I never intended to take long breaks between articles I write here. I always told myself that this would be a perfect outlet for the few people who are interested in the random opinions rolling around in my head. But the fact is I started this blog more than 10 years ago – my first post was in March 2009 and I missed the anniversary. I once had dreams this would get someone’s attention and be the first step on a journey that would lead me on an exciting journey around the world, writing about some of the best films and getting an opportunity to speak to some of the most creative people on the planet.
It did lead me to a few fun paths. I’ve been doing a podcast with some great friends of mine for five years now – we just passed our 200th movie this year. I do write once a month for popdose.com and am proud of the work I do there – most of it, anyway. But eventually, life just kept happening. My friends have gotten married and are having children now. I’ve been working full time and have had the opportunity to work with some terrific people. But, well – when I thought about this tiny space on the corner of the internet, I realized what it said about my life now. I learned – quickly – that the world was rapidly changing and some of my existing beliefs weren’t going to match the new reality.
The more I think about the 2010s, the more I realize that seemingly all of human civilization went through the same thought process. Yes, the end of the 2000s were awful due to the financial crash, but there were seemingly so many opportunities at the start of the new decade. New businesses were disrupting the traditional market and leading to exciting new opportunities. Streaming services were (finally) destroying cable and video rental. Social media was mainstream but there was still a sense that this would be the great unifying force of the world that would finally help us create a utopia built on sharing knowledge with each other.
I know some people laughed at that last paragraph, because well…all of that is wrong. We weren’t moving to a bright future. Instead, we have a large portion of the population who was afraid of change and afraid the world was passing them by. So they fought tooth and nail to bring back debates I thought were long ago settled – ideas like whether or not Nazis are evil and deserve a nice smack to the head, whether or not businesses shouldn’t treat employees like a valuable resource and instead treat them like they’re supporting characters in a Dickens novel, how the rich deserve to be fetishized and can’t possibly do anything bad, precisely because they’re rich, and best of all, whether or not a head of state should act like some sort of mutant cross between Tony Soprano and George Wallace. And, the golden age of streaming is officially over. Media companies and content providers have morphed into exactly the kind of monopoly we hoped they would destroy. Worst of all, content has less and less value, especially to the people who worked to create it.
Halfway through the decade, we all realized that we can’t assume regression won’t happen – we need to keep fighting to go forward. Humans are flawed and some people will support evil, even if they don’t want to admit that fact to themselves. And while it’s far easier to deny reality and use social media to create a bubble from what we don’t want to hear, trapping the entire world in that bubble is only going to get people hurt – or worse.
But the most important thing is that you should never give up what you enjoy doing. Even if it doesn’t lead you down the path you thought it would, it can still make for a great journey.
And that’s why I’m writing this now. This temporary break from reality to rank the best movies of the last decade is exactly what I sometimes need.
I’ve typed more than 700 words so far and haven’t mentioned a single film I want to highlight. (You try to summarize a decade in a mere paragraph.) The best movies of the 2010s are the ones that offered hope and made us remember that better lives are still worth fighting for. Some of the ones I’m going to discuss were big-budget films about superheroes. Others were introspective independent dramas that didn’t make the money they deserved to make. I have a feeling that different writers’ “Top Ten” lists of this decade are going to be wildly different. Not necessarily by design, but because the average person’s time at the cinema has become just as fragmented as everything else in our world. I have a feeling my number one pick is going to be very controversial and will require a lot of explanation. But we’re just getting started.
First, I want to highlight some honorable mentions. These are the films that I’m still thinking about almost ten years later, but lack the gravitas required to rank them as films that define the entire decade. Still, each one is a masterpiece in its own right and everyone should check them out. (If you want to skip all this and go directly to the list, click here.)
Arrival (dir: Denis Villeneuve) – I struggled on whether I should highlight the excellent Blade Runner 2049 or this film. I decided on Arrival for two reasons. First, it seemed redundant to include multiple franchise revivals on this list (spoilers for later). But more importantly, Arrival had a positive message about the future of humanity. Maybe that wouldn’t have been enough to win praise in any other decade, but this decade needed hope like a man wandering a desert needs water. Everything people do matters. We’re just limited in our perception of our lives. Maybe, millennia from now, this movie will seem even more prescient.
The Big Short (dir: Adam McKay) – A significant portion of the early 2010s was spent looking back at the 2008 financial crisis and trying to determine how to prevent that from happening again. Of course, no one ever decided the best way forward and we eventually all forgot about finding a solution. The Big Short was a healthy reminder of how so many people got away with wrecking the economy and destroying people’s futures. The film took the time to explain what happened to an audience that doesn’t know what collateralized debt obligations are. Sure, it may have been a touch too heavy-handed in those moments, but those scenes certainly made an impression on me. The film was trying to get everyone to take another look at our failures – and that warning has become even louder since the film’s release.
Drive (dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)- I’m not at my superlatives of the decade yet, but I think I would give “most wasted potential” to Refn. His films have become increasingly alienating and he’s been struggling more and more to get his works greenlit. I admire how Only God Forgives went for broke, but that doesn’t change the fact it has one of the most boring protagonists ever in fiction. And The Neon Demon was completely forgettable (minus Keanu Reeves as a seedy motel manager) until it crossed into the utterly incomprehensible by the end of its run time. But Drive remains an incredible crime film where all the pieces fit seamlessly together. We’re barely told anything about the titular driver (not even his name) but by the end of the film we’ve learned so much about him just by listening to the few things he says. He’s a man who doesn’t want redemption for himself, but to help the innocent people who’ve become trapped in the underworld he inhabits. It reminds me a lot of Michael Mann’s Thief. Crime is not an act to be glorified or boasted about. It’s something desperate and grimy. It doesn’t matter how “cool” you make your criminals appear – at the end, they’ll get exactly what they deserve. The film may not be completely original in its content, but it tells an old story in a new way. And the soundtrack is one of the greatest film soundtracks ever.
The Favourite (dir: Yorgos Lanthimos) – I wanted to highlight Yorgos Lanthimos because he had an incredible run in the 2010s, starting with Dogtooth. (Yes, I know it was released at festivals throughout 2009, but it didn’t premiere in the U.S. until January 2010, so I’m counting it.) His films were some of the most controversial, the strangest, the most disturbing, and the most beautiful of the decade. The Favourite is the perfect Lanthimos film to highlight because it has all the qualities of his work and it’s by far the most accessible film he made. Lanthimos used the story of Queen Anne to create a Shakespearean dark comedy about betrayal and manipulation in a way that still resonates today. Over the past three years, we’ve seen people eager to get as close as possible to the centers of power and only to end up ruined, the servant of an individual who has no love for anyone but themselves. In today’s political climate, The Favourite is practically a documentary. And the ending is one of my personal favorites of all time – everyone else agrees that Lady Sarah knew exactly what she was doing, right?
