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The Best Movies on Amazon Prime Right Now

Movies Lists Amazon Prime
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Amazon Prime  is an unheralded streaming treasure trove of some of the best movies to come out in the past couple years, though good picks can feel nearly impossible to cull from the sometimes overwhelming glut of weirdly terrible titles buried in Prime’s nether regions. Take, for example, our discovery of just how deep Amazon Prime’s stash of martial arts classics goes, with more than a handful of our top picks for the 100 best martial arts movies of all time. Same goes for their collection of Bollywood films. Who can keep track of any of this stuff?

Well, we can. Or, at least, we try (especially considering that Prime seems to trade titles with Netflix on a weekly basis). Amazon Prime hosts (at least) 12 of our top 100 movies of 2010s, such as The Handmaiden, Zama and First Reformed, not to mention some lesser-known picks, like Bisbee ’17 and Oscar-nominated Hale County This Morning, This Evening and weirdo period piece, Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. Also recently added: Transit, which, with Climax, Under the Silver Lake and High Life, makes up some of our favorite films of the year so far. Amazon Prime continues to prove it has an eclectic collection of stuff you won’t be able to find anywhere else.

Here are the 50 best movies available to stream with Amazon Prime right now:

50. Cold War
Year: 2018
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War gets especially personal, building a bittersweet romance over the course of the 1950s, a love that first ignites, then smolders, between two people as their lives intersect through the decade. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a musical director touring rural Poland, and young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious enigma posing as a village girl. Her voice bewitches everyone in earshot, Wiktor most of all, and he is captivated by her talent and beauty. Turns out, Wiktor is Pawlikowski’s father, Zula his mother, or at least versions of them. Cold War doesn’t trace the precise steps Mom and Dad took through the title period—the discontent felt between Russia, its foreign allies and its neighboring states, the resultant tension and turmoil that permeated Europe—but he dedicates the film in their memory nonetheless. This is Pawlikowski’s monument to his parents and to an era. In the camera’s eye, guided by cinematographer Lukasz Zal (collaborating with Pawlikowski anew after 2014’s Ida), time and heritage are inextricably linked to each other. Ennui and the search for reprieve from oppressive institutions weigh down the 1950s, interrupted on brief occasion by bursts of joy expressed through dance, music, culture writ large and lovemaking. All of the things that make life worth living, in other words. Wiktor and Zula aren’t alone in their pursuit of better days: Everyone, whether fleshed out or left to mingle in the movie’s margins, is seeking more for themselves. Pawlikowski leaves it to the viewer to determine for themselves the fate of his Cold War proxy parents, and to glean purpose from the film’s gaps in time, its reticence, and even its black-and-white palette. Married with the Academy ratio, the color scheme makes the film feel classic, but Pawlikowski’s desire to plumb his past makes it timeless. —Andy Crump


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


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


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


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


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


44. Thunder Road
Year: 2018
Director: Jim Cummings
As a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown—finally broken by the recent death of his mom—Officer Jim Arnaud can’t quite keep his shit together any longer. As played by writer-director Jim Cummings, he’s not only a man untethered, he’s a man flummoxed by the sheer inexplicability of human existence, far from equipped, as we all aren’t, to face whatever conflagration of cosmic coincidences that have conspired to ruin him—to make his ex-wife such an asshole, his daughter so aloof, his mother so dead. Cummings is an exceedingly likable presence, and Jim Arnaud is, for lack of a better descriptor, a good person, but Thunder Road is about how being a good person hardly matters when the hidden rhythms and equations of the quotidian do nothing to make life fair for those who seemingly play by its rules. Throughout, Cummings directs himself with a pastiche of tones, sometimes uncomfortably intimate, even woozy, sometimes frozen at a distance, bearing witness, like a pitying Wes Anderson, to the fearful symmetry of this poor man’s life. All of it is funny, all of it acutely painful. Meanwhile, Arnaud carries an intensely beleaguered good nature about his misfortune, willing to challenge everything unfair in his life if only he knew how, stymied to the point of apoplexy. No other actor this year could best summarize this year with an unintelligible stammer, his words not quite able to catch up with his brain, but only because he has no words, because his brain can’t quite catch up with the purposelessness of all the mundane shit he’s got to suffer. —Dom Sinacola


43. Under the Silver Lake
Year: 2019
Director: David Robert Mitchell
There are red herrings, unkempt structures and plot threads that go nowhere in David Robert Mitchell’s quasi-slacker noir Under the Silver Lake—its “shortcomings,” in terms of conventional taste, don’t really matter. Rather, like the best pulpy “mysteries,” Under the Silver Lake knows what actually matters most: thrusting its audience into the delirious eyes of the protagonist. In this case, that’s old-movie- and vintage-game-addled Sam (Andrew Garfield), who stumbles into a quest to both find the hot neighbor (Riley Keough) with whom he’s infatuated and unearth a conspiracy that lurks beneath the entirety of LA. Mitchell pulls us by the hand down a rabbit hole of Sam’s making.

