The 2010s were the decade where film, for me, transformed from an interest into an obsession, a hobby and – eventually – a freelance profession of sorts. In November of 2012, I began ccpopculture: then called ‘Carbon Copy’, then centred on a diverse mix of concert, music, television, games and movie reviews. Within a year, the site shifted focus more heavily towards film; soon I was writing freelance (for free), and by early 2015 I’d published my first paid piece of writing, an examination of prestige queer cinema for Screen Education magazine.
Lots of things have changed in my life over the last ten years, but film has been a constant presence in one way or another. At the conclusion of the decade, it seemed only fitting to chronicle and celebrate my favourite fifty films screening over that period.
Before I begin, some provisos. I’m ranked my favourite films; subjectivity is implied. That subjectivity includes plenty of bias, including the likelihood that I’m going to have forgotten some superlative films and overrated some films I haven’t had the opportunity to rewatch in years. In other words, if I was to put a list like this together again in another couple of years, I’d expect quite a bit to change. I’m stressing less about release dates than I have in the past for my annual lists – I’m just going by IMDB dates – but I have introduced an entirely arbitrary condition to improve diversity: one film per director. Most of the films are unranked, just roughly grouped by theme or genre, but my top ten is ordered.
- Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- Alien Covenant
In a period of franchise dominance, only three were of sufficient quality to make my list. I will admit to hemming and hawing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe; while it frequently frustrated me, its best moments reminded me of the glorious giddiness of childhood. But each of the MCU films – even the best ones – are too formulaic, too beholden to pleasing crowds to truly endure.
The Force Awakens would be similarly described by many, but I loved how it leaned into the inevitability of Star Wars’ fairytale storytelling, allowing its characters to become aware of the strands of destiny and their inability to fight them. It sung to my little Star-Wars-loving heart while introducing exciting new characters and narrative opportunities … and I can’t even complain that they were largely squandered in The Rise of Skywalker.
Mad Max: Fury Road is an entirely different beast, a staggeringly ambitious, utterly unique creation that marries individuality and blockbuster excess. I might not love it as much as its (many) proponents, but even as I might quibble with bits and pieces, its hard to deny its power. Meanwhile, I can’t imagine many others will stump for Ridley Scott’s much-maligned ‘conclusion’ to the Alien franchise, but I found it at once gripping, aesthetically compelling and a thoughtful refutation of schematic cinemagoers expecting movie characters to be perfectly robotic rather than flawed humans.
- The Endless
- Under the Skin
Rian Johnson might have etched his mark on pop culture with his controversial contribution to a galaxy far, far away, but for me his enduring contribution will be his 2012 flick Looper. While the premise is just a tweak on plenty of time travel narratives that came before, it’s the execution that endures, combining ambiguous ethics, flawed characters and an impressively gritty aesthetic to produce a truly memorable slice of sci-fi.
Moorhead and Benson’s The Endless is less easily categorised as sci-fi; if you were to instead describe it as Lovecraftian horror or a timefuck thriller I wouldn’t quibble. What it definitely is, though, is a singular and unforgettable example of indie genre cinema at its best. Similarly distinctive is the slinky, sensual, sinister Under the Skin; it’s the kind of film we’ll still be unpacking decades from now.
- Stranger by the Lake
- The Wild Boys
- Knife + Heart
Cinema is an artform of pleasures; chief among them sex. But focusing on sex alone tends to undermine artistry; that’s why we call such films pornography. It’s perhaps not surprising that this fecund threesome of films emphasise queer sexuality. Each film pairs desire with danger, eroticism with intimacy – each is, fittingly, French!
All of these films are oneiric and alluring in their own way, understanding that rational logic – and, by corollary, normal narrative structures – falter when overwhelmed by lust. Many of the films in my top fifty I’d recommend to strangers without hesitation. I’m not so sure about these three; desires is a finnicky beast, and what I’ve found captivating and pleasurable here might prove offputting to others.
- The Lobster
- Take This Waltz
- Gone Girl
As an avowed cynic and an avowed romantic, it’s fitting that the love stories that resonated with me over the 2010s split the difference between sentimentality and scorn for same. The Lobster is a dark satire of monogamy with a carefully-shielded heart lurking within its gnarled ribcage. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is nowhere near as mean as Lanthimos’ film, but it expertly captures the paradoxical yearning for a perfect relationship in a film that refutes the very idea of perfection.
