25 Best Movies of the Decade
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
The second decade of the 2000s saw remarkable leaps forward in technology, a fact that democratized filmmaking in a way we’d never seen before. Between the tech available to help low-budget filmmakers get their vision created, and the platforms available to get that product out to consumers, we saw more high-quality (and low) films than ever before. This only meant that it got tougher to convince people to get off their bums and fork over the cash to see something on the big screen, but some filmmakers answered that challenge with the visual wonder and glory.
It’s a great time to be a movie lover. Here are our 25 favorite films from 2010 – 2019.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
To say that George Miller has stepped up his game since he left us at Thunderdome would be far too mild a statement to open with. Mad Max: Fury Road is not just superior to everything in this franchise, as well as everything else Miller has ever directed. It’s among the most exhausting, thrilling, visceral action films ever made.
Unsurprisingly, the great Tom Hardy delivers a perfect, guttural performance as the road warrior. As his reluctant partner in survival, Charlize Theron is the perfect mix of compassion and badassedness. Hardy’s a fascinating, mysterious presence, but Theron owns this film.
Fury Road amounts to a film about survival, redemption and the power of the universal blood donor. Clever, spare scripting makes room for indulgent set pieces that astonish and amaze. There’s real craftsmanship involved here – in the practical effects, the pacing, the disturbing imagery, and the performances that hold it all together – that marks not just a creative force at the top of his game, but a high water mark for summer blockbusters.
2. Toy Story 3 (2010)
It had been 11 years – time for all of us to grow up and forget about all our favorite toys. And then Pixar returned to Andy’s room in maybe the most honest and heartbreaking coming of age film every digitally created.
Andy’s leaving for college. The toys’ jobs are done. Crated to be packed away in the attic, the toys are accidentally donated to a day care center. There, they will learn the true meaning of horror.
Sequels are not supposed to surpass the quality of their predecessors, but this franchise has always been different. There is love and pathos among these toys and between the toys and the audience. Whether it was the handholding scene on the conveyor belt, or Woody and Andy’s final goodbye, something in this movie got to you. If it didn’t, we’re not calling you a sociopath directly, but we do have our doubts about you.
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen artfully and impeccably translates Solomon Northup’s memoir of illegal captivity to the screen. Northup, played with breathtaking beauty by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a free family man in New York State, a violinist by trade, duped, drugged, shackled and sold into slavery in Louisiana. We are privy to the next 12 years of this man’s life, and while it is often brutally difficult to watch, it’s also a tale so magnificently told it must not be missed.
Ejiofor is matched by Lupita Nyong’o, whose almost otherworldly performance netted her an Oscar, and Michael Fassbender in one of the most brilliantly unsettling pieces of acting you’ll ever find.
Even the smallest role leaves a scalding impression. Whether it’s Paul Giamatti’s casual evil, Benedict Cumberbatch’s cowardly mercy, Paul Dano’s spineless rage or Adepero Oduye’s unbridled grief, there’s an emotional authenticity to the film that makes every character, no matter how brief their appearance in Northup’s odyssey, memorable.
4. Take Shelter (2011)
For years, the undeniably talented Michael Shannon’s been a bit of a “that guy.” His performance here as a man fighting a possible descent into madness may make him that guy you can’t stop thinking about.
Shannon’s blue collar family man Curtis is plagued by frightening dreams and apocalyptic visions. In telling his tale, filmmaker Jeff Nichols exhibits the patience of an artist who knows just where he is taking us and how much the journey will resonate once we get there. In one sense, the film is a modern horror story reaching the parts of our deepest fears that no maniac in a hockey mask could ever touch. More pointedly, it’s an allegory for now, a beautifully shot summation of the anxieties of our time.
5. The Tree of Life (2011)
If you don’t mind a challenge, The Tree of Life offers the most personal and introspective work yet from writer/director Terrence Malick. He begins at the beginning of life itself, then in a loose, autobiographical narrative, he focuses on a Texas family in the 1950s and on the complicated relationship between young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his domineering father (Brad Pitt) before leaping to a reflective, even spiritual present day.
