Hello and welcome to this special once-in-a-decade article!
Several of the other contributors here at Geeks Under Grace and myself have endeavored to provide our lovely readers with a sample of the movies that we consider the most influential, important and excellent pieces of cinema that this decade has given us! Each list speaks to our own personal experiences, locales, priorities and beliefs and should be considered the opinion of us individually.
As such, this is a rather long-winded piece. We all have a lot of stories to recount and this decade has covered an enormous swath of artistic transformation. At the beginning of the decade, superheroes were half as popular as before and Netflix was just starting to grow. The X-Men movies were only just falling apart for the first time at this point. Disney was slightly less terrifying, not having purchased Star Wars, Hulu or Fox yet. Bad remakes were all the rage, and the largest franchise on the planet was still the Transformers franchise. Let’s not forget that people still REMEMBERED that Avatar was a thing at that time. It was weird.
Please be patient with a few of us (mainly me) for the long-winded nature of their recollections. It’s been a long decade!
While I’m still coming to terms with the fact that the 90s didn’t occur ten years ago, cinema has made some startling changes during the meantime. The last decade has possibly seen some of the largest shifts in the art form in regards to its accessibility, business modelling, technical development, and the changes foisted upon it due to the influence of the surrounding socio-political atmosphere. Some genres blossomed while others receded into the background, only to discover a resurgence of energy in the past few years.
It’s also the time period where my own interest in film really deepened, where I now view eight times the number movies than I did back in 2010. As a result, there are many fine films I could name for this list. Unfortunately, despite their high quality, they do recede to the back of the mind. So when it comes to naming the best of the decade, sometimes it’s not about a film’s level of quality, but rather its impact and lasting resonance.
Therefore there are a number of movies on my list that aren’t necessarily the ones that I consider the best in terms of quality, but they mark a pivotal point in cinematic history (or at least from our perspective only just a few years ahead in hindsight). Some are horribly overlooked, while others are unjustifiably popular but extremely relevant nonetheless, though all movies mentioned below are certainly worth a look.
Call me a Martin Scorsese wannabe as I’ve never truly been a hardcore fan of the Marvel Universe, but one cannot deny its sheer dominance of the cinematic landscape over the past decade. It set a precedent for successfully interconnecting a multitude of different characters and stories, where credit must be given where credit is due. There are a number of fine examples–the excitement over the initial assembling of The Avengers was palpable, whilst Black Panther demonstrated the importance of positive representation. While the entire arc amounted to Endgame, the film I’m choosing for this list is its predecessor, Infinity War. This was the film that finally catapulted the stakes in the MCU where it had previously been playing it safe, with “Thanos snap” quickly being adopted as a verb in our cultural lexicon.
At the turn of the decade, Christopher Nolan had already made a name for himself thanks to the success of The Dark Knight. His career has only continued to grow over last ten years as well. At a time when major franchises dominated cinema screens, heavily overseen by studios, companies and producers, Christopher Nolan’s films seemed to be the only “blockbusters” that at least appeared to contain a strong level of directorial creative control. Dunkirk and Interstellar are both wonderful, though it’s Inception that really wowed the crowds and remained as memes. Utterly satisfying with its complexity, Inception challenged the notion that some things are “unfilmable”, boldly setting a story several layers deep into one’s subconsciousness. It also showed how cool things look in zero gravity.
When one door closes, another one opens. This decade it felt like we said goodbye to the animation giant, Studio Ghibli, due to Hayao Miyazaki’s never-ending announcements of retirement. The Wind Rises was a heartfelt mature film, though it lacked the magic of Miyazaki’s previous works. The studio has released some more wonderful award-winning entries after Miyazaki’s departure, though other Japanese animated feature films have entered the space since then. Your Name was a colossal hit, though personally I prefer A Silent Voice. It’s a deeply honest film that cut me to my core in regards to its portrayal of bullying. It affected me so greatly that it convinced me to take up sign language classes.
Pixar managed to maintain its stronghold on Western animation despite the quality of the studio’s narratives dipping from one decade to the next. Having a reputation for producing children’s films that also entertained adults, none proved that belief truer than Inside Out. With a story that’s as “unfilmable” as Inception but able to fully utilize the freedom of animation, audiences were taken into a deeply layered narrative, one that taught children how to express themselves, and reminded adults of the grief surrounding the loss of innocence. Wonderfully intricate, this is one of the smartest films of the decade.
The Tree of Life
This is the most experimental and “artsy fartsy” movie on my list; one that is the most inspiring when it comes to the art of filmmaking. I once met a person who said that film was always inferior to the written word, as a movie was never better than the images he could conjure in his imagination. After admiring his audacity for saying that in front of a film critic, I was quick to suggest that maybe he wasn’t watching the right sort of movies. The Tree of Life was my first example. While Life of Pi, Inception, and Inside Out has completely debunked the idea of things being “unfilmable”, The Tree of Life also demonstrates the reverse–that some things cannot be written. The script was a cobbling of photos and strings of poetic verse, providing just enough of the director’s vision for others to understand the essence of the project. This film is a piece of art. An experience; one that represents the power and uniqueness of visual narratives that cannot be replicated in other mediums.
Feminism isn’t anything new, though the gender wars have really picked up over the last ten years. Despite what is commonly heard, there have been a number of “strong female characters” throughout cinema. However some of the latest examples simply portray women taking on masculine traits, instead of finding the strength in femininity. The importance of Wonder Woman was that it bucked the trend, demonstrating that loving and trusting a male, and being strong, are not mutually exclusive attributes. The film also had achievements behind the camera, with Patty Jenkins finally putting to rest the discriminatory comments regarding a female director’s ability to lead a big budget film. It’s certainly not a perfect movie, but one cannot deny its accomplishments and impact on cinema.
