Look, making a Best of Decade list is an impossibility. As the 2010s come to a close, we’ve been agonizing over this (long-delayed) list for half a year now and even had to take a break and put it away this summer when things got too contentious and overwhelming. And then there’s the notion of resonance and what really lasts and is released too late (Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is phenomenal, for example, but it’s not even released yet, and it’s just going to have to sit this one out). Still, lists like these become an exercise in compromise, frankly, and a reality of having to live with things, crying a little bit, enduring threats of people quitting and others throwing themselves on the tracks at the last minute in their pleas to be heard (joking, sort of).
Such is life, with lots of hard, hard, sometimes bitter choices to be made. Before you get mad—and it’s very possible you might—keep in mind, we’ve already made a Best Horror Films Of The Decade list, where some terrific films are already represented, we’re running a Best Documentaries Of The Decade list too. We will likely do something with animation also, at some point. Excising (most) docs and animation from this list was tough, but in a way, it just made things more manageable. You could even consider this the Best feature-length live-action films of the Decade if it helps you sleep better (with a few notable exceptions, we just couldn’t leave out).
But impact aside, and weighing so many different factors, cultural factors, quote-unquote importance, what’s enjoyable about making a Best Of Decade list is looking at the films that last and have whose resonance possesses meaningfulness in their timbre and echo.
So, we won’t lean any harder into our apologist stance, after much hand-wringing, our Best Films Of The Decade list (the 2010s) is done. It’s not science, nor consensus, but a from-the-heart snapshot of the 2010s and what we, and many of us believe are the greatest, most resonant movies of the past 10 years. Enjoy, and look for more Best Of Decade features, Best of 2019 coverage and much more. Without further ado, our picks for the Best Films Of The Decade [2010s] —intro by Rodrigo Perez
More best of year and decade content is here too, the 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2020, The 100 Best Films Of The Decade, the 25 Best Films Of 2019, the Best Performances Of The Decade, Best Cinematography of the Decade, Best Soundtracks of the Decade, Best TV of the Decade, Best Documentaries Of The Decade, Best Animated Films Of The Decade, Best TV of 2019, Best Posters, and Trailers of 2019 and more to come.
100. “Madeline’s Madeline” (2018)
Josephine Decker’s brilliantly disorienting head trip “Madeline’s Madeline”is a rare film that challenges the very notion of what can film can be. A 90-minute hurricane of live-wire emotions, breathless theatrical energy, and swirling, electrically-charged cinematography Decker’s film is layered with so many complex ideas, it’s impossible to catch everything in one viewing. Putting you inside the head of a young, biracial artist whose talent is constantly battling with their mental illness is a potentially dangerous road to go down as a filmmaker, but Decker’s raw humanity gives her license to explore the intersection of art and mental health with an acute perceptiveness that’s rarely seen from young directors. She’s able to transcend her own experiences by exploring the exploitation of Madeline’s race and trauma, while still making the film feel deeply personal. She also has the luck of being aided by one of the most revelatory debut performances in ages in Helena Howard. By deconstructing performance and art as therapy, Decker delivers one of the most dizzyingly effective, deeply uncomfortable cinematic experiences of the decade. — Max Roux
99. “Private Life” (2018)
2018’s festival circuit proved to be a fantastic comeback year for MIA female filmmakers. Premiering alongside Debra Granik’s superb “Leave No Trace” (missed the list by a hair, but outstanding) was Tamara Jenkins’ first feature since 2007’s underrated “The Savages.” Better late than never (though disheartening to learn how hard it was for them to get films off the ground), with “Private Life,” Jenkins crafted yet another understated stunner that deserved better than the Netflix dumping grounds. Capturing the lives of white, literate New Yorkers with real, tangible dimension, without turning them into miserable caricatures or worse, Jenkins’ humane, painfully funny, and heartbreaking story of compromise and missed opportunities is just as honest and relatable as the recent string of similarly themed Noah Baumbach releases. Jenkins assembled a flawless ensemble of character actors, but nobody shines quite like Kathryn Hahn does as a frustrated writer attempting to have a baby. One of the most underrated actresses working today, Hahn breathes fresh life into a familiar role with her distinctive balance of sharp comedy and candor. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait another ten years for Jenkins’ follow-up. — MR
98. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011)
It’s been almost a decade since Sean Durkin dropped himself and Border Films on the map with “Martha Marcy May Marlene” – a horrifying and troublingly muted look at a modern-day cult, and the psychological damage inflicted on one of its members. One of the most startling and upsetting movie debuts of the decade, the film pulses with a sinuous, elusive dread, coloring even innocuous scenes in a borderline-Satanic shade of black. Making his mark with a searing ferocity, John Hawkes is distressingly persuasive as the cult’s self-appointed leader (a scene where he leads his followers on an ill-fated home invasion will have you sleeping with the light on), and Elizabeth Olsen, who basically made her career with this startlingly traumatized performance, bravely commits to her character’s tattered sense of memory playing the pained young woman who shares a name with this unforgettable movie. Durkin’s finally making another feature that’ll land in 2020 and we can’t wait. – Nicholas Laskin
97. “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)
It’s an overused sentiment, but Kelly Reichardt truly is a poet of modern American cinema. A quiet, intimate one easy to miss if you’re not looking. Reichardt’s miniatures are lovely, atmospheric slices of heartland life (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Old Joy,” and “Certain Women” are worth seeking out if you’re unfamiliar) that eschew conventional three-act structure in favor of something more esoteric and emotionally rewarding. While Reichardt die-hards await her next picaresque, “First Cow” via A24, decade observers should not sleep on the meditative and masterful “Meek’s Cutoff” which is one of the director’s finest hours. Following a small band of settlers traveling through the rugged terrain of the Oregon High Desert in 1845, the craft of “Meek’s Cutoff” has an almost painterly refinement to it, not to mention deeply felt, sensitive performances from Reichardt regular Michelle Williams, plus Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, and Zoe Kazan. – NL
96. “What We Do In The Shadows” (2014)
Have you ever wondered what vampires look like when they vacuum? Have you ever described your personal fashion style as “dead but delicious?” Have you ever longed to witness a drunken showdown between a pack of preening bloodsuckers and a gang of distraught werewolves? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then it’s likely that you know and love Taika Waititi’s and Jemaine Clement’s uproarious cult mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows.” Taika has become something of a household name thanks to “Thor: Ragnarok,” one of the MCU’s all-timers, and awards buzz surrounding his Nazi satire “Jojo Rabbit,” in which the director plays a prissy, idiotic version of Adolf Hitler. But ‘Shadows’ is the masterwork so far, and showcases Waititi’s hilarious penchant for witty observations of the mundane. And, at scant 85 minutes, its oddball comedy and unadulterated droll is pure blissful, movie-going joy. This is one of the funniest and most quotable movies of its kind since “Best in Show,” except Christopher Guest’s terrific dog-show lark didn’t boast Jemaine Clement as an utterly ridiculous, centuries-old tyrant who calls himself Vladislav the Poker. – NL
95. “Mother!” (2017)
Simultaneously sublime and ridiculous, trashy and majestic, ludicrous and transcendent, “mother!” is a movie of powerful dualities, caught somewhere between arthouse majesty and gutter-level psychodrama. Darren Aronofsky does not make subtle movies, and nuanced it is not. Aronofsky often makes bold movies that batter you over the head with their message, turning subtext into capital T text, often underlined with several exclamation marks at the end. It makes sense that “mother!” – by far Aronofsky’s most controversial and divisive movie – felt it necessary to use that very exclamatory piece of punctuation in its title. “mother!” is a cinematic Molotov cocktail that’s also an environmental parable, a lacerating look at narcissism, and a black comedy of Biblical blasphemy (also quite possibly a self-censurous screed about his own divorce). Calling it offensive almost seems too easy. Of course, it’s a hot take, with an extraordinary gaslit performance by Jennifer Lawrence. It’s also overlong, indulgent, surreal, and frequently dazzling: a barbarous, extraordinarily sustained cinematic assault that defies simplistic critical analysis. – NL
94. “The Wailing” (2016)
