15) Roma (2018)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Written by: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira
Roma is a beautiful black and white made by a true auteur. The film is based on Cuaron’s childhood but the focus is not on a little boy but on his nanny. Cleo (Aparicio) is a tender and loving servant to an upper class Mexican family. Set in 1970 amongst civil unrest, Roma is a tribute film. True to Cuaron’s style the film stuns with long takes where characters are free to move within the frame, dolly shots that encapsulate the hussle and bussle of Mexico City and deep space shots which pervade the beautiful Mexican countryside and showcases Cuaron’s awe-inspiring attention to detail and mise en scene. In the mist of bombastic filmmaking there is a quiet and heartfelt character study.
Cuaron has won two Academy Awards in the 2010s, both for direction, for this film and for Gravity (2013). They were the two films released by Cuaron in this decade, 100% record, not bad. He is part of a trio of Mexican filmmakers who took over the American mainstream in this decade. Alejandro G. Inarritu won Best Director twice, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) and The Revenant (2015), making him only the second person in history to win back-to-back Best Director Oscars. Another Mexican, and another veteran in filmmaking, Guillermo del Torro won Best Director for The Shape of Water (2018) meaning the ‘Three Amigos’ as they are affectionately called, are winners of five of the last ten Best Director awards at the Oscars. A French man (Michel Hazanavicus), a Taiwanese (Ang Lee) and a Korean (Bong Joon-Ho) all won the awards this decade. Who says the Oscars aren’t progressive?
14) Toni Erdmann (2016)
Directed by: Maren Ade
Written by: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann focuses on a complex father/daughter relationship. Winfield Conradi (Simonischek) is a divorced music-teacher living in Germany. The film’s opening sequence establishes himself as a practical joker- someone who doesn’t take life too seriously. His daughter Ines (Huller) is a workaholic business consultant based in Bucharest. Winfield decides to pay his daughter a visit. To say they are estranged is too strong a word, but their vastly different philosophies on life means they inevitably grate on each other. Winfield gives her a cheese-grater as a birthday present. Ade uses it as a call-back gag throughout the film, Ines is only slightly amused.
Winfield is not happy with what he sees in his daughter, believing her to be leading a vacuous life. Ines cannot wait to get rid of her clowning father. Winfield leaves worried about Ines. Ines complains to friends in a nightclub about the rotten weekend she had to spend with her father. Just then, Toni Erdmann shows up and offers them drinks. Toni Erdmann is Ines’ father with false teeth and a wig. Instead of calling her father out, Ines goes along with the bit. Toni is an apparent life coach who will be working closely with her firm.
What ensues is a bittersweet comedy, as Ines and Winfield play their own little game. The comedy comes from the dynamic between the pairing. Huller plays Ines absolutely straight while Simonischek looks ridiculous in every scene as the dishevelled Erdmann. The bittersweetness comes from the fact that this father and daughter can never see the world from each other’s point of view, no matter how much they try to convince each other that their way to live is ‘what’s important’. There are tender moments in the film, but ultimately the film is about two people with a close biological bond struggling to find a connection with each other.
13) Cold War (2018)
Directed by: Pawel Pawelikowski
Written by: Pawel Pawelikowski
Starring: Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot
Polish director Pawel Pawelikowski made two masterpieces in the 2010s. The first, Ida (2013), a beautiful black and white film made in what Paul Schrader coined as the ‘transcendental style’, about an orphaned, novice Nun in Germany who travels back to Poland to discover her roots. The second, a beautiful black and white, with a Jazz essence infused into the filmmaking about a passionate but doomed love affair between a pianist and a singer over several years during the Cold War.
Cold War gets the nod, just slightly, over Ida on this list because the film’s use of music, being at odds with the couples environs at the best of times, creates a fervent longing for something deeper and more meaningful for the couple. The romance is fiery, burning everything in sight, including themselves. Pawelikowski dedicated the film to his parents, who followed near about the same path as Wiktor (Koy) and Zula (Kulig) in this film.
