Spurred on by listening to Unspooled and, more recently, For Your Reconsideration, and given I failed to do a top films of 2019 for the first time in years, I thought I’d put together ten movies that have stuck with me from the past ten years.
These aren’t necessarily the films I think are ‘best’, or even ones I necessarily loved at the time – so a few of them may not have appeared in my previous ‘Best Of’ year lists but in retrospect they’re the ones I’ve gone back to or thought about more than others.
They’re not ranked – so in alphabetical order, here we go.
The Act of Killing:
I’ve spent more and more time watching documentaries over the past few years and there have been some crackers out there: when done well more shocking and with bigger twists than any Hollywood blockbuster. The Act of Killing might not have that ‘shock’ moment: it’s just a giant shock from minute one and doesn’t stop until the final 159th minute in its extended cut. The idea of getting former Indonesian death-squad leaders to re-enact their killings in the movie style of their choice is both subversive and brave. The matter-of-fact manner and glee which they take up their challenge is bone chilling at times. There’s little in the way of self-realisation or redemption, which makes it even more effecting. By no means an easy watch, it is impossible not to watch and will stay with you for a long time.
Yes, making this list alphabetical does mean some fairly broad leaps in genre and tone. The decade belonged to the Superhero. Looking back through some old writing notebooks recently I saw an idea for a story I had fleshed out in some detail: a group of college friends who write a comic book movie and manage to get it made because no-one wanted the rights for them. I think I jotted those thoughts down around 2007. I don’t think I’ll bother doing anything with it now. But in a case of life-imitating-art, that’s pretty much how the MCU came about. Ben Fritz writes about it well in his book The Big Picture: The Fight for Hollywood’s Future. As someone who saw all of the MCU flicks during the decade Endgame was a gloriously satisfying ending and a sophisticated piece of storytelling (Don’t believe me – compare this as a finale to Rise of Skywalker). It may have helped seeing it at one-minute past midnight with a packed cinema of nerds, but I haven’t seen moment to make you cheer out loud like that hammer moment or the incoming directional information for a long, long time.
If I’m going to try and make some links then here we go: Taika Waititi, later of one of Marvel’s most fun outings, sophomore effort. I could have had any one of four of his films in here but went with 2010’s Boy. It’s slight, low budget, amateurish even in some places, but it’s a sweet, funny and family friendly tale of a young boy’s love for his undeserving criminal father with a bundle of laugh out loud moments. And had me saying “wanna see some Michael Jackson dance moves?” for far too long which is inappropriate for so many reasons.
The Cabin in the Woods:
Well, it’s got Thor in it, if we’re still trying to keep a thread of connection going…Drew Goddard’s 2011 (or 12 if you want to ignore the production and release nightmare the film had) may start out as a ho-hum teens in peril flick but it’s so much smarter than that. Co-written by Joss Whedon and Goddard, it’s got the smarts you’d expect from guys behind Buffy and Angel and is prepared to treat the viewer as smart too. With a balls-to-the-wall finale that brings everything crashing down, it’s a film that failed to find an audience on release, and clearly from the long delays a project the studios didn’t have a clue how to market, but over time it’s become a cult favourite…pretty much like most of the best horror movies.
Dragged Across Concrete:
Another box office dud – and a major one. It’s quite easy to see why in retrospect. Mel Gibson is out of favour, Vince Vaughan has a lot of movie expectation baggage, it’s long (2 hours 39 minutes) and about as far from a Lethal Weapon police adventure as you can get. And I loved it. I loved the slow build, the character development, the unexpected violence at key points, the meta nature of it – both in Gibson’s own private life and his film history (Gibson and partner suspended from police duties for actions that Martin Riggs wouldn’t have thought twice about and expected a laugh from the viewers for doing at the same time). As the two disgraced cops go after a money haul from shady villains there are no good guys and bad guys. There’s just bad guys and worse guys for the most part.
Chan-wook Park had tried Hollywood and it had mixed results. I liked Stoker, his 2013 rethinking of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but it didn’t feel like him. So with The Handmaiden he went back to Asia, albeit with a story based on a western novel – inspired by Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, to tell his tale of a woman hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but who is secretly planning with her Fagan benefactor to rob her. It doesn’t have the graphic rawness of the Sympathy trilogy, but it does have a sumptuous feel and is quite unlike anything produced in recent years.
Christopher Nolan is unique. You can’t really question that. Not tied by genre or franchises or existing properties outside of Batman he’s given free reign to do what he wants. Which is good for all of us. Courted to take on James Bond, Nolan took his own twist on things. So yes, there are parts of Inception that would fit perfectly well within a 007 world, but then you’ve got all the Nolan bits. The dazzling practical effects, the favoured cast members, the refusal to simplify anything while still delivering a blockbuster. It might have been the breakout movie for Tom Hardy in many ways, but everyone is good in the altered perception world he creates. The FX both CGI and practical are incredible and you’re never quite sure where you are in the best possible way. My second favourite Nolan film to date.
