A Look Back at the 2010s

December 26, 2019
A thought by James Berardinelli


If I was to employ a single phrase to describe the 2010s decade in film (2010-2019), it would be “the rise of the franchise.” Sequels and series have been around for as long as movies have existed but never have they been more prevalent than in the last 10 years. With superhero movies developing from an action/adventure subgenre to box office dominance, the importance of comic book franchises can’t be underestimated. While sustainability is a legitimate question going forward, there’s no debating their importance over the last ten years.

The decade saw the death of low and mid-budget features as viable multiplex players. After thriving in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they went on life support during the 2000s before fading to near-irrelevance in the 2010s. That’s not to say they have gone away. Streaming services and the expanding television envelope have given them a new place of residence but they are no longer major players in movie theaters. They are used to fill gaps between tent-poles for megaplexes that have too many screens for the available high-volume blockbusters. Sadly, if you stop by an auditorium showing one of these movies, it will often be more than half-empty on Friday and Saturday nights and almost completely empty at other times.

From a quality standpoint, the 2010s started badly, peaked in the middle years (2013, 2014, and 2016 in particular were strong), and petered out toward the end. Although 2019 isn’t finished as I write this, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the two years of 2018-19 have represented the least impressive period since I started reviewing films in the early 1990s. That’s a direct reflection of the studios’ decision to go “all in” on franchises. The strategy, at least from a commercial perspective, has worked well for Disney. The results have been mixed for the other studios. Warner Brothers’ mishandling of the DC universe has resulted in that side of the superhero rivalry underperforming. Universal has leaned heavily on Jurassic World. Sony has strapped itself to Spider-Man and James Bond. Paramount has seen mixed results from its rebooted Star Trek and, although Mission: Impossible has done nicely, it has failed to break out. (Fox no longer exists as a stand-alone entity.)

Good fortune and excellent business decisions have allowed Disney to rise so far above the pack that the rest of the studios have given up chasing them. Marvel’s savvy development of the MCU, with the Thanos saga providing high-octane fuel, allowed The Avengers to become the decade’s biggest story. From the superhero super-group’s 2012 debut until their record-smashing latest outing in 2019, The Avengers have helped redefine the boundaries of the genre while at the same time inflating Disney’s coffers. The purchase of Lucasfilm and subsequent overzealous exploitation of Star Wars provided another injection of money (albeit with diminishing returns). Pixar’s decision to focus more on sequels than original products created must-see family films on a regular basis. Adding Fox’s stable of older and current projects (especially Avatar) has only widened the gap between The Magic Kingdom and its competitors. It’s fair to assume that Disney has peaked during the late 2010s – it’s hard to imagine the company soaring higher – but that doesn’t mean they’re going to come back to the pack anytime soon.

Rewatching these movies for the purposes of compiling the list has been a pleasure and a reminder that, no matter how product-oriented Hollywood has become, great films are still being made, marketed, and shown.

Let’s start with the Honorable Mentions. There are eight, and they are presented alphabetically:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011): When it was released, I was more bullish about the David Fincher remake than the Scandinavian original. That opinion hasn’t changed. I thought Rooney Mara was a spectacular Lisbeth (better than either Noomi Rapace or Claire Foy) and believed that Fincher’s direction was darker and moodier than Niels Arden Oplev’s – a reasonable assertion considering the budgetary differences between the two iterations. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the box office success hoped-for by Columbia Pictures and additional installments featuring Mara/Daniel Craig were canceled.

Lincoln (2012): I have to wonder whether this will go down as Steven Spielberg’s final great motion picture. That’s certainly the case at the moment although the director is still active and perfectly capable of “returning to form.” The now-retired Daniel Day-Lewis won a deserved Oscar for his performance here – the crowning achievement of a towering career. Lincoln was very much an actor’s movie and I’d rank it near the top of all-time biographies.

Logan (2017): Logan deserves consideration to be one of the best five superhero movies ever made and, during the era of the MCU, it bested every production turned out by Disney/Marvel. A dark, brooding look at what happens to superheroes when they’re past their sell-by dates, the movie features Hugh Jackman’s most powerful portrayal of the lead character and a stellar supporting turn by Patrick Stewart in his final appearance as Charles Xavier.

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019): I’d rank this as a middle-of-the-pack effort for the director – not in the same league as Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight, or Reservoir Dogs, but substantially better than Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, or his contribution to Grindhouse. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is notable for its comedy elements (Tarantino has often incorporated humor but never as openly as here) and its surprising restraint with respect to violence and gore.