Strangest about the followup to the director’s critical hit It Follows is that it walks the line between being profoundly stupid and extremely acute. It is content to follow the logic of someone very stoned (perhaps even further than something like Inherent Vice did), where paths in the maze end abruptly, tantalizingly teasing, but Mitchell also seems to know the weirdest parts of Hollywood and its spell-like legacy, making each step in Sam’s odyssey clear and (internally) logical. As we’re plunged deeper into the weed-laced mind of its ever-broke lead and his adolescent attitude towards women and cultural objects (and women as cultural objects), Under the Silver Lake reveals itself to be a film about the ways in which nostalgia perverts the present and rots perspective. —Kyle Turner


42. Climax
Year: 2019
Director: Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé has been so openly confrontational and provocative for so long that it’s easy to forget just how powerful a filmmaker he can be. He is deliberately repulsive, sometimes to the detriment of his own films; I don’t care how structurally inventive Irreversible is, I am never, ever sitting through that goddamned movie again. But there is an undeniable hypnotic fervor to his movies, from the sordid (but also sort of lovely) kink of Love to the elliptical madness of Enter the Void. The immediate thrill of Climax, Noé’s newest and unquestionably best film, is how, for the first time, you see him letting go a little bit, releasing some of his notorious control, letting his films and (most important) his characters breathe a little bit—to be themselves. It opens with home-camera footage—the film takes place in 1996, for reasons that I’d probably understand a lot better if I were French—of a series of dancers, readying for a troupe tour of the United States, answering questions about their hopes and dreams, their desires, their fears, their basic motivations. It’s a slick, kind of cheap, but still incredibly effective way for Noé to give us just enough information about these dancers that we feel for them when they go through whatever Noé is about to put them through. (And you know he’s going to put them through something.) But it’s what comes next that’s most exciting: during rehearsal, a glorious dance routine featuring the entire crew, both meticulously choreographed and thrillingly improvised, expressing themselves the best way they know how. Noé’s camera swirls around in one long take, and the effect is breathtaking: It is as alive and electric as anything Noé’s ever done. Now you’re really invested in this crew…which, as Noé’s counting on, was your first mistake. It turns out, someone has spiked the sangria for the post-rehearsal part with LSD, and, apparently, a lot of it. Even if he puts all these people through the ringer—and oh, does he!—there is inspiration here: For the first time, it feels like the pain he’s putting everybody through is something he feels, too. It’s a most encouraging switch for Noé, and bodes well for him moving forward. It’s turned him into less of a Lars Von Trier geek show. Not to say that the ending doesn’t pack a wallop regardless. Noé, for all his newfound pseudo-humanism, isn’t going to send you home wanting for misery. But there is…well, not hope, exactly, but call it catharsis. He’s as uncompromising, and as resolutely himself, as ever. It’s just that there might be a little more shading and warmth inside Noé than maybe even he himself realized. Don’t misinterpret, though: This is Gaspar Noé Warmth, not normal human being warmth. Rest assured, his world remains no place for children. —Will Leitch


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


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


39. In the Heat of the Night
Year: 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
The racial animosity depicted in director’s Norman Jewison’s Best Picture Oscar winner, about Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), an African-American homicide detective from Philadelphia who stumbles upon a murder mystery in a podunk Mississippi town, tips over into a poignant commentary on art imitating life. Poitier refused to shoot on location, fearing retaliation from southern racists, and even a quick pickup shoot in Tennessee was cut short after Poitier began receiving threats. The genius in Sterling Silliphant’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel, then, is in the borderline anal manner in which he balances social commentary and plot progression. Pretty much every scene contains a new piece of information towards solving the murder case, as well as a damning portrait of racial animosity. The contentious working relationship between Virgil and the local chief of police, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), never resolves cleanly; In the Heat of the Night is smart enough to know that prejudices entrenched within multiple generations will not disappear overnight, if at all. Even moments of bonding between colleagues never steer clear of the racial divide between them. There’s a glimmer of hope in the very final moments, but Jewison always has a handle on his uncompromising tone. —Oktay Ege Kozak


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


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


36. Hereditary
Year: 2018
Director: Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s debut film begins in miniature. Later we learn of the trade Annie (Toni Collette), the film’s family’s matriarch, plies—meticulously designing doll-house-sized vignettes of the many domestic traumas she’s experienced, and still does, throughout her life, not for children but for art gallery spaces—though in the moment, in the beginning of Hereditary, the effect simply alludes to Aster’s ancestral preoccupations. From a tree house, pulling back through Annie’s workshop window, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera pans to a tiny recreation of the house we’re currently within, then pushes into the simulacrum of high school student Peter Graham’s (Alex Wolff) bedroom, which transforms into the room itself, perspectives already ruined so early in the film. Father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) enters to give his late-snoozing son the black suit needed to attend his late grandmother’s memorial. Aster’s intent, as is the case throughout Hereditary, is both blunt and oblique: worlds exist within worlds, shadows within that which casts them, or vice versa, reality represented like the rings of a tree or the spirals of DNA holding untold secrets within the cores of whoever we are. Colin Stetson’s brain-churning score rattles the frame’s edges; menace looms—and menace soon unfolds, tragedies upon tragedies. The Graham family unravels over the course of Hereditary, which derives its power from testing the binds that force families together, teasing their strength as each family member must confront, kicking and screaming (or in Collette’s case: making the noise of one’s soul fleeing through every orifice), just how superficial those binds can be. In the absence of a reason for all of this happening, there is inevitability; in the absence of resolution there is only acceptance. —Dom Sinacola


