Ten years ago, it seemed like we all had a pretty solid idea of movies — what they can do, who they’re for, and where they’re watched. That idea was inflexible, and supported by a century of precedent. It came with the added benefit of making the people in charge comfortable with the idea that cinema’s future wouldn’t look all that different from its past. DVD sales were strong, Netflix was still just a sad little envelope at the bottom of your mailbox, and China was starting to give studios the biggest safety net it ever had. Perhaps the arrival of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in the waning moments of 2009 could have been seen as a harbinger of strange things to come, but no one in Hollywood has ever lost sleep over a movie that grossed nearly $3 billion. What about the 100 best movies?
Things have changed. Cinema is in a constant state of flux, but it’s never mutated faster or more restlessly than it has over the last 10 years. And while the decade will no doubt be remembered for the paradigm shifts precipitated by streaming and monolithic superhero movies, hindsight makes it clear that the definition of film itself is exponentially wider now than it was a decade ago. Places. Products. Mirrors. Windows. Reflections of who we are. Visions of who we want to be. A way of capturing reality. A way of changing it. If the most vital work of the 2010s has made one thing clear, it’s that movies have never been more things to more people than they are today. And our week-long celebration list of the Best Films of the 2010s has us more excited than ever about what they might be to you tomorrow.
As the week goes on, we’ll be posting lists of the decade’s best performances, scenes, scores, and posters, as well as a timeline of the news stories that shaped the last 10 years, and interviews with the filmmakers who made it all happen.
But for now, IndieWire is proud to kick things off with our list of the 100 best movies of the 2010s.
“Inherent Vice” (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
So dense and hazy that it was probably destined to be the most under-appreciated of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, “Inherent Vice” is a strung-out noir odyssey through the fog of late capitalism that grows a little clearer every time you watch it. A little sadder, too. Shot like a faded postcard, and as untethered from reality as its source material requires, this rare Thomas Pynchon adaptation borrows a lot from sun-dappled L.A. noir like “The Long Goodbye,” but it’s sillier and more sentimental than Philip Marlowe ever was.
Per genre tradition, the central mystery is actually several different mysteries all knotted together; good luck untangling what a heroin addict’s missing husband has to do with a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann and a drug cartel that calls itself the Golden Fang. But while the plot may be hard to follow, PTA compensates by making the film’s emotional underpinnings as clear as Doc Sportello’s view of the California coastline.
The lost love between hippie P.I. Sportello (a magnificently frazzled Joaquin Phoenix) and his ex (a bittersweet Katherine Waterston) is achingly well-realized in just a few short scenes, while the pervasive sense of a country in decline is suffused into the atmosphere like so many “patchouli farts” (to borrow one of the best insults from a film that has dozens to spare). Forget “Boogie Nights” and the illusion of American possibility, “Inherent Vice” burrows into the feeling that we’ve already let it get away from us — that we’re all out there chasing our own tails and waiting for the fog to burn off.—DE
“The Loneliest Planet” (Julia Loktev, 2011)
Julia Loktev’s narrative debut “Day Night Day Night” was a sharp revisionist approach to the slow-burn thriller that followed a suicide bomber wandering the streets of New York City. “The Loneliest Planet” transplanted the filmmaker’s unique storytelling instincts to a quieter setting, as a wayward couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) on vacation in the wilderness of Georgia encounter a sudden attack at gunpoint that changes the nature of their relationship. The encounter lasts mere seconds, but its unspoken impact lingers as the campers roam from one location to the next, uncertain about their future together and how to address it.
A few years later, Ruben Östlund would enter similar terrain with the masterful dark comedy “Force Majeure,” but Loktev probes her conundrum in pure cinematic terms: Her movie deals with the assumptions about trust and companionship that so often go unquestioned until they’re forced into the open, but it never states its themes outright. The tension bursts into the story and then sits there, like an open wound, while its extraordinary performances address the rich thematic depths of each disquieting scene. Loktev hasn’t made a movie since then, but her two features together speak to the unique anxieties of this present moment — what it means to experience a sudden shock to the system, and then linger in the fallout, uncertain what to do next.—EK
“The Great Gatsby” (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)
Baz Luhrmann’s movies have such a pulse that by the time you’re done watching one you feel like it’s in your bloodstream. No wonder some people hate them. But if you can get on their wavelength, there’s nothing more purely cinematic. “The Great Gatsby” is Luhrmann’s style distilled to its most potent essence, more a visual concept album riffing on Scott Fitzgerald’s novel than an adaptation; it has a lot more in common with “Lemonade” and The National’s “I Am Easy To Find” than the Francis Ford Coppola-adapted “Gatsby” from 1974. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby might as well be Jay-Z Gatsby (Jay-Z was a producer of Luhrmann’s film and contributed several tracks to it), a self-made gangster with a poetic streak, committed to outrageous experiences of sensation to fill the hole inside. Luhrmann crams enough sensation into his frames to overwhelm the retinas — this is one of three or four movies to justify a 3-D release this decade — and to put you in the front seat of a life, and a society, racing to a head-on crash.—CB
“All These Sleepless Nights” (Michal Marczak, 2016)
As the last 10 years have seen non-fiction cinema continue to untether itself from convention with bold results, forward-thinking figures such as RaMell Ross and Robert Greene have pushed the form and helped galvanize the idea that documentary filmmakers are bonafide artists, not just glorified reporters or historians. With “All These Sleepless Nights,” Polish director Michal Marczak didn’t just blur the line between fact and invention, he danced all over it until the sun came up. Free of binary or hybrid distinctions, his wandering portrait of beautiful and aimless Warsaw youths cohered into an unclassifiable wonder that sits comfortably somewhere between Terrence Malick and the restless spirit of the French New Wave.
Nothing else this decade quite tapped into the bittersweet euphoria that Marczak was able to capture through his camera, which the director wielded with a custom rig that he designed himself in order to trace the ephemeral moments that spark when his characters twirl down the empty city streets and dance through each other’s lives. Creating a cinematic language far more sophisticated and satisfying than the handheld aesthetic that so many of today’s scripted indies port over from documentary filmmaking, “All These Sleepless Nights” is a miraculous film that, decades from now, we will recognize as being light years ahead of its time.—CO
“Girl Walk // All Day” (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)
The 2010s promised a new era of run-and-gun DIY filmmaking, as the ability for regular people to shoot and share their own content was sure to wash away the old rules in a massive wave of micro-budget cinema. It didn’t quite pan out that way. While iPhones became an invaluable resource for documentarians (and a creative gold rush for generations of budding artists on platforms like Vine and YouTube), feature-length fiction was largely immune to the charms of consumer-grade digital technology. Sean Baker (and Steven Soderbergh with “High Flying Bird”) found a way to make it work on a big-screen level, but only because the raw and unvarnished immediacy of a pocket-sized camera served the story they were telling. Most creators were so focused on how smartphones and DSLRs can simulate traditional equipment that they failed to realize how this tech can do things that film cameras never could.
And then there’s “Girl Walk // All Day,” a visionary and euphoric work of lighting-in-a-bottle genius that only exists because director Jacob Krupnick recognized what the rest of the world had yet to figure out for themselves: In an age where the line between public and private spaces was about to be erased forever, art could happen at all times — anywhere and to anyone.
An endlessly re-watchable bit of Vimeo kitsch that uses Girl Talk’s mashup album “All Day” as the soundtrack for an exuberant modern ballet, and the whole of Manhattan as its stage, “Girl Walk // All Day” begins with a rebellious young dancer (the fearless, Moira Shearer-worthy Anne Marsen) escaping from a stuffy barre class and follows her across the city as she sparks a love triangle and injects some life into a city of automatons. Funded via Kickstarter, released directly online, and full of stolen locations (e.g. a ferry, an Apple Store, Central Park) that it bends to its will, the film is a joyous trip through the looking glass that separates physical and digital spaces — the world as it is, and the world as we have the power to make it.—DE
“The Arbor” (Clio Barnard, 2010)
Clio Barnard masterfully assembles narrative tropes with documentary tricks to tell the complex story of lauded British playwright Andrea Dunbar in a film that’s as fresh today as the day she conceived it. Named after Dunbar’s play of the same title, Barnard uses staged recreations and various actors to unspool a look at Dunbar’s exceedingly rough upbringing and her unshakable desire to succeed, all while lip-syncing to actual interviews from Dunbar and her family. Mostly focused on her fraught relationship with daughter Lorraine, “The Arbor” uses a seemingly basic story to frame a wildly original and unique storytelling conceit. Each drama can have its own telling, its own force, and Barnard embraces that it in rewarding ways that never fail to surprise. —KE
“Happy Hour” (Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, 2015)
“Happy Hour” is five hours long, but that only sounds like a lot until you start watching it. Launching writer-director Hamaguchi Ryūsuke onto the world stage, this gentle domestic opus eases into the lives of four middle-aged women in Kobe, Japan, criss-crossing their daily trivialities into a rich mosaic that stretches out like the kind of thing that Mikio Naruse would make if he were alive in the limitless age of digital video.
The movie is absorbing from the moment it starts, as Hamaguchi’s exquisite cast of actresses forge a palpable bond that immediately convinces you of their 25-year history. These characters are all working through their own stuff (one is seeking a divorce, another is struggling to accommodate her mother-in-law, and so on), but they’re working through it in the same way we all do: Quietly, as if trying to put on a show while keeping most of themselves hidden behind a curtain. Ambling from one tremendous setpiece to another, “Happy Hour” gives us the time to suss out the difference between feeling and expression. By the end of it, even the most fleeting and ordinary moments seem to contain entire worlds. —DE
“Mother of George” (Andrew Dosunmu, 2013)
Devastating and dazzling in equal measure, Andrew Dosunmu’s Brooklyn-set breakthrough drama tells the story of a Nigerian woman (a standout Danai Gurira) who’s struggling to conceive a child with her new husband (Claire Denis and Jim Jarmusch favorite Isaac de Bankolé). The rare movie to shine a light on the lives and customs of Nigerian immigrants, “Mother of George” is exquisitely staged by Dosunmu — who makes full use of his background as both a Nigerian-American and a fashion photographer — and lushly photographed by cinematographer Bradford Young, who would leverage his work here into shooting the likes of “Selma” and “Arrival.” The film’s beauty, however, is never self-serving. Dosunmu uses it as a lens through which to clarify the power of love and the possibility of betrayal as those twin energies flow through a woman who’s caught between the weight of tradition and the pull of modernity. Made for the big screen but still waiting for a big audience, “Mother of George” is not only one of the best films of this decade, it will also be one of the best discoveries of the next. —TO
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman, 2018)
As inviting to Spidey newcomers as it is rewarding for diehard fans, this Oscar-winning curveball to the Spider-Man canon is hilarious, touching, and so thoughtfully crafted in regards to its eye-popping animation and layered storyline that it becomes almost impossible not to care for Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino Brooklyn high schooler at the center of the film. The thrilling, inter-dimensional journey on which Miles embarks is made all the more fun by the other Spider-heroes he meets along the way (including Peter Parker, Gwendolyn Stacy, and Spider-Man Noir), each of whom the script renders with purpose and care. “Into the Spider-Verse” emphasizes the idea that there’s no one way a hero needs to look or a specific background that they need to come from, and it does so in an effortless, non-performative way. In a decade where it felt like there was a new Spider-Man movie every other week, this was the only one that spun the character into something special.—LL
“Fire at Sea” (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)
An intimate and sobering look at the heart of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis, Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea” still feels as urgent as the evening news — so urgent, in fact, that most films like it would probably have succumbed to their raw value as a public service. But this Oscar-nominated documentary is pure Rosi, which is to say that it’s rooted in the poetics of cinema.
“Fire at Sea” is told largely from the point of view of Samuele, a 10-year-old boy who lives on the sleepy Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. In the waters just beyond what Samuele can see from his bedroom, a near-daily life-and-death battle rages as rescue boats try to save hundreds of desperate refugees trying to reach European shores. For Rosi, this juxtaposition between Samuele’s self-contained universe and the humanitarian crisis that’s spreading across the sea — close in proximity, but a world apart — is a damning metaphor for modern-day Europe. It’s a simple connection on its surface, but one that Rosi cut into with his camera until he exposes the raw feeling lurking underneath.
The filmmaker religiously avoids expositional tools like title cards, voiceover narration, talking-head interviews, or any formal construct that might put the story in a larger context. On the contrary, Rosi thinks of his films in terms of color, light and composition. He studies his subjects and locations for months, so that once his skeleton crew finally begins shooting they know what they’re looking for, and are able to locate it inside a specific frame that’s capable of capturing a lifetime of focused emotions. “Fire at Sea” is a profound and unshakeable testament to the scalpel-like precision of Rosi’s approach; a harrowing masterpiece that will always be haunted by a horror that much of the world preferred to ignore. —CO
“Private Life” (Tamara Jenkins, 2018)
Given their tendencies to play New York City misanthropes, it’s a wonder Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti have never played opposite each other before; the only predictable thing about Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” is that these two are absolute fire together as a downtown couple struggling with infertility. An expert in rendering and observing the specific heartbreaks of contemporary life, Jenkins crafted her long-awaited third feature — a neurotic passion play of sorts — into a biting exploration of the indignities of aging. That process grows infinitely more complicated for these characters after their ennui is upended by their bubbly niece (a revelatory Kayli Carter), whose youth and adoration make all things seem possible. Jenkins’ nuanced script handles the discomfort with heartbreak, hilarity, and grace in a film that continues to grow inside you long after it’s over.—JD
“Support the Girls” (Andrew Bujalski, 2018)
Regina Hall is astonishing in Andrew Bujalski’s touching look at an earnest woman who manages a sleazy Texas “breastauraunt,” where many things go wrong over the course of a single hectic day. Bujalski’s typically subdued, character-based storytelling takes on a new volume of warmth and sensitivity with this striking examination of surviving difficult times through unbridled empathy. That might sound cheesy, but Bujalski’s such a wizard when it comes to scripting authentic dialogue that “Support the Girls” may as well be a documentary. Hall’s manager juggles each new challenge with a steely resolve that makes her one of Bujalski’s greatest characters, the indefatigable creation of a filmmaker who excels at exploring the nuances of human behavior.
Though it’s been lumped in with that non-existent movement known as “mumblecore,” Bujalski’s perceptive filmmaking has always existed in a class of its own. He excels at capturing quirky, alienated characters trapped by routine and insular communities (“Mutual Appreciation,” “Results”) but “Support the Girls” takes that skill to new symbolic heights. The image of its three central women hollering from a rooftop defines the zeitgeist with a blend of hilarity and emotional catharsis; it illustrates what can happen when a subtle filmmaker operates at the height of his powers.—EK
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
Lynne Ramsay crafted one of the decade’s most unnerving nightmares in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which the filmmaker adapted from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel of the same name. The non-linear story centers on a mother (Tilda Swinton) whose son (breakout Ezra Miller) commits a heinous tragedy of some kind, but the genius of Ramsay’s script is in how it buries the facts under layers of trauma, effectively fracturing the film between the mother’s emotional states before and after the violent act. Working with editor Joe Bini, Ramsay jumps back and forth between the timelines in triggering fashion to create an impressionistic yet palpable look at one woman’s psychological breakdown. Swinton’s delicate behavior is the only thing that orients each scene, turning her mental state into a tactile kind of geography that grows even scarier when you start to get lost in it. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” wasn’t billed as a horror movie in the strictest sense, but few films this decade offered more viscerally unnerving experiences. —ZS
“Her Smell” (Alex Ross Perry, 2018)
Alex Ross Perry’s work has always had the courage to be unpleasant, but none of his previous stuff prepared us for the incredible sourness of “Her Smell,” which is one of the most noxious movies ever made before it hits bottom and tunnels out through the other side. A pungent Shakespearean epic starring a feral, unforgettable Elisabeth Moss as the drug-fueled Becky Something — a sinking ship of a woman who seems hellbent on dragging the rest of her riot grrrl band down into the abyss along with her — “Her Smell” essentially takes the basic structure of Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” and transposes it over the life and times of Courtney Love.
