The best films of the decade will be wildly different for everyone. Naming them is a way of highlighting what you value and anchor to. It might call attention to a movie someone else hasn’t seen, or that they don’t see the same way as you. The films on lists like these show us something about ourselves.
Sometimes the films named anticipate a movement that follows, or interpret one already happening. Other films are simply unique, and unlike anything else. Is the perfect war film superior to a challenging and flawed film that’s utterly unique and does what no other film you’ve ever seen before has? The answer to that is going to vary by critic, by viewer. The reasons for that answer are more important than the answer itself.
These are the films that stay with me, that I think about on random days because they’re close to me. There are elements in some of them I haven’t fully figured out. The viewing experience may have been going on for years because I still haven’t stepped out of that beautiful moment after the credits are over and I consider the way each sits like a presence beside me.
written by Paul Webb
directed by Ava DuVernay
“Selma” isn’t a biographical or historical film. It’s a war film. It communicates the process and procedure of meaningful protest. It follows the strategies the groups involved created and reacted to. It engages the architecture of successful protest and the work that goes into it at the ground level. It’s not a film about individual icons, though it features them. It’s a film about real, flawed people who fostered and empowered community to make change.
“Selma” measures its sacrifices as both countless and deeply personal. Each is unknowable as even more mount, and each is world shattering for the people left in its wake. It’s an exercise in perfect direction and tight character acting. It doesn’t stylize its era and it spends time with smaller roles to show you the impacts and emotion of that moment in time.
(Read my original review.)
9. “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”
written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz
The third film chronicling a troubled and unsatisfactory marriage, “Gett” is a movie that erodes you just as it does its main character. Struggling against her country’s religious laws, Viviane Amsalem (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) spends years in court trying to obtain a divorce from her husband.
He refuses to grant her one, and even when he does the conditions are his alone and subject to change. The film is simply presented, relying on its very real performances. Among many other things, “Gett” is an incredible examination of communicating desperation through restrained and even dulled emotions. It’s a film that, inside one courtroom, portrays a consistent resistance to the normalization of being treated as sub-human and without rights.
8. “The Secret of Kells”
written by Tomm Moore & Fabrice Ziolkowski
directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)
“The Secret of Kells” designed its animation to look like the illuminated manuscripts that monks would spend years designing. The story it told concerned some of those monks attempting to finish the Book of Kells and then save the manuscript before invading vikings pillage their abbey. It doesn’t help that a god of death is lurking in the woods, but a helpful faerie does her best to help.
It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but it works as a beautiful fable and the Celtic-styled animation is often overwhelming, stunning, and evocative. The film achieves an experience of calm and wholeness that matches the best of Hayao Miyazaki.
written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
directed by Christopher Nolan
This is one of the two big event films on the list, and I genuinely think it deserves to be here. As a high-concept science-fiction film, it sits comfortably alongside predecessors like “2001”. What’s unique about writer-director Christopher Nolan is that in his best moments, he melds high-concept to event filmmaking. That “Interstellar” also succeeds as an adventure film is incredible.
It’s also a movie that finds hope buried under layers of hopelessness. It presents a world that’s given up, that lies to itself to maintain the illusion that it’s not clearly dying – a world that becomes more and more familiar with each passing day – and it shows us an optimistic story of finding a way through. That way through is demanding, it takes generations, and it asks for work and sacrifice.
(Read my original review.)
6. “Under the Skin”
written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer
directed by Jonathan Glazer
“Under the Skin” is an art film that nearly all my friends hate. I love it. It’s a chaotic and lurking work that follows an alien (Scarlett Johansson) as she picks up lonely men and consumes them. You try to understand her and her burgeoning interest in becoming human – or at least experiencing human things.
The specifics of the Michel Faber novel on which it’s based are thrown to the side in favor of a multitude of potential readings. In fact, director Jonathan Glazer allowed his crew to design and score the film according to their own individual interpretations. A movie can so easily go careening off into disaster with that approach – and some would say this one did.
For me, however, it’s a disturbing work of inverting horror. It asks you to identify with a predator, making it inaccessible as it should be but coaxing you into the work of attempting to do it anyway. Then it confronts you with the idea that this is the work you’ve been doing. That might seem like a betrayal or trick on the movie’s part, but so much of our society has been built on normalizing and shielding predators that we’ve now elected one. Maybe we could have used a few more movies like this one.
