Raising Bertie – Edge of Tomorrow – The Day He Arrives – Zama – Pina – Tabu – Get Out

Among the nearly 2,000 new films I saw this past decade, I found these the freshest in concept, richest in ambition, craftiest in execution, or plain hardest to forget. Joint citations are for movies that share artists or themes, and for which I feel nearly equal awe. Honorable mentions, scattered throughout, are for films that would miss this list on their own but merit a warm shout. I hope you hunt down titles new to you, or rewatch those you know, and share your reactions.

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Arabian Nights, © 2015 Kino Lorber/O Som e a Fúria/Shellac Sud/Komplizen Film/Box Productions/Agat Films & Cie/Arté France Cinéma/ZDF The Tree of Life, © 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures/River Road Entertainment Western, © 2017 Komplizen Film, © 2018 The Cinema Guild If Beale Street Could Talk, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures/Plan B Entertainment
1. Arabian Nights, Vol. 1: The Restless One (dir. Miguel Gomes, 2015)
1. Arabian Nights, Vol. 2: The Desolate One (dir. Miguel Gomes, 2015)
1. Arabian Nights, Vol. 3: The Enchanted One (dir. Miguel Gomes, 2015)
 
Another Miguel Gomes entry, another Amir Soltani dedication—for an acquaintance that barely existed at the start of this decade that became a deep, dependable, much-valued, movie-loving friendship by its end... and for all the times I've talked to and thought of him during the chaotic and critical weeks while I was writing these entries. For Jonathan Storey, another friend and cinephile whom I didn't even know when the 2010s began, and who gifted me the most beautiful letter and the loveliest visit. (No fan of the chaffinch, that one.) And honestly, for anyone who made a movie, programmed a movie, bought a ticket to a movie, talked to me about a movie, or especially shared with me their love for a movie at any time during the last ten years. They've been terrific and tough. Cinema, as always, made them so much better, as did you.

By the way: if this is the first entry you're clicking on, I promise no others are this long. Not even close.


The Night Before (December 6, 2019)

I think I'll do a list. But instead of just name the films, to quote Cher, "Now I wanna really, I wanna really say...something." I would like to feel like a real, longer-form writer again, not just a slingshotter of tweets. I would love to start a project that I actually finish, with no deadlines or editorial criteria to satisfy but my own. (I'm sure longtime readers doubted, with warrant, if I'd see this all the way through.) I'm also about to start drafting a book that's a history of commercial cinema at the end of the 1990s, so it might help me gear up for that one and loosen my writing fingers a bit to look back on the 2010s. In less than a month, we'll be welcoming yet another decade. For all kinds of reasons, from watching friends pass prematurely to seeing fire, melt, and climate chaos on every continent, I don't take for granted that I'll witness more after this one. In that spirit, I'd like to mark this occasion as special. I would be honored to take one more shot at signal-boosting for a bunch of movies I adored and admired that never reaped the level of broad visibility they deserved, alongside other films I equally adored and admired that millions upon millions of us got to share in common.

As an incorrigible list-maker, I hope to certify that even if lists are unavoidably performative, self-aggrandizing, saturated with conscious and unconscious bias, and reflective of all the maker's blind spots and limitations, the good ones can also entail earnest and complicated reflection—on one's own tastes, perspectives, and social position, as much as on the listed objects. I would like to pay homage to the film artists whose work I constantly consume, who pour huge amounts of time, care, and energy into crafting their movies. My best way to do that is to prove how hard I try to meet them halfway with my own effusions of time, care, and energy, and my own willingness to be publicly critiqued when a line, idea, or choice of mine, or maybe my entire point of view, strikes someone else as incomplete or incorrect. I'd be overjoyed to hear from website and Twitter followers (the nicest, most considerate ones on the internet, I am 100% positive) about the movies they loved as much as I did, or more or less than I did, and why.

More than anything, at a moment in time, nationally and globally, that feels rather loveless in wide-angle—though my own life, I'm fortunate to say, is full of love, support, and camaraderie in close-up—I would like to bolster my spirits and take advantage of a rare window of leave time from my job by only writing about movies I love. And if I do this long enough, I'll get to write about Arabian Nights, the most astounding film event of the decade, on which I've never published anything longer than 140 characters.

Night #1 (December 7, 2019)

This is already so fun!! If I keep doing what I did today, writing 250-400 words about four films apiece, including Honorable Mentions, I can wrap up every day before early afternoon and will end right as the ball drops on New Year's Eve.

Night #5 (December 11, 2019)

Oh, these are getting longer. But surely I care more about writing, rewatching, and conversing than about finishing "on time"? It's nobody else's time but mine! I think my own favorite entries so far are the ones about Mr. Turner and the First ManWind Rises duo. But boy, did the Pina fans show up and show out! And I'm so elated that more people are learning about Valencia, and finally have a way to see it.

Night #25 (December 31, 2019)

Still learning so much from this exercise. Readers and commenters have been incredible. Meanwhile, movies keep shifting places from my first draft. I'm definitely getting even more out of this work the longer and deeper I go with the essays, whether on ones that have been favorites for almost ten years or others that have just come out, or both of those things at once, or movies I've written about elsewhere from totally different directions, or newborn movies that will need help getting the widest releases they can, or movies that played everywhere but still reaped less acclaim than they merited. Admittedly, though, it's getting much harder to know what to put next. How am I only at #28, but I've already arrived at Court and A Separation?? How are these not in the Top 10? At least I know for sure what's #1. I'm coming to you, Grand Vizier Miguel Gomes!

Night #27 (January 2, 2020)

I couldn't be happier in my private nook of the world, or more despondent peering outside it. I don't feel right just living inside this cinephilic bubble I've created around myself the last month and posting about my favorite art—even the entries that made me proudest, even when they're helping me think through violence as a local and global scourge—while other writers in my Twitter feed are directly in danger, or straining to transmit information that shouldn't be fighting through clutter, like what I'm posting. Do I quit? If I pause, when or on what grounds do I resume?

Night #28 (January 3, 2020)

I don't think friends always believe you, much less do sympathetic comrades you "know" through the internet, when you say how much their words have helped, and how much their honesty and encouragement can mean the world. That definitely happened for me today, when numerous people wrote to tell me that they need more testimonies of love to read, even as things are darkening, or that one of my essays was the happiest spot in a day that was otherwise fretful and fearful. I don't know how to repay these people for that kindness, though finishing the project is a start. And when I get to #1, I'll have a perfect chance to ponder the dilemmas of writing about just one thing when so many topics require our attention, or of how to balance calls toward beauty, wonder, and imagination without silencing those of political urgency or national crisis.

Night #41 (January 16, 2020)

Did I just lie to everyone when I said that the entry on Joshua Oppenheimer's movies was the last joint citation on this list? I mean, Miguel Gomes made Arabian Nights all at one time and released it all together, so it's always been one project. Also, despite what people say, the three 2-hour films into which he divided the work do really benefit from being watched in the designated order, and as close together as possible. But it's kind of a joint citation. People will be forgiving. As Scheherazade knows, you say what's necessary to keep folks coming back.

Night #49 (January 24, 2020)

Scheiße! I had totally intended to knock out the entries on Western and The Tree of Life today, but I had so much trouble deciding which was #3 and which was #2 that I wound up rewatching both, and only had time to write one essay. Taking a list this seriously has to qualify as stupid, though I'm prouder of what I was able to write because the film was so fresh. Ranking is so arbitrary, especially since every title as Amour has been credible as a potential #1. Then again, not really, because Arabian Nights has felt like my movie of the decade since I was about a half-hour into my first encounter with Vol. 1: The Restless One. I remember having this precise thought during the passage when Gomes, appearing early in the film as himself, was still vacillating between making a film about laid-off dockworkers in Viana do Castelo, Portugal, or one about nearby wasp invasions, or maybe about both, or maybe no film at all. What an earnest but witty expression of struggle that became! What an incomparably beautiful, instantly engrossing job he did of fulfilling both of those tasks, and working through the problem of what "both" even means, while claiming to have gotten nowhere. Or maybe Gomes actually felt he had gotten nowhere? Well, I can't get too ahead of myself, there's another essay to write before that one.

Night #50 (January 25, 2020)

There went The Tree of Life! And here goes my 50th night of writing, which I thought would be a fitting date on which to wrap up, but this project just kept getting bigger. Arabian Nights, too, kept growing and growing. Miguel Gomes never intended to produce three separate, simultaneous, interlocking features until he went into the field of his own country, looking for all the stories that deserved lifting up, and realized he was gonna need a bigger boat. I'm so glad he made that choice, and so awestruck that his collaborators, especially his producers, found the resources he required. That's a remarkable feat, given everything Arabian Nights showcases so clearly about Portugal's financial infirmity—much less what other films and news reports have taught us across the decade about tightened belts and tapped-out funds all over the world.

This trilogy was always going to be my #1 of the 2010s, totally on its own one-of-a-kind merits. That said, I'm getting a kick out of the dialectical synthesis as well as the transcendence of dialectic that Gomes's triptych represents between the two movies ranked just below it. Arabian Nights reflects all the deep political attunement of Western and shares its well-deserved confidence that life in a "smaller" country, undermined by its own leadership and by an entire economic system, can be fully, deeply illustrative of worldwide problematics, without forsaking the specifics of this time and place. All of the characters played in Arabian Nights by Chico Chapas, especially Simão, the fugitive reprobate turned cult hero in Vol. 2: The Desolate One, and, well, Chico Chapas, the legendary chaffinch trainer in Vol. 3: The Enchanted One, project a weather-beaten masculinity that still looks lean and sharp-edged, like Meinhard's in Western. The legions of unemployed laborers, suspicious neighbors, striking policemen, bird enthusiasts, and midwinter bathers we meet across all three parts of Arabian Nights feel like collectives that would interest Valeska Grisebach, as well. Both movies trust documentary-based aesthetics to lend real-world weight and texture to their fictional tales—a merging that has manifested across my list as a whole and within several of the films I spotlighted. Major swaths of Arabian Nights basically are nonfiction films, especially the first quarter and the last third of Vol. 1 and well over half of Vol. 3. Even the segments of Gomes's trilogy you'd most quickly presume as inventions are rooted in recent fact.

At the same time, without literally spanning eons the way The Tree of Life does, Arabian Nights links its creative fictions about contemporary Portuguese sagas, playing out in real time around the filmmakers, to brazenly pastiched versions of a mythic Middle Eastern-cum-Mediterranean past. Blending a reconstructed "old" with the self-destructive "new," finding vibrancy, melancholy, and looming threat in both eras, Arabian Nights is as self-consciously grand as The Tree of Life, despite being so photographically, culturally, and thematically distinct. Both projects condense within their nonetheless-sprawling shapes huge, tumultuous movements of time, history, aspiration, disappointment, and archetypal storytelling. They boldly defamiliarize their most iconic frames of reference, from churches to courtrooms, shipyards to solar systems, God to Scheherazade. They feel like the results of Malick and Gomes reinventing how cinema itself might look, sound, and feel—linked to both men's refusals to develop material through anything like a standard, script-based production process. Each feels like the first entry of a totally new era of movies. At the same time, each is self-aware as a time capsule for such long pasts that precede them, capacious and vivid but rueful and recently diminished. They seem to have been pushed as far as their stories and creators will allow them to go, just in case no other movie ever gets funded again, or the world itself changes so dramatically that movies become obsolete, or the Earth itself halts tomorrow. That's a strong argument for waking up in the morning and trying something I've never done, going somewhere I've never gone. But, as per my personal religious practice, I plan to spend my Sunday just as I spent today: contemplating once more a text that will always exceed and elude me, even as it elucidates so much around me.

Night #51 (January 26, 2020)

It's already after dinner time, and I haven't even started writing. I spent the whole day re-watching Arabian Nights: a necessary step toward writing anything cogent about it, but also a luxurious pastime for any Sunday, with or without a larger motive. For me, that prologue is still love at first sight. If you haven't seen Arabian Nights, or haven't recently, we start on majestic tracks past the Viana do Castelo shipyards, overlaid with rotating voiceovers of different men who grew up knowing they would work there, recalling the sweaty and sea-salt smell of their fathers' uniforms, and learning of a wide world where the crafts they manufactured were headed: Germany, Israel, Brazil, the USSR. The same men testify how this tentpole industry is now collapsing, the last 600 jobs (of what once were thousands) disappearing as the final boat sets out to sea, without so much as a launch ceremony. Miguel Gomes, the genius behind Tabu, newly funded by the cash-poor Portuguese government to make another movie, cannot stomach telling any story about his country that looks past this economic cliff-dive or denies the plight of these working families, who are taking to the strees in their own hopeful defense. But as he finds out more about the unrest in Viana, he's learning on-site about a massive wasp infestation that's decimating the local bee population and, with it, another proud and longstanding industry. The wasps are spreading fast to other parts of Portugal, despite resourceful and visually transfixing pushback. (That plague, by the way, is not letting up.) Hence, Gomes's ambivalence over which story to tell. He senses the possibility of a linking metaphor, but asserts of himself, "I'm stupid, and abstraction gives me vertigo." Besides, does pursuing this metaphor turn the fired dockworkers by implication into drones? Does it naturalize the cruelties of 21st-century capitalism into a state of nature, like a cyclical infestation, rather than a manmade problem? Gomes gives it a good go, pairing images of either boat-making, protesting, or nest-burning with voice tracks that refer to one of the others. But he gets so certain of his own failure that he literally sprints off his own set, forcing his crew—themselves newly laid-off, in the absence of their leader—to come find him in the countryside, beating their way through forest underbrush like search parties in a Gillian Flynn novel.

Gomes winds up buried to his neck on a beach, forced by his own camera and sound teams to lip-sync for his life after his precipitous abandonment. Time to start serving some Scheherazade Realness and tell some stories that will keep an audience interested, keep the crew employed, and keep the spirits and conflicts of modern Portugal in view, even as the movie's spectacles and stories will seem to wander far afield. Of course, this isn't quite how things went down. Gomes did not abscond, though his script-less, fluid, exploratory methods and his penchant for conceiving huge ideas with meager funds might one day land him amidst a mutiny. The actual genesis of Arabian Nights is less dramatic than this, but still pretty weird by moviemaking standards. Gomes recruited three journalists, billed high in the credits, to seek out stories worth telling from all over Portugal and report back to a Central Committee; especially promising yarns would prompt closer study, full-crew visits, and rapid-fire creative summits about how to preserve, rework, and/or wildly extrapolate key details. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was seduced into moving to Portugal for a year, without so much as a confirmed story structure or location itinerary. He was fully trained through collaborations with Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee) to heighten real, unromantic scenes of life into bases for sometimes-extravagant folklore; he is also skilled, as we see in Call Me By Your Name, at filming picturesque locations without making them glossy. The two-pronged passion play of Viana do Castelo was not the first discovery of Gomes's sleuths. They learned first, as per his production diary, of a criminal trial launched against a rooster in the small northern town of Resende, arraigned for waking all the citizens too early. Resende was also beset by mysterious arsons that someone (not, presumably, the rooster) kept starting in the nearby mountains. Off Gomes & Co. went to see how these threads might mix. Off went Arabian Nights.

It's even harder with this filmmaker than with most to disentangle the truth of his movies and how they were made from the beguiling apocrypha he spins about them. Even Gomes's production diary appears inside the Kino Lorber Blu-ray with a note that winkingly frames it as stolen, disputed property. But what's easiest to believe is that Gomes felt artistic and political compunction about how to speak on behalf of a nation in pain—as witness the three damning captions that preface each of Arabian Nights's three installments—while also nourishing his audiences with the kinds of humor, color, melody, escape, respect, imagination, and counterfactual fantasy that prevailing circumstances in Portugal, and not just in Portugal, made so valuable and so scarce. And so Arabian Nights coalesced through deeply eccentric, highly improvisational means as a joint venture in fact-finding and fabulation, two of cinema's greatest capacities. Sometimes the two stand rather apart, as in the surrealist court proceedings in Vol. 2, where the ghost of a dead cow gives testimony. Compare that to the real, heartbreaking, straight-to-camera autobiographies in Vol. 1 of three newly jobless men in the central coastal city of Aveiro, where the annual January 1st tradition of a civic-sponsored dive into the ocean has been jeopardized by local austerity measures. However, even in that basically accurate episode, the determined convener of the "Swim of the Magnificents" ceremony has recently received, in Gomes's version, an electrocardiogram test inside the belly of a whale. Arabian Nights, devised amid the already-notorious era of Fake News as a global meme, never positions honesty and invention as opposites. Crucially, though, it furnishes fact, fiction, and their tense interdependencies in ways that draw us closer to the world we inhabit, rather than distorting it past recognition.

Night #437 (Vol. 1: The Restless One)

The first panel of Arabian Nights would be my #1 feature of the decade even if it weren't followed by two companion films that broadened, deepened, and complicated it even further. Beyond including the prologue I've been describing, gorgeous in itself and mobilizing of the whole piebald and diffuse opus to come, its other episodes land perfectly and establish the ambitious tonal range of Gomes's project. The "Island of the Young Virgins of Baghdad" section that follows the perfect preamble, introducing Scheherazade and activating the narrative structure still linked to her name, also has the virtue of initiating Arabian Nights's layered politics around gender. Granted, majority-male collectives like the deposed dockworkers of Viana and the bird obsessives of Vol. 3 are often centered as paradigmatic sufferers under neoliberal Portuguese rule. That said, Gomes makes a point of underlining the impacts of such 21st-century tyranny on women, but also the fates of women, even privileged women, under the heels of patriarchy at all echelons of culture and society, more or less forever. It's a strong take without being a flat one, and Scheherazade herself is an inspired avatar. She is both a desperate, imminent candidate for despotic, misogynistic violence and an intrepid volunteer for that position, sure that she can outfox her oppressor and save her sisters in the process. The "Island of Baghdad," where Scheherazade visits a commune of women more or less her age, sharing bounties of food, wine, and story with no men around to bother them, is sadly close to a nonsense in our world, as is the notion of an "Island of Baghdad." From here, nonetheless, Scheherazade starts imagining the stories that will hopefully save her hide. We only cut in on her 437th night of 1,001 narrations—why, I'm not sure, except that Gomes's implied conceit is that, for all the abundance and calico craziness Arabian Nights will encompass, it barely skates the surface of all the tragedy and farce unfolding in the naked country. The tales we hear, ending in Vol. 3 on the 530th night, are clustered in the middle of Scheherazade's famous repertoire. Hopefully this suggests that, just as what we see on screen has been preceded by expansive histories, so too is Gomes's story bound to continue, despite intimations of decline or outright apocalypse. May the same hold true for our actual world!

Scheherazade starts, then, on that 437th night with the bawdy and politically merciless "Men with Hard-Ons," in which an already-fractious summit between Portuguese administrators and emissaries from Europe's Central Bank are together seduced by a reclusive wizard who promises them unending erections and sexual vitality in exchange for an end to austerity policies and "labor redundancy" purges. Unafraid to call things by their names, Gomes's frontal indictment of wealth-hoarders as phallus-obsessed hedonists makes clear that Arabian Nights will not partition its goals of delicious satire ("The world is spinning around our penises! This is so cool!") and bitter lament. But the satire is not as mono-targeted as it may appear, taking additional aim at the tourist culture of many of us who may visit Portugal and imagine we are witnessing "real life" and paying into local communities when it's very likely we're doing the opposite. The fate of the female Finance Minister, the Condoleezza/Kellyanne anomaly in what is otherwise an almost literal sausage party, is a tonal puzzle that Gomes approaches with some agility. The final, wickedly plotted coup de grâce is that these profiteers' nascent boredom with the very thing they most craved will not expose to them the thinness or violence of their wants but will only reawaken their hunger for exploitation.

Night #445 ("The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire")

That kind of ironization, often quite subtle even in stories that seem plainspoken to a fault, resurfaces in "The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire." This apparent send-up of provincial backwardness reveals itself as, among other things, a tough-love j'accuse to a petty and simple-minded electorate, who struggle to envision big pictures while cleaving obsessively to our most immediate and narcissistic tribulations. Furthermore, these citizens' responses to bureaucratic inconvenience (though you could fairly label this case as ballot interference) is not to demand democratic justice but to throw a tantrum at the ballot box and make a further travesty of the whole process. At the exact moment the rooster/defendant becomes that story's narrator, it sidewinds, as Gomes's fabliaux often do. What suddenly emerges is a nutty love-triangle melodrama among teenagers, one of whom keeps setting the surrounding woods ablaze, so as to put her rival, a volunteer firefighter, at a dangerous, near-ceaseless remove from the boy they both love. Gomes scores some laughs off the abbreviated text-speak of these children: "IWALU," they declaim, sorta citing Whitney Houston, from the bottom of their hearts! He also vents some spleen about the whole notion of setting alight a world we ought to be saving from conflagration. At the same time, the impacted hieroglyphics of instant messaging are another version of what Scheherazade's and Gomes's Arabian Nights both are—reinventions of language and of storytelling. He also takes poignant visual note of what it means that early adolescents are out here trying to save an ecosystem that's all too likely to disappear for good under the neglectful "eye" of their elders.

Night #453 ("The Swim of the Magnificents")

The ultimate glory of The Restless One, though, lies in its longest and final section, "The Swim of the Magnificents," as Luís, a "trade unionist, swimming teacher, and recent divorcé" as per voiceover introduction, and Maria, his spiky-haired, Lisbeth Salander-type assistant, try to ensure one last holiday for their neighbors in Aveiro but also to understand the details and depths of their suffering. Adriano Luz, the master thespian who plays the aging, ailing, kind-hearted Luís, has already appeared as one of the dick-worshiping austerity champions in the "Men with Hard-Ons" chapter. Crista Alfaiate, who plays Maria, recurs in every installment as the glammier, femmier Scheherazade. Such cross-casting offers not just evidence of the actors' shape-shifting skill and Gomes's frugal use of a limited repertory but further proof of Arabian Nights's grounding claim, reassuring but also haunting, that few people are simply monsters, and even fewer are uncomplicated paragons. That doesn't mean that Gomes is unduly invested in muddying moral waters. It's hard to react with anything but pure empathy to the slowly zoomed-in testimony of the first documentary subject, ex-sales manager Aníbal Fabrica, or the static, loving two-shot on the next memoirists of hardship, ex-fisherman and steadfast café waitress Rui Silva and Sónia Vieira. However, by the time we get to the final unemployed speaker, Paulo Carvalho, in scrutinizing close-up, Gomes characteristically complicates our compassion (without, crucially, obliterating it) by having Paulo admit that his unseen girlfriend has been the worse victim and hopefully-not-literal "punching bag" of his own struggles with aimlessness, depression, and ineffective prescriptions. "The Swim of the Magnificents," which covers the passage of December 2013 into the advent of January 2014, and which punctuates its candid profile of the growing Portuguese underclass with cameos by spontaneously exploding cetaceans and mermaids gasping for breath, defers any necessary choice between telling tall tales and telling it like it is. The inhumane difficulties of modern life, imposed under the sick-making banner of "leadership," are the tallest tales of all. Meanwhile, the sprint of the half-dressed hoi polloi into the freezing-cold and gray-beige surf, hoisting the very flag under whose watch they have suffered, defies its own seeming pointlessness and its lemming-like visual connotations to take shape as a stirring demonstration of political defiance.

Night #470 (Vol. 2: The Desolate One)

The middle film in the Arabian Nights trilogy hardly lacks for color, fascination, or charm, particularly in a closing episode that might have been called Ghost Dog: The Way of Portugal. Still, it earns its eponymous claim on "desolation" since all three of its constituent narratives force the audience into uncomfortable epiphanies. "The Chronicle of the Escape of Simão 'Without Bowels,'" the borderline non-narrative story that inaugurates this film, is not just about an elderly fugitive from justice (his worst crimes have been against women) but about his escape from the kind of public condemnation that would be his lot in a saner world or era. The 35-minute episode detonates the mythology around rugged, off-radar individualism that continues to entice so many people's romantic feelings, not least because cinemas of the classical-midcentury and contemporary-arthouse varieties have frequently printed that legend. I'll confess that "The Tears of the Judge," which consumes the middle 43 minutes of this second feature, and thus the structural epicenter of Arabian Nights, is the one interval that strikes me as an ambitious idea only half-successfully realized. Written as a spiral-beyond-control of a seemingly open-and-shut trial for thievery, in which almost everyone attending the public hearing turns out to have some near or distant complicity in the crime, this story's rhythms and imagery never achieve the precision or vitality manifest in Scheherazade's other tales, as thematically and stylistically disparate as they all are. It also ends on a discordant O. Henry twist with an uneasy-at-best racial politic. That's not to say there's not plenty to recommend in "The Tears of the Judge." Smartly, the abyss of disillusionment opening beneath our female judge reaches inward as well as outward, given how assiduously she has steered her daughter toward a "perfect" suitor who has now come back to haunt them both. This episode also rescues Arabian Nights from an idealizing paradigm by which women can only ever be figured as wily controllers of narrative, as secondary characters, or as abused objects of power. In any case, I find it a healthy epiphany that even the best movie of the decade, or the best of anything, or the best of any of us, remains open to debate, the very principle that ambiguously shows its value but also goes wildly off the rails in this judge's court.

Night #497 ("The Owners of Dixie")

Virtually everyone's favorite passage of Vol. 2: The Desolate One, if not of Arabian Nights altogether, is an hour-long final movement that centers around an adorable dog named Dixie. First glimpsed as a dirt-streaked foundling in a public park, Dixie becomes the shared joy of several residents within one of Portugal's block-housing complexes, proliferating in proportion to the growing numbers of Portuguese who have been displaced and/or impoverished by changing economic conditions. As much bliss as Dixie brings to the various households among whom he gets passed, for reasons ranging from the altruistic to the morbid, he does not succeed in eroding intramural prejudices among them. A young couple, Vânia and Vasco, trying to make a break from their shared past as pusher and addict (the auspice under which they met), seem poised to make friendlier contact with their neighbors once they inherit this sweet-tempered pet. In fact, they remain pariahs and keep their distance after donating Dixie to another family who seem likely to love him and better able to care for him—though not till Vânia tests a morsel of Dixie's food. Evidently, she is that hungry for some new taste, any new taste, after weeks of the unchanging canned goods that count as public-welfare sustenance for the needy.

"The Owners of Dixie," named for a fluid constellation of semi-acquaintances with tenuous claims on that title, features Tabu stars Isabel Cardoso and Teresa Madruga. In its prismatic interest in multiple adjoining apartments, each host to its own enigmatic dramas, this episode also recalls the format and scope of Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds, just as the ripples of metaphysical Otherness that permeate the whole complex align with Mendonça Filho's Aquarius. (Is this as good a time as any to celebrate the absolute marvel of Lusophone cinema in the 2010s, bridging Portugal and former colonies like Brazil, copious on my list but also extending well past it?) Even little Dixie runs into his long-dead double, around the time our voiceover narrator calls attention to the dog's own duality as a peppy companion to an ever-rotating cast of owners, seemingly unbothered by their cycle of displacements and outsourcings: by choice, by hardship, or by death. "He was as much a machine of loving as a machine of forgetting," is the screenplay's poetic and humbling insight into the life of a Maltese who's more buoyant than Herzog's grizzlies but not necessarily less indifferent. Gomes, as committed to paradox as any working director, and as sprightly about confronting it, is able to follow this insouciant little pet and discern another case study for his ongoing focus on comfort and coldness, the magnificent and the mundane.

Night #515 (Vol. 3: The Enchanted One)

The third film in the Arabian Nights cycle comprises Gomes's fullest plunge into the luminous, rapturous, multi-colored possibilities of imagining a new version of its titular text and idiom. Alert at all times to the risks of uncritical Orientalism—and therefore blatant in all its sonic and visual choices, from scoring to costuming, about its own inauthenticity—Arabian Nights nonetheless exhibits at the start of Vol. 3 much of what a naïve spectator might have anticipated from the start. Gomes goes Big with the fronds and textiles, the sapphire seas, the sun-kissed lovers, the plush boudoirs, the gossamer dissolves, the soulful singing, and the indexical depictions of feminine lament. If the combination, rich with sensuous intoxications, verges more closely than anything else in Arabian Nights on the idiom of garden-variety exoticism, then take note that it's also framed belatedly as Scheherazade's own dream, from her prison of isolation and indentured storytelling. Even amidst that fragrant fantasia, Scheherazade discovers that the mythic "flower of a thousand scents" she has been seeking actually "doesn't smell like much at all." With those first 40 minutes threading together promised ecstasy with disaffected anticlimax, Scheherazade has to reboot...

Night #515 ("The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches")

...and thus commences, that same night, the recitation that sticks most stubbornly in the craw of Arabian Nights's detractors. It is also the one that Gomes names in his "Production Diary" as the local history he uncovered midway through filming that revealed to him how the whole movie would look, sound, and coalesce. Gomes had to know, he had to, that the 80 minutes of collective, bewildering, largely fruitless fetishism of Portuguese songbirds that ends Arabian Nights would be as alienating to most audiences as it was apparently invigorating to him. I cannot blame anybody who finds this long chapter—which resumes even after the film appears, 42 minutes in, to turn a new page—to be an impudent, gruesomely unsatisfying finale for such a kinetic and variously seductive enterprise. Arabian Nights requires great investments of time and trust from its spectators, only to land them ultimately in the company of a dozen or so men, most of them taciturn and impenetrable, who collect and cage chaffinches as an obsessive hobby, to the acute consternation of almost all their families and girlfriends. (Once again, women suffer!) The men train these birds, far more impersonal than Vol. 2's Maltese, at least as onerous to the ear as Vol. 1's strident cock, to absorb new songbooks which many of the chaffinches flat-out resist. Meanwhile, they cart the little warblers around to a Sisyphean series of drab-looking "competitions" where prizes are in ample supply; all of the top ten finalists at one such convention receive a trophy. They parse among themselves the (alleged) difference between a sound called iak-iak-iak-chi-kuik and an iak-iak-iak-chee-yew-kuik, and whether a given animal, small enough to hold in one palm, might be coachable to achieve one of these vocal runs, rather than the mere iak-iak-iak-keak with which nature or God endowed it.

Very possibly, ending my six-week countdown with Arabian Nights, and with such a lengthy write-up of it, and especially with this long, seemingly dehydrated passage of Vol. 3: The Enchanted One, may land like cold water on some readers. Arabian Nights has many, many fans in the world, so this is hardly a contrarian selection, even though I believe that Miguel Gomes has nowhere close to the level of U.S. name recognition that his career thus far has earned him. But even for some of those devotees, the chaffinches are hard to endorse. If I were Scheherazade, and I do feel like this Films of the Decade project has more or less been my version of 1,001 Nights, some Grand Viziers might at this point show me the door, or the dagger.

To that, what can I say? "The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches," even on its own terms, but especially as contextualized by the five prior hours, totally works for me as a mini-feature documentary. Marx talked famously about religion as the opiate of the masses. Gomes posits the chaffinch, I think, as a figure of sincere wonder to the men who shape their lives around it, but also, as per the section heading, as an "inebriate," an all but random object of distraction and compulsion that gets people through a quotidian existence that is sparse in other comforts. Many of these guys live in block-housing compartments like the ones Dixie's successive parents and champions inhabit in Vol. 2: The Desolate One. A few appear to be homeless, and most seem unemployed or, at best, precariously employed for reasons that Arabian Nights has so thoroughly chronicled. The fact that several folks in the chaffinch crowd play additional roles in other portions of Arabian Nights suggests Gomes's pledge to employ them as fully and for as long as possible. I can't believe I'm going to mention Freud twice in the last two essays of this feature, since he's not someone I think about all that often, or someone whom Arabian Nights or The Tree of Life readily summons to mind. Still, it seems relevant to recall that his notion of the fetish is of a partial object, detached from context and sublimated as separate, that elicits such relentless focus that it deflects from the insupportable hardship of training one's eye on a full picture of another person, or of the world in its entirety. I don't mean to pathologize these men by pointing out that the chaffinch segment of Vol. 3: The Enchanted One suggests an inordinate hyper-attention on a nearly arbitrary object. This thrall spreads to Gomes himself, who dotes on this material last and longest, and fills his frame with more numerous and more extensive expository texts than any other section receives. The chaffinch, in its strange blend of nondescript and wondrous qualities, is both exemplary of and detached from the larger view of Portugal and the larger canvas of the film. Across both, so many libidinal objects have been subtracted (lovers, jobs, neighborhoods, justice, welfare nets, even favorite pets), and the antagonisms of power and the dwindling horizons of prosperity are so strongly marked, that something must cushion the blow. Some of these men grow so attached to their birds that they're wrecked when one dies, often mid-trill. Some fellows seem to want to become these birds, reclining in their own protective mesh, into which they insist they accidentally fell. Or maybe they're making excuses when discovered because they have nowhere else to nap or to live.

When I say I don't mean to pathologize these men for their extreme focus on birdsong, their demotion of everything else in life as subservient to these animals, I am not just being tactful. You're reading this essay at the end, or maybe the start, or maybe the middle of an obsessive list and an attendant series of essays I've crafted to the near-total exclusion of everything else I normally do for the past seven weeks. The movies I've chosen as the Best of the Decade represent just one portion of the 1,841 new films I watched in the 2010s, indexed and spreadsheeted in an amazing variety of ways on my laptop and on this website. Many I viewed multiple times, even some I disliked. It's not the only writing project about movies I have going at the moment, whether publicly or privately. All of them involve ornate structures, arcane charts, and painstaking deliberations about what to include or not include, much less what to say or not to say. I try to get these movies, these performances, these images and artists to sing in their own voices but also to sing in my voice, in the way I encountered them initially and over time, and as they persist in my own heart and head. One of Arabian Nights's undisguised subjects throughout is cinephilia. It's not just a feature but a foundation of the project that Gomes wants to give us as much Movie as he possibly can. He touches so many parts of local, national, and global culture but also a nearly infinite number of filmmaking traditions. Any valentine to cinephilia, as a way to live life, a way of managing and schematizing life, and/or a way to soften or hide from life is, at some level, about the same peccadilloes and passions that motivate the men who are drunk on chaffinches. So maybe you get to the end of Arabian Nights or the end of this countdown and think, "Where in the world am I? Who would lead me here, and why??" But I arrive at these two ends seeing Gomes's obsessions and my own in ways I never would have otherwise. I find myself thinking, with confidence, "This is where I live. This is what I do. This is who I am."

Night –1512 (September 19, 2015)

That's how many days you have to travel backward from the start of my Best of the Decade project to reach that day in the Art Gallery of Ontario when I saw all three installments of Arabian Nights back to back to back in a room of fellow chaffinch nuts, by which I mean other cinephiles. Some of them were my partners by choice as we absorbed part or all of Gomes's great experiment, his all-in gamble on keeping alive cinema as ambitious praxis and cinema as utopian dream. Some of these cinephiles I know only a little, but their ideas and their words matter a lot to me. Some are so dear to me that I can tell their iak-iak-iak-keaks from their iak-iak-iak-chi-kuiks. I see most movies alone, and I often frankly prefer that. But I love the memory of that day and revisit it often, especially its sense of a monumental movie that is also three movies that are also 1,001 movies, playing to a few hundred people that was also one audience. I know opinions were divided, and the contexts we brought to the movie differed, but I felt that Gomes saw us, and had made something for us to marvel at, learn from, worry over, quarrel about, and enjoy. It made me feel closer to Tina, to Corey, to Alex, to Nathaniel, to Yaseen, to Amir. It defied all reason by making me feel even closer to the movies than I already felt.

Night #52 (January 27, 2020)

If you've been following this countdown from the start, you've allowed me to enthuse, to analyze, to disclose, and to think out loud for 52 nights now, during which time I've produced more than 162,000 words—much more writing than I usually manage in 52 weeks. If you're reading this a while later, you're still enabling me to do those things. I'd name all of you who have corresponded most actively, but I know I'd forget somebody and feel terrible, and I know there are more and different people reading than I could include. I'd list everyone who had any role, from director to funder to editor to grip, in making possible the 126 movies I've packed into an erstwhile "Top 100," or the 193 others I snuck in more briefly as Honorable Mentions. Clearly, there is no way to do that. So to anybody reading, and to anybody still making ambitious, heartfelt movies as the 2020s commence, hoping that audiences will not just devour but will engage, wrestle with, study, and discuss them...

...thank you.

2. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
 
For Derek, who puts up with insanity like, but not limited to, what I describe below. For Becky Krug, whom I've just learned is a fan of The Tree of Life, and who backed me up so vigorously 20+ years ago in my feeling that I had a future in this kind of work. And for Stephen and Braulio and Michael and every other person on Twitter who's kind to me and who says regular prayers of gratitude for this movie. And in the spirit of the film, for my own dear brother, Nate Davis, very much alive, with me even when not with me. I am choosing to overlook that when I texted him about The Tree of Life, he responded with some palaver about Transformers: The Last Knight.

For reasons never explained to me, and in a fashion that's never repeated, The Tree of Life played for a week before it went wide in this one Landmark cinema in Chicago, when it was otherwise only on offer in New York and Los Angeles. Derek, who sits out the vast, vast majority of my moviegoing dates, decided he wanted to join for this one. He can, for sure, catch the scent of genuine creative ambition from miles away. He'd also gotten to see Days of Heaven on a huge screen shortly after we'd moved to Chicago, and he knew how important The Thin Red Line was to me. Another friend of his through his job at the opera also asked to accompany us. I was totally happy about this, but I had to be stern on one point: "I don't think you guys understand how ecstatic the advance word on this movie is, or what real Malick fans are like. This is the only place for hundreds of miles in one direction or thousands in the other where anyone can see The Tree of Life."

"So, you really think Chicago's going to turn out in a big way for this early-afternoon matinée?" Derek asked, palpably skeptical but trying very hard to take me seriously, and hopefully finding it slightly cute that I was so worked up.

"It's opening day! I think people will probably come from Indiana, Wisconsin, St. Louis, Detroit, maybe even Minnesota. This is a big deal, you guys. I think we should arrive an hour and a half early." Derek and Hugh agreed to this plan. 90 minutes after we took our seats, the three of us and maybe a dozen other people had the cine-spiritual experience of our lifetimes. By which I mean, Derek and Hugh thought it was very, very good, and I helped them to see it had #actually been the cine-spiritual experience of their lifetimes. And they did not say out loud, "Sure, Jan," even if they thought it. Now, it's a crux of this story that I would not have been so vehement (read: deranged) about the prospect of almost any other film. The luckier for me! If I had dragged them even to something as good as The Artist or Moneyball under such alarmist, ridiculous auspices, I'd have likely sat there distracted by my own sheepishness. But The Tree of Life amply vaporizes whatever was preoccupying you five seconds before the movie starts. Besides which, if any director is willing to risk absurdity in worshipful pursuit of the serious, it's Terrence Malick, so I elected to believe I had responded in kind.

Of course it would have been impossible to imagine The Tree of Life before actually seeing it. What's more astounding is how hard it can be to imagine even after seeing it. Nearly a decade of deep acquaintance has not desensitized me whatsoever to its mystery and magic. I am regularly surprised that I have mis-remembered the proportional balance of its composite passages, and I unfailingly "discover" shots or beats that I had not remembered at all—most recently, the brief montage of that 20th Century Women-ish biplane ride that Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) once received as a graduation present, which she describes for her sons at bedtime after the middle child, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), asks to hear a story "from before we can remember." Or what about this brief, casually staggering shot of her oldest child Jack (Sean Penn), much older now than she was then, perceiving his own distorted reflection inside his own elongated shadow within a shimmery-edged shallow of clear tidewater over a sandy shore? I didn't recall it, but there, in one image, is the whole movie.

Other surprises abound, including some that stand out because they contradict the larger, more infamous impressions made by the film. For example, it's easy to associate The Tree of Life so closely, and deservedly, with the furthest reaches of cinematographic flamboyance and with the most ambitious yet elliptical architectonics of how huge sections might relate. This is so much the case that I forget the movie's myriad moments of trust in tiny inflections, cupping whole worlds of dramatic ramification in their delicate hands. The movie's first canto centers around the long, unceasing history of shockwaves still passing through a Texan family, and especially through the life of middle-aged architect Jack, after the death of his brother R.L. That awful news arrives into the O'Briens' lives via a Western Union telegram, delivered to his mother inside a glass-walled house that, based on associations with similar spaces across the film, I would bet is a house that Jack built. Mrs. O'Brien doesn't seem perturbed at all by the fact of this telegram, and we track behind her as she opens it, with other mail still in her hand. A sudden, arrhythmic, two-second push-in on the back of Mrs. O'Brien's head is all that Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki require to pinpoint the exact moment the information strikes her, and the exact type of information it is. (Worth noting: Lubezki is a disembodied wizard who became manifest amid the transition from the Hadean to the Archean Eon, about 4 billion years ago, and he is able to photograph movies without any kind of camera at all, instead manipulating the molecular behavior of light itself.) The jump cut that intercedes between a three-quarter profile shot and then a half-profile shot on Chastain quietly but definitively reinforces, like a mid-line period in a sonnet, that inside this wordless moment of reading, something stopped in Mrs. O'Brien's life and something else, against every one of her wishes, started.

"Brother... Mother..." These words, elemental to the scene I have just related, also open The Tree of Life. They are spoken at that point by the adult Jack, who concludes this halting thought with the confession, "It was they who led me to your door." Despite the surface simplicity of that utterance, the film has instantly launched us into the byzantine runnels and rhizomes and unsolvable mysteries for which it is famous. Who is this you in "your"? What is this door, and to where does it lead? The portal through which Jack will most conspicuously step in The Tree of Life is a doorway that precisely lacks a door, a rude driftwood structure disconnected from any surrounding edifice. Stepping across its threshold transports the film (it may or may not transport Jack himself) back into the fiery prehistory of the planet, but also in short succession, in tandem with Jack's narration about reaching "the end of time," into possible looming futures of the planet, alternately broiled and frigid. From there—as in, somehow beyond the End of Everything—the film finds another door with an enigmatic chaperone who may, though unbilled as such, be the younger self of Jack's mother, and then an open gate with a church door behind it, and then another door, with one of the spell-caster Lubezki's many iridescent flares shining through. Amidst all these serial portals, complex in temporality, in ontology, in spiritual resonance, Jack will encounter the brother he lost, the mother who may by now also be deceased, his own younger self (played for most of the movie by Hunter McCracken), and an entire, populous beachside realm that may imply a certain kind of Heaven. If so, it is not a conventional Heaven, peopled as it is with those who have passed but also with prior incarnations of those who still live.

Despite all of its running, rotating, adjoining, interleaving, slowing, accelerating, superimposable parts, I find it not only tempting but luxuriously easy to experience The Tree of Life as a seductive holism. In this choric, oceanic, or ethereal environment, our ears or eyes may snag on any number of evocative details. We may yet feel disinclined to "read," to trust that there is anything like a clear story or staged argument inside it, or across it, depending what metaphysic seems right for this movie. The Tree of Life, after all, is not just a tree, or even a root system, but feels just as often like a bubble, a garden, a prayer, a memory, a gaseous plume, a recited verse, a ring of Saturn, an endless stretch of wave after wave. Faced with all that, another type of spectator might feel that there is one lesson, tale, or archetype lurking inside and around the whole movie, whose discovery will re-affirm something already known. Maybe it's the Holy Trinity, in a movie full of trios and robust with Christian tropes and signifiers. Maybe it's the Oedipal family of father, mother, and child. Maybe it's the slippery calculus by which each of those formations has always presumed the other as its own precondition. Was the fact of human reproduction and bloodline groups the Big Bang event that made God imaginable as a patriarch, or Jesus as an immaculate child? Or were divine origin, idealized maternity, and filial manifestation the three beams of an inexplicable, self-standing doorway through which we passed toward our ideas—fluid, endless, inadequate as they are—of mothers, fathers, and children? What's true in life is true in this Tree: you can't well pose a thought or a question about any of these notions without chuting and laddering yourself into thoughts and questions about the others, even if you're trying to maintain some One on a pedestal: brother, mother, father, Father, Son, holy spirit.

I'm sure Malick's devotion to God and his inclination to find or at least imply God within every image, edit, or soaring sound has enticed some audiences to believe in The Tree of Life who would normally reject any piece of art this defiantly elusive and complicated. (Though let's not short-change those people: anyone who's been studying the Bible or any foundational religious text their whole lives is no stranger to the defiantly elusive and complicated.) I find that the opposite is true for me, and I don't mean to be remotely glib about this: it is Malick's devotion to cinema, in its power and still barely-tested potential, that brings me much closer than usual to the possibility of God. As embarrassing as that is to say, it is irrefutably how I feel while watching the film. That said, the version of Faith that The Tree of Life comes uncannily close to inspiring in me is resolutely non-denominational; there's a reason, I feel sure, it is titled after the rare figure to surface in so many spiritual traditions. That Faith is also inextricably, ironically tied to exactly the notions that would seem to exist outside it or subsist most comfortably without it. What I mean is this: The Tree of Life is radiant, in my viewing, with a species of faith that purosefully mixes, as I have just done, the language of science with the rhetoric of holiness. The movie and the type of faith it awakens depend as fully on contacts with the unfathomably External as they do on encounters with the unknown known that is our planet; with the intricate riddles that are our families; with the black boxes of grief and of time; and with our individual, incompletely recoverable plenitudes of past, future, and present selves.

This is my way of wending toward that long passage in The Tree of Life, starting around the 20-minute mark and lasting almost exactly as long as what preceded it, that felt initially and feels still like the cinema reinventing itself. Like the history of time being rendered, somehow, in sensory form. This kaleidoscopic, synaesthetic origin story for Matter itself is preceded by the voice of Mrs. O'Brien, speaking through a darkness, inhabited by nothing but her questions and some evanescent aura, both of them turning slowly but restlessly inward on themselves. "Lord?" she asks, as though that word is not a name, but a question. "Why? Where were you?" Based on everything we've seen and heard thus far, she appears to ask, as so many people in mourning have done, how a dearly beloved—in this case, her second son—could have been allowed to die. But she also, based on everything we're about to see and hear, may as well be voicing the same request that this same second son puts to her, earlier in the scheme of her life but also later in the thread of the film: "Tell us a story from before we can remember." Malick tells us a nameless, faceless story from before any of us can remember, before there was an us, before we were a scintilla of a scintilla of a scintilla of possibility inside a drifting protist or a boil of barely-cooled lava. That whole montage, spanning countless millennia, and yielding image after image after image after image that I have never come close to forgetting, defies anyone to ascribe it a center or give it a name. Still, I'll toss out three: God. Science. Art.

Prove to me that these images are not exemplary of each—of Art, of Science, of God—or that they could even exist without relying on all three at once, like legs of a tripod beneath them. From this point forward, I spend the rest of The Tree of Life facing my own beliefs, my own doubts, my own knowledge, and my own limits about God, about science, and about art. (And also about every single branch of AMPAS, with an emphasis on doubts, but whatever.)

The only speaker we hear during this majestic Book of The Tree of Life is Mrs. O'Brien, and only very sporadically. Her soul is the site of the deepest, most despairing religious search in the film. She is also, as we've reminded ourselves, the person whose questions motivate this most expansive fantasia of origins and oblivions, which turn out to be cyclical, whether or not that's any comfort. The movie treats Mrs. O'Brien as an almost deified presence, a denizen of many doorways, a lighter and snuffer of many lamps, sometimes traveling impossibly aloft on the air's currents. But Mrs. O'Brien, playmate but also occasional, trusted chastiser, is not just some airy fairy, and she's more palpable than a deity. She runs her fingers fondly through grass and over bark. She marvels at animals both real and pretend. In her grief—indeed, on the very precipice of her apostrophe to God, begging for answers—she wanders through woodlands that look disturbingly like a suicide forest. So, make all the "twirling" jokes you want, but I see Mrs. O'Brien, The Tree of Life's staunchest but most shaken Catholic, an embodiment of what is impossible but also what is worldly in the film, as implacably joined to both the faith-based and miracle-of-science invited by that early, definitive montage of Earth's own coming-into-being. You can get there without even drawing the standard tropic equations of Mother = Mary or Mother = Earth, and pondering how they manage to coexist across so many centuries and cultures. And as the figure who seems to inspire The Tree of Life to pay a loving, constant, and creative tribute to her, whether as domestic angel or occasionally steely combatant, she's a muse and patron saint of Art.

So, there's Mother. I've said less throughout about Father, conspicuous in his absence from Jack's opening benediction, but a dominant cloud and troubling presence across so much of The Tree of Life, particularly after its first third. If Mrs. O'Brien is occasionally lighter than air, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) has an almost unbearable heaviness, like a beached proto-sauropod, grand but alone. Is the Dad of this script automatically the loving but cruel Father of scripture? In many ways, sure. Yes! But he is also the frustrated inventor with 27 patents but no shine to his name, and a devout gardener and co-planter of trees, and therefore endemic to the film's parable of Earth's bounty and of mortal creation. He is also the devout yet frustrated disciple of Brahms and Toscanini, and thus inveterate to how The Tree of Life thinks about and struggles with Art and its legacies. One of this movie's most important and moving arcs is the process by which 12-year-old Jack, passing through the gauntlet of a surly and heretical phase, finally testifies to this father he's considered rejecting (and has come very close to killing), "I'm as bad as you are. I'm more like you than her." Watching Brad Pitt react to these words from Hunter McCracken's mouth is a quietly, quickly, humbly heart-stopping moment of screen acting, even though this late, arguably climactic scene is shot and edited such that this dialogue may only afterward have been imposed over it. But, as with everything simple or straightforwardly spoken in The Tree of Life, it's also disarmingly difficult. In realizing he is less Mom and more Dad, is Jack confronting the fact that he is closer to or further from God's image than he thought—given, from his point of view, his parents' competing claims on that stature?

I know some audiences have always found The Tree of Life a flat tract on the role of God as the Father. I've probably made clear how much I disagree, just as I reject the reading that Malick somehow turns the white, nuclear, Cold War-era US family into the apogee of billions of years of evolution. The sheer scale and solemnity of the first hour has always driven me to receive the rest of The Tree of Life in something close to an opposite spirit. This family, this suburb, this way of living may be everything to the O'Briens and the frame by which the husband and father will measure his own success (rather grimly, as it turns out). What I see is a vision of life, of time, of matter, of Holiness if you like, that makes this particular formation into one of innumberable specks and accidents of history, poignant not as an implied zenith or universal but in its very smallness. How helplessly, though, we all approach our small lives and societies as huge—and how could we not?

But in the end, as at the literal beginning of the movie, there is not Mother or Father, but Brother. On leaving the theater, I summarized The Tree of Life as "a brother's grief kiln-blasted and glazed into a grand, restless, ecstatic lament for a living and dying world." The loss of a flesh-and-blood sibling, and the love for such a sibling that precedes or follows such a loss, gets showcased less often and less deeply in our arts than those feelings surely merit, given how embedded they are in so many of our lives. Thinking specifically of brothers, as The Tree of Life does with such implosive but also such volcanic and centrifugal emotion, I start drawing connections to unexpected stars in a barely perceptible constellation. This impulse takes me all the way from the personal-political tragedy of Antigone and Polynices to the wailing rhapsody of Arthur and Hall Montana in James Baldwin's Just Above My Head to the epochal heartbreak of what transpires between Michael and Fredo Corleone. Like many constellations, this one constitutes an irregular shape at best, and though I'm sure you can furnish your own points, what strikes me mostly is the encompassing void: why aren't there even more tales about this? I think, too, of the profound contentions of psychoanalytic scholar Juliet Mitchell in her 2003 book Siblings, which took note of the fact that Sigmund Freud, in his second year of life, lost an infant brother named Julius. A mentor of mine described reading that book as a sensation of watching whole libraries, and whole routines of intellect and of emotion, suddenly list side-to-side in a buffeting wind. How different would Freud's theories be of the psyche and of development, and therefore how different would our theories of the psyche and of development be, whether fashioned in sync or in stark opposition to his, if every obsessive claim about fathers and mothers were engaged on their own rich terms but also understood as tangents, deflections, overtaxed and overdetermined in the wake of losing a brother? How much could Freud even remember of that brother? How much, indeed, of his theory's reliance on primal scenes, on irrecoverable episodes that cannot be recalled but are nonetheless taken as incalculably formative, has to do with that memory and, more likely, that incapacity to remember?

Yes, Freud, had a sister, and I'm not even going to get into the complexities or the politics of her role in this thought-experiment. I will note, though, that the strongly-centered Jack and the much-lamented R.L. have a third brother in The Tree of Life, named Steve, and played by Tye Sheridan, the only one of the movie's child actors who's gone onto a subsequent career in cinema (and indeed, a quite thriving one). The love of brothers and of sons is voluminous but also jealous in The Tree of Life. On that late beach that feels like an afterlife, Mrs. O'Brien gets to cradle again the cheek of the boy she lost, with all the energy of our solar system dilated to a point but beaming outward from that point, between and behind the two of them. For a moment within that intimate scene of touch, Steve, the strangely unspoken son and unspeakable brother in this glorious cinematic martyrology of brothers and sons, intercedes within this shot. And look what he does: he blocks the sun. He's everything that R.L. is, except not sublimated by having died or having narrated this film, in which older brother Jack recalls with rivalry but also wonder the birth of R.L. but omits Steve's entirely. There's so much we could say about that omission, to include: it's apparently very hard for Mrs. O'Brien or for Jack, maybe at all times or just in their grief for R.L., to hold more than just R.L. in their minds. It's impossible for them to hold a trio: Jack, R.L., Steve. It's not clear Mrs. O'Brien ever moved on from R.L.'s loss, or if she survived it. Jack, now in his 50s, has not moved on, as his calls home to his aged father make clear, even though R.L., only two or three years younger than he, died at 19. (We never, incidentally, see what R.L. looked like at 19, even in a still photo, or learn anything about how or where he died. The characters' and the film's devotion to this small, tow-headed, guitar-strumming, sweet-tempered, too-trusting version of R.L. is itself a puzzle worth exploring.) Certainly we have no idea where Steve is, or whether he's living or dead. Does he make any calls on this apparent anniversary of R.L.'s passing? Does anyone call him?

Grief is a ceaseless challenge. Trios, trinities, are also challenges. Emphasis on one member of a triad seems inevitably to deprive another of attention. Even or especially as a member of a triangle, facing toward one of your fellow points means you're probably facing away from another. Steve, even if he started as a mundane example of the notorious violence of Malick's editing room, becomes for me a figure for what and who remains absent, even as Jack, R.L., their parents, their neighborhood, their lives, the world, the numinous, the Spirit, become confoundingly visible, audible, memorable, and present across The Tree of Life. As I've said, I take the movie to be about Science, Art, and God—or maybe we could reformulate those terms as the Mortal, the Immortal, and the Amortal Divine. I haven't been particularly consistent in my vocabularies, and again, trios are challenges. Even trying to name or grasp one element is hard enough, without trying to think simultaneously and with equal rigor about the others, and about the mercurial relations that bond them as something richer, deeper, more unruly than "symbols" for each other. I have declined, too, to organize these reflections into a firm shape—something I think The Tree of Life both possesses, maybe even more so than first impressions suggest, but also rejects, in all the ways I've said and more. It's a monumental poem to what can never be organized, and an imposing illustration of things that, to varying degrees and for disparate reasons, cannot really be illustrated. But Lord, mother, muse of muses, how we try!
 

3. Western (dir. Valeska Grisebach, 2017)
 
For Nathaniel, my movie brother, whose site has brought me so much joy over the years. As the lights came up after Western, we just...stared at each other.

First, that title. Western, in the context of Valeska Grisebach's perfect film, denotes a genre reappropriated in a seemingly far-flung place, attached to new frontiers, new tensions, new eras of politics. Depending on the projected speaker, though I'm not sure the word is ever uttered in this movie, "western" might serve as a proud descriptor for one's own competence, generosity, and entrepreneurship or as an epithet for other people's collective arrogance, linked to cultural and material usurpation. It could also name a point on a compass or a horizon line, though for all the movie's adeptness in mapping out spatial relationships, its camera and especially its characters move in every which way, lacking any clear direction. Whichever way you look, literal and figurative suns are setting.

The premise of Western involves a band of German utility workers on a remote assignment to build a new hydroelectric power plant in Bulgaria. They construct their own hilltop enclave, surely rather rickety by their professional standards (at least, I hope so), though half the physical structures in the film look as if a decent wind might push them over. These men are proud to plant a German flag atop their outpost, but that flag will soon go missing—one of several symptoms of tense relations that immediately form between the German visitors and the local Bulgarian villagers. To every extent that Western's narrative and its title require a steady ratcheting-up of tension between mutually suspicious groups, a paranoid ambiance in which emptiness or silence on main street bodes ill for everyone, a positioning of women as competitive prizes and collateral victims in conflicts waged primarily between men, and a larger tussle over ownership rights of the land and its resources, Western fully delivers. We even spend quite a bit of time with dudes on horseback, which feels like a surprise for a film set amid the mountains of southeastern Europe. (Then again, what do I know about the fauna of rural Bulgaria?) That said, despite the seeming bluntness of Western's title, the movie never comes across as obsessed with its own generic homage, which a fully attentive viewer might nonetheless miss. Furthermore, Grisebach's reimagining of this cinematic legacy encompasses plenty of bold departures. There is, for example, only one gunshot in the film, to put an injured horse out of its misery—an episode volatile with meanings and portents in context, but executed with the quiet tone and self-effacing visual grace that permeate the whole film, aligned more with documentary than classical Hollywood traditions. This tonal and stylistic environment, resembling a minor-key performance of a major-key symphony, itself constitutes an extraordinary act of creative and ideological intervention. Imagine an Anthony Mann film told entirely in whispers, with a modest camera and no musical score, and you're close to grasping what a rare bird Western is—or, I suppose, what a horse of a different color.

You're also a good way toward conceiving how Grisebach keys her story and its stakes not to the gruesome tumult of imperial nation-building in America's Old West but to something newer, quieter, and differently violent. I'd call it the near-death by old age of Nation itself as a coherent idea in the world, or as a durable bond among citizens, even as (paradoxes abound!) nationalism and xenophobia remain in ever-ready supply. In a way, the plot concerns emissaries of one country impressing themselves on a township in another, but this is just as much a case of one market formation, European Union, or multinational system (we might call it "western") traversing former boundaries within itself in pursuit of profits disguised as philanthropy. Which is to say, however inspired Western is in reflecting on longstanding traditions within its own art form, the film is even riskier and more trenchant in its gaze on the current world, exploring several of the conflicts that organize our lives and set us against each other. The film pursues these projects in ways that do not feel like systemic critiques devised in the abstract, which might have coalesced similarly no matter where the camera was planted. Grisebach's staging of her story, which she devised more or less spontaneously from day to day to day of a three-month shoot, has everything to do with local environment, and she acknowledges human complexity and opacity at the individual and collective levels. Let's press further, then, into the crucial layers of Western's narrative. "Bulgaria," even this remote corner of Bulgaria, is not one place, but a frontier itself between fossils of socialist resource-sharing (a hand-cranked lever to decide which of three communities gets exclusive access to water at what time) and fragile capitalist interests (convenience marts in what look like private homes, etc.). Many residents quarrel over plans for infrastructural improvement and competing claims on available equipment. One of the most promising members of the young generation, a woman named Viara (Viara Borisova), is building a life elsewhere and visiting after a five-year absence.

The Germans are an even more fractious unit, defying national stereotype by lazing about as often as toiling, poking fun at each other's real or perceived failings. The guys in this outfit regularly have a go at Vincent (Reinhardt Vetrek), their Napoleonic boss, embarrassingly transparent in how he tries to mask incompetence, immaturity, and insecurity with pride, temper, and brutish chauvinism. Deployed as knights of modernization from an ever-ascending continental power, the Germans under Vincent's authority struggle as much with their equipment as the Bulgarians do with theirs. They are stymied by local shortfalls of very basic material, like gravel and water. They make grandiose, blame-shifting pronouncements, like "the problem is that the river is in the wrong place." Nobody seems especially impressed with Vincent, whose favorite vest, a runt's conception of an alpha-male's power garment, with optional undershirt, offers an instant and accurate indictment of his personality. Still, Vincent only seems truly set off by the stony gazes and terse remarks of Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), a mysterious loner with silver-tipped bullets in those blue eyes of his, huge and hard. A wanderer, an unbeatable poker player, a man of few words even in languages he understands, a granite-faced stoic who suddenly tears up at the mention of a deceased brother, he also has unconfirmed rumors of battlefield violence in his past. Meinhard's very presence seems to irk Vincent at best, infuriate him at worst, the same mix Billy Budd inspired in John Claggart, or Gilles Sentain did for Sgt. Galoup, though without the age difference or the evident factor of homoerotic longing and hatred in those stories. (Look, it's not my fault that Beau travail is an ur-text for so many of this decade's best movies.) Meinhard only further enrages his peevish boss by building his way in slow, furtive steps toward a series of tentative but fond friendships with many of the Bulgarians. He even achieves, as Vincent can detect just by glancing, a sexual rapport with Viara, whom Vincent has openly coveted since their fateful first meeting at that "misplaced" river. His loutish conduct of a failed midstream seduction is something for which he later tries to apologize. However, as low-key as Grisebach plays this incident, with a more distant camera and a less heightened tone than other directors would impose, it emerges more and more clearly as a major fulcrum in this story, which none of the Bulgarian characters have forgotten or forgiven.

Having sewn multiple seeds of discord within and between both sides of her putatively "us vs. them" standoff, Grisebach keeps viewers guessing over who will initiate the likely crescendo of violence, and whether their target will be external or intramural to their own team. Multiple objects and individuals take shape as Chekhov's guns in this largely gunless western, with no clear sign as to which of many contenders will be the catalyst for the story's eventual crisis: a horse, a hat, a knife, a flag, a woman, a card game, a secret control station. What's hard to capture even in paying such tribute to Grisebach's storytelling is that Western doesn't play primarily as a guessing game, or a suspense drama with questions at every turn and flare-ups potentially around every corner. Through its unhurried rhythm, its impeccable but totally un-ostentatious photography, its refusal of audience-goosing devices like dramatic music, and a host of other directorial strategies, Western distills all of this drama into an utterly convincing mimesis of daily life in an exact time and place. Grisebach takes what could have been played for Haneke-style menace, or pathos-laden soap opera, or diagrammatic social critique—any of which might have been routes toward a powerful or at least an engaging movie—and makes this seemingly "niche" story feel utterly recognizable. She has condensed the relevant vectors of economic, gendered, and regional tension into an artistic and analytical point of view so elementally pure that it belongs on a periodic table. She has captured a version of what bell hooks called, in relation to Reservoir Dogs, the "vampire culture" of "hard-core white patriarch[y]," willing to suck the very groundwater right out of each other's valleys and veins, without giving any faction in her film a racialized scapegoat group on whom they might project their rivalries and revenges. In this allegory of contemporary Europe, where the East needs but resents the West, and the West sees the East as uncivilized, anachronistic, but rich with "development" potential, the Germans are the migrant population and Bulgaria is a sort of in-house colony of the EU.

