A casual glance at cinema’s past decade shows comic-book quests and sequels. But if you look further past the box office receipts, you’ll see a wealth of films concerned with our real anxieties. You’ll see a wave of racial tensions plastered on the big screen in films like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. You’ll see a search for identity in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. You’ll see entertaining escapes from action films like Gareth Evans’ The Raid or parodies like David Wain’s They Came Together. What follows is a list of 25 of the best films of the 2010s. There were many great films and many more that could have been added. However, these are the 25 that will be discussed for decades to come.
The Florida Project
Starring Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe
Writer-director Sean Baker crushed hearts with 2017’s The Florida Project. Following Moonee (a brilliant, natural Brooklynn Prince), the movie juxtaposes the naive wonder of a six-year-old’s world against reality. The latest pit stop for Moonee and her drug-addled mother is a motel outside Disney World that’s run by a level-headed Bobby (Willem Dafoe). While Moonee dives further into mischief, Bobby quickly becomes a father figure, removing the veil of naivete from Moonee’s world. The hope in The Florida Project comes from how Moonee sees beauty in the everyday, and how she could one day escape. Now streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Keiran Culkin and Alison Pill
While comic-book movies dominated the box office, Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn’t make a ton of money, but it was certainly the most fun. Wright injects visual gags, special effects, and energy blasts in each frame as Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) fights the evil exes of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The fights play out like the best Street Fighter movie never made against a garage rock soundtrack from Nigel Godrich and Beck. Comic-book movies wish they were as entertaining and inventive as this. Now streaming on Netflix.
Under the Skin
Starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Pearson
No one commands an audience like Jonathan Glazer. After directing music video masterpieces like “Karma Police” and “Virtual Insanity,” Glazer jumped to the big screen without losing his eye for visceral imagery. By 2014, he set a new standard for himself with the sci-fi/horror trip Under the Skin. As a nameless woman who seduces and feasts on men, Johansson is cold, calculating and confident. Things turn when Johansson meets her match in a deformed man (Adam Pearson, an actor with neurofibromatosis). What happens when the cold-hearted killer begins to feel? How Glazer weaves his tale is nightmarish and will long remain, as the title suggests, under your skin. Now streaming on Netflix and Kanopy.
Starring Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jun
Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 slow-paced Burning follows a twentysomething named Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), who reconnects and falls for the hopelessly inquisitive Haemi (Jong-seo Jun). The relationship turns into a love triangle as Haemi returns from an African retreat with a richer, more sophisticated and suave Ben (Steven Yeun). Burning goes from love story to cat-and-mouse game as Ben lights a joint and discusses how he casually burns down greenhouses every two months. Could this be Ben’s way of discussing what he intends to do the woman woman Jongsu loves? As the movie unravels, you get more invested in Jongsu’s investigation. Burning never provides answers. Instead, it takes its time, stewing in the tension of what isn’t said. Now streaming on Netflix and Hoopla.
Starring Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen
Mads Mikkelsen is probably best known as Le Chiffre, the James Bond villain with tears of blood in Casino Royale. If not that, then it’s his turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the criminally underrated TV series, “Hannibal.” In between those two roles, the actor proved his greatness in the Danish drama The Hunt. Here, Mikkelsen plays a kindergarten teacher named Lucas, whose life gets flipped upside down when a student tells a story about how Lucas was inappropriate with her. Who’s lying? Who’s telling the truth? Who will people believe — a kindergartener or her teacher? A man once seen as a beacon for the community becomes a target, further cast out and brought down with rumors, allegations and violence. The finale is a searing revelation on how stubborn belief in lies is a most destructive force. Available to rent on Amazon and other outlets.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams
Joaquin Phoenix delivered his most unhinged performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. A crude drunk and Navy veteran, Quell is a man without a home. He is fueled by sex, rage and rocket fuel-tinged cocktails. When Quell meets Lancaster Dodd (an over-enunciating, vigorous Philip Seymour Hoffman), Quell becomes Dodd’s most devout dog. Though elements of Scientology are around, The Master is the story of two bullshit artists who bring out the best and worst in each other. Dodd is the cult leader who compares the day to conquering a dragon. Quell is the PTSD-addled loner who will never forgive himself. It’s a love story between two dirty, rotten scoundrels who are ashamed of each other as much as they are themselves. Now streaming on Vudu Free (with ads) and Tubi.
