Every December, I dissect some of my favorite sequences from my favorite movies of the year for a series called “And, Scene.” But because it is the end of the decade, I’m instead presenting my favorite moments from 10 of the best films of the 2010s. Many more could have made this list, and some I’ve written about in years past. What follows are cinematic memories that have stuck with me over 10 years of radical change for the movie industry.
The breakup, The Social Network (2010)
Aaron Sorkin’s script is the star of the first few minutes of David Fincher’s Mark Zuckerberg biopic. The scene is a typically tongue-twisty back-and-forth between the self-important Harvard student (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his weary girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), about his obsession with the university’s elite final clubs. Mark’s preening defensiveness and Erica’s dismissiveness lead to careless insults from him—so she dumps him. “You’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd,” Erica says. “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” The dialogue crackles, but what comes next is as important: Mark jogging through the dark campus back to his dorm as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s foreboding score builds in the background. The entire sequence is a perfect origin story for a decade fueled by Facebook, social anxiety, and, yes, seething male ego. Sorkin understands the hilarious cruelty of Zuckerberg’s rejection, while Fincher makes it feel like a brewing apocalypse.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that views creativity as a long, repetitive process defined by failure that often yields nothing of note. The Coen brothers’ movie finishes where it starts, with the struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) getting beaten up in an alley. In between, he goes on a cross-country odyssey in search of a cat, money, and any sign of life for his career. The film has the directors’ trademark dark humor and their skill with making the most circular conversations sound like deep philosophical discourse. Until this decade, the directors had rarely made art about making art; of late, as Hollywood’s output has further homogenized, it’s seemingly become all they care about. In Inside Llewyn Davis’s best and most crushing scene, Llewyn auditions for the imperious manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) by pouring his soul into an impassioned solo performance. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” Grossman replies, with sad but blunt finality. Llewyn returns to the Village and keeps performing, even as his situation stays the same. That’s his creative process—hoping that perhaps, one day, things will change.
“I’m not leaving,” The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
When Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes the microphone in front of his stockbroker employees late in The Wolf of Wall Street, he has already admitted to financial fraud and arranged a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He’s never shown much of a skill for anything except supreme self-confidence, which translates into the ability to sell worthless stocks to dopes over the phone. Jordan is the ultimate avatar of the pitiless power of wealth—because he has acres of money, he can behave like a god, and all of life’s punishments seem to slide off him as a result. That’s the mind-set that convinces Jordan that even though he’s a criminal who pleaded guilty, he’s not going to quit. Standing in front of his minions, Jordan channels his defiance into a scream of pride, one that rallies his troops around him in an orgy of self-delusion. The Wolf of Wall Street just might be the most trenchant film made about America’s past decade.
Messages from home, Interstellar(2014)
Christopher Nolan has long been obsessed with the ways in which film can stretch, squeeze, and reorder time. His breakout, Memento, had twin plots, one running backwards and the other forward, before meeting in the middle; his 2010 smash hit, Inception, followed a dream heist in which time dilates more the deeper you get into someone’s mind. Interstellar, Nolan’s purest and best work, is about the trials that await humanity in the future. So it makes sense that the film’s greatest villain is time, marching forward and claiming our lives, no matter what we do. In a pivotal twist, the hero, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is punished by the power of relativity. After a failed space mission near a black hole, Cooper returns to his craft to learn that 23 years have passed on Earth in his past few hours. He then watches message after message sent by his family, seeing his son’s entire adolescence flash before his eyes. It’s Nolan’s most human scene, girded by cold, scientific logic, and it’s performed beautifully by McConaughey.
The first date, Carol (2015)
The lunch date that happens early on in Todd Haynes’s Carol is prim, polite, and designed to look as formal as possible to deter any prying eyes. Haynes, who can charge the simplest conversation with deep meaning, uses that innocence to his advantage. “Would you like to come visit me this Sunday?” Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) asks her lunch companion, as if there’s only one answer. But Blanchett’s performance belies Carol’s vulnerability: The invitation is a dangerous proposition, one that her much younger acquaintance, Therese (Rooney Mara), has every reason to turn down. “Yes,” Therese responds with a smile, a disarming moment of guilelessness from a person who’s been introduced as shy and introverted. “What a strange girl you are … flung out of space,” Carol muses, as if unable to believe such kind people could exist in the world. Carol is a tale of love between two women fighting to exist together in an intolerant world; what sustains them is the indelible connection Haynes dramatizes here.
