It’s a maxim among cinephiles that movies don’t change—but people do. Our reaction to a new film is shaped by the experiences and perceptions we bring into it, even as the first words upon leaving the theater (or turning off Netflix) typically are about an actor’s performance, a screenplay’s effectiveness, a specific shot’s inventiveness. That we can revisit movies later and come away with new insights – new pieces of the cinematic fabric to grasp onto – says as much about the medium’s unspoken power as it says about our malleable connections to art. Who among us doesn’t have a movie we refuse to revisit for the first time since childhood, out of fear that adult sentiment will muddle our memory of it?
A decade that felt both historic in that the world has never been more connected by social media and fleeting in that we’ve never been more empowered to move on to the next viral story – or the next thing in our streaming queues – shaped the cinematic product, too. For one, movies have never felt so much like a reckoning with real-world forces that are continuing to mold what the 2020s will look like.
For another, it’s an increasingly rare thing for a film to be universal, in its ability to resonate not (or not only) through legions of audiences, but through time, beyond the moment it carved out for itself on a release schedule. These 25 films – the best of the 2010s – remain moviemaking triumphs as the curtain begins to close on this decade, and may very well endure as such into the next as well. As a certain purple Mad Titan would say: They are inevitable.
25. “Inside Out” (dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
Pixar’s crowning achievement of the decade, “Inside Out” humanized our emotions, turned the handling of memories into workplace tasks and featured an imaginary pink elephant made of cotton candy in one of the most heart-wrenching big-screen moments of the past 10 years. The story of Riley (and her internal companions) struggling to retain a sense of control outside the boundaries of familiarity is as exuberantly creative an animated movie as it is an unusually useful treatise on what it means – and what it takes – to feel every feeling.
By turning the different things that make up our personality into actual geographic islands to be journeyed through – and even torn down – “Inside Out” gave the complexities of individual psychology a visual coherence that even children could understand. At the same time, it showed younger moviegoers, and their parents too, why they should take time to understand it. Life is discovery, growth and joy. It's also change, cataclysm and sadness.
24. “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond” (dir. Chris Smith)
Structurally, Netflix’s “Jim and Andy” is a traditional work of under-the-skin documentary filmmaking; a bearded, leather jacket-wearing Jim Carrey talks directly to the camera over behind-the-scenes images of the 1999 film “Man on the Moon,” in which the comedy icon stepped into the shoes – and into the mind – of another, Andy Kaufman. But as Carrey recounts his own beginnings as an entertainer and how he quite literally lost himself in recreating the Kaufman persona, “Jim and Andy” becomes a much sadder collection of observances, a journey of discovery that makes the audience vulnerable to what feels, at the movie’s most mesmeric moments, like real-time soul-searching on the face of an older Carrey 20 years after the fact.
Imagine the reckoning that Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” sparked for the gangster genre, and apply that metatextual commentary – on a more implicit scale – to the entire industry of entertainment, to our feigned understanding of the shape-shifting task that actors are charged with. “Who do you know, even when they’re right in front of you?” is the beguiling question Carrey asks early in the documentary. It’s pointed as much to himself as to the viewer. We won’t – we can’t – view his works the same way again.
23. “Phantom Thread” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
A PSA: PTA remains the most consistent miracle worker of contemporary cinema, to the point where his still-overdue recognition at the Academy Awards (eight nominations—zero wins) says as much about the timelessness of his contributions to filmmaking as it does about the academy’s sensibilities.
“Phantom Thread” is another virtuoso film from the writer-director that's ahead of its time—it’s a transcendental comedy with meme-worthy dialogue that zips and stings; it’s a strange romantic thriller made all the more tantalizing by the suspicious strings of Jonny Greenwood’s score; it’s an engrossing showcase of power dynamics realized to fluid fullness by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps; it’s a baroque pop-up book of muted colors and muted emotions brewing with dark undertones. Love has rarely felt so deliciously morbid.
22. “Blade Runner 2049” (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Is Denis Villeneuve’s spectacular, achingly-human follow-up to one of the more mythic sci-fi movies of the last 40 years as good as its predecessor? That that is now the question when it comes to “Blade Runner 2049” is enough to legitimize its spot on any best-of list, considering pre-release doubts about expanding the story of a supposed untouchable property, answering a question fans would prefer remain ambiguous and general lack of success when it comes to revisiting iconic properties decades after the fact.
