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.
The 2010s have been kind to us. Top of the decade lists are difficult not because it’s hard to rank 50 or 100 movies, but because we’ve been inundated with so many tremendous titles over the past decade that something is always being left out. In the case of consistently tremendous directors over the course of 10 years, it was a bit easier to nail down.
Sixteen directors, in particular, had exceptional runs that, no matter what happens from here on out, have etched them into film history. To be considered for this list, they had to have had at least three significant films within the decade. They are not necessarily ranked, but the piece was generally organized to give an ascending sense of mastery and importance to those toward the bottom, with the final director steadily holding my personal number-one spot.
Writer-editor-director Mike Flanagan got his start at the turn of the century, but he didn’t become the arbiter of popular freak-out horror until later this decade. In 2011, his fourth feature, albeit his first with an audience, Absentia, developed an indie horror wave of appreciation that landed him in mid-major studios’ line of sight. Blumhouse Productions co-produced his first horror film with a sizable budget, Oculus, two years later. From there, Flanagan was either an unforgettable party guest or an unbelievably determined creative (or some combination of the two), because his career exploded. Between 2016 and 2019, Flanagan wrote, edited, and produced five more features and one absolutely nightmarish TV series, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.
His most fruitful year, 2016, brought an unprecedented three features to his name: Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, which was a significant challenge as a sequel/prequel to a popularly and critically jettisoned original that he played no part in. All were well-received. Some are a bit more middling than others, but none came anywhere near to being panned, which is saying a lot for a director who chose to make a career in what is one of the most critically panned genres of film, wide-release horror. In 2017, he shocked Netflix subscribers with the Stephen King chamber horror adaptation Gerald’s Game, and he followed it up with another King adaptation, Doctor Sleep, a thoroughly satisfying sequel to Kubrick’s legendary The Shining. After 10 years and eight solid projects, it’s safe to say Flanagan is a filmmaker always worth looking forward to.
Likely the least known filmmaker on this list, actor-writer-editor-director Josephine Decker is an exception to the otherwise steadfast truth that experimental filmmakers — and I don’t mean “weird” or “atypical” filmmakers — do not get distribution of any kind. As most seasoned studio executives would tell you, their stuff just doesn’t sell. Paramount had a difficult time selling Annihilation because of its lack of clarity. Just imagine trying to sell Decker’s second film, 2014’s Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, a dark and dandy American gothic folk tale that follows a linear narrative, but not without frequently intersecting hazy, disorienting, and impressionistic visions overlaid with poetics and defined by spastic editing. The film only got a New York release after a successful festival run.
Between her three narrative features alone — the other two are Butter on the Latch and Madeline’s Madeline — Decker has had an astounding decade piecing together films the likes of which are stylistically unparalleled. Madeline’s Madeline, which got a limited release across the US, UK, and a handful of other countries, was one of the most bewildering and breathtaking films of 2018. Decker executes her swan dive into avant-garde theatre with the perturbing maturity of Darren Aronofsky or Lars von Trier yet in her own sublimely distinct style. People often confuse “experimental” for “different” or “original,” but Decker fills out the descriptor in the sincerest sense. Her films are unrecognizably bizarre. Think: the non-narrative strobing garden imagery of Rose Lowder fused with the improvisational indie mumblecore of Joe Swanberg (a regular collaborator with Decker). On top of directing her own three films, she also acted in 15 features and co-directed the meta-documentary Flames on the romance between herself and Zefrey Throwell.
There’s much to glean about the complexities of nationality, identity, and passion in the films of Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid, whose three-film streak over the decade has proven him one of the better, more esoteric directors working today. Especially when it comes to character studies. Lapid’s lack of shits given for catering to American audiences is refreshing and ultimately insightful. He never settles for narratives that are easy to translate, as many Hollywood-aspiring international directors do. Take his 2019 film, Synonyms, for example. It’s a movie predicated on the distinctions and miscommunications of likeness and language, specifically Hebrew and French. It’s through filmmakers like Lapid and Samual Maoz that we get the most honest glimpses of modern Israeli life.
