Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Looking back, history will certainly look upon the the 2010s as the decade where the small screen became king. In the era known as Peak TV, there are more scripted series available than ever before (over 500!) and while television has been really, really great, to dismiss the movies would be to miss out on one of the richest, most interesting periods in current memory. International cinema continues to explode resulting in dynamic, important voices; the MCU continues to inspire as much debate as it does excitement; science-fiction and horror have undergone renaissance periods. All of this is to say nothing of the way streaming services (led by Netflix) have disrupted the old world model (in ways both good and bad). If it is true that big studios are too reliant on major blockbuster IP (it is) it is also true that there are more ways than ever before to make, distribute, and watch movies. There is plenty to bitch about, but then again, there always was. For this writer, these last 9 years were as rich and fulfilling an experience as one could hope for. Frankly, it has been a pleasure beyond expression just to be here to see it all.
As for this list, let’s agree on a few ground rules. The most important is this: in no way, shape, or form is this list meant to speak for everyone. It is not definitive, it is not the last word, nor does it include the most important or most influential (for the most part, that is) films. People are meant to change over time, and opinions and taste are sure to follow. It would be disingenuous to say this writer is the same in 2019 as in 2010 (and thank god for that) but greatness endures. Sometimes a film changes you, and sometimes it changes with you, but the best of them, the ones closest to your heart, they endure. Making these lists is fun, but it is also challenging; it is a time to reflect on where we have been and who we are now. That is ultimately what this list represents: ten films that speak to the last 9 years of this writer’s life, that in some way speak to the things that words fall short of capturing. Picking only ten was the hard part. Ranking them (a practice this writer does not typically engage in, because it’s arbitrary and maddening) felt like an appropriate break from the norm as we are marking the end of an era.
Finally, a brief word: there are no films from 2019 on this list for two reasons. The first of which is because those films will have their very own list before year’s end, and the second is simply because the best choices are the ones we let sit for awhile. So while Marty and Quentin may have a spot reserved in a few years, for now they will have to wait for their turn.
And now, without further ado, the top ten films of the decade…
10. Spider Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)
There is no denying the ubiquitous presence of superhero films in the aughts. While this writer has seen (and mostly enjoyed) many of them, Into The Spider-Verse managed to be all things at once–wildly inventive, laugh-out-loud funny, and action-packed. As if that were not enough, the film manages to effortlessly introduce not just one, but several universes without ever losing its footing. It is a film that is bursting with ideas (as well as vibrant colors) and the totally unique animation allows the filmmakers to do things we’ve never seen in a super-hero film before. It feels like the closest onscreen approximation to the way they are drawn up on the page. The voice cast, led by newcomer Shameik Moore, and rounded out by Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, and Mahershala Ali is nothing short of spectacular. Moore, in particular, is a revelation as Brooklyn native Miles Morales, who begins the film as one of many and learns to become the definitive Spider-Man. Having Miles take over the mantle is a huge victory for representation, and by looking back as well as looking forward, the film manages to pay tribute to what has come before while blazing a brand new path forward. Stan Lee passed away prior to the release of the film (but he managed to sneak in one last hilarious and heartbreaking cameo) but there should be no doubt he would have loved it. It is one of the greatest superhero films ever made, full-stop.
9. Warrior (2011)
Sports inherently lend themselves to great drama, and yet many sports films tend to be among the more formulaic. Most fight films in the modern era take their cues from a handful of films, namely the underdog spirit of Rocky (1976) or the abstract melancholy of Raging Bull (1980). Warrior borrows mostly from the former, but makes room for the high-drama of the latter. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play two estranged brothers who (motivated by radically different, but equally compelling reasons) find themselves competing in an MMA tournament with a $5 million purse for the winner. Nick Nolte has a powerhouse supporting role as the boys recovering alcoholic father, a performance which netted him a much deserved Oscar nod. It is a Shakespearean conflict played out on familiar terrain, and while the fight scenes are occasionally thrilling, any familiarity (or lack thereof) with the sport is secondary to the emotional stakes. It is not that the film dodges clichés as much as it simply elevates them. It is an extraordinary example of the power to tell a familiar story with enough courage and compassion to make it feel new again.
