Earlier this year, I toyed with the idea of writing the semi-obligatory “Best of the Decade” list. What films were the best in this arbitrary chunk of time we call the 2010s? The USA Today did it. The A.V. Club did it. The New Yorker did it. Wired did it. IndieWire did it early. CineFiles should at least attempt to do it, too.
I made a list on Letterboxd. It started at around 400 films. I winnowed it down to roughly 200. I could copy those films into a traditional list. Write a pithy blurb here and there. Attach some pictures. But I hesitated. And hesitated. Tweaked a ranking here or there. Again, hesitation. Ultimately, it just didn’t happen.
The question that kept catching me, preventing me from doing any real work toward a Best of the Decade list, was: “Why bother?” This list represents one person’s “best” films of the past 10 years, and even that one person is not confident in its contents. It all read too…basic. I wasn’t pushing any boundaries with this list. I wasn’t telling people anything they didn’t already know. Of course Mad Max: Fury Road and The Social Network were prominent films of the 2010s. They already appear on nearly every other best of the decade list. Who is possibly going to give a damn about another critic putting Moonlight at #1?
I started thinking about taking a different angle. Should I go against what I love in order to champion what I felt was underseen? I’ve already spoken at length on this site about Hu Bo’s masterpiece An Elephant Sitting Still, a film whose recency, I hope, is to blame for its lack of representation on best-of lists (The New Yorker gave it a mention). Is it worth praising the quiet, ethereal, and hauntingly beautiful Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, even though I would not personally favor it over some 50 other 2010s films? Does it make sense to gush over the crazed, idiosyncratic Holy Motors, knowing that it is a film catering to a small audience who appreciates its brand of curio oddity?
Should I take a stand on films I absolutely loved that aren’t getting a lot of attention on best of the decade lists? Films like Chloe Zhao’s profound The Rider. Or the Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon-penned The Big Sick, which floored me with its rich tonal mixture and heart-on-its-sleeve energy. Or the existentially shattering animated film from Don Hertzfeldt, It’s Such a Beautiful Day.
Is it redundant to show my unabashed obsession with Yorgos Lanthimos, who could very easily have four films on a decade list? Does anyone who has seen The Favourite need to know how good Alps was, too? Can I afford to double or triple dip with directors? Tangerine and The Florida Project. Ida and Cold War. Dunkirk and Interstellar. Chi-Raq and Blackkklansman. Lady Bird and Little Women. Phoenix and Transit. Roma and Gravity. Hereditary and Midsommar. Whiplash and La La Land (and what about First Man?). Personal Shopper and The Clouds of Sils Maria. Good Time and Uncut Gems. The majority of Denis Villeneuve’s career.
Perhaps my fear is that I have not honed the mature palate needed to truly curate a best-of list of any sort. I haven’t seen the real best of the 2010s. I never saw the director’s cut of Margaret, so I haven’t seen it the way it was meant to be seen. I’ve seen a Leviathan from the 2010s…but it isn’t the best Leviathan from the 2010s. I still haven’t seen Cameraperson! And I call myself a critic.
Perhaps I don’t have a full appreciation for the films I should be appreciating. Perhaps I don’t love the poetic fabrications of Certified Copy enough. I don’t fall under the magnetic spell of the sumptuous Carol enough. My somewhat inexplicable aversion to Terrence Malick shouldn’t stop me from realizing the genius of The Tree of Life. I might adore the ambitions of Meek’s Cutoff and Under the Skin, but perhaps it is inexcusable not to have them in my top 10.
Maybe it is the fear of pretension which is causing my hesitation. Is there an unconscious desire to come off as “high brow?” Am I hiding my guilty pleasure love for genre films in order to preserve some arbitrary respect that is reserved for those who prefer art films to action films? Can I defend the decision to put the stunt spectaculars of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Raid in the top 50? Or the atmospheric horror I loved the most of the decade, The Witch, in my top 25? Or the neo-Western film about brotherhood and financial crisis, Hell or High Water, in my top 10?
Can I live these picks down? How about something so insular and specific as Whiplash? Is there any argument for why this film deserves to be in the top five, other than the fact that I can watch it any day of the week and enjoy the sheer visceral anxiety of it?
