The Best Films of the 2010s: Transcendent Highs and Sunken Places

The Best Films of the 2010s: Transcendent Highs and Sunken Places December 31, 2019

What are your favorite films of the 2010s? Mine tend to have a kinetic, visceral kick. Or plunge viewers into a deeply contemplative space. The best provide thrills, chills, and an eternal perspective on our vexing human conundrum.

They shake us up, disturb our peace, demand an active response. While I love well crafted genre movies from Sicario and Hell or High Water to John Wick and The Edge of Tomorrow, I also relish films that defy conventions and move the medium forward.

Consider how Arrival traffics in all kinds of science fiction conventions but challenges us towards creative peacemaking. I was there for opening day of Marvel enterprises like Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and Avengers: Endgame. I am always up for a spectacular spectacular. But the films on my list all stick with me in significant ways. Not just the performances or the story but the abiding mood and feeling. They transport me to a transcendent plane or a sunken place that I find myself returning to even against my wishes. 

I’m surprised how many horror movies have endured. The chills that slipped up my spine in Under the Skin and Take Shelter were complemented by The Babadook, Hereditary, Sinister, and The Witch. While I enjoyed the arch comedies of Wes Anderson like Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel, it is the brainy horror of Jordan Peele in Get Out which cut through our collective madness with even more ingenuity.

After dominating the first decade of the 21st century, I might have guessed that Christopher Nolan would emerge as the most cited filmmaker in the next decade. While I thoroughly enjoyed Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk, I may be finding the ingenuity and construction of his complex films keep them somewhat emotionally removed.  Martin Scorsese’s seminal place in my early film fanaticism did not necessarily prepare me for his late career renaissance.

While some may find the sheer length of his movies and the repetition of hyper masculine themes off-putting, I find them remarkably resonant. Scorsese held up cracked mirrors to our national devotion to avarice (The Wolf of Wall Street), our aversion to suffering (Silence), and our capacity for self deception (The Irishman) with equal vigor.  May we all fight the good fight into our seventies.

What filmmaker has bubbled up with the most invigorating vision for the next decade? Bong Joon-ho mixed genre elements from film noir (Memories of Murder) to monster movies (The Host) with remarkable aplomb. 

In Snowpiercer, Okja, and Parasite, Bong addresses our most vexing social crises with a palpable cinematic kick. We will continue to need filmmakers’ well placed prompts to wake us from our slumber regarding the environment?

Will we recover our compassion or devolve into class war? Whether studying the finest films from Japan (like Shoplifters) or the most cautionary tales from Korea (like Parasite) or even the earliest meditations of the perils of social media (like The Social Network), we have had ample warnings.

The deep humanity and compassion summoned in Moonlight, Short Term 12, A Separation, Timbuktu, and Lady Bird suggests that our better angels may still prevail.

My top 30 in order:

30. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)  Video games, graphic novels, and indie rock rolled into one indelible movie. Saw it on opening day in an empty theater but I knew the legend would grow (and grow).

29. THE WITCH (2016)  “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Black Philip still haunts my dreams.

28. EIGHTH GRADE (2018)  Empathy, comedy, and the horrors of junior high intermingled so brilliantly.

27. HOLY MOTORS (2012) A prescient preview of the roles we increasingly find ourselves playing via social media.

26. LOGAN (2017)  The legend of Wolverine comes to a fitting conclusion full of honor and sacrifice. Also, best use of Johnny Cash in a trailer.

25. HER (2013) A chilling portrait of our digital devotion and disembodied relationships. A little too timely.

24. TIMBUKTU (2015)  The high cost of fundamentalism in Mali and the humanizing cure.

23. THE BABADOOK (2014) What happens when grief and trauma are buried? A frightening film about learning to live with our pain.

22. THE IRISHMAN (2019) Three hours of mundane murder and malfeasance for a thirty minute meditation on the meaning of life and the hereafter.

21. ROMA  (2018) What does generosity and courage look like in a Mexican director’s memory?  Sheer beauty in black and white.

20. SILENCE (2016) Why is God silent amidst so much pain, suffering, and even martyrdom? The answer arrives in a still small voice that declares it was not in vain.

19. IDA (2014)  What can we commit ourselves to and when? Ida wrestles with her calling amidst communism, Nazis, resistance, love and jazz.

18. SHORT TERM 12  (2013) So much empathy for hurting kids and broken homes and the professionals who deal with their own crises.

17. TAKE SHELTER (2011) Traversing the razor’s edge between prophecy and madness with harrowing, apocalyptic results.

16. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) So much excess, such unchecked greed, such a timely and timeless dive into our insatiable desire for short cuts to fame and fortune.

15. PARASITE (2019)  Upstairs. Downstairs. How deep is the gap between the haves and have nots? How many countries and cultures does it include? And how much will our indifference cost us?

14. LADYBIRD (2017) Grace infuses each frame of this essential coming-of-age story. A paean to the frustrating parents, schools, houses of worship and hometowns which nurtured us.

13. A SEPARATION (2011) What unites us? Our dogged commitment to self preservation and justification. A perfect explication of our ‘post-truth’ era.

12. MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)  Kids eager to grow up outfox childish adults in this romp across the ultimate camping film.

11. FIRST REFORMED (2018) Paul Schrader’s transcendental style in film reaches an apotheosis in a cautionary plea to care for creation.

10. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)  We were warned where a platform rooted in grudges and revenge might lead us.

9. SHOPLIFTERS (2018)  No one is expendable even in the most industrialized economies. The necessity and comfort of family in an atomizing era.

8. GET OUT (2017)  Getting inside the sunken place inherent in the African American experience left us all screaming, “Get Out”.

7. UNDER THE SKIN (2014)  Men discover the chilling abyss where unchecked desire may lead.  And The Other discovers what makes confounding humanity so appealing.

6. MOONLIGHT (2016) Three deeply compassionate windows into one young man’s life. Pure cinematic poetry.

5. SNOWPIERCER (2014)  Cram the Occupy movement and the endless winter initiated by climate change onto a high speed train. What could possibly go wrong?

4. ARRIVAL (2016) How to respond to a perceived invasion? With patient translation rather than foolish aggression, connecting our story to theirs.

3. THE MASTER (2012) How to critique the most litigious and nefarious cult of our time? By blending two powerful performances into one inscrutable film about post traumatic stress disorder, myth making and personal reinvention. 

2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)  Flaming guitars, jerry rigged cars and women leading us to the sustainable green place (if we can weather the apocalypse ahead).

1. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011) A cinematic cathedral built to last a 1000 years.  From creation (and dinosaurs!) through the suffering of Job to the gathering at the river of your family and mine. Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki attempt to capture eternity in every frame.


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