Category Archives: Top Ten Lists

Top Ten Medieval Movies

There are many different kinds of movies that stand strong over the years, but what usually stands up the strongest are the ones centered around adventure.  There’s something to be said about crowd pleasers that deliver on thrills, both on an intimate and epic scale.  Though you can find adventure films that span across all types of genres (fantasy, sci-fi, and so forth) what seems to capture the imagination the most for many audiences are adventures of a historic kind.  Human history is full of moments in time that have become the things of legend, and these historical moments in turn provide ample inspiration for cinematic treatment.  The historical epic was at one time the most dominant of all genres in Hollywood, especially during the advent of widescreen into cinemas.  Historical dramas, whether they be biblical, prehistoric, or medieval, gave Hollywood a chance to show off the craft of their trade on a scale unseen before.  They provided production design, costuming, and prop making a chance to indulge in extravagance while at the same time being grounded in a historical context that wouldn’t be too alienating to audiences.  But even though these kinds of movies were rousing crowd pleasers, they were at the same time enormously expensive to undertake, and each one would be a gamble once it hit theaters.  Over time, the gamble would prove to be too much for the industry, and the historical drama would recede as a force within the industry.  But, the movies that we have gotten over the years still stand out as shining examples of Hollywood working with all engines running, and taken out of the context of their performance at the box office, some of these movies eventually do find their audience, especially among those who wish to see epic cinema at it’s most ambitious.

Of the many historical epics that have especially stood the test of time, the most interesting group among them are those set within what we consider the Medieval Dark Ages.  This was the period of chivalry, mighty castle fortresses and epic battles between knights in armor.  At least that’s what we understand from a majority of the movies made in Hollywood about that time period.  But in reality, Medieval times really applies globally, with different parts of the world that shared many different upheavals that defined their history that also could be considered epic in scope.  While Europe was in the midst of the rising influence of their warring kingdoms, the Tsars were consolidating power in the Russian steppes, Genghis Khan was continuing his conquest of China and growing his vast Mongol empire, feudalism rose the samurais to ultimate power in the Japanese archipelago, and vast empires were rising in the Americas under the Mayans and the Incas.  Though separated by vast distances on the globe, every part of the world was experiencing their own epic stories during these tumultuous times, and they have been the inspiration for some of cinema’s grandest adventures.  In this list, I am going to list my own choices for the best medieval movies from across the globe.  Keep in mind, I am classifying these movies based solely on their place within a certain historical time and place.  Some of these stories can feature supernatural and fantasy elements, but they have to be earthbound, so no fantasy realms with medieval influence will be on this list (The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride) and they have to be entirely set in the Medieval times (no Highlander).  Before I begin, here are a couple noteworthy movies that didn’t make my list, but are still worth seeing: Black Death (2010), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Name of the Rose (1987), El Cid (1961), Apocalypto (2006), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Sword in the Stone (1963), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Wolfwalkers (2020), The Court Jester (1955), and The Hidden Fortress (1956).  Now, let’s take a look at my picks for the 10 best Medieval movies of all time.

10.

THE LION IN WINTER (1968)

Directed by Anthony Harvey

Not all Medieval movies need to be centered around epic sword battles.   In this case, it’s centered around an extremely dysfunctional family who just so happen to be the sovereign rulers of the kingdoms of England and France all meeting together for a Christmas gathering.  That’s not to say it’s without it’s own thrilling twists and turns.  Adapted by writer James Goldman from his own play, The Lion in Winter centers upon the political machinations of King Henry II of England and his would be heirs.  Though the many members of the family come together out of obligations to their familial ties, it’s clear throughout the course of the story that each is trying to outwit one another in a pursuit of power.  Henry (played magnificently by Peter O’Toole, who also previously played the same role in 1964’s Becket) has sired another child with his mistress and he seeks to legitimize the child and give him a claim to the throne over his older, grown sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry).  Complicating the family matters even more are the visiting Prince Phillip of France (Timothy Dalton) and the Queen Mother Elanor of Aquitaine (Kathrine Hepburn), both of whom stir up more disunity within the family for their own quest for power.  Taking place over the course of one tumultuous Christmas Eve, the story is an intriguing look at the back-stabbing squabbles of the ruling class.  As a movie, it’s a beautifully constructed film with authentic medieval flavor.  It’s also a tour de force of acting, with many rising stars like Hopkins and Dalton commanding the screen.  But above all else, it is the absolute queen Kathrine Hepburn who commands the film.  Winning the third of her four Oscars with her performance here, her presence elevates the movie to epic heights, and really takes her real life historical figure into the realm of legend.  Though intimate in scope, The Lion in Winter is nevertheless a Medieval classic in every way.

9.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2005)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Taking the opposite direction from The Lion in Winter’s intimate story of inter-family politics, we see here a prime example of epic filmmaking within a Medieval setting ramped up to it’s zenith.  Director Ridley Scott had already modernized the sword and sandal epic with his Oscar winning Gladiator (2000) just a few years prior, and he looked to do the same with this Crusades era epic centered around the Battle of Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the same way.  20th Century Fox butchered Scott’s original vision to release it in theaters in a more palatable 2 1/2 hour runtime.  Sadly, the theatrical cut was an uneven mess that failed at the box office.  But, somehow Ridley was able to convince the studio to release his original 3 hour and 15 minute version on home video and audiences were able to see the movie as he originally intended.  What we discovered was not only a movie far superior to the one released in theaters, but probably one of the greatest medieval war epics ever made.  The character motivations made more sense, the flow of the story was more natural, and it was far more introspective of the themes throughout the story.  Written by screenwriter William Monaghan, the story focuses on a lowly farmer named Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) who through lineage and perseverance finds himself transported from the snowy fields of France to the scorching deserts of the Middle East, where he in turn ends up commanding a defense of Jerusalem from the Sarasin army of Muslim warrior King Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).  The epic adventure has all the grandeur you’d expect, but the longer cut also provides an interesting meditation on the morality of war.  What Scott and Monaghan do so well in the story is their fair portrayal of both sides in the battle.  Saladin is shown to be an honorable leader, as is his counterpart on the Christian side, the leper King Baldwin (a remarkable uncredited and masked Edward Norton), and it’s the Zealot agitators on the edges that are truly responsible for the atrocities of the Crusades.  The movie was made in the midst of the ramp-up of the War on Terror, and the movie illustrates the folly of “holy wars” and imperialist nation building.  Sadly, the movie that illustrated that the best was left off the big screen in favor of a truncated version free of controversy.  At least Ridley Scott was able to get his version seen in the end and it should be the only version anyone ever sees.

8.

ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938)

Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Even the Soviets knew the crowd pleasing force that epic Medieval adventure could have on the big screen.  Pioneering filmmaker Eisenstein, who made a name for himself and Russian cinema with silent epics like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), continued into the sound era with rousing propaganda adventures meant to spotlight the glory of the Russian worker post Revolution.  However, his often extravagant films were criticized as too bourgeois for the more hard lined Stalinist regime.  Still, when Russia needed a rousing adventure film to move the masses, he was called upon to deliver.  During the 1930’s, the Soviets were concerned by the rising power of Fascism coming from Germany under the reign of Hitler.  To convince the Russian people of the evils of Germany, the Soviet regime enlisted Eisenstein to adapt a famous Russian legend of a noble Prince named Alexander Nevsky who successfully defended the Russian people from an invasion from Teutonic (i.e. German) invaders.  And deliver he did, with a magnificent Medieval epic that transcends it’s propaganda origins.  Alexander Nevsky is one of the most exquisitely crafted epic movies of it’s era, with Eisenstein pushing the limits of scale and drama to the extreme.  The production design is top notch, and has even set the standard high not just for Russian cinema, but even that of Hollywood.  The harrowing battle on a river of ice is a particular highlight that is still unmatched nine decades later.  What is particularly surprising is that Eisenstein was inspired not just by cinema from European contemporaries, but from an unlikely Western source as well; Disney.  His staging and camera composition, as well as his use of music, actually owes a lot of influence to some of the more epic cartoons that the animation studio was churning out at the time, including the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937).  The Western influence was perhaps too noticeable, because Stalin banned the film for several years after a peace treaty was signed with Hitler’s Germany in 1938.  That treaty didn’t last long, and war soon broke out, forcing the movie to be released in full finally, however it was too late for Eisenstein whose good standing with the Soviet government was never able to recover.

7.

SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Eric Larson, and Hamilton Luske

Speaking of Disney, they’ve had their own long history with movies in a Medieval setting.  With fairy tales being the source of most of their most noteworthy movies, it seems only natural that one or two would be set in a Medieval period.  The already mentioned Snow White certainly centers it’s story in a vaguely Medieval, Germanic setting, and Disney also did their own spin on Arthurian and Robin Hood legends with 1963’s The Sword in the Stone and 1973’s Robin Hood.  But, if there is one movie that is unmistakably tied to Medieval times in both story and it’s visual aesthetic, it’s Sleeping Beauty.  Before you say that I’m bending the rules to include this here, I want to point out that despite the fantasy elements this version of the story is based on the Charles Perrault adaptation, which firmly sets the story of Briar Rose in a distinctly Medieval French setting.  And I think above all the other movies on this list, this movie does the best job of conveying the feel of the middle ages through art.  Walt Disney wanted this film to look different from any he made before, and in particular, he wanted it to look like a moving medieval tapestry come to life.  Long before the Renaissance would revolutionize the art of painting, the most common artform in the middle ages was weaving tapestries for the walls of castles.  Within them, they immortalized great achievements by kings and knights, and did so with remarkable, stylized graphic detail.  Disney translated this look into the angular, sharp edged style of Sleeping Beauty, which conveys a look of unmistakable medieval influence.  The forest scenes alone are spectacular in their attention to the tiniest details.  Disney also romanticizes the epic adventure aspect of the story in a way no one else could, with grand palatial castles that seem to extend on forever, and an epic battle between the forces of good and evil that is one of the grandest things ever put on screen.  The final battle between the Prince and the evil fairy Maleficent in her dragon form is the stuff of cinema legend.  It certainly sets in the audience’s eye the ideal for how a medieval adventure should look, and it certainly does a lot to spotlight just how interesting the artwork of that period was.

6.

EXCALIBUR (1981)

Directed by John Boorman

Sticking with a segment of the medieval era depicted on screen, we find one of the most imaginative retellings of the legend of King Arthur.  The origins of the King Arthur legend and his mythical kingdom of Camelot are still a mystery to many historians, but they are still a large part of the grander cultural identity of the British isles.  Much of what we honor as the ideals of the chivalry of knights and their codes of honor stems from the Arthurian legends.  And with this version directed by the always unconventional John Boorman, we get one of the most ethereal retellings of the age old legend, while still remarkably staying true to it’s source material.  You get all the expected extravagance of a typical medieval epic, as well as some the oddball touches that the Zardoz filmmaker was known for.  There’s a half demented Merlin hanging around (played to perfection by Nicol Williamson), a Knights of the Round Table cast that includes Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson in their earliest film roles, as well as Helen Mirren playing an evil sorceress.  But perhaps what makes the movie work as well as it does is the fact that it feels much less like a product of Hollywood and more like the product of an artist trying to convey a true feeling of the story’s medieval roots.  Boorman shot most of the movie in real castles in Ireland, and almost all of the movie is on location around these monuments or outside in the surrounding forests.  There’s a level of authenticity found here, where the medieval setting feels more lived in, than previous films had ever captured before, and it helped to set a new standard for many of the medieval setting movies that were to come after.  You can see from the rise of fantasy films throughout the mid to late 80’s the strong influence of Boorman’s Excalibur.  Though Arthurian tales are plentiful in the history of cinema, few have been as influential as this one was.

5.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

On top of King Arthur, the other go to medieval legend that has been a stalwart in Hollywood has been that of Robin Hood.  It almost seems like every generation is eager to deliver it’s own new spin on the character, and we’ve seen Sir Robin of Locksley make it to the silver screen dozens of times now.  Whether it’s Disney’s fox, the aging version brought to life by Sean Connery, or the different star vehicle versions with Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe, there are plenty that first come to mind when we think of the name Robin Hood.  But, if we were to point out the greatest cinematic version of the legendary story, most would point to this adaptation from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Perhaps one of the greatest swashbucklers to ever come out of the Hollywood system, The Adventures of Robin Hood is the epitome of classic Hollywood.  With dashing Australian matinee idol Errol Flynn in the titular role, we get a Robin Hood that is all parts handsome, charismatic and worth rooting for.  His appeal as a rebellious figure in the face of injustice was particularly poignant for it’s time as both America and Britain were witnessing the rise of Fascism throughout Europe.  Making Robin Hood a champion of the oppressed helped to mold this centuries old legend into something that could motivate modern day audiences, much in the same way Sergei Eisenstein was doing at the same time with Alexander Nevsky.  Regardless of it’s higher meaning, the movie set the bar high for medieval adventure filmmaker for many years after.  Though glossy as most historical movies of that time were, Adventures of Robin Hood is a technicolor extravaganza, with the colors of all the costumes and the sets just leaping off the screen.  Though many Robin Hood movies have come after, I don’t think any have come close to being as thoroughly delightful as what what we see here.  It’s high adventure at it’s best.  Whether he’s swinging from tree to tree, firing arrows at far away targets, or doing one on one battle with the nefarious Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone), Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood stands tall amongst all the rest.

4.

THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Now we have a medieval movie that certainly lives up to that moniker.  Far from the sugar-coated view of Medieval times that Hollywood presented, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on mortality is as grim as it gets.  Set in the midst of a breakout of the black death across Europe, we follow a set of common people living in Medieval Sweden who are constantly in fear of the specter of death that hangs around them.  Death even appears in physical form as a man dressed in black robes (played by Bengt Ekerot) who challenges a knight returned from the Crusades (the late Max von Sydow) to a game of chess.  Highly symbolic, Bergman’s story nevertheless is grounded in it’s medieval setting.  In many ways, this was the most accurate depiction of life in Medieval times that movie audiences had seen.  The hardship of the peasantry struggling to live in harsh times is certainly something that hadn’t been seen on the big screen, as Hollywood was more intrigued by the high chivalrous aspects of the time period.  Bergman’s medieval world is harsh, grimey and without much chivalry to speak of.  Even Max von Sydow’s knight is treated with much less chivalry than what was coming out of Hollywood.  Despite the grimness of the story, Bergman’s Seventh Seal is captivating as our band of characters try their best to stay out of death’s way, which we ultimately learn is a foolish endeavor.  Coming out of our most recent pandemic, The Seventh Seal takes on even more relevance, as we see so much civility and normality fall down around us in response to a microbial threat that we are still trying to come to grips with.  It’s a still haunting tale that uses it’s medieval setting to glorious effect.  In many ways, it echoes the kind of fables that would have been told in those times, which would have been shared in response to hardships that medieval people had to endure.  You probably won’t find a more poetic image in cinema than the danse macabre that closes the film, as Death leads our band of characters into the afterlife in an unforgettable hillside parade.

3.

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

And now for something completely different.  The legendary comedy team behind Monty Python’s Flying Circus made their big screen debut with this parody of medieval epics, and did so in the silliest way they could.  Typical of their legendary irreverent style of comedy, the movie eviscerates every medieval movie trope known.  Each new segment of the movie is full of quotable lines and the most ridiculous slapstick, and each has become the stuff of legend in their own right.  There’s the Castle of the French Taunters, the Black Knight who defends his post to the point of lunacy, the Knights who say Ni, the viscous white rabbit guarding the cave who can only be bested by the Holy Hand Grenade, and the sexy adventure through Castle Anthrax.  Each episode is more ridiculous than the next and showcases the six person squad of comedic geniuses (Terry Jones, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam) at their very best.  In addition to all the insanity, the movie does feel authentic to it’s medieval roots as well.  It’s clear that these scholarly comedians are thoroughly familiar with Arthurian legends, and have a deep understanding of English history as well; all of which gets mocked incessantly throughout the movie.  At the same time, the movie’s micro budget actually works in it’s favor, as it gives the medieval setting a more earthbound, lived in feel.  Most of the movie was actually shot around a real castle in Scotland, which had to play the part of many different castles throughout the movie.  And the on location feel of the movie really helps to make it feel authentic; something Excalibur would also do a few years later with a more substantial budget.  Holy Grail is to many the pinnacle of the Monty Python output, and even almost 50 years later it’s still one of the funniest movies ever made.  How many people do you know have quoted some part of this movie, from “Tis but a scratch,” to “Go away or I shall taunt you a second time.”  But if there is one quote that perfect sums up the insanity of the movie’s medieval setting, it’s, “Let’s not go to Camelot.  Tis a silly place.”

2.

BRAVEHEART (1995)

Directed by Mel Gibson

Putting all the controversy about Mr. Gibson aside, there is no doubt that he captured something unique with his Oscar winning film Braveheart.  The only movie with a medieval setting to ever claim the Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards, Braveheart is not without it’s own controversies.  Historians, particularly Scottish historians, will tell you that this movie is filled to the brim with historical inaccuracies; to the point of being more fiction than fact.  But, given that Hollywood has had a long history of fudging with historical facts to make their stories more entertaining, it doesn’t seem that unusual that Braveheart would do the same as well.  And that’s the point behind Gibson’s story about the Scottish rebel known as William Wallace.  He wanted to make history into legend and tell a rousing story in the process like the historical epics that Hollywood used to make.  And while historians balked, audiences embraced this epic adventure.  Many claim it’s even been responsible for revitalizing renewed interest in Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.  For the most part, Gibson’s direction does what most great epics of the past have done which is take full advantage of the tricks of the trade that are at his disposal.  Before Braveheart, you usually would see epic battles shown from a distance, which allowed the audience to see the vastness of the scene in full.  But Mel puts the camera right in the middle of the action on the ground, showing the audience all the bloody mayhem up close.  It’s some of the most harrowing combat ever put on screen and in many ways it would set the standard for epic battles for the next several decades.  You can see the imprint of Braveheart in everything from Gladiator, to The Lord of the Rings, to even Game of Thrones on television.  At the same time, Mel keeps the internal story interesting, with a supporting cast that feels authentically at home in this world.  Of special note is Patrick McGoohan as King Edward Longshanks, one of the most unforgettable movie villains ever and a personal favorite of mine.  As far as medieval epics go, you’ll be pressed to find one that checks all the boxes as effectively as Braveheart does; one of the absolute benchmarks of it’s genre.

1.

SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Strangely the greatest movie with a medieval setting isn’t what most people would consider typically medieval.  But, out East, while Europe was in the midst of it’s middle ages and saw the rise of kings and knights, the Island of Japan was also in the midst of it’s own feudal rise to prominence.  Instead of knights in chain mail and armor, Japan had Samurai who had mastered the art of swordplay.  This era too has been mined for cinematic retellings, and out of Japan’s cinema industry rose one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; Akira Kurosawa.  Though he worked in genres both historical and contemporary, Kurosawa had an special fondness for this period of his nation’s history and he would return to the Samurai genre many times.  Of all his movies set within this medieval period, none stands out more than what many consider (like me) to be his masterpiece; Seven Samurai.  Seven Samurai is not a specific fable important to Japanese history, but instead tells a more intimate story of common people trying to survive the hardships of their times.  Much like Bergman’s Seventh SealSamurai is more about a universal lesson in the nature of mankind that resonates far beyond it’s medieval setting.  Even still, Kurosawa tells this simple story in the most epic way possible.  The titular samurai all come together to protect a small village from a band of marauders who terrorize them daily, and over the course of the movie, we learn more about them as individuals.  It’s a story that can be transposed to any place in the world, and has as it’s been turned into everything from a Western to a Pixar animated film starring bugs.  There have even been re-imaginings of it in a medieval European setting, which is appropriate given the time period.  Still, the story feels most at home in it’s Samurai genre beginnings, and it showcases just how interesting that period in time was to Japanese, and world history.  Though half a world away from where we expect it, the finest example of a movie making the most of it’s medieval setting is found over in the land of the Rising Sun, and that’s first and foremost because it’s not only a great movie within it’s own genre, but one of the greatest movies ever made period.

So, there you have my picks for the best medieval movies ever made.  As you can see, I tried to look beyond just Hollywood and see the time period in a more global sense.  A lot of these cultures were more interconnected than you’d think, as things like the Mongol Empire and the Age of Discovery connected once disparate cultures faster than ever before.  Seven Samurai may be world’s away from the knights in armor epics of Hollywood, but at the same time it still has a lot in common, particularly with it’s themes and the way it stages itself.  Kurosawa himself was influenced by Hollywood epics, so it makes sense that they would also take inspiration from him in this cyclical exchange of creative ideas within the global cinematic market.  Still, I imagine that when most people think of Medieval set movies, they first will think of the films centered around legends like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and that’s a pretty good assessment of the genre’s identity in all of cinema.  Medieval movies are the homes of legends.  It’s where we go to find rousing adventures that transport us to a different time and place.  As we’ve seen, they’ve been used as powerful propaganda tools like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and have also shaped the standards of cinematic art like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  They also help to turn unknown figures lost in the annals of history into instant legends, like Braveheart did with William Wallace.  They are also effective in preserving the legends of the past that we otherwise have little written records of; an effective continuation of oral tradition passed on into modern times.  I do wish that the historical epic wasn’t too much of a risk for Hollywood studios to undertake today.  There are some that try to revitalize this long dormant genre, like Netflix’s Outlaw King (2018) and The King (2019), and this year we are getting two ambitious twists on the genre with David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021).  Hopefully these two succeed in finding an audience and help to prove that medieval epic movies have their place in contemporary cinema.  Medieval tales of knights, kings, and yes even samurai, have their place in our culture as tried and true legends, and naturally their movies fulfill that same glory.

Top Ten Memorable Moments From the Oscars

In it’s 93 year history, the Academy Awards have grown into the film industry’s highest level of achievement for every year.  In the last couple decades in particular, winning an Academy Award (or Oscar for short) is the ultimate goal that every studio and production company hinges their best hopes on when they reach the year’s end.  The Oscars are an industry driver in of themselves, influencing the choices in casting, the amount of money devoted to a movie’s production and it’s promotion, as well as what a movie studio is willing to invest in buying the rights for a strong performer out of the festival circuit.  In the end, it all leads to one night time ceremony where all the efforts come to fruition, and the Hollywood elite are able to gather together and take part in a yearly celebration of their community.  The Oscars telecast itself has seen highs and lows over the years, and in many cases have offered up some truly memorable moments.  Whether it’s an overly enthusiastic acceptance speech, a somber moment of reflection, an impassioned call for action, or just a crazy, out-of-the-blue moment of spontaneous insanity.  The history of the Oscars is just as fascinating as the history of Hollywood itself, with it’s own twists and turns over it’s near century of existence.  What follows is my own list of what I think are some of the most memorable and groundbreaking moments in the history of the Oscars.  They range between historic milestones to moments that will live in infamy.  I’ve also included embeds of those specific moments from the Oscars own YouTube page (I do not claim any ownership of these clips and they are the sole property of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences).  So let’s take a trip down Oscar memory lane and look at the most memorable moments from the Academy Awards.

10.

TOM HANKS THANKS HIS GAY MENTORS IN FIRST OSCAR WIN (1994)

Tom Hanks is without a doubt his generation’s most respected movie star.  With a career that now spans across 5 decades, he has been a part of some of cinema’s most iconic films in the last half century, and has been duly honored for his many iconic performances.  He stands alongside the likes of Spencer Tracy, Kathrine Hepburn, Luise Rainer and Jason Robards as one of the few who have won back to back honors at the Oscars in the same category.  His two Oscars were for the movies Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994).  While both Oscar wins were well deserved for the extremely versatile performer, it was his performance as an AIDS stricken gay man fighting for his rights in Philadelphia that is especially well remembered.  Also remembered fondly was Hank’s impassioned acceptance speech that night.  After thanking his loved ones and creative collaborators, Tom continued with a special recognition of two people in particular.  One was his high school drama teacher, Raleigh Farnsworth, and the other a close friend and classmate named John Gilkerson.  He named these two individuals in particular because they were the first people who he knew that were gay, and their friendship with him helped to shape Tom’s compassionate attitude towards the gay community.  In his speech, Hanks goes beyond just acknowledging the many victims of the AIDS epidemic, and makes a plea for tolerance for the entire Queer community in general.  “My were honored here tonight is magnified by the fact that the streets in heaven are crowded with angels,” he remarked, and it was a more powerful statement in that ceremony than any red ribbon worn on a dress or coat could have made.  The moment was so memorable in fact, that it inspired it’s own movie, In & Out (1997), with the twist being the teacher thanked in the speech was not fully out of the closet.  Queer acceptance in society has faced a long uphill road, but with moments like Tom Hank’s win and acceptance speech for Philadelphia, the conversation was thankfully moved in a direction that made it possible for future progress to be made.

9.