35. Transit
Release Date: 2019
Director: Christian Petzold
In Christian Petzold’s Transit, based on Anna Segher’s WWII-based novel of the same name, the writer-director strips all context from his story, but not by pulling it out of time. Instead, Petzold’s limned his adaptation in modern technologies and settings—contemporary cars line the streets of today’s Marseille; flat screens hang unimpressively in bars; military police dress in black riot gear, not a swastika in sight—though no one uses a cell phone or a computer, doomed to repeat themselves in bureaucratic offices and waiting in endless lines, all while the enemy, an occupational force, quickly sweeps across France. Odd and surprisingly high-concept, though never pleased with itself, Transit removes context by confusing it, treating its characters as if they’re in a kind of existential wartime limbo, forever fated to keep looking: for escape, for a lost loved one, for some food to eat or a bed to lie in, for a reason to keep enduring. Transit could’ve been a sci-fi drama were its characters ever shown an alternate reality. One character, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee scratching his way through his adopted country, tasked with delivering letters and documents to a writer named Weidel, but, upon arriving, discovers the writer’s committed suicide (leaving an awful mess for the hotel staff). Hearing that the German forces are quickly consuming France, Georg travels to Marseille, where he hopes to make accommodations to leave before the Axis powers arrive, taking with him the identity of Weidel and an omnipresent narrator (Matthias Brandt) who speaks of Dawn of the Dead and Georg’s every emotion even though the narrator never hides that he’s the bartender of the bar Georg silently frequents, piecing together this long forlorn story Georg’s woven for him. Georg isn’t aloof or indifferent or even remotely manipulative, just adrift, and not long after he sets up camp in Marseille, he realizes the beautiful and strange woman who floats through the streets and consulates tapping men on the shoulder is Marie (Paula Beer), Weidel’s widow, looking for her husband. Only Georg knows he’s dead; Georg falls in love with Marie. Though touch screen technology obviously exists in its world, characters do not use phones, can’t Google anything or dig up maps or get immediate confirmation that a loved one has died. Instead, they walk, and they carry letters to one another, and find happiness in individual, brief moments—because maybe they know of nothing better out there, or maybe because that is what defines them. Defines us. Transit is a powerful film, equally celebrating, mourning and fascinated by the ability of people to keep going. At one point, Georg describes to a Mexican official a short story about a waiting room in which denizens take turns entering hell, only to discover that the waiting room is hell. Knowing this, we still sit there. It takes a magnificent spirit to keep waiting. —Dom Sinacola


34. Leave No Trace
Year: 2018
Director: Debra Granik
It takes all of Leave No Trace before anyone tells Will (Ben Foster) he’s broken. The man knows, perhaps ineffably, that something’s fundamentally wrong inside of him, but it isn’t until the final moments of Debra Granik’s film that someone gives that wrongness finality, that someone finally allows Will to admit—and maybe accept—he can’t be fixed. Why: Granik affords us little background, save tattoos and a few helicopter-triggered flashbacks and a visit to the hospital to acquire PTSD meds all implying that Will is a military vet, though what conflict he suffered and for how long remains a mystery. As does the fate of Will’s deceased wife, mother to teenage girl Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). As does the length of time Will and his daughter have been living off the grid, hidden within the more than 5,000 acres of Portland’s Forest Park, a damp, verdant chunk of the city’s northwest side overlooking the Willamette River. As does the pain at the heart of Leave No Trace, though it hurts no less acutely for that. Toward the end of this quietly stunning film, Tom shows her father a beehive she’s only recently begun to tend, slowly pulling out a honeycomb tray and tipping a scrambling handful of the insects into her cupped palm without any fear of being stung. Will looks on, proud of his daughter’s connection to such a primal entity, knowing that he could never do the same. Will begins to understand, as Tom does, that she is not broken like him. Leave No Trace asserts, with exquisite humanity and a long bittersweet sigh, that the best the broken can do is disappear before they break anyone else. —Dom Sinacola


33. Eighth Grade
Year: 2018
Director: Bo Burnham
In Eighth Grade, the feature debut of comedian-singer-songwriter Bo Burnham, you’re either a Kayla (Elsie Fisher) or you know a Kayla from your days as an over-it-all punk-ass. The distinction is key to your experience. The film stages a too-real reenactment of middle school’s rigors, but it’s the people we endure those rigors with who shape our turbulent pubescence. Sure, sitting through Ms. Hawking’s ornithology lessons was hell, but hell’s preferable to striking up conversation with your classmates. Burnham uses the awkward terrain of juvenile social interaction as Eighth Grade’s focal point, painting the daunting exercise of talking to other kids as a stairway to embarrassment. We meet Kayla pre-humiliation, recording clips for her YouTube channel in her room, dispensing life advice in the coltish manner of a newly minted teen. She’s extraordinarily inarticulate, but in her ramblings we find the profound insight only a 13-year-old can offer. “Aren’t I always being myself?” she says to her camera, the sage instructing the benighted. “Well, yeah, for sure.” She’s a self-help layman, but her sincerity is charming. Don’t change who you are to impress others. Words to live by. Kayla, like anyone else trying to stay afloat in the sometimes cutthroat world of middle school, sells out her ideals almost immediately, a defensive posture to deflect her loneliness. Being a teenage girl isn’t easy. Occasionally, it’s perilous. That Eighth Grade so genuinely conveys those difficulties and dangers is miraculous considering its source. Burnham invites us to recall our own adolescence, and also to consider how adolescence has changed in the time of social media. It’s compassionate, radiating retroactive kindness for the children we all were to soothe the adults we are now. —Andy Crump


