The 50 Best Films of the 2010s: Part Three
Looking back at the last decade and it is hard to imagine anyone saying that any one of the past ten years was a bad year for cinema. The reality is that there are thousands of movies released theatrically every year, and thousands more released on VOD and streaming services, and while not all of these movies are what we consider great works of art, each year has given us some truly unforgettable movies. It is impossible to cram all our favourites into one list, and as mentioned in the second part of this series, many of our personal favourites didn’t make the cut. Here is the third part of our list of the fifty best movies of the decade.
Two years before La La Land (2016), the critically acclaimed love letter to classic Hollywood cinema, director Damien Chazelle first burst onto the scene in 2014 with the musical drama Whiplash. Crafted from a minuscule budget, Chazelle was able to thrive on the tenets of filmmaking that no amount of money can buy: powerful acting and a directing style entirely his own. The result is a career-high performance from J.K. Simmons, and possibly the greatest drama in recent memory to tackle artistic exceptionalism.
Whiplash centers on Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) a young jazz student who is inducted into a high-profile music conservatory in New York City. Recognizing his potential, his music teacher, Terence Fletcher (Simmons), aligns himself with the drummer only to rip him apart in front of his new classmates. Questioning Fletcher’s abusive methods, various people attempt to pull Andrew away from his toxic teacher, leaving Andrew to wonder if he will ever be truly great if he walks away.
Driven by sound, Whiplash announces itself with a militant drum beat before a single frame colors the screen. When Andrew appears, he is positioned at the end of a dark corridor, removed from the audience and dwarfed by his drum set. From the onset, Chazelle creates a relationship between Andrew and his drums — a dichotomy that later eclipses every other relationship in Andrew’s life, both familial and romantic. As Andrew pours more and more of himself into his drums, the line between musician and tool becomes blurred until Andrew’s personality is entirely dictated by his identity as a drummer.
A drama that arguably hits every beat of a well-spun thriller, Whiplash is permeated by a crackling intensity and driven by the protagonist’s anxiety that he will never be good enough. Though he initially keeps Andrew at arm’s length through the camera’s eye, Chazelle pushes in with an unrelenting focus as the narrative progresses, detailing Teller’s face through uncomfortably tight close-ups as his anxiety grows and sweat beads on his brow.
In simplest terms, Whiplash is a powerful reminder of how great film can be when music, editing, and cinematography all work in tandem with each other. Chazelle’s ability as a director is best displayed during orchestra scenes, where every quick cut to a clicking case and tuning clarinet is edited to seamless perfection. Casting a harsh lens on artistic legacy and greatness, Whiplash supersedes its own messaging by delivering a note-perfect drama that demands nothing but the best from its cast and crew. (Meghan Cook)
29.) It Follows
At the heart of It Follows, lies an open-ended metaphor — the terror in David Robert Mitchell’s indie horror comes in the form of a deadly curse passed from one person to another through sexual intercourse, courtesy of a shape-shifting figure visible only to the victims it stalks. The Stalker looks different each time it appears — be it a feral child, a naked old man, a giant, a family member, a friend, and so on. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the unforeseen consequences of underage sex, pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases. Or maybe, instead of sex, It Follows is about the fear of growing up — and more importantly, about conformity.
However you read into it, sex is the reason the demon kills you, yet sex is also the only way to escape death; if the Stalker kills the target, it starts moving in reverse up the chain. It’s a simple but very clever twist that keeps things fresh. Mitchell demonstrates an impressive control over tone, generating a creepy vibe from his use of Steadicam photography and negative space. The director rarely goes for shock, and instead provokes a specific kind of horror: dread. There’s plenty of great camerawork by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, a cool synth soundtrack reminiscent of John Carpenter’s themes from the ’80s, and the young cast all turn in fine performances. If you love horror films, this is essential viewing. (Ricky D)
28.) Frances Ha
If Noah Baumbach’s early films were indebted to the best of Woody Allen, it was with Frances Ha (2013) that he showed off his love of the French New Wave, particularly the ebullient films of François Truffaut. But more than revealing a major stylistic influence, the film marks his most important artistic collaboration with his romantic partner Greta Gerwig, who stars in and co-wrote the film. Frances Ha is a love letter — to Gerwig, to the French movies that exploded the boundaries of film, and to cinema itself.
