60. Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002)
Inspirational sports films are a dime a dozen, but for one to have such a palpable sense of energy and a keen understanding of gender and cultural dynamics is truly rare indeed. Bend It Like Beckham, among other things, launches the career of Keira Knightley, the radiant counterpart to Parminder Nagra’s much more grounded Jess. It’s a fun, frenetic spin on the classic story of cultures clashing with one another, and showcases how having a female director telling a female-oriented story can make all the difference in terms of authenticity.
59. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
Noah Baumbach really has a knack for creating intimate, personal stories about the intricacies of family life, and The Squid and the Whale is no exception. In it, he showcases a rapidly disintegrating family unit, focusing on a divorce from the perspective of two young sons. Jesse Eisenberg plays the older brother, full of seething resentment and taking his emotions out on his mother (Laura Linney) because blaming her is easier than acknowledging his idolized father’s (Jeff Daniels) faults. Owen Kline plays the younger brother, who is much less angry but far more confused about his parents’ separation. Together, the four actors bring a heartbreakingly fascinating dynamic to this shattered family, based on Baumbach’s own teenage experience with divorce.
58. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
Howl’s Moving Castle is a gorgeous fairy tale of a film, both comfortingly familiar and wildly imaginative. Soft-spoken Sophie is drudging along working at the hat shop she inherited from her father when a witch turns her into an old woman and she is forced to flee. From there, she crosses paths with a tormented, eccentric wizard and his enchanted castle full of fascinating characters, both human and otherworldly. Their journey together is both narratively and visually captivating, and Miyazaki packs the film wish such a pervasive sense of joy that it’s difficult not to be swept up along the way.
57. The Count of Monte Cristo (Kevin Reynolds, 2002)
The Count of Monte Cristo may not be one of the most highly regarded films of the 2000s, but it has quietly become one of the rare perfectly-executed odes of the modern era to the classic Hollywood swashbuckler. It takes itself just seriously enough to do credit to Dumas while still maintaining a certain magnetic energy as a fun revenge story. The narrative should be familiar enough: a naive, trusting sailor is wrongly imprisoned for a number of years, after which he comes into a vast fortune and uses his considerable resources to bring his persecutors to justice. Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce make a formidable duo as childhood friends turned enemies, and Richard Harris shines in one of his last ever on-screen performances.
56. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Bob Persechetti, Rodney Rothman, 2018)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is nothing less than a truly ambitious creative gamble that ended up redefining what a superhero movie could look like. The visual style is chaotic but charming, and it utilizes its frenetic animated format to full advantage in tackling a complicated multiverse plot at breakneck speed. Miles Morales, the new incarnation of Spider-Man, immediately endears himself to audiences, putting to bed once and for all the idea that the only Spider-Man viewers would accept is Peter Parker. And how refreshing is it to have a Spider-Man film that trusts the audience enough to do a quick, narrated introduction montage for each of the alternate Spider-people (and Spider-pigs) rather than making us all sit through Uncle Ben’s murder for the millionth time?
55. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard, 2005)
The Beat That My Heart Skipped is entirely fueled by its fiery leading performance from Romain Duris. As a small-time thug born into a family of criminals who longs for something more, he brings an intensity that perpetually alternates between brutish and deeply vulnerable. His efforts at the piano, the last remnants of a soft and gentle relationship with his late mother, are clumsy but beautiful in their imperfections, a desperate grasp for a more civilized nature. It’s a perfectly balanced film, and it takes the trope of the gangster with a heart of gold into a new direction, as we see the fully realized character of a violent criminal who seeks not just beauty but, perhaps paradoxically, refinement.
54. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)
This past decade has been a golden age for female-led teen comedies, and The Edge of Seventeen is one of its most underrated gems. Hailee Steinfeld stars as a high-strung, socially awkward teenager who, on top of her own romantic disasters, is struggling to cope with the sudden revelation that her best friend has been dating her older brother. Comedic melodrama aside, The Edge of Seventeen is refreshing in how seriously it takes its lead character. It acknowledges that her behavior is selfish and irrational, but it doesn’t turn her emotional state into a punchline the way we see in a lot of other movies about teenage girls.
53. Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018)
As we deal with one of the largest refugee crises since the end of the second world war, Transit feels as though it should be required viewing. Set in a tantalizingly ambiguous time period, a man is desperately attempting to flee Western Europe. He spends precious days visiting various embassies trying to get a travel visa to any country that will take him when, out of nowhere, an opportunity falls into his lap, and he takes on the identity of a writer whose identification documents may be his ticket out. Ultimately, the film gets at the heart of the terror facing refugees around the world, in that waiting is the true hell, and almost any potential eventuality is better than the anxiety and utter exhaustion of uncertainty.
52. A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004)
The beauty of A Very Long Engagement is the journey it takes the viewers on, through the horrors of World War I and its aftermath, as a young woman begins the search for her beloved fiance. He is a soldier in the French army who was reportedly executed for cowardice, though she believes him to still be alive. It’s certainly not a happy film, or even a particularly optimistic one. But there’s an intriguing sense of whimsy to this war film, an inherent absurdity that underscores the senselessness of the war itself. The detective work of the film aside, A Very Long Engagement excels most of all in its exploration of the five French soldiers shot for cowardice, and how the audience is granted an entirely judgement-free glimpse into their lives that stretches far beyond the constraints of the war.
51. Blackkklansman (Spike Lee, 2018)
With Blackkklansman, Spike Lee tells a story so incredible that it almost feels as though it has to be made up. In the 1970s, a black police officer working in Colorado Springs went undercover with the KKK — that is an actual thing that happened. It features John David Washington in a breakout role as Ron Stallworth, while Adam Driver brings an understated depth to his performance as Flip, his colleague and the official white Ron Stallworth. This represents Spike Lee going a bit more mainstream than he has in the past, but there’s still a vein of barely concealed rage just underneath the surface. He ties together events from the Jim Crow era, the civil rights era, and even modern-day America to paint a larger picture of injustice and oppression that is incredibly powerful despite being occasionally a little too on-the-nose.
50. Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2015)
Somewhere along the line, spy movies like James Bond forgot how to be fun. Kingsman: The Secret Service came along and injected fresh life into the genre. Eggsy is a smart and talented but underachieving kid from the wrong part of town whose world is turned upside down when wealthy secret agent Harry Hart (a rarely better Colin Firth) takes him under his wing and brings him into a secret international peacekeeping society. Somehow the film manages to get a tremendous amount of spy-related action in, as well as a sharp rebuke of class prejudice and even has moments of genuine comedy. It nails an irreverent tone and has legitimate stakes but never takes itself too seriously. And of course, it’s a star-making vehicle for Taron Egerton, who oozes charisma and displays an utterly unique screen presence throughout. Everyone involved seems to be having a great time making it, and the end result is a film that’s a joy to watch.
49. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)
What’s so interesting about Persepolis is how it uses animation as a conduit to explore memory. This French-Iranian film is about a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Ran, amidst violence and raids from secret police and ever-tightening restrictions on the rights of women. She is sent away to Europe during her teen years, and the bulk of the film is her struggling to bridge the gap between these two cultures, neither of which she truly feels a part of. She’s too French in Iran, too Iranian in France, and can’t seem to find a home in either. Persepolis is a truly unique coming of age story, one told with honesty and pathos and incredible style.
48. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
In the hands of director Greta Gerwig, Little Women is so much more than just another adaptation of the famed novel by Louisa May Alcott. Instead, it breathes fresh life into the story of four sisters growing up in Civil War-era Massachusetts. Her Little Women feels somehow modern, but not self-consciously so. In fact, if anything it serves to show how universal the storyline is, that it still feels entirely relatable 150 years later. The decision to approach the story non-chronologically changes some of the emotional beats, and Amy and Friedrich Baehr have never been served better. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh put in career-defining performances, bringing new flavors to Jo and Amy. It’s a warm and vibrant film, which leaves the viewer feeling as cozy and contented as if they were sitting by the fire in the March’s hearth.
