From Mad Max: Fury Road to Moonlight, these are the most essential movies that defined the last decade of filmmaking. Did your favorites make the cut?
We're in the last gaps of one of the best and most polarizing decades of filmmaking.
Filmmakers like George Miller, Quentin Tarantino, Ryan Coogler, David Fincher, Barry Jenkins, and Terrence Malick made career-best work, while directors like Jordan Peele made promising (and landmark) feature film debuts.
Comic book movies and IP dominated the back half of the last ten years, for better or worse -- making it hard for original voices and stories to cut through all the CG and breaking of box-office records to make an impression. But the films that did -- think Moonlight or Boyhood -- resonated long after their end credits rolled.
The decade also witnessed the impressive rise and fast fall of the YA movie (thanks, Divergent) as well as audiences struggling to connect with R-rated comedies. Auteurs struggled to navigate an increasingly-commercialized landscape with their indie-minded sensibilities, but managed to come through with must-see films that satisfied critics and audiences alike. And, thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, some of the best theatrical experiences of the decade aired on a TV in your living room.
Long story slightly less long: There was something for everyone this decade; an inspiring crop of films that -- like most years -- were hit or miss. But the ones that hit deserve a permanent place in the Great Movies Hall of Fame. Below, the No Film School editorial staff have complied our picks -- in no particular order -- for the best and most essential films the decade had to offer.
You can disagree with them -- we welcome it! Sound off with yours in the comments below and here is to another decade of great films that inspire those who aspire to make some of their own.
Honorable Mentions: Bridesmaids, Frozen, Gone Girl, Birdman, Manchester by the Sea, The Master, 12 Years a Slave, Nightcrawler, Black Swan, Lady Bird, Before Midnight, It Follows, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, The Post, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, A Star Is Born, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Brooklyn, Avengers: Endgame, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, and Zero Dark Thirty.
Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s breakout horror hit cut to the core of race relations even among self-identifying liberal progressives. It was funny, twisted, honest, and unique to his life experience and perspective. It captures a moment in our history, mashes genres eloquently, and is the expression of a singular talent.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s personal reflection on growing up, growing old, and what happens when you die. This movie was an honest look at the biggest questions we all face. Perhaps Malick’s most hopeful meditation, it brought his work to the forefront of pop culture and really made you confront the idea of existence. Plus it has one of the greatest film scores of all time.
Faith is a belief you hold inside, so it’s hard to capture externally. This movie is about a crisis of faith. A complete takedown of the archdiocese of Boston, the Catholic Church, and s system they kept abusers active for years. This movie felt like the reaffirmation that truth matters within journalism.
Stories We Tell (2013)
Actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley is no stranger to gripping narrative film (Away From Her is sorely underrated), but when she embarked on making a documentary about her own life, the question of reliability was raised. Instead of worrying if anyone could put themselves into her shoes, she fearlessly just showed the world everything about herself. Her childhood, questions about parentage, about what “family” meant, and came away with an empathetic masterpiece. More twists and turns than most mystery films, this documentary will keep you on the edge of your seat, when you’re not bawling your eyes out.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
A feast for all senses, this maximalist take on genre filmmaking is one of the most aggressively entertaining “best” movies ever made. Politically aware, terrified of the future, carried along by performances and visuals, and nearly infinitely rewatchable.
One of the most visceral movie-going experiences of the decade, Hereditary took horror fans to the depths of discomfort and is a master-class in creating tension. It’s also a stunning debut feature with gorgeous visuals that help show the inner turmoil of a disintegrating family.
Paddington 2 (2017)
Yes, Paddington 2. It’s actually one of the best examples of strong writing this decade! Each wonderful character is distinct and has a goal that plays into the larger narrative. The dialogue is witty and charming. This movie is pure sunshine.
Bennett Miller’s approach to directing leaves his actors entirely naked (figuratively speaking) and vulnerable within his frame, creating intensely raw performances. His abilities are best displayed in this tightly-written sports drama.
Black Panther (2018)
I mean, it's Black Panther. Director Ryan Coogler's blockbuster is a drama about identity -- about finding the person you are in the face of what everyone thinks you should be -- that just happens to be one of the biggest and best comic book movie ever mades. In one movie, Coogler and his impressive cast and crew made characters instantly iconic with such effortlessness, it felt similar to when we watched Star Wars turn Han, Leia, and Luke into household names for the first time.
Madeline's Madeline (2018)
An utterly immersive and subjective experience -- the way the craft mirrors the protagonist’s experience is worth treasuring and studying. It’s also painfully funny and moving.
Citizen Four (2014)
Arguably the most important film of the decade, Poitras shows us that film can be used to deliver the news in a way that is more impactful and personal than mainstream journalism allows.
Shot over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s family drama plays with everything we know about time and space in terms of production, casting, filming, and the screenwriting process.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Is it possible to criticize something without also glamorizing it? After a career of walking that line with gangsters, Scorsese tackles a similar moral conundrum with the bigger criminals, finance bros. A searing, ceaseless indictment of the emptiness of a capitalist, greed-driven life, it still managed to be a hit with the very finance community it attacked -- with reports of cheers in screenings. A film that really reckons with wondering why, precisely, we find moral emptiness so fascinating to watch.
Synthesizing influences as diverse as Pedro Almodovar and short-form Vine videos, Tangerine was shot-on-an-iPhone experimentation at its finest, undeniably one of the most breathlessly alive films of the decade. The tale of transgender women running around Los Angeles was pulpy and fun, and his use of non-professional actors felt quietly revolutionary. For most, it also marked the introduction of a major American filmmaker in Sean Baker, who had been producing work on the outskirts of the industry up until then, and would follow up Tangerine with the tender, Oscar-nominated The Florida Project (a movie that could just as easily appear elsewhere on this list).
Francis Ha (2012)
Writer-director Noah Baumbach had quite the decade. The films he produced were some of the undeniable highlights (including Marriage Story, now on Netflix), including one of the very documentaries about movies (De Palma) that's indispensable for anyone interested in the craft.
But his very best film is undoubtedly Frances Ha, a black-and-white romantic comedy about what it's like to be young and living in New York, anchored by a deeply affecting performance by Baumbach's partner (and the movie's co-writer) Greta Gerwig. It's easy to see the seeds for Gerwig's own, magnificent Lady Bird in the Frances Ha interlude where she returns to Sacramento. This is Baumbach at his least acid-dipped, which, it turns out, is a very good thing.
Ex Machina (2015)
Like all great sci-fi, writer-director Alex Garland's Oscar-winning film uses the themes of what it means to be human as a way to execute a story that forces us to look at ourselves -- even if we don't like what we see. Ex Machina inspired Hollywood to get drunk on searching for similar "contained sci-fi," with their pursuits having yet to find a masterpiece as compelling and haunting as this.
Spring Breakers (2012)
For years, Harmony Korine had wallowed in his own excessive griminess, making movies like Gummo and Trash Humpers. Ick.
But with Spring Breakers, he was somehow able to maintain his distinctive, off-the-cuff style while making something viably mainstream, popping with vibrant neon colors and some truly terrific music (composed by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez). James Franco's performance, as seductive weirdo who recruits some very sweet girls (including Disney expats Selena Gomez and Vaness Hudgens) into a life of crime, was iconic at the time, dulled considerably by the sexual misconduct allegations that surfaced in the years since. Still: Spring break forever, bitches.
Everything about Her feels warm and inviting, from the sun-dappled cinematography (by the usually icy Hoyt van Hoytema) to the look of Joaquin Phoenix's awkwardly tailored clothes, to the sensitive score by Canadian pop outfit the Arcade Fire. Rarely has the future been conceptualized as so cuddly.
It makes sense, too, that the aesthetics of the world would allow you to more comfortably fall into the story, about a man who falls in love with his digital assistant (voiced beautifully by Scarlett Johansson, who took over for Samantha Morton late in the game).Asking questions of identity, sexuality, consumerism, and free-will, this was like a remake of Blade Runner you couldn't wait to hug.
Moonlight is perhaps best remembered as being the upset victor at the Academy Awards, after it was erroneously announced that La La Land won the big prize. But it's more than that: it's a beautifully photographed, formally audacious tale about queerness in contemporary black America, sprinkled with a handful of brilliant performances over three successive time periods (how Andre Holland isn't a goddamn movie star is beyond us).
Thankfully, Jenkins intimate epic outshined the Academy's error and has further solidified its place as one of the best and most important pieces of American filmmaking. It also served as proof that art films in America weren't dead and that A24, long believed to just be a cool kids' distribution company, had the weight and conviction to topple Hollywood heavies.
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is a rare one-two-punch: A medium-expanding study in visual language, and a crowd-pleasing whirlwind of a class-conscious satire. Parasite is precise and demands re-watching; it has many layers to unpack, yet is completely airtight. Notice the filmmaker’s masterful balancing act: seamlessly morphing between genres while consistently staying ahead of the audience.
In a decade full of post-apocalyptic bravado, leave it to Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier to make maybe the most beautiful movie ever about the end of the world.
Melancholia is oddly structure, with a long stretch of its running time devoted to a wedding that comically falls apart (Udo Kier as the frazzled coordinator is a dream), before seguing to a prolonged sequence devoted to how a small group of people prepare for a cataclysmic, extinction-level event. (And you thought this kind of hazy anxiety was exclusive to turn-of-the-century cinema!) Beautiful and dreamlike, once the movie reaches its operatic conclusion, you can't help but give yourself over to it. Like a planet crashing into our own, resistance is futile.
Inside Out (2015)
Arguably the greatest animated feature of the decade, Pete Docter's Inside Out goes, conceptually, where few family films dare. In telling the relatively intimate story of a young girl named Riley and the emotions that live inside of her (led by Amy Poehler's Joy), Docter and his team at Pixar created a film that is profoundly universal.
There's a moment, towards the end of the film, when Riley is reunited with her parents after attempting to run away; as they hold her, she catches a sob, allowing Sadness to fully take over, and it's so meaningful for what it says. In the relentlessly cheery world of family entertainment, Inside Out acknowledges that it's okay sometimes to feel bad.
Thunder Road (2018)
An amazing short-to-feature journey of a writer, director, and lead actor Jim Cummings. Self-distributed. It doubled its budget of $190,000 in the first year. Amazing acting and great performances of non-trained and first-time actors. Funny, smart and thought-provoking.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
At once outrageous and poignant, Swiss Army Man (written and directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) is the only existential fart-joke movie out there. It’s more than just conceptual: the Daniels duo employs a deep understanding of music, practical effects and pitch-perfect physical comedy, all with an unprecedented level of emotional and technical prowess.
Swiss Army Man is an impossibly profound, singular work with a hopeful message for film students: With unbridled creativity and well-honed artistry, you can actually make a movie about anything you want.
Over the course of the decade, cinematographer Roger Deakins truly cemented his status as one of the greatest DP’s of all time. With 1917, he closes things out with perhaps his most impressive work. A deeply felt, personal, haunting, and chilling World War I epic with frequent collaborator Sam Mendes. By following two soldiers in what feels like one unbroken shot, the threat, and the horror of an event that nearly wiped out a generation come to life.
The Art of Killing (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer made two of the most powerful and genre-defining documentaries ever, they just so happened to come out in the same decade: Art of Killing and its underrated sequel, The Look of Silence in 2014. The former is a "can't-look-away" doc about those that did turn the other cheek during the Indonesian genocide. Oppenheimer has the unenviable but necessary task of creating a space for his subjects to confront their shocking pasts and how they were able to sweep those conflicting emotions and value sacrifices under the rug to ensure their present. At one point, one of the film's subjects -- a member of a Death Squad -- actively wretches when taken back to the place where he committed murders in the name of... well, whatever one must do to swallow the parts of their soul required to take another's life when the values of said life no longer seemingly apply. The toll blind loyalty and cult-ish thinking have on people prove to be as fatal as the atrocities they committed. A doc more timely now than it was then.
Using unused clips and half-scenes from her previous films -- along with revealing, personal home-video footage -- director and documentarian Kristen Johnson crafted a doc that is as impressive a feat of filmmaking as it is an emotionally-vulnerable look at the process and headspace of its filmmaker. She finds meaning in botched takes or camera gear adjustments, turning blown sequences and what most would label as tech errors into a nuanced and necessary look at how our smallest mistakes often eventually add up to us finding our most important successes.
The Revenant (2015)
Grim and unrelenting, The Revenant still somehow managed to become a box office powerhouse and awards juggernaut (director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki all won Oscars for their work).
It defied all common wisdom, just like DiCaprio's character (an actual historical figure) who comes back from the brink of death after being double crossed and cuts a blood swath in his wake. The technical wizardry on display is almost unfathomable (the bear attack, conjured by Industrial Light & Magic, remains one of the decade's most jaw-dropping feats of visual effects), matched only by the intensity and dimension of DiCaprio's performance.
Braaaahm! Christopher Nolan stands out as the only director this decade who can get away with making hugely budgeted, highly original studio extravaganzas. (His one comic book movie this decade, The Dark Knight Rises, served as a limp conclusion to the trilogy.)
Inception is his best (and most original) blockbuster, the tale of a group of dream thieves (led by Leonardo DiCaprio), who plot an ambitious heist inside the mind of an energy executive (Cilian Murphy). Of course, that description is relatively straightforward and Nolan, as is his style, fixates on several layers of (un)reality, each with their own rules and commitments to the space-time continuum.The movie's breathless climax, taking place on every level of the dream, is some of the boldest and most ambitious mainstream filmmaking of the decade.
Alfonso Cuaron is a filmmaker fixated on pushing the limits of technology and storytelling, so it was somewhat puzzling when it was announced that his follow-up to the groundbreaking Gravity would be an intimate, autobiographical drama set in Mexico City (made for Netflix, no less).
