The 50 Best Films of the 2010s: Part Three
Looking back at the last decade and it is hard to imagine anyone saying that any one of the past ten years was a bad year for cinema. The reality is that there are thousands of movies released theatrically every year, and thousands more released on VOD and streaming services, and while not all of these movies are what we consider great works of art, each year has given us some truly unforgettable movies. It is impossible to cram all our favourites into one list, and as mentioned in the second part of this series, many of our personal favourites didn’t make the cut. Here is the third part of our list of the fifty best movies of the decade.
Two years before La La Land (2016), the critically acclaimed love letter to classic Hollywood cinema, director Damien Chazelle first burst onto the scene in 2014 with the musical drama Whiplash. Crafted from a minuscule budget, Chazelle was able to thrive on the tenets of filmmaking that no amount of money can buy: powerful acting and a directing style entirely his own. The result is a career-high performance from J.K. Simmons, and possibly the greatest drama in recent memory to tackle artistic exceptionalism.
Whiplash centers on Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) a young jazz student who is inducted into a high-profile music conservatory in New York City. Recognizing his potential, his music teacher, Terence Fletcher (Simmons), aligns himself with the drummer only to rip him apart in front of his new classmates. Questioning Fletcher’s abusive methods, various people attempt to pull Andrew away from his toxic teacher, leaving Andrew to wonder if he will ever be truly great if he walks away.
Driven by sound, Whiplash announces itself with a militant drum beat before a single frame colors the screen. When Andrew appears, he is positioned at the end of a dark corridor, removed from the audience and dwarfed by his drum set. From the onset, Chazelle creates a relationship between Andrew and his drums — a dichotomy that later eclipses every other relationship in Andrew’s life, both familial and romantic. As Andrew pours more and more of himself into his drums, the line between musician and tool becomes blurred until Andrew’s personality is entirely dictated by his identity as a drummer.
A drama that arguably hits every beat of a well-spun thriller, Whiplash is permeated by a crackling intensity and driven by the protagonist’s anxiety that he will never be good enough. Though he initially keeps Andrew at arm’s length through the camera’s eye, Chazelle pushes in with an unrelenting focus as the narrative progresses, detailing Teller’s face through uncomfortably tight close-ups as his anxiety grows and sweat beads on his brow.
In simplest terms, Whiplash is a powerful reminder of how great film can be when music, editing, and cinematography all work in tandem with each other. Chazelle’s ability as a director is best displayed during orchestra scenes, where every quick cut to a clicking case and tuning clarinet is edited to seamless perfection. Casting a harsh lens on artistic legacy and greatness, Whiplash supersedes its own messaging by delivering a note-perfect drama that demands nothing but the best from its cast and crew. (Meghan Cook)
29.) It Follows
At the heart of It Follows, lies an open-ended metaphor — the terror in David Robert Mitchell’s indie horror comes in the form of a deadly curse passed from one person to another through sexual intercourse, courtesy of a shape-shifting figure visible only to the victims it stalks. The Stalker looks different each time it appears — be it a feral child, a naked old man, a giant, a family member, a friend, and so on. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the unforeseen consequences of underage sex, pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases. Or maybe, instead of sex, It Follows is about the fear of growing up — and more importantly, about conformity.
However you read into it, sex is the reason the demon kills you, yet sex is also the only way to escape death; if the Stalker kills the target, it starts moving in reverse up the chain. It’s a simple but very clever twist that keeps things fresh. Mitchell demonstrates an impressive control over tone, generating a creepy vibe from his use of Steadicam photography and negative space. The director rarely goes for shock, and instead provokes a specific kind of horror: dread. There’s plenty of great camerawork by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, a cool synth soundtrack reminiscent of John Carpenter’s themes from the ’80s, and the young cast all turn in fine performances. If you love horror films, this is essential viewing. (Ricky D)
28.) Frances Ha
If Noah Baumbach’s early films were indebted to the best of Woody Allen, it was with Frances Ha (2013) that he showed off his love of the French New Wave, particularly the ebullient films of François Truffaut. But more than revealing a major stylistic influence, the film marks his most important artistic collaboration with his romantic partner Greta Gerwig, who stars in and co-wrote the film. Frances Ha is a love letter — to Gerwig, to the French movies that exploded the boundaries of film, and to cinema itself.
