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Top 20 films of the 2010s

By Dave Schneider |
January 1, 2020
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Free State of Jones comes in as number one
Free State of Jones comes in as number one

Jacksonville, FL - I'm not sure how we'll look back at film in the 2010s. Much of it already seems like a blur, leaving me asking questions like, "Was that the Batman movie with Ben Affleck or Christian Bale?" or "Which of the five Spider-Man and five Star Wars movies did you like the best?"

To put it another way, how are we supposed to really evaluate the 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies theatrically released in this decade? Even Marvel movies represent only about half of the total comic book-related films produced in the 2010s. It’s just disorienting.

It's mostly the product of monopoly capitalism. Fewer giant corporations own most of the franchises and intellectual properties today than even ten years ago. In pursuit of profit, studios fall back on less risky, tried-and-true bankable stories and franchises. To that end, we’ve seen an explosion of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, spinoffs and more in the last ten years.

We end up in absurd situations where Sony remakes Spider-Man every couple of years for no other reason than to stop their franchise rights from lapsing back to Marvel (owned by Disney). Now 20th Century Fox's Alien Queen is technically a Disney princess. Even movies that completely bombed in theaters but developed a cult following on home video, like Blade Runner, get treated like major franchises.

The other factor driving all of this is the Great Recession. For most of us, the economy never recovered from the 2008 crisis. All capitalism can offer us anymore - especially my generation - is this fake, totally banal nostalgia for a past that supposedly didn't suck so much (it did; we were just kids). In Capitalist America, you might not have the money to see a doctor, but you can watch Gargoyles, or Lizzy Maguire, or a brand new Star Wars TV show on Disney+ for $6.99 per month.

It’s appropriate that the 1980s weighed so heavy on pop culture this decade. We continue to live in the hangover of Reaganomics, and the billionaire reality-TV psychopath who came to encompass the greediest excesses of that era now sits in the White House. Rest assured, a similarly exhausting wave of 90s cultural nostalgia is on the horizon for the 2020s. Let’s hope that it’s limited to movies and music and not politics or economics.

As less of us went to the movies in the aftermath of the recession, Hollywood increasingly came to rely on overseas audiences for ticket sales. This lends itself to studios producing bigger blockbusters, which are heavy on special effects and colorful characters but lighter on dialogue and story - since the latter, of course, has to get translated.

But it wasn't just blockbusters. Even the supposedly 'high-brow' cinema adored by the rich and famous mostly sucked. Take a look at this decade’s Oscar winners and nominees: The King's Speech - a sendup to the British crown? The Artist - a silent film no one saw? Argo - thinly disguised propaganda for war with Iran? Birdman - an eye-rolling 'love letter' to rich yuppies in New York? All of these movies won Oscars for ‘Best Picture.’ Even on the off-chance that you saw them, does anybody really think these movies had anything important or lasting to say about the world?

All that said, the 2010s wasn't all cynical garbage. There were plenty of outstanding movies, including many not on my list. But in the interests of cutting through the haze, I've highlighted 20 movies from the last ten years that stood out:

1. Free State of Jones (2016) - This isn't just the best Civil War movie ever - it's a revolutionary manifesto for organizing in the South. I wrote a full review back in 2016 for Fight Back!, which you can read here.

2. Sorry to Bother You (2018) - It’s the most pro-union, anti-capitalist movie made in the U.S. in several decades, delivering an original story and a legendary sci-fi plot twist worthy. Sorry to Bother You isn’t just great political art. It perfectly speaks to the struggles facing the working-class youth of today in an age dominated by monopoly corporations like Amazon and flooded with social media, low wages, high rent and soul-crushing jobs.

3. It Follows (2014) - Solidly one of the five best horror films I've seen, ever. Perfectly captures the dreadful inevitability of a nightmare.

4. Arrival (2016) - The most aspirational sci-fi film of the decade, and one that lays out Nietzsche's problem of the eternal recurrence in a hopeful way. Arrival left me believing that humanity has a chance to stop our impending climate and war-driven apocalypse and live better than we ever have.

5. Lincoln (2012) - Staggering and important portrayal of the political fight to abolish slavery in the United States. All the better because it's not an insipid biopic like the title might suggest.

6. The First Purge (2018) - The apex for the best original franchise to emerge from the 2010s. Every couple of years, The Purge series offered the most biting and timely political commentary at the movies or on television. With its Black working-class protagonists battling for survival against rich neo-Nazis, The First Purge, technically the fourth installment, represented the series at its most class-conscious.

7. Inception (2010) - I cooled on all of Christopher Nolan's movies over the last decade except for this one. Truly an exceptional mind-thriller that stunningly represents the way we perceive and construct ideas.

8. First Reformed (2018) - What does it mean to accept that the capitalist system we live under will lead to certain doom for humanity and the earth, but also to set aside that terrible realization enough to do something about it? How do you stave off nihilistic despair and embrace a positive vision worth fighting for? Those questions asked in First Reformed bring to mind Huey Newton’s writing about ‘reactionary suicide’ and ‘revolutionary suicide’ - something the film explores beautifully.

9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) - Without a doubt the best comic book movie of the decade. It's hard to even remember it's animated and not live-action.

10. Get Out (2017) - Jordan Peele was the source of some of the best comedy in the 2010s, but he also penned the perfect horror movie about racism and wealthy liberals - one that I suspect will go down as an all-time great in the genre. Get Out has forever raised the bar for socially conscious horror films.

11. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) - A rare sequel/reboot I didn't think we needed, but we did. Visually unparalleled, electrifying and revolutionary.

12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Just a cut above practically every film in the Star Wars series. This is a movie that grapples seriously with guerrilla warfare and gives desperately needed texture to the Rebel Alliance

13. Django Unchained (2012) - Tarantino's first and last great film of the decade, set in the antebellum U.S. South.

14. El Libertador (2014) - Ignore that Netflix series. This staggering film about South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar’s life is unparalleled. You can see the mark of the late great Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who helped finance the movie, all over it.

15. 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets (2015) - Having organized in 2014 to win justice for Jordan Davis, the 17-year-old African American murdered in his car for playing rap music, I'm still floored by Marc Silver’s documentary on racist vigilante murder in Jacksonville, Florida. You can read my full review on Fight Back! News here.

16. Carlos (2010) - The Godfather trilogy of 1970s Marxist guerrillas.

17. Vox Lux (2018) - An underrated neoliberal dystopia about the fascist impulses of our popular culture, rooted right here in modern-day USA.

18. Ex Machina (2014) - Truly insidious sci-fi horror that will only become more terrifying as we progress further down the automation and robotics rabbit hole.

19. Inside Out (2015) - Delightful, insightful and soul-enriching for both young and old. It left an unforgettable mark on me like no Pixar movie has since I was a kid.

20. Nightcrawler (2014) - Diabolical look at the twisted capitalist ethos that pervades television media in this country. Go to your local news Facebook comments section if you think Nightcrawler is just fiction.