Friday, June 6, 2014

Top 100 Films of the 2010's...So Far: Part III

PS- Sorry for taking so long on Part III, I do promise to pick up the pace with Part IV, and will continue to series through the end of its run.

80. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) - When 20 Feet From Stardom beat out more serious and politically minded documentaries like The Act of Killing, many people scoffed and waived off its Oscar win as nothing
more than populism winning the day. Don't get me wrong, I had my share of frustrations in this documentary race last year (Stories We Tell was robbed period!), but this wonderfully emotional piece of art winning the Oscar was not among them. True, this was the populist choice among the bunch, but I dare you to watch this film and not have a real emotional attachment to the women behind the scenes of some of the world's greatest music. I dare your heart not to swell when it hears Judith Hill's "Desperation" or the Darlene Love-led version of "Lean on Me". But 20 Feet From Stardom is not just an entertaining ride filled with incredible clips, or an emotionally heart string-pulling journey. At its core, the reason it struck a chord with so many in the industry is that it is about the struggle of being an artist. The hard work and determination that goes into trying to make a career work, only to see it fail when you are not fully embraced by the public or critics or the industry. Anybody who has every had a dream, who has hit way too many potholes along life's road can find themselves in one of these inspirational women who have had their dreams and careers sidelined while so many (many less talented) have claimed the spotlight. 20 Feet From Stardom is about the unsung heroines, and it managed to be one of the most entertaining, engaging, and emotionally heartfelt films of the last several years. Period. A true accomplishment that is worth a view.

79. Les Miserables (2012) - I have to make a confession here. The first time I saw Les Miserables, I absolutely hated it. The claustrophobia of Tom Hooper's camera and Russell Crowe's voice were just too damn much for me. Let alone the fact that it was so freaking long. But when it came out on DVD, I gave Les Mis another chance, and I am glad I did. Sure, the flaws that bothered me so much the first time around are still there, but upon a second viewing, I began to realize that I had focused so much on the negative, that I forgot to the enjoy the splendid parts of this epic musical, which, in the end, far outweigh its faults. First, lets consider the epic music. Even in its translation to the screen, it still has the power to shock and awe the audience with its audacity, its incredible sadness, and eventually, its endearing hope. Second, despite
Crowe's lack of tuning, the cast is absolutely fantastic.Hugh Jackman is stoic, brilliant, and certainly award-worthy tackling the difficult and iconic role of Jean Valjean. Amanda Seyfried proves her vocal talent, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are as colorful as always, and Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks make names for themselves as the breakout stars. But the real revelation here is Anne Hathaway. Anyone who has followed her career knows that she was incredible talent. But who knew it would be the role of Fantine that would finally get her the recognition she deserved. In just a few scenes, she was devastating, brilliantly heartbreaking, and throughout the two hours after her famous "I Dreamed a Dream", all you can think about is her stunning demise. In the end, Les Miserables is not for the picky, it is for those who are willing to let go of their pretensions and be swept up in the centuries-old story, the stunning music, and the talent of a top-notch cast. If you can do that, then this film is quite an achievement.

78. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) - I was skeptical about the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The original Swedish one was actually pretty damn good, particularly Noomi Rapace in the lead. And while I love David Fincher, it felt more like American stupidity was driving the production (we can't be bothered to read subtitles), than a genuine attempt at commercial success or art. While I still question such a quick turnaround from the original, I cannot deny that Fincher's 2011 version is a dark and
taut thriller that combines both commercial sensibility with a stunning touch of artistic finesse. While I still argue that Rapace was actually better for the role, Rooney Mara did make it her own, and her supporting cast this time around, including Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, and Stellan Skarsgard were major improvements on the Swedish original. But the real triumph here is David Fincher. His masterful coaching (according to onset reports) of Rooney Mara brought the ferocity and edge that she needed for the role. The tightening of the screws on the story line cut out some of the fat and slowness of the original, making it more taut and more fast-paced for American audiences, while still maintaining the all important dialogue that drives this story. He makes it pop, he and his Oscar winning team of film editors expertly cut all the pieces together in a way that was reminiscent of his work in Zodiac, another dialogue-driven film that still popped with suspense on the screen. Finally, Fincher knows how to bring brutal stories to life. He captures the darkness without drowning in it, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is another fine example of his master of the skill, and his talent as a bold and necessary director in American cinema.

77. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) - The last four years have been a boon for documentary filmmakers. Ranging from feel-good emotional heart-tugs (20 Feet from Stardom), to personal stories of family and love (Stories We Tell), to hard hitting pieces of relevant, history-making journalism (the list goes on and on, but include films like last year's The Square). Then there is Exit Through the Gift Shop. Claimed by many to be a hoax, a fake, what it is is an engaging, funny, and unique entry into the genre, whatever you think it is or not. It is the story of a French shop owner who tries to catch and expose Bansky the world-famous graffiti artist, and instead gets the film turned on him. More importantly, it becomes a expose of an
underground world of graffiti art. It talks about the methods behind the madness, the global nature of the world's street art, and the sometimes unbelievable, yet realistic reasons for these artists to maintain their secret alter-egos. The potential hoax, the surprising humor, and the quirkiness that exudes from every frame are reason enough to watch this unique piece of nonfiction film-making. But it is the passion for its subject, these unknown artists and the art itself, that makes Exit Through the Gift Shop a wonder on the screen. Its setup might be amusing, but it is truly a heartfelt look at the inside of a world so few of us understand. It is about the messages that these artists choose to convey, the risks they take to create art that to many is seen as decorative trash in bad parts of large cities. There is so much more to that, and it is the unknown Banksy, and his vision that brings to light so many truths about this underground art world, yet still manages to leave something on the table, something to keep us coming back for more. Exit Through the Gift Shop is truly a bold and visionary film that continued to push nonfiction film to new levels of excellence.

76. All is Lost (2013) - I love and respect Robert Redford as much as the next person, but even I was skeptical of All is Lost. Redford alone on a boat, silent, braving the sea. How would something so bare and so lacking in plot and dialogue work? Would it be worth watching? It turns out that sometimes less is more. You put Robert Redford on the screen and allow him to do his thing, the results are not only watchable, but
utterly engaging and engrossing, something so many films with plenty of dialogue and characters fail to do even adequately. JC Chandor's action-driven script, and surprisingly steady and deep direction provides the perfect amount of stability and action to keep the viewer engaged. It doesn't hurt that his technical team's visual, and particularly their Oscar-nominated sound work are masterfully done to full effect, especially when you see it on the big screen. But the real reason this film succeeds on so many levels is Robert Redford. The first time I saw it, I liked it and respected it, but it took a second viewing to realize the amount of depth, the amount of pain that Redford expresses. Once you realize that All is Lost is a saga of ultimate mortality, it is the recognition of a man that his life is almost over, then Redford's performance not only commands respect, but pulls at your heart strings and leaves you emotionally devastated. It is not surprising that Redford was able to pull this off, the man is an acting legend with some of the greatest movies of all time on his resume. But it has been so long since he had commanded the screen, I'm sure many of us were wondering whether he was up to the task. It turns out that age has only fine tuned his skills, and that his lack of screen time in the last decade has not caused him to get rusty. Redford is still the screen legend he always was, and All is Lost is another fantastic entry into his already extraordinary film canon.

