Okay, so we’ve gone over what the top films of 2019 were, and we’ve gone over what actually makes for great art. So given that it’s 2020–and by consensus the start of a new decade (yeah I know there is no year zero, but Christ was likely born in 6 or 7 BCE and it’s just as arbitrary to say the first decade had only nine years as to say the decade doesn’t begin until 2021…the fact is this is where the majority lies). So what are the top films of the 2010s?
As anyone who has been with this blog for the last decade will know some years I have trouble making a full Top 10, and some overflow but only with middling entertainment value, few reaching to level of great art. But it is a decade list and we should admit that there are more than just 10 films to honor. That being said, I’m going to group someone of them because my praise of them stems from a similar source.
So let’s get this list going with
#15: Les Miserables
Ideally, this movie should be higher. It appeals to a need to be both charitable in a personal sense, oppose tyranny when it comes up, but to also deal in the real world as best we can. Excellent messages of virtue all around. The problem is that upon repeated viewing it becomes clear that Hooper only realized how to film a musical about halfway through the movie, spending too much early in production with just letting the camera stay on one actor singing for far far too long to be comfortable. Also, sadly, what he did learn about the proper way to film a musical (as seen in such songs as Stars and Master of the House) was quickly forgotten as filmed the second worst film of the 2010’s—Cats. (In case you’re wondering, The Counselor is the unchallenged worst film of the 2010s and in all likelihood of all time).
14. The Age of Adeline
Snobs may have not been completely infuriated by the previous pick, but this one likely is setting them seething. I don’t care. The film may not have the pretentiousness that is so often praised by critics but is superbly acted by Blake Lively (whose range as a serious from The Town to A Simple Favor is always underrated because of her stunningly beautiful face). Compared to a lot of movies it is a quiet film about what really matters in life, and how things we may even complain about are truly blessings.
13. Destination Wedding
Never have I seen two actors carry a movie entirely. Only two actors speak for the entire film. This wouldn’t sound entirely out of place on stage, but on film it is essentially unheard of (discounting endless college films and snobby crap that no non-critic should ever waste a millisecond of their time on). But Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder manage to hold a whole film with only their dialogue and a few establishing shots. And the direction is half the joy, as many directors could not pull off having seemed natural, entertaining, or anything other than tedious. But this film is wonderfully entertaining as it honestly deals with the modern cynicism about relationships without sacrificing a faith in the timeless truth of love.
12. A Star Is Born
It took four attempts at making this movie before they made a good one. I’ll be honest, when it was first announced I was unconvinced, they had made three godawful films with this plot before why would the new one be any better. And then Lady Gaga. And then it is the directing debut of Bradley Cooper, in a film starring himself. A bad story with an annoying pop star directed by someone who was on what appeared to be a vanity project. And then the trailer interested even jaded old me…and then the movie. For once the husband was not despicable only pitiable, for once the starlet’s love for her husband was endearing and not pathetic and leaving me screaming “Leave his worthless ass.” For once they did what they meant to do, talk about how stardom is a fickle mistress who will just as soon destroy you as raise you up without making me despise all the characters involved. But now that we’ve made a good version can we never remake this movie again in my lifetime—I’ll probably be dead by the 2070’s so nothing before then.
11. The Accountant
The 2000s were a time when Ben Affleck did literally any film that would pay him money. Some were endearing in their own way (Jersey Girl and The Sum of All Fears) and others were abominations that should have never been filmed and should still be wiped from the face of the Earth so that future generation may never know of their worthlessness (Gigli, Daredevil, Surviving Christmas, Pearl Harbor, Bounce, Reindeer Games, Boiler Room…you get the idea). Thankfully the 2010s reminded us that this was the guy who wrote Good Will Hunting and made us cry in Armageddon (don’t lie we all cried before we learned a cynicism for Bay movies). And while we’ll soon deal with his directorial genius, let’s look at what is possibly his best film not directed by himself (Affleck might be the best Batman, but his performance in The Accountant is better). In The Accountant, Gavin O’Connor gave us a great mystery, a thrilling action piece, and an understanding of how autism actually presents seldom seen in Hollywood. It is thrilling and insightful at every turn and offers us not only the Accountant’s struggle to do the right thing while wanting to be a part of a society he can’t fully integrate into, but also the redemption of two separate FBI agent as they work with Affleck’s character to achieve some small measure of justice in the world.
It is touching, exciting, and intriguing all at once.
Let’s crack the Top 10 with
I don’t think I include Unbreakable in the best films of the 2000s, and I don’t necessarily regret that, Unbreakable, while a beautiful film was inherently only the first part of a story. And I’m not including Split here either because it was a bridge piece that set up this final movie. But Glass is what turns these otherwise good but not great films into a perfect trilogy. So many of M. Night’s films are about finding your place in the world (The Sixth Sense, Lady in the Water, Signs) but Glass uses the modern obsession with comic book characters to relate the struggle of these larger than life characters to real human beings who are held back by fears of what they can accomplish. And while Glass may have set up a larger universe which we may never return to, as much as we might want, the theme of Mr. Glass’ initial plea about how terrible it is to not know your place in the world is resolved not just for our three central characters. And is what was needed more than any further discussion of the conspiracy that kept those with abilities down (certainly without ethics, but not entirely without logic to their purpose). And further, we see there is dignity and even greater purpose in the role of those who are not the extraordinary but in what would usually be considered the role of the sidekick, as it is those who believe without powers, who do more to harm the behemoth of the conspiracy than the superheroes and villains ever could.
Daniel Craig is a good Bond. He is great as Benoit Blanc. In possibly the best murder mystery since Agatha Christie (that sounds like hyperbole, but trust me it isn’t) Knives Out holds the promise of a new private detective that will become a part of the collective conscious right up there with Holmes, Poirot, Wolf, Marlowe, and Spade. Every line is a masterpiece of wit and mystery, and you’re not sure who killed who, who is even dead, and what is going on in-between laughing your ass off at the insanity of the characters and their well-crafted lines. With any luck, several Blanc films will grace the best films of the 2020’s list, but for now, let us revel in the genius of the first film that closed out the decade.
8. The King’s Speech/Dunkirk/Darkest Hour
I’m grouping these three together because they basically all have the same theme central theme: individuals dealing with extraordinary situations, and all three use the backdrop of Britain in the Second World War. Sadly, three great films about the virtues of the British people (notably about the nobility, the commoners, and educated gentry that straddles the two, i.e. most of Britains classes) should have the backdrop of Britain committing economic suicide and destroying the union that the WWII generation fought to create (but it’s a time when America is also opting for self-immolation, so it’s not only a flaw in Britain at present). None the less all three demonstrate that the correct attitude to problem is to face them with a personal virtue and determination to follow what you know is right even when the world and those in it seem to be against you.
7. Motherless Brooklyn
It is a film that has nearly unparalleled directing, writing, and acting. Probably if Ed Norton hadn’t burned so many bridges in Hollywood it would be recognized for the genius it has this year beyond. But as it stands it both balances a personal story of redemption with a startling accurate critique of current corruption by using real evils of the past as an example we should learn from. If all movies were this good I would never be disappointed.
I honestly fail to see which current social problems this film did not at least touch on. Racism, personal and structural. Political corruption and graft. Misogyny. The need to establish connections with other people to survive. And it does it all without becoming preachy or pedantic. Between this and Motherless Brooklyn Hollywood has a new standard by which to judge all movies that comment on society’s ill. If you cannot do it with the entertainment factor of both of these films don’t bother.
5. The Town/Argo/Live By Night
Ben Affleck’s personal life seems to be an endless mess. Ben Affleck the actor is good. Ben Affleck the director is a godsend. The three films are very different in tone and theme but all three show a director who knows how to tell complex stories, make characters of questionable character sympathetic and endearing, and how to give powerful messages about the nature of virtue through the lack of it, the price of redemption, and the necessity of balancing intellectual and emotional needs in both our lives and on film. I look forward to every film that Affleck directs and wish there were more of them.
4. The Dark Knight Rises
This is a difficult one to say exactly where it goes. It’s hard because it really shouldn’t be view outside the nature of the Dark Knight Trilogy, so it becomes a little difficult to fit into a decade review of films as the other two films were in the previous decade. That said, let’s try and look at this film as a stand-alone. It offers one of the most enduring messages of any of the Dark Knight movies, in that it shows the flaws of those who listen to Bane’s progressive/populist drivel and how those who spout such nonsense often don’t believe in what they say, just in playing to the ignorant masses. How different this decade would have been if people had actually listened to this message.
Further, the movie is the most character-centric of the Dark Knight films, showing Bruce dealing with his role in Gotham and the world and how his attempt to hide from life behind the cowl was not a long term solution to bigger issues.
And for this, it is still the strongest part of the trilogy and should be appreciated on its own.
Okay, so I’ve put all four of Nolan’s films for this decade on the list. Like Snyder and Affleck he is simply a director I will implicitly trust for the moment. Someday he might give a subpar film, but it was not this decade. I put these two films together not just because they both are science fiction tales, and not just because they both challenge us to think about reality in a different way, but because they show very clearly that for all the intellectual knots we can tie ourselves into it is connections to others out of love that will usually be the things that save us from the problems in our lives.
2. Winter’s Tale
This one might seem to be the odd one out to be this high on the list. Most of these films people might admit that they have exceptional acting and directing they just might think there are other, more pretentious, films that should be in the top list (usually because they believe what critics tell them). But Winter’s Tale flew under the radar. Terribly marketed, poorly understood, and just comes off as cheap fantasy to anyone who isn’t watching closely. However, this film takes a small portion of Mark Helprin’s beautiful novel and puts the dense philosophy on film. And when one takes the time to watch this movie you will realize it is not just a beautiful love story, but a stirring film about spirituality and hope, about how everything in existence happens for a reason, and how it bends inevitably toward growth and eventual perfection.
1. Man of Steel/Dawn of Justice/The Snyder Cut
Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan did for stupid and crappy comic book stories what the bards we collectively call Homer did for stupid and crappy campfire tales. They made the mundane into true art. And while Nolan’s genius was more for the last decade Snyder gave us three great films of philosophical depth that in many ways outshine the Dark Knight Trilogy.
And I get that putting a movie that hasn’t even been released yet is a bit of cheat, but the fact is that everyone with a brain knows that the actual Snyder Cut was vastly superior to the shit Justice League that the studio released and that everyone involved in ruining Justice League from Joss Whedon all the way to the WB executives should, in a just world, be subject to tortures usually reserved for the Inquisition.
But from Man of Steel, a film that tore apart the evils of Plato’s Republic, Dawn of Justice which showed the evil inherent in the beliefs of Nietzsche, and from the few clues to the real Justice League we can see that the film was supposed to be an attack on the isolationism of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Few directors would tackle one of those in a film, but Snyder kept all of his comic book movies, one after another, challenging heavy philosophical questions. He gave us superheroes who weren’t the comic book cutouts that did what was needed for the plot, but rather real human beings (even the aliens) for whom the plot followed their character development. We were treated to a Lois Lane who wasn’t just a hanger on to Superman, but a woman whom we could believe earned a Pulitzer. A Superman who wasn’t the dumb big blue Boy Scout but a virtuous man who struggles with the consequences of his choices in trying to right thing. A Batman who is understood to be mentally unstable, because stable people without superpowers don’t do this kind of shit, and who have very real PTSD issues from all the crap he’s faced. They were films for serious adults, and critics bitched that it wasn’t the mindless superhero crap Disney was putting out.
Regrettably, neither the critics nor the public want films that both entertain and cause us to think at the moment, and so these films will not get the credit they deserve. But they are still the best the decade had to offer.
On the flip side, I feel I should also discuss the worst of the decade. And that’s a toss-up.
On the one hand, there is The Counselor, in my mind the single worst film ever made. Conversations that make no sense, characters all spouting off like they’re drunken sophomore philosophy students, Cameron Diaz sexually molesting a car (and my soul in the process). It was just a terrible film at every level.
But slightly above that is what Disney did throughout most of the decade. The early Marvel films not owned by Disney weren’t great but they weren’t completely terrible. But once Disney took over they became bland, formulaic, and just a series of cheap quips and explosions. And not that Star Wars was ever great art, but the extended universe novels offered a road map for character development and depth, but not once did I see the words Mara Jade or any other suggestion that Disney wanted to offer us anything other than mindless shit. Perhaps if the entertainment industry wasn’t such a blind monkey-see-monkey-do kind of business the I could have been fine with Disney releasing some dumb crap and other studios giving me something to sink my teeth into, but it isn’t that way and Disney showed you can make money with the bland formula (but only for a while, a caveat they haven’t learned) and thus every other studio wants to repeat the same thing leaving comparatively little diversity for those of us who got tired of the formula early on. And for that, they have created the worst thing in entertainment for the decade. And the unquestionable cuteness of baby Yoda and baby Groot won’t make up for that.