John Wick (2014)
What Keanu Reeves lacks in traditional acting chops, he makes up for with a gentle and stoic charisma. In additional to his looks, it’s this unwavering mien that has helped him remain a major star in Hollywood since the early ‘90s. Still, the unexpected 2014 action hit John Wick seemed to unlock a whole new level of action-hero potential in the former Speed and Matrix star, zeroing in on a new way to exploit his narrow but potent appeal. Reeves’ eponymous antihero character—comically taciturn, unwaveringly committed to his bizarre missions—is the takeoff point of the finest action franchise born in this decade.
Directed by stuntman-turned-filmmaker Chad Stahelski, John Wick is a loud and expensive modern action movie like so many others, but the sensibility also feels like it taps into older and more playful cinematic traditions. In many ways, it comes across like a loving ode to the “gun fu” action movies of John Woo and takes cues from the more recent The Raid series. Aside from its base of influences, Wick’s carefully fleshed-out and fanciful mythology also makes it stand out. In the New York of John Wick, hired killers and bounty hunters are part of a well-organized association with a convoluted system of rules. They have their own currency, doctors, retail, and transportation services, and bureaucratic cronies. Central to the network is The Continental, a hotel and central base for the criminal underworld that works to protect and rein in its members. It’s a clever plot device that injects a bit of humanizing mundanity into the lives of the movie’s motley cast of hard-knocks and murderers.
Yes, all of this is totally ludicrous, and that’s without touching on the primary point of conflict in the film: Wick begins his unsanctioned revenge spree because he is furious about a Russian thug killing his dog. But this absurdity helps the film and its sequels stand apart. Things are possible in the Wick movies that wouldn’t be in action movies with more banal and self-serious plots. The world-building also heightens the stakes in the films’ well-crafted action sequences, causing you to become invested in a way that might feel impossible in a movie starring a more boilerplate Jason-Bourne-type leading man. Reeves’ commitment to the physically demanding role, even as a man in his fifties, also helps these scenes’ intensity. He performs his own stunts, punishes his body in ways that are almost scary, and murmurs threateningly; to celebrate John Wick is really to celebrate Keanu Reeves. —ISRAEL DARAMOLA
It Follows (2014)
The best horror movies revel in ambiguity, and It Follows, which stands as one of the decade’s best arthouse genre films, leaves open a wide range of possible interpretations. A mysterious entity hunts a group of young adults in a decaying working class suburb on the outskirts of Detroit, with its reign of terror beginning when Jay (Maika Monroe) contracts an unidentifiable disease on what seems like an auspicious date with a dude using the assumed name “Hugh.” Director David Robert Mitchell offers no origin story for the movie’s central deadly force—that is, the sexually-transmitted shape-shifting “it” that pursues the infected host and kills them before they can pass the disease to a new victim, like a deadly game of conjugal hot potato.
Most contemporary horror films are in some way referential, but Mitchell avoids winking into the camera and foregrounding his points of inspiration. In a sense, It Follows is a spiritual successor to John Carpenter’s Halloween, complete with chilling synth score and low body count (just two kills!) Even the main character’s name, Jay, is a nod to Jamie Lee Curtis, the original scream queen. But Mitchell aims to construct a unique, collage-like universe rather than open a time capsule. Despite its faded aesthetic and early splatter-film reference points, it’s impossible to nail down when the action in It Follows is supposed to be taking place. Among other things, a recent car model amid a sea of shitty old beat-up used sedans and a quick shot of a Kindle-like e-reader confuse initial suspicions that the movie is intended as a ‘80s period piece. The scrambled reference points make Mitchell’s aesthetic all his own, transforming the film’s inherent nostalgia into something more subjective and unsettling. —MAGGIE SEROTA
Mad Max: Fury Road (2014)
No accounting of the decade’s cultural works that deal with our potential future on this planet would be complete without George Miller’s exhilarating but sobering resuscitation of his Mad Max franchise. Mad Max: Fury Road is such a titanic achievement in terms of the literal act of filmmaking that it will always be remembered most for its technical accomplishments, but it also offers much more: an affecting peek into a world where the fabric of society has been undone by an absence of resources. In Fury Road’s vast desert wasteland, everybody is fighting for something: water, milk, blood, bullets, gasoline, a simple recognition of one’s humanity. But the focus is on the battle being waged by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in her search for a utopia she remembers from childhood. That Miller dubs it “the Green Place” makes the allegory obvious.
