As with my best games of the decade list, you could ask me a few weeks from now and get a completely different output of films from the 2010s. As it was, I didn’t want to have to compare my love of arthouse films against my enjoyment of the big bombastic blockbusters so I decided to create separate lists for the two and still wound up with at least 20 options for each list that I’d be perfectly content to see in my top tens. But for the sake of getting something up and published, here are the ten arthouse options I’m going with today.
10. The Last Five Years
There are absolutely better films that got cut from the list to squeeze this one on here (RIP La La Land, Arrival, and A Quiet Place to name a few), but The Last Five Years has been one of my favorite musicals ever since I was first introduced to Jason Robert Brown in a “Singing for Actors” class in college. I’ve never been fortunate enough to see a live production of the show – though I watched a bootleg recording many many times in my younger years – so this was my first real opportunity to see the story play out in a way that wasn’t just me singing along to the soundtrack or a grainy, shaky old QuickTime movie. Bonus: the casting of Anna Kendrick (one of my favorite actresses) and Jeremy Jordan (who also gets a nod for Newsies on my Best Musicals of the 2010s list) was fantastic.
9. Inception (2010)
The fact that Inception is this low on my list is probably heresy to a lot of people. It’s certainly not intended as a slight but more that my fondness for Nolan just seemingly hasn’t really held up in favor of other offerings. The film has some of the most astounding visuals of any entry on this list and an incredible ensemble, but I also realized when gathering films for consideration that I just really hadn’t thought about this one all that much for the past few years so putting it too much higher would just feel a bit disingenuous.
8. Baby Driver (2017)
This is probably the trickiest entry on this list. It was originally my Best Movie of 2017 but that was in a mostly pre-”Fuck off Kevin Spacey” kind of world. I still think Edgar Wright is a brilliant filmmaker here though and the ensemble is filled top to bottom with great performances. And while I am by no means a “music guy,” Baby Driver has an incredible soundtrack that Wright weaves expertly through the action of the film. This could have probably been argued on the Blockbuster list (as I’m just realizing I’ve placed another Edgar Wright film on that side of things) but I think its smaller story and focus led me to include it here.
7. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
From my original Best of 2017 movie immediately into a film that has stuck with me longer than I ever expected it would. I never saw the first Blade Runner (and still haven’t as of publish) but I really loved what Denis Villeneuve had presented in Arrival so I sought this one out. Ryan Gosling is wonderfully stoic as K, this was my first introduction to Ana de Armas, who is simply magnetic onscreen as Joi, and holy crap is this a beautiful film. Virtually every frame could be included in tweets from the One Perfect Shot twitter account. I get the complaints I saw about this being a slow film, but I just loved every minute in that world and the neo-noir style was a refreshing change of pace from so much of what I was used to at the time.
6. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
I technically didn’t actually get around to seeing this film until this year…as in 2020…so it’s entirely probable that there’s a healthy bit of recency bias around this entry. But dammit if this just isn’t a fantastic coming of age story. Hailee Steinfeld is another actress who had an incredible breakout decade in the 2010s, bursting onto the scene in True Grit and she’s mesmerizing here. Woody Harrelson is an excellent foil-slash-confidant as the teacher she turns to when her world turns upside down. And there are just so many wonderful nuggets of emotional truth in this film that I wanted to celebrate by including it here on the list (with apologies to another honorable mention Perks of Being a Wallflower that would have probably taken up this spot otherwise).
5. Birdman (2014)
I’m a sucker for the “one-shot” aesthetic. I absolutely loved what it does for the direction of God of War. I had almost no interest in seeing 1917 until I heard about that element of the film and it’s hard to imagine that film not being near the top of my Best of 2020 list. And I think Birdman represents the first time I can really point to seeing just how impactful that experience can be on film. As someone who spent years working in live theatre, where every performance is a “one-shot” take, the thrill and excitement inherent has always been something that I felt was lacking in film. And even in instances like Birdman, I can appreciate that there’s a lot of camera trickery masking the cuts but I can turn my brain off enough to just enjoy what they’re trying to present to me. Also, Michael Keaton is phenomenal and Edward Norton is hilariously self-deprecating over his notoriously difficult on-set persona.
4. Whiplash (2014)
This was a really hard and powerful watch when I first saw it in theaters. I grew up as a drummer but I realized pretty quickly I didn’t have the passion and drive for it that Miles Teller’s Andrew does in this film. It’s still a fascinating look at a road not traveled for me though and the brutal lengths I would have had to go through if I had really wanted to pursue that path. J.K. Simmons is absolutely brutal as the demanding Fletcher, a.k.a. the music teacher from Hell. But this was also the film that introduced me to Damien Chazelle and between this and La La Land, I remember saying that I would gladly keep sitting through whatever films about jazz that he wants to continue making.
3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
I know I must have grown up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was a staple of PBS during those formative years alongside Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow but as I near 35, those memories from 30 years ago are barely rattling around in my brain anymore. All of this to say that I went into Won’t You Be My Neighbor? without some profound memories fueling my interest in Fred Rogers. In truth, I was mostly sold on it after seeing trailer after trailer at Alamo Drafthouse screenings. But I was blown away by just how sincere the man was, as showcased throughout the film by interviews with those who knew him best as well as historical footage of the man himself. One moment near the end of the film has the documentarian asking a lot of the interviewees to take a moment to think about someone who had shown them a kindness, a common exercise Fred would ask of people, and I remember so vividly being overwhelmed in that moment of silence as I thought of those who have helped me out in recent years and how easy it is to forget to really appreciate the acts of kindness we can perform for one another.
2. Jojo Rabbit (2019)
I already wrote a bit about my love for Jojo Rabbit for my Best of 2019 list so no point in trying to reinvent the wheel too much here. Taika Waititi is incredibly talented. The young actors in the film are incredibly talented. Scarlett Johansson delivers what might be my favorite performance of hers to date. And because I failed to highlight him in other write-ups, Sam Rockwell is a freaking delight.
1. Lady Bird (2017)
Never have I been so surprised by how much I related to a character as when I experienced Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird for the first time. Apart from the bullet points that she lives in Sacramento instead of Phoenix and that she’s a she and I’m a he, we lived remarkably similar lives in our respective 2002-03 high school senior years. Greta Gerwig (whose recent Little Women could have easily earned a spot on this list as well) managed to capture my nostalgia for that time in a way I didn’t even realize I felt. Historically, I have viewed my life as a series of periods that have more or less been compartmentalized: high school ended and I mostly cut ties and moved on to college. College ended and I mostly cut ties and moved on to a life in my theatre community. Then I transitioned away from that into my current space in my gaming and online circle of friends. So to be transported back to those high school years that I really hadn’t thought too much about for 15 years in such a visceral way was profoundly impactful and it stands out as my favorite arthouse film of the past ten years. Lady Bird didn’t get the love it deserved in my original Best of 2017 list because I just didn’t get around to seeing it until early 2018 so I’m glad I can finally right that wrong here.