A Decade of Films

Recently, I was curious what my top films of the 2010s were. It's not something I have an encyclopedic memory for, but, luckily, I've used Letterboxd for a few years now to keep track of some of my movie viewing. Letterboxd has a decade filter, so you can now see all the films you've logged that were released in the 2010s. Mine is a likely incomplete list, as I've use Letterboxd somewhat haphazardly, but it's better than memory. 

I thought, for a diversion from the general apocalypse we're living through, that I would look at my top-rated movies and see what I think of them now. I'll list those films here, with a few comments and links to further reviews if I've written of them. This is purely a list of personal favorites — while I do think some of these are cinematic masterpieces, some are surely not, but I love them nonetheless. Lots of movies I liked aren't on this list, too, as this is a list of the ones that either blew me away on a first watch or that I have come to hold dear since: these are films that I more than enjoy, more than admire.

13 Assassins (2010): I probably reveal my middlebrow instincts when I say that of the various Takashi Miike movies I've seen, this is my favorite. It's plenty violent, as we expect from Miike, but it's also pleasurable, which is not something I can say of, for instance, Ichi the Killer or Audition, much as I admire them.

Detention (2011): Of which I wrote: "A wild agglomeration of genres, allusions, illusions, horrors, and delights. A magnificent whirligig." I loved the movie when I watched it, but I haven't revisited it since. I will have to do that soon, as I liked writer-director Joseph Kahn's later movie Bodied quite a bit.

Melancholia (2011): One of the most powerful apocalypse movies I know, a film that beautifully melds the inner and outer worlds of its characters into one. Lars von Trier is not a director I generally connect with, but this is the one film of his I've seen that really gutted me.

This Is Not a Film (2011): The circumstances of Jafar Panahi's making of this movie (when he was banned from filmmaking in Iran) would themselves be remarkable, but the film itself is impressive on its own merits.

Weekend (2011): A movie I cherish but also rue, because it had something of an unfortunate effect on the aesthetics of queer films, which so often now seem to try to imitate its dreamy slice-of-life style. It's the perfect style for this story, but it's a style that can easily get wearying, a style that hides clichés beneath an artsy surface. Sometimes, I've been tempted to think my original assessment of Weekend was wrong — especially as I've had problems with what I've seen by writer-director Andrew Haigh since (45 Years and the TV show Looking, the latter of which got wrong so much of what Weekend got right) — but I've returned to Weekend a few times since I first saw it, and every time I rewatch it, it reminds me that it is an extraordinary example of the right director, the right material, the right cast and crew all joining together with just about perfect results.

Holy Motors (2012): A great work of surrealism that slowly — on repeated viewings — opens up its emotional power. It's a magic trick, a mindbend, and a slow burn into the heart. 

Lords of Salem (2012): Rob Zombie's films from House of 1,000 Corpses through Lords of Salem are for me the pinnacle of 21st century horror. House is a kind of postmodern Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a great debut, and then we get The Devil's Rejects, which is both a continuation of what House began and a huge advancement over it, one of the great American horror movies. With Halloween and especially Halloween II, Zombie went in a new direction, adding greater elements of surrealism to his explorations of trauma, and I will express horror heresy here and say I prefer both his films to any of the other Halloween movies, including John Carpenter's original. (But I am utterly insensitive to the charms of John Carpenter movies.) Lords of Salem picks up where Halloween II left off, giving us a dreamy mood movie that is rich with imagery, short on narrative, and somehow both touching and disturbing. (Since Lords, Zombie hasn't been able to find new ground, and by going back to what he did in his earliest films with 31 and 3 from Hell, he seems to be a bit lost, a great filmmaker treading water. Those movies have their virtues, but they feel like a falling off.) For more on all this, see my essay and video essay "Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty".

Moonrise Kingdom (2012): Pure delight. I enjoy Wes Anderson generally, but Moonrise Kingdom is heads and shoulders above his other films in my affection. I know there are people who don't like it, but I don't know how those people live with themselves.

Premium Rush (2012): In 2013, I wrote of Premium Rush: "A movie that mines much from a basic premise, and has the guts to trust that basicness rather than mess it up with piles of complexities. It delves and dives through NYC, camera dashing along with bikes and cars, providing as kinetic a portrait of a great city as any in recent memory." I've watched it a couple times since, and it holds up well as an amusement, though I don't think now I would rate it as highly as I did then.

Spring Breakers (2012): Still one of my favorites of the decade — indeed, of the century so far. I wrote something of a love letter to it not long after I first saw it, and I have watched it many times since. I think a good case can be made for the film aesthetically, but my love for it is far beyond that, a love unreasonable and ridiculous, as the best love is.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012): If you click through that link, you'll see my original Letterboxd review from 2013, which expresses disappointment in this film and gives it only 3 stars. I was surprised to see this, because I've since revisited the movie and have a lot of admiration for it. I think originally I was just mad that my beloved JCVD wasn't a bigger presence. But for its genre, this is an impressive film, and while I don't rate it quite as highly as the other movies on this list, I feel I ought to put it here to correct for my underappreciation of it earlier.

Pacific Rim (2013): This may be my all-time favorite action movie. I watch it at least once a year. (Long review at the Letterboxd link there.)

