20 Best Movies of the Decade
There's really only one consistent success story when you look at the movies of the past decade - comic-book movies.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with 'Iron Man' in 2008, 'Iron Man 2' in 2010 and 'The Avengers' in 2012 helped to set it on the path to global domination. The decade wasn't just all Disney, however. Christopher Nolan's gritty, realistic take on the Caped Crusader helped to differentiate it from Marvel by casting Christian Bale in the title role and layering the movie with complex moral tales and filtering it through a post 9/11 world.
Beyond the major blockbusters, the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime helped to bring about a return of indie fare, not to mention revitalising the careers of some directors and actors. In writing this list, we did our utmost to take in the huge variety at cinemas over the past ten years - from major blockbusters to smaller, more intimate efforts.
Here are the 20 best movies of the decade, from 2010 up to 2019. We'll have a separate, specific end of the year list in the coming weeks.
20. 'Hell Or High Water' | 2016
There is a moment in 'Hell Or High Water' where Gil Bermingham's character, Texas Ranger Alberto Parker, speaks candidly on the idea of stolen land in America. As he and Jeff Bridges' craggy-set Texan sit peacefully on a porch, waiting for Chris Pine and Ben Foster to come rob the local bank, the tale of brutal conquest in America unfolds. "150 years ago, all this was my ancestor's lands. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. 'Til the grandparents of these folks took it," he explains, before he points to the very bank that's to be robbed and proclaims them the next conquerors.
'Hell Or High Water' utilises neo-Western motifs to expose and examine the utter devastation that neoliberalism has wrought on the working class of America. There is no mindless gunplay here, no sermonising or outsized performances. Instead, it's a slow-burning masterpiece on the crushing weight of America, and how it so often grinds out the humanity in people who would otherwise not even think of robbing a bank. Subtle but mesmerising, 'Hell Or High Water' is the most powerful Western made in decades, not just this one.
19. 'The Guard' | 2011
Let's be clear about this - no Irish comedy has the right to be this good. More to the point, no comedy set in Galway has the right to be this good. Irish comedies so often tend to labour the intricacies of Irish culture, befuddling outsiders with all the navel-gazing about the church, the state, the bog, etc. 'The Guard' cleverly takes this on and uses Don Cheadle's FBI agent to point and prod at it, while Brendan Gleeson's free-wheeling titular character embraces it. The two bounce off each other but it's John Michael McDonagh's razor-sharp script that ultimately pushes it beyond what you'd expect to become something truly unique and wonderful in the canon of Irish cinema. It's adroit, never boring, and wickedly aware of how bleak it is.
18. 'The Cabin In The Woods' | 2012
Horror, as with any genre, eventually reaches a point of critical mass and an implosion will cause it to fall out of favour. 'The Cabin In The Woods' probably saved the horror genre from that fate and bought it maybe 20 years of goodwill in the process. Never before has an entire genre been so splendidly skewered as it was here, with the perfect mixture of reverence and revulsion, all of it done with a masterly touch.
The casting choices, the use of dialogue, dropping in Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as tired bureaucrats just pulling the strings around the globe - it speaks to how horror has become an industry and one that cannot sustain itself on its current path. While the movie ends with the effective end of the world, horror still endures. Maybe we're all living in the apocalypse now and only just realise it.
17. 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' | 2017
'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' is what happens when you put the best directors, the best stunt choreographers, and Tom Cruise together and let them come up with a story and craft setpiece after setpiece around it. The result is one of the most well-made action movies of the decade. For better or worse, latter-day Tom Cruise's best work consists now of finding more inventive ways for him to jump out of things and off of things with cameras rolling, and we're all the better for it. Moreover, the influx of heavy CGI in the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe means that on-camera action work is becoming less and less frequent. 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' reminds us that when it's done right, it can look near impossible.
16. 'Whiplash' | 2014
Compared to 'La La Land', Damien Chazelle's 'Whiplash' has the same basic story - a person driven beyond all reason to pursue their goals at the expense of others and themselves - but where the difference lies is that 'Whiplash' felt far more convincing. The same theme also came up in 'First Man', but again, 'Whiplash' had an added bonus that made it so compelling - JK Simmons. His performance as Terence Fletcher rightfully earned him many accolades, including an Oscar, and every scene he's in reminds you why it was one of the most deserving wins of the decade.