“IT’S…A TIE” (1969)

The voting results of the Oscars are a closely held secret, but we do know for certain how the Academy votes are tallied.  What the Academy uses for many categories is a weighted system based on ranking members choices for each category, and then having those rankings weighted together with the straight across vote count.  This system is still in use today for many categories, including Best Picture, which has led to some interesting results over the years (more on that later).  One of the interesting results of this voting system is that it often leads to a tie in some categories, even though the base vote count may favor one winner over the other.  Usually this happens in some of the lower tier categories, and even then only rarely.  The last time it occurred was in 2012 with Sound Editing, with Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall sharing the honor.  However, the categories that don’t use the weighted system are the acting categories, which are determined solely by popular vote.  This was enacted in 1968 by then President of the Academy, Gregory Peck, and the Board of Directors in the hopes that it would eliminate any confusion over the winner and prevent a thing like a tie from happening.  So, you can see why presenter Ingrid Bergman was so surprised when she opened the envelope for Best Actress to see two winners.  For a tie to happen in this new system, it means that the winners had to have had the same exact number of votes, meaning that this moment achieved the even rarer feat of being the only ever exact tie in Oscar history.  The honors in that unprecedented moment went to Kathrine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter (her third overall) and Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl (her first and only).  Ms. Hepburn, a perennial no-show, had director Anthony Harvey accept for her instead, so Babs had the spotlight to herself in this crazy moment.  The feat of an exact tie has yet to be repeated since, but what this moment proved is that nothing is impossible at the Oscars.

8.

THE STREAKER (1974)

The Oscars are first and foremost a classy, refined presentation, sometimes to a fault.  The intent is to showcase the glamourous side of the business, with so much effort put into showmanship and eye catching fashion during each ceremony.  But, every now and then, whether planned or not, some moments break through the stuffiness and instantly become the thing of Academy Awards legend. One such moment happened near the end of the 1974 Oscars ceremony.  Jack Lemmon had just left the stage after picking up his Best Actor honor for Save the Tiger (1973) and David Niven approached the podium to introduce the next presenter.  Niven expected in that moment to give a respectful introduction to Elizabeth Taylor, spotlighting her impact on the silver screen and her charitable endeavors off it, but not everything went as planned.  Suddenly out of the wings of the Oscars stage came a man running behind David Niven completely naked.  The “Streaker” was an amateur photographer named Robert Opel who somehow managed to sneak into the backstage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, strip nude, and run across the stage while cameras were rolling live across the world.  He was immediately apprehended by security, but not before causing mayhem on stage and giving the the Hollywood elite an unexpected shock.  Poor David Niven was in the the awkward situation of trying to get the ceremony back on track, but with some savage and dry British wit, he did just that, saying, “isn’t it fascinating to think that the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”  It was a spectacular bit of chaos to shake up the stuffiness of the Oscars and also a pitch perfect response from one of Hollywood’s most quick witted actors.

7.

CHRIS ROCK’S “OSCARS SO WHITE” MONOLOGUE (2016)

One of the long standing traditions at the Academy Awards ceremonies is having a well known comedian, actor or stage performer take on hosting duties.  Sometimes the Academy will enjoy a host so much, they’ll ask them to come back multiple times.  Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal in particular were prolific in their multiple appearances at the Oscars.  And usually one of the things that made their appearances so entertaining were the monologues that they performed at the opening of the ceremony.  During these monologues, the host is able to take the opportunity to poke a little fun at the industry, and help deflate some of the pomp and circumstance a bit in order to allow the people watching at home to have a good laugh at Hollywood’s expense.  It’s all in good fun, but oftentimes, the host is made to toe the line in order not to offend those in the audience too much, and steer clear of touchy subjects as well that might reflect badly on the industry.  However, when the Oscars court controversy of their own, and have to eat crow for their own shortcomings, it does free up the host to take the gloves off and actually hit a little harder.  One such confluence happened in the aftermath of the “Oscars So White” controversy, where for several repeated years in a row, the Academy had failed to nominate an actor of color in their top categories.  By coincidence, this controversy arose the same year that black comedian Chris Rock was set to host.  So, with the Oscars in a position where they needed to be publicly shamed and a comedian whose proficient in tackling racial issues in his stand-up, the result ended up being one of the funniest, no-holds-barred Oscar Monologues in it’s entire history.  Chris Rock did not hold back, with some hilarious zingers like “Welcome to the White People’s Choice Awards,” as well as a couple of jokes so hard hitting that you could feel the audience at the Dolby Theater squirm in their seats a little.  Even still, it was great to see Chris Rock take his opportunity and run with it, even going beyond critiquing just the Oscars and actually addressing the problem with lack of representation across the entire industry.  Most importantly, he kept it funny while at the same time pointed and it resulted in the best Academy Awards opening ever.

6.

HATTIE MCDANIEL MAKES HISTORY (1940)

Speaking of racial barriers in Hollywood, the early Golden Age of Hollywood was one marred by a history of racism that prevented many people of color from achieving any semblance of equality within the industry.  Black actors in particular were pretty much relegated to servant roles, with very little presence on screen and even less influence behind the camera.  It was sadly a result of not just Hollywood’s racist past, but America’s as well, where movies were made to prop up the false narrative of black servitude in a world of white superiority.  Very few black actors that chose to work through that system very rarely ever won praise from it, often being looked down by their white co-stars and being chastised by black activists who blamed them for propagating these negative stereotypes.  There were a couple of black actors that did rise above the prejudices of the day and demanded attention from both Hollywood and audiences alike.  One of those trailblazers was Hattie McDaniel.  McDaniel had been a popular stage performer before making her way to Hollywood.  She broke through the prejudices of the day by becoming a scene stealer in the Kathrine Hepburn screwball comedy Alice Adams (1935), playing an assertive, sharp-tonged household maid, upending the common stereotype.  She took her newfound popularity to help build a healthy career as an actor, even despite being relegated to servant roles, because she could make them her own.  This led to a highly coveted role of Mammy in the epic Gone With the Wind (1939), a role that though controversial would still turn her into an icon.  The historic success of that movie carried through to the Oscars, and Hattie too made history by becoming the first ever person of color to receive the honor of an Oscar win.  Even still, Ms. McDaniel had to enter the Ambassador Hotel venue through a back door kitchen entry instead of walk the red carpet with her co-stars, and she was made to sit in the back of the room well out of view of the rest of the attendees.  It was a small, maybe even empty gesture, but it was one that carried a lot of weight for black actors everywhere who strived to build upon what Hattie had started.

5.

JACK PALANCE SHOWS OFF ON STAGE (1992)

One of the little thrills of the Oscars ceremony is not knowing what the winner might do once they take the stage to accept their honor.  For the most part, the winners give a heartfelt thanks to their loved ones, their co-stars and their agents.  Some take their moment on stage to use as a soap box for a cause that is special to them.  And then you have the wild cards who do something on the stage during their acceptance speech that you would’ve never expected.  Jack Palance was one of those wild cards when he won his Oscar for Supporting Actor in City Slickers (1991).  Now, Palance’s win was not unexpected.  He was one of the industry’s most beloved and well-respected actors whose place in the pantheon of Academy Award winners was long overdue.  But, when he took the stage to accept his Award, what followed was not what anyone expected.  The often ornery and hilariously callous actor immediately began by taking a jab at his City Slicker co-star, Billy Crystal, who was also hosting that night, saying, “Billy Crystal; I crap bigger than him.”  He then went into a diatribe about young vs. old actors, which led to the then septuagenarian actor towards feeling compelled to show off his virility there in that moment.  He walked away from the podium, and proceeded to do one-armed push-ups in front of the whole audience.  The moment received a raucous amount of laughter, and remained the talk of the night for the rest of the ceremony.  It was especially mana from heaven for host Billy Crystal, because now he had fodder to make fun of for the rest of the ceremony.  What’s especially great about Jack Palance’s speech is just how spontaneously off-the-wall it was, with the actor clearly not giving a damn how he looked in the moment and just showing off what a good time he was having.  It’s moments like this that people love to watch the Oscars for, and it’s especially great when a legendary performer like Palance basically gives us what we wanted.

4.

SIDNEY POITIER BREAKS DOWN BARRIERS (1964)

Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win for Gone With the Wind was historic to be sure, but the world was very different twenty-three year later when that feat would be repeated once again.  The Civil Rights movement had taken hold in America, as black people across the country demanded an end to the Jim Crow laws and racial segregation that had blocked them from gaining any meaningful sense of equality in society.  Hollywood went through it’s own reckoning, as more and more filmmakers were addressing the issue of Racism in America more head on than before.  And more importantly, it was doing away with the racial stereotyping that had long been used to misrepresent people of color in modern society.  One of the pioneers of this period in time who managed to rise above and become the first black performer to become a head-lining movie star was Sidney Poitier.  Poitier commanded the screen with dignified, powerful performances that broke free of stereotype in beloved movies like No Way Out (1950) and Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958).  But, in the early 60’s when civil rights marches were happening all over America, Poitier not only proved to be a powerful actor on screen, but a defining symbol of empowerment for black people in all walks of life.  It seemed inevitable that Hollywood would come to recognize that too.  With his acclaimed performance in the movie Lillies of the Field (1963), Poitier made history as the first actor of color to win an Oscar for a Leading Role.  Picking up where Hattie McDaniel left off, Sidney’s win was an important statement and so much more than an empty gesture.  It was Hollywood declaring that things were going to change and that black performers were no longer going to be a novelty but rather an integral part of the industry going forward.  Sadly, it would take another long spell for a black actor to win again, with Denzel Washington winning Best Actor for Training Day in 2002.  Poitier’s win meant a lot for America, it’s just too bad that it’s taken us so long to live up to it as a society.

3.

MARLON BRANDO REFUSES HIS OSCAR WIN (1973)

Politics have always managed to find their way into the Oscars ceremony.  Most often there are jokes made at the expense of certain political figures, and at other times a winner will use their moment on stage to make a statement on any certain issue.  And then there are moments where the very acceptance of an award becomes a statement on it’s own.  It’s sometimes hard to believe that anyone would want to refuse something as monumental as an Oscar win, but it has actually happened twice in the history of the Oscars.  The first was in 1971, where actor George C. Scott refused his win in the Best Actor category for the movie Patton (1970) because he considered the very idea of popularity contest like the Oscars to be detrimental to the art of acting.  More of a personal choice than a political one.  However, only two years later, another Hollywood icon would likewise refuse his win for Best Actor as well, and he did so in the most unexpected of ways.  Marlon Brando was a no-show when his name was read on stage for his winning performance in The Godfather (1972).  But to everyone’s surprise, a woman dressed in Native American clothing took the stage on his behalf.  Her name was Sacheen Littlefeather, a representative of the Apache tribe.  She first refused to take the Oscar from the presenters and instead took to the podium and delivered a statement from Brando addressing the misrepresentation and lack of support for Native Americans within the film industry.  She was immediately met with boos from the audience, as well as a few cheers of support.  Immediately, the industry complained that this was disrespectful troll on Brando’s part, and conspiracies persisted that Sacheen wasn’t even a real Native American but was instead was an adult performer that Brando had paid off to prank the Oscars.  Sadly, the moment’s peculiar circumstance overshadowed the very real statement that was being made, and it was perhaps unfair to ridicule an activist like Ms. Littlefeather just as a way to knock down Brando for disrupting their, as he put it, “little fantasy.”  Even still, it’s a moment in Oscar History infamy, and one that honestly deserves a more enlightened reexamining.

2.

CHARLIE CHAPLAIN RETURNS FROM HIS HOLLYWOOD EXILE (1972)

There has long been a tradition of singling out a beloved member of the Hollywood community for a special recognition, often as a celebration of their entire body of work towards the later part of their career.  It’s also a great way of giving beloved actors and filmmakers an Oscar that often eluded them in competitive races.  Basically, it gives these perennial bridesmaids a chance to finally take an award home for themselves.  For a lot of moments like these, they are a great trip down memory lane for everyone, both industry professionals and audiences alike.  But sometimes the honors take on an even more poignant significance.  That was the case at the end of the 1972 Oscar ceremony.  This year, the Academy was honoring one of the pioneering icons of the entire film industry, the legendary Charlie Chaplain.  Chaplain being honored by the Oscars was obviously inevitable, given his irreplaceable influence on the artform.  But what proved to be especially surprising was that Chaplain was there to receive the honor for himself.  Mr. Chaplain had for years been blacklisted by Hollywood, because of his support for liberal causes that unfairly labeled him as a Communist agent by the US Government.  Even as the Blacklist was lifted, Chaplain still chose to remain exiled, fearing further mistreatment by the film industry that he helped to build.  But, when news came that the Academy wanted to honor him with an Honorary Award, he decided it was time to reconcile the pain of the past and he returned to America to accept the honor in person.  His return was greeted with a rousing standing ovation from the attendees at that years awards, and he appeared visibly touched by the moment.  After accepting the Award, presenter Jack Lemmon gave Charlie an extra surprise by also presenting him the trademark bowler hat and cane that he used for his famous Tramp character for years.  Chaplain returned the loving gesture by recreating a simple but memorable physical bit with the hat, showing that the master still had a little bit of that playfulness in him all these years later.  Sometimes the Oscars can bring a moment of genuine love for the art of film, and it was a great way to also give a legend like Chaplain the true Hollywood ending he deserved.

1.

THE MOONLIGHT/LA LA LAND INCIDENT (2017)

Through all the years of the Academy Awards, there has never been a moment that has ever been as crazy as this.  Sure there have been unexpected surprises and moments of shock, often from the unpredictability of what happens once that envelope opens.  But, until this Oscar ceremony, everything still went according to plan.  That was until presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage to deliver the last award of the night, Best Picture.  Up to this point, it was just another average Oscar ceremony.  But once the envelope was opened, Warren immediately had a confused look on his face.  The audience thought he was clowning around in order to milk the moment, as did Faye.  She took the initiative and just read the title that she saw on the card and declared the winner to be La La Land (2016).  Now, nobody in the audience was suspicious of anything being wrong; La La Land had long been a heavy favorite for Best Picture, and had already cleaned up throughout the show.  But, as the La La Land team took the stage and delivered their acceptance speeches, the shows producers suddenly stepped in as well.  Then unexpected truth had been revealed; the wrong card had been read, and La La Land didn’t actually win Best Picture.  Thankfully, La La Land’s producer Jordan Horowitz sought to set things right and graciously handed the award to the true winner, Moonlight; a moment of true selflessness that you rarely see happen at these ceremonies.  Warren of course received unfair blame for what happened, and he tried to explain himself on stage; the real culprit for the mix-up was a careless accountant backstage who mistakenly gave Beatty the envelope for Best Actress instead, which went to Emma Stone for La La Land.  Warren and Faye were able to redeem the moment by returning the following year for a do over, which they thankfully got the right envelope for (with The Shape of Water winning).  It’s hard to think that a mix up like this would happen at a ceremony as tightly controlled as the Oscars, and with the biggest award of the night no less, but that’s what happened, and it was a moment that no doubt will never be topped as the craziest moment in Oscars history, as well as it’s most memorable.

Regardless of who wins the awards each year, the thing that makes the Academy Awards such an interesting institution in the film industry is the fact that it is a snapshot in time of what was going on in the evolution of Hollywood over the years.  You can look back on the many different ceremonies of the Academy Awards and see just how much the industry has changed.  More than just the famous faces that come and go throughout the years, we also see a big change in the ways that Hollywood deals with the issues of the day, how they respond to rise and fall of many of their own, and how they try to keep tradition moving on even as the world around the ceremony is constantly changing.  This year in particular will be an interesting chapter added to the overall story of the Academy Awards, as we are about to see an Oscars affected heavily by the pandemic, both in the movies represented and also in the choices of how to present the winners with their award.  It will be interesting to see if this year’s awards have a larger affect on the future of the Oscars, as changes often take hold and leave an impression on the Awards.  Even still, you can still see a common thread throughout Oscars history of change being a good thing, like the increased representation and more tolerant attitudes to movies that fall outside of the norm.  And the fact that the Academy Awards holding itself up as the highest honor the industry can give has not even waned over the years still shows that the Oscars are going to be an important part of movie history for many years to come.   It can be a bit of a stuffy, self-important ceremony that often feels behind the times, but it still offers some unforgettable moments that in themselves contribute to this beautiful and continuing narrative that is the history of the Oscars.  Hopefully this year, we may see even more moments that will stand along with the ones I spotlighted here.  Like the movies they honor, the Oscars are an adventure in of themselves, and one that can really take it’s audience for a wild ride.

Top Ten Movies of 2020

How do we sum up what will undoubtedly be the most chaotic year of our generation.  Apart from all the chaos, one thing that will mark the year that was 2020 was the impact that it had on cinema.  Movie theaters faced near extinction as their doors remained shut and streaming took an even stronger foothold.  And with all that upheaval, the platter of releases that were supposed to mark the previous year all of a sudden were un-moored and moved to the next year, leaving the movie landscape of 2020 pretty barren.  So, when contemplating what would make up a top ten list of the movies of 2020, a critic like me is finding the end result to be a little different than I would have expected from the outset of last year.  For one thing, I had to rely upon streaming a lot more to be able to watch enough movies this year to compile a strong enough list of the year’s best films.  And even with streaming access, I still didn’t watch a number of films that are being touted as Awards season favorites, like Nomadland (2020), Minari (2020), and One Night in Miami (2020), before the end of the year.  So, my top ten list for the year would have probably looked a lot different under other circumstances, especially if there was no pandemic that uprooted so many movies out of their place on the calendar.  Even still, I’m holding to my guideline that only movies that I saw within the year 2020 will be on this list, so the latecomers that will likely big big awards winners will have to wait until my 2021 list to be recognized.  And, one other thing you’ll notice is that streaming movies mostly dominate this years list, though there are a couple that I did also catch in theaters when I was able to.  If there is anything this year taught me is that even when presented with a more convenient streaming at home option, I will still venture out and watch movies on a big screen first, because it’s just my preferred way of first experiencing a new film, even when that option is more difficult.

Before I dive into the list itself, I do want to spotlight the movies that I did enjoy over the year that just missed my top ten.  In no particular order: Emma, Onward, First Cow, Greyhound, Hamilton, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Personal History of David Copperfield, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Ammonite, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984. So, with that out of the way, let me now count down my choices for the top 10 best movies of 2020.

10.

PALM SPRINGS

Directed by Max Barbakow

It’s strange to see the Groundhog Day (1993) scenario become it’s own subgenre over the years, but that’s something that has surprisingly emerged over the last three decades.  Whether it’s used in an action film like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or a horror comedy like Happy Death Day (2017), the premise of living the same day over and over again in an endless loop has proven to be surprisingly malleable.  It’s also a hard plot to get right too, because it requires a lot of plot mechanics to make it work and a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with it all.  Many writers have tried to do this and have failed.  Believe me, I’ve tried to write this kind of script myself.  Palm Springs is another example of the formula done right, and it’s mainly because it puts all the focus on the characters themselves.  The actual reason why the time loop is happening is just a formality, but the movie also surprisingly gives us a clear explanation of how it works too, and it’s not even far fetched.  But what I especially like is that unlike other films of it’s kind, it doesn’t focus on one individual’s struggle to break the loop, but rather it shows multiple perspectives.   One character, played by Andy Samberg (who I’m just as surprised made my best list this year as I was that Adam Sandler made last year’s) has been in the loop a long time and has resigned himself to it, while the other character, played by Cristin Milioti has only just arrived.  Through their shared circumstance, they form a bond and also allow their interactions to shape how they’re going to deal with their predicament, and it makes for a really endearing story.  It’s also very funny, and uses it’s time loop device to great comedic effect, much in the same way that Groundhog Day did too.  In a bleak year such as 2020, Palm Springs was a refreshing bit of sunshine brought to us courtesy of Hulu.

9.

SOUND OF METAL

Directed by Darius Marder

Moving over to Amazon now, we have this fascinating indie drama that brings the audience into the headspace of a man suddenly confronted with a disorder that will forever shape the rest of his life.  Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Venom) plays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who suddenly loses his hearing while in the middle of a multi-city tour with his rock singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke).  With his sudden deafness, he has to enter rehabilitation that will enable him to adjust to a new way of living, but his own self-destructive tendencies make it much harder for him to cope.  It’s a really fascinating character study which Riz Ahmed does a spectacular job of portraying.  His role may run into criticism because he’s another able bodied performer playing someone with a disability, but there is nothing that feels false about his portrayal here, and he is after all playing someone who is newly disabled and trying to readjust.  The rest of the movie’s cast does include real life deaf actors, and its a great bit of exposure for these performers who are often not allowed the opportunity.  But what’s especially brilliant about this movie is the incredible sound mixing, which does simulate exactly what a deaf, or near deaf person’s sense of hearing would be like, and just the emptiness it creates, especially for someone whose life is constantly in the world of sound.  If you listen to this movie through headphones, as I did, you would almost feel the alarming sensation that you’ve lost your hearing as well, and it is illuminating.  Like the best movies that tackle the overcoming of disabilities, this movie treats the condition with the utmost serious and removes the stigma that has often unfairly marginalized people with this condition.  And best of all, it makes us the audience care more about those with the condition itself by putting us in the headspace of one who’s living through his disability and what the world indeed sounds like when all the noise is gone.

8.

TENET

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Truth be told, this movie is a lesser film from one of our current greatest filmmakers, and in another year, this probably might not have made my list at all.  But given this was 2020, and there was a significant lack of blockbuster sized entertainment this year, I do want to recognize Tenet for being the most impressively crafted movie of the year.  Christopher Nolan’s narrative for this film may have been on the convoluted side, but his ability to craft spectacular set pieces are still second to none.  In particular, the way he uses the Inversion gimmick  within the movie, where objects and even people move forwards and backwards through time in the same space, is done to incredible effect.  And like every other movie he’s made, Nolan takes pretty out there concepts and works them into a familiar genre.  Just like how Inception was essentially a heist movie that took place within people’s dreams, Tenet is a spy thriller with a time travel element thrown into the mix. It’s essentially Christopher Nolan’s take on a James Bond movie.  A lot of it may go a little too far over people’s heads, but for me I just enjoyed the ride and in a year like 2020, which took away so many blockbuster thrills that we normally get to enjoy on the big screen, I was just so happy to at least have this one.  It also proved to me the lengths that I would go to so that I could watch a movie like this.  I drove down to San Diego, California (120 miles from where I live) just because it was the closest location that had the movie playing in IMAX.  It may have been a bit too obsessive, but I’m still happy I made the trip because I feel like I would’ve missed out on the ideal experience if I hadn’t.  Watching this on a small TV screen just doesn’t cut it, and Tenet makes a strong case for there to be a return to big screen entertainment again once this pandemic is all over.  Some movies ae just made for the big screen, and though it was a risky gamble this year, I’m glad we were still given the chance to watch Tenet the way it was meant to be seen.

7.

THE INVISIBLE MAN

Directed by Leigh Whannell

This surprisingly effective reimaging of a horror icon had the briefest of theatrical runs early in the year before the pandemic shut down all theaters, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it stuck in my top ten for the year all the way to the end.  This chilling retelling of the H.G. Wells horror classic brings the concept into the 21st century with a clever reversal of perspective.  Instead of focusing on the titular monster himself, the movie actually tells the story through the perspective of one of his victims; in this case, his abused wife.  It’s a reimaging that puts the story firmly in the #MeToo era, and shows a frightening scenario where an abusive husband continues to torment his tortured wife through invisibility and she has a hard time proving that he’s really there and is not losing her mind.  The movie works spectacularly well because of Elizabeth Moss’ unnerving performance.  She perfectly captures a woman on the edge, burned by all the emotional scars of an abusive relationship and the terrified belief that she knows her husband is still stalking her despite not being able to see him.  The movie does a good job of building up that sense of dread around Moss’ character, and it feels exhilarating once she does manage to overcome the monster and gain the upper hand.  It’s a brilliant way to frame the struggle that many people go through when trying to overcome spousal abuse, where the victim is often too afraid to come out with the truth, or is seen as too crazy to be believed.  It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the old Invisible Man narrative, taking the perspective away from identifying with the monster himself, and instead looking at how terrifying it would be to have a really psychotic individual using that kind of power.  Without question the year’s best and most chilling horror movie, and a brilliantly subtle new interpretation on an age old story from the revolutionary horror movie makers at Blumhouse.

