80. Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg, USA/India)
Picking basically the most classical New Hollywood filmmaker surviving for the most classical possible history premise feels like it would lend itself to something stuffy and boring. Expect we forget that Steven Spielberg was the most exciting filmmaker around once upon a time for a reason and he’s still plenty exciting in how he tries to accommodate the expected visually handsome totally talky Oscarbait period film aesthetic for the sake of something really critical of the act of policy making and how cynical it is about the people behind it – considering the necessity of actively convincing these people to abolish slavery as something that should have been taken for granted and not a playing chip to trade in between political concessions. It gets truly into the thick of negotiating as a draggy and tiresome process with clipping interest by Tony Kushner’s writing, all the more aided by a career-best performance of Daniel Day-Lewis taking a winking approach to the Myth of Abraham Lincoln as more something manipulated as a tool rather than something actually noble, in the end playing as a piece of historical storytelling that refuses to fall into the trappings of hero worship.
79. National Gallery (2014, Frederick Wiseman, France/UK/USA)
The movie that made me a believer in the things that Frederick Wiseman was doing with the documentary form. The patience with which he lets us wander through the halls of the titular art museum, the offices of the administration, watch patrons and guides and employees do their thing, while often taking a glimpse and glance at what’s on the walls altogether present a cinematic environment with which we can just sit and ponder on what art’s place is in a community even beyond the building in which it is displayed. And that the man just has an intuitive sense of structure that can get us sitting for the 3 hours without any interjection or apparent hand-holding on what we should consider or think of next is the swift flex of a fly-on-the-wall documentarian who just knows entirely what he’s doing.
78. Monos (2019, Alejandro Landes, Colombia/USA)
I’m sure I can grow fonder of the movie on later rewatch, but for right now it’s enough just to consider how experiential the film is on the level of visuals and sound: every single thing about it exists to put us in the headspace of its characters at a very aggressive and harsh time to be them. That it doesn’t care to contextualize these child soldiers and the conflict they’re in the middle of is part of the point: these are kids who don’t really have an identity besides being there to fight and probably die and so what we feel is what they feel in the present: a heightened textural vibe of the trees and water and the shortness of the air in the mountains. The sort of movie that engages with every possible sense that the medium has access to and blasts it at 11.
77. Atlantics (2019, Mati Diop, France/Senegal/Belgium)
Still in awe that Mati Diop – in her feature debut – was daring enough to attempt to juggle so many different genres and tones (that I don’t dare spoil) without having them crash on the floor once. Presenting a vision of Dakar that indulges in both realism and fantasy with the aid of cinematographer Claire Mathon, Atlantics is a urgent social observation and a hazy dream of a thing that does not want for surprises or uniqueness. I don’t know what else to say about it while I dance over revealing what it has in store for the unknowing viewer, except to point out Mame Bineta Sane’s unforgettable presence as a protagonist lost in this sea of melancholy and what is beyond that feeling.
76. El Mar La Mar (2017, Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki, USA)
Much like Monos before this, El Mar La Mar takes hold of the cinematic toolkit but not to try to put the viewer into the shoes of the real-life immigrants trying to make it through the Sonoran, but instead to have us consider the harsh textures of such a journey: the heart, the roughness, the darkness and all, capturing it and presenting those visuals and sounds with avant-garde abstractness that has the moral core of reminding us that these are the natural hostilities that immigrants have to face in their struggles. That filmmakers Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki particularly take the care to allow space for those people to tell their own stories and remove any visual distraction from their words is the element that most makes to me how Bonnetta & Sniadecki want us to appreciate the survivors of this path and condemn the system that tries to push them for it, even while their visuals do all of that immediate business without the slightest aestheticizing.
75. 45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh, UK)
It’s like watching a drop fall in a pool and the ripples never stop. One single piece of information that Andrew Haigh puts in the hands of these clearly well-lived characters – performed outstandingly by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay – and all we need to do now is watch over a brief period time as they process or refuse to process it accordingly. And suddenly all those seams of their relationship that we could tell from as quickly as one scene were so snugly established begin to come undone. I do wonder if Andrew Haigh can perform professional homewreckings since the drama he’s created here is so effortlessly and trusting of his performers to just lean into the natural silences and bitter looks that maybe he’s just really good at knowing people better than they know themselves.
74. Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh, USA/Ireland)
All of Steven Soderbergh’s greatest hits as a filmmaker provided in a nicely pseudo-popcorn movie package for me: a deconstruction of the action movie genre in the form of how Soderbergh’s editing treats conversation scenes with the intense punchiness that the casually cut action scenes lack, a deconstruction of screen persona in the treatment of Gina Carano as a non-actor whose notability as an athlete and martial artist affects our expectations of her character while surrounding her with nothing but A-list faces. That most of the people I personally know who saw this movie were hostile towards it makes me hesitate to consider it the “one for them” movie (particularly with that same year seeing the also wonderful crowdpleaser Magic Mike) but given that Soderbergh is always at his most fun where he gets to experiment and turn a relatively straightforward premise on its head, I guess it’s more for me.
73. Ride Your Wave (2019, Yuasa Masaaki, Japan)
Spoiling my Best Films of 2020 list a bit by including this, but it premiered in 2019 so it’s eligible and anyway movies are cancelled this year so why not acknowledge this wonderful bright work as soon as possible? Building on exactly the sort of principles of bright color, flowing water animation, and thematic musical centers, Yuasa Masaaki’s ode to the ways that surfing can lift the spirit of its characters just as much as any other person’s passion can is a vibrant and poppy thing. That it accomplishes this while being rooted in a particularly sobering bit of tragedy – delivering some pretty honest and brutal truths about dealing with it – only endears me more to the ways that it balances the human with the fantastical and reminds me of how deft Yuasa has proven to be as an emotional storyteller just as much as an animation director
72. Carol (2015, Todd Haynes, UK/USA)
Quite frankly it’s so aesthetically chilly that I’m surprised people love it as much as they do, but I’m glad they do anyway because it’s an enthusiasm I share. Todd Haynes collects on that same of classicalism as the above Lincoln for something that indulgently transforms lesbian romance into a neo-noir picture, aided particularly by Edward Lachman’s usage of film grain and the dark coloring. And that’s quite the perfect atmosphere for Cate Blanchett and the (usually distant for me, but very in her element here) Rooney Mara to do their thing – delivering brittle emotions that match the wintry environments and prevent this movie from becoming distant or anything but devastating when the shoe we’re expecting to drop drops. The fact that it couldn’t make it into the horribly underwhelming Best Picture slate of 2015 (especially considering how overall great that movie year was) is one of the biggest shames of the Academy in the past 10 years.
71. Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese, USA)
I don’t dislike Martin Scorsese, but I do find myself quite distant from anything he’s made since The Age of Innocence. It feels like no surprise that the one exception to that is the movie where he just got to spill out all of his open enthusiasm towards cinema as a medium (lest we forgot that Scorsese is one of the foremost filmmakers that is also a film scholar!) into a story of a child watching the art develop before his very eyes, gladly homaging the very magical roots of it from that great name Méliès! That it’s not all that convincing overall in its creation of this gigantic environment – the dream of 1900s Paris, the endlessness of the train station, the nostalgic gloom of the clock towers – doesn’t bother me one bit: it’s all about the artifice of cinema and how it can amuse and suck us in by the merit of its own logic, something Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti do marvelously and the loving manner in which the 3D pushes us all around this expansive world makes me just giddier. Maybe that bleeding that bleeding heart sentiment about the medium doesn’t appeal to most, but you’re either in or out and I’m fucking in.