I have to admit that when I was asked to write this article, I found it hard to believe that I could come up with ten movies that I was passionate enough about that weren’t on That Shelf’s Top 100. As expected, almost all of my favourite movies of the 2010s made it onto the list. Yet by the time I was done reading, I’d also come up with about 50 movies I love that were left off.
I guess that’s what happens when you watch far more films than any reasonable person should in a decade.
So after whittling down 40 titles, I’ve settled on these 10 films of the 2010s that I can’t in good conscience allow to be left behind from That Shelf’s retrospective. These are movies that I insist you seek out immediately if you haven’t let them tickle your eyeholes and earholes yet. And before anyone complains, yes I cheated several times to cram in extra movies. Deal with it. I’m not a professional film critic anymore. I don’t have to follow your rules!
10) Mission: Impossible 4-6
Who would have ever imagined that as he eased into his 50s, perpetual cocky pretty boy Tom Cruise would turn into the Hollywood version of Jackie Chan. Whether motivated by a fear of impending irrelevancy, an addiction to adrenaline, or the guiding hand of Scientology, somehow over the last decade Tom Cruise has become a performer determined to put his life in danger for our entertainment. All three of the Mission: Impossible blockbusters that Cruise cranked out in the 2010s need to be seen to be believed, serving up incredible spectacle in a era of cinema that seemed to be defined by boom boom bang bang entertainment. If nothing else, these action movies had better be remembered as some of the best cinema of the decade or else Cruise might actually kill himself onscreen to ensure that a Mission: Impossible sequel becomes iconic in the 2020s. We can’t let that happen.
9) T2 Trainspotting
Full disclosure: Trainspotting is probably my favourite movie. It’s certainly the one that I’ve watched more than any other and the one that served as my gateway into grimy auteur filmmaking. I couldn’t believe that Danny Boyle and co. would actually dare to make a sequel, and I was even more surprised when it ended up being a great film. In decade filled with nostalgic sequels and remakes, T2 Trainspotting was one that actually overtly dealt with the limitations and pains of nostalgia. This project took a film about wayward youth and turned it into a story of middle-aged regret. It explored the painful competition of long friendships. It also explored that no matter how much old friends can hurt each other, relationships that stretch across lifetimes are irreplaceable. T2 Trainspotting was as painful, hilarious, moving, stylish, melancholic, real, and surreal as the original – just in a completely different way for a completely different era. A true sequel for fans who had aged alongside the original. That’s a ridiculously specific niche, but in an age of niche content providers, this is as worthy as any other. Even if very few people bothered to care or even notice when the flick was released.
8) John Wick 1-3
When the 2010s kicked off, action movies were either defined by CGI superhero shenanigans or shaky-cam Jason Bourne-inspired “realism”. It started to feel like the inherent cinematic joys of the balletic fight choreography and the visceral thrills of physical stunts might be phasing out of the genre. Thank god for John Wick. This weird n’ wacky throwback to classic action flicks from two of Hollywood’s greatest stunt men (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch) began life as a pleasant surprise in the winter of 2014. It synthesized Walter Hill terse characterization, Michael Mann’s slick aesthetic, and John Woo’s breathtakingly ridiculous choreography into a timeless action movie that felt instantly iconic. Two sequels later, and the franchise has grown big enough to beat actual Hollywood blockbusters at their own game. This franchise also elevated Keanu Reeves’ career to a level of success, respect, and meme-ification that he’d never known before. The 2010s would have been far worse without John Wick’s dead doggo quest for revenge. Hopefully this series will continue to thrive throughout the next decade as well.
7) Four Lions
There are so many reasons why Chris Morris’ Four Lions shouldn’t work. After all, this is a comedy about four Muslim extremist suicide bombers told entirely from their perspective. Pick any political angle, and there is a reason to be offended by this movie’s mere existence. Yet somehow against all odds, Morris’ film is hilarious, surprisingly moving, and deeply human. The reason is simple: empathy. While Morris has long been a harsh satirist determined to mine the harshest of subject matter for laughs, here he delivers a surprisingly humane and even gentle story about a collection of terrorists. This isn’t a movie where the characters learn lessons and avoid tragedy. But thanks to a collection of remarkable performances and a stunning screenplay (co-written by Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong), it’s also film that makes you fully empathize with characters who are never offered empathy in any form of media. Four Lions is a remarkable film and as frustrating as it was to see the movie virtually ignored in 2010, it’s been even harder to watch the 2010s stretch out to completion without its reputation growing at all. Seek it out and spread the word.
6) Kill List
Ben Wheatley was one of the most exciting emerging filmmakers at the start of the 2010s and while he’s never really elevated above cult status, he’s still one of the best directors around. Eventually he’ll make something so good that not even mainstream audiences will be able to ignore him. His entire eccentric cinematic output is ripe for rediscovery, but something about his shocking sophomore stunner Kill List cuts deeper than anything else. It’s a hard movie to classify, ostensibly falling into the horror genre because it’s so deeply unsettling, yet with an attention to character and mundane realism more typically associated with the likes of other UK filmmakers like Mike Leigh or Alan Clarke. Wheatley’s film is a bit of a masterpiece in its own morbid way. Perhaps the reason why Kill List hasn’t grown in popularly since 2011 is because it really is a movie best experienced with zero expectations. Everyone who loves it wants to honour its secrets and surprises. You absolutely should see Kill List immediately if you haven’t already. Just make sure to book off a few days afterward to recover. This movie leaves scars that don’t heal quickly.
