With the end of the 2010s mere weeks away, it seemed a good time to look back over the past 10 years and celebrate some of the best feature films that have been released over that time. To that end, I have noted down all of the films I could think of over that period that I really liked, and would feel comfortable recommending to others.
Now there are obviously a few caveats with this kind of a list: firstly, there are a lot of famous and acclaimed films out there that I simply have not seen. As a result some obvious choices may not turn up over the following posts. Secondly, the list in entirely subjective: each film is listed because I enjoyed it, not because it is necessarily the best made or most ground-breaking work. Third, I am not even going to attempt to moderate my own biases: I am a fan of genre cinema, and I have comparatively commercial tastes. I am also particularly keen on East Asian film, so countries like China, South Korea, and Japan are going to likely turn up here more often than in other critic’s attempts at similar lists. Finally, it’s obvious that the decade still has a few weeks left; anything I see over that time which I think deserves to join the list will get covered at the end of the year.
Let’s start at #350, and work our way down. If you have any opinions about these films, please feel free to comment below. These films are what I think of when I remember the last decade of cinema.
Tarsem Singh popped onto the landscape with the visually striking science fiction thriller The Cell, but then struggled to repeat that impact. Immortals was a solid attempt: a retelling of Greek mythology, it played rather like Clash of the Titans in fetishwear, with strong design but a weak screenplay. The end result was very uneven, but when a moment landed it did so and then some.
By 2010, the Walt Disney Animation Studio had completed a long-gestating shift from hand-drawn animation to computer-generated imagery. This change made Winnie the Pooh – with its old-fashioned aesthetic – a rather melancholic experience, despite its upbeat and child-oriented tone. It is uncomplicated but sweet. To date, WDAS has not returned to hand-drawn animation, making this small but charming feature the end of an era.
With the decade proving a lucrative time for zombie narratives, it was inevitable that one of the big studios would stake few hundred million dollars on a epic-scale and effects-driven stab at the genre. World War Z generally does an impressively big job, with an international setting, some fresh portrayals of the living dead, and a lot of CGI employed in presenting thousands of zombies on screen at a time. Brad Pitt brings real star power as the desperate protagonist. Sadly a long-gestating sequel was abandoned early in 2019.
Another zombie story, but its tone and scale could not be more different. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays against type as a grieving father who cares for his daughter as she slowly succumbs to a zombie virus. Moments of levity break the overall mournful tone, and the film takes its time to build character over suspense. It is an imperfect film, but a fascinating one. It is a shame Maggie was not more successful; Schwarzenegger acquits himself well in an atypical dramatic role.
The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney, is a film of modest ambition. That said, it does not put a foot wrong in telling a story of art curators and historians sent into the field during World War II to rescue priceless art works from the Nazis. An all-star cast including John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, and Bill Murray keep events light and charming, however it cannot shake the feeling there was a stronger film to be made from the material.
Kevin Smith has a tendency to struggle with non-comedic material, but he develops something both unusual and effective with Red State – a survival horror movie that takes an unexpected right turn in its second half. Michael Parks is stunning as the deranged leader of a rural cult, while John Goodman provides strong support in the film’s second half. As a whole the film is rather uneven, but sparkles with potential throughout.
Taken all together, Love and Other Cults is a tremendously messy and over-complicated film. Taken one scene at a time and this frantic and haphazard independent film has cult appeal written all over it. Sairi Ito is charismatic and funny as the story’s protagonist: a young woman who shifts from abusive home life to cult membership to high school and street gangs with aplomb. There’s a great sense of energy throughout.
Rather than capitalise on the soft reboot of the X-Men presented in the preceding film First Class, 20th Century Fox made the choice of bringing back the cast of the first three franchise instalments for a big-scale, continuity-muddying, but crowd-pleasing time travel adventure. The ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach – plus the return of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – certainly made for a blockbuster with fan appeal, but it arguably torpedoed the X-Men’s long-term future by forcing the old cast up against the new.
There is a pile of nostalgia attached to Escape Plan, that not only unites action legends Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger but does so with the most 1980s-styled superficial framework in years. This feels like a video rental from 1987 in the best way possible, and is made with self-awareness and enthusiasm. It is a perfect example of a film whose makers knew exactly what they wanted to make, and did so to near-perfection.
