The end of 2019 marks the end of the decade, and as such I am taking an extensive look back at my favourite films of the past 10 years. In this instalment, we count down from #150 to #126. If a film is listed here, it comes with my personal recommendation to check it out; everything on the list is good or better.
For its first half, Pink and Grey takes a relatively rote and predictable story of two high school friends that dream of super-stardom – only for one to make it to the big time and the other to get left behind. It’s a familiar sort of Japanese melodrama, and not itself worth recommending with much enthusiasm. Then at the film’s midpoint everything changes, the first half is immediately re-evaluated as something other than what the audience saw, and the remaining hour is one of the most inventive and unexpected films of its year. It is a tremendous film, and a real surprise. The lead performance are particularly strong.
Sometimes the best films aren’t necessarily the ones that do something groundbreaking and unprecedented, they’re the ones that simply take on a popular genre and make a great example of it. Top End Wedding does have the unique selling point of being an Australian indigenous take on the “wedding goes wrong” romantic comedy, but it’s one of the best film comedies in years entirely on its own creative merits. Writer/star Miranda Tapsell deserves to break internationally. Director Wayne Blair deserves every success.
During the Korean War an American soldier is put in charge of putting together a dance performance to entertain the troops – bringing together Korean prisoners of war and civilians and teaching them how to tap dance. The crossover point between the comedic dance film and the bleak war story is understandably rough, but Swing Kids is a superbly entertaining and emotionally resonant film. The “Modern Love” sequence just might be my favourite two minutes of cinema for the whole of 2018.
Rian Johnson stepped in with this eighth episode of the Star Wars saga and created something that was both visually astounding, beautifully observed, and provocatively plotted, but also maddeningly frustrating and something like a hand grenade tossed into a decades-long science fiction saga with only one more instalment to go. There is an enormous amount of this film that I adore, but at the same time it frustrated me terribly. I am keen for Johnson return with his own widely-rumoured trilogy, because away from interfering with other artists’ story threads, I suspect he could produce something genuinely awe-inspiring.
One of several live-action remounts of Walt Disney animated features made in recent years, Beauty and the Beast succeeds through hitting the familiar beats of the cartoon where audience demand it, but expanding and transforming it around the margins. The result is a story that feels wonderfully faithful, yet massively upscales its protagonist’s agency, develops a more adult sense of maturity than the original, and most historic of all gives Walt Disney Pictures it’s first openly gay children’s character. Director Bill Condon does a predictably wonderful job of things, making it almost certainly the best of the live-action Disneys produced to date.
Takashi Miike falls back into deeply familiar territory in this story of rival yakuza, a young woman forced into sex work, and an aspiring boxer with little time left to live. Its comedy is excessive, and its violence ridiculous, and after a wide range of films in recent years including action, period drama, and science fiction, it is wonderful to see Miike back doing what he’s absolutely best at.
A pair of professional killers are hired to murder a string of people, but with each killing they become less certain of what they have been hired to do. Ben Wheatley is a tremendous British director, and he first made an impact with this extraordinarily bleak and unsettling thriller that blends the archetype of the English criminal ganglands with a rich tradition of folk horror typified by the likes of The Wicker Man. This is a remarkably violent film, but more than being gory it i a properly frightening work of horror too.
Michael Bond’s literary character Paddington Bear is one of the crown jewels of British children’s literature, and has already been the subject of a charming stop-motion animated television series. In 2014 he finally received a live-action feature of his own, and despite my worst suspicions it was a pitch-perfect adaptation. This is a tremendously charming feature with warmth, humour, and a particularly British flavour in the best possible sense. Director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) makes a fantastic step from TV to film.
Goro Miyazaki, son of international animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, had a fairly rough go with his debut film Tales of Earthsea. He fared much, much better with his second: From Up on Poppy Hill, a naturalistic period drama about a high school student who becomes involved in saving a clubhouse from demolition. It’s a beautifully animated work, rich in historical and cultural detail, and telling a warm and emotive story at the same time. It benefits hugely from a Miyazaki Sr screenplay, but even Goro’s direction feels more focused and relaxed. This is one of the best anime features of the past decade. Each fresh viewing reveals a little more insight or detail.
Ivan Sen’s blend of crime flick and western is one of the best Australian films I have seen. A slow-burn on the mystery provides a world of atmosphere, and a range of strong actors bring it powerfully to life. Aaron Pedersen is excellent as protagonist Det. Jay Swan, a character who works so well on screen that the film has been followed by both a sequel and a television follow-up.
There are certainly better Chinese films released this past decade, and many of them are listed in these Favourites columns. Despite that, there is something in Rene Liu’s 2018 romantic drama that sticks in the mind. The story follows two young lovers over a period of years, seeing them fall both in and out of love, and yet the writing of their characters and performances by Zhou Dongyu and Boran Jing really stick in the mind.
A group of elderly Korean women grew up together during Japan’s occupation of their country, and as such never learned to read and write in the local language Hanggul. In their old age they now unite in a regular community class to gain their stolen literacy and write poetry together. This is a deeply heart-warming documentary with an undercurrent of tragedy. Like all good documentaries, it focuses on some of the most interesting – and, in this case, charming – people you will ever see.
