The Best Films of the Decade

Ten years ago, Netflix was an innocuous DVD-by-mail company, the Marvel tsunami was just testing the water with “Iron Man” and “Thor,” and the “Star Wars” empire still belonged to George Lucas, not Disney. The only celebrity to become President of the United States was “Bedtime for Bonzo” star Ronald Reagan, Amazon was a place you went to buy cheap books not the biggest spender at the Sundance Film Festival, and “the cloud” was something Carl Fredricksen’s CG house floated above rather than the way people screen Pixar movies.

Lest those descriptions make you feel nostalgic, keep in mind that, apart from “Twilight,” Hollywood movies were mostly being made by and about white men. Audiences found their voice over the last decade, letting the industry know how they felt — and studios listened, or started to at least, as criticisms of #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp sparked seismic change in the industry. It may take another 10 years for the impact of those movements to be fully felt, whereas some readers will expect parity in lists like these, wherein Variety film critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge identify the best movies of the past decade.

Click here to read Peter Debruge’s list.

Owen Gleiberman’s 10 Best Movies

1. “The Social Network” (2010)

It’s one of those perfect films, like “All the President’s Men” or “Dazed and Confused” or “Sweet Smell of Success,” that you can watch again and again and again. It hurtles, fascinates, scintillates, and resonates; every moment is nimbly entertaining and essential. Tapping into the tale of Facebook’s creation, this David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin masterpiece touches the inner story of our time: how the new mode of connecting to others via the Internet was invented by people — like the visionary geek Mark Zuckerberg, played with a magnetic fast-break chill by Jesse Eisenberg — who had serious problems connecting in any other way. So they invented a brave new world by syncing it to the spirit of their own detachment. “The Social Network” is bracing and funny, tragic and exhilarating, told with the kind of effortless high-wire panache that makes you believe in the power of movies.

2. “La La Land” (2016)

The most joyful movie of the decade, and joy is not a quality we should take for granted (especially these days). But in great musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Moulin Rouge!” or “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” joy is often the flip side of a kind of rapturous melancholy, one that allows us to take stock of how beautiful (and fleeting) life and love can be. And Damien Chazelle’s new-style version of an old-school Hollywood musical has a core of sublime sadness that lets it blossom into a bittersweet symphony. The film’s magic is there in its entrancing musical numbers (think Jacques Demy staged with the eagerness of young Spielberg), in the wistful tale of two lovestruck entertainers (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) who fall for each other yet can’t seem to get their passion on track, and in Chazelle’s devotion to the wonder of Old Hollywood, which makes every moment of “La La Land” feel like another day of sun.

3. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)

A film so fast and furious that as much as I loved it the first time, on further viewings I felt myself learning how to watch it, training my eye to take in each razory leap and split-second cut. There has never been an action poet like George Miller, who returns to the hell-on-wheels grandeur of “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior” to create a movie that builds on their nihilistic excitement, using speed, once again, not just to generate thrills (though God knows he does that) but to express a vision of existence — of men and women hurtling past the void, hanging on for dear life, wondering what besides the power of their velocity will save them. (In the Miller vision, speed = God.) In “Fury Road,” Miller creates a demolition-derby spectacle for the 21st century, as Max (Tom Hardy), a blunted shell, makes way for the women warriors (led by Charlize Theron) who now lead the fight for freedom as the rubber hits the road.

4. “Before Midnight” (2013)

“Marriage Story” is a great drama about divorce, but the third and most powerful of Richard Linklater’s ”Before” films is something even more naked and transporting: a journey through the emotional labyrinth of a relationship that is holding on even as it’s begun to hit the skids. After sharing a moony night of conversational bliss in “Before Sunrise,” then a reunion that takes stock of the love they didn’t have enough belief in in “Before Sunset,” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) are now a veteran couple, with twin girls, a backlog of memory, and a love so marbled with affection and resentment that they can see each other completely … and, in another way, not at all. Linklater’s dialogue workds on the level of Bergman and Rohmer and ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and the actors transform their descent from sunset to midnight into something miraculously spontaneous. They’re just two people in a room, their love flickering like a candle that may or may not go out.

5. “Hell or High Water” (2016)

Sheer genre-movie heaven. It’s about two brothers, one noble (Chris Pine) and one no good (Ben Foster), and it’s also about stealing, gambling, racism, the thorny destiny of family, and the stubborn mystique of West Texas, as embodied by an aging Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who may be the most delectable slow-poke crime-solver since Columbo. The ultimate effect is that of a classic film noir told in sunlight, with a punch of humanity that will knock the wind out of you.

6. “Bridesmaids” (2011)

True confession: I don’t laugh out loud at very much screen comedy, because I always feel like I’ve seen the jokes before. But no matter how many times I watch this tale of friendship in the age of passive-aggressive one-upmanship and topsy-turvy class imbalance, I laugh uncontrollably. That’s because Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Annie, a bridesmaid whose old pal’s impending upscale wedding seems to be staged as a conspiracy to make her feel like a failure, has created a screen comedy of neurotic loserdom as masochistically uproarious as it is elemental and romantic. It’s not the first movie to prove that women could play the raunchy comedy game, but it’s one of the only movies to turn raunch into screwball art.

7. “Amour” (2012)

In most of his films, the Austrian director Michael Haneke uses his imperious ice-cold voyeurism to play funny games with the audience. But in this staggering tale of an octogenarian Paris couple, played by the legendary Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Haneke takes his drop-dead style — the probing silences, the gawking camera, the suspense built out of the fear of what’s coming next — to tell a tale of the mysteries of old age that’s driven by an alternating current of horror and heartbreak. After Riva’s character suffers a stroke, she’s both there and not there, and what unfolds suggests a dream play by Stanley Kubrick about how love finds its ultimate expression in death. It’s a film that will suck your breath away in empathy.

8. “The Tree of Life” (2011)

After taking a 20-year sabbatical from cinema, Terrence Malick came back with “The Thin Red Line.” But it was in “The Tree of Life,” a magnificent tale of growing up in small-town Texas during the 1950s, that Malick, at long last, made a drama that lived up to the dark incandescence of his two fabled films of the ’70s. The extraordinary creation-of-the-universe sequence — think the Book of Genesis meets “2001,” all done in 17 minutes — sets the stage for what is, in essence, a transcendent vision of everyday experience. Malick’s camera caresses each moment, turning life in the ’50s into a diorama of Proustian poignance, and the performances of Brad Pitt (as the sternly demanding father) and Jessica Chastain (as the mother whose tenderness makes his anger bearable) have the indelible effect of triggering primal feelings about our own parents when they were young enough to haunt us in their flawed innocence.

9. “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (2011)

When Tom Cruise, wearing electronic-suction-cup gloves, crawls like a spider over the towering glass surface of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (and make no mistake, he’s really up there, on the tallest building in the world), he’s like one of Hitchcock’s ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances; like a comic-book superhero whose powers are of this earth; like a movie star doing the polar opposite of going through the motions — he’s living the motions, turning them into the measure of his stardom. That knockout vertigo sequence is an instant classic, but director Brad Bird, in his mind-bendingly ingenious “M:I” adventure, doesn’t rest on his set-piece laurels. He sustains the excitement of a caper built around a series of grand illusions that (like Cruise’s stunt work) may just be real. The result is the most exhilarating blockbuster of its era.

10. “Lady Bird” (2017)

Some viewers who didn’t hook into the splendor of Greta Gerwig’s drama about a Sacramento high schooler going through her fraught senior year said things like, “It’s a good coming-of-age film. But haven’t we seen that before?” Yes, but we haven’t seen it done like this: as a series of exquisitely staged memory snapshots, all leaping forward to create a whole sublimely larger than the sum of its parts. Christine, a.k.a. Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan with a voluble charisma that’s equal parts love, confusion, and ferocity, goes from one boy to the next, blunders into confronting the loyalty that defines friendship, and wages a holy war against her mother (Laurie Metcalf) over the issue of whether she’s going to leave the nest of California when she heads off to college. What she’s really discovering, though, in a movie that turns out to be as religious as it is prickly, exuberant, and moving, is the glory of life itself.

