Top 20 Films of the 2010s

Before getting too deep into 2020, I wanted to take one last look back at the decade to appreciate my top 20 favorites that came out. The 2010s had some great films to offer audiences, and here are my picks for what I thought were the best.

As part of the list, I’ve included major awards each film has won. I understand that some have won several awards, and they’re mentioned throughout the list.

The American (2010) – SATURN AWARD NOMINEE, BEST THRILLER

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Underrated and woe-fully under-seen, “The American” is a drama film about a spy, but not necessarily a spy movie. Incredibly moody and suspenseful, “The American” is one of the best thrillers from the past 10 years.

On top of being suspenseful, the film is also visually beautiful. Director of Photography Martin Ruhe did great work on this picture, with several fantastic shots and phenomenal usage of light and color from scene-to-scene.

This is especially true during moments where the main character is building a rifle for another assassin. These moments capture the main character’s attention to detail, it’s like watching an artist or carpenter work on their craft.

The film really comes together thanks to the great cast. Johan Leysen gives a chilling performance as an antagonistic character while George Clooney is superb as the aging assassin who’s beginning to question much of his life. It’s a character study as much as it is a thriller.

Midnight in Paris (2011) – WON OSCAR, BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

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Beautifully shot and exceptionally well acted, “Midnight in Paris” is a light, enjoyable and oh so charming film from early on in the decade. The script is clever, funny, and sweet, giving audiences a rich experience with interesting characters in one of the world’s great cities.

It’s an absolute joy to watch Owen Wilson’s character interact with historical figures like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, played very well here by Corey Stoll and Tom Hiddleston. The cast is very well rounded by Kathy Bates and Marion Cotillard, along with some smaller performances like the one from Adrien Brody.

Drive (2011) – WON CANNES FILM FESTIVAL BEST DIRECTOR

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The year 2011 did a lot to help make Ryan Gosling one of my favorite actors in the industry, with a comedic performance in “Crazy Stupid Love” and great dramatic work in “The Ides of March.” It was his work in “Drive,” though, that really showed how good he was.

Gosling is superb as the mysterious Driver in this 2011 crime drama, perfectly playing the reserved, quiet and conflicted man. Driver is a tragic character, in that he wants to have a romance, and a simple life, but is unable to because of the situation he finds himself in. Gosling is fantastic at getting this across.

The creative team, including Director Nicolas Winding Refn, Writer Hossein Amini and Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, were able to craft a wonderful noir film, full of artistic flair and tense moments. For a film not entirely focused on the getaway aspects, the major driving sequences here are incredibly well shot and suspenseful.

The film is benefited by award caliber performances from Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Ron Perlman. The soundtrack also plays a big factor.

Argo (2012) – WON OSCAR, BEST PICTURE

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Funny, suspenseful, dramatic and political. “Argo” has a little bit of everything and does it extremely well. This is definitely an example of truth being stranger than fiction. The U.S. CIA using a fake Hollywood film to sneak in to Iran in 1979 and get embassy workers out almost seems unreal, but it happened and it’s fantastically brought to life by Director Ben Affleck.

The film has an incredible build-up, as the plan is formulated, and slowly executed when Affleck’s character gets to Iran. It all culminates with amazing scenes at an airport that can have an audience on the edge of their seat.

The movie has an amazing star-studded cast, including Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber and Kyle Chandler.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – AFI TOP 10 OF 2013 SELECTION

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“Inside Llewyn Davis,” from the creative minds of Ethan and Joel Coen, is a fantastic exploration of a person stuck in a rut, and about a man’s dedication to his craft. Llewyn Davis is a fascinating character to follow, too.

He can be standoffish and selfish at times. However, viewers can grow to appreciate Davis as the movie goes on for his commitment to the art form. As the movie plays out, he becomes more of a complex character, and it makes for a really good movie.

It’s a very layered picture, and one that can make a person think. This is thanks to the Coen brothers for their strong writing and direction. The cast, including Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver,Garrett Hedlund, and John Goodman, also deserve a lot of praise for some great performances.

Birdman (2014) – WON OSCAR, BEST PICTURE

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Themes of success, commentary on art and the film industry,  as well as simply finding happiness in the balance between one’s professional and personal life are all included in “Birdman.” The film is a brilliant character study that follows its lead through thick and thin.

Emmanuel Lubezki earned a well deserved Oscar for cinematography on the film for creating a movie that appears to be all done in one continuous take. It’s stunning how well the single shot flows.

The movie is also phenomenally well directed and written by Alejandro Inarritu, who creates intense and funny character moments from start to finish. The cast here is award caliber, too, with great performances from Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Zach Galifinakis.