Furiosa’s hunt for this fertile wonderland is an escape in more ways than one. In tow are the five young wives of Joe, the grotesque dictator who lives high above his sunbaked, sand-covered populace with a rainforest in his lair; when the starving hordes gather at the bottom of his fortress begging for water, he turns the spigot on for about as long as it takes to wash your hands. Joe’s pursuit of Furiosa and his wives—well, one in particular—triggers a clash that Miller renders as a race across the desert, and against time. The result is a series of scenes that reimagines the Fast and Furious franchise as a grindhouse film, as Furiosa’s big rig snakes around the dustbowl, fending off armored attackers, leaving explosions and wreckage in its wake. It is a thrilling spectacle—in another context, it could be a sport in this chaotic, ruthless world, history bending itself back towards the days of the gladiator. But ultimately it is a desperate one, driven simply by a desire for basic human rights in a world that can no longer provide such a thing. Furiosa kills Joe but it feels empty; the Green Place is swampland, a mud pit pocked with the rotted husks of trees. The dictator, meanwhile, lived a life of gluttony and died quickly. —JORDAN SARGENT
Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Magic Mike XXL begins three years after its predecessor ends, with an update on the titular Mike Lane (Channing Tatum), who isn’t doing as well as fans might have hoped. The custom furniture business he long dreamed of building is now up and running, though not successfully enough; we quickly learn that he can’t afford to provide health care for his one employee, who will have to quit soon. We also learn that he’s single (no longer burdened by Cody Horn’s character or her awful performance in the original film). Mike spends a day partying with his old group of male stripper buddies, who are trying to figure out what to do now that their leader Dallas (Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike) has abandoned them. They have vague plans for a road trip to a competition in Myrtle Beach. That night, Mike hears Ginuwine’s “Pony,” a staple of his old stripping routine, on the radio, and the siren call of his relatively simple past life as a male entertainer proves too much to resist for the budding entrepreneur. Just like that, the ridiculous plot is on, all real world concerns are abandoned, and Mike and the gang are off to South Carolina.
What follows is 100 minutes of unrepentant fun. The crew stretches what should be a nine-hour road trip from Tampa to Myrtle Beach into an epic three-day voyage. Along the way, they shed the baggage from their everyday lives—literally in one scene, as they toss their old costumes out of the FroYo truck they’re inexplicably riding in—and embrace the exhilaration of the moment, of the planning and choreography, and then, finally, of their performances. Those performances are as fantastic as any in the first film. Tatum, this generation’s Gene Kelly, leads the way and is excellent as always, but Joe Manganiello, as the aptly titled Big Dick Richie, steals the show. (In a just world, his dance in a gas station alone would have earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod). There are, of course, notable plot events—a crashed van, a squabble over a girl, new love interests, and so on—but they all exist as excuses to push the movie forward to the next dance routine or at least to the next party.
Unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, which—assless chaps aside—was weighed down by its attachment to realism, Magic Mike XXL, helmed by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs, exists purely as a vehicle of escape. The unrelenting focus on surface-level pleasures eventually becomes its own sort of profundity, leading to one of the era’s most deeply entertaining films. Traditionally essential components, like plot and character development, don’t matter here. What’s important is the bliss of the performance and everything that surrounds it: not just for the film’s audience, or the women in the film watching the strippers dance, but for Mike, Big Dick Richie, and the rest of the crew themselves. For them, this trip represents a break from the everyday anxiety about their future. Neither Mike nor Soderbergh’s film has any illusions about the fleeting nature of such a reprieve, no matter how fantastical and successful the routines become. The movie ends, just as the three-day road trip does, with Mike watching fireworks explode over a beach, his friends all around him, happy but knowing that this moment is over. It’s back to the real world now. —TAYLOR BERMAN
The Witch (2015)
In the world of horror films, no production company’s imprimatur has been quite as unmistakable as A24’s in this decade, even while factoring in the significant work of the prolific Blumhouse Productions. A24’s 2015 acquisition The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers, is exemplary of their favored filmmakers’ ethereal and often metaphorical approach to the genre. Eggers, an obsessive production designer and early American history fanatic, wanted to tell a weird tale about zealous early 17th-century colonial Puritanism, and decided to funnel his inspiration into a genre film in hopes of accessing a wider audience. It worked: Eggers’ incredibly strange debut feature was served up to some multiplexes as part of its limited release, surely pissing off and rattling viewers expecting a more conventional Friday night horror flick.
