Wrapping Up a Decade at the Movies with 20 Favorite Films

10 Dec

Favorite movies of the decadeJust in case you haven’t heard, we’re now at the end of another decade. Which means it’s time to take stock not just of the year that’s closing, but the nine previous years, too, and what the major highlights and trends were.

Any decade recap in my world has to include a top-movies list. It’s a bit of a herculean task, to be sure, given that, by my math, I saw an average of 71 movies every year of this decade. (My single-year high was 85, a total I reached twice.) If all goes according to plan, I’ll close out the 2010s having seen 715 films.

That’s right: Seven hundred and fifteen films. It’s crazy, I know.

So yes, that creates a bit of a challenge when it comes to narrowing down the list to just a few “favorites.”

After all, there are many movies I’ve seen in the past 10 years that I love, and have watched multiple times, but that I can’t realistically put on a top-films list. Those would include films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, Crazy Stupid Love, The Bling Ring, The Way, Way Back, and Chef. Not to mention fun popcorn flicks like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Fast & the Furious 6, still the best film in that series.

There have also been a number of fantastic documentaries over the last decade that surely merit a mention, including Amy, Gleason, Free Solo, Searching for Sugar Man, and of course, Life Itself. Excellent films all, but I decided to only include one documentary on my list.

And what to do with the 2019 releases, a handful of which I have liked and will be including on my top 10 list for the year. Which of them should earn a spot on a list of decade favorites? Any? Knowing which films are truly worth remembering takes a bit of distance and perspective.

So therein lies the rub: A favorite-movies-of-the-decade list should include films that stand the test of time. That five, seven, or 10 years later, you still like. That you’ve watched again, or multiple times. In reviewing my annual top-films lists, there were ones I included at the time that I like more now than I did then, others I like less now, and a couple I’d completely forgotten about. (Solitary Man? What was that?)

Here, then, are 20 movies from the last decade that reflect my movie-watching experience over the last 10 years, and that I expect I will still appreciate 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years from now.

  1. Marriage Story (2019)

Let’s start with one from the current year. Noah Baumbach’s film about a couple going through a divorce is authentic and moving and funny and heartbreaking, and it features one of the strongest ensembles of the year — most notably, the two stellar lead performances. (Ahem, Adam Driver’s performance of “Being Alive” from Company.) Marriage Story shows real understanding about how challenging it is to create a life with someone, and what happens when that connection is no longer there in the same way. Baumbach’s film is filled with so much humanity, so much richness of character, and it earns every emotion and laugh. I expect that I will watch it with similar affection for years to come.

  1. Midnight in Paris (2011)

Midnight in ParisThe 2010s were not a good decade for Woody Allen (for multiple reasons), which makes this film, his last good one, even more significant — and a bit ironic, too. Midnight celebrates the equal lures of nostalgia and Paris, not to mention nostalgia in Paris, and it’s an absolute delight. The film is light and breezy, totally charming, with a witty and engaging screenplay, and a colorful cast of characters who bring Allen’s characterization of Paris in the 1920s to life. One character in the film defines nostalgia as the denial of a painful present. That’s a good definition. Suffice it to say, Midnight makes me nostalgic for a time when we could still enjoy Woody Allen movies.

  1. Bachelorette (2012)

Think Mean Girls + Bridesmaids + The Hangover and you’ll get the basic concept of this movie — except Bachelorette is much, much funnier than any of those films are. Writer/director Leslye Headland gets right to the heartless heart of women’s intense rivalries when it comes to marriage; her biting, pitch-perfect, darker-than-black comedy provoked some of the biggest laughs of the decade. Hell, even Kirsten Dunst is great in this movie, and that’s not something I say lightly.

  1. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West) made a memorable impression in this heartbreaking, creepy, intimate, and intense film about a young woman who escapes from a cult in the Catskills, but whose paranoia and fear make it nearly impossible for her to move on. Writer/director Sean Durkin is a master of restraint, often making great use of silence in order to ratchet up the psychological thrills and haunting tone. Story notes that raise questions early on have unsettling answers, and the movie ends in a way that leaves you completely uncomfortable — and like Martha, unable to escape.

  1. Sing Street (2016)

This film by Jon Carney (Once), about a 15-year-old schoolboy in 1985 Dublin who finds healing power in music when he starts a band, boasts a story as tough as it is sweet, impressive performances from its cast, and original songs — like “Drive It Like You Stole It” and “Beautiful Sea” — that are catchy and memorable. It’s still one of the great award-crimes that “Drive It” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. But no matter: The film won a place in my heart. I can watch Sing Street over and over and never get tired of it.

  1. 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Twenty Feet from StardomMy favorite documentary of the last 10 years made me want to literally get up out of my seat and applaud when it was over. 20 Feet is essentially a tour through the history of rock & roll over the last 50 or so years, told through the eyes, ears, and voices of the legendary backup singers, including Merry Clayton and Darlene Love, who lived it. (Not to mention many of the rock stars they’ve sung with.) Director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) presents everything in such an entertaining way, thrilling us with every story told. The emotional payoff is well worth it.

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

This Coen brothers film tells the story of a self-destructive folk singer who, despite being very good at what he does, just can’t seem to catch a break. It’s a familiar premise, but to paraphrase the title character’s own words: a great story, just like a folk song, “was never new, and it never gets old.” This is a gorgeously photographed movie that vividly and authentically brings to life the pre-Dylan folk-music scene in New York, circa 1961. The film features a cast full of memorable supporting characters, a great soundtrack, and a star-making performance by Oscar Isaac.

  1. Django Unchained (2012)

My favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s films released this decade is his gleefully violent revenge fantasy set in the pre–Civil War South. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz play a freed slave and bounty hunter who hunt down and kill a bunch of slave owners, and other very bad men — including a plantation owner (played by a playfully evil, pre–Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Leonardo DiCaprio). The D may be silent, but not much else in Django is; it’s a funny, bold, and bloody movie that deservedly won multiple Oscars.

  1. While We’re Young (2015)

Yes, there are two Noah Baumbach films on this list. I had to do it. That’s because this one, my favorite movie of 2015, speaks to me on multiple levels. One is the way it portrays 40somethings who aren’t ready to be 40somethings. And that’s the basic plot: While We’re Young is, on its surface, a comedy about generational differences, and about trying to relate to your peers when your lives are taking different paths. But at its heart, this film is about authenticity, and about how easy it is to be something you’re not, or to be fooled by others who aren’t what they say they are. Given how much time I spend on social media, that sticks with me most of all.

  1. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Everybody Wants SomeI could have put multiple Richard Linklater movies on this list, but I went with EWS!! over Boyhood and Before Midnight, both of which earned spots on my top-movie lists in their respective years, because it’s simply the movie of those three that I enjoyed the most. EWS!!, which takes place during the last weekend of summer before school starts at a fictional southern Texas university, is classic Linklater: There’s natural chemistry between the actors, the dialogue is quotable and insightful, and the setting feels familiar. Most important of all, the movie is rambling and talky, and character development matters more than plot. Not a lot happens in EWS!!, but everything happens.

  1. The Florida Project (2017)

In Sean Baker’s movie, seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince steals the show playing Moonee, a young girl who makes every day an opportunity for adventure, substituting dreams and imagination for what she and her mother lack in financial resources. Raw and profane, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the desperation of living at or just below the poverty line. And the ending packs a punch that stays with me to this day.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

It’s possible that movies like Baby Driver would not exist were it not for this high-octane action flick. George Miller’s Fury Road is like a gonzo demolition derby movie that doesn’t take its foot off the gas for almost its entire 120-minute length. In the process, it schools the director of every CGI-laden blockbuster on how to infuse a movie with testosterone, adrenaline, visual and aural excitement, and intelligence — and do it all for real, using stuntmen and stuntwomen. And a flame-throwing electric guitar playerFury Road raises the stakes and standards for what an action movie could and should be. It’s not just a movie, it’s a lovely movie.

  1. Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up features gorgeous black-and-white photography, is filled with thoughtfully composed and unhurried wide shots, and employs ambient sounds as its score. There’s no plot, really, just the matter-of-fact passage of time over the course of a year, but the ordinariness of the on-screen action is exactly the point: Even the smallest things (a hailstorm, a day at the beach) can have the biggest impact. Roma is a film about nostalgia, and Cuarón expertly conjures up these memories vividly.

  1. Inception (2010)

inceptionChristopher Nolan doesn’t do anything small anymore; his Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk are both epic films that tell their stories with a scale and intensity that, thankfully, never sacrifice human emotion. But it was Inception that truly told the most original story of his four films this decade (the other one being the less impressive Interstellar). Here, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a professional thief who leads a team that infiltrates the dreams of other people and steals their secrets. The plot gets a little convoluted and meta — the movie is basically a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream — but holy cow, is this smart and cool. Written and directed with confidence, and portrayed with high visual style (some of those set pieces and action scenes defy physics!), Inception is the kind of movie you need to, and want to, pay full attention to. You might even say it’s a real kick.

  1. Black Panther (2018)

Gotta include at least one MCU flick on this list. While Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War are both excellent films, and worthy of mention, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther gets the nod because it’s so much more than a comic book–inspired movie. It skillfully and excitingly builds an entire world and breaks many of the conventions of the genre. Coogler fuses incredible effects, stunning action sequences, strong performances (Michael B. Jordan’s, especially), impressive production design, and beautiful costumes with a story that raises serious questions about complicated geopolitical issues. Perhaps most important, the film offers a display of black and women power never before seen on film, making it a real landmark achievement. No wonder this was the first MCU film to (rightfully) earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Wakanda Forever!

