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The 100 best films of the decade (so far), #1-20

Illustration by Beck Kramer
Illustration by Beck Kramer

Going in, we knew that this list—totaled up from ballots submitted by 11 A.V. Club staff members and contributors—would be eclectic, with plenty of dark horses sneaking up toward the front. Still, we were genuinely surprised at what ended up at the top of the list. Close to 300 films received votes, and not one of the movies that appear on this list appeared on every voter’s ballot. Still, one led the pack in terms of both votes and points—a movie that seemed, at the outset, like anything but a consensus favorite.

Were you surprised with the final results? What did we miss that should have been included? Sound off in the comments below, and check out part one and part two for our full list of favorites.

20. Certified Copy

Possibly the most mainstream effort from Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy is an intricately conceived portrait of a relationship that, around its midpoint, also reveals itself to be a deft commentary on the nature of artifice, and thus on the cinema itself. Shot in French, English, and Italian, and set in Tuscany, it stars Juliette Binoche (in a performance that garnered a Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival) as a French art dealer who—in typical Kiarostami fashion—engages in long talks in cars, on streets, and in cafés with an English novelist (William Shimell). That author’s latest book contends that reproductions are the equal of originals, and that all art is fundamentally altered by one’s unique perception of it. When the two are mistaken for a married couple, the film’s tone subtly but radically shifts, calling into question everything that’s come before, and demanding that one periodically reassess the nature of the characters’ affair. Its meaning never fully explicated, but instead left just vague enough to justify multiple readings, Certified Copy appears to be a provocative daylong depiction of a romance’s beginning, middle, and end. Ultimately, though, the answers to Certified Copy’s questions are less important than Kiarostami’s overarching rumination on the truth of fiction. [Nick Schager]

19. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

In an age when directing a comedy usually amounts to just pointing a camera at an ad-libbing star, Edgar Wright is a glorious anomaly—a true formalist, generating big laughs with nothing more than an energetic whip pan or a perfectly timed smash cut. His gifts are on full, triumphant display in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, in which a dweeb lothario (Michael Cera) goes mano a mano with the vengeful ex-lovers of his new hipster paramour (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Taking his visual cues from comic books and video games—the cultural currency exchanged by his twentysomething Toronto characters—Wright stages fight scenes with all the elaborately choreographed flair of a Golden Age musical. But this graphic-novel transplant is more than just an exercise in kinetic cartoon style. It’s also a whip-smart generational portrait, with Wright turning his powers of affectionate parody—reserved in the Cornetto trilogy for specific film genres—on the peculiar rites and rituals of millennial romance. So while Scott Pilgrim may lack a love triangle as resonant as the one in The Graduate, it shares with that boomer touchstone the perfect soundtrack of youthful anxiety, drowning its own Benjamin Braddock not in the sound of silence, but in the louder melancholy of Metric’s “Black Sheep.” [A.A. Dowd]

18. Winter’s Bone

Jennifer Lawrence was still mostly unknown when she was cast as an Ozarks teen struggling to take care of her younger siblings with virtually no help from any adult. Her brutally unsentimental performance (with just the right touch of vulnerability) as Ree Dolly landed her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, a prize that she’d go on to win just two years later. And Lawrence gets invaluable support from superb character actors like John Hawkes (also Oscar nominated), Garret Dillahunt, and Dale Dickey, playing relatives, neighbors, and law enforcement professionals whose intentions, in every case, remain frighteningly uncertain. Still, the real star of Winter’s Bone is director Debra Granik, who takes material that might have come across as mere poverty porn and turns it into a relentlessly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller, using little more than the implicit threat of overly courteous, slightly rustic language. The combination of stark imagery and florid dialogue makes the film seem as if it’s taking place in an alternate universe—it’s like a period piece that’s somehow set in the present day, involving a group of people that time (and every aspect of the economy, save for self-farming and meth cooking) forgot. [Mike D’Angelo]

