Below you’ll find #’s 30-21 in my 2016 updated of The Top 75 Movies of the Decade (so far). For explanation of the list (its purpose, what got bumped, etc), click here.
#30) Blue Valentine (2010)
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams
Box Office: $17 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 88%/81
From Derek Cianfrance, this melancholic drama deals with a crumbling marriage in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s not melodramatic; rather, its scenes examine what possibly lead to the relationships decay without actually telling you. This movie is very open for interpretation. Gosling and Williams are both exceptional as two very different people. The way the actors channel those differences is what gives the film most of its emotional resonance.
I suppose the film has a pessimistic view on romance. I am of the belief that it argues the initial sparks are the high point of any relationship. Cianfrance is a stylistic director but he never gets in the way of the story or actors here (the same cannot be said for his follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines). The stories of how the majority of this film was shot with just one take are insane given how detailed the performances are.
#29) The Avengers (2012)
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson
Box Office: $1.5 billion
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 92%/69
At the time of its release, The Avengers felt fresh. It was the first superhero film to integrate a plethora of characters without feeling overstuffed. It was a comic-book movies whose action sequences actually felt like a comic-book. It took the chirpy tone prevalent in Iron Man and Thor and successfully blended it with the more somber quibbling of Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk. Joss Whedon deserves all the credit in the world for a genuinely funny script and some beautifully realized digital moments. At no point is The Avengers overwhelming, or boring.
An under-the-radar decision that I feel helped this movie an awful lot was the one to have Loki as the villain rather than introduce someone new. First off, the origins of a new villain would’ve taken precious time that this movie didn’t have. Also, we knew Loki’s motivations and personality after a scene-stealing appearance in Thor. Marvel recognized what they had in Hiddleston. Making it so Loki didn’t feel overmatched was as simple as giving him an alien army (a decision that obviously had a significant impact on where these movies went post-Avengers). If you’re getting a bit sick of the Marvel movies now, I get it. How many times can a story about these dudes saving the world be interesting? Just don’t tell me The Avengers wasn’t awesome. Don’t be that guy.
#28) Holy Motors (2012)
Director: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob
Box Office: $4 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/84
One of those movies that asks you to stop focusing so much on trying to “get it” and be taken away by the imagery, Holy Motors marked a return for French filmmaker Leos Carax. Its protagonist is a doppelganger for the actor as an idea. He shifts between different roles, but there’s no production being staged. It’s a very weird narrative; but its ambiguousness only makes its visuals more mesmerizing. Is it one of those movies about the power of movies? Maybe. I really don’t know, and I believe the reason analysis of the film in the cinephile community has hit a lull is due to nobody wanting to admit that they don’t know either.
Holy Motors is the only Carax film I’ve seen. He’s one of those “once every five, ten, even fifteen years” directors. But I certainly hope to dig into Pola X and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf at some point. The vision on display in Holy Motors suggests he is a filmmaker whose work merits repeated viewing.
#27) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard
Box Office: $233 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 86%/71
Certainly stronger than Fincher’s other adaptation of a popular mystery novel (Gone Girl), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes admirable use of its bloated runtime. There are three distinct, fully formed stories in play. There is the mystery that drives the films plot; but also, both Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) are given their own low points, high points, and resolutions (though the film clearly ended with sequels in mind). Lisbeth’s low points are more notable, as the story’s handling of sexual abuse is perhaps its most interesting aspect. Mara transformed herself completely for the role. There’s the makeup and hair, but there’s also the way Mara shows Lisbeth handling the pain through dedication to her work. Prior to this, Mara was only known as the sweet ex-girlfriend from The Social Network. Not anymore.
As with any Fincher film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo understands tension and finds ways to draw it out of seemingly insignificant moments. Credit the usual Fincher editing team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. Credit the Nine Inch Nails guys on the score. Despite having too much expository dialogue (it’s a mystery story, after all), this film never feels dull. Fincher is a very self-assured director willing to take narrative risks, specifically with pacing, and USUALLY it pays off (cough cough Benjamin Button).
#26) Winter’s Bone (2010)
Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawks
Box Office: $14 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 94%/90
The film that proved Jennifer Lawrence was a force to be reckoned with remains her best, though it’s great for reasons that go beyond her. Debra Granik, also responsible for the phenomenal Down to the Bone, crafts a dark family drama that never loses focus on its environment. The story takes place in a meth-addled area of the Ozarks, and the decaying environment as a whole is just as important to the story as Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) trying to find her father. The film is strangely uplifting despite this, mostly due to Lawrence’s ability to capture a character attempting to stay positive amidst warning sign after warning sign.
John Hawkes is outstanding as Ree’s meth-addicted uncle. DoP Michael McDonough uses the natural environment to frame Ree as a hopeless optimist for much of the film. The sets are small in scope but incredibly detailed. Winter’s Bone is a revelation on its $2 million budget. Not just for Jennifer Lawrence, who’s gone on to much bigger things, but for somber regional filmmaking as a whole.
