90. All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor, Canada/USA)
Effortless virtue in simplicity. The way that J.C. Chandor and his crew are able to make a thrilling setpiece out of basically one location, a thriller out of basically one elongated and inevitable event happening slowly but surely, and while it may be easy to claim that something about being in danger in the vast emptiness of the sea is easy to make thrilling, Chandor is confident enough to create business out only the spare parts in a way I hardly see most of the genre attempt. On top of which, you have to be pretty confident to take one of the most recognizable movie stars in history and turn him into a desperate old Everyman without tapping into the charm we know him for, Robert Redford proving just as capable of just having raw and understandable emotions to every next step in this disaster. Chandor’s proven himself to be one of the 2010s’ best surprise debuts with all three of his films (Margin Call and A Most Violent Year being the other two), but this is the focused work of a master of the craft, not some newbie.
89. Widows (2018, Steve McQueen, UK/USA)
It turns out that Steve McQueen – contemporary arthouse master of cinematic misery (eat shit, Lars von Trier) – can actually make a pretty great populist film when he gives it a try. At the surface, Widows is just a meat-and-potatoes genre picture based on a tv show McQueen evidently loved but – in the way that The Departed gets praised for and this movie absolutely deserves – his and Gillian Flynn’s transplanting the material to Chicago instead of London explores the new location with a richness (that sound design specifically is now less unnerving as any of the physical agonies McQueen had previously explored in his movies, this is a picture that needs to be watched LOUD) that also gives it a character of hostility for its outstanding ensemble cast, providing a core of four women looking out for each other with a humane prickliness towards their difference in privilege that doesn’t wander one inch away from the fact that this is mostly just supposed a work of pulp heist fiction. It is a very comforting fact that McQueen’s best movie is also the easiest one to recommend to others.
88. Incredibles 2 (2018, Brad Bird, USA)
I know what kind of fight I’m fixing to get myself into when I state this, but Incredibles 2 is not just the only time since Inside Out that it felt like Pixar was wide awake. It’s also better than the first movie, beloved as it is by many (including me), in practically every way. Every setpiece stands up against any of the past decade’s live-action popcorn movies – whether for reasons of camera movement matching the zippiness and nimbleness, the lighting being outstanding whether cornering us in shadow or assaulting us with brightness, or just trying to be a hilarious bit of slapstick fun. Brad Bird’s return to animation has clearly given him an idea of how to stretch out visual principles he was already bringing to his live-action stuff for the sake of thrills and laughs and boy am I happy to see how much further he can push the envelope in his next project.
87. Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater, USA)
We still have 2 more years to see if this is the last we will see of Celine and Jesse (for that reason, I refuse to call it a “trilogy” no matter how Criterion tries to sway me) but this is still such an effective ending beat to leave us until that question is answered that I wouldn’t be too disheartened. Certainly, it is the least of the three Before films, but a lot of those flaws come from its most fascinating elements: the way that the two characters have become frustrating the way that people who are in the middle of their biggest roadblock get to be, the way that sitting in between of an upsetting argument between your friends is going to be. But it’s not intolerable and I credit that to the way that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (sharing a much-earned writing credit here with Richard Linklater) clearly understand their characters enough to find plausible areas that they’re going to get petulant and harsh about and still being able to guide their characters into an unexpectedly poignant note of hopefulness that leaves me happy to have seen them again rather than wondering if I should go and come back at a better time.
86. The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy (2010-’19, Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, USA/Japan)
THE major turning point for Dreamworks Animation as a studio, finally. Dean DeBlois (and solely for the first movie, Chris Sanders) put together a marvelously fussy world to embrace and explore alongside the very cat-like dragon Toothless, one of my favorite characters of the past decade, soaring and sweeping between broad conflicts that map out well on the development of his human partner Hiccup (and frankly our guide to the world while Toothless is a figure we admire and coo over) as a character. So basically two types of satisfying story types: character arc and high concept fantasy adventure. Watching the animation get better and better with each installment so that the lights and environments feel so rich as we spin through them is a great privilege, but the fact that DeBlois was also able to tie up the emotional path of Hiccup and Toothless as a pair in his final installment in a way that a lot of trilogies shit the bed on make me confident in my resolution to bring the trilogy together in one spot on this list rather than have to make a Sophie’s Choice as to my favorite one. There’s just too much I adore in it.
85. Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold, Germany)
It’s pretty hard not to just repeat the things I said about Petzold’s Transit earlier on this list for Phoenix, which does a lot of the same things just tigher and more effective for me. Instead I focus on the way that Phoenix represents the scars of post-Nazi Germany in a ghostly way that benefits from the neo-noir aesthetic around the rubble of the city the way that Transit represents the current immediacy of a Nazi return in a timeless but present way. Perhaps it’s how I respond more to that cynical nostalgic hue of Phoenix now applied to a particularly cruel tale of identity that also coaxes a thrillingly complex performance from Nina Hoss and how it provides a compulsive layer of guilt to the viewer. Whichever way it is, Petzold essentially went two different ways on the same concept of “assumed identity in the fact of authoritarian fascism” and pulled out two incredible distinct thrillers out of that hat, showcasing his atmospheric versatility.
84. Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier, Norway)
Frankly a movie that I did not expect to enjoy, let alone for it to haunt me for years the way it did after I first saw it. And to be sure, it IS exactly what I expected: a miserable and chilly arthouse character study on a matter that could not possibly end well for its character. But it’s a very well-made and paced character study of somebody who needs help but also really doesn’t think he deserves it and the humanity with which Joachim Trier, Anders Danielsen Lie, and the rest of the people involved in this movie give to that scenario indicates that the idea is more than just “watch somebody struggle to deal with his sickness”. In any case, it’s the sort of character piece that, by the end of the movie, I ended up wanting to reach out through the screen and hold on to him.
83. The Lords of Salem (2012, Rob Zombie, USA/UK/Canada)
I understand that Rob Zombie’s white trash spookiness aesthetic is not to most people’s speed, but holy shit did this movie take a beating that it did not deserve from even his own fans. Zombie’s indulgence in his concept of arthouse horror doesn’t lose one bit of the exploitation vibe that we expect from him, just instead of pulling from the frequent sloppy viscera and violence we expect from him (still present but in significantly fewer portions) now we get it from the hallucinatory imagery and the lack of true coherence to what’s going on that the best horror cinema should be providing to keep us from grabbing our footing. All we get to know is that we are spiraling in a sonic nightmare of evil and the ride doesn’t stop until Rob says so.
82. The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent, Australia)
Fortunately, some horror films were not so unfairly maligned as The Lords of Salem and it’s easy to see why The Babadook was one of the universal darlings of the genre in the past ten years. Jennifer Kent and company have put together a pretty unmissable metaphor for grief, trauma, and emotional exhaustion that Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman tap into for two very different kinds of broken people going downhill. But if it just had to rely on the excellent actors at hand, it would lack the bonechilling dark aesthetic of it all, punctuated by the alarming crimson of the central storybook and occasionally intercut by shadowy shapes that bring our eyes darting for a sign of the titular Babadook monster, whether a psychological manifestation or a physical beast of torment. An unexpectedly original movie for such a broad and often explored (if not to the success of Kent’s work here) concept.
81. Apollo 11 (2018, Todd Douglas Miller, USA)
It’s a good thing this is the last time in this list series that I will invoke Apollo 11, because there’s only so many ways to repeat that this is a monumental accomplishment in film editing streamlining an exhaustive amount of material from one of the most publicized events of the 20th Century into a heart-pounding thriller. We are spared no fear in what could have been the fatal error for the astronauts and we are – for the most part – put in the seat of the technicians involved in such a direct way that makes me lament how I never had a legit IMAX theater near me to play the movie. Its focus on that kind of procedure also has the benefit of distinguishing it from the emotional and spiritual approach of other films on the same subject – such as First Man and For All Mankind (great movies that it surpasses). The hard-eyed blunt delivery of this mission to and back again makes it possibly the most propulsive and physically moving documentaries I have ever seen.