Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 films of the 2010s…so far

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 films of the 2010s…so far (2010 – 2017)


During an April 2018 group interview with comedian/screenwriter/director Bo Burnham (when he was in town for the Phoenix Film Festival), he rhetorically asked, “What were the aughts (2000s)?”  He also wondered how 2018 could be defined as well.   Good questions.  An exploding fascination with social media and an intensified political divide, perhaps?  That might speak to life today, but on the positive-side, this year was a great time for movies.  Well, before Monte Yazzie, Ben Cahlamer and I reveal our favorite films of 2018, our team has been posting Top 10 lists from past years.  I decided to look back at the 2010s…so far, so here are my Top 10 films from 2010 to 2017, eight years of an undefinable decade.


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10 – “The Act of Killing” (2013) This brave and bizarre documentary, from directors Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, crawls into the minds of Indonesian executioners from the mid-1960s and in the process, presents one of the most frightening films that you will ever see.  Told in present-day Indonesia, Anwar Congo and his fellow death squad leaders openly reflect upon their engagement in mass slaughter, and they even reenact their methods.  Not literally reenact, but they recreate their sordid, murderous techniques into a surreal movie-presentation for the documentary.  Now, this two-hour doc meanders nonlinearly, so we need to find our footing at times, but since the material is so unsettling, the editing-choices feel appropriate.  Although nothing else feels fitting, as “The Act of Killing” is an unshakable movie experience.



9 – “Her” (2013) – Just about everyone seems tethered to their smart phones these days, and Spike Jonze projects an evolution of this connection in his insightful science fiction picture.  Set in the not-too-distant future, a heartbroken writer (Joaquin Phoenix) develops a relationship with his handheld computer’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and Phoenix is exceedingly believable as this lost loner.  Unfortunately, Theodore (Phoenix) usually walks with his head down in crowded subways and on populated streets.  When Theodore does join a rare conversation, he sometimes mumbles his words with the utility of a soaked spiral notebook lying in a puddle.  This makes his rapport with Samantha (Johansson) all the more believable, as Jonze suspends our disbelief and warmly captures their unlikely bond.  The film also cleverly presents a forthcoming Los Angeles with subtle “Buck Rogers” touches and shots of Shanghai’s space-age skylines as a backdrop for the film’s eternally-human, emotional core. 


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8 - “The Florida Project” (2017) – The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow - sits in Orlando, Fla., but tourists from around the world do not target it as a specific destination.  It is an extended stay motel that resides near a busy freeway and a concrete neighborhood of fast food joints and discount gift shops, but to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), this is her playground!  Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine” (2015)) organically captures Moonee’s daily adventures of mischief and laughter, as she and her friends find wonder and opportunity in ways that only children can.  Baker’s film volleys between comedy and tragedy, because he presents – in full view – Moonee’s meager living conditions provided by her irresponsible, but loving, mother (Bria Vinaite).  Willem Dafoe gives the best supporting actor performance of 2017 as The Magic Castle’s weathered but sympathetic manager in a movie that offers a revealing view of America’s have-nots.   


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7 - “Toni Erdmann” (2016) – Sandra Huller is nothing short of sensational as Ines, a hardworking, driven management consultant coping with the constant barrage of practical jokes played by her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who owns a serious case of arrested development.  Winfried is simply trying to connect with Ines, but his unconventional methods push her away even further.  Writer/director Maren Ade’s 2-hour 42-minute film magically breezes and zips along due to the kinetic dynamics between father and daughter, and she unlocks deep themes and comedic twists that constantly surprise.  Ade’s picture – nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar - fabulously and unapologetically marches to the beat of its own drum. 


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6 - “Two Days, One Night” (2014) - Rightfully nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman in dire emotional and financial stress.  Her employer lets her go (under conflicting circumstances), but she reluctantly fights to keep her job and pleads her case to 16 co-workers over the course of a weekend.  Writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s revealing drama finds Sandra battling her defeatist tendencies and personal demons on a semi-methodical trek to each colleague’s home. Sandra believes she’s only marching to keep her job, but her journey - without knowing it - becomes an opportunity to discover her self-worth. This quietly powerful film reveals the human condition’s wide spectrum within a modern-day environment where downsizing is all too commonplace.


