Ranking the 50 best films of the decade

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DOUGLAS ROCHE III | SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER | droche@butler.edu  

For filmmaking, the 2010s will be remembered for two undeniably influential developments: the business model revolving around intertwining mega-franchise properties and the rising level of investment in streaming service-produced movies. Eight of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time came out this decade and were either an adaption, sequel, reboot or remake of a past film. Originality is — as Thanos would have put it — reduced to ashes. Or, it simply had to relocate to streaming services. Amazon and Netflix received Academy Award nominations for best picture with 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea” and 2018’s “Roma,” respectively. This year, Netflix’s “The Irishman” — a film Netflix gave director Martin Scorsese $140 million to create — and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” are early contenders for Best Picture.

With that in mind, I am excited to present this list because it occupied my mind throughout the year. I promised to make it last December to my Twitter audience, which was when I thought of 100 films that I saw this decade. From there, I cut that list in half and went through extensive reordering and reasoning as to why these movies resonated with me. 

It is common for year-end lists to recognize films that may have had an influence on the industry, such as box office titans like 2012’s “The Avengers” and 2013’s “Frozen.” With that said, I find it important to note that this list does not seek to encapsulate the decade in cinema, but instead reveal what films I liked best from 2010 to 2019. Knowing myself, however, I anticipate I will not even agree with this list in the next week or so because, like all of us, my favorite movies change depending on an amalgamation of unrelated factors. 

I would love to hear what movies you do not see on this list were snubbed, in which I will gladly offer my reasoning for its omission or add to my to-see list.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOLLOW

  1. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Film (2019)

Director: Vince Gilligan

I can see where people are coming from that say this film was pointless, but this movie was released on Netflix just a few days after I completed a binge watch of the “Breaking Bad” TV series. In doing so, I cannot see how this movie can be appreciated without the show fresh in one’s mind. Where the show ends and the movie begins — just moments after the final shot of the show — is a flawless transition, but what is even more surprising is how locked in actor Aaron Paul is to his portrayal of the tragic Jesse Pinkman despite not playing him for six years. 

What I value about this film is the story director and “Breaking Bad” Vince Gilligan chose to tell, which you will find to be intimate and close-cornered in comparison to the show’s grandiose, Shakespearean climax. Gilligan — the movie’s writer, director and show-runner — offered a realistic epilogue that gives fans of the show a handful clever callbacks and closure, as well as what is in my opinion the best-looking movie of 2019. The cinematography provided by Marshall Adams cannot be overlooked. 

 

  1. Rocketman (2019)

Director: Dexter Fletcher

This film — like its focus — is wildly eclectic for a biopic, but still succeeds in chronicling the becoming of one of music’s transcendent figures. Taron Egerton is startlingly good as Elton John and went as far as to provide his voice for the musical pieces, which the most recent Oscar winner for Best Actor did not. This film is told entirely through the eyes of John, which entailed a bevy of vibrance, downfall and growth by the time the credits roll. 

 

  1. 127 Hours (2010)

Director: Danny Boyle

This film will either make you want to stay inside for the rest of your life or entice you to go outside on a hike or nature walk. For me, the latter happens upon each rewatch. Based on a true story, the film chronicles Aron Ralston — played by James Franco — and his fight for survival after his arm is trapped by a boulder in Bluejohn Canyon, UT. 

Save for one of the hardest scenes to get through of the decade, I am always surprised by how immersive and introvertive director Danny Boyle is able to make this story through his direction and screenplay. It clocks in at just 93 minutes, but it feels like the five days referenced by the title. From a technical standpoint, the editing — especially in the first act — and musical choices create an engaging contrast to the film’s emphasis on isolation.

 

  1. Zootopia (2016)

Directors: Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Even setting biases aside, I think this film is better than the 1994 version of “The Lion King.” Anyways, “Zootopia” might be the best movie Walt Disney Animation Studios has made since “Bambi,” which was still based on an already-published work. “Zootopia” plays like a Pixar film in that it offers an entertaining story that children can enjoy, while also appealing to a more mature audience with a timely message via the film’s underlying themes of race and inclusivity. 

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  1. Steve Jobs (2015)

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer Aaron Sorkin composed a 190 page screenplay to capture three separate, significant scenes from the late technological pioneer Steve Jobs’s life. The biopic follows the calculated yet hostile last-minute interactions Jobs experienced before three different product launches in the years 1984, 1988 and 1998. 

Michael Fasbender plays the title character, who spars with the likes of Kate Winslet as marketing executive Joanna Hoffman and former CEO of Apple John Sculley, played by Jeff Daniels. That said, it’s Jobs’ three confrontations with actor Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak that kick the film into another gear. “Steve Jobs” offers both an informative and personal look into both Apple Inc. and its polarizing, often misunderstood founder. 

