Midway through the decade and audiences were still flocking to reboots and sequels, with a T-Rex sized bite of the box office consumed by Jurassic World. Released at the end of the year, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens set us on a revised journey that would wrap in the end of 2019, giving general audiences some fun adventure and setting up what was hopefully a new hope for the saga’s creative success. Yet being cynical about sequels let some to dismiss a re-imagining of a sandy and apocalyptic world, a studio release that only made it to 21 on the box office charts for the year yet for many is their clear pick for the best of the entire decade.
Cannes is well represented on our list, from Miller’s road movie to a more laconic film about a spring/autumn romance that found vocal fans evangelical about its merits. A scathing look at a nightclub run by Nazis burned bright for those that took a chance, while an arty war movie proved one of the biggest surprises of the period. One film saw animalistic ennui at its most surreal, while another basked in its tragicomic lustre as it showcased some of the greatest performers drawn from several generations. A Nazi-punk thriller rocked our world, while a miracle of a cross-border crime thriller showcased the immense talents of all involved.
Other films were even more explicitly going for chills and thrills, including one with a very challenging dinner party and the other a particular charming goat named Philip. Finally, after some particularly rocky reboots a new generation got a fighter that took the structure of its original tale and brought its own vision into the ring. (JG)
Who didn’t feel “flung out of space” the first time they locked eyes with Carol? Todd Haynes’ 2015 melodrama evokes the dizzying sensation of falling in love. As meek little shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) catches eyes with glamourous shopper Carol (Cate Blanchett) across the floor, Carol is love at first sight. It’s impossible not to fall head over heels from the very first scenes. The film, delicately adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, unfolds like a courtship of its own as Carol slowly and sweetly envelops the audience in a romance that gradually speaks its name. The performances by Mara and Blanchett are masterful turns of restrained emotion and buried desire as the leads create two women who gradually escape the containment of 1950s conservatism and let love come full circle.
Every gesture and every glance in Carol comes loaded with emotion and meaning, while the cinematography by Edward Lachman puts a peculiar spin on melodrama by watching the blossoming romance through windows, door frames, and mirrors to find a love story that must live on the margins but has as much weight, emotion, and honesty as any other. Carol doesn’t define its characters by their queerness; instead, it creates a portrait of two people in love. It’s as simple and as complex as that. It’s also the best Christmas movie since Die Hard. (PM)
Creed easily tops the decade’s list of films that nobody asked for. But Ryan Coogler is a cinematic wizard, and he transformed a modern-day Rocky saga into one of the most earnest, gripping, and memorable sports movies of the decade.
Coogler dusted off an old film property along with Sylvester Stallone (the series’ past-his-prime star), and then put him on the back burner. Instead of focusing on an impoverished ne’er do well like Rocky, Creed follows Donny, a child of privilege – and damn it if you don’t root for his rich ass every step of the way. The movie’s appeal starts with casting Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan, one of Hollywood’s most charming stars. But the hook is Creed’s heartfelt screenplay, written by Coogler.
Coogler grew up a Rocky series diehard and Creed’s script reads like the world’s greatest Rocky fan fiction. Life, the film tells us, isn’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. And in the chaos of the 2010s, who doesn’t feel like they’ve been on the receiving end of a 12-round pummeling? I return to Creed when I’m feeling low and beat down by life. Specifically, I come back to the final training montage where Donny, flanked by dirt bikes, runs through the Philly streets. The moment the Rocky music kicks in hits me like the adrenaline shot Vincent Vega drills into Mia’s heart after she overdoses in Pulp Fiction. (VS)
Punk culture is not a monolith. Director Jeremy Saulnier has been in and out of the punk scene since coming up through the ranks of the DC scene, and he knows that punks can run through the spectrum of kindness to hate. Green Room came on the heels of his incredible examination of a broken man in 2013’s Blue Ruin to show us that he can handle a large cast in a small space. Following a small band on a scrappy tour, these young musicians take a last minute gig out of desperation, knowing that there is a strong chance of the darker side of punks being there. Though the show starts out fine, it takes a violent twist when the massive fissure between the two groups’ politics is exposed. One of the final and strongest roles by Anton Yelchin, Green Room is one of the thrilling and unpredictable films of the decade on a niche culture that deserves some cinematic attention. (DC)
Eleven-year-old Riley’s five core emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – work in Headquarters to keep Riley balanced and manage the creation of memories. When Joy and Sadness accidentally get pulled out of Headquarters, they have to find their way back through Riley’s memory storage and imagination. It’s a fascinating and brilliant portrayal of how emotions and memories function, blended with an adventurous narrative that tells Riley’s story as well as that of the emotions in her head. It’s also a fairly genius depiction of depression, which can feel like the total inability to connect to Sadness as well as Joy, and lovingly captures and shows why it’s important for humans to sometimes feel and show sadness, as it generates empathy in others.
I’m not sure if the most innovative element of the movie was deliberate, but I’ll never forget my own then-11-year-old pointing out as we left the theatre that while everyone in Inside Out is ruled by the same five core emotions, only Riley’s emotions span both genders, which could be the filmmakers subtly hinting that Riley is the first non-binary, genderfluid, or transgender character in a Disney/Pixar film. Inventive indeed. (JB)
Mad Max: Fury Road
This might just be a perfect film. It shows, rather than tells. It blends CGI and mind-boggling practical effects seamlessly. It maintains tension, and gives us characters to love and root for. It defies genre and creates its own at the same time. And these accolades do not yet include the fact that it has a guy playing a flame-shooting guitar racing across the desert.
