When reflecting on the past ten years of movies, it all depends on how you look at it. On one hand, virtually all of the top-grossing films from the decade are sequels, with a focus on fantasy, space opera, and superheroes. Disney has effectively created a monoculture: the Department of Justice should seriously look into breaking it up, along with other media conglomerates, because many movie fans effectively have the illusion of choice. But streaming services are also releasing all kinds of weird-ass titles, plus you can take any given year from the 2010s, and find greatness in it. The 2010s are also the first complete decade I’ve worked as a film critic, mostly for BYT. I’ve reviewed hundreds and hundreds of films – duds, triumphs, everything in between – and while the futures of the movies can sometime seem grim, a reflection on the 2010s helps me realize we have been fortunate, too. In that spirit, here is the list of the decade’s fifty best films.
20. It’s a Disaster
Screwball comedy is an overlooked genre nowadays. It’s a shame, really, since there is an audience for smart characters behaving badly (and hilariously) to one another. Written and directed by Todd Berger, It’s a Disaster takes a traditional screwball framework and deepens it with an apocalyptic scenario. It follows four couples who get together for brunch, and two surprising thing happens happen over the course of the meal: the couple hosting announce they are divorcing, and they discover a dirty bomb detonated nearby. They have hours to live, and the film follows these bizarre characters as their personality quirks lead them down strange, sometimes disturbing paths. The dialogue is fast-paced without sounding too written (veteran actors like Julia Stiles, America Ferrera, and David Cross have no problem with the material). But what makes the film so memorable – and one of the decade’s best comedies – is how it conflates bad manners with the certainty of death. Some people try and be their best when the end is certain, but most of us would probably think “fuck it,” choosing oblivion before it has a chance to choose us.
19. Ex Machina
The rise of Alex Garland has been one of the more interesting success stories in the movies. He started off as a Gen X novelist – his debut “The Beach” is considered a foundational text – only to become a frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle (he wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine). His directorial debut deepens his longtime interests, leading to an economical sci-fi thriller that neatly inverts our expectations. Domhnall Gleeson plays a hapless programmer at an anonymous company who wins an exclusive weekend with its eccentric CEO (Oscar Isaac). Together they observe Ava (Alicia Vikander), an eerily beautiful artificially intelligent robot that is sophisticated enough to pass a Turing Test. Garland knows we expect a robot uprising, so the surprise is in how he comes to critique the human characters: the CEO with a messianic complex, and a callow loser who thinks he deserves the AI’s affection. Between the subtle special effects and the unique production design, Ex Machina uses formal elegance to conceal its macabre ideas and the wild implications of its ending. These men make many mistakes, but the biggest is thinking that AI like Ava owe them anything. That sense of entitlement is even more undeserved when Garland presents it through the lens of toxic masculinity.
18. The Social Network
In the beginning of The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s intense docudrama about the early days of Facebook, a young woman says to Mark Zuckerberg, “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” No one, not even Zuckerberg, could predict the meteoric rise of Facebook, and yet that line remains the simplest explanation of the company’s legacy. In the decade since The Social Network, Facebook has balked at any sort of responsibility over it how it changed the world, whether it’s the rise of hate speech, the erosion of the truth, or helping incite a genocide. At first, we thought Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal was too cold or mean-spirited, particularly in light of how he out-maneuvered his early imitators. Now we have a more historical context, and the film serves as a sinister time capsule about how the simplest impulses (i.e. Mark’s desire for acceptance) can have worldwide ramifications we can barely understand, whether it’s the billions of dollars that change hands or how everyone communicates. Perhaps the most 2010s ever is how our idea of Zuckerberg has changed: he is somehow even worse than how Fincher and Sorkin envisioned him.
