The year 2019 is nearly over, and that means that “best movies of the decade” lists are being unrolled, like sacred scrolls from the high priests.
Every list is a zero-sum game. For every movie included, there’s a thousand movies excluded. And so a lot of movies are discarded as not being among “the best.”
This would be fine, except there’s a dirty truth that nobody acknowledges. Hold your breathe, because here it is…
Nobody in the world is qualified (yet) to put together a best-of-the-decade list.
Why not? Beyond the fact that we’re all blinded by the spirits of our time, unable to fully grasp which movies from the 2010s have cross-cultural and universal appeal, the stark economical fact is that no critic has surveyed the absolutely staggering amount of good movies made in the 2010s.
Let’s do the math. If a critic were really trying, he or she could watch three modern movies a day. That’s about 1000 per year. Which totals out to 10,000 in the decade of the 2010s.
Wow, that’s an amazing amount. Except that, according to letterboxd.com, there were 154,893 movies made during the 2010s! So the best that anybody could have done is watch 6% of the movies made during the 2010s.
I bet that actual paid movie critics, who do that work as a full-time job, watch 3-4 new movies per week. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if that’s the case, they are watching only about 2000 movies per decade, or just 1% of all movies made.
Now, it’s true that they probably don’t watch most of the garbage released on the indie circuit, small film festivals, student films, and so on. So some of those 154,983–and probably a majority–are total junk that should be avoided at all costs.
Nevertheless, there are few people who can fully grasp the enormity of cinema worldwide in the 2010s. Who can keep up with Hollywood’s major releases, in theaters and on streaming services, let alone Bollywood, Europe, East Asia, and basically the entire world?
No “Best-of-the-2010s” list could possibly be as thorough as a scholar such as me would prefer. What are these lists for, then?
For fun. For entertainment. For conversation.
Great, but most of the lists, as it will turn out, will look the same. For example, compare the rogerebert.com list to the Onion AV Club’s list. These lists weren’t made by the same people, but they have pretty much the same movies in the top 20! What?!?
Can you say “groupthink”? How about “hivemind”?
That’s why you’re here: to see A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LIST! (Well, mostly.)
And so I present to you the Greats of the 2010s, by me, a humble Midwesterner Movie Critic. Remember, this list is just for fun.
No doubt that most of these on the list will fall into the dustbin of history, if they already haven’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to watch them to see if you think otherwise.
15 and 14. Shaun the Sheep / Song of the Sea
Two of the best animated movies from the decade, which means they are also two of the best movies of the decade. You’ve got a mix here, the slapstick comedy of Shaun the Sheep and the melancholic folktale beauty of Song of the Sea. Actually, the truth is that I liked Big Hero 6 best of all, but it’s too manic and comic-bookish to be called “great.” This decade was almost as good for animated movies as the 2000s, the best of which are now no different in quality and complexity than any other great feature film.
13. The Zero Theorem
Nobody will put this movie in a top list, because they didn’t watch it properly. Terry Gilliam had a great decade, and he was in his 70s for most of it. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a smart adaptation of the famous Cervantes novel. But his best movie, The Zero Theorem, is extremely well-written, directed, acted, and culturally profound.
Basically this movie is about why you shouldn’t work from home. It also has one of the greatest houses ever in movie history — that’s no joke, and I say that knowing there’s a lot of competition for that honor.
I take this movie to be an atheist’s soulful lament at the problem of disbelief in the modern world. The movie also presents an ugly truth: giant corporations dominate our lives. The main character has the same name as the writer of Ecclesiastes, Qohen Leth, and he speaks in the third person. That ought to tell you how thoughtful this movie is. Why it escaped mainstream critics’ radars is beyond me.
12. Another Year
A candidate for British director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. The movie is about the changes in friendships over time in the lives of several middle- to lower-class English people. The characters are all highly complex, the movie is sure to generate multiple interpretations from you, as you watch it over the years, and it is on my list of movies that any thinking adult would appreciate.
This movie got pummeled by everybody, critics and audiences alike, when it came out in the fall of 2017. CinemaScore gave it a rare “F” grade. It’s easy to see why. I think part of the problem was that audiences expected a cute Jennifer Lawrence movie, ala “Silver Linings Playbook.” It’s the opposite of that.
