20. High Life (2018, Claire Denis, France/Germany/Poland/UK/USA)
Any movie that is able to be straight up about how babies are equal parts disturbing and miraculous is going to get my respect rather than the simple optimism that most films treat them with. Under the pretense of being a science fiction picture, Claire Denis’ first dive into the English-language decides to translate not only her native French dialogue to chilly and distanced English but also the measure dark philosophies she’s had towards humanity to apparent genre conventions, as much as one can pull from the classically anti-genre masterpieces of that pool of influence. It works best though as an understanding that these characters are isolated in their own microcosm and acting as their own separate universe from ours, trying to make sense of their apparent nihilistic banishment from anything resembling civilization to the point that just a baby’s entrance happens to be a violation… only to turn out more optimistic than it has any right to be and arguably more humanistic than anything else Denis made.
19. Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes, Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France)
Yet another instance where I’m not certain I commit to ranking this above Arabian Nights (and there’s still one more to come), but Tabu had a sense of surprise towards the way that Miguel Gomes tries to find a middle ground between the cinematic techniques of the past and of the present (for why else would this movie share the title of F.W. Murnau’s last masterpiece?) and the amiable humor with which he pulls off that experiment. Not only that but there’s something truly focused about its approach to criticizing Portuguese colonialism silently, almost through its switch ups in the cinematic form, that is appealingly more collected than the ambitious exploration of self that Arabian Nights happens to do. And all in the name of illustrating just how easy it is to distance people in one medium. So I guess perhaps that’s why I ranked Tabu higher: I think it more directly plays with the medium as opposed to the way that Arabian Nights is figuring things out.
18. Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
Lucrecia Martel’s triumphant return to cinema plays that same song of attacking the bourgeoisie in new ways that bite more viciously than she’s been before. Expanding her range now beyond the modern Argentine elite to the gross Spanish imperialism through which it has grown off of, Martel treats Daniel Giménez Cacho’s titular bureaucrat Don Diego de Zama as nothing less than a piñata for which to throw something like a Kafka-esque spiral down from esteem if it wasn’t for how boring his highest position already appears to be. There is no shortage of ways in which Zama brings its protagonist to showcase his complete lack of control over anything to our great comedy and the way that the rustic soundscape and animal extras against the constantly deteriorating set and costume design consistently undermine and mock this stonefaced clown while mapping out how much lower he can go makes for the most excellently modern period character study of the 2010s. Now, let’s hope Martel doesn’t make us wait too long before the next one.
17. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Probably the most on this list that is the best drama qua drama as Asghar Farhadi & Niloufar Banisaied pulled out of one apparently simple conflict all sorts of social issues in Iran regarding the legal system and gender and domesticity and religion and class and the privilege of all those (issues that I’d dare say could be related to in Western society outside of the element of being in an Islamic country, which is probably why A Separation was the most successful international breakout of the Iranian New Wave), escalating until it tangles up into another circle of conflict like handcuffs. And a lot of that has to be given credit to the six central performances thrown in the middle of it all – Peyman Moaadi, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini & Leila Hatami have certainly received more praise than you can shake a stick at but it feels like the child performances of Sarina Farhadi & Kimia Hosseini are underrated as fellow witnesses to watch several different relationships destruct. By the end of it all, Farhadi’s invisible precision in drawing out such melodrama provides us with a vision of the dynamics of life in Tehran in the midst of all the legal drama’s rubble.
16. The Red Turtle (2016, Michaël Dudok de Wit, France/Japan)
At the time, a movie that I had unnecessary expectations of for being the apparent last Studio Ghibli (except now it looks like Ghibli will move on even after Miyazaki completes How Do You Live? and not particularly in ways that seem promising). I wonder if a large part of my initial hostility is the extreme difference between Michaël Dudok de Wit’s European sensibility to Takahata Isao’s usual Japanese sensibility or if it was just how its lack of ambition didn’t match up with my hopes for a big finale in the same manner as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was. In any case, once I let go, I discovered how The Red Turtle feels like an effective illustration of how less is more: the simplicity of its designs and its storytelling invert to deliver bigger and heightened emotions than it can take, the straightforward arc and development of it feeling inevitable in where they will go but still ending up hitting powerfully all the same. Having one of the premiere animation studios in the world behind him evidently gave Dudok de Wit the potential to expand on the themes of his Oscar winning short Father and Daughter in entirely diverging ways that I feel totally mad for finding particularly weaker on my first watch. In the end, with the sophistication Dudok de Wit shows and the spare and modest manner in which Dudok de Wit builds this isolated life… I would dare to say he is the only animated filmmaker to have completely invented a folk tale out of cinema itself, something The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and The Girl Without Hands had to pull from previously existent sources to do. And that’s quite a feat to accomplish in my eyes.
