2010s, Best of list

25 Essential Films of the 2010s

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By Roderick Heath

Ten years ago I wrote a list of what I dubbed essential works of the new millennium’s first decade. When I read the list today I see some movies I wouldn’t put on there now, by filmmakers I’ve entirely lost faith and interest in, and a few movies my enthusiasm for then baffles me now. Those stand alongside choices that still give me pleasure. Often it’s the picks that seemed slightly daffy then that still feel the worthiest to me.

The last decade of cinema has skidded about like a seismograph chart, agonising, terrible, brilliant, endlessly inventive, profoundly lazy, embattled and almighty. As a mass-market art form cinema has narrowed to an excruciating degree in its viable stories and styles. Gaudy riches still turn up with a little digging the world over, and yet as such ore has widely and easily available as never before, at the same time general appetite for it has become more stringently parsed, and the ways we watch cinema increasingly hermetic and detached from a communal experience.

But I’m not interested in launching any screeds or prophecies at the moment, but in celebrating a selection of some of my favourite cinema of these past ten years. Movies that represented for me a glorious swathe of creative energy, movies that, for whatever reason, vibrate with a specific kind of life in my memory, imbued with mysterious flesh in pursuing their chosen aesthetic to the limit. As I usually do when composing such surveys I maintain a rule of one representing work per director.

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12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was understandably greeted as a great moment in issue moviemaking, offering an often agonising portrait of the foulest aspects of American slavery as experienced by Solomon Northup, filmed with unwavering clarity and helping to fill out a wide gap in screen culture. But it was also a clinical, fixated examination on themes introduced in McQueen’s previous films, applying precise psychology and tensile dramatic force to the dynamics of power as revealed in the tale, sifting through the perverse undercurrents binding owned to owner. In a film about a system that aimed to dehumanise, McQueen instead managed the tricky task of identifying precisely what was human about it.

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Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

One of the most original adaptations of classic literature of recent years, Wright’s best film to date was a throwback to the days of the Free Cinema in refusing to let filmic form or cultural inheritance ossify. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard turned Tolstoy’s novel into a meta-theatrical event, confining it mostly to a sound stage/playhouse imbuing events with both aspects of recessive luxury and claustrophobic intensity, and capturing the swooning, self-dramatising romanticism of its heroine right up to her last moments. The result was far too dynamic for the Downton Abbey crowd and not solemn enough for awards season. Dario Marianelli’s score was a strong candidate for the decade’s greatest.

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The Assassin (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2015)

Several movies on this list represent a solitary release for major directors in the decade, which says much about the way cinema’s most singular visionaries have too often been left stranded in the contemporary movie landscape. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Hou’s lone outing blended his familiarly minimal yet lushly decorated aesthetic with a venture into popular genre fare, distilling its folk tale basis to a dreamy evocation of a past that never was, described in hovering images that hunted for both great beauty and an essential motif about identities chosen and imposed.

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Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

Bastards didn’t net the same level of attention as some of Claire Denis’ other films in the past few years, but it was the one that stuck in my memory like a splinter. A contemporary noir film blended with a particularly twisted take on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Bastards was occasionally repugnant in portraying the lowlifes amongst the high life, conveyed through an aesthetic pitting the elegance of film against the seedy implications of video, where people become a tradeable commodity and everyone finally knows which side their bread’s buttered on. Vincent Lindon was marvellous as the ultimately upright but also fatally outmatched hero.

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Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

A colossal flop that might well have ended Michael Mann’s directing career for good, Blackhat is nonetheless the one film I keep coming back to as a pure product of the 2010s, a seemingly straightforward thriller that keeps unveiling new layers and textures with each viewing. Certainly no other release seemed quite as engaged with the actual state of things in the mid-decade, from the radically shifting balances of geopolitical power to the indifference of the warriors out on the liquid frontiers of cyberspace, and the proxies of barbarity and justice enacted Einstein’s predicted future war in devolving from sublime codes and ethereal streams to brute intimacy of steel and lead.

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Drug War (Johnny To, 2013)

Hardware to Blackhat’s software, Drug War saw Johnny To abandon the crystal castles and shadowed alleys of Hong Kong and cross to the Chinese mainland’s grey-flowing highways, to portray the drug trade in concert with perceiving a great, unmoored populace afloat and adrift on the tides of a great new capitalist dream, people and product alike on the move. Earthier and more procedural than many of To’s more operatic crime flicks, Drug War’s climactic massacre, and the ingenious punchline of its antihero literally chained to a victim of his machinations, managed nonetheless to offer a beggaring spectacle of life and death, authority and outlawry in death grapple.

