There will be spoilers ahead for each of the films on the list. If you haven’t seen one and don’t want to have it spoiled, skip that entry and scroll to the next.
It’s December 2019, and with the 2020s just around the corner, it’s time to look back at some of the entertainment high points of the decade as it draws to a close. In this first list, I’ll be looking at my personal picks for the decade’s top films.
The 2010s saw some rather impressive technological leaps in cinema, particularly in the realm of special effects. The CGI of the 1990s and 2000s looks incredibly amateurish by today’s standards. Going back to some earlier films – even big-budget blockbusters – which rely heavily on CGI can seriously detract from the experience, especially on today’s large format 4K displays.
Narratively, the decade has seen franchises and sequels firmly dominate the box office, inspired by the success of Marvel in particular. It’s also been a decade where nostalgia and throwbacks to past films and franchises has been important. Many films have gotten sequels years or even decades after release – the revival of the Star Wars franchise being most notable.
By the way, the numbering here isn’t necessarily in order. The number one film is my favourite film of the decade, but the others could really be put in any order. All are great and while some have flaws or weren’t perfect, these are the films I enjoyed most. If your favourite(s) don’t make the list, just remember this is all subjective. You like what you like and I like what I like. And that’s great!
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 & 2 (2010 and 2011)
This is kind of a cheat because it’s two films, but it’s my list so that’s just tough. Looking back to the beginning of the decade, it’s hard to imagine that the Harry Potter series hadn’t yet concluded. But Deathly Hallows was split into two parts, coming out in 2010 and 2011, and they brought the series to an explosive conclusion. The decision to split up Deathly Hallows – which was, of course, a single book – into two films got a lot of criticism at the time for being a fairly obvious and shameless money grab, but the thing about the Harry Potter series is that there was always a lot of cut content from the books. So while it certainly was a moneymaking ploy on the part of studio Warner Brothers, it wasn’t one which damaged the films. If anything, the extra runtime makes Deathly Hallows a more enjoyable and fully-rounded experience.
Prior to JK Rowling messing with the characters (did you hear Dumbledore is gay now?) Deathly Hallows marked the end of the Harry Potter saga, which had been running since 2001’s The Philosopher’s Stone. Subsequent attempts to pull fans back in, with the two Fantastic Beasts films and the Cursed Child stage play haven’t managed to be anywhere near as successful, either in terms of story or financial results, so it would’ve been better in many ways if this had been the final entry in the series.
By this point in the film series, we’ve been with the characters for a long time, we’ve got to know the actors and watched them in a very literal sense grow into their roles. Deathly Hallows doesn’t shake up the formula or the aesthetic of the Harry Potter world. It’s more of the same, building on previous films and drawing the story to a satisfactory conclusion. The climactic fight against antagonist Voldemort had been building slowly over several films and when he was finally vanquished – with Harry’s trademark disarming spell, no less – it was a great and emotional moment. Aside from the awkward epilogue with several key characters having been “aged”, both films accomplish what they set out to. And as a fan of Harry Potter overall, it was a good way to say goodbye to the series. Or at least, to this iteration of it with these actors. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Harry Potter returns as a big-budget television series in a decade or two.
In the autumn of 2013, when Disney’s Snow Queen-inspired Frozen was released, I was living in a different country, and perhaps it’s for that reason that I missed out on almost all of the advertising and hype for this film. It was only when browsing local cinema listings for English-language films that I even heard about Frozen, and decided from that to go to see it. Disney films have always been decent, so I wasn’t expecting to be disappointed, but I really was surprised at just how good Frozen was.
We could do a whole article on how the animators created the incredible snow for the film – important, obviously, in a film with such a wintry setting – because honestly the amount of work that went into that aspect alone is amazing. The snow in Frozen looks and behaves like real snow, right down to its powdery consistency, and the level of detail really took me by surprise. I understand that animators spent months working on just this one aspect of the film, and that attention to detail shows in the finished product. Frozen wouldn’t be half as good if it looked like Anna and her sister Elsa were trekking across a flat sheet of paper.
