With all the rewrites, test screenings, and last-minute edits, it's amazing that any film gets made at all. As a result, there are a lot of movies that are just mediocre. But every so often, everything lines up just perfectly.
Get the right screenplay with the right director with the right cast and crew, and you just might get a perfect film. These movies are few and far between, but when they come along, you know right away you've found a flawless film.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Surrealism has had several cinematic champions over the years, from Luis Buñuel to Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the modern-day master of the movement is David Lynch. The man has a real knack for mining the subconscious and creating terrifying nightmare imagery. For example, there's Eraserhead and the third season of Twin Peaks, but if you want to see Lynch at the height of his mind-bending powers, then check out his magnum opus, Mulholland Drive.
Explaining the plot is like trying to describe a deep and disturbing dream. The film begins when an innocent actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood with hopes of making it big. She soon stumbles into a strange plot involving a beautiful brunette (Laura Elena Harring) suffering from amnesia, but as Roger Ebert pointed out in his original review, Mulholland Drive ditches traditional plot and instead "works directly on the emotions, like music." After all, the mass majority of the movie is an actual dream, and by working through a woman's heartbroken subconscious, Lynch explores the dark machinations of Hollywood and how often our grandiose goals give way to despair.
And while you're sifting through all this dream logic Lynch keeps you glued to the screen with mesmerizing sequences like the Club Silencio musical number, Betty's jaw-dropping audition, and the eerie moment when a cocky director (Justin Theroux) encounters the world's creepiest cowboy. And then, of course, there's one of the scariest scenes in Hollywood history, a masterclass in tension that involves nothing more than two men in a diner. Couple all that with Naomi Watts' powerhouse of a performance, and it's no wonder the BBC named this surrealist masterpiece the greatest film of the 21st century so far.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Michel Gondry is a director known for his whimsy and magical imagination. Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter known for his pessimism and insane originality. When the two combined their cinematic powers in 2004, they created an all-time great romance that was brave enough to take a long, hard look at the ugly side of love and how relationships actually work.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stars Jim Carrey as Joel Barish, a lonely, shy man who meets an outgoing woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet). After their relationship takes a rocky turn, Clementine undergoes a process to wipe the memories of Joel from her mind. Hurt, Joel undergoes the same procedure, but as the technicians erase his memories of Clementine, Joel changes his mind and decides to fight back, desperately stashing memories of his ex-girlfriend away in his subconscious.
Using a shocking amount of practical effects, this inventive romance skips through time and dances in and out of memories, as Joel re-lives both the happy and horrible moments of his relationship, all while discovering the cause of the breakup. Kaufman's clever sci-fi script won an Academy Award, and with Gondry at the helm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind boldly explores what happens when the fresh, new shine wears off a romance, and the couple is left dealing with each others' faults and flaws. The film doesn't ignore the pain and pitfalls of making a relationship work, and by examining the different stages of romance, this is a movie that changes and grows with each and every viewing.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Over 35 years after Night of the Living Dead, Edgar Wright resurrected the zombie genre with Shaun of the Dead, a romantic comedy featuring Queen, cannibals, and cricket paddles. Wright's film took the dead genre and brought it back to life, giving it a comic twist. Of course, he didn't scrimp on the gore either Shaun of the Dead is the perfect combo of laughs, scares, and tear-jerking drama.
The story follows a slacker named Shaun (Simon Pegg) who's forced to grow up when the zombie apocalypse descends upon his little British town. With the help of his best friend Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun goes on a quest to save his friends and family, rescue his relationship, and work out some long-simmering issues with his stepdad. Thanks to Wright's expert use of editing and music, the movie is filled with brilliant comic touches, from the record tossing battle to the "Don't Stop Me Now" showdown. And with Pegg and Wright penning the screenplay, Shaun of the Dead is basically the blueprint of how to write the perfect comedy. Just listen to that Nick Frost monologue that sets up the rest of the film. It's brilliant.
