In 12 days, the decade of the 2010s will come to a close. These final two weeks brings with it a cornucopia of lists and rankings of everything from the mainstream lists of the top athletes of the decade to the more obscure lists like the top memes of the decade. Today we will be looking at my picks for the top 40 movies of the decade, chosen by yours truly. Now first there are a few disclaimers here:
- I have not seen every movie released between January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2019. Surprise! No one has, but this is to say that I am not as educated as other people who have seen a lot more movies than I have. I was 10 years old when this decade began and so obviously, a lot has changed in terms of my maturity (or so I like to think) and I had to play catch up in the latter half of the decade on stuff I missed between 2010-2013. As a result, this list is slightly biased towards the final few years of the 2010s, though I still make distinctions based on quality, obviously, as 2019 and 2017 have far more selections than 2018 because well, those two years were better movie years than ‘18. Still, I managed to see over ⅔ of all the movies nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards, in addition to plenty of other stuff that didn’t get its due, often by suggestions from other people who are smarter about film than I am. So, this list is inherently incomplete and if you are a big time movie geek, there will probably be some stuff that isn’t on here simply because I didn’t have time to see it. Or maybe you’re just a Phantom Thread fan and that isn’t on the list because I didn’t like it. Too bad.
- This list is based on my opinion, duh. If there is a movie that I simply did not care for but many other people did, it probably did not make the list. I do not cave to peer pressure and go along with things just because that is a consensus opinion. There are 3 Best Picture winners from the decade that did not make my top 40, because they were overrated. If your list does not vary from the consensus, you are not a movie critic, you are simply someone who is too scared to have their own opinion. I at least like to think I’m an amateur movie critic.
- I have not seen every movie that will come out this year yet either. I am not a fat cat in a film critics society. I do not get to see movies early, nor do I get to go to the big film festivals. Thus, like the general public, I have not seen several movies that are yet to be released that may well have made this list, such as Uncut Gems, Little Women, and 1917. So, you will have to make do with what I have seen so far.
- The write ups mostly avoid spoilers, but I have added a warning when they are going to appear so that you can skip that write up if you haven't yet seen that movie.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the list. There are 40 movies listed, featured in descending order down to #1. The picks from 40-21 are simply listed with no explanation since 1) that would be a ton of work because 2) my explanations/descriptions are VERY thorough. I assume that most people will not read my full explainer for each movie and if you do, congrats, you are a champion. If you would like to know my full thoughts on why a movie is ranked where it is between 40-21, feel free to yell at me on social media. So, without further ado, here we go:
40.) Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), 2014
39.) The Imitation Game, 2014
38.) Joker, 2019
37.) The Farewell, 2019
36.) Interstellar, 2014
35.) La La Land, 2016
34.) The King’s Speech, 2010
33.) Moneyball, 2011
32.) The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014
31.) Mad Max: Fury Road
30.) Coco, 2017
29.) Inside Out, 2015
28.) Hacksaw Ridge, 2016
27.) The Martian, 2015
26.) Hell or High Water, 2016
25.) Eighth Grade, 2018
24.) Get Out, 2017
23.) Can You Ever Forgive Me?, 2018
22.) Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, 2019
21.) Moonlight, 2016
20.) The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013
A film about the corruption, immorality, and the excesses of finance, The Wolf of Wall St. is exactly that: excessive, at times to a point, at times to a fault. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie dives right into the financial world in the late 80s and early 90s and follows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort and Stratton Oakmont, a brokerage firm that illegally participated in pump-and-dump investment fraud schemes. DiCaprio’s performance is respectable, as he brings a fiery to passion to the character that personifies the energetic and frenetic behavior of the brokers at Stratton Oakmont. The scenes of Dicaprio on the microphone stand out as particularly sharp. Next to him, Jonah Hill plays the quintessential Jonah Hill role: the dopey sidekick who engages in all the same risky behavior yet without the raw independence or charisma of Belfort. Matthew McConaughey is only in the film for about 20 minutes, but his one major scene (teaching Belfort about Wall St. while at lunch) sets the tone for the entire picture and stands out as memorable. Scorsese’s directorial and editing work is strong as always, from good juxtaposition, to a solid soundtrack, to his trademark use of voice overs and freeze frames, in addition to the film’s epic scope, with vibrant images packed in between action and colors amid a gargantuan cast. Upon first watch, I was angered by the length of the movie, clocking in at just under 3 hours and while I still hold that some things could be cut (look, we get it: DiCaprio’s character does a lot of drugs), the film’s excessive length is illustrative of the excessive culture of its subject matter. Still, it’s a fun and freewheeling movie in a way that few other movies about tragic characters are and while its grand celebratory scenes have spawned a legion of GIFs that largely contradict the movie’s purpose (this. movie. should. not. make. you. want. to. be. Belfort), it is a testament to the style of the movie that the main emotion evoked from audiences was fun and lust and for that, I salute The Wolf of Wall St..