#25 Nightcrawler (2014)
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Box Office: $50 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 95%/76
Nightcrawler is a film with big ambitions, highlighting the inherent moral flaws with how we consume news when it comes to tragedy. But it’s also a contained character study about a thrill-seeker dedicated to his “work”, who may or not be delusional. Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a different kind of ambulance chaser. He listens for crimes and accidents on his police scanner and then rushes to the scene to capture the first footage, which he then sells to the news. He doesn’t seem too concerned with money. He wants to be the first. He wants his footage and name on the TV. He’s obsessed.
Gyllenhaal, now firmly entrenched as one of the GREAT American actors, plays crazy great. The key to playing a character like this without going overboard is the little facial tics and dialogue cadences. Gyllenhaal shows just how driven by “being on TV” Lou is through his smirks. The films more dramatic moments, specifically its conclusion, wouldn’t be believable if we didn’t know the full extent of Lou’s obsession. The rest of the cast is up to snuff, specifically Riz Ahmed in a breakout role as Lou’s “partner”, a dirt poor man who can easily be manipulated. Robert Elswit uses the cameras and monitors involved in the story to create many cool, modern shots. Nightcrawler doesn’t waste a second. It’s one of the best directorial debuts in quite some time.
#24) Prisoners (2013)
Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo
Box Office: $122 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 81%/74
If Incendies didn’t prove Dennis Villeneuve a master of tense thought-provoking filmmaking, Prisoners sure did. It takes a premise (suburban kidnapping) and uses it to present an uncomfortable “How far would you go?” study. Despite the movie stars involved, every character feels entirely human and exists in the world of suburban Pennsylvania. Hugh Jackman in specific is a standout as a father who loses his daughter and goes through extreme measures in an attempt to get her back. To say much more about the players and plot would be unfair, since this film handles its surprises so well.
Roger Deakins shoots the hell out of this movie, using trees and windows and dimmed lightbulbs to compliment the sense of trepidation the story carries with it at all times. All along, you know Prisoners is going to end in some sobering way. Half the fun of a movie like this, if you can call it “fun”, is observing the choices these characters make that lead to that sobering ending.
#23) Take Shelter (2011)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
Box Office: $5 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/85
A strange psychological thriller dealing with a married man (Michael Shannon) who suffers from apocalyptic nightmares and visions. Due to this, he has some internal debate about whether or not to shelter his family from an upcoming storm. But he’s also debating if he’s crazy and he needs to save them from himself. It’s a very strange movie, but Shannon’s performance grounds it.
Jeff Nichols is simply one of the boldest American filmmakers working. His willingness to play with different genre tropes in a wholly original story creates films so unique and assured it’s insane to think Nichols is just 37. Take Shelter is his best film, but it feels like we’re in for so much more from him.
#22) The Tree of Life (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Box Office: $54 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 84%/85
Only Terrence Malick would even attempt to make a film that ambiguously looks at the meaning of life through a Texas family in the 50’s crossed with chemically-altered photography sequences of the universes creation and destruction, right? While there are familiar faces like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, as well as some gorgeous sequences courtesy of the legendary Douglas Trumbull; this film is pure Malick. You simply can’t stop thinking about Malick while watching it. What is he trying to tell us with that particular image? Why was this the direction he chose after The New World? Is this film pure genius or pure crap?
These questions don’t have concrete answers, and I could certainly see why someone would think The Tree of Life is pretentious bullshit. It’s not quite as all-knowing as Malick probably thinks it is. But as a series of images loosely tied together, The Tree of Life is beautiful. Watch the film without thinking too hard. You’ll likely find yourself transfixed almost instantly. If not, oh well. You wouldn’t be the first person to despise a Malick film.
#21) Attack the Block (2011)
Director: Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whitaker, Alex Esmail, Nick Frost
Box Office: $6 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 90%/75
A stunning achievement that will be held in higher regard years from now when the 2010’s are looked at as a filmmaking era, Attack the Block is too good to be ignored. Too funny in its dialogue. Too intelligent in its subtle handling of class/age/racial prejudices. Too fun in its alien-smashing sequences. There’s nothing special about its story. An alien invasion occurs in South London and a group of teenage wanksters try to fight them. That’s the premise.
John Boyega, as the leader of this “gang”, instantly shows off the star power that got him the Star Wars gig. Even as a seemingly deplorable person (he mugs a woman in the first scene), there’s a pain in his eyes and youthful exuberance in his voice that makes you want to root for him. This gangster image for him is clearly a façade. Boyega does such a great job at showing that without the script having to actually tell us. The supporting actors are all very funny, and the action sequences are more thrilling than those in most blockbusters.
Check back soon for the next 10.