#20: Gone Baby Gone
One of the more underappreciated films on this list, director Ben Affleck’s debut is a powerhouse of moral cinema. Far removed from its police-procedural and noir trappings, the story is interested in big questions. After a four-year-old girl goes missing, PIs Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) investigate the kidnapping, leading to ethical dilemmas for themselves and all involved. Blessed with a stellar supporting cast (including Oscar nominee Amy Ryan, Morgan Freeman, and Ed Harris), this one will leave you pondering long after its final frames.
#19: Good Night, and Good Luck.
If you want to write a screenplay, start here. George Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov perfectly encapsulate the fast-paced world of a TV newsroom, the lives of its workers, and the general panic of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, while devoting large chunks of time to legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow’s actual monologues nearly verbatim. Clooney takes bold risks as a director, structuring the film almost as if it’s a 1950s broadcast, complete with clips of early commercials. He shoots the film in black-and-white (with metric tons of cigarette smoke) to maintain the overall aesthetic. The cast, including David Strathairn, Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr., and Patricia Clarkson, is first-rate. But this is a movie that thrives on words. Watch it with subtitles to get the most out of every powerful Murrow polemic. While print media has gotten attention as of late in films like “Spotlight” and “The Post,” this one might quietly be the best film about the responsibilities of journalism this century.
It’s a little premature for this one, and I have a feeling it will get pushed down the list a bit as time passes, but for me, this is Pixar’s best film in a decade. Unlike the traditional “find your individuality” tropes of Disney films, their Pixar division continues to find ways of affirming the importance of community. “Coco” is not just a love letter to Mexican culture, it’s also a thoughtful and mature meditation on death, remembrance, and family.
Against all odds, this mixed martial arts-themed film, funded in part by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, succeeds as so much more than a run-of-the-mill sports movie. Its characters are fully-formed, fundamentally-flawed people. At its heart is the story of a broken family, the deep psychological hurts inflicted by abusive parenting, and the ways grown people cope with past traumas.
Nick Nolte turns in a career-best performance as Paddy Conlon, training his drug-addict prodigal son Tommy to compete in a prestigious MMA tournament. Meanwhile, Paddy’s other son, Brendan, fights to supply another source of income for his family and works hard to establish himself as the stable and present father Paddy never could be. Of course, the two brothers must eventually square off in the octagon, and their fight is not simply physical, but an exorcism of their personal demons, an airing of their grievances with each other, their lives, their circumstances, and their past abuses.
This is masterful, heart-wrenching filmmaking, and easily one of the very best sports films in recent memory.
#16: Young Adult
Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, following the success of their film Juno, re-teamed to produce this biting, vicious dark comedy. Charlize Theron is pitch-perfect as Mavis Gary, a semi-successful author who returns to her Minnesota hometown after a bitter divorce and a slump in work. There, she was queen of the high school, and she attempts to re-ingratiate herself into the social dynamics of the town as its deserving royalty. Mavis truly believes she is entitled to this adulation, while the audience is painfully aware she is doing this all to cover her bruised and damaged psyche, to push away the demons of alcoholism to which she’s so clearly losing, and to stave off the fear that she is as insignificant as everyone else.
Cody’s script pulls no punches. Mavis is constantly shifting from humiliation to hubris, using the latter to cover up for the former. She continually tries to reclaim her high-school sweetheart, Buddy, now happily married and far removed from the made-up social hierarchy of high school hallways. Meanwhile, class reject and victim of horrific bullying Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) is the only voice of reason in Mavis’ life. While most in the town can see through Mavis’ charade, Matt is the only one willing to neither coddle nor enable her, demonstrating how far above her narrow worldview he is.
Mavis’ character doesn’t follow an arc so much as a circle. By the end of the film, she learns lessons that would mature any rational person, but she suppresses the voice of reason with the affirmation of those still trying to earn her approval.
“Young Adult” is a scathing commentary on the effects of self-aggrandizement, too much affirmation, and the refusal to accept the complexities of life (beyond the confines of the “popular” and ‘unpopular” dynamic).