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The 50 Best Movies on HBO Go and HBO Now (February 2019)

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As it usually goes, HBO lost a buttload of great films this month, but still: To help make sure you get the most out of your subscription, we’ve chosen our 50 favorite movies available on HBO in January, ranging from new 2017 classics like Oscar winners The Shape of Water and Phantom Thread, to two of our favorites from last year, Paddington 2 and Isle of Dogs. We’ve also got a few new picks from our Best Comedies of All Time list and our Best Romantic Comedies of All Time list.

You can also check out our guides, some more updated than others, to the best movies on other platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, On Demand, and The Best Movies in Theaters. Visit the Paste Movie Guides for all our recommendations.

Here are the 50 best movies on HBO in January:

50. Love, Simon
Year: 2018
Director: Greg Berlanti
Love, Simon is the latest entry in the fairly minuscule collection of movies geared towards young LGBTQ people, but it’s in how main character Simon (Nick Robinson) self-actualizes which seems to establish the film firmly in the present. The ironies of Simon’s very liberal family, accepting friends, etc. are no match for deeply rooted anxiety and a proclivity to want to create some sort of identity online, a version of himself only he and one other, his anonymous pen pal Blue, can know. Love, Simon was not the first queer teen movie (though it was being touted as if it was), and it was not even the first queer film to explore digital identities, but the film is nonetheless of interest because of the way that it uses digital spaces to project who Simon wants to be and and what Simon wants gay desire to look like. Simon, brusquely masc-performing and part of a dream middle class family, can exist as an ostensibly more honest version of himself in the digital realm, while writing to an anonymous person named Blue, whom he found by way of a “confessions”-like blog. Love, Simon’s connection to You’ve Got Mail is crucial because of how it articulates the line between artifice and authenticity: Simon, and Blue for that matter, are no less honest for carving out an identity online in which they feel safe enough to reveal an “authentic” part of themselves. The internet has evolved rapidly since Nora Ephron’s film, but the same rules apply. Love, Simon is one of a few very recent queer films that has its protagonist use the internet to imagine who they could be, or who they think they should be. For Simon and Blue, an email thread can be the queer space they need to explore what “being yourself” really means. —Kyle Turner


49. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Year: 2005
Director: Shane Black
Both Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. bounced back in this 2005 cult classic, featuring a petty thief (Downey) who falls into an audition for crime film, and is flown to Los Angeles for a screen test, where he meets “Gay” Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), a P.I. hired to help him prepare for the role. Quippy and tongue-in-cheek, the self-aware mystery at its center is still drum tight, with third-act twists and turns to spare. And fans will appreciate the loose, unforced comedy that balances out its wackier elements. —Graham Techler


48. Ocean’s 8
Year: 2018
Director: Gary Ross
Somewhat maligned upon release as a second-rate copy of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films, I’m here to tell you: That is the point. Ocean’s 8 (notice the difference in title treatment compared to Soderbergh’s films) is the cubic zirconium of the Ocean’s films, and proud to be, an imitation that gestures towards all of the elements, stylistically and narratively, of the other movies, but something is off. Something uncanny, perhaps. So, too, is the uncanniness of womanhood in this film, women whose heist job requires them to perform as women. Dresses and accessories and the artifice of femininity abound on the carpet of the Met Gala. What if the movie was the con all along? —Kyle Turner


47. Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy
Year: 2017
Director: Ashley Gething
This HBO original documentary falls in the “pathologically respectful” category, but it at least has a focus that makes clear that it understands its own purpose. It’s Diana’s life story as recalled by her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. While not especially substantive or deep, it is pleasantly intimate and gives viewers a legitimate peek at a point of view they probably haven’t had access to until now, as Diana’s sons have not spoken much about her in public. You can feel A Lot of Stuff getting glossed over, but it’s lightweight versus insincere. This particular documentary does a good job of reinforcing one of those through lines: Diana was, by all accounts, a loving and deeply engaged parent. This is a warm-hearted look at a couple of boys who are now men and who have never gotten over the untimely and sudden loss of one of their parents because, generally speaking, you don’t get over that. It’s… not typical, at least it wasn’t, for the British royal family to expose much about their private lives or their feelings (Charles and Diana’s incredibly public divorce changed that a bit), and William and Harry are restrained and circumspect in their remembrance of their mother. It’s kind of obvious that there’s a certain amount of reputation damage control going on here, and fair enough: The woman was so dogged by tabloid journalists and accused of everything from being an unfaithful bad-wife attention-seeking troublemaker to being downright mentally ill. This documentary does a really good and arguably needful job of reminding people that this adored and beleaguered public persona was also a human being and the mother of two other human beings who miss her. —Amy Glynn


46. Tully
Year: 2018
Director: Jason Reitman 
She’s just so tired. Marlo, the reluctant heroine of Tully, is a wife and mother of two, with a third child just days away from being born. Certain adjectives come to mind to describe her—patient, caustic, diplomatic—but the word that’s most easily applied is tired. Actually, maybe exhausted would be more accurate—stretched to her breaking point, just about ready to snap. Marlo is played by Charlize Theron, making her second film with Up in the Air director Jason Reitman. Their first effort, Young Adult, was about a train wreck stubbornly resisting maturity. In Tully, Theron once again plays a woman who feels like she could shatter. We watch her expectantly, fearing what will happen if this teetering, struggling character finally falls down. Written by Diablo Cody, who previously collaborated with Reitman on Juno and Young Adult, Tully gives us a marriage and a family that’s barely holding on. Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is a decent guy but a little beaten-down—it’s clear neither of them really wanted a third child but, yet, here we are. Their other two kids are hardly perfect angels—their young son seems to have emotional issues that no doctor has been able to completely pinpoint—and financially, Marlo and Drew aren’t sure they’ll be able to keep their heads afloat after Baby No. 3 arrives. The movie takes some risks near the end that underline the story’s central themes while also undercutting them. But Tully is at its best when it’s simply moving intuitively from one negotiated respite to the next. This film is never as bleak in its depiction of the quiet hells of motherhood as 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, but its awkward, everyday rhythms may resonate more with child-rearing viewers—who probably won’t be able to concentrate on the movie at home because they’ll be too busy corralling their kids to have a moment to themselves. —Tim Grierson


45. Darkest Hour
Year: 2017
Director: Joe Wright
Darkest Hour is a film of flummoxed old white men hollering at each other, a perfect foil to (and double-bill alongside) Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, both because the two take place at about the same time during the early years of World War II—as Hitler’s world domination began to take shape and an invasion of the UK imminent—and because they are entirely different experiences: Dunkirk is all action, while Joe Wright’s film is all words. And with volume, those words gain weight—sound, in all of its ephemera and exigencies, is just as important to Darkest Hour as it is to Nolan’s visceral spectacle, except Wright’s are the sounds of bureaucracy and urbanity building to a fever pitch, and Nolan’s are the sounds of bodies in motion through time. Rarely has the uncomfortable, marrow-deep scritch of pen to paper bore such portent, except for maybe in Wright’s other period drama, Atonement. Silence erupts from the din of war—in that ebb and flow of Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman’s performance is formidable. Not only is his makeup beyond convincing (and undoubtedly Oscar-worthy), but Oldman understands that the bluster of what’s required of him to overcome the silliness of both his casting and facade must be balanced—countered and, all puns intended, fleshed out—in quiet. The film’s two most striking moments occur in silence: When Churchill allows his secretary (Lily James, impressively reserved) a moment with him to soundlessly ponder her brother’s death at Caille, and when, first addressing the nation on May 19th to tell white lies about the state of the British army and Hitler’s advance, Churchill’s silence is a palpable thing, felt until he breaks it with the onslaught of war propagandism, which Wright only stylizes via an aerial shot of a French battlefield landscape bombed to smithereens transitioning seamlessly into the landscape of a young corpse’s face, Bruno Delbonnel’s camera lingering on a vacant, clouded-over eye. Wright often pulls out to these aerial shots, relieving the audience of the claustrophobia of war bunkers and overly-festooned rooms and smoky halls full of flummoxed old white men with a God’s Eye perspective. This push-and-pull, between loud and quiet, between intimacy and vastness, deepens what could otherwise end up a mealy-mouthed glimpse at a moment too engorged on its own laudatory memorializing. Which is why Darkest Hour transcends its biopic trappings to work, almost despite itself. —Dom Sinacola


