A decade at the movies is serious business. When the 2010s began, Avatar had just opened in theaters. It went on to top the all-time box office and spawned the short-lived resurgence of 3D, a fad that has mostly died out (again). Netflix, then known for its DVD rental services, was just beginning to expand its streaming services internationally, with original content still several years down the line. The Academy Awards held their first ceremony under new rules that allowed up to 10 nominees instead of five, with Kathryn Bigelow anointed as the first (and, to date, only) female recipient of the Best Director prize for The Hurt Locker, besting ex-husband James Cameron. Disney had released one of the top ten highest grossing films of 2009 domestically (Pixar’s Up) — and not a single one of those ten was a superhero film.
Then, in 2010, Toy Story 3 and a live-action Alice In Wonderland dominated the box office, the first of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sequels was released (Iron Man 2), and here we are a decade later.
I was half-kidding when I mourned “the death of the movies” in my 2019 top ten list, but there’s no question that the industry is in the midst of a game-changing shift, and no certainty about how that will affect the old school studios, movie theaters, and fans of the big screen experience. As we kick off 2020, it’s worth taking a look back at the strongest stories the medium has given us — not the biggest or brightest, merely the best. As I looked over my favorites of the decade, these are the films I felt the need to call out.
40. TANGERINE (2015)
My #10 of 2015 was Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Several films I originally ranked higher didn’t make this list, but in thinking over the past decade’s most vivid, vibrant titles, I simply couldn’t leave Tangerine out of the mix. Shot on an iPhone for somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000, Baker made trans prostitutes the heroines of a sun-drenched, Los Angeles-set Christmas tale. It remains one of the most authentic looks at trans lives to reach the big screen. Tangerine is gritty, hilarious, and ultimately heartfelt — and it’s one of the best examples of what can be done on a dime with the consumer-grade video technology this decade brought us.
39. A GHOST STORY (2017)
Like Tangerine, it was all but unthinkable to leave A Ghost Story out of this list, merely because there’s nothing else like it. David Lowry’s unclassifiable tale is a breakup story stretched out through eternity, into the afterlife. Lowry is playful with time, extending some scenes to an excruciating length in real time, then zooming back into the past and far into the future. Along the way, he raises existential questions that have kept philosophers busy for hundreds of years. The film’s lo-fi costuming and special effects should have been laughable, but somehow, Casey Affleck’s performance from underneath a bedsheet just might be his best, eliciting a surprising amount of pathos. Lowry manages to convey epic scale with a $100,000 budget and a 93 minute running time. (That’s especially impressive when you factor in that nine of those minutes are just Rooney Mara eating pie.)
38. NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)
As the title suggests, Nightcrawler‘s central character is a scummy sociopath who stops at nothing to get his story on the evening news. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is one of the decade’s most unshakeable villains, mainly because his ambition and work ethic make him almost indistinguishable from many millennials. Rene Russo made something of a comeback as a cunning news producer who finally meets her ruthless match. In the 2010s, there’s been a thin line between fame and infamy, and though Nightcrawler deals more with old school TV news than today’s rapidly churning social media-driven news cycle, its examination of the spin and fearmongering behind what we accept as fact is as relevant as ever.
37. I, TONYA (2017)
Every decade gets its cinematic due a generation later. In the 2010s, the 90s were finally mined for all the juicy storytelling material they offered up — and it was plenty. The darkly funny I, Tonya looks back at a media scandal from multiple perspectives, often contradicting itself (depending on who’s doing the talking). The portrait it draws of Harding is hardly flattering, but director Craig Gillespie does place her infamy in context. The media seized on her as the villain of the piece, because catfights are fun and it made for a more sensational story — but there are at least four men more directly responsible for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and they never gained the same level of notoriety. I, Tonya turns a late night punchline into a flesh-and-blood, flawed female — something we apparently couldn’t handle back in the 90s. Any scene between Margot Robbie and Allison Janney is delectable.
36. MINDING THE GAP (2018)
One of two documentaries that made this list, Minding The Gap was first conceived as something you might skip past on YouTube — a teenager documenting his buddies’ skateboarding maneuvers. But Bing Liu found a narrative within — the story of his Rockford, Illinois community, and the cycle of violence that touches all of these characters. Domestic abuse is so commonplace here, it’s basically an accepted part of life. Most of Liu’s family and friends keep it quiet, but he keeps probing over the course of several years — occasionally turning the camera back onto himself to explore his own repression. The compassion Liu feels for his subjects sears through the screen — it’s a film that could only have been made by a trusted friend. Minding The Gap is the rare example of genuine sincerity in the “always on” lives of modern teenagers.
35. INCEPTION (2010)
Christopher Nolan is one of the decade’s most commercially successful auteurs, which is all the more stunning given that he’s spent most of the 2010s making innovative original films like Dunkirk and Interstellar (after wrapping up his Dark Knight trilogy in 2012). The best of these was the first, 2010’s Best Picture-nominated Inception, which took moviegoers on a mind-bending trip into the subconscious, with gravity-defying fight scenes and eye-popping production design. Hans Zimmer’s booming score is likely the most influential of the decade, shaping how blockbusters sound to this day. Like most of Nolan’s output, Inception has more head than heart, but this is still one of the most intellectually engaging action blockbusters ever made, a Matrix for a new era. (And it ends on a killer cliffhanger.) The studios should have learned another thing or two from its massive success.
