The next 10 in my 2016 update of The Top 75 Movies of the Decade (so far). For an explanation of the list and to see what was bumped to make space for 2015 films, click here.
#40) The Hateful Eight (2015)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern
Box Office: $153 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 75%/68
I’m not entirely sure why The Hateful Eight was that caused many to turn on Tarantino. Maybe it’s because the film is largely stagnant and runs for three hours. Maybe Tarantino’s treatment of race is no longer seen as socially acceptable in a world growing more sensitive to language by the day. Maybe folks honestly just didn’t like it. I sure did. Hell, I thought it was a superior film to Django Unchained. There are so many subtleties at play in every scene. Robert Richardson’s use of 70 mm film allows every shot to have a wider frame than we’re used to seeing, and many things are happening in the background, out of focus. Tarantino creates tension through dialogue and little framing details. This whole movie is basically the tavern scene in Inglorious Basterds. I love it.
The performances are great, specifically those of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins. JJL has long been one of the better, albeit unheralded, working actresses and this maniacal role allows her to break all convention and create one of the better Tarantino characters. Fans of The Shield, Justified, and Sons of Anarchy knew Walton Goggins could act, but now everyone does. He brings this boyish excitement to a racist character that makes him lovable and despicable at the same time. The usual Tarantino suspects (Jackson, Roth, Madsen) are all good as well but their roles aren’t quite as juicy. Add in one of Ennio Morricone’s very best scores and a perfectly over-the-top finale and you’re looking at a film that is pure, unadulterated Tarantino. If that’s not your cup of tea, so be it. But loving Tarantino’s filmography while disliking The Hateful Eight seems weird.
#39) Love & Mercy (2015)
Director: Bill Pohlad
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Box Office: $29 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 90%/80
Rather than take the “childhood to downfall/death” approach that most biopics do, Love & Mercy looks at two of the most important stretches in the life of Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys, duh). “Young Brian Wilson”, played by Paul Dano, finds himself trying to break out of the surf-pop shell by creating the landmark album Pet Sounds. The studio scenes of him finding the sound are incredibly detailed. The artistic struggle is captured through this timeline. “Older Brian Wilson”, played by John Cusack, finds himself under the 24/7 care of controversial psycho therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), with a love story to boot (Elizabeth Banks adds so much to this movie).
The performances are great all-around. DoP Robert Yeoman (a frequent Wes Anderson collaborator) uses the vintage California backdrop to create some beautiful images. Nobody expected much out of Love & Mercy. This original, gentle film was a pleasant surprise. A great directorial debut from Bill Pohlad.
#38) The Fighter (2010)
Director: David O’Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
Box Office: $129 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/79
David O’Russell is a piece of shit, but The Fighter is a great movie. More a family drama and story of a region than a boxing movie, the films hackneyed elements hide behind outstanding turns by the entire cast. Melissa Leo is great as a mother so confident in her children’s abilities that she’s blind to their flaws. Amy Adams has never appeared to have been allowed to act so free of restraint (which is weird given her documented problems with O’Russell). Mark Wahlberg, as the lead, plays it a bit straighter than his co-stars but as the everyman lens for the film, he is still very good.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The Fighter is great primarily because of Christian Bale. As the charismatic fighter/community hero turned crack-addict Dicky Eklund (brother of Wahlberg’s character), Bale completely immerses himself in the role. He lost weight, but it’s more than that. His accent is perfect. He defines the character through his movements. Bale breaks your heart as a talented guy who got mixed up with some bad shit. Or maybe he’s just an asshole. The film leaves that up to you.
#37) Moneyball (2011)
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt
Box Office: $110 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 95%/87
Moneyball isn’t really about baseball. While it takes Billy Beane as a subject matter and tells a story most baseball fans are already somewhat aware of, you don’t need to understand Adjusted-WAR to have this movie resonate with you. Moneyball is about new schools of thought attempting to prosper in an old-school world, and the dedication required to make them do so. There’s certainly same baseball poetry, but Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman represent a lot more than just their real-life counterparts.
Bennett Miller is a filmmaker who never lets technical elements overshadow the actors. In his films, quiet human drama reigns supreme. There are a couple of cool montages here and there in Moneyball; but its best moments are conversations. Between Pitt and Hill, Pitt, and Hoffman, Pitt and Pratt. Yes, Brad Pitt is very good in this one. He captures both Beane’s self-doubt and his persistence whenever the script (Sorkin, btw) asks him to do so.
#36) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel
Box Office: $773 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/76
The most surprising hit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the Studios best despite not having an interesting plot, villain, or backstory. None of the usual measuring sticks for superhero movies matter in this case because Guardians of the Galaxy is just so damn fun. The cheeky tone works well with the cast. The gorgeous CGI-heavy sequences work well with the music behind them (many of the songs were picked before shooting, and Gunn shot the scenes to the songs). This movie extends Marvel’s reach into space in ways the Thor movies failed to. I want to know more about the Guardians and the various planets they visit. I want to know more about Peter Quill’s origins. I can’t say the same about the uber-macho Asgardians.
If nothing else, Guardians of the Galaxy marks the moment when Chris Pratt went from funny sidekick to bona fide A-list leading man, and for that we should be thankful. He carries with him this combination of everyman charisma, comedic chops, and magazine cover looks. It’s as if he was made in a lab to fill the void Harrison Ford left that numerous others failed to fill (I’m looking at you, Chris Pine and Ryan Reynolds). Dave Bautista is also a standout as Drax. Maybe it’ll be over the top when the Guardians come across the Avengers (it’s going to happen eventually, right?). In the meantime, I’m thankful that Marvel invested in the weird mind of James Gunn. He gave the universe new life.
#35) Mud (2012)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon
Box Office: $29 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 98%/76
When people talk about the “McConassaince” they talk about Dallas Buyer’s Club, True Detective, even Interstellar. But his best recent performance came in this delightful drama from Jeff Nichols. As the title character, a man who lives in solitude on a small river island, McConaughey is almost a mythical figure here. When he comes across the boys, it sets in motion a plot that is both a coming-of-age story and a dark romantic tragedy. The film makes sure you’re aware that it’s in rural Arkansas at all times without ever seeming stereotypical.
Mud further established Jeff Nichols as one of the great working independent filmmakers. His stories feel wholly original and he appears to be a great director of actors.
#34) Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
Box Office: $370 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 90%/71
Rather than aim high conceptually, Edge of Tomorrow aims high in execution. The premise is silly. We’re at war with an alien race. Whenever Tom Cruise dies in battle he comes back to life at the beginning of the day. Emily Blunt used to experience this so she teams up with him to hopefully end the war for good. The film manages to stay interesting throughout, despite the video game feel. First off, the design of the movie is very cool. The aliens are unique and genuinely terrifying. The suits the human soldiers wear are badass. You become engaged in the battle scenes right off the bat.
Cruise and Blunt play off each other very well. Much has been written about how Blunt’s female character is the one in charge, a rarity for an action movie. While true, the reason her and Cruise work together here is because they both desperately need each other. Their relationship grows slowly each life until it ultimately results in some romantic tension that is, frankly, unnecessary and frustrating. That’s my only complaint with this film. It’s a carefree sci-fi action movie that’s shot artfully.
#33) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woodey Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks
Box Office: $865 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 89%/76
The highest-grossing film in The Hunger Games series is also the best one, by far. It ups the ante from the first film. Higher stakes, better visuals, a darker approach to its characters. In its early moments, the film relies on J-Law to push through its slow set-up. But once we get into the action, it never stops. It also finds energy through its new characters; Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee.
It’s hard to critique the ending given that you know there’s more story to be told. Does it rely on a gimmicky cliffhanger? Sure, but let’s not forget that the primary audience for this film is teenagers, and teenagers go for that sort of thing. All in all this a movie that does its job as a franchise entry, a standalone action movie, and a smarter-than-it-gets-credit for piece of teenage entertainment.
#32) The End of the Tour (2015)
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg
Box Office: $3 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/82
This is a movie about two very smart men having conversations. Boring, if one of those men wasn’t David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). Wallace’s writing can be touch to approach but this movie isn’t. You’re immediately invested in the strange relationship at play between Wallace and the Rolling Stone journalist (Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing him. The film doesn’t go anywhere, really, but both actors are so good that you’re more than content watching them talk to each other.
Fans of Wallace will find this to be a fair and honest account of his personal struggles even amidst the critical acclaim that surrounded Infinite Jest. Those not familiar with Wallace may find Segel’s interpretation interesting enough to dive into one of Wallace’s stories or essays.
#31) Her (2013)
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt
Box Office: $47 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 94%/90
A film about a man falling in love with an operating system attempting to reflect modern relationships would be a pretentious, even stupid idea in most cases. But in the hands of Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix, it makes for a film that’s just as entertaining in-the-moment as it is thought-provoking afterwards. Phoenix is perfect here as a bashful romantic unable to recover from a breakup. No other actor could’ve played this role. He’s acting by himself most of the time, and he knocks it out of the park. The supporting cast adds to the film as well. ScarJo creates a character through a voice, Olivia Wilde shines in her lone scene, while Amy Adams and Chris Pratt provide warmth as Phoenix’s support system.
The films semi-futuristic setting benefits from great design. The sets are hi-tech, but the costumes are retro-hipster. Her was Spike Jonze’s first film based on his own story. While his writing may not be quite as complex as that of Charlie Kaufman, it certainly comes from the same school of thought about storytelling. Jonze has made four feature films. They’re all classics. He’s one of the finest directors we have.
Check back soon for the next 10.