From an artistic perspective, the past decade in movies is the decade of mumblecore. The movement of intimately scaled, often improvised, low-budget dramas and comedies that pull their actors from the lives and milieux of filmmakers who build stories around their personal experiences has become the energy-giving core of the American cinema. All decade long, aside from the reliably surprising masterworks by established filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Frederick Wiseman, and Paul Thomas Anderson, there has been a profusion of daring films by younger filmmakers who are part of the mumblecore constellation, as well as a bunch of actors (and cinematographers and other artists) who emerged from those films.
Of course, what’s overarchingly important in this decade in movies reaches far beyond the movies themselves. Most crucially, this has been the decade of the public acknowledgment—with the activism and advocacy of the #MeToo, Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter, and #OscarsSoWhite movements, along with the accusations against Harvey Weinstein and many other men in the media—of the rotting foundation on which the film industry and society at large are built. The misrepresentations, whitewashings, banalizations, and exclusions that have sustained the Hollywood system have begun to come to light, and there have even been consequences for some of the perpetrators.
Yet this decade has also seen, in surprising ways, the convergence of these two currents of activism and aesthetics in ways that I hope will continue in the next decade and beyond. Many of the substantial changes in the industry have come from the new generation of filmmakers—yes, mumblecore. Its creators put into bold artistic action the fundamental premise that promises to turn minor shifts in the industry into a sea change: namely, the idea that the personal experience of filmmakers and a film’s participants is inseparable from the film’s process, its subject, its contents, and its style. (The idea is at work in documentaries, too.) The necessity, the urgency, of diversifying the ranks of directors is inseparable from the diversification of the spectrum of experience—and of artistic inspiration—that the cinema can offer. The first-person accounts, the daringly original artistry, and the self-aware and group-oriented activities of these filmmakers have opened the cinema to far more varied voices and ideas.
The rise of this generation of filmmakers has coincided with the rise of independent production, which has taken the place of studios for director-driven movies. At the same time, this shift hasn’t helped many independent filmmakers from earlier years whose artistry is among the treasures of their times and whom the industry has nonetheless ignored. This decade was also the decade in which Julie Dash, Wendell B. Harris, Jr., Rachel Amodeo, Leslie Harris, Zeinabu irene Davis, and Billy Woodberry still didn’t make their second features. Spike Lee long found himself shut out even of independent financing, using his own money for “Red Hook Summer” and then turning to Kickstarter before being, um, reëstablished, at a time when he was already long established and his projects should have been prime productions.
Nonetheless, independent productions, including both new filmmakers and the generations of veterans, have, for the most part, proved to be liberating for filmmakers, and that system is one of the reasons why American filmmaking has been so artistically innovative all decade long—even if much of that filmmaking has been an economic sidebar to Hollywood product.
The decade of independent filmmaking not coincidentally parallels the decade of the Marvel juggernaut, which began in 2008, with “Iron Man,” and soon thereafter came to dominate the box office, the release calendar, and multiplex screens—three factors that are askew to the art of movies. What renders the Marvel trend significant is that it has come to command the so-called discourse and has marked the careers of directors and actors. Superhero movies themselves may offer a modicum of pleasure, and, on rare occasion, even more. Some of them feature delightful effects, moments of symbolic resonance, playful humor, and even a few striking performances that mesh well with the stark (or, rather, Stark) writing. These pleasures—yes, authentically cinematic—are, however, secondary to the over-all tone that these movies convey: highly managed production to the point of inhumanity. The superhero movies seldom transmit more than a glimmer of personal sensibility, and almost never do so through the essence of movies: images and sounds. The green screen and the computer graphics take precedence. That’s why many directors of less-than-distinctive visual sensibility get hired by Marvel to make superhero movies; they basically direct actors, while the “visuals” are farmed out to technicians and specialists. That’s also why the Marvel movies are, over all, deadening.
Many critics bemoan another of the decade’s trends, a related one: because the studios have turned to superheroes, children’s movies, franchises, and assorted other bombastic spectacles, they’ve stopped making (or, actually, drastically cut back on) so-called mid-range dramas for adults. I find the complaint misplaced: there are plenty of good and substantial movies being made, not often by the studios but, rather, by independent producers, and also by streaming services. Meanwhile, that category’s place in the mainstream has been taken over by serious-minded television series—and, with only a handful of exceptions, they’re basically the same thing: script-delivery systems, minus discernible directorial originality or inventiveness. When studios were the only game in town, directors went to them hat in hand, knowing that, with large budgets at stake, their films had to be commercial. Most of the best ones weren’t (one timely example: Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” from 1983, cost nineteen million dollars to make and took in two and a half million dollars at the box office), and, as a result, the best directors’ careers were imperilled, often stalled, even completely shut down.
Now such ambitious movies of substance are rarely being made by studios but by independent producers, and they’re not being made on a mid-range budget but on low budgets. In exchange, directors are freer than ever to make movies without the distortions and the trivializations that the heavy hands of studio executives imposed. Filmmakers themselves, and their personal visions, are what’s being sold by these independent producers, and, as a result, they can make movies as they see fit—which is why there are many more American movies on the decade list than I expected going into it.
At the same time, while directors are freer to be themselves, so are the studios. With franchises and superheroes, they’ve become the brazen cash machines that they’d always been suspected of being, and that the occasional work of great high-budget art belied. The studios have unmasked themselves, in an eerie but apt parallel to the national political unmasking that has occurred in this decade. Just as the Republican Party has, in the age of Donald Trump, been liberated to be openly what it has been functioning as for the past half-century—a white people’s party—so Hollywood has been liberated by superhero and franchise fandom from the effort to make dignifying and self-justifying productions, and the studios are, for the most part, pursuing their commercialism and peddling their illusions unabashed. What’s more, the Trump Administration is making a similarly brazen effort to boost the studios and crush the opposition of independent producers and exhibitors, by moving to overturn the crucial antitrust ruling of 1948, which led to the rise of independent producers and exhibitors (and a vast outpouring of creative filmmaking) at that time. We’ll be back to discuss the results of this chicanery ten years from now.
