Saturday, October 11, 2014

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

50. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010) - Harry Potter was split into two films in order to preserve the integrity of J.K. Rowling's sprawling finale. Unfortunately, since then, every major book to film series has done the same thing, in an attempt to cash in more money at the box
office. Of the bunch (The Hobbit, Twilight, and we'll see about The Hunger Games), Harry Potter is the only franchise which as justified the split. Part I of Deathly Hallows could have been a clunky and boring film that simply sets up the finale, and while it does pale in comparison to part II, I was so thrilled to see that it held up as an excellent film that happens to stand on its own merits. To be honest, yes most of this film is exposition, but writer Steve Kloves, and director David Yates never let the plot lag one bit. They keep things moving, throw in enough action to satisfy the fan boys, and bring A-Game technical elements that were some of the best in the field. What Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows truly achieved though, was emotional depth, depth that would play out beautifully in the series' final chapter. It developed its characters, and prepared them for their ultimate fates. It did justice to Rowling's work, and yet managed to make it its own. And in the films final scenes, we see the stakes that lie ahead for our characters, as a beloved one is killed, one of many that would perish in the final battle between good and evil. It is hard to be the redheaded step-child of a film series (actually that description probably belongs to The Order of the Phoenix), whose only purpose is to serve its final act. But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I managed to rise above its meager expectations, and prove to be a unique and necessary entry into one of the best, and most popular film series of all time.

49. Looper (2012) - When I heard that Rian Johnson was directing two of the new Star Wars films, I knew that I had reason to be excited. He has lent his directorial efforts to Breaking Bad, so we know he can master tension and mood and 2005's Brick was a solid thriller. But the real reason to get excited about Rian Johnson is that he has already had an awesome entry into the sci-fi film canon with 2012's Looper. Looper has a pretty dense science fiction base. When the mob, way into the future, wants to kill some one, they send the victim into the past, where someone immediately kills
them. Joe, played by both Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those killers, who soon realizes that his past and future self will meet in order to eliminate him. Looper has one of those plots that could bog down the film with simply too much science fiction for its own good. But in the hands of Rian Johnson, Looper avoids all of those potential pitfalls, and quickly emerged as one of the best science fiction films to hit theaters in the last decade. Two engaging leads, whose chemistry was enigmatic, were able to pull off playing the same role with ease. A solid supporting cast including Piper Perabo, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, and particularly the always underestimated Emily Blunt (who also proved to be well suited to her role in this year's Edge of Tomorrow, maybe she has a career in science fiction), round out the cast well.  But it is Rian Johnson and his technical team that deserve the most credit for Looper's success. It has top notch technical elements that keep the visuals and sounds sharp, and mesmerizing to the eyes and ears. And most importantly, it takes the classic science fiction concept of time travel in the future, and manages to give it a breath of fresh air, a refreshing twist on an old theme. The dialogue is sharp, the action perfectly timed, with plenty of room in between to develop its story lines and its characters. Most science fiction, fantasy, or action blockbusters that come about nowadays focus on blowing up as much stuff as possible. They all should take a lesson from Looper, and find out how to exercise the audience's mind and heart, as well as blow a bunch of stuff up.

48. Short Term 12 (2013) - Dealing with at-risk youths is a job for angels, those who have the patience and the stomach to deal with issues that many of these kids face. Short Term 12 is about not only the struggles of many of today's youth, the struggles of poverty, violence, and lack of parental support, but also about those that take on the task of trying to rehabilitate these kids to attempt to give them a better future than their lot in life originally allotted them. A tremendous cast of talented young actors is led by the mesmerizing Brie Larson, in a role that earned her a butt load of recognition. She
plays Grace, a young counselor whose decisions and choices not only affect her personal relationships, but end up affecting her kids as well. Short Term 12 was made on a small budget, featured mostly unknown actors, and yet that might have been its strongest component. The result is a completely organic, and realistic look at the scars of life. Its authenticity is balanced with brimming humor, scarring darkness, and a rhythm that mirrors that ups and downs of life perfectly. The acting, particularly Larson's central performance, is top notch. The script from Destin Daniel Cretton is, as I have said before, completely organic, and perfectly balances emotion, humor, and pain. His direction is simplistic, letting the actors work out the material without too many flashes and bangs, and it is a strategy that pays off. What I love most about Short Term 12 is its enduring hope in humanity. No matter how bad things get, it shows us that there is always light buried in the darkness. It is by no means a gushy or corny film, in fact it can be harsh to watch the events as they unfold, but it holds its center that these people are trying to make the world a better place, one troubled teen at a time. It is a message that will stand the test of time, and I hope that years from now people are still watching Short Term 12, and taking away its teachable moments about life as we know it.

