Last week I covered films 14-26, so here are the 13 best movies of the last five years (2011-2016).
13. Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman, 2014)
Great science fiction conceit, unique action sequences, and fun characters make this film an absolute joy to behold. It also works as a take on what it would be like to live as a video game character. Tom “the last movie star” Cruise actually plays a character that is not the generic Tom Cruise action hero, which gives this film an even more distinct flavor. And while we all know that Emily Blunt can do anything, this is her at her best.
12. Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight, 2016)
The structure of Kubo and the Two Strings is very familiar, drawing from epic fables, Japanese folklore, video games, and the monomyth, but besides allowing the film to be accessible to its target audience, that structure is used in a wholly unique way.
The main character and his mother are both storytellers by nature, but the main theme of the film is how we incorporate narrative into our own lives. Kubo casts himself as a hero on an epic quest, and while this helps him deal with grief, he is able to deal with it because he is finally able to reconcile and accept his familial relationships. The quest itself is gorgeously rendered and a joy to take in, but it also underscores all of the film’s themes about the stories we choose to tell about ourselves, our loved ones, and each other. Similar to Zootopia, it is amazing how the texture of a film for children can explore complex issues like the nature of grief, subjective truths, and self-identity without compromising the entertaining qualities they contain.
And of course the animation is nothing short of astounding. Laika continues to impress as a studio, and Kubo is by fair their most ambitious project to date. Their willingness to incorporate new technologies (like 3D printing) into their stop motion style shows that it is a medium that will continue to live on, and not just a relic of nostalgia. The final confrontation between Kubo and his grandfather, in which the Moon King fills the entire frame, is the most visually stunning moments I saw in the theater this year.
11. 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg, 2016)
The way that this film balances tension with perfect character work is astounding. After seeing it I wasn’t sure if it would live up to subsequent viewings, given that there is a twist ending, but I actually like it more because the twist helps to resolve Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s arc.
Each thing that advances the story of this film comes from a character choice. And the characters are smart. They consider things. They do the things in this movie you wish you’d be smart enough to think of. This isn’t watching people make illogical but totally reasonable decisions. This is a best case scenario, and that makes it terrifying. Both this and Green Room— which I enjoyed very much– deal with the fear of the unknown, and while all the characters in Green Room are also smart and resourceful, they don’t evolve as characters the way that Mary Elizabeth Winstead does in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
And this film is also about how society deals with women, putting them in a locked room and putting abstract and seemingly arbitrary restrictions on where they can go and what they can do. These usually invisible barriers become more imminent when they are actively enforced by an imposing man, but they are just manifesting what already exists in the ether as concrete. So when a woman needs to go outside the box, she must use all the tools at her disposal, playing with men’s expectations and using them as a weapon against oppression.
But none of these are at cross-purposes. The themes, character arcs, tension, and surprises form a stronger whole than if they were just layered individually. Each piece carries more and more of the weight, and when seen from the dangers of the outside world, it is beautiful.
10. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2015)
Put beautiful people in a gorgeous landscape (and make one of them Kristen Stewart), make them talk about their relationship with art, their place in the world, and how they wrestle with aging, all while their relationship is refracted through a fictional work of art that they are working through. That’s Clouds of Sils Maria in its most pure form, and this reflective, meditative work is wholly engrossing. And it manages to take a character study and use it to tell an affecting story that is also a critique of Hollywood today. Neither side diminishes the other, and both halves of this film work toward a larger, fuller whole.
9. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013)
To date, this is the best film about the millennial experience. Though Baumbach is a generation removed, the script was co-written by its star, Greta Gerwig, who is amazingly talented, and gives the much needed gender and generational point of view that makes the film work. Evocative of French New Wave and 1970s Woody Allen films, this film follows the 27-year old Frances as she attempts to figure out her life. Feeling like ‘not an adult’ post-college is a common experience these days, and the film captures this malaise while also highlighting the sort of ridiculous aspects of it.
8. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (dir. Brad Bird, 2011)
This is the second best action film of the decade so far, and possibly the most fun to watch on this entire list. I usually describe my favorite genre as “competent people being awesome at their jobs,” which is most spy, heist, or con films, but the twist with this particular entry of the franchise is that these super able people are thwarted at literally every turn by circumstances beyond their control. And while each entry in the franchise has that to some degree, it is at its most clearly focused in this fourth entry. And the chemistry between Cruise, Pegg, and Renner, is fantastic, as is Paula Patton. More Paula Patton, please. Ghost Protocol is a delight at all turns, and it has become one of my rainy day movies, where I can sit down, watch it, and feel all warm and fuzzy by the time Tom Cruise is hopping around on the outside of the Burj Khalifa.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013)
No one other than Martin Scorcese can make the lives of despicable human beings look as much fun as he does. This film is the true thematic followup to Goodfellas, about a group of men who openly flaunt the rules and think the rest of us are crazy for not doing the same. And even more than Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates exactly how seductive this mindset is, leading many to believe that the film isn’t critical enough of Jordan Belfort. Because what Scorsese is telling us is that we all want to be Jordan Belfort. Also Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance, especially for the scene of him attempting to drive.
6. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)
The more times I watch it, the more I am convinced that Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s best film to date (though the Dunkirk trailer makes my mouth water). The film represents everything you’d want from a “hard” science fiction film, combining cutting-edge scientific ideas with a deeply human story. And from a technical perspective, it is amazing filmmaking, gorgeous and inventive. It is satisfying as a piece of entertainment as well as an emotional mediation on the future of our species.
5. The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon, 2012)
This is the best comic book film released to date. Better than any Batman, better than any Spider-Man. This film is a seemingly impossible dream fulfilled. And I’m not talking about from 2008 where Samuel L. Jackson showed up as Nick Fury. Like when I was a kid, we would talk about how they should make a film for each different superhero and then have them team up. Never actually thought it would happen, and there’s part of me that still can’t believe this thing exists. So this film actually means something to me on some sort of existential level, and its popularity is something that feels validating. I was one of the only people I knew who read comics and loved superheroes when I was a kid, but now they are among the most popular movies of all time. But I should probably actually talk about the film itself.
No only does The Avengers exist, but it’s a great movie. It functions both as an entry point to the franchise, but also advances each character’s arc from their solo films and sets them up for the next one. And seeing these characters interact with Joss Whedon’s knack for dialogue and deep understanding of character is sublime. Not to mention that the Battle of New York remains the most affecting action scene in the franchise some eight films later.
4. Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)
For a film about a guy dating an artificial intelligence, I much prefer this take than Ex Machina. Don’t get me wrong, that film was a difficult one to not put on this list, but I find the earnestness behind this film much more interesting and hopeful, even if it is bittersweet. While Jonze explores this science fiction premise to its natural conclusion, Her is a reflection of what we want from love, how love is supposed to make us feel, and just how fleeting that is. Even when looks are removed from the equation, and when Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) feels like he can be selfish because the OS isn’t “real,” he is repudiated, despite relationships feeling like a sort of validation. All relationships are difficult, and communication is hard, even with someone who doesn’t need sleep or have to go to work, or live their own separate life right before our eyes.
The most underrated aspect of this film might be Scarlett Johansson. Despite her performance being only vocal, she gives Samantha a presence that most actors might not be able to achieve. Since the character grows and changes dramatically over the course of the film, it is definitely a credit to Johansson that she can portray innocent curiosity all the way to dismissive superiority (that still has a ton of warmth) in just her voice.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
This is the fourth decade in a row where you could easily make an argument that one of the best films from that decade comes from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. And though they only have two films out in the 2010s so far (Hail Caesar! probably would have made my top ten this year if I had watched it again since February) Inside Llewyn Davis is an absolute classic. It’s the kind of film that I loved from the first time I saw it, but it reveals more and more with each revisit.
Though Inside Llewyn Davis barely has a plot—rather, it just sets a grieving, broken folk singer out into the New York winter of 1961 and letting him act like a big dumb jerk for most of its runtime—it has a story. It isn’t about redemption, but how we are our own worst enemy, and grief isn’t an excuse to treat other people horribly. Llewyn is both the protagonist and antagonist of his own story. If he would ask for help, or stop acting like said jerk, most of his problems would probably go away. But from beginning to end, he is getting in his own way.
And the music in this film is astounding. Featuring all new recordings, with two exceptions, the Coens and T-Bone Burnett crafted new music perfectly suited to the early Greenwich Village folk scene. Encompassing a variety of styles and techniques, as well as an impressive display of vocal range by Justin Timberlake, the music has stuck with me more than any other film on this list.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)
Both a blistering action film and a rally for gender equality, Mad Max: Fury Road may actually be perfect. There is nothing about this film that should be changed, from the simple story to the pounding score by Junkie XL, to the amazing digital photography, editing, and color grading. To have a film work on every single story and technical level and for that film to essentially be a giant car chase is astounding. There is beauty in its simplicity, and this film is such a viscerally satisfying experience.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)
This should probably not be a surprise to anyone who knows me. Wes Anderson is my favorite director whose name does not rhyme with “Teven Pielberg,” and I believe The Grand Budapest Hotel is his richest work to date. It is also the best way to refute criticism of the filmmaker, as it is also the most Wes Anderson film he has made so far.
Beyond its story-within-a-story structure, the film is a mad caper set on the precipice of the end of “refined” civilization and the dawn of fascism. Anderson uses analogues in order to evoke the horrors of the 20th century without having to recreate them (the titular hotel is located in the Republic of Zubrowka, but just named for Budapest), which is an effective choice. Darkness remains on all sides of these characters but never breaks the illusion the film creates, allowing it to still be a madcap farce while conveying the gravity of the threats to this way of life. It isn’t that The Grand Budapest Hotel is overly nostalgic for a time period none of us remember so much that it is celebrating the need for levity and frivolity in the face of evil (especially an evil where everyone has to dress alike) and demonstrating how the scars of that evil ripple forward in time.
The hotel is an interesting place, it is an equalizer, where people of all social classes can interact, even though it also exists to affirm that order. The most interesting relationships in the film are the ones that happen across these barriers. This is where people learn and grow and experience new things.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.