If anything got completely overhauled during the past ten years, then it was the casting process. The movement started off with good intentions; entire races had a tendency to be typecast in particular occupations and status roles, while there was also an underwhelming number of films tackling the subtleties of being biracial. Yet for every movie that successfully addressed those issues (Crazy Rich Asians, Abominable, Luce, The Farewell), there were also plenty that made the problem worse. Soon some casting bills resembled a shopping list of ethnicities, where it became painfully apparent that the hiring of Caucasian actors was avoided even in narratives where it made no sense to do so. Then there was the odd demand for authenticity from the public (ignoring the concept of acting itself), which ironically lessened diversity, as the business side of the industry would simply deem certain projects too hard to cast, never green-lighting the stories featuring the tinier minorities. Then Searching came along like a beacon of light and gave everyone a lesson in how it should be done. John Cho was cast because he is a good actor. The role he plays doesn’t need to be any particular race. It also doesn’t hurt that this film also revolutionized the found footage subgenre. But ultimately Searching shows that maybe we’re just overthinking things when it comes to racial representation in casting. More of this, please!
Hollywood has always been a business, but that has become extremely apparent during the last decade. Why fund a new property when one can produce a film based off an already popular, well-established franchise? The more screens dedicated to it, the more sessions, and the better the return on investment. The more niche genres, like dramas, were filtered out from theatrical releases. Sci-fi hung in there (of which there are many great films: Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049, Arrival), though Annihilation marked the turning point, completing its worldwide release on streaming services. Cinephiles grieved the lack of diversity of content in traditional theaters, with the Cannes Film Festival displaying an open bias against Netflix-released films. Ironically it was that same negative attitude that allegedly cost Roma Best Picture at the Oscars. Now we’re at the point where even cinematic legends like Martin Scorsese can no longer resist the inevitable–releasing his gangster masterpiece on Netflix due to limited choices in distribution. This film symbolically marks a pivotal point in cinema and its accessibility.
If you can’t beat them, join them! There was always a growing concern over the prevalence of big blockbuster films, to the point where the “summer blockbuster” is now an extinct term as they occur year round. Nothing wrong with a popcorn flick, unless people are consuming it constantly. To alter the general public’s diet, Joker was conceived as almost an inside joke in itself–an experiment to determine whether a deep character study film, like that of Manchester by the Sea, could be hidden within a comic book story. People ate it up! Yet whilst critics were delighted that audiences were enjoying something different, it’s also infuriating and scary as to what the future now holds. Spotlight disguised as a Clark Kent film? The Wolf of Wall Street crossed with Bruce Wayne? Have we merely ushered in a new wave of superhero films, where deeper narratives are possible, but must still hold the hand of a franchise entity in order to gain recognition? Only time will tell how pivotal Joker is in film history.
Cheap to produce and still well attended at cinemas, the horror genre boomed alongside blockbuster films. It certainly went through a Renaissance, with it all starting with The Babadook. Between 2000–2010, horror films became obsessed with gore, with Saw ushering in an era of torture porn, while found footage movies dominated the scene as well, despite a lack of longevity with its narrative style. Then The Babadook presented a story that needed to be a horror for it to work, exploring the isolating nature of grief, and providing one of the best allegories for the emotion in cinema history. It Follows and The Witch released soon after, also utilizing horror as a necessity to the plot as opposed to exploiting it. These films brought a great deal of respect back to the genre, which was then built upon and mastered by the likes of Ari Aster and Jordan Peele over the past few years.
2000–2010 also marked the rise and fall of J-Horror. The subgenre was popularized by Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge, though subsequent films and concepts never managed to add anything new to the category. Yet in a way, South Korea took up the mantle in creating high quality Asian horror; a country with a strong cinematic history in producing compelling dramas and thrillers. Many will have heard of Train to Busan, but personally I prefer The Wailing. As a father desperately tries to save his daughter’s life from supernatural forces, he seeks advice from three religions. It contains a heartbreaking and honest complexity, rivalling the likes of Silence, while also presenting a wonderful analysis of the nature of evil. It’s a satisfying, deep, and effective horror film.
It has been a great decade for South Korean cinema, and none more so than for director Bong Joon Ho. In order to keep things fresh, Marvel began to push the boundaries of genre, bringing about an acceptance of genre blends in the process. Bong Joon Ho however has been doing this his whole career, and has finally mastered it in Parasite. Funny, thrilling, and sometimes outright depressing, the tonal changes and manipulation is perfect, and this movie is the culmination of Bon Joon Ho’s career and a representation of the new heights of South Korean (and world cinema) as a whole. It’s a risky prediction, but this movie has the biggest chance in cinematic history to finally be the first Foreign Language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
The advancement of streaming services made certain genres more accessible. YouTube provided the perfect platform for shorts operating as proof of concept pieces for larger feature films, with Lights Out, Cargo, and Kung Fury all finding success. The other genre to benefit was the humble documentary. Blackfish in particular made headlines, drawing so much attention that it forced Sea World and other aquatic wildlife parks to change their policies. It also bolstered faith in activism thanks to its real world results, while also making the genre synonymous with needing a “call to action” as its final beat. Though the latest documentaries (Three Identical Strangers, Free Solo, Honeyland, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary) have returned to a more passive form of story telling techniques, swinging back and bucking this trend.
