The 2018 Update
by Benjamin Clark, January 4, 2019
With the holidays over, it is time to reflect on 2018 movie watching and update the list of best movies for the present decade. I had a very busy year so did not keep up with the 2018 movie releases. I seldom watched a movie at the big cinema multiplex. And as is so common these days, I preferred to stay home and watch a DVD or binge watch on Netflix (Babylon Berlin, The Sinner, and Blacklist). I have several 2018 films on my watch list, and plan to catch up in 2019.
I revised this 12 best list with two gems; one from 2016 and one from 2015. No 2018 movies made the list. Yes, a few 2018 movies made a lot of money, but that does not mean it is a great film. The box office hits in 2018 are more admirable for the powerful, unrivaled Disney/Marvel marketing machine than for movie craftsmanship. This time next year I may add a 2018 film, but I doubt it.
In keeping with the House Clark factual historical theme, this list is weighted toward dramas based on a true story with a proper measure of historical accuracy. Also included are outstanding action/adventure larks. First and foremost, all these movies are very entertaining, and look fantastic on the big screen with top stars delivering stellar work.
Ladies and gents, for your consideration and enjoyment are brief reviews of the best dozen movies of the 2010’s decade; in order by release date with most recent first.
1. Their Finest 2017 drama war romance
The British have a unique talent for finding military glory in some of their more shambolic retreats – to the Lines of Torres Vedras, Portugal in 1810, from Kabul in 1842, from Mons, Belgium in 1914, and from Dunkirk, France in 1940. This excellent film, set in 1940 England during the WW2 London Blitz, gives us an inside look at the film makers working on a Dunkirk movie for the Propaganda Department. The storytelling is first rate, and the troupe of largely unknown actors and actresses delivers on target without missing a step. This indie film is a hidden gem from the UK released in the USA during April 2017, and was shortly followed by a second, even more ambitious, movie about WW2 Dunkirk in the same year. I enjoyed both films, but only one movie about the Dunkirk evacuation can be in the top 12.
2. Hell or High Water 2016 drama crime
There is something about Jeff Bridges playing a witty, old West Texas Sheriff; it just seems right. Jeff masters the role like the old pro that he is. Although actually filmed in nearby Eastern New Mexico the film is a cinematic masterpiece portraying the vast and sparse American Southwest landscape where the white working class poor eke out a modest living. No white privilege here. The movie is a modern crime /western with an old fashioned cops and robbers chase plot that shines due to top notch acting with an intelligent, solid storyline. Chris Power and Ben Foster are terrific as the two brothers; one desperate, the other crazy, who come up with a clever but very risky plan. The dialogue is perfect from the first line to the last; as believable as it is sparse. This film is a perfect blend of action and dramatic acting. A true rare bird!
3. Deepwater Horizon 2016 drama thriller
Rare photos taken from the real Deepwater Horizon event.
Fair warning, this film is incredibly intense and easily the most realistic recreation of a real life disaster in movie history. I have not seen wild fire action scenes like these since Backdraft. I left the theater completely drained, and my hands sore from gripping the arm rest so tight for so long. I am no stranger to offshore rig operations and deep-well design, so I walked into the IMAX theater rather skeptical that Hollywood film-makers could accurately portray this complex true story, and not confuse an audience that, for the vast majority, is clueless on well design and never set foot on a drilling rig of any type, much less the most sophisticated in the business, a deepwater offshore drilling rig. All I can say is, Bravo, and tip my hardhat to them – they got much more right than wrong. This is not the proper forum to cuss and discuss technical details as there is a vast amount of factual data available on the web covering the Macondo blowout. For example, here’s a link to the BSEE database.
Should you desire to wade into the weeds and study the causes of the disaster, I suggest you start by reading the September 14, 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Interior (nicknamed the Buffalo Report) found at the above link. Back to the movie, see this outstanding movie on the largest screen possible. There is a touching tribute at the end for the eleven rig hands that went down with the ship.
4. 13 Hours 2016 drama action thriller
If you have an ounce of curiosity about what really happened at Benghazi, Libya where an American diplomatic outpost was overrun by terrorist in 2012, you need to see this excellent, historically accurate movie. The film is based on the true story as related in the book, 13 Hours in Benghazi, co-written by Mitchell Zuckoff and five Americans who actually fought in the bloody firefight. Some artistic license is used, but the movie stays true to the basic facts recorded in the book. This film is much more than a war movie. It is by turns, the story of a young warrior questioning his life priorities, the folly of relying on dubious allies, an over-ambitious and monumentally naive official on a journey to his Golgotha, a rousing adventure tale, and above all a vivid account of a fundamental culture clash. In the opening scene as Jack Silva (John Krasinski) reports to his new job as a private guard for a secret CIA compound, we are introduced to Benghazi’s alien, unwelcoming milieu: the chatter of foreign tongue, filthy streets, the monotone drone of Islamic prayers, and the blistering desert heat. Gangs of unshaven, wolfish Arab men lurk on street corners. Guns are everywhere. The place is a ticking bomb ready to explode into violence, and of course, it does with a surprise attack on the diplomatic compound. As things go from bad to worse, the Americans dig in and rally for a fight. The film highlights the skill and esprit de corps of the outnumbered American soldiers and the GRS guards (all US ex-military – Seals, Rangers, and Marines) who fought for survival in Benghazi during the hellish night of Sept 11, 2012. The movie is not without flaws, it ping-pongs back and forth between Jack and his wife, located in the states, and slows down the film. I understand the importance of establishing Jack as a family man, but the director was repetitive and heavy handed with his message. I got it the first time. But that’s a detail and does not derail a well-crafted film.
