It’s possible that no single movie has influenced film culture more in the last decade than Inception. You can see its fingerprints on movies with mind-bending visuals like Doctor Strange, hear its voice in the “BWAAAAM” of every third action movie trailer. Heck, all the memes it’s spouted should be proof enough of its cultural clout.
There’s a reason for all this, and that’s because it’s really good. Some of the characters are a bit flat and the aesthetic can feel sort of clinical and dull at times, but Inception’s flaws are far outweighed by its inventiveness, its masterful editing and use of time, its beautiful production design and cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s iconic-to-the-point-of-memeability score, a set of excellent performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, and Ellen Page, and a story whose multilayered high-concept mechanics don’t get in the way of a sincere emotional core. It’s Christopher Nolan’s best non-Batman movie if you ask me. Dare to dream a little bigger, darling — Nolan did.
When Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret showed up in my school’s library, I was the first to check it out. I was immediately enthralled by it — the gorgeous black-and-white pencil illustrations covering each spread, interspersed with sections of traditional written narrative, made it feel like a lost silent film come to life. The story itself was right up my alley too — a mystery about a boy living inside the walls of a train station, trying to assemble a mechanical man to reveal a secret message? And the whole thing is wrapped up in actual film history? It was just so delightful.
Naturally, I wanted there to be a movie made of it. It seemed tailor-made for a film adaptation, since even more so than comic books, it was practically already a storyboard. When I heard Martin Scorsese had taken on the project, I was, believe it or not, disappointed. I wanted to be the one to adapt it someday! This was a story that felt special and personal to me, and as a young aspiring filmmaker, I wanted to be the one that showed it to the world through my own vision. (Also, I loved the art in the book so much that I wanted the movie version to be in black-and-white too.)
Luckily, this Scorsese guy is pretty talented, wouldn’t ya know. And Hugo expands upon its source material beautifully. With a beautiful color palette and intricately detailed production design, the film was just as visually stunning as the original illustrations, simply in a different way. The lighting, cinematography, and graceful, swift camera movement told the story in such an immersive, empathetic way — helped by the fact that Scorsese chose to film the entire thing in stereoscopic 3D. The music by Howard Shore remains one of my favorite scores. The screenplay also adds or embellishes upon a few characters, most notably Sacha Baron Cohen’s Inspector Gustave and his delightful budding romance with Emily Mortimer’s florist character Lisette. The cast is littered with wonderful short performances by great actors, from Jude Law to the late Sir Christopher Lee, but the central cast is where it truly shines. Ben Kingsley is perfect as “Papa Georges,” aka the legendary magician and filmmaking pioneer Georges Melies. Asa Butterfield turns in an excellent performance as the title character, exuding more genuine emotion than many actors three times his age. Chloë Grace Moretz is delightful as Melies’ goddaughter and Hugo’s newfound friend, and Helen McCrory delivers a relatively short but brilliant and incredibly emotional performance as Melies’ wife, Jehanne d’Alcy.
Hugo is one of those special, rare movies that feels like a gourmet feast — masterfully crafted, beautiful, and satisfying. You can sit down to enjoy it without any stress or fear of disappointment, because you know what’s being presented is of top-notch quality. Every aspect of its production is gorgeous and meticulously assembled by people who clearly love the source material and the history it covers. Few movies can transport me to another time and place as well as this one, and even fewer can feel so completely magical without having any actual fantasy elements. Hugo is an immersive, wondrous experience — with or without 3D glasses. (Although if you get the chance, definitely watch it in 3D.)
The Avengers (2012)
Really, this spot is for the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Avengers probably isn’t my favorite MCU film — that would be The Winter Soldier or Civil War, followed maybe by Endgame, and then Thor: Ragnarok? But I think it is the most important MCU film, both for me personally and for the franchise. Taking the main characters (and some minor players) of effectively four different franchises across five movies, bringing them together into one huge team-up with basically equal screentime between them, and making the whole thing feel cohesive and satisfying? Nothing like this had ever been done before — certainly not done well, at least — but The Avengers proved it was possible. Now, in 2019, the big superhero team-up movie is a regular, recurring part of our reality, and still nobody is able to do it as well as Marvel.