47. Young Adult (2011) - Jason Reitman has hit a bit of a speed bump lately with Labor Day pretty much bombing, and Men, Women & Children landing incredibly soft on the fall festival circuit. Many people would include 2011's Young Adult as part of that decline, simply because it didn't get the awards recognition that his previous efforts Juno and Up in the Air did. I however, think that Young Adult was another excellent effort for the director, and truly believe that the reason a lot of people couldn't get behind it was because it was unlikable. I have never understood that whole "likable" argument anyway. I guess that the theory goes that just because a film featured unlikable people, or in general had an unpleasant overtone, it automatically means it is un-watchable. While
that sometimes may be true, luckily Young Adult was not one of them. Its central character, Mavis Gary, was brilliantly portrayed by Charlize Theron, in a role that should have earned her a third Oscar nomination. She brilliantly balances Mavis' evil, her delusion, and her vulnerabilities. The supporting cast is great, and it is Patton Oswalt who gives a surprisingly deep and heartfelt performance of a man whose torture in high school still haunts him. These are two individuals who had a hard time escaping the trappings of high school. One because of his physical and emotional scars, and the other because of her delusional refusal to actually grow up. They create an endearing duo that is at times hard to watch, and at other times, incredibly engaging and funny. The wonderful script from Oscar winner Diablo Cody creates a perfect balance of cringe-worthy drama, and laugh out loud hysterics. Young Adult succeeds because it refuses to shy away from the moments that make you cringe or wince, and it tackles the mental issues of Mavis and of Matt with a clear head and a strong sense of dark comedy that simply works. For anyone who has ever had a hard time with high school, for anyone who has ever felt like the will never outgrow the pain and pettiness of those formative and sometimes awful four years, then Young Adult is an important film, and despite popular belief, further proof that when the right elements combine, Reitman can pull off quite a cinematic punch.

46. ParaNorman (2012) - I recently went on a 2012 Best Animated Feature re-watch, and while I still love Wreck-It Ralph, it was ParaNorman that stuck out to me even more on a second viewing. ParaNorman is the story of a boy who can see the dead. No its not a Sixth Sense rehash. It is a sweet tale about a young boy who finds understanding among the dead, and fights to preserve both the living world and the dead one, and break an ancient curse. ParaNorman has many of the same themes
that have run through children's and teen films in recent years. Norman is bullied at school for being weird, and smaller than the other boys, his sister and parents do not understand his struggle, and there is even a sly reference to gay teens, and breaking through stereotypes. Yet ParaNorman is anything but stereotypical. It doesn't hit these messages over the head too much to the point of being cheesy or too obvious, yet it doesn't sweep them under the rug, nor belittle their importance. Instead it seamlessly blends them into a heart-racing, visually stunning, and wildly entertaining animated film that will appeal to kids of all ages (yes that includes you adults out there). Its voice cast is top notch including Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, and the late great Elaine Stritch, who was particularly fantastic as Norman's grandmother. It is also a sweet, sometimes terrifying, and always engaging film that educates, entertains, and perfectly blends horror, fantasy, humor, and humanity to perfection. ParaNorman had the unfortunate fate of being up against Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph, and Brave when it came to awards, although a few brave critics groups broke from the mainstream and gave it well-deserved honors. After a second viewing, I recognize now that it is just as distinctive and well-made as any of those other films and deserves to not be forgotten any time soon.

