The 10 Movies That Tell the Story of the Last 10 Years
The sheer number of movies released in theaters in the 2010s is as staggering as it is counterintuitive. In the era that gave us the tech-bro buzzword disruption, shouldn't the age-old tradition of heading to the cineplex to see the latest blockbuster or the coolest art-house film have been destroyed by a killer app by now? Yet despite the warm embrace of Netflix, the acquiescent vocal stylings of Alexa, and the laziness-facilitating nature of countless other gizmos all conspiring to make us contented shut-ins, we're still merrily handing over big bucks to sit in a theater and laugh with total strangers at gentle Forky.
Collectively, the movies released in theaters over the past 10 years document the decade's many peaks and valleys and moods, and provide a glimpse into what was happening in the world upon their release. So, rather than assessing the films of the 2010s via the familiar ranking format, we wanted to pinpoint the one movie that represents each year best, as a means of remembering the period of great creative upheaval, corporate consolidation, and financial anxiety from which they came. In making our selections, we naturally gravitated toward movies we admired and movies that sparked passionate debate, but we also looked for ones that presented a larger idea, kicked off a trend within the industry, or simply captured the vibe of the era. Without further ado, here's one crazy decade told through 10 great movies.
The Social Network
Best Picture winner:The King's Speech
Box-office champ:Toy Story 3
Why the movie mattered then: According to its own earnings report, Facebook had 608 million active users at the end of 2010. When David Fincher's scathing docudrama The Social Network was released in October, the perniciously attention-swallowing tech company still had not purchased Instagram for a billion dollars, made its initial public offering, or withstood an onslaught of high-profile political scandals. The words "Cambridge Analytica" sounded like prestigious gibberish; "fake news" was what your uncle called The Daily Show. While Facebook and its young CEO Mark Zuckerberg had faced harsh criticism, particularly for its often careless handling of private user data and its "move fast and break things" management philosophy, the site still retained a vague flicker of "cool," the word Justin Timberlake's smirking party-boy Sean Parker invokes in the movie's most quotable trailer line. (Re-watching the movie now, it's surprising to find the phrase "a billion dollars" is delivered by Andrew Garfield, a reminder that the flashback-filled deposition structure was even more elegantly dizzying than the year's bigger puzzle-box blockbuster, Christopher Nolan's Inception.) In an essay about the film, the novelist Zadie Smith described The Social Network as "a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people," referring to the generational age gap between the millennial subjects and the baby-boomer filmmakers, specifically Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, but the movie works so well because of the uneasy, unsolvable tension that exists between the directing and writing. Sorkin's rapid-fire, screwball-like dialogue burns with a moral indignation that Fincher's watchful, steady-handed camera chills with an icy distance. It's the rare biopic that's not begging you to smash the "like" button.
Why it will matter in the future: No matter how many times the actual Mark Zuckerberg sweats it out on the floor of Congress, Jesse Eisenberg, swaggering into an office building decked out in a ratty bathrobe and "fuck you" flip-flops, will remain the face of Facebook. He's the guy. With all apologies to Joker, The Social Network remains the essential villain origin story of modern times, a text that can still generate highly shareable headlines like "The Facebook Movie Told Us What We Needed to Know About Mark Zuckerberg" and "The Social Network Was More Right Than Anyone Realized" years after its release. Even Sorkin himself couldn't resist the urge to scold Zuckerberg in a recent open letter published in the New York Times, ending with a joke about the Winklevoss twins, who now control a Bitcoin fortune. None of these clowns are going anywhere. -- Dan Jackson
Best Picture winner:The Artist
Box-office champ: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Why the movie mattered then: Just four years before Bridesmaids came out, Christopher Hitchens wrote an entire essay in Vanity Fair arguing that women just weren't as funny as men. The piece earned a rightful amount of scorn, but it was an attitude that still hovered in the public consciousness when Bridesmaids was unleashed at the start of the summer movie season in 2011. The film, directed by Paul Feig, starred co-writer Kristen Wiig as Annie, a beleaguered maid of honor to her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). As the narrative inches towards the big day, Annie's plans for the wedding and her own life go repeatedly awry. There's a memorable bit of food poisoning, a drugged-out airplane ride, and the constant competition of Lillian's new, rich friend Helen (Rose Byrne, the unsung hero of the whole thing). Bridesmaids was a movie with an unnecessary amount of cultural pressure attached to it: The ridiculously high-stakes implication was that, if it failed, women would never be allowed to star in comedies ever again. Rebecca Traister, writing for Salon, called seeing the movie a "social responsibility," while producer David T. Friendly predicted a "Bridesmaids Effect," speculating in the Hollywood Reporter that it would allow "entire genres to be reimagined... Chicks on horses. Women in space. Time-shifting gals." That the movie was a box-office success, grossing $288 million on a $32 million budget, as well as a critical one could be used to bolster other female-written and female-fronted comedies. (Hollywood is always surprised when an underserved group actually comes out to theaters, and it happens time and time again.)
