50. Upstream Color
A quick glance at the IMDB page for Shane Carruth’s second feature reveals something of note — director, writer, producer, composer, cinematographer, editor, and camera operator all feature his name beside them. He’s even the lead actor, and while all of this is impressive on its face it’s made even more so by the result. Upstream Color is the best film of 2013 and one the best this decade, and it achieves that accolade through a balance of smart thrills, thought-provoking questions, and a heartbreaking performance by Amy Seimetz. It’s a film that asks quite a bit of its audience in that details and events are presented with the conclusion left up to the viewer. For me, it remains an immensely powerful call to arms in the war each of us fights against past traumas and pains, but for someone else, the takeaway might be wholly different and every bit as valid. That fluid purpose is part of the film’s magic, and that magic is what makes it among the decade’s best. (Rob Hunter)
One of the lesser-seen films on our list, Foxtrot is the brilliant brainchild of Israeli writer-director Samuel Maoz, whose innovative approach to filmmaking was all but unknown before the release of the heartbreaking and transcendent tale of a family rollercoastering their way through immense tragedy. The film opens with the delivery of a message to an unsuspecting family: their soldier child has been killed in war. From that point on, we’re immersed, taken from the emotional onslaught of the family to the dull, empty base that the son must man, back to the family, and back to the son for a final blow that comes totally out of left field. At times, Maoz drowns us in some of the most utterly crushing moments cinema had to offer in the decade. Other times, you’ll find yourself keeled over in laughter, or simply impressed by the dance routine that a desperately bored kid can develop with an assault rifle, or pleasantly shocked by the anti-Israeli-army tone that beats at the heart of the film (which led to a legitimate protest from Israeli embassy officials). Maoz’s screenwriting and direction are fascinating, and quite frankly, put him on the map as one of the boldest and exciting directors working today. Look out for his next project, but until then, find Foxtrot and clear your calendar. You won’t regret it. (Luke Hicks)
What do you think it’s like being Nic Cage’s agent? Does he ever get frustrated with his choice to make 200 movies every year, all wildly different than the last? Or is it a blast, riding this cosmic wave of energy with one of the internet’s favorite celebrities? I mean, what do you say when your client tells you “I want to make an art-house horror film with leather-bound fetishistic cenobikers and LSD soaked hornets”? Well, thankfully for us, Cage’s agent is very open-minded because Mandy is Cage having a career highlight in a career of highlights. Imbuing his character of Red with the energy of Jason Voorhees, while Cage does indeed rage, his performance, for the most part, leans on the silent, brooding type, which itself is a notable departure from our natural Cage-expectations. But when he does become – how would you say – uncaged, it’s a beautiful bloodstained sight to behold. Mandy is a gorgeous movie from a visionary filmmaker made legendary by Cage’s trademark commitment. (Jacob Trussell)
47. The Nice Guys
Shane Black’s buddy comedies are the best kind of cinematic comfort food. He’s spent the majority of his career making movies about strange bedfellow detective pairings who are just as likely to knock someone out with a witty one-liner as they are with a punch, and The Nice Guys is no different. But this is also one of the strongest offerings in Black’s impressive oeuvre, and a top-tier Black movie is hard to beat. Inspired by the pulpy crime yarns of yesteryear, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play a pair of private dicks who must combine their brains and brawn to get to the bottom of a mystery involving a porn star, which leads to them encountering some trouble from the very top. Gosling and Crowe are a match made in heaven, and the script gives them some of the best material of their respective careers. The Nice Guys is a tough guy movie that has no qualms presenting its tough guys as morons at times, and it’s a freaking hoot because of it. (Kieran Fisher)
46. Faces Places
The last of Agnès Varda’s true road documentaries is also a first for the French New Wave icon: it marks the only directorial collaboration of her 70 year-plus career. That Varda was still keen to try new things well into her late 80s is indicative of her unquenchable curiosity and ever-playful spirit, both of which are as healthy here as they were in her earlier solo works. Faces Places unites Varda with another artist who recognizes the immense emotional and political power of images, the French photographer JR, and together, the two roadtrip through France in a mobile photo booth, meeting and making mural stars out of waitresses and dockers’ wives. In true Varda style, Faces Places is as delightfully whimsical as it is crushingly poignant, particularly when she ruminates on her own aging and the ephemerality of images. Heart-liftingly humanist and breezily charming, this odd couple travelogue stands out as one of the decade’s best films, non-fiction or otherwise. (Farah Cheded)
45. Frances Ha
There is a moment in Frances Ha where the titular Frances (Greta Gerwig) denies the advances of a man (dreamboat Adam Driver) by shrugging her shoulders and emitting a loud “EHHH” that connotes resounding “no.” This quick and effective rejection has stuck with me for most of my adult life and has informed a lot of my interacts with men. In a nutshell, this is why Frances Ha is such a fantastic film. It captures the exhausting, disorienting, lonely, alienating, nauseating, and exhilarating experience that is being an adult. It is deeply, and sometimes unfortunately relatable in depicting the crippling desire to do something you love that also pays the rent. Finding purpose is hard, and Frances Ha knows that. Director Noah Baumbach and Gerwig realistically explore the strange and varied steps we take in trying to find our person through Frances’ journey from New York to Sacramento, Paris, Vassar, and eventually back to New York. The film shows us that happiness is complex and can be found in the strangest of places. It is hopeful, yet realistic, which all we can really ask for as this decade comes to a close. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