19.) Call Me By Your Name, 2017
This is a film that has really grown on me, while I was watching, but also since I’ve seen it. Based around a 17 year-old teenager living in Italy with his academic parents who falls in love with one of his father’s students, Call Me By Your Name is the rare but so desperately needed LGBT coming-of-age movie. Everything starts with the performance of its lead and one of the top young actors in film today: Timothée Chalamet. In a year that included efforts from Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis, Chalamet had the best singular performance of the year by channeling his emotions to illustrate the inner turmoil of a teen struggling with his sexuality in a far less tolerant time. The passion and emotion oozes out of him and the closing fireplace scene is one of the singular most memorable pieces of acting of the decade and he got my (totally nonexistent) vote for Best Actor in the 2017-18 cycle. While many people focused on Armie Hammer’s performance as the other half of the romantic relationship, I was particularly honed in on Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as the father, and he frankly deserved more recognition than he got. Additionally, the score for this film was very, very good and the shots of the Italian countryside provide a perfect backdrop for the message that the film is trying to convey, with the serenity and beauty matching the innocent grace of the romance. This continued as the weather changed frequently to match the mood of the scene, which is very well done work by the producers. Graceful and sorrowful, Call Me By Your Name is the unique story that mainstream cinema so frequently snubs and If you can get past the age gap between the two main characters and see it for what it is, a beautiful coming-of-age story of the type that was so badly needed, you will appreciate this movie in profound ways.
18.) Room, 2015
*Spoilers present in this write up*
Room is a movie chronicling what is many people’s worst nightmare: abduction by a stranger and then 7 years of captivity and rape. Following the now early 20s main character played by Brie Larson, who was kidnapped and locked in a shed now living with her son, the product of rape by her captor, it follows their attempts to escape and how they adjust to the real world after it happens. Therefore, there are two acts to this movie, the first section in captivity and the second section dealing with adjustment to the real world. What Room does so well in the first half of the movie is build tension, starting with the sad and solemn bond between a mother and child in the worst of circumstances, before escalating into the escape scene where the tension is palpable. I am very rarely pulled out of my seat during a film but I was completely gripped, on edge for the entire scene. Heart pounding, the whole thing. That is a testament to excellent character construction and empathy for two helpless characters. From there, the emotion shifts to a mix of happiness and sadness, portrayed through the boy and his mother inhabiting the two different emotions. There are some plot holes that are evident and things that could have been worked out, details that could have been added, but overall it is still a triumph of humanity and the bond between a mother and child, the kind of movie that makes us believe in the goodness of the world and that maybe great things can still happen. This is a movie based on the idea of the expansiveness of the world and the optimism of children, packed in by tremendous performances from both Larson (she earned that Oscar) and Tremblay, who is a phenomenal child actor. Room is not a perfect movie but its heart-pounding, brisk take on life makes a movie that is not easy to watch, but is an absolute treat of hope.
17.) The Florida Project, 2017
There are a number of movies about class on the list of the 2010s, but few are as heartbreaking, thought provoking, elegant, agonizing, and beautiful as 2017’s The Florida Project. While many films looking at poverty take distinctly obvious settings and context: cities that are classically seen as run down like Compton or Camden or Flint, The Florida Project centers on Orlando, Florida, with the use of Disney World as a consumerist and glamorous backdrop for a harsh tale of extreme poverty. Following a single mother who works as a prostitute to make ends meet and her adventurous daughter, the story is taught through both lenses. On one hand we get a girl and her mischievous friends. Rude and annoying at times? Yeah. But they’re also intelligent, intentionally harmless, cute, and inquisitive. They relate to all of us, as we were once children. They invoke memories and from looking at that storyline, you’d have no idea that these kids were dirt poor and in terrible living conditions. The second storyline is much more grim and by using the mother’s (Halley) storyline, the audience hates her for ruining her daughter's life, and rightfully so perhaps. We feel bad for her, but also hate her, and it creates an aura of dread about the ultimate conclusion. In the middle we get the great Willem Dafoe (robbed of an Academy Award for BSA), who allows this downtrodden family to “live” in his cheap motel, doing everything he can on his limited budget to help out, and showing the lengths that humans will go to help each other, even in the worst of conditions. Realistic and humanistic, The Florida Project accents this difficult plot with some breathtaking shots and camera work to project on a grand scale a gritty yet tender tale of extreme poverty told through the eyes of a child and her mother.
