Moving into the second year of the pandemic has many of us looking back at (and yearning for) better times. In that spirit, I’d like to take a look back at some of the best movies that are turning ten years old in 2021.
More than just good movies that are officially a decade old now, a number of these are indicative of or even responsible for some significant trends that we are still benefitting (or suffering depending on your point of view) from today. Many of them also play with genre in interesting ways, mixing the aesthetics of one with the content of another, or hybridizing multiple genres for the most impact, whether that impact be fun or frightening.
While not all of the movies on this list will necessarily transport you to a more carefree and simple world and time, and in fact a number of them are anxiety-inducing and certain to leave you feeling some level of awful, they are all fantastic and well worth watching.
10. Kill List
Director: Ben Wheatley
Kill List is a difficult film to write about because so much of it hinges on unknowns. But those unknowns are precisely what make it so good. It’s a hard movie to get a handle on while watching and even after it ends. Much of the film was improvised, with overlapping voices and camerawork that places the viewer into the chaos of scenes without explicitly showing what is happening, creating an off-putting but enthralling viewing experience.
The film follows two hitmen who are contracted for three jobs by a mysterious client. As they complete each job, connections between them are revealed and questions arise about who these people are and why they’ve been targeted. The story functions mostly as a crime story, but elements of horror begin to slip in as it goes on. Kill List is by no means an easy watch, but it is absolutely worthwhile for anyone who wants to watch a uniquely disturbing film.
9. Take Shelter
Director: Jeff Nichols
Take Shelter is the first of a number of films on this list that play out overwhelmingly like family dramas, but affect the audience in the same way as the best horror movies. Take Shelter follows Curtis (Michael Shannon) as he begins to have apocalyptic dreams and hallucinations that he believes are prophetic. Motivated by these dreams and visions, Curtis begins working on expanding his family’s storm shelter.
While the film is filled to the brim with a sense of impending disaster, most of the plot is focused on the very grounded issues of how Curtis and his wife Sam (Jessica Chastain) will pay for their deaf daughter’s cochlear implant, how Curtis is taking out irresponsible loans to expand the shelter, and how these financial issues become more dire when he eventually loses his job in his pursuit of expanding the shelter.
It’s unclear for much of the film (or all of the film depending on your reading) whether Curtis’s visions are to be trusted or simply a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia which runs in his family. This ambiguity makes the viewing experience even more unsettling as the audience is not only anxious about the potential disaster occuring, but also unsure of what is real and what can be trusted.
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin focuses on Eva (Tilda Swinton) after her son, the titular Kevin (Ezra Miller), has gone on a murderous spree that claimed the lives of the other members of their family and some of Kevin’s high school classmates. The film shifts between Eva’s life in the aftermath and her memories of what her son was like growing up. The movie is deeply upsetting and genuinely troubling as both a look at how a young psychopath might behave and a portrayal of a mother who has lost everything at the hands of her child.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a hard film to categorize as thriller, drama, or horror because it contains aspects of them all. The quiet moments we spend with Eva in the aftermath of Kevin’s attack largely play like a low key indie drama, while the flashbacks to Kevin’s behavior and the pervasive dread Ramsay injects into the movie make it feel like a brutally tense thriller, and when we finally witness Kevin’s violent act it’s pure horror.
Swinton and Miller are both incredible in the film and keep it grounded through their performances. Miller is so scary that it’s hard to believe that he’s the same actor who plays the lovely Patrick in the following year’s Perks of Being a Wallflower. Swinton was deservedly nominated for and won a number of best actress awards for her performance here.
Director: Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier’s second film in his thematic “depression trilogy” (which also includes Antichrist and Nymphomaniac) is the easiest to fit into the label of a “depression movie.” The film is split into two sections, each focusing on one of the two sisters at the center of the movie, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). These sections focus on the characters’ experiences of depression and anxiety in a way that places the audience within these experiences themselves.
The first half of the film shows us Justine struggling to care about anything and actively self-destructing on the night of her wedding, and the second shows Claire experiencing extreme anxiety about the possibility of a planet, which is meant to pass by the Earth at a safe distance, colliding into the Earth. The addition of this sci-fi element perfectly literalizes the way that anxiety can feel for those who suffer from it. The film’s latter half is stronger than the first, but all of it is incredibly affecting.
Melancholia was also nominated for and won a number of awards, from Cannes to the European Film Awards, in a number of categories including acting, cinematography, directing, screenwriting, and best film.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
It’s a bit difficult to recommend Contagion at the moment given how frighteningly real much of the movie feels in the time of COVID. But I think that’s also part of what makes watching it even more amazing. It’s horrifying but also shockingly impressive how much the movie gets right about the way that a pandemic spreads and the world reacts. There’s also a strange compare and contrast that’s impossible to avoid which can simultaneously be comforting (COVID is not as dangerous as the film’s MEV-1) and infuriating (the vaccine in Contagion is developed within just four months).
