The 150 Best Movies of the 2010s – #90-81

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90. All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor, Canada/USA)

Effortless virtue in simplicity. The way that J.C. Chandor and his crew are able to make a thrilling setpiece out of basically one location, a thriller out of basically one elongated and inevitable event happening slowly but surely, and while it may be easy to claim that something about being in danger in the vast emptiness of the sea is easy to make thrilling, Chandor is confident enough to create business out only the spare parts in a way I hardly see most of the genre attempt. On top of which, you have to be pretty confident to take one of the most recognizable movie stars in history and turn him into a desperate old Everyman without tapping into the charm we know him for, Robert Redford proving just as capable of just having raw and understandable emotions to every next step in this disaster. Chandor’s proven himself to be one of the 2010s’ best surprise debuts with all three of his films (Margin Call and A Most Violent Year being the other two), but this is the focused work of a master of the craft, not some newbie.

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89. Widows (2018, Steve McQueen, UK/USA)

It turns out that Steve McQueen – contemporary arthouse master of cinematic misery (eat shit, Lars von Trier) – can actually make a pretty great populist film when he gives it a try. At the surface, Widows is just a meat-and-potatoes genre picture based on a tv show McQueen evidently loved but – in the way that The Departed gets praised for and this movie absolutely deserves – his and Gillian Flynn’s transplanting the material to Chicago instead of London explores the new location with a richness (that sound design specifically is now less unnerving as any of the physical agonies McQueen had previously explored in his movies, this is a picture that needs to be watched LOUD) that also gives it a character of hostility for its outstanding ensemble cast, providing a core of four women looking out for each other with a humane prickliness towards their difference in privilege that doesn’t wander one inch away from the fact that this is mostly just supposed a work of pulp heist fiction. It is a very comforting fact that McQueen’s best movie is also the easiest one to recommend to others.

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

I know what kind of fight I’m fixing to get myself into when I state this, but Incredibles 2 is not just the only time since Inside Out that it felt like Pixar was wide awake. It’s also better than the first movie, beloved as it is by many (including me), in practically every way. Every setpiece stands up against any of the past decade’s live-action popcorn movies – whether for reasons of camera movement matching the zippiness and nimbleness, the lighting being outstanding whether cornering us in shadow or assaulting us with brightness, or just trying to be a hilarious bit of slapstick fun. Brad Bird’s return to animation has clearly given him an idea of how to stretch out visual principles he was already bringing to his live-action stuff for the sake of thrills and laughs and boy am I happy to see how much further he can push the envelope in his next project.

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87. Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater, USA)

We still have 2 more years to see if this is the last we will see of Celine and Jesse (for that reason, I refuse to call it a “trilogy” no matter how Criterion tries to sway me) but this is still such an effective ending beat to leave us until that question is answered that I wouldn’t be too disheartened. Certainly, it is the least of the three Before films, but a lot of those flaws come from its most fascinating elements: the way that the two characters have become frustrating the way that people who are in the middle of their biggest roadblock get to be, the way that sitting in between of an upsetting argument between your friends is going to be. But it’s not intolerable and I credit that to the way that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (sharing a much-earned writing credit here with Richard Linklater) clearly understand their characters enough to find plausible areas that they’re going to get petulant and harsh about and still being able to guide their characters into an unexpectedly poignant note of hopefulness that leaves me happy to have seen them again rather than wondering if I should go and come back at a better time.

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86. The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy (2010-’19, Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, USA/Japan)

THE major turning point for Dreamworks Animation as a studio, finally. Dean DeBlois (and solely for the first movie, Chris Sanders) put together a marvelously fussy world to embrace and explore alongside the very cat-like dragon Toothless, one of my favorite characters of the past decade, soaring and sweeping between broad conflicts that map out well on the development of his human partner Hiccup (and frankly our guide to the world while Toothless is a figure we admire and coo over) as a character. So basically two types of satisfying story types: character arc and high concept fantasy adventure. Watching the animation get better and better with each installment so that the lights and environments feel so rich as we spin through them is a great privilege, but the fact that DeBlois was also able to tie up the emotional path of Hiccup and Toothless as a pair in his final installment in a way that a lot of trilogies shit the bed on make me confident in my resolution to bring the trilogy together in one spot on this list rather than have to make a Sophie’s Choice as to my favorite one. There’s just too much I adore in it.

