"The Act of Killing" remains the best documentary from 10 years ago.

As Howard Cosell once said, “Let us reflect back nostalgically upon the past.” (Thus repeating himself four times in one sentence.) Awards season always means it’s time once again for me to re-rank the movies from 10 years ago and see which have aged well or not so well. For reference, the Top 10 list I made back in 2013 is here.

1. 12 Years a Slave

How is it possible that this is more relevant now than it was back in 2013? Easy, a large swatch of conservatives became invested in whitewashing America’s history and saying that slavery wasn’t that bad. (As opposed to the fellow film critic who told me so at the time, which caused me to scream in her face.) To cure that delusion, Steve McQueen’s epic and Django Unchained make a fine double bill of movies that draw panoramic portraits of the twisted people spawned by the slave economy that blighted America.

2. Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón consulted with James Cameron and David Fincher before making this movie, and both those directors heavily experienced with cinematic special effects told him to wait five years because the technology he needed to make this space thriller didn’t exist yet. So Cuarón and his collaborators invented the tech themselves and made a uniquely harrowing film with epic scope despite its small cast and low running time.


3. Frozen

Mark Wahlberg in Daddy’s Home was right — the revelation about Prince Hans’ character was pretty cleverly hidden. I saw at the time that this Disney animated musical was revolutionary for not having the heroine’s story revolve around attracting a man, but I probably didn’t give the film enough credit for how revolutionary that was. Let’s set that right.

4. Blue Is the Warmest Color

I saw at the time that Abdellatif Kechiche was just an ass man with literary pretensions. (Seriously, even when the characters visit an art museum, he can’t stop ogling the asses of the female statues.) Notwithstanding, this is a brilliant adaptation of Jul Maroh’s graphic novel about a teenage lesbian who comes of age sexually through a destructive love affair with an older woman. Léa Seydoux has gone on to bigger things, but why isn’t Adèle Exarchopoulos a bigger star?

5. Frances Ha

This was not Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s first collaboration (that would be Greenberg), but it was the first one where Gerwig was an equal partner as screenwriter and star. This black-and-white dramedy is Baumbach’s most charming film, the story of a dancer who gets her life together and takes her underwhelming career into a more promising next phase.

6. Beyond the Hills

Cristian Mungiu and his fellow Romanians in general remain sorely underappreciated as a force in world cinema. This exorcism movie is more harrowing for having been based on a true story, and also more harrowing because you know that the woman being exorcized is not demonically possessed but mentally disturbed and more in need of a clinic than a priest. I still remember the shot of the nun glaring directly into the camera while the priest slowly kills the woman.

7. Her

We may be nowhere close to developing an OS that we can fall in love with, but even so, a great deal of Spike Jonze’s vision of the future is in the works now. The bespoke look of the film (like leather cases for smartphones) comes from Jonze’s belief that homespun, nostalgic decor will hold sway rather than overtly futuristic tech. This isn’t Scarlett Johansson’s best performance, but it’s not far off.

8. Short Term 12

And still Brie Larson has never been better than she was in this drama about a social worker who helps children in need because of her own buried childhood trauma. This was the first feature film by Destin Daniel Cretton, who based the script off his own experiences as a social worker. Look at all the future stars in this movie: Rami Malek, LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever. They’re all really good here, but none of them steal the spotlight from Larson.

9. A Touch of Sin

Jia Zhangke is another Chinese filmmaker who has cast a jaundiced eye on the capitalist Chinese Dream. The four stories in this anthology film all tell about how the inequality of wealth in China leads to violence, both by and against the rich people. Whether you take it as a landscape portrait of a brutal money-driven society or a straightforward action thriller, it’s a masterwork. The title is a nod to King Hu’s 1964 martial-arts classic A Touch of Zen.

10. Only God Forgives

This movie has taken up more and more space in my nightmares as the years have gone on. There are bad cops in movies, and then there is Inspector Chang, a psychopathic serial killer with a badge who tortures people to death in public (really, he orders everyone in a crowded nightclub to watch him while he stabs out a British lowlife’s eyes and cuts off his ears) and then goes to a karaoke bar and sings syrupy songs about falling in love for the first time and kissing her in the rain. He does not care whether his victims are pedophiles or vigilantes killing pedophiles, nor does he care about the innocent civilians or fellow cops who die because of him. He also ruins Ryan Gosling’s face, and only a true barbarian would destroy something that beautiful. Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-lit chiller set in Thailand got poisonous reviews when it came out. The critics were wrong.

11. Drug War

The action thriller becomes a hellscape in Johnnie To’s hands, as a Hong Kong narcotics cop goes undercover to infiltrate the drug kingpins, helped on by a high-level informant, who’s playing both sides against the other. It all culminates in a shootout where literally everyone dies. You’d think that after a lifetime of staging gunfights, To would have run out of distinctive ways to do it, but no.

