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The 50 Best Movies on Amazon Prime (December 2018)

Movies Lists Amazon Prime
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Amazon Prime  is an unheralded streaming treasure trove of some of the best movies to come out in the past couple years, though good picks can feel nearly impossible to cull from the sometimes overwhelming glut of weirdly terrible titles buried in Prime’s nether regions. Take, for example, our recent discovery of just how deep Amazon Prime’s stash of martial arts classics goes, with more than a handful of our top picks for the 100 best martial arts movies of all time. Who knows how long they’ve been there.

Still, with Oscar picks like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, The Florida Project and Lady Bird flanking critical darlings like The Handmaiden and a handful of our picks for the best movies of 2017, and obvious contenders for the best movies of 2018, like First Reformed, You Were Never Really Here and Lean on Pete, Amazon Prime is proving to have an eclectic collection of stuff you won’t be able to find anywhere else. Like last month, Prime hasn’t lost much at all in December, but it did gain some serious classic cinematic heft, like Being There, After the Storm, A Clockwork Orange and Boogie Nights—or maybe they’ve been there for all along. Hard to tell anymore.

Really, what’s changed on Amazon Prime in December is all good, which can be refreshing in the wake of a service like Netflix taking away everything you know and love every 30 days.

Of course, you can also browse guides to the best movies on other platforms, updated as best as we can manage, like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Showtime, Redbox, On Demand, YouTube, Shudder and The Best Movies in Theaters. Visit the Paste Movie Guides.

Here are the 50 best movies available to stream with Amazon Prime this month:

50. The Neon Demon
Year: 2016
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
If Nicolas Winding Refn—anthropomorphic cologne bottle; asexual jaguar—is going to make a horror film, Nicolas Winding Refn will make a horror film about the things that scare Nicolas Winding Refn most: asymmetry, sex, fatherhood. In The Neon Demon, every character is either someone’s daughter or a deranged daddy figure, both thirsty for the kind of flesh only Los Angeles can provide, the roles of predator and prey in constant, unnerving flux. Part cannibal-slasher movie and part endlessly pretty car commercial, Refn’s film about a young model (Elle Fanning) making it in the fashion industry goes exactly where you think it’s going to go, even when it’s trying as hard as it can to be weird as fuck. But despite his best efforts, Refn sustains such an overarching, creeping atmosphere of despair—such a deeply ingrained sense of looming physical imperfection, of death—that it never really matters if The Neon Demon doesn’t add up to much of anything in the end. —Dom Sinacola


49. mother!
Year: 2017
Director: Darren Aronofsky 
Try as you might to rationalize Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, mother! does not accept rationalization. There’s little reasonable ways to construct a single cohesive interpretation of what the movie tries to tell us. There is no evidence of Aronosfky’s intention beyond what we’ve intuited from watching his films since the ’90s—as well as how often Aronofsky loves to talk about his own work, which is usually worth avoiding, because Aronofsky likes thinking the movie is about everything. The most ironclad comment you can make about mother! is that it’s basically a matryoshka doll layered with batshit insanity. Unpack the first, and you’re met immediately by the next tier of crazy, and then the next, and so on, until you’ve unpacked the whole thing and seen it for what it is: A spiritual rumination on the divine ego, a plea for environmental stewardship, an indictment of entitled invasiveness, an apocalyptic vision of America in 2017, a demonstration of man’s tendency to leech everything from the women they love until they’re nothing but a carbonized husk, a very triggering reenactment of the worst house party you’ve ever thrown. mother! is a kitchen sink movie in the most literal sense: There’s an actual kitchen sink here, Aronofsky’s idea of a joke, perhaps, or just a necessarily transparent warning. mother!, though, is about everything. Maybe the end result is that it’s also about nothing. But it’s really about whatever you can yank out of it, its elasticity the most terrifying thing about it. —Andy Crump


48. Crank 2: High Voltage
Year: 2009
Directors: Neveldine / Taylor
Beginning with cinema’s most obvious dick joke and ending on the its two directors burning everything, including its anti-hero, to the ground, the sequel to Crank is as much of a mindfuck as its predecessor, but beholden to absolutely nothing but the unfiltered expunging of their most loathsome impulses on behalf of directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, two unrepentant dude-bros who, considering the movies they made together, seem to have parted ways, perhaps on bad terms or perhaps because the two grown men who made Gamer and Ghost Rider 2 just had nowhere left to go together. Like any good follow-up, Crank 2 is everything that Crank was, but launched irretrievably down a hellish K-hole, amping up all the public sex, murder, violence, gratuitous nudity, nihilism and genre-bending fuck-all spirit that made the first such a potential point of cult fascination. Here, Jason Statham’s Chev Chelios has transformed into full-on superhero—minus the “hero” connotation—an invulnerable, inhuman cyborg who must regularly pump enough electricity into his body to kill a herd of elephants just to keep his battery-powered heart beating as he chases after the Chinese mobsters who stole his original God-given ticker and (almost) the big ole monster between his legs. There is nothing subtle about Crank 2; there is only submission. —Dom Sinacola


47. Demon
Year: 2016
Director: Marcin Wrona
Demon’s action unfolds around the wedding of Piotr (Itay Tiran in an incredible leading performance) and Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), young, beautiful and madly in love despite a short relationship capped by an even shorter engagement. The brevity of their union concerns her dad (Andrzej Grabowski), but he does his best to warm up to Piotr despite his reservations. He gifts the couple with family property, an old farmhouse, too, though here “gift” is perhaps a term used loosely. Piotr flies to Poland from England to wed Zaneta, settle down, and gussy up the house and the land it rests upon, and so their troubles begin: with a skeleton Piotr uncovers while mucking around with an excavator. Horror snobs may feel inclined to evict Demon from the genre for its absence of scares. Marcin Wrona doesn’t hide in cabinets and jump out at us while screaming “boo” and flailing his arms. He includes no unearned jump beats, nothing to startle us the way that horror cinema has taught us to anticipate throughout its annals. What he pulls off instead is a good deal trickier, thanks in large part to expectation and custom. Demon gets under the skin, distorting perception while corrupting bliss at the same time, and even with a plate that full the film finds room for pitch black humor and a slice of nationalism: Toward the narrative’s climax, one wedding guest, totally blotto, rants aloud about the good old days, when everyone was Polish and no one freaked out when strangers talked to ghosts. —Andy Crump


46. Like Me
Year: 2017
Director: Robert Mockler
Like Me is an indictment of a life spent “extremely” online: a thriller in which the thrill is the threat of empty transgression; a body horror flick in which the body horror is the way social media and Tumblr and Reddit and YouTube transform us, make us grotesque, perverting basic physical functions into scary, dysmorphic representations of the flesh sacks we carry around with us whenever we’re not online. Early in the film, writer-director Robert Mockler introduces us to the online world of our main character, Kiya (Addison Timlin, terrifying), via a disturbing barrage of hyperreal, gif-like images—close-ups of sugary cereal and milk chewed sloppily, of a viscous tongue mid-slurp, of Kiya doing weird kinesthetics in a dirty motel room while the camera capsizes and arises around her, this Manic Pixie Dream Girl who embodies each of those words as literally as possible. Though Mockler implies that these are all curated posts Kiya’s put online, we believe that this is how she sees the world. Aided by some seriously heady opioids and hallucinogens, she can’t help but digest her lived experiences without mitigating them digitally. As Kiya moves through Mockler’s pink-ish, neon dystopia, DP James Siewert shooting Timlin as if she’s stranded in the middle of a Michael Mann joint, everything seems on the table. Kiya lures a motel manager, Marshall (Larry Fessenden, better than excellent), to her room—another room, another motel, somewhere on this stupid planet—with the possibility of sex. Instead, he finds Kiya’s redecorated her room like an outtake from The Cell, testing the lonely guy’s willingness to go along with whatever insanity’s in store. Of course, some icky gastrointestinal calamity occurs, but Marshall never flinches, so Kiya kidnaps him and takes him with her. Gorgeous and gross in equal measure, Like Me is a visual feast. Mockler conjures setpieces out of practically nothing, crafting each frame with a meticulous symmetry that belies the chaos at the heart of Kiya’s impulsive odyssey. —Dom Sinacola


