5. Love & Mercy
Love & Mercy has an interesting way of looking at the life of The Beach Boys’s Brian Wilson, as it follows a younger Wilson (Paul Dano) during his height of fame in the 1960s and an older Wilson (John Cusack) who is suffering under the care of his therapist in the 1980s. The two narratives are interwoven to show a complete picture of Wilson, who faced serious mental health issues throughout his life and was taken advantage of. The joy of the film comes from seeing Wilson prevail and create his truly iconic music.
Dano does some of his strongest work as a young Wilson, and the scenes in which he conceives of the music for the iconic album Pet Sounds are easily some of the film’s highlights. As an older Wilson, Cusack gives his best performance in a long time, and he is aided by Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s wife Melinda Ledbetter and Paul Giamatti as his abusive therapist Dr. Eugene Landy. The real Brian Wilson also contributed the original song “One Kind of Love” to the film’s soundtrack. Due to its nontraditional structure and riveting performances, Love & Mercy stands out among other musician biopics.
4. La La Land
Easily the best musical of the decade, La La Land revitalized the cinematic musical by walking the fine line of nostalgia and modernization. There are tons of winks and nods to classic musicals, but the story itself is rooted in a 21st Century relationship between a struggling pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone). The anxieties that both characters face feel real, and Gosling’s performance as a nostalgic performer who yearns for the revitalization of jazz offers an interesting take on the life of a musician.
Damien Chazelle orchestrated many brilliant musical numbers, all of which expand the world of the characters and help to bring their fears and desires to life; it’s easy to marvel at the tremendous technical feat that Chazelle has achieved, but it’s also notable that every musical number helps to advance the central relationship and examine these characters. Gosling and Stone have incredible chemistry, and even though the film’s ending is somewhat somber, it never discounts all the happy moments they shared together.
3. Sing Street
Sing Street speaks to the power great music has to inspire people to look beyond their circumstances and have faith in their future. The film tells the story of Cosmo Lawlor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a poor kid in Dublin in the 1980s who enlists a group of friends at their strict boarding school to join his new rock band. While the film features songs by Hall & Oats, The Cure, The Jam, and Duran Duran in order to explore Cosmo’s influences, it quickly evolves to show how these kids are inspired to create their own songs.
The result is an infectiously entertaining coming of age story that celebrates a specific era in music. There’s a lot of humor that occurs as these kids try to recreate MTV music videos, but the film is also very respectful in showing how this process is cathartic for these poor kids who have low expectations for their future. Jack Reynor also gives a terrific supporting performance as Cosmo’s stoner older brother, who introduces him to the greatest hits of the era. One of the best feel good movies of the decade, Sing Street features many great original songs, including “Drive It Like You Stole It” and “Riddle of the Model.”
Even though it is about jazz music, Whiplash tells a universal story about the pursuit of perfection that is applicable to nearly any field. The film poses fascinating questions about what sacrifices are made in the pursuit of art through the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented jazz drummer who is pushed to his limits by his relentless instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is willing to do anything to push his students to reach their potential. Fletcher is uncompromising and tests Andrew’s will, and even though Andrew understands the brutality of Fletcher’s tactics, he nonetheless desires to impress him.
Damien Chazelle is aware of the competitiveness that exists for jazz students, and Andrew’s anxieties about making it professionally are only exacerbated once Fletcher begins to pit his students against each other. The performance scenes are intense and electrifying, as the audience is able to both marvel in Andrew’s talent, but also hope that he succeeds and avoids Fletcher’s wrath. Ending with one of the most intense sequences of the decade, Whiplash has a perfect ending that solidifies it as a modern classic.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Often a musician’s life is one of consistent struggle, and no film better embodies this than Inside Llewyn Davis. Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn is met with nothing but hardship; his album is bombing, he has no money, and he’s forced to watch as his colleagues go on to succeed. As he struggles to pay off his debts and meets a collection of quirky characters, Llewyn is caught within the cycle of disappointment as he watches his dreams crumble.
As with most Coen Brothers films, Inside Llewyn Davis finds both humor and truth in its melancholy world, and Isaac’s extraordinary performance gets the audience on Llewyn’s side as he searches for meaning. The circumstances Llewyn is faced with are heartbreaking, and Isaac’s soulful performance makes the yearning lyrics of his songs all the more powerful. It’s as beautifully shot as one would expect from the Coens, who do an amazing job capturing the look and feel of New York in 1961. One of the masterpieces of the decade, Inside Llewyn Davis is an essential watch for anyone who wants to understand the realities of a musician’s life.