44. The Normal Heart
Year: 2014
Director: Ryan Murphy 
Among HBO’s most prestigious—and star-studded—recent efforts is this 2014 adaptation of Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 stage play about the earliest, darkest days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City. It’s also among the most necessary. Kramer adapted the teleplay, directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story), which casts a brilliant Mark Ruffalo as Kramer’s onscreen alter ego, a gay writer who consults with a local doctor (Julia Roberts) about this mysterious, fatal new “cancer” that’s devastating the community and his inner circle of friends (portrayed by Jonathan Groff, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, all excellent). Just as devastating is the ignorance and inhumanity shrouding what was then viewed as a death sentence and, worse, a deserved retribution. Some 35 years after the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit critical mass, and in light of a generational complacency accompanying new medical breakthroughs like PrEP, The Normal Heart is a timely reminder of the physical, emotional and psychological ravages of the disease. Murphy and co. revisit a not-too-far-away era of fear, in which the basic function of breathing the same air—let alone holding someone’s hand—was a gesture of dangerous courage, and compassion. Though it obviously plays much differently four decades vs. four years after Kramer’s original play, the relevance is undeniable, as is his still-coursing anger at the systemic and individual indifference to those affected. Murphy dials down his own flourishes for a harrowing document that needs to be seen. —Amanda Schurr


43. Early Man
Year: 2018
Director: Nick Park
With Early Man, Nick Park has made his first feature since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit—and his first non-Wallace and Gromit film since 2000’s Chicken Run—and it’s a sly, unexpectedly emotional comedy with lots of goofy laughs and the occasionally inspired bit of business. But fair or not, it’s hard not to compare this prehistoric laugher to Aardman’s (and Park’s) brilliant past. In this stop-motion film, we’re introduced to Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), a kindly caveman who thinks his tribe, led by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall), needs to stop settling for rabbits to hunt and instead go after bigger game. But their peaceful, albeit meager existence is interrupted by an invading Bronze Age army, which kicks them out of their valley homeland and condemns them to live in the inhospitable Badlands. As a way to return to the valley, Dug offers the Bronze Army’s snooty Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston) a deal: If his tribe can beat Nooth’s elite athletes in a soccer match, they can remain in the valley. If they lose, Dug and his friends will have to work in Nooth’s grueling mines. Chicken Run, which Park co-directed with Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, succeeded in part because of its cheeky tweaking of the prison-breakout movie. Early Man cycles through a few genres—Park reportedly pitched the film as a mixture of Gladiator and Dodgeball—but it’s primarily an underdog sports movie, pitting our lovable losers against a superior squad, the whole film building to the finale’s big game. What’s consistently funny about Early Man is its characters’ discomfort—at being mocked, of saying the wrong thing, of losing the big match—which lends Park’s film a humanity and vulnerability that undercut the splashy razzle-dazzle of other, bigger-budgeted animated fare. —Tim Grierson


42. Tickled
Year: 2016
Directors: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve
It’s safe to assume that most people have never heard of “competitive endurance tickling,” so when David Farrier, a New Zealand-based television reporter and actor, was sent a link to a bizarre video of young men tickling other men for “sport,” it was only natural that it piqued his curiosity. So, he did what any other reporter would have done: He sent a Facebook message to Jane O’Brien Media, the U.S.-based company that produced the aforementioned videos. While his inquiry was routine, the response he received from company representative Debbie Kuhn was anything but. In fact, it was jaw-droppingly hostile. She wrote, “To be brutally frank, association with a homosexual journalist is not something that we will embrace,” and then continued, assuring Farrier that Jane O’Brien Media would pursue legal action should he take his inquiry any further. So begins the fascinating documentary Tickled, directed by Farrier and Dylan Reeve, the latter largely remaining off-camera. What might have been a tongue-in-cheek examination of a subculture—a fluff piece of the kind on which Farrier’s built his career—quickly becomes a trek down the fetish rabbit hole, the filmmakers uncovering a larger, more nefarious operation. With hidden cameras, ambush interviews and Dateline-esque gotcha segments, the film segues into a bona fide thriller as they explore the dark, seamy corners of the internet, hunting for the Keyser Söze of the competitive tickling world. —Christine N. Ziemba


41. The Land Before Time
Year: 1988
Director: Don Bluth
It’s hard to overstate what a major development it was for Don Bluth to leave Disney in 1979 to form his own studio. Working during the actual reign of Walt Disney, starting as an in-betweener—the crucial artist whose job it is to fill in the frames of animation that add detail to the movement between poses—in 1955, he chafed under the cutbacks that hit the company in the ’70s just as he was about to direct films of his own. Ultimately he, Gary Goldman and 14 other animators jumped ship to start Don Bluth Productions. An American Tail (1986), the heartbreakingly true and important story of an immigrant family coming to America, was an incredible success from the standpoint of animation and storytelling. The company marketed the hell out of it and, for an animated film, it pulled decent numbers. It set the stage for The Land Before Time two years later in 1988, but already, the studio was struggling: Tail may have reached eyeballs and won acclaim, but it didn’t turn the studio a profit. Setting any story in the age of the dinosaurs is asking for tragedy, but you can still tell some tales of that era without focusing on the unavoidable fact that all their hopes and dreams and everything that they ever were is destined to be washed clean by nature.
So what did Bluth and his team decide to do? Set the story during the end of days, of course.

Beginning with a wonder-filled tour of the prehistoric landscape through which we’ll be roaming, The Land Before Time introduces our hero, a baby dino named Littlefoot (voiced by Gabriel Damon), paired with narration that tells us his herd is dying and the plants are shriveling. Bluth’s creative team and their financiers fought over the tone of the movie, and it’s easy to see why the money men were alarmed. Who wants a light-hearted kid’s movie to grapple with childhood orphaning and abandonment, all set while the inevitable end of the world plays out? Littlefoot is orphaned in the first few minutes of the film when a T-Rex violently kills his mother, then is joined on his journey by other orphaned or abandoned dino babies with their own neuroses. Littlefoot struggles at the head of his little band to keep the faith and continue plodding onward toward the legendary Great Valley when every circumstance along the way taunts them with doubt. The Land Before Time clearly wanted to be a movie that was about coping with loss, being changed by it, but it ended up an adventure movie with a happy ending that leaves most of that solemnity as weighty subtext. It’s debatably one of Bluth’s best movies, and I’d even argue one of the best animated movies of the ’80s. It was also one of the last bright spots of Don Bluth’s film catalogue. —Ken Lowe


