This is it: my 25 favourite films of the past decade.
Jordan Peele made one hell of a directorial debut with Get Out, an effective and terrifying horror film with an awful lot to say about race relations in 21st century America – particularly about white left-wing people. The film is intelligent, stylish, and provocative. The casting is superb, including great actors like Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, and Bradley Whitford. Some parts are shocking, some inspire deep dread, and there is even room for unexpected moments of comedy. In terms of iconic scenes, which pretty much seal the long-term success of horror films, it is packed with memorable imagery. While Peele’s second feature Us (listed in an earlier column) does not quite hit the same heights, it still feels that a historic filmmaking talent debuted here. We shall hopefully seeing new films from him for many years to come.
To my mind, the best anime of the decade. Two teenagers – a boy and a girl – wake up one morning having swapped bodies. After the initial shock, and some predictably childish moments about having new genitals, they begin to work at maintaining one another’s lives and communicating with one another in phone messages and notebooks. Then, one day, the boy awakes to find the swapping has stopped – and that is when the real creative genius of the film kicks in. Your Name has been an enormous commercial success, and has really cemented Makoto Shinkai’s place as one of the all-time great anime directors. The film is romantic, thrilling, tragic, uplifting, and deeply transcendant. It’s not just a fantastic anime; it’s a great film.
After Toy Story 3 wound up Pixar’s original franchise in such a neat and satisfying fashion, it was a real surprise to see the company announce a fourth film. It turns out it is the best one of the set: the third film left the beloved toys Woody, Buzz, and the rest in the hands of a new child, suggesting that – for the toys at least – the fun of childhood need never end. Toy Story 4 reverses that conclusion. Sometimes childhood does end. Sometimes toys can be left behind, or lost, or simply made redundant. Particularly strong in this iteration are Tom Hanks and Annie Potts as Woody and Bo Peep, engaging in a romance that is rather nuanced and complex for an animated film. It is all surprisingly melancholic, making this weirdly a children’s film aimed more at adults than at its ostensible target audience. Not to suggest the entire film is a misery, of course: Forky (voiced superbly by Tony Hale) is the comedic find of 2019. This is the best of the Toy Story films, and one of the very best things Pixar has ever made.
The head of security (Duan Yihong) at a Chinese factory begins to obsessively track a suspected serial killer, despite the disdain shown to him by local police. This film is a hard one to describe, since it is a classic case of the film being more enjoyable the less one knows about what is going to happen. Dong Yue’s debut feature as director looks absolutely sensational, with a gloomy and miserable rain-slicked aesthetic. The further on it goes, the better it becomes. Characters expand or unravel. The semi-industrial setting grows more threatening and claustrophobic. The narrative snakes back and forth, becoming increasingly paranoid and inexplicable. In 2018 I was on the FIPRESCI jury at the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival; this is the film to which we awarded the FIPRESCI Prize.
Based on a true story, this film follows the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of investigative journalists, as they attempt to dig up the extent of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. It is a rivetting and tense drama, beautifully directed by Tom McCarthy – ever notice every exterior shot has a church lurking in the background? – and expertly performed by one of America’s best ensemble casts. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schrieber, Stanley Tucci, and others bring this to life. And most powerful of all is the real-life discoveries the team make. Extensive abuse of children. Decades of cover-ups. Moral corruption across the Church. This is one of the most horrifying films of the 2010s – horrifying because of the terrible extent of crimes that have been committed and not prosecuted, and horrifying because of the sheer number of victims whose ordeals were never revealed or apologised for. In Australia, where the highest-ranking Catholic Cardinal has been gaoled for the sexual abuse of two minors, this film feels more pertinent today than it did when it was made.
#20: Sweet Country (2017, Australia. d. Warwick Thornton.)
