Monday, September 1, 2014

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

60. Attack the Block (2011) - Attack the Block was one of those little British films that unfortunately was swept under the rug by way too many. On its surface it is a ridiculous science fiction comedy about a gang that comes under attack by aliens. Despite its small budget, it managed to have believable and worthy visual effects, while blending in a nostalgic look at past creature films with witty and winning humor. It pays
beautiful homage to past monster/sci-fi flicks, while blazing its own creative path within the genre. It is that creativity that is owed to the screenwriters who seamlessly blend genres with a burst of great character development and plotting that is original and fantastic. But Attack the Block is not just an instant science fiction classic, or a winning comedy that is, at times, laugh-out-loud hilarious. It is also a beautiful look at the problems facing youths in Great Britain (and honestly, across the globe). It is a social message film about gangs and the social inequality that is spread across Western Europe and the United States. I have read some user reviews recently, as I was thinking about this post, and a lot of them talked about how they could not sympathize with the teenagers in the film, because they were in a gang, they commit or attempt to commit a crime. I agree, these guys are not perfect and they have developed incredibly horrible habits while trying to survive on the streets. But these anonymous writers are hitting the exact point that the filmmakers were trying to make. All they see are minority thugs who belong in a cell block. They never look beyond the surface, they never see the socioeconomic inequality that drove these young men, with no upward mobility to a life of crime. These hate driven anonymous thugs (yes I mean thugs) have had easy lives, they have always had a support from teachers, and friends, and family, so that they could succeed in life. Attack the Block makes this message abundantly clear. It hides its motives behind flashy science fiction and humor, but its heart and sole purpose is to target these stereotypes and negative images with a heavy does of humanistic reality. It is these layers, these messages, combined with its sheer entertainment factor that make Attack the Block such a wonderful cinematic experience.

59. The Master (2012) - I am going to put out a small disclaimer here about Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. I have seen it several times, and each time I keep hoping that I will be able to say that I actually like it. I don't. This is not a likable film. Anyone who tells you, "Oh, I loved The Master!" is absolutely lying to your face, and you should probably call them out on it. The Master is not a likable film, it is not an enjoyable experience, but it is one of those films that I have the utmost respect for. Paul Thomas Anderson perfectly crafts this disturbing tale of a veteran who falls in with a cult called The Cause. As he tries to escape from the horrors of the war he left behind, The Cause's mission of clearing all emotions draws him deeper and deeper into a dramatic psychotic state. Paul Thomas Anderson is a masterful screenwriter, and a taut director, all of
which are beautifully combined in The Master's deep and complicated plot. His slow burn and building tension make for an incredible release by film's end. But Anderson ended up being left behind by the time the Oscar nominations were announced. He even missed out on a screenplay nomination, which is really shocking considering the level of respect the Writer's Branch has had for him in the past (three nominations over his career). Instead, it was the Actor's Branch that came to bat for Anderson's divisive The Master. It gave three nominations to all of its stars, each of them incredibly deserved. The Master's dense and sometimes unbearable subject matter was made watchable because of the talent and screen presence of its three bankable stars. Amy Adams is incredible as always, serving as a rock here in the middle of these two men. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives another one of his masterful performances as the charming, yet disturbed and psychotic Lancaster Dodd. But it is Joaquin Phoenix, the film's center and lead that gives the standout performance of the bunch. His self-destructive, alcoholic, psychological destroyed character Freddie Quell will go down as one of his best performances. And it is Quell's struggle, and in many ways Phoenix's life struggles that seem to, in some ways, mirror his characters, that give the film its final punch in the gut, as if it needed any more.

58. The Tree of Life (2011) - Terrence Malick is really hit and miss for me. His first three features, Days of Heaven, Badlands, and The Thin Red Line were brilliant. The New World and To the Wonder were pretentious, plot less bores that did not deserve the time it took to make them. The Tree of Life (which many of you would probably rank higher) falls right in the middle for me. It is obviously good enough to make this list, but as I said, many people would probably put it higher. The first two thirds of The Tree of Life are
absolutely brilliant. If its third part had held up, this baby would probably be in my top ten. But let's not focus on that dreadful last part, which has caused ire from even Sean Penn, who unfortunately got stuck with that material. Let's instead focus on the parts that made this film one of the best of the last decade. The film's opening, with its brilliant visuals, and cosmic message are simply stunning, and provide the ethereal and macro setup for his microcosmic story line in the second part. And it is that second part that really shines. It is a simple story about a family in the 1950's. It is about a boy witnessing events that change his life, that take away part of the simplicity of his childhood. It is about conflicting views on life on the world, represented by his two parents, brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt. The way that Malick spins his gigantic cosmic look back into the simplicity of familial struggles is the sign of a true artist. It also blends seamlessly enough that you forget that there is not much plot or dialogue. Unlike say To the Wonder, these images pull together enough for the audience to comprehend his message and his goal.  The Tree of Life earned Terrence Malick his third Oscar nomination, and his second for directing. The types of films that he makes do not normally make a dent at the Oscars. They are not mainstream or linear enough for most voters. The fact that he continues to be honored, and that the film received a Best Picture nomination is proof that Malick is the master of his craft, so much so that he can transcend his genre (it is sort of like a subgenre of film) and continue to crossover across the spectrum. It is the sign of someone who is one of the best.