17. Force Majeure
Let me start by saying I don’t laugh all that much. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor, but more that whatever makes someone quick to laugh, I have the opposite. It came as a shock to my wife, then, when I watching Force Majeure and she was in the other room. All of a sudden I was not just laughing, but my entire body was shaking. I was gasping for air, laughing so hard tears were streaming down my face. My wife rushed to see what was so funny, and what she saw on screen was a fully grown man sobbing to himself because he’s mourning the loss of traditional gender roles. That is part of what makes Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure such an incisive dark comedy: he approaches its seemingly simple premise with real psychological sensitivity, but he does not treat his characters with respect. The film follows a wealthy Swedish family and the fallout from a skiing holiday. There is an avalanche, and the father rushes to save himself rather than protect his family. This leads down some dark roads – the wife cannot forgive him – until the father, full of wretched self-loathing, begs for forgiveness. So many films in the past decade were about relationships and the “new normal” in power dynamics. In many ways, equality is more important than ever before, and Force Majeure brutally acknowledges how that equality means that women need not put up the same bullshit as they have been for centuries.
16. First Reformed
For the past forty years, Paul Schrader has made films about confused, angry men who longer see how they fit into the world. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are like that, but so are his lesser known films like Light Sleeper, The Walker, and even American Gigolo. All those films are necessary precursors for First Reformed, his most recent film, and also his best. Ethan Hawke has never been better as Reverend Toller, a minister who fears that God has abandoned him. He feels a spiritual awakening after speaking with the husband of a devoted parishioner, except there is unintended consequence of Toller being radicalized into environmental terrorism. This is an angry film, one that looks at the past decade and only sees despair (in interviews, Schrader is upfront about humanity’s grim chances). None of this is depressing, and in fact, it is a bracing reminder that it is never too late for decent men to act according to their conscience, even if those values are obscure to everyone else. Much has been made of its final images, and how the ending is too ambiguous for its own good. Look again, and you might see Schrader makes his intentions perfectly clear. Toller never feels free in First Reformed, at least not until he follows the courage of his convictions, and what means make look bizarre to us, but for him it is literally transcendent.
In his recent Essay The Decade Comic Book Nerds Became Our Cultural Overlords, writer and critic Alex Pappademas observes how comic books fans demand fealty to their treasured intellectual property. He calls them, “a volunteer army of PR freelancers for the biggest media companies in the world.” That certainly describes fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a massively successful movie-flavored product. But what makes Into the Spider-Verse different from the MCU, and so special, is how it remixes comic books and comic book mythology into something sophisticated and emotionally involving. The film follows Miles Morales, a sullen kid and reluctant Spider-Man who witnesses an accidental opening of a multi-dimensional portal. This allows him to meet another Spider-Man, but Spider-Woman and even Spider-Pig. All this might have been too meta, except the filmmakers ground the Morales story in a familiar parable involving regret, responsibility, and loss. The film also looks amazing, a riot of action and color borrowing from a host of motifs and styles, splicing them into eye-popping, original CGI. Between this film and The Lego Movie, Phil Lord should be known as the guy who takes unworkable properties and makes them more successful than they have any right to be. Long after Tom Holland and Andrew Garfield put their web-slinging days behind them, Into the Spider-Verse will be seen as the artistic peak of superhero filmmaking.
Unearned sentiment is the most annoying thing in movies (to me, anyway). If I can see a movie attempting to manipulate me and failing, then my dislike veers to outright hostility. By that same taken, I am delighted whenever a manipulative movie works, and I’m totally enthralled by the intended emotional experience. That is how I feel about Brooklyn, an old-fashioned romance that should be anyone’s answer to the complaint, “They don’t make movies like they used to.” Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, an Irish immigrant in New York in the 1950s. A large chunk of the film follows her struggle with assimilation, at least until she meets a plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen). The pair hit it off, although their relationship is complicated by real life and Eilis’ push/pull between her homeland and her adopted country. Screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley raise the stakes of the romance, all while maintaining the intelligence and integrity of their characters. The final act is a classic “will she or won’t she” melodrama, culminating in one of the more traditionally satisfying endings in years. From the first shot of her, audiences will fall in love with Eilis, and there is a warm-hearted thrill in watching her finally realize that her path to happiness is easier than she realized.