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5 – “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) – During the dead of winter in 1961 Greenwich Village, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs at the Gaslight Café.  While strumming on his acoustic guitar, he softly sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” under a bright spotlight in a dark room.  Shortly after, this performer runs into a violent situation, as the soulful moment moves into darker spaces.  This shift towards gloomier skies noticeably occurs in Llewyn’s world throughout the film.  While trying to make a steady buck in the music biz (and to find a place to sleep), he – unfortunately – is always his own worst enemy.  Leveraging Llewyn’s downer-persona, Joel and Ethan Coen’s magical mash of music, eccentric characters and contention engenders a gratifying and (purposely) prickly cinematic-concerto.  Carey Mulligan is hilarious as Llewyn’s caustic, bitter ex-girlfriend, and Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham deliver memorable supporting roles.  Last, but not least, Isaac gives the best male lead performance of 2013.  



4 - “A Separation” (2011) – Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is an absolute master of stirring up massive waves and churn within a household, and his twisty 2011 tale burrows into financial problems, deceit, the twilight of life, religious pressure, and a martial separation.  He makes us feel uncomfortable from the get-go, when Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) attempt to negotiate new terms of their marriage, but the anxiety does not let up throughout the 2-hour 3-minute runtime.  Unfortunately, their family becomes squeezed by bad luck and strife, as the screenplay pivots and darts in unexpected directions.  Farhadi purposely holds back, as he plays out critical scenes off-camera, and this results in guesswork of the real truth.  The truth is this Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar winner dives into complex, stressful nuance in the smallest of spaces while also offering broader insight into Iranian culture.  “A Separation” begs for multiple viewings.  


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3 – “Animal Kingdom” (2010) – Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but what if your most fearsome nemesis is your family?  For teenager Josh Cody (James Frecheville), this is his dilemma.  He lives with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), who happens to be the head of a crime family in Melbourne, Australia.  Josh’s uncles – Darren, Craig and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) – and a family friend (Joel Edgerton) perform armed robberies and/or sell drugs for a living, and business is booming.  The walls of justice, however, close in on the Codys, which triggers paranoia and an immediate need to tie up loose ends.  Janine may be the most devious Cody, but Uncle Pope – without question – is the most sinister in this claustrophobic, visceral thriller.  David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” launched Edgerton’s and Weaver’s successful American film careers, and led Mendelsohn to star as a villain in just about every big movie over the last few years, and with good reason.


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2 - “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) – Folk singer Sixto Rodriguez may have taken the most unlikely career trajectory in modern times, as director Malik Bendjelloul features the songwriter’s story along with the men – Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen “Sugar” Segerman – who pieced together a wild mystery.  Never heard of Rodriguez?  You are not alone, because his record producer sarcastically claims that the man only sold six records in the U.S. during the early 1970s.  Bendjelloul, Strydom and Segerman lead the audience down an unknown path and surprising destination, while Rodriguez’s songs – which carry Dylanesque vibes, catchy hooks and moving lyrics about bad luck, far-off speculation and broken relationships – fill the air.  After watching this 2013 Best Documentary Oscar winner, it will be virtually impossible to not become an instant Rodriguez fan.



1 - “Boyhood” (2014) - Writer/director Richard Linklater creates an astonishing celluloid time capsule by chronicling a boy’s upbringing in an ingenious way.  He filmed 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, for 12 years until they “both” reached 18.  Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei play Mason’s family members and contribute to his journey and their own characters’ narratives as well.   While some scenes may seem like ordinary, everyday events, others point to critical discourse that will shape Mason, for better or worse.  As the characters/actors routinely and magically become older over the movie’s 2-hour 45-minute runtime, Mason progresses and triumphs, but also stagnates and steps on emotional land mines.  Hopefully, he will embrace his successes and avoid mistakes after the age of 18.  One will never know, because Mason’s future – like all human beings – is predictably unpredictable.


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.