A ripped-from-the-headlines message movie about the rise of fundamentalist Muslim political parties in the titular Malian city that performs an especially delicate balancing act: it is furiously moralistic, telling us a story with clear themes that’s almost didactic in how little room for doubt it gives us about the filmmaker’s intentions, yet it’s handled with such a light, simple touch that it feels more like poetry than an impassioned message movie. It draws from several European art film traditions in creating the pastoral tale of a simple rural family confronting the modern world, but Sissako transforms his influences into something personal and special and alert to the condition of West Africa in the 2010s. A galvanising new spin on comfortably familiar material, and incomparably humane.
39. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
(Isao Takahata, 2013, Japan)
One of the unofficial themes of this particular slice of ten movies is “what a dumbass am I for underrating that so badly” (especially if you try to square it with my year-end top 10 lists), and here’s an especially brazen example: a medium-redefining masterpiece that I haven’t even reviewed on this site yet. Taking one of Japan’s most iconic folk tales, it’s a stunning combination of pre-cinematic art traditions of soft, watercolor-like painting and brand-new digital animation technology that makes those old-fashioned images flow into each other with indescribable grace and kineticism. A perfect swan song for the restless stylistic innovator Takahata, and a strong candidate for my favorite Studio Ghibli film of the 21st Century: it’s both ancient and new in perfect balance.
38. Embrace of the Serpent
AKA El abrazo de la serpiente
(Ciro Guerro, 2015, Colombia / Venezuela / Argentina)
An anti-colonialist buddy movie, in which the matter of white people having deranged misadventures in the South American jungle is told through, and about, the indigenous people staring at the whites in question with a fair degree of unimpressed dismissal. It uses everything in its aesthetic toolkit to feel both mistily remote in time and also energetically present right in front of us, something that’s stylishly formalist while also being firmly grounded in lived human experience (and humans whose lives don’t show up much in movies, as a bonus). Structurally adventurous and stupidly beautiful, while also being intellectually rigorous in how it presents its themes. If this entire list could serve to bring just one movie to greater prominence, this is the one I’d pick.
(Alex Garland, 2018, UK / USA)
It’s mildly annoying how the film is stealing from some extremely obvious, extremely well-known precursors. But in some ways, being a good filmmaker is knowing who the best people to steal from are, and the execution here is certainly enough to make up for any sins. It’s the rare effects-driven movie that lets the effects be stylised enough to be convincing as something otherworldly, rather than unconvincing as something plausible, and its successful creation of an alien-but-recognisable landscape is some of the best genre filmmaking of the decade. But what pushes it from “genre great” to “just plain great” is the way it uses its style and its wonderfully loopy ideas to play with very rich emotions – grief, fear, optimism – in an enjoyable overwhelming way.
36. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
(Christopher McQuarrie, 2018, USA / China)
“Good Lord, this might be the best action setpiece of the 21st Century,” I remember thinking to myself, during an early scene that did not end up ranking among my top 3 setpieces just within this one movie. Which is to say, sometimes a film is a masterpiece because it advances the medium, or because it tells unimaginable truths about the human condition, and sometimes it’s because a bunch of people put something fucking amazing in front of a camera, and they film it, and then they show it to us. I once heard another grad student crack a joke about this movie and cinematic indexicality, so I could go all pretentious here, or I could just say: Tom Cruise flies a motherfucking helicopter, y’all.
35. Meek’s Cutoff
(Kelly Reichardt, 2010, USA)
No film from the past decade has risen higher from my first estimation than Reichardt’s extraordinary plotless Western, which like an absolute barbarian lunatic, I left off my Top 10 of 2011 way back when. But we can shame me later – for now, let’s look at the film, a breathtaking masterpiece of place and mood. Nothing happens – conspicuously, nothing happens – and as it fails to happen, we learn more than I think I’ve ever learned from one film about the bone-deep exhaustion of life in the American West, particularly for the women who aren’t typically front and center in Westerns. Impeccably crafted costumes and props, faultlessly sun-bleached cinematography, and both Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood triumph in bringing a touch of modern sensibility to their pioneer characters.
34. Under the Skin
(Jonathan Glazer, 2013, UK)
This would have cracked the top 100 just for introducing us to composer Mica Levi, whose four scores are enough to make her my favorite film artist of the decade (and I still think this is her best work). But there’s no end to the miraculous stuff Glazer and company get up to in this lonely, terrifying story of the confusing fleshiness of human bodies, sexual desire, and the eerie non-night of modern cities. It’s a tone poem on stock themes from science fiction, an extraordinary experiment in what “film acting” consists of, and it contains the single most memorable horror movie image of the decade, a nightmarish twist of flesh that’s treated as exquisite abstract art. A wild ride, sometimes too indulgent, but never easy.
33. Film socialisme
(Jean-Luc Godard, 2010, Switzerland / France)
I wasn’t sure about including this one: these experiments would be done again, and better, by a film higher up on this list. But there’s something to be said for bold first efforts, and Christ knows this is nothing if not bold. Godard’s decades-long fascination with video reaches its apotheosis in this experiment in anti-cinema, where the content persistently obscures itself as the medium keeps breaking down under the weight of trying to cope with the wide range of expressive possibilities the director is trying to force it through. It even has an option for subtitles that are illegible gibberish. Not for all tastes, obviously, but I think there’s something wildly exciting about trying to define the outermost edges of what a medium can do.
32. The Assassin
(Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2015, Taiwan / China / France)
It’s agonising that this is Hou’s only film of the 2010s, but I don’t think I’m letting simple auteurist loyalties blind my judgment. It’s a costume drama willing to let an incredibly remote time period remain incredibly remote, creating a movie about 9th Century China that respects that era’s art and philosophy. It’s highly formal study of behavior and honor that never does what we expect or even want it to (see, for example, the striking absence of action during the action scenes, or the sheer amount of storytelling happening through abstracted sound effects). But it does what we need it to, and the result is a singular, desperately beautiful vision that does amazing work in confronting us with a new way of being human.
31. Faces Places
AKA Visages villages
(Agnès Varda and JR, 2017, France)
One of the most generous filmmakers in the medium’s history took on the most generous project of her career for her penultimate feature. Starting as a documentary/art project committed to the idea that every living person is worth of being celebrated in public, the film is charming enough when it just watches Varda and JR being adorable as they take their traveling photography from town to town. But it becomes a masterpiece as it slowly ties this impulse in with the great director’s awareness of her own impending mortality and failing body. It is, as much as anything, a tale of a dying woman who wants to make the world a better place with the time she has left, and if that doesn’t reduce you to a puddle of warm goo, you’re stronger than I.