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 #300 to #276. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my choices.
Soi Cheang’s third Monkey King instalment is better than the first film, but falls short of reaching the heights of the second. Even so, this is still my all-time favourite series to be based on Journey to the West, incorporating a very American blockbuster look and structure but still retaining a very Chinese tone and sense of humour. This adventures sees Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng) and his demon companions arrive in a kingdom ruled by women, which sounds like a recipe for disaster but actually leads to a romance for Tang himself. The tightrope act to give a Buddhist monk a romantic storyline that both works brilliantly and respects the character is tremendously impressive. Returning co-stars Aaron Kwok, Xiaoshenyang, and Him Law all deliver consistently appealing work. I ardently hope there is a Monkey King 4 in train.
Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark scored a major hit with this Sherlock Holmes-esque action-mystery, popular enough to score two prequels. When workers on a giant buddha statue begin to spontaneously burst into flames, the precariously throned Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) calls in famed detective Dee Renjie (Andy Lau) to investigate. It is a fabulous blend of martial arts, murder mystery, and CGI-heavy blockbuster, and perfectly suited to director/producer Tsui Hark – who has been mastering this kind of movie for decades now (Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, A Chinese Ghost Story, The Swordsman, et al). Andy Lau is excellent, but the real star of this production is Carina Lau. She makes the Empress enormously watchable.
Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel are a married pair of physical comics, whose immense skills at clowning get put to brilliant use in a series of French language comedies. The Fairy is a solid example: the night manager of a low-budget hotel encounters a strange woman claiming to be a real-life fairy. The film’s debt to Jacques Tati is obvious, but is inventive enough to stand well on its own at the same time. Though rather episodic, it is a brisk and romantic delight with a variety of charming improbabilities and elaborately staged inventions. While delivered in French the majority of the film is based on non-verbal clowning, making at easily digestible slice of comedy for a broad international audience.
Any action film so self-aware as to cast Jean-Claude Van Damme as a villain named “Jean Vilain” is a winner with me. The original Expendables was a watchable but ordinary b-movie. The Expendables 3 was a bloated slice of cinematic excess with too many characters. In between came The Expendables 2, which hit the absolute sweet spot of ‘old 1980s action stars comeback’. It’s action-packed, funny, and strangely warm-hearted. Van Damme is excellent, Sylvester Stallone is a rock-sold action star, and Arnold Scharzenegger makes a hell of a cameo, but at the end of the day it’s actual Dolph Lundgren’s role as a shambolic, drunken explosives expert that makes the best impact. Entertainment Weekly described the film as ‘excellent crap’, which is about as succinct a description you will find.
Aquaman has spent many years as something of a running joke in popular culture. A superhero that can swim really fast and talk to fish is ostensibly ridiculous, after all, and the idea of making a big-budget Hollywood tentpole out of his adventures is pure folly. Thankfully this 2018 adventure from director James Wan embraces the silliness with a balls-to-the-wall exercise in heavy metal cinema. Everything is done to excess, particularly James Momoa’s enthused surfer boy persona in the title role. A run-and-gun fight across the rooftops of a Greek village is a particular highlight, but casting Julie Andrews as a giant chthuloid sea monster is Wan’s real master stroke.
Furious 7 saw the Fast & Furious franchise make yet another significant adjustment, with the addition of both Jason Statham as antagonist Deckard Shaw and Kurt Russell as government overseer “Mr Nobody”. It also marks a key shift in genre for the series, transforming its speed racing criminal exploits into something more akin to a James Bond film. The action is pushed to ludicrous extremes, and it even finds a way to sew the previously unconnected sequel Tokyo Drift into the main continuity of the franchise. It is energised, knowingly absurd, and simply ridiculously good fun. It is also sadly the final film in the series for Paul Walker, who died in an unrelated car accident before filming was complete.