Lapid has a knack for schematically fashioning troubling characters that draw out tender empathy and serious concern alike. Synonyms, for instance, follows a borderline insane refugee whose fervor for a new life in France after an Israeli military career is conveyed as feverishly as the beguiling anecdotal stories he tells about himself. His 2011 debut, Policeman, is about a counter-terrorist officer who clashes with an anarchic terrorist group as violent as his own team. Then there’s the title character in 2014’s The Kindergarten Teacher whose alienating fealty to powerful poetry outweighs her sense of reason. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the part in the American adaptation of The Kindergarten Teacher, which feels like a lateral achievement that belongs partially to Lapid. But he seems more concerned with the existential condition of his people.
I doubt anyone’s heard of it, but there was a teeny comic book movie in 2018 called Black Panther. Among other things, it was, and is, the first major blockbuster centered around black superheroes and supervillains, and as a result, stands as the most important display of black representation in cinema not only of the decade but of all-time. Moreover, it wasn’t contrived by white folks behind the scene. Rather, it was born from the minds of a supergroup of renowned black artists like costume designer Ruth Carter, production designer Hannah Beachler, rapper Kendrick Lamar, screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, and actors Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Martin Fr—oh wait, never mind. But most notably, Black Panther belongs to screenwriter-director Ryan Coogler, whose impact on the decade’s wave of rising black cinema is paramount.
Before teaming up with Marvel, Coogler introduced his brilliance in what is still his best film to date, Fruitvale Station, the devastating true story of Oscar Grant (played by regular collaborator Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old whose life is sickeningly taken from him by a Bay Area cop. Following the indie success of that debut, Coogler took on Creed in 2015 to rave reactions from critics and audiences, with Jordan serving once again as Coogler’s performative centerpiece. It’s unfortunate that we have to wait another three years for Coogler’s next film (Black Panther II), but maybe if we’re lucky he’ll sneak another indie in before 2022. We have nothing to complain about, though. On the contrary, one wonders what a Hollywood without Coogler might look like and immediately stops allowing the mind to linger when it drifts toward nightmare, ultimately grateful for what he’s inspired in a country that desperately needed his vision.
All it takes is one utterance of that dry, gentle, nasally, and endearing New Zealand brand of humor to yield some rosy cheeks and smiling hearts. That’s what Taika Waititi does: he makes us smile, laugh, care. Over the decade, Waititi has become a master of charming audiences’ socks off. Building off some brief writing success alongside creative collaborator Jemaine Clement in the late 2000s, he broke onto the scene with Boy in 2010 (his 2007 debut feature, Eagle and Shark, garnered little attention due to its tiresome, amateur quality). After a couple of TV series directing stints, he stole us with his exceptionally sharp 2014 vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, one of the decade’s standout comedies, which Waititi wrote, produced, directed, and prominently starred in.
Soon after, he confirmed his faculty for brainy, bone dry wit with 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which catapulted him into the arms of Marvel, where he went on to direct what is easily the best — and one of the only truly original — Marvel films we’ve seen: Thor: Ragnarok. Only in Waititi’s world could a suave, technicolor Jeff Goldblum be a villain. A mere month ago, he released his fifth feature of the decade, Jojo Rabbit, the satirical taste of which is on-brand for Waititi even if the premise doesn’t land as well as he’d hoped. Still, he’s had a stellar decade, rising from irrelevance to utmost prominence in what feels like the blink of an eye.
If you don’t already know writer-director Jia Zhangke, it’s time you became acquainted. He’s made three films over the decade that have illuminated and investigated the desolate socio-economic realities of China’s rural class of forgotten millions (coined the “floating population”) in and around Zhangke’s home of the Shanxi province. After an even more impressive previous decade, Zhangke turned the 2010s into his own exploration of the filmic triptych. Mountains May Depart and Ash is Purest White are terrific, emotionally bruising epics that span decades, evolving from communal bliss to tragedy to pure complexity. A Touch of Sin is a four-part story, but not in the same way the other two are three-part stories. Sin focuses on the nature of violence and cruelty in a series of independent stories whereas the other two follow the lifelong trajectory of Zhao Tao’s central characters.
