20. The Irishman
Scorsese finished off the decade with a 220 minute mob epic that spelled an end to an era. “The Irishman” is proof that in over 50 years of making movies, Scorsese hasn’t missed a beat. He continues to give us treasures of cinema and has made some of his best work as he has approached the end of his career. “The Irishman” marked the first time that DeNiro and Pacino had worked together under Scorsese. The two of them play beautifully off of each other, but it’s Pesci that truly steals the show with his quiet grit and malice. The trio turn in their best performances of the last 25 years. The de-aging VFX are a bit distracting at first, and the characters’ faces don’t always align with their body movements, but it’s a long movie, so we settle in and accept it. For the most part, the technology is very impressive and well-utilized. “The Irishman” feels like home for Scorsese and his fans, who think of the crime genre as synonymous with his name. The film features deliberate editing and a fantastic script that both highlight the themes on mortality, legacy, and time. The last 30 minutes had me completely floored. This is Scorsese in full command of his craft. It’s hard to criticize much of anything.
“1917” is Sam Mendes’ most personal project and may objectively be his best film. Mendes took note of what Nolan did with “Dunkirk” and improved upon it. The film is centered around a single mission but has moments of levity and characterization that prevent it from feeling monotonous. Despite not knowing much about the two leads, we feel connected to them as we experience their mission first-hand. We get to know them better personally as events unfold, and we learn tidbits about their lives outside of the war. The camerawork creates a tense and intimate feeling, as though we are on the ground a step behind the main leads. There is hardly ever the feeling of omniscience, and rarely do we get a birds eye view of the action. If you thought Roger Deakins could never do better than he did in “Blade Runner: 2049,” then you were kidding yourself. “1917” is beautifully shot and is edited to look like the film is one continuous take. Set pieces had to be mapped out to precise measurements. For the trenches, the crew would walk along the plots of land reading aloud the dialogue and synchronizing movements before they actually dug into the ground to carve out the sets. Deakins and Mendes would then decide where to put the camera and how much of the set to show at different times. “1917” is the best war film of the decade, and is certainly up there as one of the top tier war films of all time.
18. Marriage Story
“Marriage Story” is an expertly written and directed story about a couple suffering through divorce. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give career-best performances, and Noah Baumbach’s script gives them plenty of chances to shine. It plays like an old-fashioned Hollywood drama; it allows events to unfold at a deliberate pace and explores all the avenues of heartbreak, deceit, and the warped reality of the legal system. There’s no clear-cut villain – Baumbach smartly explores the truth that there is no victorious outcome in divorce, despite what the lawyers may think. A successful case for them could still be a miserable conclusion for their client. It’s hard to pick a side between Charlie and Nicole, because both of them have deplorable traits that end up sabotaging their marriage. Baumbach walks a fine line to maintain empathy for both parties in the central conflict, and does so with complete impartiality. “Marriage Story” is an absolute triumph in storytelling.
17. Zero Dark Thirty
“Zero Dark Thirty” began life as the tale of the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden. During the writing process, Bin Laden was tracked down and killed, so Bigelow and screenwriter Boal ditched their initial draft and redirected their focus. Of course, a lot of the research Boal had done on counter-terrorism and intelligence operations carried over, and what he was left with was a powerful and seemingly very accurate dramatic portrayal of a decade-long manhunt headed by a tenacious young female CIA officer. The film is split into chapters and ends with a painstakingly detailed night-vision raid into the bin Laden compound. The end sequence is so dark that even after turning off all the lights in my house, I still had trouble seeing it. The two hours leading up to this are so tense and fascinating, I simply couldn’t get enough it. Jessica Chastain is perfect in the role of Maya. She exudes strength, focus, and tenacity. The film unfairly received harsh criticism for its portrayal of enhanced interrogation techniques. Some audience members walked away thinking the film took a pro-torture stance, but that’s not at all what I got out of it. Enhanced interrogation may have led to some worthwhile intelligence and kick-starts the manhunt in the film, but it also was often fruitless and produced unreliable information. The film doesn’t take a stance at all, rather it merely presents the methods that were used by the CIA and asks the audience members to decide for themselves whether or not they support those methods. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a sensational and realistic thriller, and might be the most important film of the decade.
16. Baby Driver
Fast-paced, electric, and fueled with a kick-ass soundtrack, “Baby Driver” is a thrilling action-crime film that plays out almost like a musical. Every beat of the film is synchronized with the beat of the music playing from Baby’s iPod. It’s an original premise with razor sharp editing and direction, and even the performances are top notch. Jon Hamm gives his best performance outside of “Mad Men,” and Ansel Elgort is totally committed to the titular role of Baby; a tinnitus-stricken, tune-focused auto-aficionado who falls in love with a waitress at his local diner. They cannot be together because Baby works in the world of crime, but can he escape that life after one last job? The romance feels a bit too juvenile, but there’s no denying that there’s chemistry between Elgort and Lily James. “Baby Driver” is just a whole lot of fun – it hits the accelerator hard in its opening sequence and never lets up.
