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The Best Films of the Decade

The Best Films of the Decade

From The Look of Silence (courtesy Drafthouse Films)

The landscape of international cinema is nearly unrecognizable now compared to the end of the 21st century’s first decade. For both shooting and exhibition, film has been almost entirely eclipsed by digital. Media companies have consolidated to an even more frightening extent. Streaming has risen as the new, now-dominant mode of distribution. Documentary has seen an awakening of form like never before. Conversations about representation and safety within the industry have grown more forceful and influential. Thanks to social media and smartphones, essentially all of us are now amateur filmmakers. Each of the films gathered here, voted on by Hyperallergic contributors, represent some facet of these vast changes. Here is how cinema captured this strange, tumultuous decade. —Dan Schindel

1. No Home Movie (2015)

(courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

Chantal Akerman always inserted traces of memoir into her form, and in her swan song, she films the closing chapters of her mother’s life. Shooting in the slow, precise style she was known for, Akerman lingers on images like a tree being battered in the wind or empty bedrooms, as if to state what her cinema looks like without her mother hovering above like God. In one last gift to the world, Akerman gave us a portrait of a woman she loved, a woman who was home for a person who often felt like she didn’t have one. With this film, she closed the book on her career, and as we close out this decade, we must remember to honor one of the greatest artists of our time. Willow Catelyn Maclay

Available to stream.

2. Moonlight (2016)

(courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

It’s difficult to think of Moonlight without cracking a smile over the way it triumphantly stole the show at the Oscars. I remember giving up on a watch party after being so disappointed to see Hollywood once again refuse to recognize a story that actually resonated with me as a queer Black person and a lover of film in favor of one that felt so hopelessly out of touch. (How does a film about LA feature next to no Black or brown people?) But as I was walking out, my friends screamed through the window, “They fucked up! Come back upstairs!” There’s a reason Moonlight struck such a chord, not only among queer and POC folks in my community, but among broader audiences hungry to see a new kind of coming of age film. Through three radiant performances (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), we witness one man come into his identity as a gay Black man in America. Through James Laxton’s stunning cinematography, the stark glare of the Miami sun glints off of Black and brown skin and a crystalline blue ocean, later replaced by the glowing pink and blue tones of lush dream sequences. Black skin appears not just blue, but also red or caramel, offering a visual metaphor for the fluid yet much-maligned nature of Blackness in America, which is often cast in the harshest light possible. Dessane Lopez Cassell

Available to stream. Read our original review.

3. Zama (2018)

(courtesy Strand Releasing)

Lucrecia Martel’s long-gestating satire of Spanish colonialism in South America claustrophobically recalibrates the widescreen chaos of Apocalypse Now as surreal private hell, with even the largest landscape shrunk to compress around its conquistador protagonist’s collapsing sanity. Like Don Quixote, Zama tilts at shadows and hallucinations, dispatched deep into hostile territory to hunt a rogue Spaniard who may or may not even exist. In the film’s most brutal commentary, Zama puts himself through hell not even for his own benefit, but for that of the governors and administrators who will profit off of his possible success and immediately underwrite his failure. —Jake Cole

Available to stream. Read our original review.

4. The Act of Killing (2013) / The Look of Silence (2015)

(courtesy Drafthouse Films)

There is a good deal of hand-wringing in media now over how to properly engage with nefarious public figures, and the value of “giving them enough rope.” Similarly, debate stirs over how to respectfully depict victims in the aftermath of tragedy. In this masterful duology on the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, Joshua Oppenheimer, co-director Christine Cynn, and a host of Indonesians who must remain anonymous for their own safety (including another co-director) pull off both. The terrifyingly flamboyant The Act of Killing is a showcase for how state-sanctioned murderers will not only feel no apparent guilt but actively celebrate their evil. The much quieter The Look of Silence flips to the perspective of a survivor, who interrogates both his persecutors and whether any justice is even possible.  —Dan Schindel

Available to stream. Read our original review of The Act of Killing.

