When the history books are written, it’s a pretty safe bet that the 2010s will go down as one of the all-time great periods for cinema. That remains true even as we continue to debate the actual definition of the word. But even as strong a decade the 2010s have been for movies, they’ve been particularly good for movies designed to make viewers uneasy.
Call them horror movies, or thrillers, or psychological dramas with socio-sexual undertones — the movies that have brought the madness and the menace over the past decade have done so with arguably unparalleled insight and artistry. As such, it hardly seems fair to even attempt to assemble a single list of the decade’s best and bleakest, but that’s just what we’ve done here. From wildly unconventional sci-fi creepers to twisted tales of demonic possession, we’ve got a little something to unnerve even the savviest of shock-adoring cineastes. These are the most disturbing movies of the past decade.
Under the Skin (2014)
If you’ve entered the earth-shattering rabbit hole that is Jonathan Glazer’s music video oeuvre, you already know the director has a particular penchant for pushing boundaries with unsettling imagery and ominous tones. One might even say Glazer revels in the bewildering as few directors dare. It’s only natural, then, that he’d continue weaving challenging images and disturbing themes into his feature films.
Few would argue that Glazer hadn’t already tested some serious boundaries with 2000’s searing crime drama Sexy Beast and 2004’s psychosexual mystery Birth, but neither of those films could even begin to prepare us for how far Glazer would push things with 2013’s Under the Skin.
It’s a full-on assault on the senses from its opening moments to its last. It features a revelatory performance from Scarlett Johansson that’s about as far from the MCU as you can get. And that there’s a scene about halfway through this movie that’s so relentlessly unnerving you’ll struggle not to turn it off. Keep watching, though, because even if Under the Skin often feels like a movie you survive more than watch, crossing the finish line on this extraterrestrial odyssey is also one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences you’d ever hope to endure.
Enter the Void (2010)
Argentinian filmmaker Gaspar Noé has made quite a reputation for himself over the years. More than just about any other director with a film on this list, Noé has made it his personal quest to shock and provoke. He broke minds and pushed viewers to the limit with the hyper-violent, emotionally punishing reverse narrative of 2002’s Irreversible, but it seems he had a different sort of head trip in mind for his third offering, 2009’s hallucinatory pseudo-afterlife drama Enter the Void.
Noé opens the action with a drug-dealing French expat with a penchant for wild hallucinogens meeting his end in a Tokyo bar. Upon death, his soul is cast free of his body and meanders through the film with an unknown goal in mind. Noé captures said soul’s every meandering, post-life moment in full-on POV mode, his camera floating in and out of moments, memories, and molecules like an omnipotent specter. And yes, that boldly stylistic approach is as breathtakingly brilliant and immersive as it is doggedly disconcerting, with Noé taking his camera/character places one might wish they’d never been. The result is a film that’s as oddly calming and thought-provoking as it is vividly adversarial — not to mention as mind-bogglingly original as any film produced in the past decade.
The Babadook (2014)
When the director of one of the greatest horror movies in cinematic history claims your film is the scariest movie they’ve ever seen, you know you’ve done something special. So it was that when the legendary William Friedkin — the man behind The Exorcist — started telling people that Jennifer Kent’s 2014 indie The Babadook "will scare the hell out of you," well, genre lovers the world immediately took notice.
Friedkin wasn’t lying. Possessed of a singular sense of eerie, The Babadook tells the story of a single mother struggling to raise a son with some serious emotional issues. Of course, given that the woman’s husband died en route to the child’s birth, it’s clear that both mother and son have some deep rooted issues to work through, issues that complicate their lives further when a horrifying children’s book called Mister Babadook appears in their home.
As Kent slowly begins to unwind her unholy creepfest, a surprising narrative begins to take shape — one that insightfully explores heavy emotional themes about surviving trauma and the struggles of being a single parent with a devastatingly unrelenting case of depression. As it happens, The Babadook is also a first-rate monster movie with more genuine scares than your average genre fare. Yes, The Babadook will "scare the hell out of you," but it’ll leave your heart in your throat too.
