The ground is littered with fantastic and fascinating titles that just failed to make our top 100 films of the decade: Margaret, Blade Runner 2049, Foxtrot. Somehow Michael Pearce’s “moody”, empty Ramsay knock-off Beast managed an aggregate total that put it 113th. Overall, across 20 voting writers, exactly 405 different films made the list – from Another Year to We Are the Best!.
You can catch up on what preceded this fourth segment of our top 100 here, here and here; for today’s edition we have entries 40 to 21, featuring some fascinating reflections and parallels – jazz drums, scary capitalism, “good” capitalism, and the deaths of a lot of childhoods. Business as usual, then.
With its beloved cast of characters, and the wit and pathos to match any of Pixar’s finest efforts, Toy Story 3 drew a generation of childhoods to a close with its heart-shattering tale of friendship, honour and the inevitability of change. Its powerful message of what it means to accept loss and move on is made all the more poignant for those who had literally grown up alongside these characters – the one-two punch of seeing them all join hands and share one last look before their apparent doom, then Andy’s final goodbye, is emotionally devastating for kids and adults alike. —Nick Evan-Cook
Birdman didn’t invent the concept of shooting a film in a single take and, in fact, there are a good few sneaky edits tying together this powerful tale of art and delusion. But Emmanuel Lubezki’s flawlessly dynamic camerawork is a character in itself – a silent audience member as fascinated with its subjects as any of the tourists snapping photos of a nearly naked Riggan Thomson as he hurries through Times Square. Michael Keaton is extraordinary as Thomson, his inward uncertainty magnified by a never-ending sequence of mishaps, driven by an unpredictable jazz drum score. If there is truth to the characters that occupy this theatrical industry, it is a gross yet intoxicating verity. —Dan Sareen
Epics have their place, but a meticulously crafted 95 minutes may be cinematic perfection. Lynne Ramsay’s reworking of Jonathan Ames’ novella centres Joaquin Phoenix’s chilling portrayal of a hitman at war with a crime syndicate and his own traumatic memories. The unselfconscious, unglamorous trauma Phoenix conveys in Joe makes him one of the actor’s most technically accomplished roles, conveying an endless, solitary battle against such personal and institutional rot with minimal explanation or dialogue. Additionally, Ramsay’s restrained approach to the violence, deploying its ferocity only when its impact is maximised, creates a sickening tension that resonates long after the ambiguous final shot. —Carmen Paddock
The making of Cloud Atlas is a tale almost as epic as the finished film, with the Wachowskis putting up millions of their own money and production seemingly buoyed by little more than Tom Hanks’ eternal enthusiasm. But the finished result was a film like no other: six stories spanning hundreds of years, woven into a sumptuous tapestry about the cycles of history and the ripple effect of seemingly insignificant actions. Many continue to debate the ethics of the film’s central gimmick – using race, age and gender-bending makeup to give each actor a multitude of roles – but the performances underneath are undeniably powerful, and that’s the true-true. —Phil W. Bayles
No film appeared to better understand the moral precipice that humankind stands on at this specific moment in history than First Reformed. Writer-director Paul Schrader, in a stunning return to relevance, seemed to conceive of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller as a metaphor for contemporary society’s conflicted spiritual conscience. Dramatising a variety of psychological and socio-political themes – grief, serious illness, suicide, corporatisation, and impending environmental catastrophe – Schrader somehow conferred a profound emotion on such a serious and bleak subject matter. The film also capped a decade where Ethan Hawke could rightly lay claim to being one of American cinema’s most varied and compelling of big screen actors. —Patrick Nabarro
In action films, bigger is always better, so there can’t really be any argument that Fallout is the best of the decade. We thought we’d seen it all when Tom Cruise ran along the Burj Khalifa and clung onto the outside of a plane, but Fallout topped them all by aiming for serious spectacle. Director Chris McQuarrie abandoned sensational headline stunts and instead served the story with HALO jumps – filmed by an equally brave DoP (Rob Hardy) – bathroom brawls, and a few acrobatic helicopters. But it was Tom Cruise, not his stunts, who was the real highlight. Finding the most humanity and character we’ve yet seen in Ethan Hunt, this is a model for tired franchises everywhere. —Tom Bond