The director, Darren Aronofsky, was clearly going through psychological trauma when he wrote and directed this movie. That comes out very well in every frame, for good or for ill. I prefer to watch “Mother!” as some kind of philosophical and theological statement about 1) artists and their creations, 2) married life between a poorly-matched couple, and 3) the entire creation of the universe. This is one of the few movies that is encyclopedic in scope. Like my #1 movie below, it is about everything, in a way. It does hold a mirror up to the world, and the view is really bleak. But this is not a horror movie; it is a philosophical statement that echoes a lot of the hollowness of our contemporary zeitgeist.
Now this movie might just be an atheist screed against belief in God, any God at all. If that’s the case, then the director is critiquing all creators, not only God, but also himself as a kind of false, harsh god. I found Plato, Nietzsche, the entire Bible, and a whole lot more in this movie. As well, questions about overpopulation, theft of property rights, and open borders.
What exactly Aronofsky is getting at, I’m not sure, and so I will gladly change this praise of the movie if I find out more. This is like Aronofsky’s other fantasy movie, “The Fountain”: visually dazzling, inspired, aching, and confusing.
If you boil this movie down to its simplest elements, “Mother!” perfectly expresses how much we introverts hate house parties.
You need to be warned that I think few people ought to watch this movie, unless they are prepared for it. You can’t watch this movie casually, without your brain on. Most people are better off avoiding it.
10. Florence Foster Jenkins
This decade’s events should’ve proved to us that we’re all delusional, in some way, as most of the great philosophers have been telling us for ages. As well, Neuroscience tells us that we’re not rational, although we think we are, and that we make decisions and then rationalize them. How true this is, I don’t know, but it seems mostly right, most of the time. No movie better shows us the problem of self-delusions better than “Florence Foster Jenkins.” It’s based on the life of the real Jenkins, a patron of the arts who thought she could sing opera. She couldn’t, and that’s the central mystery of this movie: how a person with great taste in singing and music could not at all comprehend how bad she herself is at singing.
Most of the top-10 lists of this decade have no comedies on them. Zero! I’ve already put two on this list, Florence Foster Jenkins and Shaun the Sheep. From my point of view, comedy nearly died this decade, thanks to ideological insanities connected to the oppressive demands of political correctness. We need more comedy, and better comedy, which is the order-restoring means of keeping us sane and jolly.
9. Of Gods and Men
Now to a tragedy. This movie, about Catholic monks in North Africa, represents the sad decline in Christianity in Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East and North Africa itself. The film perfectly captures the atmosphere of their monastery, their friendship, their lived-out faith, and the trials they suffer because they are who they are. The unspoken outrage during this decade are the attacks, all over the world, on innocent Christians. This movie, made by an atheist, captures that outrage and makes it palpable to any viewer.
I wrote a good long essay on this movie, complete with pictures, that basically argues how and why Fake News is a phenomenon during this decade. Please read it, because it is good and illuminating. One of my points in it is that our degraded society has opened up opportunities for psychopaths to prey on us. That is in part what this movie is about. It is a must-watch for everybody.
7. Nebraska / The Descendants
I’m convinced that there’s a bunch of closet conservative directors in Hollywood. I base this statement solely on their respective bodies of work. Clint Eastwood and David Mamet are out-of-the-closet, but given the bulk of their work, I suggest the following directors as conservatives of some type (and by that I do not mean that they vote Republican): James Mangold, Christopher Nolan, Scott Cooper, Brad Bird, Mike Judge, Martin McDonagh, and …
Alexander Payne. I could be wrong about him, but he keeps making movies that honor characters who love their homeland, love their family, are dutiful in their lives, at the risk of suffering various types of hardships, and movies that tell us that these are among the most important human endeavors.
Both movies are tremendous. One is about Nebraska (see my critical essay on it), and the other about Hawaii. Each is focused on the importance of place to human identity, an ancient human need that is fading away quickly in this age of instant gratification.
