Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Warner Bros. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

Earlier this week, The A.V. Club published its list of the 100 best movies of the 2010s. As expected, it’s prompted some reactions, ranging from nodding approval to white-hot rage over that particular film we unforgivably excluded. (You know, the one with Ryan Gosling, or Sandra Bullock, or Iron Man.) What I’ve also seen, though, is a more neutral expression of surprise from readers. Seems that plenty didn’t predict what they’d find at the bottom of the page and the top of our long list: the astonishing burning-rubber odyssey George Miller plucked from his imagination and sent speeding into ours.

On paper, Mad Max: Fury Road is not what you’d call a traditional pick for film of the decade. It’s a big-budget Hollywood action movie, and a sequel to boot—the kind of thing to which film critics, in theory, are supposed to be offering interesting alternatives. (The Master, our No. 2 choice and the film that “won” our mid-decade ranking just a month before Miller’s movie premiered, fits the prestige profile much better.) Yet I had a hunch Fury Road would shore up the necessary votes long before I received a single one of the 18 ballots that would eventually be tallied and channeled into the master list that went up Monday. The movie ended up appearing on all but four of them—the closest to a consensus favorite for our group, the closest to something everyone loved.

We’re not alone. Fury Road, which returned Miller to the mythic outlaw future he previously visited in Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, has been winning these kind of prizes left and right. Back in April, critic and entertainment journalist Jordan Ruimy got a head start on decade review by polling 250 cinephiles of different occupations (myself included) on their favorite movies of the past 10 years. Fury Road pulled out the victory in a photo finish. Since then, other websites—including Paste, Consequence Of Sound, and Film School Rejects—have placed Miller’s movie atop the 2010s heap; it currently sits in first place on Metacritic’s aggregation of various decade lists. Its lead will probably only increase from here.

Photo: Warner Bros.

No, I wasn’t surprised by Fury Road’s victory, any more than I was when it handily won our best-of-the-year poll back in 2015, a few months after rolling off the studio lot and premiering to rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s an easy movie to love and a difficult one to hate. Anyone with working eyes can appreciate its flurry of chaotic but always coherent action; even those who don’t consider it a masterpiece tend to at least concede that Miller’s twisted-metal spectacle—that unbroken parade of often practically achieved vehicular mayhem—is jaw-dropping. And multi-contributor lists like ours, which reflect the convergence of shared tastes more than the idiosyncratic expression of individual ones, are going to favor a movie everyone likes (and many love) over more divisive passion picks. In other words, while, say, The Master or The Tree Of Life may inspire more rapturous devotion from the critics that vote for them, they don’t have the almost universal support of a phenomenon like Fury Road, whose less ambiguous and contested merits prove harder to deny.

Simple math. That’s the boring explanation of how this singularly acclaimed summer blockbuster became the movie of the 2010s. But I do think there’s more to its enduring popularity. And even its astonishing craft may not entirely account for how the movie has persisted in the years since it roared into multiplexes and stormed the Academy Awards (an achievement, I’ll confess, that did surprise me a little). Is it possible that Fury Road resonates even more loudly now than it did upon release because the world itself has crept a little closer to the dystopian future Miller found in the Namibian desert?

It’s not as though the blatant political dimension the writer-director laid over his panorama of cars, combat, and camaraderie has grown less topical. If anything, there’s an enhanced relevance to Miller’s portrait of a planet in the grips of environmental and refugee crises. And cue the chorus of groans, because as tired as we all may be of seeing Trump in the cracks and crevices of our pop culture, this is still a movie about an aging, lecherous, vainglorious fat cat with silly hair who holds rallies for himself, commands an army of slobbering man-boy followers, and has an idiot sycophant son riding shotgun at his side. (One month almost to the day after the film hit theaters, our own Immortan Joe announced his candidacy.) Fury Road also anticipated, abstractly but undeniably, the reckoning of the #MeToo movement, depicting as it does a caravan of women fleeing and then fighting back against a ruthless patriarchy. A wave of so-called corporate feminism crashed against the rocks of our divided culture these past few years, but there’s nothing pandering about the righteous, headstrong anger Charlize Theron pours into Furiosa, an instant icon of action-heroine cool.

Miller didn’t just presciently forecast the stormy weather of our cultural-political now. He offered an unlikely tonic for it. Fury Road is a dystopian vision that dares to chase a glimmer of hope across the wasteland. It offers a premonition of societal collapse—a worst-case scenario for tomorrow—and then dreams of a course correction, insisting that no matter how far we drift towards doom, we can still turn the truck around and go back. That’s the power of the movie’s climax: Max and Furiosa and Joe’s liberated harem ultimately don’t abandon society, they transform it. And they do so partially by actually changing hearts and minds, at least those of Nicholas Hoult’s reformed war boy Nux. Call it apocalypse optimism—naïve, perhaps, but heartening in an age when everyone seems to be teetering always on the precipice of despair.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Fury Road’s hope offensive goes beyond the road map it lays out for those taking it day by day in our hellscape present. It’s a beautiful mirage of reassurance for anxious cinephiles, too. The 2010s were the decade when Hollywood finally and almost completely abandoned any pretense of making art as well as product. Movies for adults disappeared from release slates. The studios doubled down on franchise master-plans, flooding the multiplex with shared-universe hopefuls and endlessly resurrected characters. Mid-budget movies became an endangered species, kept on life-support by a struggling Annapurna and a cash-flush streaming giant with dubious intentions. Things looked grim.

Of course, Fury Road fits right into that modern paradigm. It’s a reboot of a long-dormant intellectual property, inserting new movie stars into a template its backers at Warner Bros. hoped audiences would remember. And in the same year as fan-service revivals like Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, and The Force Awakens, it found its own small ways to wink at the franchise past—most notably, though perhaps not noticeably, through an Easter egg of casting, with the role of the villain going to the same actor who played the bad guy in the 1979 original. At the same time, though, Fury Road showed what a filmmaker with real ambition and talent could do within the confines of the new studio system. The film feels self-contained, forgoing exposition, never recapping past adventures or teasing the plots of future ones. And Miller broke, too, with the reigning methods of spectacle delivery: At a time when directors are farming their big action set pieces out to a digital-effects division, he funneled his nine-digit budget into elbow-grease spectacle of an earlier and maybe better era—an unbelievable orgy of real automobile wreckage and human stunts.

Almost five years later, the results still feel like an impossible movie, the kind you can barely believe made it to theaters in this largely un-compromised form. I wonder if the unlikeliness of its very existence isn’t, on some level, a big part of why Fury Road is being so celebrated as a pinnacle. That, and maybe that pesky glimmer of hope. We have no signs that Hollywood is going to make like Furiosa’s fleet and abandon its trajectory; the future of studio cinema will likely be one of less movies, bigger investments, and smaller risks. What Fury Road almost touchingly suggests is that it’s still possible to make something awesome and bold and ultimately personal within the system—to do what the greats of the golden age once did and meet the mandates of an entertainment empire without sacrificing an ounce of artistry. If another movie pulls that off on the same scale and with the same rousing success, we’ll be damn lucky—and also possibly looking at the best movie of the 2020s.

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