16.) A Separation, 2011
Often times during the decade there are movies that don’t get the press they deserve because of the American-centric nature of our film media bubble. These are often highly acclaimed international and foreign language films that are snubbed from Best Picture consideration because of the Academy’s long-held phobia of giving foreign language films the top awards. One such example of this is A Separation, which captured the Best Foreign Language Film Award and nothing else in the 2011-12 Academy Awards cycle. But it truly deserves so much more, a masterful picture that encompasses clashes between family, class, and religion. Following a divorcing couple and their 11 year-old daughter in Tehran, Iran, this Persian language film sees the family locked in an ugly conflict over whether the father caused the miscarriage of his housekeeper during a violent dispute about her alleged mistreatment of his alzheimer’s ridden dad. If that sounds like a lot of stuff going on, it is. With a great ensemble cast, a terrific screenplay that can be respected even by non-speakers of Persian, and a storyline tackling so many themes, A Separation aims big and takes a challenging look at how all aspects of life intersect. The acting is stellar in every arena of the movie, but it is the exhilarating and whirring plot that will captivate audiences, with a few twists to keep you guessing until its final, spectacular ending. As a film geek who focuses too much attention on American cinema, it is always refreshing to be reminded by the terrific work being done in other parts of the world, and A Separation is evidence of that: unique, different, and well written and well directed. The pacing never runs dry and at some times it is reminiscent of Hitchcock, but without the violence. Investigative and questioning, A Separation is an intense, introspective look at the human condition and all of our dueling commitments in life.
15.) The Dallas Buyers Club, 2013
The Dallas Buyers Club is a movie carried by its unforgettable leads. This isn’t to say its screenplay is poor, but it pales in comparison to the gargantuan efforts of its actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Set in the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis, The Dallas Buyers Club chronicles the efforts of an underground ring of HIV-positive people buying illegal drugs to help with their condition, which is led by a homophobic cowboy and a drug addicted trans woman. A tale of perseverance, unlikely friendship, and living life to the fullest, The Dallas Buyers Club’s historical drama is brought to life by the two co-stars who each netted much deserved Academy Awards for their effort. In McConaughey, we see an actor taking a role essential to his aesthetic and ethos as a person (a Texan cowboy) and knocking it out of the ballpark, a transformation from the hot and fiery anger on diagnosis to a more gentle and compassionate person by the end. He is convincing and confident in that role and it is contrasted by the manner in which Leto sinks into his role as Rayon (a very ill trans woman). The degree of difficulty on the task that Leto is being given is a 10/10 and he executes it with shocking grace, as it is nearly impossible to see that it is him in that role. He completely vanishes into character and the two work side-by-side over a beautiful yet heartbreaking storyline. Gut-wrenching and hopeful, The Dallas Buyers Club is a tour-de-force in acting and a strong plea to open your heart to those who may not be like you at the start.
14.) Roma, 2018
2018 was one of the weakest years of the decade in terms of film, but there was one surefire hit that was tragically snubbed at the Academy Awards: Roma. If we’re going with one word to sum up this movie, it is simply “majestic”, as director Alfonso Cuarón comes back with a new film that sports the same awe-inspiring cinematography and directorial work of his previous movie, Gravity, but this one actually has characters and a plot. Through the prowess of the camera, Cuarón crafts an illustrious world through slow pans and wide shots that he illustrates with immense detail via his slow moving and vividly rich scenes. Roma specifically details the life of an indigenous housekeeper working for a wealthy white Mexican family in 1970s Mexico. It’s a story of personal relationship, adversity, and triumph in the human condition and is absolutely worth the time it takes to see. While it was a Netflix movie and thus was mostly limited in release to viewings on laptops, iPads, and iPhones, the reality is that Roma should be seen on the big screen, because only then do audiences get the opportunity to soak in the total sensory experience that is this movie. A foreign language film, Roma can be seamlessly enjoyed by non-Spanish speakers and I give Cuarón credit for examining a topic that is quite rare in American cinema that views Latin America so monolithically: the intense racial and class divides that exist in Latin America and how those play out amid the backdrop of political instability. In a decade littered with the success of Mexican directors (Alejandro Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón), Roma was the finest product of them all and deserves its spot inside the top 20.