34. PHANTOM THREAD (2017)
There’s no way I wouldn’t have a Paul Thomas Anderson joint on this list. Phantom Thread has the trappings of a period costume drama — though the period is the 1950s, not so far back as you might think. As it unravels, Phantom Thread slyly reveals a very 2010s approach to romance. When we meet Vicky Krieps’ Alma, she seems like the kind of blushing ingenue you’d find in a trashy romance novel — no match for the upper-crust tyranny of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker. Through her love, Alma gradually finds a sneaky, unscrupulous way into Reynold’s stone heart. In Phantom Thread, Anderson is having fun at his own expense, showing how an artistic genius as celebrated as he is can be subdued by a crafty, careful woman who figures out how he ticks.
33. MAGIC MIKE XXL (2015)
An unlikely entry on any “Best Of” list, this sequel to 2012’s Channing Tatum stripper drama is lighter and funnier than the first Magic Mike. The second helping jettisons most of the economic subtext of the first, and sadly lacks Matthew McConaughey’s winning ringleader Dallas — but it still manages to outdo the oversized ambitions of Steven Soderbergh’s original. Magic Mike focused pretty squarely on the guys; Magic Mike XXL is, appropriately, all about female desire — not just ripped abs and tear-away pants, but sensitivity and chivalry and emotional availability, too. Most male strippers are probably not such sweet dreamboats in real life, which just adds to the frothy fantasy world director Gregory Jacobs creates. It’s a welcome gender-swap of the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope we’ve seen in so many movies geared toward men.
32. FISH TANK (2010)
The only film on this list that wasn’t originally on one of my Top 10 lists, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is one of the decade’s strongest coming-of-age stories — and it also comes smack dab in the middle of Peak Fassbender (after Hunger, before Shame). Newcomer Katie Jarvis gives a remarkably lived-in performance as 15-year-old Mia, a hip-hop dancer living in the East London projects with her hard-partying mom. Fassbender plays Conor, her mother’s boyfriend, who develops a sexual interest in the underage teen. The relationship is distressing, but Fish Tank remains clear-eyed about who these characters are and why they make the choices they do. Arnold roots us in Mia’s perspective so thoroughly, we easily buy into what appeals to her in this toxic tryst. She boldly lets the film be sexy, exciting, and unsettling, just as this doomed affair really would feel for a teen girl.
31. GRAVITY (2013)
Alfonso Cuaron’s immersive space thriller was one of the decade’s most enthralling blockbusters — and an Oscar darling, too, taking home seven awards, including one for Best Director. The thrills, cinematography, and special effects are aces, of course, but what’s even more momentous is that Gravity grossed over $700 million worldwide on the strength of an original screenplay and a single performance. Sandra Bullock renewed her status as America’s sweetheart playing Dr. Ryan Stone, a grieving mother seeking meaning and motivation in the depths of space. How lovely, that one of the decade’s standout action hits is a one-woman show with nary a Y chromosome in sight (after George Clooney graciously floats out of the movie in an early scene). In a decade that only widened the gap between art and commerce, Gravity was a rare hit with critics, audiences, and the Academy alike, boasting filmmaking ingenuity to spare.
30. EX MACHINA (2015)
Alex Garland’s intimate fantasy about artificial intelligence is a case study in how to do minimalist sci-fi to maximum effect. Produced for a reported $15 million, its visual effects astoundingly beat out bigger budget fare like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Revenant to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. It’s totally earned, of course. Most of Ava’s scenes are one-on-one and dialogue driven; while most winners of this award go to grand spectacles, Ex Machina is the rare film in which such masterful effects are used to enhance human-scale drama. Alicia Vikander is mesmerizing as the A.I.’s anthropomorphic shell, who easily beguiles her male masters (and us). The climax is both chilling and oddly satisfying, suggesting that mankind is not ready to reckon with what it can capably create. As A.I. is more widely adopted in the next century, at least Garland will have earned the right to say, “I told you so.”
29. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
As harrowing as any horror movie, 12 Years A Slave resurrects the distant specter of slavery, making it as immediate and excruciating as anything unfolding in this decade. Solomon Northrup was born a free man, like those of us who watched his story in 2013. By showing an Everyman’s nightmarish descent into this real-world hell, McQueen puts us in Solomon’s shoes as few slavery stories have managed to do, so even a white 21st century viewer like me can shudder and wonder, “What if that happened to me?” 12 Years A Slave is the ultimate corrective to a long history of misrepresentation of black lives in the 19th century (Birth Of A Nation, Gone With The Wind, Song Of The South), and one of the decade’s strongest Best Picture winners. It’s still brutal to behold.
