The end of the 2010s is upon us, and I have been taking the opportunity to count down through my favourite films over the past 10 years. This is definitely a favourites list, and not a more pompous “best of” list. It’s also important to note that it’s a personal list based on what I have seen – and that does not include a whole raft of reportedly excellent films with which I have yet to catch up. The numbering is pretty vague too: apart from the top 20 or so this list could shift about a lot on a day-to-day basis.
#125: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, USA, Australia. d. George Miller.)
Many people’s favourite film of the whole decade, I found it to be an excellent science fiction action movie without too much of the ground-breaking action direction or world-building for which it has become widely acclaimed. Charlize Theron is excellent as de-facto lead Furiosa, while as Max Tom Hardy replaces Mel Gibson without the same level of grit or personality. All things being equal, its position at this point of the chart places it close to the top 10 of its year, but it is simply not as impressive as its reputation suggests. It’s only brilliant.
#124: Easy A (2010, USA. d. Will Gluck.)
In 2010 the decade opened with, among other films, one of its best teen comedies. Emma Stone pretty much cemented her career with this smart, funny riff on The Scarlet Letter, which boasted great character and dialogue, wit and self-awareness, and great supporting performances by the likes of Stanley Tucci, Amanda Bynes, Lisa Kudrow, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church, and Malcolm McDowell.
#123: The Descendants (2011, USA. d. Alexander Payne.)
George Clooney arguably delivers a career-best performance in Alexander Payne’s excellent depiction of a Hawaii-set family crisis. I suppose it’s technically a comedy, but it is a comedy about a sad subject matter and works along a rather leisurely pace. The balance of emotions here feel so delicately and carefully tuned that the film can dance across genre without ever feeling force, difficult, and artificial. Sharlene Woodley, Amara Miller, and the late Robert Forster all contribute excellent supporting turns.
#122: The Avengers (2012, USA. d. Joss Whedon.)
The miracle of The Avengers is not the story it tells, but that it exists at all. Taking the films Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor, and merging their characters into one giant crossover may sound like an easy thing to do but it must have been a logistical nightmare to plot, plan, and shoot. That it turned out not only competently made but wonderfully entertaining is icing on the cake. This is a film that both broke the mold and broke Hollywood – every studio now wants its own shared universe of movies, whether they work or not.
#121: Black Panther (2018, USA. d. Ryan Coogler.)
Marvel Studios absolutely nail their presentation of African superhero Black Panther, thanks to pitch-perfect casting (Chadwick Boseman in the lead, but also pretty much the entire supporting cast), an excellent pick of director (Creed filmmaker Ryan Coogler), and a timely adoption of Afro-futurist tropes. The longer the MCU shared franchise goes on, the harder it is to make an impact with new characters. Black Panther nails it, not just introducing a new hero but an entire cast of supporting characters and rich history at the same time.
#120: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013, Hong Kong, China. d. Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok.)
The classical Chinese novel Journey to the West has always provided rich fodder for film adaptations, and the past decade has been an absolute golden age for various versions – both live-action and animated – of the Monkey King’s exploits. Stephen Chow’s Conquering the Demons was one of the best, blending his standard style of ‘mo-le-tau’ nonsense comedy with a surprisingly hard-edged element of horror. Shu Qi is the standout in the cast, as a professional demon hunter. A sequel was produced, directed in this case by Tsui Hark; I have yet to see it.
#119: Lady Bird (2017, USA. d. Greta Gerwig.)
Saoirse Ronan leads a film with such a wonderful screenplay and tidy, effective direction that she is left with nothing to do but deliver a tour-de-force. Lady Bird is superficially yet another light drama about a young woman struggling through high school, yet it absolutely nails every element. The result is one of the best films of its year, and one of the absolute best films of its type. Laurie Metcalf and Beanie Feldstein are both superb in supporting roles, as is Timothy Chalomet.
#118: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, USA. d. Jon Watts.)
When Marvel Studios signed an agreement with Sony Pictures to make new Spider-Man films, it seemed an eye-rolling proposition. The character had already run through two changes in lead actor and five films – only one of which was particularly strong (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2) – and the idea of relaunching the same character for a third time in 15 years was simply exhausting. Trust Marvel to present the best and most faithful iteration of the character yet, played to perfection by Tom Holland and facing up against an excellent villain in the shape of Michael Keaton as the Vulture.
#117: The Babadook (2014, Australia. d. Jennifer Kent.)
