Feature: Counteract’s 30 greatest films of the 2010s
It’s beginning to look a lot like List-mas, and we’re back with another cracker. This time? An almost impossible dilution of the greatest films from the past 10 years.
It’s been a strange decade for cinema. For one, the dimensions of what we consider a film changed fundamentally. The realm of straight-to-DVD releases that were once the domain of budget Disney sequels and Steven Seagal’s Russian propaganda now had a shiny new name: Netflix Originals. And so theatres were finally cut out of the chain, albeit partially.
In recent months we’ve even seen a final face-off between the old guard of “true” filmmakers (whatever that means) and Marvel fanboys on what even constitutes cinema. Regardless of whether you agree with Scorsese’s “theme park” thesis, a year when 7 of the top 10 grossing films worldwide were Disney properties makes it easy to feel a little doomy.
Still, as the tools necessary to create film became increasingly accessible, we’ve seen an ever-diversifying pool of artists, artists we’ve attempted to compile faithfully. Is this list subject to recency bias? Oh, absolutely (but 2017 was still a stonking year). Is this list definitive? God no. But it does stand as a testament to thirty great films that are sure to remind you that the art of cinema is alive and kicking.
30. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
This tale of finding love and belonging in the face of small minded tribalism manages to evoke the feel of traditional Hollywood without ever appearing dated. Del Toro imbues the story’s simplicity with such elegance that it immediately feels timeless, a fairy tale that eschews cynicism in favour of beauty. If nothing else, it’s the first film to be so justly rewarded for its celebration of cryptobestiality! William Blanchard
29. Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2017)
For a film concerned with the transcendence of faith, Silence is perpetually grubby. A rumination on the limits of organised religion that never comes away with a clean answer, Scorsese’s old school epic is as powerful as it is conflicted. It’d be wrong to say Scorsese was having a late career renaissance since he never slipped, but this is a powerful work that stakes a strong claim amongst his canon. Blaise Radley
28. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-ada, 2018)
Kore-ada manages to be both workman and earnest artist, having made a film a year for well over a decade now. Remarkably, they’re very rarely less than touching. It’s this, his surprise Palme d’Or winner, that most stakes his claim as an auteur though. Part-screwball comedy, part-micro heist film, and part-call to action, most of all Shoplifters asks hard questions about family and the strength of choice over blood. Blaise Radley
27. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Carol is Todd Haynes’ tender handling of Patricia Highsmith’s story of taboo love in 1950s New York. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is as captivating from the other side of the screen as she is to Therese (Ronney Mara). Every moment is orchestrated to make you feel something, so it’s easy to be entranced by this sometimes joyful, often melancholy and always indulgent watch. Sophie Sutcliffe
26. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014)
Less a film than humanity’s fear of the unknown writ large, Glazer’s only feature this decade finds humanity in strange places. Its larger-than-life premise — alien temptress seeks Glaswegians’ juicy organs — is grounded by Glazer’s documentarian approach to shooting Scarlett Johansson’s unknowing victims. It’s uncanny, hyper-real, and, weirdest of all, stirringly emotive. It helps that Mica Levi’s score alone feels like being pulled backwards into a black hole. Blaise Radley
25. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2019)
This mesmerising mystery of distrust and self-doubt is a head-rattling stunner from Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Its slow-burning plot, slippery characters and visual beauty make for a barn (burning) storming piece of truly unique cinema. It’s difficult to pin down in such a small space just how much Burning emblazons itself onto your mind. It doesn’t make for easy viewing but Burning has left an indelible mark on modern cinema. Harry Jones
24. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018)
Never one to shy from incendiary filmmaking, Lee’s latest grapples with the insidious ways that bigotry can work its way into powerful institutions. While frequently skewering the irrationality of racism, the film remains tense. Fuelled by a righteous anger, BlackKklansman draws power from the juxtaposition of the Klan’s overt racism and the racial tensions of contemporary America. William Blanchard
23. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2017)
Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical slice-of-life tale is a rare beast. Tightly packed with the personal and cultural moments that make us the people that we are, Mills manages to paint vivid portraits of his characters that leave them feeling like your own closest friends. If anything, it deserves a place on this list for offering us the joy of seeing Annette Bening and Billy Crudup dance to Talking Heads. Harry Benbow
22. La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2017)
Damien Chazelle’s glitzy love letter to the musicals of old wears a mask of hopeful joy, but underneath it all is a deep sadness that makes the film so special. Soaking the viewer in a timeless romance full of eye-popping colour and splashes of magical realism, only to blindside you at the last with a tragic gut punch of the real world, La La Land is truly a musical for the 21st century dreamer. Harry Benbow
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
As lavish as the hotel of the title once was, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an intricate and comedic history of the establishment through war, prison-breaks and an art heist. The cast is a ridiculous continuum of auteur Wes Anderson’s previous work and the visuals might be his pinkest yet. From Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-winning soundtrack to the interwoven stories of the unlikely guests, not a single detail is neglected in this flamboyant romp. Sophie Sutcliffe
20. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
First time actor Quvenzhané Wallis plays a tough, undaunted 6-year old girl called Hushpuppy, struggling to survive as a storm threatens to destroy her Louisiana-bayou community known only as “The Bathtub”. Meanwhile, the Arctic ice is melting, releasing wild, frozen beasts known as the Aurochs into the rising oceans.
Cut off from the modern world, this is a magical story of resilience and survival, filled with raw emotion and remarkable performances. Filmed in post-Hurricane Katrina locations, as we enter a state of climate emergency, Beasts is a timely reminder that those who will suffer most will be those on the fringes of society. Jeremy Arblaster
19. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2018)
Maybe one of the most impeccably made films of the decade, this elegantly staged, beautifully scored and insanely well-acted period piece from PTA is simply sublime. Ticking all boxes on technical counts, Phantom Thread also manages to weave one of the most sophisticatedly complex relationships ever captured on screen.
Daniel Day-Lewis could’ve won a fourth Oscar for his portrayal of haute couture designer Reynolds Woodcock, as he avoids being pushed off the tightrope that is his life by latest muse Alma (Vicky Krieps). As her retorts to his ways sit belligerent in a house so pristine and immaculate we see a twisted bond form, only stitched together by an unhealthy reliance. Harry Jones
18. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)
It’s been a helluva decade for Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, but their impressive output (shared or singular) rarely got better than this black and white New York noodler. Criticism has been levelled at how deeply the pair’s work is rooted in middle class concerns, but there’s a bitter self awareness apparent in their depiction of the titular Frances.
Less 20-something than 20-nothing, Gerwig’s performance acts as a total refutation of the manic pixie dream girl, pointing a finger at unmoored millennials everywhere before embracing them. Principled yet uncertain; life of the party yet subject of concern, Frances is somehow both aspirational and, well, undateable. Blaise Radley
17. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
Few directors tackled pulpy genre fare with as much perfectionist flair this decade as Denis Villeneuve. His secret? Pinning his high concepts to emotional arcs. Arrival, one of two sci-fi projects he helmed this decade (more on the other in a mo) is the film where this deceptively simple methodology is most apparent.
A surprisingly subtle alien invasion yarn, Arrival follows Amy Adams’ linguist as she attempts to decode, learn from, and empathise with our mysterious otherworldly visitors. Fittingly for a film backed by the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson’s abstracted human vocal score, Arrival never loses sight of its human heart when looking to the stars. Blaise Radley
16. Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)
The cinematic equivalent of a warm hug on a cold winter’s evening, Paul King crafts a sequel that outdoes the already wonderful Paddington in every way. Full of homage to cinema history, from The Shawshank Redemption to Mission: Impossible, its joy stretches well beyond the confines of simply being a “kids’ film”.
