Decade in Film: David’s Top 20

If cinema is dying, let’s hold vigil together.

For the hundredth time in the hundred years since the birth of cinema, the medium is at a crossroads. Franchise tentpoles dominate the landscape; smaller studios are being gobbled up by bigger fish; tickets are too expensive; a new way of watching at home threatens to upend the moviegoing experience; brilliant directors have to circumvent the system to get their work seen. Yes, these are songs we’ve heard before. Before the market was saturated by comic book heroes, there were too many Westerns. Auteurs chafed during Hollywood studio’s Golden Age. Before A24 put its quiet imprimatur on select independent features, only the now-fallen Harvey Weinstein could muscle his way to an Oscar from the outside — thanks to an Academy that could reward both Moonlight and Green Book.

What I’m saying is that “Cinema,” whether you take Martin Scorsese’s definition, or Werner Herzog’s, or your own, is adaptable and resilient. The experience of gathering around a flickering light to hear the shaman tell us a story is not going away, whether we’re at the Alamo Drafthouse or on our iPhone on the subway. (Please don’t watch The Irishman on your iPhone.) What really matters is the respect we give it as an art form, and the celebration of not just the works we respect, but what simply makes us happy. The Master, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The Tree of Life, and The Last Jedi. Don’t believe anyone who says you have to choose.

What follows is my take on the best of the 2010s — not just some of the most significant films of the past ten years, but that also impacted me personally. If I wanted to include all of my Honorable Mentions I’d be here forever, but here are ten more personal picks that just missed out:

  • The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)
  • Arrival (Denis Villanueve, 2016)
  • Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
  • Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
  • Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)
  • Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
  • Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
  • A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
  • The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Let’s go.

20. World of Tomorrow (2015)

Directed by Don Hertzfeldt

I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive.

What, a short? Absolutely. This 17-minute magnum opus was a major evolution for the Austin-based animator, as much for its incorporation of computer effects as for its heady, melancholy ideas about a distant future at the end of the world. It centers on a little girl named Emily (Winona Mae, whose unscripted burblings provide endless joy); she receives a surprise visit from a deteriorating future clone of herself (Julia Potts), and together they travel through time, space, and memory illustrated in Hertzfeldt’s trademark surrealism and expressive, warbly lines. His style hasn’t changed much since the days of Billy’s Balloon and Rejected, but World of Tomorrow conjures staggering emotional depth: Dry bemusement and grief intertwined. “You are alive and living now,” Emily tells Emily Prime. “Now is the envy of all of the dead.” “OK!” replies the girl.

19. Boyhood (2014)

Directed by Richard Linklater

We’re all just winging it, you know? The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.

While it’s true that many of the films on this list were creative gambles, it’s hard to think of a bigger one than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Filmed over a twelve-year period with the same cast and an unflagging dedication, it tells the story of a young man’s coming-of-age in a hyper-specific Texas: from first grade to his first day of college, as everyone involved ages in real time. Just as a feat of production it’s unprecedented, but Linklater’s good fortune also extends to Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke doing some of the best work of their careers, and Ellar Coltrane’s post-pubescent languid sincerity. Whether the director will be lucky enough to pull off his 20-year dream of Merrily We Roll Along is anyone’s guess, but Boyhood will remain a unique and special achievement.

18. Short Term 12 (2013)

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like / To live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like

Imagine a beautiful and poignant drama, starring Brie Larson, Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Stephanie Beatriz, that made no money and won no Oscars — that’s Short Term 12, which I’d argue is a perfect film, and the serendipitous launchpad for a group of generational stars. Cretton, who spent two years working in a group home, handles the film’s difficult themes with grace, bolstered every step of the way by a magnificent performance from Larson; if anything, they make it look almost too effortless as they break your heart then mend it back together, much like how 12’s staff give tirelessly of themselves to the neglected and abused children in their charge. See it, see it, see it.

17. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman

Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now. 

I was only going to pick one superhero film to represent this decade defined by superhero films, but what surprised me was how easy that choice was: The vibrant, loony exhilaration of Into the Spider-Verse, which burst into theaters like a bolt of blue lightning and delivered something supe-saturated audiences had truly never seen before. While even the best Marvel films (Panther, Guardians 1, Winter Soldier) are still beholden to a house style, this Spidey excels when it eschews expectations entirely. Every single shot could be frozen and hung on a wall; the voice cast, especially Jake Johnson (as New Girl’s Nick Miller as a washed-up Peter Parker) and Shameik Moore as Miles, is exceptional. It’s so refreshing and full of heart, it makes nearly every other comic book film seem sad and inadequate.

16. Minding the Gap (2018)

Directed by Bing Liu

You don’t grow up thinking that’s the way you are. When you’re a kid you just do, you just act, and then somewhere along the line everyone loses that.

