The Best Films of the Decade So Far (2010-2014)


‘Nostalgia for the Light’

Update (1/8): I wrote some further reflections on the poll results over on Slate.

Passing time on Twitter over the holidays, I asked an offhand question: now that we are midway through the 2010s, what are the best films of the decade so far? The response to this question was well beyond what I anticipated: nearly 300 people tweeted their choices, or posted them on Facebook. Holiday downtime be damned, I couldn’t help but compile the results to see which films would come out on top. I also made the following video, which counts down the top twenty-six films. Finding ways to connect them in one sequence led to some interesting tie-ins and overlaps; hope you enjoy watching it as much as I did putting it together:

Before we get to the full results, permit me to share my own top ten:

Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
Frankly I’m stunned that this film placed so highly in the poll. In an online cinephile age that’s practically drowning in purple prose (and video) poems to the visual stylings of Malick, Scorsese and Anderson (both of them), here is a film whose beauty can’t be distilled into an eye candy compilation for easy consumption. Want proof? Look at the trailer, which must rank as one of the most misguided and misleading attempts to package a masterpiece. Kiarostami doesn’t rely on elaborate flashbacks or fancy camerawork to dress up his romantic playacting mystery tour between two would be/could’ve been lovers. He simply relies on everyday surfaces—words, gestures, moments—and digs at them from within, leaving us with a bewildering look at how human relationships create their own virtual reality without even relying on technology. The film has a staggering effect that’s hard to distill into words, much less a viral video, but apparently quite a few have felt its force. It’s a kind of cinema that transcends convenience.


‘Consuming Spirits’

Consuming Spirits (2012, Chris Sullivan)
Another delightful poll result was the turnout for Don Hertzfeldt’s DIY animated feature It’s Such a Beautiful Daya film that had next to no theatrical life, but has gained a cult following on VOD, and ranked second in the poll only to Hayao Miyazaki‘s The Wind Rises among animated films. As great as that film is, I’m still haunted by Sullivan’s handmade vision of Appalachia, which applies an eclectic array of animation techniques to portray a wholly original gothic universe. It plays like a moonlit trek through an overgrown thicket of crudely exquisite images, flowery linguistic turns and stunning personal traumas, lovely, dark and deep.

Goodbye to Language (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)
Covered previously here, this is your reigning National Society of Film Critics champion, Oscar-mongering be damned.

Horse Money (2014, Pedro Costa)
Due for release later this year, Costa’s follow up to his celebrated Fontainhas trilogy bears many years of toil and bitterness. The Fontainhas slums that he lovingly filmed no longer exist, and so this film makes its way through a world of shadows and ruin, rooted mostly in memory. Costa’s lead Ventura returns, visibly broken and functioning as both the conjurer and the victim of a host of traumas and ghostly figures who pass the screen. They are rendered in Costa’s trademark use of standard definition digital video, creating dark and sensuous textures, renouncing HD hyperclarity for a more subtle, contemplative beauty rooted in reflection upon a lifetime of national and personal pain.

Neighboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)
I’ve long expected Asia to take on increasing prominence in world cinema as this century continues, but these days I am more intrigued by films emerging from South America, which consistently find their way in my end-of-year lists. Encountering Filho’s debut feature at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival was revelatory, with the film richly working the dimensions of sound as well as image to explore the spaces of a sprawling apartment complex in Brazil. Its dense multi-character narrative gradually unspools to uncover a historical trauma to devastating effect. In contrast to the newcomer Filho, Guzman has been making films for over five decades, and Nostalgia for the Light plays like a career summation, encompassing both his childhood dreams of astrology and his adult tribulations as a political activist and prisoner in Chile. The connections he draws between these two selves are unexpected and heartbreaking, as they speak for the hopes and tragedies of an entire nation.