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85. Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold, Germany)

It’s pretty hard not to just repeat the things I said about Petzold’s Transit earlier on this list for Phoenix, which does a lot of the same things just tigher and more effective for me. Instead I focus on the way that Phoenix represents the scars of post-Nazi Germany in a ghostly way that benefits from the neo-noir aesthetic around the rubble of the city the way that Transit represents the current immediacy of a Nazi return in a timeless but present way. Perhaps it’s how I respond more to that cynical nostalgic hue of Phoenix now applied to a particularly cruel tale of identity that also coaxes a thrillingly complex performance from Nina Hoss and how it provides a compulsive layer of guilt to the viewer. Whichever way it is, Petzold essentially went two different ways on the same concept of “assumed identity in the fact of authoritarian fascism” and pulled out two incredible distinct thrillers out of that hat, showcasing his atmospheric versatility.

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84. Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier, Norway)

Frankly a movie that I did not expect to enjoy, let alone for it to haunt me for years the way it did after I first saw it. And to be sure, it IS exactly what I expected: a miserable and chilly arthouse character study on a matter that could not possibly end well for its character. But it’s a very well-made and paced character study of somebody who needs help but also really doesn’t think he deserves it and the humanity with which Joachim Trier, Anders Danielsen Lie, and the rest of the people involved in this movie give to that scenario indicates that the idea is more than just “watch somebody struggle to deal with his sickness”. In any case, it’s the sort of character piece that, by the end of the movie, I ended up wanting to reach out through the screen and hold on to him.

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83. The Lords of Salem (2012, Rob Zombie, USA/UK/Canada)

I understand that Rob Zombie’s white trash spookiness aesthetic is not to most people’s speed, but holy shit did this movie take a beating that it did not deserve from even his own fans. Zombie’s indulgence in his concept of arthouse horror doesn’t lose one bit of the exploitation vibe that we expect from him, just instead of pulling from the frequent sloppy viscera and violence we expect from him (still present but in significantly fewer portions) now we get it from the hallucinatory imagery and the lack of true coherence to what’s going on that the best horror cinema should be providing to keep us from grabbing our footing. All we get to know is that we are spiraling in a sonic nightmare of evil and the ride doesn’t stop until Rob says so.

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82. The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent, Australia)

Fortunately, some horror films were not so unfairly maligned as The Lords of Salem and it’s easy to see why The Babadook was one of the universal darlings of the genre in the past ten years. Jennifer Kent and company have put together a pretty unmissable metaphor for grief, trauma, and emotional exhaustion that Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman tap into for two very different kinds of broken people going downhill. But if it just had to rely on the excellent actors at hand, it would lack the bonechilling dark aesthetic of it all, punctuated by the alarming crimson of the central storybook and occasionally intercut by shadowy shapes that bring our eyes darting for a sign of the titular Babadook monster, whether a psychological manifestation or a physical beast of torment. An unexpectedly original movie for such a broad and often explored (if not to the success of Kent’s work here) concept.

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81. Apollo 11 (2018, Todd Douglas Miller, USA)

It’s a good thing this is the last time in this list series that I will invoke Apollo 11, because there’s only so many ways to repeat that this is a monumental accomplishment in film editing streamlining an exhaustive amount of material from one of the most publicized events of the 20th Century into a heart-pounding thriller. We are spared no fear in what could have been the fatal error for the astronauts and we are – for the most part – put in the seat of the technicians involved in such a direct way that makes me lament how I never had a legit IMAX theater near me to play the movie. Its focus on that kind of procedure also has the benefit of distinguishing it from the emotional and spiritual approach of other films on the same subject – such as First Man and For All Mankind (great movies that it surpasses). The hard-eyed blunt delivery of this mission to and back again makes it possibly the most propulsive and physically moving documentaries I have ever seen.

The 150 Best Movies of the 2010s – #100-91

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100. The Wailing (2016, Na Hong-jin, South Korea)

Especially in a decade of horror movies with ghastly runtimes (2019 was outright overflowing with them), it is hard not to appreciate the sort of work Na Hong-jin and company are in creating an epic tragedy of terror. The extended duration of the thing doesn’t waste a single frame while patiently drowning us in helplessness watching one man dealing with his daughter’s violent possession and running into walls trying to investigate and fight it, basically not just a crypto-remake of The Exorcist but one that I think surpasses it. Not to mention the phenomenal small-town photography capturing the way the mountain lines in the blue skies entrap the town to its ghostly doom (one of the things that endears me personally to the film, it reminds me of the looming Tell Atlas in my childhood in Blida) and the manner in which the editing (which I’ve formally recognized twice now in this list series) constantly makes us feel confused and put under subterfuge for the whole movie. Ambitious and pure horror.

