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Song of the Sea (2014)

As the decade has progressed the state of western animation has gotten rather grim. While at the start of the 2010s, animation seemed to be headed towards a very good place. As the decade progressed though, the deviations into trite concepts and unwanted sequels. One of the stand-outs here though is the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon that began with the visually stunning but narratively flawed The Secret of Kells. The issues with Kells was fixed though in the standout piece of animation for the decade Song of the Sea. 

Song of the Sea continues The Secret of Kells amazing art style, which is unique and uniquely Irish. Everything looks as if it is straight from an illuminated manuscript. The music is beautiful, sometimes haunting as if it is being heard from centuries ago. The story itself could have only come from the Emerald Isle as it follows the young boy Ben and his sister Saoirse as they deal with both the absence of their mother since Saoirse’s birth as well as the denizens of the Celtic fairy world. While The Secret of Kells stumbles in its third act, Song of the Sea only picks up steam for the duration of the story until it ends with a poignant thesis on personal loss and the place and importance of myth in modernity. 


The Death of Stalin (2017)

The Death of Stalin follows in the fine tradition of comedic masterpieces such as Dr. Strangelove. It makes fun of the darkest aspects of society and human history. In this case, as the title suggests, the focus is on the Soviet Union right before, during and after the death of Joseph Stalin the man with the second-highest death toll equated to him in all human history. Right from the start, it shows the absolute fear he commanded during his reign and the absolute absurdity of it all. While there is certainly a fair sum of one-liners the majority of the unrelenting humor comes from how senseless so much of these occurrences are and yet believably human and inspired by numerous actual occurrences. Its humor goes beyond the Soviet Union of the mid-century as it expertly ridicules innate aspects of society and human nature. Crushing bureaucracy, militarism, internal politics, and all-consuming hunts for power all get their due in this expertly crafted comedy. All of this is helped along by a star-studded cast including Steve Buscemi, Simon Beale, Jason Isaac, and Jeffery Tambor. 


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

It almost feels useless to explain why Mad Max: Fury Road appears on this list as anyone who has seen George Miller’s magnum opus surely understands its merits. Fury Road is an incredibly tight script that feels none of its 120 minutes run time. While no character is particularly deep they all serve their purpose expertly within the larger narrative and these simple characters have far more of a lasting memory than many more intricate written portrayals. 

More than any individual character or actor though, the real stars of Fury Road are its action and production design. The production design expertly hits everything needed to portray a wasteland Australia. Everything is dilapidated and rusted. Every character on screen is expertly costumed and recognizable across pop-culture. The action is wall to wall. It takes the correct breathers but it keeps the adrenaline pumping with some of the most impressively choreographed action ever shot. It is made all the more impactful by the lack of CGI. All of the car crashes, explosions, absurd vehicles, and flamethrower guitars were practical effects. There are no CGI blobs of armies clashing but simply skilled stuntmen, stunt coordinators, and effects geniuses working in the Australian desert. The end result is an instant classic.

Silence (2016)

It is an impressive feat when, after decades of film making and such masterpieces as The Departed, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence is Martin Scorcese’s rawest and most emotional film. Silence is the drawn-out process of a Jesuit priest slowly being forced to apostatize by the Japanese government in the 17th Century. The young priest has to watch as he is left alone and the government instead tortures and kills his followers with the claimant that it will all stop if only he will perform a single act of renunciation. The whole process is intentionally drawn out over the course of the film’s two and a half-hour run time, using the length to facilitate its narrative. 

The entire film feels as if it was made in the 60s or 70s in the most meaningful ways. It is truly an auteur piece made for the examination of faith, morality and human limits that feels refreshingly genuine modern Hollywood’s superhumans and secularism. Technically, Silence is expertly shot and the backdrops of the breathtaking Japanese coastline and countryside contrasts with the horrific torture occurring within it. The supporting cast of Adam Driver, Liam Nesson, Issey Ogata, and Shinya Tsukamoto all deliver excellent performances in this exploration of the human soul.  


