14. World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
The particular circumstances of Robin William’s death have brought a frightening new element to the plot of this film. Nonetheless, even with hindsight rendering the plot all the more chilling, World’s Greatest Dad is still an intelligent portrayal of one kind man’s attempt to honor his parental responsibility to his belligerent son, and a very apt examination of icon worship in modern culture.
Aspiring (but failing) writer Lance Clayton is kind to a fault. His obnoxious son Kyle is precocious in all the wrong ways. With death threats, autoerotic asphyxiation, and megalomania arising as standard issues, parenthood is not easy for Lance.
Unassuming, he asks for no favors and finds solace in writing and his secret romance with girlfriend Claire. The subject matter will have you struck both by the tenderness of its endearing moments and, conversely, stunned by the crudeness of its pitch black humor. Unfailingly, this film takes you to places other films never would.
When something bad happens to Kyle, Lance’s attempt to protect his son from his own bad decisions deepens the story. His forging of inspiring diaries, supposedly written by Kyle serve to make Kyle a mythic figure in his high school, an inspiring face backed by Lance’s words.
Kyle’s false diaries seem to speak to the insecurities of the young, like many a rock star before him. But, as the film asserts, myths are mostly false. There is little hope in myth, but the film does imply that hope may lie in the goodness of people. Thus, World’s Greatest Dad leaves us surprisingly hopeful.
13. Her (2013)
Few films can survive a monologue detailing a strangling encounter with a dead cat, but Spike Jonze’s Her can and did. There is much to wonder at in Her, Jonez’s bittersweet vision of the future, Joaquin Phoenix’s virtuoso performance, Scarlett Johansson’s voice, its understated scene staging. Mostly, though, it is the sweetness that permeates through the film that may strike you.
From the moment in which Theodore, a man who writes sentimental love letters for a living, first “turns on” Samantha in his apartment, the connection is real and unforced. To watch a man connect with and date a computer program is so much more human than one might imagine. Be it a picnic with friends, or a childlike romp through the high streets, the innocent Theodore and the animated Samantha have some truly rapturous adventures.
Many may have a problem with the conclusion written for Samantha’s character. But, nonetheless, the film is genuine in the questions it asks about emotional love in the absence of physical love.
Then, there is individuality. Samantha asks a valid question. If you can speak, think, love, and lose, are you not real? To hear her struggle without physical definition brings to light any identity issues the viewer may have, and makes for an involving experience, even in moments that are truly strange. Above all, the film prides its beating heart.
12. Take Shelter (2011)
There is a moment in Take Shelter that perfectly defines the stakes of this odd thriller. It is a moment in which Shea Wingham’s Dewart turns to our protagonist Curtis (Michael Shannon) and tells him “You got a good life, Curtis…I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man”.
At that moment, the film ceases to be simply a thriller about a paranoid man who fears the onset of a devastating storm, and becomes a film about a man struggling to keep his family unit intact. Indeed, this is a film centered around the possibility of a great storm, yet the storm feels completely incidental. What is left is a metaphysical storm, a journey inside a paranoid man’s mind and the disintegration of a perfect middle American family.
Michael Shannon delivers a performance of stark power, Curtis abandons his sanity yet never loses humanity. The backdrop of middle America is stark, as is the age that conservative values bring to the story. Curtis is criticised at by his father in law for not attending church. A breakdown at a crowded community hall makes public Curtis’ psychological decline.
It seems that, in a society where work, prayer, and community are linchpins, madness is all the more out of place. The film’s ending is a wry, bitter sweet barb. It is more of a punchline than anything else; almost a reiteration of the film’s tone. The journey is the important part.
11. Under the Skin (2013)
If 2001: A Space Odyssey had been intent on being a character study, it may well have looked and felt something like Under the Skin. An Odyssean structure, obtuse and startling visual communication, unanswered questions (who or what is the man on the motorbike?), and much mystery abounds in this curious sci-fi enigma. Laura (Scarlett Johansson) is on the prowl, but the reason, both cause and effect are not totally apparent.
The film begins with somewhat of a methodical birthing sequence. We witness Laura charming and seducing witless strangers on the streets of Glasgow. Their incredulous reactions are genuine, director Jonathan Glazer chose to record real people on the street, oblivious to the fact that they are appearing in a major feature film. Odd? We haven’t even touched upon the murder scenes. Laura is an alien, this is apparent, much of the rest is left up to you, as this is a film that gives you just enough information to stay afloat, but not enough to spoil its mystery.
