Here we go: my top 40 film picks of the 20-10s. It was a smashing decade of cinema, and as you’ll see from my top two choices, 2017 was a very special year. I could have gone with either Blade Runner or Twin Peaks for my number one pick.
1. Blade Runner 2049. 2017. Not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it in ways you wouldn’t expect. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic, and has the ambitious concepts of the original, taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. There are certain plot holes which leave coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece. By rights a film this good shouldn’t have been in the 21st century, and the box-office bomb proves it. I don’t why or how it came to be. I’m just glad it exists.
2. Twin Peaks: The Return. 2017. The third season of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s absolute crowning achievement. It counts as a film as much as a TV series, ranking on various lists as one of the best films of 2017, and screened as a film over the course of three days at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. David Lynch himself claimed that The Return is better understood as an 18-hour long film, and it was certainly shot, funded, and edited like a film. Lynch had total control, directing every episode, unlike in seasons one and two, in which he directed only six of the 30 episodes; for all the experimental innovation in those two seasons, they ultimately adhered to a series formula of cliffhangers needing resolution in following episodes. The Return is like nothing I will ever see again, and everything Lynch had been building to in his career. The fingerprints of all the mighty films are present: the road trails and character reinventions of Lost Highway, the brutal misogyny of Blue Velvet, the dreamscapes of Mullholland Drive, and a particularly stunning masterpiece episode that feels like Eraserhead in every frame. And yet this isn’t Lynch just repeating himself. Ultimately, The Return is about Dale Cooper’s attempt to rewrite the past and stop Laura Palmer from ever being killed. Whether he succeeds for better or worse (I say it’s for the worse) has been furiously debated, and will continue to be for a long time. I am completely in awe of The Return, and if you want to see how I assess each episode, see here.
3. Little Men. 2016. I’ve seen this many times. It explores a close friendship in a social parable about gentrification. Jake’s parents are new landlords who threaten to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents, but the boys’ friendship only grows the more the parents become enemies. The film doesn’t demonize the landlords (who are decent enough people and have their own financial problems) or over-extend sympathy for the poor Chilean tenant, but rather holds the adults at arms length so we can latch on to the boys and see things through their eyes. Jake is the shy introvert, Tony the bold extrovert (take a wild guess who’s who from the above picture), and it may even be that Jake is smitten by Tony. Their final scene together makes me cry every time, with Jake, who futilely begs his father not to go through with the eviction, and the epilogue is even more heartbreaking, showing that sometimes there is no way back to recover the most intimate friendships. It’s a critical masterpiece (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) for every good reason. I reviewed Little Men fully here.
4. The Tree of Life. 2011. Like Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film showing humanity dwarfed by celestial mysteries. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. But grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it’s its conceptual opposite), rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. Every frame depends on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. It ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss. I’m turned by new surprises each time I watch The Tree of Life, and in my opinion it’s Terrence Malick’s best film to date.
5. Blue is the Warmest Color. 2013. It’s a bit sad that this has gained notoriety for the graphic lesbian scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself, and seeing herself, in wildly adolescent terms. The film isn’t about sex anyway, but the searing power of love which becomes destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. After the break up Emma is able to forgive, and Adele obtain at least some measure of closure. The film is three hours long but I wanted it to go longer.
6. True Grit. 2010. My favorite Western (even more than Tarantino’s films, see #7 and #12) is a remake of the John Wayne classic. The character of Mattie Ross is the film. Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen, second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy. I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. And Jeff Bridges is far better than John Wayne. The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.
7. Django Unchained. 2012. Tarantino was born to revive the spaghetti Western. The Italians who made spaghettis weren’t trying to glorify the American ethos, and so the civilizing forces were often portrayed as corrupt, and the American frontier a place of devastation and racism. Django Unchained harks back to this effort of destroying frontier myths, especially that of southern hospitality and the genteel antebellum. It’s set in the years of 1858-59, when Mississippi plantation owners never dreamed their world was about to end. Tarantino runs parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that he has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don’t know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom. Then there’s Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse.
8. A Hidden Life. 2019. Terrence Malick had a total of five films this decade, but the three in between Tree of Life (see #4) and A Hidden Life were kind of navel-gazing films that I think arthouse critics tend to praise just because Terrence Malick made them. A Hidden Life is my #1 pick of the 2019, as Tree of Life was for 2011. Both, in very different ways, are a testimony to achieving a cinematic style that matches transcendent goals that most directors only dream of. This one is about the real-life unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. And like other Malick films, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty.
