This decade of film has had years that were lean, where it was a stretch to pull ten exceptional for the “Best Of” list. But then there were glorious years, brimming with examples of excellence. Overall, it was hard to capsulate all the choices to just ten, with much deliberation taking place if only in my mind. Below is my conclusion (in alphabetical order), and I hope, standing the test of time.
“Boyhood” (2014) by Richard Linklater - This was my top pick for best movie the year it came out, and holds up as one of the best of the decade. An absolutely special and wholly unique movie because of the subject and how it was created and crafted. As the first of its kind, it was shot in real time with the same actors and non-actors in the case of the children, literally taking place over twelve years in the life of a boy from age six to eighteen. The film chronicles a family- a young divorced mom and dad and their two children- through the eyes of the son, Mason. They, like all of us, are all impacted by divorce, re-marriage, re-location and simply, life. There was no wowing by slick dialogue, beautiful cinematography or contrived performances. The sensibility of the project seemed completely organic and true. It was utterly fascinating to witness the cast aging and changing over the twelve year period while sitting in the theater for three hours. By movie’s end you didn’t know if you wanted to clap or cry. Most did both.
“Call Me By Your Name” ( 2017) by Luca Guadagnino This is a deeply moving coming-of-age film and love story of two young men trapped by the times they live in and unable to take their love beyond the summer of 1984. Elio, an archeology professor’s teen son, becomes smitten with the older charming, attractive and seemingly womanizing, Oliver, (Armie Hammer), a visiting grad student. Although Elio is sexually experimental with a first girlfriend of sorts that summer, he is undeniably (and understandably) drawn to Oliver. The performances by Chalamet and Hammer are seamless and effective, but just as impressive is the supporting role of Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Elio’s dad and Oliver’s professor. As such, he delivers the film’s most poignant speech in support of the love between the two young men he has keenly observed. Between the film’s setting of a rustically charming home in an Italian village, and Guadagnino’s mesmerizing small story depicting a strong and true love that starts but cannot continue, “Call Me By Your Name” will haunt you long after the credits roll.
“Get Out” ( 2017) by Jordan Peele - What a revelation this film was, taking movie audiences by storm in early 2017. When a young black man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s seemingly liberal parents in Upstate New York, things start off innocently enough, but soon take a disturbing twist on many levels. More than just story of intrigue and scares, this cinematic journey is layered with messages of race and racism. Fresh on the heels of the director’s retirement from being the second half of the dynamic comedy duo Key and Peele for their self-titled TV show, he surprised Hollywood and fans alike. No one expected in the heart of a small screen funny man, lie a great horror movie writer/director. He put a fresh and socially relevant spin on what some might call somewhat stale, over populated genre.
“Moonlight” (2016) by Barry Jenkins - Moonlight is both intense and sometimes hard to watch, as well as brilliant, haunting and not to be missed. This Oscar-winning film by Barry Jenkins is a coming of age story of sorts about a young, black, gay boy, Chiron, growing up in the South surrounded by abject poverty and raised by a drug-addicted single mother. But beyond what this film is about, is how the story is told. It is poetic and lyrical, subtle and minimal. It unfolds like a 3-part opera, showing the stages of the main character’s life – boyhood, teen, young adult. Each chapter, complete with brief musical interludes, has a title, based on the name he is commonly referred to at the time. Also, at each stage he gets a slightly stronger awareness of his homosexuality, whether he accepts it and lives that truth or not. Supporting each actor as Chiron is a strong supporting cast made up of Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris.
“The Revenant” (2015) by Alejandro G. Iñárritu - This period film of of a 1820s frontiersman left for dead in the wild was a definite departure from Iñárritu’s previous films and such a risk for any filmmaker. It was a bit of an experiment - working mostly outdoors and only with natural light, not to mention a bear rape scene- but it paid off. From the onset, the film garnered much acclaim and ultimately, Oscar gold. In so many ways this is a harsh film, made up of almost an entirely male cast, with little dialogue and lots of violence. Despite that, there is an undeniable beauty to it in the man versus man; man versus nature simplicity. What stands out most is the cinematography of a stark backdrop of a bitter cold mountainous frontier, along with a seamless per usual performance by Tom Hardy as the murderous villain and an outstanding gritty performance by Leonardo Di Caprio as the embattled and embittered protagonist determined to exact revenge on his fellow hunters. This is more than a movie, it’s an experience and filmmaking at its finest and grandest.
“Roma” (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón - Set in 1970 in Cuarón’s homeland of Mexico, specifically a section of Mexico City, the film is a loving homage to his childhood home, his community and his family, made up of a stay-at-home mother, a father who is a doctor, a maternal grandmother, four small children and the family’s domestic help. The thinly veiled story is from the perspective of the family’s housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, hardworking kind soul who notices everything, cares for everyone, but judges no one. Cleo puts the kids to bed, wakes them in the morning and accompanies them to school each day. She empathizes with the mother as she is crushed by her husband’s decision to walk away from the family, leaving them with little money to maintain their somewhat affluent lifestyle. In between caring for the family, Cleo endures her own personal drama of falling in love and suffering loss. The dialogue is sparse, the story line is minimal, yet this film seems to convey volumes. It manages to be intimate while also epic; simple, yet complex; covering multiple classes of people, social issues and political upheaval, and all while navigating various physical landscapes.
“Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) by Malik Bendjelloul - This is a great example of a documentary that feels more like a good movie than just a documentary. This is the real life story of Rodriquez, a little-known, but hugely talented musician from the 70s who faded quickly into obscurity. Decades later, when one of his songs became an anthem of sorts for many South Africans during the anti-apartheid movement, it rose up the charts there and sparked an interest to find him by two fans. Early in their research, they heard many tall tales of Rodriquez’s whereabouts, including that he had committed suicide.
