I feel like I have personally slighted literally dozens of remarkable films from the 2010s, but this is already longer than any of you will read. The medium has evolved much more radically than anyone could have imagined at the decade’s outset; increasing monopolization of studio production and distribution, the broad shift from theatrical releases to streaming, the blurring of lines between film and television and the resulting questions about what a “movie” actually is, and of course the escalating tension between populist studio product and more personal independent films. All of this against a backdrop of the most socially regressive era since the darker reaches of the previous century. Given all this, it’s not a surprise really how much remarkable work we’ve seen; social tension and creative sea-changes inspire strange and wonderful transitional output. Always do.
25. Ad Astra (Dir. James Gray, 2019)
Let’s start with a film I wouldn’t call a favorite by the usual metrics; it’s a narrative mess with some script choices that sink its dramatic potential at times. But what I love about it elevate it for me just on a purely formal level. I can’t stop thinking about this film.
The 2010s were another of those uncommon decades when science fiction, even accounting for all of the big silly blockbusters that flew the genre flag on one-sheets and iTunes thumbnails, was regarded with deadly seriousness. Ad Astra may be the most ponderous of the lot, but it’s easy to forgive because its craft is so stellar. It’s not a great film, but it’s a remarkably inventive one. Its cinematography and sound design stand out for me in a very crowded decade. Shot concurrently on film and digital to simplify digital composites while capturing the highest fidelity image, “Ad Astra” is drenched in evocative color and framed much more obliquely than I expect from a mega-budget film. Its sound design is similarly bold; it flatlines distortion to the point that in some crucial scenes it feels as if sound itself, as a perceptible medium, has decayed under the weight of the black of space.
24. Only God Forgives (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)
Folks are finally coming around to Refn’s unhinged miracle of a beast of a movie. This scene, the visuals and music and raw toxic aggression all unfolding in suspended time, it is about as muscular a scene as you will ever see:
23. Edge of Tomorrow (Dir. Doug Liman, 2014)
Doug Liman doesn’t often get the attention he is due as a frequent shepherd of smart, seriously-minded genre fare with the massive scope only studio films can fund. He started with sharp indie thrillers and comedies, and has since given us the Bourne franchise as well as this brilliantly constructed and executed high concept sci-fi adventure. Edge of Tomorrow does fine work with the time loop concept popularized by Groundhog Day and since also adopted by the Happy Death Day franchise. It’s about as entertaining an action film that you will find that isn’t called Mad Max: Fury Road, and helps prove that no matter what we think of his butthole of a religion, Tom Cruise is a hell of a physical performer.
22. Certain Women (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2016)
Nobody puts us inside the persistent certainties of daily life like Kelly Reichardt. She never hurries. Nor does she dwell. Her films have none of the cocky portent we expect from indie dramas, nor quirk, nor gratuitous tragedy. Her best films—and if this isn’t her best it’s a contender—bypass any such emotional shortcuts. She places us, with invisible precision, into settings that are familiar and used and serve purposes outside the world of her films. Her characters don’t feel performed. It all just is.
21. Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse (Dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, 2018)
There are simply no other contenders for my favorite animated film of the decade.
20. Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
Motherhood is a vast topic that no artist has ever left untouched; it’s amazing to me then that Brie Larson has led my two favorite films on women and their children. Lenny Abrahamson’s Room and Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 both moved me as a child of a mostly single mom, but it’s the wedge of the horrific, traumatizing scenario at the center of Room that haunts me. Children’s minds are always in an almost hallucinatory state of concurrent imagination and realization. Play and the actual coexisting, mostly in harmony but, when real life is a nightmare too immense for a child to understand, the fantasy wins. I’ve been this kid.