 

  1. Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

This ode to science fiction filmography sparked the marriage of Christopher Nolan’s undeniable directing prowess and the cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema, as well as solidified Hans Zimmer as the undisputed go-to musician you listen to when you have an essay to crank out. This movie convinced thousands of young adults — myself included — they had a knack for film analysis and criticism. 

Jokes aside, solid performances from three different generations of actors, an emotionally heavy narrative and striking direction were all in this movie and what you come to expect from a Nolan film by now. The nearly three-hour run time limits it to a once- or twice-a-year rewatch, but its awe-inspiring visual effects — the film predicted what a black hole would look like — and score from Zimmer make it more than worthwhile. These, along with the greatest vehicle docking scene in the history of cinema, make it easy to forgive its narrative flaws and ear-drum-bursting sound mixing. At its core, the film is a survey of love’s endurance staged on a cosmic scale.

 

  1. Arrival (2016)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

I can speak for all foreign language students about the necessity of immersion, which is exactly what protagonist Amy Adams’ character — a linguistics expert named Louise Banks —  must do when a fleet of extraterrestrial aircrafts touchdown on Earth. In the film, Banks is recruited by the U.S. Army to make contact with the aliens by interpreting their language before war is declared.

“Arrival” is one of the most compelling first watches of any films I’ve ever seen. Director Denis Villeneuve explores concepts such as time and language to compose a message that is ultimately about choice. Would you change anything if you could see impending grief in your future? The manner in which the story comes full circle is rewarding and tragic, optimistic and perpetual. 

 

43-41. Ryan Coogler’s entire directorial filmography

Fruitvale Station (2013)

On Jan. 1, 2009, Oscar Grant was fatally shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station, the location from which the film derives its title. Multiple witnesses recorded the incident on their cell phones, which were subsequently distributed to media outlets. Mehserle was charged with second-degree murder, but found guilty of involuntary manslaughter following his resignation and not-guilty plea. 

Ryan Coogler was just 26 when he made his directorial debut with “Fruitvale Station.” In this film, Coogler and lead actor Michael B. Jordan recount the final day of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s life. The film’s now 10-year-old story preludes one of the most widely discussed social issues of the subsequent decade, as well as provided a foundation for the directing and storytelling prowess we have come to expect from Coogler. 

Creed (2015)

Coogler offered his second entry in 2015: the seventh film in a nearly 40-year-old film franchise many pundits doubted had any more stories to tell. “Creed” is not only the best seventh film in a decades-old franchise released in 2015, but the best film in the “Rocky” franchise since the original 1976 film. Paired with Michael B. Jordan again, the film follows Adonis Creed — the son of Rocky Balboa’s rival-turned-friend, Apollo Creed — and his path to becoming a world-class fighter like his deceased father. 

The film displays a maturation in Coogler’s direction — most notably the one-take boxing match — in comparison to “Fruitvale Station.” What is more notable about “Creed” is Coogler showcasing his ability to tell a story indelibly contributive to a larger overarching story while also standing on its own. This film affirmed his ability to superimpose emotionally-resonant messages with commercial and critical success.

Black Panther (2018)

In 2018, Coogler applied his abilities on the largest scale he had ever worked with on “Black Panther,” which went on to be a cultural phenomenon equal to the first “Star Wars.” The Best Picture-nominated superhero movie — the 18th overall and first with an African American director in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe — comments on a variety of substantive topics such as family, international relations and the oppression of African Americans. The film turned Coogler into a household name and actor Chadwick Boseman’s “Black Panther” into one of, if not the, most popular superhero in the most successful film franchise of all time.

Coogler bookends his films of the decade in a special way. “Fruitvale Station” foreshadowed a decade of discussion around police brutality and race relations, while “Black Panther” looks towards a more optimistic 2020s that promotes equality, holding accountability and hopefully restores some sanity in the world. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

  1. Dunkirk (2017)

Director: Christopher Nolan

“Dunkirk” is a technically masterful telling of Operation Dynamo, which saw the evacuation of over 330,000 allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France, over nine days. Nolan tells three separate stories — taking place at sea, on land and in the air — during the film’s 106-minute runtime, weaving the timelines in and out of one another, with little dependency on dialogue. Instead, a wide array of stark, terrifying sound mixing and musical composition transport viewers to either the beaches of Dunkirk, the waters of the North Sea or in the cockpit of a Royal Airforce Spitfire plane evading Nazi fire. In comparison to 2014’s “Interstellar” — an emotionally-focused story backed by groundbreaking visual effects — Nolan pulls a 180 with “Dunkirk” with practical effects and emphasis on immersion into the event it explores.

