Category Archives: My Top Movie Lists

My top 20 films of 2011

Another year. Another list a year behind the times. Life moves at a slower pace here when it comes to movies. It’s like being in a time machine always set to minus twelve months.

20. Martha Marcy May Marlene

The tension of the film builds as we learn more about the cult and what fate likely awaits those who try to escape. What at first seems like hippies out in the woods living in a makeshift commune becomes a full blown cult, complete with violent rituals and the mandatory mind control. The reality of Martha's current situation seems more dire as each flashback peels away one horrific layer after another to the core of her former life. Through it all, Elizabeth Olsen's performance is near perfect. She behaves awkwardly with Lucy and Ted but never in a manner that feels melodramatic. My full review.

19. Footnote

Great performances and an intriguing story of a father-son relationship carry Footnote through a first half which provides many laughs and a second half which expresses the deep hurt a long and painful father and son journey inevitably delivers. An original film told in an originally, if not jarring manner. Refreshing. My full review

18. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol never pretends to be what it isn't. Those looking for thought provoking cinema or even character development are sure to be let down. This is an action film that has fun being that and nothing more. My full review.

17. A Separation

An exhausting film, but in a good way. A Separation tells what would appear to be a simple story in a way that is anything but simple. The moral and ethical decisions characters make in some trying situations would seem easy to judge except director and writer Asghar Farhadi doesn't provide an effortless judgement. He, like the actors themselves, ensure reality is represented in full until the end where emotions are tapped out. My full review.

16. Contagion

Never completely satisfying as a drama or thriller, Contagion finds its sweet spot somewhere in between genres. And though it never connects on a deep emotional level, the end result is a well done film that tells a believable story about a scenario none of us wishes to experience. My full review.

15. Young Adult

The journey to destroy a marriage and fulfill the selfish desires of a despicable character does not sound fun but the way that the screenplay writer, Diablo Cody (most famous for writing Juno), positions her extremely narcissistic main character with a backdrop of decent human beings makes things fun. We can never cheer for our main character. Her plans and her ways are never worth cheering for. But we can laugh at the absurdity of her behavior, realizing that when we give into our own notions of self-importance, our vanity, we transform into creatures not unlike Mavis. And in the end, Young Adult serves as a warning for those of us who might think we're far away from ever being like Mavis. A full review.

14. Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman makes a welcome return after nearly a dozen years since his last film. Damsels in Distress is a witty comedy with commentary on a variety of topics but never heavy handed. The laughs come along with a satirical backdrop and characters to match. Not everyone's cup of tea but possibly a surprise for those who haven't enjoyed Stillman's past films. Damsels was a pleasant surprise for me. My full review.

13. The Descendants

The laughs come in small spurts, as Matt confronts the onslaught of obstacles, sorrow and tragedy before him. Rising above the quirky indie comedy, The Descendants succeeds where many fail. The seriousness of the story presented is never fully played for laughs nor is there a need to redeem itself in the end with melodrama. Instead we're left with a film that feels oddly comfortable even in the midst of uncomfortable situations. My full review.

12. Higher Ground

Vera Farmiga succeeds in not only carrying the load of this film based on real life memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs, she also directed it as a first time effort behind the camera. I admire her attempt to tackle a subject that is not a popular one in her circles and generally handling it with great care, never taking the easy route of cynically portraying her characters while also not hiding their struggles and faults. My full review.

11. The Hunter

Maybe all the pieces don't add up in a completely satisfying manner, but that doesn't stop the beauty of The Hunter from resonating. Willem Dafoe carries the quiet thriller on his back with a performance which is as much about the smallest moments, the slightest of facial expressions in the midst of a mysterious hunt for the most unlikely animal to be called a tiger. My full review.

10. Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I was at first convinced Jeff, Who Lives at Home was going to be another vulgar and cynical comedy; one that treats its characters with disdain by putting them through painfully awkward situations, only to watch them dangle in despair until the bitter end where there is a weak attempt at redemption. And while it is vulgar at times, there is a genuine care for these characters, all of whom are easy to make rash judgments about. The story is more than just a setup for laughs, though there are plenty of those. Jeff's obsession with his destiny may not jive with reality but it makes for a surprisingly compelling story with an emotional payoff. My full review.

9. Margin Call

The tone never changes throughout, for better or worse. It's a slow burn of a film. Certain characters seem to grow the 24 hour time span while others start a new path in their life that is likely to be filled with regret. The ending is as sad and poignant as one can imagine without resorting to cheap plot twists. Margin Call serves as an admirable tale for our times. My full review.