South Korean cinema owned this decade and continues to dazzle. Na Hong-jin’s “The Wailing” is a work that you simply have to see for yourself – attempting to communicate its bizarre power through anecdote simply doesn’t manage to encapsulate the movie’s sweltering, dread-inducing alchemy of assorted tones. But here goes. Long and languid, this proudly over-the-top B-movie hybrid— indebted to the barbed cinematic fusions of both Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, Na’s fellow statesman— begins on a normal note. A police officer investigates a series of mysterious deaths in a remote South Korean village, all of which appear to have their root in some strange and unclassifiable illness. However, that’s just the kick-off point for an unremitting and aggressively unnerving plunge into a kind of horror that most of Na’s American counterparts would be too timid to touch with a ten-foot pole. “The Wailing” daringly plays in a number of different stylistic registers— police procedural, body horror, and vaguely supernatural terror— in a way that’s bold and batshit, even by the standards of gonzo South Korean genre cinema. – NL
93. “Margaret” (2011)
Depending on who you talk to, Kenneth Lonergan’s operatic exploration of trauma is either a disaster or a masterpiece. Shot in 2005, “Margaret” felt like a period piece by the time it was dumped into theaters in 2011. Starring Anna Paquin as an idealistic teenager coming of age in the wake of a horrible tragedy, the film might be the very definition of a flawed masterpiece. Transitioning from a Mike Leigh-inspired slice of life to the operatic ensemble theatrics of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” Lonergan’s story detours into so many other lives and subplots that its ambition occasionally overreaches, but it miraculously sticks the landing. Over the years, there was speculation that Lonergan lost the film in the editing room (Scorsese was even recruited to help), but subsequent reports of lawsuits told a tale of various factions warring for control of a movie, a director simple would not cede. At 180+ pages, “Margaret, was always intended to be an epic, messy, sprawling melodrama and for better or worse, he put it all on the screen. A near-forgotten masterpiece, “Margaret” is an emotionally galvanizing experience with an absolute knockout of an ending. — MR
92. “Inception” (2010)
Hollywood loves to return to the old-timey phrase, “They don’t make them like they used to,” but when it comes to Christopher Nolan’s approach to the blockbuster — a blend of clever sleight of handwork and epic scale — that phrase is largely accurate. Nobody really makes concept-driven, high budget, original studio pictures at the level, nor with the degree of difficulty as Nolan. Coming off the most acclaimed comic book adaptation ever made, WB’s darling director was virtually given a blank canvas, and Nolan used “Inception,” to dive into a heady, ambitious espionage thriller successfully merging the enigmatic possibilities of dream logic and cerebral sci-fi, within a twisty heist movie. By mashing genre obsessions into one story, wrapped up in a ‘Matrix’- worthy world-building capsule, Nolan and company managed to pull off what is perhaps the most entertaining, gripping and audience-friendly action-head-trip ever produced. It’s a heist film, a Bond flick, and a William Gibson-esque sci-fi vision all in one. Full to the brim with concepts to keep your head spinning and set-pieces that made audiences jaws drop, “Inception” and Nolan films may be seen by future historians as the last of a dying breed. Whatever the case, the film, not unlike “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar,” which are both enormous visions, demonstrate Nolan at the height of his Spielberg-ian/Kubrick-ian lovechild powers – Andrew Bundy
91. “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)
Opening on a black screen with a deeply upsetting audio collage taken in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, “Zero Dark Thirty” drops audiences in the middle of America’s panicked and perplexed mental state on that terribly fateful day — and does so without visual aid. It’s a perverse way to open a movie, peculiar even, considering director Kathryn Bigelow’s visual prowess, but the distressing power it communicates speaks to her unique gifts. With the panoramic procedural “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow built off the jittery, immediate neo-realism of “The Hurt Locker,” forever leaving the heightened genre-movie mechanics of “Point Break,” “Near Dark,” and “Strange Days” in her rearview mirror for good and moving towards a journalistic bent of precision and density. While the politics of “Zero Dark Thirty” are sometimes questionable, it’s a remarkably airtight piece of technical filmmaking: few directors are as skilled as Bigelow as thrusting their audience into the fray of violent chaos. Bolstered by a steely, diamond-hard turn from Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a defiantly unsentimental look at the horror and confusion of the George W. Bush years, that redefines the notion of the movie in the process. – NL