This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
Still jaw-dropping years later, this is gold standard for action movies. And if you want to read more into it, there’s plenty below the surface. If not, there’s always the most insane stunts ever committed to film in the modern era.
Marriage Story (2019, Noah Baumbach)
In severing ties with the person you once loved, it’s always messier, harder and more painful than expected. But in Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece, it’s funnier, too. I pray I never know just how accurate this experience is.
Further Viewing: Frances Ha (2013), While We’re Young (2015), The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)
The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott)
One of the most purely entertaining movies of the decade, and sadly already starting to feel like part of a bygone era. Studios today are unlikely to spend this much money on a movie that’s not adapted from a comic book. Matt Damon is absolutely terrific as Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars, waiting for rescue. But the international effort to bring him home is equally gripping and inspiring.
Further Viewing: Prometheus (2012), Alien: Covenant (2017)
The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)
It was nearly impossible to pick which of Anderson’s three incredible films would make this list, but I have to go with the one that went through the most changes. I was initially floored by it, then my admiration dimmed. But a recent rewatch confirmed the script is great, actually. I already knew how legendary the performances were, but the film is often hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same scene. It’s not really about cults, but about two self-destructive men who can’t resist each other.
Further Viewing: Inherent Vice (2014), Phantom Thread (2017)
Minding the Gap (2018, Bing Liu)
One of the most radically empathetic films I’ve ever seen, Bing Liu turns his camera on a group of young skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of many towns left behind during the last recession. Following them as they try to break free from cycles of poverty, abuse and neglect, the film becomes even more powerful when Bing addresses his own demons.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)
Somewhere along the way, Mission: Impossible became our most reliable franchise. Tom Cruise’s singular desire to keep upping the ante every outing has found just the right director/enabler in Christopher McQuarrie, who took the series to new heights (literally) in the best entry to date.
Further Viewing: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
An experience I still have yet to forget, Moonlight was a peek inside a world unfamiliar to me yet incredibly moving all the same. With three amazing actors playing Chiron at different stages in his life, we get a brief but effective glimpse at a man trying to hide his real self from the world, and the people who help him get to a place where he’s comfortable with his true identity. The rare time the year’s best film actually won Best Picture.
Further Viewing: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
A Most Violent Year (2014, J.C. Chandor)
Criminally ignored by audiences and many major awards-giving bodies, J.C. Chandor’s period piece is one of the most damning pieces of anti-capitalist art of the 21st Century (at least from an American). Oscar Isaac attempts to run his heating oil business completely above board, but is constantly dragged into dirtier and dirtier dealings by his wife (Jessica Chastain at her most intense), his competitors and even the D.A. investigating him (David Oyelowo). The American Dream is a lie. The only way to really succeed in business is to cheat.
mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)
Perhaps the most divisive movie of the decade, mother! is fascinating precisely because its allegory is so open-ended. Is it a retelling of the Creation story, with Javier Bardem as God and Jennifer Lawrence as the world he gave us? That’s the one I choose to believe. Is it an autobiographical story about the pressures of living with an artist who’s praised as a genius? It might be. Is it just a home-invasion thriller with a truly disturbing twist? Sure. Why not? Whatever it is, I haven’t seen anything quite like it.
Further Viewing: Black Swan (2010)
Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)
The rare film to sustain months of hype and then surpass every bit of positivity it earned along the way. Bong’s pitch-black comedy is specific to South Korea, but every bit universal as the economy has divided us into two classes: the ultra-rich and everybody else.
Further Viewing: Snowpiercer (2013)
Phoenix (2015, Christian Petzold)
Just when you thought you’d seen every possible World War II story, Christian Petzold comes along with this haunting adaptation about identity and betrayal. Nina Hoss is legendary as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who returns to Berlin and reunites with her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), who thinks the disfigured Nelly could pass as his late ex-wife, and claim the inheritance she’s owed.
Further Viewing: Transit (2019)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma)
Most of you won’t be able to see this until next decade, but this absolutely breathtaking romance will burn its way into your memory. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at a remote manor to complete the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), with neither of them aware just how much the next few weeks will mean for them.
Further Viewing: Girlhood (2014)
Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)
A devastating year in the life of one Mexico City family, Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal film was among the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Like many slice-of-life movies, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it so special, but I know few films have hit me so directly in the gut.
Further Viewing: Gravity (2013)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, Edgar Wright)
The most joke-dense comedy of the decade, there are gags I didn’t even catch until my third viewing. An instant cult classic, it bombed at the box office but grew an intense following almost immediately. Its extremely charming cast – caught right at the moment before they hit it big – was a once-in-a-generation gathering, like The Outsiders before it.
