40. Eighth Grade
Here’s the thing about being in eighth grade: almost everything about it is mortifying. Sometimes you win a kind of mean-spirited superlative for being really quiet at school. Sometimes your Dad shows up unexpectedly when you’re trying to impress some new friends at the mall. And sometimes your classmates just don’t get that this card game like go fish but more fun is actually a really great gift.
Making his feature debut, writer-director Bo Burnham mines these everyday embarrassments for every possible comedic beat, while still treating them with the emotional weight they deserve. The result is a smart comedy that recognizes eighth grade as a feeling that never really leaves you, whether or not you’ve come of age in the social media generation; it’s the part of you that’s sensitive and hopeful, that desperately craves acceptance from your peers. And when combined with Elsie Fisher’s incredibly empathetic lead performance, the film tricks you into embracing those vulnerable, insecure parts of yourself. Her Kayla is just so instantly lovable, and seeing her quietly overcome the hurdles of being 13 is a visceral and powerful thing.
In the end, Eighth Grade is a time capsule for our past selves, a big hug for us all by a campfire on an early summer night. Maybe with a film like this in our corner, high school – read, the next decade of our lives – won’t be so terrible after all. (Christina Smith)
39. Toni Erdmann
All I knew about Toni Erdmann going in was that it was a German film closer to three hours than two and a “comedy.” I’ll believe it when I see it, I thought. And boy, did I see it. Maren Ade’s depiction of the fraught but ultimately loving relationship between divorced prankster Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and his estranged adult daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is warm without being cloying, heartfelt but never too sentimental. It’s got the meandering plot and pacing of an arthouse film—albeit a very rewarding one—yet it ambles in and out of some of the most uproariously funny scenes to be found in any film released in recent memory. One party sequence, in particular, remains a paramount comedic example of a slow build leading to a more than worthwhile payoff—the kind of belly laughter that leaves your ribs protesting at the exercise. All in all, Toni Erdmann is a film about love and false teeth and singing your heart out to Whitney Houston in public even if you don’t have the vocal range to hit all the right notes. In other words, an utterly odd duck and a total delight. (Ciara Wardlow)
38. Green Room
Of all the films on this list, Green Room is the most likely to give you a stress-induced hernia. And if that ain’t the power of cinema, I don’t know what is. Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to 2013’s fantastic Blue Ruin, Green Room sees a strapped for cash punk band trapped in the wrong place (a secluded venue run by white nationalists) at the wrong time (during a murder cover-up). Intent on erasing all evidence of the crime, the skinheads have every intention of eliminating our scrappy heroes, who fight tooth, nail, and…some other appendages…to stay alive. Punk’s not dead, it just took a machete to the arm.
Green Room‘s cast is a well-characterized chain devoid of weak links. They’re a stupendous group: from Imogen Poots’ badass and rattled Amber, to Macon Blair’s banally evil Gabe, to Anton Yelchin’s sweet, harrowed, pragmatic Pat. Green Room earns its untempered, uncompromising horror show and then some: easing into its furious rhythm with an unmatched fluency in the art of building suspense to a fever pitch. The human carnage is upsetting (even for those with strong stomachs), but nothing compares to the creeping, restrained air of civility Saulnier endows to organized hatred. It’s an absolute nightmare: how anger and violence talk softly and carry big, system-abusing sticks. Sometimes when communities go sour and rot, you have to fight them from the inside out. It’s tense, it’s tight, and it’s absolutely terrifying: Green Room demands your attention, and it won’t ask twice politely. (Meg Shields)
37. First Reformed
Indelibly, First Reformed is a reckoning. The kind of film that, if it hits you in the right way, can keep you up at night and invade your thoughts. And perhaps if anyone is to speak to such wounded, uneasy distress it’s Paul Schrader, a writer and director who has, despite his sins, an empathetic finger on the pulse of the kind of anger bred from loneliness and untethered despair. First Reformed sees a reclusive, ailing pastor (Ethan Hawke) cast across the rocks after a soul-shaking encounter with an environmental activist. Soon, he finds himself in a slow dive that’s existential and apocalyptic: a crisis not only of faith but something much simpler, and irreversible. First Reformed is challenging in the way good cinema should be: a spiraling character study that holds your feet to the fire and asks, plainly, if you think love will be enough to save us from what we’ve done to the planet, and to each other. (Meg Shields)
36. Ex Machina
There’s a lot to love about Ex Machina, the story of a timid Domhnall Gleeson winning a visit with Oscar Isaac’s confidently unhinged billionaire CEO. But the finest part, in my book, is the trickery of focalization. We enter the film with Gleeson, witnessing right along with him a strange and uncanny world inhabited by Alicia Vikander as a highly sophisticated AI. While the majority of the film is an exceptional, wild ride in suspense, horror, and eerie humor, the final moments bring it home in a way that redefines everything you thought you were watching, and where you thought your priorities were meant to lie. And it’s all anchored by a phenomenal performance by Isaac, who I could watch “tear up the fuckin’ dancefloor” all day. (Liz Baessler)
35. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople
It is absolutely mind-blowing that Taika Waititi has made five films in ten years. This is Takeshi Miike style movies per capita for the decade. Of the five though, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not only my personal favorite but is arguably his most mature film to date. But that doesn’t mean it’s self-serious, rather Waititi manages to retain his trademark side-splitting humor while crafting a film that is heartbreakingly sweet. The story is simple – a boy runs away from home, his stepfather goes into the New Zealand bush to bring him back – but Waititi pushes against sentimentality by making the story a high stakes comedy of errors. But the farcical humor is secondary to the genuine relationship between Sam Neill and Julian Dennison. They have a laser-sharp connection giving their social outcasts three-dimensional warmth that doesn’t feel forced. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a film that personifies what happiness means, making it necessary viewing as we move into the unknown that is 2020. (Jacob Trussell)
Have you ever walked out of a movie theater so profoundly upset and excited by a film that you were unable to stop shaking? No? Then watch Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a tale of decaying family and looming dread. Annie (Toni Collette) has experienced devastating loss and is trying to experience grief while still being a decent mother and wife. However, the great King of Hell Paimon, or at least his worshippers, has other plans. Shadows take the shape of dead loved ones. Whispers can be heard throughout the house. Doors seem to open on their own. This all builds to a horrific and unrelenting conclusion that makes you question Aster’s mental health.
