In sharing his list of the top 30 films of the 2010s, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Film, and Screen Studies Jon Cavallero notes how such lists tend to “say at least as much about the critic as they do about the movies.”
In that sense, the list reflects how, in recent years, the critic and his Bates students have been working to build a film community at Bates, including establishment of the annual Bates Film Festival.
The list also reflects the critic’s expertise, including film theory and criticism; race, gender, and international film, including Bollywood; and film history.
A third-generation Italian American, the critic is the author of Hollywood’s Italian American Filmmakers: Capra, Scorsese, Savoca, Coppola, and Tarantino (University of Illinois Press, 2011). As a child, he recalls “often looking to the movies and television for a sense of cultural definition.”
The list also reflects that the critic does have certain priorities above watching movies, which is why “there are few movies on the list from 2017. That was the year my wife, Kathryn, and I welcomed our son, Emmett, into the world!”
Here are Jon Cavallero’s top 30 films of the 2010s:
I love father-son stories, and I love road stories. So, a father-son story written and directed by a son, Emilio Estevez, and starring his father, Martin Sheen (who in my eyes can do no wrong), about a journey they take together pretty much has me from the get-go.
50/50 tells the story of Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 20-something man who is diagnosed with cancer. As he battles the disease, his friends and acquaintances try to support him but don’t really know how, and Adam ends up in a place where he endures cancer treatments while trying to make those around him feel better about his diagnosis. It’s not that they are bad people. It’s just that they are out of their depth.
The film highlights the ways that those who suffer trauma are often saddled with the additional burden of having to educate the more fortunate. It also includes a noteworthy supporting performance by Portland, Maine, native Anna Kendrick (who, despite celebrity websites saying so, never attended Bates — although her mom tells me that she performed in Olin 104 as a teenager).
I’ve been writing about Martin Scorsese and his movies for almost 20 years now, and if you know his work, The Irishman takes on special meaning. Mean Streets and Goodfellas looked at the reasons young men were drawn to mobsters. The Irishman looks at men who are looking back at a life spent working with or in the Mob.
The characters weigh the decisions that led them to the life, and they consider the toll that life has taken on them and their families. It’s a necessary evolution for the 77-year-old filmmaker, a man who has spent so much of his professional career investigating the Mafia and spent so much of his childhood observing mobsters. This is the perspective of a mature filmmaker considering his own mortality.
Black Panther is one of the most important films of the last decade. Hollywood spent $200 million on a movie anchored by a largely Black cast and produced by a very diverse crew. That had never happened before, but thanks to the quality of Black Panther and its runaway commercial and critical success, it will happen again.
Ryan Coogler and his team used the comic book genre to comment on pressing political issues, and we have all benefited as a result. The film is not without its issues (Bates student Luc Alper-Leroux ’20, advised by my department colleague Charles Nero, has addressed those in his recent rhetoric, film, and screen studies thesis), but its overall effect on the industry is immense.
Climbing movies like Free Solo are always thrilling to watch, but they often descend into highlight reels that are enamored with the climbers themselves.
Since they are usually shot by the subjects of the film, it all seems very narcissistic to me, with little regard for the way their pursuit of the next peak wreaks emotional, financial, and psychological damage on the people in their lives.
Free Solo certainly has thrilling visuals, but it also spends more time looking into the psychological makeup of Alex Honnold and what inspires him to climb without ropes. And it spends a fair amount of time with Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend, who suffers more than he does in this film. It’s a great movie that pushes the genre in a productive direction.
I saw Inception 10 years ago, and I’m still wondering if that spinning top keeps spinning or wobbles and comes to rest on the table. The real trick is that the answer to that question reveals more about the viewer than the film.
Inception was mesmerizing. Its special effects created unique action scenes. Its representation of time and dreams kept me intellectually engaged throughout, and there was a story that I found compelling enough to keep me interested in the narrative.
Bollywood icons Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol anchored the quintessential Bollywood blockbuster romance Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (or DDLJ) in 1995. Their reunion in Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan, some 15 years later, was well-worth the wait.
The film tells the story of Rizvan Khan (played by SRK), an Indian immigrant to the U.S. with Asperger’s. After the 9/11 attacks, Khan and his Muslim faith are questioned and targeted by a slew of Americans as he sets out on the road to prove his love for Mandira (Kajol) and their family.