I saw Western twice in the theater and both times experienced the multiple, overlapping currents of resonant, persuasive interpretation it spawned in Q&A, in lobbies, and hours later over beers, despite relying on none of the usual grammars or story structures of a "talking point" film. I also remember, and I recapture even in private re-viewings in my apartment, the incredible tension wafting off a movie with no obvious climaxes. The way the audience kept gasping when an animal suddenly slides down a rocky outcropping where it should never have been walking, or a parentless teenager named Vanko (Kevin Bashev) miscalculates badly in his attempt at a practical joke on Meinhard, or Meinhard makes a probably innocent gift of his enormous hunting knife to this same teen, clearly revealed how much we'd all been holding our breaths during superficially low-stakes scenes in between. In that respect, it isn't just the documentary-inspired style of Western that approximates daily life but its uncanny ability to render on-screen the unrelieved tension of contemporary global affect. Grisebach totally gets and thereby evokes the carpal-tunnel syndrome that results from all of us gripping our imaginary armrests at all times, wondering if this year's the year, today's the day, this hour's the hour when shit really hits the fan, no matter how placid the scene around us might appear. (For some of "us," of course, the scene is never placid.) The majority of Western transpires outside, under full sun and against the emerald hills of Bulgaria; how very green, indeed, was their valley. But the audience steadily, increasingly feels that, with or without a moment's notice, broad daylight could turn into high noon.

In these respects, Western resembles its central figure, Meinhard: loose in gait but imposing in gaze, recessive by temperament yet wiry and intense. If you extracted the central passage of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, after we've learned of Tom Stall's past and what he's consequently capable of, but before we've witnessed his high-Guignol rebirth as a killing machine, that's how it feels to watch Western as a whole, and to see the unforgettable performance that Neumann, a total nonprofessional, unfilmed before or since, achieves in this role. You might also imagine him as the lost sibling of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. With the former, he shares the convincing mien and profile of someone with darkness in his past, who may get lured back into that darkness, but in a milieu and a movie straining way less hard for Archetype and Insight. I think Western handily eclipses Unforgiven on both points, and does a significantly better, less histrionic job of joining its critical lens on patriarchy to its overall lens on petty tyranny and small-town social behavior. Wenders's film feels like a relevant intertext from the first shot of Meinhard walking from no discernible origin point toward no obvious destination, a habit he will retain throughout his many, many traversings of wide-open space in the rest of the film, whether in the open countryside or the unfamiliar streets of the unnamed Bulgarian town. Nobody knows why Meinhard is so eager to befriend the Bulgarians, whose words he doesn't understand and in whom he confides very little. Some of what he does share, especially about his military service, may be fabricated to get him out of a jam. His pursuit of Viara may be earnest or may be a demonstration to the always-watching Vincent of how easily he can beat that Trumpy little goblin at his own game, while only half-trying. A few characters start quizzing Meinhard, "Where are you from?" or "Do you have family?" or "I don't know what you dream about" or, climactically, "What are you searching for here?" Meinhard never has answers, either because he's determined to be cagey or because he's unsure himself. "Everybody has their reasons," said Jean Renoir's Octave, famously, in the actor-director's own Rules of the Game, eight decades earlier on the same continent, now barely recognizable as itself. This new incarnation may also be on the edge of its own total, disastrous paradigm shift. Whether or not that's true, it furnishes fewer reasons to hope that reasons will ultimately reveal themselves, that the game still has rules, or that everyone's even playing the same one.

Not since Morvern Callar have I seen a film and a performer conspire so brilliantly to allow a character a cryptic, fathomless privacy that only gets more engrossing the more time we spend with them—and in a story that you can't help but suspect will avoid a clear "finale." The aesthetics of Western and Morvern are quite different, but each is a case study of how hard an instinctive, idiosyncratic director and a team of trusting collaborators must work to make such a character click in a medium where expectations for narrative and/or psychological transparency run quite high. Every image, edit, sound element, and performance choice—the ones that withhold as well as the ones that suggest—feels like an incremental build in our acquaintance with Meinhard and with Morvern, even as we're aware we never know these people at all. It's debatable how well they know themselves, or under what terms. And to me, it's particularly exciting how Western manages its Olympic-level study of unresolved but unusually evocative personal opacity in tandem with its complicated exercise in multivalent sociopolitical analysis, where no one element feels like the key to all others, yet the removal of any brick would bring the whole wall tumbling. I don't know how anyone pulls off either of those tricks—especially without a script! I certainly don't know how anyone accomplishes both. And to do it in a way where there's not one shot, scene, or second I want to add, change, or remove? That makes Grisebach a prodigy in my book, surpassing understanding as fully as Meinhard does—though, based on her jovial and illuminating Q&A's, infinitely folksier and more forthcoming. She took eleven years between her previous feature, Longing, and this one. I hope it's not as long before she produces another, but if there's any artist I'm prepared to trust to her own timeline and process, it's she.

Honorable Mention: Stylistically, Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete (2017) is hardly Western's twin, and the moods they conjure are far from identical. Still, when I saw these two films on successive days at TIFF 2017, they felt bonded by more than the obvious trope of a man and his horse. Each traces an already-isolated guy cast into even greater solitude, devoid of any true community, though this happens earlier in the life of Lean on Pete's teen protagonist, via events to which we're privy. Both take meticulous note of landscape, which figures as much more than picturesque backdrop. They respectively survey a region of a country (in Pete) and a continent (in Western) in which it's easy to get lost, or feel lost. Should you be found, you may still be lost—something that feels true as well of the country and continent in question. I wish Lean on Pete had caught on more; even fans of Haigh's Weekend, Looking, and 45 Years often profess unawareness of this beautifully acted film, directed with such exemplary, unsentimental sensitivity. Then again, I've spoken to several people who name this as their favorite among his work. For basically this whole decade, before I wrote these 100 lengthy tributes, my predominant genre was the tweet, and after I saw Lean on Pete, I wrote, "Felt like Ozu, then like Mizoguchi. Warm, thrilling, sad, like an unrequited love admitting they once loved you, too." If you're curious what that means, or how it could apply to a US-set movie by an English director where love is mostly felt through its absence, do check this one out.
 

4. If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2018)
 
For Hortense, and for my Film Comment editors: Nic Rapold, a dear friend of 20+ years, and Michael Koresky, a true genius, and a pal who fell as fully, instantly in love with this movie as I did. The article I wrote on Beale Street for the Nov-Dec 2018 issue, my favorite of all I've published with FC, was never available online. I hope it won't anger anybody if, just this once, I reproduce the text here as my countdown entry. If you like the essay, wait till you find out you can read loads more like it every two months, written by smarter people with more encyclopedic film knowledge than I have, just by subscribing! Plus, that'll get me out of hot water for recirculating this piece for free.

Hollywood's reluctance to build artistically ambitious films around black leads, compounded by its even more chronic incuriosity about collective experiences of blackness, undoubtedly bears the lion's share of blame for James Baldwin's absence from our cinemas. But let's imagine for a moment that some studio or intrepid band of artisans realized that Go Tell It on the Mountain could yield a stunning big-screen exploration of faith and sex and archetypal family tensions, or that Another Country is perfectly designed to teach almost everyone in America about almost everyone else, while also arousing every possible spectator to climax and moving each one of us to tears. Wouldn't that be something? Let's say these folks were all crewed up, sitting on a pile of money, ready to go.

What would emerge at this beautiful, improbable juncture is another obstacle course—because, despite his essays' fully earned reputation for frank oratory around complex problems, Baldwin is a formally slippery fiction writer. This fact surprises people who haven't cracked one of his books in a while, or have busily revered him without bothering to read him. He loves the trope of the ecstatic or elegiac instant in which characters' lives flash before their eyes and, more pointedly, unfurl from their mouths in satin banners of speech that can sound a lot like their author, indulging in direct address. In fact, Baldwin's characters seldom experience just one or two of those epiphanic moments in their lives. They have far more of them than you or I do, whether they are high on love or God or Harlem or music or friendship or fucking or Paris or drugs, or whether they are abruptly, violently denied all those things because they're forever vulnerable to the world's ferocious militarizing against joy, especially black joy. In a novel like 1974's If Beale Street Could Talk, every short, temporally disordered scene is a wormhole into all the others, a network of chutes and ladders leading from jail cells to perfume counters to bubble baths to corner bistros to sculptors' studios to the docks of New York to funky-smelling bedsheets to other jail cells, or the same jail cells. And that's before we jet to Puerto Rico. And how we get there, and why, is a whole awful, exciting, tragic, hopeful, hopeless, other thing, separate but not at all separate from the rest.

Few would begrudge a filmmaker who, having settled on this project, soon elected on some artful pruning of subplots, some canny strategies for reassembling this bruise-black mosaic of sharp, shimmering shards into a conventional shape. But Barry Jenkins, who announced in 2008's Medicine for Melancholy his bent toward emotional transparency and cautious romanticism, and who achieved in 2016's Moonlight total creative consanguinity with another major writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, seems utterly unafraid of Baldwin's tonal or structural demands. Quite the opposite, in fact. So the mandate is amorous devotion between two people, played utterly without irony, and between that couple and their city, even as it threatens to gobble them both, with one lover already halfway down its throat? So the story has to move implacably toward its conclusion, but in another sense it never really budges, and in another sense it's a constellation of exquisite sequences driven more by intuitive than narrative logic, with unclear time gaps and transitions between each? Jenkins is ready. His whole team is so ready, not just to conjure Baldwin on film, as they brilliantly do, but to interweave his unique languages of love with so many others in cinema history. Here's an Umbrellas of Cherbourg that centers blackness, with two sad angels strolling down Minetta Street in the rain, their red parasol glowing like an open heart, the singing outsourced to Nina Simone and Billy Preston, because who better? If Beale Street Could Talk reaches further back to Murnau and Borzage, with actors who are their own light sources, the whole film attuned to the textures and unfair rules of a dangerous place, all in lucid balance with big, bold essences of earthly emotion.

What all of that means is that If Beale Street Could Talk borrows a great artist's playbook that virtually anyone else would get wrong and proceeds for two hours to put every single foot right. The night the movie world-premiered at Toronto, one woman in the audience drew an ovation from 2,000 of her peers when she announced her heart was full and broken at the same time. By their own admission, several cast members took a minute to find their groove in the Q&A because they had just seen the film for the first time, and even seen this type of film for the first time: a song of two humans where both humans are black, their blackness hardly exhaustive of their identities or their story but nonetheless fundamental to both.

You could map many comparisons and macro-narratives onto If Beale Street Could Talk. It's an urban panorama as meticulous and glorious as Roma's, but it knows its characters more thoroughly and is less fixed on its own grandeur. It's a meditation on the decade-after-decade stocking of prisons with the bodies and minds of black men, framed not as exposé or as systemic protest (though that's certainly baked into the film) but through the inductive logic of emotional lament, watching a soul with everyday imperfections get railroaded down some familiar tracks and sequestered from everyone who loves him—including the filmmakers, who have only partial access to his experience. It's a threnody for black women who get forcibly accustomed at young ages to their own solitude, even when nobody has abandoned or rejected them: everyone who loved me still loves me, everyone who wanted me still wants me, so how in the world am I here by myself? It's an epic poem, albeit allergic to "epic" bombast, for the man in jail and the lonesome woman, both of them rejecting the two narratives I've just compressed. Surely he won't stay confined. Surely she won't remain by herself. They insist despite everything on holding tight to each other. It's Carol for straight people. It's All That Harlem Allows. It's a saxophone blast or a cello thrum for a baby about to come.

If Beale Street Could Talk is all of this and more, but it's also quiet and distilled, willing to be small even as you savor its bigness. It's as simple as 1+1, as 1=1. It's two. Its aspect ratio is literally 2:1. Its most recurrent musical motifs, amid hummingbird flights of woodwind or brass and surging waves of sympathetic strings, are two identical or near-identical notes played in intimate succession—or, sometimes, two different notes struck on the same keyboard at the same time. The two have names. They are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), though both were born with other names. They have grown up together. They love each other—in a new way, recently. They are expecting a child. They start the movie on a nearly wordless walk between a gold-leafed wood and a gray stone wall. She wears a buttercup coat over pale blue and white; he sports a bolder blue jacket over a brighter yellow shirt. They are twins and inverses, he louder than she. These colors will follow them through the movie, woven into many of her clothes and painted on the walls of his penitentiary, where he is soon locked away on false charges of rape. That hasn't happened yet as we follow this opening promenade, but the movie seems to know it's coming. Without realizing it, Tish steps far enough away from Fonny to inhabit her own frame. They each gaze directly into their own cameras, pledging their readiness for a life spent together, but despite their sincere communion, they're already struggling to share a shot. Soon enough, Tish's voiceover breaks the news of Fonny's incarceration, then shepherds us through a monochrome, still-frame montage of black men flouted by their country, and of countless children "who had been told that they weren't worth shit." So Tish, who speaks for Baldwin but also quite confidently for herself, knows that her private trial is also an age-old public tribulation, and she probably guesses where it's headed.

The photo montages and Tish's narration are two elements that come and go during If Beale Street Could Talk, which some viewers may consider erratic but to me evoked that dimension of Baldwin that will risk a bit of formal dishevelment to evoke a bigger truth about lives in pieces, and puzzles never solved. Jenkins and his editors, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, face a still higher climb here than in Moonlight, since asymmetries and fitful rhythms are part of their game plan, even as some sequences achieve a creamy smoothness that other filmmakers would die to achieve. When If Beale Street Could Talk touches down for a long setpiece, you see how this crew, extending to all the visual and sound departments, have the gift of flawless scene-construction. Two cases in point are a tempestuous pregnancy announcement that simultaneously unites and divides two families and a quietly heart-stopping pas de deux between Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, tremendous), testifying across their divergent experiences of what it's like to live a whole life feeling "so fuckin' scared."

Still, just because Jenkins and his company can achieve emotional, formal, and thematic synthesis as well as anyone does not mean that this is always Beale Street's aim. Plenty of scenes or inserts could be placed almost anywhere in the film, especially those that advance feeling or tone more than plot. Full credit, then, to McMillon and Sanders for maintaining affective through-lines and dramatic momentum even in passages with no binding structure. Several immaculately played characters likewise seem ready to anchor larger subplots or even their own pictures, and we're meant to sense their rich story potential but also our incomplete acquaintance. Sorry, baby, but Tish's and Fonny's emergencies take precedence. Another way to say this is that If Beale Street Could Talk often has to cut away from lively households, New York streets teeming with tales, or Caribbean jazz clubs and favelas and return us to a lawyer's office or a dun-colored visiting area where the whole point is that too little is happening.

That probably wouldn't work if KiKi Layne and Stephan James did not achieve such exquisite rapport with each other and with the camera. Tish's and Fonny's stuckness is more compelling than a lot of movies' whirlwind tours of action. In their sublimely restrained way, Layne and James face a similar task to the editors', vacillating between scenes where they get to paint a clear idea or emotion in big, bright colors (adoration, trepidation, fury) and others where we are less certain of their feelings, as are they. Layne, who looks 14 in some shots and twice that age in others, sneaks opportunities to telegraph her fear of Fonny's temper, especially in light of his father's, despite all her dukes-out speeches where she catalogs the reasons why every black man in America should feel outraged. James is a miracle worker, playing a hero and a victim and a hothead and a matinée idol, signaling what time in prison has felt like in phone-call scenes where he's precisely straining not to disclose that. A lot of Fonny's preoccupying thoughts, like his suspicion that nobody around him really understands his sculptures or trusts that he's a great artist, are never verbalized, but James makes sure we know—and Layne makes you believe she hears it, too.

Beale Street does talk, then, candidly and euphemistically, out loud and telepathically, about specific individuals and entire cities and full histories of a people. It talks in an amazing number of global languages: whole characters, shots, and sequences would not sound or look as they do without the influences of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, Ousmane Sembène, and several others, though Jenkins is not interested in simply feeding allusions to hungry cinephiles. The syncretism of styles is the sign of a portraitist who has amassed as many tools and colors as he can, but also a welcome signal that this African American story, this New York story, is also a global story. Baldwin stressed always that black people belong to the world, and the world to black people, despite a million brutal violations of those contracts. A vast, sprawling history condenses in the whispered moments of Tish and Fonny declaring their love, and fighting for it. It abides in all the reasons why they're forced to fight. I challenge anyone on Earth not to be lifted and crushed by their story, not to see part of your world in theirs, but also to respect it as theirs and not ours—particular, private, precious.

Honorable Mention: Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) took the very bold step of refusing to be straightforwardly expository about who James Baldwin was and what were the chronological landmarks of his life. You absorb most of that relevant information as the film proceeds, but the movie, adapted from one of his own unfinished texts, is an ode to self-authorship precisely insofar as it's keyed to that same spirit of jagged mosaic that If Beale Street Could Talk so devotedly commemorates. I took ten first-year college students to see it, only one of whom already knew who James Baldwin was, and several of them commented that they now felt like they knew a lot about him but still had lots of unresolved questions about what or how much they knew, and probably needed to read more of his work. This is a precise result of this great, punchy movie working as it wants to.
 

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, © 2014 Les Films d'Ici/Proaction Film Atlantics, © 2019 Netflix/Les Films du Bal/Cinekap/Frakas Productions/Arté France Cinéma/Canal+ International 20th Century Women, © 2016 A24/Annapurna Pictures At Berkeley, © 2013 Zipporah Films
5. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (dirs. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, 2014)
 
For Rasha Salti, with endless thanks in perpetuity. And for Rebecca Johnson, my friend and colleague, my translator over text message, and a woman of 1,001 brilliances. And for Nadim.

About six minutes into Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, director Ossama Mohammed is filming protesters fleeing through streets of Dar'a as they are fired upon from somewhere out of frame by the armed forces of President Bashar al-Assad. We are amidst the precipitous ramp-up to what soon became full-scale civil war in Syria, which has not ended as I write this, nine years later. In that early-2011 period, Assad's violence against his own people was hardly unprecedented, but its degree and intensity were visibly escalating. You can still see the shock on fellow citizens' faces and hear them imploring the soldiers, as well as Assad himself in absentia, not to cross the line of murdering their own brothers and sisters. None of this had yet locked into a horrifying norm. You can see that the streets through which Syrians flee are mostly intact, buildings upright, trees a leafy springtime green on the sidewalk. By the end of the year, and by the midpoint of this film, all of that will feel like a lifetime ago. As Mohammed watches through a grilled window, we can see many bodies of people who couldn't outrun the gunfire. In voiceover, he abruptly confides, "This morning, someone took the camera from me. He started cinema." That's a poetic way to frame the footage we're about to cut to, captured directly by the desperate thief. We see right away why this person grabbed the camera: he wanted the world to see, or someone to see, right up close, the dead bodies of young men who had just been felled in the street, enormous scarlet sprays of blood beneath and around their bodies. By the time Mohammed catches up to retrieve his equipment, a window that seems like it could only have taken one or two minutes, the man who nabbed it has already been shot and killed, just like those he tried by any means necessary to commemorate. Says Mohammed, "The new filmmaker became a martyr."

Seeing Silvered Water on a huge screen at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, in a theater with surround sound, was an overwhelming experience that changed me as a person and as a filmgoer. I kept urging people I knew in Toronto to see it, while also stipulating that it was the roughest experience I'd ever had in a cinema. As with far too many Americans, the Syrian Civil War had verged for me on a state of pure media abstraction, a conflict I barely understood, prompting bitter arguments about why President Obama was not intervening more decisively, or really at all, and how Syria's free-fall, already three years underway by the time of this festival, could possibly be halted. But I had never seen images like this: entry wounds and exit wounds in extreme close-up, hysterical parents pried away from their children's bodies, blindfolded prisoners being pummeled, kicked, and stripped by torturers in camouflage uniforms. The footage that constitutes Silvered Water's coruscating first half-hour has only accumulated because Ossama Mohammed himself was a figure of such artistic renown in his country. Hundreds of fellow Syrians began sending him what they had recorded on cameras or cellphones—in the streets, in hospitals, peering nervously out the windows of their homes. Clearly some of this footage was sent by soldiers in the torture cells or in prisoner transport vans. We hear an intimation that some people forced into inhuman duty must have wanted the nightmarish truth to get out, but it's hard not to surmise that some of these clips were sent with diabolical pride. Other material in the film Mohammed amassed from YouTube and other public sources. In voiceover, which is the only way we ever "meet" him, he confesses how he sometimes lagged in adjusting to new circumstances, and kept thinking like the auteur he'd so long been. Narrating over that grisly document of the stranger holding Mohammed's own camera, he admits, "I found myself talking to him: 'Don't move the camera. Stabilize it. A static shot is beautiful.'"

Evidently, even amid the most patently disastrous circumstances, there's no telling which habits or folds in our identity will be slowest to change. But there's also no telling what changes we're capable of, since Mohammed shocks and saddens himself by discovering he intends to leave his country—something he never thought he would do. Who could have imagined, though, the general or specific dangers he now faces as a prominent Syrian known to be critical of the regime? I cannot conceive how he must have felt looking all around him as his nation burned, or gazing at the appalling vortex of images flooding into his inbox, much of which he has already shared by the time he describes his flight to Cannes, around 30 minutes into Silvered Water. The mid-May timing of that festival made it Mohammed's best alibi for needing to leave Syria temporarily, though he had no project to show that year except this sudden, ghastly trove of citizen testimony, which he set himself to edit in exile. As Silvered Water's opening captions inform us, the finished film we are watching includes eyewitness reportage of exactly 1,001 Syrians, including Mohammed himself. I admit I doubt this as literal truth. This would require a switch to a different person's footage every 5-6 seconds in this 94-minute film, the last hour of which is dominated by just one camera operator. We're getting to her. But as a spiritual nod to the world's most famous story about storytelling, with a narrator staving off her own death by spinning as many yarns as possible, I totally understand Mohammed's strategy. His likely embellishment here sits on a plausible spectrum with his poetic way of recounting dire events (that camera-grabber who "started cinema"), when more literal language and fact-facing could only lead to bottomless despondency.

The pivotal event in Silvered Water's emergence as the specific film it became arrived in late December 2011, when Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish resident of Homs who refuses to decamp even as the siege of that city worsens, and who had never made a movie in her life, e-mails Mohammed with nothing to go on but his reputation. She tells him of driving 500km in order to acquire a camera and smuggling it back into a country where her ownership of it would carry a steep price—possibly the biggest price. (Once again, as in the street episode, the sneaking of torture footage out of black-ops jails, etc., filmmaking emerges as a gift and a dream but also a crime.) She hopes Mohammed is just the man to edit whatever she can capture of the siege into a movie that can rouse the world, emotionally and politically, but she pleads for counsel about what to film. Mohammed's first response is to beg her to get out while she still can. "No, really," the amazingly plucky Bedirxan replies, "tell me what to film," to which he finally replies, "I don't know, try to get everything!" She, whose given name "Simav" translates to "silvered water" in Kurdish, thus becomes the primary vessel through which we see the remaining hour of the film that both shares her name and bills her as co-director. Her astounding dedication extends to filming her family's bomb-blasted home long after it's safe to inhabit, even after she knows of a sniper regularly positioned on that block. Indeed, the very next thing we see is Bedirxan herself as a gunshot victim, being tended on a gurney while she broadcasts the image of the lesion some bullet left in her leg. She tilts her camera upward to show her face, with an expression hard to describe: dazed and distraught, of course, but also gripped by a kind of wonderment that this has happened to her. It's the only time we see Bedirxan's face, and the first time we know Mohammed to have seen her. Despite exchanging footage for over a year until Christmas 2012, with some worrisome silences along the way, the two never met until Bedirxan managed to reach Cannes for the world premiere of the film that she risked everything to co-create, edited and completed by Mohammed.

I don't want to turn my account of Silvered Water's extraordinary achievement and value into a romantic paean to cinema. Unambiguously, the central subjects here are war, abandonment, and devastation of all kinds, including that of the spirit. The first two images in the movie, received well before Bedirxan's involvement, are of a naked newborn's umbilical cord being cut and, suddenly, a young prisoner who looks about 20, stripped to his underwear and crouched in a fetal position in splotchy flip-phone images, forced to kiss one torturer's boot before even worse violences rain down on him. These icons of life and brutality recur often enough across Silvered Water that they obviously and understandably stir Mohammed deeply. But it's this first, direct juxtaposition that captures the devilish velocity by which new life becomes bare life, and the promise of human freedom and potential gets rent into tatters. Silvered Water's directness about its subject pushes its audience to the brink of the bearable. The abundance of bodily desecration certainly drove home to me what our political culture and our capacities for real self-recognition lose when we as Americans—though I imagine this practice is not unique in the world—refuse to confront unlaundered images of death in war coverage, whether of "our" troops or of the "other" side. Silvered Water does not obviate the notion of "sides," since there's a moral gulf as abysmal as possible between the side of Syrians under attack and the conduct of Assad's regime and its violent delegates. At the same time, Silvered Water is as frank and effective an antiwar document as I've seen. I won't itemize too many of its indelible spectacles, which are now accessible to you on Google Play and YouTube, but suffice it to say you won't soon forget the repeated spectacle of terrified Syrians hunkered in doorways or meager shelters, trying to use fishing poles or improvised devices to pull dead or bleeding bodies back under cover, without risking annihilation themselves. Or the spectacle of those who cast their own fate to the wind and sprint toward these bodies amid strafing on all sides, because some obscenities are worth risking your life over.

While corresponding, Bedirxan and Mohammed sometimes exchange the role of hope-giver or mood-lifter—while also, of course, taking their own turns on the brink of psychic fallout. Again, I want to be leery of "triumph of the human spirit" rhetoric, because it can code as an easy band-aid over wounds that Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait works defiantly to keep open, in frantic aspiration of being heard and answered, if not fully mended. But there's no denying that Bedirxan's stamina under this environment is mind-boggling, and has remained ever since an active check in my mind against any twinges of self-pity, any belief that my life is in some way "hard." While Homs falls to ruins, Bedirxan opens a school for young children that convenes in a basement every day at 11am, or what people think is 11am. As Mohammed once interjects, with his customary blend of factuality and poetic elegance, "None of the clocks in Syria have hands." Bedirxan, a teacher by trade before the siege of Homs made this impossible, includes footage of leading her young charges through drawing and writing and speaking and learning exercises in the half-dark. (A father of two of these children eventually banishes them from her tutelage because she isn't maintaining the veil; as we saw in The Cave, there is no extremity of crisis that will dissolve some people's fundamentalism about ideas they will never, ever let go.) Bedirxan tends to stranded cats and other animals, some of them three-legged or half-headless or otherwise beleaguered, who are the preponderance of her companions wherever she's subsiding in Homs. She follows an especially winning young student named Omar to the still-green, still-flowered garden where his father is buried, a fact he candidly describes. Omar becomes her comrade on several walks through Homs, as aware as she of where snipers are most habitually posted. The naïve intrepidity of childhood is no less inspiring than the disabused intrepidity of adulthood. The film concludes with a dedication to Omar, after a series of ambiguous signals as to whether or not he survived. If he didn't, he wasn't the only one of Bedirxan's pupils to pass.

As the end of 2012 approaches, Bedirxan faces the fact that she, too, finds it impossible to remain any longer in Homs, with no sign of abatement in its concerted destruction. Mohammed urges her to follow a safe path out, which involves underground passage through some sewage tunnels. These are only briefly and blurrily glimpsed, not because Bedirxan's devotion to image-making has waned but, presumably, because it's unhelpful to those left behind for the world to see too much of their very few escape routes. At this point in his narration, Mohammed confides that his nervousness on behalf of her life is also threaded with some jealousy, or with the self-rebuke of the self-exiled. For him, Bedirxan's endurance as Syria imploded is, alongside everything else it entails, an ongoing challenge to the voice in his own head insisting he had to leave, that there was no way to stay. Though we see practically nothing of Mohammed's new life in Europe, Silvered Water functions powerfully as a brave account of cultural dislocation and of guilts that somehow amass inside the victimized, even as their violators appear utterly untroubled by qualm of any kind.

A few times during Silvered Water, including two occasions just before Mohammed marks his first missive from Bedirxan, we see gleaming raindrops on windows or directly on a lens. Of course these close-ups on silvered water feel retroactively like homages to Simav, co-director and namesake, as does the pre-credits shot of a faucet still running, long after we imagine the last bit of civic infrastructure must have been obliterated. And of course, when projected, these images make it seem that the screen, or cinema itself, is weeping. These are not the only shots in Silvered Water that deserve to be called artful or beautiful, despite a sense of moral incongruity in praising the sublime amidst the horrific. But as stirring a document as Silvered Water is of Bedirxan's becoming a filmmaker, it is as potent a document of Mohammed struggling to remain one, and I think we credit and bolster him, as well as everyone who recorded these shots, when we admit our admiration for them. The list includes the way he lionizes a pre-teen child into an icon of grief and defiance, even as a man who appears to be a relative dies at his feet; the room he finds for some deep-sea divers, proclaiming their love even now for their country, down where the snipers can't find them; the oasis of color and Romantic elegy he finds at the grave of Omar's father; and the long pause he affords to a collapsed wall where we have just watched Bedirxan write, "Oh, Homs, the wind will not shake you," an adaptation of a famous Arabic homily about fortitude, which Mohammed declines to subtitle, because not every message has to bend all the way toward outsiders' ears. He turns Bedirxan's image of fearfully peeking through a doorway into a metaphor for her magical arrival across the threshold of his life. He marks cameras and self-invented filmmakers as lingering, shadowy presences within the scenes they record, and where they may have met their ends; and, always, more silvered water, sometimes filmed as if it's evaporating, or made to look ghostly, like the souls of the dead.

Silvered Water is an invaluable documentary artifact, and a tribute to epistolary and artistic solidarity, and a complex ode to the exile as well as the stalwart, but it is also, in every way, cinema. Most of you who see it—and I hope some of you will, though I understand if you're trepidatious—will watch it on laptops or small devices. That experience may not feel quite as titanic, but it will also make an apt homecoming to the very kinds of platforms that made this masterpiece possible. To Google Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, which is actually titled after its central author and its nationwide armada of known and nameless authors, is to discover that its principal exhibition venues in the past five years have been campuses and community clubs. I wish the film had played every public cinema in the world, but this destiny feels apropos as well. Near the beginning of the movie, Mohammed recalls meeting a young man in Douma, Syria, an effusive fan of his work who wanted to start a ciné club. This young man, whose name was Fuad Balleh, met his hero, Mohammed, outside a screening of Hiroshima, mon amour (of all movies!) and asked if Mohammed would attend his club if he managed to get it started. Supportive, but also humble and pragmatic, Mohammed advised, "It's better you start without a filmmaker present. Watch and discuss the movies yourselves. Then I will come." Ossama Mohammed didn't want his own perceived stature to prematurely silence anybody else's voice. Now, ever so prematurely, he is forced to speak for Fuad, who was among the earliest of Assad's seemingly endless victims. So, let's watch, discuss, and appreciate the movies ourselves, with as little guilt as we can manage, but with commitments to do more than make and watch movies. Let's honor Mohammed and Bedirxan but also Fuad Balleh by summoning the curiosity and the courage to watch Silvered Water, which could absolutely have been titled Syria, mon amour, or the many other movies that have arisen from this unstopped catastrophe.

Last thing: at the end of the screening I saw, Bedirxan drove everyone to tears by appearing from the darkness for a postfilm Q&A. Looking joyful and overwhelmed by the size of the audience, she said, "In my culture, when we feel welcome as a guest, we take off our shoes and sit." So, in front of the large and full auditorium, she took off her shoes and sat, and answered our queries. I can't remember anything she said. I was too upset and impressed and outside myself, and if I wrote down any notes, I've lost them. But I haven't forgotten the mind-blowing modesty it reflected for her to think of herself as our guest, and place herself beneath all the steeply-raked rows of the theater. Let's place ourselves beneath her and all the other Syrians who are still asking us to act, to talk, to acknowledge. Let's be their guests, and their attentive listeners.

Honorable Mention: Very likely, Waad Al-Khateab and Edward Watts will win an Oscar next month for their film For Sama (2019), another collaboration between a Syrian woman in the thick of crisis and a more experienced filmmaker devoting his energies to this most urgent tale. For Sama takes the form of a cinematic missive from Waad, a journalist, to the infant daughter Sama she shares with her husband Hamza, one of the indefatigable doctors in the last remaining hospital in Aleppo; that hospital is still standing because it was built so soon before the civil war started that it wasn't yet on any of the maps now held by the equally tireless Russian bombers. For Sama is also incalculable in historical value, complex in self-reflection, and enormously moving. If it wins a trophy on worldwide television, a genuinely meaningful moment could result. It might be the movie I most regret excluding from the main countdown, except I didn't want to pair it (or anything) with Silvered Water. And if forced to split hairs why I didn't just place it at its own lower rung, I'll say I was even more undone by Mohammed's and Bedirxan's document of how this desperate act of image-making brought strangers together—many more, in the ultimate text, than just the two of them—than I was by Al-Khateab's intrafamilial address, which is nonetheless totally shattering. But maybe the real truth is that Silvered Water was such an epiphany for me that it will always feel like The One. In any case, watch For Sama, currently free to Amazon Prime members. Watch as many other adjacent titles as you can, including Last Men in Aleppo and The Cave, which I already discussed, or Return to Homs, from the same year as Silvered Water, which I still haven't seen. There are many, many others, too. Watch them all.
 

6. Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop, 2019)
 
For Nick Taylor, who forgave me for being so overwhelmed I said literally nothing on our way out of the theater, and for Miriam Petty.

The past is not dead; it's not even past. The dead don't die; they're not even dead. There's fire at sea, but also in the bed, and also in the nighttime sky. The travail's not beau. The water is wide. The Atlantic is full of countless bones. The Atlantics themselves are countless.

Very occasionally, a movie has you from its first shot. Atlantics managed that trick for me and only got better from there. Before we see anything, the soundtrack over a black screen softly swells with noises of traffic and construction, and increasingly wind, and maybe somewhere inside all that, water. Then, despite presenting itself so matter-of-factly, the opening long shot is, like almost everything else in Atlantics, at least three things at once: an aesthetic coup, a political claim, and a bold gesture of refusal. First, art: director Mati Diop and cinematographer Claire Mathon center a blank space in this shot that their movie may or may not fill, leading our eyes all around the rim of the frame, finding an impressively wide gradient of low-contrast resolutions, and making the most dazzling object in the shot the hardest to see. I wasn't sure if that aggressively modern skyscraper on the right was actually there or a phantom vision of something to come, and in a whole host of ways, that's the right kind of question to start posing in Atlantics. Now, politics: the haziness of this image isn't just about mood-setting or photographic ingenuity but also indicates the air-quality crisis in Dakar. This ever-present public problem has indigneous roots related to wind and sand but also powerfully post-colonial and late-capitalist causes, as a booming equatorial metropolis faces the dry, dusty brunt of climate change and, by economic necessity, fills its streets with imported, outmoded, high-emission vehicles. Last, refusal, itself aesthetic and political: Atlantics starts off letting us know this is not Senegal for Tourists, and also starts off declining, visually or sonically, to spoon-feed or simplify. The beguiling, multi-genre, brilliantly controlled tale that follows won't be "difficult" per se—there are few audiences to whom I wouldn't recommend this film—but we'll have to work and participate. Sometimes we'll feel like we're seeing an image of "nothing," or one where something barely glints on the horizon, or in a mirror, or under or over the water.

Co-participating as an empowered viewer in as confident, complex, and hypnotic a film as Atlantics is maybe my favorite thing in the world to do. Every promise that is so concisely made in the opening shot and sequence of Diop's debut feature—itself a fact worth dwelling on, and marveling at—bears extraordinary fruit as the movie unfurls, though rarely in ways you could ever expect. In less than a year since its world premiere, and due in no small part to its Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, Atlantics has already achieved unusual visibility for a Senegalese film outside the markets and specialist enclaves where such work is most consistently supported. This means that many audiences are getting two treats at once: a movie as good as any produced anywhere in the last decade and, I hope, a gateway into a longstanding national film culture brimming with riches. Much of what I will praise as extraordinary in Atlantics corresponds to Diop's specific genius, and is rare and precious by any calculation of world cinema culture. At the same time, some of its aesthetics, modes of political critique, and refusals of linear, unambiguous, self-centering Western story tropes are tributaries of a hundred mighty currents that might be labeled in nested series: work produced by this director's own family, especially her brilliant uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty, too soon lost; Senegalese and Franco-Senegalese cinema, including work by Alain Gomis, Safi Faye, and the preeminent Ousmane Sembene; West African cinema, with too many leading lights to even start to name, though Burkina Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo (R.I.P.) and Fanta Régina Nacro and Mali's Souleymane Cissé and Abderrahmane Sissako are especially important to me; and Global South filmmaking most broadly, too abundant and heterogeneous to count as a "category," though its tendency to integrate artistic and political impulses is, on average, sturdier than in North America or Europe, and it does share a common denominator of being ridiculously under-exhibited and spottily accessible here in the U.S.

It is too much to hope that the success of Atlantics or of Mati Diop's blooming career might augur happy turns in that narrative. It's also as much a distraction as a matter of urgency to summon all that context before celebrating what's so special in this case. Take it then, as tribute to Diop but also to many artists working before, with, and alongside her, and of course not exclusively in cinema, that Atlantics insists on being a migrant drama in which, for once, we never leave the homeland from which the boat full of temporary or permanent refugees departs. We don't even witness their launch into the ocean, or any of their voyage. Dakar, meanwhile, appears to us with all the dimension and complexity it deserves, not as some patronized placeholder space for intolerable breakdown, from which even the highest-risk flight is presumed as understandable. Increasingly, Diop's script, co-written with Olivier Demangel, comes into focus around a collective intervention by the young women of Dakar, seeking justice on behalf of specific plaintiffs but also from an entire system of wealth and power, yielding infinite casualties, living and dead. Even so, the movie totally deflects assumptions of automatic or universal "sisterhood." With a few exceptions, you could almost read the movie as alleging that these women require a trance state or the intervention of other spirits to set aside internecine squabbles and commodity fetishism and realize their shared stake in common problems. Bridging every other point in this paragraph, the scenario of Atlantics and the predicaments of its characters make no sense outside the long wake of colonialism and slavery, yet of all the many dichotomies and conflicts that Diop explores, white colonizer/black colonized is mostly occluded. Senegal's current striations, intramural economic relations, gender politics, built environments, storytelling traditions, and capacities for mythmaking and genre-grafting give Diop plenty to work with, and the audience plenty to ponder. N'Diaye (Diankou Sembene), the moneyed Senegalese builder who's been withholding wages from his crew and is about to catch a singular form of hell for it, palpably stands in for a global system. Similarly, a secretive offscreen departure for Spain and the luxe lifestyle of an upwardly mobile son of Dakar who now lives three-quarters of each year in Italy are all we need to see or hear about the West. Whiteness is as ancillary to Diop's images or attentions as men are to Céline Sciamma's. That sound you hear, mixed into all the water, wind, bustle, and tense midnight silence, is of audiences around the world breathing a sweet, sensuously stimulated sigh of respite from oppressive norms.

But enough framing, even if text and context are fused throughout Atlantics. Let's relish this gorgeous film, which begins, as Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius did, on a prologue that's seminal to the whole yet potently self-contained. Amidst the dun-colored grayscale of their building site, a growing number of young workers rebel against Mr. N'Diaye's overwhelmed middle-manager. That man is helpless to explain how they're meant to persist after three months without salary, collectively totaling $32 million, while the big boss is off somewhere enjoying champagne wishes and caviar dreams. One of the aggrieved, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), draws the particular notice of the camera, holding the lens for a 40-second close-up and then, after a brief cutaway to the ocean, a 60-second reprise of the same close-up, isolated among his vivacious klatsch of coworkers and buddies by either shell-shock or rapid, inward, unvoiced deliberation. It's unlikely the other guys feel any less thwarted than Souleiman does by their shared plight, but it's unclear if they are singing so loudly around him, shaking his shoulder, and tousling his hair in an attempt to cheer him from his stone-faced dolor, which they can't help clocking, or because they're oblivious to just how hard he's taking their fate. The oceanic cutaways, so highly exposed but so low in contrast that air, water, and sand all but blur together, only amplify the sense of irresolution Souleiman must be feeling. The haunting synth score by first-time film composer Fatima Al Qadiri has the same effect, sustaining long, stuck, anti-melodic notes bordering on John Carpenter-style dread. We'll soon follow Souleiman to the beach with his girlfriend Ada (Mama Sane), in a scene of disarming late-adolescent tenderness and intimacy, only briefly interrupted when Ada thinks she hears something, Souleiman is sure she's imagining it, but then sure enough, some puritanical passerby shows up to shoo this embracing couple elsewhere. Souleiman draws out their goodbye, and in retrospect, it's obvious why: he knows, but isn't admitting, that he'll be gone for quite a while. As is her wont, Diop teaches us a great deal in this scene that seems outwardly spare in style and event. Someone is always watching. Intimacy is precious, yet social codes around desire and affection are not exactly relaxed. Fleeting and permanent farewells can be tricky to distinguish. If you think you hear something, you probably do; there might really be someone nearby, though it might also be a ghost.

To stop this piece from getting too long, so as to speed you faster toward a first or second or tenth screening of Atlantics on Netflix (it's right there!! don't wait!!), I'll cut to the chase that Ada soon becomes our main character, and is one of many local girls and women who learn all at once, having snuck out to a local bar for some good times with their fellas, that they've all headed northward on the treacherous waves, in desperate search of cash while N'Diaye stalls. The scene of these women receiving this news by text and by hearsay in the blue-black shadow of the open-air club, scintillant with rotating dots of green laser-light, is an indelible tableau of tough, possibly tragic news arriving not as a wallop but as a quiet web of murmur and an invisible network of heartbreaking transmissions. One thing this means for Ada is that she'll have even less recourse for avoiding Omar (Babacar Sylla), the handsome but unsmiling moneybags to whom her parents have pledged her. As we glean from what little time we spend around Ada's family, matrimony with Omar, once proposed, was always going to be a tough obstacle to avoid. Indeed, virtually no one else around Ada views it as a hardship, including her friend Mariama (Mariama Gassama), who, in an intriguingly unresolved thread, was already warning Ada that Souleiman, the real holder of her heart, is shiftier and less worthy than she's let herself believe. As cynical and remote as Omar seems, Diop's not about to get in there and decide for us, though even Mathon's cinematography, elsewhere committed to misty-dusty pastels and to gossamer darks, veers into harsh, spotlit videography for Ada's wedding ceremony, which pulls out all the resplendent finery of her clothing and everyone else's but also makes her seem lonelier and more surveilled than ever, even before she enters the whitest bedroom in the whole history of whiteness. And then, two crises, potentially related, ambiguous in portent: Mariama testifies with some pique that she has just seen the long-gone Souleiman loitering outside, and at almost that instant, that whiter-than-white marriage bed goes up in flames.

The close-up on the traumatized mattress, ripping a hole in a clean surface, uncovering a creepy mesh of iron structures beneath it, but still refusing any interpretive gaze, was the moment I knew Atlantics was the greatest movie in 2019 and an all-timer for my personal treasure chest. Beyond being an inspired piece of production design—one that could stand on its own in a museum of contemporary art, and single-handedly imply a story similar to Ada's—the image serves as an emblem of the whole film's relation to opacity: visual, narrative, maybe even ideological, though it appears so much more transparent on the last point. Whether filming in the polluted peak of daylight or often, even increasingly, in the middle of the night, as dark a blue as the bottom of the ocean, Atlantics doesn't admit much depth of field, even as it remains an engrossing visual experience. The wall of sound, whether evoking practical locations or thickening atmosphere through a variety of instruments (strings, percussion, organ, synth), also implies tremendous depths that are hard to enter. The soundtrack is light on melodies to close-read or character motifs to track. As subtly complex as the sound mix is throughout, it's never more absorbing than in the multiple shots Diop offers us of the ocean. This literally and figuratively fathomless constant in everybody's life never looks the same way twice, whether bleached into a gray satin curtain or suffused with what I'll call aquaviolet or limned at sunset with rust, copper, and blood or holding aloft inexplicable objects or tickling the shoreline with its after-dark tides, in advance of Atlantics's most startling of many startling twists.

These endless and disparate Atlantics carry us back to Diop's triad of art, politics, and refusal. The one "Atlantic" we don't get is the foamy ultramarine of the postcard. The ideological valences of most of these Atlantics include the inhuman, indecipherable terra incognita into which the shipbound have fled; a majestic wall that surrounds the city while also supplying it with bounty and beauty; and the miles-deep floor of the world's largest mass grave. As for artistic praxis, the looks and sounds of the ocean, not always aligned in Diop's deployments, serve her movie the way the undulant surface and eerie forcefield of the planet Solaris have served Tarkovsky and Soderbergh. The ocean itself (themselves?) is the only presence in Atlantics that seems aware of both tracks in its narrative: the one I've described, orbiting Ada, her unhappy wedding, and her possible reunion with Souleiman, if only he'd manifest as more than a rumor and a Personal Shopper-style text presence, and the one I've mostly elided, whereby almost all of Ada's peers keep waking at night quite unbeknownst to themselves, gravitating toward the same spot, and forming an army of a dozen undead African Antigones. I'm not sure if the two-track plot of Diop's and Demangel's script, with Ada blithe to the nocturnal hauntings, and the haunters themselves unaware of what they're up to, or of what Ada is up to, is a way of staging the vast, devastating truths of a postcolonial political unconscious—only erratically visible, and never for very long, and never in quite the same way from different vantages. Maybe the script is implying that personal dreams of rescue on one hand, and political sagas of reparation on the other, are too complicated and difficult to pursue at once, or to hold within the same mind. This movie just came out, and I'm still thinking about it, as I plan to more or less permanently. All I know is that these two stories are really one story, but it takes a while for anyone to discern that. Meanwhile, what the ocean knows it isn't telling, though Diop contrives some inspired narrative means by which it comes close. If you've been admiring her screenplay largely on the basis of structure, politics, and unpredictability, just wait for the sad but magical flights of language awaiting you, including a speech about a mountain of water that is also a woman, and a final, complexly inspiring peroration from our heroine.

Frankly, it's not even adequate to describe Atlantics as a dual narrative, individual and collective, alternately centered in radical love and radical protest. So many other stories ripple and percolate in the film, some of which are impossible to encapsulate without starting years, decades, or centuries before Diop does. Just within the bounds of her text, I'm also thinking of the chic bartender Dior (Nicole Sougou), Ada's one peer who is also cryptically recused from the nighttime campaigns, and a young entrepreneur for whom the young men's evacuation poses a business problem, subtracting half her clientele in one blow and seriously depressing the other half. Dior, though disliked by some rivals for Ada's devotion, is a candid and generous counselor, able to delineate her own vision of perfect happiness from her friend's, and an excitingly queer presence with whom Ada may or may not be spending more time after Atlantics concludes. I'm also extremely interested in Issa (Amadou Mbow), a hapless detective delegated to the case of the burning bed despite his recent string of incompetencies at work. If you're expecting one of those suave black detectives like you find in Chester Himes or Walter Mosley or Spike Lee's Inside Man, whose inspired sleuthing benefits at all times from their bone-deep grasp on racialized and elite-controlled maps of social power, Issa ain't that. He's also Dior's inverse, as the one man in Dakar who shouldn't be implicated in whatever uncanny transformation is afflicting several women at night, and yet he seems to be, to his own great bewilderment and professional inconvenience. It's not too much to say that Issa takes shape as Ada's antagonist but then as something quite different from that. We root for him a bit, but he is also a delegate of Dakar's policing apparatus, either lifted or sunk in our estimation by his own failures and, nevertheless, his steady zeal in that capacity. Relying on him or growing closer to him might resemble buddying up with T.S.A. Rod while trying to forget where he works.

I'll stop there, except to say that Atlantics loves Ada and the other characters too much to consign them to a hopeless future, despite all the connotations of impenetrability built into the story, the shooting, and the soundscape. Many more characters than I had guessed get what they want by the end of this film, but deeper questions of want and need persist, and of course the scale of loss, recent and historical, remains palpably incalculable. The oceanic, gravitational pull of the film finally lands us inside Dior's disco, with its mirrored and diagonally beveled wall, the last and clearest of so many ways in which Atlantics admits its sustained engagement with Beau travail by Claire Denis, famously a mentor and advocate for Diop, who repaid the favor by making the best movie since Denis's on even tangentially similar themes. You can take my word for it if you want to preserve total surprise about the finale, or you can compare this image and this one if spoilers are no concern. Beau travail famously ends in a dance club we've seen before, typically populated with black women and mostly white men who semi-lethargically cruise each other amidst an Afro-Euro-Asian melting pot of music, mostly staring at their own images in this hard, shiny wall. By the conclusion, that space has been reframed as a kind of ecstatic purgatory with a solitary denizen, dancing and flipping and wrestling his way through an enigmatic afterlife. Diop's club is also a zone where the life-death boundary barely applies, and it also winds up by the final shot as the principality of one person—though she's got an ally, and maybe more than that, just a few meters away, and we doubt she'll spend eternity alone, or even the next few hours alone. Beau travail culminates with a kind of auto-exorcism, surprisingly complicated in affect, banishing a specter of colonial whiteness, imperial militarism, and acidic physical and emotional violence; he exits as required, but more fabulously than we could have predicted, and he notably takes the movie with him. Atlantics, with lingering symmetries but also by marvelous contrast, culminates with a self-declaration of a new leader-prophet-medium-griot assuming with great authority her status as a subject and an acquisition of power, knowledge, and love beyond the mortal coil that the rest of us can't yet fathom. Her final close-up is, like so much of what we've seen in Atlantics, barely penetrable by our gaze but redolent with its own obscured energies and suggestive of a new world to come. It's equally suggestive of new cinemas to come, and to whatever extent they're crafted by Mati Diop and whatever small army of allies are worthy of being called her peers, then we're all in the best possible hands.

Honorable Mentions: In its rigorous attention to bodily movement and corporal breakdown as privileged modes of narration, Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits (2015) would be a very apt double-feature partner with Atlantics. The films also share interests in taciturn but charismatic black female protagonists who are encompassed but also isolated within communities of other black women, and (of course) their probing of curious scenarios where black women's bodies are overtaken by forces nobody can explain. If you're keen to explore more African cinema with an uncanny and speculative bent, and you don't mind traversing the continent to do so, I'd strongly recommend Mbithi Masya's Kati Kati (2016), an even more ideal partner for an evening's viewing alongside the Diop. Kati Kati also revolves around a potently played, not-quite-knowable woman who, unlike Ada, is a stranger in her current environment, but is starting to work out that the basic metaphysics of life and death don't seem to organize this space. Or they do, but not in ways that she initially understands, nor do we. Masya only needs 72 minutes to make the situation marginally clearer to us, and what a beguiling, seductive job he does of it. You can find Kati Kati on Amazon Prime, where it's free for members.
 

7. 20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills, 2016)
 
For Wendy Wall, famously a 16th- and 17th-century woman, but also an exemplary 21st-century woman. And for my mom.

After hearing me rave about 20th Century Women in the early weeks of 2017, urging her to check it out, my mom called me back, just home from the cinema. As I picked up, she said in a quiet voice, "So you think you understand me better, because you saw that movie?" I had no idea how to respond. As I searched for good words, she interjected, "I'm kidding!! I'm quoting the scene from the film!" My mom can be really frigging funny, and I should have known she was pulling my leg, especially since she harvested that line from one of the two scenes in 20th Century Women that I think about most. But part of me also thinks she was really asking, and that I was about to confess, "Yeah, I think I might know you better because I saw that." Admittedly, my mom is quite a different person from Dorothea Fields, the unevenly feminist 55-year-old Santa Barbara single mother played in an act of brilliantly contained sorcery by Annette Bening. In 1979, when 20th Century Women takes place, and when my mom was 29, she was still, I'm sure, not quite like Dorothea, nor would she have resembled Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the 28-year-old photographer, clubgoer, and cancer survivor who fled all the way across the country from New York City and booked a room in Dorothea's giant Southern California rambler. Nor was Mom ever a Julie (Elle Fanning), the intelligent, alienated, slightly reckless 17-year-old best friend of Dorothea's 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie is a thoughtful, lovelorn, slight-of-frame skateboarder on the cusp of becoming a punk enthusiast, and of posing questions to his mother that she doesn't much feel like answering. I don't think I am much like Jamie, and I was not much like him in 1992, when I was also 15.

Well, maybe I'm a little bit like Jamie, or I was. I did spend a ton of time with my mom, and I was always curious about her life and her thoughts, though she answered pretty much everything I ever asked. I also would like to believe I was thoughtful at 15, and I try to be now, but thoughtfulness does not protect you from being wrong, as I have repeatedly been about 20th Century Women. I selected the film as a discussion topic for the monthly film group I lead, which many readers will know comprises me and 30-35 women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Despite that membership profile, the group does not go out of its way to emphasize movies by or about women. That said, among all the thousand reasons I was curious to converse with these particular friends about 20th Century Women, I was dying to know what they'd make of Dorothea, and wondering if their reactions and queries would help me clarify my own restless thoughts about Dorothea. (Bening, endlessly interesting when discussing this role, has said it's the only time she's ever played someone she still wasn't convinced she understood, even by the end of the shoot.) I particularly wanted to hear my friends' responses to an early scene, my other favorite in the film, and the one that apparently secured Bening's commitment to the role, where Dorothea expresses that she is the only person on the planet who will never get to meet her son as just some other stranger, out there in the world. Most of the women in the group have children, and I wondered if they could relate.

As it turned out, many of them said that scene didn't make them contemplate their children as much as it made them think about their own mothers, and what about their own personalities was probably easiest or hardest for their moms to recognize, no matter how close or not close their relationships. It also turned out that 20th Century Women, while not exactly disliked, was not a huge hit in this group. About a year ago, when we reached our 40th session and I organized some balloting about our collective favorites in our five years together, 20th Century Women was one of the only titles that did not appear in anyone's top five. About a year after the film debuted, I taught it in a Gender and Sexuality Studies course to Northwestern first-years, which looked at coming-of-age films, very loosely defined, from the last few years: Spa Night, Moonlight, Raising Bertie, Real Boy, Princess Cyd, Lady Bird, Ava, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Fits... In our discussion of 20th Century Women, one student in this class, who had already told me in a different context, "I think my persona is sort of 'meathead jock,' and that's pretty fair," shared with the whole room, "I was surprised I actually found this movie easier to identify with than other ones we've watched." When I asked what made Jamie so easy for him to relate to, he answered, "No, it was actually Dorothea I was relating to. I don't think she thinks anybody is right in the ways they perceive her, but she doesn't know how to correct them all the way, because she's confused or maybe just wrong about who she is, too. I feel that way all the time."

I take it as no accident that 20th Century Women prompts these sorts of beautiful, honest testimonies, from viewers who worship it or from those who exit rather coolly perplexed. (I've heard very few responses that don't fall into one of these two categories; if you hated it, please, please don't tell me. Just, please don't.) I can't feign total surprise about anybody's ambivalence or indifference, given that Mike Mills's script and direction withhold the disclosures, resolutions, and conventional shapes that many movies promise, without setting itself up as blatantly "difficult." Replete with winning faces, nostalgia-adjacent if not quite nostalgic, vibrant with yellows, teals, avocados, and maroons, it looks like an invitation to move right in. The house at its center certainly has the space. The fullness of the screenplay and its flirtation with genres and storylines we know suggest that we will eventually come to understand this movie, too.

But Dorothea and her story both squirrel out of such knowability, just as Jamie and the audience feel closest to finally achieving it. That tantalizing combination of generosity, color, warmth, and inscrutability only makes me love the movie more, and helps me feel better about serially failing to peg other people's responses. 20th Century Women, in which Bening reads the line "Well, yes and no" with a smiling straightforwardness that somehow contains the wisdom of eons, as if she's part Myrna Loy and part Lao Tzu, is all about everybody being right but also wrong about themselves. Everyone searches out answers to their own half-public half-private questions: Julie somewhat laconically, Abbie with passionate intent, Jamie because it feels natural but also because his mother has asked him to know himself better, if only to better explain his oddest traits and decisions to her. Everyone explains aspects of themselves to others but also hears a great deal about how others see them. Sometimes that's fruitful. Sometimes it's just perturbing, especially for Dorothea, though she seemed at first like the biggest champion of emotional pedagogy.

Maybe this sounds like a lot of movies to you, but 20th Century Women sets itself apart: early, often, pronouncedly. Its first shot is of rolling tides, and by implication the planet, but also by implication the lunar cycle, which will reassert itself memorably in a late group dialogue about menstruation. The second shot is a helicopter pass over Santa Barbara, as if Lester Burnham's dead spirit is about to cut open another neighborhood's rotten body, only 20th Century Women has zero interest in that kind of "dark heart beneath the sunlit surface" metaphysic, and the interceding growth in Bening's rapport with the camera is profound. The third shot is of a burning car in a parking lot, an object of meaning to Dorothea alone, with a value that even Jamie struggles to take seriously. This sudden, strange blaze will cause mother and son to challenge each other with some questions, initiating the central, complicated plotline of their personal relationship... but I don't think it's ever wrong to recall that 20th Century Women evoked the planet and the polis as its first two contexts. We might ask at any moment during its circuitous, kaleidoscopic story, simultaneously major and minor, what it all implies about a community, a region, a country. What existential question does each turn or character broach about who we are to each other, what we can and can't promise each other, what we want or need from each other, and how close wants and needs really are? These questions feel all the more open-ended given how 20th Century Women opts in every way for the interstitial and undetermined, rather than the already-defined. It sets itself in a chronological period (barely still the 70s, not yet the 80s), a regional environment (Santa Barbara, lacking the national stature or congealed connotations of near-yet-far Los Angeles), an aesthetic interlude (post-folk, non-disco, pre-punk), and an ideological transition (mid-Carter but somehow already post-Carter, pre-Reagan, pre-neocon) about which closer study might yield real surprises.

This is certainly true with respect to the movie's and the characters' relations to (white) feminism, all too often modeled as successive waves, like that beautifully rolling surf in the opening overhead, but of course much closer to a disorganized palimpsest of complex weather systems. Abbie has blown in from the East with her androgynous clothes and haircut, her exuberant energy, her well-read and unbashful air, though she prefers a bit of role-played prevarication in the bedroom. Furthermore, while she awaits news of possible cervical malignancy, Abbie discovers that she may yet have a greater investment than she realized or admitted in what counts to her as "full" or "real" womanhood, and how that definition implicates partnering or child-bearing, despite Abbie's grievous fallout with her own mother. Julie, rosy-fingered, dawnlike, though nobody's innocent buttercup, is inducing most of her knowledge and nascent politics from sidelong observation and hormonal adventure, lacking any household or public-sphere role models and unconvinced she needs any. Still, whatever sexual revolutionistas made it easier for women to own and explore their own minds and bodies, and to spelunk around the bodies and oddities of men, she's grateful.

Dorothea, mostly outfitted in a WAC-style jumpsuit that commemorates how close she came to piloting for her country in WWII, actually favors almost any garment with a figure-concealing silhouette. She has for so long perceived herself as a lone wolf and self-confident misfit that she's stunned to discover, after convening her own experiment in distaff-village child-raising, that she may be a bit of a throwback, a bit of a prude. She's been shooting, I think, for a vibe of semi-scrutability, delighted to cultivate mystery around herself but also jealous of her privacy. Instead, she's wound up in some lonelier state: flatly unrecognized by most men, and in different senses by most women. Moreover, she's scared to be open with the people who'd most love to know her. She's the wildest dream of her suffragist mothers but an enigma to the speculum-toting generation which has begun amassing in fits and starts on this Western front. Emancipated yet inhibited, a little bit hippie, a tiny bit Betty Friedan, a bit more Rosie the Riveter, an ounce of Bacall but really more of a Bogie, she, too, is somehow interstitial—between periods, or differently attached to too many. If Janis Ian wrote a song called "At Fifty-Five," Dorothea would in many ways be that. But she wouldn't totally be that, because she's not totally anything.

I can tell I'm pulling a Tristram Shandy on 20th Century Women, trying to evoke the reach and depth and mystique of the whole film and the way it fills my heart, but not quite moving past the first three or four shots. There's a major and perfectly played character, Billy Crudup's William, who's been hard to insert into my narrative so far. To be fair, this is often William's lot, even to his friends and borderline-lovers, who aren't quite sure what to do with his bruised and nearly feminine virility, his earth-mother mysticism, his artisanal quietness. There are whole cruxes of plot about which I've been elliptical: most crucially, Dorothea's decision, as teenage Jamie starts acting more erratically, that he needs the concerted guidance of the mother, the boarder, and the bestie in his life. All women, all people he knows and likes in different ways and trusts for different reasons. It's hard to say whether this plan works or not, or by what standard it was ever meant to be judged. I'm not even convinced Jamie would narrate this passage of his own life this way, in terms of Dorothea's fleeting plan to raise him quasi-communally. Jamie seems just as likely to recall this as yet another period, distinct in just a few respects, of trying to get closer to and clearer about himself, his mother, and their rich but puzzling bond.