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Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

The 2010s saw many attempts to revive the musical, but most proved lumbering and arduous if not hideously irrelevant. Girl Walk // All Day was improvised on the streets of New York as a mixture of internet-enabled happening and digi-neorealist fusion of On the Town and Joyce’s Ulysses, built around Girl Talk’s mash-up album. Krupnick provided one of the keenest cultural artefacts ever assembled, fleet-footed and ebullient in its unforced naiveté, a love-letter to both polyphony and the polyglot, impish but also firm in its defence of creative verve and the individual’s place both amidst and apart from the community, in the face of consumerist folderol and urban detachment. Infinite plaudits to stars Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, and John Doyle.

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The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai, 2013)

A nominal biopic of Ip Man, The Grandmaster proved rather one of Wong’s town square-like narrative conjunctions where his assailed but persisting hero fought for attention amidst forgotten rivals for folk hero status, as a way of exploring the ruptures that have defined modern China’s identity as well as giving new, macrocosmic dimensions to Wong’s eternal themes of frustrated ardour and personal evolution. All was wrapped up in some of the most ravishing visuals ever committed to film.

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The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

It’s possible that Tarantino’s most recent work Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood will firm up as his best film, and Django Unchained will probably stay his most popular. But for the moment I’m sticking with The Hateful Eight, a more contentious work, as the exemplar of his 2010s labours. A bleak and pitiless, if still blackly hilarious and happily grotesque, semi-remake of Reservoir Dogs, the film offered a dismantling of the western genre via a combination whodunit and slasher flick, pitting the titular disagreeable octet as avatars of America’s various tribes (racial, gender, political) in close combat. The grimly mirthful punchline affirmed civic identity as a mesh of dubious legends, uneasy alliances, and the very real bite of the law’s knot.

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John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Perhaps it’s entirely proper that the best-crafted, most fluently directed, and sheerly entertaining action-adventure spectacle Hollywood produced in the 2010s was also one of its most punishing box office failures. Former animation director Stanton’s eye drank in the lush curlicues of vintage scientifiction with a big movie gloss, and John Carter was a last hurrah for old-school space opera and pulp sci-fi delivered on grandiose scale before the genre’s tattered remnants would be hoist again by the revived Star Wars series with all the weird texture and high romanticism surgically removed. Stanton’s film was a lot of fun, but also no other film of the ‘10s had a setpiece as charged with outsized emotion and spectacle as Carter’s berserker battle with the wild Thark horde as he expiates his tormenting grief and defends his new loyalties.

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Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Terrence Malick’s decade was switchback-inducing: 2011 brought the widely hailed, grandly allegorical The Tree of Life, a film that proved for the 2010s what Goodfellas had been for the ‘90s in endlessly pervasive stylistic influence, and 2019 saw him return to relatively familiar narrative with A Hidden Life. In between Malick released a divisive sequence of impressionistic, improvisatory dramas. I could readily have chosen two or three of his films for this list. But I went with the Knight of Cups because it stands as Malick’s most extreme and dynamic experiment in poetic image flow and his most adult, recasting his own early experiences in Hollywood as an utterly present-tense tale of body and soul in turmoil, replete with flashes of mutable beauty.

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Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2013)

Kiarostami’s final film was largely overshadowed in regard by its immediate precursor, the intimate and ingenious piece of puzzle theatre that was Certified Copy. But Like Someone In Love, a work that saw its director at home in the strange climes of Tokyo, stands for me as one of the most gracious swan songs in cinema, a tragicomic portrait of an elderly professor who gets wedged between the escort he hires for an evening’s company and her angry boyfriend. Kiarostami suggested great wisdom ironically through noting how often we can be as foolish in our twilight years as in our youth.

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Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Spielberg’s best film of the decade, and perhaps the best traditional, mainstream drama by anyone in the 2010s, offered the official historical companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, and the less scabrous balance to The Hateful Eight, in recounting Abraham Lincoln’s covert and overt struggles to outlaw slavery in the context of wartime bloodshed and political contention, revolving around the doomed President but encompassing an entire epochal sensibility and the great gallery of its brilliantly portrayed protagonists. Armed with a nigh-perfect Tony Kushner script and Daniel Day Lewis’ uncanny central performance, Spielberg walked the line between rough-and-tumble expedience and high-flown idealism with the same grace as his hero, articulated through a blend of unfussy realism and gently neo-expressionist evocations to describe national identity balanced on a bayonet’s edge.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

Young tyro Bi Gan’s second film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a testimony to the way expressive ambition can transform a wispy basic proposition, in depicting a middle-aged man’s return home to contend with his past and the people he’s lost. Bi synthesised the expressive lexicons of Chinese-language cinema’s recent heroes, their diverging temptations to extremes of raw authenticity and wistful meditation, as well as taking advantage of technological advances to push forward into a new zone of expression, creating a bifurcated epic exploring ambiguous tracts of memory and the hyperrealism of a dreamscape. The result was deeply personal whilst also expertly describing the mainland nation’s unease in a transformative moment where the recent past seems tantalisingly fragmentary in recollection and the present mysteriously insubstantial even in its enveloping immediacy.