40. The Post
Year: 2017
Director: Steven Spielberg 
The Post begins as a restrained procedural, sticking only to the facts surrounding The Washington Post obtaining, in 1972, top secret Pentagon Papers showing (without a doubt) that the American resolve for winning the war in Vietnam was severely diminished—the exact opposite mood the U.S. administration was claiming at the time. This strictly matter-of-fact approach would have made directors like Gosta Gavras and, yes, Alan J. Pakula proud. Of course, this being a Steven Spielberg joint, The Post can’t help but gradually bring heavy emotional tension to the film’s forefront, easing us moment by moment into a fairly manipulative yet exhilarating finale. None of that should come as a surprise: “Manipulative but exhilarating” might as well be the director’s calling card. The fact that The Post doesn’t stick to its apparent predecessors’ (All the President’s Men, Spotlight) dogged dedication to never clearly extracting strong emotional responses out of its audience might come across as a clear criticism of this otherwise airtight, tautly-paced drama with some of the best acting of the year. However, we are not living in subtle times. With the rise of authoritarianism here in the U.S. severely pushing back on the first amendment, explicitly declaring the free and open press an enemy of the people, the people need a populist piece of art with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. That’s why, in 2017, Spielberg is the perfect director to handle this story. Who better to rouse us, give us the passion and motivation we need to not only keep up the fight against such tyranny, but to hold out some hope for salvation as well? Depending on one’s politics, then, The Post could be the most important film of the year, or a pathetic piece of left-wing agitprop, but its effectiveness in eliciting a strong emotional response cannot be denied. —Oktay Ege Kozak


39. X2
Year: 2003
Director: Bryan Singer
From its incomparably stunning opening sequence, demonstrating the full power of the best reasons for humans to fear mutants, to its ending grace note of bittersweet victory, X2 represented a full step forward in legitimizing comic books as a valid source of drama and excitement on the silver screen. The returning cast from director Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men, including Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen and—of course—Hugh Jackman’s iconic portrayal of Marvel favorite Wolverine are complemented beautifully by Alan Cumming’s haunted Catholic teleporter, Nightcrawler, and Brian Cox’s brilliantly villainous turn as the mutant-hating military scientist, Col. Stryker. Even with so many beloved characters to juggle, Singer never loses focus on which one works in any given scene to propel the thrills and emotional center of the story. It’s an awesome ensemble action movie as much as it is a movie about a marginalized but powerful population of people struggling to take the high road in the face of bigotry. —Scott Wold


38. Ice Age
Year: 2002
Director: Chris Wedge
Expectations were low for the Fox Animation Studios film Ice Age was released with newly formed Blue Sky. But from the opening slapstick scene—a saber-toothed squirrel with the worst luck in pre-history—Ice Age delivered the laughs. So much so, that the film would spawn a $3 billion franchise with five feature films, two TV specials and more than a dozen videogames. None would come close to capturing the magic of the original, though—a tale of three unlikely companions, voiced by Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary, navigating family, friendship, loyalty and revenge in the wake of an oncoming global freeze. There’s real drama and heart to go along with the jokes and two unforgettable book-end scenes involving poor Scrat, who just wants his beloved acorn. —Josh Jackson


37. Dances With Wolves
Year: 1990
Director: Kevin Costner 
Overlooking the fact that this is the story of a white male savior, Kevin Costner’s directorial debut was something of a milestone in Hollywood’s historically terrible depiction of “cowboys and Indians.” Kevin Costner plays Lt. John Dunbar, a Civil War hero serving in an isolated outpost in Sioux territory. When he returns a young woman to her tribe—again, an adopted white woman, Stands With Fist—his presence there is finally accepted, and he learns the Lakota language and customs. With the U.S. army pressing upon all Native Americans in the late 1800s, Dunbar’s loyalties become clouded. The film was beautifully shot by Dean Semler and dominated the Oscars with seven awards, including Best Picture. Costner’s passion for the project showed when he put $3 million of his own money towards finishing production when the shoot ran over its $15 million budget. It paid off when the film went on to gross $424 million globally. And while there were plenty of critics about the authenticity of a film starring only one native Lakota speaker, Costner was adopted as an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. —Josh Jackson


36. Fletch
Year: 1985
Director: Michael Ritchie
A comedy that borrows heavily from film noir, Michael Ritchie’s Fletch offered Chevy Chase a chance to show his comic range. Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher is an investigative reporter who assumed several wonderfully ridiculous disguises from John Coctotostan (“Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.”) to Harry S. Truman (“My parents were big fans of the former president”). Relentlessly quotable and filled with memorable scenes (like his colonoscopy—”Mooooon River…You ever serve time, Doc?...Using the whole fist, Doc?”)—this is a comedy that only gets better with age. —Josh Jackson


35. Funny People
Year: 2009
Director: Judd Apatow 
Judd Apatow’s dramedy is about the lifetime regrets of a comedian who became a superstar by starring in dumb comedies that cater to the lowest common denominator. Gee, I wonder who’d be the perfect actor for that part? Apatow is fearless in the way that he holds an existential mirror up to his best friend, going as far as using home videos he took of Sandler while they were a bunch of nobodies rooming together, further blurring the line between the fictional George Simmons (Sandler, playing a comedian dying of cancer, facing the existential crisis of death and wondering if comedy can serve as a suitable salve to such grief) and the real actor. Sandler stands up to the challenge with an honest performance showcasing the inherent charm and charisma of such a powerhouse comedian, never diluting the dickish ego and narcissism that comes with it. —Oktay Ege Kozak


34. Wonder Woman
Year: 2017
Director: Patty Jenkins
Considering that the character of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) was the only one in Batman v Superman who didn’t want to yank your eyeballs out of your head with a spork, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that Wonder Woman is lightyears better than anything else the newfangled DC cinematic universe has produced. It’s not quieter necessarily, but it is more measured, more comfortable in its own skin, less fanboy desperate to keep waving keys in front of your face—exploding keys—to make sure it has the full attention of all your assaulted senses. It feels almost old-fashioned in its themes of the goodness of humanity—and the debate alien outsiders have about whether or not humans are worthy of redemption—and the selflessness of one for a greater good. It still has too many skyscraper-sized god-monsters blowing up whole acres in hackneyed super slo-mo, and it doesn’t have much you haven’t seen before, but that it simply tells one story in linear order with logical progression…man, when it comes to these movies, it almost feels like a miracle. —Will Leitch


33. Inception
Year: 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan 
In the history of cinema, there is no twist more groan-inducing than the “it was all a dream” trope (notable exceptions like The Wizard of Oz aside). With Inception, director Christopher Nolan crafts a bracing and high-octane piece of sci-fi drama wherein that conceit isn’t just a plot device, but the totality of the story. The measured and ever-steady pace and precision with which the plot and visuals unfold, and Nolan mainstay wally Pfister’s gorgeous, globe-spanning on-location cinematography, implies a near-obsessive attention to detail. The film winds up and plays out like a clockwork beast, each additional bit of minutia coalescing to form a towering whole. Nolan’s filmmaking and Inception’s dream-delving work toward the same end: to offer us a simulation that toys with our notions of reality. As that, and as a piece of summer popcorn-flick fare, Inception succeeds quite admirably, leaving behind imagery and memories that tug and twist our perceptions—daring us to ask whether we’ve wrapped our heads around it, or we’re only half-remembering a waking dream.

