The second decade of the 21st Century is dead and buried. RIP. It will not be missed. It was a foul rat king of years that was so dreadful that it somehow managed to squirt out a postmortem shit in the form of more violence in the Middle East.
But hey, at least there were some great movies. So we got that going for us.
This was a hard list to compile. It started out as a top ten, but that proved too painful a winnow, so, inspired by Tanner’s excellent list, I expanded it to twenty-five. Still rough, but doable at least. So here we go, the totally objective and definitive (and alphabetical) list of the best movies of the twenty teens.
Alex Garland’s directorial followup to Dredd and Ex Machina, is a surreal and emotionally powerful film that was so ineptly marketed I nearly missed out on it. Most people did, alas. A potent mixture of science fiction, cosmic horror, and character drama, it feels less like a traditional studio SF film than something from the brain of J.G. Ballard, The Crystal World-style unnatural no man’s land and all.1 It’s freaky and gorgeous and scary and I love it.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
You can read my full review here, but suffice it to say André Øvredal’s small, character centric horror film is nothing more than an old fashioned spook show, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s edge of your seat stuff; wonderfully crafted and anchored by excellent performances by Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch and Olwen Kelly.
I’m not joking about the latter, by the way. Her motionless performance as the titular corpse is really, really good.
Bad Black (2016)
Self-taught Ugandan filmmaker Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana’s action comedy was shot on a budget of $65. However, from the charmingly low-fi visual effects to the impressive fight choreography to the absolutely hilarious “VJ” commentary that accompanies the film, it’s way, way more enjoyable that the majority of American action blockbusters.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
One of my favorite things in the world to do is share my favorite movies with people who haven’t seen them before, if only to enjoy their reactions. It’s best when they go in naked, not even knowing what the premise is. Drew Goddard’s science fiction horror comedy is absolutely perfect for this. It’s not a film defined by a single Shyamalanesque twist. It doles out new info carefully, often hilariously, unfolding throughout its runtime rather than yanking the rug out from under you all at once.
Beyond that, it’s an exciting and hilarious crowdpleaser that somehow manages to be both a kick-ass horror movie and a satire of the often puritanical politics of kick-ass horror movies, placing the audience in the position of the baddies who are torturing our doomed young protagonists.
Nacho Vigalondo’s science fiction comedy might be one of the stranger films on this list, to the point of almost being unwieldy. It starts off like a generic indie dramedy, with a failed writer (Anne Hathaway) leaving New York to move back to her small hometown, where she reconnects with old childhood friends. Well made as far as that kind of thing goes, but not exactly groundbreaking.
Then it becomes a kaiju film. Then it gets weird. And real dark. I hesitate to describe the film more, but would compare it to The World’s End in how it uses comedy and genre tropes to grapple with some pretty heavy stuff like depression and addiction. It’s a difficult tonal balance, but Vigalondo nails it. It’s odd to me that he hasn’t yet been courted by studios for one of the big properties, but perhaps that’s for the best. I want more idiosyncratic stuff like this from him.
Hey! Two films directed by Alex Garland in one list!2 I think the dude’s going places. His adaptation of the legendary satirical dystopian comic series is one of the best (and strangest) action films of the decade. Karl Urban continues to be one of the most versatile and underappreciated actors of his generation, and his taciturn performance as the titular judge (And jury. And executioner.) shows it. Even restrained by half of his face being obscured through the entirety of the film, he manages to take a character that could easily have been straight up boring and invest him with nuance and even humor. Lena Headey as Madeline “Ma-ma” Madrigal? Probably my favorite villain of the new millennium, restrained and even soft spoken at times while remaining genuinely scary.
As a whole, the film is a total blast, like a well written, well crafted, big budget version of an early 1990s straight to video action film. It’s a shame it didn’t find its audience upon initial release, but it subsequently found its cult following. Gimme those sequels, damn it. Listen to our podcast about the film here.
See! I actually do like movies that are neither horror nor science fiction! Gonzo Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven returns to the directing game with something that may seem unexpected to audiences who are only familiar with his 20th Century satirical science fiction movies. Elle is a wonderfully dark (and I do mean dark) comedic thriller that sees what could have been a generic and potentially offensive premise and takes it in genuinely unexpected directions. My first viewing had me literally muttering “What the fuck?!” to myself over and over again. Isabelle Huppert’s central performance is remarkable, and apparently prompted Verhoeven to completely revise the tone of the film on set. You have to see it to believe it. It’s a film that’s rough to watch at times, and it might not be for everyone, but it’s absolutely brilliant. Read my full review here.
Fast Five (2011)
With Fast Five, Justin Lin took a mediocre franchise based on a crappy Point Break ripoff and made something magical. It’s heartfelt and corny and completely bonkers, completely redefining the Fast and/or Furious movies—in fact nearly shifting genres entirely.