75. Oslo, August 31st (2011) - When December of 2011 rolled around and the critics and pundits were making their top ten lists, a film I had not really be aware of was popping up all over the place. So long after its release I finally got around to seeing Oslo, August 31st, the Norwegian film from director Joachim Trier. How this film managed to slip so tightly under the radar, only to emerge later as a year-end favorite is beyond me. When I did some digging it turns out it only slipped by my radar, and while I was late to party, I'm glad I still made it to see how everything turned out. And the results, by the way, were magnificent. Oslo, August 31st is about a recovering drug addict who attends a job interview after being released from a rehab facility. Drug addiction is not a new subject matter for film, but there is something about this version that
makes it feel so new, so different from most of the takes on the same subject. Just like its predecessors, Oslo, August 31st is a devastating film that shows the emotional and physical effects of drug addiction. The struggles that drug addicts face to fight their inner urges, the almost impossible attempts they make to return to normal after they have hit their rock bottom. This struggle is seen through the eyes of Ansel, brilliantly played by Anders Danielson Lie, as he catches up with old friends in an old city. So what sets this film apart? Not only is is brilliantly acted, but it takes a softness, a tenderness, a delicate look at such a harsh reality. It gives us sympathy without being overly sentimental. It also lets us explore an old city, full of wonder and amazement and old world mentality. It provides the perfect juxtaposition for our characters' struggles. It is a devastatingly emotional film that leaves us with the ultimate truth that no matter our personal struggles, the world keeps on spinning. The balance between delicate treatment of our characters, and the scarring brutal truth of reality make Oslo, August 31st an incredible and emotional on-screen experience.

74. Not Fade Away (2012) - Not Fade Away premiered in 2012 to mixed reviews from both critics and moviegoers. It was labeled as disjointed, a bit cheesy, and underwhelming. I could see how some people would get to that point. Not Fade Away is not without its flaws, but after viewing it for the third time, I finally started to understand why those who praised it we're so adamant about it. Despite its flaws, Not Fade Away is an exuberant coming-of-age story set behind the revolutionary rock music of the 1960's. It doesn't have the same precision, same quality of Almost Famous, but it has a very similar heart and mindset about the power of those trans-formative years (Almost Famous in the early 70's) on popular culture. Not Fade Away
is the story of a group of young idealists who attempt to start a rock band in 1960's New Jersey. It is not a plot driven musically themed biopic that seem to be a standard in Hollywood these days, and while it is exuberant and comes alive on screen, there is also a deep layer of sadness. There are stunning themes running throughout the film. The rise and fall of fame, the struggle of the working class, tensions between fathers and sons. It all blends together with small scenes of character development that are produced incredibly well by not only Sopranos creator David Chase (in his directorial debut), but most importantly by the actors. It is at this point that I have to end with a tribute to the great James Gandolfini. Most people will always remember him as Tony Soprano. While there is nothing wrong with that, the real shame is that he was finally starting to break free from those chains of typecasting by exploring a variety of film roles that showed his talent and range as one of this generations finest actors. His roles in Zero Dark Thirty, and Enough Said (which earned him a posthumous SAG nomination) were prime examples. And his role here, as a caring and struggling father might have been his best. It makes his untimely death even harder to swallow, knowing just how much work we could have seen had he survived. See Not Fade Away, if for nothing else, for Gandolfini. It's worth your time.

73. Chronicle (2012) - Superhero movies are now becoming a monthly thing. If you now include the multitude of novels, comics, and television series that also feature them, the world has become inundated and frankly, obsessed, with those who possess extraordinary powers. With this constant barrage, it is hard to find a original piece of work in the genre that is not tied to a franchise, or is a sequel, prequel, or some part of a long-running series. But every once in a while something original, unique, and quite extraordinary reminds us that sometimes even the most well-tread genres can break new ground. 2012's Chronicle is one of those poignant reminders. Shot with a found-footage aesthetic, Chronicle is about three friends who find a mysterious alien object, which gives them extraordinary powers after contact. We never really see much of
this object, and its origin are are never explained. At first this is a bit disconcerting, but by the end, you realize that it doesn't really matter. Chronicle is not really about kids with superpowers, but about the kids themselves, particularly Andrew, brilliantly played by then unknown Dane DeHaan. His friends (Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell) try to rally behind him, but has his personal struggles at home (mother dying, abusive father), and his powers grow more deadly, the bonds of their friendship, and their grip on reality begins to unravel. Chronicle manages to rise above the fray by focusing on the characters, by making it more about their personal struggles than their struggles with their new found powers. And these kids are not superheros. There is no romantic ending where they save the world. These are real people with real struggles, and if anything their powers make things worse, not better. This component in particular is what made Chronicle such a refreshing enterprise and entry into the well-worn canon. Apparently, and unfortunately, a sequel is in the works. If it can capture the spirit of the first, I'm all for it. I just hope it doesn't fall into the same traps that have hampered so many that have come before it.

