40. Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK)
Cinema hardly gets more experiential than Gravity outside of being shot in the first-person (and what a deflated gimmick that approach would be, eh?). From the second that the movie opens in a black screen with the sound effect of oxygen being vaccuumed out, Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki got to marshall all the powers of cinematic technology circa 2013 (I know I called Knight of Cups a toybox for Lubezki but this is an entirely different kind of toybox with more money behind it) to get us floating and spinning with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, largely in how the two of them facilitate the same filmmaking style they perform on a set as they do in a CGI environment. That it is all in service to the broadest melodramatic scenario possible rather than something complex doesn’t register to me as a flaw at all: cinema could do with more movies purely dedicated to being thrill rides and I only wish IMAX did re-releases so that I could at some point experience this movie the same overwhelming way that I did the first time.
39. Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson, USA)
Every time I think about Kirsten Johnson’s debut feature after being cinematographer to some of the most important advocacy documentaries of the 21st Century, I think particularly of the Pauline Kael quote in For Keeps referring to her film writing: “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have”. Cameraperson feels like Johnson’s answer to that that question regarding memoirs and, like Kael, she’s opted to create hers own of pieces of her professional work. The result is a collected vision of the world in varying levels of urgency that is constantly gorgeous (as we could probably guess than Johnson was REALLY fucking good at her job) and aware that the subject is more the perspective rather than what we’re facing. Nevertheless it takes the space to deliver – without a word from the director herself – the sort of issues that the world still needs to surmount and propose the major changes that we should push for to surmount those issues. All with the sort of personal resolution that could only come from inviting us to look through the person’s eye literally for a few hours.
38. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, Takahata Isao, Japan)
Feel like I may as well open up this entry by saying that from here on forth, there is going to be a lot of animation and they are all going to be on some level of unorthodox and fresh because that’s the way I fucking roll. And Takahata Isao’s final picture (something that I intellectually should have already accepted but for some reason couldn’t do so until he passed away four years after I had seen it) gets to that familiar level for the most experimental director in Studio Ghibli particularly by using the digital tools of the present to dig into the artistic principles of the past, thereby bringing us an aesthetic that is able to match the emotional Japanese folktale upon which this movie is based on by giving the old-time watercolor animation a sense of lucidity and having some visual dance between the past and future techniques that translate to the suddenness with which this tragic tale develops and how it represents humanity and life on Earth in a bittersweet way. Which is only the most obvious thing to make as your farewell to a medium you have affected so deeply, except maybe it wasn’t too obvious to me until it was too late to respond goodbye back.
37. Film Socialisme (2010, Jean-Luc Godard, France)
There’s a movie higher up on this list that accomplishes the same visual and audial things that Jean-Luc Godard’s first collaboration with cinematographer Fabrice Aragno in more exciting fashions – namely the nonstop experimentation with prosumer cameras and their video qualities – but it absolutely does pay to be the first sometimes. But this also feels like Godard’s most quietly humane film to date, satisfied to put a diverse globe of people on a boat and watch how they interact in the freeing lack of nationalism that makes up the open seas followed by a playful mock trial of children that doubles as deep parenting and a fascinating travelogue of international icons. I mean, it’s as humane as Godard CAN be, which means there still cynicism there but the lack of urgency to a lot of what we’re watching when it makes up the world in a microcosm does a lot to make me wonder who such a quietly radical picture is easily hated by the public. Does it have to be in 3D for y’all?!
36. The Girl Without Hands (2016, Sébastien Laudenbach, France)
Just as Takahata’s final film mixed the new technology with old animation approaches, Sébastien Laudenbach’s first feature – a work of almost entirely one man’s hand – does this as well. And since Laudenbach’s career has only so much to look forward to now, I’m personally excited as to where this timelessness and awareness of how animation and visual art has changed between years and cultures can go next. Until that sophomore feature, we still have this incredibly slim fable told in the form of kinetic Chinese inkwash with sharp digital control and floating illusoriness to the imagery and how it uses blank spaces (again, kind of like Takahata perfected to the point that I wonder if interviews asked Laudenbach about him). That it might be more visual abstraction than most people can emotionally connect with is understandable, but I don’t find the story remotely all that chilly and given how efficiently it gets us through this European tale told through Asian technique there is a universal potency to it that ends up just as engaging as if they were actual flesh-and-blood characters.
