I'm not even sure if luxuries like blogs will be afforded us in 2020 with the way this world is going, so I might as well get this in. Besides, there have been a lot of great movies in the last six years and it would be a bear to whittle out a top ten list after four more years. One interesting thing to note is how many of these movies feature the same actors. I don't know if that's good or bad.
Also, just to get this out of the way now, I make no apologies for including three (3) Christopher Nolan movies on this list. Let's begin.
1. Her (2013)
(Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, directed by Spike Jonze)
In the near future, Thomas Twombly (Phoenix) is a greeting card composer by day and sad divorcee by night. When a tech company unveils a new operating system featuring evolving artificial intelligence, he purchases one and becomes fast friends with "Samantha" (Johansson). They become inseparable as their relationship deepens amidst a futuristic backdrop where a romantic relationship with a computer can be deemed simply "cool," simply one more step for humankind, simply one more way to connect when human involvement is eternally complicated and disappointing. Thomas and Samantha fall in love in scenes featuring the most divine cinematography I think I've ever seen, through dialogue that is perfectly shaped by director/screenwriter Jonze, brought to life by Johannson's beautifully capable voice acting and a steady, measured performance by Phoenix that pays off incredibly when his world is finally rocked.
Samantha's psychological and emotional evolution is so incredibly fascinating to watch; when she reveals that she can have thousands of simultaneous conversations with other people and other OSes at the complexity she experiences with Thomas, you're forced to finally begin contemplating the larger world in which the OSes are likely far more intelligent than their creators anticipated. Her is an endlessly gorgeous, heartbreaking sci-fi love story unlike anything I've ever seen and I have no doubt that when this decade draws to a close it will still sit at my number one.
2. Sarah's Key (2010)
(Kristen Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner)
Sarah Starzynski (Mayance) and her parents are victims of the Vel d'Hiv roundup in 1942; when the police arrive at their apartment, Sarah locks her little brother Michel in a closet so that he may avoid detection. Unfortunately, Sarah and her mother are taken, and Sarah hangs on to the closet key and what becomes a singular resilience and obsession to return to the apartment in time enough to save her brother. Concurrently we have the storyline of modern-day Julia Dormond (Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris working on a story about the Vel d'Hiv roundup, during which she finds little Sarah's labor camp photograph.
It is hard for me to say more without giving spoilers, so you must see it for yourself. Mayance is fabulous, and tackles the complete range of emotions required of her with brilliance. The cinematography from the scenes in 1942 is breathtaking at times, and I think the director did an amazing job pacing and crafting scenes to have utmost emotional impact. It can be too easy to assume that any film dealing with the Holocaust must be by definition well-crafted and heart-rending, and having seen my fair share, I know this is not the case. Sarah's Key packs an indelible punch on its own merits, and is a film that, if you're lucky, will haunt you for a long time. (Seen at the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival)
3. Inception (2010)
(Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, directed by Christopher Nolan)
After being accused of murdering his wife (Cotillard), Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) flees to France where he continues to work with a team as an extractor, entering the dreams of unsuspecting sleepers to steal information and secrets as corporate espionage. He is offered the chance to go home, and see his children again, by Saito, a Japanese magnate who in return needs the opposite of extraction: he needs the son of a rival to decide to take his father's company in a different direction; he has to believe it is his own idea; he has to be incepted. And to plant an idea means the team has to go further down the rabbit hole than any of them have ever been.
While the plot is complex and nearly flawless, the cast is dynamic and the overall effect is that of breathlessness, what I love most about Inception is how the elegant statements on dreaming touch on the metaphysical aspects of life that we struggle with even when we're convinced we already have the answers. Life being a dream that feels as real as dreams do while we're sleeping; recurring dreams being akin to life events that keep repeating, for good and ill; what deja vu really is; that in order to wake up from this madness you have to die. All of these gems are casually dropped throughout the script and add another exciting layer to an already intense and mind-opening experience.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
(Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, directed by Christopher Nolan)
I prefer this film to The Dark Knight, and though I am one of the only ones (especially one of the only ones brave enough to say it) I care not. TDK was a huge achievement to be sure, but Nolan wanted to continue his commentary on our social condition and after having laid the groundwork in TDK with monologues on meaninglessness and chaos, now he was ready to go from abstract to concrete. TDKR came out during the time of the Occupy movement, which though now widely derided (and obviously our much weaker attempt to parallel the dynamism of the Arab Spring) brought much-needed attention to the very real consequences of the disparity between "Wall Street" and "Main Street." So we see Bane's agents hold the stock market hostage and take down Bruce Wayne and disrupt Wayne Enterprises; we see his alleged liberation of the citizens of Gotham by socking away the entire police force and unleashing the effects of the flattening of wealth and class (we see mink stoles yanked away from old ladies, robber barons hunted in their multi-million dollar condos, possessions and property dispersed and freely inhabited).
But Nolan, of course, doesn't stop there; he shows us the effects of these new communist events, how the city isn't better for it, how power never disappears, it only changes hands; he even gave a hug nod towards Stalin's show trials. Gotham was a city of cold empty streets and perhaps that was Nolan's way of saying that change without wisdom is tragedy.
Oh, and cool gadgets and Catwoman and essentially the cast of Inception, etc. etc.