12) A Separation (2011)
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Written by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Payman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini and Sarina Farhadi
A Separation begins in the divorce courts. Simin (Hatami) wants to divorce her husband, Nader (Maadi). Her first choice is to flee Iran with him. She wants better prospects for their studious daughter, Termeh (Farhadi). Nader says he cannot leave, he feels obliged to look after his father whose dementia is getting progressively worse. Simin leaves which gives Nader no choice but to find a carer for his father.
There are no simple decisions in Farhadi’s complex family drama. The film highlights the morally and ethically muddy decisions human beings have to make on a daily basis while also focusing on Iran’s gender, religious and class systems. There are no easy answers to any questions the narrative poses. Multiple viewings will have you thinking about and sympathising with the plight of characters you may not have been amid previous viewings. This is clearly by design, Farhadi has written characters that are dense, flawed, and a lot of the time, backed into a corner- is lying sometimes the only way out?
The filmmaking is intensely realist. Faradhi, takes us to the claustrophobic corridors of Iranian, police stations, hospitals and courtrooms. Places humans try to avoid at all costs during their lifetime. However, as a Westerner, watching these scenes and the way Iranian society works is fascinating. Cramped spaces, handheld camera techniques and explosive dialogue make for thrilling viewing. The film’s final scene doubles down on the hard decisions we have to make through life.
11) Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed by: Ethan and Joel Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver, Stark Sands and Max Casella
‘There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air’, so sang Bob Dylan, his muse Greenwich Village, his obsession folk music. This film from the Coen Brother’s endeavours to capture on film what Greenwich Village was like in the early 1960’s, however their take is far less romanticised than Dylan’s line in Tangled up in Blue.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a character study of a man whom the revolution passes by, or perhaps he is too early for it, or god-forbid not talented enough. The Coen’s are notorious for treating their protagonists with a certain amount of cruelty. Barton Fink, Jeff Lebowski and Larry Gopnik, perhaps have received the worst treatment when it comes to the Coen’s sadism. However, underneath the perceived nastiness in which they treat their characters, there is a subtle but noticeable affection (even love) for them. They are like parents teaching their children morality through tough love. Llewyn Davis (Isaac) this particular film’s titular character is no different.
Llewyn is not a nice person, as many of the other characters more colourfully remind him. The problem with Llewyn is that he is bitter, he believes he has talent and he takes it very seriously, he can’t see why others can’t see the world like him. Not only is he bitter but like so many other Coen characters he is unlucky and when fate is against you in the Coen’s world, it’s really against you. Like Mark Twain said ‘when ill luck begins, it does not come in sprinkles, it comes in showers.’
10) Arrival (2016)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Number 10 on the list is a film from one of the best breakthrough directors of the 2010s. Denis Villeneuve began the decade with Incendies (2010). The French-Canadian then moved on to direct his first English language films in 2013, Prisoners and Enemy, the latter adapted from Jose Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double. His 2015 film Sicario, about the war on drugs on the US/Mexico border was in competition for the Palme d’Or. He rounded off a prolific decade by directing the long gestated sequel in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner (1982), Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece of the 2010s though is Arrival (2016) because it is a film about the power of communication. Its message, a world together is stronger than a world divided, is timely given the political climate in the 2010s. Villeneuve is a master of film language and he utilises these skills to illuminate the heady theory of non-linear time while constructing a highly emotive personal story within a high concept sci-fi film. Amy Adams plays a linguistics expert, Louise. She is recruited by U.S. military head Colonel Weber (Whitaker) along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) to make contact with the visitors. The aliens later named Heptapods reside in a long black structure, hovering, gravity-defying, over ground. Through her interaction with the Heptapods she discovers the true power of understanding.
9) I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Directed by: Ken Loach
Written by: Paul Laverty
Starring: Dave Johns and Hayley Squires
Ken Loach didn’t have the same unanimous critical acclaim in the 2010s as Denis Villeneuve, owing to some career low points, namely Route Irish (2010) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014). However, 2016 saw the evergreen British director pick up his second Palme D’Or (after The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)) for I, Daniel Blake (2016).
While Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival comments on the powers of communication, Loach laments the lack thereof in I, Daniel Blake as his main character is cast aside by the bureaucracy of the British Welfare State. In his late 50’s, a carpenter by trade, Daniel (Johns) is computer illiterate and doesn’t have a C.V. These turn out to be two big no-no’s within the unforgiving walls of a Newcastle social welfare office where system and procedure trumps common sense and humanity. Blake, a dignified man is told off like a bold school-boy who hasn’t done his homework. It is an analogy which also crops up when Daniel is put down during a C.V. building workshop. This kind of condescension towards the working class permeates the film. Daniel is a character most people can relate to, even if you haven’t had to sign-on in your life. He is a victim of bureaucracy in a modern world where simple things are made complicated because people are afraid or are trained not to empathise with each other. People can relate to being on the phone for 45 minutes before talking to a real person and then getting an answer an android might give you anyway. Daniel interacts with people hiding behind their desks and their name badges. Their job procedure has been drilled into them so much that they have forgotten the purpose behind it.
At the time it was criticised by conservative MPs for its depiction of welfare officers as detached, heartless individuals and labelling the film as unfair towards the Department of Work and Pensions, supposedly belittling the difficult decisions they have to make. The Labour Party leader at the time, Jeremy Corbyn endorsed the film, urging his political opposition to watch the it. Ken Loach was making waves not just in cinema, but in the political world once again.
8) Dogtooth (2010)
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Yorgo Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Christos Passalis and Anna Kalaitzidou
Like Villeneuve, Lanthimos is another director who came to prominence in the 2010s, it still feels like his best years could be ahead of him. Dogtooth has been picked for this list because of its searing originality; an introduction to the dark, quirky worlds Lanthimos will subject his audience to throughout the following decade. In the middle of the decade he had two successful collaborations with Colin Farrell (The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)) which solidified strong Irish links for the director. The Lobster was filmed in Co. Kerry and Co. Dublin. The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a breakthrough role for up and coming Irish actor Barry Keoghan. Ed Guiney, the Irish film producer, produced both these films, along with The Favourite which ensured Lanthimos finished out the decade with a Best Director Oscar nomination under this belt.
Dogtooth is about family dysfunction, how living in isolation can create a warped perspective of the world. Father and Mother, Stergioglou and Valley respectively, keep their children within the confines of their family property, away from the outside world. You can imagine the adverse implications this will have as the children grow well into adulthood. Or maybe you can’t? Lanthimos’ work is furiously original and idiosyncratic. It is a fable about overprotective parents and the absolute human need to be free. It is a shocking, funny and uncomfortable film. Many believe it to be a representation of the Greek collective experience after the worldwide economic crash in 2008. Others see references to the Joseph Fritzl case. Whatever way you look at it, it’s the film that sparked the Greek New Wave into life.
7) Melancholia (2011)
Directed by: Lars Von Trier
Written by: Lar Von Trier
Starring: Kristen Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Krier and Keifer Sutherland
‘I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit, yes’. This direct quote from Lars Von Trier, the subject, Adolf Hitler, made him persona non grata at Cannes for the majority of the 2010s. Von Trier, throughout his career, has been cited as one of cinema’s most controversial provocateurs. This was seen as a step too far. It took seven years for Von Trier to be invited back to Cannes, where his film The House that Jack Built premiered to boos and over 100 walkouts in 2018. He dedicated the film to ‘The Rat King’, referring to Donald Trump. Sandwiched in between Melancholia and The House that Jack Built was the equally controversial erotic drama, two-parter Nymphomaniac Vol. I and II.
However, Von Trier’s first film of the decade remains his strongest, a study of depression, destruction and the end of the world. Split into two parts (a motif of his work is to compartmentalise his films) Melancholia focuses on the clinically depressed Justine (Dunst) and her sister Claire (Gainsbourg). A meteor called Melancholia is heading towards earth. Claire’s scientist husband John (Sutherland) is positive it will bypass earth and create a great spectacle. Justine has that doomed feeling.
Part one focuses on Justine’s wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), she can’t be happy, and her behaviour becomes increasingly destructive. Part two, Justine is almost catatonic, being looked after by Claire.
Melancholia is almost a celebration of the end of the world from Von Trier. He has been publically forthright that he suffers from bouts of severe depression which he self-medicates with alcohol. Melancholia isn’t cheery, but it is not without humour. It’s a beautiful disaster film made in Von Trier’s singular aesthetic.
