CINEMA RETROSPECTIVE-BEST OF THE 2010s
2019 MID YEAR, 2018, 2018 MID YEAR, 2017, 2016, 2015
The "Big Tuna" Vito Carli weighs in with a Look at the Decade in Film

The Best Films of the Last Decade

(122819) I remember in the 90s, there was a series called The History of Rock”n Roll on PBS around the time of grunge which featured an interview with Bono. He basically said (and I am paraphrasing here) that the word “rock n’ roll” itself is probably outdated, and he felt privileged to live in an era in which rock is morphing into something else. Now it’s mostly hip hop and heavily produced pop or dance music that is capturing the ears of young people

Something similar seems to be happening in cinema. At one time the lines or boundaries between feature films and other types of media were pretty clear. Anything which opened and played in the movie theaters for an extended period of time was considered cinema. Also, despite the appearance of some great TV shows like Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Twin Peaks which rivaled many of the feature films in quality the best directors and best stories usually were utilized on the big screen even though there have always been many crappy feature films. There was often a clear quantitative difference between cinema and other genres, and usually doing TV was seen as a step down for film directors. People like Arthur Penn and Robert Altman started with TV than graduated to film, and people like Kimberly Pierce, Mary Harron, and Tamra Davis only went back to TV because they could not get enough good feature film directing gigs (many women went back to TV because they hit a cinema glass ceiling)

But then things started changing with the advent of cable and streaming and even Network shows started taking more risks to compete. Now often times the dumber, more formulaic franchise films and TV remakes hog the big screens for months and the smarter and artier films are just as likely to debut on Netflix or play just at a film festival as on the big screen. South side and/or suburban movie goers had to drive an hour into the city or subscribe to Netflix to see such likely Oscar nominees and critical smashes as Marriage Story, The Two Popes and The Irishman while the Charlie's Angels remake played in every mall theater complex in the country. Now everything is up for grabs and we might have to agree on a new broader definition of cinema no matter what Spielberg thinks.


There has also been a change in criticism. Cahiers du Cinema, which is one of the most respected film criticism journals picked Twin Peaks: the Return as the best film of the decade and even the great film maker Jim Jarmusch who makes films for the big screen agreed. But as far as I know Twin Peaks: the Return did not appear in any theaters except for some episodes which played at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival but I am including it.

More critics also have been putting music videos (Beyoncé’s Lemonade was on many critics’ top 10 lists a few years ago.) I have decided to follow their lead and include a video and show episode and even a cinematic trilogy on the list because cinema is not just determined by running time and where its premiers any more, I am using it to mean in a broader sense to denote quality as well. The films I most love tend to violate the rules of conventional cinema so I am going to try to the same thing with my list.

This is a list of the best and most innovative films in any medium. To be more representative I only included one film per director. (Asghar Farhadi, Lars Von Trier, Clint Eastwood, Bruno Dumont, Martin Scorsese, and Pawel Pawilkowski made multiple great films that could have made this list).

Finally, the films are ranked in order of quality...
 

1) Certified Copy (2010)
This film (which I saw at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival) was the most moving, thoughtful and ultimately satisfying feature film of the decade. The Iranian film master, Abbas Kiarostami’s classy and absorbing drama about a pair of people that pretend to be a married couple makes us question the very notion of artistic authenticity, and it’s the best ever improvisational exercise captured in a film. The film is about a man and woman that might or might not be a real couple. Afterwards I went to a bar with a female friend and after someone mistook us for a couple, we went around to different bars pretending we were married all night. Juliette Binoche just might be my favorite living actress, and when Kiarostami died of cancer in 2016, he was near the peak of his career and influence (at least we still have Herzog and Godard). In French, English and Italian with English sub-titles.

2) Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
This film/show/miniseries whatever you want to call it, masterfully goes back to update us on the characters from the 90s show and explores more sinister secret shenanigans and hidden corruption being the wholesome image of the town. The series does not make a whole lot of sense until the second to last episode in which everything seems to come together and major plotlines are resolved. Then like a master magician Lynch takes out the rug from under us and negates everything we think we know as expertly as the Orson Welles’s magician in F is For Fake. Only the surrealist master, David Lynch could have made this. The last episode was better than anything I saw in any medium in the past decade. This hard to top work is sure to be studied by film scholars for years.

3) Jeanette or The Early Childhood of Joan of Arc (2018)
Bruno Dumont’s irreverent, subversive, and unusually surprising historical biopic/musical focuses on a young Joan before she went to battle (played by two capable actresses). It was based on “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc,” a dramatic text by a socialist mystical poet, Charles Péguy, and the background music is a jarring mixture of rock, rap, metal, synth pop and hip-hop. The film does an excellent job of combining the everyday with the divine, and has scenes of people praying or singing to God while doing banal things such as plucking chickens. It makes fine use of nonprofessional actors with ordinary voices who get by with their charisma and apparent sincerity (it’s the opposite approach used in the slick, professional Glee show.) Bruno Dumont, who also did the hard to categorize, Li’l Quinquin clearly is on a hot streak. He has developed into a weirdly wonderful, avant-garde film genius. Lars Von Trier and David Lynch may need to watch their backs. This was also John Waters’ favorite film of the year (the man has good taste.) In French with English subtitles.

4) The Salesman (2011)
Emotionally volatile melodrama from Iran about a well-meaning professor (he’s directing a version of Death of a Salesman) whose life begins to fall apart after his wife is sexually assaulted. With this film and “A Separation,” director, Asgahar Farhadi proved he is one of the most vital film makers in the universe. He did not bother to show up for the Oscars for his best foreign film win to protest American immigration policies. In Persian with English sub-titles.

5) Ida (2014)
Superb minimalist drama about a nun to be who searches for her parent’s graves only to have her faith tested. This beautiful black and white film has some of the best cinematography and most striking shot compositions of the year. The director, Pawel Pawilokowski later made Cold War, which is also a monumental masterpiece. In Polish with English sub-titles.

6) Black Swan (2010)
This daring fusion of dance/art film and psychological/body horror is about a gifted ballerina who starts to succumb to her mental demons (and perhaps rivalry) when she gets the lead part in Swan Lake. As I said in my Kilter review, if Rod Serling and Mario Bava had collaborated on the Masterpiece Theatre version of Showgirls it might have ended up like this.
To read my earlier interview with the film’s director go here....
 http://www.artinterviews.org/cinema/darren-aronofsky-interviewstory.

7) Melancholia (2011)
This devastating film by the infante terrible, Lars Von Trier, begins with the end of the world –depicted (refreshingly with almost no special effects except a bride’s smoking fingers). The rest of the film is broken into two parts which spotlight two sister characters. Kirsten Dunst is the mentally unbalanced sister who goes into a deep depression on her wedding day for no apparent reason. Is she having a premonitions? Charlotte Gainsborough is the “sane” sister whose façade of composure begins to crumble when she is faced with catastrophe. The two sisters end up switching roles or nonliterally become each other in a twist on Bergman’s “Persona” in which the two characters merge. This psychological apocalyptic film is one of Trier’s most audacious and fascinating works.

8) Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Delightful and beautifully developed absurdist dramady about an alienated boy scout and an anti-social young girl who decide to celebrate their love by living in the woods together. The ensuing manhunt (or is that boy and girl hunt) is extremely ridiculous (as is almost everything in the film) and somehow it all ends up being very life affirming. The plot is nothing great, but the film is perfectly directed and almost every little event resonates. This may be Wes Anderson’s most perfect fully realized film, and it’s the only feature that made me forget I existed (it made me achieve the visual equivalent of flow.)