But all laughs and no feels make for a boring movie, and that's where Shaun of the Dead rises above your typical horror-comedy. Sure, the characters are goofy, but they're real, so when they experience pain and sadness, the movie lets us cry along with them. The moment when Shaun confronts his zombified mom is absolutely agonizing, and if you don't shed a few tears during Ed and Shaun's final goodbye, well, you just might be one of the undead. While it's wonderfully edited and tightly scripted, Shaun of the Dead works so well because it's a movie with a whole lot of heart.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
In retrospect, it seems like Wes Anderson's entire career was building up The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was his highest-grossing film, one of his most critically beloved movies, and it marked the first time Anderson ever received an Oscar nomination for directing. So what was behind the movie's popularity?
It's the perfect blend of all things, Anderson, from his meticulous world-building and witty dialogue to the melancholy air that hovers over all of his films. But here, he takes things even further, using multiple timelines and aspect ratios to explore nostalgia, manners, and European history, all while walking a tightrope between old-world innocence and post-World War II pessimism. It's a whimsical tale with horror on the horizon, where our heroes get to have one last madcap adventure before polite society crumbles.
The plot involves a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) who comes to work for the flamboyant and foul-mouthed Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) at the Grand Budapest Hotel. Located in the snowy European hills, the hotel is one of Anderson's greatest creations, popping with pastel colors and intricate rooms, all perfectly designed for this fantasy world. Eventually, Zero and Gustave are sucked into a crime involving a dead countess, a valuable painting, and a terrifying thug, and as the movie hurtles forward, Anderson gives us macabre comedy, stylized action scenes, and some of the most lovably quirky characters of his career.
Seriously, where else are you going to see a stop-motion ski chase, a prison break involving pastries, and a secret society of colorful concierges? With a brilliant lead performance from Fiennes (put this man in more comedies, please), The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fanciful breath of fresh air in a world full of big-budget superhero flicks. It's proof that style and substance can go hand-in-hand or at the very least, the two can sustain the illusion with a marvelous grace.
A lot of people were skeptical when they heard there was going to be a new installment in the Rocky franchise, but when Ryan Coogler's sophomore film hit theaters, critics and fans alike were pleasantly surprised by the movie's knockout power. It wasn't just "an okay sequel." It was the best entry in the series since the 1976 original, and as the folks at Cinefix point out, the seventh film in the franchise was "a Hollywood primer on how to pass a torch."
With Michael B. Jordan as the lead, Creed focuses on Adonis Creed, the son of the late great champ Apollo Creed. Adonis is eager to fight and desperate to prove himself, and he turns to the legendary Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) for help. As Adonis boxes his way to a title shot, Ryan Coogler builds on the franchise mythology in exciting ways. For example, he puts a new twist on the obligatory running scene, giving the moment new power and emotional punch. And then there's the moment when Adonis goes to battle the champ, and the famous Rocky theme starts playing. As film critic Siddhant Adlakha points out, it's "perhaps the single most earned familiar cinematic moment and musical cue in recent memory."
But Coogler also manages to take the franchise in a new direction with an exciting new main character. Michael B. Jordan is on his A-game here, giving us a hero who's not a Rocky Balboa clone but a protagonist with his own unique goals. And the film is full of its own unique moments, like the virtuoso one-shot boxing match and the gut-punch of a sequence during which Adonis shadowboxes against old footage of his dad. Creed was an underdog movie that defied everyone's expectations, and it can hold its own with the greatest sequels of all time.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The action genre is one of the purest forms of cinema. Sure, you can describe fight scenes in a book, and you can do some cool stuff on the stage, but action scenes and movie cameras were made for each other. Over the past century or so, the action genre has given us some truly impressive films, from The Great Train Robbery (1903) to Black Panther (2018). But if you want to boil the genre down to its adrenaline-soaked essence and watch a movie made of nitro, gasoline, and kinetic energy, look no further than Mad Max: Fury Road.