6.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

Directed by Jason Woliner

I definitely need to explain something about why I placed this movie here.  Initially in my review of the movie back in October, I gave this Borat sequel a mixed review, knocking a few points for not having the novelty of the original.  But, in retrospect, and after some subsequent re-watches, I may have indeed been a little too harsh on the film.  One thing that really has come into focus for me about the film is that out of all the movies that I have seen this year, if I were to pick one that captured the year that was 2020 in bottle completely, it would be this one.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the definitive 2020 movie.  No other film captured the madness of this year better; whether it was the political turmoil, the widespread effects of the pandemic, or just the absolute lunacy of just the culture at large, it was all captured in this absolutely insane movie.  It is quite remarkable that 14 years after Sasha Baron Cohen turned his goofy little sketch character into a box office smash that he could even attempt to do it again, and deliver something just as hilariously wild.  While some of the stunts don’t quite land as hard as in the original, the movie more than makes up for it with a surprisingly touching narrative of Borat forming a stronger bond with his daughter Tutar, played by newcomer Maria Bakalova in a spectacular breakout role.  It’s their budding relationship that I really think elevates this movie above what it could have been, and makes it really one of the most uplifting movies of the year too, which itself is mind-boggling.  Sure this movie will be remembered for Cohen’s death-defying trolling of a far-right wing rally, or for that now infamous run-in with Rudy Giuliani, but I think the father/daughter storyline is what ultimately will help it soar far beyond it’s place within the madness of 2020.  Even still, it’s a hilarious dissection of the year that was, and miraculous and unexpected comeback for a comedy icon that we honestly didn’t know we needed at this time.

5.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Speaking of politically relevant movies starring Sasha Baron Cohen, we had this exceptional dramatization of one of the most consequential political trials of the Vietnam Era.  Cohen plays the notoriously outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman, who along with 6 other co-defendants, was put on trial for inciting the destructive riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The movie features an exceptional ensemble cast including Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, and Yahya Abdul Mateen II alongside Cohen.  But, the real star of the movie is the exceptionally well written script from Aaron Sorkin.  His screenplay for Chicago 7 is right up there with his best work, and it was a long in the making project for him as well.  Written over the course of 13 years, with directors like Steven Spielberg at various points attached to it, it is probably the most polished and well-constructed of Sorkin’s screenplays.  And even with all those years he had to work on them, the fact that it finally made the light of day this year could not have been more fortuitous.  Sadly, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a timely movie in this tumultuous year, and it reaffirmed the importance of free speech and the right to protest that are key to our survival as a republic, in addition to our faith in a fair justice system.  The movie also marks a strong step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a filmmaker, taking the role behind the camera for only the second time showing much more skill and confidence as a director as a result.  Sure, it’s fairly conventional as trial movies go, and it doesn’t break any new ground cinematically, but man does that screenplay sing beautifully and the cast delivers their performances with an astounding amount of authenticity.   And in a year where we are all trying to collectively understand the right path for our nation, this movie offers a very engaging and sobering history lesson.

4.

WOLFWALKERS

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

In a year that saw Pixar release not one but two movies, even with the turmoil of the pandemic, I too find it shocking that the acclaimed animation giant didn’t land on my top ten for the year, nor did they deliver my favorite animated movie of 2020 either.  Both Onward  and Soul are exceptionally well made and fun movies, don’t get me wrong, but both also felt a notch below what I believe are Pixar at their best, and thus they both missed my list.  What did make it here, however, was an animated movie that took me completely by surprise and left me thoroughly enchanted.  Wolfwalkers is the fourth film from Ireland based Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and it is their most ambitious and artistically rich movie to date.  Whenever you hear someone describe every frame as a painting, this is one of those movies that comes to mind.  Taking inspiration from both medieval Celtic design and English wood carvings, this movie is from beginning to end a painting come to life.  It has been a constant in-house defining style for Cartoon Saloon in past films, but here they take it to another level, almost competing with the likes of Disney Animation at the height of their hand drawn dominance.  The highly stylized animation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) comes instantly to mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers took a bit of inspiration from it when making this.  In an era dominated by computer animation, it’s refreshing to see hand drawn animation still at work somewhere in the world, and done with some sense of ambition.  While Pixar spent the year playing par for the course, Cartoon Saloon swung for the stars, and delivered the most visually and narratively alive animated film of the year.

3.

MANK

Directed by David Fincher

This movie seems like it was made solely to appeal to deep rooted cinephiles like me.  An ode to old Hollywood, dramatizing the creative process that went into the making of what is largely considered to be the greatest movie ever made; Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941).  And sure enough, it worked.  David Fincher’s movie is so heavily detailed in it’s reconstruction of the era that it takes place in, that even the way it’s presented evokes how movies looked back in the 1940’s.  The sound mix makes the movie feel like it’s being played in a large, cathedral like movie house complete with an omnipresent echo (ironic given that it’s a Netflix original).  And though it was shot digitally, it’s been given a grainy texture that evokes old black and white film from the era, complete with reel change markers on the corners of the screen.  If it weren’t for the use of four letter word profanity and contemporary movie stars in the cast, you would swear you were watching a long lost classic from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  But apart from Fincher’s technical wizardry behind the camera, he still manages to tell this richly layered character study of an unsung legend within the history of the industry; screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played with gusto by Gary Oldman).  While showing this incredible whirlwind life journey of Mankiewicz (or Mank as he was often called) as he interacts with legendary power players like William Randolph Hearst, Irving Thalberg, and Louis B. Meyer, the movie also brilliantly captures the process a writer goes through in crafting a story that come from a personal place, even in exorcising his own demons as a result.  Through this we see what went into the crafting of the great American story and show that indeed Herman Mankiewicz was more of it’s author than anyone realized, with his own life being just as cinematic as anything else he could have written.

2.

DA 5 BLOODS

Directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee is ever the troublemaker when it comes to bringing politics to the big screen, but he’s also someone with an unparalled command of the cinematic language as well, making his movies resonate regardless of it’s message and target audience.  With Da 5 Bloods, he finds a universal story about racial identity and the crippling effects of warfare in this incredible story about four Vietnam vets turned treasure hunters.  And it is perhaps his most compelling film since Malcolm X (1992).  With very subtle to overt homages to movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Lee has crafted one of the most compelling character studies of his career, as each of his central characters carry with them some burden put on them from their experience in the Vietnam War, with one in particular never really have been able to shake off the emotional wounds, even decades after the war ended.  Delroy Lindo delivers without a doubt my favorite performance of the year as a deeply unnerved Nam vet named Paul, a MAGA hat wearing hot head who grinds against the other members of his team like flint over a pile of wood.  While some other movies might judge a character like him harshly, Lee surprisingly gives him a great deal of depth, perfectly encapsulating how some people never leave the battlefield and how it often clouds the rest of their life.  The movie also features a touching supporting performance from the late Chadwick Boseman as a fallen soldier that brought the titular 5 Bloods together.  The beloved actors untimely passing shortly after this film’s release now brings a whole new resonance to his performance here, and along with the acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it was a great swan song year for Chadwick as he sadly left us too soon.  And just on a technical level, this is Spike Lee in his prime, making the most of his already definable style, but done so with ambition that had been missing in a lot of his more recent work.  Along with 2018’s Blackkklansman, it’s nice to see Spike Lee getting back to making ambitious, but still revolutionary movies again, and Da 5 Bloods is absolutely him at his very best.

And finally, the best movie of 2020 is…

1.

KAJILLIONAIRE

Directed by Miranda July

Yeah, I know this is a strange choice to make, but, for me this was the most satisfying cinematic experience that I had all year, and I’ll tell you why.  One thing is that I managed to watch this on a big screen during a brief window when movie theaters were open in the LA metro area, which was definitely a bonus.  But more importantly, in a year that was such a sour pill to swallow for so many people this year, Miranda July’s sweet story of adversity was like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Truthfully, there is a bit of buried relevance to what this year was like within the narrative of Kajillionaire that I was not expecting, and I’m sure that Miranda July probably never intended it that way either, but it was still hard to miss.  It’s about a socially stunted young woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) who is dragged around by her scam artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) to basically scab off of other people in order to make a living, until an outsider named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) comes into her life and shows her a different way.  A narrative about freeing oneself from the influence of grifters and con artists and finding renewed purpose in life; gee, I wonder why this resonated in 2020.  Regardless of what meaning I projected onto it, it’s still a beautifully crafted movie with a lot of heart and it just was so refreshing to see something positive for once in this very dark year.  Evan Rachel Wood does a great job of balancing the character of Old Dolio, doing a good job of making her feel real and not a cartoonish creation.  And Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger do a magnificent job of portraying two of the worst parents in cinema history.  Miranda July can sometimes be too aloof as a storyteller, but Kajillionaire is without a doubt her most assured and universally appealing movie to date, and it’s twist and turns are some of the most clever plotting that I’ve seen from a movie this year.  We definitely needed a movie like this in 2020, and hopefully it gets discovered by a wider audience in the years to come.  For this critic, it was the sweet, soothing treat that I sorely was needing in this foul, disgusting year, and I’m grateful that I even got to experience it on a big screen as well.

Of course, there was a lot of bad to go along with the good in 2020, and that’s a bit of an understatement.  Even watching mostly from home I was not immune to being exposed to some bad movies this year.  So, in addition to my best of the year, I also have my Bottom 5 worst movies of the year.

5.   THE TAX COLLECTOR – When disgraced, self-destructive actor Shia LaBeouf is the only good thing in your movie, that’s not a good sign.  This convoluted, Scarface (1983) wannabe is full of tired drug cartel movie clichés and features one of the least charismatic protagonists I’ve ever seen in one of these kinds of movies.  Another low point for the once promising director David Ayer.

4.  DOLITTLE – Robert Downey Jr.’s first foray outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sadly landed with a thud.  I could sense that Downey meant well from the outset in getting this movie made, but somewhere down the line, whether it was questionable creative choices or studio interference, something went horribly wrong.  The animal animation is horrible, the celebrity voices just don’t fit the animal characters they play, the story is dumb, Downey’s Welsh accent makes him hard to understand, and it all just makes the movie too dumb even for toddlers that it’s aiming for as it’s audience.  C’mon Iron Man, you can do a lot better.

3.  ARTEMIS FOWL – First in what I’ll be calling the Good Directors Gone Bad of 2020 part of this list.  Kenneth Branagh is usually a brilliant film director who can work in genres as varied as Comic Book (Thor) or Mystery Thriller (Murder on the Orient Express).  Here however he struggled to launch a franchise based on a popular set of young adult fantasy adventure novels, and what resulted is an undercooked Harry Potter wannabe.  This is probably the laziest film to ever come from the acclaimed filmmaker, who sadly didn’t have Death on the Nile to help cleanse the palette at the end of this year, with that movie moving to 2021.  Thankfully, the movie was quickly buried on it’s subdued release on Disney+, where it was likely spared from a disaster at the box office.  Hopefully Branagh can put this embarrassment behind him and get back to making movies that are better suited for his talent.

2. HILLBILLY ELEGY – Another disastrous turn for an otherwise celebrated filmmaker, Hillbilly Elegy is a new low point for the usually reliable Ron Howard.  Based on the best selling memoir by author J.D. Vance, the movie feels creepily exploitive in the way it portrays it’s lower class characters, in what some critics have called “Poverty Porn.”  It’s the kind of movie that looks attractive as potential Oscar Bait, with actors in a sense uglifying themselves in an attempt to get Awards recognition.  This movie doesn’t have a compelling enough story to pull that off, and instead feels cheap and manipulative.  It’s especially disappointing that it wastes great actors like Amy Adams and Glenn Close in roles that are far beneath their talents.  Movies can be made about the struggles of poor, on the fringe Americans that society has largely forgotten, but this movie definitely adds nothing of worth, and instead just feels like a thirsty plea for Awards season recognition.

And the worst movie of 2020 is…

1. ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES – This updated version of author Roald Dahl’s beloved classic novel is not only bad, it is bafflingly bad.  Considering that this is from Robert Zemekis, the man behind Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994) is shocking, because it is such an amateurish and disturbingly ill-conceived film.  The original 1990 film based on the book featured some incredible puppetry and visual effects from Jim Henson Studios, but this movie not only entirely relies upon an over abundance of CGI, but some of that CGI is used to create some really disturbing imagery.  You thought the cat skin transformation in last year’s Cats (2019) was bad, just wait until you see Anne Hathaway’s transformation into the Grand High Witch in this movie.  It really is the most nightmarish thing I’ve seen in any movie in a long time.  And this is supposed to be a movie geared towards kids.  Without a doubt the most disastrous movie of all of 2020, and that’s saying a lot.  Not even worth watch for free on HBO Max.

So, there you have all my choices for the best and worst of 2020.  Overall, given the limitations that I faced in accessing any amount of movies this year, I still managed to see enough good films to fill out the list.  Again, had the year gone differently, my list would have likely been a lot different, but that’s out of my control.  I do wish that some of those other highly touted end of the year movies had been more widely available; especially Nomadland, as that one is cleaning up with the year end awards so far.  But, despite how the year as a whole went, I’m surprised how little it actually affected my viewing habits.  I still chose to see movies first on the big screen wherever I was available to, and though it has been inconvenient, I still am happy that I managed to be able to do it at all.  Drive-In’s have been a lifesaver for me as a fan of cinema, and for someone who up until this year had never been to a Drive-In movie before, I have since turned into a Drive-In veteran, watching more than a dozen films that way over the last year.  Even some of the exclusive movies from major streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV were given the Drive-In treatment here in the LA metro area, and yes I paid extra money for what I could’ve seen for no extra charge on my streaming accounts.  I am still a dedicated fan of the cinematic experience and probably always will be.  My hope is that we begin to see the theatrical industry start to get back on it’s feet in 2021.  It may be years before it gets back to normal, but once the theater doors begin to open up once again, I’ll happily be one of the first to venture back and show my support.  With the vaccine starting to circulate, and the pandemic’s worst days hopefully behind us, my hope is that we as a society once again see the value in the communal experience of watching a movie together.  It’s the thing that I’m most looking forward to in the new year, and my hope is that everyone else feels the same way too.  We’ve had to compromise a lot in the last year, but my hope is that we come out of it resilient and are able to embrace the things that we love and have missed the most, and hopefully movies the way they are meant to be seen is one of those cherished things that we will fight to preserve in the years ahead.

Top Ten Stephen King Movies

Well, we’ve reached that witching hour of the year again.  Halloween has arrived in a year truly marked with unimaginable real life horror.  As we try to make the most out of our socially distant festivities, I’m sure most people’s favorite Halloween tradition to hold onto this year is watching scary movies. No doubt many people will be watching from the comforts of their home some classics from the horror genre, either for the hundredth time or maybe even the first time.  Whether it’s a slasher, a gothic period ghost story, or just a good old-fashioned monster movie, there are literally thousands of good choices to indulge in at home this Halloween.  No doubt what will end up being a favorite for many are the numerous films that were inspired by the imagination of perhaps the most prolific author of his generation; Stephen King.  King has been an active writer for half a century now, and his bibliography is stacked with best selling classics, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.  King continues to publish at least one new novel every year, showing that even in his more advanced years, he is still a tireless master at his craft.  Though he does write in a variety of other genres, it’s been horror and suspense that he’s made a name for himself, creating some of the most beloved tomes of the genre the literary world has ever seen.  And likewise, these books have provided the inspiration for many film and television adaptations.  For this Halloween, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of the top ten movies based on the work of Stephen King.  I am excluding television adaptations here, but movies that are based on King’s non horror stories will be considered.

These are my own choices, so you may disagree with a few overall.  Here are some noteworthy movies that, while good, didn’t make it into my top ten: Christine (1983), The Running Man (1987), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Apt Pupil (1998), The Green Mile (1999), 1408 (2007), 1922 (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019).  So, with all those out of the way, let’s take a look at my choices for the best movies based on the spooky writing of Stephen King.

10.

GERALD’S GAME (2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan

There has been a recent revival of Stephen King’s work in recent years, with many remakes of past films making it to the big screen in recent years, as well as new adaptations available on streaming channels like Hulu and Netflix.  Streaming in particular has given some of the lesser known Stephen King novels and short stories a chance to shine, as they are less in competition with the blockbusters.  One of the most successful adaptations of a lesser known King story on streaming is this film version of King’s 1992 novel of the same name.  A prime example of simple but effective storytelling, the story is intimate in scope, but builds towards the same kind of disturbing decent into madness that we expect from a King novel.  The movie involves a couple heading to a secluded house deep in the woods of Maine to have a weekend affair.  Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) cuffs his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) to the bed posts as part of a kinky sexual activity.  However, Gerald suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack, and Jessie is left bound to the bed without any means of freeing herself, nor any way of seeking any help as the nearest neighbor is miles away.  As time goes by, and Jessie grows weaker and more desperate, she begins to let the voices in her head take over, and that includes hallucinations of Gerald speaking back at her from the afterlife, reliving childhood trauma, and also receiving a visit from a disturbing ghoul like figure in the night that she calls the “Moonlight Man,” a particularly King-esque addition.  The great thing about Netflix’s adaptation is that it’s not afraid to take it’s time and build it’s atmosphere, which has become a trademark of director Mike Flanagan, who has emerged recently as a stand out in the horror genre, having also done an adaptation of King’s Doctor Sleep as well.  This one is noteworthy because of the way that it absorbs you in a way that you don’t typically see from most King film, or in most horror for that matter.

9.

CREEPSHOW (1982)

Directed by George A. Romero

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have an adaptation of Stephen King’s work that is anything but subtle.  This anthology film combines five short stories by King and presents them loosely tied together as this homage to pulp horror comic books.  Romero of Night of the Living Dead (1968) fame brings his trademark gonzo style and ramps it up to maximum in this bizarre, out of control, and always creepy cinematic experience.  The movie is also noteworthy for being Stephen King’s first active foray into the filmmaking process.  After years of letting his novels be licensed out to other filmmakers, King worked closely with Romero on every aspect of the making of this movie, acting as screenwriter for the first time in his career.  Even more surprisingly, Stephen King even appears on screen in the role of Jordy Verrill, acting for the first time in a part from his own writing.  King would continue to appear in cameos throughout most of the future movies and mini-series based on his novels, but I don’t think any of those will leave an impression as much as his wild performance in this movie.  There are also some standout performances from other legendary actors, including a villainous one from Leslie Nielsen, as well as a disturbingly paranoid one from E.G. Marshall.  George A. Romero also utilizes the comic book aesthetic to great effect, combining some wild visual ideas throughout the movie, both in the way the movie is colored and in how it is framed.  This certainly doesn’t stand as the most chilling, or even scary movie based on King’s stories, but it does represent Stephen King at his most unbound, free to just let loose and put some of the wildest ideas he has on the screen.  It’s Stephen King at his campiest, and for that, it does deserve a special recognition in relation to everything else he’s made.

8.

THE DEAD ZONE (1983)

Directed by David Cronenberg

Though not every Stephen King story is specific to horror, he nevertheless gives the majority of his stories a supernatural element.  Such is the case with The Dead Zone, which is more of a thriller that a scary story.  The story revolves around a man named Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) who awakens from a coma with new pre-cognitive powers that allow him to see into someone’s future after experiencing physical contact with them.  Over time, Johnny uses his powers to help others, but becomes disillusioned when his insights aren’t able to help solve local murders.  He later encounters a controversial political candidate (Martin Sheen) who he envisions becoming president one day and launching a nuclear strike that begins the end times.  It’s a great example of Stephen King working within the paranoia thriller genre.  Johnny’s gift is both a blessing and a curse, as he is able to alter the course of some terrible fates, but over time learns that each action (good or bad) has a consequence, and that he may be doing more harm to the world over time by not allowing fate to play it’s part.  Christopher Walken is very effective in this role, showing Johnny slowly falling apart the more his powers take a toll on his psyche.  But what I especially like is Cronenberg’s stripped back approach to filming this story.  With the cool, haunting photography, Cronenberg fuses the story with this foggy sense of dread, underlining the condition of Walken’s character.  As a result, we feel the paranoia that he feels, because the movie puts us in his headspace, with this detached cold atmosphere all around him.  While it’s not a horror show like what we associate from Stephen King’s other work, it still shows that he can characteristically present a sense of dread in even a story without much horror in it.

7.

THE MIST (2007)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Stephen King is certainly known for his monsters, whether supernatural, spectral, or even human.  But what we learn from a lot of his writing is that it’s not just the typical monstrous creatures on the outside that become a problem for main characters, it’s those that emerge among us that also pose a threat.  In this supernatural thriller, a small coastal town in Maine is shrouded in a mysterious fog that limits visibility in the surrounding area.  Suddenly, emerging out of the mist are giant bug like creatures attacking civilians.  A small band of survivors hold themselves up in a grocery store, but as time goes on and no hope for rescue becomes apparent, the survivors in the store begin to turn on each other.  It’s a great examination of different societal reactions that happen when humanity is pushed to the brink.  It is most apparently shown in the clashing personas of the optimistic everyman played by Thomas Jane and the pessimistic religious zealot played by Marcia Gay Harden.  As hope fades, we see otherwise good people turn into monsters themselves, and show that even a safe haven could be anything but.  At the same time, the movie does an effective job of creating the gloomy atmosphere that pervades every moment of this story.  Frank Darabont, who is no stranger to adapting the works of Stephen King (this being his third go around), manages to craft an adaptation of one of King’s more supernatural works just as well as he had with one of the more grounded ones.  Not only that, he even went beyond what King had originally intentioned, and gave The Mist a much more downbeat, tragic ending than what was in the novel.  The Mist is an unforgettable, and bleak, adaptation of Stephen King’s work that blends together the best of what we’ve come to expect from his writing; a dark, disturbing tale of men vs. monsters, with a bit of sharp social commentary on the human condition as well.

6.

STAND BY ME (1986)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Here is a prime example that not every Stephen King movie needs to be scary.  Though it does revolve around the discovery of a dead body, the story is actually about the coming of age of it’s four central characters.  Told through flashback narration provided by actor Richard Dreyfuss, the movie revolves around four young boys who set out on their own to find the body of a missing child that they’ve heard rumors about.  The four form a bond on the road and create their own little adventure, facing everything from junkyard dogs, to oncoming trains, to even leeches.  There is a charming innocence to this story that you don’t see in most of Stephen King’s other writing, and that’s what makes it such a unique movie in his filmography.  I imagine that with this one, King drew more from his own childhood experience growing up in rural Maine when writing this story, and it is grounded very much in a universal sense of what it was like to be a young boy trying to figure out your own place in the world.  The movie is equal parts heart-wrenching, funny, and ultimately inspiring, which has helped it become a favorite for many audiences across generations.  What especially make the movie work are the unforgettable performances from the four leads, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman, all who feel authentic and relatable as their characters.  In addition, director Rob Reiner, on only his second ever feature, delivers a beautiful looking canvas for this road trip tale, substituting rural Oregon for the Maine of King’s original story.  It is strangely the only film based on Stephen King’s work that you could call “family-friendly,” and indeed, it’s what initially introduced me to Stephen King as kid, even though I wasn’t aware of who King was at that point and what he was know for.  Stand by Me is an evergreen classic story that still holds up over thirty years later, and should still be shared with many more generations to come.

5.

IT (2017) and IT CHAPTER TWO (2019)

Directed by Andy Muschetti

There’s no doubt that if there was any novel in Stephen King’s body of work that would define him as an author, it would be his Bible length classic IT (1986).  First adapted into a 1990 TV mini-series, the book would end up receiving a big screen treatment spread across two parts in recent years, and it led to record breaking box office.  King’s lengthy novel is noteworthy for one thing in particular, and that’s the demon clown Pennywise, who is perhaps the most famous of all of King’s monstrous creations.  He was first brought to life memorably by Tim Curry in the TV mini-series, but Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal is still pretty effective as well.  There’s no doubt that the main attraction in these movie is Pennywise, and director Andy Muschetti does not hold back in making every moment with the demon clown terrifying.  But what really makes the movies stand out is the way it portrays the other main characters in the story, known as “The Losers Club.”  Breaking away from the non-linear format of King’s novel, the two parts of IT wisely focuses each movie on different time periods when the Losers Club encounters Pennywise.  The first shows them in their formative childhood years, while the second takes them to the present where they are all adults.  It helps to make each film stand on it’s own, while at the same time cohesively working together as a full narrative.  The casting for the Losers club, both young and old, is also outstanding, making the connection between these characters across the years feel even more authentic.  Even still, director Muschetti knows he’s working with one of King’s most iconic work, and a great deal of effort was put into making it as expansive and epic as the book itself.  I actually prefer the more tonally consistent second part, but both together certainly stand as one of the most impressive cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

4.

CARRIE (1976)

Directed by Brian de Palma

Of course we can’t talk about Stephen King’s impact on the silver screen without spotlighting the movie that introduced him there in the first place.  Carrie was King’s first ever published novel, released in 1974, and it quickly put him on the map in the literary world.  Naturally, Hollywood took notice and Carrie was quickly picked up by United Artists and handed over to Brian de Palma for adaptation.  Though King wasn’t involved in the filmmaking process, he was nevertheless approving of De Palma’s approach to the story, as it is pretty close to King’s writing.  It doesn’t use the epistolary nature of the novel, but it does retain the point of view of it’s title character, the psychic powered teenager Carrie.  For the most part, De Palma holds back on his flashy style until the very end, when it’s used to spectacular effect.  Perhaps most memorably, he made use of split screen to show Carrie unleashing her powers with a glance to the doors as they close shut.  At that point we see the movie move from a troubling psychological thriller, where the tortured Carrie deals with bullying from school and punishment from her religious zealot mom (played memorably by Piper Laurie), changes dramatically into a terrifying horror show as Carrie finally snaps and lets the monster within out.  A large part of the movie’s success certainly goes to Sissy Spacek, who became an instant star thanks to her performance as Carrie.  Though her more vulnerable moments throughout the movie really show off Sissy’s talents as a actress, it’s that dead eye stare at the film’s fiery climax that really cements her as a horror movie icon.  Though it marked the beginning of a long legacy for Stephen King as a presence in cinema the movie still stands out as a classic and still has the power to fright so many years later.  To this day, it’s finale jump scare, with the hand reaching out of a grave, still has the power to leave movie-goers spooked out of their wits.

