Updated: Jan 4, 2020
The 2010s were a decade that gave us some real classics. The industry has been changing, but at the end of the day, moviegoing isn't dead, and the art of filmmaking is as alive and well as it has ever been.
Some notes on this list:
I chose 40 films because these ones felt right to me. Were there a few more I could have added? Absolutely. But these are the ones I settled on.
When crafting this list, I chose works that lingered in my memory. There was no director limit, as it would be dishonest for me to exclude certain films.
The top ten spots are ones I chose based on my gut. Any of the other 28 films (listed alphabetically) could be included in the top 12 depending on the day, but today, these are my twelve. I've seen each of the top 12 films numerous times, and every time I see them, they impress me more.
This list was culled from about 1500 films.
Here is my best of the 2010s list:
1. INSIDE OUT (Dir. Pete Docter, 2015) — Pure movie magic. In INSIDE OUT, Pete Docter distills something infinitely complex - the inner workings of a girl’s brain - into something digestible yet ruthlessly intelligent. No film this decade matched INSIDE OUT’s inventiveness and storytelling craft either. With each turn of the story, Docter’s film becomes something increasingly profound and helped me to understand my own emotions better. This doesn’t even mention the voice cast - every role is perfectly cast, and each character comes to vivid life (Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith work particular miracles with Joy and Sadness). After a few not-as-beloved films, INSIDE OUT found Pixar back in top form and exceeded even the highest of expectations.
2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013) — Martin Scorsese showed once again that he was capable of making a film of unparalleled energy in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, a dizzying, hilarious, appalling tale of corporate greed and excess. WOLF features Leonardo DiCaprio’s career-defining performance as Jordan Belfort, and, in addition to a transformed Jonah Hill, introduced the world to Margot Robbie who smolders as Belfort’s second wife. With Terence Winter’s sharp screenplay and an endless amount of instantly-iconic scenes, this searing indictment of America has become even more timely than it was when released.
3. TONI ERDMANN (Dir. Marin Ade, 2016) — At 162 minutes, this audaciously kooky German comedy about a father who goes to extreme (and extremely amusing) lengths to re-bond with his workaholic daughter sounds as if it would be a recipe for disaster. But in the elastic style of Maren Ade, it becomes a staggering piece of cinema that explores the difficulties of human connection in the modern world along with the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated workplace. Shifting tones at the drop of a hat and playing scenes out until the breaking point, this provocative comedy was one of the most memorable, poignant, unpredictable cinematic experiences I’ve ever had in a theater.
4. BROOKLYN (Dir. John Crowley, 2015) — A sincerely-made, unsentimental, and emotionally involving adaptation of the bestselling book of the same name, BROOKLYN captures the magic of first love and the pain of being torn between two homes with sensitivity and care. Saoirse Ronan’s soulful work is the heart of the film (her eyes convey more than most actors can with a full screenplay of dialogue), and her convincing chemistry with Emory Cohen makes this a radiant romance. I’ve seen BROOKLYN the better part of ten times, and every time I see it, I fall in love with it all over again.
5. OUR LITTLE SISTER (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015) — While humanist director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning, Oscar-nominated SHOPLIFTERS is by far his best-known work (it does indeed earn its reputation), his 2015 Cannes-contender, OUR LITTLE SISTER, is my favorite. One of the rare films where positive drama is mined from good deeds rather than adversity, this sensitively observed, gently surprising, and humble piece could brighten up the darkest day.
6. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Dir. David Fincher, 2010) — What was originally dismissed as “The Facebook Movie” quickly became the most prophetic, zeitgeist-capturing film of the decade. Like WHIPLASH (featured below), THE SOCIAL NETWORK made something cinematic and thrilling about the least cinematic and thrilling of subjects thanks to David Fincher's precise direction, Aaron Sorkin's trademark lightning dialogue, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' electrifying score, and Jesse Eisenberg's pitch-perfect performance.
7. LADY BIRD (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017) — Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan are a match made in heaven. The utterly charming and specific LADY BIRD trumpeted the arrival of a new directorial voice (this was Gerwig's solo directorial debut feature) that was as distinct as any that had come along in recent years. With a flawless ensemble and a screenplay written by someone who knows her characters inside and out, LADY BIRD is a generation-defining coming-of-age film.
8. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Dirs. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014) — This narratively simple, naturalistic film about a woman who must convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses in order for her to keep her job is beautifully realized and uncharacteristically has the Dardennes working with an international movie star, Marion Cotillard (surprisingly but deservedly Oscar-nominated for this performance). Shedding her glamorous persona, Cotillard disappears into the role of an everywoman and creates minute but important emotional beats that bring her character, Sandra, to three-dimensional life. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is a tough film that impressively never resorts to contrived drama. It’s no exaggeration to say that this may be both the finest hours of both the star and directors.
9. PARASITE (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019) — Bong Joon-ho has been creating his own brand of genre-blending films for 20 years, but nothing yet has matched the cinematic perfection of his Palme d’Or-winning piece of social commentary, PARASITE. With the calibration of a classic screwball comedy, extraordinary cinematography and editing, and a wickedly dark sense of humor, PARASITE brought Bong’s craft to a new level while also remaining a hellish blast to watch.
10 (tie). NUTS! (Dir. Penny Lane, 2016) — Penny Lane has been playfully experimenting with documentary form for years, but her 2016 masterpiece, NUTS!, ingeniously subverts conventions and fuses documentary and narrative storytelling in ways best left unspoiled here. Let's face it, when the story of a man who claimed he could implant goat testicles in humans to cure male impotence is a film's launching point, you know you're in for something out-of-the-ordinary and special. Using animation, interviews, and archival footage to great effect, Lane made an auteurist documentary that, like a handful of other films on this list, has become increasingly and disturbingly relevant.
10 (tie). CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (Dirs. Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, 2012) — Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (adapted from Satrapi’s graphic novel) is a fantastical, funny, melancholic masterpiece that not enough people have seen. Full of feeling and dazzling imagery, this haunting tale of a man who’s chosen to lie in bed waiting to die after his precious violin is destroyed is a mesmerizing wonderment from filmmakers who deserve far more attention.
10 (tie.) GLORIA (Dir. Sebastián Lelio, 2013) — While his Julianne Moore-starring English-language remake GLORIA BELL is shockingly excellent in its own right, Sebastián Lelio’s original, GLORIA, is still superior for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. It may have to do with Paulina García's performance. This is to say nothing against Moore who owns the remake, but there’s something about García’s Gloria that makes her radiate. Gloria begins the film as a grumpy woman in a rut, but it’s always evident that there’s something special inside her. When she finally lets it out in the subtly wonderful and unconventional finale, we are right there with her cheering her on. GLORIA isn’t a film I immediately cared for, but something kept pulling me back to it, and every single viewing has made me love it more.
#13 to 40 (alphabetical)
THE ARTIST (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) — Michel Hazanavicius' love-letter to silent cinema, THE ARTIST, is a total delight from start to finish. Jean Dujardin is magnetic as a fading silent film star (Bérénice Bejo is also superb), and Hazanavicius' craft painstakingly and effectively recreates that of a classic silent film. THE ARTIST is pure pleasure refined into movie form.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2013) — Capping off his BEFORE films with a deeper and more mature installment, BEFORE MIDNIGHT explores how time tests love as well as what happens after the initial romance ends. Insightful and personal, MIDNIGHT stands out even above the previous two films (both of which are unforgettable) and finds Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in their finest form.
THE BIG SHORT (Dir. Adam McKay, 2015) — THE BIG SHORT creatively makes concepts many of us know little about comprehensible and entertaining while announcing Adam McKay as a director as adept at drama as he is at comedy. Detailing how a few people bet against the housing market as the bubble was about to burst, this all-star dramedy has been imitated by other films but never equaled.
DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (Dir. Bill Morrison, 2017) — Bill Morrison's exceptionally well-written (the film is told through Morrison's written text as well as archival footage and photos) DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME packs an immense amount of information into its two-hour running time and keeps the revelations coming. Watching Morrison's film is like having a magician sit you down for an epic story of the past and make it come alive in front of you. DAWSON CITY is so much more than the story of Dawson City and the preserved film found there; it's the story of the entire 20th Century and the formation of modern life.
ELLE (Dir. Paul Verhoeven, 2016) — After a 10-year break, Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven returned with arguably the best film of his illustrious career. Telling the story of a woman who tries to find her rapist (that's just the tip of the iceberg), ELLE is a devious, demented comedy that finds Verhoeven intelligently indulging in his usual perverse fascinations while also marking a maturation of his skill. This whole enterprise wouldn’t work though without Isabelle Huppert who commands the screen in an Oscar-nominated performance - it's a masterclass in acting.