Mike Mills was transparent about basing Jamie and Dorothea on himself and his own mom, and the movie feels like the best possible version of trying to resolve the mysteries of her, of him, and of the world at large, but also trying to preserve and respect those riddles. Every scene, element, and performance suggest a meticulous errand of tonal calibration and resolutely non-clichéd characterization. Nonetheless, there is plenty of fresh air in the movie's fleet-footed montage, and great freedom in the actors' performances; some takes, especially of Bening, are patently ad-libbed. All of this suggests that Mills refused to let his own creative and biographical journey constrain anyone else's. As a result, the movie plays like a beachside American's Velvet Goldmine, subbing in Mills's Sort-of-Mommy for Haynes's Sort-of-Bowie, the subject/object of elliptical and endless fascination. The soundtrack, like the souls of the characters, surges with song. Feminism and punk, two freedom projects, two arts of the body tied in different ways to political world-building, do the horizon-expanding work of glam rock in Goldmine. They promise their adherents wonder, movement, community, and possibility but not exactly a utopia. Jamie/Mills, like Goldmine's Christian Bale character, is the most dogged journalist and the most freewheeling fantasist of what exactly was happening during his adolescence, in and around his house, in Santa Barbara, in music, in hearts and minds, in a whole world of twinkling stars and streaking colors.

Mills's formal strategies for amplifying his characters' expressive eccentricities but also defending their deepest secrets—and for italicizing everyone's stubborn singularity while suggesting that they formed something greater and stranger than their parts—are also similar to Haynes's. 20th Century Women has multiple narrators, and each one tells you things about other people in the movie that you'd expect them to have conveyed themselves. And so: Jamie tells us about Dorothea, and Dorothea tells us about Jamie. Jamie tells us about Julie, Dorothea tells us about William, and Jamie tells us about Abbie. Then again, Dorothea also tells Jamie a lot about Abbie, and by the time Jamie exerts his voiceover privileges, Abbie's already said and shown a great deal about herself. Is everyone (or anyone) correct in their accounts of everyone (or anyone) else? Who's to say? Eventually, Dorothea tells us about the future, things none of the characters should know yet, including her. Further down the road from that, all the characters will tell us about their own futures, each one a surprise. Jamie's act of auto-clairvoyance will come last. His final word, also the movie's final word, will be "impossible," and it will refer not with angst but with great, mystified tenderness to his mother.

I've told you what I can about the movie—a movie I feel tells a lot about me, so much so that I'd be inclined to hand a copy to someone who wanted to know something about what I'm like, internally or on the outside. I don't even know what I would mean by this, but I'd be confident in my choice. I'm asserting on this countdown that I could think of six more movies that make even stronger cases as "Bests," showing me even more novel expansions of what movies could attempt or achieve, or illuminating even more about the world we inhabit, or expressing themselves on behalf of even bigger ideas or wider swaths of people, crying out to be known beter. If this were a list strictly of my favorite films of the decade, no question 20th Century Women would be #1. Even more than most movies, I watch and listen to this one to try to understand other people, other tides and passings and sudden, inexplicable fires in the world, but also to try to understand things about myself that I somehow think this movie knows. Even I didn't expect this piece to be quite so ineffably personal as it's turned out, but why I'm surprised, I'm not sure. I hope you don't mind that I didn't make a clearer case for what I revere so much about its construction, its sound mix, its amazingly free and yet totally precise editing, which turns out to have been more prescribed in the script than I had realized. I hope you'll gather from ensuing essays how it's possible I could admire other recent films as much as this one, even if Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie, Julie, and William touch chords few others do. I haven't "fixed" the movie, for you or for myself, but maybe too often writers feel like they have to fix everything for readers, or else we're not doing anything. Some movies can't be fixed—20th Century Women more than most. Do I think I understand myself better, because I saw this movie? Well, yes and no.

Honorable Mention: Whenever I teach this film, and I promise I'm structured and coherent about it, I show passages from the very good documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry (2014), about U.S. feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. The sequences about bodily liberation, about women's health, about collective authorship, and about feminism's race trouble are the most generative for framing and refining ideas about Mills's movie. I recommend all of She's Beautiful..., though, as a record worth spinning, cherishing, and fighting with. I imagine Dorothea would be interested in the movie but not see much of herself in several sequences. Abbie would watch eagerly, even if she already knew most of this history, some of it first-hand. William would be rapt, and Julie would be semi-distracted, while nonetheless catching every beat.
 

8. At Berkeley (dir. Frederick Wiseman, 2013)
 
For Yaseen Ali and Jordan Wellin, a gorgeous TIFF couple and my viewing buddies for other Wiseman joints at the AGO.

I asked one of the audience questions after the first screening of Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Having watched his second feature, 1968's High School, as eager preparation for this festival jaunt and this much-anticipated film, I told Wiseman how moved and grateful I felt as a university educator to see an institution and a community like mine profiled with such detail, breadth, and respect, and I asked if he could place the filming experiences and driving questions behind this movie in relation to what he remembered about making High School. Specifically, since High School is full of mid-1960s American teenagers voicing anxiety and ambivalence about the "adult world" they'll soon join, bucking at the authority of teachers and principals and starting to feel that Things ought to Change, and since At Berkeley teems with members of that same generation, now cast as institutional eminences and gatekeepers, trying to temper and manage student activists' protests about their school and the larger state of their "adult world," I was curious to hear his thoughts about the evolution by which restless dreamers become the status quo's protectors. With undisguised disdain on his face, the 83-year-old director replied, "The University of California, Berkeley, is one of the leading research institutions in the entire world. High school, anywhere, is just a sad little comedy. It frankly boggles my mind you would even compare the two." He moved from there to the next hand-raiser, who applauded Wiseman's choice of title font, which reminded him of the writing on old medieval guild signs. This man asked if this resonance was intentional. Wiseman, elated: "That's exactly what I was going for! These are the sorts of decisions a filmmaker really deliberates over, and I always want the title font to set a good tone for what's coming. It really pleases me that somebody caught that." So, you know, point-set-match to Font Guy! Accordingly, take with whatever grains of salt you like my further reflections on the masterpiece that this fellow and I had both just seen, brought to life by (God bless him) one of the oldest and crustiest salts of all, who released his 40th documentary in 2018 at the age of 88 and doesn't owe me or anyone a damn thing.

Even by the standards of an incalculably great career, At Berkeley is a monumental achievement. I'm not just talking about its 244-minute runtime, the third longest in Wiseman's oeuvre. (1999's Belfast, Maine is one minute longer, and 1989's Near Death has them both beat by almost two hours, which may have inspired viewers with slight attention spans toward wry jokes about its title.) All of Wiseman's movies offer thorough surveys of the ideas or institutions advertised by their titles, coaxing viewers toward new insights, alarms, or appreciations by submerging us in the rhythms, spaces, discourses, and dramatis personae of each locale. As I mentioned in my previous entry about National Gallery, Wiseman totally repudiates the tropes of talking heads or on-screen text, declining even to name the folks we meet as we move through a ballet company, a mental institution, a library system, a public housing project, or wherever he's elected to spend time. In this way, his movies are like full-immersion language courses. You come out speaking the idiolect of wherever you've spent the last good while, sometimes a very great while, imagining that you've absorbed new knowledge not just in your mind but in your bones. The best Wiseman movies, in my view, are those that richly complicate or even countermand what you imagined to be true about a subject. The phenomenal Domestic Violence (2001), for example, makes clear that its titular phrase doesn't just denote moments or cycles of intimate-partner aggression but whole networks of policing, caretaking, adjudicating, educating, reporting, and rehabilitating that hopefully work on behalf of the aggressed but can easily elude or fail them. In this vein, At Berkeley holds open two perspectives, dialectically joined and opposed, on the crown jewel of California's public-schooling system. Is Berkeley an increasingly rare sanctuary where a world-caliber faculty train and inspire students to ask big questions, have tough conversations, and tackle formidable problems? Or is it exemplary of the behavior of so many institutions, committed mostly to its own persistence and to the largesse of its leaders, and mandating docility from its students, faculty, and staff while only appearing to encourage their emancipation? What does it mean or how does it help to answer, inevitably, that Berkeley is both?

Wiseman distills the tense contest or, more likely, coexistence of these two Berkeleys in his opening shot. Situated panoramically over Berkeley's campus, John Davey's camera also captures San Francisco's skyline across the adjoining bay, in a way that seems not to encompass two distinct places but to film the duality of one, in its worldly and celestial guises. That dialectic resurfaces in the first dialogue scene, as a woman who might be an administrator, faculty member, or Visitors Center docent offers both the romantic legend and the mundane facts of how the university came to be; Wiseman exacerbates this clash of lofty aspiration and terrestrial reality by holding a while on her deft oratory before reversing to show the meager audience for this inspiring speech. The next scene is a paradigmatic case of Wisemanian bureaucratic devilry, as a roomful of people, for the first of many, many times in this film, try earnestly to attack a problem and just as earnestly to look awake and engaged around a table. What we're seeing is the launch of an upper-administration budget retreat, seeking a game plan around California's ever-dwindling subsidies for UC Berkeley, which had just hit a low of $308 million in the 2009-10 academic year, i.e., about 16% of the school's overall budget, compared to 40-50% in years not so long past. If this sounds like a movie sliding quickly from the numinous to the number-crunchy, it's in fact another scene of holding those two tilts in traction. Then-Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, previously a professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Public Policy (I looked him up), and someone whose mood and intent can be hard to decipher behind his permanent grin and ready chuckle, frames this juncture in Berkeley's history as a challenge for maintaining "first, our preeminence, and second, our public character." Whether and how these two ideas can be jointly maintained is, once more, the problem of the retreat and of the film, with Wiseman gathering just as much data as the Berkeley brass about all the different facets, organ systems, and micro-communities of their campus. Birgeneau expresses a hope that Berkeley can became the same kind of standard bearer in "operations and administration" that it remains in research and teaching. As the central figure of At Berkeley, he will be asked many times, directly or implicitly, whether this wish is egalitarian and socially redistributive in character or whether he seeks to set new standards for corporatization and cost-cutting.

If you take Wiseman's view that UC Berkeley, like the Bridgewater State Hospital, like The Spring of Tampa Bay, like Lord's Boxing Gym, or like the Crazy Horse Saloon, is the sum of all its populations, its patrons, its policies, its infrastructures, and the ideals and desires they represent or disappoint, then none of this is prologue. If you maintain instead that a university remains, at heart, a school, then maybe At Berkeley doesn't properly start for you until the seven-minute mark, when we enter our first classroom—notably, an undergraduate seminar on public policy, economics, and contemporary notions of philanthropy. The first student to speak in At Berkeley is, also notably, an immigrant of color who identifies broadly as "Caribbean" and shares that folks back home are if anything better-educated than Americans, despite stereotypes alleging the opposite. She insists they lead happier, more fulfilling lives despite or because of a low premium they place on material wealth. I loved how shots of this seminar's eloquent, personable instructor always include another student of color to her left, gazing with rapt, sunny attention on this engaging pedagogue and seeming to exemplify the kind of student who demonstrates full commitment to a class discussion without saying much. But then this very student goes live in a big way, responding to the teacher's question about how to address poverty in the U.S. This young woman asks her white, middle- and upper-class classmates why she should be moved or impressed by their seemingly abrupt, post-2008 interest in precarity, personal solvency, and professional opportunity when, collectively, their demo has shown little regard for such problems when they mostly seemed to afflict people who look like her. Wiseman pointedly sustains a close angle, so we engage the substance of this student's comments, minus any sense of how they're landing. He spends nearly 20 minutes in this one classroom, culminating in the instructor's provocative interest in "looking at how models of 'making a difference' have been defined." The scene implies other themes At Berkeley will prioritize, political through and through, though Wiseman seldom shouts his politics.

Few individual scenes in At Berkeley will run as long, especially in its first half, though many will rival this one in layering and provocation. One unfolds in a lab developing a robotic exoskeleton that can help a paralyzed man to walk; the male Ph.D. student leading the project both polls his client about how he feels while utilizing his creation and borderline tells this client how he feels. This innovator and his professor barely give the female co-leader on this initiative any word in edgewise—by no means a constant in At Berkeley, but a motif you can spot in more scenes than this one. In another laboratory scene, a different young researcher refines a robot's ability to fold a towel with its two claws, an entrancing but also disconcerting spectacle in a film that repeatedly emphasizes the fears of actual humans on the staff that their jobs will be automated or otherwise eliminated. A financial-literacy workshop culminates in one undergraduate's tears about her single mother earning just barely too much money to qualify for federal Pell grants but struggling to cover her daughter's tuition without taking on unsubsidized loans. The financial aid officer sitting next to this student strains to rationalize this predicament empathetically, still relying on a bromide about a Berkeley degree being a near-guarantee of a well-paid job to follow. Still, she endears herself to this student by admitting her own persistent debt on school-based loans. Whether because of or despite the fact that I sit through plenty of similar meetings on my own campus, I was engrossed by multiple briefings at that budgeting retreat, ranging from an organizational theorist's insistence that people define our happiness in institutions based on relationships we value rather than optimized processes (and are much quicker to forgive failure in an individual we like than in a process that misfires, even temporarily) to the folksy head of the Facilities Department, who describes the 37,000 maintenance orders and the 15,000 preventive-upkeep requests his staff fulfilled in the previous school year, including the one (1) person responsible for mowing all the lawns on campus. Chancellor Birgeneau: "Wow! One guy? That person does a pretty good job!" We witness a lovely recitation of e.e. cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town", an ironically season-obsessed choice for this campus with seemingly no seasons, followed by an equally memorable, nearly as poetic presentation by leading cancer researcher Mina Bissell (I looked her up) about how her field belatedly transitioned from quests for single-factor risk genes to an understanding of cancer as the product of complex genetic and biological environments.

Am I personally biased to find such scenes captivating even as lived reality? Probably, but it takes remarkable instincts for camera placement, scene shaping, and agenda-setting for each day of filming to generate such material and make it so involving that the four hours fly by. (I emerged from a rewatch of At Berkeley on my laptop to write this piece, and Derek informed me that I'd long since missed dinner.) If anything, though, the greatest and sometimes most troubling glories of At Berkeley lie in Wiseman's ingenuity in editing his footage, tacitly teasing out moods and arguments across scenes that appear unrelated. Meanwhile, he negotiates a potent, broad-scale turn from profiling an institution's multifarious behaviors and subcultures for two hours, then watching for a further two hours as that institution turns different forms of critical attention on itself, from a range of standpoints that Wiseman assiduously refuses to simplify, romanticize, or favor with respect to others. Sly ironies in the cutting are palpable as early as the transition from that early seminar, decrying ideologies of possessive individualism and drawing needed attention to racial politics, to an all-female a cappella group without any visible black member singing the Supremes' "Up the Ladder to the Roof," a song about climbing so high that "yesterday's broken dreams...all fade away." A seminar deep-diving into Thoreau's Walden, taking seriously his religion of personal tranquility but also his alertness to ubiquitous atrocity, cuts away to one of the many exterior shots of a campus building that Wiseman incorporates as transitions, only this only includes a reflecting pool, seemingly designed to help students feel they, too, have the privilege of transcendentalist exploration of self and world. And the next shot is of an African American custodian mopping the stairwells of this building or who-knows-what building, lest we forget whose labor all this transcendentalism requires, in the 1850s or today. (For more on this, I'll point you again to Devika Girish's extraordinary interview with Greta Gerwig, who sure knows her history of Concord, Massachusetts.) The rare sight of a female professor in the sciences discussing a dissertation chapter draft with a female Ph.D. mentee leads into an undergraduate lab where a notably all-female or at least female-dominated class of scientists-to-be slice into some poor dead birds. A long conclave of senior administrators, led principally by three people of color, discusses collaborations between campus security and City of Berkeley law enforcement, with the goal of curtailing student protests as non-violently but "efficiently" as possible. This meeting seems to conclude with bright optimism that good solutions have been devised...so why is Wiseman's next scene of someone on an emerald-green quad walking a tightrope between trees, and falling?

That meeting transpires almost exactly at the midpoint of this sprawling yet rigorously constructed film, the second half of which grows ever-more absorbed in the fact of coalitional protests by students, faculty, and staff on a campus that is simultaneously a bastion of free intellectual exchange (that is not treated as some veneer to be exposed) but also an impressively, invisibly securitized biosphere. Campus officials are already tracking Twitter and Facebook trends to see where and when activist congregations are forming. Private conversations among administrators, between adminstration and staff, among students, and between faculty and students suggest the good faith of all involved and a shared distress, albeit differently lived and understood, about California's cuts to its education budget. It is clear why the Chancellor thinks privileged students, unacquainted with or unsophisticated about relevant university data, are opportunistically foregrounding a "plight" of low-income and underrepresented-minority students to decry leadership's indifference to issues they are patently working hard on. It is equally clear why students and other protesters are fed up with slow, incremental addresses to the economic and infrastructural accessibility, the still-distorted demography, and the lack of real political temerity in an institution that declaims its progressive and inclusive credentials at every turn, often with recourse to a period of nationally influential, Vietnam-era protest that is now framed as halcyon. It is also notable that the protesters themselves make equal rhetorical recourse to these glory days of Berkeley speaking truth to power, and that their faculty mentors warn of demagogues promising simplistic, one-step solutions to complex problems while encouraging simplistic, one-step slogans like "No cuts, no fees, education must be free!" It is also notable that behind-the-scenes responses to the protesters' long, public list of demands are equal parts snide and sincere, with top-ranking stewards of the campus working hard to achieve a "generic" voice in their official communiques to 300 undergraduates occupying the library, as well as a self-described "garden-variety" tone in addressing these activists directly. It is also clear the activists are still debating the overall goal of this intervention even after they've commenced it. And it is also clear that their progessive Chancellor, in meetings with no students present, contrasts their urgent complaints with the "serious" issues that drove his own generation's activism, and that fond stories of his morally lucid, right-wing boss many decades ago at Bell Laboratories suggest his ongoing seduction by heroic-individual models of leadership rather than messy-collective approaches to change. It is also clear that this Chancellor has more experience of messy collective deliberation than most of the people vilifying him, who obediently end their protest when the library closes at 9pm. It is also also also clear that, of all the meetings we see this Chancellor take, none are directly with students, and that nobody onscreen conveys to them the consensus feedback among administrators about what changes might have made their justice-seeking intervention more focused and effective.

At Berkeley is one of this decade's definitive documents of the liberal vs. progressive standoffs that have been deeply needed and also frequently destructive within the U.S. Left over the last decade (and, of course, long before). The movie consistently flags, as do many people who appear in it, the economic and racial contexts of change and refusals to change that have structured these intra-Left debates, along with every other facet of American life. It's easy to imagine an environment that might allow Wiseman to center more subjects across a range of racial and ethnic identities—which, speaking of savvy sequencing, may explain what took his crew shortly afterward to Jackson Heights, Queens. Nonetheless, the tensions between inclusive, transformative calls for change within disproportionately white institutions, even those taking major, credible steps toward equity, yield a hugely valuable heuristic for where so much of our country still finds itself. "You need feedback!" pleads unnamed Public Policy professor Robert Reich, not at all coincidentally the former U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, to a roomful of vaguely worshipful graduate students planning their own careers of institutional and maybe even national stewardship. The classroom anecdote of Reich's that Wiseman dwells on longest is a parable of personal excellence being amply rewarded within the implied meritocracy of his own staff, even as that excellence expressed itself as a willingness to critique the boss honestly. Reich's lecture, like the fateful meeting about best practices for campus policing, appears near the fulcrum of this four-hour film, which utterly belies the lazy maxim that the best-edited movies are always the shortest. His presentation walks its own tightrope between possessive individualism and broad-scale change-making, not just in its manifest content but in the framework of where and to whom it circulates, and in the narrative that placed this admittedly-remarkable leader and educator in this particular, privileged position.

The movie could have ended with Reich's lecture, given how it encapsulates so many ideals and paradoxes that define UC Berkeley and organize Wiseman's reading of it. More inclined, however, in his films than in his Q&As to cloak his feelings and takeaways, Wiseman allows Reich's classroom to be more like a nucleus, condensing energy at the center-most point and holding a vibrant, sometimes volatile field of electron activity mostly in place. (Is that how atoms work? I spent most of my education time in the Walden-type seminars...) At Berkeley's actual endings are as revealing as they could be of the film's overall character, and that of its maker, whose estimable brand also embodies a convergence of individual genius, coordinated teamwork, and broadly collective, almost dizzyingly capacious outlook. These endings mostly focalize classroom space, capturing again what makes Berkeley's campus specific and glorious, however aptly it has served as a porthole into wider trends and problems. A group of veterans, now enrolled in degree programs, support each other through their shared culture shock at Berkeley while stressing their gratitude for the university's support; one ex-soldier confides, "I've been to other schools, and they had nothing like this." A physicist lectures on how "dark energy" is hard to measure, though I'd call this as good a thumbnail as any of what Wiseman's films are so good at doing, and never better than here: finding a way to represent the intractably invisible, unutterable energies coursing within and around a given environment. An admissions officer confides that 10 million households in China recently listened to his webcast about what makes a competitive applicant—proving that, for all of At Berkeley's necessary talk of responding to local, state-level, and federal pressures, its orientations and entrapments are, of course, increasingly global. We hear a John Donne scholar, Maura Nolan (I looked her up), explicating his typically intricate poem "To His Mistress Going to Bed". This might strike some viewers as a belletristic retreat from Wiseman's more political concerns, until you listen carefully to her etymologies of all the things "labor" might mean and has meant, and of how Donne sees even/especially lovers and even/especially allies as "foes," and how the more you scrutinize a conflict, the more it reveals about the differential politics of bodies and identities. And lastly, if Nolan and Donne cover the past, then we end with an ambivalent nod to futures we might have and others we'll never have, care of Astronomy professor Alex Filippenko. (You guys, always look everything up!) Our schools, our nation, and our planet have served us plenty of dilemmas that seem to admit no way out, but if you're fantasizing about finding a better deal in the nearest possible solar system—well, Sirius is 8.7 light years away, requiring a travel time equivalent to about 10,000 human generations. So we'd better figure out how to do our best with the communities, the countries, and the planet, emphatically singular, that we've got.
 

Sleeping Beauty, © 2011 Screen Australia/Magic Films/IPA Asia Pacific Tabu, © 2012 Adopt Films/O Som e a Fúria/Komplizen Film/Gullane/Shellac Sud/ZDF/Arte Amour, © 2012 Sony Pictures Classics/Les Films du Losange/X-Filme Creative Pool/Wega Film The Look of Silence, © 2014 Final Cut for Real, © 2015 Drafthouse Films
9. Sleeping Beauty (dir. Julia Leigh, 2011)
 
For Mat Daniel, another true believer in this text and a young scholar who so excites me, and for everyone I'm thinking about in Australia.

Throughout three of my college years in the late 1990s, I worked regular 12-hour night shifts at a student-targeted crisis hotline and drop-in center in Massachusetts. At that time, state law mandated that no woman, specifically, who legally qualified as "intoxicated" could be held as a consenting sexual partner, even if she verbally or otherwise signaled her willingness. This statute, honorably intended to make date rape and campus assaults more prosecutable, also betrayed a clearly paternalistic cast, rendering immaterial women’s speech on their own behalves and legally classifying many instances of consensual sex as assaults. As a knotty problem of concept and intent, but more so because I was speaking with real people whose own senses of sexual agency and bodily autonomy felt simultaneously affirmed and distorted by policies like these, I imagined trying to research and write something on these themes when I started my Ph.D. These interests led me to the most powerful lecture I heard in graduate school, in which Wendy Brown, importing concerns from her then-recent book States of Injury and her then-forthcoming, co-edited anthology Left Legalism/Left Critique, used the prism of her own sexual experience to confront vicissitudes of both state- and campus-authored anti-rape statutes, driven as they are by political and protective impulses she obviously endorsed. Brown testified that much of her collegiate sexual life comprised not-great sex, unbidden and surprising and only vaguely enthusiastic sex, good-till-it-wasn't and bad-till-it-wasn't sex that, even as a feminist scholar of law, she found hard then and hard now to label as consensual or to criminalize as rape. One key task of her talk was to urge the prosecution and prevention of sexual crimes—which, let us stress, are often horrifically unambiguous, though frequently underreported, mishandled, backlogged, ignored, or flat-out refuted. The other was to relieve anybody's external or self-imposed pressures, and certainly those on college-age women, to fulfill any unfeasible injunction to sort the messy, ambivalent facts of so much sexual experience into clean demarcations of volition and violation, with no gray areas in between.

I wound up writing a different book, concerned in its own ways with the messiness of desire and sexuality, but less engaged with legal structures or material threats. I imagined the project I've sketched, inflected by cinematic analysis, would become my second manuscript. But then the much-needed explosion of national and global discourse on these topics over the last decade exposed how much training I'd still need to undertake to make a real scholarly contribution. That surge in discourse also summoned the voices of so many people whose personal experiences and/or academic expertise made them much more urgent speakers on these topics. I thus curtailed this agenda to giving talks or leading classroom discussion on these volatile issues, where everyone can establish a level of person-to-person trust in the room and challenge each other while discerning each other's good faith. This approach felt better-aligned with the depths and limits of my own standpoint than spending years on a book that would already be out of date by the moment it came out and let infelicitious phrases or incomplete analyses stand as a permanent record of where my thinking was on a high-stakes, ever-shifting topic. Still, the one talk from this mostly-abandoned project that I'm maddest at myself for not converting into a proper article was about Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty: the rare debut film, especially by a female writer-director, to premiere in competition at Cannes; an extraordinary intervention into historically specific questions around consent and autonomy, centering but exceeding the bounds of the sexual; an astonishing case of a major literary talent transitioning into cinema and exhibiting such polymathic ingenuity and confidence about how every layer of this art form could be marshaled toward a socially pertinent, medium-specific provocation; and a film that, having elicited uneven reviews on the festival circuit, sometimes seems to have evaporated entirely, as has any discernible sign of Leigh's filmmaking career.

Lucy (Emily Browning), the protagonist of Sleeping Beauty, suggests a Brownian subject par excellence, though in several areas of nationality, race, class, and era, she also represents a highly specific case. Early in our acquaintance with Lucy, we mostly see her as a recognizable college girl of 2011, late to class, late on rent, trodding around in huge boots, toting a huge faux-leather bag, subject to Mom's untoward and ill-timed nosiness, hair and clothes either crafted for a "just out of bed" look or actually just out of bed. Complicating this impression, we soon spot Lucy dressed to the nines in a swanky, slate-gray cocktail bar, dipping flirtatiously into a bathroom stall for some cocaine with a woman she's just met, then joining that woman at a banquette where she invites two youngish businessman-types to flip a coin and determine whether one of them will sleep with her that night. We gather right off that Lucy is not especially cautious in her sexual self-stewardship nor all that hung up on the gender, demeanor, or discernible appeal of potential partners, though it was disheartening to say the least how many reviews out of Cannes labeled her a prostitute. Already in this first phase of Sleeping Beauty, the film exhibits a static, meticulously framed, rigorously observant gaze on Lucy (Leigh's style earned many comparisons to Kubrick's) but does not obviate our empathy toward her. I admired her moxie and feared it a bit, and I worried on her behalf, for reasons both economic and erotic, since this bar looks pretty expensive for an undergraduate who's apparently so strapped for cash that she's already working three menial jobs as a laboratory-test subject, a barista, and an office assistant.

Soon enough, Lucy answers a school-paper ad for a fourth job. We never learn what the ad said or what Lucy knows heading in; Leigh proves allergic to generic story beats, and to the kind of leering judgment or stock suspense that might come with scenes of Lucy spotting the never-divulged listing, furrowing her brow at its fragrant yet elliptical language, or presumably having a wordless "to answer or not to answer?" ponder during several ensuing close-ups of her middle-distance stares. None of that crap for Sleeping Beauty. Instead, we learn of the ad as Lucy is already calling the number (from a phone booth!), giving terse answers that imply the unheard questions: "Uh, slim?...," "Ummm, pert?...," "Okay, what should I wear?" Shortly, she appears for an even stranger, in-person interview with Clara (Rachael Blake), the soignée hostess of some private den where silent women sporting outré lingerie serve lustrous gourmet dinners to elderly white guys in black tie, who appear to be emissaries from a world Australian feminist Raewyn Connell influentially labeled "transnational business masculinity." Lucy's audition for the job foregrounds economic considerations, such as the proposed $250/hr salary, and Clara's advice to be prudent with it, invest, pay off a student loan, do anything but make this secretive freelance gig into a career. Then, in the most-quoted exchange of this conversation, shortly before a man arrives to inspect every square-centimeter of Lucy's body, Clara assures Lucy, "Your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina will be a temple." This oath is an ominous offering to a waitress, but the portents of danger do not throw Lucy as much as the implied preciousness of her body. "My vagina," she retorts, "is not a temple." Lucy will acquit herself well enough in these cloistered, Eyes Wide Shut-style meals that she earns a "promotion" Clara has previously invoked to fulfill "other responsibilities." By this new arrangement, Lucy will ingest a tisane that Clara concocts and sleep soundly all night, while a much, much older man pays to share the bed with her. She will be naked and tucked beneath the sheets by the time each man arrives, and she will not wake till the following morning, lacking any memory or evidence of what did or did not transpire, outside Clara's one firm assurance: "Your vagina will not be penetrated." Lucy signs up.

May we say with any confidence, though, that she consents? Can anyone issue blanket consent to uses of their body that have not been specified, have not yet transpired, and leave no evidentiary trace? If you're not sure what your state or campus or country maintains on this point, you might want to find out, but you might also want to sit with the reasons why it's so hard to know, and why whatever statutes apply in your arena are probably a frustrating mesh of protections and problems. Sleeping Beauty is one preeminent example among many from recent years that make clear why "consent" is both an urgent prerogative to publicize, exercise, and honor and a distilled concept that cannot carry by itself all the explanatory, circumstantial, judicial, or political burdens we impose upon it. Leigh's film prioritizes these questions throughout and develops them in meaningful stages that are often hard to watch, more because of ambiance, implication, and heebie-jeebie scenario than manifest scenes of violence. That Sleeping Beauty stages such a bold, probing inquiry while keeping shocking tableaus to a merciful minimum is one sign of the film's extraordinary ambition and sophistication. So, too, is its unflagging interest in specific contexts for Lucy's choices and predicaments while still deploying her as a figure for wider problematics, declining to tell the story in psychological or individually evaluative angles. A third is how quandaries of power and consent that could have been framed as abstractly "sexual" always betray more valences, particularly economic ones, and through more routes than the script alone.

Note, for example, how Lucy's various jobs in the lab, the café, the cubicle, and the boudoir all exhibit comparable palettes and camera behaviors, implying that Lucy's experiences in these spaces and the forces organizing them are, from her perspective and/or the film's, more continuous than disparate. And why shouldn't they be? We habitually sign medical consent forms, but can we really "consent" to whatever might happen when, say, a researcher sticks a notably large probe down someone's throat, answering a question he has not shared, freed even further by the fact that he's now in the legal clear? The benign intents of most doctors or scientists do not make the scope of "consent" in this scenario feel any less attenuated. Similarly, can anyone consent, or do they, to the full context of being a service worker, a wage-laborer, or a minor corporate drone, lacking a full vantage on the exploitations or humiliations that might result—say, when your surliest customer trips you without consequence, or your boss sells you hard on the prospect of getting high with him? Beyond posing these questions "alongside" those uniquely raised by Clara's château, with all its connotations of fairy tales spoiled or demystified, Sleeping Beauty insists on these as facets of the same question. The movie is not structured as a "Did she or didn't she?" or a "Should she or shouldn't she?" or even a "What happened or didn't happen?" but as an eyes-wide-open, thighs-wide-shut medical imaging of a stage in culture and a moment in time that's defining did, should, she, happen, and what? in ways that feel so impossibly hazy, and yet so frequently harsh in outcome.

It's hard to overtstate the payoffs of Leigh's decision to appropriate Yasunari Kawabata's 1961 novella The House of the Sleeping Beauties in ways that not only update it to a different cultural context and a new generation of precarity (variously defined) but reverse its orientation to the perspective of the drugged women, rather than the dolorous, beauty-drunk men who are Kawabata's subjects. To me, this is a high point in the annals of agenda-driven adaptation, though Sleeping Beauty is too multi-dimensional and authoritative on its own terms to feel like a mere reaction to someone else's art. Furthermore, Leigh hasn't forsaken a curiosity about those men. As often happens in movies directed and produced by women (and mentored through production by Jane Campion, billed onscreen as a presenting partner), Sleeping Beauty offers a distinctive lens on masculinity, all the more unique for focalizing the elderly in ways cinema seldom attempts. We witness the beginnings, only, of three of Lucy's unconscious, anonymous assignations. One man (played by Peter Carroll) shares a perplexing five-minute soliloquy before denuding himself and slipping gently under Lucy's sheets. The second (Chris Haywood, Jindabyne's villain), speaks and moves in shorter, rougher spurts, and snuffs his cigarette on the skin behind Lucy's ear—maybe the worst thing Sleeping Beauty shows us, and even then, we don't quite see it. The third (Hugh Keays-Byrne, aka Immortan Joe!), stays entirely silent and plays his two minutes of screen time as a sad, dangerous dance, lifting up "his" recumbent princess, then dropping her, deliberately or not, halfway onto the foot of the mattress, while seeming to have a heart attack.

I can't imagine how longer, more numerous, or more graphic encounters could suggest more than these three episodes do, differently placed on a spectrum from dreamlike to nightmarish, about masculine regret and self-pity, about infirmity and furious impotence, or about the ways aging, white, imperial-class masculinity might feel, in sync or not with the different ways it might look, stripped of all but its skin. One of these men will return near the end, implying with ever-greater transparency his wish to die peacefully by Lucy's slumbering side. (This plan requires Clara's complicity, culminating the jewel-cut precision of her narrative arc and of her interpretation by the always-astonishing Blake, proving that women older and more outwardly secure than Lucy remain mired in dilemmas of precarity and consent.) Collectively, the men of Sleeping Beauty seem to have pledged themselves to the same mass-suicide pact, pushing themselves out with greater and lesser force on rafts bound for oblivion. You needn't have aged to participate in this contract, which unfortunately seems bound to pull every other character down with it, as well as all of us in the audience. Scott Morrison, Australia's current, terrible, flame-stoking Prime Minister, appears to be a signatory. So is Lucy's friend and relative peer Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a longtime acquaintance and borderline paramour, prematurely the Richard to her Clarissa, outfitted in striped pajamas that resemble an Auschwitz uniform, now drinking himself to a certain, Leaving Las Vegas-style expiration. Tears, fears, and regrets about Birdmann's seemingly determined demise elicit Lucy's greatest displays of emotion, even as she tries to hold back, evades his eyeline, and obligingly pours bowlfuls of vodka into his cereal; a hopeless goal of finding him an A-grade rehab facility is the one spindle of personal motive Leigh provides for Lucy's pursuit of her eerie-scary work for Clara. The key point is that Sleeping Beauty makes itself legible (or, like everything else about the movie, semi-legible) as an allegory of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't witherings of "consent" on a planet lashed to the death drives of male millionaires, some of whom even hold forth poetically about their broken bones while seeming not to notice all of ours.

Sleeping Beauty's semi-legibility clearly frustrates some viewers (Google autofilled a search I performed as "Sleeping Beauty explained") and becomes an albatross for Lucy herself. Despite her earnest or projected sangfroid about boundaries, she elects late in the game that she needs to see, just once, what goes on in "her" chamber after the lights go down. Thwarted in this desire by Clara, Lucy buys a surveillance camera small enough to hide inside her mouth, to sneak inside the Room Where It Happens, and to plant unobtrusively on a wall. Based on the three quite different glimpses we've received of early-evening phases in this chamber, we know that footage from one night cannot function synecdochically to illuminate others. I also found myself cringing with equal parts pity and empathy at Lucy's belief that surveillance—a ubiquitous axiom of modern life, but suddenly missing just when she needs it—is a solution rather than an amplification of her problems. What transpires that particular night, as indicated by Sleeping Beauty's closing scenes, may well be worth knowing. What footage Lucy gets, though, as we behold before the credits roll, is almost completely opaque.

That ironic revelation is a master conclusion for multiple thematic threads across this amazing, ridiculously under-recognized film, and also the punctuation point on the movie's acknowledged complicity in treating Lucy as a visual object for its own gaze, with qualified hopes of finding "answers" to her problems or even posing sufficient questions. By starting Sleeping Beauty with that laboratory probe of Lucy's throat, Leigh makes instantly clear that Lucy's body, Browning's body, and the well-masked interior states of character and performer alike will be at stake throughout. By that analogy, Leigh herself is the scientist posing queries to which nobody else is privy. The "consent" of Lucy, of Browning, and of the audience to whatever will follow this prologue is interesting to contemplate. In one of Lucy's later summits with Clara, an incongruously modern floor-lamp in this otherwise Victorian-inspired parlor suggests a boom mic or light rig that Leigh's crew accidentally left in the frame. I take it instead as a reminder, should we need one, that they are watching as we are watching; that Leigh is in some way Clara, as are we; and that none of us is impeding Lucy's propulsion toward whatever this night will involve. The hope that cinema can solve or even adequately capture the world's problems, whether in a form as finely-etched as this prodigiouso auteurist statement or one as degraded as the data from Lucy's micro-camera, is a hope that Sleeping Beauty upholds in its own brilliance but undermines, rightly, in its script and structure. Thank goodness for movies this skillful and smart, on subjects this urgent and pervasive. If more people watch Sleeping Beauty or give it a second chance because of this write-up, I'll be elated. But we need to respond with more than critical enthusiasm, and we need to make change even more than we need to make movies. It's on us, not Leigh, to decide what changes are needed, and to what levels of social, economic, and ideological overhaul we are collectively willing to consent.

Honorable Mentions: Sleeping Beauty works on so many levels that my recommendations follow many disparate tracks. If you want to see more movies that throw aspects of sexual and economic consent into productive disarray, to include relevant challenges to our visual cultures and the ways they do or don't serve our liberation, I'd recommend Michael Rowe's Leap Year (2010), already included as an Honorable Mention after Roma; Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love (2012) and Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2013), two earlier entries in this countdown; Maja Miloš's Serbian provocation Clip (2012), one of the more interesting releases from the Philadelphia-based distributor Artsploitation; and David Fincher's fantastic adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), which may or may not be his "best" movie of the last decade but is easily the one that means most to me. If you want to see different ways in which global filmmakers examined sleep as a bodily state, a simultaneous boon and block to image-making or narrative development, and a surprisingly rich entrypoint to political ideas, I'd go next to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor (2015), a film to which I'm still working out a relationship, and Nicolás Pereda's Minotaur (2015), a hypnotic, oddly witty mini-feature I admire less reservedly but have no idea where to find, this long after its festival run. If you want to pair Sleeping Beauty with its most oft-invoked peer in that year's Cannes competition, get thee hence to Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance (2011), a movie that also received a lukewarm reception by most Croisette viewers but subsequently earned a second wave of critical regard that Sleeping Beauty still lacks, at least from what I can tell. If you're curious how else this classic tale might be re-approached from a contemporary lens, female-authored but debatably "feminist," try Catherine Breillat's The Sleeping Beauty (2010). Finally, if you'd like to see another product of super-savvy Antipodean mulling over questions of gender, rape, crime, corrupt systems, strange congregations, and perverse decision-making by the already-vulnerable, try either season of Jane Campion's majestic Top of the Lake.
 

10. Tabu (dir. Miguel Gomes, 2012)
 
For Guy Lodge, with whom I first saw Tabu, and for Tim Robey and Amir Soltani, the other inspiring members of the "Team Gomes" WhatsApp thread in my phone.

Miguel Gomes's Tabu is an object that exists within but also outside its own time. This is the one unmissable fact about this postcolonial-neocolonial-quasicolonial Portuguese movie, of which the long first act unfolds in contemporary Lisbon, captured in elegant black & white 35mm cinematography that sometimes absorbs the clean-lined, shiny-surfaced sterility of the spaces it films: hospitals, city buses, cinemas, contemporary apartment complexes. After 45 minutes, an elderly man named Gian Luca (Henrique Espírito Santo), retrieved from a nursing home to attend a funeral, tells two women he barely knows that Aurora (Laura Soveral), the recently deceased, "had a farm in Africa." After a five-second beat to capture the amazement of her neighbor Pilar (Teresa Madruga) and the more dispassionate curiosity of her housekeeper Santa (Isabel Cardoso, a Pedro Costa regular), we arrive abruptly in a high-grain, high-shimmer, dialogue-free, 16mm soap-bubble dream of mid-1960s Mozambique, a country never named in Tabu's script but the only Portuguese colony with the kinds of rolling, mountainside tea plantations that surround our protagonists on all sides. One of these focal characters is the younger Aurora (Ana Moreira), an avid huntress, the mistress-by-marriage of one such plantation, and a grateful rescue from poverty after her spendthrift father gambled away the fortune he made on exporting ostrich-feather pillows. Another newly-promoted protagonist is the younger Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta, of Mysteries of Lisbon and Diamantino), a Genovese rake who achieved boudoir infamy in Paris with a Hungarian countess and is now shooting his sexy-bunny stares around the verdant hills and valleys, with almost as much confidence and precision as the married and pregnant Aurora brings to her rifle. No points for knowing where this is going...

...but in fact, huge props if you know where Tabu is going, because I've seen the film three times and am still not totally sure. The filmmakers literally weren't sure. The entire midcentury African section, constituting more than 50% of the film, was improvised day-by-day, often pending what locations the crew got licensed to film. Gomes and regular co-writer Mariana Ricardo only composed the narration of elderly Gian Luca—the bridging element for half of Tabu's sequences, and our only access to some of its more nuanced story points—while he was editing the footage with Telmo Churro, another mainstay collaborator. Such behind-the-scenes testimony is guaranteed to set journalists aflutter with "How'd they do that??" astonishment, so we may have to reserve a soupçon of skepticism about just how pre-planned the arc and events of Tabu really were. We may never know, given that Gomes is as playful a raconteur as his loose, gamboling movies would imply. That's exactly the species of "never knowing" that Tabu both explores as its premise and prompts in its viewers. Amidst all the erotic, economic, and administrative shenanigans of the Portuguese colonials, we get regular tip-offs, but only those, about how affectively and historically close the black Mozambicans were to anticolonial overthrow. But what was the exact state of conversation and political momentum among them as Tabu's story unspools? Well, we'll never know. Between this glistening, plundered, less-than-idyllic paradise and the marauded, deadpan antisepticism of present-day Lisbon, lots interceded: a direct continuation of capitalist pillage, a historical rupture from anything that had come before, a gluttonous absorption of US-style ideologies and pop aesthetics, a retro-fitting of imperial paradigms that made the country's free-falling underclasses into its own intramural colony. All of these things feel true, and none excludes the others. But how to diagram the exact burning bridge that spans the 1960s and the 2010s...well, we'll never know. Few movies since Buñuel's peak have succeeded in feeling as bizarre by the finish as by their beginning, as majestic yet furtive as a baby crocodile darting across a carpet.

This tack is beyond risky for a movie to take in the 2010s, when indictments of systemic power and historical oppression became more and more daily parlance, and where a story invested in the ineffable or the conspicuously absent could quickly (and often rightly) be castigated as supremacist know-nothing nonsense. Consequently, these tilts in Tabu are what I meant by calling it an artifact of and yet outside its own time, as much as its bicameral plot structure, its two-trains-running approach to historical questions, and its juxtaposing of modern and antiquarian film styles. I bet Tabu has been #WellActually'd in several quarters, and I'm not convinced it shouldn't be, or that I wouldn't at least learn from or actively co-sign some of the critiques I can already imagine. But despite or because of those risks, I find Tabu rather brave in what it does, and dazzling in how it does it. I see a kind of chiastic Rorschach diptych: a movie we're not quite sure how to watch, despite its historical and stylistic familiarity, followed by a movie "we" are all too eager and able to watch, despite its historical distance and stylistic eccentricity. Neither of them is the movie we probably need to watch on these subjects, which would surely center imperial racism, aggravated capitalism, and the populations who are most viciously aggrieved by both. But Tabu trusts others to tell this story, knowing that there are better positions from which to narrate that specific version. (Gomes, after all, had never been anywhere in Africa before making this film.) Instead, Tabu investigates whether such a tale can still be told from oblique angles, and from two promontories that many heirs to white imperial custom and perspective know inside out: the strained world of today's precarious middle class, and the lingering idioms of 20th-century cinematic fantasy. The first is so affectively suppressed and beholden to invisible forces that it feels not quite real; the second was always lacquered and sublimated nearly beyond recognition from its actual root in colonial practice, and thus emerges as brazenly unreal. Can reality still be touched, from vantages where it feels dehydrated or disqualified? And if it could be, what would we be touching?

While I can understand in comparative terms why commentators often describe Tabu as alienating at the outset and seductive past the halfway-point, I don't find either description adequate in kind. The first panel of Tabu is quite interesting, suggesting three different ways of moving through the modern world that don't or can't confront full-time the past's polluted legacies. Pilar, some kind of global equity worker, involves herself in protests outside UN offices and tries to draft a "report to the Peace and Justice Committee." We see her amidst one meeting with colleagues but never get a bird's eye view of exactly what or how many allies her work comprises; this itself speaks to the way such activist labor often feels like it's blowing out there in an abstract wind, even to the people performing it. Aurora, a figure of emphatic whiteness, waves and drowns amid seas of distracting mysticism, some that she invites and considers propitious (her faith in the casino, for example, or her passionate parsing of her own dreams) and others that she fears and decries (i.e., the witchcraft she believes her maid practices against her). Santa, the maid, maintains stalwart levels of you-gotta-be-kidding-me ironic reserve, which doesn't mean she fully holds her tongue. Privately, she plugs away at language-proficiency classes, whether to help her gain some better job than serving a possible madwoman or because she just enjoys reading. That Robinson Crusoe is her bedside text demonstrates Gomes's own gifts at ambiguous ironization, given that novel's parallel lives as a primal scene of imperial fantasy and as raw material for intricate re-appropriations by all kinds of raided, colonized cultures of the East and South. He also films and mixes Pilar's devout Catholic prayers so that they sometimes take on an unnerving, whispered intensity that belies her outwardly secular, pragmatic mien.

The fact that these three women exist in such proximity and tenuous alliance testifies to the demographic, biographic, and historic diversities of who now lives in Lisbon and how they got there, and to each woman's lack of a peer group with whom she might feel more fully aligned. Pilar has her co-workers and a slightly pitiful painter boyfriend (Cândido Ferreira), but that doesn't feel like much. She registers to house a Polish exchange student, but the one assigned to her lies about her identity to shirk her hostess and make more exciting plans; it's unclear whether Pilar recognizes this hoax as such. Santa doesn't appear to hobnob with other students in her reading class, though we may be in Imitation of Life terrain, where no white character thinks to ask after a black woman's interests away from work. Aurora has a daughter in Canada who barely checks in with her, even during rare returns to Portugal. This sense of citizens leading erratic lives, largely in forms of isolation they did not choose, and inhabiting ragtag collectives that are hardly "communities," is exactly what we also see in Tabu's later surveys of colonial space. Both are filmed in the same old-fashioned, cramped 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Urban skylines and rural mountain ranges can stretch as far as they want, but nobody's life has a widescreen vista. Denizens of the colonial outpost keep trying to gin up hip or cosmopolitan distractions, like crooner-pop bands and poolside cocktail parties. Conversely, present-day Portugal keeps reprising desiccated signifiers of an imperial past reframed as "exotic," in the most generalized terms: giraffe sculptures in public parks, garlands threaded across kitchen ceilings, cafés festooned with massive palm fronds and fake toucans. These things are fun, sometimes really fun, but nobody is more than passingly transported.

Spending time first in the early-2010s period, we sense how disconnected and demoralized people feel, even though the film abounds with wit, humor, surprise, and human details that make us curious to know more. Shuttling afterward to the Mozambican plains does not, for me, yield the half-guilty Gone with the Wind-style response I've often read about: "Yes, it was all based on violence and corruption, but sweet lord, it sure was gorgeous." No question there are interludes of gorgeousness, care of the photography and the people as well as the places. It's entirely likely that after watching Tabu you'll want to have sex with someone under a mosquito net, preferably one of these people, at least if living god Rui Poças is there to offer silvery light. But even that light is not always dappled and dream-inducing the way, say, Out of Africa's is, and the central love triangle is not quite convincing (deliberately, I'd say) as an English Patient amour fou. Everyone's making the best available choices, if not necessarily the most prudent, among the options and potential playmates furnished to them. Everyone writes letters and tells stories more fervid with desire than the same people act when we observe their encounters directly. Everyone seems to suspect that they are making messes of their lives, that they are childish and sinful despite meaning to grow up. They eventually slink off into different shames, about which they prove voluble. Many of those affects are discernible retroactively in the 2010-set story, except there's nowhere for Pilar or Santa to slink off to, and less reason for them to feel ashamed. They didn't make these rules, which they realize are probably the same everywhere, which might be why Santa happily escapes into Robinson Crusoe's stranded life (who knows what she makes of Friday's life?) and why Pilar still enjoys melodramatic, jungle-set "period-piece" movies that put her companion to sleep...a genre, of course, that comprises the very transhistorical, curiously dolorous, romantic pastiche that eventually swamps Tabu itself.

Very likely, I'm making Tabu sound less tantalizing to watch than it actually is, especially but not only in its second half. There's a bit of biased yearning on my part that sociocultural, antiracist, and metacinematic critique are even more inveterate to this slippery film than they might #actually be, although proofs do abound in image, sound, story, and structure that Gomes is pursuing all these projects. In any case, I'm willing to hyper-correct for what I view as a more common mischaracterization: that Gomes somehow gets away with an anachronistic indulgence of glamorous white mischief, in part by making it contrapuntal to the anti-erotics of modern life under capital. I think he retains the hypothetical pleasures of naïve, far-side-of-the-world romances while suffusing them with all the irony and melancholy that a contemporary take by a savvy artist must reckon with. I'd describe Tabu, then, as a two-paneled portrait of two micro-cultures set a half-century apart, each pining for allegedly richer worlds that preceded them and/or might follow them. Each exists firmly within the boundaries of an era-specific form of wealth-extraction, and each feels weirdly unmoored from or neglected by the very systems that otherwise so obviously control them. This helps folks feel a bit freer and wilder than they'd guessed they would feel, at least a few decades ago, but also explains why they grow so lonesome and self-consciously curbed in their enthusiasms. These micro-cultures exist as none-too-distant generations in the same family line, with genetic transmissions of dreams and, especially, regrets. First, the elder: a casually spectacular but often wistful, occasionally glum colonial scene, where fanciful cloudgazing is both a cutesy hobby and the pastime of the deeply bored, and where all this work of harvesting tea via a racist system of conscripted labor will allow people of the future to sip something during awkward house calls on semi-friends. Is that, indeed, all there is? Second, the younger: a cityscape where the enlightened try to aid the conditions of the struggling, without trusting this will happen, and lacking the requisite time and energy to make it happen, and where neighbors exchange small favors, quizzical glances, home cooking, and the occasional, entrancing, unexpectedly soapy yarn, without quite fostering a bond, a family, or a real solidarity with each other.

All of this plus some dry-as-wine jokes, some clairvoyant wizards, some tricksy reptiles, a juicy murder plot, and some Portuguese re-recordings of a hot Phil Spector hit you know from Dirty Dancing. If this is a safe space for speaking to cinephiles, and that's exactly whom Tabu most passionately addresses, I'd call this film the offspring of one hot night shared by Claire Denis's Beau travail, Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon, and several bottles of Tipo Tinto. But maybe that queer encounter could never yield any offspring. Maybe, at best, it generates a child that would flee for some other continent and refuse to maintain contact. Maybe, Y tu mamá también-style, these movies woke up from their "unexpected" threesome and at least one of them just felt sick. Tabu is occasionally quite sexy, and it sometimes feels sick. Mostly it maintains a charming, exquisitely beautiful game face while its gut remains unsettled. Other movies may encapsulate part of this one's strange mixture, but very, very few have encompassed the whole, and even fewer, if any, have arrived at it by such elliptical, adventurous paths.

Honorable Mention: Gabriel Mascaro's peculiar Brazilian drama Neon Bull (2015) walks a similarly thin rail between desire and depression, and exhumes broadly related core-samples of uneasy history and complicated affect from its long-colonized soil. Both movies release pregnant women to snatch their best lives from some very randy, very capable-looking lovers. And both movies, early and often, in the words of the late, great C+C Music Factory, are things that make you go hmmm.
 

11. Amour (dir. Michael Haneke, 2012)
 
"Old age ain't for sissies" is something I've heard from almost every old person in my life, including two who have recently departed and one who probably will soon. It's also a mantra for several Hollywood movies, which promptly go about telling the least human, least relatable, least persuasive stories they can concoct in putative service to this mantra. I like to imagine for a moment Michael Haneke watching The Bucket List or Poms or A Walk in the Woods. I envision his soul vomiting while his face remains stolid, implacable. I wonder what "he'd" have tweeted about any of these. But I only wonder for a few delicious seconds at a time because I don't feel especially quippy or facetious when I think about Amour. That's not because I hate fun, or serious movies can't be fun to joke about, but because this one in particular is so imposing and consummate as an activist intervention on behalf of seriousness. For 127 minutes, surely we can set aside the cultural mandates to idolize youth or to lead with a smirk or to broadcast our own effervescence and face instead how old age looks and feels—yes, even for the startlingly wealthy. We can recognize how instantaneously natural decline can shift into keen infirmity. We can meditate on how these things might feel for us, if we're lucky enough to age, and how they feel for those who are already old, whom media cultures, public infrastructures, and daily routines around the world, but especially in America, work very hard to occlude from view.

The opposite of seriousness in Amour is not inanity but evasion, to include evasions with which it's easy to sympathize. When classical musician Eva (Isabelle Huppert) implores her octogenarian father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), "Can't we have a serious conversation about what's going on with Mom?" she is rebelling against such polite, earnest, but stern platitudes as "We're taking all the steps we can" and "Everything they could do in a hospital we can do here" and "You're sweet to ask, but there's really no way for you to help." Eva's point is hard to deny, but Haneke's screenwriting is so acute and (hot take incoming!!) so compassionate that we know why Georges feels strongly that he is being serious. His wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), debilitated by at least two strokes, would be hustled into hospice the second she became an inpatient, which probably wouldn't make her any more comfortable, much less any healthier, than she is at home. Besides, these two love each other and appear to have been a self-contained dyad for quite some time within this giant Parisian flat. Decisions made from that base—bringing a life they mostly know to a close, rather than reorganizing it entirely into a different, more clinical one, populated by strangers—may be flawed or poor decisions but are not de facto unserious.

For almost any other filmmaker, Amour would represent an apogee of formal, narrative, and thematic austerity. One might watch the movie and be struck by its determination to allow no respite, no humor, no fresh breeze. I actually feel the opposite in Amour, both as a direct experience, since it does find occasions for warmth and humor, and in the context of Haneke's corpus, which has at times felt punitive or over-emphatic in its underlining of misery. I sense in Amour a commitment to evoking what's tough in its story by avoiding such embellishment. Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji (first acquainted on the Funny Games remake) as well as editors Nadine Muse and Monika Willi (near-constants in Haneke's crew) refuse gratuitous morbidity as staunchly as they reject sentimentality. The gradual blanching of human complexions, the palettes of taupe and white and pale blue, the rueful and often soft-edged lighting, in resonant tension with the rectilinear severities of the space, construct the ambiance this story needs without the editorial excesses many filmmakers would allow. The camera tends toward medium and long shots, emphasizing not the minutiae of bodily breakdown but the spatial and emotional environment of a home where decline is now the central, daily fact, which neither money nor surgery nor optimism nor love can reverse. Close-ups, when utilized, do not linger on symptoms of aphasia or collapse, and rarely on faces gripped by extremes of feeling. They instead favor the intensity and complexity of Anne's and Georges's gazes at each other, freighted with a palpable sense of history and a welcome, rigorously controlled emphasis on ambiguity. So many movies about longtime lovers are replete with shots where one looks at the other with an expression that connotes, "I've loved you so long. There's nothing about you I don't know." Amour and its performers play the opposite side of that question, equally true if not truer: Anne and Georges are still curious about each other, deeply conditioned to each other's personalities but uncertain of each other's precise thinking. They are mutually attentive to the slightest inflections and nuances, the way you read a favorite novel or religious text you revisit every year without ever mastering it, or expecting to, or wanting to.

Much of Anne's and George's reciprocal perplexity has to do with her ill health, but it's crucial that Amour is the rare film along such lines to avoid reducing the ailing subject to a mere object of care. Even after Anne has lost the ability to make tart comments like "I'm not that stupid just yet" or "Don't stand there to watch how I read a book, okay?" she still looks as puzzled by the fathomless psychology of the caretaker as Georges is by the impenetrable headspace and physical distress of the dying. This balance further warrants Haneke as a supremely empathetic filmmaker, despite an aesthetic and a reputation that suggest otherwise. Emmanuelle Riva, giving probably the best of the 50 performances nominated this decade for Best Actress, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, giving possibly the best performance not nominated for Best Actor (and why not???), earn their cred as legends no matter where the camera is. Their postures, gaits, and steadily rigidifying joints, bearings, and countenances are eloquent in long shots without ever seeming to "reach" for the lens. Quick example: a very late shot where Georges rises from bed, roused by the sounds of someone washing dishes in the kitchen, which for various reasons could not be true. With no excessive telegraphing, Trintignant shows just how much Georges has been stiffened and enfeebled by the Olympic ordeal of playing 24-hour nursemaid, but a quick glance toward the bottom of the frame also finds his right fist locked into the same clench that became permanent in his wife's right hand after her first stroke. I take that gesture as a subtle nod to how the invalid and the enabler, the dying and the living, can sometimes converge in their identities and outlooks, which would seem to be divided in the sharpest possible terms.

In concert with their rigorous director, whose input is especially obvious if you compare Riva's tightly-reined performance with her much weepier audition footage, the actors are just as dexterous with close-ups. Another quick example, again emphasizing the under-rewarded Trintignant. Near the midpoint of Amour, as a nurse instructs how a bed-ridden patient like Anne can be tended as efficiently but comfortably as possible, a medium close-up on Riva cuts to a long shot of the old but able-bodied Anne we met at Amour's beginning, gorgeously coaxing Schübert from the piano in the living room. Haneke is not the type of filmmaker to zoom into or dissolve out from a plangent close-up on Riva before introducing this flashback or fantasy, or to assume that the elderly pine exclusively for scenes of long-lost youth. He conveys this intimate, unanticipated breach into Anne's inner world with a counter-intuitively distant camera, watching this longtime music teacher and enthusiast from all the way across the room. Soon, this angle reveals itself as the vantage of Georges, captured in medium close-up by a reverse cut. In this shot, Trintignant is heroically inscrutable. He does not play the moment for uxorious tenderness or retrospective fondness, or in any way that implies a sense of time regained. He does not convey any connoisseurial interest from Georges, as devoutly musical as his wife; to do so might make the scene a pathos-laden museum exhibit for a recent, already-lost era when Georges could think about something besides illness. We don't know what he is thinking or feeling, even though he is clearly at attention. I think this is Amour's definition of love, unexpectedly cognate to Lady Bird's: amour is attention. Trintignant plays this close-up the only way that could possibly clarify it isn't about how or why Georges watches Anne but about the fact that he watches Anne, scrupulously, yet forever in the absence of perfect understanding. The whole film, in a way, is about how closely Georges is watching Anne, even when his daughter thinks he's paying no attention; and how long Georges and Anne have watched each other, across a spectrum of feelings and tones; and how being Anne's closest reader is what inspires Georges toward his ultimate decisions, which may or may not entail a misreading, or a sin.

This three-shot scene I have just described, despite its concision, is actually impossible to gloss with confidence. The edit from the first shot to the second strongly implies a chute into Anne's point of view. The edit from the second to the third just as strongly implies George's POV. That speedy, slippery, easy-to-miss transition, if it is a transition, may reinfornce the same insight as Trintignant's palsied fist near the finale: Anne and Georges are profoundly co-imbricated, even as life rips them decisively apart. It's also possible that we abandoned Anne's perspective amidst the very cut that seemed to invite us inside it. Or it's equally plausible that we never left Anne's perspective, and that what she fantasizes or imagines from the humiliating position of having her diaper changed is not just her deep pleasure at the piano but the pleasure of being watched and heard by Georges. The Schübert we hear may reflect Anne's prodigious gift, still undimmed at her advanced age, or may suggest an idealization of that gift. The shot of Anne at her instrument approximates an earlier one when Alexandre Tharaud, a real-life classical pianist playing himself, paid a visit to his ailing former teacher, during which he honored Anne's and Georges's request for a brief, private recital. The soundtrack credits Tharaud as the soloist on all of its piano performances, including the one that appears to be Riva's. Is Anne recalling a time when she played as well as Alexandre still does? Is she inventing such a time? Is it solacing, even though she recently had Georges turn off the CD Alexandre sent to them, the mood of his musicianship spoiled by a well-intended note that emphasized Anne's present tribulations over her past proficiencies?

Amour is deceptively full of such ambiguities, even as the outward impression the movie fosters is of a straightforward procession toward The End, which is coming for Anne and for Georges and for all of us. Movies that treat such stories and characters usually adopt that intractably linear mode or its quasi-opposite, the confusing tumble of pasts and presents that's meant to externalize nostalgia or dementia. Amour, abetted by Muse's and Willi's always-expert cutting and by Haneke's taut, muscular screenplay, stakes an unusual middle-ground. The march of time is both implacable and erratic. We don't know how long a period the film covers, or even when consecutive shots or scenes are contiguous or far-removed in the characters' experience. Major incidents such as Anne's failed surgery and her second stroke are alluded to only in retrospect. Beyond adding nifty complications to a movie that seems formidably clear on its surface, Amour conjures for me the strange vertigo of monitoring someone on the precipice of death, or convalescing back to health, or maybe doing both. It's strangely hard to distinguish upward from downward movements, plateaus from accelerations; weeks can run together, and yesterday can feel like a year ago. It's not just time that fluctuates here. The cardigan in which Trintignant stays swathed for much of Amour's second half sometimes looks as comfy as a second skin, sometimes pulls tightly across him, and sometimes hangs down as if it's two sizes too large. The way Khondji photographs the apartment, which Haneke had closely modeled on his parents', sometimes suggests a cocoon of comfort and familiarity, and sometimes an unseemly mismatch between the heaviness of architecture and class-advantaged accoutrements versus the smallness and fragile ephemerality of human bodies. Sometimes the place just resembles a mausoleum.

