The 2010s was the decade where it became something of meme to decry the lack of ideas coming from Hollywood. And yeah, there were seemingly an inordinate number of sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes coming out of the studio system, but there was also a shocking amount of original ideas. For every commenter opining that, “Hollywood has run out of ideas,” there were five movies that were being ignored.
The truth, as it so often is, was far more nuanced than the internet might have you believe. Far from being just the Decade of Reboots, the 2010s were a decade of cinematic boldness and stunning originality. It was a decade that proved that cinema is alive and well, thank you very much, and that there is always plenty of ground to be broken in the world of this art that we love.
These 20 films helped to define the cinematic decade and stand as the best that filmmaking had to offer over the last ten years. As these films prove, cinema is far from dead and originality is far from over. As we move into 2020 and beyond, the stage is set for even more original films to stake their claims as a part of cinematic history. Here’s hoping that anonymous internet commentators don’t forget about them in the years to come.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin was easily one of the most affecting films of 2012. Telling the story of a hurricane ravaged New Orleans, in a time where Katrina recovery was still very much in the consciousness, Zeitlin captured the whimsy of childhood through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a six year old girl just trying to make sense of her world. Even now, eight years after its release, Beasts of the Southern Wild remains one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of the decade.
Nine years after the events of Before Sunset (itself coming nine years after the events of Before Sunrise), filmmaker Richard Linklater reintroduces us to Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), now married with a new set of relationship problems to contend with. Powerful performances have always propelled these talk heavy films, and by this point Hawke and Delpy have inhabited these characters so deeply that they’re almost a part of their consciousness. Heartbreaking as it became, it served as a wonderful capstone to this decades-spanning trilogy. It doesn’t escape me that we’re just two years away from being nine years after Before Midnight; hopefully we’ll get a chance to see where the events of that emotional finale led these two fascinating characters.
Alexandro Iñarritu’s one-shot epic remains one of the most powerful works of out to come from the decade six years after its release. A comedic meditation on stardom, Birdman not only reminded us that Michael Keaton is a goddamn national treasure, it also reminded us that cinema is at its best when it’s at its boldest. This was, truly, bold filmmaking at its finest, transcending the form to become art at its most pure and affecting.
Speaking of bold, Darren Aronofsky has always been one of the most unique and boldest of our filmmakers. From his debut, Pi, to his latest (and most divisive) film mother!, Aronofsky has been nothing if not groundbreaking. Black Swan was a nightmare of psychosis, examining the effects of stress and jealousy through the eyes of Natalie Portman’s Nina. A decade later, it stands not only as one of Aronofsky’s best but also as a true hallmark of bold filmmaking and artistry.
Blade Runner 2049
This long-in-the-works sequel to Blade Runner managed to not only pay homage to the film that inspired it but also establish itself on its own terms. With an exquisite visual palette that heightened the surreal future presented by the film, director Denis Villeneuve transcended his forebears to create one of the must stunning science fiction movies of the decade that, perhaps, stands even taller than the original film. An absolute marvel and a wonderful example of how to take a sequel and make it your own.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn proved that style need not come to the detriment of substance, or vice versa, in this sparse and enigmatic crime thriller. Featuring quiet moments of introspection punctuated by moments of bombastic violence, Drive gave us a crime movie with both heart and brains which challenged audiences as much as it wowed them with style. It’s also the film that proved Ryan Gosling is much more than a pretty face and can, when given the right material, act his fucking face off.
Having burst onto the scene writing screenplays for director Danny Boyle’s best films of the 2000s, Alex Garland took his first step into the world of directing with this horrifying and compelling examination of free will and what it means to be alive. In a world where the prospect of AI is less and less science fiction, Garland’s film stands as one of the best and most realistic musings on the implications of robotic intelligence yet produced.
After cutting his teeth on a series of truly unforgettable (no matter how hard you try) short films, director Ari Aster burst into feature film with one of the most haunting and terrifying movies ever made. Using a background of family trauma and abuse, Aster crafted a film that is as beautiful as it is uncomfortable and rightfully holds its own against the likes of The Exorcist and The Shining.
A glorious ballet of violence that has spawned two sequels (with a third on its way) and talks of all manner of spinoff properties (which can all easily fit into the bizarre world in which John Wick exists), John Wick was a reminder that mindless doesn’t have to mean stupid. It was stylized action at its finest and a marvel of worldbuilding that told us just enough to keep us coming back for more.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Who says action movies have to be formulaic? George Miller made something beautiful out of a film whose plot can be broken down to, “They drive somewhere and then drive back.” From an absurdly simple premise, Miller not only brought his legendary hero back to the public consciousness, he single-handedly rebuked the idea that action movies must adhere to strict guidelines to connect with audiences. Beautiful, absurd, intense, and moving, Mad Max: Fury Road was not only one of the best of the decade, it’s a contender for one of the best of all time.
