40. Hugo and Life of Pi (tie)
It’s nice to know that the greatest living director doesn’t consider himself to be above a delightful family-friendly drama. “Hugo” was Martin Scorsese’s own adventure into PG territory and 3-D. Having watched it only in 2-D, I’m not sure how 3-D would have elevated the experience in any way. It’s a touching adventure-drama about a boy named Hugo who lives alone in the Gare Montparnasse rail station in Paris in the 1930s. Hugo takes care of the large clocks in the station and likes to fix pretty much anything he can get his hands on. This is Scorsese’s love letter to cinema (I won’t spoil why), but it’s so much more than just that. It encompasses themes about isolation, family, passion, and identity. Enjoy this one with the whole family.
Similarly to Scorsese with “Hugo,” Ang Lee attempted to make the most of the then-popular 3-D format with his adaptation of the allegedly “unfilmable” book, “Life of Pi.” Lee could be considered something of pioneer in Hollywood for the way he uses technical advancements and examines sociocultural themes in his films. “Life of Pi” is one of the most beautiful films ever crafted, and watching it on your TV screen will sadly just not be the same as watching it on a big screen. It’s also the only film in the last decade (including “Avatar”) where I think the 3-D actually enhanced the experience. In fact, I’d say the 3-D is imperative to getting the most out of your experience with “Life of Pi.” The whale scene in particular is so visually impressive. Unfortunately, most of us now do not have giant 3-D televisions to enjoy such a technical masterpiece on, but fortunately the film is no-less beautiful to look at. The script is not nearly as impressive, lacking the depth of the novel and succumbing to some narrative cliches (especially in its final moments), but “Life of Pi” is still something the whole family can be wowed by.
39. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut was a delightful and personal coming-of-age story. I am typically not impressed with most coming-of-age stories because they rely heavily on cheap antics like drug use and alcohol abuse to get easy laughs or create tension, and I have no desire to revisit the whiny immaturity of adolescence. Fortunately, “Lady Bird” does not employ such cliches to entertain its audience, instead focusing on family and how our identities are established through our environments. Although we may long to escape the place we grew up, it leaves an indelible impression on us. At its core it’s about a relationship between mother and daughter, and while I couldn’t really relate to that relationship or Saoirse Ronan’s character, I still found the story very touching.
38. Wind River
“Wind River” is cold and brutal just like the Indian reservation in which it takes place. In fact, the setting is practically a character. The hostility of the environment seeps through the screen. “Wind River” is an intense, gritty thriller that examines an area of the American frontier that isn’t given much attention. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, it’s part of a (very loose) American frontier trilogy (of sorts) that includes “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” which are also quite good. For my money, “Wind River” is the best of the lot because of its culturally significant subject matter and for how realistic it feels.
37. JoJo Rabbit
Taika Waititi artfully balances a blend of genres in “JoJo Rabbit,” which simultaneously aims for us to laugh at the absurdities of horrific ideology and asks for us to seriously consider the impressionable nature of youth. We rarely find ourselves able to find hilarity in the despicable nature of our adversaries, even though it is easiest to make fun of those we have sharp differences with. The Nazi propaganda is horrifying, but also easily comedic. What is distinguishably horrible can also be horribly funny, and the beauty of “JoJo Rabbit” is its ability to transcend horror with comedy. Roman Griffin Davis shines in the titular role.
36. Captain America: Civil War
“Civil War” almost never appears at the top of Marvel fans’ lists because they say, “the stakes aren’t high enough.” Really? The Avengers possibly never reconciling to save the world again, and that’s not high stakes? I got invested in the series because of the characters, and I found the interplay between them in “Civil War” fascinating. The film has some surprising maturity in dealing with its themes of friendship, betrayal, and vengeance. “Civil War” could have just been a basic Avengers movie with some impressive fight scenes between the crew, but it turned out to be a very personal story about Tony Stark and greatly enriched several characters’ backstories. The conflict was constantly engaging, and Zemo became one of my favorite villains from the series. I thought his devious plot to cause friction between the Avengers was quite genius. This is my favorite MCU film of the decade.
“Her” is an extraordinarily well-acted and well-written story about how futuristic operating systems end up becoming the romantic fascinations of lonely humans. That summary sounds a bit cold, but make no mistake, this film is heartwarming on every level. It examines our relationships and what we as humans are romantically attracted to. It investigates the level of support and attention we need from another person to feel fulfilled. Joaquin plays an ordinary guy with a sensitive heart; a nice change of pace from the usual tortured and eccentric characters he embodies. The relationship between Theo and his operating system is unusual yet believable. At times the film feels a bit too pleased with its own sincerity and enchanted quality (thanks largely to the cinematography), and the themes aren’t new to the genre of science fiction. Still, it’s a genuinely romantic and thoughtful experience that makes for a great date movie.
34. Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson made a triumphant return to directing in 2016 with a visceral and emotional WWII project. “Hacksaw Ridge” focuses on the true story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist combat medic who refused to carry a firearm into war. Doss ended up receiving the Medal of Freedom for going above and beyond the call of duty in the Battle of Okinawa. It’s a truly touching and beautiful story set against the revolting backdrop of a seriously bloody battle. You’ll find yourself swept up in the remarkable tale thanks to Andrew Garfield’s performance and Mel Gibson’s direction, though at times the violence can feel a bit gratuitous.
33. The Gift
“The Gift” was a surprisingly taut and high quality thriller that completely blew me away. Joel Edgerton wrote, directed, and starred in the film alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. All three of them give exceptional performances. The film centers around a married couple’s unexpected encounter with an acquaintance (Gordo) from the husband’s past after moving back to his home town. Doubt begins to form about Gordo’s intentions and how well the wife actually knows her husband. What’s brilliant about “The Gift” is that it proves to be far more complex than you expect it to be – it’s not just Simon being the alpha male and protecting his vulnerable wife from a creep who becomes infatuated with her. The production design is fantastic – the large windows in the house act as a two-way projection of the couple’s life. The best thing is, “The Gift” doesn’t fall flat on its face in its big climactic sequence – often thrillers build up to a big reveal and completely collapse under the weight of their own narratives in their third acts (a la “Prisoners”). “The Gift” builds and sustains its tension and surprises, and I absolutely loved the ambiguity in its ending.
“Spotlight” is based on the incredible true story about a team of reporters who uncovered decades-long-cover-ups of sexual abuse scandals at the highest level of Boston’s religious, legal, and governmental establishment. Their success in bringing light to the terrible atrocities ended up releasing a wave of revelations regarding the Catholic church and child sex abuse around the world. “Spotlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The script is air tight and the performances are subdued and nuanced – this is surely one of the best ensemble pictures of the last decade. Some viewers may find it a bit procedural, but if you’re invested in the mission of the reporters then you won’t have a problem with the pacing or the heavy dialogue. “Spotlight” is a film that should be seen by everyone.
31. The Martian
When Ridley Scott has a good day at the office, hardly anyone else in cinema can touch him. Following up the gigantic misfire that was “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Scott gave us a more restrained but immensely enjoyable science fiction movie that actually featured more science than fiction. Adapted from the Andy Weir novel of the same name, “The Martian” is just good quality fun elevated by an exceptional screenplay, Scott’s visionary direction, and Damon’s charismatic performance. The visual effects blend seamlessly into the picture to create a very convincing look into what being stranded on Mars would actually be like. You wouldn’t think watching a botanist grow potatoes out of poo on Mars would be all that exciting, but the wit and intelligence of the writing makes the film fly by as fast as a rocket. Of course there’s more to it than just botany – but “The Martian” could very well inspire younger children to find a renewed interest in science and botany. It’s just that damn good.