19. A Ghost Story (Dir. David Lowery, 2017)
What David Lowrey gets about grief: it’s not a moment or two with swollen music and family dispensing hard truths about the dead over drinks at a wake. It doesn’t end. Every time you think you’ve turned a corner, your grief follows and assaults you. Rooney Mara’s M is besieged by her grief at the loss of her husband. Her pain reverberates, literally and metaphorically. This is a love story, which means it is also a tale of suffering, as all love stories are. Her husband’s ghost, played by Casey Affleck, is desperate to understand M’s love and her pain, and haunts their house until he does.
This film compresses and expands time brilliantly, collapsing many days and years into moments. We see M cross single frames many times, we see the walls of the house crumble and reshape, we see other inhabitants, we see the ghost’s frustration breach the veil and wreak violence on the house and its residents. The ghost slows his traversing only to observe relevant moments, as though time itself, as a proxy for Lowry, has something to tell the ghost. It’s a wonderful and strange device, and it adds up to a singularly emotional finale.
18. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Dir. Joe Talbot, 2019)
This is a roundly stunning film, but more than anything I was floored by its symbolic wealth. It is a microcosm that plays out at scale every day in America; waves of white gentrification overtake our cities, literally sweeping established brown and black communities into the sea as climate change swells the tides. Whites colonize; even now we are as imperial as ever, cannibalizing our own towns simply because we can afford to do so. Profit is everything.
17. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)
I’m grateful to Disney for concluding the sequel series with this, Rian Johnson’s brilliant deconstruction and reset of the franchise for the next generation. Thank goodness there are no more Skywalker films after this.
16. The Duke of Burgundy (Dir. Peter Strickland, 2014)
Of everything I’ve commented on here, Peter Strickland’s Duke of Burgundy makes me the most hopeful about humans and our empathy for each other. The way it questions the incestuous grotesqueries of unchecked privilege. Its unpretentious, fond examination of the pleasures and dangers of sexual fantasy and play. Strickland’s reckoning with the despair of lost youth and the irreparable physical and emotional toll of age—but also the strength, beauty, and intelligence of age. Its lead characters, a sexually adventurous couple in a world with no men, radiate love and confusion in equal measure, and the film conveys their emotional lives with challenging combinations of experimental and literal storytelling.
15. The Shape of Water (Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
Guillermo del Toro absolutely despises alpha male bullshit and I love him for it. He puts us in the company of those who are most vulnerable in a society governed by white men who care first and foremost about growing and persisting their power in the form of social leverage, money, and a willingness to wield violence to achieve their ends. Our heroes are disabled people, queer people, and people of color whose strength is in their resilience and unwillingness to accept their default status as social runners-up. Nobody has Del Toro’s flair for production design and willingness to give everything he has to tales of imagination, told against the hard fact of western civilization.
14. You Were Never Really Here (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2017)
Lynne Ramsay tells a familiar story with strange and economical craft. You Were Never Really Here threw many viewers with its anti-action pacing and cut; most of the violence in this film is off-screen, even entirely scissored from key scenes leaving just our characters and their reckoning with their actions. It’s thoroughly jarring and forces us to skip right past the easy gratification that action cinema promises us. If we can’t see the good guy slaughter the bad guys, how will we really know who we should relate to?
The cinematography and edit are beautifully of a piece. Nothing feels out of place, but at the same time it rarely feels designed. As much as I like Edgar Wright, consider how almost torturously sculpted each shot and cut feel; at least as much care went into this film but it plays very naturally. Easily one of the best edits I’ve seen in the past few years.
The sound design, score (Johnny Greenwood playing with a bizarre and eclectic palette), and sound edit are magnificent. The soundtrack is aggressive. We are meant to reckon with the dissonance inside the head of Joaquin Phoenix’s chaotic fixer. Sounds and music are wildly amplified and crash into each other to an extreme degree. The music barely holds together at times, the arrangements are shaggy and the performances don’t always hit their notes. The sound is a perfect union of character and audio—and, as with the visual edit, gorgeously cut to tell the story of the man’s inner life even as it follows the literal story.
Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greats, never more so than here. His great expressive face, of course, but what strikes me is how wholly his body engages with his character. This man is tired, he can barely raise a hand at times, his posture is broken, his gaze forever downward. He is remarkable.
13. The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher, 2010)
Fincher’s masterpiece, second in greatness among his 21st-century output only to Zodiac, kicked off the scoring careers of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Especially after their work on HBO’s recent Watchmen series, I am grateful.
12. The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
In the nine years since I first watched PTA’s (possibly) greatest work to date, I’ve repeatedly dreamed about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s signature role as Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a Scientology-inspired cult. He is my neighbor across the street. I discover an elaborate surveillance network in my house, with a control center in the garage. Cameras and microphones in every room, all linked to a CCTV system. I open the garage door while plucking wires from the hub when Hoffman saunters over with several of his subjects in tow, all dressed in well-worn formal-wear. He confesses to spying on me, and tells me to join his group or he will reveal all my secrets to the world. I wake, understandably in my opinion, in a fright over what he might share of my most intimate goings-on.
So, The Master works. It’s gotten under my skin and then some. Everything else about this film has been said.
10. Melancholia (Dir. Lars Von Trier, 2011)
Lars Von Trier is a stinking pile of garbage and I don’t like that I’m so drawn to some of his work. What’s especially curious about him is that on one hand he is about as misanthropic as popular artists get, which typically manifests in disturbing strains of misogyny. On the other, his best characters are all women, and from his slurry of contradictory impulses about sex and gender a genuine empathy sometimes emerges. Melancholia is rightfully hailed as one of the most accurate modern portrayals of acute depression, starting with interpersonal triggers and ending with a world-destroying astronomic event. This is how depression works, symbolically, and no film delivers on the idea of catastrophization like Melancholia does. It is an absolute stunner, for me second only to A Woman Under the Influence among films on the topic. (Curiously, as abusive as he was sometimes reputed to be, Cassavetes also zeroed in on a woman for his masterpiece.)
9. The Favourite (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)
I know it’s easy to load up on Kubrick comparisons when talking about Lanthrimos but come on, this guy is wildly enamored of the master and has no qualms about sending him all the way up. I talked about this a bit here regarding his previous film.
The Favourite begins to diverge; the sardonic humor, hip spin on historical characters and settings, unsubtle thematics and hyper-stylized visuals are all here but The Favourite is somehow slightly kinder than Barry Lyndon, as vicious as it is. What I love most about it, beyond its brilliant and occasionally bonkers craft (THOSE FISH EYE LENSES), is how thoroughly pitiable and relatable these royal weirdos are. We like them, despite how awful they are. We want them all to win at their stupid games, which of course is impossible because nobody wins at cut-throat politics.
8. The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-Wook 2016)
This film is magic. As always, Park Chan-Wook marshals a complex assembly of genres and tones: intimate drama, horrifying violence, comedy, surrealism, all drawn from a deep well of empathy that leaves us feeling as though we have lived inside his characters’ heads. Park approaches the sex in this film with great care for both its physical accuracy and its warmth; no cold remove, no sanitization, just beauty and joy. It’s a challenging move in a film largely about the irresponsibility and grotesque carelessness of male pornographers. There is a fearlessness here, a man evaluating men whose art fixates on womens’ bodies while he himself lays bare his own fixation. Its confidence and abandonment to the joys of love and sex elevate it, as does its stunning attention to craft.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller, 2015)
It’s all been said countless times, but okay I’ll say it again: if anyone ever questions whether action cinema can rank among the greatest films of all time, put them in front of this transcendent masterpiece. There will never be another like it.
6. War for the Planet of the Apes (Dir. Matt Reeves, 2017)
The story of Moses by way of Apocalypse Now, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable film – ambitious, evocative, beautifully executed, and wildly original even in a franchise as storied as this one. The lead performances by Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson make the film. The two of them are electric, and when they share the screen it comes alive in an intimately violent way that’s uncommon in effects-heavy blockbusters. It’s a surprisingly powerful film, and if the series ends here, it’s the right place.