8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people's top films of 2011 but it should. It's one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren't all that good and some that were simply awful. My full review.

7. Moneyball

Watching Billy Beane struggle, even after he experiences a wild amount of success, makes Moneyball a special film. Most would have had the Oakland A's GM triumphantly proclaiming his loyalty for his team and ended it in a great David vs. Goliath story. Instead we get Billy Beane the always appearing calm figure who is never quite sure what to make of this game of baseball. Even in success he is unsure. His final decision to stick with the underdog feels like it's filled with doubt. As if Beane's decision to stick with the A's or go with the incredible offer from the Red Sox is lose-lose. To Billy Beane, there is no sure thing. The obvious first appeal of anything cannot be trusted. My full review.

6. Hanna

Hanna was entertaining throughout, avoiding the temptation to add unwieldy plot twists and characters (I'm looking at you Harry Potter). The tone of the film hit me just right. The experimentation within the action genre was a great success. While not a fan of sequels in general, I wouldn't mind seeing Hanna 2. My full review.

5. The Interrupters

While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most. My full review.

1. Take Shelter

Take Shelter is sure to leave some perplexed, others enthralled, and almost everyone thinking for days about what it all meant in the end. Count me in the camp of those enthralled. The performances, the overall mood, and the contrast between an everyday life and schizophrenia are done in a near perfect manner. My full review.

My top 20 movies of 2010

2010? Yep, 2010. Since chances are I don’t get to see many movies for a given year until well into the following year my list is a year behind. The good news is that if you’re a Netflix streaming subscriber there are quite a few films here to watch instantly.

20. The Way Back

An underrated film seen by too few people. Peter Weir directs this tale of a small group of soldiers from different countries in WWII who escape a Siberian labor camp only to make the long journey through the Himalayas. The acting is superb. The diverse group makes the harrowing journey all the more interesting.

19. Buried

If you can’t take Ryan Reynolds pass on this one. I don’t have strong feelings about him one way or the other. I admired the guts of a movie shot entirely in a coffin buried under the ground. There is no way this should be an entertaining feature length film, yet it is.

18. The Oath

A documentary about two men, brothers in-law, who have ties to Osama bin Laden and the events of 9/11. One, a former bodyguard (Abu Jandal) for bin Laden, goes free while the other, a driver (Salim Handan) for bin Laden, is held in Guantanamo Bay. It’s not a political activist film. It’s a character study, and what a character Abu Jandal is. He’s a man full of contradictions. Out of the two men, he was the only one who once pledged his allegiance to bin Laden and jihad. He now claims he doesn’t, except when he does. He walks free while his brother in-law is imprisoned.

17. Catfish

This is the 2010 movie about Facebook. That other movie was about a lot of things but not necessarily about Facebook. Abby, an 8 year old artist, gets in touch with Nev, a 24 year old photographer, through Facebook. The two develop a long distance friendship. Nev starts to talk to members of Abby’s family over the phone, including Abby’s 19 year old sister who Nev begins to fall for. When things start to not add up, Nev and his friends making the documentary start digging. There are those who question the authenticity and ethics of this doc. I found it a tale for our current day – one quickly becoming dominated by digital gnosticism.

16. Please Give

A small indie flick with a cast of characters who are interesting (though not often “fun”) to hang out with. A mom (Catherine Keener) who feels constant guilt over her wealth and denies her daughter many material things in life as a result. It also drives her to desperately give to those she perceives are poor, whether they actually are or not. Meanwhile, mom and dad (Oliver Platt) do their best to make friends with the cranky elderly lady next door. They covet her apartment so they can expand their space once the neighbor dies.

15. How to Train Your Dragon

I had zero interest in seeing this one but I’m happy I did. The animation is outstanding. The relationship between Toothless the young dragon and a puny adolescent viking is endearing. I could do without most of the other kids but not so much that it ruined those scenes or the movie as a whole. A pleasant surprise and a fun movie to watch with the family.

14. The Book of Eli

I realize I’m likely out on an island by myself with this one. A post-apocalyptic story about Eli (Denzel Washington), a man who is on a journey to protect and deliver the last copy of the Bible. There are those who want the book because they crave the power they’ve heard it holds. A violent film that has a much deeper message at its core, though some may miss it in the spectacle of all the action.

13. The Fighter

A strange yet enjoyable movie about Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his family, including Dicky (Christian Bale), a once great fighter who becomes a drug addict. This is not so much a story about the triumphant underdog or the redemption of the addict but rather a dark comedic look at a dysfunctional family. The acting is top notch and carries the film as it weaves its way towards a more typical sports finale.

