Best Film Performances of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

Back in April, I revealed my lists of the best podcasts, TV shows, TV episodes, albums, songs, and movies of the 2010s. I declared that that was it for my Best of the Decade curating for this particular ten-year cycle. But now I’m back with a few more, baby! I’ve been participating in a series of Best of the 2010s polls with some of my online friends, and I wanted to share my selections with you. We’re including film performances, TV performances, directors, and musical artists, so get ready for all that.

First up is Film Performances. Any individual performance from any movie released between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019 was eligible, whether it was live-action, voice-only, or whatever other forms on-screen acting take nowadays. For actors who played the same character in multiple movies, each movie was considered separately.

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Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ Offers Goofs Galore and Surprise Reveals Aplenty

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures/YouTube

Starring: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove, Marisa Tomei, Tony Revolori, Remy Hii

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Nicks and Bruises from Webslinging Around and Awkward Situations That Teenager Somehow Stumble Into

Release Date: July 2, 2019

The name of the game is the ol’ switcheroo, the bait-and-switch, the smoke-and-mirrors routine … yeah, that’s the ticket. It’s only been a couple of months since the release of Avengers: Endgame, but despite all that seeming finality, the MCU must continue. And the first arrival in this new status quo is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which means we’re going to kick things off with an in memoriam montage that features Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Comic Sans lettering, and a Getty Images-watermarked photo. But there are also some baddies to defeat, although Peter Parker (Tom Holland) would much rather focus on his school’s European class trip and taking things to a more romantic realm with his friend MJ (Zendaya). You get the sense that this cinematic iteration of Spider-Man would also like to just focus on the high school ecosystem. But superhero movie requirements beckon, and Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ script does a fun enough job of incorporating Peter and his pals’ shenanigans into the CGI blowout.

The topsy-turvy hook begins with the fallout from the fact that the people who were snapped away in Infinity War and then returned in Endgame (referred to here as “the Blip”) have not aged the five years that everyone who remained did. Adding to all the pandemonium is the appearance of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a caped-and-suited fellow who claims to be from a parallel Earth and is here to help fight some monsters that have escaped from his world. But not all is as it seems, as characters may not be who they say they are, relationships have sudden accelerations and decelerations, and it really isn’t what it looks like when a classmate discovers Peter taking his pants off next to a much older woman.

That sense of the wool being pulled over and off and back on everyone’s eyes lasts all the way through to the end of the credits, with the extra scenes turning out to be surprisingly essential in clarifying what just happened. Peter’s efforts to puncture his way into what’s really going on have a satisfying vibe of getting past the bullshit. However, that level of satisfaction is not met with any corresponding visual panache, as Far From Home plays it way too safe in the standard-issue Marvel CGI department. If this is the post-Endgame status quo, at least it won’t be so stressful.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is Recommended If You Like: Spider-Man: Homecoming, High Quality Character-Centric Jokewriting

Grade: I don’t know how to grade these Marvel movies anymore. I could give it a 4 out of 5 for Fun, but I also want to downgrade it to 3.5 out of 5 for (Lack of) Originality, and then I also want to downgrade it to Less Than 3.5 out of 5 for Frustration about this being yet another good-but-not great Marvel movie. So my overall grade is all of that somehow mixed together.

Movie Review: The Newest ‘Shaft’ is Not the Baddest Mother. Shut Your Eyes.

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Titus Welliver, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Luna Lauren Vélez

Director: Tim Story

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Shameless Ladies Man Behavior and a Fair Amount of Gunfire

Release Date: June 14, 2019

Private investigator John Shaft has been the epitome of cinematic cool ever since his debut nearly fifty years ago. In the 2000 reboot, Samuel L. Jackson was an obvious choice to continue Richard Roundtree’s legacy as John II, the original Shaft’s nephew. But in the latest iteration, Jessie T. Usher is about as far from badass as he can possibly be as John II’s estranged son JJ. That is meant as both objective fact and damning criticism. He’s supposed to be out of step with the men in his family. He’s working for The Man as an FBI data analyst, and while he’s got some sweet chemistry with a longtime friend (Alexandra Shipp), he’s hardly a sex machine to all the chicks. The idea is that when JJ teams up with his dad to solve a case of wide-ranging corruption, he’ll finally be able to live up to the Shaft legacy, but the concept of cool on display here is too outrageous and unchill to actually be cool.