Peter Debruge’s 10 Best Movies

1. “The Tree of Life” (2011)

Cinema artists such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman examined questions of spirituality and conscience by stripping their work of excess style. Terrence Malick does the opposite, infusing this piercing act of self-examination with attention-grabbing technique as the filmmaker attempts to reconcile the death of his brother with his understanding of a higher power. Given the film’s intensely personal nature, I get why so many audiences found it challenging, frustratingly inscrutable in so many of its details (such as the dinosaur scenes). And yet, in baring the concerns of his soul, the existentialist auteur invites us to explore those most universal of subjects: faith, family, and loss. In retrospect, I suppose Malick could have air-dropped a cosmic origin-of-life sequence into any of his films for added metaphysical heft, but this was the one where he was bold enough to do it — and meaning-of-life movies will never be the same.

2. “Secret Sunshine” (2010)

Korean director Lee Chang-dong broke through to American audiences last year with “Burning,” but his true masterpiece is this 2007 film — not released in the U.S. until 2010, which explains its inclusion on this list. Winner of the best actress prize at the Cannes film festival, Joen Do-yeon delivers the performance of the decade as a widow buffeted by multiple tragedies. At first, she finds solace in religion, even going so far as to visit her son’s kidnapper in prison, but when he rejects her forgiveness, she snaps again, pushing back against new newfound faith. For whatever reason, movies shy away from the subject of religion, which plays a central part in the lives of so many. No film of the 21st century offers a more complex examination of that personal struggle than this epic journey of the soul.

3. “Amour” (2012)

A role model of restraint, Austrian master Michael Haneke trusts his audience so much that he presents a wrenching human dilemma with minimal stylistic interference: no sweeping camera moves, no melodramatic music cues to provoke sympathy or manipulate emotions. Rather, “Amour” relies on the strength of its core situation — a devoted husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) decides how best to assist his invalid wife (Emmanuelle Riva) in ending her life, while their adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert) selfishly argues to prolong her suffering — and the nuanced performances of three of France’s strongest actors, forcing us to fill in the gaps with details from our own personal experience. Not everyone’s ready for a film that doesn’t tell you what to think or feel, but few understand the power of ambiguity better than Haneke, whose approach has inspired others, among them “Toni Erdmann,” “Force Majeure,” and “Roma.”

4. “I Am Love” (2010)

Overlooked in Luca Guadagnino’s native Italy, this sumptuous and subversive romance — about an immigrant wife (Tilda Swinton) in an upscale family who gives in to an affair with her son’s best friend — stimulates all our senses without resorting to the use of gimmicks like 4DX and D-Box that throttle your seat and spritz perfume in your face. As audiences would later experience with “Call Me by Your Name,” Guadagnino manipulates sight and sound — the twin tools at his disposal — to vibrantly expand our experience, such that we can practically taste the cooking, feel their caresses, and smell the fields in which they make love. Meanwhile, the film’s radical politics run counter to the values of Western culture, which is scandalized by the idea that a mother might abandon her family to follow her heart, whereas Swinton’s character chooses passion over patriarchy, albeit at an enormous emotional cost.

5. “The Rider” (2018)

This is the closest thing to a Marvel movie you’ll find on my list — only because this poetic human-interest indie convinced the superhero studio to hire its director, Chloe Zhao, to helm its upcoming “The Eternals.” Rather than selling fantasies, “The Rider” deals with the fragility of life and the limitations of the American Dream as a handsome young rodeo cowboy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation refuses to accept that a near-fatal brain injury means that he should never get on a horse again. The nearly-true story was inspired by Zhao’s leading man, Brady Jandreau, who plays a headstrong version of himself — a practice that’s becoming increasingly common as documentary techniques dovetail with fiction filmmaking this decade. (See also Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” a runner-up to this list, for further innovation on that front.)

