The Master (2012)- At last month’s Cold Violets concert at The Troubador, an acquaintance asked a friend and I what we thought was the best film of the prior decade. I knew my answer before he even finished his question and replied, “The Master.” My acquaintance, his girlfriend, and my friend collectively ignored my response. Weeks later, the more I think about Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, the more I’m convinced it is simply the best film of the decade. Where do I even begin to try to find the words to describe this work’s brilliance? Well, there is the obvious motif of a father figure and a surrogate son coming together, falling apart, and then having a confrontation, present in each of PTA’s films save Phantom Thread. There is the near-flawless acting of the cast including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Rami Malek a few years before Mr. Robot would make him a star, Laura Dern, and, of course, Joaquin Phoenix. With The Master, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and Todd Philips’s Joker, Phoenix has clearly established himself as one of the greatest living American actors. In each of these films, Phoenix plays a social outcast who must violently confront both his own trauma as well as a hostile world, each to the tune of psychically discordant music. If any actor has made the case that the actor can be as much of an auteur as the filmmaker, then it is Phoenix and it all started with this work of art.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)- Mostly eschewing the recent obsession that has damaged his output since Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino returned last year with a big-hearted fairy tale set in the 1960s Hollywood. The film has garnered the same two major complaints, the first being that the narrative doesn’t stay true to the facts of the Sharon Tate murder. That this film doesn’t take place in the ‘real world’ should be apparent to anyone who can observe the ubiquity of kindness and courtesy that most of the characters show one another in the film. Another common complaint is that not enough happens. I’d encourage you to look again. Even just the Western TV show production section of the film illustrates how false this observation is, as Tarantino self-reflexively comments on the precarity of success in the entertainment industry simply through his casting! The late Luke Perry is a stand-in for all showbiz careers that have fallen while Timothy Olyphant represents all rising stars. Their casting parallels the positioning of the falling star Rick Dalton and his young costar in the same section of the film. This film is a masterpiece, and one that would probably disturb Tarantino to realize just how conservative it is.
The Tree of Life (2011)- I can think of no other film that truly encapsulates the feeling of how brief our time on this earth is and yet how connected we all are to an infinite cosmos. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are stellar in this work that is a subtle reminder that each breath we take is a miracle.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)- Along with Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty will go down as one of the decade’s most politically polarizing films. The movie has been routinely criticized for depicting that the C.I.A.’s torture practices led to the procurement of information that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Mark Bowden has astutely observed that if the film hadn’t portrayed these torture practices, then the same critics would accuse the filmmakers of being negligent. Alas, I don’t think there is any way for Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal to win any arguments against those who disapprove of this film. Zero Dark Thirty presents a C.I.A. and to a significant extent, an America, that fundamentally doesn’t know what it is doing. This is seen through Kyle Chandler’s oblivious C.I.A. official as well as the infamous scene where the late James Gandolfini’s C.I.A. director is utterly clueless as to where bin Laden is and which of his employees are looking for him. A.O. Scott rightly noted that the film ends in tears, not solely triumph. The film is a tragedy about what wars and violence cost us all.
The Irishman (2019)- Once again, Martin Scorsese presents the finer side of life as a criminal only to say, “You think this is attractive. Well, look at what it will eventually cost you.” Faithfully adapted from Charles Brandt’s book by Steve Zaillian, The Irishman, like The Master and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, presents a postwar era populated by men both macho and emotional, doing more damage than good. Robert DeNiro hasn’t been this good or heartbreaking in years, and he’s ably supported by Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, and Anna Paquin.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014)- British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield certainly puts the ‘grim’ into this outrageous film about the Los Angeles Police Department’s ineptitude in catching a serial killer who preyed on African-American prostitutes. Much of the film exists and works because Broomfield wisely situates himself with locals living near the murders simply by hanging out with them and letting them tell their stories. That this film hasn’t been brought up much in the Black Lives Matter movement is surprising.
Phantom Thread (2017)- Paul Thomas Anderson appears again on this list thanks to this lush, surprising film. Yes, the allusions to Alfred Hitchcock are there, but so are repeat PTA collaborators Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood along with the breakout star Vicky Krieps.
It Follows (2014)- David Robert Mitchells’s sophomore film established him as a major voice in American film. The genre-blending work is a terrifying take on budding adolescent sexuality, propelled by haunting visuals and Maika Monroe’s believable performance.
Collaborator (2011)- Perhaps the most underrated U.S. film of the past decade. Martin Henderson’s hostage film is more of a showbiz and class drama than yet another home invasion thriller. Henderson plays a liberal bi-coastal playwright who returns to his Los Angeles childhood home only to be confronted by his right-wing ex-felon neighbor played by David Morse. I won’t give any more of this film away because it is best seen with as little prior knowledge as possible. The ever-reliable Olivia Williams is also very strong here.
Sicario (2015)- Obviously Denis Villeneuve’s film is in conversation with the many recent film and television programs related to the ongoing drug wards, but none of them accomplish the feat of representing the disorienting unknowability of who the good guys and bad guys are quite like this film. Taylor Sheridan wrote the script, and his second film in the series, Soldado, needs to be seen along with this one.