50. You Were Never Really Here (2017, Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA/France)
Impressive that for a movie as guarded about its lead character and what he is thinking or feeling, Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix make sure we feel it without being told. More than anything else You Were Never Really Here is an assaultive experience as reflected by the headspace of a man who quietly carries trauma the slips out in audible slivers and visual jolts without feeling particularly triggering even in spite of the content of his investigative A-plot that belongs sooner in a grindhouse picture than an arthouse picture. It is probably much more personally affective of a movie than I probably should allow it to be, but when it hits the buttons I most respond – using sound as a weapon, watching New York City rendered into a glowing abyss of streetlight and wet pavement, empty interiorized central performance (and definitely Phoenix’s most physical, look at how burly he is) – in delivering apparently pretty commonly served (for this decade) themes of masculinity and trauma… it’s not surprise that I find Ramsay has succeeded in delivering those observations best.
49. Starless Dreams (2016, Mehrdad Oskouei, Iran)
Mehrdad Oskouei apparently applies the same lack of editorialism in his documentaries as the previously listed Frederick Wiseman does in his, except this time it is given to human subjects rather than institutions. I find the approach in itself extremely generous to giving the teenage girls institutionalized in the prison this movie documents a chance to tell their stories uninhibited, but the results are far more humane and emotional than I would have expected with such a distanced approach. Which is not the same as calling this an easy watch with every second of its 76 minutes being the emotional labor that you’d expect it to be, but in allowing these women to find the spaces to confess their tales, there is also the space for them to bond with the honesty with which they’ve entrusted the audience, each other, and themselves. More complex than the straightforward dive into institutionalized misery the subject matter would imply.
48. The Favourite (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA)
Like Parasite lower on this list, it is much amusing that Yorgos Lanthimos eventually delivered a movie that is very respectable by his standards to the point of being an Oscar darling (Olivia Colman’s Best Actress win being one of the Academy’s best surprises of the decade alongside Parasite‘s sweep) and still feels massively twisted and grotesque. Credit to writers Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara for finding a new approach to characters showing their ugliest and most vicious side via unexpectedly hilarious dialogue while giving enough humanity to allow the pitch perfect cast to let those traits come as a response to wounded souls bruised enough to coagulate in their blackness. In the meantime, Lanthimos and his army of designers and cameramen do not allow that humanity to show in their visuals, dressing the scenario in the gaudiest of costumes and rooms while showcasing his characteristic wont to shoot from unflattering angles that stress the warping and the entrapment. And yet… again… this is Lanthimos’ most “respectable”.
47. Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland, UK/USA)
And as we come from You Were Never Really Here‘s arthouse thriller, now we find ourselves entering the dazzling and deathly world of Alex Garland’s arthouse body horror. From what I’ve been told, it resembles Jeffrey Vandermeer’s novel as much as Hungry Hungry Hippos resembles Jeffrey Vandermeer’s novel but I can’t find myself to care (even if I am interested in reading the novel eventually). Garland is more concerned with having us sink into a wondrous shimmering world that distracts us from the horrible abnormality it represents (and for its credit, features at least one moment of sheer terror that I still haven’t removed from my head in the 2 years since I saw it) with five hopeless individuals searching for characters whom we have already abandoned all hope for. When a movie is going to silently explore the concept of death being a beautiful occurrence, I’m already in the door: when it does with the sort of patient sophistication and imaginative effects design as this one does, I’m wondering what’s holding me up from pushing it up higher on this list.
46. 24 Frames (2017, Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
Par for the course for Abbas Kiarostami’s final feature: a movie that directly lets us consider how we look at images and parse meaning out of them and between them. I’m sure that there are more than a few viewers that would not be interested in having to be given a brain exercise for a movie (although I don’t think those are the viewers who are likely to go to a Kiarostami movie, in that case), but for that reason there is more to admire than just the concept of it. There is beautiful sharpness of the images Kiarostami has chosen to portray, the relaxing soundscapes in which we can vibe with for the duration of each “frame”, and of course the playful sense of dramatics and humor which Kiarostami has imbued so that there is at least something of a story with a beginning and end in each shot if you want to just have that. You’re shit out of luck if you go to movies for dialogue, though.