The film is a full-body experience from start to finish — a 360-degree nightmare that cools into a cold sweat. The relentless first chapters snake their way through a fluorescent, Gaspar Noé-like underworld of ego and addiction, while the closing acts condense into a kind of morning frost that’s cold enough to feel on your own skin. Moss stomps through the movie like a piss-spewing cross between Gena Rowlands and the Phantom of the Opera, while the supporting cast around her is stacked with brilliant actors who disappear into their characters’ double lives. Smeared together by Sean Price Williams’ queasy neon cinematography and Keegan DeWitt’s panic attack of a score, Perry’s magnum opus crescendoes into a cathartic portrait of personal demons and their collateral damage. In a risk-averse time when many filmmakers were too afraid of their own shadows to make great art, Perry’s poignant barnstormer warmed our hearts by setting fire to everything in sight. —DE
“Kate Plays Christine” (Robert Greene, 2016)
Wrapped inside the very conceit that drives Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” is a disturbing, immovable truism: It’s impossible to know for certain why anyone would kill themselves. And yet, Greene’s beguiling documentary and narrative hybrid challenged actress Kate Lyn Sheil to solve that mystery as best she could, as the film unspools a real-life tragedy while also following Sheil’s process of trying to understand why her “character” shot herself in the head on live television.
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck — a television reporter for a local Sarasota, Florida TV station — abruptly ended a lifetime of unhappiness by killing herself during the morning news. “Kate Plays Christine” takes an ambitious angle on Chubbuck’s sordid tale, mixing fact and fiction to present the story of an actress grappling with her preparations to play Chubbuck in a narrative feature that doesn’t actually exist. Sheil is tasked with embodying a heightened version of herself, and also Chubbuck in a series of re-enactments.
The film tweaks its many fundamental contrivances to its advantage, as the multi-layered structure emphasizes the elusiveness of the film’s underlying mysteries. The frustrating search, which includes an obsessive hunt for a rumored tape of the actual suicide, fuels Greene’s ultimate interest: The elusive nature of truth and the documentary form itself. All of Greene’s films are fascinated with the nature of performance in nonfiction, and here his collaboration and friction with Sheil builds towards the most provocative moment of his career so far, as Sheil is made to reenact the suicide in a way that forces the audience to confront our own need for hard answers. —CO
“The Illusionist” (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Sorry “Toy Story 3,” the most shattering ending to an animated film you’ll see this century is the haunting coda to “The Illusionist,” Sylvain Chomet’s hand-drawn adaptation of an unproduced Jacques Tati script the French comic master wrote between “Mon Oncle” and “Playtime.” Concerning the delicate bond that forms between a threadbare magician and an orphan girl who believes his magic is real, the story is thought by some Tati scholars to be his attempt at reaching out to the daughter he abandoned as an infant.
Controversy surrounded the film’s release because, not only did Tati choose not to make it himself (and otherwise never even publicly acknowledged the daughter he left behind), but the film seems to continue to erase her existence. Those are valid criticisms, but the film is so damn sad it seems to confront them head-on. When the magician finally abandons the girl, as Tati had in real life, he leaves her a note that simply reads: “Magicians do not exist.” Yes, that sound you hear is your heart being ripped out of your chest. The feeling that follows is subtler, sadder even somehow, and yet also hopeful: We still need illusions, especially when we no longer believe in them. —CB
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
A dazzling ode to resilience and self-reliance that pops off the screen like a fireworks display, Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is grand in scope, and mind-bogglingly ambitious for a debut film shot on a modest budget. In a forgotten but defiant bayou community that seems to be leveed off from the rest of the world, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (played wonderfully by then-newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) is faced with more than any child her age should ever have to handle.
The audience is planted in this fantastical world and navigates it through the perspective of the film’s singular, curious young heroine; the film’s success depends entirely on the young first-time actress asked to fill the character’s tiny shoes. Wallis, who went on to be nominated for an Oscar, is a miniature force of nature unto herself, a tempest in a teapot brimming with raw charisma and a hunger for everything the world might throw her way. Along with the sweep of Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s story and the bombast of Dan Romer’s score (which Zeitlin also co-wrote), Wallis helped elevate “Beasts of the Southern Wild” into a new kind of modern American folklore. —TO
“Synonyms” (Nadav Lapid, 2019)
A singular misadventure about the violence of trying to supplant one self with another, Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms” is an astonishing, maddening, brilliant, hilarious, obstinate, and altogether essential film. Not since “Waltz with Bashir” have the movies produced such a lucid and self-loathing portrait of Israeli identity. Co-produced by “Toni Erdmann” director Maren Ade, and loosely based on Lapid’s own experience as a young soldier who fled to Paris because he believed that he was born in the Middle East by mistake, the “Policeman” filmmaker’s disorienting third feature tightened his career-long fascination with the impossible knot that ties a person to their country.
First-time actor Tom Mercier delivers one of the decade’s best (or at least most exposed) breakout performances as Yoav, a twentysomething who arrives in Paris with a pledge to never speak another word of Hebrew. Alas, the rich young couple he falls in with don’t make it easy for Yoav to sort himself out. In broad strokes, his story becomes the unshakeable story of a man who’s grown tired of carrying the baggage that comes with being an Israeli, and who’s driven to the brink of madness by a world that forcibly identifies people by the place they were born. It’s a raw and intransigent tale, and one that’s sure to provoke a fascinating shitstorm when it hits theaters this fall. —DE
“Sunset Song” (Terence Davies, 2015)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel “Sunset Song” had been swelling inside Terence Davies for more than 40 years, and the sensitive British filmmaker — who suffers an almost religious torment in the process of bringing his projects to the screen — had been trying to adapt the book for almost as long. Some things are worth the wait.
“Sunset Song” offers a plaintive War World I-era story of a tall Aberdeenshire farm girl named Chris Guthrie (a magnificent Agyness Deyn) who feels closer to her family’s land than she does any of the men who try to reap it with her, and gorgeous 65mm cinematography makes it easy to appreciate that attachment. The film accumulates a tender beauty as the narrative slowly melts into myth, and — as the war takes hold — Chris becomes less of an individual woman than an undying symbol of femininity and forgiveness.
It was a natural progression for Davies, who sculpts by omission and tells impossibly wistful stories in the time between time. His films are rooted in memory and swaddled by nostalgia, suspended between an acutely remembered past and the unbearably painful present that it left in its wake. With Chris, he found a character who feels that dislocation in her bones, and the ache of it would be too much to bear if not for the strength of her roots. “Nothing endured but the land,” she says, sublimating herself into the earth itself. “Sea, sky, and the folk who lived there were but a breath. But the land endured. And she felt in the moment that she was the land.”—DE
“High Life” (Claire Denis, 2018)
In many respects, the mesmerizing and elusive “High Life” was a first for writer-director Claire Denis: The first of her films to be shot primarily in English, the first of her films to be set in space, and the first of her films to follow Juliette Binoche inside a metal chamber that’s referred to as “The Fuckbox,” where the world’s finest actress — playing a mad scientist aboard an intergalactic prison ship on a one-way trip to Earth’s nearest black hole — straddles a giant dildo chair and violently masturbates in a scene that’s endowed with the tortured energy of a Cirque du Soleil routine.
An oblique and freeze-dried hunk of sci-fi that’s wrestling with the future (or the lack of it) and preoccupied with the obsidian darkness that stretches out before us all, “High Life” is as horrifying and monolith-black a space odyssey as you might expect from the mind behind “Trouble Every Day” and “Beau Travail.” But Denis’ genius is in her ability to find the tender spots in even the most apocalyptic of circumstances, and her best film of the last decade is all the more powerful for how it finds light and hope as it soars towards oblivion. Plus, it features a scene in which Pattinson warns us about the dangers of eating our own shit. The more you know! —DE
“No Home Movie” (Chantal Akerman, 2015)
The concept of home was always at the center of Chantal Akerman’s 40-year body of work, which is what makes her final film such a deeply felt exploration, and gave it the feeling of a culmination even before the filmmaker took her own life in October 2015. The documentary is a portrait of Akerman’s mother, Natalie, at the end of her life. In a series of intimate conversations — over Skype and in her kitchen — about Natalie’s experience as a Holocaust survivor and her experience as an immigrant in her adopted home of Brussels, Akerman attempts to capture her mother’s essence and memory on camera, as any number of people have done with their ailing loved ones since the spread of digital technology.
Yet “No Home Movie,” which Akerman edited from over 40 hours of footage after her mother passed away, is hardly just an act of preservation. On the contrary, it hews closer to self-portraiture, as the film poignantly erodes into another piercing examination of Akerman’s rootless existence. Tying together several of the threads that Akerman had always pulled at, “No Home Movie” nods at a lifetime of nomadism, and dissects the complicated role that her mother played as her constant; Akerman saw Natalie as a siren’s call away from her isolation (see 1977’s “News from Home”), and “No Home Movie” brings the two women face-to-face in a way that echoes with decades of cinematic tension.
A formalist if ever there was one, Akerman stated that “No Home Movie” was shot in the spirit of a home movie because, “I think if I knew I was going to do this, I wouldn’t have dared to do it.” Yet by embracing elements of the home movie form — regardless of what the film’s title tells us — Akerman crafted a film so clear and acutely mundane that it feels like an act of holding on and letting go at the same time. “No Home Movie” is a perfect distillation of how it feels to say goodbye, both to a loved one and an artist.—CO
“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (David & Nathan Zellner, 2014)
Nothing about “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” could have prepared audiences for its greatness. Not the oddball premise, about a lonely Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) who believes the premise of “Fargo” is real and decided to hunt for buried treasure in frozen Minnesota. Not the quirky nature of her journey, which includes a rabbit sidekick named Bunzo and various eccentric characters who can’t understand a word Kumiko says. And not even anything else in sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner’s previous oeuvre. The Austin auteurs had been quietly cranking out surreal dark comedies for years before this somewhat larger-scale effort, but the movie takes their prankish storytelling to new tonal heights, with a melancholic look at one woman consumed by fantasy that sympathizes with her outlandish cause.
No wonder Alexander Payne signed on as an executive producer: Like his best work, “Kumiko” finds something weird and wonderful in the mythology of middle America, even as it acknowledges that giving into that myth can often lead to a harsh reality check. Kumiko’s ultimate fate is a brilliant encapsulation of what it means to live within the confines of popular culture until it eats you alive. Bunzo may often steal the show, but Kumiko is a singular character whose journey ranks as one of the most memorable cinematic plights of the past decade, building on the universe of one great story and forging another one in the process. —EK
“Inside Out” (Pete Docter, 2015)
It remains an inexplicable achievement that a film based on emotional caricatures — one that casts Lewis Black as the bright-red personification of anger — is among the most accurate and nuanced depictions of childhood in recent memory. Pixar elevates its “simple stories, complex characters” mantra to a new level as we watch Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust interact inside the mind of a young girl. What could have been a clichéd “Herman’s Head” update ultimately serves as a celebration of the need for contradictory feelings to coexist. The perfectly-cast emotions are offered in just the right doses, the gags (“Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza!”) are funny without grating, and the film earns its surprising-yet-obvious conclusion that sadness is an essential part of life.
At its best, Pixar produces animated films that delight children without ever condescending to them. But after a few rough years of sequels and cash grabs, audiences couldn’t be blamed for asking if the studio had lost its touch. Then came “Inside Out.” By showing an 11-year-old girl’s mind as complex enough to merit exploration, and doing so with an instantly-graspable plot device, the studio fulfilled its brand promise and then some. Wrapped in a Technicolor bow that never feels moralizing, “Inside Out” is the most compelling argument Pixar could make for its ongoing place in American pop culture. —CZ
“The Souvenir” (Joanna Hogg, 2019)
There’s never much doubt that the loutish Anthony (Tom Burke) isn’t a good match for the starry-eyed (a breakout Honor Swinton Byrne), spending their first few dates insulting her filmmaking ambitions to her face and dragging her around upmarket settings he has zero interest in engaging with. And yet. Based loosely on filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s own film school years, complete with her own wrenching romance, “The Souvenir” recreates the runaway feeling of being young, dumb, and totally unaware of how the choices you make when you’re still a child can impact the rest of your life.
Those are some lessons that Julie will learn the hard way, with Hogg cleverly opening the film with a bushy-tailed Julie pitching a film idea to an wary committee. She wants to do something following an underprivileged community, when it’s very clear she has no experience in that realm and is woefully unprepared for what she might find there. It’s a meeting that sets the stage for what’s to come, as Julie grows in fits and starts and Anthony reveals himself to be even more unsuitable than previously believed. In the simplest terms, “The Souvenir” is about an ill-fated romance, told through a late-blooming coming-of-age story, but it’s mostly about how we never grow out of those things, no matter how much popular culture — like movies! — force us to believe otherwise. There’s plenty left behind, the scars and the memories, a souvenir of heartbreak that will never fully heal, and perhaps shouldn’t. —KE
“Leave No Trace” (Debra Granik, 2018)
It’s tempting, these days more than ever, to want to stop the world and get off; you don’t need to be a PTSD-suffering war veteran like Ben Foster’s done-with-life Will to want to walk off the grid and leave it all behind. He and his daughter, Tom (the remarkable Thomasin McKenzie), live in the woods, uncorrupted by the pressures and compromises of modern life and the conformity it demands. But he’s deeply damaged, and Tom does deserve to have an education and a proper roof over her head. Granik’s only narrative feature since “Winter’s Bone” builds to one of the most powerful scenes of the decade, a moment which proves the filmmaker’s mastery of eliciting emotion from her actors’ most quiet gestures. She understands that seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time, and shows how that can become the key to empathy. —CB
“A Star Is Born” (Bradley Cooper, 2018)
Memes aside, the essential scene of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” doesn’t involve a slightly exasperated Lady Gaga turning around to accept one last look from Cooper’s grizzled, gravelly Jackson Maine. It’s the one just before it, when a still-shy Ally (Gaga) pumps herself up enough to belt an original song in front of an already-hungover Jackson Maine (Cooper) in the middle of a midnight parking lot. You can see the songwriter debating the merits of what she’s about to do in the presence of one of the music world’s apparent great talents, downtrodden and whiskey-soaked and already at least half in love with her, and then she just…does it. A few movie minutes later, she’ll be doing the same thing in front of thousands of screaming fans, and knowing what’s to come — it’s “Shallow,” of course — doesn’t dilute a drop of the sequence’s power.
While “A Star Is Born” has, across four films, always offered up a two-pronged approach to the fame trajectory, following one star has she rises, the other as he falls, Cooper’s film is really about Ally more than it’s about Jackson. (That the film’s major twist, if you can call it that after three earlier films, is about Jackson does not detract from this bent.) Gaga is more than up for the challenge, but the generosity of the film extends to Cooper’s hard-won performance, alongside supporting turns from players as diverse as Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay. This is a film in which every moment, every breath, every look matters (thank you, cinematographer Matthew Libatique), set to a stirring soundtrack and gorgeous scenery for added “oh, look, it’s my first film” jealousy points. There’s nothing to be jealous of here though, not really, because once the film wrings the tears from its audience — those too are hard-won — it’s hard to feel anything but wonder that this story still holds such a sway. Some stars shine forever.—KE
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Rian Johnson, 2017)
“The hero generally gains little or no reward for his sacrifice — it is the community that gains,” wrote Howard Suber in “The Power of Film.” “To choose heroism is to choose pain, sacrifice, loss, and sometimes even death.” In “The Last Jedi,” the Star Wars saga grappled with the tragic underpinnings of the “hero’s journey” as it never had before.
