I keep reading articles and posts about how movies aren’t what they used to be. From Martin Scorsese, bitter about his Irishman distribution woes, to Spielberg decrying the “movie-ness” of streaming services, to box office reports of lower attendance.
Yet I maintain the 2010s have had as many great films as any decade before.
When putting this list together it was literally impossible to only do ten movies. I finally cut it off at 25, and then which order became a frustrating rearranging.
Finally, here are my Top 25 films of the 2010s:
25. It: A movie that genuinely horrified, and did Stranger Things better than Stranger Things. The opening scene is (pardon the pun) a grabber, and it didn’t let up much after that point. Had the sequel been as good there’s a chance this would rank even higher on the list as a duology. As it is, It is still the 25th best of the 2010s.
24. The Hateful Eight: Tarantino gets two slots on this list, and the first is his underrated suspense film from 2015. Both funny and gruesome, I was unexpectedly pulled into this period piece.
23. Wind River: Jeremy Renner does his fair share of franchise films, but when he escapes those films he brings a depth and realism to his characters. He showed this in the incredible The Hurt Locker, and he did it again in this 2017 murder mystery. Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen keeps up with Renner as a FBI outsider investigating a murder on Native American lands (the best rookie FBI performance since Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs)
22. The A-Team: I was skeptical any new cast could capture the magic, the chemistry, and the unique personalities of NBC’s ’80s The A-Team. I was wrong. Christian Kaplan, the film’s executive in charge of casting, deserves an award for finding four performers who simply are the 2010 personifications of Hannibal Smith, Face, BA Baracus, and Howling Mad Murdock.
More, director Joe Carnahan’s use of montage to show how the team went from planning to execution was invigorating.
I love it when a movie comes together, and this one surely did.
21. Deadpool: Funny and irreverent–I’d expect nothing less from Ryan Reynolds or Deadpool. Romantic and exciting–those are the surprises in store in Fox’s R-rated (relatively) low budget comic book movie. While Fox studios is no more, the risks they took with first Deadpool and then Logan showed the big boys at Disney and Warner Bros. that comic book movies aren’t just for teenage boys. Without Deadpool there’d be no Joker.
20. Her: Joaquin Phoenix had his biggest box-office hit with 2019’s Joker. Likewise, moviegoers hail his lead performance (quite a trick to follow up Heath Ledger’s ’08 turn). But Joker wasn’t Phoenix’s best performance of the decade–that was in 2013’s Her.
For much of the film Phoenix’s character Theodore is the only person on screen. While Scarlett Johansson’s voice speaks to him in most scenes, but still Phoenix alone must carry the physical performance. He must be visually and emotionally bare as he alone has all the actor’s tools at his behest.
Moving and thought-provoking, I recommend spending an evening with Her.
19. Hereditary: That scene, right? That one scene (that I won’t spoil)… it is to Hereditary what the shower is to Psycho, the pig’s blood to Carrie, or the orgasm scene of When Harry Met Sally. But to focus only on that scene is to ignore the other 126 minutes of a deeply disturbing and creepy film. Toni Collette takes you with her on her spiral into…madness? And Alex Wolff’s physical performance creates a moment second only to that scene. Hereditary gripped me like a nightmare from which I didn’t want to wake.
18. The Social Network: Facebook is so central to communication that it’s difficult to remember the time before. It has become so engrained in American life that The Social Network is perhaps even more important today than when it was released in 2010.
The story of Facebook’s creation is so dramatic and sensational it’s hard to believe it’s real. In fact, the real Mark Zuckerberg disputes this movie’s accuracy saying, “This is my life, so I know it’s not so dramatic.” Still, it’s hard to not be drawn into the world of Facebook’s creation.
“Nerds” programming at computers could be terribly stale to watch, but director David Fincher brings his trademark visual panache and makes Facebook’s creation feel as suspenseful as Seven. And Jesse Eisenberg was a great choice to play Zuckerberg, bringing the right amount of whiny and nerdy.
17. Baby Driver: Is Baby Driver a movie, or is it a 113 minute music video? The concept–thievery perfectly timed with music–was originally a music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song.”
Yes, the hook of Baby Driver is its gimmick–its soundtrack dominates the film. It makes a scene of getting coffee fun and visually appealing. Really, Baby Driver is an old-fashioned musical, only no one in this film sings–they listen to iPods.
