It occurred to us recently that we have just reached the mid-point of the current decade. And, given that we love to list things, we saw this midway point as an opportunity to make a giant list. We attempted to approach this democratically. History will tell you that democracy, in its infantile stages, is hard and violent. Over the last week, there has been betrayal amongst friends, tears shed, and factions developed. What follows is the fruit of this battle– an alphabetical list of the fifty best films of the first half of the current decade (2010-Present). A list that is built upon pain, heartbreak, and finally, victory. We hope you enjoy it. Here’s to the next five years.
12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the true account of Solomon Northup haunts with beauty and brutality. Like McQueen’s previous films, it’s extremely focused, concentrating on character moments instead of concepts. While some critics complained that the stories of the slaves who didn’t escape are never told, and that the film didn’t do enough to show the impact of slavery on America, 12 Years a Slave succeeds in that it does not stretch itself to becomes the story of slavery as a whole. It’s a film that only seeks to define Northup and those he encountered and allows that to be enough.
127 Hours – Is there a less appealing film synopsis than “A man has his arm pinned by a rock for five days”? Danny Boyle’s in-your-face, hyper-editing is normally best applied to his more frantic, action-packed films, but here, in a very central location, his lens anchors itself rather calmly to James Franco’s portrayal of real life adventure seeker Aron Ralston. Franco’s survival-driven performance is one of the most under-celebrated in the era under investigation here. This is a film in which character and viewer sync to an unexpected degree so that the anguish and despair is mutual and the outcome even moreso.
The Act of Killing – Documentary filmmaker Josh Oppenheimer recently won a MacArthur Fellowship, largely for his work on this film. Oppenheimer sought to document the Indonesian mass executions of the 1960s, and his makeshift, innovative approach resulted in The Act of Killing, one of the most disturbing and insightful examinations of human evil that exists in any text.
Argo – It’s a movie about the making of a movie, but not really. Since its release in 2012 and its subsequent Best Picture win at the Oscars, Argo has become one of those films that has more or less faded away, and undeservedly so. Ben Affleck is comfortable both on screen and in the director’s chair as he retells the story of the Iran hostage crisis, seamlessly weaving compelling storytelling, suspense, humor, and smart dialogue. This is one of those rare films that has something in it for everyone, not the least of which is its compelling cast and airtight performances, particularly those of Alan Arkin and John Goodman.
Attack the Block – Low budget science fiction often is too ambitious for its own good. Attack the Block plays to its budgetary strength by sticking to a tight script (possibly a perfect in its structure) and sparing shots of the alien invaders. Where Block truly succeeds is giving audiences an emotional arc for the protagonist that feels truly earned. Don’t even get us started on the killer soundtrack.
The Avengers – The anticipation surrounding the release of The Avengers was so high that many of us feared it would be nearly impossible for it to live up to the expectations, but instead it blew all of those expectations out of the water. Marvel spent years building its shared universe in preparation of this ensemble superhero juggernaut of a blockbuster, and the studio’s best move was putting the King of Geek, Joss Whedon, at the helm. Whedon manages to create an ensemble film never feels overcrowded unless it’s intentional. The Avengers is chalk full of snark, action, heart, and a whole hell of a lot of fun. It’s the embodiment of everything a blockbuster should be.
The Babadook – The modern horror genre is drowning in the water. The Babadook is a life raft representing the best type of horror, following allegorical fears to build relatable suspense. There’s a little bit of the Babadook creature in all of us (especially if you’re a single mother) and that’s what makes it so terrifying.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – In Beasts of the Southern Wild, magic manifests in forms that are explicit, harsh, and purewithin ‘The Bathtub’, a location where magic would never be predicted to exist. The oncoming doom faced by the community does not hinder Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a six year old resident along with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Beasts of the Southern Wild choreographs the cycle of beginning and ends: from the passing of the storm to the fate of Wink toHushpuppy’s musings. Beasts evokes emotion through the fearless Hushpuppy, who is both attuned to the necessities of survival and maturely cognizant of her contextual place in “a big, big world.”
Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky furthers his exploration of obsession/addiction and creates a beautiful and surreal dreamscape that isn’t without its share of truly horrific moments. He successfully blends prestige drama with genre elements, creating a thrilling allegory for women’s sexuality, repression, mental illness, and ageism. Black Swan has a wonderful use of contrast in its color palate, the graceful ballet and fevered club dancing, and finally the physical transformations. There hasn’t been a meaningful use of body horror like this since Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Natalie Portman’s career-defining performance swings from naïve innocence to id-driven lust, while never failing to be sympathetic. Like the The Wrestler before it, Black Swan is a stunning portrait of how far a person will go for their unobtainable desire to be “perfect.”
Blue Jasmine – Blue Jasmine tells the mesmerizing, gritty story of a woman rapidly losing her grip on reality. Through a series of slick flashbacks, the film slithers between disturbing drama and uncomfortably funny dark comedy. In her flawless portrayal of the titular character, Cate Blanchett stuns. Jasmine is privileged and smug, fragile and unraveling at the seams. She wavers somewhere between a sympathetic casualty of corporate criminality and a narcissistic, detestable case study in the modern American social class system. Remarkably, Blanchett manages to keep audiences invested until the traumatic end.