30. The Fighter (2010) - Since 2010, David O. Russell has received three Best Director nominations in what has become a sort of career renaissance. The first of this trio of great films was 2010's The Fighter. The Fighter, like all of the recent David O. Russell films, is a hot mess, but I really do mean that in a good way. It
is the story of Mickey Ward, and his screwed up family including his ambitious mother Alice (Melissa Leo), his druggy brother Dickey (Christian Bale), and his fiery love interest Charlene (Amy Adams). Mickey's life is messy, it is complicated, and for every fight in the ring, there are plenty of fights outside of it. So Russell's chaotic, loud, and messy approach to the film fits absolutely perfectly into the characters that he develops, and the story he is trying to tell, and when it all concludes you realized that it has been a hell of a ride. Russell's emergence has inspired a lot of hate among commentators, bloggers, and pundits, as his style is a bit unconventional. But with The Fighter and his later projects, Russell somehow makes it work. For all the chaos in his films, there is still a surprising control of the story, and an impeccable eye and use of craft. Russell doesn't get enough credit for the success of his films because he usually has such incredible casts that are packed with talent and star power, and The Fighter is no exception. Christian Bale earned his Oscar for this role as a drug-addict who is Mickey's confidant, mentor, and coach, when he is not busy being self destructive. Bale lost weight for the role, did his research, and created an incredible character that shows his craft as an actor. Melissa Leo's Alice is a manipulative, self-interested monster that you still kind of like because for all of her evil she cares about her family and wants them to succeed. It is a layered character that earned Leo a well-deserved Oscar as well. Amy Adams was once again the bridesmaid, watching her co-star win award after awards, but she held her own against such big personalities, and proved her ability to stretch herself as an actor. Last, but certainly not least was Mark Wahlberg. Mark Wahlberg's only Oscar nomination came for his over-the-top role in The Departed, but his best work came here in The Fighter. He may not have been as loud and brash as his co-stars, but he was the heart and soul of the film, proved that he really is a talented actor that doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
29. Argo (2012) - Argo got a lot of flack in that 2012 Oscar season, including from this blogger. My favorite film of the year was Lincoln, and I just couldn't understand why it wasn't winning Best Picture. Yes, I look back and realize that I was being irrational and petty, but when your in the heat of the moment of Oscar season, and you love a film, you can't help but be a bit ridiculous. If I wasn't passionate about what I was doing, I would have given up the game years ago. I recently re-watched Argo, and while I still think it is a pale comparison to Lincoln, I truly began to understand why it was so well-liked by critics, moviegoers, and the industry. Argo is a great film. It is a fun, thrilling film that shows us a slice of history previously unknown, and shows us the talents of a film maker that has finally hit his stride. Ben Affleck was one of my least
favorite actors, and honestly he was not a good actor, until he got himself behind the camera. I think as soon as he got a different perspective, he became a better actor in the process. And Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo proved that Affleck has a real eye behind the camera. He impeccably crafts this story and gives it its energy. And I hate that we have to wait till 2016 to see his next directorial achievement Live By Night, which looks to be another historical film, this time set in Prohibition. The one award I was particularly mad it won was the SAG Ensemble award. Once again, I was being stupid, and petty, because when I re-watched, I realized how great of an ensemble piece it was. You had the biggies like Affleck, Arkin, Cranston, and Goodman. But you had plenty of great performances from character and television actors including Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, and Clea DuVall. They crackled with the script, added much needed comedic relief, and yes, earned that ensemble win. Argo is one of those films that will continue to inspire hate from so many. When a film is successful, it always inspires backlash. But from now on, I am going to keep my mouth shut about it, because hindsight is always 20/20. Argo won Best Picture because it was a well-made, well-acted, entertaining historical thriller that is worth a second view.