To watch Marriage Story is to take a masterclass on both screenwriting and performing. Noah Baumbach’s heart wrenching story of divorce is an exquisite example of writing what you know and using art as a way to process pain and trauma. Full of nuance and subtlety, Marriage Story is one of the most profound movies about breaking up ever made, showcasing all of the ups and downs and twists of divorce in the most human and real ways possible.
Framed as three vignettes taken from the life of a single character, Barry Jenkins crafted one of the most beautiful ruminations on identity and love of all time with this 2016 stunner. Quiet and contemplative, Moonlight rightfully received its glory in the 2017 Academy Awards by taking films back to their core: character and nuance.
In a decade that saw the decline of local reporting in favor of national news, and as trust in media dipped to an all time low, Spotlight reminds us of the power of local journalism and the tireless pursuit of truth. Telling the tale of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of systemic sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, Spotlight was an incendiary look at how journalism works and what uncovering the truth means for we, the people.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Going into The Rise of Skywalker, Disney and J.J. Abrams took the wrong lessons from the extremely unwarranted backlash against The Last Jedi, which was not only the best Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, but also the best Star Wars yet made. The appropriate lesson was that Star Wars fans are insufferable and will complain about your movie no matter how much you give them exactly what they want. Instead of servicing fans, they should try to do what Rian Johnson did beautifully: tell your story and don’t worry about what your toxic fan base has to say about it.
Endlessly quotable and deliciously irresistible, Yorgos Lanthimos’ character study of Queen Anne and two of her courtesans was a stunner from the opening frames to the closing. A period piece that defied the conventions of the form, Lanthimos elevated the scope of historical tales in the same way the Milos Forman did with Amadeus. It was a wicked delight of intrigue and subterfuge that explored just what was possible within the realm of the period piece and shined an unrelenting spotlight on the depths of the human soul.
The Florida Project
Occupying an emotional space not dissimilar from Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project stands as a magnificent portrayal of life on the other side of the train tracks. Set beneath the shadows of The Magic Kingdom, director Sean Baker examines the world through the lens of Moonee, forced to grow up and come to terms with the world thanks to her shiftless, but loving, mother, Halley. A powerful ode to childhood and affecting meditation on poverty, The Florida Project remains a stunning work of cinema and earns its place as one of the decade’s most profound films.
Claustrophobic intensity punctuates this work of psychological terror from director Robert Eggers, the only filmmaker to appear on this list twice. Taking the idea that permeates so much of horror throughout the ages—“What if the real monster is humanity?”—and elevating it to the extreme, Eggers forces us into a dizzying display of isolation and confrontation that brings new meaning to Sartre’s idea that Hell is other people.
The Shape of Water
That The Shape of Water, a film about a fish person and a human woman falling in love, won Best Picture feels like a significant and monumental shift in the cultural zeitgeist and proves that, yes, there is a place for genre in our annual recognition of the best of the best. It helps, of course, that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the best filmmakers currently working, and that his mastery is the sort that transcends arbitrary distinctions of genre. Still, The Shape of Water gave hope to lovers of the weird and proved that there need not be lines that prohibit great filmmaking from being honored, no matter how weird that might be.
The Social Network
Back in 2010, it felt weird to receive a biopic of Mark Zuckerberg, a man who’d only been in the public consciousness for a few years at that point. In 2020, The Social Network feels downright prophetic. A collaborative effort between director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network was less a biopic of Zuckerberg and more an examination of the sudden shift in the cultural landscape that Zuckerberg enabled. Inherent in this exploration was all the questions about privacy and our right to it that has, in recent years, become the forefront of our conversations about social media. In a way, it’s a film that most defines and sets the tone for the decade that would come, and one that feels immensely more important today than it did ten years ago.
There’s a reason that Eggers is the only filmmaker to be on this list twice. He’s two for two in terms of delivering masterpieces of genre that subvert the expectations that have been conditioned into the minds of audiences. His debut, The Witch, was a film second to none in terms of establishing atmosphere and exploring the horror that lurks between the lines. An ode to the New England folktales that he grew up with, The Witch is another film that examines the terror found in isolation as well as the horrific implications of superstition.