Best movies of decade: From 'Spring Breakers' to the 'Spider-Verse'

Counting down the 25 best films of the last 10 years takes us to outer space, the human mind and, er, Florida

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It was a decade where the big got bigger and everything else fought for scraps. 

Movies in the 2010s were ruled by superheroes and franchises, and they dominated the landscape so thoroughly that a business that was top-heavy to begin with became even more so as the decade continued and now comes to a close. 

This nameless 10-year period — Hollywood might as well call it "The Marvel Years" — saw eight of the all-time Top 10 domestic grossers hit screens; on the list of all-time moneymakers, only James Cameron's "Titanic" and "Avatar" were released outside this decade. 

Superheroes and franchises dominated the 2010s. Eight of the all-time Top 10 domestic grossers hit screens in the 2010s, including "Avengers: Infinity War."

Ah, but what those numbers don't tell is that the number of tickets sold has fallen over the last 10 years, while prices continue to go up. And adjusted for inflation, none of this decade's blockbusters makes the all-time Top 10 list; 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," at No. 11, comes closest. 

So we have the illusion of success, which is fitting since Hollywood is in the illusion business. But while things may look rosy from the outside, the reality is TV and streaming have snatched away the movies' domination of pop culture, a trend that looks to continue as we enter the new roaring '20s. 

So as movie studios have scrambled to keep their industry afloat, they've turned to superheroes and franchises as their lifeboats. That has squeezed smaller films and independent films out to the edges of the frame, as it's become increasingly difficult to get small films about real people made in the current marketplace. No cape? No dice. That's the way it is. 

But important, quality, well-told stories were still able to break through, and not all the big ones were bad. Looking back at the films that top this list of the decade's best, there are fantasies and visions of a world other than our own, but they're tales that tell us who we are, who we want to be and who we will be going forward. 

These are films that made us laugh, made us cry, made us think and made us wonder. Movies still have the power to move us, and that's what these 25 movies did, and will continue to do as we revisit them over the years. 

Here are my top films of the 2010s.

25. "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" (2010) — Michael Cera leads a crazy cast (including future Oscar winner Brie Larson) in Edgar Wright's slapstick emo comedy, which combined video games with a heightened version of reality more successfully than any movie before or since. It gives the 2020s something to try to top. 

Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."

24. "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2011) — The "Mission Impossible" movies have taken on new life in the last decade, with each outdoing the last in terms of insane stunts, but the breathless sequence where Tom Cruise clings to the side of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, who knows how many stories up, puts this one over the top. 

Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol."

23. "Her" (2013) — A lonely man falls in love with his AI (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze's swooning sci-fi drama, which by the end of the decade ahead could look like a documentary.  

Joaquin Phoenix in "Her."

22. "Gravity" (2013) — The possibilities of cinema are alive in Alfonso Cuarón's glorious popcorn thriller, which follows an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) stranded in space and trying to make her way back to Earth. 

Sandra Bullock in "Gravity."

21. "The Act of Killing" (2013) — Perpetrators of Indonesian genocide are forced to confront their past crimes in this gut-wrenching documentary that is difficult to watch and even harder to shake. 

A scene from "The Act of Killing."

20. "Marriage Story" (2019) — Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are tremendous as the splitting couple at the center of Noah Baumbach's comic-drama about the emotional (and financial) toll of divorce.  

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story."

19. "The Big Short" (2015) — Director Adam McKay graduates to the big time with this look at the 2007 mortgage crisis, an impossibly complicated web of banking schemes and high-risk subprime housing loans, which he illustrates to the layman by pausing the story in its tracks and having Margot Robbie explain what's going on from a bathtub. A director, and a movie, that gets how dumb we've all become.  

Christian Bale in "The Big Short."

18. "Mother!" (2017) — Jennifer Lawrence goes through hell in Darren Aronofsky's nightmare vision of home renovation run amok, a sweeping metaphor for man's destruction of the Earth, with Lawrence standing in for Mother Nature. Possibly. As fun to theorize about as it is unsettling to watch. 

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in "Mother!"

17. "First Reformed" (2018) — Ethan Hawke this time as a troubled pastor questioning his faith and what atrocities man has committed against the environment in Paul Schrader's lacerating drama that cuts deeper than barbed wire. 

Ethan Hawke in "First Reformed."

16. "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) — Martin Scorsese goes "Goodfellas" on the world of stock brokers and finds that a gangster is a gangster, no matter what suit they put on for work. The scene where Leonardo DiCaprio is out of his mind on Quaaludes earned him the Oscar he'd pick up two years later for "The Revenant."

Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

15. "The Tree of Life" (2011)  — Director Terrence Malick had a hit-or-miss decade — avoid "To the Wonder" and "Knight of Cups" at all costs — but here he crafts a visionary, poetic experience about fatherhood, regret, and oh yeah, the nature of human existence through time. A towering achievement. 

Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life."

14. "Inside Out" (2015) — We're used to animated movies giving us talking animals or toys that come to life, but with this Pixar went inside the human brain, and gave us a story about human feelings that was relatable, touching and truly mind-boggling. 

Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler voice characters in "Inside Out."

