The Best Films of the Decade

There were many ways this list could’ve gone. It started out as a standard top 10, then a top 20, and so forth. There were many sleepless nights spent agonizing over which films would be left off. It began to feel like choosing between children. This was the decade I fell in love with cinema, and to live through the past ten years felt like being born again. It was indescribable, exciting, and I owe thanks to so many movies. Ultimately, I decided to present this list in pairings, whether based on theme, director, or style. I’m sure some of these choices make sense to only me, but that’s the beauty of it. This is my collection, and I went with my heart. I hope you enjoy.

10. Melancholia / Take Shelter

take shelter etc
A storm is coming.

In Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, the great Michael Shannon becomes increasingly convinced that a terrible natural disaster is on the way, and his anxiety gives way into one of the greatest character studies of the decade. Nichols’s is a true American talent, and his collaborations with Shannon remain the most rewarding partnership of the past 10 years.

In turn, Melancholia was a career highlight for the controversial Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Elegant, ominous, and magical. The end of the world has never looked so good.

9. Minding the Gap / American Honey

number 10
The edge of everything.

Two beautiful films about youth, community, and life on the sidelines. American Honey was the first film I saw by the great Andrea Arnold, and it remains a significant moment. The magic hour cinematography, the sprawling run time, and the live wire center performance combine to turn the ordinary into the mythical.

Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, my pick for best documentary of the decade, is perhaps the most important film I saw during these 10 years, and if I had to recommend you see one film on this list, it’s probably this one. It is an unflinching, empathetic portrait of masculinity, trauma, and memory.

8. Cold War / Moonlight

number 8
Love across time.

Cold War is a film that slipped out of time. It seems impossible it was made in the 2010’s, let alone the 1990’s. And yet, this glimmering, tragic romance from Paweł Pawlikowski did just that. There isn’t a day since the credits rolled that I haven’t thought of it.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss this decade without bringing up Barry Jenkins’s barrier-breaking Moonlight. To put it simply: it is the film of the 2010’s. The world needed Chiron, and we are better for having known him.

7. Amour / Only Lovers Left Alive

number 7
Timeless dedication.

Amour broke me. Out of all the films on this list, it is the only one I have yet to watch again. Michael Haneke, known for his uncompromising, often sadistic visions, crafted the most devastating (and enduring) portrait of love I have ever seen.

Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to make the coolest film of the decade. In Only Lovers Left Alive, vampires have never looked so good. It casts a trance I will gladly slip under, again and again.

6. Ad Astra / Annihilation

number 6
Arduous journeys.

James Grey is a master, and Ad Astra is his masterpiece. A science fiction epic that defies gravity — and expectations — it the film this decade that made me sit back and think, “I cannot believe this exists”. And yet, there it is.

Hard as I try, I cannot shake Annihilation. It has been on this list at many levels and it has even been taken off. And yet it continues to creep back, constantly surprising me in its depth of possibilities. A worthy companion piece to Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

5. Manchester by the Sea / Margaret

number 5
The tides of grief.

Kenneth Lonergan had a perfect decade, and he did it by making two of the saddest films ever made. Unwieldiness portraits of grief and its inescapability, Manchester by the Sea and Margaret are sometimes impossible watches, but necessary all the same. They also contain the best performance by an actor this decade (Casey Affleck in Manchester) and one of the best performances by an actress (Anna Paquin in Margaret). Lonergan might get criticism for his visual direction, but there is truly no one better with actors.

4. Two Days, One Night / A Separation

number 4
Uphill battles.

Two Days, One Night is a masterclass in repetition. Every street she walks, every co-worker she speaks to, it is all the same and yet each time more devastating than the last. A true film of the working class, the Dardenne brothers’s work is some of the decade’s most life-affirming.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a perfect movie. That much I know. That it is where it is on this list reflects the breadth of this decade, and the way favor shifts like the tide. Like Minding the Gap, it is a timeless piece of humanism that will remain vital for years to come.

3. Transit / Certified Copy

number 3
Nothing is as it seems.

Cinema is a slippery thing, and no one understood that more than the great, late Abbas Kiarostami. In Certified Copy, perspective is limitless, truth is a trick of the light, and nothing is as it seems. It is a bravura piece of art, and a timeless tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time.

Transit, the latest film by German director Christian Petzold, follows in the Kiarostami tradition. This enigmatic film about a man waiting for a train is a 21st Century Casablanca, and a prescient reminder that history is doomed to repeat itself.

2. The Tree of Life / The Master

number 2
Religious transcendence.

I do not pretend to understand The Master. Every time I think I get a handle on it, it slips between my fingers. It is a film about faith, and a film about power. “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” 

I am not a religious person. I wasn’t raised with it, and I have never been interested in it. But to watch The Tree of Life felt like being in the presence of a divine being, and that makes it the greatest achievement of the decade. It spent many months on the top of this list, and in some ways it still is. But perhaps the only thing stronger than faith is love. And I am going with my heart.

1. Carol / Call Me by Your Name / Portrait of a Lady on Fire

number 1
Radical romance.

I loved many films this decade, but I fell in love with just three. There was Carol, Todd Haynes’s subdued 1950’s romance, with its final shot that remains one of the decade’s finest achievements. And then there was Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which took my breath away with its peerless cinematography and stunning direction from Celine Sciamma. But most of all, there was Luca Guadanigno’s Call Me by your Name. Of all the films this decade, this is the one I hold closest. Every detail, every breath and every shot is branded on my heart. “I remember everything.” I do, and I will.

And so it is, my favorite films of the decade. My heart breaks for the ones I didn’t include — namely Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that surely belongs here but that I couldn’t find a pair for. Here’s to another 10 years.

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