It's not just that he's screaming with the kind of intensity reserved for drill instructors and not jazz teachers. What Simmons' performances does is bring out the reason why anyone would keep going back for more - because behind the white of his eyes, behind the screaming, behind the ruthless nature, there is someone who is striving for perfection and cannot accept anything less. There's a great line where Simmons' character, after being fired from Shaffer for his behaviour, explains to Miles Teller's character that "there are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job'...", and that just about sums up 'Whiplash' - the utter disdain for mediocrity in all its forms.
15. 'Avengers: Endgame' | 2019
Whether you like it or not, there is no denying the sheer level of impact that 'Avengers: Endgame', indeed the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, has had on the entertainment industry. The figures around it are staggered. The third-most-expensive movie of all time. The highest-grossing movie ever made and the second-highest after just 12 days on release. Fastest to $2.5 billion at the global box office, beating 'Avatar' by 52 days in the process, and here in Ireland, it holds the record for the highest opening weekend gross.
You can argue the merits of whether it's cinema or entertainment, but those figures don't lie. When you start to drill into them, you begin to see that Anthony and Joe Russo helped to build and define what a blockbuster in this era looks like. It's not just one movie, it's five movies building up to this one and it's not just an ensemble cast, it's an entire clown car of characters trying to edge their way on to the screen. Trying to keep these plates spinning, while still making an engaging and entertaining movie, is no easy feat. Just don't ask if it's cinema.
14. 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' | 2014
There are precious few directors working today who can consistently churn out the same kind of aesthetic in each movie and have everyone lining up for it again and again. And yet that's what 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' speaks to - a yearning for familiarity, for a belief that goodness, decency and beauty can exist in a world that is slowly turning to sh*t. Ralph Fiennes is at his most charming and effervescent here, glibly waltzing his way through Central Europe with Tony Revolori in tow.
As you'd expect from Wes Anderson, the supporting cast is equal to their task and each makes their presence known with the kind of clockwork precision that Anderson is so known for. Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, our own Saoirse Ronan, not to mention Anderson regulars like Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray, all ripple through the story, but it's Fiennes leading the charge on a wild screwball adventure filled with cartoonish glee.
13. 'John Wick' | 2014
If any actor has had a decade of resurgence, it's Keanu Reeves, and it can be traced back to this movie. When you watch it, it's easy to see why. There is an elegance of simplicity to it that cannot be overstated, and while you might scoff at how easily Reeves' character offs henchmen or hurls them across the screen, you're never once not enthralled by the grace of it. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski's prior work as stunt coordinators informs every scene, knowing that audiences are tired of seeing the same thing over and over again.
Like 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout', 'John Wick' is the result of the best in the business going into a room and coming back with a finely-tuned, well-made piece of action cinema that stands among the finest of the genre, not just of the decade.
12. 'Shame' | 2011
'Shame' is the kind of movie you will probably only watch once and that's enough for it to leave an impact. That Michael Fassbender's performance was completely neglected by the Oscars that year is proof that there is no justice in this world. It's an absolutely riveting portrayal of a person who is so hopelessly lost in their addiction that trying to find a way out is not only impossible but completely beyond them. It's only when Carey Mulligan's character comes into the mix that he begins to lose control of his tightly wound life.
There are so many scenes in 'Shame' where Fassbender's vulnerability is on full display and Steve McQueen's direction never once lets you look away from it or hide it away. Moreover, the sexual dynamics of the movie are portrayed in a way that is never once titillating or erotic. It's as graphic and as full-on as you'd expect but with a kind of a ragged compulsion and desperation that is utterly devastating.
11. 'Spotlight' | 2015 / 2016 (Ireland)
'Spotlight' is this generation's 'All The President's Men'. That might be a simplistic comparison, not to mention that 'All The President's Men' is still relevant in this day and age, what with what's going on in the current White House. No, 'Spotlight' earns that comparison because it reveals a story that nobody wanted to be told but needed to be told. It needed to be told by serious people, working long hours, getting it wrong, finding their way back on the trail, and eventually trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
Other than the one scene where Mark Ruffalo's character flips out, there are no big "actor-y" scenes in 'Spotlight'. It's all small moments, little glimpses of the level of talent on screen. Stanley Tucci's character remarking about how Bostonians protect their own and that it takes outsiders to expose them. John Slattery's editor snapping at Mark Ruffalo for comparing Bostonians to "good Germans". Rachel McAdams speaking gently to one of the abuse victims in a coffee shop. It's all there, done with the kind of diligence and attention to detail that a story this serious, this nauseatingly real, requires and deserves.
