50. Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood
(Quentin Tarantino, 2019, USA / UK)
Here a little melancholia, there some anger, and warm, sunshiny nostalgia almost every place. Tarantino’s love letter to the film culture of his childhood is just ironic enough to have some sting, and there’s cynicism around the edges in how he portrays his mildly pathetic main characters, but this is generally the most sweet-natured film of the director’s decidedly sour career. It’s a memory piece, layering in visual and sonic textures that make 1969 come back in languid, hang-out scenes of no particular weight, letting its viewer share in the fuzzy comfort of a well-made period film before spending its last third ripping all of that part and snarkily reminding itself and us that any re-creation of history is necessarily a fantasy – but a pleasant one.
49. Wolf Children
(Hosoda Mamoru, 2012, Japan)
In either Japanese or English, the title has us think of the children, but the greatest emotional weight of Hosoda’s masterpiece rests on their human mother. The film covers an extraordinary amount of material, starting as a college love story that turns into the closest thing to a neorealist family drama that an animated film about werewolves is going to become, before ending as a sprawling epic fantasy coming-of-age story. The anchor to everything is the bottomless affection a mother feels to her children, even when they confuse or scare or frustrate her, or when the time comes for them to leave home. Even in its most beautifully excessive bursts of animation style, it’s one of the most emotionally open anime features I can name.
48. A Separation
AKA جدایی نادر از سیمین
(Asghar Farhadi, 2011, Iran)
It speaks to how definitively this instant classic (one of those films that everybody agreed was a masterpiece the moment it came out, correctly) has told its story that a few weeks back, when I was starting my list for our Top 5 Divorce Movies podcast, my thought process basically began with “Okay, so A Separation, and then what else?” This unblinking depiction of a marriage dissolving even more because of the intractable political realities of life in Iran as because of the personalities of the individuals involved is a precision watch, with compositions and cuts that tell us everything the wordless conversations refuse to yield. But as elegant as it is formally, it’s the astonishing central quartet of performances, explosive without being showy, that lingers.
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013, USA / UK)
Pure melodramatic schlock dressed up by bleeding-edge technology, and that is exactly why I love it: for all its state-of-the-art CGI and unmatched use of digital 3-D effects, this is pure Classical Hollywood hokum that knows all you really need to sell a great time at the movies is an easily-grasped emotional situation drawn in bold strokes and a solid trouper to sell it with all she’s got. In this case, that trouper being Sandra Bullock, whose work here bests everything else in her career by a couple orders of magnitude. It’s appealingly overripe, the visuals are a non-stop march of knock-your-socks-off wow moments, and no sci-fi thriller on the books has done a better job of demonstrating the sheer horrifying emptiness of outer space.
46. The Lobster
(Yorgos Lanthimos 2015, Greece / Ireland / UK / Netherlands / France)
A merrily vicious anti-romance, in which the very idea of love is held to be a terrible mental sickness. The bone-dry dark comedy benefits from a killer cast, including perhaps the career-best performances of both Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and Lanthimos’s enthusiasm for provocative violence has never been more focused. The precise world-building in the set design, the coolness of the cinematography, and the brittle stylisation of the acting are the perfect artistic accompaniment to a story about the repugnance of a society that forces its inhabitants to bury their personalities inside mechanical performances of pre-approved emotions; it’s a credit to the film that it never spells this out, and that it can present this cynical idea with such a surplus of good humor.
45. Cold War
AKA Zimna wojna
(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2018, Poland / France / UK)
A film seemingly constructed entirely out of ellipses: it’s an epic historical romance spanning a continent in which we get only the greatest hits. That appeals to me twice over: first, because any strategy that gets any movie in with a running time below 90 minutes is a strategy I root for, and second, because it leaves Cold War with a kind of emotional intensification, boiling off everything but sheer melodramatic ardor. Plus, it manages to do this while also packing in enough glances towards geopolitics to justify its monolithic title, bringing the Cold War in on the edges, but also bringing our attention to the edges. And it doesn’t hurt matters that the glossy black-and-white cinematography is some of the most beautiful of the decade.
44. Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick, 2015, USA)
Anybody who wants to complain about Malick’s decade in the wilderness may do so with my blessing, but they will certainly not meet with my agreement. This psychological study of a sad, gorgeous rich man isn’t offering any new insights that European art films hadn’t run into the ground by the 1970s, but the packaging is astonishingly bold and radical, an attempt to do something entirely new with visual storytelling and narrative structure, and coming unbelievably close to actually carrying it off. It’s strangely shaped, but certainly not shapeless, and teasing out Malick’s tarot-based storyelling scheme is as intellectually fun as it is bizarre. Emmanual Lubezki’s use of a GoPro camera is possibly the single bravest and most unexpectedly beautiful cinematography gambit of the decade
43. Moonrise Kingdom
(Wes Anderson, 2012, USA)
Just a stupidly lovely little jewelry box of a movie. All of Anderson’s movie are fussy little dollhouses of well-chosen colors and prim compositions, but it’s fair to say that somewhat often, aesthetics swallow up emotion in his movies. Not so here, in what might well be the director’s most generous human story, a puppy love story that manages the miracle of generating non-stop conflict without having a single villain or malicious character. Its delicate re-creation of the look of a 1960s New England summer camp gives it enough bais in reality to feel meatier than some of the director’s work, and Alexandre Desplat’s “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe” is probably my favorite piece of music composed for a movie in the 2010s.
42. Starless Dreams
AKA رؤیاهای دم صبح
(Mehrdad Oskouei, 2016, Iran)
It looks simple enough – a documentary that embeds itself, cinéma vérité-style, into a specific place and around specific people (teenage girls at a juvenile detention center), and patiently waits to see human life pass before the lens – but it’s so much deeper and more shattering than the reductive version of its story looks (I went in with expectations of a by-the-books miserabilist message movie, and here we are). It is plain that Oskouei isn’t controlling this material by dictat, but responding in real time – and often right before our eyes – to the stories the young women tell him, moving from doing journalism to having a conversation with people unsure of how to read their stories into the world. Unbelievably harsh, and equally moving.
41. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
AKA Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011, Turkey / Bosnia & Herzegovina)
A lovely collision between the austerity of slow cinema and the nuts-and-bolts storytelling of a police procedural, this is the kind of film that gives “boring” a good name. It’s a movie that makes sure we are aware of the drudgery of time passing, both in the long night and long day that are each given a great deal of time to develop in its two-part structure, and in the way that it leaves huge voids of non-action during its languid 157-minute running time. It’s aggressive slow with a purpose: to give the characters plenty of time to grow good and frustrated, the better to start speaking their minds and in so doing, open up a rich moral dialogue. Plus, the cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful.