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.
One of more memorable books I read over the past ten years is “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. It starts off like a coming of age story, sort of in the Donna Tartt mold, only become an exhaustively detailed account of one man’s unique suffering. I am not glad I read the novel, but its unwavering commitment to its subject is not something I’ll ever forget. That is sort of how I feel about Oslo, August 31st, except filmmaker Joachim Trier is not quite as single-minded. The film follows Anders, an addict and recovering writer in his thirties who leaves a halfway house for a job interview. Along the way, he sees friends, goes to parties, and must constantly make the decision not to use (Trier does of a great job of showing how recovery must be exhausting). He does not make excuses for Anders, and instead follows him in a borderline dispassionate way, like a frustrated friend might. What makes the film so fascinating is how the film depicts Anders’ little life alongside the lives of mostly happy, vibrant people. The walls close in on Anders, and his self-awareness is our only solace. Once he decides he has no use for Oslo, we see it’s not because the city and people turned their backs on him.
Most movies see vampirism as a curse. From Dracula through What We Do in the Shadows, the particulars of their condition seem like a terrible burden, and what varies is how sympathetic they are portrayed. The key insight in Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, is that vampirism could also be a boring drag. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play the lead vampires, and instead of frightening horror villains, they are portrayed like aging hipsters who have lost interest in the scene. Their performances are effortless, and Jarmusch gives them unique hangups (Hiddleston’s vampire is a brilliant musician, but since he is immortal, he will never have a legacy). All this culminates in one of the great hangout movies of the decade, one where the final image will make you ready to leave their grasp. Aside from its evocative imagery and easygoing character development, Only Lovers Left Alive is noteworthy for its superlative score, co-written by Jarmusch himself. It’s a bit like the movie: familiar, macabre, and oddly inviting.
28. Drug War
Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To released twelve films in the 2010s, and that is all the more impressive because he has not made anything since 2016. Like Takeshi Miike, who was already mentioned in this list, To has a remarkable command of genre, but the police procedural Drug War is perfect for Western sensibilities. Unlike most of his films, this one is set in mainland China, a place where carrying an small amount of drugs can carry a death sentence. That sets the tone for the story, a dense set of double-crosses that primarily involve a crooked cop and the dealer he’s working with. The plot can be difficult to follow: it has so many moving parts, and it is sometimes unclear who is playing who. But that’s part of the point. This is an existential procedural, one where action means a lot more than dialogue or loyalty. After a long stretch of agonizing suspense, To finally releases the tension in one of the more brutal shootouts in recent memory. Unlike other action franchises, no one here is trying to look cool. They are desperate cogs in an inhuman system, and after all their scheming, their guns are all they have left to assert their humanity.
Popstar came and left theaters without much fanfare. In the following years, however, this pop music parody film has found passionate defenders who recognize that, yes, Andy Samberg and other Lonely Island guys just might be geniuses. The plot is familiar: Samberg plays Conner4Real, a singer who leaves his boy band for a solo career, only to see his stardom fade. Samberg and his team use that structure to attack pop culture and celebrity from all sides, usually through specific songs. “Humble” is a riff on Macklemore posturing, while “Finest Girl” goes after pop’s insincere attempts to sound serious (it’s better known as the “Fuck me like the military fucked Bin Laden” song). Popstar is one of those gag-a-minute movies where, if you something does not quite work for you, all you need is to wait a second. Like This Is Spinal Tap and Walk Hard, its episodic structure and affection for its dumb characters help encourage repeat viewings. Between this and Brooklyn 99, Samberg has become one of our most brilliant comic actors. Not only is he hilarious, he has the wisdom to know his schtick can wear thin, so he always makes ample room for his collaborators.
My favorite horror films tend to have sympathy for the monster. It is easy and common to have a group of ordinary characters face off against unfathomable evil, but it rare to have a film where the main character perpetrates unfathomable evil and we care about them, anyway. Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother is like that, but does not start that way. We first have an unassuming family who gets a visit from a vicious killer. What happens to the family – and how the killer is ultimately punished – comes to define Francisca (Kika Magalhães), a disturbed woman whose loneliness is so profound that she would rather kill others than confront it. Pesce wisely uses black and white photography, since so much of the film depicts gruesome acts (one character spends most of the film without eyes or a tongue). Although parts of the film are almost unspeakably transgressive, what is memorable about The Eyes of My Mother is its rigorous, constrained psychological insight. In a decade where there was a resurgence of horror and the true crime genre, this is the rare film that really burrows into what might driver a killer. They are more like us than few would care to admit.