 

  1. Icarus (2017)

Director: Bryan Fogel

If one were to go into “Icarus” without the knowledge that this is a Netflix-produced documentary, it would easily pass as a fictional thriller. This Oscar-winning documentary centers around the use of doping to enhance athletic capabilities and essentially gets split into two parts. The first is an experiment by director Bryan Fogel and former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov, which entailed doping to win an amateur cycling competition. Revealing the second part of the documentary would give away the documentary’s sudden shift of focus, so I implore you to watch it if you have yet to. “Icarus” is as candid, surprising and investing a documentary can get.

 

  1. La La Land (2016)

Director: Damien Chazelle

“La La Land” sparked the resurgence of the musical genre in 2016. Its vibrant, quasi-1950s illustration of Hollywood serves as the film’s backdrop and puts the viewer in a melodic trance from the opening sequence, all the way until the credits roll — all of which follows a devastating epilogue. Its cookie-cooker premise about an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist falling in love — Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, respectively — presents persistence as an intangible superpower anyone can have, but the merit in this film comes from the emotional conveyance in Damien Chazelle’s direction and Justin Hurwtiz’s music. “La La Land” reminds you of the need for ambition in the human condition.

 

  1. A Star is Born (2018)

Director: Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is the third remake of the original 1937 film. It not only showcased Cooper’s directing and singing prowess, but solidified Lady Gaga as one of America’s most versatile entertainers. “A Star is Born” offers an abundance of humanity and emotional tug offered from Gaga’s, Cooper’s and Sam Elliott’s — playing Cooper’s weary brother —  respective performances, while a timeless soundtrack fuels the movie’s story. It follows an alcoholic country music star approaching the end of his run, who meets an aspiring singer that simply requires the opportunity for her voice to be heard. On the surface, this musical drama succeeds in conveying a wide range of emotions. However, it also serves as a cautionary observation of emotional abuse. 

 

  1. The Revenant (2015)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu 

It is loosely based on the Michael Punke novel of the same name, which follows fur trapper Hugh Glass, who was left for dead after a grizzly bear attack. Its lengthy runtime, graphic content and slow pacing can be a turn off for some, but I loved “The Revenant.” While he may heavily alter the story Punke told in his novel, Iñárritu’s message about persistence, survival and ultimately revenge is resonant enough to swiftly ride the coattails of the undeniably brilliant aspects of this film. Lubezki — the greatest cinematographer alive with an Instagram account worth following — used almost entirely natural light to shoot the film and the performances from Tom Hardy and Will Poulter are especially convincing.

This revenge western film’s three Oscars at the 88th Academy Awards were milestones. Director Iñárritu became the first director since 1950 to win back-to-back Best Director awards, Lubezki became the first director of photography to three-peat in the best cinematography award and Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar after four previous nominations stretched across 22 years. 

 

  1. American Hustle (2013)

Director: David O’Russell 

Director David O’Russell used an arsenal of A-list, startlingly good actors to tell his story, which is loosely based off of the FBI Abscam sting operation. Actor Christian Bale is unrecognizable to his previous role as Bruce Wayne in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” due to a 40-pound weight gain to play con artist Irving Rosenfeld. While the story the film explores is nothing short of interesting, “American Hustle” flourishes from the chemistry and energy from the ensemble cast, whose interactions with each other and display of their craft make it a worthwhile watch on its own. The film also presents a compelling idea about the domino effect from losing control over the situation one puts themselves in.

 

  1. Boyhood (2014)

Director: Richard Linklater

Production for this film — using the same actors who also collaborated on the film’s script — spanned 12 years, from 2001 to 2013. This film was the first of its kind to do so. “Boyhood” is a revolutionary and timeless film; you will laugh, cry, cringe and, at the very least, find something relatable in each scene, shot, line of dialogue or explored idea. It is as much a memoir of American society — particularly the transition from the Bush to Obama administration — as it is about Mason, the film’s protagonist, played by Ellar Coltrane. 

Director Richard Linklater touches on a number of subjects such as shifting family dynamics, academia, puberty and love, which all center around the coming of age. Ultimately, the film is about change in ourselves and our circumstances and the tool we use to deal with something that is out of our control: memory. “Boyhood” only has to be watched once because the moments that resonate with you in the film — like the memories you possess from your youth to current self — are enough to appreciate, but do not interrupt your moving towards the next phase in your life.