15. Mad Max: Fury Road
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a pure rush of adrenaline. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flack for putting it in this spot, but I don’t think it’s the masterpiece that everyone else seems to think it is. It’s a bit too flashy at times with the cinematography. The flashbacks add little to no substance, and the world-building is impressive but lacks any backstory. It’s definitely an immersive and addictive experience – every time I revisit it, I want to immediately restart it and feel the excitement all over again. You can smell the grind and fumes of the engines, and the beautiful wide shots of the desert landscape are so immersive. There’s about…three full pages of dialogue? The action is approached as a dance – a ballet of sorts. The action is the engine that drives the film forward, and there’s a certain amount of purity in that. In great action movies, the action itself is the feature character, and that’s overwhelmingly the case in “Fury Road.” Tom Hardy does a fine job replacing Mel Gibson as the titular character. Hardy works very well with the ethos of the film, as he is a muscular, physical presence who acts more with his body than with his eyes or face. The real star of the film though is Charlize Theron, who plays a battle-worn Furiosa. Her character is so appropriately named that it’s almost too on-the-nose. While objectively I could say that “Fury Road” is the greatest action movie of the decade, and possibly the best in several decades, my favorite action movies have moments of levity, characterization, and just some time to breathe. “Fury Road” is loud, very loud, and then very very loud. It’s a fun romp that was made in a very unique way.
14. Gone Girl
“Gone Girl” is another fabulous psychological thriller film from David Fincher. All of the staples of the director are present – the forensic appeal, the high sheen gloss, the crazy third act. The screenplay was adapted by Gillian Flynn, based on her own best-selling novel. On the one hand, it’s an intense and suspenseful murder mystery; on the other, it’s a cynical, absurdist social satire. The film is all about projected images. Ben Affleck finally landed the role he was born to play, as a likable schmo (Nick) who might have something dark behind him – it fit very well with his own public persona at the time. Rosamund Pike gave the performance of the year as Amy Dunne, or “The Amazing Amy.” Fincher’s perfectionism is on full display and gives us the sense that every little thing that we can catch in the frame is important. Tyler Perry was a revelation as Nick Dunne’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt, who seems to be something of a patron saint for wife killers. Did Nick kill his wife? Or is she just missing? At 150 minutes, “Gone Girl” is a fairly long film, but it doesn’t at all feel like it. “Gone Girl” is Fincher at the top of his game and is a near-perfect thriller.
13. The Big Short
Who would’ve thought that a man who directed an “Anchorman” sequel could have made a highly informative and hilarious comedy-drama about the 2008 financial crisis? “The Big Short” is just so damn enjoyable. It teaches people about financial jargon that many didn’t previously understand. Wall Street just likes to invent terms to make it seem like ordinary people can’t get a grasp on financial analysis. The film is about a handful of investors and hedge-fund specialists who predict that there is a bubble in the American housing market. Dr. Burry (played by Christian Bale) leads the charge, trying to convince his investors that millions of subprime home loans are in danger of defaulting. He bets against the housing market by throwing over a billion dollars into credit default swaps. The banks think he’s crazy and gladly accept his requests, expecting to profit off of monthly premiums as the housing prices go up. Fortunately for Burry, his predictions came true, and the same rang true for a few other opportunists. “The Big Short” will simultaneously entertain you and make your skin crawl with how corrupt the banking system is. It’s a must-watch for everybody, regardless of age or background.
I’m aware that most people don’t like “Gravity” as much as I do, and of course I realize that there are many scientific inaccuracies in what is presented as a more down-to-earth sci-fi flick. But asking a science fiction film to adhere to every principle of physics is like expecting a historical epic to be solely based on facts. It just doesn’t happen, and it’s an unrealistic expectation. “Gravity” has some of the most impressive visuals I’ve ever seen in a space movie. It has a tight runtime – only about 90 minutes. It’s constantly suspenseful and engaging. At its core, it is a story about survival and the human spirit. “It’s just Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating around in space!” If that’s your only takeaway, then I can’t help you. The plot is overly simple, yes, but the ferocity and determination seen in Bullock’s character is touching to the very end. I’m constantly tense as Bullock just can’t seem to catch a break trying to fight her way back down to Earth. When she finally makes it, I let out a huge sigh of relief every time. In “Gravity,” Bullock is in constant peril, fighting against the greatest force in nature, and she still manages to survive. It’s a beautiful story that I wish I could experience again for the first time.
An uber-abusive Gordon Ramsay teaching a jazz class with a student who wants to be the next Charlie Parker? That’s basically the premise of “Whiplash.” Damien Chazelle dispels with the usual reach for the stars premise of many musicals and stories about talented young artists. He beats his protagonist down to a pulp and watches him grow through adversity. Essentially, “Whiplash” is a music tuition movie that plays out like your favorite war movies. The classic drill sergeant scenes are recreated in a jazz classroom setting, and there’s even a bloody car accident that recalls great time-pressured battle sequences. The story is bare-bones but constantly thrilling. J.K. Simmons gives the best supporting performance of the decade just by saying, “Not quite my tempo.” Fletcher (played by Simmons) believes that great art only comes through great pain and suffering. Is there stock to his belief, or is he just an overcompensating bully trying to make up for some failure in his own life? He becomes especially disparaging and vulgar towards Nieman (played by Miles Teller), whom he clearly sees great potential in. The cinematography is understated, and the editing is frenetic and jazz-like. Damien Chazelle proved that he could make a thrilling, heart-pumping drama on a shoestring budget, and established himself as one of the finest young directors working in the industry.