9) Embrace of the Serpent (2016), (For Full Review click the icon)
Surreal, hallucinogenic film is about a dying man who sails down the Amazon with a shaman in search of cure. This film brilliantly channels the best works of Alejandro Jodrowsky plus Werner Herzog, and it has exquisite black and white cinematography. This was the first Columbian film to be nominated for an Academy Award but it’s a great film anyway. Someone once said that great art blows the top off your head, and for me this is the only recent film that accomplished this goal (I recommend as a mind-altering substitute for real drugs). In Spanish, Portuguese, Aboriginal, German, Catalan, and Latin with English sub-titles.

10) This is America (Childish Gambino video-2018)
I got more out of this short music video dealing with gun violence in America than some whole novels. The song and video seem to swing between serious social commentary and hilarious parody. Oh, and the Get Out parody towards the end is brilliant too. Of course, the Plugged-In web site critic did not seem to get it, and tried to denigrate it for its delightful ambiguity, which is its greatest strength. I know I will remember this far after I have forgotten Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born.

AND BECAUSE I'M A REBEL....

11.) The Irishman (2019)-Three great actors (De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino) came out of retirement or in De Niro’s case irrelevance to star in comeback film by America’s most gifted film maker. Pecsi is wonderfully understated (he orders a hit with the calm of someone ordering a pizza), Pacino is a wonderfully cocky ham playing Jimmy Hoffa whose end is inevitable, and De Niro is somewhere in between (we like him even after he has done the most heinous crimes and even when we suspect his narration is full of crap.) But one of the most impressive things about it is that each era’s sequences are shot to resemble the type of photography that was popular in that era. Even when Scorsese is not quite at his all-time peak (this does not quite rival Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver) he is still better than almost everyone else. It is too bad that Ana Paquin who is a marvelous actress is once again wasted, but viewers should seek out her film Margaret for her most devastatingly powerful performance. This film like Citizen Kane gave me the feeling that I had seen and lived a whole life alongside the main character.

12.) First Reformed (2018)- Shocking and emotionally volatile drama about a dedicated minister who goes through a crisis of faith after he counsels a traumatized ex-army person who just may be an eco-terrorist. The lead performances by Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried are magnificent and moving (perhaps too good and true for the Oscar voters) and the devastating ending is hard to shake off. Director/screenplay writer Paul Schrader reworks some thematic motifs from Taxi Driver and Robert Bresson’s films and comes up with his best film in decades. Like Bresson’s films (Schrader devoted part of his best book, “Transcendental Style in Film” on him), the film masterfully explores the theme of gaining enlightenment through suffering. This also has one of the most erotic nonexplicit sex scenes in the history of cinema.

13.) Holy Motors (2012)-The avant-garde French director, Leos “Lovers on the Bridge,” Denis Lavant proves his genius by playing/becoming nine different characters including an assassin hired to kill himself, and a leading man who plays in a romantic scene with the Australian pop singer/ bubblegum goddess Kylie Minogue. The director, Leos Carax came roaring back after a 13 year absence, and he shows that he has lost none of his subversive brilliance. In French with English sub-titles.

14.) Goodbye to Language (Adieu au Language) 2015 – An anti-narrative cinematic collage about an adulterous couple played by two pairs of actors and actresses. Director Jean-Luc Godard shows us things (on digital video!) that you would never see in 3-D in a film such as a dog playing in snow and people discussing literature. This film features some of the most creative cinematic uses of 3-D and freshest shot compositions I’ve ever seen, and one shot is superimposed over another so if you move your head the image changes. It’s probably more innovative and invigorating (it woke me up completely) than 90% of the Oscar best picture nominees. This non-linear meditation on humanity, love and canines did not make it to Chicago until 2015 (at the Gene Siskel Center), so it made this year’s list. It might be too demanding for the casual viewer. It premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize. In French with English sub-titles.

15.) Before Sunrise trilogy (1995-2015)- I am combining three films here, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) because all of them merge to create a compelling story of a couple (played by Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke) as their relationship changes and evolves over three decades. The leads are marvelous and uncommonly convincing (perhaps because the main actors had a role in the writing of the dialogue and they used lots of improvisation). The film features the most fully realized cinematic couple in ages, and in the last film we see their relationship painfully unraveling before our eyes. The slacker decade may have been all about Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino but Richard Linklater, (his Boyhood is also terrific) did the most substantial work of any of his 90s peers in the last decade.

