With 2019 concluding the end of the decade, a lot of film critics and media outlets are compiling lists of the best films of the last ten years. This is not one of those lists.
Instead, on today’s show I’ll count down a list of twenty-five films that were the decade. The following films have been assembled as a sort of cultural collage, representing the times through cinema. That means this list is not about quality. This is not a list of my favorite films of the past ten years nor is it a list of the most prestigious motion pictures the decade has to offer. The following films have been assembled based on how they reflect the trends in cinema over the past ten years and how their stories and subjects capture the culture in which we live.
Ten years ago I compiled a list of movies from 2000 – 2009 and included titles as diverse as The Dark Knight, Fahrenheit 9/11, Gladiator, Scary Movie, and Paris Hilton’s sex tape. This list is about each film’s cultural impact on the film medium or on the culture at large or its embodiment of the decade in which it was released.
What follows are twenty-five films that captured the essence of the decade. These are the films that, for better or worse, defined the past ten years.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Premise: An adaptation of the memoir by Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street stockbroker who made a fortune and lived a life of debauchery by defrauding investors.
Why It Made the List: Much of the early 2010s was spent recovering from the Great Recession that had decimated the economy at the end of the last decade. Filmmakers eventually got around to telling tales about America’s economic woes and throughout the 2010s a whole field of movies that might be called “recession cinema” addressed what happened. For the most part, Hollywood kept its focus on the top of the economic food chain; the recession’s impact on Main Street was of little interest to Hollywood who instead saw the economy from the point of view of Wall Street. One of the clearest examples of this was Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Although this wasn’t about the 2008 crash it was nevertheless a part of the recession cinema genre. Jordan Belfort, played gleefully by Leonardo DiCaprio, was a horrible person but the filmmakers couldn’t help but glamourize his excessive lifestyle. That tension between revulsion at this man’s crimes and the attraction to his wealth gets to the core of American identity and why we’ve struggled to identify and deal with what caused the recession in the first place.
Directed by: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Premise: A pair of documentaries about a platoon of American soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
Why It Made the List: Americans could almost be forgiven for not knowing that there is a war on. Throughout the 2010s the mainstream news media all but blacked out coverage of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan which is now the longest war in American history. But the war continues and among the most important documents of the conflict were 2010’s Restrepo and 2014’s Korengal. The documentaries, from the late Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, profile everyday life among the servicemen stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. We are witness to their routines and losses as well as the soldier’s interactions with locals and the servicemen offer their reflections on the war. The films also, perhaps unwittingly, are a document of a failed and ambiguous policy that spans multiple administrations.
23. Bombshell (2019)
Directed by: Jay Roach
Premise: Based on true events. Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) files a sexual harassment lawsuit against network chief Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and a production assistant (Margot Robbie) consider coming forward.
Why It Made the List: The Me Too movement was not limited to the entertainment industry but it did start there with the public disgrace of high profile figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves. The 2019 drama Bombshell portrayed the downfall of Roger Ailes at Fox News through the stories of Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, and a fictional production assistant who was a composite of several real-life Fox News employees. By splitting the story between these three women at different places in the network’s hierarchy, Bombshell was a portrait of the way sexual harassment is institutionalized. Cinema inherently lags a bit behind the times because of how long movies take to make and distribute but for now Bombshell is the movie of the Me Too era.
22. Tangerine (2015)
Directed by: Sean Baker
Premise: A transgender sex worker (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from prison. She searches for her pimp after discovering has been cheating on her.
Why It Made the List: The transgender and non-binary community had a cultural moment throughout the 2010s. They mostly remained absent in mainstream films but the 2015 independent feature Tangerine was something of a breakthrough and one of the best regarded pieces of queer cinema released in the decade. Tangerine was the most visible feature film about transgender characters and it cast trans actors. The film was also notable because it was entirely filmed on iPhones. Tangerine was one of several films in the 2010s to be shot that way but this was arguably the best looking movie shot on a smart phone. The technical novelty of Tangerine goes hand-in-hand with its subject and this film is an example of the way new technology allowed filmmakers to tells stories outside the mainstream and bring them to a mass audience.
Directed by: Amy Berg
Premise: A documentary about child abuse in the entertainment industry.
Why It Made the List: A whole niche of documentaries anticipated the Me Too movement. These films dealt with the problem of sexual abuse and oftentimes linked the crimes to institutional failure: 2012’s The Invisible War exposed sexual abuse in the United States military and 2015’s The Hunting Ground dealt with the same on college campuses. 2015’s An Open Secret was about sexual abuse of children in the entertainment industry. This movie took on the Hollywood power structure and identified perpetrators by name. As a result, An Open Secret was blackballed by the industry and film festivals and distributors refused to pick it up. The movie never had a commercial video-on-demand release nor has it appeared on disc. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Me Too movement, a PG-13 version of An Open Secret was posted on the video website Vimeo where the movie can be viewed legally and for free.