45. After the Storm
Year: 2017
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Depending on the filmmaker, After the Storm’s storyline could be grist for a dark comedy, a tear-jerking melodrama or a bilious character study. But because it springs from the mind of Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, this look at a middle-aged man who’s only slowly coming to the realization that he’s a right bastard is gentle, wistful—serene even. The film stars Hiroshi Abe (who previously appeared in Kore-eda’s I Wish) as Ryota. Years ago, he was a novelist of some acclaim—he even won a prestigious literary prize—but lately, the muse has run dry, leaving Ryota busily tending to his gambling addiction while taking a job as a private detective. And that’s when Ryota is not snooping on his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) to see who she’s dating now, even cajoling his 11-year-old son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) to question her about how serious this new relationship is. If a melancholy, troubled tone is endemic in Kore-eda’s work, so is his close chronicling of family dynamics. While Ryota fears turning into the same terminal disappointment as his father—or, perhaps, the disappointment he perceived him to be—he tries to win Shingo’s affection, buying him gifts to assert his supremacy over his ex’s new boyfriend. In Ryota’s mind, it’s how to be close to his boy in a way his father never was with him, but After the Storm knows better, recognizing all the ways that he’s failing his kid—and also how, like its own kind of genetic gravity, Ryota is becoming his old man, unable to correct the mistakes of the past. But there’s no scorn in Kore-eda’s depiction of Ryota’s transformation, the director’s patience towards Ryota is both touching and despairing. After the Storm shows this man more kindness than perhaps he deserves, but the film has no illusions: Only Ryota can pull himself out of his own hole. But that’s the thing about having faith in people—it makes it that much easier for them to keep breaking your heart. —Tim Grierson


44. Swiss Army Man
Year: 2016
Directors: Daniel Scheinert, Dan Kwan
It should be ridiculous, this. A buddy comedy built atop the premise of a man (Paul Dano) lugging around, and bonding with, a flatulent talking corpse (Daniel Radcliffe)—but cinema is a medium in which miracles are possible, and one such miracle occurs in Swiss Army Man. A film with such a seemingly unpalatable concept becomes, against all odds, a near-profound existential meditation. And, for all the increasingly absurd gags about the utilities of that talking corpse’s body—not just as a jet-ski propelled by bodily gas, but as a giver of fresh water through projectile vomiting and even as a compass through its erection—there’s not one iota of distancing irony to be found in the film. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan are absolutely serious in their attempts to not only re-examine some of the most universal of human experiences, but also explore the idea of a life lived without limits, casting off the shackles of societal constraints and realizing one’s best self. It’s a freedom that the Daniels project exuberantly into the film itself: Swiss Army Man is a work that feels positively lawless. Witness with amazement what bizarrely heartfelt splendors its creators will come up with next. —Kenji Fujishima


43. What We Do in the Shadows
Year: 2015
Directors: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
 Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement co-stars in and co-directs this clever mockumentary about the banal bummers of the afterlife, when vampires stop being polite and start getting real. As “documented” by a camera crew, Clement and collaborator Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok) share a flat with fellow bloodsuckers who, when they aren’t bickering over dish duty and rent, are schooling a green new vamp—who in turn brings the centuries-old creatures into the technology age. The New Zealand-made horror-comedy is deeply self-aware, reveling in its silly practicalities: It’s tough to go clubbing when your undead identity requires that you be invited inside. When you’ve got nothing but time, the mundane becomes even more ridiculous, and Shadows’ way with the absurd is spot-on. (And that’s before we meet a pack of smug rivals who refuse to lower themselves to “swearwolves.”) What the genre- and cliché-bending film lacks in plot it more than makes up for in tongue-in-cheek charm. Who would’ve thought vampires were such dorks? —Amanda Schurr


42. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
Year: 1979
Director: Werner Herzog 
Werner Herzog  recreates the cornerstone of vampire cinema (and German expressionist filmmaking, for that matter) through an ever-mounting nightmare of unsettling, disjointed vignettes. Which isn’t anything new for the German director, but his methods and sensibility do lend themselves naturally to the language of phantasmagoria, as he tells a well-known story via one subconscious-upending image after another. As in any Herzog film, the story is never intended to hold together flawlessly—only barely logically—but to imprint indelibly upon the insides of the viewers’ eyelids the stark silhouette of evil borne absurdly from the primeval fear in all of us. That Klaus Kinski also plays Count Dracula means that madness bristles at the edge of every manicured line of chiaroscuro: Nosferatu revels in the beauty of horror. In fact, Roger Ebert said, “Here is a film that does honor to the seriousness of vampires. No, I don’t believe in them. But if they were real, here is how they must look.” —Dom Sinacola


41. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Year: 1978
Director: Philip Kaufman
There’s no real need for the film’s credit-limned intro—a nature-documentary-like sequence in which the alien spores soon to take over all of Earth float through the cosmos and down to our stupid third berg from the Sun—because from the moment we meet health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and the colleague with whom he’s hopelessly smitten, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), the world through which they wander seems suspiciously off. Although Philip Kaufman’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers begins as a romantic comedy of sorts, pinging dry-witted lines between flirty San Franciscan urbanites as Danny Zeitlin’s score strangely lilts louder and louder overhead, Kaufman laces each frame with malice. Oddly acting extras populate the backgrounds of tracking shots and garbage trucks filled with weird dust fluff (which we eventually learn spreads the spores) exist at the fringes of the screen. The audience, of course, puts the pieces together long before the characters do—characters who include Jeff Goldblum at his beanpole-iest and Leonard Nimoy at his least Spock-iest—but that’s the point: As our protagonists slowly discover that the world they know is no longer anything they understand, so does such simmering anxiety fill and then usurp the film. Kaufman piles on more and more revolting, unnerving imagery until he offers up a final shot so bleak that he might as well be punctuating his film, and his vision of modern life, with a final, inevitable plunge into the mouth of Hell. —Dom Sinacola


40. City of Ghosts
Year: 2017
Director: Matthew Heineman
There need not be a documentary about the Syrian catastrophe to rally the world around its cause—just as, in Matthew Heineman’s previous film, Cartel Land, there was no need to vilify the world of Mexican cartels or the DEA or the paramilitaristic nationalists patrolling our Southern borders to confirm that murder and drug trafficking are bad. The threats are known and the stakes understood, at least conceptually. And yet, by offering dedicated, deeply intimate portraits of the people caught up in these crises, Heineman complicates them beyond all repair, placing himself in undoubtedly death-defying situations to offer a perspective whose only bias is instinctual. So it is with City of Ghosts, in which he follows members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group committed to using citizen-based journalism to expose the otherwise covered-up atrocities committed by ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria. In hiding, in Turkey and Germany and at an event for journalists in the U.S.—in exile—these men, who Heineman characterizes as a very young and even more reluctant resistance, tell of both the increasingly sophisticated multimedia methods of ISIS and their hopes for feeling safe enough to settle and start a family with equal trepidation about what they’ve conditioned themselves to never believe: That perhaps they’ll never be safe. Heineman could have easily bore witness to the atrocities himself, watching these men as they watch, over and over, videos of their loved ones executed by ISIS, a piquant punishment for their crimes of resistance. There is much to be said about the responsibility of seeing in our world today, after all. Instead, while City of Ghosts shares plenty of horrifying images, the director more often that not shields the audience from the graphic details, choosing to focus his up-close camera work on the faces of these men as they take on the responsibility of bearing witness, steeling themselves for a potential lifetime of horror in which everything they know and love will be taken from them. By the time Heineman joins these men as they receive the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for their work, the clapping, beaming journalists in the audience practically indict themselves, unable to see how these Syrian men want to be doing anything but what they feel they must, reinforcing the notion that what seems to count as international reportage anymore is the exact kind of lack of nuance that Heineman so beautifully, empathetically wants to call out. —Dom Sinacola