Rounding out the British trio in the middle of this list, Dunkirk is a war movie unlike any other. Having reached a level of success that afforded him a big fat blank cheque from Hollywood, Christopher Nolan chose to cash in with this unconventional blockbuster more defined by mood and sensation than plot or character. Nolan’s blockbusters always thrillingly concluded with a cross-cutting climax that folded a variety of action scenes together for one big crescendo. Dunkirk essentially stretches that technique out to feature length, depicting the madness of war by thrusting audiences into a variety of unsettling (and admittedly rousing) set pieces that bombards viewers with pure filmmaking. Seeing Dunkirk in IMAX was an unforgettably visceral cinematic experience, but even from the safety of home it’s hard not to feel worn out and battered (in a good way, I swear!) by what Nolan’s team accomplished. The last decade of studio filmmaking was essentially dominated by blockbusters, and many will claim that’s to the detriment of the film industry. Yet, a few auteur driven blockbusters like Dunkirk slipped through the cracks during this era as well. When a singular artistic vision and grandiose contemporary spectacle combines like it does in Dunkirk, there’s nothing quite like it. Hopefully it’ll happen a few more times in the 2020s.
4) The Beach Bum/Spring Breakers
It was weird to watch Harmony Korine transition from a shock-obsessed art house enfant terrible into a searing American satirist, but somehow it happened. These two tales of American excess set in the cranked up ne’er-do-well cousin of California known as Florida are as cutting as they are hilarious. Spring Breakers corrupted a handful of real life Disney princesses at the hands of future #METOO poster boy James Franco to explore spring break culture as a microcosm for how America exploits young women. The fact that the movie became iconic for all the wrong reasons only proved how accurately (and hilariously) Korine captured the gross booty-shaking excess and exploitation of the spring break industry and American culture.
The Beach Bum made little-to-no impact when it was released earlier this year, but it might even be better. On the surface, it’s a painfully hilarious stoner comedy featuring Matthew McConaughey in the role he was born to play. Yet, it’s also a potent satire of a particularly American brand of hedonistic success that’s considered aspirational when it should really be viewed as toxic. Dripping with irony and backhanded affection for its world and characters, there’s much more to chew on in The Beach Bum than anyone seemed to acknowledge on release (even though it contains the most poisonously barbed line of dialogue in a year defined by eat-the-rich class warfare in cinema). I’m confident that The Beach Bum will become a cult classic alongside Spring Breakers soon enough. It’ll probably age better too.
Why Alexander Payne’s affectionate love letter to the pains of living within middle American mediocrity seemed to be forgotten so quickly is a mystery to me. The film felt so honest, hilarious, beautiful, and heart-breakingly melancholic to me that its images lodged into my brain forever after my first viewing. Despite the show-off black and white cinematography, Nebraska says so much so subtly that I suppose it makes sense that no one noticed. Bruce Dern didn’t even get the legacy Oscar that he deserved. Oh well, it’s still a great film and at least there’s a certain level of satisfying irony about the fact that this love letter to overlooked people in overlooked towns living overlooked lives was…well…you know…
2) Gone Girl
On the other end of the spectrum, David Fincher isn’t exactly an overlooked filmmaker. But one thing that is taken for granted about Fincher is just how fucking funny his movies are. Created in collaboration with screenwriter/novelist Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a dark satire of relationships masquerading as a twisty-turny sexy thriller. Featuring the best big screen villain of the decade (beautifully captured with chilling calculation by Rosamund Pike), the best performance of Ben Affleck’s career (in a role that almost felt like a joke at the actor’s expense), a satisfyingly layered script, pitch perfect cameo casting (Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry know what they are doing), and some of Fincher’s finest thriller direction and misdirection, the movie works as pure genre entertainment. Yet, it’s the sick and painfully funny exploration of how partners in a marriage can slowly destroy each other that lingers longest. The fact that Fincher somehow managed to turn this material into a genuine date night blockbuster might be the sickest joke of his career.
1) Frances Ha
How Frances Ha managed to be left off That Shelf’s Top 100 Movies Of The 2010s is a mystery to me. It’s the movie that elevated Greta Gerwig from indie star into one of the most important voices of her generation and revived the career of her partner Noah Baumbach in the process. The film struck a chord with a generation, launched careers, and identified a new audience that’s been catered to every since. For historic significance alone, this movie deserves a slot on any best of the decade list. There’s also so much more to the movie than just a legacy.
Like Gone Girl, the surface charms of Frances Ha are deceiving. Beautifully photographed and playfully performed by a cast of young actors about to pop, the film can feel like a playful rush of wayward youth settling into adulthood. Go deeper and there’s far more to Frances Ha that’s actually quite melancholic and tragic. This is also a film about that sadly relatable moment when youthful dreams and idealism need to be crushed by the complicated realities of being an adult. It’s a charming story about giving up your youth and dreams in favour of paying the bills and getting by. There aren’t too many movies about that. Certainly not ones that are this joyous to watch.
This wouldn’t necessarily be the movie on this list that I’d be most likely to pull off my shelf and re-watch on a wasted night. But, as someone who just spent my 2010s and my 20s pursuing a failed dream of becoming a professional film critic and who is now writing this supplemental Top 10 list for free after a day spent working a thankless and dull job without much of a future, I gotta admit that Frances Ha is feeling pretty relatable right now. They say that great movies age with you and mean different things at different points in your life. Well, Frances Ha felt thrillingly relatable and optimistic when I first saw it in 2012. Now it feels more painfully relatable and even tragic.
So, I guess it must be one of the greatest movies of the decade, right?