6. “Son of Saul” (2015)

Over the past decade, a troubling word has infiltrated the conversation about movies, especially on Twitter: “problematic.” More often than not, the euphemism lives up to its name in that it’s used to criticize works of art without actually specifying what about them one finds objectionable. I mention the trend here because Hungarian director László Nemes approached his feature debut fully realizing he was stepping into a minefield. When it comes to depictions of the Holocaust, “Shoah” director Claude Lanzmann has been quite clear about what he considers the problem to be, arguing that no re-creation can do justice to the underlying atrocities. Personally, I think the world of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (which Lanzmann dubbed “kitschy melodrama”), but I was equally floored by Nemes’ hyper-intellectual work-around, in which he examines the tortured conscience of a Jewish Sonderkommando at Auschwitz without exploiting the tragedy or misrepresenting history via a feel-good ending.

7. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)

The Coen brothers’ best film since “Fargo” isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser: Llewyn Davis (a star-making role for Oscar Isaac) is a prickly, self-centered jerk more concerned with his own shambling folk-music career than the feelings of those around him. Still, it’s that tough-to-love quality that makes the movie so profound. Though the Coens never cop to what they’re “trying to say” with a film, there’s a vital life lesson buried in their meticulously crafted homage to the early-’60s Greenwich Village folk scene: It takes a certain amount of narcissism for a creatively inclined person to shut out all distractions and create art, which might be justifiable for someone as gifted as Bob Dylan, but for a less talented/fortunate singer like Davis (modeled after Dave Van Ronk), at some point, he has to grow up and engage with his real-world responsibilities.

8. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)

An ecstatic piece of American folk art framed through the eyes of a tumbleweed-coifed wild child named Hushpuppy, Benh Zeitlin’s bolt-out-of-nowhere directorial debut blends raw indie styling with mythic ambition (via its metaphorical aurochs), standing alone amid the American film scene of late in its depiction of those who feel excluded from media, politics, and the public discourse. Developing the project with nonprofessional actors and residents of the rural bayou community in which they filmed, Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar turned our attention to an (imaginary) off-the-grid enclave threatened by the influence of industry and the outside world. Eight years later, we’re still waiting for Zeitlin’s second feature, though I can easily recall my initial excitement, from the opening bursts of its rapturous string score, at being plunged into this unfamiliar microcosm and being swept along for the ride.

9. “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

Throughout its history, cinema has been an incredible tool for exposing injustice, but America — and Hollywood in particular — has been slow to confront the country’s greatest shame: slavery. In this arthouse-styled popular success, British director Steve McQueen delivers an unblinking account of that experience through the eyes of a black man, Solomon Northup, who was born free but tricked and sold to a cruel Southern plantation owner. Fortunately, Northrup lived to share his story with others, which is key: Revisionist fantasies like Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” may be cathartic, but we recognize them to be largely fictional, whereas McQueen’s movie is grounded in fact and reenacted in harrowing, true-to-life detail. There will surely be some who read this list, counting the number of female or minority directors I’ve chosen, and to them I say: As the industry embraces greater diversity behind the camera, expect more landmark treatments of underrepresented subjects in the decades ahead.

10. “Waves” (2019)

Moviegoers have been slow to discover Trey Edward Shults’ electric portrait of an upper-middle-class American family — maybe they never will, although I predict that “Waves” will eventually find its audience. With its split narrative and ultra-saturated, immersive style, the film has drawn comparisons to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (which barely missed the cut): Both films are set in South Florida, both focus on the African American experience, albeit at different ends of the economic spectrum. What stunned me about “Waves” is how vividly Shults captures the details of what it means to be alive at this precise moment in time. The restless, dynamic camera and pulsing music choices show film language evolving to reflect the Millennial mindset. “Waves” addresses the pressures put on young people by social media, the toxicity of narcissism, and, in the face of tragedy, the transcendent power of good, old-fashioned human connection.

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