Gerwig stars as the eponymous character, who’s bonded at the hip with her friend, Sophie (Baumbach regular Mickey Sumner). But when Sophie decides to move out of their Brooklyn apartment to Tribeca, where she’s always aspired to live, Frances is left stranded. She’s a dancer who’s not quite talented enough to join the main company of the troupe she works with, but rather than try to strike out on her own as a choreographer creating her own works, she’s content to pick up the scraps of freelance gigs in hopes of proving herself. Lacking funds, she moves into a small space in an apartment with two acquaintances she barely knows (Michael Zegen and future Baumbach lead Adam Driver). For a while, she skirts through New York on the edge of insolvency, before blowing everything on the saddest two-day trip to Paris anyone has ever taken. Back in the States, she’ll regress to working alongside undergrads at her alma mater Vassar, before planning out her comeback and evolution.
A summary of Frances Ha makes it sound like a dark exploration of failure (and it sort of is), yet the film manages to find something hopeful in her every misstep, and Gerwig, already a likable actor, has never been more charming. The movie riffs on the extended adolescence that most young people now experience willingly or unwillingly, but it doesn’t seek to diagnose society or find fault in Frances. It’s Baumbach’s most humane film, and it gives viewers hope that Frances will get her act together. It’s augmented by Sam Levy’s glorious black & white cinematography, which was digitally decayed slightly to give it the lived-in feel of 35mm film. Baumbach also dug through old score cues by French composer Georges Delerue, including some from Truffaut’s films. Baumbach has made grander films (The Squid and the Whale) and more incisive ones (Marriage Story), but Frances Ha is maybe the only one that might make us look back on our own growing pains with fondness. (Brian Marks)
27.) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
In a decade filled with a vast plethora of superhero film and computer-generated animated features, this dark horse collaboration between Marvel and Sony manages to stand out among the overwhelming presence of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe as a complete game-changer in terms of storytelling and animation. The 2018 film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse managed to breathe fresh air into the oversaturated presence of Marvel films and reinvigorate audiences’ love of one of the greatest superheroes of all time.
Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is adjusting to puberty, schoolboy crushes, and constant pressure from his cop father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), to thrive in an elitist boarding school. When he is bitten by a spider one night, he finds that he has developed strange supernatural abilities. Sound familiar? It does to him too, because, in this world, there already is a Spider-Man. And, as Miles soon finds out, there are many many more in alternative dimensions. He is soon joined by an older, recently divorced Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), and various unorthodox interpretations of Spidey in order to take on the gargantuan Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), as well as an interesting new take on Spider-Man’s longstanding rivalry with Doctor Octopus.
The film succeeds not only in telling a fresh new story about a lesser-known depiction of Spider-Man, but also in allowing the entire canon to poke fun at itself with meta-humor without going to LEGO: Batman Movie or Teen Titans GO: To the Movies levels of parody. While the film is self-aware, it doesn’t let the postmodern irony get in the way of telling a genuine story that takes itself seriously.
Aside from the revitalizing writing, Spider-Verse‘s other crowning achievement is the brilliant animation. Blending classic CGI and comic-book-style drawings and paneling along with a very distinct New York aesthetic, the film has produced a groundbreaking mixed-media style that makes even the simplest interactions seem so much more stimulating and visually interesting.
Sony should be proud of their tremendous accomplishment with Spider-Verse, and they even managed to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — a spot practically reserved for Disney. It truly deserves recognition as not only one of the best superhero movies of the decade, but one of the best period. (Sarah Truesdale)
26.) La La Land
“Here’s to the ones that dream, foolish as they may seem.”
La La Land is a two-hander that emphasizes the importance of following your dreams while still acknowledging that sometimes what you truly desire has been right there all along. With an ending that packs a wallop, Damien Chazelle pretty much cemented himself as one of the most talented filmmakers of our generation, somehow following up the tense Whiplash with a musical that checks all the boxes while still feeling new. Even with its obvious inspiration from movies like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La La Land is a movie about two people trying to attain their dreams in different ways, but each lifting the other up and carrying a profound impact on the other’s life.
As Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) struggles with pursuing his own dream, his life intersects with Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer. Their relationship blooms out of mutual respect for the other’s dreams, which places a spotlight on love’s place in fueling creativity and bringing out the best in people. At the same time, Chazelle recognizes the difficulty in supporting someone else while putting all your effort and time into your own art. It’s a balancing act, and when the film confronts the difficulties, that is when La La Land ascends beyond simply being a musical about following your dreams.
“City of Stars” and “Audition” (The Fools Who Dream) are just two of the many standout songs from Justin Hurwitz’s incredible soundtrack. They also carry that sadness even among their most triumphant moments. The big musical numbers are gargantuan in scale, with “Another Day of Sun” really driving home the aspirations of those sucked into the vortex of Los Angeles. Juxtaposed against the final “What-if” scenario, Chazelle leverages the cost of being steadfast in your ambitions with the romance of being swept up in the moments along the way.
Lush cinematography, and two powerful lead performances from both Gosling and Stone bring heartache to all the whimsy. From their brief interactions on the highway to their first true introduction to one another, all the way to their final scene together, on-screen chemistry doesn’t get much stronger than between Mia and Sebastian. They prop one another up, and there’s a palpable absence when they aren’t together — which makes the final moments of the movie either devastating for the romantics, or motivating for the dreamers. Regardless, it’s an undeniably powerful journey. (Christopher Cross)
25.) Stranger By the Lake
A sensation at Cannes 2013, Alain Guiraudie’s Hitchcock-ian erotic murder mystery is set entirely against the backdrop of a secluded lake known to locals as a popular gay cruising spot frequented by men whom who know each other well, but not necessarily by name. It stars Pierre Deladonchamps as Franck, an unflappable young hunt looking for true companionship in the wrong place at the wrong time. From the minute Franck arrives at the lake, we’re plunged into his interior world as he strikes up two friendships then witnesses a murder, which leaves him intrigued, rather than horrified.
A tale of murder complicated by intense sexual obsession (garnering equal parts praise and criticism for its frank depiction of unsimulated gay sex), Stranger by the Lake accomplishes the rare feat of subtly guiding the way we pay attention to details as we watch the plot unfold. Stranger by the Lake is a film that embraces minimalism whenever possible — there are long stretches without a single word uttered and there’s no musical score whatsoever to punch up its themes. Still, the attentive viewer will pick up on the subtle shifts of the plot thanks to the director’s arresting photography and the capable performances. For instance, the murder sequence filmed from Franck’s point of view is a thing of brilliance and more outstanding for its simplicity. There are few filmmakers who can accomplish so much as Guiraudie does here with so little as a wide far shot held static for four minutes. As we watch Frank witness the crime, but we can’t help but feel helpless while also dreading what is soon to come. By the time we get to the pulse-pounding climax, Guiraudie has masterfully taken hold of all our senses. Stranger by the Lake is a stunning minimalist erotic thriller that takes a simple plot set at a single location and told with sparse dialogue and creates a resonant, multilayered work. If you haven’t yet seen this sexy, smart film, give it a try. We promise you won’t be able to look away. (Ricky D)
24.) OJ: Made in America
Somehow 2016 became the Year of OJ, a pop culture apotheosis of the infamous and much explored “Trial of the Century.” FX’s superbly soapy miniseries, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, found its nonfiction counterpart with Ezra Edelman’s extensive 8-hour documentary. Originally airing on ESPN as a miniseries, then trimmed for theatrical exhibition, OJ: Made in America didn’t just explore the unbelievable theatrics of the world’s most high profile murder trial — it deconstructed the culture, context, and controversies that shaped Orenthal J. Simpson into an icon.