3.

MISERY (1990)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Though Rob Reiner managed to successfully bring one of Stephen King’s more upbeat and life-affirming stories to the big screen a few shot years before with Stand by Me, he was also not afraid of tackling something far more dark from the mind of the author.  Misery almost feels like a window into Stephen King’s own personal fears.  And what appears to frighten Stephen King is being trapped all by yourself by a rabid fan of your work.  That’s the situation that he puts romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in when a car accident leaves Paul stranded in the middle of nowhere and left in the care of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who takes her fandom of Paul’s novels to the extreme.  Though James Caan is excellent in his role, the movie definitely belongs to Kathy Bates, whose performance was so strong in the movie that it launched her to a very well deserved Oscar win.  Her performance really is an incredible tour de force of character construction.  She manages to balance the wild mood swings of Annie Wilkes, with her sweet matronly tone giving way to manic paranoia merely moments apart, and never once makes it feel unnatural or out of character.  I think that’s what makes Annie Wilkes such a terrifying villain; the fact that you don’t know exactly which side of her you’re going to face at any moment.  Bates’ performance honestly is probably the best one ever seen in a Stephen King movie, and she has the gold to back that up.  And a lot of credit goes to Reiner for not holding anything back either.  This movie is as dark as anything else we’ve seen from a King movie, and the hobbling scene in particular still stands as one of the most horrifying ever put on screen.  We now know what scares the master of horror, and with a character as vividly brought to life as Annie Wilkes, she becomes our terror as well.

2.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Frank Darabont has in total made 3 movies based on the works of Stephen King, including The Mist and The Green Mile.  But there is no doubt that his greatest King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption.  Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982), Shawshank is the film adaptation that feels the least like anything we know to expect from Stephen King.  It’s not supernatural, it’s not a psychological thriller.  It’s about inmates in a prison trying to hold onto their humanity behind bars.  And yet, Darabont took Stephen King’s short story and crafted it into not just a faithful adaptation, but into a film that nowadays is considered to be among the best of all time.  No doubt it is helped by the collaborative efforts of some of the greatest technical artists of their generation behind the scenes, like the masterful cinematography from Roger Deakins or the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman.  And then of course, the unforgettable performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, whose courses in life are forever altered by their connection made in prison.  While most of the movie is a melancholy examination of the way that imprisonment breaks down the humanity of those it keeps behind bars, and shows the unfathomable cruelty of those left in charge of all those souls, it surprisingly ends on a positive note, with Robbin’s Andy Dufresne outsmarting the system and escaping the prison that had stolen his life.  The way it plays out is enough is so pleasing, with the discovery of the tunnel behind a poster, to Dufresne’s triumphant escape in the pouring rain.  It is cinematically exhilarating, and strangely out of character for the normally downbeat Stephen King.  But, it’s that conquering the darkness of ordinary evil in our society that has made the movie so enduring and lifted it to become a classic for all time.

1.

THE SHINING (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Was there any doubt this would be here.  Naturally, to find the greatest cinematic adaptation of a Stephen King novel, look no further than the one made by one of the greatest movie directors of all time.  Interestingly enough, one of the most vocal critics of this acknowledgement would be Stephen King himself.  King has been adamant over the years about his displeasure over Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, at times even stating that he outright hated it.  His tone regarding the movie has softened over time, stating that he does respect what Kubrick did as a filmmaker, while still objecting to the changes that he made.  But, even if you agree with King’s assessment, there is no denying that The Shining is one of the most terrifying and artfully crafted horror movies ever made.  Sure, Kubrick did change a lot of what King wrote, but the essentials are still there, and what Kubrick added are brilliant in their own right.  There still is nothing more terrifying today than seeing those creepy twin girls appear at the end of a hallway, and that’s just one of the many terrors in the movie.  What is especially effective about the movie is the fact that Kubrick disobeys one of the fundamental rules of horror filmmaking and has most of the movie brightly lit.  Usually horror movies allow shadows to hide most of the terror in the dark, but when there are no shadows anywhere to be seen in a bright hallway, it makes all the more terrifying when something scary does appear.  Jack Nicholson of course is brilliant in his unhinged performance, and Kubrick infuses every frame with a sense of inevitable dread.  Not to be forgotten, Stephen King’s original novel is still a brilliant piece of horror itself.  Kubrick made the movie he wanted to make, and though it is different in many ways, it is no less terrifying.  They are both iconic pieces of art and stand out as the best that their genre has to offer.  King’s novel is great, but Kubrick’s film is arguably more terrifying, and that says a lot.

In a career spanning 50 years, it’s amazing that we still haven’t reached the end of Stephen King’s complete body of work.  The man is a tireless writing machine that keeps churning out new stories almost at the rate of one a year, which is astounding.  Of course, his bread and butter is the horror genre, but he certainly has left his mark on other genres as well.  It’s interesting that throughout as long of a career as he has had that his novels have inspired film adaptations from some of the greatest filmmakers who have ever been in the business.  He can boast having icons such as George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Brian de Palma, David Cronenberg, and Stanley Kubrick behind the movies based on his books.  He can also boast having the highest grossing horror movie of all time be based his novel, IT.  But, even with all that success, it doesn’t distract away from his ability to keep on writing.  He is able to churn out new original novels faster than any other writer of his generation, and though he often does rely upon repeating tropes (alcoholism, religious persecution, the state of Maine) he still manages to give each story a sense of uniqueness.  Amazingly, even after nearly 40 years of movie and TV adaptations, there are still countless other Stephen King works that have yet to be adapted.  We are likely to be seeing plenty more films and shows based on King’s novels in the years to come, and with King still writing today, the well will not be going dry any time soon.  So, for a good time this Halloween, find yourself a good horror film from the countless ones based on King’s books, or find a copy of one of his widely published novels and start reading from the man’s own words.  Stephen King is an icon perfectly suited for this time of year, and the movies I spotlighted above certainly show how much his imagination has meant to the art of cinema, especially in the realm of terror.

Top Ten Moments From the Marvel Cinematic Universe…So Far

A lot of people are passing their time during this pandemic by catching up on a lot of media that they’ve missed over the years, just because they didn’t have the time.  I too have spent a lot of my extra free time during this pandemic to watching movies and television, but instead of catching up, I have mostly been revisiting.  This whole month of May I went back and marathoned the entire 23 film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; starting with Iron Man from 2008 and ending with last year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).  That’s the first three phases of MCU, with Avengers: Endgame (2019) marked as a finale to some of the most important plot threads that have been building over the last decade.  I figured it was a good time to revisit all these movies, some of which I haven’t seen since they first premiered, since this month would have been the launch of Phase Four for Marvel with the new Black Widow film; until all those plans changed with the shutdown.  With the fate of the movie going experience in flux, Marvel had no choice but to postpone the launch of Black Widow to November, hoping that by then the pandemic will have subsided and theaters will be allowed to operate again.  So, this has led to a Summer without a Marvel movie to launch it into high gear.  The first week of May has for the last decade been the domain of Marvel, as it’s the first official week of the Summer movie season, and it’s allowed them to be the trend setters for all the other movies to live up to for the rest year; which is quite an enviable position to be in.  Given that vacancy for this year, I felt it was right to look back at what Marvel has given us so far, and in particular, I wanted to spotlight all the best moments that have come from the many different but still linked together movies.  These are all my personal choices, and there were some hard ones to leave out, but after going through all the Marvel movies over the last month, I feel like all these scenes I’m about to list are absolutely the best ones that have made Marvel the powerhouse that they are today.

10.

“DORMAMUU, I’VE COME TO BARGAIN.”

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

One pattern that I noticed while watching all the Marvel movies is the journey that each character takes in their own self discovery.  In particular, the movies become less about how each super hero gains their powers than about why each of them is worthy of having those powers in the first place.  That’s what Marvel seems to be the best at when telling their stories; finding the humanity in their heroes.  We see it in moments like skinny, frail Steve Rogers throwing himself on a dummy grenade when all his fellow soldiers ran for cover in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).  But sometimes those moments of character can be used to punctuate the fulfillment of an arc that has completely transformed a hero over the course of the movie.  Such an arc is found in Doctor Strange, where we see Dr. Steven Strange begin the movie as an arrogant master surgeon who takes delight in humiliating the lesser intelligence of his colleagues.  But over the course of the movie, he loses everything and then has his mind open to the possibility of a world where magic is real.  But it’s not until the end, after Strange has mastered many spells, that we see the point when he becomes a true hero.  To stop the coming of the Dark Dimension and it’s master, the all-powerful Dormamuu, to our own dimension, he throws himself at the mercy of the dark lord.  However, before doing so, he uses a spell to trap both him and Dormamuu in a never-ending time loop, in which Strange is endlessly killed and reborn to suffer the same fate again.  To break the spell, Dormamuu must agree to Strange’s bargain.  It’s in that self-sacrifice that we see Doctor Strange finally rise to the level of hero; going from someone acting in his self-interest to someone willing to be trapped in a spell of his own making for eternity so that everyone else can be safe.  There are many moments like this from Marvel, but none stand out as so clever, and distinctively “Strange” as this does.

9.

BATTLE OF THE STRONGEST AVENGERS

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

It is amazing just how different in tone the third film in the Thor franchise is from it’s predecessors.  Kenneth Branagh brought a operatic sense of grandeur to the first film, but Thor: The Dark World (2013) didn’t add much else afterwards; though I still think it’s a bit underrated.  Thor: Ragnarok is another animal altogether; silly, weird, and unapologetic about it.  Certainly giving the property over to comic filmmaker Taika Waititi helped to reinvent not just the world of Thor, but also the characters as well.  I think Marvel learned through the course of making their movies that Chris Hemsworth had a knack for comedy, and that it was better for the direction of the character to kinda lean into that a bit more in future.  That’s exactly what Thor: Ragnarok does, and surprisingly it becomes something you wouldn’t have expected a Thor movie to be; a buddy comedy.  That buddy, of course, being the Incredible Hulk.  The movie hits it’s zenith with the reunion of these two Avengers, when they are pitted together in a gladiatorial arena.  The sheer delight on Thor’s face when he sees his “friend from work” is still one of the best character moments in any Marvel movie, and a great indicator of the different tone that Marvel was setting out for with this franchise.  The ensuing battle is everything from thrilling, brutal, to laugh-out-loud funny.  It also features a hilarious moment when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) reacts to seeing his brother get Hulk Smashed in a hilarious call back to his own smashing from the finale of The Avengers (2012).  Add to this some wonderfully eccentric color commentary from Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, and you get one of the most memorable, and comedic, confrontations in any Marvel Movie.

8.

CAPTAIN AMERICA IS WORTHY

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

One of the best things that Marvel has done over the course of their movies is build up little story threads that pay off in spectacular ways.  Some of these little nuggets of fan service even go on for many years and through several films, before they even get their final punchline.  One of the best journeys toward a payoff in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has to be the one involving Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir.  From the moment Odin (Anthony Hopkins) placed his spell on the hammer in the first Thor, making it so that only those with the purest of hearts are worthy to wield it, the rules had been made crystal clear to the audience.  It lead to a Sword in the Stone like arc to Thor’s story, where he had to prove his worthiness once again in order to resume his place as the God of Thunder.  The mystique of Mjolnir’s power would once again come up in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), playfully at first when Thor let’s all his Avenger friends take a crack at lifting the hammer at a party, and then more profoundly when the newly created Vision (Paul Bettany) manages to hand the hammer back to Thor without any struggle.  We even witness a death and rebirth of the hammer, first destroyed by Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) in Ragnarok, and then recaptured in the past during the time heist in Endgame, showing that Thor was still worthy.  But, the truth apex of Mjolnir’s journey through all the films came when Captain America (Chris Evans) lifted the hammer himself in battle against Thanos (Josh Brolin).  All that journey through all those films, just to get to that glorious heroic moment.  When I saw this in the theater, the audience went nuts, and that’s because it was a reward to all of us who have followed along on that hammer’s arc through all the movies.  It’s one of the greatest payoffs in cinematic history, and a true testament to just how in command Marvel is at playing the long game with their movies.

7.

KING T’CHALLA VS. ERIK KILLMONGER

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

There are so many heavy themes throughout the only Marvel movie to date to ever receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  One of those themes that defines the whole movie is the response that an oppressed people must take when they have the means of making a difference.  In this case, the African nation of Wakanda has prospered with their advance technological skills, but have hidden it away from the world for fear of how it may be misused, or be exploited by outsiders.  All the while, the African continent was plagued by war, unrest and the horrors of the slave trade.  The movie’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), confronts the Wakandans with this reality, and challenges the Black Panther himself, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), for the throne of the kingdom.  Tackling issues you don’t normally see addressed in the super hero genre was definitely something that elevated Black Panther above most other films in the MCU, and the movie most vividly gets it’s point across through the conflict between the opposing world views of it’s hero and it’s villain.  T’Challa wants to open his country to the world through peace and ingenuity, but Killmonger seeks to use the advanced weaponry of Wakanda for bloody revolution.  There are two key fights between these characters in the movie, but the first one carries more of an impact, because it shows us just how brutal Killmonger is as both a fighter and as a visionary.  Killmonger is often cited as Marvel’s most compelling villain to date because of the hardship and conviction that lines his character, and his duel with the heroic but still learning T’Challa drives the emotional impact of the movie even further, and leads to one of the most morally divided questions found in all of the MCU; what kinds of ideas of justice define us as either good or bad in this world?

6.

AVENGERS FIRST ASSEMBLED

MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS (2012)

This was the kind of movie that we had all wanted over the years, but were only now seeing finally realized.  A team up of the greatest super heroes, becoming a Super Team.  The Avengers, like their DC counterpart the Justice League, is made up of the elite group of super heroes with the own franchises and on-going stories brought together to face a threat that’s bigger than themselves individually.  What is amazing is the fact that at the time, Marvel was aiming to build their Avenger team without their A-list characters.  Spider-Man would have to wait until a Phase Three revival to make his MCU debut, and the X-Men are still waiting for their turn to join the story.  If you were to say 15 years ago that Marvel was going to build this epic Super Hero team up on the backs of characters who at that point hadn’t made their big screen debuts, you would have been seen as crazy.  Not only that, but the team was even going to include two barely known comic book characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye.  And yet, Marvel not only succeeded in making us care about this team, but did so with record-breaking success.  It all comes down to the philosophy that producer Kevin Feige and his team of filmmakers bring to each film; if you tell good stories, you’ll make people love the characters, no matter who they are.  And that’s what they did through the first five films in the MCU, all leading up to that first team up in The Avengers.  By that time, we had fallen in love with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and were willing to see them save the world together.  The movie definitely hits it’s high point during the climatic Battle of New York, where we get the first of many hero poses of all the characters together.  When the Alan Silvestri theme crescendos and the camera spins a circle around the full team together, Marvel firmly cemented it’s place in cinematic history.

5.

THE AIRPORT BATTLE

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Going from an iconic moment where the Avengers first came together, we now look at the moment that drove them apart.  Civil War is a very crucial benchmark in the timeline of the MCU, because it took this amazing cohesive team and broke it apart, and in a way that almost seemed like it was avoidable.  Despite the many times the Avengers were able to save the world, they also had to deal with the fact that their actions led to significant collateral damage, and the need to deal with that reality leads to fractures within the team.  The great thing about the movie is that it doesn’t treat the different factions, with Captain America on one side and Iron Man on the other, as either 100% right or 100% wrong.  We the audience are supposed to understand both sides of the argument, and it makes the debate a whole lot more complex as a result.  Of course, it does lead to an epic sized confrontation, where both sides are brought to blows, and it is a spectacular one at that.  Not only does the movie do a good job of setting up the stakes between the differences of the already established characters, but it also manages to find time to introduce both Black Panther and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to the MCU.  All the little character moments that ensue are delightfully interspersed fan service, like Hawkeye (Jeremy Rennar) and Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) friendly banter between blows, or Captain America and Spider-Man bragging about their New York roots.  The movie also isn’t afraid to bring the fight to a semi-tragic end when War Machine (Don Cheadle) falls from the sky and becomes paralyzed as a result.  This was a pivotal moment for the MCU as a whole, because it was showing us the consequences of the changing dynamics that these characters were facing in this new world that they were helping to shape.  In addition, it’s one helluva fight scene that’ll put any audience on the edge of their seat.

4.

PORTALS

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

This is where Marvel truly let it’s epic wings fly.  In a franchise known for pushing the stakes higher with every new film,  Marvel certainly knew that they needed to go big in this closing chapter to the on-going Infinity Saga that has defined the first three phases of the MCU.  And that they did.  The way this scene plays out is noting short of epic, in every sense of the word.  Captain America, bloody and beaten down, faces down Thanos’ massive army all by himself.  That is until he hears Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in his earpiece, repeating the first words they ever exchanged in their long friendship; “On your left.”  And with that begins a truly uplifting couple of minutes play out where all of the Avengers come together, along with plenty of back-up, through portal rings created by Doctor Strange and his fellow sorcerers.  This is especially poignant as many of the characters that arrive were last seen turning to dust by Thanos in Infinity War  (more on that later).  What’s even more incredible is that before this moment, we already knew that all the characters had come back, but with Thanos’ arrival, the movie actually makes us forget about it for 10 minutes, just to make that reveal all the more surprising when it happens.  Alan Silvestri’s score is especially what makes this scene so memorable, and it’s probably one of the best pieces of music he’s ever written, which is saying a lot for the veteran composer.  For an Avengers movie that crosses the 3 hour mark, you need a climax that justifies that epic length, and Marvel went full Lord of the Rings here.  Buttoned perfectly with Captain America finally saying the words “Avengers Assemble” and you’ve got what might be the single most satisfying moment in the entire MCU.  And that’s even before the fighting starts.  With this scene, you really see where all of Marvel’s hard work at world-building and character development led to, and it feels 100% earned.

3.

THE DANCE OFF 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

If there was ever a movie in the MCU that hit a home run right off the bat, it would be Guardians of the Galaxy.  The James Gunn directed feature was definitely a different animal to what we had seen from Marvel up to that point.  More akin to a Sci-Fi adventure in the vein of Star Wars than a super hero movie, Guardians became an instant hit with fans from all across the spectrum; causal and die-hard comic book alike.  A large part of that has to be because of the cast of characters, who were not the typical types of heroes we were familiar with from comic book movies.  There’s Star Lord (Chris Pratt) , a pop culture driven space pirate always on the lookout to steal something valuable; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the rogue daughter of Thanos; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), an easily agitated rodent turned bounty hunter; Groot (Vin DIesel) his plant based best friend; and Drax (Dave Bautista) a ferocious killer who doesn’t understand metaphors.  These aren’t the kinds of people that you’d expect to be the saviors of a galaxy, and yet they rise to the occasion, and in the only way they possibly can; with Star Lord challenging the fearsome Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to a Dance Off.  Of course, the ulterior motive is to distract Ronan, which does work, and it’s something that only the goofy Star Lord could’ve come up with in the moment.  But what follows is a harrowing moment when Star Lord takes hold of the Infinity Stone of Power, which nearly destroys him.  Only by combining strength with the friends that he’s made along the way is he able to contain the stone’s power and defeat Ronan.  It’s a powerful moment that really cements the bond of this team and makes their story legendary.  Never thought a Dance Off could save a galaxy, but for a Marvel movie, which prides itself on embracing it’s goofy side, it just makes perfect sense.

2.

I AM IRON MAN 

IRON MAN (2008)

To understand what set Marvel on it’s epic run of success over the last decade, you needn’t look further than the movie that started it all, Iron Man.  From the beginning, producer Kevin Feige knew there was a plan to expand the universe past just a singular character, only he didn’t quite know what would happen along the way.  For Marvel to have become a success right off the bat, they needed to make a statement right from the beginning.  And that moment comes from a very unlikely place.  What really has defined Marvel over the years is their incredibly apt ability to find the right actors for each role.  Every actor has been perfectly cast in the MCU, but for some of them, it took a bit of convincing to make it all happen.  No one faced an uphill set of expectations than Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.  Downey’s career was all but washed up before Iron Man, having fallen from grace due to his drug habits and his time in prison.  But, director Jon Favreau tapped him to be his Tony Stark, because he knew that nobody else could have brought the character to life better than him.  And in doing so, both Downey and Favreau set the bar for what to expect from the rest of the MCU.  The actors playing the roles were not necessarily going to be the biggest names, but instead would be the best fit for who they were playing.  The original Iron Man also sets the tone perfectly with it’s final statement; with Tony Stark declaring to the world “I am Iron Man.”  With that, the MCU would rewrite the rules of the genre;  no more secret identities, no more aliases.  It’s not just a day job for these heroes; it’s who they are and they wear their heroism everyday proudly.  It’s easy to see that Tony’s final words before he defeats Thanos in Endgame are the same that he delivered in his famous coming out speech.  He is Iron Man and that’s what being a hero means.  For a Cinematic Universe that wanted to live up to it’s mythic status on the page, you couldn’t have asked for a better opening statement than the one found in it’s first film.

1.

THE SNAP

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

It’s strange to think that the most memorable moment from all the movies in the MCU just also happens to be it’s darkest.  Marvel’s movies for the most part have tended to have a lighter tone compared to most other films in it’s genre.  Infinity War is also a movie that contains plenty of moments of levity and uplifting heroism.  But in it’s closing minutes, all that goes away and it turns into an all out tragedy.  The mad titan Thanos has spent the whole movie finding the 6 Infinity Stones that he’s been searching for throughout all the previous MCU films.  Despite a last ditch effort by the Avengers to stop him, Thanos succeeds in his goal, collecting the last stone by removing it forcefully from Vision’s forehead.  Thor does make one heroic last move that buries his axe Stormbreaker into Thanos’ chest, mortally wounding him.  But, Thanos knows that Thor’s mercy was his biggest mistake, telling him “you should’ve gone for the head.”  And with that, Thanos uses the power of all 6 stones with the snap of his fingers.  The result ends up being one of the most shocking things ever put on film.  Suddenly, half of all life in the universe is wiped out, turning to ash before our eyes.  This includes many of our favorite heroes, like Black Panther and Spider-Man.  The cruel part about it is that the remaining heroes have to watch their friends and loved ones disappear before their eyes, with no way to help them.  Of course, it all would be reversed in Endgame, but this shocking note is what we had to live with for a year in between movies.  Not since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has a major studio franchise left it’s audience with such a shocking cliffhanger.  It is quite simply the boldest cinematic choice made in the entire MCU.  Endgame’s triumphant finale wouldn’t have felt nearly as poignant had Infinity War not brought our heroes to their lowest point.  Watching this scene play out in the theater for the first time, I could hear genuine tears from the audience during this whole scene, and it was something I’ll never forget.  The reaction this movie got is a clear indication that Marvel did their job to perfection, because all of us cared so deeply about these characters, and watching them be taken away really hurt.  That is a sign of exceptional storytelling and what makes Marvel the best at what they do.

So, there you have my choices for the best moment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far.  It was fun re-watching all the movies again.  Most of my opinions on the movies haven’t really changed; I still don’t like Iron Man 3 (2013) by the way.  It’s also neat to see how everything culminated over the years.  Avengers: Endgame really is a perfect finale, because it does bring everything that had come before into context, including the much maligned Thor: The Dark World.  There are also many other little moments that stick out that really define the tone of the cinematic universe, like Thor hanging Mjolnir on a coat rack or, Doctor Strange’s assistant Wong listening to Beyonce on an Ipod, or Captain America keeping a checklist of things he needs to catch up on.  In the MCU, these heroes are characters first and icons second.  Marvel Studios set out to make us like these characters first before building these franchises around them and that has been the key to their success.  Also key has been the absolutely spot on casting choices.  Some people have had their careers made by becoming a part of the MCU, while others have had their careers redefined.  Even characters that are brought to life through visual effects like Groot, Rocket, Hulk and Thanos feel perfectly integrated into the world.  It’s going to be interesting to see where Marvel goes from here.  Are they going to be able to live up to the high bar set by the Infinity Saga, or could they even surpass it?  Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait a bit longer to find out.  For now, it was a nice stroll down memory lane, and putting together this list really spotlighted all the things that I admire so much about Marvel.  So, hopefully we can make it through this pandemic together and stronger than before, and just remember; WE ARE GROOT.

