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The Top 40 Films of the Last Five Years (2009-2013)

December 30, 2013 Leave a comment

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The end of the year gave me the idea to put together the list of the best movies, in my opinion, of the last five years.  Why 40?  I don’t know, seemed like a round figure, and when I tried to stretch it to 50, the overall merit and quality of the list seemed to lose its luster a bit.

(12/30) A few words/disclaimers/notes about the list: 1) I have left out documentaries, such as Waiting for Superman. 2)  Films that would often rank somewhat high in other similar lists that I have never seen were excluded, e.g., Hugo, The Artist, Amour, and LIfe of Pi.  3) I have somehow not yet made it to the theater to see The Wolf of Wall Street.  I anticipate that once I do, it will fit somewhere on this list.  I’ll post an EDIT note to state where it fell, because I don’t want to (feel like) adjusting the list by one spot and cutting a player at #40 that already made the team.    I saw TWOWS on New Year’s Day, and honestly didn’t stop laughing the entire time.  It’s tough to avoid recency bias after seeing a great movie, and trying to maintain perspective of how it stacks up against ones you’ve seen in the past.  That said, I would say that it would have fallen somewhere in the top 15 of the list I’ve assembled.  It was excellent.  4)  The list is obviously short on straight comedies.  That’s just my opinion/perspective, you’re free to agree or disagree.  4)  Obviously… this is MY list.  I tend to think more like a “critic” than an “audience member”, that’s just my style.  So, the list somewhat takes that shape, with my own personal preferences and appreciations fashioned into it.  So, that’s how this list takes its form.   5)  (12/30) Over the next few days, I’ll be going through and making little changes and enhancing the overall post with pictures and formatting/design changes.  I’ve been busy the last few days while trying to finish the list up, and will be away from the computer until New Year’s Day, and I wanted to at least get the post up before 2013 ended.  So… enjoy, let me know what you think… 6) (1/13) Films I’ve seen since the list appeared that fit in the time span and would be fit somewhere in on a revised list: Her, The Tree of Life, Seven Psychopaths, Brothers

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40.  The Master (2012) – a terrific film for hardcore “film” fans who are familiar with Paul Thomas Anderson’s style, but it is admittedly extremely pretentious and grandiose, and I have to say I didn’t think it quite lived up to its lofty goals. It gets by on Phoenix and Hoffman’s acting chops, which many films could.

39.  Public Enemies (2009) – Michael Mann went back to the well to revive John Dillinger on the silver screen, and did it in a carefully paced, introspective fashion which garnered both appreciation and criticism.  Johnny Depp gave his best real performance in years, regardless of the film’s overall shortcomings, and Cotillard continued to become one of Hollywood’s most appreciated and talented young actresses, all the while not being short on memorable lines and finely crafted acted sequences.

38.  End of Watch (2012) – An old school cop drama in modern L.A. with a POV twist that really sets the “buddy cop” character development over the top, which is the crux of the film and what enhances the beauty and tragedy of the film’s outcome.  Gyllenhall and Pena, both highly underrated actors, are excellent and highly believable in the carefully authentic action and pursuit scenes.

37.  The Descendants (2011) – A quirky, yet realistic and focused human-based drama that never loses your interest for even a scene.  Clooney is stellar as a husband coming to grips with a myriad of familial problems which were always there, but come to the surface following his wife falling into a coma.  The scenery and décor of the Hawaiian setting is also impressive.

36.  Moon (2009) – a cult hit that showcases Sam Rockwell’s talent as an astronaut pursuing questions about his identity when his isolation is called into question by a mysterious partner.  Bioethics and existentialism aside, it’s still a great movie for sci-fi and space fans.

35.  Warrior (2011) – It’s an old school gritty boxing flick adapted to modern MMA fighters struggling to cling to their old ideals of a dying blue collar middle class.  Hardy and Nolte shine in providing a shattered family trying to reunite over what is possibly their only common bond besides blood: fighting.  The two brothers compete in an MMA competition, and learn a lot about what makes them similar and different along the way.  A great film for all audiences.

