With the decade winding up in a few scant weeks, it’s worth looking back on the best films of the decade – or at least the most enjoyable. To be honest the rankings are largely arbitrary, and there are a lot of acclaimed 2010s films that I simply have not seen. If it’s on this list, it’s a film I would recommend checking out. Here are films 225 down to 201.
I have a sneaking suspicion that nearly everybody in the world disliked Your Highness except for me (the late Roger Ebert described it as ‘juvenile excrescence’). A high fantasy stoner comedy, it is packed wall-to-wall with gloriously silly characters, moments, and situations. Yes it is absolutely puerile and childish, and many jokes fail to land, but when it works it is tremendously funny. It is also packed with a ridiculously strong cast, including Danny McBride, James Franco, Zoe Deschanel, Natalie Portman, Toby Jones, and Justin Theroux as a positively brilliant evil wizard. Quite frankly, when you are tired of Danny McBride shrieking ‘Julie has no dick!’ you are tired of life.
Comedy piss-takes of 1980s television dramas should not be this good. Not only does 21 Jump Street smartly riff upon its namesake, it does so with a movie that actually advances its key characters beyond cyphers for jokes and into properly realised characters with story arcs and emotional development. If there is a failing in the film’s concept there’s no point making an issue of it because the film likely already has. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum showcase a splendid amount of camaraderie, and their comic timing works together like clockwork. Don’t get the wrong idea – this film is an outstandingly funny comedy first, but it frames it all with such grace and odd depth.
Bringing something as abstract as the Mighty Thor to the screen is a big ask: there’s the over-the-top fantasy background, the silly costumes, the cod-Shakespearean dialogue, and most of all the problem of expanding a shared movie universe from a green mutant and a guy in a robot suit to a literal Norse God and have it all make sense. Kenneth Branagh was an inspired choice to direct this, and his graceful use of language and canny casting (Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, and others all give the material a background gravitas for stars Chris Hensworth and Tom Hiddleston. It doesn’t get bogged down like its sequel The Dark World or resort to taking the piss like Ragnarok. Thor’s debut adventure has never been bettered.
Ben Affleck’s directorial follow-up to The Town is a near-surreal espionage thriller that, were it not based on a true story, would likely have been passed over for being too silly. When American diplomats get trapped in Iran, the CIA mission to enter the country and smuggle them out takes the unlikely form of a fake Hollywood film production. High on tension but low on action, Argo has a sense of authenticity that many spy movies fail to capture. Affleck stars, but the real gems are in his supporting cast: John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, and others. This is mature, intelligent stuff, the likes of which Hollywood used to make all the time.
Silent comedy throwbacks Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel do an outstanding job with this amiable, knowingly silly, but utterly charming physical comedy, in which a Canadian librarian (Gordon) travels to Paris to find her missing aunt (Emmanuelle Riva in her final role). She finds a romantic homeless man on the way (Abel), leading to comic confusions, dance sequences, physical pratfalls, and the like. It is a more commercial and streamlined work than their earlier film The Fairy, which is likely why it works so much better: everything in the film is subservient to the jokes. This kind of clowning is difficult to do well. Gordon and Abel do it brilliantly.
After casting such an enormous shadow over American cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, Steven Spielberg seems to have spent the last two decades slowly sliding out of the spotlight. He has continued to make films, but they by-and-large have felt like comparatively minor works: Tintin, The BFG, and Warhorse have all failed to capture a public’s imagination, while 2018’s Ready Player One was a colossal creative misfire. Bridge of Spies is one of his best works of recent years. Handsomely produced, measured in pacing, and formed around two key performances: Tom Hanks (superb) as American lawyer James Donovan, and Mark Rylance (making what is effectively his Hollywood debut) as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. They work together brilliantly, and make the film the success that it is.
It is often the case that a sequel will feel superior to an original film simply because all of the world-building and character set-up has been done in the original film, and all the sequel has to do is tell an exciting story. That is certainly the case with How to Train Your Dragon, which returns with a tighter storyline and darker emotional tone. There is a weight to the proceedings here that make the story matter more, and the impact on the characters to be greater. The animation is absolutely superb, and pretty much cements the Dragon pictures as Dreamworks’ finest creative achievement. A third film was released this year. I’m very keen, but have yet to see it.
James DeMonaco’s Purge saga is one of the great ‘quiet achievers’ of the past decade. They crept into the spotlight first as a combination of survival horror and home invasion thriller, only to unexpectedly sneak in a remarkable amount of political comment and satire. More than anything else, they are about a Republican-driven America in which the working poor are literally being culled on an annual basis. Election Year, the third film in the series, is certainly the most openly political – it follows a Presidential candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell) whose life is at risk after making ending the Purge a campaign promise. Frank Grillo returns from the second film to play the candidate’s chief of security, proving once again that he is American action cinema’s most under-utilised asset.