39. Lean on Pete
Year: 2018
Director: Andrew Haigh
Lean on Pete flows with such gentle beauty that it may be hard to grasp precisely what it’s about or where it’s going. But the power of writer-director Andrew Haigh’s sublime drama is that it can support myriad interpretations while remaining teasingly mysterious—like its main character, it’s always just a bit out of reach, constantly enticing us to look closer. Based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel, the movie is a smashing introduction to Charlie Plummer, who was the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in last year’s All the Money in the World. Here, he plays Charley Thompson, a 15-year-old living with his drinking, backslapping dad (Travis Fimmel) in Portland. Charley has a sweet face and a soft-spoken manner—when he talks, the last few words evaporate into the air, as if he’s too shy to even be bold enough to enunciate—but early on, we get a sense that there’s a craftiness underneath that demeanor. The first indication is his willingness to lie about his age to Del (Steve Buscemi), a craggy horse owner who reluctantly takes him on as a caretaker for his elderly racehorse Lean on Pete. Charley doesn’t know a thing about horses, but he’s anxious to find something to do now that he’s in a new town with his father, their reasons for leaving Spokane unspecified but clearly dispiriting. Familiar narrative tropes emerge in Lean on Pete: the boy-and-his-dog drama, the coming-of-age story, the father-and-son character piece, the road movie. Haigh breezes past them all, seeking something more elliptical in this deceptively slim story. With the patience and minimalist command of a Kelly Reichardt, he doesn’t dictate where his film goes, seemingly letting Charley’s restlessness call the shots. The boy’s journey gathers force and poignancy as it moves forward, and the more we understand about Charley the more unknowable he becomes. Along the way, we meet other people and see other worlds—the life of young military veterans, the reality of homelessness, the grind of the low-rent racing circuit—but Haigh views it all with the same unassuming compassion we see in Charley’s quiet eyes. —Tim Grierson


38. Society
Year: 1989
Director: Brian Yuzna
Society is perhaps what you would have ended up with in the earlier ’80s if David Cronenberg had a more robust sense of humor. Rather, this bizarre deconstruction of Reagan-era yuppiehood came from Brian Yuzna, well-known to horror fans for his partnership with Stuart Gordon, which produced the likes of Re-Animator and From Beyond…and eventually Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, believe it or not. Society is a weird film on every level, a feverish descent into what may or may not be paranoia when a popular high school guy begins questioning whether his family members (and indeed, the entire town) are involved in some sinister, sexual, exceedingly icky business. Plot takes a backseat to dark comedy and a creepily foreboding sense that we’re building to a revelatory conclusion, which absolutely does not disappoint. The effects work, suffice it to say, produces some of the most batshit crazy visuals in the history of film—there are disgusting sights here that you won’t see anywhere else, outside of perhaps an early Peter Jackson movie, a la Dead Alive. But Society’s ambitions are considerably grander than that Jackson’s gross-out classic: It takes aim at its own title and the tendency of insular communities to prey upon the outside world to create social satire of the highest (and grossest) order. —Jim Vorel


37. Buzz One Four
Year: 2017
Director: Matt McCormick
Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick begins his very personal documentary with an astounding shot of a nuclear mushroom cloud from high above the Earth, a droning ambient soundtrack roaring to a fever pitch as the explosion takes explicit shape. From there, McCormick narrates the story of his grandfather, one of the U.S.’s select B-52 bomber pilots burdened with flying world-clearing, 4-megaton nuclear weapons on marathon missions over North America, staying ever-ready to drop them on Russia should the Cold War come to a disastrous head. The film’s strength is its wordless, practically impressionistic sense of gravity when pouring over so much found footage and assorted documents from the time, detailing just how much of the world’s destiny was shaped by human beings as susceptible to error—to the failings of the human body—as any one of us. Scored by Portland ambient artist Eluvium (Matthew Cooper), Buzz One Four stays so compelling in its powerfully non-verbal wandering, one wishes McCormick got rid of narration altogether. —Dom Sinacola


36. Crippled Avengers
Year: 1978
Director: Chang Cheh
In a time when exploitation cinema seemed the standard for cheap movie houses the world over, no martial arts flick got much better than this Shaw Brothers staple, which eventually adopted the much more PC title, Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms. The blind one, the deaf mute, the one without legs and the brain-damaged “idiot”: Together, they make an unstoppable force of vengeance against the local martial arts master who crippled them, as well as his son, who ironically lost his arms at a young age, and so sports dart-shooting cast-iron facsimiles. In other words, Crippled Avengers plays it cool, allowing our disfigured heroes few but important victories for most of the film, building up to its final 25-minute series of fight scenes, in which a blind man, a deaf mute, a man with iron prosthetic legs and an acrobatic “idiot” combine their individual strengths to defeat a kung fu master with, basically, robot arms. Movies like this give us reasons to get up in the morning. —Dom Sinacola


35. Les Diaboliques
Year: 1955
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques through the lens of the modern horror film, especially the slasher flick—replete with un-killable villain (check); ever-looming jump scares (check); and a “final girl” of sorts (check?)—one would not have to squint too hard to see a new genre coming into being. You could even make a case for Clouzot’s canonization in horror, but to take the film on only those terms would miss just how masterfully the iconic French director could wield tension. Nothing about Les Diaboliques dips into the scummy waters of cheap thrills: The tightly wound tale of two women, a fragile wife (Véra Clouzot) and severe mistress (Simone Signoret) to the same abusive man (Paul Meurisse), who conspire to kill him in order to both reel in the money rightfully owed the wife, and to rid the world of another asshole, Diaboliques may not end with a surprise outcome for those of us long inured to every modern thriller’s perfunctory twist, but it’s still a heart-squeezing two hours, a murder mystery executed flawlessly. That Clouzot preceded this film with The Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau seems as surprising as the film’s outcome: By the time he’d gotten to Les Diaboliques, the director’s grasp over pulpy crime stories and hard-nosed drama had become pretty much his brand. That the film ends with a warning to audiences to not give away the ending for others—perhaps Clouzot also helped invent the spoiler alert?—seems to make it clear that even the director knew he had something devilishly special on his hands. —Dom Sinacola


34. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Year: 2017
Director: Steve James
Imperiled families are popular forms of community in documentaries this year—on the more heartwarming side is Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the deceptively straightforward new film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. In it, James details the ordeal of the Sungs, who ran the only bank to face federal prosecution in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. What’s even more surprising is that their bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was a tiny, local institution catering to New York City’s Chinatown residents—hardly one of the massive financial corporations that helped crater the world economy. There is a happy ending to Abacus’s legal nightmare, however, but James uses the court case as a means to explore the Sung family, particularly patriarch Thomas Sung, who even in his late 70s still elicits a strong hold over his adult daughters, who help run the bank with him while jockeying to curry his favor. Abacus is a family portrait mixed with current events, and if it’s less ambitious than Hoop Dreams that doesn’t diminish the warmth and subtlety James brings to this look at an anxious, close-knit clan who rally around one another once the government goes after them. —Tim Grierson