Forty years after the original, the saga grew up — and some of its fans couldn’t handle it. In this most mythic of Star Wars films, rendered in the boldest of cinematic strokes by Rian Johnson, there was no happily ever after for Luke Skywalker. But he does live up to the purest ideal of the Jedi: Like he does in his final battle with Darth Vader, he throws his lightsaber away, realizing that a sacrifice of himself will distract his enemies and allow his beloved “community” to survive. John Williams mixed leitmotifs from all seven of the previous films with Wagnerian panache — try not to rock out when “Rey’s Theme” propulsively dissolves into “Attack of the TIE Fighters” from “A New Hope” in the final battle – and DP Steve Yedlin lavished the color red on several key setpieces to create an explosion of emotion. It’s tempting to imagine what the movies would be like if more blockbusters shot for this level of ambition, beauty, and resonance. It’s almost unfathomable that one of this size was able to achieve it. —CB
“La La Land” (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
Like Quentin Tarantino, writer-director Damien Chazelle is that rare, obsessively gifted writer-director who intuits how to merge past and present in a way that enriches them both. With the wistful reverie “La La Land,” his critically hailed follow-up to Oscar-winning jazz drama “Whiplash,” Chazelle magically modernized the colorful swirl of French song-and-dance musicals “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Les Desmoiselles de Rochefort” as well as backstage Technicolor spectacles like “New York, New York” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” Ultra-contemporary yet unapologetically retro, the film’s audacious show-business saga follows a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and struggling actress (Emma Stone) whose passion for each other gets tangled up in their career ambitions. Justin Hurwitz’s luscious score and catchy yet naturalistic songs like “City of Stars” help the fairy tale find its groove, while a swooning epilogue brought Chazelle’s epic to a close with a deliciously bittersweet twist of the dagger. The third original musical to land a Best Picture Oscar nomination, “La La Land” tied the Oscar record set by “All About Eve” (14 nominations, six wins). And while the movie is destined to be remembered for the Academy Award it didn’t win, Chazelle earned his title as the youngest person to ever be named Best Director. —AT
“The Handmaiden” (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook delivered one of the 21st century’s most devious and ravishing queer films with “The Handmaiden,” which seamlessly ported the Victorian England events of Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith” to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri bring palpable chemistry to the roles of the captive Lady Hideko and her two-timing (or is it three?) maid Sook-hee, whose twisted relationship is as dynamic and unpredictable as Park’s titillating and characteristically operatic camera.
Re-teaming with his regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Park and his collaborators elevated the tawdrier elements of Waters’ novel to fetishistic heights — even strapping them in a harness and suspending them into mid-air when he had to. The result is a cheeky erotic thriller that subverts classical tropes with giddy injections of sapphic energy; a soapy melodrama that feels dangerously alive with every frame. —ZS
“Goodbye to Language” (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
When someone shouted “Godard forever” before the premiere of the French New Wave Legend’s Cannes premiere of this astounding late period work, the audience erupted into applause. Who could argue? Jean-Luc Godard is the kind of resilient artist you want to cheer on each time out, but never know what to expect. What a welcome surprise to find that — more than 50 years after “Breathless” — “Goodbye to Language” once again took the medium in a fresh direction. Though it occasionally revolves aroudn the existential disputes of a wayward couple, the movie charts more of an exploratory path than any traditional narrative might offer up. It unfolds as an overwhelming montage that taps into the oversaturation of today’s media climate, a point that Godard renders explicit through many inspired bits: the recurring shot of a flat-screen television broadcasting static speaks for itself, as does a more comical bit in which two strangers tap away on their iPhones and exchange them several times over, trapped in a loop. At one point, as the narration samples highlights from philosopher Jacques Ellul’s essay “The Victory of Hitler,” someone holds up a smartphone screen showing off the essay’s contents.
It doesn’t require much analysis to comprehend Godard’s intent: He portrays the information age as the dying breath of consciousness before intellectual thought is homogenized by the digital realm. The filmmaker’s use of 3D technology in unparalleled; in one mind-bending moment, he splits the image across two lenses, then merges them, forcing his audiences’ eyeballs into a pretzel of confusion like nothing else before it. Eventually, the movie finds its true hero in Godard’s dog Roxie, who regards his aimless owners with boredom and eventually flees captivity in search of a better life beyond the confines of civilization. After years of calling humanity on its bullshit, Godard finally admits it’s too late, and one can imagine that the reclusive auteur can relate to Roxie’s triumphant escape. —EK
“Pariah” (Dee Rees, 2011)
Dee Rees grew into a force of nature over the last 10 years, but her debut feature — a gracefully rendered coming-of-age story that draws inspiration from her own — is still her defining statement. Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality finally unbridled, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) on a raw and tender journey towards queerness and masculine gender expression. We witness Alike quietly change out of her baseball hat and t-shirt on the train home to Brooklyn, donning a girly sweater in order to calm her parents’ suspicions (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). We melt alongside her as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself as desirable for the first time through the sparkling eyes of Bina (Aasha Davis). Cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”) films Alike’s first nights out at the club in rich, saturated colors, allowing the movie to pulse with the rhythm of first love and the cost of self-discovery. “Pariah” was ahead of its time, but it’s waiting to be found whenever people need it. —JD
“The Duke of Burgundy” (Peter Strickland, 2014)
A sumptuous and visually evocative tribute to ’70s European sexploitation films — and probably the only films this decade to come with a “perfume by” credit in the opening titles — Peter Strickland’s erotic drama flutters deeper and deeper into the sadomasochistic relationship between two lesbian entomologists. The film is as precise in its artistry as its dual heroines are in the humiliating ways they punish each other punishments, as Cythia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) exchange power in ways both lovingly tender and hardcore in their kinkiness. The lighting is sensuous, the camera charged, the chic and glamorous costuming titillating. Strickland understands the keys to eroticism are imagination and anticipation; most of the naughty business takes place offscreen, every touch adding to the Hitchcockian psychodrama that’s taking place just beneath the layers upon layers of festishistic beauty. —JD
“Jackie” (Pablo Larraín, 2016)
Jackie Kennedy has been portrayed plenty of times on the big screen, but in Pablo Larraín’s daring and original “Jackie,” Natalie Portman handily shed the expectations and assumptions attached to the perennially pillbox-hatted American icon to deliver her best performance yet. It’s certainly her most immersive, and while some might bristle at her accent and her mannerisms, “Jackie” only works because its lead so thoroughly throws herself into a role that goes beyond “warts and all.”
Mostly set in the weeks immediately following President Kennedy’s assassination, Portman is tasked with portraying a mourning, heartbroken Jackie who is also hellbent on establishing a legacy for her husband and family. She’s angry, just like the film she inhabits, but she’s also ruthless about the value of memory and truth. So is the film.
Larraín’s film neatly shifts between past and present, providing rich and often unexpected looks inside Jackie’s life and psyche during one of the worst times of her — and the country’s — life. There are no grace notes here, no redemption, no sense that everything will be okay in the end, but such honesty suits what actually happened, and while the film might take a few liberties (see: Jackie’s extended stroll with a shocked priest), it gets the emotions exactly right. It’s the kind of veracity — emotional, mental, psychological — that more fact-based features should strive for. For now, at least, there is “Jackie” and its inimitable leading lady. —KE
“At Berkeley” (Frederick Wiseman, 2013)
In hindsight, there will be any number of things we took for granted about the cinema of the 21st century. But, even now, it’s already obvious that we took nothing for granted more than sharing the world with Frederick Wiseman, who — well into his 80s — continued to bang out another masterpiece every 12 to 15 months. From “High School” to “Ex Libris,” the quality of Wiseman’s output has never wavered, while our understanding of our institutions (and ourselves) has only continued to deepen as a result.
It almost feels arbitrary to single out just one of the great observational documentaries that Wiseman made over the last 10 years, but his examination of the University of California at Berkeley — a spellbinding four-hour wonder set against the backdrop of a decrease in state funding — strikes a particularly resonant chord. Wiseman trains his lens not only on the ideals of higher learning, but also on Berkeley’s unique spirit of idealism, and how the school might struggle to maintain its values of activism and accessibility in the face of an unforgiving climate. Universities can be such vibrant places, and even the longest of Wiseman’s protracted scenes feels like it’s brimming with potential and hope for the future. But it’s the finale that leaves the most fraught and lasting impression, as Wiseman jettisons his discrete style of editing in order to cross-cut between the faculty and the students during a sit-in protest that feels like a microcosm of the paradox that defines Berkeley’s future. One way or the other, that future will be the product of a painful compromise, a subject that Wiseman captures better than anyone. —CO
“Force Majeure” (Ruben Östlund, 2014)
In a decade that flayed white male insecurity in public, Ruben Östlund’s wickedly hilarious study of masculinity in crisis took a natural place as one of the definitive comedies of our time. Right from this film’s famous inciting incident – in which a dad named Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) instinctively abandons his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children during a false-alarm avalanche at a ski resort — the upper-middle class family’s comfortable existence is upended forever.
Nested inside perverse Kubrickian long takes, Östlund’s shrewd choreography and cringe-worthy situations heralded the arrival of a major cinematic storyteller who isn’t afraid to dig his characters into such deep holes that they have no choice but to try and tunnel out on their own. Each scene of this film shovels further and further into unsettling truth that Tomas’ reaction was not simply an isolated primal act, but something far more primal and perverse. The result is an unholy buffet of squirm-inducing humor, but one that’s built atop a dark reservoir of real empathy. Östlund takes seriously the escalating trap the family finds themselves in, and it’s the way that Ebba is forced to rebalance the gender equation that makes “Force Majeure” one of the most profound and unflinching examinations of masculinity this decade. —CO
“Melancholia” (Lars von Trier, 2011)
Lars von Trier’s beautiful and beguiling take on depression as the apocalypse is strangely one of his least disturbing films — and also one of his best. No one in this witty and accessible cosmic opera gets dismembered, or bull-whipped, or even killed for shits and giggles. The horrors in “Melancholia” are far more subtle than that, and as all-encompassing as a thick grey fog rolling in to block out the sun forever. Von Trier’s natural self-indulgence is tempered by the percolating trauma of Kirsten Dunst’s career-best performance. She traipses through her wacky castle wedding in a growing daze, her opaque moods belying an inner torment that seems to welcome (or even invite) the end of the world. The stunning and surrealistic prologue, driven by Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” renders the coming oblivion like an inverted riff on the birth-of-the-cosmos sequence from “The Tree Of Life,” but that introductory spectacle has nothing on the raw power of how Dunst brings it down to Earth. —JD
“Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)
A direct sequel in a franchise built from largely standalone adventures, “Fallout” refocused the “Mission: Impossible” saga on Ethan Hunt’s core dilemma, endowing the superspy with a moral urgency more befitting a prestige drama like “Bridge of Spies” than a late summer blockbuster that opens with someone stopping a nuclear attack by cosplaying as Wolf Blitzer. From the moment it starts, this movie has only one question on its mind: Is it possible that Ethan’s concern for other people isn’t just his greatest weakness, but also his greatest strength? For Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie, the answer was always going to be an unambiguous “yes,” but hot damn did those guys have fun getting there.
One of the best action movies of the modern studio era, “Fallout” is basically like watching the most intense man on Earth compete in a relentless foot race against his own demons, as Cruise laughs at death for our entertainment. From the HALO jump sequence to the climactic helicopter duel, the stunts in this one combine the gobsmacking scale of “Ghost Protocol” with the sheer velocity of “Mission: Impossible — III,” and McQuarrie weaves them all together into a breathless ride with nary a single wasted shot. It’s a veritable symphony of stunt work, a timeless piece of classical filmmaking, and an enduring reminder that great movies only get made because someone out there is crazy enough to think that they can. —DE
“Inception” (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Sometimes, it seems like Christopher Nolan understands the beauty of magic tricks better than any filmmaker since Orson Welles. He’s a master of misdirection, a genius at gracefully folding any plot into an origami crane of intricate pieces, an expert craftsman of presentation and payoff. His good movies invite you to lean forward and question every inch of their core ideas, and his great ones eventually go sublime by replacing that curiosity with sheer awe. They make you obsess over how they work until the precise moment that you realize it doesn’t really matter.
On the other hand, sometimes, it seems like Christopher Nolan has absolutely no idea how magic tricks are supposed to work. A magician never reveals his secrets, but in “Inception,” Nolan can’t stop himself from constantly telling you what he’s doing. The ultimate example of the filmmaker’s penchant for take exposition and weaponizing it into drama, this is a movie that spends the vast majority of its running time simply explaining itself to the audience. Remember the post-screening conversations that you had with your friends? They sounded more like NFL referees trying to make sense of a fumbled play than people comparing their notes about a piece of art.
But so what? At his best, Nolan is both a showman and a storyteller, and all of his narrative gamesmanship — all of his dead wives and steady push-in shots and bombastic Hans Zimmer motifs — are in the service of an irreducible cinematic pleasure. Yes, “Inception” is a forceful drama about guilt and redemption and the power of ideas, but more than anything it’s an elaborate excuse for a hog-wild celebration of what movies can do. It’s about the pure joy of playing with relative time, of cross-cutting between four different planes of existence, of packing several different genres (heist movies, Bond epics, etc.) into a veritable playground of raw imagination. It’s about the visceral momentum of doing things that can’t be done on the page, on stage, or even on television with its stops and starts — it’s about using the fundamental elements of film grammar to create a coherent whole that sustains itself like a spinning top. More than just the most idiosyncratic blockbuster of the 21st Century, “Inception” is a testament to the incredible power of dreaming with our eyes open. —DE
“Shoplifters” (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2018)
The “chosen family” narrative isn’t new, but Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s 2018 Palme d’Or winner ranks as one of the most tender and tragic portraits of that concept ever committed to film. Kore-Eda is delicate in his construction of the Shibatas, a clan of people who are all broken in their own ways. It’s a makeshift group that includes an out-of-work day laborer, a teenage sex worker, and a big-hearted child whose desperate father has taught him to shoplift for their collective survival. And yet, despite the Shibatas’ dire straits, they can’t help but take in (read: kidnap) a young girl named Juri who they find abused and abandoned in the lot outside of their door.
A substantial bulk of this brilliant film is spent peering into the nuanced worlds of each family member, as Kore-eda builds them all into complex, endearing characters. The Shibatas have a lot of love, but they also have a wealth of complicated secrets, and they’re all splayed out in the film’s heightened and heartbreaking final 30 minutes. “Shoplifters” is a shattering experience, but it’s more than worth it, if only for how it forces viewers to reckon with what forces truly galvanize people into a family. —LL
“Faces Places” (Agnès Varda & JR, 2017)
A moving, funny, life-affirming, and altogether wonderful twilight dispatch from the original queen of the French New Wave, “Faces Places” was the second-to-last film that Agnès Varda was able to complete before her death earlier this year, but it endures as a perfect entry point into a body of work that will make your life a better place. A testament to the creative imagination, Varda’s heart-tugger — made when she was 89 years old — found the late artist bringing her powerful personality, boundless visual acumen, and canny documentary instincts to a road movie made in collaboration with deferential younger street artist, JR. Together, the odd couple packed into a van that doubled as a massive Polaroid camera and toured the French countryside, taking giant photos of the strangers they meet and restoring a sense of visibility and wonder to working-class people who are often overlooked.
