Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#1

31 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out, 3) Ruby Sparks, 2) Life Itself

And my favorite film of the 2010s is…

1) BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)

Yes, it’s the latest (final, perhaps?) chapter of Richard Linklater’s much beloved “Before…” trilogy that is my personal favorite film of the 2010s. The whole trilogy of films is among my absolute all-time favorite movies, so for this decade-end list, there was no question that my #1 choice would be Before Midnight, released in 2013.

But wait. In my post about The Spectacular Now, I mentioned that I had trouble choosing between four films for my #1 pick of the 2013-end list. Why didn’t I choose “Before Midnight” right away? Well, for one thing, time changes minds unpredictably, and so obviously, it’s what I would pick for the best film of 2013 now. Second of all, I didn’t have a very pleasant time when I first saw this movie in a theater (with a very talkative and irritable little girl sitting a few rows behind me–I’m guessing her parents dragged her to see this sequel to two other movies that I assume she would have no interest in whatsoever??)–I still reviewed the film the way it was meant to be (or the way I wanted it to be), but I was “looking” at the film rather than “seeing” it. Now that I’ve “seen” “Before Midnight,” I can’t deny it–it’s an excellent film that made its mark on me (better late than never).

“Before Sunrise” (1995) was a wonderful romance about two young people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who meet by chance and spend a wonderful night together before separating…until nine years later, with “Before Sunset” (2004), where they finally meet up again and wonder if this is a second chance. Now it’s another nine years later, and we have “Before Midnight.” Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) have been together all that time, they have twin daughters, and this is a film about what *is*, rather than what might have or could have been.

By this point in their relationship, the honeymoon phase is over and now they have to think about what the future holds. It begins as Jesse says goodbye to his vacationing son, with whom he attempts to maintain a relationship with after divorcing his ex-wife. (The boy lives in Chicago with his mother–Jesse and Celine live in Paris.) Jesse feels a disconnect between him and his son and feels he’s failing as a father to him. Leaving the airport, he mentions to Celine a potential move to Chicago, which Celine immediately turns down. But that’s not the end of that debate. This scene, which is made up of about 15 minutes of dialogue (none of which is improvised–all of it is as written by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy), is wonderful. Not only do Hawke and Delpy exhibit the same chemistry as we’ve seen in the previous “Before…” films, but they also show how it’s developed over time–bitter and knowing, but still with charm to themselves that they can’t deny to each other.

For a good chunk of the film, Jesse and Celine are in the company of friends in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, discussing life and love. The things they talk about in this middle portion of the film are explored as someone as innovative as Linklater would write–and with Hawke and Delpy themselves aiding him, I’ll listen to these people talk anytime.

And then, it’s back to Jesse and Celine, as they’re to have a romantic night alone in a prepaid hotel room. It starts pleasant enough, as they walk around outside and talk about whatever; they still enjoy each other’s company, even if they’re tired of each other’s certain characteristics, and then…they get to the room. A chance at romance is gone as soon as an action is mistaken for another meaning, the wrong thing is said, and the debate about whether or not to move to America is brought back again. This escalates into a fierce argument that goes on…and on…and on…and I don’t know who to side with. They both make strong points…even if those points could have been expressed a little differently.

This is the final act of the film: a heated argument in which a couple’s present and future are brought to question. Is this a rough patch? Will it mend? Is this the end of their relationship? I don’t know, but I’m on edge to find out, especially since I’ve gotten to know these two people for three whole films!

“Before Midnight” is a film that illustrates that love is easy but relationships are very difficult. Once the honeymoon stage is over, there’s still the present and future to consider. That we’ve gotten to know and love these two characters through these movies makes it all the more effective when we see this issue brought to light with them. The passage of time is evident with them, and that makes this third film the most powerful of the “Before…” trilogy because it’s the most eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Will there be a fourth “Before…” film? It’s possible this is the end of a trilogy, as it ends on a beautifully ambiguous (but somewhat hopeful) note that challenges both romantic viewers and cynical ones. But then again, I wouldn’t mind seeing what would become of them nine years after the most important argument of their relationship (if they’re still together by then). Perhaps Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are ready to leave these characters behind, or maybe they have yet to let them go. All I know is I’m down for another chapter in this story.