The last character we will see in this apartment is Huppert's Eva, who is even more dwarfed than her parents were by its scale. Eva has faught for a foothold in this story, in direct proportion to her semi-vain attempts to find room for herself within the forbiddingly tight circuit of Anne's and Georges's relationship. Eva's own domestic life sounds tumultuous and compromised: an unfaithful English husband her parents don't much like, a resigned attitude about his disastrous affairs with their shared colleagues, a son or a stepson around whom Eva's tone is highly equivocal. (It says everything that I can't quite remember if they're biologically tied.) Whatever conflicts Anne and Georges have experienced, and clearly they've had some, they have remained bonded in ways their daughter knows she will never experience, including with her mother or father. There's a sad irony to her inheriting a property to which she could barely finagle an invitation while they were alive, and where unannounced drop-ins were discouraged. Haneke films Huppert's character from sympathetic angles and cuts to snapshots of her grief at moments that imply his feeling for Eva. Still, her pronounced tininess in the space suggests a sense of generational diminishment, uneasy bequeathal, and something grand but impenetrable that has died along with her parents.

Perhaps a good name for that casualty, bigger than any one person or couple, is "amour." Without romanticizing it in the slightest, and despite emphasizing the Reaganite aspect of two parents' reflexive devotion that extends more stingily toward their child, Haneke has convinced us of the magnitude of a love whose death we have witnessed. Furthermore, he has coaxed us to accept love as a steelier, deeper, less proclaimable force than mere passion or fondness, and something much more cruelly tested by how we live and how we die. In this way, I think Amour is a totally sincere title for this film. I had suspected going in that we'd find ourselves in the familiar territory of Todd Solondz's Happiness or Andrei Konchalovsky's Paradise or Gaspar Noé's Love, movies bitterly monikered after exactly what they lack. I have never discussed the movie with anybody as old as Anne or Georges, much less as long-married or as challenged by failing health. Lacking such a vantage, it's amazing and also highly suspect that I've entitled myself to make some of these pronouncements about Amour, since what underlies the whole film is an assertion that nobody can fathom an experience like this or how they would behave in Anne's position or in George's unless/until we're there. Even Haneke, 15 years younger than the now-deceased Riva and 12 years younger than Trintignant, depends upon the knowledge these artists are uniquely positioned to impart on these themes.

Through that collaboration and via all the others on which any film rests, Haneke has fashioned a perfect object. I don't think there's a single shot, edit, or performance choice I'd want to adjust anywhere in Amour, which would be a solid argument for placing it at #1 on this list. Indeed, all four of the next movies in this countdown were at some point positioned here at #11. This shit is getting hard. Having forced myself into a hair-splitting decision among masterpieces, I only settled on this one for two reasons. First, it turns out I like just a bit more mess in my movies, a smidge more element of ingeniously controlled chaos, though I hope I've convinced you that Amour is more mercurial than it appears. Certainly, I have nothing but admiration for a film that approaches such a messy stage of life with such clear, candid, lapidary control, painstaking but never oppressive or inhumane, and full of life in its own strange way. My other rationale for anointing the other remaining titles as my collective Top 10 is that each more forwardly addresses something particular about the world over these last ten years. This appealed to me, though it's hardly a blight on Amour, and in fact it is a compliment, to say that it feels like a definitive, almost timelessly authoritative take on human senescence, on long-term commitment, and on castle-keeps of private partnership that inspire awe as well as anger in those who feel excluded. But maybe Amour is more timely than I allowed. Like a mother! made by an older, cooler head, Amour is about an otherwise-comfortable, artistically inclined couple hurtling ever further into triage mode. The film is fragrant with a foul intimation that their home is our home, their crisis everyone's crisis, their goodbye a bigger Goodbye. Many of us are hoping we'll retain some choice-power in the way we ultimately go out, and not end simply as victims of circumstance. In that way, there's an element of Amour, especially near its finish, that I find more eerily inspiring than I did in 2012. I don't know if it reflects my getting older or the world's getting scarier. It was a perfect film then and a perfect one now, but that doesn't mean nothing about it has changed.

Honorable Mention: I passed through the gorgeous country of Austria back in 1990, and I have told Derek many times that I will gladly return with him as soon as I see five Austrian movies that are not about sexual enslavement, torture, apocalypse, self-mutilation, mommies' lips being super-glued together by their demoniacal children, sudden eruptions of the murderous unconscious, or legacies of war and genocide. We first discussed this 20 years ago. I think I've tallied three Austrian features since then that technically pass these requirements. Amour, which is only proximally Austrian, does not. Neither does Tomcat (2016), a nonetheless entrancing study of long-term romantic and sexual partnership that is suddenly struck by a fiery meteor shower of human folly and disastrous accident. The handsome husbands of Tomcat, their titular feline, their Edenic cottage, and their very Amour-ish devotion to high art may entice exactly the viewers who will be most shaken by everything that comes flying out of this Büchse der Pandora. I don't know what it says about me that I've been transfixed by Tomcat for several years now, and since I have not set foot in Austria during the meantime, I have thankfully avoided the kinds of merciless psychoanalysts who might tell me.
 

12. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, with Christine Cynn and Anonymous, 2012)
12. The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
 
In response to an earlier entry on this list, one of my most consistently thoughtful correspondents, Colin Low, confessed to having "huge gripes about the liberal fantasy of guilting conservative leaders into submission." If you extrapolate "conservative leaders" all the way out to "confessed torturers and henchmen of military dictatorship," that comment gives me helpful language for a fresh contemplation of the documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. These films differently embody versions of the fantasy that gives Colin pause, finding new strategies and noteworthy successes in breaching the well-hidden conscience of the heartless, even as they illustrate the limits of that project for all the world to see. These companion pieces, though quite disparate in mode, share a rare capacity for drawing strength from their manifest contradictions, as they courageously swat away at living monuments to world-historical injustice, which can never truly be budged. The paradoxes are more flagrant in The Act of Killing, the formally bolder of these films and the one that has prompted more debate regarding its spectacles and its methods. The Look of Silence hews a bit closer to a well-known template of documentary, but only by comparison to its scarier, more outlandish predecessor; in both cases, you stagger out of the theater. Each film represents and also embodies forms of person-to-person encounter that boggle the mind and body-blow the spirit. Individually and together, they raise different questions about the labors and dangers of nonfiction filmmaking, and they have already influenced new styles and generations of truth-speaking to power.

With maximal disorientation, The Act of Killing starts with a single-file line of gowned dancers parading down a gangplank that leads them through the fluted mouth of a gargantuan, weather-beaten sculpture of a fish. I don't know what to tell you, except that two of the movie's chief subjects are the unmitigated bloodthirst and the crazy fucking weirdness that frequently accompany unchecked, gun-backed authority. It's a relief that The Act of Killing cold-opens on the weirdness and not the violence, though that relief will prove short-lived, as will any border between sadism and surrealism. The movie's focus is the half-century legacy of an army-backed coup in Indonesia, which installed a regime that has never been toppled. As a result, the men who murdered more than a million fellow citizens, face to face, one by one, as gruesomely as possible, have faced no official retribution and, from the looks of things, little to no self-guided moral reassessment of their barbarity. Quite to the contrary, The Act of Killing profiles these men's mission to mount a multigenre cinematic bonanza to commemorate their "extermination" of countless communists—a term flung, as so often, at plenty of people with no known link to that ideology. We've got smoky conclaves among fedora'd gangsters in windowless rooms. We've got Skittle-colored musical pageants beneath ice-blue waterfalls, starring two of Indonesia's most notorious assassins, one of them cross-dressed as a mix of Imelda Marcos and Divine. We've got recreations of the fiery wipeouts of entire villages, with impoverished modern-day residents conscripted into playing victims of rape, ransack, and murder. We've got vérité reenactments of the goons' favored methods of hand-to-hand bloodletting, usually involving machetes or razor-sharp wire. One singing revue features two of the victims' ghosts, clutching the wires that cut their throats, thanking the killers for dispatching them. The director of the movie these madmen have commissioned is Joshua Oppenheimer, who, along with Christine Cynn and a pointedly anonymous Indonesian accomplice, is also the mastermind of the movie we're paying to see.

The Act of Killing stakes a huge gamble that, by agreeing to fulfill these aging executioners' dreams of filmic immortality, by immersing them in recreations of their own crimes, by exhorting killers to occasionally assume the positions of the killed, and by showing them the finished footage as it's processed, epiphanies might emerge. Some do, though their scope and sincerity remain in the eye of the beholder. The most famous breakthrough, if we're to call it that, comes from Anwar Congo, who of all the killers we meet still elicits the most tangible dread from peers as well as strangers. Anwar remains a major proponent of the film project, praising the musical set-piece to the skies and inviting his young grandsons to sit on his lap and "watch the scene where grandpa is tortured and killed." But he also, at least in the arc established by editing, emits gradually more signs of recognizing his own cohort, not their targets, as the bearers of rotten souls. After acting as the victim of a decapitation protocol he pioneered, Anwar testifies that he finally knows the feelings of those he murdered. When Oppenheimer coolly retorts that, in fact, Anwar still has no sense of their feelings, because he knew his impending death was a simulation and they knew the opposite, Anwar's close-up constitutes the movie's climax, and maybe it's raison d'être. The Act of Killing ups this horrible ante in the last scene, following Anwar back to the bricked-in balcony where he performed many of his killings. When we last accompanied him to this space, he recalled with disgust but also with glee the noisome smell of all that flesh and blood, and then he danced a cha-cha. Later, as he observes Oppenheimer's footage from that day, including of a murder he helped reenact, Anwar only expresses misgivings about wearing white pants for the scene. He insists he never would have done that, given all the intestinal spillage and arterial spray. But in this final, film-ending return, Anwar can barely stand to be on that same balcony, literally or figuratively. His body has absorbed a revulsion that his mind still struggles to process, activating a massive gag reflex that nearly cracks his back and maybe also, at long last, his obliviousness.

I think, I think, it's a feature and not a bug of The Act of Killing that Anwar's almost involuntary awakening finds few discernible echoes in the attitudes of his peers. Most of them, facing the same footage or undergoing the same table-turning pretend play, seem exhilarated. Several manifest the befuddled look of truly, dangerously stupid people, like Herman Koto, a paramilitary leader who loves to simulate beheadings and pretends to eat the saucy organs of men he assassinated. Other perpetrators emanate the disingenuous "incomprehension" of more strategically stupid people, like a journalist who is roasted by his compatriots for claiming not to realize how many corpses his friends were piling up in their mid-60s heyday of carnage. One of these former executioners, Adi Zulkadry, returns to Indonesia from a long period of elective exile in order to take part in the old gang's vanity project. Adi is no dope, and has recognized not only the scale of his cohort's diabolical sins but the judgment and comeuppance they are inviting by restaging the old days for Oppenheimer's camera. Still, one wouldn't want to overstate the degree of this man's epiphany, which is still at the baby-step stage: "Sometimes I think if my dad was a communist and was killed, I'd be upset. That's normal, right? And if you had killed my father, I'd be upset with you!" He is prone, too, to brushing off Anwar's nascent compunction as a "nerve disturbance" and tsking some of his castmates in the film-within-a-film, murmuring that they didn't eliminate nearly the number of innocent bystanders during the coup as they now claim, whereas Adi himself "killed every Chinese person I met!"

I go to all this trouble to make clear the incomparable access achieved by Oppenheimer (always off-camera, but frequently addressed or even complimented by his subjects) and their equally astounding candor. More importantly, though Anwar's gut-level moral crisis is the film's most memorable and late-breaking takeaway, The Act of Killing makes plain that such changes of heart are extremely rare. We also have no assurance that Anwar's regrets will last, or that they do any good to anybody else. And it matters what Oppenheimer, Cynn, and their collaborators think they're achieving, because they are taking incredible risks and arguably duplicating some of the traumas their film seeks to document. The unsimulated devastation still graven on the faces of the coerced "extras" playing the torture victims, the bystanders, and the deceased, many of them young children, can hardly be solaced by any insistence that no no, this is just a movie. Sometimes their present suffering is near-impossible to watch, just as the mid-1960s holocaust they reenact is near-impossible to contemplate. But watch we must, since The Act of Killing is just as much about our witnessing Indonesia's present—the long wake of trauma, which itself is deeply traumatic—as it is about acknowledging the cataclysms of the past. Several scenes feature the still-swaggering thugs at the movie's center demanding cash, food, or obeisance from average, visibly poor citizens who try to smile and chuckle through their palpable fear. Multiple shots catch unnamed Indonesians darting panicked glances at the camera, totally unsure if the presence of the film crew is something to celebrate or a possible endangerment. The color palette of the film rests on a very thin tipping point between tropical lushness, which I imagine is what Anwar, Herman, and their compatriots see, and a putrid neon overripeness, as if the whole country has gangrene. The Act of Killing is courageous and singular, showing us dimensions we could never otherwise study up close of how the administrators and the survivors of epochal violence wrestle with that legacy or precisely refuse to wrestle with it over decades to follow. We see, to our sorrow and shame, how a national polis looks and feels after 45 years of unprocessed shock and unmodified leadership. The Act of Killing does not try to pre-settle any of the arguments it's bound to provoke. It's the only movie of the decade that part of me suspects should be limited in its circulation and part of me thinks every adult in the world should maybe have to watch.

The Look of Silence, crediting Oppenheimer as its unassisted director, is both an extension and in many ways a reversal from The Act of Killing's example. The focal figure here is a middle-aged Indonesian optometrist, also named Adi, who was born two years after his brother Ramli was mutilated and murdered by exactly the sorts of butchers who dominate the previous film. Over the course of this one, we see Adi negotiate life with his elderly parents, including his deaf, blind, and toothless father, whose body apparently broke down in every possible way after the loss of his elder son. Adi visits several patients who grow so nervous and agitated when the country's genocidal past emerges in conversation that they deny knowing anything about it. Some of Adi's patients were themselves executioners, though it's unclear if they are on his regular client rotation or if he has sought them out for care as an alibi for extracting memories and, just possibly, confessions. Repeatedly he discovers that average-looking folks are almost gleeful about acknowledging their vicious participation in the war on fellow citizens until Adi mentions his own family's loss. Then, suddenly, nobody remembers, nobody's sure, they weren't really there, they watched but didn't help, etc., etc. You can see why vision and blindness work perfectly as guiding metaphors, even if they weren't cruxes of Adi's actual profession. Granted, not all of the guilty retreat into convenient amnesia, and not all of the bereaved share Adi's or Oppenheimer's fervor for admission or expiation. "They will suffer later," Adi's mother opines about the men who killed her son, who still live nearby. "There's no use raising it now."

As part of their drive to confront the past, Adi and Oppenheimer share a welcome commitment to pushing back on their subjects' deceits and evasions. Adi, remarkably polite and composed given the errands he's on, disarms his interlocutors into surprising degrees of testimony. "You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever did!" says one local coordinator of the killings, who has just admitted to drinking his victims' blood. Adi also does not shy away from statements like "I don't mean to offend you, but I think you're avoiding your moral responsibility." Not only is this remarkably brave in his immediate context, and quite revealing in how the guilty hedge or soften or bristle in the face of such direct allegations, but it's a precious model of principled inquiry in a decade when so many documentaries and so much world media refused to call a lie a lie or a non-answer a non-answer. This is part of why The Act of Killing and perhaps especially The Look of Silence feel so pertinent and exemplary across all the national contexts where they made huge commercial and critical impacts. The only exoticizing or "othering" of Indonesia these films perform are at the behest of the grandiloquent self-honorees in The Act of Killing, who are invested in a kitschy, mythic, technicolor version of their homeland, revealingly interspersed with tropes from US action movies and gangster films that they frequently name as sources of inspiration. Elsewhere in that film, and throughout The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer showcases the cultural and topographical specificity of Indonesia but so emphasizes closeups and dialogue (foregrounded emphatically in the sound mix) that we could allllmost be anywhere. Non-Indonesian viewers, if we're honest, cannot fail to hear the echoes of what has been said by so many people in so many of our own national histories. Ramli's executioners allow that he "was probably a good person, but what could we do? It was a revolution." M.Y. Basrun, the head of the legislature in Adi's region since 1971, not only brushes off the deaths of one million people who took exception to his ideologies ("That's politics!") but warns with confidence, "Sooner or later it will happen again." Of course, those who most flouted basic moral codes are quickest to seek and expect absolution, hoping to earn it through word and not deed. The abashed-looking daughter of a near-neighbor whose underlings murdered Ramli, and who refuses to accept blame himself, implores Adi with a smile and a telltale passive voice, "If your brother was killed, please forgive my father... You know us now! We're like family!" Another interview subject maintains his innocence by insisting he was only a know-nothing, head-in-the-sand witness to mass carnage and can hardly be arraigned for any role in the bloodshed: "I did not help! I didn't take a machete and slaughter people."

Even now, I'm unsure how much we ought to value the contrition or the incipient self-revulsion of the very few ex-murderers in The Act of Killing or The Look of Silence who demonstrate any lucidity whatsoever about their horrific pasts. Maybe it's too much to dream that, by seeing these films, viewers in many countries (including mine) where tribalism, bigotry, and hatred have all dangerously escalated might work to ensure that the fate of Indonesia does not become our own. Maybe it's too much to assume people's acknowledgment that the fate of Indonesia has been our own: "I didn't own slaves! I didn't murder all the Indians! Don't look at me for reparations! I voted for Trump but never dreamed that babies would be in cages, or my own husband would be deported!" Maybe, despite Anwar's unforgettable case, retching and alone on that balcony, as if throttled by spirits of people whose throats he slit or sealed, it really is too much to imagine that tyrants and torturers can be guilted into some different mentality. But maybe those of us who fear becoming terrified, ineffectual bystanders to violence—who realize we are already terrified, ineffectual bystanders to violence—can be duly alarmed by the almanacs of obscenity that Oppenheimer has ferreted out, and humbled by Adi's honesty and bravery, and changed by these encounters in ways that matter.

Honorable Mention: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010), composed entirely of archival footage of the late Romanian dictator, is quite formally and stylistically distinct from Oppenheimer's films, but it's just as successful at sketching a grievous national and political history with which many viewers might be under-acquainted. (I admit I was almost totally in the dark about the particulars of Indonesia's history; I had a bit more context on Romania, partially care of Caryl Churchill's typically brilliant play Mad Forest.) The fact that so much of the footage in Ceauşescu was state-sanctioned propaganda, intended to make this tyrant look good, but having the opposite effect from contemporary eyes, rivals Oppenheimer's ingenuity at hoisting a monstrous leader on his own petard, no matter how different this film's path toward getting there.
 

Margaret, © 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures Moonlight, © 2016 A24/Plan B Entertainment Things to Come, © 2016 CG Cinéma/Detailfilm/Arté France Cinéma/Rhône-Alpes Cinéma/Sundance Selects Life and Nothing More, © 2017 Aquí y Allí Films, © 2018 Grasshopper Film
13. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
 
I was the rare filmgoer who saw Margaret in a cinema before there was a #Team, and in the dogged manner of Anna Paquin's Lisa Cohen, I am not letting this one go any time soon. The unusually concerted, uncommonly effective rising up of Margaret's champions in the US film-reviewing community, with Richard Brody, Ben Kenigsberg, and Wesley Morris playing key roles, was maybe the greatest case study this decade of critics using their (our?) ever-attenuated power and increasingly marginalized public voice to revive a movie that was being shunted into oblivion by its studio and distributor. I afford myself some speck of credit for making sure that my UK-based friends, especially Tim Robey and Guy Lodge, cleared all necessary decks and made a beeline toward any opportunity to see it in London—a city whose critical establishment responded much more quickly to this movie and worked much harder on its behalf than New York's did. That's particularly insane since Margaret is among the very best New York movies anyone has made for eons—as indispensable as Do the Right Thing, which would have been an apropos title. But my real point is that I'll always be confused why we needed a #TeamMargaret to begin with. Not because you'd ever expect consensus enthusiasm for a movie this slippery in structure and circuitous in story, this stylistically committed to both pointillism and maximalism, this willing to be, in its protagonist's own words, "strident." What bewildered me was that cinephiles and critics hadn't been quicker to check it out in the cities where it was so fleetingly on offer. "The Times review wasn't that good," I kept hearing, or "I didn't know it was playing." Lisa's outflanked you on that one, rightly side-eyeing her hapless would-be suitor Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.) when he invites her out for a movie but admits he doesn't know what's out. What kind of cultured Manhattanite is he? The worst alibi, and yes this is a police interrogation, was always "Well, there was no press screening." And here I would rise into the high dudgeon of Jeannie Berlin's Emily, with her personality that's equal parts refreshing candor and steel wool. I know you know where the cinemas are. I know you have $10. I know you loved You Can Count on Me. I know you've been following this bizarre drama of postponement forever, rivaled only by the wait for Lauryn's always-imminent new album. Get. Your ass. To the theater!

So, yes, the chip on my shoulder remains as large as Mark Ruffalo's bus, and if I'm not careful, I'll kill somebody with it. So maybe let's just turn to the film, which feels almost as strange as the byzantine, litigious, endlessly contradictory epic of how it got made and not made, and then released but not released, culminating in the still-debated question of which Margaret is the "real" Margaret. (The Blu-ray hilariously refuses to settle this issue, including the theatrical version on one disc and an "extended cut" on the other, but the latter is relegated to a démodé DVD. Wherever Margaret alights, a gallon of stank from 20th Century Fox is never far away.) I'm not convinced Margaret would feel all that "strange" if the formal and narrative parameters for realist character dramas in the US weren't so chronically inhibited. I get plenty of information about Lisa by watching her gait and posture as she walks through the streets, in slow motion or in real time. I'm never sorry to pause for those interludes, even if suddenly "nothing is happening," just as I'm never sorry to gauge whether framing and costuming are making Lisa an unmistakable standout in her environment or submerging her within a sea of other potential Lisas treading through New York, who might be just as thorny, or headstrong, or morally confident but ethically uncertain. These dialogue-free check-ins are welcome, because at many points in Margaret, Lisa's exceptional qualities are on equally full view as her all-too-typical adolescent histrionics, her high-handed attitude, her loneliness, her different ways of seeking attention from the people whose attention she craves, which is almost everyone. It's perpetually interesting to see which facet of Lisa Margaret feels motivated to showcase at any given point, and illuminating to see what she's like in rare moments of silence, with nobody around to harass or impress.

Part of why Margaret is "strange" is that it lingers, committedly, with one person's protracted quandary of ethical deliberation—one on which no jury trial, no pregnancy, no fate of any world or galaxy hangs, and for which any narrative payoff or court-mandated payout is likely to feel unsatisfying. The turning and turning and turning of the question(s) is the plot, and if that's not rare terrain for an American film, wait till I tell you that these deliberations are dilated across 150 minutes and centered in the mind of a teenage girl, whom the movie neither patronizes nor launders of her most abrasive qualities. I don't want to focus right now on how US art and US life have wandered so far out on so many off-ramps of off-ramps of off-ramps that watching a challenging but laudably reflective woman probe her own conscience, weigh different responses to a formidable but also mercurial dilemma, and fret over her rightful claim on a problem as "hers" feels like an avant-garde storytelling premise. Certainly it's true that most movies undertaking such a mission would undertake only that mission, or at least curtail any potential digressions so that priority and focus remained unambiguous. So I can see where it is almost avant-garde to make one movie that combines an intense cycle of moral and ethical self-scouring with regular blast-offs and slink-aways into superficially unrelated tangents, often regarding Lisa's family members and acquaintances. Chief among these is Lisa's mother Joan, whom nobody could possibly have played with more wit and sorrow or with a keener eye on character and context than J. Smith-Cameron does. Joan faces her own riddle about whether she really needs a warm and doting but quickly over-invested and somewhat inscrutable boyfriend. Besides that, she's got a play to keep fresh night after night, and some expectations to manage around her awkward and inconsistent ex-husband, and some masturbating to do, and a volatile daughter to placate, whose frenetic quest for justice Joan both understands and doesn't, and whose approval she desires to a degree that almost embarrasses her.

Margaret gives Joan more screen time and a fuller array of dimensions and conflicts than most movies would, but I imagine many hypothetical versions of this story would at least give Lisa a mother and frame their relationship as complicated. It's harder to conceive other versions than Lonergan's that would open on a dispute over classroom cheating that recedes almost entirely as a narrative concern, or that would encompass so many high-school dust-ups over Middle Eastern politics and the chronic immorality of U.S. presidents, or allow such drawn-out scenes in offices or bistros where an increasingly flustered lawyer tries to explain technicalities of litigation to increasingly ornery friends and clients, or (my personal favorite) admit a tense standoff between a student and a teacher over a passage in King Lear, which one reads from a stubbornly idiosyncratic perspective and the other refuses to countenance as remotely open to creative interpretation. Lisa watches that whole exchange with bemusement that rises to genuine interest, in direct proportion to how heated and intractable the two contestants become. Lonergan doesn't film the scene in ways that frame it as a metaphor for Lisa's own encounters with stonewalling authority figures, or as an occasion for Lisa to reassess her own habits of intractability and how they must look or sound to outsiders. At the same time, it's not a huge leap. An ongoing glory of Margaret is how it's able to marshal scenes like this as indirect but incisive means of deepening Lisa's characterization without ever denying other figures, even virtual supernumeraries, their own autonomy and particularity. Often these supporting characters don't outwardly serve Lisa's story or our grasp of her except as obstacles, foils, or glancing contacts, yet they still emerge as amazingly rounded, remarkably recognizable figures: the inattentive cousin who's suddenly hyper-present when she stands to win some money, and who thinks of other people principally in terms of what angles they're playing; the bus driver who admits yet doesn't admit his culpability in a deadly accident, and who tries to deflect Lisa's inquiries in manners both sympathetic and not; the wife of that bus driver, instantly conjuring a royal flush of reasons why this late-adolescent girl has appeared on her family's doorstep, none of them good; the dying woman, whom Allison Janney quickly makes into more than a "dying woman"; the teachers trying to instruct their students in the art of impassioned debate but also seeking to quell that passion; the cops and detectives trying to balance everyone's contemptuous mistrust of them with the same people's exhortations for them to fill their noble and socially pivotal role. And then, of course, there's Emily, the one movie character from the beginning of this decade, even more than Lisa herself, whom I've never stopped thinking about, more weeks than not, all the way through this decade's end, which no doubt disgusts her completely.

Person by person by person, spanning central and peripheral positions in the story, Margaret probably boasts the most sprawling ensemble of fully imagined characters, differently but equally piqaunt, of any new movie I saw since 2010. Of course this is only possible because Lonergan's writing is so astute at devising dialogue and at structuring scenes, some as compact as diamonds, some at the edge of dishevelment. He can suggest in 60 seconds things about a person that you'd normally have to be their therapist, spouse, or X-ray technician to know. Of course the flawless casting of Douglas Aibel (regular ally of Wes Anderson, James Gray, and Noah Baumbach as well as Lonergan) and the pliable, theater-trained gifts of those actors and Lonergan's sterling instincts for guiding their work also merit credit. Of course editor Anne McCabe, whose praises I've been singing for 20 years, should be a much bigger star in her field than she currently is. Her peerless gifts for performance-shaping and eccentric story structure have manifested everywhere from Adventureland to Marielle Heller's movies, and they're invaluable here, no matter how many editors were involved and over what length of time. For a movie that may not come across as craft-forward, in the senses that its lighting and camera behavior are fairly modest and it doesn't appear to chase any particular model of being "cinematic," every department in Margaret contributes demonstrably to its unusual and spellbinding power. Still, the sum of all these practical, professional contributions doesn't feel "practical" at all but mysterious, ineffable. There's Something About Margaret, similar to the Something that overtakes Lisa during the barcarolle of The Tales of Hoffmann in the final sequence. That said, I don't find the movie as emotionally overwhelming as I find it cognitively bewildering: how does Margaret manage to cover so much psychological, social, thematic, textural, and narrative ground, even more than its admittedly ample running-time would seem to allow? How does it manage to make New York seem so worrying and fascinating, and like a city we're seeing for the first time, rather than taking for granted that New York is fascinating, as at least 100 American movies do every year? Margaret, to me, is like a Thin Red Line of urban and national malaise in a millennium that's barely gotten going but already feels foreclosed, and where impetus toward righteous action has never been higher and yet rarely more muffled by a sense of its own futility. Lisa stays (mostly) focused, almost too much so, amasses some allies, tracks problems as close as she can come to their source, and technically achieves a victory, but it's not a real victory and there is no concrete source. Lonergan made a perfect 2019 movie and managed to do it in 2011 in 2005 some time around 2008 or 2009 at least a decade ahead of time.

A final note, which has little to do with how good Margaret is but much to do with how important it is to me. I finished my doctoral dissertation in 2005, the same year principal photography took place on Margaret. It was made unambiguously clear to me that I had failed to write one that anybody else would ever want to read, and that mining a coherent and engaging book out of this material (a requirement for the tenure-track job I was still hoping to earn) was a next-to-impossible prospect. So commenced more than five years of wrestling with my sea of chapter drafts and crazy-looking notes, while Lonergan was off somewhere toiling with his footage. I cannot help projecting that he, too, felt simultaneously defensive of his vision and suffused with self-critiques, as well as despondent over his work's disarray, its relative dearth of advocates, and its no-end-in-sight gestation. Fitful journalism of the "Where is Margaret?" subgenre perpetually cast his whole career as hanging in the balance, even if the film did eventually materialize. To see the movie appear, suddenly and magnificently in late 2011, just as I was flailing in my own morose defeatism and nearing the last possible moment to retain my job and salvage my manuscript—rejected by all five presses to which I'd submitted it—was a better, fuller, more magical inspiration to fix and finish the damn thing than even a writer as gifted as Kenneth Lonergan could have devised. Ultimately, and not at all coincidentally, things worked out as well for me in my professional world as they did for Lonergan in his. I wanted to thank him in my book's Acknowledgments but couldn't figure out how to do it without sounding grandiose or giving a false impression. (I also wanted to thank Nora Ephron, Tim Gunn, and Mo'Nique, but those are three other stories.) I admire Lisa Cohen's unflappable pursuit of a goal she nonetheless can't quite articulate, even as I'm also disconcerted by her particular form of tenacity and by some of her strategies. I feel for her and look up to her and also don't really identify. With Lonergan's wilderness period and eventual triumph, I do identify. I'm sure it's a romantic and opportunistic delusion, like Lisa imagining herself as the temporary human vessel of Monica's deceased daughter, but there we are. Your spiritual epiphanies are your spiritual epiphanies. I saw the bus headed straight for me, and this movie pulled me back from its path. So, while Margaret remains a melancholic document of pyrrhic victory and of quests with no compass, it's also—even at the level of the text, but also in the tortuous arc of my own life—an emblem of unlikely, humbling, and contagious determination.
 

14. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016)
 
i. Sobriety

The play was never even finished. Tarell Alvin McCraney felt the profound introversion of Chiron, his main character, needed the language of cinema to draw him out, whereas the dialogue-driven space of the stage felt stubbornly inhospitable to him. Unfortunately, McCraney wasn't yet a screenwriter, at least at the level this tale demanded. The piece also bore such personal stakes, bound up with the death and very difficult life of his mother, that facing this script was hard. Plus, sometimes you're out here winning MacArthur Fellowships or owing other scripts to major theaters, on deadline. Or maybe you're simply stumped, so that old mountain never gets moved. Meanwhile, director Barry Jenkins wasn't the obvious person to revive the project, or to revive any project. He has often described first learning about In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue amid several frustrated and increasingly self-recriminating years when he couldn't get a muse to strike or any money or mentorship to lock into place around his story ideas. Jenkins gave himself a writer's retreat in Berlin to prove he was still in the filmmaking game or else find a new calling. During those six weeks, he wrote Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Yes. Right. One might take the lesson that if, like me, you've allowed a personal passion project to malinger on your "to do" list for decades at a time, never worry! Either you'll nail it perfectly with the right trip to the right city of your dreams, or someone else will finish it for you and you'll still get your own Oscar, alongside his. You could, and maybe should, also take heed that it's worth seeing through those slippery processes or those feelings of artistic mission that you're tempted to abandon because they never seem to resolve. We could also stand the reminder that most creative works, even those that ultimately coalesce so exquisitely that they seem to have emerged Athena-like, fully formed and unblemished from the skull of a genius, are the "miracle" offspring of postponement, frustration, self-rebuke, and endless revision, when no final draft was in sight. Hannah Beachler, the production designer on Moonlight and shortly afterward the Secretary of the Interior of Wakanda, recently described sitting there painting another wall of another set, a glamorous job for the department head, probably on no sleep, and asking Jenkins, "Do you think people will see this movie?" and him replying, "There's a queer cinema in Miami that I hope might be supportive," and she answered, "I hope so, too." And here we are.

Then there's the negative-space reading of this widely-circulated origin story for Moonlight, which I offer not to be downcast but to respect the worlds in which our artists labor. I include those who identify strongly as artists and grieve how little art they've been able or allowed to produce, compared to what they've imagined. For every Moonlight that gets made and told (and of course, there's really only one Moonlight, but you know what I mean...), we must spare a thought for all the Moonlights that never escape the traction of the Drafts folder, or live in unhopeful search of that now-or-never creative retreat, or survive the wars and manifest exquisitely on the page but still can't locate the well-intended, well-connected person who gets the vision and says, "We must make this happen." Jenkins and McCraney were already established, widely-admired figures with public records of accomplishment, and I'm sure both would hasten to underscore the number of fellow travelers with even fewer advantages than theirs, pushing through their own seemingly insoluble dilemmas or seemingly unsellable material. Moonlight, already three movies in one, is also, for me, two movies. One is the film we've (hopefully) all seen and re-seen and adulated, the film of all this decade's films I've probably thought about most, a film deeply in the running as the one I've taught or lectured about most often, a film that inspires me all the time to seek whatever I'm seeking and finish whatever I'm not finishing. That movie suffuses me with such joy and deference and pleasure and gratitude and optimism for the medium, the world, the storytellers. The other movie, while still all of those things, is also a candle lit for all the films even remotely like Moonlight that never get produced, or produced but not shown, especially the films that in style or subject feel like ones our culture industry is engineered to refuse. In that respect I still feel some optimism, because Moonlight still made it, to every corner of the world. But I also feel a profound sobriety. And of course it's a short step from there to the sobriety I feel about all the Chirons, sort-of Chirons, slantwise Chirons, or in-spirit Chirons in this world whom I know nothing about, past or present, but whose stories at least earn proximal tribute via Moonlight's unforgettable Chiron. Who is himself, of course, multiple.

ii. Pleasure

The pleasures of audiovisual images, whether they're beautiful or sad, or both. The way the soundtrack of Little's life is both a choral work by Mozart and the shrillest of train blasts. The way black boys and their environments constantly look red, white, and blue, with irony but also earnestness. (This is America.) The way the red and white of Kevin's restaurant is an eye-popping change from the indigos and deep umbers of other scenes, but also a callback to reds and whites of childhood, percolating among all those blues. The way Juan and Teresa's yard is so emerald green, surrounding the butter-and-white refuge of their house. The way Juan's oceanside speech to Little is framed, scripted, and delivered as an all but explicit homage to Furious Styles. The way Juan always looks at Little, and the way he's forever licking his lips, but not at all wolfishly, in Mahershala Ali's impeccably heartfelt and richly detailed performance. The way the movie boldly fades in on the Boris Gardiner ballad whose title is yours to look up, if you don't already know. The way Teresa and Chiron fold a bedsheet, and have a conversation they are also not having, because he won't. The way Paula, a character the movie loves but is haunted by, whom it knows the audience will judge harshly even if we also empathize, at least gets her own magenta signature, repeated nowhere else, and her unbroached world of privacy, so it's visually and narratively clear that we don't know everything there is to know about this woman. The way even a cracked syringe held up to sunlight is beautiful, but no less sad for that. The way Kevin picks Little up from the ground, and the beauty of a grass stain—a Proustian madeleine for so many of us, even if some of the memories it revives are bruisy. The way Kevin coaxes Chiron out toward the beach and touches him there, and lets himself be touched. The way the waves sound as they touch, and the way the film does not entitle us to experience this whole scene.

The way Nicholas Britell's score is so hard to describe, because of the emaciation of my own musical vocabulary, but also because so many of its sounds resemble the way half-processed emotions feel, more than they resemble the way most instruments or at least most movie scores sound. The way no one instrument dominates this score, the way no one face is the face of Chiron. The way André Holland smokes into a camera, the way the movie says, "Fuck a Marlboro Man, this is a Marlboro Kar-Wai!" The way Black holds his utensils. The way Black drives to Florida in one black T-shirt and then changes in the parking lot to a different black T-shirt, a deeply self-conscious and micro-managed simulacrum of casualness. The way Paula's rehab facility is also a Jane Wyman garden, and the justly famous story of how Trevante Rhodes, unacquainted with Naomie Harris until they sat to film this scene, rescued her best take with a spontaneous kindness that also deepens and elevates this already-deep, already-elevated movie. The way Ashton Sanders walks leaning forward, as if into life's wind, as if weighed by another backpack even heavier than his actual backpack. The way editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders are willing to hold a few beats on the abruptly felled Terrel, a repeated menace who nonetheless merits our pity, at least a moment of compassion, as he lies there, broken and humiliated, after administrating earlier breaks and humiliations. The way Barbara Lewis sings. The way Aretha Franklin sings. (I mistyped "sangs," and almost left it.) The way Goodie Mob raps. The way Chopin isn't so sacred he can't be chopped and screwed. The way Trevante Rhodes acts, which is perfectly. The way Black starts to quiver, a sudden epilepsy of the soul, more than a stirring of the loins, as he prepares to confide something Kevin won't see coming. The way Kevin has a bulletin board but almost nothing on it. The way Little fills his tub. The way Chiron, adolescent Chiron, is so heartbreaking and bereft after a beating that his principal, and/or the actress playing her, cannot maintain the stone wall of tough love and becomes more outwardly solicitous mid-scene. The way Kevin and Black hold each other, no matter what this moment precedes or follows or replaces. The way Little looks back at us. The way Black listens to "Cucurrucucú Paloma" during his drive back to Florida.

The pleasures of unanswered questions. Does Black really listen to "Cucurrucucú Paloma," or is that the movie's own mixtape? The hard cut that finds him pulling into the restaurant lot finds Jidenna booming through his speakers with the bass on max. But is it really so hard to imagine Black listening to both during this drive? Mightn't you listen to both? Why does the high-angle on Black driving suddenly share the screen with a tenderly superimposed tableau of African American children playing in the surf? We know Little couldn't even swim before Juan taught him, and we never see him return to the water—though, to be fair, we missed a lot of years. We see that the Little who returns our gaze in the film's final shot is on a beach alone at night, which is an easier way to envision him than amid this more boisterous scene. What is Black remembering, or fantasizing, in this image of group exuberance in a rolling tide? Is this Black's memory or fantasy, or the film's, or ours? Why, when Black arrives to Kevin's restaurant, does the building look exactly the way Black pictured it in a dream, as does Kevin, despite the emphatic point that Black has never seen this place, or this incarnation of his long-ago friend and temporary lover? What does Teresa know about how Juan makes his money? What are Teresa's days like, separate from Juan? What are Paula's days like, separate from her son, then or now? How did Jenkins find these three actors to play these three Chirons, who are incontrovertibly one Chiron, and yet many Chirons, and who had no permission to observe each other's performances mid-process? I didn't mean to exceed the bounds of the text, but it's one of the most stunning questions hanging over Moonlight, and I have to ask. Anyway. What does Black hope, fear, or expect, at any point during his reunion with Kevin, which he has driven miles and miles to ensure? What does Kevin hope, fear, or expect? Even in the moments we see, when are their hopes, fears, or expectations in sync, or not? What will become of Kevin and Chiron, together or separately? When Chiron asks if Kevin remembers, is he thinking of the sex or the violence, or both? What is Kevin thinking of? Is there any way for anyone, you, me, Chiron, to identify the most important or influential figure in their lives, positively, negatively, or neutrally? If there were such a way, is Chiron's answer Paula, Kevin, or Juan? How much must the movie love us to leave us with all these questions?

iii. Optimism

Moonlight debuted in 2016, rolling in like the Florida surf across September, October, November, December. That means it was ineluctably woven into the story I just told about how I lived that fall. I first saw Moonlight at a one-night, sold-out Chicago Film Festival screening on October 26. Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Naomie Harris, and André Holland were all there, in a very specific interval when it was tangible that Moonlight was becoming More than anyone had dared hope, but it wasn't yet what Moonlight eventually became, nor was it yet inevitable that things were trending that way, or that far. It was so exciting. The room was so bonded, almost molecularly. This was the world we now lived in. These were the movies that were now possible, so new and yet so openly indebted to and plainly influenced by movies that have always been here, in African America, across all Americas, around the whole world. I knew that night Moonlight would be in my life forever. I knew it would be the next topic for two-hour discussion in the monthly film group I lead. I couldn't wait to see it again. A deeply unlucky 13 days later, on November 8, the election. Was that world gone? Was it only ever in my head? Would we still belong to "the world," or had we just rudely recused ourselves? What would be the fate of Moonlight in a country with such an appetite for its own destruction, so fearsomely marshaled against men like Chiron? I saw the movie again on November 10, partly as balm, partly as brush-up. I don't know if Moonlight felt so much sadder to me that second time because of all these situated reasons or because of my frequent habit of feeling so elated by cinematic artistry, even in hugely depressing movies, that I don't fully absorb the sadness until a return trip. What would it be like as a white, liberal idealist suddenly brought so low to discuss this movie at this time with 30 white women, all liberals as far as I knew, all poring through our shared aesthetic experience, and surely fumbling at times in our language for conflicts and lifeworlds that none of ours approximated. Also, if somebody didn't like Moonlight, or if the whole room hadn't liked Moonlight, would I lose it? What exactly would I lose?

Talking about Moonlight with that group on November 14 remains my single happiest memory from a very beleaguered time. I can still access it fully, amidst an even more beleaguered time. The questions, the curiosity, the forthcoming descriptions of deep response, the candid admissions of caveats or likes that were not loves, the differing opinions over enigmas and whether the film should have allowed them to persist. The markings of our own limitations of perspective and the requirements of respectful spectatorship, even as the film issues full invites for broad participation and we eagerly RSVP'd to those invites. The way these stipulations of vantage and bias opened discussion further, rather than closing it, as some incorrigibily insist that they must. But also the women's knowledge, echoing Moonlight's own evocation of a world that is both big and small. One participant, just back from six weeks canvassing for Hillary in the exact district where Moonlight takes place, described what she experienced as an artistically motivated foregrounding of some milieus in Liberty City and a corresponding omission of others—and how it might, for example, have been possible if the film desired this to indicate a gradient of environments between Paula's projects and Juan's horn of plenty. What did it mean that such middle-ground was mostly invisible in the movie, if not in life? Well, shared another participant, I had my first teaching job in that exact school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I was one of only four white instructors in the school, and whether it's a meticulous reconstruction or a snapshot of a facility that's been untouched for decades, it looked exactly like what I recall. And if I hadn't known already that classroom teaching would largely be about listening, boy did I learn it during those years in Miami. Not that I was who many of my students felt like talking to.

Worlds don't go away, or not as readily as it sometimes feels they do, for ample reason. Worlds are indeed small—though also quite large, to say nothing of the smallness and largeness of internal worlds, such as the more or less incarcerated headspace of Chiron, possibly testing in those closing scenes whether his mental door must stay locked. My conversations about Moonlight have of course, even more than with most films, taught me more than my private reflections on it. One thing I've learned, or at least a knowledge that's been amplified more and more intensely, is that Moonlight means things to some viewers that it can never mean to others, no matter how much we love it or how well we feel we know it. And something else I've learned from talking about Moonlight on that day four Novembers ago, when I most needed a conversation like this, is that Moonlight can still to different degrees belong to all of us, or to everybody willing to let it in. And this isn't just a liberal, universalist bromide but a reflection that we've all had complicated lives, with details and cul-de-sacs unknown even to good friends. When a team of artists furnishes a world of bracing specificity, especially one that commercial cinemas have mostly neglected, we respond with our own specificities, and maybe even learn things about ourselves as well as others. Which is why Moonlight must always be cherished, and why I hope several unmade Moonlights might still get made.

Honorable Mentions: I wish reviewers and audiences had shown the same curiosity about Andrew Ahn's Spa Night (2016), another seldom-screened story of queer coming-into-being, that they did about Moonlight. Ahn's film treats David (Joe Seo), a Korean American teen in Los Angeles, maintaining a poker face through a palimpsest of at least three problems: his parents' restaurant is failing, and the only way their pride will tolerate help is if he sneaks cash surreptitiously into their wallets; his grades aren't good enough to get him accepted to college, so he'd better find a decent job to tide him over next year; and he's either finally realizing or finally facing his sexual interest in other men, but isn't at all ready for open, face-to-face conversation or even app-based hookups. Winning a night-shift job at the local Korean spa might be the perfect answer to all these pressures: money in the family bank, a stable gig, and visual access to nude men in a space where touch is expressly forbidden. As you're guessing, nothing goes quite to David's plan, but the movie works formidably well on every level. The photography, sound, editing, scripting, and acting are all transfixing, the story very poignant, and the cultural specificity a welcome and rigorous foundation for a film that remains totally accessible to any sympathetic audience. Among black queer protagonists in commercial cinema this decade, I admit the feature-length version of Dee Rees's Pariah (2011) didn't hit me as hard as her earlier and appreciably different short film, but I still love it, and still wonder often where Alike is and how she's doing, as I do with Chiron. From Bradford Young's lusciously saturated cinematography to the unforgettable youthfulness and discomfort of Adepero Oduye's Alike, so much of Pariah is seared in my brain.
 

15. Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)
 
Because I have the nicest readers in the world, I am trusting everyone not to steal the idea for a longer article I've wanted to write for a while and am feeling enough critical distance to attempt once this countdown has concluded. I remember at the end of 2016 feeling really floored by the number of movies released that year, more and more as its end approached, where women figured as the heirs, interpreters, custodians, and transformative agents of history. In Arrival, Amy Adams's linguist emerged as one of the United States's chosen envoys to an inscrutable delegation of aliens in enormous ships; as a professor myself, I can say this is the most distressing but also most exciting depiction in movie history of who might drop by during office hours, and what they might ask. More than this, Adams's Louise becomes an oracle of historical knowledge, of a type that practically explodes the whole notion of "history" without stripping it of stakes or seriousness. Terence Davies's A Quiet Passion privileged a view of Emily Dickinson as responding poetically to the historical and political crises of her time—something virtually every Dickinson scholar has confronted for decades but which popular depictions still mostly closet inside Recluse of Amherst clichés. Bold anachronisms and time-lapse portraiture in that film also evoke history's passing as itself a formal and conceptual problem, for Dickinson and for cinema. Pablo Larraín's Jackie, a film I don't even care for, nonetheless bears a provocative vision of a First Lady, viewed initially as a history-making man's comely companion, revealing herself on television as the learned, media-savvy docent of a history-rich space. And that's not the half of it. She emerges, via a grotesque ordeal, as the fast-acting, forward-thinking, deeply self-aware author of a romantic narrative that becomes indistinguishable, as per her intents, from historical fact. In Aquarius, already covered on this countdown, Sônia Braga's Clara, aptly named, holds onto legacies of the past that her own children think she has unduly elevated. While the film does not regard her own past or standpoint as flawless, Clara wades into archival documents and legal arcana and then breaches corporate offices, where she becomes a club-wielding avenging angel of popular memory. In Mike Mills's 20th Century Women...well, we'll get to that one soon.

Emblematic of this trend is Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come (the original French title is L'avenir, or The Future), in which philosophy professor Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) discovers that some of her present students, in the heat of a volatile campus protest, find her political commitments insufficient. She then receives a sharper, unforeseen critique from a past pupil she greatly favors, now a philosopher himself. This former protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), challenges Nathalie's longstanding self-perception as a radical thinker and admits he has always found her outlook fundamentally bourgeois. Nathalie totally contests this claim, but it does get to her. We feel her embark on a period of self-review that is more trenchant and interesting than a superficially flagellating self-rebuke. It also entails a film-wide reflection on what it means to live a lucid life, a just life, and how those ideals manifest in one's isolation from or connectedness to other people, including former intimates. More than anything, the movie ponders the historically specific predicament of an economically secure and socially privileged white woman reckoning with her own life's work of challenging ideas ("challenging" is a verb and an adjective here), which may, from a rising generational perspective, seem of little use.

That, at least, is how I took Things to Come, for reasons that already computed to me while watching it in early September 2016, then darkened and deepened after November 2016. What a year, indeed, for white women in relation to notions of history and global custodianship, or to debates about radical vs. reformist mindsets and whether they can possibly coexist. I first absorbed the movie amid the seeming ascendancy of the U.S.'s first (white) female president, rife with evident contradictions, repeatedly confronted with other people's withering assessments of what she perceived as a lifetime of progressive action. Her loss and, with it, the world's loss—especially excruciating to ponder on this night, as missiles launch and land, and citizens worldwide prepare for some likely cataclysm, all because of the deranged recklessness of our putatively elected leader—stemmed from a host of reasons that of course I won't probe or prioritize here. But there is no question in my mind that the civic rebuff of this wildly uneven, often infuriating, but nonetheless quite brilliant, quite effective, indisputable change-maker, a rebuff of historical scale and planetary consequence, derived in part from what I considered overstated and disastrously ill-timed attacks on the insufficient radicality of her reformism. I understand completely that genuine, comprehensive restructuring has always been treated as something "we" can get to in a minute, as a thing forever to come. I mean, fair e-fucking-nough. But given the scope of the diabolical alternative we all now know too well? I think full denouncing of the only credible alternative could have waited. And HILLARY = TRUMP, much less HILLARY < TRUMP, could have waited forever, till exactly never.

These attacks were prosecuted in no small part by white women, who as a collective demographic endorsed a madly unqualified misogynist, rapacious in more senses than the economic. I won't take the time to look up statistics for white women who voted for Stein or Johnson or nobody, and thereby also voted for Trump, but simply took more circuitous routes from Point A to Point ☠. The biggest reason I won't do that is that as a white man, no matter how I identify and operate politically, I belong to the one constituency that has no business casting collective aspersion on anybody, regarding this election or regarding virtually anything. And if I feel as I do, imagine the feelings of the many (many, many, many) white women who put everything on the line, more than I did, and long have done so, and still do, in so many ways, to create the world which that benighted election seemed once more to retract. So I'll just return to my basic point, which is this: art houses and multiplexes were full that year of women writing history, witnessing history (though often not as the main authors of record), making history (though often from segregated sidelines), reporting history (or being so blocked from doing so that despair engulfed them). Meanwhile, the most public and momentous history-maker-to-be, whom many of us hoped could be pushed even further left, as she had been through the drafting of her convention platform, was suddenly pushed off a cliff, as were we all. Everybody who voted against her, with core support from aggressively, rabidly white men, but also including plenty of women checking obviously noxious boxes and pulling plainly dangerous levers at the voting station, became the real history-makers. I envy Nathalie her access to philosophical sangfroid. I had little then and have little now.

But not every thought I carried into Things to Come or took out of it allows me to judge so imperiously. I am totally cognizant of being, like Nathalie, though lesser in years and in achievement, a white university professor who credits my research, pedagogy, and campus-based advocacy work with progressive upshots and motives. But by what standards or by whose criteria do I assume this? Which of my students, including those I might cast in my mind as fans or fellow thinkers, might harbor incisive critiques that they've never confessed, or may only develop later? Some, I am 100% clear, would (or will?) read the preceding paragraph and have very harsh words for me, whether or not I ever hear them. I had just that summer reorganized my faculty position and teaching load to accommodate a more formal role in campus-based equity work on behalf of students from underrepresented identity groups. I hoped this role could contribute to real, systemic changes but knew it might prove totally circumscribed in its radius of impact. I might feel better about serving exceptional young scholars too rarely served, which is a concrete and serious value. But would the role, would I extend further, disturbing more of what needs disturbing? Mentees and other students I met through this work might be especially well-positioned to perceive and verbalize the limits of my own liberal vantage point, which would be no less painful for being foreseeable, and no less true for being painful. So Things to Come did not land with me as a parable about a geographically and generationally distant woman whose inner and outer conflicts were alien to my own. I felt vicariously humbled by Fabien's soft-spoken but unmistakable castigation of an advisor who felt that, whatever the other limits of her job or her conduct of it, at least she had reached this young thinker even more gifted than herself. So when I returned post-election to Things to Come, was I only thinking about all the radicals who'd ridden Hillary so hard they convinced themselves she was Trump's mirror image (or even worse!), or of women whose electoral choices struck me as indefensibly out of sync with many of their own interests, and with most of the country's interests, and with all of the earth's interests? I admit I was thinking all of that. But no, I did not and could not exonerate myself from Nathalie's own work of self-critique.

And aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Since you apparently think you're Mrs. Lincoln. I know. I agree. This entry is laying bare where I was as a spectator of Things to Come and where I am tonight. Nowhere good. So let's juxtapose my own earnest messiness against the limpid style and crystalline focus of Hansen-Løve's script and direction. They are agitated over all the same ethical and philosophical issues, even before the Rubicons of Brexit, of Trump, etc., but she has nonetheless distilled them to the clarity of spring water. The movie has a flawlessly steady rhythm, not in the usual sense of well-paced crescendo to some ultimate climax, but in a way that refuses peaks or valleys. This movie's articulation of story, theme, and character is as steady as a healthy heartbeat. I don't know how anyone does that, especially when addressing intellectual and epochal and political issues that boil a lot of people's blood. And make no mistake, Nathalie's life in the period covered by Things to Come is not one that suggests such a measured rhythm, such utterly non-perspirant piloting. I've singled out the ideological challenge she withstands from Fabien, because I do sense it's the cut that goes deepest for her. Maybe more accurately, the thrill of Fabien actively renewing contact with her and then the sobriety of finding herself demoted in his eyes—demoted, at least, by the measure of what she'd assumed—is the two-tined fork jabbing at her conscience, making her a bit more insouciant and a bit more chastened than her norm. But this is a woman whose husband of decades announces a half-hour in that he's leaving her for someone else. A woman whose mother, equally afflicted with narcissism and depression, summons her constantly for non-emergency reasons, or for emergencies others see as self-inflicted, and then, eventually, she dies. And a woman whose publisher tells her that the work of which she's proudest needs an intensive makeover in order to stay "relevant." Actually, scratch that, the work is being binned. And her daughter gets pregnant. And she joins Fabien's pastoral commune for a while, which is deeply invigorating but also has to be embarrassing, because Nathalie's twice as old as anyone else. Worse, she surely perceives that the youngsters all assume that she, a newly single bourgeoise, has arrived carrying a torch, for her student. Also, when back in the city, she spots, in a city of millions of people, her husband and his new lover on the sidewalk. And her cat disappears. And then the cat comes back, but somehow the old thrill is gone.

This is the level of push-pull tribulation that Mia Hansen-Løve assigns to her protagonist. And then, to interpret her, she recruits Isabelle Huppert, cinema's uncontested queen of psychic extremity, so the potential for fireworks only escalates. But then, this film, and this performance: both of them, to quote Pablo Neruda, "bright as a lamp / simple, as a ring." For both women this is a consummate creative achievement, albeit more surprising for Huppert, whose astounding emotional clarity survives in the total absence of anything volcanic. It is more typical of Hansen-Løve, though never more arresting or hard-won than here. Even the movie's proclivity for framing Nathalie looking out of bright windows or over mountain valleys does not translate as a crutch for rendering introspection in visible terms. The whole cadence, the visual and sonic texture of the movie suggest a contemplative ambiance. There remains a real, palpable, audible world around Nathalie, but its volume is slightly down, the light just a bit haloed and feathery, in ways that suggest to me a very slightly out-of-body quality or, better, a slightly lost-in-thought quality, consistent with Nathalie's point of view.

On top of all that, I see the movie's judicious tone, steady pulse, and narrative architecture as a major generic intervention. I say this because Things to Come is a divorce film, squarely based in a renounced wife's perspective, that refuses to depict her as shattered, bouleversée by the rejection. More than that, the movie stipulates the comparable importance, even in some ways the greater importance of Nathalie's other preoccupations. It's hard to think of other movies that similarly frame this experience, especially for a woman of Nathalie's age. To be clear, neither the script nor Huppert's performance suggest Nathalie's indifference to her newfound solitude; we are attuned to the grief she is feeling, sometimes at sudden, unspoken moments when she appears slightly distracted, in a conversation about something else. But Nathalie, ever the philospher, is interested in solitude as a human problem, one with its own ties to reason and ethics. Her occupation, her entire backstory, is not arbitrary scene-setting for who she really becomes: a woman in distress over a man, on behalf of a family that won't be the same. She's contemplating this, as she would anything. Reading lots, as ever. Experimenting with where she might go, how she might act, how other relationships might evolve vis-à-vis her new personas as ex-wife and as object of ideological skepticism—not necessarily in that order. And sometimes, none of this is remotely on her mind. This all might be a reform to conventions for telling this kind of woman-centered story, but it sure feels radical.

Hansen-Løve's refusal of histrionic directing or writing is utterly of a piece with her artistic self-presentation in earlier features, of which my prior favorites were The Father of My Children, a story of a woman and a family suddenly abandoned by very different means, and Eden, a kind of origin story for French house music that takes unexpected shape as a kind of mini-epic of inchoate affect. Who but Hansen-Løve would use Daft Punk and closely cognate figures to tell a story about inwardness, sometimes even isolation, rather than one of exuberance and noise? In the case of Things to Come, Hansen-Løve's temperament honors Nathalie's temperament, which in a way is no surprise, since she also wrote the script. But for me, it's a transformative reframing of how we might ponder junctures in personal and public history that would be easy to label as catastrophic, and accordingly scream into every wind. I'm hardly saying that "catastrophe" is the wrong label. I'm not anti-screaming. But there's wisdom and active choice, not passivity or mere expressive default, in Hansen-Løve insisting that all the threads of life keep unfurling, even when every loom seems to self-destruct, and every spool goes flying. Balanced perfectly on its own beam, Things to Come is a rigorous and gutsy display of something close to serenity, especially given its narrative and historical circumstances. It's a persuasive brief for Nathalie's own greatest conviction, which is the value, not remotely dated or quietist, of a philosophical vantage point. It's moving and, I think, ingenious and brave that Hansen-Løve even thinks to deploy an unsteady interlude in the life of a well-to-do white female intellectual as a credible prism for asking about the state of our world, and the nasty divorces that keep proliferating among different leftists who once imagined themselves as the same, or at least assumed each other as allies. It is almost old-fashioned, but in my view very vanguard and very tricky, to advance a contemporary film on this platform: there is value in critical distance, value in refusing cathartic excess, value in abjuring convenient biases and familiar genres, as we each attempt to face, really face, a world that has changed.

Honorable Mentions: I don't really know that Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta (2016) has all that organic a connection to Things to Come, and I have stalled a bit whenever I've tried to loop it into the article idea I described above. But I saw the two back-to-back at London's Curzon Bloomsbury cinema during an early-fall visit to the only Prince of England who interests me at all, Tim Robey. Spending four consecutive hours amid the internal lives and outside orbits of two complicated women, which two such thoughtful directors had found such totally different languages to articulate, is a ridiculously rare cinematic experience and one I'll always treasure, as I will the trip. And Julieta has nowhere near the number of champions it deserves, so it's worth a plug regardless. The summer prior, I saw the Blythe Danner vehicle I'll See You in My Dreams (2015) with my mom and two of her friends, and the long discussion we had afterward over food and drinks was a perfect encapsulation of everything movies miss when they don't pursue stories about intelligent, conflicted, inquisitive women in this age group. I'll See You... isn't aiming for the same kinds of themes or era-specific self-reflections that Things to Come is, but it catches a similar spirit of contemplative, bittersweet equanimity and wisdom, about living alone and about much else, when the end of middle age is closer than the beginning. It's become a personal pet. The Icelandic hit Woman at War (2018) stars a protagonist who's HAD IT with mere philosophizing. She heads out into the field with a bow-and-arrow, steadying it against that laudable chip on her leftist shoulder. The movie turns into a delicious genre composite of comedy and drama, of broad and subtle types, sometimes ticklish and sometimes sad. At heart, particularly as its end approaches, the movie is curious about the capacities and limits of effective protest in a drowning world, and the line between thinking radical thoughts and pursuing radical actions. I think Huppert's Nathalie would find it amusing, before turning back to her Pascal and Rousseau.
 

16. Life and Nothing More (dir. Antonio Méndez Esparza, 2017)
 
"At the end of the day, are you free, dead, or in jail?" This is the question an African-American man asks a small group of male high-school students, all of them black, in a Tallahassee classroom. Because we enter this scene in medias res and without much context, as often happens in Life and Nothing More, we don't know if he is these students' teacher, and if so, of what subject. Is he a military recruiter, or does every room in this school sport an American flag that huge? Are these students in detention, which would explain their sparse number and scattered placement in the room, and why this faculty member is riding them so hard about choices? Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), 14 years old, the only student we know in this room, pushed to the background but center-framed and clearest in focus, has been hearing a lot about his choices lately. A white born-again Christian, as dubiously friendly as a slice of pie that nobody ordered, approaches Andrew and two colleagues on a yard-cleaning crew, evangelizing them in a parking lot while they're on break and reminding them that "Life is based on decisions that you make." Afterward, the older man on this crew warmly counsels, "Stupidity is one thing you don't want to lose your life over." He suggests he already knows from Andrew's mother Regina (Regina Williams) that he's sliding on a scary slope, missing court-mandated counseling sessions after being caught breaking into cars, tempting fate in a country and a state not known for extending benefit of the doubt to young black men. Andrew's incarcerated father is the cautionary figure on Regina's mind, an object of omission or tart dismissal in conversation, his communications with Andrew effectively cut off. That info has already traveled to that disciplinarian in Andrew's school, whom the end credits list as an Anger Management Teacher and who folds in the jailing of Andrew's dad as relevant detail in his secular sermon about choosing to stay free. "You talk like you know my family or something," Andrew steadfastly repeats, by way of refusing this teacher's presumptions. "I know your family's locked up," he responds, and repeats his own trinity: free, dead, or in jail.

