Every “best of” list is defined by what’s absent, both to the people who read them and those who assemble them. The act of whittling them down, of deciding to choose one movie over another, can be difficult. What’s equally daunting are the hundreds of movies I’d have liked to see for the first time that could have made this list, or the ones I saw for the first time and didn’t realize I loved. I look forward to discovering them in the years to come and tweaking my list on Letterboxd accordingly. Looking back on the 2010s from its final days, these are the movies that left the biggest impression. Consider this list a snapshot. Tomorrow it might have turned out differently. -Matt
1. The Wolf of Wall Street- The best film of the last 10 years is Martin Scorsese’s 3-hour epic of depraved greed. The Wolf of Wall Street is both a grotesque creation and the decade’s funniest film. Tracing the turbulent rise and fall of the stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese uses his insatiable desire for money to expose a rot at the heart of American society. The movie is designed from the ground-up around the everyday excess and debauchery of Belfort and his colleagues at the New York firm Stratton Oakmont. In their offices, Scorsese portrays an anarchic space of endlessly screaming executives, where a marching band plays in their underwear, and Belfort’s partner in crime (an exceptional Jonah Hill) eats a nerdy broker’s goldfish and then fires him.
This is also the place where Belfort goes on a series of extended, frightening rants, a Quaalude king to a group of privileged minions. “There is no nobility in poverty,” he tells them in one scene. “I have been a rich man and I have been a poor man, and I’d choose rich every fuckin’ time.” As brilliantly embodied by DiCaprio, Belfort is a seething ball of rage produced by sexual frustration. He can have anything he wants, and often does, but when confronted with the intimacy of a woman, he orgasms in 11 seconds. The Wolf of Wolf Street is a necessary battle cry from artists at the absolute peak of their power. It’s a boundlessly confident achievement, and a bombardment of pure cinema.
2. Carol- From the moment Therese Belivet locks eyes with Carol Aird across a busy 1950s New York City department store, that’s that. Their first look is a barrage of confusion and longing, of instant connection stifled by societal codes.Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) spend much of the rest of Todd Hayne’s immaculate, sensuous film trying and sometimes failing to express how they feel about each other. For Therese specifically, attraction to another woman is not something she seems to have given herself permission to consider, until now.
What Carol does so beautifully, what makes it the most ravishing romance this side of In the Mood for Love, is that it slows down to examine the minute gestures, to chronicle every touch, every glance that leads to their love affair. The moment where Carol looks over her shoulder while picking out a Christmas tree and Therese snaps a photo of her seems like it has always existed. It’s one of many that took my breath away.
3. Phantom Thread – Early on in Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s kinky 1950s-set romance, a man and a woman share a walk along the English coast. The couple is bundled up with their hands intertwined, and the walk is quiet and peaceful. That is until the woman stops, meets her newly smitten boyfriend’s eyes and says, without warning, “Whatever you do, do it carefully.”
Alma (Vicky Krieps) enters into the life of famous London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) rather abruptly. Before he meets Alma at a restaurant (she’s a server), his only true confidant is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Reynolds is a man of fastidious routine and gets very upset when it’s interrupted, which is wisdom that Cyril tries to impart to Alma to no avail. Alma never met a routine she didn’t like to disrupt, and she and Reynolds spend much of the movie trying to wrest control in their relationship from the other. Day Lewis’ and Krieps’ performances are key to this; his is the kind of tight, precisely controlled effort you’d expect from the infamous method actor, while Krieps is looser and more unpredictable. Putting the two together in the increasingly claustrophobic, death-haunted fashion house yields a love story by turns disastrous and delirious.
4. Melancholia- Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic drama opens with a close-up of the main character Justine (Kirsten Dunst) staring straight ahead, eerily undisturbed as birds start falling like rain around her. This image, like the rest of the movie’s gorgeous prologue, gives away what’s to come: the end of the world amid Justine’s depressive calm. From there the movie rewinds back to Justine’s disastrous wedding reception, where she slowly implodes as her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) prods her along through the evening’s itinerary. Von Trier’s chaotically roving camera always seems to find Dunst’s terrified eyes and plastered-on smile amid the rest of the celebration.
In the movie’s second half, set after the wedding as the sisters (and Claire’s family) deal with the presence of a strange planet named Melancholia that has suddenly emerged from behind the sun, Justine is nearly crippled by depression. She says her favorite food tastes like ashes, she can’t lift her leg to get into the bathtub.The only thing she seems to connect with is the planet; as Claire grows increasingly terrified, Justine bathes nude beneath its blueish glow. One sister’s apocalypse is another’s catharsis.
5. Gone Girl- David Fincher made three films this decade about the rapidly evolving ways that humanity is being shaped by the internet. First was The Social Network, about the tumultuous rise of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook; next was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a sleek thriller about a hacker helping a journalist solve a cold case; and finally, there’s Gone Girl.
Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling book (she also wrote the screenplay) focuses on Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a man thrust into the spotlight and under the microscope when his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) vanishes. One of the most prescient things about Gone Girl is how in tune it is with the ways personal information is both obtained and consumed in the digital age. The movie uses all of this as a jumping-off point, though saying much more would require spoiling the big twist at its center, which more than five years later still seems wrong. Suffice it to say that Fincher, Flynn and their exceptional ensemble deliver a pitch-perfect thriller about a rotting marriage and weaponized narratives.
6. Spring Breakers- Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers feels like a beach party at the end of the world, a neon pop fever dream filled with demented ecstasy. Set in (where else?) Florida during peak Spring Break season, it tells the story of four college friends (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) who wax philosophical on their quest for not just a good time, but the good time. Along the way they meet the drug dealer Alien (James Franco), who bails them out of jail and inducts them into his own criminal exploits. Not long after they join him, a stunning robbery montage set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” lifts Spring Breakers into a violent euphoria that Korine sustains for the remainder of his remarkable movie.
7. Hard to Be a God- This decades-long passion project from the late Russian director Aleksey German is one of the filthiest feeling movies you’re ever likely to see. Set on Araknar, a planet similar to Earth that is experiencing its own Middle Ages, Hard to Be a God tells the story of scientists from our planet who were sent there to study it and then become deities. Araknar is also in the midst of a violent rebellion where all intellectuals are being publicly executed. German’s camera is so embedded in the feelings of this world, of its eternal wetness and clogged sinuses, that narrative all but disappears. Almost every black-and-white frame of this grotesquely beautiful epic is coated in some kind of slime, whether it’s snot, shit or mud. Hard to be a God captures human cruelty in ferociously close proximity; it’s a disgusting, totally unforgettable experience.
8. The Master- Like Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is about performance. Both films are psychological staring contests that find drama in clashing personalities and acting styles. Here, it’s the uneasy confidence of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader Lancaster Dodd and the nervous volatility of Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled Naval veteran Freddie Quell. Quell drunkenly wanders onto Dodd’s boat one night and becomes an unlikely right hand in his spiritual con. Along the way, though, a genuine bond develops between the two men that transcends their deceptions.
9. The Wind Rises- Hayo Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a gorgeously animated, haunting look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an engineer in early 20th century Japan who turned to designing planes after nearsightedness prevented him from becoming a pilot. When his designs are used by Japan during World War II, Horikoshi’s passion for creation clashes against his apprehension to create tools used for death and destruction. The Wind Rises spends a good deal of time in Horkoshi’s head, showing soaring dream encounters he has with one of his biggest inspirations, the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, as well as nightmares about what his creations do. His is a life punctuated by tragedy, and even the solace he tries to take in following his passion is corrupted.
10.The Other Side of the Wind- After sitting unfinished for decades, Netflix financed the completion of this new Orson Welles film. The Other Side of the Wind, a bleak and bleakly funny dig at the movie industry, centers on Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a drunken, disillusioned movie director. His birthday celebration becomes an excuse for all manner of people to gather and talk shit about him while enjoying his latest movie (also called The Other Side of the Wind). Shot like a mockumentary from a variety of perspectives of people at the party and interspersed with stunning footage of Hannaford’s movie-within-a-movie, The Other Side of the Wind is as disorienting as it is difficult to shake. Welles’ last completed film is a bitter vision of a rotting, death-stalked Hollywood.
11.The Irishman- The most recent movie on this list, The Irishman could very well climb in the rankings during inevitable revaluation in the years to come. Martin Scorsese’s mob epic is an electrifying and ultimately devastating portrait of memory and moral decay. The decades-spanning tale is told from the perspective of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a meat truck driver who lies, robs and kills his way up the mafia ladder before finding himself as a right-hand man to the infamous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (a livewire Al Pacino).
De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci play their characters at every age through the movie, which required the use of a de-aging technology to make them appear as younger men. The transformation is particularly stunning for De Niro, not only because he convincingly plays the central character from ambitious family man to his later days alone in a nursing home, but because it adds to the unreliability of his character’s point of view. No matter how effective the de-aging is, you’re always looking at De Niro, and The Irishman ultimately comes off as the tale of an old man rummaging through his past for scraps of glory and stumbling onto emptiness.
12. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives- Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winning film is a serene and captivating ghost story. Set largely in a remote cabin, the movie focuses on a dying man named Boonme (Thanapat Saisaymar) reflecting on his past lives while surrounded by family both alive and dead. The ghosts of Uncle Boonme are tied to people and not places, and they bleed into the story like its many surreal memories. There are few images from the last ten years as beautiful and evocative as the one of Boonme’s deceased wife slowly dissolving to take her place at a table of the living.
13. Mistress America- The rapid-fire wit in Mistress America is contagious; Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s script is easily one of the funniest of the decade. Gerwig plays Brooke, a 30-year-old who thinks she’s taking her college freshman sister-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke) under her wing, only to find out Tracy has grander ambitions. Mistress America is a good New York movie and a great Connecticut one; the middle stretch of the movie where Tracy and Brooke leave NYC to visit Brooke’s rival Mamie Claire (a scene-stealing Heather Lind) is perhaps the funniest, most squirm-inducingly poignant thing Baumbach has ever directed.
