30. Fences (2016) - A straight play can often make for tedious enterprises on screen. Fences is a marvelous exception to the rule. Denzel Washington doesn't do anything fancy with his camera. He doesn't have flashy editing or special effects. All he does is focus his camera on his characters and their stories. In particular he focuses on himself, and the great Viola Davis. These two are the finest actors of this generation. They decided to try this film on stage first, as practice. They won Tony Awards for their roles. Who wins Tony Awards for practice? Denzel Washington and Viola Davis do. With the help of August Wilson's fantastic and human screenplay, they are simply mesmerizing on screen, capturing the emotion, anger, and forgiveness of their characters. When she won her Oscar for this film Viola Davis famously said, "Thank God I became an artist, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life!" As a public librarian, I would argue that there are two professions, but I appreciate the sentiment. Fences was not built for box office success, and its goal was never awards glory. It was made to do one thing, and one thing only: to "exhume and exalt" the ordinary people. It did just that, beautifully, I might add.
29. Arrival (2016) - Think piece science fiction films have had a renaissance over the last decade, and no film is a better representation of that than Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. I recently showed this to my Monday Night Move crew at my library. I was really nervous, because normally science fiction is not their favorite. I was shocked when they came out of the film love it, and praising it. Now that I am looking back, I should hot have been as shocked as I was, because at its core, Arrival is about human nature and love. Sure it is the story of a linguist who is tasked with communicating with aliens that have mysteriously landed on Earth. But even the aliens have humanity in them. Arrival succeeds because of two key components. First and foremost is Amy Adams. She was robbed of an Oscar nod for this role, as she was emotional, magnetic, mysterious, and a true star power. The other component is Denis Villeneuve. His recent career streak of well-made, human driven science fiction films is astonishing. As he prepares for Dune, we can look to Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 as examples of his mastery, and proof as to why we are so excited about his next directing adventure.
28. Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) - I look back at the controversy surrounding Three Billboards, and I am still bewildered as to how it became such a specter over the 2017 Oscar race. The rub, for some folks, was that Sam Rockwell's character has a redemptive arc towards the end of the film, even though he is portrayed as a racist cop, who brutalized black citizens in his position. I get that that can be hard for some people, and I'm not unsympathetic. But the question remains, does that turn make him less racist? I don't think so. I think it shows that even the most despicable of human beings have the ability to at least attempt to do something right. Just like Mildred, the grieving mother, has the ability to cross the line into criminal activities. Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand won Oscar for their brilliant portrayals of the complex nature of human behavior. Rockwell's character is still a racist cop who abused power and brutalized his fellow man, and Mildred is still a grieving mother that deserves answers. The great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in his Hollywood Reporter article defending the film, wrote this, " Though it’s unfortunate that the highly sensitive issue of police violence is used but never fully addressed, the movie isn’t about that. It’s about the search for the ember of humanity in all of us, and fanning that ember until it burns bright, even in the darkest of us. In doing so, it reaches all people of all backgrounds and asks us to take a single step toward enlightenment. That’s what our best works of art should do." I could not agree more.
27. Moonlight (2016) - It is still such a shame that Moonlight and La La Land got caught up in that mess with that accountant on Oscar night. Both are such great films that deserved better. Moonlight's win was historic, and it was marred by stupidity. Moonlight became the first LGBTQ+ film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was an incredible moment, that was made possible by the greatness of Barry Jenkins. He brought a realistic aesthetic, brilliant, yet subtle technical elements, a heart, and a quiet effectiveness to the tragic story of a young man unable to live his life as he should. He was helped out tremendously by an amazing cast, led by the likes of Mahershala Ali and Naomi Harris. Moonlight is a breathtaking, mesmerizing, emotional, and transcending film that will continue to go down as one of the best of the last decade. With this, and If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has proven himself to be a young master of human emotion, and of telling the stories of those who are often forgotten. I cannot wait to see what he does next.
26. Black Panther (2018) - I completely understand where Martin Scorsese is coming from. Some of the Marvel and DC outings as of late have become tedious enterprises, and are more concerned about continuing the universe than telling a good story. However, Scorsese is not 100% right. There have been some notable exceptions to the rule, that prove that, if put in the right hands, comic book stories can been cinematic and brilliant. The best example of this is Black Panther. Marvel took a chance on Ryan Coogler, and it might have been its most successful gamble to date. Sure, it still has the breathtaking action, the connections to the bigger Marvel story line, and eye popping visuals. But Coogler was allowed some independence to vary from the Marvel brand. He was able to bring in technical masters like Ruth Carter and Rachel Morrison to create a different aesthetic. He was able to embed cultural relevance in the form of the African America plight and African culture. He was able to cast a stunning ensemble that ranged from newcomers like Letitia Wright to legends like Angela Bassett. These details took a good movie, and made it an incredible one. Black Panther became the first comic book film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. If Marvel continues to take chances on filmmakers with Coogler's level of talent, they could defy Scorsese's criticisms, and see more Oscar gold in their future.