Gone Girl, though, is the meanest of the bunch. It took me a while to warm to this one; I expected a neo-noir thriller, and instead discovered an unapologetically acidic depiction of heterosexuality that’s devastating and hilarious in equal measure. (Apologies to The Social Network, pipped at the post by this film and my one-per-director rule.)
Moonlight – best remembered for producing the most exciting, anarchic moment in the history of the Academy Awards – is a true romance, built on the understanding that we love the most when can do the least. Full credit to Barry Jenkins for taking a template that could’ve so easily shouldered a gritty, indie realistic aesthetic and instead embracing a sumptuous, always original approach that amped up the melodrama and emotions alike.
- 12 Years a Slave
- The Act of Killing
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- The Master
Bunching these four under a ‘history’ subheading is perhaps misleading. Both 12 Years a Slave and The Act of Killing draw on real horrors. The former, directed by Steve McQueen (in my book, the most consistently excellent director of the decade), weaponises the handsome period piece as a horrifying adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoirs. The latter explores the modern atrocities of Indonesia through pop culture. Each is more interested in evoking the emotions of their subjects than interrogating the facts, to their respective benefits.
Neither The Grand Budapest Hotel nor The Master are historical films, per se. Wes Anderson’s film is a work of fiction, of course, set in a fictional hotel in a fictional country. But beyond its twee, pastel colours and symmetrical compositions is a tragic portrait of fascist tyranny and the tendrils extending even into today. The Master is less interested in its dramatisation of early Scientology than its early publicity might have led you to expect, but it serves as the perfect foundation for an exploration of daddy issues writ small – and very, very large.
- Green Room
- It Follows
- Black Swan
One of the driving factors behind the acceleration of my cinephilia over the past decade was my embrace of horror movies. Horror is an excellent introduction to a deep appreciation of cinema, simply because there’s so much of it and the difference between the good, the bad and the great is almost entirely down to subtle qualities: cinematography, score and those ineffable things that set great films apart.
These five films are all great. Green Room is the simplest – and the nastiest. Sure, you can dig below the surface to find an argument against tolerating intolerance, but it landed for me when Anton Yelchin (RIP) holds up his mangled arm and offers a sudden, shocking reminder of one’s own mortality.
The remainder are less direct in their exploitation of our fragile reptile brains. It Follows’ appeal to me aligns closely with Green Room’s. Yes, it’s in large part a homage to classic Carpenter-era horror, but its persistent misreading as an STD allegory elides the fantastic way it latches onto that ever-present itch that, yes, we’re going to die. Black Swan and Enemy share an oppressive intimacy; they shove into the personal spaces of their protagonists and delve into each character’s anxieties, to the point where psychological suffering is realised as hallucinations – or perhaps worse.
Then there’s Oculus. The second feature from Mike Flanagan – whose subsequent career across the decade has been pretty, pretty good (The Haunting of Hill House, phew) – establishes the playful, thoughtful way he’s experimented with vision and imagery in the years since, not to mention its reflection (heh) on unresolved family trauma, a thread running through much of his works. My go-to recommendation to pretty much anyone with a tolerance for truly creepy horror, and probably my favourite horror from the past ten years.
- 52 Tuesdays
- Personal Shopper
Together, these three form a neat coming-of-age triptych. Boy – still Waititi’s best film, even after a swift and deserved ascent up the Hollywood ladder – chronicles a pre-teen recalibrating how he sees both himself and his father with heart and hilarity. 52 Tuesdays also centres on a parent/child relationship, except here with two very different transformations. One a gender transition; the other a messy establishment of sexuality that’s at once entirely distinctive and familiar to anyone who was ever a teenager. Rounding out the trio is Personal Shopper, a wonderfully weird film that rolls up ghosts, technology, murder and grief into a fascinating planet whose orbit sweeps through early adulthood and the concomitant struggles with identity.
I love all these movies, but I want to take a moment to single out 52 Tuesdays. It’s clumsy in many ways. That clumsiness, though, comes from Sophie Hyde’s pseudo-experimental approach to filming. Its title comes not only from a narrative conceit – Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) can only visit her transitioning father, James (Del Herbert-Jane) on Tuesdays – but from a self-imposed filming restriction, where footage was only recorded on Tuesdays over one year. Hyde was my first ever interview (for the now-defunct 500 Club), and her insights into the filming process but also its underlying politics were hugely fascinating. I’ve long since shelved any aspirations of being a film journalist, but if all interview subjects were as informed and articulate as Hyde, it might’ve been a different story.