28. GONE GIRL (2014)
Ben Affleck started off the 2010s as an acclaimed director and ended it as a disgraced Dark Knight. In between, he turned in the best, most brilliantly cast performance of his career as Nick Dunne, a college professor who unwisely takes his beautiful, brilliant wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) for granted. Affleck makes the ideal borderline douchey husband who might have killed his wife. What begins as an elegant whodunit ends up being an ideal allegory for marital compromise, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s spiky script and typically flawless direction from David Fincher. Gone Girl ends up being as much of a curdled rom-com as it is a thriller, with Amy’s unforgettable “cool girl” rant topping it off with a sour cherry. Nobody delivers killer thriller goods like Fincher, but it’s Flynn’s cynical but eerily astute take on married life that ultimately haunts.
27. ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)
Animal Kingdom is a coming-of-age story inside a crime drama — The Graduate by way of Goodfellas. David Michôd’s feature debut is remarkably assured, following a newly orphaned junkie’s son as he is brought into the fold of a Melbourne crime family headed up by his grandmother. Animal Kingdom introduced American audiences to Joel Edgerton and Ben Mendelsohn and sparked a career resurgence for Jackie Weaver, so rightly Oscar-nominated for her honey-sweet ruthlessness as Grandma Smurf. She’s one of the decade’s best villains — both grandma and the big, bad wolf. Michôd’s use of Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love” is one of the greatest all-time abuses of a corny pop song in a movie. Chilling.
26. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)
Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to 2010’s breakout heartbreaker Blue Valentine also stars Ryan Gosling, but has a more challenging, novelistic structure. The triptych alternately follows traveling motorcycle stuntman “Handsome Luke” (a bleached blonde, tatted up Gos), by-the-book cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and a couple of teenage troublemakers named Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen). It’s best not to know more about the connection between their stories if you haven’t seen the film. Though strongly reviewed upon its release, The Place Beyond The Pines never quite got its due as the quietly epic mood piece it is. The unconventionally structured narrative tells a downbeat tale of lives gone astray as Blue Valentine did, but expands it out to encompass two families, some cops-and-robbers shenanigans, and a multigenerational timeframe. The result is a tale of destiny, how mothers and fathers set the course for our lives in both ways we understand and ways we may never know about.
25. MOTHER! (2017)
Some of us like to go to the movies so our favorite auteurs can fuck with us. That’s exactly what Darren Aronofsky did with mother!, your run-of-the-mill self-reflexive biblical horror dramedy that’s actually an allegory for climate change. Aronofsky’s divisive thriller is jaw-droppingly meta, making zero sense at face value but clicking right into place when viewed as a mockery of artistic ego, a retelling of the Old Testament, or a psychological showdown between an anthropomorphized Earth and God. The fact that mother! works on all these levels (and then some) makes it ideal for Bible-length analysis by film geeks like me. Even better is its cult cred — the film got the elusive “F” CinemaScore from mainstream moviegoers who were drawn in by Jennifer Lawrence’s Hunger Games star power. After the straightforwardly religious, overly ponderous Noah, Aronofsky clearly wanted to make one for the true fans. How he convinced Paramount to finance this insanity is still a mystery.
24. MARGARET (2011)
Margaret was shot in 2005, but creative differences and legal hangups prevented its release until 2011, so whether or not Margaret even is from this decade is up for debate. Kenneth Lonergan’s looong awaited follow-up to his 2000 debut, You Can Count On Me, is the story of a New York City teenager (Anna Paquin) who witnesses the horrendous death of a bicyclist (Allison Janney) hit by a bus. (Neither of them is named Margaret, for the record.) What unfolds is part coming-of-age story, part reckoning with mortality and grief, all emotionally raw and truthful. The film became a cause célèbre for film critics and indie enthusiasts who hoped Lonergan’s vision would see the light of day; it’s now available in both a theatrical cut and Lonergan’s preferred version, which runs over three hours and features a larger role for Matt Damon. Margaret is about how life goes on after even the most unseemly tragedy, observing subtle shifts in our protagonist as she wrestles with the gruesome accident she’s seen.
23. INSIDE OUT (2015)
Pixar entered the 2010s with a pretty flawless record, and emerges with that mostly intact. I’ll admit to having a live action bias — Pete Docter’s Inside Out is the only animated film that made this list. The reason is simple — unlike a lot of family-geared animation, Inside Out deals has realistic, relatable stakes and deals with human emotions (in the most literal way a film possibly could). Pete Docter’s original family film takes on the unlikely topic of a young girl’s depression, sort of like Pixar’s take on Margaret. The film brilliantly personifies emotions like Joy, Anger, and Sadness in ways that are easily grasped my kids and ruefully familiar to adults. A subplot involving forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong is utterly devastating. Inside Out gives young viewers the perfect template to think about and discuss their feelings, showing that it’s important to acknowledge all emotions, good or bad. Docter has saved the next generation a killing on therapy.
22. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)
Quentin Tarantino had his most divisive decade to date in the 2010s, with critics and fans split on the artistic merit of 2012’s Django Unchained and 2016’s The Hateful Eight. The same holds true for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the pastiche-happy auteur’s love letter to old school Tinseltown, set in the sunset of the 1960s with the Manson family lurking in the background. Tarantino gifts his high-wattage leading men with raucously funny dialogue and a rich sandbox to play in. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt chew scenery and kick ass with easy, breezy panache that makes it look like as much fun for them as it is for us. Tarantino’s questionable treatment of race and gender and penchant for ultraviolence make Once Upon A Time In Hollywood a gnarly discussion piece, even for those not won over by its ample charms.
