Rating art by way of arbitray blocks of time. Wise? Surely not. Irresistable? I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t.
So I find myself pondering the past decade of film and herewith cobbling together my list of the 26 best. What counts as “best”? Most culturally significant? Most awarded? Most highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes? Most money-gobbling? Most relevant/socially conscious/utterly of its time and place? Directed by the most important directors? Starring the most revered actors? Exerting the most obvious influence?
No, no, no, no, no/no/no, no, no, and no.
“Best” as in what movies I liked more than I liked other movies. Resulting in a list that’s a bit idiosyncratic. Or maybe not so much? It includes many a movie noted by others, and some less noted. But it doesn’t, for example, include any movies I saw at film festivals not otherwise released I nevertheless insist are must-sees lest your lives remain forever dreary and unfilfilled. I would never do that to you, our three loyal readers.
Do we have as many as three loyal readers? I choose to believe that we do, given my natural optimism.
There are no Marvel movies on this list, no Star Warsings, no Tarantinos, Spielbergs, Scorseses, or Nolans. But there is a big budget summer whoop-de-do, a super-hero from the Marvel universe, an action-movie sequel, more than one documentary, two in a language other than English, one Best Picture winner, only two, I’m sorry to say, directed by women, and a few selections you will yell at me for calling “movies.”
And what’s a “movie” anyhow? If this decade has taught us anything, it’s that maybe we don’t know anymore. Maybe a movie is an amusement part ride. Maybe a movie is an art installation. Maybe a movie is streaming on your TV. Maybe a movie is a penguin. A penguin on top of your television set. And it’s going to explode.
Looking at what made my list, and looking at what made other lists out there, it’s hard to find a unifying thread, other than saying super-hero movies really sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Maybe what this decade is about is fracturing. The movie-scape has been broken into niches, and each is unconcerned with what’s going on with its neighbors.
Many good movies I liked (your favorites, I presume) did not make this list. The ones that did are the movies I’m still thinking about, the movies that in many cases I watched again. And, possibly, again after that. The movies I haven’t forgotten and don’t expect to. Other lists have reminded me of many movies I thought highly of this decade. It’s just that when I put my list together, I’d forgotten about them.
I think the important thing to remember here is that all such lists are dumb. They are dumb, and they are impossible not to make.
26. Meek’s Cutoff (2011)
Writer/director Kelly Reichardt makes movies so low-key you almost can’t hear them. So to speak. Meek’s Cutoff is something like a western, but one where almost nothing happens. A group of settlers walks cross-country with their covered wagons, lead by a man of dubious knowledge. Tensions rise. That’s about it. I didn’t necessarily like it when I watched it, though I didn’t not like it either. Its lack of incident is curiously hypnotic. Is it a movie, as we’ve come to know them? I saw it more as an art installation, something you’d find playing on a loop in one of those little side-rooms in a museum. Ten years later, it’s still rattling around inside my head.
25. Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s debut is one of those rare movies based on a genuinely great idea, mapping the experience of being black in a white world onto a classic Stepford Wives-esque set-up. While it wears its social commentary on its sleeve, it still works as a highly creepy horror movie—with jokes.
24. Phantom Thread (2017)
I’m always impressed with Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmmaking without ever much liking his movies. I assumed Phantom Thread would follow the same pattern. Ahem. It did not! As small a character study as he’s ever done, it’s his best, most affecting film.
23. Under the Skin (2014)
When I first saw this one, it felt hollow, as I wrote at length at the time. But it stuck with me, huddled somewhere in the dark places of my brain, and a few years later I rewatched it thinking I would find it much deeper than I had originally. I was right. It’s a strange and haunting film, a film about the alienating experience of womanhood (though your interpretations may vary), packed with uniquely eerie visuals and a soundtrack to match.
22. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Does this five-part miniseries count as a film? Netflix has so muddied the waters, anything could be a movie, so why not a documentary as powerful as this one? It played theatrically (briefly), after all. Despite my having lived in Los Angeles at the time O.J. went on his rampage and having endured the endless ensuing trial, watching this doc really tied it all together. Of course O.J. did it, it’s absurd to imagine otherwise; that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is how Cochran didn’t try the case based on the murders. He tried it based on the history of racism among L.A. cops, and that history proved undeniable. Fascinating on many levels.
21. The Babadook (2014)
Motherhood as a horror movie. Yes, sometimes children are literal monsters, and yes, sometimes even mothers want to do away with them before going insane. Is that okay to say? Not so much. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s little horror movie is as creepy and disturbing as they come.
20. John Dies at the End (2013)
In which Don Coscarelli pares down a weird and sprawling book into a perfectly bizarre sci-fi horror comedy unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’d describe it, but you wouldn’t believe me if I did. It’s maybe not a subtle and profound exploration of the fears and desires fueling the human experience… but then again, maybe it is.
