These are not the best films of the last decade.
I want to write that upfront, because in all honesty I am exhausted by those lists. Any compiled list is completely subjective, tastes change over time, blah blah blah. Truly, the only purpose behind such lists is to put a spotlight on films that otherwise may be overlooked… it allows readers to notice films that may have slipped through the cracks when they first appeared. But ranking? Writing that things are “definitive”? Ugh.
So instead I’m simply spotlighting 25 films that touched my soul over the past decade. The reasons are myriad, making the one connective tissue between them simple: I love them. And I think you may love them too, so if you’ve missed out on them, I encourage you to seek them out.
“Before Midnight” – 2013
Writer: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy
Director: Richard Linklater
The third installment in the “Before” trilogy equals the first two – with Hawke and Delpy’s Jesse and Celine remaining characters you love and want to spend time with. For most of the running time, they simply walk and talk as we listen to how their life has settled, how they have changed… and how they haven’t. And that would have been enough, but the places the writers go to in the last third makes this into an experience I’ll never forget.
“Boyhood” – 2014
Writer/Director: Richard Linklater
Linklater again. This time he filmed scenes over 12 years (!!!) to compile a story about becoming an adult, about maturing… and about discovering who you are. The performances are extraordinary, and the power the final sequences summon are unlike anything you’ve seen on film before, since we have literally grown with these characters.
“Brooklyn” – 2015
Writer: Nick Hornby
Director: John Crowley
I remember seeing “Brooklyn” on opening day at the Arclight and it seemed as if the entire theater was crying for the last half hour of the film. This shared emotional experience was beautiful – I feel like Los Angelinos understand it more because so few of us grew up here… it’s our adopted home in the way New York is for Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis. This is a story for people like us – about recognizing how where we grew up formed who we are… and yet recognizing that it is another place where we can truly find happiness.
“Call Me By Your Name” – 2017
Writer: James Ivory
Director: Luca Guadagnino
I saw this movie a day before a major break-up… and then again the next day. The speech given by the main character’s father (one of the best movie dads ever) to his heartbroken son was something I needed to hear at the time, and it remains one of the most powerful, emotional moments ever committed to film. The rest of “Call Me By Your Name” is fantastic as well, with a great soundtrack backing a beautiful romance that feels as honest as it does real. And yes, those are two very different things.
“Certified Copy” – 2010
Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami
I walked around for an hour after I finished “Certified Copy”, not wanting to talk to anyone so that I could digest what I just saw. And, all these years later, I’m still digesting it. It contains two of the best performances of the decade, and though at first it seems a grounded exploration of a relationship… the film literally begins to rewrite itself as we watch, discarding things and editing others until all that is left are the raw emotions.
“Cloud Atlas” – 2012
Writers/Directors: The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer
My jaw dropped numerous times while seeing this undefinable, beautiful epic for the first time. A bunch of stories that are interconnected and a bunch of actors who switch race, gender and more from segment to segment, “Cloud Atlas” gains power the deeper we fall into its worlds. There has never been another film like this, and there never will be again… the fact that it’s a masterpiece is just a bonus.
“The Conjuring” – 2013
Writer: Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes
Director: James Wan
The movie that launched a franchise of surprisingly good sequels and spin-offs, none of them have come close to eclipsing the original “Conjuring.” Wan plays his audience like a piano, offering one exquisite scare sequence after another, brilliant in what he chooses to show… and what he doesn’t. But the reason the movie is transcendent is because of its main characters – it never loses track of humanity or love in its search for scares.
“Crimson Peak” – 2015
Writer: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro’s mash-up of the haunted house and gothic romance genres may well be one of the most beautiful horror movies of all time. Years later, I can still remember so many small details of that big house. But the film would be nothing if it wasn’t filled with engaging characters, and the trifecta at the center of “Crimson Peak” are three-dimensional and engaging – you can’t look away from them. I wish Jessica Chastain would embrace her inner melodrama more, because hers is one of the best villains of the past decade.
“Drive” – 2011
Writer: Hossein Amini
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
I have struggled mightily with loving any of Refn’s follow-ups to “Drive,” often walking away frustrated and angry. And yet his voice is perfectly suited to this modern noir, and Ryan Gosling his perfect partner in creating an indelible tragic figure with that awesome jacket. It could have come across all surface, but Gosling and Carey Mulligan give the film its beating soul… selling you on every step into the darkness ahead.
“Gloria Bell” – 2019
Writer: Alice Johnson Boher and Sebastian Lelio
Director: Sebastian Lelio
The word that I identify with “Gloria Bell” is joy. I look back on this tremendous film and smile, remembering moments and then getting lost in its spell once again. This is, for my money, the performance of Julianne Moore’s career, and her final minutes on the dance floor are all but guaranteed to levitate you out of your chair.
“Gone Girl” – 2014
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Director: David Fincher
Gillian Flynn offers up one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read in this twisted thriller that manages to improve upon her own excellent novel. Like its main character, it simply refuses to play by any rules, slowly revealing its black heart with David Fincher’s signature cold style. All that, plus Rosamund Pike’s astonishing femme fatale for the ages – it’s one exquisite thriller that holds up even after you know its secrets.
“The Great Gatsby” – 2013
Writer: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Luhrmann’s lavish retelling of the great American novel is perfectly pitched for his voice: explosive, loud and flashy at first… until the somber tragedy finally begins to bleed its way into frame. A huge hit but woefully misunderstood critically at the time of its release, I have every confidence it will slowly gain traction as time passes – like Luhrmann’s other films – until it is regarded as the masterpiece it is.