21. DRIVE (2011)
I tend to prefer substance over style, but every so often, I just can’t help myself. A very taciturn Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. He falls for the widow of an associate killed on the job. The story is standard “bad guys after stolen money” fare, but Drive’s aesthetic really is something else, with a dreamy indie pop soundtrack and striking cinematography. Cliff Martinez’s score is menacing to the max, Albert Brooks is devilishly good as the villain of the piece, and Christina Hendricks’ death scene is one of the most unshakable screen images of the 2010s. Ryan Gosling’s only-he-could-pull-that-off scorpion jacket is almost enough to land it on this list all by itself. Drive exudes cinematic cool in every frame.
20. FIRST REFORMED (2018)
Prior to First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s contribution to the 2010s consisted of two little-seen Nicolas Cage vehicles and Lindsay Lohan stinker The Canyons. Talk about a comeback! The writer of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation Of Christ mashed up the themes of both films in the story of a boozy loner pastor who despairs over our decaying planet following the suicide of an environment activist he’s counseled. First Reformed is one of the first narrative features to grapple with climate change in such a direct, sobering way, as explicit as Aronofsky’s mother! is elliptical in tackling the very serious harm we’ve done to our survival. As Reverend Toller, Ethan Hawke delivers the most salient performance of his career — taking the character from wise, gentle man of God to unhinged radical so adeptly, we’re never certain he’s changed at all. First Reformed is as bleak and eerie a testament to our times as you could hope for, assembling all the ugliest elements of the 2010s in one unassuming package.
19. UNCUT GEMS (2019)
If you told me in 2010 that one of the best movies of the coming decade would begin inside Adam Sandler’s colon, I would not have believed you. At the tail end of 2019, Benny and Josh Safdie dropped one of the decade’s deftest indictments of capitalist greed, filtered through one noxious protagonist. Howard Ratner is a con man, a cheater, a pathological liar, and a gambling addict, played to toxic perfection in a career-best turn from Sandler. He’s a guy who lives to win, willfully blind to the fact that he’s slowly losing everything. The first scene zooms deep inside a gem, then transitions to a pretty gross medical examination, visualizing the link between these precious but useless stones and the waste of human lives devoted to material gain. The value of a diamond is a fiction we’ve all bought into, but it’s worth more to Howard than his family, his health, his health — than life itself. In its sobering denouement, Uncut Gems forces us to think about what we’ve sacrificed to play the American roulette.
18. BURNING (2018)
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is such a clever mystery, it might not be a mystery. A major character disappears midway through — but there’s no evidence of foul play, and no one but our protagonist worries. The story unfolds from Jong-su’s perspective. As his paranoia builds, so does ours. We see numerous signs pointing to the identity of the killer — but to believe this, we must ignore some contradictions, some facts that don’t add up. Audiences are trained to play detective in a film like Burning; Lee Changdong preys upon our assumptions, our desire for there to be a puzzle to solve. Instead, he leaves us hanging on a question: “Is this even a puzzle?” This intrigue is wrapped inside a drama between two men of different classes, sparking a Talented Mr. Ripley-like envy that ends either in justice or tragedy — we’ll never know for sure.
17. 1917 (2019)
It’s impossible to do a proper “Best of the Decade” list coming directly out of that decade. I’ve had time to digest earlier films, but the ones from 2019 are still too fresh to see completely clearly. The overall reaction to them hasn’t gelled yet, and neither has mine — 1917 is the only narrative film on this list I’ve only seen once. That said, I can confidently declare that Sam Mendes’ real-time World War I thriller is one of the most technically accomplished feats of filmmaking from the 2010s. For pure craft, spectacle, and movie magic, it’s peerless within the past decade. Some detractors have harped on the central gimmick, likening it to watching someone play a video game. I don’t get that at all — I was very much taken in by the tension, the story, and the stakes. I was moved by the deaths of young men I saw on screen. No war film has ever made me feel so much like I could be stuck in this senseless hell, had I been born a century earlier. I wouldn’t have been so taken with 1917 if it was merely a thrill ride — for me, at least, it was a true experience, the kind I only have at the movies every so often.
16. ENEMY (2014)
Arachnophobes, approach with caution. The decade’s most mind-boggling finale isn’t just a twist ending — it’s a full-on snap of the neck, meant to shake us out of our popcorn-induced complacency and kill off any assumptions we’ve made about how literally we should take this story. Enemy is the 2010s’ Mulholland Drive — the answers to its mysteries grow further away with every new clue, not closer. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor who stumbles across his doppelganger in the background of a movie he’s rented. The professor and the actor meet, their relationships with two moody blondes (Sarah Gadon and Melanie Laurent) collide, and they find their identities intersecting in perplexing ways. Denis Villeneuve’s unsettling psychodrama is willfully opaque, playing like a bad dream and then jolting us awake with that outrageous ending. Leave your logic at the door — you won’t need it here.