- Ad Astra
- Song to Song
- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
- Journey to the West (2014)
- Uncle Boonmee Who Call Recall His Past Lives
These five films are nigh impossible to swiftly summarise. I mean, you can try it. Brad Pitt goes into the far reaches of space to confront his daddy. Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling glide through the Austin music scene. Turkish police search for a body with the aid of the accused killer. Two men walk very slowly through Marseille. An uncle…okay, I’m not even going to try and synopsise Uncle Boonmee.
All that’s besides the point. These five make my list because they each possess a kind of ineffable poetry, a captivating beauty that resists being captured in words. Each sent me into a kind of trance: part admiration, part meditation. Of these films, I’ve only seen one more than once – Tsai Ming-Liang’s Journey to the West, which I made a point of watching on the big screen twice – and that reflects, as much as anything, a concern that the same magic won’t be conjured again. But even if it doesn’t, these films did something mystical – something that lingered.
- Scott Pilgrim vs the World
- Tokyo Tribe
- Paddington 2
It’s not all crystalline cinematic beauty, though! My favourite films of the decade also include Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Tokyo Tribe and Paddington 2, three movies that are first and foremost fun. Scott Pilgrim might not be as perfect as Wright’s Hot Fuzz – I still can’t quite forgive how it mangles Knives’ character arc – but it’s just so damn entertaining that I find myself returning to it again and again. It’s easy to criticise Tokyo Tribe, too – Sion Sono’s representation of women here is certainly questionable in parts – but when an avowed anti-musical person like myself can have so much fun with a musical (granted, a Japanese hip-hop gang battle musical), such complaints melt away.
The popularity of Paddington 2 has become almost meme-like at this point, but – as someone who was lukewarm on the first film – it’s entirely deserved! This is a film that does the Wes Anderson twee-thing way better than ol’ Wes has ever done, and pairs that with an all-time great Hugh Grant performance and a robust subtext about inclusivity and refugees. A near-perfect film, somehow.
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- Short Term 12
I admit that my final two choices of categories are a bit of stretch. The stories of a failed folk artist grieving an absent partner, a priest grappling with the failures of the Catholic Church and the dysfunctions of the inhabitants and workers in a treatment facility for teens don’t have a great deal in common.
What unites these films for me is simple: how they made me feel. Each throbs with the pain of their character’s traumas and their inability to solve them. Each left me with a resonant feeling of melancholy that still endures.
It doesn’t hurt that all three are showcases for incredible acting. Llewyn signalled the ascendance of one of our generation’s most charming and talented rising actors – even if his detours into franchises hasn’t always paid dividends – while Calvary was a timely reminder of the incredible talents of one Brendan Gleeson. Short Term 12 is an absolute wealth of talent, including two young actors who’d pick up Oscars shortly thereafter, but I particularly want to celebrate how it introduced me to my favourite contemporary actor – Lakeith Stanfield – who, if there’s any justice in the world, will surely be holding his own statuette soon enough.
- I, Daniel Blake
Another strained category. Early in my writing career, I regularly fell into the film critic trap of praising a movie for the quality of its politics rather than its craft; there are far too many mediocre but well-intended films out there that I overrated because of how they aligned with my politics.
But that’s not to say a politically-minded film can’t also be a masterpiece. Case in point: these four. Both I, Daniel Blake and Parasite are, for me, apexes of their directors’ already impressive careers. Ken Loach’s film takes a social realist approach; though it’s never subtle in its anger at England’s austerity policies, its emphasis on the human toll of these policies is powerful thanks to some superb performances, especially Hayley Squires’. Parasite is more oblique in its politics – and more dramatic in its structure – but its effect is just as potent.
Sherpa and Behemoth are each documentaries. Each of them sets out to convey the scale and magnificence of nature, but in doing so each reveals the perniciousness of capitalism and how it undermines our society as it erodes our world. Both films’ formal approaches are precisely aligned with their respective analyses of the mechanisms of late capitalism, and avoid any feints at empty optimism that scuttle so many similar non-fiction films.
THE TOP TEN
- 10: A Separation
I can still remember going out of my way to see Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation while on holidays down south, purely off the basis of its reputation. I was tempted to frame a narrative about how it transformed my love of cinema…but given I made a point of showing my now-wife a Mexican film on our first date, it’s perhaps not an accurate anecdote.
