The Best of the Decade in Film

For this article, I am considering the Decade of the ’10s as 2010 to 2019 (a full ten years).

If picking a Top 10 list for one year is difficult enough, imagine doing it for an entire decade! But there is something wonderful about trying to encapsulate an entire ten year period of films into limited roster spots despite how difficult it truly is to weed out the films that are just great and not great great! These are the burdens of your everyday film critic. *faints*

After literal weeks of planning though, I’ve got my choices down to twenty films and can finally share them with you. I prepared this list, first, by ranking my personal top 10 for every year of the ’10s. Then, I chose the top two from each of those years and put them in the finalist list. Finally, in terms of ranking those twenty finalists, I tried to take as much personal bias out as possible and ranked each film on re-watchability, commercial success, critical success, cultural relevance, and the film’s appearance in the zeitgeist.

I believe, for the most part, I succeeded in creating a perfect balance between personal taste and cinematic importance. And though I clearly love all of these films, a lot of the results still surprised me. For starters, of the list’s total directors, three made their directorial debuts during this decade while seven made just their second or third features. Add the fact that half of the directors on the list are either foreign-born (outside the US), people of color, or female shows that my tastes tend to verge outside the well-established and/or storied career of the white, American filmmaker.

In regards to other details on the films, I apparently really like Michael B Jordan, Michael Fassbender, and Ryan Gosling as leading men. And I also tend to prefer a mix of big-budget and indie/art films. Some of the films weren’t nominated for a single major award while eight of the eighteen eligible films were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Either way you look at it, I am happy to present to you my list of diverse and important films that I deemed the best of the last ten years. Please comment, tweet, and share this with your thoughts. What did you or would you choose? I would like to know.

The Number Threes (Films That Almost Made It)

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, A Dangerous Method, Skyfall, Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, Sicario, Fences, The Florida Project, Cold War, Us.

The Top 20 of the Decade

Scott Land stands in a room with the Ant-Man costume, confused

20. Ant-Man (Director: Peyton Reed; Marvel Studios/Disney)

This hilarious heist/comedy take on the superhero genre lies firmly within the money printing cocoon of the Marvel Universe, sure. But, for me, it is one of my most easily rewatchable films since its release in 2015. It provides me with good-natured laughs, an undeniable style, creative action set pieces, and a lot of heart, especially between fathers and daughters, that the average franchise tentpole does not. It may be the least important film on this list and involves a man shrinking to the size of an insect, but it brings the biggest smile to my face.

19. Black Swan (Director: Darren Aronofsky; Fox Searchlight)

Aronofsky’s take on paranoia, mental illness, and body horror is still as powerful today as it was when it was released at the beginning of this adventurous decade. Though I’ve never particularly cared for Natalie Portman overall, her performance in Black Swan is one for the ages as her wounded ballerina Nina deals with burgeoning latent sexuality, body dysmorphia, and the impossible need to be perfect. It certainly isn’t an easy watch but it is one that will shake you to your core.

18. Dredd (Director: Pete Travis; DNA Films)

Two picks in and we have our second comic book film, but not the last! But this is far from any normal comic book film. Dredd depicts 2000 AD’s brutal satire “Judge Dredd” in colors of blood red and hardly much else. Keeping the tone of the original comics and stripping out the arrogance and silliness from Stallone’s 1995 version, Dredd is a relentless 95 minutes of gunplay that comments more on the militarized police state than films about actual cops. A fantasy hellscape that happens to be endlessly watchable, slyly clever, and expertly cast, with Karl Urban taking the helmeted lead as the titular judicial badass.

Oscar Grant is held by an intense cop at a metro station in Oakland

17. Fruitvale Station (Director: Ryan Coogler; Significant Productions)

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut is at times both metaphorical and literal but is never not powerful. Focusing on the brief life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) who met a dark and much-publicized end at a Bay Area transit stop on New Year’s Day, Coogler examines not just the horrifying incident of a man killed by cops but the systemic racism at play between young black men, the surrounding community, and the authorities that watch over both. It might be too brutal to watch over and over again but it certainly will stick with you.

16. The Kids Are All Right (Director: Lisa Cholodenko; Focus Features)

Cholodenko’s first film in six years, The Kids Are All Right earned the director an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and made critical waves as a Best Picture nominee. Centered around a lesbian couple’s highs and lows with their two kids and the sperm donor father said kids insist on meeting face to face, Kids is an often funny, sometimes sad look at a modern family. Featuring Oscar-nominated performances by Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, the film’s climax and finale go places you’d never expect. A buried treasure, of sorts, worth checking out.

