Fish & Cat

As far as U.S. film culture is concerned, the 2010s were a polarizing decade. On the one hand, great movies were plentiful, and they came here from all over the world. Thanks to a multitude of DVD distributors and online streaming platforms, one could access worthwhile cinema with greater ease than ever before. On the other hand, a small handful of corporations dominated (and continue to dominate) theatrical distribution channels, making it difficult to see many of the era’s truly important movies on a big screen unless you lived in a big city like Chicago. Even here, several movies on my list of favorites of the 2010s didn’t play in the city outside of festivals, and one (Wang Bing’s monumental documentary Dead Souls) still hasn’t screened here at all.

The Internet played a big role in this polarization and probably accelerated it as well. As I mentioned, one can find all sorts of movies online, not to mention writing on what seems like all of them. Yet the dominant U.S.-based voices in online film discourse tend not to champion alternatives to multiplex fare, but rather focus on whatever’s most popular in any given week. As such it feels like mainstream movies and art movies are barely on speaking terms anymore; and as for U.S. cinema and that of the rest of the world, the two may as well be coming from different planets, to judge by most of our nation’s cinematic output. One reason why U.S. filmmaking was so fertile in the 1960s and ’70s was because American filmmakers were responding to, and sometimes assimilating, the innovations of such directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman. Are there any Americans now trying to find local analogues to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bertrand Bonello, Miguel Gomes, Lucrecia Martel, or Jafar Panahi, to name some of the most important directors working today? The cinema of the United States is pretty much stagnant at the dawn of the 2020s, and the Internet, which might help to stir things up, largely seems content with keeping them still.

This isn’t to say the U.S. failed to produce good or even great movies in the past decade. We got at least one important film from Kelly Reichardt, Richard Linklater, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jim Jarmusch, Lewis Klahr, Steven Soderbergh, Ben Russell, David Fincher, Robert Greene, Janie Geiser, Alex Ross Perry, Martin Scorsese, Sean Baker, Terrence Malick, Jesse McLean, and James Gray. Yet outside the experimental world, how often did it feel as though these filmmakers were working in concert or pushing the national cinema towards something new? The major American films of the last ten years seemed to exist in isolation from one another, and the minor ones (which would include most multiplex fare) generally stunk.

Regardless of whether this country’s culture of stagnation gives way to something more vibrant, I feel confident that cinema as a whole will continue to evolve in exciting ways. The past decade offered so many valuable films and film movements that I often had difficulty keeping up with them all. Still, the trends that reached my attention were more than enough to inspire gratitude. To name some highlights: there were the four masterpieces that Hong Kong producer-director-studio chief Johnnie To released between 2011 and 2012 (Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Life Without Principle, Romancing in Thin Air, and Drug War), miraculous films that delivered personal art within popular idioms; the continued rise of female auteurs all over Latin and South America; the wave of groundbreaking documentaries from mainland China, which were as thematically provocative as they were formally provocative; Panahi’s series of self-reflexive films, made in defiance of the Iranian government’s ban on his making movies; the final features by such giants as Resnais, Manoel de Oliveira, Agnès Varda, Tsai Ming-liang, and Abbas Kiarostami; and French auteur Bruno Dumont’s unlikely transformation from a dour Bressonian to a maker of madcap comedies.

In selecting my favorite films of the 2010s, I considered those I think most likely to endure. Some of them, like Fish & Cat and Sunset, broke new ground in terms of cinematic expression, innovating ways to develop narratives or settings. Others, like Life Without Principle and Rambleras, tapped into an aesthetic classicism that, to quote Eric Rohmer, can be ahead of modernism—they point to formal traditions that take us out of the present and bind us to a sense of timelessness. (Ironically both Principle and Rambleras are extremely pressing in their social concerns, demonstrating that classicism doesn’t have to be retrograde in its themes.) Either way I think that time will be generous to these movies. I’ve seen all but one of them multiple times, and I find new things to admire about each whenever I return to them. Some of these titles aren’t well-known in this country yet, but I consider this to be only a temporary issue. Great art has a way of reaching wider audiences over time, a process that the Internet can certainly facilitate.

Below are my favorite films of the decade, in order of preference.

1. Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, 2011) To’s best movies validate cinema as the supreme popular art form, and this fuguelike narrative about the investment banking industry was the best of the best. Every sequence of this unclassifiable film (which blends comedy, suspense, and melodrama) is a masterpiece, as To employs breathtaking camera movements, wondrous color combinations, and deeply felt performances to attain the heights of creative expression. It’s so entertaining that you may not recognize its profound moral orientation until after you see it.

Toni Erdmann

2. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016) Like Life Without Principle, Ade’s epic comedy asked us to consider how we preserve our humanity within the amoral workings of late capitalism. This German feature delivered the decade’s richest characterizations, and its narrative structure was ingenious as well. Ade carefully establishes a realist logic for the movie’s first hour, then dashes it with riotous screwball humor. It’s a perfect metaphor for the needed eruption of human kindness from within a system that forces us to suppress it.

3. Fish & Cat (Shahram Mokri, 2013) Riffing on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the art of M.C. Escher, Iranian writer-director Mokri devised the most impressive formal achievement of the 2010s. His film is an unbroken 130-minute shot that doesn’t preserve our notions of “real time,” presenting flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dream sequences. Multiple viewings reveal this to be a surprisingly humane work as well as a fiercely intelligent one.

Bitter Money

4. Tie: ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing, 2013), Bitter Money (Wang, 2016), and Dead Souls (Wang, 2018) These three features confirmed that China’s Wang Bing is the most fearless documentarian working today. Madness took viewers on an unforgettable visit to a mental institution-cum-prison; Money delivered a panoramic look of personal and professional discontents in a small industrial city; and Souls, the only documentary I’ve seen comparable to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, was a mammoth history lesson about survivors of Mao’s anti-rightist campaign of the late 1950s. Wang employed a different aesthetic for each film, tailoring his approach to specific social concerns he wanted to address.

Inherent Vice

5. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) One of the finest literary adaptations in cinema, Anderson’s faithful translation of a minor Thomas Pynchon novel managed to convey the richness of Pynchon’s trailblazing fiction as a whole. The film is a frightening investigation into the death of 60s counterculture; it’s also a laugh riot. No other film this decade made me laugh more.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon

6. Tie: In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, 2012) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong, 2013) The prolific South Korean writer-director Hong is the cinema’s great chronicler of passive-aggression and romantic frustration, and these two features spoke to his consistency as well as his range. Both are inspired dream narratives grounded in deceptively simple (but exactingly composed) imagery, yet Country is a sunny comedy and Haewon is a tragic melodrama. I hope we get another 14 features from Hong in the 2020s.

7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010) Weerasethakul delivered the ultimate work of spiritual filmmaking this decade with this funny, moving, and haunting account of an old farmer’s death and reincarnation. Despite the heaviness of his concerns, the imaginative Thai writer-director still found room for talking animals, sex jokes, and glorious pop music. The film’s playfulness belied a deep sense of wonder.


8. Sunset (Laszlo Nemes, 2018) Son of Saul was the decade’s best debut film, and with this second feature, Hungarian director Nemes managed to top it. A historical inquiry on par with those of Roberto Rossellini and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, this utilized a novel aesthetic to immerse viewers in the social turmoil leading up to World War I. No other director has made more purposeful use of shallow focus—one feels lost in Nemes’s films, which is precisely their point.


9. Rambleras (Daniela Speranza, 2013) The best film I’ve ever seen at the Chicago Latino Film Festival, this life-affirming Uruguayan comedy meditated on problems that women face in youth, middle age, and old age without feeling sour or programmatic. It’s the rare movie that asks us to consider the whole of life, though it approaches the subject with tremendous modesty and good cheer. The cinema needs Speranza, who works wonders with color and Super 16-millimeter cinematography, to make another movie.


10. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, 2010) The most divisive film of the Romanian New Wave was also the most rigorous piece of durational cinema since Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. A pitch-black comedy about random violence and broken families, Puiu’s three-hour tour de force pushed the New Wave’s much-lauded, hyperrealist aesthetic into intractable strangeness and unaccountable wonder.