33. Zodiac
Year: 2007
Director: David Fincher 
I hate to use the word “meandering,” because it sounds like an insult, but David Fincher’s 2007 thriller is meandering in the best possible way—it’s a detective story about a hunt for a serial killer that weaves its way into and out of seemingly hundreds of different milieus, ratcheting up the tension all the while. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as Robert Graysmith, an amateur sleuth and the film’s through line, while the story is content to release its clues and theories to him slowly, leaving the viewer, like Graysmith, in ambiguity for long stretches, yet still feeling like a fast-paced burner. It’s not Fincher’s most famous film, but it’s absolutely one of the most underrated thrillers since 2000. There are few scenes in modern cinema more taut than when investigators first question unheralded character actor John Carroll Lynch, portraying prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, as his facade slowly begins to erode—or so we think. The film is a testament to the sorrow and frustration of trying to solve an ephemeral mystery that often seems to be just out of your grasp. —Shane Ryan


32. Arrival
Year: 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Your appreciation of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival will hinge on how well you like being led astray. It’s both the full embodiment of Villeneuve’s approach to cinema and a marvelous, absorptive piece of science fiction, a two hour sleight-of-hand stunt that’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge of its plot as possible. Fundamentally, it’s about the day aliens make landfall on Earth, and all the days that come after—which, to sum up the collective human response in a word, are mayhem. You can engage with Arrival for its text, which is powerful, striking, emotive and, most of all, abidingly compassionate. You can also engage with it for its subtext, should you actually look for it. This is a robust but delicate work captured in stunning, calculated detail by cinematographer Bradford Young, and guided by Amy Adams’ stellar work as Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist commissioned by the U.S. Army to figure out how the hell to communicate with our alien visitors. Adams is a chameleonic actress of immense talent, and Arrival lets her wear each of her various camouflages over the course of its duration. She sweats, she cries, she bleeds, she struggles, and so much more that can’t be said here without giving away the film’s most awesome treasures. She also represents humankind with more dignity and grace than any other modern actor possibly could. If aliens do ever land on Earth, maybe we should just send her to greet them. —Andy Crump


31. Paterson
Year: 2016
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Like Chantal Akerman’s ascetic classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson concerns itself with routine. The film conditions you to jive with its particular rhythm, in part so you might feel the impact experienced by our hero when the unexpected punctuates what’s regular in this average person’s life. Only, where Jeanne Dielman depicted the day-in-day-out of working-class life as a monotonous horror show, Paterson takes an altogether different tack. To Jarmusch, the everyday existence of blue-collar individuals like bus driver-poet Paterson (Adam Driver)—whom we observe across a single week—is so simple as to be near transcendent. Paterson’s a classic nice guy, but Driver helps us realize there’s more going on beneath that exterior that’s so cautious to offend. It’s a turn of minor gestures that lacks the obvious Best Actor grandstanding to, say, win an Oscar, but rest assured Driver’s performance is one of the most impressive of its year. As with Jarmusch’s beguiling film on the whole, once acclimated, you continue to feel it long after you’ve left the cinema. —Brogan Morris


30. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Year: 2008
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Kurt Kuenne was childhood friends with a man named Andrew Bagby, who, in late 2001, was murdered by ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. Relieved he’d finally put an end to a turbulent relationship, he had no idea Turner was pregnant. So she killed him, then fled to Newfoundland, where she gave birth to Bagby’s son, Zachary. This is how Dear Zachary begins: a visual testament to both Andrew Bagby’s life, as well as the enduring hearts of his parents, who, as Kuenne chronicles, moved to Newfoundland after their son’s murder to begin proceedings to gain custody of Zachary. Kuenne only meant the film to be a gift, a love letter to his friend postmarked to Zachary, to allow the baby to one day get to know his father via the many, many people who loved him most. Told in interviews, photos, phone calls, seemingly every piece of detritus from one man’s life, Kuenne’s eulogy is an achingly sad portrait of someone who, in only 28 years, deeply affected the lives of so many people around him. And then Dear Zachary transforms into something profoundly else. It begins to take on the visual language and tone of an infuriating true-crime account, painstakingly detailing the process by which Bagby’s parents gained custody and then—just as they were beginning to find some semblance of consolation—faced their worst nightmares. The film at times becomes exquisitely painful, but Kuenne has a natural gift for tension and pacing that neither exploits the material nor drags the audience through melodramatic mud. In retrospect, Dear Zachary’s expositional approach may seem a bit cloying, but that’s only because Kuenne is willing to tell a story with all the disconsolate surprise of the tragedy itself. You’re gonna bawl your guts out. —Dom Sinacola


29. Brawl in Cell Block 99
Year: 2017
Director: S. Craig Zahler
In which we bask in Vince Vaughn’s hugeness, witnessing S. Craig Zahler’s pitch-perfect ode to grindhouse cinema draw the best of extremes out of an actor who’s had a rough couple years crawling out from under the parody of himself. This is not Vince Vaughn playing Bradley Thomas, stolid brute willing to do whatever it takes to protect his family, it is the silhouette of Vince Vaughn, silent and bigger than everyone else in the room, a spectre of bruised flesh—so much flesh—descending circle by circle into Hades, his odyssey heralded by the likes of Don Johnson and Udo Kier (both seemingly born to be in this endlessly compelling, awfully fucked-up movie) and soundtracked by soul/RnB icons like the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. It confirms that Zahler—along with Bone Tomahawk—is on some Tarantino levels of modern genre filmmaking—which could honestly be a pejorative, were Brawl in Cell Block 99 less finely tuned, less patient and less breathlessly violent. By the time Bradley lurches into irrevocable action, foreshadowed by an opening scene in which he rips apart a car with his bare hands, which is exactly as that sounds, every life force he snuffs out with maximum barbarity also comes with pure satisfaction, the Id of anyone who’s into this kind of thing stroked to completion. —Dom Sinacola


28. The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans
Year: 2009
Director: Werner Herzog 
Two men on the cusp of utter meme-ification craft one last masterpiece together before they let go, fizzling into the dying light. An elegy, perhaps—for America, maybe, or for the concept of law and order within an America that’s long abandoned both concepts—Werner Herzog’s predictably singular vision for a loose sequel (reboot) to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant hangs Nicolas Cage from an imaginary hook, the actor’s baggy suit and wincing, glazy visage seemingly draped uncomfortably over every crime scene, line of coke and hallucinated iguana he comes across. New Orleans lieutenant Terence McDonagh is in a lot of pain, due mostly to a back injury he suffered saving an inmate from a flooding jail cell in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, exacerbated by all the extra drugs he consumes, plus the long horrible hours he maintains navigating the surreal wasteland of a city that’s seemingly made no progress since the natural disaster. Herzog makes no apologies about the obvious ties between McDonagh’s degradation and that of New Orleans’, concerned less with his plot’s procedural aspects (McDonagh’s trying to solve the murders of a family involved with low level drug dealing) and more with the oneiric geography of a once-thriving city lost to time. McDonagh, then, is our addled Virgil, guiding us through the Hell that made him, the Hell from which he can’t escape, the Hell he’ll never save despite his best efforts. Suffused with absurdity, and hilariously bleak as fuck, The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans serves as the last of Herzog’s fiction films able to withstand the director’s hardheaded anti-narrative inclinations, as well as the last of Cage’s films in which his unhinged weirdness isn’t so obviously performative. Together, the two men offer no hope for those whom America’s abandoned. Instead they offer a moving, odd bit of comfort: At least some of us are still trying. —Dom Sinacola


27. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-leung
This is why any kung fu fan will always love Gordon Liu. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets: the definitive Shaolin movie, without a doubt, and the source of Liu’s nickname, “Master Killer.” He plays San Te, a young student wounded when his school is culled by the Manchu government, so he flees to the refuge of the Shaolin temple. After toiling as a laborer, he finally earns the right to learn kung fu, which begins the film’s famous training sequences. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the rare film where those training sequences actually outshine its traditional fights, because they’re just so beautiful, fluid and inventive. In each of the 36 chambers, San Te must toil to discipline his body, mind, reflexes and will. They make up the whole center of the film, and are unforgettable, bearing an iconic gravitas, imbuing kung fu with a great dignity. Because true kung fu can only be attained through the greatest of sacrifice. —Jim Vorel