As time goes by, I have no doubt that movies like “Life Itself” and “Ruby Sparks” will stay with me. But not quite like “Before Midnight” surely will. For that reason, among many others, “Before Midnight” is my favorite film of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#2

30 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out, 3) Ruby Sparks

2) LIFE ITSELF (2014)

If it wasn’t for the Roger Ebert, the late Pulitzer Prize winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 to his death in 2013, I wouldn’t be writing about movies today. The way he always expressed his opinion on a movie really spoke to me–it was never really about what he thought of the movie, but rather, it was about what he had to say about it. He inspired me to find my own voice–I always knew I loved movies, but Ebert taught me how to express my feelings about them.

I was a big fan of Ebert’s. Every week, I would keep up with his latest reviews online. I became obsessed with vintage episodes of his TV show (“Siskel & Ebert”) with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel. I was one of the people that continuously tuned into the short-lived 2011 revival, “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (with central critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnivetsky). When I read the news of his death, I was devastated–I never met my hero and I would never get to.

Over a year later, “Life Itself,” a documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) that was more or less based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, would be released in cinemas. I already knew I would love it, but even I didn’t think I would love it this much.

The documentary is a mixture of interviews (with mostly friends/ colleagues), old video clips of “Siskel & Ebert” reviews and Ebert interviews (among others), and new footage shot by James, which consist of Ebert in the hospital and in rehab being treated for a hip fracture, before being called in again for treatment of thyroid cancer that he’s been battling for years…which would then lead to his tragic death.

The new stuff is the most intriguing, as we get a powerful look at Ebert’s last days. But the rest makes it all the more meaningful. It paints a clear portrait of not just the professional film critic that he was but the person that he was as well. And it’s not afraid to be honest about the portrayal–his former colleagues have some unflattering stories about him from way back when, for example. (And we also get some hilarious outtakes of Ebert and Siskel arguing and insulting each other, giving us a clear sense of their love/hate relationship.) We see Roger Ebert here, flaws and all.

My personal favorite interviews are amongst the filmmakers that owe a great deal of debt to Ebert for being among the first to recognize their talents–Errol Morris (“Gates of Heaven,” one of Ebert’s favorite movies), Gregory Nava (“El Norte”), Ava De Vernay (whose debut film was the family drama “I Will Follow”), and Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart”–also, his film “99 Homes” was dedicated to Ebert). I also liked the voice actor chosen to narrate passages from the book for the movie–Stephen Stanton, who voiced Ebert on the animated comedy sketch show “Robot Chicken.”

When his widow Chaz Ebert gives a heartfelt interview in regards to her husband’s death, it’s tear-worthy–no joke; I got a little teary-eyed at the end of this film.

“Life Itself” is my favorite documentary of the decade because it feels like the most human documentary of the decade. It’s truly moving, it paints a compelling portrait of a man, his passion, and his family/friends, and it’s so wonderful and powerful that it pained me that the Academy Awards neglected it for Best Documentary Feature consideration. Thankfully, it has 25 other wins and 33 nominations (according to IMDb) to its name because it deserved all the recognition it received. And it’s one of my favorite films of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#3

30 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out

3) RUBY SPARKS (2012)

“Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real.” That is a line of dialogue from the wonderful magical-realism-based comedy-drama Ruby Sparks that needs to resonate with people who are constantly looking for their “ideal” mate.

