The form and mode of storytelling has seen significant changes across decades — from the 1890s to 2010s cinema has consistently evolved. 2010s too had moments galore that contributed to cinema. The enormous technological advancements aside, fresh cinematic approaches and movements have been part of this decade. From the Marvel cinematic universe to slow cinema, there’s been great diversity in the cinematic realm. On a personal front, this was the decade where I was exposed to a lot of quality cinema.
There can’t be any definitive movie lists, particularly when it comes to a list of this kind. The ranking and the selection of these films below are subjective. Besides, the list only includes feature-films, not documentaries. So, here goes my ranking of the best movies of the decade, gone by:
15. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan is often accused of creating narratives that lack emotional depth. It isn’t that his characters are emotionless. But the emotional range the filmmaker deals with is so limited. Or the expressed emotions fall into the usual boundaries of cinematic vocabulary.
It might be argued that his protagonists are often emotionally withdrawn characters and so single-minded in their pursuit. Guy Pearce’s character, for instance, in Memento or Christian Bale’s characters in Prestige or Batman movies. In fact, Nolan is comfortable with extreme cinematic emotions rather than exploring the subtler aspects of human emotions.
While this particular facet makes it hard for me at times to root for his characters, he is, undoubtedly, a master at shaping mind-bending spectacles. Inception has all the aforementioned problems I generally have with Nolan’s films. Yet it’s one of the most fascinating and complexly woven narratives ever created in cinema. More than the sheer intricacy of Inception, what intrigues me is how he captures our attention throughout this bewildering narrative. Flaws aside, Inception showcased that Nolan is an intense and one of the most exciting filmmakers out there today.
14. Tabu (2012)
Portugese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’ entrancing art film is divided into two distinct halves. The first section is set in present-day Lisbon. It revolves around an elderly woman named Pilar and her concerns for her elderly neighbor Aurora. Aurora is a dowager and a compulsive gambler who had once lived in her farm in Africa. The second section is set in a 1960s unnamed Africa colony. Young Aurora leads an adventurous life on a farm at the foot of mountains. She has a passionate, extra-marital affair with a handsome young man named Ventura.
Gorgeously shot in black-and-white, Tabu is an exploration of ill-fated love, memory, and colonial Africa. The emotional intensity and brilliant chemistry between the two lovers (played by Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta) add to the film’s hypnotic tone. Though uniquely personal, Gomes attempts to deconstruct the usual European or American gaze of colonial Africa. The result is a work of supreme visual poetry in what I consider one of the best Portuguese films of all time.
13. Leviathan (2014)
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films repeatedly focus upon family breakdown and fragmentation of values. In Leviathan, the Russian filmmaker employs his spiritual imagery to loosely adapt the Book of Job. Car mechanic Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) is the modern Job who lives in Murmansk Oblast, a sprawling inhospitable landscape in Northern Russia. It’s a land of rich natural resources. Of course, this has a corrupting effect on the authorities.
Kolya’s land and humble home is situated on a prime piece of real estate. The city’s crooked mayor wants to seize the land to build a communications center. Everyone from the cops to the local Orthodox Church firmly supports the seizure. Kolya with the help of his lawyer friend, Dmitri (an old army buddy) tries to argue his case. But Dmitri’s presence only further complicates the matter.
Zvyagintsev is a master when it comes to shocking his viewers as he leaves a lot to our imaginations. His approach is lyrical, nuanced, and highly symbolic, never relying on dramatic moments. He magnificently showcases how Leviathans will persist and Jobs will continue to perish in a corrupt society.
12. The Great Beauty (2013)
Paolo Sorrentino’s breathtaking film offers a mesmerizing tapestry of the life of Italian elites. Set against the backdrop of Rome, The Great Beauty revolves around 65-year old Jep Gambardella, a suave columnist. He is good at verbal diatribes and possesses a wide circle of moneyed friends. He attends exorbitant parties and social gatherings. Jep has once authored an acclaimed novel and dreams of writing a new novel. Nevertheless, he finds it hard to find either enthusiasm or the magic to think beyond the ennui of his existence.
The Great Beauty’s strengths are Sorrentino’s kinetic visuals and a magnetic performance by Toni Servillo as Jep. Despite being termed as a Fellini-esque extravaganza, The Great Beauty is more than a mish-mash of the Italian master’s works. Sorrentino’s film is about the creative crisis faced by an artist. It gracefully explores Jep’s troubles in creating a meaningful work of art in an age void of meaning.
11. The Turin Horse (2011)
Slow cinema is not structured as a film movement. Yet in retrospect, Béla Tarr is one of the great filmmakers who strengthened the reputation of slow cinema. Turin Horse, the last of Tarr’s pure cinema, follows the painstakingly mundane lives of a father and a daughter in a downbeat grassy plain. In 1889, the great German philosopher Nietzsche supposedly witnessed the beating of a horse in the streets of Turin. Witnessing the whipping of the horse has allegedly led to Nietzche’s mental breakdown, from which he never recovered.