Its successors have upped the ante when it comes to spectacle and stunt work, but this film is where the series finally came into its own. We here at Lewton Bus, with a few stubborn exceptions, adore the franchise. We devoted a whole week to it!
Fruitvale Station (2013)
I’m originally from New Orleans, but I’ve been living in Oakland for ten years3 and at this point I like to think of myself as an Oaklander as well. So, Ryan Coogler’s amazing debut film had me (and everyone else sitting around me) crying in the theater. His depiction of Oscar Grant’s murder at the hands of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle is a rough watch, filled with joyous moments that also feel deeply tragic given that we know what’s coming. Am I biased because of my association with the city and my observations during that whole horrifying affair? Maybe. But we all bring our own emotions into works of art. That’s kinda the point.
Get Out (2017)
From, uh, Mad TV to being one of the most vital voices in genre cinema today, I don’t think anyone saw Jordan Peele’s career going the way it has. His directorial debut took the world by surprise. It’s an unnerving horror film with a dark sense of humor and a politically ruthless thematic core. The easy route would have been to make a trite “racism is BAD” movie, with mustache-twirling bigots at the baddies, but Peele isn’t lazy. He chooses as his antagonists performatively woke, upper class white liberals, and the end result is something much more incisive and uncomfortable.
I’d watch it for a third time if I could.
Green Room (2015)
A punk band fights a bunch of murderous Nazis. The leader of the Nazis is played by Patrick Stewart. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what to tell you.
The John Wick Trilogy (2014, 2017, 2019)
Don’t fuck with John Wick. That’s the central theme of the John Wick films. Don’t double cross him, don’t blow up his house, and whatever you do, never, ever, ever hurt his dog. The Wick films are a baroque and blood-splattered mixture of kickass action and ornate worldbuilding. Hotel-based demimonde of assassins with its own currency? Rockabilly switchboard operators who dole out hitjob contracts? Gun dealing “sommeliers?” These movies have got everything you never knew you needed. And there’s actually some stuff going on under the hood!
Yes, I know I’m cheating by lumping three films together here, but whatever. It’s my list. I can do what I want.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
I chickened out of ranking this list. It was rough enough cutting it down to twenty-five, and I couldn’t bring myself to set my final selections against each other like that. However, if I had ranked this list, George Miller’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece would have absolutely been number one. Miller hadn’t made a movie in twenty years that didn’t involve talking animals,4 but in 2015 the septuagenarian visionary returned to the action genre, and the franchise he created, to show the kids how it’s done. The film is a technical and aesthetic marvel; exhilarating and thematically dense at the same time. I walked out of my first viewing (I think I’ve seen it five times in theaters alone.) thinking it would be a film that launched a thousand critical essays. Hell, I wrote one of them when we launched Lewton Bus!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008 – ?)
If you were annoyed by my inclusion of the Wick trilogy as one “film,” you are gonna freakin’ hate me for this one. There are few movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that would have made this list on their own. Maybe Captain America: The First Avenger? The Guardians of the Galaxy films? But taken as a whole, the MCU has been an ambitious and largely successful experiment in long-form cinematic story-telling. Who would have thought that Iron Man of all movies would spawn something that would dominate and define blockbuster filmmaking in the 2010s? Twenty-three (!) solid and interwoven genre films, with a truly stellar cast? It’s kind of a miracle. And like all miracles, it’s proven hard to reproduce. So far, every attempt to ape its shared universe has shat the bed.
The Nice Guys (2016)
This raunchy and darkly comic neo-noir is pretty much distilled entertainment, not to mention surprisingly politically relevant given its 1970s setting. It also features an imaginary Richard Nixon and a talking bee. Pure Shane Black.
Only God Forgives (2013)
Oh, hey! Another Ryan Gosling movie! And I’m not just including his handsome mug in this article again for the benefit of the folks who appreciate handsome mugs. It’s not like I have a thing for him or anything. No, seriously, I don’t. Really. What? Whatever. This is a seriously strange, slowly paced,5 character-centric crime flick that could have only been made by Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s Refn as hell, which may be a feature or a bug, depending on your tastes. It must have taken fans of the more straight-forward Drive by surprise.
My favorite three films of 2013 were this, Fruitvale Station, and Pacific Rim. I contain multitudes. Speaking of which…
Pacific Rim (2013)
I’ve got to say, I’m proud of myself. When I saw the 1997 giant bug movie Mimic in theaters, I thought to myself, “Hot damn. This director is someone to keep an eye on.” Over two decades later? Guillermo del Toro is a Best Picture winner! Called it! I’m a del Toro hipster. But, although I considered it, my selection for this list isn’t The Shape of Water, but one of his lesser respected works. Warts and all (the pacing is a tad wonky at times), Pacific Rim is one of my favorite pieces of blockbuster filmmaking of the decade. Fun characters, amazing production design, giant robots and giant monsters, all rolled together into a totally charming and kickass live action cartoon. Also, it’s one of the rare Hollywood pictures where the 3D actually adds something.