“Ruby Sparks” is a film in which a lonely, desperate, hopeless-romantic writer named Calvin (Paul Dano) writes about a manic-pixie-dream-girl type named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, Dano’s real-life girlfriend and this film’s screenwriter). She’s the woman of his dreams, but she’s also someone who’s only real in his mind, which is something his brother Harry (Chris Messina), who is married and knows the honeymoon phase never lasts, tries to break down for Calvin, who simply won’t listen. But before long, it turns out he doesn’t feel the need to listen, as suddenly Ruby herself is manifested physically into his real life. At first, he thinks he’s gone crazy, until it becomes clear that other people can see her too. (There’s no explanation for why she’s suddenly “real,” and I don’t need one either. There’s only one throwaway line: “It’s love! It’s magic!”) Everything seems perfect for Calvin, until Ruby starts to develop thoughts and feelings of her own, which scares Calvin into thinking she’ll leave him. He realizes he can alter her personality and tries to change her to his liking…and by doing so, he also realizes that what he wants simply is not real and will never be.

I used to like “Ruby Sparks” just as an inventive, endearing comedy-drama, with some fantasy and romance and something to say about relationships. But it wasn’t until I was a few months into my relationship with my girlfriend (who is now my fiancee after five years) that I really started to appreciate it. I saw it a few times (and reviewed it) about a year before the relationship started. Then soon after that, I revisited the film and it had a strange effect on me. I found myself considering the main character (a writer named Calvin, played by Paul Dano) and the film’s theme of reality vs fantasy, and then I started analyzing my relationship with my girlfriend (Kelly) and what it meant to me.

I felt like Calvin at some point in my life—desperate for a relationship with a wonderful woman and having a clear idea of the kind of person I wanted her to be, failing to realize that the person I’m after isn’t a real person at all. It’s just an idea of who I thought I deserved in my life. In the film, Calvin learns this the hard way, and the line of dialogue that really cements it for him (and for us as an audience) is delivered by his ex: “The only one you wanted to be in a relationship with was you.”

It took me quite a while to learn it too and get what the film was really trying to say. There are times when my introverted nature gets the better of me, but when Kelly wants me to interact and be more sociable at a party or something, I’ll at least make an effort (something Calvin hardly attempts) even if it doesn’t always work out. There are times when I notice our differences as well as (or sometimes more than) our similarities, but I don’t try to change her to my exact liking. And if there’s a problem, we talk about it. We try to find a solution and we usually do. And we’ve been together for five years now. (And we’re engaged!)

So, it’s like personal experience blended with the messages of this 2012 indie film and influenced me to be the best I can be in a long-lasting relationship, and I didn’t even know it until I revisited the film whilst still in the beginning stages of my relationship. Since then, it’s become one of my all-time favorite films (#15 on my Top 100 Favorite Movies list), period.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#4

28 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash

4) INSIDE OUT (2015)

Disney/PIXAR, what have you given us this decade? “Toy Story 3,” “Toy Story 4,” “Coco”–all of them are great. “The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2” and “Cars 3”–never saw them, saved my money for “Incredibles 2,” which was really good (albeit very late to the party). Brave–eh. “Monsters University”–not bad. “Finding Dory”–very good.

Disney/PIXAR has had some ups and downs these past 10 years, but that doesn’t matter…because this decade, they also gave us Inside Out, one of the best Disney films I’ve ever seen and probably the best Pixar film I’ve seen too (right up there with “Up” and “Toy Story 2”).

It has an interesting idea–the emotions we feel are manifested by our own inner universes–and it’s able to do just about everything great that can be done with it. The personalized emotions that help make a girl named Riley who she is are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy is the chief emotion, which constantly throws her overboard whenever Sadness wants to step in and ruin core emotions with her very touch. As Riley moves from Minnesota to California with her parents, Joy has to help her make the best of it. But something goes wrong, and Joy and Sadness are ejected from the master controls. Fear, Anger, and Disgust try to take charge in the meantime, resulting in Riley snapping at her parents, not trying to make new friends, and even thinking about running away. Joy and Sadness have to work together in order to make their way back to the control room to settle Riley’s emotional state.

