The self-made cynic

Top Ten Movies of 2016

10. The Witch
I will remember this movie for a long time mainly due to its striking imagery. I don't know what its influences are that make the environment be such a strong part of the storytelling ... Kurosawa? But that's what I took from it. A feeling of dread, as the trees close in around you, and with no God to listen to your fears.

9. Arrival
I think a science fiction movie where the primary emotion you feel is a kind of moody, meditative sadness is very bold. That it remains uplifting is surprising. It also never feels simplistic or pat when it comes to the plot; I adore the source material and though the film departs in several ways, I think the spirit of it was well-captured. Expect to see more (all?) of Ted Chiang's stories adapted in the near future.

8. Hell or High Water
It's an indie-crime movie crossed with the current zeitgeist and without the latter I think it would have been pretty forgettable. But then you have beautiful, haunting scenes of the impoverished southern country people who still proudly remember when their families were heroic frontiersmen. It helps that this was also my favourite theater-going experience of the year, with family all equally into what we were seeing.

Does the script hit the theme a little too hard? Maybe. I am a sucker for melodrama though. Also, I have to say that Chris Pine continues to surprise me. After this and Finest Hours (not a good movie, but he's great in it), I can no longer write him off as a wise-cracker (though maybe he just needs Ben Foster next to him from now on to elevate his performances).

7. Triple 9
Good cops-and-robbers movies are hard to come by. This is probably the best example since Heat, but I found it to be less mythic than that film and more ... existential, maybe? Having seen Casey Affleck play cool and collected characters it was refreshing to see him playing naive so well, which is probably more challenging than it looks. The riot-shield action set piece is every bit as awesome as the big gunfight scene from Heat though, in fact the direction in general is less self-indulgent than Michael Mann can be.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings
For complete, breathtaking beauty, you can't beat animation, and this was the most beautiful animated film of the year. When you realize that everything you see in this film is not CG, but hand-crafted stop motion, you appreciate it even more. It's a real shame it didn't have the kind of marketing support that other animated films did this year. Of the characters, Charlize Theron's performance is the real draw here ... easily as good as Meryl Streep was in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and with the kind of complexity you don't often see in animation.

5. Hail, Caesar!
It's easy to write this off as a "Minor Coen brothers" movie, like Burn after Reading or Intolerable Cruelty. I think it's better than both of those ... probably their funniest movie since Big Lebowski, and somehow in between the hilarious scenes you get depiction of the 50's Hollywood studio system that seems gently over-the-top in each individual scene yet feels authentic as a whole. It also feels that the Coens have outgrown their smugness, and truly love these characters. I want more movies where Clooney plays a clueless dunce.

4. La La Land
Critics everywhere have explained ad nauseam why this film is great, so let me just explain why I loved it: Emma Stone. She is so amazing in this ... what a performance. Her emotions are right there at the surface, it's like her heart was right out there to be trampled on in every single scene. The colours and beautiful camera work (like, what seem to be insanely long takes during the dance numbers) and all the art in the production design is just magical. I challenge anyone to maintain their cynical shield watching it. And the ending is as romantic as Casablanca's ... yes, I said it.

3. Captain America: Civil War
I don't know if this movie would have worked without all that we've been through with these characters. Compared to what DC is doing these days, it's so pulpy and bubbly it might as well be a mimosa. Which is just what I wanted from a AAA superhero blockbuster in 2016 ... or a comic book. There is real delight in every scene, like the actors are just enjoying each other's company, and the action sequences are so lively and entertaining. It's also great to see an African superhero with substance added to the mix who can stand up to Captain America or Ironman as an equal. I can watch this over and over again and not get tired of it.

2. Everybody Wants Some!!
I'll put my cards on the table -- I think Dazed and Confused is arguably Richard Linklater's greatest film, a real masterpiece. I don't think Everybody Wants Some is as good as Dazed and Confused, but it taps into the same feelings for me. I don't think it's just a retread. Some of what I love about it are the subtle differences between the two films. I love how the characters are college freshmen vs. highschool freshmen, and as such they're a little more confident. I love the period details, the way it captures a sort of ephemeral "between" time moving from the 70's to the 80's, when people had turntables and VCRs, when styles and music trends were changing while others hadn't yet. I love how Linklater sees all his young characters so warmly, not as shallow stereotypes, and lets them mingle across cliques the way people actually do. And I love how he paces it, how the rhythms of life seem to just ramble along and the kids express truth as they see it, in the simple, self-conscious, silly way that kids do.

1. Green Room
Here is a thriller where everything is working in harmony to deliver pure, visceral suspense, the way early John Carpenter or even Hitchcock used to. Film school students should study this movie as an example of how to do exposition well: the kids in the band have their own jargon after being together for months on the road, and the villains speak in a clipped shorthand that represents their own secret instructions, and what matters from one moment to the next gradually becomes clear at the same rate as the tension mounts. I loved every minute of it and after it was finished I let out a long shaking breath and then laughed in joy. Such a terrific cast, and it is such a bummer to see how good Anton Yelchin could be and be reminded of how soon we lost him. See this if you haven't!

Top Ten Movies of 2015
10) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I struggled between several movies for this 10th spot, but this is the one that feels rightest. I have problems with the movie, but it is just so energetic and entertaining that ultimately my problems don't really matter. Part of why I rank this so high is also due to the experience I had seeing it ... in a packed theater with my friends from work, sitting next to my six-year-olds, experience their first Star Wars movie in a theater.

9) It Follows
Damn creepy idea, well-executed, with a mood that stayed with me for days after seeing it. I loved the look of this movie too ... a cool period feel that remains hard to place as well.

8) Ex Machina
Alex Garland has been writing movies for a while, but I had no idea that he would have something this sexy and tense and polished in him as a director. Oscar Isaac is superb in it ... I hope everyone who thought Poe Dameron was somewhat compelling in Star Wars can see his performance here.

7) Bone Tomahawk
Super-low budget, but this is a great example of what you can do with great actors and a great script. See it! It starts out as a western, and gradually becomes something darker. This is also one of the most quotable movies of the year, if only people would actually go see it. I look forward to this guy's next movie.

6) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The best Mission Impossible movie. The best Mission Impossible heroine. The best "Hollywood" movie of the year. Some of the best action sequences of the year. Keep an eye on Rebecca Ferguson.

5) '71
A satisfying, suspenseful film about the troubles in Ireland which manages to handle the complexity of that situation honestly and clearly while still remaining cinematic. I'd rank this higher than most recent middle-east focused military thrillers.

4) The Revenant
People have described this as a "revenge" movie. It is, I suppose, but for most of the running length (like, 80%) it's mainly an insanely brutal survival story elevated by amazing set pieces and cinematography. This is the movie that should have been shot in 70mm. It is also an example of how good Di Caprio can be when the material matches his intensity and penchant for scenery-chewing.

3) Spotlight
Everyone is amazing in this, but the performance that makes the movie is Mark Ruffalo who vibrates with energy and rage. I left the movie feeling furious and sickened.

2) Sicario
Is Denis Villeneuve the next David Fincher? There are a number of parallels between this and '71 I think, but I enjoyed this more for its style, its performances, and it's dark ending. Also, hey, it's Roger Deakins! The film looks amazing.

1) Mad Max: Fury Road
Yeah, kind of a boring choice, especially given how much everyone seems to love this. But it's simply the best action movie in years, and just the most visually exciting movie in years. I saw it twice in the theater and a few times since then and nothing dethroned it as my favourite movie of the year, period.

Top Ten Movies of 2014
10. A Most Wanted Man
The subject matter of spies and betrayal probably took on more meaning for me because this was Philip Seymour Hoffman's final performance, but everyone is amazing in it. A fantastic slow burn to the amazing ending.

9. Under the Skin
I haven't seen Jonathan Glazer's other movies, but I will now. This movie is creepy, fascinating in an almost morbid way. Its also one of Scarlett Johansson's best performances. See this, don't see Lucy.

8. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
The animation at first seems cheaper and cruder than what you're typically used to from Studio Ghibli, that is until you see the characters move. It's a very deliberate stylistic choice, to lend this folktale a storybook look that pares down the art to its bare essentials. It's incredibly beautiful, and for a thousand-year-old story about a girl whose happiness is suppressed by those around her, it is amazingly relevant for 2014.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Because it is so lighthearted and childlike, I think it's easy to dismiss this as "Minor Anderson". But accomplishing this kind of tone is incredibly difficult. I think it's Anderson's best movie since Darjeeling Limited. And who knew Ralph Fiennes had such good comic timing?