Gerwig stars as the eponymous character, who’s bonded at the hip with her friend, Sophie (Baumbach regular Mickey Sumner). But when Sophie decides to move out of their Brooklyn apartment to Tribeca, where she’s always aspired to live, Frances is left stranded. She’s a dancer who’s not quite talented enough to join the main company of the troupe she works with, but rather than try to strike out on her own as a choreographer creating her own works, she’s content to pick up the scraps of freelance gigs in hopes of proving herself. Lacking funds, she moves into a small space in an apartment with two acquaintances she barely knows (Michael Zegen and future Baumbach lead Adam Driver). For a while, she skirts through New York on the edge of insolvency, before blowing everything on the saddest two-day trip to Paris anyone has ever taken. Back in the States, she’ll regress to working alongside undergrads at her alma mater Vassar, before planning out her comeback and evolution.
A summary of Frances Ha makes it sound like a dark exploration of failure (and it sort of is), yet the film manages to find something hopeful in her every misstep, and Gerwig, already a likable actor, has never been more charming. The movie riffs on the extended adolescence that most young people now experience willingly or unwillingly, but it doesn’t seek to diagnose society or find fault in Frances. It’s Baumbach’s most humane film, and it gives viewers hope that Frances will get her act together. It’s augmented by Sam Levy’s glorious black & white cinematography, which was digitally decayed slightly to give it the lived-in feel of 35mm film. Baumbach also dug through old score cues by French composer Georges Delerue, including some from Truffaut’s films. Baumbach has made grander films (The Squid and the Whale) and more incisive ones (Marriage Story), but Frances Ha is maybe the only one that might make us look back on our own growing pains with fondness. (Brian Marks)
27.) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
In a decade filled with a vast plethora of superhero film and computer-generated animated features, this dark horse collaboration between Marvel and Sony manages to stand out among the overwhelming presence of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe as a complete game-changer in terms of storytelling and animation. The 2018 film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse managed to breathe fresh air into the oversaturated presence of Marvel films and reinvigorate audiences’ love of one of the greatest superheroes of all time.
Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is adjusting to puberty, schoolboy crushes, and constant pressure from his cop father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), to thrive in an elitist boarding school. When he is bitten by a spider one night, he finds that he has developed strange supernatural abilities. Sound familiar? It does to him too, because, in this world, there already is a Spider-Man. And, as Miles soon finds out, there are many many more in alternative dimensions. He is soon joined by an older, recently divorced Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), and various unorthodox interpretations of Spidey in order to take on the gargantuan Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), as well as an interesting new take on Spider-Man’s longstanding rivalry with Doctor Octopus.
The film succeeds not only in telling a fresh new story about a lesser-known depiction of Spider-Man, but also in allowing the entire canon to poke fun at itself with meta-humor without going to LEGO: Batman Movie or Teen Titans GO: To the Movies levels of parody. While the film is self-aware, it doesn’t let the postmodern irony get in the way of telling a genuine story that takes itself seriously.
Aside from the revitalizing writing, Spider-Verse‘s other crowning achievement is the brilliant animation. Blending classic CGI and comic-book-style drawings and paneling along with a very distinct New York aesthetic, the film has produced a groundbreaking mixed-media style that makes even the simplest interactions seem so much more stimulating and visually interesting.
Sony should be proud of their tremendous accomplishment with Spider-Verse, and they even managed to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — a spot practically reserved for Disney. It truly deserves recognition as not only one of the best superhero movies of the decade, but one of the best period. (Sarah Truesdale)
26.) La La Land
“Here’s to the ones that dream, foolish as they may seem.”
La La Land is a two-hander that emphasizes the importance of following your dreams while still acknowledging that sometimes what you truly desire has been right there all along. With an ending that packs a wallop, Damien Chazelle pretty much cemented himself as one of the most talented filmmakers of our generation, somehow following up the tense Whiplash with a musical that checks all the boxes while still feeling new. Even with its obvious inspiration from movies like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La La Land is a movie about two people trying to attain their dreams in different ways, but each lifting the other up and carrying a profound impact on the other’s life.
As Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) struggles with pursuing his own dream, his life intersects with Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer. Their relationship blooms out of mutual respect for the other’s dreams, which places a spotlight on love’s place in fueling creativity and bringing out the best in people. At the same time, Chazelle recognizes the difficulty in supporting someone else while putting all your effort and time into your own art. It’s a balancing act, and when the film confronts the difficulties, that is when La La Land ascends beyond simply being a musical about following your dreams.
“City of Stars” and “Audition” (The Fools Who Dream) are just two of the many standout songs from Justin Hurwitz’s incredible soundtrack. They also carry that sadness even among their most triumphant moments. The big musical numbers are gargantuan in scale, with “Another Day of Sun” really driving home the aspirations of those sucked into the vortex of Los Angeles. Juxtaposed against the final “What-if” scenario, Chazelle leverages the cost of being steadfast in your ambitions with the romance of being swept up in the moments along the way.