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


31. Bisbee ’17
Year: 2018
Director: Robert Greene
Robert Greene opens his essential new documentary, Bisbee ’17, with a quote from American writer Colin Dickey’s 2016 book, Ghostland: “Cities that are haunted … seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.” He’s talking about haunted manors littering the United States specifically and not the Arizona burg of Bisbee, but the town Greene acquaints us with indeed straddles its past and present, and something more—a collision between the two in the form of theater. In 1917, at the height of World War I, Bisbee was a critical hub in the war effort, not just a copper town but the copper town churning out minerals and profits. Then the miners went on strike, demanding safer work conditions and railing against campwide discrimination. To quash protests, Bisbee’s sheriff deputized a small army of locals, rounded up strikers in the early morning of July 12th, stuck them on cattle cars, and dropped them off in the New Mexico desert in an effort by the Phelps Dodge mining company and Bisbee’s law to halt dissent and restore order to their bottom line. Greene comes into the story 100 years later, as Bisbee’s current residents, prepping for the Bisbee Deportation’s centennial, decide they must recognize the evils of Bisbee yesteryear. How best to do so? By putting on a reenactment, casting townsfolk as miners, as the sheriff’s posse, as witnesses to the travesty. This is Greene’s jam: He blends traditional documentary techniques, talking head interviews and appraisals of primary sources, with the artifice of feature narrative. Greene’s craftsmanship invites awe as easily as the reenactment itself, scrappy but successfully harrowing in execution. The players get into their roles with more than professional enthusiasm—their performances exhibit a relish and zeal both shaped by an underlying desperation to observe the truth when for so long Bisbee has lived with truth unspoken. As the crimes of the deportation haunt Bisbee and its inhabitants, so, too, are we haunted by them through the filter of Greene’s lens. But that experience, the experience of being haunted, proves vital. Maybe it’s necessary to let history haunt us. —Andy Crump


30. Blood and Black Lace
Year: 1964
Director: Mario Bava
Blood and Black Lace plays like a missing link between Psycho or Peeping Tom and the classic “body count” slashers of the early 1980s, with a significantly more misanthropic attitude reveling in its on-screen violence. Perhaps the single most influential giallo film ever made, it codified some of the early tropes of a nascent film genre, innovated a few new ones of its own and did so with a sumptuous visual aesthetic that proved difficult for any of its imitators to match. In a career full of classics, it is perhaps Bava’s prettiest and most drum-tight film. The action takes place in a cavernous fashion house where high-end models are dressed, primped and prepared to don their haute couture and walk the runway, offering ample opportunity for the camera to both leer at a bevy of young women and examine the way they’re degraded by their industry, which treats them as little more than domesticated animals. When one of the company’s girls is violently murdered, it throws the entire organization into an uproar, with suspicion landing on almost every person employed in the building. What are we to make of the fact that none of the deaths can be traced to any individual? Bava ultimately uses a variety of simple (but effective) tricks to divert the audience’s suspicions until his big reveal. It’s the set-up for an old-fashioned murder mystery, but Blood and Black Lace also deviates from its forebears by being less concerned about the mystery and suspects on hand than it is with the killings themselves. This truly feels like a ground zero for the pulpy, grindhouse aesthetic that prioritizes cinematic death sequences, and the manner of the deaths, above all else. The unfortunate crew of models in the film bite the dust in all manner of ways, both inventive and notably grisly for the time, whether it’s burned to death by being pushed against a hot furnace, drowned in the bathtub or being stabbed through the face with a spiked glove. The film makes it clear: You are there to watch people die, and die in the most stylish way possible. —Jim Vorel


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


28. Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Year: 2018
Director: RaMell Ross
In Hale County This Morning, This Evening, seeing truly is believing, or at least comprehending, because putting what filmmaker RaMell Ross has done into words is as close to impossible as writing about film can get. A portrait of Alabama’s Hale County—a place named for Deputy to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States and career racist Stephen F. Hale—as well as a glimpse into the lives of Ross’s family, friends and neighbors, the film defies documentarian conventions through structure and language: There are no talking heads, no bland expositional devices, only stream of consciousness storytelling occasionally interspersed with intertitles that playfully, but soberly, fill in the names of Ross’s subjects, or provide context we would certainly lack without them. In its interior, free-associative way, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is thrilling, a word not often used for characterizing slice-of-life documentaries. (In line with that: If possible, it must be seen on the big screen, too.) Ross boils down lifetimes and the passage of days, weeks, months, perhaps even beyond, into 70 minutes, and, as a result, the movie ultimately lives in between the passage of seconds. Rather than feel compressed, Hale County This Morning, This Evening emerges sweeping and grand, an elusive, awesome American fable. —Andy Crump


27. Midnight Cowboy
Date: 1969
Director: John Schlesinger
In this film by British director John Schlesinger, Jon Voight plays a Texan with a troubled past who comes to the big city trying to make a career as a gigolo. Enter his pal, Ratso Rizzo, played by the great and grating Dustin Hoffman. Midnight Cowboy was rated X upon release for homosexual content that would hardly raise an eyebrow today, and remains the only film of that category to ever win an Oscar, much less the Best Picture award it captured in 1970. (The only other X-rated film to be nominated was Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.) Second on the list of the decade’s greatest actors is Dustin Hoffman. Along with Midnight Cowboy, he starred in the seminal The Graduate, the western epic Little Big Man, Sam Peckinpah’s terrifying classic Straw Dogs, the controversial Lenny (a hopeless Best Picture nominee in the 1974 class with The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II), All the President’s Men, Marathon Man and Kramer vs. Kramer. But his incredible turn as Ratso Rizzo is still the greatest performance of his career, and the chemistry between him and his physical opposite is one of the best and most unusual friend dynamics in film history, hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking. —Shane Ryan


