Over the past few weeks FictionMachine has been counting down my favourite feature films of the past decade. To be honest, the numbers are arbitrary – they would absolutely shift all over the place on a day-by-day basis. It is also going to exclude a lot of outstanding films that I have simply never seen. The best way to take the list is to take it as a recommendation: if its on the list, I think it is worth taking a look. The higher up the list it is, broadly speaking, the stronger my recommendation. Here are picks #200 to #176.
Baz Luhrmann has spent his entire career in a love-it-or-hate-it relationship with audiences. Generally speaking, I like his films an awful lot, although his attempt at a historical epic in Australia did leave me cold. The Great Gatsby is a superb return to form, with strong performances by Leonardo di Caprio and Tobey Maguire, a beautifully stylised presentation, and a handsomely presented retelling of the original novel. Like much of Luhrmann’s work the spectacle is what sells the picture, with fantastic costuming and set design, but the original novel still manages to shine through the director’s glamorous vision of 1920s America.
Not quite as tightly developed as its predecessor, the MCU’s second Spider-Man film acts as an epilogue to Avengers: Endgame with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) facing the after-effects of his experiences there while on a senior school trip to Europe. The performances are still utterly charming, the inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury adds a fresh wrinkle, and while the narrative meanders back and forth a little too much it does come with a great mid-point shift and superb role for Jake Gyllenhaal as the magically-powered Mysterio. Jacob Batalon and Zendaya remain excellent supporting players, and provide much of the comedic highlights.
Andy Lau stars as a Hong Kong explosives expert in this glossy, tense hostage thriller from director Herman Yau. It is a tightly-made and rather traditional Hong Kong picture, which adds something of a nostalgic glow to the proceedings. Lau is typically noble and appealing, while Jiang Yu delivers a charismatic performance as the film’s bomb-happy villain. The action is excellent, even if the characters feel thinly drawn, but most of all this simply feels like a down-the-line and old-fashioned Hong Kong action flick; the kind you used to see in a Chinatown cinema on a Saturday afternoon. A thematic sequel reunites Lau and Yau in 2020.
Willowdean Dixon (Danielle McDonald) is an overweight teenager whose conflict with her beauty pageant-organising mother (Jennifer Aniston) builds to a point where Willowdean (nicknamed “Dumplin”) enters the pageant just to spite her. She and her friends then receive the assistance of a local troupe of drag queens in rehearsing their act. It’s a really funny mixture of comedy and drama, but more importantly it’s an authentic and heartfelt one too. Every character has their believable motivations, strengths and flaws. The Dolly Parton-dominated soundtrack lends in further appeal. It’s pitch-perfect stuff.
Race relations in contemporary America are translated into allegory for the kids in this smart, funny, and broadly effective animated comedy. In a city named Zootopia, all manner of animals – both herbivores and carnivores – live in an unsteady peace together. Rookie cop rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) teams up with con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) when a missing persons case lead to a potential city-wide conspiracy. It luxuriates in genres cliches – all with an animal-themed angle, naturally – but comes with plenty of laughs and some beautiful animation and colour. Weirdly Walt Disney Animation Studios released two separate features in 2016, and while this doesn’t quite manage the quality of Moana it’s still a wonderfully entertaining film.
The best of James DeMonaco’s near-future political fables, The Purge: Anarchy expands its scope out from the home invasion narrative of the original Purge to instead take to the streets and examine the motivations for those who openly engage in the no-holds-barred criminal free-for-all known as “the Purge”. A strong balance of political thriller and violent horror, it acts in particular as a showcase for Frank Grillo in the role of an anonymous gunman seeking revenge on the one night he can legally get away with it. The first film worked well as a contained one-off. It’s this sequel that opened The Purge out to a film and television franchise, and it remains its single-most powerful expression.
Johnnie To has directed some of Hong Kong’s all-time great action flicks, thrillers, romantic comedies, and dramas. Then he came along and directed a musical as well, just to demonstrate that he just might be that city’s most versatile filmmaker. Utilising a stripped down set, and directed with a deliberate sense of artificiality, Office is the economic crisis musical audiences never knew we needed to see. It’s a shame that star Chow Yun-fat doesn’t get a song, but other than that minor disappointment, this is one of the most striking and original Hong Kong features of all time. It’s great to see Sylvia Chang co-starring – she wrote the original stage musical on which To’s film is based.
In 1971, newspaper heiress Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) struggles to control the Washington Post and the executives who encourage her to sell her interests and retire. At the same time, the newspaper’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) leads an investigation into classified papers that suggest the government has known the Vietnam War would fail all along. This adaptation of true events is a sharp and sparkling old-fashioned journalism drama directed by Steven Spielberg with a looseness and a verve not seet in his films in years. The dual storylines balance each other brilliantly. A particularly strong cast brings it all to life: not just Streep and Hanks (26 Oscar nominations and 5 wins between them) but Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, and Alison Brie.
A gender-flipped reboot of the 1984 horror comedy of the same name, Ghostbusters got caught up in a firestorm of fandom, misogyny, and pointless confusion to the point where people talked more about the controversy and less about the movie. It boasts a spectacular cast (Kate McKinnon is its most valuable player), and great jokes and gags. What it lacks it a strong narrative it gains in hands-down being the funniest of the three Ghostbuster films made to date. It also lacks the casual misogyny that mars the Ivan Reitman-directed original; it’s hard to go back to Venkman decades later and not flinch at his behaviour. And sure, they spent way too much money producing this remount – so much so that it’s the main reason the film lost money – but it still carried plenty of well-earned laughs.
One of the best short films of the 2000s was Wanuri Kahui’s science fiction film Pumzi, and it is great to see her career flourish a decade later with Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’). The film follows two young women who share a romance in actively homophobic Kenya. It is beautifully shot and performed, deeply emotive, and ultimately rather hopefully. Kahui’s film was strong enough to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, although it was banned in her home country because of its lesbian content. This film is powerful, romantic, but most of all a boldly provocative act of political resistance.
Arguably the last great Woody Allen film, and also arguably the last Allen film to ever find a mainstream audience following the revival of accusations of child abuse levelled against him by his daughter. The film follows the screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) whose relationship with his wife (Rachel McAdams) is failing while they stay in Paris with her affluent parents. Time travel starts throwing Gil back to the Belle Epoque, and into encounters with Cole Porter, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and Ernest Hemingway – among others. It is a sparkling screenplay, performed with great charm by a knockout cast. There are people who refuse to engage with Allen’s works based on the accusations against him, and that’s a decision for them to make for themselves, but to exclude this film from this list would be to lie about how good it is.
The Kill Team is a documentary that kicks off with Private Adam Winfield, a 21 year-old Afghanistan veteran, imprisoned and awaiting trial for murdering Afghani civilians. From there it tracks back to reveal a deeply disturbing account of young American men, post-9/11, whipped into a frenzy to get revenge for terrorism against America, promised the chance to kill enemies in the field, and then left to their own devices without anybody in that field to blame. There are few documentaries I have seen that are quite this upsetting to watch, or troubling to think about, or whose conclusions simply get worse and worse as the story is slowly unveiled. Once in the mind, this film does not easily shift out again. Director Dan Krauss revisited the events in 2019 with a dramatised feature, which I have not seen.
An entirely unexpected sequel came some 12 years after the previous instalment, wrapping up the Toy Story saga in an emotionally satisfying and deeply effective manner. Partly aimed at a more mature audience than earlier films, although still ostensibly made for children, Toy Story 3 examines the fate of Andy’s animated toys once he grows too old to play with them any more. Comedic sections bring plenty of laughs, more dramatic periods genuinely pluck at the heartstrings, and one assumes the particularly frightening climax emotionally scarred an entire generation of under-10s. Despite wrapping up the narrative into a perfect trilogy, a fourth Toy Story emerged in 2019.
Eichii Kudo’s 1963 period drama gets a handsome and effective remake, courtesy of one of Japan’s finest and most interesting directors Takashi Miike. When the Shogun’s brother murders with impunity, a rival Japanese lord sets one of his veteran samurai and tasks him with performing an assassination. This rousing, masterful tribute to older generations of chambara period films honours Kurosawa as much as Kudo, with beautiful production values and design, a strong musical score, and a bravura 45-minute action climax that has rarely been bettered. Miike followed this up with another well-received remake; that time of Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai.
I have already praised Bennett Miller’s sports drama Moneyball. Foxcatcher, based on the true story of billionaire John du Pont’s (Steve Carell) fostering of American wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) – and the tragedy that followed. It is a wonderfully unsettling and measured production with strong screenwriting and performances across the board, but in the end it is Steve Carell’s masterful performance that makes it such a must-see. There is a long, rich tradition of comedic actors showing off their dramatic skills, but they have rarely been showed off so spectacularly and so unexpectedly as here. Carell’s a genuine revelation.
A Hollywood scale budget gets spent on a Chinese fantasy film, and the results are an absolute delight. The film is set in an ancient history when humans co-existed with monsters. A man (Jing Boran) falls pregnant with a monster heir, and must team up with a monster hunter (Bai Baihe) to stop a monster traitor from taking over the world. Comedic hijinks and fantastical action make for a broad entertaining blend, with attractive design and a lot of cute monsters. The visual effects are superb, in part due to director Raman Hui’s previous CGI film Shrek the Third – which he co-directed. A sequel followed in 2018.