45. Holy Motors (2012) - I have seen Holy Motors three times since it premiered in 2012, and I still don't fully understand what the hell happened from beginning to end. But with Leos Carax's Holy Motors, I don't think it actually matters. Holy Motors is the story of one night with a man named Monsieur Oscar. He completely becomes several different people at each of his stops along his strange journey of just a few hours. Denis Lavant brilliantly portrays the varying characters of Oscar's repertoire, completely becoming each character. It is a jaw-dropping performance with an incredible degree of difficulty. Not only did Lavant have to become so many characters and bring them to life as unique entities, but he also had to embrace the madness. Yes, Holy Motors is one of the strangest films, brilliantly brimming with ferocious energy that not only verges, but completely goes over the
cliff of madness. Leos Carax has a vision, and I think decades from now, that film scholars will still debating all the twists and turns, all the method to his madness. But until then, we must accept what is laid before us. Holy Motors is a visually enticing film, packed full of bright colors, flashing lights, and stunning cinematography. It is chocked full of music that makes your heart and head thump. Its stylistic approach is unlike anything I have ever seen on the screen. Its jump from persona to persona is so intertwined with the mood and the visual feel, that yes it can sometimes be confusing. But if you let yourself go for a while, stop trying to think it through all the way, and simply sit back and enjoy the events as they come, then you will have a much more enjoyable time with Holy Motors. It is not a film you watch, it is a film you feel, and while you may be a bit numb at the end of it, like any good trip it is worth the journey. Holy Motors was not seen by most average moviegoers. However, the Cesar Awards in France gave it a stunning nine nominations, it won and was nominated for many critics awards, and it made it on to a lot of top ten lists. It is time you add it to your list as well.

44. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) - The Coen Bros are two of the finest screenwriters and finest film makers working today. They have won a plethora of Academy Awards, their films are almost always hits with critics, and I cannot wait to see what they do with their upcoming script for Unbroken. While their straight up dramas like No Country for Old Men and True Grit have played better with the Academy, I personally love their comedies, and their quirkier, grittier dramas that show off their unique style. 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis was one of their finest, and underrated films in that vein (although 2 Oscar nominations is nothing to be ashamed of). It is the story of Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in the 1960's, who is a talented, yet starving artist, whose irritable and mooching personality makes him somewhat unlikable. Davis travels far to achieve his dream, he leans on his friends, family, and his lovers to try to make his dream, no matter how out of reach, come true. But Inside
Llewyn Davis is not a feel-good story about a plucky folk singer who rises to fame. No Inside Llewyn Davis is about an artist that decides, despite all of his talent, to give up. I think it is this basic plot line that prevented the film from becoming an awards favorite. What industry wants to reward a film that is about giving up on that industry? What group of artists wants to recognize one of their own who decided that the risk was no longer worth the reward? Whatever their reasoning, it is there lost, and twenty five years from now when critics and film lovers are still talking about the film, then they will be turning their heads in shame that they missed the opportunity to reward it when it presented itself. Oscar Isaac, as the leading player, was jaw-droppingly good in a role that has made him one to watch among the film community. He was vulnerable, unlikable, yet somehow endearing in a layered and subtle performance that shows his talent as a actor. Scene-stealing supporting roles from the likes of Carey Mulligan and John Goodman round out the performances well, but in the end it is the Coens that, not surprisingly, rise to the top. Their brilliant script, taut direction, along with Bruno Delbonnel's dark and pitch perfect cinematography, create the perfect mood, the perfect balance of great music, great performances, dark comedy, and painful drama that blends together for a slightly depressing, and always brilliant film.

43. Win Win (2011) - Early in 2011, a small indie comedy hit the screens with little fanfare, not much box office, and it quickly faded off the Oscar map despite some initial buzz. However, it did come back around come awards time with some recognition including an ALMA nomination, Critics Choice Award Nomination, an Indie Spirit nomination, various critical nominations, and a coveted WGA nomination for the wonderful script. While it failed to make much of a mark on the bigger awards ceremonies, I was so delighted to see even a small amount of recognition for Thomas McCarthy's winning, and delightful Win Win. His latest film, The Cobbler, landed with a thud at Toronto this year, which is a real shame, because McCarthy is such a talent both behind the camera, and behind a word processor. Win Win is the story of a lawyer and local wrestling coach who takes
on a case in order to collect the check that comes with it. Along with the check comes some baggage in the form of a troubled teenage boy, who happens to also be a star wrestler. As the two become close, complications arise including the return of a wayward parent, the truth about motivations, and the struggle to become a champion. In one of his more emotional and resonant roles to date, Paul Giamatti brilliantly balances his desperate economic outlook, with being a caring father figure for a troubled young man. Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young round out a talented and involved cast whose total talents melt perfectly into a well-rounded ensemble piece. Backing them up is a quiet, funny, and emotional resonant script from McCarthy, that is well-paced, full of excellent character development, sad, sweet, and funny all at the same time. Win Win is one of those movies that sneaks up on you, grabs your heart and your funny bone, and never lets up. It was a quiet film that turned out to be one of the best of 2011, and one of the best of this decade so far.

