fb-pixel

These are the cinematic moments that define what the medium was capable of during a time of immense social and cultural flux.

Making a list of the decade’s best movies involves an entirely different process from the usual end-of-year tallying. If the latter draws on fresh impressions and the zeitgeist, the former has the benefit of hindsight — of the passage of time that balances one’s critical scales. Not all the movies among my 50 top films from 2010 through 2019 were ones I gave four stars to when they came out — maybe not even the majority. And some films that were urgently of the moment in their season have come to seem less necessary now that that season has passed. And yet, the following rundown of titles feels good, feels right — for this critic, these are the cinematic moments that define what the medium, at its best, was capable of during a time of immense social and cultural flux.

Advertisement



Can that medium last? Over the past decade I’ve pondered a great deal in these pages about whether movies as we know them will be around much longer — whether they’re getting nudged toward extinction by the advent of streaming technology, the dominance of at-home viewing and smartphone entertainment, the explosion of television content, the rise of the YouTube/TikTok generation, and so much more. How you gonna get ‘em to consider, say, Chloe Zhao’s lyrical rodeo drama “The Rider” when the only thing anyone’s talking about is ”Game of Thrones”?

Except that nobody’s really talking about “Game of Thrones” anymore — it came and it went, while “The Rider” already feels eternal. It’s not that the most recent years in movies have talked me down from the ledge of worrying about the medium’s future. It’s more that the on-demand boom is, ironically enough, refueling the production and exhibition of that roughly two-hour experience we still call a “movie.” Because of that boom, more and different voices are coming to the fore than ever before. It has been a very good decade for filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Marielle Heller, Barry Jenkins, Jennifer Kent, and many, many more.

Advertisement



Of course it has also been a very good decade for the Hollywood studios and the executives who greenlight the franchise product that fills the multiplexes: the endless iterations of Marvel and DC superheroes, “Star Wars” chapters, and live-action or digitized princesses and lion kings. As we head into the 2020s, everything after that last colon is owned by one corporation, the Walt Disney Company, a development that promises a rosy future for cinematic amusement park rides but very little for movies about humans, by humans, for humans.

Because it is my perhaps unforgivable bias to prefer people to park rides, the following list is skimpy when it comes to blockbusters based on comic books, toys, theme parks, board games, previous blockbusters, and/or young adult novels. Also, the wealth of films from countries other than America is underrepresented, given that I’m an American movie critic charged with covering mostly American theatrical releases. I wished I’d seen more documentaries in a decade exploding with them. But there are other lists out there to fill in those gaps. And, anyway, great movies can come from anywhere: My top pick for the entire decade is ... a sequel.

When I started making this list, I vowed to keep it to an even 10. In the end, I stopped at 50. I could have gone on. For the top 10, I’ve added commentary, a brief for the defense on Why This Movie Matters. For the other 40, titles alone will have to suffice. They’re ranked because that’s the fashion, but, honestly, after the first three, it’s a crapshoot. If that strikes you as cavalier, you are invited — no, urged — to make your own list. And then pass it around. Any film that doesn’t get seen is a dead film. Here are the ones that, for me, live on.

Advertisement



1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) What’s a movie? No, seriously: What. Is. A. Movie? A mirage: a chimera of light and dark that convinces us it’s made of physical reality. Movement on a two-dimensional plane that our brains translate into 3-D sensations. You could turn the sound off on George Miller’s unexpected fourth entry in his post-apocalyptic universe, and it would almost play as Abstract Expressionism: pure action-movie action painting. Turn the sound back up, and you get a tough, urgent, funny, hopeful saga of humanity’s survival against savage entropy, with Tom Hardy’s Max taking a back seat to Charlize Theron’s fearsome Imperator Furiosa and her army of weathered women elders. In a blockbuster medium that has become slave to the pixels, “Mad Max: Fury Road” dared to stage its jaw-dropping stunts in real time, with analog actors taking analog spills amid outrageous, high-octane chase sequences. In fact, you could make the argument that the entire movie’s one long chase scene, only with civilization’s fate in the balance. But some of the very first films ever made were chase scenes, too — the genre’s as elemental as a caveman running away from a bear. “Max Max: Fury Road” just yokes its relentless forward motion to anguish about a fallen world that sometimes seems too close to today and to a certainty about the kinds of people who may save us. That’s what makes it more than just light and shadow on a silver screen. What’s a movie? Something that moves and that moves us. In other words: this.