15. End of Watch (Director: David Ayer; Various)

A fresh take on the found footage genre, director David Ayer’s third film has him returning to the rough and tumble streets of LA he previously road down with mixed success in Harsh Times and Street Kings. Ayer finds the perfect mix of genuine thrills and emotional peaks with his tale of two cops just trying to survive their beat when an accidental bust of an illegal immigration facility run by Mexican cartels leads to a mark on their lives. Featuring an intense Jake Gyllenhaal and the always excellent (and hilarious) Michael Peña, End of Watch might be the biggest surprise of the decade.

The Doof Warrior plays his fire guitar surrounded by lots of cars in the desert of Fury Road

14. Mad Max: Fury Road (Director: George Miller; Village Roadshow/Warner Bros.)

This unexpected ten-time Oscar nominee (with six wins), including Best Picture (we can all agree losing to Spotlight was not shiny and chrome), was simply the best film released in 2015 and clearly one of the best of the decade. With limited CGI, director George Miller showcased a two-hour car chase that never lets up, thanks to expert sound and set design and some of the greatest practical effects and stunt work ever committed to film. The added feminist subtext only makes it that much cooler. What a lovely day indeed!

13. The Artist (Director: Michel Hazanavicius; uFilm)

The first black and white film to win Best Picture since 1960, The Artist was the biggest surprise of 2011, winning an additional four Oscars, including Best Actor (Jean Dujardin) and Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius). Hazanavicius’ authenticity is felt from second one as the end of the silent era in Hollywood comes alive thanks to brilliant production design, an engaging score, unique camera tricks, and a cast of mostly humans (with one dog) to die for. This one seems to have fallen into the cracks of history and is worth rediscovery.

12. Uncut Gems (Director: Josh and Benny Safdie; A24)

From my Top 10 of 2019 article:

Uncut Gems is just as much an experience as it is simply a movie to watch…[it] delivers the dread with a pulse-poundingly tense narrative that never gives the audience a chance to breathe. Led by an Oscar-worthy performance from Adam Sandler (yes, Adam Sandler), Uncut Gems is that rare film that makes you physically feel the addictive chaos Sandler’s character sows.

Despite being a crime thriller, Uncut Gems is hardly violent and does not provide any cheap jump scares or subscribe to any thriller tropes. The film is, instead, a character-driven affair that makes the white knuckle intensity presented all the more complementary to the Safdie Brothers’ direction and Sandler’s amazing performance. And none of it feels like award bait either. This is a film that exists from talent and emotion alone. The awards attention…is just a bonus.

A man touches a woman possessively while another man stands by nervously

11. 12 Years A Slave (Director: Steve McQueen; New Regency Pictures)

A friend of mine described Michael Fassbender’s performance as that of the devil himself. But I think it goes further. The devil would be scared of Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, the torturous and lecherous drunkard slave owner who inflicts the worst of depravities to Patsey (an Oscar-winning performance from Lupita Nyong’o) and abuses the likes of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) with a smile on his face. Steve McQueen’s brutal slave narrative is one of the bleakest films ever made but contains within it such power, such drama that it can’t be ignored.

10. Moonlight (Director: Barry Jenkins; A24)

Just thinking about Moonlight nearly moves me to tears. The always beautiful, sometimes sad tale of a black, gay male through three major portions of his life is such a moving piece of cinema that it’s controversial (sort of) win at the Oscars overshadows how great of a film it is. Led by three perfectly cast younger actors and anchored with an Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali, Moonlight’s sensitive and honest portrayal of a difficult life is simply essential viewing in any decade.

9. Parasite (Director: Bong Joon-Ho; CJ Entertainment)

From my Top 10 of 2019 article:

The year’s best film is also it’s strangest. Defying any type of genre classification, as it exists as satire, comedy, drama, horror, thriller, and mystery, if not more, Parasite takes the excitement of Avengers: Endgame and the dread of Uncut Gems and combines them into a cinematic experience like none I’ve ever had. It’s always good to see an audience member stand up at the end and go “what the hell was that” and then start to have a conversation with complete strangers about what they saw for more than half an hour.

In essence, Parasite will have you discussing what you saw with anyone and everyone because it can’t exist as simply a piece of fiction. I’ve used the word “experience” a lot in this list and Parasite is likely the most complete example of it as it touches on every nerve. I’m hard-pressed to find one film where I winced with agony, laughed a belly laugh, put my hand to my mouth in shock, and nearly wept from both tears of joy and sadness. Such is Parasite, whose title alone has multiple meanings: the experience of the year, if not the decade.

Ryan Gosling smokes a cigarette while staring at a distraught Russell Crowe at a bar

8. The Nice Guys (Director: Shane Black; Warner Bros.)

Shane Black’s tribute to both the buddy-cop genre as well as the pulp thrillers of yesteryear is full of endless hilarity, mostly involving bumbling private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling), his smarty-pants daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), and sensitive bruiser Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) who, by chance, end up on the same case: finding a girl named Amelia and her connection to the porn industry, hippie protest groups, the federal government, and crooked auto magnates. There is a lot going on here and none of it is wasted in a solid 116 minutes. Probably one of, if not the, funniest films of the decade, easily.

