I am an avid movie watcher. I have seen something like 5,000 movies in my life as well as countless hours of movie-quality TV. But my pace has slowed somewhat in the last decade, as life has gotten in the way. Moreover, because I see so few movies in theatres outside of my annual TIFF attendance, I am often a few years behind on the essential films of each year.
With that rather large caveat out of the way, here are my best films of the decade:
These are films I gave 10/10 to. For me, 10/10 signifies either transcendence or as close to artistic perfection as we can get. By “transcendent” I mean films which I believe will be talked about decades after they were made.
The Act of Killing (2012)
This film is my candidate for the best documentary of the 21st century and it’s on my short list of the best documentaries of all time.
I have never seen another film that truly captures the nature of human evil. Religion and traditional morality tell us some people are good and some people are bad. This film tells us that normal people can do terrible things. Worse, this film shows that people who have done terrible things can and do go back to living normal human lives if they are not forced to face the consequences.
The Big Short (2015)
When I saw this, I thought it was the best fictional film about the financial crisis, despite its flaws.
But I don’t want to watch it again because I’m worried it’s more flawed than I think.
One of the landmark fictional films in the history of cinema. Though my childhood was not similar to the main character’s, no other film has captured childhood for me like this.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Greatest Horror Comedy of All time. Bar none.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
How do you tell the difference between genuine art and complete fraud? Can you?
I believe this may be the Greatest Canadian Film of All Time.
99 Homes (2015)
I saw this at TIFF, and it felt like the most essential fictional film about the foreclosure problem of the Great Recession.
I have not watched it a second time because I am concerned I will see that it’s actually way too melodramatic.
These are films are movies I gave 9/10 too, which means near-transcendent or “great”.
All is Lost (2013)
I’m pretty sure that, had I seen this movie in a theatre, you’d be looking at a 10, rather than a 9, despite the one major flaw I had with the film, which is a spoiler.
Basically, I mostly absolutely loved this film about a man’s solo sailing trip which goes wrong.
American Hustle (2013)
A bizarre con movie parody – maybe just a David Mamet movie parody – with lots of wigs and some pretty great performances.
The least likely Michael Haneke film I’ve ever seen. My review has gone missing, though, so I can’t tell you specifically why I loved it.
An utterly unique romantic comedy, with puppets!
The Arbor (2010)
This is an inventive, provocative and daring “documentary” about the daughter of the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar, someone I’ve never heard of. Taking its cue from a play made to celebrate the anniversary of Dunbar’s first play (or to investigate its legacy), this documentary has actors lip sync audio recordings of people involved in Dunbar’s life and her daughter’s. It combines this with video recordings of Dunbar herself and excerpts from Dunbar’s first play.
Denis takes your typical revenge thriller plot – solitary man’s loved one(s) is wronged and he seeks revenge – and flips it on itself. The solitary man is solitary because he works on tankers. His family is hurt by a suicide – not, on its face, a wrong inflicted upon them. And the world he enters and tries to bring justice to – an extremely multicultural France where all the authority figures are immigrants and all the villains and victims are white – is one he doesn’t understand.
Best of Enemies (2015)
This fantastic film shows the downside of what I idealized when I was young – I used to long for the days when US news shows were just the news, and when talk shows had actual intellectuals on, on occasion, to debate. I had never seen the famous Buckley-Vidal debates before – beyond a clip of the infamous outburst – but this film makes a compelling case that these debates not only changed television but helped change politics in The United States forever, and for the worse.
Rarely will you find a film that manages to build this incredible a sense of unease – as one person put it, a Hanekean sense of unease – with such effective black comedy. The comedy may taper off a bit as the unease heightens, but it’s still there, as the absurdity of the whole situation never really wears off.
Birdman is such a lively, vibrant, well-paced near-perfect film that I have trouble imagining it came from the same man who produced overdone stuff like Babel. I mean, who is this guy?
Inarritu appears here as an utterly confident, mature and playful – oh my science, I can’t believe I am saying that – director in full command of his medium. The film is a series of (seemingly) epic takes spliced together via the wonders of digital film to create one, single take. The camera follows various members of the cast, principally the Birdman himself, through the production of an attempt at turning a Raymond Carver short-story collection into a single play (yes, that’s one of the jokes). The lack of (obvious) cuts gives the film a sense of momentum unseen in any of Inarritu’s previous films and, frankly, unseen in most films. The film is further propelled (literally) by a score that is almost entirely just drums – which, at times, match the action on screen- given a perpetual sense of forward progress to a film about the production of a play.
Blue Ruin (2013)
One of the great thrillers of our young century – a fresh, funny, incredibly tense revision of genre cliches.
Blue Valentine (2010)
This is a devastating portrait of a relationship that rings true with both the excitement of love and the heartbreak of the end of a relationship. It’s a remarkable achievement even if Cianfrance didn’t get to do what he wanted to, which is to film the two time periods years apart, kind of like a proto-Boyhood.