FOXTROT (Dir. Samuel Maoz, 2017) — Original doesn’t even begin to describe this indelible, scorching Israeli anti-war film. Filled with unforgettable sequences and ultimately landing its message with harsh impact, FOXTROT is a film that demands repeat viewings and is one of the few movies that I was compelled to see twice in a weekend.
GOD'S OWN COUNTRY (Dir. Francis Lee, 2017) — Francis Lee's raw, intimate drama, GOD'S OWN COUNTRY, demonstrates how care and love can undo the harm caused by the repression of one's sexual orientation and ultimately lead to a fuller, happier life. With spare dialogue, assured direction, a strong sense of location, and a phenomenal lead performance by Josh O’Connor, GOD’S OWN COUNTRY is a hopeful LGBT-themed film that should speak to anyone, no matter their sexual orientation.
GRAVITY (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) — Blockbuster filmmaking at its most exciting and emotional, Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY is a movie I race out to whenever it's showing in a theater. Combining top-notch VFX, typically jaw-dropping cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (he won his first of three consecutive Oscars for this film), 3-D that actually enhances the film, and a haunting score from Steven Price, GRAVITY is a highly successful marriage of art and commercial filmmaking.
THE GREAT BEAUTY (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) — Far more than a LA DOLCE VITA imitation, THE GREAT BEAUTY is a maximalist opus about a journalist (the inimitable Toni Servillo) who becomes tired of living the high life in Rome. Wild and crazy but with real humanity at its center, THE GREAT BEAUTY is outrageously fun and formally brilliant.
THE HANDMAIDEN (Dir. Park Chan-wook, 2016) — Scintillating, tricky, and erotic, Park Chan-wook’s luscious THE HANDMAIDEN draws you into its story of sex and intrigue and never lets you go. With constant twists and turns, gorgeous production design, and rich cinematography, THE HANDMAIDEN is an addictively rewatchable film that is the work of a master filmmaker at the peak of his powers.
HUGO (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2011) — One of a few films essential to view in 3-D, Martin Scorsese’s HUGO takes Brian Selznick’s stunning book and expands it to become an unexpected tale about the importance of film preservation. HUGO is a film drunk with affection for the movies, and with stellar performances by Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Ben Kingsley, Oscar-winning cinematography from Robert Richardson, as well as deep passion from its revered director, this deceptively simple and highly unusual epic is a cinephile’s dream that inspires feelings of euphoria.
INCEPTION (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010) — Christopher Nolan’s dazzling mind-bender is a visionary, hotly-debated epic that proved that audiences are more than willing to show up for something that makes them use their brains. Individual set pieces alone would make it worthy of inclusion on this list.
LADY MACBETH (Dir. William Oldroyd, 2017) — This 18th Century-set British drama about a young woman forced into a loveless marriage with an older man is a mean drama most notable for introducing many of us to Florence Pugh whose subtly-simmering, attention-grabbing performance foreshadowed the star she would become thanks to films like LITTLE WOMEN, MIDSOMMAR, and FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Directed with conviction by Oldroyd (this is his feature debut), this wildly provocative and supremely satisfying film leaves quite the impact.
LONG STRANGE TRIP (Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2017) — Before sitting straight through this four-hour documentary on The Grateful Dead, I knew little about and had no interest in the band. Thus, it is to director Amir Bar-Lev’s credit that I couldn’t get enough of this thorough, immaculately-edited film. Featuring extensive fascinating interviews and astonishing archival footage, LONG STRANGE TRIP is an all-timer that lives up to its title in the best possible way.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (Dir. George Miller, 2015) — Decades in the making, George Miller's completely bonkers MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is as unadulterated an action movie as has ever been made. While the story is incredibly simple, the way in which it's told makes it explode off the screen. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy are outstanding, and Miller's otherworldly command of action sequences is unmatched.
MARRIAGE STORY (Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2019) — One of the toughest and most balanced portraits of divorce ever committed to film, Noah Baumbach’s MARRIAGE STORY devastates as much as it thrills with its hard-hitting performances (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have never been better) and exquisitely-written screenplay. Randy Newman’s score and Robby Ryan’s luminous cinematography further elevate an already-amazing achievement that shows that no one really "wins" in a divorce.
MISTRESS AMERICA (Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2015) — A modern-day screwball comedy, Noah Baumbach’s giggle-inducing and touching MISTRESS AMERICA lovingly and accurately depicts millennial New Yorkers in their search for identity and purpose in NYC. Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the screenplay) and Lola Kirke's performances work harmoniously and deliver the snappy dialogue with panache, making this perceptive and delightful film one for the ages.
