20 Best Movies of the Last 20 Years, Part 4: 5-1
Part one of this list featuring movies 20-16 can be found here, part two featuring movies 15-11 can be found here, and part three featuring movies 10-6 can be found here.
(The list can be discussed on the BSL Board here.)
Drive (September, 16th, 2011)
The opening scene in ‘Drive’ is one of the best in film history and you should know how you’re going to feel about the movie from that moment on as it sets a very good tone that carries through to the end. Its a quiet but thrilling scene as Ryan Gosling’s Hollywood stunt man is participating in his side job as a getaway driver. He gives his clients a five minute window and then masterfully evades pursuers in creative ways. There are a few chase scenes in the movie and they’re all great. So is the action which there isn’t a ton of but when its on screen it happens quickly and graphically. The performances are great all around from Gosling’s mostly silent protagonist who oozes confidence to Oscar Isaac in his first performance where you take note of who he is. Cary Mulligan is great as always as the love interest and the two standout villains of the film are terrifying in their own ways. Ron Perlman is the more straightforward aggressive menace while Albert Brooks is the quieter, more calculating threat. Bryan Cranston plays Gosling’s boss and friend in the midst of his ‘Breaking Bad’ days.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn usually makes offbeat, challenging, some would say pretentious movies. I’m actually a fan of pretty much all of them to various degrees but films like ‘Only God Forgives’, ‘Bronson’, and ‘The Neon Demon’ are not everyone’s cup of tea. But for ‘Drive’ he really locked in and made a movie that both stays true to his own style and also connected with the broad movie going audience, maybe by accident. The story plays out in a more traditional way than some of his other movies and the synth score is iconic as it conjures up the 80’s and has been mimicked many times since the summer of 2011. ‘Drive’ and the rest of this top five also stand out as movies that are original ideas. It may be based on a book but its not a sequel, spin-off, or part of an interconnected cinematic universe. Its a movie that stands on its own and is very re-watchable. I wouldn’t be opposed to a sequel but it would be unnecessary.
12 Years A Slave (November 8th, 2013)
The deserving winner of Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards is a hard movie to watch as it doesn’t pull any punches on such a heavy topic such as a successful free black man in New York being taken captive and sold into slavery. Its not a movie you purchase with the idea of re-watching or a movie that you see playing on HBO and get excited to see which part its at. But it is a movie worth seeing once for a powerful first time watch. Director Steve McQueen’s movies are always beautiful to look at and that continues here in the contradiction of the century. He also uses long shots to hammer home just how bad it was. Chiwetel Ejiofor is splendid as Solomon Northup, the man subjected to this atrocity. He was nominated for Best Actor but didn’t win which is a shame. He was able to embody the struggle of American slavery as well as just a human being ripped apart from his family for a long period of time for reasons completely outside of his control. The modern day version of this could be someone falsely convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.
For as sad of a situation as this was, McQueen doesn’t give you time to dwell on it as the audience, much like Solomon, is just trying to make it through this journey. You get to see the varying degrees of evil as his first owner is a relatively ‘nice’ man played by Benedict Cumberbatch but he is then sold to Michael Fassbender’s Oscar nominated turn as an unhinged monster. Its once hes under his thumb that he meets Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o in a Best Supporting Actress star turn, who is put through the worst of it all. As the title implies Solomon was a slave for 12 years and while his escape is cathartic he is only one person in a sea of victims. Its not until he is reunited with his family and he sees his daughter who was but a child when he last saw her, now has a child of her own. Its an emotional ending to a modern day masterpiece.
Boyhood (July 11th, 2014)
Director Richard Linklater is known to be a little experimental with his film making. He’s the guy who made the Before Trilogy which are three movies spaced nine years apart each following the relationship of characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from the day they first met though what appears to be the end of their marriage. He also made ‘Dazed and Confused’ and followed it up with a spiritual successor 23 years later with ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’. Well ‘Boyhood’ is his most creative work of all. Filmed over 12 years he follows the childhood of a six year old boy up until he graduates college. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play his parents and its fascinating to watch them all noticeably age on screen over the course of the two and half hours of the movie. Ellar Coltrane plays the titular boy and comes into his own as an unknown actor. His acting ability fluctuates at times during the film but ultimately ends up being pretty good by the end. It will be interesting to follow his career after basically watching his grow up.