72. Brave (2012) - Pixar has gotten a lot of flack lately, as their projects seem to have lost some of the magic that had produced some of the greatest films of all time. Not just greatest animated films, but greatest films of all time. Period. I agree that Pixar has gone downhill after their masterpiece Toy Story 3. Cars 2 was, well a disaster, and last year's Monsters University, while still a high quality film, didn't quite have the spark of its predecessors. In between these disappointments was Brave. Now most critics and moviegoers
would add Brave to their list of disappointments. While it doesn't quite match say Finding Nemo or Wall-E, I still maintain that it is an excellent entry into the Pixar canon, and into the animated princess canon as well. The way Frozen turned the princess trajectory into a story about the love of sisters, Brave did a similar twist by turning it into a love between a mother and a daughter. And what a refreshing twist it was. It was also packed with high-flying action, interesting commentary on gender relations and family issues, and managed to be an entertaining and engaging feature for kids of all ages, and adults as well. It didn't hurt that Kelly MacDonald and Emma Thompson voiced the two characters, both of whom are fine actresses, and both managed to give the characters a spark of life. And of course, one of the most important reasons to see Brave is not the interesting twist on a well-worn drama, or the fast-paced thrilling action sequences, but the absolutely stunning animation. While most people were predicting Wreck-It Ralph to win the Oscar, I knew it was going to be Brave, and that was because the tech guilds were all going crazy for it. It was a technological breakthrough and its intricate animation design won over those in the industry that value such detail. But its not just the industry that values it, moviegoers, and their eyes, also respect and enjoy a film that manages to be emotionally complex, and a hell of a ride to look at. Brave was both.

71. Winter's Bone (2010) - Before Jennifer Lawrence was the hottest movie star on the planet, she was a rising indie star with her Oscar-nominated role in Debra Granik's harsh Winter's Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. Winter's Bone is a stark look at the culture of the rural Ozarks, the rural culture that has spawned a thriving meth industry, and a family that is on the verge of falling apart. Make no mistake, it is kind of amazing and miraculous that a film filled with such darkness was embraced by the Academy as much as it was. That is a true testament to a wonderful team that managed to make even the darkest moments compelling. Debra Granik had made some fine indie work before including Down to the Bone starring Vera Farmiga. But Winter's Bone is a far superior effort, led by her confident direction, and her magnificently constructed script by her and her co-writer Anne Rosellini. It's brooding characters, rich in cultural detail and
secrecy pop and crackle on the screen. Of course when you have performances like the ones given by John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence, even a lackluster story and screenplay can still be brought to life on screen. Hawkes, a hard working character actor, finally gets his due with a meaty role that he chews up and spits out with a tough mentality, and every time he is on the screen he is nothing short of electrifying. But make no mistake, this is Jennifer Lawrence's show, and it was this breakthrough role that put her on the path to an Oscar and roles in two of the biggest movie franchises of all time. Even at such a young age, she has an incredible command of the screen, and Granik and Rosellini have given her an incredibly powerful, yet still vulnerable character whose fight for her mother and her siblings in the search to find her father and save their home and their life is complex and fierce. And just when you think the film has hit its darkest low, there are moments of light, moments of hope. They shine through Lawrence's determined eyes, and make the film a worthy experience.

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