Director Andrei Tarkovsky wrote a book about his philosophy towards filmmaking, calling it Sculpting in Time; Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t sculpt, he deconstructs. He uses filmmaking to tear time apart so he can put it back together as he wills. A spiritual person, Tarkovsky’s films were an expression of poetic transcendence. For Nolan, a rationalist, he wants to cheat time, cheat death. His films often avoid dealing with death head-on, though they certainly depict it. What Nolan is able to convey in a more potent fashion is the weight of time and how ephemeral and weak our grasp on existence. Time is constantly running out in Nolan’s films; a ticking clock is a recurring motif for him, one that long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer aurally literalized in the scores for Interstellar and Dunkirk. Nolan revolts against temporal reality, and film is his weapon, his tool, the paradox stairs or mirror-upon-mirror of Inception. He devises and engineers filmic structures that emphasize time’s crunch while also providing a means of escape. In Inception different layers exist within the dream world, and the deeper one goes into the subconscious the more stretched out one’s mental experience of time. If one could just go deep enough, they could live a virtual eternity in their mind’s own bottomless pit. “To sleep perchance to dream”: the closest Nolan has ever gotten to touching an afterlife. —Michael Saba and Chad Betz


32. The Descent
Year: 2005
Director: Neil Marshall
True camaraderie or complex relationships between female characters isn’t so much “rare” in horror cinema as it is functionally nonexistent, which is one of the things that still makes The Descent, nominally about a bunch of women fighting monsters in a cave, stand out so sharply all these years later. But ah, how The Descent transcends its one-sentence synopsis. The film’s first half is deliberately crafted to fill in the personalities of its group of women, while slowly and almost imperceptibly ratcheting up the sense of dread and foreboding. As the characters descend deeper into the cave, passageways get tighter and the audience can feel the claustrophobia and dankness creeping into their bones—and that’s before we even see any of the resident troglodytes. Neil Marshall’s screenplay makes masterful use of dubious morality, infusing its protagonists, particularly the duo of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), with numerous shades of gray. Not content to simply paint one of the two as flawed and the other as resourceful and ultimately vindicated, he uses a series of misunderstandings to illustrate human failing on a much more profound and universal level. Ultimately, The Descent is as moving a character study as it is terrifying subterranean creature feature, with one hell of an ending to boot. —Jim Vorel


31. Blockers
Year: 2018
Director: Kay Cannon
John Cena, wrestler and employee of the Daddy’s Home franchise, is in the Jingle All the Way era of his career, and, as Buzzfeed columnists would say, We’re here for it. All of us. There’s hardly a more reasonable way to respond to Blockers, in which Cena plays fastidious, incomprehensibly beefy dad Mitchell, who is unable to deal with the revelation that his daughter, high-schooler Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), plans to lose her virginity at her senior prom. Blockers is a second-generation teen romp openly owing its lineage to Superbad and American Pie while trying something new: not as consumed by its vulgarity, treating its teens who actually look like teens as the over-jaded post-Millennials they supposedly are, and having most of the film’s nudity provided by men, i.e., Gary Cole going full frontal, unashamed of his nice dick. In other words, no one wants to cheer for the toxic privilege of rich, white, horny, suburban high-school boys anymore, but we do want to cheer for best friendship and young people starting to figure their shit out and parents who learn how to give them the space and respect to do that. And if John Cena is the paternalistic He-Man—the Jim’s Dad of the Dwayne the Rock Johnson Generation, if you will—to guide the youth through their cinematic, sex-positive formative years, then let Blockers test his mettle. If the film’s direction is workmanlike and the writers’ plotting flimsy, then the better to focus on the cast. They’re a joy to watch together, everyone unironically playing unironic characters packed to the gills with backstories that go nowhere, revealing little painful, relatable details amidst all the electrocutions and butt-chugging and occasional car explosion and full close-up violent testicle squeezing. If this is what a popular sex comedy can be in 2018, something forward-thinking and empathetic and crowd-pleasing, then let the box office show it. And may John Cena be with you. —Dom Sinacola


30. Big Fish
Year: 2003
Director: Tim Burton 
It is hard to take a dysfunctional father/son relationship and make it into a magical fantasy world, but that’s just what Burton did in Big Fish. The director takes viewers on a journey of the life of Edward Bloom, an ordinary man who through his own storytelling has lived an extraordinary life. In just two hours Burton addresses death, infidelity and the feelings of estrangement with ease, but he never loses his sense of fantasy. By the end of the movie, Burton has you seeing magic in even the most mundane events and believing in the impossible. —Laura Flood


29. Gus Van Sant’s Last Days
Year: 2006
Director: Gus Van Sant 
Actor Michael Pitt portrays the lost figure at the center of Last Days, a stark walk through a dying artist’s final moments inspired by the death of one of rock history’s great tragic figures. Like Van Sant’s prior films, Gerry and Elephant, an improvised script and freedom from routine cinematic language gives Last Days a hyper-real, oddly poetic flow of events. Pitt plays Blake, first seen stumbling alone in the wilderness, a caveman in pajamas and sunglasses. Through a random series of events we learn that he’s a rock musician living in a once-elegant mansion gone seedy with neglect, with a small entourage of housemates who incessantly seek him for advice, money and affirmation. Presumably stoned beyond repair, Blake spends Last Days dodging so-called friends, bandmates and other intrusions of the outside world, unable to secure the peace he craves. There’s no doubt that Blake is intended to recall the late Kurt Cobain; Pitt’s emaciated frame, bedraggled blonde shag, pink sunglasses and general demeanor is sometimes uncanny in its resemblance to the long-mourned star. But the Last Days story has little in common with the facts of the case, keeping, with Thurston Moore also on board as music consultant, only the essential themes Van Sant believes we should take away from Cobain’s demise. —Fred Beldin


28. Calendar Girls
Year: 2003
Director: Nigel Cole
Helen Mirren may have incredible filmography to her name, but never has she been as charmingly funny as in Nigel Cole’s indie British film about a group of women shaking up their small town by posing nude in a calendar to raise money for leukaemia. Annie Clark (Julie Walters) has just lost her husband to the cancer, and her best friend Chris (Mirren) convinces her Women’s Institute friends to take an unconventional approach to raising the funds for a comfortable sofa in the local hospital waiting area. Things spiral out of control in a wry, genial film that’s buoyed by its brave, talented cast. —Josh Jackson


27. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Release Date: 2017
Director: Martin McDonagh
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand as Mildred, a divorced mother who lives in a rural Missouri community. Everybody in a small town knows everybody else’s business, and Mildred is Ebbing’s walking tragedy: She’s the woman whose teen daughter was recently raped and murdered. Unhappy that the local police force, led by the cantankerous Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), has failed to find her girl’s killer, Mildred decides to take action, buying up three billboards outside of town and splashing an accusing message across them: “Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?” Whether it’s Our Town or Dogville, fiction occasionally uses small towns as a microcosm for America at large, showing what’s wonderful or toxic about our country. Judging by this film, the state of our union is fractious and violent—and only getting worse. You probably didn’t need a movie to tell you that, but writer-director Martin McDonagh’s volatile comedy-drama keeps poking at our scabs, pinpointing our humanity and surprising us with a series of small revelations. This is a film that’s proudly impertinent but also deeply morally serious. And even if Three Billboards doesn’t always hold together, that’s appropriate for its anxious characters who are, themselves, a little unsteady. —Tim Grierson


26. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Year: 2009
Director: Wes Anderson 
A match made in heaven? Wes Anderson’s trademark ironic eccentricity and Roald Dahl’s vaguely menacing but entirely lighthearted surrealism combine to form Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s first animated effort, which uses the same maddeningly traditional stop-motion techniques as Isle of Dogs. It’s ostensibly a children’s film (Mr. Fox and his family and friends try to outrun the mean farmers), but rather transparently aimed at their parents, who likely read Dahl’s books in grade school, remember stop-motion when it didn’t feel vintage, and have followed Anderson’s work for years. But while earlier Anderson films may have turned off some audiences—and will most likely continue to—with their self-conscious quirk, Fantastic Mr. Fox is broader and more straightforward, trading some of the hipster-ness for cuteness. The tale has been greatly expanded from the Dahl original to cover familiar Anderson themes of family, rivalry and feeling different, and with its lush autumnal palette and hijinks worthy of Max Fischer or Dignan, the result is a film that only Wes Anderson could have made. —Alissa Wilkinson