Coming across like a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story recast as high-end Hammer horror and dipped in bad acid, The Witch represented the best-case scenario when it came to A24’s weird experiments in terror. Eggers’ plot was a downward spiral story that zigzagged wildly during its descent, delving into realms that the director refused to clarify as either reality or fantasy. Its characters’ language was sometimes as dense as Shakespeare’s, and the depth of Eggers’ period research was almost distractingly apparent. But these elements were no more suffocating than the film’s claustrophobic action and mise-en-scène. The Witch takes place almost entirely in a hut, a tiny stable, a rotten field, and a non-descript patch of nearby woods. The players are a small and stoic family for whom Christianity functions primarily as an excuse for self-punishment. The film’s biggest provocation is its twist ending, which explodes implications that are only hinted at during the rest of the film, angering those who take it literally and delighting those who assign it a more symbolic significance.
A24 would go on to produce a number similarly high-concept horror movies by younger directors in the following two years, including It Comes at Night, Green Room, and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Another breakthrough came with Ari Aster’s horrifying Hereditary, a major box-office breakthrough for the company in 2017. This year, Aster’s follow-up—the folk-horror epic Midsommar—seemed to deliberately tip its Swedish bonnet to The Witch in its transcendent final minutes. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
The dominant strain of mainstream kids movies these days feels engineered in a lab to trigger pre-approved and powerful emotions in children and adults alike, providing cookie-cutter lessons parents can use to assuage their guilt over allowing two hours of mindless screen time. Just try watching a beloved neo-classic of the genre like Coco and not sobbing for at least half of it. (The lesson of Coco is to remember your loved ones long after they die and also, I guess, that even the most evil plagiarists can thrive in the afterlife, unless a meddling child saves the day.) This fine-tuned, audience-tested mass manipulation makes sense when you consider how profitable these films have to be, and that’s okay. As far as these sort of tentpole movies go, the recent spat of Pixar films have all been technically very well-made, and in terms of quality and respect for their audiences, they’re light years ahead of their rival in family mass entertainment: the largely cursed Marvel franchise. That said, they still have about as much spiritual heft as your average Nike commercial.
On the other hand, there’s a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Written and directed by Taika Waititi, and based on Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, Wilderpeople follows 12-year-old Ricky Baker (the fantastic Julian Dennison), a “real bad egg” living in foster care who was abandoned by his mother and adopted by Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and “Uncle” Hector (Sam Neill), an older couple living on a farm near the New Zealand bush. Without getting into too many spoilers, Ricky and Hector, along with their dogs Zig and Tupac, find themselves on the run in the bush as an increasingly absurd number of police and child welfare service agents chase after them. The cantankerous Hector and rambunctious Ricky initially resent each other but eventually become close out of necessity (surviving for months in the bush is no easy feat) but also out of a shared love of mischief, a distaste for authority, and a sense of mutual mourning.
Waititi understands as well as any filmmaker the importance of balancing adventure and humor, both in relatively smaller films like this and in larger blockbusters. (The Marvel films are only largely cursed thanks to Waititi’s Thor: Rangarok, a clinic on how to make a fantastic big-budget comic book movie.) Wilderpeople’s themes of loss and abandonment could easily drift into twee sentimentality if Waititi’s chaotic comedic sensibility weren’t so finely calibrated. We—just like Hector and Ricky—can’t be sad for long when we have to reckon with ridiculous car chases, wild boar attacks, insane bushmen, and the Terminator-like persistence of a George W. Bush-paraphrasing child welfare officer named Paula (Rachel House). It’s a perfect example of what a kid’s movie should be: full of mischief and fun, with an earned message of resilience that never once feels cloying or pedantic. —TAYLOR BERMAN