Gravity (dir: Alfonso Cuarón) – The 2010s were marked by an increasing division between popular blockbusters and the award bait Oscar winners. Ten years before Gravity was released, Best Picture winner Lord of the Rings: Return of the King debuted in theaters. Everyone saw it and everyone had an opinion on it. But films that are both critical favorites and popular with audiences have increasingly disappeared. Gravity is one of the few films of the decade that managed to remind everyone what a director can still accomplish when trying to make a film for everyone. The story of Gravity, about an astronaut trying to get back to Earth after her ship is destroyed, is almost irrelevant. What matters is how Alfonso Cuaron took the material and made the best, most innovative film he possibly could. There have been movies that have been set in outer space, but Gravity is one of the few films that feels like it was actually filmed in outer space. And most importantly, the characters aren’t just used as something to explain the special effects that threaten them. We want Ryan Stone to get back home and that desire only increases as the film goes on. Not even Marvel movies kept me in such suspense or made me care about the protagonists as deeply as Gravity did.
Green Room (dir: Jeremy Saulnier) – This is the perfect film to summarize what, exactly, has happened to our world. It’s nominally a thriller set almost entirely in one run down concert venue as an aspiring punk band witnesses a murder and tries to escape before the white nationalist club owners can permanently silence them all. But it’s also about how the rise of white nationalism seemingly caught everyone off guard. Who would have imagined that Green Room would have come to life just a year later in Charlottesville? At the start of the decade it would have seemed like science fiction. Now, the film serves as a stark warning to us. The people who used to put on white hoods never went away. They plugged along on the fringes where they were ignored (like the secluded concert venue in this film) only to come back as empowered and as dangerous as they ever were. Even minor victories over them would still leave behind a lot of destruction and chaos. If we’re going to effectively destroy them, we can’t just depend on singing Dead Kennedy’s songs to make them go away.
Inception (dir: Christopher Nolan) – Christopher Nolan has made two types of film in his career. His movies either start from a strong central idea and are allowed to flourish from that center (like Memento, The Dark Knight, and Dunkirk), or he piles on as many loose ideas as he can into a giant blob in the hopes that the movie will work (like Interstellar or The Dark Knight Rises). Inception fits into the former. It’s a fantastic idea about how memories and dreams make a person – and how the people with power are those who can shape a person’s dreams. The movie would be noteworthy for its special effects – particularly the hallway scene. I remember people cheering after they first saw Joseph Gordon Levett literally fight people on the ceiling. But even more importantly, the film wraps deep philosophical ideas around its action movie cloak. It’s asking the biggest question of all – what can make us change our mind? And even if we can change our mind, can we change who we are? And that’s a question that we still desperately need to answer.
Nebraska (dir: Alexander Payne) – “OK Boomer” has become the last big hashtag of the 2010s. It’s an easy way for younger generations to dismiss older ones after baby boomers grew further and further away from the issues that millennials believe should be defining the national discussion. It may feel satisfying, but I’m not sure how much it will accomplish. If we’re going to bring everyone back together, we need movies like Nebraska. This is the best film of the decade about aging and obsolescence. Woody Grant is a man with a singular focus – he wants the million dollars he supposed won in a mailing contest. He barely listens to his son as he tries to make it to the office that will supposedly give him his reward. Everyone around him knows it’s a fraud, but that doesn’t deter Woody. Yet when he lets the mask drop, we see how much pain he’s hiding. His confusion is reflected by the other characters in his hometown. Everyone in Lincoln, Nebraska is cut off from the world, obsessed with a half remembered past. The scene of Woody walking through the house shows just how afraid Woody is of his future and why he’s so eager to be disconnected from reality. (“This was my parents’ room. I got whipped if they found me in here. I guess nobody’s gonna whip me now,” Woody says, as he wanders the decaying ruins of the farmhouse.) If films like Nebraska can help everyone understand that fear of letting the world slip through our fingers, maybe we’ll be ready to tell them that driving down the ruined Main Street of their home towns can still be a triumphant gesture.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir: Lynne Ramsey) – There are a lot of other reviewers who put movies like The Witch and Hereditary on the best lists of the year – particularly if they’re ranking horror films. But, even though I admire the skill behind their creation, those weren’t really scary to me. I can only think of a few movies that did. Green Room was one, and We Need to Talk About Kevin is another. The film is a character study, not about Kevin, but about his mother Eva. As the film opens, she is trying to come to terms with the school massacre her teenage son has just carried out. Then the film works backwards, showing us how we got to that moment – and how early and deep the seeds of violence are planted in her son. Kevin is an absolute monster, but the film wants us to look at Eva and see how much we still pressure women to have superhuman abilities when it comes to raising children. The film is horrifying because we’ve seen Kevin’s story countless times in the news – and in watching Eva’s story, we realize there aren’t any easy ways to stop the Kevins of the world.
Waves (dir: Trey Edward Shults) – This story of an African American upper middle class family is the most recent film I want to highlight my countdown. Waves manages to be about several lives and focus on several things without seeming jumbled or random. I thought I knew who the protagonist is and what sort of “coming of age” battle they’ll face. Then the film completely changes course at the halfway mark. Best of all, it feels perfectly natural. It takes bravery to abandon established characters midway through the film and it takes intelligence to make it work. And the film doesn’t forget to treat its characters as flesh and blood people instead of symbols. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re frustrated, sometimes they’re excited, sometimes they hate each other, and sometimes they love each other despite what they’ve been through. Waves is a refreshing antidote to the blockbusters that treat their protagonists as symbols and I sincerely hope Sterling K. Brown gets an Oscar.
This next section is where I want to give out the “special jury prizes.” Film festivals give these prizes to highlight special achievements that otherwise would fall through the cracks. I want to to call special attention to specific genres and film movements that I believe had an enormous impact on the decade, even if they aren’t on my top ten list.
The Philo Farnsworth Special Jury Prize for Best TV Narrative:
Sometime in the late 2000s, film and television started to be treated as equals. Television showsallowed creators to explore complex themes and characters over a much longer period of time and became a greater part of the popular discourse than they’d ever been. Sure, Friends may have garnered huge ratings in the nineties…but no sane person would say the show had the same impact as Pulp Fiction. Part of this was because the way we watched TV changed. Before streaming, an episode of any given TV show was designed to be aired and then forgotten in the course of a week. Streaming platforms allowed viewers to take as much time as they wanted with a show and stories could be more intertwined and dependent on what came before the most recent installment. I have a feeling this is a big reason why so many shows are being revived on streaming platforms and not endlessly stuck in syndication. The brands are recognized but the shows themselves become hopelessly dated.
