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The Best Dramas on Netflix (2019)

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Netflix  lists more than 1,400 movies in the drama category; not all of them are exactly worth checking out. It doesn’t help that drama is the broadest of genres, the most difficult to define: Basically anything that doesn’t fall into comedy, horror, action/adventure or sci-fi gets lumped into the catch-all, and even then there’s more than plenty of overlap. How funny can a movie be and still be “serious”? How much tension must be internal or inter-personal—can it still have a bunch of explosions? Drama is a key ingredient in all movies, but when you’re in the mood for a dramatic movie, we think we know what you’re looking for. As does Netflix. So we’ve let the streaming service define the term here, pulling from movies it classifies as “dramas.”

Here are the 60 best dramas on Netflix:

60. The Ornithologist
Year: 2016
Director: João Pedro Rodrigues
There are times during João Pedro Rodcrigues’s newest film, The Ornithologist, wherein you can’t tell if it’s all a big sexy joke or if it’s an earnest, religious and intellectual inquiry into the boundaries of spiritual and physical adventure. There’s enough evidence in the film—which follows a strapping studier of birds on his journey to note black storks and the various surreal things that occur to him—to argue that it’s both. Fernando (Paul Hamy), our bird man, is over the course of the film: pissed on, tossed about by river waters in his kayak, badgered by a presumed lover from back home via text, without medicine, has the eyes on his passport photo burnt through, has sex with a twink deaf and mute twink named Jesus, and is tied up St. Sebastian-style by two lost Chinese lesbians on a religious pilgrimage. Rodrigues easily integrates an aesthetic reminiscent of a nature documentary into scenarios that, like a modern Portuguese take on “The Aristocrats,” mount in their ludicrousness. Yet, the oddball adventures that color Fernando’s journey seem embedded logically within the film’s universe, and even better, within Rodrigues’s own screenplay. However strange it may be to watch a Satanic ritual occur on screen, the director has seemingly mapped out precisely how to transition from weird scene to weird scene, making The Ornithologist and effectively coherent fever dream. As Fernando walks down a busy road in the end of the film, literally transformed into Rodrigues (who may also be St. Anthony) and magically transported from the jungle, one can’t help but think of The Ornithologist as a hallucination brought on by heat stroke. In the best way possible. —Kyle Turner


59. The End of the Tour
Year: 2015
Director: James Ponsoldt
The latest from director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) is about journalist/author David Lipsky as much as it is the late author David Foster Wallace. Adapted from Lipsky’s book about his sometimes-confrontational interview with Wallace just after the publication of Infinite Jest, The End of the Tour raises some of life’s most difficult questions about identity, the perception of others and intellectual honesty. But Jason Segel’s performance as the earnest Midwesterner Wallace is the grounding heart of the film. Wallace’s eventual suicide is a specter haunting the entire affair, but it’s never maudlin or manipulative. Instead, these few days in the passenger seat are welcome, listening to an original man’s original perspective on life and loneliness. —Josh Jackson


58. First They Killed My Father
Year: 2017
Director: Angelina Jolie 
We may tease or scorn actors for stepping out of the frame to hunker down behind the camera, because for whatever reason we’re only cool with artists when they stay in their lane. Think of Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father as a democratic response, or, if you like, a defiant flip of the bird. It’s fitting that Jolie should be the actor to produce a film this accomplished. Recall the volume of shit shoveled on her for the release of 2014’s Unbroken, her Louis Zamperini biopic, and 2015’s By the Sea, the romantic drama she made with Brad Pitt: These were works met with deserved and undeserved response, both middling at best, but neither could be mistaken for being too vain. Whatever promise was found in her earlier movies is fully realized in First They Killed My Father, a brutal movie with a human heart. Jolie doesn’t gloss over the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She knows honesty is the best way to face history and honor the dead, but she doesn’t find any nobility in the suffering of Loung Ung’s family as they flee from state-sanctioned genocide. First They Killed My Father’s emphasis falls on Loung, on the violence paraded before her young eyes, Jolie mining tragedy not for a misguided sense of importance but for an experiential scope and for, most of all, empathy. —Andy Crump


57. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Year: 2007
Director: Julian Schnabel
Country: France
Language: French
In 1995, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a horrific stroke that left his entire body paralyzed in what doctors call the “locked-in syndrome.” In a remarkable testament to the human spirit, Bauby was able to dictate a 132-page memoir by blinking his left eye. Incredibly, ace-auteur Julian Schnabel adapted that memoir into a breathtaking, lyrical, haunting film that is as much his creation as Bauby’s. (Kudos to the Academy for recognizing Schnabel’s brilliance with a Best Director nomination.) The Diving Bell is not only a testament to the human spirit, but to the power of cinema as well. —Jeremy Medina


56. Mudbound
Year: 2017
Director: Dee Rees
Director Dee Rees uses the uneasy partnership between a white family and a black family in postwar Mississippi as a bruising metaphor for modern-day America. In Mudbound, Jason Clarke is the patriarch of a recently relocated Tennessee clan that must work together with the Jacksons (led by Mary J. Blige) to cultivate farmland, but the poisonous economic, racial and social atmosphere surrounding them constantly threatens the crops they’re trying to sow. This somber, despairing film sees the world plainly: War veterans aren’t given the care they need when they return, bigotry runs rampant, and good people are outnumbered by the small-minded. And the performances are stellar—especially Garrett Hedlund, as a bomber pilot who’s a shell of himself now that he’s home, and Jason Mitchell as a black soldier who finds that America still won’t accept him, even though he fought valiantly for his country. —Tim Grierson


55. High-Rise
Year: 2016
Director: Ben Wheatley
High-Rise begins with the past tense of Wheatley’s traditional mayhem, settling on tranquil scenes of extensive carnage and brutal violence inflicted before the picture’s start. Dashing Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) wanders waste-strewn halls. He goes to have a drink with his neighbor, Nathan Steele (Reece Shearsmith), who has enshrined a dead man’s head within a television set. Seems about right. But the film’s displays of squalor and viscera are a ruse. Spoken in the tongue of Wheatley, High-Rise is a tamer tale than Kill List or Sightseers. That isn’t a bad thing, of course, but if you go into Wheatley films anticipating unhinged barbarity, you may feel as though the film and its creator are trolling you here. High-Rise is based on English novelist’s J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, a soft sci-fi dystopian yarn fastened to a through line of social examination. In context with its decade, the book’s setting could be roughly described as “near future England,” and Wheatley, a director with a keen sense of time and place across all of his films, has kept the period of the text’s publication intact, fleshing it out with alternately lush and dreggy mise en scène. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume that High-Rise is a lost relic of 1970s American cinema. —Andy Crump


54. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Year: 2017
Director: Noah Baumbach 
In maybe his most well-tuned chamber drama (let’s use this phrase loosely) since Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach takes time to observe the ways in which his characters run, their ambulatory gifts (or lack thereof) representing both their struggles to express their innermost selves and the ways in which they can’t escape the parents who must pass themselves—their failures, their quirks, their anger—to their offspring. One gets the sense that Baumbach wants to literalize the act of “running from” one’s deepest problems, but such tracking shots are largely played for laughs: Family patriarch Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor seeking acknowledgement in his old age, shuffles dopily down New York’s streets; Matt Meyerowitz (Ben Stiller) possesses the grace of a well-used corporate gym membership; Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler, deserving of an Oscar) hobbles around denying that he’s got a major medical problem; and Jean Meyerowitz (Elizabeth Marvel) just seems like she shouldn’t be running, Matt and Danny at one point consorting about how they’ve never actually seen her run before. In these moments, Baumbach allows the cerebral to awkwardly take on corporeal life, wondering aloud how the many themes and ideas we conceptualize (and thus internalize) break free in some sort of physical melee. It’s his tennis scene in The Squid and the Whale made feature length—and it may be the most viscerally moving film he’s ever made. —Dom Sinacola