Regardless, A Separation deserved to be a phenomenon. You wouldn’t think a film examining religion, relationships and social politics in contemporary Iran would strike a chord with so many audiences around the world, but that it did really speaks to the quality of Farhadi’s film. A Separation isn’t just a precisely scripted slice of humanism; it’s also a fantastic example of a melodrama so carefully engineered that its contrivances play as naturalistic. I’m not even entirely convinced its Farhadi’s best film – shout out to Fireworks Wednesday – but its certainly his strongest of the 2010s.
- 9: Laurence Anyways
Even as Xavier Dolan’s star seems to have waned in the cinematic consciousness, Laurence Anyways endures. Oh, sure, its detractors might quibble about the casting of a cisgendered man as a trans woman, lament its near-three-hour runtime, or complain about the sheer extra-ness of it all … but for me, Laurence Anyways represents the full realisation of Dolan’s OTT capabilities. The film sings with a love of cinema and a hatred of moderation, and concludes with such an achingly ambiguous note that I find myself thinking of it unbidden.
- 8: National Gallery/In Jackson Heights
Alright, so I cheated. Don’t fret, it won’t be the last time I bend the rules in this top ten.
My cheat here is twofold. Not only am I including two films by a single director – fly-on-the-wall documentary master Frederick Wiseman – in a single slot, I’m also including two films by a single director, something I said I wouldn’t do.
Well, deal with it. National Gallery was my first experience of Wiseman, from front and centre at Sydney’s gorgeous State Theatre. I had to include it, for the experience at my first Sydney Film Festival as much as for its exploration of art, history and administration in London’s National Gallery. I saw In Jackson Heights as a screener for the Melbourne International Film Festival and was similarly overwhelmed – this time, by the explosion of art and music in this famously multicultural borough, and also the insidious mechanics of gentrification that threaten the future of this culture. So, of course, I had to include it.
The reason that I’m listing both isn’t just that I’m indecisive. These two films are perfect complements to one another, revealing that Wiseman’s films excellence comes not just from his faultless editing and interesting subjects, but the meta-narratives he creates in compiling these works. National Gallery underlines the insular nature of the Gallery’s executive body by excluding the perspective of gallery visitors from the film; In Jackson Heights, on the other hand, emphasises the community within the area through focusing exclusively on locals at all levels. Taken together, these two documentaries demonstrate why Wiseman – who just turned 90 – is one of America’s greatest living directors.
- 7: Roma
To explain the significance of Roma, I need to both spoil the events of the film and offer up a content warning – miscarriage. Feel free to skip ahead to number six; I understand.
Roma is a magnificent, classical film. It’s a semi-autobiographical depiction of director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood through the eyes of an avatar for his family’s maid (Yalitza Aparicio). Filmed in black-and-white, it exudes a certain kind of brittle reality that’s occasionally threatened by discursive flights of fancy: soaring moments that seem to pierce the simplicity of the quotidian. But it’s also a brutal film.
Its brutality culminates in the birth of the maid’s stillborn baby. It’s a heartbreaking scene in of itself, executed with a meticulous mixture of melodrama and moderation. But I watched this scene within weeks of my wife and I finally – after a long fertility journey – becoming pregnant. With doubts over the pregnancy from our recent scan, something in this scene hit me with a spiritual but undeniable realisation that the pregnancy was doomed. Within less than a week, that diagnosis was confirmed and our fertility journey restarted – and still continues to this day.
I think Roma would be make this list with or without its confluence with our own tragedy. The timing, though, confirms why the film resonates so much. Life is magical and exciting and glorious, yes, but it’s also devastating in unbelievable ways. Perhaps more so than any film I’ve seen, Roma captures those paradoxes.
- 6 and 5: Nocturama and Spring Breakers
Pairing up my sixth and five favourite films, respectively, since they have an awful lot in common. Both centre on young adults breaking off from societal expectations – and the law. In Nocturama, it’s through terrorism; in Spring Breakers, the crimes are less politically motivated (more robbery, less bombs) but just as anarchic. Neither film is especially interested in a causal, linear presentation of their narratives, with frequent discursive moments sliding towards straight up surrealism in each film.