9. First Man. 2018. Like Blade Runner 2049 the year before, it stars Ryan Gosling, and was released in the month of October to high critical praise but low box office performance. Today’s audiences are simply not equipped to sit still for long periods of quality storytelling. First Man isn’t a space-race thriller. We do catch glimpses of the historical background (that space exploration was driven by the need to show up the Communists more than for any laudable scientific goals), just as we get some of the social fury over the perceived waste of taxpayer dollars (as when Gil Scott-Heron, played by Leon Bridges, recites his famous “Whitey on the Moon” poem to crowds suffering in poverty). But the film is primarily a meditation on grief. Neil Armstrong lost his two-year old daughter to a brain tumor, and his persistence in braving the dangers of space emerges as a desire to escape the world into a cold perilous silence. Whether or not he really left his daughter’s bracelet on the moon hardly matters; it’s cinematic and does no violence to history. That he is not portrayed as planting the American flag is also irrelevant. People watch films like this with the wrong eyes. First Man is a near perfect achievement.
10. First Reformed. 2018. Not exactly a remake of Winter Light (1962), it does spin off the Bergman classic, and for the most part very well. It also mimics Diary of a Country Priest (1951) with the role of the elder pastor who mentors the Ethan Hawke character. Then too I have heard it compared to Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). According to critic Alissa Wilkinson, both films revolve around the same question: “What if you predicated your life on God’s existence, and then God turned out to be silent, crowded out by bodily discomfort, broken relationships, plundered dreams, and external forces more interested in their own power than the unsettling implications of Jesus’s teachings?” But First Reformed goes for the jugular in some mighty surprising ways, unlike the more subdued approach of Silence. It’s also a parable about the apocalypse, with Bergman’s atomic warfare theme being changed to environmental catastrophe. I’ve seen this film three times. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the scene that replays Tomas’ cruel treatment of Marta in Winter Light, which went on for a patient ten minutes, but in First Reformed was zipped through in the blink of an eye. But that’s a small quibble. In all the ways that matter this is a near perfect film.
11. mother! 2017. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed, with the trailer implying a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.
12. Silence. 2016. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as brilliant as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame — and essentially reaped what they sowed.
13. The Hateful Eight. 2015. A bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into the usual Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these men will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s not a political film, by any means, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War, and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the n-word to a vengeful use of the b-word, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works for rather than against.
14. The Divide. 2012. It’s fascinating how this was made independently of The Grey (see #26) and released in the same year at almost the same time, neither having any knowledge of each other. Both are survivalist stories and both are tuned around haunting piano themes that recur at just the right moments. (Listen to The Grey’s and The Divide’s.) But where the former locates “evil” as external and impersonal (the cruel forces of nature), this one looks within. It’s set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment where nine strangers have gathered after a nuclear holocaust. They start out okay until cabin fever and radiation sickness — and their own base humanity — take over, and the cellar becomes a claustrophobic nightmare of torture, rape, sex slavery, and overblown lunacy. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.
15. The Walk. 2015. The Exorcist affected me physically more than any other film, but The Walk is a close second in this regard. Audiences suffered extreme vertigo, and I was sweating and shaking non-stop during the final act. Obviously I have an extreme fear of heights, and I can only imagine the harm my psyche would have suffered had I seen it in 3D. I still have a hard time with the fact that this story is entirely true. How anyone could want to do what Philippe Petit did on that morning of August 7, 1974, is well beyond the reach of my understanding. He walked back and forth over that wire between one tower and the next, eight times, for over 45 minutes, while spectators and police officers could only look on aghast. This man was (is: he’s still alive) an artist in the purest sense.
16. Parasite. 2019. Ever since Snowpiercer, I have vowed to see every film made by Bong Joon-ho. Snowpiecer was set on a train in a post-apocalyptic ice age, and portrayed a social class war as David Lynch might imagine it. In Parasite, there is again social skewering, showing how the rich survive on the backs of the less advantaged. But as always, Joon-ho isn’t being didactic. He’s an artist, not a preacher, and pays off viewers as they deserve, this time with a story of a family who live in a cellar and fold pizza boxes for a living. Then they get the bright idea to pose as sophisticated skilled workers (an English tutor; an art therapist; a chauffeur; and a housekeeper) and insert themselves into the lives of the wealthy, on whom they wreak mischief. Things get out of control and spiral into calamity, with twists and turns you won’t expect. Parasite is outstanding and has incredible rewatch value.