Top Ten Movies of the 2010’s

Every time we hit a milestone, we like to look back at what the days, weeks, months, and years meant to us as we’ve reached this point in time.  The close of a decade and the beginning of a new one is such a time, and there is no more universal barometer for how we as a culture changed over the last ten years than by looking at the movies that populated it.  The 2010’s were a tumultuous time in our world, and the movies themselves were a profound reflection of that.  Not only were the stories being told groundbreaking, but also the state of cinema itself.  People were experiencing the movies in new ways this decade, with media becoming far more accessible than ever before thanks to streaming.  And this in turn was helping to bring movies to the forefront that might otherwise have been overlooked in days past.  As a result, there are fewer consensuses when it comes to the absolute best of the decade.  Everyone’s choices reflect their own tastes and with people being better able to find even the most obscure of titles, their choices are going to more likely represent a bit more of who they are rather than the popularity of the movie itself having an influence.  Some of us hate movies that everyone else loves, while there are movies that only we will go to bat for and no one else.  That in itself is what going to the movies is all about; finding that personal response that makes us really think about what we watch and leading us to discuss it further.  I, of course, have pondered over my own favorites for the decade and have carefully considered the ones below.  I know there are going to be choices you might not agree with, and omissions that you’ll find completely absurd.  But, these are my own personal picks which I believe really strongly defined the last ten years for me as a passionate fan of cinema.

I’ll tell you this, it was a hard list to par down to just 10.  In reality, it was a great decade for movies all around, and it pained me to leave off some of the runners-up.  In case you are wondering, my honorable mentions include the following; Drive (2011), Life of Pi (2012), Gravity (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), The Descendants (2011), Hugo (2011), The Martian (2015), 12 Years a Slave (2014), The Shape of Water (2017), Jojo Rabbit (2019), Sorry to Bother You (2018), and The Irishman (2019).  One thing you’ll notice is that my best movies of each year make up a significant portion of this list, and having re-watched them all recently, most of them help up, and a couple did not.  In the case of the 2019 movies, it’s still too early to know how they may hold up.  For me to single out the following on this list, they had to be movies that still wow me every-time I watch it, even after repeat viewings.  I have a high standard so, I strongly consider every pick I make.  Each movie’s affect on cinema and the culture do affect my choices as well, but for the most part, I base these choices on how much they left an affect on me; the thing that the best movies always should do.  So, to conclude this year long retrospective of the decade that was the 2010’s, here are my choices for the Best Movies of the decade.

10.

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Animation saw many instant classics over the last ten years, from every front possible.  Dreamworks started off the decade strong with their greatest work, How to Train Your Dragon (2010).  Pixar continued to roll right along with beloved hits like Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017).  Stop motion was even revolutionized by the work of Laika Studios with movies like ParaNorman (2012) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).  And a surprise hit with Sony Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) showed us what might be the future of animation with it’s hand-drawn, computer animation hybrid.  But, the longtime king of animation, Disney, would still lead all challengers as it enjoyed a steady stream of hits throughout the decade.  It would break records with Frozen (2013) and it’s sequel, as well as win accolades for films like Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Moana (2016).  But, the animated film that stuck out the most amongst not just Disney canon, but with all animated films in general, was Zootopia (2016).  Zootopia, on the surface, seems like a run of the mill animated comedy, but that’s until you realize exactly what story you’re being told.  The 2010’s was a decade defined by political upheaval; most clearly found in the chaotic election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the systemic rise of the extreme right that helped to put him there.  Surprisingly, the movie that reflected this time in our world the best throughout the decade was Zootopia.  It is scary to look back and see how prophetic this movie is in hindsight, where the cultural divide between races (or in the movie’s case, species) is inflamed to help a political opportunist gain power.  But the best thing about Zootopia is that you never feel like you’re being lectured this message.  It organically grows within the story, with the focus given to two of the decades best animated characters, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde.  When you see a good person at heart driven to a terrible action out of unjustified fear, as Judy Hopps sadly finds out during the course of the movie, we learn how deep systemic prejudice has infected our culture.  And that makes Zootopia transcend beyond just average all ages entertainment; it becomes an important statement for our times.

9.

DUNKIRK (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

You look at all the film directors that pushed the medium of film forward in the last decade, and Christopher Nolan is sure to come up.  Making his name nearly synonymous with epic film-making, Nolan is one of only a few movie directors today who can deliver completely original movies that can open to blockbuster success.  Though he’s not above working with commercial properties either, given his success with the Batman franchise in the Dark Knight trilogy, he still made it clear that he’s a director who will push the boundaries of cinema with every new movie he makes.  A stickler for traditional, film based production and presentation, he became one of the biggest champions for the in theater experience, utilizing large format cameras on every film he made this decade.  Though he often likes to work in genres that extend into the cerebral and fantastic, it’s interesting that one of his most celebrated films this decade was a down-to-earth war film.  Dunkirk may be a historical recreation, in this case one depicting the miraculous rescue mission during the early days of World War II, but Nolan still uses all of his cinematic tricks to make it an experience for his audience.  The movie is full of amazing period detail, with little in the way of CGI enhancement.  The way the IMAX camera lens captures the enormity of the event is truly breathtaking, especially out in those air battle scenes.  But, where Nolan truly shows his gifts as a filmmaker is in the unconventional way it tells it’s story; inter-cutting between three different story-lines taking place within completely different time frames.  He goes back and forth between them all, and never once breaks the rising tension throughout, even as days, hours and minutes pass by with a deliberate rhythm.  And it creates, without a doubt, one of the best war movies of all times, and certainly the best of the decade.  Whether it’s the masterful editing between the time-frames, or the remarkable cinematography (including those incredible shots from on board the sinking ships), Christopher Nolan uses every trick in his cinematic playbook to create one of the most immersive experiences we’ve ever experienced on the big screen before.

8.

BIRDMAN, OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

This was a good decade to be a Mexican born director.  Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro G. Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro, commonly referred to as the “Three Amigos” in film-making circles, all enjoyed a prosperous decade which saw all three winning the Best Director award at the Academy Awards.  And for the most part, their movies almost always ended up at or near the top of my lists each year.  In 2014, I picked Inarritu’s Birdman as my favorite for the year, and it’s been a movie that has held up very well in the years since.  In a rare comedy for the usually drama based filmmaker, Inarritu captured a glimpse of the Broadway theater community with one of the trickiest cinematic tricks there is; the single shot take.  And to make the movie even more unique, he made the entire 2 hour film appear as if it was all just done in one long continuous shot.  It’s ambitious, but not out of character for the story that he is telling, given that theater actors must perform without edits each night on the stage.  It helps when a cinematographer as skilled as Emmanuel Lubezki (Chivo) makes every long shot glide, dart and even soar with such beauty.  And at the center of it all is Michael Keaton, giving what is undeniably the performance of his storied career.  Not only is it a perfect encapsulation of his own real life career trajectory, but it’s also a powerful showcase for Keaton’s often underappreciated range as an actor.  He breaths so much personality into the character of Riggan Thompson, a performer so desperate to show he is more than just that one superhero, and it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking to see all the ups and downs he takes this person through within his amazing performance.  Though the gimmick of the continuous shot is impressive to see used to full length (later influencing more films this decade like 1917), it’s Keaton’s self-reflexive and multi-faceted performance that helps to make this movie stand out among all the other movies of the decade, especially given how much of it was devoted to big name actors donning capes themselves, following in his footsteps.

7.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

Directed by David Fincher

Another movie that was both greatly influenced by the decade it premiered in, as well as prophetic about what was inevitably going to follow.  David Fincher’s The Social Network told the story of the rise of Facebook and it’s enigmatic founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and how this revolutionary new social platform that was supposed to bring people together was built upon a foundation of fractured relationships.  In typical Fincher fashion, the movie is a moody, introspective narrative captured in dark rooms with emotionally restrained characters.  It’s everything you’d expect from the acclaimed director, but here he is working with material that really elevates his cinematic art.  No other director can make board room meetings as tension filled as he can.  And a large part of this is due to the rapid fire dialogue found in Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning script.  Most of the time, it’s hard to capture the rhythm of Sorkin’s writing, so it helps to have an actor as motor-mouth as Jesse Eisenberg to make it work, and indeed, Eisenberg delivers a knockout performance as Mr. Zuckerberg.  I don’t even think that the real life subject is as interesting as the one that Sorkin, Fincher and Eisenberg has created here.  Combine that with plenty of other standout performance from Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer pulling double duty as the Winklevoss (or Winklevi) twins in a very convincing visual effect.  But, it is interesting that this movie exists so early in a story that seems to be continually writing itself even further.  Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s history with it have taken even more dramatic turns in the years since this film that it almost seems like a sequel is not only likely, but necessary (which Sorkin has hinted being in development).  There is so much within The Social Network that indicates all the bad things that were going to come with the company (like Zuckerberg’s arrogance and unwillingness to admit fault) and the movie has only grown as an important document of our times ever since it’s release.  As a character study and a cautionary tale, The Social Network is an unforgettable cinematic experience that is only getting more and more iconic every year.

6.

A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

Directed by J. A. Bayona

This is certainly going to be one of those “for myself” kind of picks.  I’m sure that few other people would have this movie anywhere near their best movies of the decade lists, but for me, this movie remarkably stuck out, and I think that it’s because it’s theme of using stories as a way of healing resonated so much with me.  The film is about a young English boy (played by newcomer Lewis MacDougall) having to face the reality that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying, and he does so with the guidance of stories told to him by a Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson).  The movie stands tall alongside other Spielberg-ian coming of age stories, but it’s the deep rooted message within that I think makes this movie so important within our time.  The boy listens to the stories, hoping that it will guide him to an answer that will help his mother, but in the end he learns that it’s not his mother that needs saving; it’s him instead.  The Monster’s three stories challenge his pre-conceived notions about how the world works, with narratives that turn on surprising paradoxes,  and in the end the boy realizes that the world is more complicated than happy ever after.  In a time where we are too often deceived by false hopes and unrealistic results, the movie teaches us that the worst thing we can do is to run away from the truth.  That’s what makes the movie so important as a meditation on storytelling.  We as a culture need stories to make us see the world through different eyes, and recognize the complexity of the world that we may not see clearly through our own narrow view.  The same applies to how we watch the movies, as they become to many as a window onto the world itself.  In the end, it’s a movie about embracing new ideas, and recognizing the barriers that we create within ourselves.  A Monster Calls delivers this message in the best way possible, with a unique story of it’s own carried through with the unlikeliest bond of a boy and a story-telling monster.  Stories, whether on the screen or the page, have the power of broadening our perspectives, and showing us the world with all of it’s beautiful complexity.

5.

Tie; AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Yeah, I know that I’m cheating a little bit here by putting two movies here instead of just one.  But, in very much the same way that I would have put the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy together in the same spot on my Best Movies of the 2000’s list, I can’t spotlight one without the other.  And given how Marvel was such a dominant force this last decade within the movie industry, it seems only natural that their magnum opus (thus far) would find it’s way onto my best of the decade list.  The two part climax to the nearly 22 film long Infinity Saga from Marvel is really one of the most impressive cinematic achievements that we’ve likely seen in a long time.  Coming close to the cinematic highs of the Rings trilogy and Star Wars at it’s height, Infinity War and Endgame represents the very best that popcorn entertainment can offer.  It’s crowd-pleasing without ever feeling pandering; it’s ambitious without ever loosing it earthbound sensibilities; and it wasn’t afraid of taking risks that could have easily gone horribly wrong if not handled correctly.  But what they do the best is reward fans who have been in for the long haul, while at the same time remaining engaging for any newcomers.  It is amazing how well this nearly 5 1/2 hour finale plays out, ending it’s first film with one of the most shocking cliffhangers in cinematic history, and then subverts expectations within the first minutes of the second film, only to lead into what is essentially the greatest clip show ever made, and then finally end with an epic sized battle that would make the likes of David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille proud.  It’s a testament to just how confident Marvel has become in telling it’s stories on the big screen.  There are so many memorable moments to choose from (Thor arriving in Wakanda, The Snap, Captain and the Hammer, the Portals), all of which are going to be fan favorites for years to come.  The movie also expertly brought closure to long gestating story threads while hinting future ones to come; it gave gracious exits to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America; and it showcased one of cinema’s greatest villains with Josh Brolin’s Thanos.  Honestly, these two movies make my list because they were some of the best times I had watching movies with an audience ever, and that is something worth celebrating.

4.

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has been a cinematic fixture for three decades now, but the 2010’s were especially good for him as a director.  Building upon the success at the close of the previous decade with Inglorious Basterds (2009), he would make three more films over the course of the decade, including two films within the Western genre.  Though there is plenty to like about his experimental The Hateful Eight (2015), especially if you are a fan of large format cinematography, I think that Tarantino’s best work over this last decade was with his first foray into the Western; Django Unchained.  Interesting enough, Django may be the most conventional movie that Tarantino has made over his entire career, as far as story-telling goes.  Departing from his usual non-linear style, Tarantino tells his story of Django in a traditional hero’s journey sort of way.  What he also does with the movie is not shy away from the harsh realities of slavery in the American South.  In a great bit of revisionism, he transforms the iconic Western bounty hunter (previously played by Italian actor Franco Nero, who cameos here) into a freed slave who finally gets to turn the tables on all the slave masters who’ve wronged him.  Jamie Foxx commands the screen in the role, giving incredible weight to the character, who almost becomes super hero like by the end.  And he is equally matched with an incredible supporting cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio in an against type role as a depraved, villainous plantation baron named Calvin Candie.  But even though the movie takes the subject of slavery as serious as a heart attack, the movie still manages to work his playful style into the narrative, with plenty of over-the-top violence and hilarious asides that have become his trademark.  Like most of Tarantino’s other films, the movie is a love letter to the director’s own cinematic inspirations, and I think that it proudly stands among the works of the great Spaghetti Western directors like Sergio Leone.  For someone known for playing outside the rules of film-making, it’s great to see him work just as well making something as straightforward and rewarding as this one.

3.

SICARIO (2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Far and away one of the most unexpected treasures of the last decade.  Sicario deceptively lures you in thinking that your just going to watch your average routine combat thriller, but as it unfolds, you find that it’s a whole lot more.  Telling the story of a group of border agents combating the ruthless drug cartels across the international line, the movie puts the viewer right in the thick of the action with some of the most tension filled scenes that I can recall from the last decade.  At it’s center, the movie has one of my favorite cinematic characters in recent years with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  Del Toro delivers a knockout performance here, peeling back so many layers to this intriguing character over the course of the film’s run time.  He can be refreshingly hospitable in one scene where he’s politely interrogating a group of immigrants at a detention center, and then several scenes later we see him become a cold blooded killer of a drug kingpin and his entire family.  This characterization is balanced out well with Emily Blunt’s neophyte agent, who gets caught up in this crazy situation that she can’t ever get a grip on, nor ever wants to.  The movie benefits from assured, methodical direction from Denis Villeneuve and a no-nonsense script from Taylor Sheridan.  Combine that with a chilling score from the late Johann Johannsson and superb cinematography from the master himself, Roger Deakins, and you’ve got one of the most sublimely cinematic experiences of the year.  There are so many areas in this film that go above and beyond what you would expect from movies of this type, like the now iconic border crossing bridge shootout or the night-vision filmed raid of a border tunnel.  I never expected that a movie like this would leave such an impression on me, and I’m very glad that I was able to discover it these last few years.  I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those movies that’s going to grow is esteem over the years as more and more people discover it.  I’m not too far ahead of the curve, as the movie has a very supportive fanbase (enough to have inspired a better than expected sequel even), but at the same time, it’s a movie that I think is deserving of even more acclaim than it already has, and it’s string enough to stand out as one of the decade’s best.

2.

ROMA (2018)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

One of the things that really defined the 2010’s in cinematic terms was the rise of streaming as a platform for cinema.  Netflix certainly led the way for most of the decade, as they poured billions of dollars into creating original films and shows to play exclusively on their platform.  Given all those resources they poured into original content, you would hope that at least one of the movies would stand out as a real cinematic triumph.  Thankfully one did, and it’s one of the unlikeliest too.  Alfonso Cuaron wowed us earlier this year with the incredible cinematic experiment that was Gravity.  But, after making something that ambitious and technically daring, it’s surprising that he would follow it up with a stripped down, semi-autobiographical story about life in his native Mexico, centered around a maid and the family she takes care of.  Even more surprising is the fact that it ended up being even more of a film-making triumph than Gravity was.  With Roma, Cuaron transports you to this specific time and place and absorbs you into it’s story.  Even though on the surface the movie looks like a simple domestic soap opera, it reveals to be much more than that with some incredibly complex staging that takes this intimate story into some very epic heights.  There are some shots in this movie, with Cuaron himself working behind the camera, that are just mind-blowingly surreal, like the riot scene framed from inside the window of a department store or the single take shot across a beach and out into the water.  Did I also mention he does this in black and white.  Roma is from beginning to end cinematic poetry, and carries special significance because of it’s personal connection to the director.  Cuaron dedicated the movie to the maid who cared for him and his family while he grew up in Mexico City, and when personalized through the character of Cleo (played remarkably by first time actress Yalitza Aparicio) he gives a loving and honorable tribute to someone that likely would have gone unnoticed in the world.  A true piece of cinematic beauty and the strongest case yet for Netflix’s credibility as a film studio, given that they are the only one’s making movies like this.

And the Best Movie of the 2010’s is….

1.

INCEPTION (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

That’s when you know that Christopher Nolan was the decade’s most defining filmmaker; when he’s responsible for not one but two of the decade’s best movies, let alone having one of them be at the very top.  But that’s how good he was these last ten years.  Dunkirk showed his prowess with recreating a historically significant event, and Interstellar (2014) showed how well he could display the over-whelming vastness of deep space travel. But, he started off the decade setting the bar high, and he never once relinquished it, even among his own work.  Inception is more than just the best film of the 2010’s; it’s one of the best movies ever made period.  Here Christopher Nolan does what every filmmaker should strive to do, which is to create a experience that only the medium of film can capture.  The movie is, in essence, an elaborate heist film, but where the heist takes place is where Nolan clearly shows off his skills as a filmmaker.  The movie takes the audience on a mind-bending journey into the depths of the human mind, with the characters reaching into deeper and deeper layers with the worlds we create in our dreams.  The movie plays out like a trip into Dante’s Inferno, with each layer becoming more surreal than the next.  And in each one, Nolan gets to show us imagery that defies the laws of physics, like a city-scape folding in on itself, or a hallway spinning like a wheel while characters are fighting inside it.  At it’s center, he fills his story with a colorful cast of characters, with the decade’s most prolific leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, taking full charge.  We also get breathtaking cinematography from Wally Pfister and a now iconic musical score from Hans Zimmer, which itself carries a special significance within the story.  Nolan takes inspiration from filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, and Inception gives a near perfect blending of the two.  We get Hitchcockian sized action, but with the challenging surrealism of a Kubrick film.  And like all the best movies, it leaves us wanting more, especially with that ambiguous final shot with the top.  It is without a doubt Nolan’s most masterful film to date, and it will be interesting to see if he ever makes anything that rises up to that same level again.  He certainly hasn’t let us down yet, and hopefully Tenet keeps him going strong into the next decade.  As far as the 2010’s are concerned, it gave us an unbeatable achievement in Inception that went unchallenged all the way to the end of the decade.

One thing you’ll notice about my list above is that out of the ten (or rather 11) picks I made, only one of them won the Oscar for Best Picture (Birdman) and that landed at #8.  I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the Academy Awards itself.  Regardless, I know that my picks come down to personal taste, and that mine will likely differ greatly from others.  I chose the these films as the best of the decade because for me they were the ones that resonated the most for me personally.  Every year, I try to find the movie that checks all the right boxes and oftentimes it comes down to some unlikely candidates.  I applied the same principle to my end of the decade list, and also saw some surprising results.  I for one didn’t think a small little film like A Monster Calls would hold up so well and still make my list, or that something like Sicario would end up so high, especially over films made by masters like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.  I did know that it was going to take a lot to topple Inception from it’s lofty perch, and even the best from each year could not undo this ten year long champion.  Even if my list differs from yours, it is still shows that this decade was full of great movies that we’ll likely still be passionately singing the praises of for years to come.  I am very grateful to have started this blog within the last decade so that I can have a place to share all these movies with you my readers and actually have a written out record for the first time of my favorites from a given decade.  Thank you for reading along with my lists over the last year spotlighting the best of the 2010’s, whether it was the music here, the characters here, or the villains here.  It was a monumental ten years for cinema in general, and let’s hope the next ten gives us even more to celebrate.

Top Ten Movies of 2019

The year of 2020 is upon us, and a new decade begins.  Usually the end of the decade calls for a retrospective on the previous decade that was, and I will be getting to that too in the weeks ahead.  But for this first week of the year, I’m going to focus on the year we just went through, 2019, and share my thoughts on what went on with the movies over that time.  2019 was a pretty significant year when it came to the distribution of films.  Netflix’s influence on the business was palpable, as both Disney and Apple made their debuts in the streaming market as a direct challenge to the supremacy that Netflix had enjoyed in the field.  Movie theaters had not been completely affected too much yet, as box office sales were still high, though not record numbers.  One studio however, Disney, did have a record setting year, as they delivered just an onslaught of blockbuster movies during this last calendar year.  Riding the wave of huge finales for their Marvel and Star Wars properties, as well as remakes of their beloved animated classics and new animated sequels, Disney took a whopping 40% of the box office share this year, with Warner Brothers being the only credible challenger thanks to the success of Joker (2019).  The Fox merger also boosted Disney’s box office stake, and suddenly Hollywood began to a look a lot different in such a short amount of time.  But as far as the quality of movies goes, this was actually a strong year overall for the industry.  So much so that it was actually quite hard to create a top ten list this year.  There were so many good films made this year that I had to make some hard choices about what to leave out, as I try to limit myself to just the standard 10.  Even the runners up are worthy of anyone’s top tens for the year, as I’m sure many of them likely will be.  But, I made my choices below and I’m sticking by them.

Before I begin, here are 10 in no particular order that nearly made my list: 1917, Little Women, Joker, Dolemite is My Name, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, They Shall Not Grow Old, Parasite, The Farewell, Knives Out,  and Under the Silver Lake.  And now, let’s get to my Top 10 Movies of 2019.

10.

TOY STORY 4

Directed by Josh Cooley

It seemed pretty impossible.  Toy Story 3 (2010) was the perfect ending for a trilogy that has come to define excellence in animation.  It wrapped up the story-line spread across three movies, released over a fifteen year span, on such a perfect note with Andy saying goodbye to all of his beloved toys in a heartfelt, emotionally impactful scene.  There was no way that Pixar could ever pick up the story again after that in any satisfying way.  But, somehow miraculously, they managed to do it.  Toy Story 4 is that fourth chapter of a story that you never asked for, and yet it is exactly what you needed.  Thanks to a deftly written script by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom, we learn that saying goodbye to Andy was just the end of a chapter, and not for the whole book.  There was one more adventure to go, at least for Woody.  Here, we are given the definitive conclusion to this on-going series, and it still delivers.  All the characters that we’ve grown to love are all back, and the movie even manages to fit in a few more new favorites.  I particularly loved the daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (voiced hilariously by a game Keanu Reeves).  The movie also marks a triumphant return for Bo Peep (voiced again by Annie Potts) who really comes into her own in this film.  I never thought Pixar could thread the needle again with their flagship franchise, given how high the bar had been set by it’s predecessors, but they managed to do it, showing just how good they are with their artform.  In particular, it does the characters the most justice, giving them a sendoff worthy of what has been built before.  The final scene with Woody and Buzz Lightyear is especially emotional.  If you loved everything else from this series, this will also be another one you’ll cherish; to infinity and beyond.

9.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Directed by Robert Eggers

Put this down as 2019’s most unusual film; and that’s saying a lot.  In a year defined by unique horror movies like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Gasper Noe’s Climax, Robert Eggers The Lighthouse stood out even more.  This black and white, narrowly framed avant garde nightmare of a film is really unlike anything else you’ll likely experience at the movies.  And that’s what made it so memorable, and in many ways, delightfully subversive.  In equal measures a character study, a surrealist mind trip, a screwball comedy, and a horrific descent into madness, this is movie that uniquely carves out it’s own path and you can’t take your eyes off of it.  Containing a cast of only two for the entirety of it’s run-time (minus the quick glimpse of a mermaid), this movie is carried by it’s stars, Willem Dafoe and a revelatory Robert Pattinson, who seem hell bent on trying to out crazy the other.  There is plenty of excellent back and forth between the two, leading to some of the most demented monologues that you’ll ever an actor speak without catching their breath.  And the cinematography is stunning in this movie as well, capturing the absolute isolation and ravaging that the elements wreck on the tiny little island that house the titular lighthouse.  For the most part, you’ll probably be left wondering if any of the bizarre stuff seen in this movie is real or not, and the movie does an excellent job of keeping it’s audience in the dark, even up to the very end.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but it pleased the cinephile in me, as it hearkens back to very early cinema; like a silent expressionist film, but with sound also playing a key factor.  No doubt Eggers was influenced by these movies too, and it gave him the inspiration for a movie that is likely going to be remembered as a bold cinematic experiment.

