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As the dust cleared from our Best of 2014 features, 2015 previews and awards season coverage, we realized something terrifying: we’re now halfway through the current decade. Five years have passed since the 2010s began, we’re all sixty months (or sixty two?) older, and literally thousands of movies have hit theaters in that time.
So what better time to take stock of the decade thus far? Box-office returns might have been dominated by superheroes, ice princesses and dystopian teen-on-teen murder, but once you look outside the multiplex (or even, very occasionally, within it), it’s clear that cinema is as healthy as it’s ever been, with everyone from A-list auteurs to foreign-language first-timers delivering stunning, boundary-pushing work.
But after re-running our best of the 00s series, we began to wonder: what were the very best of the films of the last five years? And so a weeks-long process of arguing began— at first, we narrowed down a long list of hundreds of films, then our final list of 50 (going by U.S. release year, which in some cases followed a 2009 release elsewhere, just so you know), which we’ve ranked by the highly unscientific process of shouting at each other until everyone was happy/equally miserable. Below, you can find the first part of that fifty, running through to number 26, and part two (and our extensive honorable mentions), will follow tomorrow. Take a look and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
50. “Spring Breakers” (2012)
Harmony Korine’s raison d'être is the beauty of trash and the poetry of transgression. He’s dumpster-dived this preoccupation every which way, in one instance literally with the sublimely damaged “Trash Humpers,” but he still manages to make each examination compelling, urgent and hilarious. “Spring Breakers” is no different, looking at the human garbage that constitutes the hedonistic culture of spring break through trippy celebratory goggles. Synthesizing Korine's pastiche-y influences, “Spring Breakers” melds the cacophony of dubstep, hallucinogenic binges, adolescent vitality and hip-hop white trash swagger with the tone-poem reflection of Terrence Malick. It’s Korine’s most entertaining and watchable film to date, containing a tour de force turn from James Franco and gorgeous work from Korine’s two yin/yang composers, Skrillex and Cliff Martinez, who articulate his candy-colored vision to perfection: it's the sweet spot where the vile and the beautiful merge to make something divine.
49. “Drive” (2011)
Giving the crime movie a well-deserved amphetamine-kick up the backside, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (about a getaway driver, Ryan Gosling, who becomes unexpectedly involved in the life of his beautiful neighbor Carey Mulligan) wasn’t original in its separate elements: virtually every plot beat had been deployed somewhere before, and its neon-lit, synth-scored aesthetic called back to classic Michael Mann, Walter Hill and William Friedkin pictures of the '70s and '80s. But somehow, the Danish madman repackaged those elements into something that felt incredibly fresh, with a brace of fine performances (Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks proving particular highlights), grotesque violence and a fairy-tale romanticism melding with one of the most striking looking and sounding movies of the last few years, one that’s set to be ripped off by filmmakers and commercials for years to come.
48. “Boyhood” (2014)
A decade-plus-spanning project begun at the turn of the millennium, it’s barely six months since “Boyhood” hit theaters (and only days since it was mostly ignored by the Oscars), but Richard Linklater’s film already feels like a film that’ll define the decade. Like a scripted take on the “7 Up” series, tracking a boy (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of six to eighteen as well as his family and shot at annual intervals, this process let Linklater use the signature low-key, intimate, beautifully observed style he’s honed over twenty years, but blown up to a grander scale by virtue of the film’s virtually unique conceit. Time-travel movies remain popular in the genre world, but none of them can match the weight and cumulative power of what Linklater managed here, making the simple story of a single family into a Great American Novel by letting it unfold at its own pace.
47. "Tom at the Farm" (2013)
It was a toss-up for us between this entry from Xavier Dolan (the only film on this list without a proper U.S. theatrical release) and his more recent "Mommy." But though we adore the latter film, it’s a messier, less disciplined affair than the masterfully unsettling 'Tom,' which marks the biggest step up for Dolan. It’s the deceptively simple story of a young man (Dolan himself) who travels to the country for his lover’s funeral, only to discover that the grieving mother had no idea of her son’s sexuality, and his volatile brother wishes it to stay that way. What could turn into a black comedy or some sort of French farce (there’s even a fake girlfriend) uncoils in a much weirder and yet more insightful way, as currents of grief, guilt, deceit and lust roil around and builds to a paranoid pitch amid leaden skies, fields of corn and dusty barns.