 

  1. The Wolf of Wall St. (2012)

Director: Martin Scorsese 

Martin Scorsese’s biopic is an honest depiction of how its subject perceived his own rise and fall. “The Wolf of Wall St.” is hilarious, shocking, and profoundly narcissistic in its depiction of sex, drugs and corruption, but intriguing and entertaining all the while. Leonardo Dicaprio plays former stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who was responsible for up to $200 million in manipulated investments of penny stocks. The film generated a portfolio of quotable lines and internet memes, launched actress Margot Robbie’s career into another stratosphere and — through the controversial depiction of its subject matter — surveys the viewer’s moral principle. 

 

  1. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

The pairing of Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling is lightning in a bottle. And the pristine blend of charm and humor each actor possesses makes “Crazy, Stupid, Love” thoroughly rewatchable. The film follows Carrell’s Cal Weaver: a newly-divorced baby boomer who receives direction from Gosling’s millennial womanizer Jacob Palmer in restoring his masculinity. The film has a concealed, hilariously awkward twist that connects a trio of character arcs, but there is a clever message about the lack of privacy we can expect to have in the most personal sectors of our lives.

 

  1. The Lighthouse (2019)

Director: Robert Eggers 

Of all the films released this year, none have a look as distinct as “The Lighthouse.” Director Robert Eggers used a 1.19:1 aspect ratio to transport viewers to the close-cornered New England lighthouse this psychological horror film resides. Actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play two isolated lighthouse keepers struggling to maintain their sanity in the midst of a severe storm. Technical aspects aside, the most notable part of this film is how natural and likely the exchanges between Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Pattinson’s Ephrain Winslow feel as their relationship develops at the lighthouse. Eggers tests the fragility of one’s sanity, which he adds a layer to by hinting toward an ambiguous supernatural entity looming over Winslow and Wake during their tenure. The film’s themes flourish under his use of lighting, practicality, and black and white to put his characters — and by extent, his viewers — on edge. 

 

  1. Knives Out (2019)

Director: Rian Johnson

Writer and director Rian Johnson’s storytelling ability and the murder mystery genre are a match made in heaven. It follows actor Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc, who seeks to reveal the culprit of a wealthy family patriarch’s death. For murder mysteries, Johnson’s story unfolds unconventionally, but in doing enhances the viewer’s uncertainty, thus investment, in the story. In addition to the uncertainty, “Knives Out” will make you feel shocked, sympathetic, moved and delighted before its big revelation, all the while appreciative of the spin it puts on the genre. 

 

  1. Spotlight (2016) 

Director: Tom McCarthy 

The contrast between Tom McCarthy’s restrained storytelling and the rampant corruption investigated by the film’s journalist subjects gives this film an edge-of-your-seat feel. “Spotlight” is a true story about the eponymously-titled investigative journalism team at The Boston Globe that revealed the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sex abuse scandal. The film offers a look into the oft-underappreciated journalism process, which can be unpredictable and laced with obstacles — especially given this particular story. 

Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo are especially convincing as Sacha Pheifer and Michael Rezendes, respectively. None of the depicted reporters’ actions are jaw dropping, but what they are working to reveal is — and that makes the film worth watching. Ultimately, “Spotlight” offers a glimpse into the world of journalism with a shocking story as the focus, which will give you a newfound appreciation for the profession.

 

  1. Skyfall (2012)

Director: Sam Mendes

The 23rd film in the James Bond franchise is a smart story that explores loyalty in an unexpectedly thrilling way. “Skyfall” is complemented by the beautiful, aesthetically-pleasing locations and set pieces choreographed by master cinematographer Roger Deakins. On top of that, director Sam Mendes and actor Daniel Craig — in his best performance as the British spy immortalized by pop culture — deliver an abundance of action sequences on every scale. Like any movie he is tied to, however, actor Javier Bardem fuels this film with sinister earnestness as antagonist Raoul Silva. 

 

  1. Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan 

Kenneth Lonergan’s script for “Manchester by the Sea” is mundane, bleak and intrinsically human. Actor Casey Affleck plays a reclusive janitor named Lee Chandler, who must return to his intentionally-avoided hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts — where a collection of devastating memories reside — to arrange the guardianship of his nephew after his older brother’s death. Lonergan’s exemplary use of flashbacks to slowly reveal Chandler’s relationship with Manchester is devastating, but the film still manages to showcase brief, albeit humane, humor without losing its focus on the grieving process.