  1. Inside Out (2015)

This truly special Pixar film has the colors and humor to appeal to children (of all ages), but it’s the insights and intelligence that make Inside Out the rare animated film that may actually be aimed more at adults. Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or you just know a young kid, you come away from this movie understanding more about the pressures and challenges of being a kid than you did before. Like so many other Pixar films (including Toy Story 3 and Coco), Inside Out has an emotional resonance that provokes tears. But that’s no surprise: This is an emotional film about emotions. It wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t make you feel something deep.

  1. Phantom Thread (2017)

It was a tough call which Paul Thomas Anderson film to include on this list; I could just as easily have included The Master — and almost did. Alas. This film, Daniel Day-Lewis’ last (he has apparently retired from acting), is a stylish collaboration in which he plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fussy fashion designer in a bit of a creative funk, who finds the inspiration he desires (creatively and otherwise) from a waitress played by Vicky Krieps. The film is gorgeous visually and aurally (Jonny Greenwood’s score is lush and wonderful), and is made in an exacting style that perfectly mirrors the meticulous standards of its lead character.

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

I love Wes Anderson movies. Love them. So choosing between this and Moonrise Kingdom was not easy. While I love the way that latter film taps into the innocence of childhood, this European caper flick brought me so much pleasure that it had a slight edge. Grand Budapest employs many of Anderson’s trademark quirks, including intricate details, a distinctive soundtrack, and droll performances from an overflowing cast of colorful supporting characters. The film is often ridiculous, and Anderson keeps piling on layers of plot, design flourishes, and more, turning the film into something truly sublime.

  1. Whiplash (2014)

Before he made a huge splash with La La Land, Damien Chazelle broke through with this unforgettable film about the power struggle between a drumming prodigy (Miles Teller) and the abusive teacher/conductor (J.K. Simmons) who pushes him to be even better. The intense performance of “Caravan” during the movie’s final 15 minutes sealed the deal, but the whole film is electric. Whiplash is brutal and exhausting, a cautionary tale about the cost of pursuing perfection, and a complete thrill to watch and listen to, whether you’re a fan of jazz music or not.

  1. The Social Network (2010)

the social networkDavid Fincher’s film about the origins of Facebook (based on the great Ben Mezrich book The Accidental Billionaires) was released at the start of the decade, and yet, as we start a new one, it feels as current as ever — which is just one reason why it tops this list (just like it topped my top-ten list in 2010). Boasting an Oscar-winning screenplay by Aaron Sorkin that’s typically rapid-fire and full of highly quotable dialogue, and led by Jesse Eisenberg’s cool but creepy lead performance, the film shows how Mark Zuckerberg built one of the largest social networks in the world, alienating nearly all of his actual friends in the process and ending up largely alone. Sure, Zuck would like us all to not think of himself as the callous, calculating figure you see on screen. And not everything happened the way the film dramatizes it. But it’s hard to deny the toxic effect Zuck’s ego and the site he’s built have had on society, off-screen. Fincher’s film, which tells the story from multiple points of view, dramatizes the events in a way that’s endlessly entertaining, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, and nails the irony of Zuckerberg’s creation. And the score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is one of my all-time favorites, a perfect accompaniment that I use all the time when I’m trying to focus on some work. “Creation myths need a devil,” one character says in The Social Network. Nine years after the film’s release, the myth has turned into a nightmare for many, with Mark Zuckerberg fielding much of the blame.

So there you go. Twenty films that, for me, sum up the decade in movies. As we enter the 2020s, it’ll be interesting to see how the movies themselves evolve — not to mention moviegoing itself. I’m looking forward to it.

Which movies were YOUR favorites during the last 10 years?

3 Responses to “Wrapping Up a Decade at the Movies with 20 Favorite Films”


  1. The 2019 Happiness Project | Martin's Musings - December 11, 2019

    […] 10 Had a really good reaction to my blog post today about my favorite films of the last decade. Lots of traffic, too. So that was […]

  2. No Matter How You See Them, These Movies from 2019 Are Worth Remembering | Martin's Musings - December 30, 2019

    […] There’s so much to love about Marriage Story, starting with its ensemble of actors, one of the strongest of the year. (Adam Driver’s performance of “Being Alive” from Company wrecks me every time I watch it.) But that’s just the beginning. Noah Baumbach’s film is authentic and moving and funny and heartbreaking. It’s filled with so much humanity, so much richness of character, and so much knowing detail that I suspect its emotional resonance will still be felt years from now — which is why it’s the only movie from 2019 that that I put on my best-of-the-decade list. […]

  3. In Spite of Everything, There Was a Lot to Celebrate in 2019 | Martin's Musings - December 31, 2019

    […] saw plenty of movies, of course. Eighty-one of them, to be exact, which brought my total for the decade to about […]

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