This week, I’ve been counting down the best films of the decade, fifty films at a time. Here are entries #350-301.
- Creed II
Creed II is the perfect legacy sequel; drawing from the hoaky subtext of Rocky IV and setting it within the same tone of the first Creed film, this is a sequel that fleshes out and expands the rivalries between the Balboa, Drago, and Creed families into a complex of competing legacies and sons living in the wake of their fathers. Stallone and Michael B. Jordan once again bring their A-Game, but it’s surprisingly Dolph Lundgren who steals the show; while his character in Rocky IV was nothing more than a one-note cartoon, the ramifications of the character’s failure make for an interesting take on someone who has lost the respect of all around him.
Ted Kennedy is unquestionably a complicated figure who deserves a nuanced portrayal, and Chappaquiddick takes the time to be thorough in its depiction of the event that would shape his legacy; the details of the evidence are laid out in excruciating detail, as is the pressure put on Kennedy himself, who has inherited a burden and privilege from his family and stands as their last hope for the presidency.
- The Neon Demon
In many ways, Nicolas Winding Refn’s depiction of the backstabbing, violent underbelly of the glamorous appeal of Los Angeles is pure schlock, but he also isn’t trying to fool us; the neon lighting and glitzy slickness makes for the perfect contrast with the stark violence of his images, and Elle Fanning’s transformation from the epitome of innocence into another brick in the Hollywood machine ranks as some of her best work.
- The Wife
Glenn Close’s performance is one of righteous fury; her restrained, quiet behavior for the majority of the film sets the stage for an explosive burst of energy that represents a lifetime of pent of frustrations. Jonathan Banks is similarly brilliant in his restraint, as his character’s seemingly minor offenses build towards the depiction of a true monster.
While many period pieces struggle with drawing us into a different place and time, 1950s New York comes alive with this story, and serves as the perfect backdrop for this story of first love, one that excites with the energy of youth before striking us down with the reality of adulthood and the consequences of its period.
It’s easy to dismiss Youth as pretentious, but this equivalent of a cinematic collage finds Michael Caine’s character at the intersection of both old age and the end of his professional career, and his lack of fulfillment in both make for a searing criticism of jaded perspectives and a jarring celebration of sensuality. Purposefully obtuse in parts, and often deliberately shocking, Youth is a film that attacks the senses on all fronts, a truly complete picture.
How did a Dredd remake manage to be this great? Stripping away all the camp of the previous films, Dredd pits the titular anti-hero in a blood-soaked, feature length Die Hard set piece that finds an urban, violent grittiness at the backdrop of a sci-fi utopia. The setup is beyond simple, and all the film needs to succeed is consistently stellar action and a mean, grizzled performance from Karl Urban- Dredd succeeds on both counts.
The opening plane crash is one of the most effective and terrifying plane crashes I’ve ever seen; at first we can only view this feat as an insurmountable feat of heroism, and it’s a testament to the excellent screenplay that we’re able to view the plane’s captain in a different light as the film strips away the details that led to that fateful day. To say Denzel Washington is great isn’t shocking, but this is definitely one of the best performances from one of the best actors of all-time.
- Goodbye Christopher Robin
When we talk about stories as a coping method, a film like Goodbye Christopher Robin holds great value- it’s a story about how an entire generation remains haunted by war, and how their difficulty coping inadvertently affected the generations hence. The fact that the stories of A.A. Milne emerged from this is incredible, and Goodbye Christopher Robin tells his story with grace.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
Yes, it’s flawed, but you have to admire the audacity of Joss Whedon’s vision here, and how he’s able to feed so many mouths here, from the poignant Hulk and Blac Widow relationship to the awe inspiring introduction of the Vision. What other modern blockbuster would end with the dialogue that “something isn’t beautiful because it lasts,” and concludes that perhaps humanity is doomed to repeat our own failures?
- Incredibles 2
Perhaps it’s not as revolutionary as the first film was, but Incredibles 2 is still a stunning animated achievement, because Brad Bird treats animation just like a live action film. The action feels grounded in a genuine sense of scale and scope, as evidenced by a brilliant motorcycle chase featuring Elastigirl, and the family dynamics are as fun as ever- this superhero take on Mr. Mom puts Mr. Incredible up against the perils of parenthood, when he’d rather join his wife in fighting evil.
