Another decade, another dollar – billions and billions of dollars, that is, spent on both making and watching films. Early 2010 saw Avatar clamber to the first-ever $2 billion gross, becoming the biggest movie of all time; shortly before the end of the decade, Avengers: Endgame toppled it.
If a typical decade-in-culture is defined less by arbitrary calendar restrictions than by looser trends, the 2010s could, curiously, be cleaved right in two: first the rise of social media, smart tech and the paid-off promises of a digital revolution; then, the hangover, with all its data mining, far-right fake news, and what may prove our final cough before the official tip into irreversible climate disaster.
Nevertheless, cinema has continued to flourish, in numerous ways; at the same time as the Disney-Marvel-Fox machine has reflected, accelerated and in some ways caused this decline into chaos, the films themselves have in their own ways been startlingly inventive. And that’s just the big Hollywood blockbusters. The last 10 years have also seen a slew of genuinely thoughtful mid-range, middlebrow productions (such are the natural cumulative developments in film form that even the stuffy unimaginative filler is often at least intriguingly made), while worldwide independent sectors have pushed ever-forward in style and approach, in digital filmmaking, and means of distribution: all of which leading to a specific boom in documentary visibility.
All of this is reflected in our Top 100 Films of the Decade, which doesn’t throw up a slew of lesser-known diamonds so much as it confirms, as democratically as possible, what the visible classics of the last 10 years (may) have turned out to be. Each film earned its place on this list through organic aggregate vote totals and unseen points systems. In that sense, what we’ve compiled is an experiment in and reflection of sheer audience fandom for the 2010s: the films that’ve broken through, made a splash, moved people, and even annoyed people. Each voter had their own trends: some of us aggressively social realist, some packed with hard sci-fi, some favouring a lot of fantasy and horror – and some cramming in as many documentaries as possible, or expressing a love of ‘70s-style pulpy dude-thrillers. What we’ve ended up with goes perfectly down the middle, totally un-curated – and if this is what popular cinema’s boiled down to this decade, it’s probably true to say that we’ve never had it so good.
One of the great gifts of cinema in the 2010s was to see the previously hermetic Terrence Malick (his first four films were made over a colossal 30-year span) find a sudden, late-life rush of productivity. If you include A Hidden Life, Malick directed a prodigious six films this decade, and though his recent style has made him ever more polarising, his uncompromising originality is surely to be applauded. Knight of Cups was his most underrated film – an existential tour de force as one man battles to restore his soul amid Los Angeles’ arousing canvas of temptations. —Patrick Nabarro
Brie Larson’s career-making performance is likely what Room is remembered for. But, as deserving of the awards and plaudits as it is, it’s only one part of what makes the whole so effective. Few films combine a horrifically tense escape from abuse with a meditative reflection on survival. Even fewer can balance and unite two such different halves so effectively. Room not only teases unnervingly good work from its child star, Jacob Tremblay, but uses the naivety and tenacity of childhood to maintain a much-needed note of optimism in a hellish premise. And not a cloying, wide-eyed cliché in sight. —Alex Goldstein
Quentin Tarantino’s take on the western genre is about as tongue-in-cheek as they come. Easily the director’s funniest film, Django Unchained delights in the unexpected hilarity of brutality: from Klan meetings to maniacal plantation owners. Leonardo DiCaprio has rarely been better in his unhinged villain role, while Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz both provide unforgettable turns. Prioritising style and homage, Django blends genres with expert finesse, the result being one of the best shootout sequences in recent memory. Watch out for excellent sound design and a pitch-perfect soundtrack, as well as trademark nuggets of dialogue gold. —Dan Sareen
Force Majeure is part drama, part social study, and part elongated skit, showcasing wry Nordic humour. The central conceit alone is both beautifully farcical and embarrassingly realistic: upon seeing a supposed avalanche hurtling towards his ski chalet, a father instinctively saves himself rather than protect his family. The rest of the film ripples outwards from this key moment, with unsurprising tensions arising from the family’s dissenting memories of the event. The characters are genuine and the dialogue is on-point; moreover, it’s a fine example of accessible non-English language cinema, both relatable and funny. Just don’t attempt to recreate the film’s central debate in your own living room. —Jessamy Queree
Sticking to her forte of focusing on the working classes and using non-professional actors (Sasha Lane was approached on a beach), Andrea Arnold’s foray into America feels as real as her earlier British films. Robbie Ryan’s camera follows the teenagers as if documenting a tour, using closeups and capturing material that feels unscripted to create an unforced, natural closeness. Arnold’s presentation of the rich and poor feels as if we’re watching with an unedited eye – we view the gap between classes along with the wild and understanding teens, presenting the lowest American classes in a cycle of need and addiction. —Steph Watts