53. Krisha
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Year: 2016
You’ve seen the plot of Krisha before: self-destructive woman with a drinking problem goes to a family gathering supposedly having made strides in putting her life back together, but finds the tensions that arise testing her resolve to not go back to the bottle. Jonathan Demme explored similar territory in his 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, and Trey Edward Shults’s debut film does have a similar looseness to it, a feeling that anything can happen at any time. That, however, is where the similarities end. Whereas Demme’s film was warmly observational, Shults’ film aims for an expressionism that imaginatively uses formal elements to invite us into the titular main character’s fractured psyche. Krisha could be seen as cinematic family therapy: Shults’s way of dealing with what was apparently a troubled home life. But you don’t need to know all that to appreciate the passion he brought to this project. One can sense it in the film’s long takes and still setups, in the alternation between montages of unnerving chaos and lengthy scenes of shattering solitude. Krisha does more than announce a potentially major new talent; it shakes new, and tragically devastating, energy into the dysfunctional family drama. —Kenji Fujishima


52. The Pianist
Year: 2002
Director: Roman Polanski
While many great performances rely on dramatic and affecting dialogue, Adrien Brody’s turn as real life musician Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s Holocaust drama The Pianist is hushed, a sullen-eyed lost soul hanging on to a world cloaked in gray. As the title character, Brody became a living skeleton, an all-too-real representation of one of history’s darkest periods. —Justin Jacobs


51. 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


50. Blue is the Warmest Color
Year: 2013
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Three-hour movies usually are the terrain of Westerns, period epics or sweeping, tragic romances. They don’t tend to be intimate character pieces, but Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2) more than justifies its length. A beautiful, wise, erotic, devastating love story, this tale of a young lesbian couple’s beginning, middle and possible end utilizes its running time to give us a full sense of two individuals growing together and apart over the course of years. It hurts like real life, yet leaves you enraptured by its power. —Tim Grierson


49. Things to Come
Year: 2016
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
In French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, nothing lasts. Life’s irritating fleetingness dominates the proceedings, and her latest, Things to Come, takes this theme to its logical conclusion, looking at the travails of an older woman (Isabelle Huppert) who watches one element of her life after another get stripped away. The film’s power is its recognition that, no matter how hard life gets, though, it just keeps going. (In fact, that’s what makes existence oddly beautiful.) Huppert is marvelous in the role: Between this performance and the one in the far spikier Elle, she’s made a compelling case for Actress of the Year, blending vulnerability and defiance in inspiring ways. —Tim Grierson


48. Heaven Knows What
Year: 2015
Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Harley (Arielle Holmes) is a young woman who’s as addicted to heroin as she is to her brutally apathetic boyfriend, Illya (Caleb Landry Jones). Aesthetically, the Safdies’ have made a picture of urgent, abrasive beauty. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams captures Holmes and her excellent supporting cast through a combination of tight close-ups and long shots that lend the film an air of removed intimacy. Ultimately, he’s almost as much the star of Heaven Knows What as Holmes, who matches up well with Jones, the film’s most notable professional actor. Cinema lets us engage with difficult subject matter through a veneer of security. But something like Heaven Knows What pierces that veil. By its very nature, it pushes the boundaries of our personal comfort. It’s clear we need more films like that. —Andy Crump


47. Moon
Year: 2009
Director: Duncan Jones
First-time director Duncan Jones is overt about his stylistic appropriations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the sweeping orchestral music that frames the opening shots of the titular satellite and Earth. Yet, where Kubrick tapped into existential fears about human extinction and the future of civilization, Jones hypothesizes the logical conclusion of that dark vision: a world where the need for more energy has rendered humanity a manufactured cog of multinational corporations whose reach now extends beyond the boundaries of Earth. The film’s plot centers on Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the only human on a lunar mining facility that harvests Helium-3, a clean fuel that can meet a near-future Earth’s ballooning energy demands. Base computer system GERTY (Kevin Spacey) is his sole companion on Sam’s three-year caretaking mission, since a supposed satellite failure means he can only send and receive pre-recorded messages. When an accident nearly kills Sam, he’s saved by a clone of himself and begins to unravel the sinister nature of the base, and his existence. Moon cribs heavily from the retro-futuristic look of ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi for its claustrophobic and sanitized depiction of the moon base, but this high-tech eye candy is only the backdrop to a larger morality tale about humanity’s ever-shrinking position within a technologically-saturated society. When the human experience can be synthesized (and thus made disposable), does such a thing as “humanity” even exist? There’s a host of challenging philosophical threads throughout—cloning, masculinity, energy, corporate power—but those individual issues complement rather than engulf the larger narrative. Moon is a superlative example of science fiction that hearkens to the genre’s roots: social commentary on the human condition, without the easy catharsis of overblown special effects and space opera. It’s the ultimate rarity in modern cinema: a mature, engaging and thoughtful sci-fi movie, and proof that there’s life yet left in the genre. —Michael Saba


46. Aquarius
Year: 2016
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Clara (Sonia Braga) is one of the great heroines in contemporary cinema, and her story is one that will endure. By the movie’s climax, one woman’s struggle to hold on to her apartment despite crooked developers’ schemes takes on a dramatic weight found in the most ambitious, large-scale epics—yet Filho’s touch couldn’t be lighter. His direction is elegant and restrained, because he has the confidence not to force his effects. He believes in his ideas, and knows they’ll deepen and expand in the viewer’s mind if he just presents them unadorned. Undoubtedly, part of his confidence comes from the gift he got from Braga, who gives the performance of her career, doing the same thing with her voice, face and body that Filho does with his camera, finding economical gestures that express infinite emotions and ideas. I can’t think of many other roles that so fully encapsulate the human condition in all its humor, tragedy, loss, triumph, eroticism, weariness, fear and hope. —Jim Hemphill


45. Ex Machina
Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: If given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to HerEx Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast.

The film’s title is a play on the phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), which is a plot device wherein an unexpected event or character seemingly comes out of nowhere to solve a storytelling problem. Garland interprets the phrase literally: Here, that machine is a robot named Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, and that nowhere is where her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), performs his research and experiments. Ava is a heavenly mechanical body of sinewy circuitry topped with a lovely face, reminiscent of a Chris Cunningham creation. Her creator is an alcoholic genius and head of a Google-like search engine called Bluebook which has made him impossibly rich. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is helicoptered in after winning a lottery at work for which the prize is a week at Nathan’s house. Nathan also intends to use Caleb to conduct something of a Turing test on steroids with Ava to determine if she can truly exhibit human behavior. In fact, Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble; it’s an awfully attractive film, appropriately seductive. No doubt it was intended to provoke conversations about the morality inherent in “creating” intelligence—as well as whether it’s cool to have sex with robots or not. —Jonah Flicker


44. East of Eden
Year: 1955
Director: Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the Steinbeck novel of the same name might be most famous for being the film that launched the brief but meteoric career of James Dean. A cheery little Cain and Abel story set in the lettuce-farming country of California’s Salinas Valley, the film garnered intense critical acclaim for Kazan’s masterful use of CinemaScope technology to create a beautiful, moody mise en scene. Critical opinion was divided on Dean, whom some found pointlessly histrionic. Others have pronounced his fiery confrontations with his pious father (Raymond Massey) to be compelling and masterful. Whichever way you see it, there’s strong consensus that this film created the persona of disaffected bad-boy Dean, whose iconic rebelliousness defined the generational divide that widened into the 1960s. —Amy Glynn