Hugh Grant’s vanity-free turn as the foppish luvvie Phoenix Buchanan is something we should be thankful for every day. The cherry on the cake comes with a mid-credits scene that blows anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to offer out the water. Harry Benbow
15. Blade Runner: 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
There have been few films this decade quite as visually arresting as Denis Villeneuve’s melancholy blockbuster Blade Runner: 2049. It perfectly captures the emptiness of globalisation and the artificial beauty it creates. The whole film could be a desktop screensaver. But go beyond the surface and there are questions on morality, memory, and what it means to be human.
While these themes are well-worn, especially within sci-fi, there aren’t many films out there that pull them off with the kind of poignancy 2049 does. A haunting, devastating look at a future where the lines between what’s real and what’s not have been irrevocably blurred. Jeremy Arblaster
14. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
In a cinematic landscape where the creation of visceral thrills has largely been replaced by the exploitation of VFX artists, Mad Max: Fury Road proves there’s no substitute for craftsmanship. Miller combined bitingly relevant social commentary with an exhilarating clarity of action rarely seen in Western cinema to produce an example of genre cinema at its finest.
In stark contrast to its post-apocalyptic wasteland, Fury Road is a glimpse at a brighter future; a world where the resurrection of dead franchises can be an invigorating shot in the arm for the industry. Oh, what a lovely day indeed. William Blanchard
13. Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2017)
Going big on metaphor is basically chumming the waters for disaster. The metaphor so easily overwhelms the narrative itself (see: Darren Aronofsky) or else ends up as thin window-dressing. Ducournau is too savvy for that though. Instead, she leans into it, imbuing her burgeoning student cannibal with equal servings of the absurd and the all too real.
Raw is about sex and self-discovery and how the shackles of home life loosen quite swiftly at University. It’s also about a vegetarian vet-in-training that develops an all-consuming hunger for flesh. Like all good parables, both sides have purpose, and both sides hit hard. A deliciously balanced meal. Blaise Radley
12. A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)
Those expecting spooky fare from Lowery’s A Ghost Story either ended up bored or with a far more existential dread than they bargained for. Yes, it’s a man in a sheet. Yes, he’s actually a ghost. Yes, she does eat a pie for that long. Sometimes the most meditative works are those that flirt with silliness.
Shot in a boxy 1:33:1, Lowery poignantly captures the claustrophobia of the fourth dimension. Time’s relativity isn’t just made visual, it’s felt through a series of passages that explore vastly differing modes of stasis. If nothing else, A Ghost Story gave lazy Halloweeners a highbrow excuse to don a bedsheet once more. Blaise Radley
11. Her (Spike Jonze, 2014)
The meteoric rise of social media and the increasing rate at which technology is incorporated into our lives has generated no shortage of tepid takes (The Social Network, anyone?). How refreshing it is then to see a film that negotiates the ways that it can be both transformatively helpful and isolating.
Providing no easy answers, Her is a funny, warm and empathetic interrogation of how love, loneliness and technology intersect. It is a film aware of how relationships can become clothed in artifice, but optimistic enough to recognise an intimacy that rises to meet it. William Blanchard
10. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)
Creeping into our top 10 is Paul Schrader’s doom-filled existential study of Reverend Toller’s (Ethan Hawke) descent into environmentally-fuelled religious doubt. It’s not so much Toller’s faith that is brought into question but instead whether or not we, God’s children, are doing what is expected of us.
Toller’s health is taking both a mental and physical dive that he struggles to reconcile with. As the bigger picture seems to get bigger and bigger, every issue that surrounds people’s personal lives is rendered more and more futile.