Over the past decade or so, Adam Wingard has established himself as part of a new generation of American horror directors via the films A Horrible Way to Die (2010), V/H/S (2012), The Guest (2014), and Blair Witch (2016). His strongest work, however, has been You’re Next (2011): a smart and genre-savvy survival thriller in which a family reunion comes under attack by a group of anonymous masked killers. Former Home & Away star Sharni Vinson makes a great impression as Erin, the Australian girlfriend of a family member whose skills prove a little too much for the killers to handle. The gore here is plentiful, and the black comedy is perfectly pitched.
Almost a decade ago, Ben Affleck directed this truly exceptional urban crime drama about a team of professional robbers seeking one final score before retirement. Though heavy on genre convention, it essentially doesn’t put a foot wrong. Affleck demonstrates that he is a skilled and thoughtful director, the action sequences pop off the screen, and the complex and layered narrative is rich in tension and character. The film also boasts one of Affleck’s best performances, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with superb work by Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Chris Cooper, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. This is the kind of movie that delivers exactly what its audience expects, but delivers it in a near-perfect fashion.
Writer Diablo Cody’s follow-up to her award-winning screenplay Juno is a spectacular showcase for Charlise Theron, who dominates the film as the emotionally infantile young adult author Mavis Gary. When an old high school friend e-mails her with photographs of his wife and new baby, Mavis sets off on a childish quest to ruin his marriage and gain him for herself. Caustic self-loathing underlies the sparkling and comedic dialogue, and director Jason Reitman directs it all very well, but the real highlights are the performances of Theron and also Patton Oswalt as Matt, the former high school nerd with an ongoing disability. The whole film is wonderfully desperate and savage – and a real treat for Theron fans.
A documentary into the mountains of Taiwan to locate and record formosan bears ultimately becomes a profile of indigenous Taiwanese communities and their spiritual relationship with the animals. Its focus lies particularly on Lin Yuan-yuan, an indigenous tracker who assists scientist Hwang Mei-hsiu in her survey. Lin is a quietly spoken but rivetting subject, and while relating the history of their bears and their significance to his people he emerges as the most interesting part of the whole film. It is his intriguing life story and screen presence that makes this documentary stand out among all of the other excellent non-fiction films this decade.
Like Adam Wingard (You’re Next, above), Ti West has been a major figure in the USA’s new generation of genre filmmakers, having directed the critically acclaimed horror films The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011). The Sacrament is a found footage thriller in which a documentary crew attempt to free a young woman from an isolated religious cult. The story is clearly inspired by the Jonestown massacre of 1978, with an ‘up-close-and-personal’ perspective that makes it particularly intense. Gene Jones is nicely unsettling as “Father”, the rogue preacher who controls the congregation, while Amy Seimetz excels as Caroline – the young woman that the film crew has come to rescue.
While Crazy Rich Asians feels a little problematic in its depictions of multicultural Singapore, it also feels warm, enormous charming, and regularly very, very funny. More than anything it is a tremendous showcase for Constance Wu, who jumps off the screen as the regularly hilarious and, in turns, emotionally vulnerable Rachel Chu – who agrees to marry her boyfriend before discovering he is heir to one of Asia’s biggest commercial empires. Part of why she works so well is that she is balanced against Michelle Yeoh (always fantastic) as her disapproving and manipulative future mother-in-law. This film is imperfect, but hugely enjoyable at the same time: it is a commercial studio comedy done right.
Slow West is a wonderfully idiosyncratic blend of western, melancholic drama, and bleak comedy. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays a young Scotsman who follows his teenage love to the American west, and promptly – and naively – teams up with a hardened bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) who agrees to help track the girl down. The film boils down to a series of absurd episodic encounters, including a great guest turn by Australian great Ben Mendelsohn, and is edited into a tight and welcome 84 minutes. Slow West has a strange, surreal sort of atmosphere, which simply makes it feel original, distinctive and quite remarkably odd.