42. Black Swan (2010) - I don't know if any Darren Aronofsky film will ever top his work in 2000's Requiem for a Dream, but in 2010 (and in 2008 with The Wrestler) he got pretty damn close with his psychological ballet thriller Black Swan. Let me run that description by you one more time: psychological ballet thriller. Only Aronofsky has the mind and the vision to pull off a psychological thriller about ballet dancers. Like Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan is a visually stylish film, where the actual events, and the delusional and sickly fantasy moments are blended so seamlessly that you have to guess which world you are actually watching. But like Requiem, unless your cast is willing to
embrace your unconventional style, and dive into the depths of your emotional blackness, the way that Aronofsky expects his actors to do, then the project will not achieve any measure of success. Luckily, Aronofsky was surround by capable actors and stunning performers that were willing to dive into the depths of his darkness.Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, and Mila Kunis all bring their A-game to the mix in scene-stealing supporting roles, but it is Natalie Portman that truly shines. We know the training that went into her performance was intense and showed great determination and dedication to her craft (despite that faux controversy), and she completely dives into the psychological depth of her character full force. It was a tour-de-force that earned her an Oscar, and proved that she was a talent to watch for (although since then she has yet to find a role that has matched this one's greatness). Every description so far of Black Swan has made it seem like one of those dark indie films that is only seen by those in the industry, small groups of cinephiles, and critics. But Darren Aronofsky and his team were able to blend the darkness with enough engagement to make Black Swan an accessible film that went on to become a smash at the box office, and gross over $100 million dollars at the domestic box office, a feat that shocked the numbers guys, and enticed millions of movie goers across the country. It shows the mark of a true talent that can make those two elements, dark indie and blockbuster smash, work together in harmony, so we should all praise Portman, Aronofsky, and the team behind this strange smash.

41. The Spectacular Now (2013) - The Spectacular Now joins The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a new trio of young adult books adapted to the big screen. I know you could probably also include the likes of Divergent, Twilight, The Maze Runner, and The Hunger Games. But these three in particular stand out. First of all, unlike those other ones, these three films are actually pretty damn good (okay The Hunger Games movies have been good so far). Second, these films are not distopia, futuristic, or have vampires in them. They are realistic tales of teens in the modern age. They are about real things, like love, disease, sexuality, friendship, and it is these elements that have made them such a refreshing part of modern youth cinema. When most people think of high school films, they picture Grease, or some of those 80's comedies starring Molly
Ringwald and Matthew Broderick. While those films have their merits, they are simply there for fun. The Spectacular Now has its fun moments, but at its heart and core it is a fascinating drama, a wonderfully honest romance, and pitch perfect modern day story about the struggle of high school, the complexities of first love, and the reality of tragedy. At its center is an incredibly well-written script by Scripter nominees Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, which beautifully captures the spirit, wit, and emotion of Tim Tharp's remarkable young adult novel. But what we see play out on screen, that so beautifully unfolds, is due to the remarkable chemistry and stunning performances of its two young leads. Both Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller are getting plenty of Oscar buzz and praise for their performances in Whiplash and The Fault in Our Stars respectively, which is well-deserved to say the least. While well-deserved, it is not at all shocking, at least not to me. These two were simply extraordinary in The Spectacular Now. They radiate from the screen, fully capture the emotion of the story, and suck the audiences into their spellbinding love. This incredible film was just the beginning for Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. I can't wait to see how their journeys play out.

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