Gordon Inman, a well known Chattanooga-born clarinetist and saxophonist, uses his expertise as an amateur film historian to rank the best films of the 2010s!
I feel the need to share my thoughts on film culture from the 2010s not because it was a great decade for the medium artistically (although it was) but simply because this art form, for the first time in nearly a century, is not the most consumed form of media and has, therefore, become a comparatively obscure art. Additionally, the most interesting film stories from this decade (and there are many) have mostly fallen on deaf ears.
It is my personal opinion that the two most exciting decades in film history (up to and including this date) are the 1920s and the 1960s, for related but contrasting reasons.
The 1920s, for anyone familiar with film history, is most notable for technical innovations and radical experimentation in the fields of form and montage. The first technicolor feature The Toll of the Sea was released in 1922, followed by the experimental use of Process 2 color in Demille’s The Ten Commandments in 1923; Niblo’s Ben-Hur and Julien’s Phantom of the Opera, both in 1925; and Pal Fejos’s Lonesome in 1928. The first sound film is well-known: Alan Crosland’s troubling The Jazz Singer from 1927, which was followed by three fascinating years of late silent/early talkie melange which would come to define much of Guy Maddin’s output decades later.
While Abel Gance and Erich von Stroheim were creating mammoth non-serial features that would nearly all be tragically cut from nine hours down to only two or three, Fritz Lang was crafting four and five-hour epics which would emerge relatively unscathed among the long-form silents. Meanwhile, the Surrealists and late Dadaists in Paris, as well as those experimenting with a narrative montage in the Soviet Union (and in the case of Dziga Vertov less-than-narrative) added to the mix with entirely new and obfuscated storytelling.
In the 1960s, on the other hand, brilliance came from both ends of the creatives’ lifespan: while pioneers and giants from the silent era were crafting their final and often superlative masterworks (like Dreyer’s Gertrud, Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and 7 Women), a force majeure generation of new, hungry, and cinephiliac filmmakers entered the field and seemed to play off each other’s energy. This is an understatement, of course: publications like Cahiers du Cinema and the writings of Andrew Sarris fueled the public’s excitement for film culture, and the political turmoil for which the mid- to late-sixties are known helped to jump-start the film culture in Iran and Taiwan, usher in the genre-fueled Japanese “New Wave,” feed the working class “Kitchen Sink” films from the U.K., provide the necessary spark for the politically sober works of the post-Neorealist Italian filmmakers, and piss off the young Czechoslovak film students into creating glorious anarchy in their films indefinitely.
Although no such reputation exists for the 2010s (yet), it is my sincere belief that this last decade's output deserves to be placed alongside that of the former two most exciting decades. The comparison to the American Independent and foreign arthouse culture of the 1960s seems to speak for itself, so I will leave it alone for now. Regarding the 2010's innovation in storytelling as compared to that of the 1920's, I would be remiss not to recognize that we are in fact living in a golden age of alternative animation (including stop motion, whatever style you would call Hertzfeldt's stick figures, and whatever offspring of Flash is being used in Felix Colgrave's animation work on YouTube), as well as an incredible new era of nonfiction filmmaking as fresh as cinema verite was half a century ago.
1. Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, 2013)
With German’s final film we say goodbye to the flowing camerawork characteristic of the middle 20th century’s Soviet filmmakers, many of whom either studied with Aleksandr Dovzhenko directly or only idolized him. (Paradise from last year comes close to maintaining this style, but Konchalovsky has gone through too many metamorphoses to be considered the same breed of director as his Siberiade days.) We the audience are so very lucky that the director survived long enough to complete all but the finishing touches on his magnum opus, an adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ excellent science fiction novel about regressive politics in which the plot of the novel is barely recognizable within the director’s worldbuilding. Based on this adaptation alone, I am convinced that there was possibly only one director who could have successfully brought Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to the reen, and unfortunately, we lost him before that could ever have been completed.
2. Kaili Blues (Bi Gan, 2015)
As far as I know, the first example of an expert in the field pronouncing cinema 'dead' in public was Roberto Rossellini in 1963; in fact, he called a news conference to make the proclamation. This is now universally considered a ridiculous statement for the time, but in my opinion, it was equally laughable to make the same proclamation, as many did, at any time before the 2015 release of Bi Gan's first feature film. Since his second (and only other to date) film Long Day’s Journey Into Night is equally compelling as the first, I suggest everyone who is paying attention to the medium hold off on their mourning until at least this one director’s career begins to settle down.
3. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, 2017)
Superlatives forthcoming: David Lynch fans could never have imagined, after making peace with the likelihood that he was finished with the film, that we would receive such an incredible jewel from the master. Lynch has reinvented his directorial style with every feature, but if The Return shares a mold with any of his earlier work it is likely Mulholland Dr in that we are gifted throughout the main plotline with what are essentially filmed non sequitur surrealist comic strips. It should also not be understated that the “Return” of the title, in which Agent Dale Cooper re-enters our world, occurs no less than fifteen hours into the running time after a twenty-five-year wait and may truly be the greatest instance of fan service in fiction. Additionally, if there was a better pop soundtrack this decade I haven’t heard it yet.
4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Due to its early festival premiere and nearly universal adoration upon its release, Weerasethakul’s best work could understandably be considered the first art film hit of the decade. Its influence throughout the 2010s should not be ignored: Boonmee set the stage for the magic realism-laced arthouse cinema which would come to define this decade. (On a personal note, I was actively obsessed with the imagery in this film for at least a year after I saw it.)
5. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
Kiarostami's final caprice, which would also set the stage for the use of adults playing 'make-believe' in much of this decade's best work. Apologies for the hyperbole: I feel as though this is the 2010s art film equivalent to Antonioni’s L’avventura, a grand enigma that deserves to be discussed well into the night after a first, second, or tenth viewing.
6. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
Possibly my favorite American film of this decade, and the only Lonergan film that feels more like a novel than a play. I don't think there is a better rendering of teenage narcissism (especially from the time I was a teenager) or the communicative journey between a mother and teenage daughter on film.
7. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Verena Paravel, 2012)
Harvard as an auteur; avant-garde with GoPros; La Region Centrale in the ocean, this time with birds and people. There’s no way to describe a film that simulates the experience of a preyed-upon fish, but somehow the masters at Harvard’s SEL have pulled it off virtuosically. I consider this my very favorite nonfiction film of the decade and believe it is the equivalent of even the greatest work of Michael Snow. The Sensory Ethnography Lab has delivered their first titanic masterpiece, and it most certainly won’t be their last.
8. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)
The purest sci-fi film since 2001. By this, I mean that it is science fiction mixed with no other subgenre in the way that Arrival is also a drama and Inception is action. In the way Kubrick created an external catalyst for human evolution throughout space and time, Carruth forms a fictional parasite’s life cycle from orchids to humans to pigs. The cycle in action, which represents much of the film’s run time, is hypnotic.
9. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
By some miraculous turn, Miller managed to leave even the best of the first three Mad Max entries in the dust with this, unquestionably his greatest work that doesn’t star a pig. To call it the greatest action film of the 21st century to date is an understatement: it is nothing less than latter-day savior of the genre, a film which single-handedly discontinued the media-wide use of fast editing and shaking camera gimmicks in an attempt to “play at” showing the audience action taking place by simply taking fifty cars into the outback and crashing them into each other.
10. Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, 2015)
The most jaw-dropping directorial debut in years, and a seminal work of holocaust fiction which is rendered responibly for such a subject: zero glamour or romance, and filmed in such an intimate way that the audience feels a sample size of the claustrophobiaia and dread of the characters. Comparisons to Klimov’s superlative war film Come and See are more than earned.