More and more Hollywood movies are slapping on a veneer of so-called progressivism to appeal to the hot new “young people angry about capitalism” demographic. Sorry to Bother You is not a Hollywood movie, and its anger at the state of the world under white-supremacist patriarchal capitalism runs to its core. Director Boots Riley refuses to talk down to his audience – we know our jobs suck and our landlords are parasites, and so does Sorry to Bother You. The result is a furious and intelligent farce about life in hell, with moments of absurdity only matched by everything around us. —Rory Steabler
A modern take on the traditional musical, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone give career-best performances in this stunning and whimsical story. An Oscar-winning soundtrack forms the basis of La La Land, and from it grows beautifully choreographed set pieces that sweep you off your feet. It’s unashamedly old school, with director Damien Chazelle leaving behind the rawness of Whiplash for old-fashioned romance and a hefty dose of fantasy. The only real break from tradition is the ever-so-slightly heartbreaking ending which sets this apart from so many other romances and shatters its own illusion of perfection. —Louise Burrell
It was Jonathan Glazer’s one and only feature film release of the decade, but what a film! Glazer had always been a master at constructing arresting aesthetic story-worlds as his advertising background and debut film, Sexy Beast, would attest to. But this was something else. It almost defies categorisation. Loosely it depicted a woman alien (literally) to the streets of Glasgow and her lethal seductions of willing young men. On another level though it was a descent into the macabre and subconscious, with some of the most psychologically haunting scenes seen in film all decade. —Patrick
If you ever want to feel disappointed in the filmgoing public, look at the box office for The Nice Guys. Probably the funniest comedy of the decade, with potential to spawn further adventures for its hugely loveable lead duo, and it fell flat in a summer that featured Independence Day: Resurgence. Financial success or no, this is an hilarious noir that never stops trying to make you laugh, all while telling a compelling mystery tale. Gosling and Crowe prove themselves phenomenal comic performers, and Shane Black’s script is a career high for one of the most entertaining working screenwriters. —Jack Blackwell
Relentless from the get-go, the tension in Dunkirk builds to unbearable levels as we see three stories play out on the beach, in the air, and on the sea. Different timeframes mean that each of the stories are cleverly interwoven as we see soldiers trying to flee France, and others trying to rescue them. The ominous score keeps you unsettled throughout; bullets hitting the metalwork of boats and the roar of enemy planes are truly deafening when seen on the big screen. A superb British cast give Dunkirk a truly timeless feel, as Nolan tells the story many know, but in a way not seen before. —Louise
Powered by a surprising and truly astonishing turn from Rosamund Pike, David Fincher’s take on novelist Gillian Flynn’s twisting mystery bestseller marks his second bonafide classic of the decade following The Social Network. Though Pike’s electric performance arguably steals the show, Ben Affleck is also on brilliant form, playing an unravelling husband suspected to be responsible for his wife’s disappearance – before the plot descends into a labyrinthine set of turns. As a director with such a strong filmography, often replete with unspeakable and shocking evils, Gone Girl is perhaps underrated in Fincher’s canon as one of his most despicable pieces of work. —Thom Denson
Still Damien Chazelle’s most thematically coherent film, Whiplash articulately and exhilaratingly examines the relationships between talent and tyranny, perfection and insanity. What begins with a jazz orchestra run by a surprisingly aggressive professor quickly turns into a psychotic game of chicken, as Miles Teller’s prodigious young asshole Andrew Neiman succumbs to the delights of sheer never-ending ambition. Teller’s scene partner is J.K. Simmons, here taking a stock drill-instructor type and moulding a genuinely interesting character: a nightmare shoulder-devil who wrests musical truth and beauty from the most obnoxious places. Weirdly, the questions Chazelle’s taut film explores feel more germane in a #MeToo world than before: to what extent can great creation excuse terrible behaviour? No answer here – just an endless drum solo rolling into the midst of mania. —Calum
You won’t find a better film about growing potatoes on this list than The Martian. Matt Damon was perfectly cast as astronaut Mark Watney – a man who needs to ‘science the shit’ out of everything to stay alive – but this is a one-man show that’s so much bigger than one person. The world in which it takes place is full of people who want to help each other, regardless of nation or creed, and are certain that any problem can be solved as long as we do the math. It’s one of Ridley Scott’s most optimistic films, yet its message feels more urgent than ever as the decade draws to a close. —Phil
