In criticism, time-distance is everything: time to let a film sink in, time to give it more thought and more watches, and time to see what impact it has on the culture. Time also, often, for the artists involved to see their own reputations develop, either for better or worse.
It’s easy to talk of “recency bias” as a negative – which, to be clear, it obviously is, at least insofar as one cares enough about “Best of” lists like this for any bias within them to matter. (And if we don’t care about these lists, then why worry?) But even outside lists like this, recency bias can often prove a judgmental cloud; criticism defined by wide, rather than clear, eyes.
Simultaneously though, the weight of time can often transform an ultimately meagre or mediocre film into more of an assumed “classic” than it perhaps deserves; how many perfectly fine American films of the 1970s have benefited from the bloat of myth? How many award winners over the years have been thus conferred inflated historical and qualitative status?
But then but then, we find pushbacks against pushbacks: is it that the film was not all that to begin with, or is it that we’re buying into the myths by assuming they hold enough power to make a film’s entire reputation despite little basis? If I wade into a Twitter chamber to declaim that Goodfellas is only considered classic because of the weight of Scorsese’s reputation, and that we need to start dismantling the myth of this reputation, am I not admitting that the myth carries enough demonstrable weight as to no longer be a myth?
We’re at a point where criticism – certainly of film – is often being presented in absolutist terms, defined by tribes in battle rather than voices in discussion. Our Top 100 list as it stands – today being wrapped up with those 20 titles that received the strongest aggregate scores, being the nexus of “most often ranked” and “highest ranked” – reflects some recency bias, as well as some already crystallised veneration for a few recognisable (or “key”) films from earlier in this decade. This hopefully therefore has some range and plurality; and while we’ve naturally gravitated towards populism due to the nature of aggregate scoring and ranking, this seems to work as a perfect map for what’s cut through the increasing noise, and which films have proved themselves, to greater and lesser extents, durable within the culture.
Not that it ends here; the 2010s have produced the most films, and the most aesthetically, stylistically, formally, technologically, advanced films of any 10-year period since filmmaking’s invention barely over a century ago. There’s nothing more loathsome than a self-perpetuating “canon”; but something like this list works as a darn good springboard.
Call Me by Your Name, which follows a youthful romance in the 1980s, is adapted by James Ivory with all the tenderness and zeal of a man presenting his own memoir; this care is more than matched by Luca Guadagnino who, as with his previous films, creates and sustains an hermetic bubble in which all sorts of sensual pleasures and stresses can be explored. Centred in all this is Timothée Chalamet, whose remarkable performance not only grasps and directs the narrative, but channels such natural adolescent passion that it sometimes almost flies apart. For a film obsessed with the classical, Chalamet’s awkward blossoming alongside the statuesque Armie Hammer provides a profound and grounded bittersweetness. —Calum Baker
The Act of Killing may or may not be a joke on history itself. This is usually, as they say, written by the victors; Joshua Oppenheimer and team stretch this to the absurd by having elderly Indonesian death-squad members recreate their greatest hits in their own inimitable ways. Naturally this is a deeply uncomfortable film, not least because there’s such charisma and chutzpah on display. But of course, these proud men with their memories of swingin’ youthful swagger are among modern history’s grandest unsung villains; that Oppenheimer coaxes them so efficiently into exposing the full extent of their souls’ dismal rot is both the film’s most disturbing indictment, and its most triumphant achievement. —Calum
Trying to describe the plot of Annihilation is a difficult task, as this science fiction thriller is unlike any other. The ‘enemy’ is a mysterious landmass that is slowly expanding across America – known as Area X. This area is shrouded in an iridescent haze of purple and pink, meaning the contents of this mysterious ‘land’ is unknown to the outsider. Lena (Natalie Portman) joins a team entering Area X to discover its contents and, more importantly, what happened to her husband, who had entered Area X on a previous mission. What Lena and the team find is unlike any reality existent on earth. It is as beautiful in places as it is terrifying, with creatures both dangerous and psychologically eerie. Alex Garland‘s clever portrayal of mystery, fear, and the uncanny is a film that will stay with you long after watching. —Alice Rooney
The sublime Carol is a swooning and impossibly elegant tale of forbidden romance and the agony of being denied the love we yearn. Todd Haynes, together with cinematographer Ed Lachman and composer Carter Burwell, crafts an exquisitely evocative 1950s New York City in which Cate Blanchett’s Carol and Rooney Mara’s Therese fall in love despite the overwhelming barriers of social convention, controlling husbands, and the law itself. The performances are pure perfection – here, a single raised eyebrow or half-smile can suggest a world of unspoken pain and unbearable longing. Mara is brilliant – but Blanchett seems to be operating on a different level entirely. —Nick Evan-Cook