Skyfall (2012): The 23rd official entry into the long-running movie series is one of the best action-adventure movies of the decade, cementing Daniel Craig’s status as the second-most popular 007 (behind Sean Connery). This is the first post-Connery Bond to be deemed a worldwide blockbuster and removed doubts about Bond’s immediate future. Eight years later, with Craig bowing out after his fifth film, there is as much interest in who will be “the next Bond” as there was when Connery announced his (first) retirement.

Toy Story 3 (2010): The perfect end to an excellent trilogy and, in my opinion, the best thing Pixar has made. Although Disney, ever-chasing the money dragon, returned to this franchise in 2019 (with a solid enough epilogue/reunion), Toy Story 3 remains the animated series’ crown jewel. For older viewers, it’s a bittersweet reminder of how life moves on and the bliss of childhood fades away. Try not to shed a tear. I dare you. Truly a masterful piece of animation.

Wind Rises, The (2013): The Wind Rises is in many ways atypical for Miyazaki but the artistry and intelligence of the screenplay are unmistakable characteristics. One comment in my original review encapsulates how the film feels: “Before seeing The Wind Rises, I heard comparisons to the epics of David Lean. As seemingly absurd as such comments might seem, the truth becomes evident in the viewing.” Thanks to the new agreement between Studio Ghibli and HBO Max, The Wind Rises will be available for on-demand streaming beginning in Spring 2020, alongside the rest of the catalog.

Wolf of Wall Street, The (2013): The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t Martin Scorsese’s best film. In fact, it’s not in his Top 3. A case could be made that it’s #5 or #6. It is, however, his best film of the 2010s and it may be his most enjoyable all-time production. Scorsese’s best films are often brutal gut-punches – powerful, unforgettable stories that can be tough to sit through more than once. Not so with The Wolf of Wall Street. This is delightfully re-watchable (and not just for the Margot Robbie scenes).

Now, here are the Top 10, presented in reverse order:

#10: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Tone isn’t merely important to Three Billboards, it’s critical. Stripped of sentiment, the movie uses a hard-hitting dramatic style to advance the story. There are gut-punches aplenty and more than a few of the plot points aren’t expected. This isn't a mystery, a whodunnit?, or a procedural. It’s a character-based piece that looks deep into the human soul and finds shadow and light. It makes an argument for redemption that some might reject but does so in a compelling manner. And, despite all the misery, it uses dark comedy to keep the proceedings from becoming too morose. Roger Ebert once stated that any subject matter can be used to comedic effect if the practitioner is skilled enough. Director Martin McDonagh is skilled enough. His approach is specific and uncompromising. It’s not safe.

#9: Arrival (2016)

I can think of only four other movies made during the last 40 years that can boast a similar level of sophistication and intelligence in their approach to connecting with the unknown: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Abyss (Director’s Cut), Contact, and Interstellar. Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, and Nolan - not bad company for French Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve, who would go on to make the Blade Runner sequel later in the decade. We don’t see serious science fiction like this nearly enough. The mysteries in Arrival run deeper than is initially apparent, especially when time travel is brought into the mix. The movie doesn’t end with Bill Pullman giving a rousing speech and a makeshift air force attacking alien ships. This resolution is more sublime and satisfying. Although Arrival is about first contact with extraterrestrials, it says more about the human experience than the creatures from another world.

#8: Looper (2012)

Looper is a tremendous motion picture experience. Not merely a "very good" one, but a great one. It's a rousing science fiction/fantasy tale with a dose of hard-hitting drama, an edgy approach that denies Hollywood's penchant for formula, and a smart script that was crafted with care and an attention to detail. For me, a great film is one in which all the elements are well done. They blend together like a symphony. That's the case here. The screenplay is clever and intelligent; it piqued my interest and kept me involved. The characters are well-rounded and powerfully portrayed. There's plenty of action and suspense, and even a little humor and romance mixed in. There are some profoundly disturbing questions that have no easy answers. The art direction is impressive, suggesting a futuristic world that is familiar yet different. There's a strong emotional element to all of this. Looper accomplishes what top-notch cinema should do: it diverts, entertains, and enriches. It will not impact my worldview or the way I go about my daily living, but I will not soon forget it and I am grateful for having seen it.

#7: OJ: Made in America (2016)