Unlike any other psychological thriller in the genre, Shutter Island celebrates the unexpected. The inner workings of the human mind can surprise even the beholder, and show the grim reality that desperation sometimes does not hold the answer. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), our protagonist and unreliable narrator, lures the audience into a desperate plight to solve a missing-persons case in a remote asylum. Throughout the film we are compelled to believe him, and we are invested in his intensity of feeling, all while we are found glazing over many small, cleverly placed moments that don’t quite fit. These elements added to the final twist at the end makes for a stunning example of Scorsese’s work, and is a must-see for all mystery film lovers! —Alice Rooney
The Souvenir was bafflingly dismissed by some short-sighted filmgoers as posh people doing posh things. Sure, but the details are so much more! Joanna Hogg’s cine-memoir is an act of sheer bravery, depicting an ’80s romance with a heroin-addled older man with the kind of open vulnerability entirely rare in the British establishment cinema. Thatcher, the Troubles, and HIV all lurk in the background as we plummet through Hogg’s personal history as though time travellers, unable to stop or change what we can already see coming. Those final shots not only reveal that we are living within Julie’s enacted memory, but find her in medias res as she asks herself “what now?… ” —Ben Flanagan
How do you talk about Swiss Army Man in 100 words? How do you talk about Swiss Army Man at all? It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous: Daniel Radcliffe plays a talking, farting corpse with a magical erection, among other talents. Watching any scene out of context, it plays like a mad parody of a Sundance-approved indie, where Paul Dano embarks on a twee, a cappella-scored journey of self-discovery with the aforementioned farting boner corpse. But please, if you haven’t already, just watch the whole beautiful, poignant, absurd thing. At least then you’ll know what the hell it is. —Rory Steabler
In 2014, the tale of grieving ex-assassin Keanu Reeves slaughtering 70-odd people after gangsters murder his puppy somehow resonated with many of us. Equal parts brutal and balletic, the film’s tightly choreographed fight scenes were often performed by Reeves himself, who underwent months of training to fully embody the titular badass. Immersing audiences in the quasi-mythical criminal underworld of the Continental hotel, John Wick was a shot in the arm for an increasingly generic action genre. On a budget of just $20-$30 million, writer Derek Kolstad and stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski delivered one of the decade’s most kinetic action flicks, launching a franchise and kickstarting the Keanaissance in the process. —Katy Moon
Making light work of a stat-heavy book about building a baseball team on a budget, transforming this accounting story into a Hollywood smash, Bennett Miller, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian arguably delivered career bests with 2011’s Moneyball. Featuring a hall-of-fame Brad Pitt performance – an understated, personable marvel – the film also heralded Jonah Hill’s welcome pivot into prestige dramatic acting, and yielded both actors Oscar nods. With such source material – all numbers and analytics – the film could’ve ended up playing clinically; but imbued with such heart and warmth, Moneyball is anything but, now standing as one of the definitive sports movies. —Thom Denson
No wonder it took Snowpiercer so long to get a proper release in the UK (though many would have given their right arm for one). Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut is a hard film to pin down: a dissection of authoritarian regimes and the lengths to which they go in order to retain power, intercut with visceral action scenes that would make John Wick feel queasy. Choosing Chris “Captain America” Evans to play the flawed revolutionary leader Curtis is a masterstroke in subversive casting, but he’s nearly upstaged by the magnificent Tilda Swinton, giving career-best work as Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ made flesh. —Phil W. Bayles
Great action movies require great action, and very little else. The Raid, therefore, may be the best action movie ever made. The wafer-thin plot (cops fighting their way to the top of a tower block full of criminals) is a perfect delivery mechanism for top-notch violence. Bones crunch against concrete and heads are smashed through tiles over the course of an almost unbroken onslaught of combat, choreographed by stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian using Indonesian martial art pencak silat. There were plenty of wince-inducing, action-driven beat-‘em-ups this decade, but The Raid remains the gold standard for quality and brutality. —Rory
Grittier, meaner and more violent than most Marvel comic adaptations, Logan is more neo-noir/western and dysfunctional family drama than archetypal superhero movie, and all the more powerful for it. After all the hit-and-miss Wolverine appearances on screen, director James Mangold finally gets under the (not-so-rapidly healing) skin of its titular character. Yes, there are villains in play, but for old man Logan and an Alzheimer’s-ridden Charles Xavier the real enemy is time. Full of poignant, touching moments and award-worthy performances by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, Logan serves as a fitting finale for this iconic character. —James Andrews