As a story, Frozen stands out for breaking the typical Disney Princess mould. Rather than being a story of a damsel in distress being rescued by a dashing prince, Frozen turns that on its head by having the central characters be two sisters, and the ultimate act of love be one of sisterly love. In addition, the dashing handsome prince featured in the early part of the film turns into a villain in what is, by Disney’s standards at least, a shocking and unexpected twist.
Despite being played perhaps more than a little too often in the years after Frozen‘s release, the soundtrack is also amazing. Let It Go, the main song from the film, is undoubtedly one of Disney’s best, and there are several others throughout the film which are memorable. It’s always nice to be surprised at the box office, and Frozen definitely did it for me this decade.
I’d like to give an honourable mention to Disney’s other great film of the decade, Moana. When I was writing this list I debated including Moana, but when it came down to a choice between the two, Frozen just edges it for me. Still a great watch though, and with Disney+ coming soon, there’s no excuse to not see both!
A Brony Tale (2014)
I love a good documentary. I’d have put more docs on this list if I had more space, but considering the theatrical documentaries of the decade, A Brony Tale definitely earns its spot. The film could’ve easily descended into ridiculing the so-called Bronies (a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony”) but manages to stay away from mocking its subject matter, instead telling a more nuanced story.
The film follows My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic voice actress Ashleigh Ball as she prepares to attend a Brony convention. Prior to watching the film, I was loosely aware of Bronies – largely from internet memes – but I hadn’t really spend any time investigating the cartoon or its fans. Bronies, if you’re unaware of the term, are adults (usually men, but the community includes women too) who have become fans of the 2010 cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Obviously the odd thing about this, for anyone who knows their cartoons and toy brands, is that My Little Pony is aimed at girls, specifically girls aged 6-12, so for adult men to be interested in this series raises a lot of questions.
The documentary tackles its subject matter in a respectful way, letting fans of the show speak for themselves without being overly judgemental or preachy. One story, recounted by the father of a fan, explained how someone dealing with depression and mental health had found an artistic outlet after being inspired by My Little Pony. And the fans themselves come from many walks of life as well as different backgrounds.
At the centre of it all was Ashleigh Ball and her decision to attend a convention. She specifically talks about how she’s used to being anonymous as a voice actress, and how it will be an unusual experience to be the star attraction and have so many people knowing and recognising her. The film documents her struggle to understand and come to terms with the phenomenon of adult fans. And again, the way it’s presented and the way the film explores both the fandom itself and Ball’s reaction to it was done tastefully and respectfully.
It’s also a reminder that any fandom can be seen as odd from the perspective of an outsider. Something like Star Wars is practically mainstream nowadays, but when I was at school, Star Wars was very much a nerdy franchise to be associated with, as was Star Trek or something in the fantasy genre. It’s fascinating to me to see how something like Game of Thrones became as popular as it did as a fantasy series, when not that long ago it was something mainstream audiences would’ve looked down on. The overall message of A Brony Tale seems to be: “let people enjoy whatever they want and try not to judge”. I like that message, and that’s what I took away from the film.
Now for a complete change of pace. The American Civil War – and American history in general – has always interested me, so Lincoln had been on my radar for a while prior to its 2012 release. And it was absolutely worth waiting for.
Telling the story of the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, as he struggled with Congress to end the Civil War and emancipate southern slaves, the film and its spectacular cast do an amazing job portraying the complexities of negotiations and political manoeuvring. Sometimes a story can be uninteresting if its ending is known – and we know, of course, that Lincoln successfully freed the slaves and won the war – but in this film, how it played out is a joy to watch.
Aesthetically, Lincoln does a great job portraying Washington DC as it would’ve looked in the 1860s, and the costumes and set designs are absolutely on point. The dirty, gritty reality of life in those days is conveyed beautifully on screen, and supplements the story and acting greatly. People often downplay these aspects of a film, and while its true that some minimalist productions can do well – especially on the stage – as well as low-budget films that don’t necessarily have money to waste, in a title like Lincoln getting the look right definitely adds a quality to the film that just wouldn’t exist even if all other factors (the script, acting, direction, etc) were identical.
