In coming up with an end-of-the-decade “best of” list, I think that it’s actually more fun to list personal favorites. Because let’s face it, there are tons of “best of” lists out there, and they all list the same flicks and they all say the same things. Not that those flicks aren’t deserving of all the praise – it just gets a little repetitive, so I won’t be mentioning them. I’m also staying away from the major franchises here. Plenty of articles get written every day about Marvel, DC and Star Wars – they don’t need my help. Instead, I’m going to sing the praises of flicks that don’t get enough love.
2010 was the year of what’s both a favorite of mine – and I think one of the absolute best and definitely most underrated flicks ever made: TRON: Legacy. I simply cannot understand why this flick didn’t capture people’s imaginations the way it did mine. I was so blown away by it, I saw it half a dozen times in the theater. Now any geek worth their salt remembers how groundbreaking the original TRON (1982) was – and also what a slow-moving slog it was to get through. But Legacy took that original story and characters and made a true epic out of them, complete with some of the most gorgeous design work (taken from the late Syd Mead) and visual effects ever put on film. Not to mention one of the best scores ever done thanks to Daft Punk. For me, watching Legacy for the first time was like watching Star Wars for the first time for everybody else. And like Star Wars, it created a world rich with possibilities for more stories. I just wish Disney would promote their homegrown jewel as much as they do all the other properties they’ve purchased, and continue the story.
2010 was also the year director James Wan introduced a genre-within-a-genre in PG-13 horror. Insidious was a simple enough story, but it managed to distinguish itself with clever, humorous writing, original characters that were instantly lovable (especially the awesome Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainier), and a unique creepiness that got down into your bones without gore and gratuitous amounts of blood. And even though in the years since, PG-13 horror has gotten pretty tired and I’m actually glad to see R-rated horror fighting for its place again, there’s no doubt that Insidious was an innovative flick, and definitely one of my favorites.
Of all the flicks I saw in 2011, none were as much fun as Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I know I said above that I was staying away from the franchises, but I don’t think the M:I flicks get the credit they deserve. It’s one of the few series that’s actually gotten better with each flick. JJ Abrams’ take on M:I III was definitely the one that helped turn everything around for the better – but Ghost Protocol was truly unique, thanks to the directing hand of Brad Bird, who got to exercise his skills outside the world of animation. He brought not only the crazy, globetrotting action we expect from M:I, but also infused the flick with heart and a terrific sense of humor throughout – and made it all flow beautifully. It’s a flow that Christopher McQuarrie has taken and run with, making his M:I flicks the best of the series – but I would definitely say he’s standing on the shoulders of those who came before him.
Another flick that came out in 2011 and has gotten lost in the ocean of remakes is Fright Night. The original from 1985 is a cult classic – but I gotta say the remake is a huge improvement, mostly thanks to the super-sharp writing of Buffy’s Marti Noxon and an awesome performance by Colin Farrell. I gained a whole new respect for that guy after seeing it. I mean, any actor who would perform the hell out of being a vampire and getting staked by a Century 21 sign deserves serious props. As does the late Anton Yelchin, David Tennant and Christopher Mintz-Plasse for their wicked-funny performances.
2012 was the year the franchises ruled – DC, Marvel and James Bond all put out awesome flicks that year. But everyone forgets that the Jason Bourne series also delivered an outstanding spinoff in The Bourne Legacy. Skillfully written and directed by Tony and Dan Gilroy, and cleverly tied into The Bourne Ultimatum, Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross was every bit the bada** that Jason was, but he was also refreshing in that he wasn’t just about chasing down lost memories and vengeance. Cross knew exactly who he was and how he got to be that way. He wasn’t specifically out for revenge, he just wanted his freedom from the dark forces in the US government that made him. Renner’s naturally easygoing nature and especially the terrific chemistry between him and Rachel Weisz’s Dr. Shearing really hooked me, and definitely made me want to see more. Personally, I think a team-up with Bourne and Cross is the way to go, especially after that last disappointing installment of Jason Bourne (2016) – I hope that the Gilroys and Paul Greengrass can maybe come together to make that happen.
