Last week covered Tier 4, and this week we move up to Tier 3.
Within each tier, the movies are not ranked because they are all equal to each other. Instead, the movies are listed alphabetically. Each movie will get a few (or many) words followed by my favorite quote.
How would we love if time was a circle? How would we view death? How would we live if time was a circle? If there wasn’t a start or an end, it was simply the story of your life? If you knew the end while the present was still happening?
When a movie makes me contemplate the big questions, it’s great. When the movie doesn’t give any clear answers, it’s special. Arrival is special.
Arrival is the rare alien movie that grasps at the truly terrifying nature of aliens: what if they are so unlike us, we can barely comprehend them? Of course, in this movie we do comprehend their language, eventually. Though they look nothing like anything we have seen before, and they speak in a language entirely unknown to us. That possibility always fascinates me: what if we are visited by aliens and have no ability to comprehend them? How can you decipher a being’s intentions if you can’t comprehend the being?
Arrival presents those ideas and presents a compelling case for what could happen. We would treat them as though they will act like humans do, for one. Afraid of an invasion rather than assuming good will of any kind (assuming aliens even have those sort of emotions or thoughts).
When I first saw Arrival, I hardly grasped the story of what was going on, yet in the end I was nearly in tears. Which speaks to the visceral nature of Denis Villaneuve’s adaptation. The emotions are so powerful I don’t have to logically understand the facts to be floored.
And that’s a special, special movie.
I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order.
When Avengers hit theaters I was a senior in high school. I hadn’t read the comics, or any books, or seen many prior Marvel properties. I had seen Iron Man and loved it, saw Thor and really liked it, and was enchanted by Captain America. Which probably establishes where I am at in Marvel fandom: I’m a fan of the movies, but not much beyond that.
Still, I was on board for this movie. I was excited for it. My expectations were rocketing higher with teaser and with every trailer.
And boy did it deliver. Back then in a May 2012 theater, and still to this day when I rewatch it.
I still remember everyone worrying about getting 6 movie stars together on one screen and having it work. People were concerned that having four prerequisite movies was too much for moviegoers.
And then, it worked. With hindsight those worries are all rather quaint, aren’t they? Simpler times, truly.
Even when you strip away the buttresses of the Infinity Saga project and take it out of cultural context, this movie is still a blast. The characterizations were pitch perfect and executed brilliantly on screen by the actors. The clash of superhero personalities was dreamed up wonderfully. The reason for them to get together was orchestrated as perfectly as could be. I still am surprised by the emotional power of Coulsen’s death, even eight years later.
Avengers kicked off a decade that would change cinema forever, and did it with a genuinely good movie.
Have a care how you speak! Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard and he is my brother!
He killed eighty people in two days.
From time to time I’ll start thinking about this movie out of nowhere. I’ll think about that scene when they hit the deer on the way to the house. Or I’ll think of Daniel Kaluuya’s eyes as he is being sent to the sunken place. Or I’ll recall Lakeith Stanfield’s vacant eyes as he dominates the movie for two minutes.
And it amazes me every single time. How lucky are we to have gotten this movie?
And it came from Jordan Peele’s debut! What a pleasant shock that was. The hilarious sketch comedian came out to write and direct the best horror movie of the decade. This film will go down in history as a masterclass in how to tie horror films into greater societal trends to expose the anxieties and tensions that cast a shadow over us all.
The release date also plays into the power of the film. Had this film dropped a few years earlier, I am not sure that it would have made such a splash. But coming so soon after the 2016 sea change, it held a mirror up to America to show us what we really were. How racial tensions are as tight as they have been in decades and were just ramped up again.
And it fuckin ruled.
Yeah, what a moment. What a moment. I mean, Hitler was up there with all those perfect Aryan race bullshit. This black dude comes along and proves him wrong in front of the entire world. Amazing!
Tough break for your Dad, though.
Yeah, he almost got over it.
Perhaps this is indicative of the bubble I exist in, but how is this movie not mentioned more as a Pixar masterpiece? Inside Out perfectly encapsulates those weird early-adolescent years when childhood ends but you aren’t even close to becoming a young adult. Those chaotic emotions are expressed in an innovative way. Not only how they individually can drive our actions depending on which emotion is in charge but the delicate way that they mingle together as we grow older.
Beyond expressing emotions Inside Out also handles memory in the best way, highlighting the comedy inherent in what our brains choose to remember and the sorrow of forgetting.
It also has the most heart wrenching character death of the century, perhaps. And the character’s name is fucking Bing Bong. How Pixar pulled that off is nothing short of a masterpiece.
- You made it! Go! Go save Riley! Take her to the moon for me. Okay?
JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2
Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski are very good at action. Not much more to say.
Why Chapter 2 out of the three? Well, this installment has the best string of action scenes:from the catacombs fight until the knife fight in the subway car, absolutely thrilling. Then later there’s the mirror exhibit shootout which is so trippy that it ratchets up the tension to about 10000. I liked the Godfather III energy of “I thought I was out. But they pulled me right back.”