Another Sci-Fi of sorts. This time Rian Johnson, who I’ve been a fan of since Brick and has, I feel, nothing at all to apologise for with Last Jedi. If the problem was that he tried to make it ‘his’ film, what the hell were people expecting? Just look at Brick, Brothers Bloom, even his Breaking Bad episodes and last years’ Knives Out and don’t expect anything else.
Looper is, like Nolan’s movies, one of those pleasant rarities – a stand alone, non franchise, unabashed Hollywood blockbuster. That it was done on a budget of only $30 million is even more impressive. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt are great together (the latter always so, the former, in a rare ‘I can be bothered with this’ performance). It’s smart, it’s action, and it’s not reliant on huge FX to get its themes and point across. Not as cerebral as Primer, not as dumbed down as Time Cop…but hitting a sweet spot in the middle.
The Man who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot:
If Looper did amazing things with $30 million, TMWKHATTB takes it to a whole other level.
What director Robert D. Krzykowski manages to get for his miniscule budget is, quite frankly, amazing.
It’s also the most misleading title in this whole list. Yes, the elements of it are true but if you’re expecting a z-grade Troma style flick then you’re going to be either very disappointed or very happy depending on your mindset.
I watched this movie on my 50th birthday, so maybe that played into my love of how well the film deals with ruminations on the past, and what it means to get old. What’s important and what’s not. Sam Elliot is never better in the lead role but there are lovely cameos from a whole host of others. The score and the cinematography are wonderful and if there’s one or two moments where the limited budget is revealed slightly by FX, it adds to the film’s charm rather than detracts from it.
A real ‘little film that does’ I loved this movie.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping:
Looking at this list there’s not a huge amount of levity in it. And that’s not an accurate representation of the films I tend to like or enjoy. I just think there have been a limited number of comedies that really made me laugh. Not just a chuckle, I mean really laugh. There are a few in the honourable mentions below, but Popstar – another box office disappointment (hmm, I’m seeing a pattern here) did that. More than any musical since Spinal Tap, it did that.
Ostensibly a Justin Bieber style mockumentary, Popstar follows conner4real (Andy Samberg) as he tries to deal with the fall out of his new album’s flop and a potential reunion with his old rap group The Style Boyz.
Peppered with cameos throughout the whole thing is meticulously created, but never more so in the songs. And I blame this movie for the looks I got as found myself singing along to the ridiculously catchy Mona Lisa (“You’re an overrated piece of shit”), or Finest Girl (aka the Bin Laden song…)
It’s a shame that the movie wasn’t bigger so that we got Conner everywhere, like oxygen or gravity or clinical depression (as the movie tells us…)
There really are too many, but here are a couple of words about some others I thought about.
50/50 – a funny movie about cancer? Didn’t fancy it. Loved it.
Angels’ Share – Ken Loach at his funniest. Not quite ‘gentle’ but warm.
Arrival – the smartest Sci Fi movie with the best twist? Could be.
Before Midnight – great end to Linklater’s trilogy.
Book of Henry – critically reviled. I enjoyed it, great half-way twist.
Boyhood – epic. Either bored you to death or took you with it all the way. I went.
Brigsby Bear – nearly turned off after the first ten minutes. So glad I didn’t.
Chef – low budget, personal, Favreau returning to his roots and cooking up a storm. (Sorry)
Colossal – Anne Hathaway in another ‘not what you expect from the pitch’. Yes, she does turn into a giant Kaiju, but there is a whole lot of things going on in this film.
Edge of Tomorrow – Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. Clever, inventive. Failed at BO.
First Reformed – Grim, nihilistic, brilliant performance from Ethan Hawke – Oscar Robbed.
Her – Spike Jonz at a restrained level is still most people’s weird to ten. Phoenix was great.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople – another Taika film. Another warm, funny, family friendly one.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi – as low key and restrained as the subject matter. Beautiful food, beautiful message.
Killer Joe – How much more black could it be? None more. Makes you feel dirty watching it.
Nice Guys – Not quite Kiss Kiss Bang Bang levels, but still Shane Black writing and directing to his best with a great cast.
Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal being less than adorable. Seems impossible, but they managed it.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – I didn’t love Hateful Eight, but OUaTiH was one of my favourite QT films. And I did love the divisive ending.
Pride – one of my favourite British movies. The cinema applauded as one.
Shoplifters – limited narrative telling in this Japanese tale, but thoughtful and thought provoking
Sing Street – ‘80s throwback. Just a good fun movie.
Spiderman Into the Spiderverse – my favourite animation of recent years, and probably in my top three superhero movies.
Spring – don’t let the first ten minutes put you off. This low budget horror flick is bright and life affirming.
This is the End – my favourite gross out comedy of recent times. Bonus points for the sheer meta nature of the thing.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – love all of McDonagh’s work, and this was no disappointment. The man is a writing genius.
Whiplash – great performances, tight and gripping.