30. True Grit
True Grit is the best western of the decade, and probably the last 20 years: an old-fashioned revenge tale where everything has a price and satisfaction is not guaranteed. Anyone who has made the claim that the Coens are cruel or nihilistic needs to be reminded that this wonderful, funny, and achingly lovely movie exists. True Grit tells of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), an authoritative 14-year-old who hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the grittiest (and drunkest) U.S. Marshal in the land, to avenge her father’s death. Unlike previous adaptations of Charles Portis’ novel, the Coens rightfully focus on Mattie, a young girl elbowing her way into a man’s world, with nothing to prove and no fucks to give.
This goes without saying but this film is so dang pretty it’s almost sarcastic, and Roger Deakins puts in career-best work capturing The West’s unforgiving, indifferent immensity. With visual expertise and riotous dialogue to match, the Coens find a boundlessly rewatchable middle ground between the genre’s bleak and idealistic poles. And if all that wasn’t enough: True Grit is the Coen brothers’ funniest film; a non-stop punch-up taking aim at every idiot dumb enough to get in its sights. Pistols at dawn for anyone who disagrees! (Meg Shields)
29. The Wolf of Wall Street
There’s a kinship between Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street and the one played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Both enter chaotic, seemingly lawless worlds as outsiders, make it, get consumed by it, and then come crashing down by way of the usual vices (sex, drugs, money) and, you know, law and order.
While less physically violent, The Wolf of Wall Street is in many ways more brutal than Goodfellas. At least in the Italian mob, there is a sense of love between family, respect, and the chaos is more or less contained to their world. The same is not true of The Wolf of Wall Street. It is colder, and that’s because the brutality of Wall Street is anything but self-contained — it ripples down and affects us all.
The Wolf of Wall Street could be reduced to a critique of the hyper-masculine, greedy, society-killing world of Wall Street capitalism. And it is. But the film is more than that — it’s also a look at the psychology behind those who are not only a part of this world but who see no problem with it, relishing in the depravity of it all. After we’ve laughed and enjoyed the film, we leave the theater and begin to reflect, and realize just how desensitized we have become to the worst aspects of the world we live in. And that is its genius. (Will DiGravio)
There are few films that better characterize the vacant sensation life can inflict than Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning. Chang-Dong takes ambiguity in stride, crafting an exquisite slow-burn with an undercurrent of unspecific longing. Played anxiously by Yoo Ah-In, Jong-Su is under-employed and living in a postgrad haze, when he reunites with his childhood friend Hae-Mi (Jeon Jong-Seo). Jong-Seo’s unpretentious performance brings something guileless to Burning, while the characters tug at the edge of a desire that might be romantic or sexual, but is probably just a need for human connection. After Hae-Mi returns from a trip with Ben (Steven Yeun), the three of them float through each other’s days as a gripping unease fills the frame and culminates in a puncture wound of an ending.