Advertisement



Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Vicky Krieps in "Phantom Thread," with Daniel Day-Lewis in the background.
Vicky Krieps in "Phantom Thread," with Daniel Day-Lewis in the background. Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

2. Phantom Thread (2017) “Mad Max: Fury Road” may be the best movie of the decade, but favorite movies are a more personal breed, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s tale of a dressmaker and his muse gave me more sheer bliss than any film of the last 10 years. What’s that you say? You found it lugubrious, inscrutable — weird? Maybe that’s because you went in expecting Great Drama, and “Phantom Thread” is a dark romantic farce worthy of Nabokov, a love story about two brilliant obsessives — divas both — that stands just far enough away from them for us to marvel and to mourn. (Press tour interviewer: “When are you going to make a comedy?” Anderson: “. . . I just did.”) Daniel Day-Lewis retires in high, eccentric style as Reynolds Woodcock — come on, that name! — a high-society couturier in 1950s London, and Vicky Krieps steals the show as Alma, his model and mother-figure; maybe his Medea, too. (And let us not forget Lesley Manville as the dressmaker’s acid-tongued sister.) Swathed in luxe fabric, swank filmmaking, and that absolutely luscious score, “Phantom Thread” is a front-row seat at the battle for control between two lovers who deserve each other and absolutely nobody else. I like to think Reynolds and Alma are still out there somewhere, adoring and poisoning each other for eternity.

Advertisement



Available on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

"The Clock"
"The Clock"MFA

3. The Clock (2010) The only movie on this list you have to go to a museum to see (the Museum of Fine Arts shares its copy with the National Gallery of Canada; it should swing back this way in a few years), Christian Marclay’s masterwork is a unique beast in the history of cinema: A 24-hour collage of snippets from other movies, each of which features a clock, or a watch, or someone mentioning the time. Which sounds pretty deadly until you actually sit down and experience the thing — experience time itself passing before your eyes. Scenes from movies you remember, or have forgotten you remember, or don’t know at all, spin past like a fiendishly well-edited waking dream. There are moments of tranquillity and crashing climaxes — you should see what happens at noon. It’s a history of the movies, of the 20th century, of your own media consumption. And among its other otherworldly virtues, “The Clock” actually is a clock: You can settle in on one of the museum’s viewing couches for 20 minutes, or two hours, or a whole day, and know exactly when to leave for your next appointment. Most movies invite us to kill time. “The Clock” brings it to life in astonishing ways.

Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Joseph Mazzello in "The Social Network."
Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Joseph Mazzello in "The Social Network."Merrick Morton

4. The Social Network (2010) Here we sit at the end of a decade in which technology has upended our lives more profoundly, perhaps ruinously, than in any era since the invention of the car, the gun, the Gutenberg Bible. And at the beginning of the decade was a movie that asked us to take stock of what was already aborning, before the wave of trolls became a tsunami and before tech companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon rewired people and politics in ways we’re only just glimpsing. The genius of this hugely entertaining drama from director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, about the early days (and early lawsuits) of Facebook, is that it locates its origin story in a nerd spurned: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) who, having been dumped by a girlfriend (Rooney Mara) in one of the great kiss-off scenes in movies, creates a vengeful social-media gawk-and-stalk site that ends up taking over the world. Those acrid seeds live on in every toxic tweet and malicious post we navigate each day.

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea."
Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea."Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

5. Manchester by the Sea (2016) Some local pride is involved here, sure. If Kenneth Lonergan’s wintry drama doesn’t necessarily get the class strata of our Manchester right, it nails everything else: the psychic difference between North Shore and South Shore, the way men in these parts show their love for each other with brutal invective, and how surviving life’s guilts and tragedies is like surviving a New England winter — you go on as if it will someday end, even though you know it never will. Casey Affleck plain breaks your heart as Lee Chandler, a walking dead man after a family tragedy for which he’ll never forgive himself, not even to man up and raise his late brother’s mouthy teenage son (Lucas Hedges). Michelle Williams walks away with her one scene as Lee’s ex-wife, but this is Affleck’s movie, never more so than that hushed dining room scene, set during the graveyard hours, when Lee acknowledges that sometimes people and things just stay broke. (P.S.: If you want to switch this out for Lonergan’s “Margaret” — see below — I’m good with that.)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Daniel Kaluuya in "Get Out."
Daniel Kaluuya in "Get Out."Universal Pictures

6. Get Out (2017) The smartest horror movie of the decade? The scariest comedy? The most brilliant fusion of genre moviemaking and social commentary to ever hit No. 1 at the box office? All that and a remarkably poised writing-directing debut from Jordan Peele, formerly of TV’s “Key and Peele.” The genius of the movie is that its surface meanings and racial metaphors are so cleverly intertwined that you can’t pull them apart, meaning moviegoers, of all colors, have to talk about them to make sense of the thing. That in itself is a radical act in a culture founded on (and profiting from) looking the other way. A white woman (Allison Williams) takes her black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her very white parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener); what begins as a barbed comic update on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” becomes an “Invasion of the White Neo-Liberal Bourgeois Body Snatchers” that’s only funny until you think about it, which you are more than invited to do. It’s a crucial document in a decade that gave us “Selma,” “Between the World and Me,” Kendrick Lamar, “Moonlight,” Barbecue Becky, and Sandra Bland. And, yes, I’d see it a third time if I could.