16.) The Souvenir (2019)- The prize-winning film is about a naïve and needy London student named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) from a wealthy family who is attending film school while trying to establish her own identity. Julie meets the much older Anthony (Tom Burke) who impresses her with his superior experience, his sophisticated clothing, and his vast cultural knowledge. But he has some dark secrets and baggage which only seems to only attract her more. He disappears for long periods of time, keeps weird hours and keeps asking for money. This is the debut feature of the immensely promising, Joanna Hogg, who already shows an uncommon command of the camera. The film is very autobiographical and draws heavily from the directors’ troubled early life. Although it was made by a newcomer, this film gave me much more satisfaction then recent efforts by more experienced auteur such as Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Asghar Farhadi. Also, The Souvenir is one of the best-looking films of the year, and it is filled with striking shot compositions that are assembled as carefully as fine balanced pieces of architecture.

17.) The Assassin (2015) - Ok I admit that the first time I saw this I did not get it, but by the end of the third viewing I loved it. An assassin (Shu Qi in an absolutely stellar performance which should made her an international star) is hired to kill a corrupt leader in 8th century China, but she takes pity on him when she sees him with a child, so she lets him off the hook. In order to prove she is still loyal, she is ordered by her superior to kill her former fiancé (and cousin) who she still may harbor some feelings for. Unlike many martial arts films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (this film is probably much better) The Assassin actually follows the rules of nature and the ballet like fighters move realistically. The film has a gorgeous setting, and it was shot in the Taoist Wudang Mountains of China’s Hubei province in the original language of the Tang Dynasty. The cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing created some of the most beautiful shots I have ever seen, and with this film, the Taiwanese director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien proves he is a great epic/war film director in the tradition of Akira Kurasawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Im Kwon-taek. Too many critics use the word poetic too easily, but the term definitely applies to this film. Thanks to Lynn Fitzgerald for insisting that I see this film.

18.) Tangerine (2015)-This wholly absorbing film concerns the day to day turbulent life of a trans hooker who discovers her manager/boyfriend has been betraying her (no one should be too surprised by this plot development). The explosive , out of control arguments are completely convincing and I felt like they were going on in a real life diner three feet away from me. Although this shocking film was shot on an I Phone for 100,000 dollars with no big-name actors it kept me enthralled than most of the recent Oscar winners, and/or the Marvel and Star Wars films. I could not decide whether to include this film or Florida Project which is also great, but I decided to reward the lesser seen underdog flick on this list.

19.) 12 Years a Slave (2013) - Steve McQueen’s masterfully directed and emotionally devastating film about an educated free man and musician of color that was sold into slavery is based on his autobiographical novel about the experience. This is one the most personal and powerful films about race since “Do the Right Thing.” For once the story is not filtered through a white consciousness (like “Amistad.”) and it makes most works on the same theme seem phony and contrived in comparison.

20.) Endless Poetry (Poesia Sin Fin-2017)-A visually impressive semi-autobiographical surrealist film by the always inventive poet/performance artist/comic creator/film maker Alejandro Jodorowsy has some of the year’s most memorable dialogue and most mind blowing images. Jodorowsky and his own son shine playing himself at different stages in his life. Oh and the same actress (Sandra Flores) plays the poet’s spontaneous, controlling muse/girlfriend and controlling mom (she won’t sleep with him because she is saving herself for a god that will come down from the mountain.) This is the second film in a trippy, mind blowing trilogy. Emily Dickinson once wrote that she knows when she has read a real poem because it makes her feel like it blew the top off her head. This is one of the few films that did this to me this decade. In Spanish with English sub-titles.