The film is a prime example of Varda’s genius for eliciting delightful interviews from random people, but “Faces Places” also makes time for some of Varda’s old friends, the playful documentary becoming a whimsical memoir as it retraces some of the more indelible images from her life. The project was rife with potential for condescension, but Varda and JR’s charm and wisdom elevate the journey into a poignant meditation on time, cinema history, and the bittersweet fullness of passing through a world that’s too far too big to see in one lifetime. —AT
“Black Panther” (Ryan Coogler, 2018)
At just 32, Bay area filmmaker Ryan Coogler completed his trilogy of missing-father-and-son films: “Fruitvale Station,” “Rocky” sequel “Creed,” and historic blockbuster “Black Panther,” which crashed Hollywood barriers that should have been shattered decades ago. Coogler ran with Marvel’s James Bond framework for T’Challa as he and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (“American Crime Story”) created hidden, high-tech African kingdom Wakanda and infused it with the same dimensions of family saga that Francis Ford Coppola brought to “The Godfather.”
Coogler’s coming-of-age concept for “Black Panther” was a lion learning what it means to be king, a man who carried an idealized version of his father and country in his head; when that idea is destroyed, T’Challa has to pick up the pieces and create something new. Coogler had never seen an African man like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), untouched by colonization. In order to find a personal way into an ambitious saga that raises so many questions about the role and responsibility of a rich nation in the world — as well as the ultimate consequences of neglecting and abandoning the less fortunate among us — Coogler selected African-American Killmonger (MIchael B. Jordan) as T’Challa’s central antagonist. “Black Panther” was the first blockbuster of its budget level to feature a majority black cast, but its humane characters and cultural specificity ensured that the movie wasn’t merely skin deep. Earning $1.3 billion at the box office and six nominations at the Oscars, “Black Panther” changed the film industry, and the rest of the world along with it. —AT
“The Farewell” (Lulu Wang, 2019)
Lulu Wang’s breakout Sundance hit is predicated on a lie — a good one, perhaps the best kind — that the filmmaker herself propagated within her own tight-knit family circle, likely never dreaming how it would actually end (in real life) or what it would spawn (in movie life). Starring Awkwafina in a rightly lauded dramatic turn, “The Farewell” follows shiftless Chinese-American twentysomething Billi, who is horrified to discover that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (a charming Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of cancer. But Nai Nai doesn’t know that and, if her family has any say, she’s not going to. Unable to stay away and with little rooting her to her current life, Billi hijacks her parents’ trip to China to spend Nai Nai’s final days with her — again, days that Nai Nai has zero idea have any special meaning — and discovers a family dealing with life in all its messy, unexpected glory.
A true dramedy (a less graceful film would shout, “just like life!” at every turn, and “The Farewell” doesn’t have to), the movie flows between crowded doctors’ appointment, one wonderfully over-the-top wedding, and enough scenes centered on tasty dim sum to leave audiences in screaming hunger pains. Along the way, Billi and her family are forced to deal with both their lie and the imminent goodbye Wang’s title implies, pushing them into reckonings that go far beyond just the singular tragedy they’re anticipating. The film might be built on dichotomies — American versus Chinese life, lies versus the truth, family versus everything else — but it coalesces into a rich and relatable slice of life that illuminates every topic it touches. —KE
“The Turin Horse” (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
Every new generation feels like it’s living at the end of the world, and each of them is a little more right than the one before. But over the last 10 years, that solipsistic fear seemed to grow into a shared consensus, and movies about the last days began to assume a cold kind of closeness — like they were near enough to feel on your skin. You can probably thank the growing specter of climate change for that, especially as the best films about the heaviness of human existence (“First Reformed” being another that comes to mind) hinged on a sense of collective self-destruction, repetition, futility — and being paralyzed by the horror on the horizon. Nietzsche said that “God is dead,” but the likes of Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” — a hypnotic dirge that imagines what happened to the farmer who supposedly inspired Nietzsche’s mental breakdown — suggested instead that God, dead or alive, isn’t going to save us from ourselves.
Tarr is no stranger to bleakness, but the Hungarian auteur’s previous films were all streaked with black comedy. “The Turin Horse,” on the other hand, is nothing more than a hard stare into the abyss. Society is lost, nihilism reigns, and the wind never stops howling. The potato farmer and his daughter live in a monochrome nightmare where they have little to do but rue their own oblivion. At one point, in the decade’s single most desolate scene, they escape over the ridge behind their house only to return after seeing what’s on the other side. There’s no hope here, or over there, and there was nothing left for Tarr to say when he was done — he retired from feature filmmaking when this was over, and unlike Steven Soderbergh or Hayao Miyazaki, he actually kept his word. And when he dies, he will leave behind the 21st century’s most harrowingly mundane vision of the apocalypse: a film that allowed everyone who saw it to actually see the darkness that so much of our lives is determined to disguise. —DE
“Tangerine” (Sean Baker, 2015)
An audacious and infinitely re-watchable farce about a day in the life of two trans girls working the streets of downtown Los Angeles, Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” was both an instant classic, and a lightning rod for emerging trans cinema. Baker earned major points for casting actual trans women in the leads — a rarity in 2015 that has since become the norm — and his decision paid off in a big way; Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez saturate the film in such delicious specificity that it’s almost enough to make you want to swear off professional actors altogether. Shot entirely on iPhone (with the help of an anamorphic adapter), “Tangerine” made waves when it premiered at Sundance in 2015. And sure, the cinematography is vibrant and alive in a way that no one has been able to replicate on a consumer-grade camera since, but the look of the film was only a means to an end. On the contrary, it’s the raw intimacy of Baker’s approach that made “Tangerine” an instant queer classic. —JD
“Happy as Lazzaro” (Alice Rohrwacher, 2018)
A dreamy, fairy tale-like feature that spans time periods with ease (and without doubting that its audience is smart enough to keep up), the film follows the eponymous Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) as he moves from impoverished farmhand to, well, something else. A pastoral fairy tale that slowly and assuredly morphs into a time-traveling adventure entirely of its own stripe, it offers no easy answers and zero in the way of narrative explanation. That only increases its charm. Like filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher’s other films (including the appropriately wonderful “The Wonders”), even an out-there concept can’t keep it from also feeling deeply personal and true. —KE
“Frances Ha” (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
The “charming-but-unremarkable artist struggles to grow up” story has been standard indie film territory since the beginning of time. By 2012, it was hard to avoid feeling like the Hipster Hero’s Journey had run its course. But “Frances Ha” had an ace up its sleeve that comparable films lacked: Greta Gerwig.
Noah Baumbach’s movie, co-written by and starring Gerwig, was arguably the first film to unleash her true power onto the world. And it’s a Pandora’s Box that nobody’s been able to close since. Her performance is remarkable in that she brings so much joy to a character that frankly has no reason to be happy. Her loyalty to her friends is so strong, and her passion for dance (even if she’s just an apprentice) so infectious that it’s impossible to look away. At the same time, the film’s craftsmanship and commentary are impeccably smart, never shying away from the real problems staring Frances down. The combination proves fatal: We fully understand why Frances shouldn’t be making these choices, but we can’t help but support her. This pattern culminates with Frances taking a spontaneous trip to Paris as her life collapses around her; it’s a funny-but-heartbreaking attempt to mimic the success of her friends for a day. But as her life deteriorates, her joie de vivre still finds a way to shine through. —CZ
“Cold War” (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2018)
Polish auteur Pawel Pawlikowski followed up his Oscar-winning Holocaust film “Ida” with another tragic black-and-white drama, this one inspired by his own parents. An epic story of star-crossed lovers that’s squeezed into just 88 minutes, “Cold War” charts the doomed romance between Stalin-era Polish musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and headstrong singer-dancer Zula (singer-actress Joanna Kulig), who meet as part of a touring folk troupe. Wiktor and Zula first lock eyes over an out-of-tune piano as the troupe’s conductor gauges the lovely young woman’s musical ability; for al of its dark portent, the moment still registers as a meet-cute for the ages. Things get decidedly less cute from there.
Pawlikowski portrays two magnetically attracted people who are evenly matched. The elastic bond between Wiktor and Zula is symbiotic, charismatic, strong, and stubborn — it has to be in order to pull them back together over the years, as politics, borders, and several different forms of exile distance them from each other and distort their authentic selves. Terse, elliptical, and galvanized by its claustrophobic high-contrast cinematography, “Cold War” is a movie that mines its strength from all of the time and emotion that it lets fall between down the deep fissures between each scene; it’s such an indelible love story because of how Pawlikowski traces all that’s lost along the way. —AT
“A Ghost Story” (David Lowery, 2017)
If the only thing “A Ghost Story” had given us was a five-minute take of a bereaved Rooney Mara devouring an entire pie on her kitchen floor, that would have been enough. But that headline-grabbing scene was just the cherry on top of David Lowery’s moving, surprising, and delightfully playful meditation on time and space. Reuniting the cast of his “Ain’t them Bodies Saints,” Lowery’s astral epic stars Casey Affleck as a homebody musician, and Mara as his restless wife. When the man dies in an offscreen car crash, his spirit rises from the gurney, a white hospital sheet draped over his head like a well-fitted halloween costume, and begins to haunt the house that he never wanted to leave. From that simple, almost child-like premise, Lowery spun an existential yarn the size of the known universe. Silly and profound in equal measure, “A Ghost Story” sent a wrecking ball through the wall that separates small budgets from immense visions, and proved that Lowery is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who’s able to skip between DIY indies and Disney blockbusters without missing a beat. —JD
“Eden” (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2014)
All of Mia Hansen-Løve’s feature films are autobiographical in one way or another (see “Things to Come” and “Goodbye, First Love”), but it’s nevertheless surprising that “Eden” is the one which most transparently reveals who she is. For one thing, it’s based on somebody else: Hansen-Løve’s older brother, Sven, a former DJ who co-wrote this sprawling history of the French Touch music scene. An intimate epic running parallel to the ascendancy of Daft Punk, “Eden” stretches from the early ‘90s to the recent past, chronicling 20 years in the increasingly stagnant life of a Parisian DJ named Paul (Félix de Givry). He’s obsessed with bringing EDM to the masses, but his focus far outstrips his talent, and it soon becomes clear (to everyone else) that his mild early success is the beginning of a long road to nowhere. A delicate character study folded into a loving generational portrait, this melancholy masterpiece deepens the same detached inquiry into lost time that has informed all of its director’s work. There are a lot of great movies about dreams; this is one of the few about the pain of letting them go. —DE
“Elle” (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)
Just when it seemed like Paul Verhoeven was down for the count, the Dutch provocateur delivered a rape-revenge fantasy that reminded the world that he’s still the reigning master of upending genres and subverting expectations. Of course, much of the credit for “Elle” belongs to Isabelle Huppert,” whose high-wire act as a woman who pursues an affair with her rapist earned the legendary French star her long-overdue first Oscar nomination. Abandoning the campy vulgarity that Verhoeven brought to the likes of “Showgirls” and “Basic Instinct,” the director organized every creative choice in order to foreground Huppert’s fierceness and physicality. That approach empowered Huppert to vacillate between victim and masochist from one scene to the next — or even one shot to the next — as the actress embodied the conflicting and often inexplicable reaction to trauma with a degree of raw verisimilitude we rarely see on screen. With morality taken out of the picture, “Elle” is able to explore something much deeper than most stories of sexual violence would ever dare; it’s a more human film as a result, and a more valuable one as well. —JD
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (Takahata Isao, 2014)
The indelible last film by late Studio Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao — and his first since 1999’s “My Neighbors the Yamadas” — is perhaps the most poetic and beautiful achievement of his criminally under-sung career. Based on a popular 10th century Japanese folklore, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is carried by a story that’s as deceptively simple as its colored charcoal and watercolor animation (the spare, delicate aesthetic pulsing with life while also embodying the film’s bone-deep sense of mourning what’s lost and gone forever).
When a woodcutter discovers a miniature girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot, he brings her home to his wife, whose suddenly lactating body insists that the couple raise the baby as their own. Little Kaguya’s adopted parents gift her with an idyllic childhood in the forest, but time gets the better of them all, as the girl blossoms into a beautiful young woman and finds herself the subject of much attention from royal men in the big city. It’s here that Takahata’s melancholy adaptation pivots towards the post-war melodramas of Kenji Mizoguchi and their acute focus on female objectification, as Kaguya challenges her suitors to a series of impossible tasks while her once-humble father is seduced by his newfound importance.
This ancient story is cut with new ribbons of satire and surrealism, as Takahata creates a mesmerizing swirl of hope and darkness — past and future — that builds to a bottomless (yet bittersweet) hole in the pit of your stomach. How does a movie so sad not get overwhelmed by its own tragedy? The only explanation is that “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is touched with the same magic as its title character, and will remain perfect forever even if the source of its beauty is gone. —CO
“Before Midnight” (Richard Linklater, 2013)
Eighteen years after spontaneously asking a cute stranger named Celine (Julie Delpy) to get off a train with him in Vienna — and nine years after one of cinema’s biggest gut-punches of a fade-to-black left their futures in the dark — a man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is reintroduced to us as he glumly places his teenage son on a flight back home. The message of Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” rings loud and clear from the opening scene: As we get older, our life gradually shifts from hellos to goodbyes — from new adventures to involuntary endings.
Now a couple with two daughters, Jesse and Celine are still as charismatic as ever. Watching the couple chat on vacation in Greece, it’s easy to feel like nothing has changed in the last two decades. But the film catches up with them at a time when things are closer to falling apart than they first appear, and the usual pseudo-philosophical banter soon gives way to a broken dam of unaired grievances. It turns out that finding each other twice, while living on different continents, was the easy part. Sharing the fullness of your life with someone? That’s another story.
The chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is as abundant as ever, but there’s more pressure brought to bear on it in “Before Midnight” than ever before. Linklater’s ability to bottle the energy between these characters is the only conceivable way for him to make their lived-in love feel as volatile and alive as it did in the trilogy’s previous two installments. Those were movies about once-in-a-lifetime serendipity, whereas this is a movie about just getting through the years together; it’s a story that so many people know first-hand. But while the film lacks the countdown device of its predecessors, Jesse and Celine are still hounded by the sounds of ticking clocks. For a pair of twentysomethings, one night in Vienna could feel like a lifetime. The brilliance of “Before Midnight” is in how it flips the script to make a lifetime feel like it could disappear in the span of a single night.
Here, the “Before” movies collected into the rare franchise that truly aged with its characters; each film is whatever Jesse and Celine needed it to be. The trilogy started with fantasy, and a magical infatuation with a stranger who would be nothing but a memory by the morning. It ends with permanence, and the realization that every relationship eventually becomes about doing the best you can together. “If you want true love, this is it,” Jesse tells Celine. “It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”—CZ
“Parasite” (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
A comically violent class parable that examines how a society can only be as strong as its most vulnerable people, Bong Joon-ho’s electric Palme d’Or-winner is a tender shiv of a movie that doesn’t rely on its metaphors, or even let them survive; unlike some of the “Snowpiercer” auteur’s other high-concept work, “Parasite” is nothing if not eminently possible.
A grounded enough story about the members of a poor Seoul family (led by the great Song Kang-ho) who, one-by-one, each begin working for a nouveau riche family in their sleek mansion up the hill, “Parasite” starts as an off-kilter class comedy of sorts before sinking into something wild, unclassifiable, and burning with rage. As heightened as “Okja,” as realistic as “Mother,” and as heart-in-your-throat haunting as “Memories of Murder,” Bong’s latest is a madcap excoriation of life under the pall of late capitalism, and it leaves everyone a little richer at the end of it. American viewers may not have gotten their chance to see it yet (Neon will begin to release the film stateside on October 11), but “Parasite” already seems certain to go down as a defining expression of the inequality that reared its head in the early part of the 21st century, both in Korea and beyond. —DE
“The Lost City of Z” (James Gray, 2016)
“The jungle is hell,” a bearded Robert Pattinson spits out. “But one kind of likes it.” It might as well be a mission statement for all of the great adventure films. And James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” a lush and intoxicating adaptation of David Grann’s book about the ill-fated Amazon expeditions of British explorer Percy Fawcett, is one of the greatest adventure films ever made.