How Villeneuve made fools of us. “Blade Runner 2049” – which finally won legendary shot composer and mood maestro Roger Deakins an Academy Award – doesn’t just keep the question of whether Deckard is a replicant or a human vague; it’s also a rare genre extravaganza that evokes confidence in everything, from its colorfully bleak dystopian vistas to Hans Zimmer’s earth-shaking music to the story that imbues every twist with a hint of sentimentality. This wasn’t just a boast about what a massive budget can look like—it was as much a bold inquiry into what it means to be human, with quiet performances from Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Sylvia Hoeks, Dave Bautista and Ana de Armas that sell the magnitude of the story. The spectacle works in tandem with its narrative stakes, not in spite of them.
Despite its scant financial reception, the movie is worthy of the box office haul and mainstream attention typically reserved for a “Star Wars” entry, and seems even more like a miracle of after the release of the micromanaged, ill-conceived “The Rise of Skywalker.” “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t as good as “Blade Runner.” It’s better.
21. “Rango” (dir. Gore Verbinski)
A thespian chameleon unable to think two steps ahead takes up the mantle of sheriff in a town where Wyatt Earp could have been born, and so begins the singularly idiosyncratic “Rango,” an animated deconstruction of the Western aesthetic that is also just an absolute romp from scene to swashbuckling scene. “Cartoon” is too compartmentalizing a label for the endearing zaniness of Gore Verbinski’s movie, which sees Bill Nighy voicing the antagonist Rattlesnake Jake – whose tail itself is an actual six-shooter – and features one of the more incredible chase scenes of the decade this side of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” director directs his world-building prowess to an arresting version of the wild west populated with talking critters brought to life with a genre-appropriate rustic touch, and an incredible animation style that has proven to be timeless in the eight years since its release. How does a movie so confidently balance sombrero-wearing talking animals with serious laments about the page-turning consequences of progress and industrialism? I haven’t been able to figure it out, and I love “Rango” for it. Mr. Verbinski: Hear my cries, and make another animated movie.
20. “Lady Bird” (dir. Greta Gerwig)
How on this earth is this sweet ditty of a movie – which depicts Saoirse Ronan’s titular Lady Bird practically going through an entire life cycle in her final year of high school – only 94 minutes long? Greta Gerwig’s funny and fresh feature debut is a new kind of coming-of-age story, one that doesn’t end with its folkloric protagonist fully coming into her own, but on the precipice of realizing that how she eventually must won’t be in the same way she’s prepared for.
Lady Bird would like to think that she’s about to have it all figured out by moving to the opposite coast after graduation, or at least more figured out than her ostensibly unsatisfactory life attending Catholic school in California with experiences that never pan out as she ever fantasizes they should. Because of how much Gerwig loves her characters – including a star-making BFF turn from Beanie Feldstein and Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother – Lady Bird isn’t proven wrong with a push out the window into adulthood, but with a warm embrace that also pulls in the viewer. It’s a brilliant, radiant film.
19. “Steve Jobs” (dir. Danny Boyle)
The final moments of Danny Boyle’s 2015 film are a bit kitsch, but what transpires over its first two hours or so mirrors the exhilarating and uncompromising ascendance of the man at its center. In “Steve Jobs,” Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay rips up traditional filmmaking conventions and Michael Fassbender fashions himself as a lightning bolt, slipping into the destructive ego of the tech innovator who can’t compromise between perfectionism and antagonism.
In the movie – which unfolds in a trio of distinct acts set in the minutes leading up to three different product launches and playing out practically in real time – we don’t learn about Jobs’s childhood. There are no past torments he must work past to become the person we remember today. Fassbender’s Jobs really isn’t all that much of an inspiring figure—more a pariah within his own company, a maelstrom in his personal life.
Instead, Boyle’s ultra-sleek direction and Sorkin’s whiplash wordplay manifests the dizzying, frustrating psychology of someone who was constantly thinking faster than the world was moving. What does an artist look like when his art is commercial culture? “Steve Jobs,” and Steve Jobs, has its dark insights. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.