Not one to mince words, Schrader is taking a huge dig at both Christianity’s ignorance over the destruction of God’s creation and the big corporations that inflict that destruction on Earth. It’s a beautifully shot film, tenderly and painfully performed by Hawke who, alongside Schrader, has produced arguably his best work here. Harry Jones
9. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
25 films in and Scorsese is still making some of the best films in contemporary cinema. An advocate for innovation and changing the face of the art form (quite literally in this case), Scorsese teamed up with streaming giant Netflix to bring us one of his very best.
The story of a mob hitman’s career and his political influence alongside Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) sounds like familiar territory for the master director. Though, as Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran grows old, he is forced to grapple with the lasting marks of his violent legacy in something a little more reflective than we’re used to.
Colossal performances across the board, consistently quotable, ruminatively sombre and lean feeling even at 209 minutes long, The Irishman is set to be a future classic. Harry Jones
8. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)
There is an inherent artificiality to film and, despite its gestures toward authenticity, the documentary shares this fundamental quality. Regardless, the medium is used to express and explore ideas that can transcend it and ripple into our tangible reality. Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary exposes the often unexamined tension between the narratives we crave and the values we reproduce.
Both deeply unsettling and undeniably compelling, The Act of Killing would be valuable enough just as a document of the atrocities committed in Indonesia by the state. The film goes much deeper though; wisely uninterested in moralising obviously appalling actions, it instead demonstrates the ease in which cruelty can be mythologised.
Simultaneously though, it acts as a Trojan horse, seemingly thrusting an insight and understanding on its monstrous subjects that exemplifies the enormous power of the medium. William Blanchard
7. American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)
Andrea Arnold’s fourth film is the coming-of-age story of Star (Sasha Lane), who tries to escape her precarious existence by joining a travelling group of door-to-door magazine sellers. American Honey does not shy away from deprivation. “You got anybody who’s gonna miss you?” asks mag crew leader Krystal (Riley Keough) after they meet Star in a supermarket car park. “Not really,” Star replies.
Yet a youthful hope and curiosity run through the film, giving it a glowing simplicity: Star is our heroine, there’s a villain in Krystal, a love interest in the mysterious Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and, somewhere, a happy ending worth chasing. The cast of mostly first-time actors bring brilliant energy, with the characters, the camera and the crew in seemingly constant, hypnotising motion.
Between close-ups of sweaty tattooed skin and perpetual golden-hour skies, American Honey is a love-letter to those joyful, careless moments that make a difficult youth bearable. Sophie Sutcliffe
6. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2018)
Lynne Ramsay is four for four after making one of the most brutal character studies of the decade. From the off, YWNRH grabs you by the shoulders, shakes you senseless, dunks your head in cold water and bundles you into the back of a car. Yet somehow, this visceral experience isn’t achieved in the action, but instead in the confines of Joaquin Phoenix’s head, (not helped by Jonny Greenwood’s incredible score).
Phoenix literally and figuratively looks like the weight of his mind is forcing his head deeper and deeper into the mass of his bloated physique. An ever-growing tension mounting within his beard and cheekbones result in the actor looking something like a Henry Moore sculpture reaching melting point.
Truly one of the most singular visions in recent years, YWNRH cements itself as a modern classic of genre filmmaking. Harry Jones
5. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2018)
It’s 2002 and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) just wants to live through something. Greta Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento forms the tarmacked backdrop to the coming-of-age of an awkward, narcissistic and impossibly loveable teenager searching for a sense of identity and a way to more the New York (“where the culture is”) for college.
Gerwig’s script perfectly captures that specific kind of miscommunication reserved for teenagers and their parents. The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is the central thread through two crushes, a best-friend fallout and a regrettable foray with the drama department.
Lady Bird is a film about being a teenager which gives weighty screen time to two parents struggling to watch their daughter grow up in a rush. The force behind Gerwig’s filmmaking is her talent for teasing out specific emotional worlds, and Lady Bird is no exception. Sophie Sutcliffe
4. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
Set against the backdrop of a gentle Italian Summer in 1983, Call Me By Your Name is a picture-perfect photo album of exquisitely told moments that show romance at its most affecting and fleeting.
Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet are perfect as the would-be lovers who dance around each other with a mixture of bravado and one-upmanship, their connection taking shape in a painfully familiar way. And whilst their feelings are there from the start, it’s not only a case of when will they…but when will it end. There’s an impermanence to it all that lends their romance an aching sadness.
In a film filled with sumptuous moments, director Luca Guadagnino gives us some iconic ones, including Armie Hammer dancing and a particularly fruity peach scene. But he saves the best for last with Michael Stuhlbarg’s incredibly touching father-son speech (the best since the Major’s in Twin Peaks) and a moving end credits sequence set to Sufjan Stevens… Jeremy Arblaster
3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2017)
Easily the finest Best Picture winner in a generation, Moonlight still holds up as a bulldozer of blue-suffused heartache. The tale of a young black man named Chiron struggling with his sexuality, alternate modes of absent paternity, and the expectations that lead him to forcibly define his own identity, it’s the rare coming-of-age piece that recognises growing up is far from a linear path.
It’s no surprise Jenkins followed Moonlight with an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, since so many of the same concerns are present here. More than that though, Jenkins frames his work in the manner of a novelist, laying out three key chapters in the life of Chiron that chart lines of thought without offering definitive answers.
Characterised as much by the mood of moonlit waters as by the little things he does say, Chiron stands tall as one of modern cinema’s most deftly layered protagonists. It’s not just a window into the life of African-Americans in South Florida, it’s a soothing balm for the soul. Blaise Radley
2. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
“You look like you’ve travelled here…”
“How else do you get someplace?”
There seems to be an overwhelming desire to fully grasp The Master, perhaps stemming from our innate desire to know something fully. It can be hard to accept that the world is just a battering of events and coincidences.
What The Master really is, is driftwood. It echoes the currents of Thomas Pynchon’s V. with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, the Benny Profane-esque character, traumatised and discharged from the Navy, bouncing around the lull of post-war America in search of anything to grab onto.
In this case it’s Lancaster Dodd, the enigmatic leader of a cult called “The Cause”, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. And with the certainties of warfare gone, Dodd briefly offers the listless Freddie hope, direction and purpose.
Lancaster though, is just another master to follow. Another false prophet. And Freddie arrives at what amounts to be just another destination. One of many on a long journey. Ultimately, it may just be better to let this beautiful film wash over you than look too hard for answers… Jeremy Arblaster
1. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
More than any action film this decade, The Florida Project glides by on pure forward momentum.
Baker primarily pins our gaze to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as she giddily tears her way around the pastel-popping Florida motels on the outskirts of Disney World, much to the half-arsed rancour of Willem Defoe’s well-meaning manager. To her, it’s a playground. To us, it’s a reminder that life goes on, no matter the weird dimensions its squeezed into.
Poverty exists everywhere, but it’s particularly galling to see people scraping pennies amongst the iconography of the world’s most-engorged entertainers and their picture-perfect middle-class families. By viewing Disney World through a hall of mirrors—the Haunted Mansion becomes abandoned new-builds; the Animal Kingdom some unattended cows—Baker reframes the absurd promise of the American Dream.
What elevates The Florida Project is Baker’s even-handed approach. By telling the intersecting motel stories through deftly woven vignettes, he captures the idea that behind each door is a multidimensional person, not a bored extra. Rather than a patronising portrait of working class families, Baker paints a vivid image of life’s subjectivity, and how impossible it is to square that away into checkboxes. Some films you feel, some films you analyse; the best of this decade welcomes both. Blaise Radley
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- Film review: Scorsese’s sorrowful, reflective The Irishman is one of his best
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- Feature: The best TV shows this decade you probably missed
Film editor, occasional writer, and sporadically coherent ranter. Bear in mind that if it stars Robert Pattinson or is directed by Bong Joon-Ho it’s probably getting an extra star off the bat.