The first chase, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller’s dystopian epic, certainly the most influential action movie of the decade, begins with a black screen and the franchise’s enduring hero, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), hailing a world of “fire and blood.” Almost exactly 30 minutes later, the camera focuses on a burning flare fizzling out in the sand, before fading back to black. In between is the most extraordinary set piece I’ve ever seen: a violent, vehicular chase across the desert that doubles as a feverish bit of world building, immersing the viewer in a hellish future controlled by souped-up cars, sexual slavery, and a water-hoarding despot named Immortan Joe. As Max gets sucked up in a rebellion led by Joe’s lieutenant, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Miller lovingly crams the frame with baroque detail. Hollywood’s past decade has been dominated by franchise visions of the future; Fury Road’s is both the most thrilling and the most complete.
The sing-along, American Honey (2016)
The misfits who populate Andrea Arnold’s magnificent travelogue across the Midwest each get a moment or two to shine during American Honey’s 163-minute running time. Though the focus of the film is the aptly named Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage runaway who tags along with a crew of traveling magazine sellers trying desperately to make it in contemporary America, this is a story of the strange collective she joins. As the action winds to a close, they bundle into their van, Lady Antebellum’s song “American Honey” comes on the radio, and everyone starts to sing along. That song’s twangy musical celebration of a country that has failed all of the van’s passengers is enough to sustain everyone for another day. Arnold’s movie is a wonderful illustration of life on the bottom rung and how it can still be full of small joys.
The diner, Moonlight (2016)
At the end of Barry Jenkins’s superb film, two men come together to talk, though neither is entirely sure of the other’s intentions. Kevin (André Holland) has invited his long-lost friend, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), to meet him at a diner, despite the fact that they haven’t spoken since a traumatic incident separated them as teens. Chiron asks why Kevin finally reached out; the simple answer is that a piece of music triggered Kevin’s memory. “This dude came in; he played this song,” Kevin explains, before putting Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” on the jukebox, then standing and rubbing his neck. Jenkins’s film spends most of its running time examining how social realities such as addiction, prejudice, and fear can keep people apart, and how small acts of empathy and understanding can suddenly, magnetically unite them. In Moonlight’s finale, Jenkins saves the gentlest act for last, and it never fails to move me.
The open house, Lady Bird (2017)
Almost every moment between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in Greta Gerwig’s film is something to behold. Their relationship is an extended dissection of how children unwittingly wound their parents a thousand times a day, and vice versa. But my favorite moment between the two is also one of the quietest, and it comes late in the movie. After losing her virginity to the feckless Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), Lady Bird spirals and calls her mom to pick her up. The two then indulge in a shared passion: touring fancy open houses and imagining a luxurious life beyond their means. It’s a tender sequence in a film punctuated by family fighting and adolescent passions, and a scene rife with the kind of clever, humane detail that’s helped Gerwig stand out as a filmmaker this decade.
The nighttime visitor, Parasite (2019)
The cruel magic in Parasite’s big twist is the fact that the Kim family, who have slowly wormed their way into the home of the rich Park family, are good at their jobs. As each of the Kims becomes the Parks’ driver, tutor, maid, and child therapist, respectively, they never make a mistake. What dooms them isn’t their incompetence, but their heartlessness, namely their displacement of the Parks’ former maid, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun). While the Kims are celebrating their newfound success, Moon-gwang suddenly appears on their doorstep in the pouring rain. It’s a genuinely frightening sight, seeing the maid’s face pop up on the security camera, and the showdown that follows—during which Moon-gwang reveals that she’s been running a scam of her own—is thrillingly tense. But the entire sequence concludes with another brutal act, when the Kim matriarch (Chang Hyae Jin) casually kicks the maid down the stairs to avoid getting caught. Parasite is about the chaotic lives of the poor who get ignored across the income divide. It’s also a moral ghost story, one in which the Kims’ every misstep comes back to haunt them.