Every decade of cinema evolves the medium in some way. In the 2010’s, we saw a greater diversity in voices behind the camera—more women and people of color made great movies this decade than in any other decade prior. The best movies of the decade reflect that, and the one everyone points out is Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece “Moonlight.”
What is great about “Moonlight” is its ambiguity. We see this in the beginning with Juan, (Mahershala Ali). Juan is a drug dealer but he’s also the only parental figure that young Chiron ever truly has. He’s a criminal – but he’s thoughtful and gentle. The development of Chiron is similarly understated, as he starts out thoughtful and poetic and evolves into a gangster. But the movie avoids the moment that has become a cliché – it avoids giving Chiron a “rosebud” or having him forget the things he loves in his youth. He becomes a gangster, but he never loses his true self, he just hides it to adapt. The movies are a machine to generate empathy, and few films surpass “Moonlight” in that respect.
Many established ‘great’ filmmakers also had career best offerings, but one that stands out is the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The movie said something brave about creative people – about how integral luck is to building a legacy as an artist and about how you can go all in to your chosen craft and simply not make it just because it’s not in the stars. It’s a quiet film that requires a certain level of patience, but “Llewyn Davis” is infinitely rewarding and a standout effort in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, which is saying quite a bit.
There was also “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the greatest film legendary action director George Miller has ever made. Before this movie came out, no one was expecting it to be good, let alone as good as it wound up being. The movie’s action scenes are so long and elaborate and yet “Fury Road” is never tiresome. The movie is perfectly paced and never wears out its welcome – even on the second, third, 10th and 20th viewing. It feels timeless, and its greatness is immediate.
Another great film from a veteran filmmaker is Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Scorsese has made a lot of films about disgusting men with some degree of nuance, and his take on disgraced power broker Jordan Belfort is similarly gray. Belfort is not particularly unique, slaving away for a paycheck, married and with a family. What the movie accomplishes that is fascinating is that it shows how anyone could become this grotesque. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a tightrope act – there is no fat, and Leonardo Dicaprio’s excellent performance ensnares you for the gargantuan three-hour runtime. With a fanbase that misunderstands its themes, Scorsese has, in a roundabout way, proven his point.
Another great effort is “Twelve Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen’s greatest film “Widows.” The script by “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn perfectly balances the struggles of class, race and gender. It’s an intersectional stroke of genius. The filmmaking is peerless and everyone in the cast delivers career-best work. In “Widows,” Chicago is drenched in atmosphere and deeply authentic – the plot is unpredictable and tense. It is the greatest film of a great filmmaker who had not realized his full potential up to this point.
“Raw” is another one of the greatest films of the decade. Director Julia Ducournau, in her directorial debut, crafts a horror film with thematic and social value – like all great horror films. It is a coming of age film masked under a cannibal movie. “Raw,” despite its content, relies more on the perverse nature of its characters rather than the film’s grosser scenes. It is deeply psychological and well worth watching, even though you likely haven’t seen it.
It feels surreal that the decade is actually over. I invested myself in the medium of cinema at the start of the decade and have grown immensely in the 10 years since. Cynicism aside, the 2010’s were a monumental landmark for movies – and the films that came as a result of that will never be forgotten.