34.  Avatar (2009) -The visual and technological components of this film were truly groundbreaking and mesmerizing.  It received widespread critical acclaim and adornment, even amidst seemingly unattainable expectations.  That said, it seemed to be overstuffed with grandiosity and pretension, to a point that, for me, was not fulfilled.  The inundation of social and political satire was self-righteous, and felt as if Cameron was personally hitting the audience in the head with a hammer.  But, oh yeah, by the way, it’s a great movie.

33.  Super 8 (2011) – Rarely do supernatural films feel so real, emotional, and believable as Super 8.  The success of the film depends upon the young actors innocence and believability, and they don’t come up short on either.  The effects are great, the portrayal of the aliens is both creative and mysterious.

32.  Argo (2012) – While not at all alone, I’m a big fan of Affleck as a director, yet thought that the subject matter of this film was its strongest asset.  I wasn’t as invested in the characters as many others seemed to be, and viewed it as instead an intriguing look into one of the most isolated and esoteric cultures of our modern age, and the apex of the hostile relations with the Iranians that survives to this day.  Still, it was a great film that I thought is at its best when viewed as a thriller laced with cultural juxtaposition and asymmetry.

31.  Looper (2012) – Sci-Fi Time Travel at its finest in years.  Gordon-Levitt and Blunt are terrific in this journey that interweaves crime drama, action, and science fiction to present a philosophical quandaries and speculation on a man caught between preserving his own existence of the betterment of the greater good.

30.  Skyfall (2012) – The best Bond film in years, in no small part thanks to the return of the true “Bond Villain” in Bardem.  The landscapes and action sequences are always awe-inspiring, but Skyfall’s look at the roots and origins of the Bond character, an ongoing theme in the move industry, is what I believe was truly transformative about this installment.  Craig continues to redefine the Bond character as a darker, more authentic one that enhances the impact of every scene.

29.  Lincoln (2012) – a historical epic that is not as “sweeping” as many desired/expected, as it focuses only on Lincoln’s final months alive, and specifically his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, and the political maneuvering required to achieve it.  While expecting even Spielberg to deliver a picture covering Lincoln’s entire life within 250 minutes, my expectations were just a tad unmet, but only due to this history addict’s insatiable appetite.  DDL gives his usual greatness, and nearly every supporting role is perfectly casted and fulfilled.

28.  The Fighter (2010) – Another case of a postmodern filmmaker deviating from hodge podge toward a more streamlined, direct genre piece, The Fighter tells a story that is equal parts both dark and triumphant with a likewise tone.  Performances by Adams and Bale are what sets it over the top as one of the best sports pictures of the millennium.

27.  X-Men First Class (2011) – Superhero movies may seem to be notably absent, by and large, from this list.  To me, very few are capable of stacking up to the rest of the other films on this list in terms of overall creativity, performances, plots, characters, etc, yada, yada.  However, XMFC to me was so finely acted and interesting that it merited a spot on my list.

26.  A Serious Man (2009) – not a film for everybody, due to its dark, and subdued tone and emphasis on minimalism and subtext.  However, Coen Brothers fans and those who appreciate black comedy and tragedy will greatly enjoy this offbeat piece about a middle aged nobody going through familial and identity crises.

25.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Some say Fincher’s adaptation of the acclaimed book series was inferior to the European version made several years earlier.  Regardless, Mara and Craig take their characters off the page and onto the screen with seamless ease, and their chemistry was some of the best of any male-female duo in any film of the period.

24.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) – This British film features a terrific ensemble at the top of their game in this spy thriller throwback centering on intelligence officers and diplomats trying to both reconcile and relive their past as they maneuver in the midst of the byzantine world of Cold War espionage.  Oldman is at his usual sky high level, and the setting and tone of the era feels extremely accurate and genuine on screen.

23.  The Expendables and The Expendables 2 (2010/2012) – I am taking the liberty to combine both Expendables installments into one entry to conserve a spot for other films, because I can.  Disclosure is probably required, being an enormous fan of all things Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and unapologetic 80’s action.  This red-blooded American action is all but dead, and Stallone both pokes fun at this fact and laments it with his simultaneous parody and celebration of all the things that made it so great.

22.  Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – the journey of the American Intelligence Community from 9/11 to the death of UBL captures the terror, hypocrisy, and hysteria that was present from the Oval Office on down to suburbia.  It strikes a fine balance between cerebral machinations and authentic action sequences, and the painstaking efforts by Bigelow are boldly evident in both.  Chastain delivers her crowning performance as the film’s central protagonist devoted wholeheartedly to the demise of Bin Laden.