This is my favorite film of the decade. It set a new bar, where when I came across a great film, I would literally ask myself whether it was better than Whiplash. Sure, it’s not as great as The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s up there. Fantastic characters, electrifying visuals, tense dramatic sequences and a perfect ending for the narrative. Just watch it.
Game of Thrones
Yeah, I’m cheating. But this decade was a Golden Age for television thanks to the advent of streaming services. LOST may have started the notion of big budget TV productions, but Game of Thrones took it to the next level. With its high quality production designs, special effects, large budget and feature length episodes, it blurred the line between film and television. Sure, the final season has marred its reputation, but now that The Rise of Skywalker exists, complaints about pacing might ease, and the show may once again respected for its contribution to the art form.
For all the normalcy that was remarked upon while we were in the midst of it all, there’s no denying that the 2010s was the decade when giants walked the earth again. Okay, it’s more accurate to say that most of them floundered about menacingly with occasional flourishes of significance, almost as if they were just the exhumed husks of bygone legends being reanimated through questionable means and puppeteered about for our amusement. Yes, that’s a bit overly cynical, as the last decade did genuinely grant us works of worthwhile import that will most likely be discussed and debated for generations to come. Whether those most deserving of such attention receive their due diligence is another question.
As the man said, “The dark side is a path to many abilities that some would consider…unnatural.”
Avengers: Infinity War – The MCU marched around the summer blockbuster scene like it owned the place. That’s mainly because it largely did. Infinity War was the first and the last entry in the project to have a sense of real stakes and consequences attached to it. Mind you, that was mostly undone later, but it was good while it lasted.
mother! – I’ve yet to come across another film from this decade that rocked me to my core in the way that Aronofsky did with this outing. Not for the faint of heart or mind.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day – Okay, that one also rocked me pretty hard. The fact that it did so with crudely drawn stick figures is even more impressive.
Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse – Best superhero movie of 2018 and best Spider-Man movie ever. You can’t change my mind.
Inside Out – This is the Pixar that I know and love. The premise is ingenious. The characters are vibrant and unforgettable. The meaning is deep, powerful, and sophisticated. The ending is basically perfect. Can you do it again, guys? We miss you.
Frozen – I KNOW, I KNOW. But look, there’s no denying that this was a mighty return to form for one of the biggest names in family entertainment. The fact that it’s the most profitable animated film ever made certainly makes it worthy of consideration, regardless of quality.
Teen Titans GO! To the Movies – Look, shut up. I know tha- SHUT UP! I know this entire idea has earned little more than vitriol from most onlookers, both on the large and the small screens. Such animosity is misguided, as this is a manner of subversion that came at just the right time and delivered everywhere it counted. DEAL WITH IT.
Avengers – Aside from Infinity War, this was one of the biggest feature-length episodes in the most expensive TV series ever made. There’s no way to overlook that. It doesn’t give us that option.
ParaNorman – I only include this rather than Coraline because it came out in the last decade. The resuscitation of stop-motion by the masterful craftsmanship of Laika was one achievement I could never have predicted. Few others are more grateful for it, and ParaNorman is one of those few works that I find a new reason to love it all over again every time I see it.
You Were Never Really Here – This was one powerful title that I nearly missed. Glad I didn’t. What would have been at first glance a mindless action thriller, was instead a quietly brilliant reflection on trauma, malice, and suffering. You’re not gonna get that at your local summer flick.
Whiplash – A young starry-eyed creative talent runs himself (partially of his own accord and partially through authoritative pressure) through a brutal gauntlet of violence and fury to become “one of the greats,” and fails colossally multiple times for every hint of success he manages to grasp. I feel this movie spiritually.
Inception – I’m surprised more mainstream studios still aren’t trying to ape off of the success of this title. “Mind heist” is such an easily marketable concept that I’m sure several producers were itching to run into the ground with hollow and uninspired copycat projects. It’s for the best that they didn’t though.
The Social Network – How curious is it that the underlying motives behind the revolution of online social media were antisocial pathologies, constant backbiting, and generally unscrupulous pathologies of social interaction? Not quite sure what to make of that…
How to Train your Dragon – DreamWorks’ best work since The Prince of Egypt? Yes, indeed. Has its legacy been given its due diligence? Hardly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate what a glorious shot out of the blue the first film was and still is even now. Honestly, this movie has aged very gracefully for its sort.
The Tree of Life – This is going to be required viewing in film schools soon enough. This is one of those few movies that can only exist as a movie. No other narrative medium can do what this film does.
Cloud Atlas – This was far more innovative, ambitious, and transcendent in scope and theme than The Matrix, but for some reason, almost nobody speaks of this title anymore. Such a tragedy.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Mr. Scorsese’s great works span many decades, and the definitive accomplishment of this one, at least in the mainstream, is a true-to-life story of the allure and self-destructive poison of hedonism. That it’s perfectly paced, brilliantly acted, and an absolute thrill from start to finish also helps.
Man of Steel – I have a bit of a sentimental attitude towards films at times. I tend to admire a movie for its vision (or at least implied vision) even if the execution doesn’t quite work. Man of Steel is still one of the strongest of this in my lexicon.
The Conjuring – I’m not keen on how this is being spun out into another ill-fated attempt at a “cinematic universe”, but both The Conjuring and its sequel are outstanding and gloriously reverent of their spiritually heavy subject matter. Never would expect someone like James Wan to pull that off, but here we are.
John Wick – Yes, this certainly one of those cinema giants who was once able to walk the earth. An entire film franchise oriented around Keanu Reeves – being a legend of the underground criminal world, and all parties concerned having to realize just who they’re messing with – would get me into the seat with ease. That it also presents ingenious innovations for action choreography in every entry without fail, marks this as an unforgettable experience.