- Nocturnal Animals
The “story within a story” framing device is used expertly here, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, an author, presents his new novel to his ex-wife, Amy Adams. As the dark and punishingly uncomfortable brutality of the story within the story plays out, we begin to understand the seeds that destroyed their marriage, and the film’s sharp transitions to the real world make for cutting satire.
- Rules Don’t Apply
Warren Beatty certainly made a choice in making one of his final leading roles that of Howard Hughes, and it’s an endearing portrayal; Hughes’s eccentricities are fun to start off, but we soon learn of their grating nature and how his insistence of control over people and events made him blissfully out of touch with all that surrounds him.
- This Is Where I Leave You
A film that deals with the chaos of family dysfunction with an oddly deft comic touch; it has the style and accessibility of a studio comedy, but without cynicism, and whilst utilizing the best of its cast’s comedic talent, it also doesn’t shy away from the ugly and the serious. Adam Driver is a standout as the jovial younger brother of the family, whose carelessness extends to smoking weed at his own father’s funeral.
- Mary Poppins Returns
I’ve seen the original Mary Poppins more times than I can count, and the 2018 follow up gets the most important element right- it’s a musical! It should be fun! Indeed, the musical sequences are tremendous, and in an age of technical wizardry, its saying something that the film can make the scenes of childlike wonder magical without feeling antiquated.
- Danny Collins
No one will argue that Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors of all-time, with a lineup of performances only rivaled by his frequent co-star Robert De Niro, but his choice in films for the past twenty years has been disappointing, to say the least. This is the best work he’s done in years- washed up and self indulgent, the character puts Pacino right in a compelling redemption tale- he’s equally compelling in his eccentric stage performances and the touching scenes with his estranged son Bobby Cannavale.
- Silver Linings Playbook
This is a film where every actor is playing a character that helps define their career; Bradley Cooper plays a more nuanced take on the goofy frat-bro performance that permeated his early career as a guy who has trouble coping, Jennifer Lawrence channels the neurotic nature of some of her early work into an emotionally, messy vulnerable role, and the great Robert De Niro gets his best role in years as the screaming old man whose perhaps the most sane one there.
- War Machine
There’s a tragedy to which War Machine depicts its main character; while it’s obviously intended to be a satirical portrayal of General Glen McMahon (based on the real General Stanley McChrystal), Brad Pitt’s performance is often goofy, founded in somewhat misplaced idealism, and not malicious. As the film itself blatantly states by the end, if it wasn’t McMahon doing what he did, it would be someone else doing the same exact thing.
Contagion has a massive cast- Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Gwneyth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, John Hawkes, and that’s just to name a few! By having such a huge ensemble of recognizable faces, Stephen Soderbergh attempts to show the depth of how a pandemic affects a population, and his hyperlink style of balancing a cast wouldn’t work if each actor didn’t bring something to the table.
- Boy Erased
It’s easy to understand Boy Erased and its message, but it’s not just the grim orderly nature of which the film depicts gay conversion therapy that makes the film effective, but the population that it appears to be reaching out to. Perhaps change is a hard thing to force upon a traditional community, but Boy Erased shows the urgency with which it’s necessary, and how no ideology preaching goodwill can condone the denial of identity.
The Captain Sully story is a great one, but it seems like it would be a hard thing to base an entire around. In Sully, Clint Eastwood takes a look at how one moment of heroism may forever change a normal life- Sully was a normal guy who was thrust into the media spotlight and speculated about to no end, a strange price to pay for someone who was just doing their job.
- Pawn Sacrifice
Tobey Maguire slowly dipped out of the public spotlight, which is a great shame, because he truly is a great actor; his role as Bobby Fischer in Pawn Sacrifice starts as one that feels like the sort of obtuse, yet charismatic role he may have played ten years ago, but transforms into a hypnotic obsessive who requires victory as validation. Maguire is able to seamlessly transition between inspiring and scary.
A heartbreaking story of lost childhood at the crux of Hollywood’s golden era, Judy is a way of realizing Judy Garland’s legacy as it was, and not how it was framed to be.