 

26: Inside Out (2015)

Director: Pete Docter

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Very few films appropriately tug at your heartstrings like “Inside Out” does. In my opinion, this is Pixar’s most creative concept since “Toy Story” and certainly one of its most important films. The inventive imagery and motifs director Pete Docter uses to explore the story’s subject matter possesses educational value. The film follows the personifications of joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger inside of a young girl’s mind struggling through a difficult transition after her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco, California. The dichotomy between the film’s imaginative, childlike adventure and its mature subject matter gives “Inside Out” a sense of innocence. This transports viewers to a time they had to confront negative emotions, as well as reflect on how they dealt with them. Ultimately, the film reminds viewers it is okay to be sad — which its third act will certainly make you. And that is okay. 

 

  1. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Director: Lee Unkrich

Pixar’s best film is a concise, emotionally heavy “until next time.” With similar beats to its predecessors in the sense it tells another rescue story conducted by a collection of toys that become animate in the absence of people, it exceeds in being beyond just a children’s movie in exploring departure and moving onto the next phase of your life. Director Lee Unkrich and writer Michael Arndt give off the impression they knew exactly what they wanted this movie to be and how well the story was, which is why this film’s 103 minute runtime races by with every rewatch. “Toy Story 3” is engaging, nostalgic and moving, but it most notably succeeds in its mission to give you the motivational push you need to turn to the next chapter in your life

 

  1. First Man (2018)

Director: Damien Chazelle 

First paired together on “La La Land,” director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling reunited to recall the events that led to astronaut Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon. Though Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong is the center of attention, the film also captures the tense lead up to the Apollo 11 mission through the eyes of Janet Armstrong, to whom actress Claire Foy gives much emotional depth. Its award-winning special effects are complemented by a Justin Hurwitz score, which takes center stage during the landing sequence scene and when Leon Bridges appears to recite Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On the Moon.” For film buffs reading, it is worth noting this scene ties all three of Chazelle’s films together with the use of percussion, jazz poetry and relevant commentary on the Apollo 11 mission. Additionally, it contributes to the possible question the film seeks to ask: was the moon landing worth the time, money and lives sacrificed?

Along with asking a polarizing question, “First Man” excels in capturing the psyche of Neil and Janet Armstrong, which is done so with integral portions of the movie taking place in the Armstrong household. The couple disputes about Neil’s chances of returning home, which reveals an emotional barrier inside him. This emotional barrier seems to navigate Armstrong through not only the immense public scrutiny leading up to the mission, as well as coping with the death of his 2-year-old daughter. It is a unique biopic with multiple social and personal layers, which flawlessly thanks to the pristine direction of Chazelle and the performances from Gosling and Foy.

 

  1. Her (2013)

Director: Spike Jonze 

“Her” hopelessly foreshadowed technology’s place in our most personal experiences and aspects of life. Joaquin Phoenix plays an introverted man employed at a love letter writing company who falls in love with his newly-acquired artificial intelligence software named Samantha. In addition to asking the question of who and what can love, the film thoroughly examines a man’s coping mechanisms — particularly through introversion — with severe depression. Through Phoenix and Scarlett Johanson’s banter as the isolated man and voice of his A.I. software girlfriend, Spike Jonze reveals the subjectivity of our personal, physical and emotional connection to “each other.”

 

  1. Lady Bird (2017)

Director: Greta Gerwig 

Set in early 2000s Sacramento, California, “Lady Bird” follows Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior attending a private Catholic school her family is barely capable of paying for, who begins the tedious, uncertain college application process with dreams of moving as far away from her hometown as possible. Greta Gerwig’s direction and natural dialogue observes the hardships of late teenhood from multiple perspectives, most resonantly Laurie Metcalf’s point of view as the title character’s mother. Ultimately, “Lady Bird” is an examination of how we navigate through strained relationships, as well as the healing process in one. If not in that sense, it offers a sense of nostalgia from its depiction of the existential uncertainty the college application process bestowed. 

 

  1. Molly’s Game (2018)

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Hollywood’s most recognizable screenwriter made his directorial debut by chronicling the fact-based rise of an aspiring law school student’s underground poker empire. Jessica Chastain — with the help of Sorkin’s wizardry with words — projects a superior level of wit and resourcefulness as Molly Bloom, which makes her easy to root for. Idris Elba is equally good as attorney Charlie Jaffey, while the film’s emotional layer comes full circle with the dynamic between Bloom and her father played by Kevin Costner. The film is provocative, energetic and investing as you await the impending verdict of her legal case.

 

  1. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Director: Edgar Wright 

Edgar Wright’s distinct style of storytelling is on full display in this dazzling take on the “Scott Pilgrim” graphic novels. Michael Cera plays the title character, who must transcend his ostensible averageness to defeat seven exes of the girl he falls for. This film excels in its perpetual humor and action, which creates 112 minutes of kaleidoscopic escapism that Wright’s sharp, visual storytelling and technical flare was meant for. 