Lush cinematography, and two powerful lead performances from both Gosling and Stone bring heartache to all the whimsy. From their brief interactions on the highway to their first true introduction to one another, all the way to their final scene together, on-screen chemistry doesn’t get much stronger than between Mia and Sebastian. They prop one another up, and there’s a palpable absence when they aren’t together — which makes the final moments of the movie either devastating for the romantics, or motivating for the dreamers. Regardless, it’s an undeniably powerful journey. (Christopher Cross)
25.) Stranger By the Lake
A sensation at Cannes 2013, Alain Guiraudie’s Hitchcock-ian erotic murder mystery is set entirely against the backdrop of a secluded lake known to locals as a popular gay cruising spot frequented by men whom who know each other well, but not necessarily by name. It stars Pierre Deladonchamps as Franck, an unflappable young hunt looking for true companionship in the wrong place at the wrong time. From the minute Franck arrives at the lake, we’re plunged into his interior world as he strikes up two friendships then witnesses a murder, which leaves him intrigued, rather than horrified.
A tale of murder complicated by intense sexual obsession (garnering equal parts praise and criticism for its frank depiction of unsimulated gay sex), Stranger by the Lake accomplishes the rare feat of subtly guiding the way we pay attention to details as we watch the plot unfold. Stranger by the Lake is a film that embraces minimalism whenever possible — there are long stretches without a single word uttered and there’s no musical score whatsoever to punch up its themes. Still, the attentive viewer will pick up on the subtle shifts of the plot thanks to the director’s arresting photography and the capable performances. For instance, the murder sequence filmed from Franck’s point of view is a thing of brilliance and more outstanding for its simplicity. There are few filmmakers who can accomplish so much as Guiraudie does here with so little as a wide far shot held static for four minutes. As we watch Frank witness the crime, but we can’t help but feel helpless while also dreading what is soon to come. By the time we get to the pulse-pounding climax, Guiraudie has masterfully taken hold of all our senses. Stranger by the Lake is a stunning minimalist erotic thriller that takes a simple plot set at a single location and told with sparse dialogue and creates a resonant, multilayered work. If you haven’t yet seen this sexy, smart film, give it a try. We promise you won’t be able to look away. (Ricky D)
24.) OJ: Made in America
Somehow 2016 became the Year of OJ, a pop culture apotheosis of the infamous and much explored “Trial of the Century.” FX’s superbly soapy miniseries, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, found its nonfiction counterpart with Ezra Edelman’s extensive 8-hour documentary. Originally airing on ESPN as a miniseries, then trimmed for theatrical exhibition, OJ: Made in America didn’t just explore the unbelievable theatrics of the world’s most high profile murder trial — it deconstructed the culture, context, and controversies that shaped Orenthal J. Simpson into an icon.
“I’m not black, I’m OJ,” the suspect bafflingly exclaims, encapsulating in one sentence all the contradictions inherent in a man who found a way to transcend his stereotypes, only to overcorrect into a monstrosity of ego and — most likely — violent rage. Edelman and his editors have a wealth of material to examine, but still find grace notes in candid interviews and unseen video footage. It’s a history lesson in miniature, exhaustive but never exhausting, extensive but never exploitative, as extraordinary as the truth, and as epic as any the artistic medium can produce. (Shane Ramirez)
23.) The Raid 2
When Gareth Evans gave action cinema a shot of adrenalin with his expertly-crafted The Raid: Redemption, few were prepared for how it would be followed up. Quite simply, The Raid 2 is a masterclass in action filmmaking, and raises the stakes significantly from the first movie’s barebones premise. By virtue of adding a narrative, every action scene maintains a weight of importance to it. Even more impressive is how almost every moment of action isn’t just there for thrills; each scene propels the story forward in ways many action filmmakers struggle with balancing against pulpy fun. Action films like this — let alone martial arts movies — are a rare bunch, and Evans essentially defined both his career and star Iko Uwais with these films.
Set immediately after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 puts Rama (Uwais) undercover to expose corruption within the police force and take down entire criminal organizations from the inside. The film’s cold open introduces its overarching themes of ambition and limitation, as the main bad guy, Bejo (Alex Abbad), sets forth a plan to not only take a slice of the criminal empire in Jakarta, but also become a prevalent force against the rival syndicates. His goals are lofty, but he has a strategy that will undoubtedly work if pulled off correctly. As Rama gets closer and closer to the son one of the syndicates’ leaders, Bejo also starts prying at him to dismantle his father’s grasp.