17. Whiplash

Films about obsession generally don’t possess the complexity of Whiplash, which explores the limits of the quest for perfection without condemning it. That’s what makes its two principal characters so compelling: They both want the same thing, and they’re essentially willing to kill themselves and/or each other in order to see it achieved. (It’s a far more believable sado-masochistic relationship than the one depicted in Fifty Shades Of Grey.) It also doesn’t hurt that the chief activity in Whiplash—playing drums—is so visually and aurally compelling to begin with, or that the songs Miles Teller violently struggles with are so tense. But in the end, it’s the J.K. Simmons show: The Best Supporting Actor win seemed like a foregone conclusion after a performance that nestles anger, bitterness, drive, regret, and relentlessness into one complicated character. He’s scary as hell, but it’s no surprise that Teller’s character will suffer any indignity to please him. And man, that ending. [Josh Modell]

16. Two Days, One Night

By now, it’s all but a fact that the Belgian-born, denim-wearing Dardenne brothers make great movies; they’ve been on winning streak since 1996, when La Promesse launched their international careers. The fraternal duo’s talent lies in how they delve into moralism while never being moralistic, and focus on seemingly pedestrian stories while never being exploitive of the “underclass.” In Two Days, One Night, these qualities are more apparent than ever, as the filmmakers capture the world of a young mother (Marion Cotillard) recovering from depression while fighting to keep her manufacturing job at a solar panel factory. Working for the first time with an actor at the celebrity level of Cotillard, the Dardennes risked sacrificing the vérité feel of their previous work. But while there are moments that verge on tipping into the realm of the overwrought, Cotillard’s performance of near-crippling depression grounds the film in an all-too-real reality. In the hands of the Dardennes, class and mental health aren’t reductive PSAs, but evocative pieces of their lead’s complex sense of self. [Kiva Reardon]

15. Inside Llewyn Davis

“I don’t see a lot of money here,” says Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a promoter who has just listened to folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) perform “The Ballad Of Queen Jane.” It is 1961, and while Grossman’s remark cuts a pitiless swath through the heartfelt hush of Llewyn’s performance, the Coen brothers don’t seem to consider him a dismissive philistine, or a blathering jerk like the jazz musician hilariously and inevitably played by John Goodman. He just speaks one of the hard truths of Inside Llewyn Davis: Sometimes talent gets trumped by bad timing. That goes double for Llewyn Davis, as he’s additionally handicapped by being something of a jerk himself. The Coens’ movie follows him around for a week or so, looking for signs of change somewhere in the wintry desaturation of his transient life. It won’t surprise longtime Coens-watchers that the movie doesn’t traffic in easy redemptions, or that it’s every bit as funny and tuneful as a Coens movie about folk music should be. But even fans might be taken aback by how heartbreaking Llewyn’s plight becomes, even or especially when it’s his own damn fault. In its uncompromising and dark-humored way, Inside Llewyn Davis may be the Coens’ most tender movie since Fargo. [Jesse Hassenger]

14. Her

On paper, Her didn’t sound terribly promising: A man in the not-too-distant future (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, which speaks but has no physical form. But as the “Spike Jonze love story” touted by its poster, it’s touching, heartbreaking, and as true as a sci-fi-tinged rom-com could possibly hope to be. Credit both a gorgeous script that never judges its characters and fantastic performances from both Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, who plays the disembodied, deeply perfect voice of Samantha. Other points in the film’s favor: an understated score by Arcade Fire, inventive production design and costuming (that video game! Those pants!), and cinematography that makes the future somehow look like the sepia-toned past. It’s fully realized, both as a story and as a film. [Josh Modell]

13. Holy Motors

It took Leos Carax 13 years to follow up his controversial international hit Pola X, but when it hit screens in 2012, Holy Motors proved more than worth the wait. A bizarre head-trip that defies easy explanation, Carax’s film concerns a man named Oscar (played by the director’s longtime collaborator, Denis Lavant) who’s driven around Paris to various appointments in a white limousine by a woman named Celine (Edith Scob). At these engagements, Oscar dresses up as different characters and play-acts scenes with others—incidents that blur the line between the real and the imaginary. Primarily, however, this psychedelic film is about the relationship between art and its spectators, with each of its vignettes simultaneously paying tribute to, and crazily undercutting, various cinematic genres (gangster film, monster movie, familial drama, etc.) and our preconceived expectations for them. In Holy Motors, all the world is a cinematic set—even when there are no cameras—and the possibilities for subversion are endless. That last notion is never more insanely apparent than in a scene in which Oscar, assuming the role of the long-haired creature Lavant played in 2009’s Tokyo!, is lulled to sleep by a burka-wearing Eva Mendes, all while sporting a massive erection. [Nick Schager]

