30. Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (2017, Yuasa Masaaki, Japan)
It’s hard not to see Yuasa Masaaki’s first film of his banner year of 2017 (or third work of 2018 if you’re American and also want to count Devilman Crybaby in the conversation) as the ultimate culmination of all his fascinations with the wobbly rubbery mutability of the human body in a post Tex Avery-animation world, bright and glowing solid colors, and young people just on the culmination of beginning an adventurous life. And yet there’s just so much more that man has explored in the 3 years alone in animation and storytelling that I can truly believe he can navigate past this ceiling yet. However, he hasn’t surpassed this one yet and I think the secret weapon is its whirlwind sense of incident and pacing matched against the wild shifts in style every scene or character brings. The visuals rapidly keep up with not only the twisting dance around our two protagonists journey, but the episodic branching of everything going on from guerilla musical numbers to a pervert’s convention to an actual tornado all to fill one very wild night.
29. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie, USA)
There’s only so many ways I can repeat the same point that Tom Cruise is a fucking maniac, so allow me to avoid pulling from that well by pointing out just how epic and huge this particular entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise is compared to where it comes from. With Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Christopher McQuarrie and company have embraced the virtue of pure breathtaking spectacle for 2 1/2 hours… the kind of force that popcorn cinema has got to be, where every single action scene has a powerful “wow” factor and every single twist leaves our jaws dropped. I’m feeling pretty bold so I’m going to go ahead and claim this: the scale of its thrilling fight and chase sequences, the swerve of its spy hunt storytelling, and the hilarious deflection of “darkness” that this movie constantly teases and rejects so that it could just have fun with itself is reminiscent of Hitchcockian elements in such an underrated way to me that I’d probably call this the closest contemporary popcorn cinema got to remaking North by Northwest with all of the money we can today. Except you don’t see Cary Grant flying helicopters up in here.
28. A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick, USA/Germany)
Absolutely everybody who has called this a return to form for Terrence Malick does not deserve this masterpiece. Indeed, perhaps it is less radical than his last two movies (which brings me to still wonder if this movie and Knight of Cups should have switched spots on this list) but it’s still no less radical in its associative treatment of the thoughts of its characters and the way it looks at this beautiful world past the evil inhabiting it with the same philosophical density and dizzying editing styles (and even the fish-eye cinematography feels like it had to come from the GoPro work of Knight of Cups). It just happens to be that Malick has allowed the theme to be less inscrutable and more direct, but no less impactful as it carries with it a clear message against Nazism that feels so relevant today that I would wonder if it wasn’t specifically didactic for that reason if it wasn’t for the fact that the movie was shot in the summer of 2016. Still, A Hidden Life feels like a resolution of all the formal experiments that Malick spent the past ten years poking at and the spiritual explorations that have always been present in his movies standing in defiance against growing forces of fascism and suffering. It is an Important film and that’s probably what warmed Malick’s critics towards it, but it still gets to that Importance by asking cosmic queries while maintaining a deference to the land of the Earth itself and the incredibly wonder of it all.
27. Faces Places (2017, Agnès Varda & JR, France)
I was just talking not too long ago with a friend about how I don’t much respond to “documentaries about artists at work” with few exception: Faces Places was named as one of them. And perhaps it is a game that was already won by Agnès Varda – one of the most adorable screen personalities in a long time – won long before this film even existed in the manner that her last several documentaries have been musings on the imminent end of her life and Faces Places ended up transforming into a memoir specifically on that matter while bringing about the revelation that continuing with her art is the way that she is able to maintain her youthful spirit despite her body being unable to keep up. But also particularly the way that Varda in turn introduces me to JR and his work with a core that art immortalizes people and frankly everyone deserves that immortalization. And JR’s style not only turns out to be an answer to the existential question hanging over Varda in this picture but he also turns out to have remarkable chemistry with her to the point that when the dramatic third act occurs, it feels like they’re both intuitively steering the tale together to their own satisfaction… in turn bringing their film to restore their place as much as the pasting artwork restores others’ place to themselves. A wonderful document to a friendship beyond artistic collaboration and souls attached to spaces beyond the visible.
26. Boy and the World (2013, Alê Abreau, Brazil)
If you think it’s wild to consider a movie about stick figures to be so vibrant and dense, well… wait until you see a few movie animated pictures that’ll be higher on this list. Alê Abreau has no interest in disguising the crude visual primitivism of Boy and the World but he makes that go a long way in defining the colors and shapes of the world with the enthusiasm of a young child’s eyes. That it is pretext for the wrestling between such a brilliant natural state for the world with the dark and glooming threat of industrialization and what inevitably grows out of it doesn’t bring it to lose one beat in its enjoyable musical exploration of this vision up until it has to be most unsubtle about it near the end. Still up until that trip up, we have ourselves a glorious simplicity in how Abreau and his crew have communicated the true purity of youth and nature and something so messily buoyant is always going to be a more effective delivery of environmentalist attitudes than pessimism. It has no illusions about the state of things but retains the optimism of restoration to the best of abilities in its soul.