Directed by George Miller, Fury Road finds Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) teaming up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to rescue five sex slaves from the local warlord (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army of Flamers, Polecats, and Warboys. The escape attempt launches a massive car chase across the desert, one that took more than 150 stunt people to film. Over 300 sequences were shot, mostly in the Namib desert, and according to Miller, around 90 percent of the stunts we see are real. There are motorcycles soaring over trucks, men swinging back and forth on giant poles, and in one scene, there are 75 vehicles tearing across the sand, under the careful eye of Miller and his stunt coordinator Guy Norris.
In addition to the explosions and car wrecks, Miller and cinematographer John Seale made a movie that's so beautiful it belongs in an art museum. There's the eerie image of the steering wheel shrine, the heart-wrenching shot of Furiosa sinking into the sand, and the breathtaking moment when the armada plows into a sand storm. The blue night sequences are indescribably gorgeous, and the world-building is, well, out of this world. Miller created a universe populated with granny bikers, Crow Fishers, and teenage warriors who dream of Valhalla. In short, Fury Road might be the perfect action movie.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Some movies are meant to entertain, while others have something important to say. And then there are films that can help us process powerful emotions we'd rather not face, like grief. Filmmakers have explored the subject in various genres, from fantasy (What Dreams May Come) and thriller (The Invitation) to straight-up drama (In the Bedroom). But when it comes to dealing with pain and loss, Manchester by the Sea might be the most agonizing of all.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an isolated and irritable janitor who returns to his hometown after his brother's death. But going home poses a lot of problems for Lee. Not only is he shocked to learn that he's now the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges), but Lee is also struggling to keep the past at bay. We don't want to give away too much of the plot, but there's a reason that going home is the last thing Lee wants to do. Every sight and sound reminds him of something truly tragic that happened years ago, an event so horrible that he might never recover.
Affleck won an Oscar for his performance here, as did Lonergan for Best Original Screenplay, and the two truly deserved their little gold statues. Every gesture Affleck makes, every line he doesn't say, just aches with pain. (And gigantic props to Hedges and Michelle Williams, who were both nominated for stellar performances.) And while the film is full of uncomfortably comic moments Manchester by the Sea grapples with grief in a way that most movies wouldn't dare. It's a beautifully brutal film about living with pain forever, and the last 20 minutes might be the most devastating 20 minutes ever filmed.
From Ingmar Bergman to Darren Aronofsky, filmmakers have often pondered two important spiritual questions: is there a god, and if so, what does he want? And while Martin Scorsese is best known for his gangster films, he's spent a lot of time trying to answer these questions. In 1988, he took a new look at the Gospels with The Last Temptation of Christ, and nearly 30 years later, Scorsese returned to Christianity with Silence, a movie about a man's crisis of faith when it seems he's been forsaken by God.
It took around 28 years for Scorsese to bring Silence to the big screen, which makes the movie feel like an act of faith itself. The plot involves two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who sneak into Japan to find a missing mentor (Liam Neeson) who's supposedly committed apostasy. When Garfield's priest is captured by the Japanese, he finds himself forced with a difficult decision: Recant and risk damnation, or watch as his fellow Christians are tortured to death. But when he turns to God for help, there are no answers, no miracles, and our hero feels as if he's being crushed by God's silence.
Silence is beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, who contrasts the beauty of Japan with the brutality of crucified men drowning in the sea. The score composed by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge is shocking in its simplicity, relying on the sounds of nature. And Garfield and Neeson are perfect as tortured priests when they meet, their battle of pride and pain is like attending Acting 101. But ultimately, as Richard Roeper wrote in his review, Silence explores the nature of faith: how it can inspire both hope and cruelty, how it can rip apart lives, and give others the strength to soldier on, despite the doubts.
The Witch (2016)
One of the most disturbing horror movies in recent memory, The Witch tells the story of a Puritan family fighting for their lives when a supernatural force attacks their isolated farmhouse. Gorgeously shot and designed, The Witch feels like it was crafted by a veteran director, but this was actually Robert Eggers' very first movie. While he was just a rookie, The Witch is the very definition of a flawless film, especially when it comes to getting every detail just right.
