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. Don’t pay too close attention to the numbers; these rankings would change on a daily basis.
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 (I only review films part-time). 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. Finally, 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. This time around we’re counting down from #325 to #301. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my choices.
A film for which the terms like ‘colossal misfire’ and ‘unholy mess’ were potentially invented. Gore Verbinsky’s interpretation of the famous cowboy character is over-stuffed with plot, characters, and veers somewhere between a fever dream remount of his popular Pirates of the Carribbean trilogy and an absurd retelling of Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro (1998). Johnny Depp reaches peak eccentricity as Tonto, cementing his growing reputation as a creatively spent force. And yet on some strange level it is all terribly addictive. The scattershot implementation of quirks, action showcases, and comedic bits contains a number of hugely entertaining scenes, and when “The William Tell Overture” finally bursts into the soundtrack it is a hugely triumphant moment. Leading man Armie Hammer is the Hollywood superstar who weirdly never quite hit the big time, despite enormous on-screen appeal.
Jon Favreau’s directorial career has been dominated by big-budget fare like Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Zathura, and The Jungle Book, so it is great to see him exercise his talents – as both director and actor – in a small scale, contemporary drama. Chef is a light and breezy culinary adventure, with a fired chef (Favreau) setting up a food truck and travelling America selling cuban sandwiches. The cast – including John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, and Sofia Vergara – are all clearly having a whale of a time, and that sense of fun is genuinely infectious. Most of all the food looks absolutely mouth-watering. This is an easygoing and delightful foodie’s paradise.
Writer/director Ivy Ho opened the decade with this light and heart-warming romantic drama, in which two Hong Kong singles are set up on a date by their respective parents, and form a close friendship instead. The film is grounded with a very strong sense of place, which the majority of the action taking place in the Hong Kong suburb of Wan Chai – specifically along the titular Hennessy Road. It is a seemingly inconsequential work, but thanks to Ho’s wonderful screenplay and seemingly effortless performances by Tang Wei, Jacky Cheung, and a supporting cast including Maggie Cheung Ho-yee, Andy On, Danny Lee, and Paw Hee-ching, it really does capture the heart and makes for an absolute charming experience. Films like this require a light touch, and Ho brings that subtlety in spades.
Joe Wright’s thriller about a teenage assassin is a startling work of filmmaking, bringing a decidedly stripped-back arthouse methodology to what is usually presented in commercial or b-grade ways. As a follow-up to his earlier films Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, it is a genuinely odd choice. Hanna blends the sort of espionage on-the-run thrills of Bourne with the ‘sheltered child discovers the world’ drama of the independent film circuit, and it does that very well. It is a tremendous showcase for Saoirse Ronan – whose career has exploded from this point – and she is well supported by the likes of Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett.
A terminally ill insurance salesman (Joel Murray) and a bored high schooler (Tara Lynne Barr) team up to massacre the worst members of American society. It is the work of comic-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait, who instils the film with a scabrous and aggressively furious sense of glee. Its commentary on American culture is well-founded and intelligently developed. Its treatment on the issues veers wildly between the disturbingly hilarious and the just-plain-disturbing. Goldthwait’s scattershot approach has its share of hits and misses, but overall it is an bleak and timely satire. If you think you are the target audience, definitely give the film a shot.
The Island of Dr Moreau was a creative and commercial failure when released in 1996. Its original director, Richard Stanley, had been fired. Actors Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando had complicated production in different ways, actors had walked off set in protest at the conditions, and the budget expanded out of control. Usually any insight into what went wrong with a studio flop is left to rumour and the odd candid comment years afterwards, but in the case of Moreau there is this wonderful ‘talking heads’ documentary by David Gregory. The shadenfreude is high with this film; a must-see for any fan of the filmmaking process, genre cinema, or simply stories of projects gone horribly and uncontrollably wrong.
Guillermo Del Toro’s demonstrable talent for creating fantasy cinema finally hit a mainstream level of appreciation in the 2010s. While his gothic mystery Crimson Peak did not quite capture moviegoers at the time, it had a long afterlife on home video and is getting cited more and more often as a film worth checking out. He displays a predictably excellent understanding of his chosen genre here, with a screenplay that hits all of the appropriate tropes and a design sense that is second-to-none. It’s all wonderfully beautiful to look at, with a tremendous sense of colour and an intricate aesthetic – as well as similarly attractive (and effective) actors like Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska.
Nanni Moretti directs and co-stars in this Italian comedy, in which the Catholic Church’s papal conclave votes for a new Pope – who promptly has an emotional collapse at the very thought of the job. With growing desperation – the conclave cannot end until their choice is presented to the masses – a psychotherapist is brought in to counsel the new pontiff. Michael Piccoli is excellent as the new Pope, and Moretti is in fine form as the therapist. There is excellent broad comedy to be found here, but also something much more inspired and gentle in the way Moretti explores human behaviour and frailty. It is far less cynical or political than much of Moretti’s works, but it almost feels stronger because of it.