In proportion to its high quality, Life and Nothing More, is the most underseen American independent film of the 2010s. It's also a tricky movie to summarize but a perfectly straightforward and uncommonly absorbing one to watch. True to his title, director Antonio Méndez Esparza is less interested in a high-concept plot ("complicated family of three tries to stay together and out of harm's way"?) than in prioritizing the complexities, tradeoffs, and uncertain trajectories of day-to-day existence in a specific time and place, especially given its characters' class and identity positions. Here, nonetheless, are three attempts to encapsulate the experience, though you may want to rent it first on Amazon (free for Prime members) or directly from its consistently heroic U.S. distributor, Grasshopper Film before learning where it's going. One reading, moving forward from the film's beginning, weighs the relative truth and falsity for Andrew and Regina of that maxim that life is about choices, including their possible choice to stay connected or to drift apart as mother and son. As part of this open-ended deliberation, Life and Nothing More evokes multiple ways in which "choice" is a remote and constrained privilege in these two people's lives, and in some cases foreclosed by factors they didn't choose. A second reading, working backward from the film's end, might frame Life and Nothing More as a post-Trayvon drama about one sequence of threads and events that can land a 14-year-old kid squarely in the sights of the so-called juvenile justice system. As one prosecutor says of Andrew, with telling euphemism and another encore for the film's most fraught and most frequently repeated word, "He chose this path and now he should be held secure for it." Life and Nothing More manages to undertake this story without mounting the kind of explicitly violent scene that might feel most predictable and gruesomely familiar, and might have been especially impossible to watch after 90 minutes of getting to know these characters so deeply. What the movie does stage is distressing enough. While the closing scenes may suggest the worst has been avoided, you wouldn't call them reassuring, either.

A third way to describe Life and Nothing More, keyed neither to premise nor to culmination but to its entire production and the full experience of watching it, is as an unusually deep and extraordinarily generative act of collaboration between an expatriate filmmaker and a local cast of nonprofessionals. Together they try to elucidate a part of the country where life has temporarily brought them together. Méndez Esparza, a Spanish-born filmmaker in residence at Florida State's College of Motion Picture Arts, briefly relocated to Tallahassee for family reasons, wanted to make a film that he has described as "a journey of actually understanding the place where I lived." Having devised a loose narrative structure, but no script, Méndez Esparza searched for Tallahassee residents who could capably hold the camera but also inform and explore persuasively layered characters. Bleechington emerged in a nearby high school. Williams, a waitress and mother, like her character, accompanied her sister to an audition and, ten tryouts later, found herself with the part. Both used their real names, though these lives are not their own. Other people who appear secondarily or marginally across Life and Nothing More do the same: public defenders, doctors, teachers, tour guides, servers, day care supervisors, abortion providers. That parking-lot evangelist in the early scene wasn't even involved with the film; he spontaneously approached Méndez Esparza's crew, naïve to their task, and they captured the encounter. Imagine a group effort of mostly newcomers and amateurs, like Sean Baker's Florida Project or Tangerine, just as emotionally rich but played in a less neon key. Or imagine Boyhood about a working-class black family, covering less time in their lives but at equal or greater degrees of intimacy, opening up American experiences that even the gamest of Hollywood personages cannot inhabit or illuminate in the same way. Or consider Frederick Wiseman, with his propensity toward long, exploratory takes, and his preference for mosaic-style editing that leads you through without holding your hand, and his penchant for studying, learning, and reframing milieus by filming them at length. Imagine Wiseman bringing all of that to a two-hour fiction film about a hardworking single mother who loves her son but also battles with him, who dotes on her baby daughter Ry'nesia but is forced away from her for hours and hours of low-wage shifts, and who doesn't have time or patience for much else. And imagine Wiseman making the same film at the same time about a teenage son who loves but resents his mother, who resents even more her new boyfriend Robert (Robert Williams), who fears but misses his father, and who warmly tends to Ry'nesia but perhaps wishes this weren't his job. He carries and plays with a pocketknife the way that much younger child on Mr. Rogers held a sword, no doubt wanting to be asked if he feels strong holding that knife and why he yearns to feel stronger, but nobody asks him. Too many people just see a boy with a knife, or see the boy as a knife. You can guess how they respond.

People attempt this sort of film all the time, but rarely with such enormous payoffs. Part of why this one soars where so many stall out in listless mediocrity has to do with the casting and whatever generous, candid, alchemical process clearly transpired between the writer-director and his remarkable novices. Bleechington, like many performers I have praised in these entries, has to anchor so many images, from close-ups to long shots, alone or in groups, tranquil or volatile, without letting the temperature rise too much in his voice or the expression crack on his face. He's the still, quiet center of a movie that's nonetheless committed to preserving him as its subject, not its object, especially since his world's already rife with institutions, systems, and panicky white people with a quick trigger to objectify. Then there's Regina Williams, possessed of her own tranquility and stillness but capable, too, of tempestuous outcry and self-assertion. She crafts with zero prior experience one of the five or ten performances I'd soonest place in my cinematic time capsule of the last ten years. Her "Regina," who is and isn't the real Regina, fills the movie with dialogue, spirit, and a keen, lively watchfulness that give the audience plenty of entrypoints even as it remains clear that she speaks, acts, and exists for herself, not for our enjoyment. Her deflections of a too-assiduous suitor in her café is a great example of Williams's verbal quickness and shrewd assessments of the people around her and the situations she's in—often without her choosing, despite all those preachers and life coaches. But Williams also reveals, with the dexterity of a practiced performer, the paradoxes and dishonesties of Regina, as well as the loneliness she both confesses and conceals in the ways she engages her son and her boyfriend, who are very nearly the only people "in" her life. Her dialogue scenes are often minefields of flamboyance, guardedness, provocation, and retreat and would stymie many a lesser actor. Several scenes require even more fine-grained emotional and expressive parsing than that: Regina responding to an unplanned pregnancy, or surprising herself by enjoying a date with a man she doesn't trust, or confronting a woman who insists on seeing herself as a victim of Andrew's behavior, or challenging the two cops who arrested her son as a result. This is not just a miracle of finding exactly the right charismatic and camera-ready rookie for a low-budget film that will ride on the backs of unproven performers. This is a bonafide star, in a galaxy most films won't even explore.

As with the cast, the level of technique exhibited by the behind-the-scenes talent risks being under-appreciated because it refuses to parade its level of craftsmanship. The sound team, especially, might be misapprehended as simply recording life and nothing more, precisely as one might hear them in a stroll around greater Tallahassee. The mix and the individual sound edits, however, are doing much more than this. I'll take it as a sign of their perfect success that I didn't notice at all the first time I watched the movie, as they did their job of engrossing me in the environment and the scenario. But I couldn't stop noticing the second time, as I realized how crucial they'd been to what I felt as a first-time viewer, and still feel on repeat returns. The cleanness of the audio itself is a hard-won feat in so many heavily improvised scenes, many of them filmed in populous indoor or outdoor spaces where plenty of commotion is possible and even invited (life! nothing more, or less!). The closeness and clarity with which the characters' words arrive to us, feeling intimate even when the camera is distant, maintaining a direct connection with the listener even when the scene is about the characters being stifled, is a huge reason why Life and Nothing More feels so extraordinarily attuned to the lives it depicts. But sound also plays a major role as one of the suffocating forces over which characters struggle to breathe and be heard. Insects, woodpeckers, weed whackers, washing machines, dogs, sirens, car after car after car of unseen traffic: these and other ambient sounds are not just retained but loudly amplified throughout the movie. The mix is subtle enough that these noises can pass as "realism," but heightened enough that they, more than anything, conjure the level of existential claustrophobia that Andrew, Regina, and other characters are facing, even as they seem to inhabit wide-open spaces of sidewalks, strip malls, school yards, suburban parks, and undeveloped Floridian lots. Even the rolling white noise of air-conditioned rooms gives an agitating edge to domestic encounters, including those that remain docile. As with the sound, the editing work, spearheaded by Méndez Esparza and Santiago Oviedo, is both a practical coup of distilling so many years of long, separately-filmed, spur-of-the-moment sequences and a creative marvel of entering and exiting scenes at unexpected moments, raising questions we're not able or intended to answer completely about why events, conversations, and cycles of behavior are playing out as they do.

At one level, Life and Nothing More could be about anybody. "Populist" in the best sense, the movie starts on a shot of Regina and Andrew feuding on a public bus, but framed among several other passengers such that we can barely discern who's speaking. This moment and others like it remind us that everyone in Méndez Esparza's shots is a total castaway from most U.S. cinema and a great deal of U.S. media culture more broadly. Sensitive, detail-rich, non-idealizing movies about any of these bystanders' lives would also, I imagine, be plenty eye-opening, though it's foolhardy to expect every film, or any film, to be as nuanced and indelibly humane as this one, with its candid and compassionate eye on human conduct neither ugly nor beautiful. You could also take the film as a transformative dossier on things that get said at key moments in its script, and too often in U.S. life. The script and the actors beg to wean us of the disavowals of empathy, curiosity, and critical attention that these flat clichés bespeak. "I was just trying to protect my family." "This is not the time and place for us to sit and have this conversation." "I don't really feel comfortable talking about it." And of course, the eternally returning heavyweight, despite being such a flagrant lightweight, "It is what it is." The title of Life and Nothing More sounds like a virtual paraphrase of "it is what it is," but the movie's inquisitive spirit and profound dimensionality venture far in a totally opposite direction.

This inventive and revelatory fiction/nonfiction hybrid doesn't closely resemble most other movies to which you might apply the same label. It intervenes powerfully in other genres, too, from the courtroom drama to the dash-cam video, that I feel I've watched with even greater, deeper attention since seeing this film. When I saw it at Toronto, lured to it by nothing but a compelling capsule on the website and my own curiosity, the whole thing felt like a threshold of revelation but also an astute and dignifying proclamation of worlds and stories that many of us know but rarely see on screen. Williams and Méndez Esparza were meant to appear after that public screening, but they'd had to depart hastily the night before, so that she could go board up her home against the incoming Hurricane Irma, and Méndez Esparza could help her do it. Life and Nothing More is top-flight filmmaking from a team who seem to have maintained every connection, enviable and not, to a real world of insights, routines, and emergencies. Even when key scenes focalize the tenuousness or brokenness of important bonds, the filmmaking and, ultimately, the story emphasize the opposite. It's work, it's hard, it happens less often all the time, but we can still make the attempt, pay the visit, lift the receiver, quell the temper, put in the time, and be here for each other.

Honorable Mentions: New Zealand-born Jake Mahaffy, an interested and insightful newcomer to America like Antonio Méndez Esparza, also made a riveting and unusual drama about life among African Americans in the U.S. South. Free in Deed (2015), a Venice prizewinner that took two years reaching the States, tells a complicated story about miracles promised and attempted at a storefront Tennessee church. In the process, it touches some nerves that Life and Nothing More also touches, including several related to single mothers of young sons. Mahaffy's movie also centrally explores some areas that are pertinent but more peripheral to Méndez Esparza's, like the self-censuring failures of grown men to serve young boys in the ways they've pledged or intended to, inhibited either by systems they can't control or boondoggles of their own creation. Yet another expat, Roberto Minervini, previously represented on this list by The Other Side, mixed fiction and nonfiction modes of cinema in his own exceptional portrait of African American community and eclectic models of leadership in Louisiana and Mississippi, provocatively titled What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? (2018). Judy Hill and Regina Williams should run as a ticket for high office, though Minervini's film also makes clear why the New Black Panthers are suspicious of anybody who would run for office. Finally, I think a lot of people who disliked Trey Edward Shults's Waves (2019) may have been hoping for a film closer in spirit, style, and perspective to Life and Nothing More, with its equally refined but much less grandiloquent sonic and visual languages, and less sensational narrative turns. I understand why Waves is polarizing, but I think it earns most of its big leaps and gestures, and rises still further with the shifted focus of the second half, quietly anchored by Taylor Russell's perfectly porcelain performance.
 

Son of Saul, © 2015 Sony Pictures Classics/Laokoon Filmgroup Carol, © 2015 The Weinstein Company/Film4/Number 9 Films/Killer Films Zama, © 2017 Cine Argentino/AnCine/Rei Cine/Bananeira Filmes, © 2018 Strand Releasing The Day He Arrives, © 2011 Jeonwonsa Film Co., © 2012 The Cinema Guild
17. Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes, 2015)
 
The script and protagonist of Son of Saul stay riskily committed to two narrative missions that increasingly come at each other's expense. One has gathered steam before the movie starts and concerns a conspiracy among vaguely acquainted prisoners at Auschwitz, itself comprising at least two prongs: 1) somehow proving the horrors of the camps to the world outside, in hopes that surely some army will come to the rescue, and 2) preparing their own violent uprising in the likely event that nobody else arrives before it's far, far too late. The other plotline launches a few scenes into writer-director László Nemes's script, when our focal character, Saul (Géza Röhrig), discovers a breathing boy amidst a pile of still-warm corpses that Saul has been forced to clear from the gas chamber's floor. Saving the boy is never an option; the Nazi officers manually suffocate him as soon as they've established his nearly unprecedented resilience this far into their machinery of murder. Saul's monomaniacal, self-endangering zeal to ensure that, at least in death, this boy's body and spirit can receive care and respect surprises and sometimes infuriates other members of the shadowy rebel network. They don't understand why Saul is so abruptly and deeply attached. These men grow furious when Saul's focus on this goal makes him disastrously unreliable in the mission to save as many other lives as possible—despite the child's already being dead, and despite the incalculable obscenities every prisoner has already had to stomach to endure this long.

The title of the movie gives us some tip-off about the motive behind Saul's intense commitment, but he doesn't share it with any other character through the first hour of Nemes's film. When he does, the comrades who know him best segue immediately from knowing less than we do to knowing more. That is, they shock us with the disclosure that Saul never had a son. He did, he insists, but not by his wife, nor with her awareness. You did not, they maintain, enraged that he would risk the lives and labors of so many for the falsely rationalized good of one person, however appalling his loss. But speaking of rationalization, what can we say for sure about the plans hatched by these prisoners? One involves smuggling photographs of atrocities at Auschwitz somewhere beyond the walls. But beyond the fact of there being no unambiguous channel for getting these images out, and no reason to assume the world's non-intervention reflects its ignorance rather than its cowardice, it's unclear what such "images" will show. When one conspirator uses a contraband camera to snap a photo of the surrounding human/inhuman nightmare, the result is utterly opaque. The obfuscating smog, much worse than an accident of weather, seems to arise from the nearby burning of inmates. Depicting this evil is impossible because the villainy weaves its own veil.

That paradox, or course, is endemic to the whole task of making, and whether to make, a film like Son of Saul. Since the aftermath of World War II, and in cinematic registers stretching back to Night and Fog (1955), debates have persisted about the ethics or even the possibility of representing the Shoah. This quagmire arose earlier with regard to The Last of the Unjust, but the attendant dilemmas only seem to deepen in the context of fictional recreations. How does one ask actors to strip en masse and pack themselves into fake execution chambers, then be tortured and manhandled by still more actors, and revivify countless other scourges, knowing the resulting film may play in more rudely commercialized spaces than those likely to host a Lanzmann film? There is no reason for opinions on this issue not to divide sharply and no sign that they will abate. For my part, what floored me so deeply about Son of Saul was how it achieved that rarest thing: a new, thoughtful, responsible path through this redoubtable obstacle course. Nemes radically rethinks depth of field, a basic precept of all cinema, measuring how far into levels of space a camera allows us to see and—relatedly, but not necessarily coextensively—how expansive the constructed set or scouted location of any shot must stretch. Famously, almost all of Son of Saul cleaves tightly to Röhrig in close-up or near close-up, while maintaining such shallow depth that the background action, often repugnant, stays blurred. Neither laundering the necessary depravity out of his shots nor serving it up to any kind of pernicious Gaze (voyeuristic, sadistic, consumerist), Nemes's strategy strikes me as a masterstroke, though not one that, 1917-style, feels principally driven by pride in its own mastery. It also does not obviate the tough questions related to production process, since Saul's sets are grimly extensive and sometimes maze-like. The actors had to Go There, and the crew had to follow. But the clarity and rigor of the film's approach—defined by its refusal to be perfectly clear—hopefully certified to all involved that their dramatic, technical, and emotional labors would not be fruitless, or flaunted as spectacle.

But let's push further. Just as debates over representating trauma have grown much more complex than To Show or Not to Show, Nemes's broad-scale response to that problem is considerably more nuanced. Tight close-ups with limited depth are a familiar cinematic grammar, though rarely sustained so doggedly across a film, for suggesting a film's deep absorption in the central figure's point of view, without aiming the camera always (or ever) from that character's vantage. Saul's unwavering insistence on burying his alleged son requires a sort of narcissism, blind even to contexts of the highest possible stake. This is what several men in the would-be resistance maintain, and the movie refuses to dispute that view, even while furnishing sturdy reasons for Saul's choice. Neither in script nor in staging nor in Röhrig's expertly controlled performance does Son of Saul risk becoming the parable of a misunderstood hero, cleaving to a noble task against impossible odds (though that part seems true) and despite the blinkered perspective of those who doubt (a scapegoating framework Nemes refuses to indulge). Extending the point in reverse, Son of Saul raises enough questions about the feasibility of the plotted uprising that perhaps Saul shouldn't be judged for heeding other calls, even if surrounding figures have unilaterally pledged themselves, for reasons we understand. The point even emerges photographically: when Abraham (Levente Molnár) visits Saul to ask about his contact with an elusive Greek ally named "Renegade," it is Abraham whom the camera films with perfect clarity, and Saul who atypically recedes into murk. The fact that Mátyás Erdély's camera suggests the impossibility of keeping foreground and background simultaneously in focus thereby extends to a wider thesis in the film about the impossibility of honoring two high callings at once, the "individual" need to bury a child (whether or not he is a son) and the "collective" need to ensure Jewish survival, especially since both sides of that falsely dichotomized choice bear individual and collective stakes.

Further complicating this already elaborate structure are the semiotics as well as the politics of sound, which Son of Saul refuses to muffle in the way it does the visual depth of field. In fact the audio, designed with merciless but justified force by Tamás Zányi, exacerbates to dense levels of unbearable, semi-scrutable detail what ambient life in Auschwitz must have been like. Human screams, solitary or copious, resound so often they feel constant. Trains arrive amid stentorian clangs and growls, sometimes blurring into the thunderous heaves and grinds of other machines around the camp, placing them all as interdependent gears in the same lethal apparatus. Infernos often roar out of frame, with grotesque implications; locomotive engines sometimes sound like great bellows, making the conflagrations hungrier. Mere cracklings of flame are enough to imply the very worst, but sometimes that sound is easy to confuse with the pound of heavy rain drops or the crunching of snow under military boots. We often don't know for sure unless Saul cranes his neck around a corner, which we usually wish he wouldn't do. The fact that fire and water sound alike in some circumstances only speaks to how the Shoah and its motivating darkness confound every boundary you want to believe is intractable in our world.

Circling back to why the sound mix entails a political complication of Son of Saul's scenario, and not just an expansion of its nightmarish sensorium, this mix makes it impossible to judge any of the characters' choices or priorities outside the overwhelming and highly specific context of Auschwitz. That environment and its unmanageable exigencies are present at every second to these characters' eyes (though not always to ours) and their ears (and ours, too). Even at their moments of acting most drastically, as when Saul abandons a putatively vital task on the rebels' behalf to seek a rabbi for his son(?), or at their moments of most caustic, maybe even unfeeling censure of Saul, you're never close to forgetting the untenable extremes to which this place has already pushed them. Put differently, Son of Saul doesn't just devise a radically first-person camera that indicates the worst horrors without visualizing them, it manages to deliver a first-person subjective and a third-person objective vantage on the Holocaust all at the same time. It evokes through audio a wider reality of unendurable loss and strain that the images often omit, lashed as they are to one particular and specifically motivated person, who is hardly insulated from plenty of soul-sickening scenes. Imagine a Saving Private Ryan that never leaves Omaha Beach, where Ryan won't be found unless one man loosens his obligations to every other soldier and perhaps to the success of the overall mission. This, perhaps, he shouldn't do. But also how can he not? Especially if Ryan is his son, or he has fought such a battle with deeply deranging forces around him that he believes Ryan is his son, literally or spiritually, or badly wants to believe that? Nemes insists in every scene that we're mindful of the forest and of the trees, all of which are on fire, or already burned, or about to be, despite what you'd guess from the first and last shots of twittering greenery.

The latter is an almost perverse choice, underscoring that Son of Saul is not so broad or merciless in its logic that it forsakes accident, surprise, irony, or human variation. I have described its formidable ingenuity as though Nemes and his crew have solved an impossible proof, inspired stroke by inspired stroke, even in a context of such totalizing outrage that you can no longer solve for any x, because x no longer equals x, and there is no such thing as "equals." Nemes has not laid down an ingenious axiom into which everything must fit; if anything, inflexible axioms are the currency of fascism, leading in extreme cases to the kind of endpoint Son of Saul describes. So there's still more to ask and wonder—for example, about what it means if everything Saul says is true, and his vehemence about burying his son has at least one foot planted in adulterer's guilt. About how observant Saul is, given that he's corrected a few times on whether burial even requires an attending rabbi, to which he responds, "At least he'll know what to do." Why doesn't Saul know the prayers or protocols of Jewish burial, and if he's lived at some distance from the faith or the practice, how do other details in the story inflect differently? And what about the rabbi he finds at last, who turns out not to be one, but made emergency choices to save his life? Do we forgive him, hard as we might find that, as other characters find it hard to forgive Saul? What would the movie look like if this rabbi, not Saul, were its center? If we are meant to interpret Son of Saul with our best attempts at rabbinical nuance, empathy, care, and elastic perspective, what is the film teaching us?

That's a lot of questions, but consistent with the tenor of Jewish learning and knowing, which in my limited experience often start and finish with questions, and do not anticipate quick, easy answers. To see one thing means not to see something else: this is Son of Saul's logistical answer to neither aestheticizing nor ignoring unimaginable violence, but also the seed of the wisdom it carries, and the very tough sympathy it extends. It is why the film makes such a devastating impression, is barely withstandable in a theater, and does not seem like something anyone should watch twice... and why the same film suggests, when I have rewatched it, that its deepest meanings and layers remain elusive, and in fact I'm still getting to know it.
 

18. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes, 2015)
 
Todd Haynes has been such an extraordinary influence on my life. If you read me regularly, you already know. Safe and Velvet Goldmine were two of the films, maybe the two, that most inspired me to pursue graduate school. Goldmine was also, coincidentally, the theme of a mutual friend's costume party where I met Derek, and it yielded the culminating chapter as well as the cover art for my book. Back in Summer 2015, when rapturous Carol reviews were already circulating from Cannes, but before the movie played anywhere else, I was elated when my lovely Film Comment editor Nic Rapold asked if I'd interview Haynes in conjunction with the film, and again when he arranged an August screening through its Chicago publicist. I did not understand until arriving that I would be a one-person audience in the theater. That rarely ever happened, and nowadays it's even more likely I'd get a streaming link, and be grateful enough to forgive the PROPERTY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY watermark plastered over these painstakingly lit, framed, and graded shots. Instead I, and only I, got to appreciate these images in their high-grain, faded-pastel glory, shimmering as intended on a screen. I was always liable to receive Carol, or any actress-driven queer romance directed by Todd Haynes, as a movie "made for me." Of course it felt only more so in my otherwise-empty theater, where every star had aligned to form a magical viewing experience. But what I remember most about walking home was my confidence that so many other people, no matter where, when, or with whom they saw Carol, would equally feel that the movie was made privately, exquisitely for them. And we'd all be right.

Even so, I did not anticipate the breadth or intensity with which Carol became everybody's movie, at least in the Saturn rings of cinephilia where I hang out. (No one's yet told me I've been "flung out" of them, though now I can dream of the day.) So many people in my physical and online worlds could not stop going to see Carol, with several personal viewing tallies soaring well into the double digits. A short film called Carol Support Group got booked at some festivals two years later, to honor The Struggle of trying to function, in deed or in thought, when all you wanted to consider was the romance or near-romance or breakup or near-breakup of Carol Aird and Therese Belivet. I saw Carol three times in the theater, and then surprised myself by not rewatching it until prepping this piece. That happens sometimes, rarely on purpose, that I express my obsession with a movie by staying away from it. And as sturdy, even steely as Carol at times can be, there's something about this film that urged me toward a protective abstinence, the same way you try not to overhandle a garment that still bears the fragrance of a loved one who's gone. The extraordinary and distinctive visual texture emanates this delicacy, looking at times as though it's been printed on parchment paper, not celluloid, certainly not a hard drive, registering constantly how much of the movie's scenes entail Therese's reminiscences. Therese, a photographer, knows all too well the nascent, crowning quality of a snapshot just being developed, and also the vanishing effect on one left too long under direct light. Carol's cinematography often has qualities of both. The color palette of periwinkle, pale avocado, dusty rose, and a whole spectrum of yellows, from daffodil to pancake batter, projects its own "handle with care" qualities. How unusual to watch a film into which you soon pour your entire heart and soul, watering it with your tears, even as you worry about smudging it with your mortal fingerprints.

Again, though, I don't want to make Carol sound like some doily under a bell jar. The exquisite fragility of the images, which aren't all fragile though they are all exquisite, often stands in thrilling counterpoint to the weight and bulk of their subjects: Carol's huge fortress of a house, her smaller and slightly more portable fortress of a fur coat, Therese's department store, Abby's giant Packard and the medieval front door of her house. Harge feels as heavy as plutonium. Even his name weighs ten pounds. You can't set story or feeling "aside" in talking about Carol, because as ever with Haynes, every prop and angle and hue is saturated with both. But let's say that somehow your first viewing experience happened without the sound. I think you'd still see a conversation here between empyreal emotion and grounded reality. You'd notice the same thing if your first exposure was to the soundtrack by itself, with that low, bruised, foregrounded clarinet amidst the eddy and mist and caress of piano and strings. Or you could focus only on the editing of Affonso Gonçalves, one of the decade's major and most underappreciated film artists, and notice how assiduously and yet almost indetectably he is staging the film's strongest assertions in ways that make them feel evanescent. I know y'all queens keep a digital copy of Carol on your phones and/or a Blu-ray in your purse, so just call it up and check out 11:29, when we cut from Rooney Mara's highly knowledgeable but breathless, almost panicked rundown of that season's train sets to Cate Blanchett, staring at Rooney like the cat that ate not just the canary but the canary's mother. We get that glimpse for less than a second before Carol tilts her gaze down ...but how long, exactly, has she been coming on that strong to this shopgirl, from only two feet away? I know you already have 36:15 bookmarked on your disc, because it's when Blanchett rises from the carpet where she's been wrapping presents, all in one river-pure gesture, her hands like two petals touching, her lower body as strong as a track runner's. Let the scene play for 15 more seconds to recall how Gonçalves cuts immediately after the granted satisfaction of seeing Carol place her hands at last on Therese's shoulders. Money shot, cutaway. Yes, the hands are still there in the ensuing close-up of Therese, but the edit amplifies the felt force of this contact (i.e., it's psychologically revealing of Therese, as well as exciting for us), and it makes the moment feel like it's already gone even while it's still happening, and it signals how something just broke for Therese even as something came together. All that in less time than it takes to say "Carol."

All these intimations of fleetingness, these continuities that are also breakages, are more than just inspired approaches to the material at hand. They resonate additionally as comments on the whole era when Carol takes place—and we know that Haynes, more than most directors, especially in the US, always tells character-driven stories that function simultaneously as meditations on their eras. The early 1950s, conjured so meticulously by Judy Becker's production design and Ed Lachman's photography, emerge here as a rarely-evoked idiom of their own but also, maybe more crucially, as a passageway from the beleaguered yet booming America of World War II, quicksanded into a world of war, firing away like a continent-sized factory, and the Eisenhower, Far from Heaven 1950s of primary colors and polished surfaces, submerging the very idea of historicity beneath a performance of timelessness and platonic ideals. (Of course that account was worlds away from how many Americans experienced the 1950s, a fact never lost on Haynes.) Carol's two protagonists, played by a perfect Blanchett and a better-than-perfect Mara, capture this transitional spirit in the way they combine bracing candor with impulses or mandates to perform. Carol because she's fond of vamping, but also because she knows that "being herself," a right she has asserted more than most women at that time and in her position, is nevertheless not a full option. Therese because, as savvy and as thoughtful as she already is, she's still developing in other respects, like one of her photographs, and is thus reliant on imitating cues, from how to order lunch to how to be in love.

Carol, obviously reflecting the novel on which it's based, is so much about transitions that of course it's eventually a road film, and in fact a road film that has to transition midway out of being a road film. Haynes even transforms a scene that the script doesn't narratively require, Carol and Therese's first passage out of the city, into a microcosmic paean to Transition. It's among Carol's most memorable passages, and certainly its most experimental at the level of style. These women and their movie briefly turn a few minutes in the Lincoln Tunnel into a Mulholland drive, lights and sounds pushed into near-abstraction, edits in a Deleuzian whorl, two women and at least two temporalities superimposed on each other. On either side of this hypnotic tesseract lies a concrete world, a heavy manse in Jersey or a mass of stone edifices in Manhattan. On every side of this romance, before, during, and after, lies an abundance of differently heavy realities, though the romance, too, is real. On either side of this precisely mid-century interlude, two different Americas and two more codified epochs, at least in many memories. Therese, Carol, Highsmith, and Haynes remember something else.

Looking back just now at Carol, I wondered how much of my reverence might be exposed as excessive, or at least inseparable from all the happiness it occasioned in my life: a sublime first impression, both public and private; a chance to meet and converse repeatedly with my hero, right here in my hometown, as I nibbled on my creamed spinach and tried not to stare; a movie to discuss with all my queer cinema students, though I've oddly never taught it outright. From that pedagogical vantage, Carol is as valuable for its stunning, complex aesthetics as for its refusal to present these women as purely cinematic mirages. We were here, this movie says about queer women hidden from history, even fairly recent history. My students want to hear that, and never often enough. I want to hear that, too. So in pure matters of context, the Force is strong in this one. But my goodness, what a text! Every time I start one of these pieces, I go back to my disc and try to grab an evocative image for the countdown thumbnail and the Twitter post. I usually wind up pulling one or two dozen contenders. With Carol I was nearing 200 by the first hour alone. I was thinking how of course I haven't overrated it, how resistant it is to any act of overrating, and of all the stories worth telling about this film that I haven't even touched—for instance, about the implied worlds of characters we only briefly encounter, from John Magaro's movie-worshiping Dannie to Carrie Brownstein's disarmingly confident-looking Genevieve to Cory Michael Smith's duplicitous Tommy. (Who hurt him, I wonder?) I was thinking about how the small number of adapted screenplays as good as Phyllis Nagy's must take tremendous, punctilious labor to give off such an impression of utter, ripple-free mind-meld with their sources. I was thinking about the delicious, innumerable spins this movie gives us on how women look at men while trying not to laugh at how narrowly they're being perceived, if they are even perceived at all. I was thinking how rare it is to come face to face with a gun in an American movie and really see it as a weapon, a danger, an utterly unexpected surprise, a complication of character and scenario, a game-changing object that's heavy and cold in your hand. I was thinking of how Carol itself is like a gun in a pile of lingerie, and like a stream of cantaloupe-colored silk, redolent of romantic fantasy, that's strapped into place by a cement-colored lapel, then further pinioned by a gleaming brooch. Constraint upon constraint, and yet every piece is beautiful.

Honorable Mentions: Some of you have been testing my faith with your responses to other Haynes films this decade, and while you're entitled to your opinions, chacun sa sémiotique, etc., etc., I wish everyone shared the pleasures of experiencing Wonderstruck (2017) and Dark Waters (2019) as Haynes films through and through, but also as risky, substantial, surprising departures. Wonderstruck with its bivalve oyster shell of time periods and storylines, beautifully linked and copious with pearls. Dark Waters with its very Far from Heaven insight that it takes a spine of steel—often where one is least suspected, even by the owner—to stand up to a system that suddenly comes into such sinister view, a system this very prophet has previously labored to uphold, only to discover that denouncing and defying can leave the system largely in place and the truth-teller all but alone. (Before you tell me I'm just a hopeless stan, I was only fitfully on Mildred Pierce's wavelength and couldn't get any handle whatsoever on Haynes's peculiar contribution to Six by Sondheim.) Among lesbian stories where much can be said and tried and chosen but much nonetheless cannot, So Yong Kim's Lovesong (2016) deserved way more spectators and critical attention, not least for the sterling performances of Riley Keough in a major part and Rosanna Arquette in a tiny one. And among queer tales of transformative first love, with the textures of fables but the details of keenly-observed reality, Call Me By Your Name (2017) will justly live a long life in many people's memories.
 

19. Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel, 2017)
 
A white dwarf is a star undergoing the dissipation of its once-raging core of energy, amassing formidable density that counter-intuitively indicates decline rather than vitality. Its circumference may be as vast as Earth's but this is puny in galactic terms and further evidence of shrinkage. The light such stars emit is on the verge of collapsing into darkness, when the star's life as such will finally end, producing a black hole. Every shot in Lucrecia Martel's Zama is a white dwarf, compacting barely-sustainable amounts of sonic and visual detail and suggestive intimation, signifying outwardly while very nearly folding inward.

Every image in Zama is as complex and complete as a planet, especially if we understand the audio layering of each to be as dense and fundamental as its framing and mise-en-scène. Each shot is minuscule compared to the text as a whole, but many of them pack as much texture and imagination as some entire movies. Such a showcase of strange and consummate virtuosity is delectable in itself, especially since Martel's on such a high-risk, high-reward wavelength of her own. All the better, though, that there's a pertinent logic at work here, not just genius for its own sake. To wit: colonialism itself is also a white dwarf in Zama, raging against its own dying light, dangerously heavy with ego and cargo and bureaucracy, even as the overall impression the whole system makes is one of accelerated diminishment.

Zama's shots combine to form a narrative the same way stars combine to form a constellation. You kind of hop from one to the next, even if you were expecting to learn more or stay longer. There's plenty of continuity nonetheless. Even if the multisensory overload, odd framing, and lack of conventional transitions render Zama more demanding than your average film, it's not as difficult as it's sometimes made out to be. Sure, Zama's not breezily legible like the Big Dipper, which most children can discern, but the beginning–middle–end momentum, the larger arc, the fairly stable characterizations, and the intuitive bridges between scenes are closer in shape to a "regular movie" than, say, Cassiopeia is to a regular queen. Also, who needs another regular movie? Go with its flow, and you'll be fine. You might even get intoxicated. (But yes, fair enough, the bridges between some shots got torched a while ago, or never got built. You'll figure out a way to get across. Suit up!)

White Dwarf wouldn't be a bad title for Zama, and in a crueler register of passé derogation (it was, arguably, a crueler time), it's probably what the minor Iberian attaché Diego de Zama gets called behind his back—in relation to his power, not his stature, though I'd wager Zama is self-conscious about both. Even likelier, "White Dwarf" is what Don Diego fears or imagines he's called by people who contemplate him as much as he contemplates himself, which is nobody. The whole film evokes Zama's implied POV, seldom by inhabiting his eyeline, and never by enlisting him as narrator, which many adapters of Antonio di Benedetto's novel likely would have tried. Martel, a prodigy, is not here to play your literalist games. Rather, the success of the images, the sounds, the lensing, and the edits at transcribing a realistic 18th-century South American outpost but also, simultaneously, an overheated, arrhythmic, crazily discombobulated view of that outpost feels like Don Diego to a tee.

No transition, but see, you're doing fine! Zama is hardly a performance showcase per se, but let's pay tribute to Daniel Giménez Cacho, so charismatic and internally rotten in Almodóvar's Bad Education, so sprightly and naked in Sólo con tu pareja, so deadpan-neutral as the unseen narrator of Y tu mamá también, here given the very difficult task of playing a character constantly on screen but verbally inexpressive. Giménez Cacho has to come up with about 600 different, closeup-ready modulations of wounded pride, or of incipient self-recognition as a foolish and replaceable cog, or of bloodshot yearning for a woman or a promotion or a trip home he'll never get. Maybe some people see the same expression here, sustained throughout the performance, but they probably also think all the fabrics look the same and all the insects sound the same.

This leap goes backward. In the first shot of Zama, the titular character stands on a sandy shoreline, looking outward at something or at nothing, while an adult and three children who appear indigenous haul some water from the ocean. As this short shot continues, these four background figures all pursue a route down the beach that is entirely obscured by Zama's body, which seems hunched by an invisible weight (probably, as we'll shortly discover, that of his own mediocrity and ongoing disappointment). The visual impression is of Zama having practically absorbed four figures who have a birthright claim to this landscape, which Zama of course does not, as emphasized by his raspberry coat and olive pantaloons. Not the easiest beachcombing gear. Not a congruous fit with the natural palette. If the full 115-minute movie is too jumpy or strange for you, the first shot is all the primer you need: this is a movie about a frustrated, disillusioned administrator who has narcissized a whole colony and its people into the vortex of his own underfed zeal for status-improvement.

Pardon the slight digression, but seeing Zama or any of the colonists up close won't make them seem less ludicrous. Quite the opposite. At least in the first shot he looks passingly regal, like someone stamped on an imperial coin. From nearer vantages, even though Martel and costumer Julio Suárez find fabrics so hypnotic in texture and color I'm not sure even Sandy Powell would have thought of them (!!!!), most people come across as poorly dressed. Zama's jackets and waistcoats often look cut too low at the neckline and too high at the waist. I know he's boiling, but surely he's meant to have a shirt under those vests more often than he does. Nobody's wig fits. When Zama gets dispatched on an ill-fated expedition into the suspiciously fluorescent interior, i.e. the spoiling humidity of his own mind, i.e. the wrath of his own god, of all the stupidly huge hats in this party, Zama's is the stupidly hugest. So again, if you're ever lost, the costuming story can be another lifeline: basically, these folks have great textiles, entailing all kinds of plunder from elsewhere in the world, but they barely even know how to dress their own parts, and yeah, they're crazy af.

Martel is funny. Knowing full well her film would be an acquired (or unacquired) taste even for a TIFF audience, she prefaced it by telling us, "There are two —no, three gunshots in the movie. But otherwise you can totally sleep through it." Zama is also funny. Virtually the first thing that happens is Don Diego getting caught abusing himself in the proximity of several female bathers who totally know what's up, and brazenly taunt him for it. (It gets less funny when Zama slaps one of them as vengeance, hard, and twice; the link between colonialism and patriarchy is always in place.) Zama thinks every single day that the Spanish Crown has probably written to praise or promote him, the same way Selina Meyer thinks every day that this is the day Sue will tell her yes, the President finally called. When Zama arrives for an appointment with his favorite hooker and sees a naked, younger man sprinting from her bedroom, he can only conclude she's—been raided by a thief! He draws his sword. He's ready to help! When Zama's ego suffers yet another blow, drawing him ever closer from white dwarf to black hole, the image often surges with a totally anachronistic, Moog-style sound cue, similar to when the Death Star is preparing to fire. Zama's shame is so powerful, it can not only muffle all the ambient dialogue, it can also time travel! He's used to being upstaged, underappreciated, and passed over for promotion, but it's pretty low when you're getting photo-bombed by a llama in your own movie.

One bummer about imperialism is that the stories even of bureaucratic half-wits, men who have precisely failed to "make history," take precedence over other stories we might have been told, like the servant Malemba (Mariana Nunes), possibly enslaved, who doesn't bow her gaze before Zama or even bother to dress when answering her mistress's door to him, because she knows he ain't shit. That woman has a story. So, quite literally, does Zama's scribe Fernández (Nahuel Cano), who is secretly writing a book when not taking dictation or filling out forms. Everyone assumes it will expose the idiocy of their outfit; their vehement need to squash this unread text is such a tell on them. The indigenous woman Emilia (María Etelvina Peredez), with whom Zama believes he has fathered a child, though it's unclear if that's true, sure seems at ease around Fernández, as does her kid. I wonder what that story is. Martel tells a corker of a tale but signals pointedly throughout all the other stories that won't or can't get told, because Zama sucks all of them into the vacuum of his own burgeoning derangement. A black hole.

Zama ends in such bad shape, but Zama ends brilliantly, even by the standards of its ingenuity throughout. There are still comic notes, unless you take light jazz seriously as exit music. But Zama is basically High Life with a terrestrial jungle instead of an interstellar void (albeit a jungle full of white dwarfs), and with a man hungry for anyone's attention rather than, like Pattinson in High Life, desperate to be left alone. It was widely rumored during the ten years between The Headless Woman and Zama that Martel was making a sci-fi epic, and I feel she sort of did? The solitude and bewilderment are so profound they feel material, like you could hold them, and they'd be heavy. Zama itself is dense and authoritative, audiovisually and philosophically, but it's not the wrong kind of authoritative, mandating reverence. It in fact lampoons that type of authority as well as aspirations to such authority, while clearly lamenting all the wreckage they have wrought. Almost everything that happens in Zama is still happening in the world, in one form or another. We should think about that. But we should also play along with this film, embrace its oddness, poke around its internal worlds and gravity fields. Take all its leaps.

Honorable Mention: You wouldn't think there'd be two increasingly surrealist parables of misbegotten imperial "adventure" in the Argentine, building to finales that jump right off the cliff-edges on which the rest of the films have already been dancing. But there are! What a time to be alive! Lisandro Alonso's Jauja (2014) is a trip in every sense, and a gorgeous use of Viggo Mortensen's post-Middle Earth cachet to get small, challenging projects green-lit. Creativity ran so freely on this film that they'd already shot plenty of it in widescreen before they changed their minds and switched to boxy Academy ratio, chopping off the sides of all their footage up to that point. It's a more outwardly solemn affair than Zama but a transfixing little puzzle. It feels equally like an artifact from an occult past and a barely-conceivable future, and it's an unexpected meeting-point of The Searchers, The Fountain, and Interstellar. If you like any pair of those, or even just one of the last two, try this out.
 

20. The Day He Arrives (dir. Hong Sang-soo, 2011)
20. Right Now, Wrong Then (dir. Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
 
"What is it like not making films?" As if Hong Sang-soo would know!! He produced 14 full-length features in this decade alone, doubling his already-vociferous output from the ten years prior. So it's with some in-joke merriment, but maybe a bit of earnest curiosity, that he places this question in the mouth of one of three film students who rove in a pack around the edges of The Day He Arrives. They have just met a director they admire on the street and taken him out for some midday soju and semi-gentle probing. From anyone else, this line would imply a crack at the expense of youthful cinephiles who aren't getting out enough. In this case, it's a nominal discouragement from reading Seongjun (Yoo Joon-sang), who has taken an open-ended hiatus after releasing four movies, as a direct alter ego for Hong himself. It's also a question anyone in this neighborhood might ask of anyone else, since Seongjun can hardly step anywhere without meeting, sometimes repeatedly, a director-in-training, an aspiring actress, a former leading man, or two old friends who teach film courses at the local school. Nobody can live without movies. How they live with them is a more intricate riddle.

This predicament is not rare in the Hongverse, where it's hard to locate details of story, style, or character in one film that don't recur in others. In Right Now, Wrong Then, my other favorite, the closest thing to an anomaly is the existence of a character who admits an apathy to cinema. Still, even this woman, Yoon Heejung (Kim Min-hee), recognizes the name of Ham Chunsu (Jeong Jae-yeong), the celebrated auteur who cautiously flirts with her in a picturesque courtyard in the city of Suwon. Everyone else Ham meets on this trip, where he's meant to screen one of his films and suffer through an ensuing Q&A, has some unglamorous connection to the biz. A young woman named Bora (Ah Sung-ko, showcased in Bong Joon-ho's The Host and Snowpiercer) embarrasses Chunsu a bit by pleading for a fourth consecutive gig as his on-set assistant. A local critic and post-screening moderator infuriates Chunsu with arrogant questions, wickedly scripted by Hong from, I'm sure, ample experience: e.g., "A concise answer is appreciated, but let me quickly ask—what are 'films' for you, Director Ham?" A bummer, but Chunsu overreacts with a tempest of resentment about having to verbalize his thoughts and feelings constantly for interviewers and audiences who are likely bored by his answers. Also, like most of the men most of the time in Hong Sang-soo movies, Chunsu is too hung-over from the previous night to summon a gentler response for this critic, or to fight the creeping claustrophobia of this all-movies-all-the-time biosphere, the non-divorceable flip side of getting to spend your whole life making art you love, which people everywhere enthusiastically consume. Is there no way out of this? Might Heejung, the diffident painter, be that "way out"? If she were, has Chunsu cultivated any of the interpersonal skills or conversational instincts that would allow these two to connect, even after more than one try? Has a career studying and depicting human behavior made Chunsu all that wise about people? Is he so used to the leeway of filming as many takes as he needs that he's prone to whiffing moments in life that are one-shot deals? Has Heejung's ardent yet blue and self-questioning pursuit of painting made her any more resourceful in person-to-person encounter? Is she definitely happier than she was as a model, a past she hesitates to admit? What would it be like not to make art?

These questions evidently resonate so much for Hong that versions of them resurface identically or in broadly cognate form in movie after movie. Often he'll shift one variable so as to cast a keener eye on all the controls. In fact, his screenplays often work that way internally, replaying the same scenario twice or thrice in succession to see how minor adjustments transform the outcome. Elsewhere, and perhaps more distinctively and poignantly, he induces such tweaks to reveal just how little they change in the grand design. I saw about half of what Hong produced this decade, and the lesson I extracted reminded me of the one I gleaned in my youth from Danielle Steel. (What can I tell you; it wasn't always Toni Morrison.) The Gospel of Danielle, aka the Steel Dossier, holds that all texts are basically the same and yet, by some occult magic, some are phenomenal and some barely work at all. I mean, Fine Things: phenomenal, gushed all through Liz' losing battle with cancer, despite the author's odd favoring of "z'" as possessive orthography. The gay reveal with Lionel in Family Album? WOW. Kaleidoscope, Heartbeats, and Changes had their moments as well as their struggles. Why was Crossings straight trash, despite being all but congruent with ones that weren't? I won't go on, but nor should the folks who insist that every Hong film is a perfect diamond. I congratulate him on his productivity, but I've seen Claire's Camera, I've seen The Day After, I've seen Hotel by the River, and I know that, as with most art and most artists, especially those who repeatedly take the quandaries of making art as their subject, he mixes the inspired with the rote, the breezy with the artless, the insightful with the self-indulgent. The all-night cataracts of drink and the vocal and thematic shoutiness they produce, the habitual positioning of women as glimmering "ways out" from explicitly or implicitly male perspectives, the repetition of repetition as an inexhaustible trope... One can grow weary.

Among the most glorious sensations of cinephilia, though, is experiencing a huge high from any director, actor, composer, cinematographer, whoever, with whom you have only cordial relations, or else a wildly up-and-down amour fou. For me, Right Now, Wrong Then was the experience that not only brought Hong's aesthetic and sensibility deeply home but helped me understand the fervor that others must be feeling more regularly with his work, or at least the hot-blooded optimism they bring to each new release, week after week year after year. Did it hurt that I, a schlub, lumbered into my festival seat to see this film, clutching tragic concession-stand pizza on a greasy paper plate, only to have the seat behind me in the sparsely-populated cinema suddenly taken by Claire Denis? Exactly the sort of thing that would happen in a Hong film. In Right Now, Wrong Then, I am Heejung, loitering and sucking down banana milk, and Claire is Chunsu. Except Claire and I only managed a few moments of guardedly warm pleasantries, and I'm not gorgeous like Kim Min-hee. So, one thing you realize when a Hong scenario happens to you is how craftily he makes iridescent poetry out of encounters that remain intractably banal in life, even when one participant is luminous. The "reboot" scenario in this one sings and soars, though sometimes sadly. Two versions, two coffee/tea dates, two sushi/soju dinners, two invites to meet more movie-literate friends, two walks home in the snow. In the first hour, subtitled "Right Then, Wrong Now," the early going is smooth, the home stretches quite turbulent. Turns out being a famous director helps you get a foot in the door but also circulates too many facts you're trying to hide about yourself. In the second hour, a bumpy afternoon culminates in a surprisingly fond evening. Bridging these replays is a sincere meditation about honesty: when we crave or extend it and when we don't, what troubles it causes and what troubles it eases. This gives Right Now, Wrong Then a real and bracing subject, superseding its sliding-doors structure, which for most projects like this are the whole caboodle. Just as unusually, neither half of the film is the "comedy" to the other's "tragedy"; I think both are the former, and the stakes throughout way too low for the latter. Neither is hellbent on being a love story, unless we're quite expansive in how we're willing to define "love." And maybe we should be, but it's not the only feeling or fact in the world whose wrongness or rightness is worth examining.

The chiasmus at the heart of this movie, for me, is that Hong de-dramatizes the "big" stuff (what is the characters' fate? what kind of couplehood will they produce, or not produce? what is the meaning of it all?) while significantly amplifying the power of putative minutiae. It's not just narrative beats that shift between Hour 1 and Hour 2. The film's own grammar, allergic as it is to ostentation, flexes in ways that make enormous differences in tone, characterization, and story. A relationship that starts between two figures pushed to the edges of a wide static frame has a palpably different energy than the "same" relation between the "same" figures, captured one by one in a number of borderline-restless pans. Our response to watching a man/celebrity judge the work of a woman/recluse can't not shift if the camera's on him or on her, on just one of them or both of them, while he issues his verdicts. The same zoom can signal invasiveness in one context and a nascent flowering of affection in another. Some things don't change. The man on this dinner date will always be facing the lens, yielding fuller access to every flight and drop of his changing and deepening fancies, while the woman, despite sitting closer to the camera, will appear largely in profile or with her back to us. It's clear who's the subject and who the ineffable, translucent object. Also, critics' questions in Q&As will always be irritating, but at least we don't have to hear them again. What alters conspicuously in this twice-told tale is striking, heartfelt, and consistently funny, but the smaller nuances make such an impact that any lines between "big" and "small" melt away. Ultimately, relations of major and minor, like those of true and false, feel more like the movie's principal, well-concealed concerns than the headlining oppositions of right and wrong, now and then.

Of course, by luring our interest in the major climate changes wrought by tiny temperature shifts, Hong is also teaching us how to watch one of his movies, and how we're always watching and reacting to movies, even when we misperceive that it's the grand gestures, not the bird-by-bird, shot-by-shot, sentence-by-sentence build, that's driving our feelings. This is equally the lesson of The Day He Arrives, which puts just as much on the table emotionally, formally, temporally, and metaphysically as Right Now, Wrong Then but in almost half the time. Its more compact structure is if anything denser, with more confounded links between Now and Then. Some repetitions are serial (I don't know, let's just hit that same bar tonight...) and others are substitutive (let's play that last scene again, Sam, but alter its trajectory). The distinctions are not just unclear but overlapping, with elements of single sequences suggesting the film has rebooted and others indicating that we've stayed on one linear path. You'd think from my account that The Day He Arrives might be difficult, like a Shane Carruth movie, but in fact it's as gossamer as its own black-and-white cinematography, and as smooth as that soju everyone loves so much. This one is, at heart, a search for love, but has locked into no assumptions that love's task is to be permanent, or that there's no beauty in parting, or none in remaining forever on the precipice of couplehood without diving into it. It's also rare for Hong as a film in which five or six characters feel central; his focus is often more concentrated than that. If Right Now, Wrong Then stoked my love even more for the unassuming transition, the seemingly ordinary framing, The Day He Arrives issues similar valentines to the kinds of unprepossessing characters and actors who are often, for Hong and for others, mere background to whatever's happening between the leads, but are nevertheless indispensable to movie magic. Kim Sang-jung is just exquisite as Youngho, the film teacher and best friend of the lapsed director Seongjun. He's rarely the focus of a shot, but his face, posture, and nimbleness with tone transmit a whole second movie from his corner of the frame. (That's Hong, always serving us multiple movies.) Song Seon-mi, as Youngho's shrewd and lovely colleague Boram, and Kim Bo-kyeong, as two different women in Seongjun's life (doubling, doubling, always doubling) bring a lived-in, grounded quality to female characters who, in other Hongs, are sad-eyed yet radiant ciphers.

Hong made The Day He Arrives four years earlier than Right Now, Wrong Then, but I saw it four years later. The movies are, surprise, quite similar and quite different. A viewer who keeps up with every Hong joint as soon as it drops might see the longer, later film as an expansion of ideas that glister in the shorter, earlier one. Moving backwards, I marveled at how Hong so exquisitely filled a large canvas with "small" details in 2015 and then, just as amazingly, managed to compress them with no loss of resolution in 2011. You can watch them in either order. You can be a Hong completist or just sample the ones that call out to you. Not every film wows me, or even earns my admiration, but you sort of can't go wrong, and on at least a few occasions, things go quietly, perfectly right.

Honorable Mention: Argentinian director Matías Piñeiro offers a curious, tricksterish parallel to Hong's metatextual playfulness, his cerebral but doting miniaturism, his interest in the quotidian life of artists as well as the peculiar work of art-making, and the love-bonds that can break or grow inside all that energy and mess. Sometimes Piñeiro travels a bit too far up his own wazoo, but I thought The Princess of France (2014) was an offbeat enchantment, with a gorgeously executed prologue and the unmistakable feeling of a truly unique sensibility. Especially fun if you know the Shakespearean intertext, Love's Labour's Lost, but engagingly weird even if you don't.
 

El Mar la mar, © 2017 The Cinema Guild Norte, the End of History, © 2013 Moira/Kayan Productions/Origin8 Media, © 2014 The Cinema Guild Last Men in Aleppo, © 2017 Grasshopper Film/Danish Film Institute/Larm Film/Aleppo Media Center Beasts of the Southern Wild, © 2012 Fox Searchlight Pictures/Cinereach/Court 13/Journeyman Pictures
21. El mar la mar (dirs. Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki, 2017)
 
You'd think that two faculty members in film studies, tenured at the same university, would have a fighting chance of knowing each other. However, despite pledges to raise our game, J.P. Sniadecki and I have only gotten passingly acquainted at Northwestern, where we both work. He's frequently off in the field with some unique creative project that requires protracted and studious immersion in some distant, demanding environment like the Chinese railway system or the U.S./Mexican border. Just as often, I'm sitting here tweeting in my apartment, a 21st-century Boo Radley. You see the impediments. Now J.P. is back on campus but I'm on leave, which is why I can write without cease these days! So, that promised coffee date remains a dream deferred. The silver lining in this sad state of affairs is that I can still swear without friendly bias that El mar la mar, co-directed with Joshua Bonnetta of Ithaca College, is one of the very best and most powerful cinematic experiences I had at any point in the decade. I knew almost as little about the film walking in as about its makers, beyond having previously seen and admired Sniadecki's preceding work The Iron Ministry. (If you'd like to enter with similar naïveté, which I sort of recommend, you can finally rent this film at a range of websites. This essay will still be here when you return.) All I knew to expect was a multisensory evocation of the Sonoran Desert, an expanse that traverses parts of Baja, Arizona, and California and is nearly the size of Florida and Georgia combined. You might just as easily define the Sonoran as an austere yet complex biome in which surprising amounts of plant life and animal species have taken root over time: cacti, fan palms, owls, goldpoppies, desert flies, even the odd jaguar. Nonetheless, as one speaker insists during El mar la mar, "everything out here is trying to hurt you," which makes this region an extremely difficult place for migrants to attempt a crossing into the United States. Still, for lack of other options, plenty of people try every year. Many don't make it, because of legal or extralegal intervention. Others succumb to the sheer severity of the terrain, losing their wills or their ways or their lives. It's hard to tally their number, in part because the severity of the climate can quickly efface the telltate residues of human movement or the traces, should it come to this, of human bodies.

Bonnetta and Sniadecki aren't interested in nailing down figures of how many enter this desert and how many leave, of any of the other facts I've listed above, none of which I learned from the film. Nor does El mar la mar try to conjure he experience of an attempted crossing, in the manner of Alejandro González Iñárritu's virtual-reality installation Carne y arena. You may begin to imagine how hostile and disorienting such a trek must be, via the film's astonishingly deep visual and auditory textures, enabled by Bonnetta's extertise in sound design and Sniadecki's training at Harvard's famous Sensory Ethnography Lab. But not only does El mar la mar recognize the huge impediments of grasping that experience vicariously (much less its affective dimensions), it's not primarily oriented toward that kind of question. Perhaps El mar la mar isn't oriented toward questions at all, but to details, testimonies, and acts of witnessing, focused as much on the desert itself as on human flows that pass furtively through it or political narratives thus imposed upon it. El mar la mar feels like a repository of answers for which you are invited to devise corresponding queries. Here is a sun-bleached backpack, a pair of eyeglasses, a bootprint, an old Samsung flip-phone, a quintet of water jugs hanging side by side against a rock wall, like a squad of executed outlaws. How did they get here? How have they survived? To whom did they belong? Here is an armada of winged nocturnal creatures, their flapping wings and high-frequency screeches filling a sky that by day stays almost ominously quiet. Are they insects, birds, bats? What does it say about me that I don't instantly know? Sight-reading and visual scale are tricky in the desert, especially with the lights out. Anyway, they're definitely bats. What do they survive on out here? How much life is possible in a zone that looks so close to lifeless? The bats must have caves, or somewhere to hang upside down. Are there terriifed people also hiding there, underneath them? Here is what the beam of a flashlight looks like in pitch darkness, tracking over sage, agave, and mesquite. Who's holding the torch? For what or for whom are they searching? Or are they, like the filmmakers, just taking it all in: the desert, the light, the shapes, the reflective eyes of who-knows-what, the occasional groan of a train, the ambient hum that is barely a sound?

Though the movies are quite different, El mar la mar operates from a place that resembles in artistry and ethics Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea. Where that film felt principally like a life-study of Lampedusa that perforce had to grapple with the new constant of human migration, El mar la mar feels not like a film about "the crisis at the border" but a movie about the border, and about land to which a border has been assigned, which therefore must attend to trauma, confusion, care work, and crisis. These are all by now as endemic to what the Sonoran Desert "is" as the wind, the quiet, the aridity, the infrequent but torrential rain. Of course what anyone might say or feel about any of these lies in the eye of the proverbial beholder. Bonnetta and Sniadecki deploy their own eyes and ears with remarkable attunement and palpable curiosity, but they also recruit a motley crew of other beholders. All struck me as occupying different relations to the border, as both topography and quandary: one patrol agent, one local landowner, one former migrant, one hiker, one temporary resident, etc. Maybe the film included more folks from some of these categories, but it's certainly not wall-to-wall with reflections of the undocumented, which is what many reviews alleged. None of these speakers' images appear on screen (well, maybe the guy in the white hat), so we cannot judge what they say based on any associations with how they look. I'm sure there are audiences in the world who would find this alienating or dull. I was hanging on every word about shivering strangers seeking shelter and water, about supernatural bogeymen rumored to haunt the Sonoran, about dead young girls with bottles in their hands, about men who survived the final kilometers by drinking their own urine, with a twist of lemon. I recalled from my time as a hotline counselor how different it is to hear someone break down in tears when you cannot see them and don't know their face. I appreciated the liberty to ponder relations of image to sound that had not been prescribed to me, especially given how documentary films and national borderlands are often suffused by various manias to classify, to fix context, to prove, to interrogate, to editorialize.

Given its grammars, structures, and ethics, I can see why Bonnetta and Sniadecki have disputed whether "documentary" is really the right rubric for what El mar la mar is, or how it works. Both have favored a discourse of avant-garde or experimental film, for perfectly fair reasons. El mar la mar plainly differs from most documentaries in its intensity of sensory stimulus, its unbashfulness about gaps or fractures, and its favoring of the partial and the elliptical over the comprehensive or the empirical. In the same way, though, it breaks from much experimental cinema (clearly not all!) in being more than just conceptually "political." It recalibrates our ears, our eyes, and their relations to each other not just in the interest of maintaining the sensors through which we meet the world—though that's a key goal of most experimental cinema, and one brilliantly realized here. Alongside that work, maybe even more than that work, El mar la mar allows us to approach with changed eyes, ears, minds, hearts, everything, a particular space and an attendant set of cultural and ideological practices, which so many of us are trying to face without actually being there. I'm not only talking about the practices of crossing, patroling, or rebuffing. I'm not only talking about incarcerating, abusing, separating, and deporting. I am talking about those things, and so is the movie, albeit in ways that are largely implicit. I'm also talking about practices like receiving a stranger in need; like knowing, acknowledging, but also admitting what you don't know; like listening and not just hearing, whether to environments or to people; like attuning oneself to a climate, rather than demanding a story; like understanding, as the movie's enigmatic prologue reminds us, that peering intently and seeing only partially often go hand in hand. It's hard to know how exactly to label the kind of filmmaking El mar la mar is or the kind of political intervention it is, though it's easy enough to stipulate what types of cinema and politics it's not. Easy, too, I think, to promote it as a version of cinema, of politics, and of studious, commodious, adventurous, receptive and generous phenomenological encounter that we—all of us, around the world—sorely need.

Honorable Mentions: I mentioned Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry (2014) and I do urge you to experience its inductive portraits of contemporary China, speculative though they may be, formed by riding its trains and observing passengers, cargos, staffs, and surroundings. The Sensory Ethnography Lab where Sniadecki studied has generated a plethora of influential, highly regarded work, of which Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's nightfishing adventure Leviathan (2012) remains a particular highlight. Ben Russell's Good Luck (2017), a diptych study of two mines, shows us how utterly different two things with the same name can be. The explorations of an underground copper-extraction site in Serbia and an open-air gold-harvesting interest in Suriname require the same dexterity with photography and sound as El mar la mar, and the same extensions of respectful, humanistic curiosity. The "other" Ben in avant-garde quasi-documentary circles, Ben Rivers, had a breakout early in the decade with Two Years at Sea (2011), a visually, environmentally, and affectively striking snapshot of one man living well off any modern grid in rural Scotland. Finally, and most concisely, Sky Hopinka's uniquely structured short Dislocation Blues (2017) was, for me, another landmark demo of how experimental techniques and ripped-from-the-headlines political commitments can serve each other perfectly. A 17-minute audiovisual object shaped out of time spent at the Standing Rock Reservation, protesting the imminent and infamous pipeline, Dislocation Blues is full of jagged cuts and rhythms that challenge the aesthetics of smoothness and polish, and the power-laden question of who typically has privileges of enjoying and perpetuating them. It also reflects the experience of an indigenous filmmaker often more compelled to join the protest actions, unencumbered and undistracted, than than to focus on the camera. You can see Dislocation Blues for free on Vimeo or at Hopinka's own website.
 