17. ’71. 2014. This taut thriller is set in west Belfast in the early years of the Irish Troubles — a year before Bloody Sunday – but it’s less a political thriller and more a horror/suspense piece that exploits the political background to remarkable effect. I knew Jack O’Connell would become a brilliant actor (his performance as the psychopathic teen in Eden Lake, 2008, was mind-blowing), and here he plays Gary Hook, a British soldier who gets separated from his company during a street riot. He is pursued by angry Belfast residents, and runs deeper into enemy territory, barely escaping murder at every turn, and finding help in unlikely places. One character who leaves a particular impression is the young boy who brings Hook to a pub, and gets blown to pieces when a bomb goes off. This is incredibly nail-biting suspense “behind enemy lines”, with superb control of action and pacing.
18. The Pact. 2012. This is way, way underrated. It’s about a haunted house but with a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole goddamn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. Psychopathic horror usually doesn’t scare me (classics like Psycho are suspenseful but they don’t give me nightmares), but McCarthy blends the psycho with the supernatural in ways that are unnerving in the extreme.
19. Joker. 2019. Ignore the protests that Joker is grossly insensitive to the mentally ill. I honestly don’t know what kind of film the easily-offended were expecting. It portrays mental illness in the unpleasant way that it should be. Joaquin Phoenix’s incarnation of the Joker is much different from Heath Ledger’s, but just as powerful, and works well in a drama without the Batman, that focuses like a laser on what mental illness does to people in an uncaring world. It’s set in 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year), in the time of increased governmental neglect for the mentally ill. Funding cuts to social services leave Arthur without access to meds, and he slides deeper into the identity he carves for himself. Phoenix plays it so convincingly, and the repeated fits of compulsive laughter must have been exhausting on an actor. There are heavy shades of both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy; Todd Phillips has made a Joker film in the most Martin Scorsese way possible, and it’s a noble heartbreaking achievement.
20. Victoria. 2015. The entire 2 hours and 15 minutes was shot in a single take and it’s not a gimmick; it’s immersive as hell. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. Frankly I could have watched their casual conversation forever; the characters are that compelling. But the second part is even better in full throttle: one of the guys passes out drunk, and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist which the guys are being blackmailed into doing. The best scene is their celebration after the heist in a dance club, with the loud rock music fading in favor of a minimalist piano score playing over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but is strangely precious. The final sequence is the police chase on foot, and while an unhappy ending is guaranteed, it’s impossible to predict. My full review of Victoria is here.
21. Europa Report. 2013. This outer-space drama takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t worry, the film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the appropriate wonder and terror. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon, and to hell with the radiation levels.
22. Before Midnight. 2013. I love the conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine. They first met in Before Sunrise (1995) and then found each other again in Before Sunset (2004). Now they’ve been in a relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed, are just as compelling, and so organically delivered by Hawke and Delpy it’s dazzling. Here they arrive at a hotel and have a nasty argument, fearing their direction in life, entertaining break-up, and as twice before the conclusion is the right amount of open-ended. It adds up to a very rare trilogy — in fact, I cannot think of any other trilogy — in which the excellent first is followed by an even better second and then (against every odd) the third which is best of all.
23. Zero Dark Thirty. 2012. Part of me is still astonished by the vitriol that has been hurled on this film, but then nothing should surprise me anymore. After all, Spike Lee leveled ridiculous complaints about Django Unchained‘s supposed racial insensitivity, so it only follows that Zero Dark Thirty must be (wait for it) an apologia for waterboarding and other forms of torture used by the CIA in the days following 9/11. Nothing, of course, is further from the truth. The torture under the Bush administration is simply shown for what it is. It wasn’t the magic key to unlocking Bin Laden’s hideout, and even if it was, the film doesn’t imply that the ends would justify the means. By far the most impressive feature is Jessica Chastain, who since Tree of Life has become for me a new Cate Blanchett, an understated actor who compels with subtleties. Zero Dark Thirty is a lot like United 93, devoid of political bias and never preaching. That’s the way to make a 9/11-themed film.
24. The Nightingale. 2019. This isn’t a rape-revenge movie. It is about a woman who is raped (graphically, more than once) and at first seeks revenge, but finds something different that actually feels like grace. The film is by Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, and she proves she can do a historical piece even better than indie horror. It’s set in 1825 in an Australian British penal colony, and holds an unpleasant spotlight on the way the Brits treated their subjects. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, not just by becoming a hollow rape revenge, but by the way Clare teams up with the aborigine. The Nightingale is no Hollywood parable of a “feminist and a black”. The guarded relationship between this Irish woman and her servant is nailed right in every scene, and doesn’t feel anachronistic. The ending on the beach is simply transcendent.