But even looking at the film outside the inescapable context of living in a pandemic, Contagion deserves to be celebrated on its tenth birthday. The film is one of Soderbergh’s slickest films, with a propulsive score by Cliff Martinez and often brutal editing. And the incredible cast, featuring Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, and a number of other A-listers and character actors, is in top form, allowing the audience to become genuinely invested in each of the many storylines in the film.
5. Crazy, Stupid, Love
Director: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Crazy, Stupid, Love is the peak of mainstream studio romantic comedies of the 2010s. It has a wonderful ensemble cast made up of attractive stars, intersecting storylines each focused on their own love story, an undeniably delightful finale, and quotable dialogue throughout. While all of these aspects make the movie fun to watch, what makes Crazy Stupid Love stand above the other intersecting love story rom coms out there are the performances. These characters are all so charming that even when we don’t like what they’re doing it’s hard to not be invested in them. And it’s hard not to love a movie where Ryan Gosling gives Steve Carrell a makeover.
4. The Raid
The Raid, also known as The Raid: Redemption, is one of the most important martial arts movies of the 21st century, if not the most important (though I’m not enough of an expert on the genre to make that argument).
It introduced the world to Pencak Silat, the Indonesian full body fighting style, and created an international market for films focusing on the style. Since The Raid, we’ve seen its sequel which manages to mix the action of the first movie with a sprawling gangster epic story, Netflix distributed The Night Comes For Us which combines martial arts action with splattery gore, and Pencak Silat showed up in John Wick 3: Parabellum, when Keanu Reeves faces off against Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman who star in The Raid and its sequel.
The Raid’s plot is simple: a group of police storm a high rise to arrest the crime lord who lives on the top floor only to have the crime lord offer a reward to any tenant that fights the police (yes this is basically the same plot as the following year’s Dredd). This simplicity allows the movie to focus entirely on the action, moving swiftly from one fight scene to another and never letting up the excitement. The Raid is an absolute must watch for any fan of action, especially fans of martial arts movies.
3. Fast Five
Director: Justin Lin
As a devout Fast and Furious fan, I firmly believe that Fast Five is the best of the franchise. Fast Five is a Fast and Furious movie, a heist movie, a travelogue, and one of the most ridiculous action movies ever made. What’s more amazing than the wild genre hybrid is that it all somehow works. Fast Five has all the fun and banter of an Ocean’s heist movie with all the muscle mass of an 80s action movie, and ushers in what is now the franchise’s trademark mass scale action with its final action sequence as our heroes drag a bank vault through Rio De Janeiro.
The movie is also the first in the franchise to bring together characters from every proceeding entry, something that makes it feel like a bit of a party for fans of the franchise and surprisingly makes this fifth entry a perfect starting point for those who haven’t seen any of the films before. Whether you’ve seen some, none, or all of the Fast and Furious movies before, Fast Five is worth watching (or rewatching).
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Director: Sean Durkin
Like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Take Shelter, Martha Marcy May Marlene often feels like a horror film despite the fact that there is minimal violence and it plays out mostly like a grounded family drama.
The film follows Elizabeth Olsen, who goes by each of the names in the title at different points, after she escapes from a cult and moves in with her sister Lucy (Sarah Palson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). The tension and horror of the movie come from the way that director Sean Durkin places us so firmly in Martha/Marcy May/Marlene’s headspace. She is constantly afraid that someone from the cult will find her and force her to return.
While we see this return story play out, flashbacks show the story of her initiation to and time with the cult, which begins as a safe place to belong before becoming much more sinister and dangerous. John Hawkes is fantastic as the cult leader Patrick, he is able to play both the charismatic and the threatening aspects of the character perfectly, allowing the audience to understand how the members might fall under his spell. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a small scale film with a serious impact, and one that’s especially worth checking out to see what Elizabeth Olsen can do outside of the MCU.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Drive made Nicolas Winding Refn a household name for most movie fans and established Ryan Gosling as the coolest actor to ever rock a shiny white jacket. The film marked Refn’s move into the ultra-slow, super-slick, neon-drenched style that’s characterized all of his work since, culminating in his 13 hour long movie/miniseries Too Old To Die Young.
Drive is also the definitive “art house action movie” of the 21st century. It moves slowly, with precise shot compositions and minimal dialogue (especially from Gosling’s unnamed Driver), making the bursts of extreme violence hit that much harder. But it also works as a genuinely affecting romance for Gosling and Carey Mulligan as Irene, perhaps even more so because of the mostly unspoken but clearly conveyed attraction and connection between the characters. Oscar Isaac also makes one of his earliest memorable appearances as Irene’s husband Standard, and Albert Brooks plays a surprisingly menacing villain.
Drive is a certified modern classic and a meme goldmine that’s made it a constant reference point on film Twitter and other film focused internet communities. If you haven’t already seen it there’s no better time than its tenth birthday and if you have, it’s always worth returning to.
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