It’s to the point where the most popular franchise in the world (The Marvel Cinematic Universe) is essentially the highest budgeted TV show ever created, where the characters’ arcs are played out across multiple “episodes” and the “series finale” is what everyone will be talking about after it’s released.
But while they’ve grown closer together, there still aren’t any TV shows that are being properly compared to films. I want to highlight one TV show that sought to replicate what could have only been done in a movie a mere ten years ago.
It’s a revival, but it’s a revival that did everything correctly. The creators had been long absent from making films – both hadn’t done anything for about 11 years. They were given an opportunity to recreate their most famous work and didn’t just use it to stir nostalgic feelings in viewers. Rather, they used it to forward the story, resolve many of the unresolved plot threads that had driven fans crazy for decades, and show exactly what they’d learned in 25 years.
Twin Peaks: The Return (dir: David Lynch)
The first series changed television forever, allowing it to be a medium that could handle high drama. It made TV respectable. Lynch had already been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars – twice – and here he was writing and directing a network TV show. In 1990, that didn’t happen.
And then, 25 years later, he did the same thing with the same franchise, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on television. The most famous episode of the new season only has about ten minutes of dialogue (not counting the Nine Inch Nails performance). The rest of the episode is a long form art film built on abstract images and music that no sane head of any network would have allowed to be broadcast.
Yes, I know there were people who were disappointed about the lack of the “real” Dale Cooper and the fact that it ends on another cliffhanger. (Or does it?) But people started to turn against the original show in the second season and that didn’t stop it from having an enormous impact on television. I can’t wait to see what this series inspires other creators to do.
The F.W. Murnau Silver Medal For Best Foreign Film:
There was a French film released that caused quite a stir when it was first released, even getting an NC-17 rating. It was also one of the best love stories of the decade.
The movie works precisely because it’s not just about romantic longing. It’s how those feelings can change a person over the course of time. There are great moments, and there is also heartbreak. But in the end, what matters is the connection that people shared, however long that connection lasts.
There was a lot of focus on the sex scenes in the movies, with gay couples saying it doesn’t resemble what they actually do with their partners. I understand the criticism but the film isn’t supposed to be a documentary. It’s like saying Saving Private Ryan is bad because Tom Hanks didn’t really go through basic training. Films are about emotional truth and, while watching a movie, we’re invited to share in feelings and emotions we would not get anywhere else. The sex in the movie isn’t about titillation. It’s about a couple being honest about their desires and achieving something they crave, even if they still don’t understand why they want it yet.
Blue is the Warmest Color (dir: Abdellatif Kechice)
It’s unlikely the actors and the director will ever reunite – the two leads said in interviews they will never work with the director again. That’s real life imitating art. Both of the lead actresses have become very successful and moved forward with their careers – like their characters do in the film. There may have been pain making the movie, but no one involved can deny it’s an important part of their lives.
I wish more romance films were like this. There’s a tenderness to the characters andthere’s never any hint that the two people at the center of this movie are not equals. They’re both trying to navigate their feelings for each other and figure out the best way to express them.
The Fritz Lang Special Jury Prize for Best Foreign Film:
What could top Blue is the Warmest Color?
There was another film that, to me, was a perfect reflection of the world around me. It addressed the desperation of fleeing refugees and broken families around the world. People in war torn nations are finding not safety, but scorn when they attempt to flee. And having a kid sue his parents for allowing him to be born into a world that doesn’t want him has become especially relevant as Generation Z comes of age and finds that the previous generations are still trying to raise them in their world – a world that doesn’t take their concerns seriously.
The more I think about it, the more I feel recognizing this as the best foreign film of the decade is the only decision I could reasonably make. This movie encapsulates so much about a desperation that people everywhere feel. While the aforementioned law suit is not the main focus of the film, it’s something that I would have laughed at ten years ago. Not anymore.
Capernaum (dir: Nadine Labaki)
The film is now officially the highest grossing Arabic film in history. I’m surprised it took this long considering how often people try to frame stories of refugees and runaways in a compassionate way. This film did for me what a lot mainstream news outlets couldn’t do. It made me realize how important 12 year old Zain is to the world.
Yes, he is guilty of stabbing someone. But, after seeing what he’s been through, that’s the only logical choice he has. He’s slowly learning about the adult world after years of being shielded from it and figuring out how cruelly it betrays children.
The world Zain inhabits is scary and he’s lucky he found kindness from even a few people. Yet the film still ends on a hopeful note. This decade has been marked by a return to a divisive, tribal mentality where people don’t want to know about anything that’s happening thousands of miles away. But the film ends as Zain finally manages to smile. By venturing away from home, he realized that he actually did have an impact on the world. His existence is important. And he has a right to change his world.
The George O Squier Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Services in Streaming:
I couldn’t figure out where else I could recognize this next film. It’s too old to actually be considered for a “best of the 2010s” list. For another, the content of the film isn’t the most important aspect of if (even though it’s a great introspective work). What matters is the fact that we finally had a chance to see this movie at all.
Streaming, like multiplexes, was supposed to be the best way for people to watch whatever they wanted. It didn’t matter if they wanted to see last year’s Best Picture winner, last year’s Marvel blockbuster, or even an independent film that was struggling to get a major release. All films were equal and everyone could access them.
That’s not what happened. The focus is centered on original content for Netflix and other media companies are holding onto their intellectual property like some sort of nerd Ebeneezer Scrooge so people would be forced to shell out more money to watch reruns of a 20 year old sitcom. For me, this was just another example of us regressing back to the place we started when Netflix killed Blockbuster. People are not going to be able to afford every possible service they’ll need to see what they want and I’m not optimistic about the next ten years.
But there was one example when streaming demonstrated what it could do if its owners used correctly. In this case, we finally had a chance to see a film that had been languishing in a vault in Paris for more than 40 years. Originally, only a select few could see even limited clips of it. And considering how another one of Orson Welles’ unreleased films was treated when it was put together by Jesus Franco, we should be grateful that Netflix bother to give Welles’ final film the attention it deserved.
The Other Side of the Wind (dir: Orson Welles)
Orson Welles made this film late in his career as a reaction to the New Hollywood movement and the European New Wave movements that claimed him as a major inspiration. But at the time when Godard and Truffaut were citing him and an inspiration, Welles himself was viewed as a joke – a Macy’s Day balloon caricature who was more content to make talk show appearances than to finish his films.