The Raid (2011)
Dredd got a fair amount of undeserved guff for being similar in premise to this Indonesian action film. Said premise of law enforcement officers fighting their way to the top of a mob-controlled high-rise slum is pretty great, and can be implemented in a variety of different ways. The Raid is an incredibly brutal and intense martial arts showcase that blows me away every time I see it. Like The Cabin in the Woods (if for different reasons), it’s the kind of movie I love to share with people who know nothing going in.
When this weirdo Belgian horror film was working its way through the festival circuit, there were stories of audience members fainting and being taken out of the theater in stretchers. Maybe I have a stronger stomach than some, but I feel like that’s a bit of an overreaction. Don’t get me wrong, the film is gross as hell. The person sitting next to me at my screening was eating buffalo wings, and at a key moment—a moment that gives new meaning to the term “finger food”—they sighed, put down their food, and didn’t eat for the rest of the movie. It’s a gorgeous mixture of body horror, psychosexual coming of age story and, um, cannibalism. See it for damn sure, but be forewarned.
Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut is not subtle: a science fiction action film in which a dirt poor underclass revolt and fight their way from the rear to the front of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, circumnavigational train. Its politics are so overt that saying it’s a class metaphor should probably be responded to with a hearty, “No shit, Sherlock.” It’s also genuinely strange in a variety of ways, while still working as solidly exciting genre fare. The cast is absolutely stacked, and Chris Evans, an actor who I feel is often undervalued, gives a career high performance.
As an aside, the film came close to being butchered in the editing room by Harvey Weinstein. Saner, less evil heads prevailed in the end, but if you needed one more reason to hate Harvey Weinstein, you’re in luck.
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Whoa! Speaking of genre films that are hilariously overt with their politics, we have Oakland-based musician and activist Boots Riley’s directorial debut. What starts off as an already pretty political “code-switching” comedy goes in really unexpected directions, introducing dystopian, science fictional and body horror elements as the film progresses. It’s equally hilarious and disturbing, and really hit me where it hurts on a personal level. Read my review here to find out how. Full disclosure: I may be a tad biased by how much of the film was shot in my neighborhood.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
This movie was an unexpected pleasure. It’s a really fun and heartfelt superhero flick that is also one of the most visually innovative animated films I’ve ever seen. Hard to say, but it might be my favorite superhero movie.
The Square (2017)
Speaking of unexpected pleasures, I went into Ruben Östlund’s social satire knowing doodly-squat about it and walked out dragging my jaw on the floor. Because of that, I believe it’s another one of those films that it’s best to go into without a clue. I will say that it’s hilarious and cringe-inducing and includes multiple chimps. So there’s that.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Rian Johnson delivered a near-perfect installment in the Star Wars franchise, so I’m glad that that’s an utterly uncontroversial statement and everyone agrees with me.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Issa Lopez’s magical realist horror drama hit me so hard that I included it in my annual top ten list two years in a row. Really. It’s beautiful and tragic and introduces its more fantastical elements in canny and subtle ways. I think it’s the kind of horror film that could find an audience even among those who don’t particularly appreciate the genre, so don’t let that designation scare you away. Don’t be scared away. Just remember to bring tissues.
The World’s End (2013)
Edgar Wright’s final film in his loose Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy isn’t my favorite installment, so I suppose its inclusion here shows just how much I enjoy Wright’s work. The movie is top to bottom hilarious, but also packs one hell of an emotional wallop. If you or anyone you love has struggled with depression and/or substance abuse, you will feel this movie in your gut.
Also, I recently rewatched this movie with my roommate, who was under the impression that this was “a British version of The Hangover…” An impression I didn’t disabuse her of. Her scream when the film’s true nature was revealed was a thing of beauty.
Well, that’s all she wrote. And by “she” I mean “me.” It’s been one hell of a decade, for better or worse, but I can at least say that it’s been a stellar ten years at the movies. Let’s keep that going as we limp wearily into the 2020s. Hopefully we can fix all the other crap, too. At the very least, I’d like to see a lot of neat stuff in theaters before rising sea-levels drown us all.
- It’s almost literally a no man’s land. I don’t think I’ve seen a film pass the Bechdel test in such spectacular fashion.
- The credited director is Pete Travis, but it’s an open secret that the film was ghost directed by Garland–a fact that’s been confirmed by star Karl Urban.
- In the Bay Area as a whole for five years longer.
- To be fair, Babe: Pig in the City is a great film.
- Literally. A lot of non-dialog shots were in slight slo-mo, just to make things weirder.