5. The Tree of Life (2011)

(courtesy Criterion Collection)

Although The Thin Red Line and The New World both hinted at it, this marked Terrence Malick’s full-blown ascendance into affective montage, one based primarily on the aesthetic properties and emotional resonance of each shot, and new heights in his journey to reconcile the smallness of human time with the vastness of geological time. In the process, it captures a particular kind of postwar American childhood with such vividness that no words could properly describe it. Malick has gone on to make bolder and more radical films, and he made more specific and less hermetic films before it, but The Tree of Life represents a great artist operating at the peak of his abilities, providing some of the most astonishing sequences a camera has ever captured. —Forrest Cardamenis

Available to stream.

6. Get Out (2017)

(courtesy Universal Pictures)

You could rewatch it 20 times, and that still wouldn’t dull Jordan Peele’s sharp social thriller. The film grabs hold of a notion bubbling under the surface of Obama-era white liberals (yet obvious to Black America!), that Black people’s bodies are subject to the bluntness of white power manipulations, Democrat or otherwise. This is the definitive inauguration to a post-Obama era. It didn’t hurt that it proved to be a massive success from a modest budget, a gamechanger for an inequitable industry that shies away from Black creatives. —Zoe Guy

Available to stream.

7. Under the Skin (2014)

(courtesy A24)

In Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece, an alien creature roams the streets of Glasgow picking up unsuspecting victims. Infused with a wandering spirit and unusual vulnerability, each meeting takes its toll on this otherworldly being, who begins to question the limits of their own body and its fragility. Mica Levi’s score echoes with the vibrations and sounds of a circulatory system, as the film simulates the experience of embodying flesh that is not your own. —Justine Smith

Available to stream.

8. Cameraperson (2016)

(courtesy Criterion Collection)

Kirsten Johnson combines two modes of filmmaking that usually do not mix: nonfiction advocacy and a diary of personal associative detail. Yet they work staggeringly well together. Johnson compiled this film out of clips and moments that had stuck with her throughout her career as a cinematographer. This is not a resume, but rather a full testimonial of who we are as people and what we could possibly aspire to be, even with an unsteady future looming. Willow Catelyn Maclay

Available to stream. Read our interview with director Kirsten Johnson.

9. Horse Money (2015)

(courtesy Cinema Guild)

After setting his movies in a legible if deteriorating (and now demolished) neighborhood, Pedro Costa’s two-decades-and-counting Fontainhas project resides in a can’t-quite-place-it Lisbon. He melds a very real social history with real people and tangible ghosts. This ain’t some amorphous slow cinema fiddle-faddle, but an exploration of personal and collective trauma, told with the best, most sculptural digital images of this decade. —Tanner Tafelski

Available to stream. Read our original review.

10. Inherent Vice (2014)

(courtesy Warner Bros.)

Representing perhaps the perfect blend of Paul Thomas Anderson’s directorial sensibilities, this is a fusion of his more shambolic and ensemble-focused early films with his later, more historically-minded and sober works. A loose neo-noir adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, it burrows into its historical milieu and character work rather than its increasingly convoluted plot, using the hints of conspiracy and paranoia to grab on even tighter to its characters’ physical and emotional connections. Oddly emotional and terrifying, its textures and vibes are confounding and enrapturing in equal measure. —Ryan Swen

Available to stream.

11. Lemonade (2016)

(courtesy Tidal)

There’s a moment halfway through Lemonade which made audiences across the world believe Beyoncé Knowles-Carter might drop the latter half of her billionaire hyphen. But what begins as a melodic narrative of infidelity boldly turns into a sociopolitical and artistic declaration of black women’s resistance and power. This film and album will rightfully go down as one of the most seminal pop culture events of the 2010s. With its visual dynamism co-curated by Khalil Joseph and lyrical earnestness courtesy of Warsan Shire, it transcended what a visual album and live cinematic moment could be for a generation.

Rooney Elmi

Available to stream.

12. Margaret (2011)

(courtesy Fox Searchlight)

Shot in 2005 but delayed many years due to battles behind the scenes, we didn’t get to appreciate this movie until this decade. Kenneth Lonergan’s chatty epic sees a teenage girl gripped with guilt after causing a traffic accident. A tangent-filled coming-of-age experience playing out in the shadow of 9/11, the film features many extended conversations, adolescent confrontations, and the intrusive influences of the “real world.” —Justine Smith

Available to stream.

