We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre. These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
This month, we’re focused on action movies. I will make it clear that this list will not include any superhero films, though a lot of folks would classify them as action films. Those movies will be on a separate list. So we’re looking at the pure-adrenaline action flicks, and to be honest, there aren’t many films this decade that I took a fancy to. That’s not to say it was a terrible decade for action, but the breadth of work in this genre is more the routine and less the extraordinary.
So with that, I have three honorable mentions before the top ten.
Red (2010) Director: Robert Schwentke The retired, extremely dangerous group assembled for Red includes Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren, and they are the reason this film gets an honorable mention. There’s a fair amount of comedy mixed in, and some of the action set pieces are well executed.
Fast Five (2011) Director: Justin Lin This was the inaugural film for Dwayne Johnson, and he fit right into the most prolific action franchise this decade, and it proved to be a turning point for the franchise, going from car-racing shenanigans to a heist flick. While the action gets a bit ridiculous and less grounded as the film goes on, it’s still a rush from the perspective of pure spectacle.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) Director: Brad Bird Another franchise that saw a huge return this decade was Mission: Impossible, and a large dose of the credit goes to Bird’s phenomenal direction, and some of the best stunt sequences of the series. The Dubai tower climb is still a high point for myself and a large number of fans of the series.
Now here’s the films that made the top ten.
10. The Expendables 2 (2012)
Director: Simon West
The best of the trilogy, Expendables 2 built upon a forgettable action flick which crossed over a large ensemble of action mega-stars of both days present and past, and executed a more comical and confident sequel which knew exactly what it was doing. The first film took itself too seriously, but Expendables 2 hit all the action and comedy beats in just the right places.
That being said, it’s the lowest entry on this list for a few reasons. Number one, the villain, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Not only is he forgettable, but he doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat to the team of heroes. The plot is paper thin, just enough of an excuse for Sly Stallone and his followers to blow stuff up real good and have a few decent fist fights along the way.
However, the scenes I remember most revolve around the Mauser and Church characters, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis respectively. It’s a team-up that leads to some of the best action scenes of the film, and also some of the funniest jokes. Who can forget Arnold ripping the door off the Smart Car, then complaining about its size? Actually, replay that clip over and over and you might see why I put this film on the list.
9. A-Team (2010)
Director: Joe Carnahan
One of the more famous and prolific filmmakers in this genre of the 2010s was Joe Carnahan, and it felt appropriate to put his best effort of the decade on the list. The big screen adaptation of the 1980s TV staple is another film that’s exciting while you’re watching it, but doesn’t stick in your memory.
The quadruple threat of Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, and Quinton Jackson make for a decent ensemble, and each does a respective job of taking their small screen counterparts and making it their own for the big screen, though the highlights are Neeson and Cooper as Hannibal and Face, naturally.
There are a few memorable action scenes, though, like the tank parachuting from an airplane scene. The team has to keep firing the tank to stay on course and not crash it when they land. And the opening scene is very well executed as we see the team assembled for the first time. Again, some weak villains, but you don’t come to an A-Team movie for that. On the level of what the audience wants, A-Team delivers.
8. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Director: Guy Ritchie
The spy movies of the 2010s were a pretty strong component throughout, be them funny spy movies like Melissa McCarthy’s Spy in 2015, or films like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Again, this is a film that isn’t an all-time great, but gets the job done for two hours of entertainment.
The pairing of Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill is unexpectedly the best part of the film. Both bring some personality to their separate spies, and offer some decent laughs at their differing viewpoints. The bathroom brawl stands as one of the better set pieces of the decade, and Ritchie and company have a ball with it.
While we are struck again with piss-poor villains, there are other parts that do work well, chief among them the Gaby character, played by Alicia Vikander. While she has a stereotypical role in the first half of the film, she shines in the second half as more of her character is revealed. And Guy Ritchie’s slow-mo style does feel a little out of place with some stunt sequences, but there are moments where he hits it just right.
7. Unstoppable (2010)
Director: Tony Scott
The late, great Tony Scott’s final film may actually be one of his better efforts, and that’s coming from the guy who made Top Gun and True Romance. While I was a little hesitant to put this film in the action category (several scenes give off the vibes of a thriller), I felt it would have been a bit cold to leave Scott off this list.
Denzel Washington and Chris Pine team up as railroad workers trying to stop an out of control train from blowing up in a populated area. Both do great work from an action standpoint, but both also get moments to shine when telling about their personal lives. Denzel has to worry about his daughters, and Pine is trying to get back together with his wife.
While the film does draw several comparisons to Speed, a superior action flick, Unstoppable is really another premise that sounds simple on paper, but when projected on the big screen, makes a big impact. We end up caring a lot more for the characters than we think we will, making us care more for the consequences should the train derail and put lives in jeopardy. That’s a master stroke with such a simple premise, and we all owe Tony Scott a tip of the hat for making his final film one worth remembering.
6. Furious 7 (2015)
Director: James Wan
The seventh time is the charm for this franchise, I guess. Since it was the biggest action franchise of the decade, I can keel over and give it one spot on the list, and since this one did a better job than most entries, it climbs up higher on the list. Also, I feel a bit sentimental because of it being the final entry for a staple of the franchise, the late Paul Walker. We’ll get back to that.
Similar to the other films on the list so far, it’s a pretty simple plot: revenge and tracking down a bad guy. Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw may not be a large physical threat to Dom and his “family”, but he makes the most of it with some cool hand-to-hand sequences, both with Hobbs and Dom. Then there’s the ridiculous Abu Dhabi sequence of stunt cars jumping building to building. Hey, it defies all physics, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
I guess that’s really why this franchise lands so well with fans — it’s just fun, pure fun. I always compare it to the Smokey and the Bandit films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but with less comedy. Those films are really all about fast cars driving fast, and the plot and characters come second. If Fast and the Furious is the modern day equivalent, and it makes billions of dollars each time, I guess I can’t complain too much if audiences are finding what they want, and the films are delivering.
Though I have to put this film so high on the list because of the involvement of Paul Walker. As someone who didn’t even bother with the franchise until the release of this film, even I was a little choked up with the respectable send off given to his character. It’s a rare moment where a film like this takes time out and actually makes an emotional impact. Not too many other action films this decade were able to do that, so props to Furious 7 for accomplishing it.
5. Fury (2014)
Director: David Ayer
Arguably Ayer’s best film of the decade is Fury, though I did miss End of Watch for my thriller list, which at least deserved an honorable mention. Fury, however, a big mark for the director, and was one of the best war films of the 2010s, a sub-genre that was lacking. Fury stands tall as one of the better entries.
Brad Pitt leads the ensemble, which also includes Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal as a tank squad fighting in Germany in the last days of WWII. The film doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war with Lerman’s first scene, where he has to clean blood and ripped up flesh off the tank itself. Lerman’s performance is a bit under-appreciated here, and he is excellent as the inexperienced private who is new to the veteran squad.
Similar to Furious 7, there is a time out scene in Fury as well, where the squad stops at a small village and has a meal with two survivors. It’s a great moment where we see how human some of the characters are, despite their driving a tank around and crushing enemy soldiers, or ripping them to shreds. Though some characters, like Bernthal’s “Coon-Ass” Travis, behave in a way that shows just how inhumane the war can make someone. Or perhaps it was in him all along, and the war only further encouraged his behavior.
Either way, the character work stands out, as does the rest of the performances. Pitt, LaBeouf, and Pena are all great as well, especially LaBeouf, whose best performance to date lies in his portrayal of Bible. While the “action” scenes are not as prevalent here as other entries on the list, save a spectacular tank vs. tank battle in the third act, it didn’t feel appropriate to place this film in any other genre. Unless your war movie is as personal as Schindler’s List, I put it in the action category.
4. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Director: Mel Gibson
While Fury was a great entry in the war films list, I think the best war film of the decade was Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s return to the genre after a long hiatus. Gibson’s character and personal life may have been (rightfully) criticized for his past actions, but as for his performance as a director, he hasn’t lost a step. Hacksaw is brutal, unforgettable, and truly a spectacular piece of work.
Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a grunt who works as a medic for a division fighting on land in the Pacific Theater in WWII. Garfield was nominated for his work, and it was well-earned. Another performance in the film that’s worth mentioning, and one that was underrated, was Hugo Weaving as Doss’ father, an embittered man who takes to drinking and beating his family. It’s Weaving’s best performance in decades.
I do have a couple of criticisms to deliver, though. The boot camp scenes with Vince Vaughn and co. have been done to death, from Full Metal Jacket to Jarhead, and none of it is particularly new or interesting. Also the romance between Doss and his beau, played by Teresa Palmer, comes off as filler and not an interesting dynamic to add to Doss’ story.
However, these low points are more than made up for by the combat sequences and heroic rescues in the back half of the picture. The battles on Hacksaw Ridge are jaw-droppingly gruesome, and the closest we’ve come to realistic combat depictions since Spielberg’s landing on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. Even though Doss never fires a shot in the film, and rarely holds a rifle, he proves to be one of the more heroic characters in recent movie history.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Car chases are a staple of the action genre, and with a lot of entries on this list, a few chase sequences are pretty good. However, when your whole movie is a car chase, as in Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s kind of hard to beat. Fury Road is probably a little lower on this list than you may like it to be, but as a pure action flick, it’s undeniably one of the better films we’ll get in a while.
As mentioned, this isn’t really a complicated movie. The plot comes down to bad guy chasing good guy for 120 minutes. I was a little let down by the simplicity of the story, and felt that the character work with both Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron could have been improved. It’s simply an empty complaint, because that’s not why Miller made the film.
The reason this film exists is to tantalize the audience with some of the best car chase choreography ever put to film. It also stands out because it shows some weird, off-beat and unique vehicles and bad guys. Two of my favorites are the fire-wielding guitar player, The Doof Warrior, and the main baddie himself, Immorten Joe. Miller has always been credited as a director who has his vision set out before him when he makes his movies, and Fury Road is no exception.
It’s kind of hard to say which action scene is the best in the film, since they all blur together. Normally that would be viewed as a large criticism of a film. But with all the high-octane action running pretty much from the word go to the closing credits, I think this is what Miller was going for: something that moves so fast and so quickly that the whole thing feels like an elongated chase. I don’t think anyone will disagree.
2. Skyfall (2012)
Director: Sam Mendes
While Casino Royale may have been the best Bond film we’d seen in forty years (going back to the early Sean Connery flicks), Skyfall is the shot in the arm the franchise needed to keep going, and it was an excellent gift to the fans for the fiftieth anniversary of the series. Bond is another pillar of the action genre, and the spy sub-genre, so of course he had to make an appearance on this list.
What makes Skyfall stand tall above most of the Bond counterparts is that it isn’t afraid to do something different. Whether that’s involving Bond’s boss, M, more than most previous entries, or having a villain that isn’t bent on world domination, but also holds an affinity toward Bond himself.
Villains have been lacking on this list, but the best action villain of the decade was undoubtedly Roul Silva, played by Javiar Bardem. Not only was he threatening, despite an awful hairpiece, but he was determined, patient, and ruthless. Again, these are not always common traits of Bond villains past. Most of them are just cold and calculating bad guys who wait for Bond to show up at their lair. Silva comes to M and Bond head-on, making him more urgent and terrifying.
I also have to give credit to Sam Mendes, one of the best directors to work on a Bond film in decades. He has a great craft in stylistically creating one of the more interesting Bond films we’ve had in a long time. Whether that’s the Oscar-nominated work behind the scenes by cinematographer Roger Deakins or the music score by Thomas Newman, there’s more thought and attention paid behind the camera than most Bond films.
I’ll also give praise to the stunt sequences and action scenes, too. From the opening motorcycle chase to the end firefight, each action scene is either there to advance the plot, or to give us insight into Bond’s advancement from the dried up agent he is at the start of the film to the top-class agent he is by its end. That’s another reason why this Bond flick stands above many others: the fact that Mendes and the screenwriters remembered that Bond can be a character that changes and grows throughout the film, something most other Bond films forget.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
The top spot on this list goes to a more recent release. Sometimes the more recent films end up higher on lists like this because they are so new and fresh, and so recent in our consciousness. However, sometimes recent films top the list because you just know right away that they are deserving. This is the latter.
I loved Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but it was surpassed by Fallout, which is the best action movie of the 2010s, and arguably the best action movie so far in the 21st century. Tom Cruise outdoes himself from an acting perspective as Ethan Hunt, but also from a stunt perspective. While he doesn’t have a singular stunt like the tower climb in Ghost Protocol, or the airplane ride in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, I say it’s the breadth of the work that gives Fallout the prize.
Cruise does the standard gunplay and the footchases, but then there’s the jumps from rooftop to rooftop, the motorcycle chase through Paris, which is fantastic, a tricky car chase, also in Paris, and it’s topped off by the helicopter chase and end fistfight which Cruise claimed took over a year to prepare for. Say what you will about Cruise’s personal life and devotion to Scientology, but I don’t know too many actors who go to that level of commitment for a popcorn action flick.
I also love Fallout for the story. While some argue it’s a basic plot, like most entries on this list, and comes down to good guy has to stop bad guy from detonating plutonium bombs, there’s a lot more underneath the surface. There’s Isla trying to clear her name with MI-5, Walker being a tricky bastard who will help you one minute, then hurt you the next, and Hunt’s old flame Julia, who becomes a target in the third act. There’s a lot more at stake here than it appears.
That leads me to my favorite scene of the movie, which actually is not a major action set-piece. No, it’s the scene about halfway through where Alec Baldwin, who plays Ethan’s boss, comes to London to arrest Hunt, but then it turns out to be a double-cross to capture Walker. Then Baldwin, Hunt, and the rest of the team are double-crossed by Erica, the director of the CIA and Walker’s boss. Finally, the agents hired by Erica, who turn out to be allies of Walker, turn on everyone and try to kill them. It almost comes to the point of comedy in that regard, but I loved it. It’s a high point of fun in an otherwise serious film. And fun is something that only came with a few films on this list, but it’s a welcome addition to this Mission: Impossible standout.