Like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig — but with very different end games — Zhangke and Tao are a creative power couple, married in 2012 despite having worked together since 2000. In fact, Zhangke has cast Thao in every single one of his narrative features, and it wasn’t until 2015’s Mountains May Depart that she started getting recognition for her profound performances. It’s nearly impossible to watch Thao through the lens of Zhangke’s pen and camera without experiencing some sort of deeply rooted ethical concern, or interior emotional implosion, or economic outrage. Moreover, Zhangke’s films are a wakeup call for the Western world, whose realities — even in poverty — are so divorced from the consummate devastation of Shanxi, the setting often seems more like dystopian metaphor than modern-day life.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach is tied for the most features in the decade of the directors on this list, but he stands out in how consistently great each and every one of them is. None crutch themselves on sheer reiteration, or resort to milquetoast jokes, or fall back on the comforts of past character developments. Every Baumbach-breathed human being is meaty and complex, hilarious and dramatic, relatable and revelatory. From the mentally insane title character of Greenberg to the chirpy, quixotic Frances of Frances Ha to the messy family of The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and everyone in between, Baumbach’s characters play a large part in defining the decade in film. His arid, understated sense of humor is as singular as Wes Anderson’s or Taika Waititi’s in its own deliberate tone.
Of course, this is also the decade that revealed the brilliance of Greta Gerwig, who it feels criminal not to credit with much of Baumbach’s success. Now married, the couple co-wrote two of Baumbach’s six features in the 2010s (Frances Ha, Mistress America) and Gerwig has been the star of three of them. But since Gerwig’s emergence as a top-tier director in her own right, we’ve been able to go back to Baumbach’s projects with Gerwig to distill what sets the two apart in practice. It’s clear that the two are great together, but even more clear that they embody as much greatness apart, with Baumbach re-cementing his status as one of indie America’s best in his painful yet lovely portrayal of separation in 2019’s Marriage Story, a likely contender come award season.
Long before the #BongHive was activated on such a wide scale, there was a Bong Joon Ho contingency that knew of the enigmatic director’s incredible first four films, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother. But clearly Bong needed to get weird before he’d be recognized by the average moviegoer. 2013’s Snowpiercer marked his first foray into English-language film, and it was bizarre as fuck. The dystopian train society that plays like a level-up video game involves people eating insects, a dictatorial Tilda Swinton clowning around with gigantic teeth, Ed Harris offering diatribes in bathrobes, and a rigid caste system that breeds inane violence.
He followed Snowpiercer up with another (mainly) English-language film, Okja. Believe it or not, Okja was even stranger, more discomforting, and more unrecognizable than the film whose entire world was confined to a seemingly endless string of train cars. Once again, Swinton was there to start the party, playing identical twins Lucy and Nancy Mirando — one of which is a corporate executive monster that employs the like of scientist Johnny Wilcox, a deranged lunatic Jake Gyllenhaal who holds nothing back and gives new meaning the title mad scientist. With Okja, Bong led nearly everyone involved into their wildest roles, as anyone might expect from a film named after a GMO superpig bred for mass feeding.
Finally, Bong topped off the decade with a casual Palme d’Or win for the beloved Parasite, a Korean film that’s gotten more attention than most of this year’s English-language arthouse pictures. Bong wrote all three of his films this decade and produced the latter two, which makes sense when you consider the extravagant degree of detail that pops in each of them. And it’s not just that he makes titillating and transfixing films. He weaves in incisive commentary on subjects like class, environmental ethics, and corporate greed, without ever sacrificing his singular artistic vision. #BongHive rise up.
