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A decade of movie magnificence: Looking back at the cinematic 2010s Featured

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Welcome to the first Maine Edge cover story of the Roaring (20)20s!

As such, I thought we might have some fun looking back at the last decade’s best cinematic offerings. I’ve been reviewing movies here since 2008. In the ‘10s, I wrote about movies roughly a thousand times. Yeah – I’m as shocked as you are. That’s a lot of ink spilled in celebration and derision of Hollywood’s finest.

So yes, while this story might be a little late to the party, it was important to me to share my Best of the Decade movie list. As per usual with this sort of feature, there’s a real chance that this list could be a little different depending on the day. However, this feels like the right list.

Here they are, in alphabetical order. Have a look!

Get Out

The best horror movies are the ones that manage to use their scares to say something. Yes, frights should come first and foremost – that’s what a horror movie is – but it’s when those frights come in the service of deeper, more complex ideas that you find the most powerful and compelling examples of the genre.

And at the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, “Get Out” is capital-G Great.

Written and directed by Jordan Peele in his feature debut, it is the best horror movie in a decade of outstanding offerings. It is savvy and thought-provoking while also being genuinely unsettling; scary and smart and scary smart. Simply put, it is a remarkable film.

“Get Out” would be a remarkable achievement for any filmmaker, but for someone making their directorial debut, it is particularly impressive. Peele’s eye is a strong one; his stylistic choices are consistently strong, ratcheting up the tension in ingenious ways while also finding the right moments to let the story breathe. There are some strikingly visceral scenes sprinkled throughout.

The script is exceptional. The temptation is to point at the explorations – both subtle and overt – of racial and social stereotypes. And make no mistake – those explorations are thoughtful and well-wrought. However, the reason “Get Out” is so successful is because it is, at heart, a horror film, one that celebrates all that the genre entails. It’s also darkly funny – no surprise given Peele’s comedic bona fides – in a way that elevates the tension and terror rather than deflates them.

Intelligent and intense, “Get Out” lingers long after the credits roll. It’s a film that has already taken its place among the very best socio-political allegories of the genre – think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or the works of guys like John Carpenter and George Romero. Expect this one to stand the test of time.

Lady Bird

“Lady Bird” is one of the funniest, most honest, most genuine coming of age stories we’ve seen on the big screen in years – and absolutely deserving on a decade-best list.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig announced her presence with authority in her directorial debut, crafting a remarkable semi-autobiographical portrait of growing up that precisely captures a moment in time. It is about family and love and heartbreak and home, all refracted through the prism of one teenaged girl.

In short, “Lady Bird” soars.

I love it when a tale of growing up is rendered with honesty and wit and heart. And Greta Gerwig delivered a film that is all of that while also managing to be incredibly funny at the same time. There’s no gratuitous heartstring-tugging here; just earned emotional engagement and intricate relationships and some awkward hilarity.

This was one of those rare movies where I found myself actively seeking to tell people to see it. And not just in a general sense. In a “Who do I know in their early- to mid-30s?” way. Seriously – anyone who was in high school 15 years ago needs to see this movie. It’s not even a question.

The film was Gerwig’s solo debut as a writer/director, but it in no way resembles the work of the inexperienced. Rather, there’s a stark sophistication to it, both narratively and visually. Gerwig has lovingly recreated this particular time and place – you’ll never believe how emotionally attached you’ll become to the world of Sacramento circa 2002.

“Lady Bird” is small and singular, a story about a teenager that finds beauty in the banal. It is a masterpiece of memory, one filmmaker’s wildly successful effort to invoke the complex simplicity of her own adolescence while telling a universal tale. Frankly, it might be even better than I’m making it seem.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Perhaps my most visceral theatergoing experience of the decade was the two-plus hours I spent watching George Miller’s most recent foray into the post-apocalyptic world of Max Rockatansky. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was a movie that I greatly anticipated – so much so that I worried it would prove unable to meet my expectations.