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Willem Dafoe (left) and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project."
Willem Dafoe (left) and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project." Courtesy of A24

7. The Florida Project (2017) It joins movies like “The 400 Blows,” “Ohayo,” “Where Is the Friend’s House?” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” as one of the great films about childhood. This sixth feature from Sean Baker, one of the very few American filmmakers to focus his lens on the country’s dispossessed, is at its most affecting when it contrasts the exuberance of its 6-year-old heroine, an unstoppable whirlwind named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), with the bleak realities of her life in a cheap Florida motel hard by the walls of Disney World. Bria Vinaite plays Moonee’s mother, selling knock-off perfumes in parking lots and turning tricks when that doesn’t pan out, and Willem Dafoe is the motel manager, one of those fallen saints who makes bearable the lives of others. Baker’s gift is to make us see these characters, get us to care about their lives, and remind us that they’re everywhere in America, banging on the doors of the Magic Kingdom.

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Giuseppe Fuda in "Le Quattro Volte."
Giuseppe Fuda in "Le Quattro Volte."

8. Le Quattro Volte (2010) The movie to see when you want to slow things down and feel the planet turning beneath your feet. Director Michelangelo Frammartino drops us for a year or so into a tiny Italian village somewhere in Calabria, contemplating the lives and deaths of an ancient goatherd, a baby goat, a tree. There’s an amazing long shot from above the village that takes in a series of elemental dramas, comedies, calamities; for all I know it’s going on still. There’s another shot of an old man seated at a table whose surface, you realize with a jolt, is moving, the snails covering it milling about at a speed almost too slow to register. That “almost” is the key — “Le Quattro Volte” says we’ll see everything if we look long enough. In an angry, noisy world, watching this film is as restorative as a long, cool drink from a lake.

Available on Amazon, Kanopy

A scene from "The Act of Killing."
A scene from "The Act of Killing."

9. The Act of Killing (2012) Just about the most outrageous truth-and-reconciliation project ever put on film, although there’s not enough reconciliation and the truth is strained through the movies. Director Joshua Oppenheimer brought his cameras to Indonesia to interview aging militiamen who had taken part in the mid-1960s genocide against Communists and anybody who looked like one. Rather than showing repentance, the killers brag in gory detail about their exploits and, under the director’s prodding, stage re-creations of their crimes in various genres including gangster movies, westerns, and musicals. And as they do so, they begin to consider their victims and something like remorse begins to crawl up their throats — literally, in the case of one old thug who starts retching and can’t stop. This and Oppenheimer’s 2014 companion film, “The Look of Silence,” are a base-level rationale for the documentary form — to document the forgotten, and to hold to account those invested in the forgetting.

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Scarlett Johansson in "Under the Skin."
Scarlett Johansson in "Under the Skin." AP

10. Under the Skin (2013) Jonathan Glazer’s deadpan sci-fi drama, based on a novel by Michael Faber, follows an anonymous woman (Scarlett Johansson) driving a van around rural Scotland, picking up men and delivering them to . . . something . . . in a moldering mansion. She’s a lure, but what happens when the bait starts sympathizing for the baited? Johansson had a hell of a decade, and this is one of its peaks; her performance as an alien intelligence is genuinely startling, as devoid of personality as her voice in “Her” is rich with it. A cold but seductive masterwork from a filmmaker working in fields once trod by Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg. The hardest movie on this list to summarize, it’s also possibly the hardest to shake — a scene on a rocky beach, while not violent, remains one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen.

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube

Alex Hibbert (left) and Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight."
Alex Hibbert (left) and Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight." David Bornfriend

11. Moonlight (2016)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube

Emmanuelle Riva (with Jean-Louis Trintignant) in "Amour."
Emmanuelle Riva (with Jean-Louis Trintignant) in "Amour."

12. Amour (2012)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

So-dam Park (left) and Woo-sik Choi in "Parasite."
So-dam Park (left) and Woo-sik Choi in "Parasite."Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard International Film Festival

13. Parasite (2019)

Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis in "Moonrise Kingdom."
Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis in "Moonrise Kingdom."

14. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

J. Smith-Cameron (center) and Anna Paquin (right) in "Margaret."
J. Smith-Cameron (center) and Anna Paquin (right) in "Margaret."