15. WEEKEND (2011)
Previous decades gave us precious few high quality queer romances. The 2010s reversed that with films like Carol, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, and Call Me Be Your Name. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend felt like the turning point — a film that both spoke specifically to the queer experience and broke through to the arthouse audience at large, regardless of orientation. A casual hookup between the reserved lifeguard Russell (Tom Cullen) and outgoing art student Glen (Chris New) turns into an unexpectedly lovely weekend of sex, partying, and soul-baring between the two. Haigh perfectly captures the delicate whimsy of a chance encounter with a stranger you suddenly don’t want to live without, a Before Sunrise for gay audiences to call their own. But it also speaks to specifically queer issues surrounding identity, self-esteem, internalized homophobia, and emotional intimacy. Most other notable gay love stories on the big screen are period pieces. Nine years later, Weekend is still far and away the best film about what it’s like to be gay in the 21st century.
14. MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)
In the 2010s, intelligent, character-driven comedy made a mess exodus from the multiplex and found a new home on streaming television. Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America is an offbeat, often uncomfortable examination of a woman gracelessly aging out of her carefree youth, observed by a college freshman (Lola Kirke) who’s just coming into her own. Greta Gerwig is pitch perfect as Brooke Cardinas, “all romance and failure,” who embodies most flaws attributed to millennials but remains awkwardly out of sync with the college kids she considers her “contemporaries.” As Brooke gets in over her head on a half-baked business plan she hopes will provide some stability to counter her tumult, she gradually awakens to how her once-charming ethereality is looking increasingly like thirtysomething desperation. Mistress America skewers Brooke’s self-absorption and delusions of grandeur, but ultimately finds sympathy for a wayward misfit poised uncomfortably between generations. The madcap screwball energy of the film’s second half is a riot, one of the best — and most unique — comedic set pieces of the 2010s.
13. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (2016)
There are those who claim that O.J.: Made In America is not a film. Produced by ESPN, it was shown in five-part installments on television and as a documentary feature in one nearly 8-hour chunk, which is how it ended up winning top doc prizes at both the Oscars and the Emmys — an unprecedented feat. But in a decade that has so thoroughly blurred the lines between TV and movies, what’s the use in arguing over such monumental nonfiction storytelling? Ezra Edelman’s towering, painfully thorough doc revisits the 20th century’s most notorious trial in as much detail as any true crime junkie could hope for, but Edelman uses the sensational scandal to tell a much larger story placing a century of racist oppression in context. Edelman digs into racial tensions from the 1965 Watts riots through the 1991 Rodney King video to explain how this miscarriage of justice was set into motion decades before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. In nearly 8 hours, not a split second is wasted. O.J.: Made In America exquisitely captures who we were at the end of the 20th century, and it’s still as agonizingly relevant as looking into a mirror. It’s damn scary to see O.J. Simpson smiling back at us.
12. THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)
James Gray’s underrated epic looks like a rollicking adventure on the outside. It’s actually a quietly hypnotic, very internal tale of obsession. Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett spends much of his adult life in the jungle, seeking a lost city he can’t prove even exists. The Lost City Of Z works just fine as historical dramatization, but even better as a parable about man’s drive toward discovery, toward excellence, toward transcendence, at the expense of all else. Fawcett is gone for years at a time, missing most of his children’s lives and domestic bliss with his loving wife Nina (Sienna Miller). He is driven by the unknown, a place that beckons to him for no discernible reason. Gray digs into what it’s like to be a man on an impossible mission — for example, a filmmaker trying to make a thoughtful drama that costs $30 million — that few others have faith in. Ultimately, it examines the cost of that pursuit, as Percy and his son Jack (Tom Holland) embark on an ill-fated expedition in the fateful final act. The Lost City Of Z‘s haunting last scene returns to Nina in London, suggesting that her life, too, is now lost to the jungle. It’s rare that the supportive wife in a great man’s story gets the last word.
11. NEVER LOOK AWAY (2018)
Just when you think you’ve had your fill of sweeping, Oscar-friendly Holocaust epics, along comes Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck with one that totally knocks you out all over again. Most of Never Look Away takes place long after the end of World War II, but a swastika’s shadow looms large over the sweet central romance. Promising artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) finds his talents wasted on propagandistic murals promoting East German socialism; he and his wife Ellie (Paula Beer) flee to the liberal, bohemian West German art scene. Never Look Away mines suspense from giving us information that none of its central players possess. We know Ellie’s father Carl (Sebastian Koch) is a vicious Nazi evading persecution for his crimes; the cruelties of Carl’s past begin to seep into Kurt’s awakening as an artist, but neither man will ever ever fully grasp how or why. Never Look Away is inspired by real-life artist Gerhard Richter (who publicly denounced it), but works just as well when viewed as fiction. It’s a testament to truth in art, which emerges in Kurt almost like a superpower. Not even the artist’s intent can strip away the meaning or resonance we find in truly transcendent work.
10. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)
The decade’s best genre movie is also one of the savviest sequels ever made. Blade Runner 2049 does a lot more than rehash themes and iconography from the first film. It builds on them, deepens them, strengthens them, and makes them new again. Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original follows blade runner K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant himself, who stumbles upon a game-changing secret suggesting that these artificial humans are capable of reproduction, too — calling their position as second-class citizens into question. Suddenly, a spark of hope ignites in Blade Runner‘s dark, dreary future. With its technological twist on creation and immaculate conception, Blade Runner 2049 brings biblical weight to a big-budget, star-driven sequel. Villeneuve’s vision for 2049 is one of sci-fi’s all-time best leaps forward, depicting city-sized landfills, holographic girlfriends, and a digitally resurrected Elvis that are hard not to see as harbingers of our actual future. Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography adds to what might be the most visually stunning film of the decade, a masterful successor to Scott’s visionary Blade Runner, one of science fiction’s most influential classics.