Equal parts crime epic and martial arts powerhouse, The Raid 2 never falters for one reason: its ambition is constantly kept in check, and it utilizes that for every facet of its filmmaking. Written, directed, and edited by Evans with choreography from Uwais, there is no excess in the film. Characters all flesh out various levels of ambition, which only parallels the movie’s gorgeously shot fight sequences — all of which seemingly top the previous one.
The camera keeps itself tied with the flow of action, constantly feeling like an active participant in the fight while capturing every gory moment of violence. The opening prison fight sequence keeps things contained in a sprawling mess of mud and blood, as it sets up the relationship between Rama and Uco. Meanwhile, a later car chase spirals out from the confines of the car itself to the road as the film hurries along to its climax. Martial arts movies are rarely this lean, gritty, and dense. Finding the balancing act for that is a feat unto itself, but it’s undeniable that the team-up of Uwais and Evans brings out the best in both of them. The Raidfilms helped place Indonesia on the map of action cinema, and The Raid 2 reminds us that action movies can be elaborate stories with immaculate set pieces, without sacrificing one for the other. (Christopher Cross)
22.) Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s latest belongs right up there with his greatest, depicting an indelible fantasy version of a bygone Hollywood era that ushered in a changing of the guard. Mostly following a few days in the life of an aging TV star and his buddy/stunt double, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may not capture a place and time as it really was, but like much of the writer-director’s work, it’s the product of a passionate imagination. It’s also a soothing balm for those who relish flowing dialogue, and who aren’t impatient at getting lost among the tumbleweeds of dusty back lots and hillside pool parties.
Of course, this is a Tarantino film, so confrontation is expected at some point — and it will probably be bloody. Tension in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is supplied by the Manson Family, a commune of ominous hippies who have taken over a former film lot outside the city. Though their infamous leader is only briefly seen, actual history is a constant cloud hanging over the proceedings, especially whenever the bubbly, carefree, force-for-positivity that is Sharon Tate appears on screen. Her fleeting moments portray a refreshing zest for life and optimism that we’d rather not see tragically snuffed out; Hollywood can be unkind enough as it is.
But this is a fairy tale, and so the wrongs of the past have the chance to be righted. Yes, it takes a while for that head-squishing, flame-throwing assault to happen, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the cruise; this story is more about the journey than the brutal, cathartic final battle. With its fascinating peek into the lives of rising and setting stars, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately a ballad to the love of movies — a chatty symphony of wishful thinking that the old and the new can coexist in some kind of happily ever after. (Patrick Murphy)
21.) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Back in 2010, at a point in time when the Judd Apatow oeuvre was dying down and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was slowly on the rise, slackers, comic books geeks, and hipsters had one non-Kevin Smith movie to develop a strong cult around: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Director Edgar Wright had developed a following of his own with the first two installments of what is now considered his “Three Flavours Cornetto” Trilogy (Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), and utilized his signature fast-paced dialogue, editing, and camera work to bring underground comic series Scott Pilgrim to life.
Scott Pilgrim (2000s superstar Michael Cera) is a 22-year old Canadian slacker whose time is mostly spent playing bass for the garage band Sex Bob-Omb, getting over being brutally dumped by rock star Envy Adams (Brie Larson), and spending time with his rebound girlfriend, Catholic school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). His little world is turned upside down when he becomes infatuated with the elusive, dyed-hair American Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). However, in order to court her, he must defeat a league consisting of her seven exes in video game-style battle matches, including a psychic vegan, a half-ninja lesbian, and a pretentious record producer.
The film combines wildly over-the-top camp performances with old school video game aesthetic and ‘too-cool-for-school’ hipster sensibilities to blend hip, postmodern irony with out-of-this-world magical realism. The film is also littered with clever Easter Eggs, brilliant and often subtle sound design, and not-so-subtle visual effects that help immerse the audience into the strange logic of this video game/comic book-inspired world.
While Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers are admittedly not the most likable romantic leads (read the comic book; they’re much more tolerable.), they are adequate vehicles to lead us into a unique world of superpowers, battle royales, and non-stop ass-kicking, along with the typical ‘meh’ issues of being a shiftless twenty-something lost in love. The film succeeds in making for a non-stop, exciting, and quotable experience that truly brings a comic book to life in a fresh, new way with its gorgeous stylized effects, engaging sound design, and excellent soundtrack. While the film was a box office bomb, its popularity rose over the years as one of the new classic cult films of the 2010s. (Sarah Truesdale)