What begins as a youthful celebration of skate culture starring documentarian Liu and two of his goofball friends, Zack and Kiere, gradually (so patiently) becomes something else entirely: An exploration of masculinity, trauma and abuse, parents and children, race and class, and the cycles being fed in America’s decaying cities. For the trio, skating is an escape from their volatile home lives; a way to release their aggression and rebelliousness without getting into too much trouble. But before long adulthood comes calling, and as Liu keeps shooting, having been granted wide latitude and access into his friends’ lives (who use him, in turn, as a listening ear for what serve as makeshift therapy sessions), the young men begin to grapple in their own ways with the residual effects of their childhoods and what legacies they want to leave themselves. The result is a cinema verité knockout, beautiful in its messiness.

15. Lady Bird (2017)

Directed by Greta Gerwig

Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

These aren’t all going to be coming-of-age films, I promise, though I admit I see the pattern. But the triumph of Lady Bird, the quasi-autobiographical first major feature from acclaimed writer and indie actress Greta Gerwig, is in everything that fits around its too-easy synopsis of “restless girl comes of age.” It’s in how every moment of its fresh, impeccably constructed screenplay matters, from the first frame to the last. It’s in how the editing (from Nick Houy) keeps us gliding along, compressing a year in the life of our heroine to a brisk 94 minutes by showing us a series of loosely-connected vignettes, until those moments have steadily built on top of each other, layer by layer, and we can see the entire breathtaking mosaic. It’s in Gerwig’s attention to detail — not just the easy use of period music and fashions (God, 2002 is “period” now?), but the verbal shorthand between her characters; Gerwig conveys that these were real people before we dropped in to observe their lives, and will continue to be after the movie’s over.

14. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen

Everything you touch turns to shit. You’re like king Midas’s idiot brother.

Even as a longtime fan of the Coens, this one snuck up on me. And their Greenwich Village folk fable isn’t easy to love: their protagonist is a talented asshole; the plot meanders; its ending loops back on itself like a Kafkaesque Möbius strip of loserdom. But that’s only what’s on the surface of what has turned out to be the Coens’ best work this decade; Llewyn Davis, like Llewyn Davis, contains multitudes. Oscar Isaac plays the role like a beaten-down dog who knows his flaws and simply can’t find the strength to fix them, because it’s just easier to blame his failures on others. The music, once again curated by T Bone Burnett, is a mix of old and so-old-it’s-new-again. (“Outer! Space!”) Bruno Delbonnel’s ethereal cinematography is frozen in my mind’s eye. Everything in Davis is a metaphor for something else, with multiple interpretations. There might not be “any money here,” but there is something greater: A team of artists working at the peak of their powers.

13. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Directed by Wes Anderson

You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.

The famously meticulous Wes Anderson delivered his most layered and mature work in The Grand Budapest Hotel — but also perhaps his most entertaining. Ralph Fiennes, as the concierge, is a riot: louche and effervescent, his joyful spirit matching the film’s pastel color palette. But even though it’s a great deal of fun, down to the witty, sing-song dialogue and parade of cameos from Anderson regulars, there’s a hidden current of melancholy that finally, heartbreakingly, bubbles to the surface in the final reel. Above all it’s a story about storytelling, and the effect a tale has on the listener and its teller. Anderson has always been literary-minded — that much is obvious from viewing even one of his films — but Grand, more than any of his previous works, feels like literature. It sticks in the mind and expands there after you’ve seen it, like a charming cake rising in an oven.

12. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Directed by Steve McQueen

I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!

It seems like this Best Picture winner has been somewhat forgotten of late (or maybe more accurately, a film no one really wants to watch a second time), but make no mistake: 12 Years a Slave is still tremendous. It took an English director, and a predominantly English cast, to make perhaps the defining film about American slavery, a work of extraordinary craft and vision. As Solomon Northup (a soulful Chiwetel Ejiofor) gets enveloped in an interminable nightmare, so do we as the audience — but already knowing the ending doesn’t make it any less tortuous to witness. And we are witnesses. Complicit, even. McQueen’s camera, which sits at a detached remove as Solomon hangs from a noose, or holds on his face as the long-suppressed despair manifests while singing a hymn, makes us so. It’s a harrowing journey, full of horror and shame, but unforgettable… and necessary.

11. Inside Out (2015)

Directed by Pete Docter

Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.

Pixar has never been the same since its golden run of the late aughts (and that’s not just with the departure of disgraced founder John Lasseter), but every few years they can still knock one out of the park: 2017’s Coco, and Inside Out, that candy-colored, heart-yanking gem that bursts with creativity in every frame, illustrating our minds as part command center, part warehouse, part theme park, and every bit of it ringing true. Unlike Docter’s Up, which hit like a sledgehammer, Inside Out builds slowly, laying on the pressure and anxiety, until in the final act the dam bursts and its unexpected power washes over you like a tidal wave. It was also a gift for parents, and not just as an unlikely reunion for NBC comedy stars Amy Poehler, Phyillis Smith, Mindy Kaling, and Bill Hader, but because it gave us a new vocabulary for talking with our kids about their feelings.

Page 2: The Top 10

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