12. Margaret

Mired in post-production hassles and lawsuits for six years, Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature was finally released in the fall of 2011 to mostly indifferent reviews (critics who know a film’s troubled history are always primed to see a turkey) and almost zero business. A few rabid fans, however, refused to give up, creating the #TeamMargaret hashtag and circulating a petition to have year-end awards screeners sent out. Eventually, this campaign led to the film’s re-release, where at least a few more people were able to discover that Lonergan had attempted something virtually unprecedented: an intimate epic that opens with a compelling narrative hook—young girl accidentally causes fatal bus accident by flirting with driver—and then stubbornly refuses to ignore all of the ordinary, mundane aspects of life that march right on forward in spite of this personal tragedy. As Lisa Cohen (there is no character named Margaret; the title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem), Anna Paquin dares to be off-puttingly self-absorbed and abrasive, never courting viewer sympathy. It’s an astounding performance, made all the more remarkable by the degree to which Margaret keeps insisting that Lisa isn’t the center of anything except her own consciousness. Long delay notwithstanding, this is a movie ahead of its time. [Mike D’Angelo]

11. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Frames within frames: Wes Anderson’s comic fantasy about the misadventures of a hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes, fantastic) and a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) in a fictional—or possibly meta-fictional—European country in the early 1930s is the director’s most visually and narratively audacious film to date, presented through multiple narrators, color schemes, and aspect ratios. Since Rushmore, Anderson has become one of a small number of directors whose work can be identified from a single still. This is his symphony, meticulously composed for an orchestra of bit characters, practical effects, and opulent diorama sets, moving fluidly across time periods and levels of realism; the fact that the older and younger versions of the characters are played by actors who look nothing alike—and are, in fact, referred to by different names—only adds to the sense of a nesting-doll reality. Somewhere in there, in a candy-colored homage to Ernst Lubitsch, is a vision of the rise of Fascism and the end of cosmopolitan Europe—something that may have only ever been an ideal, but which came to a definitive end in the ’30s. It’s pretty damn funny, to boot. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

10. Before Midnight

After the heady euphoria of Before Sunrise and the reunion-sparked excitement of Before Sunset, Richard Linklater tapped into a more adult—and, consequently, emotionally complex—vein with Before Midnight, his third film charting the ongoing relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Far removed from their youthful past, the two now find themselves in a committed partnership, replete with two kids, in Linklater’s stunning drama, which unfolds over the course of a summer vacation in Greece. There, the lovers dine with friends, take leisurely strolls around beautiful locales during which they converse about topics both big and small, and eventually—in what remains the finest scene of the series—engage in a prolonged hotel-room fight. In that sequence, previously suppressed old gripes come boiling up to the surface, with both characters spitting the type of venom and expressing the sort of aggravation and disappointment that only comes from being together with someone for a long time. Bolstered by lead performances that stay true to the characters’ prior blissful feelings for each other while nonetheless coloring them with grown-up regrets and resentments, it’s a sterling snapshot of how difficult it is to maintain love over the long haul. [Nick Schager]

9. The Social Network

Impeccable popular art: lit like an altarpiece, obsessively organized. David Fincher has created a body of work that’s as remarkable for its thematic consistency as for its virtuoso craftsmanship and technique—no small feat, considering he’s never written a page of script. Here, he turns Aaron Sorkin’s take on the rise of Facebook into a study of personal alienation and obsession, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a compelling ironic figure: the perfectionist who makes billions on relationships in online space, despite (or maybe because of) not being able to maintain them in real life. Cut with industrial precision to a moody electronic score and bolstered by a uniformly superb supporting cast (with Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer as the standouts), this is smart, entertaining, and beautiful to look at. It’s about a lot of things—success, loneliness, ego—but the internet probably isn’t one of them. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