Welles viewed this as his comeback. He wanted to show that he could do exactly what the crazy kids could do and he succeeded. I don’t know what would have happened if the film had received a release in the 1970s. Perhaps it would have been treated as too incomprehensible and nothing about Welles’ career would have changed at all.
But the film is no longer a “what-if.” Its release allows us to see that Welles still had his creative spark and still wanted to make films. And, in his own way, he set the template for the 1990s indie film boom by creating great spectacles with minimal resources. Everyone working today owes him a debt, and Netflix finally allowed a small portion of it to be repaid. I hope that streaming will allow us to see more lost projects like this.
The Chuck Jones Special Jury Prize for Best Animated Film:
I was fortunate to grow up during the second golden age of animation. Pixar showed us how animated films could deliver the same emotional impact as the best Hollywood dramas. TV shows like The Simpsons demonstrated that animation didn’t just have to be for children. The Disney Renaissance produced some great films that made the medium more respectful than it had been for a generation.
Unfortunately, those attitudes have stumbled a bit. There are still some great animated films, we’ve moved into an era of recycling existing property instead of using animation to explore new ideas. There’s absolutely no artistic reason for Frozen II to exist and everyone knows it.
It’s ironic then that my pick for the best animated film of the decade is based on an existing property that’s already received multiple live action adaptations. But this film showed how animation can help tell a story. The film is filled with multiple sight gags and a colorful palette that would be impossible to replicate in live action. Additionally, the characters can be much more faithful to the source material. Comic heroes are supposed to be larger than life figures that could never exist in our world. Transporting some of them into live action (like Ultron) takes away their impact. But here, we’re not only introduced to a character everyone knows, but multiple variations of that character and each have a different artistic style. They all seem different, but they all feel the same burdens and responsibilities.
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse (dir: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)
I like “parallel universe” stories because they make for an interesting contrast with what everyone already knows. They let authors take the basics of a character and build on them. So we get a Spider-ham that pulls mallets out of his spider suit, we get a depressed Peter Parker whose personal life has been ruined, and we get a Miles Morales, a new Spider-man who desperately wants to be a hero – but doesn’t know what he will have to give up to do so. And this Kingpin is the best version of the character I imagine we’re ever going to get. He’s out to destroy the world – not out of malice, but to recover from the pain of what was taken away from him. New York’s destruction is merely unfortunate collateral damage. Every single character lets the mask drop and shows their humanity, even if they come from worlds that don’t come close to matching our own. This is not only the best animated film but the best superhero movie of the decade.
The D.W. Griffith Award for Most Original Film of the Decade
One of the most common questions I hear about films is “why don’t filmmakers make anything original?”
They do, but studios aren’t interested in their efforts. Even Oscar bait has become routine. AMPAS has always been hopelessly conservative and usually picks Best Picture based on which movie has the oldest and whitest characters or producers involved.
Cinema’s now been around for such a long time that it’s easier for filmmakers to a.) be incredibly talented from a technical standpoint and b.) rely more and more on the easiest tricks in the book. Most films over the past 10 years didn’t take risks with their story telling or their scripts.
So I want to highlight a film that did try something new. I very nearly gave this award to Her, but as wonderful as it is and as intriguing as it made a romance between a man and an operating system, it’s plot still followed the same path of countless indie romance films.
Instead, I’d like to highlight film that took even more risks and seemed to laugh at the concept of fitting into a genre. I doubt everyone will enjoy every moment in it. And the average movie goer will be left with more questions than answers. But that uncertainty is where no creative ideas are formed.
I can’t describe the plot with any certainty, but I believe the movie a response to Instagram. Everyone wants to take on different roles in public. Now we finally have a tool that allows us to do so. But what if there was a man who only existed through how he presents himself in public? And how would human experience change if everyone is putting forward a false face?
Holy Motors (dir: Leos Carax)
The film is about an actor named Oscar who rides around in a limo to various “appointments” and, essentially, plays a series of random characters. Sometimes he’s comforting his daughter after she is picked up from a party. Sometimes he’s a man on his death bed. One time he’s a psychotic vagrant who kidnaps a super model and bites people. We never learn who he truly is or what, exactly, his goal is as wanders around and inserting himself into these moments. It’s nominally how he earns a living, but that makes no logical sense. Surely there can’t be an entire industry that pays people to fake their entire lives so they may offer even one person an intimate emotional experience…
The film is original because it captures the dream-like quality of the acting profession. We get the sense that the characters Oscar plays have a life beyond what we see in the film. We see the line between the character and the person shatter to the point where it’s virtually irrelevant who Oscar is. And the film mocks those who are overly obsessed with the different styles of acting and the craft required to embody any character. No matter what Oscar does, even if he’s in a motion capture suit, what he does is effective. Some will be endlessly caught up on trying to figure out Oscar’s true identity and will get frustrated with the film’s inability to explain itself. But they’ll have to admit it’s unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
The Michael Curtiz Award for Most Underrated Film of the Decade
This award is to recognize a movie that wasn’t given the chance it deserved. I don’t believe this film is among the greatest of the past decade. But I do think it was unfairly overlooked.
When this movie – about different groups of people across many centuries – was intially released, mainstream critics eviscerated it. The only thing anyone had to say about the story was how the segments that take place a few hundred years in the future – and how insensitive the filmmakers were to imagine white actors living in a future Seoul.
This is a movie that I found myself defending more than I thought I needed to. Is it perfect? No. Could those aforementioned scenes in Seoul have been handled with more care and sensitivity? Probably. But everyone seemed so limited in their focus. They wanted to take a movie about how humanity is connected and use it to divide audiences.
When I first saw the film in theaters, it was at a screening that was almost entirely sold out. One person in the audience bragged about how this was the fourth time he’d seen it in a week. I understand why he wanted to keep coming back. More than the directors’ more famous films, this movie was a satisfying philosophical examination on who we are as a species – and what we may become. The tiniest actions matter in the long run, even if they seem worthless to us living in the present.
Cloud Atlas (dir: Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis)
I don’t think any filmmakers have fallen harder in my lifetime than the Wachowskis. They went from being the ultimate cool figures of pop culture to being considered the most pretentious, divisive filmmakers that only losers could possibly like. They managed to demonstrate why with their follow up, the incomprehensible Jupiter Ascending. But they made this film at a crossroads in their lives. Lana and Lilly (the film was made before Lilly transitioned) are the first transgender directors who ever belonged to the mainstream. They made this film, asking what it meant to be human, at a time when they were questioning who they were. It makes sense that each of the characters would take on new identities across time. Cloud Atlas a personal film about the Wachowski’s identities. They went for broke to try to explain who they were and, even though too many people wanted to dismiss their efforts, it still made a profound impact on me.