26. A Field in England
Year: 2013
Director: Ben Wheatley
In the 17th century, amidst the buffered explosions and death rattles of the English Civil War—that always seems just over the ridge—three men meet a fourth who feeds them psychotropic mushrooms and then herds them to a fifth, who forces them to search for buried treasure in the middle of A Field in England. Co-written with partner Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley’s fourth film fails the Bechdel Test so tremendously it practically suffers Ego Death, obliterating all barriers—physical and temporal and whatever else—to be as much about the relentlessly stupid nature of masculine power dynamics as it is about the experience of losing oneself within the sensation of total loss. In an otherwise incoherent tale of men abusing men, Wheatley strips back elemental layer after layer, revealing emptiness within emptiness. Story, logic, none of it seems to matter, nothing matters, everything is mutable and transigent and malcontent—except for a hair of sympathy threaded through everything, the sense that were all of these men to give up on each other entirely, whatever’s going on would spin out beyond all recognition. And so, a man called Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) offers to inspect the genital warts (which we get to inspect too!) of his new vagabond friend Trower (Julian Barratt), out of the kindness of Whitehead’s heart, while a man called Friend (Richard Glover), upon his death, confesses his love for his wife’s sister, describing the manner in which they had sex to his recently close companions with unexpected, moving intimacy. Skirting the madness, Blanck Mass’s score sweeps from baroque ditties to vast and sparkling soundscapes, especially arresting for how strangely Wheatley uses them, willing to show the characters in his film how easily, how meaninglessly, he can bend the world around them to his pointless will. A man on a leash running out of a tent in slow-motion? Is that a Waiting for Godot reference? Mesmerized for mesmerization’s sake, one weeps at the beauty. —Dom Sinacola


25. Zama
Year: 2018
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Early in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, her dreamy intent and languid images begin to nestle into place. First we witness Spanish corregidor (“mayor”) Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, whose eyes bear lifetimes of disappointment and resignation) on the shore of a nondescript river, in charge of a desolate Spanish colonial outpost in the middle of nowhere South America, though he seems to be more inhabiting it than litigating its quotidian. Catching a group of native women bathing, he steals a glance but is immediately found out, chased from the beach. Slapping one of the women to assert his dominance, Zama’s violent reaction feels preposterous, the response of a person with no control over himself, or his lot in life. This land rejects this sad man.

Director Lucrecia Martel and cinematographer Rui Poças (whose worked with Miguel Gomes and, recently, with João Pedro Rodrigues on the exquisitely pretty The Ornithologist) dedicate nearly every frame to Zama’s melancholy maundering, though rarely allowing him the dignity to ever be the most interesting figure in any particular shot, that is, when they aren’t up close, searching his lined mug for something representing courage or assertiveness. Stranded in a thankless government job, not so much forgotten by the system as just avoided, Zama is a colonist renounced by both the colonized and colonizers. Zama is literally post-colonial: Colonists negate Diego de Zama’s colonialism by negating him, an equation Martel and Poças externalize by photographing with foreboding beauty the jungle around the pathetic man, reducing him to a meaningless, replaceable figure amidst effortlessly mighty landscapes. “Do you want to live?” Zama’s asked at the end of the film. He doesn’t respond. With her third film, Lucrecia Martel wonders, in wide swathes of unmitigated wilderness and weird, inexplicable poetry, just how far one’s wants can go. Bewitching and masterfully rendered, Zama is an elegant, ravishing, often delightfully strange achievement. It is reportedly the result of an interminable production process, of a difficult and substantial edit, of a novel that resists adaptation. It wants little more than to reach out in all directions, to peer into the void, knowing deep down that the void can’t be bothered to peer back. —Dom Sinacola


24. Millennium Actress
Year: 2001
Director: Satoshi Kon
Satoshi Kon’s second film, Millennium Actress, builds off the themes of cinema and celebrity previously explored in his debut Perfect Blue, instead casting them in the mold of a metafictional fairytale quest for love. Inspired by the lives of Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, two of Japan’s premiere early-century stars, Millennium Actress follows the story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, a reclusive septuagenarian who recounts the story behind her illustrious career as a film actress when approached by a pair of interviewers eager to film a documentary. One of Kon’s signature motifs as a director is the mutability of reality and fantasy, exploring how the two constantly dovetai into one another, creating works that speak to the multiplicity of the human experience. Millennium Actress is a prime example of this, with the film’s presentation constantly assaulting the fourth wall, blending factual events and cinematic flair until the two are inseparable. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Kon was not satisfied to look only toward the insular vacuum of genre anime for inspiration, but instead looked to such works as George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, a film whose use of scene cuts and transitions play a huge role in distinguishing Millennium Actress among other films of its time. Combining references to the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Rickshaw Man, Millennium Actress is a testament to Kon’s enduring love of cinema. It deserves to be seen, examined and cherished for years to come. —Toussaint Egan