Whiplash (2014) – WON OSCAR, BEST EDITING

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“Whiplash” is an amazing tug-of-war between two fantastic characters. One is a young and somewhat naive college student in Andrew (Miles Teller) who does have a chip on his shoulder. The other is the stone-faced, tough as nails instructor in Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The two have several great interactions, many of them being quite intense.

The acting is incredible from both lead performances, but Simmons was of course the standout and he earned his Oscar. The film also won Best Editing, and it was very well deserved, especially considering the final moments of the picture.

The script and direction, both done by Damien Chazelle, is very strong and the film also looks great thanks to cinematographer Sharone Meir. The whole movie has a goldish tint to it, mirroring the instruments themselves.

Wild (2014) – HOLLYWOOD FILM AWARDS, BEST BREAKTHROUGH DIRECTOR

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“Wild” is a deeply personal story of an individual going on a life-changing journey. The movie flips back and forth, showing the main character hiking 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and what made her do so. It allows for a great character study on a person going through recovery for her mental, spiritual and physical health.

While the movie is about a single person, Cheryl, it’s aided by the people she meets along the way. Her interactions allow for a lot of character growth.

Reese Witherspoon is incredible in the lead role, putting the whole film on her back and carrying it all the way. It’s an emotional, at times tragic, and ultimately, uplifting feature.

Spotlight (2015) – WON OSCAR, BEST PICTURE

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“Spotlight” is a procedural film, all about the reporting process, done to perfection. Watching these grounded, relatable characters thoroughly dig through details, driven by victim stories and their own relationship to the city of Boston, is incredibly compelling.

The script is superb, and won a well deserved Academy Award. The film is also visually impressive, with many of the shots in the film including church buildings lingering in the background, a constant reminder of what the characters are up against.

The cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Brian d’Arcy James, are all at the top of their game here, too.

The Big Short (2015) – WON OSCAR, BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

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“Big Short” is an unorthodox film, but certainly not uninteresting. The film explores the housing market, and the goings on at Wall Street, that resulted in the economic crash in 2008 and the Great Recession that followed. The movie does it in excellent fashion with an incredible script that won a well deserved Oscar and an unconventional style.

Characters break the fourth wall several times throughout the picture and there are several sequences of celebrity cameos such as the late Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie. The latter are great way to explain the financial jargon in layman’s terms in entertaining ways.

Narration can be hit or miss in movies, with some films using it as a crutch, but the one featured in “The Big Short” works, as it helps audiences understand the timeline leading up to the crash. The film also features an amazing cast firing on all cylinders, including Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.

Moonlight (2016) – WON OSCAR, BEST PICTURE

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“Moonlight” is easily one of the best coming-of-age films ever made. Director and writer Barry Jenkins does exquisite work in creating a character study about a person, Chiron,  navigating life in a poverty-stricken area of Miami.

The way the movie explores Chiron’s influences in life, his relationships with those around him and his coming to terms with his sexuality, is crafted perfectly.

Cinematographer James Laxton and colorist Alex Bickel both deserve praise for creating a strong visual identity for the picture. The film has so many memorable shots and the use of lighting and color come in to play heavily several times.

The movie also features great performances from Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland.

La La Land (2016) – WON OSCAR, BEST DIRECTOR 

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Damien Chazelle writes and directs this musical, vibrant and emotional love letter to Hollywood, and knocked it out of the park. He deserving the Oscar for directing this magical, romantic journey of song and dance.

The opening scene alone hooks an audience in with a large scale musical sequence. From there, audiences get to enjoy several original songs with fun choreography in a few of them.

The romance is really well done here, too. Watching it develop between the two leads, played wonderfully by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is quite endearing. The ending is especially powerful.

Manchester by the Sea (2016) – WON OSCAR, BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

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“Manchester by the Sea” is a deeply moving picture, as it follows two characters trying to make it through the grieving process. It’s done exceptionally well, as each character has to go through hardships.

There’s Lee, who’s already a broken person with more weight put on his shoulders, and Patrick, who’s trying to keep his composure and continue his teenage routines despite losing his father.

As more is revealed about Lee’s past, the film becomes that much more heart-wrenching. There’s so much emotional weight featured in this picture, and it’s made convincing by a powerful screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan, who also directs.

The cast, with Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, does incredible work here. Affleck is especially great in the lead role.

Hell or High Water (2016) – AFI TOP 10 OF 2016 SELECTION

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“Hell or High Water” is an amazing modern take on the western genre. It has the makings of the genre, taking place in the rural southwest, and follows a pair of outlaws and two officers hunting them.