Boyhood – This film was in the incubation chamber for twelve years. That alone makes its eventual release a noteworthy event for the decade, almost without regard to actual quality. Could it have stood to be a bit more mature and sophisticated? Sure, but still. Twelve years of shooting with the same cast. That’s a daredevil act.
Chef – There are few films that I appreciate simply for existing. Jon Favreau’s non Marvel-related passion project delivers what I didn’t even know I wanted. Part road trip comedy, part endearing family film (with an R rating, mind you), part celebration of food and excellence. Such a joy.
The Babadook – It’s not common for new filmmaking talents to shock the world with their first outing. Jennifer Kent managed to do this with a haunting psychological thriller, featuring stellar performances and sense of atmosphere, that managed to be piercingly unsettling despite the stock audio usage. Brava.
Noah – The Great Flood is one of those Bible stories that is so popular with kids, mainly because it features a lot of animals. How easily we forget that no matter how we slice it, this is a tale of divinely orchestrated mass death. A passion project for several years, Aronofsky gives a welcome and challenging alternative perspective on such a well-known and critical moment in the biblical narrative.
The Last Jedi – Fight me. If there was one franchise that really needed to be shaken up and reshuffled with some grand new visions and compelling direction, it was Star Wars. I greatly appreciate what Rian Johnson offered up, even if it falters technically in some respects. In fact, it’s the most satisfying Star Wars experience I’ve had since Empire. Yeah, I said it.
Mad Max: Fury Road – We’ve been letting action movies get away with too much, and this is proof of that. The whole film is basically a feature-length Chuck Jones cartoon in live-action, with the chase being the primary selling point. The stunts are real. The vehicles are real. The explosions are real. Hollywood, the gauntlet has been thrown.
Cinderella (2015) – Disney’s “live-action remake” movement is…odd to say the least. There is a chance for real greatness there, and Sir Kenneth Branagh delivers hard with what he called “a movie in which kindness is a superpower”. Seriously, who says that anymore?
Silence – While The Wolf of Wall Street was Scorsese’s most thrilling release of the last decade, Silence was easily his most profound and thought-provoking. Based on the true story of Jesuit priests working in Japan during a time of fierce anti-Christian persecution, we are given a king’s feast of food for thought. Where is God in the midst of our suffering? I hope you can see an answer here.
Arrival – I wish sci-fi writers had greater appreciation for what their genre is capable of doing. Arrival does several things that I’d been hoping for at once. Time paradoxes, linguistic complications, rapid tech development in the face of an extra-terrestrial threat… Easily my favorite film of that year.
Your Name – Gotta go across the pond for this one. The highest grossing animated film out of Japan deserves recognition for that description. Rest assured, it lives up to the legend. Body swap stories are rote at this point, especially in animation, where changing characters and voices is hardly an inconvenience. Watch as this film throws all expectations on its head with quietly beautiful aplomb, and looks good while doing it.
Logan – Did not see that one coming at all. After Fox Studios retread familiar ground with such titles as First Class and Days of Future Past, who could have predicted something like an endgame (heh) for the story that kicked off way back at the turn of the millennium? Fittingly brutal, reverently morose, and endlessly thrilling.
Baby Driver – It was either this or Scott Pilgrim for the smash hit Edgar Wright film of the decade for me. I probably would have chosen The World’s End had I spent more time with it, but hey. Everything I love about this guy’s filmmaking is on full display here. Slick pacing and editing, expert needle-drop soundtrack, fantastic comedic beats found in the most unlikely of places–this is Wright at his best.
Of Gods and Men – The demands of the life of a disciple cannot be taken lightly precisely because they are so heavy. See this powerfully constructed, French-language meditation on those demands, made all the more weighty by its true story of Jesuit monks, who must wrestle with guarding themselves or remaining loyal to the community they serve.
The Breadwinner – The thing that always fascinated me about the world of the Middle East is how central stories are to their whole perception of life and existence. Everything has a tale and almost any problem can be addressed and resolved with a story. This animated gem explores the perils of a young girl forced into a web fraught with danger, and how the stories she spins not only give her strength, but clarity in how to bring a close to the conflict that separated her from her family. I know you have a Netflix account. Please use it for something other than binge watching Stranger Things again.
A Silent Voice – Let’s take one last sojourn to the other hemisphere for a tick. With the tragic arson attack on Kyoto Animation that happened earlier this year, I felt compelled to give a shout out to one of the studio’s finest feature releases, and one of the most heart-wrenching bildungsroman stories put to animation. In the Bible, King David is said to be a man “after God’s own heart”. In a way, lead character Shoya Ishida is one who actively chases after God’s own heart in his relentless urge to be redeemed for his past sins. It’s brilliant, it’s moving, and it’s breathtakingly gorgeous.
Honorable mentions: Pain & Gain, Crazy Rich Asians, Bad Times at the El Royale, Bumblebee, Creed, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, True Grit, Toy Story 3, The King’s Speech, Sinister, Captain America: The First Avenger, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Hugo, The Cabin in the Woods, Midnight in Paris, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lincoln, The Master, Looper, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Her, Wreck-It Ralph, Snowpiecer, Prisoners, Under the Skin, Enemy, Inside Llewyn Davis, Pacific Rim, Edge of Tomorrow, Fury, Ex Machina, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), What We Do in the Shadows, The Revenant, The Witch, Moana, Hacksaw Ridge, Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Eighth Grade, Don’t Breathe, Us, The Greatest Showman, Coco, Aquaman, Ready Player One.