13. 12 Years a Slave
Anyone who has watched a studio film by Steve McQueen will not be surprised he had his start in video art. There can be a rigorous detachment to his work; his camera observes suffering and inhumanity so that the viewer can absorb it without feeling repulsed. 12 Years a Slave, a stunning historical docudrama about a freeman sold into bondage, is more physical than most films about that period. McQueen sees slavery as inhuman – that’s his jumping off point – but his film is memorable because of how it shows people surviving within that system. One particularly disturbing involves Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) with a noose around his neck, as he struggles to stand up while the mud churns beneath him. McQueen keeps his camera away from Ejiofor’s face, which then allows us to see others walk by him. Indifference is a key theme here, as is the psychological weight slavery puts on victims and perpetrators. 12 Years a Slaves unfolds with such savagery, such moral and intellectual clarity, that its impression on audiences is permanent. It takes the work of a real artist to depict America’s original sin in such a rigorous way, although there irony is not lost on McQueen or producer Brad Pitt that it also takes a white man to intervene and give Northup his freedom. That example of deus ex machina is deliberate and accurate: it is the only way Northop’s story could have ever been shared, and it is necessary so that we learn about the countless others who were never so lucky.
12. 20th Century Women
Greatness does not always announce itself immediately. Sometimes a film can be a little slight, even pleasant, so it is difficult to see the high wire act it performs. 20th Century Women is such a film: it came and left theaters without much fanfare, save a single Academy Award nomination, and had the misfortune of appearing in the same Award Season as Moonlight and La La Land. In the years since its release, however, it has revealed itself as one of the smartest, most warmhearted dramas of the past decade. It is the sort of movie you want to live in, presenting an idyll of late 1970s California where people believed in the future (albeit nervously), and hippies and punks could coexist. The plot, such as it is, is a reflection of writer/director Mike Mills’ early life: a boy named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is about to become a young man, and his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening ) realizes he needs good influences in his life. A mother alone cannot provide that – she’s too attached to her child – so Dorothea enlists young women (Greta Gerwig*, Elle Fanning) and a decent man (Billy Crudup) to help her. What follows is an easygoing, gorgeous film that has curiosity about its eccentric characters. It is also a snapshot of an interesting moment in history, where Jimmy Carter could credibly talk about a “crisis of confidence” and not be a national joke. There are films on this list that I may never, ever watch again. 20th Century Women is the sort of movie I could watch every week, or have a four hour version of it, and never get sick about its abundant treasures.
- I don’t cry at movies often, but the scene where Greta Gerwig’s Abbie dances with Jamie makes me burst into tears every time I see it. I cannot say why.
11. Cold War
The Iron Curtain was suffocating to artists. They could not fully express themselves out of fear their governments might arrest them, or worse. Home is home, however, and life as an expatriate left a hole in many of their hearts. That anxiety is central to Cold War, a gorgeous romance that takes place over decades, but has a runtime under ninety minutes. Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski packs a lot into his film, which primarily follows star-crossed lovers Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). They’re both musicians – you could argue Cold War is a musical – and while Wiktor yearns for escape to the West, Zula is not so certain. Sometimes they together, sometimes they are apart, yet they leave such an impression on each other that they are less like lovers, and more like reluctant soulmates (think about how painful such kinship must be when history and state repression get in the way). The film is also beautifully composed, using striking black and white photography to evoke effortless cool and a strain of hopelessness – sometimes in the same scene. Cold War film is not anti-Poland, or anti-communist. It is more about the clash between individuality and institutions, along with the sacrifices such clashes require. Its final, inevitable minutes could have been too wrenching, too painful, and yet it arriveswith a note of bittersweet recognition. There is no future for these characters, but finally they see a life together (however brief) without compromise.