The past decade has been a big one as decades go, on pretty much every level. For movies – it’s been notably defined by the rise of the golden age of superhero films and of nostalgia filmmaking, with reboots and remakes dominating big and small screens.
This decade has been much more than that for movies, though, as we’ve seen the rise of indie studios that have reinvigorated arthouse cinema and a renaissance of horror that has created a space for unique artistic visions that not only succeed critically, but financially (though still rarely when it comes to awards season – step your game up awards voters).
My top ten films of this decade are not only artistic masterpieces, but works of art that I cherish on a deeply personal level. They’re a testament to the power of storytelling and the potential of the medium when at its best.
10. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is a heavy movie, intellectually and just thematically. Telling the story of when a programmer, Caleb (played by Domnhall Gleeson who will prove to be a recurring presence on this list), is brought on by his company’s reclusive CEO to test whether an AI can convince him that she’s “alive,” Ex Machina seems poised to trod a well beaten path within the sci-fi landscape. Whether we can ever really trust AIs is a question those that look to the future have asked for ages, but Ex Machina eskews this narrative to ask something different: can AI’s trust us.
Despite framing itself as the story of Caleb, Ex Machina is really the story of Ava, a highly advanced android that has never known a life outside of the confines of her creator’s lab. To her, she is a being that has been turned into an object in the eyes of not just her creator, but Caleb as well – no matter how well-meaning he may believe himself to be. Ava becomes a stand in for the male gaze, objectified by Caleb and the audience because she’s beautiful and yet not entirely human. Through seeing her relationship with Caleb grow, we see this dynamic explored, and watch as Caleb’s, and by proxy our own, gaze is refuted.
There’s a lot that can be said for this movie’s artistic and technical mastery. The writing’s ability to tell a unique and fresh story about Spider-Man after there’s already been three takes on the character is impressive. The animation’s visual artistry is a spectacle to behold and pushes the boundaries of not just what can be done with 3D animation, but can be done with the film medium as a whole. Hell, even this movie’s soundtrack is a masterpiece. None of this is new ground; the movie is an Oscar winner after all. So let’s talk about my favorite aspect of this movie, the evolution of an idea.
Spider-Man is my favorite superhero. He’s a hero driven by the simple idea of doing the right thing because he can. Peter Parker is an inspirational character, and yet – what does that really mean? If great responsibility comes with great power, what does that mean for the rest of us? We don’t swing from buildings, cling to walls. Spider-Verse posits a new idea. It reframes the narrative – from the inspirer to the inspired. It asks a question that’s been resting there under the surface – “what does Spider-Man mean?” Through Miles, we see that explored and we’re given an important answer: Spider-Man isn’t the power, he’s the responsibility. We can all be a hero. Anyone can wear the mask.
8. Little Women
Little Women is magical. Greta Gerwig has painted every inch of this movie with all the beauty, the complexity and the heartache of life. It’s a movie so uniquely and beautifully made that I don’t really know how to analyze it from any kind of critical perspective. The visuals, characters, dialogue, and tone are just so layered and rich (metaphorically speaking. Many of the characters are, in fact, fairly poor).
It’s a world I want to live in forever. I want to curl up in a ball and just spend my whole life with the March sisters. That’s not an easy effect to have on me. Most movies set in the normal world, no matter how much I love them, are movies I love for their story. Even when the characters are excellent, I love how the characters interact with their circumstances and with each other. I feel no immense burning desire to be there myself. Sure I may love rewatching said story, but I don’t necessarily feel that hunger for the world itself. And yet here Little Women stands, a masterpiece of warmth. A movie that captures the pureness of the human condition in a way I can’t quite comprehend.
Also, I identify as an Amy. I’m sure you were wondering.
7. The Last Black Man In San Francisco
Slow, elegant, and deeply moving, I’ve heard a lot of people describe The Last Black Man in San Francisco as a movie about gentrification. Certainly, to a degree, it is; however, the movie is so much more. Telling the story of Jimmie Fails’ quest to regain his family’s gorgeous victorian home after his father lost it during Jimmie’s childhood, Last Black Man is a meditation on many things – but at its core it always comes back to identity. Jimmie struggles throughout the movie with the identity that he has built for himself in connection to the house, frequently espousing to anyone who’ll listen the story of how his grandfather built it.
Beyond being a great film, this movie also just hit me in a uniquely perfect point in my life. I saw the movie the same week that I returned to San Francisco to see my childhood home – now sold by my dad and being torn apart by renovators. It was the first time in my life I could see it and not go inside. It’s funny the way we attach parts of ourselves to physical objects: memories, emotions, senses of self. For Jimmie Fails, he placed all that attachment into that house, and, to a broader extent, into San Francisco itself. I’ll never forget the power of my first time watching him grapple with those ramifications.
6. Knives Out
I’ll keep this short since I’ve already written a Knives Out review. I’d been excited for Knives Out for a long time. The cast is stacked, Rian Johnson is a master, and all the promotional material pointed to a fun, clever whodunnit that would give us the story of a dysfunctional family coming to blows after the death of the patriarchal figure. I was an idiot. With Knives Out, Johnson eschews the typical trappings of the whodunnit to give us a modern story that maintains the broad strokes of the genre while recontextualizing much of the classic tropes through a contemporary lens. Through this, he doesn’t just make a whoddunit that works in the modern era, he delivers a whodunnit that is relevant to the issues of our day. For all the mystery’s twists and turns, the movie smartly focuses its greatest attention on the impact the film’s central death has on our characters. It’s fun, smart, and deep all at once. In summation, I love it.
5. How to Train Your Dragon 1 & 2
Yeah it’s two movies in one, leave me alone. I find separating How to Train Your Dragon 1 and 2 hard. They’re an important part of a singular whole for me. The first is a story about the struggles of family, the bonds we forge for ourselves, and – of course – how we come into our own sense of identity. Beautifully weaving narrative, visuals, and scoring, the creators’ ability to capture a sense of wonder is first class. It’s a truly touching coming of age story that’s filled to the brim with heart, excitement, and fun.
Now we get to How to Train Your Dragon 2, a movie that is, I will fully admit, messier then its predecessor – due in part to simply having a more ambitious story. However, where the movie stumbles with its overarching plot, it soars in its core themes and characters. Here we see a Hiccup transformed. No longer the gangly kid from the first movie, HtTYD 2 presents us with a man who’s grown into his looks and his heroism (the dude free glides with a dragon and has a flaming sword. Like, mans is hot).
Where the first movie is about Hiccup learning who he wants to be, the sequel forces Hiccup to learn who he is capable of being. Confronted with the looming responsibility of taking his father’s place as leader of Berk – Hiccup must confront what he thinks he is capable of and what he wants from his life. It’s a beautiful continuation of his story and gives us a rare franchise where, instead of sequels driven by dangling plot threads, we are given sequels driven by the different stages in one’s growth.
4. About Time
There isn’t another movie on this list capable of breaking me in quite the way this movie breaks me. Billed as a high-concept romcom but in truth so much more, About Time explores life at its purest: the highs and lows, the dreams and the defeats. The movie brilliantly elevates a concept that could be nothing more than a gimmick – turning it into a powerful exploration of what we care about and how we cope with losing it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, writer/director Richard Curtis also wrote my favorite episode of television this decade (Doctor Who’s “Vincent and the Doctor”). It’s a testament to his ability to speak to the soul’s delicate balance of hope and suffering in such a distinct way. So, to quote Curtis’ own work, “pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world… no one [has] ever done it [quite like Richard Curtis]. Perhaps no one ever will again.”
3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Not only is it the best Star Wars movie, it’s one of the best franchise blockbusters ever made. That’s all I have to say.
2. Paddington 2
I’ve talked about Paddington 2 a lot, online and off. To the point that some people are probably surprised to find it isn’t my #1 of the decade, and I understand why. I love Paddington 2 immensely. It’s a movie that by all accounts shouldn’t work. Every ounce of it relies so heavily on perfection in an artform where it is so easy to stumble. Just look at the script, whose whimsical charm demands not only a visual style that effectively makes audiences believe in its absurdities, but acting that matches the carefully-crafted world.
I want to say Paddington 2’s quality can only be explained by the sheer will of karmic good fortune, but that’s a disservice to the master artists who shaped this movie into what it is. Everyone involved absolutely outdid themselves. They told a story that is both whimsical yet deeply heartfelt, all while being funny in a way that is rarely seen in modern films: relying on excellently designed visual gags that echoes the brilliance of Charlie Chaplin mixed with the whimsy of Wes Anderson. It’s difficult to accurately sum up what makes Paddington 2 such a unique and magical film. So instead I will say only this: give the movie a shot if you haven’t. I expect you, too, will find yourself loving the story of the Browns who live in Windsor Gardens with a bear called Paddington.
1. Sing Street
Hello, and let me tell you about my favorite movie of this decade which just so happens to be my favorite movie of all time.
Directed by John Carney, also known for musicals Once and Begin Again, Sing Street is the story of a boy in 1980s Ireland who invites a girl to be in his band’s music video as a ploy to get to know her (she’s pursuing modeling). The catch? He doesn’t actually have a band. The setup sounds like a cute foundation for a charming little teen comedy, but Sing Street is so much more than its initial premise. It’s a coming of age story about finding one’s passion from the unlikeliest of catalysts. It’s an exploration of our main character, Cosmo (played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in his acting debut), as he deals with his parents’ crumbling marriage and the complex bond he shares with his music-loving, college drop-out older brother (played excellently by Midsommar’s Jack Reynor). Most importantly, it’s about accepting the hardships of the world and pressing on regardless.
I’ve watched this movie a truly impressive number of times considering it’s only a few years old, and yet each watch only gets better. There’s so much depth to these characters. So much nuance to their world. Every viewing gives me something new to unpack – plus sometimes I just pickup on a joke I missed. I could gush about Sing Street forever, from its visuals, to its character, to its music. I’ll spare you for the sake of this list not being a complete mess. Needless to say, Sing Street is my perfect movie: a musical about family, growing up, finding your passion, and facing the world in 1980s Ireland that is somehow able to transcend the trappings of both its space and its time.