2012 also saw a rare sight in an successful reboot/remake (both? Not sure what to call it) of Judge Dredd. Written by the amazing Alex Garland, Dredd got the bad taste of Sylvester Stallone’s goofy 1995 version out of our mouths by going full-on dark, hardcore violent – and wisely choosing Karl Urban as the new vision of the anti-hero. One who never once revealed his face, but still played the role perfectly. Add to that the contrast of Olivia Thirlby’s naïve-but-earnest Judge Anderson, and the awesome Lena Headey as the intimidating gang leader, Ma-Ma, and some crazy-cool visual effects and it’s one helluva good time.
2013 was the year of The Conjuring, one of my absolute favorites of all time. Going for the R rating, James Wan was able to deliver the scariest exorcism scene since, well, The Exorcist. He also introduced us to the endearing Ed and Lorraine Warren, the late, real-life ghost hunters and demonologists whose cases have been scaring us ever since.
2013 also gave us Prisoners – beautifully directed by Denis Villenueve, the 70’s-esque downer of a story about the kidnapping of two kids wasn’t about plot. It was all about performances, and every actor involved did a beautiful job – Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo and some especially unique turns by Paul Dano and David Dastmalchian. It’s dark, scary and most surprisingly, it’s hopeful. And every time I pass it by channel-surfing, I end up getting sucked in and watching the whole thing. That’s the mark of a damned good flick. And one more favorite of mine came out in 2013, Last Days on Mars. True, it was basically about space zombies and just another variation on Alien and Aliens, but it was a good one. It had a terrific real-life, near-future look and feel to it and a solid anchoring performance by Liev Schreiber.
2014 was an awesome year for horror. We got a new and awesome version of Godzilla and a terrifying spinoff from The Conjuring in Annabelle. I know that most people seem to think better of the more recent prequels, but I find Annabelle to be scary as hell. Way scarier than the other prequels turned out to be – mostly due to an excellent performance by Annabelle Wallis, who totally sold the terror of a new mother tormented by evil forces.
There was another outstanding tale of a tormented new mother that year in Devil’s Due. Yeah, sure, it was just another one of those “found-footage” deals and basically a ripoff of Rosemary’s Baby, but the performances of leads Allison Miller and Zach Gilford hooked me. They were immediately likeable and made you want to know what happened to them – and the flick wasn’t afraid to get gross and bloody. And speaking of “found footage” flicks, another favorite in 2014 was from the Paranormal Activity series, The Marked Ones. Now I’ve been a Paranormal Activity fan since the jump – and even though this one was more of a spinoff, I found it to be the scariest one next to the original. It also has a really smart sense of humor to it, and if you’ve ever lived in Southern California, you’ll find it especially funny – on purpose.
Now normally, I tend to stay away from “message movies” – the idea of paying Hollywood to preach at me is something I really hate. But 2015 was the year of Sicario – not only a favorite, but also just one of the best films ever made. Exceptional directing by Denis Villenueve, outstanding writing by Taylor Sheridan and a trifecta of superior actors in Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin made for a total package of perfection in a story that was not only timely, but astonishingly even-handed in its portrayal of the messy situation on the US/Mexico border and the war on drugs.
2015 was also the year M. Night Shyamalan popped up to show us that he was still very much in the game with a smart, low-budget “found footage” story in The Visit. It had all of M. Night’s trademark quirky characters, humor and creepy mood – and what I found most amazing, is that he still managed to provide a twist ending, a trend that he made famous (or infamous, depending on how you feel about it). And the twist in this particular story was so clever and disturbing that it didn’t need a lot of the typical horror gimmicks to sell it. And one last favorite of mine that year was another low-budget story with a twist, The Invitation. Beautifully directed by Karyn Kusama and featuring an exceptional performance by Logan Marshall-Green, the story that starts out as what looks like an average relationship drama, gradually transforms into something completely different – something dark, sinister and almost sci-fi by the end. I’m actually hoping for a sequel.
2016 saw the triumphant return of M. Night Shyamalan with Split – another flick that I think is one of the best films ever made in addition to being a favorite. Split was a thriller that fired on all cylinders and featured one of James McAvoy’s best performances ever as the many personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb. Not only that, but it also resurrected other characters M. Night had introduced in 2000’s Unbreakable, turning the whole thing into his very own, Philly-based MCU (get it?). Unfortunately the sequel, 2019’s Glass, didn’t live up to its potential and was a disappointing ending to what was an amazing story.
