The second decade of the century has seen a surge in effects-driven, superhero-centric movies. But that’s okay, because there is so much money floating around the system that talented independent filmmakers seem to have little difficulty evading the strictures of the popularity-chasing studio system and producing personal artistic statements. Moreover, the blockbusters are pretty good too: they’ve gotten increasingly sophisticated and now attract some of the best writers and directors. Here’s one critic’s look at the best films of the first half of the 2010s:
10. War Horse (2011)
Looking at WW I’s madness, evil and destruction through the eyes of an innocent beast, Steven Spielberg’s best film since Catch Me If You Can resonated like a parable. Only rarely does a war film take in such a broad panorama.
9. The Artist (2011)
This Oscar winner was a sly, loving tribute to silent film conventions, given a knowing tweak by star Jean Dujardin, who came out of nowhere to sidle and smile his way to a Best Actor Oscar. Brilliantly constructed and knowing without being smarmy, the film was a perfect little bonbon.
8. Argo (2012)
Though marred by a hokey and made-up chase scene at the end, this warm, witty film about how a Hollywood B-movie turned into a successful plot to rescue Iranian hostages taken by adherents of the Ayatollah Khomeini merges the spy adventure with Hollywood satire in a fresh way, and the film is also a patriotic nail-biter.
7. Pain & Gain (2013)
One of the decade’s most woefully unsung pictures, this hilarious true story about a trio of body-building knuckleheads (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie) who became kidnappers in a demented get-rich-quick scheme carried the baggage of being directed by Michael Bay. Critics refuse to concede Bay could ever make a great movie. This one is a twisted, sardonic, bitterly funny morality play about an exceedingly moronic misinterpretation of the American Dream.
6. Magic Mike (2012)
Though misleadingly sold to the public as a silly party picture for the Sex and the City crowd, Steven Soderbergh’s closely observed comedy-drama is more akin to Urban Cowboy, a surprisingly sympathetic and detailed look at a tiny subculture (male strippers) and its brotherhood and rituals. Sharp dialogue, plot surprises and wonderfully realized characters — notably Matthew McConaughey’s funny and sinister club owner Dallas — made this one a surprise success.
5. Boyhood (2014)
Richard Linklater’s film about the life of an ordinary boy growing up in Texas this century was filmed over the course of 12 years, so we can see the actors age before our eyes. That’s what’s unusual about it, but the film would have been equally endearing if different actors had played the boy at different stages. The kid’s sense of wonder, his growing maturity, and his relationships with the grownups in his life carry so much of the taste and texture of contemporary America that the film amounts to an essential document of who we are, how we live and how we change, sometimes for the better.
4. Her (2013)
A poignant fable about technological disconnection and dislocation, Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning script is set about ten minutes in the future, centered on a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who ghostwrites messages for others before he himself falls in love with an operating system. His unseen love — beautifully portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in one of the most unforgettable feats of voice acting — turns out to provide him with a new grip on reality thanks to a surprisingly sweet and convincing affair. The third-act twist is, however, devastating, and makes the film much more wrenching than its cute setup would suggest.
3. Gravity (2013)
A thrilling adventure, a triumph of special visual and audio effects and a captivating story of a distressed mother who essentially gives birth to a new and stronger self, Alfonso Cuaron’s breathtaking film set a new standard for realism in science fiction. So potent was Gravity that a journalist actually asked Cuaron what it was like shooting in space.
2. 127 Hours (2010)
The story of a man who fell into his own grave and then, miraculously, walked away from it. Aron Ralston was a mountain biker and climber in search of adventure who fell into a crevice and got his arm stuck in a huge boulder. In Danny Boyle’s retelling, we learn how Ralston made the lifesaving decision to saw off part of one arm and live to tell about it. But don’t let the grisly nature of the story dissuade you from seeing one of the most awe-inspiring portrayals of sheer guts ever put on screen.
1. American Sniper (2014)
Putting the Iraq War, and war in general, in perspective, director Clint Eastwood finds the spirit of the warrior in Chris Kyle, portrayed with an exceptional degree of self-control by Bradley Cooper. Eastwood makes no judgments on the wisdom of the decision to invade Iraq but focuses instead on the resourcefulness, courage and determination of our finest troops. Kyle’s story is one for the ages, an indelible portrait of the type of man without whom America would not be America.