The 40 best films of the decade, from Paddington 2 to Call Me by Your Name

Geoffrey Macnab, Clarisse Loughrey, Adam White
Clockwise from left: 'Mad Max: Fury Road', 'Call Me By Your Name', 'Carol', 'Paddington 2', '12 Years a Slave': Rex

The past decade has seen film in a deep state of conflict. Cinema ticket sales have continued to dwindle, while the rise of streaming services has completely changed our viewing habits.

The mid-budget studio project – a favourite of awards season – has been both saved and doomed. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach must now either accept that their dream projects will likely never see the light of day or make deals with Netflix and co, in full knowledge that it means robbing those films of a proper cinema release.

Meanwhile, franchises have continued to dominate the box office. Specifically, Disney has launched a near-complete takeover of our cinema screens – from Star Wars to Marvel, Pixar and 20th Century Fox. The future of the theatrical experience might be in jeopardy, but that doesn’t mean we’ve been short of ingenuity and imagination.

There have been gems from across the decade, from filmmakers all over the world working in any number of genres. And so, here are our best picks of those films, including any released between 1 January 2010 to the 31 December 2019.

40. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

(AP)

A helter-skelter ride of a movie, satirical, very witty and showing its director’s immense affection for the B-movie actors, stunt men and hangers on who make up its cast. It’s also a tribute to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Who would have believed that a film set just as the Sixties in LA turned sour could be so uplifting? (GM)

39. The Master (2012)

(Snap Stills/Rex)

The world isn’t scared enough of Scientology, but perhaps it would be if enough people had seen The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson depicts (a fictionalised version of) the cult as a trap for bruised masculinity. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix contort themselves into primitive creatures of greed and desire. It’s an ugly film, in the very best sense of the word. (CL)

38. The Irishman (2019)

(Netflix)

Scorsese summons all his sad captains for one last reunion in his magisterial gangster epic. De Niro, Pesci, Keitel and (newcomer) Pacino are all cast in a film as much about friendship, memory and betrayal as it is about corruption in the Teamster union or Mafia violence. (GM)

37. Inside Out (2015)

Disgust from Pixar's Inside Out (2015) (Moviestore/Rex)

This is Pixar’s boldest and strangest animated feature. It takes us deep inside the mind of its heroine, 11-year-old Riley, where her unconscious is shown as akin to a magical theme park; emotions like Joy and Sadness feature as characters. Director Pete Docter deals with complex subject matter in a lithe and inventive way, and without too many Freudian hang ups. (GM)

36. Shoplifters (2018)

(Thunderbird Releasing)

Hirokazu Kore-eda is like the Charles Dickens of contemporary Japanese cinema. He tells melodramatic family stories which would seem mawkish if they weren’t so brilliantly observed. Winner of the Palme D’Or in Cannes, this is one of his very best movies – a heart-tugging story about impoverished members of a makeshift family doing everything they can to survive. (GM)

35. Dogtooth (2010)

Dogtooth is a grim tale of isolation, incest, cat murder and DIY dentistry. But Yorgos Lanthimos has a hidden superpower up his sleeve: the more off-putting his films, the more you get drawn in. His work breeds curiosity. We want to solve the mystery of these strange worlds and their cold, inscrutable characters. The fact that there are no answers keeps us coming back for more. (CL)

34. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

(Moviestore/Rex)

Kelly Fremon Craig’s gorgeous if cruelly unrecognised The Edge of Seventeen is deliberately small in plot, with Hailee Steinfeld playing a grumpy teen horrified to discover her best friend is dating her older brother. But it is told with heartwarming urgency, reflective of the heightened, dizzying drama of merely being a teenager. (AW)

33. A Quiet Passion (2016)

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in Terence Davies A Quiet Passion

Reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson, who published only a handful of poems during her lifetime, is brought to life in vivid fashion by actress Cynthia Nixon in Terence Davies’s biopic. She may look like a spinster aunt but Nixon shows us her passion, mischief and her eccentric brilliance. (GM)

32. Frances Ha (2012)

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (IFC Films)

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the definitive film about the quarter-life crisis, largely because it embraces the messiness of it all. We get the ups and the downs. We get the poorly planned trip to Paris made by a young woman desperate to experience something profound. It’s a film without many dramatic conflicts, but marked by a gentle push towards accepting the inevitability of change. (CL)

31. The Revenant (2015)

Leonardo DiCaprio produced an Oscar-winning performance in ‘The Revenant’, the revenge western tour de force (Rex)

Famous for its scene of Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a bear, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s western is part survival drama, part revenge movie. It’s a wilderness tale on the very grandest scale. From the opening massacre to the snowbound denouement, it is full of moments that startle you with their violence and their beauty. (GM)

30. Boyhood (2014)

(Sundance Institute)

Shot over 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the ultimate coming-of-age movie. It follows main character Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from when he is seven years old until he is a young adult. It’s a testament to the patience and ingenuity of Linklater and to the exceptional work of his cast (including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) that the film never feels phoney. (GM)

29. Hereditary (2018)

(A24)

The horrors of Ari Aster’s occult contraption are matched only by the sheer volume of ideas crammed into it. A devastating kaleidoscope of stark images, mischievous easter eggs and pure, guttural horror, Hereditary asks a staggering amount of star Toni Collette, who wails and groans and weeps, as if conveying a full-body demolition in painful slow-motion. It is a performance for the ages in one of the best films in recent memory. (AW)

28. Melancholia (2011)

Whisper It: Kirsten Dunst plays a bride-to-be alongside Alexander Skarsgard in Melancholia (Christian Geisnaes)

Kirsten Dunst is remarkable as a bride in the grips of mental illness shortly before the world ends. She conveys like few before her the surging apathy and bottomless self-loathing of depression, where everything, be it food or otherwise, tastes like ashes. The film that surrounds her is equally awe-inducing, distilling with grim elegance all of Lars von Trier’s polarising genius. (AW)

27. Selma (2014)

Selma is a masterclass in the historical biopic. Presenting a crucial moment in Martin Luther King Jr’s life without dramatic embellishment or emotional manipulation, it lets his legacy speak for itself, as Ava DuVernay wields her camera like a weapon of truth. Unabashedly political in its approach, Selma speaks plainly to the fact that society cannot pave its future without first understanding its past. (CL)

26. Boy (2010)

Taika Waititi’s films always end with the feeling that things will work themselves out. It’s not blind optimism, but something far more comforting – he believes deeply in people’s ability to weather even the worst of storms. This is most apparent in Boy, still his best film to date, which catalogues a young Maori boy’s dawning realisation that his absent father isn’t the hero he imagines him to be. (CL)

25. Dunkirk (2017)

British stoicism and grace under-fire are foregrounded in Christopher Nolan’s epic film about the Dunkirk evacuations. Nolan has a Cecil B DeMille-like genius for orchestrating crowd scenes and working with huge ensemble casts. He combines spectacle with very intimate moments that show the quiet desperation of the soldiers stranded on a French beach with little chance of escape. (GM)

24. Her (2013)

Her felt almost uncomfortably relevant upon its release in 2013, and even more so today. Not because it shows people falling in love with artificially intelligent operating systems voiced by Scarlett Johansson, which hasn’t exactly caught on (...yet), but for what it said about modern loneliness. It is a sparse, oddly human film, Joaquin Phoenix finding solace and romantic fulfilment in sparkly new technology, before everything falls apart. (AW)

23. Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Luca Guadagnino’s wonderfully evocative coming-of-age drama, set over a long, lazy Italian summer sometime in the 1980s, is notable for its frank but delicately observed account of the love affair between the precocious adolescent Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the American academic, Oliver (Armie Hammer), who becomes part of the household. (GM)

22. Anomalisa (2015)

It may be animated but few live-action films have captured middle-aged male angst and disillusionment as well as Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. David Thewlis’s exceptional voice work brings an extra, sardonic edge to its portrayal of the businessman on a work trip to Cincinnati. Kaufman captures the man’s vulnerability, boredom and creeping disappointment about the course his life has taken. (GM)

