20. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)
Amidst the bittersweet nostalgia of a 1970s teenager coming of age, 20th Century Women is a beautiful exploration of the lives of women. Dialogue-heavy and full of deep conversations, it touches on so many topics that, when taken as a hole, make up the human experience. What it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman. Parenthood. Love. Loss. Everything. It almost feels like a piece of French New Wave cinema, with its visual style, cultural attitudes, and dogged refusal to stick to traditional narrative conventions. Annette Bening is masterful here, and she’s incredibly well-supported by Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and Lucas Jade Zumann.
19. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
The White Ribbon sees an intangible sense of evil fills a quiet town in pre-World War I Germany. It may seem calm and civilized on the surface, but it’s being stifled by the harsh, repressive attitudes perpetuated by its social institutions: the aristocracy, the church, and the intellectual elite. Haneke builds a curiously deflating murder mystery in which there are no easy answers. Perhaps to prove the point that there is no one person to blame for the crimes depicted in The White Ribbon, but rather the entire town, with its dogmatic law and draconian punishments, is complicit.
18. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi will perhaps be remembered as the sequel that unleashed a torrent of internet bros, mourning the loss of their childhood and taking it out on the women who dared inhabit their galaxy far far away. While The Force Awakens renewed interest in the franchise, The Last Jedi stepped away from the template of the original series and created an ambitious message all its own. It’s about failure, and making all the wrong choices. The Last Jedi posits that how a person moves on from failure and deals with those consequences reveals who they truly are. Although the portrayal of Luke Skywalker as an embittered, self-isolating hermit at the edge of the galaxy drew ire from some fans, it merely expands upon the inherent darkness that has always been part of his character. And perhaps most importantly of all, Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is utterly haunting, cementing his position as one of the franchise’s most compelling figures.
17. About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013)
About Time walks a thin line between sentiment and sentimentality, as it blends a time-traveling romance with a very poignant story about family, loss, and letting go. Domhnall Gleeson plays Tim, a young man who discovers on his 21st birthday that he has the power to travel back to any point in his personal timeline. Indeed, all the men in his family have this gift. And while he begins by using his power for the exact sort of shenanigans one would expect, eventually its true value comes into focus. The ability to both give and receive much-needed second chances. To have one last conversation with a beloved parent. Yes, it’s schmaltzy — it’s directed by Richard Curtis, after all. But it’s also genuinely touching, especially in its depiction of the father-son relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy.
16. Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007)
Stardust is the rare adaptation that takes all the wonderful content from Neil Gaiman’s novel and adds a wealth of new details that serve to build out a vivid fantasy romance with a quirky sense of humor and shades of The Princess Bride. Tristan Thorne (a young, wide-eyed Charlie Cox) lives in a quiet village in England, but discovers a hidden magical world while on the hunt for a fallen star to bring back as a trophy for his would-be fiancee. Of course, the fallen star is in the form of a very put-out woman (Claire Danes), and their adventures follow a comfortingly familiar bickering-to-love trajectory. As a viewing experience, Stardust is the equivalent of a bright sunbeam on a warm summer’s day. It’s funny, genuinely exciting, and unabashedly sentimental. Oh, and Mark Strong and Robert DeNiro have rarely been used to greater effect in supporting roles.
15. 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)
13th is an explosive, deeply moving indictment of the American prison system. Through painstaking research presented in a way that elicits maximum emotional impact, it highlights the racial inequities that result in people of color being massively overrepresented in jails across the country. More than that, it ties together slavery, civil rights, and the villainization of African-American communities, making connections that serve to broaden our understanding of an issue that stretches across multiple fronts in society. A sense of rage and injustice permeates the entire piece, but it maintains a reliance on facts and utilization of historical evidence to construct an ironclad argument. DuVernay draws an elegant yet disturbing line through history that clearly illustrates how racial issues of the past have not disappeared, but merely changed shape.
14. Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016)
Lady Macbeth is the film that launched the spectacular career of one Florence Pugh, so it deserves our praise for that alone. Pugh stars as Katherine, a young woman who marries a wealthy older man and quickly finds the new restrictions on her life suffocating, her home in a large but austere manor little more than a prison. The obvious response is to have an affair with the handsome stableboy the second her husband goes away on business. And that’s far from Katherine’s most impulsive decision in Lady Macbeth! What begins as proto-feminism rapidly descends into sheer chaos, but thanks to Pugh’s powerful and mesmerizing performance, we stay in her corner ever after she’s gone well and truly off the rails.
13. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
Where would we be without Sean Baker’s creative interest in exploring the lives of people on the margins of society on film? The Florida Project revolves around a young girl who lives with her mother in a cheap and gaudy motel, somehow within spitting distance of Disney World yet at the same time in an entirely different universe. The visual juxtaposition of the two worlds is vivid, although perhaps not to our young hero, Moonee. She’s too busy being a kid to notice what she doesn’t have, spending her time running wild with her friends throughout their own miniature kingdom. Willem Dafoe co-stars in an usually warm role as the motel manager, who lends authority to the seemingly chaotic life of the denizens of his motel, but is also determined to protect Moonee from the darkest elements of her world. What’s especially refreshing about the film is that although it never condescends to its subjects, it also neatly sidesteps the trap of romanticising the poverty they live in.
12. How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)
How to Survive a Plague explores in staggering detail the social history of the AIDS crisis in early 1990s New York City. The extensive archival footage gives us a rare window into the sheer terror that gay men lived with daily, and how that fear turned to rage and finally action. It captures not just protests, but scientific conferences, political rallies, and personal home video footage (a particularly chilling moment takes place at a house party where a group of men are casually talking about the apocalyptic mood in New York City and one quips, “Will the last one alive in Chelsea please turn off the lights?” Part personal narrative, part diary of a social and political activist movement, How to Survive a Plague explores in depth the development of a group devoted to finding alternative treatments for AIDS and forcing the FDA to expedite the drug approval process in a desperate bid to save lives. Throughout the documentary, it always maintains its subjects’ humanity — their pain and near constant loss as they attend endless funerals of friends and lovers. How to Survive a Plague is a deeply moving documentary exploring the power of advocacy and grassroots movements in combating a public health crisis, one that has only grown in relevance since its release.
11. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
District 9 serves as a reminder, in the midst of endless comic book movies and blockbuster franchises, of the incredible power of an original science fiction narrative. Set in a Johannesburg that had been the site of an alien crash landing some years earlier, a segregated system has developed, keeping the alien survivors living in cramped internment camps. It’s easy to see in District 9 a commentary on South African apartheid, but the remarkable thing about this film is that it has only grown in relevance since its release in 2009. It speaks to the ugly, fearful side of human nature that sees refugees across Europe stranded in makeshift camps, unable to return home or become part of a new country. The prejudice and hate that rationalizes the taking of children from their parents and placing them in cages on the southern US border. It confronts the horrors of humanity, yet still somehow maintains a capacity for hope.
10. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
In A Separation, a husband and wife in Iran are on the brink of divorce. They battle over custody of their daughter, as the wife wants to move abroad while the husband insists on staying in Iran to care for his elderly father. When begins as a fairly traditional family drama descends into an almost Hitchcockian thriller, as a deeply devout woman hired as a caretaker accuses the husband of causing her to miscarry during a disagreement. Deceptively simple, A Separation elegantly explores issues prevalent in Iranian society, and the divides between the predominantly secular middle class and the more orthodox lower class. It brings a tremendous amount of moral complexity, and is eager to avoid an easy and straightforward application of justice, consistently introducing new sympathies and a constantly evolving perception of each character.
9. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2007)
Wiesler is fascinated by the lives of others because he doesn’t have one of his own. A Stasi agent in Communist East Berlin, he is charged with surveilling a playwright of dubious political allegiance and his mercurial actress girlfriend. The more he learns about the duo, the more he develops an attachment to them, and moves from playing a passive to an active role in their lives. It’s only through this entirely one-sided relationship with them that he actually experiences life, so trapped is he in his strictly observational role within Stasi intelligence. Actor Ulrich Mude died less than a year after the release of The Lives of Others, and his performance here is beautifully understated, made all the more poignant by the knowledge that he had been similarly monitored while working as a young stage actor in East Germany.
8. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
A precocious, socially isolated 1970s teen discovers rock and roll, and promptly turns his overachiever energy into becoming a music journalist for Rolling Stone. What’s not to like? Patrick Fugit stars as the wildly sheltered William Miller, who’s in way over his head as he joins up-and-coming band Stillwater on the road. Almost Famous is at once a poignant coming-of-age story, a love letter to the golden age of rock music, and even a subtle homage to Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Director and writer Cameron Crowe is at his eccentric best when working with material that emotionally resonates with him, and this is essentially the story of how he got his start as a music critic. With an incredible cast, an amazing soundtrack, and an iconic singalong to “Tiny Dancer” on a tour bus, Almost Famous sticks with you.
7. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Impeccably crafted and full of twists, The Prestige is narratively structured to mirror the three acts of a magic trick: the pledge, the turn, and of course, the prestige. It centers on two magicians, Borden and Angier, working in Victorian England first together, then as rival performers while their professional competition rises to new heights. Borden (Christian Bale) develops an astonishing new trick called The Transported Man, where he enters a door on one side of the stage and instantaneously emerges from a door on the other side of the stage. Angier becomes obsessed with learning the secret of the illusion, and goes to greater and more disturbing lengths to replicate it. As illusionists, the third act of the magic trick is the hardest to pull off, and it’s a testament to Nolan’s skill that he’s able to build one as satisfying as we see in The Prestige.
6. Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)
When it comes to sheer likeability, Sing Street never fails to deliver. Both a celebration of pop music of the 1980s and an ode to the creative forces behind it, Sing Street depicts a delightfully eccentric Dublin where a teenager lies about being part of a band to impress an older girl. But in the process of fleshing out the ruse, he almost by accident creates a legitimately talented band. The music featured in the film is insanely catchy, while still managing to feel as though it conceivably have been written by a pair of teenagers. Aside from the stellar original soundtrack, Sing Street features remarkably confident and natural performances from its young cast, all of whom have musical skills that bring an authenticity to the band.
5. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
However topical The Social Network may have seemed in 2010, it’s only grown in relevance over the years. Although the world at large generally regarded Mark Zuckerberg as a visionary, The Social Network was a bit ahead of the curve in its reading of the Facebook founder, identifying the cruel and anti-social elements of his character. Jesse Eisenberg is perfect as Zuckerberg, all arrogance and thinly concealed contempt for the rest of the world. And Andrew Garfield puts in a charming, powerful performance in his breakout role as Zuckerberg’s college business partner, Eduardo: he and Eiseberg have an electric chemistry together. Sorkin and Fincher do an excellent job of exploring Zuckerberg and men like him, the insecure, defensive type who think it’s their extreme intelligence that scares people away rather than their wildly unappealing personalities.
4. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
Brooklyn is a quiet, unassuming film, but no less impactful for it. Its depiction of a young woman’s journey from Ireland to New York City in the 1950s paints a vivid picture of the long and painful process of leaving home, and building a new life for yourself. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) has a peaceful, familiar life in Ireland, but a lack of opportunities draws her to a strange and exciting new world in Brooklyn. The feeling of moving away from home and hovering somewhere between an old and a new life is poignantly brought to life here. Ronan puts in some of her best work as a girl who is desperately sad and homesick in America at first, but slowly comes alive as she discovers the things and people that make Brooklyn home for her.
3. Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)
Good Bye, Lenin! is, more than anything else, a desperate attempt to stop time. A touching comedy about the bittersweet pull of nostalgia, it stars Daniel Bruhl in his breakout performance as Alex, a young man coming of age in East Berlin. Alex’s mother has a heart attack and falls into a coma just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. While she sleeps, the former East Germany undergoes a rapid transformation as western capitalism has a greater influence. But then she wakes up, and the doctors warn that any shock could put additional stress on her already weakened heart and kill her. Alex resolves to keep the truth from his mother, and builds a painstaking replica of East German life in her small apartment. By keeping it alive for his mother, he’s able to preserve for himself a piece of a culture that, despite its myriad flaws, is the only one he’s ever known.
2. Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, 2000)
Starring Jamie Bell in one of the all-time great child performances, Billy Elliot is the story of a boy growing up in an economically devastated Northern mining town who develops an interest in ballet. Bell brings a vulnerability to Billy, a kid who is proud and angry and terrified of being seen as different. He hides his dancing from his rough, taciturn father, who wouldn’t have the first idea of what to do with a ballet-dancing son. The exploration of masculinity is thought-provoking and honest, but never weighs the film down. It’s deeply emotional without being saccharine; there are enough rough edges to keep it from becoming too sweet. And more than anything, there’s an incredible sense of joy that permeates the entire film.
1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s most ambitious and effective work. The opening scene between the French farmer and Hans Landa that masterfully ramps up the tension, the tightly-edited set piece leading up the basement bar shootout, Shoshanna’s achingly beautiful rage set to David Bowie’s “Cat People” — all are amongst the best cinema has to offer. Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa will go down in history as one of the all-time greatest cinematic villains. His moments of menace and humor are perfectly balanced to continually wrongfoot the other characters, and his enjoyment of playing with his victims before going in for the kill is legitimately terrifying.