It is not merely conjecture to highlight the fact that Fury Road makes no mistakes. Even the most celebrated films feature a weak performance, an unnecessary scene, or a set in need of better art direction, but not Fury Road. There is not one hair out of place, not one kickass woman undeserving of her screen time, and not one life lost without meaning. No other film in the past decade deserves to be here more. (DC)
There’s a shot very early in the film where Roger Deakins’ camera tracks some members of SWAT, the image shifting from a tracking shot to over-the-shoulder. It’s done with balletic dexterity, the perfect blend of the talents of the greatest living cinematographer and his visionary director Denis Villeneuve. In that one moment, seconds into the film, I was hooked. From then on every composition, with its exquisite precision, belied the chaos and moral ambivalence being expressed. This is a story of violence and betrayal, of revenge and retribution, yet above all it is takes the tropes of the Western and scythes the certitude away, leaving one as lost and broken as Kate (Emily Blunt) is by the finale. Yet some audiences missed just who the central character was despite the titular hint, and it’s the journey of the hitman (Benicio Del Toro) and his American enabler (Josh Brolin) that truly exemplifies both the pragmatic strategies and quotidian evil that’s exemplified by the conflict illustrated. Superficially it’s a riveting thriller, but scratch deeper at the sand and it’s a film that holds a mirror up to the poison not only of the overt gangsters running amok, but the systemic and political operatives whose adherence to policy results in the darkening of the soul of an entire nation. (JG)
Son of Saul
I saw Son of Saul under the most pure of circumstances – slipped in between two films at Cannes I was planning on seeing, I thought for the heck of it I’d see a random film I knew nothing about. That’s less remarkable, but what sets it apart is that if I would have read ahead of time what it was – a shot on 35mm, handheld, student-of-Bella Tarr directorial debut film about the holocaust – I likely would have skipped it all together, and missed out on seeing this breathtaking work. It’s such an assured, such a raw film that it’s easy to convey imagery to mind years later. Executed with astonishing precision, this film not only defied all preconceptions that there were still significant stories to tell about the horror of Shoah, but also that the visual tools of cinema (using bokeh to make a clear, singular look at the crimes at once dreamlike and out of reach) to say something that words are simply insufficient to express. (JG)
Following the unfairly maligned (and now thankfully reappraised and appropriated) Jennifer’s Body, it was uncertain if Karyn Kusama would ever return to horror. Thankfully for audiences, she did. Her 2015 film The Invitation is one of the most vital horror entries of the decade.
There are any number of horror films that tackle grief as a primary theme. The Invitation works because it is so exquisitely and perfectly drawn out – audiences are liable to feel claustrophobic mere moments after the guests arrive for a bizarre dinner party. It is equal parts uncomfortable and agonizing; an experience that is underlined by a not-so-subtle air of malice.
It is inevitable that something disastrous will happen (this is a horror film, after all), but thanks to the close confines of the beautiful Los Angeles home and Kusama’s taunt direction, The Invitation defies simplistic questions of “what is going on here?” for something far more harrowing and thrilling. All this comes before one of the most iconic final shots of any film of the decade, which only serves to confirm The Invitation as a modern classic. (JL)
Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos put his weird and wonderful perspective on love, relationships and loneliness on display in his first high-concept English-language feature. Bleak, surreal, and unsentimental, Lanthimos’s story about a man who gives himself 45 days to find love or else be turned into an animal of his choosing (a lobster, naturally) is wholly absurd. But that’s precisely what makes it so compelling thanks to a top-notch abstract performance by Colin Farrell — an actor who continues to shine in niche roles — and supporting players Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly. A tonal shift mid-way through the film is jarring and unexpected, adding more thought-provoking moments and diving into existential crisis mode. Featuring moments of black comedy and dark tragedy that will permeate the director’s next films (the equally excellent The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite), Lanthimos continues to keep audiences guessing on what’s to come next, all the way to the very last frame. (RW)
Fear drives all of the mania throughout The Witch. Fear of Thomasin’s shift from child to woman, fear of the baby’s disappearance, fear that something lurks in the treelines that border menacingly nearby. Wilderness is a natural terror with which Robert Eggers abused audiences in his 2016 gem. The underlying message contained in The Witch is a bit of a Rorschach blot, but nothing in the film terrified me more than the nightmarish imagery and a family from hell. The final shot following Thomasin into the dark of the woods is transfixing. She doesn’t know what waits for her there (a campfire surrounded by witches), but it has to be better than the terror that’s plagued her whole life. Three years later and the film’s ending still haunts me. (CB)
Youth shines with the wisdom of experience. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino surpassed the high bar set by his Oscar winner The Great Beauty with this film that feels immortal. Youth is a Fellini-esque canvas of beauty and emptiness against the backdrop of the European high life. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel give two of their best performances as Fred and Mick, a pair of old friends relaxing at a Swiss spa where they confront their mortality and personal legacies. Built on a series of repetitions and exquisitely-shot set pieces by Luca Bigazzi, Youth conveys that aging is simply all in the mind. One can either look forward or look back, and either be burdened by the past or be revitalized by the opportunities of the future. (PM)