The Social Network
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara and Justin Timberlake
Obsession drives David Fincher’s films. While movies like Se7en, Fight Club, The Game and Zodiac thrilled audiences, Fincher’s best work of the past decade is a dialogue-heavy drama about Facebook. Complete with Aaron Sorkin’s bitchiest dialogue (“Drop the the,” “Lawyer up, asshole”), The Social Network shows how Mark Zuckerberg (a jittery Jesse Eisenberg) became one of the most powerful people in the world. Zuck’s journey starts as a lonely one, creating a website as a middle-finger to an ex-girlfriend who couldn’t understand his need for acceptance. Fincher and Sorkin mine gold from this loner who hides behind walls of code because he can’t face the real-life consequences of his actions. While everyone gets a chance to throw their best lines at him, Zuck tries so hard to be an asshole, but winds up the ultimate fraud. Now streaming on IMDBtv and Starz.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver and F. Murray Abraham
Rhythmic dialogue, repetitive phrases, and thundering bursts are the musical elements that fill the Coen brothers’ movies. Once the Coens do make a music-filled movie, it’s no wonder they do it well. For Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens follow a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) in the early ‘60s as he wanders around Greenwich Village and beyond. Llewyn Davis had success in the past, but struggles after the death of his singer-songwriter partner. Instead of writing new hits, Davis gets beaten up after a gig, fights with an ex, records a gimmick-y tune, loses a friend’s cat while staying at their house, and meets peculiar characters along the way (among them is a scene-stealing John Goodman as jazz musician Roland Turner). Davis’ story is simple, yet sublime in its truth: the life of a singer-songwriter is lonely and unconventionally hilarious, but the next great song may be right around the corner, and that’s enough to keep this man going. Now streaming on Amazon Prime.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Matthew McConaughey
Fraudulent excess has never been as excessive as it is in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. At 71 years old, the filmmaker delivered a three-hour romp about Jordan Belfort, the real-life stockbroker who built an empire of riches selling worthless stocks. As Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio leans into his shit-eating grin as he describes his drug-addled life directly to the camera. “On a daily basis, I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month,” Belfort says after throwing a flute of orange juice in the bushes in front of his mansion on his way to making another $100 million. Quotable and relentless, The Wolf of Wall Street piles on exhausting amounts of corruption. As Belfort grows into a Quaalude-infested beast, we think maybe he’ll turn it all around. However, when it comes to business, there are no morals — just the swindlers and those willing to be swindled. Now streaming on FXNow and Fubo TV.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Starring Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Thierry Guetta
What is real and who can you believe? When it comes to art, all that matters is the buzz surrounding the artist, so it seems. In Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, what starts as a story about street artists turns into a cautionary tale about self-proclaimed artist Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash. As an artist, Guetta is inspired by (read: steals) whatever he sees and uses his so-called connections to generate publicity for overhyped art exhibits. The theories about this being an elaborate prank can make you dizzy. What’s fascinating is watching an art movement’s credibility get demolished as more buyers (including Madonna) line up to see the latest works from a hack. That we still have no clear answers is why this movie still excites a decade later. Now streaming on Sundance Now.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford
On “Key & Peele,” Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key morphed hilarious sketches into horror shows, confronting racism with razor-sharp wit. Those smart satirical pieces made Peele’s move behind the camera look easy. For his directorial debut, Get Out, Peele explored racial anxieties to a supernatural effect on a $4.5 million budget. Revolving around Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting his white girlfriend’s family then finding out their ulterior motives, Get Out is a disturbing and hilarious box office smash. Watching it in a crowded theater then seeing its success was like a pressure valve being released. Finally, a black filmmaker unsubtly focused on the stuff everyone was thinking about. Finally, a major studio backed such a picture. Finally, that movie got the respect it deserved, paving the way for similar stories to be presented to bigger audiences. Now streaming on FXNow and FuboTV.
They Came Together
Starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler
They Came Together is a knowingly goofy movie. A sendup of You’ve Got Mail, They Came Together boasts a cast of Wet Hot American Summer alumni, sketch and improv comedy veterans, and whoever else David Wain and Michael Ian Black could wrangle. They’re all committed to the stupidity of each bit as Amy Poehler’s Molly and Paul Rudd’s Joel recount their love story. Molly is a typically messy but independent woman who opens a closet then collapses under shoe boxes. Joel is a charming and clueless business exec who eventually wants to open a coffee shop named “Cup of Joel.” Romantic comedy tropes are skewered as a stretch of the movie becomes a Norah Jones music video. In one scene, a waiter literally has a pole up his ass. Another bit is a cliche bar conversation looped for a minute. I’m not doing these scenes justice, but know this: They Came Together is 83 minutes of funny people being absurdly funny. Now streaming on IMDB TV, Hoopla, Vudu Free (with ads), and Tubi.
