This is the third entry in my series counting down the best films of the decade. I previously counted down entries #500-451 and #450-401, so here is entry #400-351.
- Nowhere Boy
(This technically came out in 2009, but only in the U.K., so I’m counting its 2010 U.S. release date as a film of this decade). Nowhere Boy finds John Lennon’s childhood to be a complicated one, and despite his advantages and loving family, he never really found a place. Aaron-Taylor Johnson shows us the emotional rollercoaster of being bounced between extremes, and balances the natural genius of Lennon with the pressures of discovering his identity.
- Café Society
Nerdy, awkward, charming, yet also irritating- is it just me or is Jesse Eisenberg a better Woody Allen stand in than Woody Allen himself? Allen has made more than his fair share of movies about the industry, but this is one of the better representations of how the competitive, lucrative nature of working in entertainment, and how momentary success is met with a lifetime of trying to make it.
- Money Monster
The dismantling of a talk show from the perspective of a terrorist is a great setup for a dark comedy; George Clooney’s role as the unsuspecting host is sympathetic, but also emblematic of the culture that surrounds him, and Jack O’Connell’s role of the extreme disruptor doesn’t discredit the perspective of those angry about poverty, but also points out the error of his actions.
- Eddie the Eagle
You can’t do much to reinvent the inspirational true story, but Eddie the Eagle does so with immense earnestness and a great use of music. Taron Egerton makes this character the fodder for slapstick material without ever making him a complete joke, and Hugh Jackman’s role as his trainer is fun, boisterous, and boasts a redemptive arc of his own.
He’s one of the biggest stars on the planet, and perhaps the most charismatic guy working today, but it’s a shame that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hasn’t been in that many good movies. Maui is the best of what he’s done, the larger than life, smartass, and (no pun intended) animated sidekick who stands alongside the hero Moana without stealing her spotlight.
- The Jungle Book
There’s few trends I find as distressing as that of remaking Disney classics as live action- why redo films without changing anything and take out the visual flare? Fortunately, The Jungle Book is one of the good ones; the animals look different, but they retain all the personality- Idris Elba is genuinely terrifying as Shere Khan, Billy Murray has all the carefree mannerisms of Baloo, and Christopher Walken as King Louis is an inspired casting choice that makes for the film’s best reimagining- showing the King of the Jungle as a mafia type crime boss.
- Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
Martin Scorsese and Bob Dylan conspired to bring this incredible collection of footage from Dylan’s 1975 concert tour, but the narrative itself is filled with half truths, fabricated characters, and straight up lies- a straight faced con by two of the greatest artists to ever live. It’s a potent summation of America’s transitional period that speaks to the uncertainty and conflict of the late 70s, and the purposeful deception asks even more interesting questions about how legends seep into reality.
- Long Shot
A rom-com so smart and fun that its damn crazy that it came out in 2019; matching Charlize Theron as a Presidential candidate whose the backbone of the current administration with Seth Rogen as an idealistic journalist, Long Shot has a lot to say about both women in politics and journalistic integrity, while also having fun with just how ridiculous the news cycle can be.
- Big Hero 6
Using a big, fluffy robot as a means to deal with loss, Big Hero 6 finds a balance between family adventure, origin story, and coming of age dramedy; more superheroes are better than one, and Big Hero 6 assembles a The Breakfast Club type team that each brings their own sensibilities and visual style.
One of two films this decade to focus on the 44th President, this one focuses on Obama as a young man coming of age at Columbia University. We see the origins of how civic duty and community manifest in this guy’s life, and how exposure to new ideas at the right age advances someone as a citizen and a leader.
- The Accountant
The best action movies often draw us into their world, and The Accountant is the rare one nowadays that isn’t a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation, and for an original concept we’re quickly adjusted to a world of corporate and economic warfare that also features assassins and hitmen. This is an interesting Ben Affleck performance; he’s removed, not drawing on his natural charm, and he looks like he could convincingly beat the crap out of anyone in his way.
While it is by no means ambiguous when telling us who to root for, Truth makes a compelling case for Mary Mapes, and does a generally good job at going into how a news team coordinates to break a big story. Who better to portray the old fashioned, soothing straightforwardness of Dan Rather than Robert Redford?