25. Room. 2015. The power of this film has to do with the way it sets fire to the imagination. The acting performances are fine (the child actor quite excellent for his age), the script adequate, and the escape scene at the midpoint incredibly intense. But I don’t think any of these elements are responsible for Room’s massive acclaim. The emotion and pain I felt for the mother and child had as much to do with imagining every possible consequence on their psyches, especially the boy’s. The five-year old Jack has lived his entire existence inside a single room (a shed) with his captive mother, believing “Room” to be the entire universe. Suddenly freed, she is reunited with family in the real world to which he is shockingly introduced for the first time. It hurts to watch this play out, but it’s worth it, and the film does end on the triumph of the human spirit.
26. The Grey. 2012. First things first: wolves are outrageously misrepresented in this film. In reality the poor things are wimps, so you need to suspend disbelief and just pretend this film takes place on an alternate Earth where wolves evolved with nasty temperaments more akin to grizzly bears. The distortion makes it feel more of a horror picture, which in many ways it is, like The Birds. Demonic wolves, like Hitch’s pterodactyl-birds, are effective devices in showing our helplessness against primal and savage forces. Like the great survivalist films rarely seen anymore, The Grey has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about (an even more impressive feat given the rather unlikeable group aside from Liam Neeson) before they all go down in carnage.
27. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. 2019. This love letter to Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s most emotionally honest films. It takes place in 1969 around the plot of a has-been actor, and revises events of the Manson family, so that instead of Sharon Tate getting killed, it’s the Manson killers who die. And they die brutally: they pass over Sharon Tate’s home and crash the home of the story’s heroes played by Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The slaughter that ensues is pure over-the-top Tarantino; one of the Manson sisters gets her face bashed and pounded in twenty times over; the other gets eaten alive by a dog and roasted by a flamethrower. But leading up to this twenty-minute end-game is a sprawling two-hour walk-though of late ’60s Hollywood, when spaghetti Westerns were becoming a thing and hippies were invading Hollywood.
28. The Witch. 2016. It’s loved by critics and hated by audiences, and you need to trust the former. It was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of horror movie with loud bangs and cheap thrills, instead of a period piece. Kubrick could have easily scored this, Bergman could have shaped the characters, and either could have landed the cinematography that captures stunning wide shots. But the director owns his unique narrative about a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from the rest of Colonial America. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at her new “neighbors”, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer in near orgasmic ecstasy. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. I reviewed The Witch fully here.
29. Autumn Blood. 2013. This underrated piece goes a long way to redeeming the rape revenge genre. Even though the girl kills her rapist, there is no glorifying of the retribution, and on top of that, she refuses to execute the man who killed her father, and whom she has loathed for many years. What really sells Autumn Blood, however, is its silent approach set in a breathtaking Austrian landscape. There is very little dialogue; the vast geography speaks instead. I posted a review in pictures.
30. Suspiria. 2018. This one is a remake, and a good example what remakes should do, by paying homage to a great classic while telling a completely different story. The result is something much better (IMO) than the original Suspiria (1977). There is a young American woman who moves to Germany to attend a dance academy run by witches, and there are mysterious disappearances and weird behaviors in its halls. The similarities between the two films don’t extend beyond this framework. The major twist is that Helena Markos (played by Tilda Swinton) turns out not to be the Mother of Sighs, just a wannabe-witch. It is the student Suzy herself who is the reincarnation of the Mother of Sighs, and she’s been using her training with the Swinton character to come into a very horrible power. The film’s ending — a celebration of gore and orgy — stays with you forever.
31. Stake Land. 2010. A post-apocalyptic drama and one of the best vampire films of all time, Stake Land gives the middle finger to both the aristocratic version (Dracula) and juvenile pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight). These are vamps as they should be, mindless savages. The story centers around a young man whose family is slaughtered; he’s taken under the wing of a hunter who now slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a Road-like odyssey to find a mythical refuge up in Canada, and run afoul a nasty religious cult along the way. This is the proper way to do an undead pandemic.
32. Fury. 2014. The best war movie made in a long time. Few capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. In the final days of WWII, an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it. The tank battles are bloody nightmares; the Nazis resist every step of the way. My favorite scene comes in the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in, and a thoroughly unpleasant dinner ensues. Fury is my favorite war film after the sacred trilogy of Bergman (Shame), Malick (The Thin Red Line), and Kubrick (Paths of Glory). And it buries Saving Private Ryan, which I didn’t like at all.