21.  American Hustle (2013) – It’s hard not to suffer from recency effect too severely after seeing it only a few days ago, but put simply, it’s excellent.  The film could get by alone on the comedic exchanges and flawless acting by the star studded ensemble cast, but to fans of Russell’s style, genre, and subject matter, it’s a masterpiece.

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20.  12 Years A Slave (2013) – the sweeping slave epic shines in its ability to show both the most and least well documented aspects of the Peculiar Institution of American Slavery.  What it excels at even greater is its refusal to sacrifice its many great scenes’ authenticity for time or shock constraints.  Ejiofor and Fassbender deliver performances as true good/evil foils, and Brad Pitt steals each of his scenes by helping to provide the often silent middle ground with a voice in the great debate of Slavery.

19.  Wild Bill (2011) – One of the lesser known films of the period, yet one of the most enjoyable.  It’s set in the familiar British underworld that Ritchie fans will be enticed by and enjoy, but its focus is on the main character’s struggle to find his way with his two young sons who have been abandoned by their mother, and steering them away from the life that sent him to prison.  Strongly acted,  the film blends motifs of gritty crime dramas and Western lore to produce a film that grades out at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

18.  The Guard (2011) – an excellent Irish featuring Don Cheadle and the unheralded Brendan Gleeson, with enough “fucks” to make Casino seem like a Disney movie.  This is black comedy at its finest, and fans of the subgenre will get loads of enjoyment out of the cultural, ethical, racial, and social tension and humor.

17.  Django Unchained (2012) – Tarantino’s must anticipated “Southern” about an escaped slave teamed up with a German immigrant hell bent on revenge proved to be another terrific piece of Tarantino pastiche.  The “Spaghetti Western” comes to the antebellum Deep South, where Jamie Foxx seeks to find and free his estranged wife.  At times the film felt a bit stretched and somewhat deliberately driven by its morality, one of which has been said or Tarantino’s films before, and one which has certainly been not.

16.  The Road (2009) – the true standout of the dystopian film bombardment, and it shines through not from explosions or undead, but from the emotional and physical journey of a father and son who are determined to maintain hope in a world that gives no reason to believe in it.  A minimalist approach and gradual pacing may mean the film isn’t for the guns and bombs only crowd.

15.  Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – low key, genuine, family dramedies are a dying breed, but SLP would be an excellent choice as any for their swan song.  Cooper, DeNiro, and Lawrence stand eye to eye but never overshadow one another, and the comedic aspects are in that “just quirky enough but not too quirky” category that Russell is so capable of bringing to life.  The plot does at time feel to go a bit too far to mask some practical realities and details, but it doesn’t threaten to overshadow the film’s quality.

14.  Inception (2010) – groundbreaking effects and imagination propel this Nolan film, but nearly every member of the star-studded cast delivers a serious, considered performance, which is what truly transforms this from just a visual spectacle to one of the most appreciated films of the period.

13.  The Ides of March (2011) – this is probably bumped up on the list due to the bias of a political junkie and a big appreciation of Ryan Gosling, but it is a great film for even the most politically illiterate.  In fact, the negative portrayal of the machinating politicians in the film may be just what makes so many of us apathetic toward them in real life.  A terrific ensemble cast including the aforementioned Gosling, Clooney, Hoffman, Giamatti, Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood is led by Clooney himself behind the camera.

12.  The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) – textured and edgy characters by Gosling, Mendes, and Cooper make this film’s captivating plot even more emotional and powerful.  Part crime, part family drama, the film follows two generations of men who struggle to find their own identity and establish father-son relations, but instead end up finding more connections between each other’s families.

11.  Mud (2012) – In my mind, the most underrated and underappreciated film of the period.  McConaughey gives what is perhaps his greatest  theatrical performance, yet young actor Tye Sheridan holds his own along the entire way.  The story has the feel of a transplant from 19th century Southern literature, capturing the innocence and idealism of youth and the cruel truths of reality in true bildungsroman fashion.  A must see for fans and viewers of any genre

10.  The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Not nearly as great as The Dark Knight, TDKR was still a fine conclusion to the Nolan trilogy.  While no matter how dark or realistic Nolan took the franchise, he was never going to be able to operate without a substantial level of suspension of disbelief, the plot seemed a bit too stretched and contrived at times.  However, the overall message of the conclusion and unforgettable villain, Bane, allowed this film to soar high on the list.