20. 11/8/16 (2017)
Directed by: Various Filmmakers
Premise: A documentary about Election Day 2016. Voters throughout the country cast their ballots and watch the results unfold.
Why It Made the List: One of the defining moments of the decade was the 2016 presidential election. The contest pitted Hillary Clinton, a centrist who was a symbol of the political and economic institution, against Donald Trump, an insurgent candidate whose upset victory was a shock to many (including his supporters). The documentary filmmakers of 11/8/16 followed a range of citizens of different regions, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and political allegiances as they cast their ballots and reacted to the returns. Some of the film’s subjects comment directly to the camera but for the most part 11/8/16 maintains an observational style. This film is an extraordinary document not only of that day but also of America at a moment when political and cultural divides and long simmering tensions that had been dismissed and ignored finally boiled over into something tangible and undeniable.
Directed by: Bo Burnham
Premise: A teenage girl (Elsie Fisher) passes through the final weeks of middle school. She copes with the anxieties of early adolescence and struggles to define herself in an uncertain social climate.
Why It Made the List:Television sitcoms and feature films tend to portray childhood as a magical and innocent time. Adult filmmakers too often forget how lousy and stressful it can be and oftentimes movies lag a generation behind with filmmakers assuming their own teenage experience applies to the present. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is extraordinary because it so authentically captures the adolescent experience in the 2010s with its specific jargon and styles and values. Eighth Grade is also about how today’s youth interacts with social media and the way those interactions shape young people’s sense of self. It especially gets the proportion between digital and physical spaces. This is a staggeringly authentic look at adolescence at any age but especially in the 2010s.
Directed by: Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan
Premise: A documentary about President Barack Obama’s early influences, analyzing his past and his relationship with his father in order to define Obama’s worldview. The filmmakers conclude that Obama possesses a post-colonial, anti-capitalist ideology that drives his administration’s policies.
Why It Made the List: Looking back on the 2010s immediately after its conclusion, it is quite easy to think of it as the decade of Trump. But Barack Obama was President of the United States for the majority of the decade and taking stock of this time requires assessing his presence and the reaction to it. One of the primary examples of that is Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan’s 2012 documentary 2016: Obama’s America. D’Souza and Sullivan are not to be taken seriously and their film was a grab bag of conjecture, conspiracy theories, and outright dishonesty. But these filmmakers released a whole series of these movies throughout the decade and 2016: Obama’s America captured, reflected, and enhanced the paranoia that Obama’s presence provoked. The fact that this film became one of the highest grossing documentaries ever released is a testament to that.
Directed by: Matt Spicer
Premise: Ingrid is a socially maladjusted women (Aubrey Plaza) who lives her entire life through her phone and her sense of self-worth hinges upon her social media activity. Ingrid begins stalking an Instagram celebrity (Elizabeth Olsen) and ingratiates herself into her life.
Why It Made the List: New technologies have the ability to reshape economies and our social experiences and even our perception of reality. Social media certainly did all of these things and 2017’s black comedy Ingrid Goes West was a sardonic take on life in the age of Instagram and Facebook. The characters are vacuous but they show some awareness of that and in its most sincere moments Ingrid Goes West dramatizes the emptiness and futility of chasing likes and follows. This is also a film about the economy of social media. The 2010s saw the rise of Instagram celebrities and so-called “influencers” who plant products into their digital feeds. Ingrid Goes West puts that economic model on display while also revealing its artificiality.
16. Gasland (2010)
Directed by: Josh Fox
Premise: A documentary about hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking). Filmmaker Josh Fox travels from his home in the Delaware River Basin across the United States, interviewing home owners who have suffered from the side effects of the process.
Why It Made the List: The extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, became a major economic boon in the 2010s but it was also cause for serious environmental concern. The debate about fracking entered the mainstream in large part due to the documentary Gasland. Filmmaker Josh Fox examined the issue by starting literally in his backyard and then traveled across the country interviewing people who had been affected by fracking’s side effects. Gasland’s imagery of flames spouting from a kitchen water faucet did much to raise the alarm about fracking and set the tone for the debate about it.
Directed by: Justin Simien
Premise: Black students deal with the culture of white privilege on an Ivy League college campus while questioning their own identity.
