The 10 Best Films of the Decade

6:15 AM 12/6/2019

by Todd McCarthy

The Hollywood Reporter chief film critic's picks include David Fincher's "Facebook movie," Olivier Assayas' five-hour-plus international terrorism epic, a period drama starring a radiant Saoirse Ronan and an eye-opening Israeli doc.

Brooklyn_Carlos_Inside Llewyn Davis_Split - Photofest - H 2019
Fox Searchlight Pictures/Photofest; Sundance Channel/Photofest; CBS Films/Photofest

Ranging over the candidates that might have a shot at making my list for ten best films of the soon expiring decade, it’s strange to notice how some of them remain rooted in our time, very much of the moment, while others already feel like products of a past era altogether. 

The great films released between 2010 and this year are indeed a supremely eclectic lot, from socially charged dramas and exquisitely rendered period pieces to eccentric romances and movies that incisively reflect political movements of their times. They were made in different parts of the world and are emphatically auteurist works, mostly — if not quite all — the progeny of well-known filmmakers asserting themselves at what currently looks like the top of their powers. It’s likely that these films will mature in different ways, with some aging well and others, considered at a distance of another decade or two, forcing critics of the future to wonder what we ever saw in them. 

On top of that, the way content is consumed is changing so quickly that it’s impossible to guess what "films" will mean to viewers a decade or three hence — or if what we now call “films” will even still exist, as opposed to something more sweepingly called image-making or screen product. 

The 10 movies that made my list all seized me one way or the other when I first saw them, the ones I’ve seen again have only grown in stature with re-viewing and, most importantly, they all resonate in major ways when I think about them.

  • 1. 'Carlos' (2010)

    Carlos was to international terrorism what The Godfather was to 20th century American criminality. A trenchant, deep-dish immersion in the life of notorious international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Olivier Assayas’ far-ranging epic runs, in its full version, five and a half hours, is carried magnificently by Edgar Ramirez, and never lets down for a second. 

  • 2. 'The Social Network' (2010)

    This was made just a decade ago but, because writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher (along with star Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg) so sharply document the birth of Facebook in 2003, and so much has happened in the interim, what it depicts is vastly amusing and can be taken so easily for granted as an event belonging to a generation past. 

  • 3. 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013)

    A surrealistic, darkly hilarious portrait of a guy (played by Oscar Isaac) who might have become Bob Dylan but didn’t because he was a parasitic schmuck — and only moderately talented. The Coen brothers, also from Minnesota, might have wanted to make a film about Dylan, but instead brilliantly fashioned a character who, unlike their hero, lacked the skill to reinvent himself in Greenwich Village.

  • 4. 'Only Lovers Left Alive' (2014)

    A potentially immortal love story, literally so, as the two leads (played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) are vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s lovely ode to monogamous devotion, artistic refinement and hipsterism in its most evolved form. The central pair are endearingly presented as an endangered species, and everything about the film suggests a very advanced example of highly specific connoisseurship. 

  • 5. 'The Handmaiden' (2016)

    This film arguably deserves multiple prizes as the most ingeniously plotted, startlingly detailed and devilishly erotic thriller of the decade. Korean director Park Chan-wook transformed a British novel into a tale of insidious tumescence, sexual and dramatic, while working up a degree of tension that can honestly be called breathtaking. Style and content are immaculately matched.

  • 6. 'Leviathan' (2014)

    A film that comprehensively strips off one corrupt layer of Putin’s Russia after another, from its skin to the marrow of its bones. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s corrosive, grandly conceived allegory is the kind of movie rarely made in the West, where targets of scorn are nearly always gleefully acknowledged. This arthouse heavyweight is breathtaking in its skill, audacity and cumulative power.

  • 7. 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' (2019)

    It may not be Quentin Tarantino’s best film, nor the one most emblematic of his talents. But it is the one I love the most, and more each time I see it — perhaps because the film loves its main characters and milieu so much that it wills a happy ending that cinema can provide when real life could not. It’s a wonder and a marvel in every respect.

  • 8. 'Brooklyn' (2015)

    John Crowley’s drama stands apart from the other films on this list as it is adapted from a novel, conventionally plotted, old-fashioned in its cultural attitudes and observant of audience desires. It is also timeless and could not be more perfect in its acute understanding of its central Irish immigrant character (played by Saoirse Ronan) washing up upon New York shores in 1951. Its specifics irresistibly become universal, and it’s the most moving film I’ve seen in a decade.

  • 9. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015)

    It won immediate pardon from the 40-year-old franchise’s army of starving fans due to the addictively toxic adrenaline produced by George Miller’s ferociously imaginative continuation of the Mad Max saga, starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. The last word in maniacal anarchism and flat-out, kick-ass, drive-‘til-you-drop relentlessness, this insane chase across an endless desert represents the apotheosis of action cinema.

  • 10. 'The Gatekeepers' (2012)

    A token great documentary for a decade brimming with them, as well as a gesture meant to signal the vast strides forward in this field during the current century. Dror Moreh’s startling film brilliantly reveals the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security, spotlighting its excellence and ironies while noting that it is probably doomed to fail in the long run.