Below you’ll find #’s 50-41 in my 2016 update of The Top 75 Movies of the Decade (so far). To see an explanation of the list and what was bumped this year, click here.
To view #’s 75-51 click here.
#50) Source Code (2011)
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Box Office: $147 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 92%/74
A well-organized, comparatively small-scale sci-fi thriller. Sure, its premise deals with sending a man who’s actually dead back in time (so to speak) in order to prevent a massive terrorist attack in Chicago. But within that premise Source Code finds itself due to its characters. Gyllenhaal and Monaghan have this great chemistry and you find yourself more concerned with their lives than the lives of the millions impacted by the attack, which is admittedly weird. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of pulse-pounding moments, which the editing from living legend Paul Hirsch (the guy who cut Star Wars) assists in a big way.
Source Code makes use of many wide shots of downtown Chicago, allowing you to always know where the train (on which 80% of the film takes place) is relative to where the explosion is going to happen. This gives adds an additional, visual ticking clock on top of the literal ticking clock every pre-explosion cycle. The human elements of the film keep it somewhat grounded even as it begins to wander into the ridiculous in the final act. Duncan Jones, the son of a guy named David Bowie, has proven himself as a capable sci-fi director with this and Moon. I’m excited to see what he did with Warcraft.
#49) Carol (2015)
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson
Box Office: $39 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 93%/95
To write Carol off as Oscar bait that takes on a lesbian love story just to tempt voters is unfair. This movie is many things, but it is not awards bait. It’s a film that, through the gazes of its performers, tackles the ideas of love and attraction at their most basic level. It just so happens to be about two women living in a time when that sort of thing was shunned. As with any Todd Haynes film, every aspect seems to be handled carefully. Its costumes and sets make it one of the better looking period pieces in recent memory. Carter Burwell’s score and Ed Lachman’s photography are beautiful but never distracting. And of course, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchet knock it out of the park.
Carol isn’t too forgiving or judgmental of any of its characters. Haynes is fully aware of the context this story operates in, and he refuses to paint people in a negative light without at least entertaining the idea that they may have the best intentions. Haynes’ restraint -the way he lets actors faces tell more than a script or shooting gimmick ever could- is quiet admirable. It’s a shame He’s has only made three films this century.
#48) X-Men: First Class (2011)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult
Box Office: $354 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 87%/65
X-Men as a film entity desperately needed a shot of life at the turn of the decade in order to keep up with Disney’s Marvel properties. Matthew Vaughn and a great young(er) cast proved to be the perfect medicine. Less of an origin story and more of a “here’s how these folks got acquainted” one, X-Men: First Class reintroduces us to some of our favorite characters, also giving them a sleeker and sexier look. Even the biggest Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart fans have to admit that their days in the costumes were numbered (they essentially had cameos in Days of Future Past). McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, and the rest of the gang do a fine job reimaging these characters.
This movie feels more youthful and energetic than the other X-Men entries. It does a fine job exploring the roots of the Professor X-Magneto beef while simultaneously setting up its younger characters as troubled talents in desperate need of guidance. The effects thrill. The movie breezes through its 2-hour runtime. X-Men: First Class is the type of cool, playful superhero film we need more of.
#47) The Gift (2015)
Director: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Box Office: $59 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 93%/77
What a pleasant surprise this movie was. Joel Edgerton stepped behind the camera (and the typewriter) to make one of the better psychological thrillers I’ve ever seen. A successful career man (Jason Bateman) and his wife (Rebecca Hall) relocate to Los Angeles where they encounter a man from their past (Joel Edgerton). That’s all I can say about the plot without spoiling the surprises this movie has in store. There’s a sense of eeriness the second Edgerton comes on screen, and it builds slowly until the film reaches a climax that’ll make you feel foolish for not having seen it coming.
The performances are great all-around. Bateman plays a perfect douchebag. Rebecca Hall continues to be perhaps Hollywood’s most underutilized actress. Then there’s Edgerton, who dominates every scene he’s in despite holding back his emotions. I cannot believe this is Edgerton’s directorial debut. He’s already a master of mood akin to the likes of David Fincher and Dennis Villeneuve.
#46) Black Swan (2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Box Office: $329 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 87%/79
From the weird, hallucinatory head of Darren Aronofsky comes this uncomfortable film that riffs on Swan Lake’s most basic ideas in an extreme way. Black Swan is about commitment to one’s passion, the sacrifices that come with it, and personality binaries. It somehow achieves this through gorgeous ballet sequences, outstanding performances all-around, and some quickly cut together disturbing imagery (it’s Aronofsky, after all). Black Swan can be analyzed to great extent, or it can be enjoyed in the moment for the aesthetic achievement that it is.
Natalie Portman has never been better. She perfectly captures the motivations and insecurities of both a great artist and a sheltered woman. This script asks Mila Kunis to be a seductress, and boy oh boy is she ever. Black Swan is pure Aronofksy, only on a slightly bigger budget and with bigger stars than we were used to seeing in his films. It may not be his best, but it’s certainly his most accessible (no surprise it made a lot of money).