Johansson holds the visual trickery together, reiterating her presence at all times and anchoring the oddness with soul. She is wicked, curious and, in time, vulnerable. You want to know what she is thinking during those early scenes of stalking and conquest. You want to know why she thinks it. Is she good? Is she bad? Either way, it is difficult not to feel empathy in the films conclusion. There may even be a touch of social commentary to be found in those dark, barren woods.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
The notion that the use of voice-over represents lazy screenwriting is quizzical. It can be seen as such, certainly. Yet, a narrator can be an anchor, teacher, and friend to the viewer. Often too, a narrator is the soul of the film, its beating heart and embodiment of its message. In the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, we are lucky enough to meet our narrator in the flesh, to call her a protagonist, and struggle to forget her once the film has concluded.
Hushpuppy, as energetically portrayed by eight year old soon to be Oscar nominated Qevenzhane Wallis, is a marvel literally and figuratively. The product of an impoverished island community on the Bayou, Hushpuppy is a princess with her own kingdom, a conqueror of monsters, and the apple of her Father’s eye. Of course, reality supports none of these claims; but a child’s imagination is a powerful thing.
The film is not concerned with coming of age archetypes, it is more about pride in the face of limitations, and how all people are worthy of the utmost dignity. The people of the Bayou live independently of the United States, they are their own little world. Though, as Hushpuppies flawed father demonstrates, the people of the Bayou are far from immune to the spiritual corruptions of the outside world.
When civilization encroaches on life in the elusive Bayou, its people form a family structure to defend against what seems inevitable, the death of their fast declining way of life. If the struggles of the film are dark, Hushpuppy livens things admirably. As her family, both immediate and greater, decline, she remains witty and strong. Her fathers lessons of strength stand to her, and one feels that she will continue chasing away the monsters for some time to come.
9. Blue Valentine (2010)
Blue Valentine should be mandatory viewing to all those hoping to marry in the immediate future. Not because it is overly cynical, nor overly saccharine. Indeed, the film’s abiding quality is rather admirable in any film, it feels real. For a medium that deals in glamorous actors, gorgeous canvases, and the dialogue and scenarios of professional writers, authenticity is a rare quality that many films strive for, but that most miss. Blue Valentine has all the aforementioned glamour and rich staging, yet it manages to transcend them and feel very real in many of its extended sequences.
A violent beating is unedited and graphic, people using elderly relatives as a ploy to get dates, families fighting over breakfast, bumping into an ex at a convenience store. All of these moments resonate with the kind of authenticity of improvisation and impromptu staging. In particular an extended sequence in which the central couple of the film fall apart in a sleazy theme motel is agonizing. Over the course of resentment, bad sex, career arguments, and long entrenched bitterness, the scene may resound as frighteningly for the viewer as anything in the horror genre.
Still, the movie’s foremost moment of authenticity comes when Ryan Gosling’s Dean plays his beloved Cindy (Michelle Williams) the song “You and Me” by Penny and the Quarters. Dean has proposed the song to be their special song due to its originality and lack of exposure. Cindy’s reaction to the song is earthy, sensual, and impromptu.
One detail that is fascinating to note is that actress Michelle Williams had genuinely never heard the song before shooting the scene, and was not aware what song Ryan Gosling was to play for her. This was re-planned by the actors and director Derek Cianfrance. Her enthused reaction is, thus, not acting. Not a bad strategy for a film that strives to strike upon the truth at all cost.
8. Drive (2011)
A style odyssey, bold in its silence. This film was crafted to be a cult classic and largely found its mark among the film public. Directed by the often divisive Nicolas Winding Refn, the film is like a Brothers Grimm fable set in the heart of modern Los Angeles. Gosling’s Driver is the handsome prince, flawed but willing to do anything to defend what he holds dear.
Irene (Carey Mulligan) is the tragic unloved Princess who enraptures the prince. Shannon (Bryan Cranston) takes the role of faster father to the orphaned prince. Standard (Oscar Isaac) is the fool, the meddlesome village idiot that causes the great tragedy. Then, there is the revelatory Albert Brooks as Bernie, the black hearted villain. The characters are set nicely and the pieces are methodically aligned for an LA fairy tale. Then, comes the outfits, the music, and the bloodshed.
It is apt that Gosling’s protagonist goes unnamed. He is an LA subject. He is the glamour, corruption, silence, and redemption of the Tinseltown all wrapped up into one. The tooth pick, the driving gloves, the jacket, the vacant faces in the changing room of a strip club, these are all just like scenes in the movies that the Driver makes a living driving in by day.
The violence, too, is pure Hollywood.This renders the ending subject of debate. Is the Driver simply a hopeless product of his environment? Or, has this prince become, as the song melodically suggests, a real human being?