I’ve not done a countdown in a long while and it’s that time of year when countdowns make sense as a means for recollection, so here’s a new countdown. I watched a number of movies this year. They covered a huge range of genres, styles, ages, and tones. Most of them entertained me, and all of them engaged me. These are the ten best movies I watched for the first time this year. Please note that this is not a list of films released this year. I didn’t go to the movie theatre that often, so I didn’t see many of the best films of this year according to critics, like La La Land, Moonlight, or Manchester by the Sea. I saw a few, but most of the films are from earlier years, some from the black and white film era. Here we go.
Honorable Mention: V For Vendetta (2005)
There’s a used book store in Cambridge called Rodney’s that is one of my favorite hangout spots. They sell DVDs for very cheap, and I’ve gotten a few films from there. I’ve wanted to watch V for Vendetta for a while, so when I saw it for so cheap, I bought it. I had a free afternoon after class, so I made lunch and watched the movie. That was a good choice.
The political themes and messages of the film are compelling and thought provoking. The world feels controlled and chained. They nailed the feel of the movie, with Natalie Portman acting as a vessel for us to walk in futuristic, fascist London. Portman is excellent in the film, but the highlight is absolutely Hugo Weaving as V. He is spellbinding. His home feels like a haven, his actions and speeches are grandiose, at times infuriating, but as you learn his backstory through the course of the film, you appreciate how complete this character is. It takes some commitment to watch it and some of the messaging is a bit much, but the political intrigue, suspense, and charm make V for Vendetta well worth watching. I can’t put it into the top list, but it deserves a mention.
10. Rogue One (2016)
The annual Star Wars release that we will get for the rest of all time just barely scrapes into my top 10. I did a full writeup of the film, so I won’t spend much time on it here. Short version, its good. Plenty of good action, amazing Darth Vader moments, and enough world building to expand the Star Wars universe and add some grit to the world make it a worthwhile addition to cinema’s most sacred franchise. It’s flaws are just big enough to keep it down to the 10th spot here.
9. The Revenant (2015)
For the first and only time on this list, I will say I didn’t like this movie much. This is a rare experience for me. I appreciate the technical mastery and how well made and directed the film is, but I still can’t bring myself to like it.
Positives first. The scene composition, camerawork, lighting, and cinematography are nothing short of amazing. The film feels real and brutal. The score isn’t distracting or ear catching, but it compliments the film perfectly. The theme of survival is well explored and Tom Hardy is an excellent villain. There is plenty to enjoy and it deserved every technical Oscar it won. However, as stated previously, I didn’t like it. I saw this film at the very end of its theatrical run while on Spring break with family. We went to a lovely little theatre called the Chatham Orpheum, in Chatham, Cape Cod, which might be my favorite theatre I’ve ever been to. We sat there and suffered through it.
It felt like a gore fest that took so much effort to stomach and watch Leonardo DiCaprio fight through. It is a brutal movie that pushes its lead to his physical limits, but doesn’t flush his character out anymore than that. In fact, none of the characters other than Hardy or the Native guide halfway through the film caught my attention or were that memorable for me. When the film is so focused on beating the lead to his limits, that’s tough to watch. The CGI by Industrial Light and Magic to bring the bear to life is the best CGI work I’ve ever seen, and I could barely watch it. You feel every cut, arrow, rock, and punch that hits Leo. It’s so hard to watch at times that I can’t say I like it. If you can’t stomach violence, stay far away from this movie. If you can handle it, then you’ve got a technical masterpiece to enjoy here.
8. Airplane! (1980)
I’ve never laughed so hard watching a movie. This film is vulgar, insulting, full of swearing, death, and nudity. And it is a work of comedic genius. This came out at a time when disaster movies were popular. Think The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Zero Hour!. It takes the seriousness of disaster movies and plays every bit of it for laughs. The characters and jokes are perfectly written and it is so quotable. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks about dragging Walton and Lanier up the floor every night for 48 minutes with a kid who just told him he doesn’t try , except during the playoffs, while he is trying to pass himself off as an airplane pilot and is wearing his Laker uniform underneath his pilot garb. That kind of absurdity is just par for the course when talking about this movie. This isn’t a film to watch for cinematography, character arcs, or any of that stuff. You watch this because it was funny in 1980, and it is just as funny today.
7. Finding Dory (2016)
Pixar is the best animation studio going today. I have loved almost every film I’ve seen from them, and liked Cars and Cars 2. When the sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo was announced years ago, I was excited. When the movie came out, it was a must watch for me. I saw this with my mom on the Cape over the summer. And wow did Pixar do a phenomenal job. I actually like this a little more than the original.
The animation is sensational. The sound design is perfect. The voice acting is just as good as the first movie. There are bits which are nonsensical, like the truck falling off the cliff as “What a Wonderful World” plays, but the film holds together well enough despite the silliness. The returning characters are as good as expected, but the new critters are awesome additions. Namely Hank, my favorite character in the film. His arc is heartwarming and his natural characteristics, as an octopus, allow Pixar to flex their creative muscle with him on screen. I think this is a worthy sequel to Finding Nemo and a worthy addition to Pixar’s lineup.
6. City of God (2002)
After my final exam wrapped up at BU, I had a week to relax on campus. During Senior Week, I went to Red Sox games, explored the MFA, celebrated my graduation with my friends, and enjoyed the city I’ve come to love so much. One night, I got together with some guys from the BU Catholic Center and we wanted to watch a movie. My friend David, an avid film buff, suggested City of God. None of us knew anything about it, just that it was supposed to be good. Our blind faith was rewarded with a surprisingly gritty and touching film about growing up in and trying to survive in the slums of Rio de Janero.