The movie starts at the recounting of their search, then develops into a story of Rodriquez’s background as a failed musician-turned struggling carpenter in Detroit. It comes to a wonderful crescendo when the fans from South Africa find their musical hero, fly him in to perform, showering him with the accolades he never received in the States. “Searching for Sugar Man” begins as a mystery and unfolds as a heartwarming human story. I defy anyone to watch this movie only once and not download the soundtrack. You too will become a Rodriquez fan.
“Sicario” (2015) by Denis Villeneuve - I’d like to say I experienced this movie on the big screen when it was first released, but like for most, “Sicario” fell under the radar and was discovered afterwards through word of mouth and On Demand TV a few months later. No matter, when or how the buzz about this small, sophisticated thriller ignited, ignited it did, and for good reason. The story revolves around the combined efforts of a special CIA task force going a bit rogue, and the FBI as they are assigned to take on a Mexican drug cartel. That all sounds like a pretty standard good versus evil set up, but in the hands of Villeneuve and excellent writing newcomer, Taylor Sheridan, it’s anything but. There ends up being as much, if not more tension between the law enforcement factions than with the cartel. The chameleon-like Emily Blunt is pitch perfect as the suspicious and nervous, yet resilient young FBI agent Kate. She’s recruited to work along with the task force headed up by a quietly brooding Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin is as convincing as ever as the brash and opportunistic Matt. Rounding out the stellar cast is Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s sidekick. Between the taut script, superb casting/performances and impeccable pacing, you’ll have to remember to take a breath.
“Social Network” (2010) by David Fincher - The cinematic union of famed and acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin and Fincher for this their first collaboration is brilliant, especially given that in theory it could have had every reason not to work. Sorkin, creator and writer of television masterpiece, The West Wing, among other things, is known for words, and a lot of them, spoken very rapidly by intelligent characters in heady situations. Fincher is known for being a slow moving, visual director, creating worlds in which dialogue can take a back seat to images, expressions and mood setting. In this movie about questionable provenance of Facebook and its awkward creator Mark Zuckerberg, their artistic worlds collide deftly.
Although a work of fiction, Sorkin defends his sources and the inspiration for the characterizations, including accessing the book, Accidental Billionaire by Ben Mezrich. Zuckerberg, who is depicted as unquestionably tech smart, but brooding, bitter and downright unlikable, may have opted to distance himself from the project, others involved in the subsequent lawsuits did not.To be sure, the “real” story, along with the ensemble cast and their performances standout. Careers such as Rooney Mara, Army Hammer and Andrew Garfield, were launched with this stunning film, while Jessie Eisenberg, perfection as Zuckerberg, and Justin Timberlake, a wonderful surprise supporting role as Napster founder Sean Parker had their movie careers solidified. But they all take a backseat to the real stars of this 2010 stunner- the script, the look, and oh that pitch perfect, keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat brisk pacing, which was masterfully maintained throughout.
“Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) by Kathryn Bigelow - Last but definitely not least is this political/war drama based on real events leading up to the historic capture and kill of 9-11 mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. The film chronicles the desperate many years pursuit for Bin Laden and his cohorts, headed up by the relentless Maya, a CIA operative. Throughout, not only did she take on the terrorist enemies, but what she saw as the enemies within that made excuses, dropped the ball and let politics and policy take precedence over the ultimate and important goal. Jessica Chastain embodied Maya heart and soul, portraying her as book smart, tactical savvy and tough as nails, even when surrounded by political and military heavyweights and challenged by her CIA superiors. Behind the camera, Bigelow, like with her earlier film, “The Hurt Locker,” proved to be in her element, but on a much bigger scale. With both films, she displayed aplomb in handling the small budget and intimate movie, as well as the grand. Despite differences in size and budget, both films were somewhat quiet. thoughtful and piercing. Kudos for her not backing away from the controversy of U.S. military tactic of prisoner tortures, such as waterboarding. It may have cost her wins during award season, but years later, her intel was proven accurate.
I am aware that Bigelow is the only female director represented on this "official" top ten list, but know there were several others that are worthy, and with a longer list, I would have been included rock star filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Lisa Cholodenko, Greta Gerwig. As it is though, Bigelow is representing brightly and greatly.
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Honorable Mention, aka, if I expanded my list beyond 10 (alpha order), and since this is my website, unlike Culture Vulture, I can!
20 Feet from Stardom (2013) by Morgan Neville - Where most films would center around the headliners and stars, this one focuses on the little-known back-up singers for some of rock n rolls biggest and brightest. These singers are tremendously talented and hard working, but fame always seem to elude them. Who are they and why are they out of the spotlight? This documentary explores their situations in an alluring and humane way.
Bridesmaids (2011) by Paul Fieg, starring Kristin Wiig (written by) Maya Rudolph, and Rose Byrne. This comedy of bridesmaids competing for best-friend-to-the-bride status was unexpected and mad fun.
Human Flow (2017) by Ai Wei Wei - A stunning and necessary documentary by artist/activist, Wei Wei, regarding the plight of global refugee crisis and how countries and leader are, or are not, handling it. See my full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/human-flow-by-ai-weiwei
The Kids are All Right (2010) by Lisa Cholodenko
La La Land (2016) by Damien Chazelle, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. To say this was a fresh take on an old and forgotten genre, is in understatement and you knew it from the opening musical number. Read full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/la-la-land
Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon Ho - Wow, I came so close to including this in the Top Ten, and still wonder if I shouldn’t have. It’s an amazing film on so many levels, appreciated and understood even more after a second viewing. Read full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/parasite-movie-review
Selma (2014) by Ava DuVernay - With this small but truly powerful and important historical film about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s crusade to secure voting rights for all, Ms. DuVernay went from obscurity to a filmmaker in demand.