It’s been quite the decade, hasn’t it? Speaking for myself, I started the decade in high school, graduated, graduated college, started my career (twice), moved homes four times, wrote and directed an amateur feature film, and just this year was finally baptized. I’ve lived almost my entire mature life in this decade since I was a high school sophmore in 2010.
My entire moviegoing life was formed in this decade as well. I remember the first few times I ever went out and viewed movies by myself was in the summer of 2011, when I saw Captain America: The First Avenger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I’d never seen movies without my family before, and suddenly I could go out and find movies that personally appealed to my own tastes. Doing so set me on a path to appreciating film as a medium and finding passion in it.
I published my first movie review on Facebook two years later in November of 2013. A year after that, I moved the blog to Tumblr. In December of 2017, I was brought into Geeks Under Grace which has become my writing home. My path has been long and unexpected. I can’t begin to tell you how I ended up where I did but, as P.J. O’rourke once said, very little cognitive thought was involved in the process. I owe much to the people in my life who have helped me grow into the quasi-functional millennial I am today. Much love to them and praise to God for his infinite mercy and patience.
With the soporific sophistry out of the way, I give you my contribution to Geeks Under Grace’s Best Films of the Decade!
For my list, my only rule imposed is that no director can have more than one entry in the list. If I didn’t make this rule the list would only be comprised of a handful of masters, when this should be a much more diverse and sporadic list that covers more than one artist and culture. I’ve also decided to deliver these 50 movies in alphabetical order since I cannot reasonably figure a means by which to grade these movies numerically. Art is art. You can’t stick a dipstick into it.
There are also a handful of personal favorites that didn’t make the list for one reason or another. Some personal favorites like Godzilla Resurgence, John Wick, Nightcrawler, Brooklyn, Fury, Logan Lucky and The Walk didn’t quite meet the mark of quality I was trying to capture. Still, they merit a mention! There are also a handful of movies I’m sure cinephiles will probably question the absence of, like Whiplash or Get Out. Rest assured – they’re great movies, but they didn’t quite break my rankings!
Without further ado, lets begin!
- 12 Years a Slave (2013) – To be frank, I haven’t seen this movie in more than six years, but after all that time it’s stuck in my head for its horrific depiction of American slavery. Steve McQueen (no, not THAT one) is an immensely talented director, having produced films like Hunger, Shame and Widows, but this film is the one that really cemented his incredible talent as an artist.
- Annihilation (2018) – There have been a lot of unique science fiction movies coming out of the independent film scene this decade. Screenwriter and director, Alex Garland, has arguably been the most important contributor to this phenomena. His movies have a depth and curiosity to them, paired with legitimate existential horror that makes them unforgettable and disturbing.
- Anomolisa (2015) – Charlie Kaufman isn’t really “my bag”, as the kids would say. His particular brand of existentialism doesn’t appeal to my soul. Still it’s hard to argue with the results when you make movies as intelligent as Adaptation, Being John Malcovich, Eternal Sunshine and Synecdoche, New York. His only contribution in the last ten years – Anomolisa – is one of the best animated films of the decade and pushes the boundaries on stop motion animation as an artform.
- Arrival (2016) – I’m going to probably say this a few times in this article, but I could’ve picked any of Denis Villeneuve’s movies for this list and it would’ve been appropriate. This God-mode run of Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival has been this decade’s most unexpected surprise. If I had to pick a favorite with a gun to my head, his 2016 science fiction masterpiece would probably be it.
- Attack the Block (2011) – The 2010s were a decade of revivals for the film industry, and one of my favorites was the mini-John Carpenter homage phenomena we got between Get Out, The Guest, It Follows and Attack the Block. The latter remains my favorite. Joe Cornish’s excellent sci-fi/horror film, set against one of the poorest areas of the UK, is absolutely a revelation.
- Bad Black (2016) – Wakaliwood is completely lovely and deserves the viral fame they’ve earned! This fledgling amateur film studio from Uganda has had more of an impact on film internationally than most people realize, and going forward I can imagine they got a few surprises as they break into the mainstream. Of their films, Bad Black is the best one that’s been distributed internationally!
- Blindspotting (2018) – If all directorial debuts were as stylish, emotional and tense as this film, Hollywood would be a much better place. Carlos López Estrada’s movie about two men living in a poor, gentrified San Francisco suburb is one of the most enthralling, funny and original films in years.
- Blue Jasmine (2013) – Late period Woody Allen films are extremely hit or miss. Sometimes you get a Midnight in Paris, and sometimes you get an unwatchable slog… His late homage to A Streetcar Named Desire is thankfully one of his best dramas. Though more serious than most of his films, it’s a difficult, wordy and fascinating character study with great performances.
- Bridge of Spies (2015) – Steven Spielberg got bored of directing action movies decades ago and it’s taken him a long time to find a new direction in his career. His late period transition to dramas following Lincoln was long overdue and all of them are great! Of them, his Cold War collaboration with the Coen Brothers is his late masterpiece!
- Creed (2015) – The idea of a seventh Rocky film is an idea that rightfully creates thoughts of deep fear and loathing in the mind of cinephiles. Leave it to veritable wunderkind Ryan Coogler to find a new angle and a fresh take on cinema’s most disabused, egomaniacal and unnecessary franchise. This isn’t just a spin-off to Rocky 4. Creed is a powerful story about legacy, intergenerational relationships, and identity.
- The Death of Stalin (2018) – Take the basic premise of Monty Python Does Soviet Russia and turn it up to eleven. Not only one of the darkest anti-authoritarian films ever, but one of the funniest comedies ever made. Few films can reasonably balance such a mix of pitch dark-humanism and absurdism, but this one does it with style.