1923. Sam (Hamilton Morris) is an indigenous farm worker working for the obsessively Christian immigrant Fred Smith (Sam Neill). While Smith is away on business, an altercation with a neighbouring farmer (Ewen Leslie) sees that farmer dead and Sam on the run from the local police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown). To my mind, the very best Australian feature of the past 10 years. It is not simply that Warwick Thornton has directed an absolutely searing indictment of the white treatment of Australia’s First Peoples. It is that his outstanding screenplay has brought the absolute best out of everyone. The cast are uniformly superb. For one, it’s probably the best work that Bryan Brown has ever done. It is a film that is a riveting pursuit thriller, but also a political statement to make you sink with sorrow, and then boil with rage. It is truly outstanding, global-level cinema.
#19: Dunkirk (2017, USA, UK. d. Christopher Nolan.)
The timing and subject matter of Dunkirk struck an unfortunate note, since it’s pro-British and patriotic tones appealed exactly to the wrong people in a divided, Brexit-era nation. Putting that aside, this is an absolutely brilliant exercise in narrative design: three plots, each told at a different speed so that by the climax they all finally intersect in the one place and time. It does not waste time – the whole film is less than two hours – and neither does it waste focus by showcasing anything other than a war zone. Hans Zimmer’s score is powerful and inventive. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is dramatic and immediate. There has always been a sense of technical polish to Christopher Nolan’s work. This is the first time he has stripped the story back so effectively so as directly highlight the achievement.
#18: Shoplifters (2018, Japan. d. Hirokazu Kore-eda.)
This is, unless I have miscounted, the third film on this list directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (following Like Father Like Son at #91, and I Wish at #78). He is simply a modern master of screen drama, making unbelievably effective and captivating cinema every single time he applies himself to a film. Shoplifters is, to my mind, almost certainly his strongest achievement. It follows a destitute family of petty thieves whose kidnapping of an abused young girl leads into a series of revelations about their identities and behaviours. The film is deeply bittersweet and effective, built up from tiny moments of character, and presents simply outstanding levels of subtlety. This, to me, is the genius of Kore-eda: so much intimate, powerful drama, constructed out of the tiniest of moments and gestures.
#17: Gravity (2013, USA, UK. d. Alfonso Cuarón.)
When her space shuttle is critically hit by debris in orbit, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is left to find a way of surviving and of somehow returning to Earth. Alfonso Cuarón’s space-borne survival thriller is, moment to moment, one of the most thrilling films of the decade. The crisis is small and personal – life and death, pure and simple – and the circumstances and technology involved is all well-researched and realistic. It is why I struggle with others describing this as science fiction: really there’s not anything here that could not happen tomorrow. What lifts the film from great to amazing, however, is the sheer intensity of Dr Stone’s ordeal. The stakes, the dangers, and the surreal simultaneous sense of claustrophobia and agoraphobia are all viscerally presented. This is the best film of 2013.
#16: The Wandering Earth (2019, China. d. Frant Gwo.)
Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) was a ludicrous exercise in Hollywood excess, sending a group of oil drillers to an asteroid in order to split it in two and stop either half from hitting the Earth. Somehow, miraculously, the Chinese film industry topped their American competitors with The Wandering Earth, making a film on a similar theme that is even more over-the-top, patriotic, and wildly silly. When the solar system’s sun begins to die, humanity straps a ring of rockets around the Earth’s middle and start piloting the whole pilot towards Alpha Centuari. When a miscalculation sees the Earth begin to be dragged into Jupiter’s orbit, a group of miners band together to restart the engines and get the planet back on course. It’s handsomely produced, remarkably ludicrous, and pretty much the most fun I had in a cinema in 2019.
#15: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018, China. d. Bi Gan.)
Bi Gan’s follow-up to Kaili Blues surpasses it in every way. This is a gorgeously presented film with rich colour and beautiful mise-en-scene. Protagonist Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns home for the first time in years, desperately looking for the women he left behind. Huang is great, as are his co-stars Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang. The real highlight of the film, however, is a stunning 40+ minute dream sequence, assembled as a single long take, and shot in stereoscopic 3D. It is perfectly constructed for the film, easily justified in context, and allows it to stand out as the masterpiece it is. I am not a fan of 3D cinema as a rule, but I cannot imagine Long Day’s Journey existing any other way.
