30 Best Films of the Decade (10-1)

And here are the 10 best films of the decade.

10. Get Out (2017)
The brilliance of Get Out is simple and yet so utterly profound. Take one of Black people’s deepest-seated suspicions – that even “nice” White people are horrific racists – and turn it into our worst nightmare. It’s remarkable that the film got made at all. Though, I still think Chris’ refusal to kill Rose is a copout (and weirdly undercuts the film’s smart observation that White women are often the most vile racists) that undermines the film tremendously. But even with that there’s no denying that Get Out is some of the smartest filmmaking of the decade.

9. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
In terms of sheer thrill and geek magic, no comic book film can top what Joss Whedon did with The Avengers. He figured out The Hulk, made Natasha a fully fleshed out character, and he found a way to make Clint important without being a drag. Most importantly, he made all the disparate pieces of the nascent MCU work. This is the first MCU film that feels like it was made by an auteur. With this film, it felt like we finally got the superhero film we’d been waiting for made by a filmmaker with a point of view. And because we did, nearly every other filmmaker working on these films afterward got to do a bit more than they likely would have been able to before.

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
In purely economic terms, Iron Man is the most important film Marvel has made. In purely creative terms, the Captain America trilogy within the MCU are the apex. Marvel figured out how to make Cap relevant, cast the perfect actor (Chris Evans, a revelation – man was i wrong? lol), and put their finest screenwriters and directors at the helm. The Winter Soldier is the finest of the three by a pretty wide margin. It’s the tightest, tautest film in the MCU with some of the most memorable setpieces of the decade. But what is most thrilling for me is the way the film takes seriously how a man like Cap would react to post-9/11 American foreign policy, imperialism, and technology. And that is what makes this film, in particular, perfect.

7. Creed (2015)
There are a fair number of films with Black men at the center. There are few as attuned to Black men’s inner emotional life as Creed. Ryan had to really understand what’s at the heart of the Rocky films in order to flip them and make one about a young Black man. And he did because he knows that, at their core, these films are about men who struggle with self-worth. By making a Rocky film with a Black man at the center, the film takes that core idea and deepens it. In Creed, this is about heritage. Roots. Black male self-definition.

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018)
Into the Spiderverse shakes up everything we know about Spidey by centering the film on Miles Morales. And by including multiple versions of Spidey, Into the Spiderverse makes textual what has always been subtext: anyone can be Spider-Man. Couple that wondrous bit of intersectionality with stunning animation and a simple, but emotionally resonant story and you get the best Spider-Man film yet made.

5. Selma (2015)
Given how much we evoke Martin Luther King Jr’s name in America, it’s astonishing that it took nearly five decades for Hollywood to make a film about the civil rights giant. But man was it worth the wait! Ava’s Selma does important work here by telling one aspect of King’s advocacy, and in so doing, captures his brilliance far more usefully than a traditional biopic would have done. The Selma to Montgomery march was important not just because it led to the Voting Rights Act, but because King pursued it even though he had helped to secure a major win the year before – and crucially, in spite of resistance from allies like Johnson. It’s King’s most important lesson to us – that we fight for what’s right even when it’s inconvenient for our allies – and Ava’s film does a great job of showing us why.

4. Black Panther (2018)
I wrote two pieces on this blog about how I never thought the kind of Black Panther film we deserve would ever get made. Man – I have never been so happy to be totally wrong as I am here! Ryan’s Black Panther exceeded every expectation I had and is easily the best film in the MCU to date. What’s striking is that Ryan actually told a better story than most of the stories in the original comic. The repurposing of Killmonger. The reworking of Man-Ape into a scene-stealing delight. The Dora Milaje. And most importantly, an emotional contemplation of what all African-descended people owe to one another across the diaspora. 

