As nobody probably noticed, things have been quiet on the Nothin’ or Triple front for a few months. Ian and I have been working on some other cool projects that have kept us super busy. It’s a new decade and we’re going to rev the engine of the old Porkchop Express and see if we can keep the blog buzzing in 2020. But first, let’s put it in reverse.
I meant to post this before the start of year, but all of the free time I assumed I’d have over the holidays never quite materialized. And here we are, already a month into the roaring twenties. Better late never, I suppose.
Anyway, in the last decade, I saw a ton of movies. I missed even more.
So, as we begin a new decade — one hopefully filled great movies and not too many Avatar sequels that nobody wants, James Cameron — it seems unfair for me to offer any sort of definitive perspective on the best movies of the last decade. It’s also hard to be objective when reviewing a ten-year period because more recent movies have stronger positions relative to memory, even if I can’t yet speak to their lasting qualities.
Rather than laboring over a fair or academic approach to ranking the decade’s cinematic achievements, I thought I might try a wildly unscientific strategy: listing out the 25 movies that popped into my head when I tried to remember my favorites. I figure that the films with quickest and clearest (total) recall are also the ones that have had the strongest impact on me — for various reasons, not all of which would lend themselves to an awards-honored legacies.
I gave myself a short window to make the list and haven’t amended it since. I did — with a crippling sense of guilt — rank the movies that made the cut. And, honestly, I found myself a little surprised by my top pick. Here goes…
If you know me or caught our 2018 podcast You Better Watch Out, you know that I adore Christmas movies. That genre seems to expand exponentially each season, though generally without much attention paid to quality. There are very few films in the 2010s that feel worthy of being called “Christmas classics” — the ones that belong in the annual rotation and never lose their magic spark. The Night Before deserves that honor. Hit-or-miss director Jonathan Levine mixes Seth Rogen’s brand of endearing raunchiness with a frank look at what it means to get older. Three friends — Rogen, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Anthony Mackie — find themselves at a phase of life where tradition is losing the battle to circumstance, but they make a pact to celebrate one last Christmas Eve together before flipping to the next chapters of their lives. It’s hilarious, touching, and whimsical, just like a great Christmas should be.
In Hollywood, there’s a rare group of creators who can elevate the prestige of a movie, no matter what. Think about dropping actor Stephen Root into a production, for example, or having John Williams score a film. Roger Deakins is one of those special talents. His cinematography can transform the mundane into lasting art. Sicario isn’t mundane though. It’s a rip-roaring thriller with Oscar-caliber performances, and it solidified Denis Villeneuve’s status as a top-tier, wildly exciting director. But what stands out above all else is that you can pause nearly any moment and have a shot worth framing on the wall of a museum (or at least your living room). From quiet character moments to brutal action sequences to sweeping views of nature, Deakins deserves the most credit for what ought to be a long-lasting legacy for Sicario.
Horror might be my favorite genre because it almost always relies on unsettling its characters. In sci-fi, for the most part, the characters understand the rules of their environment, even if those rules are unfamiliar to us. In horror, the characters discover frightening new dimensions of experience in tandem with the audience. Hereditary assumes the audience’s familiarity with certain genre tropes and bends them in deeply uncomfortable ways. In some ways, it always feels familiar — a family with a legacy it wants to leave behind, strange apparitions, nerve wracking bouts of why won’t they believe me? But first-time filmmaker Ari Aster’s movie never quite goes where you expect and, as a result, you’re left completely disoriented and terrified for the film’s duration. Toni Collette should have won an Oscar for her lead performance as a matriarch who can’t quite understand how to stop her family from falling apart. And one jaw-dropping act of sudden violence ranks among the most unforgettable moments in any horror movie.
The conventional trend for a franchise is one of diminishing returns. Ideas run dry, actors get bored, the audience loses interest. In 2011, two franchises bucked the trend. In its fifth installment, the Fast and Furious franchise shifted from a series about thieves in race cars to one about globetrotting adventurers — heists, spies, Dawyne Johnson (swoon), etc. The movies have gotten better (and ever more absurd) since. But the more impressive pivot was bringing Brad Bird in to guide Mission: Impossible in a new direction. In a film that was originally intended to hand the franchise off to Jeremy Renner, Bird instead doubled down on Tom Cruise’s star power and dangled the guy off the edge of the Burj Khalifa. I’ve never heard a theater audience gasp louder. The movie — and really that stunt itself — reset the (relatively) low-key spy series and gave producers the challenge of going even bigger with each subsequent film. Now we show up to see what crazy thing Tom Cruise will do next. Oh, and the missions themselves are pretty damn clever, too.
