The chance to write a “best of the decade” list is pretty rare, and I tend to put an inordinate amount of weight on the task. (If you happen to be curious about the full 100-film list I put together for the 2010s while preparing, you can find it on my Letterboxd here.) It was actually helpful looking back at the “best of the 2000s” list I published a full 10 years ago and realizing that half of the films on that list wouldn’t make the cut if I re-made it today. Tastes change, but these sorts of lists, to me, are an interesting way to at least capture a moment in time.
So, without further ado, here are the 10 films that I (for now) consider my favourites of the decade that was the 2010s.
10. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2010)
We’re starting with a slightly “controversial” choice, considering Fish Tank came out in the UK (and played quite a few film festivals) in late 2009. However, it didn’t get its North American theatrical release until January 2010, so I count it as a ‘10s film. And indeed, Fish Tank seemed to usher in a spate of films about economic disparity in the UK throughout the decade that followed. But it was Arnold’s naturalism in telling the story of young Mia (Katie Jarvis), a young woman fighting (often literally) to break out of the suppressive social class she’s been raised in, that had the biggest emotional impact on me. It is a quiet film full of extremely flawed characters who are given the empathy to simply exist as they are. It’s the film on this list that I’ve had the longest to sit with, and it’s haunted me since I first saw it.
9. Columbus (Kogonoda, 2017)
Speaking of empathy, there was perhaps not a kinder film I saw all decade than Kogonoda’s stunning debut, Columbus. Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho play extremely warm, realistic characters and the pure bliss in watching them share ideas, learn from each other, and explore the unique architecture in the titular Columbus, Indiana is far stronger than it has any right to be in such a simple film. It’s a film that some absolutely adore and others shrug at. I just sat there in the theatre absorbing every beautiful frame.
8. Lore (Cate Shortland, 2013)
Cate Shortland is a director who doesn’t make nearly as many films as I’d like, having released just three in total since her debut in 2004. (Although she’s about to get a major bump in notoriety, given that her next project is 2020’s Black Widow.) Her second film, Lore, tells the harrowing tale of a group of young German siblings who must flee their home unaccompanied after the end of World War II. It is a quietly stressful adventure tale, a coming-of-age story, and an artfully told period piece all at once. It also boasts captivating performances from its young German leads, Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Malina, and pitch-perfect cinematography. This is the least well-known film on the list, but one that I think a lot of people would appreciate if they sought it out.
7. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)
After this year’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, I’m going to put forward a motion that we retire the narrative structure of having a journalist interviewing a celebrity as the premise of a film. However, that structure was less overused when The End of the Tour was made, and Ponsoldt chooses it not out of convenience, but as the entire emotional crux of his story. It also helps that the two men being depicted (David Foster Wallace and journalist David Lipsky) are much more evenly-matched in their respective career accomplishments at the time the film takes place, acting as a mirror, an echo, and a sounding board for each other. (They also have a rich real-life text to draw from, as Lipsky published an entire book containing his conversations with Wallace during his book tour for Infinite Jest.) Ponsoldt depicts their relationship so cleanly, yet realistically, creating an incredibly emotionally rich film from conversations may on the surface sometimes seem offhanded or even banal. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg also turn in wonderful performances, seeming impressively unburdened by the “real life-ness” of the characters they’re playing. It’s a fun hangout film, as also one that sneaks up on you with an understated emotional wallop.
6. Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier, 2012)
I do tend to love depressing Scandinavian films, and Oslo, August 31 is a prime example. Set over the course of one day in the life of a man who’s been temporarily let out of rehab to attend a job interview, it’s a meditative, artful take on addiction. Trier levels up from his already impressive debut, 2007’s Reprise, and creates something even more beautiful and deeply felt. I only caught up with the film this past year, but I’m actually glad that I watched it now (rather than in my early 20’s when it first came out) because I found a relatable aspect (aside from the topic of drug addiction) that wouldn’t have hit me in the same way eight years ago; through the people that Anders interacts with in vignettes throughout the film, Trier perfectly illustrates that sense of feeling alienated from those around you by not having followed the path that you’re “supposed” to by the time you hit 30-ish. It’s not quite the main theme of the film, but it’s sprinkled as an undercurrent throughout, and it really hit me in a relatable, raw (though not necessarily sad) way. Oslo, August 31 is a stunner and, for me, was a great example of watching the right film at the right time.
5. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)
I would struggle to think, on a frame-by-frame basis, of a more beautiful film that came out this decade. There was something about Roma that I found so captivating, despite its seeming straightforwardness. I know some found it a bit emotionally disconnected, but I was right there with Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) from frame one through to the end of her quietly seismic journey. This is perhaps partly because Cuarón crafted it with so much love, and the autobiographical elements came through beautifully. I could have watched another of hour of his vibrant, wistful, clear-eyed point of view.
4. The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2017)
James Gray was another director who succeeded at transporting viewers to a perfectly realized world, here with The Lost City of Z. Having caught up with it earlier this year (on gorgeous 35mm projection, no less) I immediately fell in love with how it evoked a sweeping historical epic, but depicted with a modern sensibility. Gray perfectly (yet deliberately) paced this tale of a single-minded adventurer, and I was along for the journey every step of the way.
3. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
I could write thousands of words on The Social Network (and maybe have, over the course of my various viewings throughout the decade). There was no film that I watched more in the ‘10s (five times, in case you were wondering), and The Social Network holds up perfectly every time I watch it. From the performances to the score to the cinematography to the Sorkin script, it’s one of the extremely few films that I would classify as close to perfect. There is a rhythm to it that is unlike any other film that came out in the past 10 years, and it seems to somehow only gain relevance as time goes on. When I think of why I love movies, this is a film that almost always pops into my mind.
2. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016)
The ’10s was definitely the first decade where I paid attention to documentaries. (Prior to this, my knowledge of docs pretty much started and ended with Supersize Me and March of the Penguins.) And I saw a lot of really great ones. But the one that eclipsed all the others (both in terms of my appreciation for it, and just it’s sheer length) was Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. It’s a film that feels daunting to write about, because it does so much over the course of its nearly 8 hours. (And yes, I do consider it a movie, rather than a miniseries.) It is an incisive examination of American culture, a compelling “true crime”-style story, and an extremely thorough dive into the psyche of one of the most inscrutable figures in pop culture. And it’s all constructed with such an elegance that it’s impossible not to admire its craft, even as you’re engrossed in the story. This is an accessible, definitive, and unique take on a story that many of us thought we already knew. And, on top of that, it’s a film that’ll probably make you question why you had been so quick to form your previously-held opinions on its central figure.
1. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)
Lists like these are always extremely subjective (hence why I’ve called this post “MY Top 10 Films of the ‘10s”) but there’s no other way I can really explain putting The Place Beyond the Pines in my number one spot beyond to say that it was just my personal favourite film of the past 10 years. I think it’s incredibly well-constructed, expertly acted, and tells a gripping story. I do think it’s a quantifiably great film. But the simpler, non-critical way to describe it is that it just “clicked” with me. Cianfrance, coming off 2010’s emotionally thorny, almost uncomfortably intimate Blue Valentine, crafted a big, generation-sweeping family epic with The Place Beyond the Pines. He balances the film’s unique structure perfectly, dividing it into three distinct parts that are satisfying on their own, but that also resonate with each other in fascinating ways. And though it’s a film that has a “twist” that seems like it might lose its impact after seeing it once, I found the film has only gained complexity and impact on multiple subsequent viewings. I’ve been on a quest ever since to find other films that balance the same level of bold structure and craft with deeply humanistic storytelling.
The Place Beyond the Pines is not a film you’re likely to see on a lot of other “best of the decade” lists (let alone at the top), but for me, it’s the film that defined my movie-watching in the 2010s.