12. Four Lions

If you are easily offended by the idea of terrorists as comedic fodder do not give Four Lions a look. This is the tale of four British wannabe jihadis who are not unlike Dumb and Dumber’s Lloyd and Harry. The satire is heavy and some scenes bring uncomfortable laughs. There is something to offend both the political left and right.

11. Cyrus

An indie comedy that made me laugh throughout. Struggling after divorce, John C. Reilly finally finds the woman (Marisa Tomei) of his dreams except for one small gotcha – she has a 20-something year old son (Jonah Hill) and mother and son are incredibly attached. The awkward moments abound. John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill battle one another in small and large moments that provoke much laughter.

10. Monsters

Nevermind the fact that the budget for this sci-fi film was $500k, it’s solid all the way through. Granted, the acting is a little weak here and there but I liked the two leads in general. Aliens have inhabited earth for several years and there is an infected zone in Mexico just across from the US. A photographer and his boss’ daughter need to make it out of Mexico but miss the last boat out. Their journey and discovery along the way is engaging. An impressive feat for any sci-film regardless of the budget.

9. The King’s Speech

I wrote a review earlier. The dynamic between the king and an unconventional speech therapist is strong. An enjoyable film (even when predictable) thanks to the excellent cast.

8. 127 Hours

Much like Buried, this film should not be exciting. The true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco) who gets his arm pinned while rock climbing and ends up cutting his arm off. The tension is ramped up knowing the major event is going to happen. Danny Boyle makes a film stuck in one tight spot feel as though it’s frenetic. Franco pulls off the difficult task of carrying this mostly one man act.

7. True Grit

Coen brothers films are hit or miss for me. This one was surprising as it was far less quirky than previous Coen brothers films and has a fairly straightforward narrative. An unbelievable cast makes every moment worth watching, especially the young lead, Hailee Steinfeld, who more than holds her own. Plenty of humor and heart in this one. Heart in a Coen brothers movie? Shocking, I know.

6. Another Year

A small film that spends the year with an older couple and the people who enter and exit their lives. Lesley Manville’s Mary character is both incredibly annoying and oddly irresistible. The film is all about characters and feels so authentic that it makes you squirm at times when confronted with some of the sad realities these folks find themselves facing. Through it all, the central couple keeps things grounded and hopeful, even when it seems everyone and everything around them is hanging by a thread.

5. Winter’s Bone

Not the feel good film of 2010. A backwoods film noir that is as much about the small moments as it is the bigger mystery its lead character, an outstanding performance by Jennifer Lawrence, struggles to solve. One of the best supporting performances can be found here in John Hawkes’ character. A menacing man who is filled with surprises.

4. Inception

There is no way this movie should work. I don’t care that Christopher Nolan wrote and directed it. It’s a sci-fi action flick revolving around the world of dreams. Somehow Nolan and his star studded cast pulls it off. Even when the dialogue is dominated by exposition it delivers by following it up with insane levels of action.

3. The Social Network

The story of how Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook isn’t terribly interesting when you cover the outline. However, when you take that story and combine it with Aaron Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue and actors with the ability to make you believe they’d be that witty you start to get a good movie. Putting it over the top is Fincher’s meticulous direction and the pitch perfect soundtrack. This could have been a terrible movie. I think it’s important to remember that, as it makes the end result that much more impressive.

2. Toy Story 3

Maybe this is sentimentality taking over but I loved every moment of Toy Story 3. Two of my favorite scenes are the Lotso and Big Baby back story and, of course, the toys heading into the fire. This could have been a simple cash grab, instead it’s full of creativity with both new and old characters.

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Whether true, partially true, or a complete hoax, it doesn’t really matter. This documentary hits all the right notes. We get a glimpse at the world of street art, the mystery of Banksy, and a commentary on how silly the commercialization of art can be with the creation of Mr. Brainwash. It tells a complete story, full of intrigue, interesting characters, and many laughs. If it’s all just one big joke by Banksy, so be it.

My Top 21-100 Movies for The First 10 Years of 2000

Here is a continuation of my previous list of top movies. The rankings after 40 become kind of pointless, but I did it anyway. I didn’t comment on these movies like the top 20. It’s too time consuming. If there are questions I get in the comments here or elsewhere, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts. Also, there are a lot of movies I haven’t seen. If you see a movie not on this list or the previous one that you think I should have on here, please leave the name in the comments. Chances are I never saw it. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not.

