Author’s note: During the last three months while I was busy compiling and writing this list we had a serious issue with a 450lb black bear raiding our farm for livestock, (a run-in at 2am with this big boy wherein all I had was my double barrel and definitely the wrong ammunition nearly stopped my heart in my chest) a 40-year-old mare I personally had to put down and bury, and firewood to split for winter. I bring this up because I don’t believe I’ve ever exactly fit the film criticism mold – if indeed there is a mold. Life in the mountains has another type of life and schedule all its own, and though I love movies to death, I’ve always struggled to keep them in perspective. Even back a few years ago when I was a card carrying member of the Union I still found it difficult committing fully to the gig. Or at least at the level of my excellent friends (Matt Oakes, Erik Samdahl, Brian ’The Movie Guy’ Taibl, Tom Santilli, and Ruben Rosario…) in the art accessors racket. On the plus side I do feel like this slight disconnect comes through in the following selections, and in the following, admittedly atypical, prose. As for the list I made a single rule – which I managed to break at least once. Only one selection per filmmaker. Outside of that, all bets were off. As an aside, 100% of the following composition was assembled on a now antique iPhone 6 – art included. It should be noted that I own hard copies of every single one of these films, cash on the barrelhead, or plan to purchase them when they’re released at a future date.
– Pedro Schwarzenegger –
Special thanks to my cousin Scott who helped me proofread and edit this monster. With Scotty all things are possible – and not ‘possebull.’
Directed by Lars Von Trier (2011)
“Life on Earth is evil..” – Justine
Melancholia concerns the end of everything. As in Jim Morrison’s only friend – the end. The instrument of our radical departure? A rogue world on a collision course with Earth aptly named Melancholia. Kept secluded on a coastal estate, we are meant to encounter terminal planetary impact with as little flair or extravagance as the location may promise. No anarchy at all. No riots. No hysteria. Just a deepening sense of despair and near catatonic anxiety. All that aside Melancholia is a meticulous work of art. One almost painstakingly devoted to detail. There is absolutely no buttress against Lars Von Trier’s conclusion lumbering upon us since the opening salvo of his gorgeous overture. Mankind is finished. Life is evil and will finally be snuffed out in whatever form it exists in. The void reigns supreme. So why not make it a concert?
Directed by Pete Travis (2012)
“Madeline Madrigal. Aka Ma-Ma. Ex-hooker from the S-9 pleasure district. Quit working when she got sliced up by her pimp. She got her own back. Block legend says she feminized the guy with her teeth.” – TJ
In his opening monologue, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) explains how the abridged legal system of Mega City One works. Essentially the three stages of criminal prosecution are baked into the cake of a single enforcer. But, quite consciously, Dredd describes the system of law out of order. He says: “Juries. Executioners. Judges…” Alex Garland’s script is being deliberately cagey. The first two branches run hand in hand with each other. The Judge sees a crime. They then decide if the party is guilty, or excessively guilty. Then they personally carry the sentence out to finality – often meaning terminating the offender with extreme prejudice. The final part, the Judiciary Phase, can only occur internally. The court of conscience. We can only imagine with prosecutions this severe, this profuse, what recompense these Judges must sow unto themselves on a daily basis. And yet Dredd thrives in this system. He has absolutely no hesitation. His legislative vision is completely colorblind. There is black. There is white. To apply such a rigid color code to a world this high on narcotics, (the Slo-mo trips in this film are worth the ticket price alone) and anarchy, seems prodigiously insane – yet there are fewer creatures in Dredd more collected and cool than Dredd himself. He’s a squarer-than-square peg hammered roughly into a round hole. In a world with this much vice, a clean conscience is an appreciable resource. In that sense, Judge Dredd is more superego than superhero. This magisterial Howitzer is the living, breathing, moral center of Mega City One. Which is a burden that would crush the skeletons of the typical comic book do-gooder to powder, and yet Dredd ferries it with ease and total capability. Now if only his film had made more money…
Directed by Jonathan Demme (2015)
“A heart isn’t something that’s like a steak, you know, that spoils. A heart is like a Big Mac. It just sits and sits and sits and it gets older, yeah. It doesn’t change.” – Ricki Rendazzo
Jonathan Demme’s swan song. And honestly, there’s just no better way for a master to leave the room. I’ve known a few Ricki Rendazzo’s in my life. Free spirits. Buccaneers and mustangs. Sailing ships without port, but with some cosmic calling only their inner radios pick up. (The Flash even cover U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – the universal bohemian’s anthem) And you know what? God bless every last one. Meryl Streep totally kills it in a role rarely written anymore as we head into the 2020’s. A republican, bar-star, deadbeat mother making dawdling strides to get the family she left behind back. Diablo Cody’s script correctly realizes that not all heroes make great first impressions. But given enough time, enough friction, enough heat, a lump of carbon eventually becomes a diamond. What formula Ricki and the Flash gets exactly correct is channeling the old family misadventure equation from the 80’s. The magic dramedy cocktail that John Hughes did better than any other filmmaker before him.
Directed by Panos Cosmatos (2018)
“Lookit, man, for a while now, word’s been coming down from the big rigs something dark and fearsome out there. No one knows where they come from. First, it was stories from the interstate. Leaving truckers for dead, prostitutes vanishing, and gutted bodies on doorsteps. And always the same. Biker gang, black bikes. Only seen at night. Weird shit.” – Caruthers
It hardly gets any more cult than Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. We don’t know where we are through most of Mandy, (the opening tells us that it’s 1983 A.D. but in which dimension?) let alone where it is this film is taking us. This is simply a place and time that could only exist in the recesses of a gifted psychopath’s cortex. It’s a fairytale forest to get lost in – and still feel lost once Mandy concludes. The actual viewing experience feels like we’re privy to a pagan sacrament – a neolithic ritual splashed in technicolor and carnage and pot smoke and rock guitar. Bearing a plot so cool and uncomplicated it can be conveniently transmitted by a few garish images. All of them carrying Nicolas Cage’s face painted in the blood of his hellion enemies. And yet there are water sprites and petrol demons and other gods here as well. Gods of legend and horror. And modern gods that manufacture staggering works of art out of sound and celluloid imagery. And the voices and songs of gods added to the thundering heart of a god we all thought we knew as Nicolas Cage. The real standout, however, is Panos Cosmatos. The rarest breed of filmmaker there is. One seemingly uninfluenced by anyone. A creator whose muse just may be the void itself. That terrifying and wanton chasm that few artists pull anything of any value from, but Cosmatos seems to excavate treasures from with great ease.
Directed by Armando Iannucci (2017)
“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to get killed, I promise you. This is just a musical emergency.” – Andreyev
Mel Brooks used to make ensemble comedies out of material this ghastly. Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin has the pedigree and aesthetic of a fine, five-course, holocaust film. That is, until you get to the punchline. It’s 1953 in Moscow and the Sword Of Damocles spins over the heads of the citizenry like a ceiling fan. People are put on lists. Then they’re summarily shot. For Stalin’s inner party, life is a game of musical chairs – but with the General Secretary deejaying on the gramophone, and each of the chairs hardwired to electrify. It’s all fun and games until Uncle Joe dies choking on his own laughter, and then it’s every comrade for himself. There are precious few dictatorial positions to be filled in the new government, and throats to be cut to fill the remaining seats. The cast in this comedy could only be ascribed to a work of providence. (Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough) It’s the writing, however, that trumps everything else in the The Death Of Stalin. Adapted by four(!) screenwriters, (including Armando Iannuccia) from a French graphic novel, The Death Of Stalin’s script absolutely brains the viewer with a savage energy few comedies can hope to sustain. Universally ignored by the awards intelligentsia, instead this blackest-of-black comedies was passed around in the underground. Each copy pressed into the hand of a trusted provincial, and then passed along again, until cult status was firmly achieved.