#14: Moana (2016, USA. d. Ron Clements and John Musker.)
Disney’s best animation achievement in absolutely years. Developed and designed with the participation of Pacific islanders, cast smartly with Polynesian voice actors, and carefully plotted into a tight narrative machine. The performances are great. The design is exceptional. In terms of story, dialogue, pacing, and imagery, it is the obvious work of two of animation’s best-ever director – Ron Clements and John Musker. The score and songs by Lin Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i are easily among the best the Walt Disney Anination Studio has ever produced. Forget “Let It Go”; “How Far I’ll Go” is where Disney ear-worms are at. It is, far and away, my favourite animated feature for the whole of the 2010s.
#13: An Elephant Sitting Still (2018, China. d. Hu Bo.)
Likely the longest film in this entire list, An Elephant Sitting Still is a four hour-long Chinese-language character drama that has to be seen to be believed. At the two-hour mark the idea of only being halfway through seems like torture. By the time the credits roll, the idea of cutting a single scene feels unimaginable. Writer/director Hu Bo very sadly committed suicide before his film saw release, and it is thus not a surprise to find a deep melancholic sense of sadness throughout. It follows multiple plot threads, each with its own beautifully performed lead character, and the sheer length provides so much time to dig deep into their motivations, choices, and regrets. When it all pulls together at the end, it feels transcendent. It is so sad that Hu died. He left behind a tremendous expression of art and humanity.
A woman’s experience being raped and her labyrinthine journey trying to report it to police is played out over a series of single-shot long takes. This is an emotionally hard movie, set as it is in a religiously conservative and odiously sexist environment, where the victim is in legal trouble just for walking alone with a man at night. Mariam (a superb Marian el Ferjani) has been gang-raped by police officers – we never see the actual assault – and her attempts to get tested with a rape kit end in failure. A private doctor refuses to treat her, and the hospital won’t run the test without a filed police report – a report that must be filed at the exact station that houses the officers who assaulted her in the first place. This bold, powerful drama does everything right. There’s not a hint of a male gaze. There is only defiant rage at a Catch-22-style nightmare that favours assailants over victims and treads ignorantly over the rights of women. As noted above, this is a hard watch but also a supremely masterful one.
Cheang Pou-soi’s first Monkey Film was a CGI-heavy charming fantasy starring a playful Donnie Yen as the immortal Sun Wukong and Aaron Kwok as a brooding, moody villain. Yen was unavailable for the sequel, so Kwok gamely switches roles. His monkey is darker and more cynical, which matches the much more darker tone of the film overall. This is a superbly written and shot blend of fantasy and horror, bringing in the familiar Journey to the West co-stars and adapting the White Bone Demon section of the novel (with Gong Li doing an astounding job in the role). The atmosphere generated in the film’s scarier moments is palpable. The comedic moments are fun and breezy. This is a large-scale populist blockbuster; arguably the best China has generated. Not only do I think this is the finest Journey to the West adaptation ever made (and there’s a long list to choose from), it’s the best fantasy film in the world from the past 10 years.
I know it’s a dreadful stereotype, but the truth is that my all-time favourite film is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. When it was announced that a sequel was indeed going into production, I was 100 per cent against the idea. Why risk ruining the story by attempting to catch lightning in a bottle twice? The truth is, while Denis Villenueve’s Blade Ranner 2049 doesn’t quite hit the heights of the original film, it is still an absolutely exceptional exercise in world-building, predicting the future, advancing concepts from the original, production design, and narrative. It is superbly cast and features wonderful new characters, while the Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch score sounds like Vangelis mugged by a demolition crew and sewn back together with Nine Inch Nails. 30 additional years of experience let Harrison Ford deliver one of his best-ever performances, while new players Ryan Gosling, Ana de Arnas, and Sylvia Hoeks all completely nail their characters. This film is just tremendous.
#9: Leave No Trace (2018, USA. d. Debra Granik.)