It is in Portuguese, and has accompanying subtitles to make it watchable for those who don’t speak Portuguese. It provides enough lighthearted moments to make living in the ironically titled City of God seem better than it actually is. Only two disappointments show up for me. There’s a romance between the lead and a girl he likes that is dropped part of the way through the film and is never resolved. There’s also one important character who goes from being likable to dispicable in a heartbeat. It just seems a bit extreme. All things considered though, this is a phenomenal movie. It does require some willingness to endure blood and guts, but nowhere near as much as The Revenant.
5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
I love sports movies. With all the sports posts I’ve got, it’d be a shock if I didn’t. Gran Torino is one of my favorite films, and I heard that Million Dollar Baby was similar in tone and even better. After an insane week of driving all around New England, I needed a night to breathe. I made myself dinner and put in Million Dollar Baby. This movie is emotional. Hillary Swank plays the southern hick perfectly. The chemistry between Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood is perfect. It is a little slow, but it’s a Clint Eastwood film. He takes his time. This is a sports movie that gets you thinking “that’s not fair!” just after showing you something heartwarming and exciting. It is a well balanced movie, and well worth your time and effort to try and watch it.
My family has a penchant for watching classic movies. We’ve watched such classics as Casablanca and Citizen Kane and plan on watching On The Waterfront, and other classics as time goes by. Over spring break, Dad suggested we watch Sunset Boulevard, a classic film noir about how age and fame can drive a person into insanity. And wow is this movie engrossing, unsettling, and fantastically creepy. Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond masterfully and delivers one of the most famous lines in cinema history: “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” I thought this film was a lighthearted look at the entertainment business. I was wrong, and the finale of the film leaves you with a sense of “I can’t believe that really just happened…” It is from a completely different era of film making. The writing, pacing, and tone of the movie are relics of its time, and I wish we could go back to that age. If you like old school movies, go watch this. You’ll love it.
3. Inside Out (2015)
In late October, I went with my dad to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to take in a Green Bay Packer game at Lambeau Field. It was a highlight of the year. The next day, we hopped on a plane to Chicago. We then went our separate ways, with me going back to Boston and Dad going to San Fransisco. When I sat down for my flight, I noticed the seatback monitor had a Disney tab. I poked around the movie selection and found Inside Out listed there. I remember many people raving about how good this movie was, and I had one friend tell me about how emotionally charged it is. I took their word for it and watched it on my flight home. Simply, wow.
Again, Pixar is the best animation studio working now and Inside Out is the most imaginative film they’ve made. The idea of emotions being managed like a company with a board of emotions managing it all is brilliant. The tale of a young girl struggling to figure out her new situation is compelling and relatable to every human being on the planet. The animation and score are perfect. The writing for every character is phenomenal, and my friend who called it emotional was not exaggerating at all. I couldn’t watch some sections of the film because I had lived it and I didn’t want to look at it in movie form. That makes the final act and the ensuing catharsis more meaningful. This is a masterful movie and one of my favorite Pixar films. Go watch this if you haven’t yet.
2. Rocky (1976)
Yes, I somehow never watched Rocky before this year. When I got my job writing for Inside Hockey and covered games up at the University of Vermont, I stayed overnight at my family’s place in Quechee, VT. After finishing my writeups I checked out the Xfinity OnDemand listings. I went to the Free Movies tab and saw Rocky. Instantly, I thought “Yes. This is happening.” I was missing out, this film is awesome.
Sylvester Stallone as the title character is absolutely the best part of the film. He’s simultaneously so stupid and wise with an underlying good nature that you can’t possibly root against him. Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, is a respectable adversary for Rocky, but never feels much like a villain. There’s a healthy respect between the two leads. The romance between Rocky and Adrian, played by Talia Shire, is sweet and touching. It looks and feels very real, with Rocky being such a gentleman in a way only a bumbling guy can be. It makes the final scene so memorable. The best sequence of the film is undoubtably the fight. The “Going the Distance” song is one of the finest pieces of film score ever written, and you pull so hard for Rocky. It is a masterclass of pulling for the underdog and creating a character that everyone wants to be, and at points through life, has been. This film is required viewing.
1. The Godfather (1972)
Of all the great movies I wanted to watch and hadn’t gotten to yet, this is the one that people were the most baffled by my not seeing. This is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. I had heard about the horse head, the baptism, the Sicilian wedding, and how perfect the casting was. So after the craziness of the Whitecaps baseball season and the musical wrapped up, I had a free night. I cooked a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and sausage, poured a glass of red wine, killed all the lights in my house, and watched The Godfather. Simply put, all the praise of the movie was justified.
In a way, this is the weirdest film on the list because it doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like a novel being told by actors. It was based on a novel, but it feels like a book and not a movie, which is normally a problem. Not here. Also the film starts with immediate exposition about a daughter being brutally attacked. No music, no credits, no build up or set up. Just a cold start. It’s so different, and it works so well. Marlon Brando is magnificent as Don Corleone. Al Pacino’s ascent as a member of the family is so compelling to watch. Every supporting character is cast absolutely perfectly. There are so many quotable lines. I feel more cultured after having seen this movie. This is up there as one of the greatest accomplishments in cinematic history. This, like Rocky, is required watching, but watch this first. The Godfather is a cinematic marvel that will never get old or be forgotten.