18. “Raw” (dir. Julia Ducournau)
Is young Justine’s newfound vice of cannibalism – discovered during her first year in vet school – sexual in nature, or something more akin to substance abuse?
The hook of French auteur Julia Ducourneau’s intoxicating movie lies in Justine’s impulses – the filming of which is equal parts disgustingly visceral and strangely sympathetic – but the horror comes in how straight-faced her direction is. An excruciatingly good Garance Marillier never makes the viewer feel less than anxious for the people she comes into close contact with, nor is she someone who understands the new side of her personality any more than we do.
Elevating “Raw” is the fact that Ducournau doesn’t shy away from injecting her story with a strange pathos, almost as if it were autobiography. There’s a sensual complexity to Justine’s relationship with her sister, a familiar wonder that comes at the onset of newfound adolescent freedom and a finger on the erotic pulse of what we resort to as we grow into our full-blooded selves.
17. “Silence” (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese was quite the shape-shifter this decade, beginning with perhaps as staunch a genre exploration as we can expect from the legendary director in “Shutter Island” and ending with a somber film that befits the culmination of a career in “The Irishman.” At some point in between, he gifted us with “Silence”—a completely compelling work that gives biblical weight to individual crises of faith, even as it's set against the backdrop of an entire Japanese culture.
It’s the 17th century, and two Jesuit priests played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver venture to the country in search of their mentor, Liam Neeson’s Ferreira. There they find a political overseer snuffing out any whiff of Catholicism in brutal fashion, as if God hasn’t noticed the nation through the clouds of fog that is so vital an element in the movie’s visual language. God, meanwhile, seems to have fully abandoned Garfield’s Rodrigues, who is imprisoned as part of an ideological staring contest with a hardened inquisitor pushing and pressuring him to renounce his beliefs.
At stake is more than the fate of Ferreira or the question of whether Rodrigues’s servitude ever devolves into pride—it’s the meaning of preached words and desperate prayer as bodies are dumped into the sea. Gorgeous and harrowing in equal measure, “Silence” is a 160-minute movie without a score, and the magnitude of its frighteningly quiet moments say more than the spectacle of a Marvel movie ever could.
16. “Marriage Story” (dir. Noah Baumbach)
Different in tone and implication from Noah Baumbach’s previous divorce movie, 2005’s gloriously cynical “The Squid and the Whale,” “Marriage Story” is an endlessly funny examination of a supremely unfunny situation. A whimsical Randy Newman score plays over scenes of deteriorating matrimony between Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, but this isn’t a story of love’s end; rather, it’s entering a new phase.
More than a sentimental movies about two people finding and figuring out what’s next – and more than a showcase of two actors at the peak of their powers – “Marriage Story” is also fueled by inconvenient truths about love as institution, personal history made into public vendetta. In a late-movie court scene, Ray Liotta and Laura Dern step on the lawyer battlefield not as champions of their respective ex-spouses-to-be, but as wrecking balls of inevitability.
Baumbach’s story turns out how you expect it to, but also not quite. You can latch onto doomed fantasies that Charlie and Nicole will make up and try again, but the writer-director offers something more beautiful: The reminder that while not every story ends with a happily ever after, nor is the final phrase of every other one a definitive “The end.”
15. “Personal Shopper” (dir. Olivier Assayas)
Grief is a specter in “Personal Shopper,” Olivier Assayas’s mystifying movie about an American medium working in Paris as a, well, personal shopper while searching for signs from her recently-deceased brother. The film molds borrowed elements from multiple genres into something unique and uniquely provocative; a few bursts of explicit horror are cushioned with a melancholy tone of loneliness as Kristen Stewart’s Maureen is drawn to strange occurrences instead of running away from them, evoking a desperation to keep any possible tangible connection to our loved ones alive.
I’ve never quite recovered from the first time I watched “Personal Shopper.” It’s ability to carve out a spot in the viewer’s psyche is a testament to the potential of the medium, and to the sneaky emotional impact of Stewart’s remarkable performance.