13.) Her, 2013
Have you ever considered a world where people begin to fall in love with their phones and computers? If yes, then Her is the movie for you. Simultaneously sad and heartwarming, creepy and weird, Her strikes a bizarre chord inside its audiences as its unique subject matter as a sci-fi romantic drama puts it in an unusual position among all films. You can view Her in two ways: as a dystopian look into a future that moves us farther away from human interactions and more into a world where our romantic desires and mental health are reliant on computers who lack that human touch and distant cognition. Or you could look at it as a tale of love, acceptance, and progress, as the computer romances help the main characters get over personal trauma. Starring Joaquin Phoenix who is simply stellar, Her is perhaps made by the singular voice acting of Scarlett Johansson, who plays the voice of the operating system girlfriend “Samantha”. Without her ever having a body or a personification in the movie, we are able to read emotion, hope, fear, and doubt from the quivers in her voice, her tone, her cadence. Eerie and graceful, she constructs an entire character with her voice that conforms to the exact provision it was meant to be in in the script. Amy Adams is also tremendous in her supporting role, and all the characters hold hugely important parts to a strong plot. Her is a brave adventure into themes and storylines rarely examined in other prominent cinema, yet it is so much more than a dystopian relationship between a human and a computer. It is a story of finding love, enjoying life, and finding yourself through the use of others. Layered with commentary and concept and accented with a melancholy score, Her is memorable and genius, willing to step outside the mainstream and it rewards its audiences by being one of the 2010s finest films.
12.) The Irishman, 2019
Throughout the long career of iconic director Martin Scorsese, he has crafted a large number of mob movies. From the legendary Goodfellas to one of his first major pictures, Mean Streets, to Casino, The Departed, and The Gangs of New York. But despite all the healthy competition, The Irishman is one of Scorsese’s best. While it could credibly double as a reunion tour of geriatric male Hollywood legends, The Irishman tells the lucid story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran’s years with the Buffalino crime family and organized labor legend Jimmy Hoffa. It rolls out a star studded cast featuring two of the greatest actors to ever grace the screen of American cinema: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. With help from Joe Pesci as well, The Irishman feels like a who’s who of movie legends but rather than reveling in the achievement of getting all 3 mob legends on the same screen together, The Irishman tells its own unique plot. At 3.5 hours, The Irishman is incredibly Scorsese’s longest film and it is indeed one of the longer films you will ever see. Yet, there is nothing obviously superfluous and it rarely slows to a lull, mixing hits with plot development in an overall well paced movie. The characters carry the film through some parts, with a polished and sharp screenplay by Steven Zaillain making it a surprisingly funny movie, and the acting from Pacino and Pesci in particular deserve recognition.
What sets The Irishman apart from other mob movies however is its emotional content, one of the most emotionally arousing and tender mob movies in memory, with the final 30 minutes in particular hitting hard. With a true sense of melancholy and reflection, Scorsese achieves a film about death, aging, and regret that feels at times like a reflection of his (and De Niro and Pacino’s) own career. If it is the swan song of all of these film legends’ careers, it was a great one. For a movie that took over a decade to complete and nearly $150 M to make, The Irishman was all worth it, a truly indispensable film of the decade.
(Note: I thought the de-aging technology was okay. Not bad and it helped to make De Niro look 40ish (roughly what he looked like in Goodfellas) but it didn’t do much beyond that. Arguably it did a better job with Pacino, who actually looked like an older Michael Corleone for the first time in a while, erasing decades of cocaine).
11.) Marriage Story, 2019
While we often praise movies that take on topics that are new and brave, like this decade’s multitude of films discussing LGBT relationships and experiences (several on this list), sometimes it is even more daring to try and put an original spin on experiences and institutions as old as sliced bread. This is where Marriage Story comes into play, taking an intense look at divorce and the toll it takes on individuals and families. Written, directed, and produced by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a theatrical couple enduring a marriage coming apart at the seams as they try and shield their 8 year-old son from the worst elements of it in a desire to stay amicable. Tender and harsh, Marriage Story is perhaps best defined by its compassionate take on divorce, as it attempts to paint both characters as figures with legitimate complaints about the other, consumed by a legal process that serves to drive increasingly nasty stakes in between the two sides. With stellar acting from both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story is fair yet depressing, trying to articulate a simple idea: what happens when two good and decent people need to separate because they simply weren’t fit for each other, not because they did something terribly wrong?