Directed by Alexandre Aja (2019)
“Be careful… there’s a big gator.” – Dave Keller
As if a category five tropical storm isn’t enough to worry about, this father (Pepper) and daughter (Scodelario) discover that their home’s crawl space has also been overran with a regiment of hungry alligators. Alligators that, thanks to the cramped confines, they’re fully at eye-level with. Sam Raimi produced two of the most concentrated thrillers of the last decade. Both Crawl, and 2016’s Don’t Breathe, are small-batch horror/thrillers that understand that it is much better to twist screws, then to screw with twists. Crawl is tense. It is terse. It is toothy. It also wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is if it just focused primarily on the alligators – though we should never, under any circumstances, take our focus off the alligators. Instead, we feel genuinely threatened by these monsters because we’re forced to confront the very real probability that we’re absolutely going to hate this movie if we lose even one of these two characters to the food chain. We need Dave to survive because Haley needs her dad, to survive. And if anything happens to Haley? Or the dog? Forget it. We’re done. Alligators suck. So we suffer, and blench, and essentially white-knuckle our way through the picture, hate-loving every bitey minute of it. Barry Pepper is terrific in this.
Directed by David Michod (2014)
“I’ll tell you what God’s given you. He’s put a bullet in you and he’s abandoned you out here to me. He feels nothing for you.” – Eric
For a man to perform a mercy killing, that man must have at least an ounce of mercy in him. Otherwise it’s just killing. And a killer with no law but his own to follow has no means to make amends, and will afford himself no justice, and by consequence will lose both purpose and direction. For he has set himself adrift, and has become contentious with both compass and conscience. He lives as a rover. Without peace. Think Of David Michod’s The Rover as Mad Max at the photorealistic level. What armageddon would/will look and taste like once it has consumed great swaths of our culture and society. Once it has consumed both law and order. As a film experience, The Rover feels morally anorexic – much like its cast of pit-stained characters feel. Accompanying the stark imagery is a haunting film score by composer Antony Portis. During The Rover’s first act his composition is condensed down to a few strings and a lone didgeridoo – Portis’ indigenous horn carries a neo-primordial tone, as if it’s being ran through a distortion pedal before being blown into the great vacuum of space. A cry to the deities maybe? An emergency call that will, most assuredly, never be responded to? Or is this man, this Eric – this significantly busted, bandy-legged, vessel of wrath – their answer? The nihilistic tone of The Rover’s soundtrack is one of destitution and ethical abandon, and yet, though their potential is in smithereens, purpose can still thrive in men. (Antony’s multifarious music captures this as well) It’s just been scattered with the rest of the trash, blown by whichever direction the sun-baked Brickfielder winds are blowing. The Rover doesn’t feel apocalyptic in the grand way that George Miller’s Max films do. Instead, it feels exhausted. Wasted. Defeated. Still, Guy Pearce’s rover rediscovers purpose when his car is stolen. Through an unexpected twist of fate he also finds something resembling potential in a halfwit kid named Rey. (Pattinson) For a man as irretrievably lost as Eric is, (even the act of suicide requires a level of clemency this guy just doesn’t have in him anymore) discovering both purpose and potential – even at this humble level – is akin to unearthing a small fortune in a formidably bankrupt system. I doubt anyone would look at the minimal plotting of The Rover and believe that this is an actor’s film. Nevertheless, the acting is superb. Especially from Robert Pattinson.
Directed by Jonathan Levine (2011)
“We have to be awake when they’re awake. That’s how we have sex. That’s the whole purpose of this. Don’t throw all this away. Don’t waste my time man.” – Kyle
There are tribulations in life where we don’t honestly know whether to laugh or cry. So Jonathan Levine’s film, 50/50, does a bit of both. (hence the clever title) What it does exceptionally well – maybe even better than the most malignant life or death dramas – is confront terminal illness honestly. I won’t say with dignity, because I don’t totally believe that’s an honest approach. Cancer is a fraud first and foremost, and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Adam Lerner is a kind, cool kid seemingly defrauded of a future. His chances of survival, a mere coin flip, (again, hence the clever title) so he simply makes do with the life he has in the present. Pursuing chemo treatment. Dumping a cheating girlfriend. Trying to cash in his cancer in an effort to pick up girls. Helping his 24-year-old therapist (Anna Kendrick’s a living doll) through their therapy sessions, so she can write her dissertation. And essentially discovering that sloughing off along with his body weight and hair is his ability to entertain bullshit. In misery lies truth, and even miserable truth is better than no truth at all. Life staring death in the face is still life after all. And yes, those prospects, though emotionally cruel, can be as touching, profound, and as funny as you make them.
Directed by Doug Liman (2014)
“You know, it gives me a swell of pride knowing soldiers of your caliber will be leading the charge tomorrow. Tip of the spear. Edge of the knife. Crack of my ass.” – Master Sergeant Farell
Perhaps the most pro-suicide family film ever devised. Doug Liman’s Live Die Repeat is the brand of high concept science fiction entertainment Hollywood occasionally attempts to pull off, but rarely takes it as seriously as is the case here. Now if only the board of directors had chosen the proper title for the picture the first time. (Edge of Tomorrow as a title isn’t nearly as cool) Featuring Tom Cruise playing a lily-livered, super-soldier stuck invading the same French beach over and over again until he finds a way to defeat an army of whip-armed demon-aliens, seemingly all by himself. Live Die Repeat plays like a mix between Spielberg’s gritty Omaha Beach footage from Saving Private Ryan and one of FromSoftware’s Souls games. William Cage lives. Fights. Dies. Repeats. And in doing so he gets incrementally closer to achieving his objective. Tom Cruise has never been more on top of his physical game, and never funnier – he’s also never needed that famous run of his more. One of the most strategically entertaining action films of the decade. Also featuring the late, great, Bill Paxton.
Directed by Shane Black (2016)
“You know who else was just following orders? Adolf Hitler.” – Holland March
True story. I flew to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to see The Predator with my friends, mainly because I have great friends there, but also because I absolutely adore Shane Black features. The Predator turned out to be a rare Black misfire, (I loved Iron Man 3) but as for The Nice Guys? Being the heavyweight champ of the buddy-film, Shane Black assembled something of a dream team for The Nice Guys. A pudgy, punchy Russell Crowe finds himself tagging along with struggling single parent/social drinker Ryan Gosling, as the two men attempt to solve the murder and the quasi-mystical resurrection of a porn star, find the missing daughter of LA’s top cop, as well as locate an underground skin flick that has the Detroit auto industry up in arms. Not that any of the plot matters much. Over the course of two hours, decadent parties are partied at, jokes hit their marks, poorly aimed bullets don’t always hit theirs however. Collateral damage in this film is extensive. Even Holland March acknowledges: “I’m saying I think they died quickly. So I don’t think they got hurt.” As a bonus teenagers are exploited, shot, and thrown through windows. Thank you Mr. Black.
Directed by Taylor Sheridan (2017)
“I don’t know if it’s what he said, or how he said it. He says, “I got some good news, and I got some bad news. Bad news is you’re never gonna be the same. You’re never gonna be whole, not ever again. You lost your daughter. Nothing’s ever going to replace that. Now the good news is, as soon as you accept that, and you let yourself suffer… you allow yourself to visit her in your mind, and you’ll remember all the love she gave you, all the joy she knew.” – Cory Lambert
Much like all of his written work, (Sicario, Hell or High Water, Yellowstone) Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is yet another one of his trademark post-westerns. A contemporary campaign of cowboys and Indians. This being a Sheridan picture, it very much bears the blood and thunder of those elder cowboy movies from his youth. As for history, with the freedom of the west came an incalculable vulnerability to the forces of the natural world. What wasn’t gobbled up by the wild, was certainly toughened up by the wild. In this film we have two fathers mourning the loss of their teen daughters. Concerning raising children, Renner’s character, Cory Lambert, warns us “Don’t even blink. Not once. Not ever.” His attention to his beautiful daughter faltered for a single night, and she vanished from this world as if she never existed at all. As for the early American idealism of building a new country, a new democracy, and pushing West with it? That dream might still exist in the urban centers of America – places where luck still has value as the film points out – but on the Arapaho Reservation, we find a group of people not necessarily in line with the affable side of fate. The tides of extraordinary change washed through Wyoming a century earlier, never to return. In Wind River we can still detect the high water mark – though faded now from all the wind and weather. Taylor Sheridan’s first directorial effort happens to be from his most melancholy script. With Wind River the filmmaker fully confronts the consequences of the unjust contest between mortal man and the immutability of misfortune, injustice, violence, and early death. It also reminds us that the human heart is fabricated from the toughest muscle tissue in anatomy – capable of surviving both frostbite and hellfire.