Duncan Jones’ feature debut Moon was an absolutely brilliant science fiction film, and while his sophomore work Source Code is not quite as strong it still thrills as a tense science fiction story with plenty of surprises. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an army pilot trapped inside a computer simulation of a moving train, where he has been tasked with finding a bomb and identifying who planted it. It is a great film – both intelligent and deeply creative – and does excellent work in terms of finding the human story at the core of the twists and thrills.
The Grey got a disproportionate amount of attention in 2011, thanks to its apparent premise of ‘Liam Neeson punches up a pack of wolves’. Of course the film itself was considerable more than 90 minutes of Neeson-on-wolf action, and instead presented a bleak picture of human resilience and stumbling masculinity. It depicts the survivors of a plane crash, and follows their attempts to reach safety against a backdrop of a deadly arctic environment. The ensemble cast includes a lot of talent (Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, and others), and the screenplay does a slow burn in revealing character backgrounds and motivations. The Grey depicts a harsh, fatalistic attitude, but also a philosophical sense of melancholy.
All things considered, Shutter Island is a minor work for Martin Scorsese. Lacking the depth or detail of his best work, it does make for a high quality exercise in genre filmmaking. Two police detectives (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) arrive on an isolated island in search of a missing mental institution patient. When one detective goes missing, his partner sinks into a paranoid maze of lies in his attempt to solve his disappearance. A strong cast is matched by dynamic visuals and a twisting screenplay to form a pulpy and enjoyable thriller.
Steven Spielberg tackles World War I in this handsomely presented, beautifully shot, and very traditional film. There is nothing he does here as director that feels particularly fresh or innovative, but it remains an interesting story – a horse’s adventures throughout the war – helmed by one of Hollywood’s most competent filmmakers. It is a high quality slice of popular entertainment, and there is always a place for that. A climactic run through no-man’s-land is one of Spielberg’s most visually powerful sequences in years. Actor Tom Hiddleston makes a particularly strong impression as well, in one of his rare pre-Marvel roles.
Widely pilloried as one of the decade’s worst science fiction films and prequels, Ridley Scott’s Alien origin story actually retains an awful lot of worth. Many of the ideas are bold and fascinating. It does not make obvious decisions in representing the famous alien xenomorphs. The design work and visuals are superb, and well up to the standard expecting from an industry legend like Scott. The cast are broadly excellent, particularly Danny McBride playing against type (and genre) as a talented spacecraft pilot and Michael Fassbender as the coolly unsettling android David. The screenplay has an awful lot of problems, and the cast are forced to behave in unnaturally stupid ways, and that does drag the film down quite a lot. It is why this ambitious science fiction thriller is ranked in the 300s, and not closer to the top. It is deeply flawed, but also deeply interesting too.
There is a troubled backstory to Jane Got a Gun, which between being greenlit and produced lost a director (Lynne Ramsay) as well as three villains and a cinematographer. The end result, however, is a nice female-led spin on the traditional western. Natalie Portman is excellent as a woman forced to step up when her husband (a similarly strong Noah Emmerich) is badly injured by his former criminal gang. Ewan MacGregor plays a solid villain, while Joel Edgerton shines in a subtle fashion as the traditional moody and softly spoken gunslinger. Westerns may have partially slipped out of the spotlight, but every new decade brings a few fresh gems; this is definitely one of them.
Another Liam Neeson-led thriller, this 2019 release was unfortunately overshadowed by apparently racist comments made by Neeson while on the press circuit. It was a pity, since this cynical and absurd comedic thriller is one of his best films in years. When his son appears to die from a drug overdose, snowplow driver Neil Coxman (Neeson) refuses to accept it. His investigations accidentally spark off a turf war between two rival criminal syndicates, as misunderstanding upon misunderstanding ramps up the body count. It is funny, complex, grossly violent, and inappropriately very, very funny. It is a remake of Moland’s own Norwegian original, In Order of Disappearance – a film I am now very keen to see.
Plenty of Journey to the West adaptations are made in China, but Soi Cheang has achieved something special with his high-budget series of top-notch adaptations, which take sections of the original novel and adapt them into particularly commercial movies. This first film – there have been three to date – presents the early adventures of the titular monkey (Donnie Yen) in heaven. It is very heavy on the CGI, and its effects demands are somewhat larger than its budget allows, but it is still a hugely entertaining affair. Chow Yun-Fat expresses effortless cool as the King oh Heaven, with Aaron Kwok brooding wonderfully as the villain, but really it is Yen’s excitable, over-the-top performance as the Monkey King Sun Wukong that is the film’s best asset.
