70. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Flawless. My personal best film of the decade. In more ways than one, I feel unqualified to write about Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece. I need more time; more hours spent with Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie. Time is just one of the things that makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire so great. Marianne has only a few days to paint Héloïse, and the two have even less time to spend together once their romance begins. Most films may end happily, or at least give us hope that the two could be together. But Sciamma does not indulge in such fantasies.
The film reminds us to appreciate the time one has instead of hopelessly searching for more. Everything, from their gestures to their words, and the way Sciamma allows us to see the world through their eyes, allows us to live in the moment, and understand that love and companionship can be both deep and fleeting. If you haven’t seen the film, you’re in luck: it’s in theaters. Run!
I would be remiss if I did not mention the film’s final shot. Again, Sciamma deals with time. We sit in Marianne’s gaze as she watches Héloïse sob at the theater. We want her to run to her, to grab her and be with her, but she doesn’t. The shot remains. Again, they, we, live in the moment and remember the time we had. (Will DiGravio)
Todd Haynes, since the beginning of his career, has made a name for himself as one of the boldest and most exciting filmmakers of our time, venturing everywhere from 70s glam rock London to the Sirkian melodrama, always making pit stops at the most interesting places along the way. Carol is an enchanting romance set in 1950s New York at Christmastime. And just like in all of his films, Haynes strays far from the conventional, subverting the things we might expect him to subvert, and also gifting us two of the finest performances of the decade in Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (as two women who meet, fall in love, and grapple with the period piece ramifications of such an affair).
With Carol, Haynes, who’s films have always (either directly or sub-textually) engaged with themes concerning his own identity as a queer man, turns his storytelling directly to the lesbian experience. Carol standouts amongst the decades’ queer films for being one of few tragedy free narratives, and also for the intriguing and cinematic way in which Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy engage directly with tropes of lesbian fiction and use the film to acknowledge a long history of erasure. Carol is and will remain for years to come, essential viewing: as a love story, as a feat of romantic filmmaking, and as a landmark of queer cinema. (Madison Brek)
68. Goodbye First Love
Mia Hansen-Løve has been a one-woman whirlwind this decade. Between Eden, Things To Come, and Maya, she’s delivered more than a few films that could have found their way onto this list, but her chronicle of teenage heartbreak is a personal favorite that continues to resonate. Lola Créton shines as Camille, a young woman who is shattered when she’s abandoned by her first boyfriend whom she was madly in love with. As the years progress, Camille seemingly moves on with her life, beginning her career and finding a new partner, but she can’t shake the hold that her first love has on her. The film grapples with the kind of passionate desire that only teenage girls are capable of and takes care to never look down on Camille’s one-sided devotion or dismiss it as childish lovesickness. Hansen-Løve beautifully captures the point at which continued heartbreak becomes embarrassing; the threshold at which compassion from friends and family gives way to their frustration at Camille’s inability to move on.
This is a startlingly poignant film, one that depicts Camille’s journey with just the right amount of sentiment and renders her personal journey in terms that speak to universal human experiences. Hansen-Løve is a master of tone and Goodbye First Love’s bittersweet moments linger long after the credits roll. It leaves us with a perfect mix of heartache and hope and does this so well that even the most cynical of viewers can’t deride it. (Anna Swanson)
67. The Grey
A man stands against a pack of wolves. He screams at the sky. There is no answer. Only he can determine the outcome of their battle. Liam Neeson straps on a brass-knuckle of broken airline bottles and lunges toward his destiny. Joe Carnahan’s man vs. nature survival story is a grim, angry affair. For most of the film, Neeson’s suicidal marksman stabs dagger eyes into every one of the chumps left standing around him. They don’t understand their environment. They don’t understand themselves. They’re meat. Until they accept that he’ll have nothing to do with them. Keep up or fall behind. It does not matter.
The Grey is not the wolf-punching movie the trailers promised. Nor is it a boring meditation on machismo. Instead, the film plumbs despair and loss and the purpose we find to keep going when all hope has been ripped from our being. It’s a film I pop on when I’m at my lowest. It drags me down even further, but by credits end, I’m back on my feet. I got this. Hell. Yes. I. Do. (Brad Gullickson)
66. Stories We Tell
Most first-person autobiographical documentaries are too full of themselves. In her nonfiction directorial debut, Sarah Polley investigates her own existence, particularly her parentage while inquiring about her late mother and discovering the truth about her father, but she does so without vanity. Instead, Stories We Tell is a Rashomon-style film involving the memory of multiple family members and friends as they subjectively add up to an astonishing work of narrative structuring. There are few films this decade that remind us that it’s not what a movie is about but how it’s told, and there are few films in all of time told as cleverly as this one. (Christopher Campbell)
65. Young Adult
Jason Reitman has been operating in one of the rarest of spaces for American film today: mid-budget dramas that live and die by mature and complex adult characters, the interactions they have with one another and the personal but huge lessons they learn about themselves. Similarly, Diablo Cody may be one of the last screenwriters to become a celebrity due to her unique dialogue cadences and rich characterizations. While their first collaboration, Juno, was also their most successful, Young Adult is them at the height of their powers, telling the tremendously sad but painfully hilarious story of a woman returning home to find out she might not have grown at all since she was last there. Yes, that might sound like well-worn indie ground, but what elevates this tour de force is its unflinching calculation, giving its lead character (Charlize Theron) a breathtaking agency to act against the audience’s morals as her main mission in the film is to seduce her ex (Patrick Wilson) who is now married with a baby. It’s brief and paced like a paperback novel you could read in one sitting, but it builds to a climax that takes the wind out of you. Studio films are at their rare best when the characters have full reign to fail and make huge mistakes, and Young Adult proves to be one of the riskiest — and possibly last — romantic dramedies ever made. (Fernando Andrés)
64. La La Land
From its traffic-stopping opening number to its bittersweet epilogue, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land introduces us to a bright and bold world that can only exist in the movies. Carried by a sweeping, Oscar-winning score from Justin Hurwitz, some beautiful choreography from Mandy Moore, and strong performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the film is a fitting love letter to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, combining cinemascope photography and rich primary colors with a general exuberance for the genre that feels both charming and fresh.