In this self-aware and deeply self-deprecating comedy, directors Miller and Lord (of the 21 Jump Street films mentioned earlier) get to the absolute heart of why generations of children have adored playing with Lego toys. This film is lightning in a bottle. Warner Bros has made another three attempts to recapture the original’s charm. None have succeeded. This film is magic.
Two brothers return to the rural cult where they grew up, only to find some invisible force is preventing them from leaving. The Endless is a bold, cleverly developed, and effectively produced science fiction thriller made on a limited budget but rich with ideas, frightening moments, and head-scratching weirdness. It’s tremendously effective stuff for fans of low-budget genre cinema.
An impeccably prepared and researched account of a once-popular Japanese adventure series goes deeper and deeper into the absurd. In all honesty the less you know of Top Knot Detective, a jaw-dropping pop culture documentary, the better your experience will be. I have an enormous soft spot for this film, which played film festivals overseas while screening on SBS here in Australia.
A tremendous French zombie thriller in which the horror comes not simply from the hordes of walking dead, but from the terrifying loneliness of being the apparent sole survivor of the apocalypse. It is hard at this stage to make a proper impact with a zombie flick, but director Dominique Rocher manages it. The lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie is superb.
The shadow of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita hangs over this superbly put-together action thriller, one that kicks off with a bravura first-person perspective action sequence and rockets along from there to the climax. Kim Ok-bin makes a great lead actress, fighting her way through a series of some of the most inventive action scenes of the decade.
A tremendous independent feature shot in New York and performed in Yiddish by a cast of non-actors. It follows Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a Hasidic man struggling to demonstrate an ability to care for his son. While it has a strong cultural context, the story it tells is a near-universal one, and rich in emotion and warmth. Director Joshua Z. Weinstein, traditionally a documentary maker, brings an enormous level of realism.
#132: Life of Pi (2012, USA. d. Ang Lee.)
A lot of the attention placed on Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel was on its strong 3D imagery – I’m not a fan, but can recognise the quality – and beautiful CG-enhanced aesthetic. What strikes me the most about the film is its ambiguity. A religious viewer can watch the film and have their faith emphasised. An atheistic one can watch it and have their own understanding of the world confirmed. In the end it feels like it supports both views at the same time, and that the truth is in the eye of the beholder. There isn’t another film quite like it.
#131: R100 (2013, Japan. d. Hitoshi Matsumoto.)
Hitoshi Matsumoto is one of the most delightfully strange filmmakers I’ve enjoyed in recent years, thanks originally to his 2009 comedy Symbol – which is gorgeously surreal – and then this 2013 follow-up, in which a Japanese businessman (Nao Omori) signs up to a secret personal service in which beautiful, lingerie-clad women leap out and beat the hell out of him at random times of the day. It actually gets weirder from there, believe it or not.
#130: Dirty God (2019, UK, Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium. d. Sacha Polak.)
Sacha Polak’s intimate, sharp drama follows a London woman in the aftermath of a vicious acid attack that has left her disfigured, and physically and emotionally wounded. First-time actor Vicky Knight is absolutely stunning in the lead role of Jade: it is a performance that is both effective and enormously vulnerable. There are so many directions that director Sacha Polak could have taken the story; she chooses the one with depth, emotional resonance, and difficult choices.
#129: The Wild Boys (2017, France. d. Bertrand Mandico.)
An arthouse marvel that sees a group of French boys punished for a sexual assault by being dispatched on an ocean voyage under the care of a predatory and frightening sea captain. There they journey on a voyage to a tropical island, where a strangely penile fruit begins to change their sex. It’s a surreal, gender-fluid, and poetic work of surreal drama with a strong cast and a challenging story. There is a high degree of pretension going on, but that is not always a bad thing. Of the films listed in this series, The Wild Boys is certainly one of the most memorable.
#128: Tag (2015, Japan. d. Sion Sono.)
Sion Sono has directed a remarkable variety of films over the past 10 years. Tag, based on a manga, is one of the most striking. It is essentially a bad dream translated into a film, and in all of my time watching movies I don’t think I have ever seen a more adept and accurate depiction of precisely how dream narrative work and play out on an emotional level. As a three-act story it frustrates a little. As a film experience it is exceptional: the energy, imagery, and style are all well off the charts.
#127: It Follows (2014, USA. d. David Robert Mitchell.)
Absolutely one of the best and most effective horror films of the past decade. A deadly apparition slowly stalks the individual, calmly approaching them until it touches them and they die. The only way to escape an inevitable death is to have sex with someone else – passing the supernatural infection onto them. It is a superb blend of Ring pastiche and safe sex metaphor, told with realistic performances and a low-key musical score and style. This one has been a little divisive, but the more adventurous horror movie fan it is an absolute must-see.
#126: Annihilation (2018, USA, UK. d. Alex Garland.)
Alex Garland’s spooky and imaginative adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer novel was produced by Paramount Pictures and then off-loaded in a fit of self-doubt to Netflix; thus denying viewers the chance to see it on the big screen. That’s a deep shame, because the queasy and unexplained visuals of this science fiction thriller would have looked outstanding at a larger scale. A strong female-dominated cast includes Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The genre wavers ominous;y from science fiction to horror, but never ceases to amaze.