26. Stagecoach
Year: 1939
Director: John Ford
And just like that, with one swift zoom shot, John Ford gave John Wayne his breakthrough role, reintroducing American audiences to the man who would become one of their most lasting movie icons. Two Johns, making it happen. Still,Stagecoach isn’t exactly a John Wayne movie despite the fact that John Wayne is in it; this was before the days of The Searchers, of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, of The Quiet Man, even of Hondo, movies that each helped shape Wayne’s persona and forge his screen legend bit by bit. In Stagecoach, he’s just a man with a rifle, a mission of vengeance and a soft spot for a prostitute named Dallas. Rather than the tradition of Wayne, the film belongs to the tradition of strangers on a journey, about an unlikely and incongruous grouping of humans banding together to make it to a common destination. They ride a dangerous road, but Ford’s great gift as a filmmaker is his knack for making peril buoyant and entertaining, and in Stagecoach he does both effortlessly. —Andy Crump


25. I Am Not Your Negro
Year: 2017
Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston


24. It Comes at Night
Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
It Comes at Night is ostensibly a horror movie, moreso than Shults’s debut, Krisha, but even Krisha was more of a horror movie than most measured family dramas typically are. Perhaps knowing this, Shults calls It Comes at Night an atypical horror movie, but—it’s already obvious after only two of these—Shults makes horror movies to the extent that everything in them is laced with dread, and every situation suffocated with inevitability. For his sophomore film, adorned with a much larger budget than Krisha and cast with some real indie star power compared to his previous cast (of family members doing him a solid), Shults imagines a near future as could be expected from a somber flick like this. A “sickness” has ravaged the world and survival is all that matters for those still left. In order to keep their shit together enough to keep living, the small group of people in Shults’s film have to accept the same things the audience does: That important characters will die, tragedy will happen and the horror of life is about the pointlessness of resisting the tide of either. So it makes sense that It Comes at Night is such an open wound of a watch, pained with regret and loss and the mundane ache of simply existing: It’s trauma as tone poem, bittersweet down to its bones, a triumph of empathetic, soul-shaking movie-making. —Dom Sinacola


23. Good Time
Year: 2017
Directors: Josh and Benny Safdie
The hero of Good Time is one of the canniest individuals in recent cinema, which might seem like an odd thing to say about a scummy lowlife who screws up a bank heist in the film’s opening reels. But don’t underestimate Connie: Several of the people who cross his path make that mistake, and he gets the better of them every time. Connie is played by Robert Pattinson in a performance so locked-in from the first second that it shoots off an electric spark from the actor to the audience: Just sit back, he seems to be telling us. I’ve got this under control. The financially strapped character lives in Queens, unhappy that his mentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie) is cooped up in a facility that, Connie believes, doesn’t do enough to help him. Impulsively, Connie strong-arms Nick into helping him rob a bank. They make off with thousands of dollars, but what they don’t realize is that they live in the real world, not a movie. A paint bomb goes off in their bag, staining the money and the criminals’ clothes. Shaken and trying not to panic, Connie and Nick abandon their getaway car, quickly raising the suspicion of some nearby cops, who chase down Nick. Connie escapes, determined to get his brother out of jail—either through bail money or other means. As Connie, Pattinson is shockingly vital and present, unabashedly throwing himself into any situation. Following their star’s lead, the filmmakers deliver a jet-fueled variation on their usual intricate exploration of New York’s marginalized citizens. Good Time features no shootouts or car chases—there isn’t a single explosion in the whole film. The Safdies and Pattinson don’t need any of that. Like Connie, they thrive on their wits and endless inventiveness—the thrill comes in marveling at how far it can take them. —Tim Grierson


22. The Conversation
Year: 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
The really incredible fact about this film is that Coppola made it as a side project between Godfather movies. Starring Gene Hackman, The Conversation is the story of a surveillance technician coming face to face with the implications of his job, and the paranoia of being watched at every moment. It was nominated for Best Picture in 1974, an award that went to The Godfather, Part II. It’s one of the rare times in film history when a director has lost to himself. —Shane Ryan


21. You Were Never Really Here
Year: 2018
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay has a reputation for being uncompromising. In industry patois, that means she has a reputation for being “difficult.” Frankly, the word that best describes her is “unrelenting.” Filmmakers as in charge of their aesthetic as Ramsay are rare. Rarer still are filmmakers who wield so much control without leaving a trace of ego on the screen. If you’ve seen any of the three films she made between 1999 and 2011 (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), then you’ve seen her dogged loyalty to her vision in action, whether that vision is haunting, horrific or just plain bizarre. She’s as forceful as she is delicate. Her fourth film, You Were Never Really Here—haunting, horrific and bizarre all at once—is arguably her masterpiece, a film that treads the line delineating violence from tenderness in her body of work. Calling it a revenge movie doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a sustained scream. You Were Never Really Here’s title is constructed of layers, the first outlining the composure of her protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, acting behind a beard that’d make the Robertson clan jealous), a military veteran and former federal agent as blistering in his savagery as in his self-regard. Joe lives his life flitting between past and present, hallucination and reality. Even when he physically occupies a space, he’s confined in his head, reliving horrors encountered in combat, in the field and in his childhood on a non-stop, simultaneous loop. Each of her previous movies captures human collapse in slow motion. You Were Never Really Here is a breakdown shot in hyperdrive, lean, economic, utterly ruthless and made with fiery craftsmanship. Let this be the language we use to characterize her reputation as one of the best filmmakers working today. —Andy Crump


20. Starship Troopers
Year: 1997
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Glistening agitprop after-school special and gross-ass bacchanalia, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers delights in the ultraviolence it doles out in heavy spurts—but then chastises itself for having so much fun with something so wrong. Telling the story of a cadre of extremely attractive upper-middle-class white teens (played by shiny adults Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Nina Meyers, Jake Busey and Neil Patrick Harris) who get their cherries popped and then ground into hamburger inside the abattoir of interstellar war, Verhoeven cruises through the many tones of bellicose filmmaking: hawkish propaganda, gritty action setpieces and thrilling adventure sequences, all of it accompanied by plenty of gut-churning CGI, giant space bugs and human heads alike exploding without shame or recourse or respect for basic physics and human empathy. As much a bloodletting of Verhoeven’s childhood trauma, forged in the fascist mill of World War II Europe, as a critique of Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward violence and uniformly heroic depictions of the military, the sci-fi spectacle can’t help but arrive at the same place no matter which angle one takes: geeked out on some hardcore cinematic mayhem. —Dom Sinacola


19. The Florida Project
Year: 2017
Director: Sean Baker
However useful a surreal approach to reframing paradise may be, Sean Baker’s new film, The Florida Project, presents a more acute critique. Baker plunges his audience into his worlds through the lens of social realism, his camera on the same playing field as Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and the manager of the motel they live in, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The camera lives with the characters, watches them haul a bed-bug-infested mattress outside, or sit and eat pancakes by a small creek-ish ditch. Nothing climactic happens in these scenes, we just get to watch and not pass judgment—or pass judgment, whatever, it’s up to us. Baker never interferes; the equality of these scenes under the eye of his camera makes his film’s pointed ideas about survival and joy all the more striking. The film may be buoyed with a sense of humor and, occasionally, wonder, but Halley’s life is framed by an internal struggle over whether humor and wonder can help her retain her autonomy at all in spite of her class status. The Florida Project is spattered with profound sadness, with moments of externalized, violent frustration at presumed helplessness, at practically being born into all this. To what degree you believe Baker to be condescending or patronizing or exploitive is up to you, but the film’s bursts of light, its idea of what caregiving looks like when caregiving is a privilege, is handled with sensitivity. When the film switches from 35mm to digital in its final shots, Baker imbues his camera, now mobile, with freewheeling liberation. No matter what happens after The Florida Project ends, in those last moments, these kids are born to live. —Kyle Turner