- Dragged Across Concrete (2019) – S. Craig Zahler walks the line with every one of his movies between tastelessness and irony. They always feel like they’re one or two degrees away from total depravity and hatred, and yet there’s a reservation to them that makes me think there’s always something else going on, even when he’s made a movie as trollish as a Mel Gibson/police brutality movie. Rarely are such evil characters so compelling.
- Drive (2011) – Nicolas Winding Refn can be a frustrating director. He has such a unique and powerful aesthetic that works so well in movies like Bronson and Valhalla Rising, yet his last several projects get lost in all their beautiful imagery. Of them all, Drive is the one that balances his beautiful visual style the most, with a fascinating, if difficult, narrative that lends itself to being watched again and again to be fully appreciated.
- Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Maybe the most underappreciated contemporary action film to come out of a mainstream Hollywood production, Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live, Die, Repeat) comes with a basic premise that gets used to incredible dramatic and comedic effect. This is the movie that foreshadowed Tom Cruise’s career rejuvenation and establish that he was going to enter one of the most exciting times of his filmography, with great action movies like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Fallout.
- First Reformed (2018) – Paul Schrader finally achieved his masterpiece this decade after a messy–if prolific–career as a screenwriter and director. The one time screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, shifted focus and directed movies like Hardcore and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, before achieving a late-in-life feat with First Reformed. This morally grey masterpiece explores complex themes regarding salvation and environmentalism, and asks some dangerous questions about how far we ought to go to seek justice in a fallen world.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Wes Anderson has such a distinct, aesthetic sensibility that overshadows the course of his entire career, that one might assume the MOST exemplified film showcasing his style would be cloying and obnoxious. Yet it’s surprisingly his most personal, funniest, and most painful film. This movie’s meaning is found in the framing of its story. It’s a memory of a memory of a memory, being read by a young woman in a park decades after the events of its story. It’s a sad, powerful metaphor for nostalgia; the past we yearn for and the past we think existed but may have never been.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – It’s hardly controversial to call this decade the “decade of superhero movies”, given the prevalence of the genre. Of them all, none to me had the impact as James Gunn’s seminal MCU film, Guardians of the Galaxy. No other film in this genre had the cultural affect that this one film managed to create. Just walk up to someone on the street and tell them “We Are Groot” to see what I mean.
- Hacksaw Ridge (2016) – There’s been a massive revival of religious films this decade with the immense success of films like God’s NOT Dead, Son of God and War Room. The most interesting though, are the ones that have been coming from offbeat Hollywood weirdos with estranged and complicated relationships to the church and culture at large. Enter Mel Gibson–the world’s most controversial (living) movie star. The man who famously brought his unique energy to epics like Braveheart and Passion of the Christ, here crafted one of the most brutal and inspirational war films since Saving Private Ryan. It’s not so much a movie about the persecution of faith, so much as it is about the proving of it.
- Her (2013) – This movie should NOT work. Spike Jonze’s vision of a world deeply atomized by technology, to the point that one man falls in love with his computer’s operating system, should either be a dark comedy or a horror film, and yet it’s not. It’s a melancholic exploration of a world not too far from our own, where our ability to connect is dissolved proportionally to our ability to increase our technological capacity.
- Holy Motors (2012) – It’s taken me more than half a decade to understand Leo Carax’s complicated arthouse film, comprised of disconnected scenes of an actor going about his day dispassionately. There are so many layers of theme and real world context that make this one of the most exciting films to think about even years later. Maybe you’ll just love one or two of the scenes without understanding the context, but once you discover the movie’s foundational narrative it opens up to new ways to interpret it.
- Inception (2010) – Christopher Nolan earned his place in the cultural landscape with this movie. Years later, people are still complaining about how it doesn’t make any sense, yet it’s stuck in their minds. This is a movie of metaphors and deep personal tragedy. Cobb’s journey to perform the greatest heist of his career is also a journey into the subconscious. It’s a tragedy of one man’s poor choices and mistakes, slowly eroding his grasp on reality until he no longer cares what’s real anymore.
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – The Coen Brothers have REALLY slowed down their output this decade. Most directors would be proud to make True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis, Hail, Caesar! and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs back to back, yet this hasn’t even been their strongest decade. It’s nobody’s fault if you can’t live up to your own best work though. That said, their 2013 masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis, is easily their best work of the 2010s. It’s not as immediately fun as some of their other films, but the underlying tragedy of the film is palpable.
- Ladybird (2017) – Saoirse Ronan has become my favorite actress. I more or less fell in love with her in Brooklyn, and since then she’s dedicated her career to finding difficult and emotional roles to expand her skills. Ladybird is easily the best thing she’s been in. The film by Greta Gerwig, explores an immensely complicated, toxic, broken and sad young woman, whom we develop immense empathy and love.
- The LEGO Movie (2014) – In an age when commercialism controls the film industry, self reflection goes a long way. What should’ve been the most cynical and painfully awkward films of the decade, instead became a masterpiece of modern animation in the hands of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It uses the bare bones of the hero’s journey to utterly subvert the meaning of the stories we most frequently tell ourselves. It’s a movie about imagination, inspiration, and the stories we tell ourselves.
