10. THE GRAND
BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
Taking place within a flashback within a flashback within a flashback — it makes sense when you see it — Ralph Fiennes hilariously plays Gustave H., the concierge and unofficial manager of a majestic hotel lodged high in the mountains of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, in 1932. When one of Gustave’s regular companions, the 84-year-old Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), dies and bequeaths Gustave her most prized painting, he finds himself embroiled in a hilarious caper involving bitter relatives, suspicious officers, ruthless criminals, colour-coordinated concierges, and his faithful lobby boy. Maintaining Wes Anderson’s famous visual aesthetic while forging bold, new narratives paths, The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite possibly the best movie Anderson has made, in a short career already comprised of several masterpieces.
9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE —
GHOST PROTOCOL (2011)
While the Mission: Impossible movies had a spotty record during the Pierce Brosnan era of 007, when the Bond series gave up their sense of fun and outrageous spectacle, the M:I series picked up the torch and ran with it. Without a doubt, the groove had perfectly been figured out by the time of Ghost Protocol, with writer-director Brad Bird (the man responsible for The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) actually out-Bonding the very best Bond movies. The plot is irrelevant, really. (There’s a Russian terrorist, some stolen nuclear codes, and Jeremy Renner showing the world he was ready to Avenge.) And just as irrelevant should be your opinion on Tom Cruise, because he is at his more effortlessly charming here, despite a career based on being effortlessly charming. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is more than just a great action movie: it’s the best straight-out action movie of the last five years.
8. THE ARTIST (2011)
Yes, it is black-and-white. Yes, it is a silent movie. And yes, you will love it. The biggest hurdle the average person will have with it is simply giving it a chance. A fantastically easy movie to love, The Artist’s writer-director Michel Hazanavicius combined elements of A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain; smartly cast recognizable faces like John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, and James Cromwell; introduced North America to the exceptionally talented Jean Dujardin; and delivered thrills, tears, mystery, tragedy, scares, joy, and most of all, comedy. More vibrant than most movies in colour, more expressive than most talkies, and more universally understandable than the biggest blockbusters of today, The Artist truly is a movie that reminds us why we love movies in the first place.
7. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)
Many laughed when Aaron Sorkin announced he was writing a movie about the creation of Facebook, but few foresaw the masterwork The Social Network would turn out to be. Sorkin’s trademark, rapid-fire dialogue is on fine display here, and it’s a joy to listen to Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake dance with it. The greatest thing about the film, though, isn’t the writing, the acting, or even the claustrophobic direction of David Fincher, but its fascinating depiction of the pitfalls of modern human interaction. No character in the movie survives without being treated unfairly by another and without sacrificing something essential. By the closing credits, each person is so emotionally separate and secluded, it brilliantly echoes the 500 million people who converse and socialize in 500 million different rooms around the world, in what now passes for communication in the post-Facebook era.
6. BIRDMAN, OR
THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE
OF IGNORANCE (2014)
In probably the weirdest movie to ever win Best Picture, Michael Keaton winkingly plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who was once the world-famous star of the Birdman superhero movies, but who has now faded into obscurity and irrelevance. To reassert his existence and leave behind a legacy greater than the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, he has adapted a Raymond Carver story into a play and is directing and starring in its Broadway adaptation. He’s also secretly going crazy. Keaton is absolutely brilliant as Riggan, as are Emma Stone as his resentful daughter and Edward Norton as his pompous co-star. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s direction is vibrantly alive in a way that gets your heartbeat racing just from watching it. It also helps that the movie is edited to look like one single tracking shot from start to finish and that its score, a frenetic drumming that conveys characters’ emotions and prefaces the narrative’s turns, is unlike anything in modern cinema. Love it or hate it, the best art always elicits strong reactions, and no film of the last few years demonstrates that better than Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
5. A SEPARATION (2011)
A Separation is one of those movies where a small number of people are involved in a battle against each other, with the stakes no higher than their very livelihoods. The plot is brilliantly played out, with perfect pacing and a master’s feel for story. It’s cliché to compare a movie to an onion, but A Separation is wondrous at slowly revealing more information as it goes along, always at deliberately timed moments.
The set-up: A husband and wife in Iran legally separate, because she wants to leave the country (for both her and their daughter’s safety) and he wants to stay and care for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. Without his wife around to look after his father, the husband has to hire a caretaker to do so. One day, the husband comes home to find the caretaker absent and his father tied to the bed, inches from death. She has a good reason for both, but the husband doesn’t know that yet and neither do we. When she returns, the husband irately fires her, and (when she refuses to leave) forcibly shoves her out the front door, leading to a legal battle that spirals faster and faster out of control, eventually involving even one of the characters fighting murder charges.