But Roma turned out to be just as much of a breakthrough, utilizing some of the same technology he employed for Gravity in the service of historical accuracy and recreating the waking dream state of memory. In doing so, he created a film as emotionally resonant as it was technically impressive. A heartbreaking masterwork by one of cinema's most exciting artists.
Samuel Maoz’s mordant anti-war satire Foxtrot isn’t simply the best war film of the past ten years -- this half-tragedy, half-comedy is one of the most accurate depictions of life we’ve been offered. Penetrating, devastating and hysterically funny, it should be studied for its tonal mastery, emotional heft and calculated subversion of audience expectations.
Not to mention that if space aliens ever came to earth, trying to understand human complexities -- this film would help.
Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino’s “Southern” takes Western movie tropes to the Antebellum South by following the quest of an escaped slave to find and free his true love. The movie goes all-in on depicting the horrors of the era, with Tarantino’s known flourish for bloodshed added it in becomes a darkly twisted but uniquely American fairy tale. A disgusting moment in history retold as a Spaghetti Western with Looney Tunes violence --there is nothing else quite like it.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Has there been a more honest look at the business of entertainment for a struggling young artist? There is no moment of being discovered here, just repeated near misses, frustrations, rejections, and pain. This Coen Brothers movie, despite earning Oscar noms, seemed to be overlooked by most audiences. But it’s a gorgeous looking and sounding ode to the birth of folk music in 1960’s New York is also an accurate portrayal of that ceaseless frustration that hits us where we live.
Name a cooler film from this decade. We'll wait.
Nicolas Winding Refn, who won a Best Director award at Cannes for the film, took what could have been a B-movie potboiler, about a stuntman who doubles as a getaway driver (played with a kind of stern majesty by Ryan Gosling), and elevated it into something altogether stranger and hipper. He loaded the soundtrack to Drive with electro pop grooves, punctuated the action with bursts of horror movie gore, and turned a potentially macho exercise in mythmaking into a sweet-natured, blood-soaked fairy tale. (Refn frequently compared the film to Pretty Woman.) Both Refn and Gosling have been chasing Drive's high ever since and have yet to recapture it.
For the 50th anniversary of 007 on film (Dr. No was released back in 1962), the producers handed the keys to Sam Mendes, a British filmmaker and theater director best known for his domestic drama American Beauty. But it paid off. Skyfall is one of the very best action movies of the decade and arguably the best James Bond entry since the franchise's swinging heyday.
In this installment, the dapper secret agent (a never-better Daniel Craig) grapples with the sins of the agency's past (personified by a snarling Javier Bardem) and his own complicated history (the climactic showdown takes place in his childhood home). The action is breathtaking, but it's the deep characterizations and silky cinematography (by Roger Dreakins) that really stand out.
The Social Network (2010)
In many ways, David Fincher's electric tale of the formation of Facebook helped define the decade that came after it: He went on to direct a pair of high profile literary adaptations (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl) and shaped the way we watched television with a pair of influential Netflix series (House of Cards and Mindhunter), Aaron Sorkin returned to tech industry infamy with Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, veterans of industrial pop band Nine Inch Nails, who made their scoring debut with The Social Network, turned in a number of brilliant scores -- most recently for HBO's Watchmen.
And Mark Zuckerberg, the self-styled disruptor, has become a billionaire super-villain. The movie, still as brilliant and elegantly crafted as ever, feels almost quaint now. Back then, Zuckerberg was a rich nerd with a sore heart; now, he's helping elect tyrants and not apologizing for it, either.
"Make way, make way!" Frozen might have been the biggest fairy tale hit for Walt Disney Animation Studios this decade (with Frozen 2 looking to eclipse those records), but Moana is certainly the best.
By embracing the mythology of indigenous oceanic cultures, it boldly set a new path; instead of a princess looking for love, Moana was a wayfarer angling to restore her island home to its former majesty. She's not looking for romance but rather saddled with an ageless demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). For her, it's all about the adventure. Oh and the songs, co-written by Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda, are absolutely killer. It's so shiny. (DT)
The Witch (2015)
There were a number of minor sensations centered around so-called "elevated" indie horror movies this decade (The Babadook, Hereditary, It Follows), but one towers above them all: The Witch, Robert Eggers' flawless period chiller (and, astoundingly, his debut feature).
The Witch is the tale of a family of pilgrims ostracized from their community for religious zealotry and sent to a barren crop of land just outside of a haunted forest. After the family's baby is stolen (by the titular witch), the supernatural weirdness increases until suspicious falls on the teenage daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy). Ostensibly a horror film, it also works remarkably well as an immaculately researched coming-of-age story. The film introduced us to the iconic Black Philip, the devil disguised as a goat, and perhaps the most unforgettable line of dialogue in any horror movie this decade: "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" The answer, of course, is yes!