The unnamed narrator at the beginning of Turin Horse narrates this. It ends with the narrator observing, “Of the horse, we know nothing.” The bleak, monochrome world of Turin Horse sets out to vividly detail the suffering of the human and the animal. The narrative unfolds over six days and lacks any action.
What we witness is the everyday mundanity in the impoverished household. Once you get acquainted with the rhythms of Tarr’s work, there’s actually a lot to discover and think about. The challenge always is embracing that drudgery witnessed on-screen.
10. Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)
The expatriate Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz left his homeland for Europe after the 1973 Pinochet coup. He was a prolific experimental filmmaker, who is best known for the ambitious literary adaptation of Marcel Proust’s masterwork. Though generally dismissed as ‘unfilmable’, Ruiz in Time Regained (1999) offered the perfect cinematic rumination on Proust’s labyrinthine themes.
Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz’s swansong, is only more epic in scale and intoxicates us with its cinematic elegance. It’s an adaptation of a 19th century novel by the Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco. It’s a dense interlocking narrative of doomed love, aristocracy, mistaken identities, and revenge.
What’s magical about Mysteries of Lisbon are the gorgeous, painterly visuals and the ingeniously orchestrated blocking. Despite its magisterial length of four-and-a-half-hours, the spellbinding fluidity of the camera and narration hold our attention throughout.
9. Poetry (2010)
Lee Chang-dong is one of the greatest modern filmmakers to explore the themes of grief and guilt on such an intimate scale. His recent film Burning (2018), an adaptation of Murakami’s short story, is an unflinching examination of human wickedness. Lee’s films — always nuanced and beautifully measured — offer subtly dramatized takes on social conditioning. In fact, I often prefer Lee’s works compared to the instantly gratifying movies of Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho.
Poetry tells the story of an old woman named Mija who is beginning to become forgetful. Though Mija is losing words and memories, she enrolls in a poetry class. She tries to find a new language and expression through poetry despite the forgetfulness. Mija works part-time as a carer for an elderly disabled man and lives with her ungrateful grandson Wook.
One day Mija learns a terrible truth about her grandson. Amidst all the horror, the old woman is in pursuit of beauty that might help her write poetry. Poetry is a nuanced character study, exploring the themes of identity, guilt and aging. It’s also a subtle indictment of a patriarchal society that’s bereft of empathy and compassion.
8. Like Father, Like Son (2013)
Of all the works in Hirokazu Koreeda’s oeuvre, Like Father Like Son has the most soap-opera-ish plot-line. Two babies at a hospital are swapped after birth. A workaholic and self-absorbed, Ryota and his wife, Midori discover that their six-year old son isn’t their natural son. The hospital informs both the parents of this tragic error. The other parents are Yudai and Yukari who hail from a different social class than Ryota and are more easy-going. The hospital management brings the parents together to work out a solution. The reason for the swapping is only revealed later in a painful scene.
Though the story sounds dramatic, Koreeda brings his incredibly nuanced approach to explore the relationship dynamics and human nature. The filmmaker questions what shapes a child’s personality: nature? Or nurture? Furthermore, Like Father Like Son challenges the views of parenthood in a patriarchal society. The focus is largely on Ryota, an overbearing, wealthy man who wants his son to be the more perfect version of him. But he isn’t the villain since Koreeda, as usual, directs his compassionate gaze on him in order to make us understand his own conflicts and shortcomings.
7. Kaili Blues (2015)
One of the best Chinese films of the the 21st century, Bi Gan’s debut feature was truly a breathtaking work of art house cinema. Kaili Blues’ awe-inspiring visual expressions will remind us of Weerasethakul, Sokurov, Hsiao-hsien, and Reygadas. Yet there’s a distinct quality in his immersive compositions that’s seldom expected from a first-time filmmaker.
Plot doesn’t matter in Kaili Blues. The narrative spells out as an adventure of sorts, one that turns the mundane into magical. It comes across as a meditation on time, memory, trauma, and family. The film has an ethereal quality to it that explaining the experience is almost like explaining a beautiful dream. The most intriguing aspect of Kaili Blues is the 41-minute long-take where the camera rhythmically moves through lush mountain roads on motorbikes, up the steps, and even across the river in ferry.
Pretentious and poor imitations are part of contemporary artistic cinema. Bi Gan’s aesthetic precision, however, is unbelievably immersive and heartfelt. The filmmaker followed Kaili Blues with Long Day’s Journey into Night, an equally interesting sensuous cinema.
6. Phoenix (2014)
The incredible Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a concentration camp survivor, in Petzold’s profound take on identity. The film opens with a heavily-bandaged Nelly returning to Berlin with the help of her friend Lene. We learn that Nelly was once a popular singer, transported to Auschwitz. She gets the best reconstructive surgery and looks for her husband Johannes aka Johnny. Johnny, however, doesn’t recognize her, but feels that she closely resembles his wife. In fact, he is sure his wife is dead. Hence, Johnny wants the woman to impersonate his wife in order to collect her inheritance.
