I’m not going to lie. This list was originally called “Danielle’s top 10 movies of the decade that are not Mad Max: Fury Road.” As much as I really love Fury Road, every nerd’s top 10 list already has that movie on it, and I just want to write about something else. Then this list evolved into “Danielle’s top 10 movies that are not Mad Max Fury Road or a Star War.” And now, behold! I will have two lists for this fine decade of films: one for franchises (because some of those are very good!), and this one, for movies that are not — currently, anyway — franchise features.
These are the movies that really brought me somewhere, or forced me to confront something challenging, or showed me, in ways large or small, what filmmaking can do.
I love great, small sci-fi movies. Stories that attack a specific idea — or set of ideas — with a sharp point of view and a speculative twist. Advantageous is one of the best examples of this. It’s a modestly budgeted movie set in a near future where a cosmetics spokeswoman is forced to undergo a radical, experimental procedure to make her appear younger and more “racially ambiguous” (she’s a woman of color), to keep her gifted daughter in the best schooling.
It’s poignant and heartbreaking, and no, not subtle in its messages about femininity, beauty standards, and aspects of Asian American identity. It doesn’t need to be, because it does so much with what it has.
9. The Babadook
This was the second-scariest movie I watched this decade (we’ll get to the first soon enough), not just for its terrifying depiction of a tiny family haunted by an unwelcome presence, but for its unsettling look at abuse and the sickening ways in which familial love can be twisted towards hate. First-time feature director Jennifer Kent and her team did stunning work here, as Gretchen Felker-Martin exclaims in her own piece on the best horror movies of the decade:
“Jennifer Kent’s debut film is white-hot and draining, its scenes of desperate, bottomed-out child abuse both conscious and unconscious some of the most upsetting ever committed to film.”
It should also be said: I love the ending to this movie, despite all the painful territory it takes to get there. There’s an honesty to it, about living with grief and trauma rather than trying to bury it or replace it, that’s refreshing for the genre.
8. Atomic Blonde
Atomic Blonde is, for me, the closest thing to the platonic ideal of an excellent action movie. It has a compelling lead (who is a hot spy that’s great at improvisational hand-to-hand combat) and a fascinating backdrop in the turmoil of 1989 Berlin. There’s also hot queer sex. Action sequences feel both weighty and positively cracking with danger (what with their few cuts and incredible choreography).
It also wisely uses the cultural iconography of its place and time to give weight and meaning to the proceedings — less a backdrop than a world ready to break out of its cultural and political shackles and kick all kinds of ass.
7. Get Out
Jordan Peele’s vision for a horror movie that speaks directly to the black experience is very, very hard to address without hyperbole. What he and his creative team were able to accomplish in the Hollywood landscape, in a genre that’s so often hostile to people of color, is outstanding. The movie is smart as hell, often painfully funny, and deeply, deeply felt.
I almost don’t want to write too much about Get Out. Plenty of writers of color have said it all so much better.
6. Under the Skin
Gretchen Felker-Martin chose Under the Skin for her top horror movie of the decade, and I can’t agree more with her assessment of the movie as “pure terror, sinuous and cold.” I know plenty of folks are putting Her somewhere on their lists, but Under the Skin is a much harder, scarier — and I think more effective — meditation on some of the same subject matter. On what it is to make connections and feel, whether you are human or not.
The same star (Scarlett Johansson) here plays a nameless woman, an alien predator, who picks up men and takes them to her lair, ostensibly for sex. In reality, those dudes are food. But being around humans long enough causes a reaction in her. She develops a sort of compassion or confusion about the whole thing. Really, it’s hard to say, because she’s not one of us. More than anything else, Under the Skin underscores just how hard it is to fathom life as anything other than ourselves, to live in anything other than our precious little meat cages, and how unbelievably weird a concept that is — natural or not.
5. The Congress
This is one of the wildest, most creative movies of the decade. In the first half or so of this sci-fi look at reality and constructed identity, Robin Wright plays a successful actress who sells the rights to her likeness and performance capture, in perpetuity, to a film company. She makes a handsome sum and uses it to save her ailing son. In the second half, the film becomes a trippy, animated meditation on the meaning of happiness and impulse, plus who and what we are as people. It has the gall to ask what happiness is made out of — what the chemical composition of fulfillment and joy look like.
