Best of the 2010s: Action Movies
Every month I'm going to focus on a particular genre of film and count down the 10 Best of the Decade from that genre. This will, ultimately, lead to a 100 Best list. In addition to this, our podcast, The Movie Lovers, will have a corresponding segment monthly during the Film Faves portion of the show wherein we count down our favorite films.
Since we've reached the summer blockbuster season, this month we'll be counting down the best action movies of the decade.
It's important to note the obvious caveat - the decade isn't quite over, yet. We realize this, thank you. We've been looking ahead at the forecast for action movies for the next six months and it basically includes Stuber, Shaft, Hobbs & Shaw, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Rambo: Last Blood, and Charlie's Angels. We aren't expecting any of those to be worthy of this list. It's possible that something will come along during the course of the year that is a huge hit and should be taken into consideration. If anything does come along it will surely be included in the 100 Best list at year's end.
You could say that - in an industry that's full of Brett Ratners and Harvey Weinsteins - Paul Feig is one of women's biggest allies in the entertainment industry this decade. He started by making the oft-proven-but-never-believed case that women can headline hit comedies with Bridesmaids in 2011, followed that up with 2013's The Heat and this 2015 action comedy. He didn't stop there: he took some hits with the 2016 female ensemble, Ghostbusters, and then finished the decade with 2018's sly thriller A Simple Favor. All except for Ghostbusters were financial hits, raking in double their budgets domestically. Paul Feig, possibly more than any other man in Hollywood, moved the needle forward towards and after the Time's Up movement. But let's focus on 2015's Spy for a moment. Here's a film that pokes fun at the chauvinistic world of the spy movie and stars a character played hilariously by one of the decade's break-out stars, Melissa McCarthy, who is constantly told 'No', to stay in her place, and that she has little value. Of course, she takes a chance and defies naysayers and proves herself equally ballsy and capable in the field, all the while vulgarly tearing down any man in her path. The film is a great metaphor for the entire Time's Up era that helped define the decade, despite the actual movement not officially taking off until two years later. It's also worth noting the incredible comedic performances by Rose Byrne and Jason Statham without whom the film wouldn't quite soar as it does. Spy is not only one of the decade's best action comedies it's one of the most significant.
13 Assassins (2011)
Okay, so Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins got some love in our foreign films feature back in April. It was one of two action films on that list and was named the best foreign film of the decade. As such it's a little hard to dismiss the film when talking about action films of the decade. I think the film hovers somewhere around the two-hour mark. Forty-five minutes of those two hours is a single battle where an entire army plus the titular assassins get whittled down to four characters by the end. That battle alone with its insane practical effects, swordplay, and production design would be enough to make this list. What's more is the incredible story about a small few who stood up against a sadistic tyrant. It's a film about good as the underdog taking a stand and defeating the evil in power. It's a historical narrative that has been repeated in both film and reality time and again - and one that we didn't know we needed this decade.
Fast Five (2011)
There are few franchises that helped define the decade in cinema more than The Fast & The Furious franchise. Between 2011 and 2017 there were four films released in the franchise with a spin-off to be released later this year. Aside from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a whopping 20 films), DC Extended Universe (7 movies) and The Conjuring Universe (5 films), no franchise was as pervasive - or successful - as FF. What makes the franchise especially special is its matter-of-factly diverse cast of principle characters. This is the one action franchise where Caucasians are the minority and most are black, Asian, Hispanic, or of mixed race. For a $1.5 billion franchise - most of which is thanks to this decade's films - to be so racially diverse is a huge milestone that doesn't get enough praise. But the franchise really took a turn and gained new life with this, the best of the series. The story becomes less about driving cars really fast and more about a team of good guys defeating a bad guy. Plus, it introduces Dwayne Johnson to the franchise. The series may feature slightly exaggerated action, beginning with this entry, but it wouldn't hit wild, OTT camp until number 8. As is, this represents the best among the best the decade had to offer.
Baby Driver (2017)
We hadn't seen much of Edgar Wright this decade. After kicking off the decade with the stellar and criminally overlooked Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the disappointing Cornetto trilogy-closer The World's End, Wright was nowhere to be found for a few years. Of course, he actually had his hands full wrestling with Marvel Studios on his Ant-Man movie that would never become a reality. He rebounded with this killer flick that is unlike any of his other work: a heist film that has more to do with the getaway driver than the heists. He's a teen (Ansel Elgort) who got sucked into the business by both impressing and wronging a criminal mastermind (Kevin Spacey). He plays music all of the time to drown out chronic tenitis and to fuel his timing and energy on the job. He falls for a waitress (Lily James) and dreams of running away with her. Of course, the one thing Baby Driver does have in common with Wright's other films is a killer soundtrack. In this case, the soundtrack is critical, as single-take tracking shots and shoot-outs are occasionally perfectly timed to the music. It all adds up to one hell of a ride.