57. The Act of Killing (2013) - A lot of people were visibly and audibly upset when The Act of Killing lost the Best Documentary Feature Oscar last year to the feel-good 20 Feet From Stardom. But for those of us who follow the Oscar race, let's remind ourselves that considering the brutality and almost experimental form of film making that took place, it is probably a miracle that the tamer Academy even nominated it. Sometimes we all have to remember to be grateful for small victories, and in a year of incredible documentaries, its nomination is an excellent and well-deserved reward. After attaining independence from the Dutch, the Nationalist and left-leaning ruling party was overthrown by a brutal fascist regime, who then began to conduct brutal acts of violence against their political and ethnic enemies, killing over a million people.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer took the opportunity to film some of these cold-blooded killers, many of whom still stood by their actions, and asked them to reenact these killings in any fashion that they chose. Oppenheimer will most likely stand out as one of the boldest and most brilliant documentary film makers for years to come for coming up with a concept so original, so enticing, yet at the same time so brutal and downright horrifying. The fact that many remaining factions of these killers still exist in the world today, the fact that so many of these monsters were willing to gleefully give in and reenact acts that should have left these men emotionally and psychologically scarred, only to see them have seemingly no emotional connection to their brutality, is jaw-dropping, and makes for worthy and essential cinema. The Act of Killing is not for everyone, and those that are faint of heart will find it grueling, but if you can stomach it, it is worth a view. As I put it before, it is essential cinema in this day and age, to showcase ongoing genocide and violence, to show the world atrocities that can never be rectified or reversed, but maybe someday eliminated. Documentary film has the power to change hearts, minds, and the world, and The Act of Killing will go into the canon of great ones that came before it that did just that.

56. Blue Jasmine (2013) - Woody Allen is either hot or he is cold, and unfortunately, despite two great leads, his latest Magic in the Moonlight looks to be one of his colder, and fluff efforts. Of course, if you consider the pattern, this makes sense. Of course it is also hard for any film to follow the success of his 2013 effort Blue Jasmine. Woody Allen has tackled so many different genres, and this time he takes on a retooling of a classic A Streetcar Named Desire, and most importantly, retooling the great Tennessee Williams. Only
Woody Allen would dare take this on, and probably only Woody Allen could actually pull it off. He brought a contemporary sensibility and a timeliness to the material, but kept the dialogue and pacing sharp, fast, and fun, with just the right amount of dramatic twist. Even at his age, and after writing so much material, he still can crank out a gem. While Allen's work is phenomenal, the real reason to see this piece is the work of its ensemble actors. Sally Hawkins earned her first (should have at least been second) Oscar nomination, as the caring, yet fed up sister of the fallen ritzy, glam diva. She holds her own against the titan (we'll get to her in a moment), and nails her emotional moments. Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Peter Saarsgard, Michael Stulhberg, and particularly Andrew Dice Clay all round out this talented cast creating a rich tapestry of witty and emotionally screwed-up characters. But the real center of this film is Cate Blanchett. From the first moment the film was viewed, she catapulted to the top of the Oscar heap, and remained there till the very end. Blanchett is a fine actor, who rarely misses, so it says something when all of the sudden her star is even higher in the sky. It is a true testament to the power of her performance and her character on screen. She was vulnerable, psychotic, damaged, yet still desperately trying to hold on to a life she no longer had. At moments we hated her, and at moments we felt sorry for her. It is a fully-involved performance, with a wide range of a emotions, that only an actor like Blanchett could pull it off. I don't know if they will work together again anytime soon, but here is hoping to another Blanchett/Allen combo. It will be well worth the watch.