43. Nocturama
Year: 2016
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Nocturama trusts its audience—more, even, than its audience may want to be trusted. Throughout, director Betrand Bonello folds timelines, indulges in flashbacks and replays moments from different perspectives, rarely with any warning but hardly without precision or consistency, investigating the comparatively small world of his film from every angle while implying that a much bigger, much more complicated world exists outside of its admittedly limited view. Bonello’s tact offers no explanations; his story follows a gaggle of beautiful Parisian teens, seemingly representing a broad swath of life, participating in a terrorist act, from planning through meticulous execution, and then, in the aftermath of the explosions, to the high-end department store where the teens hide out to watch the City respond. Bonello never allows these kids a monologue or conversation or anecdote to explain why they’ve gone to such extremes—their political understanding is about as sophisticated as that of a college student who’s only recently discovered Noam Chomsky, and even these beliefs they mumble to one another without much dedication. Instead, Nocturama is all surface, all watching: the faces of these innocents as they silently go about their terror, the tension that arises from knowing there is so much obscured behind those faces but also seeing so much so clearly in those faces, and then knowing that we will never know. Because these teens seem fine, even existentially so. They seem middle class, comfortable, unburdened by the wiles of puberty, free to do what they want, be with whom they want, say what they want—and only in the department store, amongst designer clothes and expensive, pointless home goods, do they yearn for more, potentially blowing up Paris not to protest anything, but to beg to be a part of the elite who define it. This is terrorism not against capitalism, but for it. Bonello trusts his audience to know the difference. —Dom Sinacola


42. Apostle
Year: 2018
Director: Gareth Evans
After the first two entries of The Raid made him a monolithic figure among action movie junkies, Apostle functions as the wider world’s introduction to the visceral filmmaking stylings of Welsh director Gareth Evans. Where his first films almost had the aesthetic of a videogame come to life—they’re about as close to a big screen adaptation of Streets of Rage as you’re ever going to find—Apostle might as well represent Evans’ desire to be taken seriously as a visual director and auteur. To do so, he’s explored some well-trodden ground in the form of the rural “cult infiltration movie,” making comparisons to the likes of The Wicker Man (or even Ti West’s The Sacrament) inevitable. However, Apostle forces its way into the year-end conversation of 2018’s best horror cinema through sheer style and verve. Every frame is beautifully composed, from the foreboding arrival of Dan Stevens’ smoldering character at the island cult compound, to the fantastically icky Grand Guignol of the third act, in which viscera flows with hedonistic abandon. Evans knows exactly how long to needle the audience with a slow-burning mystery before letting the blood dams burst; his conclusion both embraces supernatural craziness and uncomfortably realistic human violence. Gone is the precision of combat of The Raid, replaced by a clumsier brand of wanton savagery that is empowered not by honor but by desperate faith. Evans correctly concludes that this form of violence is far more frightening. —Jim Vorel


41. Frances Ha
Year: 2012
Director: Noah Baumbach 
Frances Ha is endearing, kind and, in many ways, Noah Baumbach’s best movie since the one to come before it. One could trace his films, from his debut (Kicking and Screaming) to the one before Frances Ha (Greenberg) and see a slow but increasingly steady focus on the individual, as well as his abandonment of an ironic, sometimes caustic stance against the very characters he writes. It is as if Baumbach could only write a certain type of person—the privileged, socially crippled intellectual with either too much self-awareness or none at all—and for a while it seemed like even the writer himself couldn’t stand to be in the same room with such characters. This anger faded, and what has emerged over the course of the films he’s made with Greta Gerwig (who here plays the titular Frances) is an embrace of both the flaws of his characters, and those as a filmmaker. He has settled down and created a film imbued with love, fun and melancholy. It’s a simple joy to watch. —Joe Peeler


40. The Breakfast Club
Year: 1985
Director: John Hughes
We shouldn’t have to tell you what makes The Breakfast Club an all-time classic. There’s not a single weak link in the film’s ensemble cast, and Molly Ringwald holds her own as Claire, the princess forced to spend her Saturday in detention with a brain, a basket case, a jock and a criminal. She gives a richly layered performance, turning what could easily be a one-dimensional character into someone we pity, empathize with and root for—which, if you haven’t seen the movie, is kind of the whole point. —Bonnie Stiernberg


39. 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


38. Clouds of Sils Maria
Year: 2015
Director: Olivier Assayas
Clouds of Sils Maria is a lyrical catch-all for the many half-notions that accompany getting older—especially if you’re a celebrity. Decay, loss of memory, insecurity, arrogance: Assayas boils these monolithic themes down to a near-pyrrhic partnership between an aging French actress (Juliette Binoche) and her American assistant (Kristen Stewart), following their commingling of generations (and cultural heritages) as they traipse through one fiction after another. With a younger figure of stardom flitting throughout the mix—Chloe Grace Moretz as the undoubtedly talented but disastrous representative of the Internet Age—playing the foil to Binoche’s ideas of relevance, the film rarely adheres to a consistent structure or confident reality. Instead, the core of Clouds of Sils Maria is a single feeling, encompassed within a single image. In the titular clouds, which are only observable at certain times, under certain conditions, there is the intuition that there is so much else in this world to see. And the film aches with this sentiment, that no matter what we accomplish, we will always miss out on something equally worth accomplishing: some other part to play, some other life to live. Such, Assayas claims, is the bitter sweetness of life. —Dom Sinacola


37. Mustang
Year: 2016
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Imagine the unimaginable: One moment you’re out enjoying a beautiful, sunny day with your friends and your sisters, and the next, your grandmother is slapping you silly for having inappropriate contact with boys. Everything else snowballs from there: You’re whisked off to the doctor for a virginity test, your personal possessions are shut up in a cupboard (along with the telephones), the doors are kept locked and contractors come to reinforce the house you live in with your family, turning it into an improvised prison-cum-wife factory for you and your untamed siblings. Such is the stuff of Mustang, the debut film of Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, her neorealist chronicle of femininity bound against its will to draconian gender politics. From start to finish, the film crackles with gelid fury, though Ergüven doesn’t tip the outrage scale into histrionics, because she doesn’t need to. We can sense exactly how pissed off she is behind the lens. —Andy Crump


36. Happy as Lazzaro
Year: 2018
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
It’s very difficult to get into too many details about Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro without spoiling it—which seems a ridiculous thing to say about a film that starts off as a rural Italian take on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, but you’ve got no idea until you’re watching it. Rohrwacher’s The Wonders was a more intimate, personal film that had moments of magic realism peeking through, just barely. Happy as Lazzaro similarly keeps the magic in check (though a scene with whispers in a field will start to invoke Fellini) until it no longer can—and then the magic explodes, blowing up the narrative and sending what’s left in an insanely bold direction. We can only be applaud its daring. If Dostoevsky was re-framing the Christ narrative, Happy as Lazzaro re-frames the very idea of a Christ narrative until it is something else entirely. Here, Christ is a mythic wolf and our kind idiot Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a touched Lazarus; the difference between them is a matter of substance, time and place. Lazzaro’s goodness, like all earthly goodness, is simultaneously transcendent and doomed, but the wolf continues on beyond any mortal coil, against the flow of humanity. Lazzaro tries to follow, perhaps foolishly, perhaps blindly…but happily, nonetheless. —Chad Betz


35. My Happy Family
Year: 2017
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß
It’s a shame Netflix felt like Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s My Happy Family deserved a burial, that the company didn’t bother pushing the film for awards season and neglected to give it a boost in visibility for the average consumer. Because Ekvtimishvili and Groß’s latest collaboration in a long line of collaborations is superb, timely and altogether unexpected in its unwavering grace. Compared to the year’s other films centered on dysfunctional families, whether hammy (I, Tonya) or naturalist (Lady Bird), My Happy Family is a gentle tribute to dignity: Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) is never less than noble in her constant dedication to her family, even as she determines that to preserve her sanity she must move out of the apartment she shares with them and lay down roots in a pad of her own. My Happy Family doesn’t judge Manana—it validates her. It illustrates a woman’s liberation from social and familial expectations, allowing Manana to discover who she is, what she wants and where she’s going without looking down on her. But My Happy Family is a small film with grand artistic ambitions, and both Ekvtimishvili and Groß know that Manana’s bliss has its limit. They know that eventually the matters of her husband and children, plus their extended family, must be reconciled. Still, My Happy Family shows a benevolent kind of restraint by ending on a note of uncertainty, sparing us the lion’s share of that work, its ultimate lingering ambiguity a thing of honorable beauty. —Andy Crump


