SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) -- Until I sat down and started to cobble together a “Best Movies of the Decade” list, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve just celebrated my eleventh year as a professional film critic. I started out as an esoteric music journalist who wrote to a minuscule audience. I never would have imagined that my career would take me literally around the world and figuratively into the homes of thousands of people. I’ve grown as a writer in ways I never knew possible.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve put a lot of thought into what films taught me about myself, changed the way that I saw the world or simply left me breathless. I wanted the list to reflect the range of my interests, a melting pot of genres and a balanced assortment that included both art house and mainstream cinema. To that end, there will likely be some titles that are either too "pretentious" or "not real cinema." I respect your right to disagree, but hopefully we'll find a few titles that we can agree on.
This list should not be viewed as definitive, more of a travelogue with a few highlighted stops along the way. There are at least another thirty films that I would have happily celebrated if time were in infinite supply. You may notice that I haven't included anything from 2019. Given a year or two of distance, there's a very good chance that a few of them would find their way in. In the meantime, you can visit my Top 10 of 2019 article here.
In 2013, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy returned to the roles of Jesse and Céline for the third time in director Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight." The film finds the couple years removed from their initial chance meeting (1995's "Before Sunrise") and the attraction that was rekindled a decade later (2004's "Before Sunset") and takes a more somber look on the enduring quality of love and all the difficulties that come with it.
The Big Sick
Based on the real-life romance of Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, "The Big Sick" is about breaking cultural boundaries, falling in love, making mistakes and the universe bringing two people back together to see if they can get it right the second time around. Nanjiani stars as himself with the fabulous Zoe Kazan as Emily.
Bill Cunningham New York
Everything I know about fashion I learned from watching movies. "Bill Cunningham New York" follows Cunningham, the highly influential New York Times photographer, who lives a rather anonymous life. Other enlightening fashion documentaries from the past decade include "First Monday in May," a behind-the-scenes look at the 2015 Met Gala, "Iris," a tribute to Iris Apfel, and "McQueen," the tragic rise and fall of designer Alexander McQueen.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Iron Man was the catalyst that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it was the Captain America franchise that became the beating heart of the MCU. With 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the directing team of Anthony and Joe Russo gave audiences a spy thriller with superhero origins. It felt unlike anything that had come before it and paved the way for the three subsequent films that the Russo brothers would direct including the massive "Avengers: Endgame" that closed out the first era of the MCU.
Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" follows the misadventures of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an awkward and uncertain teen who tries to work through her own anxiety by making vlogs on how to deal with the daily pressures of life. I liked "Lady Bird" a lot, but this film felt infinitely more real.
"The Grandmaster" combines two of my favorite things: Chinese wuxia (martial arts) cinema and director Wong Kar-wai. The film stars Tony Leung as Ip Man, the legendary master who trained Bruce Lee. Like most of Wong's films, "The Grandmaster" is grounded in gorgeous visuals and an unrequited love story. Zhang Ziyi's performance as Gong Er is simply spectacular. There are three different cuts of the film. My favorite is the 130-minute version that was released in China.
Directed and written by Leos Carax, "Holy Motors" stars Denis Lavant as Mr. Oscar, an actor who is constantly changing roles in the back of a limousine. Carax has created an excursion into a strange, wondrous world that is both beautiful and grotesque. Kylie Minogue even shows up to sing the hauntingly romantic ballad "Who Were We." What mask did you put on when you rolled out of bed this morning?
I was tempted to include Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," a triumphant mobster reunion with Robert De Niro, but it is the director's "Hugo," a magical drama set in 1930 about Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a young boy, who lives alone in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris, that I love the most. Based on Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the narrative and visuals play tribute to early filmmaker Georges Méliès (famous for his "A Trip to the Moon") as Hugo searches for the heart-shaped key that will unlock the mysteries of an automaton left to him by his deceased father. Chloë Grace Moretz co-stars with supporting performances from Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer and Christopher Lee.