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


22. High Life
Year: 2019
Director: Claire Denis
High Life begins with a moment of intense vulnerability, followed immediately by a moment of immense strength. First we glimpse a garden, verdant and welcoming, before we’re ushered to a sterile room. There we realize there’s a baby alone while Monte (Robert Pattinson), her father maybe, consoles her, talking through a headset mounted within his space helmet. “Da da da,” he explains through the intercom; the baby starts to lose her shit because he’s not really there, he’s perched outside, on the surface of their basic Lego-piece of a spaceship, just barely gripped on the edge of darkness. They’re in space, one supposes, surrounded by dark, oppressive nothingness, and he can’t reach her. They’re alone. Next, Monte empties their cryogenic storage locker of all the dead bodies of his once-fellow crew members, lifting their heavy limbs and torsos into space suits, not because it matters, but maybe just because it’s something to do to pass the time, as much a sign of respect as it is an emotional test of will. Monte looks healthy and capable, like he can withstand all that loneliness, like he and his daughter might actually make it out of this OK, whatever this is. High Life lives inside that juxtaposition, displaying tenderness as graphically as violence and anger and incomprehensible fear, mining all that blackness surrounding its characters for as much terror as writer-director Claire Denis can afford without getting obvious about it. Pattinson, flattened and lithe, plays Monte remarkably, coiled within himself to the point that he finishes every word deep in his throat, his sentences sometimes total gibberish. He doesn’t allow much to escape his face, but behind his eyes beams something scary, as if he could suddenly, and probably will, crack. He says as much to Willow, his kid, whispering to her while she sleeps that he could easily kill them both, never wanting to hurt her but still polluting her dreams. He can’t help it, and neither can Denis, who, on her 14th film (first in English), can make an audience believe, like few other directors, that anything can happen. Madness erupts from silence and sleep, bodily fluids dripping all over and splattering throughout and saturating the psyches of these criminal blue collar astronauts, the overwhelming stickiness of the film emphasizing just how intimately close Denis wants us to feel to these odd, sick fleshbags hurtling toward the edge of consciousness. —Dom Sinacola


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


20. American Gigolo
Year: 1980
Director: Paul Schrader
In 1980’s American Gigolo, Richard Gere’s high-priced escort Julian knows what he’s good at, and proud of it, too. His clients are predominantly older women, women whose husbands, in his understanding, have forgotten them, or whose desires and need for pleasure have been discarded. His ability to satisfy them—he calls this “a challenge” he is up to—gives him fulfillment, the implication of meaning in his life. That life, otherwise, is organized; there is a routine to his actions. His home is modern, defined by the intentional affectation of someone putting on appearances. That’s what he does for a living: He puts on appearances. Julian’s image aspires to be the most charming and eligible man, even when he’s playing naïve, as he does with one client. He feigns stupidity, though when he does so as a simple chauffeur, he exudes the kind of sex appeal that’s only natural because it’s so practiced. He works out, sculpts himself. When he places his clothes on the bed (they’re Armani), he crafts the best version of himself to sell to others. Julian has standards when it comes to tricks: no kink, no fag stuff. But those standards, and the secrets he’s kept so well for the women that have employed him, fall apart when he becomes embroiled in a murder case, the victim being one of his tricks. As he loses all sense of himself and the control he once thought he had over his world, the meticulously created artifice of his life dissolves rapidly. Though Julian is (ostensibly) heterosexual, American Gigolo is a queer film by virtue of its form. Schrader imbues the film with queer aesthetics, its Californian, neon-painted fakeness, its kitschy set design (the loudest furniture juxtaposed against the most austere symmetry) and its little dose of Blondie, “Call Me” blaring at the beginning of the film. One of his pimps, Leon (Bill Duke) is gay and black, and the affair he carries on with Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a well-known politician, feels like a stiff fantasy. Masculinity is a prison, the film almost seems to suggest, as the masculine self Jules so dutifully crafted begins to sour and fall apart. His world sinks, and he’s left with almost no one. The men in Paul Schrader’s films are undone by the feeble attempts to preserve restrictive ideals of masculinity: One event sets off a chain reaction, a domino effect for the undoing of the self. The curated acts, the sculpting, that Julian commits to are flimsy, revealing that, once one peels back each layer of “manhood,” inside is something vacant, an abyss of loneliness and anxiety. —Kyle Turner


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


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


17. Sunset Boulevard
Year: 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s meta noir is a doozy, an unfailingly cynical critique of showbiz and a portrait of postwar alienation projected on the microcosm of Hollywood. It’s also wickedly funny in Sahara dry fashion, from the opening words of our dead narrator—floating facedown in his killer’s swimming pool—to Norma Desmond’s concluding descent down her staircase, and the rabbit hole. Gloria Swanson is magnificent and sad as Ms. Desmond, a fading beauty of the silent screen who manipulates broke, hackish screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) into becoming her boy toy. Theirs is a fated relationship from the get-go, she of the wordless era, he dependent on them for his very livelihood. They’re on the outs with their industry, and each other, yet coexist out of desperation. Wilder, who co-wrote with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., layered the script with in-joke upon self-referential wink, perhaps the least of which is Desmond’s passion project, about that OG of femme fatales, Salome. There’s a parade of Hollywood cameos, namechecks, and behind-the-scenes instances of “art imitating life” (and vice versa); for example, Erich von Stroheim, who portrays Desmond’s former director/first husband-turned-still lovestruck butler Max, directed Swanson in 1929’s Queen Kelly (excerpted here) before she as the film’s producer fired him, much like her Sunset Blvd. character discards his. Many of these nods were in less-than-good fun, so it’s no shock that Sunset Boulevard met with local disdain, yet Wilder doesn’t flinch. Norma, Joe, Max … they’re all unwanted souls who, try as they might to live in the past, have succumbed to the present—in Joe’s case, most finally. The smoke and mirrors of Tinseltown, of life, don’t do the job anymore (though cinematographer John Seitz, who also lensed Double Indemnity, most certainly did, sprinkling dust into the air for the lights to catch). Desmond may be a seductress past her sell-by date, but Hollywood is the ultimate femme fatale, who chews suckers up and spits them out. Sunset Boulevard gives L.A. its close-up, alright. —Amanda Schurr