There is something about Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners that is just terrifyingly captivating. Maybe it’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsession and steadily worsening blinking tic, or Hugh Jackman’s brilliant relationship with both rationality and morality as desperation takes hold. Or perhaps it’s Roger Deakins’ cinematography, dredging up invasive feelings of loneliness and regret. Villeneuve’s first English-language film introduced the vast majority of the west to a director equally capable at creating grand-scale images and exploring quiet emotions, switching genres as he pleased. But truly, Villeneuve’s work on Prisoners might be his most focused, making for a film completely unrivalled in the tension it so expertly holds. —Dan
When the Coens revisited Charles Portis’ novel – made famous by the 1969 John Wayne vehicle – the grit was immediately more apparent. Greys, browns, and various mucks replace the technicolour Wild West, and the revenge narrative driving the unlikely alliance of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), Mattie Ross (a 14-year-old, never-better Hailee Steinfeld), and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) gets a sour, combative, thoroughly on-brand reworking. The nastiness, however, feels wholly right. True Grit is one of the decade’s best revisionist Westerns, harbouring no romanticism yet notable respect for the genre. The guts and glory may be replaced by guts and gangrene, but there is an odd beauty to Mattie’s relentlessness and the landscape’s impartiality. —Carmen Paddock
Marielle Heller’s study of forger Lee Israel is a masterclass in keeping the biopic mode fresh: her front-and-centre focus on unlikeable yet lovable characters avoids the box-checking exercise such films can become. Melissa McCarthy turns in a career-best performance as the prickly writer, letting Israel’s vulnerability and reluctant desire for connection leak through her characteristic bluntness. Her scenes with a never-better Richard E. Grant are joyous, undercut only by the weight of years of loneliness made tangible through Heller’s nuanced script. Add in a warmly lit New York City winter and a more good-natured, kind-hearted film about such a scurrilous subject is hard to imagine. —Carmen
It’s the unsaid moments that often carry the greatest humanity and honesty. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke’s extraordinary skill at presenting humans at their most “normal” is one of the great gifts cinema has provided us. In Before Midnight, there is no triumph. The trio’s most vulnerable entry disrupts the joy of its preceding chapters, but completes the Before project’s unflinching window into the soul; these people are bad-tempered, jealous and wonderful. At the film’s – and the trilogy’s – end, Jesse tells Céline: “If you want true love, then this is it.” He’s right. There are no resolutions, zero neat closures, and it’s perfect. —David Brake
Following up from their generational study Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart’s second collaboration went some way to creating a new film grammar for a new anxiety: the ghostliness of online life. Personal Shopper is alienating and empathetic, its stylistic fusses working alongside its star’s naturalist languor to entrap us in a world of feelings that may not even exist. Is the main text a paranoid thriller, a study in grief, a showbiz satire? None of the above: it’s a haunting dissection of our supposed interconnectedness, our tenuous links with the real, the unreal and the hyperreal – both full and bereft of soul. —Calum Baker
Bay Area gentrification has been a fruitful topic over the last few years; Carlos López Estrada’s feature debut, co-written by stars (and Oakland natives) Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, joins this list as a technically accomplished, damning love letter to a rapidly changing, confusing moment in time. While firmly rooted in its place and people, the film is not bound by reality – moments of hilarity and surrealism heighten the outrage, fear, and search for answers resulting when a paroled convict witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed black man. With its polished editing and equally adept comic and dramatic performances, Blindspotting finds both the absurd joy and bone-deep horror of its scenarios. —Carmen
A colourful, swirling mess of scenes, characters, and images, Holy Motors is tied together by a limousine crawling through Paris across a day – or is it a lifetime? Edith Scob is the driver, and she takes Denis Lavant from location to location where he embodies different personas, each with multitudes of drama. The car is a dressing-room where Lavant becomes a begging old lady, a CGI lizard, a bad father, a Chinese gangster, the sewer-dwelling Monsieur Merde – even Kylie Minogue’s song partner. I must be missing some. Cinéma du Look king Leos Carax holds the tangled reins here with supreme control, delivering a sick masterpiece throwing up questions that are part dream and part sci-fi, and laid down the gauntlet for the decade’s arthouse scene. —Ben
Check back over the next five days as we count down towards our Top 20 – and our number one – favourite films of the decade!