If you’re expecting a blaxploitation throwback, you’ll need to recalibrate right quickly. This is much more of a culture clash buddy comedy, solidly in the vein of director Tim Story’s work in the Ride Along series. The central conflict is between Sam Jackson Shaft pushing a toxic form of big dog masculinity and Jessie Usher Shaft being a reasonable human being. It’s nice that JJ pushes back against his dad’s bullheaded ideas of how to be a man, but it doesn’t help that every Jackson delivery of emotional immaturity and gay panic is meant to be a laugh line. Overall, this Shaft is confused and vastly out of touch, as exemplified by a stunning moment of gun fetishization in which JJ shows off his firearms skills to the tune of a classic Phil Spector Wall of Sound needle drop and then immediately afterward reiterates his distaste of guns. Adding to the confusion is John Sr. and John II acting like they’re now father and son instead of uncle and nephew. Perhaps that’s an effort to distance the original from a potentially legacy-killing sequel, which is an understandable decision.

Shaft is Recommended If You Like: Stomping all over the classics

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Trench Coats

Movie Review: ‘Captain Marvel’ is a Blast of Low-Key Wonder

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CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence That Tends to Cause Nosebleeds

Release Date: March 8, 2019

It’s been a while since I have felt consistently sustained excitement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a fan of superheroes, and Marvel in particular, but I’m a bigger film buff, and I often find myself in a weird liminal space where I want to have more unbridled emotions for these movies, but it is hard to feel that way about a series sticking to a formula that is so much about ticking off obligatory long-term checkpoints. Captain Marvel does not burst free of that formula, but it has enough of its own magic to make it the first MCU movie in quite some time in which I left the theater wanting to re-watch it. It could have just been the way it happened to hit me on one particular day, but I think it has also something to do with its vibe of ignoring all the noise and getting on with it mission.

The plot is a little too complicated to easily synopsize, which Disney and Marvel are surely happy about, as they do not want us spoiling any of their MCU flicks, particularly this one, as it is uniquely dependent on backstory reveals and memory retrieval. Suffice it to say then that Vers (Brie Larson) is an intergalactic warrior fighting for the race known as the Kree, but she is also plagued by visions of a past life as U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers. The Kree are stuck in a long-term struggle against the shapeshifting Skrulls, which leads Vers to Earth in 1995 in a race for a powerful energy source. This is a typical McGuffin-focused Marvel film, but this particular McGuffin is unusually resonant, touching on themes of refugees and the perils of deep psychological deception.

Captain Marvel is also your standard MCU movie insofar as it builds to a climax with an unengaging, undistinguished action set piece. But luckily, that is not the main attraction. Vers teams up with a pre-eye patch Nick Fury, resulting in a buddy flick that serves as Samuel L. Jackson’s biggest showcase thus far in this franchise. His and Larson’s dynamic is one of instant respect that still leaves plenty of room for clowning around as they save the universe. That feeling is matched by a strong sense overall of the film being aesthetically tuned in. I cannot think of any other superhero movie that features a steady stream of crickets chirping amidst characters talking outside.

Captain Marvel is not massively revolutionary. While it may be the first MCU movie fronted by a female hero, it is not about femininity the way that Black Panther is about blackness. But while it does not respond hard to the big questions, it gets so many of the little things right.

Captain Marvel is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Nineties Rock, Friendly and Intelligent Aliens Who Speak English or At Least Have Universal Translators

Grade: 4 out of 5 Supreme Intelligences

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Glass’ is an Off-Kilter But Rewarding Examination of Superpowered Beings

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CREDIT: Jessica Kourkounis/Universal Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Popping Veins, Sharp Objects, and Bodies Thrown Violently

Release Date: January 18, 2019

With Glass, M. Night Shyamalan is attempting a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Superheroes. According to this particular model, the stories told in comic books are based on the exploits of real people. We only think they are myths because they have had to live in the shadows. I’m pretty sure that Shyamalan does not actually believe that there are superheroes and supervillains in the real world, but the wonder that infuses those stories is very real. It is what drives us to understand the unbelievable. It is also what drives Shyamalan to deconstruct the entire superhero genre at its most atomic level.