Brilliant. Bright. Funny. Imaginative. Profound. Moving. Sometimes sad. All of these adjectives can be used to describe the power of “Inside Out.”

This world is amazing. Memories are created and stored in collections of glass spheres, whether they’re short-term, long-term, or forgotten entirely. And there are also theme parks connected with one another, with the themes being dreams, nightmares, her favorite sport (hockey), imagination, and so on. It’s amazing to see how this “world” inside a person’s head works. There’s a dark abyss where forgotten memories are stored and eventually fade away, a dream-land that resembles a Hollywood studio where actors act out Riley’s dreams and nightmares, and all sorts of inventive components. As Joy and Sadness go on this journey through the subconscious, they encounter many strange things like abstractness, fears, daydreams, and even a forgotten imaginary friend, named Bing Bong (Richard Kind).

But the story and character development are just as impressive as the environment they’re set in. It balances funny and dramatic perfectly, as we laugh at the insane inventiveness of how this world works and how some of the emotions run it (or try to run it), but more importantly, we learn something that most of us don’t like to think about: the importance of the emotion of sadness. This is exactly what the overall film is about: balance. Joy and Sadness have to learn to get along, and Joy constantly pushes her aside because she feels Riley doesn’t need her, but over time, she realizes that not only do they have to work together but that Sadness is more important to the team of emotions than anyone would give her credit for–in fact, Joy learns in a brilliant scene late in the film that Joy and Sadness are essential together.

What I really love about this development is that the film stays true to its own message it’s been pushing all along: that it’s OK to be sad because that’s part of growing up. In order to adapt, we need all of our emotions in order to get through whatever. There are many things in life we can’t get back, and “Inside Out” knows that. Instead of bringing back many elements from the first couples acts of the story, they stay gone and are replaced with new ones, because that’s part of the process of coming of age. For a Disney film to play this message of stuff-happens-and-you-gotta-deal-with-it, this is pretty gutsy and very much appreciated.

I would love to see a sequel to “Inside Out” that shows the difficulties of Riley growing up, but I would also love to see spinoffs with other people and their emotions trying to cope with whatever change comes their way.

I love “Inside Out.” I wanted this to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars–I already knew it was a dead lock for Best Animated Feature, but that’s beside the point. This isn’t merely the best animated film of the decade–it’s one of the best films, period.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#5

27 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood

5) WHIPLASH (2014)

When I first saw Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, there was one scene that I didn’t quite agree with. It’s a scene in which aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has dinner with his father (Paul Reiser) and his aunt, uncle, and two cousins. Andrew’s father has made an effort to encourage Andrew in his pursuit to a music career, and so now, Andrew is trying to express to his relatives how he feels about it. But that’s not important to them–not nearly as important as one cousin’s football skills and the other cousin’s “heading up Model UN, soon-to-be-Rhodes-Scholar or who knows what” (the aunt’s words). The aunt and uncle patronize the father’s “Teacher of the Year” award before asking condescendingly how Andrew’s drumming is going. Andrew tries to impress them, saying he’s one of a core dummer in the accomplished jazz orchestra and is one of the youngest in the band. Are they impressed? Nope. They just flat-out say in their own words that there’s no career in drumming (while Andrew’s father just sits by and doesn’t stand up for him). All they really want to talk about is their kids’ accomplishments, practically rubbing it in both Andrew’s and his father’s faces. Andrew snaps back, stating how being recognized as a great musician is his idea of success. Does this work? No way. In fact, HIS FATHER joins the bandwagon of the relatives and states bluntly, “Dying broke, drunk, and full of heroin at 34 would not be my idea of success.”

It gets more uncomfortable from there.

When I first saw this scene, it felt like the least effective part of the movie. I didn’t believe any family would behave like this. But seeing it again and studying it, not only does it give Andrew more purpose to push himself further in his craft, which then leads to conflict of goal, ambition, and identity by the film’s climax, and not only is it beautifully executed and written…but it is probably THE most effective scene in the movie, because it feels more real than I originally thought before.