18. A Ghost Story
Year: 2017
Director: David Lowery 
Turns out the perfect opportunity for an existential dilemma is when you no longer exist. With a cheeky title like A Ghost Story, it’s no surprise that David Lowery’s movie isn’t a typical tale of paranormal activity—but even that won’t prepare you for the film’s unpredictable, emotional odyssey through love, death, longing and time. It might even be one of the most epic sub-90-minute movies ever made. In it, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as a couple, perhaps married, identified in the credits as C and M, respectively. They live in a simple, old house. He’s attached to it, she wants to move. We get a sense of friction because of that conflict, but we’re also offered genuine affection, especially when the two cuddle after a startling bang on C’s piano wakes them in the middle of the night. Then, just as we’re getting to know them via mumbled dialogue and C’s songwriting, he dies unexpectedly in a car accident. In the aftermath, the movie takes its time to reveal its bold intentions. Writer/director Lowery is already comfortable with both indie projects (Ain’t Them Body Saints) and high-profile Disney joints (2016’s Pete’s Dragon). Perhaps this success has given him the freedom to do a small, low-budget film and not worry about whether people will call it pretentious or boring. A Ghost Story’s dialogue is quiet and sometimes hard to make out, takes are long and deliberate, and the cinematography is muted, not to mention in the out-of-favor (albeit still used) 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio. With these elements, Lowery captures time in its vastness and loneliness—because it is, after all, the most dramatic difference between the living’s and the dead’s points of view, something that’s taken for granted in most movies (pacing problems and flashbacks aside). C, of course, “wakes up” from death as a sheet-festooned ghost, for whom time becomes more and more significant as he lingers, and as the camera lingers along with him. A Ghost Story isn’t a haunting so much as a witnessing. —Jeremy Mathews


17. Night of the Living Dead
Year: 1968
Director: George A. Romero
It’s not really necessary to delve into how influential George Romero’s first zombie film has been to the genre and horror itself—it’s one of the most important horror movies ever made, and one of the most important independent films as well. The question is more accurately, “how does it hold up today?”, and the answer is “okay.” Unlike, say Dawn of the Dead (not on Shudder), Night is pretty placid most of the time. The story conventions are classic and the black-and-white cinematography still looks excellent, but some of the performances are downright irritating, particularly that of Judith O’Dea as Barbara. Duane Jones more than makes up for that as the heroic Ben, however, in a story that is very self-sufficient and provincial—just one small group of people in a house, with no real thought to the wider world. It’s a horror film that is a MUST SEE for every student of the genre, which is easy, considering that the film actually remains in the public domain. But in terms of entertainment value, Romero would perfect the genre in his next few efforts. Also recommended: The 1990 remake of this film by Tom Savini, which is unfairly derided just for being a faithful remake. —Jim Vorel


16. The Lost City of Z
Director: James Gray
James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is an anti-period movie. In the vein of The Immigrant, Gray’s glorious last film, Z is fascinated with its milieu (this time we begin across the Atlantic in Blighty, from 1906 to 1925) and luxuriously adorned with period detail—but the strangulated social climate and physically claustrophobic spaces of its ostensibly sophisticated Western society make that environment appear totally unappealing. Only once we reach the Amazon, untainted by Western hands, does the film relax, its beguiling score and open-air scenery turning inviting. There, in a land of uncomplicated tribes and indifferent wilderness, a man like soldier and explorer Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) can find freedom from the narrow-mindedness infecting early 20th century Britain. Darius Khondji’s cinematography doesn’t just complement Gray’s movie, it deepens its meaning, strengthening the appeal of Fawcett’s jungle, endlessly verdant and mysterious where home in England appears dull and monotone. Every frame is sumptuous and misty-eyed, always pining for a lost era when adventurers might still find corners of the Earth completely untouched. (Gray may show little love for Empire, but he depicts colonial exploration in itself as a romantic adventure.) The film doesn’t make for much complexity, but it feels deeply. Like Fawcett, it aches—like his obsession, the jungle, it envelops, casting a lasting spell. —Brogan Morris


15. Lady Bird
Year: 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig 
Before Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)—Lady Bird is her given name, as in “[she] gave it to [her]self”—auditions for the school musical, she watches a young man belting the final notes to “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. A few moments before, while in a car with her mother, she lays her head on the window wistfully and says with a sigh, “I wish I could just live through something.” Stuck in Sacramento, where she thinks there’s nothing to be offered her while paying acute attention to everything her home does have to offer, Lady Bird—and the film, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, that shares her name—has ambivalence running through her veins. What a perfect match: Stephen Sondheim and Greta Gerwig. Few filmmakers are able to capture the same kind of ambiguity and mixed feelings that involve the refusal to make up one’s mind: look to 35-year-old Bobby impulsively wanting to marry a friend, but never committing to any of his girlfriends, in Company; the “hemming and hawing” of Cinderella on the, ahem, steps of the palace; or Mrs. Lovett’s cause for pause in telling Sweeney her real motives. Lady Bird isn’t as high-concept as many of Sondheim’s works, but there’s a piercing truthfulness to the film, and arguably Gerwig’s work in general, that makes its anxieties and tenderness reverberate in the viewer’s heart with equal frequency. —Kyle Turner


14. First Reformed
Year: 2018
Director: Paul Schrader
What makes a man start fires? What if that person were a man of God? Paul Schrader, now 71, has perhaps spent his entire career as a filmmaker attempting to ask that question, to breach the impenetrable truth of whatever that question’s answer could be, beginning with Blue Collar, a story of auto workers and union members in Detroit compromising their values to survive in the shadow of forces too large and too immovable to compromise themselves. With First Reformed, Schrader’s 20th feature as director, that question absorbs the whole film—not through cries of nihilism, as in his previous, garbage Dog Eat Dog, but as a sustained act of faith: What must the devout do for a world God has abandoned? The question lingers wetly in Ethan Hawke’s eyes as he carries every frame of Schrader’s film. Playing Father Ernst Toller—a minister who in a former life had a wife and a son and a military career, an end brought to all three by that son’s death in Iraq—Hawke has spent the past 20 or so years sublimating the radical tendencies of his iconic slackerdom into a fiercely simmering anxiety, as if the purposelessness of his past malaise has left him stewing on how little he can or could do to change anything in this world. Not only does First Reformed directly butt heads with Dog Eat Dog, but it indulges melodrama without losing its calm. It works in obvious metaphors not for their own sakes, but as seamless extensions of theme. It’s a gorgeous film, mourning the impossibility of being alive as it celebrates that which binds us, a conscious-rattling, viscera-stirring piece of art. And ultimately, it’s a shocking film, powerful images gripping even more powerful fires within the bodies of those unequipped, as we all are, to put them out. —Dom Sinacola


13. Boogie Nights
Year: 1997
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
Although Boogie Nights was Paul Thomas Anderson’s first epic production with an ensemble cast, time and perspective show it’s his closest brush with perfection. The auteur specializes in building up characters to break them down, and no one in his 1997 exploration of the pornography business is exempt from his deconstructive impulses: Few directors balance the hilarious and harrowing so seamlessly, and even fewer rely on dramatic irony to achieve both. Boogie Nights may be amusing because its characters—from Mark Wahlberg’s young rising star, to Julianne Moore’s fading starlet, to Burt Reynold’s once-famous director who must deal with an industry changing without him—are so hapless, but their ignorance is equally heartbreaking; they earnestly desire to make a good product, even if they struggle to figure out what constitutes quality anymore. Anderson’s fictional pornographers may desperately and futilely cling to a time before video and amateur acting, but Anderson himself managed to put out a two-and-a-half hour film that is careful to never overstay its welcome—even when it asks for “one last thing.” —Allie Conti