34. James White
Year: 2015
Director: Josh Mond
Eventually while watching James White, you’ll decide you simply cannot get a bead on its main character. The sooner you do, the better: Like no movie in recent memory, the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond is a small marvel of evenhanded empathy. Played by Christopher Abbott, James White has a restless energy, a self-destructive streak, a bratty sense of entitlement, and a fierce devotion to those he loves. So, what does that make him, exactly? A cautionary tale? Utterly insufferable? A misunderstood romantic? James White never quite decides, which isn’t the same as not having strong opinions about its central figure. Mond has nothing but feelings for White, and they’re compellingly complicated. Loosely based on Mond’s own life, James White spans about five months, but the jaggedness of the telling makes the movie feel like the scenes are simply ripped-out patches in a much larger quilt of a life. There’s a looseness to the film that’s attuned to White’s own twitchy psyche, but Mond constructs his story with care, keeping an eye on its emotional through line. White’s life is in tumult when we first meet him, but we soon get the impression that his life is always fraying—it’s just that, this time, his distant father has died and now that’s become the central focus of his personal whirlwind. White isn’t so much grieving the loss—he hardly knew the man—but, rather, is concerned about his divorced mother Gail (a terrific Cynthia Nixon), who has stage 4 cancer and doesn’t need the additional emotional blow. The second half of James White is given over to Gail’s unalterable condition, and Abbott and Nixon hunker down as their characters travel down a road that only has one final destination. Even then, though, Mond refuses to give in to sentimentality or easy takeaways. To call James White a coming-of-age tale is simplistic—plus, it creates an expectation that its protagonist actually grows in some sort of quantifiable, conventional way. Maybe White will turn over a new leaf later after the credits roll, but it will take more than an 85-minute film for such a change to occur. —Tim Grierson


33. Experimenter
Year: 2015
Director: Michael Almereyda
Watching Experimenter is to realize how little life is in most biopics. Which is odd: Despite being based on a real life, the standard biopic feels freeze-dried, narrative conventions calcifying the subject matter and strangling any spontaneity out of the material. Most such movies carry the stench of rigor mortis, but Experimenter is alive and alert from its first moment. Where other biopics seem to have made up their minds about their famous figures before the opening credits roll, this remarkable study of social psychologist Stanley Milgram remains curious, exploring and questioning his life, career and findings. The man’s work may be more than 50 years old, but a film about his work couldn’t be timelier—partly because of that work’s still-resonant lessons, and partly because writer-director Michael Almereyda has crafted a bracing, daring drama that extrapolates it into every crevice of modernity. Many biopics simplify great lives; Experimenter enriches and enlarges one. —Tim Grierson


32. Graduation
Year: 2017
Director: Cristian Mungiu
The crimes are minor but it’s the misdemeanors that do the most harm in Graduation, an excellent Romanian drama that begins as a father’s hope for his talented teen daughter and morphs into a claustrophobic moral crisis ensnaring several individuals. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu lays out his story with nearly surgical precision, adopting a chilly tone for a movie about the tiny, day-to-day infractions that conspire to corrode society’s foundation. This is the fourth feature from Mungiu, who has proved to be a master of the minor. In his breakout second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the arduous process to secure an abortion was enough to sustain a taut, real-time thriller. In his 2012 follow-up Beyond the Hills, the tense relationship between two childhood friends became a springboard for a drama about religious faith and devotion. Now with Graduation, Mungiu again sees the drama in the everyday, arguing that it’s not the major injustices that are the most nefarious—it’s the small ways we screw over the other guy on a regular basis that keep us so paranoid and distrustful of one another. Rarely has cheating on a test been fraught with such significance. —Tim Grierson


31. Okja
Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chad Betz


30. Private Life
Year: 2018
Director: Tamara Jenkins
A rich film with the confidence to take its time, allowing its characters to unfurl and its themes to grow and develop, Private Life is a quietly remarkable comedy-drama about family, marriage and getting older. To accomplish all that, writer-director Tamara Jenkins uses as her entryway a familiar scenario: a 40-something couple struggling to have a baby. Led by terrific, tricky performances from Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, Private Life keeps shifting and surprising, never offering anything dramatically monumental but speaking precisely about the bonds between people—how they can be threatened but also renewed.

Giamatti and Hahn play Richard and Rachel, who have been married for quite some time, each of them enjoying a satisfying creative life in New York City. But in recent years, they’ve struggled to conceive, a process that no amount of fertility treatments has been able to remedy. Private Life devotes a significant amount of its early running time to showing how couples such as Richard and Rachel undergo IVF, which has its comic moments but is largely depressingly clinical. (Adding to the despair are the long lines of other expectant couples Richard and Rachel see in the waiting rooms sitting alongside them.) But Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, The Savages) uses the couple’s struggles to discuss far more intriguing subject matter. It’s not simply the inability to have a child that eats at these two people. Their failure to conceive hints that they’re not young anymore and, with that, exacerbates the feelings of regret they have about the career decisions they made. Did they focus on their art at the expense of parenthood? Now that the shine is off their early creative success, is their barrenness another indication of their growing irrelevance? Perhaps most pressingly, are they obsessing about having a child because, deep down, they know their marriage has troubles? The inability to conceive bothers Richard, but for Rachel, it’s a deeper wound—one that goes far beyond being deprived of motherhood. Hahn and Jenkins make the woman’s pain palpable, layered and also a bit ineffable, illustrating how people reach middle age not entirely sure how they got there or where they’re headed next. —Tim Grierson


29. L.A. Confidential
Year: 1997
Director: Curtis Hanson
This sumptuous adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel never visits Roman Polanski’s preferred corner of Los Angeles, but it rivals Chinatown in both quality of filmmaking and cynicism of spirit. This film not only announced Hanson as a filmmaker well beyond his previous work (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), but endeared Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to American audiences by giving them their first signature roles. This tabloid version of the City of Angels celebrates all the sex, corruption and other seedy circumstances the superficial city can provide. It offers a string of unforgettable sequences, from Bud White’s Yuletide raid to Exley’s interrogations to the final shootout where the film’s utterly Ellroy perspective on police morality is (quite literally) executed with masterful precision. At the time of its release, L.A. Confidential was praised as a throwback, a smeared portrait of the 1950s embracing the spirit of crime noirs (and even westerns) of the 1970s. That was more than 20 years ago. Here’s hoping some young punk or frustrated journeyman is ready to dust off these storytelling tropes again to produce something this timeless. —Bennett Webber


28. Personal Shopper
Director: Olivier Assayas
The pieces don’t all fit in Personal Shopper, but that’s much of the fun of writer-director Olivier Assayas’s enigmatic tale of Maureen (Kristen Stewart, a wonderfully unfathomable presence), who may be in contact with her dead twin brother. Or maybe she’s being stalked by an unseen assailant. Or maybe it’s both. To attempt to explain the direction Personal Shopper takes is merely to regurgitate plot points that don’t sound like they belong in the same film. But Assayas is working on a deeper, more metaphorical level, abandoning strict narrative cause-and-effect logic to give us fragments of Maureen’s life refracted through conflicting experiences. Nothing happens in this film as a direct result of what came before, which explains why a sudden appearance of suggestive, potentially dangerous text messages could be interpreted as a literal threat, or as some strange cosmic manifestation of other, subtler anxieties. Personal Shopper encourages a sense of play, moving from moody ghost story to tense thriller to (out of the blue) erotic character study. But that genre-hopping (not to mention the movie’s willfully inscrutable design) is Assayas’s way of bringing a lighthearted approach to serious questions about grieving and disillusionment. The juxtaposition isn’t jarring or glib—if anything, Personal Shopper is all the more entrancing because it won’t sit still, never letting us be comfortable in its shifting narrative. —Tim Grierson


27. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Year: 2018
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
As much an anthology of post-bellum adventure stories as it is a retrospective of the many kinds of films the Coen brothers have made—not to mention a scathing bit of fantasy curbed against the stories we’ve used to water down the tragedy of our country’s growth—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs tells six tales of greed, murder, mercy and the harsh mistress of blind chance, the only through line being the bleakness of the horizon America trampled to stake its imperial claim. A musty traveling showman (Liam Neeson) weighs the burden of his limbless performer (Harry Melling) against each night’s measly cash-out; a lone prospector (Tom Waits) patiently divines the vein of gold he refers to respectfully as “Mr. Pocket”; a cocky outlaw (James Franco) swings between the two sides of fate, his whole life leading to a semi-decent punchline; a disparate collection of travelers argue about the vicissitudes of faith while a bounty hunted corpse sits atop their carriage, all five heading towards some ambiguous symbolism; and the titular mellifluous gunslinger finally meets his match, making for one of the strangest sights the Coens have ever conjured. With the downhome nihilism of No Country for Old Men and Fargo, the mythological whimsy of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the back-breaking metaphysical weight of A Serious Man or the cutting capers of Raising Arizona, the whole of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—shot as a series of awe-inspiring vistas by DP Bruno Delbonnel punctuated by the porous mugs of the pioneers who populate them—sings to an unparalleled canon of genres and tones. That its centerpiece is a sweet romance, between a quiet young woman (Zoe Kazan) and a noble cowboy (Bill Heck) leading her wagon train along the Oregon Trail, proves that the Coens still have beautiful surprises in store more than three decades deep into their career-long odyssey of American life. —Dom Sinacola


26. She’s Gotta Have It
Year: 1986
Director: Spike Lee 
An explosively frank feature debut that immediately announced Lee’s brave, fresh new voice in American cinema, She’s Gotta Have It, shot like a documentary, is a levelheaded exploration of a young black woman named Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) trying to decide between her three male lovers, while also flirting with her apparent bisexuality, in order to, first and foremost, figure out what makes her happy. What’s refreshing about the film is that Lee always brings up the possibility that “none of the above” is a perfectly viable answer for both Nola and for single women—a game changer in 1986. The DIY indie grainy black-and-white cinematography boosts the film’s in-your-face realism. —Oktay Ege Kozak


25. Punch-Drunk Love
Year: 2002
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
It may be hard to recall, but there was once a time when the world believed in Adam Sandler—and we have P.T. Anderson to thank for such a glimpse of hope. Compared to the scope of There Will Be Blood, or the melancholy of Boogie Nights, or the inexorable fascination at the heart of The Master, Punch-Drunk Love—a breath of fresh, Technicolor air after the weight of Magnolia—comes off like something of a lark for Anderson, setting the stage for the kind of incisive comic chops the director would later epitomize with Inherent Vice. But far from a bit of fluff or a reactionary stab at a larger audience, Punch-Drunk Love is what happens when a director with so much untapped potential just sort of throws shit at the wall to see what sticks. A simple love story between a squirmy milquetoast (Sandler) and the woman (Emily Watson) who yanks him from his stark blue shell, the film is part musical, part silent film and all surreal comedy. That this is Sandler’s best role is hardly up for debate; that this may be Jon Brion’s best soundtrack is something we can talk about later. That the rest of the film, which in any other director’s hands would be a total mess, feels so exquisitely felt is almost … magical. And that? That’s that, Mattress Man. —Dom Sinacola


24. Se7en
Year: 1995
Director: David Fincher 
It’s hard to think of a ’90s movie that did more short-term damage to the length of your fingernails than David Fincher’s Se7en. Sticking close to detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and almost-retired William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) on the trail of John Doe, a murderer who plans his kills around the seven deadly sins, the film allows us to watch Somerset teach a still-naive Mills valuable life lessons around the case, which has morally charged outcomes aimed at such victims as a gluttonous man and a greedy attorney. For all the disturbing crime scenes considered, Se7en’s never as unpredictable or emotionally draining as in its infamous finale, in which Mills and Somerset discover “what’s in the box” after capturing their man. —Tyler Kane


23. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Year: 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
In what might be Charlie Kaufman’s finest script, boy meets girl, unaware that they might be living out a doomed eternal recurrence. A brain-wipe firm allows its clients to erase choice people or events from their memory. Turns out, Joel (a repressed Jim Carrey) and Clementine (a vibrant Kate Winslet) have done this before. Technology is the Great Enabler and, perhaps, a secret destroyer—except that the science fiction aspect of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just an auxiliary to the core relational dynamic. Stripped of fantasy, the film’s theme is no Luddite cautionary tale but rather just a melancholy observation of human relationships. This is how it’s always been. We’re quite accomplished at failing each other…and ourselves.

There’s nothing so condemnatory as that statement in Eternal Sunshine, a film that watches and weeps at a whimsical circus breaking down. It immerses us in Joel’s mind, Gondry’s in-camera effects and nearly experimental editing taking us tumbling through the increasingly tragic process of removing Clementine. When I first saw this film in the theater in 2004, I swore I would never do the thing that Joel does to try to heal himself, but I’ve lived some life since then and now I’m not sure I can say the same. I’ve deleted phone numbers and pictures on Facebook, had about a month where I was vigilantly untagging myself; I’m sometimes scared to even look at my feed. It doesn’t matter what the social environment is, humans will use whatever’s available to mitigate pain, especially emotional pain. But sometimes we need the thing we want to be rid of; there’s no actualization without vulnerability, risk, and, inevitably, hurt. The final shot of Eternal Sunshine lingers in my memory, always on loop: Joel and Clementine, stumbling in play away from the camera, on a snowy beach in Montauk. It seems like an extrapolation of the final shot of The 400 Blows: “Stuck in stasis” has become “stuck in repeat.” And, yet, in that shot is acceptance, possibly even hope. There are no spotless minds, but perhaps some still can shine. —Chad Betz


22. Her
Year: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze 
Spike Jonze’s colossal talent was far too great to remain trapped in MTV’s orbit; that became immediately clear when his breakout feature-length debut, Being John Malkovich, earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. Following that minor postmodern masterpiece, he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman continued their journey into solipsism with the hilariously unhinged Adaptation. As challenging, yet fun and accessible as Kaufman’s screenplays are, Jonze’s Her answers any lingering questions of whether those two movies’ (well-deserved) acclaim sprang solely from the power of Kaufman’s words. Retaining the sweetest bits of the empathetically quirky characters, psycho-sexuality and hard-wrung pathos of Malkovich, Her successfully realizes a tremendously difficult stunt in filmmaking: a beautifully mature, penetrating romance dressed in sci-fi clothes. Eye-popping sets and cinematography, as well as clever dialogue delivered by a subtly powerful Joaquin Phoenix, make Jonze’s latest feature one of the best films of 2013. It also serves as confirmation that—much like Her—the director is the complete package. —Scott Wold