25. Strange Days
Year: 1995
Director: Kathryn Bigelow 
Before she reinvented herself as the director of award-winning docudramas, Kathryn Bigelow made her name directing crazy genre movies like Near Dark and Point Break. With all respect to Point Break, however, Strange Days remains Bigelow’s most compelling pre-War on Terror project. Written by Bigelow’s former husband James Cameron and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jay Cocks, Strange Days is a pulpy, noir-influenced sci-fi pic in the vein of Blade Runner but with more high-octane action and a lot more nudity. Developed during the Rodney King/L.A. Riots era, the film is set in a dystopian Los Angeles where people’s memories and experiences are recorded directly from their brains to sell on the black market. Anyone who has ever wanted to experience criminal activities or perverse sexual encounters can now do so without repercussions. The trouble begins when vice-detective-turned-black-marketer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) discovers a “snuff” disc depicting the brutal murder of an acquaintance. This disc leads him down a rabbit hole into the urban underground. At nearly two and a half hours, the film’s visual pyrotechnics and beautifully stylized performances provide more than enough ammunition to justify such excess. —Mark Rozeman


24. There’s Something About Mary
Year: 1998
Directors: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
...and it’s not just hair gel. Cameron Diaz’s titular character is the object of affection for a wide range of guys, not all of whom are NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Not without reason: She combines a certain Audrey Hepburn winsomeness with a certain Ava Gardner crassness, plus a sensibility that is as ’90 as anything this side of Jennifer Aniston’s haircut in Friends Season 1. Throw in a splash of Ben Stiller cringe-theater, Chris Elliott creepypants-comedy and cameos by both Jonathan Richman and a certain football star, and you have a Farrelly Brothers classic—raunchy, ridiculous, and somehow guffaw-inducing even when you know better. It’s sort of like if Otto Preminger’s masterpiece Laura were set in 1990s Florida and made into a comedy by drunk frat boys. What’s not to love? —Amy Glynn


23. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Year: 2015
Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney’s up-close examination of Scientology, its practices and the controversies that surround the religion founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard is also a stirring portrait of eight former adherents, who tell their stories of how they came to practice Scientology and their reasons for leaving the church. While much of the ideological content in Gibney’s film has circulated on the Internet for years, there was still a number of items to be learned from watching the film and hearing from the men who made it. While Going Clear is part exposé and part condemnation of a controversial religion, director Gibney has said that he was most interested in “the journey of the key characters in the film”—and how people got lost in the ‘prison of belief.’” —Christine N. Ziemba


22. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Year: 1996
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
If you’ve never heard of the West Memphis Three, do some research before you begin—you’ll want to be prepared. Within only a minute of the film’s opening, as Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” noodles forebodingly over pixelated camcorder videos, intolerable images taken straight from police evidence glance across frame, so quickly and frankly you’ll immediately question if they are, in fact, real. Of course, they are—they are images no person should ever have to see, and yet Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky use them only to expose the unbelievable horror at the heart of the appropriately named Paradise Lost. What unfolds over the following two and a half hours is just as heartbreaking: a trio of teenage boys (one with an IQ of 72) is put on trial for the brutal murders of three prepubescent boys, the only evidence against them a seemingly forced confession by the young kid with the below-average IQ, and laughably circumstantial physical proof. The film explores the context of West Memphis, its blindly devoted Christian population and how the fact that these teenagers dressed in black and listened to Metallica somehow led to their predictable fates at the hands of a comprehensively broken justice system. With surprising access to everyone involved in the trial, as well as a deft eye for the subtle exigencies of any criminal case such as this, Paradise Lost is a thorough, infuriating glimpse of the kind of mundane evil that mounts in some of America’s quietest corners. Welcome home. —Dom Sinacola


21. Being John Malkovich
Year: 1999
Director: Spike Jonze 
The feature film debut from director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman is a long, absurd joke whose punchline is its final shot: the view of a man whimpering as he’s forced to watch his loved ones forget he’s ever existed. Being John Malkovich admits, with sad clarity, that our lives are totally out of our control. In the film, we follow street puppeteer Craig (John Cusack, looking like a small, humming pile of hair) as he confronts the economic viability of his chosen occupation by getting an admin job on the 7½ floor of a building that also happens to hide a tiny door which leads, if one crawls through cobwebs and puddles, to the inside of John Malkovich’s head, wherein for 15 minutes the brain tourist can vicariously live through famous actor John Malkovich’s eyes before getting spit up into a ditch off the New Jersey Turnpike. Having had his way with marionettes for years, Craig slowly understands how to control Malkovich while inside his head, crouching in the man’s sewer of an unconscious to hide away from the requisite 15-minute limit, but not before falling in love with a coworker (Catherine Keener) who seems to be falling in love with Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), but only via various liaisons through John Malkovich’s manipulable corpus. Throughout, Jonze and Kaufman only afford as much logic as is needed to movie the story from one weird scenario to another, but never letting the bleak heart of the film’s happenings overtake how goofily the plot unfolds. Visual detritus litters Jonze’s shots: A chucked can from a speeding car bounces off Malkovich’s head, the culprit recognizing Malkovich in time enough to call him out by name, though why John Malkovich poorly disguised in a ball cap and covered in ectoplasm would be on the side of the road in Jersey is anyone’s guess; a documentary features Brad Pitt briefly only to ignore him; an alternate universe Charlie Sheen embraces his receding hairline. Ideas pile atop more ideas, until the whole thing collapses in on itself, the film’s centerpiece basically John Malkovich singing his own name to another John Malkovich over and over, attempting to seduce the actor—deeply insecure, just like all of us—into liking himself. —Dom Sinacola


20. I Heart Huckabees
Year: 2004
Director: David O. Russell
There are a few films whose second or third viewing is as likely to “set the hook” as the first, and David O. Russell’s 2004 existential screwball comedy is one of them. I Heart Huckabees features an amazing cast either at the top of their respective games (Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin), in a game they aren’t typically thought of as playing (Isabelle Huppert) or, well, Mark Wahlberg in the best role he’s ever had. On first viewing, the jargon can overwhelm viewers less philosophically inclined, but in his efforts to find meaning in a series of coincidences, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is engaged in the same comedy as the film’s viewers—desperately trying to find order and meaning in a chaotic world. Whether you deem that particular comedy of the human condition dark, breezy, inscrutable or just “what it is,” will depend on your state of mind. I Heart Huckabees just knows it’s pretty damn funny, regardless. —Michael Burgin


19. Game Night
Year: 2018
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
What fuels fury more than fraternal frustration? In John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s dark comedy Game Night, smarmily rich Brooks (Kyle Chandler) gifts his comfortably middle class and ultra-competitive younger brother Max (Jason Bateman) with the kind of immersive gaming experience that will change his life, primarily because it serves as an opportunity for Max to finally best his older bro at something for once. Max and his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) are more than willing to play, as a tiny wedge in their marriage—their inability to conceive due to Max’s low sperm mobility, most likely brought on via anxiety caused by his brother—looms in the back of both of their minds. The comparisons between Game Night and David Fincher’s thriller The Game are apter than you think, not only because of the all-consuming nature of the game: Even if Max is a version of the same kind of petty as his brother is, the film reframes male virility within the context of a series of funny games. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams is positively aces, her comic timing both precise and seemingly effortless, and duo Daley and Goldstein’s filmmaking is slick, allowing a light class critique (affluence is a scam) to sink in via glossy exteriors and shiny domestic spaces. Maintaining who we are and who we think we are is, for these characters, an unending, relentlessly competitive game. —Kyle Turner