6. The Babadook
You know, I was scared shitless watching this, but the scenes which actually disturbed me more were the ones where the mother deals with grief and insanity with borderline negligence. Amazingly polished for a first time director, and it has a truly great child performance as well (the kid has to be simultaneously sympathetic and really, really annoying).

5. The Lego Movie
My kids have watched this probably a hundred times (we have it on a DVD player in the car) and it hasn't gotten old for me yet. The animation is top notch, the humour is endlessly amusing, and the whole thing is just kind of joyous and rewatchable in the way few movies are.

4. Enemy
Hard to say whether Jake Gyllenhaal is better in this or in Nightcrawler, but Enemy is the better movie overall. It's unsettling and fascinating from start to finish. I've heard many different interpretations of this movie; mine is that it's about a guy who keeps getting pulled back into his own nightmare of infidelity and loneliness. It's also got the best ending of any movie this year.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy
The best comic book movie this year, and maybe the second or third best ever made depending on how you rank Dark Knight and Avengers. I love the characters, the over-the-top plot, and the crazy Space Opera settings. It's sheer fantasy pulp entertainment. The 12% of a plan scene is also the best scene in any comic book movie.

2. Gone Girl
It's a gleamingly polished and darkly entertaining thriller that is as well-crafted as any you're likely to see for a while. I've already had a ton of good conversation about this with lots of different people, and it has inspired a variety of interpretations and topics. Did the filmmakers intend for all of this or none of it? That's part of what makes it great. Rosamund Pike should be a shoo-in for a best actress nomination, and it's also the first movie I can remember where I thought Ben Affleck was well cast. Terrific supporting performances from Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens as well.

1. Boyhood
"I just thought there would be more."
After I saw this I knew it was the best movie I had seen this year. Probably in several years. And then reading how popular it has been with so many reviews and people who have seen it online, I wasn't really surprised. I defy anyone to see it without feeling its impact. At almost three hours, it still feels too short. It feels like the culmination of what Richard Linklater has been working towards his entire career and it's kind of a miracle that it works as well as it does, or that it was even made. I just feel thankful for having seen it.

Top Ten Movies of 2013
10. Upstream Color
I appreciate this more than like it, and these sorts of movies are usually a little opaque for my taste, but it's though-provoking and there are moments of real beauty.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis
I totally get why some people didn't enjoy it, it's pretty bleak. Buy I love the idea of telling the story of a guy who just missed his chance. Oscar Isaac is fantastic in it.

7. Her
I loved this mostly for the two amazing performances of the leads, but it is also just really beautiful to look at.

7. Fruitvale Station
Impressive that a movie which tells a story that you know how it ends can still be so gripping and, ultimately, moving.

6. All Is Lost
The most realistic shipwreck story I've ever seen, and I don't think Robert Redford has ever been better. Also contains possibly the best use of the word "Fuck" in a movie.

5. Frances Ha
Who knew that Noah Baumbach could ditch his cynicism (well, almost) and tell such a sweet story about two women? Greta Gerwig likely deserves a lot of credit for this one.

4. Iron Man 3
Big, satisfying, and the definition of what a good summer blockbuster can be. I loved you in A Christmas Story, by the way.

3. Mud
The best sense of place I saw in a movie this year, one of the best child performances I've ever seen, and the best Matthew McConaughey performance I've ever seen. Deeply affecting and authentic.

2. Stoker
It starts creepy, seems to be going one direction, hits you with a curve ball and keep surprising you right up to the end. The direction is edgy and fascinating, the performances are all marvelous. The piano duet is probably the best single scene in a movie this year.

1. Gravity
One of the reasons I go to movies is to see great spectacle, and I can't remember the last time I walked out of a theater feeling like I had seen something so completely new. I loved every minute of it so much and I feel like I could watch it again and again and not get bored.

Top Ten Movies of 2012
10. John Carter
[pause for derisive eye-rolling]. Everyone hated this movie but me! So maybe it's not for you? The first time I saw it, I really enjoyed it, but was willing to concede that it was pretty rote. The second time I saw it I liked it even more. I think what I respond to most is the obvious love for adventure stories present. I was transported. My crush on Lynn Collins probably helped.

