Favourite films of the decade

September 8, 2020

Remember the 2010s? About nine months ago, at the turn of the new year, film buffs the world over were busily compiling lists of their favourite films of the decade that was. Even I, though but a middling buff, thought to do the same, but there was that handful of film I thought I’d like to see, or see again, before writing my list. Then 2020 happened, and that handful of films is still, for the most part, unseen by me.  Since the film-watching forecast doesn’t appear likely to change in the foreseeable future, I think the time is right to post my list and move on.

And so, here they are: my favourite films of the years 2010-2019.

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1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprise here. Standing head and shoulders above anything else on this list is Terrence Malick’s magnificent The Tree of Life. My love for the film is unstinting. I have written appreciatively, and at moderate length, about it here.

I would go as far as to say this: if (and I emphasize if) the first century-or-so of cinema has produced anything worthy to rank with our greatest artistic achievements — we are moving here into the realm where we contemplate The Divine Comedy or King Lear or Don Giovanni or the Sistine Chapel or Apollo and Daphne — then I contend that among our leading candidates must be this film, which marshals all the many resources of the medium to explore the highest thoughts and the deepest reservoirs of memory and feeling. It is a film that traces the tendrils of regret and loss to the place, deep down, where they terminate in reconciliation and redemption. It is a film that not even the fortified immanent frame of modernity is able to contain, for no film has better apprehended the mystery of being. It is great in its many specific details — that house underwater, that cry of anguish, that homily, that dance, that light — and great in its vaulting ambition — that universe! The Tree of Life is a glorious, colossal masterpiece.

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2. Arrival
(Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

When I praised Arrival on a previous occasion I described it as “a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie”, and I can’t improve on that. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric film, beautifully shot, and elevated by a superb lead performance from Amy Adams. I wish more science fiction films were as thoughtful and textured. I love the slow pacing, the nuts-and-bolts approach it takes to its subject matter, the dreamy cinematography, and the strong currents of feeling that it quietly cultivates. Acknowledging that it is first and foremost a worthy work of art, not a “message movie”, some readers might be interested to learn that it has a claim to be, by a considerable margin, the most subtle and unconventional and, arguably, the most powerful pro-life film of the decade.

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3. Midnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

Comedies sometimes get short shrift when accolades are being dispensed, so I am happy to have two excellent examples on my list.  Midnight in Paris is that rare thing: a perfect romantic comedy, and, even better, one in which “romantic” can be taken in a wider sense than is usual. It’s a comedy about love, to be sure, but it’s also about the romance of Parisian streets, of midnight strolls, of magic, of wonder, and of dreams come to life.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to greater literary achievements, who has come to Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) on holiday. Gil feels as many North Americans do when they go to Europe: that its streets and sites are touched with the glory of those great men and women, his idols and heroes, who trod those stones before him. For Gil, Paris is perfumed with the memories of the golden age of the 1920s, when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein lived there. When, during one of his midnight walks, a 1920’s-vintage car rolls up to the curb and he is beckoned inside, he cannot resist, and so the delightful story unfolds…

The film is about nostalgia, its pleasures and its pitfalls, and is suffused with a spirit of humility and appreciation. Allen’s neuroses are present, but more moderate and winsome than usual. (It helps that Allen himself remains off-screen, although Wilson does a pretty decent imitation.) Is nostalgia a failure to face the world squarely? Is it possible to really love the past in a way that doesn’t distort it? Are we all prisoners of our own time? And, if so, what are we to do with our affection and admiration for times and places other than our own? Big questions, but handled with generosity and wit. It’s a golden film.

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4. Brooklyn
(John Crowley, 2015)

Unlike some, or perhaps most, of the films on this list, Brooklyn has no grand ambitions and no particular sense of style. What it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan, playing a young Irish woman emigrating to New York in the 1950s, has a quiet but commanding presence, and that lilt is irresistible. I have a soft spot for stories about being away and returning home, and here, where it’s ambiguous whether Ireland or New York is home, that soft spot got prodded pretty often. It’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

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5. Love & Friendship
(Whit Stillman, 2016)

I’ve now seen Love & Friendship three times, and its charms have not faded. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter. It’s a film that has humour in its very bones, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, the music, and the tone. Everything works together.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially, with one notable exception, are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to his comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

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6. Gravity
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Action films are usually not quiet and slow enough for me, but I make an exception for this thrill ride, which opens with one of the greatest long takes in the history of cinema — 17 minutes of swirling, vertigo-inducing movie magic — and pursues its relentless way through a sea of troubles. The movie is like an arrow released from a bow: once begun, it stops at nothing until it reaches its target, and I can’t think of another action film that kept me on the edge of my seat so effectively. With just enough background to humanize the characters, and just enough symbolism to hint at deeper significance, I found it very satisfying, even on re-watch. Sandra Bullock, of all people, is terrific in the lead role, but the film really belongs to Cuarón.