14. Cameraperson- Kirsten Johnson combines a wide array of work from her more than 25 years as a cinematographer into this striking docu-memoir. From chronicling a boxing match in Brooklyn and following a Nigerian midwife in a struggling clinic to observing her own mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s, Johnson trains her camera on scenes that often become bracingly intimate. By drawing attention to scenes that border on intrusive, Cameraperson becomes both a chronicle of Johnson’s lifelong passion and a thought-provoking interrogation of it.
15. Contagion- Steven Soderbergh had one of the most interesting and consistently excellent outputs of any director this decade, ranging from effortlessly entertaining films like Magic Mike, Haywire and Unsane to television series (The Knick, Mosaic). His best offering was Contagion, a ruthlessly efficient tale of societal upheaval set amid a viral outbreak. Contagion shows erosion at every level, from the personal to institutional, as well as the desperation and opportunism that comes with it. Like many Soderbergh pictures, this one is stacked with an enviable ensemble that’s a mix of well-known actors (Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne, among many others) and memorable character work (Jennifer Ehle is particularly exceptional).
16. Unfriended- Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended is the defining horror film of the decade, a slasher that unfolds entirely on the laptop screen of its protagonist, a high school-aged woman named Blaire (Shelley Hennig). What could so easily have been a gimmick opens up an expansive realm of digital storytelling tools, focusing on character development and psychology through what Blaire types, deletes and rewrites, watches on YouTube and searches for on the internet. This is further deepened by what she reveals in real-time in a video chat with five other friends (one of whom is her boyfriend) and what she says in one-on-one typed conversations with others.
While all of this is going on, a mysterious newcomer pops into their chat with just a default blue Skype silhouette instead of a video stream. The group’s attempts to kick this person out and figure out what they want yields to a series of sinister and even deadly games that weaponizes each teen’s most guarded secrets against them and lays bare their most embarrassing mistakes in an effort to make them turn on each other. The movie taps into a true horror of the digital age: the endless documentation and permanence of nearly every facet of a person’s life.
17. Certain Women- In Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt weaves together three quietly wondrous and moving tales of women living on the Montana plains. The characters rarely cross paths directly, but they are connected by both the setting and a meditative yearning. The film features a slew of understated, melancholy performances from established stars like Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart, but a breakthrough turn from Lily Gladstone, who anchors the third segment, steals the show. As a rancher inexplicably drawn to a lawyer (Stewart) teaching a school law class in her town, Gladstone taps into a profound, quiet longing, enhanced by Reichardt’s devastating use of close-ups. Certain Women is filled with moments of performance that are so finely calibrated they stick in your mind for days afterward.
18. Certified Copy- The late Abbas Kiarostami’s beguiling masterpiece focuses on two people (Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) who meet in Italy during the man’s book tour. Certified Copy focuses on the nature of their relationship, which shifts inexplicably over the course of a day as they wander around a scenic village. With this film and the great follow-up Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami explores the nature of authenticity and identity with quietly exacting precision.
19. Inside Llewyn Davis- Oscar Isaac gave a star-making performance in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film about a folk singer wandering the Greenwich Village music scene of the early ’60s. Though Inside Llewyn Davis features the Coens’ knack for cruelly funny twists of fate, it is also imbued with a deeper melancholy than many of their other films. This is due in no small part to the T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack, which adds a mournful undercurrent to Llewyn’s unending search for stability, meaning and his cat.
20. The Tree of Life- The 2010s saw the release of more Terrence Malick films than all previous decades combined, and marked a new stage in his career that leans into more abstract stories and free-associating images. He started this wild creative spurt with 2011’s The Tree of Life, an epic tone poem that weaves in and out of the life of a family in 1950s Texas, zig-zagging between the creation of the universe and the afterlife in the process. By placing the location of his own childhood at the center of these celestial events, Malick puts a very personal spin on his warring perceptions of creation; the way of nature and the way of grace. The Tree of Life is an unspeakably moving attempt at capturing the totality of existence, at recreating memory and imagining eternity.
Shutter Island (2010, Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Somewhere (2010, Dir. Sofia Coppola)
Like Someone In Love (2013, Dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
A Separation (2011, Dir. Asghar Farhadi)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011, Dir. David Fincher)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Dir. George Miller)
A Quiet Passion (2017, Dir. Terence Davies)
Margaret (2011, Dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Night Moves (2014, Dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Moonlight (2016, Dir. Barry Jenkins)
Love & Friendship (2016, Dir. Whit Stillman)
The Deep Blue Sea (2012, Dir. Terence Davies)
Abuse of Weakness (2014, Dir. Catherine Breillat)
This is Not a Film (2012, Dir. Jafar Panahi)
Thou Wast Mild & Lovely (2014, Dir. Josephine Decker)
Inherent Vice (2014, Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Another Year (2010, Dir. Mike Leigh)
Let the Sunshine In (2018, Dir. Claire Denis)
Goodbye to Language (2014, Dir. Jean Luc Godard)
J. Edgar (2011, Dir. Clint Eastwood)