It met those lofty expectations … and then exceeded them, ascending to dizzying heights that I wouldn't have even considered possible and creating a moviegoing experience that was somehow far better than my already unreasonable demands.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the most visually striking and viscerally intense action films to come on the scene in recent memory. One could argue that it is essentially a two-hour chase scene, filled with Frankensteined motor vehicles and insane representations of the remnants of humanity. The screen is saturated in fire and noise, with image after memorable image searing its way into the viewer's brain. This feeling is enhanced greatly by the preponderance of practical effects. Director George Miller's antipathy toward CGI means that when you're watching caravans of modified cars scream across the desert, colliding with each other and spouting flame … it’s actually taking place in the physical world.

And there's SO MUCH HAPPENING. You know that if you blink, you might miss something incredible. So you don't blink.

It is said that there's a fine line between genius and insanity. This movie drives an armor-plated muscle car over that line and then sets that same line on fire. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a spectacle of compelling insanity, an intricate construction that is complex in its baseness. In the world created by George Miller, the only way to stay sane is to go mad.

The Master

Look, let’s not beat around the bush: “The Master” would be one of the best movies of any decade, not just this one. With a collection of incredible talents operating at the height of their powers – writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquim Phoenix, Amy Adams and the never-better Philip Seymour Hoffman – this film is, well … a masterpiece.

Anderson’s story of a man falling under the spell of the charismatic leader of a movement that may or may not be a cult is one of the most powerful and compelling films of the decade, featuring outstanding performances from some generational actors. It might be the best work of the late Hoffman’s storied career, while Phoenix and Adams – no slouches themselves – are throwing plenty of heat as well.

Few filmmakers have PTA’s gifts for exploring the depths of the spiritually broken, finding the moments of clarity or levity beneath the bleakness of circumstance. And few have his thoughtfulness of aesthetic, a subtle specificity that marks all of his work. He’s got both, and he turns them full-blast on “The Master.”

It’s a marriage of filmmaker, cast and subject matter that we rarely see. The balance struck between the visionary auteur behind the camera, the exemplary ensemble in front of it and the meticulous and mysterious story they’ve come to tell is delicate, precise … and perfect.

If someone wants to tell me that this is the best movie of the decade, I’m not going to argue with them. If they want to make a case for it as the best movie of the 21 st century, I’m prepared to listen to what they have to say. While I don’t think it’s either of those things for me (at least not today), I think that believing them to be the case is perfectly fair.

Moneyball

I am an unabashed lover of sports movies, no matter the sport (though baseball is my favorite, both on- and off-screen). I also love watching the rise of a plucky underdog.

“Moneyball” is both – and then some.

Not only does it tell the story of the underdog Oakland A’s and their general manager Billy Beane, but the movie itself was years in the making, faced with delays and changes in personnel. It’s the little movie that could about the little baseball team that could.

“Moneyball” tells the tale of A’s GM Billy Beane, a man with big dreams forced to deal with the harsh economic realities of the game he loves. His team just lost in the playoffs to the Yankees and he’s losing three of his key players to free agency. There’s no money to replace them and Beane finds himself frustrated by the old-school mentality of his scouting department.

But Beane sees the possibility of a new way to evaluate baseball players – a way to build a formidable team without breaking the bank on individual players. Resistance is high, especially from A’s manager Art Howe, as Beane rails against a system that he suspects to be broken.

The most difficult obstacle facing the filmmakers was finding a way to translate Michael Lewis’s book to the screen. A heady exploration of the advances in statistical analysis in baseball isn’t exactly conducive to riveting cinematic scenes.

However, you’d be hard pressed to find a better screenwriting team than Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian; director Bennett Miller brings their script to life with a smooth, practiced hand. Throw in first-rate performances from luminaries like Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman and you’ve got something special.

As the sport has evolved, the cutting edge featured in “Moneyball” has become the new normal; it’s a wonderful snapshot.

Moonlight

There is power in stories. There is power in telling them and power in hearing them. And some stories resonate, leaving echoes behind that linger in the memory long after their ostensible endings.