But the magic of Baby Driver is the cast, specifically lead Ansel Elgort. This “one last job” story is given extra depth when it collides with Baby’s love story with Debora (Lily James). Jamie Foxx brings true menace with his character “Bats”, and Jon Hamm’s arc as “Buddy” is almost as involving as Baby’s.
Almost three years since the film’s release I still can’t stop listening to the soundtrack, but mostly those songs now make me remember the film.
16. Whiplash: I came late to the 2014 film Whiplash. By the time I watched it I’d already watched J. K. Simmons accept his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. I really thought I knew what I was in for…and I was wrong.
Whiplash isn’t your standard “exceptional student” film like Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting. It also isn’t the cliche “evil teacher” movie like 21 or Real Genius. No, Whiplash is a story of obsession where the student’s ambition is as big an enemy as his teacher.
Simmons earns his Oscar as abusive music teacher Terence Fletcher. It’s a role that, in the wrong hands, could have become camp, but Simmons rides that line. He’s not evil, just amoral and obsessed.
The film ends on a number of twists, the first of which made me roll my eyes…but writer/director Damien Chazelle is too smart to let this film end in a tired cliche, and the film’s final scene sticks with me.
15. Inception: I’ve gotten some guff for not being a paid member of the Christopher Nolan fan club. That said, I love three of his films: Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception. \
Nolan has a way of shooting a cityscape that is gothic and expansive, dwarfing its characters in a Metropolis. It worked so well in Dark Knight and he uses it to great effect in Inception where he adds another dimension as cities change and reshape themselves.
It’s a cinematic equivalent of a M.C. Escher artwork.
But the plot is as exciting as its visuals–a heist film with constant escalation. Add great performances from the entire cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Cillian Murphy are stand-outs) and Inception is a movie that’s incredible, and incredibly fun, to watch.
14. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: How unexpected is it that not only is the best Spider-Man feature film animated, but it doesn’t even star Peter Parker?
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most comic-booky of all comic-book movies. It’s not afraid to tackle topics that live-action movies eschew, including multiverses and alternate versions of characters. But comics do that constantly.
Miles Morales was a Spider-Man created by Brian Michael Bendis in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe. When Peter Parker was killed Miles Morales stepped up and inherited the Spider-Man mantle. Being biracial, young, and hip, Morales quickly developed his own following as Spider-Man. Now he got a big-screen starring turn…with Peter Parker (actually two Peter Parkers) in supporting roles.
Yes, it’s yet another superhero origin story–but it’s so fast-paced, and the characters come so quickly, that it manages to feel fresh despite audiences having seen hundreds of movies like this before.
I get more out of this film every time I enter the Spider-Verse
13. It Follows: Elevated horror often focuses too much on the “elevated” and too little on the “horror.” Not so with It Follows. The metaphor of death coming after intercorse is clear. Yet the horror and paranoia of being stalked by an unstoppable, invisible assailant pulled me in. I empathized with the protagonists and joined them in their fear of “it.”
12. Kingsman: The Secret Service: Matthew Vaugn’s visual style brings three movies to this list of 25…more than any other director. The first is this 2014 spy comedy. It both mocks the James Bond spy formula while also adhering to it, a post-modern, self-aware thriller. From its opening (to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”) to its end (to Brian Ferry’s “Slave to Love”) the movie is exciting and fun–but it’s the church scene (choreographed to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”) that cements its place as one of the decade’s best.
11. Maniac (2012): Lately movie reboots (and even sequels like The Force Awakens and Jurassic World) seem to only retell or remake the original film. Maniac does not fall prey to that lazy device. It takes inspiration from the grimy 1980 film, but director Franch Khalfoun and producer Alexandre Aja bring a totally different vibe to this slasher film.
Replacing large, grimy Joe Spinell with small, refined Elijah Wood already indicates this film will be vastly different than the original. But more, the choice to show most of the film in first-person, to in effect make the viewer the killer, is unlike anything in the 1980 film.
We’ve seen first-person slashers before (Halloween’s opening scene may be the best known, but Friday the 13th and others have used this technique). Doing an entire film in that style is a gimmick–but one that works so well here.
With Wood’s creepy performance as Frank Zito (and one of Frank’s arms) and the haunting score by Rob, Maniac is one of the best films I only watched because of Now Playing’s review. Truly one of the most original and best horror films of the decade.
10. Contagion: Few things frighten me more than a fast spreading, highly contagious disease wiping out the population. From The Stand to Outbreak to even Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this all-too-possible scenario scares the hell out of me.
