Ryan Syrek is the type of guy who spends his weekends stealing candy from babies, eating the candy right in front of the babies, then regurgitating the candy and spitting it out for no other reason than to show the babies he doesn’t even want the candy—he just stole it because he could. It’s a power thing.
However, one of Ryan’s few redeeming qualities is his stance that clickbait-y “listicles” have somewhat ruined film lists, which used to be legitimate opportunities to acknowledge films that were culturally and personally significant. Not just “significant” like, “Oh, I really dig Movie X,” but significant as in, “Movie X underscores a cultural moment or leaves a huge mark on me.” You should check out his non-clickbaity, actually-gives-a-shit list of the ten best films he’s reviewed.
But first, this:
10) Minority Report (2002)
This is the hardest film to rank because it’s the reason I had to cut so many others from my list. Released when I was just a pup, Minority Report was the first film I ever recognized as more intelligent than average popcorn flicks. Even though my 9-year-old brain didn’t exactly know why, I somehow just picked-up that it was a cut above other blockbusters. We give films like The Matrix and Inception too much credit for being, “action films with ideas.” You can’t really discuss them beyond, “Do you think any of it was real?” That’s not interesting. An action film like Minority Report can sustain conversations for hours with the implications of its complex science fiction themes. Also, bonus points for the sequence with the weird spider-robots scanning folks’ eyes. That gave me nightmares for months back in ’02.
9) War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
Motion capture technology is the defining special effect of our era. If putting actors in skintight spandex suits covered in ping pong balls and painting little green dots all over their faces doesn’t sound sexy enough, then just know that motion capture achieves the most powerful form of cinematic escapism. Digital effects can render vast fantasy lands and incredible action set pieces, but I never really felt the magic until motion capture made me empathize with non-human characters. War for the Planet of the Apes is the best use of motion capture, so far. It’s finally reached the point where actors can outshine the animators. I believed the militant monkeys in War more than the human stereotypes who typically populate war movies about ragtag soldiers on dire missions.
8) Free Fire (2016)
The great director George Miller (count on seeing one of his films later on this list) claims, “Action is the purest form of cinema.” He’s right. Books, stage plays, and television will never be able to present action as well as film—and don’t try to give me some crap about a neat battle scene you saw on Game of Thrones. None of it gets anywhere close to Free Fire, a feature-length shootout that’s a parable on the boyish stupidity of gun violence. With a story that’s too audiovisual to work as prose, too reliant on effects to work as a stage play, and too high concept to be fleshed out over seasons of television, Free Fire is a uniquely cinematic experience that’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
7) Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Roger Ebert is the Patron Saint of Film Critics but he still doesn’t get enough credit for how well he wrote about vampire movies specifically. His review of Nosferatu (1922) read, “the film seems to really believe that vampires exist,” and that’s true of all the great vampire stories—Blade 2, for example. Shadow of the Vampire (2000) claims that Nosferatu was such an effective horror movie because director F.W. Murnau found an actual vampire to star in his moving picture. Too many horror movies rely on cheap jump scares or gross out gags. My favorite since 2000 contains neither. It’s haunting, not at all scary. The film is more concerned with putting you in a mood than making you pee. It doesn’t feel “realistic,” but actually real. I haven’t seen many horror films like Shadow of the Vampire. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait until the next millennium to see more.
6) What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Here’s a vampire movie on the opposite end of the spectrum. It believes that vampires exist, but it’s more concerned with how they get kicked out of hip nightclubs for dressing like 19th-century dandies. What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary that follows New Zealand vampires rooming together in a low-rent flat. It’s not just the funniest movie I’ve seen, the jokes multitask as hilarious punchlines and surprisingly profound additions to vampire lore. It’s canon that vampires are destroyed when they’re exposed to sunlight. Now it’s also canon that vampires cover their furniture in newspaper before feeding on victims, just in case blood sprays everywhere.
5) The Act of Killing (2013)
If you haven’t seen this documentary then don’t Google it. Go in cold. I saw The Act of Killing in an empty theater, which was probably one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. In the mid-1960s, Indonesia’s government promoted small-time gangsters to lead death squads that murdered almost one-million civilians to purge the country of Communist influence. The gangsters happened to be film nerds, inspired by their all-time faves to stylishly kill their victims. Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer asked the killers to make a film about their exploits, and The Act of Killing offers a behind-the-scenes look. The one time that Oppenheimer interjects, it sets off a chain reaction that turns The Act of Killing into a legitimate historical document. The ending of this film is something we’ve never seen, and may never see again.
4) Punisher: War Zone (2008)
This is my Happy Place movie. At the end of a long week, I’ll bring home a bag of Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos, pop this beautiful bastard into my Blu-Ray player, sit back and relax as a gun nut vigilante lays waste to the criminal underworld. When folks claim Logan (2017) is the most brutal superhero movie, I know they haven’t seen Punisher: War Zone. Bad guys in this movie are impaled, skewered, crushed, burned, decapitated, throat-ripped, nephrectomied and grenade-launchered in the middle of their parkour routines. Punisher: War Zone had the misfortune to be released at the tail end of an era when superhero movies were mostly judged on how “realistic” they felt. If it were released today—years after The Avengers (2012) taught us that it’s okay for comic book movies to actually feel “comic booky”—I have a feeling it might be your Happy place movie, too.
3) The Assassin (2015)
The assassin in The Assassin is my all-time favorite character. Nie Yinniang (played by Qi Shu) cuts flying swords out of the air with a dagger, wipes out entire battalions with a dagger, and keeps her hair tied with a dagger. She’s astonishingly badass. There’s been a few “arthouse action flicks” peppered throughout history but the subgenre only caught on recently. The Assassin is the best of the bunch. It’s as quiet, thoughtful, and glacially paced as any arthouse film. It just happens to follow a protagonist who can rip f#@$king shit.
2) Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
One of my favorite things about movies is that they’re (mostly) innocuous subjects. We can actually have fun disagreeing about them. My biggest pet peeve is when you dislike someone else’s favorite movies and they take it way too personally. Having said that… If you don’t like Mad Max: Fury Road then I hope Ryan steals candy from your baby. Sure, the dialogue consists of grunts and the plot is essentially just “vroom vroom,” but Fury Road is the greatest blockbuster film. It’s so good that I’ve personally suffered from what’s known as a, “Fury Road Hangover,” a disorder where other blockbusters seem tame by comparison.
1) Upstream Color (2013)
I have an Upstream Color tattoo on my right arm, so you bet your sweet ass it’s the best of the young millennium. We’re only 115 years into film. The films we’re used to seeing probably aren’t what films will end up looking like after the medium matures for a few-hundreds of years. Just think of how far the art form has come since silent films and you get what I mean. Upstream Color is a glimpse into the future. Writer/director Shane Carruth wrote the screenplay, soundtrack, and shot lists at the same time—which is almost unheard of, although it’s best way to script audiovisual stories. The plot moves forward at twice the speed of typical narratives, so the whole film feels like one long montage. The music speaks for the film more often than the actual dialogue. This is where films are headed over the next millennium.
Honorable Mentions – It killed me to cut Thor: Ragnarok from this list. Killed me. I’m dead now.
Ryan, there’s candy in a bowl on my coffee table. Have at it!