The Top 10 Films of the Decade

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I recently invited film critic Tasha Robinson from The Next Picture Show podcast to join me on Culturally Relevant to count down our top 10 films of the decade. It can be difficult enough to count down one’s top 10 films of a given year, so asking a fellow critic to count down one’s top 10 of the decade is downright sadistic.

Nonetheless, I was grateful to Tasha for participating in this exercise with me. It was a clarifying experience, as it forced me to look back on the decade and consider not only which films I enjoyed the most, but which films I felt represented my decade in filmgoing. What films contained the ideas, the techniques, the themes, and the characters that I feel will make an indelible impression going forward?

I’ve listed my choices below, but you should listen to the podcast episode to get the full discussion, plus hear Tasha’s choices too.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of the 2010s:

10. Nightcrawler (2014) – No other film better captures the spirit of vulture capitalism that has come to define this decade. In Nightcrawler, a sociopath shows that by using some ingenuity and a take-no-prisoners approach he can accumulate wealth and power and destroy his enemies. It’s a chilling tale of how our society can shapes its contributing individuals and hone them to value profit above literally all else. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms into Louis Bloom, an always-hustling, cutthroat businessman, and Rene Russo is tremendous as the woman who ends up becoming vulnerable to his machinations.

9. The Raid 2 (AKA The Raid 2: Berandal)  – The Raid 2 is the Godfather 2 of action movies. It takes the scope of the first film and blows it up, while amping up the ambition and carnage of the action scenes tenfold. It’s rare in this day and age to get an action film that strives to be epic, where the emotions are meant to be as large and complex as the action choreography. I don’t know that this film achieves what it sets out to do but I’m so glad it tries. It’s my favorite action movie of the decade and that’s why it’s on my list at this spot.

8. Avengers: Endgame (2019) / Avengers (2012) (it’s a tie, which is cheating, but it’s my list, so…) – We are in the era of the extended universe, which is dominating both our box office and our cultural conversation. No other films have done a better job proving that you could have all these disparate characters combine into one movie, and do it in a way that was satisfying, enjoyable, even a must-see event. I still remember when the idea of any one of these characters getting their own films at all was a pipe dream, let alone teaming up. When Avengers proved it was in possible, I was in awe. When Avengers: Endgame proved you could tie it all up and bring this thing to a close, I was in tears. Lots of people are unhappy with what Marvel films have done to the cinematic landscape but regardless of where the MCU goes from here, I’ll always be grateful I was able to take this incredible journey with them this decade.

7. OJ: Made In AmericaOJ: Made in America is a towering work of documentary filmmkaing. No other documentary I saw this decade did a better job at unearthing footage that consistently made me say, “Wow, I can’t believe they got that.” But it’s not just the footage itself – director Ezra Edelman assembles it all in a compelling way that makes the outcome feel sadly, inevitable. There’s a reason the OJ Simpson case continues to retain such power up until this day. It symbolizes how we in America remain intensely divided and how the legacy of our past and present crimes around race can manifest themselves in our justice system in surprising and unfortunate ways. [Hey, at least I didn’t put Twin Peaks on my list.]

6. Before Midnight – I know it sounds naive and maybe even silly of me to say, but I I learned a lot about love from Richard Linklater’s Before series. Before Sunrise (1995) taught me about young love and how exciting and dynamic it is. Before Sunset (2004) taught me about the disappointments of middle age. And Before Midnight (2013) taught me about the miracle of companionship and what it takes for partners to survive in the long term. The film series spans 18 years in the lives of its characters as well as the actors portraying them, and it is a huge accomplishment in showing the evolution of a relationship on screen. Before Midnight puts a capper on the whole affair, bringing the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion while never straying from the grounded realism that made the series so memorable in the first place.

5. Parasite – I think one of the main themes of 2019 films has been this notion that we as a society need to grapple more with privilege. How much of it do we have, and what are its impacts and implications? This is something that Parasite does wonderfully, telling the story of a lower-class family who goes to work for an upper class one and all the tensions that result. There are twists and turns, and more than a handful of shocking moments. Beyond this, the film is impeccably composed with frames that are bursting with meaning. It’s the one film from 2019 that I feel pretty confident saying we’ll still be talking about 10 years from now.

4. Gravity – I think when we look back at this decade, Gravity is going to be one of the films that we will see as the most technologically groundbreaking. The film is nearly entirely CGI, but even to this day, I find the illusion to be complete. If you look at how this film was made, it’s a miracle that it works at all. A lot of the film was created with Sandra Bullock harnessed into a high-tech moving platform while LED lights were blasted at her to simulate the lighting conditions what the CG images would end up being. Bullock’s performance, as a woman who believes she has little to live for down on Earth, helps keep this space movie grounded.

There’s a line in the movie where the astronauts have lost communication with Houston and they start prefacing all their communications with “Houston in the Blind” because even though they can’t hear any responses they have faith people are listening. Director Alfonso Cuaron has said in interviews this is how he felt making this film, hoping blindly that his vision for this film would work on a fundamental level. We can all be grateful he took that leap because Gravity is thrilling filmmaking that manages to make us ponder mankind’s place for the universe.