5. Woman in Gold 2015 historical drama
Many famous works of art have an interesting history, but very few can compete with the amazing story of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (also called The Woman in Gold). This movie was recommended to me by a friend of mine who is interested in art and art history, and does volunteer work at the Houston Fine Arts Museum. I owe her a big favor because I had overlooked this excellent and underrated film. The movie is near flawless in all respects: acting, cinematography, locations, and narrative. The superb editing is what really stands out on this type of movie which is based on a rather complex TRUE story covering eight years of legal wrangling, and often flashing back decades to Vienna, Austria in the 1930’s. This is a deeply moving, intimate story that connects modern times with the dark days of European fascism. I could not help but get attached to the Bloch-Bauer family whose lives were shattered by the Nazi German takeover of Austria.
6. Bridge of Spies 2015 drama crime
This is one of the better historical dramas in the last several years; don't be fooled by the title. This is not a flashy James Bond type spy flick, but an intelligent film based on true events during the Cold War. It gets off to a very slow start, but give it a chance, especially those of you with an interest in history. The production design and acting is first class. But it is Mark Rylance – a little known TV actor- who delivers the most memorable performance as the captured Russian spy, Colonel Abel, and he really does bring some poignancy to his character; who, at the time, was considered the scum of the earth. Sometimes (not too often) the Academy gets it right, and his Oscar was one of their finest hours in years and years.
7. Nightcrawler 2014 drama
Jake Gyllenhaal, as Louis Bloom, plays one of the most memorable characters seen on the big screen in the last several years. He is intelligent and ambitious, but rotten to the core. At first, Louis flounders around until he finds his true calling in the dog-eat-dog world of the freelance TV news hound. The best parts of the movie are at night and are truly outstanding filmmaking with car chases adding the element of extreme danger. NASCAR drivers don’t have anything on Louis. He races down the dark city streets in his red muscle car (Dodge Challenger SRT V8 485 HP) with the pedal to the metal to beat the competition, and police, to the crime/accident scene. The nighttime close-up shots are frightening. Bloom’s face is intense, and fearless. And the look in his eyes is pure batshyt crazy. The movie also has some good comedy relief – Louis and Nina on the date from hell; Louis spouting off management buzzwords and obnoxious corporate jibber-jabber any time money is discussed – I did not know whether to laugh, or reach for a barf bag.
8. Monuments Men 2014 drama war history
To the victors go the spoils of war. The Nazis believed in that old saw to the bottom of their tar black hearts, especially German big shot Herman Goering who remarked, “I intend to plunder, and plunder thoroughly.” In his heyday, Herr Goering had enough stolen art work at his private estate to fill a world class art museum. This movie is based on the true story of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) unit, and recounts some amazing and largely unknown WWII history about the efforts by the Allies to recover/protect Fine Arts then return same to rightful owners. Who knew? While the film is based on Robert Edsel's book Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, a few artistic liberties were taken on the final screenplay. The movie version changes names and invents some action scenes for obvious box office appeal, but does not distort the important historical facts. To quote writer/director/actor George Clooney, the movie is about 80% accurate to the true story told in the book.
9. Gravity 2013 drama adventure thriller
In the pantheon of great space movies, I give you Gravity. This film is a landmark achievement in special effects, and is driven by a compelling storyline dealing with human psychology, as well as, the human heart. We see a story about strength of character and survival, two common movie themes, but never has the two fused together to evoke such an overwhelming audience empathy for a cinema character. A flawless movie, as tense as anything I've seen for a long time; and by far the best movie of 2013. This one is a classic big screen movie theatre experience. My wife and I had the distinct pleasure of viewing this film in 3D IMAX, and it was worth the minibar ticket price.
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 2011 mystery suspense foreign
A Cold War spy flick set in the 1960s, and told from a British perspective that is totally removed from the James Bond franchise. Many reviewers panned this movie for being too slow and boring with numerous confusing flashbacks and scant explanations. Admittedly this is a slow-burn of a film that only hints at the deeper and more complex plot strands, but it has an authentic air of the murky, secretive world of high stakes espionage. It was fascinating to observe a build-up of tension and cold-war paranoia which culminates in a dramatic, if subdued, fashion. This is a thinking man’s spy flick, and will not suit the mainstream movie-goers' taste for frequent gun fights and car chases. But if you are looking for a more intelligent, restrained film set in a different time and place, this one is worth a look. A career best effort by Gary Oldman.