35. Batman Ninja (2018, Mizusaki Junpei, Japan/USA)
That’s right, bitches. The direct-to-video (if you live in America; from what I understand Japan had a theatrical release) weeaboo Batman movie is on my top 40 movies of the 2010s. I expect if there’s movie on this list that demands more explanation than this one, but I can’t think of a way that makes me sound any less maniacal than the Joker. The evident result of Warner Bros. throwing their money and most popular character to Kamikaze Douga to do what they want with it, the result is a radical exploration of various Japanese art styles with untethered animated camerawork that only that big studio money could bring about, thereby taking full advantage of the texture and linework of an apparently flat style to transform it into something 3-dimensional and visually gripping and also finding ways to switch the song at least 3 different times so suddenly we are looking at a different visual that is still of a kind with Japanese art history . The tragedy that most of the world probably won’t get a chance to see this extraordinarily radical thing in a movie theater proper feels akin with all the gorgeous Netflix movies that won’t get a theatrical release. And while it feels easy to write off the admittedly ridiculous story as a culmination of outrageous cliché nerd concepts mutating between Japanese culture and Batman characters, personally I feel like it is the perfect foil to the visuals being explored: just as Batman discovers he must embrace and respect Japanese period culture in order to win the fight and get back to his own time, Batman Ninja embraces and respects the history of Japanese visual art – whether scroll art or giant robots and monsters – to deliver possibly the most ambitious superhero movie of all time, only dethroned later that year…
34. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson, USA)
Almost certainly the movie where Wes Anderson finally perfected his fussy visual style, although it took me quite a minute to recognize that and indeed I still believe a movie higher up on this list bettered it. Still it’s hard to ignore how every color and line and even the familiar horizontal camera movements are of a part in giving this film its nostalgic summertime feel even despite coming from a place of invention rather than the memory of its filmmaker (as opposed to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood). So if that approach isn’t for the personal satisfaction of the storyteller, it still does marvels as a backdrop to characters who are unexpectedly more grounded emotionally than I think any Anderson film besides The Royal Tenenbaums have been, even the precocious child protagonists have a plausibility in the way they see and respond to the world. And that Anderson interrupts this delicate little paradise not just with the drama and disappointment of its characters but with something as cosmic as an approaching devastating storm is an element of emotional brutality for filmmaker and viewer that I would not have expected him to be capable of prior to 2014.
33. The Turin Horse (2011, Tarr Béla & Hranitsky Ágnes, Hungary)
Barring the idea that Tarr Béla or Hranitsky Ágnes change their mind (of which they have given practically no indication they would over the past nine years), here we are met with another beloved arthouse master saying goodbye to the cinematic medium with something much less comforting than The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. As is the couple’s wont, The Turin Horse instead takes a real life moment of upsetting circumstances and allows its context to drown the entire film with apocalyptic misery over the course of its length 2 1/2 hours. In a way, it reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s own final feature The Sacrifice having the same hopeless approach to it but The Turin Horse frankly makes that movie look like it’s for children. That it doesn’t really allow us any attempt to head up to the surface from relief in this dive down to visual and sonic darkness is a part of why it’s not particularly my favorite work of the two as opposed to the occasional humanity of Sátátangó or Werckmeister Harmonies, but of course that lack of relief remains the very point of this final treatise regarding how cruel the universe can be for no apparent logical reason. And if we must barrel down this lengthy journey that appears to have no bottom, there are few directors who have proven the ability to make that journey as rewarding and impressively textured as Tarr and Hranitsky.
32. At Berkeley (2013, Frederick Wiseman, USA)
The first Frederick Wiseman movie I had ever watched, thereby opening the door to me on a future of unexpectedly rich and patient observation and so far still remaining at the top my rankings for him. Which one may attribute to it having the virtue of surprise that the rest of them can’t have for me, but I think it’s more than that. You wouldn’t expect to have multiple opportunities to see a 4-hour fly-on-the-wall documentary over 10 years, but wildly enough that’s exactly what I had a chance to do and each viewing was marked as happening after reaching the end of each of my two durations in higher education (in fact the movie premiered around my senior undergraduate year). And it’s truly amazing to me how much of the movie was able to shift in my perspective towards a system that I had definitely had THOUGHTS on after first getting my Bachelor’s degrees and then the second viewing brought out further musings on with a Master’s degree under my belt even when they all came from universities significantly different from University of California, Berkeley (and indeed the movie is called At Berkeley and not Higher Education with the understanding that while we’ll use this as synecdoche for the latter institution, this is one college being explored). Different elements of the educational system stood out to me, different responses to the events depicted within the film – including in a moment of serendipity for the film, the 2011 protests occurring on the campus feeling like a late climax to all the machinations we witness in the film. What’s probably most magical about this to me is how I expect the experience of anyone to color this documentary’s material in a different way than I see it and of course the fact that Wiseman evidently left no stone unturned in his look towards the bureaucracy, the student life, the landscape, and all the rest of it is what’s going to make this an engaging 4 hours for anyone who will walk in ready.
31. Southwest (2011, Eduardo Nunes, Brazil)
The third – and I believe the last – movie on this list that I would absolutely not have heard of if it wasn’t for Tim Brayton’s review on it (and indeed, I’m not sure I would have even been able to see it if not for somebody providing the vimeo link to the movie on one of his comments section, but I’m also not sure I didn’t just google it to look for it). Which would be a shame because it is also yet another movie on this list that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen: certainly the approach to hallucinatory black-and-white and associative cutting is not particularly inventive but the watery environment’s South American folksiness and particularly the manner of its aspect ratio being a whopping 3.66:1 so that it practically looks like a horizon-like window rather than a cinematic image is mind-blowing to me (and indeed, I’d like to take an opportunity soon to watch this on a big screen proper as opposed to via a Roku on my tv because I expect it becomes much more affective in that large-format). Indeed for a movie about experiencing time in a closed and finite span, that aesthetic decision feels like it adds to the desperation of the tale for me to gather everything that you can in each image before it’s all done but the most movie’s abstract and ambiguous approach to the story leaves it impossible to capture everything in a linear sense of figure that you’ve understood exactly what is going on when. Which I like to imagine is a coaxing to eventually just recognize that this is all a dream in cinematic form and sometimes you’re not going to collect everything going on in a dream and at the end it’s best to just let it roll on elegantly until you wake up.