After his wife unexpectedly demands a divorce, Cal (Steve Carell) winds up trying to date again upon the urging of his suave new friend Jacob (Ryan Gosling). This underrated gem is powered by strong performances (Carell, Gosling, as well as Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, and Julianne Moore), and an astute screenplay that does a wonderful job of developing and capturing character. It juggles quite a lot of plot, but does so with a lot of charm at the same time. Even in its more ungainly moments it brings a lot of appeal.
On a technical level, Christopher Nolan’s third Batman feature is on par with its predecessors Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It is well cast and superbly shot. Unfortunately much of Rises stumbles: its characterisation of Batman himself misses the target, it under-utilises Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and makes a major but misguided point of focusing on Bane (Tom Hardy) as its primary antagonist. He comes saddled with a silly and difficult-to-understand voice treatment and lacks the presence or fun of earlier villains the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, who briefly returns here) and the Joker (Heath Ledger). One images the untimely death of Ledger between films took the wind out of Nolan’s sails a tad, but whatever the reason The Dark Knight Rises winds up the Batman trilogy on its weakest – but still entertaining – note.
The music of Scottish pop duo the Proclaimers powers this intimate and character-based musical, one adapted from a stage play performed by the Dundee Rep. Former actor turned director Dexter Fletcher has a strong sense of the material, and provides a lot of heart to its enthusiastic and romantic screenplay. The narrative is a little predictable – if you know enough Proclaimers song you can probably develop the same plot – but cast and crew undertake it all with a pleasing integrity. More cynical viewers might struggle with the idealist material and presentation, but resist the urge: iit is worth opening up and simply getting swept away in the moment. The Edinburgh setting and bright young cast have a great presence, and by the time the masses take to the cobbled streets to sing “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” it is hard not to fall in love.
Critics remain generally dismissive of Rob Zombie’s personal brand of nostalgic grindhouse cinema, but for those open to his ultra-violent and aggressive charms he continues to provide great cult fare. 31 is potentially his strongest work of the past decade: in which a group of travelling hippies find themselves kidnapped and placed inside a gauntlet of murderous opponents while rich aristocrats bet on their survival. This is a bloody and confronting riff on the 1980s favourite The Running Man, with absurd levels of gore and a memorable performance by Richard Brake as the ominously-named Doomhead.
Spanish director Miguel Llansó devises a wonderful absurd post-apocalyptic setting for this curious science fiction short feature, in which a short-statured survival (an intriguing Daniel Tadesse) travels across the ruins of Ethiopia in the hopes of boarding a massive alien spacecraft that looms in the sky above. Shot on a small budget (just over US$200,000) and peppered with bizarre, unexplained encounters, this represents both low-budget filmmaking at its finest and a solid work of arthouse filmmaking. Its short length also ensures it does not outstay its welcome – a little arthouse weirdness goes a very long way.
Is Catfish real? It was a question that dominated filmgoers in 2010 when Joost and Schulman’s documentary tracked an unlikely story of people masquerading as others on social media. The more important question to my mind has always been whether or not that mattered: real documentary or faux (my money is on a combination of the two), the bottom line is that Catfish is an innovatively presented and regularly gripping combination of drama, comedy and thriller. It’s darkest moments feel genuinely unsettling. It’s brightest parts are vicariously entertaining. Ultimately this is an entertaining ride no matter its integrity or origins, and it had a large-enought effect on society that the behaviour it describes now widely takes its name from the film.
Two anonymous women meet in a hotel to have sex, and wind up sharing more each other than intended. Julio Medem writes and directs a chamber piece that is simultaneously comic, dramatic, and a work of erotica. The lead performances by Elena Anaya and Natasha Yaravenko feel likeable and authentic, and Medem’s screenplay does an excellent job of expanding and illuminating the characters, but there is an unfortunate ‘male-gazey’ treatment of the film’s sexual content that does disappoint. It does not quite hit the heights of Medem’s earlier hit Sex & Lucia, but is still a wonderfully intimate character study.
The 2010s really were the decade of Hong Kong star Donnie Yen. By the end of 2019 he will have featured in 24 films; an average of 2.4 per year. One of the best was Ip Man 2, the second instalment of Yen’s growing saga of films about the real-life kung fu master famed for teaching Bruce Lee. It is really an excuse for a jingoistic celebration of Chinese superiority over foreign rivals – in this case the British – but its performed by Yen with great dignity and boasts absolutely outstanding scenes of martial arts combat (choreographed by industry legend Sammo Hung). Two more sequels followed, as well as a spin-off and a number of unofficial tie-ins and cash-ins.