Speaking with Wired, Eggers explained his unique ideas when it came to making The Witch. "Everything in the frame," Eggers said, "needs to be like I'm articulating my memory of this moment. Like, this was my childhood as a Puritan, and I remember that day my dad took me into a cornfield and what he smelled like." So how can you capture a "memory" like that? By doing lots and lots of research. Eggers spent four years studying the Puritan lifestyle and reading firsthand accounts of demonic possession. He even borrowed actual dialogue from supposed supernatural encounters. Talking to Indiewire, Eggers revealed that some of the lines "the children say [in the film] when they are possessed are things real children were alleged to have said when they were possessed."
Eggers also got super involved when it came to sets and props. The costumes were hand-sewn, and the furniture was built just like the Puritans used to do it. And even though he was shooting in Canada, Eggers brought in a thatcher from Virginia who specialized in 17th-century roofs. Eggers wanted everything perfect, but in addition to all the details, the first-time director managed to get incredible performances from every member of his cast, including young children and a 210-pound goat. And if a movie can make livestock scary, then you know you've got an instant horror classic on your hands.
Get Out (2017)
Movies can either represent you and your experiences, or they can put you in somebody else's shoes. And then there are movies like Get Out that do both. For African-Americans, Get Out works as a documentary. It's a fictional version of the horrors black people experience every day. For everyone else, it shows what it's really like to be a person of color living in a white world. It also doesn't hurt that Get Out has a killer script, sharp directing, and an Oscar-worthy lead performance from Daniel Kaluuya.
The story follows a young black photographer named Chris (Kaluuya) who goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend. From the moment he shows up at their estate everything seems off. Maybe it's just the ill-advised jokes, weird looks, and casual racist vibes he gets from the parents...or maybe there's some serious Ira Levin stuff going on behind the scenes. This is Peele's directorial debut, but you wouldn't know it the way he draws out the tension until everything explodes in a bloody mess of jiu-jitsu, teacups, and deer antlers. And Peele's screenplay is top-notch, full of clever touches (the rich villain uses a silver spoon; Chris escapes his white captors using cotton) and lots of eerie foreshadowing ("black mold" in the basement). Plus, it has one of the best horror endings of this century so far.
Sure, the movie evens things out with plenty of laughs, mostly courtesy of Lil Rel Howery. But at its core, Get Out is a terrifying film that looks at the real horrors of American society. Thanks to Peele's mastery behind the camera, and Kaluuya's ability to keep us both grounded and worried throughout the madness, Get Out will continue freaking out audiences so long as people find themselves trapped in the Sunken Place.
In lesser hands, Jaws would've become a forgettable monster flick in a sea of B-movies. (Check out Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws: The Revenge for proof.) But over 40 years later, it's still giving people pause before they step into the water. So what sets Jaws apart from your run-of-the-mill slashers? Well, it's the man sitting in the director's chair: the one and only Steven Spielberg.
Nobody does tension like Spielberg, and Jaws is a masterclass when it comes to creating suspense. Spielberg went the Alfred Hitchcock route and kept the monstrous fish offscreen as long as possible, playing on our fear of the unknown. He builds up the dread by using underwater POV shots and John Williams' score to let us know the shark is coming. As Sheriff Brody nervously scans the beach, Spielberg ratchets up the tension with red herrings and brilliant editing (by Verna Fields). He makes our stomachs go cold simply by having a barrel pop out of the water. Even Brody's gory book and Quint's bone-chilling monologue let us know how bad things are going to get if our heroes end up in the water.
So when we finally do see the shark in all its doll-eyed, boat-jumping glory, the stage has been set, and the audience is primed. Even if the monster does occasionally look a bit rubbery, we've seen what it can do. We watched that woman in the opening get dragged back and forth, and we saw the Kintner boy pulled underwater by some invisible force. Thanks to Spielberg's setup, we totally believe this 25-foot-fish could eat everybody in Amity, and even though Brody blows it up in the end, we're still a little nervous every time we go swimming.
