Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Celebrating a Decade of The Awards Psychic: Top 100 Films of 2009-2019, Part V

60. Ex Machina (2014) - Alex Garland's Ex Machina was the surprise of awards season a couple of years ago. It only ended up getting two Oscar nominations, although it dethroned Star Wars for Best Visual Effects in a stunning upset. But throughout the season, it was the surprise film that kept popping up in the conversation. That is because Alex Garland and his team created an amazingly emotional, finely tuned, and understated science fiction adventure whose darkness, commentary, and tense nature kept audiences glued to the screen to see what was going to happen next. Not only were Garland's direction and screenplay smart, taut, and brilliant, but at he also brought out three incredible performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Issac, and Alicia Vikander. It is Vikander's role that was the most mesmerizing, as it took incredible skill to pull off the delicate balance of her character. She ended up winning her Oscar for The Danish Girl (another great performance), but many, including me, attributed Ex Machina to helping her cross the finish line. Ex Machina may not have the pop, flash, or action sequences of most science fiction films, but it has all the heart and the message, and it is a beautiful example of how to elevate a genre.

59. Take Shelter (2011) - I have to admit that I am a Jeff Nichols junkie. Even his lesser efforts showcase a talented director with a brilliant eye for human stories. Of his films, one of my top favorites is Take Shelter, which while not his debut, it was his breakthrough hit. Part horror movie, part suspenseful thriller, part family drama, Take Shelter is a slow-building crescendo to an impeccable story climax that leaves the audience breathless. At its center is the fine work of Nichols, who truly has an impeccable eye, and the jaw-dropping performance of Michael Shannon, one of the finest actors working today. The character's slow descent into madness is incredibly frightening, because it feels all too real. That because it is done out of love for his family. While there is a dose of supernatural elements in the storytelling, at its center, it is the human story that still resonates almost a decade later.

58. The Post (2017) - Steven Spielberg has become a machine at pushing out quality historical films. He has, top to bottom, one of the best rosters of crew members of any director working today. Each film they turn out has amazing cinematography, an amazing score, beautiful sets and costumes, and amazing effects. He also has the pleasure of being able to attract some of the best working actors around. The Post is a great story, with a solid script, and beautifully edited tension that keeps you engaged. But The Post was completely elevated by its amazing cast, who capture the heart of this sad, important, and unfortunately still relevant story. Of course there is Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who consistently prove why they are two of the best actors working today, and true American treasures. But the depth of the roster is jaw-dropping, and even the smallest role is played by a hard-working character, stage, or television actor who breaths life into just a few lines. Names like Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jessie Mueller, Jessie Plemmons, Alison Brie, Zach Woods, and Carrie Coon populate this deep list, and they bring so much to the ensemble. Spielberg is always going to make good films, he is just the best. But it is rare to see this high level of perfect ensemble work, and the final result shows it.

56. Sicario (2015) - Before Denis Villenueve was the next great science fiction director, he tackled several crime thrillers with gusto. Of his earlier work, Sicario stands out. It is a timely, taut thriller about a government task force attempting to stop the drug war at the border. It opens with a bang, and then slowly builds its tension around action-packed, emotional, and horrifying set pieces, all leading up to a violent, shocking, and unfortunately true finale. The cast of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all magnificent as they weave this tale of money, drugs, violence, and betrayal. This is yet another in a long string of amazing performances from Emily Blunt, which constantly serve as a glaring reminder that she has still yet to receive an Oscar nomination. This is stain on the current Academy, and I hope they correct it soon. But this is Villenueve and Taylor Sheridan's film. That combination of a quiet, yet effective script, a trademark of Sheridan's short, but awesome screenwriting career (now directing), and Villeneuve's assured, taut, emotionally effective direction, made Sicario one of the best thrillers, and best films of the last decade.

55. Wonder Woman (2017) - DC has had its rough spots. Its Justice League, Suicide Squad, Batman, and Aquaman movies have all been gigantic messes (although they made a lot of money). The one shining gem in that otherwise trash heap of films is Patty Jenkin's Wonder Woman. DC knew that Wonder Woman had to be a film that had female empowerment at its core, if it was going to do justice to the beloved heroine. Hiring Patty Jenkins was their best move since hiring Christopher Nolan. Her indie sensibilities brought a renewed lens to the DC world , which was chocked full of too many die hard male fanboys with a lack of style, substance, or ability. Her control of this film is absolutely amazing, and her insistence of crafting a superhero story that puts the characters at the center lets the film connect with audiences. Of course, the film still has amazing costumes, visual effects, sound design, and action set pieces that superhero fans love. It also has historical context, great mythology, a great cast, led by breakout star Gal Gadot, who truly commands the screen and takes this character by storm, and a screenplay and direction that are above and beyond the expectations for this genre. It is those things that make Wonder Woman one of the best.