Do the films in a best of the decade list have to define the decade? Is it required that they moved the cultural needle? That they staked a large enough claim in the cultural conversation that they must be talked about in the context of an entire decade? That they made some sort of long-standing impact on the world of cinema, so much so that we need best of the decade lists in order to canonize these pieces of art?
Must I include Joshua Oppenheimer’s crucial double feature of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, because they are important works of documentary journalism? What about the politically resonant acts of journalism in the most potent documentaries made about the conflict in Syria: For Sama, City of Ghosts, and The Last Men in Aleppo? Is there an imperative to highlight those films which document what it meant to exist in the 2010s? The techno-phobic warning of Citizenfour, or the passionate plea for prison reform in Ava DuVernay’s 13th.
Or does this approach discount works of documentary which have a more timeless quality, like the lively Faces Places, the personal and unique Stories We Tell, or the impressive restoration on display in They Shall Not Grow Old? Can we slip a concert doc like Amazing Grace in the mix, even though it was filmed in the 1970s and just so happened to be completed before the 2010s came to a close? Or a celebration of the powerful and presently relevant words of James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro? What about the incredibly passionate work of autobiography in Minding the Gap? Or the visual recreations in the harrowing Tower? Or the engaging historical documentary of Apollo 11 and Best of Enemies? Or the wild puzzle of a lost film in Shirkers.
What about the best of the 2010s’ biographical docs? The heart-filling Won’t You Be My Neighbor. The in-depth look into the lives of musicians with short careers, Amy and Searching for Sugar Man. Or a loving tribute to a film critic with a prolific career, Life Itself. The wild narratives in films like Three Identical Strangers, Jodorowsky’s Dune, and The Wolfpack.
Is there room for me to include the strange cerebral films that I have a personal affection for? Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. What about films that check all the boxes for my specific aesthetic tastes but which might be for other viewers more of an acquired taste? Films like Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Julia Ducournau’s Raw, Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden.
Then, of course, there is recency bias. Over time, will 2019 films like Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Little Women, Uncut Gems, and Pain & Glory hold up to scrutiny (I mean, I would put money on it, but who knows for certain)? Do I have enough mature knowledge of the earlier half of the decade, given the fact that I was in high school for the first three years of it? Can I even say I have the right to call films best if I watched them with teenage eyes? Having started CineFiles in 2015, it is clear to see that I have put much more time and effort into movie watching in the latter half of the decade. So my list would most likely skew more recent than a best of the decade list ought to.
But that doesn’t diminish the impact of films like Phantom Thread or Manchester by the Sea, even if those directors made films earlier in the decade that some would consider better. And I nevertheless have a soft spot for films I saw in younger years which have only grown in importance over the course of the decade. Inside Llewyn Davis bears more of its soul to me every time I watch it. I still appreciate the generic subterfuge that is Drive, even if teenage me only saw the badassery of it. The Cabin in the Woods may look somewhat messy in hindsight, but it still resonates with me as a meta-horror experiment just as it did when I first watched it as a horror-loving teen in 2011.
And I could talk about horror all the live-long day. But I don’t run a specialty publication dealing exclusively in horror, like Bloody Disgusting. So why over-stuff my best of the decade list with the niche genre fair of horror and thrillers? I would have to include the following (in addition to the aforementioned horror films): The Invitation, Tigers Are Not Afraid, One Cut of the Dead, Revenge, Get Out, Us, Under the Shadow, Green Room, The Babadook, It Follows, Queen of Earth, It Comes at Night, White God, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Neon Demon, Demon, Goodnight Mommy, Train to Busan, The Sound of My Voice, The Guest, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and, my guilty pleasure horror film of the 2010s, the Evil Dead remake from Fede Alvarez. It’s just too many films.
And that doesn’t even encompass the horror comedies I loved in the past decade: What We Do in the Shadows, The World’s End, This is the End, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Happy Death Day 2U, Rubber, Dude Bro Party Massacre III, Stitches, The WNUF Halloween Special, Cheap Thrills, Mom and Dad, Ready or Not, and The Greasy Strangler.
Then there are the broad comedies, which always get short shrift in lists like this. Blockers and Game Night and They Came Together and Crazy Rich Asians and Spy and 21 and 22 Jump Street and Neighbors and Long Shot and Bridesmaids.