6) Amour (2012)
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Written by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert
The 2010s wasn’t quite as busy for Michael Haneke as it was for the previous directors on this list. However, he finished the 2000s with a Palme d’Or under his belt (The White Ribbon, 2009) and by 2012 he had his second for Amour. Haneke’s film about love and death is a departure from his usual Brechtian style and his infamy for treating his characters mostly with disdain. Even though Amour is a film about a long relationship coming to an end, it is strangely uplifting and in its own way a celebration of life as much as it is a study of what it must feel like when it is coming to an end.
Amour is a chamber piece. The only scene shot outside the apartment where octogenarian Georges (Trintigant) and Anne (Riva) live is at a concert hall. Like in the final scene of Hidden (2005) there is a wide angle, long shot incorporating many different people as they enter a concert hall. They sit down in front of us. Our protagonists are hidden in plain sight. Haneke gives us no indication where we should be looking. The result is an audience looking at an audience. Haneke, as he so often does, breaks the fourth wall, and in turn subverts the relationship between film audience and the mise en scene. At once, Haneke equates us, forcing a powerful co-existence that remains throughout the film, a dominant force of sameness that creates an emotional affinity with Amour’s protagonists.
After the concert, Georges and Anne return to their apartment. The locks have been tampered with. They react with a strange calmness. Georges closes the door behind him and assures Anne that he will get the locks changed. We, the audience, through the medium of Haneke’s unflinchingly observant camera have broken into this elderly couple's lives. Amour is a true masterpiece of modern cinema. It provides us with one of the most intimate portrayals of love and death in cinema history.
5) Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Swartzman, Bob Balaban and Harvey Keitel
Wes Anderson’s colourful coming of age drama about two young outcasts in their early teens, a khaki scout, Sam (Gilman), who is bullied by his peers and a bookworm with violent tendencies, Suzy (Hayward), elope to find their very own utopia in the fictional town of New Penzance, New England. Moonrise Kingdom is filled with the idiosyncratic humour that you might expect from an Anderson film. However, from his 1998 debut Bottle Rocket, to this film, Anderson’s oeuvre was considered charming, but cold. Like Haneke’s Amour above, Moonrise Kingdom marked a softening of the filmmaker’s attitude toward his characters. This continued throughout the 2010s with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Isle of Dogs (2018).
Moonrise Kingdom is about the escape of pure and innocent love from the clutches of a cold and uncaring society. The dissonance that one may feel for many of Anderson’s characters does not apply to Sam and Suzy in any way. You are always rooting for them. They find their utopia (a small, idyllic, coastal inlet), set up a modest tent and dance to Francoise Hardy, in a scene that is at once funny and deeply romantic, the perfected encapsulation of the film’s overall tone. It is a meticulously conceived film, from the script, to the shots and the delivery of the action from a talented cast.
4) Leviathan (2014)
Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin
Starring: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Valdimir Vdovichenkov and Roman Madyanov and Sergey Pokhodyaev
Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev has been a regular figure on the major European awards circuit since his debut film The Return (2003). Leviathan, a film that was in the running for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film before eventually losing out to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, more than lives up to its title. Leviathan is a film with big issues on its mind. A Mayor (Madyanov) of a northern, coastal Russian town plans to expropriate the land on which Koyla (Serebryakov); a working class mechanic dwells and plies his trade. Koyla employs a childhood friend (Vdovichenkov), now practicing law in Moscow, to return home and help him keep his house and business.
Zvyagintsev uses the Book of Job as a basis for Leviathan, which isn’t good news for Koyla. Leviathan serves as a commentary on corruption in Russian society. A picture of Putin is clearly seen above the Major’s head as he goes about his dodgy dealings in an effort to secure the land. A group of friends shoot pictures of former Russian leaders with assault rifles at a family picnic. Most overtly Leviathan is a parable about how the little man has no chance in a fight against big business. In the final scene, it is revealed why the Major is so desperate to procure Koyla’s land. The answer is shocking and it is in front of your face the entire time.