5. “Life of Pi”
written by David Magee
directed by Ang Lee
Few films try to tackle the meaning of faith. Far fewer actually engage it without focusing on proselytizing or idolatry. “Life of Pi” tells the story of a young survivor stuck on a life raft with a tiger. The second of the two event films on this list, it’s patient, heartbreaking, and utterly human.
I hate frame stories – they’re a terribly used concept across movies. Yet the idea of a journalist going to interview the survivor as an adult allows Irrfan Khan to recall his story in ways that build both emotional and logical anchors (Khan has a solid and overlooked argument for greatest actor of his generation). Doing so creates a remarkable moment of self-questioning in the audience that makes the frame story a valuable way of describing and explaining hope and faith.
written by Taylor Sheridan
directed by Denis Villeneuve
“Sicario” is a stalking thing. It’s a movie that’s a nightmare, a film about FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). She’s tasked to an ill-defined covert operations team in order to legitimize its actions across the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s all standard spy fare so far, right? The film itself begins like a mystery and descends into a murk of threat and erasure.
It’s controversial in some circles of critics of color because of the way it poses Mexico as a war zone for the drug trade. The presentation in the film is definitely somewhat overblown. I find value in how the film illustrates the way the United States feeds the drug trade and installs leaders who are no less violent – but whose violence simply aligns with and feeds the financing of our own.
The villain in the film isn’t ultimately Mexico in any way. The villain is U.S. imperialism. What’s powerful in the film to me is one woman simply trying to do her job, and how the overwhelming nature of that imperialism increasingly dissolves the values that she imagines she’s risking her life to uphold. As I put it in my review, “It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters”. For my money, it’s Blunt’s best performance.
written and directed by Celine Sciamma
I once called “Sicario” the best film of 2015. I don’t know that I was wrong – it’s very close by in this list. The movie that’s stuck with me ever so slightly more, however, is my runner up that year – Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”. I’ve found that many “bests” in years past have shifted slightly – this list itself might look entirely different in a decade’s time.
“Girlhood” itself is a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t deal in the usual trials and tribulations of maturing. It follows a group of high-school girls in France. Most of them are Black or of Middle Eastern descent. The film deals with trans identity. It covers the silence of women before groups of men. It shows the path of maturing in a far different light than in the safe, stereotypical, low-risk, middle class ways that most coming-of-age tales cover.
It’s a film that shows growing up as a constant struggle to find or create safe harbor in a world that doesn’t provide it for everyone. It is inspiring, emotional, evolving, it feels all the more real when very light touches of magical realism are used, and there is a full scope of emotion to it – from the joy of community to the isolation of survival.
(Read my Runner-Up of 2015 piece.)
2. “Stories We Tell”
written by Sarah Polley & Michael Polley
directed by Sarah Polley
“Stories We Tell” is a complex family documentary that covers extensive meta territory. Filmmaker Sarah Polley was curious about stories that she might not be her father’s daughter. She delved into her own family’s history to profile her late mother, interview her mother’s lovers, her own family, and to research who exactly she was, what stories shaped her, and which were truthful.
One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is that Michael Polley – her mother’s husband and the father who raised her, serves as narrator for it. He’s also interviewed, and his calm and acceptance of the entire endeavor is another layer to be…not examined, but simply sat with and understood.
The film reveals piece by piece, but it’s never a mystery so much as it’s a contemplation of lives lived, of what a person understands about someone they love and might also fail to understand about them. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen, and stands out as something truly and quietly unique in all of film.
1. “The Milk of Sorrow”
written and directed by Claudia Llosa
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)
“The Milk of Sorrow” is a Peruvian film that traces how trauma shapes future generations. It follows Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman whose mother passes away in a remarkable first scene. Fausta’s mother was raped in a civil war, and her stories and experiences of this have shaped Fausta’s view of the world. She passes through it quietly, timidly, shying from a hundred normal things that she reads as potential dangers.
Fausta’s also made shocking decisions for her own health that make no sense, but that are framed by paranoia, superstition, fear, and how trauma has infused itself into folklore. The film is a reserved piece of magical realism that traces in one character how trauma echoes in a society – especially among its indigenous communities.
The cinematography is stark and beautiful one minute, rich and full of motion the next, yet another argument that Natasha Braier is without a doubt the cinematographer most overlooked by the Oscars this last decade. Writer-director Claudia Llosa’s film operates on two levels: a quiet, obvious, and patient one on the surface, and one that exists below that in the muted suppression of panic that deals with anxiety, shame, and betrayal.
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