The Best Movies of the 2010s Represent Who We Are and Where We've Been
Year-end ten-best movies lists are more than just an annual occasion for navel-gazing critics to get up on their collective soap boxes and subjectively rank things, arguing why the films they loved are better than the film you loved. Or, at least, they should be. Ideally, they provide an opportunity for reflection—a chance to look back at the previous 12 months and take the temperature of the culture, both where we are and where we’ve been. What made us laugh? What sparked a flicker of sorely-needed empathy? What dazzled us with the shock of the new? What spoke to us and moved us? In short, what was Art.
According to the basic laws of math, coming up with a Best Movies of the Decade list should only be 10 times harder than that. Ha! If only. Over the past 10 years, the only constant in our culture (both pop- and more broadly) has been change. Our anxieties seem to grow with every fresh news cycle. We seem more distrusting and divided than ever. We are no longer one nation, but rather a bickering federation of tribes. Fortunately, we have movies to bring us together. To entertain us, sure, but also to enlighten and help us make sense of our ever-changing times. After all, sitting in a darkened theater with a roomful of complete strangers has always carried the magical power to unite us and make us feel less alone. All we have to do is open our eyes…and watch.
Settling on a list of the Top 10 movies released between the dawn of 2010 and the dusk of 2019 wound up being an especially tricky balancing act. Not just because cinema is changing as rapidly as everything else around us (the supersonic and disruptive rise of Netflix, the hand-over-fist hegemony of superhero tentpoles, the industry’s long-overdue reckoning with diversity in front of and behind the camera). But also because some movies, more often than not the ones that are immediately hyped as masterpieces right out of the gate, seem to vanish from our memories as soon as their opening weekend ends. The ones on this list are not easily—or quickly—forgotten. In some cases, they may take longer to marinate in our psyches and reveal their hidden depths, but they are the ones that best represent who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed in the decade ahead….
10| Paddington 2 (2017)
Yes, a sequel about a talking bear is one of the best movies of the decade. The plot—Paddington tries to recover a purloined pop-up book—is as slight as a marmalade finger sandwich. But thanks to its diorama sets, it felt like the best Wes Anderson movie that Anderson never made. Sure, Paddington 2 could make you feel like a kid again. But don’t be fooled, this was no mere kids’ movie. Beneath its eye-candy palette and despite its deliciously villainous turn from Hugh Grant, this was a film about innocence, inclusivity, and kindness—sentiments that have been in short supply the past few years.
9| Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkins’ staggering Best Picture winner is a meditation on identity that asks what it means to be a gay black man in America. In the past, Moonlight might have fallen through the art-house cracks, another tragic casualty in our multiplex-or-bust marketplace. But this poignant story of one man’s journey from boyhood to adulthood was so transcendent, so note-perfect in its tiniest details, it couldn’t be denied. And thank God for that. Because Jenkins’s coming-of-age story was as close to poetry as movies get.
8| The Handmaiden (2016)
Park Chan-wook, the Korean auteur behind Oldboy, slipped loose from his genre shackles with this historical romance that thrums with an unexpected blast of giddy kinkiness. Very loosely adapted from a Sarah Waters novel about a young pickpocket who’s hired by a con man to help seduce a deceptively demure aristocrat (a mesmerizing Kim Min-hee), The Handmaiden is as twisty as a ‘40s noir and as wildly sexy as an ‘80s erotic thriller. It’s one of those all-too-rare imports that, beneath its genteel Merchant-Ivory trappings, zigs and zags so feverishly that you’re left reeling and punch-drunk as you struggle to remember your safe word.
7| The Lobster (2015)
There are certain films that are so bizarre that they defy easy explanation. Then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kafka-esque satire about romantic conformity—and crustaceans. Colin Farrell stars as a lonely heart who has 45 days to find a suitable partner or else he’ll be turned into animal of his choice. Ahh, that old story again. The Lobster is a freaky, existential rabbit hole that feels utterly original in our age of numbing sequels. And its final scene is one for the ages—a deadpan will-he-or-won’t-he cliffhanger that’s never resolved and all the better for that lack of resolution and refusal to provide easy answers.
6| Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019)
What at first appears to be another one of Quentin Tarantino’s B-movie-mad pastiches winds up becoming something far more profound, as a fading tough-guy actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Sancho Panza stuntman sidekick (Brad Pitt) reckon with the death of the California dream, daring to imagine: What if it didn’t have to all go up in smoke on a certain fateful evening in August 1969? Tarantino gets a lot of flak for his idiosyncratic obsessions (his sweet tooth for obscure drive-in trash, gratuitous violence, and foot fetishism), but after the disappointing one-two punch of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, this wasn’t just a return to form, but also his most masterful film since Pulp Fiction.
5| Whiplash (2014)
Damien Chazelle’s psychologically harrowing masterpiece signaled the arrival of a filmmaker who was as much of a live-wire prodigy as its cocky protagonist: Miles Teller’s laser-focused, bleeding-palmed jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman. The film is more than just a cautionary tale about the toll of pursuing perfection, it electrifies you with every note of its beat. J.K. Simmons flat-out soars as the monstrously volcanic drill-sergeant instructor who puts Andrew through the paces of his psychological meat grinder. But what he’s playing is more than just another stock Hollywood villain. There’s a method to his mad sadism. Theirs is a duet of cruel codependency.
4| Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Luca Guadagnino’s queer coming-of-age story is a lyrical half-remembered daydream of a film that casts a beautifully erotic spell. Set during a summer of lazy afternoons and sensual stolen moments in the Italian countryside, it traces the tentative attraction between a precocious 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and a charismatic grad student (Armie Hammer). That it does so with such heart and humanity is a minor miracle. Michael Stuhlbarg, as Chalamet’s bookish and seemingly aloof onscreen father, delivers one of the most deeply moving soliloquies about the mysteries of love ever captured on celluloid.
3| Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Most modern action flicks build up to their fireball climax. But George Miller’s gloriously gonzo post-apocalyptic demolition derby is all fireball climax. Part retina-scorching Tex Avery cartoon, part Hieronymous Bosch hellscape, Fury Road is, hands down, the most adrenalized 120 minutes of cinema of the decade—of any decade. Boldly swapping Hollywood’s standard, ones-and-zeroes CGI mayhem for daredevil, without-a-net practical effects and stunt work, Miller pulls off the seemingly impossible over and over again until you almost cry “Uncle” while trying to scoop your jaw back up from your lap. No, Tom Hardy’s hero doesn’t make you forget about Mel Gibson. But Charlize Theron’s Furiosa sure does.
2| Before Midnight (2013)
Eighteen years after their fluky first encounter on a Vienna-bound train in Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse are vacationing in Greece and grappling with a fairy-tale romance that’s under siege from the daily grind of reality. The couple’s tense and all-too-real hotel room verbal sparring match is almost too painful to witness. There’s years of built-up resentments pouring out there. And you feel like you’re eavesdropping on something so true that you shouldn’t be hearing it. But it never feels anything less than achingly authentic. Before Midnight is Richard Linklater’s most intimate, mature, and honest film. A love letter to love that’s heartbreaking…and ultimately hopeful.
1| The Social Network (2010)
David Fincher’s origin story of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is Citizen Kane for the Internet age. Fueled by Jesse Eisenberg’s creepy, rat-a-tat delivery of Aaron Sorkin’s arias of dialogue, The Social Network is the movie of our new millennium—a chilling portrait of a ruthless young egomaniac who somehow managed to connect the world and end up as the loneliest man on the planet. Since its release, Zuckerberg’s tech-bro creation has gone from a utopian, world-shrinking force of good to a potential threat to democracy. Fincher seemed to sense all of this and more long before anyone else. And his brilliant, troubling film bristles with that queasy sense of prophecy and prescience.