This may come as a bit of a surprise to moviegoers, but on a day-to-day, functional basis, the movie business is actually quite conservative and risk-averse. I’m not talking politically, I’m talking in terms of business practices and mode of operation. Movies are expensive to make. And a hassle. And it’s hard to predict what will work. The workforce is heavily unionized and personal connections count more than almost anything. That’s why you see so many sequels, similar story lines, and familiar stars in familiar roles.
On top of that, the Academy is even more conservative and even more resistant to change or diversity. This finally came to a head in 2016, when not a single person of color received an Academy Award nomination. Thus was born the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, followed by a modest increase of diversity among the nominees. The industry itself, however, has demonstrated an increasing willingness in this decade to begin telling stories about the lives of people whose stories hadn’t been told before. And while the decade still has a month or two left in it, I think we can safely put together a list of the best movies of the 2010s. Here are my picks.
Best American Movies of the 2010s
Moonlight is a deeply touching story about a young African American man coming to grips with his sexuality in turbulent contemporary Miami—the kind of story you never would have seen before, but now you do. Mahershala Ali won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Juan, the drug dealer who emerges as a father figure to the central character. The film was the first with an all-black cast and an LGBTQ theme to win the Best Picture. And deservedly so.
An antiseptic blast for those nostalgic for the Confederacy. This film is based on an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnapped while visiting Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery on a plantation in Louisiana for, well, 12 years. The transatlantic importation of Africans was banned by Congress in 1807, so the ensuing nearly 60 years of the slave trade consisted entirely of domestic commerce within the US. It was a brutal and horrifying commerce. This film accurately portrays what life was like for enslaved African Americans on the large Southern plantations. Steve McQueen directs and the film features a bravura performance by Chiwetel Eijofor. Winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong'o, this film is highly recommended.
A tour de force work of animation, both hand-drawn and CGI, this is a story that is action-packed and yet still humane. It’s one of the best, if not the best, animated movies of the decade. It is the first animated movie in the Spider-Man franchise, and at times the screen is filled with some of the most spectacular animated imagery you’ll find (outside of a Miyazaki film). A fun one to watch with your kids.
The challenge for this movie was how to tell a story in which everyone ends up incredibly rich and have it actually be interesting. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin pulls this off by focusing on the problematic character of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. In its early years, Facebook was widely perceived by its users as a wonderful addition to their lives, helping them stay connected with family and friends. This movie is a brilliant portrayal of the launch of Facebook as well as the downside of the product—and its rapacious founder—which have since cast a much darker light on this social platform.
Is this the best of the Toy Story movies? That’s a pretty high bar, but I think it pulls it off. The Toy Story movies are always deeply emotional without ever crossing into sentimentality or mawkishness. Here, Andy is getting ready to go off to college, so he’s thinned out his toy collection and intends to store most of them in a trash bag in the attic, taking only Woody with him. Time for a reunion adventure as the toys mistakenly end up at a daycare center and try to get back to Woody. Unwisely, it turns out. This is lovely, action-packed, and filled with emotional moments that will impact the whole family.
This is a devastating portrayal of a tragedy that destroys a working class family and the marriage within it. Set in a small seaside town in Massachusetts, this film is a masterclass in acting. Breathtaking performances here from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Kyle Chandler. It ultimately shows how people survive almost unspeakable tragedies. Yes, this is a sad movie. And yes, you should watch it.
The Best Foreign Movies of the 2010s
While most Americans were paying attention to other things, the Iranian film industry has blossomed into one of the best in the world, turning out compelling films year after year since coming into its own in the 1990s. Iranian films typically focus on the drama of everyday life, and have been compared to Italian films of the early postwar period of the 1940s. This incredible movie tells the story of a middle class couple in modern day Tehran, torn apart by the strains of dealing with an elderly parent struggling with Alzheimer’s. The film was written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, and it is heart-wrenching and beautiful. If you are looking for a good drama that touches deep truths, give this one a try. You will not be disappointed.
This is an Academy Award winning film about a marriage collapsing and life going on in turbulent 1970s Mexico City. I love this movie unreservedly and have seen it at least five times already. Shot in piercing black and white, it tells of a family breaking apart and yet still surviving. Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron and based on his own life, it also won him an Academy Award for Best Director. I’m going to quit writing right now and go watch it again immediately. The two female leads are particularly good—Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira. They make the movie soar.
Ever seen a Romanian movie before? How about you start with this drama about a married man who is in love with two women and the wreckage that causes to his family, the women, and himself. This is a searing melodrama about marriage and infidelity set in contemporary Bucharest, Romania.
Time to give this lyrical South Korean film a try. It’s about an elderly woman who finds her life transformed by a poetry class as she comes to grips with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. It stars Jeong-hie Yun, who was one of the biggest stars in South Korean film in the late 1960s. She married a pianist in the 1970s and then retired from acting in the mid-90s. This film marked her return after 15 years away, and her performance is complex and almost miraculously perfect. There is much more to this movie than just enchanting scenery and melancholy feelings. This is one of the more powerful films you will see any time soon.
This Thai film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, which is one of the highest awards in world cinema. It is a melancholy drama about a man—Uncle Boonmee—in the final days of his life. Reincarnation and the durability of love after death are the themes of this mesmerizing film, as he is visited by the ghosts of his dead wife and missing son. Written, directed and produced by the daring Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this movie is unconventional in every way. Instead of having a linear plot line, it is a long tone poem/meditation on what we will all inevitably face in our final days. You have never seen a movie quite like this, I promise.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.