It feels very much like a good sci fi anthology episode that was given the budget to go fully hog-wild with its ideas and bring them to unforgettable heights. The Congress is unique, it’s bold, and it deserves to be seen by more people.
Moonlight is a film I’ve only seen once, but it was so arresting, so brutal, and so beautiful that I could watch it never again or a hundred more times. It would still make this list. It’s an examination of masculinity, queerness, race, and class told almost entirely through arresting images and gut-level encounters, acts of love and violence holding equal weight.
I’ll never forget the image of Juan holding a young Chiron (our main character) in the waves. Or Chiron and Kevin sitting on the beach together at night as teens. Or the last shot of the film with Kevin and Chiron which offers something like peace and hope for our protagonist, perhaps for the first time in his life.
3. The Favourite
This movie almost completely passed by my radar last year until I edited this Cameron Kunzelman piece on its examination of power. It’s a grotesque, sometimes truly nasty dark comedy, with performances that are so grounded and so good that it’s sometimes hard to laugh at — or to look away from. Rachel Weisz is an absolute force in this. As are Emma Stone and Olivia Colman (who won a Best Actress Oscar for the role). It’s partially a queer love story, partially a tragedy about politics, and partially a potboiler of a drama, complete with fishbowl lenses, naked noblemen, and a groaning, fainting, puking monarch.
The Favourite also works as a deconstruction of the prestige period piece: the type of film that I often shy away from unless it offers something different. Watching rich white people play even-more-lionized rich white people in lavish costumes just makes me pine for a different avenue of escapist entertainment. That is unless the acting is on par with, say, Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in Lincoln. But The Favourite makes the whole enterprise of class look like a cruel, sad, disgusting game.
As it should.
Director Ari Aster’s terrifying feature debut is the scariest movie I watched this decade. It’s one of the few films, horror or otherwise, that managed to get completely under my skin in its examination of the choking, desperate, sickening aftermath of trauma — of real, awful loss. Aster’s Midsommar (on the honorable mentions list!), continued the trend of horror movies with fascinating visual language that care deeply about the experiences of their leading women, but for my money, nothing fully scared the ever-loving shit out of me like Hereditary.
Inevitably, whenever I mention this movie, some chucklefuck on Twitter is sure to tell me how funny they think Hereditary is. And man, if the terrifying possessions, loss of bodily control, death, and slow-motion rotting sickness of Toni Collette’s character after what happened to her daughter doesn’t get to you, I just don’t know what to tell you. Great horror shoves our worst fears in our faces and forces us (or gives us the opportunity) to look them in the face and go get dinner afterward. Hereditary did this for me, and it’s most disturbing images will stay with me until I, too, meet my demise.
This list is weighted towards the latter half of the decade. I’m well aware of that! Recency bias and all that. It’s also somewhat weighted towards movies I experienced personally in the last year, such as Annihilation, which I saw just a few months ago. But I’m very confident when I say I will never forget the images I experienced in this movie: from the incredible, uncomfortable pool scene, to the shouting bear (holy shit), to the wistful topiaries that Tessa Thompson’s character falls in love with, to the arresting, inexplicable encounter towards the end.
Like Tarkovsky’s classic take on Solaris, Annihilation successfully imagines just how confusing and radically transformative an encounter with a nonhuman intelligence could be (or almost certainly would be). This is cinematic science fiction as Hollywood can best serve it, with bona fide star performers and filmmaking that’s up to snuff with wildly imaginative source material.
Honorable Mentions – the following films are extremely good, extremely interesting, or both, and they deserve a huge shout: The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Midsommar, Us, Let Me In, The Witch, Snowpiercer, Train to Busan, Suspiria, The Void, Inside Out, The Grey, Ex Machina, Melancholia, Edge of Tomorrow, What We Do in the Shadows, Black Swan, Arrival