With the end of 2019 approaching, I have been counting down through 350 films released over the past decade that really made watching movies worthwhile. The rankings are a bit of an affectation; what is important is whether a film is on the list at all. These are, in essence, films that I have seen that I recommend you check out.
Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games kicked off a four-film saga that starts here with an annual set of gladiatorial games and ends with trying to overthrow a government. Jennifer Lawrence does an excellent task of making the protagonist Katniss Everdeen not only multi-faceted but unexpectedly vulnerable too. It adds a powerful layer to the action and thrills of the titular games: this is a young adult adventure that comes equipped with its own PTSD. The supporting cast is very strong, including Woody Harrelsen, John Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland. The sequel felt a little weak, but it picked up and then some for its third instalment.
Ushio and Noriko Shinohara are Japanese modern artists living in New York, and Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary captures their everyday lives. They make art, they squabble, they love one another, and they fight incessantly. They bring with them an immediate and captivating presence; even without an interest in art on the part of the viewer, there is still the interest in the Shinoharas themselves. This is a bright, passionate, and endlessly fascinating documentary about two enormously interesting people. It is the best kind of a documentary, where the subject matter is almost irrelevant to why the film works as well as it does.
With Marvel Studios upping the pace of their MCU superhero films over the course of the decade, it was nice to have one that did not feel like the survival of the planet Earth was at stake, or that one had to have seen several previous films to make full sense of the new one. Marvel Studios do spectacular work, and their contribution to 21st century pop culture is pretty much unparalleled, but you can have too much of a good thing. Ant-Man makes great use of comedic star Paul Rudd, has a bunch neat action concepts to fully exploit shrinking technology at the film’s heart, and simply tells an entertaining story. It is nice to see Marvel still do that from time to time.
I have a lot of problems with mother!, the divisive and widely debated nightmare feature by Darren Aaronofski. I also find a huge amount in it to love. So sure, it has a wafer thin allegory working through it, and sure it feels enormously self-indulgent, but it also got people talking, has a great cast including Michelle Pfieffer and Ed Harris reminding audiences why they’re so good, and is one of a handful of films I have ever seen that positively nail what it is like to have a bad dream. At the end of the day, I’d rather watch an interesting failure than a boring success – and to be honest, the pretentiously titled mother! is only about half-failure.
Two-dozen odd Marvel superhero movies all dovetail neatly into Endgame, which is enormously long and terribly portentous, and which was probably the most craved-for big screen sequel since Return of the Jedi back in 1983. At the time it is very easy to simply let the narrative and characters wash over you, but on repeat viewing the cracks in the facade appear and the sheer ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sinkiness’ of the piece becomes apparent. Infinity War was a great film because it simply had to up the ante until it reached an enormous cliffhanger. Endgame has to actually do something, and it struggles with that weight from beginning to end. When it does wrap it there’s an unintentional finality to it all, as if Disney really should have taken the opportunity to wrap up Marvel superheroes for a generation and give it all a break. Watching Spider-Man: Far From Home a few weeks later felt genuinely weird. This is a good film, and hugely enjoyable, but it’s hard to really define it as a self-contained film at all.
I found that the first Deadpool only hit in fits and starts, whereas thanks to the presence of Josh Brolin as time-travelling mutant Cable Deadpool 2 knocked the idea of superhero comedy out of the park. The jokes land better the second time around. The characters ‘pop’ more with better dialogue and more variety. The action is excellent (thanks to John Wick co-director David Leith taking control) and inventively staged, and genuine thought has gone into the applications for the various mutants’ powers. Goodness knows what happens to Deadpool now that he’s been bought out by Disney along with the rest of 20th Century Fox, but for now he leaves behind one of the surprisingly best superhero flicks of the last few years (it isn’t like there was no competition).
It is kind of bizarre, when you think about it, that after more than 20 animated feature films, 27 billion trading cards, 1,000 cartoon episodes, and seven generations of videogames, it has taken Pokémon until 2019 to actually get a live-action feature. For me, at least, it was a huge surprise: I hoped for watchable, and got one of the year’s better effects pictures. It’s funny, exciting, beautifully designed and animated, and captures the emotional sense of the popular children’s franchise while still being accessible to new viewers (or patient parents). Its humour also gets a lot darker from point to point than you would expect from this kind of a movie. I simply wish Hollywood tentpoles would be this unexpectedly competent more often.
A teenager (Ashleigh Cummings) is kidnapped by a married couple (Emma Booth and Stephen Curry) and realises her only chance of survival is to drive a wedge between them and escape. This dark, often unpleasant thriller is very stylishly shot, well plotted, and performed to near-perfection. Shot on location in Perth, Western Australia, it is a world class contribution to the serial killer genre. Emma Booth is particularly strong as a wife driven to cooperate with her husband in his murderous activities, while growing more brittle and uncertain all the time. This is a difficult watch – and to be honest it should be – but it is also a haunting and strangely beautiful one, with an eerie line in slow motion photography.