28. The Descendants (2011) - I loved Kaui Hart Hemming's novel about a struggling family in Hawaii after their mother/wife falls into a coma after a boating accident with the man she was having an affair with. It was warm and funny, but also deeply complicated and emotional. These two poles blended seamlessly together into an inspiring work. I was so happy to see that Alexander Payne, of the best American directors working today, and his team of talented screenwriters were able to perfectly capture and translate Hemming's work to the screen. Did I mention that Payne is one of the best directors working today? Luckily the Directors Branch of the Academy has recognized his work, because there are still plenty out there that do not rank him
high enough. His films may not be flashy or considered incredible directorial achievements, but in their own way they are great achievements because he has created a class of films that explore the American people in life, death, and always adding rich and dark comedy, as life always seems to do. The Descendants is yet another notch in Payne's belt, and yet another great portrait of real people in real situations. Payne also brought out the best in George Clooney an actor I respect, but I also feel relies on his charm to overcome a lot on screen. There is a certain amount of that in The Descendants, as always, but Clooney, who has always done well at comedy, also hits his dramatic and emotional notes with ease. He is the heart and soul of The Descendants, and he does probably his best acting work to date by embracing his role. Another standout among the cast was Shailene Woodley, who narrowly missed out on an Oscar nomination for the role. Up until this role she was best known for her work on the TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which is not something to necessarily to be proud of. But her fiery and complicated part in this film showed the world her incredible talents and since then has continued to shine in films such as The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, and is now a huge box office star thanks to Divergent. The cast was great, but in the end the credit and the success goes full circle back to Payne. He doesn't make too many films, in the last decade, only three. But when he does, he knocks it out the park.
27. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Beasts of the Southern Wild was the little indie that could. It was made on a practically nonexistent budget by a young filmmaker with completely unknown actors. The fact that this film went on to earn four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress is a true testament to the power and the vision behind this piece. When Benh Zeitlin got the last slot for Best Director in early 2013, there was an audible gasp in the crowd, and I'm sure there were plenty more around the world. But if you go back and watch Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is not hard to see why the Directors Branch found love for the film. It is gritty, most likely due to the low budget, but there are some incredible shots, the vision is bold and inventive, and honestly, it is hard to tell that this is his first full-length
film. Little Quvenzhane Wallis has become a movie star thanks to her role here, and Dwight Henry got a lot of positive buzz off of his role. Both were completely unknown actors that brought an authenticity to the screen, but you never once doubted their skill and talent. Both are clearly talented actors, and with Benh Zeitlin's skill they were able to give powerful and magnetic performances, even though it was their first time at bat. But Zeitlin, and his co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar, deserve most of the credit for Beasts of the Southern Wild's success. They beautifully constructed a not-so-distant future that speaks to a number of issues including poverty, climate change, and growing-up. They also shrouded their story in darkness so that hope and courage, in the form of Hushpuppy, could find the light. It was an exuberant film experience, a pitch-perfect Southern noir that came from nothing, and became a profound hit, and one of the best films of the decade.
26. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - This year, Wes Anderson finally earned his first Academy Award nomination for directing, and The Grand Budapest Hotel became the first film of his to earn a Best Picture nomination. For those of us who have been following Anderson's films and his career, these honors are a long time coming. Many of us also thought he might finally cross that threshold in 2012 with Moonrise Kingdom. Alas he did not, but he did earn another screenplay nomination, oh and he created one of his finest films to date. The biggest complaint that most people have about Wes Anderson films is that for all of their quirk, they seem to be lacking heart. Moonrise Kingdom, a sweet tale of young love and rebellion, was the
first film that finally silenced his critics. Don't get me wrong, like all of his films, Moonrise Kingdom was wacky, clever, and quirky comedy that was a nice combination of funny and odd. Like all of his films, the cast was large and quite impressive. Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, and Bob Balaban make up the incredible adult cast, all of whom are on their A-Game. And new additions Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play the young couple at the center of the film, and both clearly have a grasp of the Wes Anderson quirk. And of course, the cinematography, production design, setting, score, and costumes provide plenty of charming backgrounds that capture the unique aesthetic of its director's vision. But what sets Moonrise Kingdom apart, is its heart. It is not some cheesy or weepy heart-string tugger. But it has a layer of sweetness to it that adds just the right amount of depth to make Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson's most accessible, and probably best film to date (a close race with The Grand Budapest Hotel). It would have been nice to see him take home an Oscar, but one day he will, and when he does it will be a win that will surely resonate with film lovers around the world.
