George Wu

Best Movies of the 2010's

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George Wu
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Another decade coming to a close provides an opportunity to reflect on the peak achievements in film, and so without further ado, here are my superlatives in descending order.

10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Omnibus films almost never work because invariably the weaker stories leave an uneven feel. Joel and Ethan Coen get around that by making every one of the six western stories in Scruggs strong. Even the relatively weakest one, “Near Algodones,” is an amusing lark with enormous directorial flair. The two best are the titular story featuring a great Tim Blake Nelson crooning “Cool Water” and “Surly Joe” to wondrous effect and “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which is as romantic as the Coen brothers have ever gotten with superb turns from Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck. “All Gold Canyon” featuring Tom Waits prospecting for “Mr. Pocket” must be mentioned as well. This is the Coens at their comedy-and-tragedy-mixing best.

9. The Interrupters (2011)

Steve James was the documentarian of the decade. His overview of the life of film critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, and his coverage of government assault on a small bank in New York’s Chinatown, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, were among the best documentaries in the 2010s, but The Interrupters, which follows three members of CeaseFire, a community group who tries to stop violent crimes in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods, is the most powerful of all. Most of CeaseFire is made up of ex-cons, some with big reputations that actually help with their influence. Ameena, the daughter of a former notorious gang leader, reformed after being shot. She will get up in the face of anyone and she gets away with it by being hilarious and charismatic. These real life tales of redemption are a must-see.

8. The Avengers (2012)

Joss Whedon crafts the ultimate superhero movie, which is helped tremendously by Marvel’s cinematic universe “reverse sequel” strategy. Instead of a titanic movie coming first from which the various characters spin off, the nascent studio first produced Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk (the only awful one of the bunch), Captain America: The First Avenger, and the very underrated Thor, then put them all together in one of the most successful movies of all time. For good or ill, no movie would influence American cinema (sorry, Scorsese) in the 2010s more than Marvel’s The Avengers. Warner Bros’ difficulties with their DC Extended Universe, Universal’s junking their Dark Universe, and the mixed response to Disney’s own Star Wars franchise show just how hard it is to juggle cinematic universes. Marvel is the role model. Whedon’s pacing in the movie is perfect and it’s full of great scenes and humor: Black Widow getting called in, the introduction of the Helicarrier, the 360 shot of the gathered heroes, the Hulk ragdolling Loki, and Tony Stark making the sacrifice play. Alan Silvestri’s soaring score enhances everything. Insofar that Scorsese is right in complaining about a film like The Avengers being fluff, it’s fluff in the same way that Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark or Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is fluff, that is, of the enormously entertaining kind.

7. The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick has seemingly jumped the shark in his late career, but at least prior to doing so, he made The Tree of Life, his most ambitious film and one of the most ambitious films there is as it tries to capture the origin of everything while melding science and religion, nature and the ethereal. Its closest cinematic cousin is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey though they have very different vibes. Covering the beginning of the universe to life in Waco, Texas in the 1950s to the present, Tree is a symphonic tone poem on human existence, a contemplation on desire, pain, cruelty, regret, loss of innocence, but most importantly the pursuit of grace. Thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life is also one of the most beautiful looking movies ever made.

6. Margaret (2011)

The lyrical slow motion opening sets the stage that this is a story about a community, in this case, a quintessential New York City story, vividly capturing the travails of the privileged upper middle class of the Upper West Side. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brilliantly observes the details of his characters’ lives that contribute to their neuroses. No one is perfect and no one is a monster. The story follows teenager Lisa after she distracts a bus driver who then runs over and kills a pedestrian. The death scene is a marvel of three different characters’ points of view bouncing off one another in a tragic instant. And this is Lonergan’s expertise, to have multiple characters all coming at something from their own perspectives, usually justified by their personal experiences, and examining the resultant clash. Lisa wants to do the right thing, but she can only ever see her own point of view so she can’t understand all the machinations of the adults around her, every one of whom is reacting in understandable ways even if not always sensibly or morally apt. The movie is the encapsulation of Jean Renoir’s statement that everyone has his reasons. Anna Paquin is the lead, but lots of actors shine in small parts: Allison Janney, Matt Damon, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Kenneth Lonergan himself. Margaret is the kind of sprawling character study that American films rarely have the ambition for today, and if they do, they typically fail to realize that ambition. Lonergan succeeds.

5. Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

This film is now bogged down in writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial treatment of his actors and crew and the movie’s graphic sex scenes, and Kechiche has only made matters worse in his public relations. But bad people can make remarkable art. Essentially a coming-out film, Blue Is the Warmest Color follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) from age 15 to her mid-20s, and if anything, it feels too short even with its 3-hour running time. A frumpy, insecure, awkward adolescent, Adèle enters into a sweltering love affair with blue-haired, knowledgeable, confident, and self-assured Emma (Léa Seydoux). There have been many films about the confusion of adolescence and the difficulty of coming out and Kechiche covers many of the common tropes, but he makes the material fresh by concentrating on the immediate experiences of the characters and doesn’t overdramatize.  He keeps things in the moment, grounded and natural, while making pointed observations about social class and its impact on dealing with sexual orientation. This film, Exarchopoulos, and Seydoux very much deserved their win at Cannes (with a jury headed by of all people, Steven Spielberg).

4. Before Midnight (2013)

With Midnight, Linklater makes the best film in the Before series and well, his best film. Listening to people just talk for a whole movie hasn’t been this fascinating and enveloping since My Dinner with Andre. There are several incredibly long takes just following Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) talking either in their car or walking through Greece. The long argument scene that makes up the last third of the movie and brings to the surface all the shimmering tension is rightfully lauded, but the earlier banter that sets everything up is every bit as vital and vivid. In an Eric Rohmer-like way, the movie is less realistic than literary in the sense that the characters all happen to be hyper-articulate and have multiple discussions over the course of a single day that express and develop certain themes – the nature of romantic relationships, gender roles and expectations, and the pros and cons of delusion. The Before films are remarkable achievements by Linklater as he checks in on Celine and Jesse every 9 years, and Midnight is the series’ culmination, the wisest and most mature of the bunch.

3. Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out is Pixar’s best movie yet, and it’s not even really a children’s movie. Aside from the colorful animation and some slapstick, most children can only appreciate a tiny part of what makes the movie special and it takes some distance from childhood to get it all. A large part of the film deals with the end of childhood, and the discarding of various memories (while saving a certain earworm-inducing commercial). It poignantly answers the question of why the emotion of sadness exists. The scene with the mom trying to signal the father into addressing Riley’s melancholy was among the funniest of the decade with its clashing of perspectives. The cat scene is a classic too. All the voice actors do top notch work, and of course in typical Pixar fashion, the animation itself is stunning.

2. Certified Copy (2010)

My top two films are both by Iranian directors. At age 70, Kiarostami made this fresh, intimate tale about a woman and a man on an outing around Tuscany. It comes with a surprising twist, but Certified Copy is a startling experience that goes far beyond that, and it starts with the extraordinary performances from the two leads, Juliette Binoche, an old pro, and William Shimell in his film debut. Under Kiarostami’s masterful direction, the film is filled with windows and mirrors and reflections to enhance the movie’s theme about originals and copies. It’s a piece of transcendent art that is an argument about the philosophy of art and human connection. Kiarostami died in 2016 with the legacy of being the most renowned of Iranian filmmakers.

1. A Separation (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s films often turn on a plot twist or third act reveal that almost always works, so strong are his dramatic skills, but even so can sometimes feel not fully earned. That’s not the case with A Separation in which every instinct Farhadi has about the story is right on the money. At first, the story appears to be about a couple going through a divorce, but like most Asghar Farhadi films, it develops into much more, specifically what stems from an incident involving the couple’s home health aid and the husband’s elderly father. In any case, the less you know going in, the better. Every major character gets solid, vivid portrayals with their points of view represented where one can understand their motivations and how that complicates right and wrong. Farhadi examines the social, moral, political, and religious angles as the plot and themes mix with an extraordinary complexity and yet it all remains elegantly structured throughout. Utterly ordinary lives are turned into riveting drama. This was the most human story put on film in the 2010s and the best.