En Chance til (2014)
This is a film about people pushed to emotional extremes by depression, loss addiction and the like and its about the bad decisions that people make when pushed to emotional extremes.
But it is also about hope – hence the title. As someone who has always found (Hollywood) films too hopeful, sometimes I have trouble dealing with hope when it is done well, simply because I have felt beaten to death by fantastical movie Hope for years and years.
Like many of you, I paid attention to the Snowden leaks when they came out – as much attention as I could – and have followed The Intercept and others about the surveillance state since that time. But, on the other hand, my process of making my own life less accessible to the surveillance state has been a case of one step forward, one step back: every time I do something to make my life more private, I stop doing it after a few days or weeks.
This film, though, makes everything far more immediate and visceral. There is something about watching Snowden holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong – and something about experiencing the sense of unease of everyone in the film – that makes this so much more real than just reading about it online. This documentary creates a palpable sense of dread that few if any articles about surveillance could. And that sense of dread is, for me, why it’s a great and important film.
Command and Control (2016)
Essential viewing about a nuclear missile accident in the early 1980s.
Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (2013)
This is an important and emotionally compelling film about theatre under repressive regimes. I knew nothing about the Belarus Free Theatre before seeing this film, but they seem to have found a compelling way to bring attention to the plight of the arts – and expression at large – in Belarus. Far more dangerous regimes do not get this kind of exposure perhaps only because they don’t have underground theatre troops. But regardless of the fact that there are indeed more brutal dictators than Lukashenko, he remains a dictator, and this film does an excellent job of painting him as a leader who is only a leader because he has a gigantic secret police force.
The Death of Stalin (2017)
A deft and kind of brilliant balance of black comedy and tragedy, creating a unique and bold film about an important moment in world history.
Remember those TVO Canadian history docs where they had c-list Canadian actors dressed in costume and reading the letters of dead Canadians and Americans to recreate history? Well, that’s what Fatherland is, only it is much, much, much better.
The 50 Year Argument (2014)
Scorsese and Tedeschi’s film about the New York Review of Books is not a documentary about the magazine so much as it is a love letter to it.
Free Solo (2018)
I thought I wanted to see this movie in theatres. Watching it on the small screen, I think I’m okay with not seeing it in theatres. I’m not sure I would have been able to watch some of it in theatres because I have a fear of heights.
The crew are climbers themselves and climb the mountains with him (with ropes). Moreover, they use drones o get helicopter-type shots without the logistical and financial problems of using a helicopter. This is particularly incredible when he climbs El Capitain, when we are treated to some absolutely fantastic shots of a human being doing something utterly incredible. Even on the small screen, you get a sense of the height, and it’s terrifying.
A landmark in cinema history. Don’t watch on the small screen. Yes, I’ve only seen it once. That’s on purpose.
Yes, I know this movie is probably very flawed. So I’ve only ever seen it once, in theatres, where I was mostly astounded by both the CGI and Gordon-Levitt’s physical acting.
An excellent dramatization of the assassination Yitzhak Rabin.
Inside Job (2010)
This is a great documentary about what caused the 2008 financial crisis. And it’s scary.
Knives Out (2019)
For someone like me, there are few things more pleasing than a really well-done genre film. But genre conventions can be pretty tired, so that one thing that is more pleasing than that, is a genre crossover that really works. For me, comedy is often the most reliable genre to mashup. (I am a big fan of horror comedies, as you know.) Well, Knives Out is a fantastic mystery comedy, that works both as an extremely well-plotted mystery and as a comedy. It reminds me a little bit of The Last of Sheila, not so much in the plot but in that both the mystery and comedy aspects are given equal weight.
Margin Call (2011)
This is probably the second best fictional film about the 2008 economic crisis and probably the best film about finance I’ve seen since Glengarry Glen Ross. (It’s probably a superior film to The Big Short but The Big Short is more accessible, more fun and does a better job of giving the whole context of what happened.)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
This is a thriller that completely subverts its genre; as such it is one of the most effective of this style of man-chase-woman thrillers. It’s a genre that’s been done to death, and even this version of it – the woman-escaping-from-a-cult version – has been done at least a few times as well.
Night Crawler (2014)
Is this Gyllenhaal’s best performance?
I don’t know any sociopaths but I feel like this has to be one of the best portrayals – or more accurate, I should say – that I have seen, at least in terms of believability. Certainly this is much more believable than a serial killer film.
OJ: Made in America* (2016)
Yes, I’m cheating. This is a TV miniseries. And there a couple of others I could have put on this list. But this one feels particularly essential given everything that has been happening in the US in the last 3 years.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
This might be the only vampire film in existence with zero violence. (I doubt that’s much of an exaggeration.) Jarmusch takes a far different approach with this genre and, like his other genre movies, he renders it far more similar to his own films than to others in the genre. The idea makes perfect sense to me: vampires that are bored and infinitely knowledgeable, rather than vampires hell bent on conquering humans. The portrait is compelling and far more realistic (I use the term loosely) than the vast majority of vampire films.