13. "Before Midnight" (2013) — Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return, a little older and with some problems to work out, in the third chapter of director Richard Linklater's romantic trilogy, the defining and most enduring love story of Generation X. 

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Midnight."

12. "Bridesmaids" (2011) — A murderer's row of female comedians, led by "SNL" alum Kristen Wiig and breakout star Melissa McCarthy, drove the decade's funniest comedy, which forever changed the way we look at Brazilian steakhouses. 

Wendi McLendon-Covey, Rose Byrne, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph and Ellie Kemper in "Bridesmaids."

11. "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012) — Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper radiate chemistry in writer-director David O. Russell's fractured romantic comedy, which takes genre clichés and spins them on their head. Excelsior!

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradly Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook."

10. "Drive" (2011) — Ryan Gosling is a driver known simply as Driver in director Nicolas Winding Refn's ultra-stylish, ultraviolent tale about Los Angeles at night and looking cool while driving. Save for Michael Mann, no one has better captured L.A.'s darkly gorgeous nighttime ambiance, and Cliff Martinez's score combines with songs from College, the Chromatics and Kavinsky to create the ultimate soundtrack for cruising through the city at 3 a.m. A mood, as the kids say. 

Ryan Gosling in "Drive."

9. "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" (2018) — The decade's best superhero film — and there was no shortage of competition — is also its best animated film, a breathtaking pastiche of pop art, comic book visuals, graffiti and 3-D overlays. Shameik Moore voices Miles Morales, the kid who would be Spidey, in this comical, inventive look at family, the nature of superheroes and becoming yourself. If only all superhero films were so full of life. 

Jakae Johnson and Shameik Moore voice characters in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse."

8. "Spring Breakers" (2013) — Spraang breeeaak. Harmony Korine's neon-colored daydream follows a group of wholesome teens who journey into the bowels of the American Dream known as spring break in this dubstep snapshot of youth gone wild. Guns are shot, banks are robbed, and James Franco's thug lord known as Alien leads the group in a seaside singalong of Britney Spears' "Everytime." Spring break forever

Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Vanessa Hudgens in "Spring Breakers."

7. "Paddington 2" (2018) — Sure, it functions quite wonderfully as a kids movie, but this sequel to 2015's "Paddington" — built to stand on its own, so you don't need to see the original to enjoy it — is a movie about kindness, manners and understanding that any adult would do well to take to heart. Who would have thought an adorable bear with a refined British accent and an insatiable taste for marmalade would teach us all a lesson in humanity? In this topsy-turvy decade, Paddington became a voice of reason.   

Ben Whishaw voices Paddington in "Paddington 2."

6. "The Social Network" (2010) — The defining social networking platform of our time — and the defining Silicon Valley mascot of our time, Mark Zuckerberg — are essentially put on blast in David Fincher's bracing tech takedown, which only gets more relevant with age. Jesse Eisenberg has never been better than he is here, as the vindictive genius who out of spite creates the world's biggest social platform. If you haven't rewatched it lately, fix that.   

Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network."

5. "Moonlight" (2016) — Told in three chapters, Barry Jenkins' breakthrough film is an empathetic, deeply human look at a young boy growing up in Florida, discovering himself and his sexuality and coming to terms with his identity. There are many beautiful moments in the film, but the third act diner scene between Trevante Rhodes and André Holland — with Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger" playing on the jukebox in the background — is one for the ages. Bask in its glow.  

Trevante Rhodes and André Holland in "Moonlight."

4. "Manchester by the Sea" (2016) — Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's film about family, New England, and picking up the pieces after unspeakable tragedy is as lived in as an old house passed down through generations. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are devastating as a couple who split after losing their children in a deadly fire, and then-newcomer Lucas Hedges is golden as the nephew who helps Affleck's character find his way again. "Manchester" mixes extreme hardship with humor, just like life.  

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea."

3. "The Florida Project" (2017) — Director Sean Baker takes viewers inside the lives of a group of families who live just outside of the Magic Kingdom but a world away from what it represents. Willem Dafoe is the manager of the purple-painted weekly rate motel, and becomes something of a father figure to its down-and-out denizens. But it's Brooklynn Prince's Moonee who is the heart of the film, who represents the innocence of childhood just before it's taken away and lost to the cold wake-up call of reality. 

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project."

2. "La La Land" (2016) — That this film is unfairly remembered as either "the movie where Ryan Gosling saved jazz" or the movie that lost the Best Picture race after the biggest envelope blunder in Oscars history is dismissive of its achievements. "La La Land" is pure movie magic: romantic, sweeping, gorgeous, delightful, dreamy, wondrous and heartbreaking, with Gosling and Emma Stone as a pair of star-crossed lovers in a technicolor Los Angeles. Put some respect on its name.  

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in "La La Land."

1. "Inception" (2010) — In a decade where films often seemed bereft of new ideas, the best film is actually about ideas: where they come from, how they're born, and how they're extracted from our minds. Director Christopher Nolan, who made this film while on a break from his trilogy of "Batman" movies, creates a world of eye-popping visuals and world-shattering imagination, with a cast to die for (DiCaprio! Caine! Hardy! Cotillard!) and a killer ending to boot. "Inception" continues to cast us in its spell.    

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Inception."

Twitter: @grahamorama