9. Pitch Perfect
School competition movies have predictable outcomes, but what elevates the good ones from the bad ones are charm, energy and wit. This has all three.

8. Skyfall
Beautiful to watch, great action sequences, a great villain and a great Bond. Who cares if the plot doesn't make much sense?

7. Life of Pi
A really beautiful story about the value of religion, with the understated emotions that we've come to expect from Ang Lee on display in the Irfan Khan scenes. And the visuals are mind-blowingly gorgeous.

6. Argo
I went in to this expecting to hate it, as I have done with all of the movies Ben Affleck has directed. But it's great! The period details are perfect, and it succeeds at the difficult task of balancing funny moments with more serious thriller stuff.

5. Cabin in the Woods
Inventive, that's what I'd say about this movie. I'll avoid spoiling it here, since if you haven't seen it, it's best to go in completely blind. It's hilarious and scary at the right moments and just a really clever script.

4. Moonrise Kingdom
The first half of this movie is absolutely magical. The second half is weaker, which is the only thing keeping this from being higher on my list. Probably Wes Anderson's best film since Royal Tenenbaums.

3. Lincoln
Despite the seemingly dry material, this film had a buoyancy that really kept things moving for its two and a half hour running time. The period details are immaculate and Daniel Day Lewis is always fascinating to watch. It's Spielberg's most restrained film in years.

2. Django Unchained
Tarantino's larger-than-life stories are self-indulgent and excessive, but oh so filling. I think this is his best film since Jackie Brown. More restrained than Kill Bill, a superior narrative to Inglorious Basterds, and terrific performances by Sam Jackson, Leo and Jamie Foxx.

1. The Avengers
No other film this year filled me with the joy of the movies more than The Avengers. Somehow able to appeal to my childhood nostalgia while tweaking my adult cynicism, with witty banter, fabulous action sequences, tons of energy and a cast who obviously loved working together. With the possible exception of The Dark Knight, this is the best comic book movie ever made.

Top Ten Movies of 2011
Here's my top 10 list for 2011. Wow, this is the first post I've made since my top ten list of 2010. Heh. Oh well, no one reads livejournal anymore anyway, right?

10. Moneyball
Good lord, another Aaron Sorkin drama featuring people arguing at each other across desks? Oddly, I thought this felt less talky and more dynamic than what I otherwise expected. Mainly I liked this movie for its pacing, which is lickety-split, and Brad Pitt's performance, which is really soulful and charismatic.

9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I'm the last person who expected to put this movie on his top ten list. I'm not familiar with the originals, and I really wasn't expecting much of this after having seen the trailer. But I was won over not so much by James Franko as by the long, mostly dialog-free, central portion of the movie which features Caesar the Ape learning to lead the ape rebellion. Great stuff. Nice work, Andy Serkis.

8. Bridesmaids
It's funny! But it's not just a series of gags. I love it in comedies when characters matter, but the plot doesn't run out of steam in the third act. Also, Kristen Wiig.

7. Drive
The languid, wordless romantic scenes with the synthesized background music reminded me of Adrian Lyne's eighties work, and Ryan Gosling is well inside his comfort zone. But I loved the shocking violence, the fun villains and the terrific direction, which elevated this from something relatively forgettable into much more than it could have been.

6. Midnight in Paris
OMG a good Woody Allen movie! I think the reason why this one works so well is you can sense the director's love for the subject material in almost every scene. It's like a dream for anyone who has ever experienced nostalgia for some long-lost golden age. Owen Wilson is the best Woody Allen stand-in, well, yet. And Marion Cotillard is so sexy and adorable, you'll wonder why Christopher Nolan squandered what he had in Inception.

5. Margin Call
"Oh Jesus, you know I can't fucking read these things, just speak to me in English". That's right, I'm saying that the third best thriller of the year is about the financial crisis. Actually, what's great about this movie is you don't need to know what a margin call or a derivative is; all you need to know you will get from the actors as their faces freeze up in fear when they hear dire news being read to them. I loved the way the movie progressed from one awesome actor to the next.

4. Carnage
I'm generally not a fan of movies adapted from plays where the entire thing takes place on one bottled set. I like it when the movie "opens up" the play. This was the film that changed my mind. Maybe it's because the characters seem to be trying to escape from the set the entire time, or maybe it's the way the camera moves to frame them so things never seem monotonous. And it's not too long! It doesn't outstay its welcome, the dialog is deliciously snappy and and I'd be hard-pressed to pick the "best" performance from this movie; they are all terrific.