“Moonlight” is one of those stories. A tale told in three chapters, it’s a reflection of a life lived and the struggles that come with trying to find your way through the world when the thoughts you think and the wants you want don’t coincide with what you’re supposed to think and to want. It is a cinematic masterpiece in so many ways, the kind of movie whose heartbreaking beauty beams from every frame.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins in collaboration with Tarell Alvin McCraney – whose dramatic work “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” served as the inspiration and instigation of the project – “Moonlight” is a powerful, haunting look at a young man and his difficulties coming to terms with his family, his friends and himself.

“Moonlight” is about race and sexuality and class and adolescence without being solely about them, if that makes sense. It is a story that could not exist without those societal touchstones, yet its effectiveness doesn’t rely on any of them. What writer/director Jenkins has done here is capture a small experience – that of a single boy’s journey toward manhood and everything that entails – and endow it with a universality while still maintaining its unique perspective. It is an astonishing feat.

“Moonlight” is a beautiful, sad, beautifully sad film. It is powerful and raw and unflinching, a cinematic experience that is both new and hauntingly familiar. Frankly, it’s difficult to articulate just how good this movie is. More than good enough to earn a place on this list, to be sure.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

There are no half-measures in Quentin Tarantino movies. There is nothing partial about the films that he makes. They might be shaggy or smug or gratuitous or plain indulgent, but they are never anything less than the full extent of what he intends them to be.

That utter commitment is a big part of what has made Tarantino into perhaps the most influential mainstream filmmaker of his generation. More than any of his peers, he has shaped both the creation and consumption of popular culture over the past quarter-century – largely by celebrating and appropriating the popular culture that shaped him.

In that sense, “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” – Tarantino’s ninth (Ish? Still not sure I’m buying the “Kill Bill” duology as one movie) film – is the culmination of a creative journey of sorts. It’s a full-on love letter to the Hollywood of the late 1960s, the Hollywood that produced so many of the influences that impacted his creative development. At its heart, from the title on down, it is a fairy tale. It also might be the most sentimental offering of QT’s career.

It doesn’t hurt that we get two of our greatest American actors giving performances that should be considered among their best – Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are both incredible throughout the film’s shaggy hangout extent.

Like most Tarantino films, “OUATIH” is likely to reward repeated viewings. The detailed specificity he brings to the table means that it’s almost impossible to catch everything the first time through – there’s a LOT going on here. It warrants mentioning that we’re dealing with a time and place in whose lore Tarantino has been thoroughly steeped for decades; those deep-cut tendencies have never had such rich and abundant fuel. In a lot of ways, it feels like his most personal work to date. All of his films have that labor-of-love whiff about them, but this one is a little different. A little more.

This film is weird and sprawling, filled with sharp edges and gentle curves. Just like Hollywood.

The Social Network

It’s hard to believe that this movie came out so long ago. Turns out that a LOT can change over the course of a decade.

The thing about “The Social Network” is its general prescience. Not only is it a brilliantly-made movie – no surprise when you’ve got David Fincher directing an Aaron Sorkin script – but it is a thought-provoking one. It captured its past within the framework of its present while also somehow capturing frequencies of the future.

Oh, and full disclosure? I had very little interest in this movie in the moment. A film about the formation of Facebook? Really? It all seemed kind of … silly? But then I started to hear rumblings that not only was this movie not bad, it was actually excellent. And holy hell, were those rumblings right.

“The Social Network” tells a split story. On the one hand, we watch Mark Zuckerberg and his friends advance through the stages of building Facebook. On the other, we have two separate legal proceedings, where Zuckerberg is being sued by different parties who have their own claim to the Facebook empire.

I know, I know – computer programming and legal depositions. Sounds thrilling. But the thing is … it works. The story is engaging despite the overwhelmingly sedentary nature of the action. And for that, we have the director and screenwriter to thank. Between Fincher’s natural kineticism behind the camera and Sorkin’s walk-and-talk dialogue energy, it all comes to life in a remarkable way.