3. Get Out – Jordan Peele has said that in the aftermath of Obama we were living in a post-racial lie — the idea that racism had somehow been solved because we had a black president. I think our real-life politics soon showed that that lie was temporary, but Get Out illustrated it in through a tense horror film that is thematically rich and interesting. The idea of white people wanting to take over the bodies of black people has so many parallels and so much resonance with modern day society that it’s literally scary. That’s the visceral terror that Get Out brought to life. It’s also a film that has made so many cultural contributions, including the concept of The Sunken Place or the quote, “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term,”— the words of a performative ally. Get Out also represents this decade in low-budget filmmaking and a vindication of the Jason Blum method of production, in which you place many bets on low budget films, and not all of them hit. Get Out of course hit, landing over $175 MM in domestic box office, and it showed you could still get folks to the theater with an ambitious idea and flawless execution.

2. Under The SkinUnder the Skin is one of the most visually arresting movies I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Glazer has created a story that feels dreamlike and terrifying. But the film was also innovative from a filmmaking perspective. Glazer pioneered new camera technology to be able to film strangers in tight enclosed spaces, much of which was done with Scarlett Johansson literally just walking around and picking up guys on the street. Johansson herself delivers a bold, chilling performance as a woman whose body is used for ends beyond her control. Under the Skin is one of those rare films that makes you reflect on how cruel and inhumane our society might seem if viewed from the outside.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road – I can’t get away from it: Mad Max: Fury Road is still one of the most bold, spectacular pieces of action filmmaking. The stunts are jaw-dropping, the pacing is propulsive, and the performances by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are transformative. It’s relentlessly watchable and chilling in its depiction of a future in which natural resources are hoarded by a handful of malevolent forces — a plot which feels strangely relevant today. George Miller has created a masterpiece and action filmmakers will spend the next decade trying to best it.

The medium is the message: On Disney’s new Lion King

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One of the things that’s important when you’re about to embark on a creative endeavor is to ask what medium you should use to tell your story. Should the story you’re telling be a film? Or would it benefit from listeners being able to binge-listen it in the form of a podcast? Should it be animated, so that abstract concepts and fantastical ideas can be conveyed more easily? Or maybe it only needs to be a well considered essay or novella.

Each medium has specific strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out how to navigate them is an essential part of the storytelling process.

Sadly, that seems not to have been something the creators of the new Lion King considered. This new version has photorealistic animals and surroundings but while it’s impressive as a technological feat, it falls short when for one basic reason: The lions can’t emote.

The hand drawn animation in the original Lion King gave the characters a memorable expressiveness. I still remember the horror on Young Simba’s face as the wildebeest stampede began, threatening to take his life and the life of his father. Jeremy Irons’ delicious performance as Scar was greatly augmented by that character’s over-the-top facial animations. All of this is lost in the conversion to the photorealistic 2019 version.

This might be acceptable and potentially even interesting if this movie veered in an entirely different direction with the story. Instead, many sequences are remade almost shot-for-shot, only with lions that can’t express themselves and with musical numbers that remove much of the fantasy and visual magic that helped propel the original tracks to become 10x platinum (the highest selling soundtrack ever for an animated film). Unfavorable comparisons are inevitable.

Siddhant Adlakha breaks it down well over at his Patreon page (free for now):

What this film is, though, is an exercise in nostalgia. Not the wistful tinge of memory — rather corporate nostalgia, as a tool of commerce, wherein bare-minimum familiarity is a benchmark for trade. As someone who enjoys Disney and Universal theme parks, the concept of manufactured nostalgia isn’t lost on me (sign me the fuck up for the obnoxiously expensive Galaxy’s Edge), but where the new Lion King departs from its ilk is how nakedly it puts Disney’s soulless corporatism is on display. Watching it is no more or less ethical than watching Avengers: Endgame, though it feels far more ugly.

The Lion King (2019) is a film that flattens expression. Its pursuit of “photorealism” has rendered its characters zombies, unable to emote even as much as real animals. Twelve-year-old JD McCray performs admirably as young Simba, his otherwise sprightly voice breaking and quivering as he discovers Mufasa’s body — the most hard-hitting scene in the original. Though here, in the “live-action” re-creation, the lion prince’s discovery is met with a deadpan expression, and a prodding akin to curiosity rather than desperation.

Jon Favreau is a supremely talented filmmaker and what he’s accomplished here hasn’t really been done before. I hope that he and the incredible visual effects artists that helped to make this movie are next able to apply their talents where form and function work more hand in hand.

A few other takes on Lion King worth considering:


The next episode of my new podcast, Culturally Relevant, is out now! I chatted with The Farewell director Lulu Wang. Then, my wife and I review the film from a Chinese-American perspective. If you are so inclined, check it out and leave a review. I have a lot planned for this season of the show and I’m excited to share it with you all.

Plus, in the podcast, I recommend and discuss some of the following pieces:

Spider-Man: Far From Home spoiler video review

I was really grateful to Ben Pearson for joining me to discuss Spider-Man: Far From Home. We delve into what this movie does to Peter Parker’s arc, the reliance of these movies on the legacy of Tony Stark, and the possibilities of future MCU films.

Also: I ran into some difficulty with my video in this one. My Sony A7III ran out of battery while I was shooting the first half of my video. Despite the camera’s promises to recover the file after I booted it back up, it didn’t work and I lost the entire first half of my side of the video. Making things even worse: I was monitoring the battery life the entire time and it plummeted suddenly from about 18% to 0%. This genuinely shook my faith in the camera system. How can I record interviews with this thing if the camera might die and take my video with it?

In any case, I’m grateful to Daanish Syed for stepping up and helping me out with some photoshopped images that I used to fill in the video above. Check them out. I hope you enjoy them.