I use the term “Top” instead of “Best” or “Favorites” for very specific reasons. I don’t use “Favorites” because there are plenty of wholly unpleasant films that make me feel awful that are artistically incredible, but I would never say they are my favorite as that word has a pleasant connotation of something that brings me joy. And while I am happy and grateful those types of films exist, I would never say sitting through them is a joyful experience. With “Best,” that suggests being able to see a wide swath of possible movies (more than I ever could), and being able to discern which have technical innovations and intelligent thematic approaches that will resonate for decades to come.
So I have no clue what the future holds or how these will stand up as time moves on and the world burns a bit faster; but these are the top 15 films from this past decade that occupy my mind and move me in ways few others did and, more often than not, I have watched repeatedly since they came out.
Honorable Mentions: SWISS ARMY MAN, WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, GET OUT, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, LIZA THE FOX-FAIRY, BLINDSPOTTING, THE BIG SHORT, THE RAID 2, YOU’RE NEXT, GONE GIRL, THE LEGO MOVIE, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, LOOPER, BEGINNERS, ARRIVAL, THE SOCIAL NETWORK
15. UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)
Shane Carruth’s elusive story of shared trauma and interconnected souls—via pig hybrids and mutant vegetation, of course—is a powerfully emotional experience that wanders through an evocative story without baring its narrative too easily. It is a bit hard to grasp at certain aspects of the tale, but even then the sentimental aspects feel so lived in and immediate that it helps move along this bizarre dream like sci-fi tale of romance and manipulation and mis-placed autonomy. It’s an incredible achievement that should not be overlooked.
14. ANNIHILATION (2018)
Alex Garland’s adaption of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel is a bold descent into the contradictory nature of life and growth. By essentially concocting the inverse of JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING, ANNIHILATION posits that mutation is a wondrous and terrifying natural process that can destroy what we know but create something new that is altogether amazing. That interlocking between life and death, less of a contentious relationship and more of co-equal tributaries that feed into the same ocean, yields spectacular visuals and incredible performances in this moving film.
13. SHORT TERM 12 (2013)
At first glance, viewers that missed SHORT TERM 12 will be blown away by the young cast of (at the time) mostly unknowns that have gone on to major acclaim and success. Brie Larson, Rami Malek, Stephanie Beatriz, John Gallagher Jr, LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever have all had multiple breakout roles since Destin Daniel Cretton’s film came out. But beyond that Who’s Who of Who They Will Be is an impactful story of mental health, broken people, and the audacity of holding onto faith and love in the face of everything telling you that it won’t be okay. SHORT TERM 12 could have easily been an afterschool special of misfit toys learning lessons and leading better lives, but it’s a messy moment of regret, mistakes, anger, and pain that finds the only way out is with each other and leaning on one another to make it through.
12. BLACK SWAN (2010)
BLACK SWAN is the last of Darren Aronofsky’s films that look at how ambitions attempt to override the inherent limitations of our corporeal selves. After this, the writer/director would go on to explore the limits of our spiritual selves (NOAH, mother!), but this caps off an interconnected series of movies in which people try to ascend their biology to know god (PI), to escape addictions (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), to achieve immortality (THE FOUNTAIN), and to overcome age for glory (THE WRESTLER). THE RED SHOES in a blender with Polanski’s most paranoid and unstable ’70s films, BLACK SWAN is a harrowing look at the self-destructive pursuit of perfection that ends up fracturing a person and ultimately reality in exchange for one remarkable performance. Is it worth it? That is left to the audience to decide.
11. BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)
I’ve previously written on Daily Grindhouse about how much I love the sub-category of good films about bad movies, but BRIGSBY BEAR is different than most of those niche titles. For starters, BRIGSBY BEAR is entirely fictional as opposed to based on a notorious cinematic failure. That allows for a bunch of more freedom and imagination in the storytelling of which director Dave McCary and writers Kevin Costello and Kyle Mooney take full advantage. It would have been easy to play off James’ naïveté as a joke (a la NAPOLEON DYNAMITE), but instead it become a rallying cry for the other missing pieces in his life who all join him in his quest to complete his vision and communicate all of his pain and confusion and excitement through a fairly bungled, but incredibly sincere, production. It’s a joyous film that never feels reductive and shows the power of infectious passion that can help people express themselves in ways they never knew.