Starring Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim and Yayan Ruhian
While action movies became bloated team-building escapades about family, Gareth Evans delivered a taut, non-stop ride with The Raid. Quickly establishing its plot where a S.W.A.T. team gets trapped in a drug tower while trying to extract a known mobster, The Raid becomes a fight simulator. As the S.W.A.T. team ascends, each level is full of more, stronger villains. Some use machetes. Others have machine guns. Most of them just yell and charge at the lone, honest cop Rama (Iko Uwais). It’s a fight through hell. The Raid is a reminder of how great an action movie can be when it isn’t distracted by unnecessary plotlines, behind-the-scenes politics, and cameos. Available to rent on Amazon and other outlets.
Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons
As Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, J.K. Simmons finally got something in his tempo. Fletcher is a foul-mouthed studio band conductor/professor who is driven by perfection. The worst thing to Fletcher is a nod of the head and a “good job.” This method is definitely not Fletcher’s tempo. Instead, he’ll hurl insults and chairs at students to get them to do their best. Fletcher meets a similarly driven student in drummer Andrew (Miles Teller). Like Fletcher, Andrew wants to be the next jazz great. Andrew has the chops, the blisters and the Buddy Rich CDs to prove it. While Simmons gets the lion’s share of lines, moments and attention, Whiplash is writer-director Damien Chazelle’s moment, showing how he can take something as boring as college jazz and make it thrilling, quotable and, by the finale, breathtaking. Now streaming on IMDB TV and Sony Crackle.
Starring Jim Cummings
Developed from a short film that was successfully funded through Kickstarter, Thunder Road is writer/director/actor Jim Cummings’ character study of a down and out police officer named Jim Arnaud. Recently divorced and dealing with the death of his mother, Arnaud digs himself into deeper, more awkward holes as he tries so hard to be a good guy. The results range from hilarious to “yikes.” In his feature-length debut, Cummings leans into the sadness behind a man who is riddled with shame, sarcasm, and anger. The naturalism, specificity and energy of his performance keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Now streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace
With the rise of white supremacy and racial injustice in a post-Obama America, Spike Lee took audiences back to the 1970s. BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who infiltrated a Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth (John David Washington) talks to white supramcists over the phone, while his partner, the Jewish Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), makes contact with the Klan in person. “Ain’t this a bitch,” a black waiter says later in the movie, observing a rally where David Duke discusses “America first” policies. Lee’s procedural grows stronger as he moves from the ‘70s to modern-day violence in Charlottesville. Thank god Lee was around to do Stallworth’s story justice and to show how little has changed in America. Now streaming on HBO.
Killing Them Softly
Starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta
In the midst of feeling the love of Obama’s second term, director Andrew Dominik reteamed with Brad Pitt for a cynical crime drama. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Killing Them Softly is the story of a hitman (Pitt’s Jackie) taking care of a few goons who robbed the wrong card game. Dominik knows how to stage a gripping sequence, but the heart of this one is in the economics and conversations. Killing Them Softly is a dirty Polaroid of the worst sleaze, like the dog shit-covered Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) or the hooker-loving Mickey (James Gandolfini). While the country is eating from a plate of hope, Killing Them Softly shows a sweaty criminal underworld where everyone is a target, on their own and waiting to get paid. Now streaming on DirecTV, Fubo TV, Sling and USA.
Starring Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe and Val Kilmer
An R-rated send up of cheesy action flicks, MacGruber takes the “Saturday Night Live” sketch of the hapless special operative and turns it to 11. Will Forte plays MacGruber, a Miata-driving government assassin who doesn’t use guns but claims to rip throats. MacGruber is confidently idiotic, tossing off lines like “I got a better idea: no fucking way” or accidentally blowing up his entire crew of sidekicks before facing the villainous Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer). This movie isn’t an award winner, but hell, maybe it should’ve been, because for 90 minutes, it’s pure, classic MacGruber. Now streaming on HBO.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy
Outside of his Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan has consistently topped the box office with smart, original blockbusters. Inception is a head trip about stealing and manufacturing dreams. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a thief who puts together a team to plant a dream into a CEO’s mind. Inception twists and turns, adding layers of suspense and special effects atop each other. Nolan, a master craftsman, moves it methodically against a ticking clock, keeping it all together and keeping us pinned to the back of our chairs. Now streaming on Cinemax.