I wrote an essay on this, arguing that it’s making fun of the common love of tech devices and the companies that make them. Theodore Twombly, the main character, is as delusional as Florence Foster Jenkins. The great thing about Her is that it convinces you to believe in his delusion while simultaneously getting you to see that his delusion is ridiculous. No movie better captures all of the social and psychological problems created by the advent and ubiquity of smartphones. I hope what’s featured in this movie becomes a relic and not the norm.
5. Anything by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi
Is Farhadi the greatest living director? There are so many good ones that it’s hard to say, but he’s a candidate. He makes nothing but great movies.
What other critics have gotten right is that his 2011 movie “A Separation” is appearing in their Best of the 2010s lists. However, his “The Past” and “The Salesman” are even better, in my view, with “The Past” as his most complex and artful. I have shown “A Separation” to Midwestern college students, and although it’s Iranian, it has subtitles, and it’s nearly all dialogue, most of them found it rewarding. You can’t go wrong choosing any movie he makes.
4. The Dark Knight Rises / Dunkirk
It was Nolan’s decade at the box office. He made weird movies and people still flocked to them. What is “Inception” about exactly? I don’t know, but it’s entertaining. “Dunkirk” is about a lost battle, and yet it feels like a triumph for the English soldiers to pull back into their own nation. The movie is an indirect argument for Brexit.
Meanwhile, “The Dark Knight Rises” capped a superhero trilogy that’s better as a whole than its three separate parts. I liked, actually loved, this last movie because Bane, Bale, Caine, Pittsburgh, and so much more. The Dark Knight trilogy needs to be watched all at once, as a whole, because it is about the early 21st century: terrorism and the war on terror, mass surveillance, globalism and nationalism, the question of what cities are, questions about justice for criminals, and the need for good citizens to be diligent and active.
Most critics are putting “Mad Max: Fury Road” at the top of their lists. No. It’s a finely crafted movie, with almost no story, and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” is better and more complex than it. Give me “The Dark Knight Rises” any day.
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Uh oh. So many people have ragged on this movie for ideological reasons that this choice will make some readers mad.
To those readers: you’re wrong. McDonagh channels Flannery O’Connor, who says that God’s grace is available to anyone in any moment, including people we hate. You have to watch the movie with that in mind. If you don’t, reread the Bible again. (I’m getting off the soapbox now …)
McDonagh’s the best screenwriter on the planet. I say that probably because I prefer the complexity that playwrights like McDonagh can create on paper, and his movies feels like elaborate plays. I was moved more by this movie than any other on this list, which says nothing about you and your own experiences. Nevertheless, I believe that this movie is objectively great, if the standards including acting, directing, writing, editing, sound, and other typical movie-making stuff.
I hope that McDonagh turns to comedy next.
2. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams
You’ll never see the Lascaux cave paintings in person, and neither will I. Almost no one ever will. Because the paintings would deteriorate with any change to their environment, there won’t ever be tourism there.
The paintings are beautiful, stunning, and among the world’s greatest art treasures. At 40,000+ years old, we don’t know who made them or why. But we understand them, just a little bit, we think.
Werner Herzog made this documentary, and for no other reason than he captured the beauty of these paintings on film, for all of humanity who will ever live, this movie is at #2. It is that important, and it must become a world-treasure.
#1. The Tree of Life
Sometimes you just have to agree with other people. The critics at rogerebert.com put this one at the top of their list, and so I assent to their choice.
The truth is that I’m not sure about it. It is the safest pick. It is revolutionary filmmaking of the highest order, while also calling forth and paying respect to the great movies of the past that it quotes (e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey; Pather Panchali).
Because of its filmic aspects alone, “The Tree of Life” will probably be remembered and watched longer than any other movie on any best-of-the-2010s list. That doesn’t mean you will like it. I watched a steady stream of people leave the theater when I saw it, a phenomenon I have not witnessed before or since. It does not cater to casual viewing. Because it does not do one of the things that all stories probably should do, which is entertain, I am dubious about putting it at the top.
But I end this list with a Christian, Terrence Malick, the greatest artist in moviemaking at the top of his craft here.
By the way, here’s my Youtube video on the top-10 movies. I altered the list above slightly for the Youtube crowd.