It’s hard to believe the decade is half gone already. In these five years, I’ve graduated from college, moved back in with my parents, struck out on my own, and gotten married. And I’ve consumed a ridiculous amount of pop culture. And thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, there’s more of it than ever before. Of everything I’ve seen and heard, this is what I found to be the best.
First, some honorable mentions. It was really hard for me to cut these lists down to my final picks, especially since these honorable mentions would make a strong Top 10 in their own right.
Honorable Mentions: 50/50, About Time, Beginners, Before Midnight, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hugo, Inception, The Intouchables, Looper, True Grit
10. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)
When originally pitched to Universal, Drive was a big-budget lone-wolf version of The Fast and the Furious. But when Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn got a hold of it, he fused it with his impeccable style and brought in Ryan Gosling, as magnetic a lead as any movie has ever been graced with. Though it owes a debt to films like Le Samourai and The Driver, it’s more of a 21st-century Bullitt, with Gosling as the effortlessly engaging anti-hero. Nowadays, the musical interludes and costume work feel corny, but that’s only because they’ve been replicated to death. There was just something about seeing this in theaters opening weekend and seeing ‘cool’ be redefined as you’re watching it. Audiences expecting something similar to that original pitch walked away disappointed, but for the rest of us, the movie packs in tons of brainy thrills, and features tremendous work from the cast, especially a detached Albert Brooks as the mob boss who Gosling’s character unintentionally crosses.
9. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
The future may not involve the gorgeous production design or goofy costumes, but Spike Jonze’s beautifully sad love story certainly feels like it’s from the future, not set there. Joaquin Phoenix, portraying a side I’ve never seen before, brings a warmth and melancholy to Theodore Twombly, a character that could have easily come across as pathetic. Scarlett Johansson only provides her voice as the operating system and intangible object of Theodore’s affections, but what a voice. Moreover, even if Jonze’s future predicts a lot of detachment, I’m completely engrossed in this world, which seems to almost exclusively feature kind people. This is a sunny environment for a story that could have played out in dark offices.
8. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a very funny movie at first pass. But it’s in the re-watches where its transcends, well, everything. Edgar Wright packs every frame with visual gags, video game references and rabbit holes to follow all while the main plot continues. It’s a masterwork of staging and editing. But let’s not forget the incredible production design, visual effects and sound work. And that’s just all in the background. This is a lovely coming-of-age story about a guy actually growing up. Michael Cera gently tweaks his meek image into someone who’s not wholly sympathetic. He’s kind of a jerk, but he’s really just blindly following his emotions from day to the next. (And that’s extremely relatable, even if you’ve never had to fight seven evil exes.)
7. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
Two mentally ill people fall in love and enter a dance competition. That horribly reductive synopsis sounds like a recipe for disaster, let alone one that’s a comedy. But David O. Russell wrangles all these elements into one joyous picture. Frankly, it’s impossible to finish this movie without a smile on your face. It’s real, it’s honest, but it’s also thoroughly entertaining. Pick a cast member, and they’re all doing career-best work (except De Niro, who merely picked the best project he’s ever been a part of since Heat). And of course there’s Jennifer Lawrence, announcing her arrival as the best actress of my generation, almost single-handedly winning her first of surely many Oscars in one late tete-a-tete with De Niro.
6. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
The newest movie on this list completely defies convention. Richard Linklater’s fascinating experiment took a 6-year-old boy (Ellar Coltrane), then filmed sporadically over the next 12 years, seeing him age at his actual pace. He gains friends, loses family, tries beer, gets a girlfriend, goes to college. He hits all the milestones, but never in a way that feels the least bit cliché. Linklater had a lot of career ups-and-downs during the making of the film, but at no point does Boyhood ever feel anything but authentic. Lorelai Linklater (the director’s own daughter) and particularly Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the kids’ divorced parents are giving tremendous performances. This is a three-hour journey no one will ever forget.
5. Cloud Atlas (Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski, 2012)
As the years go on, Cloud Atlas‘ flaws look smaller and its impact looks bigger. The film was a massive undertaking and Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis couldn’t have pulled it off any better. While its structure – and in one setting, its language – takes some getting used to, this interlocking series of tragedies should register with anyone, regardless of age, race or sexuality. Leading the way is Tom Hanks, who at this point could have simply settled into the paycheck-cashing mode of Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro (pre-Silver Linings Playbook). Yet America’s greatest male movie star of the last two decades forged ahead with a challenging, daring film. It’s still a flop, but give it a few years, and this is a film that will be studied and appreciated like it should have been.
4. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Few film-going experiences will ever match what it was like to see Gravity in theaters. In an era of streaming, this film demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible. In an exhilarating, exhausting 90 minutes, Cuarón shows off his incredible bag of tricks, but still keeps the focus on the human element. Sandra Bullock may have won her Oscar for The Blind Side, but this is her finest hour. The film won seven Oscars, but somehow missed out on Best Picture. Never mind. This was not just the effects extravaganza we needed, but the one we deserved.
3. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
Pixar had already tremendously stepped up its game with the dystopian WALL-E and the emotionally heavy Up. But then came the decade-later sequel to Toy Story 2, and the studio decide to tear the audience up once and for all. After being dropped off at a day-care with its snotty kids and strict power structure, Woody plots a full-on prison break, against the wishes of the rest of the crew. While the scheming and sneaking is extremely well-executed and entertaining, it’s just a framework for a story about abandonment and holding onto relationships well after they’ve run their course. The final 20 minutes are some of the most heart-wrenching in all of cinema, and here I thought this was supposed to be a kids’ movie.
2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
One of the most gorgeous films of all time goes far beyond mere beauty. Terrence Malick explores one man’s contentious relationship with his dad and his even more complex relationship with God. It asks all the big questions, including What Are We Here For? but doesn’t provide any easy answers. It eschews fixed endings, continuing to go on, dreamlike, into the afterlife. Brad Pitt gives the richest performance of his career, with the anger hidden under the surface exploding at the worst times. Jessica Chastain, just starting her career, is equally magnificent. As Pitt’s wife, she’s the polar opposite: gracefully offering unconditional love to her sons, even as they rebel against her. It’s a complex but breathtaking picture of the paths laid out for us.
1. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
David Fincher has gotten flak as of late for adapting two best-sellers (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl). But the man, especially this decade, has gravitated toward works that fascinate the public at large. I remember when the project was first announced, everyone dismissed the very idea of a “Facebook movie,” even though most people had a Facebook account. But then Fincher, fresh off Zodiac, one of the best films ever made, rose to the occasion to turn a movie about a social media site into a thrilling tale of greed, betrayal and exile. I’ve seen The Social Network probably a dozen times in the last five years, and I have yet to find a flaw. Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script is tremendous. Trent Reznor’s score with Atticus Ross is haunting and perfectly suited to the film. Jeff Cronenweth’s editing is top-notch. And then that cast. My goodness, that cast. Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Justin Timberlake (especially in that club scene), Rooney Mara. And of course Jesse Eisenberg, taking all his quirks and tics and pushing them into a (probably inaccurate) portrait of a wounded soul, who takes his frustrations out on everybody, conquers the world, then has nothing left to do with his riches. He has more than a billion friends, but he still can’t get back some of them.