The movie is so much more than just criminals on the run from the law, though. “Hell or High Water” dives into topics of greed, malpractice by major banks, poverty, race and family dynamics, making for a very rich experience.

The script by Taylor Sheridan is exceptionally well written and the direction by David Mackenzie is impeccable. The film also features award caliber performances from Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham.

Call Me By Your Name (2017) – WON OSCAR, BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

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“Call Me By Your Name” is a film about young adulthood, love, intimacy, and how they can all intertwine. The film does so in gorgeous fashion with excellent direction and camerawork.

The film has a tranquil atmosphere, as audiences follow the endearing relationships in a beautiful area of rural Italy. The film has amazing performances from Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet. They’re incredible in this feature.

Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg are great in rounding out the cast, the latter’s character has an exceptionally good monologue in the third act.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – WON OSCAR, BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

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Denis Villeneuve had a great decade in directing movies, with fantastic features such as “Prisoners,” “Sicario” and “Arrival.” “Blade Runner 2049,” though, was his best. This follow-up to the cult classic is a brilliant sci-fi noir mystery.

The movie is visually stunning.  The futuristic setting is immersive and every scene is shot so well by Roger Deakins, who absolutely earned the Oscar.

“2049” is very much a slow burn, with the lead character’s investigation unraveling more and more of the mystery as it goes on. It’s fascinating to watch unfold, especially with a few twists thrown in. Plus the picture explores what it means to be human, and relationships.

The latter is especially well examined with the relationship between the detective K (Ryan Gosling), an android replicant, and Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificial intelligence being.

The acting from Gosling, de Armas, Harrison Ford, Sylvia Hoeks and Jared Leto comes through big time. Gosling does incredible work in providing a reserved, stoic performance of a complex character.

First Reformed (2018) – WON CRITICS CHOICE, BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

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“First Reformed” is a film that explores personal themes such as doubt and pessimism, as well as macro subjects including environmental justice. It does both in tremendous fashion, with excellent direction and writing from Paul Schrader.

The film is thought provoking and has curve-balls that can keep an audience engaged and interested. This is another slow burn film, which is all about watching this character’s struggles.

Cinematographer Alexander Dynan deserves credit, too, for great camera work. The film has a definite mood and a lot of artistic flair.

The picture includes a surprisingly good dramatic performance from comedian Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles, and another strong performance from Amanda Seyfried. The standout, though, is Ethan Hawke in the lead role. He gives arguably the best performance of his career with a somber, melancholic portrayal.

The Favourite (2018) – WON CRITICS CHOICE, BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE

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“The Favourite” is a bizarre, funny and suspenseful feature loaded with great performances. Olivia Colman earned a well deserved Oscar, but all of her cast mates had legitimate cases for awards. Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult are all superb here.

It’s a phenomenally well done period piece and features a great balance between the personal rivalry with the characters and the political intrigue related to the ongoing war taking place at the time.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos, along with writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara do impressive work bringing all of this together in comedic, and at times, dark ways.

Jojo Rabbit (2019) – WON OSCAR, BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

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“Jojo Rabbit” is an absurdist look at Germany in 1945, with much of the dialogue about the war and the fascistic efforts of Adolf Hitler exaggerated to comedic levels. And it really works, “Jojo” is definitely one of the funniest movies released in 2019.

However, simply labeling “Jojo” as nothing more than a parody going for comedic impact is wrong. The film takes time to build its characters, especially the main two, Jojo and Elsa, and does so very well.

The result is a movie that has comedy, but also emotional, endearing and tense scenes.

Making this work is an award worthy script by Taika Waititi, who directed the movie, too. Also helping to power this picture is the great cast, including Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. It’s a great ensemble.

The Lighthouse (2019) – WON SPIRIT AWARD, BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

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“The Lighthouse” has humor, suspense, and even some chills, and it all comes together perfectly. The movie is an engaging work of art that puts audiences in a state of unease from start to finish.

Tense and moody, “The Lighthouse” offers viewers an underlying sense of dread, especially as the lines between what’s real and what’s not begin to blur. It’s somewhat dream-like, in a way, similar to an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Making it work are the two incredible performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

Decade in review:

Author: Matthew Liedke

I'm a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer in Minnesota, and I also have a passion for the art of film. This passion led me to start writing about film in 2008. From 2008-2016 I wrote pieces at my own website, After the Movie Reviews. Then, from 2016-May 2018, my write-ups were featured on AreaVoices, a blog network run by Forum Communications Company. Today, I write film reviews and other pieces here on Word Press. More about me: I'm a 2009 graduate of Rainy River College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University in Moorhead. At MSU, I studied journalism and film. Outside of movies, I enjoy sports, video games, anime and craft beers.

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