13. Holy Motors (2012)

(courtesy Shout Factory)

Reclusive director Leos Carax’s sole film of the decade is certainly a doozy. Denis Levant plays a man who inhabits a series of “roles.” (For a movie? As a service? Who knows!) The dizzying un-narrative takes us from a sound stage to underground Paris to the actor’s own deathbed, making time for one of the catchiest accordion breaks ever. It’s one of the most difficult yet enjoyable films of the decade. —Dana Reinoos

Available to stream.

14. Certified Copy (2011)

(courtesy Criterion Collection)

Abbas Kiarostami’s return to narrative cinema and his first fiction feature shot outside Iran is a mind-bender that mocks the human obsession with authenticity (and by extension, identity in art and life) with delicious flair that sweeps you up without warning. Juliette Binoche carves romantic poetry out of seduction, vulnerability, and manipulation as effortlessly as she breathes. Kiarostami sadly did not live to see the end of this decade, but this film kicked off an indelible end run for the legendary director. —Poulomi Das

Available to stream.

15. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014)

(courtesy GKIDS)

Telling a simple folktale through the beauty of hand-drawn animation — from the sketch-like characters to the watercolor backgrounds that are constantly in motion — Isao Takahata’s final film is more than anything a captivating and sincere portrait of life itself. A rigorously spiritual work of art, it approaches life as a series of fleeting moments, some so tragic that it feels like the world (and the film itself) is falling apart, while others threaten to take your breath away with their wonder. Every moment we live and every moment we spend with those who love us is a gift, and Takahata reminds us not to take that for granted. Juan Barquin

Available to stream.

16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

(courtesy Warner Bros.)

Cinema doesn’t get more fuel-injected and gladiatorial than this, and yet what is arguably the greatest action film of the decade is also the genre’s fiercest critique. An eco-feminist blockbuster for the long summer of the Anthropocene, Fury Road reveals the grim result of an Earth ruled by unchecked toxic masculinity. If it weren’t for the insane amount of fossil fuels sacrificed in the making of this movie (which is essentially one long full-throttle car chase), perhaps Democrats would fare best in 2020 with a Thunberg-Furiosa ticket. —Anthony Hawley

Available to stream.

17. HyperNormalisation (2016)

(courtesy Adam Curtis)

If ever you look at the world around you and wonder “What the fuck is happening,” you could do worse to find an explanation than look up this film. Released between Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, this documentary surveys the history building to our moment, from 1975 on. Through a singular use of archival discovery and montage, Adam Curtis discerns the disquieting ways in which people, disempowered by politics, have surrendered their agency, and how corporatists and politicians have maintained the facade of a stable world in the meantime. That mask has now fallen off neoliberalism’s face. Whatever happens next, Curtis is the best person to make a movie about it. —Dan Schindel

Read our original review, or our interview with director Adam Curtis.

18. Parasite (2019)

(courtesy Neon)

Bong Joon-ho’s penchant for caustic, all-implicating class commentary reaches a new peak here. With camera placements as geometrically precise as the modernist home in which the wealthy Parks live, Bong elucidates the codependent rot of the haves and have-nots, and pointedly underlines that not even the most well-thought-out scheme can overcome the dehumanizing structures of class. The particulars of the film’s satire are specific to Korea, but its message is brutally universal. —Jake Cole

In theaters now. Read our original review.

19. High Life (2019)

(courtesy A24)

Claire Denis continues her corporeal obsession through meditative drama. In the isolation of a stark space prison, sex becomes an obsession, as well as an object of power and control. Far-flung from the daily problems of Earth, the film examines the nature of humanity itself, asking what separates us from the animals and the gods in a sweet, brutal, occasionally comic space movie like no other you’ve seen before. —Justine Smith

Available to stream. Read our interview with director Claire Denis.

20. Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016)

Installation view (courtesy Gavin Brown)

In the early ’90s, Arthur Jafa worked with Julie Dash to shoot her trailblazing movie Daughters of the Dust. Yet strangely, after such a momentous partnership, we didn’t hear much from him in the film sphere, likely due to the reticence of Hollywood to champion Black filmmakers who weren’t making work about the topics they thought would make money. But Jafa never stopped working, directing his energy into the contemporary arts sphere, where he received more support and praise for his tendency to remix disparate forms that speak to the multiplicitous nature of Blackness. This 2016 short is no exception. Through its sampling of heartbreaking, joyous, infuriating, and exhilarating material culled from the internet, it subsumes the viewer into an avalanche of emotion. Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” scores footage of Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, Bert Williams’s melodic performances in blackface, Earl Sweatshirt spitting bars, a young Angela Davis, bits of Beyoncé and Biggie Smalls music videos, and brutal assaults by police on unarmed Black people. The first time I saw it, during Jafa’s solo exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2016, I stood paralyzed, back against the wall of the black box gallery, tears streaming down my face as it played on loop. With the fresh blow of the 2016 election still sinking in, its indictment of America’s sycophantic obsession with Black cultural production amidst its senseless perpetration of violence against Black people landed with a stinging blow. Yet standing in that dark space with some of my dearest friends and colleagues, it also acted as a reminder of everything we’ve been able to do in spite of that, and what more must still be done. Dessane Lopez Cassell

Read our original review.

21. Citizenfour (2014)

(courtesy RADiUS-TWC)

This could be considered a legitimate horror film, one that reveals the omnipresence of government surveillance and our encroaching loss of privacy. Rounding out documentarian Laura Poitras’s 9/11 trilogy, the film weaves myriad political anxieties as it follows Poitras meeting with NSA analyst Edward Snowden, building up to his historic act of whistle-blowing. The explosive truths he revealed have given birth to one of the most indelible scandals of this young century. —Rooney Elmi

Available to stream. Read our original review.

22. Certain Women (2016)

(courtesy IFC Films)

It might be unfathomable to think that in adapting short stories by Maile Meloy, the most significant things are what’s unsaid. Laura Dern’s exasperated attorney (also named Laura) bites her tongue while enduring the outrageous, dangerous plotting of an unstable male client. There’s the enigma around the ambitious persistence of the well-to-do Gina (Michelle Williams), who’s trying to build her dream home. There’s the silence in the amorous, yearning glances that Jamie (Lily Gladstone) gives Beth (Kristen Stewart), trying to get a read on her. This Montana-set triptych nails the loneliness and solitude of a long car drive home and back. It’s Kelly Reichardt’s most absorbing achievement to date. —Caden Mark Gardner

Available to stream.

23. The Grand Bizarre (2018)

(courtesy Jodie Mack)

A kaleidoscopic meditation on globalization, manufacturing, and commerce. Following swatches of clothes as they travel from one corner of the world to the other, director Jodie Mack uses stop-motion animation to give her ideas movement across planes, trains, and automobiles. Her unconventional style and playful tone make this hour-long documentary a standout.  Filmed on grainy 16mm film stock, the images have an organic, lightweight quality, even as they address heavy topics like manufacturing and distribution. —Monica Castillo

Read our original review.

24. On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)

(courtesy The Cinema Guild)

2017 was a formidable year for Hong Sang-soo. In addition to releasing three features on the international festival circuit, he was hounded by the Korean media for admitting to having an affair with actress Kim Min-hee, a recent fixture in his ever-expanding oeuvre. In cryptic meditations across its disjoined halves, this film confirms two truisms that discerning viewers have known all along: Hong and Kim were sleeping together, and that regardless of (or perhaps in debt to) this, he is a master of frustrating, trenchant melodrama for our generation. —Adina Glickstein

Available to stream.

25. Shirkers (2018)

(courtesy Netflix)

Some memories flicker, and others embed themselves in your identity like a never-ending film reel. That’s how Singapore-born filmmaker Sandi Tan relates the labyrinthine tale of her first film, made with the aid of her friends when she was a schoolgirl, and its disappearance along with her supposed mentor. Tan puts in an immense amount of care examining the paradoxical materiality of cinema and the ephemerality of the filmmaking/viewing experience. It’s a bewitching collage of obsession and grief, caught at the intersections of East and West, of cinema and reality. —Kyle Turner

Available to stream. Read our original review.

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