The place of politics in the making and releasing of Hollywood movies is trivial, however, compared to persecution occurring elsewhere, including the arrest and imprisonment of filmmakers in Iran and Russia, and China’s repression and elimination of its formerly thriving and vital independent film scene. As Rebecca Davis recently reported, in Variety, what promises to follow in China are “independent-style films that look and feel like indies—yet are nonetheless studio-financed and exist within China’s strict censorship regime.” The rise of movie theatres—and the importing of Hollywood movies—in China, and the counterpart of the investment by Chinese producers in Hollywood, promises yet another dire shift. Not only are Chinese filmmakers unable to make frank movies about Chinese society, but American studios are equally disinclined to run the risk of displeasing Chinese authorities (and no movie is shown there without government permission). The Tiananmen Square massacre and China’s current genocidal policies toward the Uighur population won’t show up in any Hollywood film soon—and neither, I suspect, will Richard Gere, whose support for Tibetan cultural freedom has virtually got him blacklisted.
If Hollywood studios no longer seek the cover of dignity that comes with making and releasing individualistic movies of doubtless lower profit, the executives in charge don’t seem to really care. It’s now the prominent streaming services, principally Netflix and Amazon Prime—the main competitors to theatrical distribution—that seek to prove themselves as more than mere disrupters of the cinematic economy but, rather, as positive contributors to the cinematic ecology. To do so they’ve been producing, acquiring, and releasing exceptional movies that the studios wouldn’t and that other independents couldn’t, such as “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “Chi-Raq,” “Paterson,” “Atlantics,” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Many of the best new movies are being produced or released by streaming services, which is to say that they’re more widely available, albeit for home viewing, than independent or international films ever were in times centered on theatrical distribution—yet few of them get the attention they deserve, simply because they often fly beneath the radar of publicity.
That’s where critics come in. The decade’s notable democratization and diversification of criticism that has resulted from online publication and social media has introduced writers who—by taste, enthusiasm, and knowledge—are inclined to call appreciative and discerning attention to such films. Yet online activity has also led, both maliciously and inadvertently, to versions of the pile-on, which have affected coverage of movies. The malicious kind is all too obvious: fanboys who, when the nakedness of their emperor (whether superheroic or political) is stated, react with rage ranging from insults to ethnic slurs to rape threats and death threats. (Needless to say, such hostility serves to make critics hesitate to express themselves freely, and it disproportionately targets female writers and writers of color.)
The other, inadvertent kind of pile-on is a perverse by-product of popularity: not only do a small number of blockbuster movies dominate the industry’s economy, but the sheer fact of popularity (and the related phenomenon of celebrity) is multiplied and amplified online. As a result, editors seek more and more coverage of those megaphenomena, crowding out coverage of less-popular yet ultimately more significant movies—at precisely the moment when, because these movies get scant distribution and are often virtually hidden on streaming sites, critical attention is all the more essential to their recognition. Criticism on the Internet increasingly replicates the polarization of filmmaking and distribution: the discussion agglomerates around a small number of films that will likely prove trivial in the history of cinema while overshadowing, in their time, the movies that will endure.
That’s where this list comes in. It would have been both boring and inaccurate to cull the movies from the top of my annual lists from the past decade. In reconsidering the decade’s films, I found that some of my own priorities and passions shifted, in two opposite directions: toward the unique sense of experience that filmmakers avow and forge, and toward the sense of originality, of reconsidering and reconfiguring the nature of cinema as such. Also, I found that there are filmmakers who are as great and as important as any represented on this list, but whose over-all body of work takes precedence over any individual film (for starters, Terrence Malick, Hong Sang-soo, Ava DuVernay, Joe Swanberg, Robert Greene, James Gray, and the late Chantal Akerman and Agnès Varda). Twenty-seven films—I couldn’t cut further—in numerical order (though, except for the first few, that order only holds approximately, and its specifics reflect specific inclinations at the moment I hit “send”). By design, only one film on the list is from 2019; I’ll have more to say about this year soon.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), Martin Scorsese
“Madeline’s Madeline” (2018), Josephine Decker
“Get Out” (2017), Jordan Peele
“An Elephant Sitting Still” (2019), Hu Bo
“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” (2018), Travis Wilkerson
“The Future” (2011), Miranda July
“Margaret” (2011), Kenneth Lonergan
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), Wes Anderson
“Somewhere” (2010), Sofia Coppola
“Li’l Quinquin” (2015), Bruno Dumont
“Film Socialisme” (2011), Jean-Luc Godard
“An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” (2013), Terence Nance
“Holy Motors” (2012), Leos Carax
“Coma” (2016), Sara Fattahi
“Red Hook Summer” (2012), Spike Lee
“Zama” (2018), Lucrecia Martel
“Moonlight” (2016), Barry Jenkins
“The Mule” (2018), Clint Eastwood
“It Felt Like Love” (2014), Eliza Hittman
“The Last of the Unjust” (2014), Claude Lanzmann
“In Jackson Heights” (2015), Frederick Wiseman
“A Ghost Story” (2017), David Lowery
“A Screaming Man” (2011), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
“A Quiet Passion” (2017), Terence Davies
“Taxi” (2015), Jafar Panahi
“Let the Sunshine In” (2018), Claire Denis
“Infinite Football” (2018), Corneliu Porumboiu