That fear is realized in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion. The disease spreads through the global population as the film focuses on both the race for a cure and some of the individuals living in this crumbling world.
Never have I rooted more for a film’s protagonists. And Soderbergh’s ensemble cast of familiar faces from Gwyneth Paltrow to Laurence Fishburne helped me connect with nearly every character.
Contagion doesn’t end on the bleakest of notes, but it carries with it the bleakest of horrors. I hope to never find out if Soderbergh made a realistic film, but he made a thrilling one.
9. 12 Years a Slave: I can think of several horror films that start with a kidnapping and forced enslavement. Seven, Saw, and Hostel just to name a few. But imagine that horror told as a period-piece biopic–a true story of the worst American horror.
It’s unbelievable and horrible that a free African-American in New York could be kidnapped and sold as a slave, with no recourse to regain his freedom. Yet in 1840s America such a scam was commonplace, and happened to Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor).
The film is sad, and yet shows a genuine triumph of human spirit and perseverance. I was moved by the tale.
8. The Cabin in the Woods: Is this a horror film or a parody? It rides the line with its trite story of five college students going to a cabin for a weekend of partying. Yet the scenario is reframed here as manipulation by people who look like extras from Office Space. They release pheromones and use drugs to turn these five people into horror stereotypes…but the deaths caused are too real.
With a final twist and cameo appearance that work perfectly, I revisit The Cabin in the Woods often.
7. Django Unchained: Tarantinos’ second film on this list ranks with Reservoir Dogs as his best work. Django (Jamie Foxx) and King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) are a tremendous on-screen duo as bounty hunters who infiltrate the slave trade to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda.
The movie starts as an action film, but ends up becoming a heist movie along the lines of Ocean’s 11 as the two protagonists plot their rescue. And Foxx brings a gravity to his role as a freed slave, while also being funny with his character’s clothes and turn-of-phrase.
To see Samuel L. Jackson play someone other than Samuel L. Jackson is a delight here as well. The strongest of recommends.
6. Kick-Ass: Matthew Vaughn’s second entry in this list is this 2010 comic-book adaptation. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman smoothed out the bumps in Mark Millar’s original graphic novel, creating an escapist super-hero fantasy. Voiceover narration and early hero patrols mimic Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man. But Aaron Johnson as the titular hero is an underdog that you can truly root for.
Then Kick-Ass teams up with Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and the film goes to another level of madcap carnage.
Like Kingsman: The Secret Service this film has over-the-top fights and a “happy” ending that works like a fairy tale. Yet the sheer joy of watching these performances and these characters really does Kick-Ass.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road: For 20 years or more I’ve read articles and heard complaints from movie critics and fans that sequels and franchises are univentive and tired, ruining American cinema. (Once more, see Scorsese’s comments regarding Marvel films).
I contend franchise films are like all films–there are some that are lazy and poorly made, but then there are moments of genius. Mad Max: Fury Road epitomizes that phenomenon.
Everything could go wrong with a fourth Mad Max film. The titular character was recast to Tom Hardy, and the last installment, Beyond Thunderdome, came 30 years earlier and was hardly a blockbuster. Yet septuagenarian director George Miller injected this film with high-octane action creating one of cinema’s best chase films.
More than just action-for-action’s sake, the film also co-stars Charlize Theron as female liberator Imperator Furiosa, giving the series a kick-ass woman who outshined Hardy and gave Mad Max a feminist bent.
Whether you watch it in the Black and Chrome edition or the color release, watch it on as big a screen as you can find, crank the sound system, and unleash the Fury.
4. The Nice Guys: Writer/director Shane Black seems unable to recapture the box-office magic he had in the ’80s when he wrote Lethal Weapon (Iron Man 3 excluded as, let’s face it, Black was not the reason that film made a billion dollars). It’s a shame audiences are ignoring Black because his best screenplays have come in the 21st century (and I don’t mean The Predator).
In 2005 Black wrote and directed a buddy-crime film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — a funny and exciting noir mystery set in Hollywood (and featured in Now Playing’s Underrated Movies We Recommend book). It barely broke even for the studio.
In 2016 he tried again with the comedic noir mystery The Nice Guys starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Set in late ’70s Los Angeles the movie follows private eye Holland March (Gosling) as he investigates the death of porn star Misty Mountains. The case leads him to be beaten-up by tough-guy Jackson Healy (Crowe). Soon the two team-up to investigate a complex mystery. They are both aided and hampered by March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice).