15. World of Tomorrow & World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2015-’17, Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
If you’re gonna make Don Hertzfeldt have to play with technology, sure, he’ll play with it and then some. And I frankly don’t know which element of the World of Tomorrow films should feel the most impressive upon me. Should it be how he’s been able to replicate the same sort of minimalistic principles of his prior work with this digital animation now but with more color and sharpness and apparently the ability to dynamically shift the chilliness as the moment prescribes (just as aided by Julia Pott’s robotic performance as the various clones of our young protagonist Emily)? Should it be the manner in which twice in a row he’s managed to construct narratives around the adorable aimless recordings of his niece Winona Mae between the ages of 4 and 5? Should if be how those narratives have found ways to explore every possible existential fear and anxiety and question over the course of each short film’s duration to the manner in which Episode 2 just surprises us with further well of questions it conjures? Should it be in the manner by which Episode 2 satisfies us with a comforting non-answer to everything that culminates in the most ridiculous yet joyful creation of Hertzfeldt’s yet and also the single most impressive piece of movement animation he’s been able to produce while maintaining the visual flatness of it all? Should it be that it’s very fucking funny? Should it be that it is very emotionally engaging? It’s probably just all of those things. The virtues of World of Tomorrow and World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts and its complexities are things I’m just never going to let go of.
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson, USA/Germany)
I do indeed recall saying that everything Moonrise Kingdom does, The Grand Budapest Hotel does better so I better back it up now that we’re at this point. Like the previous film, Wes Anderson is essentially using cinema to pull a personal nostalgia once again for a time and place in which he’s never lived in (and which never existed, given the fictional Republic of Zubowka, but we know what historical point it’s meant to represent). But it’s three of the approaches that hooks me in most: first, he particularly invokes the cinematic language and sense of humor as Ernst Lubitsch, maybe one of the funniest filmmakers ever and whose work is almost exclusively dated prior to WWII (I’ve heard the attitude that Moonrise Kingdom is meant to elicit the French New Wave, but I hardly see it). Second, he has his characteristic fussy style – never anymore delectable than it’s ever been here, where it feels like the design’s main MO is to make everything look like a bright desert – to translate to the prim and flawed dignity of its characters, particularly M. Gustave performed by a career-best Ralph Fiennes. And third but most important, he implicates the characters in this doomed nostalgia largely (not exclusively) through its utilisation of frame narratives (complete with aspect ratio shifts to get us feeling the changes in time) and through the tender performance of F. Murray Abraham juxtaposed against the green of Tony Revolori playing the same character. This is – above anything else – a story of long-dead people deeply remembering a long-dead time and trying to preserve some spirit of it in the way they carry their own lives even as they are aware that things are about to change for the worst. Which makes it sound significantly less zany and gutbusting than it actually is and I am always tearing up from the hijinks that ensue over the length of this film, but those three elements also work gangbusters in making tear up the other way by the very end… like learning that a dear old friend has passed after not having spoken to him in a while. It never fails to hit me like a cannonball despite possibly being the most-watched movie on this list and that last part is probably because by the time it’s over, I want to replay the movie just to see them all alive one last time.
13. Glistening Thrills (2013, Jodie Mack, USA)
Maybe the closest I can get to avant-garde on this list before deciding to disqualify it (apologies again to PROTOTYPE and ★) but that’s probably because Mack is pretty clear on the point of this short: pure sensory delight (on top of being as malleable to read off of than any other avant-garde film). I honestly don’t know how much further to discuss or describe this film without being weirdly prescriptive, so I will only opt to link it to vimeo here and suffice it to say that it brought an unexpected sense of visual splendor with its endless light reflections and colors aided by its no less glistening musical score. It is exquisite pleasure to the eyes and ears delivered in just a few minutes of your times.
12. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012, Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
The third and final instance of wondering if maybe I should have switched around the ranking on certain directors’ films here. It is probably the case that It’s Such a Beautiful Day doesn’t have as much to explicitly say as Don Hertzfeldt’s following short films. But as Hertzfeldt’s final stand in the hand-drawn sector before working with digital animation, revisiting it 8 years later has found me to experience more textures and sensory elements in its minimal tangible basis interrupted by varities of heart-stopping superimpositions. Which is only the best for a movie attempting to explore the journey of a mentally ill man without diagnosing or exploiting him, a generosity to a stick figure that we probably would do to grant to everyone else in our lives. And the end of it all, It’s Such a Beautiful Day felt something like a reboot from the exciting places where Hertzfeldt was going from here – an final exercise in taking just a couple of lines that make up a character and his world and discovering beauty in that world that could easily be perceived as hostile from his shoes and a decision to find a peace of mind even in the unfairness of his life.
11. Holy Motors (2012, Leos Carax, France/Germany)
If you asked me to pick a movie that more purely defines cinema than anything else on this list, I can’t possibly entertain any other answer. In fact, even while I am pretty damn satisfied with the final Top Ten to come, I do find myself trying to amuse the concept of pulling a “These Go to Eleven!” and fitting this last movie in there… it belongs just as close to the highest seat of movies in the 2010s as any of the others I placed above it. But let’s stop meta-blogging about my regrets on this list and discuss how Leos Carax and his muse Denis Lavant have left next to no stone unturned in exploring all the possibilities of the camera eye and the screen performance. Lavant’s gameness with any new scenario thrown his way is outstanding (Imagine being placed in number two of my Best Screen Performances of the 2010s list and I still feel I underrated you) and Carax shows absolutely no exhaustion regarding the cinematic techniques he wants to dance around Lavant with. It’s not necessarily a movie that lacks chronology or consistency since Carax is able to maintain an underrated psychological arc in the way that Lavant’s M. Oscar journeys in and out of each part, but it’s clear where their minds were truly at every day that they made this picture and the manner in which their playfulness translates from them to us battily infectious that I wonder why I haven’t rewatched it yet. Shit, I might do that tonight.