1917: From Afterthought to Awards Contender

The deck seemed stacked against Sam Mendes’s 1917 from the get go. The trailer for the World War I thriller bared a heavy resemblance to Christopher Nolan’s recent time-centric WWII thriller, Dunkirk, and the big marketing buzz focused on the fact that Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins made the film to appear as if it were all in one continuous shot. The gimmickry of this idea, combined with the focus on the importance of the clock and the anonymity of the lead actors all made 1917 feel like a derivative imitation of other, likely better, war films.

There are stock elements to the story, about two British soldiers tasked with getting across a dangerous stretch of enemy-occupied countryside in France in order to deliver a message that could save thousands of allied troops, but Mendes manages to rise above the cliches. He delivers an immediate, compelling story that is definitely driven by plot, but elevated beyond its undeniable technical merits by the humanity of it all, and a breathless central performance from George MacKay.

MacKay plays Lance Corporal Schofield, who is unwittingly pulled into the story by his friend, LC Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake and Schofield are summoned to the desk of General Erinmore, played in a beefy cameo by Colin Firth. General Erinmore orders the two young men to deliver a message to a battalion preparing to invade the German enemy some ten miles away: they’re walking into a trap set by the Huns, and if they don’t stand down then there will be untold casualties. For an added bit of motivation, Blake’s older brother is among the men who will be sent to their certain death. They have until morning to get there, and the ten miles between them and the battalion is beyond treacherous.

The clock is ticking, and the plot is in motion, and now we are with these two men as they traverse trenches full of tired soldiers, and a wide-open landscape littered with dead men, dead cattle, and buildings destroyed by explosion and gunfire. They are exposed, and you can feel the looming possibility of death lurking around every ridge. It’s a bleak stretch of land, one Mendes and Deakins show with great detail and texture. Decomposing bodies jut out from muddy craters, rats feast, and razor-wire fences add severity to what was certainly beautiful French countryside before the Great War destroyed the earth with bombs and blood.

Anyone who knows this movie exists has seen the virtuoso shot of MacKay running across an open field as bombs explode at his back and bodies fall, but 1917 is so much more than technical wizardry. A great deal of the film’s first two acts work efficiently to give our grunt soldiers depth and humanity. Through brief, mundane conversations, mentions of family, of duty, we get a sense that these are three-dimensional human beings in unimaginable circumstances. World War I is generations removed from modern society, over 100-years in the past now, and Mendes captures the foreign nature of this world in every frame.

As for the one-shot decision, it is far more than just technical schadenfreude. The tracking shot, which is clearly broken up at certain points and movements, lends an immediacy to the mission at hand, and makes everything feel more urgent than it already is. Personally, I forgot about the tracking shot, or trying to spot the cuts only a few minutes in. That’s the power of 1917. What stands out more than any cinematography – which is great, make no mistake – is the performance of MacKay, the heart and soul of the story. The wide eyed young man, whose largest role prior to this was playing Viggo Mortensen’s son in the silly Captain Fantastic, is a strong presence at the core of this exhausting journey. He may not get an Oscar nomination, but he will absolutely start to show up in bigger roles, in bigger films moving forward.

The confounding thing about 1917 is that just a week ago, the film felt like a whiff. It was an afterthought, “Mendes copying Nolan,” et al., and nobody really gave it a chance. Then it won best picture at the Golden Globes, and it opened some eyes. Not that the Globes are any indicator of how the Oscar nominations will shake out this Monday since the voting bodies for the two awards are different, but it’s definitely an indicator than general audiences slept on this film and it’s almost a shoe in for a half-dozen nominations, including Best Picture. After last weekend’s success, and a likely nomination this Monday morning, 1917 has become a deserving Oscar frontrunner.