21. The Lobster
Year: 2015
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to international break-out Dogtooth ditches that film’s knotted familial pathology, but refuses to be any less insular. Instead, it expands, even bloats, Dogtooth’s logic as far as it’ll stretch. I know: That doesn’t make much sense, but stay with me—which is exactly how Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou assume the audience will approach The Lobster, starting with the familiar, leading man visage of Colin Farrell, gone full dad-bod for a role that is debatably the actor’s best example for his still unheralded genius. With a remarkable dearth of charm, Farrell inhabits David, a man who, upon learning that his wife has cheated on him and so must end their relationship, is legally required to check in to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new mate, lest he be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David easily settles upon the titular namesake, the lobster, which he explains he picks because of their seemingly-immortal lifespans, the creatures like human ears growing and growing without end until their supposed deaths. At the hotel, David tries his best to warm to a beautifully soul-less woman, knowing his remaining days are numbered, but the depths to which she subjects his resolve eventually encourages him to plan an escape, through which he matriculates into an off-the-grid conglomerate of single folk, led by Léa Seydoux. There, of course, against all rules he has a meet-cute with another outsider (Rachel Weisz) involving elaborately designed sign language (a metaphor maybe, like much in Lanthimos’s world, for the odd ritual of dating), and they fall in love. The world of The Lobster isn’t a dystopian future, more like a sort of mundane, suburban Everywhere in an allegorical alternate universe. Regardless, Lanthimos and Filippou find no pleasure in explaining the foundations of their film, busier building an absurdly funny edifice over which they can drape the tension and anxieties of modern romance. In that sense, The Lobster is an oddly feminist film, obsessed with time and how much pressure that puts on people, especially women, to root down and find someone, no matter the cost. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a significant other concerned about the increasing dangers of becoming pregnant in one’s late 30s, then The Lobster—and its ambiguous but no less arresting final shot—will strike uncomfortably close to the home you’re told you should have by now but probably can’t afford. —Dom Sinacola



20. Billy Elliot
Year: 2000
Director: Stephen Daldry
On the surface, Billy Elliot appears to be the archetypal tale of an outsider who is driven to follow his own path at all costs, but the story of a boy (Jamie Bell) from depressed, working-class England who mortifyingly discovers that ballet is his life’s ambition, is saved from cliché by Stephen Daldry’s slightly quirky, at times witty, always deeply sympathetic portrayal of the pain of finding one’s voice in adolescence. The tearjerker caused such an impact worldwide, it was made into a Tony award-winning musical scored by none other than Elton John. —Emily Riemer


19. Roma
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón’s film tells many stories, but at the center of the frame is the story of his childhood maid, Libo, translated into Roma as Cleo and played by acting novice Yalitza Aparicio, who auditioned for the film almost on accident. Casting her seems a neo-realist move for authenticity, and for the most part it plays out like that: Cleo is quiet, reserved and submissive when in her servant role, somewhat more expressive when interacting with her fellow servants or with her aloof lover—but those revealing moments are fleeting. The film is composed primarily of wide shots, so each medium frame of Cleo’s face is its own gift wherein you go looking for an interior life that you—like Cuarón, knowingly—can’t quite reach. Still, Roma has some weighty demands on Cleo in its final act, and Aparicio’s performance extends, reaching without ever breaking. Tasked with playing both a real woman and a figure of memory, someone disenfranchised but also cherished (to a certain limit) by the family she served, Aparicio finds a perfect balance. One scene demonstrates just that: A multitude of others flounder as Cleo’s spirit points straight up and unwavering. The clarity of her love and kindness holds her, and the many stories surrounding her, in place. —Chad Betz


18. Doctor Zhivago
Year: 1965
Director: David Lean
In the second half of the 20th Century, British filmmaker David Lean had an impressive run of epic pictures from, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to his final film A Passage to India (1984). In the middle of that, he filmed an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel about the affair of a married Russian physician and the wife of a political activist during the Bolshevik Revolution, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. —Josh Jackson


17. Y Tu Mamá También
Year: 2001
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
A road trip along the coast of Mexico turns out to be one of sexual discovery for two punk teenagers (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna), as well as a bittersweet final adventure for their older female companion (Maribel Verdu), who struggles with a life full of regret and roads not yet traveled. Y Tu Mamá También is at times playful and seductive, but slowly reveals itself to be a substantive dual story involving both coming-of-age and coming-to-terms. —Jeremy Medina


16. The Stranger
Year: 1946
Director: Orson Welles 
Orson Welles’ third film follows a UN War Crimes Commission agent, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), who’s hunting down fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Kindler has moved to a small New England town and married the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, teaches at a prep school, essentially erasing every possible trace of his former identity, save one: a longtime obsession with clocks. As Wilson finds more and more proof of Kindler’s identity, Kindler goes to greater and greater lengths to conceal it. Though John Huston was originally supposed to direct The Stranger, Welles got the job because of an ill-timed military tour that took Huston (literally and figuratively) out of the picture. Because he hadn’t directed a film in four years, Welles was so eager for the work he took a contract stipulating that if he went over budget he’d be paying the studio out of pocket. In turn, it’s possible that Welles’ inventiveness was partially forged by the constraints under which he found himself working on all of his early films. Dogged by cut-happy producers (it’s not even clear how much footage was removed but Welles was relieved of the first 16 pages of his script before principal photography even started) and contrarian casting/location choices—Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the investigator, but the studio cast Robinson; likewise he got a budget-driven “no” on filming the prep school scenes at The Todd School in Illinois, his own alma mater—Welles’ desire to personalize this film despite so many interventions were probably fundamental to the development of The Stranger’s nightmare-like tone. Perhaps most striking is Welles’ use of actual footage from concentration camps, which are still shocking today but exceedingly potent in the 1940s when large numbers of Americans still did not understand that the camps really existed. In typical Welles-versus-studio fashion, the producers backed out at the last minute on the promise of a four-picture deal to follow this film. They had become convinced it would run at a loss and Welles was incapable of directing a mainstream hit movie. As it turned out, it was Welles’ only significant box office success, and remains a canonized film noir. —Amy Glynn


15. Pan’s Labyrinth
Year: 2006
Director: Guillermo del Toro 
One of the most imaginative films of the 21st century, Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish fable is a triumph of storytelling and nothing short of a work of art. Simultaneously a war saga and a fairy tale, it traces the journey of a young girl and her scavenger hunt through another world to save her mother’s life, set in the midst of the Spanish civil war. Pan’s Labyrinth oozes atmosphere with its stunning cinematography and production values, all guided by del Toro’s keen artistic vision. With this out-and-out masterpiece, del Toro cemented his position as one of this generation’s most exciting and talented visionaries. —Jeremy Medina


14. Heat
Year: 1995
Director: Michael Mann
Those first watching Michael Mann’s L.A. crime masterpiece should view it with a clean slate—and from then on dissect it in great detail, with all of its separate elements pulled apart to determine how they eventually came together to complete such an intricately constructed work of storytelling. Anything in between would seldom do this sprawling (yet taut) epic justice. Exploring the concept of the cop and the robber on opposite sides of the same coin is a premise that pretty much every crime drama has delved into in one way or another, yet Mann manages to create the dichotomy’s epitome. By implementing, with surgical precision, an impressively pure vision of a grand, boastful and larger-than-life crime story, Mann delivers a culmination of his previously tight, deliberately stylized work (namely, Thief and Manhunter). With its hauntingly cold cinematography, moody score, terrific performances by a slew of legendary stars and character actors (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer) and—let’s not forget—the mother of all cinematic shoot-outs in its center, it more than likely represents the peak of Mann’s ever-shifting career. —Oktay Ege Kozak


13. Carol
Year: 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
In Todd Haynes’ Carol, Therese’s (Rooney Mara) heart is encased and inaccessible—as if only to be glimpsed through the glass of a telephone booth or through the lens of her camera—until one day a woman named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who, from across the room, transforms Therese’s way of seeing with a little gesture of her head and a flirtatious, “I like the hat,” finally unearths it. Soon, Carol and Therese begin to dissolve into one another, to the music of “You Belong to Me,” no less. Bookended by a hand on shoulder, Therese continues to conceive of what her desire means, and the two dizzyingly create their own language of connection, fueled by Haynes’ acute eye, Ed Lachman’s grainy, Saul Leiter-reminiscent cinematography and the sounds of Carter Burwell’s propulsive score. —Kyle Turner


