This week we conclude our pick of the 50 best films of the 2010s thus far, and looking down the list I notice we haven't included too many blockbusters or big budget hits. There's a reason for that, as the ever more risk-averse studios have retreated into formulaic action movies and by-the-numbers superhero franchises, of which there are now a dizzying amount.
Original scripts are harder and harder to get off the ground in Hollywood, but here and there adult dramas are still getting made. The Coen brothers continue to plough their esoteric furrow, as indeed does Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater is finally getting the recognition he deserves, and younger filmmakers like Shane Carrugh, J.C. Chandor, Spike Jonze and British director Steve McQueen are exploring cinema's real potential.
Thanks to them and outstanding foreign language directors like Asghar Farhadi and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the 2010s has been a pretty good decade so far for those prepared to look beyond the obvious attractions.
Jennifer Lawrence made her breakthrough in Debra Granik's gripping backwoods thriller, playing Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old Arkansas girl who's trying to keep her dirt poor family together when a US marshal turns up to tell her that her drug-brewing dad has put up the family home as a bond. Terse, spare and grimly poetic, Winter's Bone paints a vivid picture of hard lives in a place where love is scarce and tenderness is viewed as weakness.
Austrian director Jessica Hausner's truly remarkable drama stars French actress Sylvie Testud as Christine, a Multiple Sclerosis sufferer who arrives in Lourdes as part of an Order of Malta pilgrimage. Slightly wistful but surprisingly cheerful, Christine is not especially religious and expects little to come of her trip. Something does happen, enough to convince her excited helpers that they've seen a miracle, but the viewer is left with decidedly mixed emotions.
A period drama refreshingly free of pomposity and starch, Mike Leigh's biopic stars Timothy Spall as J.M Turner, the great 19th century English landscape painter, and examines his later years. Now famous and the contemptuous rival of Constable, Turner is painting seascapes on the southern coast when he meets and falls in love with a jovial widow. Leigh's film is salty and funny, and Spall is brilliant.
Shane Carruth's strange, brainy and cleverly assembled drama is hard to explain, but beautiful to watch. In a chilling opening, a young woman is accosted outside a club and injected with a tiny maggot that emits a pacifying serum. When she comes to a few days later, she finds she's signed over her home and savings to a stranger. It's bonkers, but brilliant.
12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen's shocking historical drama is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn northern black man who was abducted in Washington D.C. and sold to a southern plantation. After passing through the hands of a relatively benign owner, Solomon is sold to a cruel maniac (played by Michael Fassbender) who teaches him the true meaning of slavery. A horrifying, compelling film.
Inside Llewyn Davis
This quiet, eccentric and thoroughly brilliant Coen brothers' drama is set in Greenwich Village on the eve of Bob Dylan's arrival and stars the excellent Oscar Issac as Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer who sleeps on other people's sofas, who's always getting in trouble with women and is fast running out of friends. Flat broke and in a corner, he decides to make one last desperate bid for fame.
Under the Skin
One of the most memorable films of 2014, Jonathan Glazer's bold and extraordinary horror film is set in the rougher suburbs of Glasgow and stars Scarlett Johansson as a beautiful woman who's really a flesh-eating alien. Her nameless character tours the city's streets at night looking for single men, whom she tempts towards a disused building where very bad things happen. Visually spectacular, brilliantly executed.
The idea that a silent, black and white film could charm modern audiences seemed far-fetched until The Artist came along. Michel Hazanavicius's delightful film toyed affectionately with the tropes of the silent era and featured winning performances from Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin. It won five Oscars, and deserved them.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
This comic drama inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig is Wes Anderson at his most whimsically delightful. Ralph Fiennes is Gustave H, the suave and legendary concierge at a grand central European hotel between the wars, whose fondness for elderly ladies gets him into trouble when one of his paramours dies and leaves him a fortune, much to the horror of her grasping and treacherous family.
Two Days, One Night
In the Dardenne brothers' lean and mean blue collar drama, Marion Cotillard is at her very best playing Sandra, a fragile woman who returns to her factory job after a breakdown to find that her employers are proposing to fire her and give the rest of the small staff a €1,000 bonus to compensate for the extra work. So she spends a weekend trying to persuade her colleagues to turn the money down.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's big, slow, meaty drama feels like a Russian novel and stars Haluk Bilginer as Mr. Aydin, a gentleman hotelier who sees himself as the benevolent feudal lord of a remote, idyllic village whose ancient cave houses attract a steady stream of tourists. But over the course of a disastrous few weeks, Aydin realises he's not too popular with his tenants or his family. A sumptuous masterpiece.
How I Ended This Summer
Alexei Popogrebsky's exceptional drama felt a bit like a two-handed Shakespeare play performed in the middle of Siberia. Two Russian men are thrown together at a remote island weather station, where a simple misunderstanding leads to a festering distrust. It's epic, beautifully photographed, and almost overwhelmingly bleak.