18. Bessie
Year: 2015
Director: Dee Rees
It may have taken 20 years to make it, but when Bessie finally arrived, she came, she saw and she conquered. The HBO film has garnered 12 well-deserved Emmy nominations, with Queen Latifah, co-stars Michael Kenneth Williams and Mo’Nique, and director Dee Rees all getting the nod. One scene in particular—with the reverse paper bag test—is one of Bessie’s finest moments, as it encompasses all that makes the HBO film so wonderful. There’s Queen Latifah in all her glory, finally setting up her own tour and making sure everyone knows who’s boss. There’s the hilarity when she lets down one of the hopefuls auditioning—“You must be darker than the bag to be in my show!” After all, Bessie is an incredibly funny movie at times. And there’s the whole inversion of the brown paper bag test. Where Bessie Smith grew up in a world that demanded black women performing back-up be lighter than a brown paper bag, Bessie makes up a new rule that gives her back some agency and sets a different tone (literally and figuratively) for her showcase. Bessie was, in no way, your average blues performer and for that reason Lili Fini Zanuck and her husband Richard D. Zanuck knew they couldn’t just deliver your average black-performer-who-grew-up-poor-and-made-it-big biopic. The familiar story of a talented woman done in by a man (or many men), or childhood tragedies, or her own celebrity was not Bessie’s story—she wasn’t lighter than a brown paper bag, and, thankfully, wasn’t presented as such. —Shannon M. Houston


17. American Splendor
Year: 2003
Directors: Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman
Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” books are fascinating: Pekar believed that even the most mundane and seemingly uncomplicated lives were worth documenting. American Splendor showcases this theory by combining real footage of Pekar, fictionalized versions of characters from his life—maintaining both stylized caricatures and naturalistic drama—and even animated segments pulled from the comics to create a cohesive whole that presents an ordinary life as a fascinating experience. —Ross Bonaime


16. The Shape of Water
Year: 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro 
If there’s a waiting period filmmakers must abide before they can borrow from their own body of work, Guillermo del Toro either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. His latest, The Shape of Water, an ageless story of true love between a human woman and a fish-man, references his filmography both at and below surface levels: It suggests a riff on Abe Sapien, the psychic ichthyoid sidekick in both Hellboy films (who is himself a riff on Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill-man, fed through a copyright strainer by his creator, Mike Mignola), but directly invokes the structure and fairy tale trappings of his 2006 breakout picture, Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro has us set down in 1960s Baltimore, where Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works the janitorial night shift for the not-at-all-shady Occam Aerospace Research Center. She’s alone, mostly, except for her next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her coworker and friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Giles and Zelda give Elisa a voice she quite literally lacks: She’s mute, and spends most of the film communicating with sign language. Elisa’s clockwork days are disrupted by the arrival of the Asset (Doug Jones, the actor behind Abe Sapiens’ prosthetics), the aforementioned fish-man, in the custody of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), at once the epitome of the del Toro villain and the average Shannon role: He’s abusive, violent, dictatorial to a fault, but mannered, the kind of bastard who thinks his dastardly bastard deeds are right and never thinks twice about his own morality. Elisa, ballsier than Strickland and basically every other man in the film, develops instant kinship with the creature. The success of their relationship hinges on performance as much as on direction. Del Toro cares about the well being of freaks and aberrations more than most people care about the well being of other actual people. Visually, The Shape of Water screams dieselpunk, signifying Bioshock more than the brothers Grimm, but the film bears the indelible stamp of folkloric mythmaking all the same. Del Toro weaves together his influences so finely, so delicately, that the product of his handiwork feels entirely new. That’s the magic of the movies, and, more importantly, the magic of del Toro. —Andy Crump


15. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Year: 2004
Director: Adam McKay 
Will Ferrell was a movie star before 2004, carrying both Old School and Elf, but he is still inseparable from his role as San Diego newscaster Ron Burgundy, a character so closely tied to our perception of Ferrell as cinematic presence that every subsequent role seems to contain shades of him. Now that McKay has an Oscar under his belt, he’s getting more recognition than he did when he was simply the man behind the camera on Ferrell’s best movies. Anchorman upped the ante on Zoolander’s sheer lunacy, and ended up being a better movie for it, but true to McKay’s Chicago improv roots, it is a plane forming itself mid-flight, and Anchorman would be two seconds from falling apart without McKay’s steady hand. Ferrell is a certifiable genius in his own right, and is undoubtedly the center of the universe in each of these films, but the world around Ferrell belongs to McKay, and Anchorman announced his arrival as an uncompromising comedy world-builder. —Graham Techler


14. The Tale
Year: 2018
Director: Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox has just done something utterly brilliant, and you need to see it. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable, because The Tale, adapted from her narrative memoir of the same name, will do a number on your head, in the way that a particularly vivid nightmare sometimes can, whether you personally have a childhood sexual abuse story or not. This film was made three years ago. It’s not a response to or the property of any movement, any hashtag; it’s not finally, finally pulling back the veil on the terrible stories no one ever told until now. We have always told these stories. They have always existed and we have always told them. We just didn’t do it with hashtags. To even characterize this film as “a story about sexual abuse” would be a shallow read on a very deep work of art. The Tale is, at a certain level, “about” sexual abuse. But focus on that for too long and you’ll miss the astonishing, courageous, gorgeous mosaic of ways in which it is deliberately, doggedly and totally not. This is a film about the morphing quicksand terrain of human memory and it’s about the stories we tell ourselves in order to stay sane and most of all it’s about the Plinian, volcanic power of emotional honesty. If you want to talk about the spirit of the moment, the guiding spirit of the times, maybe we need to pan back from anything as specific as sexual abuse of girls and women and talk about why being honest is the ultimate act of revolution. Plenty of people make autobiographical films. The Tale is so deeply and specifically autobiographical that it almost becomes something else. Fox as director and writer puts her documentarian’s tools to work to create a meta-textual tapestry depicting the ways in which our memories inform (and misinform) our self-concept. And this beautiful, gripping, disturbing film deserves to be looked at with as much nuance as it offers. It manages to dive so deeply into the personal that it explodes into something universal. —Amy Glynn


13. Logan
Year: 2017
Director: James Mangold
The first word in Logan is “fuck”—perhaps you’re thinking that sounds somehow in the same tonal wheelhouse as, say, Deadpool, but in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. What Logan is defies easy categorization. I struggle to even call it a “superhero movie,” or an “X-Men movie.” If it is one, then it’s quite easily the most uniquely disparate X-Men movie ever made, asking audiences to quickly cast away any expectations of how an X-Men movie might look, sound and feel. Yes, one might call it a “superhero movie” in the sense that it, you know, has superheroes in it, but it would be similar to describing Saving Private Ryan as “that movie where Tom Hanks plays an English teacher.” In short, this is quite the departure for Marvel’s first family of mutants and it’s difficult even now to comprehend how a mass audience processed Logan. Were they be wowed by its ultra-gory, visceral action and supremely gritty, nihilistic vision of a future where entropy has seemingly conquered all? Or were they be unnerved by its often oppressive dourness, humorless nature and patience in lingering in the quiet moments? The differences between this film and the tone of The Avengers could scarcely be more profound. Ultimately, Logan’s ambition is to present itself with a weight of gravitas that isn’t entirely earned, considering the history of the character. It will doubtlessly frustrate some of the Everyman cinema-goers who perceive its middle chapters as slow, or who criticize the 135-minute run-time, but I expect patient viewers will appreciate the way it allows its characters to breathe and wallow in moments of vulnerability. It’s not a film calculated to be a people-pleaser, but it is an appropriately intense end to a character defined by the tenacity and ferocity of a wolverine. —Jim Vorel


12. The Prestige
Year: 2006
Director: Christopher Nolan 
In The Prestige, two competing magicians try to outdo each other, but are really trying to achieve a brand of immortality. They are competing for the same audience’s faith, and they need all of it, because it is not something that can be shared (many religious institutions hold similar dogma for similar reasons). Each wants to invoke utter and absolute belief in their audiences, much like Nolan wants to do in his own, as if that achievement grants the doer divinity, whether or not it is built on tricks and illusions. Nolan begins the film with a trick, in fact, a shot of top hats littering the forest floor, with the voice-over asking, “Are you watching closely?” It is a shot out of time and place from the rest of the film, Nolan once again doing as he pleases, manipulating our perception of what we’re seeing and when so as to emulate the pledge, turn and prestige of the “magic” acts the film portrays. Our faith is built on lies we tell ourselves and others, Nolan seems to posit, and it’s a thesis on which he elaborates with his Dark Knight trilogy, insinuating that symbols are sacred not for their truth, but simply for what they inspire. —Chad Betz


11. Capturing the Friedmans
Year: 2003
Director: Andrew Jarecki
This is the story of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, convicted of multiple counts of child molestation that supposedly took place in the basement of their home in a quiet New York suburb during the ’80s. In Capturing the Friedmans, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki interviews the victims and prosecutors, but never reaches a conclusion as to the veracity of the charges, tacitly acknowledging that guilt and innocence are fluid concepts in such sensational and shameful circumstances. Instead, he documents the implosion of the family and the destruction of an already tenuous marriage. Surely, the details of the abuse are disturbing, but almost as unsettling is the cruelty with which the two older Friedmans reject their mother in blind loyalty to their shamefaced father and numb younger brother, further facilitating the family’s emotional separation. —Emily Reimer


10. Isle of Dogs
Year: 2018
Director: Wes Anderson 
Isle of Dogs may be the closest Wes Anderson will ever get to a sci-fi film. Of course he would use stop-motion animation to make it. Set 20 years from now, amidst the ultra-urban monoliths of Megasaki City—a Japanese metropolis that also seems to be Japan, or at least a Westernized idea of the small island nation—the film begins care of a decree by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a boulder of a man with equal ties to an ancient lineage of cat-loving aristocrats and to, based on the elaborate back tattoo we glimpse atop his tight little butt in a quick bath scene, an archetype of organized crime and political corruption. Due to a vaguely described epidemic of "dog flu" (or "snout fever"), Kobayashi bans all dogs to Trash Island, a massive byproduct of technology and futurism, beginning with Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), who also happens to be the Mayor’s ward after Atari’s parents died in a horrible accident. Since Bottle Rocket in 1996, the more manicured Anderson’s films have become—his obsessive control over his frames broadening into grander and grander worlds—the more we may be apt to extol his accomplishments rather than get invested in his stories. And it’s probably never been easier to do that than with Isle of Dogs, so rife with meticulousness and imagination, as is Anderson’s brand, and so unconcerned with steering this ostensible children’s movie towards actual children. For a director who pretty much defined a generation’s cinematic fetishization for symmetry (and quirky hipster nonsense) to then fetishize a country to which Westerners mainly relate through fetishization? So much of this beautiful movie just sort of eats itself. Still, the emotional weight of Isle of Dogs depends on knowing exactly what that bond between dog and human can mean, how deeply and irrationally it can go. At the core of Isle of Dogs is that kind of best-friendship: No matter how far we advance as a civilization, how disastrously we atomize and digitalize our lives, we’ll always have the devoted dependence of a dog, our immutable companion across the vast wasteland of human history. —Dom Sinacola


9. Inherent Vice
Year: 2014
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
The fog that envelops Inherent Vice might bring to mind the old expression “thick as pea soup.” But that’s not quite right. Sometimes it’s like cotton candy, at others like ominous smoke. Paul Thomas Anderson’s drug-fueled detective odyssey depicts the end of the 1960s in a way that’s both mournful and madcap; coherency isn’t a priority—or even intended—in this tale of an era of endless possibilities coming to a close. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is both unnervingly surreal and pliably, affably keen to take every detour possible on the road from A to B. While its gags are ingenious and plentiful, heady themes rise from the madness: some good for laughs—the culture war is at the forefront of the story, and Anderson isn’t beneath milking a chocolate-covered banana’s phallic qualities as a hippie-hating authority figure devours it—and some, sometimes the very same themes, conjure up a distinct melancholy in the same breath, as in how the ideal of free love gives way to disturbing sexual dynamics. An attempt to summarize the plot would be just that: an attempt—and even then there’s no guarantee how clear it would be. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a burn-out private investigator trying to locate: 1) a potentially kidnapped billionaire; 2) that billionaire’s missing bodyguard; 3) a missing saxophone player; and 4) Doc’s own ex-girlfriend, who initiated the investigation in the first place. Phoenix plays the part with a mastery of facial manipulation, a breezy and casual physicality that belies his impeccable comic timing. So Phoenix is our guide, our constant, throughout this shifting landscape: Always in flux, Inherent Vice perseveres as a screwball elegy to a lost time, refusing to function solely as a stoner comedy or a serious drama or any one thing for that matter. Anderson is mannered enough to shift from one tone to another organically, making the whole seem part of one larger kaleidoscopic feeling rather than a series of disjointed vignettes, and that alone is a huge accomplishment. That he also characteristically includes a series of unforgettable scenes makes this film one that must be seen again, if not to better understand it, then to remember the sweet feeling of reveling in its haze. —Jeremy Mathews


8. Cop Car
Year: 2015
Director: Jon Watts
A lean, rugged neo-noir that tweaks genre conventions by putting two young boys at the center of its attention, Cop Car opens with credits shimmering like police lights. Cut to snapshots of writer-director Jon Watts’ rural Colorado milieu, a place defined by barren storefronts, abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated trailer parks, and flat, dusty plains. Across the vast, barren land walk 10-year-olds Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford): Travis utters curse words that Harrison dutifully echoes in a kind of casual call-and-repeat bonding ritual, and from the first sight of the duo—orchestrated by Watts as one gorgeous, unbroken tracking shot which captures them dwarfed by the country’s big sky, even when they make their away through a barbed wire fence—it’s clear that the boys are on an odyssey of some sort, albeit one of initially undefined purpose. And it’s clear that Watts (co-scripting with Christopher Ford) wants Cop Car to serve as a downbeat commentary about the futility of escape. Coming upon a tree-shrouded area, the two are surprised to discover a county sheriff’s cruiser. They decide that the car has been abandoned. Up to no good, finding the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys inside, Travis and Harrison opt to take a joy ride. Apparently having both run away from home, the two speed around the cow-populated landscape like juvenile delinquents unconcerned about the potentially serious consequences of their actions. Such uninhibited, devil-may-care recklessness gives the material an immediate jolt of peril, even before Watts rewinds his tale to reveal the origins of the car and its owner. As it turns out, the car was left in this out-of-the-way locale by Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), its remote parking spot chosen so that the officer wouldn’t be seen hauling a body out of its trunk and onto a tarp, and then dragging it to a hole to be unceremoniously dumped. That corpse’s identity is left as vague as Kretzer’s reason for committing this apparent murder. Suffice it to say, when the sun does finally set on these characters, what’s left is a bleak portrait of the hopelessness of trying to change one’s circumstances, and the often-brutal punishment doled out by fate to those foolish enough to think they can alter who they are, where they come from, or where they’re going—even when those in question are just a couple of ne’er-do-well runaways looking for some mischievous kicks. —Nick Schager