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The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

Between the opiated antinostalgia of The Immigrant and the monomaniacal futurism of Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z moored James Gray’s output in the decade, leaving behind Gray’s fixation with New York’s folk mythology to contend with a more international brand in depicting Percy Fawcett, an explorer offered as both nascent mystic for a secular age and lost agent for emerging modernity seeking out proof of persistence in the wasteland, trying to reject the Conradian only to rediscover the Melvillian. Lost civilisations beckoned from the mist whilst the familiar ones warred and decayed, and the hunt for the sublime laid waste to the beloved.

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The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The Master isn’t the easiest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films to love, not as dazedly funny as Inherent Vice nor as cunningly romantic as Phantom Thread, his subsequent works. But it sported Anderson’s most sharply composed imagery and allusive screenwriting. Like The Lost City of Z, The Master subsumed a quintessential figure of twentieth century flimflam, in this case recasting L. Ron Hubbard as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, nominal guru for a very Andersonian populace of variably needy and bullying personalities. But Anderson’s focus fell on Joaquin Phoenix’s debased postwar drifter, an imp of the perverse offering a wealth of neurosis for Dodd to mine for dubious insights as well as embodying the siren call of a gloriously unilluminated underworld under all the bright Ike-age lights.

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Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2011)

The lengthy final labour from one of European cinema’s most restless talents, Mysteries of Lisbon adapted Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel as a tale perched between epic Victorian bildungsroman and modernist absurdism, trying to depict the perverse forces that give shape to people and nations. Young hero João finds his tenure on Earth not so much an autonomous life but a tide pool the waves of history personal and political occasionally deem to fill, his personality forged as the by-product of wars and crimes, even whilst surrounded by characters with fluid identities, personal legends, and lodes of guilt and suppressed passion. Ruiz’s fluid, elusive aesthetic swapped the often jaggedly experimental tenor of much of his work for a piercingly evocative and intangibly romantic palette.

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Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Night Moves gained less fervent attention than Kelly Reichardt’s other work of the decade but was, again, it was for me somewhat easily the best of her films, her feel for immediate environment meshed nimbly with a nervelessly-told, steadily ratcheting pseudo-thriller. The story depicted a trio of environmental activists turned eco-terrorists who set out to blow up a dam only to reap unintended consequences: Reichardt picked at a thread until everything came unwound, as a nominal act of worldly conscientiousness was relentlessly stripped of illusion until the heart of darkness was exposed in a most unexpected setting.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’Or for his excellent depiction of pathos and solipsism Winter Sleep, but that film couldn’t quite escape the long shadow of its predecessor, which made Ceylan’s international reputation. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered a most ironic echo of frontier mythos in a long yet spare and ineffably patient portrayal of a gang of officials forced out into the Anatolian night to retrieve a murdered man’s body, contending with landscapes physical and mental where history seems to stand still, waste and decay are taking hold, and the guttering flame of youthful promise hovers just out of reach. The cold light of day illuminates only a stiff corpse and grieving family, proof of an eruptive tragedy that also elucidates a much smaller brand, the moment when you realise you have less days ahead of you than behind.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

A blissful islet of the gaudily, blithely youthful amidst the grizzled heavy lifting of the 2010s, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World kicked off a terrific triptych of films from Wright extended by The World’s End and Baby Driver. Wright converted a beloved underground comic book into a contemporary spin on a ‘60s psychedelic comedy that was also a surprisingly acute study of a phase in life, as a young bohemian hero contends with romantic rivalry and corporate inanity whilst trying to map out his own maturity, interweaving a broad satire of contemporary hipster mores with manifold plays on musical and cinematic touchstones.

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A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation brought Farhadi to wide international attention, as his blend of novelistic texture and filmmaking attentive to performance meshed for a classical brand of mature drama so many western equivalents seemed facetious in aiming for. Farhadi’s subsequent shift to a wandering maker of familial melodramas, whilst still producing excellent work, stripped him to a certain extent of the particular quality he wielded here in his study of the labyrinthine absurdity of Iran’s bureaucracy, seemingly constructed to foil and frustrate all coming in contact with it as a punishment for being merely human, and the wayward and contrarian impulses of such people, who all pay steep prices for their yearnings and frailties.

