Dredd is truly one of the biggest surprises of the decade; after the disastrous Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone, few were optimistic about seeing the character again, but 2012’s Dredd provided a stripped down action vehicle that drew from action classics like Robocop and Die Hard to tell the simple story of Dredd (Karl Urban) and his pursuit of a criminal gang through a futuristic high rise. Instead of leaning into the campy elements, Dredd used ultraviolence and grim commentary on law enforcement to provide a modern action classic.
The story is reminiscent of films like The Raid, but there’s enough creative worldbuilding used to create a dystopian worldscape that distinguishes it. As the antagonist Ma-Ma, Lena Headey gives one of the most genuinely unnerving movie villain performances of the decade, and there’s also a fantastic performance by Oliva Thirlby as a judge in training with psychic powers. However, none of this would be possible without the suitably steely performance by Urban as Dredd; he never breaks the character’s nature, but he also gives insight into the responsibility of wielding his power.
4. Robot & Frank
Sometimes a role is given to an actor at the perfect point in their career, and that’s exactly what happened with Frank Langella in Robot & Frank. Langella stars as an aging jewel robber who is past his prime and has begun to lose his memory; despite the concerns of his adult children Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), he retains his mischievous ways, but his life is changed when he’s gifted a robot butler (voiced by Peter Saarsguard) to help him.
Of course, Frank finds a way of turning this companion into a partner in crime, and the joy of the film comes from Frank finding a reason to hope again by getting back into his old lifestyle. Langella gives what is one of the best performances of his career, and he excels at playing a character who has an untraditional way of getting help. The friendship is touching and the heist element is engaging, particularly as it ties back to Frank’s relationship with his family.
One of the best found footage movies ever made, Chronicle ingeniously has the setup of a superhero movie, but slowly reveals itself to be an origin story for a supervillain. Three teenagers, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B, Jordan) are gifted superpowers after they discover a mysterious object in the woods, and they start off using their powers to engage in typical adolescent hijinks. However, the story quickly takes a darker turn as Andrew begins to lash out at the people that have bullied and hurt him.
DeHaan is downright phenomenal as a character who the audience can sympathize with initially; his slow deterioration and corruption is fascinating to watch, and it was a breakout role for DeHaan. Oftentimes, found footage films are unable to justify why their characters would continue to film different situations, but Chronicle uses creative ways to incorporate footage, including security camera tapes, school videos, and video diaries that they boys make. It’s a subversive and satisfying spin on superhero movies.
Before he created the game changing USA series Mr. Robot, writer/director Sam Esmail showed his talent as a creator of quirky, mind bending stories with the romantic drama Comet. The film starts with a simple enough premise; two science enthusiasts, Dell (Justin Long) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) have a chance encounter at a meteor shower, and the path of their relationship is drawn out over the course of alternate realities in which they grow closer and apart all at once. Instead of exploring the trials of a romance through a straightforward narrative, Esmail juxtaposes key moments and experiences into an engaging puzzlebox.
It’s fun to examine these individual moments and see how they tie together, but Esmail’s clever dialogue keeps each exchange fresh, with great interactions reminiscent of the abstract conversationalism of Quentin Tarantino and the wry cynicism of Woody Allen. Long and Rossum both have career best roles as admittedly self-indulgent characters, and seeing them move so gingerly between moments of bitter acidity to compassionate contemplation is very impressive. Esmail would later go on to become one of the most influential television creators of his generation, but here’s hoping he has another film left in him.
1. Midnight Special
Science fiction films are often divided up into two categories; the imaginative, exciting pathos Spilebergian stories and the dense, intellectually stimulating complexity of Kubrickian films. It’s rare that a film can be both emotional and thought provoking, and Midnight Special is one of those films, a sorely underseen sci-fi masterpiece that explores the realities of how a godlike figure would transform communities that rests entirely on the relationship between a father and son. Once again, filmmaker Jeff Nichols proves to be someone who can find raw emotional moments, particularly in small town rural America.
Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) is the father of a young boy Alton (Jaeden Martell) who has superpowers, and he’s desperate to protect his son from forces that would separate them. Shannon is among the best living actors, and while he’s often cast in quirky character roles, here he excels as an everyman who wrestles with being a father to a boy who will change the world. Concluding with jaw dropping visuals and featuring a great cast of side characters, Midnight Special deserves to be mentioned alongside the great sci-fi films of its time.