Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
We are finally at the end. The best films of the decade reach their conclusion with a batch of dramas. The prior entries in this list covered 18 films, 14 films, 19 films, and 18 films over the course of the four previous articles. That leaves space for 31 titles on this list. And even that is not really enough as it couldn’t make room for 2011’s Melancholia.
Ostensibly, there are two kinds of films, comedies and dramas. All of the other genres fall into one of these two overall categories. This is why there are so many titles on this list as they don’t easily fit into the previous articles’ lists. Before we get into those, though, here are links to the first four editions of this article:
The most exquisite film of the decade is a sumptuous visual feast with a beautiful story at its heart. Everything that Todd Haynes has ever directed has led up to this film, his seminal masterpiece, just barely above his wonderful Far from Heaven is his second best work. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the film explores love and loss in a time of prejudice and it does so with passion and zeal.
This visceral story of sex addiction marks Steve McQueen’s most complex narrative and features Michael Fassbender’s unmatched performance. With a terrific supporting turn from Carey Mulligan, this glimpse into the desperate life of a man torn between success and sexual fulfillment plays out like most addiction narratives, but brings light to a form of obsession that is too often ignored or neglected and which often leads to the same alienating and destructive results.
Little Women (2019)
Greta Gerwig was bubbling under as an indie acting darling for more than a decade when she stepped behind the camera for Lady Bird, which brought her a rare directing nomination for a woman. However, it would be her sophomore effort that would define her career to this point. Little Women is a rich tapestry of setting and performance exploring the lives and troubles facing women at the turn of the century. Exploring the notion of feminism, identity, and maternalism, Gerwig’s film is a defining masterpiece with form, function, and structure that outshines nearly all of her contemporaries and even some of her predecessors.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen moved on from challenging and graphic films like Hunger and Shame to challenging and haunting films like 12 Years a Slave, 2013’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. The story of a freeman from the north who’s kidnapped and enslaved in the south forces audiences to come to terms with the ugly and devastating nature of slavery in the deep south leading up to the American Civil War. Strong performances from a supporting cast and superb performances by Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o help bring into sharp focus the atrocities of slavery and the ignominy of a history that too many still embrace.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Celebrated screenwriter James Ivory adapts André Aciman’s novel into a powerful screenplay about a love affair between a 17-year-old boy (Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s research assistant (Armie Hammer) in 1980s Italy is a touching exploration of identity, acceptance, and passion against the romantic backdrop of Italian vistas. Chalamet and Hammer deliver career-defining work as the impassioned pair in a film that’s fresh, familiar, hopeful, and devastating in equal measure. Director Luca Guadagnino employs a subtle style that slowly pulls the audience into the passionate affair and leaves them wanting more, much like the film’s protagonist.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
As a young woman (KiKi Layne) struggles to prepare for the birth of her first child while her husband and the father of her child (Stephan James) waits behind bars for acquittal of a crime he didn’t commit while her mother (Regina King) goes to great lengths to seek out the one witness who can clear his name. King, Layne, and James are superb in Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, an all around better film than his Oscar winning sophomore effort. A gorgeous score accentuates the beautiful cinematography that frames this haunting story of bigotry and sacrifice in a world the devalues black lives at the expense of justice.
Short Term 12 (2013)
Oscar winning actress Brie Larson’s breakthrough performance comes in this film from director Destin Daniel Cretton about the life of a young woman working at a residential treatment facility as she struggles to protect her teen charges and ensure that her own life outside of the complex doesn’t come apart at the seams. Larson’s performance is outstanding while the rest of the cast provide convincing performances.
John Crowley’s look at a young Irish woman moving to America in search of a better life features the brilliant central performance of Saoirse Ronan, our most gifted actress of this generation. The film’s simple, elegant realism helps push this story about finding success in a new and unforgiving landscape into the upper echelons of the decade’s productions.
Natalie Portman gives one of her most complex and vulnerable performances as former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days leading up to and following the assassination of her husband. Pablo Larrain’s film digs deep into the psyche of a country in morning using Jackie as the central focus for all that confusion, sorrow, and eventual acceptance. The inability to ever completely let go of the pain and hurt of a national tragedy, somewhat on the global level, but entirely on the personal. It’s an intimate film of great conviction and contemplation.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Before he became a director in his own right, Alex Garland crafted the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go into this masterful film directed by Mark Romanek and starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield in some of their finest performances. This dystopian romantic tragedy follows a trio of adults who have been raised as organ donors for other people and whose lives will be terminated once their purposes are met. As they find love and heartbreak at the altar of necessity and progress, the audience is forced to question the morality of raising children merely as corporeal farms in the sake of medical advancement.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
The harrowing story of a young woman brainwashed by a cult in the Catskill Mountains stars Elisabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, and Hugh Dancy. Olsen is terrific as the central figure who escapes the compound after living through some of their most heinous crimes while paranoia grips her psyche. Exploring the nature and danger of cults and their ability to convince seemingly reasonable people to act against society’s strictures and safety is a fascinating concept and this film by Sean Durkin does a tremendous job exposing the horrors of cults of personality.
Brie Larson is one of our generation’s best actresses and Room exemplifies why that is true. The story of a young woman held prisoner with her young son is a frightening and urgent look at kidnapping and the safety of women in a society that devalues them. As we spend most of the film trapped in the tiny impenetrable shed in the kidnapper’s urban backyard, we come to intimately know the sacrifices this woman will make in order to protect her son, born of her rapist. It’s a horrific story of the revolting treatment of one woman by her jailor, but its resonance is born of its reflection on society’s treatment of women.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Based on the popular young adult novel of the same name, Stephen Chbosky’s coming of age drama looks at anxiety and depression among youths and the struggles they face that impact their feelings of self-worth and importance. Logan Lerman is exceptional as the central figure in the film with able support from Emma Watson and Ezra Miller. Lerman has shown a tremendous talent in the various performances he’s turned in, but few have been as impressive as his work here in a film that resonates with anyone who’s suffered at the hands of anxiety, regardless of age.
Ava DuVernay’s breakthrough film, Selma, takes a brief glimpse into the life and struggles of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., played convincingly here by David Oyelowo. Focused in on the church bombing at the heart of Spike Lee’s seminal documentary Four Little Girls ans following King as he faces opposition from the U.S. Government, Alabama’s racist Governor, and extra scrutiny from the FBI, DuVernay’s unvarnished look at the march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery is a galvanizing film, the impact of which might have been bigger would that King’s family had permitted the film the use of his numerous speeches and were not forced to come up with their own, slightly weaker ones. Regardless, it’s a film that must be seen for its historical glimpse into the struggle of minorities in America.
The Social Network (2010)
David Fincher’s biographical film about the rise to power of tech billionaire and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) explores the troubling lengths to which Zuckerberg would go to build the empire he has. Like Thomas Edison before him, his questionable methods are explored in detail as he proceeds from Harvard student to Silicon Valley pioneer on the backs of others. Eisenberg delivers a solid performance as do his co-stars Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and especially Armie Hammer as both of the Winklevoss twins. Fincher’s slow burn style plays into the narrative strengths of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, giving his rapid-fire patter a prominent place in the film.
Gone Girl (2014)
Fincher also directed this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s popular novel about a woman who disappears and leaves her husband to deal with the public outcry that emerges when he becomes the number one suspect in her purported death. Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck are terrific as the couple at the heart of the film with Carrie Coon delivering a knock-out supporting performance in a film that leaves audiences guessing until its cathartic twist finale.
Ben Affleck’s debut film Gone Girl showed what the actor-turned-director could do and his follow up, The Town further established his bona fides. With his third film, Argo, he stepped up his game once again to look at the true story of the Canadian embassy in Iran that secured the escape of several hostages with an assist from a Hollywood filmmaker. It was a story that we hadn’t seen before on film and Affleck’s talents helped keep tension an interest high for a film that was notably lacking in explosions and gunfire.
Steven Spielberg’s glimpse into history always carry a luster that lesser filmmakers can’t quite get across. Here, Spielberg looks at Abraham Lincoln, a riveting Daniel Day-Lewis, as he attempts to secure passage of the 13th Amendment before the readmission of southern states potentially dooms the emancipation of slaves. A fascinating look into the halls of power and the recalcitrance of members of his own party is an aspect of history that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves and Spielberg creates the kind of film that can be used as a historical companion to grade school classes on the subject.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Melissa McCarthy has never been better as biographer Lee Israel takes to forging letters from literary giants to keep herself and her cat out of the gutter. With a brilliant supporting performance from Richard E. Grant, Marielle Heller’s film digs into the warty history of Israel, painting her as both an out of work writer and a con artist. The film helps expose the ethereal nature of the publishing world and the risks artists have to take in order to define themselves in the public’s eye.
Marriage Story (2019)
Director Noah Baumbach coaxes stellar performances out of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a married couple whose union is falling apart as each paints the other at first as compassionate and loving people and later as manipulative jerks in a desperate and life-altering divorce battle. Driver and Johansson do what they can to protect their young son from the repercussions, recriminations, and recalcitrance of each other in a riveting tête-à-tête reminiscent of Kramer vs. Kramer and countless other divorce dramas with new angles and approaches to the subject in strong supply.
Out in the Dark (2013)
Juxtaposing the challenges of homosexuality with the struggles of Palestine, two men from opposite sides of the conflict fall in love against the backdrop of war. A fascinating dichotomy develops between the two men as the struggle to protect each other from the rigors of war and the homophobia inherent in both cultures gives new angles to the plight of homosexual couples around the world. The film helps shine a light not just on their treatment in other nations, but also in the parallels that can easily be drawn to their story from others across the globe.