Directed by Michael Dowse (2011)
“If ever there comes a time when it gets down to the marrow, and it’s you or me…? Kid. I will lay you the f*** out.” – Ross Rhea
Generation X’s Slap Shot. Goon’s an enforcers’ tale. A thug’s life in the Eastern Canadian minor hockey league. A small town comedy with heavy hands and a ton of heart. Doug ‘The Thug’ Glatt’s a reformed bouncer turned hockey prospect. His skates and stick merely ornamental – he’s been recruited to hurl hammerfists into the opposition. So hurl he does. Helmets are hewn. Skulls are split. Smiles are rearranged at the jaw level. This may turn out to be the role Seann William Scott is most remembered for. (arguably not a lot of competition) For a paid punching bag, his character, Doug Glatt, is absolutely amiable. Goon is Rocky repurposed as an indie comedy, with Liev Schreiber cast in the Clubber Lang role. Ross ‘The Boss’ Rhea is the meanest mother ever to sit out most of his games in the penalty box. Buried under seven inches of mullet and handlebar mustache, this veteran hitman absolutely does not mess around. As he nears retirement the only thing standing in the way of his legacy is the new kid – a hardheaded rookie named Glatt. Goon sets a terrific pace early. As a comedy it lands almost all of its punches. The cast of Canuck supporting characters rock as hard as the soundtrack. (Rush, Sheriff, Sloan) And the hits…? The hits keep on coming.
Directed by Jacques Audiard (2010)
“You talk with Muslims, Corsicans, you come here. Straddling everyone. It’s not too great on your balls.” – Lattrache
When we first meet Malik, A Prophet’s central vehicle, he’s a total blank to us. Though his body is crisscrossed by scar tissue and open gashes, he’s very much a vacancy as a character. He’s nineteen. Illiterate. He has no religion. No affiliations. Nobody in his corner. As a pair – the viewer and the character – we’re simply thrown into the penitentiary together. Put in lockdown with each other as company – tucked precariously between the Corsican mafia and the Muslim gangs. We don’t understand this prison’s codes – both staff and convict. Don’t know who the friendlies are – or if they exist at all. We can’t completely translate the different dialects. We just go about the business of soaking in valuable information and then applying it toward continued survival. Because we do feel it within us, this is going to be a brutal, uncompromising experience going forward. A hands-on lesson in what Darwin understood better than anyone in history – only the smartest and strongest move on. Yet when we meet Malik we don’t trust that he’s either. By cheating us of a backstory Audiard is smartly positioning our curiosity in the best location possible. One capable for maximum growth potential. We learn as this inmate learns. We cringe when he fails. We delight in his criminal growth. And yet we never fully trust his footing. This is a daring journey. As a character study it is wildly inventive. A Prophet’s the best film about incarceration since Shawshank Redemption.
Directed by Zack Snyder (2013)
“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal. Trained my entire life to master my senses. Where did you train? On a farm?” – General Zod
Before comic book films were made by corporate committees, pre-Marvel Empire, they were crafted by artists with signature vision and an eye for aesthetic eccentricity. (thinking of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns) I choose Man Of Steel not just because it’s a great film – I certainly think it’s one of the premiere graphic novel titles of the decade – but because I firmly believe that outside of Denis Villeneuve, Rupert Sanders, and perhaps Joseph Kosinski, Zack Snyder has one of the best artistic instincts in big budget cinema. He also has one or two of the few DC entries that feel legitimately gritty. Even though Kal El shimmers (the women in my family drool over Henry Cavill in these yoga pants) like an Arcadian godling, his hand is forced ultimately to break a very specific regulation in the hero code of conduct. Taking life. The action feels phenomenally consequential. The set pieces demonstrably overweighted – as if these super humans might still bruise and break if they hammer on each other hard enough. The art direction is lifted straight from the covers of circa 81’ Heavy Metal magazine. If only the followup features had been worthy of the quality of their forebearer. Release the Snyder Cut indeed.
Directed by Alex Garland (2014)
“Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” – Ava
The aesthetic prejudice toward Kubrick is conspicuous in Alex Garland’s two films – Ex Machina and Annihilation. And who can blame him really? Exposure to Stanley’s work leaves irreparable contamination to anyone who’s ever encountered it. Ex Machina is a science fiction riddle cleanly crafted and executed. Its Turing test plot is a maze – navigable but dicey. Our cast is limited to three principle players and a disco android. Of these we can only put faith that the disco android is to be trusted. The rest of the time it’s pretty much an intellectual Mexican standoff. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) might seem like the typical pawn, but the name ‘Caleb’ historically offers another interesting wrinkle. Caleb was one of the twelve Israelite spies conscripted to recon the promised land. The metaphor fits the film and its setting – the salient question being who sent this kid into the land of milk and honey? Was it a god or a giant? And which gets the designation? Nathan the creator? (another biblical name – this one a prophet) or Ava the creation? The answers are here, but it’s going to take work on the viewers behalf to translate them.
Directed by Olivier Assayas (2016)
“My twin brother, Louis, died here. It’s been 95 days. We made this oath. Whoever died first would send the other a sign.” – Maureen
Perhaps the most fashionable ghost story ever told. Certainly the most haughty. Not content with making the atypical paranormal thriller Olivier Assayas instead crafts something akin to an existential murder mystery. The quintessential haunted art film. Kristen Stewart’s Maureen is the personal shopper to a globetrotting celebrity fashionista, not that she’s presented at all as a partisan of high fashion herself. Her character in Personal Shopper is as Assayas presented her in The Clouds of Sils Maria – a frumpy waif awaiting autonomy. We realize as the film goes on that Maureen is something of a ghost herself. Barely visible to the socialites she finds her employ among, the girl only materializing when she’s finally goaded by texts on her iPhone from a menacing otherworldly unknown, to try on her spoiled ward’s expensive wardrobe. Assayas is obviously exploring his inner voyeur in these sequences, allowing the ugly swan subject of his paranormal thriller, Maureen, to bloom into Kirsten Stewart right in front of his camera. The transformation certainly feels like a corporealization of a lost spirit. This invisible girl, chained to a few gloomy locations – both Paris and the mansion she explores after dark – manifests into the gorgeous starlet right in front of our eyes.
Directed by James Mangold (2019)
“There’s a point, seven thousand RPMs, where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless, it just disappears. And all that’s left is a body moving through space and time. Seven thousand RPMs, that’s where you meet it. It creeps up near you, and it asks you a question. The only question that really matters. Who are you?” – Carroll Shelby
And I used to actively dislike James Mangold as a filmmaker. Ford v Ferrari is the quintessential American film experience. It captures our hyper-competitive nature. How far we’re willing to push ourselves past safety protocols just to grab a win. (see above movie quote) Our uncanny knack for flipping dark hours into finest moments. Ford v Ferrari also marries that sweet symmetry between jocularity and hilarity that feels very old school in 2019. This is a very cocky motion picture. It also happens to be one of the best films about car racing in the entire history of cinema. The race scenes in this thing are absolutely thundering. The blur between what is real and what could potentially be computer generated special effects are all but wiped out completely. Which is the best kind of effect – the one our processors fail to detect. Christian Bale chews the scenery as cockney speed-machine Ken Miles. His counterpart, Carroll Shelby, (Matt Damon) is already a legend in the industry. (Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were originally cast in these roles – a bit too racy me thinks) But I’m afraid on this occasion both actors are slightly upstaged by these gorgeous cars. The Ford GT40 is one pristine piece of horsepower distribution. A true icon of American muscle. Before we built the Apollo 11 we built the rocket that could have taken us all the way to Mars. She is fast. She is ferocious. She is ultimately victorious. As is this film.