46. "Birdman" (2014)
Not quite sure when or where the critical backlash against Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s "Birdman" began, but it will probably only gain pace now that it’s a Best Picture winner —how terribly de trop! But round here, 'Birdman''s rep as a gonzo blast of kinetic, self-referential fun is assured; it’s a shot in the arm and a slap round the chops, and despite all its evident artistry (dazzling Emmanuel Lubezki camerawork, the famous one-take-style "gimmick," the high-strung performances), the film wears its lack of self-seriousness like a badge of pride. Perhaps it doesn't have the lingering sustain of other films on this list, but it makes up for that by a) giving us a bigger, buzzier rush of delight in the moment than almost any other film on this list and b) Michael Keaton.
45. “Inception” (2010)
At a time when adaptation of toy franchises and superhero movies were coming to dominate the blockbuster landscape more than ever before, along came Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus “Inception,” a movie that proved that tentpoles could be as distinctive and personal as well as thrilling. Detailing Leonardo DiCaprio and his fellow deep-dive dreamcatchers as they attempt to plant seeds of independence in the heir of a dying media tycoon so DiCaprio's character can be reunited with his kids (this is, it turns out, not a logline-friendly movie), “Inception” is equally effective as an immaculately sustained tone poem and Bond-aping action movie: both elements are underscored by a quietly wrenching grief and heartache, and topped up with dizzying, Escher-ish imagery (Paris bending in on itself! The revolving corridor!) It’s flawed, but that a movie like this can make $800 million is reason to maintain faith in mainstream cinema and its intended audience.
44. “Gravity” (2013)
Having made the best sci-fi movie (and one of the very best movies, full stop) of the 2000s with “Children Of Men,” Alfonso Cuaron followed it up, albeit belatedly, by pulling a similar trick with the stunning “Gravity,” a knuckle-biting thriller that sees Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded in space after the destruction of the International Space Station. The film’s a technical one-of-a-kind, with photo-realistic CGI, Steven Price’s astonishing score and the best-ever use of 3D, but contrary to the post-Oscar backlash it sustained, it’s far more than a glorified theme park attraction. Cuaron steeps his blockbuster in existential dread about man’s miniscule place in the universe, and on a more personal level, has Bullock fight not just for survival, but also to battle her way out of grief-fuelled depression. One of the riskier movies of the last few years, but boy, did those risks pay off.
43. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
We’ve not exactly been gasping for more spy movies in the last five years, but Tomas Alfredson’s stunning “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” proved that there was still life in the genre and then some: epic, intimate and deeply sad, the film comes across like a sort of “Godfather” equivalent for the Cold War espionage flick. Exquisitely evoking 1970s Britain to an extent that you can almost smell the damp tweed suits and end-of-Empire depression, it mostly disregards the whodunnit hook of John Le Carre’s source material (economically adapted by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor) to tell a mournful story about the ways that governments and intelligence agencies use up and discard the people that serve them and about the passing of a generation. Every element of the film sings, from Hoyte Von Hoytema’s photography to Alberto Iglesias’ score, but it’s the cast, led by a career-best turn by Gary Oldman, that leave the longest impression.
42. "Night Moves" (2013)
Again, we were on a knife edge between this title and Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, the brilliant, underplayed Western "Meek’s Cutoff" for inclusion in this list. But while 'Cutoff' reshaped the Western archetype to fit Reichardt’s gently revisionist agenda, "Night Moves" feels like a more urgent film, if hardly less considered and deliberately-paced. Following the planning, execution and aftermath of an act of eco-terrorism with enigmatic simplicity and aided by great against-type playing by Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning (supported by very much with-type playing from Peter Sarsgaard), Reichardt's film is a portrait of disaffected youth made somehow all the more frightening because of the curdled idealism they cling to. Unbearably slow for some but unrelentingly tense if you’re on its wavelength, "Night Moves" is an exploration of the eternal debate about the end justifying the means, of how far you will go, and how much you can absolve yourself of in the name of a cause.
41. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (2011)
Launching Elizabeth Olsen into stardom and marking Sean Durkin as one of the most impressive and distinctive talents of this decade so far, Sundance breakout "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is like a 100-minute anxiety attack, a Haneke-influenced (but not indebted) chiller that rattles around your brain for days. Olsen plays a young woman who’s recently escaped from a sinister cult led by the charismatic Patrick (a phenomenally frightening John Hawkes) and is holed up in a lake house with a cabin with her sister and brother-in-law (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy). Performances aside, the way that Durkin plays with time makes 'Mx4' is special: it might be the best edited film of the 2010s so far, putting you in Martha’s deprogramming head, and unbalancing and uneasing you to the extent that the past, the present and paranoia all bleed together.