Compiling a list of the best films of the decade is not easy. Time is a factor, as not all movies age well – even in less than 10 years. Thus in some cases it wasn’t even my number one movie of the year that endured, it was a film lower on the list.
Curiously, more than half the films on this list of the 10 best movies of the 2010s are dramas, which suggests there are still essential stories to be told. Note: next to each title is its ranking on my list of the top 10 movies of its year.
10. The Martian (#1 in 2015)
The visual effects, production design, musical score and more were top notch, but it was Matt Damon’s performance as the astronaut abandoned on Mars, that made the film great. Consider: He spends a substantial amount of screen time alone, so if we don’t like and root for him, the entire premise becomes faulty. But we do.
9. A Separation (unlisted in 2011)
It earned Iran’s first Oscar of any kind (for Foreign Language Film), but more importantly it has endured because its themes are timeless. Care for an elderly loved one, civil misunderstandings and a couple’s communication breakdown are at the heart of the story, but so are the norms of Islamic culture and figuring out the ambiguities of legal and moral right and wrong.
8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (#1 in 2017)
Frances McDormand’s tour-de-force performance was the highlight, but the work of Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson should not be overlooked (McDormand and Rockwell won Oscars for this). Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s acerbic and witty script, combined with the performances, perfect pacing and clever twists, created an ideal dramatic film.
7. Inception (#1 in 2010)
Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending thriller only gets better with repeated viewings. The layers, depth of thought, and master craftsmanship of all elements of filmmaking are astonishing. What’s also great is that in the decade that’s followed, Nolan has tried to top himself with each new film, and often comes close. Someday, we can only hope, he will.
6. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (#5 in 2011)
My palms still sweat at the sight of Tom Cruise dangling from the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Of course the film, the fourth in the Mission: Impossible franchise, was much more than daring stunts. The plot was smart without being overcomplicated and every action scene was extraordinary.
5. The Insult (unlisted in 2017)
In this Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from Lebanon, a minor verbal spat along ethnic and religious lines escalated into a wonderfully written and acted national dispute in which neither side was entirely right or wrong.
4. Whiplash (#1 in 2014)
J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance steals the show, but at its core was the question of what Miles Teller’s aspiring drummer, Andrew, was willing to sacrifice for greatness. What’s inherently fascinating was that some will understand why Simmons’ Fletcher does what he does, while others will easily dismiss him as cruel.
3. OJ Made In America (#3 in 2016)
Its incisive look at not just O.J. Simpson but American society as a whole maintains an eerie relevance to this day, and its truths are not a good look.
2. 12 Years A Slave (#1 in 2013)
Without a doubt, this is the best movie ever made about slavery. It is a film that has stayed with me, haunted my dreams. By focusing on a free man’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) horrid experience as a slave it became even more infuriating, and even more unfathomable, that such atrocities could occur. For good and bad reasons, the movie is unforgettable.
1. La La Land (#1 in 2016)
To this day it’s the only film I’ve ever dared describe as “a new classic” upon its release. It was at once a beautiful homage to classic Hollywood musicals, and a lovely Hollywood musical on its own – with a twist. It’s earnest, sentimental and daring. How I still love it so.
Marriage Story (#1 in 2019) was the best movie about divorce since Kramer vs. Kramer (1979); Ready Player One (#3 in 2018) is still the perfect package of ’80s nostalgia and new age excitement; Eighth Grade (#1 in 2018) was arguably the best movie ever made about the horrors of middle school; Hell or High Water (#4 in 2016) remains an absolute delight for the waitress scene alone; Nocturnal Animals (#8 in 2016) is still one of the best movies I’ve seen about art and its subjectivity; the style, performances and ambiance of American Hustle (#2 in 2013) were an exuberant thrill; the last half-hour of Argo (#1 in 2012) was among the most suspenseful sequences ever filmed; Warrior (#1 in 2011) was a heartbreaking story about two MMA fighter brothers and their terrible father; and Darren Aronofsky’s vivid, surreal Black Swan (#2 in 2010) earned Natalie Portman a Best Actress Oscar, and was an ingenious mind trip for the rest of us.