20. Rocketman (2019) – I have been waiting for my whole life to see an Elton John biopic. Years after being in development hell, Dexter Fletcher has made one only the singer himself really deserves. Rocketman is more than just a biopic. It’s also a jukebox musical and fantasy wrapped into one. Taron Egerton gives enough charisma and energy as Elton, as he rises to fame while taking his descent into sex and drug addiction. Not to mention, he does his own singing to give the movie enough authenticity. I don’t think a gay actor would play the singer justice. To quote Fletcher in an interview with Peter Travers, “As a director, I have no right to inquire what an actor’s sexuality is…It’s just none of my business.”
19. Lady Bird (2017) – Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento. The result couldn’t be more electrifying. This coming-of-age story stars Saoirse Ronan as a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school as she goes through life throughout her school year; applying to New York colleges, developing romantic relationships with sweet-boy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and the too-cool-for-school bass player Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), and, more importantly, getting the respect from her mother (Laurie Metcalf).
I have never seen a high-school movie over the past ten years so funny and brutally honest. The highlight is the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. It’s clear that the two love each other, but Lady Bird wishes her mother would understand what she’s going through. She is not upset about politics at all. She’s a smart girl with good intentions and a good friend in Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Even when Lady Bird writes her essay about her love for Sacramento, she’s surprised, admitting, “I guess I pay attention.” With an excellent cast, an offbeat sense of humor, Sam Levy’s smooth cinematography, and Gerwig’s confident direction, Lady Bird is a powerhouse of a movie.
18. A Star is Born (2018) – There were three different versions of A Star is Born–the 1937 original, starring Janet Gaynor, and the popular remakes in 1954, starring Judy Garland, and 1976, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Years after being in production hell, Bradley Cooper directs himself and Lady Gaga in a version that would have easily been too corny. What Cooper and his brilliant cast here is something extraordinary. As Jackson Maine, Cooper gives a realistic portrayal of how a singer drifts away further from his lover by alcoholism and drug addiction. Sam Elliott’s Bobby is trying to everything he can to help his younger brother. All the songs are originals and the drama is hard-hitting without being too manipulative. If there is another version of A Star is Born in the future, this will be a tough one to beat.
17. Brooklyn (2015) – Saoirse Ronan has come a long way since her breakthrough role in 2007’s Atonement. The Irish actress pays tribute to her parents (who moved from Ireland to the Bronx in the 1980s) in this lovely, old-fashioned love story based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. Ronan gives the performance of her career as Eilis, an immigrant who falls in love with an Italian-American plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen, also just as good). However, things get complicated when she hears the news about her family back home. As much as Brie Larson deserved her Best Actress win, it’s a shame to see Ronan get snubbed. I have never seen a movie featuring dark humor and tons of charm that tackles homesickness so realistically. As Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) tells Eilis, “Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It will make you feel wretched, and then it will move on to someone else.”
16. The Irishman (2019) – Martin Scorsese’s return to his familiar roots of GoodFellas will more than likely be his last. It doesn’t necessarily mean he has lost his mojo. The Irishman is a gangster epic that you forget it’s three-and-a-half hours long. Based on the novel, I Heard You Paint Houses, the movie stars Robert De Niro (in his best performance in years) as Frank Sheeran, a truck driver working as a hitman for Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci, great seeing him back in the spotlight).
Yes, the de-aging effects might a teeny bit distracting, at first. But–once the movie pulls you in, you forget all about it. The Irishman contains the usual brutality and dark humor of Scorsese’s predecessors. However, there is something in it that feels quite fresh. The cast could not be better–De Niro, Pesci, Al Pacino (superb, in his first Scorsese film ever, as the hot-tempered Jimmy Hoffa), Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, and Harvey Keitel among others. With great cinematography, brilliant editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, and witty dialogue, The Irishman is one not to be missed on Netflix.
15. Arrival (2016) – I will never forget the first time seeing Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi extravaganza in theaters. After a round of overblown, action-heavy films in the genre, he and screenwriter Eric Heisserer craft a more thought-provoking science-fiction story that tackles serious topics such as connection and time. The lovely Amy Adams gives an understated performance as Louise, a linguistics professor studying the aliens with the help from a handsome physicist (Jeremy Renner) and an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker). The final act really hits home. Sorry, Christopher Nolan, but Arrival is what Interstellar should have been.
14. Jojo Rabbit (2019) – What surprises me about this movie is how Taika Waititi got away with directing and starring in a movie about a Nazi boy having Hitler as his imaginary friend, or how Germany was not ashamed to release it, despite its satirical subject matter (unlike Russia banning The Death of Stalin in 2017). Nevertheless, it is a bold move by the New Zealand director to poke fun at Nazi Germany and Hitler; something it has been done since film first existed, which was famously done by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator.
With a talented cast, Waititi’s sassy rendition of the Nazi dictator provides enough to have audiences in stitches. One thing I did not expect, however, is the enormous heart surrounding the horrors of Nazi Germany. Roman Griffin Davis’ Jojo is a shy boy obsessed with the Nazis. When he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie, a young actress to look out for in the coming years) in the attic, he must come to the reality of the whole situation. Jojo Rabbit might not be for everybody, but it certainly won me over.
13. Hugo (2011) – Martin Scorsese has decided to create his first family film after making a lot of movies for adults, so his daughter can finally see a movie of his that she can discuss with friends about. Not only that, it’s his first movie in 3D. Based on Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this movie is a beautiful love letter to early cinema. Featuring imaginative sets, wonderful visuals, a gifted cast, Hugo is an absolute treat for the ears and eyes.
12. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – Believe it or not, this is the movie that introduced me to the wonderful, zany world of director Wes Anderson. There is so much to like about his nostalgic romance between two 12-year-olds–boy scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward)–who decide to escape to go deep into the forest while the local police officer Ken Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). Robert Yeoman’s cinematography gives the movie a dreamlike quality; every shot looks so much like a watercolor painting coming to life. The star-studded cast, including Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Bob Balaban, is so deadpan it’s hard to resist their presence. This is a movie that gets so much better with each repeated viewing.
11. La La Land (2016) – This is the movie I have seen the most in theaters (a total of FIVE times). Writer-director Damien Chazelle (who, at age 32, became the youngest person to win Best Director) pays tribute to musicals of the past for his follow-up to Whiplash. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are magical as Sebastian and Mia, two people who meet by chance in the city of dreams, which is Los Angeles. There has never been a movie where this city has been portrayed so beautifully. If you pause the movie at any time, you are looking at a work of art. The music numbers are catchy, the sets are immaculate, and Justin Hurtwiz’s score is some of the best I’ve heard. An instant classic, for sure!