Picking up nearly two decades after the events of Unbreakable and soon after those of Split, Glass kicks off with Bruce Willis’ super-strong guardian David Dunn tracking down James McAvoy’s ravenous multi-personality villain Kevin Wendell Crumb. They are both subdued by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in patients with delusions that they are superpowered, a condition that she assures us many people are suffering from. They end up at the same institution that has been housing Sam Jackson’s Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, the man who engineered a series of terrorist attacks to uncover a superhuman like David. Also returning are Spencer Treat Clark as David’s son Joseph, Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s mother, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, Kevin’s surviving kidnapped victim. Oddly enough, most of the film takes place within the institution, making this mainly a battle of wits between Dr. Ellie and her charges. It is a surprisingly talky approach to what is ostensibly an action film, but it is profoundly part and parcel of what Shyamalan is doing.

As Glass reveals what it is all about, much of the dialogue turns into language that only ever appears in comic books. That is to say, it is the language of comic book narration, of the variety that goes “the bad guys are teaming up” and “this is an origin story, but not for the character you thought.” Not only do real people not talk like this, neither do movie characters, and neither do comic book characters. The only actor who manages to deliver any of it with any gravitas is Jackson. Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy, on the other hand, sound as unnatural as possible. However, as disorienting as all that is, I am not eager to write this element off as a failure.

The film’s structure also leads me to question some things, particularly the revelation of Dr. Ellie’s true nature. I did not find it to be a huge shock, and I wonder if Shyamalan would have benefited from revealing it to the audience earlier to really explore the consequences of what her character represents. But even with the reveal at the end, that point can retroactively click into gear. And as for all the unnatural acting, I could say that maybe that is the point, and that this is a highly affected world, or at least these are highly affected people. That would be generous, though, especially considering that Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy sounded like much more typical humans in Unbreakable and Split. But even if I choose to have the least generous interpretation of every questionable element, I remain utterly fascinated by Glass. This is not Shyamalan at his most straightforwardly powerful, but it is also not him at his most insufferable. He is on a cloud of thinking that most people would never think to go to, but he has found insights there that I am very happy we now have.

Glass is Recommended If You Like: The Village, The Happening, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Grade: 4 out of 5 Origin Stories

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Life Itself’ Has a Few Too Many Twists and Way Too Many Tragedies

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CREDIT: Jose Haro/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Oscar Issac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Dan Fogelman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Violent Accidents and Millennial Hipster Profanity

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Thanks to Crazy, Stupid, Love. (which he scripted) and This Is Us (which he created), Life Itself writer/director Dan Fogelman is now as synonymous with the game-changing twist as M. Night Shyamalan. He’s due for a backlash, and Life Itself is the perfect specimen to engender that anger. The film itself is not so much about the twist itself so much as it is about the entire concept of twists. Fogelman withholds essential information that prevents us from knowing until he wants us to know how various generations of people are related by coincidence or even closer connections. But he constantly shows his hand, or at least part of his hand, to let us know that a reveal is coming. In fact, this is all kind of a deconstruction about how we tell stories and save twists for maximum impact. I actually believe that such a theory-heavy idea could work, but the product we have here is filled with characters and events that are just exhausting.

The action is split by time and the Atlantic Ocean. In New York City, we’ve got Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), a mostly happy couple who might have some insidious relationship issues lurking. Meanwhile, over in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) works the field and romances the waitress Isabel (Laia Costa). Along the way, we meet some of their parents, children, and employers. We immediately know how some of them are connected, while we then watch the other puzzle pieces come together in non-linear fashion to discover the rest of the connections. There could be a satisfying thrill to how the final twist weaves everyone together, but instead it is just exhausting, as all the misfortunes that these characters endure and the bad decisions that they make make for an excess of tragedy that is too much for any audience to bear.

Still, the ultimate lesson that Fogelman wants to convey is worth listening to and following: no matter what our history, no matter how much life has brought us to our knees, there is still a future worth pursuing. Life Itself does not need to be as excruciating as it is to make that point, but it is a valuable point nonetheless. And despite my misgivings, I still found this film oddly compelling, although that could just be because I like keeping track of how people are related to each other. Ultimately, I wish Fogelman had done more with the concept of playing around with the unreliable narrator, which he is clearly enamored with but ultimately a little tepid in how he examines it. It actually starts off promisingly, as the initial narrator shows up in person as himself to basically say, “Hey look, I’m really here!” But afterwards it’s pretty straightforward, but if that adventurous spirit had hung around, Life Itself coulda been something.