 

  1. Gone Girl (2014)

Director: David Fincher 

David Fincher’s cryptic direction and the musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are the perfect choice for this psychological thriller about the disappearance of a children’s book writer. Rosamund Pike plays the children’s book writer, who plans to destroy the life of her unfaithful husband, played by Ben Affleck. Pike’s character is both inspiringly and terrifyingly smart in this film. So much of  “Gone Girl” is off-putting, but it never ceases to be interesting and benefits from a chilling screenplay from Gillian Flynn, musical score from Reznor and Ross and performance from Pike.

 

  1. Django Unchained (2012)

Director: Quentin Tarantino 

Writer and director Quentin Tarantino and his ensemble cast — Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson — exert raw energy in this revenge Western epic. Foxx plays a freed slave, who, with the help of a meticulous bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, searches for the owner of his enslaved wife. The writing, musical choice and direction of “Django Unchained” keeps its viewers on edge, and is undoubtedly an exhilarating study of freedom and justice. 

 

  1. Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut was a compelling character study that followed Jake Gyllenhal’s Louis Bloom, a thief turned freelance videographer who sells videos of violent incidents to news outlets. Gyllenhal’s kafkaesque performance as Bloom is ominous, sobering and critical of how we consume media, as well as the ethics of journalism. 

 

  1. Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan 

This film blew everyone’s mind at the start of the decade and changed the way we think about our dreams forever. Fresh off of 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan offered a mind-bending science fiction heist film about a group of thieves capable of extracting and implanting thoughts via dream telepathy made possible by advanced technology. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dominic Cobb, a professional thief given the opportunity from an influential billionaire to clear his name of a crime. If Cobb can pull off the billionaire’s request, he will be reunited with his kids.

Nolan’s smart balance of explanation and ambiguity parallels the film’s central theme of what is real and what is not, which he ties together at its conclusion by asking if what is real and what is not actually matters. The film contains the technical mastery and story elements you expect from a Nolan film: staggering direction of action scenes, a Hans Zimmer score you can rhythmically write to and an ending open to interpretation. 

 

  1. Roma (2018)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón 

Shot in black and white and made up of autobiographical elements, director, cinematographer and writer Alfonso Cuarón recollects his childhood by following the live-in maid of a middle-class family in the neighborhood of Colonia Roma in Mexico City, Mexico. Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, the maid based on Cuarón’s actual childhood nanny. For 135 minutes, the viewers follow Cleo navigating through 1970 and 1971 Mexico City with a family in the process of a divorce, which places her in a position of motherhood with the care she provides through watching over her family’s four children. Additionally, Cleo faces her journey to motherhood when she discovers — followed by her boyfriend’s subsequent abandonment — she is pregnant. Ultimately, “Roma” is a surreal memoir about separation, motherhood and the – occasionally humbling – variation of everyday life among us.

 

  1. 50/50 (2011)

Director: Jonathan Levine 

Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Adam Lerner, a 27-year-old radio journalist with a seemingly complacent life until his diagnosis of a rare form of cancer that leaves him with a 50% chance of survival. Writer Will Reiser used his experience with cancer as inspiration for the story, which balances the properly-done comedy and emotional weight the story gracefully carries. Though tagged as a comedy, “50/50” is a detailed look into the five stages of grief. While the story very much so revolves around Lerner, the film correctly depicts the effect one person’s cancer has on their friends, family and loved ones as well. 

 

  1. Baby Driver (2017)

Director: Edgar Wright 

“Baby Driver” is one of the decade’s technical masterpieces. This film floors its viewers like Ansel Elgort’s character floors the pedal in some of the decade’s best car chase sequences. Elgort plays Baby, a quiet, resilient getaway driver with permanent hearing damage from a car accident that killed his abusive father and nurturing mother. To flush out the ring in his ear left from the accident, he constantly listens to a wide range of music. In addition to its cinematography, distinct editing, ridiculous stunt direction and — most notably — electrifying soundtrack, Edgar Wright also tells an optimistic redemption story that balances humor and emotion better than most films on this list.  

 

  1. Sicario (2015)

Director: Denis Villeneuve 

The Mexican Drug War becomes the subject of abstract storytelling in Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario.” Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent enlisted to a government special operations force in search of the leader of a Mexican drug cartel responsible for horrific murders of citizens and agents alike on both sides of the border. On its surface, “Sicario” is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that benefits from superb direction from Villeneuve and cinematography from Roger Deakins. At its core, though, the film questions moral code, law and their ever shifting relationship, which makes an especially suspenseful movie. Blunt and actors Benecio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and Daniel Kaluuya add heavy psychological layers to their respective performances. 