Lincoln stands up among other great works of cinema, and I think in future will be hailed as a must-watch classic of the history and drama genres. With Steven Spielberg directing and producing, alongside fellow producer and future Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, there was so much to this film that even after multiple viewing I still find new elements to enjoy and new moments to revel in. Overall a really stunning piece of cinematic history.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t my favourite Star Trek film. It’s probably not even in my top five, but it’s definitely the better of the only two Star Trek films released this decade. As a follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek reboot, Into Darkness builds on its predecessor and is a solid action flick with a twist (some) fans will have appreciated, and a flickering of that elusive “Star Trek-ness”. It’s also notable for being Leonard Nimoy’s final film role; unfortunately the decade has claimed many Star Trek actors.
So I have to admit that as a big Star Trek fan, it would’ve felt wrong to not include a Trek film on this list. That’s 100% my own bias coming through rather than a commentary on Into Darkness, which is a decent action film but probably not one of the best ones I’ve ever seen. What Into Darkness did, however, as with its predecessor and sequel, is keep the Star Trek franchise ticking over, giving it some breathing room while keeping it alive in the popular consciousness. It’s hard to see how we’d have got to see Discovery, Picard, or Lower Decks next year if the JJ-verse films hadn’t given the franchise a breath of fresh air. In that sense, Into Darkness – as arguably the best of the reboot films – is a key stepping stone in the franchise’s continued success. And while the film stands up on its own merits as a piece of Star Trek storytelling, in my opinion at least, its biggest accomplishment is paving the way for what’s come since.
The twist Into Darkness springs on fans was clever, but also had been rumoured to be happening, and the result of that rumour being all over the internet in the weeks before release detracted from it somewhat as I wasn’t surprised. Central villain John Harrison (played by Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch) is revealed to be famous Star Trek baddie Khan, and what follows is a film which pays homage to The Wrath of Khan without going overboard. As a JJ Abrams film, in that sense I greatly prefer it to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which went too far in copying its 1977 predecessor.
It’s become a recurring theme in this list, but the special effects and visuals were great in Into Darkness, and the difference between this iteration of Star Trek and what we’ve seen previously is huge. While some of the aesthetic changes haven’t sat well with fans of TOS, and I understand that, the effects, particularly in big set-pieces, look fantastic even six years later.
The Hobbit trilogy (2012, 2013, & 2014)
Realistically I should’ve just put the first two parts on this list, because the third film isn’t all that great. Indeed, The Hobbit is overall a poor relation to the previous decade’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, but nevertheless was an enjoyable return to Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.
Martin Freeman is the standout here, a perfectly-cast lead as titular Hobbit Bilbo Baggins. It’s through his eyes that we see Middle-Earth as we follow his adventure to The Lonely Mountain with the Dwarves, and Freeman’s strong performance carries what would otherwise be a much more underwhelming trilogy of films. Part of the criticism these films got is due to comparisons to Lord of the Rings, but that was inevitable, and other criticisms of the runtime, effects, and dialogue are valid.
When I saw the first and second parts in the cinema, I was able to see the “high frame rate” version, shot in 48 frames-per-second – a novelty for the big screen. While this seemed gimmicky and even offputting at first, once I got used to it it did make for an interesting experience. Disappointingly, the films have not been released anywhere in this format, as the DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital releases all stick to the standard cinematic 24 fps.
While the plot of The Hobbit suffered as a consequence of being dragged out across three films instead of one or two, and some of the added new characters fell flat, any time fantasy makes it to the big screen with such a big budget is going to be a positive thing. The plot of The Hobbit is certainly less exciting than Lord of the Rings, at least in the sense that nothing world-ending is threatening our protagonists. Peter Jackson tried to compensate for that by throwing in a lot of “foreshadowing” for the rise of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, but in this case it would’ve arguably been better to stick to the core story.
The final film is a rare example this decade of sub-par special effects, perhaps due to their overuse, and while there are some great moments (such as a Dwarf played by Billy Connolly) overall the first two films do a much better job of telling an interesting fantasy story. Some of the highlights for me included the creepy, claustrophobic time the party spends travelling through Mirkwood in a perfectly-shot sequence, the portrayal of Radagast by former Doctor Who actor Sylvester McCoy, and above all, being back in Middle-Earth once more.
