Now that we’ve seen Part I (#50-26) of my list of Top 50 Films of the Decade, it’s time to take a look at the remainder of list with #25-1.
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 II of this two-part list.
25. Phoenix (2015, Christian Petzold)
Petzold’s masterful film warrants endless contemplation after viewing it. Borrowing themes from classics such as Eyes Without a Face and, most notably, Vertigo, Phoenix emanates a timelessness that few contemporary films manage to exhibit.
24. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)
The aesthetic splendor found in Mr. Anderson’s previous films has never been more evident than it is in The Grand Budapest Hotel. What cuts deepest is the film’s acknowledgement of good days gone sour. The hotel itself is a glorious entity replete with the most contented customers. Seeing its glorious veneer diminish due to the inhumanities associated with war and the population beginning to neglect it due to the fear that war initiates, Anderson touches on something profound: We don’t normally appreciate the good times when we are in them.
23. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Coen brothers have crafted a miracle of a movie here that encapsulates perfectly that insurmountable feeling of despair and existential dread. This is a melancholic film about a talented and hardworking musician (Oscar Isaac) in the 1960s trying to make a mark in the folk music scene right before the world was made aware of Bob Dylan.
22. The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino)
Lurking behind all the dazzling panache that is on full display in Sorrentino’s outrageous film is an undercurrent of melancholy, yearning, and dissatisfaction. His film on the surface may seem to revel in flamboyance and the good life, but its main intent is to discover what has been lacking in a 65-year-old man’s life (played perfectly by Toni Servillo). The results are shattering as this film traverses the vast terrain of our memories, making most evident the regrets that plague us.
21. First Reformed (2018, Paul Schrader)
Schrader’s transcendent film captures the tumultuous days of a reverend (Ethan Hawke) on the verge of loosing his faith as things begin to fall apart. It’s a living nightmare when what you devoutly believe in begins to get interrogated and slowly starts unraveling, leaving you to start questioning the foundation of your faith. These are the days any person of faith dreads, let alone someone who has dedicated their life to knowing God. Schrader suffuses his film with profound sorrow that recalls the austere cinematic masterpieces by French director Robert Bresson and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Their films, like Schrader’s, probe the mysteries of faith.
20. Amour (2012, Michael Haneke)
Usually the films of Michael Haneke concern themselves with malicious, subliminal, and evil topics. Films such as Funny Games, Cache, and the White Ribbon prove an inordinate amount of unfathomable dread. With Amour it seems he is delightedly content to abandon his cold, sterile approach and embrace a heartfelt one. His topic is still dreadful (the inevitability of death), but it is any year’s cinematic apotheosis of the love story. The film is about the fragility of life and how it can all be over in an instant. What a tender, troubling, and profound meditation on life this is.
19. The Turin Horse (2011, Bela Tarr)
Here’s a film that’s a descent into a barren and austere abyss, but, above all else, it’s an experience unlike anything else. It’s beyond capable of leaving an indelible impact on its viewers for years to come. Supposedly the film was inspired by how Nietzsche encountered a man in Turin, Italy in 1889 beating a disobeying horse. Nietzsche soon intervened and threw himself onto the horse, embracing it. Auteur director Tarr (this was his last film) is giving us a story of that horse’s life after that incident. The Turin Horse is an unparalleled portrait of an aging father and his daughter living a most rural existence in the 19th century and how the monotony of it all gnaws away at them.
18. Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mr. Anderson has made an incomparably elegant picture that details meticulously the struggles a wealthy renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) has with letting his guard down to welcome romance into his life. The film consumes itself with completely realizing its every detail. Whether it’s fantastically depicted the style and decor of the 1950s or dissecting the many fastidious tendencies of Mr. Woodcock, Phantom Thread is a film that’s so well made that it’s difficult to find a flaw.
17. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul transports his viewers to another dimension here, one that effortlessly blends the bizarre and the normal into one, creating an experience that is both disjointing and sublime. Known simply as Joe to westerners, Mr. Weerasethakul is so unique that he has his own genre. The majority of his films traffic in the surreal environments of Thailand as he endlessly probes the supernatural, existence, and the after life. Uncle Boonmee is quite possibly his most accessible film for audiences to get lost in. One can encounter a transcendent cinematic experience by relishing the breathtakingly beautiful story of a dying man accepting his fate while ghosts of his past life and his past incarnations interact with him seamlessly in reality. Call it a nightmare or a mystifying dream, one thing for certain is that Joe has created a contemporary masterpiece about existence.
16. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
The most unique trait that Boyhood has is its uncanny ability to watch people actually age throughout the film’s runtime. Linklater films over twelve years of footage, using the same actors to portray their characters throughout the journey. The results are magnificent and even haunting, allowing us premier access to witnessing the rapid effects of time and how it shapes individuals over the course of more than a decade. It’s not unusual that viewers may encounter their upbringing here, as Linklater’s film is both intimate and universal.
15. Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)
A haunting Coltrane track, the taste of a man’s luscious lips, and the cool, relaxed atmosphere of a dance hall. All of this is new for Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice nun on the verge of taking her vows in Ida. At a brisk 81 minutes, this entire world of Anna’s and the lives of those she’s involved with are conveyed to us with expert clarity. No other film this decade immersed its viewers in its cold, unforgiving atmosphere like this one does. It’s a formidable film, no doubt, one that weighs on you years after witnessing it because of its subject matter. Pawlikowski’s film is about an unalterable conviction that becomes threatened and a young woman’s exposure to something completely foreign to her, and her learning to cope with the harsh gestures of reality.
14. Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)
It’s beautiful watching the third part of Linklater’s Before trilogy simple because of the chemistry between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Linklater is amongst the best of them when it comes to writing dialogue. Here, it is perfect. The effortlessness and seamlessness of each conversation is as authentic as any film will ever get. Where the film cuts deepest is when the couple begin to discuss topics that were previously just brought up, never truly discussing them. Soon the conversations turn ugly and reveal truths neither one could ever imagine. Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) is one film that is comparable. Both films hardly shy aware from exposing the percolating uneasiness beneath the pretty veneer of marriage. Resulting from Delpy and Hawke’s conversations is a somewhat renewed perspective of life, and Before Midnight is just that: a perfect depiction of life.
13. Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
Masculine anxiety has perpetually pervaded Nichols’ first two films. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon finds it imperative to protect his wife (Jessica Chasten) and their hearing-impaired daughter (Tova Stewart). Shannon’s Curtis is haunted by difficult dreams. These dreams, along with apocalyptic images he encounters, lead him to live an anomalous existence as he slowly begins to lose his grip on reality. He’s sure these dreams and visions of apocalyptic clouds, multitudes of birds, and zombie figures are omens of what is to come. He then begins to extend his underground storm shelter to his wife’s dismay. Shannon is hypnotizing as a man who has heaped heavily upon himself psychological defects. But it’s Nichols’ story that everyone has their own storm and his direction that envelops us in a terrifying atmosphere, leading us to question whether or not Curtis is truly insane.
12. Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
Nothing is as it appears in Iranian director Kiarostami’s French film Certified Copy. Two individuals (Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) meet during an afternoon with hopes of getting to know one another. What unravels is a beautiful meditation on what is real and what isn’t real. Are these two people lovers, ex-lovers, friends? We can never truly discern, and that’s what’s very engaging. We are pulled in, hoping that the film will expose the true nature of their relationship. The point to Kiarostami’s film is that he hopes to discover what authenticity is, not only in life but also in art.
11. Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)
A simple glance and a hand being placed on another’s back nonchalantly can be absolutely piercing in Haynes’ heart-wrenchingly tender film. It’s a true mystification how such plain gestures can evoke torrents of emotion, but Carol finds itself greatly enraptured by the pangs of an unfulfilled desire and also by the scarce moments of ecstasy such a desire can provide. Haynes masterfully evokes a foggy, dreary Manhattan of the 1950s, where mores were religiously adhered to. One wrong step and society won’t hesitate regarding you in the harshest light. Lovers portrayed by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara unfortunately know this. From the dreamy Manhattan streets, the elegant fashion of the times, the immaculate decor of department stores during the holiday, to the snow-filled days picking out Christmas trees, Carol could by the decade’s most beautiful film. But Haynes isn’t merely keen on seducing us with his eye for quality aesthetics; his intent is to floor us with a suppressed romance that could either deprive two women happiness or lead to years of delight.
10. Call Me By Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino)
Guadagnino’s direction is as quiet and gentle as they come here, calmly observing a relationship between two young men (Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet) that beneath its calm is a grand and tempestuous storm brewing. Throughout the film we sense that relentless passion, but Guadagnino never overtly implies it. This leads to the film deeply wounding its viewers on an emotional level, implicating us to experience the two lovers enduring the turmoil that ensues when affections are suppressed. Set during 1983 in Northern Italy, the film cannot refrain from casting a poetic, dreamlike aura around itself. By the time it comes to its smashing, heartbreaking conclusion it immediately becomes part of a memory that the viewer may have forgotten he or she previously experienced.
9. Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
So much emotion is invested into this picture that it flows with an immense amount of grief and regret. It’s near impossible not to mourn for the film’s characters. Documenting Chiron’s life, a young boy wrecked with questions surrounding his sexuality and life, director Jenkins, with expert storytelling, chronicles a poignant tale of Chiron’s childhood to adulthood (the movie is broken up into three different chapters and Chiron is played by three different actors). The occasional role models shows up, a mother denounces her son, a rare occurrence happens on a moonlit beach, and an encounter with a special someone at a diner late at night swells with anguish. These moments are beautiful and also painful. The way Jenkins films his subject is akin to poetry in motion.
8. The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson) It is hard to thoroughly recover from the state of bewilderment brought about by the effort to fully digest Mr. Anderson’s disturbing and unobtrusively ferocious film that’s akin to an angry dream. The film is literally unshakable. All that it serves up (postwar traumas, the beginnings of a cult, and two odd yet powerful tales of love), its primary concern is with the confused perceptions which Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), leader of the religious movement known as the Cause, and Freddy Quall (Joaquin Phoenix), ex-Navy who’s looking for a path to follow, each harbor. The Master is a plunge into the eerie shadows and depths of these two men who try to disentangle themselves from a labyrinthine chaos that is Life and Existence.
7. Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)
Lonergan’s third feature is a film of astonishing magnificence. Many times I found myself in absolute awe of what was transpiring, thinking how is it possible to top the previous scene. Yet again, another powerful scene ensued. It continued like this until the final one. I believe Manchester by the Sea, which is completely consumed by the nature of loss, finds its mastery in unveiling and eventually stripping bare what makes us all human: our brittle, fragile feelings. How do we cope? How do we react? How do we go on living: These despairing questions invade the characters throughout this film. Somehow, though, scene after scene (heightened by Lonergan’s masterful selection of classical music) Lonergan is able to infuse his film with tender beauty rendering it poetic in its depiction of an unutterable, tragic loss. There are a handful of scenes that swell with an immensity of emotion, eventually exploding with such passion and feeling that has rarely been showcased in contemporary cinema. By encountering grief and realizing that sometimes it’s just too overwhelming to endure, Lonergan has a made a film that is so truthful.
6. A Separation (2010, Asghar Farhadi)
A Separation flourishes on every single level. It begins with its unmatched immaculate storytelling. The film concerns itself with one problem in the lives of a married couple whose marriage is on the verge of collapsing, and then soon erupting into multiple full-fledged issues that threaten individuals’ beliefs. The genius responsible for such smooth storytelling is director Asghar Faradi, an Iranian filmmaker of the utmost talent who architects intricate familial and religious tales that dazzle. He directed, produced, and penned A Separation. His script is remorseless in its ways in how it reveals its many surprises to its unsuspecting characters. The way his script unfolds is like trekking across a mine field, unaware of when explosions will detonate. By the film’s end we clearly see devastation and erosion in the families and friends of all involved. Farhadi guides his characters through such dire situations hoping to discern who his characters truly are under the skin, and to discover truth and an unshakable human spirit that won’t falter when things fall apart.
5. Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese has become synonymous with violence and gangster qualities. Not so fast! Surprisingly, he works at equal competence when he displays man as a helpless entity, one who suppresses his true feelings and, as in Shutter Island, one succumbing to psychological occurrences that are far beyond his collective knowledge. The film is slighted heavily toward man’s abandonment of the reality he has always perceived, hoping to live a world where he hasn’t experienced such terrors as the ones he’s experienced. Scorsese triumphantly pieces together his film in a way that is like a puzzle that we long to continue to return to, even despite its grave subject matter. The foreboding air pervading the film is dreadful. Everything from the film’s score, the ambiance, and the dialogue evoke paranoia and pain. Every scene has us on our toes. Scorsese, in his grandest achievement this decade, is going after man’s consciousness here in ways he never done before.
4. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)
The infectious poison that urges man to reign over all has been rapidly diffused throughout David Fincher’s masterpiece, The Social Network. The movie is about the consequences of moral transgressions and the physical, social, and moral decay prevalent all around us. The decay pervades our sordid society; a society that feasts on fame, glory, and fortune. Fincher’s films tend to see America as being corrupt, beyond excessive, and pretty much beyond any help. The Social Network observes a young man who realizes what the potential prizes, celebrations and glories of creating Facebook can do for him. He becomes drunk on the excessive success that he will achieve. He will have come to embody the essence of Jay Gatsby, the anti-hero in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. Jay desired to be exclusive. Motivated by this he cheated, stole and lied to gain his lofty reputation to impress those he wanted to impress, especially a woman. With this film we see a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. The first half hour is dizzying; firmly establishing a mood that we haven’t seen in cinema this decade. Fincher is incorporating the correct ingredients that go into making a masterful film.
3. Mysteries of Lisbon (2010, Raoul Ruiz)
With an unerring eye for the extravagant, Portuguese director Ruiz (died in 2011) has made a gargantuan epic about a young boy and the individuals that are connected in his life. The 4 1/2-hour film jumps between the past, present, and future seamlessly, miraculously conjuring a dream-like ambiance as it weaves through multiple characters’ memories. The command Ruiz displays here is unmatched. His authority is most evident in the film’s narrative that’s akin to the stories told by the classic titans of literature (Tolstoy, Homer). Sometimes epic films keep their audiences at a distance. Not Mysteries of Lisbon, as its viewers quickly discover that they are thoroughly embedded in the film after the first few minutes.
2. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
Danish film director Lars von Trier is absolutely fearless. His films’ subject matter always teeter on the brink of gloom and dread. Melancholia is no different. It manages to emphasize the director’s talents as a genius who dreams to fathom unthinkable scenarios and indelible images. The operatic, haunting, and celestial slow-motion opening shots to von Trier’s masterpiece, which are set to the Tristan and Isolde Prelude by Wagner, depict a world from an intimate perspective, and then gradually proceeding to its imminent demise. The film’s performs a headfirst dive into an abyss that assuredly glorifies the confusion and paranoia that is impetuously at work within the human mind. With exceeding rapidity the film gets gloomier and gloomier. From the stunning opening scenes of a wedding, to individuals readying themselves for mass annihilation thanks to planet Earth hurdling towards another planet, Melancholia may seem like an end-of-the-world film but is so much more. With this premise von Trier attempts to understand an individual battling depression and he brings his audience along to encounter her torment.
1. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
Mr. Malick attempts to comprehend the universe in The Tree of Life, and does so sufficiently with an exquisite arrangement of classical music, lyrical camera movements, and enduring images that are only comparable to great pieces of art. It’s impossible to be inclined to undervalue the film’s power – which is illimitable. With this film he taps into our primal and cosmic mysteries with hopes of attaining some form of truth and timelessness. It exists in its own realm. There truly isn’t anything like it. As soon as it was made the genre it created instantly became extinct. Previous films never demonstrate such lofty aspirations, but Malick saturates his film with the inimitable: conversations with God; rendering the universe; and showcasing cinematography that is actually visual poetry. The way he infuses his film with boundless creativity is beyond anything anybody has done in cinema the last 30 years. With a penetrating ferocity in his filmmaking, Malick assures us that his main aspiration is to a magnificence so high that it seems almost unrealizable in the cinematic realm. But his brazenness as director asserts itself so audaciously that we become emotionally devastated and awestruck by what he accomplishes. The film’s achievements are profound. It succeeds at rendering the universe, investigating the minutest of tendencies of an American family in the 1950s, and capturing what the ramifications are for a perplexed adult who tries to contemplate his childhood and the different paths (nature and grace) he was taught by his parents to live by. After the depiction of the creation of the universe (from the birth of light to encountering dinosaurs), the film engages its audience in one of cinema’s most intense forays into the intimacy of a family that lives in Waco, Texas. It is arresting in its splendor and evocation, allowing us to partake in their existence, deeply embedded in their home to witness them grow, fight, laugh, love, and grieve the death of a child. It is a patriarchal family. Brad Pitt is commanding as a father who only wants the best for his three boys. He is married to Jessica Chastain, the mother whose poetic and graceful teachings regarding life conflicts with Pitt’s authoritative, Old Testament-style of teaching. Sean Penn plays one of the sons who is grown and wandering aimlessly in contemporary times due to his lack of understanding his childhood. Malick has created a meditative film that questions what does our life arise? Out of what does our consciousness arise? Why are we here? Where is here? The Tree of Life is a great film.