Barry Jenkins’ breakthrough film explores the coming of age story of a young boy who tries to come to terms with his homosexuality while dealing with an absent father and drug-addict mother. Broken into three acts, Moonlight follows Chiron (Trevante Rhodes as an adult, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Alex Hibbert as a child) through three stages of life as he goes from being withdrawn to being manipulated by his mother and finally finding his confidence in his sexuality. Andre Holland as adult Kevin, Jharrel Jerome as teen Kevin, and Jaden Piner as child Kevin provide able support alongside Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, and Janelle Monae in this fascinating exploration of homosexuality within the black community and the destructive nature of drugs, homophobia, and lack of self-esteem.
A major story falls into the lap of a Boston Globe reporter forcing him to dig deep into reports of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. As Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and the rest of their team work overtime to untangle the mess of lies and obfuscation by the Church and their mistrustful parishioners, one of the great exposés of modern political reporting unfolds in great and horrifying detail.
Spike Lee’s greatest achievement since Do the Right Thing stars John David Washington as the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colo. who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan through his white surrogate Adam Driver. As Washington and Driver dig into the secrecy of a planned assault by the KKK, the desperate and disgusting justifications the Klan uses to justify its actions are laid bare before the audience. Lee refuses to paint any one person as a moustache-twirling villain, which gives his film both urgency and credibility as it seeks to expose the Klan and its deplorable and insidious rhetoric.
The Post (2017)
Spielberg takes audiences inside the Washington Post and its first female editor as she struggles to maintain the paper’s neutrality as it comes face to face with a political cover up that has spend four presidential administrations. Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham opposite Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, then editor of the paper and his team as they uncover one of the biggest scandals of American political history: The Pentagon Papers. Not since All the President’s Men had a film about investigative journalism surrounding U.S. politics delved so deep, so effortlessly, and so engagingly into the dark halls of Washington D.C. and its culture of cronyism and obfuscation.
Every film that attempts to explore the black experience in America must try to balance relevance and sermonizing to find the right balance or risk being dismissed by those outside the community who cannot quite relate to those struggles. Director Trey Edward Shults and his superb cast (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renee Elise Goldberry, Sterling K. Brown, and Lucas Hedges) walk a fascinating tight rope about a black family who feel they must constantly strive for success or risk being denigrated and mistreated. While numerous films have tackled similar subjects in similar ways, Shults gives the audience a compelling and convincing exploration of the subject built on a fine mixture of subtlety and outrage.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Joe Wright has done a tremendous job in his sparse career of taking period dramas and turning them into inventive, creative, and passionate films. Anna Karenina embodies his fascinating style as it adapts Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel about Russian aristocrat (Keira Knightley) and her affair with a married count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Wright guides the audience through the complex affair with style and grace with the fascinating framing device of a stage play. His creative energy almost approaches that which he exemplified with Atonement, making for a gorgeous and engaging cinematic experience.
Based on a true story, director Craig Zobel tells the story of a fast food restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) who fields a call from a police officer who insists that she and her employees detain and interrogate the young woman (Dreama Walker) about a crime she may not have committed. The film explores the nature of authority and our ingrained desire to listen to and carry out the orders of police officers even when the legality and morality of the situation would dictate the opposite reaction. Dowd is outstanding while Walker plays the frightened worker with aplomb. This is a film that merits viewing even if it’s a most difficult and haunting experience.
127 Hours (2010)
When a charismatic mountain climber becomes trapped by a boulder deep inside a canyon in Utah, the 127-hour experience forms the foundation of Danny Boyle’s film starring James Franco as he explores the harrowing experience of Aron Ralston. A film not intended for the squeamish, Boyle navigates the narrowly-focused event as Ralston goes through rapid changes in temperature, the threat of dehydration, flash flooding, and more with an ending that will leave even the most intrepid adventure preparing alternative plans for their next excursion.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe excel in Theodore Melfi’s compact telling of the story of three black women who contributed to the success of NASA’s early space program. Gently tackling the bigotry and discrimination of the time period, Melfi’s film is one of the most accessible history lessons in modern film history. The film is incredibly endearing with just enough enraging moments to keep the film from feeling like a glossy, superficial exploration of the subject matter, a line the film works very carefully not to cross.
Rabbit Hole (2010)
John Cameron Mitchell directs Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart to incredible performances as a married couple who must come to terms with their grief after the accidental death of their young son. The power of grief and its all-consuming power form the basis of the dramatic events that fill this film, which is more of an acting showcase than anything else. It’s a film that explores the difficulty parents have when they outlive their own children and does so with forceful potency.