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


15. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Year: 2018
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
At some point midway through Mission: Impossible – Fallout—the sixth entry in the franchise and director Christopher McQuarrie’s unprecedented second go at helming one of these beasts—CIA brute Austin Walker (Henry Cavill) asks his superior, CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), how many times she thinks Übermensch Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) will put up with his country screwing him over before he snaps. Walker’s question is rhetorical, intended to convince Sloane that Hunt is actually John Lark, the alias of a shadowy conspirator planning to buy stolen plutonium whom he and Hunt also happen to be chasing, but the question is better put before Cruise, the film’s bright, shining star. It’s a question that hangs over this dependably mind-blowing action flick more obviously than any installment to come before: How long can 56-year-old Cruise keep doing this before he, truly and irrevocably, snaps? Fallout never offers an answer, most likely because Cruise won’t have one until his body just completely gives out, answering for him by default. Fallout shows no real signs of that happening any time soon. What it does show is a kind of blockbuster intuition for what makes our enormous action brands—from Fast and the Furious to the MCU—thrive, behind only Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol as the best of the now 22-year endeavor. Where Bird leaned into the franchise as a literalization of its title, redefining the series by balancing the absurdity of what Cruise was impossibly doing (the Burj Khalifa scene is one of the greatest action sequences ever) with the awe of bearing witness to what a human person could accomplish if devoid of all Thetans, McQuarrie considers the two pretty much the same thing. The only reaction worthy of such absurdity is awe—and the only American tentpole films worth our awe anymore are those deemed Mission: Impossible. It’s all so goddamned beautiful. I love these movies. —Dom Sinacola


14. Total Recall
Year: 1990
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Very loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (and aren’t all PKD adaptations “very loose”?), Total Recall functions as a construct for Paul Verhoeven to take a high-concept premise about memory implants and lost identity and motivational uncertainty and turn it into an Arnold Schwarzenegger schlock-fest. It should be bad, but it’s not; it should be, at best, cheesy fun—but it’s even more than that. Unlike many of it’s sci-fi action peers, Total Recall never runs out of steam or ideas; it starts with the memory implant stuff, but on the back end gives us a vividly imagined Mars society with an oppressed mutant population (which is, like, the best special make-up effects portfolio ever) and a secret alien reactor that’s a MacGuffin but also a deus ex machina. The plot’s a mess but so is Arnold. It all works.

Total Recall’s $60 million production budget was absolutely huge for its time, but unlike similar Hollywood ventures that put money towards glitz (like the 2012 remake, so slick it slips right out of one’s head), Verhoeven uses the loot to give us more dust, more grit, more decrepit sets, more twisted prosthetics and maximum Arnold. Verhoeven, in fact, uses Arnold as much as he uses anything else in the budget to tell this darkly exuberant story, from the contorted confusion of the set-up right on through to the eye-popping finale. It results in a sci-fi screed written in the form of a hundred Ahh-nuld faces, absurd and unforgettable. For as many times as Dick has been adapted, this is perhaps the one time the go-for-broke energy and imagination of his work has made it into the cinema (Blade Runner is something else entirely). Total Recall may have little in common with the actual content of the story it blows up, but it knows the vibe. And PKD vibes are the best kind. —Chad Betz


13. The Act of Killing
Year: 2012
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though—instead they’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. Oppenheimer amplifies those conflicting reactions further by introducing a daring gambit: In the process of interviewing these butchers—who brag about raping and killing their victims (including the occasional beheading)—the director asked if they would be interested in re-creating their murders through fictionalized, filmed scenes. The men—most notably a gentleman named Anwar Congo, who was one of the death squad leaders—leapt at the chance. What follows is a literally nauseous glimpse into the minds of men who have spent decades mentally escaping the inescapable. —Tim Grierson


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


11. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Year: 1972
Director: Werner Herzog 
The Rosetta Stone to understanding the relationship between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski is contained within watching the way Herzog sees Kinski as Aguirre, the Conquistador circa 1560 who, through the sheer power of his belligerence, led a small army of Spaniards to their certain doom. In Kinski’s disturbing, hobbled presence, Aguirre is delusion manifest, his need to find the lost City of Gold while trekking through the unforgiving rain forests of Peru so corrupt and surreal it appears to be crippling his body from the inside out, crawling free from his heart and escaping his bug-eyes. Herzog exploits that delusion when he casts Kinski—known IRL for his self-aggrandizing optics and unbelievable cruelty—and in Aguirre, the Wrath of God is no purer sense of just how wholly Herzog knows Kinski’s true nature, letting it seep into—infect—the reality of the film itself: “Based on a true story” wasn’t so debased a cinematic term until Fargo took up the challenge decades later. Which is pretty much how Herzog treats true stories anyway—his documentary subjects he’s known to openly manipulate, and even Paul Cronin’s Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed book, a series of conversations amounting to a career retrospective, Cronin prologues with a lengthy explanation for how involved Herzog was in editing and rewriting his own interviews. What’s left in lieu of fealty to the story of Gonzalo Pizzaro’s ill-fated expedition is something so much more visceral: A reenactment of the story’s—and therefore History’s—pain, absurdity and grand illusion. —Dom Sinacola