Further Viewing: The World’s End (2013), Baby Driver (2017)
Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
A biopic done the right way, it refuses to gloss over any of its characters’ shortcomings and never reduces the civil rights movement to “Why can’t we all just get along?” platitudes. David Oyelowo is magnificent as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., really getting inside and showing us what motivated him. How the Academy, which often goes for actors playing real-life roles, ignored him will go down as one of the biggest mysteries in its history.
Further Viewing: 13th (2016)
A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)
One of the most heart-wrenching films I’ve ever seen, Farhadi’s depiction of a marriage falling apart in modern day Iran is about the ways in which we fail one another: as children, as parents, as spouses, as neighbors.
Silence (2016, Martin Scorsese)
But I thought he just made movies about the mob. Scorsese’s deeply personal adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel is among the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Jesuit missionaries sent to Japan to find their MIA mentor (Liam Neeson) and find nothing but hostility from the locals. But while the violent reaction is extreme, the line between good and bad, sacred and profane is constantly blurred. It has more to say about faith than any of the dozens of slap-dash faith-based films from the last few years.
Further Viewing: Shutter Island (2010), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Irishman (2019)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell)
Let’s just get this out of the way: Anyone who thinks these broken people are “fixed” by the end clearly isn’t watching the same movie. Their lives are better, of course, but you have to willfully misread the film to think Bradley Cooper’s Pat is “cured” of mental illness because of his romance with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, in the role that won her an Oscar). Their love feels messy and raw, just like the family Pat comes from. While romantic comedies may have died off in the multiplex, I’ll take more anti-Hallmark movies like this.
Further Viewing: The Fighter (2010)
Sing Street (2016, John Carney)
One of the most joyful films you’ll ever see, John Carney’s magical high school musical can’t help but put a smile on your face. An original soundtrack filled with great numbers (all of which were snubbed by an Academy that still values melodramatic ballads) and a fresh-faced cast that should be in a lot more projects make this a delightful winner.
The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)
Nearly 10 years later, it still stands alone as the highlight of the decade. A perfect collision of acting, writing, directing, composing and technical wizardry, it’s essentially flawless. It may have even gone too easy on Mark Zuckerberg, who is more than an asshole, but a sociopath who never let things like privacy and democracy get in the way of a profit.
Further Viewing: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Gone Girl (2014)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018; Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)
As superhero movies became the lingua franca of the multiplex, it took Sony Animation to finally show us something we’d never seen before. Dazzling, hilarious and genuinely moving, it pulls off everything that seems to be missing from the assembly line live-action productions.
Tower (2016, Keith Maitland)
It’s been more than 20 years since Columbine, which no longer ranks among the deadliest school shootings in the U.S. But Keith Maitland’s innovative documentary takes us back even further, to Charles Whitman’s massacre on the U.T. campus in 1969. But instead of focusing on the killer, it shines a light on the victims and the people who rushed into harm’s way to help them. Even though sadly nothing has changed in regards to gun violence in this country, this film reminds us that there will always be people willing to help.
Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)
While the mostly terrific Toy Story 4 (2019) robbed this of some of its finality, this still may take the cake for Pixar’s most tear-jerking effort. As someone who was graduating college the summer this came out, the idea of leaving my old friends behind hit me like a ton of bricks. Thankfully, like Woody, I still have some of them around.
Further Viewing: Coco (2017)
The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
One of the best films ever made about man’s relationship to God, it’s the ultimate distillation of all of Terrence Malick’s themes. It contains what may be Brad Pitt’s best performance and one of a half-dozen great turns from Jessica Chastain in her grand arrival in 2011.
Further Viewing: A Hidden Life (2019)
Wind River (2017, Taylor Sheridan)
Certainly not the movie to watch if you want to feel good about your fellow man, Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut is a compelling murder mystery that entangles local law enforcement, the FBI and some vigilante justice into a cesspool of toxic masculinity and deadly violence. It’s grim but impressive work.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)
As I wrote on CentralTrack.com, “I still don’t think the film is the pro-torture propaganda that most do. I mean, the film starts off right away by showing the audience how dehumanizing these tactics are. But the film is a little less, shall we say, judgmental about the CIA’s other questionable practices — including uses of taxpayer money for bribes, indefinite detention, human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. Don’t get me wrong: It’s still one of the best-made movies of the decade and completely compelling. But it’s got a lot to answer for.”