In one famous scene, he is stopped by TSA agents and turned away from boarding a plane. When SRK, who is probably the biggest star in the world — bigger than any Hollywood celebrity — came to the U.S. to promote the film, the Muslim actor was pulled aside at the Newark airport and questioned for several hours. Then, it happened again when Khan flew to the U.S. to receive an award from Yale.
My students love this film. They laugh. They cry. They talk about it for weeks — but it is not without its flaws. The film’s representation of African American characters is highly offensive, recycling many of the stereotypes of past American films.
Steve McQueen’s brutal, devastating film demonstrates how powerful the medium can be. Here’s a tale that has been with us for a long time — during the time of slavery, a free Black man is assaulted, kidnapped, and enslaved and then fights for 12 years to regain his freedom.
Solomon Northup’s memoir existed, but McQueen’s film brought it more attention and countered many (though not all) of the tropes of Hollywood’s typical representation of slavery. The film also marked the feature-length debut of Lupita Nyong’o, one of the great revelations of the past decade.
Room constantly surprised me and pulled on my heartstrings. The film shows how trauma persists even after the news story ends.
With powerful performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, and adept, sensitive directing by Lenny Abrahamson (whose longtime publicist, Bumble Ward P’17, is a Bates Film Festival advisory board member), Room is not to be missed.
Combining virtuoso performances with technical inventiveness, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman represents one of the best directorial efforts of the decade. I like to tell my students that Iñárritu accomplishes formal techniques that other directors can’t even imagine.
His willingness to constantly challenge himself is both courageous and inspiring, and Birdman is gripping and funny while advancing the art of cinema.
One of the first scenes in First Reformed is a simple conversation between Ernst Toller, a minister (played by Ethan Hawke), and Michael, a soon-to-be father who is also a troubled environmental activist (played by Philip Ettinger).
The movie is about so much more than this conversation, but master filmmaker Paul Schrader’s ability to use a simple dialogue scene to draw viewers into the movie astounded me and demonstrates his skill as a writer.
How many conversations have we heard about climate change? And yet in this simple, understated, small-budgeted indie film, Schrader advances the conversation in a new direction (at least for me) with two actors and a simple shot / reverse-shot editing pattern. Compelling. Remarkable. Seemingly simple. And just the tip of the iceberg (so to speak) in First Reformed.
We were so proud to screen The Last Black Man in San Francisco as part of this year’s Bates Film Festival, and it received a standing ovation.
The film stands out for the way it confronts one of the major issues with the Hollywood form. Usually, Hollywood narratives are so anchored in an individual character trying to achieve goals and solve problems that it becomes difficult for the movie to confront more systemic issues.
LBMSF counters that pattern by offering a personalized tale of gentrification. The film’s representation of racism targets a system that marginalizes and exploits characters like Jimmie (played by the film’s co-writer Jimmie Fails) by showing that money is power, another tool that has been leveraged to further marginalize the already marginalized and further exploit the already exploited.
Add to that some beautiful camerawork by Adam Newport-Berra and a star-making turn by Jonathan Majors as Montgomery Allen and you have one of the great films of the decade.
Throughout this decade, Ava DuVernay has consistently produced more groundbreaking media than anyone else. If she’s not making documentaries like 13th, she’s making limited series like When They See Us. If she’s not breaking down barriers with her film collective Array, she’s offering fresh takes on icons like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
With Selma, DuVernay not only allows us to see history differently but also demonstrates that history remains sadly relevant. Along the way, she uses a unique formal style that breaks with conventional Hollywood editing practices to subtly question why those norms have been established and by whom.
In a year when “alternative facts” entered our lexicon and we started talking about a “post-fact world,” I valued honesty in movies. Hell or High Water doesn’t shy away from the brutality of violence, the brutality of predatory banking institutions, and the myriad ways some enjoy doing harm to others.
This movie is unflinching, featuring a brilliant script by Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote Sicario and and wrote and directed Wind River).
Between Leave No Trace and Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik had quite a decade. Winter’s Bone tells the story of Ree, whose drug-dealing father put up the family homestead as collateral for his bail. When he fails to show up for his court date, Ree must track him down or lose the homestead.
The film made a star of Jennifer Lawrence, who played Ree, and features powerful performances by John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, among others.