Malick works on a bold vision and he’s not interested in dumbing it down. For some filmmakers, this mix of the celestial and the biographical wouldn’t work. In fact, you may be sure while watching it that The Tree of Life doesn’t work. But ultimately, it leaves you feeling a way that no lesser film could.
6. The Master (2012)
A seriously damaged WWII vet-turned-vagabond (Joaquin Phoenix, in an astonishing performance) stows away on a yacht. Its enigmatic commander (Philip Seymour Hoffman, incandescent as always) takes the boy under his wing, determined to use this vessel to prove his theories about the human mind – to himself, to the veteran, and to an increasingly hostile public.
Phoenix is a tightly coiled spring of rage and emotion, so honest and raw as to make your jaw drop. He’s flanked on all sides by impressive turns, not the least of which is Hoffman’s perfectly nuanced megalomaniac. His presence provides the counterbalance to Phoenix that allows filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson to explore core American ideas of freedom versus security, submission versus power, self-determination versus subservience. It’s a challenging but awe-inspiring film that proves Anderson the true master.
7. Selma (2014)
Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach and lovely, muted frames common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not the run-of-the-mill, laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well-crafted punch to the gut.
Working from a screenplay by first-time scripter Paul Webb, DuVernay unveils the strategies, political factions, internal frictions and personal sacrifices at play in the days leading to the final march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Yes, she simplifies some complicated issues and relationships, but she is a powerful storyteller at the top of her craft and her choices are always for the good of the film.
8. Moonlight (2016)
Saving the world is great, so is finding love, or cracking the case, funnying the bone or haunting the house. But a movie that slowly awakens you to the human experience seems a little harder to find at the local multiplex.
You can find one in Moonlight, a minor miracle of filmmaking from writer/director Barry Jenkins. With just his second feature (after 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), Jenkins presents a journey of self-discovery in three acts, each one leading us with graceful insight toward a finale as subtle as it is powerful.
The performances are impeccable, the craftsmanship precise, the insight blinding. You will be a better human for seeing Moonlight. It is a poignant reminder that movies still have that power.
9. The Act of Killing (2012)
Surreal, perverse, curious and horrifying, The Act of Killing demands to be seen as much as any film in recent memory.
Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer met with some of the most famous death squad leaders of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government and made them a distasteful, yet ultimately brilliant, offer: would they re-enact their savagery on camera?
The result is mesmerizing, can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing-stuff. The Act of Killing is unforgettable. It calls to mind past cruelty, an Orwellian present and an uncertain future, emerging as essential, soul-shaking viewing.
10. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Rarely has a film transported an audience back in time as effectively as Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The time is 30,000 years ago and the place is France’s Chauvet Cave, home of the earliest known recorded visions in human history.
Herzog films in 3D, reminding you that the technique can be so much more than a gimmick. You feel the breadth and the depth of the cave and ogle the beautiful contours of its walls, adorned with the work of incredibly sophisticated artists. Herzog’s camera lingers as art from tens of thousands of years ago speaks to you so loudly that you may find yourself holding your breath.
11. Drive (2011)
Nicolas Winding Refn washes deliberately paced scenes in neon, hangs on long pauses, and builds slow, existential dread that he punctuates on rare occasions with visceral, brutal smacks of violence.
The perfect embodiment of this trancelike atmosphere and its sudden spurts of violence, Ryan Gosling simmers quietly, a brooding, almost childlike outsider in a weird satin jacket. He’s closed off, poetic in his efficiency, until he’s drawn to the warmth and humanity of another. And others always mean complications.
The aesthetic and the framing, the sound design and score, the stillness and explosions of violence define this film as an impeccable and bizarre vision unlike anything in its gangster genre.
12. The Revenant (2015)
There’s a natural poetry to Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s filmmaking. The Oscar-winning director seeks transcendence for his characters, finding the grace in human frailty regardless of the story unfolding. And The Revenant is quite a story.
