The 10 Most Influential Films of the Decade (and 20 Other Favourites)

The 10 Most Influential Films of the Decade (and 20 Other Favourites)

The films on the first list, whether we like them or not (and in some cases we very much did), made a difference in the world of entertainment and beyond.

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The most popular movies and the movies we love most aren’t always the ones that shape the industry, reflect the times or change the terms of cultural discourse — for better or worse. The films on the first list, whether we like them or not (and in some cases we very much did), made a difference in the world of entertainment and beyond. In a politicized time, their impact was often measured in ideological terms, by the arguments they started and the passions they inflamed. And at a time of blockbuster hegemony and streaming ascendancy, they also represented a business and an audience in constant and sometimes confusing flux.

‘American Sniper’ (2014)

Clint Eastwood’s drama about the life and death of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, released at Christmas in 2014, went on to dominate the next year, finishing on top of the domestic box office. It was the only release of the decade to accomplish that without being part of a franchise, a Disney property, or both. A testament to Eastwood’s mastery, the movie’s popularity challenged the fiction of a monolithically liberal Hollywood, even as it revealed the polarization of the American audience. With its pro-military, pro-gun flag waving — and fallen-warrior protagonist — “American Sniper” showed which way the political winds were howling. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘The Avengers’ (2012)

Sequels weren’t new and neither were long, crowded, noisy superhero spectacles when this juggernaut landed. But “The Avengers,” released after Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Studios, was nonetheless a big industry bang: It heralded the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where we all now live whether we like it or not. (Stream on Amazon, Disney +, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Blackfish’ (2013)

Many documentaries that aim to raise awareness of a problem in the world preach to the mindful choir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s exposé of the abuse of orca whales at SeaWorld changed public perception, corporate behavior and the law. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Bridesmaids’ (2011)

The shocking image of Maya Rudolph’s bride soiling her wedding dress made it clear that director Paul Feig’s comedy — written by its star, Kristen Wiig, and Annie Mumolo — wasn’t just another smiley and sickly sweet wedding picture. The intestinal distress heard ’round the world helped demolish the sexist cliché that women can’t be funny. Yes, they can, laughing all the way to the bank. Just ask Melissa McCarthy, who went on to become one of the decade’s few genuine new movie stars. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Frozen’ (2013)

When Elsa belted “Let It Go” in Disney’s animated musical, she didn’t only claim her power, she announced the might of the female moviegoing audience, itself one of the decade’s biggest industry stories. That audience helped make “Frozen” one of the highest-grossing animated releases in history, reviving and revising Disney’s fairy-tale tradition for a new generation. (Stream on Amazon, Disney +, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Get Out’ (2017)

Jordan Peele’s art-house freakout (and box-office breakout) is a brilliant genre mash-up — the supreme example of a new wave in horror cinema — as well as a ferocious rebuke to the (white) canard that the Obama era had ushered in a post-racial United States. Opening soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration, it felt like an unnerving sign of the times, a blend of satire and horror so deft that it was hard to say which was which. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ (2013)

The second installment in the franchise based on Suzanne Collins’ Y.A. series cemented Jennifer Lawrence’s status as a global movie star and — with “Frozen,” another of that year’s hits — reconfirmed the power of women at the box office. “Catching Fire” also became the first female-led movie to top the yearly domestic box office in a very, very long time. Popular with boys as well as girls, Katniss Everdeen was a new kind of pop-culture archetype, a rebel and a warrior rather than a princess. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Philo, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Moonlight’ (2016)

At the 89th Academy Awards, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” made Oscar history: among its multiple firsts, the movie — a highly personal, low-budget project influenced by European and Asian art cinema — was the first best-picture winner from an African American director. Its triumph signaled a shift in the industry after decades of systemic racism. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Okja’ (2017)

Bong Joon Ho’s movie about a girl and her genetically modified super-pig was the Netflix release that shook up the industry, further blurring the divide between big and little screens. Its debut at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival set off a debate about Netflix’s place in cinema that continues to rage. Bong’s own cinematic standing, by contrast, only became more indisputable. Two years later, he returned to Cannes with “Parasite,” winning the top prize. (Stream on Netflix.)