Yeun’s performance is simmering, as we’re never quite sure if Ben is a psychopath or someone just comfortable with their own emptiness. Chang-Dong uses the character to play with the idea of “great hunger,” a search for great meaning that we humans would kill for. Ben seems to be missing that thing that makes him human though, and Yeun plays this with a peaceful sort of dread. Even the cinematography searches, as Chang-Dong lends a sense of care through the camera that is crucially absent in some of the characters. A slow-moving style and careful attention to anxious lighting create a film so exquisite it’s scarring. Burning exists mostly on the level of the ambiguous and undefined, but after a viewing, much more of its playthings are recognizable in ourselves. (Margaret Pereira)
27. Certified Copy
Words feel like an inadequate medium for describing Certified Copy, which is ironic considering the film is so talky itself. It’s pure experiential cinema: instinctively intelligible on an emotional level, if narratively enigmatic. What sets Abbas Kiarostami’s film (his first to be shot outside Iran) apart from the other greats of chatty cinema is this self-obscuring philosophical bent: Certified Copy is a movie with a twist in which understanding the twist isn’t all that important, and while we’re never quite sure what is true about its characters, the film persuades us with easy charm that the truth doesn’t actually matter very much anyway. Its abstract meditations on art, performance, love, subjectivity, image, memory, language and time are made intuitively perceptible through eloquent dialogue and expressive images, but one chief reason the film is so successful is its star, Juliette Binoche. Never lovelier or more magnetic, Binoche gives the most vulnerable screen performance of her career as a French art dealer playing Tuscan tour guide to an English author (first-time film actor William Shimell) who she may or may not be married to. Shimell and Binoche’s performances are at once naturalistic and performative, making for a perfect in-film evocation of Certified Copy’s central thesis: that a copy is just as valuable as the original. (Farah Cheded)
If you ask people what they remember about Damien Chazelle’s breakout film, they’ll probably mention Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) throwing a cymbal at Andrew’s (Miles Teller) head during band rehearsal. The firebrand performances are certainly one for the ages, but the film should also be credited as a scorching, unparalleled look at the addictive gnaw of ambition. A rare few feel called to strive for excellence regardless of consequences, and Whiplash explores that ruthless crowd, both through the myth of greatness from pain and through the reality of abuse inflicted in the name of art.
Whiplash could easily work as a simple condemnation of Fletcher’s insidious teaching methods, but its excellence comes from its willingness to lean into the messier, more complicated aspects of its central relationship, as in the soaring final scene. The film builds itself around frenetic, intricate jazz pieces, and the relentless tempo matches the precise cinematography to create an incredibly tense movie-going experience. When the music finally stops, you’ll be left only with the thud of your heart pounding in your ears. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
25. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
From the minute we start twirling through battle with the resistance fighters, Star Wars: The Last Jedi announces itself as different. Rian Johnson’s 2017 installment in the Star Wars franchise follows the dredges of the rebel army through missions, quests, and the occasional mutiny as they desperately try to escape from the lecherous First Order.
Anchored by lump-in-your-throat performances from Adam Driver as Kylo Ren and Daisy Ridley as Rey, their two arcs are sides of the same coin and lend revelatory chemistry to Johnson’s confident style. Johnson managed to craft a film that’s about making mistakes in a franchise that has historically refused to acknowledge theirs. Every character in the film consistently fails and stumbles on a sense of determination that makes them each stronger. Johnson’s playing at once at the level of wholesome emotion, but also in a place of filmic mastery characterized by violently beautiful compositions and an evaluative and tender approach to meaning. He does not shy away from the lore but embraces the tensions created by George Lucas and co, and digs into the questions of identity that Star Wars was always already about.
The Last Jedi exhumed an earnestness that has felt largely lost in the franchise shuffle. There’s a kind of euphoria that permeates each frame. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to see Star Wars in 1977, and feel the intense elation of seeing a movie that was so grand and stridently new. The Last Jedi taps into this effect. Something abstract surrounds everything in the film, a feeling of care and pride that emotionally activates in the way only Star Wars can. The purity of loving something so unreal is necessarily fickle, and Johnson’s film carries that bittersweet sting of change that will only produce a deeper love than what previously existed. (Margaret Pereira)
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a strong contender for the greatest ending scene of all time, and the 93 minutes leading up to it are pretty damn perfect, too. The incomparable Nina Hoss delivers a career-best performance as Nelly, a disfigured Holocaust survivor who emerges from the ashes of war wanting to pretend nothing ever happened. She wants to return to the life she lived before her religion became a death sentence; she wants to return to the husband she believed in before he betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds her husband in the rubble of Berlin, he doesn’t recognize her and believes she’s simply another woman who looks like Nelly. He enlists her help, asking her to pose as the wife he believes is dead in order to claim her inheritance. Nelly, allowing him to recreate her according to an image that’s been lost for both of them, goes along with it.