Evil Dead II (1987)
What qualifies as a flawless movie? Does it have to be a serious drama? Or can it be a horror-comedy where a dude gets in a fight with his own hand? While some snobs might look down on Evil Dead II, this Sam Raimi classic flawlessly achieves what it sets out to do: make you scream and then make you laugh.
The sequel to the 1981 cult classic, Evil Dead II is a groovy good time at the movies. Playing the beleaguered blue-collar hero Ash Williams, Bruce Campbell gives a fantastic physical performance. The stuff he's doing in this movie puts Campbell in the conversation with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton he throws himself around like a rag doll while getting drenched in gore, and he never once cracks a smile (except when he's going insane). It's vaudeville for the modern era.
The creatures Ash is up against are actually pretty eerie, from the possessed deer head to the bloated Henrietta Knowby. While the monster effects might appear a bit dated, they still feel tactile and real, and their physical presence alone gives a sense of fun and danger. And as he battles the Deadites, Ash finds himself in a series of memorable scenes, from his psychotic breakdown and the blood geyser to the badass moment where he gets his legendary chainsaw. Fast-paced, fun, and a little freaky, Evil Dead II demonstrates how cult films can achieve that classic status.
There's no modern-day actor more associated with the Western than the Man with No Name himself, Clint Eastwood. But unlike fellow Western icon John Wayne, Eastwood's films were more about revising the genre and taking old tropes in new directions. And when it comes to dismantling the Old West mythos, it doesn't get any more deconstructivist than Eastwood's Unforgiven.
The story follows a retired gunfighter named William Munny (Eastwood) who, thanks to his now-dead wife, has supposedly changed his ways and settled down to a life of raising kids and farming pigs. But when his farm starts falling apart and an opportunity for quick cash comes knocking, Munny picks up his guns for one last ride. The old-timer getting back in the saddle is a classic Western movie plot device, but as Munny tries to collect the bounty on two renegade cowboys, the movie goes to some incredibly dark places.
According to Eastwood, Unforgiven is about the pointlessness of violence you know, the thing we want to see at the end of every single Western. The kills in Unforgiven are nasty and agonizing. People scream in pain and fear. The assassins walk away stunned, forever traumatized by pulling the trigger. The violence is always ugly, whether it's being served up by Munny or the brutal small-town sheriff played by Gene Hackman. This lawman is no better than the criminals he beats in the streets. From its lonely opening shot to its dark and rainy climax, Unforgiven isn't afraid to question our folk heroes or aim its sights at an entire genre (and, for that matter, country) built on bloodshed.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
When Spider-Man 2 swung into theaters, Roger Ebert hailed it as "the best superhero movie since the modern genre was launched with Superman." Granted, a lot of superhero movies have come out since 2004, but Ebert's claim still holds up.
Directed by Sam Raimi, Spider-Man 2 isn't just the best superhero movie ever made. It's also one of the greatest sequels of all time, right up there with The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II. But unlike those grim films, Spider-Man 2 keeps the lighthearted tone from the first film while taking the emotional stakes to a new level.
The movie has some incredible set pieces, from the Evil Dead-inspired surgery scene to Spidey's epic train battle with Doc Ock. But where Spider-Man 2 truly shines is making Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) a truly relatable hero. He's struggling to battle a mad scientist while doing his best to get a girlfriend and hold down a job. He's a guy who's late to the theater and finds solace in chocolate cake. He feels genuine happiness during the brilliant "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" montage, followed by gut-wrenching regret when he fails to save someone by shirking his responsibilities.
In short, Spider-Man 2 is about more than just a hero fighting a bad guy. As Michael Curley at PopMatters put it, "In Spider-Man 2, the audience is not just rooting for Peter to stop the villain or save the world they want him to be happy, find balance, make being a superhero work for him." It was the first superhero film to give us a superhero we could really connect to, and it set the template for the Marvel movies to come.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford floats like a ghost across the snow-covered prairie. It's an epic film that takes its time. There aren't any Wild Bunch-style gunfights here just a beautifully shot film that tells the story of two very troubled men: a celebrity struggling with mental illness and a toxic fan who wants to kill what he can't have.