During Short Term 2018, as a group of students and I planned for the 2019 Bates Film Festival, Ellen Alcorn, who oversees community-engaged learning programs at the college’s Harward Center, came by and asked if we had seen Woman at War. None of us had. All of us soon did. And when we screened it at the festival in November, the film received a perfect score from our audience.
Woman at War is an Icelandic film about Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), an unassuming music teacher who becomes an ecoactivist and wreaks havoc on the Icelandic aluminum industry.
The film is timely, riveting — and funny. Director Benedikt Erlingsson pulls off a daunting balancing act effortlessly.
One of the cornerstones of my pedagogy is meeting students where they are, and as the age gap between us increases, that gets more and more challenging.
As I get older and my students stay the same age, I’m forced to speculate on what their lives have really been like. What has it been like to live your entire life in a post-9/11 world? What has the ubiquity of social media meant to this generation’s sense of self and their understanding of relationships? Bo Burnham’s feature offers a sensitive and nuanced take on those issues.
Eighth Grade is painfully awkward, but so is eighth grade, for most of us. For Kayla (featuring an underappreciated performance by Elsie Fisher), social media is both stifling and freeing. It puts her entire life under scrutiny, while also giving her a voice. The digital world gives her access to information that no eighth grader needs to know and puts pressure on her to operate as an adult before she should have to.
But it also allows her an outlet for self-expression, which becomes a powerful means of discovering herself even if the journey is painful. It’s not a comfortable film to watch, but it brings us older people closer to understanding young people today.
Some people call Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea “sad.” Others say it’s “depressing.” I think it’s honest. Sometimes things happen that people just can’t get over, and they have to go on living just the same.
It’s rare to find that kind of perspective in a Hollywood movie, where so often individuals overcome whatever seemingly insurmountable obstacles block their way. This is a wonderful movie with remarkable performances, especially those of Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams in their respective supporting roles.
At the start of the decade, many were hailing the arrival of Jeff Nichols, an Arkansas native who had made Shotgun Stories in 2007 and Take Shelter in 2011. But it is Mud that continues to stand out to me as Nichols’ best.
On the surface, the film is about a man, Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey, who is a faculty member at the University of Texas’ Moody School of Communications last fall), who is assisted by two 14-year-old boys in his cat-and-mouse game with the law.
But really the film is about a teenage boy’s search to understand love in an environment where not many examples of it exist.
Searching for Sugar Man begins with the myths surrounding Rodriguez, an American folk musician who never found a U.S. audience but whose work had a formative influence on South African society. Thought to have died years ago, Rodriguez is in fact alive and well, and that is just the start of the tale.
An Academy Award–winner for Best Documentary Feature, Searching for Sugar Man is an uplifting and inspiring tale about the way art can transform lives and societies.
BlacKkKlansman is co-written by filmmakers Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott, the latter of whom visited Bates in 2017.
They are both also film professors, Lee at NYU and Willmott at the University of Kansas. Their knowledge of film history, particularly the representation of African Americans in American cinema, adds a necessary layer to BlacKkKlansman.
The film features clips from Birth of a Nation, an extended discussion of Blaxploitation, and documentary footage from Charlottesville and the murder of Eric Garner. The implication is clear: The way movies have represented Black people has both influenced and been influenced by the way Black people have been imagined by whites.
It’s a lesson that needs to be heeded, especially since we all spent a lot of time talking about diversity in the movies in 2018, and then saw Green Book win Best Picture at the Oscars.
I’m a big fan of immigration stories, but Brooklyn stands out in its ability to incorporate unique twists and turns that seem completely believable. It’s one of the great films of the decade and features a career-defining performance by Saoirse Ronan.
Over a year before Nadia Mourad won a Nobel Peace Prize, Alexandria Bombach, who visited Bates in 2016 and has served on the Bates Film Festival advisory board, decided to start making a film about her life. The Yazidi activist was traveling the world trying to bring attention to the fate of her people under ISIS, the genocide that was being carried out, and the way the world stood by and did nothing.
Bombach’s film chronicles Mourad’s journey — one defined by bravery, exhaustion, and emotional trauma. A great film could be made about Mourad, but Bombach’s film stands out because it doesn’t stop there. This film admires Mourad, but it asks bigger questions about the norms that define our culture, the way the media covers stories, and the ways celebrity culture allows leaders and citizens alike to avoid larger political problems.