Ready Player One (2018)
The second film on this list to be directed by Steven Spielberg is a geek’s paradise thanks to countless references, easter eggs, and nostalgic throwbacks to films of the 1980s in particular. The story is centred around players in a massive online world who are racing to gain control of that world by solving a series of puzzles its creator left behind when he passed away.
Ben Mendelsohn plays a truly nasty villain, giving the story much more weight and raising the stakes for the main characters. Ready Player One is laden with special effects, and because (most of the time) the effects aren’t trying to be hyper-realistic and imitate reality, but rather imitate a futuristic online game, many issues present in other titles simply vanish here. Because we know that what’s being shown on screen is taking place in a virtual world, there’s no expectation of it to be perfect, and thus none of the “uncanny valley” effect which some CGI-heavy films can fall victim to.
The plot is exciting – and it’s always great to root for an underdog in a fight or race against a big corporation. I have to confess I haven’t read the book upon which the film is based, and I have heard some criticism of the film from fans of the book. But as someone going in with no expectations, I was very impressed and found Ready Player One to be a very entertaining film.
Source Code (2011)
I didn’t know what to make of Source Code at first. It’s a complicated film – as time travel stories often are – and it took me a while after leaving the cinema to fully process what I’d seen. Some of the implications are actually a little disturbing – like whether lead Jake Gyllenhaal’s character actually stole someone’s body and identity.
Usually I’m not a big fan of time travel as a concept. It works in some instances, but in too many films and stories it gets convoluted and some stories completely tie themselves in knots either with inexpiable paradoxes or trying to over-explain the rules of time travel in their world. Fortunately, Source Code manages to avoid those traps for the most part, and what results is a genuinely thought-provoking film.
The basic premise is that a secret government programme has given an injured soldier a way to travel back in time to find out who was responsible for a terrorist attack. He only has a few minutes in the past before the explosion occurs and then the operators have to reset the loop and send him back again. It takes multiple visits to the past (or simulated past) before he gets the hang of things. To explain the entire thing would take more time than I have on this list, but suffice to say it’s a fascinating concept that is, for once, well-executed.
Strong performances from leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan carry the film, as their characters slowly work out what’s going to happen. It’s perfectly paced, well shot, with a couple of unexpected twists and revelations which keep things interesting. The real-world, modern day setting is a change of pace from a lot of science fiction films of this decade, and I found myself rewatching Source Code multiple times.
Though it may seem heretical to some, I’m not really into superheroes. As a kid I didn’t read comic books, and the big-budget superhero films I’ve seen over the years – the likes of Fantastic Four or X-Men – just didn’t hold my interest. Even the Marvel films of the last few years haven’t really interested me all that much, and I found myself seeing them more out of obligation than enjoyment. Deadpool was different, however, as a comedy film and with Ryan Reynolds masterfully portraying antihero Wade Wilson.
Not knowing much about Marvel or any of its characters outside of Iron Man and The Avengers, I didn’t really know what to expect going in. I’d heard the film was funny, but it had some real laugh-out-loud moments that I didn’t expect.
I think the problem many superhero films have is that they simultaneously take themselves very seriously while having storylines, characters, and an aesthetic that is childish and inherently un-serious. That disconnect is jarring for me, and takes me out of it. In addition, as I’ve mentioned previously, much of the appeal of Marvel films – as with Star Trek, Star Wars, The Hobbit, and other franchises this decade – is nostalgia. The films appeal much more to people who grew up with these characters in the various comic books, and as someone who just didn’t have that experience I don’t have the same connection to those characters.
What was great about Deadpool, to get back to my original point, is that the whole point of the character is that he doesn’t take himself or his surroundings seriously. That was true in the comic books and it’s carried over to the film perfectly. Reynolds was an absolutely inspired casting choice, as his comedic range fits the character so well. The frequent breaking of the fourth wall – apparently a Deadpool trademark going back to his comic book days – was done perfectly and provided many fun moments.