The ultimate power of A Separation is that every main character – the husband, the wife, the daughter, the caretaker, and the caretaker’s hot-headed husband – is portrayed not just realistically, but sympathetically. You relate to each person and understand why they say and do each thing that digs them all even deeper into their situation, even if you feel you wouldn’t necessarily have done the same.
4. NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)
Nightcrawler is a cutting indictment of TV journalism and the chase for sensationalized “news,” but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a dry drama. Writer-director Dan Gilroy creates a disturbing unease that permeates the entire movie, keeping you on edge even in scenes where nothing bad happens. Moments that would normally play off as awkward comedy become uncomfortable and disquieting in this increasingly twisted tale.
Antisocial loner Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) stumbles upon a car crash one night and decides to become a freelance video journalist. As he begins brokering deals with a morning news show director (Rene Russo, the best she’s been in years), he starts making more and more decisions in his chase of occupational success that endanger those around him. Increment by increment, Bloom crosses increasingly unethical lines, until he’s committing worse crimes himself, in the chase of the perfect story.
From beginning to end, the script is perfectly written, expertly plotted, and precisely paced. Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career so far as Bloom, wearing an inhumanly gaunt frame, the bulging eyes of a drug-addicted Muppet, and some of the most uncomfortably intense stares this side of Hannibal Lecter. Nightcrawler doesn’t take a single wrong step and has the courage to see its vision through to its natural, disturbing endpoint. It’s riveting and daring filmmaking of the highest order.
3. GRAVITY (2013)
On paper, Gravity seems quite similar to All is Lost. Both look at dealing with existential despair, the state of being utterly alone, and the struggle to survive in practically insurmountable extremes. Both feature career-best performances from their leads, both are basically one-person shows, and they’re the two best films of 2013. The only thing that makes Gravity better is its ambition.
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s previous work hinted that he was capable of greatness, but with Gravity he revealed himself to the next James Cameron. In size, scale, and spectacle, nothing since has came close to the mammoth scope and claustrophobic simplicity of Gravity. The action sequences — particularly the catalytic meteor shower that demolishes the space shuttle Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) was planning on using to return to Earth — are gripping, tense, and immaculately constructed.
Cuarón and his special effects teams worked for three years to make Gravity, and it shows. The 17-minute opening shot, which is a marvel of modern filmmaking akin to the “rotating hallway” sequence in Inception, sets the stage and the expectations for one of the most unforgettable experiences of modern cinema. It’s a film that will go down as a milestone of visual innovation, right beside Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Titanic, and Avatar. Gravity has to be seen to be believed, and once you have, it’s impossible to ever forget.
2. INCEPTION (2010)
When people ask me to describe Inception, I compare it to The Matrix or Minority Report. Not because it deals with distorted reality, although in a sense it does. But The Matrix and Minority Report were action movies for people who like to think. They were filling meals that didn’t leave you hungry again an hour later. There was ridiculously breathtaking and innovative action in them, but there was also a lot of intellectual thought that had never been addressed to mass audiences in such ways.
In that way, Inception is very similar. There are glorious set pieces after glorious set pieces, and enough explosions and effects to satisfy anyone who just wants to see stuff blow up real good. There is also a wonderfully complicated plot with brilliant ideas that seem similar to bits of pieces you’ve seen before, yet somehow wholly original. (If you’ve been under a rock since 2009, Inception is about thieves who can hack into dreams and are hired to subconsciously plant an idea into a CEO’s mind, and the havoc that ensues.)
Plus, it has a fantastically unique and hugely influential score, a screenplay that took Christopher Nolan a decade to perfect, wonderfully complex acting from the diverse ensemble, such genius editing that they should teach classes that deconstruct it, and arguably the most debated ending of any modern movie.
1. CLOUD ATLAS (2012)
Every year or two, a movie comes along that completely polarizes audiences. (See #6 on this list.) In 2012, Cloud Atlas found itself caught between two very vocal groups: those who thought it was a bloated and terrible mess and those who thought it was genius storytelling and a visual masterpiece without modern peer. Count this critic unequivocally among the latter.
Deftly weaving six different storylines, taking place in seven different time periods and over the course of 542 years, Cloud Atlas manages a seemingly impossible task: using a repertory of actors playing characters in different timelines through reincarnations of their souls. It not only tells six stories that in and of themselves could nearly be complete movies, but creates a whole much larger than the sum of its parts.
The technical aspects are flawless and the score is the most haunting and evocative piece of music in modern cinema. There are moments of pure beauty, unbridled absurdity, heartbreaking sorrow, gripping tension, and eye-opening wonder. Cloud Atlas is a movie that’s impossible to forget, easy to underestimate, and the ultimate proof that cinematic masterpieces are still being made today.
(This article contains some content published previously on The Apple Box.)