22. Norte, the End of History (dir. Lav Diaz, 2013)
 
If I'm ever asked in whatever future we get, "Where were you when you learned that Trump's inner circle had assassinated Qassem Soleimani, and seemed to be angling for World War III?" my answer will be, "I was in the middle of rewatching a movie called Norte, the End of History." Beyond the worrying aptness of its title, the sprawling story concerns Fabian (Sid Lucero), a promising law student before a new tilt toward moral absolutism that is already concerning friends in cocktail lounges and countryside walks. Fabian seems ever more convinced of humanity's irredeemable nature. He is compelled by notions of violence as the only fitting expression of what he glosses as a moral vision of life but which strikes his nervous cohort as dangerous paranoia, spoiling for a fight. They do nothing, GOP-style, despite the alarm they admit when pushed. Fabian eventually kills someone, a figure widely resented, even loathed, just to see how it feels, and if it brings his inner thoughts and outward actions into reassuring alignment. Guess what, warmongers: it does not. Instead, arriving as the first of Norte's four hours leans into its second, Fabian's double-murder, which also brings down the innocent teenage daughter of the intended victim, catalyzes the incarceration of a blameless man named Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the immiseration of his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and their two young children, and Fabian's geographic and moral fugitivity from civil life. Even belated impulses toward philanthropic atonement fail to purge the infection in his soul, and he winds up committing further, shocking outrages before the film closes. The chaos that Fabian unleashes within a society that already feels strained in mood, abounding with poverty and precarity, are not limited to narrative swerves. They are not even assimilable to narrative. Norte's camera assumes a propensity to abandon plot as well as its own wide, static, self-consciously "epic" station on a fixed tripod. Increasingly it favors jostled handhelds and carooming helicopter shots, prowling around corners or taking demonic flights through the air, discovering new symptoms of bloody catastrophe scattered across the landscape. Diaz makes half-hearted attempts to tie these vertiginous passages to the headspace of Joaquin, the man serving time in a ghoulish prison for a crime he didn't commit, but the grammar of the edits exceed that tenuous frame. This nightmarish jet-stream isn't locked inside one head and doesn't evaporate when he wakes. Rather, the camera, the country, and the world are evidently going nuts. The protagonist's self-induced free-fall and the film's escalating dementia had plenty of resonance onscreen in 2013. Last night they felt like documentary.

What I've described may sound like a conventional braid of individual meltdown and social critique, executed in strong, clear strokes of "global art cinema," an aesthetic label that sounds comprehensive but names something pretty specific. You can probably imagine what I have in mind, but you can't imagine Norte or how it feels to watch unless you're sitting in front of it, over its long but well-earned haul. The movie is a manufacturing plant of disconsolation—not just something it contemplates, but something it generates, in ways that don't always feel controlled. Straight away, it's hard to know what level of strategy to credit to Diaz for Norte's opening scene, a turgid and flat-footed café conversation among Fabian and two law-school acquaintances about politics, postmodernism, and whether truth is always a mirage. You could hardly envision a blunter entry into theme or scenario, aided not at all by the stiff performers and the uninteresting, cheap-looking shot. The former is not quite a surprise, since Diaz is not famous as a dab hand with actors, nor as the kind of autuer who aims to be. The latter is more of a shock because, say what you will about their taxing runtimes, inflammatory gestures, and semi-penetrable ideas, Diaz's recent films consistently look great. These qualms linger across the first hour, as Norte's ambition of transposing Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines announces itself with ungainly directness, a love-triangle subplot quickly dead-ends, and Mae Paner gives an almost aggressively couthless performance as the loan shark who becomes Fabian's target. As the minutes passed, I had my first misgivings during this whoile series that I had postponed a rewatch too long and therefore rated a movie much too highly. While hardly unmoved by Norte, I was sweating the three hours I still had to go and what tribute I could fairly write.

The turnaround in Norte's fortunes, or at least in my experience of the film, is not a case of evolving as a sleeker, sturdier, better-looking version of what was previously ungainly. Yes, it helps that some of the less promising actors and threads get variously discarded, and yes the camerawork, sound, and editing radiate more creative intention as the film proceeds. Another smart move is shifting more attention to Angeli Bayani's performance as Eliza, which starts strong and only deepens, including one two-minute medium shot as the fact of her isolation scarily sinks in, showcasing at once her emotional transparency and astounding technique. Also wise: placing more weight on Archie Alemania's steadily-improving turn as Joaquin, her spouse, and on the two prisons where he's trapped, which are palpably different environments and more specifically, convincingly sketched than other milieus that precede them. But what happens more profoundly and more excitingly as Norte continues is that it commits to its own eccentricity, impressive even when deeply off-putting, and reveals some plausible logic for seeming so awkward in its initial self-construction. The film's story steadily distances itself from Dostoyevsky's, but this is no mere instance of "free" adaptation. I see Norte as rejecting, quite bitterly, the whole project of following the recipe of another master, especially one who already enjoys worldwide legibility and immortal esteem. Diaz's own work before Norte, like Filipino culture in general, had been denied that kind of planet-wide prestige circulation, which I suspect this artist regards as a polluted aspiration even as he may envy it. I find it revealing that the law-school environment where Fabian's thinking grows most odious and the filmmaking seems least inspired is also the space where characters speak the most conspicuous mix of Tagalog, Filipino, and English. That's not so unusual in the Philippines but the talk here projects a fussily "cosmopolitan" vibe, especially given the mix of thinkers, writers, and ideologies the speakers toss around, with a general attitude of arch knowingness. The conversation, including its linguistic mix, reflects 21st-century cultural capital as well as centuries-old imperialist carryover, verbalizing and debating ideas that originated elsewhere and have been flogged to death. Norte never cuts bait on Crime and Punishment completely and is not about repudiating canonicity any more than it is about obeying its values and tropes. Cross-textual interpreters will find much to say about salient ways in which Fabian's story deviates from Raskolnikov's, including his refusal to confess even when most anguished by his crime, his temporary and debatably earnest pursuit of solace through evangelical religiosity, the revelation of his extreme family wealth, and his grotesque extremes in repudiating not just his specific family but "family" or "kinship" as axiomatic social values. But even careful parsings along these lines will miss much of what Norte addresses and does, in its denials of "shape" and its seasick lurches, forwards and sideways.

I don't know if I'd say that Diaz is seeking a cinematic articulation that strikes him as innately Filipino, as opposed to the second-hand narratives, languages, and faiths he ultimately forsakes, or if he's seeking, at less grand scale, a resolutely singular identity for just this film, minus any pressure to speak for or from an entire culture. In rejecting any coercion into "global" modes and standards of art (while not-so-subtly absorbing some of them), Diaz is hardly romanticizing by contrast the purity or beauty of the Philippines. His country's internal and volatile pluralities and its violently contested history makes "purity" discourse impossible. The epidemic of indigence and the recent histories of dictatorship forbid any easy access to "beauty," though Norte is more than occasionally beautiful. Again, these culturally specific comments coexist with Norte's more universalizing vantages on humanity and morality. Diaz films sociopathic behavior, manifested by several characters, as though it's a poison in particular bodies but also an inveterate menace in souls everywhere. Norte also, through the acting of Bayani and Alemania and the journeys of their characters, makes significant room in its narrative for portrayals of diligence, forbearance, caretaking, and spiritual evolution. Diaz does so without idealizing these qualities or allowing his film to diminish into a series of frictions between obvious evils and beatific goods. The one metaphysic that Norte seems to detect most fully in the world, and thus represent most potently, is a downward-trending disorder. Little fires everywhere. Bigger fires looming. Sense deteriorating. "Representation" itself in a mounting state of crisis, much more ominous and credible when performed by Diaz's camera, script, and montage than when, as initially, his characters natter on about it as a cant they've learned to regurgitate between drinks.

The obnoxious, unwieldy length of Norte, the End of History is indispensable to all this formal and thematic messaging. I can say this as someone who has tried watching it at double-speed, just to remind myself of plot basics. On fast forward, Norte's shot lengths and dialogue cadences are ironically close to the regular tempo of most movies. But beyond making the movie seem thin and perfunctory, this exercise strangely makes it seem longer. Dieted on story points alone, bereft of the chance to contemplate the philosophy, the strategy, and the contradictions behind all the strange things Norte is up to, even as they're happening, the viewer loses everything that's engrossing about the film: its slow, multi-frequency conversation with us and with itself. Diaz's use of magnification isn't far off Warhol's, in movies like Blow Job or Empire, though I don't think he's as actively interested in boring the viewer or hoping we'll pass in and out of the room. I do think Diaz wants to defamiliarize a great deal through massive enlargement: film time, jail time, labor rhythms, the Philippines, the individual, the aimless collective, the already-massive Crime and Punishment, the dogmas of postmodernism and deconstruction, the sense of looming disaster and of past and present disasters. As much as this scale violates that of routine cinema, I think Diaz shares Warhol's view that the crazy dilation of his films actually lies closer to "real world" perception than the fake, accelerated verisimilitude in which most directors are complicit. I imagine he thinks the same of the breakdown in Norte's initial value systems and formal language. In other words, the movie's eerie, upsetting disorder is also, however unsurprisingly, our disorder. In that way, this creative enterprise in heightened abstraction and affected monumentality has circled back around into realism, or at least a relation to realism. Call it "realism and its discontents," all lashed together. Norte, a movie named after a spatial orientation, is more dogged as it proceeds about demagnetizing every compass in sight. History ends with one character levitating and several others sailing or walking without direction. A Russian novelist has mostly been left behind. Other figures, human and otherwise, bleed out on the ground, some of which is smoldering. The audience is dazed, confused, and likely overwhelmed, though surely we also walked in that way.

Honorable Mention: This was my introduction to Diaz and remains his apex for me, though From What Is Before (2014), the Locarno champ of its year, was a superb follow-up and a very memorable viewing experience. This 5½-hour, gorgeously silvertine epic is about one nook of the Philippines across the 1970s, as Marcos's declaration of martial law reached even isolated areas of the country. Rural indigenous traditions, including some that are quite baffling to new eyes, grow ever more marginalized by an aggressive modernization that proliferates as many hardships as it eases. That said, this countryside felt less than idyllic before the new occupants arrive. Imagine a Filipino White Ribbon and you're not far off. The film showed with no intermission at Toronto to an audience of about 25 of us from 6:30pm to just after midnight. The programmer apologized that Diaz wasn't yet back from dinner to introduce the film but looked forward to taking questions after, which were sure to be numerous. Diaz never showed, but the band of us who stuck it out, with pillows but no walkouts, bonded in a strange way. I spotted some of those audience members at future TIFFs, and we'd go, "Hey! Weren't you...?" as if we'd taken the same trip to the moon. I liked the movie more than this writer did but still adore the review. Diaz's Venice-winning The Woman Who Left (2016) is a quite magnificent and visually bewitching expansion of the maternal melodrama, but watching Diaz at home on Blu-ray isn't quite the same! My other highlight in Filipino cinema this decade was a tense drama called Ways of the Sea (Halaw) (2010), which tracks the destinies of different migrants, male and female, young and old, innocent and corrupt, as they attempt a precarious journey from Mindanao, the country's south island, to Malaysia. The cultural diversity of the departure region, including several Filipino Muslims, was its own revelation to me, as was the confidence and dark polish of the filmmaking. I wonder if it's still visible anywhere.
 

23. The Cave (dir. Feras Fayyad, 2019)
23. Last Men in Aleppo (dir. Feras Fayyad, with Steen Johannessen, 2017)
 
I'm fairly certain that Last Men in Aleppo is the only film I've ever seen that includes such lines of dialogue as "It turns out the leg we found wasn't his" or, from a man watching colleagues try to sweep the balconies of a bombed apartment building, "Watch out for torn limbs!" It's apropos advice; he's barely issued it before a foot tumbles down to the ground. Nobody can find the body to which it belongs. There's no getting around the heinous nature of the work undertaken by Syria's Civil Defense squad, best known as the "White Helmets," who race toward fresh blast sites, voluntarily clearing rubble day or night, laboring to extricate the living and the dead, from infants to elders. Whether Khaled, Mahmoud, Nagieb, Ahmad, Abu Yousef, Abu Walid, and their other comrades consider it a "volunteer" effort is a complicated question. None of them can bear to leave Aleppo, despite incessant tête-à-têtes about where they might relocate and what it would take to abandon their city. For now, if they're staying, they see no way not to offer aid however they can. Our "volunteering" is their moral duty, not for "those in need," but for friends, neighbors, fellow citizens getting buried alive while deciding, like everyone, whether to flee or to stay. The footage Feras Fayyad and co-director Steen Johannessen compile into Last Men in Aleppo was shot between 2013, when the White Helmets officially formed, and late 2016, just before its premiere at the following Sundance. Later, Fayyad returned to Syria to film The Cave, a newer documentary about a triage hospital operated literally under the ground in Eastern Ghouta (just outside Damascus), which is currently the safest option for survival. The hospital, run by Dr. Amani Ballour, is also full of people who assert they're just doing their jobs and are not ready to abandon their city, even if their homes are gone. Fayyad does not present the two films formally as companion pieces, and there are of course many other stories to tell about the ongoing destruction of Syria. That said, with one film set above ground and the other below, one about the retrieval of bodies and one about their rehabilitation, one emphasizing the heavily female staff of the Ghouta hospital and the other the all-male enclave of the White Helmets, where the central figure doesn't even allude to his wife for the first 83 minutes, Last Men in Aleppo and The Cave are stunning films in their own rights but also apt complements. Whoever's eventually left to tell the history of Syria's civil war, from inside or beyond the country, will inevitably rely on these astounding documents. They will also serve present and future filmmakers as a humbling seminar in capturing high-caliber footage of ongoing calamities.

Part of what distinguishes Fayyad's movies from similar projects on related themes, and part of why they feel so temperamentally well-matched to their human subjects, is how the director avoids gratuitously amplifying the obvious nobility of the work these people do, at incalculable danger to themselves. Mahmoud, one of the White Helmets in Last Men, ceases visiting the families he has saved from mountains of wreckage because it feels like he's asking for their effusive tributes. Certainly nobody in The Cave's subterranean hospital has any impulse, much less any time, to sit around savoring their own valor. Fayyad follows suit, knowing there's no way his audience will miss the temerity and selflessness of both casts of characters. Instead, each film emphasizes the sheer relentlessness of the Russian-abetted military assaults by Syria's own rulers, and thus the unceasing stream of emergency response to which the teams in both films have obligated themselves. Emphasizing day-to-day exigency rather than idealizations also leads Fayyad to capture small mishaps, sometimes with major consequences, as well as human foibles and idiosyncrasies that survive the bleakest circumstances. The pre-title scenes of Last Men in Aleppo find the White Helmets in two prototypical modes: frozen in place, watching the skies for incoming danger, and then mobilizing at lightning speed when it arrives. Soon afterward, though, Fayyad foregrounds more quotidian symptoms of the bombardment of Aleppo. Khaled, the figure we know best, takes his young daughter Isra to six pharmacies in search of basic vitamins, since she's already exhibiting signs of tendon atrophy and malnourishment. Everyone's supplies are dry. The Helmets' own equipment can hardly handle their inordinate burdens; the first time we see them speeding off toward a new conflagration on the horizon, the engine of their vehicle overheats. Plenty of spectators will relate to the feeling of wanting a mechanic to hustle along, but few have ever had such an urgent reason.

As for The Cave, some of Dr. Ballour's direct patients or others trying to circumvent subordinate staff find their health interests deadlocked with their stubborn misogyny. These men have a hard time accepting that she is the hospital's ranking authority; even tougher is granting that maybe the aged equipment and depleted medicine cabinets are due to the enduring national holocaust and not to innately female failures of management. Dr. Ballour and her staff occasionally burn off steam about the extraordinary half-life of sexist ideologies even in a literal bunker of a straight-up war zone. Still, it's hard not to notice that Samaher, a female nurse, continually inherits the task of cooking for her colleagues. A few male doctors who scoff at their chauvinist clientele nonetheless start mansplaining the ideal cooking times and amounts of water, and seem surprised or embarrassed by Samaher's agog response. Amidst this spat over cuisine, or the car-engine breakdown, or a trip to Aleppo's playground for tots, or a surprise birthday party for one of the on-call doctors, you rarely stop hearing the shrieks of jets and the whir of helicopters, and noting both light and heavy rattles of objects, walls, and ceilings. Rather than seem to alternate between sequences where the context of war is inescapable and others that detour into character backstory or "human interest," Fayyad shows us what an impossible distinction this is in such environments. Even moments in Last Men in Aleppo that do feel like relative breaks in the onslaught of action bear unmistakable traces of what they have briefly suppressed. In one scene, the White Helmets try to relax with an impromptu soccer game, only to watch with befuddlement as a colleague who's not playing, annoyed at being taunted with the ball, pulls out a blade and slashes it beyond repair. Clearly, respites intended to ameliorate stress are often where it rears up most uncontrollably. In another, as the guys construct an outdoor fountain and fish aquarium, in a sweet but vain attempt to reinvite life and beauty into their environment, they're soon joshing each other with farcical scenes of water-torture.

Through all of this, Fayyad and his crews are resourceful and eagle-eyed artists, their track record at image-making all the more stunning given the overwhelming, unpredictable, and life-threatening milieus they inhabit as they film. In Last Men in Aleppo, some rescuers pause in the middle of a cold night, seeming to warm themselves by the very fires they're trying to extinguish in some new rockpile of detritus that was somebody's home. Khaled works himself into a late-night lather about the world's abandonment of Syria, especially the indifference of other Arab countries; he eventually breaks off, but a rack focus and sustained hold on the flame inside his pot-bellied stove reminds us that his internal fires also keep burning, even when fatigue or depression silence his tongue. The Cave's quartet of credited cinematographers exhibit equal resources of instinct and tact, capturing the chaos of gurneys, wounds, and nervous breakdowns in the wake of each bomb blast or missile strike, without leering obscenely at bodily trauma or seeming to impede the medics' movements. The sound mix is also tremendous in both films, especially in The Cave, where the modicum of unobtrusive equipment, the ambient cacophony, and the inconducive, muffling fact of living underground made the live-recorded soundtrack unusable. Instead, with painstaking care, sound editor Peter Albrechtsen clarified the tumble of dialogue over each operating table, sourced the exact jet-engine roars that suffused this environment, and worked with Fayyad on a full ATMOS mix so that, when you watch The Cave in a theater, all sound seems to emanate from above. These are movies that even nonfiction devotees often postpone for home viewing, because they don't front-load "spectacle" or their emotional tolls feel harder to weather in a public setting. The latter concern is legitimate: key figures in both films die before they're over, and I promise you're not ready. But public trauma deserves, I think, public witnessing, as does the punctilious creative effort of top-flight crews ensuring we Never Forget, and that what we pledge to remember looks, sounds, and feels as much as possible like what actually happened.

Honorable Mention: Another indispensable record of one of the decade's defining travesties is Talal Derki's Oscar-nominated Of Fathers and Sons (2017), which broaches the ongoing devastation of Syria from a nearly opposite direction from Fayyad's and poses a different kind of extraordinary risk to the filmmakers. Derki gained intimate access to an ISIS stronghold by pledging to make a propaganda film they might later use for recruiting. His real interest, of course, was to study how jihadist radicals articulate their philosophy and pass it down to younger generations. From the closest possible quarters, we observe how paterfamilias Abu Osama cleaves to his dreams of an annihilated Christian West and a globally resurgent Caliphate, and indoctrinates his two sons with these views. One son proves a more eager audience, though unevenly so, and for complicated reasons. The other one keeps hoping he'll just be left alone to focus on school, which is his principal passion. Not surprisingly, the Berlin-based Derki has a price on his head now that the film is circulating and the nature of his deception is exposed. That's a huge sacrifice to make for any piece of artistic reportage, and while it's hard to toss around a phrase like "worth it" unless you're anywhere close to Derki's shoes, the film he produced is instructive, scary, and emotionally walloping.
 

24. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
 
Beasts of the Southern Wild originated as a play by Lucy Alibar called Juicy and Delicious about a poor white boy named Hushpuppy who's already lost his mother and is watching his daddy succumb. His teacher, Miss Bathsheba, warns that "the universe is becoming unrendered" but prophecies new beginnings, whereas all Hushpuppy has witnessed lately are conclusions. Catfish wash onto the stage whenever an iceberg melts somewhere in the near or far world. Sometimes grits rain from the sky or lemons fly into the window of his room. When the floor of the set rakes sharply to the right or left, all the accumulated lemons roll from one side to the other. The ghost of his mother, who lives inside a bag of cat food, sometimes visits Hushpuppy and delights him with her banjo-playing. Stage directions give reports such as "Things start to fall apart. Big time," though time is elastic. This play could be a quick, loopy one-act or an all-night extravaganza, depending how you staged it. The penultimate scene, which somehow follows one headlined "The End of the World," finds Hushpuppy alone on the ocean, holding his father's glass eye, which catches the light of a thousand stars.

Reading this script, I can't imagine what a production feels like, much less envision a film adaptation. Far less could I conceive, even if you gave me all the millions of years since the last Ice Age, the movie that Alibar and writer-director-composer Benh Zeitlin realized from such singular, screen-resistant material. Gone is the rural Georgia setting, now moved to the very lowest sea levels of the outermost Louisiana bayou. No longer is Hushpuppy the little white son of a dying father, but the even littler black daughter of another dying father. The principal thread that links Juicy and Delicious to Beasts of the Southern Wild is creative euphoria, belonging as much to the artists as to their tiny, reimagined protagonist. It's a lot easier to say, "We want our movie to emanate the same unbridled energy and wonder as the child at its center" than to actually make that happen, and even harder to earn this parallel without cultivating a sensibility that feels childish coming from putatively grown-ass people. What emerges from the intermeshing efforts of Zeitlin and Alibar, cinematographer Ben Richardson, sound supervisors Steve Boeddeker, E.J. Holowicki, and Bob Edwards, co-composer Dan Romer, editors Affonso Gonçalves and Crockett Doob (!), production designer Alex DiGerlando, special effects mastermind Ray Tintori, producers Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, and Michael Gottwald, and once-in-the-bluest-of-moons actor Quvenzhané Wallis is adult and sophisticated. Wallis deserves serious credit for that, by emanating as much maturity, confidence, and plausible introspection as she does juvenile abandon and joy. Still, her performance would be impossible and the movie less inexhaustibly magical if every artist involved weren't pushing their crafts to such gutsy and precocious limits, or if their version of "magic" weren't so bravely and precisely defined.

Yes, my WiFi is picking up static from several of your gravity-shifting eye-rolls. Beasts never lacked for detractors, even amidst its triumphant rollout at Sundance, but I sense a broader retreat in recent years, as debates proliferate over the social politics of popular narrative and the warrants of particular artists to tell any given story, but especially some stories. Frank talk #1: does Beasts of the Southern Wild represent some kind of libertarian utopia, where all the impoverished castoffs of a cruel state are positively merry in their off-grid abandonment, notwithstanding climate change, civic disasters, precarious health, and decrepit systems of care? Frank talk #2: who let this well-heeled white male filmmaker narrate the life of a halfway-orphaned black girl in a semi-mythic backwater, including her complicated bond to a tender-tough patriarch? I understand those questions and have wrestled with them, too. I admit I find some of them stiffened and shrunken by a pre-defined dogmatic position, even as I also admit that my own opinions of art can sometimes tilt that way. What especially gives me pause in this case is that Beasts of the Southern Wild goes to such elaborate lengths, not just of technical proficiency but of inquisitive spirit, to orient itself through Hushpuppy's point of view and to let that breathless worldview run riot. How many movies offer such a huge, exploratory canvas to the fantasies of a young girl, much less a young girl of color, some of them reflecting her skewed ways of processing rumors she's picking up from the outside world, some of them blasting like lava and volcano smoke from wherever kids' fantasies are born.

It won't help my case with many of Zeitlin's critics to invoke Toni Morrison (I hear the sound of jaws, slackening!) but the Bathtub in Beasts, which I sometimes misremember as "the Bottom," might be the only cinematic milieu I've ever experienced that reminded me of the whooshing energy of the fastest passages in Jazz or the carnivalesque coexistence in Song of Solomon of the possible with the impossible, the horrible with the glorious. The exquisite shot in which Hushpuppy's late mom glides through her husband and daughter's half-decomposed shack, setting all the stove's burners aflame just by swanning past, is exactly the kind of effect Morrison set herself apart by achieving on page after page. The clearly affectionate tie but also the contentious, upsetting exchanges between Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry, cast from behind the counter of his New Orleans bakery) summon a similar energy to so many of Morrison's children and parents, warily circling each other, especially daughters and fathers, though I was thrilled and relieved that Beasts didn't go full Cholly Breedlove. I am not equating these works or their standpoints, artistic or historical-political. I am placing them on a continuity that surprised me, offering them as sky-high praise, and affirming that even to conjure Morrison's example is to accomplish something rare in American art—and something American cinema, rightly or wrongly, has almost totally cowered from attempting.

What I'm naming is both simpler and more complex than cross-textual comparison, though I'll sneak in one more of those: the magisterial prologue of Beasts, with Hushpuppy holding up animals like telephones and hearing all of their heartbeats, and a whole cascade of roustabout adults and miserable-looking babies exploding into sparklers and sprinting and booze, mirrors for me that spooky, exciting, and delirious overture of Morrison's Love, with its meditations on baby girls and "wild women," its subcutaneous humming and indigo moods, its mythical creatures called Police-heads that blast out of the ocean surf and up from the tumultuous, italicized prose. What I'm thinking just as much is that art, and certainly U.S. cinema, can take such bigger risks with point-of-view and world-orientation than it almost ever does. Morrison was a patron saint of that idea, as of so much else. Of course Zeitlin is not the only analogue I have in mind, and many others live closer in different ways to Morrison's identity position. But why aren't there more of them, of whatever stripe? Movies that deploy their camera as anything other than a docile third-person recording device have been endangered species across many decades of U.S. filmmaking, for all their highs and lows in other departments. Movies that fearlessly dive into a headspace and a temporal orientation that differ from almost anything else that's out there, and calibrate every facet of image, story, sound, and montage to that raveling/unraveling perspective, are as unlikely in the multiplex as an Aurochs on a pier. Yet Beasts takes this plunge at multiple, overlapping scales. Hushpuppy's temporal orientation, and consequently the film's, encompass the living, the already dead, and the soon-to-pass. Her rhythms are those of a childhood barely halfway to the cusp of adolescence, but also of a childhood soon to collide with a premature end, but also of a whole planet that's more likely ending than rebooting, even as mammoths of antiquity are bucking up out of their tombs.

I personally dispute the position that might compliment Beasts of the Southern Wild on all the ingenuity of its craft and the ambition of its world-building but indict it on the grounds of implied or manifest politics, because I don't really see how you tease these apart. Beasts, indeed, is not a fact-find on the calamitous shredding of the welfare state, or a peer-reviewed sociologist's report on whatever corps d'ésprit might or might not exist among America's abject poor, who may or may not consider themselves rich in other ways, or on the conditions that produce such destitute villages, with whatever forcefield of wounds and prides. I don't think Beasts is naïve about any of this, and I don't know what graver icon of absolute strandedness anybody wants than a six-year-old girl alone on a boat that's basically the rusted thorax of a decades-old pickup, floating over an ocean with plenty of bones and maybe entire towns at its bottom. I do think Beasts is staunch about cleaving to Hushpuppy's perspective, as fully in passages of heady exaltation as in moments where she and we already sense the heavy, inhibiting sorrow that's soon to flood her life, big time. This is a movie where a girl has to light the torch for her daddy's seafaring pyre, and her 6-year-old interpreter has to act the shit out of that scene, and every other one. What if the movie's not socially irresponsible but heroically aligned with a young character whose situation, observation, and imagination haven't yet been burdened by the full brunt of the Social? How close to miraculous, and how generous, I feel, to recover such a totally undomesticated viewpoint, and to have arrived at it through close collaboration of a whole, adventurous crew, and through months-long, voluminous pretend-play with the actress shouldering the project, whose moods and questions and efflorescent daydreams by all accounts reshaped its spirit? "I'm a little piece of a big, big universe," she swears at the end. "Once there was a Hushpuppy," she declares in the imagined voice of Scientists of the Future, as well as in her own. For now, there is and always will be a Hushpuppy in our cinema, boisterous and broody and bicep-flexing and enthusiastic in every sense, and I wouldn't give her up for anything.

Honorable Mention: Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals (2018) is the rare American indie to risk the kinds of experiments that are the cross-species lifeblood of Beasts. It also shares some idiomatic similarities with Zeitlin's film, though set in upstate New York, and broaches the delicate issue of pre-teen sexuality with remarkable, late-breaking care and courage. I don't love it the way I love Beasts, but I'm eager to see how it grows with me, and I'm glad to point more people towards it.
 

Araby, © 2017 Vasto Mundo/Katásia Films, © 2018 Grasshopper Film The Interrupters, © 2011 Kartemquin Films/Rise Films/Frontline/ITVS My Joy, © 2010 Ma.Ja.De Fiction/Sota Cinema Group/Lemming Film Production, © 2011 Kino Lorber A Separation, © 2011 Asghar Farhadi/DreamLab/Sony Pictures Classics
25. Araby (dirs. Affonso Uchôa and João Dumans, 2017)
 
Imagine lifting an autumn leaf from the ground, smaller but more golden than others that have fallen, and finding on its underside an entire cycle of orphic ballads. Imagine how tiny but how crystal-clear the penmanship must be for you to decipher these lyrics. Imagine feeling somehow attuned to their melodies, even though you've never heard them. Imagine walking further through this garden and finding a bed of perfect white lilies, fanned out, splendid, so synaesthetically beautiful you feel you're touching them just by looking. Soon, you notice they're actually paper sculptures fashioned to look like lilies, made from sheet music, old factory punch cards, organizing pamphlets, and torn pages of poetry. I don't know how else to describe the fragrant loneliness, the lambent dolor, the lacy spell cast by Affonso Uchôa and João Dumans's Araby, easily among the most purely beautiful of the movies on this list, and among the most ineffably sad. I'm especially tempted to say nothing at all about it, and instead post a gallery of its wistful images, or urge you just to start watching. I'm tempted, too, to quote some of its most pearlescent lines, expressed in the film as diaristic prose by a nomadic worker who rues more than once his lack of writerly gifts. Here he is, nevertheless, articulating the sudden heaviness of his consciousness of class, and his keen desire to rouse and emancipate his comrades at the factory: I wish we could abandon everything, / leave the machines burning, the oil spilling, / abandoning the pieces of iron, / leaving the conveyor belt on, / hot lava spilling out, covering everything, / burning the machines, the earth, the gravel, / and the smoke rising up, black like the night, / covering the sky and throwing money away. This gorgeous peroration is a beginning of an end for Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), our young laborer, who suddenly sees his lot in the world with an elegist's clarity, fully aware he will never achieve such ecstatic solidarity. Strangely, he equates this epiphany to waking up from a nightmare, rather than sinking into one. With even greater irony, the images of the Ouro Preto factory where he works grow more beautiful than ever, as his voiceover enunciates this fantasy of forsaking the means of production, abandoning the infrastructures owned by the rich but powered by the poor, their veins frothy with bauxite, iron shavings, and ash.

None of this, not the poetry, not the proletarian yearning for unity, not the romantic starbursts of sparks over factory gangways, not the beatific plumes of industrial smoke, was the obvious place for this movie to end. Nothing about Araby or its journey is predictable, even while it's happening. For all that the film feels graceful and steady as the spiral in a nautilus shell, Cristiano's movements, geographic and philosophic, follow no order. He's not even the expected protagonist, only arriving ten minutes in, and nowhere near the story's center till ten more minutes have passed in Act I, which is actually the end, not the beginning. (You'll get it when you see it.) At first, Araby seems like the story of André (Murilo Caliari), the kind of curly-haired, melancholic teen who surfaces in the quieter films of Olivier Assayas or Mia Hansen-Løve. He glides around on his bike, no departure-point, no destination, furrows over his sketchpad, and wonders when he'll start making sense of life. This prologue has a minimalist tranquility, though it's full of formal contrasts: soothing acoustic guitar over a fearsome-looking factory, sounds of grinding machinery over a feathery shot of a boy asleep. Other matters seem misaligned, or else they match in ways that raise questions. André and his young brother Marcos live with an older aunt, and for the time being, nobody so much as whispers about their parents. A young, handsome, seemingly healthy coworker of the aunt's collapses for no reason outside the plant, then surprises even the doctors by never waking up. This is Cristiano, his bright white hospital gown and bedsheets making his lifeless body resemble André's empty sketchbook. Indeed the film is readable as a narrative André imposes upon the blank page that is Cristiano, rather than the real memoir this deceased migrant has recorded in his journal, addressed to and apparently solicited by some "you" who is never named.

Uchôa and Dumans unmistakably open this door of possibility that André is Cristiano's author, once or twice calling it back to mind after you've stopped considering it. Why, for example, does Jackson Frank's 1965 folk-pop lament "Blues Run the Game" recur in André's earlier and shorter narrative and in Cristiano's subsequent and longer one? Is it too much of a coincidence that, just as the boy cannot help peering into the late man's private thoughts, that diary in turn reveals the man's undetected, compassionate curiosity about this sad-looking, semi-abandoned boy? These eerie twists bear thinking about, but at the most literal level it's hard for me to imagine André conceiving Cristiano's movements among so many Brazilian towns (Contagem, Itajubá, Montes Claros, Timóteo, Santana do Paraíso...), or his arcane lists of the easiest and worst cargoes to haul around in a freight truck (hot: fish pellets and foam mattresses, not: pumpkins, salt, and pigs), or his sudden vision of a massive workers' alliance, which has the ring of emerging through experience, even if Cristiano is surprised by how suddenly it seizes him. Beyond that, Araby is simply less interesting as a boy's projection than as an actual dispatch from the lifeworld of a 21st-century journeyman, full of episodic encounters, flashbacks within flashbacks, and repeated run-ins with the same people in different places. This compendium amounts to Cristiano's own Arabian Nights, coerced by whomever has asked for these stories and encouraged him to journal about them. Unlike Scheherazade, Cristiano lives under no blatant threat of execution, though it's no stretch to say that Araby views this as a collective risk of the underclasses, moving wherever there's even a brief employ, absconding before any trouble catches up to them, destined for overexertion and underpay. Cristiano's stories are redolent with environmental and emotional detail, but they hail from a hand-to-mouth existence and are not quite ripe enough for the lush escapism of the 1,001 nights. Here he is picking tangerines for months before learning the payroll till is dry; lounging with three bunkmates as a fifth man offers the thin entertainment of reciting a humdrum letter from home; singing a song in exuberant harmony with the same four friends, with lusty refrains like "I don't read the papers, I can lie by myself"; meeting Ana, the love of his life, and kissing her on a perfect night in an outdoor carnival before they face a cruel test of their bond, which they fail.

The Arabian Nights may be a loftier scale of reference than this exquisitely delicate movie means to invite. In fact, the only manifest allusion to Arabian anything comes in a strange, semi-failed joke shared over a listless lunch by one of Cristiano's rotating co-workers. Just as likely, Uchôa and Dumans have in mind the "Araby" chapter of James Joyce's Dubliners, emitting scenes of fragile wonder and magic amidst unglamorous surroundings, though this link, too, stretches only so far. Maybe Araby is just an opaque signifier, evocative of whatever each spectator decides it evokes, for a film that resembles nothing so much as an intimate folk album. Araby, with its crepuscular lighting and gently plaintive guitar chords, as full of endless highways as any chapbook of Americana, is a John Wesley Harding for an itinerant Brazilian. This man is many men: an ex-convict whose stint in jail is one of the few episodes he leaps right over; a smitten lover who can't see past a setback he's inflated into a Sign; a worker to whom tales of past union strikes sound like quaint folklore, set a long time ago in a galaxy far away. His diary, prefaced with bashful qualifiers about having nothing to say and no good way to say it, asserts with earnest humility, "I'm like anyone else, it's just that my life was a little different." This quiet movie risks appearing too slight or too slippery while acing some of the hardest tasks in cinema. It invents a character whose life, in the real world, might plausibly pass without any public record. It endows that character with soul, lightly sketched specificity, and unprecious mystery. It refuses a default to borrowed neorealism or to any other existing style, instead staking out its own tonal and anti-generic plots. It makes us feel that this man is just like us, or we're just like him, only our lives are a little different.
 

26. The Interrupters (dir. Steve James, 2011)
 
One way I know Twitter is trash is that a meme went around in late December polling users about the decade's best superhero film and not one person answered The Interrupters. Marvel could literally never! This documentary has remained a frequent, well-deserved point of laudatory reference in cinephile enclaves and in Chicago-area discourse, and the subject alone could explain why. The initiative at the center of the film is the first Violence Interrupters Program, created in Chicago by Tio Hardiman as a subsidiary of an organization called CeaseFire at the time the film was made, housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago and later rechristened Cure Violence. The ethos of CeaseFire, founded by public health professor Gary Slutkin, is to recognize surging statistics of violence as itself an epidemic and to devise solutions for stopping its spread. The Interrupters fulfill that mission by training community activists, many of them with their own histories of crime, gang affiliation, or incarceration, to identify moments or individuals at risk of boiling over into a lethal or near-lethal crisis and to intercede in ways that prevent that happening. It's not clear from the movie that the rubric of "epidemic" is all that central to the Interrupters' language or practices, as effective as it might be in defamiliarizing an issue or attracting resources. One reason we don't know is that filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) declines to make Slutkin or CeaseFire more than peripheral presences in the film. Hardiman and his unit are more visible here, but the movie's true centers are three of the full-time Interrupters, Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, and Cobe Williams.

The story I've started telling gets more complicated later, in ways that are sadly consistent with The Interrupters's pragmatic awareness that people, communities, problems, and power dynamics are always knottier than they appear. This remains the case even when presented with James's characteristic artistry and probity. Consider three shapes this film might have adopted in other hands. One: having introduced Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie with some acknowledgment of their painful and destructive pasts, The Interrupters might have hustled onward to their current careers as hope-givers and life-savers. James refuses to do this, recurring less than "often" but more than "seldom" to salient details from the worst chapters of their lives. This editing and scripting choice stresses how most people, and certainly these people, keep struggling with demons we outwardly seem to have beat. Part of the Interrupters' pledge (and indeed, their unique leverage) entails admitting how they inherited the same shitty decks of cards as the people they counsel. They have faced similar pressures and toxic influences, and they know first-hand how heat-of-the-moment impulses usually transmute into catastrophic decisions, taking lots of people down. In other words, the Interrupters would probably reject the Superhero label I started with, but that's part of why it's tempting to apply.

Two: the curve of the whole film and of many internal arcs could have bent resolutely toward progress, even if such a market-friendly choice denied the uneven reality of the work. Of course we relish how Cobe, for example, enjoys incremental breakthroughs with a charismatic acquaintance named Flamo, initially bent on vengeance but soon(ish) testing his own skills of de-escalation. Meanwhile, though, Ameena takes as many steps backwards as forwards with a would-be protégée named Caprysha, culminating in a near-rupture of their bond in the last ten minutes, and then a hard-won entente that falls short of reassuring rapprochement. Three: given the difficulty and exhaustion of this labor and the signs that violence among young Chicagoans keep rising (not coincidentally to social programs, school supports, and job prospects continuing to crater), The Interrupters might have peddled a story that made anecdotal interference seem paltry in the face of rigid systems. But we do hear that, up to the time of filming, the Violence Interrupters have already broken up 1,400 altercations that seemed headed toward injury or death. Moreover, the visible evidence of faces and bodies, not just of the activists but the folks they're trying to educate and protect, certifies that even one adjusted mindset is nothing to sneeze at, much less one life saved.

Working from seed material supplied by Alex Kotlowitz's New York Times article about the Interrupters, James and his collaborators at Kartemquin Films must have known what a great subject they'd found, especially given that director's and that company's unfailing commitments to nonfiction stories with deep Chicago resonance and complex social themes. I still doubt they could have imagined how phenomenally camera-ready their central trio proves, especially the magnificent Matthews, who synthesizes toughness and eloquence, humor and dead-ass seriousness more than anyone else who comes to mind. A sequence that unsurprisingly proved central to The Interrupters's marketing involves Matthews reading a riot act to a brace of young men seeking vengeance on a young kid shot so recently on his walk home from school that his mourners are still gathering by the utility pole where he fell. Matthews halts her own eulogy to pull these guys into the circle of bereavement, calling out the stupidity of every rationalization she's heard for the shooting and the intended retribution. She pulls out the youngest member of that incoming crowd, asking to whom he belongs. Hearing no answers, she reminds them all (and all of us) that every child is everyone's ward, that everyone must be everyone's brotherly or sisterly keeper.

Everything about this scene is bottled lightning but also fits with a pattern of James making sure (along with co-editor Aaron Wickenden) that the film doesn't start with a glut of tragedies and statistics, then lean into an equal but opposite tide of overcoming. Advances and setbacks are constant. A 17-year-old, newly freed from juvenile lockup, returns with Cobe to the barbershop he once held up at gunpoint, meaning to offer his earnest apology. He hasn't counted, though, on the presence in that room of some of the same folks he previously terrorized, who want to make extra-sure he hears their side. The images give equal weight to their tearful attestations and to the stone-faced sobriety with which Lil' Mikey takes them in, visibly learning more from the unplanned parts of this encounter than from the worthy gesture he intended. This is yet another instance of the documentarians' expert instincts for being in the right places, but many of The Interrupters's potent moments are achieved through editing. It's important, for example, that the film cuts straight from Lil' Mikey's hard lesson in real penitence to Eddie Bocanegra, one of the showcased Interrupters, taking honorable but notably indirect steps toward atoning for a murder he committed. He says he's still not ready to face the actual family of the person he killed, and he still favors euphemistic phrases for the day his victim "died" or "lost his life." Sticking just with Lil' Mikey, though his thread is just one of so many indispensable ones in the film, there's a moment on his first day of release when he confides to Cobe that his dad will also soon return from prison, after 17 years away. The Interrupters cuts to a silent close-up of Cobe looking down, absorbing this information for one or two beats, which gives us time to draw the link he's probably drawing. We recently learned that Mikey is 17 years old, so without anybody stating this aloud, the spectral fact shivering through the scene is of Mikey having joined the world and lost a father at virtually the same time. The Interrupters is full of such conscientious nuances: the daring cut to a dead teenager's body in his open casket, as Ameena exhorts his mourners to look, really look, at yet another real person who's been felled by needless outlashing; the halfway-humorous words and deeds of Flamo, Cobe's de facto pupil, who's not quite as newly drug-free as he's claiming to be, and whose motives for halting a spume of aggression outside his window are less noble than Cobe hoped; the crashing introduction of broadcast news media after a gentle fade to black, amplifying their uncouth coverage of an already-preposterous proposal for bringing peace to Chicago's South Side, which involves deploying the National Guard. The craftsmanship of each scene and every transition are all the more obvious in how different The Interrupters felt at two different runtimes, when I saw a preview screening and then a second-run theatrical showing, late in its release. Every detail matters.

I'm sorry to say the film has continued to evolve, but not in ways anybody would want. An employee at CeaseFire brought suit last year against Cobe Williams for repeated instances of sexual assault and harassment, and against Slutkin and his University for ignoring her reports. One of two corroborating voices named in the suit as fellow targets of Williams's alleged behavior was Ameena Matthews herself, who opened up further about her experience at a Halloween press conference in 2018. UIC determined no wrongdoing, albeit in language that sounds awfully close to blatant cover-ups at other institutions. I hate knowing about these stains on the work so beautifully and judiciously showcased in The Interrupters, and on the organization and its internal culture, based on what sound to me like more-than-credible charges and all-too-familiar patterns. That said, part of what The Interrupters reminds us all is that superheroes really are fantasies, and nobody gets to choose which aspects or narratives of life we prefer and repudiate the ones that drag us down, inspiring us to give up or lash out. Matthews sure hasn't given up: after leaving Cure Violence, she founded her own organization, Pause for Peace, and she's currently running for Congress in Illinois. Her campaign, which is gladly accepting donations, is all about extending and adapting for the entire nation the kinds of diligence, fortitude, and illuminating wisdom she brought to her work as an Interrupter. All of us, every single American, should be so lucky.

Honorable Mention: I'm not opening the barn door to TV, but it's so tempting to make an exception for the ten-part, Kartemquin-produced documentary series America to Me (2018), tracking nearly two dozen students, teachers, administrators, and family members through one year at a suburban Illinois public high school. Somehow, in this school and others like it, progress on inclusion, equity, and across-the-board success seem to be stalling out even as the messaging expands and public will amasses. Sequenced chronologically, the episodes don't blindly obey the march of time. Each evinces subtly-orchestrated thematic coherence: one about notions of coaching and mentoring, one about white students' role in these problems, one about alternate structures of family and support. Interrupters director Steve James helmed some episodes, in addition to editing, shooting, and producing. Minding the Gap's young auteur Bing Liu also carried some of the load. Starz! gave the series a good push, and maybe I'm just prejudiced by my own work as a teacher engaging in equity work, but I think America to Me got barely a fraction of the attention it deserved. You can still change that.
 

27. My Joy (dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2010)
 
At what point and through what process does a nation evolve into a nightmare, or a no-exit trap? To what extent do you sense this slide as it happens, even sense the inadequate partiality of your own reckoning with the mass transformation? In what ways does the change arrive as a sudden shock, or only via the rearview mirror, after it's too late for preventive action? I'm asking for a friend, on this dawn of the dead of a new year and a new decade in the United States, with an upcoming election that's already making me nervous about ever getting out of bed. But I'm also asking as an idolator of Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy, which borrows the live-by-night template of old four-wheeled film noirs like Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross and the mythic, elegiac fatalism of European masters like Cristi Puiu or Theo Angelopoulos and melds all of these forbidding ingredients into a beyond-spooky daydream about modern Russia. At least, I hope it's a daydream, because it's even scarier if this is how the country looks, works, and feels while you're awake. The movie starts with a man's body, limp or dead, being dragged into a concrete tomb where he's promptly buried in fresh cement. This prologue is sobering enough as pure atmospheric scene-setting. As we enter the narrative proper, though, built around a truck-driver named Georgy (Viktor Nemets), carrying a large shipment purportedly of "flour" to an enigmatic location along a mysterious route of his own devising, the discomfiting tone, heightened camerawork, and curious edits make you suspect My Joy is exactly the kind of puzzle-film that could end at its own beginning. That means the entombed corpse from the outset may be Georgy himself, so emphatically marked for death that he may as well be a zombie already.

I won't spoil for you whether these suspicions are unfounded, dead-to-rights, or entirely tangential to what My Joy really cares about. What I will say is that plot is not the only or even the principal source of the film's smothering, three-ply blanket of suspense. The question of what kind of film My Joy is remains tantalizingly open. Road film? Political drama? Hero's journey? Crime thriller? Horror flick? Existential riddle, in which some or all of what we're seeing may not "really" be happening? Prior to this first scripted feature, Loznitsa's entire body of work was in documentary, but several of those films, like Blockade (2006) and Revue (2008), meddled in conspicuous or inconspicuous ways with their "archival" images and soundtracks. Hence, Loznitsa's relative favoring of realism, embellishment, or pure abstraction is hard to gauge. While that jury stays hung, you can only safely say that the story, structure, and elegantly, creepily benighted look of this film, even during the daylight scenes, are not what you expect from a director who's just made the leap from nonfiction. (Let's take a long pause here to salute cinematographer Oleg Mutu, the wizard behind recent Romanian landmarks like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, who feels even more than usual like a co-author of this movie.) Both of Georgy's first sustained encounters on the road have the texture of Mephistophelian seductions, first with an old hitchhiker who recounts a murder he committed on the way home from World War II, then with a barely-teenage prostitute, about one-third Georgy's size, who can't convince him to buy her services. These characters exit the movie as suddenly as they entered, and I'd have easily believed they were temporary hosts to the same Slavic Pazuzu, stalled but not yet vanquished in its attempts to colonize Georgy.

Soon enough, the movie...exits itself, in more ways than one. Georgy and the sex worker unwittingly enter a festival in a rural woodland town that emanates a strange gravity, launching the camera into a series of circular pans and suggesting the impossibility of Georgy ever getting back on the road. Then Georgy gets assaulted by three local thugs, and is not provably the same person when he wakes from his coma: nameless, speechless, permanently concussed, indentured in many ways to a woman (a Circe? a vvitch?), who subsists on meager earnings from a market stall. Before we enter this new Lost Highway reality, with another hour of morbid itinerancy still to follow, My Joy offramps into the self-contained backstory of a character who seemed merely tertiary, set like the hitchhiker's tale in the shadowy valley of World War II. So among the various forms of suspense in which My Joy traffics, I'd include the ongoing mystery of how the midcentury past will finally link to the movie's present, itself hard to fix on a standard calendar. Is the young boy in this flashback, now grown into a(nother) local mute, a more significant personage than we realized? Is My Joy a purgatorial projection of a country that died during Stalin's reign, waking up as the same place but also a different place than it was before? Did it never wake up? Can the mendacity, exploitation, and violence we keep encountering on this journey be attributed to historical or political causes, all of which Loznitsa seems inclined to exclude from the frame, or is the darkly mistitled My Joy a journey into the evil that lies in the hearts of men, exacerbated but not inaugurated by superstructural shifts in government or ideology? Once you've gone from Georgy 1.0 to Georgy 2.0, or Russia 1.0 to Russia 2.0, can you ever go back? Also, who was Georgy 1.0, and what can we say with any certainty about his homeland?

I ventured in writing up Loznitsa's Donbass for this countdown that he may be the most grievously under-distributed filmmaker of the last decade. I do grant why My Joy is a tough sell, even as I'm baffled how this movie left a notably thin Cannes Film Festival with nothing for its shelf, despite a Competition that was half-stocked with undisputed misfires. Ironically, if My Joy premiered today, I suspect there would be significant interest in a sepulchral epic of Russia as a long night's journey into night after night after night, directed by an effectively exiled Ukrainian filmmaker with lots to get off his chest. (No wonder he couldn't find any Russian financiers—it's kind of remarkable that he even tried!—or that the film became a bone of furious contention at Russia's festivals and among its state-favored directors.) Maybe you remember how, back in 2010, Russia felt to many of us like the rusting hulk of a once-powerful gunship: filthy with distasteful associations, fascinating to contemplate, but nothing really to fear. Maybe you recall, too, how back in 2010 the U.S. also felt much less frightening to many of us, inside or outside its militarized borders, though of course that secret was already well-out for plenty of prudent observers. Still, back then, as an American viewer, I could watch a Stygian parable about another country's slide into irreality and moral oblivion and not take it as quite so explicitly cautionary about my own location and cultural circumstances. So, if any movie is begging for a 10th-anniversary retrospective in U.S. cinemas, I think it might be this oracular projection of a world that was coming, assembled by artists whose "clairvoyance" arose, as it usually does, from rigorous confrontation with how Things already were, and how Things had already been for quite some time.

Honorable Mention: Maybe my favorite film I saw at my first Toronto Film Festival was Loznitsa's In the Fog (2012), set in the German-occupied borderlands of the western USSR during World War II. The story follows the sickening oscillations of freedom and capture, absolution and dishonor that keep upending the life of a railworker named Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), less suggestive of a wheel of fortune than a circled drain. In the Fog has the solemn visual magnificence of My Joy, lensed again by Oleg Mutu, but with less emphasis on deep shadow. In fact, the subtler gradients of visual contrast in the photography feel wisely synced to the ambiguities of this midcentury tragedy. Grand Disillusion wouldn't have been a bad title, though the film's spirit feels closer to Polanski's Pianist. Also as with My Joy, most critics seemed mixed at Cannes or missed it entirely; a few placed it atop their lists. As with My Joy, its tiny US release seemed to cause nary a stir. Much more loudly acclaimed, though still less widely seen than it deserves, is Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), a study of the nation-as-nightmare to rival My Joy's, bespeaking the kind of expansive and deconstructive relation to the police procedural that My Joy bears in relation to film noirs and road movies. Anatolia's storytelling gets a bit congested at times, and its basic themes and atmospheres feel clear early and often, or else it would've been a clear contender for this list. The photography alone, working genuine wonders with wide-frame compositions that feel painterly and statuesque at once, and even greater magic with the contrasts of harsh glares and inky blacks, is itself a Hall of Fame achievement.
 

28. Court (dir. Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014)
28. A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
 
Asghar Farhadi's A Separation and Chaitanya Tamhane's Court are both Olympic-level tests of moral judgment, ours and the characters', further bound up in vexed scenarios of legal jurisprudence. Both scripts, as good as any that have been produced this century, stress the differences between these two modes of reviewing human action and intent and the different forms of bias they admit. A Separation constructs an almost impossibly multi-layered predicament centered on an alteraction between a man and a woman, one as costly and inflammatory as it is stubbornly ambiguous, complicated all the more by those characters' unsteady relations to their spouses. Trying to establish what exactly transpired between Peyman Moaadi's Nader, a middle-class father whose wife is leaving him, and Sareh Bayat's Razieh, the lower-class, extremely devout, heavily pregnant woman Nader has hired as a daytime caregiver for his senile father, is tough enough. Harder still is discerning which of them holds the moral high ground in a situation where basic facts remain in dispute, or what would constitute a fair response to this mysterious chain of events that brought different forms of harm to everyone involved. Questions proliferate once Nader's wife Simin (Leila Hatami), Razieh's husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), a watchful teenager, a sister, a neighbor, a teacher, and a civic adjudicator get involved. In trying to seek a faster, more consensus-driven form of settlement outside the courts, these characters find themselves all the more mired in the very grey zones they hoped to escape. The plot is so intricate and the film's interests so deep in all directions that you could easily scratch the summary I've just offered and rewrite one that starts, "In this story about a wife seeking divorce...," or "In A Separation, the daughter of two quarreling spouses discovers...," or one that centers the fearful and faithful Razieh and the mentally ill Hojjat, or one that frames the film as a social analysis superseding any one character or plot strand.

Beyond devising a narrative so ingenious it's tricky even to paraphrase, much less to sort into guilty and innocent parties, Farhadi's script pulls off a number of other nimble maneuvers. For instance, despite its title (the Farsi translates more closely to The Separation of Nader from Simin), and despite opening on a five-minute two-shot of this disintegrating couple pleading to an off-screen judge, the divorce petition is not even A Separation's most foregrounded concern. By soon shifting its primary focus to the mystery of why Razieh abandoned the man she was paid to tend and monitor, leaving him alone and tied to his bedframe, and the subsequent riddle of whether Nader pushed or intended to push Razieh down a flight stairs as retribution, and whether her ensuing miscarriage is therefore his fault, Farhadi furnishes a totally different legal quagmire than the one we expected to follow—though it does press similar buttons, tied to power and patriarchy and subjective perspective. It's as though we're watching one troubled pursuit of truth and justice, engrossing on its own terms, as a refractive indicator of what kinds of arguments, evidence, and forms of appeal can trigger a fair result in this judicial system, which Farhadi portrays as neither irrational nor foolproof. Simin, who moves out of the family's apartment when her first petition to separate is declined, and who is further sidelined when Nader's imbroglio with Razieh escalates, seems to "watch" the plot alongside us from her semi-remove, taking notes of how legal channels do and don't seem to work, but also monitoring Nader himself. Played by Hatami with such charismatic stillness and acuity, but not without her own selfish streak, Simin reads Nader for signs that he's still the man she elected to marry, or no longer a person she recognizes, or too beaten-down by this latest fiasco to further humiliate with another petition, or a symptom of the sexist, hair-trigger, weakness-exploiting society that made her want to leave in the first place, daughter in tow.

That daughter, Termeh, played by Farhadi's own daughter Sarina, plays an unusual, intriguing role by the usual standards of divorce drama. Because the screenplay has re-routed events on such a curious path, Termeh is not forced to witness the usual recriminations, failed reconciliations, final blowups, or contractual haggles that typify this genre. Rather than decide what she thinks about her parents based on their handling of their own estrangement, Termeh gets to reassess them based on how they meet some difficult riddles of adulthood, which she is only a few years from experiencing herself. That is, she's not evaluating them as opponents but as people, showing colors they've never revealed to her or that she was not previously equipped to perceive. If I have any critique of A Separation, it's that Farhadi's script and Hayedeh Safiyari's editing cut more often than I'd like to the pensive or tremulous faces of Termeh or of Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), the other couple's even younger daughter, as though the foibles and tragedies of adulthood are most poignantly framed with regard to their effects on children. Okay, that plus Mahmoud Kalari's sometimes indifferent framing, a department in which Farhadi's more frequent cinematographer, Hossein Jafarian, shows more flair. But those caveats seem especially negligible against A Separation's exceptional command of story, conflict, and characterization, for which credit obviously extends to the peerless cast, all the way through its soft-spoken stunner of an ending.

Chaitanya Tamhane, only 26 when Court, his first feature, debuted, did not face Farhadi's daunting task of leading some of his country's most skilled and prominent actors through a script of dizzying complexity. The task he set instead is hardly easier, casting real-life judges, prosecutors, clerks, and other non-actors to fill nearly all the roles in his epic, densely researched, yet idiosyncratic courtroom drama, and helping them scan as skillful performers on screen. You'll barely notice the difference, given how tense and detailed the legal showdowns become, but also how curiously Tamhane has situated these players and their chief plotline within concentric circles of action, whose bearing on the main case's outcome is for each spectactor to decide. At root, Court suggests a clearer sense than A Separation does of aggrieved parties and bad-faith actors. Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), reading teacher by training, protest singer by vocation, gets arrested and hauled before a judge on suspicious charges that one of his songs convinced a menial laborer in the Mumbai sewage system to take his own life, rather than endure his abject lot. The case, thin on credible witnesses and tenuous with allegation, might resolve more quickly if Kamble were a less mercurial figure, prone to his own evasions and lapses of memory, or if the "justice" system weren't so fixated on running every defendant through a comprehensive wringer of state-sanctioned skepticism. So the prosecutor mounts a case against him, stoking an ambiance of doubt even with few concrete warrants, and raising sticklerish but not exactly groundless objections. The defense attorney, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), appears to be our closest thing to a hero or surrogate, playing all the right angles to get his probably-innocent client acquitted, though not without his own short-cuts and prejudices that we can't simply shrug off. Meanwhile, every key figure on each side of this case has different linguistic fluencies (Marathi, Hindi, English, and Gujarati all get major airtime), such that this space for ascertaining truth seems fated to its own serial slippages, uncertainties, distortions, redactions, and accidental or purposeful bewilderments.

I wasn't sure how the case in Court would resolve, but I was even more gratified by how this doesn't emerge as the movie's main concern. Via remarkably fresh methods, which feel like plot twists just because they're so unusual in generic context, Tamhane keeps dropping us for periods of time in the private lives of key narrative participants, far from the issue of the impugned Dalit singer. Accompanying Vinay on other errands or extended family meals, or experiencing the disparate domestic arrangements, ideological bubbles, and cultural preferences of the female prosecutor, or following the judge into his sun-splashed vacation does not make anybody seem more or less professional, or unearth pieces of evidence that challenge our reading of the case. Instead, Court makes a point that should be simple but feels profound, because courts on screen, like courts in life, have been so assiduously presented to us as either sterilized spaces of impartial deliberation or as totally rigged systems where one caste or other is repeatedly granted unearned victories. Court's point, while transfixing us as fully as any Law & Order episode, is that everyone before the judge, as well as the judge himself, is a complex assemblage of variable peccadilloes, living in ways that presume totally different norms. For them, each case is not the all-consuming Waterloo that legal dramas usually like to imply but one in an endless series of work-related errands, an opportunity to show professional mettle or work toward a noble result (which everyone, of course, defines differently), but not necessarily the litmus by which their skills or their lives should be permanently evaluated. The case is not a Trojan Horse for some larger principle that hangs in the balance. The case, for these people, is for better or worse just that: a case. The film itself, without projecting indifference to the protocols or the result, nor any extremes of idealism or cynicism about Kamble's prospects of release, ultimately seems interested in a broader tapestry of life that includes this proceeding but isn't in any way encapsulated by it.

Tamhane's perspective feels wise, if also disconcerting. No matter what role you play in a criminal trial, you sort of want to believe that the rest of the world is on hold, as is every other target of everyone else's desires and attentions, while justice hopefully gets served. Court knows this isn't possible, and that there's nothing inherently good or bad about remembering that people's lives are circuitous and uncontainable, irreconcilable to truisms like objectivity or single-mindedness, even inside our secular temples of professed impartiality. Farhadi's viewpoint isn't far from this, but isn't identical. Whereas Court keeps resituating its most decisive events within the endless panorama of everything else that everybody's up to, Farhadi is reluctant to postulate in the first place which events are definitive and which are simply contextual. There is no space in A Separation, not even the explicitly judicial ones, where anything like a mirage of neutrality exists, or where anyone presents just one face of the multitudes they contain. Everyone is a puzzle of pieces which barely fit each other, much less other people's pieces. These movies have lived with me so differently, one a universally-acknowledged masterwork that I've admired the whole decade, the other a critical darling I only saw a month ago, and which attained relatively lower visibility outside of India. A Separation hails from a national film culture to which I pay disproportionate attention and am able to analyze from a standpoint of at least minimal expertise; Court derives from an even more voluminous national cinema to which I've paid grievously little attention, and thus have paltry frames of reference. Thank goodness they're enough of a thematic match that I didn't need to decide between them in assigning a slot on this list. In my heart, at least at this exact moment, I think I know which one I prefer, or at least which one I'm more curious to live with a while longer... but taking a page from Termeh's book, I'm declining to tell you which.

Honorable Mention: As I learned on the jury of an Iranian film festival, Farhadi has inspired any number of fellow Farsi-speaking moviemakers to venture into his patented genre of the moral dilemma-cum-legal thriller-cum-domestic spat that spirals out of control. The most impressive of these flattering imitations, which even beat the odds and reaped a tiny U.S. release, was Vahid Jalilvand's No Date, No Signature (2017), a drama about a coroner who injures a young child with his car but is assured by the boy and his father that he is fine. When the same boy shows up shortly afterward on the same coroner's autopsy table, both options are bad: either he harmed the kid more than he realized, or let himself admit, or someone else treated the child even worse. If you liked A Separation (and who doesn't?), you'll especially appreciate how this film, too, thickens and complicates its drama with class divides, ambiguous parent/child bonds, and the collision of institutional review protocols and moral self-scrutinies. Navid Mohammadzadeh, who surfaced earlier on this countdown in the police thriller Just 6.5, is heartrending and ferocious here in the increasingly important role of the boy's father. He's near the top of my list of actors I hope to see in more and more projects in the 2020s.
 