- Logan (2017) – James Mangold’s radical deconstruction of the superhero genre remains of the most powerful entries into any mainstream superhero franchise ever produced. Reinterpreting the genre through the lens of a nihilistic neo-western to tell this story of dystopian horror and violence, gave us a movie that even people who hate superhero films praise.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – A movie like this shouldn’t be possible. You shouldn’t be able to sneak a movie this excellent and enthralling through the studio system. Then again, most directors aren’t George Miller. The legendary director of The Road Warrior, returned as a 70-year-old man to reinvent the possibilities of an action film in the eyes of modern Hollywood. This shouldn’t work and yet it’s a masterpiece.
- The Muppet Movie (2011) – Jason Segal’s revival of The Muppets is basically the best shot of pure joyfulness and kindness you’ll find this decade. I’ve met lots of Jim Henson purists who don’t appreciate his work being handled by other puppeteers, yet this movie is easily the best movie in the entire franchise just as a film. The music is great, the cameos are hilarious, and all of your favorite Muppets show up. I wasn’t even a fan of this franchise before seeing it and now I love them!
- Never Look Away (2018) – When I heard the German director of The Lives of Others had a new film coming out, I almost flipped out. That it not only meets his previous masterpiece but manages to exceed its predecessor, is a testament to the beauty of this long-winded epic. The story of this one tortured artist–struggling to grasp the trauma of living through Nazism and the Soviet occupation of his nation–is tense, funny, and romantic from start to finish.
- The Nice Guys (2016) – Shane Black is the best buddy cop writer in the history of cinema. He’s also a spectacular screenwriter on his own terms, who has matured from good movies like Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight, to making comedic masterpieces like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The Nice Guys is almost a culmination of his filmography. It’s at once lurid and sharply written from start to finish. Getting to laugh at the absurdity of America during the 1970s never stops being fun.
- Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) – Tarantino has really grown into himself this decade with a handful of his best films ever. Like Wes Anderson though, one would think the deeper he falls into his idiosyncrasies the more obnoxious he would become. It turns out with his newest film released just this year, that’s not the case. OUATIH is easily his most personal film yet. It mixes and remakes ideas and locales from across his career to create a dreamscape of the world he wishes he could live in. It’s a memory wrapped in a fairy tale that asks you to sit back and relax.
- The Other Side of the Wind (2018) – It’s not everyday that one of the greatest directors in history gets a film released posthumously. Orson Welles’ late masterpiece was one of the most infamous “lost” films in Hollywood history, that is until a small group of dedicated filmmakers convinced Netflix to finance its completion. It’s a deeply fractured yet purposely satirical take on egomania in the New Hollywood of the 1970s. It uses its status as a mockumentary to get away with shots and poor audio that no other film could use without criticism. In the hands of a genius, the film is deeply purposeful and endlessly fascinating.
- Pacific Rim (2013) – I’m sure someone is going to disagree with this movie’s placement on this list, yet honestly it’s one of my favorite movies ever. Going into it with zero expectations, I was blown away by its tension and creativity. It’s easily the best monster movie Hollywood has produced in decades, thanks to the gentle guiding hand of Guillermo Del Toro. He would of course go on and double down on that feat with his 2017 masterpiece, The Shape of Water.
- Pain & Gain (2013) – I will likely never watch this movie again. Seeing it the first time made me feel slimly and disgusting; like I was complicit in someone else’s crime. At the same time though, watching Michael Bay feel his way through something like a Coen Brothers’ dark-comedy is utterly fascinating. It’s a masterpiece of nihilism and corruption.
- Phantom Thread (2017) – Any Paul Thomas Anderson movie deserves a place on this list, from his immediate follow-up to There Will Be Blood that was The Master, to his lurid 1970s noir, Inherent Vice. They’re all great. Phantom Thread is on an entirely different level though. His final collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis ended up being one of the most enthralling and viscerally disturbing explorations of an abusive relationship in cinematic history. It’s a movie of dizzying beauty, but it’s all a front. Its beautiful surface covers the emptiness within, as we watch these two characters literally and metaphorically poison one another.
- The Raid: Redemption (2011) – There was before The Raid, and then there was after The Raid. No other action movie has fundamentally changed the very air that its entire genre breathes this much in decades. The movie resurrected interest in the martial arts genre and provided one of the most stripped down, no-nonsense takes on the genre ever. It’s a movie defined by minimalism, that manages to focus entirely on its masterful fight scenes while still functioning perfectly as a story about one man’s lonely fight against corruption.
- Roma (2018) – Alfonso Cuarón earned my attention with Gravity and Harry Potter. With Roma he earned my respect. This otherwise quiet drama about a lower class home maker in Mexico shouldn’t hit as hard as it does, and yet it’s peppered with tragedy and loss. When this movie hits its darkest moments, you feel it. You feel for Cleo as she’s repeatedly disregarded and abandoned by those around her until the movie’s final moments.
- Silence (2016) – I can’t begin to describe to you how much this movie means to some people. As a Christian, some aspects of its story are objectionable, and yet there’s a tangible pain and empathy for the Christian experience that sits at the core of this movie. It’s asking the darkest questions a Christian can ask unflinchingly, and asks how we rationalize them and maintain our faith in the face of a cruel world. Martin Scorsese has outdone himself with this movie.
- Skyfall (2012) – James Bond movies are very hit or miss. Most of them stink, yet when they hit their stride, they’re some of the best adventure movies you’ll ever find. With Casino Royale in 2008, the franchise was totally reinvented, and here it comes to a kind of fruition. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins crafted one of the most beautiful adventure movies of all time. Rarely does a movie ever look so unflinchingly at the cracks in a character and still give him to us in all of his messy glory than this movie does.