Inception showed us what Christopher Nolan could do with a budget, but not for a Batman movie. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a “dream thief,” who uses a special sci-fi device to delve into his target’s subconsciouses and steal their greatest secrets; when confronted with the challenge to plant an idea in a target’s head, the promise of freedom from his tortured past cements his determination to accomplish the job. Packed to the brim with heady ideas about memory, cognition, and dreams, the film nonetheless retains the solid emotional core that carries Nolan’s best work. But that’s not to say that the heist part doesn’t hold up; Strong performances from an excellent cast keep the energy up and make the (frankly kind of absurd) premise believable. The film definitely benefits from following a relatively rigid heist movie structure; it helps keep all the crazy conceptual ideas in line. Add a dollop of gorgeous and revolutionary visual effects — that still look good nearly a decade later, largely in part due to their relative restraint compared to the VFX of more modern movies — and you’ve got a film that feels both tense and thoughtful, exciting and introspective, and one of Nolan’s strongest works. (Hans Qu)
43. Cold War
One of two stark, beautifully-shot, under-90-minutes, black and white films of the decade by Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War is an absolutely unforgettable tale of a doomed romance in communist, post-war Poland. Some have called it the Eastern European arthouse La La Land, which is admittedly fair, albeit lacking in comparison. It’s about two lovers who find each other through music (the man plays piano, the woman sings), fall deeply in love, and drift apart and back together over and over. The beleaguered love spans decades, which speaks volumes to Pawlikowski’s effective filmmaking when you consider the 89-minute runtime, and the feeling of true emotional completion that rings in your soul for months to come after viewing. It’s as if we witness an entire lifetime, along with all the good and bad that falls in the midst.
Tomasz Kot puts on a show as a sexy, suave tall drink of water, but Joanna Kulig’s raging powerhouse performance steals the show. You’ll wish she could sing you to sleep every night as passionately as you’ll wish she could escape the routine she’s sworn herself to. So much stands out in Cold War—Lukasz Zal’s cinematography, the commentary on life-long love, the magnificent music—but you’ll walk away thinking of Kulig, tears in your eyes regardless of how you feel about the silent, affecting whimper that is the final shot. (Luke Hicks)
42. The Handmaiden
One of the words I’d use to describe The Handmaiden is “gratifying.” Sure, daring auteur Park Chan-wook has, more often than not, explored the beauty of shockingly abhorrent in his filmography. Thoroughly challenging and morbidly fascinating creations such as Oldboy attest to his proficiency at getting under our skin. However, despite this custom of dabbling in the disturbing, Park’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” has an overarching message of female empowerment that ends up being a personal takeaway.
It is as though all of Park’s women-centric works post-Oldboy have finally reached their zenith in The Handmaiden, centering on two of the most fascinating female characters he has ever realized onscreen. Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri are masterful at their craft with a confident understanding of the nuances that make their characters all the more impactful. Whether they are playfully irreverent, brazenly confident, or even terrifyingly silent, the two take the film’s pulsating and hilariously clever narrative even further.
Through an intricately woven three-act structure that constantly disrupts audience expectations, The Handmaiden walks a tightrope of sumptuous sensuality while juggling horrifying revelations of betrayal. Even at the film’s most decadent and lurid, Park’s eye for delectable images and his penchant for intense, extreme, yet absolutely plausible storytelling keeps us on the edge of our seats. It engages all the senses to the nth degree. Eroticism doesn’t just seep through the film’s cracks. Rather, The Handmaiden is doused in it, consciously aware of the many facets of its seductive power. (Sheryl Oh)
41. No Home Movie
Chantal Akerman’s final film was created in the months leading up to her mother’s death and was released into the festival circuit shortly before Akerman’s own death in 2015. The film chronicles intimate conversations between the two on everything from family history to experiences of displacement. Akerman’s mother, Natalia, was a prominent figure in her life and work, and No Home Movie captures the profound love and areas of contention that the two shared. Akerman filmed on several cameras and her phone, sometimes capturing the conversations over Skype. She utilized all the technology available to her in order “to show that there’s no distance,” as she explains to her mother in one scene.
Indeed, this raw feat of filmmaking does create the impression that there’s no distance. Akerman holds nothing back; her honesty is jarring and poignant. Her willingness to hold a shot on an expanse of desert while traveling or a mundane domestic space at home is — as it always was — unparalleled. She prominently features what so many others would have left on the cutting room floor. Watching it now, the context of Akerman’s death further infuses the film with melancholy and the feeling that the two-hour documentary is beautifully capturing something inherently fleeting. Akerman once remarked, regarding No Home Movie, “I think if I knew I was going to do this, I wouldn’t have dared to do it.” Of course, if there’s one thing Chantal Akerman was, she was a filmmaker who dared to do anything. (Anna Swanson)