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I wanted to go back and look at fifty movies and fifty games that meant something to me over the last ten years. Not necessarily the best or most important works released in these years, but the ones that personally meant the most to me. Each of these lists is divided into two articles and arranged by year.
Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve) - Villeneuve's second appearance on my lists following 2014's Enemy. Arrival is a quiet sci-fi film focused on human frailty, memory, and fear, rather than taking aim at a villainous otherworldly foe. First contact with an alien race is handed off from the military to a linguistics team led by Amy Adams' Louise Banks and the film alternates between Louise trying to find a means of communication and trying to unravel her own mind as alien thought begins creeping in. Arrival focuses on international/intergalactic peace, rather than rant about Human Exceptionalism. It's the sort of movie that crosses and often ignores genre lines, and is all the more powerful for that.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder) - You can read my full review for my thoughts on the film as a whole. Loved Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor and I'm a big fan of Amy Adams and Henry Cavil as Lois and Clark. Ben Affleck plays an older, unhinged Bruce Wayne perfectly. The opening scene is a phenomenal ant's eye view of a battle between gods. I love the deconstruction of Batman's brand of justice and superhero justice in general and I love Clark Kent standing up for humane treatment of all people, even a truly terrible sort of criminal. The entire film is edited in a way that feels dreamy and unnatural and it's just infinitely more interesting to me than the average comic book movie. Yes, it is awkward to include little mini Justice League trailers toward the end, but hey, at least they're better than the Justice League movie itself turned out.
Midnight Special (2016, Jeff Nichols) - Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver lead a film that feels like a lost Stephen King novel or an exceptionally good, low-key superhero comic. A man flees with his young son from the authorities and from an isolated religious sect they once belonged to. The boy possesses a variety of superhuman abilities and feels compelled to reach a certain place at a certain time in order to encounter an unknown event. It sounds grand, but the film is kept very small and personal, much like Arrival. With its dark yet optimistic tone, this film fits in well with Zack Snyder's Superman films, though Michael Shannon couldn't be more different here from his performance as General Zod in Man of Steel.
Moana (2016, Ron Clements & John Musker) - One of Disney's best modern films, Moana is an odyssey into an unknown sea of monsters where the hero can find her place in the world and pay tribute to a recently departed family member. The soundtrack's great, all of the nature animation's fantastic, the Moana's journey feels authentic and her victory earned. Even if it's guided (heavily) by nature/gods it doesn't feel cheap. Sweet, stylish, and excellently paced. Big props for featuring a gigantic glam rock crab monster.
The Neon Demon (2016, Nicholas Wynding Refn) - The second Refn film on my list, Neon Demon is closely tied with 2009's Bronson as my favorite Refn movie overall. Set in a gruesome Los Angeles, Neon Demon focuses on the strange life of a young model played by Elle Fanning, newly arrived in town. It's a comedy, it's a romance, it's a horror film; this is a hard film to pin down, and it's unafraid to go to some truly awful places, only to veer back to deranged silliness. Jena Malone does an excellent job as Ruby, a friend/mentor figure/something else entirely, showing us a character both instantly human and completely alien. It's a film experience much like a nightmare, shifting between dark and light and taking the mind in unexpected directions and the soundtrack is phenomenal. I left the theater saying, "That was great, but I don't need to see that again any time soon!" A week later, I wanted to see it a second time.
Swiss Army Man (2016, Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan) - What a wonderful, stupid film. Paul Dano is Hank, a man stranded on an island preparing to commit suicide. At the last moment, he discovers Manny, a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe that may not be as dead as he looks. Together, they rediscover a life worth living, as Hank helps Manny remember how to speak, how to use his imagination, and how to feel love. Radcliffe and Dano beatbox much of the film's soundtrack and they propel across the sea with a seemingly endless supply of internal gas. The concept is so dumb but the result is surprisingly sweet and heartwarming and is one of the funniest movies of the decade.
The Witch (2016, Robert Eggers) - A meditation on sin and familial persecution, The Witch is a Sympathy for the Devil film with a standout performance by a sassy goat. This is a fantastic debut by director Robert Eggters, featuring sometimes impenetrable Puritan dialogue and a wide swath of witchcraft mythology. The Witch is a very quiet horror film, focusing less on immediate dangers and scares and more on existential terror; fear of God, of parents, of being lost and unwanted. It's a Book of Job story where our punished lead chooses to reject the cruelty of Heaven. There's an intimacy to the whole thing that makes the viewer feel like an invasive presence, peering into a world they don't belong in. The Witch also gets props for going completely bananas by the end while still remaining faithful to its themes and characters. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lead character perfectly in her debut in a leading role.
A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery) - A serious look at the meaning of life and death... featuring Casey Affleck as a goofy-looking sheet ghost. It's a testament to director David Lowery that the film actually is poignant, powerful, and incredibly sad, while still starring a dude wearing a sheet ghost costume. We follow Affleck's ghost throughout the years as he remains anchored to his home after death, even as that people living there and the home itself undergo massive changes with time. Our ghost doesn't communicate in spoken language, but there's enough body language and careful cinematography that he still feels like a compelling character in spite of that. I've always felt a deep, spiritual connection to the homes I've lived in, whether it's a family home, a school dorm, or an apartment. Leaving has always been tough for me, even when it's somewhere I don't even particularly want to be. This element of the film hit home for me hard.
Brigsby Bear (2017, Dave McCary) - You would think that a film about a kidnapped child raised in isolation with a family that produces their own outsider art (in the form of a faux-public access TV show) would be horrifying. In spite of its a grim premise, Brigsby Bear treats its lead (Kyle Mooney) with such warmth and hopefulness that it's genuinely touching. Rather than looking at the dark side of what happened, the film focuses on the love and outreach offered by a community of strangers who see something worth loving even when it comes from the weirdest places. Mark Hamill is wonderful here, too. I'm always a sucker for films about a community coming together to make a movie.
The Founder (2017, John Lee Hancock) - One of the biggest surprises of John Lee Hancock's story of the founding of the McDonald's franchise is that it's neither critical of fast food nor a commercial for it. Rather, the fast food colossus provides a setting for us to watch Ray Kroc rise from a mild-mannered salesman to a cold captain of industry. Kroc, played to perfection by Michael Keaton, takes a small hamburger shop run by two good-natured brothers and turns it into the franchise king that McDonald's is today. This is a fascinating film: It's absolutely not a Hoorah Capitalism story, since even though Kroc wins in the end it costs him his friends and family and destroys the careers of some good people. Neither is it a condemnation of the man; Kroc is not a cartoon villain, and his turn from friend to foe is so subtle and natural that the moment's hard to pinpoint.
Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele) - Jordan Peele lands an incredibly strong directorial debut with this social horror/satire. Get Out's success comes in part from how well it works as both a pointed, bitter arrow of social commentary and a more universal message of alienation and paranoia. Peele's film looks at the fetishization of black culture by white Americans through the lens of a young man meeting his girlfriend's parents for the first time, a family that makes sure to tell you how totally not racist they are while delivering one aggression after another, starting micro and growing more openly macro. There are a few jump scares, but they're (intentionally) silly moments that are nowhere near as effective as the overall feeling of dread. There's also great acting all around; I'm happy to see Daniel Kaluuya in a lead role and Caleb Landry Jones is perfectly disgusting as one of the film's antagonists. This is one of those movies that works well the first time and works even better the second, as its more subtle elements become clear
I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie) - A farcical comedy-drama-biography of figure skater Tonya Harding didn't sound like something particularly compelling, but I was blown away here. Margot Robbie's portrayal of the controversial athlete isn't cheap or mean and doesn't make her the butt of the joke the way so many comedians of the 90's did; instead, she's compellingly human, flawed, and stuck in a series of bad circumstances that would be enough to break anyone. There's a bit of "the audience is the real monster" at play here as the film mixes fictionalized interviews with more traditional storytelling. The American public is judged more harshly than Harding herself. Fantastic performances all around, but this is really Robbie's show.
Ingrid Goes West (2017, Matt Spicer) - Ingrid Goes West is one of the most honest movies about social media I've seen and Aubrey Plaza is so good. The film follows a grieving woman trying to find her place in the world by latching on to the life of an internet star on the rise. Plaza's portrayal of the titular Ingrid is funny, real, and scary but never cartoonish. Like I, Tonya, the villain here is a fickle and casually uncaring audience, cheering for Ingrid but also enabling her worst habits.
The Love Witch (2017, Anna Biller) - A gorgeous film drenched in rich colors, The Love Witch is the vision of Anna Biller, whose credits on the film are director, producer, writer, editor, production designer, costume designer, and composer. She made a film that looks and sounds beautiful, with an endearingly campy performance by Samantha Robinson as a modern day witch looking for love with a penchant for passionate murder. I love the costume design here; Robinson's outfits, makeup, and wigs are all amazing and it's among the best looking films of the decade.
Mother! (2017, Daren Aronofsky) - Expertly crafted; phenomenal, dizzying sound design and great camera work that never allows you to settle and get comfortable, with strong performances by both Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. In spite of that, it's a very, very hard film to recommend. Mother!'s first act is immensely uncomfortable, but in a very approachable way, catching you off guard for just how off the rails it goes, showcasing some of the most awful violence I've seen in a film in years. It's a religious allegory, a sort of zombie film, a war movie, etc. that focuses on Man consuming Woman in the name of art, painting the artist/muse relationship as a monstrous act and creativity as a place that exists on the border of life and death, and on the objectification of motherhood. It's simultaneously repellent and powerful.
My Friend Dahmer (2017, Marc Meyers) - An adaptation of Backderf's 2012 graphic novel, the film follows young Jeffrey Dahmer in his final year of high school before he would become one of America's most notorious serial killers. It neither sensationalizes nor redeems Dahmer, and while the film doesn't do quite as good of a job capturing a moment in time the way the novel does, it's a strong story with elements that may be uncomfortably familiar for anyone who felt like or was close to an outsider in high school. Ross Lynch's performance as Dahmer is exceptionally good and deserved more recognition than it got.
Blindspotting (2018, Carlos López Estrada) - Another excellent directorial debut, Blindspotting is a slow-burn class/race/gender study that doesn't pull any punches. It's a cleverly constructed film where it's easy to focus on one of its social criticisms while missing another, trying into the film's thesis that we all create blind spots consciously or unconsciously. Features a very effective use of intrusive memories and nightmares. Daveed Diggs is great here, with a simmering build up that erupts in a powerful, poetic ending.
First Reformed (2018, Paul Schrader) - I haven't been to church in years but good crisis/lapse of faith stories hit me hard, and this one doubles down on that by focusing on environmental collapse. Ethan Hawke's portrayal of a well-meaning priest stricken by pains both physical and existential is remarkable, and First Reformed is one of my all-time favorite films. Every struggle in the film, from each of its characters, is one I've either been through or can relate to, making it all the more painful and ultimately cathartic. It's a film that issues a call to action among people of faith, whether it's religion, activism, or a belief in the innate goodness of another human being. It shows the power of love in our darkest moments but also just how easily despair can spread like a contagion.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins) - An example of expertise of form; while the story is straightforward, it's presented with such strong, natural acting, lovely cinematography, and powerful score that it becomes something bigger. Combining the literary style of James Baldwin's 1974 novel with performances that feel like a great stage play and a non-linear, sometimes dreamlike structure that film can do so well, every detail of Beale Street feels masterfully crafted. We follow two expecting parents played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James as they experience young love in the past and a failure of justice in the present. When we first meet them, they're both wearing shades of blue and yellow that complement each other so well that we get an immediate visual shorthand telling us that they're perfect for each other. There's a constant sense of hope and optimism even in the film's darkest moments, set in a time and place that feels universal. While injustice is everywhere, that blinding feeling of first love just makes everything feel lighter.
Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley) - I don't normally care about spoilers but go into this movie blind, outside of knowing the basic premise (a man changing who he is to become a better cog in the capital system, serving as a commentary on race/class/exploitation.) Subversive, revolting, insane, it's great! With a fantastic ensemble cast led by Lakeith Stanfield, the concept of creating a new, socially acceptable personality to more successfully survive the waters of a customer service job (and the horrors that come with the implications of doing so) is way too relatable, and that only scratches the surface of what's at play here.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018, Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti & Rodney Rothman) - With incredible animation and great sound design, there's never been a comic book movie that's looked or moved like this. Miles Morales is a teenage Spider-Man fan trapped between two social worlds who quickly finds himself literally between worlds as alternate Spider-People start popping up all over the place, not to mention his own developing spiderhood. It's easy to be cynical about a story where a kid finds his inspiration in a billion dollar superhero product (The Peter Parker of Miles' world is a marketing entrepreneur selling Spider-Man brand products on top of his regular action stunts,) but Miles is portrayed with such good-natured sweetness and hope that he's an inspiring figure. The whole film's just bursting with frantic energy that perfectly matches what's going on in Miles' head; a fantastic visualization of our lead's inner conflict. The action's chaotic but it fits Miles' nervousness and artistic flair. I wish other superhero movies were even half this visually interesting! I'd settle for a quarter at this point.
Suspiria (2018, Luca Guadagnino) - A reimagining of Dario Argento's 1977 cult classic. A horror/drama set in a dance school run by a group of witches, this film is completely up front about its supernatural elements and uses them to signify the way dance and other physical performance can break the bodies of its artists. It doesn't condemn the art (and it does present two very different witch figures, one with ill intents and one who's a lot more complex) but it does showcase the painful nature of creation that can allow its audiences to feed off of it while costing the artist. There's a constant sense of division at play; between the real and the magical, past and present, cruelty and love, between the leadership of the coven, between who we really are and the persona we project, and between its settings of East and West Germany. Motherhood and birth imagery (physical, artistic, and spiritual) are everywhere here, it's a very loaded film that rewards rewatching. Dakota Johnson is a solid lead, but it's Tilda Swinton who steals the show in every scene. I'd totally be up for watching her talk about and demonstrate dance theory for two hours with or without witchcraft involved.
Thoroughbreds (2018, Cory Finley) - A directorial debut that kept surprising me the whole time and defies easy classification. Horror, comedy, understated love, and the lengths we go to to fit roles we create. I'm a big Anya Taylor Joy fan and she, Olivia Cooke, and Anton Yelchin are all awesome here. This was Yelchin's final performance before he died and it makes some of his scenes very tough to watch. In a lot of ways, the world of Thoroughbreds feels like the Millennial version of American Psycho.
Venom (2018, Ruben Fleischer) - While Spider-Man himself doesn't appear in this film, this reimagining of one of his most iconic villains is a ton of fun. It's a wild, campy ride that more or less plays out like a buddy action-comedy where one of the buddies is a parasite inside the other's body. Tom Hardy is remarkable here and is the entire reason the film works. He plays alien-infected reporter Eddie Brock with hilarious over-the-top madness but also manages to keep the character endearing and heroic. While the Venom character is a comic book anti-hero, this film's take on the character presents a more heroic figure than usual for a modern comic film. While most superheroes these days are fighting to protect or restore the status quo, the Venom/Brock combo team up to punish the world's most powerful corporation for literally consuming the poor inside and out. It's still a power fantasy, but it's aimed in a more worthwhile direction than usual.
You Were Never Really Here (2018, Lynne Ramsay) - Awesome, relentlessly pumping sound design and a performance by Joaquin Phoenix that somehow manages to alternate between incredibly subtle and over the top and feels completely right. Phoenix plays Joe, a PTSD-riddled hitman/detective with a death wish focused on rescuing abused children. Lynne Ramsay gives us a violent action movie focused on the internal consequence of violence that spends no time glorifying the horrors it shows. Much of the film's most grotesque violence happens just off screen, forcing our imaginations to fill in the gaps much as we're forced to fill in the gaps explaining how Joe became the man he is today. We're given flashes, microscopic waking nightmares, and a bond with a rescued child who Joe wants to save from following in his own footsteps.
The Lighthouse (2019, Robert Eggers) - A gassy, nautical farce that couldn't be more different from Eggers' debut with The Witch but proves to be just as great. The common thread here is the continuation of The Witch's theme of "just be nicer to animals, you jerks." I went in expecting a tense psychological thriller and instead got a hilarious, campy, beautiful morality play. Dafoe and Pattinson are both so good as two opposing seamen brought together and torn apart by money, madness, and maybe even magic. A film that asks, "What if The Shining was set in 1890 and had way more flatulence?"
Rocketman (2019, Dexter Fletcher) - Jukebox musicals and celebrity biopics are so common and follow such standard design cues that I never really have a lot of interest. Rocketman defies expectations and uses traditional forms to blast off in weird, wild directions, with phenomenal costume and art design and a performance by Taron Egerton as Elton John that should be award winning. The spectacular style is the substance here, with visual flourishes and carefully recomposed pop songs telling us just as much about Elton's life as its dialogue does. The film focuses on universal doubts and fears and struggles rather than the purely celebratory or encyclopedic presentation of way too many biopics.
The chart below is how my breakdown of favorite movies of the decade ended up distributing. It skews heavily towards when I started writing about film more regularly (2014); I think that the time I spend writing, even if there's no audience, deepens my appreciation.
Thanks for reading! I hope you're able to use this list to find a new favorite. I'm always happy to hear your recommendations too! Check back soon for the next article, covering the games of the 2010's.