Petzold masterfully handles what should be convoluted by keeping the film firmly locked in Nelly’s perspective and by foregrounding Hoss’s impeccable skills — her wide, anxious eyes grappling with desire and betrayal, and her subtle gestures and twitches communicating Nelly’s anxiety and projected self-assurance. Even the most elaborate aspects of the plot never read as unrealistic when Petzold and Hoss so clearly establish that Nelly will convince herself of anything to maintain her faith in the husband and the life she wants to return to. Phoenix stands tall as one of the greatest films about war precisely by exploring the devastation that persists long after a final shot is fired. Entwining the personal and the political, Petzold interrogates the line at which rebuilding becomes a way to either obscure the past or romanticize it rather than see it plainly. This is a bold film that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t have worked as perfectly as it did. But every now and again, when we’re lucky, a movie can surprise us like this. (Anna Swanson)
23. Lady Bird
Despite only having been around for a couple of years, I feel like I’ve grown up with Lady Bird. It’s hard to put that emotional connection into words, but that, I think, is also a testament to how deeply human this film is. Much like the title character herself, Greta Gerwig depicts Sacramento and all of its inhabitants so affectionately and with such care, to the point where no one is secondary enough to not receive a heartfelt vignette. With so many of these one-liners and gut-punches to go around, every experience of watching the film is different, because at least for me, it’s never the same moment that gets me to cry first. Sometimes it’s Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) slow dancing at the prom. Sometimes it’s Marian (Laurie Metcalf) trying in vain to write, over and over again, just the right words before her daughter goes off to college. And sometimes all it takes is a small observation – “She has a big heart, your mom.” – before I’m absolutely wrecked.
One last aside, I also wouldn’t be writing this blurb without Lady Bird. I’d just finished watching this film for the umpteenth time when I found out I’d gotten my internship with Film School Rejects and having already shared how deeply this movie makes me feel, you can imagine how strong my reaction was. It’s a moment I think about often, and an opportunity that means just as much. I’m grateful to hold onto both of them. (Christina Smith) (Editor’s note: 😢)
22. Take Shelter
Simply put, Take Shelter is a film about a man who wants to protect his family but doesn’t know whether he is the only one who can save them from a cataclysmic storm or is himself the cataclysm from which they need protecting. Many films try to put you inside a character’s head, but few succeed nearly so well. While Michael Shannon’s jaw-droppingly powerful performance as Curtis is a key piece in the puzzle, there’s so much more to it than that.
Take Shelter is not just a great film, but a rare example of a movie that truly feels like the absolute best possible version of itself. Every frame works, every line rings true. It’s the sort of film where watching it feels like being given a little piece of the filmmaker’s soul, and all credit to Jeff Nichols, because what a beautiful piece it is. It’s a film I watch at least a couple of times a year, sometimes because I’m sharing it with someone, other times because I just want to see it again. Regardless of the context, it burrows just a little bit deeper into my heart each and every time, and if that’s not the power of cinema in action right there, then I don’t know what is. (Ciara Wardlow)
21. Let the Sunshine In
Perhaps more than any living filmmaker, Claire Denis is adept at structuring her films and at using the language of cinema to conjure a response from a viewer. She wields shot compositions and editing rhythms like a great artist wields a paintbrush. After more than three decades of filmmaking, she’s still surprising audiences by molding various genres to her style. One of the greatest surprises was Denis, so famed for her depictions of brutality, releasing a romantic comedy about Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a middle-aged artist and divorcee looking for true love. While this genre is a first from the director, it allows her to revisit contentious ideas of romance, desire, and eroticism that have been present throughout her filmography.
In one of the most moving and exquisitely beautiful films from this decade, Denis localizes these themes around a deeply flawed protagonist who drifts from romantic tryst to romantic tryst, unable to find a real connection but refuting those who truly desire her. Isabelle is frustrating, even infuriating, but ultimately she is deeply and tragically human. Regardless of the style of film Denis is working in, her characters are never anything but. (Anna Swanson)