12 Years a Slave (2013): I'm grateful to have seen this movie as part of the Telluride at Dartmouth festival a few months before it was in general release, because it became so well known, so well reviewed, so highly awarded that it became difficult to see it through its reception. I've watched it a couple times since, and I still think Steve McQueen managed to do something almost impossible: create re-enactments of enslavement that help us feel our way toward the humanity, terror, and bravery of the enslaved without burying the imagery in clichés and sentimentality, or otherwise falling short of the seriousness of the events. I don't know of a film before or since that has done so, and before seeing 12 Years a Slave, I would have said that, like re-enactments of the Nazi concentration camps, it was likely impossible to do in any way that would make it worth doing, but McQueen proved me wrong.

Upstream Color (2013): This seemed wondrous and beguiling in 2013. I haven't seen it since and have only vague memories of it.

Mr. Turner (2014): My favorite Mike Leigh movie, which is saying something, because I love a lot of Mike Leigh movies. (Indeed, I only dislike a couple; most recently, Peterloo.) The film is always gorgeous to look at, and it shows genius in solving a lot of the problems of biopics, which I know made it difficult for a lot of people to appreciate, because we're used to a regular formula for such films, and Leigh doesn't satisfy most of what those films have taught us to want from biographical movies. I wrote about this in comparing Leigh's film to The Imitation Game, a much more conventional example of the genre.

Pride (2014): I have nothing to add to my original Letterboxd review: "This film might have flaws. I do not know, nor do I care. It is my go-to feel-good movie. I know of few other movies that show the value and possibilities of solidarity to the same extent as this one, and none that do so with as much humor."

The Eyes of My Mother (2016): One of the best horror movies of the decade, I think (but my opinions on horror movies are rather at odds with most; see Lords of Salem above). This could have suffered the vapidity of so many works of "elevated horror", but instead it digs right in, melding grindhouse violence with arthouse aesthetics.

The Handmaiden (2016): I keep meaning to revisit this movie and write about it. It is an impressive example of adaptation — Fingersmith, the novel by Sarah Waters that is its source, I like well enough, and I enjoyed the BBC mini-series based on it, but The Handmaiden struck me as a significant improvement on the source material in a variety of ways. Even though I haven't seen the film since it was in theatres, I still remember it pretty vividly; I remember walking to the theatre one rainy night in New York City, I remember the theatre, remember even where I sat. That, alone, says something for this film, because I have forgotten plenty of other movies I've seen since.

Moonlight (2016): Few films have had as deep an effect on me. I am not used to being in synch with the Academy Awards, and this film's many awards caused me to re-evaluate my love, but on re-evaluation I found only that I loved the movie even more.

13th (2016): An unfortunately necessary film for our time. I had to watch this in pieces because I found it so overwhelmingly powerful and infuriating that after about 45 minutes I couldn't keep watching, and saved the rest for the next day. There's really nothing to say about it except if you haven't watched it, you need to.

BPM (Beats per Minute) (2017): Has such a great film ever had such a bad title? A powerful movie about activism, about AIDS, about life. This is how to make historically- and politically-engaged cinema.

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017): Not a feature film, technically; a tv mini-series. But if I were writing about the 1980s, I'd include Berlin Alexanderplatz, and I can't write about the 2010s without including what for me was one of the cultural highlights of the decade. I've watched the whole 18 hours a second time since it first aired, and will probably watch it all again soon. The second viewing was revelatory, showing how much more coherent it all was than I'd thought — it was in many ways great fun to watch it week by week, without knowing where it was going or what to expect (especially as it kept upending any expectations), but this is a work of art that requires real time, thought, and re-experience. Watching multiple episodes together over the span of a week or so allowed a much deeper experience. David Lynch is one of the most important artists of any sort in my life, and Twin Peaks: The Return often feels like a summation of all his work — but a summation that also extends beyond that work into new realms.

Blindspotting (2018): Why is this movie not better known and better loved?!? It is not perfect, no; it suffers some didacticism, yes; but its virtues so outweigh its flaws that I am truly perplexed about why it hasn't been more celebrated. It is a movie for our times, a movie of our times, a movie we need.

Burning (2018): The first Lee Chang-dong movie I saw. It led me to seek out his other films, which were disappointing in comparison (Poetry would be my second favorite, but there's some distance between them; the others range from meh [Peppermint Candy] to one I actually dislike [Secret Sunshine]). But Burning is almost everything I ever wanted from a movie. It's beautiful, mysterious, disturbing.

Leave No Trace (2018): I remember thinking this was one of the best films of 2018, and I remember the movie itself fairly well, but I don't remember what so deeply affected me about it, aside from the fact that it's well made, with excellent acting, directing, and technical work. Another film to stick on the rewatch list...

King in the Wilderness (2018): A documentary about Martin Luther King's final years that illuminates a lot about his journey, his impact, and his legacy. I found it both illuminating and moving.

Wild Nights with Emily (2018): This is how you make a movie about Emily Dickinson.

Pain & Glory (2019): Most of Almodóvar's movies at least interest me, a handful are films I really treasure — and then there's Pain & Glory, which I cherish and can't get enough of. And I don't generally like movies about movie directors. But there is a tenderness, an honesty, and a bravery to Pain & Glory — both by Almodóvar as writer-director and by Antonio Banderas as star — that I find infinitely moving. Something in what it has to say about age and love hit me deeply in a way few movies do.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): I've watched this twice now and enjoyed it even more on a second viewing. It manages the rare feat of being absolutely mesmerizing, tense, suspenseful, and compelling while also being quiet, languid, contemplative. I think it is something of a cinematic miracle.