Played by Charlie Hunnam in the film, Fawcett makes three journeys into the rainforests of Bolivia and Brazil in search of the ruins of a lost civilization; the last results in a mystery that’s never been solved, as Fawcett and his son (future Spider-Man Tom Holland) disappear without a trace. Shot by Darius Khondji with the unfussy naturalism of an Alexander Korda adventure, and molded with the same nuance that Gray previously brought to smaller (but no less intimate) films like “Two Lovers,” “The Lost City of Z” is a swooning character study that teases out both the optimism and the frustration of exploration — the hope of discovering something new, and the desolate realization that what you already have must not be enough.—CB
“Hereditary” (Ari Aster, 2018)
So head-and-shoulders above the majority of its genre that people insisted on referring to it as “elevated horror,” Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” made it clear (yet again) that scary movies can make for serious art. Led by an astonishing Toni Collette, the film turns a standard-issue story of demonic possession in the foundation for a wrenching examination of grief, mental illness, and inherited trauma. Holding his own against a Collette in top form, Alex Wolff emerges as an impressive talent capable of toggling between terror, vulnerability, and teenage rebellion in the span of a single scene, while Ann Dowd plays a chilling villain who pushes the movie right up to the brink of camp. But “Hereditary” stands out not only for the performances Aster elicited from his cast, but also because of how he wove them together into a domestic horror story that churns with the unimpeachable terror of a truly fucked up family, and builds to the queasy conclusion that there’s nothing scarier than our own innate darkness. —JD
“A Separation” (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
The 2010s were the decade when Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi announced himself as cinema’s reigning master of marital deconstruction, and the 2011 drama “A Separation” remains his magnum opus. Winner of the Golden Bear, the Golden Globe, and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, Farhadi’s shattering drama meticulously leverages a custody battle into a searing examination of the ties that bind families together (and break them apart) in an oppressive society. The director’s sharp script embeds the audience with Simin (Leila Hatami), who wants to leave Iran to give her daughter a better chance at freedom, and her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi), whose ailing father is anchoring him in place. The two only divorce in order to avoid compromising their respective priorities, but their best laid plan is upended by the variety of systemic factors (including a religious caretaker and a biased court system) that conspire to turn the parents against each other. Farhadi traces the emotional fallout of his film’s central dilemma with such intensity and evenhanded rigor that “A Separation” fully realizes the painful inertia of a relationship in free fall. Over time, the situation becomes so fraught that it starts to feel as though the future of society itself hangs in the balance. —ZS
“Cameraperson” (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
At a time when the documentary community was deep in a prolonged and overdue discussion about how to represent their subjects on screen, filmmaker and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson opted to look in the mirror instead. “Cameraperson,” Johnson’s magnum opus, is the work of someone who’s swan-diving into her seemingly bottomless archives in order to re-examine her 25 years behind the camera. While Johnson made this film out of an intense personal need — triggered by a subject, who out of fear for her safety pulled the plug on a film Johnson was making — the world of nonfiction cinema owes her a debt of gratitude for such an honest act of introspection.
What emerges from the repurposed footage, which is taken from a wide array of the unused footage that Johnson has shot over the years, is less an academic exercise and more a deeply personal memoir that’s been salvaged off the cutting room floor. While Johnson seldom appears on screen, her perspective assumes a physical presence of some kind, and — through her lens — viewers soon become as emotionally tethered to the woman behind the camera as we do any of the fascinating people who move into its field of vision. While Johnson’s formalism might sound distancing (the footage isn’t framed with title cards or any other kind of hard context), the lack of information focuses our attention on the act of capturing these images more than it does the images themselves, which allows “Cameraperson” to become a vital act of self-portraiture, as well as one of the decade’s most engrossing films. —CO
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Céline Sciamma, 2019)
Céline Sciamma’s most perfect and powerful film to date — an 18th century period romance starring Adèle Haenel as a reluctant bride-to-be, and Noémie Merlant as the woman who’s hired to paint her wedding portrait in secret — came as something of a curveball when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year. Austere where “Tomboy” was anxious, and hesitant where “Girlhood” was rash, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the first of Sciamma’s movies that could be described as “classical” in any sense of the word. While all of her earlier offerings have told profound and tender stories of self-discovery and the images that women project, this film is more concerned with the ones they leave behind, and how stunning they can be when they aren’t forced through male filters.
It would be an understatement to say that Haenel and Merlant leave an indelible impression, just as it would be a lie to say that you’ll be able to trace it clearly through the veil of tears they leave in their wake. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” isn’t subtle, but its heart-shattering intensity sneaks up on you as the film slowly explores the full power of a shared look between two people who have never really been seen before. Traditional in some ways, progressive in others, and altogether so damn real that it might feel more like staring into a mirror than it does running your eyes along a canvas, this is as tender and true as any love story the movies have ever told, and its sledgehammer of an ending flattens you right into the frame. —DE
“Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
The hunt for Osama bin Laden preoccupied two American presidential administrations for more than a decade, but in the end, it took a small, secret dedicated team of CIA operatives to hunt him down. Few details of the operation were made public until the release of Oscar-winning duo of Kathryn Bigelow’s nuanced and gripping feature, which felt like it was making history even as (or especially when) it kicked up a political shit-storm.
Built around Jessica Chastain’s breakout role as the unsung woman at the mission’s center, “Zero Dark Thirty” is neither a strict dramatization of the facts nor a hoo-rah fantasy of a manhunt that assumed mythic proportions. Instead, it’s a gripping hybrid thriller and investigative drama that tracks closely what is known of the intelligence chase, shed new light on the dark corridors of the war on terror, and streamlined years of dense backroom activity by distilling it all into a laser-focused character study about “the motherfucker that found” Bin Laden. Mark Boal’s Oscar-nominated script smartly surveys the ambiguities, setbacks, and bureaucratic red tape of modern warfare, and points enough special attention towards the controversial use of torture that the film sparked a national debate. And yet, for all of those flash points, it’s the closing image of Chastain’s face — triumphant but uncertain — that emerges from the fog of war. —TO
“Margaret” (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
“Manchester by the Sea” won Kenneth Lonergan an Oscar, but his true masterpiece was released five years earlier with “Margaret.” Well, “released” might be a generous word to describe what happened with that movie — it was more like “mangled and held hostage.” Fox Searchlight dumped a 150-minute cut of “Margaret” into theaters in September 2011, but it wasn’t until Lonergan’s 186-minute director’s cut landed on DVD in July 2012 that many critics and moviegoers began appreciating what a profound and tragic mosaic Lonergan had made.
The writer-director’s sprawling follow-up to “You Can Count on Me” stars Anna Paquin as Lisa, a 17-year-old New Yorker who witnesses a tragic bus accident and finds herself caught up in figuring out if what happened was intentional or not. Locating his heroine amidst a frayed and far-reaching tale that weaves half of Manhattan into its intricately layered tapestry (including a sexually deviant Matt Damon, an anti-Semitic Jean Reno, and even the filmmaker himself), Lonergan narrows in on Lisa’s shifting perspectives on morality and justice on his way to crafting a fearless portrait of someone finding their way through the world. In a decade that may have had a few too many films about teens coming of age, “Margaret” was perhaps the prickliest and most conflicted, and also the most prescient about the various socioeconomic anxieties that would come to the fore over the years that followed. —ZS
“Personal Shopper” (Olivier Assayas, 2016)
Reinventing the ghost story with radical directness and a singularly modern sense of self, Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” survived a dicey Cannes premiere to assume its place as one of the most affecting depictions of the grieving process ever committed to the screen. And somehow, even though it includes a scene in which a phantom projectile scream-vomits hot white ectoplasm into the air above Kristen Stewart’s face, it’s also one of the most realistic.
Bracingly direct one moment and elliptical the next, “Personal Shopper” isn’t just a story about a young woman trying to connect with her brother across the great beyond, it’s also a knowing portrait of how technology shapes the way people remember the dead and process their absence. A numbed Stewart is brilliant as Maureen, a celebrity assistant who moonlights as a medium in the hopes of making contact with her dead twin. And since spiritualists have always been magnetized to spectacle, it’s only natural that Maureen is constantly staring at her iPhone, using it to google the paintings of Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint or watch an amusing clip from a (fake) old TV drama in which Victor Hugo conducts a hokey séance. These digital communions lend Assayas’ laconic thriller the feeling of a Russian nesting doll, each layer hiding a new dead body, and the film’s infamous centerpiece sequence managed to infuse the simple (and decidedly uncinematic) act of texting with Hitchockian suspense. —DE
“The Babadook” (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Jennifer Kent’s terrifying thriller starts with an innocuous (if not downright silly) premise: A mother (Essie Davis) has to protect her son (Noah Wiseman) from a supernatural entity that escapes from the pages of a children’s picture book. But it isn’t long before Kent’s craft scares you straight. Where most horror films rely heavily on jump-scares, “The Babadook” avoids genre clichés and tactics, impresses instead with an atmospheric sense of increasing dread. Brought to life with inventive camerawork, a dispiriting color palette, and taut editing, Kent’s debut feature takes its sweet time to sink into your skin. But once the Babadook gets inside, there’s no getting rid of it. Growing into a brilliant and monstrous personification of trauma, grief, and loss, the Babadook — like the feelings it represents — can never be completely quashed; the people it torments have to learn how to live with it. Kent’s unforgettable debut made it clear just how harrowing that process can be, and it introduced the world to a new queer icon along the way. —TO
“Timbuktu” (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” a harrowing but lyrical portrayal of a northern Mali community in the grip of a radical Islamist group, was always going to hit a nerve. The Mauritanian filmmaker took significant personal risk in making his fifth feature, and he knew that — even when safely completed — the project would be a lightning rod for polemical attacks due to the way it depicted Islam on screen, and cut to the heart of the country’s fraught relationship with artistic expression. But Sissako prevailed. His ability to provide a local perspective on the specific issues ordinary people face, while also offering the world a window into the quotidian hypocrisy of jihadist culture, allowed “Timbuktu” to succeed on a global stage. It resonated across the globe, winning seven César awards and becoming the first film by a black African filmmaker about black Africans to earn more than $1 million at the U.S. box office.
Sissako’s poetic approach allowed him to temper and complicate the film’s disturbing violence, a tactic crystallized with a soccer game that’s played without the villagers being permitted to use a ball; such is the absurdity of life under fundamentalist rulers, who distort Islam in cruel and clearly unfounded ways in order to justify their atrocities. “Timbuktu” unearthed a pulsing sense of life from beneath an inconceivable plague. —TO
“Roma” (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)
At once the most formally astounding and emotional thing that Alfonso Cuarón has ever made, “Roma” was born from an image (or a memory) of a Mexico City maid walking up the metal stairs to her rooftop apartment; from that speck of a vision, Cuarón would unpack his magnum opus. From the start, the filmmaker set out to make something that would be personal, political, and universal in equal measure. It was a project that required the extremely well-regarded auteur to cash in all of his chips, as he convinced Participant Media to invest $15 million to a black-and-white period piece about his parents’ divorce, and the childhood nanny who saw him through it. When the filmmaker decided to layer the story with a thread about the nanny’s boyfriend and his connection with a paramilitary group, the shooting schedule proved untenable for his long-time cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, and Cuarón took it upon himself to executes the fluid long-takes that hold this memory piece together.
At heart, “Roma” tells the story of an indigenous Mexican woman named Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, whose face reflects decades of feeling in every shot), a fictionalized version of the domestic worker who lived with and worked for Cuarón’s upper-middle-class Mexico City family when he was a child. Cleo looks after the kids, escapes to the movies, gets impregnated by her karate-loving crush, and wanders through an increasingly tragic whirlwind of experiences against the unsettled backdrop of the early ’70s. She lives just outside of the main house, but “Roma” patiently traces her true distance from it, as she moves about her small existence with a grace that grows increasingly transcendent. Thanks to painstaking Dolby Atmos sound design, beautifully subtle VFX, and a brilliant cast of amateurs who were often acting without rehearsals or scripts, Cuarón made Cleo’s world feel as vividly realized as our own waking lives. “You start shooting and chaos erupts,” Cuarón said in an interview last year. “Like life.”
In the end, “Roma” wasn’t really like anything that had come before it. The Venice Golden Lion winner was the first Netflix movie to not only be released online in 190 countries, also to get an extended theatrical release in more than 100 theaters. Its unprecedented release helped “Roma” earn 10 Oscar nominations, and saw it became the first movie from Mexico to ever win Best International Feature Film. —AT
“Spring Breakers” (Harmony Korine, 2013)
Like many Harmony Korine movies, “Spring Breakers” initially seems like a lark: the slo-mo visuals of hard-partying teens engaged in beachside hedonism against the rambunctious backdrop of Skrillex’s beats could go on forever. But also like a lot of Harmony Korine movies, there’s much more going on beneath the surface. As this neon-laced odyssey moves along, it shifts into genre mode, focusing on the subterranean tale of four college-aged girls robbing a diner to fund their own depraved trip to the nation’s southern tip. Once there, they’re rescued from the law by jubilant criminal Alien (peak James Franco), whose giddiness over his reckless lifestyle takes the movie into an unexpectedly sweet direction. His rallying cry — “Look at all my shit!” — is at once cynical and celebratory, epitomizing Korine’s ability to burrow inside eccentric worlds without judgement.
“Spring Breakers” manages to do that with a unique blend of cartoonish energy and jittery naturalism, blending his Disneyfied cast (Selina Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens have never done anything this risky, before or since) with real actors and hangout scenes that may as well be mini-documentaries. It’s one of the greatest party movies of all time, in part because it manages to empathize with the culture at its center, rather than depicting it as a distended punchline. That’s been the throughline in the best of Korine’s work, from “Kids” to “Gummo” to “Mister Lonely” and “Trash Humpers”; this one consolidates all of those achievements into a brilliant eruption of life on the edge. —EK
“Only Lovers Left Alive” (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
Appropriate for a film dominated by contradictions, “Only Lovers Left Alive” represented both an extension of Jim Jarmusch’s favorite tropes and a significant thematic departure for him. Adam and Eve — Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s scholarly-minded punk vampires — seem ripped straight from Jarmusch’s id. They sit around reading old books and listening to punk rock all day. They make playful literary references and relish mundane trivia, while always giving the impression that they’re far too cool for you. They drink blood. And yet, the two lovers are remarkably well-adjusted. After centuries together, Adam and Eve have a very fulfilling relationship. They express all of their feelings and tolerate each other’s quirks with a smile. They’re doing great; it’s the rest of the world that’s the problem.
It doesn’t take long for Jarmusch’s intentions to become clear: Blood contamination stands in for cultural rot in a gloriously unsubtle metaphor, and as the plot darkens, the seemingly detached filmmaker makes an eager plea for human connection. Jarmusch has carved a niche for himself well outside the zeitgeist, so it’s ironic that “Only Lovers Left Alive” was released at the height of America’s “Twilight” obsession. But to contrast these characters with other cinematic neck-biters is to see why Jarmusch’s voice is so treasured. He depicts vampires on his own terms, never feeling the slightest debt to previous portrayals. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is the work of an artist with a complete understanding of his own aesthetic, one who built a world consisting entirely of his own interests. It’s pessimism done right: lamenting the neglect of good things, but never denying their existence. —CZ
“Stories We Tell” (Sarah Polley, 2012)
Sarah Polley’s incredible documentary hybrid “Stories We Tell” sifts through the Canadian actress-filmmaker’s family history and secrets while exploring the smudged line between truth and mythology. Polley cast herself as a family detective of sorts, crafting a unique cine-memoir that adopts multiple points of view and dramatic reenactments in order to make sense of her mother’s mysterious death (and interrogate the way that her relatives had always framed it for her). The result is a brave personal film that found Polley digging up the skeletons in her closet without any concession to the idea that strangers might be watching, and leading a cinematic séance that effectively brought her mother back to life on screen.