Shot in New York in 2005, Kenneth Lonergan's comic morality tale became bogged down for years in a bitter legal dispute over its length before eventually getting released in 2011. It's a pithy and touching drama that reminds one of Woody Allen at his best, and Anna Paquin is superb as Margaret, a privileged young woman facing a terrible dilemma when she witnesses a woman being killed by a bus.
In American Hustle, David O Russell splendidly and mischievously recreates the nervous decadence of the late 1970s, and nominates scamming as the true language of American laissez-faire capitalism. Christian Bale plays a New York conman who falls foul of Bradley Cooper's ambitious FBI agent and is blackmailed into ensnaring a well-meaning minor politician, and Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as the conman's brassy wife.
Spike Jonze's ingenious and funny romantic comedy used a story set in the near future to examine the impact of technology on our lives. Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely greeting card writer called Theodore who installs a new operating system on his computer, gives it a female identity and promptly falls in love. A disembodied Scarlett Johansson is very good as the husky-voiced operating system, 'Samantha'.
Blue is the Warmest Colour
Abdellatif Kechiche's controversial, brilliant, Palme d'Or-winning film is three hours long but doesn't feel it, and starts the intense love affair between a teenage girl and an older woman. Adele Exarchopoulos delivers an outstanding performance as Adele, a 15-year-old schoolgirl whose life is changed forever when she falls in love with Emma (Lea Seydoux), a talented, volatile artist.
Only Quentin Tarantino could have dreamt up a spaghetti western that deals with the grim theme of slavery. In Django Unchained Jamie Foxx played a black slave who's being transported across Texas in the late 1850s when a German bounty hunter called Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rescues him. After he and Schultz team up as bounty killers, Django sets out to rescue his wife from the clutches of a particularly vicious plantation owner. It's a fantastic film, only slightly spoilt by its needlessly gory climax.
Asghar Farhadi appears twice in my top 50, but that's entirely appropriate for one of world cinema's most exciting talents. This excellent drama explores the position of women in Iraq, and the chaos that ensues when religion gets mixed up with the law. Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi play Simin and Nader, a middle class Teheran couple whose very different visions of the future threaten to destroy their fragile marriage.
Charles Ferguson's painstaking and gripping documentary did perhaps the best job of examining the causes and consequences of the 2008 global financial meltdown, interviewing many of the principle players in America and Europe and coming to the depressing conclusion that most of the people responsible for the disaster got away scott free. Tell us something we don't know.
Philippe Falardeau's moving drama is set in a Montreal school, where a group of young children are traumatised by their teacher's recent suicide. The school's pragmatic principal is searching desperately for a replacement when a courteous but melancholy Algerian called Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) turns up out of the blue offering his services. Falardeau's film is a slow-burning minor masterpiece.
No one does melancholy quite like the Russians, and there are echoes of Tarkovsky in Aleksey Fedorchenko's poignant but lyrical drama set in the bleak northeastern town of Neya. Neya is part of the homeland of the Merja, an ancient tribe known as Volga Finns. And when Merjan mill worker Aist loses his beloved wife, he and his best friend set out to bury her in the time-honoured and not entirely legal way.
The final part of Ulrich Seidl's soul-sucking Austrian trilogy dealing with sex, love and faith, Paradise: Hope was an unsettling and skilfully ambivalent piece of cinema about a vulnerable teenage girl. When 13-year-old Melanie is sent to a 'fat farm' by her ultra-Catholic mother, she becomes dangerously smitten by the camp's 50-year-old doctor. A vexing, challenging, fascinating film.
In Asghar Farhadi's outstanding psychological drama, a group of old university friends from Tehran embark on a weekend break at an idyllic resort on the Caspian Sea. One of them takes a friend, a quiet girl called Elly, along for the ride, and when she goes missing, old tensions between the friends begin to show. Made back in 2009 but not released over here until 2012, Farhadi's film is quiet and rewarding.
The King's speech
A big budget movie with a heart, Tom Hooper's period drama starred Colin Firth as Bertie Windsor, Edward VII's painfully shy younger brother who's thrust into the limelight when his brother abdicates to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936. A life-long stammerer with a horror of public engagements, Bertie is persuaded by his redoubtable wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) to seek the help of an Australian speech therapist who tells it like it is.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's beautifully photographed, Oscar-nominated Russian drama Leviathan used a land dispute in a bleak coastal town to paint a grim picture of a country mired in dysfunction. When a taciturn handyman with a fondness for vodka finds his home targeted for an ambitious coastal development by the town's greedy mayor, a nasty stand-off ensues that will have tragic and unforeseen consequences.