We need more uplifting movies like Eddie the Eagle. It’s not prestige cinema, but it’s the best kind of populist entertainment. Like other great sports flicks — Hoosiers, Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans — the “inspired by a true story” tag grants the filmmakers license to curate a more emotional experience for the audience. In this case, our hero is Eddie Edwards who, since he was a disabled young child, has been convinced that he’s Olympic material. At every turn, the universe seems set against his success — and every defeat adds fuel to his ambitions. Hugh Jackman is great as the cynical ski jumper who reluctantly agrees to mentor Eddie. But it’s Taron Egerton’s performance as Eddie that makes the movie special. He plays the character with so much passion, sweetness, and empathy that it’s hard not to choke up when he’s treated so cruelly by the people rooting for his demise. The movie is even more triumphant than it is predictable — and it’s quite predictable. If you want to smile, this is a guaranteed, heaping dose of joy.
I almost put Joss Whedon’s The Avengers on the list instead, but Civil War feels like the real moment where Kevin Feige finally figured out how to unleash the full potential of his cinematic universe. It strikes the perfect balance between scale and personality, using a geopolitical conflict to question the use of power in a rapidly changing world while remembering to have fun with the characters. Each of its twelve Avengers plays a meaningful role — no small challenge in a two-hour movie — and just a few minutes of screen time from Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man were enough to propel them into billion-dollar-plus franchises of their own. You could, unfairly, look at any single Marvel movie and dismiss it as a spectacle. However, there’s no reasonable way of denying that Kevin Feige’s interwoven storytelling is one of the most impressive accomplishments in Hollywood history.
Shane Black is an underappreciated genius. He ought to be in the same category of filmmakers — like Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, or James Cameron (except when he’s making Avatar) — who are so revered that studio executives let them work completely unshackled, even if they’re imperfect (Avatar) and can’t deliver one-hundred percent of the time. Fortunately, in this case, Black struck gold, mashing together an against-type Ryan Gosling (as a bumbling P.I.) and Russell Crowe (as an unrefined enforcer) for a hilarious LA noire romp that deserves comparison to The Big Lebowski and Midnight Run. The dialogue alone secures a spot on this list. In particular, my favorite scene is one where the two leads verbally dismantle of a group of righteous protesters.
Taking inspiration from a real classified ad posted by a man seeking a time travel companion, Safety Not Guaranteed is a beautiful story about damaged humans who are desperate, each in their own way, to create better lives themselves. The movie unfolds as a quirky character study about a cynical young journalist (Aubrey Plaza) investigating the would-be time traveler (Mark Duplass). It explores the fabric of trauma, the uncomfortable fogginess of mental illness, and the persistent optimism that dances carefully, and often dangerously, around the human spirit. The ending ranks with Peter Sellers’ Being There as one of my all-time favorites.
The second movie picks up minutes after the end of the first with a fantastic warehouse shootout that suggests we’re in for a similar ride. That would have been fine, considering that John Wick fundamentally changed our expectations for modern action with its gorgeous choreography, fluid camera work, and Keanu Reeves’ stoic anti-heroism. But when the opening scene ends, the filmmakers abruptly switch gears and, quite unexpectedly, reveal a neon-soaked world of violence that’s governed by a richly constructed mythology. In every way but one — and that, for me, is John Leguizamo’s reduced role — John Wick 2 is a superior film to its brilliant predecessor.
I can’t remember exactly why I decided to watch this movie. It wasn’t on my radar and I never gamble on streaming service recommendations (unless they’re about Christmas or star Nicolas Cage). But it was one of my luckiest and most unsettling discoveries. The general premise is that a man gets invited to a dinner party at his ex-wife and her new husband’s home in Hollywood Hills, after she mysteriously disappeared for two years. It’s a simple setup that becomes exponentially more intense with every passing minute. In the confines of the hosts’ home, director Karyn Kusma gets a career-best performance out of Logan Marshall-Green as he navigates a complicated web of distrust, intimacy, paranoia, and…well, don’t read anything else about it. Trust me.