11. Inception 2010 action suspense Sci-Fi thriller
One of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres is parallel worlds. This movie creates an amazing dream world that is similar to real life, yet strikingly different. The plot is simple: a team of clever villains are engaged in some high stakes corporate buccaneering. But what caught me off guard was the bittersweet romance attached to the story. The love story taps into the soul of anyone with a pulse. Few films, much less a sci-fi movie, delivers a sense of romance as well as this film. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Cobb, is the only major star who could have pulled off this role. He leads his team on a tricky mission, adjusting magnificently to a hail of monkey wrenches flung in his path. A joy to watch.
12. Secretariat 2010 sports history
The film gives us an up close, behind-the-scenes look at high stakes horse racing, and does a great job of capturing the pageantry, fun and excitement of major American horse racing events. The movie is wonderfully acted – Diane Lane as Penny Chenery and John Malkovich as trainer, Lucien Laurin, were outstanding (career best) and delivered Oscar worthy performances. The movie uses horse racing as a metaphor for life’s peaks and valleys: faith, traditions, winning, losing, sacrifice, and devotion. I cared about Penny; and in her struggles, I saw my own. Not to nitpick, but I was at the 1972 Kentucky Derby when Riva Ridge won the roses. He was a stallion from Meadow Stables (Chenery family owned) also, with same trainer and jockey as Secretariat in 1973. The movie skips over that history to make the Chenery–Secretariat team appear as more of an underdog story to play better for an American audience. That minor criticism aside, this is a hugely underrated film. The Academy snubbed this film and I do not understand why. It is an artistic, entertaining account of one of the most remarkable true stories in modern sports – Secretariat winning the 1973 Triple Crown. What a beast!
***Bonus Section – 3 more movies that almost made the list***
True Grit 2010 Western Action Adventure
My expectations were surpassed by this remake; it is even better than the original. A rare compliment indeed. This is a timeless story of a uniquely American Odyssey and a gutsy teenage girl. I had a feeling of nostalgia watching this movie: the atmosphere, clothing, and the buildings reminded me of the old-school classic Hollywood westerns. Jeff Bridges channels the Rooster Cogburn as created by Charles Portis in his book. In the 60’s version, John Wayne was, well, he was John Wayne, a strutting, macho-man. Mr. Bridges does his career best work here. But the standout performance of the film has to be newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who beat out thousands of other girls for the part of determined, revenge seeking girl, Mattie Ross. Her debut performance is the best for any child star in many years. She is a pleasure to watch.
Our Brand is Crisis 2015 comedy
Sandra Bullock plays a political strategist nicknamed Calamity Jane and delivers yet another strong performance that carries the entire movie. The film is a behind-the-scenes look at a political campaign with several LOL comedy scenes. This movie will not appeal to everyone; Americans are indifferent to foreign elections (this one takes place in Bolivia) and some delicate viewers will be uncomfortable with the sleazy tactics employed in the dog-eat-dog world of politics. Never mind; just sit back and enjoy some good belly laughs. Very underrated.
The Descendants 2011 drama
Here we have several favorite Hollywood themes – a dysfunctional rich family, a tragic event, dark secrets are exposed and a tearjerker ending. George Clooney plays the battered protagonist, and is in every scene. He nails the right mood each time; played to perfection – right down to the onion at the end. And George is well supported by Shailene Woodley, a little known TV actress in her first major screen role. I thought they both earned Oscar Gold in a year when the vastly overrated, retro flick, The Artist, scooped up way too many honors. I am not a fan of Hawaiian folk music, but it makes a fitting score for this movie. Bonus - see some stunning Hawaiian scenery shots, for those interested in travel planning for next vacation.
Honorable mentions 2010 - 2018:
Best debut by a child actor: Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in True Grit (2010)
Comedies: Our Brand is Crisis (2015), Bad Words (2013), The Disaster Artist (2017), Miss Meadows (2014), The Perfect Host (2010), We’re the Millers (2013), Casa de mi Padre (2012)
mindless action flick: John Wick (2014)
War movies: Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Dunkirk (2017)
animation: Loving Vincent (2017)
extreme adventure: Adrift (2018)
old school western: True Grit (2010), The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017)
sci-fi: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
sports drama: I, Tonya (2017), Rush (2013), Moneyball (2011)
foreign films: Trollhunter (2010), The Square (2017), The Death of Stalin (2017), Mr. Holmes (2015), Darkest Hour (2017).
Shailene Woodley doubleheader: Adrift (2018) & The Descendants (2011)
Written by Ben Clark. Copyright 2016-2019. All rights reserved.