The end of an era occasions a list, and list-making quickly becomes as exclusionary as it is celebratory. But perhaps because of this, the whole exercise put me in an unlikely state of cockeyed optimism. The 2010s were the first decade in which I followed movies in a professional capacity, not just out of personal interest, and I remember it as particularly wan time for cinema. Movies seemed further than ever from the center of the cultural conversation. What mattered to cinephiles was an increasingly isolated bubble, and if there were hotspots of creativity to be found, odds are that they weren’t in America. The big blockbusters that could lay claim to being director-driven cinema—Inception? Gravity?—generally turned into shallow exercises at the most basic scrutiny. And in the indie sphere, very few films from the new American generation (i.e., my own) were as rewarding as watching the previous generation of Sundance breakouts grow old. That, at least, was the dismay in my gut every time I tried to compare our last decade of movies to any that had come before it.
Yet the more I tried to expand my wrap-up to capture what I liked from the 2010s—a top 10? a top 20? did we hear 50?—the more it seemed to leave out. So in picking 20 movies to highlight, I ran my (long) shortlist of favorite films through a subconscious randomizer: which, instinctively, did I want to speak my piece about right now? Don’t think, just go.
So this is not a definitive list, either objectively or in my own mind, of the 20 best films of the 2010s. If pressed into playing favorites among favorites, some of them would indeed make it. Some of them wouldn’t. (The Irishman, which isn’t blurbed below, is a better film than The Wolf of Wall Street, which is, and more word on Parasite can wait until my roundup on 2019—the film isn’t going anywhere). But the grab-bag nature is a more fun mix, probably a more balanced taste profile, and definitely more fair to an art form that, over the long haul, should be treated like a buffet table. All of these 20 I hold dear, think you should see or revisit, and kept my spirit going in a decade that looks less and less wan the more I bounce through it. So let the bouncing begin.
The list is in chronological order. Whittling all this down was madness enough.
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France, 2010)
Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 after directing over 100 films, but not before delivering what may well be the most inviting work of his enigma-filled career. Mysteries of Lisbon is a fluid epic, a merry-go-round of characters and vignettes that envelope you and lead you to someplace grand and unforgettable: the sense that life is long, complicated, messy, and beautiful, and you can spend your whole time on this earth trying to understand it without coming close.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, US/UK, 2010)
Surely Edgar Wright’s new cult classic has issues. It suffers from bloat. Its fight scenes start to get in the way. That extended vegan gag makes me cringe every time I introduce the film to someone. But I don’t care—the humor hooks me right from the opening scene, and the tenderness gets me in the last one. This is perhaps the first Hollywood movie to really be about the video game generation and not just targeted at them. And its sense of style (a kitchen sink mentality, yet precisely controlled) points the way to a formalist comedy we need to see more directors pick up and run with.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, US, 2011) & The Tree of Life: Extended Cut (2018)
If Tree of Life polarization is now ossified instead of fresh, it’s still around—nothing was as easy as praising it, but I feel like I spent a better part of the 2010s telling once-bitten-twice-shy newcomers to at least go back and give Days of Heaven a try. Yes, it’s nearly impossible to take every aspect of Malick’s 2011 opus as seriously as it takes itself. But overreaching is its identity: Malick dropped an unashamedly grand allegory of Man, God, Nature, Death, and other Big Questions onto an irony-besotted culture, proving that he’s either incredibly brave or just doesn’t know any better. Either way, we’re lucky he did. Few movies have ever captured the hazy feeling of childhood memories with such clarity, nor made celluloid feel like one of the Elements. And when an alternate official cut arrived at the end of the decade, adding incidents and even tweaking the meaning, it suggested that “The Tree of Life” may go down as a constantly-shifting quest to encapsulate more than any movie ever could.
This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)
The origin of this 75 minute mini-masterpiece is the stuff of legend. The Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested for making subversive films, sentenced to 6 years in prison, and banned from filmmaking. So while he was under house arrest awaiting appeal, he invited a friend over, and they shot a documentary in his living room and smuggled it out of the country on a pen drive hidden in a cake. Most surprising of all is that the final product is not angry, but quietly humane and even shockingly comical. And it’s capped by a mischievous observation for the 2010s: how can any regime hope to control information when anyone with a cellphone could be a filmmaker?