8. Lady Bird (2017)
The best coming of age films are able to transport the viewer to a specific time and place in a way that feels universal. While writer-director Greta Gerwig has said that the film “rhymes with the truth, rather than it actually being true,” it is a film that will feel immediately recognizable to viewers of a certain age (ahem). This could have been your hometown, your friends, your family. It is dexterous in the way it balances pathos with humor with all the messy, angst-filled, bursting-at-the-seams feelings of being a teenager. Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, but rarely are they this good, or true to life. This writer is comfortable placing Lady Bird alongside classics like Stand By Me (1986) or Dazed and Confused (1993). It will make you want to call your mom, but do one better, and watch it with her.
7. Inherent Vice (2014)
While plenty of folks are sure to include PTA on their end-of-decade lists, the smart money will be on The Master (2012) or even Phantom Thread (2017). Since its release, there has been a disappointing lack of love for his groovy, nonsensical adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, but it is the one this writer has been most unable to shake. It is a sprawling, psychedelic, sun-drenched noir that is far stranger, funnier, and ultimately more melancholic than almost any of its predecessors. It is also an instant-classic among California crime stories, joining the ranks of The Big Sleep (1946), Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997). Critics have complained that the central mystery is too incoherent to solve, and while this writer would refute that claim, it is also somewhat beside the point. There is no doubt it is an intentionally wild and disorienting ride, but to get hung up on the details would be to miss the bigger picture. This is a film bursting with as many big ideas as any great American epic, but it is also relentlessly silly. Boasting an absurdly deep ensemble of actors (all of whom are clearly having a blast) led by Joaquin Phoenix (as good as he has ever been) the film nonetheless belongs to Josh Brolin, who is so good (and so strange) that it defies hyperbole. It seems that it would be a perfect film for viewers who love The Big Lebowski (1998) but maybe felt it was not weird enough. For everyone else who does not mind taking the long route, this is an enormously fun, and totally singular experience.
6. La La Land (2016)
History will be kind to Damien Chazelle’s second feature. While its initial reception fell victim to marketing hype-cum-awards manufactured controversy, make no mistake, this Technicolor throwback remains tremendously watchable. Other than an opening show-stopper on an LA freeway (complete with a dizzying use of color and choreography), Chazelle often resists swinging for the fences with the song-and-dance routines, instead allowing his performers to do the heavy lifting. It is a choice that pays off handsomely. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone proved to be wonderful romantic (and comedic) foils for one another as far back as Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and their mutual growth as performers makes their screwball romance totally irresistible. Justin Hurwitz deserves a great deal of credit, too, for the killer score (Just try getting “City of Stars” out of your head). What truly makes the film an all-timer, though, is its bittersweet, kaleidoscopic ending that manages to shoot for something grand while maintaining all of its heartbreaking intimacy.
5. Arrival (2016)
The last decade has been no stranger to science-fiction that gets to be brimming with both heady ideas and sentimentality. Plenty of filmmakers have followed in the path blazed by Spielberg to varying degrees of success, but none have done so with as much vigor as Denis Villeneuve. While Arrival appears at first glance to be yet another alien-invasion story, the opening minutes quickly establish it as something much more ambitious and intimate. It is the best kind of genre film, as all of the heady sci-fi ideas are essentially a Trojan horse for a deeply personal portrayal about the power of free-will. The film expertly plays with our understanding of cinematic syntax, utilizing over one hundred years of stories told through moving pictures to subvert our expectations, building to a big reveal that rewards repeat viewings. Aided by a haunting soundtrack by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (plus a devastating assist by Max Richter) and a career-best performance by Amy Adams, this is that rare film that will knock you flat no matter how many times you have seen it.
4. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
What do you call an existential sci-fi noir that also happens to be one of the most gorgeously shot films of the decade? A flat-out miracle. Over thirty years after Blade Runner (1982) bombed at the box office, it has become recognized as an essential piece of science fiction canon, and a huge aesthetic influence. How ironic, then, that the sequel is poised to follow suit. While it did not do big business, 2049 takes the ideas raised in the original film and runs with them, transcending any potential sequel baggage by simultaneously expanding the original mythology and maintaining a vision that is entirely its own. In an era largely ruled by nostalgia, director Denis Villeneuve deserves tremendous credit for taking a questionable idea and turning it into a flat-out masterwork. At a run-time of nearly three hours, it is the longest film on this list, but also one of the most satisfying. In time, it will be properly recognized as one of the all-time great achievements in the genre.
3. Before Midnight (2013)
Richard Linklater’s unlikely trilogy reached its conclusion (for now) a full nine years after Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) rekindled their romance, delighting cinephiles and romantics everywhere. Now in their 40s, and settled into a familiar life together, Midnight begins where most love stories end. Since we last saw them, the pair has had two children of their own, and splits custody of Jesse’s son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) with Jesse’s ex-wife. The film takes place during a family vacation in Greece, and this time it is the audience who is forced to play catch up regarding the events of the last nine years. After crafting an all-time onscreen romance, it would have been simple for Linklater and his stars to craft an idealized epilogue to round out their story. Instead, they decided to take aim at something much grander, and true to life. The final third of the film, in which the couple engages in a claustrophobic, knock-down, drag-out fight, is ugly, uncomfortable, and deeply realistic. While the series second entry remains this writer’s favorite, each film is a chapter that adds up to one remarkable whole, each of which will change alongside the viewer over time. Time and fidelity take a toll on even the greatest love stories, and Midnight is the rare story that takes those changes in stride, portraying the truth that Hollywood so often ignores; happily ever after is really just the beginning.
2. Midnight In Paris (2011)
Sometimes the right film finds you when you need it most. Midnight In Paris came to this writer during a difficult period, and instantly provided a needed dose of perspective. Woody Allen’s 41st Film is a whimsical portrait of a hack screenwriter—Owen Wilson, in one of his most charming roles—visiting Paris who discovers an ability to travel back to the 1920s when writers like Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) lived and thrived. After he falls for a beguiling stranger (Marion Cotillard) he questions whether there is anything worthy of keeping him in his own time. The conceit allows for a boatload of delightfully fun performances from a number of familiar faces, all of whom are given a chance to shine. It is a deeply warm and funny film, and If it lacks the significance of Woody’s classics, it more than makes up for it with its immense warmth and casual profundity. To borrow a line from the film, “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” For this writer, Midnight In Paris was an antidote when it was needed most, and it has remained so ever since.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Honestly, no other film ever stood a chance. Thirty years after the last Mad Max film was released, George Miller returned to the desert to create the greatest action film of the 21st century. Tom Hardy (taking the mantle from Mel Gibson) stars as the eponymous Max, but the real stroke of casting genius is Charlize Theron as Furiosa, the instantly iconic heroine who steals the film out from under him. After quickly establishing the players and the stakes, the film more or less turns into a sustained 2-hour chase sequence. On paper, it should not work, but in practice it is one of the purest examples of cinema—story told through motion—in recent memory. Once things start rolling, they rarely slow down, and the action dictates both character beats and emotional stakes with equal balance and ease. And the action itself is breathtaking—after seeing the final cut, Tom Hardy famously apologized to Miller for his frustration during filming—a staggering amount of the effects were achieved practically, a feat made all the more noteworthy considering the enormity of their ambition. Each frame is a miracle of design and composition; filled with fast-moving and densely packed set ups, executed with the kind of balletic precision that makes the Fast and Furious franchise look like a Sunday morning stroll. It is a remarkable achievement on every level, and Miller (at age 75!) infuses the film with the kind of hyper-kinetic energy that would be impressive coming from a filmmaker half his age. Fury Road is his masterpiece, and an easy choice for greatest film of the last decade.