8.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

This was something of a comeback year for Shia LaBeouf.  After a few years of getting in trouble with the law and making less than ideal life choices, which took a toll on his struggling film career, Shia began to take some control over his life and that included making bolder choices with his films.  He got to write an autobiographical script while doing a stint in rehab, which turned into the film Honey Boy, which deals with the turbulent relationship he had with his father, whom he plays himself in the movie.  It’s an excellent display of catharsis on his part, showing that he is making an effort to heal the trauma of his past that had put him on the wrong path.  More importantly, Shia is trying a lot harder as an actor, and the movie that really showed off how much he has grown this past year was the charming little indie The Peanut Butter Falcon.  Here he plays a wayward troublemaker trying to make an escape who by chance runs into a young runaway with special needs, played by a scene-stealing Zack Gottsagen.  The movie then turns into a beautiful, Mark Twain-esque journey, exploring the often unseen world of the Mississippi Delta region.  The relationship between the two characters is a charming delight to watch, equal parts uplifting and side-splitting hilarious.  Shia especially makes his rough edges work well for the character here, and he is perfectly matched with his co-star Gottsagen, who makes a breakthrough here for special needs actors.  The locals are gorgeously captured and the story is simple but emotionally resonate, much in the same vein as many of the great Twain stories of old.  If this and Honey Boy are any indication, Shia’s career is finally looking like it’s turning a corner in a positive way.  And it helps when you make a movie like this that is just plain delightful to it’s core.

7.

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

You got to hand it to Mr. Tarantino.  He’s not shy about sharing his obsession with film in all the movies that he makes.  Most of the time, he limits it to clever in jokes or overt references.  But with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he gets to finally deliver a love letter to all things cinema in his own way.  The movie takes place in a particular time in Hollywood that Tarantino was interested in; centered around the notorious Manson Family Murders in 1969.  But this movie is about the Manson Murders as much as Reservoir Dogs (1991) was about a bank robbery or Pulp Fiction (1994) was about a briefcase.  He even plays the events of those murders out in a revisionist history style like what he implemented with WWII in Inglorious Basterds (2009) with the tables turned.  This upset historical purists, but at the same time, Tarantino spells out exactly what he’s doing from the beginning.  This movie is first and foremost a fairy tale; it’s called Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood after all.  And like most fairy tales, his Hollywood is full of it’s valiant knights, it’s roguish warriors, it’s fair princesses, it’s warrior queens, and it’s evil warlocks; namely the actors, the crewmen, the starlets, the dedicated performers, and the con artists.  All these incredible characters populate this wonderful cornucopia of Tinseltown that Tarantino has crafted.  At it’s center is this wonderful bromance between his two leads played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as a temperamental fading star and his devoted stunt man.  Margot Robbie also delivers a beautiful turn as the legendary Sharon Tate, whose real life inspiration was the tragic light of an older, innocent Hollywood that got snuffed out by the Manson family.  The recreation of this bygone era on the real Hollywood Boulevard is done with remarkable attention to detail, and shows just how much Tarantino wanted to bring his ideal version of Hollywood back to glorious life.  It’s a love letter of the best kind, and a treat for all fans of cinema.

6.

APOLLO 11

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

It’s amazing to think that the best documentary of the year features not one interview and is comprised entirely of footage shot 50 years ago.  And yet, Director Todd Douglas Miller managed to craft a remarkable, you are there experience chronicling the monumental first moon landing on it’s fiftieth anniversary.  All of the footage used in the film is real footage shot during the mission from a variety of different vantage points.  This includes a lot of footage that has never been made public before, including some truly incredible footage.  Included in the movie are remarkable 70mm footage of the rocket launch from ground level, the complete uncut orbital descent to the surface of the moon taken from Buzz Aldrin’s own camera, and an alternate, color film angle of Neil Armstrong’s first step.  And it’s all edited together in sequence, giving you a moment by moment experience unlike any other depiction of the moon landing we’ve seen.  It’s mind boggling how much footage there exists of this mission (and yes conspiracy theorists out there, this footage is 100% authentic, so consider yourself debunked).  The movie also brilliantly ties everything together with the real comm-link communication between the astronauts and the Houston Mission Command Center.  The only fabrication this documentary adds are sound effects, helping to give the experience more of a cinematic feel.  No matter what, this will likely be the definitive cinematic presentation of this monumental human achievement.  Not even First Man (2018) managed to hit with this kind of emotional impact.  This is as epic as documentary film-making can get, and it’s amazing to think that it took 50 full years for this footage to even be seen as it was intended.  Thankfully this movie is the best possible presentation to show it all and it demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen that you can find.

5.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

By all accounts this movie should never have worked.  Not only did it need to satisfyingly wrap up the story first set up in Avengers: Infinity War the year prior, but it also had to conclude 10 years and 22 films’ worth of on-going narratives that have all linked together in one way or another.  It also had to follow one of the most notorious and shocking cliffhangers in cinema history, as well as deliver a plot that could subvert all our fan theories and still satisfy.  Oh, and it also ended up clocking in at three hours, the longest super hero movie ever by a wide margin.  Needless to say, a lot was riding on this movie, and somehow, Marvel miraculously did what it set out to do.  Sticking the landing would be an understatement.  This movie is both exactly what we wanted and also not what we were expecting at all.  We knew that all those heroes dusted away at the end of Infinity War were coming back, but we didn’t know exactly how, and what is brilliant about the movie is that it undercuts the hopeful resolution almost immediately, leaving the audience with a decidedly off-guard sense throughout the rest of the film.  I love the fact that nothing is an easy fix for the Avengers in the movie, and that they actually had to live with some of the trauma of the losing their friends and loved ones for a long time.  It’s something you don’t see play out that often in movies like this.  But at the same time, it does deliver on all the expected highs as well.  The final act of this movie is a prime example of how to do fan service right.  It’s just one brilliant payoff after another.  This was probably my favorite in theater experience watching a movie this year.  Hearing an audience of 400 people all cheer out at once over the  lifting of a hammer by a certain character is something that you’ll never forget.  In addition, it provides a beautifully told swan song to the original Avengers team formed in the 2012 film, as some of the characters’ story arcs come to a fitting end in this film.  Marvel says they had an “endgame” plan all along from the moment they launched this Cinematic Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is a plan perfectly executed, with even more hope given to the future ahead.  I loved it 3000.

4.

MARRIAGE STORY

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Taking a break from talking about the big and epic from last year, here we have a movie that is small and intimate in all the best ways.  With Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbach tells the story of a family breaking apart with the most minute of character details revealed through the whole experience.  It’s a movie that doesn’t take sides, but instead shows the painful process that divorce can be and how it brings out the worst in even good people.  It’s certainly not the first movie to tackle such an issue, but it’s one that absolutely feels like one of the most authentic portrayals of the process of divorce we’ve ever seen on screen.  The actors utterly disappear into their roles, and it’s almost like we’re ease-dropping in on a real couple breaking apart before our eyes.  It’s heartbreaking, truthful, as well as uplifting and at times very funny.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver two of the year’s best performances as the couple in question, growing more resentful of each other while still trying to cling to that hopeful kinship that brought them together in the first place.  There is a rawness to their arguments in the movie that creates some of the most tension filled scenes of the year; all the more remarkable considering that none of it deviated from Baumbach’s script.  One particular fight masterfully progresses from cordial, to sarcastic, to furiously enraged, to finally tearful and it is all feels authentic.  Even the moments on their own, the actors shine.  Johanssen has a single take monologue that is astonishingly presented, and Driver even gets to literally sing his feelings away.  It’s a movie that reminds me of the laid back dramas of the late 70’s like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) in all the best ways.  Sometimes the best dramas are the ones found in just an ordinary family.

3.

UNCUT GEMS

Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie

Never thought I’d see an Adam Sandler movie this high on my best of the year list.  Sandler is no stranger to dramatic roles, famously venturing out of his comfort zone for Paul Thomas Anderson’s romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) in a brilliant, underrated performance.  Since then, he retreated back to his patented screwball comedy style, which sadly led to diminishing returns over the years.  But this year, Sandler made a triumphant return to drama in a knockout role in this new film from the Safdie brothers.  And boy, this movie will blindside you and knock you down completely in a way that you not believe.  This movie can be described as an anxiety attack in film form, with every twist and turn just driving the tension up further to near unbearable points.  And the fact that Sandler is the one at the center of all this madness and delivering a performance so perfectly tuned to the story it’s telling is something quite miraculous.  It would be an absolute shame if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar for what is likely going to be the greatest performance he’ll ever give, though I feel that might likely happen.  Even still, the depths he goes with this character are amazing.  You just see him take more and more unnecessary risks all in the pursuit of fulfilling that glorious huge payday, and the bad choices just keep on building.  As a shady jewel peddler, he runs afoul of gangsters, creditors, spiteful exes, and even NBA legend Kevin Garnett.  The Safdie brothers aggressively vibrant visual style also drives up the uneasiness of the situations and it makes the entire experience of watching this character self-destruct all the more memorable.  And while Sandler’s character is the definition of a scumbag, you still end up rooting for him by the film’s end, which is a testament to his performance.  Again, pretty miraculous that Adam Sandler ended up giving one of the year’s best performances in one year’s best films.  The talent was always there; it’s just that someone needed to recognize it in him and wrestle it out.

2.

THE IRISHMAN

Directed by Martin Scorsese

With films like Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, David Michod’s The King, and the previously mentioned Marriage Story from Noah Baumbach, 2019 was going to be Netflix’s big push for Oscar Gold after loosing out the year prior when their film Roma (2018) lost out to Green Book (2018).  And while all these movies are strong contenders, there was never any doubt that Netflix’s top dog this year was going to be Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.  And despite what happens at the Oscars in the weeks ahead, there is no doubt that Netflix and Scorsese delivered the goods.  The movie is pretty much everything that has made Scorsese’s career legendary wrapped up in a single, 3 1/2 hour film.  It’s almost feels like a finale in a way too, like this will be the last opportunity for him to make a movie like this ever, so he put everything he has into it.  That seems especially true with the cast he assembled.  Working once again with his longtime friend and collaborator Robert DeNiro after a long hiatus, the two are perfectly in tune once again.  Scorsese even talked Joe Pesci out of retirement to be in this one last movie, and it’s a beautiful, different paced return to form for the legendary actor.  We also finally get to see Al Pacino work with Scorsese for the first time, and he’s just as great as you’d expect.  The movie almost feels like the third and concluding chapter of a trilogy, combined with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) even though their only linked by genre.  Think of this as Scorsese’s Return of the King.  It’s exquisitely crafted, brilliantly acted, often hilarious, occasionally shocking; it’s everything you want a Scorsese film to be.  No matter what the purpose of making it was for, I applaud Netflix for making a movie like this happen.  If anything, it’s the kind of movie that can elevate a studio to the next level, and given how much Netflix has already changed, that’s saying quite a bit.

And my pick for the best movie of 2019 is…

1.

JOJO RABBIT

Directed by Taika Waititi

Crafting a satire around Nazi Germany is no easy task, as it opens you up to a lot of mine fields if you don’t hit the right tone.  Even more so if you also include the horrors of the Holocaust in the mix.  But, somehow New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi managed to find that balance, and deliver not just one of the year’s funniest comedies, but also one of the most uplifting stories about love and friendship triumphing over hate that I’ve ever seen.  And he does it even while appearing in the movie as a comical version of Heir Hitler himself.  One of the reasons why the movie works so well is because the characters within the movie are so wonderfully written and performed.  Young newcomer Roman Griffin Davis gives a commanding performance as the idealistic yet naive Jojo, giving him equal weight whenever the movie gets silly or heavily dramatic.  The same goes for the entire cast as well, including Scarlett Johanssson, Sam Rockwell, and Thomasin McKenzie.  Even secondary performers like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant shine.  But what is especially remarkable about the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the truly evil acts committed by the Nazi regime, and the film manages to balance the heavy stuff with the comical stuff without giving the audience tonal whiplash.  It feels very much in the same vein as a Charlie Chaplin comedy like The Great Dictator, with maybe a little Mel Brooks and Monty Python thrown in.  Taika really demonstrates how good of a filmmaker he is with this movie, especially when it comes to tackling such a sensitive subject.  Not many people can balance savage, cartoonish satire with tearful human drama effectively, but he managed to pull it off.  It’s the kind of comedy that we need right now; unafraid to label hatred for what it is and a passionate showcase for the healing power of love.  I loved every minute of it.

So there you have my picks for the best movies of 2019, but like all my lists from year’s past, I also have my picks for the year’s worst.  Sadly, this one was pretty easy to choose from, as 2019 had it’s fair share of bad movies as well.  What follows are my bottom 5 movies of 2019.

5. CATS – So mind-boggling misguided in it’s execution that it almost redeems itself as a piece of camp entertainment.  But this adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical never actually finds it’s footing, because you are constantly disturbed by the appearances of the actors in CGI fur making them look like felines despite their human physiques being retained.  Despite some strong performances, this movie is as appealing as a hairball.  For musical fans or the morbidly curious only.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

4.  THE KITCHEN – The year’s most poorly executed drama, and one that sadly had some potential behind it.  Centered around three mob wives played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss who take over operation of their husbands businesses while they are jail, the movie could have been an interesting new take on this genre of film.  Instead, it’s a sloppily edited piece that tries to cram in too much story and suffocates anything that could have given this movie any real bite.  The three leads are so poorly defined as characters that you don’t care at all about their stories, and it’s a waste of the talents of these actresses; some of whom are really trying to grasp onto something here.  This Goodfellas wannabe probably illustrated the most wasted potential of any movie this year.

3. MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL – There were quite a few attempts to relaunch long dormant franchises, most of which failed like Terminator: Dark Fate and Rambo: Last Blood.  This one, however, was by far the laziest.  The hope was that the strong chemistry between actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson would help lift this franchise back to it’s former glory, and move beyond the duo of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  But no, their onscreen chemistry couldn’t salvage this tired franchise, which just again resorts to the same tired tricks that ran stale years ago.  If you want to see Hemsworth and Thompson at their best, just re-watch Thor: Ragnarok (2017) again.  Otherwise, avoid Men in Black: International.  Even a good match of actors can’t overcome a premise that has long lost it’s luster.

2. DARK PHOENIX – Fool us once, shame on you.  Fool us twice, well shame on us.  It was foolish to think that Fox would get the Dark Phoenix saga right the second time around in their X-Men franchise, especially after bungling it so badly with X-Men: The Last Stand (2016).  But, somehow they not only failed us again, but they even managed to make it worse.  This was far and away the worst film in Fox’s long running X-Men series, and sadly it is also the final note that it’s going to go out on.  I’ve also never seen such a great cast in a movie feel so awkwardly directed either.  The performances in this movie are just cringe-inducing bad, and these actors have shown to be much better in other things, so I don’t know what happened to make them so amateurish here.  With Marvel now in charge of the characters again, we are going to see a full reboot that will make all of this non-canonical in the end.  It’s a sad ending to a franchise that had some great moments with a solid cast.  It’s too bad Dark Phoenix is as poor of a final note as it ended up being.

And the worst movie of 2019 is…

1. THE LION KING (2019) – It pains me to say that Disney managed to take one of their most beloved, flawless classics and turn it into the worst movie of the year.  To be honest, Dark Phoenix is the worst made movie of the year, but The Lion King is the one that I hated the most because of what it represents.  This is just copy and paste film-making at it’s very worst.  I love what director Jon Favreau has done with most of his career, but this movie is a waste of his talent, and it tells me that he was just given a mandate by the studio to deliver the same exact film without any creative freedom.  We are just given the same movie over again, only in “live action,” and devoid of any of the emotion that made the original animated film so memorable.  The biggest problem is that all the characters are animated to look and move like real animals, and real animals don’t emote the same way that they can in cartoonish animation.  So that’s why you have these awkwardly blank faces on these characters going through a variety of emotions, and it robs any personality out of the film.  Couple this with the fact that it’s just the same exact script and you’ll only be constantly reminded how much better the original animated classic was.  This is the worst example of the creatively bankrupt trend that Disney has been on with their movie remakes, and I worry that it’s going to lead them down the road of further lackluster film-making for an easy buck.  They should be using their resources to take bigger chances, and broaden their body of work; not just regurgitate past successes towards diminishing returns.

So, there you have my look at the movie of 2019, including it’s best and worst.  It was quite a year for movies, and it completed the decade on a fairly strong note.  In the weeks ahead, I will be giving my overview of the best movies of the last ten years, but before I wrap up this year’s list, I do want to look ahead at what we’ll be seeing in the following year.  With huge finales from the Marvel and Star Wars universes having played out in 2019, 2020 is going to be a bit quieter for the most part, though that’s not to say there won’t be some big films coming out this year.  Marvel kicks off their Phase 4 with the long awaited Black Widow movie this summer, and then delivers us a whole new team of heroes with The Eternals this fall.  Also this summer, DC will bring their biggest champion yet, Wonder Woman, back to the big screen with the highly anticipated sequel Wonder Woman 84.  We also get Christopher Nolan’s new epic thriller Tenet this summer, which I’m sure will be a must see IMAX experience like all his other movies.  We’re also going to see long in the making follow-ups to some classic franchises like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Top Gun: Maverick.  There will also be some fresh new animated films from Pixar (Onward and Soul) and Disney (Raya and the Last Dragon).  And probably the most intriguing project of the year could be the new big screen adaptation of Dune from director Denis Villeneuve, featuring a huge all star cast.  It’s a year that really seems to be defined by new beginnings just as much as 2019 was defined by epic finales.  Here’s hoping that 2020 sets off the next decade right as far as cinema is concerned.  It’s been fun sharing all these best and worst of the year picks with all of you, and I hope many of my picks were interesting ones.  Here’s to the year ahead and continue having a fun time at the movies.

Top Ten Movie Villains of the 2010’s

Heading into the next decade when it comes to cinema makes one look back on the past 10 and think about what impact has been left behind.  For the most part, we look back at all the most inspiring moments as well as the most fun ones as well.  At the same time, we also take a look back at all the moments that left us chilled to the bone.  The 2010’s was a tumultuous time, so it was often hard for the movies to keep up with all the scary things going on in real life, but even so, there have been plenty of thrills and scares on the big screen that have stuck with us.  But what really makes us remember the darker cinematic moments of the last decade is the incredibly dark characters that are usually at the center of them.  As is often the case with movies of all types, the villains are always the most memorable characters.  The 2010’s were full of villains of all types, but the ones that stuck around in our mind were pretty reflective of the direction that cinema had been heading in throughout the last ten years.  For one thing, thanks to Marvel and DC, comic book villains became the most popular throughout the decade.  Marvel’s rogues gallery in particular enjoyed a major boost, as many once obscure Marvel baddies all of a sudden became household names.  That’s not to say DC’s were left behind though; one of their’s is currently enjoying record breaking box office with his own movie in theaters right now.  But, there were also plenty of other villains that still left their mark outside of the super hero genre, and usually their lasting impression came from the fact that their darkness was all too real and familiar in our daily lives.  What follows is my list of the best movie villains from the last decade.  Some are no-brainers, but there are a few here that are personal favorites of mine, and I hope that spotlighting them here will help to keep their presence fresh in people’s minds as the decade comes to a close.  So, let’s take a look at the best of the worst from the 2010’s.

10.

DAISY DOMERGUE from THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino’s early films were pretty light on primary villains, mainly due to the fact that he made movies where everyone was a villain of some kind.  But many of his recent films have managed to spotlight a character above all the others that just is evil incarnate, and as a result, ends up being the most memorable character in a film full of great characters.  Chief among them certainly was Colonel Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds (2009), who stands among the greatest movie villains of all time (and a personal favorite of mine).  Django Unchained (2012) gave us a dastardly duo with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave Stephen.  But, for a villainous character that stood out as truly one of the best of the decade from the imagination of Mr. Tarantino, it was Daisy Domergue from The Hateful Eight.  Daisy, when we first meet her, is already a condemned woman on her way to a hanging, and for the first half of the movie, her presence is merely to be there as a vile low life whom we laugh at whenever she gets under the skin of her captor, John “The Hang-Man” Ruth (Kurt Russell).  But, as the plot unfolds within the confines of the isolated log cabin that all the titular 8 characters end up stranded in, we learn that she is far more cunning than we initially perceived.  Daisy becomes something like a spider, delightfully toying with all these flys that have been caught in her web, and through her manipulations, we see Tarantino create one of the most despicable characters he’s ever dreamed up for one of his movies, brought to life so exquisitely through Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fearless, Oscar nominated performance.  In Sam Jackson’s character’s own words, she is a “diabolical bitch” and that makes her all the more memorable.

9.

RICHARD STRICKLAND from THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Played by Michael Shannon

In the wrong hands, a character like Agent Strickland could have turned very one note.  On paper, he is basically a physical representation of repression that plagues the central characters of Guillermo Del Toro’s sci-fi fairy tale.  He’s a racist, misogynist, and a sadist, and what makes all those different aspects of his personality worse is the fact that he’s a man in a position of power.  But, the character becomes far more than the tropes that defines him, because actor Michael Shannon brings so much presence into his performance.  One of the greatest character actors working today, Shannon has played his fair share of dark, foreboding characters, but with Strickland he goes for broke, creating one of the most heartless characters seen on screen in many years.  Another actor in the role might not have been able to play the character as sinister as Shannon makes him here, or at least with the same sincerity.  Michael Shannon makes Strickland as rotten to the core as the fingers that are literally rotting on his hand throughout the movie.  And I love the fact that the movie never tries to find the silver lining within the character; that soft spot that most other films feel like they need to include in a villain’s backstory in order to bring them “depth.”  The Shape of Water is a movie about monsters who have a heart, and through Strickland, we see that the most human character, with the most human flaws, is the one who acts the most monstrous.  It’s the people that use their power to play by their own rules that Del Toro presents an impressively vivid portrayal of villainy, and given how the world evolved over the last decade, Strickland is one of the most prescient villainous characters in recent memory.  It’s no mistake that Del Toro put all that into an agent of the government.

8.

EDWIN EPPS from 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Played by Michael Fassbender

It’s hard t encapsulate all the horrors of slavery within a single narrative, but one of the most valiant efforts of recent years was this Steve McQueen directed adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, the historical autobiographical account of Solomon Northup.  Not only does Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) have to endure the daily horrors of a lifestyle that he was trapped into and has no means of escape except to rely upon his intelligence, but he must also do so under the tyrannical eye of the master who has taken ownership of him.  Edwin Epps stands out as one of the most frightening villains of the decade not only because of how he embodies all the evils of this institution, but also because of how chillingly he manipulative he is as well.  The brilliance in Michael Fassbender’s unforgettable performance is in how he doesn’t simply portray Epps as a foaming at the mouth bigot.  It’s the quietness of his terror that makes him especially effective.  The scene where he confronts Solomon after discovering his plot to make an escape is especially tense, as all that Epps does to instill fear into him to make Solomon confess is to wrap his arm over his shoulder and hold a small knife to his gut.  He never utters a word and instead lets Solomon do all the talking, all the while giving Solomon a penetrating stare.  There are other scenes where Edwin grows more outwardly violent, but in this unforgettable scene we see just how effectively foreboding he can be in one of his most restrained moments.  He perfectly represents the institution of slavery in America; false gentility masking the truly horrifying and inhumane practices that lied under the surface.  12 Years a Slave effectively conveyed the absolute terror that it must have been like to live under such oppression and Edwin Epps, with his projection of moral authority guiding his every brutal move, shows us how chillingly real such brutality could exist within our own history.

7.

THE ARMITAGE FAMILY from GET OUT (2017)

Played by Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Allison Williams, and Caleb Landry Jones

Sticking within the same theme of black men entrapped into an institution of slavery of some kind, writer and director Jordan Peele put his own modern spin on the concept with his breakthrough horror film.  And he does so with not just one memorable villain at it’s center, but a whole family of them.  The Armitage Family are a wonderfully twisted group of characters, seemingly normal on the surface until you peel back the layers and find out what they are really up to.  What is brilliant about Peele’s reveal within the movie is that he makes the Armitages feel like the family next door, completely comfortable with the idea of accepting a person of color into their family.  Jordan Peele even makes them politically liberal, stating that they would’ve “voted for Obama for a third time.”  But as the movie goes along, and the truth comes out, we learn that their is a sinister side to their comfort level with African Americans, and what their actual deal is becomes both insane and terrifying.  Catherine Keener’s Missy, the matriarch of the Armitage clan, is especially memorable with her chilling use of hypnosis to entrap black men and women within their own minds.  You’ll never see anyone make stirring tea in a cup as frightening as she does in this movie.  Allison Williams also stands out as the one who creates the false sense of security for Daniel Kaluuya’s protagonist, going from the ideal girlfriend to the embodiment of evil literally within a flash, once the truth comes out.  Much like how it probably would have been back in the days of Slavery in America, that projection of civility masks the truly sinister practice underneath, and more importantly, it’s all centered around the dehumanization of a whole race of people for the benefit of the captors.  With the Armitages, Jordan Peele shows that the evils that have plagued America still can be found even with what appears to be the perfect, modern American family.