A mixed-breed dog named Hagen is forcibly separated from his owner and abandoned on the outskirts of the city. As he works his way back to civilization, and suffers several near misses with aggressive humans and city dog catchers, he begins to build a following among the city’s strays and abandoned pets that grows to a terrifying scale. Alfred Hitchcock has The Birds, and so Kornél Mundruczó has White God. This slow-build apocalypse is deliberately non-realist and allegorical, but this does not reduce the growing tension of watching a city’s canine population slowly grow out of control. The occasional moment takes your breath away: 225 dogs were rescued from shelters and trained to appear in the film; after the shoot was complete, more than 98 per cent of them were successfully adopted into new homes. Zsófia Psotta is excellent as Lilli, the 13 year-old at the centre of the crisis.
Old Hollywood gets picked up by the Coen brothers and played with for an enjoyable 106 minutes. This silly, self-aware, and deeply cine-literate comedy is a joy for old movie fans – not to mention packed with screen talent cast in the most perfect of roles. Whether it’s Scarlett Johannsen’s inconveniently pregnant synchronised swimmer, or Ralph Fiennes’ restrained English director, or even Channing Tatum’s spectacular turn as a Gene Kelly-esque musical performer, this is a film of small highlights and comic gems. It is an confection, but a genuinely pleasing one. Christopher Lambert’s small cameo is a particular delight.
At the start of the decade, The Fast & the Furious seemed like a spent franchise: the original film had been a moderate hit a decade earlier, followed by a middling sequel, and a seemingly unrelated spin-off. Then in 2009 the original cast of the first film were tempted back with a strong revival that suddenly opened the franchise up again. If 2011’s Fast Five is worth celebrating for just one thing, it is transitioning the films from street racing movies to heist movies. Fast Five sees Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) seek to rob a drug lord of $100 million, with only special agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) racing to stop them. The genre shift shot the series into the commercial stratosphere (it almost doubled the box office revenue of its predecessor), and Dwayne Johnson’s over-the-top presence influenced casting strategy for the franchise that continues to this day.
A Taiwanese school teacher takes a regional post on one of Taiwan’s southern islands, and finds himself in charge of the school’s indigenous dance troupe – and getting closely involved in the troubles one of boy in particular, whose father has abandoned him for work on the mainland. Heather Tsui’s directorial debut is a warm and heartfelt family drama, but it also offers extensive social comment on Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and the challenges they face blending traditional culture and their 21st century Taiwan surroundings. At the film’s core is a bravura debut performance from young Zhong Jia-jin as the boy Manawei. The Golden Horses awarded gave him an acting prize; he thoroughly deserves it.
In the confessional, Catholic Father James (Brendon Gleeson) is told by an anonymous parishioner that they were abused by a priest as a child, and that in revenge on the Church they will murder James in exactly seven days. What could be an intense murder-mystery turns out to be a strangely philosophical meandering through what may be the last week of a priest’s life. Dominated by rich dialogue and strong performances, Calvary is an original and memorable drama that fixes itself around a knockout performance by Brendon Gleeson – one of those actors who is always exceptional, but never feels properly valued by audiences. The film comes from the excellent John Michael McDonagh, whose 2011 film The Guard could have easily made it onto this list.
Science fiction cinema is not entirely common in China, so it seems particularly odd that two films came along in 2019 that were not simply science fiction but specifically about humanity trying to survive when the sun dies. The much bigger-scale The Wandering Earth will come up on this list in a few instalments, but for now it’s worth taking time to appreciate the low-budget Last Sunrise. The Earth’s sun spontaneously vanishes, leaving the people of Earth with a handful of hours to find shelter before the planet’s surface – now trapped in an endless night – grows too cold to survive. With a small production budget, Last Sunrise is a small, thoughtful piece. While imperfect, it is exciting to see independent science fiction becoming a viable genre in China. Fingers crossed we get more in future.
Poor M. Night Shyamalan. He started the 2000s as Hollywood’s most in-demand and popular filmmaker. He ended that decade as a man who directed a thriller about killer trees. The first half of 2010s were not much better, thanks to widely criticised flops such as The Last Airbender and After Earth. The Visit got him some attention, mainly because of its pulpy, irresponsible treatment of mental illness. In 2016 he doubled down on that, using long-discredited ideas of multiple personality disorder to make a gleefully fun and over-the-top kidnapping thriller. James McAvoy runs the table on this film with his complex and mildly terrifying performance as serial murderer Kevin Wendell Crumb. That the film’s conclusion folds it into the world of Shyamalan’s best film Unbreakable in many ways weakens Split, since it no longer gets to stand on its own. As a self-contained piece, however, it is one of the decade’s guiltier pleasures.
There are some absolutely outstanding filmmaking tics played out in I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s biopic of notorious skating figure Tony Harding. There are also several knockout performances – particularly Margot Robbie and Allison Janney as a cuasting mother-daughter double act. There is also a somewhat distasteful sense of ‘slumming it in the working classes’ as the film struggles between representing its title character and mocking that some person. To enjoy one, you have to navigate the other. This is an excellent film, but it is also a problematic one. Technically strong, performatively strong, ethically… a bit on the fence.