So many people can relate to this scene one way or another, and more than half of those people have felt Andrew’s emotions here–anger and bitterness because the talent that gives you the most joy and purpose is underrated while others’ talents being gloated about are overrated. And not only is hard to express yourself–even if you could, you won’t be heard most of the time.

I know now that so many people have been there…and so have I.

“Whiplash” is a movie about an aspiring artist (Andrew) pushing himself to be great and the hard-as-nails teacher (Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons) that shoves him to be great. And it’s GREAT. “Whiplash” is a hell of a movie, one that gets better and better each time I see it. It asks tough questions with difficult answers, it’s brilliantly staged, acted, and edited, each development in Andrew’s pursuit to greatness is always interesting, I love the unconventional take on the instructor-student dynamic, and the ending is one of the most emotionally compelling finales I’ve ever seen.

I rated this film three-and-a-half stars instead of four because of that one scene. Now that I have no problems with the scene, I rate it four stars easily. It’s one of my new favorite movies.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#6

23 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties

6) BOYHOOD (2014)

Did you hear about Richard Linklater’s latest ambitious project? A musical that he’s supposedly going to be making for the next 20 years? Man, if I thought his 12-year filmmaking process for Boyhood was ambitious…

Linklater is one of my favorite filmmakers because of how he experiments with relationships and time in most of his films. Are we the same as who we were years ago? What’s different about us now? What can we learn from certain past incidents? Etc. That’s everything he covers with the overall effect of his “Before…” trilogy, which is overall a brilliant look at first love, second chances, and aftereffects of such. And with “Boyhood,” he outdoes himself beautifully, showing an ordinary American boy and his family coming of age over the course of 12 years.

There are many ways this project could have gone wrong. What if Ellar Coltrane, the young actor he cast in the pivotal role, grew into a bad actor over the course of this process? He cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, in the film as the boy’s sister decided she didn’t want to do this anymore? (Actually, she did try to get out of it before her father convinced her to stay.) They even prepared for who would take over if Linklater had suddenly died at any point before production was completed–Ethan Hawke, who worked with Linklater many times and plays the kids’ biological father in this, volunteered.

But it worked! It paid off. We have 12 years shown to us in chronological order as Mason (Coltrane) grows from age 6 to age 18, and we see his family–sister Samantha (Lorelei), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and father Mason Sr. (Hawke)–come of age as well. Nothing particularly special happens–it’s just a collection of small moments that so many of us can relate to.

Movies are typically ways of escaping reality, but if a film can truly capture reality, it’s something marvelous, especially if it brings you into the world of characters who feel like real people. And this film, chronicling 12 years in the life of a boy and his family, is like the ultimate slice-of-life picture.

On top of its truly remarkable behind-the-scenes story is a rich, detailed portrait about the lives of this kid growing into a man, his sister who grows up with him, and even the coming-of-age of their parents as they become more mature as well. We get brief stories within the over-two-and-a-half hour long running time, but things happen in this film that don’t always pay off because that’s the way life is, and Linklater knows that. Sometimes it is random; mostly it is pivotal; other times it’s essential; and so on.

And “Boyhood” is very successful at showing these moments in the lives of these people. People come in and out of their lives and we don’t hear back from a few of them; one day they’re interested in one thing but indifferent about it later; and so on.

“Boyhood” is a simple, universal story, told through Mason’s eyes, that is so easy to relate to. I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid, and I definitely felt like I knew those around him. That’s why it moved me so much. As time goes on, as the film continues in its nearly-three-hour running time, it’s very, very important that the growth and coming-of-age of this kid and his family are shown. Not only did I see them grow; I wanted to know what was going to happen to them for another 12 years.

