The last 10 years have seen an amazing number of great movies see release. I have been counting down across 350 favourites over the past few weeks, and with this penultimate instalment we reach my top 50. The exact rankings are fairly arbitrary, but the films on this list – #50-26 – I consider to be absolutely phenomenal pieces of work. Each comes with my enthused recommendation.
More than 20 years after directing the exceptional artist biography Basquiat, artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel achieves the same success with Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Willem Dafoe hits a career high as the famed artist, and renders a heartbreaking portrait of his final days. It is not simply an excellent performance or an excellent script; the film is a visual marvel that reflects and emphasises the artist’s own style in cinematic terms. There are strong supporting players as well in the shape of Mads Mikkelsen, Oscar Isaac, and Rupert Friend. This film is a minor masterpiece, and a must see for art enthusiasts.
When Danny Boyle’s screen adaptation hit, it felt like an energetic clarion call to young twentysomethings. Far and beyond it’s depictions of Scottish herion addicts and petty criminals, it felt electrified with potential via a dynamic production and a fantastic pop score. Two decades later the characters reunited to take stock of how their young dreams never really eventuated – and Boyle masterfully creates the same feeling in its audience. T2 Trainspotting is funny, dramatic, and dangerous, but most of all it feels disappointing. Renton, Spud, Sickboy, Begbie, and the viewer – we’ve all disappointed ourselves. We all leave the film with the chance to try again. This is one of the absolute best sequels of the decade.
Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is a teenage girl attempting to find her place and future against a turbulent background of 1994 South Korea. Her parents are fighting one another, her brother is bullying her, and her only relief is her Chinese teacher. It reads like a terrible melodrama, but a description does not express how profound and effective the screenplay, direction, and performances are. The film sparkles with a light touch throughout, and this stops it from becoming overwrought or too depressing. Park Ji-hu is an absolutely wonder in the lead role.
#47: The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014, France, Germany, Switzerland. d. Olivier Assayas.)
A middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) agrees to return to a famous stage production that she helped launch 20 years ago, in a different role. When she meets the younger woman (Chloe Grace Moretz) that is playing her original part, it forces her to face uncomfortable truths about herself. Olivier Assayas’ drama is absolutely superb, but the selling point here is not Binoche’s leading performance or Assayas’ confident and complex direction. Instead it is Kristen Stewart, widely mocked star of the Twilight movies, giving an absolutely fantastic turn as Binoche’s harried personal assistant. It is rich in naturalism, subtext, and creativity: the sort of performance that makes even the most cynical viewer sit up and take notice. It won her the French César Award for Best Actress; the first time an American had ever won.
#46: The Distance (2014, Spain. d. Sergio Caballero.)
An Austrian performance artist hires a trio of psychic little people to steal an artefact known as “the distance” from a disused Russian nuclear power station. The Distance is a love-it-or-hate-it mini-masterpiece. Catalan director Sergio Caballero writes and directs an absolutely absurd and head-scratching heist film, set out in the middle of nowhere that functions either as a pretentious arthouse picture or a perfect parody of one. I find the film positively wonderful; most of the audience at the festival screening where I first saw it were muttering complaints to each other as they stomped out of the theatre. Your mileage is going to vary.
Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) concoct a plan to fake a divorce and then buy themselves a second apartment, thus avoiding China’s strict rules on property ownership. Then her husband spontaneously backs out of the deal, marries someone else, and claims to the community he divorced Xuelian over adultery. Xuelian then tries to make their divorce official – only to learn everybody believes she is divorced already. This absurdist drama is noteworthy for its clever screenplay, Fan’s absolutely outstanding acting in the lead role, and particularly director Feng Xiaogang’s creative choice to frame the entire film in square or circular frames – to visually reflect traditional Chinese artwork. It’s a brilliant one-of-a-kind experience; long, but worth every minute.
Jennifer Kent’s second feature is a blistering account of English colonial violence against both an Irish convict and Tasmania’s Aboriginal peoples. The violence is stark and horrifying. The conditions are miserable, and the terrors inflicted by the British soldiers are rage-inducing. It is not perfect – I still feel the comparison levelled between the Tasmanian genocides and the abuse of the Irish paints the film into a corner by the end – but it is bold, immensely powerful, and highlights an important element of colonial Australia that has spent too long in the shadows and margins. Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr are superb in their lead roles, and Radek Ladczuk’s photography captures the Tasmanian forests beautifully.
Veteran filmmaker Ann Hui scored a career high point with Our Time Will Come. It is a great war film. It’s great because it transcends the genre and becomes a film not about action or violence but of individual people: how they are changed by the war, emotionally cope with the strain, and keep their hopes up against a backdrop of Japanese brutality. The film feels like a work of patriotism, rather than nationalism, and is driven by fine performances by Deanie Ip, Zhou Xun, Eddie Peng, and others. Having grown up drowning in American and British war pictures, it is always a pleasure to see the material handled from different cultural angles. Our Time Will Come is one of the very best.