A performance showcase for three of the best actresses of the decade; the docudrama style from Jay Roach makes the sickening elements all the more intimate and the tension all the more pervasive. In the best moments, our knowledge of the real events subsides and we’re caught up in the story the film is showing us.
No one would ever accuse Oliver Stone of being a subtle filmmaker, but at the same time, you could never accuse him of being dispassionate; Stone goes to extreme lengths to show how the secrecy and corruption within the NSA slowly nags away at the mind of Edward Snowden, and how his distrust overtime led to the actions that made him notorious.
- Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers take on the postwar period of Old Hollywood that generated the rise of movie star egos, studio politics, and all sorts of new genres (from musicals to westerns to biblical epics) isn’t necessarily an always optimistic love letter, but as Josh Brolin’s character resolves by the end, it’s a place like no other, and perhaps it’s a good place to celebrate the nihilism of real life. Future Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich, who’s the most unknown person in the entire cast, steals the entire film as a goofy cowboy who is forced to become a serious actor (as evidenced by the rest of this list, I’m a fan of the guy).
Fences is by no means the best performance that Denzel Washington has ever given, but he sure is doing a lot of acting here. It’s a juicy, theater role of a father whose both a provider and destructive force within his family, and with virtually no visual invention, Washington wrings all the dramatic potential out of the role as his command every frame of our attention.
Forget Frozen, THIS is the Disney musical of the decade. Revamping the classic Rapunzel tale as a journey of self exploration for the princess character, Tangled seems like a response to the sort of veil around innocence that Disney puts over its lead characters. And yes, the soundtrack is an absolute banger.
- Private Life
Private Life seems like a completely undramatized take on middle aged glumness, as seen through the eyes of a couple played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hayn; at what point are you past your prime, at what point do all your lost experiences lead to something, and when do we blame you for no longer trying?
My pick for one of the most underrated science fiction films of all-time; while it has some familiar themes, Oblivion is a work of visual poetry, expanding a post-apocalyptic wasteland into an idiosyncratic fable of a paradise, and instills fear into Tom Cruise’s lead character as his fear of answers amidst his own isolation prove to be warranted.
- Dark Waters
Mark Ruffalo is fantastic as real life lawyer turned whistleblower Robert Bilott; he’s able to exemplify great diligence and intelligence whilst feeling the weight of a world of responsibilities on his shoulders.
- Iron Man 3
SPOILER ALERT: The twist in Iron Man 3 where “The Mandarin” is a figurehead created to draw out xenophobic fears in order to mask covert business and political corruption is one of the most brilliant decisions in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe; what better way to adapt a racist stereotype than to recreate him as a villain that reflects the terrorism of today?
- Mr. Holmes
A character like Sherlock Holmes has been done so many times that it’s nearly impossible to have a new take, so Mr. Holmes asks what happens when Sherlock Holmes can’t trust his own memories anymore. A touching take on nostalgia, legacy, and fulfillment, Ian McKellen is damn near perfect as the world’s greatest sleuth.
- Mississippi Grind
An update of the Paul Newman classic The Hustler for today, Mississippi Grind is a bleak and realistic portrayal of gambling- behind every win is another opportunity, behind every defeat is a step down to Earth, and in this world everything seems temporary. Ben Mendelsohn is on another level here- this is a performance wrought with the rebellious charisma that evokes all the greats- Ford, Brando, Bogart, and of course Newman.
An action thriller based on true events, ‘71 shows the ramifications of chaotic spectacle in a real environment, and the resulting violence and terror sparked by a riot makes for one of the most gruesome and gripping “survive the night” thrillers ever made- Jack O’Connell makes us feel like we’re stuck with him every step of the way.
- The Magnificent Seven
Unabashedly traditional, the 2016 update doesn’t change much from the 1960 film, but considering that film is one of the best westerns ever made I can’t blame anyone. So considered in its build up to the final battle, The Magnificent Seven is roaring from the personality of its all-star cast, and by the time the classic theme kicks in it couldn’t feel any better.