Directed by Dan Gilroy (2014)
“The best and clearest way that I can phrase it to you, Lou, to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” – Nina
It’s a fitting title, Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is a carrion feeder – a worm in glissade under the sun-baked asphalt of Los Angeles, breaching every evening to gorge itself on tragedy and death, and then dipping back down under the city streets again. Bloom is the perfect prowler. The mathematics on this character simply don’t add up. Dan Gilroy (Tony’s brother) correctly builds this man off plumb and at odd angles. Like a crooked abstract painting we’re constantly anxious to either interpret – though impossible – or at the very least, straighten the frame out. Louis is a man with no history, anxious to build a future. Which ultimately makes him something of a self-help autodidact. Nightcrawler is the quintessential L.A. picture. Much like Blade Runner or Michael Mann’s Collateral, Nightcrawler cashes in on the fact that Los Angeles pops after dark. Its social commentary is blatant. The corporate news-viewing public are ghouls. We need as much rotten meat as we can stuff our throats with. And it takes a purer breed of ghoul to keep the rest of us ghouls satiated. Jake Gyllenhaal could retire on this role alone.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (2016)
“I said a lot of terrible things to you. However… My heart was broken. It’s always going to be broken. And I know yours is broken, too.” – Randi Chandler
Neither a film about healing or a film about full concession, Manchester By The Sea at least does the honorable thing concerning grief – it neither defines the term limits of sorrow and mourning, nor does it offer any clean fixes. Which isn’t to say that this is an exercise void of relief. On the contrary, just because we’re going to embed ourselves in the miserable after effects of tragedy and death doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a sense of humor about it. And though Casey Affleck’s handyman Lee Chandler internalizes everything, and we wish desperately that he would leave his anesthetized state of self-flagellation and at least engage someone in something closely resembling casual, meaningful conversation – no shouting – this isn’t that movie. The point being that maybe some wounds can never be healed. Manchester by the Sea is an American heirloom.
Directed by Robert Eggers (2015)
“We would see you oft, mother. Would that please you?” – Caleb
A bleak piece of work about a family of Calvanists banished to the wilderness for the sin of pride. In fact, sin is thick in the atmosphere of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. A sneak peek at a teen sister’s developing body. White lies. Stolen heirlooms. When the tiniest spiritual infraction means eternal damnation, the plight of this imperfect human family circa 1630’s New England is just as real, and just as mortifying as any witch lurking in the forest. Eggers’ script recapitulates the book of Job and its ancient philosophical debate of providence versus divine myopia. Is this family cursed, and if so by whom, and for what sins? Or are they simply alone and at the mercy of forces beyond their power to conquer? Robert Eggers smartly recreates an alternate interpretation of biblical texts, (he correctly includes Baal’s confrontation with Christ in the wilderness – sans angelic supervision) using the primordial tools of fear and anxiety. There are frights both real and imagined. Failures that feel very, very, human. While the window for deliverance is nearly shut altogether to these Puritans in exile. (rapture doth cometh, but nary for all) The Witch is a scary film. A very scary film. But that has as much to do with spiritual hysteria and hopelessness as it does with the creature just outside of the lamplight in the forest.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (2010)
“I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.” – Nina Sayers
It’s easy to distort the plot of Black Swan after the first, initial viewing. It certainly might seem like we’re watching a film about a good girl’s declination into the titular Black Swan, but the truth is something else entirely. It’s about a Black Swan’s performance as a Saint. Bulimia. Sexual repression. Inadequacy. Envy. The Swan feeds off of all this self-destructive behavior, enriching itself on a diet of dolor and dejection, until it’s strong enough to twist the pretty mask it has worn into its own face. The face of a gorgeous monster capable of achieving that which it’s sought out its entire career – near-satanic manifestation and a performance so complete and perfect its presence is as bittersweet and spooky as it is thrilling to behold. For none shall see the like of it ever again. Natalie Portman’s performance is essentially slaved to that of her character, Nina Sayer. Natalie’s a good actress. But can she be a bad one as well? The casting of Portman in this dual role couldn’t be more inspired, or more risky. And yet it works to Black Swan’s advantage. Concerning Darren Aronofky’s mid-career work, I can only swipe a line from his lead ballerina: I felt it. He was perfect. Black Swan is perfect. As was The Wrestler. Everything since then however? Less inspired.
Directed by Guy Ritchie (2015)
“Take it like a pussy.” – Napoleon Solo
The rest of you can have your Bonds, your Bournes, your Ethan Hunts, (I’m an M.I. fiend) for me the spy-thriller didn’t get any better these last ten years than the debonair duo of Napoleon Solo (aka Cowboy) and Illya Kuryakin. (aka The Red Peril) Guy Ritchie didn’t make a cleaner mark on cinema all decade. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. bears the strapping jocularity, the chic clothes, the tangy soundtrack, (that flute tho) the feisty femmes, the bawdy humor, that’s always been part and parcel with the Ritchie brand. It’s just that on this occasion he cooly tones his frenetic flaunting down to a truly killer flow. He allows his movie to arrive, maintain, and take its leave like it’s the coolest lad at the espionage party. The far-too-foxy cast is a gift – wrapped in nearly priceless 60’s mod. The writing unfussy and devastatingly clever. And the soundtrack divinity itself. This may be the best work Guy Ritchie’s ever done.
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier (2015)
“Music is shared live. It’s time and aggression, you gotta be there. And then it’s over.” – Pat
Is it apropos to call Green Room this generation’s Straw Dogs yet? Saulnier has the same precarious infatuation with violence that Sam Peckinpah bore. Neither fully romantic, nor anything in the way of contempt either. Bloodshed has been a constant companion of the species, it’s a fixture in our history, our mythology, and all of our music and cultural upheavals as well. Which is the palette Green Room draws its paint from. Saulnier’s punk rockers-versus-skinheads movie is primitive and outrageous and weirdly relaxed in tone for how out of control its central situation spirals. Green Room is, above all else, pure experience. Uncluttered. Loaded with punk rock angst, white anger, and murder most foul. Like the anti-establishment music it exemplifies, Green Room may seem surface and perfunctory – a brief racket of anxiety and violence – but its impact is no less significant. You will be missed Anton Yelchin.
Directed by Michael Gracey (2017)
“Men suffer more from imagining too little than too much.” – PT Barnum
And I don’t even like musicals… Few films this last decade have a soundtrack as infectious, as pandemic, as universally embraced as The Greatest Showman. Now that the circus is all but extinct in this country, here’s a film that understands the original draw. And no, those gymnastic exhibitions slathered in mortician’s makeup down in Las Vegas aren’t the ‘circuses’ we’re talking about. We’re talking about circuses with elephants snorting peanuts from the hands of giggling children and clown car traffic jams. The Greatest Showman is genuine, but earnestly superficial as well. Bearing a cheap type of glamour that is still glamorous nonetheless. Sure, we’re handing over our nickel to gain entrance into the tent, but once inside we’re included in the Big Top’s delirious anarchy. In fact, it turns out that we’re the most important component. In 2017 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus left town, perhaps for good. The Greatest Showman is a bittersweet reminder of what we may have lost in our transition toward Utopian malaise. I hate to use the word ‘dazzle’ under any circumstances… but damnit if Jackman doesn’t dazzle here. Efron as well.
Directed by Danny Boyle (2015)
“Your products are better than you are, brother.” – Steve Wozniak
Considering that I’m currently writing the bulk (100% of it – even publishing) of this massive Top 50 piece on my iPhone 6, it’s safe to assume that Steve Jobs achieved what he set out to do in life – shift the axis of the Earth, alter the weather, change the trajectory of the known universe, recalibrate human evolution. As a film, Steve Jobs has the upstairs/downstairs vibe of Altman’s Gosford Park combined with the energy, levity, and economic clip of Boyle’s own Trainspotting. This is a slick film experience framed in three specific acts. It’s Steve’s life in its alpha, beta, and gold stages. Steve Jobs is an intimate decoding of a complex genius seemingly at odds with his instincts for empathy and compassion. You see, with Mr. Jobs, self-immolation is just standard business practice. And yet he’s magnetic. As is this motion picture. Danny Boyle’s rhythm has never been more steady or sure.