10. Detour
Year: 1945
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
A Poverty Row staple with an unknown cast peering into the post-war dark night of the soul, Detour has come to embody the best film noir has to offer—namely, that budget and schedule concerns indirectly enriched the artistic product, paring down a weightier script and even more bloated source novel into a precise, exquisitely sharp bit of storytelling economy. Trapped within the sweaty mind of always-broke jazz pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) as he heads West from New York to settle down with his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), a symbol of stable life for Roberts who absconded with his heart to try to “make it” in Hollywood, we’re stuck with only the unlucky guy’s version of events throughout his increasingly desperate trip. After all, his hitchhiking journey seems doomed to fail from the start, but it grows damn near bleak with the accidental cadaver-ing of a gregarious Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) following a whirlwind buddy meet-cute, and then completely hopeless with the introduction of Vera (Ann Savage), an iconic femme fatale who doesn’t have to try hard to ensnare Roberts, by that point so far out of his league he’s got his pants pulled up well past his nipples. As much an efficient encapsulation of its genre as it is a noir drowning entirely within its own hell-bent nightmare, Detour is most impressive for how gracefully Ulmer can get the most out of so little. —Dom Sinacola


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


8. Stories We Tell
Year: 2013
Director: Sarah Polley
With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible (and incredibly) personal story into a playful yet profound investigation of the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery to her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge at this point, easily revealed in the film’s trailer and associated marketing. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such an effortless way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience without leaning into revelations for the sake of them. The result is a film that scrutinizes the ultimate purpose of truth—only to come up with a gorgeously rendered shrug. —Annlee Ellingson


7. Seconds
Year: 1966
Director: John Frankenheimer
Setting the tale from coast to coast in prosperous ’60s America, John Frankenheimer casts an eye through a thin veil of science fiction to what he sees as a failingly lonely way of life. Approached by a mysterious outfit known as “the Company,” middle-aged family man Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is given the opportunity to fake his death and start over as bohemian California-based painter Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Tapping away to the existential core, however, “Tony” only finds his new life as hollow as his old one, a construct populated by Company actors and other “reborns” who just want to sustain the illusion. James Wong Howe’s shadow-infused cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s anxious horror score apply the paranoid sheen to what is really a bleak examination of the contemporary domesticated worker—bleak because, minus the presence of the elusive, amoral Company, Seconds’ dystopian Earth is absolutely our own. —Brogan Morris


6. To Catch a Thief
Year: 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock 
But really—he didn’t do it. Cary Grant plays John Robie, a retired jewel thief who’s enjoying his golden years tending vines on the French Riviera. Just when the Grenache is hitting the perfect Brix level, a series of copycat heists put Robie back in the thiefly limelight. Seeking to clear things up, he compiles a list of locals who are known to have heistable jewels, and being a smart and wily guy, he starts tailing a very, very pretty one (Francie, played by Grace Kelly). Budding romance can be an accidental side-effect of these things, but when Francie’s ice does go missing, she suspects John and it sours their relationship, as one might expect. John goes on the proverbial lam to get to the bottom of it. Talk about jewels! Nothing ever sparkled quite like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly onscreen together, especially with the legendary Edith Head on costume design—and their peerless charisma is in amazing hands here. The film itself is a bauble, unapologetically so: light and frothy and absolutely not Rear Window (none of which is an indictment). Sometimes it’s enough for something to simply be charming and beautiful. This film proves it. —Amy Glynn


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


4. The Virgin Suicides
Year: 1999
Director: Sofia Coppola
Set in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, The Virgin Suicides is yet another Detroit-area, ’70s-era film obsessed with death. That its quintet of young protagonists—sisters played to unnervingly angelic perfection by Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain—all commit suicide in the end is far from a surprise, of course: What is a surprise is that we never know why. In fact, the film is almost an oneiric procedural, in which the neighborhood boys who become infatuated with the strange daughters pick apart, piece by piece, detail by detail, the befuddling lives behind the objects of their affection. As such, The Virgin Suicides gracefully attempts to remember what it’s like to be a suburban teenager, comfortable in Middle America but uncomfortable with one’s body. Yet, the brilliance of Sofia Coppola’s direction (on even her first film) is in the way she laces such a seemingly innocent story with malice and melancholy, fixating on details that don’t matter or moments that have no consequence. That the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) refers throughout to the decaying of the auto industry in Detroit makes the film as much a ghost story about Southwest Michigan as it is a tale of unrequited love: Try as hard as we might, we’ll probably never be able to trace the tragedy of Detroit back to its source. —Dom Sinacola


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


2. Dead Ringers
Year: 1988
Director: David Cronenberg
In Dead Ringers David Cronenberg reins in the extremities of his earlier genre works into something resembling a chamber drama—except there’s always a catch with Cronenberg, and this time he almost cruely toys with the identities of identical twins, gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (very loosely based on Stewart and Cyril Marcus), played by a Jeremy Irons who is doubled on himself through black movie magic. Cronenberg also plays with the audience’s perception of the duo, taking steps to establish Beverly as the “good” twin (more sensitive) and Elliot as the “bad” one (more bullish) before eventually degrading those categorizations and blurring the lines between the two characters, in more ways than one. A troubled relationship with actress-patient Claire Niveau (a fierce Genevieve Bujold) creates fissures in the relational dynamic of the twins, which in turn creates fissures in their minds; things get to a point where freakish gynecological tools are created due to imagined mutation spreading. The later scenes of the film take on a haunting quality as Elliot and Beverly become untethered from each other and, thus, their reality. They do manage to find each other again, but this is a David Cronenberg joint; don’t expect a happy ending. Dead Ringers is a brooding rumination on the external realities we use to define ourselves, what happens when our duality is divided and the subconscious ways in which we plant the seeds of our own destruction. More, it’s about doubling our Jeremy Irons intake in one sitting, which is always a worthy cause. —Chad Betz


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

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