Saturday, December 6, 2014

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

40. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) - Disney finally won its Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2013 with the hit Frozen, which continues to be a pop-culture phenomenon. But most people (including me) felt like Frozen should have actually  been its second win the category, the first being for 2012's Wreck-It Ralph. Wreck-It Ralph was one of the most intriguing, and stealth Disney animated films to come along in a long time. It disguised itself as a film for the guys. The story of a video game bad guy who is tired of being the bad guy, who does the unthinkable when he jumps games, and lands in a sugary-coated game that is not as rosy as it appears. There Ralph meets one of the newest Disney princesses to emerge. Yes, Disney managed to slip in a Disney princess into a movie about video games. Princess Vanellope is a plucky racer who dares to defy a vicious virus who attempts to take over the whole arcade. Voiced by none other than Sarah Silverman, she
is the most surprising, least expected, and most welcomed Disney princess to appear in the last thirty years. And kudos to the the team behind Wreck-It Ralph, led by writer/director Rich Moore, and the great team of writers for taking a classic Disney princess story and turn it into something new and exciting, unlike anything they have done before. By combining the princess story, with the lovable, unlikable hero story, Disney bridged the gap and created a film that would literally entice kids of all ages, boys and girls to its offerings. But Wreck-It Ralph doesn't succeed because of its clever trick, or its appeal to all. Wreck-It Ralph succeeds because it refuses to be labeled as simply "kid stuff". It is a smart, fun, at times sad, and always emotionally compelling film that represents the best of the genre, and has the know-how to appeal to kids of all ages, 1 to 92. It is beautifully animated, and thanks to the work of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Mindy Kaling, Ed O'Neill, and Alan Tudyk, it is a beautifully conveyed story through great voice performances. Wreck-It Ralph is the whole package, and one of the best animated films of this far.

39. Life of Pi (2012) - Life of Pi was one of those movies that I kind of ignored in that jam-packed 2012 Oscar season. It was in my Top 20 films of the year, and won some of my technical awards, so it wasn't like it didn't respect it. But I didn't quite fully grasp its brilliance until a second viewing, and two years out, I am still a bit disappointed that I kind of missed the mark. Life of Pi was a brave book to tackle. It was basically waiting on the technology to catch up with it, and waiting for a director bold enough to tackle was seemed like the impossible. We should have known that that director would be the great Ang Lee. There is literally
no genre he has not tackled at some point in his career. His filmography ranges from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to Brokeback Mountain, to The Ice Storm, to even something like Sense and Sensibility. But Lee took on his greatest challenge with Life of Pi, took home an Oscar for Best Director, and may have created what will become his most endearing work. The story of a tiger and a young man stuck on a boat trying to survive, learning to trust one another as they face the elements, Life of Pi struck a deep emotional chord, despite what some critics say, and managed to do so with few well-known actors. At its center was newcomer Suraj Sharma, who, despite his age and inexperience, proved capable of leading such a bold and daring motion picture experience. But it is Lee that deserves the most credit. He makes sense out of a sometimes confusing, and always ethereal plot and message, utilized technology to create a visually stunning film, while never forgetting to capture the heart and the human element, and made a film that was both beloved by critics, as well as accessible to larger audiences as the film grossed over $124 million dollars domestically, easily making it a genuine blockbuster. Life of Pi won four Oscars, including one for Lee, and while it lost the top prize to the crowd pleaser Argo, I think that, of the two, Life of Pi will be remembered far longer than its competition as a truly groundbreaking, and utterly absorbing film that will stand the test of time as one of this decade's best.

38. Stories We Tell (2012) - I watch a lot of documentaries every year, and while most of them are engaging and informative, there are a few that truly stay with you, and create an emotional impact that is usually only done so in works of fiction. Sarah Polley's Oscar-snubbed Stories We Tell is one of those remarkable exceptions. Stories We Tell is an intricate weaving of stories about one particular family as they reminisce about their lives, and their family history in the aftermath of a death central to the family's tale. The stories are all personal, they are all slightly different, and they are representative of the truth of human storytelling, that there is no one truth. Stories We Tell is one of those films that is hard to describe, and there
is honestly nothing else out there to really compare it to. It is one of those films that only makes sense once you have actually taken the time to watch it. So do yourself a favor. Take the time to watch it. Polley's two previous works, Away From Her and Take This Waltz are beautiful constructions of human relationships, but Stories We Tell is her finest work yet, because it is her most raw, most honest, and most emotionally compelling work of the bunch. It can at times be funny, always engaging, at times incredibly sad, and sometimes shocking. But most importantly, it is always true. Its authenticity is based on the fact that Polley never had to force anything, she never had to work in moments of truth. All she had to do was point the camera and let it flow, and that is probably what sets it apart from most of its contemporaries. It never has to fight for a moment, it never has to powerfully argue its side, all it does it let real people discuss real issues, and in the end, what we have is one of the most honest films of this decade so far, a true tale of the messy, emotional, sometimes funny, and always intriguing lives of American families. Sarah Polley has yet to release anything else since 2012, although I'm sure she is hard at work on her next project. It will be hard to top her last one.