As the story goes, amateur Welsh director Gareth Evans was filming a documentary about Indonesian martial art pencak silat when he discovered delivery man Iko Uwais. It turns out that Uwais also happened to be a lightning-fast force of nature. If the universe orchestrates such things, the meeting of Evans and Uwais was one of them. I think if Bruce Lee hadn’t already opened the eyes of Western audiences, Uwais might have earned the same level of acclaim and amazement. He’s just that good. Evans and Uwais teamed for a bone-crunching symphony of claustrophobic chaos called The Raid in 2011. People watched it, critics loved it, and Evans was given a bigger budget for the sequel. Imagine if Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick teamed for a martial arts crime saga. That’s the spirit and quality of The Raid 2, a sprawling gangster epic with gorgeous sets and stunning choreography that sets a new bar for the scope of a sequel. It’s a crime that Evans isn’t over-employed by now. Just watch The Raid 2 and you’ll see why.
Perhaps more than any other movie on this list, I can imagine Christopher Nolan’s mind bending, genre-defying masterpiece as being named one of the century’s greatest. It’s one of those films — like 2001, Star Wars, or Jurassic Park — that redefines the audience’s expectations about what’s possible at the movies. Ten years earlier, Nolan found a spark of creativity in non-linear storytelling with Memento. Here, the chronology can barely be defined as such. By blurring the concepts of time, memory, and control into a story that mixes unstable sci-fi tech, corporate espionage, and Bond-esque intrigue, he engineers a pulse-pounding experience that makes you question everything you’re seeing. It would make M.C. Escher proud. Since Inception, a “Christopher Nolan Movie” has become one of the most prized commodities and exciting events in modern Hollywood.
Forget Mad Max or Star Wars or Marvel or even Keanu Reeves. The single best action sequence of the last decade is a jazz performance in the climax of Whiplash. Over the course of the preceding 90 minutes, Miles Teller’s aspiring drummer finds his soul savagely battered by his teacher, J.K. Simmons, who is either a violent force of nature with questionable-but-effective methods or one of the most dastardly villains to ever appear on screen. The distinction, if it matters much, leads to a finale during which you’ll forget to breathe.
No filmmaker has tackled racial injustice with more passion, persistence, or fury than Spike Lee. With joints like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, Lee asserted himself as an artist with a singular focus, driven, usually, by the progress (or, more often, lack thereof) being made in the real world. BlacKkKlansman marks a poignant shift in tone. Instead of anger, he balances slapstick absurdism with profound social confusion as he considers just how far America has regressed in a few short years. The highlight of the movie is an extended vignette that juxtaposes a civil rights leader’s personal recollection of lynching with a disturbing ritual indoctrination for new KKK recruits. And the film’s final shots — real footage from Charlottesville — are made exponentially more alarming, if you can believe that’s even possible, in the context of this film. It’s the kind of movie that can change minds.
Over the last decade-plus — and just three films, surprisingly — Alfonso Cuaron has mastered the art of immersive storytelling. First with Children of Men and then with Gravity, he’s crafted technically magnificent experiences that draw you in so deep that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a movie. Or, more accurately, it’s hard to remember that you’re watching one. With Roma, Cuaron marries his craft to his own history. The result is a gorgeous, vibrant, and devastating exploration of political unrest and cultural evolution in Mexico City. Where Children of Men emulates the emotions of the apocalypse and Gravity offers a Scott-esque (Scottish?) rendering of panicked isolation in space, Roma drops you directly into the turbulent stream of collective memory — and makes you wonder if you’ve consumed the story or recalled it yourself. Throughout a narrative of family bonds and lost love, political unrest and social justice, the ordinary and sublime become nearly interchangeable.