55. Never Let Me Go (2010) - I still cannot wrap by head around the fact that Never Let Me Go was battered by critics, and never took off with members of the industry. I get that it is a quiet, dreary, and depressing film that doesn't end well. But I found there to be a mastery of mood, an impeccable cast, and an emotional impact that I felt for weeks after. Never Let Me Go is, at its core, a science fiction film, but like the book, it doesn't have aliens or fantasy elements. It is a subtle form of science fiction that focuses more on the human impact than on the technical wizardry or the high flying elements. It is the story of three childhood friends all bred for the same purpose: to eventually die and given their organs to a twin somewhere else in the
world to ensure longer lifespan. That is all these creatures are bred for. They may talk, act, and look like humans, but they are essentially real-life science experiments. These three friends go through childhood, puberty, and like all children, they continue to hope. They seek out on a journey to find whether they will be ones that will be saved, they will be the exception to the rule, and that maybe, just maybe, the powers that be, will find the human qualities they so desperately hope to emulate. Director Mark Romanek, screenwriter Alex Garland, and cinematographer Adam Kimmel (who brought a similar aesthetic to Capote) create a backdrop of grey and blue colors, of sad and melancholy that while not the brightest viewing experience, creates a perfect backdrop for a tale that slowly burns its way to a devastating conclusion. The cast also deserves a lot of credit, and it should come as no surprise that these three young actors illuminate the screen. Kiera Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield are three of the best young talents working in film today, all have already reached incredible heights in their young careers both artistically and financially, and all bring their A-game to this particular project. It takes talented actors such as these to create characters that have the power to break your heart. Never Let Me Go is not a traditional film in any way, and maybe its gloomy exterior and premise is what kept it from having widespread success.  But it is a film that we should all reconsider.

54. A Separation (2011) - We forget that behind the curtain of totalitarianism and extremism of Iran's leaders, there are real people who face real challenges on a day to day basis. In light of the media storm and building tensions between Iran and the West, I think that this was the perfect film for all to see. It reminds us that there are people who are not involved in the horrible acts of a threatening government, but real people who are trying to live their day to day lives as best as they can, even with insurmountable odds. A Separation
is one of the most human and emotional films to be released in the last several years, in any language, from any country, and its popularity and effectiveness led it to an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A Separation is the story of a family that must choose between leaving Iran for the better, or staying behind to take care of a beloved older relative. It is a passionate, searing, and heartbreaking look at the choices we must make for ourselves and our family. Its cast of characters is balanced and developed in a way that would have made Robert Altman proud, and its plot is one that is full of surprises, full of fear and shock, but done in a subtle way that showcases the incredible talents of its writer/director Asghar Farhadi, as well as the talents of an incredible cast, many of whom are completely unknown to American audiences, yet still managed to make an incredible impact. In an era of movie stars and special effects, unknown Iranian actors having a great impact is proof of their talent and explosive performances on screen. A Separation is a drama, a legal quarry, a family struggle, but most importantly, it is a must-see film for all people across the globe. It will hit anyone who has ever cared for a loved one, who has ever had to make a difficult decision that could negatively impact their family. Basically, it hits anyone with a beating heart, and leaves you breathless as the final credits role. Take a look (or a second look, or maybe even a third) at A Separation, the results will astound you.

53. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) - The Wolf of Wall Street was one of the most divisive films of last year, and understandably so. Some called it another Scorsese classic, an wild and excellent dip into the realm of black comedy. Others found it to be grotesque, obnoxious, and excessive to the point of pure annoyance. For the record, yes The Wolf of Wall Street was grotesque, obnoxious, and excessive, and while that may have turned off many viewers and some critics, that was the exact point that the great Martin Scorsese was trying to get across. And since that was his goal, I think he knocked it out of the park. Like his obsessive film The Aviator, in The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese wanted his audience to become fully absorbed, and fully understand, the flawed character at its center. Jordan Belfort was, according to his and all accounts, a drugged up, boozed up, sexed up mad man whose one goal was to make as much money as
possible no matter the consequences. If that was the kind of person he was at that time, then Scorsese's film is a pitch-perfect masterpiece. It was also a nice diversion for a director whose work can be heavy at times. He made a film that, despite its incredible length, is highly engaging and entertaining, and a brilliantly dark comedy that showed that even at the age of 71, Scorsese is still an incredible visionary, and capable of still surprising his audience. But Scorsese did not act alone. Of course the great Thelma Schoonmaker deserves credit. Even though many would agree a few more days or weeks in the editing room would have created a tighter and more cohesive piece. But considering that they were both clearly rushed (according to reports out of the studio), I still think she did a hell of a job making it accessible. The cast, including a great Matthew McConaughey cameo, a breakthrough star in Margot Robbie, and the wickedly talented Jonah Hill (along with plenty of others) contributed to create an array of colorful characters. But the real triumph here is Leonardo DiCaprio. It is hard to believe that in all these years, he has only had a handful of Oscar nominations, and in each of those races, he has never managed to win one. He is one of the finest working actors today, and his manic, destructive, and brilliant performance here in The Wolf of Wall Street is only further proof on his abilities. Yes, The Wolf of Wall Street is a long, divisive, grotesque, obnoxious, and excessive film, and you should sit down and enjoy every moment of it.

