40. Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
A bright, splashy criminal adventure, Catch Me If You Can is one of Spielberg’s most stylishly fun films. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a young con man who successfully impersonates a doctor, lawyer, and airline pilot all before his eighteenth birthday, cashing impeccably forged checks around the country. His work here is excellent, as he presents the image of an intelligent, charming, impossibly daring teenager slowly backed into a corner by an unusually irascible Tom Hanks as the cop tasked with hunting him down. Catch Me If You Can succeeds visually, bringing to life a vibrantly technicolor early 1960s, and its narrative is every bit as clever as the lead character.
39. Boy A (John Crowley, 2008)
What does redemption look like, and can someone ever truly escape their past? Boy A stars Andrew Garfield in one of his first leading roles as a reserved young man who has just been released from a juvenile detention facility for his role in the murder of a classmate when he was a child. Due to the highly publicized nature of the crime, he lives under an assumed name for his own safety, and is eager to start a new ife. But is it so simple? When we meet him, it’s hard to imagine that he could be capable of hurting anyone, as soft and gentle and unsure of himself as he is. The film cleverly only offers brief flashbacks that never quite clarify his role in the murder. Quiet and intimately framed, Boy A is incredibly moving, thanks to a thoughtful script and brilliant performances from both Andrew Garfield and Peter Mullan as his social worker.
38. Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 2013)
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers’ very best, but audiences can be forgiven for not rushing back to rewatch it in a hurry. There are plenty of sad and distressing films out there, but Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the only ones that actually feels like depression. Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac in one of his best performances) is a 1960s folk singer with some promise, although his grief and overwhelming weariness make him his own worst enemy. There’s a very real sense of heaviness to the film, that Davis is weighed down and almost smothered by its narrative. But despite its emotionally oppressive qualities, there are surprising moments of light, with memorable cameos from Justin Timberlake and a pre-fame Adam Driver.
37. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)
Marriage Story is exactly the sort of intimate family drama that needs to be fiercely protected in the 21st century era of endless superhero franchises and Disney corporate domination. It’s a story that feels as though it’s over before it began, less interested in looking back to see how and why this marriage deteriorated, and more focused on what happens next. How do these two people who loved each other so much build new lives out of the shattered remains of the one they once shared? Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are electric in their roles, both creating compelling and empathetic characters that writer/director Noah Baumbach balances perfectly within the narrative. There’s a world in which this story is weighted heavily in favor of one person or the other, but here it’s very difficult to take sides — instead we mourn the loss of a family unit while simultaneously celebrating its genuinely optimistic transformation into something ultimately more healthy and fulfilling for all parties.
36. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)
With The Favourite, unconventional auteur Yorgos Lanthimos brings a modernism and sardonic sense of humor to his version of a historical drama. It revolves around two 17th century noblewomen vying for the affections of a petulant, melancholic Queen Anne as their bitter rivalry soars to new heights. Each of the three leading women — Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman — bring great depth to their performances, proving what greatness can be achieved when female characters are written to be as emotionally complex as their male counterparts. The Favourite offers an exploration of femininity in the political sphere as it depicts a royal court utterly dominated by the dynamics between women, and men are denied the power that comes from a special intimacy with their sovereign.
35. Never Look Away (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2018)
Never Look Away is a German historical epic that is impressive in both its scope and intimacy. It follows a young artist, from his childhood under the Nazi regime to his burgeoning career in Soviet East Germany and his eventual defection to the West. Never Look Away examines concepts of memory, guilt, and trauma, both individual and communal, in endlessly fascinating ways. Led by an all-star Germany cast of Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, and Sebastian Koch, it features emotionally vulnerable characters who are each attempting to reconcile themselves with the trauma of the past.
34. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019)
There are rare films out there that just seem to click with everyone, and 2019’s just happens to be a South Korean black comedy exploring the nature of capitalism. As a family of grifters slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of a privileged, upper middle class family, their interplay exposes a great deal about how the two halves of society truly view one another. Continually surprising and extremely effective in its efforts to take the story down unexpected paths, Parasite is an overwhelmingly satisfying cinematic experience.
33. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
There’s something about Greta Gerwig’s ability to tap into previously unexplored relationships between women, particularly mothers and daughters, that makes Lady Bird speak so movingly to a lot of audiences. Lady Bird is a disillusioned teenage girl growing up in Sacramento in the early 2000s, and her life seems defined by endless fights with her well-intentioned but perpetually disapproving mother. That, and her all-consuming desire to escape what she perceives as the banality of her hometown. Lady Bird is at once nostalgic, bittersweet, hilarious, and heartbreaking, with one of the greatest performances of Saoirse Ronan’s young career.
32. Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, 2019)
In Honey Boy, Shia LaBeouf bares his soul and exorcises his demons — the film feels like a therapy session, in the best possible way. Here, he lightly fictionalizes his own childhood as an increasingly famous young actor whose success is counterbalanced by the torturous relationship he has with his father, who LaBeouf himself plays. The dynamic between LaBeouf and Noah Jupe, the younger version of himself, is complex and heartbreaking. Jupe puts in an all-time great child performance, both preternaturally mature yet desperate for his father’s affection, which the deeply resentful paternal figure offers and withdraws seemingly on a whim. Honey Boy is an open wound, one that is only now even beginning to heal.
31. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2018)
Gorgeously shot in black and white, Cold War is the story of a pair of deeply dysfunctional lovers perpetually losing and finding one another amidst a backdrop of Europe during the Cold War. Their relationship is frustrating, dynamic, and full of contradictions. The two fight like hell to track each other down, but their passion only takes them so far, and they combust almost immediately. Pawlikowski’s direction is melancholic yet somehow romantic, and Joanna Kulig is captivating in the career-making lead role of Zula.
30. Land of Mine (Martin Pieter Zandvliet, 2016)
There are certain films where you feel like you get to the end of them only to realize that you’ve somehow been holding your breath the entire time. Land of Mine details the post-war experience of young (shockingly young) German POWs, who are forced in an act of pure irony to remove by hand every single landmine that was placed along the Danish coast during the Nazi occupation. An incredibly tense affair, tragedy seems as though it’s lurking around every corner. And every time it seems as though it’s going to offer a brief reprieve from the anxiety of waiting for mines to explode, it flips the script, creating a film that is heartbreaking and incredibly human.
29. Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)
This adaptation of Pride & Prejudice had some massive shoes to fill after the success of the 1995 version with Colin Firth. And while Austen fans can bicker about which version is better, it seems clear that this is one of the strongest feature-length adaptations of any of her work. Keira Knightley breathes fresh life into the playfully witty Elizabeth Bennet, and Matthew Macfadyen delivers us a Darcy who is more socially awkward than traditionally prideful. And it succeeds especially well in depicting the private lives of the characters, creating an intimacy and developing an unusually human Bennet family.
28. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
There is no film on earth quite like Phantom Thread. Daniel Day Lewis plays a mercurial 1950s fashion designer who lives with his acid-tongued sister (Lesley Manville). He seems perfectly content to spend his life trading barbs with her over tea, when he develops what may be the oddest romantic relationship in cinematic history with a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Their dynamic is mired in a power struggle, as Alma finds new and disturbing ways to gain the upper hand. A bizarre love story that really blossoms upon a second or third viewing, Phantom Thread is one that will linger in your mind for ages.
27. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson creates one of his most narratively satisfying ensemble pieces. The Tenenbaums are a family of overgrown child prodigies, failing in adulthood to meet the exceptional expectations set during their extraordinary youth. While some Wes Anderson films could be accused of leaning on quirkiness as a crutch, The Royal Tenenbaums manages to avoid falling into that trap, with both the director and the actors imbuing their characters with a sense of pathos that gives the film much-needed depth. Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, and Luke Wilson as the three Tenenbaum children have rarely been better.
26. Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007)
This is a movie in which Ryan Gosling develops a chaste, very sweet romantic relationship with a sex doll, and if that doesn’t sell you on it, it’s hard to imagine what would. This is an oddball dark comedy that treats its eccentric characters with an unusual amount of respect. And it’s endearing to watch an entire community bend over backwards to embrace an inanimate object because a person they care about needs the support. Ryan Gosling carries this movie on his shoulders in a surprisingly understated performance, his natural charisma buried under half a dozen layers of clothing and a crippling shyness.
25. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018)
How does a grown man somehow capture the essence of what it is to be a painfully awkward thirteen-year-old girl? Eighth Grade is a gut punch of memories, taking you back to the time when you were most vulnerable and unsure of yourself. Elsie Fisher shines as a sweet and interesting girl who just can’t manage to figure out how to simply be around other people her age. But what’s perhaps most endearing about Eighth Grade is that under Bo Burnham’s direction, the teenage girl is not stereotyped or turned into a punchline, but embraced and valued in a way that we rarely see on screen.
24. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
Social commentary in horror cinema is about as old as the genre itself, but the sheer craft of Get Out makes it feel new and unexpected. Jordan Peele’s background in comedy proves an asset, as he masterfully balances tone with moments of humor and absurdism juxtaposed with bone-chilling bleakness. As a piece that calls out the hypocrisy of wealthy white liberals who know how to say all the right things, but rarely back their words up with action, Get Out is note-perfect. Daniel Kaluuya should have won the Oscar.
23. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
Moon explores the nature of humanity and personhood in a way that evokes the high points of classic science fiction stories. Sam Rockwell is the rock that holds the film together, as pretty much the only person in it. He plays an astronaut just days away from the end of a long-term assignment on the moon, isolated by both distance and constant communication issues with his supervisors on Earth, only to discover that he isn’t quite as alone as he thinks. The depth and nuance that Rockwell brings to his performance here is remarkable, especially considering the fact that he is without any other actors to lean on. Tightly scripted and visually contained, Moon is a masterful love letter to science fiction films of old.
22. Spirited Away (Hiyao Miyazaki, 2001)
Spirited Away is one of Miyazaki’s finest works, the story of a young girl trapped in the realm of spirits and unable to find her way out. Its visual creativity is astounding, as it pulls from Japanese folklore to create an entire world full of spirits who run the gamut from helpful and enchanting to legitimately terrifying. In the years since Spirited Away was released, its imagery has become iconic in a way that only the best animated films can. A unique coming-of-age story, Spirited Away never fails to charm.
21. School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003)
Somehow comedies never seem to get the credit they deserve when compared to the rest of cinema. But to create a perfectly balanced comedy is a real display of craftsmanship, and by that metric School of Rock is arguably one of the best in decades. Jack Black plays a failed musician who moonwalks into a role of a substitute teacher, turning a class full of prep school overachievers into a would-be rock band. His relationship with the students is hilarious, but he also develops a genuine connection with them that makes the humor land perfectly. And perhaps most impressively, director Richard Linklater puts together an incredible ensemble cast of child musicians-turned-actors who steal every scene they’re in