Pop Culturing: The 10 Best Films of the 2010s

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Monday December 9, 2019

Ryan Gosling, left, and Emma Stone in a scene from, "La La Land."
Ryan Gosling, left, and Emma Stone in a scene from, "La La Land."  (Source:Dale Robinette/Lionsgate via AP)

Compiling a list and picking just 10 films to represent the 2010s is extremely difficult if not nearly impossible — it's hard enough picking a handful of movies for lists that sum up a single year. Films change as the years pass; something you adored in 2011 may not hold up on a re-watch in 2019. Maybe that's because so much has changed in the world this decade, or you've experienced a personal philosophical shift, or a film is tied to a certain experience and emotion that has since soured. And, of course, the opposite can happen. A film you didn't respond to five years ago may have become a new favorite.

This list is a bit of a cheat — or a break — from the typical best films of the decade lists you may have seen online. It will have 10 films representing the best film from each year this decade (2010 through 2019). Though easier, making this list was still difficult mostly because there were so many brilliant and exciting films that were omitted (masterpieces like "Tree of Life" and "Gravity," for instance). Below, find the films that did make the cut and a brief blurb as to why they belong in the cinema hall of fame.

2010: "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky

Obsession and perfection are two ideas that were constantly explored this decade, thanks to the rise of social media. (There was even a horror movie released on Netflix this year called "The Perfection," starring Allison Williams.) In Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," a young ballet dancer named Nina Sayers (played by an outstanding Natalie Portman, who won the Best Actress Oscar for the role), slowly detaches from reality as she prepares for the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." The film's sound design is unlike any other film this decade. With each bone crack, nail clip, and flesh wound, Aronofsky makes "Black Swan" a social psycho drama melded with body horror, which also features a wild Winona Ryder performance.

2011: "Drive," directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn's movies aren't for everyone but his neo-noir hyper-violent "Drive" is an undeniable classic and game-changer. Starring Ryan Gosling as an unnamed stunt driver and for-hire getaway driver, "Drive" sparked a sea change in cinema, spawning an aesthetic that featured synth-pop bangers (glittery songs by Chromatics and a pulsating score from Cliff Martinez) and neon lighting. "Drive" tells an age-old story in a new and fresh way that audiences hadn't seen before, going beyond its ultra-cool style, to show a classic L.A. noir tale of betrayal and heartache. NWR also uses Gosling in the best way; boiled down to a few emotions, putting the handsome Hollywood hunk in a twisted role you'd never expect. Oh and Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks show up!

2012: "Spring Breakers," directed by Harmony Korine

"Spring Breakers" might be the best prank this decade. An arthouse film disguised as a sexy college romp, Harmony Korine's film features young college students — played here by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson — desperate to venture from their Christian college and indulge their wild side during spring break in St. Petersburg, Fla. There, they meet Alien (James Franco), a local rapper and drug dealer who Korine uses to show the dark side of unbridled partying, sex and excessive drinking. Intense dubstep, closeups of fleshy bodies doused in alcohol and an iconic rendition of Britney Spears' "Everytime," "Spring Breakers" has gone on to become a twisted cautionary tale and also put the indie distributor A24 on the map.

2013: "Her," directed by Spike Jonez

If "Black Mirror" shows us the evils of technology, Spike Jonez's melancholic love story "Her" is the other side of the coin. It's a warm and strange film where Joaquin Phoenix delivers a breathtaking performance. As does Scarlett Johansson, who voices Samantha, an A.I. a la Siri but begins to form a romantic relationship with Phoenix's sad-sack Theodore. "Her" is more than a movie about technology; it's an emotional film about change, loss and what it means to be alive that is tucked inside a fully realized not-too-distant future L.A. with a brilliant aesthetic.

2014: "The Wind Rises," directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has made some of the most successful and culturally significant films since the 80s, including "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro." But his so-called last film "The Wind Rises" is an impeccable emotional epic based in realism that is a gut punch to the soul. It's a devastatingly beautiful movie that is half dreamlike and half haunting. It is undoubtedly the most moving film on this list.

2015: "It Follows," directed by David Robert Mitchell

If Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" started a new wave of cinema, David Robert Mitchell's retro throwback "It Follows" is the epitome of it. With a vibrating score from video game composer Disasterpeace, DRM's film winks at slasher films of the 80s, most notably "Nightmare on Elm Street," but dials the aesthetic up to an 11; it's got nothing on "Stranger Things." In this brooding film, a young woman named Jamie (a wonderful Maika Monroe) is cursed after she has sex with her boyfriend, who ties her to a chair and warns her he's passed "it" on to her. "It" is a sinister force that inches itself closer and closer to Jamie in an attempt to kill her. Many saw "It Follows" an allegory to HIV/AIDs or STIs and a commentary of female characters in 80s horror films. It's the film's open-endedness and reinvention of tropes embedded into American cinema that make "It Follows" one of the most thrilling and fascinating films of the decade.

2016: "La La Land," directed by Damien Chazelle

"La La Land" may forever be tied to one of the Academy Awards' biggest blunders in the institution's history, but Damien Chazelle's love letter to the Hollywood Musical is an impressive feat of filmmaking. A romantic saga with musical numbers that don't shy away from its influences (the MGM musical and the Technicolor delights of yesteryear), "La La Land" is an earnest if not corny film. But its Chazelle's impeccable craftsmanship that makes his movie soar while it tells a modern love story about when two figuring out if their passions are more important to them than a future together.

2017: "The Lost City of Z," directed by James Gray

James Gray's mind-blowing epic "The Lost City of Z" will go down as this decade's most under-appreciated film. Like many of the movies on this list, it is a film about obsession, perfection and family trauma. Based on a true story, "Lost City" follows British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) over several years on his plight to find an alleged hidden city deep in the Amazon jungles. There's a World War I sequence and Tom Holland shows up as Percy's son, who is eager to follow in his father's footsteps and head to South America with him. It's devastating and moving in that Gray way even though it is his first movie not set in New York. "Lost City" perfectly melds the personal with human history, resulting in a film that is technically impressive and emotionally shocking.

2018: "Hereditary," directed by Ari Aster

Somewhere in the late 2010s, the term "elevated horror" became part of Film Twitter's lexicon. It's used to described artful films that are grown from horror tropes, most notably "The Witch," "Get Out" and Ari Aster's masterpiece "Hereditary." And though it is definitely a scary movie, labeling it an "elevated horror" film or a horror film, in general, doesn't feel quite right. It's a family drama about trauma that is demented in the same kind of tone of an Edward Albee play. It's more visceral than the late playwright's work, to be sure, and at the center of "Hereditary" is a career-defining performance from Toni Collette. She plays Annie, a grieving mother who is haunted by deep loss and grapples with keeping her sanity and her family together. Aster's film explores family relations and how tragedy can infiltrate the cracks in relationships unlike any other movie this decade.

2019: "Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho

"Parasite" is the summation of Bong Joon-ho's work. The Korean filmmaker has long made movies about marginalized folks navigating their way through certain systems. Unlike some of his movies, "Parasite" is rooted in reality; there's no giant elephant-pig or mutated sea creature here. The evil lurking in "Parasite" is privilege and capitalism and if that's not the biggest theme of the late 2010s I'm not quite sure what is. The film is a genre-shifting story told by an expert, who has made a few near-perfect films ("Memories of Murder," "Mother"). When "Parasite" begins to unfold and show its cards, you know you're in the hands of a master and that it won't go off the rails. Here, Joon-ho successfully tells his story with effortless dynamic filmmaking and ease that is completely hypotonic and engaging while being unnervingly gripping and universal.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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