Even without the looming demonic entity, Hereditary would still be an upsetting film as we watch a family slowly disintegrate under the weight of death and guilt. Collette’s performance is awe-inspiring as she screams, cries, and rips her way through each scene. While certainly not the only daring piece of horror cinema this decade, Hereditary helped usher in a newfound respect for the genre that it has always deserved. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
If you took Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, but made it all about the “portraits” and not at all about “serial killing” then you’ll have a teeny idea of why Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is such an electric movie. Deep in the staticy underbelly of Los Angeles crime, the film follows Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, a disaffected man who has a chance encounter with a stringer, a freelance videographer who hoofs it around the city getting the freshest shots of the grisliest accidents and homicides. With a scrappy camera and police responder, he begins to usurp the other nightly stringers until the boundaries between filming the crimes begin to blur with wanting a crime to be committed. Gyllenhaal is a force to be reckoned with as a man quickly fissuring at just the moment he begins to find a calling in his torpid life. It’s a horror movie, wrapped in a thriller, wrapped up in a character study that has a bottomless depth to it. Like Michael Mann’s Collateral and other movies set in LA’s nightlife, Nightcrawler is a film that you can feel oh so cool about getting completely lost in. (Jacob Trussell)
32. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
From the ashes of M:I: III, Ghotocol rises. Brad Bird’s 2011 Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol inarguably saved the franchise from tumbling off a cliff, and combines pure cinematic beauty with heart-thumping tactility to ignite the action franchise that would define the decade. Bird used Tom Cruise’s tenuous public image to his advantage and puts Ethan Hunt and the IMF (Impossible Mission Force, in case you forgot) back on their heels. Rounding out the cast with stellar supporters such as Simon Pegg and Michael Nyqvist, the crew find themselves disavowed by the US government and needing to stop a nuclear extremist from causing a global meltdown.
The first in a slew of insane real-life stunts Cruise would undertake in the franchise, the famous Burj Khalifa stunt is the centerpiece of the film. Though it’s spectacular to watch Ethan scale the tallest building in the world through Bird’s sweeping and angular photography, the stunt is just one shuddering moment in an unending barrage. Bird dots his I’s and crossed his T’s, as every minute of the film pays off. The 60s spy sensibility and janky tech build a pit in your stomach that refuses to let up until literally the last second.
Ghost Protocol is a perfect combination of desperation and blind confidence. As Ethan watches his counterparts lose faith in both him and themselves, he simply decides not to fail. Cruise seems to grab your hand and haul you out onto the tower himself. His performance has an exhilarating ring of truth to it, and it produces a real end-of-the-world feeling. Cruise would get the chance to save the world many more times, but for a minute there it seemed like he wouldn’t. Filmgoers can breathe a communal sigh of relief because I don’t think we’d have it any other way. (Margaret Pereira)
31. 20th Century Women
“I mean, don’t you need a man to raise a man?” Elle Fanning’s Julie asks Annette Bening’s Dorothea. This is the question that Dorothea grapples with, the thing that keeps her up at night. It is 1979 in Santa Barbara, and she is a single mother in her 50s raising the teenage Jamie in a time of massive and overwhelming cultural change. “No I don’t think so,” Dorothea tells her and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), “I think you are what’s gonna work for him.” And thus is the tale of Jamie and the network of people who help him learn how to exist in the world. Abbie feeds him feminist literature (later, when he gets in a fight with other boys his age, he tells his mother the subject of disagreement was “clitoral stimulation”) and brings him to punk shows. Julie enlists his help for pregnancy tests, confides in him, and toys with the idea of a romance. Dorothea tries to connect with him and understand him (she gives Black Flag and Talking Heads a go) but also learns to give him space and let him grown on his own, make his own mistakes. It is a dream of a film that is lovingly and expertly crafted by writer-director Mike Mills, who calls it a “love letter” to the women who raised him. Few films from this decade dive this deeply into nostalgia, pseudo-autobiography, and unconventional style in a way that is so cinematic and universally accessible. These characters will stay with you for years to come. (Madison Brek)