9.  A Prophet (2009) – The best French prison film since Papillon!  But, seriously, a gritty and visceral exploration of the prison and crime genres from a foreign perspective, and a deep look into rarely seen racial, cultural, and socio-economic conditions and the extensive impacts they carry.  There is the subtitle disclaimer, but that shouldn’t stop you from branching out, if that’s not your thing.

8.  The King’s Speech (2010) – being a history fan isn’t necessary to love it, but it certainly enhances the appeal.  Nevertheless, it’s a near-perfect film that blends comedy, tragedy, and triumph, propelled by stellar acting and scenery.

7.  Blue Valentine (2010) – One of the most underrated and under-known films of the period.  Gosling and Williams are absolutely tremendous as a couple forced together by a pregnancy, and 7 years later still struggling with their differences and the shaky foundation at their core.  It is tragic, dark, visceral, and beautiful.  Films like this is what the industry needs more of, if only the masses would agree.

6.  The Social Network (2010) – a favorite of Generation Y for obvious reasons, but appreciated by all due to Facebook’s ubiquitous presence in our modern society.  However, that isn’t the extent of the film’s allure, as terrific performance by Eisenberg and Garfield, combined with the always sharp dialogue of Sorkin, dark score of Reznor, and introspective direction of Fincher.  The biopic should be near the top of any 2000’s list.

5.  Moneyball (2011) – The amazing part about Moneyball is how well such “nerdy” and intricate subject matter transferred to the big screen.  Being a baseball fanatic helps, but the dramatic adaptation allows non-sports fans to appreciate Billy Beane’s triumph in the “Moneyball Era” of the sport, and Pitt’s performance is a big reason why.

4.  The Town (2010) – the best heist film in years is such because of how much farther and deeper Affleck takes it.  His stellar reputation as a director is and should be firmly established, but he has grown so much as an actor, and it is display on this film alongside Renner and Hamm.  The Town captures the gritty street tone typical of the Boston crime subgenre, but cuts deep into the larger subject of urban poverty and its affect on preordained fates of those who are born in it, yet some still attempt to escape somehow, some way.  This depth is paired with terrific action sequences and a dearth of unforgettable Bostonian one-liners and aerial shots.

3.  True Grit (2011) – it may be blasphemous to say, coming from a Duke fanatic, but I must say that I thought the Coen Brothers’ remake was better than the original.  By focusing on Nattie’s character more and Matt Damon’s rounding of LaBeouf’s character, this movie more accurately represents Portis’ novel.  Perhaps the Coen’s only true genre film, it still manages to appeal to those modern viewers who are not prototypical Western fans.

2.  Inglorious Basterds (2009) – an unapologetic Tarantino-phile, I could detect absolutely zero of the flaws that some critics exclaimed about this masterpiece of pastiche.  All of the QT trademarks of hyperviolence, homage, genre-bending, and his sub-contained character universe are in full bloom as he reimagines the fate of the Third Reich through a band of Nazi-slaying guerilla warriors that could only be borne of the American frontier tradition and backstory.  Fassbender and Pitt are total dynamite, and Waltz is rightly heralded for giving one of the greatest performances of the 2000’s.  A+’s all around, you won’t hear a bad word about it here.

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1.  Drive (2011) – The top spot goes to Winding-Refn’s crime drama that blends the most eclectic stylistic elements and genre influences of any film on the list.  Gosling’s character, known simply as “The Driver”, and his demeanor are an homage to Leone and Eastwood’s “Man With No Name”, but is smoothly transplanted from the West onto a developed LA landscape, traversing gangsters and police officers.   The music and graphics convey the feel of an 80’s Miami Vice episode, but the spontaneous ultra-violence that lurks around every corner would make Tarantino shed a tear.  Gosling’s performance is the best of his string of great ones in the period, shining through body language, action, and making the most of his sparsely used words.  Gosling closes out a fine five-year stretch with four films in the top 20 spots, including #1.

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