After months of consideration, and getting so deep in the weeds that the words “best”, “film”, and “decade” have lost all meaning, here it is: my list of the best films of the decade. This list, which was supposed to be 20 films and ended up at 32, is a combination of quality, influence, and gut feeling, but all are films that stand out when looking back on the cinema of the 2010s. As always, this list is alphabetical, not ranked.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
An Iranian-Western-vampire genre mashup, Girl is strange, creepy, feminist, and at times, achingly romantic. This is also the first film on the list that marks a decade trend of women claiming genre spaces to do brilliant, inventive work.
A Hidden Life (2019)
Terrence Malick has wrestled with themes of human suffering, perseverance, and religious fervor throughout his career, and A Hidden Life is his most perfect expression of beatific suffering yet. It’s also a timely story about standing up to Nazis, which gives Life an immediate resonance Malick’s films don’t usually carry.
A Simple Favor (2018)
Satirizing everything from Cool Girl thrillers to the true crime craze to mommy bloggers, A Simple Favor is a black comedy that also works as a (completely batsh-t) mystery. This movie has everything: secret twins, incest, a series of increasingly insane plot twists, and some of the best contemporary artistic design of the decade.
The Act of Killing (2012)
Co-directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous Indonesian, The Act of Killing is a portrait, made terrifying by the relative mundanity of these men’s lives today, of some of the men who led death squads during the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. The men recreate their atrocities as classic film scenes, until one man pretends to be a victim in a scene and then simply cannot go on. It is a testament to the power of cinema, and of stories to evoke empathy, even where you believe no feeling can exist.
The Avengers (2012)
I can hear you, Black Panther hive, and believe me, I thought about it. But the fact is, there is no Black Panther without The Avengers. This is the film that started it all, and it had an immeasurable impact on Hollywood, setting records previously thought impossible, giving audiences a once-in-a-generation experience, and popularizing the blockbuster cinematic universe. That it holds up as an entertaining, thrilling adventure is almost just a bonus.
The Babadook (2014)
Jennifer Kent’s debut feature film is either a horror movie about a haunting, or it’s a domestic drama about grief and mental illness. Either way, this is one of the creepiest, most unsettling genre films of the decade, and it also gave us one of the most memorable sound effects since a tyrannosaurus rex roared.
Blue Ruin (2013)
This is not the sleek, sexy revenge of typical Hollywood thrillers. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is bleak, brutal, and spare, with a protagonist shattered by trauma and whose revenge is uncoordinated, sloppy, and carries an inter-generational price. This is the best case against backwoods justice since Reba McEntire sang, “That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia”.
A romance that is at once universal and achingly specific to the roadblocks and repressions of queer women in the middle 20th century, Carol typifies Todd Haynes’ rich, detailed style and intimate sense of drama. Romantic, intimate, and infuriating, Carol captures how simple it is to fall in love and how hard it is to be in love, especially when society does not accept you.
A gut-wrenching, almost impossible to watch psychological thriller/horror movie, Compliance begs you to fact-check its “based on a true story” narrative (it’s terribly, awfully true). No film this decade better captures both the ease with which people surrender their civil liberties to authoritarians, and the ease with which people will stand by and do nothing as a woman is abused. Compliance is as infuriating as it is chilling.
The Duke of Burgundy (2015)
An erotic S&M fantasy set in a world with no men, The Duke of Burgundy is a lavish exploration of sex, intimacy, and power exchange. Writer/director Peter Strickland uses fetishism to examine a deteriorating relationship and the particular poignancy of a love affair coming to an end. There have been a lot of breakup movies this decade, but none as unique as The Duke of Burgundy.
Get Out (2017)
A horror comedy that works equally well in either genre, and works even better on second viewing, Get Out is an immediate genre classic. It gave us a new way of thinking of the black experience in America, and also the insidious supremacy of white liberalism. This is one of the sharpest social observations of the decade, and also a really damn good horror movie.
The Guest (2014)
Stylish, sexy, and violent, The Guest mashes up horror and superhero tropes into a story about a super-soldier gone rogue, who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. It’s easy to get lost in the aesthetics, but The Guest has something to say about the toll of America’s endless war, and bad men who only pass as good because we’re socially conditioned to accept them.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Park Chan-wook adapts Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith, into an erotic thriller set in colonial Korea. Using shifting perspective and a twisty, layered crime plot, Park tells a story of colonialism, class, gender, and love that is sexy, smart, romantic, and surprisingly funny.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Any one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s three feature films this decade could have made this list, but in the end, I chose the film that is the MOST Paul Thomas Anderson. Like if you asked me what PTA’s whole deal is, I would point you to Inherent Vice. Shaggy, strange, and risky, Inherent Vice is a cinematic psychedelic trip that invites multiple viewings.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coen Brothers also had a couple contenders this decade, but Inside Llewyn Davis is exceptional for the prickliness of its lead character (played by a breakout Oscar Isaac) and the mundane lyricism of his story. This is not a tale of transformational genius, this is a tale of mediocrity and near misses featuring Llewyn Davis, one of contemporary cinema’s greatest cynics.
John Wick (2014)
Keanu Reeves experienced another career renaissance with John Wick, giving us an immediately indelible, impossibly cool character with the titular John Wick. Sleek, stylish, and with a laughably, yet incredibly effective, streamlined story, John Wick is a high-water mark for American action cinema.
Part 2 coming soon…