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US, 2012)
I’d been hoping circa 2012 that Wes Anderson would come up for air. Needless to say, he didn’t. But within his dollhouse world, he paired his first child heroes with one of his most emotionally grown-up arcs—all of the sudden, he seemed able to view that split from the other side, and he could out-maneuver, out-weird, and out-feel any deadpan imitator. Its ending still floats in my mind as one of the most exquisite of the decade: a graceful coda where youth-in-revolt gives way to the tranquility of old souls. It’s a place where Anderson’s career-long theme and modus operandi are so gently illustrated. You can’t go back. But you can create.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal/Germany, 2012)
This favorite from Berlinale didn’t fully hit me until the second time I saw it, which is only fair, since it tells its story out of order. (The resonance of the beginning isn’t clear until the end. Such is life). The first half is a dry, ruefully absurd comedy about the loneliness of old age, where days go by at a crawl. The second half (a distant flashback) is a neo-silent adventure full of exotic locales, lush romanticism, and grand passions, where months go by in an instant. And the relationship between these two parts adds up to a masterpiece about memory, both personal and cultural, full of wrinkles and ambiguities on each account. Final touch: never returning us to the present, lest it break the spell.
No (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Mexico, 2012)
Shot on wonderfully cruddy videotape, Pablo Larrain’s media satire is a mordantly ironic crowd-pleaser, and the fact that it can be both of those things at once says a lot about how film and television work. Its view social change getting accomplished through vague promises of happiness makes it one of the most clever, provocative, and sadly relevant political comedies of its era. The archival footage it unearths, seamlessly blended into the fiction, is almost too hilariously strange to be believed. Of course the good guys will win. But the terms of their victory are a magnificent question mark.
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US, 2013)
Yes, The Social Network‘s combo of style and subject matter is decade-defining by default. But I suspect its analysis of Mark Zuckerberg—a millennial Citizen Kane whose billions can never replace that girl he dated a few times sophomore year—is something the real Mark Zuckerberg found hilarious while he looked for new and innovative ways to monetize our personal data. So you can keep the end of The Social Network, with him dolefully clicking refresh. Just let me keep Andrew Bujalski’s magnificent, lo-fi shaggy-dog comedy about the future Masters of the Universe trying to create artificial intelligence while the human kind isn’t working out. No other indie this decade so reassured me that the Sundance scene still makes room for movies that are bracingly weird.
At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, US, 2013)
Direct Cinema at its finest: no interviews, no voice-over, no music, no Errol Morris flourishes or Michael Moore stunts—just organized raw footage, creating a documentary portrait of higher education in flux. Never doubt that you’re under the control of a director, and a legendary one at that. But the goal of the film, much like the best college classes, is to invite reactions without prescribing any. And it’s so full of ironies, tragedies, wonders, and contradictions that it’s truly awe-inspiring. Many may chafe at the idea of a four hour doc with no central figure. But keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll get what feels like years of experience and insights in less time than it takes to drive up the PCH.
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, US, 2013)
“Self-parody” is a word with a pejorative meaning, but there’s no better or more fruitful way to think of Scorsese’s Long Island dolce vita than as a consciously parodic version of his own Goodfellas and Casino mode. Here’s a rogues gallery that would like to think they’re the tough guys in a Scorsese flick, but are actually just overvalued used car salesmen and amoral accounting schlubs. “I’m not stupid,” Jonah Hill insists at one point. “I make million dollar deals with important people.” And that’s the crux of the film. If you want to feel like you’re smart when you’re not, or like you’re important when you’re not, or like you’re a stud when you’re not, the surest way is to have money. Controversy was stirred, but by denying the easy out of morality, no film of the 2010s got so uncomfortably to America’s moral failing. I suspect this may end up looking like a precursor to Trumpism much the same way M looks like a precursor to WWII. It’s frighteningly easy to watch Hill’s character as he points at his own fat head and imagine him getting a cabinet position.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, US, 2013)
In their fourth decade as feature filmmakers, the Coens are still evolving. With this and A Serious Man, they deviate into trickier structures and ambiguous endings, spinning modern folk stories and character studies that are more liable than ever to dart in another direction. In part because of the music, in part because of Oscar Isaac’s performance, and in part because the Coens themselves stretched into new emotional territory, the film does justice to the despondency that so often exists on the fringe of their work. After the career box office high of True Grit, it returned them back to the specialty corner, and not even the Academy really took them up on it. But when all is said and done, I suspect this will be considered one of their best.
