Below you’ll see #’s 20-11 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.
#20) A Most Violent Year (2014)
Director: J.C Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyewolo, Albert Brooks
Box Office: $12 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 89%/79
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Classic quote from a classic movie. But imagine a crime movie in which the main character feels the exact opposite of Henry Hill. Abel (Oscar Isaac) is a seemingly honest businessman whose heating oil trucks keep getting robbed. He could easily enlist one of the local gangsters for protection; he could even ask his wife (Jessica Chastain, with implied organized crime ties) to put in the word to her family. But he doesn’t want to do this. He believes he is better. This becomes more complex when it’s revealed that he and his wife may be cooking the company’s books.
Isaac and Chastain are both outstanding, as always. Chandor’s script slows down at just the right moments, drawing tension out of conversations that bring up morality questions. There’s a ton of craftsmanship on display on the technical side of things as well. I’m not sure how this movie flew so far under the radar in terms of awards and critics top-ten lists. It’s an intelligent, original movie that features two of our very best actors giving perhaps their best work.
#19) Skyfall (2012)
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Naomi Harris
Box Office: $1.1 billion
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 93%/81
The mess that is/was/always will be Spectre should not diminish Skyfall in any way. This movie reinvented Bond for the internet age. Not just with some new faces, but with a plot and villain that seem very current. Javier Bardem’s performance is arguably the best in any Bond film. It’s gutsy and free of the villainous tropes that have held back many of the Bond movies. He’s a worthy adversary. The new faces all add life too, specifically Ben Whishaw as the new Q.
While the action sequences and emotional heft don’t quite measure up to Casino Royale, this is still a very skillfully made blockbuster. Roger Deakins brings it in the photography department, as he always does. Deakins and Mendes take full advantage of the films globe-spanning plot. People also need to note just how good Craig is at being Bond. He played a more wounded iteration of the character than we’d ever seen prior, but the swagger was still there. Casino Royale and Skyfall, which actually ask him to act, show off his talent. Skyfall is not only one of the best Bond movies, it’s also one of the best blockbusters in recent memory.
#18) Foxcatcher (2014)
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carrel, Mark Ruffalo
Box Office: $19 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 88%/81
Yet another understated gem from Bennett Miller. Telling the true crime story of Olympic wrestlers the Schultz Brothers and the possibly schizophrenic millionaire who murdered one of them after becoming their coach, there’s an uneasy cloud hanging over every scene in Foxcatcher. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play the brothers; Tatum fully dedicated to wrestling, Ruffalo more concerned with his family. Both men turn in excellent performances on a physical level, and Tatum proves here that he can in fact become one of our great actors if the stars align for him in terms of role choice.
Carrel’s character, with the makeup and creepy vibe, draws most of the attention when people discuss this film, but it’s just as much about destructive dedication to ones passion above all else as it about a crazy guy murdering someone. Foxcatcher relies on its actors to create rather than forced exposition or overdone music to find tension. I am thankful for that. More movies like this, please.
#17) The Town (2010)
Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm
Box Office: $154 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 93%/74
Ben Affleck’s best movie may not be Oscary like Argo but, as a crime action/thriller, it’s fucking perfect. Affleck and DoP Robert Elswit do a perfect job staging what are three of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen (the opening robbery, the van chase, the Fenway shootout). Affleck and Renner both make their characters feel very real; albeit shitty, which contrasts the lovable Rebecca Hall perfectly. The script limits Jon Hamm to the “dedicated cop” stereotype but he does as fine of a job as possible with what he was given.
While The Town is a little far-fetched and doesn’t feel quite as homely as Gone Baby Gone, it’s still the best film in the “Boston Crime” subgenre. It nails every element these type of movies are supposed to.
#16) 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson
Box Office: $188 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 96%/97
This is a film that manages to find beauty despite its uncompromising handling of its subject matter. Sean Bobbitt’s 35 mm Louisiana photography is gorgeous. There’s a lot of brightness in the film, which allows the sets to come alive. It’s important for something like 12 Years a Slave to work as both a period piece and a singular human drama. The sense of environment allows Solomon’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) story to feel like one of many, despite the unique series of events that kick it off.
None of that matters in a drama this grim if the performances aren’t perfect. They are, across the board. Ejiofor, Nyong’o, and Fassbender all rightfully received awards buzz for their turns, but even the smaller roles are fully formed. Sarah Paulson as the wife to Fassbender’s twisted slave owner is perhaps even scarier than he is, while Paul Dano so effortlessly plays a minor character who draws so much ire. This is a weighty film that’s not fun to watch by any means, but the artistry involved is evident at all times. 12 Years a Slave further established Steve McQueen as one of the best doing it.