Directed by Todd Phillips (2019)
“My mom died. I’m celebrating.” – Arthur Fleck
Violence is dangerous in that – at least in the moment – it empowers the host. Under the initial tidal flood of adrenaline the mind dumps any residual baggage and becomes clear and inhumanely focused. Arthur Fleck is a man with a lot of baggage. His cranial interior a sack of hissing, feral cats, clawing for dominance. For a subhuman this fragile, this paralyzed by the apathy of the Gotham streets he skitters through, this first introduction to violence – to purpose and confidence – leaves a lasting impression. Joker is a dangerous film because it sends all the wrong messages. Its historical analogies – Bernhard Goetz’s subway shooting, Margaret Mart Ray’s stalking of David Letterman, the current political movement demonizing billionaires – are ugly. Its music choices taboo. (Gary Glitter anyone?) Its proximity to madness insistent – we’re never allowed a single scene outside of Fleck’s company. And yet we can’t really trust the world around him. Is it really this bad? Or is this just his creation? And which one’s ultimately responsible for his transformation into The Joker? Todd Phillips smartly muddies the waters of what an origin story should be. (I mean, the film’s called Joker, not The Joker) A villain at The Joker’s command level doesn’t need a history – in fact he’s more terrifying without one. Joaquin Phoenix’s character has been stricken since childhood with a laughing disease that’s more often than not inappropriate and embarrassing. A hideous, involuntary dry-heave of agitated laughter without a proper trigger or target – until, that is, he finally howls at the right joke. The one where corpses lay bleeding at his feet. And then, oddly enough, it all makes sense. Comedy is a confidence game after all.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance (2010)
“You said for better or for worse. You said that. You said it. It was a promise. Now, this is my worst, okay? This is my worst.” – Dean
When accessorized with acting this sublime – and this film truly is built upon the foundation of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling’s performances – this descent into marital dissolution is a much less bumpy ride. Blue Valentine is ferociously heartbreaking stuff. Derek Cianfrance (whom I’ve had the luxury of interviewing – top notch all the way) understands the reality of love gone dysfunctional. He gets that the boy who captures a girl’s heart simply must mature as the marriage matures, or he risks getting left behind. Which is a shame really, because we genuinely love these two people – just maybe not together. Blue Valentine focuses primarily on their annulment, though we are given a tour of their early days together. Not that digging up the past makes the break-up any easier. In fact the opposite is true. In its own way this film is a dirge for newfound love. How special those days are. How preciously short they are.
Directed by Ben Affleck (2010)
“I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we’re gonna hurt some people.” – Doug MacRay
Call it Michael Mann in minor. There’s a palpable sense of melancholy in The Town. The impression of longing for something different – someplace else maybe. Though at the time South Boston was a hotbed film location, in Affleck’s vision of Southie culture we get the feeling The Town is his way of putting the past to rest. As a crime film it’s a substantial contribution. Almost reaching the impossible ledges of Mann or Scorsese. This is a tough, tough movie, with plenty of muscle to back up its vinegar language. And yet there’s that haze of wistfulness tracing through the heart of every score, every bullet fired, every cop or thug tuned up – as if all directions in this place lead either to jail or AA meetings or the graveyard. Affleck manages to capture all of that in his sophomore effort. A sharp cast rounds out the edges, and I honestly don’t believe Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner have ever been better. Ben Affleck would move on to critical acclaim with his follow up film Argo, and would ultimately suit up as the single best version of Batman ever seen on the silver screen, (it’s not even close) but throughout all of that I kept recalling The Town, and how much I really wish the actor/director might return there someday. Perhaps after rehab.
Directed by Damien Chazelle (2014)
“Everybody remember, Lincoln Center and its ilk use these competitions to decide who they’re interested in and who they’re not. And I’m not going to have my reputation in that department tarnished by a bunch of f****** limp-dick, sour-note, flatter-than-their-girlfriends, flexible tempo dipshits. Got it?” – Terence Fletcher
I still stand by my assertion that Whiplash is a war movie. Just think of J.K. Simmons’ mouth as the offload ramp of a vintage WWII Higgins boat. When it drops, all hell on earth breaks loose. Whiplash is a force of nature. As a film it’ll lay waste to most dramas in its first twenty minutes. It comes on heavy and closes twice as heavy. At its core it’s a film about the pressure it takes to reveal world class excellence. A level of pressure 99% of the population couldn’t tolerate even cursory exposure to. For those that enter this battleground, public humiliation and failure are simply part and parcel in the pursuit for perfection. You either take your war wounds, dust yourself off, and pick yourself up again, or you have no business in the pursuit of legitimate greatness. J.K. Simmons plays Terence Fletcher – a competition jazz band drill sergeant who is both the unstoppable force and the immovable object. His presence is spirit crushing simply at a stand still. Miles Teller’s Andrew, is the object of his raptor-like focus, and this battle of unstoppable-immovable-object versus field-mouse transcends all expectations once a viewer realizes that this isn’t just a story about good versus evil. This is nature versus nurture. There’s a definitive plan behind everything we might dismiss as pure villainy. This is what the pursuit of perfection looks and sounds like.
Directed by the Safdie Brothers (2019)
“I’ll have you know the first two points scored in the NBA was a Jew.” – Howard
There’s just no crew creating cinema as street level as Benny and Josh Safdie right now. Maybe ever. I mean, who else would start a movie pushing their camera in through the glittering interior of an opal straight into an active colonoscopy of their star? (Adam Sandler) In this transition we experience both the sorcery of earth’s interior pressures, and the biological vault where Howard Ratner stores his head. This is one Jew with a lethal gambling addiction. Few films feature a lead with so many plates spinning – so many teetering, multi-hundred-thousand-dollar transactions and debts in a centrifugal shitstorm suspended just over their yarmulke. By midway point through Uncut Gems it’s best to quit trying to keep the books running in your head and just hold on for the ride. Because as this story continues we very much feel the crush of tectonic forces pressing in on every side of Howard Ratner – and we can’t help but wonder if they’re going to finally create a diamond, or just another dead man.
Directed by James Mangold (2017)
“As I live and breathe, the Wolverine. And he’s a junkie now.” – Donald Pierce
Though Logan is set in the future, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine couldn’t be more of a product of history. At this point in his life he looks like an over-the-hill ex-Mennonite minister – with a grubby beard, a pickled tongue, and a dusty dress shirt and suit to cover a lifetime of callouses and scar tissue. He doesn’t choose to reflect on the glory days of the X-Men, or to even hold them to any high standard really. He reflects instead on his life right now, in 2029, and life isn’t good. So he drinks (too much) and swears (too much) and occasionally through provocation comes out of hiding to shred other bad men into bloody ribbons. Logan is a film about age, about the inevitability of death, about new machines replacing old machines, (new Wolverines – some with beating hearts, some with them torn out completely) and Mr. Mangold, uncommonly restrained with this film, can’t help himself – Logan is a movie totally about redemption. But not about redemption from anything trivial. From past misdeeds or estranged relationships or the typical graphic novel platitudes – though that stuff very much exists here. Logan is about redemption from the sins of comic consumerism. Redemption from being a key player in retailing the Marvel product line. Logan is about embracing the downhill slide of pop culture veneration.
Directed by Jason Reitman (2018)
“Your twenties are great. They are. But then your thirties come around the corner like a garbage truck at five am.” – Marlo
This might be one of the most touching (and thanks to Diablo Cody’s deliriously funny script, certainly out of whack) films about motherhood ever made. It captures the doldrums, the magic, the mania of being the caretaker of a newborn infant – of being the caretaker of a child with severe emotional issues. What a mother must put herself through to do this intensely difficult job with any degree of success. At the core of it all is Mrs. Mad Max, Charlize Theron, giving the most complicated performance in her admittedly complicated career. She sheds Furiosa. Sheds Atomic Blonde. Packs on twenty pounds of post-pregnancy mom-bod, and though domesticated, we can still feel that those embers of noble identity – faint now after years of parentage and marriage – are still viable.
Directed by J.C. Chandor (2011)
“It’s just money. It’s just made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.” – John Tuld
Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, JC Chandor’s Margin Call is business presented as a three act stage play. It’s one night in 2008 on Wall Street, and a young former-rocket-scientist-turned-risk-assessment-analyst is propelled up through the floors and stages of stock management to the people at the top when he stumbles on information that the housing bubble is six hours away from imploding. It’s an experiment in social evolution as we ascend the pyramid from those at the bottom, that survive purely by brain power, and those wealthy power barons at the pinnacle that run corporations purely by the skin of their balls. Margin Call is much more sophisticated and delicate – exquisite seems right here – than Adam McKay’s The Big Short. The writing more craft than courtesy. The star power (especially Jeremy Irons) is intimidating, and the ruthlessness of this business – this D-Day moment in capitalism – doesn’t overplay its hand. The scenery is clean. It’s cool headed. Every scene, every speech, in perfect, Mamet-esque pitch. This is just business after all. The mechanics of market collapse. Margin Call also happens to be substantial filmmaking. Chandor’s best to date.