A horror feature rich in symbolism and meaning, and which takes excellent advantage of its limited production budget. What’s more, it is genuinely unsettling stuff, providing both sudden shocks and starts but also much more effective moments of rising dread. Jennifer Kent’s feature debut is part of an international wave of excellent and original new horror films, which have been exploding out in every creative direction over the past decade. The 1980s and 1990s seemed dominated by slasher flicks, and the 2000s by survivor horror (aka ‘torture porn’). The 2010s have really been a rich period for thematic representations of all sort of social issues and observations – with a welcome and unprecedented amount of women making the films.
#116: The Martian (2015, USA. d. Ridley Scott.)
An excellent and surprisingly upbeat survival film directed by Ridley Scott: still one of the world’s best visual directors. Matt Damon stars as an astronaut left behind when a Martian mission heads south, and who has to find a way to survive on the planet’s surface until help can arrive. It’s respectful of science, unexpectedly witty, and dramatic where it needs to be. It is also worth celebrating its remarkable cast of characters working to save Damon’s life, played by Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Chiwotel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, and McKenzie Davis.
#115: Blue Hour (2019, Japan. d, Yuko Hakota.)
An advertising director tries to get away from her troubles by taking a road trip with her best friend to country Japan to see her ailing grandmother. Yuko Hakota’s directorial debut is inventive, beautifully performed and paced, and a pleasure to look at. Above all else it is a pleasant film: it feels pleasurable to spend 90 minutes in the company of its cast. This is low-key comfort cinema directed to perfection.
#114: Wonder Woman (2018, USA. d. Patty Jenkins.)
Given the decades that Wonder Woman has existed as a superhero, it feels vaguely ridiculous that it took until 2018 for her to get her own feature film. Wonder Woman is imperfect – the second half drags somewhat, and the climax is oddly weak – but when it nails the character it absolutely shines. The sequence in World War I’s no-man’s-land is a masterpiece of iconic action, while Gal Gadot is perfect in the title role. A sequel is due in mid-2020.
#113: Villain (2010, Japan. d. Lee Sang-il.)
Shuichi Yoshida’s troubling crime novel is adapted pretty much faultlessly by Lee Sang-il. In Villain, a senseless murder ruins a string of lives: obviously the victim, but also her family, her ex-boyfriend, and – most challenging – the murderer and a young woman that has fallen in love with him. It’s very well acted and directed, but the real charm here is Jo Hisiashi’s haunting, lyrical score; he is best known for his work with animator Hayao Miyazaki, but this stands up musically with the best he’s ever done.
#112: The Woodsman and the Rain (2011, Japan. d. Shuichi Okita.)
A woodcutter in late middle-age forms an unexpected bond with an under-confident young director when a zombie movie shoot descends upon his small town. This is the sort of small, odd, and oddly wonderful comedy that the Japanese film industry excels at. Koji Yakusho is great as Katsuhiko, the grumpy middle-aged man dragged into providing local support for a film shoot, as is Shun Ogiri as the young director so nervous that he’s running away from his own movie production.
#111: Iron Man 3 (2013, USA. d. Shane Black.)
Shane Black takes over the Iron Man franchise from Jon Favreau, and makes the best film of the three in the process. All of the standard Black tropes are present – the cynical edge, the sparky repartee, the Christmas setting and so on – but it also fits neatly into the MCU by presenting a Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from the events of The Avengers. Great action and character work makes this stand out from the previous films in the series, as does an emphasis on Stark the man and not the visual effect.
#110: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, USA. d. Joe Russo and Anthony Russo.)
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo make the first of four contributions to the MCU with this super-heroic riff on a 1970s espionage thriller. It’s a smart pastiche, with some pitch-perfect casting (Robert Redford) and a fast, intelligence and involving narrative. I was not a huge fan of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger; this sequel absolutely redeemed the character for me. Chris Evans is great, as are Anthony Mackie, Scarlett Johansson and Sebastian Stan in their supporting roles.
#109: My Life as a Zucchini (2016, Switzerland, France. d. Claude Barras.)
Claude Barras’ stop-motion-animated drama is a jaw-dropping mini-masterpiece, one that combines sweet and cheerfully designed characters with a story about child abuse and depression. It’s beautifully constructed and animated, and handles its difficult subject matter with immense skill and responsibility. As a French-Swiss co-production without the backing of a major American studio, it’s possibly the least-seen animated feature in this list, but it is absolutely worth tracking down if you are a fan of the medium.
#108: Daguerrotype (2016, France. d. Kiyoshi Kurosawa.)
Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa makes his French language debut with this skillful and melancholic ghost story; one which uses the origins of photography in a wonderfully gentle and disturbing fashion. As with his most popular Japanese works, the film presents horror not with shocks and scares but a sense of rising dread. The viewer is gradually unsettled by the prospect of a ghost haunting a photographer and his daughter. Without a wide Australian release, it may be a little difficult to track down – but it is absolutely worth the effort.
#107: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015, USA. d. Christopher McQuarrie.)
Mission: Impossible is the most peculiar action franchise, in that each installment since the third appears to get better and better. Rogue Nation ups the ante again, thanks to an incredible screenplay by director Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, as well as the electrifying introduction of Rebecca Ferguson as new antagonist-come-love interest Ilsa Faust. It also uses its supporting characters more effectively than ever before, creating a Mission: Impossible that actually honours the original TV series. The action sequences are second-to-none, and Tom Cruise is pretty much at his franchise best.
#106: Captain America: Civil War (2016, USA. d. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.)
To get the big criticism out of the way first: Civil War effectively abandons the character of Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, in favour of making Avengers 2.5. That said, it does at least present a hugely entertaining story – one which introduces new heroes like Black Panther and Spider-Man, and finding continued use for the broad roster of other heroes like Black Widow, Iron Man, War Machine, and Ant-Man. This was the film that effectively nailed MCU team-ups, presenting something that wasn’t really structured as a traditional film narrative but rather a live-action reproduction of the six-issue comic book miniseries format. The airport fight that would in comic form make up issue #4 is a particular highlight.
#105: The Illusionist (2010, France, UK. d. Sylvain Chomet.)
Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) is a sensational animation director, and he’s never been better than with this spectacular adaptation of an unfilmed Jacques Tati screenplay. It absolutely nails the tone and technique of Tati’s work, while expressing it through Chomet’s own particular style of art. It tells a wonderful story of a tired stage magician and an energetic young woman who crosses his path. The comedy lies superficially on the surface, while the film’s true story breaks hearts underneath.
#104: The Social Network (2010, USA. d. David Fincher.)
David Fincher – aided enormously by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – takes what is essentially a series of lawsuits and turns them into a riveting drama about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook. It is a relatively limited story, so Fincher winds it up with a variety of visual gimmicks and tricks including tilt-shift photography and the inspired casting of Armie Hammer as a pair of twins. Sorkin’s script sparkles with his standard level of snark and wit, and enormously quotable dialogue.
#103: American Animals (2018, USA. d. Bart Layton.)
American Animals is a fascinating film. It is a drama adapting real-life events, structured as a documentary, and told inconsistently by unreliable narrators. The story involves a student robbery from a university library, and is played out by actors in the reconstructions and what purports to be the actual people in interview segments – except there is no guarantee those people are not also actors. It’s strange, but also kind of wonderful. It even throws in an appearance by Udo Kier for good measure.
#102: Unforgiven (2013, Japan. d. Lee Sang-il.)
I think there always has to be a real justification for a film to be remade. It either needs a historical revision, or a change in perspective or context – otherwise it’s just crass profit-seeking. Thankfully Lee Sang-il’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s exceptional western is an exact example of where remakes work best. It takes the tropes of the old west – retired gunslingers, shootouts, the plight of Native Americans, and so on – and adapts them to 19th century post-Meiji Japan. Instead of the Wild West, Lee uses the island of Hokkaido. Instead of gunslingers and outlaws there are ronin. In the place of shootouts he throws in sword-fights, and in the place of Native Americans there are Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu. Replacing Clint Eastwood is Ken Watanabe, showcasing acting talent far beyond what limited roles Hollywood pay him for. This film is incredible.
#101: The Shape of Water (2017, USA. d. Guillermo Del Toro.)
To get the negative out of the way: The Shape of Water casts an able-bodied actor as a non-verbal woman, and that’s a discriminatory practice that Hollywood needs to stop doing. For one thing, her sign language technique is terrible – and that could easily have been remedied by casting an actual deaf or non-verbal actor in the role. They struggle enough for work as it is. Beyond this oversight, The Shape of Water is a wonderfully stylish and bold combination of romance, drama, and horror. Performances by Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, and particularly Richard Jenkins, are superb. There’s a bravery to this film that really makes in pop off the screen.