- Snowpiercer (2014) – Bong Joon Ho is a more radical director than I generally care for. There’s a genuine rage in his heart about the state of the world and the casual cruelties of society, but his solutions are more than merely radical if this film is any indication. Still it’s hard to argue with science fiction films THIS good. His breakout American-Korean joint production is one of the darkest movies about the way society is constructed that you’ll ever see. At the same time though it’s also enthralling and perfect.
- The Social Network (2010) – I’m honestly not the biggest fan of David Fincher. I know he has tons of fans amongst cinephiles but his work is too uneven and lurid for my tastes. When he’s on point though, his movies are masterpieces. I LOVE Zodiac! Maybe my favorite of his films though is his turn-of-the-decade biopic on Mark Zuckerburg’s founding of Facebook. It’s more restrained than his normal output, yet it’s also one of his harshest and most uniquely stylish films ever.
- Son of Saul (2015) – I was late to discover this Hungarian Holocaust movie. It seemed like something needlessly dower at the time I first heard of it. Having seen it, I can affirm it’s worse than that. It’s also vital. This story follows one Jewish man who witnesses the miracle of a child surviving the gas chambers in Auschwitz, only for them to be summerly murdered. The story of that man attempting to give him a traditional Jewish funeral in the midst of the worst tragedy of the 20th century, is harrowing in the way that resolving one small, unjust deed in a sea of injustice can only provide.
- Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (2018) – Am I breaking my rule to NOT credit the same creators more than once in this list for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller? Not really. They only wrote this movie. It’s still a masterpiece. Not only is this stylish animated movie the best Spider-Man movie since Sam Raimi left the franchise, it’s one of the best unironic depictions of the most popular genre in the history of cinema.
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) – I know many people despise this movie and I respect that. I honestly love this movie, even though I’m disappointed with The Rise of Skywalker and how it undermines some of its themes. Even so, that doesn’t take away what this movie accomplishes for me. Rian Johnson cut Star Wars to the bone, in the same way Scorsese cuts ideas to the bone in his movies to reveal the best and worst of it. It’s an unusual and rare way to dig into the ideas of a movie and I respect it so much for that.
- The Tree of Life (2011) – It’s taken me a long time to warm up to Terrance Malick’s epic existential drama. I didn’t like it the first time I watched it, yet it opened up to me upon a second viewing earlier this month. Seeing this small Texas family reenact the Book of Job is completely fascinating. It’s a movie totally disconnected from any coherent narrative, that just exists to let us explore the minds of a tortured family. Set in contrast the grandness of the universe, it takes on a new meaning and an new perspective. Where were we when God laid the earth’s foundation indeed.
- What We Do in the Shadows (2014) – I love Taika Waititi so much! Between this, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit, he’s established himself as one of the best comedians in Hollywood. Few find such immense joy and empathy in bad situations as he does. All of that creativity started with his improvised, low budget comedy from 2014, starring his collaborators from Flight of the Conchords. Everything about this mockumentary is perfect, from it’s self deprecating New Zealand wit, to its surprisingly deep cutting insights on how much being a vampire would actually stink. There’s nothing else quite like this movie!
- The Wind Rises (2013) – This is my favorite movie. I don’t say that lightly, but out of any film I can think of, this is easily the movie I can most readily return to as my favorite. Seeing it in theaters as the first Miyazaki movie I’d ever gone out of my way to see was insanely powerful. This romantic historical fiction about the Japanese aeronautical engineer who invented the Zero fighter, is awash with sadness, regret and futility. The desires of one artist to create something beautiful are twisted into a weapon of war that gets used to contribute to the Rape of Nanking, and the Pacific Theater of World War II. It’s a tragedy of enthusiastic myopia.
- Wolf Children (2012) – Mamoru Hosoda has come a long way to pick up the torch Hayao Miyazaki dropped when he “retired” in 2013. While I adore The Boy and the Beast as one of my favorite films ever, his previous film is easily his masterpiece. This beautifully animated tragedy about the struggle of a single mother is heartbreaking and painful in ways you wouldn’t believe.
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) – There hasn’t been a single person I’ve shown this unassuming documentary about the life of Fred Rogers to, who hasn’t been deeply affected by it. The late PBS star did more in his life to touch the lives of those around him than anyone could ever know. His was a unique ministry. As an ordained minister, he used his immense well of love and compassion to help people just by showing he cared. We should all be so lucky.
- The World’s End (2013) – What’s a list of great movies that doesn’t include Edgar Wright on the list? It’s a shame it took this long to get to any of his movies. Sadly this decade hasn’t been as kind to him as he has to us. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was a box office non-starter, and his version of Ant-Man was taken from him by corporate mandate. Thankfully the immense success of Baby Driver has helped to mitigate those issues. That said, my favorite of his movies is his final part of the Cornetto Trilogy. The World’s End turned me off the first time I saw it. Up until that point, I’d never seen a movie that could recontextualize the apocalypse as a happy ending. This film goes far beyond that though. It’s a painful and funny story at its heart, that delivers some of the best performances of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s career.
- Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Critical distance is a rare trait in any piece of art. Humans frequently don’t realize the levels of bias and innate assumptions we carry with us at any point. Anything as contentious as the War on Terror is likely going to drudge up primal and ugly emotions in the best of us. Amazingly that’s what Kathryn Bigelow was able to accomplish with this film. She’s usually drowned in perspective as The Hurt Locker and Detroit show. Here she delivers a cold, detached look at the immense trauma and personal cost that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden caused in the hearts of the people who served to hunt him down. The movie famously changed its premise mid-shoot, because it turned out that the real Bin Laden was killed during the film’s production. Even with the happy ending though, the movie still captures the taxing human cost of such a campaign. It’s the rare kind of film you could call a miracle.