According to writer-director Ari Aster, his brutalist 2018 shocker Hereditary is really just a little family drama at its core. But that’s sort of like calling Jaws a charming tale of fish out of water. So yes, while we really cannot argue that Hereditary isn’t a family drama, we also want to be crystal clear that Hereditary is not just a family drama.
Still, true to Aster’s statement, Hereditary initially presents itself as an atypical sort of indie drama about a family in grief. As the film unfolds, a deep, dark past begins to rise to the surface, and Hereditary spirals giddily into a pulse-pounding supernatural nightmare simply you have to see to believe. Just be warned that you’ll never be able to unsee Hereditary.
In case you haven’t experienced it for yourself, we’ll simply say you’ll know the precise moment when Aster flips the proverbial switch from family drama to full-blown family tragedy. You’ll know because the moment it happens is easily one of the most shocking in the history of cinema. Aster is just getting warmed up in that moment, and Hereditary is about to get darker and heavier in ways you simply cannot fathom. It’s a brutal, exhausting affair, but if you manage to stick with Hereditary, you’ll bear witness to not just one of the great horror movies of the decade, but of all time.
With Ari Aster’s Hereditary immediately raising the bar for genre filmmakers young and old, it seemed unlikely that anyone would top the film in terms of unadulterated, head-rolling shock value for the foreseeable future. Seems the only person capable of even coming close was Aster himself. While Midsommar may not quite match Hereditary in terms of shocks and scares, it may well be the better film in terms of soul-crushing emotional impact and mercilessly ominous energy.
Of course, to hear Aster tell it, Midsommar is a relatively straightforward "breakup movie." Believe us when we say that Midsommar is a "breakup movie" in the same way that Hereditary is a "family drama." Which means that it’s not really a breakup movie at all.
The relationship in question belongs to Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), and if ever there was a couple in need of a breakup, it’s them. But nothing is ever that easy in the worlds of Ari Aster, and from the torturous opening moments of Midsommar, the director is out to turn the screws of the pair’s doomed relationship in increasingly twisted ways. By the time the couple and their pals get to the titular Swedish festival, fates are effectively sealed — though nothing can even remotely prepare you for the gory, sun-drenched mayhem Aster has in store for the rest of the film.
Like several of the filmmakers with frightful flicks on this list, Lars von Trier has developed a bit of a reputation for making shamelessly confrontational films that tend to be quite difficult to watch. Over the years, von Trier and his movies have been labeled many things by fans and detractors alike. Whether you love or hate his bracingly combative (though often refreshingly bold and stunningly beautiful) approach to cinema, the one label most can agree that the walls of Lars von Trier’s films are typically papered with a caustic layer of nihilism. His 2011 sci-fi drama Melancholia finds the director at his most nihilistic, and also at his stylistic height.
The film follows a pair of sisters (career-best work from both Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg), each struggling to keep their lives together though mankind has recently been made aware that a big blue planet is on a collision course with Earth, and the world will soon cease to exist. Separated into chapters, Melancholia opens with one of the saddest weddings ever committed to film. It ends with the Earth literally being obliterated. The moments in between offer glimpses of lovingly crafted moments of pre-doom bliss, and equally dour explorations of the sisters’ lives once they learn the end is nigh. Somewhere in the mix, von Trier delivers a lavishly photographed if emotionally draining apocalyptic drama that’s as hard to watch as it is to look away from.
Prior to helming 2016’s Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson spent the decade prior making a name for himself among genre enthusiasts. He caught our attention with 2005’s possession drama The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but it was 2012’s Sinister that proved Derrickson a horror purist of the first order. Though too many slept on Sinister upon release, it’s still one of the more genuinely effective thrillers you’ll ever see — even if it admittedly leans a little too often on classic horror tropes.
The film follows the story of a washed up true-crime author (the always great Ethan Hawke) who moves his family into a house where a grisly crime has taken place so he can research the events up close and personal. Unfortunately, when he finds an old box of Super 8 snuff films in his attic, well, the man and his family get a little closer to the truth than anyone would’ve wanted.