My 50 Favorite Movies of The Decade

This was an impossible task, one where great films likely didn’t make the cut, and personal films triumphed. As I reached the top ten, I could feel the personal connection to the films I was discussing growing stronger, so I can attest this is definitely a favorites list more than some line drawn in the sand definitive Best Of. Some years in the decade rose above, some were hard to remember (2012 seems particularly lean in hindsight). I worked on this for a few weeks, films moved up, moved down, disappeared and reappeared, and tough choices had to be made. Here goes nothing…

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50. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) – Richard Linklater lowest of low-key hangout movies is nothing but a delight to sit back and watch. There isn’t much substance here, which is exactly the point, because what sort of substantive material would exist in the lives of Texas college baseball players in the 1980s beyond the diamond?

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49. The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) – Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 melodrama Blue Valentine somehow gathered more awards buzz than his sprawling, lo-fi family epic follow up. This is a strange, flawed, fascinating movie that takes supreme risks time and time again, and for that it should be recognized.

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48. American Honey (2016) – Easily the better of Shia LeBeouf’s Honey films from this decade, American Honey is a meandering mess of a film, full of love and ambition and anchored by marvelous performances from LeBeouf and newcomer Sasha Lane.

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47. Force Majeure (2014) – An avalanche, or at least the very real threat of an avalanche, approaches a deck outside a ski resort, where a family is eating. In a panic, the father jumps up and flees, leaving both children and wife behind. The rest of the picture is the fallout from this decision, told with wonderful humor and sadness and regret. See this before you see the Will Ferrell/Julia Louis-Dreyfus American remake.

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46. Spring Breakers (2012) – It took yours truly several years to come around on Harmony Korine’s obtuse, impressionistic, neon-bathed crime thriller, but there is no denying James Franco’s hypnotic performance, or the work from the three girls caught in his web. “Look at all my shit.”

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45. The Nice Guys (2016) – The most Shane Black movie ever made, thanks to the fact he not only wrote it, but directed it as well. Gosling and Crowe are a perfect mismatching pair of PIs, the sight gags are top tier, and the twisting noir plot is fun and just as breezy as LA in the 70s.

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44. Green Room (2015) – A punk band must fight their way out of a Nazi bar, led by a sadistic neo Nazi played by… Patrick Stewart? Yes, that Patrick Stewart, who is a block of bloodthirsty ice in Jeremy Saulnier’s unforgiving thriller, sadly one of the last performances from the late Anton Yelchin.

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43. Moonlight (2016) – Barry Jenkins’ dreamy exploration into the sexual evolution and personal struggles of a young, gay, black man is documented over three points in time in the protagonists life. All three of the actors do great work with the section they’re given, and all three of them are surrounded by a variety of heartfelt supporting performances.

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42. You Were Never Really Here (2017) – When I first saw this, I dismissed it. Then I was drawn back to it and began to love it. Then, I couldn’t avoid a third glance, and it evolved even more. This is a slow, simmering nightmare unfolding in front of our eyes, regardless of how you interpret the story’s end result.

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41. The Favourite (2018) – Yorgos Lanthimos’s cool detachment is right at home in this odd victorian chamber piece, a story of sexual obsession and power struggles among three women, each of varying degrees of intelligence, ambition, and desire. Like a horny  Barry Lyndon with more rabbits.

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40. What We Do in The Shadows (2014) – Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s Real World Transylvania is so much fun, and each time I watch it something different makes me laugh the most. The idea is so simple and the execution so practical, that it allows room for the jokes to build all the way through, never losing steam.

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39. Spotlight (2015) – Speaking of practical execution, Tom McCarthy’s journalism procedural is a brilliant step-by-step dive into an investigation that shook the foundations of Catholicism across New England, it’s oldest home in this country. All performances are excellent, muted and real, and able to draw you in with precious few words or a sideways glance.

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38. The Revenant (2015) – It’s amazing how much backlash this film accumulated during Awards Season, 2015. There’s not room for a full defense here, but DiCaprio deserved the Oscar and Tom Hardy is wonderfully weird and this is a captivating, physical film that seems to be knocked down a peg for its physicality, and the pretentiousness of director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. Whatever, he might be a tool, but this is still a terrific frontier thriller.

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37. Phantom Thread (2017) – Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of an obsessive dressmaker and his latest, most challenging muse, is a surprising romantic comedy at its core. More funny than intense, more charming than cynical, the chemistry between Daniel Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps (brilliant here) is offbeat and never saccharine.

