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.

“The Master” is, to my eyes, the best film of the decade so far, a beguiling masterpiece about how the search for answers, for companionship, for healing and for closure inevitably falls short. But if it’s the best, it’s not because of lack of competition. Several of the films in the top ten would be in my own, including Terrence Malick’s magnum opus “The Tree of Life” and Asghar Farhadi’s beautiful Chekhovian drama “A Separation,” which Mike D’Angelo praises here:

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 Pastappears 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. 

Farhadi’s fellow countryman Abbas Kiarostami also appeared in the top twenty, albeit with a film in the English, French and Italian languages rather than his native Persian. Nick Schager sings the virtues of “Certified Copy,” which features a career-best performance by the world’s greatest living actress:

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.

No decade list is complete without a great western, says I, and Kelly Reichardt’s brilliant “Meek’s Cutoff” hits number 21. Kiva Reardon writes:

Bonnets rarely take center stage in Westerns. Other than Nicolas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar,” this genre belongs to the 10-gallon hat and the man who rides off alone into the sunset wearing it. Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” addresses this gender gap by focusing on the often-forgotten women who lived on the frontier. Set in 1845, the film follows a group of pioneers trying to make the treacherous journey on the Oregon Trail, only to find themselves at the whims of a stubborn man who won’t admit he’s lost. Reichardt’s first (and so far only) foray into period-piece drama doesn’t succumb to mere dress-up; quiet and slow-moving, it evokes a mode of experiencing time that’s not often applied to visions of the Wild West. 

Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” made the list at number 11. It’s a great film, but I think his preceding film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” is even greater, though it only hit number 23 here. Jesse Hassenger writes:

Wes Anderson has often used child or teenage characters in his work, and perhaps more even more frequently, adults who act like children or teenagers. But the young-love story of “Moonrise Kingdom,” in which two 12-year-olds run away together on a quiet New England island in 1965, feels particularly keyed to the joys, frustrations, and loneliness of both childhood and adolescence. Similarly, the characters’ carefully arranged totems make a special amount of sense for a pair of tweens on a perilous adventure (Record player stolen from younger sibling? Check!). The movie makes clearer than ever that Anderson’s stylistic tics are his artistic tools, not affected hindrances. “Moonrise Kingdom” isn’t as wildly ambitious or layered as “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but the two films—one small, one country-hopping, both hilarious—complement each other perfectly. 

You can count on Ignatiy Vishnevetsky to write thoughtful takes on action movies, from the arthouse (“13 Assassins”) to Hollywood (“Edge of Tomorrow” is at number 100), and he writes in favor of the Joe Carnahan/Liam Neeson thriller “The Grey.”

No movie on this list (not even the next one down) feels more thoroughly and disturbingly obsessed with death than Joe Carnahan’s gritty dismantling of the wilderness survival tale, the best thing to come out of Liam Neeson’s late-career reinvention as an action star. Pitting a ragtag band of plane crash survivors—led by Neeson’s grizzled and, frankly, largely ineffectual Ottway—against wolves in the white nothingness of Alaska, Carnahan starts grim and then heads straight into existential bleakness. His approach is mythical (the wolves look like they belong in a European fairytale) and meditative; it subverts the story’s pulp origins without exactly betraying them. Man versus nature thrillers are typically about finding the will to live. This one is about what it means to die in a void.

Finally, the lower half of the last has a number of delightfully unexpected picks, from Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” to Steven Soderbergh’s great action flick “Haywire,” but perhaps the most unexpected is the appreciation of one of last year’s strongest, most distinctive debuts: Ramon Zurcher’s “The Strange Little Cat.” Vadim Rizov writes:

This is ostensibly the story of a fairly uneventful large family dinner in a small apartment, but writer-director Ramon Zürcher’s main interest is a very playful form of staging. The script was color-coded to indicate when people and objects would be on or off-screen, and the resulting placement makes for brain-teasing viewing. Occasionally interrupting the drama for montages of objects seen in preceding scenes, “The Strange Little Cat” gives inanimate presences the same dramatic weight as people, using visual language to make us stare harder at unexamined quotidian spaces.