 

  1. Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

“Drive” is a neo-noir masterpiece about a stunt driver, who also serves as best getaway driver in Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling plays the driver, who finds himself and everyone he loves in danger after his involvement in a failed bank heist. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s use of imagery and music, as well as the acting from Gosling, Bryan Crantson, Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks creates a brief — yet slow burning — redemption story fueled by suspenseful action and emotional turmoil. 

 

  1. Once Upon a Time in …  Hollywood (2019)

Director: Quentin Tarantino 

Director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film may be his most personal and serves as an intimate portrait of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Backed by a stellar soundtrack and resoundingly natural screenplay, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a hang-out movie taking place in 1969, which follows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton: a poignantly alcoholic and fading TV star who turns to low-budget genre movies in a last ditch effort to stay relevant in the entertainment industry. Alongside Dalton is Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth: an unequivocally cool, but equally enigmatic stuntman serving as Dalton’s personal driver, errand boy and friend. Across two days, Dalton and Booth look for and question their place in the shifting Hollywood landscape. Tarantino’s story also makes time to explore the life of late actress Sharon Tate, who is played by Margot Robbie.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tarantino is outspoken about his intention to retire after 10 films, but his ability to morph this idea into a feature length film is a testament to not only the expertise he possesses for his craft, but the honesty he executes it with as well. In addition to romanticizing Hollywood in 1969, Tarantino’s metanarrative touches on longevity, craft and how the two play hand in hand in not just our endeavors, but the psyche as well. “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood” is a quasi personal narrative disguised as an inconsequential look into the daily lives of its personable characters, which makes it a film you can have on as background noise or one to offer your undivided attention. Personally, I will choose the latter every time. 

 

  1. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Director: Banksy 

Some speculate whether this is an actual documentary or a prank — maybe his interpretation of the documentary industry? —  played on viewers by anonymous street artist Banksy. Regardless, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” offers an elaborate look into the world of street art, while also asking what constitutes art in a world of creators who are unapologetically derivative. 

The film follows French immigrant and Los Angeles citizen Thierry Guetta’s discovery of Banksy, who ultimately invites Guetta to document his work in London to the dismay of his team. While its status as a documentary is neither confirmed nor denied by Banksy, the film is an informative look into the world of street art and a rhythmic showcasing of Banksy’s “portfolio.” 

 

  1. The Nice Guys (2016)

Director: Shane Black 

Hands down one of the most overlooked movies of the decade, “The Nice Guys” is a vibrant, hilariously original take on the buddy cop genre. The film pairs Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe together as an alcoholic, incompetent private investigator and an unfulfilled leg breaker, respectively. Set in 1977 Los Angeles, Gosling’s Holland March and Crowe’s Jackson Healy collaborate to solve the murder of a pornstar, who was apart of a larger protest movement against the deadly carbon emmissions from the factories of auto manufacturers. Black and Anthony Bagarozzis’ script offers plenty of layers to the story’s characters, which is well-balanced with the abundance of humor in the dialogue and general absurdity of the premise.

 

  1. Whiplash (2014)

Director: Damien Chazelle 

Two years before he took over the world with “La La Land,” writer and director Damien Chazelle offered a psychological, tragic thriller about obsession and sacrifice for merit. Actor Miles Teller plays an aspiring drummer, who becomes subject to severe physical and verbal abuse from his renowned-yet-maniacal instructor Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons — one of the decade’s best acting performances. The film constricts its viewers as the story does its subject: Teller’s 19-year-old Andrew Neiman, who aspires to be his generation’s Buddy Rich

Teller’s slow descent into madness is uplifting and tragic, while Simmons’s performance is admirably terrifying as his abusive, unrestrained instructor with ambitions of molding the next Buddy Rich. As enticing as it is to empathize with what Neiman puts himself through to impress Fletcher, you question whether the emotional and psychological turmoil one may endure in pursuing an ambition gets outweighed by the achievement of realizing that ambition. 

 

  1. The Social Network (2010)

Director: David Fincher 

“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” this film’s promotional poster said. This is both foreshadowing and chilling in that this film was made when only 500 million people were on Facebook. That number is in reference to its population in 2010. Nine years later, Facebook has over 2.38 billion users

Director David Fincher’s drama about Facebook founder’s Mark Zuckerberg is eerie, while writer Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is addicting. The fictional story about the relationship between Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin while developing one of the most influential websites of all time is depicted in a calamity of betrayal and legal cases. Underneath this is a premonition of the chaos and influence Facebook will induce, which is startling when you consider it now serves as a resource for politicians to get elected. 