The Work, © 2017 The Orchard/Blanketfort Media Elena, © 2011 Non-Stop Productions, © 2012 Zeitgeist Films Mysteries of Lisbon, © 2010 Clap Filmes, © 2011 Music Box Films Southwest, © 2011 Tropical Storm Entertainment/SuperFilmes/3 Tabela Filmes, © 2013 Global Film Initiative
29. The Work (dir. Jairus McLeary, 2017)
 
Twice every year, we learn straight off from The Work, California's medium-security Folsom State Prison hosts an intensive, four-day workshop on what I might call reparative masculinities. The overarching goal is to admit, articulate, and hopefully expurgate some of the radioactive damage that men so easily and often absorb in U.S. culture and tend to store in the highly unreliable vault of the soul. Sometimes that damage stages a blistering, violent escape from its cell, in the very ways that landed many inmates in Folsom State to begin with. Even the traumas that don't channel themselves through criminal action can easily turn violent in other ways, inward and outward, inducing casualties and collateral damages that are hard to quantify. To stanch those invisible epidemics, these biannual group-therapy occasions at Folsom recruit inmates to serve as participants but also facilitators for the local, non-incarcerated men who can register to join. These guests confess their own wide-ranging, festering troubles with their psyches and behaviors: often tied to gender, some easier to name than others. Each guest selects two prisoners as his guides throughout the four days. Guides explain the rules and extend compassionate care to the newcomers but they also—with an equal compassion, albeit expressed more confrontationally—push their mentees, chip at defenses, call them on bullshit, urge expiation, and phrase the heavy tasks at hand in ways that contain the potentially volcanic effects. As Bud, one of the facilitators, says about a scrap between men that's starting to turn volatile, "Let's put this where it belongs, not where it can go." But where this energy belongs is still a hot zone, for the folks on screen but also for the audience. The Work denies us the privilege, as much as possible in a cinematic encounter, of studying a communal practice and pondering its themes through the vitrine of the screen. We bought a ticket, too. We're in this shit. We'd better be ready to engage.

The DVD of The Work includes no "making of" featurette, which would have to be as long and likely as complicated as the actual film. Director Jairus McLeary, who made the movie along with listed co-director Gethin Aldous, is the son of the CEO of the company that developed this bold curriculum in cohort-based rehabilitation. McLeary and his team of course had to secure consent from multiple parties with good reasons to withhold it. The point of the sessions is to make space for going to extremes: shouting, wailing, imprecating, arguing, laying hands on bodies, laying bodies on top of other bodies, threatening but not following through, expressing suicidal ideations, receiving those expressions with respect and understanding but also quick-footed, tactful discouragement. One man gets so upset he starts gagging. He and the other weekend visitors have no way of really knowing what might happen on camera, including what they might say or do. The inmates, who have a better idea, have their own reasons for not wanting their crimes broadly and permanently circulated, or for gang members and other affiliates, in or out of prison, to know how far the mandated candor might have led them, or what level of fellowship they might have forged with sworn enemies. (These, evidently, were major behind-the-scenes concerns, though the documentary conceals them.) The prison surely hoped to come across as the forward-thinking host to a progressive and possibly portable practice, especially since veterans of this process so far have a rescidivist rate of Zero. Still, the Folsom hierarchy had to worry about what might appear, especially but not only to the uninitiated eye, like barely-controlled chaos or, as a view voices in the film admit, a cosmetic or namby-pamby way to discuss moral shortfalls or actual felonies in a convenient argot of wellness, unlikely to outlast the weekend. All movies are negative-space allegories of their own processes of coming-into-being, which are almost always beset by obstacles and constraints that we in the audience get to discount while sharing and nitpicking the experience. The logistical contexts around producing The Work are more imposing than most.

All that said, McLeary also—and I can't stress this enough, given how so many documentaries get reviewed as delivery-systems for content—had to make a film. For sure, this one distinguishes itself by capturing modern masculinities in shocking states of extremis as well as differently shocking states of gentleness, self-reflection, and mutual solicitude. The Work does that, as does the event it profiles. The unique and distinctive labor of the movie, as a movie, involves for example its probing decisions about where to put the camera, either with strategic foresight or in the heatwave of a blistering moment. Like the other invitees, the viewers and the makers exist on a shifting gradient that stretches from polite welcome to full-body, coercive immersion. It's important that the cinematography reflect that, so we understand how this experience feels for its participants but also to deny our own impulses to hang back and voyeuristically observe. The planting of microphones is also a complicated issue that the filmmakers orchestrate handily. In one already-famous scene, a flailing inmate named Dante gets hugged so ferociously by a facilitator named Vegas that their body mics lose some of their dialogue but pick up their elevated heartbeats. You can't plan for a moment like that or fully articulate its power, but you also can't achieve it without the kind of artistic and practical savvy that The Work's team keeps demonstrating. Same goes for continuing to mic the whole room, and not just the circles of conversation that include the characters The Work has elected to foreground. Occasionally, even when the guys most fully in our sights have reached a rapprochement or a meditative silence, some howl of rage or despair, voiced by one man or many, blasts in from the out-of-frame. These are important reminders, no commentary required, that "the work" isn't all advancing or all disintegrating at any one point in these four days; after all, a shriek like that might be a symptom of progress, not of discord or free fall. These sounds also establish how quickly the camera and the onscreen newbies have assimilated to an environment where sudden, desperate caterwauls are part of the norm.

Let's think, too, about the storytelling boondoggle but also the political stakes of editing all this footage, and how you have to predict those questions at the moment you situate your lenses, especially for moments you can't restage for another take. Will The Work finally emphasize a narrative of non-incarcerated men sailing up a river of penal darkness, but emerging better off through contact with the inmates—which of course positions the latter as threats but also helpmeets? Is the anomalous invitation of free men into the space a convenient loophole for seizing access to the confined, so that McLeary can teach us about that environment and its inhabitants? Are the very different men within the prison, or the very different men from outside, or all the men in general more like each other than not, at the outset or in the messy middle or by the cautiously hopeful end? Should that be reflected in whether or when they are framed separately or together, and when the depth of field is clearly distributed or tilted toward one person or one subgroup? How much idealization of catharsis or progress is too much, and how little is too little? When is any given moment most powerful for the spectacle of who's speaking or for how he's being heard, universally or variously, by the folks surrounding him? Put otherwise: how much of the "work" lies in what's offered or stifled or extracted, and how much inheres in everyone's contract to accept what they can, dispute what they must, carry what they're asked? Having made any of these endlessly debatable decisions of what viewers of The Work will want or need from a shot or a cut, do you gratify those appetites, or do you force us to hear or see something we're less likely to expect, desire, or understand? This is prison, after all, and it's also therapy. What you want is unlikely to be what you need, and often you get neither.

In all those spirits, The Work gives tremendously rigorous, thoughtful, and empathetic expression to an event that would have fascinated me in any expressive mode (an article, a podcast, a conference presentation) but could never have moved me the way cinema allows, especially as negotiated by these artful filmmakers. It is an amazing distillation of things I wanted and needed, often without realizing it, and of impressions I neither wanted nor needed nor know what to do with even now, which are good reasons to wrestle with them. I teach in a Gender & Sexuality Studies Program where students from incoming undergraduates to PhD's are increasingly asking for courses on masculinities, which units like mine have historically under-addressed. I showed The Work to a seminar of first-year students and it uncorked conversations unlike any I've had after other films. I also live a few short blocks from the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal prison for inmates awaiting trial, sometimes for many years. I just popped over to CVS for paper towels between writing the first and second paragraphs of this piece, and saw several of the people incarcerated there moving around their only "yard," atop this high-rise compound. Prison is rarely far from my perceptual field, but do I center it in my thoughts, the way The Work requires me to, or imagine the breadth of potential explorations that prisoners might pursue, within and despite formidable constraints? Not as often as I should, but more so since seeing this movie. We've all got a lot of work to do, everybody, including #NotAllMen yes, all men. The Work re-stokes my impulse to heed those calls, in the image of the people in the movie, but also on the model of the artists who came, who watched, who listened, who thought their way so completely through this experience they were having, as well as the one they wanted to give us, and who met that high goal in humbling fashion.
 

30. Elena (dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2011)
 
This shot of Elena's title character appears slightly more than halfway through the film, reiterating a trope we've seen many times already in the movie and copiously in the history of cinema: a figure before a mirror that multiplies her reflections, suggesting internal divisions at a dramatically loaded juncture. Elena is about to make a choice—may at this very second be committing to it—that will alter the futures of every person in the movie: her wealthy but recently ailing husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), her cash-strapped and almost too healthy son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), Sergey's wife Tatyana (Evgeniya Konushkina), their layabout teenage son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), and Elena herself. As embodied throughout with equal parts solidity and grace by Nadezhda Markina, Elena's square-shouldered frame, solid-blue sweater, and resolute stare offer straightforward ballasts against the usual rhetoric of such shots, which tend to shatter a person into a series of splintered, black-swan selves. Elena may, like all of us, be many people at once, but that doesn't mean she's of two minds about where her priorities fall, or what she's about to do. That is, her feelings are complicated, as Markina, the script, and the direction keep insisting with their elegant terseness, but her decision-making is not. Elena's triangulated imagos call such conspicuous attention to themselves in the shot that I'd never previously noticed the photo tucked into the lower-right edge of the mirror, which seems to be a snapshot of Sergey from his younger years, though it's possible the picture is actually of Sasha. Given how insistently Elena frames the profiles and postures of father and son as near-duplicates, the difference hardly matters. How revealing that the subject of this photograph is ambiguous, and yet its centrality to Elena's reasoning at a pivotal moment is so palpable. I don't see that picture placed there in the many preceding shots of Elena's mirror, which makes the choice seem even more deliberate, on Elena's part as well as the film's. And just because this snapshot isn't the most striking element of the composition and just because I'd never caught it doesn't mean that its placement is "subtle," or necessarily intends to be.

Elena's preferred register, quite typical for director Andrei Zvyagintsev, is to occupy and investigate the interesting borderzones between subtlety and obviousness. Not all of the conflicts that organize or upset our lives are hiding behind some veil, a fact that Elena frequently, powerfully, and diversely reiterates. The cast is small, the scope fairly contained, and the big plot turns possible to guess in advance (though I admit I mostly didn't, on first pass). The ice-blue aesthetic, with its muted contrasts, rigidly rectilinear frames, and preponderance of glassy surfaces, makes no bones about Elena joining a tradition of art-cinema character dissections, where even heated debates or flagrant actions will be studied by a cool lens. The isolated township where Sergey, Natalya, and Sasha live is dwarfed by the three cooling towers of the local nuclear reactor, visible from every local spot, including the family's cramped kitchen. I take these towers as general figures for possible disaster (reactors are scary anywhere, but sorry, they're scariest in Russia), yet their prominence also makes plain where all the local power originates. Similarly, there's no hiding that Vladimir's wealth is the engine fueling the lives and filling the fridges of every character we know. Vladimir, in his 70s, and Elena, in her 50s, married later in life and have a functional, fond, if not quite exultant rapport. That can easily happen when a rich patient marries his favorite nurse. When these two quarrel, it's almost always about their dislike of each other's children. Vladimir finds Sergey lazy, irresponsibly reproductive, and openly expectant of handouts from his stepfather. The film affords little reason to disagree. Elena counters by indicting Vladimir's daughter Katerina as inattentive, hedonistic, and barren in every sense; it'll be a while before we can judge for ourselves. But one thing Elena excels at is X-raying the dynamics of what Slate Magazine calls "Our One Fight," that recurrent dispute that festers in every couplehood, even inside superficially different fights. The actors, Zvyagintsev, and regular, indispensable co-writer Oleg Negin understand that dynamic at every level, from when, how, and why it crests up through previously still waters to the attendant body postures, passive and aggressive, to the inevitable climaxes to the unsteady, unsatisfied retreats.

As with all of Zvyagintsev's films, which have the clean lines and potent tableaus one associates with parable, it's easy to receive Elena as national allegory and mutter something about "the soul of Russia," as I'm sure I've done. Clearly, though not as clearly as in his Oscar-nominated follow-ups Leviathan and Loveless, Zvyagintsev is interested in those reverberations. The widescreen images also have a solemn weight and a gorgeous monumentality familiar from some of his most august predecessors in Russian and Soviet filmmaking, and from the prodigious scale and heavy histories of Russia itself. I think many of us also read Elena and other Zvyagintsev films this way because it's an entrenched habit, at least in America (our movies are just movies, everyone else's are national allegories), and because of exactly where the director's other most crucial collaborator, cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, places his camera. I can't imagine being on any movie set, with or without a monitor, in whatever climate of din or quiet, and deducing within a millimeter, this is where the lens must be to suggest intimate truth as well as global resonance, this is where a close-up will arrive as a personal but also a societal portrait, this is where just a transitional or an establishing shot of a train station or an apartment block or a mundane drive to the gym might accumulate figurative dimensions. Krichman consistently does this, in movie after movie, with and without Zvyagintsev, coaxing out planes of outward and inchoate reality till they're neither "subtle" nor blunt, nor remotely extricable.

Beyond its scenes from a marriage or its meditations on a country, Elena is equally, almost frighteningly observant about several other dynamics that are hard to get right, despite their familiarity to so many of us. The way an older man both faces and denies more-than-incipient signs of approaching mortality. The way some wives consent to their own subservience, without being or playing "repressed" in a simplistic sense, and how such a wife might see this as even trade for current comforts or future dividends without just being some two-dimensional mercenary. The way grown children can adore, dislike, neglect, and act eerily neutral toward their parents, all at once. (Rozin, later a lead in Loveless, is very good here, while Elena Lyadova, central to Leviathan, is concisely astounding.) The way whole families pour resources into their youngest generations, despite manifest signs that the kids are not all right. Because these dynamics arise all over the world, cinematic renderings can feel like old news unless direction, script, photography, acting, and every other element of a film re-endow them with epiphanic acuity, engaging you in the lives onscreen and possibly giving you pause about your own. Elena is the film where Zvyagintsev, Negin, Krichman, and their repertory group achieve this balance most exquisitely, such that watching Elena, as sad and cautionary as it is, is like watching a wire-walker cross between buildings or, perhaps, between nuclear cooling towers. Stumble once into cliché or overstatement, and the whole project suffers, maybe shrivels into something everyone thinks they already know. But preserve this equipoise between what's fine-grained and what's screamingly evident in our lives, and the reasons we confront and refuse both ends of that spectrum, and suddenly you've got a movie that deeply touches what most movies want to touch, which is life. Actual life. What we do, what errors we commit and repeat, what rightly or wrongly makes us happy, who we are to ourselves and each other.

Honorable Mentions: I like those other Zvyagintsev films, Leviathan (2014) and Loveless (2017), even if they don't compel the same level of worship I feel for Elena or for Zvyagintsev's Venice-winning debut, The Return from 2003. Still, they have ardent followings and Cannes prizes for a reason, so check them all out—just maybe not on the same day. If you want to see even more of what Krichman can do with a camera, and take a weirder but curiously stirring look at a whole different Russia, and after Elena you probably will, see if you can dig up Aleksey Fedorchenko's Silent Souls (2010), a funereal drama both tender and creepy, and a study of Meryan cultural practices that can and cannot be folded into monolithic assertions about "Russia."
 

31. Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raúl Ruiz, 2010)
 
Oh, no. I figured I was more protected than almost anyone from an "Is that a movie? Or is that TV?" controversy on my list. I did everything I could. I didn't see Game of Thrones or Twin Peaks: The Return. I've never even seen Twin Peaks: A New Hope! But earlier this month, just before settling on this list, I finally popped in a DVD I bought eight years ago of Raúl Ruiz's 272-minute Mysteries of Lisbon and now here we are, in a veritable abyss of category confusion. In the manner of, say, Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, a project from which Ruiz may have nicked some visual and structural ideas, Lisbon played in the US and other markets as a 4½-hour movie but elsewhere, and previously, as a broadcast miniseries of six 45-minute episodes. I split the difference by watching it at home but all in one gluttonous sitting, and I knew instantly it would place high on this roster. You can fight me, medium purists! You can stab me, burn me alive, challenge me to a duel, throw me into a convent, spread false rumors about my honor, put an assassin on my tail, or lock my skull in a cabinet—all things that happen during the unbelievably juicy plot of Mysteries of Lisbon. Just make sure you see it.

I know there are plenty of you out there who see images as gorgeous and grandly appointed as this one or this one or this one or this one or this one and are already looking up your iTunes password before Junior LaBeija has finished spelling out O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E! And yet, many folks who would relish the velvet textures, the impossibly burnished lighting, the Met-quality compositions, and the luxurious costumes of Mysteries of Lisbon—the same folks, often, who've seen all three seasons of The Crown and all five of Outlander, each of them requiring much greater time investments than this—have either convinced themselves or been taught by hidebound marketing conventions that there's nothing waiting inside a 272-minute Portuguese drama but homework. Honestly, I include myself in this address, even though I'm well aware my tastes run heavily into the austere (which this isn't, at all) and the esoteric (which this sort of is, if top-flight soaps can be esoteric). That's why I hadn't seen Mysteries of Lisbon until four weeks ago, despite the uniform raves in trusted venues that accompanied its festival premieres in 2010 and its nominal U.S. commercial run in 2011. Maybe because I'd seen other Ruiz pictures and found them rather gnomic and hard to recall in the days afterward, even when I'd enjoyed them. Maybe because I kept confusing him with Manoel de Oliveira, about whose work I felt the same way, and who shared Ruiz's trait of being almost suspiciously prolific. Most likely it was because the frigging poster was nothing but dark-grey silhouettes in a medium-grey fog, which made me fret that the Film Comment rave bannered across the top entailed praise for something I'd find aloof and impenetrable, like when people tell you the film you need to see is the new Philippe Grandrieux, where a water buffalo snuffles in the dark. I'm clearly one of those people, so where do I even get off?! (Though not, I assure you, about Grandrieux. —Ed.) I've no idea why I was so skeptical, but even swooning reports sounded to me like dispatches from Bernardo and Francisco, breathless from having just met Old Hamlet's ghost. Cool, amazing, sounds heavy, but you know, better you than me, pal.

So, now that I've confessed my own failings, let me reassure you how especially misplaced they were on this occasion. Mysteries of Lisbon is not only chock-full of sudsy, exciting, absorbing yarns, but it's about how almost everyone is sitting, always, on one or two or three yarns like that, waiting for the right reason to admit to their wildest past exploit or most grievous heartbreak, or the secret they swore to guard forever except for maybe just this once. Blessedly, fewer folks in real life harbor tales of the time they just couldn't help killing a rival or non-reciprocating love-object, or a time they watched a dear one expire, literally die, from amorous disappointment. In fiction, however, those are worth their weight in gold, and Mysteries of Lisbon packs several. If you don't believe me, start perusing the Wikipedia plot summary, on which somebody sure did a bang-up job, until you hit the point where you realize you must see this and want to save some surprises. Beyond having stories, the characters in Mysteries of Lisbon have almost transmuted into stories, which explains why so many of them cultivate loaded gazes that let everybody else know they're up to something, or don the kinds of capes and wigs that are half-intended to pass, half-begging to be seen through. Every major character and most of the secondary ones eventually reveal some past or recent interlude when imposture became crucial to survival, usually involving some other character we've met, however glancingly, in some apparently unrelated subplot. At the level of image, this involves a remarkable balancing act by which Mysteries of Lisbon is the plushest, most plausible high-end period recreation this side of The Leopard while also admitting a steady stream of obvious fakeries—characters only pretending to pretend to be someone they're not. At the levels of screenwriting and editing, I can't imagine the labors required to keep the movie so energetic and steadily paced, the story threads so distinct even as their charades get unmasked and their casts merged into one.

Mysteries of Lisbon is painterly, by which I do not mean I share any of the reference points that I'm sure Ruiz, miracle-working d.p. André Szankowski, and art director extraordinaire Isabel Branco must have chosen precisely in shaping their images. I'm sure that clocking these would help an actual art aficionado see even more in Lisbon and suss out more plot twists than I can. What I do mean is that the whole thing is just exquisite—eminently worth pausing to savor, if you weren't so eager to learn where the soapsuds are sliding next. The shots are also rewarding to "read" even without any fluency in the Masters, because the relative placement of actors, the site where the brightest light-source is hitting, and other dynamics of each composition are often pertinent to the story, or even predictive of something that's coming. Part of the fun! When I say Mysteries of Lisbon is "theatrical," I don't really mean it feels like a play, although I'm sure that it could be (or has been) adapted into a Coast of Utopia or Ring Cycle situation where you gladly pay rent to the same theater for a while and soak up the whole experience, not even minding that you missed a birthday somewhere in there. I was actually thinking more of those Mary Zimmerman productions like Argonautika, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, or Eleven Rooms of Proust, where material that you (read: I) might perceive as musty or intimidating suddenly blossoms into a multisensory bloom of narratives, objects, and personae, an effusive epic of storytelling about storytelling, a perfect trip to someplace you never expected to go. When I ask if this is cinema or television, I confess I don't actually care about that. Narrative has been a mixed-media, genre-blending enterprise forever, and people have been living and dying for it in a whole host of ways. Mysteries of Lisbon, as odd and convoluted as it certainly gets, is the kind of art that re-fills you with awe and love for the articulate mise-en-scène, the sinuous flashback, the convulsive revelation, the perfectly-cast face, the twice-told tale.

Honorable Mention: The other "is it cinema or television?" megatext of Lisbon's year was Oliver Assayas's Carlos (2010), which I confess I've never been too tempted to revisit, but which I did admire very deeply as an epic tale of ill-gotten glory as well as pathetic decline, well-deserved and yet weirdly tragic. Also, if Édgar Ramírez did it for you in that one, at least for the first half, you will not resent gazing on the cast of Mysteries of Lisbon (including everybody's new boyfriend, Diamantino's Carloto Cotta). The only American movie I can think of from this decade that attempts a version of what Mysteries of Lisbon achieves is the very last movie I saw, Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019), which could easily be called Mysteries of Concord. Like Ruiz's film, Gerwig's is an adaptation that fundamentally honors its literary source, though I bet there are more Alcott Cops out there than pedantic torch-carriers for Camilo Castelo Branco. At the same time, each movie places its inherited story within entertaining meta-textual frames—and in Little Women's case, quite pointed ones. The films also share a narrative sequence based more on intuitive leaps and internal mirrorings than event chronology, and a kind of symphonic sweep to which movies of this type rarely aspire these days. I like it more the more I think about it.
 

32. Southwest (dir. Eduardo Nunes, 2011)
 
Space. Time. You've heard of 'em. As a medium, cinema is a constant enterprise in disorganizing but also reconstructing both. If we weren't so acclimated to the usual templates, we'd see how true this remains even of pedestrian movies. By now, it takes an ambitious film to remind us of the fundamental weirdness of how the medium can smoothly suture disjointed spaces and tiny shards of temporal experience, almost always recorded out of chronological order in far-flung locations, so that they suggest a semblance of continuity. Even more ambition is required to disarrange the familiar protocols of duration in film (how long is a shot or a movie, how much story can squeeze into either window) and of spatial arrangement (where does the film seem to unfold, how is the field of the frame being used). Shorts and noncommercial films regularly tease these boundaries, but when a longer, market-oriented feature sets down new coordinates, people usually take notice. Boyhood was probably the last decade's most celebrated example of a director rethinking the time-properties of film, including its production processes. Birdman was similarly adventurous, detaching the grammar of the long sequence shot from its customary rootedness in extant, contiguous spaces or in anything like "real time." But even these movies, which have much to recommend them, didn't floor me with their experiments as fully as the magical-realist Brazilian fable-for-grownups Southwest, in which a girl named Clarice lives an entire lifetime, from infancy to wizened demise, within a 24-hour period that, for every other character, is paced like any other. Within their small coastal town, these characters keep meeting new avatars of Clarice without realizing that the child of high noon was the baby of morning, and that the woman of the afternoon was that baby and that child, etc. Clarice herself doesn't grasp right away how unusual her circumstances are. What's most legible to us is most perplexing to her: for example, what is rain, what is a friend, and why does that man keep following me? Five different actresses, counting the infant, carry the baton of Clarice's impossible life, which ends in the space where it began.

Compounding Southwest's core of fearless innovation, the film's 3.66:1 aspect ratio is the widest I've ever seen. That means that Nunes, cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr., and production designer André Weller are filling a vaster space in every shot than virtually any crew has ever tried. It also means that every image is a complex dialectic of spaces simultaneously colossal (Nunes's frame) and mundane (your screen), just as each of its 126 minutes is both routine and dizzying to quantify. One minute for us is about 12 minutes for most of Southwest's characters, who are living out a normal 24-hour day and of course have no idea they're in a movie. But if my brain isn't broken, every minute of this two-hour film equals around 350,000 minutes for Clarice. All of this is pretty darn nifty, but Nunes and his collaborators don't just want to pull off a good trick, they want to assemble a real work of art, where all their chosen materials, even the most deliriously complex, serve a story and a rich audiovisual experience. Weller's team, working in very low-lying areas outside Arraial do Cabo, due east of Rio, has to evoke the rustic underdevelopment of that region, where most of the men we see make money by harvesting salt from a barely-inland lake. Despite that basically realist visual idiom, even the modest homes are often subtly decorated, with spiraling or circular motifs, and doors and windows placed such that Pinheiro's camera keeps picking up frames inside of frames inside of frames. It's incredible to me that the camera proves so mobile, since filling all that horizontal space in a graphically and thematically eloquent way is hard enough without also having to track, pan, or zoom.

Just as impressively, and linking this film broadly to those of Kleber Mendonça Filho from a couple entries back, the sound design of Southwest is a constant stunner, not just in its lushness and density but in the way it relates to that super-wide canvas. You wouldn't think that Nunes could root so many sounds in offscreen space, given that his images seems to stretch for miles, but the audio track consistently expands and often complicates the lode of information tucked into each shot. Moreover, the more enigmatic sounds play directly into Southwest's risky gambles with story and form. When a lonely woman named Luzia (Mariana Lima) stares out her doorway and hears a child's laughter, is she recalling the carefree youth of her own adult daughter, who died that very morning amidst a difficult and apparently scandalous pregnancy, or is she listening more directly to her young son João as he cavorts with his sweet and joyful friend Clarice, who shares the same name as the daughter Luzia just lost, and whom nobody's ever seen before today? The answer for Luzia may be "both": her head's in the present and the past, as ours often are. The answer for the audience is absolutely "both," since we know that young Clarice is the child birthed from older Clarice's lethal labor, and that in some mystical way she may be her own mother's reincarnation, and that it sure seems like the two Clarices share a father. Sound is as crucial as image, editing, script, and performance to how we form guesses about secrets like these, never fully divulged. It also broadcasts a range of squeaky windmills and un-oiled merry-go-rounds, visible and not, sustaining the pattern of circles even when the image is barren of them.

Is this a good time to mention that Nunes had never directed a feature before this one, with its jaw-dropping degree of formal daring, and its delicate positioning between Gothic mystery and surrealist lullaby? (It's not for nothing that the score is a sustained standoff between low, menacing strings and the kind of lilting, childlike melodies you find in kid-targeted animation.) There's plenty you could nitpick, from the passages where that colossal frame does feel under-exploited to the arguable diminishment of rape into an art-cinema trope, a monolithic stand-in for Conflict and maybe even an End of Innocence in the life of a female lead. I didn't know till I was working on this piece that Nunes premiered a second feature called Unicorn at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. That one's shot in color but retains the super-super-wide frame, and after the audacious first parry of Southwest, I'm thrilled to see how Nunes might have developed his formal, narrative, and political sensibilities. The barrier to discovery is low in this case! Unicorn, however good it turns out to be, is currently streaming for Amazon Prime members (the rental cost is low for non-members), and Southwest, which I'm eager to endorse, is free for everyone on Vimeo. If you watch it, I hope you're dazzled. The movie's rank on this list principally reflects its achievement, extending to some nuances, set-pieces, and characterizations I haven't even named. But I admit it's also getting bonus points for demonstrating, as Russian Ark did in the last decade, that narrative cinema can still issue major surprises, rising impressively to challenges that few artists would even conceive. If you're not aware, the five regions of Brazil recognized by geographers are the North, Northeast, Central-West, Southeast, and South. There is no "Southwest," except as Nunes has conjured it, as a terrain of immense imaginative potential.

Honorable Mention: Following a Lusophone thread, João Pedro Rodrigues's The Ornithologist is another peculiar, bizarrely structured, and entirely seductive picaresque, following a birdwatcher stranded in a riverside jungle. This territory, where he was so eager to self-sequester before several tables started surreally turning, seems largely depopulated until the kidnappers, cultish celebrants, contemporary Amazons, and queer Christ figures start popping up. Like Southwest, The Ornithologist is dense with Biblical allusions but also with pagan practices and irreligious metaphysical quandaries. You don't have to know any of this to get swept up in either film.
 

The Lobster, © 2015 Film4/Irish Film Board/Eurimages/The Netherlands Film Fund/Greek Film Centre/BFI, © 2016 A24 Aquarius, © 2016 CinemaScópio Produções/SBS/VideoFilmes/GloboFilmes/Vitagraph Films/Kino Lorber The Missing Picture, © 2013 CDP/Arté France Cinéma/Bophana Production, © 2014 Strand Releasing Edge of Tomorrow, © 2014 Warner Bros. Pictures
33. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)
 
Okay, first of all, since Derek tells me that the animals of the Hundred Acre Wood do not count, seeing as they are not "real" animals (?!), and begrudging compromise is one of those burdens of couplehood that most characters in The Lobster refuse even to acknowledge, my answer is: octopus. I love being in the water, I love the idea of getting to change outfits and even whole color schemes while no longer human, I'm not hell-bent on a maximal lifespan, I like having a steady supply of ink on-hand, and with a tremendous brain and eight arms, I feel like I could conceive and then type these countdown entries faster! We can even fast-track that hotel stay, since I see no promising partners in that place, and I don't need 45 days of refusing to shoot a gun or of sucking once more at recess, from which fate I thought I'd been sprung decades ago.

Now that that's settled, the critiques I hear most often about The Lobster are that it's too violent, it's too weird, it's too mean, it's not funny, and for viewers who started out enthusiastic, the second hour falls well short of the first in both thematic clarity and entertainment value. I'll take those from the top. First, surely we can agree that gender, sexuality, and modes of partnership—to include the expectation of partnership, especially procreative partnership—are often violently policed across our world, according to arbitrary mandates that have iffy-at-best track records. Hopefully we can agree that such policing is structurally violent even when it is not physically so, with every alternative cast as pitiable at best, injurious in the middle, criminal or outright unthinkable at worst. (Regarding gender as a distinct question, do you need convincing that the dystopian hotel in The Lobster, putatively designed to coerce specific forms of desire, takes as a silent given the binary two-ness of gender, with compulsory expressions of "either" "side"?) I didn't experience The Lobster as all that violent, or in any event, no more so than the world we're judging it from. So, next. "Too weird" is a non-starter for me. There are movies whose elaborate weirdness strikes me as increasingly incoherent and off-putting, or ponderously normie and literal despite ostensible dives into a mad subconscious, but too weird is low on my list of potential offenses, if it appears there at all. For "too mean," see above, under "too violent," but furthermore, I don't see how a genuinely mean film could center such a tender, sympathetic performance from Colin Farrell, with that basset-hound sadness and ever-visible hurt, even amidst his most strenuous attempts to perform the required lack of feeling. In my experience, Farrell and Weisz elicit enormous sympathy while giving physically, vocally, and affectively weird performances (but not "too weird"!!) that would seem to impede such sympathy. I feel enormous compassion for both of them in that finale, which does not play to me as a Fat Girl-style kiss-off ("The whole world is shit! Shoulda known better, suckers!") but as a lose-lose dilemma that's all the more brutal because it's hard to pinpoint the exact juncture when it became unwinnable. These two were trying so hard!

It's not funny? Were Olivia Colman's scenes all cut from the version you saw? ("If we notice any problems, any fighting or tension between you which you cannot resolve yourselves for whatever reason, you will be assigned children. That usually helps. A lot." Omg, this screenplay.) What about that deliciously long pause while Farrell's David, having been denied any "bisexual" option at hotel registration, tries to elect on his next-best answer? What about the Heartless Woman, played with such stonefaced intensity and commitment by Angeliki Papoulia that, yes, she's pretty frightening, and yes, she kicks that *** to *****, but she's hilarious. I laughed heartily and often all three times I saw The Lobster in cinemas, and still do when I show clips of it in class, even as I am also acknowledging or even underscoring its many varieties of violence.

Of course I don't laugh as much in the second half, except when the odd camel or flamingo just happens to saunter by in the forest, because you guys, that is funny. Sometimes critics of Hour 2 come across as if assuming the whole movie intended the same tone and register throughout and somehow fumbled it. That seems demonstrably untrue. Others allege, and I can see why, that while Hour 2 patently harbors different agendas, they just don't radiate the same levels of wit or ingenuity or momentum. I can only counter from my own point of view that Hour 2 is when The Lobster reveals a grander hunt for even bigger game than its denunciation of mandatory coupling, of the algorithmic quantifying of attraction ("My most unique quality is X!" "Mine too, omg, I love you!"), of the bureaucratizing of love in the interest of serving it, and of the always-tightening constraints we allow or even invite on human thought, human variety, and human mobility in the interest of fostering "community" or "couplehood" or a "perfect match." Those were already lofty goals, and The Lobster's ratio of bullseyes quite high. But of course Hour 2 is deflating because, as the decade continually showed us in political life, there's nothing so tantalizing as imagining oneself part of a Revolution that will obviously repudiate any trace of whatever rigged game it deplores, and will eliminate all vestiges of hierarchy, caprice, or violence. Who among us hasn't fancied that, or would deny its appeal, even its worthiness as a goal? But then, you find yourself trying to create such a counter-movement, or to join one. I don't think The Lobster is cynical about all revolutionary movements, much less all revolutionary impulses, but I do think it's frank about their lousy track record of contracting the very poisons they mean to purge. The movie admits, in what I take as a gesture of respect, the intimidating difficulty of real revolution, of actual change that isn't just nihilism, revenge, cosmetics, or same-old-same-old chains of command in "rebel" clothing. If you leave the woods thinking, Forget it, I want no part of tyrannically managed institutions nor of insurgencies that soon transmogrify into tyrannies, I just want to trust my own free will, my own fine needle for moral choice, well, then, have I got a last act, a roadside diner, and a steak knife for you! So what I'm saying is, I think The Lobster was the most persuasive and lucid three-part meditation I encountered all decade on the problem(s) of unfreedom, serially resurfacing amid every attempt to achieve emancipation. "Freedom" might be the only word we use more casually than "love," with equal or greater confusion about what exactly it means, what it requires from us, and who our best partners are in attaining it. So it makes perfect sense to me that freedom and love are two sides of the same satirical coin in The Lobster or, if you will, two pincers on the same claw.

Honorable Mention: Eirini Vianelli's Icebergs (2018), for which images and synopses are available here, is a dastardly animated short with a warped visual idiom, like claymation figures coated in heat-melted Saran wrap. Adapted from a book by Lobster co-author and frequent Lanthimos collaborator Efthymis Filippou, the structure and tone of this 10-minute film recalls Roy Andersson on an especially sinister day or Jane Campion's Passionless Moments taking a deeper plunge into the macabre.
 

34. Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)
34. Neighboring Sounds (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)
 
"Can I tell you a story?" This is one of the first things we hear Sônia Braga say in Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius, which is, among so many other things, a gift to this iconic actress and thus, by extension, to all of us. Imagine not wanting to hear Sônia Braga tell you a story! But as it happens, the two journalists she's addressing, who came to query this famous music critic about how she's rolled with the shift to streaming, pay fitful attention to the yarn she spins about losing her LP of John & Yoko's Double Fantasy, replacing it at a used-vinyl store, and finding a darkly prophetic newspaper clipping inside the jacket, left there "like a message in a bottle," by accident or not, by who knows who. One clear takeaway from this scene, especially given its early positioning in this long film, is that Braga's Clara notices signs and portents, and may be liable to fix strong meanings where nobody else discerns one. Another is that only a rube or an ingrate would distract themselves from anything Clara or her movie wants to tell us. And so we spend a good deal of the deliberately paced, strangely atmospheric Aquarius assessing the many folks who are careless or impatient with Clara's storytelling, and a few who hang on her every word, and several whose stories and pleas Clara in turn ignores. Where will we finally classify the lifeguard who flirts with Clara, the maid she's employed for almost two decades, the stud-for-hire whose small talk doesn't interest her in the least, the grown nephew who seems as attached to Clara as she is to him, or the handsome stranger in the dance club who skittishly retreats when she reveals her mastectomy? With higher stakes, what do we think of Clara's adult children, who seem affectionate but also distant toward their mother, widowed these 17 years and refusing to sell the apartment where they all grew up? And how about the young beachside real-estate mogul who's trying to evict Clara from that building where she's the last remaining denizen, and whom her children seem to regard as generous and trustworthy?

Orchestrate this many narrative orbits around a luminous star, especially an iconic actress who's been inconspicuous of late, and it's well-known that I'll come running. But Aquarius is richer, weirder, tougher, and more magical than even your higher-end diva outings. For one thing, Clara's intransigent defense of her inherited flat in the titular Recife condominium becomes an ever-clearer metaphor for a city and a country that feel themselves bullied, undermined, and soullessly "rehabbed" by Brazil's 21st-century romance with U.S.-style capitalism. The abuses of power and the wages of inequality have long been staples of Brazilian cinema set in urban favelas of the dispossessed countryside, but Aquarius stages that battle around a spirited but indolent pension-drawer with domestic help and a solidly bourgeois clan. If she feels this threatened and is already this pissed, two states that will only deepen as Aquarius continues, imagine how the rest of the 99% must feel. Further to that point, Aquarius is unusual among anti-corporate, anti-patriarchal diatribes for underscoring more and more often Clara's many complicities with the system she now denounces in fiery soliloquies. Her sister-in-law won't abide Clara's supercilious slander of a black maid from decades ago who definitely pulled some shenanigans but, from the sound of it, was making the only choices available to keep herself afloat. Clara's meeting with her old boss at the paper (one that, like every other paper, she no longer bothers to read) yields valuable intel about the powerful old boy's network that's propping up that aggressive property developer; it also issues unwelcome reminders of her own family's enmeshment in municipal crimes currently under review. We also glean that Clara's stubborness about staying put has already delayed for many years the contracted payouts to every other family who agreed to relocate. Though this is not definitive proof that Clara should relent, she cannot pretend that her own rigidity comes at no cost to others.

No question, Aquarius builds to a personal and cultural cri de coeur that's meant to prompt standing ovations from many viewers and, for the deeper-pocketed spectators, some restless nights peeking through the curtains. But what's really special about this movie is how it refuses generic edicts of how broadly "activist" cinema should be structured and shot. For all the narrative murkiness and the potential for noir-ish menace, sunlight could hardly make a stronger showing in any movie than it does here. Take the movie's buttery-bright palate as a nod to local color, or a sign of mendacious forces operating right out in every open, or a constant indicator that Clara's life remains pretty enviable for someone who sees herself as so aggrieved. Where most films would contract their scope ever more tightly toward that grandstanding finish, Aquarius insists on narrative roominess. A series of nuptials, splits, and tentative unions keep unfolding among Clara's kids and their peers in the extended family. She sort of notices. Clara has girlfriends who know little to nothing about the siege on her condo. They've got plenty else to talk about, much of it bawdy, without airing all that ails them. Clara's own libido is quite healthy, and is not about to put its kinks on pause just because the A plot, if it's the A plot, is determined to empower the People. The grammars of sound and editing, far from being streamlined into plainspoken agitprop, keep exploring new ways to evoke the inner slipstream of a woman who's lived so many lives already, who's living so many right now. She has a tendency to blur out or dissolve or jump-cut or superimpose herself against her beloved oceanview skyline when nothing in the story is motivating these eccentricities. And then there's the matter of Aquarius's historically distant prologue, self-contained enough to pass as a sublime short, but prone to seepage just like everything else in the movie. This tantalizing, all-seeing overture furnishes key subtexts to all the later scenes. On its evidence, we can safely allege the following about the rest of Aquarius, and about life: sex is never trivial or peripheral; illness is never over, nor is it ever far from the patient's mind, even after health is restored; and no matter how legible or familiar any face or any close-up appears to you, don't be too confident you know the thoughts or feelings behind its expression.

Aquarius was my entrypoint into Kleber Mendonça Filho's oeuvre; some Brazilian followers on Twitter had been imploring me to prioritize his work, and I should have heeded them earlier! Only this winter did I see his first feature, Neighboring Sounds, also set in modern Recife, also a slow-building semi-suspenser that defers its catharsis as long as possible, also an exercise in approaching built environments, psychic architectures, and cinematic constructions as funnyhouse mirrors of each other. Already apparent are Mendonça's gifts for sustaining unease in brightly-lit shots and for hiding a revenge plot inside a tangled web of storylines, without diluting the force of comeuppance when it finally arrives. Structurally, the movies are complementary inverses: Neighboring Sounds, with its large ensemble and widely-distributed attentions, feels like an electron cloud surrounding an undisclosed nucleus; Aquarius, care of Braga's prodigious character and performance, is an obvious atomic center, but the film takes its time disclosing and clarifying the exact nature of what surrounds her, and how stable or volatile her energy will prove. Sounds is a little flashier with angles and plotted effects, occasionally to its detriment, but it's also more ambitious in surveying multiple lifeworlds across Brazil and placing them in meaningful, not-always-expected relations. There's hardly a director in the world whose trajectory I'm more eager to follow, or one who's currently placed in a less clement national environment for supporting the kinds of artistry and messaging he's eager to pursue. Even before Bolsonaro's rise to power, Mendonça's films and his media-savvy protests drew the ire of some very powerful people; his most recent movie, Bacurau, which I still haven't seen, is divisive at home and abroad. As when watching one of his films, I feel very nervous but also quite excited about Mendonça's prospects. On the former point, I hope I'm overreacting. On the latter, I feel positive I'm not.

Honorable Mentions: In a different register from Mendonça's films, but with comparable facility at blending dogmatic exposés with elliptical atmospheres and textured, surprising environments, Marcelo Gomes's Waiting for the Carnival (2019) is a visually rewarding documentary about Toritama, Brazil, evidently the "jeans-making capital of the world," only two hours inland from Recife by car. You'll get the critique of global industry you're expecting, but also a series of local testimonies and elastic tones that certify how life really is more complicated than even the most cogent broadside can capture. Meanwhile, in Manaus, deep into northwest Brazil, Maya Da-rin's The Fever (2019) shows how far up the Amazon capitalist industry and attendant alienation have managed to travel, but also how different they look and feel this far into indigenous territory, and how many experiments are still possible with narrative shape and cinematic ambiance. Lastly, on the whole other side of the continent, Sebastián Lelio's Gloria (2013) is about a Chilean divorcée as radiant and complicated as Aquarius's widow. Indeed, I'd love to get these two together for some pot, some dancing, and some good dish. Gloria is less outwardly "political" than Aquarius, but it's hardly disengaged from politics, even if they're the furthest thing from Gloria's mind, or from ours, when the DJ's spinning one of her favorite tunes.
 

35. Graves without a Name (dir. Rithy Panh, 2018)
35. The Missing Picture (dir. Rithy Panh, 2013)
 
A first-person documentary about the Khmer Rouge, produced and narrated by a survivor who turned 13 as he entered the camps, told through a series of clay-figure dioramas fashioned from the very soil where the lives commemorated were lost... how do you resist a pitch like that? Grab the tissues and the prizes now. The only thing is, this logline, which many of us have heard or repeated with regard to Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture, is not quite right. Panh delegates the narrating of his co-written voiceover to a third collaborator—different ones, actually, if you listen to the French- or the English-language track. There is no "original" version in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, so the movie at all times asserts its immersion in that culture but also its alienation from it. The clay was not harvested from the infamous killing fields, although that's a tempting connotative leap, and one the artists surely intended, given all the recurrent shots of earth and mud, and the way Panh's figurines (actually sculpted by Sarith Mang, from Panh's designs) stand out from but also blend with the dirt and sand that carpet his sprawling sets. These meticulous tableaus, reinvigorating that tired word "indelible," placing water, plant life, and scale-size buildings around the human figures, are not the movie's only artistic tactic for evoking or touching past, which nobody for a moment pretends will be exorcised. They're the most unique and may linger longest, but The Missing Picture also includes stock footage, mixed-media composites, illustrative inserts, and other material in its dense montage and evolving mise-en-scène, formally and narratively so easy to follow, emotionally so tough to accept.

If details of The Missing Picture are easy to misremember or misreport, that's entirely apropos to the film's themes, so concerned with how even the memories most cauterized into your brain can prove slippery, inarticulable, or evanescent. The movie records a process of painful retrieval and arduous reconstruction but also one of necessary fabrication. As the title announces, a real, full "picture" of the Cambodian dictatorship and genocide can never be possible. As the narration confides over its not-quite-final images, which pointedly emphasize burial rather than exhumation, "A political film should unearth what it invented. And so I make this picture [...] this missing picture I now hand over to you, so that it never ceases to seek us out." Panh's movie, which includes plenty of shots of the figures being sculpted, not just of their finished arrangements, is as much a chronicle of images still seeking him out as of stabilized visions with which he has made peace. The director has spoken about how molding and manipulating these figures, for himself and his colleagues, was itself a kind of therapeutic practice, doing something with their hands and generating tangible effects, rather than just simmering in their memories. I was struck, too, on my last viewing by the screenplay's testimony that what Pol Pot and his accomplices sought from their brutalizing of their own populace, their melting of every individual into a decrepit collective, their mechanization of every under-nourished body into an interchangeable lever for raising crops they couldn't eat, was the invention of a person without feeling, thought, or troublesome flesh: a "metal man, a pure instrument of revolution." Was the "metal man" a titanium superhuman, bare of want or need, and thus a summit of anticapitalist evolution? That's how the Khmer Rouge spoke. Or was the "metal man" a naked scrap like the tin spoon that was each incarcerated Cambodian's only permitted possession? That's how the Khmer Rouge acted, which is obviously what we must trust. What a metal man is not is pliable, multiple, multi-colored, doted-upon, subtly individualized despite the wide-angle impression of sameness—e.g., all the qualities of The Missing Picture's figurines.

In this way, too, the movie counteracts the dehumanizing ethos of the regime it decries, even as we must concede the forlorn expressions, the muteness, the gradual emaciation, and the ever-dwindling number of these models, who sometimes fade away as you're watching them. Panh has provided an unlikely dovetail of Shoah and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Moreover, in the same way Haynes's inventive tragedy of human diminishment has more going on than its centerpiece coup of casting its protagonist as a doll, The Missing Picture is unexpectedly varied, occasionally fantasmagoric in its images. If only briefly, we spot shuttle launches, club scenes, and recreated dreamworlds from South Asian cinema. Many of these represent the other lives that Cambodian prisoners might have been living or the fantasies they struggled to maintain or the dispatches they recalled of the world around them before it went psychopathic. When an elder in the camp recounts the story of the Apollo 11 landing, Neil Armstrong's iconic footprint embeds itself as surely in young Rithy Panh's mind as in the dusty surface of the moon. Khmer Rouge officers, outraged by the obvious lie that American capitalists could achieve such an exploit, kill the storyteller. Panh doesn't cut directly to this image of footprints in the concentration camps—pooling with muddy water that's the only thing left for prisoners to drink—which might been too blatant a juxtaposition. He gets there pretty soon, though, and trusts us to draw the link. The Missing Picture, so unbelievably powerful in conception, narration, and emblematic images, is also full of these local mirrorings, surprises, and tiny strokes of genius. The Khmer Rouge could shoot a storyteller, but they couldn't silence the story or the many ways of telling it, even if none can ever be adequate to the enormity of what happened.

I've stressed, too, that The Missing Picture is not Rithy Panh's work alone but a product of expansive co-creation, sometimes with longstanding accomplices from Panh's other projects, sometimes with new team members. The follow-up film, Graves without a Name, makes even more transparent that Panh is not an isolated genius but a famed representative of a nation still choked with grief, where a number of citizens strive through art, through prayer, through spirit-channeling, through self-trained excavation, and through a range of other endeavors to achieve what The Missing Picture attempts via panoramic modeling. In the broadest sense, so many Cambodians insist on remembering, even as they yearn to forget. More specifically, and picking up an idea voiced belatedly in The Missing Picture, many share a sense of dead souls still moving among the living, "seeking a place" for long-awaited respite in the afterlife. Graves interleaves multiple scenes of encounter between Panh and fellow Cambodians as they follow their preferred paths toward succoring the dead, and thus consoling themselves. Refusing, then, the kind of dominant motif that the clay models constitute in the prior film, and thus bearing more surface resemblance to other documentaries about cultures in the wake of trauma, Graves without a Name is, if anything, even more artfully edited than its predecessor. I'm referring not just to its balancing of so many threads and micro-communities but also to the moment-to-moment parallels, oppositions, expansions, and repetitions that Panh embeds from cut to cut, suggesting so many explicit and implicit stories inside what is basically one story, horribly shared.

As I reported from Toronto, Graves culminates in a stunning image of an upside-down tree, its tangled rhizome of roots growing upward and outward, and the heavens lying beneath the earth. An icon of a world that's gone irretrievably topsy-turvy, this image also encapsulates, as I wrote then, "a nation where everyone monitors the ground, not the sky, for portents and revelations." You can hardly miss this idea once Panh distills it in one breathtaking symbol, but if you've been tracking all the reverse cuts between soil and sky, the match cuts linking robed mediums to amateur archaeologists, the oscillations between mile-wide vistas and tight close-ups on blood-soaked dirt, you've already started picking up the message. I'd offer more specific examples, but Graves without a Name has already become difficult to access, after reviews in Venice and Toronto elicited warm respect but not the epiphanic wonder that The Missing Picture engendered. If you've got the ear of a library or other institution that can afford the hefty price of an educational-use DVD, I hope you'll file the request. Even for a director who's devised almost 20 occasions and as many strategies for telling versions of this tale, Picture and Graves are instances of especial mastery, and each feels more potent in relation to the other. Our memories can never be totally reliable, and our sorrows will never hit their limit, but the least we can do is prevent the work of our most soulful, inspired, risk-taking witnesses from slipping through our fingers.

Honorable Mentions: Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father (2017) is the rare dramatic feature with a generous budget and a guarantee of Western distribution to tell the story of Cambodians who lived and died under the Khmer Rouge. It is even rarer for doing so without a white Anglo protagonist serving as needless intermediary. The performance of young Sreymoch Sareum will stay with you, and the film as a whole, available on Netflix, is mounted with honesty, empathy, and discipline. Far afield from Southeast Asia, but echoing Panh's own praxis of processing unbearable pasts through the making of meticulous miniatures, Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol (2010) is a documentary you'll never forget about one person's precarious recovery from a near-fatal hate crime, and the copious, sometimes unsettling, consistently surprising stories they have lived to tell...and how!
 

36. Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman, 2014)
 
"Do I strike you as a fresh recruit?" is one of many delicious double-entendres ladled out in Doug Liman's entirely succulent, rip-snorting action film Edge of Tomorrow. Within the story, this is a rhetorical question by which military PR flak Bill Cage, a lieutenant colonel blissfully insulated from combat, seeks to extricate himself from a Kafkaesque misrecognition, by which officers keep taking him for an infantryman. Transported ever-closer to the front lines, this is quite a worst-case scenario, since Bill had better act fast if he wants to avoid instantaneous pulverization by the alien Mimics that have overtaken Earth. I'm not sure why they're called Mimics, since they don't resemble anything so much as sentient, impossibly fast starbursts made of loosely-tied bicycle chains, lashing out lethally in every direction. Against these things, but even versus the ordeal of boot camp, Lt. Col. Cage knows full well that his first day as a recruit is likely to be his last. That's both a swiftly-fulfilled prophecy and a question that turns out to be...very complicated. So that's one way to hear Cage's question. The other, which the film unmistakably invites, is to hear it as a question from Tom Cruise about Tom Cruise, a 52-year-old action star made of equal parts Teflon, muscle, thetans, and vanilla ice cream, whose recent movies often make jabs at how long in the perfect tooth he's getting. But those are usually fleeting back-pain jokes or eyerolls from his younger, fundamentally idolatrous costars. Edge of Tomorrow is the most sustained, merciless attack on Cruise's invincible brand since Eyes Wide Shut, and it gets every laugh it seeks. He's not the perfect solution to anyone's mega-scale problems but gets called to his face "the next best thing." About his advertising job, he chortles, "I'm not a soldier, really" and "I do this to avoid doing that," with an extra-amplified version of that radiant, backslappy, unctuous Tom Cruise cackle that lets us know he's well in on the joke. But once he's in training, put through a series of especially bewildering motions by Emily Blunt's fully convincing war hero Rita Vrataski, even Cruise looks rattled by her curdled pity, her undisguised exasperation with his mental and physical failings.

In its earliest scenes, an obligatory opening montage of news clips about global mayhem and a visually garish summit between Cruise's consultant and Brendan Gleeson's could-he-even-possibly-be-a-good-guy commander, Edge of Tomorrow feels a bit ersatz. Going in hard on its own star is not the obvious move for an aspiring summer tentpole that's taking a minute to achieve liftoff. But once Cage drops in front of the barracks—and, in the chain-rattling shadow of Nicolas, is there anything shadier to call an action hero than "Cage"?—everything about Edge of Tomorrow locks perfectly into place. I don't just mean it takes quick, authoritative shape as the decade's most exciting, most ambitious, most ingeniously executed Hollywood action film, although it unequivocally does, dropping us inside overwhelming but brilliantly staged sci-fi mêlées and then (we're getting there) restaging them, in full or in excerpt, from dozens of fresh angles, equal parts funny and terrifying. That's a combo that movies almost never get right. I don't just mean that we stay merrily yet meaningfully engaged in the openly metacritical study of Cruise, and whether he's really capable of the jobs he keeps asking to take (or feeling forced to take?), and how he stacks up against Blunt's Rita, an impeccable alternate archetype of the contemporary sci-fi crusader. That all works sublimely: a lark at a very game actor's semi-expense, though not, of course, by the end, and a star study as layered and cogent as any academic versions I've read. Edge of Tomorrow, extrapolated from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's illustrated novel All You Need Is Kill, is also a heady exploration of time, both mortal and cinematic. It's an earnest meditation on fate, whether personal or collective, or something in between that you might call romantic, and whether those fates are accepted, tempted, or actively changed. And it's a worthy thinkpiece on elaborate technology as an ever-expanding boon to our capacities and the imago of our most dystopian fears and an already-extant symptom of human beings' deepening sense of our dwindling power, sans engineered assistance. (Shout-out here to my astounding Ph.D. advisee Erin Andrews and her cogent, century-spanning research into how these very dialectics undergird the genre of military sci-fi, in print and on screen, which gave me ideal vantages from which to encounter this film.)

If you don't know, and you're curious what I keep alluding to, Lt. Col. Cage keeps getting dispatched into battle with the Mimics, keeps getting killed, and keeps waking up on the same morning, Groundhog Day-style, baffled and not a little dismayed by having to try his losing best once more against these insuperable antagonists. Rita, it won't surprise you to know, has her own angle on this seeming wormhole that only she and Bill share, where Dunkirk and Donnie Darko keep collapsing. How best to exploit it in the interest, natch, of the entire world's survival is the premise of Edge of Tomorrow. I promise that journey is as thrilling as it sounds, if not more so. But, setting plot aside, let me offer more context about why this is such a joy. First, unlike other sci-fi action spectaculars, even very good ones like Blade Runner 2049, Edge of Tomorrow does not feel heavy with the weight of its own ambition or smarts. One can roll with the eggheads at no cost to sheer entertainment, says this movie that's full of cool-ass shit, amazing-looking people, and lines like, "Cage, you've seized control of the Omega's ability to reset the day!" Edge heroically shucks the falutin and doubles down on the high, unlike other cautionary examples that mirthlessly took the opposite route. Second, all the zesty character work, punchy mix of tones, and futuristic props and effects are so sturdy on their own terms that the first 30 minutes, before the time-warp element gets introduced, don't feel like "preamble." Plus, all those virtues remain in place afterward. Third, for a film about bodies being rebooted after death, it's striking how much gravitas it affords to scenes or even single shots where a character does die, whether or not we know reversal is possible. That's another sign that script and character are really in their stride. Fourth, Rita's sex, implicitly indispensable to what makes her an electrifying action star, is not in itself a tantamount concern. I don't remember a single line of dialogue, snarky or sincere, that even addresses her being a woman, except her serial silencings of a folk-heroic moniker she's acquired without consent. (We only know about it because we see it spray-painted on the side of a bus.) Paul Feig's Ghostbusters was the "gender-swapped" remake that launched a thousand leaky ships in the second half of this decade, when we'd already seen such a richer, worthier vision of what more inclusive, imaginative studio writing and casting might look like, in a film that doesn't pause once to beg for applause.

I don't even want to get into Edge of Tomorrow's perceived under-performance at the US box office, though it actually made plenty of money, especially abroad. I'll just say how galling it was when Warner Bros. felt so burned by the ticket tally that it effectively rechristened the movie for DVD, where the phrase Live. Die. Repeat. appears in such larger font than Edge of Tomorrow that it's unclear what name to use. I was bummed that this was, like, the one Emily Blunt performance all decade that prompted no Oscar talk, when her work eclipses all ten of that year's female contenders. (Blunt, still unnominated, has an Edge of Tomorrow relation to the Academy, suited up and heavy with ammo every season and then BLAM!, try again next year.) It is literally incredible to me that co-editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings didn't become household names for movie people after this warmly-reviewed project. It's hard to imagine a commercial gig with a higher degree of difficulty, or one where all the byzantine strands of action and through-line remain so clear, or where the pace nevertheless remains so giddy and fleet and deceptively complex character threads so precisely spun. I think I said I wouldn't get into all this? So let's go out on the notion of teamwork, which Edge of Tomorrow so electrically embodies, and let's work backwards. The teamwork of Jennings and Herbert, unless they worked separately, because what do I know? The teamwork of Cruise and Blunt, a pairing I would never conceive that emerges as quite inspired, each of them talented at humanizing archetypes and agile in their sudden flicks between humor and iron will. The teamwork of everyone who collaborated on this Hollywood opus, including Visual Effects supervisor Nick Davis, who sounds like a wonderful man. The teamwork of art and commerce, which can still generate franchise-free thrill rides like this, which fans and film scholars will keep "discovering" as its cult indubitably grows. The teamwork of movie and audience, which commences with the conspiratorial in-joke register of those anti-Tom Cruise missiles. That particular team really unifies in the all-too-rare fact of a film that assembles itself majestically but hails us to participate, to guess where it's going, to deduce how it'll get there, and to connect the seemingly stray dots back into this very, very big picture. Edge of Tomorrow has the craft and the grace to coalesce into something potentially monumental, but it doesn't want our reverence, it wants us to play along. It looks back at us from the screen and says, to coin a phrase, "You complete me."

Honorable Mention: Rian Johnson's Looper (2012) was the closest thing to a brainy, exhilarating sibling to Edge of Tomorrow, and not just because Emily Blunt also shows to advantage in that one, albeit quite differently. I haven't seen the movie since it was in theaters, and I'm not sure why. I loved its fully-earned convolutions, its visual scale and compelling snapshot of a not-too-distant future, its narrative unpredictability, and its slight jests at Bruce Willis's expense, even while offering him the best platform this decade gave him to shine. I've been neutral to cool on Johnson's other work (though Knives Out is quite fun!), so my adulation of this one was all the more welcome a surprise. I felt lonelier in my enthusiasm for World War Z (2013), whose production process does not sound like a utopia of teamwork, and which seemed to disappoint a lot of folks, especially advocates of the book. I don't know what to tell you: I thought the scene-building in this one was marvelous, where something as simple but ill-timed as a cellphone ring can spark a wave of deadly chaos. (This is the scene they should show before every movie starts, as a warning!) And however transformed or not from Max Brooks's novel, I thought the film's speculations about how differently a zombie invasion might go down in various parts of the world, taking brisk, often uncomfortable account of local histories and ideologies, was consistently gutsy. Finally, the other standout in Cruise's decade of highly variable work was Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), another recipe of two parts suspense, one part comedy, where each serves the other to a tee. Robert Elswit shoots the heck out of it, the cutting by Star Wars editor Paul Hirsch is flawless, the whole cast slaps, and Brad Bird proves he was the perfect hire for this job, especially at a moment when this franchise needed big-time defibrillating. (By the way, none of these movies were nominaed for anything. WTF, AMPAS??)
 

Birds Are Singing in Kigali, © 2017 Kosfilm Toni Erdmann, © 2016 Sony Pictures Classics/Komplizen Film 12 Years a Slave, © 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures/Regency Enterprises/River Road Entertainment/Plan B Good Time, © 2017 A24/Rhea Films/Elara Pictures
37. Birds Are Singing in Kigali (dirs. Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, 2017)
 
I know, I know: how many genocidal histories can one list sustain? We've just worked through 12 Years a Slave and Nostalgia for the Light and spent time earlier with the Shoah and the U.S. government's indifference to AIDS and the wiping out of dissidents and immigrants in Bisbee, Arizona and campaigns of terror in Mali and Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Sadly, this is not the last such entry on my countdown. Blame the world, not the list: if there were fewer acts of mass-scale violence, there'd be less need to protest them or preserve their histories. As it is, artists must constantly find ways to represent or at least indicate these outrages without recycling stale tropes or risking sensational images of suffering. In this regard, Birds Are Singing in Kigali is a standout, manifesting a strong, singular vantage point on the gruesome 1994 uprising of Rwandan Hutus against their Tutsi neighbors, relatives, and fellow citizens. Co-directors Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze devise a cinematic language unlike any I'd ever seen for evoking traumatic affect within narrative frames. By "affect," I mean not the visible realities of torture, murder, and their aftermaths but the emotional blockage, congestive fury, and static despondency that suffuse a blood-soaked country and the souls of its people, without finding ready or adequate outlets.