Phoenix might sound like a potboiler that adopts certain film noir conceits. But it’s stunningly ambiguous, approaching this gimmicky story from unexpected angles. Nelly isn’t just impersonating herself. She is trying to embody her husband’s vision of Nelly. Petzold gradually and sublimely develops this conflict to reflect on the themes of memory and identity. Moreover, the unbelievably restrained final stretch is one of the most perfect movie endings. This German film is necessary viewing.
5. Paterson (2016)
Jim Jarmusch, the king of cinematic cool, has been making deeply felt personal cinema for four decades. Paterson, which soulfully captures the creative expressions of everyday life, is one of his best works. The title refers to the New Jersey city as well as the central character, an introverted bus driver. Played by Adam Driver, Paterson scribbles poems in his free time. His only muse. He writes every day. The film unfolds over a week in Paterson’s life, observing his calm professional and domestic life.
Nothing significant happens in the narrative. Yet we get lost in Jarmusch’s acute observation of Paterson’s contentment with his mundane life. When he’s sad, he seeks solace in his art to alleviate the agonies. Movies often have the need to justify their narrative with progression of events and themes. Jarmusch simply weaves a tapestry of a rhythmic everyday life, which nevertheless is diffused with deeper meaning.
4. Amour (2012)
Michael Haneke’s deceptively simple tale focuses on an old couples’ complex and intimate relationship. Amour is as stripped down as other Haneke’s profoundly impactful stories. Nevertheless, it’s a hard-hitting depiction of what love is in the face of fear, straining mundanity and illness. Georges and Anne, played by the two great French stars Trintignant and Riva, are retired, octogenarian music teachers.
Anne has a stroke, later develops dementia and is gradually dying. With love and dedication, Gorges tries to help her move freely. But he himself is too old for the tasks. They struggle with the physical ignominies while waiting for the inevitable.
Haneke’s long static shots capture Anne’s deterioration in a sensitive yet somber manner. Old age is a taboo subject in cinema. In Amour, Haneke creates a pensive portrait of our own mortality. In fact, in a world that’s awash with greeting-card wisdom of what love is, Haneke’s portrayal of love and compassion is unquestionably poignant.
3. The Wild Pear Tree (2018)
Ceylan’s films are akin to the great works of literature, especially in grappling with life’s big themes. The master filmmaker only sets the bar high with The Wild Pear Tree, yet another work of richness and depth. The film tells the story of a father and son in conflict. Sinan, the protagonist, is a recent university graduate and a wannabe author. He is back at home, with no particular liking for his hometown or his father. Sinan’s father is a primary school teacher with huge debts and gambling obsession. As we follow the sour and idealistic Sinan, we profoundly comprehend his disappointments and thwarted hopes.
Ceylan’s films are often about male anxiety trying to reconcile with their surroundings. In The Wild Pear Tree, the young man’s existential quandaries are deeply relatable.
Ceylan is a master at writing circuitous dialogues which is evident in the fascinating encounter between Sinan and an older, renowned author. At the same time, the filmmaker has an eye for painterly landscapes. Besides, he is adept at conveying his character’s moods and feelings through pictorial frames. Overall, The Wild Pear Tree provides an enriching and transcendent movie experience.
2. A Separation (2011)
Asghar Farhadi’s phenomenal Iranian cinema follows a married couple going through trial separation. But there’s a deeper, heart-wrenching mystery at its core which explores the social mores of Iran. Peyman Maadi and Leila Hatami play Nader and Simin respectively, the narrative’s estranged couple. The couple has an 11-year old daughter.
Simin wants to divorce and move to another country. Nader is unwilling. He’s also against moving out of Iran since he has to take care of his ailing father. Since, Simin can’t proceed with divorce without mutual consent there’s a stalemate. When Simin moves out, Nader hires Razieh to look after the old man. Razieh, who hails from a different neighborhood, has her own set of problems. A series of complex events leads to a tragedy and flurry of accusations.
Though A Separation is largely set in domestic spaces, it unfolds like a mystery thriller. It’s a perfect example of how an astounding script and compelling performances can come together to offer an unforgettable experience. The conflict at its heart is very realistic, messy and bereft of dramatic exaggerations that we find it hard to take sides. Apart from the Iranian cultural context, A Separation presents bitter truths about human behavior.
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
Three cars full of men travel in the dark around the parched steppes of rural Anatolia to find a body and solve a murder case. From the prosecutor to the police authorities and the criminal, all the occupants of the vehicles come from diverse backgrounds. The barren landscape makes it hard for the confessed killer to determine the exact spot where he buried the body.
Nure Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has a very simple premise. A crime has already been committed and the authorities are trying to mete out the punishment. However, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that Ceylan turns such a frustrating journey into a profound study of human condition.
Anatolia is the kind of film that keeps growing on you with every rewatch. Stunningly composed and full of dark humor, Ceylan invites us to take a stroll through his vast narrative realm. If we dismiss our own preconceived notions about pacing and narrative resolution, there’s a lot to discover in this gem of a Turkish film.
Despite the impasse created by the pandemic, cinematic expression is flourishing in myriad ways. With the advent of OTTs the demand for quality cinema is only growing. I know my list might not perfectly match yours. But now that you have read about the films that moved me with its ideas and images, let’s talk about your favorites in the comments below.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’