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):

  • Another Year (2010, Mike Leigh)
  • Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)
  • The Favourite (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos)
  • A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)
  • The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino)
  • Marriage Story (2019, Noah Baumbach)
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (2010, Raoul Ruiz)
  • Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuaron)
  • Stray Dogs (2013, Tsai Ming-Liang)
  • Waves (2019, Trey Edward Shults)

Best Movies of 2019:

1. Marriage Story

2. Waves

3. Booksmart

4. Parasite

5. The Lighthouse

6. The Farewell

7. American Factory

8. The Wild Pear Tree

9. Avengers: Endgame

10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The best directors of the decade and their notable movies:

  • Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs)
  • Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story, Greenberg, Frances Ha)
  • Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite, Mother, Snowpiercer, Okja)
  • Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep, The Wild Pear Tree, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia)
  • Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines)
  • Joel and Ethan Coen (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; True Grit; Hail, Caesar!; Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Alfonso Cuaron (Roma, Gravity)
  • Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Salesman, The Past)
  • Todd Haynes (Carol, Wonderstruck, Dark Waters)
  • Hirokazu Koreeda (Our Little Sister; After the Storm; Shoplifters; Like Father, Like Son)
  • Lee Chang-Dong (Burning, Poetry)
  • Richard Linklater (Before Midnight, Boyhood, Bernie, Everybody Wants Some!!)
  • David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Old Man & the Gun)
  • Steve James (The Interrupters, Life Itself, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Head Games)
  • Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster)
  • Guy Maddin (The Forbidden Room, The Green Fog)
  • Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave)
  • Lynn Ramsey (You Were Never Really Here, We Need to Talk About Kevin)
  • Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, First Cow, Meek’s Cutoff)
  • Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil War)

The best actors of the decade and their notable performances:

  • Amy Adams (American Hustle, Arrival, The Fighter, Her, The Master, Trouble with the Curve)
  • Mathieu Amalric (The Forbidden Room, Ismael’s Ghosts, Wild Grass)
  • Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell)
  • Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy, Clouds of Sils Maria, Let the Sunshine In)
  • Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, Carol, Thor: Ragnarok)
  • Toni Collette (Hereditary; Knives Out; The Way, Way Back)
  • Bradley Cooper (American Hustle, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook, A Star Is Born)
  • Marion Cotillard (Allied; The Immigrant; Ismael’s Ghosts; Rust and Bone; Two Days, One Night)
  • Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate, The Florida Project, The Lighthouse)
  • Elle Fanning (Ginger & Rosa, Maleficent, Super 8, 20th Century Women)
  • Michael Fassbender (Alien: Covenant, Fish Tank, Shame, Steve Jobs, 12 Years a Slave, X-Men: First Class)
  • Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel; Hail, Caesar!)
  • Ryan Gosling (The Big Short, Blade Runner 2049, Blue Valentine, La La Land, The Nice Guys, The Place Beyond the Pines)
  • Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen; Seven Psychopaths; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  • Anne Hathaway (Colossal, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables)
  • Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight, Boyhood, First Reformed)
  • Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, High-Rise, Midnight in Paris, Only Lovers Left Alive, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, War Horse)
  • Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite, Mad Max: Fury Road, X-Men: Days of Future Past)
  • Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Hail, Caesar!; Her; Jojo Rabbit; Marriage Story)
  • Brie Larson (Captain Marvel, Room, Short Term 12)
  • Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit, Leave No Trace)
  • Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave, Us)
  • Angourie Rice (Every Day, The Nice Guys)
  • Sam Rockwell (Jojo Rabbit; Seven Psychopaths; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Way, Way Back)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Lady Bird)
  • Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Oh Mercy!, Sister)
  • Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Shape of Water, Snowpiercer)
  • Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Knives Out, Short Term 12, Sorry to Bother You)
  • Kristen Stewart (Certain Women, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper)
  • Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, Certain Women, Manchester by the Sea, My Week with Marilyn)

The best scenes of the decade:

1. Opening, Post Tenebras Lux

2. Alex climbs El Capitan, Free Solo

3. The heroes return and Avengers assemble, Avengers: Endgame

4. Heroes vs. villains on the highway and streets, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

5. The first dance, Climax

6. Mr. Knapp proposes to Alice, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

7. Family dinner table conversation, Inside Out

8. Facing a fiery end, Toy Story 3

9. Overture, Melancholia

10. Taken over bodies, Journey to the West, and Liu Xuan tries to convince police he was attacked by a mermaid, Mermaid (tie)

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