14. “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)
Smart, searing, and uncannily good at targeting deep-seated stereotypes through unforgettable visuals and tense storytelling, “Get Out” remains one of the more surprising filmmaking debuts of the decade—despite Jordan Peele having built a career out of mining humanity’s darker side for laughs, and despite everything about the movie’s impact feeling inevitable nearly three years later (a mark of a classic in and of itself).
It’s rare for a film to be this provocative and supremely satisfying in equal measure, let alone that combination finding a record-breaking audience, but Peele is a scholar in the art of profundity in the Internet Age. “Get Out’s” standout images – the Sunken Place, the close-up of Betty Gabriel’s shackled countenance, the single tear rolling down Daniel Kaluuya’s stone face – immediately felt transcendent of meme culture, and instead more appropriately resonant of timeless cinematic language.
“Get Out” also heralded a new (and long-overdue) age for minority perspective in commercial cinema, something even the largely-conservative Academy Awards voting body acknowledged when it made the film's writer-director the first African American to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The movies aren’t just better with Peele’s contributions. They’re more vital.
13. “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
The works of Bong Joon-ho are vital, too, but vitality doesn’t seem like it was enough for the Korean master filmmaker in his development of 2019’s economic tragicomedy “Parasite.” His latest film exists along twin layers of metaphor and the ominously literal—when the two eventually clash, as when this excellently-crafted film sends the audience and Kim family tumbling down complex depths, grim implications about the thorny Jenga tower of global class structures float to the surface with uneasy familiarity.
“Parasite” is as exciting as it is exacting, a jolt of a movie that unfolds with balletic grace, an ingenious example of the use of physical verticality and impeccable performances across the board. The only reason it doesn’t occupy a higher spot on this list is because I’m hesitant to further affirm the dark realities that simmer through Joon-ho’s latest movie, and which explode in its climax. If the world goes down burning in the next decade, at least the movies illuminating how are among our most exciting.
12. “Moneyball” (dir. Bennett Miller)
It’s almost a cliche at this point to say that you don’t have to be a baseball fan or know much about the sport’s analytical revolution to enjoy “Moneyball,” the cinematic equivalent of hitting a home run out of Yankee Stadium and onto an Oakland A’s practice field. All you do require is a heart for it to be lifted by Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane, the real-life Oakland general manager who constructed a team out of discarded athletes and took them into history by setting an American League record with 20 straight wins, pushing back against the doubts of his own coaching staff and upending a sport in the process.
But enough about sportsball. “Moneyball” stands triumphant as a portrait of a man who never reached glory in his own prime blazing a new basepath and seeing an incredulous plan to its potentially career-killing end. Beane may be a bit prideful, but he is never spiteful – some of the most human elements of Pitt’s all-timer performance is the subtle vulnerability he shows to no one but himself in moments of self-doubt – and the realization at movie’s end that Beane turned down what would have been a record-setting offer from the Red Sox to remain with the exorbitantly-less-resourceful A’s says more about the human spirit than about batting averages and the importance of getting on base. How can you not be romantic about that?
11. “Minding the Gap” (dir. Bing Liu)
The best documentary of the decade is also its most transcendent, beginning as a series of interactions between three friends in economically-deprived Rockford, Illinois brought together by their love of skateboarding, and director Bing Liu’s passion for beautifully capturing the liberating activity on film. What “Minding the Gap” disarmingly evolves into is a race to desperately avoid coming undone by hereditary hardship after we’ve seen Bing, Keire and Zack make personal vows about their future.
“Minding the Gap” is a staggeringly resonant and emotional watch, one that distills the personality of Rockford – the statistics and history that a traditional documentary would focus on – into the personal journeys of three everyday adolescents who must reckon with the cyclical nature of economic disadvantage and neglect. It’s even more remarkable when you consider the trio of changing lives are documented basically on the fly. Casual shots of skateboarding in the film are anything but casual, Bing having infused the sequences with an aura of paradise that juxtaposes the grim home lives of the people we get to know so well over two hours.
One of the most haunting prolonged scenes of the last 10 years comes at the midpoint of “Minding the Gap,” and involves Bing interviewing his mother about his abusive former stepfather—a subject it’s implied has been mostly swept under the rug even before the cameras switch on. Bing is searching for some kind of catharsis; his mother is searching for a way past their past. It’s an unfiltered, challenging scene of real-time reckoning, and one of the boldest things I’ve seen any filmmaker endeavor to immortalize through the medium.