Ten years ago, I would not have guessed that this film would have a legitimate case as the best movie of the decade, but it absolutely does. Smart, sharp and still relevant, “The Social Network” truly connects.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

I had no idea what I was getting with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” As an avowed Spidey fan, I was ready to like this movie. I just wasn’t prepared for the mind-blowing experience that I received.

This movie offers up a story boldly told, one filled with humor and heart and more web-slinging than you ever dared dream. Smart and beautifully rendered, the film takes full advantage of the benefits derived from working in the animated realm, packed with vivid colors and action unfettered by “realism.”

It’s not just a great comic book movie – it might be one of the best. Never before has a movie so adroitly replicated onscreen the experience of reading a comic book. The freewheeling stylistic choices. The sharp, quippy dialogue. The occasional moment of unabashed sentimentality. It’s all there, hearkening back to what it felt like to be a 10-year-old who was held in absolute thrall by the adventures (and the flaws) of a wall-crawling superhero.

This movie embraced the flexibility of animation in a magnificent way. The filmmakers weren’t bound by the notion of uniformity, switching styles whenever they saw fit. Vastly different sizes and shapes and scales all operating hand-in-hand, embracing and employing the various visual cues that make comic books such a unique art form. The action set pieces are sublime, broad and soaring, with so many moments that feel like they were lifted straight from the splash pages of a comic.

And the narrative is just as compelling; the depth of storytelling here isn’t what you might expect from an animated superhero movie. There’s actual emotional heft – plus a lot of solid banter and some legitimately good jokes to boot.

I knew “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was going to be good. I just didn’t realize it was going to be great. But it is. It’s a Spider-Man comic brought to life. It is sensational. It is amazing. It is … spectacular.

Special mention: The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Yes, yes, this is totally cheating, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the Marvel Cinematic Universe as part of the cinematic decade. And choosing just one of the score of films to represent the entire operation seemed unnecessarily reductive. And so – my tenth selection is the MCU.

With an average of two films a year over this span, the MCU became the defining franchise in a landscape littered with them. Each movie a brightly-colored cog making hundreds of millions of dollars en route to a massive convergence with an all-time great box office haul.

And I love it all.

I am an unabashed superhero fan. I was a comics consumer as a kid and I never lost my love for them, even if I did stop keeping up. To get these movies about these characters that I’ve known my whole life … it was special. It’s STILL special, to be honest, even if the MCU is a de facto money-printing machine for Disney.

I’ve enjoyed every one of these films immensely. I can recognize the truth behind some of the criticisms levied against them and they’ve all got their issues or flaws. Favorites? Phase One: “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Phase Two: “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Phase Three: “Black Panther,” though the two Spider-Man movies are the ones that give me the biggest feelings.

The MCU phases – individual films leading up to an Avengers movie – are seemingly as effective as ever, with “Avengers: Endgame” serving as a culmination of culminations, a furious three hours of intimate moments and epic battles that felt like the biggest movie ever because, frankly, it had to. It wrapped up the threads of a cast of characters with whom we had spent the last 10 years. Oh, and it became the all-time box office champ (at least by some measures) along the way.

This is cinematic storytelling at its broadest. It’s a willingness to work episodically, using each film to advance the overstory while allowing each to tell its own individual tale. It’s an imperfect system, with some efforts working better than others, but the truth is that even the relative misfires still wind up as engaging pieces of popcorn entertainment. A Marvel movie is like pizza – even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

(Honorable mentions: “Arrival;” “Boyhood;” “Bridesmaids;” “The Cabin in the Woods;” “Django Unchained;” “Drive;” “Dunkirk;” “Ex Machina;” “The Grand Budapest Hotel;” “Gravity;” “Inception;” “Inside Llewyn Davis;” “Inside Out;” “The Irishman;” “John Wick;” “Little Women;” “Logan;” “Roma;” “Sorry to Bother You;” “Toy Story 3”)

Last modified on Tuesday, 07 January 2020 07:34

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