What more can be said for Christopher Nolan, whose colossal, captivating blockbusters are the most distant outlier in Hollywood in their blend of astronomical budget, mass appeal, and preserved creative agency? Nolan is as much a filmmaker as he is a brilliant pop culture event planner, seemingly always in tune with the intersection of how people want to be entertained and how he can introduce something totally original that satisfies that. He begins the decade with his mindfuck brainchild, Inception, which swept the globe with storytelling as layered as Dante’s Inferno and an ambiguous ending that, nine years later, still has folks in hot debate. Then came 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, which casually polished off one of the better trilogies we’ve ever seen. And he accomplished that feat through the superhero genre, what is now the most sterile, repetitive, market-tested and approved expression that exists in the medium.
After Batman bowed on the banks of the Arno, Nolan bested his own mindfuckery with Interstellar, assuring us that his imagination knows no bounds. Sure, we’ve all heard of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but most of us didn’t know what the hell that was about until Cooper, Brand, Doyle, and TARS spent mere minutes on an ocean planet only to return to Romilly on the ship, who’d spent a ghastly 23 years waiting for them. And what are we supposed to respond to the idea of fifth dimension creatures who communicate through tesseracts outside of mopping up our tears and picking our jaws up off the floor? And every spatiotemporal deviation is of such high production value, it’s hard not to get lost in it. And then there was Dunkirk, the ticking clock of a real-world war terror that depicts land, air, and sea soldiers in incongruous time signatures, which culminate in one of the most nerve-racking filmic experiences one could have in a theater.
Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve has had the decade of a lifetime. Like Spielberg, Nolan, or Tarantino — minus the familiarity of a household name — he’s one of a handful of anomalies in the major Hollywood studio system who can both secure a gargantuan budget and maintain comprehensive creative control over their project, a truth that, in tandem with the invasive, overwrought studio involvement on Lynch’s plagued Dune, is bound to give us a Villeneuve rehash that actually represents the director’s intentions this time. Blade Runner 2049 might’ve been a domestic bomb, but Villeneuve succeeded in fashioning the only $150 million-plus budget arthouse film of the decade, which is already seasoning well with a couple of years behind it. And he did it with a reboot sequel, a sub-genre of film as stale as Disney live-action remakes.
Over his incredible six feature film run in the 2010s, he’s spanned several genres, telling stories about the drug cartel wars in Juarez, siblings searching for their long lost mother, the Thanksgiving kidnapping of the daughter of a man who’s willing to go to inhumane lengths to find her, an alien race that transcends communication as we know it, two — count ‘em two! — Jake Gyllenhaals and some spiders, and a confused cop in a rainy, ethereal dystopia. And he’s done every one of them justice, often bringing us to tears or briefly stopping our hearts at will. The final shot of Enemy will remain in the psyche of any who’ve seen it until their final breath, just as the highway tracking shot of the motorcade in Sicario will send chills down our spines anytime someone mentions the US-Mexico border. Villeneuve knows how to wield studio excess to make better films, and with Dune, maybe Dune 2, and the ever-shelved Cleopatra on his plate, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Lars von Trier
A professor once told me they despised Danish writer-director Lars von Trier in the same way they’d despise getting beaten or bullied by a stranger. “His films are punishing,” he repeated several times throughout the semester every time I tried to win him over into loving Lars. Nothing could be truer, and Von Trier would be glad to hear it. His films don’t pain us incidentally. From 2011 to 2018, Von Trier wrote and directed four phenomenal films, all of which were created to shrivel your heart and stuff it into a dark, lifeless cave after sucking all hope from your soul — we’re talking vacuum-sealed — without leaving even the faintest trace of love in sight. So, I understand why one might not adore Von Trier films, but being on the other side, I also understand why some of us can’t get enough of him. Perhaps we indulge filmic self-immolation, or maybe we see (and were gifted the tolerance to appreciate and endure) the harsh, relatable beauty in Von Trier’s explorations of depression, loneliness, and self-destruction.