10. “Moonlight” (dir. Barry Jenkins)
A movie about the gradual changing of an identity through time, that will stand the test of time. “Moonlight” finds beauty in Chiron’s lifelong search for what constitutes a home, with director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton conspiring to weave a visual lyricism of stunning color that’ll make you look out the window and wonder if the world really is as sumptuous as this Best Picture winner portends it to be.
It’s one of the more under-appreciated achievements of Jenkins’s stellar direction in “Moonlight” that young Alex Hibbert, lanky Ashton Sanders and bulky Trevante Rhodes believably inhabit the same person at different points in the character's life. Each actor’s performance pulses with the conflicted conviction of a disadvantaged and gay Black man whose sense of self is rooted in being chased by bullies and a mother (an excellent Naomi Watts) who is neglectful at best and parasitic at worst. Is it cathartic or saddening to realize that Chiron tends to reveal his most vulnerable side only under the cover of night? The splendor of “Moonlight” is that it can be both; the magnificence of it is that the answer is Chiron’s, and his alone.
9. “Arrival” (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
What does impending cataclysm look like when reflected through intimate acts of connection? Mesmeric and thrilling, Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi masterpiece “Arrival” posits that question and comes out the other side no less than one of the most purely substantial blockbusters of the millenium. The thought-piece scenario of how we’d react if aliens visited Earth is a premise echoed throughout cinema’s history, but “Arrival” cultivates fertile new ground with a hyper-real approach that feels prescient of our xenophobic tendencies and a mind-bending third act that evokes Christopher Nolan.
Utilizing a deliciously chalky visual palette and a sublime leading turn from Amy Adams, “Arrival” spins tension and pathos out of language, turning something decidedly non-cinematic into its method and its meaning. And if language is the movie’s subject, paranoia is its syntax. Similar to how “Arrival” eventually breaks our brains with new ways of perceiving time, the film’s chief forces on the side of humanity – military generals and government leaders – are fueled by contradiction, namely an inescapable notion that the ability to understand our extraterrestrial friends won’t bring salvation, but chaos. Up becomes down in Villeneuve’s best work of the decade. Forwards is backwards, pathos is logos. But “Arrival” remains unforgettable.
8. “Frances Ha” (dir. Noah Baumbach)
Six years after its release, the wily and compulsive energy of “Frances Ha” – and of Frances herself – feels a bit like a time capsule from an era when the Millennial mindset could afford to be more optimistic. Greta Gerwig is frantic, frantically endearing and endearingly reckless as the adopted New Yorker who is content living moment-to-moment and hopping from friend’s couch to friend’s couch; meanwhile, her aspirations of becoming a dancer feel less like a legitimate goal and more like a placeholder for some semblance of stability.
But Noah Baumbach is concerned less with the implications of Frances’s situation and more with...well, her. He and Gerwig collaborate to create a banjo’s thrum of a character, someone defined by her awkward quirks, yes, but more by a personality that hums along on a slightly different mode of existence. In any given scene she’s the most empathetic person in the room, but can’t quite convey it through her language comprised of idiosyncrasies (“Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it”). She’s got to first direct that empathy at her own situation.
This is a weird, funny, warm film that wraps you up in Frances's non-sequitur mind, and every time I watch it I miss her the moment the credits start rolling.
7. “Call Me By Your Name” (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Luca Guadagninos’s patient fable of gay romance contains not just the breakthroughiest of breakthrough performances in Timothée Chalamet’s Elio, but a mysticality that seeks to understand what makes love the most delicate and destructive force known to man. Chalamet and Armie Hammer effectively realize the burden of love under insurmountable circumstances, but they’re even better at imbuing their performances with a liveliness that feels like improv, a playfulness evocative of blissfully diving head-first into infatuation without a life raft. And that monologue from Michael Stuhlbarg, of course, is one for the ages.
