Ten years are gone just like that. I have been doing my Best Films of the Year list for Geeks of Doom for the last decade. Now it is time for my Top Films of the Decade list. I can remember where I saw all of the films on my list. It’s like my last ten years are bookmarked by the films that I saw. Almost like milestones if you will. I can immediately recall where I was mentally and existentially when I watched The Master in 2012, or the feelings I was enduring when in 2011 I saw Melancholia. It’s truly amazing how re-watching movies can thrust you back in time.
I recently watched all of these films again not simply to guarantee that these were the 50 best of this decade, but to discover if I was the same person when I first viewed them. Throughout this arduous journey revelations (a newly realized appreciation for Boyhood), re-evaluations (how could I have picked American Hustle as the best film of 2013?), and validations (The Tree of Life is as close as cinema will ever get to being called art) abounded.
I didn’t appreciate the subtleties surrounding the creation of a family when I first saw The Tree of Life in 2011. How could I? Now I have a wife and two children. I was also too feisty and anxious in 2010 to let the tranquility of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dream-like film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives wash over me.
When encountering some of these films a second time around it was only then that I finally arrived at their greatness (Inside Llewyn Davis, Call Me By Your Name, Certified Copy). Other films on this list came out after I made my yearly top ten list. I didn’t place them anywhere, but they would’ve made any list of any year this decade (A Separation, Phantom Thread, Mysteries of Lisbon). Lastly, I’ve included a 2019 entry here, the Colombian film Birds of Passage. The timeless quality it possesses is uncanny. It’s as powerful and impactful as any film here, and, most importantly, it gives us cinephiles hope for the future.
As like any list, after it’s completed you feel like you messed up and placed one film higher than another. Ask me again tomorrow what my favorite films of this decade are and I’ll probably give you a different list. Here we go with Part I of this two-part list.
50. American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell)
It’s truly staggering witnessing consummate film-making at this high of a level. David O. Russell appears to be imbibed with a surplus of energy that permits him to effortlessly juggle drama, comedy, tragedy and romance. His directorial embellishments blatantly capture the ineptitude and indolence of contemporary filmmakers.
49. Foxtrot (2017, Samuel Moaz)
Grief and endless ennui are up for dissection here. Israeli director Samuel Moaz focuses on the exact moment when two parents are informed that something awful has happened to their son while on military duty. The film systematically exposes its characters’ rawest emotions. It is a beautiful, emotionally exhaustive, and at times funny film that perceives the carnage brought about by the past, grief, and ennui.
48. Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)
Toy Story 3 begins magnificently with old videos of Andy playing with his toys â€” a time when he kept reality at bay and possessed nothing but joy, caring very little about what was transpiring outside of his fantasy world abundantly full of train robberies and spacemen saving the day from evil. We all have to move on, and Toy Story 3 finds grievance in this stark realization and employs it throughout the movie within characters like Andy who is now going away to college, his mother struggling to deal with that, and his entire chest of toys who are facing being either shipped to the attic, donated to Sunnyside daycare, or thrown in the trash because Andy has grown up.
47. Birds of Passage (2019, Cristina Gallego and Cira Guerra)
Even though taking place between the years of 1969-1980, Birds of Passage feels archaic because of its intense observance of age-old traditions, superstitions, and its heavy reliance on truths that dreams could provide. Directors Gallego and Guerra vividly recreate these rituals as they concern themselves with an ambitious narrative about one man’s greed and how it can morally attain a soul and an entire village for generations.
46. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Combine the wonderful sounds of orchestral music with the delicate beauty and undulating movements of the ballerinas along with the indelible images that cinema provides and we get a truly ambitious film that is a mixture of poetry, sex, feverish dream, nightmares, and psychology. Black Swan is an uncompromising masterpiece that isn’t afraid of stripping the veneer off of people and things that are seemingly beautiful.
45. The Place Beyond the Pines (2012, Derek Cianfrance)
One isn’t prepared what director Derek Cianfrance is beyond capable of here. He has crafted a grandiose narrative, in which he is in complete control of, that spans decades in the lives of a bank robber (Ryan Gosling) and a police officer (Bradley Cooper). It’s a powerful and unrelenting film that dares to be big in the topics it goes after (familial discord and police corruption). The film peers at how the ramifications of choices and how heedless decisions can shape generations.