The Stan Lee Memorial Award for Best Marvel Film:
To wrap up the special awards, I would like to highlight the best of the film series that meant so much to the decade.
Recently, Martin Scorsese stated that he doesn’t consider Marvel movies “cinema” in an interview. The result was an outcry. Marvel fans claimed that Scorsese was an out of touch old man whose films they didn’t care about, so there was no point in even acknowledging his opinion.
That’s unfair both to a director who has been one of the greatest influences on modern day cinema and lets Marvel off the hook too easily. I’ve made my feelings about the Marvel Cinematic Universe well known in other reviews. To me, each film only existed to promote the next one in the series. They were made not as a personal reflection on what these characters mean to them but as a way to be “memeable” and as easily understood as possible.
Yet I still disagree with Scorsese to a certain degree because I don’t believe any series should be painted with such a large brush. There are some wonderful moments in Marvel movies and it would be foolish to dismiss how the films have been used to showcase heroes that, even 20 years ago, would have been unthinkable to carry a $200 million dollar blockbuster.
And that latter attribute is what made some of my personal favorites in the MCU. There were a few films that were risky propositions from a studio planning standpoint. So the executives left the filmmakers alone to do what they would with the characters. If it failed, hey, the next Avengers movie could make up the loss.
When it worked, it worked well. Iron Man is an incredibly complex film about the responsibility wealthy innovators like Tony Stark have to the world. Black Panther was a movie that centered on an almost entirely black cast and treated its characters with respect – something that’s still rare for a studio blockbuster.
Then there’s my personal favorite of the decade. It’s a movie about characters no one had heard of featuring a cast that had no star power. Yes, it’s too derivative of the first Avengers movie, but I prefer it because the director wasn’t focused on how it would lead to the next installment. I empathized with all the characters and I wanted to see them succeed.
When a movie can give a talking tree one of the most heroic moments of an entire franchise, then it’s a movie that needs all the praise it can get.
Guardians of the Galaxy (dir: James Gunn)
Gunn said his Guardians were the Rolling Stones to the Avengers’ Beatles. The Avengers set the standard, but the Guardians picked up where they left off and went in a tougher, more rebellious direction. The film wasn’t afraid to make fun of itself and other Marvel movies. It was the antidote I needed to Marvel movies that I cared less and less about. If Marvel can take more risks like this, then maybe I will become as big a fan as everyone else.
Finally, here is my list of the Best Films of the 2010s. I usually don’t rank films but this time, I feel obligated to do so. This order doesn’t necessarily represent which films I’ve rewatched the most or which one I think the most people will agree with. Instead, my ranking is based on the movies I think made the biggest impact of the last decade and how likely I believe they’ll be discussed for decades to come.
10.) The directors that guided the 1990s indie film boom are all middle aged now. Some of them (like Kevin Smith) have fallen out of favor with movie fans. Others are in a position that must feel very unusual to them. They are now part of the old guard that they fought against and toppled. There are those like Danny Boyle who are focused now on making the most crowd pleasing films they can. Sam Mendes has directed not one, but two Bond films. I could never have imagined I’d live in a time when I could unironically type, “yep. The guy who made American Beauty also brought Blofeld back.”
And then there are a few that kept above it. They continued exactly as they always have, just a little older and a lot wiser.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a great example of that latter elite group, but while The Master, The Phantom Thread, and Inherent Vice great, I still find myself going back to his earlier films. The latter films still take risks, but for reasons I can’t explain, they don’t carry the same impact for me. Maybe it’s because Anderson used to utterly shatter every taboo put in front of him, while his later films show a more conservative approach.
And then there’s my number ten pick.
This director made what was probably the most influential film of the 1990s. He could have quit then and there and he would still be revered. In fact, he’s talking about stopping in a few years. Still, even if he wanted to make films until he died, he could have easily made endless clones of his first two films and everyone would have been happy. After all, by 2000 his name was an adjective in film lexicon.
He didn’t do that. Instead, he delved even further into the genres he loved as an adolescent and dusted off creaky genres like the kung fu film, the Spaghetti Western, and Euro War movies to create the two films he made before this one. And the result was critical success and Oscar wins.
Then, in 2012, he released his only pure western. He set it in the antebellum south and the film featured some of the most violent shootouts of the decade. But that didn’t dull its impact. If anything, I found myself enjoying it far more than Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Yes, the institution of slavery is one the darkest things in the nation’s history and we still haven’t moved passed it. But by taking a B-movie approach to the material, Tarantino left nothing ambiguous. The slave masters are unquestionably the chilling villains. The titular freed slave turned bounty hunter is destined to destroy those who harmed him. The slaves are meant to do cruel, unspeakable things that were never in any history textbook but show how white people viewed them. And Tarantino was kind enough to give us a happy ending.
Django Unchained (dir: Quentin Tarantino)
Some people, like Spike Lee, criticized Tarantino for turning the institution of slavery into an action spectacle. I understand why he said that. But in doing so, Lee forgot one of the most fundamental things that makes movies great – the emotional experience. 12 Years a Slave was absolutely more accurate from a historical point of view. But Unchained is more satisfying.
Django was also criticized for focusing more on Dr. Schultz than the titular freed slave turned bounty hunter. But that’s missing the point. Schultz is a man who believes anyone can be reasoned with and simply showing that you’re smarter than another person is good enough to win the fight. We know now that’s not the case. Trying to complicate a fight with unnecessary details is pointless. Django didn’t hatch a complicated plan to save his wife. He went in, saved her, and destroyed those who would harm her. In the past few years, people have been debating whether or not it’s morally right to punch a Nazi. They’re falling into the same trap Dr. Schultz fell into. I have a feeling Django Unchained is going to be remembered more fondly as more people understand its message.
9.) Martin Scorsese (I’ve already spoiled the pick, but I’ll press on) has become a surprisingly contentious figure in pop culture. He’s not being criticized for the films he’s made. He’s being mocked because he doesn’t like the same films the average younger fan likes.
I’m not going to comment any further on his quotes regarding Marvel movies. What I will say is that, when you’re not only one of the more lauded filmmakers of your generation but also someone who has done more to promote film preservation and world cinema than anyone else, you’ve earned the right to talk about what cinema is.
His complaint was that the average popular blockbuster, even if it’s skillfully made, doesn’t try to include complex characters or deal with complex things. Everyone is entitled to their opinion if they can back that opinion up with evidence, but his statement made me wonder what a Martin Scorsese superhero movie would look like. Not a Superman adaptation that just happens to be directed by Martin Scorsese, but a film in which Scorsese tackles those people who live a life that seems like a complete fantasy to the rest of us and who believe themselves to be beyond human. They’re surrounded by the most attractive people on the planet, anything they want they can get, and they’re the ones who seemingly define the rules for the world around them – until the world moves on.