In a graveyard of movies that look at divorce through the grisly realities of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and affairs, Marriage Story is a refreshing take on society’s oldest institution. The screenplay weaves between the different cogs in a marriage, the family dimension, the professional dimension, and then the ruthless injustices of the legal system that prides itself on being as vicious as possible, the latter of which exemplified by a courtroom battle between supporting actors Ray Liotta and Laurie Dern, both of whom were tremendous (the former of which answers the question: does Ray Liotta still have a career?). The movie culminates in an equally passionate scene where Johansson and Driver attempt to talk things out before it falls apart with a striking emotional value and guilt that has viewers torn between who they side with. And that’s the beauty of Marriage Story: there is not one side that we are supposed to affiliate with, as we get an empathetic look at both sides and the havoc created by such a trying time. Graceful and fragile, Marriage Story is simply one of the most well-rounded and honest films of the decade.
10.) Lady Bird, 2017
Serving as Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird is a powerful coming-of-age of drama and yes, I am particularly susceptible to coming-of-age movies in general (see: #1 on this list). But there are many reasons to love Lady Bird despite just its surface-level status as comfortably fitting into a genre. Most notably, it is special because of the sheer number of themes and questions explored, going deeper and beyond the bare qualifications for its genre. At face value, Lady Bird is a coming-of-age movie about a girl who is a senior in HS as she deals with her parents, friends, and future. But there is so much more to dig into. The most pivotal theme is the relationship between the protagonist and her mother, which so perfectly sums up the tough love relationship between many parents and their children. And this aspect of the movie would not be made possible without Saoirse Ronan absolutely killing it in her lead role, and I will go to the grave arguing that Laurie Metcalf deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the 2017 cycle (sorry, Allison Janney). Beyond that there’s the relationship between the namesake protagonist and her friends, with the high school dilemma of the cool kids vs. the rejects coming into clear focus. That right there, is again, enough to be an entire film but Lady Bird pushes forward. Another is her romantic relationship, with love scenes that anyone who dated as a teen can relate to, the frustration, the limitations, the horniness, etc.. Drilling deeper, there’s religion, homosexuality, income and social status, and college all explored and discussed, draped in the backdrop of teenagehood and growing up. Striking, dramatic, and funny, Lady Bird will fall short to some audiences, but to others it encompasses the complex time of teenagehood and knocks it out of the park.
9.) 12 Years A Slave, 2013
No (decent, moral, humane, ethical human being) one has ever said that they enjoyed watching 12 Years A Slave. It is painful to behold because it achieves what it set out to do so well. Like Schindler’s List placed you in the Holocaust and Saving Private Ryan placed you on Omaha Beach of D-Day, 12 Years A Slave places you in the 1840s southern United States as the institution of slavery was reaching a peak, told through the eyes of a kidnapped free black man who is separated from his family as an adult and sold into slavery. The movie had its sights set on a tall task of recreating and telling the story of America’s most shameful moment and most painful sore. Thankfully, it hit the runway dead on. A less successful version of the movie may have been amusing if it came up to cartoonish in its portrayal of slavery, or perhaps been unwatchable if it were too cold in refusing to coalesce around a plot. Instead 12 Years A Slave finds the medium, with completely believable- and harrowing- depictions of slavery that truly transport the audience to 1840s Louisiana, while also mixing in a compelling storyline and very real characters, brought to life by the exceptional acting of its lead talents Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender. With a superb score from famed composer Hans Zimmer to go along with it, 12 Years A Slave constructs this plausible reality and uses it to tear open a gaping wound in those sores of the American conscience, crafting a 134 minute reconsideration of slavery. If you hadn’t thought about the practice of slavery and its consequences, this movie forces you, through its heartbreaking yet resilient plot. Awe-inspiring and devastating, 12 Years A Slave is no one’s favorite film, or even one they want to watch again, but it is required viewing and a must-see for anyone trying to understand the root of race relations and the evils of slavery in North America. In a decade that saw race re-enter the mainstream of American culture and politics, 12 Years A Slave is a fitting representative in the top 10 for the litany of race-themed movies this decade (some of which also made the top 40) and it was one of the most clear cut, slam dunk best picture winners of the 2010s.