- Jodorowsky’s Dune
A fascinating documentary that peers into the eyes of madman filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his failed attempts to adapt Dune. Jodorowsky’s pretension and ego make him a compelling figure to follow as we see the thought and effort put into something that would never be; Jodorowsky’s Dune doesn’t necessarily argue that Jodorowsky’s film would have been all that he thought it would be, but seeing the crazy thought process behind it definitely makes the case for why it would be worth watching.
- Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Expanding the hyper-realistic, super violent world of the first Sicario, the sequel ditches the slow burn tone in favor of constant action. Without Emily Blunt, the film removes the moral center of the film and presents the chaotic, ambiguous nature of the border drug crisis in all its visceral nature- Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro has become one of the great cinematic antiheroes.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have made smarter comedies than this, but Paul is the perfect argument for how infectious their friendship is; pluck two likable, goofy friends and put them on a cross country adventure that also features an alien voiced by Seth Rogen. A wealth of references to science fiction classics puts the audience immediately “in the know”- this feels like hanging out with your friends.
Imagining a world without The Beatles is a scary thought, but it’s also an argument for how immortal their music is, and how it can be introduced to a new audience. Richard Curtis knows how to write smart, funny romance, and Himesh Patel and Lily James are both immediately charming.
How do you make the God of Thunder anything less than an overpowered, unrelatable protagonist? Strip him of his powers, take away his birthright, and strand him in a desert where he knows no one, and no one cares about him or his mythology. Equal parts fish out of water comedy and bombastic Norse epic, Thor was an early sign that Chris Hemsworth is the real deal.
- Murder on the Orient Express
Kenneth Bragnah writes, directs, and stars as the world’s greatest detective; we know from the opening scene that he’s capable of going great distances for answers and cases, but the film is able to focus on a claustrophobic train where each character actor fights for their role as a scene stealer. The reveal scene is one of the best things that Bragnah has ever directed.
- 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Michael Bay is an auteur, a controversial and often disappointing one, but he’s also an influential guy who has inspired countless imitators. This is Bay in his wheelhouse, using his chaotic means of staging stylized action in the service of a story he understands; Bay isn’t the type of guy you want imagining a story from scratch, but when he’s tasked with replicating true events he can deliver all the macho dialogue and explosions possible based on said situation.
The idea of a rich society that literally floats above an impoverished Earth isn’t one that’s ripe for subtlety, but District 9 writer/director Neil Blomkamp really knows how to make these contrasted locations come alive; the degree of wealth and privilege awarded to the elite is all the more infuriating when we see an impoverished, post-apocalyptic future that doesn’t seem so far off from our own. The violence is quick, brutal, and sticks with us- this feels like Robocop, Predator, Total Recall, or any other 80s action classic.
- The Finest Hours
Of all the deep sea rescue dramas I’ve seen, The Finest Hours is one of the best examples of what it’s like to be on both the inside and outside of a sinking ship; split second decisions are made when there’s no time to consider all options, and the integrity of the crew and the ship itself are always in peril as each crashing wave dulls the potential of escape.
- Side Effects
Stephen Soderbergh can’t seem to stop making movies, and Side Effects is the product of a filmmaker obsessed with craft; this is a psychological thriller that’s as obsessed with plot as it is with feel, and to Soderbergh’s credit, he keeps us guessing until the very end.
I’m surprised Stephan James hasn’t blown up more; this is the role of a career as Jesse Owens, and the film is imminently watchable, a rags to riches story that knows how to build up to the inevitable moments that defined sports history forever. The film knows that you know what will happen, but it is nonetheless compelling.
- Battle of the Sexes
Despite what the premise may suggest, Battle of the Sexes is a fairly brilliant send up of showmanship and media circuses; Steve Carrell’s performance as Bobby Riggs is one of a down on his luck conman who crafts a persona that will draw attention (and seems both ambivalent and ignorant of the ramifications of said performance), and Emma Stone’s role as Billie Jean King is one of an unlikely icon who becomes wrapped into a deeper struggle.
