30 Great Movies That Defined the 2010s

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the most culturally significant movie of the 2010s is The Avengers. There were many decades of superhero movies before the release of Joss Whedon’s 2012 box-office behemoth, and the move toward the stylish, ideologically mature comic-book flick had already been made with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in the previous decade. But The Avengers was the first to prototype the sprawling extended universe posse film, uniting a host of disparate characters from the Marvel mythology in one movie. The Avengers and the movies it inspired—both in and outside of Marvel—challenge the idea that a feature film should function as a standalone narrative work. Its sequels Age of Ultron and Infinity War require an extensive base of background knowledge from the characters’ previous stand-alone movies—and sometimes from the comic books themselves—in order to follow the story, or at least fully appreciate the stakes. Marvel’s Avengers experiment was nonetheless successful, partially thanks to the huge built-in audience, but also to the offbeat choice of writer and director: reliably clever Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly writer Whedon, in only his second turn as a feature film director. 

Avengers fever swept over Hollywood, as the film gained both critical and industry accolades and became the third highest-grossing movie in history, with a $1.5 billion box office haul worldwide. Not only did its success incentivize Marvel and DC toward making many more bloated franchise films, it helped justify and encourage the ongoing surge in gritty reboots and modernized reimaginings of all sorts. As the MCU continued to take over the box office, network TV, streaming services, and the internet, another monolithically profitable franchise—Star Wars—would also return, invested with a nostalgic sense of purpose and an over-ambitious slate of projects, all of which seemed to foreshadow many years of increasingly warped complications to George Lucas’ original mythology. 

The Marvel, DC, and Star Wars microindustries demonstrate the extent to which film and TV culture in the 2010s—more than ever before—was dominated by creators finding savvy ways to retell old stories, as the industry became increasingly devoted to the assumption that “existing IP” has a stronger inherent and quantifiable value than fresh narratives. The trend extended well beyond comic book lore, from The Jungle Book to Aladdin to Planet of the Apes to Shaft (yet again) to a lot of previously adapted Stephen King material.

Unranked and not intended as definitive, this list largely forgoes discussion of adaptations and tribute projects, and features few of the decade’s major summer blockbusters as a result. (There are exceptions, like Mad Max: Fury Road, which stands as perhaps the most inspired and subversive action film of the decade.) Here, we’re focusing on strong original stories that found broad audiences, inspired trends, spoke meaningfully to sociopolitical and cultural themes, or felt somehow emblematic of the spirit of the 2010s. These are 30 enduring, significant, and just plain great films from the last decade, as chosen and blurbed by the Spin staff.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Debra Granik’s breakthrough feature is probably best known today for launching Jennifer Lawrence’s career, but it should also be remembered as one of the great neo-realist films of the past ten years. Few directors have portrayed extreme poverty in middle America with more nuance.

Winter’s Bone offers a devastating portrait of a dirt-poor community in the Ozarks with no infrastructure or government oversight, racked by meth lab explosions, domestic abuse, and petty crime. Like her debut—2004’s Down to the Bone, a C-budget film about the downward spiral of a coke-addicted housewife in upstate New York—Winter’s Bone portrays drugs as a means of escape for the down-and-out, whether psychological or economic. 

Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is already the head of her household at the age of 17, struggling to feed her family and keep their house. As she sets out on a quest to find her father, Granik’s film turns into a gripping noir thriller, offering crossover appeal to audiences beyond the arthouse circuit. (It gained enough attention to secure four Oscars nominations, including one for Best Picture.)

But Granik’s commitment to using real locations and non-actors, and immersing her central cast of professionals in the extreme locale in which the film is set, gives Winter’s Bone its unique power. It makes the film as immersive as the actors’ experience must have been. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan has always liked puzzles. He spent the 2000s crafting tight, conceptual thrillers with riddles at their core, with Memento to The Prestige being the strongest examples. Even in his relatively straightforward Batman movies, the gambit is structural: Nolan can’t help but play around with timelines, mysterious flashbacks, and twist endings.

The most high-minded of Nolan’s films, Inception is also the densest, featuring unreliable protagonists, nested narratives, and paradoxical point points. As a result, the movie spends a significant amount of its runtime explaining how it works. In this world, shadowy international corporations pull the strings, and the minds of important business people and political leaders are prized targets. Dreams can be infiltrated, and secrets stolen via psychological espionage.

Cobb and his crack team of infiltrators explore three layers of dreams-within-dreams, attempting to lead a young Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy) towards a particular business decision by helping him repair his relationship with his late father. Cobb is seeking redemption from something, and the unknown event’s lasting psychological implications take the form of literal projections, interfering consistently with the mission he is supposed to be carrying out.

Nolan hones in on the intricacies of the dreaming process, but despite his meticulous explanations, the film still manages to inspire a sense of subjective wonder. We can argue about how cleanly the puzzle pieces fit together, but the scope of Nolan’s accomplishment remains staggering. No major Hollywood filmmakers are making blockbusters with this much conceptual ambition. In an increasingly Marvelized film landscape, Inception is a testament to what Cobb calls the “most resistant parasite”: the lasting power of an original idea. —WILL GOTTSEGEN