19. Turbo Kid (2015)
Criminally overlooked by everyone aside from we here at Mind Control, Turbo Kid is the best ‘80s sci-fi/bmx/teen/apocalypse throw-back anyone has or will have ever made. Stranger Things is a feebly imagined embarassment by comparison. Turbo Kid walks the fine line of being entirely ‘80s inspired without a) making fun of the ‘80s, or b) trying to actually resemble an ‘80s movie. It’s the ‘80s aesthetic applied to a modern film. And it’s marvelous.
18. Nightcrawler (2014)
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the creepier performances of the decade as a true American: A man of little means who sets himself the daunting task of becoming a success. This he does, to the eventual regret of everyone he touches. Mocking low-rent local L.A. newscasts and their obsession with blood and wreckage may seem like too-easy pickings, but something deeper is going on under the surface here.
17. First Reformed (2018)
I’d written off Paul Schrader a long time ago, when what does he do but turn up with his best work since the ‘80s, a simmering slow burn of a movie with a perfectly ambiguous ending to sum it up, that in some sense feels like a spiritual cousin to Taxi Driver.
16. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
I’m so sick of Spider-Man I have no idea why I saw this. I did not expect to see one of the best comic book movies ever made, one considerably better than every live-action Marvel movie to date. It’s got everything those movies lack: a heart, non-stupid dialogue, and insanely imaginative visuals.
15. A Separation (2011)
Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s best, this one took me by surprise when I saw it, starting out as what appeared to be a plotless look at the lives of real people before revealing itself to be a carefully constructed drama of a child caught between divorcing parents.
14. A Field in England (2014)
Director Ben Wheatley’s weirdest and, I have decided for the purposes of this list, best film. I might just have easily picked his previous one, Sightseers, which I find hilarious, but something about the unique oddness of A Field puts it over the top. A small group of soldiers in the English Civil War wander away from the fighting in search of beer. Extreme trippiness ensues. It’s not like anything else, that’s for sure. Wheatley had quite a decade. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.
13. Spring Breakers (2013)
A bizarre concoction from Harmony Korine that walks the fine line between wallowing in the worst of American teen culture and eviscerating everything about it. Or then again, maybe it doesn’t walk that line at all. Maybe it tumbles into both extremes, but does so without taking sides, forcing you to figure out what it all means. When you do, let me know.
12. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director Steve McQueen’s minimalist style is used to great effect in this look at a free man kidnapped and forced into slavery, showing with stark clarity how slavery destroys everyone it touches, slaves and their “owners” both. His long, unwavering takes force you to look on without the benefit of a cut freeing you.
11. Elle (2016)
Paul Verhoeven, far from his Hollywood days, directs this twisted look at a woman who may or may not be a monster, played to the hilt by Isabelle Huppert. It’s so good it might be Verhoeven’s best movie, though I can’t be certain it wouldn’t lose a fistfight to Starship Troopers or RoboCop. Elle is all about a single character, one you’ve never seen before, one you’d likely prefer not to meet in real life, but one who’s every bizarre action is riveting.
10. Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Another vampire movie? Yawn. Or so I thought until I saw Jim Jarmusch’s take, a dreamy meditation on loving the past. Set in a decaying Detroit, the characters listen to old rockabilly, read old poetry, and sadly endure an immortality only brought to life in one another’s presence. One of Jarmusch’s very best.
9. The Lobster (2015)
Among director Yorgos Lanthimos’s movies, The Lobster borders on the normal. Given that it’s set in a world where unmarried individuals are brought to an institution where, if they don’t find mates, they will be turned into the animal of their choice, or else live hidden in the woods with the other singles, to be hunted for sport, calling it normal might seem unwarranted. You would only think so if you hadn’t seen his earlier movies, Dogtooth and Alps. Now those are weird movies. The Lobster is merely a deadpan satire. And a great one.
8. Into the Inferno (2016)
Werner Herzog never disappoints, but here he comes up with one of his best documentaries, a search not so much into volcanoes, but into how volcanoes have shaped the peoples who live beneath them (which in a sense, we may gather from the film, means all of us). No matter how big Herzog’s canvas, it’s his passion for people that drives his movies. Lucky for us that in this case we also get stunning footage of volcanoes erupting and lava spewing. And, as always, Herzog narrating.