33. Doctor Sleep. 2019. It’s certainly no Kubrick classic, but it is a rare adaptation of a Stephen King novel that is very good. Better yet, it’s a sequel to both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film, taking the best of both worlds. Kubrick’s ending to The Shining was better than King’s. Instead of the Overlook Hotel dying and Dick Hallorann surviving, Kubrick killed off Hallorann and allowed the evil Overlook to live on (the final shot of Jack Torrance in the 1921 painting is far creepier and scarier than the explosive melodrama penned by King). So Hallorann visits Danny in visions now, and Danny makes quite a momentous return to the Overlook, where he destroys the hotel as his father did in the novel. Filling this framework is the plot of psychic vampires who prey on people, including children, and I was surprised by some of the bold risks taken. Thumbs way up to Doctor Sleep, and let’s hope more filmmakers will take cue on how to adapt King’s work. (The It movies this decade were awful.)
34. Flight. 2012. I wish there were more films where an opening scene of heart-stopping terror becomes the base for a slow-paced introspective character film. Washington plays an exceptional air pilot who is also an alcoholic, and on one of his typically drunk mornings suffers an aircraft malfunction but manages miraculous maneuvers and softens the plane’s crash landing. The genius of the film relies in putting the moral spotlight on his addiction even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the plane crash, nor even the cause of the six deaths (out of 102 passengers). The story makes clear that if any other pilot had been flying, everyone would have died. Washington’s character must come to terms with his disease despite his savior-like status which only fuels his pride and denial and the horrible way he treats those around him.
35. Unstoppable. 2010. Tony Scott’s last film before he killed himself is easily his best work after Crimson Tide and Deja Vu. And it wouldn’t be a Tony Scott film without Denzel Washington, playing his more usual heroic role than in Flight (#34, above). There’s the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict despite the lack of villains. The runaway freight train carrying explosive cargo is more than enough villain, a missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers engage in a desperate plan to stop it. Based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland, believe it or not.
36. The Homesman. 2014. This Western is a road journey and spiritual odyssey that ends with a resourcefully independent woman killing herself and a useless man getting his second wind in life. They are transporting three crazy women from Nebraska to Iowa (it’s set in the 1850s, when the former was a territory and the latter a state), but really everyone is a bit crazy, to the extent that the mythic West feels like an alternate world where nothing really clicks. By far the strangest scene is the stop-over at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by an eccentric Irishman played by James Spader. The hotel is empty and chock full of gourmet food and drink, but the Irishman adamantly denies room and board to Briggs and the three women who are now starving (even though Briggs can pay) by making bullshit excuses that every single room is reserved. This weird Lynchian scene defines The Homesman for me. The West is portrayed as an unforgiving place with rare epiphanies; a horrible place for humanity to flourish, yet with the power to fire the soul — for better or worse.
37. Bone Tomahawk. 2015. This Western is a horror piece. That approach had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.
38. Cracks. 2011. I’m a sucker for students under the tutelage of nefarious instructors, and I’m surprised this one fell under the radar. An aristocratic Spanish girl comes to board at an Irish school off the coast of northern England in 1934, and without even trying incites jealousy and rage amongst her peers. They all crave the approval of a teacher who has eyes (and loins) for this newcomer. Things get unpleasant, naturally, and don’t end well. Jordan Scott, directs, and yes, she’s related to the great Tony (above) and the dreadful Ridley who hasn’t done anything decent since Alien and Blade Runner.
39. Logan. 2017. Like The Dark Knight this is a rare superhero film that’s excellent, which is a way of saying that it’s not really a superhero film. Logan is more like a post-apocalyptic western, inspired by the X-Men series rather than a part of it. The year is 2029, and Logan is trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is a masterpiece and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.
40. Knives Out. 2019. This is one of the most honest-to-God fun films I have ever laughed through. Rian Johnson uses an A-list cast to produce fun in every scene of this mansion-based who-dunnit. An old rich guy kills himself, or so it seems, and his family are less interested in grieving than planning on how to spend the fortune they will surely inherit. They get a rude surprise: he left everything — every single penny, and the mansion too — to his young Latina nurse who is an immigrant. When detectives and a private eye show up and won’t leave, it starts to look like the old man’s death may not have been suicide. These family members are all so hollowly shitty, and racist in varying degrees, but it’s easy to love them when they’re played with relish by actors like Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis. But it’s Daniel Craig who steals the show — with a preposterous Foghorn-Leghorn accent — and when he finally fingers the guilty party in the end, it’s as satisfying as it is sad that the entertainment is over. I wish that Knives Out were a six-hour film, frankly; these characters are too wonderfully played to close the curtain on them any sooner.