Why it will matter in the future: The simple reason? It's funny. Bridesmaids doesn't get a win on a sliding scale, it's unequivocally one of the best comedies of the 21st century, and not just for the gross-out moments. It's at its best when it hones in on the financial pressures and competitions that surround womanhood and the institution of marriage, finding harsh emotional truths amidst the broad physical gags and improvised punchlines. While the larger mainstream comedy movie-going landscape has changed in recent years, and we're seeing well-reviewed, female-led comedies like Booksmart sputter, Bridesmaids itself remains the mother of a movement. It was the precursor to a lot of trends to come: It precipitated the rise of Melissa McCarthy as a bankable Hollywood star, and felt like it opened the door for even nastier women like the ladies of Broad City and Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag. -- Esther Zuckerman
Zero Dark Thirty
Best Picture winner: Argo
Box-office champ:The Avengers
Why the movie mattered then: Following up 2008's The Hurt Locker, a Best Picture-winning military thriller that was widely considered the first genuinely great Iraq War film, was never going to be an easy task for director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. For their next project, the pair acquired a bigger budget and expanded their scope to tell the complicated story of the nearly decade long global manhunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was killed only a year before the film's release. Casting Jessica Chastain as the uniquely determined CIA intelligence analyst Maya, who becomes consumed with the search for Bin Laden as the film progresses, Bigelow turned a sprawling narrative of geo-political maneuvering into a character study about obsession. Before it was even released, the film was a political football, with writer Naomi Wolf comparing Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl and journalist Glenn Greenwald arguing that the film "glorifies torture." The debate was even more fraught, tangled, and unceasing than the ones that played out over similarly controversial 2012 releases like Django Unchained, The Master, and Lincoln, which presented a more hopeful vision of ideological pragmatism in the midst of war. In an election year, Americans were ready for a fight.
Why it will matter in the future: As an act of myth-making, Zero Dark Thirty is inescapable. It established the narrative that all future counter-narratives must push back against or attempt to upend. In 2015, reporter Seymour Hersh published a detailed account of the Bin Laden raid in the London Review of Books that further called into question the accuracy of the movie, referring to the version of events in the film as a "legend"; when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by the U.S. military this October, a dog involved in the operation appeared on the cover of the New York Post with the headline "Zero Bark Thirty"; in November, Amazon will release The Report, a movie explicitly calls out Zero Dark Thirty for its role in spreading a false narrative about the effectiveness of torture. Still, when you sit down to watch Bigelow's film, it resists easy interpretation, refusing to offer answers to the disturbing questions it raises. That sense of ambiguity might be its real legacy. -- DJ
Best Picture winner: 12 Years a Slave
Why the movie mattered then: It's weird to talk about Spring Breakers as something that "matters." Because if the work of Harmony Korine -- and Spring Breakers, specifically -- tells you anything about the world it is that nothing really matters except for money so you can buy all the sheeeiiiiiiit you want. When Korine's movie about a bunch of college girls who rob a restaurant so they can go on spring break (FOREVAAAA) opened, it was ripe for tabloid coverage. It starred multiple Disney alums as the bikini-wearing criminals, including Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, and featured a wild performance by James Franco that spurred the rapper RiFF RAFF, a goofball provocateur from Houston with cartoon-like sideburns and ridiculous tattoos, to cause a stink about because he thought the character hit a little too close to home. (Franco's sleazy take on drug dealer Alien, who brings this coterie of young women under his wing, is more uncomfortable in retrospect given allegations against him.) But what really made the psychedelic, brains-scrambling journey of Spring Breakers historic in a year that also saw the release of the tense space adventure Gravity and the hedonistic Wolf of Wall Street? It was a behind-the-scenes story that wasn't as breathlessly covered as Franco's cornrows. Korine's pop-art crime epic was one of the first movies released by the distributor A24, the company that has come to dominate the arthouse in this decade with small-scale hits like Ex Machina, The Witch, and Moonlight. To get Korine to allow them to release the film, the start-up apparently sent over a gift basket with a glass-gun bong and munchies, the kind of clever marketing scheme for which it would come to be known. Spring Breakers was not to everyone's liking, drawing criticism for its brutal violence and its wanton cultural appropriation, but it was a purely 2013 piece of art, blissfully unconcerned with anything but its own nonsense.
