Get Out, The Wolf of Wall Street, Mad Max: Fury Road, Her and more: 15 best English films of the decade
From Jordan Peele's Get Out, that changed the grammar of horror films, to Mad Max: Fury Road, that is an immensely watchable action movie, we recount the best films of this decade.
It is that time of the year, when 12 months are stripped down to a few films, shows, albums, memes, GIFs, and what have you. It is officially Listmas. But it is also the end of 2010s.
End-of-year lists are hard enough. So curating an end-of-decade list can feel like a special kind of hell, especially if you have watched thousands of films in the last 10 years, adored hundreds, and now, have to boil them all down to 15, and a handful of honourable mentions. (This list and its order have already been changed a dozen times at the time of its research, writing, and editing phases.)
The 2010s gave us masterpieces from the usual suspects like Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, emerging talent like Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig, and foreign filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve and Yorgos Lanthimos, who made a successful transition to English language cinema. The decade also saw films like Edge of Tomorrow, Paddington and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse lead the way in terms of artistry and intelligence among the mainstream fare. But akin to Lord of the Rings in the 2000s, if there was one franchise to rule them all this decade, it was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which offered up more than a few memorable entries into the cultural canon.
In this list, however, we are looking at films that will endure the following decade, the decade after that and so on. In this new world order of streaming services, let this list also be our official recommendations to queue up your Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar or Mubi watchlists.
Note: This list has been compiled based on the taste and preferences of one individual critic. So, there is room for consensus and contention. But let us keep the disagreements to a healthy debate even in this age of outrage. (Consider this a list of top 20 because I just could not bear to omit these.)
Honourable mentions: The Duke of Burgundy (2014), The Favourite (2018), Manchester by the Sea (2016), Mother! (2017), You Were Never Really Here (2017)
15 | Frances Ha (2012)
If there is one actor/writer/director who perfectly captures the spirit of our times, it is Greta Gerwig. Her characters — from Frances Ha to Brooke Cardinas (Mistress America) to Lady Bird — have become etched in our collective consciousness because they have come to represent young adults in all their loquacious, impulsive exuberance. Gerwig co-wrote Frances Ha with director Noah Baumbach, who transposes these aimless youth to a world, reminiscent of French New Wave cinema. It is fitting because the New Wave itself was a movement which had an of-by-for the youth vibe — and just like Chabrol or Godard, Gerwig cuts her teeth with a film filled with youthful preoccupations. Frances Ha often feels like a descendant of Annie Hall but Gerwig's interpretation gives her a feminist freshness with endearing quirks of her own. It is easy to identify with her because she is just another cash-strapped millennial living in a big city and struggling with adulting. Never mind, if you are in New York or Mumbai.
14 | Upstream Color (2013)
Upstream Color will still feel experimental and daring even a decade or so later. Surrealism becomes an inescapable dream state in Shane Carruth's second feature as it grips you like a dream that will not let go. It is a near-indescribable cinematic experience but if we had to describe it: Upstream Color is an uninhibited abstraction of a relationship drama about love and trauma. So parasitic worms and pig farms, past and present, real and surreal, Whitman and Thoreau all come together in this strangely sensual concoction. There is a Terrence Malick-like lyricism to its Cronenbergian body horror and a Stanley Kubrick-like clinical execution to its Lynchian mindf*ckery. After the phenomenal Primer, the self-financed, self-taught Carruth once again directs, writes, produces, edits, photographs, composes the music, and stars in Upstream Color. And once again, he cannot seem to find funding for his next film — and it is just a terrible shame.
13 | The Lobster (2015)
Would you rather live in a utopian bubble unaware of the struggles of the marginalised, or on the edge of dystopia away from society's dehumanising rules and conventions? Would you rather be happily single or stay in an unhappy relationship? If you were transformed into an animal because you could not find love, which animal would you choose to be? Yorgos Lanthimos raises these questions and more in his deliciously absurd fable about the pressures of dating in the age of Tinder. Amid all the chilling images of high-concept cruelty, the Greek auteur reveals the self-inflicted shackles that hold us back from finding real happiness. The Lobster helped build him a reputation outside Europe, thanks to enthusiastic audiences who continue to spread the word about the film with a religious fervour. It also paved the way for two more wickedly twisted films in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite.
12 | The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Irishman is sure great but The Wolf of Wall Street will remain Scorsese's finest film of the 21st century. Scorsese puts his auteurial stamp on another real-life story about a man's glorious rise and pitiful fall in pursuit of the American dream. In an all-too-familiar capitalism-gone-rogue world, he offers an uncompromising portrait of Wall Street hedonists' unscrupulous excesses. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey elevate it further with deliriously unhinged performances, filled with quotable lines and memorable moments.