A returned serviceman (Ben Foster) hides out in the Oregon national parks with his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie). When found by the authorities, they struggle to continue their lives together once forced into civilization. Debra Granik’s 2018 drama is an absolutely fantastic work of naturalistic drama. It has no antagonist or villain to speak of, there are no right or wrong answers to how the story develops. It is simply human drama played out wonderfully by a combination cast of actors and local non-actors (something Granik tends to do in all of her narrative features). Foster is fantastic. Newcomer Thomasin McKenzie is astonishing; a long career awaits, and indeed has already started with her major role in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit.
#8: Parasite (2019, South Korea. d. Bong Joon-ho.)
Bong Joon-ho’s sly, unexpected thriller/drama is the best film of 2019; just in case you’ve been fruitlessly waiting for an actual 2019 year’s best and wanted to know. It is yet another creative smash hit for Korea’s current best feature director. A poor family ingratiate themselves one by one into the lives of a rich family – and then things spin wildly and unexpectedly out of control. As always Bong demonstrates a rich gift for blending and jumping between genres: moments of Parasite are thrilling, some are sad, some are gut-laugh funny, and others are deeply terrifying. He tells unexpected and unanticipated stories, no matter the subject matter or overall genre. He is one of the world’s best contemporary directors, and each film has been a pleasure to see. This is the most pleasurable he has ever made.
#7: Logan (2017, USA. d. James Mangold.)
Marvel Studios made so many superhero movies between 2010 and 2019, which collectively earned billions of dollars, but ultimately the single-best film of the decade’s most popular genre was this: James Mangold’s superb farewell picture to Hugh Jackman’s Logan, aka Wolverine. Both Jackman and co-star Patrick Stewart (as Charles Xavier) give far and away the best performances in their respective roles. Newcomer Dafne Keen is immediately jawdroppingly good as the mysterious runaway Laura, whose safety becomes Logan and Charles’ final mission. This is an elegiac film, rich in sadness, regret, and pitch-perfect level of stubborn, old rage. It is the best of the X-Men films by a vast distance. It is one of the very best superhero adaptations ever, up there with Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This is a masterful film period, and my top pick for 2017.
#6: The Assassin (2015, Taiwan. d, Hou Hsiao-hsien.)
After directing Flight of the Red Balloon in 2007, Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien took eight years to direct another feature. When it arrived, it was one of the greatest achievements of his entire career. The Assassin is an absolutely beautiful wuxia picture, with Shu Qi giving a career-best performance as a trained killer whose growing conscience sees her punished with one final task: to murder the ex-fiancee that she still loves. Everything is directed to perfection: the pace, the script, the tone, the visuals, the performances, everything. It saw Hou rewarded with the Best Director prize at Cannes, five Golden Horse awards, a BAFTA nomination, and eight Asian Film Awards. It is, in my opinion, the best film of 2015.
#5: Inception (2010, USA, UK. d. Christopher Nolan.)
I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan, and his absolutely incredible ability to generate high concept commercial cinema out of the most inventive and imaginative concepts. Inception is a monumental achievement, using an espionage set-up to create bold, surreal landscapes and eye-popping tributes to all manner of pre-existing action cinemas – notably the alpine Bond tribute during the film’s climax. Its Hans Zimmer score is so effective that other films have been copying it for the entire decade. The rolling hotel fight with Joseph Gordon Levitt is close to the best action sequence in the entire 2010s (see below for what tops it). To my mind, this is the best science fiction film of its time.
#4: Climax (2018, France, Belgium. d. Gaspar Noé.)
A group of contemporary dancers hire out an abandoned school in the middle of winter. There they undertake final rehearsals of their latest performance before shipping out to the USA. The rehearsal complete, they relax and party with a small buffet and loud music. Only someone has spiked the punch. All that happens in Gaspar Noé’s claustrophobic thriller is that some attractive young people have a dance, and then a bad drug trip, but the dance is stunningly presented and cuts to the soul and the trip is so immersive, paranoid, and frightening that it becomes an outright horror picture. This is a nightmare brought to the screen: it is confronting, horrifying, squirm-inducing, and actively upsetting. The constantly rolling camera work generates nausea in the audience, and the screaming soundtrack makes it all seem overwhelming. Despite most viewers most likely swearing off seeing it ever again, it’s actually a film that rewards multiple viewings. For something as simple as a film to generate such instinctive reactions is remarkable. This is the best film of 2018.