37. Shame (2011) - Over the years, different films have tackled a variety of addictions from alcoholism to drug abuse. But never has sex addiction been dealt with before, at least not in quite the manner that Oscar-winning producer and Oscar-nominated director Steve McQueen did in 2011's haunting Shame. Shame is the story of a sex addict who has carefully constructed a world that allows him to satisfy his desires while also continuing to seemingly function in the real world. Of course when a family member shows up to stay for a while, it throws his perfectly balanced world into chaos, and forces him to finally look at this life, his
addiction, and his true emotions. Shame was rated NC-17, so unfortunately a lot of people missed out on it. Yes, it probably deserved that rating due to the large amount of sex in the film, but this film isn't about sex. It isn't a bit sexy, and it is not a bit fascinated with the act itself. Steve McQueen, and his co-writer Abi Morgan have beautifully constructed a character study, in which sex happens to play an important part. But the title of the film is Shame, as Brandon comes to the realization that his life and his addiction are not just shameful, but are ruining his chances at real love, real relationships, and real human interaction. Backed by McQueen's stunning and taut direction (which would truly come to fruition in last year's Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave), and brilliantly shot dark hues of color (thanks to the talents of the DP Sean Bobbitt, a truly talented cinematographer, who has shamefully yet to earn an Oscar nomination for his work), Shame is a fantastic mood piece, and a perfect landscape for its actors to shine. And shine did they. Carey Mulligan, as the sister who interrupts, once again proves why she is one of the best young talents working today. But it is Michael Fassbender, who many thought was criminally snubbed a nod here (I just knew the Oscar voters would not go for the film, despite his brilliance) that is the star of the show, and proves that he is a magnetic, and versatile actor, one of the best working today.

36. Blue Valentine (2010) - Blue Valentine was an audacious film. I know that that sounds like the wrong adjective, but I personally think it fits. It is incredibly rare for a film to take on not the fun part of a relationship but the hard part. To make it engaging, despite its depressing premise, is a truly incredible feat. Blue Valentine had the audacity to tackle a subject most films shy away from. It wasn't aiming at money (like most relationship movies), or at sentimental sap. Blue Valentine was a movie about romance that was striving for something far greater: the truth. In a world where films are hard to get made, where studios shy away from depressing and complicated films, it is audacious that Derek Cianfrance and his team of talented actors chose to go for it anyway. Then they throw in a twisting plot line that jumps back and forth between the beginning of the relationship, and the end, slowly working its way to reveal all the details before an explosive
finale that (literally) ends with fireworks. It is a brilliant strategy that can either seem like a cheap trick, or pay huge dividends in masterful storytelling. Luckily for us, Blue Valentines turns into the latter. Captured by a beautifully blue and dark palate from DP Andrji Parekh, Blue Valentine not only weaves a well-told story, but also casts itself as a brilliantly constructed film. But none of this would have been possible without talented actors capable of fully fleshing out these dark and complicated characters. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the best working actors today and look no further than the likes of Drive, Half Nelson, Brokeback Mountain and My Week With Marilyn if you need proof to that claim. Separately, both give layered and triumphant performances that capture both the light and the dark of this star-crossed relationship. But together they create fireworks on screen, much more interesting than the real fireworks in the background (I know I have used that twice, but it proves to be an excellent metaphor to end the film on). They fight, they love, they cry, and together they create an incredibly honest, always engaging, and fully developed look at love in the real world with real people. It is a magnificent sight to see.

35. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - When I say that it took me about five times seeing this film to actually start to comprehend all of its nuances, it is not an exaggeration. Based on the best-selling novel by John Le Carre, many of the film's critics have said that it was too complicated, too confusing, making it seem like because they could understand it fully, it meant that it was not a good film. Each person deserves their own opinion, but when I read reviews like that the words "stupid" and "lazy" come to mind. Yes, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is a confusing film, but it is one that begs to be re-watched. And if you keep re-watching it, just a few more times, you begin to understand, not only more of the plot itself, but the care and consideration that went into each detail of the film. Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for their work, and I am glad that the writers recognized the craft
that went into crafting a story that was shrouded in mystery, and that fleshes itself out the more that you watch it. It is hard to find stories with those kinds of layers, making this winning duo somewhat of an anomaly in the business. Unfortunately Tomas Alfredson, the film's director, did not get the same amount of recognition, (although a BAFTA nomination for Best Director isn't too shabby) but he should of. It takes a lot of skill to make all of the subtlety, and the twists and turns, and its large cast balance out perfectly, and Alfredson did so in style. The players on the screen were pretty great too. In supporting roles, the likes of Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Kathy Burke, John Hurt, Mark Strong, and the new it-guy Benedict Cumberbatch create a wonderful tapestry of characters, each with their own motives and secrets. But they were all there simply to help along our hero/anti-hero George Smiley. One of my favorite Oscar nominations in the last decade was the one for Gary Oldman for Best Actor. It was not predicted by a lot of people, but he made the cut, and it not only served as a nod for the work in the film, but also for a lifetime of wonderful performances that had been continually ignored. Oldman was never better than he was in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and even if you don't always understand what's going on in the plot, you always are engaged with Smiley, thanks in large part to Oldman's indelible talents.

34. True Grit (2010) - I love the Coen Brothers, but even I was weary of them tackling one of the greatest Westerns of all time, adapted from one of the greatest western novels of all time, and featuring the performance that won one of the greatest actors of all time, John Wayne, his Oscar. But I guess if anyone could do it, and make it work it would be Joel and Ethan Coen, and they did just that. The film grossed over $170 million dollars, was nominated for ten Oscars, and many purists say that it was actually closer to Charles Portis' novel than the original 1969 version. Most importantly, people recognized that this version, while impossible not to compare to the first, managed to also stand on its own as a great film. I'd say that despite the odds against them, the Coens managed to make this film into yet another success for the
talented duo. I was also impressed on just how straightforward this film was, and I really don't mean that in a bad way. Yes, I love films that are deep and complicated, but I also love films that simply tell a good story. I think the Coens found more depths than the western genre usually does. But it also captured what has made the genre such an integral part of American culture. It created unique characters, a beautiful landscape, and a tantalizing story of wild west riots, family, and revenge. Jeff Bridges makes Rooster his own, while paying tribute to Wayne's work before him, Matt Damon, smart-mouthed Hailee Steinfeld, and Josh Brolin are an excellent supporting cast, and its technical elements were simply top-notch. But none of that matters. People go into westerns for a little drama, a little humor, and a lot of good old-fashioned action, with exciting stories about the way things used to be. True Grit managed to be one of the best films of this decade so far because it never tried to be anything more than it should have been, and while Westerns may still feel like a thing of the past, it is nice to know there are filmmakers out there that appreciate the art form, and are willing to bring it back to life.

33. Silver Linings Playbook (2012) - The worst thing that ever happened to Silver Linings Playbook was the 2012 Oscar race. When Harvey went full on, well Harvey, pushed the whole mental illness connection with David O. Russell's family, shoved it down people's throats, and made people hate it because they felt like it was going to beat out more substantial work, it kind of lessened the films impact. Don't get me wrong, there were moments where I felt like the film's haters. I respect the hell out of Harvey Weinstein, but his tactics can sometimes be off-putting. But I re-watched Silver Linings Playbook recently, and I realized that if you take away all of the campaigning, it is actually an excellent film, and was one of the best of 2012, and
this decade. Silver Linings is a rough movie, its camerawork feels like a gritty independent film, and its script is a bit messy. And while it does change a lot of things about Matthew Quick's ingenuous book, was it doesn't change is its mood and feel. Silver Linings Playbook is a messy movie, and that is exactly why it was so damn good. The two main characters, played with zest and heart by Bradley Cooper and in the performance that won her an Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence, are incredibly screwed up people. Of course when your spouse either dies or cheats on you, you are allowed to be a bit nutty. Throw in some interesting family members (especially Cooper's mom and dad played by Jackie Weaver and Robert DeNiro), and Silver Linings Playbook feels just about right. It is genuinely heartbreaking, at times incredibly hilarious (Chris Tucker is a wonderful comic relief, it is nice to see him doing good work), and always engaging look at a real American family. David O. Russell has hit a stride lately of great films, and has finally earned some Oscar recognition after years of being ignored. And after years of rumors regarding his treatment of actors, he has quickly emerged as one of the best ensemble directors, a true Altman protege, who has earned his actors a total of eleven acting Oscar nominations in his last three films. And he has never been better than with Silver Linings Playbook. He lets his talented cast work the material to its fullest extent, allows his actors breathing room, and the results are fantastic. Forget all of the Oscar drama, and take a second look at Silver Linings Playbook. It is worth your time.