- Mary Queen of Scots
Max Richter’s score for Mary Queen of Scots is one of the most underrated of the decade; it’s a grand epic score that makes the sweeping shots of Scotland feel like they’ve been plucked from Lord of the Rings, and yet we also feel the intimacy of the steamier moments, specifically as the film rewrites history with its feminist idealism.
- Hidden Figures
An old fashioned crowd pleaser that pits three heroes on an impossible mission against seemingly insurmountable odds, Hidden Figures finds three great leads in Taraji B. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer; the math of getting to the moon isn’t neutered for the sake of making the movie more accessible, and the odds of success are even more crushing when we see the amount of bigotry these women faced to even get there.
- Elvis & Nixon
An absurdist comedy that pits two iconic historical figures against each other as they both find their careers in decline, Elvis & Nixon is a film that examines the very nature of legacy and reputation, drawing comparisons between politics and popular culture to question why we are drawn to celebrity.
- Live By Night
Ben Affleck’s fourth film as a director got an unfortunate reaction on its initial release, and really deserved better; there’s not a lot of originality in his gangster epic, but it’s the type of pulpy, shoot ‘em up rags to riches story that deserves a movie star in the forefront, and Affleck has a real talent for making his environments come alive and making each city feel like a character.
- Black Panther
Marvel has certainly been accused of not having interesting villains, but this undoubtedly changed with Michael B. Jordan’s role as Killmonger; if bad guys are often the heroes in their own story, they’re also the ones who want to see change but do it by their own means. Killmonger started a conversation that superseded the Marvel universe, one of the best creations of the MCU.
- Miss Sloane
The ending really jumps the shark, but up until then Miss Sloan is an unprecedented look at the behind the scenes of lobbying; its fast paced, letting us feel the rhythms of the language without talking down to us, and manages to have a conversation about the gun debate without necessarily being about the debate itself- this is a movie specifically about the way in which we structure arguments.
Colossal has a lot of fun with is monstrous premise, and has a message about toxic relationships that manages to be both frightening, creative, and joyous; once the message about survivors and its parallels to a coincidental appearance of Godzilla type monsters is clear, Colossal wows us with Anne Hathaway’s depiction of alcoholism and Jason Sudekis’s surprisingly nuanced role of the bad guy hiding in plain sight.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Perhaps every great director has the one oddball, overly ambitious film that goes through a cycle of critical appreciation, and Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is undoubtedly his most curious experiment, and not just for the record breaking high frame break; this new technology was perhaps the best tool for a story that is intentionally glossy and argues against the sort of simplified, idealistic version of revisionist history that has become so easily accessible.
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
There are many comedic actors who’ve turned to direction as a means to have more control over improv, but Ben Stiller has emerged as a filmmaker with truly unique visual sensibilities; in a movie that seems so clearly about pathos, Stiller made something more about ethos, and the ways in which we become both freed and imprisoned by our imagination.
- Louder Than Bombs
Gabriel Byrne is perhaps one of the greatest actors who for whatever reason never made it big, despite his many high profile roles; Louder Than Bombs puts him right in the center of a film that combines a European level of intimacy with a story with the depth of an American epic novel. There’s so much dramatic potential in the loss of a matriarch, and Byrne’s depiction of a father coming to grips with his family is the best performance he’s given.
- The Great Gatsby
How else could you make The Great Gatsby other than by a big, exuberant, flamboyant blast of fleeting energy? Gatsby always represented the new and exciting 1920s, and Baz Luhrmann keeps the setting while making the excitement relevant for what we look for today.
- Begin Again
The fine line that Begin Again rides is between recognizing the legitimate challenges of the music industry and still celebrating the joy of discovering new music; Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are smart, likeable people that can shed their movie star personas and feel like real people, and Adam Levine has somewhat of a breakout role here, particularly with his performance of “Lost Stars.”
- The Mule
Clint Eastwood is 89 years old, and he’s still starring in and directing movies. The Mule is perhaps one of his more whimsical films, and while there’s an inherent tragedy of his character’s ignorance for everyone in his life as he pursues his work, the film mines dark comedy out of this character and the crazy true story. This feels like a bemusing, rough around the edges story that someone of Eastwood’s age would tell.
- Les Miserables (2019)
It’s not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s story, but a reinterpretation of his themes; the idea of a movement coming together and the role of ethics within law enforcement will always be relevant.