The Poll Diaries (2010)
This is one of those films where I really don’t know I can trust my rating. I saw it one Sunday morning during TIFF, and I think I just might have been in a mood. Or, maybe it’s actually excellent.
Though I have many issues with the concept of “sex addiction,” Fassbinder and McQueen treat the character very much like an addict, and that is at first harder to understand but eventually much easier to understand than Fassbinder’s last role in a McQueen movie. (I could never starve myself, nor remain so silent.)
Shutter Island (2010)
This is an excellent crime thriller / psychological thriller that once again shows off Scorsese’s ability to handle any kind of material and make it convincing. (This is a plot that is really outside his typical wheelhouse.)
The Social Network (2010)
It is the mark of a great filmmaker when he can wring suspense out of a story you already know, and Fincher does that here.
Sour Grapes (2016)
I might have to adjust my rating; 9/10 feels too low for this incredibly entertaining examination of a massive wine fraud and the wine world of the US at large. If there is one must see documentary in 2016, it’s probably this one.
This is a nearly note-perfect newspaper film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s protection of pedophile priests. It’s nearly the All the President’s Men for our decade, it’s that good.
Stories We Tell (2012)
Polley’s documentary is a fascinating and provocative examination of her family and the nature of personal narratives. It is one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent years. Everyone in the media has been determined to spoil the reveal of the film for the last 7 years so I can’t imagine it hasn’t already been spoiled for you.
Tabu is a Portuguese “re-imagining” or “response” to FW Murnau’s 1931 Tabu: a Tale of the South Seas (as opposed to a remake, as it’s definitely not that). This version flips around the story’s two parts so they are shown in reverse sequence, and it moves the location of “Paradise” from Bora Bora to one of Portugal’s African colonies.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
The best Hollywood film ever made about slavery?
Under the Skin (2013)
This is a fascinating, complex and audacious take on the ‘sexy alien predator among us’ sub genre I was briefly into as a teenage boy back when Species came out and I loved Natasha Henstridge. Make no mistake, this is a very, very different take on the theme.
This is an important film that is slightly marred by its clunky approach but is nevertheless essential viewing and an important document, not just of one of the innumerable conflicts between conservation and natural resource development, but also of the bravery required to to do the “right thing” in the face of overwhelming pressure to the contrary.
War of Lies (2014)
Let’s get this out of the way: This is a student film.
But…and it’s a big ‘but’: This is one compelling film. Here we have an interview with one of the couple major sources for the US’s bogus intelligence for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is the guy who claimed that there were mobile chemical weapons factories. This interview is about why he said what he said and how he feels about it now. The film is just the interview, plus Bittner’s attempts at dramatizing Aljanabi’s state of mind – I worried those attempts would be awkward but, for the most part, they work really well as a means of placing the viewer inside his mental state. (Provided, of course, Aljanabi is telling the truth, and we have no reason to believe he is.)
I don’t think I have ever seen a film like this – one subject telling his side of a story with the film set out to show how he felt. It’s like one of those TV shows about near-death experiences but with only one interviewee, no narrators, and it’s way, way better.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
The filmmakers do an excellent job – a superior job – of combining archival pictures and Simone’s own audio interview – with a relative paucity of talking heads – to give a fantastic of Simone’s life and music, and her times – it’s almost as if it’s told by her herself.
This is how you do a biography on film.
While We’re Young (2014)
I think this is Baumbach’s best film since The Squid and the Whale or perhaps even Kicking and Screaming (my favourite Baumbach movie). It’s certainly his funniest since the latter.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
This is one of those movies where everything is pretty much note-perfect. Here we have a realistic heroine, always a rare thing. And enough subtlety – which in this film is entirely appropriate – to keep us in suspense.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
This is basically the Goodfellas of stockbroker fraud films.
An audacious tragedy posing as a thriller about the lives of manual labourers in Mexico City.
With the notable exceptions of Blue Ruin, The Cabin in the Woods and Margin Call, I have seen each of the above movies exactly once. In some cases that’s entirely intentional, but mostly it’s because I watch a ton of movies and I don’t normally watch most movies more than once.
Watching a movie one time, especially in a theatre, is always going to result in a particular kind of review. At some point during a film, I usually decide whether or not I like it and whether or not I think it is good. (The two things can be mutually exclusive.) But if I’ve only ever seen the movie once, I will miss flaws if I like it or admire it, and I will miss positives if I dislike it or think it’s poorly made.
I mention this because there are at least a couple films on this list that I think I might remove were I to watch them a second time. I have no plans on watching those films again any time soon for two reasons:
- When I really liked a movie but later doubt I would like it on a repeat viewing, I don’t really have an incentive to watch it again, right?
- I am not a major repeat viewer of films, though this is changing as I get older. I like to watch as many new movies as a I possibly can. If that means some of my past takes on movies could be improved but won’t be, so be it.
You’ve been warned.