A fraught and unsettling drama about grief turned gruesome phantasmagoria – Ari Aster’s Hereditary far transcended its haunted-house marketing. There is a 15-minute stretch nestled in the middle of this that counts among the most emotionally upsetting I’ve ever seen, and that’s before Aster starts bringing in his cleverly selected line of horror tropes. Toni Colette and Alex Wolff keep the madness surprisingly grounded throughout, anchoring events in a psychological reality that increasingly spurts out and everywhere; one of the more indelible scenes plays out in the liminal space between present, past and nightmare-cum-flashback, and is made serious and gripping by the actors’ sheer presence. This can’t however detract from Aster’s exciting achievement, repeated in the more expansive Midsommar: the man knows exactly what to do with a camera, and a shot here involving a girl and a ball shows just how exquisitely cinema can still startle us. —Calum
Named after the working title of Disney’s lavish Orlando resort, The Florida Project shows us the daily struggles of life in society’s margins, just around the corner from the mouse-eared heart of the American empire. Six year-old Moonee and her friends treat their motel home as their own magic kingdom, but underlying it all are precarity and anxiety. Moonee’s mother Halley exhausts herself to preserve her daughter’s childhood, as the forces of capital, bureaucracy and dumb luck conspire to rip them apart. Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite give phenomenal first-time performances, and Willem Dafoe plays the conflicted, ultimately complicit, motel owner. —Rory
It’s rare that a 150-minute film ends and your only thought is ‘I wish that could have been longer’ – but such is the power of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. A toxic masculinity and class resentment-fuelled mystery, it reveals its hand at such a perfect pace that you could spend days in its company. Not only is it thrillingly well constructed and perfectly acted – Steven Yeun is, in particular, a revelation – but Burning is one of very few films this decade with the confidence and intelligence to tackle the modern scourge of ever-connected loneliness, and just how sad 21st-century living can really be. —Jack
A tumultuous relationship between mother and child has never been so witty, heartfelt, and full of character. Saoirse Ronan as Christine McPherson – or ‘Lady Bird’, as she prefers to be called – and Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, display a deeply-felt love that is shown with great hilarity. The characters switch from raging arguments to laughing about a dress in a matter of seconds. Lady Bird, full of teenage angst, adores tugging at her mother’s nerves, to which her mother seems to rise every time. It’s a relationship that is far from perfect, and on the surface seems to cross the boundary into dislike or even hate for one another. However, it is clear from many tiny, but incredibly heartfelt, gestures that they love one another deeply. They are one in the same, they just don’t want to admit it. Lady Bird is an epic love story, just told a little differently. —Alice Rooney
Just when another superhero origin story seemed like the last thing cinema needed, along came an animation extravaganza that proved the subgenre still had life in it. Into the Spider-Verse unabashedly leans into its comic-book DNA, embracing the iconic, idiosyncratic art employed in Marvel comics throughout the decades as well as the inherent chaos and wonder of the multiverse. This whimsy and creativity captures the innate joy of the form, but none of this none of this would matter were it not for Miles Morales – our new friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. The high schooler’s heartfelt reckoning with his family, powers, and place in it all outshines even his outrageous spider-friends. —Carmen
Form meets content perfectly in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, a song of sadness, frustration and hope. The story circles back on itself as repetitions of trial and error, piling up like verses and choruses of a funeral ballad. They’ve made more ambitious films, but none as focused and complete. T-Bone Burnett’s compositions and Oscar Isaac’s performance add authenticity to this tale of a struggling folk singer. Bruno Delbonnel’s washed out cinematography and midwinter NYC provide the ideal visuals. It’s bleak, hilarious, and ultimately inspiring in its portrayal of that timeless mantra: ‘when you’re going through hell, keep going.’ —Tom
Check back tomorrow as we unveil our Top 20 films of the decade!