Back in 2012, I saw The Avengers opening night in IMAX with some of my closest friends, and it blew our heckin’ minds. It seemed like every thirty seconds there was something that made us turn to each other in the dark with our mouths agape. (I specifically remember us all freaking out when Tony jumped out of Stark Tower and his suit caught him. Remember when that was the craziest thing his suit could do?) That premiere is still one of my favorite filmgoing memories.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the 2010s will be remembered as the era where the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to dominate our cinematic and cultural landscape, and led the charge toward the huge, cross-media storytelling that I’m sure will only grow in the decade to come. Maybe the MCU will come crashing down at some point, or maybe it will quietly whimper before fading into the dark, but for now, I can say I was really happy to be there for this unprecedented cultural event, and to experience the MCU unfolding and growing up as I did.
The Lego Movie (2014)
This movie is a miracle. An animated movie based on a toy brand managed to be not only good, but beautiful, smart, insightful, and astonishingly creative, not to mention really, really funny. Was it just a big cash grab from the beginning? Probably. But it just goes to show you how anything can make a great story when the right people are passionate about it and are given the freedom to do their best. The Lego Movie is genuinely one of my favorite movies ever. The choice to have a photorealistic visual style that emulates stop motion and the feeling of actually playing with toys was a stroke of brilliance. Chris Pratt is perfect as the ever-optimistic, silly, and earnest Emmett, Will Arnett makes for the funniest, most self-aware portrayal of Batman ever, and all the other characters have great voice talent behind them as well. There’s rarely a moment when something funny isn’t happening, and when those moments do come, it’s because the movie decided to say something really smart and heartfelt. The Lego Movie is a commentary on Legos themselves, on creativity, on the value of diversity, on popular culture and our tendency to be precious with the stuff we care about. Most importantly though, it’s just a good time.
I wanted to include at least one documentary on this list, and I think of all the ones I saw this decade, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour was the most extraordinary. I think it’s a wake-up call we needed to hear, like this decade’s An Inconvenient Truth (not that we’ve solved climate change or anything…). I think it’s a well-made movie. But more than that, I think the most powerful thing a documentary can do is show you history as it happens. Many films don’t have this luxury, and make the most of what they have access to, sometimes with re-enactments or interviews with people who were there. One of my favorite documentaries ever, 2008’s Man on Wire, does both to great effect. Others don’t do as great a job. But Citizenfour is among the few that don’t have to help you imagine, because they have the real thing. There’s just something so incredible about watching this movie, seeing Edward Snowden (not an actor!) talk to a couple investigative journalists and a woman with a camera in a Hong Kong hotel room, blowing the whistle in real-time. Seeing the moment that it happened. We get to see their reaction as the news breaks on television. It’s all so quiet, so small for something so momentous. It truly feels like watching history as it happened, because it was. This movie let me experience what it must be like to travel back in time. These big historical events that have been told and retold and adapted and interpreted a thousand times, because we wonder what it must have been like to witness a moment with such massive impact on the world — if only we had a camera there, and a filmmaker with the skill and talent and foresight of someone like Laura Poitras. I could have put the excellent Apollo 11 on this list, which is breathtaking and incredible for many of the same reasons, but the fact that the events unfolding in that Hong Kong hotel room were so small and private and intimate makes it feel so incredibly special. I still get that feeling of awe whenever I think about Citizenfour, and I’m grateful that future generations will be able to experience this moment in American history as well.
Finding Dory (2016)
For a long time I had Pete Docter’s brilliant Inside Out in this spot on my list. It’s probably Pixar’s most original and creative film of the decade, and it hits all the right notes for me personally: a unique premise, a beautiful and distinct visual style, universal and mature narrative themes, and another excellent score by Michael Giacchino. Yet when I sat down to write about it, I found it just wasn’t the most important Pixar movie to me in recent years. Inside Out is the movie I wish I had when I was younger — but Finding Dory is the movie I needed now.
As the sequel to one of my favorite movies ever, I don’t think Dory quite stacks up to Nemo. I also never thought it was necessary, and I was worried we’d have another Cars 2 on our hands. Fortunately, Finding Dory is a beautiful film in its own right. It brings the gorgeous underwater world of its predecessor back to life with modern technology and techniques, so it looks absolutely stunning. Ellen DeGeneres is still great as the titular character, and Albert Brooks is as perfectly nervous as ever in the role of Marlin. We also get a few new characters, most notably the incredibly-animated octopus Hank, voiced by Ed O’Neill. It also has one of my favorite and most-listened-to scores of the decade, with Thomas Newman taking the themes and soundscape he established for the first film and adding to or expanding upon them, adding some really emotional, breathtaking musical ideas. All in all, it’s another high-quality work from Pixar — funny, exciting, creative.