I am not a fan of 3D cinema, and I am not a fan of virtual reality. Yet here The Deserted is, a 3D virtual reality short feature, sitting in the middle of a ‘best of the decade’ list. Taiwan’s premier arthouse director Tsai Ming-liang uses the technology to place a viewer inside the various spaces of an abandoned building, each populated with its own contents and occasional characters. Critically the camera doesn’t move; this is no rollercoaster analogue as often is the cast with VR works. The camera is stationary, and it is up to the viewer to simply peer around the various corners of the room. The sense of place is palpable and emotionally powerful. I think the problem with a lot of VR work is that it’s creatively in a primitive stage – we have yet to develop a common visual language, or an understanding of what kinds of narratives the format is best suited to tell. This is a fascinating step in a good direction.
J.J. Abrams’ first job in the film industry was transferring Steven Spielberg’s 8mm films to digital for archiving purposes. It seems fitting, then, that he collaborated with Spielberg’s own Amblin Entertainment in directing Super 8, a nostalgic love letter to the Spielberg-produced films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the film the efforts of a group of teenagers making a home-made horror movie are disrupted by a catastrophic train derailment – and the escape of an extraterrestrial captured onboard. As a work of pastiche, it is pitch-perfect in the way it blends science fiction, horror, and comedy. As a tribute to Spielberg it brilliantly captures his focus on the human story inside all of the visual effects and chase scenes. Looking back, this film feels criminally underrated.
I go hot and cold on the Coen Brothers. In fact I go so hot and cold that there is, based on past experience, a literal 50/50 chance I will like any film that they make. True Grit, an idiosyncratic remake of the Charles Portis novel (the original film was in 1969), is the sort of Coen work that absolutely tickles my fancy. It works as an excellent revisionist western, features an outstanding cast including Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and a spectacular debut by Hailee Steinfeld, and has a tone and texture to it that’s highly distinctive. It’s not perfect – for some reason the Coens conspire to make both Bridges and Damon incomprehensible for much of the film – but what art work is?
Groundbreaking hip hop group NWA get a well-deserved profile in this authentic, energetic, and politicised biopic. Musical biopics are hard work, since by default they usually become scripted down to ‘tough childhood, family tragedy, early success, drugs madness, redemption’. It feels like there is a much better attempt to capture to Los Angeles sub-culture of the time here, and a more solid engagement with the social effect of NWA’s success, than you usually see from this genre. If the film seems to lose a little momentum in the second half, as challenges and risks transform into contract disputes and internal frictions, that’s because it is reflecting what actually happened. This was the best hip hop film since Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile.
John Backderf, who writes and illustrates graphic novels and cartoon strips under the pseudonym “Derf”, scored a critical hit with his graphic novel My Friend Dahmer – an autobiography of his high school years as classmate to future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Director Marc Meyers adapts that work to the screen with sensitivity and a smart straight-forward manner. The subject matter is understandably difficult, and both the book and film challenge the reader to consider Dahmer beyond just his crimes. The result is an eerie and unsettling tragedy that asks more questions of us than answers on the title character. Ross Lynch is outstanding in the lead role: a significant break from his role in Disney’s Austin & Ally.
Chi Po-lin’s spectacular documentary combines stunning aerial photography of the Taiwanese landscape with a savage indictment of how poorly that landscape has been treated by Taiwan’s government, society, and heavy industry. It works as a mournful record of environmental damage, but also as an inspiring call to change. Upon release it became the most commercially successful Taiwanese documentary of all time, and was awarded Best Documentary at the Golden Horse awards. Tragically Chi died in a helicopter while directing a sequel. A bitter pill to swallow, but also an absolutely beautiful one.
An uncomprising car designer (Fabrice Luchini) suffers a massive stroke while at work. While he makes a physical recovery, he finds himself constantly swapping out words for rhymes – a tic that threatens the future of his job. This is a sensitively played and warm comedy, with Luchini giving a strong lead performance. Leila Bekhti is the film’s most interesting performer, however, as the speech therapist who helps Luchini’s designer work on recovering his speech. Having suffered my own neurological traumas in the past, there is a lot to this movie that rings true.
The fourth Mission: Impossible brings with it a welcome shift back to the team set-up of the original television series, something suggested by the preceding M:I film but fully developed here. It also heralds the franchise’s shift to jaw-dropping stunt work, stealing the action film role for such hijinks from the James Bond films. The plot twists and turns in a pleasing fashion, stronger continuity lines are set up from film to film, and the entire Mission: Impossible series finally reaches its proper potential. Things only got better from here. Animation director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) makes his live-action debut here, and does a hell of a job on it.