It is no surprise that Wes Anderson’s best film would also be his saddest. Centered on a great Ralph Fiennes performance, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a briskly-paced thriller about a concierge who finds himself at the center of a scandal. But that’s only the start point, as Anderson fills his film with memorable supporting characters, speedy action sequences, and dialogue that’s more profane than usual. Beneath all the manners and bespoke costume, however, there is a tragedy about the rise of fascism and what it means for our fantasies about Europe. The film’s complex framing device underscores that idea: like a Russian nesting doll, there are several stories (and corresponding aspect ratios) before we get to the concierge and the fight of his life. Each additional flashback is one degree removed from where most of the action takes place, so Anderson effectively shows us that one person’s beloved story is another person’s bitter tragedy. Instead of lessening the film’s impact, the structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel deepens its message. Since we’re so entertained by a fiction that draws from real pain and real death, what does that say about us, or the nature of storytelling?
One of the best, most unusual documentaries of the 2010s almost happened by accident. Wim Winders set out to make a traditional documentary about the choreographer Pina Bausch, except she passed away while he was developing the project. So instead of a film about her, Winders treated us to a film that celebrates her. The cumulative effect is like a concert film, with disjointed performances of Bausch routines in unusual locations. Some of the memorable ones involve the elevated tram in Wuppertal, or in a stage space covered by a thin layer of water. No matter the setting, the dancing is electrifying, and shows what can be accomplished when a choreographer eschews traditional beauty for something more immediate and raw. Pina gets a big assist from its use of 3D photography. It adds literal depth to the movement and heightens the athleticism of the actors, giving the uncanny feeling they’re performing just for you. It’s wild to reflect how 3D was everywhere at the beginning of the decade, only to see it fall out of fashion. This is one of the rare instances where it amplifies a film, instead of distracting from it.
23. John Wick
Speaking of choreography, the action in John Wick is such a jolt to the genre that it may have reinvented it entirely. But while everyone associates the film with brutal headshots and practical stunt work, what makes the film so good is its slow, even meditative opening act. There is a long, mournful period where we watch John Wick (Keanu Reeves) adjust to life without his beloved wife. He is a shell of a man, and only his affection for a puppy offers a glimpse of his humanity. Reeves’ performance is instrumental to the effect – we’ve all felt as sad and alienated as he is – so when the action finally arrives (after the dog is killed), we share his sense of vengeance. This approach is by necessity: director Chad Stahelski did not have a huge budget, so he had to pad out the film before the good stuff (in the home invasion sequence, for example, there are only so many bad guys at once because he had few actors and only one camera). Then there is the world-building, and hints of a secret assassins guild where civility and deference matter more than bullets and knives. The subsequent John Wick films would raise the stakes with more eye-popping action, yet they build on the shoulder of the economical, brilliantly realized original film. Mayhem has never felt so righteous.
Peter Strickland seemingly came out of nowhere. His movies are too precise, too peculiar for mainstream tastes. It is easy to compare him to Roman Polanski, except that is reductive. Strickland has more detachment than Polanski, and gives the impression that each of his three films are a chance to explore his obsessions, or perhaps his fetishes. The Duke of Burgundy, a dreamy erotic drama, takes little name in plunging the viewer into its otherworldly, sumptuous milieu. This is the first and perhaps only film that includes a perfumer in its opening credits. It follows two women (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna) as they embark on a peculiar sexual roleplaying in a lavish mansion. At first, their relationship follows the usual patterns of dominant and submissive participant, but as the film continues, Strickland shows how ritual undermines any real emotion between them. This leads to a power struggle that tortures both parties in ways they cannot fully understand. On top of the rich romantic drama, Strickland fills The Duke of Burgundy with immersive details, like an obsession with moths/butterflies and costumes that exist outside any time period. This is not a film with high stakes or much story, but Strickland creates a unique sense of mood, so it’s all the more startling when you’re moved by characters who (at first) seem too otherwordly to be recognizably human.
21. Nico, 1988
Superheroes may have dominated the culture this decade, but another genre with renewed interest is the musical biopic or drama. Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Straight Outta Compton are just a few of the films that somewhere between a straightforward musical and a biopic. But among all these amazing performances and familiar rock and roll stories, the criminally underseen Nico, 1988 towers above all of them. Danish actor Trine Dyrholm plays the singer best known for her collaboration with The Velvet Underground, but in this film she’s an ex-junkie who can barely hold it together, touring through communist-controlled Europe with her strung out band of misfits. She is ill-tempered, combative, and skeptical of attention. Mostly the film illustrates how, even with a small audience and few fans, she remains an uncompromising artist. If you closed your eyes, I bet you couldn’t tell the difference between Dyrholm and Nico – she’s just that good. Songs like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “These Days” are given stirring new interpretations, while “My Heart Is Empty” turns into a propulsive post-punk banger. The old saying is that no one really bought The Velvet Underground’s debut album, but everyone who did start a band. Nico, 1988 continues in that tradition: a great film that remains in relative obscurity, while Bohemian Rhapsody makes nearly $1 billion. Nico would be uncomfortable with this kind of attention, and while she would have probably hated Dyrholm’s performance, she ultimately would have had a begrudging respect for it.