Be warned that those 8mm films are likely to cost you a few nights of sleep. But they’re only a small part of what makes Sinister such a blackhearted delight. The film is at its best when wallowing in ominous tones and gritty gothic imagery, and Derrickson makes the most of Sinister‘s menacing aura, taking a perverse sort of pleasure in the film’s slow-burn approach and pulling the blood-stained rug out from viewers in a finale that’ll have you peeking through your sweaty palms in unfettered fear and dispiriting anticipation.
It can often be quite difficult to decipher exactly what it is about a movie that gets under your skin. In the case of Julia Ducournau’s astonishing first feature Raw, it’s a little easier to figure out, because Ducournau essentially spends the entirety of the film’s 100-minute runtime unleashing a near-constant deluge of sounds and images and scenarios that could potentially set one off.
That’s not to say Raw is a mile-a-minute, shock-for-the-sake-of-shock gorefest. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Ducournau takes a decidedly steady-handed approach to her film, doling out the shocks as they come while quietly delivering a vicious, unapologetically sexy college drama that legitimately turns the genre on its head.
We should tell you upfront that the film follows the trials of a young university student who unexpectedly finds herself with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. So even if Raw isn’t the all-out bloodletting you might expect from such a setup, much of the action is likely turn your stomach on its head as well. But instead of reveling in gory effects and schlocky scares, Ducourneau takes a humanistic approach to Raw‘s shocking story, only using the gore to bolster a witty, insightful character study that becomes — against all obvious odds — a compelling (if frequently appalling) coming-of-age drama about cannibalism.
Upstream Color (2012)
There are filmmakers who rely on jump scares and fake blood to get under an audience’s skin, and those who believe austere imagery, ominous overtones, and the illusion of the sinister are just as effective. Shane Carruth is of the latter school, and Upstream Color more than proves this.
Now, we’re not going to bore you by trying to explain what Upstream Color is about, if only because entire thesis papers could be written on that particularly slippery subject. If we’re being completely honest, we’d offer that Upstream Color is a film less concerned with what it’s about than what it can make you feel — and there’s seemingly no end to what Carruth can achieve on that particular front.
To that point, we’ll simply say that the film follows a woman (the brilliant Amy Seimetz) who — after being parasitically hypnotized by a thief and having her entire life looted — is left with a ruined future and no memory of what happened. She meets a man (played by Carruth) with a similar story, and as they futilely try to piece together their individual miseries, they stumble upon a truth beyond imagination. What follows is nothing short of a deeply paranoid cinematic assault on the senses that simply has to be experienced to be believed. Just know Upstream Color is a decidedly unnerving experience that will have you scratching your head for days, months, even years after the credits roll.
Set in an isolated, mountainous region of Europe circa the 15th century, Lukas Feigelfeld’s gothic nightmare Hagazussa propels itself forward at a sub-glacial clip that would certainly seem geared toward mimicking the pace of life in such a region. While the film wholly succeeds at capturing the slow pace of life in the hills, Feigelfeld also uses that pacing to cast a hypnotic sort of spell over viewers.
That won’t be broken until the film’s stomach-churning final moments. En route to that beyond brutal finale, Feigelfeld uncorks a pitch-black folk tale about a single woman with a pagan past trying to survive the wilderness and raise her infant daughter in relative peace. Of course, when your neighbors live in constant fear of magics and spirits and witchcraft, the natural world is far from your most dangerous foe.
Fueled by a relentlessly paranoid sense of calm and enough gothic imagery to spook Mary Shelley, Hagazussa proves itself a singularly sinister slice of genre cinema. While it’s certain to test the patience of those seeking to sate their bloodlust with schlocky scares, Feigelfeld brings the hammer down with such visceral force in Hagazussa‘s final act that the film is certain to haunt the minds of any viewers who make it to the end for years to come.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that Hollywood loves a good story of rebellious, whip-smart youths generally running amok. While classics like Rebel Without a Cause, A Clockwork Orange, and Spring Breakers have kept the bar for such fare raised perpetually high over the years, Corey Finley’s Thoroughbreds proves there’s still room for one of cinema’s favorite subgenres to grow — even if it’s clearly destined to grow darker these days.
At the center of Finley’s pitch-black dramedy is a pair of upper-crust Connecticut teens who exist on opposing ends of the emotional spectrum. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) feels everything too strongly, while Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is incapable of feeling anything. When the estranged friends are reunited in Finley’s narrative, they find they’re each losing control of their lives, and are uniquely equipped to help each other out.
That help comes at a cost, as the girls’ one shot at liberation involves a deviously violent plan. While it propels Thoroughbreds‘ narrative forward, it’s hardly the focal point of the film, with Finley instead using it to craft a penetrating character study about a pair of brilliant but tragically fractured young minds.
The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
Horror movies are essentially designed to take audiences into the dark corners of the world and show them the unspeakable things that tend to happen there. Sometimes that dark corner is a physical place (see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Other times it’s a place in the mind (see The Cell). Nicholas Pesce’s grisly debut The Eyes of My Mother is the rare case where mind and place converge to explore one of the darkest corners ever captured on film.
The Eyes of My Mother doesn’t start out that way. In fact, the film’s opening moments are surprisingly serene, with a girl and her family living in relative peace on an isolated farm. But Pesce takes a sledgehammer to that idyllic life early in the action. When he does, The Eyes of My Mother goes dark in ways that words simply cannot convey — ways that ensure the film will stay burned into your brain for all eternity.
We’d wager you’ve heard whispers of the film’s vivid depictions of violence, torture, and gore. While the film (shot in stunning black and white) is unflinching in its depiction of such acts, the most gruesome deeds tend to occur offscreen — though that only heightens viewers’ reactions. Pesce further deepens the darkness by using the fragile, emotionless beauty of star Kika Magalhães against viewers in service of turning The Eyes of My Mother into a piercing character study about trauma, and soul-consuming loneliness.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
Speaking of soul-crushing loneliness, it’s the main culprit at work in Oz Perkins (son of Psycho‘s Anthony) relentlessly bleak possession film The Blackcoat’s Daughter. That being said, there is a mysterious evil force running amok in the film that may or may not have claimed the soul of The Blackcoat’s Daughter central character and forced her into performing unconscionable acts of violence.
Demons and possessions aside, loneliness and isolation really are the driving forces at play in The Blackcoat’s Daughter. The film unfolds largely on the grounds of an all-girls Catholic school somewhere in the far distant north. When two of the girls (Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton) are stranded there over winter break (one believing certain calamity has befallen her parents, the other facing a difficult choice of her own), things get weird very quickly with the younger girl apparently being possessed by some unseen demonic presence.
Meanwhile, a parallel narrative finds a grieving couple picking up a desperate young woman (Emma Roberts) at a bus stop, not knowing she’s an escaped mental patient. These narratives will eventually converge in wickedly clever fashion, and to utterly heartbreaking effect. Perkins controls the action every step of the way with a steady hand and singular vision, building a suffocating sense of atmospheric dread into every frame of the film. In doing so, he delivers a deeply humanistic supernatural tragedy, and one of the darkest possession films we’ve ever seen.
There’s a general upping of the ante built into narrative framework of most horror movies, because said movies require the action get bloodier and more brutal simply to raise the stakes for characters trapped within. Darren Aronofsky‘s mother! is a horror film so wholly consumed by the concept of upping the ante that it very nearly collapses in on itself in service of its reckless narrative ambition.
While there’s a palpable sense of unease running through the film, and patently horrific moments throughout, it’s probably a bit unfair to label mother! a horror film. If we’re being completely honest, mother! doesn’t fit neatly into any single genre — because there’s never really been a movie quite like it before, and we’re still not sure how Aronofsky got such a brazenly over-the-top freak show made.