Before the film was unveiled, Polley wrote a blog post explaining why she was not giving any interviews about what was revealed in the film. When she finally screened the movie to festival audiences, the “Away from Her” filmmaker was stunned that when people came up to her after screenings, they did not want to talk about her family mysteries, but their own. She had struck a universal chord. —AT
“Madeline’s Madeline” (Josephine Decker, 2018)
One of the boldest and most invigorating American films of the 21st century, Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” is an ecstatically disorienting experience that defines its terms right from the start and then obliterates any trace of traditional film language, achieving a cinematic aphasia that allows Decker to redraw the boundaries between the stories we tell and the people we tell them about. The saga of a single mother Regina (the multi-talented Miranda July), her irrepressible teenage daughter Madeline (a life-altering Helena Howard), and the experimental theater troupe that drives a wedge between them, this mesmeric tour de force claws at its premise with feral energy and boundless vision. The result is an experimental movie with the emotional tug of a mainstream hit, a fragmented coming-of-age drama that explores the vast space between Jacques Rivette and Greta Gerwig in order to find something truly new and ineffably of its time. —DE
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Wes Anderson, 2014)
Weep not for worlds that have vanished: smile for what joys they gave us, and learn from their mistakes. Such is the wisdom imparted by Wes Anderson’s wistful masterpiece, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the rare film able to rescue beauty from the past without the help of nostalgia. Ralph Fiennes delivered one of the best performances of his career as the fastidious M. Gustave, a concierge who epitomizes the stiff culture and sophistication of inter-war Europe (an era that Anderson loves dearly, and would love even more if not for the pesky fascists who always seem to ruin the fun). Anderson approaches the past much like those who check in to the Grand Budapest: it’s a place to visit for awhile, to learn from so as to better understand the present, and then to hang up your keys and check out.
So much more than an inventory of easily-parodied quirks, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” transforms Anderson’s style and his affinity for hermetic traditions into a genuine worldview. For Anderson — and for M. Gustave — caring so much about those things is precisely what makes us human. When M. Gustave finds himself on the run on account of the vile calumnies of wannabe Nazis, we see in his grace and dignity (and in the helpful brotherhood of the Society of the Crossed Keys) that manners don’t just make the man, they also make the person you want to be. Of course M. Gustave’s vile nemeses, portrayed with mustache-twirling glee by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, have no manners at all. Andrew Sarris once wrote that “For Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and no evil was then inconceivable.” So it goes for the fascists of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It’s a lesson that Anderson renders with timeless aplomb, and one and that we’d all do well to remember. —CB
“Somewhere” (Sofia Coppola, 2010)
Essentially “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Famous,” Sofia Coppola’s smallest and most sensitive film offered another riff on the same basic of her Oscar-nominated breakthrough: A numb and famous has-been of an actor is holed up in a hotel until a woman — in this case his tween daughter — coaxes him out of his gilded cage and shows him how to feel again. But where “Lost in Translation” was magnetized by the magic of a brief encounter, the Antonioni-esque “Somewhere” is about a more permanent relationship, and how the promise of unconditional love can be a poisoned chalice for a dad who feels like he has all the time in the world to spend with his kids.
The simple, sun-dappled tale of a guy who learns to stop driving in circles — and eventually even get out of his car — “Somewhere” hitches itself to a fading star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, weary and perfect in one of the decade’s most well-realized performances). He’s happy to drink the rest of his career away in the Chateau Marmont, watching Lanthimos-like stripteases and having sex with everything that moves. It’s an idyllic purgatory; the kind of limbo that could make someone forget the outside world and everyone in it. But then Cleo shows up. Played by an 11-year-old Elle Fanning, who’s nuanced and curious in a kid role that never feels like anything less than a three-dimensional character, Cleo just wants to be in her dad’s life, even if he has no idea where it went. The dynamic between the two of them is as electric as Phoenix’s synth-driven score, and as delicate as the late Harris Savides’ bright and inviting cinematography.
An endlessly rewatchable movie about the struggle to make the things that are important to you be the things that are important to you (a struggle that money has a strange way of making harder), “Somewhere” emphasizes Coppola’s rare gift for mining the biggest feelings from the subtlest moments, and it continues to resonate strongly with anyone who knows what it’s like to suffer from themselves. —DE
“This Is Not a Film” (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011)
Cinema of the 2010s reflected a decade of seismic change, but in truth, things were always and already changing. However, while it would be futile to look for a particular inflection point, such a quixotic search would inevitably lead to you to a birthday cake that someone made in May of 2011. Hidden inside that cake, which was shipped from Tehran to Cannes, was a USB drive. And stored on that USB drive was a cheeky new masterpiece by Jafar Panahi, whom the Iranian government had placed under house arrest and banned from making films. But this was not a film. For one thing, it was shot on an iPhone inside Panahi’s apartment, and primarily focused on the director’s frustrations over his prohibition from shooting anything. For another, it was literally called “This Is Not a Film.”
Of course, it was a film — and a brilliant, furious one at that. But it was also a defiant sign that our definition of film itself was about to be challenged in several fundamental ways, and potentially for the better. Resourceful and self-reflexive proof that some artists are at their best with their backs against the wall, “This Is Not a Film” isn’t just an embittered middle finger to the “undemocratic democracy” that Panahi had always called home, it’s also a galaxy brain meditation on the power of cinema and its ultimate purpose. “Why would you make a film if you could just talk through it?” Panahi asks himself while sitting on the floor of his apartment and telling us the story of the other, larger movie that Iran’s government wouldn’t let him shoot. Panahi, canny and playful as always, knows full well that he’s answering his own question. —DE
“First Reformed” (Paul Schrader, 2018)
Paul Schrader’s best movie in years stars Ethan Hawke in a gruff, mesmerizing performance that ranks as one of his best, and one that’s in sync with the anxious material. Hawke’s Reverend Toller is an upstate New York priest who faces a crisis of faith as he attempts to help out a pregnant woman and learns of an ecological conspiracy behind his church’s main benefactor. But this is no traditional theological drama. The movie’s taut, suspenseful narrative remains in the confines of its protagonist’s perspective as his grip on reality slowly comes unraveled, leading to a shocking finale that forces its audience to grapple with its potent themes from the inside out.
Schrader’s screenplay epitomizes the transcendental cinema he praised in a book about that tradition of storytelling decades ago. Each moment contributes to a slow-burn tapestry filled with yearning and curiosity interspersed with palpable dread. The movie captures a moment of existential uncertainty about the future of the world, but there’s at least one optimistic outcome from all this: It’s filmmaking of the highest order from an American master finally receiving the appreciation he deserves. —EK
“Paddington 2” (Paul King, 2017)
At a time when the free world is run by a malignant cancer of a man who encourages people to embrace their worst selves, Paul King’s sublime “Paddington 2” was the best and most pointed of the “nicecore” movies to defy the belief that we have to tear each other down in order to prop ourselves up. A relentlessly clever and scathing rebuke to Brexit and the Trumpian xenophobia that made it possible, this delightful sequel about a talking bear and a stolen pop-up book is as silly as the day is long.
And yet, much like the fussy Wes Anderson films that King looked to for inspiration, “Paddington 2” uses its cock-eyed comic energy to stare down some very serious matters. Washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (an iconic Hugh Grant) may be the story’s villain, but his broad dastardliness brings a wide coalition of people — including immigrants, prisoners, and children — together in a way that refutes the idea that nice movies have to distract us from the horrors of our world. The second half of this decade was dominated by movies that promised to be “the thing we need right now,” but “Paddington 2,” which so winsomely encourages people to look out for each other, was one of the few that deserved the description. It still does. —DE
“The Wind Rises” (Miyazaki Hayao, 2013)
A strange thing happened when beloved filmmaker (and godhead of Studio Ghibli) Hayao Miyazaki ended his most recent bout of retirement and announced that he’s working on another feature, which is slated to be released in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020: Some of his most dedicated fans were disappointed to learn that he was coming back for more. They weren’t surprised, necessarily — Miyazaki had pulled this stunt before — nor did they doubt his ability to add yet another perfect limb to one of cinema’s most extraordinary bodies of work. On the contrary, the problem was that Miyazaki was at the height of his powers, and that his would-be swan song was such a perfect summation of his life as an artist that making another movie would risk gilding the lily. Of messing with Miyazaki’s legend.
Only time will tell how that pans out (there will never be another Miyazaki, so this critic is coming around to the idea of getting to see another Miyazaki film), but for now “The Wind Rises” is still one of cinema’s most sensational closing statements, and just because it won’t stay that way for much longer doesn’t detract from how beautifully it captures Miyazaki’s tortured humanism and singular genius.
A far cry from the fantasticality that defines Ghibli’s output, “The Wind Rises” is, of all things, a (fictionalized and composited) biopic of Japanese engineer Horikoshi Jiro (stunningly voiced by “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Anno Hideaki), who designed the A6M Zero fighter jets that were used to attack Pearl Harbor. Some people made a compelling case that the film glosses over Japan’s role in World War II, and paints the Nazi-allied nation as a victim rather than a perpetrator, but others felt the three-hankie melodrama resolves into a wistful meditation on the true cost of making beautiful things; that a latent guilt is drawn into every scene.
Miyazaki has always been obsessed with aeronautics, but he’s been just as consumed by various kinds of corruption, including that of his family at the hands of a workaholic father — by the volatile relationship between the purity of our dreams and the violence required for them to become real. Yes, “The Wind Rises” is the portrait of a man who conceived of killing machines, but it’s one that Miyazaki devastatingly reframes into the self-portrait of a man struggling to assess the ultimate value of his creations. In hindsight, Miyazaki was never going to leave it at that and walk away forever; he knows that this is the only thing that draws air into his lungs. “The wind is rising!” the poet said. “We must try to live.” —DE
“Magic Mike XXL” (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)
Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” is a nice little movie about hard abs and an even harder economy — it’s a well-oiled recession-era portrait of people who try to stay swole as their country wastes away around them. “Magic Mike XXL,” on the other hand, had something very different in mind. Less of a semi-grounded drama than it is a Busby Berkeley musical in banana hammocks, Gregory Jacobs’ euphoric sequel took all of the original film’s underlying seriousness and gyrated it into dust.
Tempering a bachelorette party naughtiness with a boyhood innocence in a way that isn’t nearly as creepy as that sounds, Jacobs’ unbridled masterpiece follows Mike (Channing Tatum at his most pure) and the rest of his male stripper friends as they undress themselves across the state of Georgia; “one last ride” before they all have to grow up and go their separate ways. The decade’s single most ecstatic film moves from one unforgettable dance number to the next absent any narrative conflict or actual stakes, but dripping with a wistful sense of finality and bundled up in a package of uncut joy.
Each setpiece — from the tag-team finale to an impromptu gas station show that should be projected directly onto the Sistine Chapel — is choreographed with the joy and balleticism of a Yuen Woo-ping fight scene, and they’re all brought to life by characters who genuinely love each other. You can feel the weight of their friendship even when these men aren’t grinding on top of you with “Pony” blasting from the speakers so loudly that no one can hear the siren’s call of the future. Men didn’t look so great this decade, but in “Magic Mike XXL” they were beautiful inside and out. —DE
“Amour” (Michael Haneke, 2012)
After the audacious and viscerally disturbing likes of “Funny Games,” “The White Ribbon,” and “The Piano Teacher,” news of Michael Haneke’s 11th feature appeared to signal either a bold change of pace or a trollish joke: It would be a hard-hitting love story inspired by his own parents, and it would be called “Amour.” It turned out the stone-faced Austrian provocateur was playing it straight. Unflinchingly demystifying what it really means when people say “til death do us part,” Haneke delivered the most straightforward film of his career. And, as a result, also the most jarring.
For this grim family saga, Haneke adopted a more simple and contained mise-en-scene than his usual style, reducing his canvas to the Paris apartment where a wealthy older couple (the brilliant Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, the latter of whom agreed to act in his first movie in 14 years) is left to battle their decaying bodies. In order to concentrate on the emotional relationship between the two characters, Haneke returned to the three classical unities of place, time, and action. That stripped-down approach focuses our attention on Trintignant and Riva, and makes the silent bond between husband and wife almost unbearably palpable as their story lurches towards a conclusion that’s both heartbreaking and also — however morbid this might be — as tender an ending as any marriage can hope to enjoy.
The elegantly wrought end-of-life drama wrecked weeping audiences at Cannes, where it took home the Palme d’Or on its way to earning a Best Picture nomination. Riva, at 85 the oldest ever Best Actress nominee, was robbed of her last chance at an Oscar win. She died in January 2017. —AT
“Boyhood” (Richard Linklater, 2014)
A long, long time ago, Richard Linklater started production on a movie following the development of a child from the age of seven through the end of his teenage years. If there was ever project that demanded to be informed by the history of its making, “Boyhood” is it. Epic in scope yet unassuming throughout, Linklater’s incredibly involving chronicle marks an unprecedented achievement in fictional storytelling — the closest point of comparison, Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, don’t contain the same singularity of vision.
Shot over the course of 39 days spread across more than a decade, “Boyhood” is an entirely fluid work that puts the process of maturity under the microscope and analyzes its nuances with remarkable detail. More than that, it amplifies the elusive qualities that feed into a single conscious experience: passing moments that might seem meaningful, dramatic, amusing or scary in the moment before fading into our cluttered memory banks. The “story” of “Boyhood” is less relevant than its ability to enthrall us with small asides even as the years keep moving along. Linklater consolidates his fascination with time and existential yearning found in many of his movies, but it’s never forces here. The ultimate triumph of “Boyhood” is that its brilliance creeps up on you. —EK
“O.J.: Made in America” (Ezra Edelman, 2016)
Ezra Edelman was well aware that the world didn’t need another salacious retelling of the O.J. Simpson story, and he had zero interest in digging up new evidence that might introduce more question marks into one of the ugliest tabloid scandals in history. Instead, his staggering eight-hour “O.J.: Made in America” took a big step back to reframe a saga that virtually everyone in this country already knows by heart. Turning Simpson’s entire life into a kaleidoscopic look at the United States’ history of racial prejudice — with a special eye towards the relationship between the LAPD and Los Angeles’ African-American community — Edelman peeled back decades of lurid gossip to reveal a raw mess of unhealed wounds.
The movie’s bottomless well of archival footage doesn’t serve as traditional b-roll, but instead becomes an emotional window into seeing the past through a different lens. Through Edelman’s intellect and rigorous vision, the long arc of Simpson’s life and that of America’s racial animus blend into one, revealing an uncomfortable spectrum of truths that people may not have expected to find in this story. And that’s why “Made in America” felt like such a subversive act: Well over 60 million Americans tuned in to ESPN (and various other platforms) to bask in the glow of a reheated history lesson, only to be confronted by an epic look at the conflicted soul of a country in perpetual crisis. —CO
“Burning” (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
A cryptic tale with a long fuse and a final scene that leaves nothing but scorched earth behind it, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” ignited the Croisette at Cannes in 2018, and the enthusiasm only grew from there. Freely adapted from a (very) short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee’s sordid epic centers on three characters: An aspiring writer (Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su), a tantalizing childhood friend who’s been transformed by plastic surgery (Jeon Jong-seo), and the clean-cut but mysterious new boyfriend (Steven Yeun) she meets on a trip to Africa. The trio become caught in a bizarre love triangle of sorts, as Jong-su’s initial suspicions of the handsome stranger boil into an all-consuming animosity when the girl that ties them together mysteriously goes missing.