47. Frantz (François Ozon, 2016)
Frantz is, put simply, a work of art. The cinematography alone, the way that plays with color and tone for emotional effects, is staggeringly beautiful. Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman adrift in the wake of the first world war. She lives with her fiance’s parents, but he was killed in the war, and she’s stuck in a sort of stasis. Until she meets Adrien (Pierre Niney), a mysterious Frenchman who claims to have been a friend of her fiance from before the war. What follows is a contemplative and at times melancholic exploration of memory, grief, loss, and overwhelming guilt. It’s the kind of film you can analyze for days and still barely scratch the surface of the multitudes it contains within, made by a director who has such a unique perspective on film.
46. First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018)
In a world that has generated so many films about the NASA space program, it was hard to see what would make First Man stand out from the crowd, even with Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle directing and the always wonderful Ryan Gosling in the lead role of Neil Armstrong. But this isn’t just another astronaut movie, not really. It’s the story of a man grieving for his lost daughter and so desperate for isolation that he’s willing to strap himself into a tin can and travel all the way to the moon to get it. Gosling’s performance is appropriately understated and deeply moving in its restraint, while Claire Foy forges for herself a powerful performance out of what could have been another long-suffering, supportive wife role. And the incredible, soaring score from Justin Hurwitz is just icing on the cake.
45. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth is the highlight of Guillermo del Toro’s storied career, showcasing his seemingly endless imagination and how well he can bring to life the monsters that lurk in the darkest corners of his mind. Set during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth focuses on the adventures of a lonely little girl that feels like a classical fairytale gone horribly wrong. The world-building and character design are thoughtful and deeply intricate, creating an ethereal atmosphere that is but nightmarish but somehow abstractly evocative of childhood.
44. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Everytime Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis pair up, we know we can expect fireworks, and There Will Be Blood is no exception. It’s an incredibly risky film, in that it’s so ponderous and wrapped up in the antics of one truly despicable man. If you don’t have someone with the remarkable skills of Day Lewis, I think the entire thing falls apart. The production feels stark and unwelcoming throughout, from the empty, expansive Western vistas to the ever-increasing isolation Daniel Plainview lives in, spewing venom at everyone who tries to form any semblance of a relationship with him. It’s a powerful examination of the amoral nature of unfettered capitalism and the extremes an oil baron is willing to go to for a profit. But ultimately, it’s a character study, and there’s limitless space to explore Plainview, a bottomless pit of incomprehensibility and all the more intriguing for it.
43. 1985 (Yen Tan, 2018)
A small, intimate slice of life piece, 1985 stands as a shining example of what ultra low budget independent cinema at its best can accomplish. Adrian is a young gay man who has returned from New York City to his small, conservative hometown in Texas for Christmas. It’s 1985, and he’s just been diagnosed with AIDS. This is his last opportunity to reconnect with his parents and younger brother, to say whatever he needs to say. It is heartbreaking in its simplicity, understated in its emotions, but deeply resonant. The film never resorts to cheap emotional manipulation, instead allowing small moments to speak volumes.
42. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
Dancer in the Dark somehow feels unlike any other movie. It’s almost otherworldly, with the juxtaposition between the heightened reality of the musical sequences and the crushingly grounded atmosphere of the rest of the film. Bjork is quite possibly the only person in the world who could have played the lead role, strange and effervescent and beautifully tragic. Dancer in the Dark is an unrelentingly grim film, and it’s fascinating how Lars von Trier plays with the traditional structure of a musical, all light and air and shallow pleasures, as a delivery system for some heartbreakingly brutal content.
41. The Guilty (Gustav Möller, 2018)
Sometimes the more restrictions a filmmaker puts on themselves, the more they are forced to be creative in ways they never would have considered before. The Guilty is a challenge of how to create tension, the kind that makes audiences forget to breathe, while never actually showing any of the action. The entirety of the Danish thriller takes place within the four walls of an emergency call center, where a drama unfolds off-screen that we only ever hear fragments of. This sort of thing has been done before, but never quite as skillfully as we see in The Guilty. Despite the restrictions on the scope of the film, the narrative is constantly in motion, ever-changing as the audience is carefully and elegantly presented with new information.