15. Margaret (2011)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Denis Lavant and Kylie Minogue in "Holy Motors."
Denis Lavant and Kylie Minogue in "Holy Motors."

16. Holy Motors (2012)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."Jess Pinkham

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Kristen Johnson (right) in "Cameraperson."
Kristen Johnson (right) in "Cameraperson." Lynsey Addario/Janus Films

18. Cameraperson (2016)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Sally Hawkins (left) and Octavia Spencer in "The Shape of Water."
Sally Hawkins (left) and Octavia Spencer in "The Shape of Water."Fox Searchlight Pictures

19. The Shape of Water (2017)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Brady Jandreau in "The Rider."
Brady Jandreau in "The Rider."Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

20. The Rider (2017)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in "Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood."
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in "Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood."Andrew Cooper

21. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Joaquin Phoenix in "Her."
Joaquin Phoenix in "Her."Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

22. Her (2013)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube

Payman Maadi and Sarina Farhadi in "A Separation."
Payman Maadi and Sarina Farhadi in "A Separation."Reuters

23. A Separation (2011)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in "Paterson."
Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in "Paterson."Courtesy of TIFF

24. Paterson (2016)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Ando Sakura, Sasaki Miyu, and Lily Franky in "Shoplifters."
Ando Sakura, Sasaki Miyu, and Lily Franky in "Shoplifters." Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

25. Shoplifters (2018)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan in "Fruitvale Station."
Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan in "Fruitvale Station."Cait Adkins/Weinstein Company

26. Fruitvale Station (2013)

Available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant."
Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant." Anne Joyce

27. The Immigrant (2013)

Available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu

A scene from "Manakamana."
A scene from "Manakamana." Courtesy of Cinema Guild

28. Manakamana (2013)

Available on Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Michael Keaton (left) and Mark Ruffalo in "Spotlight."
Michael Keaton (left) and Mark Ruffalo in "Spotlight."Kerry Hayes

29. Spotlight (2015)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

A scene from "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse."
A scene from "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." Sony Pictures Animation

30. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Netflix, YouTube

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in "The Irishman."
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in "The Irishman." Niko Tavernise / NETFLIX

31. The Irishman (2019)

Available on Netflix

Miles Teller (left) and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash."
Miles Teller (left) and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash."Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

32. Whiplash (2014)

Available on Amazon, Crackle, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

A scene from "Toy Story 3"
A scene from "Toy Story 3"Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

33. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Available on Amazon, Disney+, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood."
Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood."Courtesy of Independent Film Festival Boston

34. Boyhood (2014)

Available on Amazon, Netflix

From left: Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin (on floor), Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, and Simon Russell Beale in "The Death of Stalin."
From left: Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin (on floor), Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, and Simon Russell Beale in "The Death of Stalin."Courtesy of IFC FIlms

35. The Death of Stalin (2017)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in "45 Years."
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in "45 Years."Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. (c) 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.

36. 45 Years (2015)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life."
Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life."CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

37. The Tree of Life (2011)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in "Hugo."
Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in "Hugo." Jaap Buitendijk

38. Hugo (2011)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

A scene from "Inside Out."
A scene from "Inside Out." (c)2015 Disney/Pixar

39. Inside Out (2015)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Disney+, Vudu, YouTube

Adèle Haenel in "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."
Adèle Haenel in "Portrait of a Lady on Fire." Neon via AP

40. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story."
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story." Wilson Webb/Associated Press

41. Marriage Story (2019)

Available on Netflix

Jun Jong Seo in "Burning."
Jun Jong Seo in "Burning."Courtesy of Well Go USA

42. Burning (2018)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, Netflix, YouTube

Mame Bineta Sane in "Atlantics."
Mame Bineta Sane in "Atlantics."

43. Atlantics (2019)

Available on Netflix

Jafar Panahi in "This Is Not a Film."
Jafar Panahi in "This Is Not a Film."

44. This Is Not a Film (2011)

Available on Amazon, Kanopy

Daniel-Day Lewis in "Lincoln."
Daniel-Day Lewis in "Lincoln."David James

45. Lincoln (2012)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube

Jue Huang in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Jue Huang in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."Liu Hongyu, courtesy Kino Lorber

46. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2019)

Available on Amazon

Anders Danielsen Lie in "Oslo, August 31."
Anders Danielsen Lie in "Oslo, August 31." Strand Releasing

47. Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

Royalty Hightower in "The  Fits."
Royalty Hightower in "The Fits."Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

48. The Fits (2015)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Bruce Dern in "Nebraska."
Bruce Dern in "Nebraska."Merie W. Wallace

49. Nebraska (2013)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

James Franco in "Spring Breakers."
James Franco in "Spring Breakers."Michael Muller

50. Spring Breakers (2012)

Available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube


Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.