Despite all the challenges facing cinema in the outgoing decade, the medium somehow managed to honour many of the aesthetics the pioneers devised more than 100 years ago. We began in 2010 with digital production and exhibition on a dramatic rise. As we end the decade, physical prints, like vinyl LPs, are often viewed as heritage luxuries.
Only a handful of films listed below were actually shot on film – László Nemes’s Son of Saul is among them – and those directors have become evangelists for the old medium. We’ve talked about the streaming revolution elsewhere. Yet the works below employ montage, camera movement and sound design in ways that John Ford or Akira Kurosawa would recognise. Grand traditions ran through a decade that, against the odds, produced as many great films as any other in the past 50 years.
Some facts? Directors from seven nationalities appear in our top 10 (two of them Hungarian). With four films each, 2013 and 2017 were the highest-scoring years in the top 25. There are no winners of the Oscar for best picture, but three Palme d’Or winners make it in. Explore further. So, in reverse order of merit…
THE TOP 25
Denis Villeneuve, 2016
The “aha!” moment at the end is well earned in a science-fiction film that wears its philosophical concerns lightly. A big-budget eccentricity.
24. Upstream Colour
Shane Carruth, 2013
But what does it all mean? And why has Shane Carruth not made another film? Weird, skewed science-fiction puzzler about a psychotropic larva and other stuff. Carruth does everything and does it all well.
23. Holy Motors
Leos Carax, 2012
About eight brilliant movies bound together in one hyperbrilliant package, Leos Carax’s fantasy draws a breathtakingly varied performance from Denis Lavant and a closing cameo from Kylie Minogue.
22. Blue Is the Warmest Colour
Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013
Among the most celebrated films of its year – starring Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos as passionate lovers – the Palme d’Or winner fell from critical grace when allegations emerged about abuse on set. It remains stunning.
21. You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay, 2017
We can probably call Joaquin Phoenix the actor of the decade. The great Scottish director Lynne Ramsay casts him as a lone maniac fighting for the lives of sex-trafficked children in a harsh, grainy universe. Brilliantly made.
Lars von Trier, 2011
Lars von Trier’s quietest, least aggressive film of the decade proved to be his finest. Kirsten Dunst won best actress at Cannes for her role as a women contemplating marriage as the world comes to an end.
Alejandro Landes, 2019
Brilliantly offbeat Colombian drama about a group of commandos living desperate lives on an unforgiving mountainside. Too many reviews said “Lord of the Flies by way of Apocalypse Now”. But they weren’t exactly wrong.
18. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010
The Thai experimentalist ascended to film royalty with his tricky, funny study of a man contemplating the roots of illness. Features hairy beasts with luminous eyes and sex between people and fish. Deserved Palme d’Or winner.
17. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig, 2017
What an unqualified delight Greta Gerwig’s first feature turned out to be. The relationship between Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird and her hassled mom – the flawless Laurie Metcalf – is painfully believable.
16. Get Out
Jordan Peele, 2017
Peele’s horror addresses complacent liberal attitudes to race without ever letting up on the tension or dampening the black humour. The Sunken Place is already baked into popular culture.
Gaspar Noé, 2018
Rebounding after the tedious Love, Gaspar Noé delivers a delirious dance movie that takes its momentum from the throbbing beats on the soundtrack. Begins at a clatter. Ends in decadent ballyhoo.
Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013
Spookily beautiful monochrome road movie about a young novice encountering truths about the Holocaust in 1960s Poland. Agata Kulesza bosses Pawel Pawlikowski’s film as her hard-drinking aunt.
Bong Joon-ho, 2019
There has rarely been a more universally celebrated winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or. The Korean director Bong Joon-ho excels with a brilliantly staged social satire that veers from high farce to brutal reckoning.
12. Madeline’s Madeline
Josephine Decker, 2018
Josephine Decker finds her rhythm in a wild film that spins imaginatively outwards from an experimental theatre company’s exploration of an old, old story. Helena Howard is brilliant as the young protagonist.
11. Birds of Passage
Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra, 2018
Cristina Callego and Ciro Guerra attack the Colombian drug wars from a unique perspective: magic realism and epic soap help build a complex structure that houses musings on feminism, tradition and colonialism.
10. The Turin Horse
Béla Tarr, 2011
Béla Tarr, the master of Hungarian reverie, steps back from features with the story of two miserable potato farmers adrift in a storm-battered landscape. So far, so Tarr. As grimly persuasive as his very best work.
Sean Baker, 2015
Making a film with iPhones sounds like a gimmick, but Sean Baker’s delicious, pinballing drama – set among Los Angeles’s transgender community – transcends its medium as it embraces the energies of street life.
8. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012
Joshua Oppenheimer invites perpetrators of mass slaughter in Indonesia to act out their atrocities. Reveals the everyday humanity of people we would be more comfortable labelling as monsters.
Kantemir Balagov, 2019
Coming in late, Kantemir Balagov’s beautiful, sombre film deals with one woman returning to her best friend in Leningrad after the second World War. Brings the ideas of the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich into sharp focus.
6. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012
Paul Thomas Anderson has suggested that this propulsive drama, starring an incandescent Joaquin Phoenix as a disciple of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sinister guru, may be his own favourite among his films.
5. The Tribe
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014
Singular Ukrainian drama set among the students at a school for the deaf. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s film is daringly delivered in sign language without subtitles, yet it is utterly lucid for all audiences.
4. The Duke of Burgundy
Peter Strickland, 2014
One of the decade’s great originals, Peter Strickland nods to 1970s erotica with a sumptuous, witty tale of dominance and submission. Feels as if it has always existed.
3. Son of Saul
László Nemes, 2015
A tight, nervous camera follows an inmate of Auschwitz as he seeks to bury his son with dignity. The real horror happens just outside the frame. Or does it?
2. Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer, 2013
Scarlett Johansson, an alien in Glasgow, reveals profound truths about our flexible approach to empathy as she prowls in search of human prey. Large sections were filmed on city streets with hidden cameras.
Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2017
Flawless, pitch-black treatment of contemporary Russian malaise – hanging around a child’s disappearance – that features (no hyperbole) one of the greatest single shots in cinema history.
The next 25 best films of the decade, in spots 26-50: Moonlight, Evolution, The Lesson, The Rider, The Lobster, 45 Years, I Am Not Your Negro, Paterson, Ghost Story, Marriage Story, Things to Come, American Honey, Jackie, Foxcatcher, A Separation, The Fool, Your Name, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Norte: The End of History, Beyond the Hills, White Bird in a Blizzard, Force Majeure, Catch Me Daddy, Shoplifters