11 | Ex Machina (2014)
Stephen Hawking warned us artificial intelligence (AI) "could spell the end of the human race." Elon Musk too agreed they posed “a fundamental risk" to our existence. Alex Garland illustrates some of their fears with a speculative and spectacular love triangle between an AI robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), its Dr Frankenstein-like creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and a virtuoso programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Like most sci-fi films before it (from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator), Ex-Machina too suggests a bleak future if AI evolves into autonomous beings with consciousness. But Garland uses the minimalist setting to his advantage, accomplishing quite a lot with a small budget and just four actors. The claustrophobic mansion, the narrow corridors and the laboratory's sterile atmosphere give a feeling it is not just Ava who is trapped in a prison. Garland also brings to light the stereotype of the hyper-sexualised "fembot", which panders to male fantasies. Ava's perfect physique and agreeable nature reflects her creator's male gaze and his desire to build the ideal woman, who is dutiful, docile, and desirable. Vikander's turn as Ava is as chilling as it is empathetic, internalising the torment of being considered inferior and subhuman to her male oglers.
10 | Winter's Bone (2010)
In Winter's Bone, Debra Granik plunges into the heart of darkness that is the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. Driven by the fierce resilience of our young heroine Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the film illuminates the difficulties of escaping this dark, oppressive world of meth-addicted communities, criminal clans, absentee fathers, and devastating rural poverty. Survival becomes a psychological and physical battle as Ree must be her own guide in the various rites of passage from girlhood to accelerated adulthood. Granik's images of the grey Ozark forests create an enveloping, hypnotic atmosphere, and adds a palpable menace to the cold mountain air. Lawrence anchors the film in an age-defying breakout performance that melds Ree's anguish and anger into a hammer of sorts, a tool for building a place for her and her family in an indifferent, often hostile, world.
9 | Nightcrawler (2014)
Dan Gilroy's debut feature is a tightly plotted neo-noir thriller about a cameraman who goes on a nightly hunt for crime scene images to sell them to local news stations for the morning broadcast. The nocturnal cityscape of Los Angeles thus transforms into a stage for his voyeuristic appetite. What Lou Bloom lacks in empathy, he makes up for in enthusiasm. What he lacks in morals, he makes up for in Machiavellian charm. Jake Gyllenhaal's character is a misanthropic opportunist very much in the ilk of Rupert Pupkin, resorting to illegal methods to achieve his goals. His eye bulging out starkly against an emaciated face, this creepy predator is perfectly embodied by Gyllenhaal. Bloom's vulture-like instincts and sense of ambition is symptomatic of a society that enjoys its breakfast cereal with a spoon of blood-tinged violence. Nightcrawler thus makes for a scathing condemnation of how the news media outlets have become the chief peddlers of vicarious, voyeuristic pleasures. It is also a testament to our strange obsession with unlikeable antiheroes, who represent capitalism's worst vices.
8 | The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like the culmination of Wes Anderson's work as a whole, not just his dollhouse aesthetic. It is like a snowball, which slowly gathers characters, their backstories and idiosyncrasies before absorbing whimsical subplots — involving sibling rivalries, precocious children, and delayed coming-of-age motifs — it encounters, until they all come together and turn into an avalanche of contagious fun. The cast is a doozy, perhaps the best ensemble he has assembled, featuring Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson, along with Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, and Tilda Swinton among others.
7 | Her (2013)
It's not just Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who fell in love with Samantha, an operating system with the sweet, reassuring voice of Scarlett Johansson. Most of us did. That is one of Spike Jonze's points: technology can both improve and impede human relationships, especially for those who cannot find — or struggle with — intimacy in real life. Be it now or in the future, it is not socially acceptable or emotionally healthy to fall in love with Siri because she will always remain a passive participant in the romance, one whose existential purpose will be to serve the male gaze. As aptly reflected in the title, Samantha will remain an object (Her) as opposed to a subject (She). As Samantha's consciousness evolves from her to she, she achieves self-determination and gains her independence from Theodore's needs and desires. Jonze bathes the near future of Her in a warm red glow and uses plenty of close-ups with a shallow depth-of-field, bringing into focus Phoenix's expressive face.