A Spanish expedition deep into the South American jungle goes spectacularly, horrendously wrong, in this brooding survival thriller. Based on a story by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the film represents the Spanish invaders as unsympathetic religious zealots, and their doomed expedition as an ongoing litany of horrors. Part of the film’s core appeal is its stripped-back, linear nature – it is a visual journey into a terrible place, with scenes working equally as drama, thriller, and straight-up horror. Óscar Jaenada Gajo plays a spectacular villain as the cruel and unforgiving Gorriamendi; it’s one of several impressive performances he’s delivered in recent years including Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Rambo: Last Blood, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Mati (Sophie Stockinger) is an aggressive tomboy coming to terms with her own sexuality, while her parents face a crisis of their own. L’Animale is a fairly traditional sort of LGBTI coming-of-age drama, but it is well written and beautifully shot, and has an appealing electronic score. Most of all it boasts Sophie Stockinger’s central performance, which is rich in nuance and fine detail. Director Katharina Mueckstein peppers the work with small moments of artistic inspiration, which suggest a long and rich career ahead (this is her second feature).
Debut director Gu Xiaogang presents an ambitious family saga, set over one year in southern China. Inspired by and named after the medieval painting, it presents a disparate group of adult children. Over the course of four seasons, they face challenges of work, the pressures of making ends meet, and the declining health of their much-loved and elderly mother. It is a deliberately slow and measured film, giving the viewer the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the lives of the family. There is a strong sense of Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang in Gu’s work here, and his ambition pays off brilliantly with an effective and satisfying drama.
Originally a five-part television drama, Penance was edited into a single feature film for international release. Both are great, although personally I feel it does work best in a serialised format. Inaction by a group of schoolgirls leads to one of their number being raped and murdered. The victim’s mother then warns each girl that they will have to face atonement one day for their failure to remember the murderer’s face. One by one, the girls’ future is revealed, showing each of them in a different position based on their failure. Bleak and cynical, Penance remains a memorable and addictive piece of drama, culminating in a final phase where the mother believes she has finally found her daughter’s killer.
A man (Macon Blair) returns home Virginia in order to take revenge on the man that murdered his parents. Blue Ruin is a crowd-funded low-budget revenge drama, centered around a rivetting performance by Macon Blair as an incompetent homeless man looking to murder someone. His failure to easily achieve his task it what makes the film such a gripping watch. This is revenge thriller in messy realism mode: it isn’t easy to fire a gun, wounds are haphazard and ugly, and death is not as satisfying as people might think. Blair is sensational in the lead, acting as a focus for the film’s melancholic, miserable tone.
Darren Aaronofsky is one of my favourite contemporary filmmakers because of his extraordinary work across multiple subjects and genres. Here he tells the Biblical story of Noah (played by Russell Crowe) as post-apocalyptic fantasy, embracing its divine origins but simultaneously telling his own imaginative vision of the story. It is well cast, with actors including Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Jennifer Connelly, and Anthony Hopkins. An emotional highlight comes when Noah seats his family and tells them the story of the Book of Genesis. The narration is religious; the visuals display evolution. It’s a hugely provocative and powerful moment at the heart of a hugely provocative and powerful film.
A sharp change from many of Johnnie To’s films, this romantic comedy co-directed by Wai Ka-fai sees a traditional love triangle narrative spiced up with aspirational riches and a game of romantic one-upmanship exaggerated to ridiculous extremes. Gao Xuanxuan plays Zixin, a mainland Chinese analyst pursued by both a stylish finance expert (Louis Koo) and a trouble homeless man with a secret past (Daniel Wu). Strong and likeable performances drive the story and keep things mostly light and amusing – with the occasional moment of drama throwing everything up into the air. It’s entirely superficial stuff made for a mainland Chinese audience, but thanks to To and Wai’s effective script and visually pretty direction, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
This period horror sequel presents a stronger story and better scares than its predecessor, but the basic issue of turning real-life con artists Ed and Lorraine Warren into horror movie folk heroes remains. That aside, there are so outstanding sequences to be found here – not in the least a demonic ghost nun whose appearance here was so effective she got her own spin-off movie. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga remain in top form as the Warrens, with additional support this time around from Frances O’Connor and Franke Potente, among others. The story takes its cue from the real-life Enfield Hauntings, allowing the film to benefit from the UK setting and that incident’s reported paranormal events. A third film is due in 2020.
The making of cult favourite film The Room is retold in a self-aware, comedic fashion with James Franco writing, directing, and playing legendary ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ filmmaker Tommy Wiseau. The film works brilliantly by always working to keep on-side of the eccentric Wiseau; his film is terrible, and he clearly has no idea of what he is doing – just a mysterious and seemingly endless pot of money. In the end the film simply exudes a love of cinema, and film-making, no matter how terrible. It’s very much a family affair for Franco with a cast that includes not only his own brother Dave but also close friends including Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron.