The feature-length narrative film as we know it turned 100 years old in the 2010s. Moviemakers marked the centennial by finding new ways to amuse, shock, and thrill us (and bore us, but those movies aren't on this list). Herewith, a highly subjective rundown of the decade's best movies.
1. The Social Network (2010)
This exhilarating account of how a total jerk started Facebook is even more alarming given what we've learned about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook since then. Jesse Eisenberg's crisp lead performance, Aaron Sorkin's verbose dialogue, and David Fincher's energetic direction combine to make this a cautionary tale of Shakespearean proportions. It might be the best document of how the internet and social media have fundamentally changed us.
2. Toy Story 3 (2010)
We see action movies all the time whose flesh-and-blood characters never convince us they're in any real danger, and existential dramas where we just wish people would shut up about their problems. Yet here we are wide-eyed with giddy tension over the fate of some toys—and not even actual toys, but cartoon drawings of toys! This was the apex of Pixar's creative abilities, brilliantly funny and sophisticated, yet accessible to 5-year-olds.
3. The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick's rumination on the purpose of life, the meaning of suffering, and the nature of God is as poetic and philosophical as you'd expect a movie about those subjects to be, yet it's as down-to-earth and unpretentious as possible. Malick uses the gentle rhythms of poetry and the majestic images of the natural world to put us in a meditative state. It's a movie that wants us to ponder the big questions.
4. Drive (2011)
On paper (like in the pulp novel it's based on), Nicolas Winding Refn's tale of a taciturn getaway driver whose life spins out of control is familiar. But on the screen, the combination is uniquely intoxicating—a fresh, lurid, melancholy neo-noir with a hint of existential crime thriller and, for some reason, an '80s-ish techno-pop soundtrack. Spinning its uncommonly entertaining yarn out of perilous characters and nightmarish scenarios, it feels dazzlingly original.
5. Holy Motors (2012)
It is gratifying to discover, at this late stage of human society, that mankind is still capable of finding new ways of being weird. Leos Carax's loopy, non-literal discussion of the past, present, and future of cinema is fascinatingly strange and creative. With an outstanding lead performance by Denis Levant (whose character transforms himself into many other characters), it's both a tribute to and an example of the unlimited potential that movies have to expand our imaginations.
6. Kill List (2012)
Ben Wheatley's ominous, sinister murder-for-hire story is unlike any you've ever seen, alternating between scenes of straightforward brutality (hard to watch but easy to understand) and moments of disquieting eeriness (easy to watch but hard to understand). There is some ambiguity to its deeper mysteries, but more important than absolute clarity is the feeling, when it's over, that you've experienced something profoundly unsettling.
7. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen's artfully directed depiction of slavery is full of haunting beauty, forcing us to consider the actual, literal, day-to-day monstrousness of it in a way few things have. Yet it has an undercurrent of hope, too, as Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northup refuses to give up. It's exactly the sort of thing we mean when we talk about the arts reflecting, ennobling, and strengthening a culture.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Like many of Joel and Ethan Coen's films, this one—about a struggling folk singer in 1961 determining once and for all whether he's cut out for this—has a dark whimsy to it, peculiar and funny but run through with deep melancholy. Oscar Isaac's heartfelt turn in the lead role is one of the best the Coens have ever directed, and memorable performances by Adam Driver, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman help it along.
9. Whiplash (2014)
Damien Chazelle's unusually unromantic approach to the "music teacher inspires a student" formula is funny, exhilarating, and almost works as a psychological thriller as a talented young drummer (Miles Teller) with a chip on his shoulder butts heads with a drill sergeant of a teacher (Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons). The film's many explosive rehearsal and performance scenes are fraught with nerve-wracking intensity, sure to send you out on an adrenaline high.
10. Under the Skin (2014)
This uniquely surreal and understated film by Jonathan Glazer was based on a novel, but Glazer revised it into something you can scarcely imagine existing in book form at all. Scarlett Johansson plays a nameless extra-terrestrial roaming the streets of Scotland looking for humans to feed on before starting to develop empathy. Unnerving and unforgettable, the film is frequently mesmerizing, using sound, music, and silence to great effect.
11. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Nothing this decade made us stare goggle-eyed at the screen more than George Miller's reboot of the post-apocalyptic franchise that launched his career. It's essentially a feature-length car chase, most of the action taking place in, on, and under speeding vehicles; amazingly, Miller paces it so it doesn't get tiresome, and the spectacular stunts and intricately choreographed fights are always easy to follow. It's easily the best action movie of the decade, and one of the best of any genre.
12. Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkins's quiet, poignant Best Picture winner is about identity, race, sexuality, poverty, and masculinity (among other things)—several movies' worth of themes, all considered in a single, deeply felt drama of elegant, heartbreaking simplicity. The main character is played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, each giving a delicate performance that seems to borrow from and influence the other two.
13. Green Room (2016)
Here's a film that starts with an uncomfortable arrangement (a young punk band has booked a gig for a den of Nazi skinheads) and descends from there into expertly crafted cold-sweat terror. Though it's primarily a siege scenario, the band barricading themselves in the dressing room after witnessing a skinhead-on-skinhead murder, the story goes in more directions (figuratively and geographically) than you'd expect. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier never lets it get stagnant. He barely lets you catch your breath.
14. Arrival (2016)
This is optimistic, life-affirming science-fiction of the highest order, using an alien first-contact scenario to tell a wholly engrossing story in which mankind's worst tendencies—selfishness, suspicion, aggression—threaten to overtake our best ones. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams, it's a steadily paced drama of discovery that makes us feel more hopeful about humanity.
15. Dunkirk (2017)
Christopher Nolan's account of the World War II evacuation isn't as viscerally harrowing as some war movies, but it packs the punch of something far more graphic. With a God-like view of time that sees three parts of the story happening at once, Nolan keeps it from building to a climax in the customary way; instead, the movie feels like one slow, sustained climax, urged onward by Hans Zimmer's tick-tock musical score.
16. Call Me By Your Name (2017)
A sunlight-drenched gay coming-of-age drama that transcends boundaries of sexual orientation, Luca Guadagnino's adaptation of André Aciman's novel is built on glances, implications, and indirect acknowledgements. Timothée Chalamet's sensitive performance captures the awkwardness and exuberance of unexpected love with devastating accuracy, while Armie Hammer adds a layer of tenderness to his foundation of natural charisma. It's a beautiful, deeply erotic film.
17. Hereditary (2018)
The best horror movie of the decade, Ari Aster's astonishingly confident feature debut offers a number of eerie possibilities—it's not just one kind of hell that's threatening to break loose—and a performance by Toni Collette that would have won awards if it hadn't been from a lowly horror movie. At its core, though, it's about a disintegrating family haunted by the traumas that pass from one generation to the next.
18. The Favourite (2018)
This immensely entertaining, roughly fact-based story about two women vying for the affections of England's Queen Anne (an Oscar-winning Olivia Colman) in the early 1700s offers the pleasure of watching the bad behavior of corrupt, vain characters without our having to suffer the consequences of it. Elites are reduced to pathetic figureheads, the behind-closed-doors absurdity showing them to be no better than the rest of us, all in a package of dark comedy with an undercurrent of real pathos.
19. Roma (2018)
Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobiographical story of growing up in an affluent Mexico City home in the early 1970s is a tribute to the women who shaped him, told through the eyes of a live-in housekeeper and nanny who comes from a much poorer stratum of society. Impeccably, affectionately crafted, the film breaks down the language and class barriers that divide us to deliver an emotionally powerful story.
20. The Irishman (2019)
The culmination of themes that Martin Scorsese has addressed throughout his incredible five-decade (and counting) career, this gangster story stars Robert De Niro as a man reflecting, at the end of his life, on the multitude of regrets he refuses to acknowledge, the apologies he should have offered, and the loneliness that has always plagued him. It's sad, thrilling, funny, and introspective, with outstanding performances by De Niro and Joe Pesci.