20. The Grand Budapest Hotel
(Wes Anderson, 2014, USA / Germany)
A tonal balancing act so delicate that I can’t tell you if it’s a movie of pure formalist joy with a melancholy grace note to offset the sweetness, or if it’s a deeply sorrowful film obsessed with lost history that bright colorful trappings and ironic jokes to keep it from being unendurably sad. It doesn’t actually matter, of course: the triumph here is that Anderson’s most precious, airless jeweled egg of a movie and his most sober, emotionally mature film co-exist effortlessly in the same body, buoyed up by Ralph Fiennes’s best performance and Alexandre Desplat’s best score. It’s a bittersweet confection of the highest order, and a film that moves me and gives me deep pleasure no matter how many times I see it.
19. The Green Fog
(Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, 2017, USA)
The cinephile equivalent of giving somebody a big box of chocolates: everything inside of it is different, and it is probably best to have it sparingly for dessert, not pretend like it’s a proper meal. But as truffles go, they don’t come a lot sweeter than this combination of YouTube video and Vertigo remake, in which Hitchcock’s masterpiece is sarcastically reassembled from footage of other movies shot in San Francisco. It’s an indulgent, experimental, snarky, and deeply entertaining look at what happens when we watch a movie: the magical perceptual whiz-bang that occurs as we mentally assemble movies on a cut-by-cut basis, accepting that this piece of film and that totally different piece of film are somehow creating a coherent reality out of the ether.
18. The Last of the Unjust
AKA Le Dernier des injustes
(Claude Lanzmann, 2013, France / Austria)
In what would be his final film carving out a single narrative from the mountain of footage collected for 1985’s Shoah, Lanzmann went to the opposite end of the spectrum from that monolithic study of collective guilt and shared trauma. This is the story of one man during the Holocaust, told at great length (220 minutes!), and in minutest detail. It is both a biography,and an attempt to fully consider the question of what the moral responsibility is owed by a single person during a time of widespread evil. And as assembled by the aging Lanzmann near the end of his life, it ends up doubling as his ambivalent commentary on his own role as self-appointed official stenographer of the Holocaust. Grueling and absolutely necessary.
17. High Life
(Claire Denis, 2018, UK / France / Germany / Poland / USA)
Effortlessly nailing her English-language debut, Denis transfers her gifts for sensual precision and unblinking focus on character flaws into a genre framework without missing a beat. Indeed, having sci-fi tropes present to freshen up her concerns makes this one of the best films she’s made in many years, as well as one of the best sci-fi projects by anybody. The balance between cosmic and intimate concerns, and the contrast between absolute, unhesitating love and vicious savagery, are both perfect, making for a vision of humanity’s identity that’s as comprehensive as anything the genre has produced, if somewhat more austere and harsh, in accordance with the director’s propensity for clear-eyed moral judgment. Contains perhaps the best use of screaming babies I’ve ever heard in a movie.
16. The Red Turtle
AKA La Tortue rouge
(Michael Dudok de Wit, 2016, France / Japan / Belgium)
A work of such unbelievably fine control over its visuals, doing nearly all of its storytelling through the finest gradations of its characters’ movements and expressions, that it could probably only be made in the presence of absolute control that animation permits, while also being sophisticated and subtle in ways that I had no clue that animation could be until I saw it. Not to mention that the story being thus told is such a crushing grown-up fairy tale, using the essentialist emotional states of crude folklore to depict familial and romantic love with daunting complexity on a level that movies rarely ever attempt. An excessively soft and glancing movie that lets its emotional devastation sneak up on you, rather than boldly announcing its arrival.
(Panos Cosmatos, 2018, USA)
Here is my theory of film: it is an audio-visual medium that takes place across a set duration, and is best when triggering an emotional response in the viewer using stylistic stimuli. Things likes story, characters, and themes are to be regarded as nice bonuses, but when they’re in the way of the first part, they are in fact problems. So with that in mind, I give you my perfect movie: in which color, sound, prog rock iconography, Nicolas Cage’s toothy, blood-soaked face, and a soundtrack that feels like a jet engine turned towards your chest create an apocalpytic vision of marital love that hits me entirely in my lizard brain. If I were not an abject coward, this would absolutely be in my top 10.
14. La Flor
(Mariano Llinás, 2018, Argentina)
An act of ludicrous pretension softens itself by constantly demonstrating embarrassed self-awareness about the scope of that pretension. Llinás’s 14-hour game of meta-storytelling, genre play, and pure screen acting obviously pitches itself towards a very small, self-selecting audience, but of all the giant audience-baiting acts of cinematic grandiosity, this is by some enormous margin the most joyful and fun. One does not feel drained by the experience, but energised and elevated: it uses its ample duration not to grind us down but to make us complicit in a non-stop act of goofy imagination and creativity. The fact that my two thoughts when it was over were “wait, already?” and “I can’t wait to see it again!” are, I think, all I need to know about.
13. The Turin Horse
AKA A torinói ló
(Tarr Béla and Hranitzky Ágnes, 2011, Hungary / France / Germany / Switzerland / USA)
It would appear that Tarr’s retirement plans are holding steady, so we can probably assume that the great Hungarian master’s final statement on humanity is this searing apocalyptic tale of people scratching out existence in a blasted wild from which all meaning and beauty have been stripped by the lacerating force of a howling wind. As final statements go, it’s pretty implacable and merciless, but we would expect nothing else from the director whose work so magnificently plumbed the depths of human inhumanity. The reliance on simple repetitions to stave off cosmic desperation is as heartbreaking as it is nihilistic, and while the film is hopless, it earns its misery through confident artistry and incisive characterisations. You’ll never look at boiled potatoes the same way.
12. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
(Don Hertzfeldt, 2012, USA)
A sprawling existentialist epic at 62 unbelievably packed minutes, seamlessly stitched together from three shorts that fit together so flawlessly that I can no longer think of them as separable. Hence the blatant cheat of putting them on this list. Whatever, it’s worth it to remind everybody of Hertzfeldt’s incomparably rich look at the human fear of mortality as filtered through the childish scrawl of a stick figure named Bill, whose desperate need to find meaning in his life and the universe is profound in a way that the most richly-appointed production by any master filmmaker could be proud of. And done in this minimalist, DIY form? It’s an outright miracle for this to be good at all, let alone for it to be this devastating.
(Miguel Gomes, 2012, Portugal / Germany / Brazil / France)
It’s easiest to describe this as a story about the sins of the past sitting quietly in the dark, rotting away, until they can poison the present, and it’s not not that. It’s a whole lot of things, after all, and an indictment of Portuguese colonialism in Africa that makes its criticisms almost solely through the skilled application of form is certainly high on the list. But it’s also about the tenuousness of human connection, the power of cinema to both transport us and tell us lies, and about how grainy 16mm film does different things, perceptually, than crisp 35mm film. And it does all of these things while preserving a flippant sense of humor. From where I stand, one of the decade’s instant classics.