Gorgeously shot, set in gorgeous Italy locales that feel resurrected from ancient times and featuring gorgeous-looking actors, “Call Me By Your Name” is ravishing fantasy that also resides on an enticing audioscape: The sounds of egg shells breaking and seasides sloshing lodge in your brain as much as the sweepingly curious score and The Psychedelic Furs do. Other movies from the decade were enamored by the odyssey of love from beginning to end, including “Blue Valentine.” But while that movie was bruising in its depiction, “Call Me By Your Name” feels ripped from the soul.
6. “A Separation” (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
There are no clear antagonists in “A Separation,” but there’s an overwhelming amount of antagonism. The narrative sounds complex on paper – an Iranian family in the early stages of divorce has to contend with another family via the court system after the patriarch may or may not have shoved a house maid he may or may not have known was pregnant (deep breath) down the stairs after she may or may not have neglectfully abandoned his elderly father – but Asghar Farhadi’s story unfolds on film with a staggering coherence, and the plot ambiguities are replaced by familiar paradoxes of the forces that govern contemporary domestic life.
The film’s procedural-esque tone shines a light on the permanent consequences of impulsive actions while restricting the viewer from ever fully siding with one character over another. And the questions it asks are myriad. Is perception a liable defense? When does motive justify harmful intent? How far should we be allowed to go to defend our families? What’s stronger: Knowing that we’re right in our actions, or talking ourselves into it? How can we ever really know what’s objectively right outside of our own objectives?
Even if truths ever manage to squeeze through the ambiguous mess of “A Separation’s” personal narratives and motivations, Farhadi doesn’t pretend like his characters can go back to how things were before; the damage is done. Rules of law, society and faith don’t bring guidance and resolution in “A Separation”—only more shouting matches and the realization that sometimes there’s no feasible target for our frustrations.
5. “Private Life” (dir. Tamara Jenkins)
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are a match made in movie-lover heaven as two urban, artistic spouses sparring against each other and unfortunate circumstances. Rachel and Richard have tried every possible way to have a baby “short of kidnapping” – from the obvious to the most obscure of advanced methods that replaces the intimacy of conception with the steeliness of a doctor’s office – but nothing is working. Adoption hasn’t panned out in the past, either. Their options are dire, and thus so is their marriage.
Tamara Jenkins balances the humanity of her rom-com screenplay with bursts of caustic wit and fiery desperation that make you wonder how Rachel and Richard continue to put up with each other. Is the never-ending journey to becoming parents even worth losing each other as husband and wife? It isn’t just them, either; everyone in “Private Life” has a tendency to say what’s on their mind before thinking it through, as if love – whether romantic or familial – is all about how much we can endure and not how much we’re willing to do.
If the film feels personal, it is—Jenkins, the film’s writer as well as its director, has discussed her own struggles with fertility that inspired “Private Life.” The I-was-there approach is essential to the movie’s foundation as a story that, while bursting with comedy, never overshadows the empathy it has for its characters. It’s tuned-in to the realities of relationship and sacrifice, which makes it a much more honest portrait than we typically get from movies. And if there’s a final shot in a film from this decade that’s as equally devastating and hopeful as the end of “Private Life,” I don’t know it.
4. “Manchester By the Sea” (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Tragedy echoes all throughout the emotional canyons of Kenneth Lonergan’s resoundingly triumphant drama, but something else answers back: Sarcasm, non-insult insults and bottled-up emotion that emphasizes death not only as the end of one story, but something to be grappled with in another’s.
Casey Affleck won an Oscar for his sensational turn as Lee Chandler, the janitor who must return home to Manchester to sort out the affairs of his recently-deceased brother. It’s part of the movie’s mystery as to why the homecoming is a bittersweet one besides the obvious, and most tend to remember the scene that replays the history Lee would rather forget as the anchor of devastation to Kenneth Lonergan’s titanic screenplay.
It’s difficult to pinpoint specific elements of “Manchester By The Sea” to praise, because everything about it works in concert with its com-dram(a) sensibilities, with Lonergan’s blending of the bleak and the comical. The writer-director mixes and matches tone like a mad scientist, and the result is a film in which everything – the irony, the performances, the cold visual palette, the music, the dialogue, the pathos, the comedy, the darkness, the heart, the depth – works in unison toward a singular cinematic aesthetic. I don’t remember laughing so hard in a movie in which death was so central this decade. But it makes the experience of watching “Manchester By The Sea” feel that much more life-affirming.
3. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (dir. George Miller)
What could I possibly say about this movie that hasn’t been said? “Fury Road” is an oasis of big-budget, big-mayhem auteurist action filmmaking that is singular in the age of the superhero; a directorial flex that ripples for two hours with precisely-tuned bombast, and blurs the lines between beauty and anarchy; a prescient big-ideas blockbuster whose bald-headed, car grease-painted Imperator Furiosa is one of the decade’s most indelible and timeless cinematic creations.
In most other parallel realities, “Fury Road” takes the top spot on this list. I’m still not sure it shouldn’t in this one, so instead of thinking about it too much, let’s just watch one of the most explosively gorgeous action sequences of the last 10 years from a movie that is stuffed with them.
This film is Valhalla.
2. “Madeline’s Madeline” (dir. Josephine Decker)
No film I watched this decade has felt more indicative of the medium’s future than Josephine Decker’s twisted, complex argument about art and creative appropriation. And no performance I observed defied convention more than newcomer Helena Howard’s.
As Madeline, a burgeoning thespian with some kind of mental disorder (it’s kept ambiguous) caught in a tug-of-war between an overprotective mother and a theater director overeager to exploit her, Howard’s range is infinite—we see her purr like a cat, waddle like a turtle and, in a climactic confrontation masquerading as rehearsal, she resembles a firecracker as she releases her angst through her art.
“Madeline’s Madeline” marches to the beat of its own tune, which is often out of sync with itself, or at least with basic cinematic logic. Parts of images are blurred, scenes are entered and exited at the most random of times, and you can never be quite confident about what’s reality and what’s imaginary. The only thing the viewer can be sure of is that we’re inhabiting the incongruous, dangerous, ever-shifting headspace of Madeline. Like the interdimensional dance sequence she leads at movie’s end, “Madeline’s Madeline” is a masterpiece and a mirage.
1. “The Social Network” (dir. David Fincher)
Nevermind that this movie, somehow already nearly a decade old, has taken on new meaning against the grain of real-world developments in the years since its release. Nevermind the rumors of a sequel, which somehow seem like an inevitability and an impossibility. Nevermind that its Best Picture loss to “The King’s Speech” is perhaps the Academy Awards’ most egregious decision of the 2010s. Narratives surrounding the very best of films tend to eventually become as much a part of the films themselves, but David Fincher’s “The Social Network” is a monolith of a movie in its own right.
Consider that hypnotizingly good opening scene, in which Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright and Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg verbally joust for five minutes before a cataclysmic break-up; consider, too, the all-timer of a diss, “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster.” Consider Zuckerberg’s ensuing walk of shame back to his dorm through Harvard campus, soundtracked by the subtle malice of that addicting Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score. Consider the propulsive energy the film takes from start to end, somehow keeping the thrill of its timeline-hopping alive without ever making you think too much about how it’s timeline-hopping. Consider how ridiculously believable it is that Armie Hammer plays both Winklevoss twins, often acting against himself, in one of the movie’s many minor miracles. Consider Hammer, Mara, Andrew Garfield and Dakota Johnson announcing themselves, in roles major and minor, as part of Hollywood’s new generation. Consider Justin “You-Just-Slept-On-Sean-Parker” Timberlake, as well as “A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” Consider the movie’s mile-a-minute pace, reflecting the preferred way of living in the 21st century, and the way coherence isn’t sacrificed for riveting storytelling. Consider the movie’s ultra-sleek production design and cinematography that gives the early-to-mid-2000s a futuristic look while not betraying its period sensibilities. Consider the movie heralding the new age of the digital entrepreneur, of its foreshadowing how we would move every aspect of our offline lives online. Consider Sorkin’s screenplay, which manages to balance the absurdity of empires born in dorm rooms with the dark heart of ego and the downfall of wanting to belong in a place where you don’t so badly that you’d stab your best friend in the back to get there. Consider Garfield belting out “Sorry, my prada’s at the cleaners!” at the movie’s emotional zenith. Consider the movie’s tricky ending, in which after everything we still may not know quite how we should feel about Mark.
Superlatives are insufficient for “The Social Network,” which was released nine months into the 2010s. The rest of the decade never stood a chance.