I love films. That’s been part of what’s been difficult these past few months as we’ve seen a lot of things close up for the greater good. If you asked me how I relieve stress and escape, it would be going to the movies. Since I was an 18-year-old in college, I’ve made weekly treks to see new movies, and I can’t wait to resume that practice again some day soon when it’s safe.
But while we can’t go to the movies, we can still watch movies. We’re living in the golden age of streaming, where there’s a half dozen services that are offering access to a wealth of films, including some of the best for the past. In these past few months, if you’re like me, you’ve been revisiting a lot of old favorites. And in that sense, this lockdown came at an ideal time.
Among other things, 2020 brought us a new decade. And when we hit mile markers like that, it’s a perfect time to take stock of what we experienced in the decade that ended. For me, that meant revisiting the films released between 2010-2019 and considering which ones stood out most. Below is a list of the 25 films from the last decade that stood out most to me.
Before we dive in, a few notes on this list. First, as all these type of lists are, it’s a personal list. These are films that stood out and resonated with me. You may feel differently, and that’s great. Agree, disagree, have a better suggestion? Make sure to leave a note in the comments or get the discussion started on Twitter where you can find me @knighthawk7734.
Without further ado, on to the list. Below are my Top 25 in ascending order.
25. Tree of Life (2011): This was a polarizing movie when it released, including its debut at the Cannes Film Festival where half the audience clapped and have booed. It remains so a decade later because of its style and construction. I never felt like this gem from Terrence Malick was a favorite, but it’s a film I keep coming back to. It sticks with you based on the story, the way it’s put together and the performances, particularly from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. It felt wrong not to have it on this list somewhere.
Pop Culture Films:
This next group features some movies that I love in different genres that you’ll probably never see on the list of award winners and nominees. But we need these kind of films, too, because they fill us with thrills, laughs and a sense of wonder.
24. The Cabin in the Woods (2011): I love horror movies when they’re done well. And this one, from Joss Whedon, is a lot of fun. It includes a pre-“Thor” Chris Hemsworth in the cast, and it takes the story in a lot of ways you don’t expect when it starts. I love the twists and turns, and the creativity. It’s also a credit to director Drew Goddard, who has gone on to create a number of interesting films and shows on his own.
23. Pitch Perfect (2012): This was the one that spawned a trilogy. But I remember when it first came out, a little film about an acapella competition that was released in September. What we got was something hilarious, engaging and magical. It just continued my appreciation of all things Anna Kendrick.
22. Jurassic World (2015): “Jurassic Park” is one of my all time favorite films, so I was skeptical of this one. And yet, what we got from Colin Trevorrow was something that created a new story and world while paying tribute to the original. It ended up being one of my favorites that year and of this last decade.
This is the genre that dominated the last decade, and I watched nearly all of them. I loved a number of films in this group, but as I was putting together this list I picked three that I come back to that I thought moved the genre forward.
21. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018): This one was a marvel, and a film that one Best Animated Feature. It expanded the genre and the way superhero stories are told. It was a lot of fun to watch and I loved the creativity with which it was put together. That’s a big part of why it’s on this list.
20. X-Men: First Class (2011): I have always loved the “X-Men,” but this re-boot of sorts from Matthew Vaughn is one of my favorite superhero films of all time. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are incredible in this film, and I love the origin story and the 1960s setting. I thought this was brilliant.
19. The Avengers (2012): Another film from Whedon, and one that really changed the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe would exist. No one was sure that bringing all these heroes together in one continuous story would work, but this film knocked it out of the park. It was an amazing theater experience, too.
This is a group of films that impressed me with their technique and the way they brought these stories to life.
18. Jojo Rabbit (2019): One of two films from last year on this list, I sometimes worry about recency bias, but the craft here was incredible. Imagine taking on the task of bringing a story featuring a comedic sidekick Adolf Hitler to life. Taika Waititi does that brilliantly as a writer, director and Hitler himself. This is also a fantastic performance from Scarlett Johansson, one for which I still feel she should have one and Academy Award.
17. Gravity (2013): Alfonso Cuaron is a fantastic director, and he plies his trade well here. “Gravity” is a cinematic experience that is unique and fascinating. Sandra Bullock does a nice job in the lead role, but to me this movie was about the technique, the visuals and bringing a unique story to life.
16. The Big Short (2015): After the financial crisis I read a lot of dense, thick books about how it happened that had a lot of mathematical formulas. Never once did I think this will make a compelling film. Thankfully Adam McKay saw it differently, bringing this important story to life in a fascinating way that included a number of great performances. It was an experience that brought me in and left me completely hooked and entertained.
15. The Social Network (2010): This film should have won Best Picture the year it was released. The script from Aaron Sorkin and the direction from David Fincher are on point, as are the performances. This was an engrossing, engaging and powerful story done brilliantly.
This is a group of films that I love in part because I love the creative minds responsible for bringing them to life and how they make movies.
14. Wind River (2017): Taylor Sheridan wrote and directed this tale about justice in the snowy country of Wyoming. The film features Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner taking a break from being “Avengers,” and both are brilliant. There is a lot of emotion in this one, and the way the story unfolds grabbed me and never let me go. When the big clash comes, it more than lives up to your expectations.
13. Sicario (2015): Sheridan scripted this crime drama and found a great partner in director Denis Villeneuve. The pair craft an engaging and taut drama, with Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro turning in some great work. But, for me, this movie is about Emily Blunt, who I think is one of the best working actresses right now. She is incredible in this film.
12. Knives Out (2019): The other film from 2019 on this list, and it’s here thanks to Rian Johnson. He gave us a couple of the best films of the decade, and this is one of them. The way this story comes together, the blend of humor, drama and action paired with some great performances, made it my favorite from last year. Chris Evans is a great heel, and Ana de Armas is great is the lead here.
11. Dunkirk (2017): Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite filmmakers, and this tale that plays with time constructs while telling the tale of a crucial World War II battle was incredible. I just hope you were able to see it on the big screen, where all Nolan films should be seen at least once.
The Top 10:
To make it into this group, you had to move me. Films, to me, are an emotional experience. When I can be brought in and moved in a way I can’t let go of for days or weeks after, a movie really worked for me. That can be said of all the films atop this list.
10. The Hunger Games (2012): I love Jennifer Lawrence as a performer, and this was probably the film that solidified that for me. I was disappointed with the way this franchise story landed over the subsequent three films, but this first film—and the ideas that it explored—were powerful. So, too, was Lawrence’s performance and the way director Gary Ross put this one together. It’s a film I’ve come back to many times, including thinking about it in new ways given the season we’re in as a country.
9. A Quiet Place (2018): This was my favorite scripted film of 2018. I realize the genre and story aren’t for everyone, but this was a film that snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but John Krasinski and Blunt deliver some beautiful performances and this was a story that hooked me. There is a moment when Krasinski is connecting with his daughter through sign language that left me a puddle, and still does when I see it in subsequent viewings.
8. La La Land (2016): Damien Chazelle is a talent as a filmmaker, and this is the first of two films that are in my Top 10. I thought this was the best film of 2016, and I thought it should have won Best Picture. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are amazing, as is the look and feel of this film. A heart-breaking story and a modern musical make this one incredibly endearing.
7. Inception (2010): I mentioned my love for Nolan earlier, and he delivers here. Leonardo DiCaprio is great here in the lead role, but it’s the twisting narrative and the stunning visuals that help set this film apart. It’s got a great cast and I love the way it is put together, including an ending that is open to interpretation.
6. Whiplash (2014): This was my favorite film of 2014. I remember seeing it in the little independent theater near my office in downtown Colorado Springs and being mesmerized by what I’d seen. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are incredible, and it’s their passion and aggression playing off each other at the end that really sticks with me. Chazelle is a talented director, and he delivers a powerful experience with this film.
5. Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017): My favorite film of 2017, and my favorite “Star Wars” film of all time. This one was polarizing to fans, but I LOVED what Johnson did with the franchise. It has some beautiful and iconic sequences, powerful performances and a take on this story and world that was incredibly powerful. I saw it in the theater five times and have seen it nearly a dozen times in total, and it still moves me.
4. Silver Linings Playbook (2012): My favorite film of 2012, this one from David O. Russell snuck up on me as well. It’s quirky and strange, but the performances from Bradley Cooper and Lawrence are great. It’s a story that pulled me in the point I ran out to buy the novel to just keep in that world. It got a lot of nominations the year it was released and, to me, it should have won them all. This one is great.
3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018): We all need some Fred Rogers in our lives, perhaps now more than ever. This documentary from Morgan Neville tells his story beautifully, and was my favorite film of 2018. The fact it wasn’t nominated and recognized as one of the best documentaries of the year is criminal.
2. Arrival (2016): Villeneuve makes his second appearance on this list, this one with a powerful story that involves constructs of time and extra terrestrials but really shines thanks to the emotional gravity of the narrative. Amy Adams is incredible as a lead here, and gave my favorite performance of the year. It is a powerful story with a powerful idea about love at its center that I’ve come back to often in the time since its release.
1. Spotlight (2015): My favorite film of 2015, my favorite Best Picture winner of the decade and my favorite film of the decade. I studied journalism in college and always wanted to be a professional journalist (and was for a time). So stories of journalism and that craft have always engaged me. Pairing that with this crucial and important story that’s told in “Spotlight” made a huge impression. I remember the close of the screening when I first saw this film, sitting in tears as I watched the list of names scroll at the end. Tom McCarthy does an incredible job bringing this story to life, and I was thrilled that this one actually won the year’s top prize. No film moved me more or stuck with me more than “Spotlight,” which is why it was an easy choice for me to place it atop this list.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University. You can find his takes on Fantasy Football weekly as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.