Annihilation (2018)

Traditional Science Fiction is a genre that has seen itself replaced in recent years by the unyielding tsunami of superhero flicks. Amidst this corporate cookie-cutter caped crusaders however, there are still those pieces of imaginative, thought-provoking Science Fiction being made. Arrival, Edge of Tomorrow, Her, and Ex Machina are all excellent additions to the Science Fiction library but Annihilation stands slightly above the rest.

On a story concept Annihilation is in the tradition of both Stalker and 2001: A Space Odyssey as a group of scientists enter an area affected by alien life and head towards a specific goal. The world around them only gets stranger and stranger as they progress into the affected area. Everything in Annihilation works. Natalie Portman delivers a good leading performance. All the characters come off as the appropriate amount of strong and vulnerable. The special effects are used appropriately and create a world that is a hybrid between ours and something alien, the sound design assisting equally in this. Annihilation plays up Science Fiction’s close relationship to horror as the group struggles to encounter and deal with the unknown. Thematically Annihilation is also strong as it explores the nature of trauma, grief and moving beyond these. In total Annihilation is the total package in what could be wanted in a Science Fiction movie.


Patterson (2016)

Patterson is not a film, Patterson is poetry. Jim Jarmusch has always had a flair for the poetic in his films, from the main character in Dead Man being named William Blake to Cristopher Marlow appearing in Only Lovers Left Alive. Paterson is about a man named Paterson working as a bus driver in the city of Paterson. The whole story is set over the course of a week as the man Paterson goes about his daily life, interacting with his wife, his dog, going to work and going to the bar. Adam Driver stars as the titular Paterson sublimely and continues to prove himself a highly versatile actor.

In many ways, nothing happens in Paterson. By the same measure, everything happens in Paterson. Like poetry, Paterson is about the little, memorable things in even the most mundane days. Some of the days it is a conversation Paterson hears while driving his bus routines, other days it is a chance encounter he has while walking his dog in the evening. There is rhyme and alliteration in Paterson just as much as there is not. The camera expertly captures these small moments as the whole movie revels in humble simplicity and happiness with what one has and is given. 


Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Jim Jarmusch is the only director to appear on this list twice and is for very good reasons. In the broils of the ‘sexy vampire’ phase kicked up by Twilight, Jarmusch still managed to make the most unique modern vampire film. In it, a pair of centuries-old vampires struggle with the very human emotions of love, familiar relationships, depression, compromise and loss in touching, subtle ways that put many a film starring human characters to shame. The sublime writing is elevated further by Tilda Swinton’s exceptional performance as Eve, a role perfectly suited for her exquisite weirdness.

Like Paterson and Jarmusch’s other films, Only Lovers Left Alive revels in the artistic. Here music takes the forefront. It delves into the darker parts of the mind of an artist, depression, isolation, and constant questioning that accompanies even some of the most successful artists. In the music-focused film, the soundtrack itself appropriately takes the steps to be equally haunting and memorable. Credit as well is due to the cinematography and production design for producing a dark, nostalgic atmosphere that could exist only after daylight hours. In some way, the rapturous beauty captured in Only Lovers Left Alive transcends words and can only be experienced visually and emotionally.       


The Florida Project (2017)

Amidst the explosions, superheroes, CGI blobs no filmmaker comes out creating more grounded films in the past decade than Sean Baker. Baker produced three excellent works in the past ten years, Starlet, Tangerine, and The Florida Project. While each of these is imbued with skill and artistic integrity, The Florida Project stands out as the greatest among equals. The narrative is of a young girl living with her single mom in a cheap motel not far from Disney World. The film is a mix of wonderment as the young girl, Moonee, explores the surroundings with her friends and of dread as unbeknownst to Moonee her irresponsible mother’s actions drive them towards catastrophe. 

The Florida Project draws expertly from the traditions of the Italian Neorealists and Dogma 95. It is entirely shot on location in Florida, it does not use fancy lighting tricks, special effects, or CGI. A solid majority of those in the film are not professional or not-well-known actors, the exception to this being William DaFoe as the motel manager. Even then, the veteran DaFoe’s performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination), was often overshadowed by his less experienced co-stars. It is a great feat in directing for Baker not only achieve such excellent performance from these non-actors but from children non-actors as well. The totality of this creates a phenomenal working-class drama.