9. JACKIE (2016)
Released December 2, 2016, Jackie will forever be tied to Donald Trump’s electoral upset less than one month earlier — in my mind, at least. Pablo Larrain’s unconventional biopic deals with a very different political tragedy, of course, centered on the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the eyes of his widow. Though mourning a very personal loss, the media-savvy First Lady is immediately clear-eyed about how her husband ought to be memorialized — so that he’ll be remembered alongside Lincoln as one of the greats. In the title role, Natalie Portman transfixes, simultaneously keeping it together and falling apart in every post-assassination scene. We can tell that something in her will always be irreparably broken after Jack’s slaying, and that goes for America, too. Jackie was released in a complicated moment for considering the legacy of the American presidency. Her shell-shocked widow, stalking the halls of the White House in blood-spattered Chanel, wondering what the hell this nation is coming to, is still my Poster Girl for the second half of this decade.
8. ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)
Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting CIA procedural also finds a woman at the center of an American milestone, but this time, she’s not the widow. She’s the mercenary. The early 2000s were defined by the panic and aftermath of 9/11; in May 2011, America sought to close the book on that when Navy SEALs executed Osama bin Laden in his home, ending a decade-long manhunt. Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes the CIA’s pursuit of the Al-Qaeda leader and his associates through Jessica Chastain’s relentless Maya, who devotes her entire being to ensuring someone answers for the attacks. Zero Dark Thirty makes us complicit in her pursuit. We stand by as prisoners are tortured, we watch as American lives are lost in pursuit of vengeance. We’re upset, but there’s no question of giving up — not while the terrorist is still out there. It’s only once Osama bin Laden is dead that we start to question what good this eye-for-an-eye execution really did for America. Do we feel any safer now? Has terrorism ceased to be a threat? The film ends with Maya crying her heart out, and they’re not tears of relief. Revenge has hollowed her out. There’s no catharsis, no resolution for this cycle of violence. And there hasn’t been for the rest of us, either.
7. SHAME (2011)
Two years before 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture, Steve McQueen trained a similarly unflinching eye on a less Oscar-friendly topic — sex addiction. Brandon (a stellar Michael Fassbender) lives a fastidious life — so orderly it’s practically sterile, despite all the sex. But that’s a mask for turmoil roiling within him. When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up unannounced, buried emotions bubble to the surface; the only way he knows to deal with them is to fuck his way back to feeling good again. With graphic sex scenes and an incestuous undercurrent, this NC-17 drama was never meant to be a crowdpleaser — even seeing it in a public theater felt fairly illicit, though Shame‘s chilly demeanor puts most of its potential steaminess on ice. McQueen doesn’t explore Brandon’s compulsions in a clinical way, or shed any real light on his condition. Brandon has clearly faced trauma he’s not dealing with. He’s completely closed off, connecting with others only fleetingly through meaningless sex. Brandon watches porn on the internet and talks dirty via webcam; that’s the extent of Shame‘s exploration of tech, but it still feels like an apt exploration of 2010s hookup culture and the digital loneliness of life in the 21st century. Brandon’s not that different from the rest of us.
6. MOMMY (2014)
Big-hearted and unabashedly emotional, Xavier Dolan’s French-language drama introduces us to a mother and son who can hardly stand the sight of one other — and seem unlikely to survive on their own. Die (Anne Dorval) is a tough love single mother to Steve (Antoine Olivier-Pilon), who has ADHD and serious rage issues. She loves him, but as the troubled boy grows into a even more troubled man, she has doubts about whether she can handle the mayhem and violence to come. A more nurturing mother figure arrives in Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a neighbor who tutors Steve. For a moment, the dynamic between these three strikes a beautiful balance — a warm friendship between Die and Kyla, and tenderness in Kyla that Steve can’t get from his real mother. Dolan gives us a glimmer of hope that these three will create an unconventional family, and, in fact, we do get a happy ending — which unfolds entirely in Die’s mind, alongside the story’s gut-wrenching actual conclusion. Mommy reminds us that sometimes the best you can do is give up.
5. MOONLIGHT (2016)
The decade’s best Best Picture winner is forever saddled with that legendary Oscars upset. Remember when Moonlight‘s trophy was accidentally handed off to La La Land, thanks to a backstage blunder by the accountants and a checked-out Faye Dunaway? Of course you do. It made a hilarious spectacle out of what should’ve been an underdog triumph — the extraordinary implausibility of an indie about a poor gay black kid winning the Academy’s top prize for all the world to see. (It made for great television, at least.) Barry Jenkins’ impossibly lovely breakout is the rare film that’s both understated and bursting at the seams with emotion. It could be melodrama if it weren’t so exquisitely real.
