So…how’d you spend your New Year’s? Me, I skipped parties, parades, and a solemn evaluation of what I shall do in the 2020s to right a life misspent (all that time lost, watching The People’s Court…) and instead crashed on my couch to re-screen the final ten of my favorite genre films of the 2010s. It was heaven. Only downside: repeatedly going, “Wow, I forgot how good this film was. This has to be the best of the decade. No, wait. This film. This is the best! God-dayum, I forgot about this one! This…” You get the idea.
As is my nature, I’ve composed my list with more focus on the smaller, more independent, more daring films of the past ten years. It wasn’t that the mainstream didn’t deliver some impressive works, just that I prefer titles that creep in on the margins—and the 2010s delivered a rich supply of impressive, indie efforts: science fiction films that played with genuine, speculative concepts; horror films that were truly frightening; fantasy films that dared subvert the standard templates.
One of the things that did seem to stand out was the explosion of new voices and new perspectives in the past decade. Whether it was the cast in front of the cameras or the people sitting in the director’s chair, if you were looking in the right places, the 2010s delivered tales from refreshingly different (put bluntly, non-white, non-male) points of view. In an industry that would typically point to something like Black Panther and cry, “There! You see? Diversity!” and go back to maintaining the status quo, there was a genuine richness in the decade’s creative provenance that made these proclamations more than just defensive posturing.
So, here is my list of the top ten films of the 2010s, skewing away from the comfortable, big-studio choices (you kids can argue the MCUs and Terminator-verses among yourselves) and with the stipulation that this is the list as it stood when I threw up my hands and cried, “I can’t do it anymore! You’re all winners in my book!”
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10. Predestination (2014)
It was not exactly a slam-dunk, taking Robert Heinlein’s twisty mind-game of a short story “ ‘—All You Zombies—’ ” and making it work as a feature film, but the Spierig Brothers—Michael and Peter—managed it swimmingly. Staying remarkably true to the source material—in the mid-’70s, a young man tells his life story to a bartender, unaware that the bartender is a time-traveler who’s had more of an impact on the young man’s life than he could ever imagine—the Spierigs construct a surrounding, mad-bomber framework to give the story structure, and bring the tale to life with considerable visual panache and a clever appreciation of period style.
And while remaining true to the story’s timeline means that the film takes place in an alt-reality where, by the ’70s, the U.S. has an active space force being serviced by government-recruited prostitutes (Heinlein, remember?), and while the mad-bomber overlay seems calculated to calm nervous investors by ensuring that the film wasn’t just going to be a nest of interleaving paradoxes, what the tinkering brings to the exercise is an emotional power lacking in the written original. Stars Ethan Hawke as the bartender and Sarah Snook as the [SPOILER] young man have great chemistry together, and even the mad-bomber aspects are integrated in a way that enhances Heinlein’s original concepts. Predestination was snuck into a handful of theaters and almost immediately snuck out, but the shoddy treatment by its distributor doesn’t negate its stature as a bracing examination of the quest for purpose, and the complex conundrums of gender identity.
9. Under the Skin (2013)
You couldn’t get more B-movie than this: A sexy alien succubus trolls the streets of Scotland in a van, luring unwitting men to her home, where they’re trapped and digested in a roomful of viscous goo. Roger Corman would’ve knocked such a project off in an afternoon, but under the direction of Jonathan Glazer—adapting the Michel Faber novel with a co-writing assist from Walter Campbell—the tale transcends its exploitive premise.
Using hidden cameras to film star Scarlett Johansson as she engages in impromptu conversations with random civilians (whose thick brogues enhance the otherworldliness of the encounters), taking a few pages from 2001 in a trippy opening sequence, casting actor/disabled activist Adam Pearson as one of the alien’s more soulful victims, and scoring it all with composer Mica Levi’s eerie, ambient score, Glazer casts a cool, mesmerizing spell over a narrative that sees a detached, extra-terrestrial intelligence dealing with immersion in our chaotic humanity, and ultimately coming to grief because of it. It’s as if actual aliens had taken up posts behind the camera, to present the tragedy from their point of view.
8. Ex Machina (2014)
It’s “Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume” given a Silicon Valley rewrite: A young employee of a Steve Jobs-like billionaire wins a much-coveted opportunity to spend a week with the reclusive genius in his isolated redoubt. There, the young man discovers he’s to take part in a Turing Test with Ava, an AI implanted in the body of a disturbingly sensual female android. As the week progresses, and the apprentice gets the full measure of the depths of his mentor’s sociopathy, the film starts to turn on the dual mysteries of what might be the actual goals of the tests, and who, in fact, is the monster in this trio?
Ex Machina garnered considerable praise for special effects that turned actress Alicia Vikander’s body into a mechanical marvel of gray web fabric and transparent plastic—leveraging the inherent Uncanny Valley-ness of CG to make her nakedness both alluring and unsettling. But mere looks would have been for naught without Vikander’s subtle limning of Ava’s otherness, at once beguilingly vulnerable and boldly intelligent. With equally fine performances from Oscar Isaac as the entrepreneur-who-would-be-God and Domhnall Gleeson as his not-quite-as-unwitting-as-the-mad-genius-would-prefer pawn, writer-director Alex Garland’s film turns into a three-hander that mixed the seductive and the disconcerting, the technological with the all-too-human.