8. Under The Skin

Under The Skin toys with viewers from its opening sequence: the creation of an alien’s eyes, a quasi-abstract showstopper resembling nothing so much as the Big Bang. Cosmic ambitions established, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature drops the alien in Glasgow, now in the guise of an unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson). Cruising in a van and picking up men willing to take a ride from a stranger, the visitor brings them to an ominous vat of clear liquid; you expect the worst, but the specific form it takes is unexpected and original, a moment of sheer terror exacerbated by near-silence, which is punctuated by staccato pangs from Mica Levi’s unnerving score. Thematically opaque to the point of obduracy (though it serves as a handy metaphor for gender dysphoria), Under The Skin makes its impact in a variety of different ways. There’s the frisson of watching a very famous real woman interact with unknowing, almost uniformly lovely-seeming Glaswegians, real interactions resulting from a staged situation. There are also the near-abstract interjections, and a meticulous, years-in-the-making sound mix that makes everyday urban street life sound completely unfamiliar and strange. We’re not watching an alien; we’re watching (and hearing) the world from an alien’s perspective. [Vadim Rizov]

7. Dogtooth

As Tom Cruise learns in Risky Business, sometimes you just gotta say “What the fuck?!?” Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos drops the viewer smack in the middle of his tiny, bizarro-world dystopia, only very gradually offering contextual clues regarding its origin and function. At first, it’s just three young adults behaving like small children, playing strange invented games and being indoctrinated via a tape recorder that provides incorrect definitions of various common words. Eventually, it becomes clear that the three are siblings who still live with their parents, and that they’ve never been allowed to leave the property where they were born. Indeed, they have no idea that the rest of the world even exists, until the sex worker Dad hires to service his son smuggles one of the daughters a few old movies (Jaws, Rocky, and Flashdance, to judge from random lines of dialogue that get quoted and dance moves that get aped). As a portrait of petty tyranny, Dogtooth has some obvious real-world resonance. Even if it didn’t, though, it would still command attention as one of the most disturbing black comedies to appear in a very long time. [Mike D’Angelo]

6. Boyhood

Richard Linklater ingeniously conflates real and fictional time for this portrait of life in a middle-class, mostly white pocket of Texas, shot and set between 2002 and 2013. Despite the title, this isn’t, strictly speaking, a coming-of-age piece; tracking a boy (Ellar Coltrane), a girl (Lorelei Linklater), and their divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, both great) over 12 years, Linklater paints class aspirations, deferred ambitions, and liberal political frustrations in small, attentive strokes. The result is a series of sealed time capsules—a movie about time passing where every moment is seen from a present-tense vantage point. In a remarkable three-feature run—Bernie, Before Midnight, and this—Linklater asserted his place as the American movie’s premier chronicler of the specific mundane. The power of this nearly three-hour domestic drama comes less from an overarching universal theme than from the way its dead ends and repetitions accumulate into a minor-key vision of people being carried and smoothed by life, like rocks in a river. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

5. The Act Of Killing

“‘War crimes’ are decided by the winners.” So says one of the perpetrators of mass murder in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act Of Killing. This unjust reality isn’t, of course, a revelation—history is written by the conquerors, who in turn cast tragedies as triumphs and turn massacres into murals. But Oppenheimer doesn’t just point to this injustice, he enacts it: The victors of the 1965 military coup in Indonesia retell their version of the year-long period when over a million people were violently executed. A sort of making-of a snuff tape, The Act Of Killing blurs the lines between subject and director, abuser and abused, and ultimately cinema and truth. The self-professed gangsters confess on tape to barbaric killings, role playing scenes of decapitating communists with wire and gutting infants. Their film is then woven into Oppenheimer’s observational footage. Some have said that by giving the guilty a platform, The Act Of Killing only further silences the victims of the Indonesian coup. But as the self-proclaimed heroes’ deluded psyches take shape on-screen, the effect is anything but celebratory. It’s a powerful portrait of toxic, indulged subjectivity and repressed guilt, one that’s both terrifyingly otherworldly and yet all too realistic. [Kiva Reardon]