25. The Help (2011) - Before you begin to criticize this pick, just stop while you are ahead. Yes, The Help, both its source material, and the film itself, are a bit pat. Yes, they gloss over too much of the true violence and hatred of the South during the Civil Rights Movement, and yes, its balancing humor really does evolve around someone eating a shit pie. But first, if you didn't pump your fists and laugh out loud when Hilly ate that pie, then you have no heart, because it was funny as hell, and she got exactly what she deserved. But I digress. The Help is still one of my favorite films of this decade despite its obvious flaws, and the reason should be crystal clear. I love movies where actors get to just go free and tear up the screen, and The Help has one of the best casts in recent memory. It was a huge hit led by a cast of women, proving Cate Blanchett's point that the world is really round. Viola Davis was robbed of an Oscar for her hauntingly
beautiful and devastating performance. That last scene was so emotional, yet so controlled, showing the skill of one of our finest actors working today. Octavia Spencer did win that Oscar (Thank God at least one of them did), for showing us Minnie's strength, her sass, and her vulnerabilities. Emma Stone gets some great screen time as our lead, and her journey to expose a world not seen by many was noble. Jessica Chastain played Spencer's dynamic duo of a lost and weak young wife who found strength in herself, and her friend. Of course every film has a villain, but Bryce Dallas Howard managed to find some depth to her hatred, and gave us someone worthy to root against. Allison Janney was a scene-stealer, as always, and between her performance and Sissy Spacek there was plenty of comic relief. Throw in a dose of the great Cicely Tyson, and as I said, you quite simply have one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory. These women lit up the screen, showed strength and courage, as well as incredible acting ability, and took what would have been a mediocre project and turned it into something wonderful.
24. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) - The YA genre of books has exploded over the last several years, and take it from this librarian, it has expanded well beyond its age group. Within this expansions there have been two distinctly different tracks. You either have the dystopia, futuristic action flicks, or the heartfelt and honest looks at real life. Both have their merits, and both have been wildly succesful in their translations to the big screen. But I have profoundly preferred the real stories, with films like The Fault in Our Stars (not eligible for this list) and The Spectacular Now (already on this list), and the same writing duo of those two films is tackling John Green's Paper Towns, and I'm sure the results will be splendid. But before all of those films was Stephen Chbosky's own adaptation of his hit novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. While the film is marketed for a younger audience it has universal appeal, and while it was not quite the hit that things like The Hunger Games and Divergent were, it was a worthy entry into a stuffed canon of films that not only
stood out, but was successful in its own right. The script beautifully captured the heart and pain of the novel, and Chbosky, despite not being separated from the original work, was able to know when to leave things out, and when to move things when necessary to make the film experience a reflection of the work, while its own entity (something I honestly think was the main problem with Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn, even though I liked the film). But it is our trio of leading actors here that steal the screen, and it is probably this work, among other quality entries that has launched a new generation of talented actors. Emma Watson proved that she was not a one tricky Harry Potter pony with a well-thought and beautifully constructed character. Logan Lerman had a quiet charm that at just the right moments had the ability to knock you over. But it was Ezra Miller, already a standout from his work in City Island and We Need to Talk About Kevin that proved that he is a magnetic screen presence with an electricty that is infectious and lights up the entire ensemble around him. These three create an unforgettable team, and combined with a refreshingly real and honest look at real life at that age, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was easily the best coming of age film of the decade so far.
23. Please Give (2010) - Nicole Holofcener has a track record of great ensembles going into the depths of dark comedy that are both difficult to watch and also incredibly entertaining and funny, a hard combination to pull off. Enough Said, Friends With Money, and Lovely & Amazing are all excellent pieces that show off her skill, and her ability to assemble a great combination of actors. Her 2010 work Please Give is my second favorite piece of hers (as you will see!), and it is easily one of her best films to date. It is the story of an incredibly selfish and yet outwardly unselfish and guilty couple who are waiting on their elderly neighbor to die, so that they can buy her apartment and combine the two. Yes, it is an incredibly cynical. But Holofcener's script adds just enough bite, and just a dash of the right amount of humor to pull you along despite wanting to literally hit some of these characters over the head with something large. Plus the characters that she creates are mind-boggling complex. They are incredibly screwed up, flawed, and yet you understand why they are the way they are. You want to see how their journey ends, you want to see if they are capable of what you think they are. It is tragedy and comedy blended together in a way that keeps you engrossed. Of course none of this would be possible without a knock-em dead cast. Veteran Ann Morgan Guilbert, yes Yetta from The Nanny, proves her comedic chops here, and takes what could be one of those thankless "grandma roles" and makes it worth watching. Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet, two incredibly under-rewarded actors, playing polar opposite sisters work well against each other. But it is the family in the center of the drama, played by Oliver Platt, Sarah Steele, and particularly the incredibly talented Catherine Keener that anchor the ensemble with their witty, and psychologically fascinating family dynamic. Please Give is not a film for everyone, and it certainly has its detractors, but it is a fascinating tragic comedy that is worth a second look.