The over-the-top action was great, as were the gory deaths which earned the film a more restrictive rating than it otherwise would’ve. But it’s hard to see how Deadpool could’ve worked as a film marketed at kids and teenagers; it needed to have the freedom to offend in order to accomplish what it set out to. Overall, I don’t really care whether it stayed true to its source material, but Deadpool was a hilarious send-up of the whole superhero genre.
Just before I declare my favourite film of the decade, I want to look briefly at a few other titles that almost made this list. I’ve picked ten – which absolutely could’ve been the top ten themselves. Obviously there are way more than ten or twenty films to enjoy from the 2010s, and while the decade has been dominated by sequels and franchises, there have been some great original and standalone works too.
Oz The Great And Powerful (2013) – A fun return to the Land of Oz, fronted by James Franco.
Jurassic World (2015) – An interesting attempt to reboot the Jurassic Park franchise. It was nice to see a fully-operational park.
Tomorrowland (2015) – An underrated film loosely based on the Disneyland attraction. Great performances and an interesting concept.
Bohemian Rhaposdy (2018) – Perfectly acted by Rami Malek, who won an Academy Award, this biopic of Queen’s front man is an entertaining look at the band’s rise.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) – Controversial and unfortunately divisive among fans, Rian Johnson’s film tried to shake up Star Wars after JJ Abrams played it very safe two years prior. And it succeeded.
Joker (2019) – I can’t rank this because I haven’t seen it. But everything I’ve heard has been great and I can’t wait to see for myself.
Moana (2016) – As mentioned above, a great Disney film with an inspirational story. And some catchy songs.
World War Z (2013) – Less a horror film than an action flick with zombies, it stands up as an interesting and different take on the zombie genre in a decade overrun by The Walking Dead.
Game Change (2012) – I fully admit this is a niche film (especially outside the USA) as it documents John McCain and Sarah Palin in their unsuccessful campaign. As someone who finds such things fascinating it was an interesting – if supposedly inaccurate – film.
Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension (2011) – What can I say except I really enjoy Phineas and Ferb? The film is based on the longest-running Disney Channel original cartoon, and is more of the same, playing out like a feature-length episode of the show.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
When it came to naming my favourite film of the decade, I didn’t need to think twice. Rogue One took everything great about Star Wars and condensed it into a single standalone piece of cinema. Though I would argue the scenes with Darth Vader were unnecessary, the full power of The Empire is on full display here, and after The Force Awakens successfully took the story forward by a generation, Rogue One brought fans back to where it all began.
Jyn Erso is such an excellent protagonist; selfish and completely jaded when we first meet her, she becomes conflicted and eventually rises to inspire hope in the Rebellion over the course of the film. Each of the characters we meet is interesting and could reasonably have a whole film or series dedicated just to them. Rogue One is, in that sense, a perfect team-up film, bringing together a diverse array of characters from the Star Wars galaxy in a no-hope plot to steal the Death Star’s plans.
Ben Mendelsohn is on this list as a villain for the second time, and while he was great in Ready Player One, this is truly his outstanding performance. Though unfortunately his character is ultimately overshadowed in the final cut of the film thanks to Darth Vader’s appearances, Krennic is a kind of Star Wars villain we haven’t really seen – the career man who takes far too much glee in his work.
The CGI recreations of both Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing were very, very close to being perfect. And I think in that sense, Rogue One has paved the way for technology that will become increasingly common in future.
Everything from the music, the aesthetic, the return to the era of the Original Trilogy was everything I wanted from a Star Wars film, and the decision to kill off basically the entire cast was an incredibly bold decision in such a franchise- and sequel-focused era of filmmaking. We need more films like Rogue One.
So that’s it.
My top picks for films of the decade, and while there are undoubtedly lots of enjoyable films I missed, these are the ones that were, at least, the most memorable. I’ll also take a look back on the decade’s best television series and video games in upcoming lists, so be sure to check back for those before 2020 rolls around.
All films mentioned above are the copyright of their studios and distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.