#15) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Director: Joe & Anthony Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford
Box Office: $714 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 89%/70
The best Marvel movie to date steps back from The Avengers a bit, taking the form of an espionage thriller and focusing in on institutional corruption. The regular elements of a Marvel movie are still there -witty banter, in-jokes, brightly lit CGI- but they’re complimented by some awesome practical action sequences and a story that doesn’t rely on an extraterrestrial power trying to destroy a planet for stakes.
The chemistry is there with the entire cast. Evans and Johansson play off each other so well you almost forget Hawkeye exists in this universe. Mackie adds to the team without distracting. Complaints around the film usually go back to how it’s called “The Winter Solider” despite the actual Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) not being a huge part of the movie. That’s silly. This movie presents 4 or 5 spectacular action sequences broken up by a fun “who done it” in the typical Marvel style. It’s exactly the type of movie they needed to make post-Avengers.
#14) Birdman (2014)
Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Maomi Watts
Box Office: $103 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/88
The Birdman backlash has already started. I’ve heard it all. “The movie is a gimmick”. “It’s about an elitist Hollywood actor and his rich white man problems! Who cares?” While the concrete plot of Birdman may not be something that resonates with 99% of people, it’s more about creative struggle and depression than anything actually doing with film/theatre. This is a much smarter movie than it gets credit for. And of course, it’s a technical marvel.
Not just the “one take” trick; which says more about the careful editing, music, and acting involved than anything else. Lubezki’s photography is given plenty of quirky little moments to find fun shots for. The cast is outstanding all-around, specifically Michael Keaton in a meta lead role that would’ve felt wrong with anyone else in his place. Birdman doesn’t mock the superhero system or supposed pretentiousness of NY theatre circles. Birdman creates a character who sort of mocks those things, because that’s just who his character is.
#13) Drive (2011)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan
Box Office: $76 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 92%/78
An out of nowhere smash hit on both a critical and commercial level, Drive established Nicolas Winding Refn as the latest in a school of stylistic auteurs who find gripping ways to deal with violence as a concept. The script is very sparse but it manages to convey the mindset of its characters without having them say much. As much as Drive is a technical and acting achievement on a small(ish) budget, the fact that it works at all is a testament to its script.
Once Drive settles in and becomes a bloody masterpiece, it’s ridiculously fun. But even prior to that there’s intrigue within this film. I don’t want to say there’s a sense of dread because it’s a bit more nuanced than you simply expecting shit to happen, but something is clearly off during the quiet early scenes. That’s likely due to the film preferring images to dialogue and showing a minimalist approach in general. Drive is a viewing experience that takes you all over the spectrum and continues to surprise even after it wanders into the ridiculous.
#12) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg
Box Office: $695 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 93%/73
Brad Bird, man. Bird’s live-action debut is more than just a seamless shift into big-budget filmmaking. He brought new life to a franchise by making one of the great action spectacles of all-time. He proved himself just as adept at overseeing stunts and large set pieces as animation. The decision to shoot key sequences with IMAX cameras proved to be good one, giving what the sharp imagery and wide framing did for, say, the Burj Khalifa scene.
It was nice to see some new blood in the cast via Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner, both of whom are undeniably cool in this movie. But it’s still very much Cruise’s movie. He plays Ethan Hunt with this unapologetic action star vibe. He’s a cocky badass who doesn’t show much emotion beyond that of a cocky badass. He’s Bond without the accent and women. Ethan Hunt is such a great character because it feels like he belongs in a cheesy 80’s action movie, yet he’s the centerpiece of a modern franchise that continues to push forward action as a visual idea.
#11) Gravity (2013)
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Box Office: $723 million
Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 97%/96
Gravity obviously looks great. It’s still the most pleasant 3D experience I’ve had in a theatre. Its images are layered and very detailed at all layers (as other 3D achievements like The Martian and Avatar have proven, careful attention to every layer of an image is key). Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki (who worked together on Children of Men, possibly the greatest technical filmmaking achievement of our time) show great understanding of how to control a camera. It moves quickly when it needs to, at other times staying still allowing objects to move in and out of the frame on their own.
Despite what some will have you believe, Gravity is not lacking in the narrative department. It’s simple, sure. Just a survival story with basic existentialist themes. It’s silly to criticize the story of Gravity while praising something like, say, The Revenant or Mad Max: Fury Road. A woman stranded in space alone after George Clooney floats away? Great movies have risen from a lot less.
Next, we’re into the TOP 10.