8.) Whiplash, 2014
Some great art is created to make an intentional point, one that is obvious and clear. Other great art is puzzling and complex, making you contemplate and question what the exact message is, lost inside a treasure trove of mixed messages. That is, in my view, Whiplash, a movie that makes you question “the point”. Based around the story of a teenage drummer enrolled in an elite music school being mentored by a domineering teacher, Whiplash is one of the shortest movies on this list but no doubt one of the most memorable. There are some obviously great parts that don't make you consider "the point": the music and sound editing, the choreography and filmmaking prowess out of the hands of a young Damien Chazelle, and the dueling efforts from JK Simmons and Miles Teller. No matter how you interpret the movie, all of those aspects still ring true. But what is “the point”? Whiplash is a hard and deep examination of ambition and mentorship. At its core, that is the theme stretching across the entire picture. A young drummer with endless ambition, one who isn’t satisfied to be good, nor even great, he wants to be legendary. He wants to be remembered. And then there’s the mentor in Simmons’ role, the domineering Terrence Fletcher who is not unlike the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket: someone who uses emotional and physical abuse, vulgarity, and emasculating tactics to train and harden their subjects. There is no simplistic, Rocky-esque, reading to this film. It isn’t an obviously inspirational tale of perseverance in the face of trouble, and that’s what makes it so fascinating to watch. It’s a film that should make all of us question how far we are all willing to go for success, to evaluate those figures in our lives who push us to be better, and the lengths we are going to.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the two dazzling efforts from both lead actors, the sound mixing and editing, and the overall filmmaking process. Whether it was the imagery of the blood and the sweat on the drum kit, the brilliant shots leading to the car crash, or the quick toggle between shots of the characters and the crashing cymbals, Whiplash is brilliantly made and a relatable allegory for quests of all kinds, be it in music, sports, or other professions. Whiplash was the movie that announced Chazelle’s arrival onto the film scene and he cemented it with La La Land two years later (see: earlier on the list). There’s a reason that Whiplash is one of the highest rated movies of all-time by IMDb users: it’s confusing but poignant, action-packed yet truly psychological and doesn’t leave a satisfactory taste in your mouth. But frankly, that’s why you remember it.
7.) The Artist, 2011
What did I know coming into watching The Artist? That it’s in black and white and it’s a silent film. That’s about it. My expectations were honestly low despite all of the praise heaped onto it over the years, largely because I don’t have much experience with silent films and didn’t expect to like it. But what I saw was something far more than just that baseline understanding: a deeply moving, beautiful film telling a credible, engaging tale in the right amount of time. Chronicling the fall of the silent movie and the rise of the “talkie” from one aging star of the bygone silent to the upcoming talking hot actress, The Artist’s plot is like if you gave A Star is Born a better ending and fused it with the overarching topic from Singin’ in the Rain. But it cranks the beauty, the empathy, and the raw human emotion to a 100 through the virtuoso acting of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who embody their characters to a tee. It’s truly a crash course in raw acting, without a voice but still conveying the plot entirely, while the score puts the movie into overdrive, and in some cases, is able to produce more emotion than if it weren’t silent. Despite never hearing the characters speak, we become attached and fixated to the protagonists, anchored by our emotion throughout the film’s climax, a testament to the generous creation that The Artist is to 21st century film. If you skipped this movie because you didn’t know if you’d like something as unusual as a black-and-white silent in the 21st century, you made a grave, grave mistake.
6.) Manchester by the Sea, 2016
It’s hard to describe just how brutally painful watching Manchester by the Sea is. A film completely centered around grief, it tells the story of a middle-aged irascible handyman (Casey Affleck) who is asked to become the guardian of his 16 year-old nephew after the death of his brother and in the process it uncovers an unspeakable tragedy that led to a divorce with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). There are plenty of movies on grief, but Manchester by the Sea looks at a certain type of raw grief for which there is truly no recovery and while the scarring storyline so well crafted by Kenneth Lonergan does a good job getting you there, it is the contrasting efforts of Williams and Affleck that completes the task. On one hand there is the numb and cold Affleck, scarred by his experience in such a profound way that he cannot show real emotion and decides to isolate himself in life, and on the other there is Williams, fragile and constantly on the verge of collapsing, choosing to cope by remaking a new life in society. Illustrating that there is no one real way to grieve, Manchester by the Sea hits you over the head with a story so rough that it is impossible to look around. It’s frankly hard to watch at times but is not a movie you’re going to forget. In a year where La La Land and Moonlight (both on this list) fought for the best picture nomination so controversially, it was Manchester by the Sea that was the true best picture.
