Mike’s Favorite Directorial Efforts of the Decade (30-21)

I make ‘favorite performance’ lists every year, and I get that these lists, more than the rest, are the most subjective one can make. Because it’s really about what you see in each performance and what you respond to; There’s no objective way to truly rate a performance as better than another. With whole films, it feels easier to make that distinction. So with these lists, I’m just gonna focus on some performances from the decade that I really, really enjoyed, and the goal here is just to shout them out and maybe get some people to watch the films if they hadn’t or reevaluate each of the performances the next time they watch the films.

These are my favorite directorial efforts of the decade:

30. Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent

This is top ten for sheer uniqueness. The entire film is comprised of paintings. That’s the film. They told a story of Vincent Van Gogh’s last days, framed around a postman’s son delivering a letter he wrote to his brother and investigating what could have been his murder. And so they took Van Gogh’s paintings and used them as a basis for the visuals, shot actors on green screen and then painted all the frames using actual artists and canvases. It belongs this high for the effort alone. If you think Laika is artistry because of all the work that goes into the stop-motion, this is actual artistry. They had to sync up every brush stroke and style to match so the frames would work as they put them together. It’s a really stunning achievement for animated filmmaking and a film that I just want to put on sometimes and let the visuals wash over me, because it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

29. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

McQueen’s made three films this decade and all three are on this list. This is the clear best effort among them. It’s just an incredible piece of work, punctuated by such incredibly powerful moments. The way he holds on that shot of Solomon hanging from the rope on the tree, as life just goes on casually around him for an uncomfortably long time, or the way he holds tight on Chiwetel Ejofor’s face during the “Roll Jordan Roll” sequence. Or the rape scene, or the scene with Fassbender confronting him about the letter he wrote — I can keep going. It’s just an incredible piece of direction that takes what could have otherwise been — and I know this is gonna sound as a dig, but it really isn’t — a ‘Spielbergian’ kind of film, a triumph over circumstance rather than showing you the reality of the circumstance, and elevates it into something so much more.

28. Sam Mendes, 1917

He shot a war film to look like it was done entirely in one take. I can’t not put it this high. It’s an incredible piece of work. A gimmick, sure, but it’s not the only gimmick on this list and it’s not gonna be the last. It’s still an amazing piece of filmmaking. I’ve seen it three times now in four months and I still love everything he did with it. Because even if it’s not entirely one-take, he had to match all this stuff to fit, in terms of rhythm and tempo. It’s an incredible feat. It really is. You don’t have to love it, but you should show it the respect it deserves.

27. Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

And this was his first film. Insane. The more time goes on, the more I love everything this film achieves, on every conceivable level. The direction is, perhaps, the most underrated part of it. Because, for one, he takes Gaga’s strengths (singing) and then takes her acting (which is good) and makes it so that it never comes across as weak. And watching the film, that could easily have been the case, especially with everything he’s doing with his performance. And he also lets the music take front and center, really going all out with the music and making it a character in the film. The sound design in this is so hugely underrated. But really — he had me from that opening scene. The way this film starts, from an almost unremarkable shot from backstage as Cooper walks forward and goes out to start his concert, then following him like they’re making a documentary about this guy or DVD extras or something and just filming him playing, never showing you his face — you just understand everything you need to know about this character in that one moment. And it’s incredible. But he also does that for the entire film. It’s really one of those that I think is only gonna grow on me the more time goes by.

26. Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name

You can just feel the beating heart of this movie on the screen. Guadagnino rightly takes a laid back approach to this film, evoking the lazy countryside of Italy and a wistful summer. And, like love, the film sneaks up on you before you realize it, and by the time that ending rolls around, you’re just so invested in these characters that it’s just devastating. This is another one of those efforts that is the measuring stick for this decade. And if I were picking just ten or so films that I would make people watch for their direction from this decade, there’s a really good chance this would be on that list. It’s a near-perfect film.