7. Get Out (2017)/Us (2019)
Okay, I’m cheating by shoehorning in an extra film. To paraphrase George Carlin, it’s my list, I make the rules. But writer/director Jordan Peele’s first two films are of a piece, both melding inventive horror, sharp wit, and subversive social commentary to create a pair of truly original tales of terror.
What was most surprising about Peele’s rise to horror prominence was that it seemed to come from nowhere, with the director previously better known for his work in the eponymous sketch show Key and Peele (along with the equally talented Keegan-Michael Key). If you looked closer, though, it became obvious that Peele had always been successful in recognizing and walking the dividing line between the hyperbolics of humor and the grotesqueries of horror (with just a bit of finessing, either of the two films’ scenarios would have worked as sketches in K&P). The fact that Peele had a facility for brilliant comedy and was a lifelong horror fan only made logical the leap from one discipline to the other.
That leap couldn’t have come at a better time. Whether it’s the tale of an interracial couple visiting the girlfriend’s white liberal parents, only to discover the left has its own brand of racial exploitation; or the examination of a comfortable, upper-middle-class family who, in having their home invaded by their violent doppelgangers, gets a first-hand lesson in the growing economic divide, Peele’s films are the rare examples of genre filmmaking that manage to provoke discussion long after the closing credits had rolled. Come for the chills, leave with an altered insight into our society. That, I think, is a ticket price well-spent.
6. The Witch (a.k.a. The VVitch: A New England Folk Tale – 2015)
In writer-director Robert Egger’s stunning debut feature, a 17th-century family is forced into exile by the town elders for being too strident in their beliefs. (Think on that for a second: these people are accused of being too religious… by Puritans.) They establish a homestead on an isolated plot of land, but faith—and their former, comfortable, decidedly non-agricultural life back in England—aren’t enough to coax crops from the ground, much less protect them when dark, mysterious forces begin assailing various members of the clan.
Egger’s lo-fi production relies primarily on superb performances—particularly Anya Taylor-Joy as the protagonist, a teen who understands more of the family’s predicament than she can ever let on—as well as a lush and menacing mise-en-scène, and a star turn by an especially charismatic goat (who, according to testimony of the crew, would have given Christian Bale a run for his money in terms of temperament). The capper, though, is what Egger reveals in a closing title card: That his scenario is based on accounts and dialogue taken from contemporary sources. It raises the question of whether what we’ve seen is a tale of the supernatural, or of events seen through eyes blinkered by deprivation, superstition, and sexual sublimation. Whether, in the end, you determine that you’ve witnessed a soul condemned to damnation, or a person surrendering to the liberation of madness, The Witch offers an intelligently sculpted, naturalistic rethinking of otherworldly menace.
5. Coherence (2013)
Don’t you hate it when you throw a dinner party and, in the middle of the festivities, a comet opens up an interdimensional gateway that scrambles guests across various planes of the multiverse? Just try getting anyone to concentrate on even one round of Cards Against Humanity after that.
An Exterminating Angel with a tad more empathy for the humans trapped in its twisting complexities, Coherence takes an incisive look at relationships in the 21st century as a group of comfortable, Southern Californian partygoers struggle to decipher the dilemma in which they’re trapped, and try to figure out who, having departed the scene and returned, is still the same person. Director James Ward Byrkit, in only his second feature film foray (with no follow-up yet on the horizon), unfolds the mystery with keen subtlety, while bringing natural, engaging performances from a cast that includes Emily Baldoni, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Maury Sterling, Lorene Scafaria, Lauren Maher, Alex Manugian, and Hugo Armstrong. With minimal effects work and restricted largely to its dining room set, Byrkit manages to steer his tale to a conclusion that is at once disturbing and sadly poignant, a brainteaser with soul.
4. The Fits (2015)
It’s going on close to thirty years since the term “Magic Realism” was bandied about with any frequency. For a while—pretty much since the success of the Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate (1992)—it seemed to be the next big (sub-)genre, a way of taking a dramatic—frequently romantic—scenario and elevating it with a subtle dash of fantasy. U.S. studios jumped on the trend—creating star vehicles for the likes of Winona Ryder and Matt Damon—and eventually jumped right off, when it turned out that the concept only seemed to work when the project was being produced anywhere but within the United States. Still, magic realism has hung around the fringes, cropping up occasionally in more independent-minded productions. And with The Fits, director Anna Rose Holmer found a way to bring a patina of otherworldliness to the inner-city environs of Cincinnati.