Yeun anchors this enigma of a movie with a stellar performance that brims with sociopathic charm, while Yoo and Jeon are arresting as the people drawn into his darkness. A vivid portrait of loneliness, working-class frustrations, and the impotent male rage those things tend to trigger, “Burning” is fueled by brilliant acting from all three parts, and forever singes the skin with a stunning scene of Jeon dancing to Miles Davis topless, stoned, and free in front of a sky on fire. —LL
“Get Out” (Jordan Peele, 2017)
From the basics of its clever premise to the bloodshed of its Grand Guignol finale, Jordan Peele’s sledgehammer of a response to the illusion of a “post-racial” America felt like a direct provocation that was somehow detonated across the entire country all at once. It helped, of course, that “Get Out” was released just a few short months after the 2016 election, as the film’s timeliness helped it to assume even greater levels of urgency; and, for black audiences, new degrees of knowing catharsis.
Peele’s concern was whether white audiences would be able to roll with a movie about a black man (a brilliant Daniel Kaluuya) who gets ensnared by the diabolical machinations of his white girlfriend’s family — a movie in which every white character was pure evil. “What if white people don’t want to come see the movie because they’re afraid of being villainized with black people in the crowd?,” the writer-director said in an interview in advance of the film’s debut. True enough, “race film” images of a black man gruesomely slaughtering an entire white family (no matter how justified) are as radical as ever at a time when the president draws the brunt of his power from racial animus. But white audiences turned out in droves; they would have seen “Get Out” three times if they could have. Black viewers, meanwhile, were treated to a movie that was effectively “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” for a new generation; a movie that used genre tropes to reflect America’s foundational history of racial dehumanization against a disarmingly entertaining funhouse mirror. The horror has seldom been clearer. —TO
“Phantom Thread” (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
Before “Phantom Thread” was finally unveiled at the tail end of 2017, it was rumored that Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature was an S&M period piece that had more in common with “Fifty Shades of Grey” than it did any of the classic British melodramas that were made around the time this story is set. In truth, this perverse love story about a renowned dressmaker (a career-capping Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock) and the soft-spoken waitress Alma (Vicki Krieps) he takes as his muse turned out to be a strictly PG affair, one far more interested in adding clothes than taking them off. In the end, however that buttoned-up chasteness is precisely what permitted Anderson to sew such a compelling piece about love and control, dominance and submission, as the auteur thread the needle between haute escapism and something much closer to home.
That “Phantom Thread” feels like Anderson’s most personal feature may have surprised some viewers, but diehard fans can see the evidence stitched into every frame. In his meticulous eye for detail, fastidious work ethic, and obsessive need for control over his surroundings, Anderson created his perfect spiritual twin in Reynolds, and the demanding couturier became an ideal vessel for Anderson’s own self-flagellation. The director was so hands-on here that he even shot the film himself, his stunning cinematography aided by Mark Bridges’ sumptuous costume design and a Jonny Greenwood score that throbbed with decades of pent-up frustration. Krieps and Lesley Manville are both extraordinary as the women of Woodcock, and the film’s reverence for them grows into a gloriously twisted mea culpa.
“Phantom Thread” takes the ugliness of its central romance and turns it into something beautiful, as Anderson riffed on the likes of “Rebecca” (with a whiff of “The War of the Roses” for good measure) to create an immaculately old-fashioned portrait of obsession. Anderson had already made a number of spirited duets about two strange people who need each other for balance, but the sly genius of Krieps’ performance — the way Alma slowly casts her shadow over Reynolds and takes control of the wheel for herself — added a beautiful new wrinkle to a story about the ugly strength that people derive from their partners’ weaknesses. Powerlessness, Anderson conceded in the end, can offer real pleasures of its own. —JD
“Toni Erdmann” (Maren Ade, 2016)
There were plenty of cringe-inducing comedies to choose from over the last 10 years (some more deliberate than others), but nothing could touch Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” a ruthless and scabrously funny portrait of a mischievous father’s quest to reclaim a place in his daughter’s sterile, high-strung life. Often hysterical and agonizing at the same time (look no further than the memorable naked party scene in the third act), and home to the best use of a Whitney Houston song since “The Bodyguard,” Ade’s epic tragicomedy might seem like nothing more than an epic provocation, but the 162-minute German film mines the full genius of actors Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek on its way to becoming a truly touching portrait of two people who can only be helped by each other. “Toni Erdmann” is relentlessly entertaining and impossible to replicate. Naturally, an English-language remake has been languishing in development ever since Ade’s film came out. —TO
“Call Me by Your Name” (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
Miraculously, Luca Guadagnino made a movie that looks, sounds, and feels as fleeting and infinite as a teenager’s first summer love. Who knew it resembled the golden light of an Italian villa, or the smiling eyes of a father witnessing his child’s first heartache? Or that it could be heard in a chorus of window shutters as they clatter in the wind, the heavy slam of a wooden door, or a spoon’s clumsy tap tap tap on top of a soft-boiled egg? And — if not for being able to clutch their chests in a dark movie theater that transported them to the place where they first lost their sanity to a pretty face — who would have known that love feels like rolling lazily into a fountain, or the moist insides of a peach?
If “Moonlight” is the decade’s defining queer coming-of-age film, then “Call Me By Your Name” is its grand gay romance. It is the “Brokeback Mountain” of its era, made all the more sweeter and more sensitive for being directed by an actual gay person. Sexuality notwithstanding, it’s hard to think of any recent film that makes such a meal out of love. The last 10 years saw the romantic drama vanish along with the romantic comedy, but “Call Me by Your Name” made falling in love feel sexy again. All it took was the sight of Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer staring each other down in short shorts, and suddenly we knew in a permanent way that it would always be better to speak than to die. —JD
“World of Tomorrow” (Don Hertzfeldt, 2015)
One of life’s few truly perfect things — and hands down the most quotable film of the decade — Don Hertzfeldt’s 17-minute “World of Tomorrow” is an immaculate eruption of big ideas that’s contained within a closed loop of continuous delight. Conceived as an excuse for Hertzfeldt to teach himself the basics of digital animation, written around unscripted recordings of his four-year-old niece, and nominated for an Oscar that it didn’t win because life is stupid, this ecstatic epic tells the story of an oblivious little girl named Emily Prime who’s visited by a time-traveling adult clone of herself (voiced by Julia Pott) and spirited away on a whirlwind tour of our species’ mordant and hilarious future.
On the surface, “World of Tomorrow” just looks like a pair of stick figures wandering through colorful bursts of jagged computer imagery. One of them talks about falling in love with a moon rock and growing so lonely that she can hear death; the other draws a triangle. And yet, by the time the duo arrives back where they started, their circular adventure through time and space has somehow resolved into an unspeakably profound meditation on the preciousness of the present. What more could you want from a movie that’s shorter than an episode of “Young Sheldon?” That’s a rhetorical question, but Hertzfeldt was kind enough to answer it anyway: “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” was released in 2017, and it’s every bit as grim and glorious as the first installment. —DE
“The Social Network” (David Fincher, 2010)
What’s cooler than a film in which Facebook is outed as the soul-crushing behemoth it was always meant to be, simply by laying waste to the man who created it in his image? A billion dollars. Oh, and a film just like the one described, but starring Jesse Eisenberg in one of his best roles yet, Justin Timberlake actually leaning into his smarm (for a reason!), with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher. As slick and cool and snappy as Mark Zuckerberg would like to picture himself and his legacy — but no, like, actually those things — “The Social Network” plays out like a wacky Shakespearean tragedy that takes on added resonance by the minute.
There are timely films, and then there’s “The Social Network,” which was good enough back in 2010 to notch eight Oscar noms (and three wins, including Best Adapted Screenplay) and somehow seems as fierce and prescient and essential now, nearly a decade later. Pre-dating fake news, the rise of Twitter, and whatever the hell Tik Tok is, “The Social Network” is both a thrilling, queasy exploration of how Facebook came to be and a searing indictment of what it would inevitably become. Bonus: two Armie Hammers, surely cooler than just one. —KE
“Dogtooth” (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2010)
In the decade since “Dogtooth” surfaced in a sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos has become an internationally revered auteur, the master of twisting weird narrative conceits into funny, inspired commentary on human behavior. Given that track record, it’s easy to forget just how shocking this sophomore effort was when it caught audiences off-guard. Lanthimos’ Orwellian look at a deranged set of parents that keep their children in lockdown, forcing them to adhere to a bizarre set of rituals that they assume limit the entirety of their world, merges many tropes at once: It’s a deranged suburban satire and a mortifying dystopian thriller, a meditation on emerging sexual identity, and intergenerational violence.
It also created the template for the many Lanthimosian tales to come, with a consistent logic to its invented world that allowed for a zillion strange twists that all fit within the context of a bigger disturbing picture. Lanthimos is seen as a provocateur, but he’s actually a canny artist who pokes at some of the stranger rituals of civilization by taking them to certain extremes until they become alien. Make no mistake: “Dogtooth” is a searing indictment of family values that positions them as the ultimate corruptive instinct. It’s the most subversive filmmaking achievement in recent memory because it hits so close to home. —EK
“Leviathan” (Vérena Paravel & Lucien Castain-Taylor, 2012)
There are moments in “Leviathan” so breathtaking that it’s easy to forget they’re also familiar. Documentarians Vérena Paravel and Lucien Castain-Taylor follow a pair of fishing vessels off the coast of Massachusetts from nearly every imaginable angle as well as a few impossible ones: Captured on small digital cameras fixed to fishermen helmets, tossed beneath the waves and strewn across the deck among the dead-eyed haul, the barrage of visuals populating “Leviathan” produce a dissociative effect. The dialogue is sparse and distant, drowned out by hulking machinery, wind and water.
The movie could take place on another planet; instead, it peers at this one from a jarring and entirely fresh point of view. The star filmmakers from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab deliver one of the finest illustrations of digital technology as a means of forwarding cinematic art — but even those lofty ambitions can’t evoke the sheer visceral impact of this absorbing look at men and nature, intwined in a chaotic ballet of motion and sound. More than any overproduced IMAX nature documentary, “Leviathan” revises the wonders of the natural world to a whole new plane. —EK
“The Tree of Life” (Terrence Malick, 2011)
The decade’s ultimate cinematic meditation — and regrettably also one of its most powerful marketing influences — Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning “The Tree of Life” saw the fabled auteur pivot away from historical epics and towards the more intimate and confessional searches for meaning that he’s been making ever since. And yet, for obvious reasons, this remains his most personal film, and the one that best hones his free-wheeling approach into a hopeful cry for help.
Reanimating the director’s own childhood in 1950s Texas, “The Tree of Life” ebbs and flows through time in a way that makes it possible to feel Malick wrestling with his faith in every frame. The story is anchored to a suburban couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) whose middle child dies under mysterious circumstances. Their eldest son (Hunter McKracken as wide-eyed proxy for young Malick) bears mystified witness to his parents’ grief, and grows increasingly attuned to the discord that he hears between his idyllic home and the world around it.
Malick, whose vision has never been so vast or so precise, juxtaposes this internal strife with events as cosmic as the Big Bang (the movie’s 20-minute “creation of the universe” sequence unfolds with almost biblical awe), and as tactile as a mother feeling the softness of her newborn’s feet. The weightless aesthetic language that Malick created with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki would soon become the stuff of self-parody, but here it’s tinged with the sweet pain of nostalgia and an interstellar feeling of nothingness all at once. To watch “The Tree of Life” is to see someone locate their place in the universe, and cathartic final stretch of Malick’s film encourages us all to look at ourselves through that humbling lens. —ZS
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2011)
Thai multimedia super-talent Apichatpong Weerasethakul has made a career out of directing movies that seem like dense visual riddles, matching poetry with mysterious cinematic designs. But where his earlier features were more energizing as intellectual exercises rather than intoxicating narrative pursuits, his Palme d’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” steered his usual heady approach into a delightful fantasy realm of ghost monkeys and cunnilingus-happy catfish.
The title character is a middle-aged man living in the forest and dying from an illness. One evening, during a visit from his nephew, Boonmee also gets met by the ghost of his long-dead wife and missing son. They discuss the sense of displacement that death brings them, marrying the strange tone to seriously lyrical observations of mortality. But Weerasethakul doesn’t take the scene any more seriously than we do: Another living person joins the table and takes in the eclectic group, concluding, “I feel like I’m the strange one here.”
“Uncle Boonmee” sustains that beguiling weirdness by carefully melding its poetic and cosmic forces, and the film’s enduring magic is rooted in how it makes every single viewer feel like “the strange ones.” The lush imagery emboldens Weerasethakul’s enigmatic plotting, and the story grapples with folklore, memory and death in a wonderfully playful manner that’s accessible and cryptic at the same time. Guided by forces as otherworldly as his plot, Weerasethakul turns narrative confusion into his greatest trick. —EK
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
Richer than “Casino,” bigger than “Goodfellas,” more damning than “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and funnier than anything Martin Scorsese has made before or since, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is destined to be remembered as one of its director’s greatest films. Eventually. One day, after the whole thing burns down, we’ll all be able to look back at this debauched caricature of extreme capitalism and recognize the honesty of its excesses, but it’s hard to gawk at the sight of a house on fire while you’re still trapped inside the building. A three-hour bacchanalia of a biopic that explores the relationship between money and morality better than a more sober portrait of Jordan Belfort ever could (and better than any film this side of Bresson’s “L’Argent”), “The Wolf of Wall Street” was famously accused of glorifying the kind of white-collar crime that America has always encouraged — this, three years before one of the most corrupt men in the country became President in order to keep his head above an ocean of tainted water.
And while it’s true that this only became Scorsese’s most successful movie because some people saw it for the wrong reasons and eagerly chugged from its poison chalice, the lack of moralizing is precisely what makes this film so righteous. It’s what empowers Leonardo DiCaprio to go into hot buffoon mode and deliver the most full-throttle performance of his career, what galvanizes Margot Robbie’s gold-digging sexpot into an unforgettable icon of upward mobility, and what allows screenwriter Terence Winter to turn the story of a Ponzi scheme into a clear-eyed look at what people really want.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t endorse Jordan Belfort — it doesn’t argue that greed is good. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a film in which the good guys are represented by an emasculated Kyle Chandler as a fed who’s left to ride the subway and play with his “fun coupons,” is simply brave enough to grapple with the idea that greed is entertaining; it’s a show that we can’t stop watching, even if it leaves us bankrupt in the end. Opportunity is what America promises, but Scorsese knows that greed is what it rewards. Until it doesn’t. —DE
“Lady Bird” (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
Early in Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age charmer “Lady Bird,” eponymous leading lady Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (a breakout Saoirse Ronan, who seems to “break out” more with every role) is asked by a teacher if her preferred nickname is actually her given name (it is, of course, not). Chin set, shoulders back, she declares, “I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.” That’s Lady Bird’s entire ethos in a nutshell. Gerwig’s film — her solo directorial debut, which she also wrote — follows Lady Bird through her senior year at the insular Immaculate Heart High School, a private Catholic institution in the suburbs of Sacramento that doesn’t really suit her sensibilities.
As Lady Bird, Ronan is all energy and spirit and angst, an eye-rolling teen on the cusp of something new, something more, just something else. She doesn’t have it all figured out, and she doesn’t have to. It doesn’t hurt that she’s surrounded by an aces supporting cast, including Oscar winner Laurie Metcalf, a breakout Beanie Feldstein, and very different (yet equally “dope”) love interests in Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet.
A satisfying and razor-sharp coming-of-age tale that builds on the genre with its own wit and wackiness — it’s not every teen-centric movie that could make off with its leading lady tossing herself out of a moving vehicle and pulling together a tear-soaked final sequence with equal aplomb — the film was an instant classic the moment it hit the big screen. That it established Gerwig, the kind of talent often referred to as “generational” in her impact, as the next great American filmmaker, that was just icing on the incredibly uncomfortable Thanksgiving feast that is “Lady Bird” and the life it creates. —KE
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
It’s a film that was first dreamed up on an airplane: Filmmaker George Miller was on a long flight back to his native Australia when he closed his eyes and had a vision of five wives fleeing a ruthless warlord. Fifteen agonizing years and 3,500 storyboards later — several lifetimes since he’d first raced into the sand-blasted apocalypse of “Mad Max” — Miller was finally able to make his dream a reality, and on a scale that nobody had ever seen before.