Why it will matter in the future: When historians look back at cinema in the 21st century, they will invariably consider the A24 effect. Spring Breakers is ground zero of that: A neon ode to dirtbag Florida, made by a director who has never given many fucks. It was a movie designed to generate GIFs and memes, and seemingly borne out of the warped impulses of internet culture itself. It's not the best movie A24 ever released by far, but it opened the door for so much to come. And the Britney Spears scene still rips. -- EZ
The Lego Movie
Best Picture winner:Birdman
Box-office champ:Transformers: Age of Extinction
Why the movie mattered then: When it was first announced, The Lego Movie sounded like the real-life equivalent of Coupon: The Movie, the precinct Mr. Show sketch from the '90s about an asinine film that "all of America must see" by ruling of a federal court. Who would want to go see a big budget piece of sponsored content hawking a toy brand? It turns out directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who had previously worked on the beloved cult animated series Clone High, had a way into the material, turning a Brave New World-like dystopian parable centered around an average worker (voiced by Chris Pratt) into a hyper-meta, unapologetically earnest superhero-like tale of self-realization. (It would make a wild double-feature with the year's other acclaimed meditation on conformity and identity, Richard Linklater's Texas-set family saga Boyhood.) Dinged as "anti-capitalist" by the Fox Business channel, which was unnerved by the cheeky villain President Business (Will Ferrell), the movie's real coup was envisioning an arena for various brand IP's to play together, putting Ninja Turtles, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Batman, Harry Potter, and Shaquille O'Neal in the same ever-churning blender. Was it a sly work of pop art or a cynical attempt to sell more crap to kids? Either way, you'll be humming the damn theme song when the credits roll and ready to make the same proclamation David Cross makes at the end of the Coupon sketch: "I saw the shit out of it!"
Why it will matter in the future: Earlier this year, Deadline reported that Warner Brothers Animation is developing a feature based on Funko Pop Dolls, those little plush figurines you see lining the walls of comic book shops. As giant media conglomerates become more siloed off, building their own streaming media ecosystems and stockpiling content in digital bunkers, widely recognizable names like Funko, Lego, or Playmobil, in addition to established narrative universes like Marvel and Star Wars, will likely become even more important when attempting to cut through the cultural clutter. Given the critical and commercial success of The Lego Movie, along with the subsequent success of the similarly kinetic Lord and Miller produced Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it's easy to imagine corporate executives treating this as the self-referential template going forward. Here's one prediction: Everything will not be awesome. -- DJ
Best Picture winner: Spotlight
Box-office champ:Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Why the movie mattered then: Before Steven Soderbergh became obsessed with making films on his iPhone, Sean Baker was there. That he made 2015's Tangerine using one of those Apple products was, naturally, the hook that made people sit up and take notice, but the portraits Baker captured through that lens are what made his film meaningful. Baker began picturing the story of two trans sex workers on a Christmas Eve odyssey across America, when he met star Mya Taylor at an LGBTQ center in West Hollywood, where he said "her aura" made him realize he had to speak to her. In pairing Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Baker found a story of friendship shaped by extreme circumstances brought on by marginalization. But it does so without leaning into exploitation, even as the plot veers into raucous directions every bit as thrilling as the big-budget set-pieces you'd find in 2015 blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, or The Martian. Merry Christmas, bitch, indeed.
