It’s hard to pull off a good “goodbye.” This is particularly true when discussing entertainment produced as the product of a capitalist system, which generally speaking maintains a strict policy of wringing every drop of possible profit out of an intellectual property before calling it a day. And indeed, the less said about the X-Men movie output since Logan, the better. But if Dark Phoenix is the post hoc price that needed to be paid, it was still worth it, because James Mangold’s farewell to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X is a brilliant swan song, but that’s not even the half of it. Logan is a poignant meditation on the role stories play in our lives, and how the fictional stories and characters we love have the power to influence us in profound ways. It’s brutal and earnest and utterly heartfelt; the ultimate evidence that superhero films can be “grown-up” in ways that go beyond embracing R-rated violence and swear words. “So that’s what that feels like.” *Sniffles.* *Blinks rapidly.* *Sobs.* (Ciara Wardlow)
Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction film Arrival is extractive and tangled, and in thinking about aliens, it prods at the question of what it means to be human. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louis Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the military to translate the language of mysterious alien visitors. Each aspect of the film clicks into place like a gearshift, and Adams’ performance is included in this. In portraying a person who’s living an event no one ever has, Adams is importantly unreadable. There’s no way to succinctly put this encounter on a face, but Adams lends veracity and capability. Absolutely vital to the moves the film will make, Adams deserves so much credit.
Villeneuve’s design creates seamlessness in Arrival, a warm grey atmosphere that is beautiful in a mathematical sort of way. The late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is unknowable, but not alien, and contributes to the way the film welds to your conscious. Arrival’s spacecraft and aliens themselves gnaw at the edges of understanding. These aliens communicate in logograms that don’t begin or end but simply exist. Villeneuve creates thematic resonance through these choices, playing with really modernist ideas about temporality. As Louise works, she begins thinking and feeling differently and is able to experience an unbridled wholeness in life. Arrival gives us the experience of wanting to experience. Louis will choose the highest highs and the lowest lows, and the film creates a space where you feel safe enough to hope you will do the same. Either way, when she asks “What is your purpose here?” she’s asking the aliens, yes, but she’s also asking us. (Margaret Pereira)
18. The Witch
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” It’s a meme, it’s a way of life, but before all that, it was the question that anchored Robert Eggers’ hypnotic, atmospheric debut. Black Phillip and the witch in the woods may be the literal villains of The Witch, but it’s the specter of patriarchal oppression that haunts young Puritan Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) throughout much of the movie’s runtime, making that final, seductively-whispered question feel as joyous as it is terrifying. Five years later, we’re still arguing about whether the film’s ending is one of true liberation or devilish manipulation, but the merits of The Witch aren’t up for debate. Former production designer Eggers makes authenticity look like a competitive sport, while cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and composer Mark Korven assault our senses with visions of frighteningly barren landscapes and an expertly creeping soundtrack, respectively. This deliberately building nightmare has been recognized as a master-class in slow-burn horror, but beyond genre, it’s also commendable as a fantastic work of filmmaking. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
17. The Florida Project
In 2015, Sean Baker entered the Criterion Closet, took a copy of Ken Loach’s KES off the shelf and said of his selection, “I’m going to be making a film with kids very soon.” What Baker went on to make was, yes, a film with kids, but undoubtedly one of the best of the decade, one that constantly lingers somewhere in the back of my head.
Almost all of The Florida Project takes place at “The Magic Castle Motel” in Orlando, Florida, in the shadow of Disney World. Willem Dafoe received an Academy Award nomination for his role, but the real stand-outs are Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite, who play the mother-daughter duo at the center of the film’s story. Their performances convey a realism that, combined with the film’s heavy stylization, completely envelops us, allowing us to feel not only their experience but the texture of their world itself.
There’s a moment after a key part of the film when Baker cuts to a shot of the motel with the real Magic Kingdom in the background. Fireworks go off. Perhaps I was a lazy viewer, but up until that point in the film I had completely forgotten about Disney World. I was so consumed by the characters and their day-to-day lives. With that one shot, Baker connects his story to something much bigger in a way that does not belabor the point or diminish his characters. It is cinema at its best. (Will DiGravio)
16. Paddington 2
You need Paddington 2 in your life. While the sequel narrowly squeezed out the first film – thanks in no small part by a comic villain turn from Hugh Grant, at his most engaged in years – the series is a big warm blanket on a blisteringly cold day. I don’t have to tell you how rocky the world is right now, but Paddington 2 lets you escape into a picturesque London filled with as much mystery and weirdness (courtesy of director Paul King, known for his work on The Mighty Boosh) as there is virtuous compassion. Ben Wishaw’s Paddington, guided by a steady moral compass, is the perfect antecedent to other wiley CG children’s characters (see: Peter Rabbit) that are driven more by a child’s ego than its innocent. And while Paddington does get into sticky situations (like going to jail) he always manages to inspire joy through his earnestness (like getting cred in said jail by making delicious marmalade) and maybe a hard stare or two. This isn’t just a great film, it’s the perfect mood for when you are feeling blue. Or to think of it in a different way: Paddington 2 is a thunder jacket for life. (Jacob Trussell)
When was the last time a film presented you with the essence of a thing that you could not parallel to the real world? Meet: The Shimmer, the ambiguous subject of Alex Garland’s “dream adaptation,” as he calls it, of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi trilogy. It’s a wonder to behold. Don’t go in expecting to understand what you see the first time, or the second, or the 100th. This is a film that exists to fly in the face of finality, determinism, and fixed truth. It piques our interest with its mind-bending concepts and earns our trust with its refusal to offer clean answers (in other words, its insistence upon making us think). It’s a film that must be wrestled with, chewed on, explored like a never-ending maze, and eventually submitted to in all of its ravishing beauty. Because, at the end of the day, Annihilation opens the door to so much depth of conversation around what it means to be, to change, to evolve, that all we can do by the end is soak in its ruminations alongside its bewildered ensemble cast (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny).
