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Cinema is an illusion. The best action films not only sell audiences on their illusion, but keep that illusion unbroken. The 2010s were a groundbreaking decade for action, from fast paced racing films and standout fight choreography to surprisingly beautifully shot films. Here are the very best of them.
“Baby Driver” (2017) dir. Edgar Wright
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) dir. George Miller
“Source Code” (2011) dir. Duncan Jones
10. “Ready Player One” (2018), dir. Steven Spielberg
With a commanding control of visual effects and dizzying camera work, Steven Spielberg flourishes his crazed virtual reality adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel with style. “Ready Player One” may reach a contrived conclusion, but Spielberg’s return to popcorn entertainment is both a nostalgic celebration of pop culture and a joyous action blockbuster from the moviemaker who does them best.
9. “Pacific Rim” (2013) dir. Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro once said he would direct “one for me, one for them,” meaning he would alternate between making studio blockbusters and his own auteur films. But even his blockbusters are infused with an effusive love for the craft, complete with beautiful art direction, stunning computer graphics, and engrossing cinematography. Del Toro films most of his set pieces on gorgeous wides, proving it’s possible to have a giant robot movie with an attention span longer than that of a goldfish. Michael Bay should take note.
8. “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014) dir. Doug Liman
Liman's film is “Groundhog Day” crossed with an original science fiction premise: Instead of having a protagonist stuck waking up on the same day everyday trying to discover love, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is stuck waking up on the same day everyday on a quest to stop an alien invasion.
7. “John Wick: Chapter 2” (2017) dir. Chad Stahelski
Keanu Reeves was born to play John Wick. The “John Wick” franchise is R-rated violence at its most refined: It found its niche in today’s Hollywood with creative choreography and masterful cinematography, using wide shots with largely unbroken takes. Any of the three entries in the “John Wick” franchise could have taken this spot, but “John Wick: Chapter 2” features the most streamlined storytelling and arguably the most memorable kills.
6. “Skyfall” (2012), dir. by Sam Mendes
Daniel Craig returned as James Bond to stylish effect in "Skyfall" after a mediocre entry in “Quantum of Solace.” “Skyfall” cemented Craig’s legacy as Bond with a beautifully shot entry filmed by venerable cinematographer Roger Deakins, spilling with a stunning and often haunting color palette. Mendes wasn't afraid to take bold narrative risks to push audiences into frighteningly tense places — fateful creative decisions that culminated in arguably the greatest Bond film ever made.
5. “Mission Impossible: Fallout” (2018), dir. by Christopher McQuarrie
This spot could easily have gone to “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (2011), directed by Brad Bird, but “Mission Impossible: Fallout” is more self-aware and boasts more personal risks. Hollywood simply does not make movies like this anymore: McQuarrie’s film is dedicated to complicated practical effects, real sets, and pinpoint choreography. The “Mission Impossible” franchise has the subtlety of Tom Cruise jumping off an exploding building, but knowing exactly what movie it's trying to be is why the franchise continues to run strong today.
4. “Ford v Ferrari” (2019), dir. by James Mangold
While it’s not an original story by any stretch of the imagination, Mangold’s latest film, which revisits conflicts of individuality versus committee and unbridled passion versus impersonal business, is a well-polished technical masterpiece. Christian Bale and Matt Damon turn in good performances as the film’s leads, the score is fast-paced, and the cinematography soaks the high octane race sequences in gorgeous low-angle wides.
3. “Drive” (2011), dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn
Refn’s film set the precedent for action in the 2010s. Not only is it beautifully shot, depicting the underrepresented criminal underbelly of Los Angeles in haunting shades of tinted blue and orange, it is also extremely restrained — much like the film's emotionally distant and unnamed central character (Ryan Gosling). Refn flourishes "Drive" with occasional cathartic outbursts of violence and fast-paced chase sequences to balance this bone-chilling thriller.
2. “1917” (2019), dir. by Sam Mendes
“1917” pushes the limits of the cinematic medium. Mendes’ magnum opus flaunts the work of a technical master in his prime, with historically great work from cinematographer Roger Deakins (who picked up his second Academy Award for the film). “1917” is a World War I film that’s shot to look like it was a single continuous take — and that’s as immersive as a war experience can get.
1. “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (2015) directed by Christopher McQuarrie
While it’s indisputable that “1917” is action cinema at its finest, action cinema at its most entertaining doesn’t get much better than “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” McQuarrie’s introduction to the blockbuster franchise is a masterclass in pitch-perfect pacing, style, and a committed performance from Tom Cruise. It’s more tonally consistent than “Mission Impossible: Fallout” and characters are marginally more fleshed out than its predecessor “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”
—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.
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