In 2019, thanks primarily to the unrestricted proliferation of social media, the relationship between truth, reason, and ideology has never been murkier. But back in 2012, Paul Thomas Anderson’s lightly fictionalized account of how L. Ron Hubbard manipulated and conned his way into faux-religious power presented a situation that seemed almost unfathomable. After WWII, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character — called “Lancaster Dodd” to avoid lawsuits, I’m sure — deploys his science fiction writing skills to form a new movement. It’s all made up, of course, and most of his inner circle sees that. But his prey is embodied by an untethered veteran, played with fierceness by Joaquin Phoenix, who can’t figure out how to navigate the space between post-war trauma and belonging. Nor can he locate the shifting boundaries that separate imagination and reality. It’s some of the best acting from two of the greatest actors of their generation.
For the better part of the decade, Sony botched its handling of one of the most beloved comic book characters — and it wasn’t until they wisely rented the character to Kevin Feige in 2016 that things got on track. Even after doing so, the studio wanted to exploit the IP by developing unrelated spin-offs, including the nauseatingly incoherent Venom with Tom Hardy. So, I had no intention of seeing an animated Spider-Man movie just a few months after that dumpster fire burned my eyes. Thank Stan Lee that I gave it a shot because Into the Spider Verse is one of the most creative movies — animated or otherwise — to hit the screen in the last ten years. With warmth, style, and humor, it applies Spider-Man’s classic moralism to a more modern and diverse world. It also manages to invent a scenario where a wisecracking super-pig fits in naturally to a coming-of-age story about a mixed-race kid in Queens. In other words, it’s about an anchoring comic book hero — bound by equal parts real-world relevance and escapism — for tomorrow’s America. Whether it’s legitimizing the campy concept of 21 Jump Street, turning Lego block into a brilliant meta-comedy, or finding a way for a tired Spider-Man franchise to be both nostalgic and new, producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller never cease to surprise.
On its surface, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is an investigation, of sorts, into the cultural nuances and shifts that led to Sharon Tate’s death at the hands of the Manson family in 1969. In his estimation, her murder left a deep, permanent scar on the American psyche and marked the distinct end of an era that had basked in a cheerful glow. Of course, Tarantino movies are like Pynchon novels, and nothing is ever simple. He yearns for the big production-focused Hollywood of the past (as it exists in his imagination, anyway) while playfully mocking the industry’s obsession with age, casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a fading star/stuntman team against Margot Robbie as Tate. She’s the vision of the future — young, optimistic, filled with life (literally, as she carries a child from her marriage to the trending Roman Polanski). We know how the story ends for her, so the movie carries a sinister weight for the audience as it wanders along towards its violent conclusion. Though the movie seems to happily wander for a while, every scene and interaction turns out to be a puzzle piece that eventually fits together perfectly when the time is just right. It’s hard to rank Tarantino’s movies, but the final act of this one is absolutely his best work yet (and Brad Pitt’s, too).
Pixar exists to explore the far reaches of the imagination, so it’s perfectly fitting that the studio would produce a movie about the mind itself. Under different creative leadership, that idea could go one of two ways: dully scientific or confusingly abstract. But the Pixar geniuses — especially director Pete Docter — invent a third approach by personifying emotions to show how complicated and fragile the human mind can be. For kids, it’s a smart way of helping them understand how and why they feel. For adults, it’s a wild opportunity to revel in the unfiltered chaos of being a human. For everyone, it’s an endearing and generous adventure that’s universally relatable. TripleDent Gum will make you smile…
The biggest question in sci-fi history: Is Rick Deckard a Replicant? The justification for a Blade Runner sequel, four decades later, might have seemed to be the chance to give a clear answer. Instead, screenwriter Hampton Fancher delivers a powerhouse story that not only doesn’t clarify things, it doubles down on the mystery. And, in doing so, it uses science fiction as a razor sharp weapon of existential interrogation.
In a decade where nostalgia became an official form of currency at the box office, Woody Allen tried something risky: he created an Impressionist film, itself an unusual accomplishment, that blended his yearning for Paris’ culture, history, and art into a curious kind of soft-science fiction. The result is an enchanting story about a man out of place and time, played by Owen Wilson, who finds himself a strange witness to some of Paris’ most magical historical moments. He’s juxtaposed by his banal fiance, played by Rachel McAdams, and some self-important academics who try to perform what they think it means to live like Parisians. The idea is that a meaningful life exists through thoughtful engagement and not detached observation. The film’s wonderful soundtrack — especially ex-pat Sidney Bechet’s Si Tu Voir Ma Mer — proves that you simply can’t live a full life without great music.