#45) Captain Phillips (2013)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Box Office: $218 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 93%/83
Paul Greengrass, master of tension in enclosed spaces, managed to tell multiple stories within the real life story of Richard Phillips and his ship being captured by pirates off the Indian Ocean coast. The film gets into things pretty quickly but is still able to bring life to both Phillips (Tom Hanks, at his very best) and the pirate (Barkhad Abdi, in a breakout turn) prior to the tension really ramping up. The films refusal to paint Abdi’s character a one-note monster gives it layers, and makes its climax gut-wrenching. There’s a weird dynamic at play between the two main characters. Hanks and Abdi show off this mutual respect for each other despite the fact that, you know, one of them is holding the other one hostage.
You go through a wide range of emotions when watching this movie. It’s a lot like Greengrass’ United 93 (I’m not comparing the tragedies, just the way that Greengrass goes about physically shooting those tragedies). Greengrass’ lack of style is his style. He wants his films based on real-life events to almost play as documentaries. This could be boring, but Greengrass is so good at squeezing tension out of every frame.
#44) Creed (2015)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Box Office: $173 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 94%/82
Creed isn’t just another Rocky movie. It’s not even really a sports movie. It’s an urban tale of love, individuality, and loss that happens to feature Rocky Balboa and a few technically proficient boxing sequences. Rather than go out of his way to shake the foundation of the Rocky movies, Ryan Coogler creates a singular story within that framework. The elements are all there –training montages, victory in defeat, gritty images of Philadelphia- and well-executed, but it’s the new stuff that makes the film tick.
Michael B. Jordan continues his rise with a physically and emotionally commanding turn here. Equally captivating throwing punches as he is nervously asking a lady out on a date, he plays Adonis as a well-meaning but somewhat ignorant young man fully deserving of his own franchise. Stallone has never been better. The decisions made with his character forced him to give a different type of performance than we’re used to, and he nailed it. Tessa Thompson shines in a breakout role as Adonis’ love interest, though she’s given her own story as well. On a technical level, Creed is damn-near perfect. For our sake, Coogler and Jordan will hopefully continue to work together moving forward.
#43) Looper (2012)
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano
Box Office: $177 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 93%/84
Taking a tenacious crime-ridden approach to time travel as a storytelling device, Looper is the rare sci-fi movie that tells a personal story, sparks larger thought, and manages to mindlessly entertain with its action. Johnson’s understanding of his story, on both logistical and personal levels, allows him to tie everything up neatly. There’s real payoff, which is a scarcity in modern science fiction. The work done to make JGL resemble Willis (they play the same dude) is a little weird, but the former’s performance is good enough that you get over it quickly and become caught up in “his” character.
Wholly original, efficiently executed; it’s not hard to see how Disney could see Looper and instantly think Rian Johnson was the right choice to helm Star Wars VIII.
#42) Fruitvale Station (2013)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
Box Office: $17 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 94%/85
Set up as a “day in the life” story, in this case the life of Oscar Grant, an Oakland man who was fatally shot by law enforcement, Fruitvale Station gets you so attached to Grant that it’s difficult to watch. You know what’s going to happen all along, so instantly falling for Michael B. Jordan’s strong but delicate portrayal results in uncomfortable but essential viewing. Coogler makes sure to keep this a very personal story at all times. Nothing about its first hour is particularly dramatic in real time, and there’s not much in the way of visual flare. That’s sort of the point.
The film also isn’t afraid to show Grant’s flaws, in turn making him even more human. It’s such a confident directorial debut. It refuses to compromise its feel or story for any perceived entertainment value. Not that it isn’t an entertaining watch. It is. It’s just a very somber one as well.
#41) Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan
Box Office: Netflix
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritc: 91%/79
Fukunaga completely immerses the viewer in an unnamed African country going through a viscous Civil war. The elaborate costumes, large but mostly naked sets, and hordes of extras give this a very big-budget feel. Abraham Attah as Agu, the young boy whose family is murdered and then is eventually recruited by a warlord of sorts, is a revelation. He loses his innocence quickly, but he never seems particularly comfortable doing some of the heinous things we see him do. As the warlord, Idris Elba is haunting. He looks physically dominant next to all these children, and he speaks with a level of confidence that makes him seem wise. He makes you believe the boys could fall under his manipulative spell.
The film is very violent at times, but it’s not about violence as a whole or even violence somewhere specific in Africa. As the story moves forward, we see that even Elba’s character has higher ups that manipulate him. As the film ends, it asks you to ponder whether or not Agu can ever live a normal life after the things he’s done and seen. I’m not sure. Fukunaga doesn’t lean one way or the other. He paints a bleak picture and asks you to find the hope in it.
Check back soon for the next 10 in the 2016 update.