3) Drive (2011)
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman
Drive is the only film in Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography where he doesn’t have a writing credit. He was approached by the film’s star Ryan Gosling, off the back of his raw, Danish, criminal underworld dramas Pusher and Bleeder in the 1990s and in the 2000s, his work with John Turturro, Tom Hardy and Mads Mikkelson in Fear X (2003), Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009) respectively.
Described as an arthouse action film, Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, an LA stunt driver for the movies by day and criminal getaway driver by night. The first half of Drive focuses on the blossoming romantic relationship between The Driver and the woman from his neighbouring apartment Irene (Mulligan), including the bond he forms with her young son Benicio. When Benicio’s father and Irene’s husband, Standard (Isaac), returns home from prison, the ordinarily detached Driver gets emotionally involved in L.A’s criminal underworld which leads him down a path of violent double-crosses and bloody revenge.
The Driver is just as comfortable stomping hitmen’s heads to a bloody pulp as he is sitting watching cartoons with Irene’s son. Perhaps what is telling about the theme of the film is the conversation The Driver has with the son during this scene.
‘Who is the bad guy?’ The Driver asks.
‘The Shark’ responds Benicio.
‘How do you know he is the bad guy?’ The Driver continues.
‘Because he is a shark’ Benicio retorts.
‘There are no good sharks?’ The Driver finally adds, in what seems like a rhetorical question.
Questions of hyper-masculinity are a motif in Refn’s work and the fact that he hasn’t had a hand in the screenplay doesn’t make it any less of a Refn film. It’s a film that oozes style, from the hot pink opening titles, to the pulsating score from Cliff Martinez, to the Lynchian framing and the burst of stylised violence, Drive is a one of a kind film.
2) The Tree of Life (2011)
Directed by: Terence Malick
Written by: Terence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan
In 2011, a new Terrence Malick release was still a rare event in the world of cinema. He came out of a 30 year hiatus in 1998 with the much anticipated war film, The Thin Red Line. He made one solitary film in the 2000s, The New World (2006), about the discovery of America. Both films divided critics. It was a new style of film, elliptical, dreamlike, and heavily reliant on voice-over. The Tree of Life is Malick’s commitment to this style of filmmaking fully realised.
With The Tree of Life, Malick contrasts a family living in 1950s small town America with the formation of the universe. Something deeply tragic happens to the family. It is the second film on this list to be influenced by the Book of Job. Why do bad things happen to good people? It is a basic philosophical question, but one that is impossible to answer. The Tree of Life is a film to be felt. Malick captures the simple joys of the creation of the family unit, to the complicated relationship that arise from it; how the outside world can affect the way you behave towards your loved ones. The film swells with emotion. Malick will later in the decade by mocked for his indulgence in this style of filmmaking, and it is true that parts of To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2016), veer from the incoherent to the sometimes silly, with one critic claiming that Malick has made a feature length perfume advertisement, when referring to Knight of Cups.
The Tree of Life is a beautiful film, full of heart and empathy, but also a firm grasp on the fact that the trials and tribulations of human life are of little consequence to the enormity of the universe we live in. Malick, ends positively, which is fitting, we are just passing through, from one place, to the next.
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambry Childers, Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons, and Kevin J. O’Connor
The Master follows an alcoholic-drifter (Phoenix), traumatised by World War II, as he searches for meaning and belonging. He finds it with The Cause, a cult lead by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Dodd is a megalomaniac who claims his ‘processing’ can lead to people recalling who they were in their past lives and even claims that it can be a cure for leukaemia, if his subjects can get to the root of trauma in their past lives, face it and overcome it. In other words Freud’s ‘talking cure’ taken to a metaphysical level. The bond between Quell and Dodd becomes paternal as Quell becomes his unquestioning servant. Dodd insists ‘man is not an animal’ yet Quell’s constant succumbing to his primal instincts is at odds with Dodd’s teachings. There are many ways to interpret PT Anderson’s masterpiece, on first viewing I was baffled. I went into it thinking ‘Paul Thomas Anderson has made a film about scientology’. It’s much more than that. The Master is a film that unravels itself through multiple-viewings, bringing up something extra to the surface every time, as all the best ones do.