12. Certain Women
Year: 2016
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Silence speaks volumes in Kelly Reichardt’s films. In works like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, she has explored how people spend most of their day thinking, not talking, and that perhaps those quiet moments can be as revealing of character as anything that comes out of their mouths. (And, let’s not forget, even when we speak, we’re rarely saying precisely what we mean.) Reichardt’s less-is-so-much-more approach is again on display beautifully in Certain Women, a series of three barely interconnected stories in which empty spaces are pregnant with meaning and resonance. In the first vignette, a vaguely unsatisfied lawyer named Laura (Laura Dern) must counsel an aggrieved client (Jared Harris) who’s unhappy with the amount of money he’s received in a lawsuit settlement. In the second, Gina (Michelle Williams), a focused wife and mother, is on the search for some limestone for the house she and her disengaged husband (James Le Gros) are building. And finally, a lonely cattle rancher named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) stumbles into a nighttime legal class taught by an out-of-towner (Kristen Stewart), striking up a friendship with the disenfranchised woman. As usual with her films, Certain Women is so delicately but smartly constructed that ecstatic reviews may give people the wrong idea about its greatness. It’s wonderful not because it’s some towering, imposing colossus, but because every small moment feels thoughtfully considered, fully lived-in. Certain Women seeps into the skin and expands in the mind. It leaves you shaken—even though nothing seemingly momentous has happened. Reichardt treats cinema as a kind of meditation, which probably explains why her movies almost never feature traditional endings. Lives are a process, not necessarily a destination, and Reichardt honors her characters’ journey by letting it ebb and flow as it pleases. Like so many of her films, Certain Women is muted and restorative. Suddenly, the real world feels too loud. —Tim Grierson


11. The Graduate
Year: 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
In the undisputed king of movies for those headed out into the real world, a hyper-accomplished recent grad (Dustin Hoffman) panics at the prospect of his future and falls into an affair with the much older wife of his father’s business partner (Anne Bancroft). The Graduate helped define a generation long since embalmed by history, but its sense of longing—for an alternative, for anything else—hasn’t aged one bit. —Jeffrey Bloomer


10. Under the Skin
Year: 2013
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Under the Skin is unified in purpose and in drive. It is a biting examination of sexual politics and a dissertation on the bodies we inhabit—how those bodies create a paradigm of ownership. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien avatar, the predator, the cipher whose weakness is her awakening humanity. When she looks in a mirror, lost in a gaze at her own body, it’s a reminder to us to find some remove from our weary familiarity with ourselves, to think, “Golly, what strange things we are.” The film’s tragic conclusion is an assertion that we achieve some positive ideal of what it is to be human when we accept a state of vulnerability, when we forsake the power position in our sexual communication. When we allow for the reality of our frailty, we can care for the frailty in all around us—and this is a very dangerous thing to do. Especially in a world riddled with corruption and malice that seeks to press its advantage. Under the Skin shows us these truths with images that are impossibly beautiful, terrifying and ultimately haunting. There is no exposition, only voids which suspended shells of victims float in, laser sharp lights piercing darkness, menacingly stoic bikers, snowflakes falling into lenses. There is a scene on a beach that plays out like a Bergman or Haneke set-piece and is just as heartbreaking as that would entail. Under the Skin is a soul-crushing work and yet, somehow, the film reiterates that we must continue working towards finding our souls. An artful cascade of multiple exposures of random people, about midway through the film, would seem to symbolize the birth of empathy in Johansson’s femme fatale, and while this is the beginning of the end for her, it can’t help but resonate in Under the Skin with all the radiance of beatitude. These are scenes, statements, questions that are only possible within the framework that the film’s science fiction aspect provides, for these are not the thought processes bound by what is real, but what could be. —Chad Betz


9. Jaws
Year: 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg 
Is Jaws a horror film? For those who worry that it’s “not safe to go back in the water,” then most certainly it is. But regardless of how you’d classify it, there’s no denying that Jaws is anything but brilliant, one of Spielberg’s great populist triumphs, alongside the likes of Jurassic Park and E.T., but leaner and less polished than either, which works in its favor. Much has been made over the years of how Jaws benefits from the technical issues that plagued its making—the story originally called for more scenes featuring the mechanical shark “Bruce,” but the constantly malfunctioning animatronic creature forced the director to cut back, which ended up maximizing each appearance’s impact. The first time that Brody (Roy Scheider) sees the literal “jaws” of the beast while absentmindedly throwing chum into the water is one of cinema’s great, scream-inducing moments, and it’s a shock that has literally never been matched in any other shark movie since. Likewise, Quint’s (Robert Shaw) mad but futile scramble to avoid those gnashing teeth is the kind of thing that created its very own sub-genre of children’s nightmares. Ultimately, Jaws is a great film via memorable characters, but it’s it’s an iconic scary film through its perfect execution. —Jim Vorel


8. City of God
Year: 2003
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Originally released in January 2003 to critical praise, Fernando Meirelles’ masterful yet brutal City of God receded from view until Miramax re-released it for Oscar consideration. And while it failed to even garner a foreign-language-film nomination that year, the alternately intense and intimate depiction of Rio’s desperate favelas has only grown in stature and power. Based on the novel by Paulo Lins (and adapted by Bráulio Mantovani), Meirelles turned an unflinching eye on a world forgotten by the wealthy and powerful, ignored by police and indifferent to law and order. City of God set the template for other shocking urban films to follow (not to mention a revival of “favela funk” by music-marauders like Diplo and M.I.A.), but whereas other cinematic studies like Gomorrah (about modern Sicily) and the documentary Dancing with the Devil wallow in such viciousness, this film plunges deeper, grips harder, and yet always allows glints of humanity into such darkness. City of God’s harrowing depiction of daily violence in the favelas exemplifies in shocking detail the Hobbesian view of life as “nasty, brutish and short,” but the film never casts judgment. While chaos and bloodshed rule the world of protagonist Rocket and those of his generation—psychotic druglord Li’l Zé, groovy playboy Benny and solemn Knockout Ned (singer Seu Jorge, in his breakout role)—City of God elucidates an underlying symmetry, exhibiting if not poetic justice, then the street version of the same. —Andy Beta


7. No Country For Old Men
Year: 2007
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
What is it about the Coen Brothers’ inconsolable No Country for Old Men that still chills the blood, even under the South Texas sun? No doubt its inscrutability plays a role: Is it a Western, a noir or a morality play? And the Academy Award-winning performance by Javier Bardem disturbs because he himself remains a mystery: Is Anton Chigurh a merciless hitman or the Angel of Death? The story of a drug deal gone wrong soon reveals its true theme—the futility of being good and just in the face of abject evil—but the Coens also meditate on the faltering of the physical body. “Age’ll flatten a man,” Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell esteems, and for this Texan, the evocation of my childhood landscape—right down to the tiniest detail—means that the specter of Chigurh will haunt not only the end of my life but stomp through its earliest remembrances as well. —Andy Beta


6. Boyhood
Year: 2014
Director: Richard Linklater 
Of all the achievements in Richard Linklater’s career, perhaps what he will be best remembered for is his depiction of time. Dazed and Confused chronicled teenage life with precision, but his Before trilogy showed how the passage of time shapes and changes people in ways that they can’t see, precisely because they’re on the inside, lacking the necessary perspective easily available to us on the outside. Now with Linklater’s new movie, Boyhood, time is examined in a new, incredibly moving way. As is Linklater’s custom, Boyhood is profound in such a casual way that its weighty themes feel nonchalant, effortless. This movie might make you cry for reasons you can’t quite articulate. You won’t be alone in feeling that way. Because of the ambition of the project and the amount of years it covers, Boyhood might initially seem underwhelming. By design, Mason’s life isn’t particularly momentous, and there are no major revelations or twists. Instead, everything that happens is a matter of gradation—say, for example, how Mason begins to develop an interest in art or how his mother’s partners start to repeat similar patterns of behavior. These moments aren’t commented on—they’re simply observed—and one of Boyhood’s great attributes is its generous spirit. Linklater, who also wrote the script, doesn’t care about indulging in soap-opera melodrama to elevate the drama because he’s too busy being jazzed by the casual flow of life. There’s enough going on with most people that he doesn’t need to invent incidents. Without even necessarily intending it, Linklater in Boyhood has fashioned a rather lovely vision of modern America, and it’s telling that Mason’s story starts a year after 9/11. In a sense, the world of Boyhood is the world the rest of us have had to negotiate right along with him. By the time Boyhood ends, no grand resolutions have occurred. Mason will keep living his life, and so will we. But by observing the everyday with such grace, Linklater allows us the opportunity to do the same. There are few better gifts a filmmaker can give his audience. —Tim Grierson