How do Pixar do this to us? After making us cry within the first 10 minutes of Up, Inside Out had our tears flowing at the ‘death’ of imaginary friend Bing Bong. That’s probably fitting, as this is a film all about emotions which ultimately has a surprisingly refreshing message of allowing Sadness to help shape us as people just as much as Joy – and it’s the journey of these two characters inside young girl Riley’s head which forge that magical Disney-Pixar combo of whimsy, humour and pathos to winning effect again. —James Andrews
You could take Toni Erdmann at face value as a funny, bizarre, and blisteringly accurate portrayal of a strained familial relationship, but this isn’t its only merit. True, it’s about a father trying to reconnect with his daughter, and is brilliantly evocative of the awkward distance that can grow between generations, but it’s also a study of two people hampered by their defence mechanisms, and the surprising difficulty of truly connecting with another human. Winfried and Ines both clearly need this connection, but repeatedly push each other away, unintentionally or not. By swift turns hilarious and tragic – with some of the most ridiculous moments punctuating a distressingly realistic breakdown – Toni Erdmann is a treat for the soul. —Jessamy Queree
Ghost Cup. Bisghetti. Swearwolves. Few films in the last 10 years have bestowed quite as many gifts upon us as What We Do in the Shadows, not least among them decade superstar Taika Waititi. From its unique premise to a rich cast of game performers (including Waititi himself, pulling a triple shift), Shadows is perfect across the board – and it’s telling that, like Fargo or Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, this cult hit had enough in it to find a second life as an excellent TV series. While Waititi may have moved on to new heights, we’ll always remember that first house we shared. —Joni Blyth
In an era often bemoaned for its slew of reboots, franchises and – to paraphrase Marty – ‘theme park’ movies, original blockbusters that garnered success commercially and critically were hard to come by but with 2010’s Inception, Christopher Nolan became the defining filmmaker for such projects. Led by the performance of one of the decade’s best ensembles (DiCaprio, Cotillard, Hardy and Gordon-Levitt to name a few) it flips the idea of a thriller upside down, at points literally. Dealing with multi-tiered narratives and the architecture of dream states, Nolan creates something truly mesmerising, all parts visually stunning, thought provoking and viscerally emotive. —Thom Denson
Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible film to date, The Favourite is a gloriously filthy and bizarre take on what the royal household might have been like in the early 18th century. The use of natural lighting throughout gives it an unglamorous and gritty look that sets this far apart from your standard period film, with shadowy corners hiding all kinds of awful or lustful deeds. The central cast of Colman, Stone and Weisz are faultless, an untrustworthy and unpredictable trio all vying for power and each other’s affections. Disgusting, hilarious, and sad all at once – The Favourite deserved every one of its many accolades. —Louise Burrell
Interstellar stands as one of very few space operas whose plot was built around factual, or extremely plausible, science. Director Christopher Nolan worked with physicist Kip Thorne to fact-check some truly outlandish ideas: time manipulation principal among them. Despite the awe of new worlds, Nolan brings everything back to the simple emotions of his characters, the humanistic responses that still outweigh the importance of the mission. An Indiana Jones-style addiction to adventure is ever present in Matthew McConaughey’s brilliantly empathetic performance as Cooper, put through his paces when philanthropy battles raw self-interest. Interstellar is astonishing for its scale of adventure, its boundless emotion and grounded humanity, and ultimately for its unparalleled highbrow concept. —Dan Sareen
The shortest three-hour film ever. With the exception of, perhaps, The Irishman, nothing illustrates the brilliance of the Scorsese/Schoonmaker partnership better than The Wolf of Wall Street. Perfectly edited, Wolf flows with such irresistible energy that every minute flies by at lightning speed, without sacrificing the richness of the story and the cast within it. Probably DiCaprio’s finest hour, he reveals a knack for comedy, especially physical clownery, that he’s never been allowed to display before and he’s magnetically hilarious. It’s impossible to choose an all-time ‘best’ Scorsese, but this is the one I’d take to a desert island. —Jack Blackwell
Facebook’s aim has supposedly always been to connect people, but to make its ascent possible, founder Mark Zuckerberg, here embodied astonishingly well by Jesse Eisenberg, had to do the opposite, severing ties wherever necessary. Helmed by David Fincher and soundtracked by the decade’s best score, a pitch black blend of pulsating electronics and distorted guitar work, the film charts the company’s rise episodically, with all the bridges its CEO burned along the way. The Social Network thrillingly spotlights the nefarious underbelly of one of the planet’s most recognised brands while continuing an elite career as Fincher delivers yet another genuine masterpiece. —Thom