21.) Winter’s Bone (2010) - Depressing but mesmerizing tale of a girl’s quest to find her missing dad, and she runs afoul of her meth producing family. He puts up the house for bail, and if she doesn’t find him she will lose her shelter and her family. The effects of this unflinching but unforgettable film are hard to shake off and it brilliantly uses the gritty locale. This was Jennifer Lawrence’s earliest and best break out role (sorry Hunger Games fans) but her later work in American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook was just as brilliant. Director. Debra Granik went on to do Leave No Trace (2018) which was also quite impressive

22.) Margaret (2007/2012) - Anna (“True Blood”) Paquin plays a young woman who witnesses and helps cause a traffic accident. Her desire to do the right thing may bring about the downfall of an innocent family. Tremendously powerful and well-acted. This film was originally supposed to be released in 2007, but the film company and director could not agree on which cut to release so it finally came out in New York in 2011 and Chicago in 2012. Ironically Martin Scorsese who cut Paquin’s role in The Irishman was partially responsible for getting Ann Paquin’s best film released.

23.) Inception (2010)-Intelligent and beautifully conceived cinematic work about the nature of reality is like a perplexing journey through a house of mirrors. The plot is about a man who is paid to enter an executive’s dreams to get him to sell off his business. I’m not sure if this is an outlandish sci-fi or if it foreshadows the corporate controlled future (or present). This cries out to be seen more than once if you have the time, but it’s worth the effort.

 Two music films were tied for this place...
24a.)Searching for Sugarman (2012)- Exemplary documentary about the fine post folkie American singer songwriter, Rodriquez who lived most of his life in poverty while he was the one of the highest selling artists in South Africa ( no one told him and most people thought he committed suicide). A few years after this film got an Oscar for best documentary, the film’s real life director committed suicide. This film serves as a daring exposure of the complete greed and corruption of the record industry, and it depicts an underrated artist who was able to transform his great poverty and pain into fine art.

24b.) Beware of Mr. Baker (2012) - This marvelous out of left field documentary is about the hedonistic Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, who played brilliantly, but could never really get along with anyone or manage his life. The man had serious psychological problems and his savage confrontation with his son was almost painful to see. Baker eventually died a few years after the Cream bass player, Jack Bruce, so Eric Clapton is the last man standing. Music fans should also check out Baker’s monumentally cranky interview in Rolling Stone. Thanks to Michael Held for recommending this.

25.) Spotlight (2015)-Fine investigative reporting film about how the Spotlight newspaper investigative crew broke the Vatican pedophile scandal in Boston. It contains fine performances by Michael Keaton (who gave the two best performances of his career this decade) and Mark Ruffalo (who was not my favorite Hulk). It’s nice to be reminded of what real journalism was in this era of “Fox Facts.” Then again the Spotlight newspaper did initially bury the story for years so you can also read it as a scathing indictment of journalism as well.
 

Honorable Mentions:
At Eternity’s Gate, Bad Girls (an MIA video), Blade Runner 2049, Blood Buzz Ohio (The National video), Blue is the Truest Color, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Carnage, The Clouds of Sils Maria, The Disaster Artist, Django Unchained, The Eagle Huntress (if you liked Whale Rider you will love this), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, Hereditary, Hobo with a Shotgun, La Quattro Volta, The Lobster, The Master, Moonlight, Much Ado about Nothing, Nick Cave: Once More with Feeling, Parasite, Patterson, The Strange Case of Anjelica, The Sun, and Under the Skin.

I regret that I could not find any room on my top 10 for Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Christopher Nolan, Oliver Assayas, Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Saoirse Ronan, and Willem Dafoe who undeniably did some of the best work of the decade. Benedict Cumberbatch is as good as anyone but he has yet to deliver a performance on a film that is half as good as the one he gave in historical BBC productions.

If you want to see some of my previous top 10 lists (some were published on www.reelmoviecritic.com or the Examiner) go to https://www.artinterviews.org/best.

 

Vittorio Carli, who teaches at area community colleges, a former film reviewer for The Star, www.reelmoviecrtic.com and The Examiner, and is an avid science-fiction film fan.

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org

and www.chicagopoetry.org. Look for his poetry book, Tapeworm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor.