The decade ends, seemingly almost as soon as it began, and it is hard to discern too many tangible movie trends that weren’t already set in motion in the previous ten years. The big studios have managed to stem the tide of piracy by convincing enough people to hand over money for streaming services, while leaving us with a diminished choice compared to the once burgeoning selection of films available on DVD. Netflix and Amazon have got in on production, with mixed success – they have financed some good films by established directors that would probably have got made anyway, while producing mostly mediocre interchangeable fare by younger filmmakers.
Representation is the order of the day following the Oscars So White controversy in 2016, with greater diversity now visible on screens, in the US at least, incurring the wrath of alt-right manbabies who cleave to films they ought to have long grown out of, their ardour undimmed by the serious business of their new-found white supremacy. A by-product of this new diversity is fewer terrible films are winning Academy Awards, though a few still slip through.
Not every novelty is so welcome, however. Hollywood has managed to create a new self-anointed canon in the Marvel-Star Wars nexus. Where a decade ago, critics were challenged with taking superhero movies seriously, now the nerds are in charge. Scorn the blockbusters at your peril, as Martin Scorsese discovered recently, the man’s fans learned that the formerly coolest of mainstream directors was now an irrelevant old fart for a new generation of aesthetes. I will gladly accept being considered as such too, given I think it is questionable if the world really needs a new Star Wars film every 12 months.
In my own corner of the cinema world, far from the madding crowd of strongmen in tights and awards ceremonies, it was an interesting decade. I tend to watch films more on the small screen these days, which does have an effect on one’s interpretation of them. I could very well see my tastes change over the next few years as a result. In the following 100 films, there is some evolution too – films that I thought highly of six or seven years ago are now a bit more ordinary in my mind (though not by any means bad), while others – like my number one, which in the year of its release, merited only a number five in my annual list – seem a good deal better now. My list is idiosyncratic – it leans heavily towards European and Asian cinema, though the USA and France are the most represented countries – and one-fifth of the films are documentaries; there are also films that are unlikely to feature on anyone else’s list of the decade, not because mine is particularly recondite but because I sometimes let my heart rule my head in these matters.
All reviews were written at the time of their original release, with minor revisions, so there might be a few things I don’t entirely stand over (though every film has its place here and practically every one in the top ten I have seen at least two or three times). The years listed are the years of initial release (some date from 2009) but often they arrived on my doorstep some time later.
1. Holy Motors – Leos Carax (France/Germany) – 2012
There’s a touch of John Peel’s words about The Fall – “always different, always the same” – about Leos Carax’s first full feature in thirteen years. Holy Motors looks both glaringly familiar and unlike pretty much anything else you will have seen of late. It is a film that both resists meaning but is easily digestible for something so defiantly abstract. It is also splendidly entertaining, dangling little slices of conventional movie drama in front of us as it leads us up its hermeneutic culs de sac and swiftly moves us on to the next bizarre installment.
It’s hard to tell you what Holy Motors is about, much easier to list off everything it isn’t about – all that is contained within its obliquely-linked mini-dramas. Its various episodes are decoys, supposedly recognisable tranches of cinema whose significance evaporates as rapidly as they unfold. It is a film that is, by turns baffling, disturbing, hilarious and intriguing. Carax has a tremendous gift for conjuring up images that become instantly embedded in your mind as surely as a ubiquitous brand logo. His compositions are beautiful and stately and make Paris, both its bourgeois and grotty side, look equally so. If it resembles any films of recent years, I would venture and say Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, but where Barney’s films were ultimately cold at their core and very much full of themselves, Holy Motors is a lot more generous to its audience. It is a film many will be watching for years to come, still trying to figure just what it was supposed to be about anyway.
2. Hard to Be a God – Aleksei German (Russia/Czech Republic) – 2013
The last of the great Soviet directors left one last film after dying in 2013, a three-hour adaptation of the 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, best known for writing the source novel of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Hard to Be a God tells the tale of a team of scientists sent to a distant planet, which is just like Earth but which is going through its own violent and chaotic Middle Ages, in which artists and intellectuals are ruthlessly suppressed. The observers are forbidden from interfering in the course of history but they are tempted to protect one enlightened prodigy. German’s film is a dizzying, immersive experience where the Dark Ages are recreated in an uncomfortably immediate way – unidentifiable shreds hang in front of the camera at times, partially obscuring the view, while boorish bystanders lurch in and out and you are thankful the black and white photography spares you the worst impressions of the mud and excrement the characters are literally up to their knees in. Medievalists might rankle at the familiar travestying of an era that gave us Dante, Chaucer and gothic architecture but that quibble aside, this is a savagely brilliant film.
3. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu – Andrei Ujica (Romania) – 2010
Andrei Ujica’s Marker-esque portrait of the former Romanian dictator proceeds without any captions, commentary or interviews to guide the viewer. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is pieced together entirely from archive footage – much of it officially filmed for the Romanian Communist regime – giving it a wonderful strangeness, as if a ghostly parallel history is being played out in front of our eyes.
There is no hint of the brutality of Ceausescu’s regime – that presumably would be well enough known to most viewers – instead we get the official reality, the ‘autobiography’ as it were, which extends to official home movies – filmed for Party consumption only – showing the Ceausescu family at play in summer and winter. The effect is jarring, at once hilarious and monstrous, through which the history of a viciously squalid regime is seen as a bad dream mounted with a cast of thousands, many of them illustrious, and a state-monopoly cinematic apparatus. That might make the film sound more flippant than it is; though Ujica’s narrative is largely unjudgemental, he allows the cleavage between the images and the history known to the viewer do the talking.
The film, significantly, is book-ended by footage, shot on video that looks even grainier two decades on, of the “trial” of Ceausescu and his wife Elena. It’s a counterpoint to everything else, a process that is every bit as dubious and fictive as the state archive footage’s Stalinist narrative, but which nonetheless delivers an abrupt historical verdict – the execution of the presidential couple. The do-it-yourself nature of the filming reflects the crumbling of official authority as the Ceausescus find themselves at the mercy of a lowly band of revolutionaries and it also points to a new era of filmmaking, where the edifice of the media begins to experience the wearing away of the once firm ground beneath it.
4. The Turin Horse – Béla Tarr (Hungary) – 2011
Béla Tarr retired from filmmaking at the age of 56 in 2011 and left us with a fascinating conundrum. The Turin Horse takes its title, and ostensibly its theme, from the horse in the city of the same name whose cruel treatment at the hand of its owner one day in 1899 tipped Friedrich Nietzsche into insanity. A voiceover relates the anecdote at the start and says with what might at first be mistaken for undue seriousness, “what happened to the horse is not known”. The focus then switches to a semi-lame nineteenth-century peasant driving a horse through a storm. Back home, he and his daughter live out a taciturn existence, eating the same meal of a boiled potato every day, speaking only when things appear to be going wrong. And things begin to go wrong over the course of the film’s six days, inexorably, inexplicably and disastrously.
Tarr’s style and palette are so finely honed by now that it would be hard to date any of his films made since 1987’s Damnation. He cuts down even on The Werckmeister Harmonies’ parsimonious number of shots – in that film, he used only 38 different set-ups. This time it is 30. The relatively cramped sets mean Tarr’s familiar elaborate pans, zooms and travelling shots are less expansive than usual but Fred Keleman’s monochrome cinematography is at once gorgeous and unsettlingly claustrophobic. The film’s spare and repetitive narrative bears multiple readings but having watched it a second time, it appears less enigmatic than at first sight. Much of the explication seems to be a red herring – including one suspects the title and the incident that forms it. The Turin Horse may even be an unlikely, achingly cruel dark comedy. Tarr, in his retirement set up a film school in Split, and no films have been forthcoming since – he was worried he would keep making the same film again and again. Still, there’s so much to mull over, watch and re-watch and obsess over in the dozen or so of his films that we’ll be kept going for years to come.
5. Arabian Nights – Miguel Gomes (Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland) – 2015
As the title card of Miguel Gomes’s six-hour film indicates, it’s not really an adaptation of Arabian Nights but it does take inspiration from its structure and Scheherazade’s own story does take up a fair amount of time, though told in a very unconventional fashion, with little overweening attention to period detail. It is the disregard for convention, familiar from Gomes’s earlier work, that makes the film so exhilarating. Working from a trove of stories from recession-hit Portugal which he commissioned journalists to unearth, Gomes draws up a compendium of sad forlorn tales, shaggy-dog stories (one with an actual shaggy dog) and short observational documentaries. He uses professional actors (often in multiple roles) and amateurs (in some cases reenacting their own stories) and blends burlesque drama with Frederick Wiseman-style social realism. Some tales are less than five minutes long, others are related entirely in voice-over, like the one of a Chinese student who falls in love with a Portuguese policeman and the testimonies of the workers of the Viano do Castelo shipyard facing redundancies.
What is truly remarkable about the film is the way Gomes shows complete mastery over what is an unstructured, free-flowing narrative, one which is allowed to breathe in a way you normally don’t see on screen. While Gomes is not a revolutionary innovator as such, his films do give a sense of new possibility to an art form that is in desperate need of formal change. And, insofar as six-hour films without any major stars go (albeit released in three parts), Arabian Nights is very accessible, with a superlative soundtrack, ranging from Phyllis Dillon to The Exploited, Tim Maia and the Langley Schools Project. Cinema is far too often an over-parented child – whether it be Hollywood fare or the more integrity-ridden stuff of art-house film, there is a tendency to fret too much over the nurturing of the final product. Miguel Gomes has let his characters and his scenarios run a bit wild and the end result is something that is at times unruly, lovable and ultimately inspired.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller (Australia/USA) – 2015
George Miller hadn’t exactly disappeared from sight but he had spent most of the last two decades making things very different from the movies that made him famous. When the fourth instalment of the Mad Max films (not, strictly speaking, a sequel) finally arrived after years of stalling, few would have expected anything more than a mildly entertaining jaunt through the franchise’s past, à la Star Wars or Jurassic World. What we got instead was one of the greatest action movies ever made. A brilliantly inventive rereading of Miller’s own creation, in which Tom Hardy’s Max is shunted to the side by Charlize Theron’s astounding Imperator Furiosa. The film recounts a roaring tale for two hours, much of it without any recourse to dialogue. It’s a triumph of editing and photography brimming with virtuoso turns and it ties in a range of contemporary concerns, such as climate change and apocalyptic death cults into what was already a most visionary conception.
7. Parasite – Bong Joon-ho (South Korea) 132 minutes – 2019
Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winner is not merely the best film of the year but probably the one from the past few years that best encapsulates the global zeitgeist, with its scabrous take on class relations and its gloriously cynical skewering of societies that facilitate social precariousness. South Korea, with its periodic lurches back and forth between progressive politics and old-school corrupt governance, is often a conscientious source of caution for people in other East Asian countries, and Parasite is very much in this vein, even if its message, if there is indeed one, has resonated much farther afield. The joyously ill-mannered tone of Bong’s class satire prevents it from being overly schematic in a way his 2013 comic book adaptation Snowpiercer was, and he even manages to sneak in an unlikely comedy of manners into the account of the impecunious Kim family who inveigle themselves en bloc into the employ of the bourgeois Parks. The film features an excellent ensemble cast drawn from the best of contemporary Korean cinema – Bong regulars Song Kang-ho and Lee Jung-eun, Lee Sun-kyun (Hong Sang-soo regular), Choi Woo (Train to Busan) – and it also has a starring role for a building – the Parks’ architect-designed modernist residence. You sense Bong paid attention to what Thom Andersen said about Hollywood’s portrayal of modernist architecture in Los Angeles Plays Itself, and here he provides both a reinforcement and a subversion of that theory. Parasite is a film that will be the subject of thousands of academic papers, while being a wonderfully lucid and entertaining piece of popular art.
8. The Assassin – Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France) – 2015
Hou Hsiao-Hsien turned to wuxia for his first film in almost a decade but his attempt is very unlike Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou’s past forays into the genre, being almost wilfully non-commercial. His regular leading lady Shu Qi plays an assassin Nie Yinniang, who specialises in taking out corrupt government officials, in this adaptation of Pei Bing’s 9th-century martial arts story. When one day she declines to carry out a job because her prospective victim’s young child is present, her Machiavellian master, the nun Jiaxin (Fang Yi-sheu) punishes her by forcing her to kill her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) to whom she was once betrothed. There’s not much more in terms of plot and Hou has drained the film of most of the more spectacular trappings of the wuxia genre – while the action scenes are slickly mounted, they are brief and sporadic. It is a slow-burning film that will frustrate many but it is like an alluringly mysterious objet d’art – a work of consummate production values (In the Mood for Love’s Mark Lee Ping Bin excelling himself once again with the cinematography) and it has the strangest entrancing air of calm about it (occasionally punctuated by violent murder). I have seen few films in my life as quiet as this one and it’s one you want to watch again and again and let wash over you, like water lapping on the shore. Hou deservedly won the Best Director award at the 2015 Cannes Festival and his direction is mysterious to the point of being miraculous: how did he get it all so still and quiet?
9. Sieranevada – Cristi Puiu (Romania/France) – 2016
Puiu remains one of the most enigmatic major directors currently working – a creator of dense, challenging but consistently rewarding films, yet wilfully resistant to any potential mainstream success. Sieranevada was only his third film in more than a decade (after the equally brilliant The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Aurora), and it goes out of its way not to draw audiences in – there’s the throwaway non-sequitur title, the near-three-hour running time for a film that is mostly dialogue set in the confined spaces of a Bucharest apartment (the few breaks from that setting that there are take place in the even more cramped confines of a car), and a series of narrative decoys, red herrings and cul de sacs that litter the plot.
It’s enough to turn most people off but those who choose to stick with this tale of a family airing their grievances with one another on the 40th-day anniversary of the pater familias’s death will find an enthralling feast of a film that is as technically astounding as it is dramatically robust. The occasion is an Orthodox ceremony that will allow the soul of the dead man pass into heaven (this, continuing, in a way, the purgatorial theme of Mr Lazarescu) but the family have their own baggage weighing them down. The dead man’s sister-in-law is grieving her husband’s infidelity, there are skeletons emerging from various closets, a young cousin disturbs the peace by introducing a strung-out Croatian friend, and one earnest in-law is trying to foist conspiracy theories gleaned from YouTube on the congregation (the film also takes place three days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015). To compound the film’s difficulty, the plot rarely goes anywhere but it is the constantly quizzical air of observation, with the camera hanging out of reach of much of the action, and the grim humour that is repeatedly mined from first-class ensemble performances, that make Sieranevada a compellingly strange delight.
10. A Touch of Sin – Jia Zhangke (China/Japan) – 2013
A chronicler of turbulent social change to rival Dickens, Balzac or Döblin, Jia Zhangke is a be a man interested in just about every facet of Chinese society. A Touch of Sin fell foul of the Communist Party on account of the violence and social discontent it portrays so sparely, though Jia would turn more compliant, in personality at least, if not in his films. It is a compelling crime film, with brilliantly mounted set pieces and an almost documentary-style take on a China one rarely sees on screen. Jia also frames his four stories (and epilogue) in such a way that you want to see it again as soon as possible to see how it works and what you missed. a compelling film that leaves you continually looking for clues (there are also references to animal signs of the Chinese zodiac throughout) and wondering if what you have seen has deeper underlying meanings or is simply an enactment of a society on the brink of cracking. It spans the sort of Chinese human interest stories that populate the sidebars of online news sites and also the industrial discontent that is rather less reported. Jia would make the lower reaches of criminal milieus his theme in the two films that followed but neither was as fully realised as A Touch of Sin.
All the rest (in alphabetical order)
A Fantastic Woman – Sebastián Lelio (Chile/Spain/Germany/USA) – 2017
A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor (USA) – 2014
A Serious Man – Joel and Ethan Coen (USA) – 2009
A Separation – Asghar Farhadi (Iran) – 2011
Aferim! – Radu Jude (Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic/France) – 2015
Ajami – Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (Israel) – 2009
Alamar – Pedro González-Rubio (Mexico) – 2009
Alois Nebel – Tomáš Luňák (Czech Republic/Germany) – 2011
Aquarius – Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil/France) –2016
Ash Is Purest White – Jia Zhangke (China) – 2018
Aurora – Cristi Puiu (Romania) – 2010
Barbara – Christian Petzold (Germany) – 2012
Berberian Sound Studio – Peter Strickland (UK) – 2012
Black Coal, Thin Ice – Diao Yinan (China) – 2014
Blue Is the Warmest Colour – Abdellatif Kechiche (France/Belgium/Spain) – 2013
Boxing Gym – Frederick Wiseman (USA) – 2010
BPM (Beats per Minute) – Robin Campillo (France) – 2017
Bridesmaids – Paul Feig (USA) – 2011
Burning – Lee Chang-dong (South Korea) – 2018
Cemetery of Splendour – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) – 2015
El Club – Pablo Larraín (Chile) – 2015
Elena – Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia) – 2011
Everybody Wants Some!! –Richard Linklater (USA) – 2016
Faces Places – Agnès Varda and JR (France) – 2017
Get Out – Jordan Peele (USA) – 2017
Good Time – Josh and Benny Safdie (USA) – 2017
Goodbye – Mohammad Rasoulof (Iran) – 2011
Have a Nice Day – Liu Jian (China) – 2017
Heimat: Chronicle of a Vision – Edgar Reitz (Germany/France) – 2013
Homeland: Iraq Year Zero – Abbas Fahdal (Iraq/France) – 2015
House of Tolerance – Bertrand Bonello (France) – 2011
Hugo – Martin Scorsese (USA) – 2011
I Am Not Your Negro – Raoul Peck (France/USA/Belgium/Switzerland) – 2016
Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski (Poland/Denmark/France/UK) – 2013
In Jackson Heights – Frederick Wiseman (USA/France) – 2015
In the Land of the Head Hunters – Edward S. Curtis (USA) – 1914/2014
Inside Out – Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen (USA) – 2015
It’s the Earth, Not the Moon – Gonçalo Tocha (Portugal) – 2012
Jackie – Pablo Larraín (USA/Chile/France) – 2016
Jauja – Lisandro Alonso (Argentina/Denmark/France/Mexico/USA/Germany/Brazil/Netherlands) – 2014
Lady Macbeth – William Oldroyd (UK) – 2016
Le quattro volte – Michelangelo Frammartino (Italy/Germany/Switzerland) – 2010
Le Sommeil d’Or – Davy Chou (France/Cambodia) – 2011
Like Someone in Love – Abbas Kiarostami (Japan/France) – 2012
Look Who’s Back – David Wnendt (Germany) – 2015
Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichardt (USA) – 2010
Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh (UK/France/Germany) – 2014
My Joy – Sergei Loznitsa (Germany/Netherlands/Ukraine) – 2010
Neighbouring Sounds – Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil) – 2012
Neruda – Pablo Larraín (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain) – 2016
Nostalgia for the Light – Patricio Guzmán (Chile) – 2010
Of Gods and Men – Xavier Beauvois (France) – 2010
Once I Entered a Garden – Avi Mograbi (Israel/Germany/France) – 2012
Phantom Thread – Paul Thomas Anderson (USA) – 2017
Police, Adjective – Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania) – 2009
Raw – Julie Ducournau (France/Belgium) – 2016
Reality – Matteo Garrone (Italy/France) – 2012
Roma – Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico) – 2018
Saint Laurent – Bertrand Bonello (France/Belgium) – 2014
Shoplifters – Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan) – 2018
Slack Bay – Bruno Dumont (Germany/France) – 2016
Son of Saul – László Nemes (Hungary) – 2015
Song of the Sea – Tomm Moore (Ireland/Denmark/Belgium/Luxembourg/France) – 2014
Stranger by the Lake – Alain Guiraudie (France) – 2013
Sweetgrass – Lucien Castaing-Taylor (USA) – 2009
Tabu – Miguel Gomes (Portugal/France/Brazil/Germany) – 2012
Take Shelter – Jeff Nichols (USA) – 2011
The Babadook – Jennifer Kent (Australia) – 2014
The Dead Nation –Radu Jude (Romania) – 2017
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson (USA/Germany/UK) – 2014
The Image Book – Jean-Luc Godard (Switzerland/France) – 2018
The Irishman – Martin Scorsese (USA) – 2019
The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer (Denmark/Finland/Indonesia/Norway/United Kingdom) – 2014
The Nothing Factory – Pedro Pinho (Portugal) – 2017
The Robber – Benjamin Heisenberg (Austria) – 2010
The Second Mother – Anna Muylaert (Brazil) – 2015
The Sisters Brothers – Jacques Audiard (France/USA) – 2018
The Treasure – Corentin Poromboiu (Romania/France) – 2015
The Wailing – Na Hong-jin (South Korea) – 2016
The Woods Dreams Are Made Of – Claire Simon (France) – 2015
Things to Come – Mia Hansen-Løve (France/Germany) – 2016
This Is Not a Film – Jafar Panahi (Iran) – 2011
3 Faces – Jafar Panahi (Iran) – 2018
Toni Erdmann – Maren Ade (Germany/Austria) – 2016
Train to Busan – Yeon Sang-ho (South Korea) – 2016
Two Days, One Night – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium/France/Italy) – 2014
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) – 2010
Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer (UK/USA/Switzerland) – 2013
What Now? Remind Me – Joaquim Pinto (Portugal) – 2013
Zama – Lucrecia Martel (Argentina) – 2017