Loïe Fuller, a critical figure in the history of both dance and stagecraft, gets the biographical treatment in this emotive and beautifully composed film; the work of photographer and art director Stephanie Di Giusto. When I first saw The Dancer I was rather put out by its laissez faire attitude to historical accuracy, but as time has passed I’ve found myself forgiving its runaway creativities and instead embracing its emotional intensity and stunning visuals. Musician Soko (aka Stephanie Sokolinski) is superb in the lead role. All that in mind, the addition of a drug-addled boyfriend to one of the 19th century’s more prominent lesbians is a little troublesome.
Making a zombie movie is quite a common choice when trying to break into the film industry. They’re easy to sell to somewhere, usually don’t cost a huge amount of money to produce, and have a basic enough structure to allow writers and directors to show off their respective talents with a relatively sparse canvas. The Ford brothers (Jonathan and Howard) were apparently not interested in doing a zombie movie the easy way. Instead they took their cast and crew all of the way to Burkina Faso – a country for which the Australian Federal government recommends that you ‘reconsider your need to travel due to the high risk of terrorist attack and kidnapping’ – to shoot their zombie thriller in an African location. There is an immediate tension in terms of race politics and post-colonialism when your film depicts a white man on the run from near-exclusively black zombies, and the Fords don’t really manage to tackle that tension, but there is also a great sense of pace and scale, some particularly inventive and frightening moments, and a setting that feels properly fresh and interesting in a heavily saturated genre.
A popular Japanese manga is transformed into a truly delightful live-action feature, thanks to a great premise, warm performances, and gentle direction from cult favourite director Sabu. In Usagi Drop, office worker Daikichi attends his grandfather’s funeral only to discover his grandfather had sired an illegitimate daughter named Rin. With his family loathe to involve themselves, Daikichi takes it upon himself to sign up as his six-year-old aunt’s guardian and attempts to raise a child on his own. This is a deeply heartwarming film, showcasing a combination of broad comedy and drama and a charming juvenile performance by Mana Ashida as Rin. It is also refreshing from time to time to enjoy a film like this, which deliberately underplays conflict in favour of humour and warmth.
The appeal of Oliver and Orshoski’s 2010 rock documentary Lemmy can be boiled down almost entirely to its subject matter – Motörhead singer and guitarist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister – and the genius behind their direction is that they by-and-large stand out of his way and capture his day-to-day activities. His is a distinctive and gloriously eccentric personality, showcased by the most banal of hobbies (playing a fruit machine at his local bar) alongside the most bizarre (World War II memorabilia). That a man can be seen explaining how choices of drugs led to him leaving Hawkwind in one scene, but be captured driving a tank in another, speaks volumes to how addictively strange and unique Lemmy was. Seeing this film after his death in 2015 just makes it all feel so special.
This 2011 documentary documents a 1970s university experiment in which a group of academic adopt a chimpanzee – which they named Nim Chimpsky – and attempt to raise it as human and teach it how to communicate with sign language. The resulting film is a tragic picture, not only depicting how the experiment is unsuccessful and doomed to failure but also how it had a staggeringly awful impact on its chimpanzee subject. Director James Marsh never loses focus from the real victim here: poor Nim, who is subjected to a litany of animal cruelties – some obvious, and some clearly unintentional. A double bill of this and Blackfish might turn a viewer against humans ever interacting with animals again.
The independent animation company Laika have been behind some great animated features in recent years, and they do a particularly great job with Paranorman, a wonderful blend of comedy and children’s horror staged in their now-signature aesthetic and stop motion technique. Young Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is gifted with the ability to speak to the dead; a talent that proves useful when his home town is overrun by zombies. It’s technically superb, creatively written and designed, and has a funny, self-aware screenplay. It has been great to see American animation stretch itself a little this past decade, beyond the broad limits of Disney and Dreamworks. This is a prime example of that.
