My Top Ten Movies of the 2010's
This was the decade that filmmakers took genre out for a spin to see what it could really do.
10. The LEGO Movie
Here was a movie that should not have worked. The marketing was right there in the title. And yet, the actual things they wanted about the brand to come through—creativity, ingenuity, playfulness—came through in a way that felt authentic and joyful and organic to the story. But what really takes it to the next level is the way in which it stands as a remix manifesto, both in terms of the literal rebuilding of things into other things (a fascinating dynamic to add to action sequences) but also the way in which it crosses franchises and universes in a way that must have taken a boatful of lawyers to resolve, but is a delight to behold.
9. Baby Driver
There is the concept of the pure action film. A movie whose only language is movement. The Raid. Run Lola Run. This feels like that par excellence. Edgar Wright’s masterpiece is a true bullet ballet in the sense that almost every move is choreographed and timed to music to the point where music is a core component of the storytelling. In spite of the rigidity that would suggest, the acting is top notch, with each character getting beats to express themselves like a riff on a jazz standard. In one scene, four thieves are stopped as they enter an arms dealer’s lair. As the flashlight passes over each of them, they react in ways that perfectly capture their demeanors. That’s the level of craft on display. Even the use of color in the costume design is so carefully considered that there’s at least one video essay devoted to it on YouTube.
8. Attack the Block
One of the most important things that happened to film in the 2010’s was the reconsideration of genre. Did we have to keep on telling the same old stories? Maybe. But from the same perspective? Absolutely not. What if the alien invasion came to the hood? Who would be the heroes in that story? And what would happen to them if they won? Edgar Wright compatriot Joe Cornish takes that premise and delivers on it for a satisfying 90 minutes, hitting all of the monster movie tropes but adding a level of social commentary through the performances of a future Star Wars lead (John Boyega) and a future Doctor (Jodie Whittaker).
7. The Big Short
I love explainer movies. I’ll just put it out there. So I get how this might not have been everyone’s cup of tea. But Adam McKay’s dizzying, compelling adaptation of Michael Lewis’ expose of the sheer arrogance, greed, stupidity, and, perhaps worst of all, complacency that led to the 2008 housing crisis delivers more than just fast-talking exposition (my fave!) but powerful performances, not the least of which from Steve Carrell who shows, yet again, that he may be best actor you never considered an acting legend but you probably should.
6. Knock Down the House
This was a decade that challenged what we thought of America. It was the culmination of years of expanding gaps between the have’s and the have-not’s. You could call Knock Down the House blowback for Citizens United. An attempt by bartenders and registered nurses to get into politics against members of their own party who’d abandoned simple civics for corporate checks. This is the most American movie I’ve ever seen in the sense that it tries to capture something pure about the American experiment that anyone, truly anyone, can be a part of the process of power because it’s a process that actually belongs to the people.
5. Get Out
In spite of (or because of) #OscarsSoWhite there really were some amazing Academy Award wins in the 2010’s. Moonlight and Parasite among them. But the nominations that really impressed me were the ones for Get Out. It not only put blackness at the center, already a risky move for the Academy, but it was a horror film, and you can count on one hand the number of times that genre has been rewarded. And, remembering all the way back to February, the Academy chose to consider this biting satirical metaphor for mass incarceration for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and give it a win for Best Original Screenplay.
What’s more, it deserved all of the above. As a film, it is a study in subtext and well thought out action, plotting, and staging. Listening to the director’s commentary is like getting a masterclass in filmmaking. And Daniel Kaluuya gives a remarkable performance that captures the unease with which a black body must move in a white supremacist world, especially one that disguises itself as something else entirely. Truly one of the best horror films of all time.
4. The Cabin in the Woods
I’m probably the only person who is going to put this on their top ten of the decade, but if you know anything about me and my love of subverting genre and mindfuckery in general, you probably saw this coming. Not so much a rethink of the horror genre as a reframing, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s collab gives us all the scares of a horror film with an added layer of cleverness that’s catnip to a genre junkie like myself. If I’m being vague about the particulars it’s because it is so much more fun to view this knowing nothing about what is to come. And then go back and watch it again to see everything you missed.
3. Fruitvale Station
Black bodies have been at the mercy of white police officers for a very long time, but the 2010’s saw that issue come to the fore. Fruitvale Station, the story of Oscar Grant’s last day on earth, shows that black lives matter by showing black lives. We just see his day. We see him as a person. With a life. And a family. And then we see him slain. Senselessly. Meaninglessly. And it matters. Because we have seen him.
2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The layers of awesome in this film are simply too numerous to list. They are macro and micro. Simply take a look at a scene in which the spider crew try to hide themselves on the ceiling while Miles Morales’ roommate comes back to his dorm room. Each particular unique ability of each particular unique spider-version comes into play. And, they all form, if you stand back, a giant spider. That’s just technique. Craft.
That’s to say nothing of the layers of meaning and message that pervade the film. And the pure blackness on display. If Black Panther is a celebration of the black future, Spider-Verse is a celebration of the black (really multi-ethnic) now. And that is it’s raison d’etre. To make the statement that anyone can wear the mask in their own way. That diversity is to be exclaimed, not diminished. When Miles puts on the mask, he does not abandon the hoodie, he embraces it. And that is as political a statement you can make in the Age of Trayvon.
1. Black Panther
The list of top ten highest grossing films of all time is overwhelmingly white. With one key exception. Coming in at number four is a comic book film with a cast that is almost entirely black. Dealing with black issues. Issues that have almost never been discussed before in genre cinema (you know all those sci-fi actioners that deal with the African diaspora). A film that turns the whole notion of the shit-hole nation on its head, to the point where America becomes the nation in need of saving by Africans.
So it’s not just that this film got made. And made well. And thoughtfully. By the same guy who made #3 on our list. With so much detail that when our heroes walk into a casino they’re wearing red, black, and green respectively so they’re walking in as the Pan-African flag (thank you, Ruth Carter—who won her first, long overdue, Oscar for her work here).
It’s not just any of those things. It’s that the culmination of those things resonated so strongly with America. Not just black America. There’s only 42 million of us. We don’t go to the movies that much. No, it resonated with enough Americans to get it to $700 million domestic. That means some Trump voters watched that shit. And if seeing black men and women with dignity and agency getting shit done challenges, even a little, the crappy patterns folks have in their heads about black people, or even starts to plant the seeds of a new one, that’s the least it can do to get the top spot on my list.
Honorable mentions: Inception, Skyfall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Roma, Best Worst Movie