The best part of this ultimate version of the coming of age movie is that while it is incredibly specific to the character on screen who’s parents get divorced and all the unique experiences he goes through it also manages to be universal in the fact that we were all kids growing up at one point. The movie stirred up so many memories for me that weren’t even necessarily related to what was being shown on screen. Its a nostalgic trip mostly because the film focuses on the minor ‘insignificant’ moments in our life. Its these, not the big milestone moments, that make us who we are and that we remember the most. I was tearing up at random moments throughout for no logical reason. There is no death, no real heart break. Just the realization that life is constantly moving forward. I was relating with the parents as much as the boy as I watch my own kids grow up right in front of me. If you haven’t see ‘Boyhood’ yet you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.
Inglourious Basterds (August 21st, 2009)
Quentin Tarantino is one of the great directors of our time and ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is his magnum opus. The alternate history revenge movie about a plan to assassinate Adolph Hitler manages to be the perfect blend of silly and poignant. There are movies that on a scene by scene basis are great but for some reason don’t hold up when put together and there are great movies that don’t have any great standout scenes. Basterds manages to be the best of both worlds. Every scene in the movie is great and memorable in its own right (from the opening suspenseful introduction to Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa to the undercover basement bar scene that escalates into a deadly shootout) and its also one of my favorite movies of all time altogether.
The aforementioned Landa is one of cinema’s greatest villains and the movie is filled with fantastic characters. There is Brad Pitt as the hilarious Aldo Raine, leader of the titular Basterds who are a group of Jewish-American soldiers put together to hunt and kill Nazi’s. Michael Fassbender plays a British soldier who works with Diane Kruger’s German actress spy. Shosanna is a jewish woman played by Melanie Laurent who escapes Landa in the opening scene and eventually opens up a movie theater that plays a big role in the movie’s climax. Daniel Brul plays a German sniper who befriends Shosanna unaware of her heritage. I could go on and on but it all adds up to an incredibly enjoyable, endlessly re-watchable experience of a terrible time in the world’s history. Which is the reason it is ranked higher than ’12 Years A Slave’. Two directions to take on tough subjects which QT doubled down on in 2013 with the also great ‘Django Unchained’.
There Will Be Blood (December 26th, 2007)
My favorite film of the past 20 years also just happens to be my favorite film of all time. Paul Thomas Anderson keeps popping up on this list and here he is again at the top. ‘There Will Be Blood’ is the story of a silver miner named Daniel Plainview who finds oil and with it his quest for wealth is set into motion. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of his life (which is saying something) as a man so driven by greed he will use anything and anyone to increase his riches including ‘adopting’ a mans son after he dies during an accident while working for him all in the name of being seen as a ‘family man’ so that he can take advantage of more people. Paul Dano plays two characters in the movie. Paul Sunday, the man who tells Plainview of the big supply of oil under his families property, and Eli Sunday the local pastor who incites a war between Daniel and the church. Our antagonist leading man gets crazier and crazier as time goes on until the iconic ending when he snaps and monolgues about milkshakes.
The plot is great but really its the direction that sets it apart. The cinematography is gorgeous as are a lot of the shots PTA is able to capture. It is edited together perfectly, has a great score, incredible sound design, and another superlative to describe the production design, setting, and costumes. There are an unlimited number of great things I could say about the movie but really its just a masterpiece that hooks you from the opening seconds until the closing credits. There are themes of capitalism and greed here. It is because of Daniel Plainview’s greed that an entire economy is built around his oil venture but it is also his greed that ends up being its demise. Its not a movie for everyone but it is a film for me that works so well in inexplicable ways. You’ll just have to watch it and decide for yourself if you agree with my assessment that it is the best movie of the past 20 years.
Honorable Mentions: Catch Me If You Can, The Truman Show, Out of Sight, Inception, True Romance