The Image Book

11. Tie: Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010), Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014), and The Image Book (Godard, 2018) Cinema’s greatest poet spent his ninth decade making some of his most youthful films, exploring new ways to express himself and comment on the state of the world. Goodbye to Language, Godard’s rapturous 3-D experiment, was the most spectacular of these three features, but all were inexhaustible sound-and-image collages that gave pleasure to the senses as well as the mind.


12. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2017) The first feature in nine years by Argentina’s best director was the decade’s most welcome comeback. A haunting comedy of patriarchal and colonial power in crisis, Martel’s adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel exhibited the director’s genius for visual composition (aided, as always, by her skillful manipulation of offscreen sound) in every shot.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

13. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (Adam Curtis, 2011) This three-part BBC documentary was, like Godard’s recent output, a heady meditation on the travails of life in the Information Age. It also provided a number of invaluable history lessons; Curtis explained how our civilization arrived at its current condition and asked us to ruminate on the mistakes we made along the way.


14. Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016) The singular French writer-director Bonello made great strides this decade with House of Pleasures and Saint Laurent, but this creepy fable about 21st-century terrorism was, for me, his finest achievement. A sustained nightmare of a film, Nocturama was also a brilliant piece of film criticism, finding common ground between such dissimilar reference points as David Cronenberg, Robert Bresson, and Dawn of the Dead.

Computer Chess

15. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013) Another Internet Age origin story, Bujalski’s formally adventurous comedy (shot in black-and-white on vintage analogue video cameras) posited that the world we live in today grew out of the failed social interactions of Carter-era tech nerds. It’s hilarious to watch and disturbing to think about.

16. Sack Barrow (Ben Rivers, 2011) My favorite experimental short of the 2010s was British director-cinematographer Rivers’s 20-minute documentary about a run-down electroplating factory. This was both a moving elegy for a dying way of life and an eerie piece of found science fiction, with images of industrial decay reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

The Wind Rises

17. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013) Miyazaki’s gorgeous animated biopic of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi (who designed fighter planes for the Japanese military during World War II) makes me cry whenever I watch it, even though I know full well that it’s asking me to empathize with a monster. A moral provocation of the highest order.

Goodbye First Love

18. Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011) French writer-director Hansen-Løve found new ways to convey time’s passing in her exquisitely subtle dramas, which include The Father of My Children, Eden, and this heartbreaking saga of teenage love and its aftermath. The film spans more than a decade but seems to go by in an instant.

At Berkeley

19. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, 2013) An alternately stirring and agonizing epic by America’s greatest documentarian, Wiseman’s four-hour look at UC Berkeley in 2010 was also the cinema’s most thorough consideration of how our society was irrevocably changed by the George W. Bush era.

Hard to Be a God

20. Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, 2013) German, one of the most important Russian filmmakers, spent a decade working on this pulverizing sci-fi art film, which turned out to be his last work. An immersive portrait of societal decay, this featured immaculate sound and production design and some of the most unforgettably hideous imagery in movie history.

The Mule

21. Tie: Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016) and The Mule (Eastwood, 2018) Two rich docudramas by an unassuming American master—one a minimalist tragedy with a happy ending, the other an expansive comedy with a tragic ending. Both consider ugly truths about 21st-century U.S. society on the whole while finding virtue within individual lives.

Ash is the Purest White

22. Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke, 2018) Jia cemented his status as mainland China’s finest narrative filmmaker with this shape-shifting crime-world romance, which spans two decades of modern Chinese history while evolving from a thriller to a dark comedy to a tragic melodrama.

23. The Apostate (Federico Veiroj, 2015) One of the decade’s best comedies, Uruguayan auteur Veiroj’s first film in Spain explored the inner life of a thirtysomething layabout (who’s embarked on a quixotic mission to annul his standing in the Catholic Church), employing what seemed like an endless supply of creative visual devices.

A Simple Life

24. A Simple Life (Ann Hui, 2011) The only great film of the 2010s to merit comparison with the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Hui’s sweet-tempered yet quietly devastating tale of a Hong Kong movie producer caring for his family’s dying servant posed important questions about how we live and die in today’s world.


25. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012) With this black-and-white diptych, Portuguese critic-turned-filmmaker Gomes riffed on colonial history, silent cinema, doomed love, and the glories of celluloid, delivering novel insights about all of them.   v