25. The Forbidden Room (2015, Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, Canada)
Like dealing with ghosts of cinema past, Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson have tried to meld together all these old-timey specters of the art into something like a surrealist dream somebody had while playing 1930s romantic adventure serials. There’s no real anchor to what’s going on as pastiches interrupt each other structurally or physically, giving it the impression that lost movies are just melting in pot together into one overwhelming concoction. That’s probably the biggest reason that I’m having a hard time summarizing what The Forbidden Room actually is besides a love letter to movies that don’t exist anymore and its filmmakers probably never got a chance to see, maintaining the sense of translated memory to false personal memory that Maddin has already exercised throughout his career up until this point but now gets to have it reflect off the artform he most works with. And I think the fact that he basically just lets that all spill out here results in a thrilling and amusing time as long as you’re on the level. I like to think I’ve been on the level.
24. The Last of the Unjust (2013, Claude Lanzmann, France/Austria)
You probably could easily guess this based on my adoration of Varda’s entry up above, but I’m already halfway in the bag for documentaries in which the filmmaker is perfectly willing to acknowledge the fact that the audience knows this is strictly attached to their perspective and especially if they are confident enough to insert themselves into the narrative. Claude Lanzmann has basically been working with the overwhelming material that makes up Shoah, his massive magnum opus document of the Holocaust, all of his life by revisiting the remaining material and cutting it over decades into further appendices of that global event. Here we arrive at the final appendix and by this point Lanzmann is much much older (though I don’t recall if the movie is aware that he was 5 years away from his death) and in between his dedicated investigation of Benjamin Murmelstein and the complex grapppling that had to be made of rabbi’s situation, Lanzmann comes to muse upon how much he has spent on this huge tragedy and what revelations it has brought about himself. Thereby we have two different stories of present visiting the past paralleling each other in a dramatic and exhausting way (it would have to be in a four-hour runtime), but nevertheless feels as essential a work as the giant Shoah before it.
23. Day & Night (2010, Teddy Newton, USA)
The biggest argument for the regrettably forsaken 3D home theater setup is the chance to get to play this over and over again with that extra layer to this Pixar short film’s visual representation of conflict and difference. In the 2nd dimension, Teddy Newton has already provided us a playful juxtaposition between lighting and character design and shape, but with the 3rd dimension and that added depth… you suddenly get to register two different windows to two different worlds at the same time and watching them wrestle and dance around each feels so much more dazzling and stimulating than anything else. I suppose I probably sounded like a maniac being the one dude who walked out of Toy Story 3 claiming that I loved the short more (this is not necessarily an infrequent thing for me though: it happened back in 1998 with Geri’s Game preceding A Bug’s Life and happened again 6 years after this with Piper and Finding Dory) but it was an amazingly transformative thing that now in retrospect feels like a herald for all the sort of experimenting that I feel has taken up much of the 2010s’ best cinema.
22. Arabian Nights (2015, Miguel Gomes, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland)
Miguel Gomes’ three-part megalith of a picture clearly takes great glee in totally throwing our expectations from that particular title out to dry: while he still ostensibly maintains that famous frame narrative, it is left told instead of seen for the knowing dismissive nature of such a move in cinema so that we are instead hit with the meta and the modern. Gomes and the crew concoct their own fables to fill in the demands of the audience and the filmmakers themselves and virtually all of them are playfully funny while also being pointedly political and didactic regarding the state of Portugal circa 2015. And in the three-way structure, we are never particularly given a chance to accommodate to the fluid structure of the tales’ presentation nor the way that they alternate between the realism-based visual grounding and the moments where elements are most exaggerated in content and color. But of course this inconsistency is only of a result of Arabian Nights being just as much Gomes’ journey as it is ours, walking with him as he tries to make sense of his place as storyteller, as filmmaker, as Portuguese man, and connects with the history and habitats of his country and identity through the schematics of a foreign and foundational story.
21. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman, USA)
Sorry, Batman Ninja. You’re very close but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only the greatest superhero movie… it’s the most visually ambitious one to date. In a decade – nay, century! – where superhero movies have become such indistinguishable white noise with the mechanical manner that they’ve been shot out, it has been wholly disarming to watch Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman (as well as producers Christopher Miller & co-writer Phil Lord, two of the most ingenuitive people in studio filmmaking today) not only deliver a superhero movie that feels genuine in its love for what being a superhero is all about but also willing to share that excitement and thrill with the audience in such a potent and humorous way. Rather than just paying lip service to the concept that “anyone can wear the mask”, the team brings to life several different approaches to the core character in a variety of animation styles that never feel non-complimentary to each other but also never feel like two spaces in one frame are the same. It’s a film that recognizes how boundless creativity is a brilliant way to communicate diversity and individuality and every cheerful declaration in the film hard won through the story of Miles Morales. In 1978, Superman made people believe a man could fly and 40 years later… Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse makes people believe THEY can fly.