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99. La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle, USA)

Yeah yeah yeah, fuck you, I love it. Even without the sentimentality I have regarding it and how it represents an adjacent period in my life, the world of color and music that Damien Chazelle and his crew conjured together is helplessly appealing in all its swoony romanticism regarding the moment you get to share with somebody (delivered by one of the decade’s easiest to love screen couples at their ooziest), the sacrifices that artistry demands, the way that makes you grow as a person, and the loose and energizing sensation of film and music. That its representation of LA is as fake as a film set and that its major themes are lifted wholesale from Jacques Demy are complete non-issues to me as symptoms of a state of mind and that state of mind is “Isn’t movies fucking great?!”

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98. Pina (2011, Wim Wenders, Germany)

What started out as a hopeful collaboration with the famous dance choreographer Pina Bausch ended up having to be a tribute to a late friend’s genius (as well as one of the dancers featured in the film who also passed away prior to its completion). Wim Wenders and the dance company of Tanztheater Wuppertal present several stage performances of Bausch’s works with all the patience that a movie translating theater to cinema (Hamilton, take notes!) should have to retain that intimacy, save for one scene that actively uses the cut and with an added bonus for all of them: the 3-D cinematography. And if any choreographer’s work was going to be well suited for the depth of 3-D, it would have to be Bausch as the presentation allows us to feel more physically involved with the observation of the dancers’ bodies and how they are positioned and formed. If there was any better tribute to such an artist than to preserve and enhance her work in such a present way, I can’t think of it.

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97. Hard to Be a God (2013, Aleksei German, Russia/Czech Republic)

Aleksei German’s final picture is exactly the kind of movie that makes me need to go take a shower, aesthetically speaking with how muddy and gross the cinematography feels to complement the incredibly filthy fantasy world he throws the characters of Strugatsky’s book into. The fact that it accomplishes that physical hideousness while maintaining a fascinating sense of immediate place for something that’s otherwise explicitly science fiction is a major part of what kept this movie so stuck in my mind that I had to shove it into the Top 100 at the last second. It’s very tempting to compare this to the work of Tarr Béla and Hranitzky Ágnes and I refrain from doing so lest I run out of things to say when I get to THEIR movie on this list (y’all had to know it was coming, honestly) but suffice it to say it accomplishes that same sort of thematic density, textual challenge, and textural rawness.

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96. The Raid: RedemptionThe Raid 2: Berandal (2011-’14, Gareth Evans, Indonesia)

And we finally reach what will be the first of several “franchise” cheats in this list (as I stated would occur in my intro), but you’ll forgive for wanting to wax rhapsodic on how Gareth Evans’ duology is essentially two different movies both accomplishing the role of delivering exciting and eye-popping bodily movement in screen combat. I’ve been open about preferring the slim straightforward upward game of death that is the first Raid, but I also have to admit growing onto the expanded storyline of The Raid 2 as a musing on non-stop generational violence and the way that Iko Uwais’ supercop is thrown in the middle of it. In any case, that Evans and his cast and crew find room to deliver either a slender blunt-force ballet of the first movie or the gangster epic of the second movie on the bones of some really amazing action sequences that have the perfect synchronization between performer (or vehicle), camera, and editing is nothing to scoff about.