5. A Royal Affair (2012)
(Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, directed by Nikolaj Arcel)
A stunning study in the things we think we want turning out to be our ultimate undoing, played out on a national level. In the latter part of the 18th century, the English Princess Caroline Matilde (Vikander), sister to Mad King George, is married off to Denmark's King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard). Ol' Christian's a little nuts, which makes it a bit difficult to run a country, and which makes it both fortuitous and tragic that he hires German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen). Both Struensee and the new queen are fond of Enlightenment teachings, which are banned in Denmark; while the two talk politics and begin an affair, Struensee shows the king how he is being used by his parliament and gives him the courage to stand up to them. This, in turn, gives the physician great power as King Christian's new right-hand man, and Enlightenment values find their way to court, including a lifting of the ban on journalistic censorship.
The consequences of such change are where the tragedy begins, and it is truly poignant to see how Struensee must abandon the ideals he holds most dear in order to save his life. I'm a sucker for historical dramas, and A Royal Affair is a perfect example why. (Seen at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival)
6. Django Unchained (2012)
(Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Full confession - this was the first Tarantino movie I ever saw. And I luuuurved it. Django (Foxx), a slave, is sought by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a bounty hunter, as the man who can identify a trio of law-breaking brothers just a few years shy of the Civil War. Schultz buys him and promises to free him once the men are apprehended, and he does; and after a winter of canvassing the South and Midwest, well, bounty hunting, they cook up an idea to free Django's wife from enslavement on a plantation named Candie Land, owned by phrenologist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
After seeing this I then watched Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction and while everything is high quality, I noticed that Tarantino snaps about halfway through his scripts and has a character make a dumb decision that changes the entire course of the plot (even if only gradually at first). I will just say that if Django and Schultz had gone to Candie Land with a...simpler plan ("Hi, I'm German and I want to buy your German-speaking slave, do you take cash?") well...I guess it would be a much shorter movie. Still and all, the way it plays out, if wacky, is incredibly enjoyable and I shan't divulge how many times I saw it in the theater.
7. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
(Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee)
Man (McConaughey) lives recklessly, man contracts AIDS. Man is given one month to live. Man goes to Mexico for alternative drugs, man lives much longer than one month, man starts a medicinal subscription club for AIDS victims in the Dallas area. Man meets transvestite and fellow sufferer (Leto), man and transvestite form unlikely friendship, man and transvestite make choices to further the plot which would be considered spoilers. Man and transvestite both win ridiculously deserved Oscars and frankly I'm still sobbing. (Seen at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival)
8. Interstellar (2014)
(Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, directed by Christopher Nolan)
Man goes to - no, wait. Sorry. Ahem. In the near future, former astronaut Joe Cooper (McConaughey) is drawn to NASA's secret bunker after strange occurances involving gravity take place in his daughter's room. This near future is ravaged - food resources are almost gone due to a blight that will eventually cause extinction. Humanity's best hope is to colonize an Earth-like world; NASA has identified three in one system orbiting a supermassive black hole. Cooper agrees to lead a small crew through a fortuitous wormhole to presumably a whole other galaxy, to find out which planet gets the honor of housing humans.
At almost three hours, Interstellar is neither as ambitious idea-wise as Inception nor as flawless story-wise as The Prestige, but it is exciting, especially if you're into this sort of thing. To my knowledge it is the first movie to not just attempt an accurate rendering of this type of black hole, but to audaciously take us right up to its (purely conceptual) event horizon; to use time dilation as a 'gotcha!' moment; and to require a companion book about the science just so we know we're dealing with bulk beings and a fifth dimension. I already know Interstellar isn't a pure Nolan creation - it was in Spielberg's hands for far too long at the outset - because if it was it'd be much higher on this list, but it's still, um, stellar viewing. :-P
9. The Avengers (2012)
(Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, directed by Josh Whedon)
The first Avengers movie may end up being the best one once all this superhero fever is done and over with. It brought together a handful of characters without having to juggle too many, and there's a certain innocence about the first movies of trilogies, quadrilogies, etc. in that they don't try too hard and therefore there is balance and room for nuance. After the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies we knew we'd be getting a movie with an assembled cast, and Joss Whedon and company did a laudable job preserving the personalities of each hero, giving them equal screen time, and keeping it fun. It's just so much fun. It won't make any professional critics' best-of lists, but they're required to be snobby and ridiculous, so whatever.
10. Don Jon (2013)
(Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Well, a film filled with pornography could only make this list if it overwhelmingly redeems itself - and of course, this one does. I know good and well that Gordon-Levitt is trying to send a message that reaches an intended audience, and that intended audience is more likely to osmotically receive the message if the movie quick-cuts to actual (but not hardcore) porn every few minutes. Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is a Jersey bartender who prefers masturbation to sex with women, even though he's hunky enough to take a "10" home after every club outing. When he meets Barbara (Johansson) he thinks she's the one, though it's hilarious to see that she's as much of an eye-rolling feminine stereotype as he is the masculine. But even she cannot compare to his masturbatory routine. Video girls don't require anything from him, see.
Eventually his foil shows up - an older fellow classmate named Esther (Julianne Moore) - and her blunt honesty and reflections on real eroticism and sexual intimacy gradually open his eyes to his self-imposed limitations. While you know where things are headed the minute Esther shows up on screen, the way it plays out is actually a bit surprising and far more grounded in reality than one might expect. Thanks to model citizen Gordon-Levitt's attempts to enlighten us in an age of increasingly vacated souls, I make sure to recommend this movie - to adults! - when I get the chance.
Runners-Up: The Babadook (2014), The Best Offer (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Happy New Year. :)