Gosling and Crowe are perfectly cast. Crowe’s cinematic history and his large frame perfectly fit his character, while Gosling’s charisma makes a mediocre private eye fun to watch. The mystery is as complex (or is that convoluted) as Lethal Weapon, but the joy is in the characters.
But The Nice Guys did finish last, barely making its budget back, and Black went on to do the atrocious The Predator. I hope his creative spark wasn’t squashed when his two best films didn’t find an audience.
3. X-Men: First Class: Matthew Vaughn’s third film on this list may prove controversial. X-Men: First Class is a polarizing film among fans…though I can’t understand the view of people who dislike this fourth X-Men installment.
A prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, First Class is set in the early ’60s and shows the origins of classic X-Men characters Charles “Professor X” Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), Raven “Mystique” Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) and others.
It’s impossible to not be impressed with this cast. They got Lawrence one year before she became a superstar with The Hunger Games and an Oscar winner for Silver Linings Playbook. McAvoy and Fassbender never reached the popularity of their co-star, but both are magnificent actors able to bring a variety of emotion and pathos to their roles. With Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Rose Byrne, Zoe Kravitz,and Kevin Bacon in supporting roles, the cast is captivating and interesting.
The stakes couldn’t be higher as First Class offers a bit of revisionist history to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The story spans the globe from Germany to England to Russia and more.
Once again, Matthew Vaughn brings his visual style to a comic book adaptation in a way that’s fresh and fun, and gives us one of the best cameos I’ve ever seen.
With its message of “Mutant and Proud”, its character evolution, and its infectious score by Henry Jackman, there isn’t a moment of this movie I don’t love.
2. The Avengers: Honestly, this entire list could be films from Marvel Studios. Their output is remarkable in consistent quality, and their cast and characters improve from film to film.
Truthfully, I limited myself to one Marvel Studios movie for this list…but which one? Captain America: Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame all truly deserve spots in any “best of the decade” list.
Marvel’s films have become a cultural touchpoint for people around the world. People who would never deign to read a comic book now wear Captain America T-Shirts and buy Funko POP! figures of their favorite characters.
So which to pick? The one that really started it all-– 2012’s The Avengers. Sure, you can argue Iron Man started it in 2008, but Marvel’s films were only moderately successful through 2011. While both Iron Man films made over $300mil domestic, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor all failed to reach $200 million (2015’s Ant-Man is the only post-2012 film to not gross over $200m).
It took Joss Whedon to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe coalesce, bringing a god, a super-soldier, a rampaging monster, and a playboy in an armored suit together to fight each other, and then an alien invasion.
In only 143 minutes Wheadon gave satisfying character arcs to six characters…the four listed above, plus Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), both of whom failed to impress in their previous MCU films.
Wheadon did that and made it look effortless, while keeping the film moving at a good clip and having enough quips to keep the audience smiling.
The Avengers truly did assemble here, and an unstoppable cinematic juggernaut was the result. You may love that or hate it, but damn if that isn’t an impressive feat.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs the World: How is it the number 1 film is a comic book but isn’t a Marvel movie? Leave it to Edgar Wright’s action-romance fable Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s eponymous series of graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim takes place in a fantasy land where video game rules apply. Skateboarders grind down flights of stairs like in Tony Hawk games. People throw punches and kicks in the streets like Mortal Kombat. Battles of the Bands create large electronic kaiju. And when someone dies, a bunch of coins fly from where their body used to be.
But inside this video game is a romantic comedy where listless Scott Pilgrim (a perfectly cast Michael Cera) falls for the woman of his dreams–Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead at her most alluring). As with any rom-com there are obstacles to their romance. Not only is Scott dating high-school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but to date Ramona Scott must fight her seven evil exes.
Scott has never fought for anything, so can he keep up the fight for Ramona? Should he even do that?
The result is a light-hearted but emotional film where Scott and Ramona have ups, downs, and battles with the likes of Chris Evans and Brandon Routh.
I also love the entire cast here. Comic book movie veterans Evans and Routh are joined by Thomas Jane, plus future Captain Marvel Brie Larson. Yet the standout supporting character is Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay and snarky roommate Wallace Wells. Culkin delivers his lines with such snide sarcasm I can’t help to smile.
Get a life and don’t miss out on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Read Jakob, Arnie, and Marjorie’s reviews of Scott Pilgrim vs the World and 124 other movies in the Now Playing book Underrated Movies We Recommend. The eBook is available now, the print book is shipping soon!