If box office numbers dictated the best movies of the decade, four of the 10 greatest films of the decade would have "Avengers" in the title.
Yes, even Avengers: Age of Ultron.
But quantity of dollars raked in does not translate to quality, at least not to Free Press critics Alison Gillmor and Randall King, who for the most part chose singular cinematic fare over money-spinners (although both came up with a franchise entry apiece).
Jordan Peele’s feature debut is the best horror film of the decade, not just because it’s scary but because its unlikely medical terrors resonate so true to the real world. Daniel Kaluuya grounds the film with his performance as a black man visiting his girlfriend’s white liberal family, only to uncover a shocking conspiracy that explores the far borders of white privilege. Come for the scares. Stay for the humour, which is scalpel-sharp.
What happens when an iconoclast like Lars von Trier takes on an end-of-the-world movie? Upending the tropes of the genre, he offers up a contrarian manifesto of existentialism: We are alone in the universe. Death is inevitable. There is no hope. Yet there is breathtaking beauty in this tale of two sisters: the emotionally fragile, self-destructive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her seemingly stable sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), not the least of which is Dunst’s perversely lovely nude scene, bathing beatifically in the reflected light of a stray planetoid that threatens to wipe out Earth. And there is this bonus small comfort: when the going gets depressing, the depressives get going.
Action trumps dialogue in George Miller’s triumphant reboot of his Mad Max franchise, starring Tom Hardy as an eccentric variation of Mel Gibson’s grief-crazed angel of vengeance from the original trilogy. Trumping Max is Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s aptly named renegade who takes off in a war truck in search of a hidden paradise in a post-apocalyptic realm, and she’s taken a grotesque dictator’s harem with her, forming a mini-matriarchy. It all goes to show that, even in a lovingly detailed post-apocalyptic milieu of de-evolution, even a 70-something filmmaker like Miller can evolve.
The best comic book movie of the decade was a box office bomb. That would be Scott Pilgrim, which saw Brit director Edgar Wright stray from his English comfort zone (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) to film in wintry Toronto for an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Canuck comic series, which follows the title slacker/rocker (Michael Cera) on his romantic quest to defeat his dream girl’s "seven evil exes." It’s just joyfully creative in the way Wright weaves the lexicons of video games and rock into the narrative but that shouldn’t distract you from the fact this is also skilled genre filmmaking of a high order. Tonally, it may be one of the most Canadian films of the decade.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson was not as interested in Scientology as he was in the loaded dynamic between an L. Ron Hubbard-like would-be prophet named Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his would-be apostle Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix). The seemingly dissonant performances of the leads yield an unexpected harmony, particularly in a scene in which the two men find themselves in adjoining jail cells, acting according to their opposite instincts. The film’s final encounter between Dodd and Freddie yields to the happiest ending you’ll ever get in a P.T. Anderson movie: real carnality trumps fake spirituality.
There’s a terrifying singularity to Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination of trauma, memory and denial, in which the American-born British documentarian excavates the mass killings in Indonesia during the Suharto regime by asking the killers to re-create their acts of violence as cinema. As an aging mass murderer performs for the camera, this unrepeatable hybrid project becomes a harrowing investigation into human cruelty that also radically tests the limits of the documentary form.
Actor-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s radiant, revelatory and resolutely female coming-of-age story feels fresh and necessary. Hollywood practically runs on Daddy Issues, but the mother-daughter relationship has been left largely unexplored, which is why it’s such a cinematic treat to see Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan, in two terrifically empathetic performances, channelling hugely complicated emotions into niggly little issues like hanging up clothes.
Based on the beloved children’s books, these films are sweetly perfect as stories about a whimsical little bear who wears a duffle coat and eats marmalade sandwiches, while also functioning as unexpectedly effective commentaries on immigration (Paddington) and prison reform (Paddington 2). The Paddington Cinematic Universe is also original, inventive and fun, stacked with classic comedy references, packed with every British character actor going and finished with optimistic humanism.
Exquisitely controlled and darkly perverse, Paul Thomas Anderson’s well-tailored tale of a control-freak couturier (a brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis) and his model-lover (Vicky Krieps) might seem like just another story of a tortured male genius and his hapless female muse. But Krieps’s velvet-and-steel performance and some sly scripting turn this into an idiosyncratic love story with a kinky twist on gender and power.
Yes, I know, there’s that cuckoo-crazy interlude with the Big Bang and the protozoa and the dinosaurs, but somehow this odd, imperfect Terrence Malick drama has stayed with me while more consistently crafted films have faded away. With allusive visual imagery and hushed, introspective voiceovers, Malick examines family, faith and loss, moving from the central character’s postwar Texas childhood to contemporary urban anomie while treating vast cosmic possibilities and small domestic details with the same lyrical vision.
Alison Gillmor honourable mentions: The Babadook, Carol, Dunkirk, The Death of Stalin, First Reformed, Love & Friendship, Paterson, Roma, Spotlight. And I second Randall on Get Out, The Master, Mad Max Fury Road and Melancholia.
Randall King honourable mentions: The Raid, Hereditary, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Blade Runner 2049, Parasite, Snowpiercer, Winter’s Bone, Wild Tales, The Shape of Water and I, Tonya. And I second Alison on The Act of Killing, Paddington and Paddington 2.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.