With no more than 15 lines in English, DiCaprio manages to capture the essence of this grieving survivor brought to his most primal self. This is easily the most physical performance of his career. DiCaprio is alone for the majority of his time onscreen, and his commitment to this character guarantees that those scenes are riveting.
One year after winning the Oscar for Birdman’s intimate, internal journey, Innaritu snagged a second statuette, taking that human journey toward redemption to the out of doors with a brutally gorgeous, punishingly brilliant film.
13. Boyhood (2014)
Filmmaker Richard Linklater’s genius has always been his generosity and patience with his cast and his mastery in observing the small event. Many of his films feel as if they are moving of their own accord and he’s simply there to capture it, letting the story unveil its own meaning and truth.
Never has he allowed this perception to define a film quite as entirely or as eloquently as he does in Boyhood. With the collaborative narrative, Linklater sets a tone that is as close to reality as any film has managed. It’s both sweeping and precise, with Linklater’s deceptively loose structure strengthened by his near flawless editing and use of music to transition from one year to the next.
An effort that proves Linklater to be indefinable as an artist even as it feels like a natural evolution of his best work, Boyhood is a movie like no other.
14. Roma (2019)
A breathtaking culmination of his work to date, Roma pulls in elements and themes, visuals and curiosities from every film Alfonso Cuarón has made (including a wonderfully organic ode to the inspiration for one of his biggest), braiding them into a semi-autobiographical meditation on family life in the early 1970s.
At the film’s heart is an extended group concerning an affluent Mexico City couple (Fernando Grediaga and the scene-stealing Marina de Tavira), their four children and their two live-in servants Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
Sequence upon sequence offers a dizzying array of beauty, as foreground and background often move in glorious concert during meticulously-staged extended takes that somehow feel at once experimental and restrained. The effect is of a nearly underwater variety, a profound serenity that renders any puncture, from a street parade moving blindly past the distraught woman in its path, to a murder in broad daylight, that much more compelling.
15. Toy Story 4 (2019)
Though a fourth installment seemed needless if not sacrilegious, the stars aligned, the talents gelled, and the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century found some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.
Between Forky’s confounded sense of self and Woody’s own existential crisis, TS4 swims some heady waters. These themes are brilliantly, quietly addressed in a number of conversations about loyalty, devotion and love.
Characteristic of this franchise, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious (keep an eye on those Combat Carls), and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.
16. The Witch (2015)
In set design, dialog, tension-building and performances, this film creates an unseemly familial intimacy that you feel guilty for stumbling into. There is an authenticity here – and an opportunity to feel real empathy for this Puritan family – that may never have been reached in a “burn the witch” horror film before.
On the surface, The Witch is an “into the woods” horror film that manages to be one part The Crucible, one part The Shining. Below that, though, is a peek into radicalization as relevant today as it would have been in the 1600s.
Beautiful, authentic and boasting spooky lines and images that are equally beautiful and haunting, it is a film – painstakingly crafted by writer/director Robert Eggers – that marks a true new visionary for the genre.
17. You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Lynne Ramsay adapts Jonathan Ames’s brisk novella into a dreamy, hypnotic fable, an in-the-moment pileup of Taxi Driver, Taken and Drive.
Together, Ramsay and lead Joaquin Phoenix ensure nearly each of the film’s 89 minutes burns with a spellbinding magnetism. While Phoenix lets you inside his character’s battered psyche just enough to want more, Ramsay’s visual storytelling is dazzling. Buoyed by purposeful editing and stylish soundtrack choices, Ramsay’s wonderfully artful camerawork (kudos to cinematographer Thomas Townend) presents a stream of contrasts: power and weakness, brutality and compassion, celebration and degradation.
18. Get Out (2017)
What took so long for a film to manifest the fears of racial inequality as smartly as does Jordan Peele’s Get Out?
Peele writes and directs a mash up of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Rosemary’s Baby and a few other staples that should go unnamed to preserve the fun. Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around the cold realities of “walking while black,” Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation.