4. Frances Ha

There’s no shortage of movies about being young and clueless in New York City, where the failures of twentysomething life gain a certain romantic glow. So what makes Frances Ha feel so special, like the platonic ideal of this dubious genre? The film’s magic lies, undoubtedly, in the collaborative mojo of its creative team. For Noah Baumbach, fresh off a string of misanthropic character studies, Frances Ha was a bounce back to the more charitable post-collegiate humor of his Kicking And Screaming days. Shooting in black and white, mostly to evoke the monochromatic Manhattan of Manhattan, the writer-director traces the fallout of a platonic breakup, as “undateable” dancer Frances (Greta Gerwig) goes nomadic after her BFF roomie (Mickey Sumner) walks out on her. Baumbach’s smartest play is to build this hilarious, sweet, episodic comedy around the loopy charm of his lead and co-writer, who makes Frances at once lovable and exasperating—a figure of screwball melancholy. Frances Ha may not look like the most “important” film on this list, sandwiched as it is between meditations on genocide and the Big Bang. But for anyone who’s ever lost and found themselves in a city that never sleeps, the ring of truth will be deafening. [A.A. Dowd]

3. The Tree Of Life

With two movies released and at least two more on the way, this is shaping up to be Terrence Malick’s most prolific decade ever. The Tree Of Life kicked off the unexpected boomlet in 2011, but in its scope and ambition, the film feels more like a career summation. Malick careens from the present day to the 1950s back to the birth of the universe, with a stopover in dinosaur times. Eventually, he settles into close orbit of a family in suburban Texas, observed mostly from the vantage of oldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken as a kid; occasionally Sean Penn as an adult). The 15-minute sequence of Earth forming and life following gets plenty of attention, and justifiably so, but the movie’s intimacy is as striking as its wild feats of time travel. Even in the more grounded Texas scenes, much of the movie hovers somewhere between memories and dreams, with stunning Emmanuel Lubezki camerawork capturing low-angle and eye-level images with the vivacity of the former and the poetry of the latter. Brad Pitt gives a career-best performance as the ill-tempered, wounded father whose disappointment looms menacingly over his sons’ lives, while Jessica Chastain embodies the empathetic grace opposite his unstoppable nature. Though The Tree Of Life frames that conflict as eternal and universal, the movie also feels like it could all be taking place inside Malick’s head, in the best way possible. [Jesse Hassenger]

2. A Separation

All great drama is constructed from the same basic components: Conflicting self-interest among various individuals; misunderstandings with potentially tragic consequences; good intentions gone sour or awry. It’s the execution that matters, and few contemporary dramatists, in any medium, handle these elements with the dazzling complexity of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (whose most recent film, The Past, appears further down this list). A Separation begins with a middle-class couple, indelibly played by Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, opting to call it quits—a decision that radiates outward with alarming speed, initiating a chain of increasingly fraught events that are at once unforeseeable and inevitable, in the grand tradition of titans like Ibsen and Chekhov. In particular, the film depicts, with heartbreaking acuity and no judgment, the ways that parents unwittingly manipulate and even emotionally terrorize their kids, certain that they’re acting in the child’s best interest. A Separation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but that’s practically an insult—there wasn’t an English-language feature that year (or almost any year) that could touch it. If the rest of this decade hopes to produce a more acute understanding of human nature, best of luck to all comers. They’ll need it. [Mike D’Angelo]

1. The Master

Are we any closer now than we ever were to “solving” The Master? Two and a half years ago, when Paul Thomas Anderson first unfurled his 70 mm magnum opus, about all anyone could agree on was that a single viewing would not suffice. But to return to the film again and again—to get lost once more in the brilliant blue of its ocean imagery, or to shudder anew at the way Joaquin Phoenix twists his body and soul into strange new shapes—is to be continually confounded by the open-ended nature of its construction. That, of course, is one key to the bewitching spell Anderson casts. The writer-director sees everything from a father/son bond to a homoerotic romance to an American creation myth in the symbiotic friendship forged between Phoenix’s half-mad war veteran and a spiritual huckster played, brilliantly, by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And while the parallels to Scientology are even clearer in the wake of Going Clear, the director reserves a strange sympathy for Lancaster Dodd, even daring to wonder if his fabricated Cause might actually work. Mysterious as the pathologies it resists explaining, grand as the big questions it refuses to answer, The Master feels like the perfect marker for this half-elapsed decade. Check back in five years, when we’ll maybe be closer to cracking the code of Freddie Quell, or at least more enriched for having spent the time trying. [A.A. Dowd]