NOTE: These films are in order of release year. They do not reflect any sort of ranking.
Black Swan (2010). Darren Aronofsky is known for creating films that induce some form of anxiety, but has never been more effective than in his film about the dangers of perfection. Any person who is involved in any art form has a meticulous mindset, but this film shows that aiming for exact and uncompromising flawlessness does way more harm than good. Natalie Portman, in a brazen and bravura performance, plays a ballerina whose quest to best represent the good and bad sides of a character pushes her over the edge, and Aronofsky pushes his filmmaking skills to the point of unease. This film will make you squeamish, but it is captivating all the same.
The Social Network (2010). In any other hands, this film could have just been a safe retelling of how the popular social media site Facebook came to be. But under the guiding hands of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, it is a morbid and entertaining tale of greed, societal influence, how credit is given, and how much our lives are run by the approval (or disapproval) of people we do not know. There is an underlying darkness, but given that it’s a Sorkin script, it is always laced with wit and scathing commentary, and Fincher utilizes his visual storytelling skills to the fullest. Jesse Eisenberg’s vivid and complicated portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is a feast to watch, and Andrew Garfield is equally as fantastic.
A Separation (2011). This Iranian drama turns a common story of a messy divorce and custody battle into something profound about Iranian culture and expectations, specifically in cases of gender and class. The characters are involving, mainly because they are all exceptionally flawed. The drama feels real and needs no exaggeration. Director Asghar Farhadi uses all of his tools to weave a simple narrative together with complex emotions and uncomfortable, but prominent universal themes that we can all relate to.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Director Kathryn Bigelow gets rightful praise for her work on The Hurt Locker, which earned her the distinctive honor of being the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. But for me, her magnum opus came four years later, with this tense and thoughtful telling of the post-9/11 hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Bigelow has become a master of harrowing suspense, and the film’s major set piece, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, is one of the most enthralling I have ever seen. Her creative partner Mark Boal crafts some truly intelligent and emotional dialogue that details the toll something of this magnitude takes on all of those involved. At the center of this is a bravura and complex performance by the film’s talented lead, Jessica Chastain.
Gravity (2013). Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic, which won him the Oscar for Best Director, is one of the greatest survival pieces I have ever witnessed. For those who could not see this visual masterclass on the biggest screen possible, they truly missed out on an experience. Films like Gravity are what make going to the cinema so rewarding in the first place. For all the beauty the outer reaches of our world provide, it can be equally as deadly and unpredictable. Cuarón sees the beauty of simplicity, knowing that space on its own is fantastic, yet frightening, no otherworldly beings needed. Guiding us through this survivalist tale is Sandra Bullock, giving the best performance of her career, and a special shout-out goes to the Oscar-winning score by Steven Price, one of the best of the entire decade.
Interstellar (2014). Director Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction epic is as ambitious, messy, and visually exhilarating as they come. What sets this apart is not the emphasis on the theoretical studies of space, nor the engrossing imagery we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s pedigree. It is the fact that at the heart of this is a family tale of a father struggling with being absent from his children, and not being able to see them grow up. The scene where Matthew McConaughey breaks down as he watches video messages from his grown-up children, events he was not present for, is truly the most heartbreaking scene in any film this decade. Kudos to McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain for lending this sprawling journey its intimate core.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). With gritted teeth, uncompromising risk, and driving momentum, George Miller basically rewrote the genre of action blockbuster filmmaking with the fourth installment in his post-apocalyptic series. Bringing together a team willing to fearlessly look forward, Fury Road features heart-pounding action sequences that were mostly done practically, gorgeous cinematography, gnarly set-design, striking individuality, and strong characterizations that are served by exceptional performances, especially Charlize Theron, who provides an action heroine for the decades.
Room (2015). Making the use out of the limited budget that he has, director Lenny Abrahamson tells a story of trauma with grace and blunt honesty. Brie Larson not only delivers the greatest performance of her career, but truly one of the best of the entire decade. I cannot remember the last time I was so moved by someone. Same goes for Jacob Tremblay, a young performer at the time, but who is running through the emotional obstacles like a seasoned pro. This film is a character piece that feels grand despite its low budget.
Carol (2015). This film should go down as one of the greatest love stories ever conceived in cinema. Based on the 1952 novel The Price of Saltby Patricia Highsmith, Todd Haynes expertly guides us through the tender and troubled relationship that brews between Cate Blanchett’s glamourous socialite and Rooney Mara’s department store clerk with an eye for photography. Blanchett and Mara exude wonderful chemistry, and the script and expertly crafted production values serve to accentuate the love these two characters have.
Moonlight (2016). This coming-of-age story stands apart from the pack for one major reason: raw and unfiltered honesty. Historically, the voices of both the African-American and LGBTQ communities have been underrepresented, and this film shows the harsh realities both face through Chiron, played masterfully through three different time periods by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. Director Barry Jenkins explores a modicum of themes here, but the most prominent is masculinity and its effects on Chiron as he struggles to come to terms with his identity. Mahershala Ali won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this film, and rightfully so, while Naomie Harris also delivers a dynamic and heart-wrenching performance.
Logan (2017). The 2010’s was mostly defined by the domineering wave of superhero cinema, and most have been a major step-up from some of the schlock of the 2000’s, so I would be hard-pressed not to include one of these films in this list. Nothing satisfied me more than watching the enthralling, bleak, and emotional conclusion of the famous X-Men character known as Wolverine, played for many years with finesse by Hugh Jackman. Jackman gives one of his finest performances to date under the direction of James Mangold who, like Christopher Nolan before him, treats the genre with respect while also challenging it in new and interesting ways. While the violence has gotten more pronounced, so have the themes of responsibility, family, and survival in a world where mutants are all but gone. This is truly Mangold’s magnum opus.
Widows (2018). Initially thought of as an Oscar contender, Steve McQueen’s thoughtful heist film tragically lost steam on the awards circuit. It is a shame, because McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn assemble a memorable and complex group of women who are forced into a life they have no experience with, the world of heist, after the deaths of their criminal husbands brings an angry crime boss to their door. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo are each fantastic, along with Daniel Kaluyya, playing one of the most frightening antagonists this decade. McQueen deftly explores topics of sexism and systemic racism, and stages some well-done set pieces more concerned with tension, rather than flash. Out of all of the films on this list, I consider Widows the most underrated of the lot. | Bill Loellke