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.
Moving right along in our best of the decade by genre list, our next topic is drama. There’s a lot of films that can fall into this category, and drama films are typically one of the more prolific genres of each year. You have all those Oscar-bait films, the biographical films, and adult stories that don’t fall into other genres. This was honestly the hardest list to compose since this has been a pretty superb decade for dramatic films, so I’ll list the ten and some honorable mentions.
The Fighter (2010)
Director: David O. Russell
David O. Russell became one of the most talked about directors of the first half of the decade, and he started it off with this tremendous boxing drama that earned both Melissa Leo and Christian Bale Academy Awards. Both of them are terrific, and Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams are somewhat overlooked for their great work as well. It also has a great script with memorable characters.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director: Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen’s epic biographical tale of Solomon Northup is one I really had to feel sorry for leaving off a top ten list. If there were 11 spots, this film would be on it. Not only does Michael Fassbender deliver one of his greatest performances ever as one of the best villains of the decade, but we also saw the birth of one of the most celebrated new faces of the decade: Lupita Nyong’o, who took home an Oscar for her portrayal of slave girl Patsey.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Another boxing drama, but this time it’s the seventh film in a franchise that’s arguably the best. Before his successful take of Black Panther, Ryan Coogler cemented his status as a director to watch with this film. Michael B. Jordan is fantastic as Adonis Creed, and his chemistry with Bianca, played excellently by Tessa Thompson, is arguably stronger than the romance in the original Rocky. And as for the man himself, there’s a solid argument that Sylvester Stallone has never given a better performance in his career than as an aged Rocky training the next champ.
Only the Brave (2017)
Director: Joseph Kosinski
This is a very personal choice for me. I know this is a film that wasn’t widely seen, and even then I know some people who didn’t go for this movie. I, however, was all caught up in the emotions of this surprising true story. Josh Brolin gives his best performance to date as Eric Marsh, who leads a fire and rescue crew working in the Arizona wildlife. Jennifer Connelly was very much also overlooked for her exceptional work as his wife, and each member of the crew is given a distinct personality that makes us remember them after the credits roll. If you missed this one, seek it out.
Director: Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s adaptation of the novel by real-life hero Ron Stallworth was a hard one to nail down genre-wise, and while there’s a fair amount of dark humor in it, I settled on it being a drama. It’s a very timely film for our culture, proving that just because the KKK peaked again 40 years ago doesn’t mean the same hate mentality doesn’t still exist today. On top of all that dramatic stuff, you have wonderful work from John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Topher Grace. Good stuff.
Steven Spielberg is just one of those directors that you know in advance can just plant a spot on a list like this, and easily his best film of the decade was Lincoln. It’s incredible to see how funny a film about Lincoln’s last four months in office, the passing of the 13th amendment of the Constitution and the end of the American Civil War can be. The screenplay by Tony Kushner may well stand as one of the best of the decade.
As for the cast, it’s overloaded with talent, beginning right at the top with the Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Mr. Lincoln himself. It’s been said dozens of times since the release of the film, but there’s no beating around the bush: he doesn’t play Lincoln, he transforms into Lincoln. You also have Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones playing their best roles in decades, and great work from Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, and even Bruce McGill, who has three scenes. They all knock it out of the park.
Of course, Spielberg has his usual crew with Janusz Kaminski behind the camera, the Oscar-winning set design by Rick Carter, Michael Kahn editing, and John Williams composing the score. All of the usual suspects here go above and beyond to help make Lincoln a wonderful piece both aesthetically and also in entertainment value. Who knew a movie about passing an amendment could be such a fun watch?
9. The Descendants (2011)
Director: Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne is just one of those filmmakers who knows when exactly to cross the thin line between comedy and drama. Because of that, The Descendants is a pitch-perfect movie. It’s very funny at times, it’s a great family drama at other times, and when it needs to hit you with the emotional beats, it knows not to fight back.
Payne and co-writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won an Oscar for their work here, and George Clooney was nominated (and robbed) for an Oscar for his best role of the decade as Matt King. Shailene Woodley also gives a very realistic, rooted performance as his oldest daughter Alex, and the supporting cast includes scene stealing moments from Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, and especially from Judy Greer.
What also helps this one stand out is its diversion from conformism. There’s a jerky jock surfer whom Matt suspects had an affair with his comatose wife, Elizabeth; turns out, he’s just a regular jerky jock surfer who doesn’t cheat. The real cheater, played by Matthew Lillard, is remorseful and extremely saddened by Elizabeth’s situation. There’s even Alex’s asshole of a boyfriend, who disrespects her family and pisses Matt off at every turn, but then there’s a scene where he and Matt come to terms and we realize he’s actually not that bad a kid. Sometimes not playing it safe makes your film benefit greatly.