Less bold than Prometheus, but correspondingly better produced. To be honest, there is an extent to which Covenant is the first Alien film to feel like ‘yet another Alien film’, but there is still a franchise standard combination of good actors, atmospheric design, and people running for their lives from scary monsters. The Prometheus storyline gets extended, Katherine Waterston makes for a strong protagonist, and Michael Fassbender continues to develop David into a great science fiction character. With Disney purchasing 20th Century Fox it is hard to predict where Alien is going next, but I for one would be happy to see Ridley Scott finish his prequel trilogy.
Rungano Nyoni made her directorial debut with this unusual but highly effective drama about a Zambian girl accused of witchcraft. After a village trail, she is sent to a camp packed with old women, each tethered to the ground with a long ribbon. Soon she becomes a tool for an ambitious politician who wishes to exploit her apparent talents for his own benefit. I Am Not a Witch is deeply satirical, sometimes funny, and sometimes tragic. Most of all, it feels wholly original, and not easily forgotten. When I first watched the film, I was thrown by its jarring third act. With the benefit of time, it seems the only logical conclusion to have.
The Fast and the Furious series has been one of the great commercial success stories of the decade, taking a moderately but spent 2000s franchise and transforming it into a resurgent smash hit. By its eighth instalment in 2017, the constant demand for rising thrills and action scenes was raised to ludicrous and near-nonsensical extremes, but still retained the core appealing cast, exceptional diversity, and gleeful sense of mayhem that has built these films up to such massive global success. A city chase scene is particularly good fun, particularly when it rains dozens of cars onto the street – it makes little sense, of course, but goodness it’s a lot of fun.
The story of boxer Micky Ward is essentially a showcase for a string of outstanding performances by Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and particularly Christian Bale – who jumps off the screen as the strung-out and drug-addicted brother to Ward. It is a very grounded and naturalistic work, something slightly surprising given the previous films of director David O. Russell (Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees). To a large extent it relaunched his career, via later films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (neither of which, shamefully, I have managed to see).
Originally recorded as a television series, Michael Winterbottom compiled the entire season into a single feature for festival release. Comic actor Steve Coogan is hired to write a series of restaurant reviews and – lacking a partner to bring along – persuades fellow comedian Rob Brydon to join him on the journey. While Coogan suffers a personal crisis and deals with it very badly, the bulk of the film simply consists of funny conversations over dinner. There is a troubling undercurrent, however, that explores issues of career ambition, fidelity, and family responsibility. Whether you watch the film or the series, there is a lot of depth to The Trip that isn’t initially apparent.
A very straight-forward and traditional sort of prestige drama, The King’s Speech wins its audience through a combination of interesting subject matter, excellent actors, and a strong screenplay. Colin Firth plays a reluctant King George VI, saddled with a major stuttering problem, and facing the challenge of speaking to his people for the first time. Once he is introduced to Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the film transforms into a charming two-hander. If you’re the sort that loathes the English monarchy, The King’s Speech may not be quite your cup of tea, but it is a strong actor-focused drama that I found enormously watchable. Helena Bonham Carter is wonderful as Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother).
Planetarium, as I wrote in my original review, is a difficult film. It is hard to describe or sum up, and occasionally difficult to completely follow. It is, however, enormously intriguing, with exceptional acting, stunning visual imagery, and provocative themes. The film focuses on two sisters (Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp) whose seance act attracts the attention of a paranormally-obsessed film producer (a captivating Emmanuel Salinger). What begins as a mystery over whether or not the supernatural is real slowly sinks into an interrogation of late-1930s anti-semitism. The narrative gets somewhat muddled due to competing priorities, but visually and emotionally it is a fiercely memorable work.
#302: Rango (2011, USA. d. Gore Verbinski.)
Being a cartoon, Rango is probably Gore Verbinski’s most under-appreciated film. An abandoned pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp in an enthused Muppet impression) finds himself in the desert town of Dirt – which is populated entirely by animals. After accidentally killing a predatory hawk, the chameleon – Rango – is unwillingly appointed town sheriff and forced to challenge the local criminal boss Bad Bill (Ray Winstone). Rango is wonderfully designed and animated, but what makes it stand above the crowd is its stylistic affinity with classic American westerns. It is a highly cine-literate and celebratory work, while simultaneously working as a great animated adventure for children.
A critical and commercial flop that remains well in need of re-appraisal. Benecio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, and Hugo Weaving star in Joe Johnston’s pulpy, bloody remake of Universal’s horror classic The Wolf Man. It is respectful of its past, inventive in its presentation, and hugely effective as a slice of audience-pleasing gothic horror. Quite why its audience failed to engage with it remains a mystery to me. Later in the decade, Universal Pictures would try twice (in Dracula Untold and The Mummy) to launch a new shared universe of monster movies. They had the perfect opening for one right here. This is Johnston’s strongest feature since The Rocketeer, and absolutely deserves a second look.