- Swiss Army Man
There’s definitely a simpler way to bring up the mirage of philosophical ideas that Swiss Army Man does, but it wouldn’t be as fun as it is with Daniel Radcliffe as a farting, curious corpse, would it?
- World War Z
A PG-13 zombie movie is generally something to be scoffed at, but World War Z uses the apocalypse as a methodical breakdown of the collapse of infrastructure and government, and the globe trotting adventure also takes time to take a break from the massive spectacle and focus on the intimately scary. It also helps to have an actor as capable and captivating as Brad Pitt as your lead.
- The LEGO Batman Movie
There’s nothing in Batman’s character that should make him inherently morose- this movie shows that even brooding can be fun! The LEGO Batman Movie is a near perfect movie about the character, and the idea of Batman’s one man quest as an ego-driven tour of self congratulation is the perfect model for a children’s film about learning to work with the skill sets of those around us.
- The Souvenir
Caustically clever dialogue often hides truly broken characters, and The Souvenir finds a couple in crisis as Tom Burke’s brash government agent slips into drug addiction and Honor Swinton Byrne’s alluring film student comes into her own as an artist. An emotionally draining mixture of addiction and inspiration.
Booksmart is more than just a “female Superbad,” it’s a confident directorial debut from Olivia Wilde that takes the format of the “one wild night” high school party movie and renovates it with an ensemble of wonderfully empathetic young performers. Each teenager has their quirks but also has their moments of self awareness, and it also earns points for its fun collection of wacky adults.
- The Front Runner
I’m always surprised why political campaigns, particularly Presidential campaigns, aren’t more often the subject of films- they seem like such great material for drama, with a clear conclusion to rocket towards. In the case of The Front Runner, it wasn’t just a scandal-ridden, nasty campaign that put a charismatic lead through hell, but a template for how all campaigns would be waged in the future.
- Drinking Buddies
Between Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, and Ron Livingston, Drinking Buddies is an absolute murderer’s row of actors that deserve to be in more things. Director Joe Swanberg crafts another poignant meditation on friendship, relationships, and the search for meaning for post-youth couples.
- Beautiful Boy
Nothing about addiction is convenient, nor is it built for an easily accessible, three act film; Beautiful Boy does a great job at showing the cycles of abuse and relapse, how insidious and all consuming it can be- Timothee Chalamet gives one of the best performances of his young career.
- Richard Jewell
Clint Eastwood’s procedural, methodical style of direction works best when there’s a deeply empathetic performance at the center of the film, and that’s exactly what Paul Walter Hauser delivers. It’s heartbreaking to see him have so much faith in the system and then see it fail him.
- Gerald’s Game
There’s no better way to explore a character than to make them as vulnerable as possible, and Gerald’s Game depicts the humiliation of its lead in sickening fashion that may even disturb those with the strongest of stomach, with Caral Gugino’s brave lead performance responding to the ways trauma never leaves us.
- A Star is Born
The sequence in which Lady GaGa first performs “Shallow” will certainly go down as one of the defining cultural moments of the decade, and perhaps one of the greatest scenes in motion picture history; rarely has there ever been a better depiction of an artist’s realization of their own talent, acceptance of their voice, and unapologetic emotion as defined by one singular moment.
- Deepwater Horizon
The horror of Deepwater Horizon is that none of these selfless everymen needed to be heroes, and they shouldn’t have made sacrifices; the BP oil spill was the product of negligence and greed, and the film shows how the decisions of few end up affecting many. Director Peter Berg turns these explosive setpieces into deathly scary, tense sequences for characters who watch the foundation of their livelihood collapse around them.
- Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange follows the Joseph Cambell hero’s journey to a nearly perfect T, but what sets it apart from the other Marvel films is its incredible visual inventiveness, the time that was taken to construct the set pieces and conceive of the world. It’s great to see a third act of a comic book movie that isn’t centered on explosions and destruction, but on the hero using his wits to outsmart the villain.
- Life (2015)
Part of the fascination of James Dean was that more than any other icon, he didn’t last, and Life celebrates the life of Dean, as played by Dane DeHaan, in his final months, as he wrestled with the fact that he was a normal kid who became the face of a movement, a humble boy from a small town who saw the world rapidly change around him.