“Boyhood” is an ambitious project that absolutely paid off, and it’s one of the best films from a brilliant filmmaker.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#7

23 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity

7) THE DIRTIES (2013)

If anyone’s continually checking these decade-end Top-20 updates and thinking “WHAT?!” in regards to this selection, well…I can’t help it; Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” is one of my favorite movies, period.

And it’s strange, because when I first saw it on TV, I wasn’t all that impressed by it. But then I watched it again…and again…and then I wrote a review for it (which was mildly positive at best)…and then I wrote an in-depth analytical essay for it (much more positive than the first review)…I’ve lost count of how many times I streamed it on Netflix before it was randomly removed from the service…and then after a while, I wanted to own it so badly that I spent $40 on a Blu-Ray for the movie via Amazon!

3 stars? Puh! 4 stars all the way! I LOVE this movie! WHY do I love this movie? Let’s see if I can explain.

For one thing, it’s an example of passionate, resourceful, independent filmmakers using everything to their advantage. “The Dirties” was made for cheap, with the film’s financing coming “out of pocket.” The film is executed in the style of a documentary–but not just any documentary; a documentary made by a bright high-school kid…made by a guy in his 20s playing a bright high-school kid.

The kid is Matt (played by Matt Johnson, who also wrote and directed the film)–he’s a goofy, energetic movie geek who lives for movies to the point where he has cameras on him all the time in order to become the star of his own movie. (I give up wondering who’s constantly filming him within the context of the movie. Another classmate? An older documentary filmmaker? Who is cinematographer Jared Raab supposed to represent here? It doesn’t matter anymore–but it’s fun to think about.) He and his best (and only) friend Owen (Owen Williams) are making a wish-fulfillment fantasy film in which they exact revenge on a gang of bullies called The Dirties, based on bullies they frequently encounter in campus hallways. When the beatings continue, Matt gets the idea to plan his own school shooting–he’ll go into the school with guns and shoot “only the bad guys.” Owen doesn’t think he’s serious about this, but as Matt digs deeper into this crazy idea (practicing with multiple firearms, measuring hallway lockers, marking school-building blueprints, keeping pictures of the bullies marked on his wall, etc.), it gets really disturbing. It also doesn’t help that Matt always seems to be acting for the cameras, which Owen ultimately calls him out on. Where their friendship goes from there and how the film ultimately concludes…if you want spoilers, check out my essay again.

The story of how this film was made is fascinating. Apparently, writer-director-actor Matt Johnson and his co-star Owen Williams, amongst many of the crew and other actors, actually went to a public school and posed as students (“21 Jump Street” much?) in order to make this film.

Now…how they were able to get away with filming the ending, which involves a school shooting, I’m not entirely sure. If I could get my hands on one of those out-of-stock Limited Edition Blu-Rays of the movie, with all sorts of extra content, I would love to get answers to the questions like that which have been on my mind more often than I’ll admit.

The film is very entertaining, but most importantly, it’s more than that. Its subtext is equally disturbing and effective. It raises an interesting social commentary about the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. Even when Matt plays up his own craziness on-camera (by reading aloud the very definition of “psychopath” and asking his mother if she thinks he’s “crazy”), you still have to wonder what’s really going on inside his head as he performs his actions. No matter what clues may seem obvious, there will always be questions that we will continue to ask without ever getting clear answers about why something as horrible as this happens.

The genius of “The Dirties” is it ends where the typical news story would begin…and even if we think we know how it all came to be, there are still some things we’re still not sure about. What did Matt write down while reviewing some of the footage? Why did Owen call Matt the night before the shooting? All of these things could have given us a much clearer perspective, but instead, while we know some things for sure, other pieces of the puzzle are still left a mystery. And that’s why I believe the film is so special: it tells an important story but it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers either.

So there you have my reasoning for placing “The Dirties” on this list–it’s every bit as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. And I look forward to seeing what else the mega-talented filmmaker Matt Johnson has in store for us in the future.

NOTE: Oh, and there’s also the end credits…these may be the very best closing credits to a movie I’ve ever seen.