The films on this list, made a difference in the world of entertainment and beyond.
The most popular movies and the movies we love most aren’t always the ones that shape the industry, reflect the times or change the terms of cultural discourse — for better or worse.
‘American Sniper’ (2014)
Clint Eastwood’s drama about the life and death of the Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, released at Christmas in 2014, went on to dominate the next year, finishing on top of the domestic box office. It was the only release of the decade to accomplish that without being part of a franchise, a Disney property, or both. A testament to Eastwood’s mastery, the movie’s popularity challenged the fiction of a monolithically liberal Hollywood, even as it revealed the polarization of the American audience. With its pro-military, pro-gun flag waving — and fallen-warrior protagonist — “American Sniper” showed which way the political winds were howling.
‘The Avengers’ (2012)
Sequels weren’t new and neither were long, crowded, noisy superhero spectacles when this juggernaut landed. But “The Avengers,” released after Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Studios, was nonetheless a big industry bang: It heralded the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where we all now live whether we like it or not.
Many documentaries that aim to raise awareness of a problem in the world preach to the mindful choir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s exposé of the abuse of orca whales at SeaWorld changed public perception, corporate behavior and the law.
The shocking image of Maya Rudolph’s bride soiling her wedding dress made it clear that the director Paul Feig’s comedy — written by its star, Kristen Wiig, and Annie Mumolo — wasn’t just another smiley and sickly sweet wedding picture. The intestinal distress heard ’round the world helped demolish the sexist cliché that women can’t be funny. Yes, they can, laughing all the way to the bank. Just ask Melissa McCarthy, who went on to become one of the decade’s few genuine new movie stars.
When Elsa belted “Let It Go” in Disney’s animated musical, she didn’t only claim her power, she announced the might of the female moviegoing audience, itself one of the decade’s biggest industry stories. That audience helped make “Frozen” one of the highest-grossing animated releases in history, reviving and revising Disney’s fairy-tale tradition for a new generation.
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015)
The franchise, now part of the Disney Empire, struck back with J.J. Abrams at the helm. Inaugurating a new trilogy, this space opera tried to recapture the pop energy of the original three films, while finding more room for women and nonwhite characters. The result was globally popular, but it also stirred up a backlash that exposed — not for the first or last time — an ugly, reactionary undercurrent in modern fan culture.
Bong Joon Ho’s movie about a girl and her genetically modified super-pig was the Netflix release that shook up the industry, further blurring the divide between big and little screens. Its debut at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival set off a debate about Netflix’s place in cinema that continues to rage. Bong’s own cinematic standing, by contrast, only became more indisputable. Two years later, he returned to Cannes with “Parasite,” winning the top prize.
At the 89th Academy Awards, Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” made Oscar history: among its multiple firsts, the movie — a highly personal, low-budget project influenced by European and Asian art cinema — was the first best-picture winner from an African-American director. Its triumph signaled a shift in the industry after decades of systemic racism.
‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ (2013)
The second installment in the franchise based on Suzanne Collins’s Y.A. series cemented Jennifer Lawrence’s status as a global movie star and — with “Frozen,” another of that year’s hits — reconfirmed the power of women at the box office. “Catching Fire” also became the first female-led movie to top the yearly domestic box office in a very, very long time. Popular with boys as well as girls, Katniss Everdeen was a new kind of pop-culture archetype, a rebel and a warrior rather than a princess.
‘Get Out’ (2017)
Jordan Peele’s art-house freakout (and box-office breakout) is a brilliant genre mash-up — the supreme example of a new wave in horror cinema — as well as a ferocious rebuke to the (white) canard that the Obama era had ushered in a post-racial United States. Opening soon after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, it felt like an unnerving sign of the times, a blend of satire and horror so deft that it was hard to say which was which.