5.) The Social Network, 2010
In a decade dominated by the ever expanding influence of social media and Facebook in particular, The Social Network stands out as a particularly important picture, not just because of its popularity at the time, but for the way it has aged. Chronicling the founding of Facebook from 2003-2005 and the associated lawsuits that followed founder Mark Zuckerberg in the company’s early days, The Social Network is bolstered first and foremost by a tremendous screenplay from Aaron Sorkin. Witty and sharp, it adds an edge to all of the characters and portrays Zuckerberg as something deeper than the architect of a billion dollar company, a deeply flawed genius whose lack of social skills and cunning helped catapult Facebook to greater heights but also burning bridges with most of his friends along the way. There is also quality directing from one of the finest active directors out there, David Fincher, a solid score, and strong acting from Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, and Andrew Garfield as they plausibly assume the roles of young college kids who got rich too quick and are struggling with the associated emotions and challenges.
But while the performances are above average, it all comes back to the screenplay, which earned the Oscar it received. At the time of the film’s release in the fall of 2010, The Social Network was criticized by some for its scathing take on Zuckerberg and Facebook as a whole but as the years pass, it has proved almost prescient, as the corporate ethos and general approach that the caricature of Zuckerberg in the film exudes has been exemplified in the myriad of problems Facebook created later on in the decade. It’s a film that makes you question your own attachment to social media, and also the humble roots that got us to that point, an early take on a topic that has consumed this decade in history and a movie that may well prove to be synonymous with an era and a movie ahead of its time. Powerful, shocking, and witty, The Social Network is a towering feature of the 2010s.
4.) Parasite, 2019
There are some movies to watch with no expectations coming in. Parasite is one of those movies. Anything more than just a purely superficial plot description (e.g. “it’s about a Korean family”) does not do justice to the manner in which Parasite takes you on a wild ride, zigzagging like a roller coaster in and out of genres at will. As a result, if you have not seen this film, I would recommend not reading this next part. Thus:
*Spoilers present in this write up*
At the outset of the movie, we begin to think this is perhaps a coming of age narrative, or an underdog story, with the downtrodden Ki-Woo taking a modest job as a tutor to get off his feet and then sees the fruits of his labor begin to flourish. From there Parasite lurches into the main narrative, where each member of the Kim family attempts to get a job as a service worker within the gullible and exorbitantly wealthy Park family. There are different moments where it seems destined to jump full on into a romance, as Ki-Woo strikes up a secret flirtation with his student, Da-Hye. But the movie refuses to take this full on. There are other parts that seem like it is truly just a comedy, which indeed it partially is (listed as a dark comedy thriller officially), thanks to a fabulous screenplay from Han Jin-won and Bong Joon-ho, making it one of the funniest films of the decade. But that isn’t quite what Parasite is. Because for the final 40 minutes or so, the movie takes a Hitchcock-like plunge into the thriller genre, mixing in twists, gore, and violence over a jaw-dropping story arc. In this way it becomes almost Tarantino-like, serving up a combination of comedy and violence slathered in cartoonish gore. At its heart however, Parasite is a commentary about class. It is a story about how the poor and rich conflict, how neither are truly heroes and neither are truly villains, one ignorant and the other cunning, and also the manner in which this class conflict pit two sides against themselves (in this case the poor families of the Kims and Moon-gwang/Geun-sae), who probably should be cooperating. It is sewed together by a great score that suits the action and mood at every turn, with stellar editing, and acting to go along with its triumphant screenplay, culminating in a rip-roaring 132 minutes that leave it with a shot to remake American perceptions of Korean cinema. A landmark achievement for the Asian film industry and it has a shot to become the first foreign language Best Picture in the history of the Academy Awards next February. And it should, because Parasite is the best movie of 2019 and one of the greatest of the decade.
3.) Inception, 2010
Few movies have the awe-inspiring scope, the jaw-dropping ambition of Inception, the belief that cinema should be used to stretch your mind to the reaches of what’s possible. That is what Christopher Nolan tried to do with 2010’s Inception, a film with the trippiness and surreality of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but something more encompassing, thrilling, and mind extending. While 2001 is a puzzler of a certain dimension, the type that makes you question the meaning of everything through strange metaphor and symbolism, Inception is a puzzler so layered and dense that it extenuates the brain throughout its entire 140 minutes of plot. Based on the concept of knowledge thieves, that you can plant ideas inside people’s brains or steal it out of them if you penetrate their dreams and through that, their subconscious, Inception is in a genre sense, a sci-fi crime thriller of the heist variety. But it is so much more than that. The now well known idea of “a dream inside a dream inside a dream” has become part of cinematic common knowledge, but it is worth remembering how incredible that concept was when it came out nearly a decade ago.