***

7. Paterson
(Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Not everyone shares my liking for slow, quiet films, but I am optimistic that most people would appreciate Paterson, a slow, quiet film about a New Jersey bus driver with an avocation as a poet — or is it the other way around?  Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life. The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At the heart of the film is a beautiful portrait of Paterson’s marriage — a June and December marriage if there ever was one, but one of the most attractive I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s an altogether lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart.

***

8. Phantom Thread
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. It is a love story, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. To be perfectly frank, it sickens and turns sour, leaving a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. But it appears on this list because I am trying to be honest, and nine-tenths of this were among the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft of the decade for me.

***

9. La La Land
(Damien Chazelle, 2016)

It’s a bittersweet picture; when first I saw it I tasted mostly the sweet, when next mostly the bitter, but in both cases I was left charmed and touched by this portrait of a pair whose course of love does not run smooth. Sebastian and Mia are caught between following their dreams and following their love. They can try to do both, but life is hard, and something has to give.

It’s a musical, of course, which adds a welcome splash of ebullience to what might otherwise be just sad, and the wonderful epilogue rings all the emotional changes you could wish for. It left me teary-eyed and elated, and that is a rare feat.

***

10. Personal Shopper
(Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Competition for this tenth spot on the list has been fierce. Bloodied and beaten films lie askew on the field, but rising slowly to its feet in their midst, a look of grim triumph on its face, is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, an alluring film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. Part ghost story, part study in grief, and part existential mystery, it makes it to this list mostly on the strength of several sequences that I simply haven’t been able to get out of my mind. I don’t think any other film I saw this decade involved me quite so thoroughly in its perplexing details, or provoked me to quite so many frame-by-frame re-examinations of particular scenes. It’s far from being a perfect film, and is in some respects downright vexing, but curiously satisfying too.

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Honourable mentions: A Hidden Life (2019); Sudoeste (2012); Parasite (2019); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); First Reformed (2017); A Ghost Story (2017); La Sapienza (2014); Knight of Cups (2016); Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

Animated: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); 24 Frames (2017); Winnie the Pooh (2011).

Science Fiction: Never Let Me Go (2010); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014); A Quiet Place (2018).

Action: Inception (2013) ; Dunkirk (2017); Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Horror: The Witch (2015); It Follows (2014); The Conjuring (2013).

Documentaries: Tim’s Vermeer (2013); The Act of Killing (2012); They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).

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Comments welcome!

17 Responses to “Favourite films of the decade”

  1. Rob G Says:

    Very intriguing list. I’ve seen only four of your top ten, but quite a few of your other picks. I’d have to think more about the lists, but I’d agree immediately with Tree of Life as no. 1, as it’s in my top five all-time. I tried to watch Paterson twice and just couldn’t get into it. I don’t mind slow movies at all, but in this case I had trouble engaging with the characters, and in a slow movie that’s a death sentence. And I didn’t see Phantom Thread because everyone I know that saw it hated it. Lol.

    I’ll see if I can get a list of my own together, but in the meantime, have you seen the 2014 Turkish film Winter Sleep? I only ask because it came up in a TV series I was watching the other day, and the wikipedia entry for it makes it sound like it might be worth a look.

  2. cburrell Says:

    If the characters of “Paterson” didn’t draw you in, then, honestly, there is not much more to go on, apart from some interesting structural ideas. I can see why you didn’t persist under those conditions.

    I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone else about “Phantom Thread”. I can see people hating it in the end, but not in the beginning. Of course, the world is full of surprises. It’s the one film of Anderson’s that I’ve strongly admired since “There Will Be Blood”.

    I have not seen “Winter Sleep”, although it’s been on my watch-list for a few years, and I even had it queued up at one point. My experience with another Ceylon film — “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” — was not good, and this has deterred me from trying him again. It sounds like a film I should watch during the winter.

    • Rob G Says:

      You see, I really disliked ‘There Will Be Blood’ and that kind of predisposed me to want to avoid ‘Phantom Thread’ anyways. Then when several friends saw it and disliked it……

      I didn’t like ‘Once Upon a Time…’ either, but from what i gather ‘Winter Sleep’ is something of a different animal.

      • cburrell Says:

        Ha! Well, there you go. Anderson’s films must just not be your thing.

        I’m curious to know if you feel similarly about his early films, which to my mind are quite different in tone and even sensibility, especially “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”. The former I have seen once and hope not to see again, but the latter is one of my favourite films of all, Top 10 for sure. I really miss the PTA who had the cinematic chops and the artistic audacity to make films like those ones.