Directed by Martin McDonagh (2017)
“You drilled a hole in the dentist?” – Denise
Full disclosure. I liked Martin McDonagh’s third film, (I absolutely adore In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I certainly didn’t love it that initial viewing. For the first time a treasured filmmaker’s work pretty much missed me. But that was me jumping out of its way, it certainly had nothing to do with the aim of the material. Compared to In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a saga. A lengthy requiem built from melancholy and inhumane tragedy – and in a surprising turn, mercy. Concerning the ‘problematic’ (raise your hand if you’re weary of that particular adjective) character Sam Rockwell plays, Jason Dixon, I can only applaud McDonagh for staying true to his instinct to test an audience with his characters’ often terminal personality flaws. Martin’s gift to cinema is his ability to take the scuzziest dross buried in humanity and mold it into something human. Something we can identify as human at least. Maybe even allow ourselves a touch of empathy for. Meet Officer Jason Dixon. Besides, Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri is a film concerned with forgiveness, not redemption. Martin McDonagh’s flavor palate has never been more bitter, or more sweet. Few writers are game to mine soul-paralyzing damnation for laughs, and yet Martin sees this bleak territory as an undiscovered market. It’s his turf almost exclusively, and it’s the entire reason I believe he’s one of the most interesting – if not most talented – screenwriter/directors working today. I may be nervous for wherever it is he’ll be taking us next. I only know that I’ll be pre-purchasing the best seats I can get for it whenever it arrives.
Directed by Alejandro Inarritu (2015)
“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight.” – Hugh Glass
Resurrection, as presented in The Revenant, (rev·e·nant: noun 1. a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.) is an excruciating, lengthy process of tribulation and massacre, where the only thing that separates the victors and the failures appears to be the ability to summon the strength to keep breathing. Inhale. Exhale. The respiratory piston drumming through the soundtrack of The Revenant’s advertising, (watch this trailer for auditory confirmation) blended with the words Glass’s native son, Hawk, drums into his father as he lies virtually lifeless with his throat ripped open: “Just breathe father… Breathe…” Alejandro even goes so far as to cram his camera into Hugh Glass’s frantic exhalation in some sequences – fogging up the lens, but always reminding us that to breathe from within the grip of brutal extremity, is to exist. As far as the nuts and bolts of cinema are concerned, The Revenant is achingly well made. The craftwork here is state of the art. With a plot carrying a trim, less-dimensional-scope than most of any of the seasonal award bait offerings. (this is a revenge film, plated and served stone cold) Instead The Revenant is an artisan’s examination of malnutrition – whether it be for sustenance or civility – in one of the harshest environments in American history, presented as a full-course visual feast.
Directed by Drew Goddard (2011)
“How hard is it to kill a bunch of nine year olds?” – Hadley
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, horror aficionados of every breed, you may not have known it, but we are gods. At least that’s Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s supposition with The Cabin in the Woods. After years of blood sacrifices, inhuman vulgarity, teen flesh, and beloved genre tropes, we have no appetite for much else in this favored brand of motion picture. Or so we thought. Goddard’s film gives us everything we’ve ever wanted in a horror movie – scares, laughs, carnage – he just makes us responsible for it. And good on him, we deserve every bit of The Cabin in the Woods. To reveal more about the plot could be constituted as criminal negligence. Just embrace the cognitive dissonance that this horror film is nothing like any before it, but very much like everything before it. This cabin’s the perfect setting for a fireside horror story. The woods outside the perfect basin to collect a swath of rich teenage gore. Now just who are these desk jockeys, (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Richard – stealing the film right out from under it) and what level of participation do they expect from the viewer? Happily, quite a bit. This is the single best horror experience in the last ten years.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2016)
“Now the fact that you will turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you or get you down. Just think, as an animal you’ll have a second chance to find a companion. But, even then, you must be careful; you need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.” – The Hotel Manager
Few films on human husbandry are as deadpan as The Lobster. (Wes Anderson has never been this cottonmouthed) Nor are they this brittle, excruciatingly frank, or this crushingly funny. We find ourselves in a fictional society formerly unknown in cinema. Not a dystopian state yet, but far from utopian as well. This is a frigid, flaccid culture where love has been savagely stunted. Where relationships are absolutely mandatory – else a terrible price be exacted. (the single people in The Lobster’s universe have 45 days to fall in love or the government mandates they be turned into an animal of their choosing) Courting is heavily regulated. Being unattached is absolutely prohibited. Nobody is happy – neither the alone nor the coupled. The obligation to be involved in some sort of relationship is key to the greater domestic solvency. So the singles find themselves living guerrilla existences in the forests – hunting rabbits and plotting terror attacks against the hitched. It’s a kind of E-Harmony horror picture, but sort of tender too. If The Lobster is a metaphor for the follies of human coupling, then maybe life is best spent as a dumb animal after all.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)
“You shut your mouth or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat and shut it for you.” – The Driver
To make a crime film this liquid and heavy and yet still make it feel boutique might be Nic Refn’s trademark in cinema. There are precious few movies I’d classify as ‘cool’ and let it land there. Drive is cool. It’s a film that banks heavily on ‘The Man With No Name’ archetype. (Gosling’s character is simply referred to as ‘Kid’ or ‘The Driver’) Those of the Leone/Eastwood variety. Even Max Rockatansky’s name is only uttered a few times in four Mad Max movies. Think of The Driver as their kid cousin. But this being a Nic Refn screenplay he’s not interested in following the exact schematics of the nameless antihero. The stereotype being that antiheroes are lone carnivores, and by default, completely unobtainable. Historically these guys make weird love interests. And yet I’d be hard pressed not to call Drive romantic. For as violent as it surely is, this is a tender story. And though it certainly feels like a fairytale, this just isn’t that world. Revealing a beating heart on streets this nihilistic only means that it’s going to get a switchblade shoved into it. Drive’s a physical film regardless. While the violence is all hands-on, (hammers, boots, buckshot) the sexuality between man and woman is kept impossibly at arm’s length. As for kisses? Like everything else in the criminal underworld of Drive, it seems that they too must be stolen.
Directed by Christopher Nolan (2017)
“They’re not stopping here. We need to get our army back. Britain’s next, then the rest of the world.” – Rear Admiral
Dunkirk’s a terrific reminder of how easy it is to get swept up by images. Christopher Nolan employs music of course – a clever blend of propulsive orchestra against a ticking timepiece to remind us that time is being altered and danced with. But he also understands that, first and foremost, film is a primarily visual medium. That the theater of war makes for spectacular theater. And if every frame of celluloid is perfectly plotted and carefully captured the results are nothing short of transcendent. There are two competing factions in Dunkirk – and not just the English and German forces engaged in deadly combat in the Straights of Dover – the faction of flight and the counter-faction of drowning. And Nolan expertly uses one faction to give the other that much more impact. You can barely breath in one sequence in the film, and then in the next instant be whisked up into the sky with nothing but all the oxygen in the world. Either from claustrophobia, aquaphobia, or from the cool adrenaline buzz of being in the cockpit of a Spitfire dogfighting German Luftwaffe, you’ll continually feel short of breath. The best war film of the decade.
Directed by The Coen Brothers (2013)
“You’ve probably heard that one before. It’s not new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song.” – Llewyn Davis
Just what exactly is inside Mr. Davis? How about a teeny little heart, but a whole lot of soul? Depending on talent allotment, most artists fight an interior civil war between assets and liabilities. The greater the gift, the higher the butcher’s bill. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is an exceptional musician. His voice and songs bear the warmth of an old, well-tuned soul. As a human being however? Llewyn’s a bit of a shit. And who can blame him really? As a struggling musician he’s chosen to walk the true path of the vagrant minstrel. Penniless. Sleeping on couches. Bumming cigarettes, cash, gigs, love. Suffering rejection. Slinging songs in an effort to make the next stage more sizable than the previous – the next record deal more sizable than the previous. As a character study Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen Brothers more fickle works. It’s a story of an artist’s persistently futile search for validation – or even some compensation really – five minutes before his art medium stumbles into mass appeal. (kickstarted by a young Bob Dylan’s arrival at the end of the film – or is it the beginning?) Inside Llewyn Davis captures the spirit and soul of the folk revival scene and its colorful, often affected, denizenry. It’s set in the coziest corner of American geography and history – mid-1960’s Greenwich Village – where artists were a dime-a-dozen, and idealism hammered against the sea wall of capitalism. In a brilliant bit of bookending the Coen’s present their story as a temporal loop. A perpetual cycle of artistic politicking, dejection, and revival. Mostly experienced from an endless procession of couches.