7. Paddington 2
Year: 2018
Director: Paul King
A sequel to 2014’s Paddington, Paddington 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, with Paddington Brown (né Bear and voiced by Ben Whishaw) living contentedly with his human family, including Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) and a newly name-recognizable Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), joined by that British A-Lister of yore Hugh Grant, dramatic heavyweight Brendan Gleeson, and many others. (In fact, one of the simple joys for parents watching the film lies in recognizing this or that British actor.) A simple, commendable desire to find a good gift for his Aunt Lucy (currently spending her days in a nice retirement home for bears in Lima, Peru, natch) leads Paddington to set his eyes on a certain antique pop-up book as the perfect present. When that scoundrel and fading thespian Phoenix Buchanan (Grant) also sets his sights on the same book, well, hijinks, misunderstandings and adventure ensue. Paddington 2 reminds us how difficult it can be to pull off a sweetly tempered, gently moving children’s movie by doing exactly that, and doing it so well. —Michael Burgin


6. Ronin
Year: 1998
Director: John Frankenheimer
A bone-dry spy thriller with a loudly beating heart of melodrama—more Hitchcock than Melville, both directors to whom this movie’s deeply indebted—Ronin wraps a marginal plot around endless espionage-etched intrigue between cold-as-ice, badass sociopaths, inhuman car chases and labyrinthine shoot-outs serving as intimacy amongst thieves. Director John Frankenheimer is breathlessly economical, except for when he isn’t: We gather whatever we need to of mercenaries Sam (Robert DeNiro) and Vincent (Jean Reno), two members of a team (counting in their numbers Stellan Skarsgård and Sean Bean) hired by IRA project manager Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to retrieve a MacGuffin from a heavily armed convoy protecting a bald man—then we also make a too-long sojourn to the manse of mysterious rich model-builder (Michael Lonsdale), who puts way too fine a point on the whole “ronin” metaphor. Whatever Frankenheimer has to say about the lengths to which someone will go for “loyalty” and “honor”—whatever those words mean in the face of love or life in the late ’90s—pales compared to the kinetic language he wields with an Audi on the streets of Nice. —Dom Sinacola


5. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Director:   Spike Lee  
Year: 2006
Part indictment of FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, part celebration of the unfailingly resilient spirit of New Orleans, Spike Lee’s four-hour-long look at “The City That Care Forgot” a year after the near-obliteration of Hurricane Katrina is an exhausting, comprehensive, worthwhile experience. There’s a reason so many residents refer to the catastrophe as the “Federal flood” and not Katrina itself—Lee’s Peabody-winning doc examines the systemic failure at all levels of government to maintain the storm barriers and deal with the consequences of their negligence. It’s political, it’s racial, it’s accusatory and it’s utterly compelling viewing. It’s also inspiring, thanks to the resolute locals shown struggling to survive and rebuild in the disaster’s aftermath. This is very much a Spike Lee joint; don’t expect anyone in the Dubya administration to come away without a tongue-lashing. But the heart and soul of the doc is the people of New Orleans, and they won’t let you down—on the contrary. —Amanda Schurr


4. Phantom Thread
Year: 2017
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
Phantom Thread is a movie that is so wonderfully made, so meticulous in its construction, so deeply felt in execution, that you can almost overlook how prickly and scabrous it is. This has to be the most luscious-to-watch film, ever, that is in large part about how self-centered and inflexible the world of relationships can be, how we can only give up so much of ourselves and it’s up to our partner to figure out how to deal with that, if they want to at all. This is an uncompromising movie about two uncompromising people who try to live with one another without losing too large a part of themselves, and the sometimes extreme lengths they will go to get their way. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a world-famous dressmaker who clothes celebrities, royalty and, sometimes to his chagrin, déclassé wealthy vulgarians. Almost everything that doesn’t meet his exacting standards is vulgarian, until one day while in the English countryside, Reynolds comes across a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who both meets Reynolds’ physical requirements (specifically so he can make dresses for her) and has a certain pluck that he instantly finds fascinating. Both of the principals of Phantom Thread are absurd and insane in their own ways, and one of the many thrills of the film is watching them bounce off each other, and then collide again. It’s the oddest little love story, so odd that I’m not even sure it’s about love at all. My colleague Tim Grierson said this first, but it’s too good an observation to ignore: This movie is in large part about the absolute unknowability of other people’s relationships. From the outside, it makes no sense that Reynolds and Alma would have this sort of connection with each other; it’s difficult to tell what either person is getting out of it. But what’s unfathomable about it is also what makes it so powerful. —Will Leitch


3. GoodFellas
Year: 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Far from a typical shoot-em-up gangster flick, GoodFellas is in the details: the carefully chosen close-ups; the nuances in each character’s personality, plying at and defying stereotypes. Even scenes that involve murder and violence, though grotesque, aren’t flatly black-and-white—someone cracks a joke and then weirdly, somehow in that moment, you can still laugh. Those despicable situations are suddenly grayer, and a viewer can see past the monstrous things they commit to something that amounts to empathy for monsters. All of the small details come together, GoodFellas humanizing the gory story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his fellow made men, immersively making it much too difficult to distance oneself from him and his friends, casting the biopic’s protagonist and its villain as the same guy to kind of convince you to like him despite himself. —Anita George


2. The Thin Red Line
Year: 1998
Director: Terrence Malick 
It seems unbelievable now that even an auteur as legendary as Terrence Malick actually secured financing to make poetry on the scale of The Thin Red Line. Pitched up on lush location in Australia and armed with a cast bursting with talent, Malick returned from moviemaking hibernation in 1998 with author James Jones’ story of a company of GIs battling Japanese forces in the paradise of Guadalcanal, all refracted through his own glorious lens. The result was an abstract and relentlessly contemplative epic, awash with gorgeous cutaways to jungle and beast, and—atypically for a filmmaker whose main fixation has always been the environment his characters reside in—chock-full of great acting. (The performances are faultless to a man, but a terrifically zen Jim Caviezel and a perpetually enraged Nick Nolte take the prize.) Hardly ever can a film sustain that aching feeling of raw emotion across its entire running time; this almost three-hour masterpiece does. —Brogan Morris


1. Fargo
Year: 1996
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
In exploring the unsavory implications of “Minnesota nice,” the Coen Brothers created one of the most beloved, acclaimed and quotable films of all time. Fargo explores the tension that accompanies polite social norms and the quiet desperations they often mask, setting up one scene after another so awkward it’ll make your skin crawl. The emotional restraint displayed by such characters as Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) is a thin and disingenuous veil over yearnings for money or companionship, while their foil, obviously, is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who really is that nice and hardworking and downright normal. The Coens strike a careful balance between gentleness and a stark gruesomeness underneath a typical all-American veneer, making you appreciate the art behind postage stamps as deeply as they make you cringe at the sound of a wood chipper. —Allie Conti

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