And even after its leads literally rise up into space and dance among the stars, Chazelle still, somehow, keeps the film grounded in contemporary reality. Right through to its final moments, it’s clear that we’re meant to ponder which vision of these characters’ lives – the romantic Hollywood fantasy or the conflict and compromise that they endure for the sake of their careers – truly means that they’ve made it in an otherwise unforgiving town. Whatever your interpretation of that divisive ending may be, La La Land works because it believes in both realities: the harsher stakes of living and working in its title city, and the dreamers that manage to keep it afloat. Foolish as it may seem, I’d take its pure earnestness any day of the week. (Christina Smith)
63. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
“On your left.” Those three little words solidified the MCU for me. Two films after The Avengers revealed the joys of witnessing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assemble in one epic confrontation with space aliens, Captain America: The Winter Soldier reminded audiences that the real reason we keep showing up is the recognizable humanity stuffed under the spandex. Steve Rogers is a man out of time. He’s got the best 90-year-old ass in recorded history, but it doesn’t matter because everyone he’s ever known and loved is gone. He’s alone, and he needs a friend. Enter: Sam Wilson. On his right…his right-hand man.
The opening sequence reveals the quiet pain of Captain America and the need to connect with the brave new world around him. The Falcon becomes his navigator – his co-pilot. Just in the nick of time too, as his old world is about to explode all around him when Bucky Barnes puts a bullet into Nick Fury. Captain America: The Winter Soldier challenges its hero and forces him to determine what kind of human he wants to be on this planet. He can’t rely on his training. He has to rely on his heart. Dr. Erskine knew what’s what. (Brad Gullickson)
Paul Verhoeven has never been one to pull a punch and he certainly wasn’t about to start with this sadistically erotic thriller. Elle, perhaps his magnum opus and certainly one of the greatest of the decade, is a film that pushes even the most desensitized viewer to a point of visceral discomfort. Starring Isabelle Huppert as Michèle, a woman raped in her own home who soon comes to engage in a game of cat and mouse with her attacker, Elle presents violence and subsequent trauma with a brutal degree of frankness. Verhoeven, armed with a lead actress adept at drawing pleasure from pouring salt in her own wound, seemingly revels in blurring the line between victim and participant. He challenges us, even confounds us, in service of a film that brings darkness to light and refuses to imagine that there’s a clear answer to cruelty.
In lieu of pretending I could unpack Elle here, I’ll highlight a scene that has lingered since the film’s release in 2016. After being attacked, Michèle goes to dinner with her ex-husband and their friends. She informs the group that she was raped with a tone generally reserved for reciting a grocery list. It was a mundane nuisance that Michèle wants to address as briefly as possible to avoid a fuss. With credit to Huppert’s steely, impenetrable performance, it’s pure genius that Michèle never breaks down beyond her nonchalant remark. As much as this is internalization as a coping mechanism, it’s also a sincere disinterest in her own trauma. Her response isn’t how we expect or want victims to behave. As with the film as a whole, her intentions here are far more tortuous than could ever be completely deciphered and we’re left to parse through the contradictions. Verhoeven wouldn’t dare untangle these strings for us, he’d rather pull them tighter. (Anna Swanson)
61. The Tree of Life
The decade had barely even begun when Terrence Malick brought forth this culmination of an already mythical career, and what audiences witnessed in 2011 was the uncompromising vision of one of the great American directors. The Tree of Life is an epic that ties the fiery beginnings of the Universe with the quaint suburban existence of a Texas family in the 1960s, an almost laughably ambitious setup that works because of the performances and rapturous cinematic images at its center. With an undeniably 21st century bravado that is restless and all-knowing, this is a film experience with little precedent and an avalanche of influence in its wake.
While he has always worked with massive canvases and an omniscient style, Malick’s storytelling here is unchained from histories of war or intense strife. Here instead he focuses on the extraordinary moments of life that hit even the most ordinary of people, from the most primal comforts of love and family to our biggest fears of death and detachment from family. The humans enveloped in these themes are the O’Briens, a household of sons marked by a constant struggle between their domineering father (Brad Pitt) and their nurturing and empathetic mother (Jessica Chastain). As the boys run, fight and scream their way through a gentle suburban childhood, their eldest, Jack, begins to subconsciously grapple with the world around him, and which of his parents he will allow shaping his worldview. What follows is a mammoth work of image, editing, and sound that holds up an everyday existence to the cosmos beyond our wildest imaginations, asking, “aren’t these the same?” (Fernando Andrés)