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Best 2010s Movies: A Closer Look at 35 Movies from the Last Decade

It’s fitting that 2010 opens with the movie The Social Network, which depicts the founding of Facebook in 2004. We “liked” this burgeoning creation known as social media, and we especially liked that we could access it from our couches, or on a school bus ride home at the end of an exhausting day. The here-and-now sensibility we’ve learned from social media extended to YouTube and, eventually, to movie watching. Kids at college even stayed in their dorm room on a Saturday night to huddle around a screen for movie-watching.

So, streaming movies became a ‘thing’ in the 2010s, but movie theaters held their own. Movie theaters are also now poised for a comeback post-pandemic. According to the US Telecom, Media & Entertainment division of Deloitte Consulting LLP, the average number of movie tickets purchased by Americans each year has declined from 4.2 in 2009 to 3.4 in 2019. Still, 68% of consumers want to watch at least some movies in theaters once the pandemic is over, according to an October 2020 Deloitte survey. The report also indicates that although we’ve gotten cozy with home entertainment, streaming all movies is not the obvious path forward; it’s not what people want, and it’s not the answer for studios who are more focused on developing their own distribution channels these days.

In 2010, another big change hit; The Academy expanded the best-picture field to include up to ten nominations—that’s five more than the prior limit. The move spurred the nomination of more exciting and diverse movies, including sci-fi blockbusters, animated hits, comedies, and more movies directed by women, Blacks, Asians, and Latinos. The change sparked more movie-going, too, because the presumption that more movies could be nominated helps them “become more widely seen and discussed,” points out New York Times journalist Kyle Buchanan.

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There’s no shortage of great movies to choose from in the 2010s. Diversity, originality, and the brilliant craft of storytelling touch every movie genre. The 2010s also became richer and more diverse because of the decade’s movies. Important themes, like racism and classism, were brought to the big screen in new ways (Get Out, Roma, Parasite). Philosophical questions deepened movies about childhood (Tree of Life, Boyhood), romance (La La Land), and marriage (A Marriage Story) and gave us pause in our own lives. It’s the kind of pause we want more of in our “go, go, go” digital age. Take a look at our round-up of the best movies of the 2010s.

So ICYMI, you should definitely go back and watch these critically acclaimed movies from the 2010s:

Best 2010s Drama Movies: Tree of Life (2011)

Directed and written by Richard Curtis, this charming ode to love also instantly became directed by Terrence Malick. This American epic drama portrays the meaning of life through one man’s reminiscences of his childhood during the 1950s and a narrative that weaves in spirituality and cosmic imagery, including the origins of life on Earth. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Jessica Chastain, and Tye Sheridan, this movie tops the critics’ list of best films of the 2010s. It’s easy to see why. The movie tells the story of the O’Brien family: a warm and thoughtful mother (Jessica Chastain), a strict and sometimes bullying father (Brad Pitt), and their three sons. The family lives in Texas, and the details of family life are closely observed. The mother says at one point, “people must choose to follow either the path of grace or the path of nature.” The movie captures life’s undercurrents, whether one is searching for grace or not, which makes the movie haunting and powerful. A tragedy besets the family when the main character, Jack O’Brien is a teenager. The movie shifts back and forth between present and past as Jack (Sean Penn as the adult Jack) comes to grips with his childhood and this tragedy. The director’s family endured a tragedy in Terrence’s childhood, and this movie has autobiographical threads in it.

Movie tickets sold: Tree of Life was a huge success earning more than $61 million worldwide; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2011 was $7.93.

Where to watch Tree of Life: Buy or rent on Amazon

Best 2010s Drama Movies: Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, this independent tragedy film became a critical and box office success. It stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges. Set in the eponymous town on the North Shore of Boston, the film follows a depressed loner Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who, after his brother dies, becomes the legal guardian of his brother’s teenage son, Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges). The 16-year-old boy loves his uncle and they go out on the boat together in this fishing village. But Patrick senses his uncle’s emotional distance. In flashbacks, we see the source of Lee’s depression, which is persistent and profound grief. When his own children were young, Lee forgot to put the fireplace guard up after a night of partying with his friends. His wife Randi (Michelle Williams) had gone to bed, and the house burned down, killing his three young children but his wife survived. They divorced, and Lee went into freefall. He’s the picture of walking grief–grief and guilt that are inconsolable. The plot and performances are wrenching. Lee’s unfolding relationship with his nephew and Lee’s encounter with his ex-wife also show the nuances of living with long-term grief. The movie is an honest and unflinching exploration of tragedy that speaks to people unable to “move on,” as our culture often suggests.