22. 50/50 (2011) - Pairing cancer diagnosis and treatment with a Seth Rogen, pot-head style comedy is a huge risk to take. You either end up killing all of the humor out of the film, or you end up taking too lightly such a serious subject. It is a fine line, and it takes skillful writers, directors, and actors to balance out both sides in a way that really works. Luckily for us, 2011's 50/50 had all three. First and foremost is the work of writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine, but particularly Reiser's script. I don't honestly know how he managed to pull it off, but this is film where one minute you are literally laughing your ass off, and the next minute you feel the tears welling up in your eyes because their is a touch of truly effective emotion. Like I said, it is a tough balance, but Reiser easily pulls it off, and when I look back at snubs for screenplays, this
one is high on the list. Luckily, while the Academy ignored it the Writers Guild of America did give it a well-deserved nomination. It was nice to see that writers recognized the skill, care, and impeccable talent it took to pull it off. The acting is as good as the script, particularly its two leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. Gordon-Levitt has made his mark several times, and it was not a shock to me that he was able to pull off the role with ease. But it was Seth Rogen that surprised me. He did a lot of his funny Seth Rogen stuff, which always works, but it is not a surprise anymore. But he also really dug deep, and took the buddy comedy approach to the film to new depths. The success of the film depended on him stretching himself as an actor, and he pulled it off. The supporting cast pulled its own weight as well. Bryce Dallas Howard plays a good bitch in many roles (from what I have seen from her interviews, she herself is not one at all, but damn she nails it in several different films), and Anna Kendrick, despite not having as much to do as I would have hoped, still makes her mark. The real star though among these talented women is the fantastic Angelica Huston. As the mother trying to make sense of her son's disease, her performance is the one among the bunch that had the most effect on me, and seriously broke my heart. 50/50 remains a beacon for film comedies that want to be smart, have a lot of heart, and still make you laugh till you cry. It is a rare but incredibly delicious treat when you get all three.
21. Mud (2012) - Mud is one of those films that did not make much of a dent on the overstuffed 2012 Oscar circuit. A few critics nods, the Robert Altman Award at the Indie Spirits, and some film festival notices were about it for the film. I get it. 2012 was a great year for awards-friendly films, and it simply, not for lack of quality, just got lost in the shuffle. Well I hope that maybe these few sentences from this paragraph will make you dust it out of the pile, and rediscover what is truly a gem of a film. Led my Matthew McConaughey, the mysterious drifter with a haunted past, Mud is chocked full of talented veterans, bright newcomers, and combined it is one of the best ensembles in recent memory. McConaughey, who was in the middle of his career rejuvenation was fantastic. Reese Witherspoon in a limited role as the abused girl who Mud longs for once again, gives us a incredibly effective look at long-lost love and the horrifying results of
domestic abuse. It might have been a small role, but that character, and the pain that she suffered, may have helped her find her grit and her pain in Wild, which earned her a second Oscar nomination. The two kids in the film, Jacob Lofland, but particularly the fantastic Tye Sheridan act way beyond the abilities of many older actors working today. Sheridan, of course, is the lead, and since Mud he has done some more incredible work, and it looks like he has some incredibly baity projects on the horizon. He is one to watch for in the not so distant future. Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Ray McKinnon, and the always incredible Sarah Paulson round out a great ensemble piece. But at its heart and center is the work of its writer/director Jeff Nichols. It is hard to believe that Mud is only Nichols' third film. His first Shotgun Stories has some issues, but Take Shelter was a jaw-dropping masterpiece (as you shall see). Mud continues his streak, and sets him up as one of the most unique and daring young filmmakers working today. He has captured the art of telling brilliant Southern gothic tales that are an unusual, but incredibly well blended mix of horror, action, thriller, romance, and rural attitude. Mud is a handsome mix of all these elements, and while it could have been an awkward piece with random tonal shifts, Nichols steady hand and brilliant script hold it together marvelously.