- Deadpool 2
It’s not as good as the first film, but there’s something respectable about the lack of any narrative momentum in Deadpool 2; the film totally understands that the appeal of the character is his satire of other properties, and strings together a series of only semi-related setpieces held together by loose narrative ties in order to let Ryan Reynolds loose with the character’s violence and humor. A scene involving a helicopter drop is one of the best superhero movies scenes, and has the best payoff of trying to parody shared universes.
- The Rover
The most desensitized and bleak post-apocalyptic western since the original Mad Max, The Rover could be hollow in its own bleakness, but the stark nihilism of the film is so specific and compulsively tension-filled that it’s hard to look away from the hard truths that the film presents about how people would treat each other in the wake of an apocalyptic event; for Robert Pattinson this was the role that showed the world that he could break out of leading man roles, and for Guy Pearce it’s the grizzled loner role that every great actor should get at least once in their career.
You only get to make a first movie once, and watching Mid90s it’s clear that Jonah Hill made his debut about something he deeply cares about, exploring the sense of community and isolation among impoverished skaters in the 90s; more than a narrative, this feels like a collection of sporadic memories, an idea resolved in the film’s closing scene, which is a bold deconstruction of the previous 90 minutes that’s impressive for a debut director.
- The Book Thief
I’ve read Markus Zusak’s novel a few times, and I feel like the 2013 adaptation captured the essence of the book, and how the backdrop of World War II and the Holocaust are seen through the eyes of a child who gains a new family that becomes taken away from her. It also never hurts to have a musical score from John Williams, who took a break from Spielberg to make this emotional epic.
- The Art of Self-Defense
The comparisons to Fight Club are natural, as this is also a film about a charismatic martial arts master whose charismatic, yet toxic thinking influences a nebbish, pathetic lead character, and while it may cover common ground when it deals with how an ideology can end up affecting all aspects of life, The Art of Self-Defense is also refreshingly frank, comically blunt, and just removed enough to avoid being cynical.
- Other People
I saw Other People at the Dallas International Film Festival in April 2016, and while he was in attendance writer/director Chris Kelly described the autobiographical nature of the film, and the moments in his life that were mirrored in this story of a struggling comedy writer who lost his mom to cancer. Watching the film, it struck me with how uncomfortable it could get, how frustrating these situations can be, and the authenticity of which it was presented make it feel like it could be nothing less than reality.
- Captain America: The First Avenger
The prequel to the Marvel Universe is a genuine period piece, throwback World War II shoot ‘em up action thriller, harkening back to the days when bad guys were just plain evil and good guys were selfless, almost naive in their goodness; director Joe Johnston, who did the same with his excellent 1991 classic The Rocketeer, gives just the right touches of self awareness, particularly when it comes to the idea of a propaganda tool becoming an actual hero.
The feature film debut of Jon Stewart, Rosewater encapsulates everything that makes the famous Daily Show host a unique figure; its uplifting without ignoring reality, optimistic regarding human nature, and fully acknowledging how ridiculous things can be and the consequences of self seriousness.
- Jack Reacher
Tom Cruise is well known for his commitment to doing his own stunts, and Jack Reacher pits him in a grittier world than we’ve seen him in before; from the traumatic sniper opening to a terrific car chase to the rain soaked finale, Jack Reacher sees Cruise as a more frantic hero set in a more chaotic world, and future Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie knows how to let his star do his thing.
Turning the story of a single mother who invented a self-wringing mop with the weight of a business thriller, Joy is actually pretty short on any “joy”- it’s a mostly cutthroat thriller that roots Jennifer Lawrence’s characters in an empathetic sense of poverty. We feel every inch of the torment and frustration that Lawrence feels being an outsider whose taken advantage of- this is some of her best work.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2
Ending the decade long coming of adventure on a high note, the final film in the Harry Potter franchise wraps the series up with a great sense of finality to each character, most of all Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape, who gets his moments of depth and backstory that were set in motion ten years prior.
- El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Jesse left Breaking Bad screaming, and El Camino is what happens after the fury is gone and reality sets in. It’s a poignant means of reflection on this character, a wonderful epilogue to one of the greatest shows ever made.