Why it will matter in the future: In the 2010s, Hollywood finally stopped making it palatable for cis actors to tell trans stories, but when Tangerine hit theaters we were just two years removed from Jared Leto being awarded an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club and Jeffrey Tambor was still winning Emmys for Transparent. Taylor and Rodriguez heralded a new era for trans performers, one that would beget the likes of Pose. Tangerine heralded a new, more accessible style of filmmaking, that challenged notions of who gets to be portrayed on screen. In the future, we'll look back to it as both technology and representation advances. -- EZ
Best Picture winner:Moonlight
Box-office champ: Captain America: Civil War
Why the movie mattered then: It was perhaps preordained that Arrival would come to American movie theaters, ready to spread its much-needed message of humanitarian international cooperation, a week after this country endured a jarring political shift that set the tone for the three increasingly tense years that have followed. The image of Amy Adams, playing the linguist Louise Banks drawn from writer Ted Chiang's short story "The Story of Your Life," staring up at the sky in bewilderment and striving to make sense of the untranslatable served as a type of psychic balm. In an essay for The New Yorker's website, writer Jia Tolentino evoked the movie's tear-jerking power by noting its hopeful ability "to imagine that we’ll be around to help anyone in 3,000 years." One of the rare science-fiction films that competed for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Arrival was selected by the American Film Institute as one of ten "Movies of the Year," and among its many accolades also counts a Ray Bradbury Award and a Hugo. But the hardware it won matters less than the impression it left, an assurance that communication still holds the potential for deeper understanding.
Why it will matter in the future: Villeneuve's contemplative "thinking man's sci-fi" was near-universally beloved not for its fabulous aliens (who rule), for any flashy special effects (though that was the one Oscar it won), nor the killer twist, but for its emotional, optimistic beating heart. It has two hearts, really: on one side, the film can be read as deeply human encouragement to find joy now, even if you know there will be pain later; on the other, more political side of things, it uses an extraterrestrial entity to create an Earthbound utopia where all the nations of the world bury their political differences and posturing to instead share a wealth of scientific knowledge. If only that concept didn't have to be science fiction. -- Emma Stefansky
Best Picture winner:The Shape of Water
Box-office champ:Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Why the movie mattered then: When Get Out was the surprise screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival there was obvious interest. Key & Peele, the brilliantly funny Comedy Central sketch show, had already established Jordan Peele as one of the most perceptive comedic voices of his generation, and he had long professed a love of horror movies in interviews. But even though it was clear from the trailer that Peele was interested in digging into the Obama-era fallacy of a "post-racial America," it was hard to predict just what an impact Get Out would make when audiences finally saw it. After all, it was a genre film, coming out early in the year, from a company (Blumhouse Productions) better known for Paranormal Activity and Insidious than prestige fare -- and yet it's arguably the most vital movie on this entire list. In charting the journey of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he goes to visit the family home of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) and finds there is a lot more afoot than just thinly veiled micro-aggressions, Peele created a new lexicon. The concept of the "sunken place" became immediate shorthand for the systematic subjugation of black people in America. "Voting for Obama for a third term" turned into an easy way to identify a white liberal who is maybe a little too eager to prove just how woke he or she is. And it did all this in a movie that is as sure of its capacity to scare as it is to comment.
