture of War for the Planet of the Apes all deliver the sort of big operatic drama to match with the underspoken spectacle of watching CGI animals take over the world that it makes total sense one moment we can shed a tear for Caesar finding his legacy filled with death and the next we can watch Koba firing semi-automatics off a galloping horse.

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3. The John Wick trilogy (2014-’19, Chad Stahelski & David Leitch, USA)

There is just something absolutely satisfying in the way that we have a trilogy that – like climbing up steps – has gotten better and better with each subsequent entry especially where John Wick already started off by delivering emotionally impressionable gun fu, followed by Chapter 2 becoming this European art film with blood splattering on reflective surfaces and finally Chapter 3 explodes into this extended globetrotting brawl where everybody wants a piece of Keanu Reeves’ unstoppable assassin (the best performance of his career where he turns his lack of emotiveness into a boon of growing exhaustion and physical dedication) who can turn anything into a deadly weapon from a horse to a book to a fucking pencil. Sometimes all you need to make epic action cinema is a network of assassins and one really bad day.

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2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman, USA)

It’s as simple as this: this is the best superhero movie ever made. And it gets that way by delivering all the goods that superhero movies are asked for in a breezy and propulsive manner that amplifies all the feelings I’ve had for Spider-Man since the original Sam Raimi movie (which this movie beats out). It is effortless, it is fun, it is engaging, and it’s all those things while performing some of the most ambitious animation works since The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Which is another thing, this is an amazing animated film (one that expands on all the things that The Lego Movie teased on four years prior) on top of being an amazing superhero film and an amazing popcorn film, so… basically every time I walked out of the movie theater after seeing this felt like I had just spent 2 hours swinging in the skies.

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  1. Mission: Impossible – Ghost ProtocolMission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, & Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2011-’18, Brad Bird/Christopher McQuarrie, USA)

I don’t know what else I can possibly say. Tom Cruise is a fucking maniac and he is one day going to die on-camera and that will be the best movie ever made. In the meantime, we will have to settle for a collection of the best action setpieces ever assembled on-screen, containing all the adrenaline-based verisimilitude needed to make the audience fly all around the world with the world’s biggest reject of Jackass. That each subsequent film has stripped itself of any thriller-based shoe leather and gone straight into the kineticism is what sets the last three Mission: Impossible films apart from the first three Mission: Impossible films, which look like confused children compared to this big boi shit.

*It is a significant aid that the Cannes Film Festival (another major gauge in how I feel the year is going) immediately precedes the summer movie season and oh what a shame that’s not happening this year either.