Directed by Harmony Korine (2012)
“I’m Alien. My real name is Al, but truth be told, I’m not from the planet.” – Alien
If Harmony Korine remains in his lane, meaning strip mining Florida for every last valuable cinematic commodity, I can see the beginning of a storied love affair with this filmmaker. Beach Bum was a candidate for this list, but compared to Spring Breakers, Beach Bum feels a bit like supplemental material. Tampa Florida – at least as it’s presented in Korine’s vision – is hell on Earth. It just looks and tastes like pure heaven. There is no fairer devil than James Franco’s Alien, and no kingdom of the Earth more seductive than these clubs and beaches. This is a spring break to put one’s soul in hazard for. It seems that the legendary South Florida hardcore party scene just won’t be hardcore enough – not for these girls. Therein lies the true genius of the film. Where do the devil’s cards lie? In the hands of the pimp? Or the hands of the stable? And between Alien, Brit, and Candy which one holds the chalice? It’s no mistake that Selena Gomez’s character is named Faith, (or for that matter, that Vanessa Hudgens character is named Candy) Korine is weaving a tale as old as Eve and the serpent. He’s just using a different setting for Eden. Or is this Sodom? To call this just a crime film is felonious. Spring Breakers is a frenetic mind-screw of pure cinema.
Directed by John McDonagh (2014)
“It’s just that you have no integrity. That’s the worst thing I could say about anybody.” – Father James Lavelle
A rabbi once made the point that the believer has to account for the existence of the unjust suffering of the innocent, while the unbeliever must account for the existence of everything else. John McDonagh’s (Martin McDonaugh’s brother) Cavalry, bull-rushes the philosophical complexity of belief with both knuckles up. Which is a gutsy approach, especially when we consider the misbehavior of those in the clergical wing of late. This is an absolutely fearless examination of the legacy of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Calvary is much more nuanced and candid than the critical darling (and far less significant in my opinion) Spotlight. At the heart of the story we have one good priest. (easily Brendan Gleason’s best performance to date) Father James is far from perfect, but he’s a good man in the ways that count. The priest is given a single week to put his affairs in order before an unknown party murders him for the sins of the church. As the killer says: “Nobody cares if you murder a bad priest. But murder a good one? People will take notice.” In the meantime we meet a rogue’s gallery of sinners and salvationists all fumbling their way madly through the wreckage of their own lives – most heaping grief upon the priest’s head as the humor of sinners is prone to do – persistently breaking the padre’s balls at every opportunity. The signature McDonagh brothers sense of black humor isn’t lacking considering the delicate subject matter. In fact it’s never been more cutting. Calvary is religion with consequences.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer (2013)
“When is the last time you touched someone?” – Laura
There’s the rest of the art film scene – with its penchant for banality and aimlessness – and then there’s Jonathan Glazer. The genuine article. An inventor really. Never anyone’s understudy. Glazer’s an artist who can paint hope and hopelessness with a few garish brush strokes. Who has, with his film Under The Skin, set about the impossible business of defining humanity through the distorted prism of inhumanity. Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, a species of offworlder we immediately recognize the shape of, (if the alien raiding forces arrive looking like Scarjo, as a species we’re so totally screwed) but find our senses scrambled and jammed up by as well. Laura’s the supernatural other drifting right in front of us. We see her, but we certainly don’t feel her. Not as anything corporeal anyway. And yet we follow her. As does every doomed soul in the film. The approaching abattoir, a sea of black pitch, hidden behind her strutting buttocks. For all intents and purposes she’s a siren with no song – just a series of pat pickup lines, all bearing the same mortal consequence for whichever fish bites. Under the Skin is gorgeous and eerie and upsetting – for the average viewer it’s also frustratingly mundane. But we follow it because we follow her, and we sink into the furrow of the remorseless deep because we’ve simply never been there before now. At least not on film. I have never seen another movie like Under The Skin. I may never again.
Directed by Joe Carnahan (2011)
“Those things from your life – whatever they might be – make you want the next minute more than the last. They make you fight for it.” – Ottway
I’m an unabashed fan of movies about men. But real men. Men that drink filtered beer, and can rebuild motorcycles, and haven’t a clue who or what a patriarchy might be. The fabled men of yore. Men we’d want as forebearers, but definitely not as mortal enemies. Joe Carnahan is one of the few filmmakers who understands and tends the complex inner fires of men. How they handle tragedy. How they handle the oncoming rush of fate and death. More importantly, how they communicate with each other. The Grey is an elemental motion picture. More mythos than fiction. It is a story of postmodern warriors fatally positioned on the wrong side of the primordial chaos of the hinterland. In this territory there is nothing but wind and ice and terrors in the dark – namely packs of starving wolves. And standing against the dogs are seemingly simple, working class soldiers, putting up the finest fight anyone has captured on film in decades. Liam Neeson is the man.
Directed by David Fincher (2014)
“I was an average guy from an average place with mediocre aspirations, and I met this woman who dazzled me. And I wanted her to love me. I pretended to be better than I was. I made a pledge to her, when we married, to be that man. The man who tries harder. The man who thinks and acts and feels with as much passion as she does. The man who makes her happy. And I failed her. Instead of doing what was right, I did what was easy.” – Nick Dunne
Full disclosure: David Fincher is my favorite filmmaker. To choose between The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl should have been excruciating work – it ultimately wasn’t. Gone Girl is nearly perfect. Among this list of top ten films resides gangsters, wolves, alien temptresses, and blood-drunk highwaymen. And yet none of these achieve the level of ingenuity and cunning of Gone Girl’s ‘Amazing’ Amy Dunne. (Rosamund Pike) Though I find myself hesitant calling Amazing Amy a villain. We wouldn’t call the Whale Probe in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home a villain. It is simply seeking to communicate. It is merely a persuasive force bound to the blueprint of its bio-chemical nature. As is Mrs. Dunne. It’s just that both wife and whale siren carry toxic, world-wrecking, byproducts rotating in, and around, their orbit. As a man it’s easy to envy Nick Dunne. (Ben Affleck) He’s not only managed to wrangle Amy Dunne, he’s remained in her ellipse longer than maybe any man could. But Nick can’t sustain the pace forever. He stumbles, and soon discovers that no matter how chilly his wife’s insistent presence may be, her absence is legitimately cold. You see, through force of will alone, Amy has made herself absolutely irreplaceable. Gone Girl is truly marriage as defined in its vows. Richer. Poorer. Sickness. Health. Death. Death. Death. It gives a new perspective to those old matrimonial chestnuts.
Directed by Gavin O’ Connor (2011)
“So you found God, huh? That’s awesome. See, Mom kept calling out for him but he wasn’t around. I guess Jesus was down at the mill forgiving all the drunks.” – Tommy Conlon
Maybe the best film anyone’s ever made about brothers, (I have two myself – this movie hit home so hard it nearly broke my heart) and these two guys don’t really like, or even know each other, all that well. Warrior isn’t just a film about fighting – though it’s a totally fantastic film about fighting. It’s a movie about a family so broken, so totally lost and irremedial, that it needed something close to full-scale war to even find a way to sit at a table together again. All three lead actors (Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte) put in substantial work here. Being this good in a film about cage fighting should look better on a resume than I think anyone in the media would give it credit for. This is a story of warriors. Warriors fighting to keep afloat. Fighting to forget. Fighting personal weaknesses. Fighting the memories of the terrible pain they’ve inflicted on the people they’ve been entrusted to love the most. And ultimately, fighting as an informal mending ceremony – an arena for expunging all that pent up disappointment, and anger, and hurt. Because those that hurt, hurt. And boy do these two brothers beat the brakes off each other. It doesn’t matter if you know how the finale of Warrior is going to go down, you’re still going to have your stomach twisted into knots by the time the story reaches its finale. Ultimately, it’s a Pyrrhic victory for one of the two combatants. We want a winner – but damnit if we don’t want to see a loser either.