Or maybe it’s everyone hamming it up without being boring or killing the joke. Seriously, has Lawrence Fishburne ever had more fun acting than he does in this movie? Has Riccardo Scamarcio revelled as a villain as much as he does here? I doubt it. And those performances are all through the film to counterbalance against Keanu Reeves playing it straight, and those camp elements elevate this chapter above the rest.
You stabbed the devil in the back and forced him back into the life that he had just left. You incinerated the priest’s temple. Burned it to the ground. Now he’s free of the marker, what do you think he’ll do? He had a glimpse of the other side and he embraced it. But you, Signor D’Antonio… took it away from him.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Who needs dialogue when you can use just a camera? Why write a script when you can storyboard will do fine?
I can’t lie: the first time I saw this I was put off by the aesthetic of it all. The world is so weird, the costuming and makeup and everything was SO MUCH. Honestly I think it shocked me a bit back when I was a wee young Junior in college (oh god that was five years ago).
Then for some reason I watched it again a while later. I probably saw it on some end of year lists or because it was Oscar nominated. The reason doesn’t matter, though.
On my rewatch I was prepared for the weirdness and I saw past it. I saw below the aesthetic and saw the true beauty of it. It isn’t complicated: it’s a two hour car chase. The stakes are clear, they are high, and it’s awesome. It’s a true thing of beauty.
Fury Road hits larger ideas about the patriarchy, economic inequality, and faith so powerful that words are hardly necessary. It’s the film personification of “do I need to speak, or will my actions make my beliefs known enough?” Which makes for excellent cinema.
Take that thematic potency and put a thrilling chase on top of it, and there’s the making of a great movie.
Oh, what a day… what a lovely day!
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT
The best action movie of the decade. I have never clutched my seat as hard as I did for the last hour of this film. I was actually exhausted from it in the end.
The entire movie is a masterclass in action. The storm helidrop is straight up awesome the whole way down. The rooftop chase is pure Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise running and Simon Pegg feeding him hilarious instructions. While many movies would end at having one great action sequence, the helijump is followed up by a great fight scene. Where the geography is clearly established, and it’s shot so that I can follow it every single time. And not long afterwards McQuarry shows that he knows how to shoot chase scenes, as Tom Cruise sprints across rooftops following Simon Pegg’s hilarious instructions. Peak Mission: Impossible. And when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it ends with the most implausibly fun helicopter chase I’ve ever experienced.
Fallout nails the fundamentals of action films and delivers on everything the genre should be: tense, awesome, and fun.
It has clear stakes: figure out the bad guy, stop the bad guy. It proves that films don’t always need to be about grand themes and emotions. Sometimes it can be about Tom Cruise running, and technology forever failing Tom Cruise. And that is amazing.
There cannot be peace without first a great suffering. The greater the suffering, the greater the peace. The end you’ve always feared… is coming. It’s coming, and the blood will be on your hands.
When I learned that this won best picture at the 2020 Oscars, my faith in the world was renewed. It is a movie deserving of Best Picture, created by a man worthy of Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. If the Academy gave out awards for Best Ensemble I am positive it would have won. The disappointing fact that they all didn’t get their own nominations is a crime itself.
I could go on and on about the achievements of the film. Though suffice it to say that it is the funniest, most scathing, and competent critiques of capitalist class structure that I have seen in my short life.
Parasite is not the first, nor only, movie of the 2010s to attack the failings of capitalist class structure. Other movies came out that could create a compelling premise, or write out critiques through dialogue. Parasite does both of those things, and on top of that Bong Joon-Ho used his production design and cinematography to emphasize every theme and motif in his story. It was present in the big scenes, think of Kai-Tek and his kids running in the rain from the Park’s home to their own semi-basement to find it totally flooded. They take ages to walk all the way down there, as they go back to their class position.
Though he puts more subtle techniques to bolster the film. Like the scene where the rich friend offers [the boy] the job tutoring the girl. Behind the friend is a street gently sloping up to a bright light, the symbolic guide to higher life.
It’s fantastic. Bong is a man who very clearly understands symbolism in film, and how those symbols collect into powerful motifs and further into potent themes.
At the end of the day, who can tell the parasites from the host? How is it always so easy for the lower classes to fight amongst themselves instead of fighting against the system that put them down there? Though the answers aren’t clean or clear-cut in any sense, Bong Joon-Ho does his best to give us some talking points to consider.
This is so metaphorical.
For decades Bond films were supposed to start and end with great suits, villains chewing the scenery en route to world domination, and gorgeous women. From time to time Bond skis off of a cliff. This campy style through Daniel Craig’s turn as Bond with Quantum of Solace, featuring Bond pilots an old plane with a blown engine to a miraculously safe crash landing in the desert without breaking the nearby aquifer.
Then Sam Mendes comes along with Skyfall and elevates the franchise, at least for one film.I still cannot believe that a Bond film was able to reach these heights.
When I first watched Skyfall here is a list of things I did not expect: incisive insights about trauma, contemplations about echoes of imperialism, explorations of mommy issues. It encompasses all of that while simultaneously celebrating British culture and its soft power in the modern age. Which makes Skyfall a fantastic Bond movie at its core.
