Recently, I saw Midsommar with a friend and we left the theater completely blown away by it and spent our entire drive back to his place talking about it. After I dropped him off and headed home, I started listening to a podcast that had an interview with the director, Ari Aster. When I got home, even though it had been a long day, I was not tired; I was still energized from having seen the film.
In the last two weeks, I’ve thought about the film often. It’s also got me thinking of a few other instances where I left the movie theater with a similar feeling, where the film followed me out of the theater and left me energized from the experience of watching it. This isn’t a regular occurrence with most movie theater experiences, but when they do happen, it’s usually memorable.
So that’s why I’ve decided to make this list of what I’m calling my Top 10 Movie Highs of the Decade, because when I left the theater these films left energized, in an altered state of mind, or looking at the world differently because of what I had just watched. They also stuck in my mind for days or weeks after having seen them, made me consume other media (interviews, reviews, internet fan theories, etc.) about the film, and was so good that I wanted to share it with the world.
That last part also meant that I wanted to limit the box office revenue to pare down the list; while everyone was talking about Inception when it came out, it made a ton of money and plenty of eyes saw it that it didn’t need people out there proclaiming its virtues to the masses. Therefore, all the movies listed below made less than $30 million domestic at the box office, so while there may have been some internet buzz or award season buzz for some of these films, the general public largely ignored them. I don’t even love all these movies, there are at least two that I think are flawed, but ambitious.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
It feels like a cheat to start off with a Coen Brothers film, but Inside Lleywn Davis came and went with barely a notice in 2013 by audiences and awards shows, despite being loved by critics. Personally, this story about a struggling folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village is my Top 3 for the Coen Brothers. The music is incredible, it cemented Oscar Isaac as one of my favorite actors, and it weirdly lends itself to several crazy theories. What’s really going on with the cat that he carries around? Personally, my favorite theory is that Llewyn is in a kind of purgatory, repeating his week over and over.
2. Whiplash (2015)
This film won J.K. Simmons a Best Supporting Oscar. His Bobby-Knight-like-jazz-instructor Terence Fletcher creates an interesting debate about what the best method is to pull greatness out of someone, in this case drummer Andrew Neiman, portrayed by Miles Teller. Even Teller’s focus is questioned in how he treats his girlfriend when it looks like she might be holding him back and what kind of dedication is truly needed to achieve greatness. All of it builds to an amazing final 15 minutes that ends the movie on a massive crescendo that left me speechless.
3. It Follows (2015)
It Follows was one of my favorite post-theater experiences of all time, honestly, because when I left the theater, I was looking at the world differently. After watching this film and scanning the background of the picture for almost the entire time for someone slowly walking toward the camera, it re-trained my brain to be scanning the parking lot and looking around me and while I was driving. It was quite the experience. In that way, the experience of watching It Follows was a bit like the story of It Follows, as it followed me out of the movie theater.
4. Ex Machina (2015)
A few weeks after It Follows, I saw Ex Machina. This movie about artificial intelligence messes with your brain through the isolation of the location of the film, the claustrophobia of the building most of the film takes places in, and the mind games triangle on display between Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander’s characters. It’s minimalist but also complex and full of ideas. And the ending is chilling and leaves you wondering how close we are to something like this happening.
5. The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicholas Winding-Refn is a methodical director, but also a lavish director, and a bit of a gonzo director. At times his pacing can be maddening, but there is always something interesting going on visually in all his work. The Neon Demon isn’t as good as his best film, Drive, but it is an interesting commentary on the fashion industry and the consumption and disposable nature of beauty and Hollywood. It’s a very divisive film, and even three years later I can’t decide if it’s an empty-headed film that looks amazing or an actual work of art.
6. The Lobster (2016)
I still find myself coming back to The Lobster from time to time. Director Yorgos Lanthimos is a director and provocateur. He is perhaps my favorite director of the decade, and it’s in no small amount due to this film. The deadpan line deliveries add to the darkly absurdist comedic undertones of this world where single people are taken to a resort where they must find a suitable mate or be turned into an animal of their choosing. The first half of the film plays out at the resort while the last half plays out amongst the single people who have escaped and are living in their own community deep in the woods. While the film is ostensibly about relationships and the extremes of being pressured to marry or being defiantly single, I’ve always viewed it as a perfect example of the polarization in an increasingly polarized world. To me, The Lobster is more relevant today than perhaps any movie made this decade.
7. mother! (2017)
This list probably wouldn’t be complete without Darren Aronofsky on it. Another incredibly divisive film, mother! set the internet ablaze with speculation about what it was really going on when it came out in 2017. Jennifer Lawrence lives in a remote house with Javier Bardem, who is a famous author, and a couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) comes to visit and then overstay their welcome. Soon, more and more people show up and all hell breaks loose. Also, what is up with the yellow drink J-Law keeps taking? And why do people insist on sitting on that sink, it’s not braced! This film is all allegory. Is it an environmentalist screed? A history of the Bible? The stress of being a creative person/celebrity. All these theories are plausible, and if you don’t agree with them, there are plenty more out there on the internet to go down the rabbit hole and find.
8. Sorry To Bother You (2018)
I was hooked by a movie that had LaKeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson starring in a movie about a black man finding his “white voice” to become a wildly successful telemarketer. I expected a certain level of satire and social commentary. I underestimated it. It is a scathing critique of capitalism but done with so much surrealism and absurdity and humor that it is much more palatable than any biting critique could be. There’s commentary about the prison system, labor and unions, television, and so much more. And then things take a huge turn when the evil plot of the rich white guy is revealed, and I was completely on board for all of it. What a disruptive, subversive delight.
9. Good Manners (2018)
This is easily the most obscure movie on the list, but a personal favorite of mine. It’s a Brazilian film that I saw at the Maine International Film Festival in 2018 and it was hands down my favorite film of the entire 10-day festival. In this wonderful concoction, a nurse is hired as a nanny for a woman’s unborn child. The two women become close, but there is something wrong with the child. Saying any more would give away too much, but there is a blending together of several genres; horror mixed with fantasy mixed with LGBT relationships with an animated sequence and even a musical number thrown in.
10. Midsommar (2019)
And so now we come full circle. Midsommar has had my brain buzzing for a few weeks now. I love the Wicker Man vibes the movie is giving off. I love that it is one giant bad trip. I loved the disorientation of sitting in a darkened theater with a movie that takes place mostly in broad daylight. I’m curious about the influences that the director pulled from to create this cultish community and where they get their customs from. I’m on board for every weird little thing about this movie. It’s a horror movie but it’s also a break-up movie. It’s also darkly comedic and I found myself laughing at so much of the movie and I don’t know what that says about me. Director Ari Aster made a movie equivalent of the frog that is in a pot of water, gradually turning up the heat on the audience until it is boiling. Kanye West had an album titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; I think Midsommar could easily be subtitled “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Summer Solstice.”