The only Hunger Games film to top the original. Mockingjay throws the growing civil conflict out of the arena and onto the streets, with a timely and powerfully constructed portrayal of a populist uprising. It does this with a remarkable level of grey for a teenage action thriller, and it does it with a surprising amount of psychological damage and trauma to its characters. I think that is the biggest contribution of The Hunger Games to the genre: it makes a fantasy world where the violence and the struggle actually hurts. Its cliffhanger ending leads to a less certain final film, but the cliffhanger itself is masterful. It is truly a creative high point for the series. Director Francis Lawrence, who helmed three out of four Hunger Games features as well as Red Sparrow and Constantine, deserves better attention by film critics.
With Fast & Furious 6, the street racing turned heist hits its zenith to date. Dwayne Johnson is fully incorporated into the team, providing a burst of energy. Luke Evans plays a particularly strong and engaging villain. Best of all, Michelle Rodriguez makes a very welcome return to the franchise as Letty Ortiz – having died two films earlier in an unfortunate act of ‘fridging’. This film is pure Hollywood excess in the best way possible, and kicks off a storyline that has powered the films ever since. It’s also worth noting the franchise’s racial diversity; there isn’t an ongoing franchise in America that’s doing things better. Just maybe ignore the length of the climactic runway.
In this excellent low-budget ode to John Carpenter and H.P. Lovecraft, a small group of people become trapped inside a hospital. Murderous cultists await outside, and monster lurk inside. There is a wealth of imagination behind this horror movie, arguably too ambitious for its own good but hugely effective nonetheless. Its use of practical effects over CGI is commendable, as is its genuine effort to present something properly unsettling and disturbed. Fans of old school 1980s horror on VHS will have a ball with this one.
Ibrahim El Batout’s political thriller is immediate and viscerally powerful. Shot less than a year after the civil uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it bristles with pain and urgency. As the streets rumble with a growing resistance, a former dissedent and victim of torture (Amr Waked) is unwillingly drawn back into the conflict. Outstanding photography turns this low-budget production into a claustrophobic nightmare of small rooms, dimly-lit back streets, and tense paranoia. It also boasts strong performances, a strong screenplay, and a profound sense of place. This film deserves to be more widely seen, and better known.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is about two things: a wedding between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and the end of the world via a catastrophic collision with an asteroid. It is a big, artful, and occasionally annoying film, but its emotional impact simply works brilliantly. Its use of Wagner is inspired. Upon release the film itself was overshadowed by a disastrous Cannes press conference, which saw Trier provoke the media and claim to be a nazi. Years later, it’s much easier to appreciate the actual film on its own merits. A strong cast includes John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and Charlotte Gainsburg.
After a nuclear power station suffers a radiation leak, an entire Japanese village is evacuated – except for one home, which lies metres outside of the exclusion zone. Told to stay while their neighbours flee for their lives, the family struggles to come to terms with their new lives. Sion Sono’s quiet, sensitive treatment of a family in crisis is a creative response to the Japanese government’s gross mishandling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, released a year after the deadly tsunami struck Japan. While scathing of government inaction and confusion, Sono spares the bulk of his attention for profiling one family as a microcosm. It is, in turns, both funny and tragic, and represents a major shift from the pulpy, cult material with which he usually works.
Released 28 years after Steven Lisberger’s 1982 original, Tron Legacy finally manages to fulfil the promise of that original computer-set science fiction film. The computer-generated visuals are crisp, the design work is absolutely stunning, and the ‘de-aging’ technology used to create a 30-years-longer Jeff Bridges is a major step forward in visual effects. On top of that, there is also the matter of French electronic band Daft Punk’s musical score – arguably the best musical soundtrack of any film this past decade. This is a blockbuster which simply needs soaking into and absorbing. That a third film to wrap up the storyline was canned in favour of more Marvel films remains a small tragedy.
Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) presents a wilfully obtuse, hypnotic, and striking work of surreality, written and directed specifically for the actor Denis Levant. Carax’s first feature since 1999, it is a rich feast of images and ideas. It is funny, surprising, confusing, and even inspiring. It’s true that it does not add up to a cohesive narrative, but it enchants nonetheless. I honestly think one of the reasons that arthouse cinema struggles with audiences is because so many filmmakers are bad at it. Carax is the opposite: this is a mesmerising little gem. Simply let go and enjoy it.
A struggling screenwriter (Colin Farrell) becomes targeted by the mob when his best friend (Sam Rockwell) and accomplice (Christopher Walken) kidnap a dog belonging to a local gangster (Woody Harrelson). That’s a lot of star power in those parentheses, and this black comedy also adds Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Gabourey Sidibe. It is very much an actor’s movie, with each co-star given a remarkably weird and distinctive character to play. Rockwell and Walken are particularly brilliant. The narrative twists and turns, surprises are abound, and the character work is exceptional.