This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.
While comedies seek to make viewers laugh and horror movies want to take audiences into the darkness, action films hope to raise heart rates through a combination of motion and impact. A fist connecting with a face, a car holding tight to the asphalt as it corners at over 100 mph, feet leaving the ground to rise up and stomp down on an enemy’s head, a hammer swinging through the air to pierce a bad guy’s awaiting flesh, a helicopter chase through tight ravines — these aren’t things we want to encounter in the real world, but action movies (like horror) use them to entertain, thrill, and create opportunities for catharsis.
But this doesn’t need to be a psychoanalyst’s version of rocket science. We like action movies because when done right they’re entertaining as hell.
This past decade has seen an increase and over-reliance on CG effects to create thrills, but there are still talented filmmakers in the US and around the globe making action movies that deliver with stunts, fight choreography, ingenuity, and creativity to spare — and Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, and I have seen most of them. Keep reading for a look at the 50 best action movies from 2010 through 2019.
50. Gemini Man (2019)
I hate to start off this list of positivity with a slam, but y’all really fucked up by skipping out on Gemini Man in theaters. Ang Lee’s action/sci-fi romp might not wow on the narrative front, but it’s a real banger when it comes to the gun play, chase scenes, and fights. Similarly, while Lee’s technological toy box is still troublesome during scenes of people talking, eating, and breathing, the 60-120 frames per second format comes alive with the action sequences as the picture sucks viewers right into the fray in amazing, exciting, and smile-inducing ways. Will it impress equally on home video? We’ll have to wait and see, but for now I’m comfortable saying Lee’s experiment is a gift to action fans who don’t mind simple, familiar plots paired with absolutely thrilling visuals. (Rob Hunter)
49. Plan B (2016, Germany)
Speaking of movies that not enough of you have seen, while many on this list had their time in the sun this German gem got lost in the festival shuffle. It’s a damn shame as this three-pronged blast of blistering action and big laughs announced the true “on screen” arrival of three fantastic talents. Can Aydin, Yoon Cha-lee, and Phong Giang are all stunt men who’ve appeared in some of your favorite action films and studio blockbusters, but here they take center stage as actors too. They play a trio of friends drawn into a violent scheme with big baddies, and in addition to being a charming threesome these guys are also excellent athletes and fast-moving fighters. The film is a joy, and it deserves your eyeballs. (Rob Hunter)
48. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is an epic, emotional conclusion to one of the greatest superhero sagas ever made. The Dark Knight Rises is also a bona fide action treat, with a jaw-dropping opening airplane sequence that ranks near the top of the decade’s most awe-inspiring stunts. Of all the superhero movies out there — and I love most of them — this is one of the few that manages to wow with practical action sequences, and more of them should learn from its approach to the genre. In Nolan we trust. (Kieran Fisher)
47. Atomic Blonde (2017)
The Charlize Theron we meet at the start of Atomic Blonde is unlike any other we’ve seen before. She’s destroyed. Beaten, broken, worn down to almost nothing. She looks like the grizzliest panels of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil comics. How the hell did this happen? The film hops all over the place to tell the story of her most epic beating. By the time we reach the events that resulted in the thrashing, we’ve already seen her demolish swarms of Cold War hoods, and our confidence in her prowess is impenetrable. Director David Leitch keeps her big brawl in one shot, digitally spliced together. Things start as many of the previous fights did with Theron power-kicking her victims to their oblivion, but this time the goons won’t quit. They keep coming. She starts to take a few licks. Then the licks turn into gashes, lacerations, and lesions. She keeps going. Moving the battle from stairwell to apartment to stairwell to street to car to water. She survives. Barely. There is still a third act to complete. Atomic Blonde is basic but unapologetic. It knows it has you with the neon and the 80s Euro-cool score. The plot is nothing to celebrate. Double agents and microfilm. Charlize Theron, though. She’s a monster of bad-assery, and for every punch she takes, she delivers tenfold. (Brad Gullickson)
46. No Escape (2015)