Then I realized such a film already exists.
Scorsese’s Goodfellas is one of the greatest films of all time. It depicts a blue collar villain who believes he’s merely taking a few shortcuts to get the life he deserves – a life that includes a beautiful wife, more money than he can spend, and a network of people who can protect him from anything. It doesn’t matter if he has to burn down a failing restaurant or help his friends hide the body of a man they murdered. What matters is the doors that he sees open in front of him and that he gets people to carry his mother’s groceries “out of respect.”
This film is virtually a remake of Goodfellas from a thematic standpoint. Yet the gangsters of Goodfellas had become mainstream in their actions. Pop culture romanticizes people like Henry Hill (and his peers like Tony Montana) for finding the “good life.” It completely misses the point of Hill’s story, but Scorsese realized that he helped romanticize those stories.
So he found a new Scorsese villain working as a stockbroker in New York City. Here again was a man who had everything, but was happy to destroy himself and found out the hard way that the rules still apply to him.
The Wolf of Wall Street (dir: Martin Scorsese)
Jordan Belfort was the perfect villain of the 2010s. Although he was indicted nine years before the market collapse, his story is the perfect story to explain it. He was a talented man who had unquestionable skills as a salesman. Yet he wanted to be something beyond human and he worked very hard to attempt to reach that goal. And when he achieved it – having a giant home, millions of dollars in the bank, and a supermodel partner who everyone envied – he was more content with destroying himself with drugs. And that’s even before he’s arrested by the FBI. I put The Big Short in my honorable mentions because I believe it’s a great exploration of the 2008 financial crisis. But Wolf of Wall Street is a better one because it explored the mindset that existed among the people who caused it. They wanted to be above the “riff raff” – but in the end, they found out the hard way that’s impossible.
8.) Independent studio A24 was to the 2010s what Miramax was to the 1990s. (Hopefully the people in charge at A24 have a much cleaner moral character than the Weinsteins.) It became shorthand for Oscar bait films. They haven’t quite had a breakout hit yet, but looking through their filmography is really a shorthand list for the best of the best. Movies like Ex Machina, Midsommar, The Witch, and The Lobster would have been treated like dumb genre films by any other studio. When A24 got involved, they didn’t let the filmmakers insult their audience. (I don’t know what happened with Tusk. Can’t be lucky every time, I suppose.)
But they didn’t just make smart genre films. They also had some of the most effective dramas of the decade. Take my number eight pick. It’s not only a film about gay romance, which is still a taboo for far too many people. It’s a film that makes Stanley Kubrick’s three act structure seem reserved. Each act is a seemingly disconnected short film. The segments would have done well on their own, but the shifts in tone and in the characters would be jarring in another film.
But this movie has a point to it all. It offers us a glimpse into a man who most people would never pay attention to. As an adult, he’s a convicted felon who is seemingly determined to fit every possible stereotype people have of drug dealers.
But as a child, he’s someone who still seemingly had a lot of hope in his life. There were people who cared about him and wanted to give him a chance. The tragedy comes from the other people, including his mother, who seemingly know he’s gay and have decided that’s why no effort should be put into raising him. He deserves to be bullied as well.
The film ends on a note of hope, as the man – who has gone by three different names at different stages in his life – finally becomes comfortable with who he is. And he’s with someone who will love him. This decade certainly isn’t ending on a high note, but despite gay people, minorities, and those living in poverty are still facing the same challenges we should have resolved by now, there’s hope at the end of the journey.
Moonlight (dir: Barry Jenkins)
Even though Chiron is the main character, I felt a connection with Mahershala Ali’s Juan. He was the person who wanted to correct his mistakes through Chiron and believed raising him would help him avoid his fate. And, indeed, he’s one of the few that treats him with kindness. But it may be too late to make amends. Juan is implied to be the reason why Chiron is growing up in a broken home. (He’s the person who sold crack to Chiron’s mother.) And besides, Chiron eventually follows Juan’s path. Juan disappears after the first act, but his presence is still felt with the actions that lead Chiron into the diner, where he can finally be exactly who he really is. Juan is one of the most fascinating characters of the last decade, and the reason behind that is because the film is smart enough to let us witness the complete impact he had on one man – even if it wasn’t always positive.
7.) As I get older, I find myself finding more enjoyment from nonfiction. I know that it’s a sign that I’m going to end up as an old man who endlessly talks about this nice article he just read about “the war.” But honestly, when you’re young the world is simultaneously very open but very limited. You dream of going out and conquering it, but you have no idea what there actually is to conquer.
Besides, real life is far, far stranger than fiction. Listen to any true crime podcast and you’ll hear about people who make Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill seem like a community organizer. Works of fiction only give us a brief glimpse into people’s lives and once we close the book or once the credits role, they may as well not exist.
In news articles and in documentaries, we know the story keeps going. And nothing captures that idea more than my number seven pick. It was a documentary about one of the most sensational events of the late 20th century. There was no one who witnessed it that didn’t have an opinion on the man and no one who didn’t try to understand what it all meant when he was seemingly exonerated despite the overwhelming evidence he’d committed a brutal crime.
I was six years old when this all happened. I don’t remember too much about the trial, but I do remember asking my Mom why the news didn’t show more pictures of his wife. I also had no idea who he was or why the accusations against him would be considered so shocking. This film gave me that perspective I was missing. And it covered how the story didn’t end when 100 million people heard him declared “not guilty” in October 1995. The ramifications of those two words lasted much, much longer.
O.J. Made in America (dir: Ezra Edelman)
I am not a big sports fan so hearing that ESPN was doing a “30 for 30” documentary on Simpson didn’t interest me. I didn’t think it would tell me anything new.
I was wrong. The film carefully explains what O.J. symbolized to a lot of people and why his murder trial dominated our entire culture. And more than that, it addresses some of the same issues that we’re still facing today about black people and the justice system. Simpson isn’t treated with any sympathy – during the last episode, he’s played as a complete joke and a has been even without the murder trial. But his story has something very important to say about us as a society, and Ezra Edelman found it.
6.) The movies of the 2010s were seemingly made up of two things – first, a whole bunch of remakes/reboots/sequels to ensure brand recognition. The second thing was that every snobby elitist would utterly despise mainstream remakes/reboots/sequels and laugh at those who paid full price to see them.
Don’t get me wrong – there were a ton of bad reboots in the 2010s. And thanks to this attitude, studios believed they didn’t have to put any effort artistically when it came to blockbusters.