25. Boyhood (2014) - Boyhood is a unique cinematic marvel. It took 12 years, with the same cast, to shoot the story of a young boy growing up in America. The rockstar editing, the fete of cinematic brilliance, and the daring nature of the film making, make Boyhood one of those films that will stand the test of time. But I think that the real reason that Boyhood is resonant with so many people, is that beneath that interesting story of how it was made, is a wonderful tale of family and growing up. It is a quietly effective film, with a soft and simple script, and great performances, particularly from Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke,. It has a few flash point moments, but other than that Linklater lets the story unfold with subtle brilliance. It is in its quiet, that Boyhood finds its stroke of genius. Because at the end of the day, it is one of the most honest portrayals of family life in this country, and that makes it just as unique as its process does.
24. Birdman (2014) - When Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu won his Oscar for The Revenant, I was literally huffing and puffing in anger. George Miller was robbed. However, a year earlier, I was jumping for joy at his Oscar wins for the brilliant Birdman. A lot of folks still think that Boyhood was robbed, and many cannot wrap their heads around Birdman's win. I like both films, but I have to admit that I would have voted for Birdman too. It is a loud, darkly funny, incredible entertaining cinematic experience, whose technological fetes were just as impressive and important as Boyhood's, but just didn't get the same press. It is a non-stop, breathtaking film, brilliantly constructed, constantly engaging, and led by an amazing cast of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone. It is also a darkly honest look at fame, our superhero obsessed culture, and the often disturbing lives of artists grappling with the specter of success. It is that depth that is often missed by those who are critical of its awards success, and something that makes it an extraordinary film.
23. Bridesmaids (2011) - Dying is easy, comedy is hard. Raunchy comedy that is actually engaging and deep is even harder. So many films in the last decade have tried to capture the balance of ball-busting raunchy humor, and emotional and engaging character development, but only a few have actually succeeded. The most successful of those films was Paul Feig's surprise hit Bridesmaids. It is so damn funny, there are moments where you are about to pee your pants. It also nails the cringe-worthy horror funny that often accompanies events like weddings. So what sets it apart from say, The Hangover? Well, it is also a brilliant ensemble piece led by the talents of Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Rose Byrne, and a star-making turn from Melissa McCarthy, which earned her her first Oscar nomination. It is also fueled by a brilliant, Oscar-nominated script, that brings so much depth to this film. This is not just a raunchy comedy about Bridemaids. It is also a heartfelt tribute to the love, humor, and sometimes pain of friendship, is a beautifully feminist take on the genre, and is a film that is just so endearing, you can't help but fall in love.
22. Manchester by the Sea (2016) - Manchester by the Sea is a film that became a solid number three in the 2016 Oscar season, one of my favorites, in terms of the number of films I loved, in recent memory. It really was, in the end, left out of the discussion, as the race became La La Land vs. Moonlight. It should not have been, because it was a fantastic film. I am not going to dive into the Casey Affleck situation, other than to say that if he did those things, I hope he gets whats coming for him. In terms of his performance, it was incredible, and the range of emotion, the heart and soul he poured into this character cannot be denied. Michelle Williams is good as always, and Lucas Hedges is the surprise of the film, in a role that set his career in motion. But I think that the bulk of the credit goes to Kenneth Lonergan. He is a masterful playwright and screenwriter, building incredible characters and really truly yanking the emotion right out of you. Manchester By the Sea is an emotional powerhouse, a quiet film of family, faith, and duty, and at times a surprisingly funny film. At moments you are drenched in its warmth, and at others you are bawling at its pain. Manchester By the Sea was a stroke of genius writing, and it is a film that still remains with me, three years later. It just has an impact that won't quit.
21. The Martian (2015) - Instead of Inarritu winning a second, and wholly undeserved second Oscar, it should have gone to George Miller. Or, if the Academy's director's branch had done the right thing, it really should have gone to the great Ridley Scott. After years of trying new genres, Scott dove back into the science fiction genre, with a fantastic adaption of Andy Weir's brilliant novel, The Martian. This film just has everything going for it. It is a technical marvel, is brilliantly executed by a master in Scott, and is a thrilling, funny, emotional, and entertaining film that is simply one of the best experiences I have had in a theater in a long time. Scott deserves a lot of credit, but so does Matt Damon. I think, as an actor, that Damon often flies under the radar. He is good in everything, he has charisma and star power, and is just one of those actors that everyone seems to like. For all of his awards attention, he has not actually gotten that many acting nominations. The Martian is his best work to date, and it showcases his talents, as he alone is left to carry the film. He is magnetic, funny, emotional, and truly shows what a talent he truly is in front of the camera.