21. The Social Network (2010)

Described upon release as a lightly fictionalised account of the birth of Facebook, and as “hurtful” by Mark Zuckerberg himself, The Social Network was always spectacular, but its lessons have only deepened with time. It now resembles a terrifying warning about privacy, power, misogyny and the dangers of the internet, brought to life by David Fincher’s irresistibly cool direction, a characteristically snappy script by Aaron Sorkin and the dreamy, pulsating score by the now-ubiquitous Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It remains the most important film of the decade. (AW)

20. Black Swan (2010)

It’s important to occasionally remind yourself that Black Swan, a bonkers, uncompromising and horrifying ballet thriller, somehow grossed $329m at the box office. But even removed from its staggering financial success, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological creepshow is a creative triumph. Part Showgirls, part Polanski and all Perfect Blue, it flirts with camp, Cronenbergian body horror and shaky-cam intimacy, with the deservedly Oscar-winning Natalie Portman as the twirling, crumbling creature at its centre. (AW)

19. Roma (2018)

Roma takes two stories – one heartwrenching and intimate, the other sweeping and political – and weaves them together so delicately that they become one. It’s a tribute to the domestic worker who director Alfonso Cuarón says raised him. But it’s also the story of Mexico’s history, as seen through the perspective of those who have, for so long, been left voiceless. This is Cuarón’s masterpiece. (CL)

18. The Act of Killing (2012)

It feels remarkable, given how easy it is to turn away from evil, that The Act of Killing exists at all. Not only did Joshua Oppenheimer choose one of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide as his subject of his documentary, but he had him confront his own crimes through a series of cinematic reenactments. It is profoundly disturbing to watch. (CL)

17. Stoker (2013)

Park Chan-Wook’s twisted homage to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt may be filled with beautiful things, but they’re laced with venom. When India (Mia Wasikowska) receives a visit from her enigmatic Uncle Charlie, she discovers they share a perverse kinship. Are they the same soul in two different bodies, or are they merely bound together by the stench of death that follows them wherever they go? (CL)

16. The Selfish Giant (2013)

Like Ken Loach’s Kes, Clio Barnard’s Bradford-set tale, very loosely inspired by the Oscar Wilde story, combines lyricism with polemic. It captures brilliantly the mischief and resourcefulness of its two young protagonists (teenage kids excluded from school) while laying bare the brutality of the society in which they and their families are cast adrift. (GM)

15. Son of Saul (2015)

This is Auschwitz seen close up from the point of view of a sonderkommando, who stumbles on the corpse of what he is sure is his own son. The film had the potential to be exploitative and distasteful. Instead, in the hands of Laszlo Nemes, it turned into a sombre and moving recreation of the most hellish events imaginable. (GM)

14. Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird – and its story of a frustrated teen (Saoirse Ronan) trapped in Sacramento, California – is deeply attuned to how we relate to memory. It’s less about particular events than the emotions they create: a flash of adolescent alienation, a tearful goodbye at the airport, or the sensation of seeing a familiar place through new eyes. (CL)

13. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Wes Anderson’s kitsch yarn, largely set in a luxurious spa hotel just before the Second World War, is an elegy for a lost world. Whether it’s Alexandre Desplat’s music, the eye-popping colours or the mannered but brilliant performances, all the elements here are perfectly judged. A film that could easily have seemed flimsy and conceited is instead utterly enrapturing. (GM)

12. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen’s harrowing period drama confronts audiences with the reality of slavery. Racist white owners treat their slaves as if they’re livestock, not human beings. Chiwetel Ejiofor excels as Solomon Northup, the free man sold into slavery. The film has a furious polemical charge but also works as a terrifying Kafkaesque drama about a man who falls off the face of the world. (GM)

11. Under the Skin (2013)

Scarlett Johansson tucking nervously into a slice of chocolate cake becomes one of cinema’s most humane and bittersweet moments courtesy of filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, whose once-in-a-blue-moon film projects have produced a trilogy of sinister classics. Like Sexy Beast and Birth before it, Under the Skin is a wild, beautiful pleasure, as haunting as it is tender and serenaded by a spindly, disquieting score by Mica Levi. (AW)