Life Itself is Recommended If You Like: This Is Us at its most emotionally manipulative

Grade: 2 out of 5 Unreliable Narrators

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Incredibles 2’ Uses Its Period Setting and the Responsibility of Superpowers to Show How to Be an Adult

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©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr, Isabella Rossellini, John Ratzenberger, Bill Wise

Director: Brad Bird

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG for Action Sequences Involving Dangerously Heavy Structures

Release Date: June 15, 2018

The Incredibles films stick out among Pixar’s oeuvre for how much more adult they are than the rest of the animation brand’s features. That is not to say that everything else is merely kids’ stuff. Indeed, there is plenty for audiences of all ages to appreciate in the likes of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, etc. The difference is that the typical Pixar offering features childlike wonder presented with unusually mature storytelling sophistication, whereas The Incredibles and Incredibles 2 are primarily concerned with the struggles of being a grown person: how to raise a family, how to earn a living, how to reconcile the way you live with the self-identity you perceive on the inside. With this focus along with its period trappings, Incredibles 2 continues asking its franchise’s fundamental question of whether or not we have shaped society as it ought to be.

Incredibles 2, like the original, is vague about its time period, but based on the outfits, manner of speaking, and predominant technology, it is easy to peg it as 1960s America. With that in mind, if The Incredibles were to exist as a TV series, it is not too hard to imagine it as the first animated example of AMC’s stable of period dramas. (The presence of two of the stars of Better Call Saul among the voice cast certainly bolsters this perception.) Incredibles 2 features more stable (though no less harried) domesticity than Mad Men, but the concerns of Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) are not terribly different from those of Don Draper, while Helen Parr’s (Holly Hunter) career-minded focus in the face of skepticism is absolutely of a piece with that of Peggy Olson. Writer/director Brad Bird’s grounded approach to the existence of supers allows all viewers to consider that no matter what their own unique abilities are, they ought to make the best of them, for the world’s sake.

The reflectiveness and contextualization inherent to a period setting are key to getting the point across. This outing, in which Helen/Elastigirl is recruited for a PR campaign to make superpowers legal again while fighting a mysterious villain who uses screens to carry out mind control schemes, touches upon issues of media manipulation, trust (or lack thereof) in institutions, and the power and limits of basing a campaign around a single figurehead. Anyone paying attention to the political scene in 2018 will recognize similar disturbances in Incredibles 2. It is important to be reminded that these crises are not new and to know a big part of being an adult is responding to these challenges.

Bottom line: if you loved the kinetic action and family dynamics of the first Incredibles, you will probably love them all over again in Incredibles 2. If the prospect of a baby growing into his impressively wide-ranging superpowers has you excited, just wait until you see what Jack-Jack is up to. And rest assured, Edna Mode’s (Bird) scenes do not disappoint. This entry is not as mold-breaking as the original, but it is reliably entertaining and has plenty to say.

Incredibles 2 is Recommended If You Like: The Incredibles, AMC period dramas

Grade: 4 out of 5 Eye Lasers

This Is a Movie Review: I Am Not Your Negro

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i-am-not-your-negro

This review was originally published on News Cult in 2017.

Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Raoul Peck

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for a Little More Explicitness Than the Title

Release Date: February 3, 2017 (Limited)

Nobody wants a documentary entitled I Am Not Your Negro to still be timeless in 2017, but here we are. The film is based on Remember This House, a manuscript by Harlem Renaissance writer James Baldwin that remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1987. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s words, because when you want a voice to expound upon the legacy and persistence of racism in America, Sam is your man.

With its mix of archival news footage, still photography, and other various media clips (old movies to represent the American myth, game shows to represent capitalism), I Am Not Your Negro is not your typical cinematic experience. It plays more like a museum exhibit with a visual component. But please do not let the edutainment implication that description might inspire scare you away. I just want to make sure you know what you are in for. This is a vibrant, exciting experience, different though it may be.

But I do not want to discount the educational value. The film places Baldwin squarely in the context of the civil rights movement. He was an important figure right alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but he seems to be shunted off to a different historical pocket, perhaps because of his status as an artist. I fear that tendency is a grave mistake, especially in today’s climate.

Finally, dear viewers, pay particular attention to the scenes from Baldwin’s appearance on a 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss shows up to challenge Baldwin’s perspective, and the resulting rhetorical scuffle is a powerful display of the importance of listening and insisting that voices be heard and ideals be put into action.

I Am Not Your Negro is Recommended If You Like: Staying Woke, the Harlem Renaissance, the Dulcet Tones of Samuel L. Jackson

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Artist-Activists