But what really stands out to me about Finding Dory is the story. The original movie, I realized several years ago, was all about weird, broken, or abnormal people. Marlin is a father suffering from grief and trauma over the loss of his wife and dozens of unborn children. Nemo was born with a “lucky fin” that is much smaller and weaker than it should be. Dory has short-term memory loss. Gill is badly scarred. Peach the starfish can’t get around on her own. Gurgle is germaphobic. Deb talks to her own reflection. Bruce the shark is kind of the fish version of a recovering alcoholic? One of Nemo’s classmates is “H2O-intolerant?” Maybe it’s just that I didn’t notice it when I was a kid, but I don’t think Finding Nemo intended to have a message about people with disabilities — it just featured many characters who fit that mold, and largely didn’t comment on it, instead treating them like any other character (Dory and sometimes Nemo aside), which I think is great.
But Finding Dory brings that topic front-and-center. Whereas Nemo was mainly about Marlin learning to overcome his fears as a father, this film makes people dealing with their disabilities a central plot point. Finding Dory is about what it’s like to live with a disability and how it affects our relationships, as well as how it affects how we view ourselves. Dory knows that her short-term memory loss makes it difficult for others to live with her. She questions whether the people that love her really want her around. But ultimately, her friends and family stick by her side through her journey, and along the way she meets people that struggle with their own ailments — Hank the octopus has a phobia of being touched, Destiny the whale shark is extremely near-sighted, and Bailey the beluga whale can’t use his echolocation due to a concussion — and they lift each other up. Really, this whole movie is full of hugely different characters supporting each other despite their differences, whether it’s in ability, size, or species. And that is really beautiful to me.
I’ve had an anxiety disorder since at least high school, but it wasn’t diagnosed until well into college. I’ve spent a lot of time being scared, questioning whether people really care about me, finding myself falling behind because of my anxiety. It’s not what you’d necessarily think of when talking about disabilities, but it drastically affects my ability to live a stable, healthy life, and framing it as a disability has really helped me understand myself and my condition better, as well as seek out help. I still have anxiety, but I’m doing much better now due to medication, therapy, and lots of support. In 2016 though, when Finding Dory was released, I was still in the beginnings of understanding what my anxiety was and how to live with it. When I watched this movie, I saw myself and my experience onscreen — Dory living in fear and uncertainty, trying her best to stay positive despite her condition making everything harder, leaning on friends for help. Watching Finding Dory made me feel seen, and as Dory’s friends, and eventually her parents, told her how much they loved her and worked to help her succeed, I got emotional. It was a beautiful, eloquent reminder that I’m not alone, none of us are. Stories like these genuinely help, in those moments when everything feels catastrophic and my brain tries to protect me by making me imagine every possible negative scenario. It’s in those moments that I can tell myself a story, tell myself that I am like Dory, that my fears are understandable but untrue, and that I am loved. That’s why Finding Dory is so important to me, and why it’s one of my favorite films of the decade.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
My feelings on the Star Wars sequel trilogy are mixed, to say the least, but generally I did enjoy them. That said, the one movie to come out of this new era of a galaxy far, far away that I found most satisfying and enchanting was a prequel that no one asked for — Rogue One.
A feature film created on the inspiration of a single line from the opening crawl of the original Star Wars, this movie would appear (to some) to be the worst kind of corporate mandate in storytelling. People like Star Wars, right? What’s a throwaway detail from the original that we can stretch out into a full-length story to answer a question that nobody really needed answered? Let’s do that!
But really, if there was a piece of backstory in the original trilogy not already covered by the prequels that could best make a compelling story on its own, this would be it. The idea that a team had to be sent to steal the Death Star plans already has the feeling of adventure to it — a wartime heist set in the Star Wars universe? There’s so much potential there. Who went to go get them? What’s their story? These people who risked their lives to give the rebellion even the slightest chance of effectively fighting back against the Empire — how did they end up here? And come to think of it, why was there such a glaring vulnerability in the Death Star in the first place?
Rogue One takes these questions and uses them as a jumping-off point to explore what life under Imperial rule is like for the masses, the everyday folk just trying to get by and survive. It explores how non-rebels feel about their relationship to their oppressors, and how, even without a lightsaber or use of the Force, a person can become a hero, given opportunity to act and reason to hope. A thief, a cynic, an engineer, a couple of monks, and a reprogrammed Imperial security droid — none of them yet heroes, all of them necessary to pull off this insane galaxy-saving mission.
Gareth Edwards and his crew managed to absolutely nail the look and feel of the Star Wars universe while granting it a sense of weight, grit, and stakes not often felt in the more fantasy-focused saga films. Composer Michael Giacchino delivers probably the best non-John Williams Star Wars music ever. And we get the awesome return of Darth Vader, onscreen for the first time in over ten years, including a final scene that nearly blows the pants off the rest of the movie with how cool it is. Rogue One gets why we like Star Wars, and isn’t afraid to stretch boundaries and tell us a story not involving the Jedi. It’s a beautiful, epic, emotional experience, and one that makes me rejoice for the return of this legendary franchise.
It’s rare that we get really good, high-concept hard science fiction made into a great movie. Which is why I found this Denis Villeneuve-directed adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story so wonderful.
Arrival is about a linguist (played by Amy Adams) trying to learn the language of a newly arrived alien race and hopefully prevent World War III. But it’s also about memory, aging, relationships, how we communicate, and the value of life despite the great suffering it thrusts upon us. Through a beautiful puzzle of a plot, it does what all great sci-fi does and uses fiction to help us understand human nature. Sci-fi is the “what if?” that tests our beliefs about the universe and how we should act within it. Arrival accomplishes this with great performances, gorgeous cinematography, fascinating design, and an excellent score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson.
For all that Arrival has to say, I have surprisingly little to reply. I just really, really love this movie, and sometimes a great story well-made is all you need.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018)
I don’t think I’ve ever verbally responded to a movie as loudly as I did watching this at home. During an early scene, there’s a reveal where the good guys get what they want in typically cool and stylish fashion, and when I watched this scene for the first time I literally pumped my fist in the air and shouted “THAT’S HOW WE DO IT IN THE IMF!” These movies are just so cool and fun and satisfying.
All three Mission: Impossible movies released this decade were excellent, but they honestly seem to get better each time. Fallout in particular has it all: the return of all your favorite cast members from recent installments, Michelle Monaghan reprising her role in a significant way for the first time since M:I:III, and the addition of Henry Cavill as Ethan Hunt’s more rough-and-tumble CIA counterpart, not to mention another cool “your mission, should you choose to accept it…” scene, and probably both the best chase scene and finale action sequence in the series. Movie franchises, especially action movies, rarely get better over time this consistently, but Mission: Impossible continues to buck the trend and remains the best-choreographed, most thrilling, most polished and tight series of action films out there. Plus, who doesn’t get pumped hearing that theme?
Knives Out (2019)
It’s incredibly rare to find a murder mystery that does something new and genuinely surprises you. Knives Out does everything other murder mysteries do during their entire runtime before the end of its act I, and by that point writer/director Rian Johnson is just getting started. To say more would spoil much of the experience, so I won’t go further than that. But even if the brilliant twists and turns of this movie weren’t there, it would still have so much going for it.
It’s so good. Knives Out is smart, multilayered, super funny, tense, timely, and thoroughly unexpected. The cast is great, the set decoration is beautiful, the writing is witty and sharp, and the story moved along quickly enough that I was never bored (save for maybe the first ten minutes) yet I could keep up with what was going on. It also doesn’t hurt that Nathan Johnson has created another great score. Knives Out was the most fun I had at the movies last year, and a movie I plan on revisiting many times in the future, which is maybe the highest praise you can give to a story built on mystery.
Honorable mentions: Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Moana, Frozen, Tangled, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, The Big Short, How to Train Your Dragon (2), The Theory of Everything, Avengers: Endgame, Saving Mr. Banks, Super 8, Pacific Rim, Gravity, The World’s End, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Spotlight, Anna and the Apocalypse, Mad Max: Fury Road, Logan, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2, Whiplash, The King’s Speech, X-Men: First Class, Paperman, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Thor Ragnarok, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Cinderella, Wreck-It Ralph, It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, The Martian, Toy Story 3, Black Panther, Apollo 11, Boyhood, Godzilla, I, Tonya, The Big Sick, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Wind Rises, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Zootopia