‘Neighboring Sounds’

The Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell)
I’ve made video essays on all three films Russell directed this decade, something I can’t say I’ve done for any other filmmaker. This would suggest that he is my American auteur of choice, though it wasn’t something I actively sought. I found The Fighter to be grating and hokey, but in The Silver Linings Playbook Russell’s cartoonish mania becomes revelatory. Centered on a borderline likable performer playing a borderline personality, there’s an unease in the middle of this film that ripples out into the entire social landscape it depicts: practically everyone in the film is self-medicating, either riding out the storm inside themselves or waiting for the next one to hit. But throughout this moody film’s peaks and valleys there is a constant surge forward, a search for vindication, a belief that everyone and everything will ultimately lock into place. And of course that happens, this being a Hollywood movie, but there’s joy in marveling at the verve and aplomb with which Russell & Co. deliver the goods. It also pulls off an actorly trifecta: establishing Bradley Cooper as a legitimate talent possessing genuine comedic/dramatic pathos; breathing new life into Robert DeNiro’s carcass; and giving Jennifer Lawrence carte blanche to push her strangely beguiling combo of sagacity and nuttiness to both extremes.

Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley)
Tape (2010, Li Ning)
As personal media-making becomes more ubiquitous, the personal documentary must ask more critical questions about just how to apply all this unprecedented capacity to capture one’s life. Polley’s deep dive into her family’s closet of skeletons works towards a big reveal that would satisfy an above-average TV expose; but with each successive viewing it reveals more of its captivating layers and self-conscious contentions over filmmaking as a tool for fact-finding and interpersonal mediation. These objectives similarly drove China’s DIY documentary scene ever since video cameras became readily accessible there over a decade ago, leading to some of the most groundbreaking recent work in nonfiction cinema. The indie doc scene has lately been stifled under increased pressure from the government, which prompts me to mark Li Ning’s documentary Tape as a high-water mark for personal documentary taken to its limits in China. Li filmed himself obsessively over five years, letting his camera mediate his personal and professional life while also exposing not a few of his weaknesses, pushing the boundary between self-critical honesty and narcissism. Swinging from exultant interludes of guerrilla street performance art to the mundane pressures of life as a husband, father and teacher, this film is an irrepressible landmark of personal cinema.


‘This Is Not a Film’

This Is Not a Film (2012, Jafar Panahi)
When numerous critics, including me, placed this film at the top of their top ten lists in 2012, Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the most ardent longstanding supporters of Panahi’s films, complained that people were jumping on a political bandwagon after paying little attention to Panahi’s earlier films. Rosenbaum considers those works to be cinematically superior to This Is Not a Film, Panahi’s desperate attempt to continue his filmmaking practice while under house arrest in Iran by using mini digital camcorders and an iPhone. I’ve watched and admired Panahi’s films for over a decade as exemplary works of arthouse festival cinema, but there was something radically thrilling about watching an auteur attempting to create cinema out of practically nothing, using devices commonly employed by the rest of us. Whether it can be considered a failed exercise in self-consolation or a brilliantly realized artistic self-evaluation, This Is Not a Film has the honesty to confront the prospects of cinema in a world without cinema, which in many respects may be a world towards which we may be lurching, unknowingly yet inexorably. A world where movies exist everywhere and nowhere at once, and where their infinite accessibility, replicability and malleability may lead to their dilution… and reconstitution into who knows what else next.

Ten more films that could easily have earned a paragraph: The Day He Arrives; Drug War; Holy Motors; Let the Bullets Fly; Leviathan; Margaret; Meek’s Cutoff; The Strange Little Cat; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; and Upstream Color

And here is the full list of all 491 films that received a vote, sorted by the number of votes each received. Special thanks to all who took part in the poll.