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36. Get Out (2017) – Jordan Peele’s social horror landed like a stick of dynamite in the winter of 2017. The timing was perfect, and the surprise of Peele’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker supercharged audiences. This announced both Peele’s arrival, and the introduction of Daniel Kaluuya as a sturdy leading man.

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35. Melancholia (2011) – There’s no better filmmaker to portray the end of the world in a way that is somehow more depressing than the actual end of the world would be, than Lars Von Trier. Kirsten Dunst is an absolute force, a black hole of resignation and despair absorbing all the lives around her in a beautiful, apocalyptic symphony.

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34. Upstream Color (2013) – No film in the decade kept me off balance and upended in quite the same way as Shane Carruth’s labyrinthine thriller, about an organism a thief uses to manipulate a young woman (Amy Seimetz) into turning over all her wealth. Her story, and the story of Carruth’s character, begin to intertwine in one of the most unique films of the 21st century.

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33. Under the Skin (2013) – The alien stalks its prey, unflinching and without remorse, pulling them into a black pit of… nothing? But then, morality finds its way into her brain, and everything falls apart. Jonathan Glazer is a brilliant filmmaker who is 3 for 3 after this, Sexy Beast, and Birth, and Scarlett Johansson delivers easily the most unique performance of her career.

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32. The Tree of Life (2011) – Terrence Malick’s oblique meditation on his own Central Texas upbringing, on fathers and mothers and their place in our own lives, was a strange new way of storytelling in 2011. Spanning from the beginning of time to the edge of the afterlife, Malick’s film never bows to convention. His drifting style has since turned into self parody, but The Tree of Life is where it still worked, and worked well.

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31. Whiplash (2014) – Damien Chazelle’s 2014 tale of obsession and precision is fierce and surprisingly emotional. Miles Teller and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons have an electric chemistry, like opposite poles meeting in the battle ground that is an elite jazz-band ensemble.

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30. Dragged Across Concrete (2019) – One of the great new surprises of the decade was the arrival of S. Craig Zahler, courtesy of Dallas-based Cinestate. After Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (more on that later), Zahler took us deep into the bowels of street-level crime, crooked cops, murderers and thieves, all in a sparse, stylized world of nastiness. The cast is superb, and Zahler’s words are deliciously noir-ish.

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29. First Reformed (2018) – All of Paul Schrader’s lifelong anxiety about the future, about relationships, about loneliness and God and everything on his busy brain spills out in Ethan Hawke’s biggest, boldest performance of his career. Fears of the environment compound for Hawke’s anxious priest, and the final moments are equal parts daring and shocking.

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28. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) – And right back to Zahler we go. This second film from the new provocateur remains his best, a thrilling adventure into the depths of hell, bolstered by Vince Vaughn’s most interesting performance to date. It’s shocking and gruesome, but it also deftly sells the emotional weight of Vaughn’s plight as the put upon Bradley Thomas.

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27. Inception (2010) – Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time shaped one of the most inventive blockbusters of the 21st century. Ironically enough, it’s time that has lessened the pictures impact, but there is still a brilliant cerebral heist film at its core, and the visual effects were greatly influential for the rest of the decade.

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26. John Wick (2014) – As much fun as the sequels are, the original John Wick remains the best because of it’s free-wheeling, anonymous existence. Nobody much cared about Chad Stahelski’s balletic action spectacle in the weeks leading up to its release. Fast forward a few years, and John Wick is now one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood. The original still has the best baddie of the bunch too in Michael Nyqvist.

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25. Good Time (2017) – Ever since Robert Pattinson played the glittery vampire, he’s been trying to shed that matinee idol skin and transform into the rarest of birds: the character actor as leading man. Here, Pattinson disappears into the Safdie Brothers’ breakout picture, a breathless, nerve-frying chase through the sweatiest, scummiest neighborhoods in the Big Apple. It is mounting dread of the highest order.