6.

TERENCE FLETCHER from WHIPLASH (2014)

Played by J.K. Simmons

Of course, not all great villains need to be murderers or monsters.  Some could just be the teacher from Hell.  That’s the case with Terence Fletcher from the movie Whiplash.  In Damien Chazelle’s explosive debut feature, he presented us with one of the most unforgettable antagonists in recent memory, and in one of the most unexpected places as well.  You don’t expect to be confronted with the struggle of your life within a jazz class at a music conservatory, but that’s the situation that Fletcher creates for Miles Teller’s Andrew Nieman.  Fletcher’s style of teaching is, how shall I put this, a little extreme.  One moment he’s calm and collected, the next, he’s throwing a chair across the room right at your head because you’re off the beat.  Simmons’ Oscar winning performance is stunning to watch as he balances both the intensity and the serenity of this perfectionist character.  No other actor could instill so much menace into a phrase as simple as “not my tempo.”  The scary thing is, we’ve all met a Fletcher in our lives; that one person who drove us nearly into insanity with their obsession to mold us into a more ideal person, whether that person was a teacher, a coach, a loved one, or our boss.  We’ve all experienced something like that to certain degrees, but Fletcher is certainly an extreme case that makes this narrative about creating perfection in art such a harrowing ride.  By the end, Andrew and Fletcher do come to a glorious moment when they are on the same page, but you’re left with the feeling of wondering if was worth the struggle in the end.  I just love the fact that the normally mild-mannered Simmons was able to create such an intense portrayal of this character.  There are moments where he’s wound up so tight that it looks like veins will pop right out of his head as he growls his commands sometimes too close for comfort.  As we see with his character, you don’t have to commit evil acts to be an iconic villain; sometimes you just need to be the most glorious of assholes.

5.

SILVA from SKYFALL (2012)

Played by Javier Bardem

The long running James Bond franchise has had it’s fair share of memorable villains throughout the years; Goldfinger, Scaramanga, and of course Bond’s arch-nemisis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who just recently saw a cinematic revival in Spectre (2015).  But, it was with the third film in the Daniel Craig era that the franchise may have created it’s most memorable villain yet.  Silva is a character so vividly imagined that he almost puts all the others to shame, especially those that came from some of Bond’s campier outings.  Having already come out of the previous decade playing one of the best villains of the 2000’s (Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men), Javier Bardem created yet another all time great baddie with Silva; a villain with more layers than a wedding cake.  Silva’s main motivation is revenge, not against Bond, but rather against the woman that trained both of them into the killers that they became, M (played by Judi Dench).  But his villainy extends beyond just vengeance, as he displays some severe psychological trauma that’s driving his sinister actions, delighting in the suffering he’s inflicting like it’s a game.  In many ways, he’s a twisted mirror of James Bond himself.  Where Bond is a cool, level headed agent with a licence to kill with expert precision, Silva is a killer with a flair for the dramatic and a lack of compassion for even the most innocent of person unlucky to be caught in his way.  Combine this with a genius level intellect, and we’ve got a character that probably represents Bond’s greatest threat ever.  When we first meet Silva, he tells us the metaphorical tale of rats trapped in a barrel until there were only two left, after they had resorted to eating the rest.  In his words, “they had changed their nature.”  And that makes Silva so memorable a villain, as being the best challenge that James Bond has ever faced, with the two of them battling it out to be the last rat standing.

4.

BANE from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Played by Tom Hardy

Christopher Nolan had an almost impossible task with his follow-up to The Dark Knight (2008).  Heath Ledger’s now iconic performance as The Joker was almost too high a bar to overcome, and given Ledger’s untimely death following the making of the movie, Nolan couldn’t continue on with another actor because of how well Ledger left his mark on the role.  Thankfully, Batman’s rogues gallery is a deep one and there were plenty of iconic characters to choose from as a possible follow-up.  The only question is, could Nolan find one that could rise to that same level.  Surprisingly, Nolan landed on the character of Bane as the villain for this trilogy capper; a character that you wouldn’t have expected for this version of the Batman mythos as imagined by Christopher Nolan, especially following in the wake of the Joker.  But, somehow he made it work, thanks in no small part to an incredible performance by Tom Hardy that, in my opinion, rises up to the high standard set by Heath Ledger.   The smart decision was made to completely transform the character, straying away from the Luchador mask wearing, steroid enhanced muscle man from the comics.  In Dark Knight Rises, Bane is a muscle bound terrorist with a mission, as well as the gravitas to inspire chaos to reign over Gotham City.  He’s more than a physical match for Batman, even incapacitating him after their first fight, and what makes him such an effective villain is that he’s both brains and brawn.  In many ways, I like this Bane better than the comic book version, and he may even be my favorite character in the entire Dark Knight trilogy.  I especially love Hardy’s commitment to that peculiar and often imitated voice, and how much of his acting comes through in the eyes, as his face remains covered by that gnarly looking mask.  Even detractors of The Dark Knight Rises still sing the praises of Hardy’s performance.  The most remarkable thing about the character though is that he rose up from a second tier Batman villain into a more elevated level, and remarkably holding his own in the final chapter of a groundbreaking trilogy, and even became an adequate follow-up to one of the greatest screen villains of all time.

3.

AMY DUNNE from GONE GIRL (2014)

Played by Rosamund Pike

We are now in a time when abuse victims claims are now thankfully taken more seriously, but suspicion still dogs many cases where one party will claim that the other is fabricating their story for whatever reason.  Gone Girl takes that kind of scenario to the extreme, where the character of Amy Dunne, frames her husband (played by Ben Affleck) for her disappearance and possible murder.  Her motive is out of disgust for her married life, which is not unfounded as Affleck’s Nick Dunne is no saint, but what makes Amy such a memorable villain is the lengths that she goes to for her vengeance.  She’s almost a genius when it comes to covering all her tracks and making her husband look like the guiltiest man in the world.  But she doesn’t just stop there.  After misfortune sidelines her well laid out plan, she goes to even more extreme ends to end up on top; even resorting to self-mutilation and murder.  And it’s all in the service of keeping up the appearance that she is completely innocent.  What I love about Rosamund Pike’s performance is the fact that she seems to take some thrill in causing so much chaos.  As her husband continues to be grilled and beaten down by the media that has falsely proclaimed him as a monster, she gleefully sits by and watches her narrative play out exactly as she wanted it to, until Nick learns of her came and comes back with some media manipulation of his own.  In many ways, Amy is a perfect representation of the kind of monstrous way that we let the truth slip away all in the service of a more compelling narrative, and how some sinister people are literally able to get away with murder because of that.  Media manipulation is a very contemporary evil, and Amy Dunne is one of the most compelling villains we’ve seen that embodies that.  In a brilliant bookend to the movie, we see the same shot of Amy staring back at us from the POV of her husband.  Once the full context of the movie comes into focus, the meaning of the shot changes, and becomes a quite frightening final note.

2.

KYLO REN from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), THE LAST JEDI (2017) and THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

Played by Adam Driver

In an iconic saga that has spanned several decades and has included all time great villains like Darth Vader, it was going to be a daunting task to create a new villain that would live up to the high Star Wars standard.  Thankfully, this concluding trilogy brought us probably the most compelling villain yet in this series.  Kylo Ren may not be as menacing a presence as Darth Vader, but he is probably the most fleshed out baddie we’ve seen in the Star Wars universe so far.  Caught in between the pull of the light and dark side, Kylo Ren’s story is a semi-tragic one, where we see how a character who has the ability to do good constantly falls into a spiral of evil actions, all in the pursuit of some empty fulfillment.  It’s all the more tragic given how he is the off-spring of two of Star Wars most beloved heroes; Han Solo and Leia Organa.  His turn towards the dark side could’ve been avoided too, had the pure hearted Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) not succumbed to one moment of weakness in his pursuit of exterminating all forms of the dark side in the world, even if it manifested slightly in his own nephew.  It’s that tragic sense of the character that makes him so compelling, and he’s vividly portrayed throughout the trilogy by Adam Driver.  Driver is able to capture the moodiness of the character without making him an insufferable edge-lord of a character.  A part of us hopes that he can be redeemed, but the sad truth is that he may be far too gone to ever come back to the light.  Given how I picked his counterpart, Rey, as the hero of the decade, it only makes sense for his inclusion here as well.  It will be interesting to see how his character evolves further as the saga comes to an end this December.   No matter what happens, the Star Wars saga has left us with a memorable villain in it’s final chapter that delivers just as much interesting pathos as he does chilling menace.

1.

THANOS from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

Played by Josh Brolin

Not really a big shock that Thanos tops this list.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the most defining cinematic creation of the last decade and Thanos has certainly be set up as it’s primary antagonist.  Ever since he was first teased in the end credits of the original Avengers in 2012, there has been a growing anticipation for his ultimate showdown with the band of super heroes.  Remarkably, Marvel was able to sustain that anticipation through three full phases of their world building over multiple franchises and 21 total films.  Some were worried that Thanos wouldn’t be able to live up to the hype, but thankfully in the hands of a skilled actor like Josh Brolin, not only did Thanos deliver, he left an unforgettable impression that in many ways makes him one of cinemas greatest villains ever.  First of all, the character is a technical marvel (so to speak), setting a new high bar in the motion capture technology utilized to bring him to life.  It really is amazing how much of Josh Brolin’s subtle acting translates into the CGI model of the character.  At the same time, the “Infinity Saga” duo of Infinity War and Endgame do such an amazing job of portraying his character, explaining his motives and even finding the sadness underneath that drives his evil actions.  Thanos is by no means a sympathetic villain, but we feel the anguish that takes a toll on him throughout as he heads toward his evil goals.  As he says in the movie, “I am inevitable,” and it’s that unwavering drive towards his own zealous ideal that makes him truly terrifying.  It also helps that he commits one of the most evil acts ever put on screen by killing half of all life in the universe with the snap of his fingers; including some beloved characters.  Thanos was every bit worth all of the build-up and Marvel did the character justice in the end.  If there was anything that defined on screen villainy in the last decade, it was the long awaited arrival of the tyrannical mad Titan, and the way he left us all shaken to the core by the depths of his evil deeds.

So, there you have my choices for the best movie villains of the 2010’s.  Some are likely choices, but others are ones that I hope are given deeper evaluation in the years to come.  No doubt, the comic book dominance of the last decade made the inclusions of Thanos and Bane expected on here.  And they were just the most noteworthy of a whole ten years of incredible villains taken off the comic page and brought to the big screen.  We all had the likes of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, Cate Blanchett’s Hela, and James Spader’s Ultron in the mix as well.  Other noteworthy villains that didn’t make the list also included Smaug the dragon from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, President Snow from the Hunger Games franchise, and plenty of other interesting villains that made their cinematic debuts in the last decade.  We also saw some memorable re-imaginings of classic movie villains, like Bill Skarsgard’s new take on Pennywise in IT (2017).  What I hope this list shows is the eclectic mix we witnessed over the last several years; showing that the most profound portrayals of villainy were not just limited to super-villains, but also from dark corners of contemporary society (Amy from Gone Girl) as well as our troubled history (Edwin Epps from 12 Years a Slave, the only character on this list based on a real person).  It will be interesting to see what the next decade has in store for us.  Marvel and DC will continue to expand their universes; although I don’t know what Marvel will do as a follow-up to a character as iconic as Thanos.  Some of the best villains in the next decade could also be complete surprises, so I’m interested in seeing how the 2020’s plays out when it comes to capturing captivating villainy on screen.  Regardless, it was a good decade for the best of the worst on the big screen, and it all leaves us with some worthwhile options to scare us once again as we indulge our dark sides in this upcoming Halloween season.

 

Top Ten Movie Characters of the 2010’s

There are a lot things that have helped to define the cinematic landscape of the 2010’s, but one of the most important is the many unforgettable characters that have graced the silver screen.  It’s been an interesting decade, particularly because much of the characters that have left an impact on audiences have far less to do with the popularity of those who play them.  In decades past, the effect of the movie star and their persona played a major part in creating characters that stood out in their selective films,  Now, though an actors charisma does play a part in helping make characters memorable, it no longer is so closely tied to the personality of the actor themselves.  Now, movie characters carry the power of the brand, and by virtue, can be the thing itself that turns a performer into a movie star.  This has certainly been the case with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the decade’s most predominant cinematic touchstone.  The characters themselves have pre-established fanbases, and those lucky enough to be cast in those parts have in turn experienced significant career boosts.  It’s different than years before when characters like the Terminator, or Ethan Hunt, and Jack Sparrow only took the world by storm once a big movie star was able to fill the role.  But even outside of the popularity of characters in big franchises making an impact, another pleasing development over the last decade is the increase of diversity represented on the big screen.  Because many marginalized groups of the past are finally gaining mainstream attention thanks to a more progressive minded audience, we are finally getting characters on the big screen that are able to tell stories that have long been ignored, and it’s very much helping to broaden the minds of so many people in both the industry and in the world itself.

For this list, I will be counting down my choices for the best movie characters of the last decade.  I may leave a few of your favorites out, and believe me, it was hard narrowing this down to my standard ten.  These characters had to have premiered on the big screen in their current form within the last decade itself, so that unfortunately left me excluding a hugely influential character like Iron Man off the list despite him having one of the best character arcs of the decade, because he made his premiere in 2008.  This list also excludes villains, since I am saving them for a top ten list of their own later this year.  I am, however, including anti-heroes here among their more pure-hearted fellows, and characters based on real people are also allowed, just as long as their movie falls within the timeline.  Some of these choices are no-brainers, while others are ones you might not have considered, but I wanted to spotlight them and the impact they had on me.  Overall, I want to show just how interesting and diverse this decade in movies has been, and which characters will end up being the ones that I will remember back on the most from these years.  So, let’s count them down.

10.

JORDAN BELFORT from THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Played by Leonardo DiCaprio

If the 2010’s had a defining movie star, it would be Leonardo DiCaprio.  The one-time heartthrob from decades past has matured into one of Hollywood’s most reliable big screen stars, winning both critical praise on nearly every film and retaining healthy box office pull.  He didn’t make very many movies this year, but the ones he did were all instant hits, including Inception (2010), a pair of Tarantino flicks (2012’s Django Unchained and the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) a remake of The Great Gatsby (2013) and of course The Revenant (2015) which finally won him a long overdue Oscar.  However, if there was a character that best represented his talents this decade, it would be the zany performance that he delivered as real life disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort.  In Martin Scorsese’s biting indictment of Wall Street culture, DiCaprio lets loose in a performance unlike anything we’ve seen from him before.  For one thing, he shows that he indeed can give a comedic performance, holding his own against established comedy actors like Jonah Hill.  The quaalude hangover scene is a sequence of absolutely insane physical comedy that would do the Three Stooges proud, and it’s incredible to think that the normally intense DiCaprio is able to act this silly on screen.  Apart from that, his deranged pep talks to his staff also show DiCaprio relishing the freedom that this role allowed him to present.  The real Jordan Belfort was probably no where near as interesting as the character found in this movie, and that what makes this creation of Leo and Marty’s so memorable.  The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort is more of a symbol than a human being; a representation of unchecked ego and hubris, and that’s what ends up making him such a profoundly memorable character.

9.

CEASAR from THE PLANET OF THE APES series

Played by Andy Serkis

One of the things that definitely became a big shift within the film industry over the last decade was the advances made in motion capture technology.  Though pioneered in the decade prior, the technology matured even further in the 2010’s, taking it ever closer to reaching true photo-real parody.  Some of the most impressive uses recently have been the aging and de-aging of actors used in a few of the Marvel films, as well as the incredible life-like animals found in Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book (2016).  But the uses of motion capture are only effective when it’s in the service of creating a memorable character, and capturing the passionate performance behind the digital layer.  That’s something that was best realized in the surprisingly effective reboot of the Planet of the Apes.  Those movies introduced us to the character of Ceasar, the hyper-intelligent ape who leads a revolt and establishes a new society of mentally enhanced apes in a world where mankind is on the brink of destruction.  These movies, unlike their campier predecessors, take the premise very seriously, and managed to deliver a gripping tale of war and survival in the process.  And the effectiveness of the drama comes from the fact that Ceasar is a such a profoundly interesting character.  Brought to life by Andy Serkis, who has mastered the art of motion capture performance through years of portraying characters like Gollum and King Kong, Ceasar is one of the most expressive and life like digital characters ever put on screen.  And Serkis’ performance shines through, giving the character layers of depth; fierce, but compassionate, and totally in command of his identity.  Some people argue that motion capture robs some of the authenticity of an actors performance by hiding it under a digital mask, but Ceasar shows that an actor can really portray any role, just as long as it’s good enough to shine through.

8.

MAYA from ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

Played by Jessica Chastain

A somewhat controversial character from the last decade, Maya stands out as a captivating figure in a story that in itself was a decade in the making.  The search for Osama Bin Laden was one of the top on-going dramas in real world politics for almost the entirety of the 2000’s, starting with the 9/11 attacks and culminating in the nighttime raid by Seal Team 6 on his compound in Pakistan ten years later.  The finality of that monumental day, with Bin Laden meeting a violent end, made it possible to encapsulate the entire history of that worldwide hunt into it’s own narrative, which director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal set out to do.  But, to focus this complex story, they needed a character who could embody every frustrating twist and turn of this decade long search, and they found that in the character of Maya.  Created as an amalgam of several different people who worked tirelessly within the CIA during the hunt for Bin Laden, Maya immediately grabs a hold of the audience with her tireless ambition and her candid, sometimes extremely blunt, personality shining through.  Jessica Chastain gives a fiery performance that really showed her ability to take command within a role.  In many ways, Maya was a perfect poster child for working women in the 2010’s; working harder than most of their male counterparts, consistently having to reaffirm their often ignored opinions and suggestions until they are ultimately proven right in the end.  I especially knew that I loved her as a character once she introduces herself to the CIA director after discovering the hide out of Bin Laden as “the motherf***er who found the place.”  It’s that assertive confidence that just immediately endears her to the audience.  Her tactics are extreme, as indicated by the film’s controversial depiction of torture, but it was people like her in the end that brought to a close one of the most brutal manhunts in human history.

7.

ELSA from FROZEN (2013)

Voiced by Idina Menzel

Animation has never been short on animated characters, and this last decade has been no exception.  Whether it was Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Baymax from Big Hero 6 (2014), the many different emotions of Inside Out (2015), Judy Hopps from Zootopia (2016), or Miguel from Coco (2017), we were treated to a wide array of instantly lovable characters from the medium of animation.  But, to stand above the rest, a character’s legacy beyond the film also must be accounted for, and for that, you definitely have to spotlight the central character of the biggest animated hit of the decade.  While I was lukewarm on the movie Frozen itself, I will absolutely acknowledge the importance of the character Elsa with regards to the movie’s tremendous success.  Elsa, apart from having the movie’s signature song “Let it Go” (which was unavoidable when the movie first came out), Is also far and away the most compelling character in the movie, and in general, one of the most profound in all of animation.  The movie did an effective job of depicting the internal struggle she faces every day of her life, hiding her supernatural ice-making powers from the world until she can no longer control it and begins to wreck havoc.  We learn how narrow that ledge is between being a hero and being a menace can be, and that retreating from the world and suppressing one’s true self only ends up causing more harm than good.  That’s why the movie resonated so strongly with the LGBTQ community, who saw Elsa’s struggle with her identity as a reflection of their own coming out experiences and in turn they’ve embraced Elsa as one of their own; though Disney hasn’t hinted at anything with regards to sexuality with her; at least not yet.  Idina Menzel gives her voice a lot of heart, and not to mention some incredible pipes for the songs as well, and “Let it Go” has put Elsa on the animation map for all times, so it makes sense that she would stand out as one of the decades most monumental characters.

6.

RIGGAN THOMPSON from BIRDMAN or THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014)

Played by Michael Keaton

One of the themes of the decade has been the growing power of character roles having influence over the personas of the actors that are playing them.  Now imagine that idea as the basis for your entire movie.  That’s what we got with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Oscar winning Birdman, which centers around the character of Riggan Thompson, an actor whose whole career has been defined by the one superhero role he played many years before.  Riggan is an interesting character because of the unique struggle he faces, where no amount of hard work and devotion to his art is able to shake off the past that has come to define the man that he is.  He is so haunted by his legacy as the titular Birdman, that his character persona even speaks to him as a voice in his head.  It’s a fascinating portrait of the progression of a performers career, where the rise to the top comes with its own drawbacks, and the climb back up after the fall can be even harder than it was before.  Through Riggan, we see a bittersweet tale of what it’s like for an actor to fight for control over their own artistic ambitions, and that ultimately that true happiness may never manifest despite the best of intentions.  What’s even more fascinating about the character is the way that his story so closely mirrors that of the actor portraying him.  Michael Keaton may not be as negative towards his past career playing a superhero, but you can’t help but feel that Keaton brought a lot of his own personal experiences into forming this character, and in turn, delivered his best performance to date.  Riggan embodies so many things that we normally associate with actors; vanity, emotion, and a short fuse, but we also see the side of the performer in detail that few other movies are able to show such as the self-doubt and vulnerability, which Keaton captures so perfectly in all those long unbroken shots.  Plus, we even get to see him fly.

5.

CLEO from ROMA (2018)

Played by Yalitza Aparicio

Some of the best characters to emerge from the 2010’s have been the ones who come from marginalized segments of society, whose stories are only now finally reaching mainstream audiences.  Director Alfonso Cuaron drew inspiration from his childhood in making this film, and in particular he wanted to make a movie about the women who helped raise him; his mother and his housekeeper/nanny.  The nanny character in particular became the focal point of this deeply personal film, and by telling her story, Cuaron created one of the decade’s most fascinating characters.  Cleo’s presence at the heart of Roma not only sheds light on the lives of working class people in Mexican society, but also reveals a lot about the lives of Indigenous Mexicans as well, a segment of society that has almost never been portrayed with such importance before on film.  Alfonso Cuaron has refined his craft so well over the years that he was able to confidently hold the point of camera still within scenes and have them play out in such a true to life way, almost like we the audience are ease-dropping into the lives of the people on screen.  It’s amazing to think that Yalitza Aparicio had no prior acting experience before taking the role of Cleo in this film, because she is such a natural in front of the camera.  There’s not a false note in her entire performance, and you would almost think that she and the other characters in the movie were almost pulled out of real life.  Cleo also goes through some harrowing moments in the film, including finding herself in the middle of a riot as well as saving two of the children in her care from drowning in turbulent waters.  This was clearly a character that meant a lot to the Alfonso, knowing her connection to the real life person that was in the director’s own life, and the power of the film is found in the deep emotional attachment that Cuaron pushes for the audience to have with this simple, kind woman’s story.

4.

KING T’CHALLA from BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Played by Chadwick Boseman

You certainly can’t talk about the best characters of the decade without talking about the ones brought to the big screen by Marvel.  And a whole bunch of them could make an strong argument to make this list; maybe even fill it up completely as well.  Excluding Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, there’s Chris Evan’s Captain America to consider as well as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, and Scarlett Johanssen’s Black Widow.  But, to narrow it down to one, I also have to consider how much of an impact the character left behind as well, and no one left a bigger impact in the last decade than King T’Challa himself, the Black Panther.  Introduced first in Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa immediately won over audiences as a welcome addition to the lineup of Marvel Superheros.  But it was with the premiere of his own stand alone film that the character made history.  The movie outperformed everyone’s expectations and shattered all sorts of records.  More importantly, it set a new milestone for a movie made by an African American filmmaker and staring a predominately black cast.  With all that, Black Panther broke down so many barriers that had unjustly sidelined people of color from achieving mainstream success in the film industry.  There is still a long way to go yet, but Black Panther helped to kick that door open by proving a movie with such a distinctive black voice could be profitable in Hollywood.  And all the while, Chadwick Boseman brought so much grace and charisma to the role, which has helped to make T’Challa a new favorite for many a Marvel fan.  It’s easy enough to make a hero to root for in the super hero movies, but it’s another thing entire to make a character that can inspire greatness in others, especially those who have been long forgotten, and that in turn has made him a profoundly important cinematic character from this last decade of film.

3.

