You Were Never Really Here
What is it: A private detective mentally tamps down a lifetime of violence and prowls across New York City on the lookout for sex trafficking victims.
MVP: Joaquin Phoenix, embodying a scared little boy no matter how much girth and scruff he packs on.
Why it's here: Atmospheric in the extreme, Lynne Ramsay's masterpiece sets up shop in its protagonist's clouded psyche and explores his ugly world of bullies and their complicit lackeys. Another of the decade's best and most shocking endings.
What is it: A foursome of sisters encounter love and ambition in mid-19th century America.
MVP: Greta Gerwig, making a centuries-old novel feel like it was written yesterday.
Why it's here: Though certainly not plotless, Little Women takes on the feel of of a hang-out session, as it must for a central conceit: everyone who comes in contact with the March family wants to be a part of them. Gerwig and her radiant cast make this an easy concept to get on board with.
Manchester By the Sea
What is it: A solitary man must return to the titular town after his brother dies and leaves his nephew in need of a guardian.
MVP: Casey Affleck, trudging through the fog of his old life and peeking at a life that could be.
Why it's here: 'I can't beat it,' a sentiment movies don't indulge in and are lesser for their unwillingness to engage in inconclusiveness. There's different kinds of grief on display here, the kind that will fade and the kind that won't. Both exist in a film with far more humor than one would expect, but the expected amount of truth from writer/director extraordinaire Kenneth Lonergan.
The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence
What is it: A duo of documentaries about the triumphant CIA-backed murderers who have dominated Indonesia since the 60's, one from the POV of the killers and the other from the POV of the surviving families.
MVP: The dozens of Anonymous listed in the credits, risking their lives to bring some shred of truth and enlightenment to a place reveling in the opposite.
Why it's here: A monumental achievement in nonfiction, director Joshua Oppenheimer locates the lies societies agree upon to excuse their various atrocities and frames them against people who have to live with the consequences. It's not only about Indonesia, but about reflexive myth-making throughout history.
What is it: A Holocaust survivor returns to a ruined Berlin after extensive reconstructive surgery.
MVP: Nina Hoss, towering over the decade in a devastating portrayal of longing and self-determination.
Why it's here: Another ending of vast power and meaning, Phoenix rises from its postwar ashes as a demand to see things clearly, as a rejection of comforting fictions and premature returns to normalcy.
What is it: The investigative journalists of the Boston Globe uncover decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups at the heart of the Catholic church.
MVP: Writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, deliberately dissecting the many layers of societal failure that allowed this crime to go on for so long.
Why it's here: I went to some difficult funerals in the 2010's but I've never cried so hard in public as I did after seeing Spotlight. What brought it on wasn't a big cathartic speech or a delicate image, but a text crawl at the end of the film containing all the places similar abuses were uncovered. You think it's going to be so much shorter than it is.
The Tree of Life
What is it: The ultimate in going from broad to specific, we start at the birth of the universe and narrow down to a semi-autobiographical story of a family of five raised by a domineering father and a gentle mother.
MVP: Emmanuel Lubezki, shooting everyday images to look as majestic and poetic as possible.
Why it's here: With the digressions and prayerful voiceover present in Terrence Malick movies, it's understandable if they're just too dreamy to grab ahold of. If one gets their arms around his particular style, however, the reward in The Tree of Life is significant.
What is it: A girl who's spent most of her time around boys in a boxing gym moves across the hall to a dance troupe, only for mysterious seizures to overtake her teammates one by one.
MVP: Royalty Hightower, communicating so much in a film that spends most of its time on her preteen face.
Why it's here: An experimental film that works on someone who doesn't tend to like those, The Fits ecstatically documents the process of discovery of one's people, of one's talent, of one's capacity to escape gravity.
What is it: A high school senior encounters class, sexuality, friendship, and Dave Matthews Band in early 21st century Sacramento.
MVP: Laurie Metcalf, hectoring and overly critical and empathetic and honest and a cinematic mom to end all moms.
Why it's here: Endlessly quotable, rewatchable, and teeming with characters worthy of their own films, Greta Gerwig makes the directorial debut of the decade in her heartfelt exploration of her teen years.
What is it: Three stages in a black man's life as he navigates his Miami home and his sexuality.
MVP: Barry Jenkins, coordinating every facet of his film into a work of art worthy of a museum.
Why it's here: Breathtaking in its beauty, it's a film that will live forever thanks to its particular look, its universal roots, and it's broadening of who gets empathy extended to them onscreen. With perhaps the best ensemble of the decade, Moonlight is an irresistible film that must be surrendered to.
What is it: A comfortable middle-class man begins to experience visions of doom and digs a storm cellar just in case.
MVP: Michael Shannon, embodying fear and anxiety, the defining emotions of the decade.
Why it's here: Because there's a storm coming and not a one of you is prepared for it! Paranoia that one's station can disappear in one fell swoop and a desperation to hang onto it is the all-encompassing name of the game for Take Shelter, and is therefore a window into the minds of 2010's inhabitants from the Rust Belt to Hong Kong.
Mad Max: Fury Road
What is it: A post-apocaplyptic warlord's lieutenant kidnaps his brides and leads them on a wild chase.
MVP: George Miller, plopping a couple hundred million dollars in the Namibian desert and turning it into pure cinema.
Why it's here: It would have been easy for Miller to focus on spectacle and spectacle alone for his grand return to action filmmaking dominance, but his hard-driving opus goes for the heart with meaningful imagery and an incendiary chorus of accusation towards its ravenous villains.
The Wolf of Wall Street
What is it: Penny stock con-man Jordan Belfort and his gang of dirtbags ascend to the top of the financial world.
MVP: Leonardo DiCaprio, throwing himself into convulsive drug and mania-fueled fits.
Why it's here: A vital and delirious romp through ill-gotten excess, Martin Scorsese's late-period masterpiece demystifies the besuited bro as a hungry child held captive by his basest needs.
The Social Network
What is it: A Harvard sophomore dreams up Facebook and his success attracts lawsuits.
MVP: Aaron Sorkin, restrained by a dominant director and thus allowed to focus on the crackling dialogue that he excels at.
Why it's here: A biopic that has little resemblance to true events but an intimate connection to the spirit of them, The Social Network has its finger on the pulse of a world captured by hoodie-wearing twenty-somethings who change neural pathways and upend labor markets without regulation or second thought.
What is it: A man experiences both extremes in an alternate reality where coupling is strictly enforced in the mainstream and strictly forbidden in the margins.
MVP: Rachel Weisz, perfecting an affected tone of voice as the ideal guide through this world.
Why it's here: Setting aside my pet interests in the film's subtext of revolution and counter-revolution, Yorgos Lanthimos is hiding a new wrinkle of this world behind every corner, each one crazier and more inventive than the last. Throw a handful of straw in the air, signaling to anyone watching that this is a singular work.