5. Collateral (2004)
The year 2004 proved to be a stellar year for Jamie Foxx. He became a bonafide movie star and showed his versatility in two different roles, one of which was the musical biopic where he played Ray Charles in “Ray,” which earned him an Oscar win for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The other being “Collateral,” where he reluctantly chauffeurs a hitman around in his taxi cab, a performance that earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Aside from Foxx’s hype that year, “Collateral” features excellent work from Tom Cruise and director Michael Mann. Cruise is simply electrifying as a professional hitman who’s hired to take out four witnesses and a prosecutor. There are hints of compassion behind his icy professionalism, and he remains unpredictable even after all the cards have been laid out.
Mann takes a ‘more is less’ approach that compliments the story well. He masterfully blends tension and suspense that keeps building and threatening to get out of hand, until it eventually does during the film’s final minutes. He captures the aura and atmosphere of city nights impeccably. He somehow always manages to give his films that are set in L.A. a fresh spin, and “Collateral” is no different. It’s an enticing thriller that doesn’t break the wheel, but keeps it firmly spinning.
4. John Wick (2014)
In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of old-school Hollywood action series’ that star aging stars. Liam Neeson has “Taken,” Tom Cruise has “Jack Reacher” and Denzel Washington has “The Equalizer,” but by far the best out of the batch is Keanu Reeves with “John Wick.” And the most surprising part is that it’s not an adaptation, reboot, remake, or sequel.
A silent and mysterious hero who’s just as dangerous as he’s feared and goes on a one-man warpath for revenge is nothing new, but what makes the film work is its fully realized world. Like something out of a young adult or fantasy novel, the world of “John Wick” is full of its own rules, regulations, currency, and unique locations where the vilest of hitmen reside. Aside from its quiet hero and silent feel, it’s a fully developed world and story.
Wick is retired and lived happily with his wife who, shortly before dying, arranged to leave him a puppy to keep him company. When that puppy is killed by the douchebag son of a powerful Russian criminal, Wick is out of retirement and back to doing what he does best. Reeves is always excellent when matched with the right character that matches his acting sensibilities, and while Neo from “The Matrix” is what he’ll always be remembered for, in a few years “John Wick” won’t be too far behind.
Made by first-timers who have experience in action films, the team delivers and then some on the violence, action, and excellent stunt work spread over a gorgeous and stylized neo-noir playground. It’s an intelligently made film with the filmmakers making all the right choices when it comes to casting, writing, directing, and depicting violence. And the sequel is just as good.
3. You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Lynne Ramsay is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today. In an era where things are moving forward (however slightly) for female filmmakers, Ramsay has been churning out amazing films for almost two decades. She nearly doesn’t get enough credit for her unique style, visual eye, and solid filmography.
Never one to shy away from difficult subject matter, “You Were Never Really Here” looks into suicidal thoughts and child trafficking while never giving any easy answers. Sporting a grizzly beard, Joaquin Phoenix plays a fixer named Joe who frequently fantasizes about suicide and recalls a past that haunts him. He works through a third party rescuing abducted girls for families, but his latest assignment involves political ties that endanger everyone around him, making Joe find something worth living and fighting for.
Ramsay operates at the height of her powers through her trademark sound design, unorthodox framing, precise flashbacks, and harrowing visuals. You get the sense that every single camera angle, every single cut, and every single visual has been selected with the utmost care. Not a single second through its 90-minute runtime is wasted.
Phoenix obviously continues his run of knockout performances that he’s blessed us with ever since his return after “I’m Still Here.” He’s definitely the most exciting actor working today with an amazing selection of roles. Phoenix and Ramsay aren’t interested in the obvious mechanisms of an action-thriller, but more on the character who populates them.
An arthouse film through and through, “You Were Never Really Here” won’t satisfy those looking for an explosive action filled with twists and turns. It’s a beautiful yet dark film that provides a satisfying experience, aside from its lean runtime. It’s not as depressing or difficult to watch as its subject matter may lead you to believe; it just washes over you like cool water on a sunny day.
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
We’ll just say it right from the start that David Fincher’s version of Stieg Larsson’s novel is superior in every single way to the original Swedish version. Fincher’s version had an astronomical budget compared to the original, but the American version is a full-on cinematic experience that the original never matches. Which is surprising, because American versions are rarely better, but we’re talking about a David Fincher film, here so… ?
Reteaming with Rooney Mara after her one-scene knockout in “The Social Network” with Daniel Craig in tow, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” follows a computer hacker and journalist’s investigation into the disappearance of a woman from a wealthy family. Investigations are nothing new for Fincher or for cinema, but what makes this film shine is the unique character work. It’s a full on 30 minutes before the two main stars even cross paths. And in that time, screenwriter Steven Zaillian masterfully builds and weaves through their lives.
Aside from Craig’s excellent performance, the show solely belongs to Mara’s Lisbeth Salander. She buries herself in a character whose existence consists of suffering multiple times through misogyny. It’s a personal nightmare that only occasionally lets up to drag her back again. But Mara is absolutely mesmerizing to watch in all her awkward goth glory. A performance that rightfully and surprisingly earned her an Oscar nomination.
Fincher has always reveled in plunging into the darkest aspects of society, and this might be his most messed-up film. He doesn’t shy away from the violence, unlike his other films where we’re always two steps behind. Here, we’re right there in the darkness that spreads across a Scandinavian snow-filled landscape over a five-act structure. It’s a beautiful, exhausting, relentless, and captivating watch.
1. Oldboy (2003)
Choi Min-sik gives his all as Oh Dae-su, a man imprisoned in a cell for 15 years with knowing why or by whom. When he’s inexplicably released, he goes on a mission to get answers, with the years he spent in confinement having a long and lasting impact on him, for better or worse.
Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” works mostly because it’s not just about solving the mysteries and conspiracies it sets up, and it doesn’t rest everything on its big reveal. It somehow manages to put that mystery to the back of your head as it jerks you into the present moment with what’s on-screen. And when that reveal does come along, you can only watch in awe.
Like the best films from South Korea, it’s a rollercoaster ride full of a wild diversity of emotions that flip on you at a second’s notice. The violence is relentless and the dish of revenge comes straight out of the freezer. It’s certainly over the top, but Park is able to keep the story consistently engaging and grounded on an emotional level. It’s filled with so many memorable scenes and creeps under your skin before you know what’s what.
“Oldboy” has garnered such a rabid fan base that other films could only dream of. It’s the epitome of what an action-thriller is supposed to do with a psychological warp thrown in for good measure. And for that it gets the number one spot as the best action-thriller of the 21st century. So far, we hope…