44. This is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi)
Confined only to his apartment due to house arrest, Jafar Panahi crafts an insightful documentary about his life, the future for Iran, and unfulfilled films that he will probably never make. Panahi was arrested on charges of antigovernment collusion and banned from making movies. Thanks to his iPhone and his friend who smuggles a camera into his apartment, Panahi attempts to convey his confusion and turmoil. This is some of the most ambitious film-making one will see, as he is in complete defiance with the law as he strives to still keep his art alive.
43. Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)
Drive is all about a lost man who is trying to attain, and hopefully preserve, a fleeting moment of bliss in a city that has already descended into a ghastly abyss populated by criminals. When the film unexpectedly erupts into a beautiful medley of brutality, it switches to another gear that guarantees its distinction. Refn’s direction of chaos and carnage is done with such artistic flair as he transforms gushes of blood into beautiful artistry.
42. Birdman (2014, Alejandro G. Inarritu)
Some see this new film by Inarritu to be vastly different than his prior works to this film. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful are films of his that are strongly rooted in dark, despairing themes. Surprisingly, Birdman is no different. Sure it has an upbeat vibe, rambunctious percussion soundtrack, and a lyrical camera that documents everything in one long uninterrupted take (thanks to d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki). But donâ€™t let these embellishments fool you. That is all a faÃ§ade as Inarritu is going after something profound here. Themes of self-worth, self-discovery, and battling inner-demons are prevalent in Birdman, as well as misery and self-loathing.
41. Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
Beautiful and unique, Her is by far Jonezâ€™s most complete, emotional, and mature film to date. Written and directed by Jonze, the film is set in a near future Los Angeles that seems to have been inspired by Tokyo, Jones sets out to fathom relationships, ones that are near and ones that are distant, and how individuals are capable of reconstructing their current drab perspective of life into one that seems to perceive the world for the first time. Ultimately, the film allows Jonze to peer into the human soul and make vivid all of its intimate longings, suppressed emotions, and the unrealized potential that each and every one of us harbors.
40. The Ghost Writer (2010, Roman Polanski)
All techniques of the conventional thriller have disappeared in Polanski’s film. He travels a straight trajectory, hardly ever taking any unnecessary detours as he is so faithful to his narrative that details the corruption that courses through the veins of the elite and the persistence of a man who should never look too deep into things.
39. Zama (2018, Lucrecia Martel)
Zama is an unforgettable and timeless journey that miraculously perceives the futility of our desires. Perfectly directed, beautifully photographed, Martel’s film is lyrical and damning, effortlessly evoking the dramatic, comedic, horrifying, and surreal that pervade our waking moments, somehow, though, manipulating them to emulate our dreams.
38. The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)
There’s nothing discreet about Oppenheimer’s fearless and probing documentary about a ruthless executioner challenged with reenacting the mass-killings he and other other leaders of the Indonesian death-squad carried out decades ago. This has never been seen before and watching these men re-live their past sins is difficult to watch. It also shows how powerful cinema can be as it can lead one to re-evaluate their life.
37. 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
It chills the marrow to endure and witness the relentless assault, both physically and emotionally, that Solomon Northup, a free man who is captured and put into slavery, is bombarded with in Steve McQueenâ€™s 12 Years a Slave. There is a cruel elegance that McQueen injects his picture with. The violence isnâ€™t depicted to cause quivering, but rather as a vehicle to plunge us into the bowels and into the soul of Solomon. What an immersive experience this movie provides for us.
36. Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan)
Doomed when it came out in 2011, Margaret is a film that won over many when critics pleaded that the director’s cut come out. They succeeded and we are thankful. What we have is a well-rounded masterpiece about a high-school girl (Anna Paquin) battling the infinite travails that come along with the teenage years. If that isnâ€™t enough sheâ€™s also partly responsible for a tragic event that has life altering consequences for all those involved. What ensues is Shakespearean. Lonergan loves heightened drama and this shows as his camera watches Paquinâ€™s character trying to stay afloat amidst her world of swirling chaos. Heâ€™s a master at juggling the array of emotions his characters endure. We wince when life happens in his movies. His films are as real as life gets and so is the emotional pain we experience while watching his films.
35. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)
Whenever this film is seen it immediately brings attention to its excesses and its relentless vulgarity. It’s a film so steeped in its own chaos, excess, and sex that Scorsese has astonishingly crafted an environment that bares resemblance to the debased environments of Sodom and Gomorrah. What a ride he takes us on. With an unflinching approach to his material, then 71-year-old Scorsese directs with youthful exuberance his magnum opus of the 200s, elevating his craft by inexorably dissecting the malaise plaguing America: greed.
34. A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)
Lowery’s film is vast, inimitable, and eventually revelatory. It is less than ninety minutes long. Every last minute seems to have been plucked from Lowery’s dreams. Not only are we witnessing grief being coped with, but also we see the film contemplate the enormity of existence, the timelessness of time, the futility of creation, and the incessant torture a ghost must endure while helplessly watching life zoom by.
33. Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)
Jessica Chastain’s character in this film is just as ferocious as all the characters in director Bigelow’s prior feature, The Hurt Locker. Her character is unerring in her attempt to locate and capture evil. She doesn’t know anything else. It’s only search and destroy. Bigelow channels her relentless and raw approach to the war scene here creating a picture that never loses its incessant energy. The result is an overwhelming sense of urgency. The first two hours of Zero Dark Thirty are astounding in its adeptness to be a thoroughly fulfilling investigative film. The last half hour pummels its viewers with an incomparable and tense war mission. This is top-notch quality film-making at its finest.
32. Shame (2011, Steve McQueen)
The anguish at the center of Shame is unshakable. How does one man possess such an addiction. It’s something no film can truly convey, but McQueen comes close to it. Watch Michael Fassbender’s gaze as he’s partaking in a situation that should lead him to pleasure and ecstasy, but rather he’s experiencing pain as it leads him down a darker hole.
31. Somewhere (2010, Sofia Coppola)
Coppola captures the delicacy and subtlety found in a relationship between a father and a daughter. For much of the film, Somewhere simply and aimlessly watches the life of Johnny (Stephen Dorff), an actor spending his days idling away at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. It’s evident he’s growing weary of the daily parties and hookers. Coppola is master at depicting ennui and inner turmoils. Somewhere, at times, feels like the Italian films made by Michelangelo Antonioni in the 1960s.
30. The Revenant (2015, Alejandro G. Inarritu)
Little in cinema slightly prepares you for this unforgettable film. What a visceral experience this is. Viewers won’t ever forget some scenes (the battle scene with Native Americans, sleeping in a dead horse). Existing somewhere between myth and truth, The Revenant poetically and savagely depicts a man in his most primitive state, forced to shed every remnant of his humanity in exchange for a ruthless tenacity hellbent on survival and revenge.
29. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
Easily the best action movie I have seen in years! But I love this film because it goes for something more than simply action. Mad Max‘s true genius is that it’s a film incorrigibly bent on evoking Hell on earth somehow manages to encapsulate humanity, love, redemption and hope.
28. The Rider (2018, Chole Zhao)
How do we expect to cope when presented with an existence we never anticipated? This is the dilemma at the core of Zhao’s masterpiece. Taking place in the Badlands and showcasing South Dakota’s stunning vistas that tend to dwarf mankind and our problems when pitted against them, masculinity, an uncertain future, and family are topics that The Rider inspects with poetic precision.
27. Inside Out (2015, Pete Doctor)
Pixar’s inimitable animated feature about the inner emotions and feelings of a young girl’s mind was the decade’s best animated feature. One can also label it the most unique and bravest film as well. What Pixar achieves here is miraculous as it goes where truly no film has ever dared. Trying to comprehend the temperament of a child is an unthinkable task to go after, but Inside Out does so in a fun, inventive way that puts faces to our many emotions. The result is spellbinding as we begin to learn how our minds function from a child’s perspective.
26. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Attempting to know the deepest self and secrets of existence is perhaps the biggest undertaking a film director can ever embark on. A quest for a project that is capable of attaining truths – or even just coming into contact with them – seems altogether impossible. These topics aren’t for every filmgoer, but those willing to take the journey are rewarded with a unique experience that his Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. This film is full of wonderful and insightful dialogue that quickly reveals in each of the characters a sense of confusion and a yearning for imminent guidance in a blurred and vague world.
Next up: Top 50 Films of the Decade: Part I: 25-1, coming soon here at Geeks of Doom.