The Gift is a straight-forward and fairly traditional Hollywood thriller, but it excels at what it does thanks to a particularly strong screenplay and premise, focused and no-nonsense direction by Joel Edgerton, and an against-type performance by comic actor Jason Bateman. The film follows Simon (Bateman), a successful businessman who unexpectedly crosses paths with the man he used to bully in high school (Edgerton, pulling triple duty between this, directing, and writing the script). When that man, Gordo, begins to repeatedly try to insert himself into Simon’s life, Simon is forced to take measures to push him away. It seems a classic stalker narrative, until a few unexpected wrinkles in the story push it into unexpected directions. Straight-forward, but within the margins of the genre it is remarkably inventive.
In 1990, independent palientologists in South Dakota uncover the most complete Tyrannasaurus Rex skeleton ever found. Two years later, the United States Federal government confiscates it, claiming that it was stolen off Federal land. The ensuing 10-year legal battle forms the bulk of this documentary, which features the sort of back-and-forth legal twists and spiralling high stakes one might expect from a fictional law drama. Through contemporary interviews and extensive archival footage, the final fate of “Sue” the dinosaur is revealed. This is a wonderful populist documentary, structured as a thriller, that is hugely addictive to watch.
When Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) discovers his son Alton (Jaden Leiberher) possesses supernatural powers, he goes on the run from both Federal authorities and a religious cult that is fixated on capturing Alton for their own purposes. With Midnight Special, writer/director Jeff Nichols creates an intelligent and gripping science fiction film with a clear and knowing debt to John Carpenter’s Starman. Michael Shannon plays a convincing and fascinating protagonist, and leads a high quality cast including Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and Sam Shepard. It feels as if it is aimed for a mainstream audience, yet Nichols’ script and direction are so distinctive that it emerges on screen as a more artful and distinctive work. That Nichols is linked to a potential Alien Nation remake is only good news for that project.
Xu Tailang (Deng Chao) is a professional race car driver who laments that he and his father never connected properly with one another. After a car accident, Tailang wakes to find himself decades into his own past, where he encounters his father Zhengtai (Eddie Peng) as a young man. This Chinese spin on the Back to the Future format is a comparative rarity of Chinese cinema, which has not previously engaged in time travel stories. Director Han Han gives the film a very relaxed and upbeat vibe, spinning for light drama than the comedy delivered in Back to the Future. The Chinese context makes what could feel like a derivative work feel fresh and interesting, and forms part of Chinese cinema’s growing engagement with science fiction.
Creed was a spectacular extension and advancement of Syvlester Stallone’s Rocky saga, stepping sideways to tell a fresh variation of the 1977 original that shifted the story in terms of identity, race, economics, and time. Creed II follows the general Rocky model, but feels slightly less innovative and exciting. It does, however, offer a neat link to earlier Rocky adventures by reintroducing Russian boxer Ivan Drago (a fantastic Dolph Lundgren) – who returns to America with his boxer son. It furthers the story of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and shifts his experience beyond his aging trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), but most of all it gives depth and motivation to Drago far and beyond what he got in the doggedly superficial Rocky IV. Director Steven Caple Jr picks up from previous director Ryan Coogler and makes this instalment very much his own work.
Balloon adapts a true story, in which two East German families built their own hot air balloon in secret to attempt crossing the border with West Germany and seeking asylum there. It had already been adapted as a feature film – and surprisingly well – in the 1982 Walt Disney film Night Crossing (directed by Delbert Mann), but it is honestly both great and appropriate to see an actual German production tell the story. Balloon is smart, tense, intelligent, and heartfelt. It immerses the audience in the mistrust and paranoia of the East German state, and even knowing what happens – you can look it up on Wikipedia – the film retains a tremendous amount of suspense. The actors playing the two families are all great, but it is Thomas Kretschmann who stands out as the most valuable player. His cool, professional demeanour as Oberstleutnant Seidel makes him one of the best antagonists of the decade.