It’s hard enough to pick ten films out of the many thousands released in the years 2010-2019, and I frankly can’t imagine ranking them as well. So here’s a list of ten notable feature films from the last decade, in alphabetical order, along with a description of why each deserves to be on this list.
Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015): Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, notably the first lesbian love story to not end tragically, gets a suitably lush treatment by Todd Haynes, who created a film recalling the best work of that noted 1950’s auteur Douglas Sirk. Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay doesn’t minimize the challenges faced by the central characters, played expertly by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, but it does allow them to find their own corner of a world that would like to exclude them.
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015): Science fiction can be incredibly sexist, whether unconsciously or otherwise, but not Alex Garland’s debut feature. It’s about robotics and artificial intelligence and how you can or can’t tell a human from a machine, but even more it’s about bro culture and the blindness it can induce in those who embrace it. Ex Machina, anchored by a star-making performance from Alicia Vikander and strong support from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Sonoya Mizuno, each of whom is absolutely committed to the unlovely reality occupied by their character.
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017): Jordan Peele shows how it’s done with his first feature, which combines a well-executed horror movie with incisive social commentary (which is what the best horror films tend to do, after all). Get Out also introduced several outstanding actors to mainstream audiences, including Daniel Kaluuya, Betty Gabriel, and Lil Red Howery.
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010): Just how close is the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain, and to whose benefit does that relationship work? Robert Harris has an answer, expressed in his novel The Ghost, which was made into a suitably paranoid thriller by Roman Polanski. The Ghost Writer succeeds both as a popcorn movie and as a work of political criticism, and is the kind of movie that bears watching several times, as each time through you’ll pick up more of the breadcrumbs that you missed the first time.
Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015): Normally I’m not the biggest Disney fan, but Inside Out is not a typical Disney movie. No one really knows what goes on inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl (trust me, I’ve been one), but Inside Out offers the best representation and explanation we’re likely to get outside the halls of a university (and possibly even better than that). The usual brilliant animation by Pixar and great voice acting by the likes of Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, and Diane Lane just make this unusual film that much better.
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011): Certainly Manchester by the Sea is better known, but Kenneth Lonergan’s real masterpiece is Margaret, whose greatness only became apparent when the director’s cut became available in 2012. It captures the essence of New York City life (or the Upper West Side version of it, anyway) as well as any film ever has, while also portraying the difficult path to maturity of a 17-year old girl (Anna Paquin) who has to work through her memories of and feelings about something she may or may not have been responsible for.
Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014): To my mind Ava DuVernay’s best film, offering not only a superbly-realized presentation of a particular series of events, but also a sense of what it meant to live through the historical period in question. Selma will also impress on anyone who doesn’t yet get it how hard-won the gains of the Civil Rights era were, and that understanding is particularly needed today since those gains are being whittled away as I write these lines.
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015): A good old-fashioned love letter to investigative journalism, and what it can accomplish if management has the courage to print the truth and reporters are given enough time and money to do their jobs properly. Spotlight also captures the reality of why the crimes that were the object of the Boston Globe’s investigations—serial sexual abuse by Catholic priests—remained hidden for so long: a powerful institution has far more resources than abused children and their parents, victim blaming is a popular American pastime, and too many people wish that anything unpleasant would just go away and be quiet.
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017): We’ve seen about a million coming of age films involving boys, but the stories of girls are seldom represented in this genre. Enter Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan as a totally believable teenager, bursting with energy and immaturity and ambitions she can’t yet articulate, and Laurie Metcalf as her understanding yet beleaguered mother. This film is all the stronger because Ronan’s character has not proved herself to be outstanding in any way, and yet she’s clearly the hero of her own life.
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010): You can feel the chill of the Missouri winter and the dull ache of the characters’ poverty in Debra Granik’s film based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, which is set and was filmed in the Missouri Ozarks. In a breakout role, Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a teenager and the de facto head of her household of four due to the disappearance of her father and the mental illness of her mother. Survival is struggle enough, but the stakes are raised when Ree learns that her father put their home and property up as bail, and if she can’t find him or prove he is dead, they’ll all be out in the cold.
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012): I’m not sure why this one didn’t catch on with critics, but I suspect it had something to do with 1) the whole thing being just a bit too real, and 2) the central character being a woman. Be that as it may, Jessica Chastain acts the hell out of an epic role based on the real woman who tracked down Osama bin Laden (being passed over for a promotion in the process, because that’s bureaucracy for you), while the film offers a less than idealistic view of how information is sometimes obtained from political prisoners. | Sarah Boslaugh