70. Cold War (2018, Paweł Pawelikowski, Poland/France/UK)
Feels like the summary of a romance instead of the actual work of it, but that’s kind of the point (and I do credit the detractors for knowing that and recognizing that it doesn’t work for them). These two characters are in an environment – represented especially well by the movie’s confined boxy visuals and arrangement of vertical thirds – where they just can’t express themselves as often as we expect of this sort of character study and it’s to the credit of Paweł Pawelikoski’s direction and the lead actors Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot that they are still able to intensify that ordeal between their chemistry and let the political history (I mean, you expected it with that title, right?) inform the spaces in between. A rich cold tragedy that fits so much in 88 minutes. Also the movie is 88 minutes, which huzzah! Movies that know how to be short!
69. This Is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran)
I’ll admit that I was at all fond of Closed Curtain as I am the rest of Jafar Panahi’s miraculous works after being sentenced to not make movies by his government, I’d probably cheat by looping all four post-band movies together in one spot. As it is, This Is Not a Film gets to have its individual moment in the spotlight: the beginning of a period of defiance for Panahi (and his co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who in fact also suffered an unrelated but still film-relevant arrest shortly after this movie was made) as he fluidly documents his physical confines in the form of his house arrest, lets that inform the imprisonment of his artistic sensibilities in tragic ways, and then finds a way to let that escape out and formulate. It’s not just that the movie is brave on the merit of its creation and release, but clearly something Panahi had to put together to figure things out because moving on to more creative runarounds, one of which will be appearing shortly.
68. Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen, USA)
Pixar’s movies are mostly four-quadrant products, but I feel like there’s constant pushback against the fact that the primary target audience is children (and of course their family). Pete Docter – who had already by this point showed his hand as one of the great emotional directors of a company whose every movie should already included a warning that your tears will create your own splash zone – ingeniously created with his designers a broad and abstract world of color and shapes (and that wonderfully fuzzy texture of its characters) that communicates to that target audience the complex nature of emotions and memories without watering it down. I already found that to be an incredible storytelling accomplishment in addition to being so visually satisfying and a rewatch only informed me on much richer it was as an internal story of a young girl dealing with change that I didn’t realize I underrated.
67. Jackie (2016, Pablo Larraín, USA/Chile/France/Germany)
The one major breakaway from Pablo Larraín’s leftist streak and I still find myself wondering what attracted him to a story about the former United States First Lady over the course of one awful week. But it’s clearly what interested him within the story itself: Larraín and his crew (particularly cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine) have turned lushness into something oppressive to surround Natalie Portman’s career-best performance with. This essentially gives way to deepen the film as a depiction of grief – given particular psychological complexity by Mica Levi’s excellent score – in a situation where the entire world is watching you grieve and keeping you confined to the spaces of one of the most recognizable homes in the world. A waking nightmare of a headspace without being particularly aggressive in its aesthetic, just trusting the flow of things to keep us aback.
66. Snowpiercer (2013, Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/Czech Republic)
On the one hand, I get how Parasite has become everyone’s favorite Bong Joon-ho movie (spoiler: it will be showing up later on this list) but on the other hand, I kind of wish it wasn’t when I look at Snowpiercer. Whereas Parasite is controlled and composed to the finest detail, Snowpiercer is sloppy and balls out in a way that I wish more genre cinema and agitprop could be. There’s no subtlety in the premise of the world’s lowest-class citizens organizing and busting heads to get to the front and that gives Bong and the rest of the team an energy that gives the film more momentum than the powerful locomotive in itself. But that’s burying the lede: the truth is that the premise also allows that every new setpiece is a surprise of design and visual tone in itself that has practically no limits in its ambitions and maintains the same comic book heights as Tilda Swinton’s authoritarian caricature. If it’s not Bong’s best, it’s still his biggest and his wildest and the latter quality is particularly what I go to Bong’s movies for in the first place.