Uncle Boonmee

‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’

1. The Tree of Life (103 votes)
2. Certified Copy (91 votes)
3. The Master (76 votes)
4. Margaret (68 votes)
5. Holy Motors (66 votes)
6. A Separation (64 votes)
7. Under the Skin (61 votes)
8. Inside Llewyn Davis (59 votes)
9. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (45 votes)
10. Boyhood (44 votes)
11. Goodbye to Language (41 votes)
12. The Social Network (40 votes)
13. Moonrise Kingdom (36 votes)
14. Her (33 votes)
(tie) Leviathan (2012)
16. Mysteries of Lisbon (32 votes)
17. The Act of Killing (28 votes)
(tie) The Turin Horse
19. Before Midnight (27 votes)
(tie) Melancholia
(tie) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
22. Frances Ha (25 votes)
(tie) The Wolf of Wall Street
24. The Immigrant (24 votes)
(tie) Spring Breakers

27. (23 votes)
House of Pleasures/Tolerance

29. (21 votes)
Grand Budapest Hotel
Like Someone in Love
This Is Not a Film

32. (20 votes)
Upstream Color

33. (19 votes)
Stray Dogs



34. (18 votes)
Oslo August 31

36. (16 votes)
Computer Chess

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

39. (15 votes)
The Day He Arrives
Film Socialisme

You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet
12 Years a Slave
Meek’s Cutoff

44. (14 votes)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Wind Rises
Zero Dark Thirty



49. (13 votes)
Horse Money
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
Stories We Tell

53. (12 votes)
Hard to Be a God
To the Wonder

56. (11 votes)
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Drug War
Nostalgia for the Light

59. (10 votes)
Black Swan
Listen Up Philip
Neighboring Sounds
Shutter Island
Toy Story 3


‘The Deep Blue Sea’

64. (9 votes)
The Deep Blue Sea 
Django Unchained

69. (8 votes)
The Great Beauty
Inherent Vice
Loneliest Planet
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Museum Hours
Skin I Live In
The Strange Case of Angelica
Take Shelter
Two Days One Night

79. (7 votes)
The Autobiography of Nicolae Caucescu
The Grandmaster
The Kid with a Bike
The Only Lovers Left Alive
Stranger By the Lake
Winter’s Bone


‘Museum Hours’

87. (6 votes)
Journey to the West
Laurence Anyways
Romancing in Thin Air
The Strange Little Cat
Tale of Princess Kaguya
We Need To Talk about Kevin

98. (5 votes)
Another Year
The Arbor
Blue Valentine
Closed Curtain
Cloud Atlas
The Duke of Burgundy
In the Family
Norte, The End of History
Of Gods and Men
Oki’s Movie
Post Tenebras Lux
The Silver Linings Playbook
A Touch of Sin



113. (4 votes)
Extravagant Shadows
Almayer’s Folly
Attack the Block
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Cabin in the Woods
The Color Wheel
Exit Through the Giftshop
Future, The
Girl Walk//All Day
The Hunt
Le Quattro Volte
Life of Pi
Life without Principle
My Joy
Night Across the Street
Perks of Being a Wallflower
A Prophet
This Is Martin Bonner
Top of the Lake
True Grit

141. (3 votes)
Beyond the Hills
Blind Detective
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
The Comedy
A Dangerous Method
Dark Knight Rises
Dusty Stacks of Mom
A Field in England
Ghost Writer
Girl with a Dragon Tattoo
Gone Girl
In Another Country
Low Life
Magic Mike
A Month in Thailand
Ne Me Quitte Pas
Never Let Me Go
Til Madness Do Us Part
Whores’ Glory
Wolf Children
The World’s End


‘Whores’ Glory’

179. (2 votes)
American Hustle
And Everything Is Going Fine
Animal Kingdom
The Artist
At Berkeley
Broken Circle Breakdown
Child’s Pose
City of Life and Death
Cold Weather
Consuming Spirits
The Counselor
Dialogue of Shadows
The Fighter
Force Majeure
Four Lions
Get Out of the Car
Ha Ha Ha
I Am Love
I’m Still Here
The Illusionist
The Imposter
J. Edgar
Kill List
Killer Joe
Last of the Unjust
The Last Time I Saw Macao
Le Havre
Li’l Quinquin
Like Father Like Son
Lords of Salem
Midnight in Paris
Mildred Pierce
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon
Only God Forgives
Only the Young
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Road to Nowhere
Rust and Bone
Seeking the Monkey King
Short Term 12
Sleeping Beauty (Leigh)
Sleepless Nights
Small Roads
Something in the Air
Stemple Pass
The Story of Film

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