12. Fruitvale Station

I tipped Ryan Coogler for great things when this debut feature came out, and so did many others. That promise has been fulfilled in the intervening decade, but this small-scale drama about the real-life police murder of an unarmed Black man still has enormous tragic power.

13. The East

I think I liked Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij better when they were making films. This corporate thriller about an agent infiltrating a group of eco-terrorists makes a decent case that they should come back to the big screen. They’ve been working on TV shows like The OA and A Murder at the End of the World, and the smaller scale of this film demonstrates that they’re better when they’re forced to lose the padding of a series.

14. American Hustle

David O. Russell’s last hurrah has Louis C.K. being hit in the head by a telephone. (It’s a heavy 1970s landline phone, too.) This exercise in chaos also has remarkable performances by Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, as an FBI operation met the sexual liberation of the decade. A filmmaker as mercurial as Russell can maybe reach these heights again.

15. Sightseers

Dark comedy is taking precedence on this list, innit? This British black comedy is plenty of both, as a couple of shut-ins find love on the road while they’re murdering people who litter national parks or otherwise annoy them. Lead actress Alice Lowe is also the screenwriter in this film that fits neatly into the twisted oeuvre of director Ben Wheatley.

16. Spring Breakers

Aw yeah, look at my shit! Yes, Harmony Korine’s film is more than a bit racist and has the now-problematic presence of James Franco (who’s legitimately great in this), but it also dares to take the chaotic energies of spring break to murderously violent extremes. Korine may not be much more than an inconsistent edgelord, but he is a talented one.

17. In the House

For some reason, François Ozon is underrated as a force in French filmmaking. Granted, the quality of his output has been wildly uneven, but when his country’s cinema was stuck in a rut of obeying the tenets of the New Wave, he was making tense thrillers and stylish musical comedies. This drama about a high-school student taking on a series of writing assignments from his literature teacher is a scintillating commentary on the conventions and power of storytelling.

18. Laurence Anyways

Xavier Dolan is not trans, but he watched his friend undergo gender reassignment, so he made this candy-colored, wildly experimental film about a man’s transition into womanhood. Dolan recently announced his retirement from filmmaking in his 30s before being named jury president of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I do hope he makes more films, because he has mad talent behind the camera.

19. No

One piece of evidence in my extensive “Pablo Larraín makes better films in Chile” dossier. This comedy stars Gael García Bernal as a Mexican advertising guy who returns to his Chilean homeland to run the campaign to get people to vote out Augusto Pinochet. His naïveté proves to be the saving of him. Check out my odds and ends feature for another great film Larraín made about his country’s dictator.

20. Rush

Seems like this auto racing drama was the last flash of brilliance from Ron Howard. This film about the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda was old-school even back then, which is perhaps why so few people went to see it. It’s worth seeking out for its clever script and the performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl.

21. The World’s End

What the fuck does “WTF” mean? Edgar Wright’s alien invasion movie is also a deeply funny comedy about a group of English guys finishing a pub crawl that they started in their teens. Wright and Simon Pegg haven’t collaborated since this movie, and I think the time is ripe for a reunion.

22. Before Midnight

Hey, where’d these people go in 2022? Richard Linklater’s trilogy following Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy came out every nine years like clockwork without meaning to, which is perhaps why they missed their cue last year. Let’s hope we hear from them again, and that when we do, they’re in a better place than on this Greek vacation where they hurl invective at each other.

23. Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus

When it came out, Sebastián Silva’s movie was best known for being about a group of Americans trekking through Chile searching for a legendary psychedelic cactus and Gaby Hoffman spending pretty much the whole movie naked. Those ideas sell short what this film has to say about recovering from trauma, as well as superb performances by Hoffman and Michael Cera.

24. The Selfish Giant

Kitchen-sink British realism doesn’t mean the filmmaker has to leave their imagination with the trash bins. Clio Barnard proved that in her docudrama The Arbor and this Oscar Wilde adaptation set in council flats housing about two Yorkshire teenagers who navigate their frenemyship along with poverty. Too bad Barnard’s artistry seems to have declined since this.

25. Ginger & Rosa

Sally Potter’s autobiographical drama boasts a fantastic performance by a red-haired Elle Fanning as a teenage girl who comes to the uncomfortable realization that her father is having sex with her best friend. One of the world’s great filmmakers, Potter eschews her usual visual flourishes here to take a look at all the damage that relationship wreaks on her protagonist and the people around her.

And here’s a re-ranking of the best documentaries from 2013. It takes a lot to take the top spot from Leviathan, but The Act of Killing might be the documentary of the whole decade. Also, R.I.P. Paolo Taviani, who co-directed the eighth item with his brother Vittorio.

1. The Act of Killing
2. Leviathan
3. Stories We Tell
4. God Loves Uganda
5. Room 237
6. Tim’s Vermeer
7. Blackfish
8. Caesar Must Die
9. Cutie and the Boxer
10. The Punk Singer