ORWAV’s best film of 2016, Arrival‘s story of communication over conflict is just as resonant now as it was in those (slightly) simpler times. In a decade where spectacle has dominated our screens, Denis Villeneuve slows the traditional alien encounter down to a crawl, infusing every first step for mankind with fear, wonder and anticipation. The result is a breathtaking and inspired piece of cinema that somehow manages to feel subdued and downright modest. Of course Villeneuve and Amy Adams were criminally unadorned during awards season, but great credit is owed to them and to Jóhann Jóhannsson, for his haunting score. —Joni
A rare example of a sequel outshining its predecessor, Paddington 2 is full to the brim with charm. Where the first film set up the bear in his new London home, this second instalment shows Paddington fully embracing his London life alongside a cast of British screen icons. Hugh Grant revels in his role as the bad guy, over-the-top and ever so hammy, he seems to take great joy in making fun of actors. There’s even a song and dance routine at the end of the film just to top it all off. Riotous fun throughout, this is one of the best family films this decade. —Louise
It’s easy to see why The Shape of Water won Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars. It’s simply stunning. Guillermo Del Toro has lovingly crafted a take on the traditional romance, for which the basis is simply a tale of love and acceptance; two people overcoming boundaries and adversity to find each other. The only exception is that the ‘princess’ in the tale is a mute cleaner at a research facility, and the ‘prince’ is a sea creature imprisoned there by the military. Their relationship develops as a result of both being on the outside of society. It is touching also, that the supporting characters fully accept their relationship from the outset. They ask no questions as to why this love exists, but instead celebrate the happiness it brings. —Alice
Where Aaron Sorkin’s tripartite Steve Jobs felt hysterical and repetitive, Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Moonlight screenplay – and the sensual way Jenkins directs – makes far more worthwhile use of a similar structure, with one protagonist’s shifting experiences and identities working in contrast to and concert with each other for a story of great formal intelligence and emotional heft. This meticulous harmonising extends not only through the plotting, and the well-drawn characters, but to the various themes, so deftly blended: this is certainly about universal notions of identity but it is nothing without its specific and rigorous explorations of queerness, of race, of gender and gender expectation, of class, and of America. This is, simply, a work of incredibly rare accomplishment. —Calum
I would’ve voted for this film a third time if I could… Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, an all too socially relevant satirical horror tackling deep-rooted racism in the US, hit hard on release in 2017. Get Out felt like the movie America – and the world – needed. Taking white, middle-class microaggressions to their most sinister extreme, Peele had also created a cultural shock-wave. But more than that, the work itself is near-perfect structurally, with foreshadowing scripted with forensic precision, scary and full of instantly iconic moments like that cup of tea. Get Out was a genuine game-changer for its genre, and beyond. —James
The coals of Wes Anderson’s basic stylistic habits have been raked incessantly; taking these as given, The Grand Budapest Hotel, an exceptionally sad film, becomes his most complete. I do not want to detract from the extraordinary design, the cinematography, the wintry score – but nothing of the writer-director’s famous “sad moments” compare to the encroaching doom of this film’s “fictional” oppressive regime as we march to story’s end. I can’t work out if it’s this cleverly-woven strand that gives Ralph Fiennes’ performance its strange power, or if Fiennes’ refined slapstick – one of the finest screen turns of the decade – sharpens Anderson’s subtext. Either way, this comedic confection possesses a surprising emotional weight; the uproarious memories give way to the ending’s stark truth: everyone involved is long dead. —Calum
In this exploration of a fashion giant’s pursuit of perfection alongside his unravelling authority at the hands of his muse, Paul Thomas Anderson may have made the sexiest film of the decade. The juxtaposition of 1950s high society couture, Jonny Greenwood’s mellifluous piano, and morning breakfast tea against the petty power plays in a household unaccustomed to capitulation is cinematic seduction at its sharpest. When tensions break – often over some of recent cinema’s most iconic, indulgent meals – the scenarios that ensue sit between horrifying and hilarious. Omelettes will never be the same and, if Daniel Day-Lewis is truly retiring, Reynolds Woodcock is a grand way to go. —Carmen Paddock
It may be Max’s name up on the marquee but to the ire of internet trolls everywhere, it was the searing Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who spearheaded George Miller’s excellent fourth Mad Max flick. Tom Hardy’s feral road warrior plays second fiddle to Theron and a predominantly female cast, swept up in their struggle to escape – and then overthrow – the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe. In essence a two hour chase sequence, Miller’s vividly colourful western-on-wheels is also a powerful indictment of patriarchy, and the violence it inflicts on those living under it. —Katy Moon
End of list, end of decade, end of transmission.