The last 10 years will probably go down as the decade of Marvel’s domination and Netflix’s ascension. But despite all the tumult and the perpetual rumors of cinema’s supposed demise, good stuff — no, great stuff — kept getting made.
It can be harder to find. Mega-blockbusters suck up most of the big screens and the small ones are increasingly crowded with infinite choice. Yet the medium is as vibrant as ever, thanks to the influx of new voices (though still not enough of them) and the undying need of filmmakers to tell stories with light and sound. The movies abide.
The impossibility of an exercise like this is only a reminder of just how very alive cinema is. The next 50 movies on our list, or yours, might be just as good.
1. “Tree of Life”: All the mystery and harmony of life, in the memory-tinged detail of a small-town 1950s Texas family but writ across time and the cosmos. Terrence Malick’s radiant 2011 film maps individual existence against eternity, turning an intimate tale epic. It’s got Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain and dinosaurs and it’s one of the most sublime and soul-stirring movies ever made. — J.C.
2. “Phantom Thread”: Paul Thomas Anderson was already having an incredible decade with “The Master,” from 2012 and “Inherent Vice,” from 2014. Then, three years later, “Phantom Thread” came along and with its lush haute couture, blushing heroine, ornery genius and poison mushrooms, he somehow blew all the others out of the water. Anderson made a black romantic comedy for his eighth feature but imbued it with enough prestige dressings to elevate it above such a “pedestrian” form. — L.B.
3. “Margaret”: Kenneth Lonergan’s other two, also exceptional features (“You Can Count on Me,” “Manchester by the Sea”) are better known partly because “Margaret” was tied up for years in a legal battle and an editing nightmare. But Lonergan’s longer cut (not what was briefly released in theaters but what’s available on DVD) is a New York masterwork of great depth and scope. A teenager (Anna Paquin) comes to question everything after witnessing a traffic death. Culminating with an embrace in a theater (with an extraordinary J. Smith-Cameron), “Margaret” is about a self-centered young woman awakening to the dramas all around her. — J.C.
4. “Lady Bird”: A Sacramento teen navigating her senior year of high school in the early aughts doesn’t necessarily sound like “important cinema” but that’s exactly why Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical solo directing debut is so great. The naivete and angry restlessness of young adulthood is given a crackling form in Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a perfectly imperfect heroine who clashes with her mother and desperately yearns for something — anything — that takes her away from the familiar, whether it’s a boy from the nice side of town or a college on the other side of the country. It is, ultimately, a loving look at a young woman who hasn’t yet become her fully realized self and the town that, despite her best efforts, has shaped her to her core. — L.B.
5. “Moonlight”: Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age tale is separated into three sections — “Little,” “Chiron” and “Black” — but its lyricism, beauty and ache is undivided. There’s a haunting even radical intimacy to “Moonlight.” Years later, Chiron feels like someone you once met and will know forever. The movie’s soft blue light shines and shines and shines. — J.C.
6. “Somewhere”: Writer-director Sofia Coppola has always been able to see the dreamy banality in the sensational, whether it’s in the life of Marie Antoinette, the suicides of five sisters, or, in the case of “Somewhere,” the life of a movie star (Stephen Dorff) living in the most tabloid-ridden hotel in Los Angeles: the Chateau Marmont. Quiet and restrained and with the roads and cars and excess of Los Angeles as the backdrop, “Somewhere” gazes in on a father coming to the realization that very soon his almost teenage daughter (Elle Fanning) won’t need him at all. It’s neither cold nor depressing, however, but a warm-hearted look at the isolation, the silliness and even the universality of this rarefied world. — L.B.
7. “Cold War”: Pawel Pawlikowski made two staggering masterpieces in the last decade, both expressively black-and-white, both devastatingly taut. First was “Ida,” then came “Cold War.” It’s a stunning back-to-back. The two films, so austere yet so expressive, feel like they come from another time. Choosing one isn’t fair but I gravitate more to the “Cold War” for the sensual performances of Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot as lovers brought together and torn apart in postwar Poland. It’s a romantic and bleak portrait of love and art under totalitarianism. — J.C.
8. “Certified Copy”: Can a fiction be truth? That’s the heady question behind the great Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” in which an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) and a writer (William Shimell) debate the essence of authenticity in art and what constitutes a reproduction (perhaps everything). The film has its own metamorphosis of sorts too as the nature of even their relationship becomes amorphous and obscured when a farce about the two being married ends up becoming very real. It was an audacious and provocative film to kick off a decade of cinema and while the answers remain elusive, the experience and ideas are those that nine-plus years on have continued to provoke. — L.B.
9. “Inside Llewyn Davis”: As they were in the two previous decades, the Coen brothers were as vital as any filmmaker over the last 10 years. Their output: “True Grit” “Hail, Caesar!” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and, most of all, this melancholy gem set in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the winter of 1961. The title character (Oscar Isaac) is a musician, recently made solo by the death of his singing partner, whose talent isn’t quite enough, whose luck is lacking and whose cat wrangling abilities are definitely insufficient. Llewyn never catches a break. Thank God the Coens did. — J.C.
10. “Grand Budapest Hotel”: Wes Anderson’s precise and beautiful aesthetics have a way of becoming the only thing people talk about or seem remember from his films, which is unfortunate because it’s also something that can be weaponized against him. But the mastery in “Grand Budapest Hotel” is undeniable. Within this fun and sumptuous caper confection about a dandy concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who presides over a splendid old-world hotel that is quickly becoming as much of a relic as his aristocratic-servant values, is an unexpectedly moving commentary on the last vestiges of civilization in a time between two dehumanizing world wars. It’s the kind of film that has the audience yearning for and mourning something that never even really existed. — L.B.
>> Also: “Dawson City Frozen Time,” “Melancholia,” “The Florida Project,” “The Social Network,” “Timbuktu,” “Cameraperson,” “The Immigrant,” “A Separation,” “I Am Love,” “Burning,” “Senna,” “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “Phoenix,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Faces Places,” “At Berkeley,” “The Deep Blue Sea.”