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson
After her husband disappears, a biologist and former soldier named Lena (played by Natalie Portman) signs up to explore an ever-expanding piece of land known as “The Shimmer.” The initial beauty of “The Shimmer” is a cover for otherworldly horrors that feast on the nightmares and past tragedies of Lena and the rest of her all-female crew. Annihilation is like Solaris on steroids. Writer-director Alex Garland patiently builds a terrifying world in which its characters must face themselves. It’s scary good. Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu, DirecTV and Epix.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Barry Keoghan
Called the feel-bad movie of 2017, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Yorgos Lanthimos introducing more American audiences to his pitch black sense of humor after his stateside breakout The Lobster. Here, Lanthimos reunites with Colin Farrell, who stars as a surgeon whose life takes a turn for the worst after a teenager (Barry Keoghan) puts a curse on Farrell’s family. With a Kubrickian eye, Lanthimos explores how people obsessed with the artificial face losing something real. Like Farrell’s Steven, we’re left shaken up, startled and confused, but finally, fully appreciating who we love. Now streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry
Writer-director Barry Jenkins followed his award-winning Moonlight with the equally-beautiful and underseen If Beale Street Could Talk. Adapted from James Baldwin’s book, the movie tells the story of a young, black couple Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). While Tish gets the news of her pregnancy, Fonny is serving time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Against the backdrop of Harlem and a beautiful score from Nicholas Britell, Jenkins gives equal time to Tish and Fonny’s love story, the complex relationships in both of their families, the pervasive inequalities the couple faces, and, most importantly, the power of love. Now streaming on Hulu.
Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro
As FBI agent Kate Macer, Emily Blunt’s character wants to believe that she’s doing something valuable in the never-ending drug war on the U.S. Mexico border. When the violence escalates, killing members of her team, she joins a government task force, led by a sandal-wearing Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and filled out by hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins focus their lenses on the destructive violence in the unceasing conflict. The dread we feel is Macer further realizing how she’s being manipulated to fit a larger plan that only grows more unconscionable. Now streaming on Fubo TV.
The End of the Tour
Starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg
Based on David Lipsky’s book, The End of the Tour follows a five-day interview between Lipsky, then a Rolling Stone reporter (played by Jesse Eisenberg), and acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). While following Wallace on the last press dates in support of his epic 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” Lipsky pines for a shred of Wallace’s newfound success and acclaim. Guarded, wise and depressed, Wallace talks about everything from internet porn to the comfortable nature of dogs. The conversations always intrigue, but the movie belongs to Segel, who brilliantly portrays a man with a crippling amount of self-awareness. Now streaming on Netflix, Hoopla and Kanopy.
Starring Song Kang Ho, Lee Sun Kyun, Cho Yeo Jeong and Choi Woo Shik
Bong Joon Ho is no stranger to exploring the ongoing battles and discrepancies between social classes. In Parasite, the writer-director tackles it head-on, without allegory or fantasy. Here, the Kim family is a group of unemployed misfits who all start working for the richer Park family. As the movie hilariously details the lives of both families, Bong’s imagery iconically encapsulates his themes. During one scene, the poorer Kim family races home during torrential downpour after nearly being caught in their scheme. Inside their basement apartment that’s flooded with sewage, the daughter (Cho Yeo Jeong) sits atop an overflowing toilet, checking her phone. In a world of shit, here’s someone only concerned with getting a good wi-fi signal. Seems about right. Now playing in select theaters.
For further viewing, 25 honorable mentions
Moonlight, Tabloid, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Thoroughbreds, Blindspotting, Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse, The Lobster, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Force Majeure, Mad Max: Fury Road, Never Let Me Go, Interstellar, The Place Beyond the Pines, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Four Lions, Fences, The Other Guys, Inherent Vice, The Tree of Life, Midsommar, Personal Shopper, Ingrid Goes West, Blade Runner 2049, Three Identical Strangers, Life Itself
Cover image courtesy of Vilonious