Both Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as Ford is at the top of their games here. Pitt plays the outlaw as a man suffering from paranoia and depression. He's sinking into darkness, and in his lucid moments, he thinks about dying. But then there are moments where Pitt's eyes grow wild and the madness starts moving, and you're too terrified to even blink. It's Oscar-worthy stuff, rivaled by Affleck as a greasy, weaselly sycophant, an insecure leech who desperately wants to be famous. Of course, when he realizes that he doesn't have what it takes to make it to the big time, he decides to go the Mark David Chapman route.
In addition to the acting, the cinematography by Roger Deakins is absolutely gorgeous. He actually invented several lenses specifically for the film, giving us images that film critic Scout Tafoya describes as "somewhere between a tintype and an oil painting." The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is haunting, as is Hugh Ross's matter-of-fact narration, which reminds us we're moving towards something terrible and predestined. The Assassination of Jesse James will linger for years to come, just like the legend of the outlaw himself.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz is a movie that gets better every time you watch it. After all, it has one of the tightest screenplays ever put to paper. If you want to learn about the art of setups and payoffs, then you should revisit Hot Fuzz again and again.
Some of the early jokes return at the end in unexpected ways. For example, a funny line about farmer's mums packing guns pays off spectacularly when a farmer's mom actually tries to blast the heroic Sgt. Angel (Pegg) with a shotgun. The "fascist/hag" routine comes back beautifully in the final gunfight, and the continual references to Point Break set up a hilarious but heartbreaking scene involving Nick Frost and his dear old dad.
Other lines actually foreshadow some pretty serious plot twists. In the film's opening, Bill Nighy's smug London police chief tells Sgt. Angel that he can make people disappear because he's the chief inspector. And when Angel is transferred to the sleepy town of Sanford, who's literally making miscreants disappear? Yeah, that's right. It's the chief inspector played by Jim Broadbent. And we're barely just scratching the surface here every time you watch the film, you'll find something new.
But in addition to the script, Hot Fuzz does a masterful job of juggling genres. As YouTube film critic Mikey Neumann points out, the movie sends up four separate genres: comedy, horror, mystery, and action. And not only is it satirizing your typical Michael Bay movie, but it's a legitimately awesome action flick at the same time. On top of all that, it's got a heartwarming bromance going on between Pegg and Frost. Hot Fuzz is Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg firing on all cylinders, and it's hard to think of a comedy that can compare to its bloody, British brilliance.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the all-time great actors, but while his performances in Lincoln and My Left Foot are amazing, he may always be remembered for ranting and raving about milkshakes. Of course, There Will Be Blood is far more than just a meme — it's a scathing takedown of American society, beautifully shot by Robert Elswit, and it might be the greatest movie in director Paul Thomas Anderson's estimable filmography.
Anderson is the man behind movies like Boogie Nights and Phantom Thread, but none of his other films have the epic, brutal scope of There Will Be Blood, which captures a barren wasteland with untold riches oozing up beneath the cracks. There to drink it all up is Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a powerful oil tycoon with a hatred of most everyone he meets. He's America's capitalistic id run amok, and the only thing keeping him in check is the sleazy Rev. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the dark side of the First Amendment. As the two battle it out for control of oil, Plainview loses his humanity bit by bit, until there's nothing left but an angry old man with a bowling pin.
For the most part, Day-Lewis plays Plainview with a brooding intensity. There's a lot going on behind those eyes calculations and competition. But when he explodes, it's a fire unrivaled by any performance in recent memory. As for Anderson, he's capturing riveting image scene after incredible scenes, like the wordless opening sequence and the oil derrick burning in the middle of the night, all while accompanied by Jonny Greenwood's alien score. It's hard to think of another American film that so captures the dark side of America's greed, and if you wanted to compare There Will Be Blood to Citizen Kane, we certainly wouldn't complain.