“The Handmaiden” – 2016
Writer: Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung
Director: Park Chan-wook
An elegant maze of a movie that presents itself as an erotic thriller before twisting and morphing over and over, finally revealing the humanity hidden underneath all the bells and whistles. It’s got chopped off fingers, hanging sex mannequins and a gigantic octopus… and yet what lingers long after are the looks our two protagonists give one another throughout.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II” – 2011
Writer: Steve Kloves
Director: David Yates
Studios keep embracing franchise storytelling, and yet it almost never pays off as well as “Deathly Hallows Park II.” The filmmakers had an impossible task at somehow pleasing fans who loved the books and had been waiting for this movie moment through eight films… most had literally grown up with Harry Potter. And for a film that is essentially a two-hour action climax, it still finds time to give each of its characters a brilliant send off. Sitting at home when I was 15 reading J.K. Rowlings’ books while eating potato skins and listening to Goo Goo Dolls, I would have never thought something could rival my imagination… and yet this did.
“Hawaii” – 2013
Writer/Director: Marco Berger
You haven’t seen “Hawaii,” but you should. Hidden in a terrible DVD release that plays up the skin of the main characters, the film is actually an intimate character portrait of two old friends slowly realizing they are in love with one another. It’s sweet, it’s very sexy, and the slow build of the two men’s feelings is excruciating… in the best way possible. Such a shame this one fell through the cracks of time – it deserves to be recognized as the masterpiece it is.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” – 2018
Writer/Director: Barry Jenkins
When the lights came up after “If Beale Street Could Talk” ended, I literally could not move from my chair. This exquisitely rendered work of art by Barry Jenkins destroyed me emotionally to the point where I was a sobbing mess of a human being. Regina King gives a once-in-a-lifetime masterclass in acting. The score, the cinematography, the everything mixes together to create one of the great love stories of our time.
“Inside Out” – 2015
Story: Pete Doctor and Ronnie del Carmen
Writer: Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley
Director: Pete Doctor
Pixar makes great films on a regular basis, but “Inside Out” is in a league of its own. It manages to concurrently give insight into our emotions while also having a grand time playing with them, all the while creating an astounding world the likes of which have never been onscreen before.
“Julieta” – 2016
Writer/Director: Pedro Almodovar
Unjustly overlooked by critics and audiences when it was released, “Julieta” disappeared from American theaters after a week and didn’t even make the shortlist for the Oscars. And yet it’s the most mature, heartbreaking film Almodovar has made in a decade of mostly excellent movies – visually splendid as always but grounded in a sadness unusual for the maestro. If you missed it when it first came out (which you probably did), seek it out and let it capture your heart the same way it did mine.
“La La Land” – 2016
Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle
“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is my favorite film of all time, so it’s no surprise that Damien Chazelle’s marvelous feature-length homage also touched my soul in the same way. Starts with a bang as all of Los Angeles breaks into song and dance on a crowded freeway, but is quick to remember the hearts of these dreamers and the hope within them. It not only made me feel… but it made me feel all the feelings.
“Little Women” – 2019
Writer/Director: Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig’s fantastic re-framing of the classic, oft-told story feels like everything I loved about the best Merchant/Ivory films, but taken a step further thanks to her distinctive voice. It is the story you love, certainly, and yet Gerwig tilts the point-of-view to make it much, much more than you were expecting. The final moments both inspired me and reminded me why I wanted to be a writer, so there’s that, too.
“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” – 2011
Writer: Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec
Director: Brad Bird
Watching this movie in IMAX opening night, I was feeling dizzy from the skyscraper sequence. It’s a near-miraculous action film that feels effortless even though you know so much attention went into every moment. The entire series of films range from good to excellent, but for my money this is the peak action blockbuster of the last ten years.
“Nocturnal Animals” – 2016
Writer/Director: Tom Ford
Tom Ford’s weird, wild modern noir feels both old-school and like something brand new being ushered into existence before our eyes. The screenplay has all sorts of fun twisting your expectations while remaining grounded, and Ford’s direction and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography conjures up many indelible images you will never forget.
“Prisoners” – 2013
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Director: Denis Villeneuve
So often films feel safe – even when there are surprises, you always feel like the train remains on the rails. Not so here. At a certain point, Hugh Jackman’s Keller does something so unexpected that any expectations one could have for this type of thriller shatter. From that moment, the movie feels dangerous, calling into question everything we think we know about studio filmmaking.
“Silence” – 2016
Writer: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese
Director: Martin Scorsese
“Silence” is as serious an exploration into faith and belief in God as I think I’ve ever seen onscreen… a film that reaches for the answers it knows it will not receive… and yet keeps reaching nonetheless. Andrew Garfield offers up one of the great performances of the decade, one as tortured and brave as his character. I was one of only three people at an Arclight screening opening weekend, and have always been heartbroken that the film never got the attention it deserved.
“Sing Street” – 2016
Story: John Carney and Simon Carmody
Writer/Director: John Carney
Life-affirming in every way possible, “Sing Street” is a love letter to that very specific moment in your life where you have realized that you have grown up… but still don’t want to let go of being a kid. Great song after great song (my favorite is “Drive It Like You Stole It”) punctuate a film that would have been great without them… but adding them in made it transcendent.