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan, 2013)
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, US, 2014)
Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, US, 2015)
Get Out (Jordan Peele, US, 2017)
The great coup of the first half is turning the welcoming smiles of white liberals into something creepy, and I say that as one of them. The great coup of the second half is going completely bonkers while perfectly adding up. The result: devilishly unsettling fun as we segued from one foul era to an even fouler alternative. Peele’s original ending was bleak—some might say the cathartic ending we got is a commercial concession. Personally, I think it arrived at a time when being political and giving the crowd a catharsis were one and the same.
Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, US, 2017)
When the Cahiers du Cinema placed this at #1 on their list of the decade, some cried foul, as if cinephiles were covering for their own deteriorating art form by taking the Golden Age of Television and calling it a movie. But that’s the dilemma: if a Showtime miniseries isn’t traditionally “cinema”, Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t really recognizable as “television” either. The closest comparison for its structure and effect isn’t Band of Brothers or a season of The Wire, but an arthouse experiment in extreme duration like Out 1. Whatever word you want to use, it’s one of the most mind-bending, frustrating, rewarding, and unshakeable events of the 2010s: an epic 4D vision of America rotting away, and a curtain call from an avant-gardist turned into an old-timer.
Parasite made a bigger splash with American audiences, but this Korean class-war thriller, while certainly more hushed, may be more incendiary below the surface. Starting from a baseline of suspicion and jealousy, what emerges is a portrait of a system that can swallow things up and leave hardly a trace. It’s not hard to decode the broad strokes of Burning. It’s there in the title: simply watch what gets burned and what doesn’t. But broad strokes don’t do justice to a murder story that so carefully plays with the very definition of the term. The film noir of the decade.
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico, 2018)
Roma is a great film, but it’s not an unprecedented one. Ask a cinephile, and they’ll tell you all about Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, just as they’ll probably insist that those directors offer a purer, more uncut variety of meditative filmmaking than Cuaron. But Roma would have been an unprecedented Best Picture winner at the Oscars, both as a “foreign film”, a Netflix film, and a piece of quasi-“slow cinema”, and it looked like it might actually pull it off because all the more traditional sources in 2018 failed to rally excitement. Rally they eventually did, not exactly to general satisfaction. But no matter. 2018 will go down as Roma‘s year anyway, a mature triumph for Cuaron and a key moment in the still-being-written history of streaming services as real contenders—swaggering into Hollywood with Silicon Valley money, and maybe throwing some of it at something made for big screens.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, France, 2019)
“Start by drawing my contours,” the heroine sharply instructs her students at the beginning, before directing a tough, self-possessed gaze straight into the camera, as if any drawing of her could ever pin her down. So right from the start, and well before it erupts into a love story, Portrait establishes itself as an incisive movie about women in art—how images so often fail at capturing them, or might possibly succeed, or always have a head start on the real thing. And for all the 18th century capital-R Romanticism (windswept cliffs, etc.) the film keeps its eye on how this is very much a modern problem. It’s both one of the headiest and most beautiful films of 2019, even if it won’t be properly released in America until February 2020. I caught a sold-out advance screening last night, so consider this less a definitive judgement on the past than an act of fresh hype for the future and a point about the dilemma of these lists. With only hours left in the decade, a worthy option has barely been given to audiences yet.
Take 20—another set that make the cut:
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, Denmark/Norway, 2012)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, US, 2013)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, US, 2017)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2010)
Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, France, 2017)
The Florida Project (Sean Baker, US, 2017)
The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2018)
Inside Out (Pete Docter, US, 2015)
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US, 2019)
Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, US, 2012)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, US, 2016)
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, US, 2016)
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, US, 2016)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2017)
A Seperation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2011)
Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2013)
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)