40. The King’s Speech
Despite winning 4 Academy Awards, The King’s Speech seems to be moving into the category of “Largely Forgotten.” Even I have other nominees of the year higher on this list, but the performances of all involved cannot be ignored, nor can Tom Hooper‘s exquisite direction (would that he had left the end of the decade alone).
Colin Firth is on another plane here, and working in a speech impediment is irrelevant. Had his performance gone wrong, even slightly, the film would have been hopelessly boring. As it is, he gives us a man struggling with an impossible situation, looking for escape, who has to face himself. His position soon becomes tangential to the exploration on screen, and when you throw in a brilliant, and easily overlooked, supporting cast, the whole affair is engrossing even to those who might not have the slightest interest from the synopsis.
Pixar impressed me when they announced that they wanted to keep away from sequels for a while. As much as they have turned out solid sequels, they are never better than when they are exploring stories and characters that require development, instead of abandoning that time for a few laughs.
Coco is one of the best examples you’ll find of truly exploring an idea. The story, in its most succinct form, is perhaps only serviceable, but the world and cultural saga are unreal achievements. It would be enough if it were dazzling in its beautiful rendition of art and folklore elements, but it equally relays the foundation of the culture that makes it all work and deliver meaning. All while just being a fun, wild adventure with a cool story.
38. Winter’s Bone
Winter’s Bone came out in an unfortunate year, because despite the fact that it managed four Oscar noms, it was never going to win any, and probably shouldn’t have. In another year it would have locked them all up. It is a film that is, beyond anything else, impossible to compare to anything. It also gives us the best heroine of at least the decade and if Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes never worked on another film, they would nevertheless deserve to go down as legends, and Lawrence is on this list in three other films.
Unfortunately, Debra Granik‘s most recent effort, Leave No Trace, while also brilliant in its own way and giving us another rising star, didn’t quite have the same level of purpose. Not, however, as an actual fault of the production, but just by virtue of being a different kind of story.
Jim Jarmusch is a director whose only constant seems to be that you don’t want to recommend his films. Even I am unimpressed with some of his efforts, including some that people love. At the same time, Broken Flowers is pure genius and Dead Man is among my favorites of all time. Both are recommendations that have gone wrong.
Paterson reminds me of an old quote by someone famous which, more or less, says that a truly great book is, in some sense, what happens in your mind after you finish reading it. The curious thing, in this case, is that Paterson is a film almost without a plot, a philosophic yarn about the little things, smelling the roses, so to speak, and noticing the life around you. When that sneaks up on you to close with an emotional thunderbolt, it adds a lot of weight to the exercise.
36. Force Majeure
There aren’t that many films around that take odd “what if” moments and then run through the consequences until you can barely stand it, but Force Majeure is the most intelligent take you’re going to find.
Already remade as Downhill (which hit earlier this year to mixed reaction) with Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the story makes for such a wild roller-coaster of conflict and emotion that it can’t help but suck you in. Generally, shtick movies have a lot of work to do in fleshing out a true purpose, but in this case the exposition flows so casually and honestly that it isn’t just engrossing, but it manages to catch you unawares, because you have no idea where things might go.
35. Jojo Rabbit
Some writers and directors have only a passing interest in what happens in a story, and if a young Nazi who has Hitler as an imaginary friend doesn’t convince you that Taika Waititi is such a person, you could look to the screwball vampires of What We Do in the Shadows or the national manhunt for a rebellious tween in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
While perhaps always true to some extent, Jojo Rabbit is a film that revels in the fact that it isn’t remotely about what it’s about. By embracing that, and skewering Nazis with a kind of Hogan’s Heroes-esque foolishness, Waititi tears into youth itself, and the power of relationships. It’s tricky to spin a tale that is mostly using a hyperbolic mischaracterization of events just to zero in on a young boy’s inability to process the world around him, and not just because you’re bound to offend people, but if it works you get to build a world in which nothing makes sense and your characters drift through uncertainty… which is ultimately to make everything mind-bogglingly real.
34. The Avengers
The Avengers is as good as the franchise eventually became bad. The decade ended with grandstanding shininess involving characters and plot that made no sense and weren’t even internally consistent, but it started with fun and heart and a million times the connection to comic books. The effort to deliver the characters, and a load of fun, drove a richer story than anything that followed.
33. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Though Benedict Cumberbatch had been around before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it was his first big splash, and it sent him on to take over the decade. It didn’t hurt that Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) nails pure stress in a way that must be felt to believed, or that Cumberbatch was surrounded by many of the best actors of the time.
Here is a movie that, despite Le Carre’s popularity, may never get a worthy recreation again, because everything comes together so perfectly that it is untouchable.
32. The Big Short
Adam McKay hits the list again and while he deserves a lot of credit, especially for turning out such an engaging delivery in the screenplay, The Big Short‘s brilliance ultimately comes down to letting a group of incredible actors loose on each other. This one tears apart an interesting story, and it does so in a way that is appreciably well-constructed, but this is also one of those efforts that makes one think of “watching them read the newspaper.”
31. Darkest Hour
With Best Picture and Best Actor Oscar wins, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour probably doesn’t need a lot of sell. Still, though the story is about one man’s effort through a certain situation, it’s also a fundamental dissection of a time and place, and perhaps of a people.
Wright’s ability to envelop the audience with a certain dread, while focusing squarely on the depths of an individual pulls audiences along, it’s Oldman’s performance that brings this to life. History lessons are often boring, and focusing a biopic in some directions can make them almost meaningless, but when they sidestep being history lessons, there can be a lot to explore.