10. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night
dir. Bi Gan
More than just the audacious finale that no, I will not stop talking about because it’s unbelievable, Bi Gan’s follow-up to the equally mystical Kaili Blues is a masterful chop-and-screw of Neo-noir story-telling, presenting a hapless, dream-riddled man in search of his long-lost love. Only, by the halfway point of the film, the audience should be less and less certain that the love exists at all. If she did, that was ages ago, long relegated to a dream state. Then, as if to point directly toward the answer, the finale of the movie is a 55-minute long unbroken take chronicling the man’s descent into the depth of his dreams. A masterful collection of half-remembered moments, forming a uniquely affecting film.
9. High Life
dir. Claire Denís
Denís and Binoche’s second appearance on this list bares far more bat-shit fruit than Let the Sunshine In, revealing Denís’ science fiction eye to be just as adept as her little indie eye. While she and Robert Pattinson expertly deconstruct parenting into a series of lonely missions in the vacuum of space, seemingly left to wander by all those you formerly knew, gone forever, Denís and Binoche illustrate the visceral, fluid process that the human mating process can resemble if viewed from alien eyes. A slippery (literally) mission statement that interjects moments of horrific violence and astounding luridness (the fuck bull!) amidst a comparatively low-budget and weirdly un-scientific science fiction space mission. One of Denís most bizarre movies. Also one of the most profound.
dir. Lucretia Martel
Fair warning: those that find Armando Ianucci’s brand of humor overly dry or black should absolutely never see Zama. Lucrecia Martel’s epic adaptation is a bone-dry and blackly humorous as any movie I’ve ever seen, often flecking mindless conversations about parliamentary procedure with a subtle llama walking across the background of the frame. Get it? Yet while the humor is decidedly not everyone’s jam, Martel is an expert of guiding her camera along the slow decay of the titular characters life, until seemingly without warning Zama has become a creature of Pynchonian meaninglessness. A frequently hilarious (if you’re on its wavelength) meditation on planet Earth as the most massive purgatory possible.
7. Ash Is Purest White
dir. Zhangke Jia
Think of Zhangke’s epic gangster saga as something of a Chinese Goodfellas, only reframed to focus on the most interesting character from Goodfellas — Ray Liotta’s wife. Tao Zhao is a revelation, guided through nearly two decades of Chinese history as a missile of retributive vengeance and self-realization. She witnesses horrific flooding, the migrant worker crisis that continues to plague China’s “factory city” mentality, abandoned Olympic stadiums, and quite possibly the least remarked-upon UFO sighting ever. Throughout all, she remains singularly clear in her quest to regain the power she used to have, and Zhangke is right to allow her steely visage to guide the movie’s course.
dir. Samel Maoz
Righteously skeptical of almost everything about the military industrial complex, Samuel Maoz’s triptych on the nature of grief in a perennial state of war feels unreal in its sorrow until the final con is revealed. While both pieces of bread in the sandwich are beautiful in their own right, wandering elliptically through an expertly scouted modernist apartment, it’s the meat of the movie where Maoz makes his greatest statement. Through clever Dutch angles, a dance number, and animal humor (camels!), the mundanity of forever war takes on a pitch black humor. How are we supposed to be okay offering our children to this meaningless tragedy? We aren’t, and Foxtrot knows it.
5. Minding the Gap
dir. Bing Liu
It’s ridiculous to have Bing Liu’s remarkable documentary this low. What a year. Minding the Gap is simultaneously about the grace and escapism of skating, and how its kinetic, solo activity can provide respite from the world’s caravan of tragedy, and the eternal, inescapable damage that has been done to us and that we will do to others. Far from being a sorrowful elegy for kids done wrong by their parents, Bing smartly frames Zack Mulligan’s turn toward the monster he never wanted to be right next to his search for familial catharsis and Kiere Johnson’s struggle with his anger issues, desire to be a professional skater, and family limitations. None are more equal than the other, and all men have found themselves together at the skate park. Bing is there for that. Yet when their lives diverge and begin to corrode outside the park, Bing is right there too.
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
dir. Barry Jenkins
A totem to the great loves of our family history, and yet another paean to the resilience of the African-American experience, Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin is a lush and gorgeous portrait of a couple who will not be undone, even if all of society refuses to recognize their union. Depressing as it might often be that no one is willing to believe in Tish and Fonny, despite their repeated commitments to each other, Jenkins treats the couple’s promises as gospel, framing each as beatific denizens of a blessed purpose. And they are, after all, as new parents. Jenkins understands intimately how to present the key moments of their life, creating a fitting, and I would argue superior, follow-up to the rightly awarded Moonlight.
dir. Lee Chang-Dong
The confusion Jong-Su feels as he fecklessly searches for the object of his beta-male desire, Hae-mi, is an almost impossible cinematic feeling to transpose. Yet there is Lee, expertly crafting a class warfare subplot on top of the hapless detective story as a method of interrogating youth culture’s obsession with true purpose and motivation. Perhaps Jong-Su is completely wrong with all the circumstantial hints thrown at him by the admittedly at least serial killer-adjacent Ben (an effortless Steven Yeun). Perhaps he’s completely correct on his hunch, a little flicker of conspiratorial flame lit in the midst of an extended, gorgeous magic-hour unbroken take. And beneath it all, the roots of a modernist conflict, one between the contemporary Korea and its retrograde Northern neighbor, in the rapidly gentrifying farmland around Jong-Su as he furiously searches for greenhouses and water wells, chasing down the next blind alley. A mystery onto itself, Burning is nevertheless a remarkable achievement of multi-level dramatic purpose.
2. Sorry to Bother You
dir. Boots Riley
Just from the little vantage point of “most original cinematic vision,” Riley’s splatter-comedy update on Putney Swope is so densely layered with anti-colonialist messaging and punk standard-bearing that it’s almost impossible to come out of the film believing that the same medium was used to make the limp and condescending A Star Is Born. Riley assembles a cast so able and game to executing his wackadoo vision that, once again, it’s hard to imagine cinema being any less adventurous or enrapturing. The second act’s turn toward the body horror is genuinely shocking, yet another example of the “yes and” improvisational attitude Riley clearly brings to his debut. A mark of a master filmmaker already in existence, and the most original, brash and refreshing piece of cinema in many years.
dir. Alfonso Cuaron
What else is there to say about a movie as concerned with one often forgotten emotion — empathy? Cuarón’s capacity to find beauty in the most sorrowful and tragic of circumstances only serves to increase the tremendous realism of his vision, finally removed from all the high-fantasy and science fiction of his previous oeuvre. He manages to weave his entire cinematic history together into a conclusive whole, one that would feel fitting as a final film were Cuarón not so young and clearly enamored with creating new spectra of his unique mind.
But instead of opting for the epic sweep of his previous work, Roma is an ode to the mundane miracles of human life, rendered splendidly clear by the filmmaker in his first turn as a cinematographer (so better to increase the comfort of his first time actors… empathy, see). In a year stacked with movies that could conceivably be considered the best of the year, Roma stands alone as perhaps the greatest movie of the decade. One of the best of the millennium, in fact. That such beauty, joy, terror and empathy could be drawn from the simple victories of Cleo is a testament to everyone involved in the film. Hold your head high, you have crafted true cinematic majesty.