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 decade...so 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
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
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
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
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