8. The Hate U Give (2018)
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
The most recent release to make the list, The Hate U Give is something of a miracle. It has so much working against it on the surface: a YA adaptation, a cast that isn’t exactly full of A-list actors, and it seems to be very one-sided on the main issue of the film. However, this movie subverts all those negative connotations, if you will, and is nothing short of a poster child of how these type of films should work.
When I mention “not exactly A-list actors”, I mean casting actors and actresses like Amandla Stenberg (whom I didn’t know) in the lead, or Regina Hall in a dramatic role as the mother, and TV stars like Issa Rae and Sabrina Carpenter in key roles. They don’t seem like an Oscar-caliber cast, and the ones that fit that mold more obviously (Anthony Mackie and arguably Common) are given the smaller roles. But the key is they all work. Stenberg is amazing as Starr, Hall does great work as her mom, and Rae and Carpenter are fantastic.
However, if there’s one performance here that stands tall, it’s Russell Hornsby as Starr’s father, Maverick. Known mostly for his role as the eldest son in Fences, Hornsby gives a transformative performance, one that I’m going to remember for a long time. His being overlooked this year in the Supporting Actor categories really shows. No disrespect to those nominated, but Hornsby, for my money, should have been first in line.
I also love how complicated the issue at the movie’s heart is taken. It’s not a black-and-white answer of “cops are bad, black people are targeted by them”. The situation is set up in a very realistic manner, and the shooting scene that incites the plot is perfectly directed, written, and acted. While I sympathized with Starr and her cause, I also appreciated how Common (playing against type) is the one who shows Starr that the policeman involved in the shooting also has a sympathetic side. While we’d all love to think that situations like this are clear-cut, this film isn’t afraid to back down from the truth; a truth we might not all accept, but one that’s there nonetheless.
Ben Affleck started off well with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but reached his directorial peak (thus far) with Argo, a wickedly smart movie about the true-life rescue of Americans in the Iran Hostage Situation of 1979/80. There is so much right with this movie, and so few missteps taken. Affleck made a difficult subject matter like this look easy.
There are two polar opposite worlds constructed in Argo, and both of them are so well fleshed out. First, we have the chaotic world of Iran in the late 1970s. The tension of the setting is expressed through quick cuts to civilians looking around nervously in everyday situations, showing just how upside down their world has been turned. We also see the tension that builds up among the hostages as they reach their limits, both with each other, and the situation at hand. Very realistic.
Then you get the more flamboyant world of Hollywood in the late 1970s. After the promise of blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, it feels like the downbeat era is coming to a close, and a bright future is ahead. And yet when characters like John Chambers and Lester Siegel are going about their days, they feel mired in the past. The awkward transition that occured in this period in Hollywood films is perfectly summed up with both of their characters and performances. Job well done to both John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
Finally, Affleck himself was snubbed for his directorial work on the film, which is truly the biggest Oscar snub of the decade, but his acting work was also overlooked. He strikes just the perfect chord as Tony Mendez, the CIA extractionist charged with getting the hostages out of Iran. He’s confident in what he’s doing, determined, but doesn’t show any of it. It’s another day at the office for him, and one that audiences won’t forget anytime soon.
6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Director: Martin McDonagh
The American heartland has never looked better on the big screen. And I mean that in a realistic manner. As someone who hails from the state just north of the one depicted in the film, I can tell you for a fact that every character in this film is a personification of somebody I know. So before you rattle off about me cheering on a movie that supports racism and doesn’t tackle it well, this movie got it right.
More than just the race relations being so well done, what makes Three Billboards soar is the writing. Martin McDonough is just simply one of the best screenwriters out there right now. His characters are brilliantly composed, fresh, but also very realistic. The dialogue is a bit enhanced for the simple folk of the midwest, but since McDonough comes from a theatre background, and because it’s so good, I overlook that.
Now for the performances, man oh man. Frances McDormand rules as Mildred Hayes, a divorced woman looking for justice for her recently deceased daughter. Her Oscar win was very well-deserved. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson do some of their best work in a while as the two cops trying to work the case, but also trying to control Mildred’s temper. John Hawkes makes the most of his two scenes in the film, and even supporting roles like Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son, Caleb Landry Jones as the billboard owner, and Peter Dinklage as the town dwarf stand out as memorable characters.
Like a few other films on this list, Three Billboards knows when to be funny, and then when to pour on the drama. There are several dramatic twists and turns taken by the film that are wonderful to see for the first time, then even more fun to see when you re-watch it with friends and family. It’s also well-done technically, with Ben Davis’ great work behind the camera and Carter Burwell’s charming score. I know some call it politically incorrect, racist, or worse, but I call it true, and one of the best films of the decade.
5. Room (2015)
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
I can count on two fingers the number of films to make me cry in the 2010s (Toy Story 3 and Creed), but I don’t know if I’ve had a more emotional experience this decade than I have while watching Room. From the opening scene to the final frames, Room plays your emotions like a finely tuned piano, and it’s wonderful.
Brie Larson dominates the screen as Ma, a girl who was lured into a 10×10 shed and forced to live, and eventually has to raise a son, in. We’ve talked a lot about realism in this list of the best drama movies of the 2010s, and I have to list it again here with Larson’s brilliant work. Not for one moment do we not see her and think it’s a performance. She is the character. The same goes for young Jacob Tremblay as Jack, the son. The childhood innocence in him is so naturally crafted that he makes it look easy. He just is the boy.
Emma Donoghue wrote the script here, and also the novel that the film is based on, and her work truly is the responsible factor for why this movie feels so real. From a writing perspective, she knows when to turn up the heat on the tension that comes from living in such a small space, then the tension with the escape scene, which left me gasping with relief when it ended. But then there’s the nervous tension between all the characters in the second half of the film, outside of room.
At the same time, though, Room has a lot of heart to it. The relationship between Ma and Jack is so lived-in and natural that you honestly could have thought that Larson and Tremblay were related. We care very deeply for these characters, and we root so hard for them to escape. Then when they do, we grow with them as they rediscover (or in Jack’s case, discover) the wide world they really live in. We go up and down with them as their moods ebb and flow, and leave the film changed.
While the film had something of a troubled production and a low box office turn, Steve Jobs is a masterpiece. From Aaron Sorkin’s exceptional script to the phenomenal work from the cast, even Danny Boyle’s direction has enough flair and style to it to make it feel like a film he directed, not a script written by Sorkin and directed by John Doe.
Everybody seems to complain about the lack of emotional empathy the film gives off, but I felt that was very appropriate, especially when you consider who the subject is. Jobs was a standoffish, uptight, and at times jealous man who didn’t take no for an answer and did everything he could to make things go his way. When that’s your type of character, there’s not a whole lot of room left over for emotions, but even so, when Steve’s daughter Lisa does enter the picture, I felt for her. Maybe more for her situation and having Jobs as a father more than anything else, but again, I think that’s what the film was going for.
If you want to talk about great acting, look no further than Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender, both of whom were nominated for Oscars. Their rapport is one of the best man and woman relationships I’ve seen this decade that didn’t involve a love connection. And how about Jeff Daniels? His big scene in the middle section of the movie is so well acted, it still troubles me to this day that he was overlooked. The same can be said for Seth Rogan, who does excellent work as Steve Wozniak.
While all these elements work together really well, the one element that didn’t land with a lot of audiences, but really landed with me, was the three-act structure the film set up. I love how it’s basically a stage play put on film, with the three different product launches serving as the McGuffins of why everybody’s there. It was a novel approach, and it made for one of the best films of the decade.
3. Whiplash (2014)
Director: Damien Chazelle
This and my number two choice flip-flopped more than once, so it’s really a close call in the rankings. What’s not a close call, though, is how much I love this movie. Again, I draw from my own experiences when thinking about this movie. Like Andrew, the protagonist, I was in a much-expected jazz band in high school (playing piano), and expectations were high for me. When I didn’t meet them, I got in trouble. Not nearly as much as Andrew does in the film, but I felt more for him than a lot of other protagonists this decade.
First Man was an honorable mention in the sci-fi list, but Damien Chazelle’s feature debut was nothing short of breathtaking on first viewing. The movie’s hyped up, frenetic pacing was an experience I don’t think will be replicated anytime soon. The writing is so strong, the slams and put-downs so powerfully profane that after a while you just become immune to them, which all lead to a film that shows a lot, and promises much more from its young director.
The Oscar-winning work from J.K. Simmons is spectacular here. While I’ve seen him play “the yelling guy” so many times before, there was a more personal connection to him as he plays Fletcher. There’s a few moments where he opens up, tears up, and shows just how passionate he is about his craft. Even though he’s the antagonist, you feel for him and, in some instances, root for him. That doesn’t take away from Miles Teller’s great work as Andrew, but when you have the villain as the more well-rounded character, intentionally I might add, you’ll probably gravitate more towards him.
I will never forget seeing this film in the theater for the first time. I was with a group of my college friends, and we had just seen Birdman in the previous screening, which we all loved. Then we sat down for this film, thinking there’s no topping Birdman. Nope. The final five minutes of the film, Andrew’s show-stopping drum solo, drained all of the energy out of us as spectators. As the solo ended, and we saw Fletcher’s acceptance of Andrew, I had a mile-wide smile on my face. And as the screen cut to black and the credits started rolling, I could only do one thing: lean forward and rest my head on the back of the chair ahead of me. I needed a moment, both to catch my breath, and to process how amazing this movie was.
2. Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
From Whiplash to Manchester by the Sea, two totally different viewing experiences. Unlike a lot of people who love this movie, I love it for a lot of other reasons. I didn’t leave the theater wanting to kill myself (which is no way to advertise a movie you love), and I didn’t leave depressed. I left the theater ecstatic, raving with how powerful the film is, and yet also how profound.
The best place to start for me is what the film reminded me of: Rain Man. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges are both thrown into this situation, one that’s out of their control, and have to try to make up for lost time by getting through a traumatic situation. It’s not a perfect comparison storywise, but the relationship between Affleck and Hedges felt very much like a brotherly one. Hedges says and does some things impulsively, and Affleck has to work around it. Then after so much of it, Affleck starts doing it, too. Not to draw up the word again, but realism like that makes for a great experience.
It goes without saying, but the performances from both Affleck and Hedges, as well as from Michelle Williams as Affleck’s estranged ex-wife, are all first class. The sadness in them does translate to the audience, especially in the long flashback scene that explains why Affleck is the way he is, and why he dreads going back to Manchester. It’s a film moment that makes you sit back and say, “No…they didn’t.” It’s a very cliche phrase, but one that’s extremely appropriate. It hits you right in the heart, and the film, which does have a comedic undertone throughout, suddenly changes lanes and shows you it has balls of steel.
Kenneth Lonergan is known for making films about difficult subject matters. While I haven’t delved into his filmography as deeply as others have, this film shows him as a director who isn’t afraid to take risks, or go the extra mile dramatically speaking. He walks the tightrope between comedy and drama, blurs them a bit in some scenes, and gets away with it. It’s a film I will look to for grieving moments, and remind myself that no matter how bad you have it, there’s always something to get you through it.
Everybody who enters the film world has an entry point, a movie that makes them want to dive in headfirst and explore all the treasures beneath the surface. That film, for me, was The Social Network. No doubt, I had a love for movies from a very young age, and had always said from age five (or so) that I wanted to make movies. But when David Fincher’s grand opus was released, I knew my life was changing forever.
Again I’ll draw back to my first experience with the film. I remember I was visiting my aunt and uncle down in Sparta, Missouri, and as a treat, they took me to a double feature of The Other Guys and Dinner for Schmucks. Both films featured the trailer for The Social Network, and never before had a movie trailer made me that excited for a film I had no idea was coming out. This was the moment I went from loving all the big blockbusters and the Will Ferrell and Steve Carell comedies to a connoisseur of drama films. So yeah, it goes without saying this also takes the crown for best trailer of the decade, too.
As for the film itself, there’s been so much else written about it and talked about it over the last nine years that I feel I can’t add anything new to the conversation. Except that I 100% agree: Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is terrific, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, and Justin Timberlake are brilliant, even Rooney Mara, who has two scenes, shines. Sorkin’s screenplay is pretty much the New Testament for aspiring screenwriters, like myself, and David Fincher’s icy direction of the Harvard lifestyle in the early noughties is one of the best directing jobs this decade. If not one of, maybe the top.
I also love the homage the film pays to Citizen Kane, playing with the back-and-forth element of time, and seeing our perspective of Mark Zuckerberg change so much from start to finish. Or does it? In the first scene, he’s an asshole to his girlfriend, played by Mara, who breaks up with him on the spot. The way he speaks, knowing he’s above her on so many levels, makes it hard to sympathize for him, and yet through the whole movement of the film, we gradually see that he is an asshole, but one that has some redeeming qualities.
In the closing scene, when Zuckerberg has one final conversation with a junior lawyer, we again see the smartass in him rising to the surface, but this time, we see a tinge of it being unintentional. Zuckerberg may not be the most heroic protagonist (some argue he’s the antagonist) of the decade, but he is certainly one of the most fascinating.