Peele is clearly a horror fan, and he gives knowing winks to many genre cliches (the jump scare, the dream), while anchoring his entire film in the upending of the “final girl.” This isn’t a young white coed trying to solve a mystery and save herself, it’s a young man of color, challenging the audience to enjoy the ride but understand why switching these roles in a horror film is a social critique in itself.
19. Parasite (2019)
Joon-ho Bong, as both director and co-writer, dangles multiple narrative threads, weaving them so skillfully throughout the film’s various layers that even when you can guess where they’ll intersect, the effect is no less enlightening.
Filming in an ultra-wide aspect ratio allows Bong to give his characters and themes a solid visual anchor. In single frames, he’s able to embrace the complexities of a large family dynamic while also articulating the detailed contrasts evident in the worlds of the haves and have nots.
Parasite tells us to make no plans, as a plan can only go wrong.
Ignore that, and make plans to see this brilliantly mischievous, head-swimmingly satisfying dive down the rabbit hole of space between the classes.
20. The Irishman (2019)
Scorsese’s sly delivery suggests that he’s interested in what might have happened to Hoffa, sure, but he’s more intrigued by memory, regret and revisionism in the cold glare of time. The result is sometimes surprisingly funny, with a wistful, lived-in humor that more than suits the film’s greying perspective.
Robert De Niro’s longtime partnership with Scorsese makes it even easier to view his Frank Sheeran as an extension of the director himself, taking stock of his legacy in film. Alongside career re-establishing turns from Al Pacino, embracing type, and Joe Pesci, a gem playing against type, De Niro reminds you just why he has the legacy he does.
Away from the chatter of Scorsese’s views on superhero movies or the proper role of Netflix, The Irishman stands as a testament to cinematic storytelling, and to how much power four old warhorses can still harness.
21. Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino’s first Oscar-winning screenplay since Pulp Fiction unleashed a giddy bloodbath that’s one part blaxploitation, two parts spaghetti Western, and all parts awesome. Astonishing performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz might keep you from noticing the excellent turns from Sam Jackson, Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington. That’s why you’ll need to see it again.
22. Dunkirk (2017)
Solid performances abound without a single genuine flaw to point out, but the real star of Dunkirk is filmmaker Christopher Nolan. He dials back the score – Hans Zimmer suggesting the constant tick of a time bomb or the incessant roar of a distant plane engine – to emphasize the urgency and peril, and generate almost unbearable tension.
Visually, Nolan’s scope is breathtaking, oscillating between the gorgeous but terrifying open air of the RAF, and the claustrophobic confines of a boat’s hull, with the threat of capsize and a watery grave constant.
What the filmmaker has done with Dunkirk – and has not done with any of his previous efforts, however brilliant or flawed – is create a sparse, quick and simple film that is equally epic.
23. Black Panther (2018)
Just when you’ve gotten comfortable with the satisfying superhero origin story at work, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and a stellar ensemble start thinking much bigger.
Coogler works with many of these basic themes found in nearly any comic book film—daddy issues, becoming who you are, serving others—but he weaves them into an astonishing look at identity, radicalization, systemic oppression, uprising and countless other urgent yet tragically timeless topics. The writing is layered and meaningful, the execution visionary.
24. The Babadook (2014)
Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror.
Radek Ladczuk’s vivid cinematography gives scenes a properly macabre sense, the exaggerated colors, sizes, angles and shadows evoking the living terror of a child’s imagination.
Much of what catapults The Babadook beyond similar “presence in my house” flicks is the allegorical nature of the story. There’s an almost subversive relevance to the familial tensions because of their naked honesty, and the fight with the shadowy monster as well as the film’s unusual resolution heighten tensions.
25. Young Adult (2011)
Charlize Theron is singular perfection here as a walking middle finger to the world. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody create a world in which Theron can soar, vainglorious, damaged, vulnerable, cynical, shallow and perhaps ready for redemption.
Or is she?
Surrounded by a whip-smart cast, each of whom offer Theron opportunity for chemical spark, the Oscar winner proved that award was no fluke. Hysterically subversive and deeply human, Young Adult offers the greatest cinematic train wreck in recent memory.