Ars Technica turns 21 at the end of this year, but film coverage on site can’t exactly purchase synthehol at the liquor store yet. Quietly, we’ve been reviewing movies on the Internet for 11 years now—a baker’s dozen years if reviews of 3D experiences count—starting with this Max Payne piece that certainly qualifies as criticism. But beginning in 2014, we made film a regular topic on site. And these days we annually bounce from SXSW to Fantastic Fest with plenty of regional film events in between.
Now, this ain’t Variety, and we do not write about everything (though we have covered Beauty and The Beast and The Jungle Book somehow). But Ars has quite a few highlights in the 2010s beyond just starting a dedicated culture section. We failed at Vulcan salutes with Jake Gyllenhall and Ryan Reynolds. We caught the premiere of a Academy Award-nominated movie at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Somehow, we even helped save a Star Wars-adjacent movie from obscurity (earning an IMDb credit and inspiring a full-length remake in the process).
So with the end of the decade rapidly approaching, we felt it was OK to indulge our film list-making impulses. This is not necessarily a Best Films of the decade list—undeniably great things like Lady Bird, Moonlight, The Master, Bridesmaids, et al. are fantastic films that do not really fall within our narrow wheelhouse of science, technology, and genre fare. It is not a list of the Most Important films, either, as this decade of streaming’s rise, female directors taking the reins, continued globalization of cinema, and a golden era for documentaries can likely be better explained elsewhere in the cinema-centric press. But the following is definitely a list of the stuff from the last decade that continues to come up in conversation around the Orbital HQ years later, and presumably these films will be forever fixtures of our streaming queues going forward.
So with apologies to the many close calls that felt too small (Anna and The Apocalypse, The Guilty, Love & Saucers, Who Is Arthur Chu?), too popcorn-y (pick your Fast and Furious installment, Stuber, Annihilation, Pacific Rim), or just too-good-but-not-great in the face of this competition (Zootopia, Inception, The Lobster), here are Ars’ “ten” favorites, in alphabetical order:
Arrival (2016) / Gravity (2013) / Hidden Figures (2017) / The Martian (2015)
A new space race
It’s probably not a coincidence that during a decade when the most important and impactful technological change may prove to be the rise of the private space industry, audiences were treated to a renaissance of space cinema, too. It turns out a great space movie does not have to involve intergalactic war or precise period piece drama (though we all underrated First Man, folks).
If you want utter spectacle in the most realistic way possible, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity may have been the in-theater experience of the decade. The vastness of space has never been more vivid, even if some of the details may have irked our resident space purists. The Matt Damon-led The Martian somehow made the intricacies of growing crops in space exciting, continuing the trend of excellent science fiction that leaned heavily into the science.
No one knew linguistics was this fascinating back in 2016, but Arrival just might be the overall best movie of the decade with the way it cleverly examines what we believe while simultaneously delivering a tense, gripping sci-fi story. And Hidden Figures puts the familiar period-piece lens on an overlooked part of space history without glossing over the ugly bits while still feeling hopeful for what science and technology can achieve when the best and brightest can participate. Add any number of other fine space movies to this lot—Interstellar, Ad Astra, etc.—but this quartet revived a cinematic subset Ars will always have a fondness for.
Black Panther (2018) / Logan (2017) / Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) / Wonder Woman (2017)
Something different in a decade of superheroes
The 2010s will undeniably go down as the decade of superheroes. By no means did it start here (the Nolan Batman trilogy began in the 2000s, as did the MCU with Iron Man in 2008), but it became an expanded universe, cinematic event these last 10 years. The first Avengers hit in 2012, and box offices haven’t looked back since.
Picking favorites among the standard superhero fare feels impossible. Your preferences of memorable Spider-Man (Into the Spider-Verse), Iron-Man (Iron Man 2), Captain America (Winter Soldier), or other regulation superhero flicks (Ragnarok ever-so-slightly over the original Deadpool?) may just depend on which hero your childhood allegiances line up toward. The true superteam event releases marked something slightly different and spectacular (Avengers: End Game over the original Guardians by a hair). But the caped crusades we’ll remember a decade or two from now all busted out of the familiar formula to some degree.
Black Panther showed not only was there audience appetite for a big-budget black superhero flick, but there was appetite for one that grappled with modern societal challenges like isolationism, oppression, and technological disparity. Logan took a hero long familiar to film-goers and turned the tropes of a superhero film into a Western that comments on universal themes like aging and the human condition in the process. And while Wonder Woman may be the most straightforward super-hero-y of the three, it showed a female-led comic book conquest was worth doing, especially when it leveraged well-executed period-piece elements with delightful sidekick chemistry. For the future of the then-beleaguered DC Comics entertainment arm, Wonder Woman also proved everything didn’t have to be dark and brooding in order to reach an audience (all the fun being had in HBO’s Watchmen seems to indicate DC took the hint).
And, OK, it’s not a traditional superhero movie, but we couldn’t make an of-the-decade film list and exclude Mad Max: Fury Road entirely. Like more traditional caped-crusader flicks, this is an existing IP with an established hero that got a reimagining decades after the original. It starts with a very super villain-y evil plot (our titular hero is being sucked for blood to heal the bad-team War Boys; another hero has to help a group of women known as the Five Wives escape forced procreations). The film also offers extremely satisfying set pieces and action, plus ultimately some reveals that change how we previously understood our main character. Finally, perhaps most like the trio above, this newest Mad Max film took a decidedly different approach to its familiar post-apocalyptic world. Max Rockatansky may be back (invigorated by Tom Hardy), but the star of the show is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the post-apocalyptic female hero sci-fi action fans deserve.
Listing image by Peter Opaskar