A side note: One cool thing I was able to do for this list was write a small Python script to get all the movie info via the Netflix API. Everything was auto-generated. I provided my ranked list and the script did the rest. Click on an image for the Netflix page for that flick. For each item in the list, you can also add the disc to your Netflix queue with the link under the title, see the Netflix users’ rating, and know if it’s available on Blu-ray as of the publish date of this post.

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My Top 20 Movies for The First Ten Years of 2000

I’ve never written about movies here before, but I’m a pretty big movie fan and can’t pass up the opportunity to write a bit about those who top my list over the past ten years. I was so into movies at a younger age that I seriously considered going to film school when it came time to make a decision about my post-secondary education. So, I like movies and I got the urge to write a bit about some of my favorites from the last ten years. Pretty simple. Now on to the list, in descending order:

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20. The Aviator (2004)

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I’m a sucker for films based on true stories, especially those centered on characters as unique as Howard Hughes. Martin Scorcese captures the bravado and madness of Hughes as well as the history in the making. The acting is top notch all the way around. Beautiful film.

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19. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

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Remaking a movie formerly filled with the Rat Pack should be disastrous, especially when the new cast is full of some of the biggest names in the movie biz today. But Ocean’s Eleven is fun to watch (over and over again), even with the impossible scheme the plot is built around.

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18. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

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Comedy is hard to do right. While all the best picture nominations normally go to movies depicting the darkest of life’s corners, movies that make us laugh are tossed to the side. Little Miss Sunshine made me laugh hard, very hard, many times throughout. While some may argue the characters are cliché for an indie film, I will argue that truly funny indie films don’t come along very often so I’ll take the clichés in this case.

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17. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

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I’ve watched this movie numerous times. I never grow tired of it. It’s fun, based on a true story, and has some strong acting. This one proved to me just how versatile Spielberg is as a director. Interesting to note is that we’re only at movie 17 and Leonardo is in two of my top 20. I didn’t realize I was such a big fan of the Keebler elf (as one audience member sitting behind me called him in Titanic).

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16. In Good Company (2004)

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If comedy is hard to do right, then making comedy with a heart may be the ultimate challenge. In Good Company is funny and it has a heart. Even better is that the ending isn’t predictable fluff that often plagues this genre.

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15. Breach (2007)

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Some found this one too slow. I think it’s a rare quiet thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat without ever demanding big action or over the top acting. And this is all done while we know the ending, as it’s based on the true story of an FBI agent who is captured for selling secrets to Russia for over twenty years. Pretty amazing.

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14. Syriana (2005)

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If I didn’t know better, I could’ve sworn this one was a Stephen Soderbergh film. The multiple intertwined stories about a complex topic is not unlike Soderbergh’s Traffic, another flick I considered for this list. Syriana has everything required for a disaster on the screen – several big name actors, a hot political topic (oil and the Middle East), and a plethora of plot lines to make sense of. Instead of a disaster, we get an intelligent, entertaining, and ultimately powerful film.

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13. Cinderella Man (2005)

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I can’t remember walking away from a movie more inspired than when I left Cinderella Man. It does have a typical sports movie ending but the journey along the way is anything but typical.

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12. The Dark Knight (2008)

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Superhero movies are hot. I would’ve put Spiderman (1 or 2, not 3) on this list as I believe it revived the genre this decade. But, as good as the first two Spiderman movies were, The Dark Knight is even better. One big reason I believe The Dark Knight is superior is due to Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a repulsive villain, a missing ingredient from the Spiderman movies. In addition to The Joker, we also get a tale for the 2000’s. The moral dilemmas and plot lines seem to be taken from the news of the last ten years.

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11. Owning Mahowny (2003)

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There are plenty of films about addiction. Actors that want recognition around Oscar time seem to gravitate towards roles such as that of an addict. But Owning Mahowny is a different tale of addiction. It’s about a gambling addict and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays this compulsive gambler with a quiet intensity that makes one feel the insanity of the struggle.

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10. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

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If you had told me I’d be putting a documentary in my top ten list a year ago, I would have laughed. It’s not that documentaries can’t be great, it’s just that I haven’t seen any that I thought “this is awesome” like I do with traditional movies. Then I watched The King of Kong. Three times. Who knew the story of a grown man going for the world’s highest Donkey Kong score would be so compelling. There is a sweetness and a real story of intrigue being told in this documentary. I wish more fiction was as good as this.

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9. Meet The Parents (2000)

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Don’t laugh, unless it’s because you’re thinking of a scene from Meet The Parents. This is one of my all time favorite comedies. I think Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller make comedic magic happen. This one is full of smart writing without reverting to the debauchery and foul mouthed comedy that came into favor around 2005 and continues today. “I have nipples, Greg, could you milk me?”