12. Chinatown
Year: 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
When you look at Jack Nicholson’s run of films in what could be referred to as the “New Hollywood” era, starting with Easy Rider in 1969 and ending with The Shining in 1980, it’s truly astounding: There’s barely a dud on the list, so it’s really saying something that Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s crime classic, stands out among the best. The film’s central mystery is bold for its complexity, revolving around water rights in 1930s Southern California—a plot that remains relevant today, alongside which, like in much of Polanski’s work, an ominous atmosphere creeps, shadowing every character in doubt and undermining the possibility of a clean conclusion. In Polanski’s world, the mere fact that a mystery is solved doesn’t mean there’s a happy ending, and his incredible powers of ambiguity have never been so strong as in Chinatown. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won for Robert Towne’s original screenplay; add Nicholson at his most essential, along with a young Faye Dunaway and an aging John Huston, and this is more than an excellent film noir, but an American cinematic triumph. —Shane Ryan


11. Trouble Every Day
Year: 2001
Director: Claire Denis
Messing with genre is more a means to an end for Claire Denis than it is a celebration of the Fulci phantasmagoria and giallo sensibility and Eureopean art house erotic thrillers she so clearly loves, and Trouble Every Day is her ultimately harvesting the misasma emanating from the ways in which she bends these kinds of movies to her will. The film stinks of sex and death, rolls around in it, characters licking it dripping from the corners of the screen. It follows newlyweds Dr. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo, both hypnotized and hypnotic, as if a therapist permanently put him under) and June (Tricia Vessey) on their honeymoon in Paris, which gives Shane the perfect excuse to look up old friends Léo Sémeneau (Alex Descas) and his wife, Coré (Béatrice Dalle), with whom he appears to harbor an obsession secreted from his new spouse. With no fanfare, Denis draws us deeper into the nature of Shane’s obsession, gradually revealing that the predatory hunger Coré has for young men is so strong she begs her husband, who locks her in their house daily, to kill her, lest she kill again. Shane seems to share Coré’s affliction, contracted while working together in South America, ruining his marriage before it’s even begun, generally avoiding June throughout their time in Paris—that is until, in a hyper-violent revelation, he figures out exactly what he must do to preserve his matrimonial vowa. A cannibalistic nightmare of an exploitation film; an absurdist fairy tale; the bleakest rom-com you’ve ever seen—whatever angle one wants to pursure with Trouble Every Day, the path toward any semblance of meaning splits, refracts and multiplies, a precise understanding of what Denis intends obscured by mounds of flesh and torn viscera, by the ever-present knowledge that Denis is going to show you something you probably don’t want to see. Which must be the point: Human sexuality is an inscrutable thing, and monogamy strains against that inscrutability. Perhaps, Denis shrugs, we were never meant for one person; perhaps we were only meant to tear each other apart. —Dom Sinacola


10. The Handmaiden
Year: 2016
Director: Park Chan-wook
There are few filmmakers on Earth capable of crafting the experience of movies like The Handmaiden so exquisitely while maintaining both plot inertia and a sense of fun. (Yes, it’s true: Park has made a genuinely fun, and often surprisingly, bleakly funny, picture.) The film begins somberly enough, settling on a tearful farewell scene as Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is carted off to the manor of the reclusive and exorbitantly rich aristocrat Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), where she will act as servant to his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee isn’t a maid: She’s a pickpocket working on behalf of Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a conman scheming to get his mitts on Hideko’s assets. (That’s not a euphemism. He only wants her for her money.) The reveal of Sook-hee’s true intentions is just the first of many on The Handmaiden’s narrative itinerary. Park has designed the film as a puzzle box where each step taken to find the solution answers one question while posing new ones at the same time. But you’re here to read about the sex, aren’t you? It’s in the sex scenes between the two Kims that Park shows the kind of filmmaker he really is. The sex is sexy, the scenes steamy, but in each we find a tenderness that invites us to read them as romance rather than as pornography. We’re not conditioned to look for humanity in pantomimes of a sexually explicit nature, but that’s exactly when The Handmaiden is at its most human. There’s something comforting in that, and in Park’s framing of deviance as embodied by the film’s masculine component. We don’t really need him to spell that out for us, but the message is welcome all the same. —Andy Crump


9. Manchester By the Sea
Year: 2016
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Loss and grief—and the messy, indirect ways people cope with the emotional fallout—were the dramatic linchpins of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s first two films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. And so it is again with Manchester by the Sea, a commanding, absorbing work in which the sum of its impact may be greater than any individual scenes. As opposed to the intimate, short-story quality of You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea bears the same sprawling ambition as Margaret, Lonergan draping the proceedings in a tragic grandeur that sometimes rubs against the film’s inherently hushed modesty. Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler is quietly magnetic as a man who can’t express himself at a time when he really needs to step up and be the patriarchal figure. Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler are also both quite good, their characters buried deep in the man’s-man culture of the East Coast communities in which the film is set. But especially terrific is Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, who has played haunted wives before, in Brokeback Mountain and Shutter Island. Here, though, she really pierces the heart: Her character never stopped loving Lee, but her brain told her she had to if she was ever going to move on with her life. In this film, she’s actually one of the lucky ones. Tragedies drop like bombs in Manchester By the Sea, and the ripple effects spread out in all directions. The movie’s ending isn’t exactly happy, but after all the Chandlers have gone through, just the possibility of acceptance can feel like a hard-earned victory. —Tim Grierson


8. Ms .45
Year: 1981
Director: Abel Ferrara
Without classic needle drops or elaborate long takes, Bronx-born director Abel Ferrara has established himself as worthy an heir to the title of “King of New York” as anyone like Scorsese or Spike Lee. Behind the corner of every skyscraper is someone menacing or power hungry—not just a metropolitan rat, but a creature indicative of humanity’s worst impulses. In his rape and revenge exploitation film Ms .45, the harsh, masculinist vibe of the city that never sleeps is a monster waiting to be slain, a sinner worthy of no forgiveness or redemption. A mute seamstress named Thana (an extraordinary Zoë Tamerlis Lund) is raped by two men in a single day. But as an inversion of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Michael Winner’s Death Wish, the traumatized becomes the powerful, with Thana cheekily reconceiving what it means to be “triggered” by PTSD, becoming an Angel of Death for rapists and abusers, traveling the Manhattan cityscape with ease and intuitiveness. While such a film has a tendency to be thought of as a genre of ill repute (rightfully or wrongfully), Ms .45 cuts to the bone as closely as it does not least because of Lund’s performance. Beyond her iconic costumery—clothed in a nun’s habit, lipstick glistening on her like spilled blood—the subtle emotion and power in her minute actions and expressive eyes seem to wrench the film from Ferrara’s grip and into hers, wielding viscerality like a pistol. Lund emerges from Ferrara’s decaying city, the trauma of existing as a woman in a world, and genre, which abuses them, as auteur—as Ms .45. —Kyle Turner


7. Silence
Year: 2016
Director: Martin Scorsese 
The title of Martin Scorsese’s latest is loaded, at once a reference to God’s tendency not to reply to the pleas and appeals of followers, a nod to the culture of secrecy maintained by Japanese Christians during Japan’s Edo period and an acknowledgment of the state you’ll be left in after watching. Silence isn’t an easy moviegoing experience—it isn’t an easy conversation point, either, but that’s because it shouldn’t be. Scorsese knows it. Most likely Shusaku Endo, the author of the text from which Scorsese adapted his film (and had sought to adapt since the 1990s), knew it too. Who is innocent in Silence? Who is guilty? If we can rule out Japanese villagers put to death for their beliefs, and we certainly can, then that leaves culpability at the feet of their spiritual and bureaucratic leaders, both at odds with one another while the faithful remain suffering between them as priests and politicos treat them as fodder for proving the illegitimacy of their opponents’ belief structures. The film’s complexity is expected from Scorsese, one of the greatest living filmmakers of our time, but it’s also a reinvention in style, a picture that both feels totally unlike anything he’s shot before and cannot be mistaken as anyone’s but his. —Andy Crump