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24. Her Smell (2019) – Alex Ross Perry is not a household name, but his uniquely structured tale of a rock star (Elisabeth Moss, as brilliant as ever) falling apart and trying to pick up the pieces again is episodic, difficult to stomach at times, but engrossing from start to finish.

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23. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – This Best Picture winner has fallen out of the zeitgeist these last few years, but Steve McQueen’s tale of a kidnapped free man sold into slavery is emotionally devastating, emotionally draining, and ultimately an inspiring look at the triumph of the human spirit.

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22. The Master (2013) – Paul Thomas Anderson’s not-so-subtle sideways biopic of L. Ron Hubbard and his mass of cult members is less an indictment on Scientology than it is the portrait of two men falling in love. It’s unconventional and disturbing because of the two men in question, and this enigmatic exploration into damaged people is spearheaded by two remarkable performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.

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21. Dunkirk (2017) – This is Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time pared down to its most primal elements, a Swiss Watch of a thriller placed in a very real, very tense setting. It’s one of the rare modern motion pictures that could honestly work as a silent film, and it’s the second best mostly-masked performance from Tom Hardy of the decade.

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20. Uncut Gems – The Safdie Brothers second “commercial” film, or their second “mainstream” film, for lack of a better term, is a dreamlike journey into an era that seems like it barely exists anymore: 2012. Adam Sandler is great, and Julia Fox is truly special as his mistress. She could have been a dumb annoying character, but she is the exact opposite, because the Safdie Bothers know how to tell honest tales.

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19. Black Swan (2010) – Darren Aronofsky’s new-age riff on The Red Shoes is still one of Natalie Portman’s best, most dedicated performances. It is, much like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant, more physically demanding than anything else, and Portman puts her thin frame through the ringer. Where have you gone, Vincent Cassel?

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18. Gone Girl (2014) – An electrifying mystery novel becomes the ultimate trash masterpiece for David Fincher, in a marriage of material and director that is off the charts perfect. Ben Affleck is perfectly tuned into the doughy midwestern doofus hubby, and Rosamund Pike has an uncanny ability to switch from entering to icy cold in an instant. A salacious story right up Fincher’s dark-heart satirical alley.

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17. Drive (2011) – Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakout picture has endured endless cycles of backlash, then backlash to the backlash, for almost a decade now. I don’t much care for what “the important people” online think about Refn’s loose adaptation of Walter Hill’s The Driver, I just know what I like. And I still like this, for all its pretentiousness and weird detours. Make fun of people wearing the scorpion jacket online all you want, the movie still rules.

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16. Before Midnight (2013) – The finale to a trilogy spanning three decades is also the best entry in three incredible achievements. The fact that Richard Linklater assembled roughly six hours of people walking and talking, and pulled us into this summative picture so deftly, is a true testament to his ability to find fascinating points of discussion all around us, in every aspect of our lives. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy feel like this married couple, through and through.

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15. Arrival (2016) – It was a busy decade for Denis Villeneuve, a new auteur breakout with an impressive stretch of films. Arrival is probably his quietest film, but it’s also powerful and moving to levels I never expected an alien-invasion film to be able to reach. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are sturdy hands at the wheel, and the final moments are transcendent.

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14. Ford v Ferrari (2019) – James Mangold’s ultimate dad movie is a throwback to an era not long ago: the 90s. These kind of men-doing-car-things movies used to have their place in Hollywood, in the last fruitful decade, and maybe the incredible effort from Mangold, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, and a superb ensemble will prove there is room going forward. It’s certainly a great sign.

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13. Hell or High Water (2016) – This delicious Texas noir snuck up on just about everyone in 2016. The cast couldn’t be better, all the way down to the salty old waitress asking “what dontcha want.” David Mackenzie’s direction is sound, and Taylor Sheridan screenplay tapped into a certain rural American anxiety in 2016, which may have been a subtle indicator as to the fate of… future events… in 2016.

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12. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) – There are three… THREE… incredible candidates for this list across the 2010s. Ghost Protocol is awesome, as is Rogue Nation, but perhaps a mixture of recency bias and wanting to celebrate the entire run of M:I sequels by recognizing the capstone to an incredible decade of action spectacle steered me towards Fallout. That, and the fact it’s probably the best one of the group.