10. 20th Century Women (2016)

20th Century Women is a small-scale comedy drama with the power of something bigger. A tapestry of restless lives figuring things out, it is about family, longing and feeling out of place. At its heart is Annette Bening, heartbreakingly empathetic as a woman out of time – too old for youthful bohemia and too young for her stuffy peers, and determined to raise her teenage son to be enlightened and brilliant. Rare is a fictional world so peacefully captivating. (AW)

9. You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Cinema is often at its most triumphant when it’s used as a tool for empathy, letting us climb into someone else’s brain and experience things that feel miles away from our own reality. That’s the revelatory power of Lynne Ramsay’s portrait of a PTSD-suffering vigilante, brought to life with incredible vulnerability by Joaquin Phoenix. (CL)

8. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

In a recent interview, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho revealed that he’d shed a tear while watching George Miller’s unexpected return to the Mad Max franchise. He called it “something we cannot describe with our words: all we can do is just cry”. He’s right. Fury Road is, essentially, a feature-length car chase – but it’s hard to put into words how epic and symphonic it truly is. (CL)

7. Paddington 2 (2017)

A soothing balm for all of our sociopolitical ills, Paddington 2 is the film we needed more than any other this decade. There are numerous delights here, from the majesty of Paul King and Simon Farnaby’s script and its elaborate sleights of hand, to a moustache-twirling Hugh Grant at his most magnificent. But more than anything, Paddington 2 is about the healing power of community and family, a message conveyed with wholesome warmth and pluck by the achingly sweet bear of the title. Michael Bond would be proud. (AW)

6. American Honey (2016)

It took a woman from Dartford to capture the sprawling, stirring power of the American road and all that it promises. Of all the decade’s films, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey feels the most hungry to exist independently on its own, ignoring the rules of storytelling and bursting at the seams with wildness and colour. Sasha Lane – who had never acted before she was spotted by Arnold on a beach during spring break – plays working-class teenager Star, who yearns for a greater purpose and hitches a ride with a truckful of kids as adrift as she is. (AW)

5. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis is a kind of anti-Odyssey. In its story of a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) who hops from couch to couch, with no direction and few prospects, Llewyn becomes the weary Greek hero who not only struggles to find a way home, but realises he may not have a home to go to. It’s a deeply melancholic work. (CL)

4. Phantom Thread (2017)

Phantom Thread is a love story in a funhouse mirror – fizzy and feather-light, but with a barbed and kinky underbelly that could only have come from the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson. The bewitching duo of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps play a fashion designer and his muse, who unearth new means to sustain their marriage. Anderson lingers over objects of beauty throughout – the lines of a fabric, the mess of a breakfast table, the colourful residue left over after the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. Apparently Day-Lewis’ final film, but what a blissful way to go out. (AW)

3. Get Out (2017)

Get Out sunk its teeth into culture in 2017, and hasn’t stopped biting. Jordan Peele’s horror satire is a polished, spooky and supremely well-executed chiller, but works even better as a deconstruction of race. In its sights are peak white centrism, the burdens and expectations of being black in America, and the untruths of the post-racial utopia many were fooled into embracing in the Obama era. No other film has reflected society in the 21st century more succinctly. (AW)

2. Carol (2015)

A magical reprieve from much of the queer romance canon, Carol is neither tragic nor sexually neutered, and is rich with snowy, expensive opulence. Todd Haynes’s 2015 masterpiece plays like a fairytale, kick-started by a misplaced pair of gloves, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara acting on feelings that were considered unacceptable at the time. Deeply romantic, sexy and dramatic, it takes everything Haynes perfected in his Douglas Sirk-inspired drama Far from Heaven (2002), and maximises it. (AW)

1. Moonlight (2016)

Barry Jenkins is destined to be one of the most important cinematic voices of the era. Moonlight is ample proof of that: there are very few debuts that feel this transportive, that fill the screen with this much raw beauty and human vulnerability. The director knows the power of gesture, and so the film’s emotional weight rests on a few shared glances, or one hand placed gently on another. In the intersection between race, sexuality and class, it crafts tender poetry. (CL)