5. Schindler’s List
Year: 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg 
Schindler’s List’s may be a humorless Academy Awards punchline at this point, but rewatch Spielberg’s epic historical drama on its own merits, and witness its greatness on par with some of the best works by Spielberg’s heroes, like David Lean. Spielberg seemingly gives his all to the story of a selfish businessman (Liam Neeson kicks surprisingly little Nazi ass here) gradually coming to terms with the inhuman atrocities of the Holocaust, putting his life on the line to save as many Jews as he can. Spielberg’s frequent DP, Janusz Kaminski (see also: Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The BFG, Minority Report, Munich, A.I., Tintin, Amistad, War of the Worlds, Crystal Skull, Lost World, The Post, and, of course, Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One) finds untold depth in black and white, working with Spielberg for the first time, from elegant shots borrowed from Hollywood’s Golden Age, to modern handheld camera work that captures the immediacy of the tragedy. —Oktay Ege Kozak


4. The Other Side of the Wind
Year: 2018
Director: Orson Welles 
As gaudy and inexplicable as its title, The Other Side of the Wind nonetheless sings with the force of its movement whistling past its constraints. The wind blows: Orson Welles channels it through his studio-inflicted/self-inflicted torpor, in that process finding an organic melody—or rather, jazz. The making-of documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, released by Netflix to go with this film—the streaming giant’s finest moment—shows Welles, enormous and half-baked, describing what he calls “divine accidents.” These accidents were responsible for some of his oeuvre’s best details (wherein God resides), like the breaking of the egg in Touch of Evil; they were something he aimed to chase after (like chasing the wind) with this, his final project, released several decades after its shooting as Netflix opened their coffers to open the coffin in which the raw footage was locked. His former partners on the shoot, Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall, make good on their old oath to their master to complete the film for him, and in finding the spirit of the thing, deliver us a masterpiece we barely deserve. A divine accident.

John Huston plays John Huston as Jake Hannaford who is also Orson Welles, trying to finish The Other Side of the Wind much like Welles tried to finish The Other Side of the Wind, over the course of years with no real budget and by the seats-of-everyone’s-pants. In contrast, the film’s scenario is set up over the course of one evening and night, Hannaford surrounded by “disciples” and peers who are invited to a party to screen some of the footage of what the director hopes will be his greatest masterpiece, in what Welles hoped would be his. The film within the film is a riff on art film, with perhaps the strongest winks at Michelangelo Antonioni and Zabriskie Point. Life imitates art: Hannaford’s house is just around the rock corner from the one Zabriskie blew to bits. Aptly, that house is the setting for most of the film about Hannaford, in theory constructed from found footage from the cineaste paparazzi. The density is dizzying, the intellect fierce. In terms of Welles’ filmography, it’s like the last act of Citizen Kane felt up by Touch of Evil, then stripped and gutted by the meta-punk of F for Fake. No art exists in a vacuum, but The Other Side of the Wind, more than most, bleeds its own context. It is about Orson Welles, showing himself. Killing himself. —Chad Betz


3. The Silence of the Lambs
Year: 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
The camera hugs her face, maybe trying to protect her, though she needs no protection, and maybe just trying to see into her, to see what she sees, to understand why seeing what she sees is so important. Not even 30, Jodie Foster looks so much younger, surrounded in The Silence of the Lambs by men who tower over her, staring at her, flummoxed by her, perhaps wanting to protect her too, but more likely, more ironically, intimidated by a world that would allow such a fragile creature agency, that would let her freely wander the domain of monsters. As Clarice Starling, FBI agent-in-training, Foster holds her performance in suspension, an innocent who’s seen more than any of us could ever imagine, and a warrior who seems unsure of her prowess. That Jonathan Demme—a director who came up under the tutelage of Roger Corman; a journeyman capable of helming the greatest concert film ever made (Stop Making Sense) as adroitly as a screwball thriller/rom-com (Something Wild), adopting then immediately shedding genres at whim—corners Starling within the confines of a “Woman in Peril,” only to watch her shrug off every label thrown at her, is a testament to The Silence of the Lambs as a feminist masterpiece, not because it so thoroughly inhabits a female point of view, but because its violence and fear is clearly the stuff of masculine toxicity. Demme’s film is only the second to adapt Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector novels to the screen (the first being Michael Mann’s hyper-stylized Manhunter, a brutal dream unto itself), but it’s the first to draw undeniable lines between the way men see Clarice Starling and the way that serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) projects his neuroses onto his victims.

Harris obviously has a fascination with the idea of “seeing” and how that manifests maliciously in those whose self-perception is already mangled by traumatic experiences, but Demme’s film is the only iteration of Harris’s stories which links seeing to transformation to one’s need to consume, all pursued through a gendered lens, represented by the seemingly omniscient perspective of Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), a borderline asexual cannibal who literally consumes those over whom he holds court. Buffalo Bill is a monster, and so is Lector, but the difference is that Lector does not attempt to possess Clarice Starling, though he sees her, because he is past transformation, is in control of that which he consumes. Buffalo Bill isn’t, because as a man he believes that by consuming femininity he can become it, too stupid and too self-absorbed to realize that to consume it is to delete that femininity—to admit that the world is a dangerous, predatory place, and that to protect a woman is only a matter of admitting that the World of Men is a weak and evil failure of the very ideals it strives to preserve. —Dom Sinacola


2. The Third Man
Year: 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Vienna has rarely looked more richly cinematic than it does in Carol Reed’s noir touchstone, with Robert Krasker’s expressionistic camerawork capturing the feel of a city—of the mind of a man perceiving it—distorted. Joseph Cotten’s Western writer Holly Martins arrives in that chiaroscuro city after hearing about a job from his friend, Harry. Holly is promptly shocked to discover that Harry was killed in a car accident but, suspicious of the shady details, begins to investigate his friend’s death. This all of course builds to both a bravura performance from Orson Welles on a Ferris wheel and an iconic, thrilling final-act foot chase through glistening stone sewer corridors. —Mark Rozeman


1. Apocalypse Now
Year: 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Let’s invoke Truffaut, because his spirit feels as relevant to a discussion of Francis Ford Coppola’s baleful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as to a discussion of a war film like Paths of Glory, and to considering war films in general. Maybe, if we take Truffaut at his word, Apocalypse Now can’t help but endorse war merely through the act of recreating it as art. Maybe that doesn’t stop the film from conveying Coppola’s driving theses: War turns men into monsters, leads them on a descent into a primal, lawless state of mind, and war is itself hell, an ominous phrase now made into cliché by dint of gross overuse between 1979 and today. If the film innately sanctions war by depiction, it does not sanction war’s impact on the humanity of its participants. In fact, Apocalypse Now remains one of the most profound illustrations of the corrosive effect nation-sanctioned violence has on a person’s spirit and psyche. It’s cute that in 40 years later we’re OK with quoting this movie in gratingly awful AT&T commercials, or repurposing its period backdrop for the sake of making King Kong happen for contemporary audiences for a second time, but there’s nothing cute, or even all that quotable, about it. Apocalypse Now sears, sickens and scars, branding itself in our memories as only the grimmest displays of human depravity truly can. —Andy Crump

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