6 | Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller's fourth instalment of the Mad Max saga easily provided the purest, most unadulterated cinema experience of the decade. It is so spectacular it makes you want to inject the film straight into your veins so you can get completely lost in it. Calling it a two-hour-long chase is reductive but it is faster and more furious than anything Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, or Jason Statham have starred in. Charlize Theron's Furiosa pulls off an impossible mission more bad-ass than every Tom Cruise-tries-to-kill-himself-for-our-pleasure stunt. Tom Hardy gets his brood on harder than he has as Bronson, Locke or James Delaney (Taboo). Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of film you stop and watch every time it airs on television.
5 | A Ghost Story (2017)
Ghosts have manifested as creepy twins, bent-neck ladies, and marshmallow men. They have communicated through TV static, and even crawled out of a TV set. At times, they have appeared in sexier forms like Patrick Swayze and Nicole Kidman — and one time, they appeared only to Haley Joel Osment. But none of them can hold a candle to Casey Affleck's white sheet-wearing spirit in David Lowery's A Ghost Story. But this is no traditional ghost story. It does not scare you with boos, jump scares or blood and gore. It simply serves as the filmmaker's omniscient gaze, chronicling its history as people live in a house across years, centuries, and through eternity. Meanwhile, Lowery crafts a haunting meditation on grief, the passage of time, the nature of memories, and the meaning of home. Also, whoever thought Rooney Mara grief-eating an entire pie in one sitting would make for one of the decade's most poignant scenes.
4 | Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele's Get Out and Us have possibly inspired more dinner conversations and water cooler chats than any other film this decade. It is not only the defining horror film of the 2010s but also the defining political film of 21st century America as Peele probes the unconscious biases of American society. He trains his cross hairs not on the openly racist Americans but the insidious racism of white liberals. It is a film whose righteous anger is visible in its every frame as Peele packs symbolism and meaning into even its Easter eggs. Daniel Kaluuya's eyes filled with fear as tears slowly stream down his face make for the most powerful moments in cinema history.
3 | Arrival (2016)
After watching Arrival, your brain — like that of Amy Adams' linguistics expert — is rewired to perceive time and reality itself differently. The fact that the movie makes you reconsider your understanding of time-honoured concepts, even if for a short while, proves the immersive power of Denis Villeneuve's aliens-make-contact drama. The plot twist in the film does not come at the end but at the very beginning. Villeneuve turns our habits against us through an ingenious exercise in plot structuring. We, as viewers, are used to watching movies with linear plots. And as humans, we are used to perceiving time as — what Arrival deems — the illusion of chronology. But on learning the aliens do not experience the past, present, and future linearly but simultaneously, it challenged our notions of time. By doing so, it makes us retrace the Möbius strip that connects time to memory and free will. Underneath it all is a profoundly moving story of grief and hope. The tears of sadness thus make way for tears of pure joy as the credits roll on Villeneuve's veritable masterpiece. It happens even after a dozen viewings.
2 | Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin is essentially a road movie abstracted into an erotic poem, where somewhere in between our pleasures and fears coincide. Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi thriller is really about alienation than aliens. There is a haunting sadness to Scarlett’s extraterrestrial femme fatale, who is imprisoned under her human skin, covered by a fur coat and thick lipstick. Over the course of the film, she begins to display more "human" qualities than the men she attempts to entrap in deadly alien sex goo, as if her body and soul were at war with each other. Mica Levi's music is not used to — merely compliment but — tell the story. Over the course of the hunt to eventual body dismemberment, the violins go from chaotic scraping to a more melodious swelling. A recurring three-note theme externalises the various moods of the alien seductress, as it grows from sinister to sensual to sorrowful at the end. Glazer is a visual alchemist, transfixing our imagination and senses like few films do. With a careful, artistic hand, he frames images and scenes meant to create an original visual experience unlike any other.
1 | The Master (2012) and Phantom Thread (2017)
(It is two movies — and yes, it is kind of cheating — but it is hard to separate one from the other. Also, we did not want PTA taking up two spots on this list). What is there to be said about these films that has not been said already. Both The Master and Phantom Thread offer tragicomic portraits of power struggles in toxic relationships, and the desire for dominion over the other. They are both transcendent works anchored by meticulous staging and excellent performances across the board. In both films, PTA relies on Jonny Greenwood to enhance the mood of his imposing dramas. They will both go down as timeless classics that generations of cinephiles will revisit again and again. If anyone epitomised the epic ambitions of modern cinema, setting the benchmark for the rest, it is Paul Thomas Anderson. He continues to assert himself as the most talented American filmmaker of our generation, boasting a filmography that reaches new heights with each film. Ten years ago, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers had declared, "If I had to stake the future of film in the next decade on one filmmaker, I'd go with PTA." (I reiterate his declaration going into the 2020s too).
All images from Twitter.
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