54. Avatar (2009) - Avatar has sure taken its beatings over the years. Even recently, as Avengers: Endgame surpassed its box office record, it dredged up this feeling of hatred and ire of a film that doesn't deserve it. Yes, people complain that its an old story Cameron is telling. Its Fern Gully or Pocahontas with blue people. They act like this is the first time that Hollywood has taken an old story or a classic concept and reinvented it. They don't mind the thousand Marvel sequels, but this was too much. Do you know why people have decided to make Avatar the bad guy? Because it was so damn successful. Avatar is far from a perfect movie, but it is first and foremost a game-changing one. The technological advances used in Avatar have revolutionized production design and visual effects for the film industry, and the look of films will never be the same. Avatar is also a unabashedly big, old school, action-packed Hollywood blockbuster. James Cameron, whether you love him or hate him, is the master of these types of films, and he is the master of creating memorable, amazing cinematic experiences. Avatar was one of those experiences. It had me hooked from the first frame, and three hours later, I was still mesmerized by what I saw. Be a cynic if you want to, that's fine, but stop denying the power of this film.

53. Whiplash (2014) - It is a rarity for a young director to knock it out of the park so many times in a row. From his early indie Guy and Madeline On a Park Bench to First Man, the underappreciated gem of 2018, Chazelle has proven to be one of the most talented directors working today, and he (deservedly) became the youngest director in history to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director. The big breakout film for Chazelle was the surprise of the 2014 Oscar season, Whiplash. Featuring amazing performances from Miles Teller, and particularly the incredible J.K. Simmons, who finally got the awards recognition he has deserved for decades of excellent work, Whiplash is an actor's shwocase. Their adversarial, abusive, and intriguing relationship at the center of this film is horrifying, yet mesmerizing to watch. Yet it is Damien Chazelle's whip smart direction, and the best film editing I have seen in a while from Tom Cross, which earned him a well-deserved Oscar, that keep this electrifying tale sharp, engaging, and pulse-pounding. I can safely say that no matter what Cross and Chazelle do in their careers, their work will always be a must-see for me.

52. The Help (2011) -Before you start, I am immune to the deserved criticisms of The Help. Even Viola Davis, an artist I admire more than any other, has said that there is a part of her that regrets taking on the role of Aibileen, because at the end of the day, it is Emma Stone's character that probably gets too much credit, and not enough is given to her or Minny or any of the maids, for truly exposing the hypocrisy and horrible nature of racism. The white savior complex is prominent in Skeeter's character, and in Celia and Johnny's. I understand where Viola is coming from. I also understand criticisms of the film from a directing and screenplay standpoint. It was released in the dumping ground of August, and the only reason it became such a huge Oscar contender was because it was the surprise hit of the 2011 season, and it played well with older, white Academy voters. Despite all of that, I still love The Help. I credit it with the upward rise of the careers of Viola Davis, and of Octavia Spencer, two women I think are essential artists in our time. I also credit it for being something unique in Hollywood. How often do you see a story led by women in Hollywood? How often do you see a cast with such talent, and with such amazing performances, supporting each other on screen, creating amazing roles, truly building an amazing ensemble? How many films can you see Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone, and Cicely Tyson all working together? The answer is not many. These women have created life-long friendships, and you can see it every time their together just how much they fell in love with each other during the course of creating this film. Despite its flaws, you can feel that love, that talent, that synergy in each and every frame of The Help. It proves Hollywood still has a long way to go, but it also proves that stories with women at their center can be powerful experiences that reach a wide, and diverse audience. That alone, deserves recognition.

51. Toy Story 3 and 4 (2010/2019) - I was a kid of the 90's. The resurrection of Disney animation and the birth of Pixar define my childhood. I was five when the original Toy Story came out, and I was nine, when the sequel hit theaters. I fell in love with these stories, and these characters, and to this day, I am still a Pixar junkie, because, to put it simply, they make jaw-dropping masterpieces of film. So as a college student, and then as an adult, almost thirty years old, I got the pleasure of revisiting my old friends. There was no need to continue the story of Andy and his toys. The perfect finale of Toy Story 2 could have been the end. Yet, the creators, writers, and animators at Pixar, saw an opportunity to find new depths, new laughs, and new thrills for our beloved characters. 2010's Toy Story 3 had me literally crying at the end, with one of the most impactful scenes in recent memory. Toy Story 4 made me believe that there are always second, third, or even fourth chances to relive and rediscover something you thought was lost. These two films are amazing entries into the Pixar canon. They are beautifully animated, nostalgic, fun, and embarrassingly emotional films. They also prove that sometimes its worth revisiting your old friends, and find new adventures for you to take together.

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