Fortunately, there were a few directors who knew that was wrong.
This film had no right to be as great as it is. But then again, the original trilogy had no right to have the enormous impact on action films and video games it did. Everyone involved was determined to make the best film possible. And when they revisited the franchise after 31 years, their new film had no right to not only win the most Oscars that year, but to be as incredible as anything they’ve done.
The original trilogy is an homage to dead mainstream genres, including westerns and road movies. The titular character was essentially a ronin. They were never the driving force of the story and their presence was almost irrelevant. What mattered was the societies and people they encountered.
Original, the films in the franchise were about nuclear war and the environmental effects our dependence on oil was having to our society. This film was different. It not only attacked demagogues, but it addressed how they view people as commodities. The most important message of the film is how authoritarians aren’t evil out of sadistic tendencies. It’s deeper than that. They believe they are masterminds that can fix everything wrong. So if they have to curtail speech or target a group of people as a scapegoat – it’s not because they want to be evil. It’s just that’s the only possible solution. It has to be, because they’re the ones who came up with it and only they can fix everything. They don’t view themselves as sadists because they don’t view everyone around them as people. So, if they want to hold young women hostage for breeding purposes, it’s because that’s why they believe women exist.
Besides, it’s one of the greatest action films ever made with stunts and sequences that are some of the most incredible action sequences I’ve seen.
Mad Max: Fury Road (dir: George Miller)
The folks at the AV Club recently named this film the best of the 2010s. It seemed like an odd choice on a list that labelled P.T. Anderson’s The Master as the second best film of the decade. But there’s a logic to that. The decade was defined by safer bets. No one needed a new Mad Max and, at best, the treatment it would get is a shrug and a “Well, Road Warrior was better.” But director George Miller was determined to outdo the original trilogy. Fury Road should a guide to blockbuster filmmakers and remind them you can respect your audience and, better yet, you can respect yourself when you make $100 million dollar movies about a post apocalypse world. Compare it to Avatar and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
5.) Horror is an incredibly difficult genre to get exactly right. I’ve very rarely been scared by a movie. They are either too fantastical and or too dependent on jump scares. For example, if demons are real and can possess a little girls, then doesn’t that mean God definitively exists? It’s hard to be scared by The Exorcist as I’m contemplating what the implications are. Also, if you’ve seen Jason Voorhees stab one camp counselor, you’ve seen it 100 times. By the end of that franchise, Friday the 13th was more like a carnival show where audiences were being asked to give the performing geek something new to swallow. It may be interesting what they’ll come up with, but it’s not scary.
The scariest films are those that can conceivably take place in our reality. They fill us with a certain level of dread, because as we leave the theater, we don’t know whether or not there’s someone waiting to abduct us outside. But fear doesn’t have to come from that nightmare scenario. We can just as easily get scared by a trip to go meet our partner’s family for the first time or by seeing a person act in a way that isn’t quite normal for reasons we can’t put our fingers on.
This film is a touch fantastical but it’s grounded in those very real human fears. I highly doubt the film is honestly suggesting we should be scared of evil cabals of brain surgeons. But it does capture the feeling when we see something that doesn’t quite make sense and the anxious feelings we get when someone is paying a little too much attention to us.
There are horror directors that can’t that tension right after decades of directing. This first time director not only did it but took the material to the next level. He wanted to explore what evil is and how racism can still work just beneath the surface of polite society. The film doesn’t even label its villains as explicitly evil. Their exteriors are polite and comforting. But that doesn’t change who they are underneath that attractive exterior.
I can’t think of a better allegory for present day America.
Get Out (dir: Jordan Peele)
There’s absolutely no reason this should have worked. Jordan Peele had been a (highly successful) comedian for years. Maybe it was that experience that influenced this film. Chris is treated with respect by the white family he goes to visit. But ultimately they just want to exploit his talents and destroy his humanity. I can imagine Peele felt the same things Dave Chappelle felt as white audiences quoted from his sketches while completely missing the point he was trying to make. Get Out manages not just to be an effective statement against the racism so-called “progressives” still have. It’s an exploration of Peele’s own feelings about being a black entertainer in a white dominated industry.
4.) This is another A24 entry that is one of the most emotionally touching dramas of the decade – and it wasn’t nearly as lauded as much as it should have been.
The film has an almost documentary feel to it. None of the actors – with one exception – were professionals and the film was clearly shot on location. That lends a credence to the film and made me half remember some vague story I saw on the news.
But the film also presents a side of an important story we usually don’t see. Other filmmakers have talked about the financial crisis and the growing income inequality in this country. As I’m writing this, we have a slew of politicians running for president next year who have pledged to do something about it. But the stories and focus usually revolves around the rich. In Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort got his and then proceeded to kick the ladder away to prevent anyone from bringing him down. And even after he’s caught, he’s not nearly punished enough.
But what about the people left at the bottom of the ladder? This film takes place in the shadows of one of the most famous tourist attractions in the nation. But we never see it until the end. Despite it being so close, the park seems like a fantasy world to the characters in the movie. The kids spend their days spitting on cars and annoying the manager of the motel they live. They’re not necessarily content but there are echoes of Huckleberry Finn’s life in their lives. They find amusement and distraction wherever they can.
But also like Finn, the adults around them are trying their best to hide their kids from the reality of their lives. The main characters mother exchanges sex for money, steals from tourists, takes food from diners, and commits multiple acts of fraud. But she was also very sympathetic. Yes, she’s guilty of multiple crimes, but all she were trying to do was raise her child and prevent them from ever finding out exactly why she has to lock her kid in the bathroom when a john comes over.
But of course that illusion comes crashing down, and when it does, it’s heartbreaking.
The Florida Project (dir: Sean Baker)
One of the best scenes in the film has the motel manager (Willem Dafoe) confronting a man who accuses Halley (the mother of six year old Mooney, the main character) of stealing their “magic bands” for Disney World. Dafoe tells him he’d be happy to call the deputies so the tourist can file a police report, but then presses him on what he was doing with Halley so late at night. Dafoe is the individual who is trying to keep the blinders on for the kids. His motel becomes Mooney and Halley’s version of The Florida Project – a place that’s supposed to be happy and comforting where kids can play all day. Of course this illusion is silly, but we want Mooney to hold onto it for as long as possible. And it made me think about the illusions we’ve all used to distract ourselves from what we’re facing today (like the ones Disney creates) – and how those illusions are quickly crumbling.
3.) This was a controversial film when it was released. I remember a bunch of theaters taping signs to their box office windows warning the audience that this wouldn’t be a film that was easy to understand. It got a lot of critical praise but was sharply divisive to audiences. Many thought it was a puzzle that needed to be solved.