Using a documentary-style camera and a subtle ambiance of horror, Holmer delves into the world of Toni (Royalty Hightower), a young girl seeking to fit in with her high school dance team, just as members of the troupe are being struck down by strange, inexplicable seizures. Pushing adults to the periphery—and pulling a quiet, dazzling performance from Hightower—the director manages to convey with notable empathy the world as seen through the eyes of a child standing on the precipice of adulthood, gazing with both envy and fear at her older peers, with their confident physicality and their boyfriend troubles. Using the mysterious fits as a metaphorical harbinger of impending life-changes—whether one is ready for them or not—and capping the story with a ravishingly transcendent finale, the film manages capture both the chaos and triumph of crossing into the unexplored terrain of growing up. In telling her city-bound tale, Holmer achieved a not-inconsiderable feat: making the specific universal, and reminding us how it felt.
3. The Babadook (2014)
The Joys of Motherhood arrived at Amelia’s (Essie Davis) doorstep, took one look, and turned tail and ran. Saddled with guilt over the death of her husband while he was rushing her to the hospital to give birth to her child, and struggling to cope with the clinging, difficult son she bore (Noah Wiseman), the poor woman hasn’t quite found the formula to make single motherhood work. And that’s before a strange pop-up book appears one bedtime story night, a book whose pages conjure the bloodthirsty spirit, Mister Babadook.
In a genre presently overstuffed with pallid slasher knockoffs and ironic sendups of internet trends, The Babadook is that rare horror film that genuinely terrifies. Part of that is Australian director Jennifer Kent’s ability to build a menacing atmosphere out of the indestructible pages of an artful, rough-hewn kid’s book, the claustrophobic environs of a house haunted by untimely death, the ability to digitally leverage for maximum scares ancient silent films glimpsed on the telly, and the near-subliminal manifestations of a top-hatted, menacing demon (modeled, in fact, on a Lon Chaney character from the long-lost film London After Midnight). But what really seals the deal is the director’s ability to get into the head of a woman pushed to the edge, and making us painfully aware that such a person could be capable of anything. It’s the not-knowing that truly chills the blood, and that ultimately lends the film’s resolution such a powerful resonance. The Babadook presents itself as a film about a dark spirit, but in the end is about a more human darkness, and what we need to do to survive it.
2. Train to Busan (2016)
Zombies on a train! Sure, why not? We’ve had ‘em in shopping malls, we’ve had ‘em in pubs, there’s probably a film out there where they invade the set of The Bachelor (I haven’t seen that one yet. I’m not sure I’d want to). And Korean director Yeon Sang-ho magnificently works the variations within his confined stalking grounds, striating the titular train car-by-car into safe- and red-zones, diverting paths to safety up into precariously narrow runs of shelving, and throwing a touch of surrealism into who succumbs to the pandemic. There may be worse ways to go than to be consumed by a pack of rabid high-school baseball players, but I can’t immediately think of one.
More, Sang-ho manages to take the universal terror of a world overrun by the walking dead and make it distinctly Korean, working in some tart politics—a septuagenarian muses on how, in the old days, the carnivorous hoard would have been carted off to a re-education camp—and some apparently present-day concerns surrounding the fate of the homeless. And by making the focus characters a work-obsessed, divorced father (Gong Yoo) seeking to bond with his daughter (Kim Su-an) while bringing her to her mother, the director also incorporates a brand of emotional drama unique to his nation. Any good zombie film can make you fear the prospect of humanity under siege; Train to Busan is the film with enough humanity that you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re in tears by the end.
1. Arrival (2016)
Could a film be more purely science fiction than Arrival? It’s about aliens landing on Earth! The entire plot is about figuring out a way to communicate with them! The main protagonists are academics—a linguist (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner)! There are oblique references to 2001 (again) in the design of the alien craft, games of perspective with shifting gravity wells, and an entire alien language commissioned by director Denis Villeneuve specifically for the film. All they’d need is a sequence where a whiteboard takes center stage, and they’d be all set. Oh wait, they’ve got that, too.
So, yes, SF all the way. But then again, no. Based on Ted Chiang’s short tale, Story of Your Life, Arrival is more than its hard-core trappings. And the beauty of it is that you don’t know how deep the film goes—and how profoundly you’ll be moved—until close to the end, when Villaneuve springs a revelation that rewrites all you’ve seen (and not in that, “Gee, it was a computer simulation all along!” way). It’s an art to structure a story so that by the end you’re looking at events in a completely different context. It’s masterful to tell a time travel story that succeeds in touching the heart. It’s a stone miracle to then let that emotion open your eyes to the realization that we are all time-travelers in a way, with the capacity to revisit and understand the value of the past, in its full measure of joy and pain. Getting real science fiction on the screen is always a happy event. Letting that tale then dramatically alter your perspective on life is cause for celebration.
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Just to get ahead of those of you who are wondering why Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color isn’t on the list, the only thing I can say is that I wasn’t in quite the right head for it upon my initial viewing, and the list I’ve composed was so teeming with worthy alternatives that I didn’t feel particularly motivated to revisit the film. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t welcome to make the case for Carruth’s parable of interconnectedness in the comments below, if you feel so inclined.
And that goes for anyone else who feels I missed their favorite film of the past ten years, be it mainstream, indie, foreign, whatever. Your platform is below, keep it polite and have at it. I’m frankly dying to see if there are any gaps in my viewings that I should promptly rectify!
Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!