ALEJANDRO GILLICK from SICARIO (2015)

Played by Benicio del Toro

Probably the most morally ambiguous character on this list, Del Toro’s Alejandro is also a character that leaves a lasting impression.  What I love about this character in the movie Sicario is the way his true nature slowly unravels throughout the movie.  When we first meet him, he’s a mild mannered lawyer tagging along on a DEA mission to battle against the Mexican Drug Cartels.  But, as the film progresses we see more of the ruthlessness that hides beneath the calm exterior.  And in the end, we see that Alejandro has become a killer even more ruthless than the drug lords that he hunts down.  The sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) tempers down some of the intensity of his character to make him a bit more sympathetic, but the development of his character in the original 2015 film is still something to behold.  Benicio del Toro is brilliant in the role, keeping the character mostly in the dark until the opportune moment when we finally see his true nature, while at the same time making his dual nature relatable at the same time.  There’s a quiet intensity in his performance that I think few other actors could have pulled off, especially with this much subtlety.  I especially love the tension he brings to that scene at the end of the movie with Emily Blunt’s character, where he exudes so much menace without ever breaking his cool demeanor; acting in the same mild-mannered way as he had when she first met him, only now he has a gun pointed at her head.  Alejandro is the very definition of an anti-hero; a person who commits bad deeds of his own in the pursuit of a greater good.  Given the insanity of the drug wars on the border, it’s people like him that are really the only ones who achieve any amount of justice in this kind of conflict, but it does create the dilemma of whether we are comfortable with the ways he gets the job done in the end.  In any case, his presence presents to us one very fascinating character study of quiet intensity.

2.

JOHN WICK from the JOHN WICK series

Played by Keanu Reeves

This has been a decade where characters from the comic book pages have sprung off the page and taken over the big screen in a massive way.  But, it’s one thing to adapt an already familiar super hero for the cinema; it’s another to create a whole new one from scratch, and make him just as popular.  That’s what’s happened with John Wick.  A passion project for star Keanu Reeves, the original John Wick (2014) took audiences by surprise with it’s fresh and creative approach to action film-making and helped to rejuvenate Reeve’s career as a movie star.  With two sequels that followed, each one building on the other, the John Wick franchise has built it’s own unique mythology and complex world which in many ways have turned the character into more than just a hit-man, but a superhero in his own right.  What especially has endeared John Wick to audiences is the fact that Keanu Reeves, despite being in his mid-50’s, does much of his own stunt work, which in itself is breathtaking to watch play out on screen (with very little CGI enhancement, I might add).  What I love best about the character is the fact that he has this notorious history surrounding him, making him almost a celebrity within that world, something that Keanu hilariously tosses off as an annoyance in his character.  John Wick also matches Keanu’s own persona better than we’ve ever seen before on screen; a man of few words, but with a sly sense of humor underneath.  And watching him throw himself into those insanely well choreographed fight scenes is really something to behold on screen.  More than anything else, it’s great to see an actor portray a character that they obviously have a lot of fun playing, and that is the key to John Wick’s appeal.  He’s a superhero of his own making, and the world couldn’t have asked for anything better.

1.

REY from the STAR WARS series

Played by Daisy Ridley

All these characters on this list have enhanced their place within their selective narratives and stood out because of it.  But it’s another thing entirely when you change the face of the culture itself.  Star Wars, without a doubt, is the single most influential cultural influencer to have come out of Hollywood within the last 50 years.  Fan culture exist today because of it’s impact, for all the positives and negatives that it carries with it.  When Disney rebooted the franchise with The Force Awakens in 2015, they made the bold decision to not center it around any already established character, but to instead introduce a new hero to franchise that would carry it into the future.  And to the surprise of many, this new Jedi hero on which the fate of the galaxy would rest would be a young, misfit girl named Rey.  Though strong female characters have always been present in the Star Wars franchise, going all the way back to Princess Leia, this was the first time that we would see a female lead wielding the legendary lightsaber and holding her own in battle with the Dark Side.  This sadly led to some backlash from bigoted fans who believed that Disney was using Star Wars to push some kind of feminist agenda.  But, what I love about the character Rey is that she breaks down the traditional expectations of a Jedi warrior in the Star Wars mythology.  The powers of the Force call to her, despite the fact that she comes from the middle of nowhere and has no idea where she came from.  Because of her outsider status, she inspires so many that have often been overlooked by the powers that be in the Star Wars community, and as a result she is changing the face of fan culture as we know it.  Despite receiving backlash, fans of Rey as a character have pushed back and held her up as a role model, which in turn is inspiring a whole new generation of young, female fans who have long wanted to wield lightsabers themselves in the same way that the boy have done for many years prior.  Star Wars has proven in this last decade to be just as important to the culture at large as ever, and Rey is a key reason why it looks to have a bright future in the years ahead.

So, there you have my choices for the top ten characters of the 2010’s in cinema.  There are plenty other good ones I may have left out, including ones that I’m sure you’ll be reminding me of later.  For me, these are the ones that both pleased me the most as well as the ones that I believe had the most profound impact on movies as a whole over the last decade.  Some are genuine heroes that are well worth rooting for, while others are deeply flawed personalities that have fascinating arcs that play out over the course of their narratives.  What I find fascinating are the characters that shed light on different races and nationalities like Cleo from Roma  and  T’Challa from Black Panther.  These were only the most interesting examples of a whole movement towards better representation in all of cinema that has been happening over the course of the last decade.  Of course, characters that break boundaries and change the culture, like Rey from Star Wars are also important, especially when her popularity exposes previously existing prejudices and forces a conversation within the culture itself.  I also found forceful personalities, with an ambiguous moral compass, captivating to watch over the last decade like Alejandro from Sicario and Jordan Belfort from Wolf of Wall Street, just because it was fascinating to see how close to the edge of villainy could they bring themselves to without loosing their appeal.  It will be interesting when I form my list of the top villains and see how they contrast with the ones here.  Overall, this was a decade where character became a more powerful tool in selling a film than star power, and it’ll be interesting to see if that is something that continues in the next ten years.  As the story of Riggan Thompson in Birdman showed us, characters sometime take on a life of their own and can even overwhelm the actors who portray them.  Regardless, this was a decade of many strongly defined and memorable characters, and hopefully I’ve reminded all of you of some very important ones we were introduced to in the 2010’s

Top Ten Movie Musical Themes of the 2010’s

As I have been writing this blog for nearly the last six years, I’ve observed many different changes going on in and around the film industry that have certainly made the last decade a largely transitional one for film as a whole.  The rise of streaming content, the growing international film market, the Me Too movement, and so on.  As we make our way through the year 2019, we are now coming to a point of looking back at the decade that was the 2010’s and seeing how it shaped our world and what is likely to come in the decade ahead.  With regards to cinema, I think that it’s time to look back at the last 10 years to see what left the most impact on the films we watch today.  Starting with this article, all my top ten lists this year will be ones related to the 2010’s, all culminating in a list early in 2020 when I list the Top 10 movies of the decade.  Each one will cover a different subject that I think helped mark the 2010’s as a defining decade in the history of cinema.  To start off, I decided to look at my personal picks for the best musical themes from movies of the last 10 years.  The list, like the others will span the years between 2010-2019, and will cover a wide variety of genres.  But one thing that will stand out about this list is the way that I’ve observed some trends in music having a more defining impact as one movie’s soundtrack becomes so influential that it spawns many more like it.  There are music tracks on this list that do indeed fall within the same soundscape, while there are also others that really do feel outside of their time.  In any case, apart from personal tastes, I do feel that these were the music tracks that left the most impact on the decade and are the ones that will continue to have a rippling effect on the music of the future.

Like many of my other music centric lists, I have provided embedded video of each theme found on YouTube, so that you can have clear context of what each musical piece sounds like.  Every composer will be listed, and hopefully I don’t stack the list with too many familiar names, because some of these composers stand amongst the greatest of all time, while some may be unknown to some of you and only got their fresh start more recently.  Also, this is a list of purely orchestral music, and no songs are included (sorry Frozen and A Star is Born).  Anyway, let’s take a look at my picks for the best musical themes from movies of the 2010’s.

10.

GEORGE VALENTIN THEME from THE ARTIST (2011)

Composed by Ludovic Bource

Here we start off with one of the common themes you’ll see about the music of the 2010’s, which is new music that draws heavy inspiration from the past.  In this case, we get a throwback to the distant past; one that goes all the way back to Hollywood’s infancy.  French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius sought out to do the unthinkable in the 21st century, which was to make a non-cynical, highly detailed replication of the kind of silent film made before the advent of synchronized sound; relying entire on the things we take for granted in cinema to drive the emotion of the story: the visuals, the actor’s gestures, and of course, the music.  And what he ended up with was a surprise Oscar winner, taking home the coveted Best Picture for that year.  The musical score in particular is quite extraordinary, because not only does it feel like a product of the period the film dramatizes, but it also captures the imagination of the modern listener, being both catchy and powerfully evocative at times.  Of course, composer Ludovic Bource (who also won an Oscar) benefits from the greatly improved technology of our times.  The score never sounds like it was recorded on warped and decaying magnetic tape like other music of that era.  It’s clear as a bell and invokes how the movie would sound if it were played with a live orchestra in front of the screen, which is I’m sure how some lucky viewer might have seen the movie during it’s early roll-out in film festivals before it hit cinemas worldwide.  The entire score has many lovely original melodies, like the “Peppy Waltz” or the “Grande Finale.”  But the main theme, devoted to the main protagonist, dashing movie star George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), is the one that leaves the best impression, and displays the all the best elements of the score; playful, nostalgic, and just pleasent to listen to.  It’s a score that tries it’s best to invoke a time when music was central to a movie’s character, and it succeeds in every way.

9.

REY’S THEME from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Composed by John Williams

Arguably the greatest film composer who’s ever lived, John Williams is not entering his twilight years quietly.  In his mid 80’s, he is continuing to compose new original music for a variety of films, including those for his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg as well as for the film series that put him on the map to begin with; Star Wars.  After it was announced following the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney that a new trilogy of Star Wars films were going to be made, many had hoped that John Williams would return to compose the scores as he had for all 6 previous films in the series.  And to many fans delight, he did.  Though no longer under the guidance of George Lucas, John Williams set out to create a musical score that would feel in line with all the past films in the series, while at the same time allowing him to branch out and try new things.  It’s hard to think of how he could add anything new to the Star Wars musical soundscape.  His Oscar-winning Star Wars (1977) score is considered by many to be the greatest ever written, and since then he’s added numerous icon pieces to this long running franchise.  So, nearly 40 years later, could he still match what had come before.  The answer was yes, but not in the way you’d expect.  The power of The Force Awakens score is that it combines the bombastic themes we all know and love with new themes that return the series to what it was best at before; building character.  Admidst powerful pieces like “The Resistance Theme” and “The Jedi Steps,” there are subtler pieces like “Rey’s Theme” that really show of his talent as a composer.  In Rey’s Theme, we get a wonderful underscore to the film’s main heroine, sounding like a small flame caught in the wind before it bellows into a bright inferno.  It’s here that Williams found something new to add to the music of Star Wars and show that he indeed could still leave his mark so many years into an already legendary career.  Rey’s Theme, more than anything, shows that even the familiar can evolve and show us new things that will only continue to grow over time.

8.

MAIN THEME from PACIFIC RIM (2013)

Composed by Ramin Djawadi

Now we come to a theme that feels more at home in the present.  One of the rising stars in the world of film composing from the last decade was undoubtedly Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi.  A protegee of Hans Zimmer, Djawadi cut his teeth by providing original music for numerous TV shows as well as many action films.  Carrying a talent for bombastic sound in his scores, he was very much sought after to give many projects a more epic feel.  He’s probably best known today for creating the Game of Thrones theme, which is just as recognizable to audiences as any epic movie score of the last half century.  But, he was also responsible for some incredible movie scores as well, the best of which being the one that he wrote for Guillermo Del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim.  Collaborating with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who provided the guitar riffs for much of the score’s most incredible bits, Djwadi created a wonderfully energized score that fits very well with Del Toro’s earnest but also cheeky homage to the monster movie genre.  The main theme in particular evokes the larger than life clash between monsters and men that the movie presents, but also presents the same never taking itself too seriously attitude that permeates the rest of the movie.  It’s meant to be evocative and triumphant, but also at the same time a lot of fun to listen to.  The Morello riffs in particular sell that point, counterbalancing the bigger orchestral sweeps with a little rock and roll.  It’s a multifaceted showcase that works as a great pick me up (especially for those who like something to pump them up for a workout) and it helps to present Ramin Djwadi as a talent who is likely going to continue growing as an artist in the decades ahead.

7.

PLANETARIUM from LA LA LAND (2016)

Composed by Justin Hurwitz

Much like The ArtistLa La Land’s score draws heavy inspiration from the past, only this time a little closer to the present.  The movie is a wonderfully constructed send-up of musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when pageantry ruled.  And though it’s ambitious in it’s score, it’s centered around a story that’s intimately centered around two people in a very contemporary fashion.  What is remarkable is that a score of this type came from a composer as young as Justin Hurwitz, whose career in Hollywood is still relatively young.  Having come up in the business with his former classmate and best friend Damien Chazelle, who directed La La Land, Hurwitz is still fairly new to Hollywood, and yet has this incredible ear for the way movie musicals used to sound like.  Though the film has standout song and dance numbers, it’s the completely orchestral piece called “Planetarium” that really shows Hurwitz’s talents as a composer and it’s also the movie’s most incredible use of music in general.  Orchestrating to a a scene where the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go on a date to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles seems simple enough, and it does indeed start with simple piano and woodwinds in the early moments.  But once the scene takes off into flights of fantasy, then the full might of the orchestra comes to life, creating a wonderfully out of this world rendition of the love theme.  No words are sung, only music, and it invokes some of the great ballet sequences of movie musicals like An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) which also relied on completely orchestral movements.  In a movie that I don’t think gets enough credit for it’s purely musical moments, and one that shows an incredible showcase for an enormously talented newcomer, Planetarium is one of the decades most incredible single pieces of music composition.

6.

RECOGNIZER from TRON LEGACY (2010)

Composed by Daft Punk

If you’re looking for a musical score that left a heavy influence on the decade after it’s premiere, the last one you would expect would be the one from a sequel to a cult sci-fi action film from Disney.  Disney really went outside of the box to come up with the music for it’s follow up to the movie Tron (1982).  The original itself was a oddity for the company, utilizing the synth melodies of pioneer composer Wendy Carlos, who also scored A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining for Stanley Kubrick.  In order to match that kind of soundscape, Disney looked into the EDM field of modern music, which uses the electronic synth as a major part of it’s character, and recruited two of the biggest names from that genre to put together this new score; those being the groundbreaking French DJ’s known as Daft Punk.  A Daft Punk scored Disney film seems like a weird congruence of events on the surface, but it is exactly the ideal combination that made the incredible score for Tron Legacy work.  Regarded more highly than the film it was made for, the Tron Legacy is epic in all the right ways, while never straying too far from the Daft Punk style.   And it blends perfectly into the cyber world that provides the movie’s setting.  The whole score is full of incredible tracks, but the best one would probably be the theme “Recognizer” because it’s the introduction to the World of The Grid that provides the movie’s setting.  Dark, foreboding, and sweeping, it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the movie, and shows that Daft Punk has more up their sleeves than just club music.  The Tron Legacy soundtrack itself went on to influence a electronic enhanced sound that permeated into the scores of many films from the last decade, and that is a real testament to it’s actual “legacy.”  So many movies have tried to sound just like it, mostly in the action adventure genre, so you have to respect the ones who pioneered it here first and showed just how well this kind of music could be used in film.

5.

EDEN from IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

Composed by Nicholas Britell

The most recent film score to make this list is also one that draws heavily from the past.  The inspiration however comes less from Hollywood, and more from the cultural movements that sprung out of the African American community, particularly in the Harlem Renaissance that this Barry Jenkin’s film celebrates.  Nicholas Britell’s deeply emotional score, which is brimming with nods to classic jazz and afro-centric melodies that flourished during the period of the movie’s setting, is one of the most beautiful scores that I can recall in recent memory.  The love theme in particular called “Eden” is the beating heart of the movie.  It’s a beautiful composition that embodies a strong sense of the feeling of bonding love, which is what the movie is all about as we follow a young couple growing deeply in love even while society keeps pulling them apart.  It’s melancholy to be sure, but with an undercurrent of hopefulness to it.  The movie lost out in the Oscar race for best score to Ludwig Goransson’s Black Panther (2018) soundtrack, which itself was quite good, but If Beale Streets score is so much more transcendent and in my opinion will probably be remembered long after.  Britell, who also scored the music for Barry Jenkin’s Oscar winner Moonlight (2016), went above and beyond with his work in this film.  The music is just as much a character itself, being the pillar of support for a community that often has so much taken away from it.  It’s a celebration of a people and a place, and illustrates that the music of Harlem is just as important to the character of America as any other.  As a way of giving music to an adaptation of legendary writer James Baldwin’s work, the music here just sounds so perfectly matched.  And it also shows that amongst all the heavy handed bombastic music of Hollywood, it’s something small and poetic that delights the soul in the end.

4.

THE BEAST from SICARIO (2015)

Composed by Johann Johannsson

From something heartwarming to something utterly terrifying.  This piece of music is really unlike any other from the decade, and is perfectly in character with the movie that it comes from.  Composer Johann Johannsson, whose life was tragically cut short last year, was given the special task of scoring a movie about the Drug Wars on the Mexican/ American border that completely subverted what you’d expect.  Never bombastic, the score he wrote instead reinforces this continuing sense of dread that will never let up, much like the conflict that the movie dramatizes.  That is reflected most effectively in the centerpiece composition called “The Beast.”  When given the assignment by director Denis Villeneuve, he was told to write something akin to John Williams “shark” theme from the movie Jaws (1975).  And indeed, much like how the Jaws theme captured this perfect sense of a growing threat, Johannsson’s “The Beast” has this unsettling growing tension that builds as the music continues to swell, very much conveying the feeling of entering the belly of the so-called Beast.  Only the Beast in Sicario is no monster, nor a villainous presence.  It’s a city; Juarez, Mexico to be exact.  When we hear this theme in the film, it underscores a raid by joint American and Mexican forces who enter the city under heavy guard in order to extract an informant involved in the drug cartel.  Juarez is known throughout the world as one of it’s most dangerous cities in real life, and this musical theme really emphasizes the descent into hell on earth that this moment in the movie represents.  Quite literally, it begins with a flyover of the heavily fortified border between Juarez and El Paso and the music continues to build as the convoy of armored vehicles heads across the border crossing and deeper into the city.  It’s an unforgettable sequence made even more memorable by Johannsson’s music.  It’s too bad that his career ended so abruptly because pieces of music like “The Beast” show that Johann had enormous talent in finding the operatic within the contemporary.

3.

THE AVENGERS THEME from THE AVENGERS (2012)

Composed by Alan Silvestri

Now if there was anything that defined the 2010’s cinematically, it would probably be the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The incredible achievement by Marvel Studios to create a multi-franchise, serialized narrative across all their films will no doubt stand as the biggest thing to ever come out of this last decade.  But if there is one thing that has been Marvel’s Achilles Heel, it’s been their lack of memorable music.  Their musical scores are serviceable, but don’t have the iconic status that John Williams Superman theme does, nor Danny Elfman’s Batman theme.  You couldn’t pull any single track from one of their movies and have anyone instantly say “oh that’s Captain America’s theme.”  But, the clear exception no doubt is conveniently the main theme for the entire team itself; that of the Avengers.  The Avengers theme, first used in the original 2012 film has in a way become the main theme for the MCU as a whole, and it fits perfectly.  Who better to create this triumphant, unifying piece of music to symbolize all of Marvel’s heroes as a whole than the man who created one of the most triumphant musical scores ever for Back to the Future (1985).  Alan Silvestri, a longtime veteran within the industry, seemed to find the essence of what makes Marvel what it is, which is super heroism infused with personality.  The Avengers theme certainly takes center stage within the film franchise itself, but can be heard subtly in every other Marvel film as well, acting as a connective tissue for the whole thing.  It’s also versatile as well, carrying moments of levity, as well as triumph, but also can be used to underscore solemn moments as well, which was especially evident in the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War (2018).  It’s fitting that the central theme for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole is one that feels so exhilarating and like it’s contemporaries from DC movies of the past, it creates immediate excitement every time you hear it.  And given how important the MCU has been to cinema in the last decade, it’s only fitting that it’s main musical theme has left a similar impact on audiences as well.

2.

BROTHERS IN ARMS from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Composed by Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL

Tron Legacy may have opened the door for “rave” style electronic music to become part of cinematic scores, but Mad Max: Fury Road kicked that door right off of it’s hinges. To create the soundscape for his long awaited new chapter into the Mad Max franchise, director George Miller called upon famed dutch progressive artist and DJ Junkie XL to compose the score for his post-apocalyptic vision.  And boy did he deliver an assault on the senses.  Junkie XL, or Tom Holkenborg as he’s credited, throws everything into the mix; electronic synth, heavy percussion, and even a little opera into the blender and creates on of the most original scores of not just this decade, but probably ever.  And you couldn’t expect any less from a movie where a manic rocker is shown strapped to the top of a truck playing a flame-throwing guitar.  The entire score is an insane piece of work, but probably the standout would be this particular tune called “Brothers in Arms.”  Inspired by the vehicle obsessed cult that chases after Mad Max throughout the film, the music underscores the insane road chase that comes to a climax at the end of the film.  It’s here that Holkenborg really lets loose and throws caution to the wind, allowing the score to hit it’s epic highs.  It’s unmistakably modern in sound, but has this strangely appropriate infusion of classical music as well, taking cues from Wagnerian operas.  It’s an appropriately used, as there is something almost “viking” and barbarian-like about the villainous gang in pursuit of the film’s heroes.  It wouldn’t be that shocking if the music of a post-apocalyptic world did sound this way.  By being so original, and unafraid of what it could be, “Brothers in Arms” stands as the single most epic piece of music from the 2010’s.  Holkenborg has gone on to score many more like-minded action films, no doubt because he garnered so much attention for his work here, but his score for Mad Max is still his best to date and “Brothers in Arms” his masterpiece.

1.

TIME from INCEPTION (2010)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

All of the musical pieces on this list represent different trends that have left an impact on cinematic scores throughout the decade, but the single very best piece of music comes from a composer who delivered something so otherworldly of it’s own kind that it stands on another level entirely.  Hans Zimmer is a composer at the peak of his craft, and has delivered some of the most memorable pieces of music for the last 30 years.  Though reliably inventive and impactful on countless films, he always seems to save his “A” material for only a certain handful of directors, and one of those happens to be Christopher Nolan.  The scores to Nolan’s movies are among the most ambitious and epic you’ll ever hear, and Hans Zimmer is responsible for the majority of them.  Whether it’s the agressive character themes for the Dark Knight trilogy, or the 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired organ-enhanced tunes of Interstellar (2014), or the ticking clock motif of Dunkirk (2017), Zimmer seems to be continually pushing the bar higher every time he collaborates on Nolan’s films.  But, it’s with Inception that Hans Zimmer delivered probably his most incredible score yet, and probably the single best piece of music from the 2010’s.  The entire score has incredible themes, but it’s the one called “Time” that stays with you long after seeing the movie.  Carrying over the motif of living in between dreams and reality, “Time” embodies the ethereal sense of waking into a new life, where time literally changes before you.  It’s used periodically throughout the film, but hits it’s high point at the finale of the movie.  And I dare anyone to listen to the final part of this piece of music and not visualize that spinning top that gives the movie it’s perfectly ambiguous ending.  For a musical score that for the most part includes some pretty aggressive elements, like the now notorious low note (“BWAAAMMMHH”) sound that became especially copycatted throughout the decade, “Time” is a beautifully noble piece to close the movie on, and it encapsulates the incredible journey that leads up to it.  It’s Hans Zimmer’s greatest work in a career that already includes some of the greatest pieces of music ever composed.

And there you have my choices for the best pieces of music from the 2010’s in cinema.  Sure, there are 9 months left to go in this decade, and one more could end up surprising and take it’s place among the movies that I picked here, but as it stands, I’m pretty sure that these will still be the best pieces of music from the last decade.  I found it fascinating how the musical scores of this decade split between looking back into the past and those looking into the future.  There were some amazing throwbacks like La La Land, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Artist that held their own throughout the decade, but we also saw the infusion of electronic dance music come into the mix in Tron Legacy and Fury Road which gave their movies a decidedly ahead of their time sound.  Even with all that, stalwarts like Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Alan Silvestri continued to deliver musical compositions that stood up strongly with anything else they have written in their storied careers.  If there was anything that really defined the music of the movies from the 2010’s, it was the common theme of experimentation.  There was no real standard to how movies should sound during this time; composers were free to deliver music that were really meant to set their movies apart, and sound like nothing heard before.  That wasn’t always true across the board (case in point, the Marvel film’s lack of diversity) but the movies that did make an impact had scores that really challenged their audiences and made them reconsider what they like to hear when they go to the movies.  Who would have thought that the most popular movie musicals of the decade sounded closer to musicals of the past and less like the pop music of the present.  With this, I started my look back at the decade that was, and I hope many of you who read through this will continue to follow the other lists I put forward in the future.  It was a wild decade in Hollywood, and I’m interested in seeing how the closing of the 2010’s will leave it’s mark on the next ten years that follow.  At least when it comes to the music, the ones that stood out the most provided the most ideal of playlists.