#3: Personal Shopper (2016, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany. d. Olivier Assayas.)
Olivier Assayas has been one of France’s most interesting directors for years, but for me he hits an all-time high with Personal Shopper. He re-teams with Clouds of Sils Maria (ranked back at #47) co-star Kristen Stewart, and indeed wrote the lead role specifically with her in mind. Stewart plays Maureen, a woman working for a Parisian celebrity as her personal shopper and assistant. Maureen has a connection to the supernatural, and refuses to leave Paris until her recently deceased brother makes contact. When unusual phenomena does start to happen, it is unclear if it is her brother or if she is being followed by something – or someone – else. This is the film I suggest people see if they still measure Stewart’s skills by the Twilight movies. She is absolutely outstanding here, in a film that is richly developed, mature, and deeply uneasy. This is the best film of 2016, and the most effective horror picture of the decade.
#2: The Raid (2011, Indonesia. d. Gareth Evans.)
Gareth Evans is a Welsh film director who, failing to get his films funded in the UK, wound up finding financiers in Indonesia instead. He started with Merentau, a superb little action flick starring unknown silat fighter Iko Uwais. They collaborated a second time on this: a thriller in which a police raid on an apartment building of gangsters goes horribly, fatally wrong. One cop (Uwais), unable to get out, has no other option than to fight his way to the top and take out the ringleader. If the premise sounds familiar, it is because Evans lifted it from Alex Garland’s Dredd when it appeared that film project had collapsed. Dredd is a great movie (I ranked it here at #273), but The Raid is an action masterwork. This is the kind of athletic, jaw-dropping martial arts last seen in Jackie Chan’s career peak – only here the combat appears to genuinely hurt. This is an eye-popping, wince-inducing, extended master work of action cinema. It is the decade’s top action film, and the best film of 2011.
#1: Winter’s Bone (2010, USA. d. Debra Granik.)
Released right back at the start of the decade, Debra Granik’s Ozarks-set thriller Winter’s Bone was simply never bettered. When her father puts up the family home as a bond, teenager Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must head into the dangerous and secretive world of meth-making dealers to track him down and have a chance of keeping the house for her and her two siblings.
I first saw Winter’s Bone at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival. The immediately and most overwhelming reaction was just how huge an impression Jennifer Lawrence made in the lead role. She is effectively perfect as Ree. She drives the movie, and dominates every scene. I remember leaning over to my wife at one point and whispering that she was going to win an Oscar within five years. It turns out she won one within three. Put simply, Ree Dolly is, I swear to you, one of the best written and performed characters in the history of film.
The second reaction was to John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree’s terrifying and meth-addicted uncle who helps her search for her father. It is a masterful performance, and an immensely captivating character: deeply unstable and unpredictable, like getting helped by an exposed electrical wire. Hawkes has consistently been one of the USA’s most underrated actors and he is in top form here.
The lead actors overshadow the film because director Debra Granik spotlights them so well. It is a film of awkward pauses and nervous hesitation. There is a sort of jangling edge of panic from beginning to end, as Ree purposefully steps into a genuinely dangerous and secretive criminal world. Granik immerses her in Ozark culture and a densely packed world of forests and ramshackle collapsing houses. She uses a lot of local civilians in the film, allowing them to express an authentic sensibility rather than try and make trained actors look like locals.
The crowning achievement of Winter’s Bone is that it feels deeply real. A real setting, real people with real problems, and brought to life with everybody involved at the top of their game. When putting together a list of 350 films, and foolishly trying to actually sort them into an order of quality, this was the only film whose position was never in doubt. Winter’s Bone is the best film of the 2010s.
(A quick note: I put together this whole list back in late November. Since then I have seen a few more films that, had I seen them earlier, would absolutely have made the list. So please accept my firm recommendation for Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Favourite, Us, and Jojo Rabbit.)