65. Democrats (2014, Camilla Nielsson, Denmark)
Sure, it’s about the Zimbabwean 2008 election and the subsequent constitutional referendum, but what Democrats is really about is the general matter of democracy and how susceptible it is to people who are just working very hard to look like change is happening while keeping things staying the same. Camilla Nielsson captures the flop sweat and the frustration of the process with grueling swiftness – particularly in regards to the conflict between the two very human subjects, Paul Mangwana & Douglas Mwonzora. At once, Nielsson’s film ends up providing a fascination with the procedure at hand while matching with Mwonzora’s disillusion about what it’s going to result with. If there’s one movie on this list that I hope gets boosted in views, it’s this document of a country learning the hard way how slow democracy is as a process and how little the returns are… something that frankly certain countries still haven’t learned in the middle of their experiments with the system.
64. Taxi (2015, Jafar Panahi, Iran)
It’s one thing to have to work with what you can when you’re not allowed to make art anymore, but it’s another thing to make so blatantly enjoyable above all else. Jafar Panahi’s return to this list is marked with a film 3 years after This Is Not a Film that ended up being his most pleasant work since Offside, even in the knowledge of the restrictions that define it. Still there’s truly a freeing feel behind the wheel of a car (at least in my personal experience which may be why I respond so; also possibly the fact that my dad was a taxi driver for most of my childhood and even wore the same hat as Panahi) and that Panahi was able to sketch an intimate portrait of Tehran simply from the driver’s seat of the titular taxi and an array of characters getting to sit in and converse and give their stories is a wonderful conceit. Who would have thought that the backseat of a Taxi could give way to such socially observative sprawl?
63. Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania/France)
A movie about human suffering first and making us recognize what’s going on in the fundamentalist regimes of small cities with the sort of fiery anger that indicates how personal this matter is to Abderrahmane Sissako. If it was just that realist approach to a such a moral ordeal, it would certainly be an Important Film that feels hard to recommend to others. Instead, Sissako also uses a simultaneous rustic narrative not too far away from the city to depict what a life before could be in quiet poetry and then introduces the human flaws that slide its characters into clashing with that situation before its upsetting climax. It’s a message movie that has a sense of inevitability to it so that its final moments are all the more crushing and the fact that Sissako brought a lot of European art film tricks to what is firmly an African story told in an African setting brings to the table a more immediate way to appeal to the film’s most likely audience.
62. Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick, USA)
The beginning of that point where everyone was convinced Terrence Malick had lost his marbles as a filmmaker. Sucks to be those people, because this was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen the whole decade and I’m still jazzed by the things it tries out in terms of structure and visuals – Emmanuel Lubezki is basically just given fair game to pull out whatever idea he has to shift up what is otherwise just a reheated version of the “depressed rich guy fucks away his malaise” story type so that it feels like the camera is throwing us in a whirl and keeping us as unfamiliar with streets and walls as Christian Bale’s aimless protagonist feels. Malick meanwhile approaches the character and his urban and bourgeois environments with the same philosophical density that he gave to people in the throws of nature, twisting it further by adding a spiritual element simply by the arrangement of the people Bale encounters in the runtime. I don’t know that I’ve entirely parsed it out in the one time that I’ve watched the movie – I am constantly on the edge of rewatch and maybe it’ll even boost this movie’s placement on the list for me – but I can think of few movies in the past ten years that accomplish the same sort of radical experimentation that Knight of Cups did.
61. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016, Travis Knight, USA)
Laika’s best work in the history of its existence. Hopefully it sticks around so that it can end on a similarly great note (as opposed to Missing Link), but if not, this is quite a height to be proud of: the best of Laika’s fussy detail-obsessed work in stop-motion animation in service to an epic Japanese-inspired adventure with a core about how storytelling through music or origami or just plain speech helps us find our way through life. It doesn’t completely sink into the folklore framing successfully – a matter I think would be accomplished by not having a white cast, honestly – but the broad strokes with which it appeals to the hero’s journey archetypes with modern awareness of those tropes being indulged in on top of the incredible ambition with which it indulges in exciting action setpieces make me comfortable calling this a masterpiece in any case.