This is a film that’s better discovered rather than explained. And an explanation is hard to offer, anyway. What seems at first to be a period romance slowly sheds its coat and becomes a vivid psychological thriller (just not in the way that label suggests). Daniel Day-Lewis gives a characteristically powerful performance as an aging clothing designer, meticulously in control of every aspect of his life, except love. When he meets a vulnerable younger woman, played by Vicky Krieps, fear and ecstasy begin to manifest themselves in fascinating ways. Phantom Thread belongs to the decade of “you’ll never believe what happens next,” and with Paul Thomas Anderson at the helm and one of history’s greatest actors in the lead, you won’t be able to guess either.
When its opening musical sequence — the frustrations of a chaotic commute channeled into a dazzling dance — ended and the title popped up, I wanted to give La La Land a standing ovation. Seriously, that would have been enough for me. But what follows is even better. At once an ode to a bygone era of simple silver screen romances — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are electric together — and a deconstruction of the Hollywood myth of “happily ever after,” the movie is filled with beautiful human moments that are carefully designed to create a heightened sense of what it means to live vibrantly.
Though it’s beautifully wrapped in Wes Anderson’s quirky aesthetics and brought to life with humor and empathy by the best cast the director has yet assembled, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an ominous and immediate warning about how easily and quickly things can fall apart. The primary story takes place in the 1930s at the titular locale, an opulent ski resort in an unnamed European country. At its center is the hotel manager M. Gustave, who sees to his guests’ every (yes, every) need. He takes a young lobby boy under his wing and the two get tied up in a murder-mystery featuring a network of oddballs. But that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s a story recalled by an aging author who recorded a series of conversations with an older man named Moustafa. Moustafa is revealed to be the lobby boy, himself sifting through the sands of time as he reminisces about a lost world. The various degrees of separation from the anchoring story create a haziness of truth and circumstance, with only one sure thing: the confusion (and ultimate unimportance) of one person’s murder distracted from the nefarious forces that were engulfing the country and culture around them. In a blink, the picturesque hotel is transformed into a stronghold for fascists. The moral, I think, is that we’d be fools to trick ourselves into thinking that humanity’s worst moments will never repeat themselves. Or, more accurately, we are total fools if we don’t notice the encroaching danger around us.
When I was a kid, I watched Terminator 2 before I should have and, for years after, I was terrified of Judgement Day. It infected my dreams, clouded my understanding of what the real world was actually like, and caused me to think often about how to survive an onslaught of nuclear bombs. I suspect now, as a more logical adult, that jumping in a swimming pool to avoid the blastwave might not be enough. As an adult, Melancholia has had a similar effect — and I didn’t even realize it until I made this list.
The movie is presented in two chapters. The first is about a lavish wedding on a private island where everyone, including the bride and groom, seems filled with disdain for each other. We eventually learn that a new planet has suddenly appeared in the solar system and is on a potential collision course with Earth. So, in addition to the routinely obnoxious tensions of wealth — like status, success, and jealousy — the characters are granted permission to add nihilism to the mix. The wedding narrative is used for ironic cover as the strongest fabrics of the human experience — love and family — are easily shredded when they’re needed most.
The second chapter takes place a few months later when the one-time bride, played with a disturbing hollowness by Kirsten Dunst, waits with her sister’s family for the potential end of the world. The tension builds towards one morning where the sun’s shadow will reveal whether the mystery planet will hit earth or change course. It’s a heart-stopping, slow burn towards doom.
The final act is so haunting because the threat is utterly insurmountable. This is a human disaster movie instead of a natural one, but it’s impossible as a viewer to imagine any kind of absurdist sci-fi resolution to the matter anyway. It’s not an asteroid that can be broken apart with some luck and explosions. How could you move two planets apart? The fate of the human race is in the hands of the universe and no amount of hoping, praying, or ingenuity can sway the outcome. That powerlessness is terrifying. It’s just a movie, sure, but it’s believable enough to make you question your own sense of control and durability. The final scene, as it turns out, is unforgettable — and I dread it constantly.
I wouldn’t change anything in this list (even as I realize a few directors and actors got a disproportionate amount of real estate), but if I had approached this differently, here are some movies that could have made the cut:
Skyfall (2012), Birdman (2014), Get Out (2017), Hail Caesar! (2016), The Shape of Water (2017), Moonlight (2016), The Fighter (2010), The Way Way Back (2013), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Hugo (2011), The Martian (2015), Midnight Special (2016), Cold War (2018), Hanna (2011), Lincoln (2012), Her (2018), Ted (2012), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), The Social Network (2010), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Creed (2015), The Guest, The Big Short (2015), Rogue One (2016), Isle of Dogs (2018), Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
And the Dishonorable Mention for “Most Overrated Dud of the Decade” goes to Bohemian Rhapsody. Aside from having a screenplay that’s effectively a middle finger to the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and ignoring the fact that someone was actually crazy enough to take credit for the “editing,” the whole story leads up to nothing more than a 20-minute karaoke performance. Just watch Queen’s real Live Aid performance on YouTube instead. It’s as outstanding as Bohemian Rhapsody is horrid.
It was a great decade for movies. But the 2010s — the second half, especially — were the decade that nearly erased the quality gap between cinema and television. Some of the industry’s most inspired creators discovered the power of extended storytelling on the small(ish) screen. I wish I had more time to consume all of the incredible content being produced. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Still, a few specific things really had a big impact on me (including two unscripted ones), in no particular order:
One of my favorite lyrics is from the Grateful Dead’s Scarlet Begonias: “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” One of those places is Saturday Night Live, apparently, with an artist who had just about zero impact on me prior (the exception being a minor role in Richard Kelly’s misunderstood dream Southland Tales). In the midst of a career-defining period, Justin Timberlake pulled double-duty as host and performer in support of his album The 20/20 Experience. With commanding confidence, an extraordinary 14-person band, and the best sound mixer who’s ever produced a live TV performance, Timberlake orchestrated five of the best minutes of the entire decade with his song Mirrors. You can tell that the multi-hyphenate was pouring every last drop of his soul into the performance because nothing — not the cameras, not his hosting duties, not the most troublesome troubles of this world — could have distracted him. I was lucky to catch it live while flipping channels and I’ve watched it dozens of times since. It moves my soul and brings me nearly to tears every time I see it.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, all eyes were on Joe Biden to see if he’d run for president. The determining factor ended up being that he couldn’t quite shake the death of his son, Beau. At the same time, Stephen Colbert was trying to find his footing as a serious late night host — obviously a major departure from the persona he embodied on The Colbert Report. Over the course of the interview, both men let their guards down for a stunningly raw exchange about shared experiences of grief, faith, and hope. There’s no partisanship here. It’s just an immeasurably powerful example of what we, as individuals, and America, as a country, might be able to achieve if we can treat each other with more empathy. (Watch: Part 1 | Part 2)
Never has there been more life in a show about the dead. The story is about a family deeply traumatized by a mysterious event decades earlier. Half the story takes place in the past as the Crane family of seven moves in to restore and flip the Hill House estate. The other half takes place when the siblings are adults, each one having compartmentalized the central horror in a different, though consistently dysfunctional, way. The acting is top-notch in literally every role, the atmosphere is rich, and the story is spun from a clever web of wonderful human moments and horrifying revelations. There’s one scene later in the series where the property’s long-suffering caretaker Mr. Dudley (Robert Longstreet) spills the secrets of the house to the young version of the Crane patriarch Hugh (Henry Thomas). It honestly might be the most compellingly acted sequence I’ve ever seen.
Twin Peaks has a funny legacy. Its first season was hailed as groundbreaking and attracted both a mainstream and cult following. The second season was maligned for being too conventional and melodramatic. And its bizarre prequel movie, Fire Walk With Me, was critically lambasted and pretty much ignored by anyone but the most die hard (me) fans. So, when Showtime greenlit a revival, most people expected it to recapture the pioneering spirit of season one. But when has David Lynch done what anyone expected? The Return — which, perhaps predictably, is a direct sequel to the movie that nobody saw — is the defining work of Lynch’s storied career, hands down. Rather than giving us what we thought we wanted, he spends 18 hours crafting an experience so grotesquely beautiful and satisfyingly baffling that, in our wildest imaginations, we could have never known we needed it.