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95. Cloud Atlas (2012, Tom Tykwer & Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Germany/USA)

Resist as I might, even with its misconceived elements, I can’t bring myself to lose an ounce of love that have for this unwieldy and flawed work of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski sisters. For one thing, it translated the already incredible narrative structure of David Mitchell’s book that feels so much more propulsive and momentum-based, its trust its actors to maintain a spiritual consistency of character through a varieties of periods and tones, it has a grab bag of ambition in both genre and physical production in and of itself, and all of it is the name of something deeply human and insistent that there is a connection and causality to everything, no matter how vast the timeframe is. It feels like not only the thematic predecessor to the similarly ambitious television series Sense8 (albeit I prefer this film based on how much more gonzo the visuals are), but also a culmination of all the sort of things that the Wachowskis and Tykwer truly love about telling stories and connecting to the audience deeply. And frankly, it’s one of the movies I’d credit with saving my life, but that’s a different story…

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94. Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile/Germany/Spain/USA)

Tell me, what do you think astronomy, geology, and the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet all have in common? I’m not sure I could still tell you after having seen Patricio Guzmán’s first documentary in what I understand to be a trilogy (The Pearl Button was not as fascinating and I have not yet had the chance to see The Cordillera of Dreams) but that’s the pure magic of it: the persuasiveness with his able to conjure a thread between his childhood fascination with the stars and the emotional scars of survivors of Pinochet’s awful violence, landing somewhere between sober and hopeful in the ability to put together science and memory as a pair of weapons with which painful memories can be put to rest for fellow Chileans. Moving and transportive, Nostalgia for the Light is frankly associative cinema at its finest.

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93. Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

Much as I hate to admit, Paul Thomas Anderson’s style can finally click just right with me. And given that the two times where this has been strongest have been his two collaborations with Daniel Day-Lewis, now apparently retired for good, I would say I don’t plan on us clicking any longer. That said, Daniel Day-Lewis’ wonderfully petulantly tense control freak performance is not the only thing that makes me adore this picture – especially given that he doesn’t manage to steal the show from either of his co-stars, Vicky Krieps or Lesley Manville – but in fact the way that Anderson and his crew take the art of clothing design into something wholly erotic and exciting to experience via cinematic language of sound where we hear the fabric, the intimacy with which we watch it touched, the poise of its adoption by the wearer and such and such before allowing the premise to spiral into something unexpectedly twisted and fucking hilarious. I MEAN FUCKING HILARIOUS, like I’m full-on dying in the movie theater while everybody looks at me weird. Having the late opportunity to see it in 70mm (after that presentation missed my city in initial release for some reason) was a miracle of the decade for me.

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92. The Garden of Words (2013, Shinkai Makoto, Japan)

One of many movies on this list I had to grow out of my initial hostility for, probably because I still think the script’s third act is garbage if I can be generous (and if I cannot be generous, it is very misguided in a way I find morally questionable – I DID recognize the climax as one of the 2010s’ worst movie scenes.). But in case, it’s not clear, I don’t entirely engage with movies on the level of their narrative and after coming to recognize that The Garden of Words is probably the pinnacle of Shinkai Makoto’s famous working with the dance between rain and light in animation, I also found that it delivers something emotionally on rewatch that I didn’t expect: a serene state of mind, a mood and atmosphere that I find immensely relaxing and appealing for most of its runtime. That it’s satisfying to me beyond the qualities of its form doesn’t prevent me from trying to dissect how it gets there and I think I’ve landed on it being how it mostly plays in greens and light grays as a color palette that have a visual pensiveness to them and also the fine quality of the trees and greenery that give Shinjuku Gyo-en a real sense of place to sink into. In any case, it is the last movie I expected to enter this list when I first watched it and yet here I am, changing like the wind.

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91. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater, USA)

I love Red Letter Media deeply and wholly, but I also feel that the “IT TOOK TWELVE YEARS TO MAKE!!!!” mockery is one of the worst things to happen to modern film discourse. Like, yeah, it took 12 years to make. I don’t see how such patience and stamina is not an ambitious accomplishment in itself, but even beyond that: it’s what those 12 years of collecting material bring us. A sense of time capsules passing us through as we recognize background events and moods and music waving by, the observation of not only our central child character developing in ways expected and unexpected but even his parents have that sort of fragmentary change into certain or uncertain persons in the background, and the manner in which life is basically just a collection of formative things, some small and some big as arranged by Richard Linklater and his crew (especially editor Sandra Adair) and I expect it’s the sort of movie where different things are going to resonate with different people (or they aren’t which is a possibility). It’s not necessarily a simulation of that titular experience of boyhood, but just the experience of watching the world turn and change around you and finding out at the end how you changed with it. Probably a major part of why I feel Mason’s blankness as a protagonist works (though Ellar Coltrane – especially as a child – is an talented dramatic actor), but also the fact that at some point in his teenage years, I started seeing myself and my younger brother in the character.