For a director who made two entire movies that revolved around layered plot tricks to play games with the audience (Memento and The Prestige), Inception is somehow Nolan’s most gargantuan effort and it required complete precision to make it possible. And it happened. With many sci-fi films, a plot too complex or unrealistic falls flat. There needs to be some kind of buy-in. Inception does it through careful character development, slowly chipping away at Dom Cobb’s (Leo DiCaprio) character in pieces and through a captivating and thrilling final hour. While the first hour can drag at moments, once it gets going, Inception never slows down, the kind of movie you cannot pause if you’re watching at home, even if you have trouble wrapping your head around it on the first (or second) watch, as I did. The power of virtuosic direction and cinematography, an expansive ensemble cast banding together (Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page), and an original score (and sound mixing and editing) for the ages, it has all the ingredients that captivates viewers, with Nolan and the great Hans Zimmer teaming together to create a sci-fi masterpiece of epic proportions. Does it have depth in terms of total meaning? What is the whole point of Inception? I’m not honestly sure. But it takes a complex concept (dreams and the subconscious) and blows it up on a grand scale, making audiences reach for the stars, or in this case down into dream after dream, and not releasing them until the very end.
2.) Spotlight, 2015
Of all the movies in the top 10 of my rankings, Spotlight is perhaps the most confusing to myself as to why I rate it so highly. Many of the films in the top 10 have obvious parts that stand out: an acting performance, a strong screenplay, great directorial work, etc.. But when I look at Spotlight, it has none of those elements. It’s not particularly ambitious in scope, it doesn’t have breathtaking acting, and there’s nothing terribly memorable about its dialogue. Yet, it is completely enthralling and exhilarating. Telling the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into, and uncovering of, the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal in the Boston area, it is a triumphant journalistic thriller that feels so fitting in the present decade, as investigative journalist teams at newspapers are being cut by the day. A story about holding power to account and helping to make things right, Spotlight weaves its way in and out of the scandal, following as the team uncovers the story and fights to make it public. Starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo, the movie is a hopeful movie that makes you believe there is still good in the world and does not release the audience until the very last minute.
1.) Boyhood, 2014
I have never related to a movie quite like I related to Boyhood, and while this could theoretically be true for anyone who was ever a child (so uh, everyone), I think this is especially true for a lot of boys born between 1990 and 2000. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, a director known for his unique use of time (see: the Before trilogy), Boyhood was the most ambitious movie project of the decade, and one of the most of all time. Filmed over the course of 12 years, it stars the same protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up from age 6 to 18. While it is not based directly on Coltrane’s life (it has an actual plot independent of the actor), it incorporates aspects of childhood that were unforeseen at the time the project began in 2001, and that’s where Boyhood becomes a nostalgia machine for people like me: playing the Wii with friends, being a kid and not really understanding the Iraq War, excitement over the release of the new Harry Potter books, and so many other memory shards are included in this movie, which makes it doubly as significant.
But even if you’re an old fogie this could still be one of the most powerful movies you’ve ever seen because of what it represents in plain terms: the opportunity to watch one person grow up on screen. And accompanying that you get a moving, effective plot that fleshes out so many of the ideas, internal dilemmas, and insecurities that come with childhood into the teenage years and onto adulthood. From the innocence of childhood to the discovery of sexuality to peer pressure to tricky relationships with parents to the looming question that towers over every teenager: the future (college, jobs, etc). On the note of parents, Boyhood also features Patricia Arquette in an award-winning performance as Coltrane’s mother and Ethan Hawke, a Linklater regular, as the father, and both turn in A+ efforts that make the movie possible. All in all you get a 165 minute independent film masterpiece that is the definitive coming of age movie, not just of this decade, but ever. Encapsulating every aspect of childhood to adulthood, Boyhood delivered on a promise 12 years in the making in an unforgettable manner, a rush of emotion and power when you complete it so rarely see in cinema. If I could recommend one movie from the decade, it would be Boyhood. Simply and totally unforgettable. The movie of the 2010s.