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
I remember being mostly bored with the original Mad Max films. I mostly remember Thunderdome for the Tina Turner song. So when I went to see Fury Road, it was really just another film. I didn’t expect to see such a stunningly feminist film, to be reminded of the beauty of practical effects, or to be surprised by what the actors – all of whom have been great before – would do. Mad Max: Fury Road is classic moviemaking, the kind of which we just don’t get much anymore. 

2. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Fruitvale Station forgoes the usual biopic and Important Black Film narrative tricks by going small. Rather than tell us that Oscar Grant is Important, we simply get to spend his last day with him. Oscar is struggling, but he’s also trying to celebrate his mother’s birthday and spend some time with his daughter. What Ryan understands is that Oscar’s specialness lies in the mundane details of a young life, not the moment of his death. And that approach makes his death at the end more emotionally devastating than we realize. 
Here’s my original review of the film.

1. Moonlight (2016)
No film impressed or moved me more than Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. There has never been a film to take Black masculinity this seriously and deconstruct it as expertly as Moonlight. We see a lot of movies about Black boys in the ‘hood. And we see what they “become,” but we’ve never seen so much of the inner life. Jenkins, heavily influenced by French director Claire Denis, takes a more elliptical approach to storytelling that thrusts us deeper inside Chiron’s psyche. There are few movies more beautifully shot. There are few movies that have this many well-crafted roles for Black male actors to play. And there is no film that was better than Moonlight in the 2010s.

30 Best Films of the Decade (30-21)
30 Best Films of the Decade (20-11)

30 Best Films of the Decade (20-11)

The list continues below.

20. Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher’s masterful adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s book was my favorite thriller of the decade. Rosamund Pike was dynamite here playing up the ambiguity so masterfully that I had no idea what to think about Amy or Ben Affleck’s “Nick” (I still haven’t read the book). I’ve since watched it a few times and it still holds up even though I now know the twist and that’s thanks to smart direction by Fincher and Pike’s performance.

19. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Barry Jenkins is the first filmmaker to adapt a James Baldwin novel. His impressionistic, elliptical style is perfect for Baldwin, a writer you read for the way he tells the story. If Beale Street Could Talk is perfect for this moment a story as much about young Black love as it is about racist police abuse. And in Kiki Layne and Stephan James, Jenkins finds the perfect actors. They understand the close-up and interact wih each other and the space like dancers in every scene they share together.

18. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan had an incredibly tough job to do following up The Dark Knight. The film is a bit overstuffed much the way all concluding chapters of film trilogies are. But there’s so much to love here from Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Gary Oldman’s tortured performance to the stunning Anne Hathaway, who is a total revelation here. The Nolan films in total are arguably the best comic book films ever made and it’s remarkable that Nolan stuck the landing.

17. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
The rebooted Apes films are perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the decade turning a dormant franchise into a sharp critique of mankind’s hubris. Rise of the Planet of the Apes reboot the franchise with style and heart. Dawn takes it to the next level with an emotionally resonant middle chapter that completely shatters you by the end. The opening sequence of the Ape community is technically and narratively brilliant. Andy Serkis’ performance here is the best he’s yet given (and he’s been dope for a very long time).

16. Top Five (2014)
I love Top Five so much. A talky relationship-oriented film for Black people. It’s literally the kind of film I’ve dreamed about. We so rarely get to see Black people having conversations where they reveal character, desire and vulnerabilities. Chris Rock has never been seen in quite this way on film and it’s been quite a long time since Rosario Dawson got to be this down-to-earth and beguiling. It’s a love letter to romantic possibility, to New York, and importantly, to hip-hop.

15. Weekend (2011)
Every once in a while a film comes along that is perceptive about the ways that gay men relate to one another. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend doesn’t soft-pedal anything, including casual drug use, but it is masterful in depicting the ways that gay men can fall in love almost in spite of themselves. Haigh understands that it’s one thing to reject heteronormativity; it’s another to know what to replace that with.

14. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
12 Years a Slave is a brutal film. Though I loved it, I haven’t watched it since that first time in the theatre. Some great films don’t need to be rewatchable to be great. I don’t know that I’d ask Steve McQueen to show less of the torture because I think it’s critical to the narrative. There are so many dimensions to American chattel slavery. And one aspect of it that is underexplored is the system of capturing freed Black people and putting them into slavery. It’s one thing to be born into slavery; it’s another to be kidnapped and enslaved. McQueen understands that and treats the material accordingly.

13. Inception (2010)
With Inception, Christopher Nolan confirmed his status as one of the best filmmakers of his generation. The film is thrilling with gorgeous visuals and the most original film – conceptually – on this list. Nolan films are experiences so I appreciate that Nolan doesn’t really talk much about the plots or the ideas of his films before they are released. 

12. Pariah (2011)
There are so, so few films about the coming of age experiences of Black girls. Fewer still films about queer Black girls. So much of the narrative about inclusion is gendered. It’s about Black men and boys. But what we are often missing are pespectives and images of Black femininity in all its variants. Pariah then is unique, and uniquely beautiful.

11. Big Words (2013)
Big Words was my favorite find of the decade. It’s of a piece with Top Five, but warmer. I only heard about it because I followed the filmmaker, Neil Drumming, on Twitter and saw him promoting the streaming release. I loved it so much. It’s a love story and a story about middle-aged Black men grappling with regrets. Dorian Missick has never been used as well as he is here. But the revelation for me is Gbenga Akinnagbe. It’s a star turn that is a wonder of stillness and steely gazes. He’s never played a character like this and it should have led to more romantic, leading man roles.

30 Best Films of the Decade (30-21)
30 Best Films of the Decade (10-1)

30 Best Films of the Decade (30-21)

The story that will be told about film in the 2010s is going to be the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A massive gamble that paid off amazingly and gave comic fans some of the greatest film moments we never thought we’d ever get to see.

But the other story of film this decade for me is the rise of Black auteurs like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Ryan Coogler and a resurgence in films made for, by and about Black folks.

All in all it was a pretty great decade for film.

Here are the 30 films that I loved most. 

30. Chronicle (2012)
There are so many things to love about Chronicle. The found footage conceit. The first glimpse of Michael B. Jordan’s movie star charisma and character actor chops. But it’s the story itself about a troubled, abused teen who gets superpowers and destroys everything that knocks you on your ass. It’s the kind of film that every first time director wishes that he could make.

29. The Best Man Holiday (2013)
I didn’t need a sequel to The Best Man. But since we got one I’m glad that it stayed true to the essence of each of the characters (and filled out characters played by Regina Hall and Sanaa Lathan who were relatively minor in the first film). The Best Man Holiday becomes shamelessly manipulative in the third act, but before that it’s astonishingly good. Every actor is remarkable. But the revelation here is Morris Chestnut. He has never been as good as he is here. He may want to have Malcolm D. Lee write for him all he time a la Spike and Denzel (or Michael B. and Ryan).

28. The Bling Ring (2013)
I really love Sofia Coppola’s work as a director. She seems to be really fascinated with stories that allow her to subvert expectations about how White girls are supposed to behave. In The Virgin Suicides, the White girls kill themselves because they can’t bear the weight of expectations. In The Bling Ring, the White girls’ entitlement is so deep-seated that stealing from their idols seems like the most logical thing in the world to do. Emma Watson is unbelievably good here, giving one of the best performances of the decade. But it’s Coppola’s camera that makes the film. This isn’t satire and it isn’t glorification. It’s an indictment.

27. Girls Trip (2017)
Malcom D. Lee has a special way of making commercial films that have a deeper center than you’d expect them to have. The Best Man is deadly serious about Harper’s betrayal. And in Girls Trip, he tells another great story about friends who’ve hurt one another. The humor is outrageous – Tiffany Haddish earned every bit of her stardom – but the stuff at the center with Regina Hall and Queen Latifah is where the film soars. So much so that when the four women end up in a big fight toward the end of the film, we feel it deeply.