Not to mention it looked damn good the whole time. The Shanghai Tower Shootout is a gorgeous fight sequence that astounds me each time. An amazing set design and perfect cinematography. I watch that scene mouth agape every time. Then an hour later we see Scotland at its best: foggy and breathtaking. Which transitions to the defense of Skyfall, when those cool blues adds tension to the fight, right up until Silva arrives and the scenery explodes into reds and oranges. It’s breathtaking shit.
This is far and away the greatest Bond film, and one of the best spy movies.
Then we wired coconut to the lid as bait and the rats would come for the coconut and they would fall into the drum. And after a month, you have trapped all the rats, but what do you do then? Throw the drum into the ocean? Burn it? No. You just leave it and they begin to get hungry. And one by one… they start eating each other until there are only two left. The two survivors. And then what? Do you kill them? No. You take them and release them into the trees, but now they don’t eat coconut anymore. Now, they only eat rat. You have changed their nature. The two survivors. This is what she made us.
INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
Spider-Man at its best is a coming of age story: a sorta nerdy kid finds his place in the world and figures out how to handle that responsibility. Everyone has a story about coming into their own, which is why Spider-Man resonates with multiple generations. It’s universal. Which Spider-Verse proves rather literally by transporting it into multiple worlds: the past, the future, across genders and ages and *checks notes*species. We have all been dealing with this, each with our own variations and unique elements. And the care the film approaches those variations is why this film is so powerful.
An older Peter faces his terror of fatherhood and the emotional labor necessary to approach that phase of his life. Gwen experiencing the parallel of Miles’ story. And god damn it, the movie’s most crushing line is delivered by a pig. This movie is enchanting. Though the magic of Spider-verse doesn’t end with the story.
It is the first film to palpably bring the ‘comic-book look’ to the screen properly. The thought bubbles puts the audience directly into the real-time thought process of the characters while simultaneously seeing their (animated) faces and thereby intensely empathizing with their every action. It combines a novel’s power of intimately knowing a character’s thoughts with the power of watching their face reflect that inner monologue.
And the icing on this multi-layered cake is Spider-Verse breaking the 4th wall without ever explicitly “breaking the 4th Wall”. Addressing that this story has been told and retold three separate times already this century without making it explicit, yet undeniable? Brilliant.
When will I know I’m ready?
You won’t. It’s a leap of faith. That’s all it is, Miles. A leap of faith.
A STAR IS BORN
I’ve thought quite a bit about the staying power of this story. Why do the remakes keep on succeeding? The answer to why there are remakes is easy: stories about Hollywood/entertainment industries are navel gazing enough to pitch to studios and get the film made. Then, if there are two stories the public loves devouring, it’s watching a star rise out of the rough and come into their own while another one falls.
A Star is Born captures the weird relationship Americans have with their celebrities. We love them, we look to them for inspiration and everyone enjoys the art that comes out of the new, sexy breakout artists (Billie Eilish, Tom Holland, Florence Pugh). Yet we all are envious and jealous of a lifestyle that nearly everyone will miss out on, and when celebrities crash down to Earth (Johnny Depp, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan) the schadenfreude is a hell of a drug. The more public, the better it hits.
Bradley Cooper’s spin on A Star is Born makes my list because it is remarkably tender and because of all the breakout stars involved.
Not just in the film, where Ally captivates the world when she comes onto the stage with Jackson Maine. She rises to become the next big thing, and we love it. Even though we know this story is a tragedy. There are plenty of those stories, including four versions of this one. Bradley Cooper’s project is special because the storytellers were storming onto a stage themselves.
I’ve tried to stay away from purely piling on gratitude about how great people are in these movies, though it is impossible for me to separate out the stars from the story in this case, so I’m sorry.
It’s hard to believe this film was a debut feature by Bradley Cooper. He knows his shit and he understands the craft of good cinema, it’s astounding. Never before was I excited for Bradley Cooper’s next project and this movie changed that. Whether it is acting or directing I cannot wait to see where he goes next.It will be a difficult task because this movie might be his acting peak. His complete transformation into Jackson Maine is engrossing, yet it pales in comparison to his directing.
Next up is the debut of Lady Gaga’s acting career. And she bought her A+ game for this one. She squares off opposite Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliot and steals the show from them, much like her character steals the show from Jackson Maine.
The highs of the film are truly on her shoulders. This story may ultimately be that of Jackson’s fall, however, the movie lives and dies on Lady Gaga. Her singing, her vulnerability, her strength. It all makes the movie work so so so well.
I knew this film was special when I smiled, laughed, and cried, and smiled again as I left the theater. It’s a special movie that is absolutely contagious. I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in.
Jack talked about how music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes. That’s it. He loved how you see them.
Thank you so much for making it to the end! I appreciate you taking the time to read my writing. If you have any constructive criticism or thoughts for discussion, please feel free to leave a comment or email me: email@example.com
This list is also on Letterboxd: https://boxd.it/5sWME