7. A Most Violent Year (Director: J.C. Chandor; Participant Media)

When I left the barely attended theater showing A Most Violent Year in 2014, I kept thinking in my head, “wow, they made a movie just for me”. While maybe the highest-ranked film on this list to receive very little fanfare, A Most Violent Year is a powerhouse of acting prowess from Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, not to mention a taut crime thriller that looks more at the ethics of dirty living than showcasing the dirty living itself. Hopefully, its appearance here will lead to people seeking this one out.

6. First Reformed (Director: Paul Schrader; A24)

As the rest of the list will show, examining the human condition is what makes me the happiest as a filmgoer. And Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, starring the truly robbed Ethan Hawke (who didn’t even get an Oscar nomination; I told him this to his face and he graciously said “I wasn’t robbed”), shows the slow disintegration of hope and confidence in a priest who was already struggling with his faith before stumbling across a haunting suicide scene. Schrader’s expectedly vicious view of humanity is on full display, shown through the deteriorating mind and body of the brilliant Hawke.

Ava touches a copy of her face on a shiny wall in a bright hallway

5. Ex Machina (Director: Alex Garland; DNA Films)

This cerebral sci-fi thriller, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, examines how we perceive consciousness and humanity, both in real human lives and with items that mimic humanity’s existence; in this case, life-like androids. Adding a touch of sexual perversion and a wealth of sinister agendas, Garland’s Oscar-nominated screenplay taps into the smoke and mirrors of emotion and meaning, questioning the character’s true motivations, desires, and fears, and proving that sometimes humanity itself is the least human of all life.

4. Get Out (Director: Jordan Peele; Blumhouse)

Jordan Peele’s tour-de-force directorial debut is easily one of the five best films of the ’10s, providing audiences an intense social commentary on race relations in the era of Trump through the youth and energy of a filmmaking newcomer looking to start a revolution. Peele’s Oscar-winning screenplay mixes his clear love of the horror genre with his need to send a message and he succeeds on both fronts, providing both at elite levels. Backed by a career-defining performance by Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out is one of the freshest, and meaningful, genre films ever released.

Killmonger sits in a room, confronting his demons literally and figuratively

3. Black Panther (Director: Ryan Coogler; Marvel Studios/Disney)

Coogler’s second entry on this list is a film that defied all expectations by becoming a Best Picture nominated and critically beloved comic book movie that still served as a franchise tentpole that made some serious bank. And while on the surface Black Panther looks to be a continuation of the MCU tradition, its defiance of the genre’s narrative norms is what places it as the best comic book film, and one of the best films overall, of the decade. With a sympathetic villain, an archaic system of rule that must evolve, and a hero with more doubts than action set pieces, Black Panther changed what cinema can be for genre films everywhere by breaking the glass ceiling of possibility. And if that final speech by Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) doesn’t make you cry, you might be one of those Ex Machina robots!

2. Shame (Director: Steve McQueen; Film4/See-Saw Films)

McQueen’s second entry on this list combines the intensity of Michael Fassbender with the raw emotion, and accompanying shame, of addiction. In the case of Brandon (Fassbender), his sex addiction prevents him from having a real relationship, both in a romantic sense or in the familial sense, as his chaotic sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) finds out when she moves in with him and disrupts his regimented lifestyle of casual sex, masturbation, and live sex chats. This NC-17 film is certainly not easy to watch but it will crawl inside your skin and have you wincing in agony where other movies want you aroused. It is one of the most uncompromising human films in existence and must be seen to be believed.

Agent K approaches two statues in an orange desert

1. Blade Runner 2049 (Director: Denis Villeneuve; Warner Bros.)

While Ex Machina examined the masks we put on ourselves as humans and how our emotions can be manipulated, Blade Runner 2049 heads a different direction and looks at what constitutes a soul. When you mix this robotic/human soul searching with Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography, incredible production design, and one of the most affecting performances of Harrison Ford’s career, you have perfection.

Led by Ryan Gosling, who plays the conflicted Agent K, and supported by Ana De Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Ford, and Dave Bautista, Blade Runner 2049 is one of only a handful of films I consider to be perfect; perfect tone, perfect presentation, perfect acting, all of it. It filled me with wonder upon first viewing and each subsequent rewatch has me discovering new things and falling in love all over again. It is the definition of a decade’s defining film: perfection.

Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little-read books Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film and Obsessive Compulsive: Poetry Formed From Chaos. Will is a film critic at 25YL but also specializes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the occasional horror review. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers and lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA with his two daughters.

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