“I’m not black, I’m OJ,” the suspect bafflingly exclaims, encapsulating in one sentence all the contradictions inherent in a man who found a way to transcend his stereotypes, only to overcorrect into a monstrosity of ego and — most likely — violent rage. Edelman and his editors have a wealth of material to examine, but still find grace notes in candid interviews and unseen video footage. It’s a history lesson in miniature, exhaustive but never exhausting, extensive but never exploitative, as extraordinary as the truth, and as epic as any the artistic medium can produce. (Shane Ramirez)
23.) The Raid 2
When Gareth Evans gave action cinema a shot of adrenalin with his expertly-crafted The Raid: Redemption, few were prepared for how it would be followed up. Quite simply, The Raid 2 is a masterclass in action filmmaking, and raises the stakes significantly from the first movie’s barebones premise. By virtue of adding a narrative, every action scene maintains a weight of importance to it. Even more impressive is how almost every moment of action isn’t just there for thrills; each scene propels the story forward in ways many action filmmakers struggle with balancing against pulpy fun. Action films like this — let alone martial arts movies — are a rare bunch, and Evans essentially defined both his career and star Iko Uwais with these films.
Set immediately after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 puts Rama (Uwais) undercover to expose corruption within the police force and take down entire criminal organizations from the inside. The film’s cold open introduces its overarching themes of ambition and limitation, as the main bad guy, Bejo (Alex Abbad), sets forth a plan to not only take a slice of the criminal empire in Jakarta, but also become a prevalent force against the rival syndicates. His goals are lofty, but he has a strategy that will undoubtedly work if pulled off correctly. As Rama gets closer and closer to the son one of the syndicates’ leaders, Bejo also starts prying at him to dismantle his father’s grasp.
Equal parts crime epic and martial arts powerhouse, The Raid 2 never falters for one reason: its ambition is constantly kept in check, and it utilizes that for every facet of its filmmaking. Written, directed, and edited by Evans with choreography from Uwais, there is no excess in the film. Characters all flesh out various levels of ambition, which only parallels the movie’s gorgeously shot fight sequences — all of which seemingly top the previous one.
The camera keeps itself tied with the flow of action, constantly feeling like an active participant in the fight while capturing every gory moment of violence. The opening prison fight sequence keeps things contained in a sprawling mess of mud and blood, as it sets up the relationship between Rama and Uco. Meanwhile, a later car chase spirals out from the confines of the car itself to the road as the film hurries along to its climax. Martial arts movies are rarely this lean, gritty, and dense. Finding the balancing act for that is a feat unto itself, but it’s undeniable that the team-up of Uwais and Evans brings out the best in both of them. The Raidfilms helped place Indonesia on the map of action cinema, and The Raid 2 reminds us that action movies can be elaborate stories with immaculate set pieces, without sacrificing one for the other. (Christopher Cross)
22.) Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s latest belongs right up there with his greatest, depicting an indelible fantasy version of a bygone Hollywood era that ushered in a changing of the guard. Mostly following a few days in the life of an aging TV star and his buddy/stunt double, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may not capture a place and time as it really was, but like much of the writer-director’s work, it’s the product of a passionate imagination. It’s also a soothing balm for those who relish flowing dialogue, and who aren’t impatient at getting lost among the tumbleweeds of dusty back lots and hillside pool parties.
Of course, this is a Tarantino film, so confrontation is expected at some point — and it will probably be bloody. Tension in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is supplied by the Manson Family, a commune of ominous hippies who have taken over a former film lot outside the city. Though their infamous leader is only briefly seen, actual history is a constant cloud hanging over the proceedings, especially whenever the bubbly, carefree, force-for-positivity that is Sharon Tate appears on screen. Her fleeting moments portray a refreshing zest for life and optimism that we’d rather not see tragically snuffed out; Hollywood can be unkind enough as it is.
But this is a fairy tale, and so the wrongs of the past have the chance to be righted. Yes, it takes a while for that head-squishing, flame-throwing assault to happen, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the cruise; this story is more about the journey than the brutal, cathartic final battle. With its fascinating peek into the lives of rising and setting stars, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately a ballad to the love of movies — a chatty symphony of wishful thinking that the old and the new can coexist in some kind of happily ever after. (Patrick Murphy)
21.) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Back in 2010, at a point in time when the Judd Apatow oeuvre was dying down and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was slowly on the rise, slackers, comic books geeks, and hipsters had one non-Kevin Smith movie to develop a strong cult around: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Director Edgar Wright had developed a following of his own with the first two installments of what is now considered his “Three Flavours Cornetto” Trilogy (Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), and utilized his signature fast-paced dialogue, editing, and camera work to bring underground comic series Scott Pilgrim to life.