The brilliant musical score provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is also worth recognizing. Fincher, Ross and Reznor paired up two more times this decade in 2011’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and 2014’s “Gone Girl.”

 

  1. Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins’s Best Picture winner follows a young boy living in Florida named Chiron. Played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevonte Rhodes, the viewer is introduced to Chiron at three different stages in life: a bullied, neglected child growing up without the guidance of a father figure, a young adult struggling to understand his sexuality and — on the surface — a masculinized, gun-baring grown adult voided of love because of uncontrollable circumstances. Each chapter is poetically distinct from each other, which ultimately weave into an isolated character study focusing on identity and masculinity. 

Jenkins uses recurring themes and motifs, such as water — Oscar winner Mahershala Ali’s swim lesson-turned baptism for Chiron is a particularly distinct example— to signify changing components in Chiron’s coming of age. The musical score from Nicholas Brittell and James Laxton’s cinematography convey more perspective and emotion than any film on this list. “Moonlight” is a resonant, timely coming of age story that touches on contemporary elements on a personal and societal level.

 

  1. The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

“The Martian” is an energetic, exquisite look at a stranded astronaut’s daunting efforts not to die after being left behind on Mars when a storm blows him away from his crew’s spacecraft. Its sharp cinematography and visual effects are some of the best of the decade, while its dosage of humor in a high-stakes, geopolitically-fused rescue mission compliment its message about persistence and togetherness. Matt Damon plays stranded NASA astronaut Mark Whatney, who uses the entirety of his resources to survive a yearslong seemingly impossible wait for someone to bring him home. The talent and chemistry displayed by its actors, an effective choice of music and director Ridley Scott’s storytelling succeed in making a movie that makes you root for everyone involved in the rescue mission. Moreover, every component of this film is executed so well it is difficult to identify an aspect of this movie that stands out. 

 

  1. Get Out (2017)

Director: Jordan Peele 

Jordan Peele’s first contemporary horror classic is a jarring commentary on America’s history rooting back to slavery and racism. “Get Out” recognizes racism is not a political party-based trait, but a prevalent aspect in American society with Peele’s award-winning screenplay. The film follows actor Daniel Kaluuya as a black photographer and Allison Williams as his white girlfriend paying a visit to her family’s house, which leads to Kaluuya’s Chris Washington discovering there may be something beneath the surface of the family’s off-putting welcomeness and discourse with him. With imagery and allusions to a looming danger in the dialogue, Peele offers a timely message on paranoia you will convey a jarring new reaction to what unfolds with every rewatch.

 

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Director: George Miller 

Legendary filmmaker George Miller uses post-apocalyptic maximalism to present a message about survival and liberation in his fourth entry to the Mad Max series. The film is set in a nuclear war-torn world and follows Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatanksy and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, who seeks to free the wives of a patriarchal dictator over a two-hour car chase through radiation-plagued remnants of their part of the world. Among providing an array of chaos from the explosive chase, the substantive brilliance of the film is Rockatansky’s and Furiosa’s efforts to restore the finite amount of sanity they collectively hold onto. 

This contrasts but adds to the awe-inspiring direction and seemingly unsurvivable action sequences Miller crafts. “Mad Max: Fury Road” set a new standard for not just visual storytelling, but our expectations for any action movie succeeding it. To little surprise, none of this film’s contemporaries have approached its level of excellence and has slowly taken on a position in our societal conscience as a once in a generation film. It is perhaps the century’s definitive action film thus far. 

 

  1. Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed-up actor carrying the shadow of the commercially successful superhero he played during the peak of his career. Keaton’s character parallels his own career in which the peak of his fame came when he played the title character of 1989’s “Batman.” The film makes its attitude clear about the monopoly superhero films have around the film industry and our attention span. 

The film is shot and edited to look like one versatile two-hour-long take from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, while the drum-laden score from Antonio Sanchez spars with the Oscar-winning script that benefits from a dynamic group of actors. Edward Norton’s character alludes to his own career as a lauded, but tediously pretentious actor. Zach Galifinakis shows versatility as Thompson’s manager unrecognizable to his comedic background, but capitalizes on the comedic moments the script offers him. But Emma Stone’s take as Thompson’s daughter as a victim of circumstances with radiant humanity drives a compelling, empathetic family dynamic.

“Birdman” is the best movie of the 2010s because of its technical mastery and poignant, metatextual commentary on the film industry, criticism, and family. It is kinetic, satirical, personal and entrancing from its opening frames to the end credits, leaving viewers imaginatively inspired and reevaluating what a movie can be.

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2 Comments

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