There were times when I thought all 10 of these films would make my top 10 list. Alas, it was not to be for them, but all are great and deserve your attention.
20. Suspira (Luca Guadanino)
I certainly understand those people who hated Luca Guadanino’s Suspiria – either because it is really the polar opposite of Dario Argento’s dreamy, ultraviolent, technicolor 1977 original, or just because they found the nearly two and half hour horror film more pretentious than scary. But while I’m still not sure if some of the surviving mystery in the film is because of deliberate ambiguity, or just sloppy storytelling, I will say that Suspiria is a truly haunting film – expertly crafted by Guadanino, with some of the most memorable set pieces of the year (especially that dance/death sequence – you know the one) – with a great score by Thom Yorke to boot. The film takes the time and place of the original seriously, and expands its subject matter to include the entire patriarchy. No, I’m still not sure if you could actually call the film feminist – but I’m not sure it matters much. The film dives headlong into its ideas, and drags you there too. A fascinating, ambitious film.
19. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)
It took decades to finally see the final project of the great Orson Welles – and while it is impossible to know just how close the end result is to what Welles himself would have come up with, the end result is endlessly fascinating, and adds another dimension to Welles’ already massive legacy. The Other Side of the Wind is a startlingly modern film for Welles – a film that both pokes fun at what was then the European Art House films (particularly Michelangelo Antonioni) – but also outdoes some of them in terms of its scenes in the movie within the movie (the sex scene is already legendary). The film itself – about an aging director working on a new style of film, who is celebrated and pitied, and eventually has himself lain bare and cannot take it – is chaotic and confounding, bitter and petty, and once you get on its wavelength, moving. The end result shows that Welles was ahead of his time right to the end.
18. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
I will never not have a soft spot for a film that knows precisely how to use Nicolas Cage – especially if said film involves Cage fighting a band of demon, outlaw bikers with a chainsaw, as Mandy does. But that is in the truly insane second half of the film, which wouldn’t work nearly as well without the first half of the film – which involves Cage’s character being grounded into a tragic reality so that the second half of the film actually makes sense. Yes, Cage goes over the top – nowhere more so than in the famous drinking in the bathroom sequence (unfortunately, taken out of context too often for the purpose of memes) – but that’s the right level to go for in Panos Cosmatos’ strange, hypnotic, metal horror film. The score by the late Johan Johansson is the best of the year – and the filmmaking chops on display by Cosmatos are truly insane and great. This is one of the few future “cult classics” that actually deserve that label.
17. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Boots Riley’s debut film is one of the most original, daring and ambitious films of the year – so much so that even though it probably comes up slightly short of its massive ambitions, it’s still a great film. Riley’s surreal, dystopian film looks into the near future, with capitalism run amok, and the workers either literally selling themselves into slavery, or else selling others out to get just slightly ahead – all while the corporate overlords get richer and richer. Oh, and the film is hilarious. And the low-key special effects are ingenious. And the performances – especially by Laketih Stanfield in the lead, who grounds the film in a way that makes it truly relatable – are all brilliant. Riley goes for broke pretty much from the start – and while there is a bump or two along the way that keep the film from “perfection” – perfection isn’t really what he’s going for here. This is a messy, thoughtful, incendiary film – that announces Riley’s presence as a filmmaker to watch.
16. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
As with Granik’s last film – Winter’s Bone (which still contains Jennifer Lawrence’s best performance), Leave No Trace is the type of film that sneaks up on you a little, and then won’t leave you alone in the days, weeks, months after seeing it. The film, about a military veteran, living alone in the forest with his teenage daughter, because he cannot bare to be around other people, is quiet, subtle and heartbreaking. Ben Foster gives the best performance of his impressive career as the father – a man who will not talk about what haunts him and also finds it impossible to let them go. Newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie is really the heart of the movie though – she’s in nearly every scene, and the film is really about her journey to independence – separating from her father, so she can become her own person. Granik makes these quiet, subtle, beautiful little films – they aren’t as flashy as many, but they are effective, and get your skin, and into your head, and then stay there.
15. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker)
The wonderfully strange Madeline’s Madeline marks a giant leap forward for director Josephine Decker – who previous films Thou Wast Lovely and Mild and Butter on the Latch – were odd, idiosyncratic experiments. Madeline’s Madeline maintains the strangeness of Decker’s style, while marrying it to a deeper story, and richer characters than before. One of the great performances of the year is by newcomer Helena Howard – a bi-racial teenager, struggling with her own mental illness, and a complicated relationship with her mother, who finds herself in a drama class run by another mother like figure, who both supports and exploits her, for her own gain. The movie really is about Howard finding herself – defining herself, and breaking free from the two mother figures in her life, as we all must. It’s also quite a technical achievement – with expert editing, sound design, and intimate, immediate cinematography. This is a challenging film – and well worth it.
14. Widows (Steve McQueen)
Steve McQueen’s Widows should have been the big box office hit for adults of the fall – but the studio didn’t quite know how to market it, so while it didn’t fall through the cracks per se, it certainly didn’t get the attention it deserves (it will mystify us all in 5 years, when we’re watching it for the 20th time on cable that it wasn’t a monster hit). Widows is a heist film, in which three widows of thieves killed in a job at the beginning of the film, are forced to try and pull off a daring robbery themselves. Led by Viola Davis, they do just that. The film works as a great genre film in the style of Michael Mann – but it’s got more its mind than that as well, painting a picture of a diverse, complex, violent Chicago, in which drug dealers and politicians have equally dirty hands. It also has one of the best ensemble casts of the year. That this is the film that McQueen chose to follow-up the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave is odd – but certainly shows his range, and also how meticulously crafted all his films are. A great genre film that, like all great genre films, has something more on its mind.
13. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
I may prefer the ice cold, deadpan Yorgos Lanthimos films like Dogtooth, The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer – but there’s something immensely satisfying about seeing the Greek master turn his attention to a different genre and style of filmmaking, and still watching his jaundiced view of humanity shine through. The Favourite is about the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who starts out as little more than a petulant child, but gradually takes on more depth throughout the film. Two younger women – her longtime friend Lady Sara (Rachel Weisz), and Sara’s cousin (Emma Stone) start to compete for the queen’s attention and affection – this jockeying for position being cruel, crude and cynical. And yet, it’s also born out of real world misogyny – a time and place where women had few options. Lanthimos lets loose a little bit – for him – and indulges in high style, and lets his actors perform without a net. The result is a hilarious, disturbing and extremely entertaining film – Lanthimos for the mainstream.
12. Mission Impossible - Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
The Mission Impossible franchise has always been great – one of the best action franchises in history – but it became something truly special with the fourth installment (Ghost Protocol) – and has just kept getting better since then. The sixth installment, Fallout, is the best yet – with Tom Cruise running, jumping, shooting, fighting and just about everything thing his way through the behemoth two and half hour runtime of pure action movie bliss. Director McQuarrie (becoming he first director to helm two in this series) outdoes himself – and everyone else really – in terms of the giant scale of the movie, and its action set pieces. Truly one of the great action movies of the century so far (second perhaps only to Mad Max: Fury Road).
11. Paddington 2 (Paul King)
No film filled me with purer joy this year than Paddington 2 – the most delightful children’s film in years, and a visually inventive and hilarious comedy to boot. The original Paddington was fun – I was shocked by just how much fun it was when it came out a few years ago when I took my daughter, and we both adored it. This film is leaps and bounds better than that one in every respect. Freed from the setup, this sequel could just imagine Paddington in London, the victim of cruel lies and crimes committed by Hugh Grant – giving the best performance of his career as a vain, washed up has been of an actor – and still never giving in to pettiness or anger. As a film, the film is full of visual jokes and nods – including tributes to Chaplin and Keaton, and more detailed and precious production design and costuming this side of Wes Anderson. Paddington 2 was the feel good movie we all needed this year – and so much more.