Scott Pilgrim (2000s superstar Michael Cera) is a 22-year old Canadian slacker whose time is mostly spent playing bass for the garage band Sex Bob-Omb, getting over being brutally dumped by rock star Envy Adams (Brie Larson), and spending time with his rebound girlfriend, Catholic school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). His little world is turned upside down when he becomes infatuated with the elusive, dyed-hair American Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). However, in order to court her, he must defeat a league consisting of her seven exes in video game-style battle matches, including a psychic vegan, a half-ninja lesbian, and a pretentious record producer.
The film combines wildly over-the-top camp performances with old school video game aesthetic and ‘too-cool-for-school’ hipster sensibilities to blend hip, postmodern irony with out-of-this-world magical realism. The film is also littered with clever Easter Eggs, brilliant and often subtle sound design, and not-so-subtle visual effects that help immerse the audience into the strange logic of this video game/comic book-inspired world.
While Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers are admittedly not the most likable romantic leads (read the comic book; they’re much more tolerable.), they are adequate vehicles to lead us into a unique world of superpowers, battle royales, and non-stop ass-kicking, along with the typical ‘meh’ issues of being a shiftless twenty-something lost in love. The film succeeds in making for a non-stop, exciting, and quotable experience that truly brings a comic book to life in a fresh, new way with its gorgeous stylized effects, engaging sound design, and excellent soundtrack. While the film was a box office bomb, its popularity rose over the years as one of the new classic cult films of the 2010s. (Sarah Truesdale)
PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE | PART FOUR | PART FIVE
‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be
Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.
Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.
Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own.
As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).
“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”
Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story.
That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.
That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.
The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters.
This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.
That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.
Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.
And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.
Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit
The monster movie that breaks new ground.
Tremors, 30 Years Later
Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.
Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.
Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.
The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.
Val and Earl
At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.
In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.
The Gummer Family
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.
As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.
Director Ron Underwood
Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.
Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.
Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.
It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.
The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.
Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.
It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.
- Ricky D
The Career of Tony Scott and His Influence on the Film Industry
In the late 1970s and 1980s, composer Giorgio Moroder was often accused of trying to replace the orchestral movie soundtrack with high-energy, synthesizer-heavy disco-pop laid on with a trowel in movies like Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983), and Top Gun (1986). I remember a magazine story on Moroder which quoted one of his many critics as saying, “The day the music died, Giorgio Moroder was brought in for questioning.”
I think some people had the same opinion about movies and Tony Scott. Full disclosure: I’m one of them. But it would be greatly unfair to Scott, who died in 2012, not to admit that, for good or for ill, his 1980s feature work had an enormous impact on commercial filmmaking.
The younger brother of Ridley Scott by seven years, he was gifted – like his brother – with an outrageously good eye; a taste for the visual strong enough to earn him his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art (which he’d attended on scholarship no less). But painting didn’t pay well, so he joined with his brother in Ridley Scott Associates where, from the 1970s into the 1980s, he applied that eye to moving pictures, directing thousands of commercials, some of them still-talked-about all-time classics in the U.K.
His first feature was the visually sumptuous, dramatically wispy attempt at erotic vampirica, The Hunger (1983), and it was such a lambasted flop it’s a surprise Scott’s feature career didn’t end right there. But three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him to direct Top Gun and movies would never be the same.
It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities (along with Michael Bay, Scott would remain one of Bruckheimer’s go-to directors). Bruckheimer, whose youthful interest in photography had led him to his own career in commercials before turning to movies, had the same affinity for striking imagery as Scott.