Chiron’s life is sliced into three perfect segments, following him as a young boy (Alex Hibbert), a teen (Ashton Sanders), and finally, an adult (Trevante Rhodes). As the son of a crack-addicted mother in a rough Miami neighborhood, Chiron is justifiably reluctant to let his sexual orientation be known. Drug dealer Juan (a sublime Mahershala Ali) becomes an unlikely father figure in one of Moonlight‘s unexpectedly tender movements, supporting him without judgement. This was the decade that the entertainment industry finally woke up to a public hunger for stories that come from outside of the straight, white male perspective. Moonlight is the 2010s’ brightest beacon of hope in that direction, a reason to believe that the even the smallest, rarest stories can still reach the masses and make history in a big way.
4. BOYHOOD (2014)
My three-in-a-row trilogy of boyhood coming-of-age tales concludes, appropriately, with Boyhood, covertly shot by Richard Linklater over the course of twelve years to allow his central character to grow up before our eyes. Boyhood is the closest a movie can get to emulating parenthood. As we watch Ellar Coltrane’s Mason grow from boy to man, we experience the joy and pride of watching a child come into his own over time. Linklater is a smart enough filmmaker (and parent) to know that the “big” events are rarely the ones that define us; most of Boyhood unfolds in ordinary days, capturing moments that become significant only as they accumulate and become pieces of a larger whole.
In two hours and 46 minutes, Boyhood comes as close as film can to capturing a full dozen years of human life. And it’s not just Mason — it’s equally fascinating to check in on Patricia Arquette as mom Olivia and Ethan Hawke as dad Mason Sr., observing the subtle changes in their appearance and presence year by year. Boyhood makes us consider the passing of time in a way no other film could, as only life itself does. In a decade that saw us become obsessed with documenting and sharing our everyday lives, Boyhood is an Instagram feed come to life. (Minus the desperation and narcissism.) It’s a one-of-a-kind feat of filmmaking.
3. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)
The Social Network is verbose, confident, aloof, achingly lonely, and too smart for its own good — like many of the millennials whose lives were forever altered with the rise of social media depicted here. It’s crazy that one of the most definitive documents of this decade was released so early, in 2010. Technology rarely ages well in film. For all we knew back then, Facebook could have been a fleeting flash in the pan, forgotten by 2012. (What if they’d made a MySpace movie?) Instead, The Social Network grows more vital and prescient with each passing day, hitting on toxic masculinity, geek outrage, social media FOMO, technology-induced isolation, and the hypocrisy of Silicon Valley — all issues we talk a lot more about now than we did then.
Jesse Eisenberg makes the ideal evil twin for the real-life Mark Zuckerberg in a largely fictionalized but thematically truthful retelling of Facebook’s tumultuous founding. David Fincher’s hyper-controlled direction ends up being the perfect match for Aaron Sorkin’s chatty chaos, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross essentially reinvented what film scores sound like (the same year Hans Zimmer did with Inception, in a very different direction). No other film captured the social changes we went through in the 2010s quite so literally — and still with so much style and panache. No other film so obviously belongs amongst the best of the decade. Like Citizen Kane, its unforgivable Oscar loss (to The King’s Speech) only makes it more absurdly great in retrospect. The Social Network is the Citizen Kane of our millennium… and Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright is its Rosebud.
2. BLACK SWAN (2010)
Dance and horror go together surprisingly well, as late-in-the-decade releases like Suspiria and Climax discovered. With one foot in the past (in the tradition of Powell and Pressburger’s sumptuous 1948 Technicolor masterwork The Red Shoes) and one very much in the present (with computer-enhanced wing-sprouting, a drug trip, and psychotic lesbian fantasies), Black Swan goes for the jugular in all the right ways, then holds back at just the right moment. Natalie Portman’s brittle, repressed Nina is a heroine slightly ahead of her time — fending off the pre-#MeToo advances of a lecherous instructor, she manifests her fear of sexuality and womanhood in her own tortured body. (She’s sprouting feathers — an apt metaphor for the horrors of getting older.) As Lily, Mila Kunis is Nina’s nemesis and her object of desire — free-spirited and fun, she’s the woman Nina wishes she could be, while her psycho dance mom (Barbara Hershey) does everything in her power to keep Nina helpless and innocent. Portman’s Oscar-winning performance is divine; Kunis has never been better (or sexier).
Black Swan is gonzo, anything-goes fun — in moments, it’s borderline campy, harkening back to the hysterical female psychodramas of yesteryear — but under the surface, it’s a surprisingly potent character study and a fascinating damnation of gender norms. The ballerinas’ thin, delicate bodies are used and abused by instructor Thomas Leroy; he has no qualms about making sexual advances on these women, because he’s already contorting and controlling their bodies to his whim. Women who dare to turn thirty are coldly shunted aside, as Winona Ryder’s miserable Beth is. Girls are meant to stay pristine and doll-like, until they are discarded. Darren Aronofsky savagely taps into 2010s anxieties about growing up — how getting older means certain doom to so many of us. Obsessed with perfection, Nina Sayers is the consummate millennial. She’d rather die than face adulthood. Her final words put it best: “I was perfect.” You sure were, honey — and a lot of good it did you, huh?
1. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)
No film encompasses the 2010s like The Wolf Of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling exorcism of excess. The decade began with America still reeling from 2008’s financial crisis. The Occupy Wall Street movement demanded justice, but the bad guys were bailed out. They went back to business as usual. Meanwhile, the opportunities millennials had been promised — the American dream we’d bought into — was no longer available to us. Our elders raised us to want it all, and to take it — then decided they didn’t want to give up their cut after all, leading to grotesque economic disparity in America, and across the globe. As the decade comes to a close, films like Parasite, Joker, Hustlers, and Us are all about the have-nots wreaking havoc on the haves — finally getting their just desserts.
That’s a nice fantasy, but only The Wolf Of Wall Street tells it like it is. It’s the story of a bunch of assholes on Wall Street doing whatever the hell they want — screwing gullible Americans out of their hard-earned money to amass their own ungodly wealth — and getting away with it. Martin Scorsese’s sprawling drama is like Goodfellas on ecstasy — Jordan Belfort is every bit as ruthless as a gangster, but guys like him don’t answer for their crimes — at least, not like they should. Step aside, The Revenant — this is the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. He’s slick and slimy but somehow still dashing. His quaalude overdose is comedic bliss. The Wolf Of Wall Street also gifted us with the head-turning breakthrough of Margot Robbie; as Jordan’s unbelievable sex bomb wife Naomi, she practically steals the movie from all these Wall Street crooks.
Detractors were uncomfortable with The Wolf Of Wall Street‘s frat boy bacchanalia, its disgusting display of the “greed is good” mentality going unchecked. But that’s the point. You should be revolted by this boorish behavior. We all should. But we didn’t change in 1999, when Belfort pled guilty, or in 2008. It’s because we’re too much like him, too in love with the fantasy of getting rich quick.As the 2010s come to a close, there’s been a lot of discussion about how bifurcated the decade has been — beginning with the hope and change promise of the Obama years, and ending in Trump’s sound and fury. One constant has been in casting blind, boundless greed as the true American villain. Though it’s set before the turn of the century, The Wolf Of Wall Street ends up being the savviest indictment of American life in the 2000s — all the more brilliant because the admonishment is dressed up like a celebration. We’re all living Jordan Belfort’s life — we just haven’t been caught yet.
5 Honorable Mentions
The following five films did not make my Top Ten lists in their respective years, because other films — mostly dramas — resonated with me more. But when looking over the decade as a whole, it seems neglectful not to call out these five extra-exceptional genre titles for how they elevated the game this decade.
Bridesmaids (2011) — The 2010s was not the decade for broad studio comedies that became cultural touchstones, critical darlings, or hugely commercial hits. Bridesmaids is a sparkling exception, instantly iconic, laugh-out-loud funny, and satisfyingly sweet. Melissa McCarthy’s supporting turn made her a star, but the film features solid gold performances from its full ensemble, especially Rose Byrne, Jon Hamm, and the incomparable Kristin Wiig. Her druggy freakout aboard an airplane is the comedic highlight of the decade.
Black Panther (2017) — This list contained 40 films. It might take me 140 to get to a superhero movie, but since that was undoubtedly the dominant genre of the decade, it felt wrong to ignore them completely. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was one of precious few comic book blockbusters that felt truly of its moment and culturally vital. The details of most Marvel movies evaporate within days of watching them, but Black Panther transcended its connection to Marvel Cinematic Universe with a legacy that will linger.
It Follows (2014) — The strongest straight-up horror film of the 2010s didn’t give us an iconic Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, or Ghostface — or even a Babadook. Its villain is invisible, undetectable, and — well, it’s probably an STD. David Robert Mitchell’s whip-smart revision of 80s teen horror brings the sexual subtext of films like Halloween and Friday The 13th to terrifying life; have sex, and something will follow you relentlessly until you pass it on to the next unsuspecting victim. It Follows gives horror fans a treasure trove of subtext to dive into, but on top of that — it’s just fucking scary.
Get Out (2017) — Pegged by some as a horror film, Jordan Peele’s Get Out shines brightest as a macabre social satire. Rather than lampoon easy targets like blatant bigots, Peele skewers the liberal left — privileged white folks who talk like allies, but tacitly support systematic oppression of African-Americans. Movies will continue to take aim at conservative bigotry, as they should — but that doesn’t mean the self-righteous left can’t take a few pot shots, too. Peele takes this road less traveled, giving us instantly iconic moments like Daniel Kaluuya’s descent into the Sunken Place and Betty Gabriel’s grinning, weeping delivery of a whole bunch of “no.” Allison Williams’ milk-sipping, Dirty Dancing-loving honey trap is the ultimate basic bitch villain for our times.
Parasite (2019) — Bong Joon-ho’s crowd-pleasing horror comedy needs no reintroduction. Everyone’s still talking about it. But when we look back on the movies of the 2010s, I suspect Parasite will have a prominent place in the discussion. As in Get Out, the genre thrills work just fine at face value, but the social relevance makes it sing, as a downtrodden Korean family schemes their way into servitude for a hoity-toity rich family. As so often happens, their advancement comes at someone else’s expense. Take note, wolves of Wall Street — this is what it looks like when the sheep fight back.