Both are, more than anything, musical films. Nocturama prominently features pop songs like “Whip My Hair” alongside an electrifying Frank Sinatra lip sync; Spring Breakers goes from Skrillex snippets to Britney Spears ballads without breaking a sweat. These movies’ musicality doesn’t just come from their soundtracks. They’re also fundamentally rhythmic films, finding the poetry I spoke about earlier in this piece through a deft understanding of dream logic. For all their ideas, I don’t quite know what either film is “about”, yet I’d happily watch either again right now.
- 4: Whiplash
Another musical film. This one’s about music, but more than anything it’s the decade’s best representation of the horrors of toxic masculinity. That became a bit of a buzzword in the 2010s, often misapplied to films that were really just about assholes. But the assholes here – Miles Teller’s ambitious young drummer and his relentless teacher, the inimitable J.K. Simmons – expertly encapsulate why toxic masculinity is so inescapable. If all you value is an arbitrary measure of success, then the means – harassment, bullying, abuse – are forgiven for the ends. I don’t think a film understood that better in the 2010s than Whiplash.
Oh, and it just so happens to feature the most propulsive, exciting, anxiety-inducing finale of any film of ever seen. Which doesn’t hurt. Very much my tempo.
- 3: Holy Motors
Films like Holy Motors reveal the limits of criticism. At its core, this is cinema about cinema – a set of almost entirely disconnected, metatextual vignettes exploring genre, artificiality and mimesis – and their limits. But a film as powerful as this resists analysis because such analysis undermines the impact it has. If this was merely an experimental piece of post modern cinema, it wouldn’t be able to have the effect it has – turning me from tears in one moment to laughter the next. There’s an ineffable, invisible quality driving Holy Motors. As a critic, I just have to accept that a film like this beyond my writing ability.
- 2: The Wolf of Wall Street
For a man whose shadow so dominates American cinema, Martin Scorsese hasn’t gone quietly into retirement. The 2010s is perhaps his best decade yet, running the gamut from the gripping genre of Shutter Island to the aching melancholia of The Irishman. But for me, his standout film is the most exciting work in his already impressive filmography: the uproarious, hugely ambitious The Wolf of Wall Street.
First and foremost, I love this film because it’s fun. It’s become my go-to comfort food; about once a year since its release I’ll pop it on for the sheer joy of watching an old master flex some new tricks, take his heightened stylism to its furthest limits. Beyond that, it’s his most effective attack on the American dream. His lauded gangster films do an excellent job of this, but they’re always rise-and-fall narratives. The beating heart of morality is always visible in these films; here, it’s buried beneath mountains of cocaine, quaaludes and cash.
Too many anti-capitalistic screeds focus on the bad shit. That can be effective; Zhao Liang’s documentary, Behemoth, made my list for its carefully poetic portrayals of mega-capitalism and the damage it deals. The Wolf of Wall Street understands that no matter our complaints, we all crave the power and excess of wealth. Scorsese weaponises wealth. He shoves our face in it, revelling in both the joy and the horrors while understanding the two can never truly be separated. I don’t think there’s a better film to understand the state of the world today, and that fact that it’s uproariously entertaining does not hurt one iota.
- 1: Twin Peaks: The Return
Category purists, you’re welcome to pretend that I just listed fifty films and this is my cherry on top; after all, I did count two Wiseman docos in one slot. If you want to continue the tired debate over whether or not it’s elitist to count David Lynch’s monumental sixteen hours as cinema as well as television, I’ll direct you to Vadim Rizov’s excellent article on the subject, which I consider to be the final word on the matter (and utterly unfinal, which I guess is the point).
Twin Peaks: The Return felt cosmically predetermined. The literal day after finishing the series and Fire Walk With Me for the first time, I awoke to news on the radio of its announcement. A year or so later, I saw Lynch speak in person and heard him suggest that the project was dead. But then, for four glorious months in 2017, we were treated to a challenging, complex and utterly captivating insight into Lynch’s mind.
Twin Peaks: The Return is confounding and heartbreaking. Much like Fire Walk With Me, it plays into audience expectations and crushes them expertly; much like Fire Walk With Me, it’s about the intersection of patriarchal abuse and American culture and trauma; much like Fire Walk With Me, it’s so much more, too much to contain in words. I’m not entirely sure if Lynch is my favourite modern director, but he’s certainly my favourite working artist. I can only hope that next decade sees him produce something on par with this unmatched masterpiece.