The timing of the union was just right, too. MTV was only five years old, and the non-stop near-abstract visuals of music video were not only still hypnotically novel, but on their way to becoming the defining visual sensibility for a new movie-going generation. With Giorgio Moroder (another ideal wedding of sensibilities) supplying a Pop’s Top Ten-nish soundtrack, Scott put together montages that were, essentially, music videos woven into the narrative of the film (some critics carped that the whole movie was little more than an extended music video).
Striking visuals, a pulsing, toe-tapping score, and a super-patriotic story that made a hero of a young, cocky, mouthy, go-my-own-way fighter jock made for a flick which hit a big, fat sweet spot with MTV’s first generation of ticket-buyers: Top Gun scored a whopping $176.7 million domestic. I did the math: at today’s ticket prices, that would translate to almost $390 million. Love it or hate it, you have to respect that kind of box office muscle.
Top Gun set the template for Scott: high-octane visuals, rapid-fire editing (often at the hands of Chris Lebenzon), an MTV-friendly soundtrack, and a story simple enough to absorb without having to pay too much attention.
It also set the template for so many of the box office winners of the next few decades, movies that moved fast, piled on the action, featured characters who were often little more than catchphrases with biceps, offered music video fodder (at least back when MTV still played music videos), and where plausibility – even under Hollywood’s extremely elastic definition of the concept – was irrelevant. Think Lethal Weapon, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and anything by Michael Bay.
Though his brother Ridley often took the same rap of favoring looks over substance, their styles, though both highly visual, were strikingly different.
Ridley’s films — good and bad – play out like classical music: stately, elegant, unrushed, somber.
Tony’s movies are rock ‘n’ roll: fast, loud, exhausting, sometimes painfully bright.
It’s hard to imagine Tony doing something as subdued as Ridley’s Napoleonic-era The Duelists (1977), or even pulling off the brooding sci-fi Gothicism of Alien (1979). By the same token, Ridley would have seemed a poor fit for Top Gun or all the running back and forth in Crimson Tide (1995).
Despite being regularly slammed for his storytelling, Scott did care about plot and character. Explaining the failure of Days of Thunder (1990) – Top Gun cloned to the NASCAR circuit – Scott diagnosed the problem as having started production without a finished script. “(You) always have to get a story,” he said, “and you’ve got to get character first…”
But it wasn’t a sentiment that quite squared with his execution. In an Entertainment Weekly story about a trending flimsiness in big-screen storytelling, The Fan (1996) screenwriter Phoef Sutton told the story of shooting the movie’s climactic baseball game in a torrential downpour. Sutton and others tried to argue Scott out of it pointing out that baseball games are called on account of such weather. The rain stayed. Said Sutton: “…I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”
In his later years, he seemed to be trying to reach for the kind of substance his early films were often accused of lacking, but he remained better at taking a good picture than giving it meaning. Enemy of the State (1998) was entertaining enough, but it was like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with the poetry removed and replaced with explosions and chases; Spy Game (2001) was an anemic John LeCarre wannabe; The Taking of Pelham 123 replaced the local color which had made the original so memorable with a needlessly busy yet flavorless plot.
Like his brother, Tony also produced, and in those projects, one could sense an ambition to do something of substance. There were such laudable efforts as the HBO movie RKO 281 (1999) about Orson Welles’ fight to make Citizen Kane; The Gathering Storm (2002), another HBO feature, this about Churchill’s attempts to prep England for WW II; Gettysburg (2001), a cable documentary about one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War; and the lovely, elegiac (if sadly little-seen) Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Though Scott would continue to turn out some respectable earners in his later years (Déjà vu , The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable ), after the 1980s, he’d never hit Top Gun heights again, and, in fact, after Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) only ever crossed the $100 million domestic mark one more time with Enemy of the State (1998). Perhaps the problem was that Scott’s eye-tickling rat-a-tat-tat style had, by the 1990s, become so widely copied that his often dramatically weak films had little else to offer; the trendsetter had become just another member of the pack.
But give him this. Few filmmakers make a lasting impact. Most directors and most films come and go, cinematic mayflies fluttering around the box office for a few weeks before disappearing. The same can’t be said of Tony Scott. Love ‘im or hate ‘im, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets him.
– Bill Mesce
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