A French factory worker (Marion Cottilard) discovers that her co-workers have accepted a modest pay increase, and she is to lose her job to pay for it. Given the weekend before she is dismissed, she is required to convince her colleagues to forego their bonus if she is to stay employed. A simple, direct drama, Two Days, One Night makes a powerful statement on workers rights and industrial relations, while also addressing the issue of migrant labour in France. Marion Cottilard – always a strong performer – is particularly effective here, receiving acting nominations from the Oscars, Cesars, and numerous festivals.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg essentially invite their friends around to make a film about what their friends would do in the event of the world ending. It is gloriously all over the place, packed with parody and self-mockery, ridiculously self-indulgent, and featuring one of the best surprise cameos of the decade. Fans of this group’s numerous comedies such as Pineapple Express, Your Highness, Superbad, and the like, will likely have an absolute ball, Anybody who did not warm to this generation of Hollywood comedy stars are really going to hate it. Extra points go to Michael Cera for a particularly funny performance.
If Harry Potter heralded the arrival of Hollywood’s craze for young adult multi-film adaptations, then The Maze Runner arguably heralded the movement’s end – at least for now. There have been several attempts to launch similar franchises since, but without the success of those series that dominated the decade – The Hunger Games, Twilight, and the last of the aforementioned Potter. The Maze Runner, which was followed by two similarly enjoyable sequels, takes a simple and rather abstract situation and works through it with a group of strong young stars including Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scoledario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Will Poulter. It is pleasantly to-the-point and easy-to-watch. I am sure these YA franchises will make a comeback sooner or later, but with screens littered with failed first instalments over the second half of the decade, it may be a while before they do.
Veteran manga writer/artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the focus of this modest blend of documentary and animation, bringing to life some of his autobiographical stories – Tatsumi narrates, and cartoons play out on screen. The animation is limited, but there is really no need for it to be more elaborate: Tatsumi’s gift for storytelling shines through. It is a sad, oftentimes tragic work, but also absolutely beautiful. It is particularly impressive given its director, Singaporean Eric Khoo, had previously only worked in live-action cinema.
Regular Johnnie To collaborator Law Wing-cheung scores with this tightly made and powerful effort, in which a rich industrialist’s daughter is kidnapped. When he, suspecting his daughter has faked it herself, refuses to pay a ransom, the very real kidnappers panic and murder her instead. Rather than involve the police, the father enlists his personal bodyguard to track the perpetrators down. It is a bleak and tragic film, and a tremendous showcase for actors Anthony Wong (the father) and Richie Jen (the bodyguard). Both are wonderful performers, and Punished allows them to deliver some stunning work. It is a beautifully shot film too, with the kind of glossy production values expected from a Milkyway Image production.
A pair of aspiring documentary makers (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) decide to investigate Maggie (Brit Marling), a cult leader in Los Angeles who claims to have travelled back in time from the mid-21st century. As they sink deeper into her community, their motivations and beliefs begin to shift, and they begin to disagree over whether Maggie is a fraud or a genuine prophet. The directorial debut for Zal Batmanglij, Sound of my Voice is a wonderfully effective low budget thriller, packed with strong ideas and a growing sense of doubt and paranoia. It achieves what the very best independent features do: finds a gripping premise, and lets the ideas drive the narrative rather than expensive production values.
A group of apartment building employees (Ben Stiller, Michael Peña, Casey Affleck) lose their entire life savings when the owner of their building (Alan Alda) is caught running a ponzi scheme. Resolving to get their money, they enlist a professional criminal (Eddie Murphy) to help them steal it back. A highly commercial comedy, Tower Heist wins via an unexpectedly sharp screenplay and a superb cast that also includes Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, and Tea Leoni. The real highlight is a resurgent Eddie Murphy, who delivers one of his strongest comedic performances in years. It is also an above-par effort for director Brett Ratner, whose uneven career has included a constant back-and-forth between good films and terrible ones.
A wanted criminal (Wallace Cheung) is wounded by police and taken to hospital. Once there, he refuses treatment long enough to give his gang time to mount a rescue attempt. Three is, to be honest, minor work for director Johnnie To, but To’s skills at this kind of crime thriller are strong enough that it remains a very entertaining work. In a typically Hong Kong style the emotions are over-the-top, the action is dynamic and beautifully shot, and the plot ducks and weaves with all manner of twists and turns. Louis Koo is a reliable protagonist at the police detective who has arrested the criminal boss, and Zhao Wei is solid support as a doctor drawn into the criminal’s scheme.