An almost-wordless non-stop action movie that steamrolls the rules of studio filmmaking, “Mad Max: Fury Road” found Miller continuing to riff on western tropes, returning to the wasteland for a story that substituted wheels for horses and pit survivors of the apocalypse against each other in a hostile desert poisoned by radiation and short on resources. This time around, the Road Warrior is played by Tom Hardy, but it’s one-armed Imperator Furiosa (ex-dancer Charlize Theron in the most sinewy and physical role of her career) and her coterie of war brides who are really behind the wheel and driving to reclaim their humanity.
It was up to Miller’s humongous team—1,700 crew were spread over several football fields at base camp—to realize his imaginings, from Jenny Beavan’s detailed costumes to 150 hand-built vehicles and multiple digital cameras shooting over 120 days. No one else could have conceived and executed the movie’s complex action sequences constructed via both practical and CGI effects. Miller directed the action from inside a speeding decked-out dune buggy control room, manipulating multiple stunts at a time: Cirque du Soleil’s swoony acrobatic pole vaults, perfectly controlled by weights; remote control drivers that allowed the actors to look like they were steering the vehicles; an Australian wire-rigging crew imported from the Sydney and Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies. Finally, Miller turned over some 400 hours of footage to be whittled down by his brilliant editor and wife, Margaret Sixel. She won one of the film’s six tech Oscars. It should have won all ten. There will never be another “Fury Road.” —AT
“The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
Every Paul Thomas Anderson movie is a cause for celebration, and in all three decades of his career, he has produced some of the defining works of the era. But “The Master” managed a rare synthesis of PTA’s different modes: It merges the jittery, eccentric intimacies of lonely soul-searching in “Punch-Drunk Love” with the sprawling historical inquiries of “There Will Be Blood” to craft a searing insight into the country’s fractured identity. As an enigmatic period drama about the roots of Scientology, it’s a remarkable window into the process through which cultish behavior can tunnel its way into a fragile mind.
At the same time, it’s an amusing dark comedy about how alienation can lead to outright rebellion, and why all organized approaches to life are doomed to fail. At its center are the experiences of disgruntled WWII Navy man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who stumbles in an inebriated stupor onto the cult-infested ship commanded by Lancester Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a dead ringer for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Their jarring, idiosyncratic exchanges unfold as a series of mysterious encounters against the exploratory notes of Jonny Greenwood’s wondrous score.
By the time the movie gets going, Freddie has already lost his way. Initially drawn to Lancester’s warm community, he’s quickly subsumed by older man’s unorthodox approach to personal therapy. Once Freddie comes to terms with Lancester’s con artistry, he’s too immersed in the community to simply walk away. Bookmarked by farcical images of Phoenix on the beach cuddling with a naked woman carved in sand, “The Master” shows how personal indulgences are a form of religion, too. Lancaster might have been a nutty puppet master, but without some sense of order, Freddie’s a slave to his baser desires. The alarming punchline suggests that even a manipulative cult has the power to save a broken man; at the end of the day, we’re all slaves to the system, and without it, most of us are merely adrift. In a filmmaking career defined by gut-punch emotional revelations, this one stings the hardest. —EK
“Carol” (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Whenever Todd Haynes’ unspeakably beautiful Patricia Highsmith adaptation comes to mind, it brings some of the novel’s last words along with it: “It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and hell.” In that light, a spot on a list of the decade’s best films hardly seems like much of a reach.
Brought to life by the careful genius of Phyllis Nagy’s script, the supple glow of Ed Lachmann’s 16mm cinematography, and two of the most extraordinary performances ever committed to celluloid (which isn’t to sweep old Harge under the rug where he belongs), Haynes’ Carol is more than just a bone-deep melodrama about a mutual infatuation during a repressive time. It’s more than a vessel for Carter Burwell’s swooning career-best score, or Sandy Powell’s seductive costumes, or the rare queer romance that gave its characters a happy ending — an ending that resonates through Cate Blanchett’s coy smile with the blunt force of every impossible dream Carol Aird has ever had for herself. It’s more than just an immaculate response to decades of “if only” dramas like David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” or a heartstopping series of small gestures that builds into the single most cathartic last shot of the 21st century. It’s all of those things (and more!), but most of all it’s an indivisibly pure distillation of what it feels like to fall in love alone and land somewhere together. —DE
“Holy Motors” (Leos Carax, 2012)
Much is often made about the “magic” of movies, their transportive ability to immerse viewers in new worlds, but few have actually achieved this effect with the uncanny brilliance of “Holy Motors.” Leos Carax’s first feature in over a decade is the category-busting saga of a man named Oscar (Denis Lavant in one of the most eclectic performances ever) transforming into a range of characters around Paris — from an old woman begging for change to a man on his deathbed and the deranged street urchin known as Monsieur Merde. As he speeds around town in a limousine, from one performative gig to the next, the movie’s surreal logic continues to unfurl: This enigmatic figure, who operates at the whims of a shadowy organization, has grown forlorn and exhausted by his unusual gig. Anyone who has played many roles throughout an eclectic life would have to agree. When Oscar’s devout driver Céline (Edith Scob) puts on a mask from Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face,” it becomes clear that “Holy Motors” is also a love letter to cinema, the capacity for the art form to create indelible images that express more than any mundane reality could. By the time Oscar connects with a former lover (Kylie Minogue) who sings a mournful song about their past, Carax has funneled through virtually every film genre, funneling them together into a truly original expression of the art form that exists in a class of its own.
As “Holy Motors” continues through Oscar’s daylong odyssey, the movie becomes a lyrical allegory for the jagged rhythms of life itself. Consider the accordion interlude, when Oscar roams some cavernous hallways as an army of musicians follow him through a passionate performance. The sequence is a powerful statement on its own terms, embodying all the emotional fragility of what it means to engage in a quest for self-expression and grasp at every potential thread that comes along. One could say the same of the movie as a whole. —EK
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2013)
The Coen Brothers have always excelled at crafting intensely lovable losers — criminals and freaks and sadsacks and has-beens and wannabes — but even by their standards, the eponymous Llewyn Davis (a pre-“Star Wars” Oscar Isaac, on the cusp of all that implies) is one-of-a-kind. Loosely based on the life (and stalled-out) career of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the ‘60s-set “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows its title character over the course of one week in his knockabout life. While the week itself — complete with bad shows, worse recording sessions, a flirtation with frostbite, and a delightful orange tabby cat — is emblematic of Llewyn’s everyday existence, the Coens (and Isaac) never lose track of the fact that this is just one slice of his life.
As entertaining and rich as the film is, many of its pleasures and truths work because it’s clear how much more is going on in both Llewyn’s life and the dirty, cold, magical NYC he’s trapped inside. Impeccably crafted from top to bottom, from a Coens-penned script that teeters between wrenching drama and throw-up-your-hands, “that’s life!” comedy to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s loving lensing of a period New York. And that’s to say nothing of the music — the music! — from T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford that set Llewyn firmly into an era he never existed inside while also crafting a new musical legacy. Just like the film they inhabit, they zing from wacky jams (before his “Star Wars” turn, Adam Driver was out there issuing “wooopps” on “Please Mr. Kennedy” with his same Oscar-level attention) to heartbreakers like “Fare Thee Well.” It’s got everything, and all of it feels achingly real. —KE
“The Act of Killing”/”The Look of Silence” (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013/2015)
Over the last 10 years, “important” became the most misused adjective we have to describe the arts. Time and again, the word has been used to convince people that a particular movie might be endowed with moral urgency — that it’s good for them, and perhaps even for humanity at large. Most of the movies that were called that word didn’t merit it, and most of the movies that merited it didn’t boast an artistry worthy of their virtue. But then there was Joshua Oppenheimer’s diptych of “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence,” two documentaries that reflexively invoke the word “important” while also rendering it hopelessly, devastatingly inadequate. These films about the legacy of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide resonate not only because they’re important, but also because of how Oppenheimer’s craft activates that importance; how the audacity of his filmmaking dredges that history up from the darkness and injects it directly into our bones.
Prior to “The Act of Killing,” the ’65-66 genocide had been buried by all of the perpetrators who were still in power; an erasure that dictated the class and power structures of modern Indonesia. In “The Act of Killing,” the proud butchers are encouraged to tell the story themselves, and as they see it: A heroic fantasy of mass murder in the name of expunging “communists” and saving the country. Inviting the killers to re-enact their version of events and bring their delusional self-sacrifice to life on screen, Oppenheimer effectively allows these men to tell on themselves. The result is a film powerful enough to break the fever dream that had been holding Indonesia hostage for so long, as the national media reported on “The Act of Killing” and began the process of reconsidering Indonesia’s past.
With “The Look of Silence” — released two years later, but dangerously shot in the weeks right after the production of “The Act of Killing” — Oppenheimer flipped the script and looked at the genocide from the survivors’ perspective, seeing the slaughter through the eyes of those who had no power to challenge the false narrative that had entrapped them for so long. Via the film’s protagonist, Adi Rukun, whose very birth and existence had been shaped by the brutal murder of his older brother (an event described in “The Act of Killing”), Oppenheimer was able to confront the killers with the reality of their crimes. “The Look of Silence” foregoes the operatic style of its predecessor in order to better dovetail with Rukin’s contemplative nature and observational precision, and the approach results in some of the most wrenching reaction shots ever caught on camera. With “The Look of Silence,” Oppenheimer not only gave voice to the survivors, he empowered them to speak the truth they had always seen with their own two eyes. —CO
“Certified Copy” (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
Authoring a tortured romance set against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera wrote that “loves are like empires: when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away.” Those famous words from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” echo through the cobblestone Tuscan alleys of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” an Escher-like romance that examines how this world and everyone in it is held together by our shared convictions in half-remembered sources — how countries and relationships and even artistic canons are sustained by the mutual agreement (or mass delusion) that something, sometime, was real.
But what does it even mean for something to be “authentic?” Is the “Mona Lisa” not a copy of the woman who posed for it? Is a marriage not an ever-fading echo of some ancient vows — a dual performance between two perfect strangers who’ve committed to keep playing the long-forgotten people they were when they first fell in love? Is “Certified Copy” not still bracingly original, even though Kiarostami pulled from “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Journey to Italy,” and his own previous explorations of truth and beauty to make it?
Even before “fake news” became the decade’s most insidious catchphrase and deepfakes and Disney remakes destabilized the truth in ways that science-fiction always told us the future would, “Certified Copy” latched onto the anxieties of a world in which our own feelings are the only thing we know for sure. The film’s story, such as it is, begins in a small Italian village where a nameless woman (a never-better Juliette Binoche) encounters a writer (William Shimmel) who likes to question the order of things. When a local restaurant owner “mistakes” the two for a long-married couple, the characters lean into the idea — hard, and even when they’re alone. The thought occurs to every viewer at their own time, but it always lands with the thud of a Shyamalan-level plot twist: What if they are married, and were only pretending to be meet-cute!? Are they a real couple, or a convincing forgery? Kiarostami doesn’t care about the answer, but he’s utterly compelled by the difference.
More than just “Before Midnight” for philosophy majors, “Certified Copy” is a masterfully built house of mirrors for the ages that invites you to get lost in its halls time and time again. What begins as a heady conceptual exercise thaws into an emotionally overwhelming vivisection of truth, art, and the very nature of love itself. It was the first movie that Kiarostami shot outside of his native “Iran,” and — sadly in a way that just keeps stinging — one of the last that he was able to make before his death. And yet, the film’s influence can already be felt across this list, from “The Duke of Burgundy” to “Phantom Thread.” Or is that the influence of the work that Kiarostami channeled to make it? He’d certainly want us to wonder. And he’d welcome anyone to riff on what he left behind. As Binoche’s character put it: “Without the existence of copies, we wouldn’t understand originals.”—DE
“Under the Skin” (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
A mysterious woman drives a van through Glasgow, Scotland hunting for men that she can harvest for her alien home planet. She lures her prey into a watery black, strips off her clothes, and watches impassively as they sink into the dark and deflate. The pattern repeats and repeats and repeats until the alien meets someone who inspires her to take stock of who she might be hiding beneath her mission.
So goes the basic premise Jonathan Glazer’s beguiling masterpiece “Under the Skin,” an unclassifiable experience — is it horror? is it science-fiction? Like its homicidal E.T. of a heroine, it’s always in flux. It stares into the abyss with such cold and daring curiosity that it actually earns comparison to Kubrick. Glazer’s genius began with casting Scarlett Johansson in a role that forced her to detonate and deconstruct her bombshell beauty in a most dangerous way, as many of her character’s scenes were filmed with hidden cameras, and many of her character’s victims were oblivious men she picked up on the street. Those guys aren’t the greatest credit to their kind, but their humanity can’t help but rub off on the alien, who comes to question the nature of her task.
Exhibiting a bravery that she’s rarely displayed since, Johansson charts that awakening with a full-body sense of wonder, and allows the movie to slip towards empathy with the natural grace of a thought taking shape. She delivers the performance of a lifetime in a near-silent role, so meticulously nailing the fear, trepidation, and thrill of an outsider making her way through a foreign space that her screen presence comes to assume a locating force of its own. She’s the driving force behind a queasy new take on the age-old idea that we are our own worst enemies, and the rest of the movie warps itself to match her extraordinary dissonance; that’s especially true of Mica Levi’s innovative score, which churns a mess of synths and sick percussions into the hypnotic soundtrack of our own inner darkness. The more human Johansson’s character becomes, the more alien “Under the Skin” comes to feel. Any number of the decade’s films encouraged us to look at ourselves on screen, but none were so unafraid to recognize that we might not like what we see staring back. —ZS
“Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Barry Jenkins’ long-overdue followup to “Medicine for Melancholy” wasn’t your typical sophomore effort. Made a decade after that tender, insightful rumination on romance and gentrification, this sprawling look at romantic desire and the emotional hardships of the African-American experience folds its fixations into a profound creative tapestry. On one level, it’s a deep tragedy told in passing glances. At the same time, it’s a rallying call that broadens the potential for black artistry to permeate popular culture in fresh ways. Rich with evocative images and tender exchanges, the filmmaker’s treatment of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” displays the rare capacity to make grand statements with small gestures. No other epic this decade has managed that tricky balance, capturing timeless moments even as it embodies the uncertainties of its moment, and left such an impact on the state of American filmmaking in the process.
Yet “Moonlight” manages to slip its profundity into the guise of more traditional dramatic tropes. The movie explores the plight of a young black man across three eras, searching for his place in the world while struggling with his sexual identity under the burdens of class and a broken family. But much of that arc unfolds through sequences that defy the boundaries of a traditional plot. Instead, the story’s power comes from the gaps between words — and an ongoing battle to find the right ones. It’s an astonishing mood piece about the nature of being marginalized on many levels at once.
The tale of young Chiron, as he grows up and misses his opportunity to find a satisfying life, gets more desperate and mournful as it moves along. Finally, the boy becomes a man as he attempts one last shot at setting things right. Despite the somber tone, it’s a beacon of hope for the prospects of speaking up. Released a month before the 2016 presidential election, “Moonlight” nailed the sense of disconnect in American society well before it became supercharged. The tone reflects the mixture of despair and yearning at the center of our troubles times, but hovers above any precise historic moment. Its final image, of young Chiron gazing at the camera from the nighttime beach where his true self will always linger, is nothing short of iconic. —EK