John Wick (2014)
Starring Keanu Reeves in the titular role, John Wick takes place in a murderous shadow world, a secret society full of gold coins and mysterious rules. There's a classy hotel populated by debonair crooks and sexy assassins, and as film critic Priscilla Page writes, the visuals are bathed with "the palette of Mario Bavo, of Dario Argento." Set almost entirely at night, the movie is rich with dark reds, blues, and greens. It's exactly the kind of place you'd expect to see a suit-wearing bogeyman fighting a group of Russian thugs and fight them he does, with the greatest of ease.
Reeves wasn't messing around when he signed on for John Wick. The actor trained five days a week, eight hours a day, for four long months. He learned how to handle firearms, use jiu-jitsu holds, and drive a car like a 1970s star. When the fights get going, there's no clever editing to hide Reeves' double because that's actually Keanu beating all those bad guys. The gun-fu here is a sight to behold, and as the film was directed by two stuntmen (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch), it should come as no surprise that the choreography is excellent.
But lurking under the surface is a tale of a man in mourning. John Wick is a widower whose beloved dog was a gift from his late wife, so when some hot-headed gangsters murder his pup, they're taking away more than just his pet (although that's bad enough) they're killing his "opportunity to grieve unalone." So John Wick is far more than a movie about a dude murdering as many people as possible. It's about a man looking to cope and hoping to express his sadness and rage... by murdering as many people as possible.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
In just 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe completely altered the Hollywood landscape. But with so many entries in such a critically acclaimed franchise, which is the best of the bunch? That's a difficult decision, but if you're going by emotional impact, you've got to pick Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Directed by James Gunn, this 2017 sequel follows the further adventures of our ragtag heroes as they encounter a living planet with a really big ego. Vol. 2 has some truly memorable set pieces, from the "Mr. Blue Sky" opening to the gloriously violent "Come a Little Bit Closer" prison break. But really, Vol. 2 is about more than magic arrows and harbulary batteries. (Excuse us...anulax batteries.)
At its core, it's really about family drama and finding forgiveness. And while most MCU films deal with similar issues, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 digs deep into what it's like to survive abuse. Almost every character in the film has been deeply scarred: Star-Lord is being manipulated by his biological father; Rocket Raccoon was mutilated by scientists; Gamora and Nebula were tortured by their Mad Titan of a dad. Even Yondu is haunted by his own dark past.
Each character deals with their trauma in their own way, from turning on one another to pushing friends away. These characters are broken, hurting people, each one a survivor of some sort. But ultimately, Vol. 2 is a movie about these broken, hurting people beginning to move on and mature, even if it's just in tiny increments. They're still struggling with pain, but they learn when to forgive and when to walk away from a destructive relationship (or blast it with laser guns), giving us one of the most complex blockbusters in a genre that often emphasizes action over emotions.
You Were Never Really Here (2018)
You Were Never Really Here is the world's greatest anti-action movie. It has all the trappings of your typical thriller but the story is far from familiar. Can you think of another action movie where the hero shoots a villain, but instead of finishing him off in nasty fashion, lies down on the floor and sings along with the victim until he dies?
Directed by Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here follows a guy named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a hitman who rescues girls from sex traffickers. Eventually, Joe takes the wrong job and finds himself involved in a genuine conspiracy, but what's so impressive is the way Ramsay and Phoenix subvert every expectation established by so many movies before. For example, in most action films, the hero faces off with the villain and sends him to kingdom come. While we don't want to spoil it, we'll say that Joe doesn't get to have his big, cathartic moment. The movie goes somewhere stranger and far more disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.
Phoenix is on another level here. Hidden behind an unkempt beard, he's a weary man who's good at hurting people, especially himself. But when he's not choking himself or beating perverts, he's looking after his elderly mom, cracking jokes with her and making sure her fridge is always stocked. Joe barely utters a word, but Phoenix sells it all with a mumble, a look, and the flash of a ball-peen hammer. As for Ramsay, she wowed critics by subverting the horror genre with We Need to Talk About Kevin, and she's just as adept at the action-thriller. It just goes to show that when you open a genre up to new filmmakers with new perspectives, you'll end up with a story that goes places you'd never expect.