45. The Lobster (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland/UK/Greece/France/Netherlands)
And now we get to Yorgos Lanthimos’ unrespectable masterpiece: where he and his frequent co-writer Efthimis Fillipou are not interested in the slightest in leavening any of the cruelties within this story of people willingly losing their individuality for the sake of the most Draconian treatment of human relationships to the point that eventually it’s hard to tell if the characters’ lack of emotional inflection in their line deliveries is based on survival or just the way that they’re truly programmed. What most especially made me fall in love with The Lobster wasn’t just this building of a cold cold prescriptive world, but how the design and cinematography reflected that coldness: taking a landscape as gorgeous as the Irish coastline and sucking out any color or texture or detail in its visuals so that it’s just some place with woods and water, I guess, or the manner in which there is no distinguishment between costuming for even the rebellious characters that posture to antagonize this system. It is a movie that is only made up of targets for Lanthimos to pick on in this institutionalized concept of intimacy and romance.
44. The Illusionist (2010, Sylvain Chomet, France/UK)
Whomever the late legendary Jacques Tati intended for this story to be about, Sylvain Chomet went and amplified all the feelings of regret and the lost ability to change the past (themes that I feel could apply to both of Tati’s daughters at once) in his follow-up to the masterpiece Triplets of Belleville while still maintaining tribute to one of the great cinematic comedians with the character designs and the physical comedy. In the most obvious way, The Illusionist reminds me of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – a filmmaker taking the roots of another filmmaker’s concept and building out of it something that speaks to the sensibilities of both artists as Chomet’s bittersweet comic arc melds with the watercolors and crude lines of Chomet’s style resulting in a movie that is visually weepy as well as being thematically weepy, a pure dose of melancholy for an age goneby with the perspectives of the old and the modern melding into one.
43. Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade, Germany/Austria)
Hold the melancholy but keep the weepiness and the comedy and you have Maren Ade’s best picture to date, accomplishing the feat of being one of the most hilarious I’ve seen in the past ten years in spite of the fact that it is a 3-hour German film about the ideally unfunny results of the business world hammering on the soul of anybody who enters it (and the dynamics getting worse for women in that world) and the generational gap that quietly alienates a father and daughter from two different viewpoints of how to live in the world. And yet here it is earning a soulfulness in the shot that I selected to post here by the manner in which that all develops to a satisfying conclusion simply based on the excellent chemistry between Sandra Hüller’s chilly straight man to Peter Simonischek’s charming clown and the outrageous manner in which their interactions erupt, sometimes in a manner that gets right to the core of their conflict without being amusing but often enough finding relief in this struggle to find common ground by the most unexpectedly giggle-inducing ways.
42. The Assassin (2015, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong)
I believe I praised The Witch earlier on this list for transporting us into another time period and the state of mind that period would represent, but that’s small potatoes compared to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s costume drama here to the degree in which it alienates us and gives us no real narrative anchor outside of identifying Shu Qi’s protagonist to calibrate with that manner of storytelling. Indeed, in spite of the action that the title would imply, Hou allows most of the narrative to occur in ellipses as it’s all the better focus on the place and time that we are now spending within the movie with its visual beauty and audible surroundings. A wuxia tale unlike any wuxia I can recall, making even the 1960s Shaw Brothers productions look contemporary and impatient in its wake.
41. The Lighthouse (2019, Robert Eggers, USA/Canada)
And speaking of transporting cinema… except this is a place and time that makes no fucking sense. There is no logical center to the aesthetic decisions of this movie – its watery black and white, its period designs, its aspect ratio, or even the heightened manner of speaking – that applies to one specific timeframe, which should be expectedly for something as gleefully confusing as Robert Eggers’ spiral into madness is. It’s certainly a picture designed and created for a specific sensibility, but I obviously am right there in the thick of that niche and had a ball of a time knowing that there’s no ostensible point to it all than just to watch Robert Pattinson lose himself to the shadow of Willem Dafoe’s parody of a grotty human being and watch things get more and more deranged to match with Pattinson’s loss of comprehension in the boredom of his time stuck on a rock doing ambling chores. Certainly there is room for application towards such known classics as the Promethean legend or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and all that but when you’re making a movie about two guys going crazy in the isolation of having nothing to do, it just makes perfect sense to have nothing really going in that movie and just let that duration be filled up by maddening elements for the viewer.