Directed by Andrew Dominik (2012)
“He’s gonna’ get grabbed. He better pass the first one inna’ drugstore and get himself a new toothbrush. He’s gonna’ need one.” – Johnny Amato
Killing Them Softly’s an indie crime film set in the rust belt during the time of the American corporate bailout. The story in the film is the story of the country during that period. Consumer confidence is low, so some radical policies must be introduced to get the economy booming again. The government chose to pack its economic troubles with cash. The corporate crooks in this movie —implementing a different strategy altogether – choose to apply physical maltreatment and flying lead to stabilize their financial equilibrium again. Violence is its own currency on this turf. It opens doors. Closes accounts. Reorganizes organizations. Refines intent. As Brad Pitt’s Jackie says: “America’s not a country. It’s just a business.” And then adds: “Now f*****’ pay me.” It took more than a few key corpses to finally land this killer in the top position as collector of outstanding debts. For a film built on impromptu linguistic sparring it turns out that it’s Dominik’s portrayal of violence that leaves the most lasting mark. The beating of Markie (Liotta) being the most generous. Combining foley decay and frame-per-second fisticuffs, Andrew Dominik creates the most state of the art ass-beating anybody’s ever put onscreen. You feel this mauling in your teeth. It is a symphony of sound and frame-rate modification that leaves the viewer completely rattled. Killing Them Softly also has the distinction of being one of James Gandolfini’s final film performances. Easily the best of the lot.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (2017)
“They all think it’s about more detail. But that’s not how memory works. We recall with our feelings. Anything real should be a mess.” – Dr. Stelline
When broken down to its core, Blade Runner 2049 is the story of a soldier conscripted to slay a firstborn child. A tale as old as the passover, or the star of Bethlehem. Forgoing 2049’s relationship with the original film’s tone and color pallet, the first thing that Dennis Villenueve understands about what made Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner the achievement it is thirty-five years after the fact, is that, pulling from its own terminology, his sequel understands longevity and incept-dates. Films that challenge the aristocracy of the zeitgeist live on well past their theatrical runs. While those that ply their wares strictly for economical prosperity often have a four year lifespan at best. These franchise attractions are soon retired by the next model, and that model by the next, until the franchise itself is replaced by the next franchise, and then, like tears in rain, these franchises are wholly lost in time. After a relatively modest opening during her first weekend at the box office, Blade Runner 2049 is yet another commercial and cultural outlaw. It’s not only the offspring of one of the few films ahead of its time, it’s one of the even fewer sequels in that bracket. Much like her thirty-five-year-old progenitor, 2049 is a risky, overindulgent, aesthetically and phonetically rich orchestra of sophisticated science fiction – ostensibly designed to drown out the thrum of common blockbuster tinnitus. It’s also ambiguous as hell concerning its themes and biblical substructure. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a motion picture most audiences will find accommodating. Pretty to look at, sure. It carries the same fever-dream quality of the 1982 original. Leaving the viewer in a sonambulistic stupor, feeling like, upon completion, that they’re walking out of a strong afternoon nap, and not a feature film. But as an entertainment option it’s an existential epic. A tech-savvy tone poem content to stroll toward a theologically complicated settlement, and not dash. Blade Runner 2049, much like its precursor, is tremendous filmmaking.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino (2019)
“Believe it or not I gotta flamethrower in the tool shed…” – Rick Dalton
I didn’t have a better viewing experience in 2019 then the night I introduced my mother to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood on streaming. I’d seen it four times already, but not with someone who had been alive during that era, and she couldn’t help but wax rhapsodic over the time period, and groove to the scorching 60’s soundtrack. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s a tale of two cowboys. Rick Dalton, (DiCaprio) who’s a professional actor three minutes away from obscurity, and plays a cowboy on television. And Cliff Booth, (Pitt) the genuine article. In maybe the most clever juxtaposition of his career, Quentin Tarantino fixtures his faux desperado, Rick, on an active western set, trying to overpower a hangover, and a lack of confidence, in an effort to impress an impressive film director. Meanwhile, his buddy, Cliff Booth, wanders onto Spahn ranch – a now vacant western production lot – towards a dust-up with the infamous Manson family. In it Tarantino’s playing with the duality of fiction. What a showdown should play out like on the silver screen, versus all the blood, alcohol-sweat, and tears it takes to build the illusion behind the scenes. And that’s just a single series of superlative symbiotic sequences in a film completely buried in them. For my money, there’s the single, untouchable Tarantino production – Pulp Fiction – followed immediately by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I haven’t seen a film this substantial in five years.
Directed by George Miller (2015)
“I had a baby brother … a little baby brother .. and he was perfect … perfect in every way!” – Rictus Erectus
By the opening of Mad Max: Fury Road the tracer fire of highway lines so prevalent in Mad Max, and its sequel The Road Warrior, have vanished entirely. The ‘destination unknown’ promised by the perpetual treadmill of blacktop has finally been realized in an arid chunk of hellhole called The Plains Of Silence. A place of dust and thirst, (thirst for both water and for blood) and for Max Rockatansky – as indicated from interviews with George Miller – a place to end his life. Finally. The road has been conquered.
Life has no value here on the Plains Of Silence, (or “salt” as it’s referred to in the latter stages of Fury Road) at least for Max. He hasn’t used his own name since the first film. Hasn’t even heard the sound of his own voice in years. There are echoes of both still pinging around his interior, and indeed, this is key to understanding who Max Rockatansky has become at this point in his story – the point where the true warlords of the wasteland enter the picture. The gasoline gangs of Toecutter and The Humungous are now part of Max’s past, along with his crippled wife and dead son. They existed in the world of pavement. Of martial law and tenuous cohabitation.
These new overlords are people of strength and power. Wasteworld survivors who no longer need to go 125 MPH to stay vital to the sociological disorder of the road war ecology. People like Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity and Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe. Kingpin entrepreneurs who built their deepest anxieties and personal tragedies into super-structures, and some semblance of civilization. Rulers who are more focused on precious resources like water, and blood, and breast milk, and bio-fuel, and law above order.
It is here on the rim of this vast, vacant, ocean of salt that Max finds himself at a crossroads, where the road as he once understood it has ceased to exist. In its stead is the totalitarian regime of open space. The symbol of the abyss. The real wasteland of Miller’s earlier prophecies. This is why, later in the film, he chases down Furiosa and The Many Mothers, and pulls them back from attempting to cross the great salt plain. To cross The Plains of Silence is slow death – 160 days is just an arbitrary figure he gives them. To continue forward means to die. Behind them, back toward Immortan Joe’s three war parties – with their diesel engines and spectacles of death and mayhem – lies life. Or life as Max Rockatansky embraces it. For George Miller’s central character at least, it is indeed better to burnout than to fade away.
Outside of the first film, Mad Max, (which is the only film narrative we can trust entirely, simply because it lacks a narrator) the rest of the franchise doesn’t really follow anything as incorporated as canon. Max’s story is one of trade-route mythology and oral tradition. The tale of The Road Warrior is told to us through the memories of the Feral Boy. The story of Thunderdome is told to the Lost Children of the Oasis by Savannah Nix at some undisclosed future date. Fury Road is narrated by Max himself, but filtered through a blizzard of paranoid delusion and mania. This makes Max an even less trustworthy historical resource than any of those outlanders previously mentioned.
With seemingly no direction and no motivation for carrying on, let alone bearing the weight of his past mistakes, we realize we have only really grown to know this man by his actions, by the roads he travels down, and never really his words. This character barely says anything to anyone, even when communication is paramount to the situation. Instead, Rockatansky speaks with his reflexes. With his driving. His soul and salvation seemingly chained to whichever vehicle he’s in command of. (Max is a man possessed, not by revenge, but by machines – it’s right there in the subtext of every Max movie) Which, in Fury Road, means hightailing it in a war-rig three miles ahead of Immortan Joe’s war drums, the metal-chug of his shaman’s screaming guitar, his overpowered cathedra, (the dual-V8 Gigahorse) all of it a thundering orchestra devouring Max’s tire tracks. All of it making him want to learn to live again.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a film about suicide prevention purely through participation in activities pre-apocalyptic society would deem exceptionally suicidal. It is life rediscovered on the brink of extinction. It is also the best film anyone’s made in decades.