7. The Lone Ranger (2013)
That’s right. It’s still great. Haven’t caught on yet? Give it time. You will. Took nearly 25 years for people to notice that The Thing (for example) is one of the greats. They’ll come around to this one eventually. Where else can you see a flashy summer spectacle about the criminality of the U.S. government, that undercuts American mythmaking at every turn, that says to fight corrupt laws, you must become a criminal and break them? Not in Marvel’s latest theme park ride. Director Gore Verbinski pulls off something strange and new here, a comic fantasy western, whose DNA is supplied by Jarmusch’s Dead Man, of all things. So be patient. In 2038 it’ll be your favorite movie.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
I love Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. More movies followed, but returns diminished. Then came The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’ll forever have a soft spot for Rushmore, but this one is Anderson’s most accomplished film, and contains his greatest character, Ralph Fiennes’s M. Gustave. It’s as Andersonesque as any film he’s made, but none of it feels precious or forced. A movie about true love, lost innocence, and a way of life long forgotten.
5. Upstream Color (2013)
I’m not going to describe this better here than I did back in 2013. To wit: A visually and pyschologically original journey into the psyches of two people emptied out by a mysterious, universal power (let’s say), who must reconstruct who they are both in relation to one another and to the world at large. I have never seen a movie like Upstream Color. It’s disturbing, hallucinatory, soulful, and beautiful. The last third unfolds almost wordlessly. It’s a movie the meaning of which every viewer must decide for themselves, yet the story is in no way vague or unfocused. Every second of it is imbued with purpose. I am in awe of writer/director/actor/everything-else-on-this-movie Shane Carruth’s accomplishment.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
If you love film, you love this film. It’s a mind-boggling accomplishment. As Steven Soderbergh, no slouch at the directing of films, put it:
I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road again last week, and I tell you I couldn’t direct 30 seconds of that. I’d put a gun in my mouth. I don’t understand how [George Miller] does that, I really don’t, and it’s my job to understand it. I don’t understand two things: I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead.
I could almost see that’s kind of possible until the polecat sequence, and then I give up. We are talking about the ability in three dimensions to break a sequence into a series of shots in which no matter how fast you’re cutting, you know where you are geographically. And each one is a real shot where a lot of things had to go right… I guarantee that the handful of people who are even in range of that, when they saw Fury Road, had blood squirting out of their eyes.
That about sums it up. A simply amazing piece of action filmmaking that puts everything even vaguely like it to shame. Even better? The black and white version.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The first time I saw it, I loved it. Each time thereafter, I’ve loved it even more. It’s up there with the two very best Coen brothers movies (which in my world are Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing). A sad and beautiful story of what it is to be an artist, in this case one who never quite makes it. What else is there to do but the only thing one does? Is Llewyn the cat? Are we all the cat? Run for the door, people, but watch out crossing the street.
It is an endless circle of a movie made up of beautiful moments, the most perfect and devastating coming when Llewyn plays a tune for a promoter, who honestly tells him he doesn’t see a lot of money here. And so it goes.
In terms of what we used to think of as “movies,” two or so hours of story lit flickering on giant screens in cavernous rooms, watched elbow to elbow with rapt strangers, Inside Llewyn Davis is my favorite of the decade.
But two more entertainments are topping this list. Are they movies? In the strange new movie-scape of the 2010s, why the hell not?
2. World of Tomorrow (2015)
There is more depth, comedy, pathos, and desperate human longing in these 15 animated minutes than in most movies I’ve ever seen. Animator and observer of earth creatures Don Hertzfeldt has made a mini-masterpiece in this time-displaced story of a little girl whose cloned clone takes her on a journey into earth’s future. It’s a magical place, and a horrible place, and we’re all going to die, and that’s okay.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
It’s eighteen hours long and it aired on television in one hour chunks, but Twin Peaks: The Return is, quite aggressively, not a television show. It is, however, the best thing I’ve ever seen on television. Not the best television show, mind you, just the best thing. The best movie?
I say yes. The best movie. David Lynch and Mark Frost wrote it as a single 400 page script, and David Lynch directed it all at once. That page count would typically cut into about nine hours of television. But Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham had other ideas in mind.
Lynch eliminates time in Twin Peaks. Or turns it back on itself. Or flips it on its head and spins it in circles. It’s not just that every episode, every scene, every line reading takes twice as long as it would take in anyone else’s hands—though it does. It’s that the pace plus the line delivery plus the character of Dougie plus the sense of impending dread plus the ineffable unique oddness of everything Lynch touches stops one’s sense of the passage of time from functioning. Each episode seems to last forever and to end much too quickly. In its tweaking of time, the show unmoors the viewer. We feel as lost as Dougie, in a world just as alien.
The story is, to put it midly, unexpected. Lynch isn’t interested in tying up loose threads from the original series and the prequel film. His interest lies in continuing the story, in deepening, not solving, the mystery. The mystery is what keeps us watching. However you classify it, Twin Peaks is a unique piece of cinematic art, and the best of the decade.