Von Trier’s decade is bookended by Cannes controversy. He began the 2010s by piggybacking off of the severe despondence of 2009’s Antichrist into Melancholia, a film that involves a wed woman numbly fucking a man who isn’t her husband on her wedding night, a scene that’s always struck me as one of the most disheartening in cinema. Melancholia also marks what Von Trier seems to consider one of his greater achievements, being banned from the Cannes Film Festival with the official “persona non grata” label after a tasteless comment about sympathizing with Hitler. He followed Melancholia with the two-part dive into obsessive sex, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, aka the founding of Stacy Martin. And he capped off the decade back at Cannes, where he unleashed bedlam on the Croisette with The House That Jack Built, a film that follows a serial killer who has no qualms murdering children or forcing said children’s mother to play with their dead bodies. Yeah, it’s royally fucked up. But it’s also Von Trier at his truest, most philosophical form, reflecting on a career of provocation and sticking the landing marvelously. He’s had a memorable decade, to say the least.
If it wasn’t for the writer-director’s Venice-debuting dud Wasp Network a couple months ago, Assayas would have had a flawless decade. But still, it’s been an astounding one. He made a five-and-a-half-hour epic in Carlos, then Something in the Air, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, and Non-fiction. None are alike and none leave anything to be desired. Assayas has done creative justice to stories of familial ghosts as magnificently as he has tales of self-obsession, stardom, European student revolutionaries, sexual predators, highbrow literature, Venezuelan terrorist organizations, intellectualism, and more. Assayas clearly likes to challenge himself, and as a result, he rarely settles for anything less than great.
He strings us along, keeping us on the edge of our seats in dramas as stringently as he does in thrillers. Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper are fantastic examples of his shining talent for writing complex female characters that he then works on with respective actresses (Juliette Binoche, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Kristen Stewart, in this case). Speaking of which, he also deserves heaps of praise for giving a stage to Stewart in what are her best films to date, which is saying a lot for an actress who’s totally transformed her career over the decade.
Pablo Larraín remains one of the greatest unknown directors. Outside of cinephile circles, he’s a phantom, yet he’s directed six prodigious works over the decade, two of which he wrote, and a couple of seasons of a TV series about fugitives. Besides his penchant for Chilean-set stories (he’s from Chile, after all), there isn’t a descriptive style or tone that captures Larraín succinctly, and that’s largely what makes him such a mesmerizing filmmaker. From the mysterious macabre of Post Mortem to the meta-manhunt doused in romantic poetry of Neruda to the deafening historical grief of Jackie to the polychromatic and pyrotechnic experimental dance of his most recent masterpiece, Ema, Larraín’s films are inimitable treasures. And one can’t forget the likes of No or The Club, both deserving of as much praise as the other four.
If there’s one thing we can pin consistently to Larraín other than setting, it’s the majestic imagery he lavishes us with from film to film, courtesy of his creative relationship with the producer of all six, brother Juan de Dios Larraín, cinematographer of five of the six features, Sergio Armstrong, the production designer on four of the six, Estefania Larraín, and the co-star of three of the six, Gael García Bernal. Keeping a proven, formidable team like that together across productions allows for an openness in communication and creative ingenious that’s nearly impossible for a team to nail down over the course of a single film. Larraín (as producer) and his crew have also devoted their chemistry to other significant productions of the decade, such as A Fantastic Woman and Gloria Bell. Just wait until you see those glowing celestial balls set to Nicolas Jaar’s score in Ema, though. Larraín is on another level.
The films of writer-director Kelly Reichardt are gentle, quiet, meek stories (no pun intended) that capture the human soul at its most barren and beholden. The craziest thing she’s done with her characters is plot them to blow up a damn, which is pretty nuts, but that’s an outlier for her otherwise everywoman/everyman subjects. A more apt representation of a Reichardt depiction would be the focal character of First Cow, who’s trivialized for milking a neighbor’s cow to make funnel cake for the village (which is stealing, but the more I think about it, not a punishable stealing; he was stealing to do the town a favor, and everyone loved him). Or, even more accurately per Reichardt’s tendency to tell the stories of women, it’d be The Rancher (Lily Gladstone) in Certain Women, whose isolated small-town life has restricted her from embracing her own queerness.