10. 'Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse' | 2018
'Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse' is one of the few - maybe the only - comic-book movie to embrace its origins. It's not about slovenly devotion to character arcs or costumes but rather that it embraces the very format of comics themselves to tell the story and put it on screen. Throughout the movie, the screen bursts out with colour and energy in a way that all the CGI and star-power of live-action can and has not, and you really see what comic-book movies could be like if they had even a tenth of the imagination shown here. It's vibrant, it's electric and it's so funny and entertaining that you immediately forget that it all could so easily have been something bland and forgettable like so many comic-book movies often are.
9. 'Inception' | 2010
Christopher Nolan's contribution to the very genre just discussed can't be overstated, but it's in 'Inception' that he showed just how ingenious he can be when it comes to both story and action. If you were to try and explain the plot of 'Inception' before it came out back in 2010, you'd be laughed out of a room. Now, it feels that obvious and routine that you wonder why anyone hadn't tried to make a movie like it sooner.
There's a reason for that - those movies didn't have Christopher Nolan behind the camera or writing the script. That's really all there is to it. Sure, you could have put Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy together on screen with Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page and given them the kind of budget - but it wouldn't have had Christopher Nolan's keen sense of story structure to bring it all together. The action is immense, the visuals manage to feel tactile even when they shouldn't, and at the core of it, lies an emotionally complex story about guilt, remorse and family.
8. 'Lady Bird' | 2017
There are few directors who could pull something like 'Lady Bird' out of the bag on their debut. Told with confidence and maturity, you truly get the sense that it isn't as much a statement of intent by Greta Gerwig as it is something she should have been doing all along. The dynamic that she brings out between Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf feels not only lived in and authentic but is the kind you probably have seen at some point in your own life.
Everyone either knows or has been one side of that relationship, not to mention the one that Ronan's character shares with her father, her friends - all of it. It all feels so real, so vividly captures that era of the early '00s that it's no wonder those of us who lived through it so clearly see ourselves onscreen.
7. 'Ad Astra' | 2019
Movies about the space between fathers and sons are absolutely nothing new in cinema. The reason being that it's an all too common an experience. Few movies, however, would take it on like 'Ad Astra' and attempt to blend a family drama together with a blockbuster-scale sci-fi, along with the biggest actor working today. In today's cinematic landscape of big-budget comic-book movies or sequels that are plugged into one another, 'Ad Astra' is that rarest of things - a movie that stands alone, as its own thing, and isn't afraid to engage with that.
Brad Pitt's performance as the solitary astronaut is haunting, and the yearning in his voice when he attempts to speak to his father from Mars would turn anyone to dust. Hoyte van Hotema's cinematography is beautiful and lucid, and the score by Max Richter, Lorne Balfe and Nils Rahm just adds to that sense of scale and wonder that makes 'Ad Astra' a sci-fi masterpiece for the decade.
6. 'Moonlight' | 2016
There are few directors working today who can claim to speak with authority on just how messed up the Oscars are as Barry Jenkins. Twenty years from now, the kerfuffle from the Best Picture mix-up may be forgotten, but 'Moonlight' will comfortably remain as one of the most compelling, breathtakingly original debuts out there. Made with confidence and a sharp, strong belief in every frame, 'Moonlight' really is one of those movies that can shift your entire perspective after watching it. You end up the other side changed by it, and that's not even accounting for the performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae.
'Moonlight' carefully threads the line between straight-up art film and coming-of-age drama, never neglecting one for the other in order to make its point. It explores themes that may seem narrow, but look at something like 'Lady Bird' or 'Whiplash' and you'll see that the best movies are the ones that make you think about something you may not have ever considered. 'Moonlight' does that with a gentle but incredibly powerful impact.
5. 'The Death of Stalin' | 2017
If there's any doubt in your mind that 'The Death of Stalin' is the best comedy of the decade, we only need to point you to one scene, and one scene only. It's the part of the movie where the members of the Presidium stand over Stalin's body as he lies in state, with commoners shuffling past him. The cast of characters - Beria, Khrushchev, Molotov, Malenkov and Bulganin - attempt to figure out who restarted the trains, and what happens is a cross-talk that's some of the finest physical comedy you'll ever see.