Or the more offbeat comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Art of Self Defense and The Trip trilogy and The Overnight and Welcome to Me and Brigsby Bear and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore and The One I Love and The Nice Guys and Results and John Dies at the End and Bernie and Inherent Vice and Entertainment and Sorry to Bother You and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Or the coming of age comedies like Lady Bird or The Edge of Seventeen or Boy or Eighth Grade or Hearts Beat Loud or Sing Street or Blinded by the Light or The Way Way Back or Dope or Booksmart.
Or the sentimental comedies like Don’t Think Twice and Frances Ha and Mistress America and Beginners and Let the Sunshine In and Another Year and Paterson and Your Sister’s Sister and Obvious Child and Wild Rose and Stan & Ollie and Tully.
There’s also the flipside of the coin: dramas. Films with singular lead performances: All is Lost, Christine, Elle, Blue Ruin, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Captain Phillips, Brawl in Cell Block 99, A Fantastic Woman, First Reformed, I, Tonya, Her Smell, Her, Locke, Nightcrawler, Selma, Wild, Arctic, and A Most Wanted Man. Two-handers like Leave No Trace, Blue Valentine, Respire, The Lighthouse, The Master, Mississippi Grind, A Most Violent Year, Nebraska, Room, A Separation, and The Skin I Live In. Ensemble dramas: Spotlight, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Widows, True Grit, Mudbound, The Fighter, The Place Beyond the Pines, The Tale, and The Death of Stalin (technically not a drama, but it is a dark dark comedy).
There are animated films: Inside Out, World of Tomorrow, Moana, The Breadwinner, The LEGO Movie, The Wind Rises, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Red Turtle, Isle of Dogs, Anomalisa, Mirai, The Adventures of Tintin, Your Name., Coco, Loving Vincent, Zootopia, My Life as a Zucchini, and the film about the impact of animated films, Life, Animated.
What about difficult to categorize films? The guerilla-style pseudo-documentaries of Jafar Panahi, This is Not a Film and Taxi. The avant garde experimentation with film fragility witnessed in Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room. The appropriately yet weirdly ram-centric Rams. The genre-defying coming of age horror fantasy drama The Fits from Anna Rose Holmer. The inexplicable Best Picture-winning amphibian romance vehicle from acclaimed horror director Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water. Claire Denis’ very sex-forward science fiction film High Life. The super pulpy exploitation throwback thriller Let the Corpses Tan. The always difficult to categorize films of Bong Joon-ho, Okja, Snowpiercer, and Parasite. Lars von Trier’s elegiac reflection on depression and global catastrophe in Melancholia.
And there are so many quiet, human films which are easily looked over in favor of the extravagant cinematic spectacles. I’m thinking The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Private Life; If Beale Street Could Talk; Support the Girls; Shoplifters; 20th Century Women; The Farewell; Call Me By Your Name; Amour; The Hunt; 45 Years; Mustang; Columbus; Boyhood; Force Majeure; A Ghost Story; Two Days, One Night; Moneyball; The Miseducation of Cameron Post; Short Term 12; and both Tangerine and The Florida Project.
But, hold on! Those extravagant cinematic spectacles are worth mentioning, too! Cinematic beauties like Ida, Embrace of the Serpent, Dunkirk, Jackie, Baby Driver, Sicario, Gravity, Birdman, La La Land,. Epic narrative feats of excellence such as Silence and The Irishman, Cloud Atlas, Roma, and 12 Years a Slave.
Not to mention the blockbuster hits that fueled the business while still giving mainstream movie-goers something interesting: Inception, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, both the Dawn of and the War for The Planet of the Apes, Creed, Edge of Tomorrow, the John Wick films, the Mission: Impossible films, Skyfall, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Fast Five, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (apologies to Rise of Skywalker),
And…shit…Paddington 2. If I don’t put that in my top 100, I think I might be arrested.
This was the pressure facing me as I stared down the blank page of a best of the decade in film list. How could anyone possibly come up with a workable list under these circumstances? Personal bias. Recency bias. Genre diversity. Over-hype. Under-hype. Cultural impact vs. aesthetic tastes. It is all too much to grapple with. The lists don’t matter. Just like the movies you like. Don’t let stuffy critics tell you what to like. Critics like me, who waste the precious time of life watching movies and tinkering with rankings and “best of” and “worst of.” It’s for the birds.
So I didn’t make a list.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)