Films like hers don’t often get made, but Reichardt has a devoted cast of A-listers to her directorial cause — Michelle Williams most fervent among them — who refuse to let stories of this nature die. Between Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, Certain Women, and First Cow, Reichardt has given us a dense batch of prosaic films swimming in beautiful cinematography, vast landscapes, and stark socio-ethical conflicts. She obviously cares a lot about the lives of everyday people in America’s heartland (most of her films are set in the country) and the way they’re shaped by the earth around them. Her films often come across as ambiguous contemplations on the very nature of that connection. There’s a hint of Terrence Davies in there, but Reichardt isn’t creatively indebted to anyone. She is, as the decade has taught us, one of the most adept directors on the planet, especially when it comes to pastoral meditation on the mundane.
No one has captured the plight of the black American throughout the 2010s quite like writer-producer-director Ava DuVernay, whose status as one of the only regularly financed black female directors in Hollywood is a sick and unfortunate truth as well as a beacon of hope. DuVernay has made a career out of opening doors for other black filmmakers, especially women, with her production company ARRAY releasing, which she founded in 2010. On her own time, she made two great films early in the decade before she was approached by swell production companies like Plan B that gave her a significant platform, and eventually Disney, which grew that platform. The gash leveraged by studio-pawn producers in the artistry of The Kids Book Adaptation That Shall Not Be Named is a small price to pay for what she did with it.
Consider the breadth and depth of this filmography contained in a single decade: I Will Now, Middle of Nowhere, Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time, and the limited series When They See Us (not to mention a terrific Jay-Z and Beyoncé music video). All throughout, she’s been unrelenting in her pursuit of social justice and mass awareness of institutional corruption. She’s become a force of necessary revisionist history, one finally not written by the winners, and there’s no stopping her now. Without DuVernay we’d lose a handful of the decade’s great films, but more importantly, we’d be in a much uglier, less diverse world of film that would be without its literal and spiritual guide in DuVernay. The real-world change she’s brought soars beyond what any single film, no matter how profound, could ever offer.
Paul Thomas Anderson
There’s no one like this man. If I come across as romantic, it’s because I mean to. Six HAIM music videos, three Radiohead, two Joanna Newsom, one Fiona Apple, “Anima,” Junun, and three stunningly perfect narrative films of three completely different natures — inside boutique 1950s London couture, fumbling stoned through mystery in 1970s Los Angeles, and at the center of the universe of two lost and pining men — Phantom Thread, Inherent Vice, and The Master. And he only used 80 percent of the decade to do it. Every frame in a Paul Thomas Anderson film is like a slice of decadent cake, precisely cut, deliberately rich, luscious in its alluring gravitational pull. I mean, come on, who sits down and just comes up with The Master? Or Phantom Thread? A film whose entirety is inspired by a look from the almighty Maya Rudolph, his wife and the mother of their four children, as if that somehow clarifies how Anderson went from a look to one of the greatest, strangest romance films ever made. And how does one even approach adapting Thomas Pynchon? He exists on an unprecedented plane of brilliance, yet his demeanor remains that of a kind, open, and welcoming host with a sincere passion for people.
His collaborations with Jonny Greenwood in all three films have garnered some of the decade’s best scores, like his collaborations with Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville have returned some of the most intricate and effulgent performances. In other words, it seems like no one can get away with working with Paul Thomas Anderson and not delivering their best work. His genius must be contagious. He’s also the kind of filmmaker who has the luxury of writing, producing, directing (sometimes even shooting) his own films and maintaining complete creative control, albeit not with the budgets of a Nolan or Villeneuve. But P.T. Anderson isn’t telling stories that require those budgets. If Nolan is the explosive energy of an original blockbuster incarnate, Anderson is the interior philosophy of subtle, emotional movements and psychological mazes that get at the heart of the human condition. It’s hard to make a best of decade list and not feel like all three PTA films are competing for the top spots, the first of which belongs in the hands of The Master.