26. Blue Caprice (2013)
Blue Caprice is an independent film about the DC snipers. It’s both psychological study and a tragedy. The film builds a sense of dread and terror as John Muhammad manipulates Lee Boyd Malvo into becoming a killer. We get that there’s something missing from Lee’s life and we see how John zeroes in on that. The film conveys much of this silently and through smart direction. Tequan Richmond, as Lee Boyd Malvo, is astonishing in a role with very little dialogue. This role should have netted him awards and many more roles. It didn’t and its one of Hollywood’s biggest, most egregious mistakes this decade.

25. Beyond the Lights (2014)
One of my favorite small moments in film this decade comes relatively early in Beyond the Lights. Gugu’s Noni is performing and the rapper on stage with her starts to get too aggressive. Nate Parker’s Kaz is off stage and comes to her rescue … after a beat. They had caught each other’s eye and it’s almost like she gives him permission. It’s a small moment, but it’s really powerful. It’s in that moment that we see the trust Noni has for him. She thinks she doesn’t need him, until she does. Audiences have somewhat forgotten this film in the shuffle of wonderful Black films this decade, but they shouldn’t. It’s one of the few Black love stories we got in the last 10 years and it’s wonderful.

24. I Will Follow (2010)
Ava DuVernay’s first film remains, in many ways, her most emotionally complex. A film about loss and grief, it feels a bit like a tone poem. We drop in on Salli Richardson-Whitfield’s Maye as she’s packing up her recently deceased aunt’s home. As people come in and out of the house, we get to see Maye (and some of the other folks) process that death. And it’s at once overwhelming and inviting. There’s a warmth here that I’ve rarely seen on film. I Will Follow announced the arrival of a major talent in DuVernay.

23. Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall earns the title of the best James Bond film ever made because it does the one thing the films have never bothered to do before: make James Bond into a real person. The trick – that Sam Mendes mastered admirably here – is to not lose the essential cool, the spy of it all, in the process. It also helps that Daniel Craig seems engaged in the film (he’s the only Bond who seems to openly hate the role).

22. Attack the Block (2011)
Attack the Block never tells you explicitly that Black people would be left to their own devices should an alien invasion happen in their neighborhood. But in every way, you know this to be true. It’s in every frame. It’s a refreshing way to tell a story we’ve seen before in a different way. It introduced us to the great John Boyega and opened up a bit of the diaspora to those of us who hadn’t seen our Black British brothers in their own neighborhood before.

21. Mudbound (2017)
There have been so few films about the time in American history when Black folks were sharecroppers that a great deal of the pleasure of Mudbound is seeing us in such a different way. Everything about this time is tenuous and the film does a magnificent job of dramatizing it. From the friendship between Jason Mitchell’s Ronzel and Garrett Hedlund’s to the way the Jacksons are essentially destitute and beholden to the White McAllans. But the film is matter of fact about both family’s fortunes, not depressing.

30 Best Films of the Decade (20-11)
30 Best Films of the Decade (10-1)

What Michael B. Jordan’s GQ Interview Reveals about Race

Talking about diversity and representations of blackness can be frought terrain, even now when we are seeing so many more Black men and women in key roles in front of, and behind, the camera.

I thought about this immediately when I read Michael B. Jordan’s recent GQ article. I knew immediately after reading it that it would cause a stir. And not just because of the ongoing internet outrage phenomenon – though that’s certainly a part of it – but because most of us have insufficient language for describing the desire for fuller representations of blackness in art and entertainment.

Particularly when we fall for the trap that white supremacy presents us:

“I want to be part of that movement that blurs the line between white and black,” and tells me this: “I told my team after I finished Chronicle [the successful low-budget sci-fi movie that first partnered him with Fantastic Four director Josh Trank] that I only want to go out for roles that were written for white characters. Me playing the role will make it what it is.”

…Perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is that he would like the same breadth of opportunities as the white actors he takes as career models. The two he has mentioned most often are Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling. “They made smart choices,” he says. “They played people, not being ‘a white actor playing a person,’ them playing a person. When I play a person or profession, it’s black this, black that. It’s obvious that I’m black, but why do I have to be labeled as that?” And the best way to guarantee himself a better path, he says, is to be involved when the material is conceived: “Instead of taking something conceptually written for a black guy, I want the stuff that was written for a guy.” (emphasis added)

The emphasis I’ve added really gets to the central problem with Jordan’s point of view – it is rooted in the false notion that white people get to play “raceless” roles.

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Will Smith’s Next Steps

Photo Credit: Max Vadukul for Esquire Magazine

Photo Credit: Max Vadukul for Esquire Magazine

It was perhaps inevitable that in promoting his new film, Focus, that Will Smith would have to address the relative failure of his last film, After Earth.

I don’t think anyone who has followed Will Smith’s career or grew up watching his work would be surprised that he conflates commerce with art.

I got reinvigorated after the failure of After Earth. I stopped working for a year and a half. I had to dive into why it was so important for me to have number-one movies. And I never would have looked at myself in that way. I was a guy who, when I was fifteen my girlfriend cheated on me, and I decided that if I was number one, no woman would ever cheat on me. All I have to do is make sure that no one’s ever better than me and I’ll have the love that my heart yearns for. And I never released that and moved into a mature way of looking at the world and my artistry and love until the failure of After Earth, when I had to accept that it’s not a good source of creation.

But I think what is most striking about Will’s newfound perspective on his career is that he fails to acknowledge that he’d sort of already begun the process of complicating his public image and making strange choices before After EarthHancock and I Am Legend were blockbusters, but they were also deeply subversive films that complicated (if imperfectly) the “Big Willie” persona. Seven Pounds, also a relative failure, marked the first instance of some of the weird philosophies that Will reportedly appreciates in real life showing up in his films.

After Earth, then, was just the culmination of a series of increasingly odd choices for a movie star that most people enjoyed seeing in limited ways. It was a low-concept family story at odds with its ill-conceived high-concept trappings. It was a Jaden Smith movie with Will in a clear supporting role that arrived at just the moment that the Smiths as public figures were becoming the focus of ridicule, ire, and amusement. The film’s quasi-philosophical subtext only exacerbated this.

I think the film didn’t work totally, but got a raw deal (the central relationship was sensitively and capably etched) as often happens when major movie stars make imperfect films that fail to make the money they were “supposed” to make. But it’s important to state that Will Smith took a chance that Americans would come out to see a major sci-fi motion picture with a Black family at the center. That, to me, is an admirable move for an actor at his level whose appeal was based on the silly notion that he’d transcended race.

So what does that mean for what Will will do next? I think it’s probably likely that his idea of “dangerous” choices going forward could be less dangerous than what he might be suggesting.

Right now, it seems like more of the same: big movies, movie star charisma. Focus is the opening salvo, but the previews suggest the film relies mostly on Will’s charm and Margot Robbie’s baffling “It Girl” status. It’s too soon to tell on that front, but a dangerous choice might have been to push for a black woman to play Robbie’s role. Suicide Squad is a risk only in the sense that fanboys and fangirls are waiting to unleash their claws on Warner Bros’ bizarre handling of DC Comics properties.

I’d like to see him play a bad guy in a way that forces him to go beyond mere charm. Speaking of charm, I’d like to see it put to good use in a black romantic dramedy with someone like Regina Hall, who could match him in dramatic and comedic acting. I’d like to see him do something small like Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness that wasn’t so consumed with deracinated characterization. I’d like to see him throw his still-considerable weight behind other black filmmakers.

And I’d hope that the relative failure of After Earth doesn’t put him off of black sci-fi films. We still need someone to produce an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due story.