10. CLOUD ATLAS (2012)
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a multilayered novel with feet in modernism and post-modernism, while embedding metatextual elements directly into the main text itself, spanning genres and decades and characters in an epic fashion that has rarely been done before. So of course The Wachowksis and Tom Tykwer took it head on as the trio loves a good challenge. CLOUD ATLAS is ridiculously ambitious, though there are a few missteps along the way. But coming up short is not a reason to dismiss this breathtaking film that intercuts between so many lives—historic, fictional, future, metaphorical—with a matryoshka structure that clearly delineates how everything and everyone is connected. Every act and every life causes ripples in the world. It’s a stirring theme that doesn’t always lead to happy endings, but does include gorgeous visuals, moving soundscapes, and a humanistic pledge that we all matter, even when we can’t conceive how that could be so.
09. ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011)
Joe Cornish’s ATTACK THE BLOCK is a great throwback without actually having to be retro. It’s less about steeping the story in the milieu of ’80s, but transporting that tone of outsider kids versus impossible odds (with real stakes in the balance), while having some great moments of comedy, action, and sci-fi horror. The mid ’80s are romanticized now (as the people who grew up then are slowly ascending in production), but one of the best elements of the young adult genre films of those times was that it allowed for real characters with real problems facing monsters that would actually do serious damage. That spirit is alive and well in these estates, propelled by a great Massive Attack score to become a celebration of overcoming impossible odds while atoning for mounting number of mistakes.
08. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017)
Cards on the table—I am a fan of the MCU. I know it’s not a cool stance to take and the company’s inextricable ties to the dubious actions of Disney make the whole thing morally suspect. While not every film has been a home run, there is still something truly impressive and enjoyable in literally every installment from IRON MAN to SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. Part of my fandom is the fact I learned to read via Marvel Comics and they were a massive part of my development (in terms of code of conduct, perception of the world, understanding of storytelling, and beyond). But the other part is that the MCU also produces works like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL 2, in which James Gunn has a genetically modified rodent reflecting on his mortality and possible legacy. There’s a bunch more to it than that—including fun performances from every cast member, the incredible soundtrack, and tons of beautiful uses of color and imagery to create an otherworldly experience. That leads to actual depth, genuine comedy, and character growth. Plus the two uses of “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac is just so dope.
07. MANDY (2018)
While there are many detractors to Panos Cosmatos’ second film, I (respectfully) cannot disagree more that MANDY is just a meme or is pure surface level. It’s a film about trying to figure out where to put the anger over losing someone. Much like James Gunn’s SUPER, it’s a wish fulfillment fantasy of being able to point to some outside force that took away something you loved in order for it to be easier to swallow. But the fact is that people die, relationships end, and it doesn’t require the intervention of a has-been folk star or cenobikers to make that happen.
A lot of the film is played loud and broad, with Cage going full Cage while dabbling in hallucinogenics, neon lights, and a bunch of painted van imagery coming to life. But that’s actually the charm (and possibly the point); it’s outsized and operatic as a way of dealing with the pain, loss, and true outrage that we feel when we lose someone. Those feelings can be captured in minimalist films, or through confessional dialogue in many an indie dramedy. But they can also take the form of an axe wielding psychopath whose brain is fried on LSD as he descends further and further into Hell to get some form of satisfaction.
06. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016)
The Lonely Island have put out more eventual cult classics than possibly any other contemporary filmmaking team. HOT ROD, MACGRUBER, and POPSTAR were all unfairly missed at the cinemas by most—though they have been rediscovered on home video/streaming slowly but surely. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is uproariously funny, impressively absurd, and a bullseye attack on celebrity culture and the music industry—all while being wrapped up as a parody of the various concert films by the likes of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Not only do all of the jokes land exceptionally well, but the music is incredible and works on its own that helps sell the whole concept. This is a film whose audience will only continue to grow and whose legend will expand with each quotable scene.