The Nice Guys (2016)
The Nice Guys, directed by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), is one of those crime films about a couple of gumshoes who slowly discover the case they're investigating is much bigger than they thought. It's a classic template that can be traced back to the Phillip Marlowe mysteries like The Maltese Falcon. What Black does with it is partner a 1970s version of Sam Spade (Russell Crowe) with a pathetic and ethically questionable P.I. played wonderfully by Ryan Gosling. The reluctant duo go looking for a runaway teen who may have connections with a porn producer and, for some reason, thinks that people are out to kill her. The film deals with corruption, conspiracy, and sex positivity - and very '70s subjects like the gas crisis and the rise of the porn industry - within the package of explosions, shoot-outs, and hitmen. Gosling and Crowe make it all very entertaining. If we're lucky they become the Riggs and Murtaugh of the new century with plenty of laughs and trouble in the future.
John Wick (2014)
How can anyone talk about action movies in this decade without mentioning John Wick? You just can't. Considering how big a cultural footprint the series has on pop culture it's hard to believe that the original (and leanest) made a modest $43 million domestically - twice the budget, but still... The sequels would go on to straddle the $100 million line each. What makes our favorite dog-loving assassin so cool isn't just that he has such a reputation that everyone in the assassin society of the High Table either reveres or fears him, but that everything he would go on to do - from this entry through the recent third chapter - would only take a handful of days. But it all starts with this focused revenge flick where Wick goes after those that done him dirty, resulting in the end of his retirement. Keanu Reeves is exceptional here, a weathered, yet finely dressed bad-ass instantly becoming an icon of the decade and among the pantheon of action heroes like John McClane and Martin Riggs.
21 Jump Street (2012)
There were few comedies as brilliant this decade as 21 Jump Street, a film that is also a buddy cop film, an adaptation of a known property, and a satire of Hollywood's obsession with recycling old material. Directed by Lord & Miller, one of the decade's powerhouse creative teams, 21 Jump Street undercuts just about every buddy cop trope and action film expectation. Expect the duo, played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, to be among the department's best? Cut to them riding bikes around a park or killing time by juggling their own guns. Expect a police captain to give our heroes a mission and give them words of encouragement? Cue Nick Offerman's patient, yet irritated deputy chief or Ice Cube's abrasive and pissed off captain. There are unnumerable laughs to be had in this film. But it also deals with friendship and how much youth have changed and become more socially conscious than before. It is a ridiculously smart film and one that exemplifies so much that went on to define the decade.
In 2006 we were given a new James Bond, practically literally, as Casino Royale went back to the early days of Agent 007, before drinks were shaken and everything else we've known to define the character the previous 40 years was established. Skyfall completed Bond's journey as the iconic secret agent. It was much more than a workman-like sequel. This film excelled in every aspect: a death-defying cold open, a great opening title sequence and theme song (courtesy of Adele), a terrifying villain that recalled the best of Bond's enemies, a new character revealed to be a familiar one, and the end of the road for one of the franchise's most beloved characters - all making what was old new again and setting us back to the very beginning of the franchise. The only thing missing was a certain disapproving doctor on an isolated island. A follow-up would revive Big Bad Blofeld with contrived and disappointing results. But Skyfall would go on to be one of the greatest films of the generations-long franchise and one of the best action films of the decade.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
Speaking of long-lasting franchises, what started out 23 years ago during the frenzy of TV-to-film adaptations in the '90s has become one of the most dependable and greatest action franchises ever. The franchise put out three of its six films this decade and it was a bit tough to exclude the others. But if one were to pick just one it would have to be last year's entry, a sort of acknowledgement of the lifespan of the franchise. Hunt isn't getting any younger, so he doesn't get up as quickly in a fight and the hits seem to hurt more this time around. The film also makes reference or includes elements of the previous films - even the poor M:I 2 - which adds another satisfying layer and a sort of out if the creators wanted to take advantage (they won't, as McQuarrie and Cruise are at work now on back-to-back sequels). The stunts are certainly no less thrilling in this sixth entry - in fact, they, at times feel more thrilling than ever. And the possibility of death looms over just about every character. It rarely gets better than what Fallout delivers.
The most layered, fascinating, and kick-ass action film of the decade is Joe Wright's Hanna. It is also the decade's most overlooked and underappreciated (perhaps the new Amazon TV series will remedy that). A teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) has been raised her entire life with survival skills - how to hunt with a bow, skin an animal, cook, prepare against the elements, and also to kill any threat with her bare hands. She was born to be a killer, but taken away and hidden in the (Russian?) wilderness by her "Papa" (Eric Bana). When she's ready she is to go out into the world, kill the woman who wants her (a deliciously evil Cate Blanchett), and rendezvous with her papa. Go out into the world she does and what we get is one of the decade's smartest action thrillers that touches on existentialism and identity with fairy tale motifs and more. The score by the Chemical Brothers is also killer and adds to the film's energy. Hanna is a film where practically everything comes together as a perfect whole: it's incredibly smart, thrilling, well-acted and fascinating. There is nothing more an audience can ask for from their action films.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, The Raid: Redemption, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Salt, Revenge, The Grey
Those are my picks for the best action movies of the decade. What do you think is the best of the decade? Comment below.
Don't forget to check out the rest of the Best of the 2010s series, including last month's documentary films list. Next month we'll continue our look at the best of the decade with Best of the 2010s: Sci-Fi & Fantasy! That should be a lot of fun, so look for it in July.