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Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

After spending most of the ‘00s working on prestige vehicles to finally land an Oscar, Martin Scorsese’s 2010s oeuvre was more diverse and restless, ranging from the stylish gimmick thriller Shutter Island to the wizened epicism of The Irishman (which I haven’t yet seen), anchored by The Wolf of Wall Street, a huge and raucous hit, and Silence, met with scarcely a shrug by a mass audience. Silence dragged the viewer through a vision of worldly authority and ethereal piety at war with a perfervid blend of cruel immediacy and pensive neutrality. The result neatly rounded out a rough trilogy contending with faith with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, but also engaged with the same basic proposition as Scorsese’s more secular dramas, fixing on men eventually trapped beyond the assurances of community, whilst still desperately trying to find some small way of holding onto a particular conviction all too intimately bound in with a self-regard that will be relentlessly pounded out of them.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Late bloomer Hogg’s The Souvenir nominally offered a pretty familiar project in abstract, an autobiographical tale of tragic youthful romance and an artistic bildungsroman, fixating upon that odd phase in an artist’s life when creativity is a crying need but both subjects and style must be earned in the great gamble of life. But Hogg’s relentlessly intelligent and sinuously evasive artistry made it much more — an enigmatic character study, a fervent study in troubled romance, a suggestive depiction of a period zeitgeist, a multifarious nod to traditions of British cinema, a puckish analysis of class and identity.

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Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011)

Zack Snyder’s fourth film managed to be many things at once: a pseudo-feminist psychodrama about power and abuse, a bleak gothic fantasy about ruination and survival, a sexed-up neo-musical, a post-modern discourse on role-playing and gaming, a comic book romp with far more visual invention and style than any official entries in that mode, and more. As such it stood almost alone as one of the very few films that felt properly engaged with a pop culture fast migrating to an online and virtual zone and winnowing experience through portals of image-making, whilst also nailing down the psychic roots of the insane popularity of superheroic avatars in our search for fantasy liberators within and without.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2018)

Argentine director Martel tackled a native literary classic and forged a historical recreation at once palpable and dreamlike, a stage where her antihero slides by degrees down through a social hierarchy and finishes up quite literally disarmed, but also ennobled as one of the first true citizens of a strange new world rather than a mere emissary of the old. The story, with its relentless arc of downward mobility and humiliation, was basically downmarket Kafka, but all was elevated by Martel’s envisioning, replete with images conveying flashes of extraordinary mystery and sensuality and a sense of the deeply surreal confrontation of societies large and small, making ruthless sport of colonialist myth whilst offering a sliver of grace for its bit players.

Others:

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike) ∙ Allied (Robert Zemeckis) ∙ Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke) ∙ Aferim! (Radu Jude) ∙ Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari) ∙ Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans) ∙ Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland) ∙ Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra) ∙ Blancanieves (Pablo Berger) ∙ Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) ∙ The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) ∙ Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) ∙ Concussion (Stacey Passon) ∙ The Counselor (Ridley Scott) ∙ Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro) ∙ A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) ∙ Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) ∙ The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong) ∙ Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark) ∙ Domino (Brian De Palma) ∙ Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn) ∙ Elle (Paul Verhoeven) ∙ Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda) ∙ Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) ∙ The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) ∙ Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter) ∙ Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie) ∙ Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) ∙ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson) ∙ Holiday (Isabella Eklöf) ∙ In Fabric (Peter Strickland) ∙ Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) ∙ Kill List (Ben Wheatley) ∙ Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd) ∙ Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin) ∙ Leap Year (Michael Rowe) ∙ The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach) ∙ Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) ∙ Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) ∙ Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) ∙ The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell) ∙ The Nice Guys (Shane Black) ∙ No (Pablo Larrain) ∙ Noah (Darren Aronofsky) ∙ Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) ∙ On the Road (Walter Salles) ∙ Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang) ∙ The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) ∙ Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman) ∙ The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi) ∙ Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) ∙ Shadow (Zhang Yimou) ∙ The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) ∙ Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) ∙ Still the Water (Naomi Kawase) ∙ Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie) ∙ Sully (Clint Eastwood) ∙ Tabu (Miguel Gomes) ∙ The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) ∙ Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) ∙ Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ∙ Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) ∙ The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung) ∙ Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) ∙ Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait) ∙ You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey) ∙ Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) ∙

Significant blind spots:

A Quiet Passion ∙ Almayer’s Folly ∙ Amour ∙ Arabian Nights ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Biutiful ∙ Capernaum ∙ Chi-Raq ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Florida Project ∙ Fruitvale Station ∙ A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ∙ Goodbye to Language ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ A Hidden Life ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ The Irishman ∙ Leviathan ∙ Margaret ∙ mother! ∙ Nymphomaniac ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Room ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Shame ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Square ∙ Son of Saul ∙ Sweet Country ∙ The Turin Horse ∙ Toy Story 3 & 4 ∙ White Material ∙

Inessential Movies of the 2010s:
Not necessarily the absolute worst films of the decade and certainly not comprehensive, but a list of movies that, for whatever reason, I felt great and unremitting contempt for.

Concussion (Peter Landesman)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Seventh Circle of Shit Remake Hell: Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel) / Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) / Robocop (José Padilha) / Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)

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