A criminal on the run faces difficult choices in Diao Yinan’s neo-noir The Wild Goose Lake. A long-awaited follow-up to his 214 hit Black Coal Thin Ice (see #35, below), it showcases his immense skills in tone, atmosphere, and visual aesthetic, as well as confirming him as a dab hand at action set pieces. The story is told partially in flashback, and is best experienced spoiler-free – to better surprise with its twists, turns, and shifts in loyalty. It is beautifully composed: in screenplay, direction, and photography. Television star Ge Hu makes a great impression in the lead, and it’s presentation of a Chinese criminal underworld rivals Johnnie To at his best.
This film is just the most remarkable of things. A junior real estate worker is dispatched to resolve a property dispute in Hong Kong’s new territories, only to find a tea house converted into a disused dojo – it’s master in a decades-long coma, and his disciples still living there and caring for him. An energetic low-budget action comedy, Gallants superbly highlights a number of Hong Kong screen legends of the 1970s including Lo Mang, bruce Leung, Chen Kuan-tai, and an immeasurably entertaining Teddy Robin. It is hugely nostalgic, yet has its own story and drive to push it beyond being a simple piece of entertaining. This film is incredibly easy to love: it practically demands your adoration.
Back at the start of the decade, Darren Aronofsky displayed a visceral understanding of both what makes a good paranoid thriller, and what the hyper-competitive world of classical ballet feels like. Natalie Portman plays a ballerina gradually sliding off the rails in the face parental pressure, a sexually threatening choreographer, rival dancers, and a seductive young woman to which she forms a strong connection. Visually frightening, emotionally intense, and deeply unsettling, Black Swan takes the psychological terrors of Roman Polanski’s best works and brings them firmly into the present. There are also great turns by the supporting cast including Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey. Aaronofsky is one of America’s best directors working today, and this is his best film.
Zhang Yimou returns to the Chinese period epic with his strongest film in that genre to date. It focuses on a man masquerading as a legendary but badly wounded general (Deng Chao, superb in a dual role), serving a vain king (Kai Zheng) in a struggle to recover a key city from a rival nation. Crossed agendas and allegiances come and go in a twisting fashion. The film’s action sequences are elegantly balletic and inventively staged. The colour is staggeringly effective: almost entirely rendered in shades of black and white, giving the entire picture the feel of a traditional ink painting. It represents absolutely stunning work on Zhang’s part, and helps lift it to become one of his finest-ever works.
After so many takes on the concept, it takes a lot these days for a zombie movie to actually stand out from the ground. Yeon Sang-ho manages it with Train to Busan, which makes the enormously clever step of starting his zombie outbreak just as a train is leaving station from Seoul to Busan, trapping its passengers onboard and slowly infecting the whole train carriage by carriage. The action and chase scenes are superb, but it’s the tense sneaking around trying to survive against steadily falling odds that makes Train to Busan so watchable. One of the very best and most entertaining horror films of the decade. Yeon also directed an animated feature, Seoul Station, that acts as a prequel.
Park Chan-wook takes an English novel set in the 19th century and adapts it with apparent ease to Japanese-occupied Korea. This is an erotic thriller with more unexpected twists than you would think one film could accomodate. As the story keeps twisting and rolling, Park continues to capture events with a lush, over-saturation aesthetic. Beautiful framing, amazing sets and costumes, and strong acting by Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, and Ha Jung-woo. At first it seems Park has abandoned the queasier elements of his earlier films. At a certain point that queasiness returns, both viscerally and hilariously. The only thing preventing it from being an absolute masterpiece is the unfortunately male gaze applied to the film’s sex scenes – queasy for an entirely different reason.
Jang Joon-hwan’s historical drama takes a complex series of events from 1987 South Korea and a wide array of characters, and translates them into a dramatic feature that is easy to follow, hugely informative, and packed with tension and emotional power. The collapse of Korea’s militaristic dictatorship and the rise of democracy plays out like a finely-tuned suspense thriller, except it gains even more power than a standard thriller because the events it shows actually happened. Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden) stands out among a large cast, presenting herself as one of Korea’s most promising actors working today.
A disgraced police officer (Liao Fan) gets another chance to solve the series of murders than ended his career when they mysteriously start up again. Diao Yinan’s noir thriller is a master work of atmosphere and tone; I’m struggling to think of another film that made me quite as uneasy while watching it. Liao Fan is excellent as the protagonist, a good police detective ruined by failure and alcohol and now struggling to get his act together far enough to finally solve the murders. Lun Mei Gwei, who reteamed with Diao on The Wild Goose Lake, is excellent as the mysterious woman working at a dry cleaners with whom Liao’s detective forms an obsession.
In Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s beautifully composed anime, a young woman living in an underground community discovers a massive upside-down world deep beneath her home – and a totalitarian regime ruling it. The ideas behind this mind-bending, gravity-defying science fiction story are tremendous, and just when you think you have everything worked out it throws another curveball at you. The characters are appealing, the design work is crisp and attractive, and the vocal performances are top notch. There is a very strong Terry Gilliam influence on this film, which helps it stand out against other recent anime features.
