#10: Hero (Ying xiong)
Director Zhang Yimou takes the template of Kurosawa’s classic “Rashomon” and expands upon it, weaving a tale of politics and love of homeland into this visually stunning parable.
A nameless soldier (Jet Li) is summoned before the king of Qin, who is in the midst of trying to conquer all the kingdoms of China and is suspicious of spies from rival kingdoms. Nameless, as he is known, has expertly killed three assassins from the kingdom of Zhao, and the king demands to know how he accomplished the feat. We flash back to Nameless’ account of the events, wherein all the characters are color-coded in shades of red.
The king listens attentively, and decides Nameless is lying. He concocts his own version of events, wherein Nameless and the three assassins worked together to advance him to the king’s throne room, where Nameless might murder the king. In this version of events, the sets and costumes are all blue.
Finally, the truth is revealed, and the relationships and motivations of all involved are more complex than either of the false narratives. Nameless makes his stand against the king—and allows his words and his life to communicate his beliefs.
This is the kind of movie that could only be made in an international market. The sheer scope of the sets, costumes, extras, and narrative technique are awe-inspiring. The acting and action choreography is spot-on, and the decision to support it all with a passionate plea for unity gives the film some well-earned gravitas.
#9: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Released in 2007, along with neo-westerns “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” “The Assassination of Jesse James” was in many ways left buried under the praise of other films, despite quietly being the best of the three.
Director Andrew Dominik tales his time with this narrative, charting the assimilation of awkward, obsessed youngster Robert Ford (a powerhouse Casey Affleck) into the gang of the aging, existential and increasingly paranoid Jesse James (Brad Pitt). James has seen his legend grow even while he is still alive, with mostly made-up stories of his “Robin Hood” heroics filling dime store novels for kids and adults alike.
James tries to lay low under a false identity and assume the role of husband and father, but he has a need to pull off the occasional heist. During his robberies, Ford begins to see the real James, even as this epiphany cracks the veneer of heroism and celebrity Ford has built up in his mind. Slowly, James begins to experience a sense of strange destiny, that Ford will play a Judas character in his demise, and the middle third of the film consists mostly of James and Ford’s psychological warfare. James test Ford, berates him, then allows his to come slinking back.
Eventually, Ford follows through on a plan to kill his hero, and where the film really excels is in dealing with the fallout of that decision on Ford’s life. He regrets his actions, he misses his friend, he becomes a pariah, and he never achieves any form of notoriety—at least not the kind he always wanted.
Dominik’s decision to use an omniscient narrator is bold but pays off, particularly in the denouement. Cinematographer Roger Deakins turns in some of his best work here, making “Assassination” as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the mind.
#8: The Revenant
A movie mercilessly mocked in the far corners of the Internet, both for its nonexistent “bear rape” and its star’s “endless grunting and flailing,” “The Revenant” enjoyed tremendous box office and critical success before being almost immediately reconsidered. Well, there’s no need.
This is a singular piece of cinema. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is in complete control of his craft, and if one reads some horror stories about the film’s lengthy production, it’s easy to see how this vision stretched even beyond the bounds of the camera. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is, as always, breathtaking, if this time more than a bit showy. His insistence on spherical lenses give the whole enterprise a slightly uneasy feeling.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays a fictionalized version of a real trapper named Hugh Glass, who was left for dead after a mauling by a bear, betrayed by his fellow fur trapper John Fitzgerald (ed Hardy). Glass must trek across the frozen plains and mountains to return to camp before his injuries or the elements get the better of him, while also avoiding French soldiers and Native American tribes.
Inarritu and Mark L. Smith develop Glass’ survival story into something more–a meditation on life, death, and the supernatural. It’s also a tale of conflicting worldviews: the hubris of Fitzgerald, who thinks he is bigger than God, in control of his own destiny, and the humility of Glass, literally brought low by his injuries, but also grounded by his connection to the afterlife through repeated visions of his dead wife.
What struck me most about the film, well beyond its excellent battle choreography, famed long takes, and brutally effective performances, was how deeply theological it chooses to be. This is an action film with a brain and more than a few questions to ask.
#7: The Dark Knight
Another film that took over popular culture in such frenzy that we sometimes forget how downright great it is on its own merits.
Christopher Nolan wisely lets the character of The Joker (a brilliant Heath Ledger) steer the movie both in narrative and in theme. Far from being another “superhero” movie, this is a film about mythologies, both those we know and those we create. In the Batman universe, the character played by Bruce Wayne has to be a symbol, and this film deals with the harsh truth that in order to do the right thing, sometimes one has to be willing to be seen as a villain.
“The Dark Knight” changed the landscape of film over the last decade. The move toward “darker” heroes (of both the super and non-super varieties) can be largely traced to the post 9/11 “Jason Bournes” of the world, and not in small part to this 2008 gem.
#6: Up in the Air
The second film in the top 25 from director Jason Reitman, neither of which are called “Juno.” Reitman is at the height of his powers here, guiding the subject matter expertly between comedy, tragedy, cynicism, and pathos.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country as a “consultant” for large corporations, where his sole task is firing people in a face-to-face setting when the businesses are too cowardly to do so. New to his firm is upstart Natalie (Anna Kendrick) whose enthusiasm and ambition know no bounds. Natalie wants to transition out those in Ryan’s position in favor of firing people remotely over the internet. To prove the value of his position, Ryan convinces his bosses to allow Natalie to shadow him.
Ryan is a man, as the film’s tagline cleverly states, “looking for a connection.” This is a reference to his frequent-flyer life, where he’s learned to (literally and figuratively) shed all excess baggage, living out of a suitcase and maintaining few personal relationships. However, it’s also a reference to his obvious longing for something more: he works on behalf of cold, faceless corporations, advocating for a personal touch in terminating employees, and while everyone around him looks to escape their personal lives (including sometime love interest Alex, played by Vera Farmiga), ryan is looking to find one.
Reitman plays up the feelings of isolation in all his characters’ lives, and both the ugliness of the job and the constant airport settings feed into the atmosphere. It would be easy for “Up in the Air” to dip into unbridled cynicism and become hard-bitten, but the injection of laughs–even sarcastic ones–add touches of humanity to the proceedings. This movie is both touching and heartbreaking, and it feels just as timely almost a decade later as it did in the midst of the Great Recession.