Hayao Miyazaki’s final animated feature to date – there is at least one more coming in a year or two – is a deeply personal one, eschewing any sense of the fantastic and instead presenting a biographical portrait of fighter plane designer Jiro Horikoshi. It is arguably the least effective of Miyazaki’s films, because it strips away much of gives his films such great and widespread appeal. It is also arguably the most effective too, since this is far and away his most personal project, and he takes the tools he has perfected for children’s entertainment to make something very gentle, intelligent, and adult. Whether it works for you or not, it is still yet another masterpiece from a flawless animator.
A group of aspiring jihadists in Sheffield plot their attack against the United Kingdom, in this provocative and gut-bustingly funny satire by Chris Morris. There is an extent to which this film is as much tragedy as comedy, deliberately painting terrorism as ineffectual violence and the lives of its perpetrators as miserably pointless. As co-writer and director, Morris walks an incredible tightrope. He never lets the audience forget that each wannabe terrorist is a person with friends, family, and hobbies. He makes you care about them, and hope that they change their minds. Satire this good is rare, and when it does turn up it should be absolutely cherished.
If you want a writer for a Hollywood drama, there are dozens of exceptional writers available to bring that screenplay to reality. If you want a writer for a Hollywood drama about using statistical analysis to win at baseball, you are probably going to want either Aaron Sorkin or Steven Zaillian. Moneyball wound up hiring both. Their respective drafts pull the strategy undertaken by the real-life Oakland Athletics into clarity and then, once explained to the audience, it used to form story and character. It shouldn’t really work, but it does. Brad Pitt is solid as Oakland manager Billy Beane, but it is Jonah Hill who makes the biggest impact playing against his comedy skills to give an outstanding dramatic performance.
A withdrawn dairy farmer (Swann Arlaud) grows fearful that one of his cows has contracted a deadly disease. If tested positive, not only the infected cow but the entire herd will be put to the slaughter. It sends him off on an increasingly foolhardy crusade to save his beloved cows from death. From the premise Bloody Milk sounds more like a recipe for a bleak comedy than a suspense thriller, and it soon becomes edge-of-your-seat stuff: will the veterinarian notice one missing cow? Will they notice two? Can the telltale signs of sickness be hidden away? Can someone take the infected cows to safety and give them a chance. The longer that Bloody Milk goes on, the more hopeless and unbearable things become.
A couple build the restaurant of their dreams, only to have it burn to the ground in an accident. Faced with raising the capital all over again, both are driven to despair – one of them is driven to marital infidelity as well. Dreams for Sale is technically a comedy, however it is not particularly funny. If anything it is painful, as a couple deal with one tragedy, then another, then an ill-conceived scheme to fleece rich women for their money – a plan that damages their own relationship with every step they take. Sadao Abe and Tatako Matsu is excellent in the lead roles, and it is a sensational piece of work. It also just happens to be gut-wrenchingly miserable while it happens. Nishikawa’s work is always interesting; this one grabbed my attention in particular.
Johnnie To’s artistic response to the Global Financial Crisis was this slightly uneven but also wonderfully provocative: in a money-obsessed Hong Kong, a police detective (Richie Jen) leaves a crime scene to view an apartment. A bank employee (Denise Ho) is pressured to sell more finance products, whether needed by her customers or not. A shooting leaves an enormous bag of money without an owner or an ability to be traced, making everybody weighing up whether or not to make a play for it. It lacks the action of a typical To film, but adds a lot of humour and social comment in its place. Lau Ching-wan is fantastic as a slightly dim Hong Kong gangster; he remains one of the city’s most under-appreciated talents.
An enthusiastic, upbeat, and no-nonsense commercial comedy – and when they’re done right, there are few things on screen more enjoyable. Becca (Anna Kendrick) is an aspiring music producer who is dragged into joining her university’s a capella song troupe, and introduced to a range of distinctive, unique, and obsessive performers. What could easily be an asinine work of mercenary filmmaking has a positive outlook, jokes in which characters are allowed to be in on, cool singing, and a light element of romance. It’s simply a really lovely movie made well, and it’s striking how rare that actually is. The female-heavy cast is excellent, with particularly comic work from Rebel Wilson, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, and Hana Mae Lee.
For much of the preceding decade, Dreamworks Animation seemed doomed to live off a downward spiral of smirking anthropomorphic animals, pop culture references, and celebrity voice. Thank goodness, then, for How to Train Your Dragon, which applied the sort of cinematic quality to an animated feature that brought a fresh dignity to Dreamworks and a new three-part cartoon franchise to the world’s cinemas. The character work is strong, the designs visually appealing, and the narrative both classical and well-considered. The funny bits are warm and humorous, and the dramatic beats powerful and effective. Until this film I had all but written off Dreamworks. Now, at least, I am addicted to the Dragon movies.
The ugly world of behind-the-scene politicking is well expressed in this tense, intelligent drama directed by actor George Clooney. Ryan Gosling plays a canny political operative working to get his candidate selected as a US Presidential nominee, learning just how underhanded the process can get. Gosling is outstanding, as is Paul Giamatti as a cynical rival, and they are backed by superb work from Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Gregory Itzin, and Jennifer Ehle. This is seriously one of the strongest casts for an American film that the decade has had, and is of its finest political thrillers.