Why It Made the List: People of color and other minority groups have long been underrepresented by Hollywood and throughout the 2010s that issue moved to the forefront of conversations about cinema. One of the films to shape that conversation was 2014’s Dear White People, a satirical drama about African American students attending a prestigious and predominantly white university. The movie both reflected and influenced the discourse around race and culture, especially in media and on college campuses, and Dear White People inspired a Netflix series of the same name.
Directed by: Kirk Jones
Premise: An adaptation of the pregnancy advice book by Heidi Murkoff. The film follows several couples’ experiences through pregnancy.
Why It Made the List: What to Expect When You’re Expecting drew together a pair of obnoxious cinematic trends of the 2010s. One of these was dramatic films adapted from self-help books. Movies such as Think Like a Man licensed the title of a popular self-help tome and spun narratives around it. What to Expect When You’re Expecting was also an example of movies with ensemble casts such as New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day which assembled recognizable actors and gave them meager storylines and big paychecks. These movies were vacuous and lazy and thankfully this trend died out by the end of the decade.
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Premise: In the midst of a civil war in an African country, a young boy (Abraham Attah) is recruited into an army of child soldiers led by a charismatic commander (Idris Elba).
Why It Made the List: Netflix began its streaming service in the previous decade but it was in the 2010s that the company became a competitor with traditional media and especially Hollywood studios. Among the most important titles to Netflix’s growth was 2015’s Beasts of No Nation. This drama about a child soldier in an unnamed African country was released simultaneously to theaters and on the streaming service, setting up a conflict between Netflix and theatrical exhibitors that is still working itself out. Beasts of No Nation was also the first non-documentary feature film primarily distributed by a streaming service to be nominated for major film awards such as the Golden Globes. The success of Beasts of No Nation reformed the distribution and exhibition aspects of the film industry and eventually reshaped production as well, making possible titles like Roma and The Irishman.
12. Sharknado (2012)
Directed by: Anthony C. Ferrante
Premise: A hurricane sweeps sharks out of the ocean and rains them down on Los Angeles.
Why It Made the List: One of the unexpected cinematic phenomena of the 2010s was the Sharknado series. Originally shown on the SyFy Channel, Sharknado quickly accrued an enthusiastic fan following and each subsequent installment became an event with celebrities trying to get themselves cast in the sequels, among them Donald Trump who vied for the role of President of the United States in Sharknado 3 (the role went to Mark Cuban instead). Sharknado also rejuvenated the sharksploitation genre. Throughout the decade an entire library of absurd low budget shark movies flooded home video and late night cable and after Sharknado sharks made their way back to movie theaters with films like The Shallows and The Meg.
Directed by: Sam Bacile
Premise: A short film about the Prophet Muhammad and the foundation of Islam.
Why It Made the List: One of the most consequential pieces of film of the 2010s can barely be described as a movie. Innocence of Muslims was a fourteen-minute video first shown theatrically in 2012 before being uploaded to YouTube. The video was a cheaply produced drama about the foundation of Islam and it portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a child molester, a murderer, and a fraud. This crappy little video incited violence all over the world. The most publicized incident was the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in which the American ambassador and three others were killed. Violent reactions to Innocence of Muslims also occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Tunisia, Niger, and Australia. Like the Kony 2012 video, Innocence of Muslims was intended to provoke a reaction from its audience and the film’s success in doing that was a testament to the power of cinema. Innocence of Muslims was also a demonstration of how the openness and democratization of digital platforms was ripe for abuse by unscrupulous creators.
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Premise: Based on the novel by Angie Thomas. An African American teenager (Amandla Stenberg) lives in an impoverished and mostly black neighborhood but attends an affluent and predominantly white private school. When a black friend is shot by a white police officer, the tension in her identity is stretched to the limit.
Why It Made the List: Among the major social movements of the 2010s was Black Lives Matter. Activists took issue with the over-policing of communities of color and law enforcement’s use of excessive force against black and brown skinned people. Quite a few movies reflected the concerns of Black Lives Matter including dramas like When They See Us and documentaries such as Baltimore Rising. 2018’s The Hate U Give dramatized the Black Lives Matter movement very directly while also critiquing trendy “clicktivism” and exploring tensions in African American identity. It is a didactic movie but The Hate U Give effectively encapsulates this aspect of the decade.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Premise: Based on the book by Ernest Cline. Set in the near future, everyone spends their days in a virtual reality known as the Oasis. When the creator of the Oasis dies, he leaves control of the virtual world to whoever can find three hidden keys.