3. Tree of Life
I'm as surprised as anyone that this film wound up so high on my list, but days after seeing it I was still thinking about it and I think that's the sign of a great film. It made me think about my own life, and what I've been through, and I must have been in the right mood when I watched it because I didn't find the "birth of the universe" scenes tedious at all. I also think this is the best performance Brad Pitt has ever given.

2. Hanna
It's the first movie I can remember seeing in a long time which had both action, drama, science-fiction, comedy, spectacle, and beauty. Mostly I remember the feeling of watching this movie; kind of giddy excitement of seeing something you haven't seen before. Is it a thriller? I guess. There are fantastic action set pieces, great twists, memorable performances. It's hard to characterize Hanna which is one of the things I love about it. I actually liked it more after a second viewing.

1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I'm a sucker for movies like this. The crisp direction and perfect period details reminded me of the Coen brothers, only with maybe a little more romance? I also tend to think of Gary Oldman as a bit of an over-actor so it was a real treat to see him give such an effective bottled-up performance. And I'm just a sucker for mysterious, labyrinthine plots featuring large casts of great actors, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised where this landed. I can't wait to see it again.

Top Ten Movies, 2010
10. Black Swan
What made it special: I tend to agree that the plot is fairly standard, but I loved the performances in this movie. Mickey Rourke brought his whole baggage as an actor to his role in The Wrestler, which gave the film a unique meta quality. I think Natalie Portman brings some of that too - she has kind of a Hollywood image as a goody-goody. I grant that it's not as significant here though. Anyway, I also loved Vincent Cassel, I think he is very underrated in this movie.

9. Greenberg
What made it special: My favourite scene in this movie is the scene where Florence tells Greenberg the story about her and her friend going out with those frat boys and ends with him storming out. Such great writing there, and her acting as she starts to realize half-way through the story that maybe she shouldn't be telling it is superb.

8. How to Train Your Dragon
What made it special: This was surprising to me to find in a non-pixar animated movie, but I thought this had the best, most spectacular animation of the year, even more than Toy Story 3 which is next on my list. Even though it has a fairly generic plot and some annoying voice acting, sometimes I go to the movies for pure visual beauty and this movie delivered, even more than Inception.

7. Toy Story 3
What made it special: I thought that Toy Story 3 took that "Jessie's Story" segment of Toy Story 2 and really developed it into a movie-length concept. The animation of the little girl Bonnie is terrific; it's amazing how far Pixar has come in their animation of the humans in this story.

6. The Social Network
What made it special: I liked the pace of this movie - it's so zippy and buoyant that you can't help but come along for the ride. Andrew Garfield is terrific in it.

5. Shutter Island
What made it special: I loved the weirdness and the stylization of the dialogue - is it a dream or not? But what I remember most are the visuals; the scene of Leo holding Michelle Williams while ashes fall all around them like snow, for example.

4. The Kids are All Right
What made it special: I loved the way this is a story about a family dealing with typical family problems, but the fact that the family has lesbian parents is so crucial to the story. Half-way through watching it, as we listened to the hilarious bickering between Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, my wife said to me: "Oh my God, I never realized how hard it would be to have a relationship with a woman!" My favourite moment: Mia Wasikowska's final look as she takes a deep breath in the final scene of this movie.

3. The Ghost Writer
What made it special: For me, this is the closest thing to a real modern-day Hitchcock film that we've had in years. It's also Ewan MacGregor's best performance in years. A wonderfully directed thriller.

2. True Grit
What made it special: I won't say too much about this, I think everyone knows what makes it great. Every actor is on the right key and the Coens are great as usual.

1. Winter's Bone
What made it special: I think what makes this movie so amazing is how perfectly-realized the world is. It's so rare that you see a movie where every single detail is perfectly in place, from plot to performances to the little insignificant details in the frame. And on a meta-level, it's wonderful to see a movie where you know that a new movie star is being born. I don't usually like movies like this because I tend to find overly-grim films too depressing and too much of a chore to watch. But the pacing is perfect and Jennifer Lawrence's face is just so mesmerising and beautiful that it pulled me through.


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