32. Captain Phillips (2013) - When Tom Hanks was snubbed for another Oscar nomination for Captain Phillips last year, I was so shocked. I know that the race was a tight one, with way too many contenders for five nominations. But Hanks is a legend, had gotten all the precursors he needed, and was simply fantastic in the film. But alas, he missed the cut, but that does not at all diminish his work in Captain Phillips, a well-executed, taut, and well-acted thriller based on a harrowing true story. Hanks was masterful in his role, beautifully melding together the strength of a captain, and the fear of the unknown. After almost a decade of unworthy roles for a talent of his magnitude, it was nice to see him get a worthy script and worthy character to show that he still has it. The cast as a whole, mostly unknowns, was fantastic, the standout of course being Barkhad Abdi, who was nominated for an Oscar, and won the BAFTA for his terrifying role. Abdi was a
cab driver looking for a big break. I'm sure he didn't realize that at his first time at bat, he would earn an Oscar nomination. It would have been easy to play Muse completely as the bad guy who does bad things. But Adbi found layers of depth in his character, and showed the desperation and the hunger that drove him to commit acts of terrorism and to hijack the ship. But Abdi is not the only one to thank for this depth of character. Paul Greengrass, a masterful director at the top of his game, and his screenwriter Billy Ray, who earned a well-deserved WGA Award for this work, could have easily made this a straight-forward thriller, and even then it probably would have risen above the fray. But both of them tried to focus on not just the how, but the why, showing us that hunger, poverty, third-world living, and class warfare can drive even the most humble to take extraordinary measures, good or bad. They made a connection between hostage and hijacker, which carried an emotional weight to add to the thrilling and pulse-pounding action. Framed by excellent work from Barry Ackroyd, and masterfully cut by editor Christopher Rouse (I loved Gravity, but this was one category where I felt that they should have shook things up and thrown Rouse a bone), Captain Phillips is a gritty, well-made action flick with excellent technical elements that lent the film its authenticity. Of course even if those things had not been as top-notch, its script, and its mesmerizing performances were authentic enough.

31. Fruitvale Station (2013) - I am not going to go into a long litany about Ferguson or Eric Gardner other than to say this: before either of them there was Oscar Grant. And while I hate to use the word zeitgeist (overused in my opinion), the recent events in this country make Fruitvale Station suddenly an essential part of the dialogue. Of course before these events, it was still essential, and worth a view, as it is a powerful film that doesn't need the current headlines to stand out as a remarkable piece of independent cinema. Oscar Grant was a flawed young man, who had gotten himself into a lot of trouble. But those who knew him knew that he was also a wonderfully funny and loving man who was genuinely trying to turn his life around to make a better world for his family, particularly his mother and his daughter. He recognized his past mistakes, he recognized that he was a human, and humans are flawed. But Oscar Grant could not escape his past, he
could not catch a break, and on a late night at Fruitvale Station, his life was tragically ended short at the hands of the police. Those who were there that night say that the killing was uncalled for, and the overreaction of a white cop to a young black man (and even here I am still not going to enter into current events). Played by the magnificent Michael B. Jordan, who had already done great work in the found-footage sci-fi film Chronicle, Oscar Grant's sad story, his ambitions, and his tragic death are brought to the screen with compassion and honesty. First time director Ryan Coogler, is currently working on his second feature film Creed, reuniting with Michael B. Jordan, and teaming up with Sylvester Stallone. Even if it is half the movie Fruitvale Station is, it will still be worth a view. You would have never known that Fruitvale Station was his first film based on its quality. He had an assured hand, a daring vision, and an open heart that combined for a well-made, and emotionally wrought film. I have already praised Jordan, but there is one other cast member that deserves recognition. Grieving mothers are an intricate part of so many films that at times they have become almost a stock character. But when done right, then can be the most emotionally effective characters of the film. Octavia Spencer proved her Oscar win was no fluke, and did it more than right, she was astonishing, and her pain was the pain that stung the most at film's end, and simply the look on her grieving face was enough to make audiences understand the injustice that was done.

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