A film that genuinely re-wired my brain – I don’t how anybody could be ready for Guzmán’s morally righteous debate about the interrelation between the present and past spirits of a place. Even if I wanted to tell you how clearly his film draws lines between Pinochet’s death squads and the work of doing astronomy in the Atacama Desert, I don’t think I could do it: the film structures its arguments through intuition and associations, not just (or even mostly) through plain language. But those arguments come through as clearly as the starlight in the dry desert sky, making for the kind of cinematic political history that completely spoiled me for all the films doing the same work without the extraordinary artistry and intellectual sophistication.
(Alejandro Landes, 2019, Colombia / Argentina / Netherlands / Germany / Sweden / Uruguay / USA / Switzerland / Denmark)
“What if Terrence Malick made a 1980s action movie, but it was also a politically-minded psycho-thriller without a stable protagonist?” isn’t a question I’d have come up with by myself, but that’s what we have great artists for. And I am fully prepared to anoint Landes a great artist based on just this, his first narrative feature. Every surprising cut and aggressive sound effect is simply perfect the compositions tell us everything we need to know about the minds of the characters and the power dynamics between them, and the bold structure, with the relay of central characters that helps to define its shape, is the intuitive work of someone who speaks cinema fluently as a first language. I hungrily await more from this director.
28. The Lighthouse
(Robert Eggers, 2019, USA)
It feels unfairly limiting to call this simply a highlight of the late-’10s art-horror cycle. Horror is there, to be sure, but so is eroticism, surrealism, offbeat literate humor, and the absolute best run of fart jokes of the decade. And all of it packaged into a psychodrama about feeling madness creeping up on you and not knowing how to stave it off. Coming at the end of a great decade for black-and-white cinematography, this is probably my favorite single example of the form, with it vicious high contrasts and fine detail, but in truth, I’m even more impressed by the soundtrack of ominous wind and thick fat raindrops than I am by the excellent visuals. Exquisite form all around, regardless, and terrifically expressionistic.
27. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl
(Yuasa Masaaki, 2017, Japan)
By now, anybody with the mildest interest in animation as an artform ought to take Yuasa’s name as a commandment. Nobody alive has done more to test out the aesthetic extremes of what can be done with the medium, and always while yoking his experiments to strong characters and interesting stories that can benefit from animation’s expressivity. Night Is Short isn’t his most radical work – it’s based on an earlier TV series he directed – but it is perhaps his most successful project, using a wacky grab-bag of stylistic flourishes to accompany a vividly unreal story of college-age longing and maturing. As chaotic, hormonal, and eager as its protagonists, this isn’t just a towering achievement in anime, it’s also my favorite coming-of-age story of the 2010s.
26. The Forbidden Room
(Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015, Canada)
The apotheosis of a Guy Maddin film, a surreal, subjective whirlwind of broken images and dreamily kinky notions of humanity, summing up the history of cinema from a perspective at the dawn of that history, rather than the end. It’s a hilarious parody of a raucous old-fashioned adventure movie, though the hilarity is split into so many fragments by the associative editing that the humor is maybe more theoretical than actual. It is, in any case, a heady love-letter to cinephilia, functioning almost entirely by means of shared reference points and an affection for the zesty garbage and cast-offs that have cluttered the entire history of “respectable” movies. Probably the most “not for everybody” film on this list, but it is overwhelmingly for me.
25. A Hidden Life
(Terrence Malick, 2019, Germany / USA)
It’s obviously not Malick’s “best” film, but it’s arguably his most comprehensive: there’s a little bit of every kind of movie he’s ever made, from the pastoral fables of the ’70s to the jangling plotless experiments of the ’10s. And with a few new things on top of it. Some of the things I love most about it (its non-stop fisheye lenses, its attempt to do a deep dive into the ramifications of a specifically Catholic moral universe) are some of the things that have proven most divisive, so rather than make claims about its objective strengths, I will merely declare that I will remain grateful that we have a filmmaker trying to grapple with the Big Questions right out in the open, without apology.
(Lucrecia Martel, 2017, Argentina / Brazil / Spain)
To the standard list of complaints about the poisonous history of colonialism, Martel’s first film after a decade in the wilderness adds an unexpected new one: it made life fucking boring. Something like an origin story for Martel’s three films about the soulless dysfunction of Argentina’s contemporary elites, this costume drama travels to the 18th Century to find that dysfunction in the selfish ineptitude and pettiness of a Spanish bureaucrat, played with maximum insipid banality by Daniel Giménez Cacho (a compliment!). A sharp-tongued modernist art film that injects bracing ironic humor into the doings of a costume drama about violent bureaucracy, the film is as tightly-made as it is smart, especially thanks to its brilliant use of sound effects and bland midcentury pop music instrumentals.
23. Boy and the World
AKA O Menino e o Mundo
(Alê Abreu, 2013, Brazil)
Over here we have the aesthetic: bright colors with crude lines and an aggressive flatness that looks like something from children’s edutainment television. Over there we have the theme, a wrathful indictment of global capitalism and its hungry destruction of the environment and communities. This combination could only possibly end in embarrassing disaster or a thrilling, shocking collision of the innocent and the far too worldly that allows the strident message to hit like a sledgehammer. If you prefer your movies to be more enjoyable than hectoring, it also does great work capturing the wide-eyed wonder of a child seeing the world for the first time, and in the floating world music tones of “Airgela”, it has my favorite original song from any 2010s movie.
22. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
AKA Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
(Céline Sciamma, 2019, France)
I write these words less than two months since I first saw this film, and it already feels like it’s been a crucial part of my identity as a cinephile for decades. It’s exquisitely classical, and almost unfathomably perfect; with even my most beloved films higher up on this list, I can probably come up with flaw or two, maybe even a severe flaw, but I wouldn’t change this devastating love story by a solitary frame. Sumptuous costumes and sets, vividly colorful cinematography, and two magnificently subtle performances that radiate passion of the first order cautiously and deliberately all add up to the best romantic movie in a generation, an exhausting tour of embarrassed crushes, hungry sexuality, and an all-time world-beater of a final scene.
21. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
(Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, 2018, USA)
Given how comprehensively superhero movies took over film culture in the 2010s, it’s nice that least one (and only one) of them was a masterpiece. No movie since the genre’s inception has done such a good job of capturing the feeling of reading a comic book: visually, in terms of the film’s endless creative style and outstanding sense of self-refrential, cross-media humor, and tonally, in its genuinely awe-inspiring ability to evoke the fantastic freedom promised by superpowers, the weightlessness and joy of being able to swing from skyscrapers and fly through space unencumbered by what is possible. And then, so casually that it almost doesn’t register, it pushes a message of racial equality that would be progressive for a grown-up movie, let alone a cartoon.