6. A Clockwork Orange
Year: 1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick 
As with most (well, probably all) of Stanley Kubric’s book-to-screen adaptations, A Clockwork Orange remixes several aspects from Anthony Burgess’s novel, and probably for the better (at least Alex [a terrifyingly electric Malcolm McDowell] isn’t a pedophile in Kubrick’s film, for example). It’s still a relentlessly vicious satire portraying a society permissive of brutal youth culture, one where modern science and psychology are the best countermeasures in combating the Ultra Violence™ that men like Alex and his fellow “droogs” commit. It’s painfully clear that when Alex is cast as a victim by the British Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) that—spoiler alert!—evil wins. Christ, can any of us ever hear ”Singing in the Rain” the same again after this nightmare? —Scott Wold


5. His Girl Friday
Year: 1940
Director: Howard Hawks
Special effects have become so sophisticated that many of us have probably forgotten how much pure amazement you can wreak with a great story and a script that doesn’t let up for one second. This amazing, dizzyingly paced screwball comedy by Howard Hawks stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and takes us back into two of the decade’s hallmark preoccupations: The “remarriage comedy” and the intrigue and obsessiveness of the newspaper world. The minute Russell’s Lindy Johnson stalks into the newspaper office run by her ex-husband Walter Burns (Grant), you know it’s to tell him she’s getting remarried and leaving journalism to raise a family, and you know that’s not how it’s going to end. No high-suspense mystery here. What puts you on the edge of your seat in this film is how you get there. Hilariously acted and expertly filmed, His Girl Friday derives much of its comedic impact from the incredibly clever and lightning-fast banter of the characters. Don’t even think about checking your phone while you’re watching this. In fact, try to blink as little as possible. —Amy Glynn


4. Blue Velvet
Year: 1986
Director: David Lynch 
Blue Velvet represents everything cinema can be: horrific, hilarious, heightened to inexplicable, nearly intolerable heavens. This is storytelling as symbology, a traditional American genre like noir picked apart with unsettling aplomb. David Lynch concocts an Oedipal nightmare out of Kyle MacLachlan’s innocent boy and Dennis Hopper’s evil “daddy,” with Isabella Rosselini’s sexy “mommy” as both an unobtainable feminine figure and a damsel in dire circumstances, demanding protection. As adorable Everyman Jeffrey Beaumont (MacLachlan) is seduced ever deeper into the disgusting underground of American domesticity, he tries to see the light in the world, while the psychopathic Frank Booth (Hopper) represents all that is dark—and yet, Lynch hesitates to allow Jeffrey to be a hero. “He put his disease in me,” Valerie Lyons (Rosselini) repeats in the middle of a psychotic episode. She’s a woman permanently broken by men both good and bad, and so, in black and white, Lynch finds blue: something deeply sad and normal. In the middle of Blue Velvet, Jeffrey, excited, exclaims, “I’m involved in a mystery, I’m in the middle of a mystery, and it’s all secret.” Horned up, he’s ready to dig into all the nasty dirt his hometown of Lumberton has to offer. By the end of the film, we’ve barely scratched the filthy surface. —Dom Sinacola


3. Being There
Year: 1979
Director: Hal Ashby
Being There (1979) works somewhat better as a satirical broadside than it does a film—but what a broadside. Peter Sellers plays the lead, Chance, a middle-aged man-child and the incarnation of white male privilege. It would have been so easy to make us hate or resent him, but Jerzy Kosinski’s script (adapted from his own 1970 novel) treats him with the same kid gloves the rest of the world does. When we meet him, Chance—we’re never sure he even has a last name—is a gardener cloistered inside a townhouse. The affluent master of the house dies, and the black maid who has been feeding and caring for Chance for decades leaves him alone. He has no parents, no paperwork, no past, and happily professes to be illiterate. He is transfixed by television. When two lawyers come to kick him out, he casually reveals that he has never once set foot beyond the door of the townhouse—the immaculate interior of which, it turns out, is less than 50 feet from the burned out husks of junked cars and a group of black men huddled around the shattered remnants of a television.

Chance has nothing, you might believe—not even the basic grasp of how to interact with regular people. When faced with aggression from a small gang of black kids, he pulls out his remote control and attempts to change the channel. Having no idea that not all black women are on the planet to serve him food, he asks one if she can feed him. Yet there’s a reason that one of the next shots depicts him striding toward the faraway capitol dome. Because Chance doesn’t have nothing. He actually has everything that matters. In the end, without showing any ambition—or indeed, any expertise—Chance finds himself the inheritor of a late finance magnate’s (Melvin Douglas) fortune and horny wife (Shirley MacLaine). Pallbearers whisper about making Chance president. Today there’s a conversation—or a shouting match—going on about white privilege that would have seemed impossible 20 years ago. A Peter Sellers movie was already clear on the concept back in 1979. —Kenneth Lowe


2. Stop Making Sense
Year: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Lester Bangs once wrote an essay about “Heaven,” the Talking Heads song that kicks off Jonathan Demme’s concert film. In it, Bangs fixated on one of David Byrne’s iconic lines: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever really happens.” Heaven, he explained, is—to Byrne’s coke-addled mind—a way of life where all of the stimuli of modern society couldn’t reach him. Couldn’t affect him. Couldn’t whip him up into a frenzy. This, according to both Bangs and Byrne, is truly Nirvana. Stop Making Sense happened over two nights at the Pantages Theater in 1983, and the second song on the setlist is “Heaven,” set against a bare stage on the cusp of a drastic remodel. From there, the set, as well as the band, builds itself—instruments and writhing bodies and elaborately weird backdrops are added, one upon another, until the stage is absolutely seething with life. And so, not only was Stop Making Sense a document of a legendary band at the height of their powers, but it even today seems like an unheralded synergy of movement and sound, of image and artist—so much so that the band allows us to watch as they destroy, and then re-do, their own idea of Heaven. —Dom Sinacola


1. Moonlight
Year: 2016
Director: Barry Jenkins
What’s remarkable about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is that it’s hardly remarkable at all. It’s actually mundane, though its mundanity can be mitigated—or, really, delineated—via qualifiers: buoyant, bitter, graceful, beautiful, harsh, coltish, doleful, vibrant. More to the point: Moonlight is familiar. If you strip away its exterior particulars, you’ll be left with the bones of a coming-of-age story. Every film has a skeleton to support its musculature. Moonlight’s just happens to look like Boyhood’s and The 400 Blows’. Moonlight is painted with brushstrokes of silence: of Jenkins’ unobtrusive direction, of Chiron’s mute trepidation, of his friends and caregivers, who speak to him in the knowledge that he’ll say little and less to them in return (if he says anything at all). But rather than make Moonlight inaccessible, silence opens it up. In film, silence is neither mortal nor venial sin—it’s actually a virtue. Jenkins is fluent in silence and possesses an innate understanding of how silent moments can communicate more than heaps of dialogue. It’s in glances that pass between Little and his surrogate custodians, Juan (Mahershala Ali, damn near ubiquitous in 2016 and at his best here) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the stillness Chiron responds with when in conversation with his chum-then-crush, Kevin. Moonlight is nothing if not empathetic. But describing the film solely in terms of empathy is a misguided oversimplification: All movies seek out empathy to degrees, after all, and so Moonlight does what any human story on celluloid has to do. Jenkins opts for sensation in favor of the sensational, eschewing flash and bluster while making old hat feel new again. Most of all, he invites our empathy at the cost of our vanity. He leads us away from navel-gazing to see the stunningly constructed drama he and his troupe have laid before us on screen. The film encourages self-reflection, but not at the expense of either its narrative or the viewing experience. That’s the surest sign of a deft cinematic hand. —Andy Crump

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