Inspired by a true story, Wen Muye’s Dying to Survive sees dodgy health entreprenuer Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng) pick up a chance to start smuggling cheap Indian cancer drugs into the Chinese market. It begins as an opportunistic way to make a quick profit, but gradually transforms into a personal crusade to save people’s lives. Wen changes genre through a series of hairpin turns on this film: when it’s a comedy, it is hilarious, but when it’s a drama it can be heart-wrenching. The film boasts strong performances and a well-focused screenplay. Most surprising of all this film contains savage criticism of the Chinese government. That’s not something you see very often in a mainland Chinese film.
Australians Joel Edgerton and David Michod have taken the remarkably bold step of rewriting William Shakespeare’s Henry V as a feature film for Netflix. The unexpected thing is, they do the most sensational job of it. Rich, poetic language reveals an entire new take on the characters with contemporary levels of complexity and character development, all of which sets up a remarkably talented cast – Timothee Chalamet, Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Jared Harris, Robert Pattinson, and others – to showcase some amazing acting. The film looks and sounds tremendous. The story is powerful, and speaks volumes about political power and the costs associated with it. The medieval action is well-presented and dramatic. I’m honestly unsure if this film has been sufficiently appreciated.
Orphaned siblings Shota (Nijirô Murakami) and Taira (Yûya Yagira) deal with their situation in different ways. For Shota it means mourning their lost connection and searching doggedly for his brother. For Taira it means heading into the city to pick a fistfight with any young man that crosses his past. Destruction Babies is a bleak, unexpectedly brutal portrayal of masculine violence. Its fight scenes – and there are many – are bluntly realistic and forced relentlessly upon the audience. Taira’s journey takes him to partnership with an unhinged delinquent teenager (Masaki Suda) who goads Taira on to worse and worse violence, while recording and broadcasting the results via his smartphone. It’s hard stuff, but superbly assembled together by director Tetsuya Mariko. There is serious socio-political discourse beneath the violence.
One of the most remarkable sequels of the decade. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), illegitimate son of world-famous boxing legend Apollo Creed, travels to Philadelphia to beg his father’s rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. This is the best Rocky picture since the original, and cleverly inverts Rocky’s original situation to address issues of race, wealth, and class in America. Michael B. Jordan is blindingly good, Stallone delivers one of the best performances of his career, and director Ryan Coogler directs everything to within an inch of its life. This is an incredible revival of one of my all-time favourite movie franchises. A slightly less effective sequel followed in 2018.
Two people working in a Hungarian abattoir (Géza Morcsányi and Alexandra Borbély) discover that each night they are sharing the same dream. Ildikó Enyedi’s gently magical realist drama is a quiet masterpiece. The actors bring an enormous amount to the film: their characters are given next to no back story, and instead their entire presence and emotional weight comes down to the excellent performances. Máté Herbai’s photography is superb, with every frame feeling like a composed painting. Enyedi does not make obvious or easy choices with the screenplay, and the story develops with elegance and a strong sense of emotional truth. It is an unexpected and unusual work of deep beauty.
From the sublime, as they say, to the ridiculous. Wreck-It Ralph is a self-aware comedic delight, translating the world of videogames to a Disney animated feature. It is unlike any feature previously produced by the Disney animation studio. When a videogame villain runs away from his own game to find something better in life, it throws his behind-the-scenes gaming world into disarray. The voice acting, led by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, is fantastic. The design and colour work pops off the screen. The story and screenplay feel more like an elegantly structured and unified Pixar work than a more traditional Disney take. Its success inspired a 2018 sequel which was, sadly, nowhere near as good.
England is at war with France, while the frail Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) is coddled by the manipulative Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace, Sarah is quick to take her under her wing – but she badly underestimates Abigail’s ambition. This is such a pitch-perfect black comedy from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, packed floor to ceiling with the most incredible amount of bitchery and wildly fierce rivalry. It is inventively shot and plotted, beautifully costumed and filmed, and showcases three of the best lead performances of its year. Coleman in particular is very, very good – indeed, she deservedly won an Oscar for it. Everything in The Favourite is such a wicked delight from start to finish.
#26: Arrival (2016, USA. d. Denis Villenueve.)
Based on a Ted Chiang short story, Denis Villenueve’s adaptation Arrival is one of the very best science fiction films of the decade. It is intelligently written, and genuinely offers speculation on scientific possibility. When aliens arrive on Earth, expressing themselves in an inexplicable fashion, a team of scientists work around the clock to translate their speech and learn their intentions. Of all of the films I watched from 2010 to 2019, I’m reasonably sure this was the cleverest. Visually and aurally this is an incredible work. The lead performances by Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Tzi Ma are outstanding. It is such a wonderful, emotive, and thoughtful work of cinema.