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11. Annihilation (2018) – It is well known that Alex Garland took incredible liberties with his loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel; rumor is he read it once, then wrote the screenplay from memory some years later. This makes the film all that more fascinating, a blend of VanderMeer’s intent and Garland’s own kaleidoscopic brain. The collaboration works like The Shining, but with an even more terrifying humanoid bear thrown into the mix, and a hypnotic supporting turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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10. The Irishman (2019) – Even though he isn’t going anywhere any time soon, Martin Scorsese’s latest – a three-and-a-half hour eulogy of the crooks and killers he gave us over the decades – feels like a farewell to a part of his professional life. The meta quality to De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel all teaming up for one last run in a film about dying off and what sort of legacy you do or don’t leave behind is too much to deny.

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9. The Invitation (2015) – It takes a great deal for a movie to surprise me anymore, but Karyn Kusama’s intense, disarming exploration into grief and what it can do to otherwise sane people takes a dark and sinister turn with a final shot that’s an all timer. Logan Marshall-Green is revelatory in the role that showed me he was more than just a Tom Hardy clone.

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8. Sicario (2015) – Denis Villeneuve is back in the fold with what is my favorite movie in his filmography, a searing thriller that is exciting and bleak and scary and sobering, sometimes all within the same scene. Villeneuve tapped into what makes Emily Blunt such a terrific female action star, and her pushback against Brolin and del Toro is a crucial part of an all around brilliant border crime drama.

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7. Boyhood (2014) – Setting aside the mind-blowing risk of filming the same movie with the same actors over more than a decade, Richard Linklater’s epic ode to growing up is rich in details and emotions, contemplative and honest in its emotions. I never consider Richard Linklater one of my favorite directors, but here we are, discussing his third film of the decade.

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6. Interstellar (2014) – Reception to Christopher Nolan’s heady space adventure was surprisingly middling in 2014. Perhaps there are warts on Interstellar, but it really feels like you have to do a back bend to point them out. If you let this story in, it’s easily Nolan’s most emotionally devastating picture, and McConaughey is a fascinating cypher for the Brit filmmaker.

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5. A Quiet Place (2018) – John Krasinski’s directorial debut benefited from having his wife, the amazing and versatile Emily Blunt, on board. Beyond the peak tension and suspense, this is a film about a family, any family, thrown into the most extreme of circumstances, and it never loses sight of the familial drama that makes the film more than what it could have been in lesser hands.

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4. A Star is Born (2018) – This is easily my most unexpected entry on the entire list, at least it was before I saw Bradley Cooper’s sublime remake of one of the most familiar stories in Hollywood. It’s a stunning film, the fact that it even exists and is executed with such perfection is unlikely. Emotional, exciting, funny, and ultimately sad, this was the biggest eye-opening cinematic experience of the decade.

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3. The Social Network (2010) – The best movie of the decade almost came out right off the top. David Fincher’s dead-serious examination into the egos that fueled the earliest days of Facebook and social media is perfect craftsmanship. It just so happens to be paired with a story of a total scumbag cyborg human who create a cultural mess with a website people can’t seem to shake. More fascinating now that it was then, and the performances are still top tier.

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2. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) – Claim recency bias, that’s fine, but in two more decades I seriously doubt my position will change on Tarantino’s love letter to late-’60s Hollywood. Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio are sublime, two best friends whose relationship somehow feels authentic from the moment they appear. This is a dream of a film, one with an happier ending than the reality in which it was initially placed. Brandy is a good puppy dog.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – This was never supposed to work. George Miller hadn’t been to the world of Max Rockatansky in thirty years, and the last visit was a Tina Turner-infused mess. Production on the new one seemed troubled from the start, it went on for ages, all signs pointing towards disaster. But then, George Miller pulled off the rarest of Hollywood miracles, because when all the bad buzz and feuds and delays were over, he’d made a modern masterpiece.