I hate the idea of films being puzzles and trying to “solve” this movie isn’t what anyone needs to do. Although the film does tackle some big philosophical questions about humanity’s place in the universe and our purpose on earth, it’s not meant to spell out what the meaning of life is. Rather, it’s encouraging people to make their own meaning and revealing the best way to do so.
The film’s director spent 33 years working on this film in one form or another. In the middle of writing the script, he disappeared from public view and didn’t direct a film again for 20 years. Something about the concept seemed to frighten him.
But the movie was eventually completed and when it was released, there hadn’t been anything like it since Stanley Kubrick passed away. It was simultaneously deep and analytical, but also surprisingly moving. In anyone else’s hands, this would seem hopelessly pretentious. But for me, the film carries the weight of an important event and I don’t know if I’ll ever see something quite like this again in my lifetime. Stanley Kubrick once said, “If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” This movie proves it.
Tree of Life (dir: Terrence Malick)
There was a lot of discussion about the religious message writer and director Terrence Malick wanted to convey. The unusual cinematography suggest God looking down on creation. But I don’t think that his film is told from God’s point of view (why would God wonder about the mystery of creation?) nor do I believe it’s meant to be a retelling of the book of Job. I believe the film is told from the point of view of a man who has committed suicide and having his life flash before his eyes. At the end, he’s able to get the answers about the universe, he discovers the answers were right in front of him all along.
There’s this annoying habit for people on a certain end of the political spectrum to scoff at the concept of emotions. I don’t know why. We’re the only species on the planet that not only possess the ability to love but can question what love means. Tree of Life is about that unique capability humanity possesses. And Malick was the only director talented enough to explore it.
2.) I’ve mentioned before how one of the biggest influences on me wasn’t necessarily critical reviews or even certain directors. What did it for me was visiting websites like Corona’s Coming Attractions and reading about the films that were in development. That’s how I started figuring out who directors were and how their involvement could potentially change a movie.
I came across the announcement of this movie back in the day when Corona’s was still very important to me. I thought that it would be abandoned and never officially released. I’d forgotten about it completely until a trailer was released. Everyone, from what I remembered, treated the news with a great, big, “Huh?: It seemed impossible – a film covering the youth and adolescence of a single character in real time.
By the time it came out, the director had flirted with mainstream success but hadn’t really had a critical and commercial hit in a long time. This was seemingly a vanity project that had to be seen even if it was a disaster. I expected it to be an indie-Cimino story. The director’s skill couldn’t match his ambition and the result would be one of the greatest, but most infamous, curiosities of all time.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Not only is this movie a perfect time capsule of the years it covers (I’m nine years older than the main character so I remembered everything it showed perfectly) but it allowed director Richard Linklater to cross multiple genres. This is a film that’s simultaneously a comedy, a dramatic coming of age story, an exploration of substance abuse on a family, and a fascinating portrayal of a single mother. But it also captures what human lives are really like.
Films follow a formula and most audiences can predict call backs to characters and scenes and predict how the story will end. That doesn’t happen in this movie. Like in life, some things are just dropped and forgotten about. People who were an important part of our lives are not seen again after a few years. People move around and change careers, sometimes in ways we don’t expect. And no one is sure how their story will end.
I can’t think of another work of fiction does tells the full story of a person’s life quite as well as my number two pick.
Boyhood (dir: Richard Linklater)
As a kid, Mason can only watch the world around him and doesn’t logically grasp why his parents aren’t together and how his mother Olivia is forming a new relationship with another man. But we can still feel what Mason emotionally feels – it’s the same confusion and helplessness every child in that situation feels. As he gets older, we feel proud of Mason asserting himself – but also have concerns for his future. In just two hours, Mason becomes a reflection of all of us watching his story. Linklater’s script perfectly captures those defining moments we all face in life – going from a child to a new college student with every door opening up for us, our future finally in our control.
Linklater apparently wants to do this again with a Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along. And it was treated the way I initially thought of Boyhood – there’s no chance this will succeed. But maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt.
1.) I need to clarify something before I reveal my number one pick of the decade.
I don’t necessarily think this is the most creative, most ambitious, or technically best made film of the decade – Boyhood would probably get that honor.
Instead, I picked it because it perfectly represents the decade and the issues we’re facing but still haven’t worked out yet. At the start of this countdown, I discussed how full of hope we were about the future in 2010, even as we were climbing from a disaster. We now had the technology that could unite us and let everyone share their ideas. Social media was treated as the biggest thing since electricity.
But we know now that the exact opposite happened. Now we’re trying to figure out how to get social media under control to prevent bad actors from causing our destruction.
This was the first film to raise its hand and say, “You know what? Maybe we should be a little more careful and maybe the people who invented these platforms don’t have the best intentions in mind.” What amazes me is how poignant the film gets as time goes by. The biographical subject is well on his way to becoming public enemy number one and the subject of scorn rather than praise.
Is it his fault? Not necessarily – there’s a reason people use social media and he was responding to a demand. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that social media panders to our own worst desires and allows a certain group to take pleasure in other people’s pain. The movie’s final line (“You’re not an asshole. You’re just trying so hard to be.”) no longer just applies to the creator of Facebook. It applies to everyone who’s ever mocked someone for “being triggered” and use their timelines as a way to shut out anything that challenges their existing beliefs.
The film tried to warn us. Maybe if we’d listened a little harder, things would be different now.
The Social Network (dir: David Fincher)
The film doesn’t treat Mark Zuckerberg as an outright villain. He’s treated as more of a Victor Frankenstein character – someone who is obsessed with what they can do but never takes the opportunity to question whether they should. This isn’t his fate at the end of the movie (although he’s utterly alone and trying to reach out unsuccessfully to his ex girlfriend on the platform he made, left wondering why she won’t accept his friend request). But that’s certainly happening now. We also never learn about Zuckerberg’s view of humanity in the film. Does he believe people are inherently bad and he can use that to his advantage? Possibly. But more likely he never bothered to ask himself what he thinks of human nature. All he cared about was what he could do and how his creation would garner him respect.
The story kept going long after the credits ended, and that real story feels exactly like the third act of an extended version of The Social Network. Zuckerberg is rich, successful, but ultimately despised by the public he desperately wants to love him. His conflict in the movie with Eduardo Saverin has spilled out into the open as Congress calls for Facebook to be regulated and confront him about what he’s unleashed on the world. The film was asking Zuckerberg, “what benefit is there for a man to sell his soul for bragging rights?” Maybe it’s time we take a break from our profiles answer that question for ourselves.