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Movie tickets sold: Manchester By the Sea received critical acclaim and earned nearly $78 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2016 was $8.65.

Where to watch Manchester By the Sea: Amazon

Best 2010s Drama Movies: Lady Bird (2017)

Directed by Greta Gerwig, this coming-of-age, comedy-drama is set in Sacramento in the early 2000s. It tells the story of 17-year-old high school senior Christine, aka Lady Bird, (Saoirse Ronan) and her difficult relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). The movie is loosely semi-autobiographical and based on the director’s relationship with her own mother. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Lois Smith, the film was considered by many critics to be one of the best films of the 2010s. Saoirse Ronan as self-proclaimed Lady Bird is captivating as the sharp, restless senior who wants to break free of her controlling, critical Mother, and her stifling hometown, in favor of an East Coast College. She navigates boys and high school with her charming best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and pushes onward with pluck. This film gets emotional details just right, and it feels deeply personal and universal all at once.

Movie tickets sold: Lady Bird was a big hit earning nearly $79 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2017 was $8.97.

Where to watch Lady Bird: Netflix

Best 2010s Drama Movies: Boyhood (2014)

Directed by Richard Linklater, this coming-of-age film is considered an American epic by filming a boy from ages 6 through 18 to show the true sweep of childhood. Linklater puts his original concept to work brilliantly as he films his character Mason Evans Jr (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter) as they grow up in Texas with divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). The project began without a completed script—only loose plot points—and the director sketched out future scripts based on changes he noted in the actors and trends he saw in re-watching the previous year’s footage. He also let the actors contribute to the writing by incorporating their real-life experiences into the script. The adults in the movie demonstrably mature, too. Boyhood packs both an emotional and philosophical wallop. It captures the “real deal” of life—the small intimate moments and the poignancy of childhood passing all too quickly. Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason’s father, said his own experience of watching Ellar Coltrane grow and change was like “watching time-lapse photography of a human being.” It’s captivating how Linklater compresses and captures one boy’s life. But it’s Linklater’s humanism that joins with his naturalism that makes this movie a stand-out emotional success. When Mason (Ellar Coltrane) goes off to college, we feel the gut punch that his mother (Patricia Arquette) feels.

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Movie tickets sold: Boyhood was a hit earning over $57 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2014 was $8.17.

Where to watch Boyhood: Amazon

Best 2010s Drama Movies: Marriage Story (2019)

Directed by Noah Baumbach, this movie boasts an all-star cast led by Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Merritt Wever, and Julie Hagerty. After its theatrical release, this film went straight to Netflix, a platform that seemed fitting for this movie that burrowed into both our hearts and homes. The movie is an intimate portrait of the marriage between Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) that unravels for small and big reasons, the way so many marriages do. Even intact couples felt the frisson of recognition watching this movie. Noah Baumbach himself is divorced from Jennifer Jason Leigh, and his parents divorced when he was young. This inspired his movie The Squid and the Whale (2005). For Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach used his own material as well as reports from divorced friends, lawyers, judges, and mediators; it’s also been suggested that Laura Dern’s performance was inspired by celebrity attorney Laura Wassner who represented Dern in her own divorce — and, coincidentally, Jennifer Jason Leigh in her divorce from writer/director Noah Baumbach. Because the movie captures the emotional minefield and maneuvering seen in many divorce proceedings, prominent New York divorce attorneys like Faith G. Miller agree that this movie is an accurate portrayal of the concept of winners and losers in divorce, particularly when child custody is involved. The plot and performances are subtle and affecting, and we never lose sight of how much this couple once loved each other. “What I love about Nicole” and “What I love about Charlie” are lists that each spouse writes about the other; the lists are read aloud at key moments. This movie, while heart-wrenching, gets and gives a lot of love.