Why It Made the List: The moviegoers who grew up in the 1980s entered middle age in the 2010s and media companies were quick to cash in on their nostalgia with period pieces like Stranger Things and belated sequels like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. One of the best examples of 1980s nostalgia was Ready Player One. This adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel was saturated with pop culture of the 1980s. It also dramatized the corporate control over digital spaces as well as the brands and products that dominate so much of our lives. Ready Player One was released amid a fight over net neutrality and seemingly endless corporate consolidation of the entertainment and communications industries. In that context, Ready Player One played less like science fiction of the future and more like satire of the present.
Directed by: Harold Cronk
Premise: A freshman college student (Shane Harper) defies his atheistic philosophy instructor (Kevin Sorbo) by arguing that the Christian God is real.
Why It Made the List: In the early years of the decade, theaters transitioned from showing movies on physical celluloid to digital projection. This change was made on behalf of the major Hollywood studios in part because they believed 3-D was the future of movie going. Things didn’t quite work out that way but digital exhibition cut distribution costs and theatrical showings were suddenly affordable to independent filmmakers. Concurrent to digital distribution was the rise of “demand” services in which moviegoers could petition their local theater to show particular movies. Faith-based production houses seized the opportunity afforded by these disruptions to the theatrical industry and religious pictures poured into theaters throughout the decade. Among the most successful of these films was 2014’s God’s Not Dead. Unfortunately, God’s Not Dead was also indicative of a lot of the faith based genre as it engaged in anti-intellectualism, religious tribalism, and straw man arguments. Nevertheless, these movies were very successful and Hollywood studios eventually produced their own religious films with Sony even opening its own faith-based label.
Directed by: Brett Haley
Premise: A widowed father (Nick Offerman) manages a struggling music store while his daughter (Kiersey Clemons) prepares to leave for college. The two of them record a single that becomes a viral success
Why It Made the List: One of the popular trends in movies of the 2010s was musical films which took the form of documentaries or dramas and biopics about musical acts. There are plenty to choose from including Whiplash and Begin Again and Bohemian Rhapsody the remake of A Star is Born. But the musical film most specific to this decade was Hearts Beat Loud. What sets this film apart is the way it captures the state of the music industry at this particular moment. Nick Offerman’s character runs a brick and mortar music store that is failing but he and his daughter (Kiersey Clemons) record a song together and upload it to a streaming service where it becomes a hit. Hearts Beat Loud is primarily a father and daughter story but it is one of the only musical films of the 2010s in touch with the state of the industry at this time.
Directed by: Gary Ross
Premise: An adaptation of the book by Suzanne Collins. In the future, North America is divided into impoverished districts and each district provides a teenage boy and girl to participate in a competition in which they fight to the death.
Why It Made the List: Following the end of the Harry Potter and Twilight films, the search was on for the next young adult book series to become a film franchise. A lot of these titles were launched and almost all of them failed. One of the few successes was The Hunger Games. Aside from being a good movie, The Hunger Games benefitted from being the right movie at the right time. This dystopian fantasy had particular currency in the 2010s as it concerned the gap between the rich and the poor and the way the impoverished were kept fighting among themselves. The growing rebellion among the underclass of The Hunger Games paralleled images coming out of Manhattan and Ferguson and memes emerged juxtaposing images of real life events like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street protests with the outrageous celebrity fashions of high society events like the Met Gala.
5. Joker (2019)
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Premise: Based upon the character from DC’s Batman comic books. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally unstable performance artist who works as a clown. Impoverished and marginalized by society, Arthur begins lashing out.
Why It Made the List: One of the defining movies of the 2000s was The Dark Knight which pitted Batman against The Joker in a metaphor of the struggle against terrorism. Despite its darkness and violence, The Dark Knight ended on a mostly hopeful note. The 2010s concluded with a new Joker film—sans the heroic Batman—in a tale that suited its own era. This decade was marked by cynicism and a growing class consciousness as well as seemingly endless incidents of isolated white males carrying out mass shootings. Joker encapsulated those fears. The film took on an additional dimension as a period piece. A lot of media of this decade looked back fondly on the 1980s but Joker had a different view. In this origin story, the arch villain of Gotham City is the bastard child of austerity measures that degraded city services and withheld treatment from the mentally ill. Joker implicitly suggests that our contemporary problems are rooted in the decade that everyone was nostalgic for.
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Premise: Picking up thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the galaxy remains in a state of civil war. The despotic Empire has become The First Order and they fight The Resistance, which defends the democratic Republic.