Christopher Nolan had a remarkable, interesting decade that included the masterful WWII film "Dunkirk," an existential sci-fi thriller in "Interstellar" and "The Dark Knight Rises," the concluding chapter in his Dark Knight trilogy. However, it was "Inception," a mind-bending narrative about subconscious theft, dream sharing and the power of suggestion that thrilled me the most.
Pixar Animation Studios is at the forefront of digital animation. More importantly, they are also at the forefront of experimental storytelling as "Inside Out" tells a story that takes place in the mind of a young girl who has just moved with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. It is as adventurous as you might think, but never as strange as its concept sounds.
If the cinematic adaptations are anything to go by, Stephen King's best stories are built around the vulnerability of childhood. "It" is a masterful exercise in atmosphere as a young boy goes missing in Derry, Maine, a town that has known its share of disappearances. The Losers Club, a group of young outsiders, set out to discover the person or creature behind the disappearances and follow the clues to Pennywise, a shape-shifting clown that lives in the town's sewers.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Outside of "Coraline," Laika, an animation studio known for its stop-motion films, has never enjoyed the box office success that it deserves. "Kubo and the Two Strings" is a marvelous film inspired by Japanese culture, samurai stories and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The story finds a 12-year-old boy transported across the world as he searches for his fallen father's samurai armor.
Let Me In
Matt Reeves's adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's "Let the Right One In" was wrongly dismissed as an inferior English-language remake that couldn't possibly match the quality of the original Swedish film (which is brilliant). Reeves changes the perspective of the film, but kept Lindqvist's superior revised ending. It's a coming-of-age story about a boy who is befriended by a mysterious girl who moves into his housing complex. A string of murders coincide with the girl's arrival, Who is she? More importantly, what is she? Reeves would go on to direct the excellent Planet of the Apes sequels "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014) and "War for the Planet of the Apes" (2017).
I grew up on Marvel comics and DC movies. Like many kids in the 1980s, I was drawn to the character of Wolverine, a disgruntled Canadian with healing powers and retractable claws. Hugh Jackman made his debut as the character in 2000, but after two remarkably good films there was a string of movies featuring Wolverine that were lacking. Even 2013's "The Wolverine" managed to miss the mark. I am rather fond of 2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past," but with Jackman set to retire from the character, he and James Mangold teamed to give Wolverine the cinematic curtain call he deserves. "Logan" is as much a western as it is a superhero film. It is a story of redemption and fury.
Mad Max: Fury Road
If I had to pin down a singular film as my favorite from the decade, it would be "Mad Max: Fury Road." I enjoyed George Miller's previous Mad Max films. I was thrilled that he had returned to the franchise for the first time in thirty years. I had no idea that "Fury Road" would be one of my favorite cinematic experiences of my life. The non-stop pace, Tom Hardy's presence as Max Rockatansky, those incredible stunts, the gorgeous cinematography and Charlize Theron's career redefining turn as Imperator Furiosa came together to create something that truly left the audience feeling like they had been an active participant in the mayhem.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
With 2011's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," the franchise finally realized that it needed to be more than a Tom Cruise vanity project and subsequently became twice the draw that it was before. 2015's "Rogue Nation" took what worked in "Ghost Protocol" and pushed it to the next level of cinematic insanity. Adding Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, an agent with every bit of talent and swagger as Cruise's Ethan Hunt was a stroke of genius.
A Monster Calls
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his novel (based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd) and directed by J. A. Bayona, "A Monster Calls" is a heart-wrenching drama about Connor (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is terminally ill, who is visited by a massive anthropomorphic yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). The tree, through three stories, helps Connor confront his feelings about his mother's impending death.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins took Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play and transformed "Moonlight" into one of the most beautiful films of the decade. The narrative highlights three phases (childhood, teens and young adulthood) in in the life of Chiron Harris (with performances from Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as he comes to terms with being abandoned by his drug-addled mother and picked on by his peers because they believe he is gay. The film's exploration of masculinity and the vulnerability of being different is revelatory.