25. Greta Gerwig, Little Women

Only took four months and this got to the top 25. I might be overdoing it a bit, but I also wanted to highlight just how much I love what she did here. She took well-worn material (which had been made three times previously, all really well, too. It’s one of the few stories that I feel like I’ll enjoy each time they make it, kind of like A Star Is Born) and made it feel new and fresh, and moves the pieces around just enough to open up a whole other world of meaning for it. The other films never really got too much into them as adults and never really tried to say anything about the material. Here, she mirrors the events to Lousa May Alcott’s own life, which gives you the stuff you like while also making it feel prescient to our times, marking a story that shows a woman achieving independence and working toward an artistic merit without the need of a man. The whole frame story of Jo and the book makes the film. It’s a clarion call to female creatives to go ahead and be creative. That alone is worth a spot in the top 25. But also, the way she structures events, juxtaposing them to give them new meaning and somehow giving you the ending of the novel while also undercutting it and making it seem as it it’s not actually real within the film itself — brilliant.

24. Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

I’ve steadfastly said from the start that I prefer this film to Inception. Inception is the more influential film, sure, but I prefer this one. I love how he makes it both intimate and epic. And while Inception is all about the plot and the visuals, I don’t really care about the story so much. Here, Nolan steeps the film in story. The Earth is dying, Matthew McConaughey (a former NASA pilot) is recruited to go on a mission to potentially save it. He does it for his family, but in return, is taken away from them for basically the rest of their lives (kinda). The film doesn’t work without that scene in the middle when they get off the water planet and he realizes like 20 years have past that he’ll never get back. That’s the crux of the entire film and without that, it’s nowhere near the film it is. The ending, people can have their thoughts about, but at least that made it all feel grounded. Nolan is one of the most unique filmmakers out there, in that he makes blockbusters, but they’re all unique and personal to him in some way. Even his IP films don’t feel like IP. But this in specific — I just love how he puts it together and how gorgeous it is. He had some nice films with Wally Pfister, but his films took a whole step forward visually once he started working with Hoyte.

23. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

What an amazing film this is. Darren Aronofsky has had this weird career, in that he feels like the bizarro world director, where all his success has come in the negative sense. Other people win awards and get acclaim, while he makes these great films that get a following, but almost in the underground. It’s a weird situation. Requiem for a Dream, great indie success. The Fountain, people fucking hated it. The Wrestler, back to acclaim, but it’s always for other people. Mother! People didn’t like it. Noah? Huge failure. This remains his biggest success. And even at the time, while The Fountain is my favorite film of his by far and I loved The Wrestler, I wasn’t quite prepared for the film I got with this one. It’s this intense psychological thriller that is actually quite simple on the surface. Not much happens, and the majority of the film takes place inside Natalie Portman’s psyche. Much of what happens is all going on in there, but Aronofsky makes it work completely. The dance sequences are incredible, and he does just enough with the fantastical stuff to make you unsure of just how crazy she is. It’s kind of a perfect entity in that way. Also secretly one of the benchmark films of the decade, even people don’t realize it/won’t admit it.

22. Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

What an amazing achievement this is. I’ve really never seen a foreign film that has a 100% success ratio with people. The word of mouth on this was insane. And everyone kept telling everyone else they needed to see it. And you’d think some of them would come back and go, “It was just okay.” But no. Everyone came back and said they loved it too. It’s an incredible film, and one we need nowadays, highlighting the insane wealth disparity and the different lives lived by the rich and the poor. But it’s not even directly about that, because it’s a very specific story about two very specific families. And it just unfolds beautifully, going from this weird comedy of sorts where one family infiltrates another family’s house, then becomes something completely different, which is also just thrilling in its own way. Truly, pound for pound one of the best films of this deacde.

21. Richard Linklater, Boyhood

He shot a movie over the course of 12 years. It’s hard to argue with that as a pure effort. It just is. He had the idea to shoot 15 minutes of film every year for 12 years, and you watch a child grow up over the course of them. It can’t not be in the top 25 on that alone. It’s also a damn good movie to boot.

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