Why it will matter in the future: When people in the future ask for a movie that's representative of this period in American history, surely the first one to be mentioned will be Get Out. It arrived in theaters just after Trump took office, and seemingly explained the racism inherent in American culture that brought the nation to this point. It's clear from Us that his debut was no fluke, and Peele will be seen as one of the most important auteurs of this era. Get Out is where that all stated. -- EZ
Minding the Gap
Best Picture Winner:Green Book
Box Office Champ:Avengers: Infinity War
Why the movie mattered then: While the streaming boom has led to a proliferation of non-event event movies, with forgettable Netflix titles like Bird Box inspiring social-media chatter and then vanishing from the public consciousness almost immediately, it's also made audiences more open to types of movies they may have overlooked in the past. Documentaries have perhaps benefited the most from this scrolling curiosity, with challenging, thought-provoking works like Shirkers, Strong Island, and this year's American Factory transforming into binge-able titles partially because of their relative availability. Minding the Gap, a revealing look at a group of skateboarding friends from Rockford, Illinois, that was released on Hulu last year, is the best of the recent crop of formally adventurous, deeply personal non-fiction films. Like Hoop Dreams, the classic '90s basketball documentary from director Steve James, who served as a producer and advisor here, Minding the Gap follows young men as they struggle to make sense of their responsibilities to themselves, their families, and their community. The key difference is that the movie's director, Bing Liu, is also one of the skateboarding teens, lending a knee-scrape immediacy to the material that's then complemented by a disciplined sense of distance in key scenes, like the tearful interview with Liu's mother towards the end of the movie. Fittingly for 2018, a year that also saw the release the memoir-like Roma and the diary-like Eighth Grade, it's a movie about interrogating your own memories.
Why it will matter in the future: This is the part where we bring up TikTok. As young people continue to document their lives through videos shot on their phones, capturing mundane and profound moments that would typically go unpreserved, they will likely look for ways to build longer, more substantial narratives from the ephemera. They will want to tell stories about the passage of time, the type of art that extends beyond a 60-second loop. At 30 years old, Bing Liu is not a member of Generation Z, but one can imagine his movie inspiring young filmmakers to view the footage they shot with their friends as potentially meaningful in the same way. The difficulty is shaping it with the care, rigor, and sensitivity Liu brings to Minding the Gap. -- DJ
Best Picture winner:we'll see!
Box-office champ:Avengers: Endgame (so far)
Why the movie mattered then: Recency bias obviously made this the hardest selection to make, particularly at a time when so many movies arrive cloaked the in the language of perceived urgency. How do you pick a year-defining movie for a year that's not even over yet? Imagine all the events that could still unfold! Still, the reception for Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's follow-up to Okja, made it a clear contender since it debuted at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it handily won the Palme d'Or in a unanimous vote and earned some of the most ecstatic reviews of Bong's long career. The word-of-mouth buzz about the film only grew in intensity before it was available anywhere that wasn't a swanky film festival, with people telling each other that this was the movie they under no circumstances could close out the year without having seen. It helps, of course, that the movie delivers on the breathless hype, telling its story of inequality with bracing stylistic assurance. If you've been putting off getting into one of South Korea's most imaginative and clever directors working today, there's no better time to start.
Why it will matter in the future: Without giving away too much of the plot, Parasite follows the relatively new "social thriller" sub-genre, weaving a take-no-prisoners indictment of South Korea's stark class dichotomy into what starts as a rollicking yarn about a poor family taking over a rich family's lives. It's also the latest in another encouraging trend of movies that take the upper class head on, the fun and flash thinly cloaking a special kind of righteous populist anger found in other 2019 standouts like Hustlers and Ready or Not, and even in Bong's own Okja and Snowpiercer. In Parasite, the gleeful Robin Hood-esque notion of stealing from the rich to give to yourselves is sobered by the very real-world horror of becoming a literal prisoner of your own debts, a living nonperson for the rich to feed off of without even knowing you exist. Parasite demands we recognize that the true villain here is much bigger than a couple of scheming families, and much more frightening. -- ES
Writers: Dan Jackson, Emma Stefansky, Esther Zuckerman
Editorial Assistant: Sadie Bell
Motion Graphics Designer: Megan Chong
Illustrator: Danna Windsor