Go ahead, dismiss this mean, ugly, Owen Wilson-led action picture if you must, but your snobbery can’t change its well deserved presence on this list. The scene where Wilson throws his child across an alleyway from one rooftop to the next is alone worth giving the movie a watch, but more than that the movie delivers some brutal, bloody action as a family fights their way beyond the reach of an angry mob intent on their demise. Accusations of xenophobia and racism miss the point as the movie, like Gerard Butler’s Has Fallen franchise, delivers the goods while fully embracing the Cannon Films ethos of capturing the mean-spirited ugliness of violence and humanity’s ability to do terrible things to each other. There’s a mix of desperation, terror, and anger in the carnage, and that elevates the thrills beyond mere eye candy. It’s action with excitement and catharsis, and that’s more than enough reason to settle in for its genre goodness. (Rob Hunter)
45. Kill Order (2017, Canada)
This overlooked gem was the product of a Kickstarter campaign from James Mark, a stunt performer with aspirations of becoming a director. Like most crowdfunding campaigns from untested filmmakers, however, the project only managed to raise a shoestring budget. That said, the DIY qualities only add to the film’s charm, though the energetic pace, well-choreographed fight scenes, and practical stunt work makes Kill Order a far more impressive action outing than movies that cost 100 times its budget. The story is essentially a sci-fi take on Bourne, but the film’s derivative qualities don’t take away from its enjoyability. Give this crew a sizeable budget, and I guarantee you that they’d take the world by storm. (Kieran Fisher)
44. Revenger (2018, South Korea)
People laughed when I gave some love to this Netflix Original that was released in January, but ten months later and its action is still among 2019’s best. The plot? Not so much, but this isn’t a list of the decade’s best story lines. Bruce Khan headlines as a cop caught up in some ridiculous shenanigans that land him — intentionally — incarcerated on an escape-proof island prison in pursuit of a very bad man. It’s a bunch of nonsense, but who cares when the fight scenes are this damn good. Khan is an atypical Asian action hero in that his physique is more Schwarzenegger than Lee, but those extra muscles don’t interfere with his wicked speed, impressive athleticism, and power. (Rob Hunter)
43. The Brink (2017, China)
Don’t get me wrong: I love a good police procedural with twists, turns, layers, and an adherence to due process. Most of the time, though, I prefer to watch loose cannon cops throw the rule book out the window and pummel some bad guys. Jonathan Li’s The Brink is a product of the latter school of thought. The story follows a disgraced detective as he tears through the slums — and ocean — of Hong Kong in an effort to stop a vicious gold smuggling ring. It’s a simple plot that lays the groundwork for chaos to unfold, and that’s exactly what happens. One standout set-piece takes place underwater, but there’s no shortage of knife-wielding maniacs and brawlers for our hero to steamroll through. The Brink is no frills action that just wants to feed our hunger for carnage, and it’s beautiful. (Kieran Fisher)
42. Wolf Warrior 2 (2017, China)
The odds are good that this title is new to you, and if that’s the case you might also be surprised to learn that it’s the highest grossing film on this entire list. Wu Jing directs and stars in this large-scale epic pitting his retired Chinese soldier against terrorists in Africa, and while it’s not shy about its jingoistic patriotism it’s made bearable thanks to the action. Gun fights fill the screen, but Wu wisely gives almost as much time to more traditional fights including a terrifically choreographed brawl between him and Frank Grillo. Add in some tank shenanigans that see them drifting around corners and trading paint like Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder and you have China’s massively entertaining answer to the Fast & Furious franchise. (Rob Hunter)
41. Why Don’t You Just Die! (2018, Russia)
We all love watching a dope fall into a hell he never saw coming. A lovesick dimwit grips a claw hammer behind his back and steps into an apartment, thinking he’s about to avenge a great human tragedy. Then he lets his target speak. A nightmare of blood and agony erupts around him. Over the course of its 95-minute run-time, Why Don’t You Just Die! gives its audience two or three moments to catch its breath, but for the majority of the experience, the film rips through its characters with childish savagery. All parties are mere toys for writer/director Kirill Sokolov to rip limb from limb. You can practically see his wicked grin smiling slightly off frame. Or is that my own? (Brad Gullickson)