It addresses our infatuation with the unknown, self-destruction, ecological ethics, human evolution, ontological philosophy, patriarchal norms, marriage, interlamination, mimesis, and so much more, while never sacrificing nuance or losing steam as a wildly entertaining sci-fi mind fuck (the second from Garland this decade, the other being Ex Machina). Not to mention, it’s one of the few thoughtful, intelligent, and dignifying studio films of the decade driven by powerhouse performances by women. (Luke Hicks)
14. Phantom Thread
Paul Thomas Anderson sends Daniel Day-Lewis into retirement on top of his game with one of the most memorable characters of the decade. We love to hate Reynolds Woodcock, so much so that we can totally appreciate the combination of care and punishment that he winds up subjected to. And yet Vicky Krieps is the true revelation of Phantom Thread, a bewildering presence who seems to have control over not just her bitter beau but also the film itself as if she’s subtly stolen it from the two men — director and lead actor — who still think they’re in charge. (Christopher Campbell)
13. The Farewell
Lulu Wang wrote and directed one of the most successful indie features of the decade with The Farewell; opening to the best per-theater average gross at its time of release, her film even outperformed Avengers: Endgame in that arena. And it rightly deserves its reception. Adapted from her segment on This American Life, Wang’s film depicts a fictionalized version of her own family as they struggle with keeping their matriarch’s cancer diagnosis a secret, even from her. Lacing her bilingual script with cultural specificity and emotional universality, Wang channels her experience into her onscreen counterpart, Billi (Awkwafina, in a moving dramatic performance), as she grapples with her upbringing in the Chinese diaspora, her sense of familial duty, and the potential loss of one of the closest relationships in her life.
The film’s success all drives home the fact that stories crossing boundaries have wide appeal, as do stories told with as much warmth, humor, and heart. In a cultural landscape dominated by some of the biggest event films ever made, it’s just as well that we celebrate these more intimate moments, too. It’s what Nai-Nai would want for us. If anything, do it for her. (Christina Smith)
12. Gone Girl
Gone Girl is a top tier entrant in one of cinema’s finest subgenres: bad men realizing they’re bad. Thinking of texting your ex? Rewatch Gone Girl. Thinking of giving a garbage boy a pass because he’s kinda dumb and probably (definitely) wasn’t thinking things through? Rewatch Gone Girl. David Fincher weaponizes his clinical lens and active disdain for Ben Affleck to deliver the best psycho-sexual thriller this side of Paul Verhoeven’s kink closet. Rosamund Pike’s performance is terrifying, vulpine, and aspirational. And, to put it mildly, Amy Dunne is right and she should be allowed to do that. Now everyone go ask your wife what her blood type is. (Meg Shields)
11. Call Me By Your Name
Across time and history, a plethora of books (that would eventually be filmed) have been thought of or considered to be un-filmable (think: The Princess Bride, in all of its narrative complexity, or Dune, for obvious reasons). When reading Andre Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name, I pondered this conundrum a lot (for much different reasons). How could a love affair of this magnitude, which, for the most part, has all of its intensity predicated on the interiority of its narrator, Elio, who grapples so fervently with such deep, deep feelings of longing and desire, be adapted for the screen in a way that rings true? I still cannot explain the dynamics and intricacies of the answer to this question, but there is no doubt that Luca Guadagnino succeeded brilliantly in this endeavor with his 2017 film. This is largely thanks to Timothée Chalamet, here in his astounding breakout role (though, it’s difficult now to remember a time BC — before Chalamet), where he so perfectly brings Elio’s interior experience to the exterior (without the crutch of a voiceover). When reflecting on this decade in film, if you’re looking for the best coming-of-age story, the best love story, or the greatest movie dad on the planet (we love you, Michael Stuhlbarg) all signs point to Call Me By Your Name. (Madison Brek)