Fun Fact: #TheatersAreBack means more than just opening post-COVID-19. For Marriage Story, Netflix leased the legendary Paris Theatre, the last single screen theater in New York City, to show Marriage Story exclusively. Going forward, Netflix says it will use the theater for “special events, screenings, and theatrical releases of its films.”

Movie tickets sold: Marriage Story was a critically acclaimed hit for Netflix (which does not disclose its financial numbers), and was deemed an accurate portrayal  of the unravelling of a marriage and the complexities of divorce. It’s reported to have  made more than $2.3 million in its 30-day theatrical release and is the first one  the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2019 was $9.16.

Where to watch Marriage Story: Netflix

Best 2010s Drama Movies: A Star is Born (2018)

Directed by Bradley Cooper, this American musical romantic drama was a huge critical and box office success. Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot, Andrew Dice Clay, and Dave Chapelle, the film’s soundtrack was also a sensation. It received seven Grammy nominations and won four. The song “Shallow” won Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, where the movie was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Lady Gaga), and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliot) categories. The film follows the intense but tortured romance between Jackson “Jack” Maine (Bradley Cooper), a famous country rock singer who meets budding singer-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) at a club one night after his show. He hears her sing an Edith Piaf tribute and becomes obsessed with her. Their relationship is challenged by Jack’s alcoholic addiction and his envy of her career as she takes off as a pop star. They marry nonetheless and Ally is devoted to his care as he spirals downward. Their love is far from shallow, it’s true, and this movie’s deep impact stems from its masterful blend of music and emotion.

Movie tickets sold: A Star is Born was a major hit earning nearly $432 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2018 was $9.11.

Where to watch A Star is Born: Amazon

Best 2010s Drama Movies: Birdman (2014)

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, this comedy-drama stars Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan. A critical and box office success, the film was praised for its originality and strangeness — plot points open to multiple interpretations. The film follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been actor who was famous for playing a superhero named Birdman. Riggan wants to reclaim the critics’ respect by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carner’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan hires his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as his assistant. Riggan also tries to reconnect with Sam who is a recovering drug addict. Twitter plays a role in their relationship— Sam knows how to use it to boost her father’s success; as he trends on Twitter, he rises in her estimation of him. His previews for his play are fraught with drama, however. To make matters worse, Riggan struggles with a critical “inner voice,” his superhero persona Birdman. The movie is an absorbing story that raises questions about the pressures of achievement and the demands of love.

Movie tickets sold: Birdman was a favorite among movie critics and earned more than $103 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2014 was $8.17.

Where to watch Birdman: Amazon

Best 2010s Drama Movies: The Irishman (2019)

Directed by Martin Scorsese, this epic crime film is based on the 2004 nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Starring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, and Harvey Keitel, the film was a huge critical and streaming success on Netflix. Critics and viewers were wowed by the de-aging technology used on Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement for this film. The film follows Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a truck driver who becomes a hitman involved with mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his Pennsylvania crime family from the 50s through the 70s. Bufalino has ties to the powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and Sheeran begins working for Hoffa as his bodyguard. The film is told from the perspective of Frank Sheeran in a nursing home reflecting on his time as Hoffa’s bodyguard and friend; his tight relationship with Bufalino; “painting houses,” a euphemism for contract killing; and the shifting landscape of the Teamsters through the Kennedy and Nixon years. Sheeran’s daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, Anna Paquin), with her keen observation and conscience, anchors viewers watching the criminal underworld in action.

Movie tickets sold: Thanks to its powerhouse cast, The Irishman was a cult favorite released on Netflix, after a very limited release in theaters (under the title I Heard You Paint Houses), which earned just under $1 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2019 was $9.16.  In that same year, Netflix hiked its basic streaming costs from $10.99 to $12.99.

Where to watch The Irishman: Netflix

Best 2010s Drama Movies: Phantom Thread (2017)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, this historical film is set in 1950s London. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, an haute couture dressmaker, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps. This is Daniel Day-Lewis’s last role before his retirement. The movie, with its sumptuous costume design, was a critical and commercial success. As always, it’s fascinating to watch Daniel Day-Lewis, and this performance showcases his obsessive genius. Woodcock creates fashions for high society, including