The Best Movies of the Decade
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
I love movies. It’s a trite conclusion, but a truism that rings in my head constantly. I may even love movies a little too much. I saw (500) Days of Summer for the first time in the summer of 2009 and my love for movies entered its nascent stage. I was young and naive about love, but something about that quirky, distinct romantic comedy with an ending I wasn’t used to turned me into a burgeoning dilettante. You can read more about that here, my first post on Malone Matinee.
That feeling that a great cinematic experience can instill stuck with me as the 2000s ran their course and the new decade began. As my interest in playing sports waned, my longing for the movies flourished. I committed to my newfound belief that cinema is the greatest art in the world and I took joy in the fact that many people around the world agree. I still drink from the fountain of cinema knowledge, from the 1890s to now, trying to drink it dry before I die. Though I know that isn’t possible, I will always be cursed with this thirst, so I keep drinking.
How lucky we are to have such an intimate art form that can take us away from the mendacity, mundanity and melancholy of real life. With cinema you can not only feel, but you can see. It’s visual like a painting or a photograph but it’s a broader canvas and it also moves, taking the viewer on a journey. In some necessary depictions it can be an indictment of lesser figures, fictional or real, and a reminder of what not to be; but at its best it is magnanimous and empathetic with the human condition. It makes the vicissitudes of life just a little easier to handle. With cinema, you can escape to any place with any type of person, depending on the story of course. One doesn’t even have to relate to a character to have a genuine moment of catharsis.
Cinema is beautiful, it grounds us in awe and wonder while life perplexes and stumps us. Enjoying the existence of cinema can give us some respite from, or reconciliation with- for an hour and a half or more- the simple, exigent act of being. Look no further than the Malone Matinee homepage for proof of that; there you’ll find the exemplary quote from the legendary critic-turned-filmmaker and French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut. (It’s true cinephiles are neurotic, hence my statement earlier about being cursed with the thirst for cinema knowledge? Yeah I really can’t help it, sorry. I plead with the insanity defense, I’m a maniac for movies.) Of course, life also is beautiful and there’s no need to escape it all the time; but cinema, with its own beauty, helps to augment the beauty of life as well. These are the things I learned about cinema in my first decade of closely watching and living in the movies.
While the medium and the way we watch it has undergone many changes in the 2010s, it still has thrived as the greatest art form in the world. These are the films that left an indelible effect on me, stories I still think about everyday and cinematic experiences that helped quench my thirst a little. Obviously it only includes movies I’ve seen, I don’t have the privilege of attending all the film festivals in the world so there are many movies that have still eluded my eyes. Fortunately, I’ve still seen a lot and enough to spend a grueling amount of time on this list, adding, subtracting, and deciding I need 30 movies as well as an honorable mentions list because it’s just too hard to leave out beloved films. But any time spent on movies is well worth it in my book. If there’s some movies on here you haven’t seen, I would remedy that and find some great films you can cherish and always use to reminisce on this decade. Here are my top 30 films of the undulating decade that was the 2010s (2010-2019). Top 10 films of 2019 are also coming soon.
30. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)
“Is he slow?” Baby Driver is one of the most watchable films of all time. Every visit to Edgar Wright’s best film is better than the last. The synchronization and editing to music is a blast in this refreshing, original film. Just put your hand on the speaker, listen to the music, feel it, and fall in love as you head west in a car you can’t afford with a plan you don’t have.
29. The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)
One of the best films of 2019, The Farewell is a touching ode to family with some clash of culture. Hopefully the Academy takes notice, because The Farewell is also one of the best written films of the century. If there’s one thing you can learn from this lovely film, it’s that you will never regret hugging your grandmother.
28. Jackie (Pablo Larrain, 2016)
In this beautiful psychological character study, Natalie Portman is transcendent as Jackie Kennedy reeling from the loss of her husband as the public takes notice. With a memorable score by Mica Levi, well-crafted direction by Pablo Larrain, and some unconventional storytelling choices, Jackie is one of the best and most underrated films of the decade.
27. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016)
The middle film of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s unconnected modern western trilogy (Sicario in 2015 and Wind River in 2017) is the true standout amongst the other two great films. Sheridan and Mackenzie expertly showcase fleshed-out characters brimming with emotion, steady pacing, and stirring social themes over the dry, flat Texas landscape. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are excellent as the centerpiece brothers while Jeff Bridges gives a wonderful performance as the hootin’ Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton and somewhat moral center of the film. Hell or High Water deftly portrays the true soul of West Texas. If the 2000s had No Country for Old Men, then the 2010s have Hell or High Water.
26. Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
Endlessly re-watchable, Moneyball is the quintessential film about baseball even though it mainly takes place beyond the diamond. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are phenomenal while director Bennett Miller takes a prosaic subject behind the scenes of a sport that, unfortunately, many already find boring and turns it into solemn, wholly entertaining film. Plus the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as a baseball manager is just perfection. Moneyball succeeds in not only making one romantic about baseball, but in being the greatest baseball film.
25. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
The summer of 1969 will always be remembered as one of the most crucial years of American history. 50 years later, the summer of 2019 will always be remembered as the time when Quentin Tarantino released his cinematic homage to that year. After Inglorious Bastards in 2009, Tarantino continued his historic revisions with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight but it wasn’t until he turned history into a fairy tale that he really achieved greatness this decade. Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton are probably Tarantino’s most memorable characters and that’s saying a lot considering his characters are always so vivid and comprehensive. I really wanted to put this in my top 10 but it’s a true testament to how great this decade was that this ended up at #25 on my list. I can’t wait to always revisit Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood and hangout with Booth and Dalton in the glorious, pivotal time that was 1969 Hollywood. I never saw it or lived it but thanks to Tarantino I can always have a very accurate glimpse of what it was like while also dreaming about what could’ve been.
24. Arrival (Denis Villenueve, 2016)
Denis Villenueve had a hell of a decade. From Prisoners to Sicario to Arrival to Blade Runner 2049 and currently finishing up production on an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune starring Timothee Chalamet. It pained me to choose between Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 but Arrival just barely takes the cake over the equally beautiful Blade Runner sequel. Amy Adams gives her best performance ever as a linguistics professor hired to communicate with extraterrestrial visitors. Based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, which is just as elegant and contemplative, Villenueve manages to turn it into a quiet, mind-bending visual spectacle of love and wonder. It’s brilliant and beautiful in every way.
23. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
The other great heist-driver-with-a-good-heart-and-moral-center movie on this list that uses music unlike Baby Driver but just as effectively and powerfully. All it took for Nicolas Winding Refn to break into the mainstream was to make a neo-noir with Ryan Gosling’s pretty face speaking with nothing but his smile and eyes. Gosling’s restraint isn’t the only thing going for Drive of course; there’s Carey Mulligan’s always welcome presence as a woman who has no luck with men, Bryan Cranston in his Walter White days, and even Oscar Isaac before he was Poe and especially before he was Llewyn Davis (we’ll get to that). Then there’s the music. It bangs, all of it. Drive is an intoxicating film, a sweet, sunny California love story mixed into a dark, bloody crime caper. And not since Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) have the lights and skyline of Los Angeles looked more glamorous. Drive is one of the best of the decade because it’s a reminder that you can soak in the California sun all you want, but it still sets at the end of the day.
22. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
Burning leaves a hot mark on your brain. Lee Chang-dong is one of Korea’s most formidable auteurs and his 2018 masterpiece is all the proof you need. Snubbed at the Oscars Foreign Language but not in my best decade list (not that it’s a high honor, but films like this should be recognized no matter who it is), Burning is a quasi-thriller look at class in Korea but unlike Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (we’ll get to that too) it’s much more subdued and mysterious. It’s a slow burn, but also a mesmerizing watch and one that significantly pays off in the end. Like I said, it leaves a hot mark on your brain and it won’t cool off for a long time.
21. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)
“Who can know the mind of God?” Reverend Toller asks. Poor Toller (a never better Ethan Hawke) is a man of faith, but when confronted with something his faith cannot answer, things get out of hand. The master writer behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Schrader directs First Reformed with austerity and his transcendental filmmaking style, telling a bold and important story that both observes and critiques until the bitter end when it is finally known that everything should be questioned. Thank goodness we have A24, keeping cinema alive and healthy with brilliant films like First Reformed.
20. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018)
Debra Granik made Jennifer Lawrence a star back in 2010 with Winter’s Bone, now she gives Thomasin Mackenzie a standout performance along with Ben Foster (getting a break from his hot-headed roles) in the sublime Leave No Trace. Effectively restrained and powerful, Leave No Trace is a beautiful father-daughter story about the need for human connection and Granik’s camera films her two subjects in the wilderness with beauty and empathy, leaving plenty of room for emotion in the wet, green Pacific Northwest forests.
19. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kor-eda, 2018)
Continuing my streak of 2018 films here, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters is the ultimate film about family; there is nothing like the love of family. This Palme d’Or winning, Oscar Foreign Language nominated film about a poor Japanese family on the outskirts of Tokyo is a spellbinding achievement that is both heartbreaking and uplifting. “This is what you do.” Watch this stunning movie, see the context of that line, and then feel the tears fall down your face.
18. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Blockbusters can be intellectually stimulating, completely entertaining and also original and ambiguous. There still hasn’t been anything like Christopher Nolan’s complex, mind-bending film since 2010 and that’s a real shame. Inception was truly something no one had ever seen before. It is one of the best films of the decade not only because it’s amazing but because it is the last great blockbuster at the beginning of a decade dominated by franchises, sequels and reboots. Nolan concluded his Dark Knight trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, leaving Warner Bros. to play catch up with Marvel and continuing his acclaimed, non-IP driven run with the ambitious Interstellar (2014), another film that is a lot further up this list if you keep reading, and Tenet which is due to release in 2020. Also, Hans Zimmer’s seminal score paved the way for movie trailers and action films in the 2010s. And that spinning hallway fight sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt- practical filmmaking and effects at its best. Is he in a dream or reality? When thoughts provoked still linger and a question posed by the ending of the film is still debated to this day, then that means true greatness abounds.
17. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2018)
Based on Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s parents, Cold War is a romance against the backdrop of the Cold War. Shot beautifully in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, Cold War sounds like an epic story but its imperturbable hour and a half runtime grounds the film into a simple, meditative story about love, memory and passion. Like every film on this list, it leaves an everlasting touch, but with Cold War, it’s a very tender one.
16. La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
Chazelle is one of the greatest young directors working today and it came down to La La Land, his breakout movie Whiplash, or the brilliant, criminally underrated Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. But I had to go with La La Land. The love letter to Hollywood and dreamers is still Chazelle’s best movie. Instantly memorable music and musical/dance set pieces make it the best musical of the decade; the performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone along with their chemistry make this a fantastic love story as well. When the two dreamers ultimately choose their ambitions over love, we can only wonder along with them if they made the right choice, even after things turned out fine. That final lingering glance leaves La La Land lingering in our minds forever.
15. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
Scorsese culminated his stellar decade with his gangster swan song. Between this, Wolf of Wall Street (2013) or Silence (2016), it was The Irishman that prevailed. I could’ve put all three of these films on this list but for the sake of other great movies, I had to put just one of Scorsese’s films and the The Irishman wins as Scorsese’s grandest and most reflective, melancholy work.
14. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)
Quiet and small with a magnificent Adam Driver, Jim Jarmusch’s best film is an ode to poetry and the tedious routines of life. It’s the ultimate movie about the mundane day-to-day and the inspiration that can come from that simplicity. Paterson is a refreshing, thoughtful, and lovely little film that anybody who strives to make art will enjoy.
13. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
Parasite made history as the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and nobody deserves it more than Bong Joon-ho. It’s a thrilling masterpiece and an endlessly entertaining story of class and greed. I can’t wait to see what else Mr. Bong has in store for the next decade.
12. Under the Skin (Jonathon Glazer, 2013)
Another great Mica Levi score here but that’s not the only great thing about Under the Skin. One of A24’s first films, they fortunately gave Jonathon Glazer a chance with this bold and haunting film. Scarlett Johansson is literally a transcendental force, stalking and seducing men into her dark alien oblivion. It’s brutal and odd, borrowing heavily from cinematic influences but still works very much as its own. I like to think Stanley Kubrick would have approved of Under the Skin.
11. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey, 2018)
Joaquin Phoenix will forever be remembered as the standalone Joker, but it’s movies like You Were Never Really Here where he really shines as a man struggling with PTSD who tracks down missing girls. Lynne Ramsey directs with pure restraint, cutting away from the violence, making us as the viewer starve for the pleasure and release that the indulgence of on-screen violence can give us. The blood is seen eventually, but it sprays on our protagonist’s bearded face like flying paint (I heard you paint houses?) when everything comes to light and there’s nothing left but hell to pay. Poetic imagery in a very poetic film. Also, Johnny Greenwood’s best score to date.
10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019)
Subtle and soulful, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a gorgeous story of art and irresistible passion. There aren’t many movies like this that come along. Elegant and aesthetic in its visuals while both telling and quiet in the two leads’ looks. A work of both art and love. It’s absolute cinema.
9. A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)
There is a scene in A Ghost Story where Rooney Mara sits on the kitchen floor and eats pie for at least four minutes. It’s perfect. A Ghost Story is anything but scary. It’s a quiet philosophical study on grief, love, and life. Lowery is one of my favorite filmmakers (I also love 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and A Ghost Story is his boldest and most original film to date. This film is partly about leaving a legacy, and Lowery has certainly left his.
8. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
Another example of Joaquin Phoenix’s better performances. He plays Freddie Quell, a drunk loner reeling from his soldiering in WWII who happens upon a religious cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (based on L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology) played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd begins to mentor Quell, changing his life. It’s a challenging watch, fraught with technical mastery and intense writing. From the master of cinema himself, Paul Thomas Anderson had a great decade as well. From The Master to Inherent Vice (2014) and the wonderful Phantom Thread (2017), PTA is one of the best ever to do it.
7. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
If the 2000s had Lost in Translation, a delightful film about love and loneliness, then the 2010s have Her, exploring the same themes and just as delightful if not more melancholy. With a beautiful score, another killer Joaquin Phoenix performance, some wry wisdom, and beautiful cinematography, Spike Jonze’s futuristic love story is an incredible experience.
6. Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)
Kogonada, known for his video essays on film, came out of nowhere with the immensely intelligent Columbus. He spent all his time analyzing movies and finally decided he could make one. A great one too. There’s so much to tackle with this film but it is far from overwhelming. It’s quiet, natural, and understated. There’s nothing to do but absorb what you are watching and feel every feeling it imbues. Columbus also made me realize how similar cinema and architecture actually are as art forms- filling space with shapes, shadows, and light, making one look at those spaces to fill the void inside of us. Check this one out on Hulu, please.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
Step aside No Country for Old Men, this is forever the Coen’s subversive masterpiece. It is also probably the bleakest and most heartbreaking film on this list. The quintessential film about failure, featuring Oscar Isaac’s breakthrough performance as a struggling New York folk singer who just can’t catch a break. It doesn’t help that he’s not really a good person either. But we still sympathize with Llewyn, especially every struggling artist who has been in his shoes, whether they make it or not. In Llewyn’s case, it’s downright devastating. It’s full of the Coen’s signature style and humor along with a great folk music soundtrack but it’s still the most distinguished film of their filmography. It also has Oscar Isaac (before he was Poe Dameron) and Justin Timberlake singing while Adam Driver (before he was Kylo Ren) wears a cowboy hat and does vocal background noises and it’s the perfect display of virtuoso. Then there’s this: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Ouch.
4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Malick’s abstract masterpiece actually isn’t one of my favorite films but I can’t help but recognize it for what it is: something to behold and a masterful work of art. While I prefer Malick’s more narrative friendly films like his earlier ones or his newest one, A Hidden Life, The Tree of Life is truly unlike anything ever put to the screen. It’s a heavy film, tackling the meaning of life like no film has dared to do. It rewards your patience, but you don’t have to give in too much. Just allow it to move you as you float and glide through life and the universe with Malick’s (shot by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) camera.
3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Barry Jenkins is an ultra-talented filmmaker. I could have easily put If Beale Street Could Talk on this list, but Moonlight is his essential film and no doubt the third best film of the decade, in my particular opinion. Gentle and elegant, crafted with so much beauty and grace, it’s films like Moonlight that remind us how powerful cinema can be. What’s especially striking is the subject here, it’s something we never see on the movie screen, a story the camera has so rarely captured. It’s that representation and the way it is told that makes Moonlight so special. It’s both subtle and enlightening, a film for the ages. Thank goodness for movies like Moonlight.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
1. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)
This is what I talk about when I talk about cinema. When nothing but sound, editing, musical score, and pure visuals tell a complete and thrilling story. There’s hardly any dialogue and the threat (the Germans) are never seen, making this war-torn hell on the beach even more terrifying. Yes, the best movie of the decade does star Harry Styles and he does a great job. Dunkirk is true visual spectacle, captivating and demanding; every shot, sequence, and unexpected turn making you feel like you are actually there. There’s no need to know the characters, because we are basically one too, right there with them, doing everything we can to survive. Nolan crafts everything so perfectly and meticulously to make this a physical experience. It’s pure cinema. It is also the best war movie ever made. I can’t hype up it enough, Dunkirk is anything but just another war movie. It’s the war genre, but it is cinema in its entirety. If I made a “Greatest Movies Ever Made” list, Dunkirk would be on it. Christopher Nolan is a master of smart, blockbuster filmmaking, making Tenet my most anticipated release of 2020. Everything that makes cinema the greatest art in the world is right here in Dunkirk, which makes it my #1 film of the 2010s.
Honorable Mentions (because I have to):
The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017)
Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2019)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)
Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)
Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
Inside Out (Pete Doctor, 2015)
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)
BlacKkKlansmen (Spike Lee, 2018)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)
Loving (Jeff Nichols, 2016)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)
Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2012)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)
Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018)
A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villenueve, 2017)
First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018)
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2015)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, 2018)
The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)
Wildlife (Paul Dano, 2018)
The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman, 2018)
Game Night (John Francis Daley, Jonathon Goldstein, 2018)
Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011)
The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)
Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012)
The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach, 2017)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)
A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, 2019)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Brothers, 2018)
True Grit (Coen Brothers, 2010)