Never Let Me Go
Alex Garland had to make this list. I just wasn't sure if it would be for "Annihilation," "Dredd," "Ex Machina" or "Never Let Me Go." I went with his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go," which was directed by Mark Romanek, because just thinking about the movie triggers an emotional response in me. The story is set in a world where a medical breakthrough has extended life expectancy. This comes with a cost as some people are born and raised for the sole purpose of being organ donors. Like most of these films, there is a romantic undercurrent; an unfulfilled need to be loved. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield with Sally Hawkins, Andrea Riseborough, Domhnall Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Sometimes I want a film to take me to places I'd never visit. Other times I want a film that acknowledges me. Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is the most accurate representation of what my life was like as a teenager that I've ever stumbled across. It doesn't tell my story specifically, but if you add together all the bits and pieces it perfectly describes the shared hope, loss, fear, joy and uncertainty that my friends and I felt growing up.
Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma" was the best film released in 2018. His ability to evoke the essence of his childhood experiences of growing up in Mexico City as political unrest and family troubles loomed in the background is remarkable. That he was able to do so without letting his adult perspective taint the story is something even greater. The story follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic worker for a middle-class family, as she discovers love and loss while trying to hold together a household that is on the verge of falling apart.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" finds Iranian parents Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) split over the decision to leave Iran to improve the life of their child or stay to look after a parent with Alzheimer's disease. The tension reveals a dedication to tradition challenged by the modern realities of life in Iran.
The Shape of Water
Considering "The Shape of Water" won numerous Academy Awards, you would think that it would be far and away my favorite Guillermo del Toro film from the past decade. The gorgeous Gothic drama of "Crimson Peak" and the giant robot-fighting aliens of "Pacific Rim" gave del Toro's story about woman who falls in love with an amphibious creature a run for all its worth.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" was a surprise that came at the end of 2018 and effectively had critics rewriting their end-of-year lists. "Into the Spider-Verse" was the best animated film of the year (beating out the fantastic "Isle of Dogs") and deserved Best Picture, Best Directors and Best Adapted Screenplay attention.
"Spotlight," the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church's cover-up of years of child molestation, is an important film as it highlights the need for investigative journalists. It's a film featuring a great ensemble cast with some fantastic performances from the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James and John Slattery. What sold me on the film was the way screenwriter Josh Singer and writer/director Tom McCarthy were able to communicate the emotional weight and impact the writers felt.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
My adoration for Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" has only grown since it was released in 2017. Johnson knew the lore, loved the material and made a bold film. It reminded me why I connected with Luke Skywalker as a child, captured what Star Wars meant to me in its final scene and ultimately gave me the emotional catharsis that "The Rise of Skywalker" didn't. Johnson could have also made this list for 2019's "Knives Out" or 2012's "Looper."
Writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" shows what life under strict Sharia law looks like. It is a transcendent film that changed the way I see the world.
The Tree of Life
"The Tree of Life" is a divisive film. There are those who love it and then there are those who see it as boring nonsense. I love its lyricism, the juxtaposition of the creation of the universe with the story of Jack as experience wears away his innocence and replaces it with anger, frustration and distance. Director/writer Terrence Malick isn't infallible, but he is responsible for some of my favorite films. Fans of the film will want to pick up the new extended version that Malick put together for its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.
We Were Here
The 2011 documentary "We Were Here" is an intimate look at the AIDS crisis as it revisits the impact of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber take the viewer back through to ground zero, a glimpse of the freedom the gay community felt and then the horror it was forced to endure. Pairs well with David France's 2012 documentary "How to Survive a Plague" as it explores the anger and frustration that would rise from the sadness.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Morgan Neville's documentary about Fred Rogers proves that Rogers was twice the wonderful man we thought him to be.