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015)

The franchise, now part of the Disney Empire, struck back with J.J. Abrams at the helm. Inaugurating a new trilogy, this space opera tried to recapture the pop energy of the original three films, while finding more room for women and nonwhite characters. The result was globally popular, but it also stirred up a backlash that exposed — not for the first or last time — an ugly, reactionary undercurrent in modern fan culture. (Stream on Amazon, Disney +, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

Manohla Dargis’s Favorites

‘The Assassin’ (2015)

Like every title on this list, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s tale of a female warrior in ninth-century China lingered in my mind long after I saw it. The pictorial beauty of “The Assassin” — which was shot on 35-millimeter film — is astonishing, as is Hou’s narrative approach, his use of stillness, silence and ellipses. The movie is a sublime testament to the visually expressive power of cinema, its ability to convey interiority, emotions, feelings and moods with images. It is also a reminder that digital largely remains a diminished substitute for film. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Boyhood’ (2014)

In 2002, Richard Linklater assembled several actors to shoot part of a fictional story about a fractured family, a process that he annually repeated over the next dozen years. The result is an intimate epic that seamlessly tracks a boy (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to early adulthood. In 165 captivating, deeply moving minutes, Linklater conveys the sweep and quotidian detail of life. It goes so fast. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Faces Places’ (2017)

Agnès Varda died in March at 90. Toward the end of her life, she was sometimes patronizingly mistaken for a cute old lady. And yes, she was old; true, she was occasionally cute; but she was also a giant of the art whose legacy remains underappreciated. She once said that cinema is about “a re-examination of time, movement and especially the image,” and, in this documentary, she reminds us of this truth as she and her co-pilot, the artist JR, travel across both France and time. They stop in villages, speak to people and make images while Varda reminisces about her past, turning “Faces Places” into a time machine and an indelible memento mori. (Stream on Amazon.)

‘In Jackson Heights’ (2015)

One of the greatest living filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman has made a number of nonfiction masterworks, including “Ex Libris,” a documentary about the New York Public Library, which stands as another of this decade’s cinematic high points. If “In Jackson Heights,” which takes place in the Queens neighborhood of the same name, has maintained a stronger grip on me, it’s largely because it is a tribute to New York as well as to the United States at its most utopian and democratic. Here, amid a great and glorious cacophony, both old-timers (like Wiseman) and newcomers — of various hues, beliefs and tongues — are busily, generously, making a better country. (Stream on Kanopy.)

‘Luminous Intimacy: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler’ (2015)

Some of the happiest moments in my recent moviegoing life have been spent watching the cinematic reveries of Nathaniel Dorsky. Working in 16-millimeter film, Dorsky makes short, silent works filled with everyday ecstasies — shifting shadows, nodding flowers — that capture the magnificence and ephemera of both the medium and the larger world. This dual retrospective, which ran as part of the 53rd New York Film Festival, served as my introduction to the work of Hiler, Dorsky’s longtime partner and an artist whose film “In the Stone House” is an eloquent, transcendent ode to their life together, the changing light and the passage of time.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)

George Miller delivers this blast of pure cinema with howls and laughs, snarling engines, shrieking guitars, death-taunting stunts, Charlize Theron’s steely ferocity, Tom Hardy’s velvety vulnerability, kamikaze war boys, a squad of runaway babes and a posse of gray-haired motorcycle women. At once dystopian and hopeful, “Fury Road” trades the classic hero’s journey for a liberation story in which rebellious women sound a battle cry that echoes across this decade: “We are not things, we are not things!” (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘No Home Movie’ (2016)

Chantal Akerman’s final feature opens on gnarled, nearly barren foliage shuddering in the wind, a haunting image that — as this personal documentary unwinds — is revealed as an emblem of perseverance. The movie largely consists of conversations that Akerman had with her mother, Natalia, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2014 after shooting finished. A radical filmmaker who helped redefine the cinematic representation of women (most famously with “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”), Akerman died the following year from an apparent suicide. Her death was tragic, her filmic legacy profound. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Poetry’ (2011)

Lee Chang-dong’s anguished, elegiac drama follows a woman (the great South Korean actress Yun Jung-Hee) who makes a devastating discovery about her grandson while struggling with catastrophic illness. The path to her self-awareness is a poetry class that she takes and which, over the course of the story, profoundly changes her, opening her eyes to life, allowing her to really see. She at last looks deeply at the world, an awakening that parallels your experience of watching this movie as Lee (who also made the 2018 “Burning”) turns the ordinary into the sublime. (Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.)

‘13th’ (2016)

Documentaries can instruct, educate and sometimes entertain; they can realign your vision, rewire your brain. Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary, named for the 13th Amendment, both floored me and deepened my understanding about race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States. As she traces the story from the years after abolition to Trayvon Martin, DuVernay doesn’t just chart the history of African Americans, she also strips bare the soul of a country that still profits from racial discrimination. (Stream on Netflix.)

‘A Touch of Sin’ (2013)

Soon after Jia Zhang-Ke’s drama opens, you see an overturned truck, its load of apples scattered on a road already splattered with blood in a movie soon drenched in it. Divided into four largely separate stories, each taken from real-life events, the movie turns on characters whose lives are violently upended and, in some cases, destroyed in a world in which every human action is reduced to a monetary transaction. It’s an unsparing, brutal vision of Chinese capitalism at its most dehumanizing and cruel, as well as a tour de force of form and feeling. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

A.O. Scott’s Favorites

‘Carol’ (2015)

It keeps taking me by surprise. I didn’t exactly have low expectations when it came out — not with Todd Haynes directing a Phyllis Nagy script adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel — but I didn’t think it would hit me as hard or haunt me as deeply as it did. And continues to do. I had chosen another title for this list when I literally had a dream about Cate Blanchett ordering a cocktail and gazing across the table at Rooney Mara, “the girl flung out of space.” Love works in mysterious ways. (Stream on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.)

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (2013)

“If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” says the hard-luck troubadour whose misadventures in the early-60s music scene occupy Joel and Ethan Coen’s shaggy-dog story. Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, isn’t an especially appealing guy, but his Odyssey has an archetypal gravity. Or maybe it just lodges in your head like a song you can’t remember hearing for the first time and still don’t quite understand. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Lady Bird’ (2017)

The people in this movie, the opening statement of Greta Gerwig’s career as a major filmmaker, are kind of a mess. Sad dad, angry mom, difficult friends, baffling boys and of course Lady Bird herself, who struggles to solve the puzzle of her own identity. By a wonderful paradox, the movie itself is pretty much perfect. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)

This was and is a great action movie and a sharp, surprising political fable. Before long it might look more like a documentary. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Minding the Gap’ (2018)

Race, class, immigration, Midwestern industrial decline, toxic masculinity — just about every tough social issue facing 21st-century America ripples through Bing Liu’s documentary. Not that he is attempting to make statements or raise awareness — he’s simply observing his own coming-of-age and the lives of his skateboarding buddies in real time. One of the most heartbreaking movies of the decade, and also among the most hopeful. (Stream on Hulu.)

‘Moonlight’ (2016)

I have never heard anything like the silence that descended in a packed, 500-seat theater after the last shot of Barry Jenkins’ second feature when it first screened in Telluride. It was the sound of perception being altered in a small but permanent way. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Norte, the End of History’ (2014)

Philippine director Lav Diaz is one of the modern masters of cinema whose work — long, slow, novelistic features composed in arresting wide-screen images — should be more widely known. Loosely adapted from Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” this four-hour film is both mighty and subtle, a sweeping and intimate anatomy of injustice, inequality and the eternal conflict between decency and cruelty in human affairs. (Stream on Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Timbuktu’ (2015)

There have been countless movies about radical Islam and terrorism, none as precise, as devastating or as beautiful as Abderrahmane Sissako’s observant and impassioned tale of life in a region of Mali controlled by Islamists. Sissako’s blend of lyricism and moral clarity make him one of the essential filmmakers of his time. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘Toni Erdmann’ (2016)

A 162-minute German comedy set mainly in Bucharest may sound like the punch line to a joke about esoteric movie taste, but Maren Ade’s study in father-daughter dynamics, corporate etiquette and eurozone power relations is genuinely funny. Also a good source of party and Halloween costume ideas. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

‘The Tree of Life’ (2011)

Yes, Terrence Malick’s output since this movie won Cannes has been uneven, and his influence among younger filmmakers overstated, but the sublimity of his attempt to graft the cosmic to the personal does not fade. Dinosaurs included. (Stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.)

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott c.2019 The New York Times Company

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