52. 21 Jump Street (2012) - There are some movies that really surprise you, and in recent years, none have proved my initial opinions wrong, nor shocked me quite as much as 21 Jump Street. Let's face it, the premise sounded terrible. A barely decent 80's TV show given a comedic remake starring one funny actor, and one that, up until the recent years, was barely tolerable as an actor. No, I did not have high hopes for 21 Jump Street. But by the time I left the theater, but stomach literally hurt from laughing so much, tears had left rivulets running down my cheeks, and it was honestly the most fun I had spent in a movie theater ever. 21
Jump Street is ridiculous, but it works because it is completely aware of it. It tackles the 80's, comedy, and cop cliches head-on, and creates an indelible chemistry between its two leads. The supporting cast consisting of a straight-faced Ice Cube (who fully recognizes that he is being a terrible cliche), Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Brie Larson, and countless others provide a rich tapestry of funny characters. And the clever script, along with fast-paced and well-timed direction and editing all work in 21 Jump Street's favor. But the real reason to watch this film, is the dynamic duo of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. In 2012, Hill had just received his first, and well-deserved, Oscar nomination, and was riding high on comedic hits such as Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Funny People. So it was no surprise that he was a welcomed and successful edition to the cast. But it was Tatum that really surprised me. I personally thought he was a talent-less hack, and his choices of film roles were abysmal. But this hilarious and surprising performance (along with his great role in the still underrated Magic Mike), along with his sparkling chemistry with Hill, proved that he truly was a talent when handed the right material, and now two years later, he could be looking at his first Oscar nomination for his apparently fantastic work in Bennett Miller's upcoming Foxcatcher. Both Hill and Tatum dived into this wacky material, and embraced anything they threw at them with glee, and results were fantastic. It also spawned an incredibly funny sequel in 22 Jump Street, which added some much needed humor and quality to the summer box office, and has already become another instant comedy classic like its well-conceived predecessor.

51. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) - Dallas Buyers Club was a movie that grew on me over time. I always enjoyed it, mostly because of the stunning performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, but in the back of my mind I kind of thought that the overall script and story didn't match the quality of the two leads. So I watched it again, and when I included the fact that they had less than a month to shoot, were on a shoe-string budget, and still managed to avoid some of those dreadful cliche biopic pitfalls, I truly began to appreciate the work as a whole. That is because everyone involved was involved for the good of art, involved because they felt this was an important story to tell, and it surely was. The passion that exudes from its frames is evident across the board. Its screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, carefully constructed a script that not only allowed for excellent material for its actors, but also managed to perfectly balance the film in a way that still tugs at your heartstrings, as well as engages and entertains. And its underrated director Jean-Marc Vallee clearly had a direct and gritty vision, as well as understood the need to let his actors breathe life into their roles. So I definitely changed my mind, and in recent months have begun to really appreciate the passion, the technical feat of actually pulling it all off, and the overall product. But in
the end, I still come back to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Leto was almost unrecognizable as the transgender woman who tames Matthew McConaughey, and makes him rethink his previously homophobic views, as they team up to help their community. Some of the hardest-hitting emotional points involved Leto, and it reminded us that he really is a fantastic actor, who is much better served on the silver screen than on a rock stage. But it is McConaughey that truly brought it home for me. I always knew, even when he was rolling around in crap romantic comedies, that Matthew McConaughey was a great actor. In the last several years he has lived up to the promise of his great start (A Time to Kill, Dazed and Confused), with a string of fantastic roles that show of his charm, charisma, and talented abilities. Dallas Buyers Club was his magnum opus. He lit up the screen, tackled the role head on both physically and emotionally, and completed his career renaissance with style and poise, and an Academy Award. An honor that is worthy of one of the finest actors working today, a statement I am happy I can finally, and confidently, make.

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