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8. The Departed (2006)

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It’s a bit strange to find The Departed in my top 20, let alone top 10, considering after I first saw this one I was turned off by the way it felt a bit sloppy overall. The acting wasn’t at fault, but I thought the story and transitions between scenes were a mess. Then a funny thing happened. I watched it again about a year later and didn’t perceive any of those faults. The great acting remained and I found a new admiration for Martin Scorsese’s film along the way.


7. Brothers (2009)

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The only 2009 title on my list. I saw it last week over Christmas break and was completely blown away by how good everything was. The directing allows the viewer to see the real lives of these people without overstating the deep emotions running throughout. The acting was superb and the story was interesting. I could feel the tension between the characters from the start, especially in those shots at the dinner table. It’s rare to see a movie that could serve as a stage for big break out acting roles and political messages, but instead gives the audience something much greater, a connection with the characters that runs deep.

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6. Finding Nemo (2003)

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Pixar is amazing and Finding Nemo is one of its better exhibits of what it can do in terms of making technically amazing films that tell good stories and have nearly perfect voice casting. I was often baffled that The Incredibles was considered a more popular Pixar flick during this period of time. I think Finding Nemo is Pixar’s second best movie to date, behind only Toy Story. And that is saying a lot when you consider some of their other titles like Toy Story 2, Up, Wall-E, and Ratatouille.

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5. You Can Count on Me (2000)

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This one is much like Brothers in that it lets you in on the lives of a particular family. Where Brothers had the intensity of scenes of war in Afghanistan for a change of pace, You Can Count on Me doesn’t ever take the focus off the small town and lives of a grown up brother and sister still grappling with life after losing their parents at an early age. The results are both sad and funny, often at the same time. Sort of like real life.

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4. City of God (2002)

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City of God is like an amazing car accident happening right before your eyes. Cars are flipping and smashing all over the road. People are helpless as metal crunches and glass shatters. Almost everyone involved has serious damage, if they make it out alive at all. And we as the onlookers can’t take our eyes off a single second, even in the worst of the carnage. That is City of God in a nutshell. A stylistic film capturing some of the worst society has to offer in the form of the life in the slums of Rio De Janeiro during the 70’s and 80’s. The images last forever in your memory. There is little desire for a repeat viewing but my admiration for this film runs deep.

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3. The Bourne Triology (2002, 2004, 2007)

Cheater! Yes I am. But, I felt like the Bourne movies are rare in that they can stand on their own as well as tell a coherent story when viewed as a whole. These are smart action films that entertain throughout, no small feat. Now consider there are three of them, all delivering an excellent balance of story telling, character development, and amazing action sequences. Amazing. And that is why I have them here all together representing number three on my list.

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2. Walk The Line (2005)

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I was more than a bit tepid when I went to the theater to see this one when it was released. How can any actor pull off Johnny Cash’s presence, let alone sing the songs with his own voice? Love him or think he’s lost his mind, Joaquin Phoenix did the impossible. From the start, I believed I was watching the life of Johnny Cash on the screen. This isn’t even mentioning the fantastic job Reese Witherspoon did as June Carter. Beyond the tremendous acting and singing, we get a fine story of the rise, fall, and redemption of The Man in Black.

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1. Lord of The Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

I’m pushing it. One trilogy in a top 20 list might (just might) be justifiable, but two? It is a bit crazy but I have my reasons. I feel even more strongly about including The Lord of The Rings as a trilogy, as I never viewed the films as standing completely on their own. Just ask my Dad, who after watching The Fellowship of The Ring, looked at me in shock. To be continued?! Yep, my Dad didn’t realize it was a three part series and he’d have to hang in there two more years for the complete story to be told. I don’t think he made it, but I think my point does. These are one film broken into three slices. Where the Bourne films can stand on their own or as a whole, The Lord of The Rings doesn’t share the same luxury. But, it’s difficult to watch an over nine hour long movie (or 12+ hour one if viewing the extended version) so we get three separate titles if only out of logistical requirements. Enough justifying of the trilogy. Lord of The Rings does the impossible by taking a very long, complex fantasy book and turning it into a fantastic story on the screen. Die hard fans will nitpick the missing characters and scenes, but it’s hard to imagine a more perfect film. It’s gorgeous to look at, has characters we care about (very difficult in fantasy), a sense of humor, great adventure, and complex storytelling that ultimately gives us a tale of good triumphing over evil. I can’t wait for it to come out on Blu-ray.