5. American Honey (Dir. Anrea Arnold, 2016)
See my thoughts on American Honey and why it’s carved out a corner of my psyche here.
It opens with what is the bottom line for me:
I know it’s divisive, I know that it’s very slow and sometimes ugly and its characters are hard to take, I know many of us want more story from a nearly 3 hour film. I understand this, but American Honey, in part because it is as amorphous as it is, is one of the best American films of the century. For those of us who are caught up in its spell, Andrea Arnold’s film is a profound exploration of trust, hope, and empathy. It is a peerless view into the unique eagerness of the teenaged mind, particularly when confronted with adult worries about hunger, about housing, about building family.
4. The Rider (Dir. Chloé Zhao, 2017)
More than anything else on this list, The Rider hits me on a profound personal level.
Director Chloé Zhao created The Rider as star Brady Jandreau was in fact recovering from a severe head injury, blurring the already blurry line between fact and fiction. Using the tools of narrative cinema to create an observational film about actual people in Pine Ridge, North Dakota, a Native American reservation and cowboy town. Much of what we see is factual; Jandreau’s actual friends and family play moderately fictionalized versions of themselves, the film is shot entirely on location on the Reservation that is its setting, and most of the injury and disability that we see is entirely real. The film plays more truly than any other I’ve seen on the subject because so much of it a literal observation of people portraying themselves as they survive newly limited lives.
3. Blade Runner 2049 (Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
This film has grown on me, and I am not alone: I routinely see it named as superior to its namesake. I uttered this sentiment very shyly at first: film nerds aren’t meant to question the standing of the original film, but it’s also a badly kept secret that Blade Runner is a flawed story papered over by Ridley Scott’s stunning vision of the future.1 Blade Runner is ultimately an emotionally effective existential meditation, but with Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villennueve draws us much further into his characters’ lives and hearts. That a holographic virtual girlfriend, Joi, has one of the decade’s more profoundly moving scenes is a testament to this film’s power. It is also, if not as thoroughly groundbreaking as the original, a clever and gorgeously realized acceleration of the dystopia that Scott first introduced us to. We travel outside of the city, discovering the awful environmental legacy of humanity’s unearned persistence. We don’t deserve this planet, in life or in film.
This might be my favorite of the decade if it wasn’t for Jared fucking Leto.
2. Annihilation (Dir. Alex Garland, 2018)
I don’t know where to start, so I’ll leave it at this: I’ve felt genuine awe at very few films, that sublime intersection of indescribable beauty and pure horror. Alex Garland’s Annihilation allows its art to do its talking, daring music and visual effects to guide us on an emotional journey through a familiar sci-fi scenario. The story works, but only because we can’t quite make logical sense of it.
1. Roma (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 classic Children of Men is dazzling and moving, one of the best science fiction films of the century. Roma, however, is an unassailable landmark of the medium. Alfonso Cuarón’s has always innovated, discovering new formal techniques to help shepherd us into his characters’ experiences. With the story of Cleo, an indigenous maid to an upper-class family in early 1970s Mexico City, Roma creates frames of almost mythical enormity, packed with detail that reveal the inner and outer lives of our characters, both realistic and symbolic. As Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio brings us into the soul of one of cinema’s greatest characters as she navigates class, love and social upheaval. Her story doesn’t hinge on typical melodramatic beats; her routine lived moments are enough to move us.
Roma has no musical score, but nevertheless has one of my favorite soundtracks of recents years. I’ve implored people to watch it with headphones as Cuarón layers his environments in delicate, evocative ways, practically building a symphony from found sounds and field recordings. Just its sound design is enough to keep my attention.
Roma is, in my opinion, the strongest argument against any nonsense from the old guard about the death of cinema in the streaming age. If, I guess arguably, the greatest film of the 2010s was funded and distributed by a streaming platform, how exactly have streaming platforms killed cinema?