At each stop, Mourad is asked to revisit her traumas. On Her Shoulders shows that rather than addressing the real issue, media and politicians alike perpetuate the trauma. This kind of treatment extends beyond the individual. With a population displaced and spread throughout the globe, Yazidi culture becomes further diluted, and that raises new concerns for Mourad that her efforts are in vain.
Bombach has long been concerned with the personal toll that activism takes on an activist (see her remarkable documentary Frame by Frame, a film she brought to Bates in 2016). In Mourad, she has found a perfect subject. It allows her to forward Mourad’s message while also asking all of us to think differently about the questions we ask and their effects.
7. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019)
With Parasite, in theaters now, Bong Joon Ho, one of the great filmmakers working today, weaves a tense tale about class difference and class conflict that is sometimes serious, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes humorous.
The film balances not just generic tropes but the literal and the metaphorical to create the most compelling viewing experience of 2019.
It is true what Bong said when accepting his Best Foreign Language Golden Globe this past weekend: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing movies.”
Inside Out is an animated kids’ movie about depression, and I walked out of the theater feeling like I understood the issue better. Pixar has made a lot of great films, but this one is near the top of my list, along with Up and Wall-E.
A festival darling that played the 2018 Bates Film Festival, Sonita documents a teenage refugee from Afghanistan who flees to Iran to escape the Taliban. She dreams of becoming a rapper in a culture that does not see that as a viable (or even legal) pursuit for a woman.
Sonita’s journey takes on added urgency when her mother plans to sell her into child marriage in order to finance the wedding of Sonita’s brother. Filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami must choose between staying behind the camera and letting Sonita become a child bride or becoming involved in her story.
The film tells a powerful story about ethnic difference, refugee status, immigration policies, child marriage, art, and gender politics, while also opening a space to talk about the ethics of documentary production.
A regular screening in my film theory class, it is always the most popular film of the semester.
It’s become pretty predictable: Every semester, a student will recommend a horror film to me. “You have to see…” (Fill in the blank with A Quiet Place, Birdbox, Us, Midsommar, The Walking Dead, Hereditary, The Cabin in the Woods — the list goes on.) And I respond, “I don’t like horror films.”
Invariably, they then say, “Oh, well it’s not really a horror film.” That fools me sometimes, and I pick up the suggested title only to sit through it wondering, “What do they think a horror film is?!”
Get Out is unmistakably a horror film, and I am shocked that it is so high on my list because, as you may have heard, I don’t like horror films. But this film blew me away. I loved the way it used horror to comment on racism, and I loved the way it used humor throughout to forward the message.
With all due respect to Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining, and others, Get Out may be the best horror film I have ever seen, and it left me wondering if I should be watching more.
When I saw Short Term 12 in 2013, the film featured a cast of unknowns. Today, it is known for its cast, which includes a long list of present-day stars — Brie Larson, Rami Malek, LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever, John Gallagher Jr., Stephanie Beatriz, and others.
Don’t let the star power distract from the film’s emotional power. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (who just wrote and directed the feature film Just Mercy, adapted from the book of the same title by Bryan Stevenson, Bates’ 2018 Commencement speaker), based Short Term 12 on his own experience working in a facility for at-risk teens.
Throughout the narrative, Grace (Larson), the center’s director, learns that she must confront her demons if she is to live a full life and better serve the Short Term 12 teens. It’s a beautiful, powerful film.
Burn Your Maps stood in for so many conversations that I have struggled to articulate, and it changed the way I thought about our daughter, Annabella Grace, and the brief time she spent with us.
My wife, Kathryn, and I saw the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and it was the single most moving film-going experience I have ever had. We walked out of the theater, and it was several blocks before I could speak.
I was honored when we were able to bring the film to campus back in 2017, along with Jordan Roberts, its Academy Award–nominated writer and director and Bates Film Festival advisory board member. While my experience of Burn Your Maps was very personal, the film speaks to anyone who has ever experienced loss and searched for hope.
Simply put, I loved everything about this movie, adapted from James Baldwin’s novel. I loved how it showed the effects of racism — the way it defines lives, fractures families and communities, and robs both racism’s victims and its perpetrators of their humanity.
I loved how in the era of #metoo and #timesup this movie showed how consent can be romantic and sexy while only adding to the passion of a love scene. I loved the direction, the writing, the sensitive performances from every member of the cast.
Bonus: Bates Film Festival advisory board member Michael Pavlic ’96 and his team at Annapurna handled the film’s marketing.