8. Whiplash (2014)
Brace yourself! A jazz drummer and his abusive instructor face off in Damien Chazell’s Whiplash. Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), an ambitious musician, enrolls in the cutthroat Shaffer Conservatory of Music under the tough-loving Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). A proponent of negative reinforcement, Fletcher forces Nieman to play until his palms are blistered and bleeding. Demanding perfection, Fletcher is not afraid to slap his students in the face and hurdle chairs at their heads, a teaching style that would ultimately be his undoing. With one final live performance together, Fletcher will either jump-start Nieman’s musical career or sabotage it.
Simmons, no stranger to playing less-than-likeable roles (i.e. Spider-Man, La La Land), hits a home run with his bad temperament. Where Inside Llewyn Davis finds the aspiring musician in N.Y.C. subways and dive bars, Whiplash transplants him to the high-stakes stage of Julliard-esque concert halls and music festivals and works well as a dramatic drumroll leading into the final films on this list.
7. The Master (2012)
Following his ill-received mockumentary I’m Still Here, Joaquin Phoenix returns to feature films with full force in Paul Thomas Anderson’s post-war drama The Master (2012). Freddie Quell (Phoenix), an alcoholic Navy veteran, is aberrated after his service overseas. Finding work where he can, Quell is a drunken drifter without family or friends. It isn’t until he stumbles upon a sailing yacht and its charismatic captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), when he begins to feel accepted outside the realms of war.
Soon the estranged seaman is subjected to curious experiments and questionable questionnaires before once more setting off on his own. With hat tips to scientology throughout the film, P.T.A. gives us a period piece that he claims is his favorite film that he has ever made. With some of Phoenix’s best acting along with one of Hoffman’s last performances before his death in 2014, The Master is a must-see for any serious cinefile!
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
A refugee-turned-bellhop meets a sex-crazed concierge in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. High up in the fictional foothills of Zubrowka, a dead dutchess leaves an investigation in her wake with one Monsieur Gutave (Ralph Fiennes) and a priceless painting at its epicenter. With a team of police and a furious family in swift pursuit, Gustave and his devoted valet (Tony Revolori) must prove their innocence—or die trying.
Inspired by the writing of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel takes the shape of a story within a story as an unnamed girl in a graveyard reads a book whose author (Tom Wilkinson) recounts the events in the film as they were first told to him..
As always, Anderson’s eighth film is teaming with cameos from Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton and many more. Perhaps the most climactic of all his films, The Grand Budapest Hotel takes a step away from Wes’ indie upbringing, diving deeper into blockbuster territory than any of his other films.
5. Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkins delivers an intimate account of bullying and sexual identity in his award-winning drama Moonlight. For Chiron (nick-named “Little”) it is painstaking at best. Throughout his life Little experiences feelings of alienation because of his size and sexual orientation. To top it off, his mom is a crack addict and his only role model is her drug dealer. But when a lifelong friend accepts Little for who he is, Chiron embraces him along with his own identity.
At the Academy Awards Moonlight was awarded Best Picture following an incredibly awkward moment when the incorrect nominee was initially announced as the winner. Once the mistake was corrected Jenkins made his way on stage with his cast and crew to accept the award. Two years later Jenkins would direct If Beale Street Could Talk which won Regina King an Oscar for her role as Sharon Rivers.
4. Joker (2019)
Todd Phillips blends satire with face paint like never before in Joker. Set against the escalating unrest of Gotham City’s lower-class “clowns,” Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) takes center stage as an aspiring comedian suffering from pathological laughter. Where past portrayals of the infamous antihero emphasize the ex-Arkham inmate’s full-fledged insanity, Joker serves as a prologue to the green-haired character’s criminal career in which Fleck seeks treatment for his mental illness. But when the resources run out Arthur steps aside and Joker takes over.
A genre-defying canary in a coal mine of latex and green screens, Joker is sure to make you laugh and cry at the same time. Breaking records as the highest-grossing R-rated film in history, exceeding one billion dollars at the box office, Phillips sets out to shed light on society’s blind eye, and he succeeds!
3. Lady Bird (2017)
Christine McPherson (Saorise Ronan), a.k.a. Lady Bird, is a hedonistic Catholic school senior coming of age in Sacramento, 2002. She is also misunderstood, living on the wrong side of the tracks and bad at math. Butting heads with her embarrassing parents, struggling to get into college, Lady Bird dreams of greener grass outside her hometown.
Critically acclaimed, Lady Bird is certified fresh with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 99%, the highest rating for an A24—a distribution-turned-production company—film to date. Co-starring Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird’s young-love affairs, writer/director Greta Gerwig captures adolescent angst with hot pink highlights and much aplomb.
2. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen directs a brutally honest rendition of Solomon Northup’s twelve year internment as a kidnapped freeman in 12 Years a Slave. In 1841, a respected African-American violinist is abducted and illegally sold into slavery. Beaten within an inch of his life, forced to pick cotton from dusk till dawn, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) misses his family and the life that was stolen from him. Seeking sympathy from friendly faces such as William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt), Northup is eventually freed from the persecuting hands of slave masters Epps (Michael Fassbender) and Tibeats (Paul Dano).
Winning three Oscars including Best Picture, Steve McQueen would become the first black person in history to take home the award. 12 Years a Slave is also the third film McQueen and Fassbender have collaborated on following Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). With R, NR and NC-17 ratings, McQueen’s movies are anything but easy to endure, with most viewers doing so only once.
1. Birdman (2014)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) uses the Broadway stage to comment on the filmmaking medium. Adopting a similar approach to cinematography as 1917, Alejandro G. Iñárritu resists the urge to cut between scenes by employing a complicated long take that follows his characters throughout the theatre in which the film takes place.
Tracking between a past-his-prime action-hero actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), his supporting cast (Edward Norton, Nicole Kidman), his producer (Zach Galifinakis) and his temperamental daughter (Emma Stone) as they prepare for the premiere of a play adapted from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Highlighting the anxiety of stage acting/directing and the influence of insatiable critics, Birdman does not deny the love/hate relationship that many artists have with their industry and the obstacles they face to produce their work.