MOANA (Dirs. Ron Clements, John Musker, 2016) — Bursting with vibrant color and a sense of wonder, Ron Clements and John Musker's MOANA is the strongest film Disney Animation has produced since the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. The story is empowering and powerful, and the songs are excellent. MOANA is a meaningful triumph that reminded me why this studio still stands near the top of their field.
THE NOTEBOOK (Dir. János Szász, 2013) — Despite the fact that János Szász' THE NOTEBOOK was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the film barely received a release in the United States. Following twins who desensitize themselves to the horrors of war after being sent to live with their cruel grandmother during World War II, THE NOTEBOOK is bleak and distressing with a genuine ability to astound, largely due to the fairy tale-like quality with which Szász has imbued it. It's a viewing experience that's hard to shake.
A SEPARATION (Dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2011) — Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning A SEPARATION is an instant-classic moral drama with a gut-wrenching, smartly-plotted screenplay. Giving a human face to a country that is so frequently dehumanized, and directed with a gritty documentary-like aesthetic, A SEPARATION is a universal story that transcends culture and language.
SHORT TERM 12 (Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013) — Set in a home for troubled teens, SHORT TERM 12 is a low-budget marvel that launched or elevated the careers of most of its main cast (Brie Larson, Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever, and John Gallagher, Jr.) and has empathy for all of its characters. While there's not a weak link in the cast, Larson shines above the rest with a heartbreaking performance that's as lived-in as it is emotionally honest. I'm sure that anyone who saw SHORT TERM 12 in 2013 knew Brie Larson was about to become a big star and likely wasn't surprised when she won the Best Actress Oscar shortly after for 2015’s ROOM (another must-see).
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Dir. David O. Russell, 2012) — David O. Russell's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is a sweet and comical look at mental illness that always treats its characters and subject matter with the respect they deserve. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's sensational chemistry and the film's relentlessly positive outlook make SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK a real joy to watch.
SING STREET (Dir. John Carney, 2016) — Since his Oscar-winning sleeper hit, ONCE, John Carney has proven himself to be the king of feel-good movies about people connecting with music. In SING STREET, a film that's admirably both idealistic and realistic, he captures something affecting and universal about music’s ability to provide an escape from the stressors of real life. The young cast is ridiculously talented and the soundtrack will stick in your mind for days (in a good way). SING STREET is a modest movie miracle.
SON OF SAUL (Dir. László Nemes, 2015) — The horror of the Holocaust has never felt as palpable and personal as in László Nemes’ Oscar-winning debut feature, SON OF SAUL. Told from the perspective of Saul (a gutting performance from Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner at a concentration camp, this soul-crushing film leaves behind all sentimentality and is executed in the most claustrophobic way possible. SON OF SAUL left me shaken for a long time after it ended.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (Dirs. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, 2018) — If anyone had told me that an animated Spider-Man movie with multiple kinds of spider-people (including a spider-pig called Spider-Ham) would be watchable, I would have laughed. But, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE wasn't just watchable, it was invigorating and one of the most genuinely surprising films in years both because of its quality and the amount of imagination put into it. Progressive and inclusive without calling attention to itself, this SPIDER-MAN gives us a hero to root for as well as a trippy, technologically ground-breaking adventure that takes risks that pay off royally.
TOY STORY 3 (Dir. Lee Unkrich, 2010) — A threequel that no one expected turned out to be an essential, tear-jerking closer to the beloved TOY STORY franchise. With TOY STORY 3, Unkrich and his team created something more mature but no less warm and clever than the previous two installments. In short, it simply does everything right and resonated with me in a way I never thought it would.
WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2014) — Now-Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough, WHIPLASH, about a drummer pushed to the edge by his teacher, is a nerve-shredding and precisely-edited film with committed and complementary performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons (he won an Oscar for this performance). Who knew drumming could be as intense as an action thriller?
ZERO DARK THIRTY (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) — Kathryn Bigelow's pulse-pounding 2012 follow-up to THE HURT LOCKER is a gritty thriller about one woman's obsessive decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. What's most impressive about ZDT is that while we all know the outcome of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound (this lengthy sequence makes up the film's climax), it's still unbelievably suspenseful under Bigelow's taut direction. ZDT is current-events filmmaking at its finest.