80. The Impossible (J.A. Bayona, 2012)
The Impossible takes a terrifying real-world disaster and brings it to life on a staggering scale — not just the event itself, but the devastating aftermath full of brutal injuries and desperate searches for loved ones. The Bennett family is on Christmas vacation in Thailand when the Boxing Day Tsunami hits, obliterating their hotel and scattering parents and children to the winds. What follows is a heart-rending effort for all five to be reunited. But what elevates this film above other similar disaster movies are the performances. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are both spectacular, with McGregor’s scene as he breaks down while trying to phone family back in England a particular highlight. The biggest and most pleasant surprise is a young Tom Holland as the eldest son, commanding large sections of the film with a screen presence that brings to mind Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, a high compliment indeed.
79. The Chorus (Christophe Barratier, 2004)
The Chorus is a sweet, charming period drama from France about a middle-aged composer. Down on his luck, he takes a job as a teacher at a rough and tumble boarding school filled with troubled students, many of whom lost parents or were otherwise traumatized during World War II. Inspired by this group of troublemakers, he decides to form a boys’ choir, and he ends up To Sir With Love-ing the crap out of them. The performances of the child actors are note perfect, especially Jean-Baptiste Maunier, the angry, mischievous boy with the voice of an angel, and the adorable little Pepinot (Maxence Perrin), who waits for his dead parents at the school’s gate every Saturday hoping they’ll come to see him. But the crowning glory of The Chorus is, fittingly, the music. The original compositions from Bruno Coulais soar and are perfectly suited to the beautiful voices of the young choir.
78. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)
Taika Waititi brings his eccentric brand of humor to a light satire set in Nazi Germany, where a lonely boy (Roman Griffin Davis) with Hitler himself as an imaginary friend comes of age in the last days of World War II. Supported by an unusually warm and quirky Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo’s journey presents a strong condemnation of hateful ideology, softened only slightly by the innocence and naivety of its young lead character. Waititi carefully cultivates a balance between sentimentality and humor, creating a film that packs a tremendous emotional wallop in key moments — all of which serve to underline the central thesis that facism is an untenable system which hurts everyone it touches.
77. The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey, 2017)
Under the extremist regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the rights of women are rendered nearly nonexistent, a girl is forced to become her family’s main provider by posing as a boy after her father is taken away by paramilitary forces. In the process, she finds an inner strength she never knew she had. The Breadwinner is a powerful and gorgeously animated story of a young girl with incredible spirit, so much so that it’s heartbreaking to watch it be stifled by an oppressive regime. The film combines horrifying real world issues with vibrant fairy tales from the mind of a child, reminding audiences of the powerful emotional connection we all have through the stories we tell.
76. Free Solo (Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2018)
There’s nothing like a documentary that makes you feel as though you’re having an actual panic attack while watching it. Free Solo is the high octane, incredibly nerve-wracking story of Alex Honnold, an adventurous rock-climber training to summit El Capitan without the safety of rope to prevent him from falling to his death if he were to lose his footing. Painfully anxiety-provoking sequences detail his slow ascent up the mountain, where after a certain point any misstep would result in death. But perhaps most interesting is his relationship with his girlfriend, the small space of mundane regular life in his wild adventure, and the odd dynamic between the two as his girlfriend has to contend with the fact that his hobby will likely kill him one day. But he does it anyway, regardless of how she feels about it. It’s this element of humanity amidst seemingly superheroic feats that really grounds Free Solo and draws us in so fully.
75. Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019)
An incredibly vibrant, creative musical production, Rocketman brings to life not just the songs from Elton John’s catalog but the eccentric energy that made the famed singer and pianist such an icon. It weaves his music into a coherent and frequently sad narrative from his lonely childhood to the height of his fame and ultimate descent into drug addiction. Taron Egerton puts his entire heart and soul into his performance, displaying remarkable vocal skills and an uncanny ability to replicate Elton John’s singular stage presence. There are so many ways to mess up a biopic, particularly when it involves a beloved, larger-than-life pop icon (case in point, Bohemian Rhapsody.) But Rocketman manages to sidestep this potential pitfalls, creating a consistently engaging narrative that leaves viewers feeling that Elton John has not just been celebrated, but understood.
74. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)
The Aviator is a labor of love, both for director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the epic tale of Howard Hughes, a visionary film producer and aviation enthusiast from the golden age of Hollywood whose increasingly debilitating mental health issues famously made him into a recluse. DiCaprio’s performance as Hughes is rich and layered, but one of the most rewarding elements of the film is the number of old Hollywood legends who make appearances, lovingly brought back to life by today’s stars. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn is particularly exciting to watch — her voice and mannerisms are an uncannily accurate homage to the famous actress.
73. Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016)
Raising your children away from society’s worst influences so that you alone can mold their young minds might make you feel as though you’re giving them a gift, one of good education unfettered by materialism and social pressures. But it’s unsustainable: children need to be taught sooner or later how to live in the world. Viggo Mortensen puts in a compellingly odd performance of an unconventional patriarch determined to bring his children up as “philosopher kings” in the midst of the Pacific Northwest. The lingering question of the film is whether their upbringing, although seemingly idyllic, is actually harmful. The band of children are excellent here, with George McKay in a breakout performance as the eldest son. The Pacific Northwest is a fairy tale setting for their youth, and it’s only when we’re able to shake ourselves free from its spell that we see how isolated and unprepared these children are for a normal life.
72. Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)
Much like The Godfather Part II before it, Paddington 2 builds upon the efforts of an excellent opening film in its franchise and ascends to new heights that go beyond the scope of the original. By the time Paddington 2 begins, the young bear has fully assimilated into the Brown family and is a beloved member of the local community. That is, until he’s mistakenly charged with breaking and entering as well as grand theft pop-up book, after which he is unceremoniously set to prison. Paddington is, if possible, even more charming here than he was in the first film, Ben Whishaw’s warm and earnest voicework a perfect compliment to the bear that truly is too good for this world. And not for nothing, but this film may have the distinction of featuring the best character work Hugh Grant has ever done.
71. Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
Back in the 1960s when the musical Hair was on Broadway, a doctor used to be stationed backstage to give the actors shots of amphetamines before every show to help them maintain a high energy. I imagine that this experience was not dissimilar to that of watching Moulin Rouge — that is to say, as though you’ve just taken a bunch of uppers. It’s a wild, frenetic rollercoaster of a musical, a visually dynamic spectacle that only the mind of Baz Luhrman could have dreamt up. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor both have a great presence here, singing the hell out of an imaginative mashup of pop classics that will never fully get out of your head.
70. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)
Now that Marvel’s a lucrative arm of the all-powerful Disney corporation with about 7000 active properties and films planned out through 2075, it’s easy to forget that the version of Marvel we know today only exists because of the success of one rather unassuming film. Iron Man was never one of Marvel’s top tier superheroes, but in the charming hands of Robert Downey Jr, he catapults into stardom. The beauty of Iron Man is that for the most part, it’s not really a superhero film. Downey as Tony Stark is a genius billionaire inventor whose company’s fortune is largely maintained through defense contracts, when he is held hostage in the Middle East and has to use his engineering skills to escape. Thus, Iron Man is born.
69. Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, 2015)
Somehow, Pixar has always been able to tap into really complex emotions despite creating films that are aimed primarily at children. So it only makes sense that, given the opportunity to make a film entirely about anthropomorphized emotions, they would knock it out of the park. Inside Out takes place inside the mind of 12-year-old Riley, where Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust work together to help her through the complicated emotions of moving to a new city, feeling alone, and growing up. It’s deeply cathartic, especially for anyone who has dealt with depression, to see how Sadness in particular is elegantly integrated into the emotion group. Despite first portrayed as a burden, Inside Out teaches us that Sadness isn’t always bad, because it lets other people know when we need help. The film leads viewers to examine the nuances of emotion that accompany our mental development, which is intellectually ambitious for a children’s film but also entirely indicative of what makes Pixar special.
68. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a brief, scintillating respite from the world of man. Artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to provide her future husband a glimpse of his blushing bride-to-be. Her engagement is one of duty rather than pleasure, a business transaction that fills her with so much dread that she refuses to allow anyone to paint her face. But as her mother leaves their foreboding seaside manor for several days, the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse develops, and for a short time they along with their maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) are able to create an idyllic space for themselves as women to exist free from the prison of their role within a patriarchal system. Gorgeously filmed and featuring one of the most moving and romantic relationships we’ve seen on film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire lingers, embedding itself deep into your soul.
67. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)
In Shoplifters, we meet a group of misfits and grifters who survive day-to-day on the fringes of society through a series of thefts and cons. But before too long, it’s clear that they’ve formed a family unit that is more deeply bonded than many biological relatives. When they discover a lost little girl who has clearly been neglected, they bring her into the fold, a pint-sized Oliver Twist in a den of thieves. Their growing connection with her is incredibly touching, as these small-time criminals show her love and affection she never received from her real parents. Its explorations of life on the margins of Tokyo society, a city that famously has very little petty crime, is fascinating, as is its ultimate message of the magic of a kinship that is found rather than inherited.
66. Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)
Anna and the Apocalypse is an unassuming little film whose name should be sung from the rooftops until the actual apocalypse. It’s a horror comedy musical that charming combines High School Musical, Shaun of the Dead, and that one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where everyone was hit with a curse that made them sing their feelings. Anna is an ordinary high school girl who’s just trying to make it until graduation and embark on a grand (and massively disapproved of by her father) trip to Australia. But all that gets pushed to the side when zombies attack, and she and her friends are forced to fight their way through their suddenly not-so-sleepy hometown. The character work is excellent, especially from a largely unknown cast, and the songs featured in the film are obscenely catchy (and in the case of Marli Siu’s “It’s That Time of Year,” just plain obscene.) It’s a magnificently fun film with a few moments that will emotionally gut punch you when you least expect it.
65. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)
For a director like Alfonso Cuarón who has always experimented with different styles and genres, it’s fascinating to see him make a film that is as intensely personal as Roma. Set in 1970s Mexico City, Roma revolves around Cleo, a housekeeper who works in the home of an upper-middle class family that is quietly falling apart at the seams. It feels like a lovingly crafted ode to all the servants in film who are always little more than a small piece of someone else’s story, as well as an acknowledgement of how rare it is for indigenous people in Latin America to see themselves represented as protagonists on screen. And in terms of pure craft, Cuarón has never been better — every single shot is a work of art.
64. Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)
Scorsese is best known for his mobster films, but some of his most interesting work comes from his attempts to explore other genres. Silence, based on a novel by Shūsaku Endō, is the story of two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who journey to Japan to find their missing mentor. At this time, Japan is a country where Christianity is outlawed and missionary work strictly forbidden. It’s a quiet, contemplative piece, visually epic but narratively restrained. This is Scorsese at his most meditative, exploring the true nature of faith in a way that feels more solemn and powerful than any quote unquote Christian movie.
63. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
There are films that provide social commentary and films that function as pure works of art, but it’s rare to see the two combined as effortlessly as they are by Barry Jenkins in Moonlight. It explores the life of a gay black man in three distinct periods of his development: childhood, teen years, and young adulthood. He struggles to define sexuality and masculinity throughout, and his concept of what it means to be a man is continually shaped and reshaped by the characters that touch his life. Moonlight offers an opportunity to see a protagonist that has so rarely been portraying on screen before: a gay black man trapped between who he thinks he ought to be and who he is.
62. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014)
As technology advances, the line between human and machine becomes increasingly unclear. This is fairly well-explored territory in science fiction, but Ex Machina strips down all of the tropes into their purest form, until all you have left is a man in a room talking to a robot he can almost fool himself into believing is a woman. The dialogue in these scenes is clean and sharp and distinct, but what really elevates the film are its three lead performances. Domhnall Gleeson is understated but utterly perfect as the skeptical Caleb sent to analyze the robots, and Oscar Isaac is a frenetic, gregarious villain, yet one who always remains tapped into his humanity. Alicia Vikander puts in the performance of her career as the soft, subtly dangerous and all-too-human Ava — it’s an Oscar-worthy turn, so much so that it’s utterly baffling that she actually did win an Academy Award this year, just for the far inferior The Danish Girl instead of this.
61. Sky High (Mike Mitchell, 2005)
What is there to say about Sky High, really? That it’s an underrated gem that embodies the superhero genre in its purest form perhaps better than any comic book film before or since? That no movie or television show has ever found a way to perfectly utilize the talents of Kids in the Hall alums Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald? That it showcased brilliant foresight by launching the career of a young Nicholas Braun aka Greg the Egg from Succession? All of these things are obvious, and don’t need to be said. Michael Angarano stars as Will Powers, the teenage son of not one but two superheroes, who is about to start his freshman year at Sky High, basically Marvel Hogwarts. There’s just one problem: he doesn’t have any powers yet. The send-up of the classic comic book reliance on superhero/sidekick dichotomy is legitimately hilarious, and a combination of fresh young actors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a key role) and esteemed legends (Bruce Campbell as Coach Boom, anyone?) make Sky High an ever-so-slightly pointed love letter to the best superhero movies have to offer.