Why It Made the List: Remakes, reboots, and sequels were a fixture of Hollywood’s release slate throughout the 2010s. Quite often these things overlapped as in Jurassic World and Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road. The most successful of these reboot sequels was Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The movie was both a sequel to 1983’s Return of the Jedi and a light remake of the original 1977 film. The Star Wars sequel was also notable for how much of it was done practically. After a decade of CGI-heavy spectacles—spearheaded by the Star Wars prequels—filmmakers returned to in-camera and otherwise physical effects. The Force Awakens was even shot with traditional film instead of digital cameras. At their best, these sequels were nostalgic entertainment. But these films, especially Disney’s Star Wars movies, were symptomatic of a corporate culture in which acquisition took the place of innovation. The dominance of remakes and sequels is directly related to the consolidation of media corporations. These conglomerates were forced by economic necessity to literally recycle their greatest hits rather than take a risk on something new. The consequence was the degradation of art into industrial products.
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Premise: A young African American (Daniel Kaluuya) meets the family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams). The parents are awkward but friendly but the visitor gradually begins to suspect that something is wrong.
Why It Made the List: Horror experienced a renaissance in the 2010s and this resurgence in the genre was led by Blumhouse. The studio’s output was prolific, including well received remakes and sequels like 2018’s Halloween as well as original pictures like The Purge, Unfriended, and Happy Death Day. Blumhouse’s signature release was 2017’s Get Out. The movie was unusually successful, not only making a lot of money at the box office but also winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – unheard of for a horror picture. Get Out also exemplified the originality and intelligence of horror in the 2010s. Rather than retreading familiar genre formulas and trading on franchises, a lot of horror filmmakers came up with fresh concepts that spoke to this particular era. Get Out was an intelligent take on race in the 2010s. As is so often the case with horror, Get Out challenged the audience. In a decade where safe and pandering takes on racial conflicts were very popular, Get Out challenged its audience with something more complex. Get Out literalized the way blackness and black bodies are coopted and otherwise treated as property by apparently well-meaning people, including white liberals who voted for Barack Obama.
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Premise: Superheroes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) join forces when earth is threatened by an extraterrestrial invasion.
Why It Made the List: Superheroes dominated cinema and the culture throughout the 2010s and it was 2012’s The Avengers that solidified the place of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the franchise of the decade. It wasn’t just a superhero spectacle. By bringing all of these characters together so successfully, the first Avengers team up movie reconfigured what Hollywood franchises could be. At the time, The Avengers was regarded as a work of unprecedented ambition in the way it interpolated characters of different storylines into a single film. Looking at the 2012 movie now, post-Endgame, the Avengers’ first team-up movie is almost quaint. But the success of The Avengers is all the more remarkable in light how many other attempts to launch a similar cinematic universe failed. The Avengers is also representative of the decade’s obsession with apocalypse. Spectacle movies of this decade repeatedly threatened Earth’s existence, be it by natural disaster or alien invasion, and both Fahrenheit 11/9 and 2016: Obama’s America predicted the end of the republic if the wrong candidate got elected. Spectacles like The Avengers visualized our anxieties about social and environmental collapse while also reassuring us that someone—a superhero—would show up at the last minute and restore order and save us. That implicit message, that an elite savior was on the way, is at the heart of the superhero genre. That idea is also reflected in the hopes that were invested in figures like Barack Obama and Donald Trump and the passions that drove their supporters.
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Premise: A pastor (Ethan Hawke) counsels a young man who is concerned with threats to the environment. Their exchanges dredge up the pastor’s own anxieties about the world and he is overcome with despair.
Why It Made the List: The 2000s concluded with a series of shocks to American life including the failed and unending wars in the Middle East and the collapse of the economy in the Great Recession as well as the ongoing threat of climate change. For the first few years of the 2010s there was a sense of hope but by the middle of the decade American life had turned sullen. Driven by angry opinion-makers, an apparently feckless government, divisive social movements, and an economy that served only its top one-percent, as well as the creeping realization that a seemingly unstoppable ecological catastrophe was imminent, the American public grew agitated and hopeless. No film of the 2010s captured that quite like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. The movie cuts to the core of the disillusionment that characterized so much of American life in the 2010s, specifically the failure of traditional moral authorities who were compromised and even allied with those corrupting our politics and poisoning our environment. This film reflected the sense of helplessness to do anything about that and the rage and despair resulting from it. As the pastor puts it at one point in the movie, the conflict between hope and despair is at the essence of existence and that spiritual struggle was a defining aspect of life in the 2010s. And just like the film’s troubled pastor, Americans are not okay. Our screen-filled existence has put all the world’s problems on display and no one is coming to save us. First Reformed reflects those anxieties back at us with brutal honesty.