I’m a big fan of Peter Berg’s flicks, especially his series about important events in recent American history. My favorite of all of them is definitely Deepwater Horizon, the story of the BP oil spill in 2010. Even though it’s perhaps a bit heavy-handed and cartoony in its portrayal of the BP executives, there’s no disputing the magnitude of the event – and the impressive visuals really slam home the scale of the disaster. Another favorite of mine from that year is Imperium – a small but powerful drama about the fight against white supremacy and terrorism. Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as an idealistic rookie FBI Agent working undercover is conflicted and emotional, as he immerses himself in the dangerous underworld and struggles to maintain his own identity as he gets more deeply involved. For a story about something so disturbing, the film has an incredible amount of heart and a surprising hopefulness to it.
And lastly, one of my absolute favorites of all time came out that year, The Belko Experiment – a flick most easily described as Battle Royale meets Office Space. But it’s so much more than that. The awesome characters created by James Gunn and beautifully directed by Greg McClean elevate the story into something much more emotional. It’s hardcore violent and gory as hell, sure, but there’s also humor and heart, which made me care about what happened to the employees of Belko Industries – and that’s the mark of a good story and not just a gore-fest.
2017 had quite a few under-the-radar gems – the best of them being Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River. Though it’s a somber and depressing look at life on a Native American reservation, and a spotlight on the harrowing number of Native American women who go missing every year, the powerful performances by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen keep you riveted to the story. And I gotta say, the flick also has one of the craziest and best shootouts ever filmed.
Another 2017 gem is The Ritual – what starts out as an examination of five college buds’ friendship and estrangement after the death of one of their group, turns into a frightening story involving a monster from Scandinavian mythology. And while the horror aspects of the story are impressive, the best part of the flick by far is the relationship among the guys – funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. And the last favorite of mine from that year is a teeny little flick called Phoenix Forgotten. Yeah, it’s another “found footage” deal and isn’t the most original thing ever, but the mockumentary built around the true event of the Phoenix lights in 1997 reminded me of all the best parts of X-Files – I mean, y’know, way back when X-Files was good. And one last gem from that year that deserves an honorable mention is Please Stand By, which combined the immense acting talent of Dakota Fanning with Star Trek. Yeah. What’s not to love?
2018 brought us Upgrade, Leigh Whannell’s first directorial effort outside of the Insidious franchise, and it was awesome. The near-future story of a techno-phobe who becomes a quadriplegic and finds his only chance to restore himself in an A.I. implant, was so smartly written and directed by Whannell and performed by Logan Marshall-Green, that it actually did a better job of combining the man with the “alien” in his head than the much higher-profile Venom, which came out just a few months later.
Another absolute favorite of mine that year was Peter Berg’s Mile 22. I love this flick so much that I could watch it every day and never get tired of it. Even though you could call it a mini-remake of The Raid, that’s not a bad thing at all. This flick has everything I love in a movie – unique characters, solid writing, directing and performances – and a sh*t-ton of beautifully-choreographed action. Just doesn’t get any better than that. And while Mark Wahlberg was definitely the star, it was Iko Uwais who stole the show. Seriously, that guy is amazing.
And one more flick that I really dug and definitely deserves more love is Searching. While I’m not a huge fan of looking at computer windows blown up to big-screen size, it’s the story that drew me in – that and the awesome John Cho and especially Debra Messing, who turns in a performance that’s startling and chilling. Not to mention that the flick is also a wake-up call for parents to pay much closer attention to what their kids are doing online.
And finally, 2019 – a year that saw a ton of huge franchise flicks, and a year chock-full of others that should have been favorites, and instead just ended up being pretty meh. But one flick I absolutely loved was Pet Sematary. This 2nd adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was a return to unabashed, hard-R horror – which I found to be a welcome change from the recent spate of tame, PG-13 creep-fests. This version wasn’t afraid to get down and gory, which is exactly what the story needed to work.
And to wrap it all up, there’s Escape Room – a small but mighty flick that takes the gimmick of the game and turns it into a deadly affair that has a Cabin in the Woods (2011) type vibe to it. I loved the characters and the flick had me guessing to the very end as to what was going to happen. Nothing overly complicated or pretentious – it’s just fun and I find I can re-watch it anytime and always enjoy it.
So that’s it! Feel free to let me know what some of your lesser-known favorites were. Happy New Year and here’s hoping that 2020 will be an even better year at the movies.