We’re glad he did, though, because Aronofsky’s frenzied tale of a couple’s idyllic existence being demolished by increasingly bizarre incurrences from the outside world is about as much deviously gonzo fun you can have in a panic-inducing movie. Even if we’ve come to expect a certain level of button-pushing from Aronofsky over the years, mother! finds the director pushing boundaries further than ever. In doing so, he crafted a harrowing cinematic allegory unlike any film that’s come before… and likely anything that’ll come after.
Sometimes it’s not so much the story a film tells that puts one off ease more than it is the characters who populate it. If you’ve already seen Dan Gilroy’s searing news-cycle satire Nightcrawler, you know full well that Lou Bloom is one of those characters. You also know that the reason the character (and the film itself) is so unsettling is because of abhorrently abrasive energy Jake Gyllenhaal brings to the role.
Though Gyllenhaal’s work in Nightcrawler was ignored by the Academy, his turn as the morally vacuous Lou Bloom remains not just one of the best performances of that year, but of his lauded career. Nightcrawler may well be the best film the actor has ever starred in — though it’s undoubtedly the most intrinsically disturbing.
On the surface, Nightcrawler is a relatively straightforward indictment of the "it bleeds, it leads" mantra that’s tended to dominate the media cycle in recent years. The film unfolds among the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, and finds Gyllenhaal’s Bloom attempting to make a name for himself in the world of freelance crime journalism. En route to his meteoric rise to infamy, Bloom perversely begins to eradicate the line between eyewitness to tragedy and willing participant. Bolstered by crackling writing and direction from Gilroy, Gyllenhaal’s entrancingly soulless work as Bloom transforms Nightcrawler from satire into a full-blown creepshow about a modern vampire with a most troubling taste for on-camera blood.
The Neon Demon (2016)
Prior to beginning production on The Neon Demon, his 10th feature film, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn had already established himself as a stylish cinematic provocateur on a level with fellow agitators Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé. With boldly stylized flicks like Pusher, Drive, and Only God Forgives, he’d also singled himself out from his brethren as a filmmaker wholly obsessed with seedy pulp dramas dressed up in stark, neon-drenched visuals. Though it remains a divisive film even among Refn’s fanbase, The Neon Demon is essentially the culmination of everything that’s made Refn such an intriguing artistic force.
Oddly enough, The Neon Demon also features one of Refn’s least compelling setups: a pretty young woman moves to L.A. in the hopes of becoming a model. The wickedness Refn spins from that simplistic setup is nothing short of genre genius, with the city and all the sex and beauty-obsessed who run it literally feasting on the impetuous woman’s youthful vitality even as they wax poetic on what beauty really is. Visually arresting, amorally fanciful, and often gruesomely realistic, The Neon Demon is basically everything Nicolas Winding Refn does well turned up to 11, and love it or hate it, the film remains one of the more deeply jarring portraits of couture culture the movies have ever presented.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Structured as a near-kaleidoscopic look at tragedies past and present, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film less concerned with the mechanics and motivations of the fateful act at its core — a mass killing in a school — than it is with the lives behind it. As such, the film focuses much of its narrative energy on a mother (Tilda Swinton) and her son Kevin, who will one day be the architect of the unthinkable tragedy.
The film follows the pair’s troubled relationship from birth, and finds Swinton giving one of the finest performances of her career as a mother who desperately tries to love her son even as his psychopathic behaviors become more pronounced with age. It’s a perilous landscape, with Ramsay deftly walking the tightrope between humanizing and demonizing Kevin even as the film struggles to find balance toward the tragic mother who always saw the evil within.
As the film jumps back and forth in time, exploring the aftermath of the violence in equal discourse with the prelude, a soul-shaking sense of dread takes hold, and We Need to Talk About Kevin becomes a fractured mirror designed to reflect an austere sickness consuming the world around us. Wisely, Ramsay offers no remedy, and instead leaves us to wallow in the mess we — as a society — seem destined to keep cleaning up.