  3. I’m a little shamed by this post. Not only have I seen only a very few of the films mentioned, but over the past year or so have lived on a cinematic diet consisting almost entirely of murder mysteries and similar stuff. It’s partly a sort of laziness, using the tv mainly as a break from work and other more demanding things. I’m inspired by this to Do Better (I realized recently that that phrase has become a sort of standard exhortation in the social justice crusade).

    But anyway: I have seen Paterson and am a little surprised that Rob didn’t like it. And I enthusiastically second the praise of Arrival. And of Never Let Me Go, which I must have seen early in the decade and which I still think of fairly often.

    On the contrary side, if I had to make a thumbs-up or down judgment of Buster Scruggs, it would be down. I actively disliked several of its segments. Black humor without the humor.

    As y’all have probably heard, Villeneuve has directed a new adaption of Dune. I’m no great fan of the book, much less of its various sequels, but it is an interesting sub-creation and story, and if nothing else this seems to be, on the basis of the trailer, pretty spectacular visually.

    • cburrell Says:

      You have a talent for finding the weak point. You’ll notice that Buster Scruggs is listed last in the ‘honourable mentions’; it wasn’t there until the last minute. There were parts of it I really liked, and parts I didn’t, but it is prominent among the films I wish I could have seen again before making up my mind.

      I’m completely ignorant of the Dune universe, but I expect that to change with Villeneuve’s film, which I intend to see. I didn’t watch the trailer because I generally try to stay away from trailers if I’m already pretty sure I’d like to see it. Trailer-makers have a bad habit of telling us too much, in my experience.

  4. Rob G Says:

    Looking at your Honorable Mentions, I think I’d include both A Hidden Life and A Ghost Story in my ‘Favorites’ list. So my Top Ten would be, in no particular order (except Tree of Life as no. 1):

    Tree of Life
    Arrival
    Shadow (2018)
    Locke (2013)
    A Ghost Story
    To The Wonder
    A Hidden Life
    Midnight Special (2016)
    The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
    Drive (2011)

    Honorable mentions would include Prisoners (2013), The Drop (2014), Mud (2012), The Gentlemen (2019) and several that are on your list.

    • cburrell Says:

      That’s a good list. The two I haven’t seen are “Shadow” and “Midnight Special” (and all of your honourable mentions). Nice to see three Malick films on there! I would probably put “Knight of Cups” ahead of “To the Wonder” — I guess I did that on my list — but it’s a near thing.

      “Locke” and “Drive” are two films that I think I’d like to see again.

  5. Rob G Says:

    Oh geez, I just realized I left out “Take Shelter”! For some reason I was thinking it was earlier, like 2008 or 09. I’d move that onto my favorites list and move “Midnight Special” (same director and lead actor, as it happens) into the H.M. category.

    “Drive” is a tough one for me, because the violence is so over the top — but I just love its style. Which reminds me — another movie which would probably make my H.M. list is “Hanna,” Joe Wright’s action picture from 2011 (which again I thought was earlier!). Wright said somewhere that he wondered what it would look like if David Lynch made an action movie, and kind of filmed “Hanna” with that in mind.

    • cburrell Says:

      And “Hanna” was one of Saoirse Ronan’s early films! I remember it fondly partly on that account, although I admit I, too, thought it was earlier.

      And “Take Shelter” was one of Jessica Chastain’s early roles, back when it seemed she was a chanteuse who could do no wrong. I liked that film too, and I think it was listed on one of my annual best-of lists. Yes, it was.

      • Rob G Says:

        Right — Ronan’s first big role was in Wright’s earlier movie “Atonement,” which is a favorite of mine from the previous decade.

        Man, it’s hard to believe that both of these movies are almost 10 years old. Where did that decade go? LOL.

  6. Rob G Says:

    Oh, and one more addition to my H.M. list. This was on my original list but I missed it somehow when mentioning them here: “The Big Short.”

    • cburrell Says:

      I saw it. I still don’t understand the financial crisis!

      • Rob G Says:

        I think Wendell Berry summed it up pretty well when he asked, “How is a bet on a debt an asset?”

        If I bet $1000.00 that you’ll default on your mortgage there’s no way I can declare that bet an asset or sell it to someone else as one (try putting that on your tax return!). But the fact that it was done legally, and what’s more, millions of times over, doesn’t make it any less of an unreality. Eventually reality will win out. Which it did, and the whole thing collapsed.

  7. Geri Lawhon Says:

    I have not seen most of these, but now I will start looking for them. Thanks for the wonderful list.


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