Damon Lindelof had a bad reputation. He pissed off a lot of people with his ending to Lost, wrote an Alien movie that wasn’t about aliens, and reworked The Wrath of Khan for no good reason. Was his reputation deserved? Absolutely not. The guy was always up for testing out wild new ideas that more cautious screenwriters wouldn’t have dared to try (read til the end of this list). But he did have trouble writing endings. The Leftovers’ second and third season — fully original sequels to the source book that guided the first season — were slam dunks on the heads of his detractors. Lindelof achieves the impossible: balancing the heady vagueness of existential mysteries with a narrative that offers just enough clarity to make the audience feel like it’s been given satisfying answers. The episode International Assassin is its best and is an ode to the magical realism of Haruki Murakami by way of Dante. My favorite episode, however, is It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World. That one is about a lion-worshiping sex cult that charters an overnight ferry/orgy and features a conversation between a Job-like pastor Matt (Christopher Eccleston) and a murderous passenger (the inimitable Bill Camp) who makes a convincing case that he might be the real God.
What would it mean for humanity’s biggest problems — inequality, greed, war, famine, climate change — if we could just get off the planet? Not much, it turns out, because human nature is apparently universal. The Expanse imagines a galaxy where humans are just repeating history on a grander and more destructive scale — at least until conspiracy of unknown cosmic origin begins to unfold. I haven’t read the books that series is based on, mostly because I don’t want to know what happens next. Every season has outdone the last, so far. It’s a thrill ride that gets to continue because Amazon rescued it from cancellation by SyFy. That alone is worth the price of my Prime membership.
Not since the first season of Lost has the internet had so much fun theorizing about a show. That sort of community engagement really elevates the experience of watching a puzzling show — at least, if the show itself is worthy of such speculation. For the most part, True Detective doesn’t end up being quite what internet sleuths hoped for — and that’s just fine, because the acting, writing, and cinematography were so engrossing that there’s no time to dwell on what could have been. Any show that is so precise that it drops important clues into background props is worth exploring in great detail.
It might be too generous to call the 2016 X-Files revival a mixed bag. For the most part, it was a jumbled mess that was nearly impossible to follow. Stuck within the gunk of Chris Carter’s attempt to retcon his already incoherent mythology — and it pains me to say that, because I love what he originally created — was this standalone episode from acclaimed series writer Darin Morgan. It introduces Rhys Darby as (maybe) a shape shifting creature who has come out of a long hibernation, only to be the prime suspect in a small town’s burst of violent crime. He shows up just as Mulder is on the verge of rejecting his life’s work and his faith in the unknown. As the creature demonstrates, there’s only one thing more absurd than Mulder’s quixotic quest for the truth: human nature itself. It’s the funniest (and funnest) episode of the show’s 11 season run, and it’s also a self-contained fable that’s worth returning to over and over again.
David Simon’s gift is conveying the varieties of human experience that ooze out of systems of injustice. In this mini-series, he looks at the public housing crisis through the eyes of an idealistic young politician named Nick Wascisko (Oscar Isaac) — the real-life former mayor of Yonkers. We’re used to seeing stories about how institutional racism destroys the lives of people of color. Those are key elements of this show. But there aren’t too many examples that depict well-intentioned white people being shredded just as viciously. Wascisko’s seeming ascent was actually just the movement of a sacrificial pawn, but he was either too ambitious or too naive to understand what was happening to him. It’s a devastating and fresh lens through which to examine our legacy of inequity.
Damon Lindelof gets (and deserves) a second spot on this list. I’m still in the honeymoon phase with Watchmen, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more consistently amazed by a work of long-form storytelling — not just in its narrative structure and production quality, but in the sheer ambition of the subjects it tackles. Where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s groundbreaking comic warned about the dangers of unchecked systems of increasing authority, Lindelof considers America’s festering history of white supremacy, aggressive male control, and narrow possession of massive wealth. It brilliantly uses the source material as creative leverage for proposing radical, metaphysical transfers of power between groups — white and non-white, rich and poor, religious and scientific. If Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Cornel West (or maybe Henry Louis Gates, who cameos) got together to write some speculative sci-fi, it would look something like this. I intend that comparison to be the highest form of praise that I can offer to Lindelof. And, this being a work from a disciple of the Mystery Box, Watchmen is as wonderfully unpredictable as it is unexpected.