best films of 2010s

2015 gets a lot of representation

At some point, when I write a list of the best pop culture, perhaps I’ll stop apologizing for my limitations. I’ve seen a lot of movies in the last 10 years, but I could always see more. I like a lot of what might be considered “highbrow” movies, but if you talk to me long enough, you’ll find that my true sweet spot is the smart-but-not-too-smart blockbuster, smuggling its ideology under the guise of fights and explosions to be delivered to a mass market. I try to see many different kinds of movies and be aware of my biases, but I am aware that the following list is mostly full of movies made by people who look and think like me.

Is this preamble simply imposter’s syndrome? Well, yes, probably a lot of it is. I am not a full-time professional film critic, but one of the perks of my job is that, once or twice a month, I get to act like one for you. Take my half-apologies and qualifications with as much of a grain of salt as you choose.

All that said, what follows is a list of the 10 best movies I saw in the last decade — but not necessarily my personal favorites. In a time for film where the most watched movies often seemed grown in a lab to bait people’s nostalgia or familiarity, there were still a lot of bright spots. Films are listed in alphabetical order.

The Big Short (2015)

Director: Adam McCay

Writers: Charles Randolph, Adam McCay

One of two entries on this list that sadly and succinctly illustrate how the tragedies of the last decade lead into our current one, “The Big Short” performs the almost miraculous job of making the 2008 financial crisis understandable while not sacrificing any entertainment value. It’s a funny, angry movie about how the American public was set back years — and is still being set back — by a bunch of greedy people who have faced no significant consequences for their actions.

The performances are great, particularly Christian Bale as an antisocial market guru, but the movie’s biggest strength is its editing, cutting deftly between different storylines and moments to make sure you’re always looking at something interesting and always understanding what’s going on. When I watch it, I always come away educated and mad — and satisfied at a chunky, fascinating cinema experience.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

D: Spike Lee

W: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee

Funny, thrilling, and a bit of a scold, “BlacKkKlansman” presents a significantly glammed up version of the story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who impersonated a white racist on the phone in order to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. John David Washington plays Stallworth, while Adam Driver acquits himself excellently as Stallworth’s white partner who must stand in for Ron during face-to-face undercover operations. Driver’s Flip Zimmerman also happens to be Jewish, another aspect of himself he must hide from the virulent, insipid racists he’s investigating.

“BlacKkKlansman” is often a very fun movie; besides its rollicking undercover cop conceit, it encourages the audience to laugh at the hoodwinked klansmen. After all, racism is dumb and deserves to be mocked. However, it never lets that hate become anodyne. The audience is frequently, suddenly confronted with the real and terrible consequences of the ideology the klan supports, and the film ends with a sickening reminder that their beliefs are not yet in America’s rear view mirror.

Captain Phillips (2013)

D: Paul Greengrass

W: Billy Ray

At the time of its release, some critics faulted “Captain Phillips” for failing to delve into the underlying causes of Somali piracy and for what some believed was an unquestioning portrayal of the heroism of the titular Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped by pirates in 2009 after the freighter he was captaining was hijacked. Those criticisms may be accurate, but they’re also not at all what the film is interested in.

Featuring Barkhad Abdi as the leader of the pirates and Tom Hanks as Phillips, “Captain Phillips” is tense meditation on trauma, dread, and inevitability, framed in its latter half through the brutal efficiency of the U.S. Navy. With the film’s claustrophobic and shaky framing, Greengrass showcases how scary America’s military industrial complex can be, even when it’s performing an unambiguously good action like rescuing a hostage. Before the pirates understand it, we do: They are facing down certain doom. Phillips believes he is, too, and his 11th hour reprieve leads to one of the best scenes of Hanks’ career.

Dunkirk (2017)

D/W: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan had one heck of a decade. Three of his four films in the 2010s are likely to show up a variety of decade’s-end lists, and there was a point when I considered putting “Interstellar” on mine. Ultimately, however, I went with “Dunkirk,” Nolan’s best-looking and most efficient film, proof that he doesn’t need bloated run times or fantastical elements to make his movies work.

Set at different points in time before the British evacuation from Dunkirk, France in World War II, “Dunkirk” tracks the point of view of an airman tasked with keeping the Germans at bay, a member of the civilian fleet that rescued the soldiers, and the soldiers themselves, trapped on a terrifyingly coverless beach as the enemy closes in. The film is elegantly structured and pristinely shot (mostly on IMAX cameras), but most striking is what’s not on camera. By portraying the Germans as an off-screen, ever approaching threat, Nolan reframes the soldiers’ upcoming reckoning as almost elemental, a sobering reminder that ideology fades in the face of survival.

Inside Out (2015)

D: Pete Docter

W: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

Pixar’s star has fallen somewhat in the last 10 years; since 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” the company has left its imperial phase and entered a period of good work intermixed with mediocre sequels (of the 11 films produced by Pixar in the last decade, seven of them have added to existing franchises). That said, Docter is one of the company’s most reliable hands, and in “Inside Out” he helmed the movie that made me cry harder than I’ve ever cried in a theater.

There’s nothing truly earth-shattering in the first-glance moral of the film, which focuses on the anthropomorphized version of emotions living inside the head of an adolescent girl. “It’s OK to feel sad sometimes” is a message people need to hear, sure, but it’s pretty basic. The real affecting stuff is buried one or two layers deep: the bittersweet acknowledgment that your sense of self will die and be reborn again and again, and the continual state of minor mourning that parents go through as the person who was their child leaves only a memory. Once you become a parent, it becomes easy to read every Pixar movie as about parenting.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

D: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

W: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly

In a time when so many blockbusters feel perfunctory, merely a way to sweep up gullible audiences and hold a claim on intellectual property, “Kong: Skull Island” is a funny, exciting, special effects bonanza, chock full of movie stars and just enough of a brain. Set in the waning days of the Vietnam War, “Kong” transports the futility of that conflict — and the bull-headed attitude of some hawks who couldn’t stand the thought of the U.S. “losing” a war — to the jungles of the mythical Skull Island, a land filled with monsters who literalize the idea of the war as an untamable beast.

That idea is broad and cathartic, and the stars are fun across the board (John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and especially John C. Reilly are all familiar faces turning in entertaining performances), but my favorite element is its loving, mildly gross homage to monster movies of the past, particularly “Jurassic Park.” It’s thrill-ride popcorn entertainment at its best.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

D/W: Christopher McQuarrie

Tom Cruise has been making these stunt spectacular spy movies for almost 25 years, and somehow, at age 56, he blessed us with the best one yet, a stunning adrenaline rush of a film in which Cruise does stunt after stunt and leaves the audience wondering how he has not yet died.

The Mission Impossible movies, similar to the John Wick franchise, are almost too good at what they do, in that they ruin more typical action movies by comparison. Watching “Fallout,” it’s immediately apparent that the film is shot differently than most quick-cutting films of its ilk; it revels in showing you Cruise’s insane competence, stringing together set-piece after set-piece in a series of wide or long shots so you can see every bit of the action and who’s doing it. The acting is serviceable, and the plot, as always in these movies, is as dumb as a bag of nails, but who cares? “Fallout” only cares about doing one thing, and it does it better than anyone else.

The Nice Guys (2016) 

D: Shane Black

W: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi

My personal favorite of the decade, “The Nice Guys” is a neo-noir comedy that operates entirely on charisma. The well-realized side characters are charismatic, the beaten-up L.A. ‘70s setting is charismatic, the scuzzy private detective script is charismatic, but most charismatic of all are the two lead performances by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. The pair’s antagonistic chemistry powers the film, navigating its swings between hang-out movie and murder mystery.

“The Nice Guys” is decidedly not for everyone, vacillating in tone between various synonyms for “sleazy” throughout. But for those who don’t mind a bit of swearing, sex and violence in their detective fiction, it’s a fun mystery and a little-seen showcase of why Crowe and Gosling are so magnetic.

The Social Network (2010)

D: David Fincher

W: Aaron Sorkin

“The Social Network” is the rare movie that looks better with age, ahead of its time both in its examination of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (played here by Jesse Eisenberg) as overreaching egomaniac and in its subtler probing of modern misogyny and entitlement. The fact that Sorkin, in his usual rapid-fire patter way, makes what Zuckerberg does over the course of the film seem just a little appealing is a feature, not a bug; it exposes the seduction of this kind of activity and how little you have to consider how your actions affect other people in order to take it.

The film is a great example of everybody firing on all cylinders: the editing (by Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter), the breakneck dialogue, the committed performances, and a hypnotic score by Trent Rezor and Atticus Ross all work together to create a mesmerizing, propulsive movie that’s surprisingly thoughtful and funny. It’s a great text for interpreting the modern online era.

Spy (2015) 

D/W: Paul Feig

Feig is another director (and sometimes writer) who’s had a big decade. His biggest intersection of commercial and critical success was the raunchy rom-com “Bridesmaids,” but “Spy” is the best pure comedy of the 2010s. Working with his slapstick muse, Melissa McCarthy, Feig unrolls a never-ending barrage of pratfalls and jokes, running the gamut from crude to clever, stupid to parodic.

Describing the movie, about a CIA analyst who becomes an unlikely field agent, would simply become a running tally of jokes that are funnier if you watch them unfold. Suffice it to say that the film builds and builds and builds, illustrated best by the escalating saga of lies a field agent played by Jason Statham tells about his espionage exploits. It’s also unabashedly female-fronted without any real commentary on that fact, too confident in its place at the table to bother issuing a rebuke to the “women aren’t funny” crowd.

Ryan Howard was the news editor of The Forest Lake Times from August 2014 through January 2020. These days, he writes culture pieces for The Times and works as an editor for a Minnesota board game company.

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