05. INCEPTION (2010)
Before it became the source for hundreds of memes and the “bwaaam” sound effect was used in every trailer after it, Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION was an engaging film that dealt with loss and ghosts and creativity all in spectacular visual fashion. Like old school heist films, many of the characters are fairly thin (really not much more than their roles in the caper) but they still manage to efficiently use their screentime to create indelible figures that are memorable in their own rights. There are so many indelible images and a great sense of propulsive momentum that combines the surreal with the emotionally grounded, all while serving as a strong metaphor for the collaborative creative process.
04. EX MACHINA (2014)
I firmly believe that Alex Garland will end up being seen as a master of filmmaking in the not too distant future (the way we look back at Walter Hill or Don Siegel). Along with Denis Villeneuve and Rian Johnson, Garland has found ways of adopting old tropes into modern settings with enough tweaks and clever insights that make them feel fresh and immediate. Garland’s debut, EX MACHINA (after the stealth direction of DREDD), is a powerful story of manipulation, bias, empathy, control, freedom, and much more. It may be tied heavily into the world of technology, but there are few stories made in the past decade that have been as human.
03. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)
Drew Goddard’s meta-textual film delivers on pretty much every level—great comedy, impressive action, cool horror scenarios, gore and f/x—thanks to whipsmart writing (by Goddard and Joss Whedon) and pitch perfect performances from a killer cast. While it is fun to play “spot the references” or approach the storytelling from the postmodern SCREAM vantage point, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is more than just a checklist of winks and nods but a call to arms for something new in the horror genre. While it is coincidental, there is some form of poetry in the fact that this film, which rouses creators to do away with the old system for something new in genre filmmaking, was soon followed up by many new voices in the horror community and different stories from THE BABADOOK, GET OUT, THE WITCH, and much more. CABIN IN THE WOODS is a thoroughly entertaining movie that works on multiple levels, but also remains a strong cry for killing your darlings to birth something new.
02. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is one of the most innovative, brilliant, effective films that crosses all sorts of demographics and genres in order to push storytelling and animation forward in ways that haven’t been seen for 30 years or so. Based purely on spectacle, the imagery is a complete wonder to behold with computer animation working with Ben-Day dots, Batman ’66 sound effects, comic book panels, graffiti, psychedelic visuals and more that creates fluid movement and utterly unique atmosphere that sucks viewers in immediately, while also delivering dynamic action sequences and relatable “quiet” moments of character.
And those character moments are some of the best of all time. Not only are there a ton of strong dramatic arcs and an endlessly quotable amount of jokes, but the core message of what defines being a hero and who dons the mask is incredibly resonant in a time where fighting for recognition and validation from society is dismissed as “identity politics.” INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is a brilliant film that shouldn’t have worked and is an insane gamble, but pays off as one of the best films, let alone best animated films, of all time. Oh, and that soundtrack is pretty banging, too.
01. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
Yes, I’m that basic. By now there have been multiple lists circulating that have placed MAD MAX: FURY ROAD at the top. And while I am not trying to be a slave to trends or follow along with herd mentality, I couldn’t think of any other film that could top George Miller’s return to the wasteland (INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE came very close though). This movie should not work. It’s a sequel made 30 years after the last installment, featuring mostly lesser known actors (or at least, at the time, actors that didn’t carry their own films), and the plot is essentially “go to Destination X and then turn around and go back.” Not to mention all of the changes that have occurred in visual storytelling in those intervening 30 years, how action pacing has sped up and altered, or the use of CG amidst it all.
And yet, with all of those marks against it—FURY ROAD ends up being endlessly rewatchable with gorgeous shots, a complete sense of worldbuilding, mindblowing stunts and action sequences, efficient character work without too much exposition, and deeper themes that speak to all manner of viewers even amidst the exploding cars and irradiated tribal warriors. It is everything cinema should be—engaging, inventive, heartfelt, surprising, beautiful, and a film that people will want to revisit over and over again.
Tags: Alex Garland, Bob Persichetti, christopher nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Dave McCary, Destin Daniel Cretton, Drew Goddard, George Miller, James Gunn, Joe Cornish, Joss Whedon, Kyle Mooney, Panos Cosmatos, Peter Ramsey, Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman, Shane Carruth, Spider-Man, The Lonely Island, The Wachowskis