Right across 'The Death of Stalin', in fact, are comedy performers and writers at the very top of their game - and some you wouldn't necessarily suspect. Who'd have known Rupert Friend from 'Homeland' could channel Gene Wilder's innocent vacuity to play the son of Stalin? Or how about Jason Isaacs, turning Georgy Zhukov into a Yorkshireman and making it work so well? The level of intelligence and the baseness of the humour on show in 'The Death of Stalin' is some of the finest of the genre not just in this decade, but in any decade.
4. 'The Social Network' | 2010
Odds are you probably came to this article from either Facebook or Google. How do you tell the story of the rise of the internet - not Facebook or Google, the internet - and still make it interesting while getting through all the major points? Well, you don't. Not really. Instead, you grind it down to a couple of characters and let the greed and the mind games commence. Sorkin's script never drifts into the kind of sentimentality he's shown in the likes of 'The West Wing' or 'A Few Good Men', and David Fincher's directing never feels too clinical for it not to resonate.
What 'The Social Network' does is try to capture just how a socially awkward student managed to become more and more powerful and disrupt modern society in the process, and what actually drives that kind of brain. Is it power? Is it revenge? Is it some kind of compulsion? Is it simply because they can? 'The Social Network' cleverly eschews answering such simplistic questions, instead leaving us to draw our own conclusions from what we've witnessed.
3. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' | 2015
We've previously opined that 'Mad Max: Fury Road' is the greatest action movie ever made, so it tracks that it would be this close to the top of our decade list. Everything we said still rings true. Quite simply, 'Mad Max: Fury Road' is action cinema elevated to the level of art. George Miller's command of pacing, editing, stunts, effects, explosions, cinematography and story is evidenced in every single scene.
There isn't one ounce of fat as the film screams and roars its way through the running time. You walk out of 'Fury Road' exhausted and exhilarated because you saw what can only be described as a masterpiece. The fact that 'Fury Road' was made and nobody died during the making of it would be reason enough to put it on this list. That it did all of that and still managed to tell a breathtaking story about survival, humanity, control and power, societal decay and gender roles, and throw in a mutant heavy metal guitar player, puts it high on this list.
2. 'Get Out' | 2017
It's easy to look at 'Get Out' and accept it merely as an engaging and entertaining piece of social horror mixed with satire. It does have that, but it's the level of intelligence that Jordan Peele uses in grafting together so many disparate issues and themes and visual nods to history that makes it so captivating. Daniel Kaluuya's character has to pick cotton to save his life in the movie's climax, all of which is done while a mounted buck head stands behind him; a reference to the cotton farms of pre-Civil War America and the racial slurs conferred on black men by white people.
'Get Out' is a movie that speaks to a fear that's deep within everyone, but even more so in black Americans - that they don't belong, and never will belong despite what people might tell you. That Peele takes this very potent, very real fear and utilises it by making a revealing, often darkly funny horror.
1. 'Boyhood' | 2014
If you look past the experimentation involved in 'Boyhood', there is still an incredibly heartfelt story that is told with a kindness and generosity of spirit that makes it deserving of the top spot. Throughout the entire movie, the characters that Richard Linklater and the cast have created feel truly real. When we see Ethan Hawke playfully try to get his kids to open up, it looks like he's really doing it. We believe that he's actually pushing them to be open. Likewise, the harrowing sequence where Patricia Arquette marries and then slowly disintegrates under her abusive husband feels so lived in it hurts.
There is an honesty to it, a depth of humanity that is captivating and compelling - long after all the Oscar buzz hype has died down and the awards have been handed out. 'Boyhood' is a triumph, a masterpiece of storytelling that charts a life and finds beauty in the most trivial and banal of things in a way that can't be readily quantified until we see the tapestry unfurled at the very end. The force of will that it took Richard Linklater to stick with this story, to never abandon the core principle of it, and for the cast to find those characters again and again after so many years and never lose touch with them, speaks to the level of care and craft that is devoted to 'Boyhood'.
You can dismiss 'Boyhood' as a gimmick, that the idea of making a movie over the course of years isn't enough to warrant the kind of praise that's heaped upon it - but that's just being reductive about it. Each character throughout the movie adapts and shifts, and the story itself moves with them, so that when we reach the end of it, there is a sense that we have experienced and lived full lives with them and that the story, even though it's ended for now, continues on after the credits roll.
That's what makes it the best movie of this decade.