10 films that define the 2010s

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

Top 10 lists, “Best-of” lists, Favorites – there’s a list for any and everything. Formulating an opinion and ranking the top films you see in a calendar year can be a burden. Now extrapolate that to an entire decade. Chances are the films you graded highly have diminished over time, and those down the list have risen in stature. 

Rather than give you a list of ten favorite movies and written descriptions to explain why I enjoy them so much, I instead have created a list of ten films that I believe define the 2010s.

Each selection will be a film released for a particular year (2010 through 2019) that are representative of changes in culture, class, climate and communication. 

THE SOCIAL NETWORK – David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook gets a “Like” from me. Probably more than any other film released this decade, THE SOCIAL NETWORK defines how technology has improved certain lifestyle aspects yet at the same time has made us regress when it comes to communicating with one another. Taking the creation of Facebook out of the equation, and you still have the themes of a great story. Loyalty, jealously and power with a cocksure protagonist who is also the antagonist. 

A SEPARATION – Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama shows the disappointment and desperation that arises when a wife is denied separation from her spouse. Richard Linklater’s BEFORE MIDNIGHT and Noah Baumbach’s MARRIAGE STORY are U.S.-made dramas that show marriages spiraling down. Yet, Farhadi’s depth of characterization creates a narrative that is more about husbands and wives, or children and parents, but the inflexibility and stringent pride that shows its face.    

KILLING THEM SOFTLY – When naming my ten best for 2012, I had Andrew Domink’s updated take on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel COGAN’S TRADE tied for tenth. Yet, in a year that also gave us ZERO DARK THIRTY and a new Paul Thomas Anderson masterwork (THE MASTER), KILLING THEM SOFTLY seems to resonate more today, despite the story taking place in the fall of 2008, when we were in a financial crisis with “hope and change” on the horizon. The film is a neo-noir thriller that is also a cautionary tale on capitalism, and whose message comes across as forceful as a shotgun blast. Funnily enough, its closing line is symbolic of how our current Commander-in-Chief runs the country. 

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS – My credo when it comes to talking about Joel and Ethan Coen is that “they never make the same movie twice.” So, three years after making their interpretation of the John Wayne western TRUE GRIT, they leave the world of lawmen and the old West for folk singers in New York’s Greenwich Village. We find our titular hero at a crossroads and the inevitable disappointment that befalls most musical artists. While Spike Jonze explored finding an artificial connection (HER) and Martin Scorsese explored the glorification of wealth and immorality (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) the same year, the Coens explore one musician’s melancholy. While it may seem minor in comparison, it plays a great tune.    

NIGHTCRAWLER – In less than a generation, news has been distilled from facts and descriptions to tabloid headlines and accompanying photos and videos. It’s even been labeled as “fake.” For his directorial debut, Dan Gilroy gives us the symbiotic relationship of an antihero that reflects what audiences desire in their news: Sensationalism. NIGHTCRAWLER is a critique of how modern news operates and how we, as a society, consume it. By indulging in such stories, we are dictating journalism and its principles – tilting the scales of fair and balance. 

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – A post-apocalyptic action film can help define a decade? It can when it has George Miller (or Imperator Furiosa) behind the wheel. No other action film in the 2010s was so unabashedly bold and glorious — all shiny and chrome. A two-hour convoy chase in the desert that stomps on the gas like a boot heel to the trachea, FURY ROAD is about survival in the wake of ecological collapse. That the most dominant character is a female leading a revolt against a hedonistic leader is of utmost importance. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is strong and powerful, a product of the male barbarians populated around her. If you didn’t already know, women can be just as dominant as men. Well, fellas, times aren’t are a-changin’ – they’ve already changed.  

MOONLIGHT – One life, three stages, and the intersection of black masculinity and sexuality. Barry Jenkins’ film is more than a coming-of-age story. It’s an awakening. In the character of Chiron, he urges us to look beyond the color of skin and bare witness to the difficulties he faces internally with his own identity. As he grows up, Chiron avoids homosexual alienation by shadowing his sexuality with an imposing stature and embracing the look of the stereotypical black male gender. A powerful film about vulnerability and putting up a strong front to be identifiable among your race. 

COLUMBUS – For 2017, I could have picked a half dozen different films to represent the year. But the more I pondered the likes of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, and even BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, the more I kept thinking of Kogonada’s debut about an estranged father and son, architecture and deciding what’s best. John Cho stars as the son who comes to the small town of Columbus, Indiana after his renowned architect father falls into a coma. It is in this small midwestern town where he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a library employee who aspires to work in architecture. Elisha Christian’s photography and Kogonada’s staging of characters and locations give an ethereal quality that is matched by praiseworthy work by both Cho and Richardson. This small picture is near quiet, allowing us to enjoy without losing sight of its hidden wonder. 

SHOPLIFTERS – Hirokazu Kore-eda’s work is much like a documentarian whose interest is on humanity. For this feature, he wanted to answer the question of what makes a family? As Kore-eda examines the familial construct during a recession period in Tokyo, he offers a poverty-stricken unit that bonds as a family. The result is an interesting dichotomy between the loneliness of not belonging and finding solace in the company of strangers.

WAVES – It seems unfair to answer 2019. I’m still riding the highest of highs of what I thought was great during the calendar year, and lowest of lows of those I wish I could unsee. Highs and lows, like the crashing lip of ocean waves. That’s it! WAVES. No other film had the emotional gut punch that Trey Edward Shults delivers with his third feature. As the clincher to the decade, here is a drama about a black middle-class family in south Florida. But this isn’t about the “black experience” and what it means to be black. Shults’ narrative is all fits and starts for the first half before it slowly falls back down to earth, our clothes damp as if we had just strolled outside into Florida’s sweltering humidity.   

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