You wouldn't think that "animal imagery," that bastion of high school English-class analysis, would offer a rich fund of innovative images for visualizing deeply human pain. Then again, you probably haven't seen, and certainly I hadn't, "animal imagery" like what these writer-directors provide, used in quite this way. Birds Are Singing in Kigali opens on an extremely tight, video-recorded close-up of a flock of vultures pecking each other and picking at a body we can barely discern. At some point in this short, visually disorienting sequence, you realize that the corpse on which these birds feast may belong to a person. Beyond the vultures, which recur as a structuring motif, Kigali also cuts without warning to a petrified hoof poking up from the ground, a series of blurry animal specimens preserved in laboratory formaldehyde, a wall full of taxidermied birds, a river of ants that long ago laid waste to a half-buried body, and a tabletop littered with madly flopping fish about to be "processed" by hand. In one especially confronting but poetically suggestive close-up, the film lingers on a long intestinal tract, disemboweled from who knows what beast, still inflating and contracting over whatever this creature consumed as a last meal. If that's not post-traumatic affect, I don't know what is: a long, possibly endless digestion, even after the impacted body has shut down. Yes, some of these images are gross. No, the film isn't getting off on that, even a little bit. Yes, they may sound hopelessly literal, or a tad clichéd. No, they don't feel that way, especially since you never know when Birds are Singing in Kigali might pause, quickly but indelibly, to dwell on such ghastly tableaus. No, these are not abstract "metaphors" for genocidal death, since the basis of initial acquaintance for our lead characters, Polish ornithologist Anna (Jowina Budnik) and Rwandan exile Claudine (Eliane Umuhire), was a shared if different tie to animal research. In other words, sights like these were an important lingua franca both women spoke and which the film has warrant to showcase, not just as the grisly metonyms for epidemic killing they have become. Yes, Birds Are Singing in Kigali eventually tests its audience to witness a huge room piled high with the clothing of fallen Tutsis, and skulls being washed, and the occasional human remains. No, you shouldn't look away, if you can help it.

The jarring cuts to these kinds of images, entirely appropriate to the story and subject, are part and parcel of the fragmented montage throughout Birds Are Singing in Kigali, which tells a completely clear, accessible story in a ragged, halting way. The lack of easy rhythm within scenes and across the movie of course reflects how Anna's and Claudine's lives have been knocked forever off their axes, as have those of every native citizen and longterm resident. The women's specific bond has been strengthened but also ruptured, conveyed in jagged grammars and tensely composed frames of dramatically variable focus. Claudine's father was the research partner and possible lover of Anna, who smuggled Claudine out of the country as insanity spread. Her whiteness gave her an alibi to be driving and to access an airport when Claudine could only hide; it did not, however, furnish Anna protection against bloodthirsty soldiers at the Hutu-run checkpoint, whose horrifying assaults on her the film suggests without direct depiction. When we re-meet Anna in the gargantuan, mostly empty cargo hold of a plane flying out, she looks into the camera, dead-eyed from all that's happened. As horrendous as that is, Claudine, in her own close-up, can't even hold up her head as Anna does. What she's endured, also mostly offscreen, includes the death of her Tutsi parents, executed before her by an erstwhile "friend," a sociology professor at the local university. She will later have to confront this man. Kigali's faltering language, the shot compositions that seem geometrically askew, the edits either rushed or delayed, the sound occasionally silenced, has as much to do with Anna and Claudine's compulsion to flee each other while continually circling back to each other as it does with the broader meltdowns of history, decency, and sense. Reluctantly on both sides, Anna becomes Claudine's sponsor so she can maintain asylum in Poland, though relevant laws require Claudine to stay put even after she learns that more of her relatives have survived than she believed. So then the women must decide what either or both of them can do about that—how to swing but also how to stomach a legal or a covert return.

Birds Are Singing in Kigali never runs out of ways to use its visuals, sounds, and rhythms toward precise psychological and affective ends. At the same time, its potent adventures with form never feel like a craft showcase at the expense of presenting its characters and honoring their linked but ineluctably different journeys. Often in movies like this, as characters regain at least some tentative footing, the grammar and the intensity of the experience subdue themselves a bit, but not here. Adjusting is a notion as fraught as despairing for these two survivors. Home is as alienating as exile, and either one of the women will have to embrace the former and refuse the latter, or they will have to part ways, losing the one person left who knows best that she's no longer who she was, and why. That Kigali tracks these reluctant, excruciating evolutions so rigorously, all the way to very hard-earned, cautiously optimistic ends, is even more extraordinary when you learn the movie's backstory. Krzysztof Krauze, half of the husband-and-wife writer/director team, died mid-production. So did the cinematographer. This left only Joanna Kos-Krauze to see the film to completion with her stalwart actors and a slightly shifted crew, while trying to accommodate the ferocity of her own grief. Umuhire, eight years old amidst the killing of a million Rwandans around her, has spoken about the need to commit to this story without letting herself drown in it. These are among the worst kinds of cargo to bring to an artistic experience, and it's comfortless even to say that the filmmakers' bone-deep grasps, disparate as they are, of bereavement and traumatization have allowed an unusually direct, truth-telling quality in how they represent those experiences, including what they silence or omit. Kigali had a robust festival run, winning prizes on multiple continents for its performers and its bold filmmaking, but seems to have had no commercial exhibition anywhere beyond Poland. It's at risk of becoming one of those forgotten movies. Given what it's about, what its makers endured, and how courageously they channeled that pain into genuinely distinctive, uncompromised creativity, I hope we won't let that happen.

Honorable Mention: The movie that Kigali most called to mind was Paweł Pawlikowski's Oscar-winning Ida (2013), less because of the Polish connection than the hushed examination of a stubborn bond between two women, haunted by personal and historical ghosts, trying to learn how to live with or without each other, or how to face but also face away from what the other represents. As far as tales of central African conflict, Kim Nguyen's War Witch (2012) is comparably intrepid about depicting brutality, and comparably insistent on remembering the dead. It is also as gifted as Kigali at conjuring the psyche of a traumatized character while refusing to pry open all of her thoughts and secrets. Ida and War Witch both evoke the presence of spirituality in the lives of their protagonists, finding very different paths into making those otherworldly dimensions palpable if not always visible, and making clear how hard the lead characters have fought to keep these faiths. The absence of such consoling belief systems is conspicuous in Birds Are Singing in Kigali, though the very last shot suggests a unique and reawakened form of faith that Anna and Claudine might share.
 

38. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, 2016)
 
Toni Erdmann took me two tries to get, and I'm glad I spaced them a few years apart. By then I'd forgotten most of the story's specifics, as well as what exactly I'd resisted the first time out. The problem was not the length. Neither in principle nor in the moment do I typically object to long sits. Expecting all movies to fit whatever industry-standard duration producers and exhibitors have assigned them over time is a symptom of exactly the sort of capitalist routinization of our schedules, our bodies, and our attitudes that Toni Erdmann partially exists to mourn. Then again, it's telling how its characters' best feints at alternate modes of living or relating prove unsustainable and uncomfortable, producing neither profit nor happiness. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Why my partial skepticism to Toni Erdmann? I do recall thinking that the camera might have contributed more to the storytelling. Otherwise, I think my main critique was essentially the obverse of what bugged me about Parasite, the other Cannes darling this decade that I liked on first impression but didn't adore till later. Bong's script and his images initially struck me as proclaiming their themes too clearly and loudly, leaving the argument little room to grow and the spectator little role beyond passive receipt. Quite by contrast, Toni Erdmann landed with me as too diffuse, circling some deferred statement about family or about capitalism, extemporizing in its direction with greater and lesser degrees of deranged behavior. I liked the risky playbook that writer-director Maren Ade had devised with and for her two lead actors, Sandra Hüller (a favorite since Requiem) and Peter Simonischek (unknown to me then, and unseen since), but I wasn't sure how many of its ambitious passes the movie completed, scene by scene or across its—arc? Squiggle? Crazy slalom? Garden path?

Perhaps it won't surprise you, and perhaps you grasped this much earlier than I did, that I now feel Toni Erdmann isn't interested in any crystallizing statement, is maybe even mobilized against having one. In the parlance of the movie's corporate offices and PowerPoint summits, Ade's not here to maximize deliverables or pack ideas into an elevator speech. Toni Erdmann, even more than most films, is "about" the immediate experience of watching it, to such an extent that the other film on this countdown it most calls to mind is Pina. Plenty of scenes could pass as modern dance routines, choreographed by some mordant social critic. Father and daughter handcuffed together, trying to take a taxi to a date they can't miss. Father and daughter fighting with a sofa-bed. Father hulking about in lobbies and dance clubs, donning the barest scraps of costume, hoping to be noticed while half-pretending to hide. Daughter in a rare moment of repose, gracelessly splayed, curious how outlandish a sexual request her sometime-lover might obey, from his already-kneeling position. Daughter hustling father out of her flat, hungry to dispose of him yet destitute with loneliness or perhaps with self-rebuke the minute the old guy is gone. Most famously, daughter battling with a too-tight party dress, exhausted with hosting duties before her party even starts, declaring a no-fault divorce from civil society, and seeing who else she can recruit into her nudist camp of conscientious objectors. I can't imagine Toni Erdmann as a novel or a play, and I frankly struggle to conceive it as a script, but all of it would read quite perfectly at the Joffrey. The same is true of many scenes where "the body" is less explicitly at issue. Turn the sound off during any of Toni Erdmann's business receptions or corporate cocktail dates, and you'll see a precise symphony of the dream client's faux-oblivious deflections, of the workaholic's too-transparent longing, little coloratura runs of ambition and distaste and boredom and stinging rejection, all indicated through posture and visage. Witness Hüller's and Simonischek's private encounters and note how, despite his persona as imp of the perverse, there's no more spring in his step or lift in his chin than in hers.

I now believe that all of these "routines," overtly episodic but surprisingly coherent as a narrative, were never intended as eccentric means to convey something Ade might have presented otherwise. Watching Toni Erdmann, I feel more co-present with the bodies of the performers than I usually do in cinema. Their inchoate surges of longing for each other, impatience with each other, helplessness or power, honesty or deceit, translate with disarming clarity once you stop (once I stop) trying to read them as fussy code for some clearer moral. The fortune, as it were, is less tasty than the cookie, but it's also appealingly elusive. This isn't a story about a father and daughter who gradually reconnect after his three-hour campaign of cryptic clownery—though a late embrace they share in a public park points in this direction. Nor is it a story about a father and daughter failing to reconnect, despite incipient signs of each fumbling their way toward the other's weirdo frequencies—though the epilogue, when Daughter starts performing some of Dad's favorite bits, and both Daughter and Dad seem deflated by the attempt, points in this direction. I now think the movie is an anomaly of physics, a case where Daughter, Dad, and the nature of their bond remain in constant motion, yet nonetheless stay parked at exactly the same fork in the same road, one arrow pointing toward closeness, the other toward alienation. I've seen Maren Ade's astounding prior feature Everyone Else, so I know she's better than anyone at breaking characters up, if that's what she intends. Toni Erdmann, named after neither protagonist but a half-hearted ruse they quasi-maintain between them, is about intimate relations that have somehow floated off into space, such that neither participant would know how to verbalize it, or identify their role in it, or rate it on a scale of fondness or rejection. There are lots of relationships in the world like this but very few movies that evoke them so devoutly. Even fewer devise their own idiolect of tempo, tone, gesture, visual anti-style, and deceptively structure-free script to evoke a historically specific, culturally specific, economically-inflected mode of distance, drift, and ineffable longing. All that and a barrel of laughs, which only grew in depth and number from my first to my second viewing, and again from second to third. But could I articulate where they come from, or what's so funny, or the exact relation of these jokes to pain, humiliation, and sadness? No, I could not. You just have to be there.

Honorable Mention: If I mention Elle, you'll think I'm taking yet another mean swipe at that out-to-lunch Cannes jury that blanked both of these movies. (And yes, Kiki Dunst, I kinda blame you, with your dual German citizenship and your advocacy for women filmmakers and your soft spot for stories about depression. Did they tie you up and overrule you??) ANYWAY: Elle, in which Isabelle Huppert is of course quite lacerating, diverges completely from Toni Erdmann in visual style and other respects. That said, both films wriggle out from under any attempt to encapsulate story or theme too cleanly. Both are interested in how capitalist power games bleed into "private" behavior and distort human relations, without floating any dogmatic theses about how exactly this happens or how one might stop it. Both stand astride a border of realism and fabulation. Both ponder the scale of what daughters inherit from fathers, while refusing the sense that daughters can be "explained" this way, or any way. Both force their actresses quite far out on very exposing limbs, while telegraphing clearly that the homonymous Huppert and Hüller are full co-conspirators in deciding what to show and what to conceal.
 

39. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013)
 
12 Years a Slave commences with a wide shot of 18 enslaved men, women, and children, standing shoulder-to-shoulder but two rows deep, so a few of them are only visible as the fraying brim of a straw hat. Behind them are stalks of sugar cane. Over and above everything is leaden blue sky the color of a cop's shirt. The focus of this shot is so unusually deep that, despite multiple planes of relative foreground and background, the image as a whole looks flat and shadowless, as though these people have been trapped under the glass of a scientist's slide, or pinned to the screen like lepidoptery specimens. This is far from the last time in Steve McQueen's film that enslaved bodies will be coerced into formal phalanx like this, but as an opening tableau, this shot raises some specific concerns. For one, will 12 Years a Slave stage itself throughout with such clinical coldness, at risk of treating the people in the story as objects under a director's lens, or a contemporary audience's magnifying glass? Coevally, given this image's refusal of depth, mirrored in the characters' stonewalled expressions, will the film be thwarted in its attempts to get "inside" this experience? Or, just as bad if not worse, will it fetishize the goal of penetrating its subjects' defenses, breaking the shell around a history many would call unrepresentable, and cater increasingly to an imagined spectator's voyeuristic desire to see, to know, to understand, however uncomfortably or ambivalently?

Bearing out the complexity of these dilemmas and of McQueen's responses to them, the next few shots in 12 Years a Slave test totally different strategies. The second has the slight downward angle and handheld mobility we associate with POV shots, and indeed originates loosely from where the slaves are standing—though whoever's gaze this might be, the overseer does not quite meet it. The third, a forward track crouched low to the ground, pushing through cane stalks like Oscar Wao's mongoose, feels even more like a POV shot, but whose could it be, especially once it levitates up for a high-angle view of the sweltering cane-cutters? The fourth shot appears to be an objective view of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hacking away at the thick wall of vegetation, but the reverse angle suggests this was a subjective view through the eyes of the white-clad, frowning, fan-clutching plantation owner, an orientation no viewer will easily tolerate (none, anyway, likely to see 12 Years by choice). Is that why McQueen didn't reveal the shot's source until afterward, so we wouldn't register whose shoes and outlook we briefly but unmistakably occupied? Almost as soon as McQueen and genius cinematographer Sean Bobbitt construct this visual orientation, they undermine it with a dissolve back to the creepy-crawly track over the soil, and then another dissolve to about two-dozen enslaved people bunking down in a cabin that should fit about four, and then another dissolve that superimposes those preparing for sleep with other enslaved people, or maybe the same people, bent mirthlessly over a silent meal. Despite a projection of confident tranquility, perspective and montage have entered full-on crisis. After two quick cuts, we finally enter Solomon's eyeline: the first image in the film clearly tagged and sourced as a POV shot as we enter it. This close-up on Solomon's tin plate looks at first like a shot of his meager provisions. As it lingers, though, with Solomon's hand tilting the plate so that blackberry juice sluices around the depression at its center, we realize that he sees something quite different: ink! This short scene, unplaceable in terms of how much time it traverses, will find Solomon whittling a hollow reed into what he hopes might work as a pen, then testing his contraption by candlelight. The failure is dismal. The juice blots and the quill splinters.

I offer all this detail to make the case that Solomon's immediate problem in this prologue (how, literally, to get his experience on paper) is also, self-consciously, the problem of the film. Where to start? From whose orientation, if any? How to write or mount or watch a chronicle this traumatic, which is one man's history and many people's history and, in other important senses, and whether or not they admit it, every American's history? Through its uncommonly meticulous image and editing choices, underscored throughout by Hans Zimmer's slow, surging, unresolved string chords, which lament and repeat without making any melodic progress, 12 Years a Slave clarifies to anyone who takes film form seriously—really reads it, layer by layer and moment to moment—that the film is humbled, even disoriented, by the intractable burdens raised by reconstructing plantation slavery before a camera, so that millions of people will watch it from their own millions of vantages. The surviving slave narratives of the 19th century also tend to start in halting ways, understandably cowed by the enormity of what they are duty-bound to report, but also nervous about the judgments or denials or fine-grained critiques they may prompt as to their veracity or their expressive facility or both. So already, 12 Years a Slave is honoring a literary and historical tradition in the way it admits, as they did, a monumental sense of responsibility and a bewildered notion of how to advance. This is true even earlier than where I began, with that opening onscreen caption, sustaining the old and troubling tradition of the corroborating editor's note, here reduced to a don't-even-try-it statement of fact and a locution so familiar it may pass like a bromide: "This film is based on a true story."

I imagine you have seen 12 Years a Slave and have probably made up your mind about the integrity of its storytelling, the defensibility of its tactics, even the pros or cons of "continuing" to reiterate experiences like these on screen. I hear that verb often, which I feel overstates the frequency with which commerical cinema has ever broached, really broached this history; that said, I do take the fair, debate-worthy point about the disproportionate bevy of prestige-marketed films starring black people that coalesce as records of obscene suffering. Essays still appear frequently, including Lauren Jackson's provocative one just yesterday, about the Scylla and Charybdis of declining to represent plantation slavery altogether vs. subjecting it to visual grammars, recurrent tropes, and an especially mass-market, capital-driven art form that can easily dishonor exactly what its artists hope to respect. Here, too, I see 12 Years a Slave trying hard, with creative and historical care, to honor both sides of a worthy argument. Sometimes McQueen's film forces us to witness the most flagrant, unmistakable assaults, the whippings, auctions, rapes, and murders. Sometimes it evades such depictions, which can raise problems of their own, by letting objects tell their own stories: a shirt flayed to ribbons, to indicate a whipping we needn't watch; or the loudly churning wheel of a steamship, inflated to massive proportions by an implacable zoom, to emblematize the whole infrastructure of the chattel economy, endlessly grinding away. Sometimes 12 Years finds ways to distill the day-to-day-every-day outrage of slavery through grotesque dilation, as in the famous, long-held shot of Solomon in a noose, on tiptoe, or the moment when Michael Fassbender, as rabid plantation owner Edwin Epps, rests his elbow on the head of a black child, who in his eyes (not that he's looking, or thinking) may as well be a newel post. Sometimes, by choice or by formal necessity, 12 Years a Slave has to leap so quickly through time that you may not feel the agonizing duration proclaimed in its title. Sometimes, for a creative purpose or to secure a budget from star-hungry financiers or via a cultural addiction to white saviors, 12 Years may linger longer than some of us would like on producer Brad Pitt's short cameo, awkward in more ways than one, as the carpenter who carries Solomon's story back home.

There is plenty to argue in relation to 12 Years a Slave, which evokes a chapter of American experience—the essential book, I'd wager, of American experience—that we should be facing, grasping, and arguing much, much more often than we already do. Considered on its own aesthetic merits, which encompass ongoing, eclectic, and potent levels of nuance across the whole movie, matching those I underscored in the preamble alone, I think 12 Years a Slave is a humongous achievement. Considered especially against the impossible obstacle course that any self-reflective artist knows they are entering when they take up a tale like Solomon Northup's, or Patsey's, or Eliza's, or Robert's, or any of the enslaved people's whose names we never learn, I am all the more moved and humbled by this film's achievements, to include what many spectators convincingly frame as mistakes or omissions, some avoidable, some inevitable. This, for me, is what it looks like when a team of estimable artists, from the cast to the writer to the costumer to the composer to the editor to the grips, comes together to do their very best with a story that remembers the very worst.
 

40. Good Time (dirs. Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017)
 
I was in the hospital for ten days in August 2017 with what turned out to be a hemorrhage in my GI tract, and the day I finally got out, I went to see the Safdie Brothers' Good Time. This is either a horrible context or a close-to-ideal one in which to encounter this unrelenting film, which all over the world has tied guts into knots and made viewers feel they were about to explode even if they haven't, in fact, recently exploded. Early in the movie, a magenta dye pack detonates inside a sack of cash clutched by two very plausibly misbegotten bank robbers, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson), fast and tensile like a bobcat, and his brother Nick Nikas (co-director Benny Safdie), who is slower and even more error-prone. The dye pack isn't the first thing in the movie to go off. Connie has already popped his lid at the end of the first sequence, barging into Nick's session with a therapist who is trying to give him tools for navigating his obvious developmental disability. Connie springs Nick from the building amidst a mushroom cloud of denial and imprecation. He consistently makes catastrophic choices on his own and his brother's behalf, which tend to work out even worse for innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders. At the same time, light years away from anything like an "excuse," but nonetheless a crucial foundation for all this mayhem, Connie is earnestly, even monomanically attached to his brother. He's like a throbbing pulmonary artery, spastic from overwork, trying to ensure that a compromised heart keeps beating.

Connie's devotion is no compensation for medical care, honest work, or ethical reflection but it's a clear boon to this extraordinary film, giving Good Time an infinitely richer emotional foundation and a more intricate mash-up of loving and appalling impulses than the Safdies' current, more volubly championed feature Uncut Gems. That one's about an idiot who makes a series of idiotic choices in high-risk standoffs with more thinly sketched characters, captured in scenes that mostly go exactly as you know they will. Whatever its virtues of style and verve, Uncut Gems already felt more familiar to me on first watch than Good Time does after four. Every one of the earlier film's narrative surprises gives the same seasick feeling it did in the theater. Some of them are doozies just at the level of hairpin plotting, including one that made me all the gladder I had just left a hospital. More often, Connie's swift and outrageously selfish behavior, obviously as invested in saving his own hide as his brother's, and never detached from the seductive fantasy of cash, combines the thrill of ace story twists with the plummeting feeling of watching other lives get destroyed, in ways even worse, somehow, than what I feared when these folks had the bad luck to stumble into a Safdie script. The first semi-instance of this pattern involves a too-shrill Jennifer Jason Leigh, cast as a kind of lifetime-achievement tribute to her many contributions in the Cinema of Scuzz. It's the one sequence in Good Time that doesn't fully work and comes early enough that a shakier film might have sunk. Luckily, it's also early enough that we're still absorbing the incredible might of Pattinson's career-changing performance, the aggressive and fearless soundtrack, and the febrile lighting and visual concepts, which often suggest that two or three dye packs have erupted onto the set and behind the lens.

The later episodes of massive collateral damage, in sequences executed to a terrible but consummate hilt, mostly involve the very New Yorkers you'd expect to be most vulnerable in general, and certainly to a wolverine like Connie. One is Crystal (Taliah Webster), the black teenaged daughter of a woman who meets Connie on a bus and has the regrettable goodness to let him inside to use her phone. One is Dash (Barkhad Abdi), the black security guard at an urban theme park where Connie has heard credible rumors of a drug stash that, if recovered in the thick of night, might pull some quick money. Both these characters wind up in the rough hands of law enforcement, one wailing about the nightmarish mistake, one gazing at Connie in a brilliantly long-held close-up, taking in a stunned but permanent lesson about how far this not-at-all-incidentally white man has gone to get what he wants. In different ways, of course, Nick himself is a bold point on this scatterplot of Connie's victims, even though Connie imagines himself as his benefactor. I still don't know what to think about Nick's ultimate destiny, and I think it's to the credit of the movie's layered contextualization that I'm even pausing to wonder. So many movies are silently replete with characters who get injured or impounded or knocked aside as the protagonists race by. Nameless folks who take bullets or make full-body contact with a fireball as the hero or the villain (often a murky distinction, from this angle) be's all they can be in narcissistic combat. Good Time, by contrast, for all its reveling in the dank, really dwells on how even the pettiest of criminals on the loose, whatever the fragility of their own asphyxiated existence amid the underclasses, can constitute a real wrecking crew, cutting a swath across a city that the Safdies clearly know and, better yet, vividly see as a range of neighborhoods, bus shelters, tenements, hospital wards, White Castles, Western Unions, and faltering lots. Most of these spots are unbeautiful, but they're full of people living real lives, until some asshole's grand plan agitates all the broadest fault lines (class, race, sex, citizenship) and sends people careening into parked cars or off of narrow high-rise ledges.

Good Time's sheer momentum can come across as heartless, and the obvious care that's been poured into the filmmaking can make the Safdies seem as over-proud of the object they've made as Connie is of his pipe dreams. But I think the difference is profound, in part because Good Time takes the time to understand Connie without coddling him, and in part because it casts, shoots, and edits its supporting roles with such nuance and intensity that they feel as crucial to the movie and to New York as anyone or anything else. It's odd, giving points not just for band-beating style and scene construction but for something like a politics of representation to a movie so determinedly disreputable, made by two writer-directors who, at least in my experience, don't always cover themselves in glory in public comments or Q&As. This leanest and meanest of thrillers feels a bit like Abel Ferrara remaking Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights, or Sidney Lumet moving Fargo to the outer boroughs of New York and sucking down whatever's in that cursed Sprite bottle between takes. These are not recipes for Progressive Advancement through the Art of the Talking Picture, nor must a movie furnish such a recipe to qualify as great art. Not unlike its protagonist, but with ratios and feelings and priorities so much better sorted, Good Time is a barbed-wire tangle of off-putting and alarming qualities, but threaded somewhere inside it is a silk ribbon you might call moral vision, and it makes a hell of a difference.
 

Nostalgia for the Light, © 2010 Atacama Productions/Blinker Filmproduktion/Westdeutscher Rundfunk/Cronomedia, © 2011 Icarus Films The President, © 2014 Makhmalbaf Film House/20 Steps/BAC Films/Brümmer und Herzog Filmproduktion, © 2016 Corinth Films Shoplifters, © 2018 Magnolia Pictures/GAGA/Fuji Television Network Ixcanul, © 2015 La Casa de Producción/Tu Vas Voir, © 2016 Kino Lorber
41. Nostalgia for the Light (dir. Patricio Guzmán, 2010)
 
The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is a miraculous gift to the world's astronomers. The utter lack of humidity blisters parts of the soil into a rolling floor of inverted shingles. Simultaneously it produces a crystal-clear sky, affording the best vantage on Earth for peering into our galaxy, which means poring over our most distant pasts and our hypothetical futures. The 60 antennae tied to the ALMA telescope facility still record reverberating static from the Big Bang, fritzing around among the stars, This should be a sacred place, however unsurvivable for most forms of life, and indeed it is. Pre-Columbian drawings still emerge now and then from the sands and stones, as do petrified mollusks and fish from a very different epoch of this radically altered ecosystem. But the desert teems as well with a small battery of Antigones—women, in fact, for whom Antigone is an aspirational figure. They dream of the day they could bury their dead as they see fit! First, they have to find them, among the thousands of bodies of Pinochet-era torture victims and executed dissidents, cast off in the desert's oven or the ocean's grave, where nobody imagined they'd ever be found. And so these women return, day after day, shovels in hand, hoping that this terrestrial archive of so many, many, many centuries will not have purged the records of the last few decades, and with them the remains of their loved ones. Occasionally a nose, a hand, a fragment of forehead still turns up, which is both the motivating dream and a nightmare in itself. Violetta Berríos, one of the desert's most devout searchers, rejects the small piece of her late husband's body that at long last broke through the sealed soil of the Atacama. She learned in that moment of discovery that she hadn't, in fact, been hoping for a trace of Mario. She wanted all of Mario, and vowed to accept no substitutes till he turned up in full.

The grand design of Nostalgia for the Light involves its merging of the sublime and the sordid. The millions of years of light rays, meteorites, and cosmic dust that Chile has collected to its arid bosom. The millions of questions that scientists still pose from its privileged astronomical promontories. But also the unnamed, unmarked bodies that turned this singular spot on Earth into a mass cemetery. That conversion required only 16 years of human depravity, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a nothing by the measures of geological or astronomical time, but everything, obviously, to the Chileans still shell-shocked by everything and everyone they lost during that brief, bloody span. Bridging these two histories is both the greatest proof of Patricio Guzmán's unique artistry and a record of a connection many Chileans have already made, especially those for whom the desert and its secrets loom largest. One male astronomer sees an obvious link between his own labor of scouring the stars, seeking the tiniest datum of useful information, and the work of those widows and orphans and bereaved neighbors who comb the desert for clues. "But we can sleep at night," he concedes, on behalf of himself and his fellow scientists, "while they look for a past they cannot find." Guzmán establishes with great delicacy and surprising poetry this structuring link between the skyward quests and those underfoot, which everyone in Chile knows about but few like to address directly. The first 20 minutes or so of Nostalgia for the Light are full of huge, grinding, state-of-the-art tools of telescopy, and a series of tributes, effusive by the standards of science, to Chile's birthright of perfectly-preserved history, expanded every year by its field-leading researchers. Only gradually does the darker half of Guzmán's diptych emerge, not just narratively but visually: a mummified forearm retrieved from the Atacama, fingers broken off at the knuckles; a spiral of galactic matter rendered in rings of red, like blood running toward a drain. Once we reach the middle third of the film, the reprised spectacles of those enormous scopes in their sterile white facilities feel subtly reframed as icons of whitewash, of worldly realities swept under a rug of insistent stargazing. They emblematize stunning innovations while connoting everything that hi-tech engineering cannot unearth for us, and all that humanity has not achieved, despite these embodiments of extraordinary progress.

Both times I've seen Nostalgia for the Light, I've chafed just a bit at the hard surface of its digital photography, which is rather unfair of me, given not only the budgetary impediments to shooting on film but, very likely, the climatic impossibility of dragging a celluloid camera into the Atacama desert. All the talk of sunrays, light years, moonglows, Big Bangs, and natural evolution stands rather akimbo to the movie's machinic eye, utterly immune to anything like a photochemical process. All the discussion of probing the desert for what may still be immersed inside seems similarly incongruous to images with zero grain, concealing nothing within or underneath but a swarm of 0s and 1s. "Nostalgia for the light," indeed! Actually, though, in my most recent viewing, this discrepancy felt poignant. The world has moved on to new paradigms, new tools, literally new ways of seeing and recording. The boons can be enormous, as Chile's observatories attest. But to whatever extent modern images feel detached from "purer" reference to a world before a camera, to whatever extent they feel less like impressions and more like composites or carapaces, they evoke something of the women's own strandedness in an era that has moved on (or wants to move on) from the histories that keep them awake at night. Maybe from History altogether.

I don't want to make Nostalgia for the Light sound more invested than it is in binarisms or false dichotomies. Even if their targets and their prospects of success diverge, the astronomers and the would-be Antigones do share in common a hunger for knowledge. They see themselves in each other, and there's a lovely interlude when two of the regulars in Chile's killing fields get invited to peer through the world's most powerful telescopes. Guzmán superimposes part of this sequence with flecks of silvery starmatter, tying the female mourners into the annals of cosmic truth-seeking, framing their devotion and stamina as part of the miracle of life, not just a catalog of death. "We are Chile's lepers," one of these women confides, given how ostracized they often feel, how suppressed as a topic of polite, non-pathologizing conversation. But they are also, clearly, Chile's oracles and protectors, unearthing the past as a project of healing but also as one of conserving the future, lest it ever again slide into amnesia and violence. Recent volatility in Chile offers yet another reminder that a slide into chaos is never impossible, but strikes, protests, property destruction, and states of emergency are one thing, especially if at root they express a hunger to live equally. This is the opposite of what Pinochet sought. For all their outward calm, belying deep reserves of pain and anger, the women of the Atacama want the same thing as the protesters, as does Guzmán. He always has, dating back to the explosive three-part documentary The Battle of Chile that launched his invaluable career. That this firebrand journalist, scholar, and activist has recently showcased such a meditative, awestruck, almost transcendentalist side—while continuing, unambiguously, to maintain the memory of his country's darkest hours—is itself a profound proof of how wonder and heartbreak merge in the soul of so many Chileans, and of people anywhere that atrocities have unfolded. And where, indeed, have they not? The phrase "nostalgia for the light" implies that all light is in the past, and our relation to it is one of distance, of pining. Guzmán's grim and gorgeous document more than makes that case, while making clear that light of many kinds still illuminates the present: through art, through memory, through tireless searching. Through honoring in any way the searchers, and those for whom they search.

Honorable Mentions: I admit some slight disappointment with 2019's The Cordillera of Dreams, the third film in Guzmán's trilogy of planetary and political histories, but I adore the second film, The Pearl Button (2015), which follows a lead first advanced in Nostalgia about the countless bodies cast into the Pacific Ocean, whether alive or dead at the moment they hit the water. Guzmán repeats his solemn but inspired and weirdly elevating approach of blending the beautiful with the grievous, and refusing to let the earthly wonders of his country be overwhelmed by the enormity of human waywardness to which they have been host. (It's also one of the only two movies I've ever seen in the theater with my friend Melanie, who comes from another country whose oceans are a huge part of its soul, and it was the screening where I met loyal reader Paul, who was so kind to me in line. Lots of good vibes with this one!) In a different cultural context, Ghassan Halwani's experimental documentary Erased,__Ascent of the Invisible (2018) finds a vast Atacama of secret histories lying right underneath the vigorously developed downtown and the rapidly gentrified boardwalks of Beirut. A simple act like peeling away the decades' worth of posters pasted on public walls can reveal, still, faces of the dead from Lebanon's Civil War, which coincided almost exactly with the years of Pinochet's rule. Staggering and sad how parallel our histories are, though spread around the planet, and how similar and necessary the will to preserve them.
 

42. Donbass (dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2018)
42. The President (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2014)
 
If I had dropped cold into The President, you couldn't have offered me enough tries to guess correctly that the director is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the two titans of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. For one thing, the spoken language of the movie is Georgian and, while set in an "Unnamed Country," was filmed in Georgia and Tajikistan with Georgian and European money. More dramatically, the movie's style contrasts with so many of the eclectic fashions I've witnessed across Makhmalbaf's storied body of work: the metacinematic quasi-documentaries of Hello, Cinema (1995) and A Moment of Innocence (1996), the plush pastoral poetry of Gabbeh (1996), the austere latter-day street-realism of Scream of the Ants (2006). With the information in place, I can see threads tying The President's images, themes, and story structures back to the early dramas The Peddler (1987) and The Cyclist (1990), though the vantage point, politics, and production values of those films differ markedly from The President's; or to the tense, colorful Odyssey of Kandahar, albeit with different critiques of power and historical references. The President's protagonist is an anonymous military dictator (Misha Gomiashvili), whose debts to elective democratic process are either cosmetic or nonexistent. Seated in his crisp military uniform, signing off on the executions of several dissidents, including a 16-year-old, the President is also indulging his very young grandson Dachi (Dachi Orvelashvili) with a dalliance in capricious authority: he allows the boy to call the public utility line and entertain himself by having all of the capital's electricity switched off and on at will. But suddenly, the power, in all senses of the word, fails to return, and the wide shot and corresponding soundtrack fill with gunshots and guerrilla explosions. The President, sweet with little Dachi, stern with everyone else, sees off his wife and daughters from his private airport, expressing more confidence than they do that this fracas will pass. Within a quarter-hour, though, The President sinks into a suspenseful picaresque amid raging public chaos. A $200,000 bounty goes out for the figutive leader, now on the lam with Dachi, adopting a series of thin disguises and extemporaneous strategies to reach the border, any border. The price on his head keeps climbing, all the way to $1,000,000, but at least that's an abstract danger. The bodies in the streets, the bloodthirsty radio bulletins, and the unmasking of every safe harbor as a new scene of peril are more immediate and harrowing threats.

I wouldn't call The President "Brechtian" in style, but I'll use that adjective for its story structure and ironic tone. Like The Caucasian Chalk Circle or The Good Person of Szechwan, the setting of The President has a clear bearing on real places in the world but is, to say the least, incompletely invested in realist detail. Closer to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Makhmalbaf's script, co-written with his wife and highly accomplished colleague Marziyeh Meshkini, is complexly interested in the power plays and peccadilloes of a bad man, captured here amid precipitous decline rather than sinister ascendancy. As in those works or others as different as Galileo or Mother Courage and Her Children, The President assumes an unsteady array of perspectives on a figure whom most dramatists might frame more simply as a hero, a martyr, an opportunist, or a monster, though in the case of this broken, scrambling ex-President, those labels clearly follow a sequence from least to most fitting. If anything, some viewers may reject what seems to be Makhmalbaf's premise of tracking the severe and pitiable downfall of a man who caused death and suffering on such vast scales, hewing so close to his POV that one senses at least a hint of sympathy...and that's even before you factor in the moppet on his hip, who regularly poses questions like "What is 'torture'?" or "What is a 'political prisoner'?" or "What does it mean to die?" Emphatically, though, this is no Life Is Beautiful for a fallen oligarch. The President's many crimes are clear. The pitch verges on irony but never farce, or recuperation. The attempts to insulate this small boy from all the loathing and danger surrounding him appear both understandable and misguided, and more than a little self-serving. At one point, while seeking asylum from a prostitute he used to enjoy, the President plugs the tyke's ears and faces him out the window to block out any untoward exposure, but all this accomplishes is the kid's first-hand witnessing of point-blank assassinations in the street.

Makhmalbaf has not fallen in love with his character, but he may nonetheless be intrigued by what it means to imagine a living ghoul as a human being drowning in fear, with dawning recognition of his own atrocious misspending of time on earth. Again, for some viewers, that might be a no-go of a premise: "In this film, we will watch as the at-last-deposed Saddam Hussein sprints around Iraq with his grandson, desperate for a spider-hole, face striped with tears." But I don't think Makhmalbaf, who served five years of jail time in his youth for stabbing one of the Shah's policemen, and whose Kandahar remains an elliptical but powerful indictment of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, has suddenly gone soft on despots, even in their sudden, calamitous dotage. As The President unfolds, full of tart gags (incognito is difficult when you've plastered your country with paintings of yourself!) and bitter remonstrance ("Your majesty, if you'd cared about the people earlier, it might have been better," and that's by far the least of it), Makhmalbaf clearly frets over uncontrolled nuclear reaction in even the most richly-warranted populist uprisings. This thematic concern becomes most literal by the end and is another trait of The President that might, like the positioning of its very few women characters, polarize its audiences. But there's something very refreshing about a denunciation of a tyrant that refuses, without any cotton-brained #BothSides'ing, to hold back on its arraignments of the People's own role in enabling or sustaining that tyranny for so long. Is there anywhere in the world right now where renting The President on Amazon (free for Prime members!) wouldn't stoke some cathartic ire, while also forcing many of us to scrutinize our own fantasies and our rhetoric about the exact kind of "revolution" we want?

I'm forced to say less about Donbass, a tremendous, darkly carnivalesque epic of social and political freefall in contemporary Ukraine, directed by the single master filmmaker who's been least well-served this decade by U.S. distributors. I'd have rewatched the movie, but I can't re-see it, and without a multi-region disc player, Americans can't see it at all. And why, after all, give Americans access to a heightened parable of fear, violence, external threat, fragile leadership, and over-confident, even exuberant displays of rebellion in today's Ukraine? Good thing Cannes refused an obviously-deserved spot in its main Competition, and all the extra publicity that might have enabled. Thank goodness nobody in this country has responded to all of Donbass's top-flight reviews by, you know, showing it to us! #Collusion. #QuidProQuo. If it sounds like I'm joking, I'm doing so in a key that's not too far from Loznitsa's own gallows humor (or, occasionally, Makhmalbaf's). The absurdist vignettes move from crazy exercises in combat training to underground bunkers bracing for doomsday to everyday street corners where a tiff can become a bloodbath. These chapters sometimes plant their tongues firmly in their cheeks; at least half the time, that tongue gets bitten off. If you're still chuckling as the end approaches, you won't be during the credits. Loznitsa's remarkable knack for camera choreography pays extraordinary dividends here, as does a gift for color, scale, and energetic sweep you'd never have surmised from his early, winter's-bone documentaries, such as Blockade. Like Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Sergei Loznitsa is a polymathic prodigy of scripted and nonfiction cinemas, and of gradients in between. Like The President, Donbass isn't even his best or most haunting movie, though for many directors, it would be. Like Makhmalbaf, he assesses his homeland with a unique, often merciless eye, though never an anarchic or non-compassionate one, and his interests extend elsewhere on the world map. The same is harder to claim about the interests of U.S. distributors, but I'll take a note here from The President, which did, after two years, sneak into a few American cinemas via a tiny outfit called Corinth Films: if you're going to lambast the folks with power, real or perceived, you have to critique your own role in actively or passively allowing their worst behaviors. From there, you can ponder the fairest, most effective response, which may indeed revolutionize a system, but hopefully questions the seductive fantasy of burning everything down.

Honorable Mentions: The episodic structure that Donbass marshals so strongly has been long-practiced by Sweden's deadpan genius Roy Andersson. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, Reflecting on Existence (2014), the Golden Lion winner at a very competitive Venice Film Festival, isn't even his best work but its spirit is mordant, angry, and sad, like those of the two films in this entry. Its best scenes are gold-standard classics, my favorite being the one in the cruise-ship cafeteria. Speaking of festivals, I am happy to say that The President sustained the incredible track-record for superb winners at my beloved Chicago Film Festival, care of Kathleen Turner's wonderfully shrewd jury. Other champs this decade have already arisen on the main list or the appended Honorable Mentions, including Holy Motors, Happy as Lazzaro, A Sort of Family, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I'll here add three more Golden Hugo victors that, like The President, still merit a big boost in name recognition: How I Ended This Summer (2010), Aleksei Popogrebsky's white-knuckle two-hander about a younger and older man staffing a remote Arctic research station, and learning not to trust each other; My Sweet Pepper Land (2013), a highly atmospheric and politically fraught contemporary Western, set in a quiet town at the volatile Kurdish borderzones of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey; and Sieranevada (2016), an expert seminar in the long sequence shot to rival the ones in Donbass, and an elevation of the family-reunion drama to the stature of epic.
 

43. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018)
 
Like Jayro Bustamante's Ixcanul, a film so superficially disparate, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters was also inspired by reported events in his home country, which the writer-director clearly knows like the back of his hand. Yet again, the movie centers us within a fundamentally dispossessed family whom we come to care for very much despite a series of choices we may not endorse. Yet again, the invisible forces of law and bureaucracy cannot be staved off forever, even as the film creates such an enveloping micro-universe around our main characters that we may easily forget offscreen vantages, ignoring how they might assess what we've been watching and implicitly going along with. In writing about Ixcanul, I stressed how it starts as a drama of stark alternatives but expands over time into a layered series of impossible choices, or dilemmas too complicated to reduce down to "choice." Shoplifters differs from Bustamante's film in structure, in milieu, in look, and certainly in tone, which tilts toward the wistful, graced with as many notes of light comedy or kindness as scenes of pathos, tension, or despair. But Kore-eda's movie is, in its own way, a drama of choices at a nested series of levels. On one are the diegetic choices: what are the Shibatas, a multigenerational clan living none too lavishly in the heart of Japan, supposed to do when they notice a tiny tot being abused and neglected nearby, by parents who might not notice if she were gone? What counts as a defensible way of acquiring food or income amid narrow financial straits and in the absence of a social safety net? Does it matter if people know you're stealing from them, or if you're literally cashing in on someone else's guilt for wrongs you withstood in the past? What's at stake in confounding the distinction between biological families and those you choose?

The second level of questions are the same as the first, but this time aimed at the viewer. I appreciate very much that Shoplifters does not orient itself primarily as an occasion for moral referenda, but I can't imagine watching the film and thinking it's irrelevant to weigh the relative (or absolute?) differences between pilfering some candy at the corner store and pilfering a child from her parents' freezing outdoor balcony. Those are just two examples drawn from the less and more inflammatory ends of the ethical spectrum that the Shibatas wind up surveying. The fact that Kore-eda directs with such humanistic attunement to this family unit's excellent intentions, their beyond-just-economic precarity, and the ease and fondness they extend toward each other is not just a way of softening a plot that might have doubled down on sensational provocation. I think Kore-eda is reminding us how easily moral infractions get folded into our lives without seeming to ripple the surface, especially if we're convinced we are acting toward a greater good or had no choice but to act otherwise, or both. And for all my invocations of "the Shibatas," we can't pretend that everyone who shares that name also shares the same view of their choices, even though they present a warmly united front. One's own reading of the Shibatas very likely shifts in relation to which character most claims your attention or which specific actions or facets of their lives strike you as paramount. And here we arrive at a third layer of Shoplifters's complex drama of choice. By framing many of his images such that the viewer gets to elect their own point of focus within the family, by pacing and cutting the film such that distinctions between "big" and "small" moments are not prescribed in advance, and by subtly revisiting the question of who is the "main" character in this story, Kore-eda gives a master-class in a form of cinema that invites viewers to ask, explore, respond, and reason for ourselves. We hear all the time about how actors must not judge their characters, but it feels even rarer for a whole movie to be so divested from judgment, refusing even to foreordain which scenes or characters matter most.

If it's not already obvious from the fact that I maintain a film-review site and utilize the debased rubric of the letter grade, I'm partial to acts of judgment, though hopefully not of the inflexible, overly vehement, or self-exonerating kinds. I can't say my judgments of Kore-eda have always been the highest, and by the midpoint of this decade, especially after the inanities of Air Doll and the lachrymose overstepping of Like Father, Like Son, I had basically stopped keeping up with his work. The biggest reason I made a beeline for Shoplifters was its Palme d'or at Cannes, but specifically because of how that year's especially discerning jury made their case at the press conference. They described a deep admiration for Shoplifters rooted not in an outsized showcase of directorial technique or a loud declaiming of the story's wider relevance but of the tremendous assurance with which every cut, camera placement, and calibration of script and cast seemed so totally in sync, as if the story were telling itself, impeccably. This was a Kore-eda I'd heard described before and often not recognized upon encountering his films, which did seem a little blunt in their strategies or sluggish in their tempos, even when I admired their narrative puzzles and refusals to hurry. I do wonder if Kore-eda's recruitment of a new cinemtographer, Ryûto Kondô, and a distinguished but semi-retired composer, Haruomi Hosono, yielded a measurable stylistic change in Shoplifters or a shift in his own praxis. (Kore-eda edits his own films, in addition to writing and directing them.) Maybe that explains why this film in particular piqued my excitement as well as so many other people's. I also love the stories I've heard of Kore-eda and his collaborators filming a few scenes in summer, getting a sense of how their characters and rapports were emerging, with what effects on temperature and theme, and then calling a hiatus for a few months so Kore-eda could revise and complete the script with those organic discoveries in mind. Maybe that's a Best Practice for filmmakers that should circulate far and wide! But I also think my joyful surprise at how much I loved Shoplifters, and how deeply it's lingered with me, indicate lapses in my own judgment. I don't know if I've always been as receptive to such discreet but precise modes of direction, and I benefited from hearing such an eloquent tribute to them from such trusted voices. I don't believe I realized how tonally varied Kore-eda's films are, and that my discomfiture with one or more was not a reason to balk at others. I haven't resolved my own opinion about lots that happens in Shoplifters, much less what I would do or how I would fare in the same scenario. I did, however, take away very clear and valuable lessons about patience, receptivity, and generosity that have stayed with me and resonated well beyond the bounds of this magical film.

Honorable Mentions: Part of the ramp-up to my Kore-eda epiphany with Shoplifters involved my rental a few months earlier of After the Storm (2016), a quite moving, quietly generous family drama with a gorgeous lead performance by Hiroshi Abe and another indelible one by Kirin Kiki; the latter also shines as the de facto matriarch of the Shibatas in Shoplifters and passed away a few months after the triumphant Cannes premiere. Twitter followers urged me to track down Our Little Sister (2015), aka Umimachi Diary, and that one was even better, beautifully selling a narrative that had struck me on paper as a wide-open invite to Kore-eda's more treacly impulses. Meanwhile, it's worth digging into the especially rich trove of cinema from which the 2018 Cannes jury made this lovely, well-earned choice. I've already saluted Happy as Lazzaro and The Image Book further down on this list, as well as Ash Is Purest White in the Honorable Mentions for The Irishman. To that crop, I would add Nadine Labaki's Capernaum (2018), a formally astounding study of another semi-improvised "family" amidst an unforgettable tour of their city. The performances in that one, especially by the barely-teenaged Zain Al Rafeea, are almost beyond belief. Jafar Panahi's 3 Faces (2018) marked a welcome, cleverly scripted return to on-location dramas after his "house arrest" trilogy had started to suffer a bit from the limitations imposed on his own highly surveilled mobility. Last, the widely neglected labor-dispute drama At War (2018) almost completely resists any urge to drum up more "drama" beyond the negotiation table itself and the spirited, sometimes acrimonious rehearsals for those high-stakes summits. Boy is that largely non-professional cast on fire, spearheaded by the ever-reliable Vincent Lindon, even before—well...
 

44. Ixcanul (dir. Jayro Bustamante, 2015)
 
Jayro Bustamante's Mayan-Guatemalan debut feature Ixcanul opens with its lead character, María (María Mercedes Coroy), facing the camera in tight close-up but mostly keeping her gaze down, away from the lens. Behind her, her mother Juana (María Telón) ties some tufted, wreath-like decorations into her hair, in preparation for a visit from Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), the foreman of the mountainside coffee plantation where Juana, her husband Manuel (Manuel Antún), and María all work. Ignacio, at least a half-generation older than María, is eager to wed her and will shortly arrive with his family for a repast that also functions as a final audition for matrimony. Anyone who's read a novel, seen a play, or watched a movie before might suspect that María's heart, or at least her desires, favor another, poorer man. Pepe (Marvin Coroy), Ignacio's predictable foil, has added factors of risk but also excitement for María, since he plans to flee any day for the U.S. We are clearly and firmly rooted in the terrain, albeit loamier and ruddier than usual, of the triangulated melodrama, monitored and in many ways fueled by sympathetic parents who nonetheless live under too much financial and material strain to be cavalier about freeing their teen daughter to follow her pleasures. You can see where this is going—but can you, really? That opening shot of Juana bedecking María for her suitor's visit lasts for 90 seconds, calling noteworthy attention to itself, and she will soon appear thusly dressed for that occasion. But quite a bit happens in the interceding minutes: Juana and María pour rum down the throats of two reluctant hogs to facilitate their mating; mother and daughter, still in work clothes, thresh some hay; more formally outfitted, they visit the top of the nearby volcano at night, ritualistically praying for María's successful match; María, casually dressed, meets Pepe in a glade for some twilit nuzzling. Was that opening scene a rehearsal for a rendezvous that actually transpires days later, or did we miss something?

Viewer, we did. Ixcanul only seems to play as a taut, linear tale, though on that level the movie excels. The cast—mostly non-professionals at the time, though María Mercedes Coroy has appeared in several more films since—have been quite well-chosen and well-directed, and Bustamante's feel for image-making, camera positioning, and pacing are already super-confident, especially for a first feature. The photography by Luis Armando Arteaga, who also got his start here as lead cinematographer and has afterward shot several high-profile festival hits, has an unusually rich saturation while still capturing lots of fine detail in the natural locations. The striking force of color, light, and shadow only amplify the sense in Ixcanul's narrative that wills, yearnings, obligations, conflicts, and secrets are swelling to a point of intimidating intensity. These qualities alone would make Ixcanul special, but what lifts it even higher are its meticulous handlings of duality, of ambiguity, of offscreen elements, and of audience expectations—sometimes duping us, sometimes confirming what we've reluctantly guessed or might have guessed if our attentions weren't so deftly guided elsewhere.

Let's say you experience the first third or so of Ixcanul as a predicament of binary choices. María will select this man or that man, with attendant connotations of either honoring the priorities and traditions of her Kaqchikel-speaking parents or casting her lot with youthful abandon and with Pepe's north-facing dreams. (His fellow Mayan friends rib him about wanting to learn English without ever showing the least interest in Spanish.) When Juana discovers that María is pregnant, easily guessing the father, another unambiguous fork presents itself as to whether María will keep the baby. However, the middle of Ixcanul brilliantly muddies all of this. Leaving aside Pepe, who's an even wilder card than first revealed, and Igancio, who may or may not suspect María's ambivalence, the young woman herself has more complex and constantly shifting reasons for aligning herself with one guy or the other, one life or the other, superseding the simpler model of "choice." Even more dramatically, Juana oscillates between trying to terminate and trying to save her daughter's pregnancy. Toward both ends, she deploys scientific reasoning as well as superstitious remedy, without the movie signaling us to fully trust or flatly discredit either one as the right path toward desired results. As the family's plight gets more desperate and our vantage on the community gets wider, it's clear that this effectively feudal society of 21st-century serfs depends on the global capital raised by their coffee-bean harvest, and also continues to worship the nearby volcano (the ixcanul, in Kaqchikel) as a deity to be honored and feared. This is a world where you must fret how fast plantation foremen share local kompromat on their cellphones and you might hire a spirit guide to coax the snakes out of a field that badly needs planting. If that doesn't work, you might send a pregnant girl into the same hissing field, counting on old lore that her milk and her womb will magically bend the reptiles to her will.

Bustamante refuses to exoticize or lampoon these "folk" beliefs and practices, despite the characters' occasional self-recriminations for believing them. He equally refuses to credit the peripheral world of hospitals, census takers, migrations, and money as a world that his indigenous characters would do well to join. Assimilation has already happened, not on the stale model of one group casting its lot completely with another group's ways and means but as a mesh of old/new, safe/risky, nuanced/broad, modern/immemorial influences, where none of those dyads matches simply onto others. Their imbrications with each other are not background to Ixcanul's steadily mounting drama but are the drama, informing everything in and about this place, including the residents' choices, temperaments, sacrifices, and hail-mary attempts at self-rescue. Everyone's motivations make sense, and all are at some point fathomless, or contradictory...and that's even before the third half-hour reveals still more tricks up Ixcanul's sleeve. For one thing, this local sphere of tumultuous uncertainty, as deeply as we've been acquainting ourselves with it, clearly exists in service to outside systems and structures that are hardly uninvested in everything that's happening. That corporatized and bureaucratized universe, barely ever glimpsed, nonetheless succeeds in upending every major character's life with one or two expertly timed flicks of its own serpentine tongue. Ixcanul, set in a region where Bustamante partly grew up and based on events that actually transpired there, presents an indigenous perspective on modern realities, richly textured and impeccably filmed, that is unusual in contemporary cinema. At the same time, his story is just as incisive about capital, the state, contemporary neo-slavery, and ever-more-invasive tactics for the managing of "populations." And so we wind up, even more literally than we might have divined, back where we started. Ixcanul is a melodrama, a martyrdom, a tragedy, and a protest piece. Its formal structure, however encompassing of multiple planes of realty and mysticism, is nevertheless a perfect circle—just like a rabbit snare, or a noose.

Honorable Mentions: The Peruvian drama Song without a Name (2019), filmed in stylized, dreamlike black-and-white, also follows a convulsive story of personal, pregnancy-related tribulation distorted by national politics, especially from the top of the social pyramid but sometimes from its outcasts. Keep your eyes open for a possible U.S. release in 2020. Meanwhile, just this year, Bustamante followed up his majestic debut with two more features, as different from each other as each is from Ixcanul. La Llorona (2019), not to be confused with the schlocky Hollywood horror film, is a stern and supernaturally-inflected tale of political comeuppance. Tensions and conflicts are routed skillfully through several characters in one household, eventually centering the person I was least trusting to make an empathetic, identificatory leap. Viewers might debate the politics of Bustamante's climactic gestures, but the storytelling and the genre-hybrid filmmaking are bewitching. Temblores (2019), which played some festivals under its translated title Tremors, follows a Guatemalan husband, father, and lawyer who has left his family for another man, rousing their Fantastic Woman-level retributions. Without blurring its perspective on cruelty or its compassion toward its lead, Temblores is notable for showing just how difficult and erratic a coming-out process can be, especially when faith and family are so complexly at stake. Bustamante keeps you in sympathy with his lead amidst his dramatic steps backwards as well as forward. The filmmaker, meanwhile, just keeps advancing. (If you live in Chicago, you can catch Temblores at the Siskel starting this Friday.)
 

Toy Story 3, © 2010 Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios Melancholia, © 2011 Magnolia Pictures/Zentropa Entertainments27 ApS/Film i Väst Summer 1993, © 2017 Inicia Films/Avalon, © 2018 Oscilloscope Isle of Dogs, © 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures/Indian Paintbrush
45. Toy Story 3 (dir. Lee Unkrich, 2010)
 
I saw Toy Story 3 with my brilliant friend and colleague Anna Parkinson, who was nervous on the way to the cinema because she hadn't seen either of its predecessors. I assured her that once it started, her Ph.D. would kick right in and she would grasp every plot strand firmly in hand. I did warn her, though, that media reports suggested we might be puddles of tears by the end, and that whatever that meant, I was especially likely to be a goner. Flash forward to the eight-minute mark: college-age Andy is now so indifferent to his childhood friends, survivors of repeated traumas, that he has shed most of them over time and stashes the rest in a chest. Andy doesn't even react when they kidnap his cellphone and bury it amidst the disorderly jumble of their bodies, in hopes of seeking a micron of the love and recognition with which they have lavished him for nearly two decades but Andy doesn't CARE. Anna, perhaps not incidentally the author of a superb book about public displays of affect, happened to glance over at me, 90 minutes earlier than we'd been warned about the odd sob, and I was a human rivulet. One of the happy but distractable kids in the next row down also noticed, which is possibly revealing of what we'll call my emotional state. This child asked the adult in that group, "Mommy, why is the old man crying?" He's crying, kid, for the same reason he'll never forgive that hussy Amélie Poulain for leaving her "treasured" teddy bear in a window planter, exposed to the elements, decomposing for years and merging with the soil in brutal time-lapse. Also on my permanent shit list is George Miller, whose response to producing a gorgeous movie about a perfectly lovely farmland menagerie and seeing the world so warmly embrace it was to direct a sequel himself and turn Babe into frigging Delicatessen with shades of Alex Proyas. If it took you until the 2016 Cannes Film Festival prize ceremony to question this man's judgment, don't look at me. You don't treat your fuzzy homies or the besties of your youth like this.

But I wasn't here to air artistic and personal betrayals. I came to praise their exact opposite, embodied on this occasion by the marvelous Toy Story 3. Film history teaches us to be even more skeptical of third installments than seconds. The improbable success of Toy Story 2 in preserving and expanding so much that's great about its forefather, climaxing with a pitch-perfect and deeply satisfying finish, did not reassure me. Indeed, for Pixar to seek more lightning after two perfect strikes only fueled my fear and doubt. But my guard went down basically as soon as the colorful, high-velocity opening of Toy Story 3, which repositions the often-manic finales of Pixar features as instead a spirited prologue. That sequence alone, equally generous to stars like Buzz Lightyear, showcased supports like Rex and the Potato-Heads, and beloved supernumeraries like the barrel of monkeys, finds a role for nearly all of the franchise's stalwart players, with an ingenuity and care once synonymous with the Pixar brand. So it's all the sadder, if fully predictable within this series, that the toys so quickly and painfully (re)discover that the world at large and the household writ small will fail to keep nurturing them as resourcefully as the writers' room has. High bars for character, language, and story, but also the visual grammars of identification and intimacy that Pixar constructed for these toys throughout the prior films, all lay quite a fertile plot for tilling even tougher emotions in TS3. Sure, it's another "unwitting misplacement/convoluted rescue" scenario, but the anger, resentment, and withered sense of purpose have a sharper edge here. You can see why most of our jettisoned crew attaches so quickly to the personal and visual color of Sunnyside and its cane-using, strawberry-scented governor Lots-o'-Huggin'. You also detect the script's subcutaneous strategy of using individual transformations both sinister (Lotso gets way less huggy) and farcical (la reencarnación de Buzz, que solo habla español y no reconoce a nadie) so as to sharpen our appetites for a reprised status quo, which the denouement will surely grant.

Except that's neither how Toy Story 3 evolves nor what it ultimately offers. The film is hardly Melancholia but it's so, so much closer than anyone would guess, at least for a few literally hot minutes. I mean, for God's sake! The crew only escapes their hellish fate through an almost literal deus ex machina, one of several perfectly-laid, perfectly-executed designs in the screenplay. I'm sure and in fact I know there's plenty to debate. Another friend and colleague, as brilliant as Anna and with an equally superb book, maintains that the Lotso plotline, which more or less ends on Fury Road, sustains a vicious American shibboleth whereby socialist utopias (Sunnyside) can only ever mask Stalinist realities (Lotso's gulag), when the basic plank of putting the hardiest toys in the path of the most rough-housy kids and sparing the old and the fragile was not at root unreasonable—amenable, even, to a classic-Marxist apportioning of collective abilities and needs. This becomes yet another way to catch Pixar, already a corporation that earned but increasingly expected maximum fealty, in its standard game of re-enshrining capital-worship. (Have I got that right, Harris?) This kind of reading would be right at home in Dietmar Meinel's quite wonderful book Pixar's America, which is really only affordable on Kindle but was quite a boon when I taught the earlier installments.

Who am I to impede a platinum-grade hermeneutic flow? As you've long absorbed if you've been reading, I like a movie worth debating even more than one cocooned inside anodyne consensus. But I'm still out here stanning for Toy Story 3. With my thinking cap on, I interpret the closing sequence of Toy Story 3, the one where everybody's floodgates open, as a riposte to almost everything the movie and the franchise had prompted us to value and expect up to that point. Specifically, its volte-face has everything to do with redistribution of resources, particularly when it comes to hoarded but unused goods, even when affective pulls to act otherwise are strong. From a different angle, given that my outfit from the theater is still wet from tears I shed in June 2010, I guess I find Toy Story 3 so nearly peerless as an amalgam of wizardly engineering and emotional sucker-punching that I'm insufficiently willing to sniff out a rat. Pixar would give us ample evidence soon enough to question its motives and, to even more disillusioning effect, its craft and its cleverness. Even Toy Story 4, perfectly fine and far from empty-headed, found this franchise well-drained of new inspiration, nibbling at the leftovers of what earlier films had already served. But if the pleasures and smarts of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were already close to infinite, Toy Story 3 had the chutzpah and the chops to imagine something beyond, and to take us there.

Honorable Mentions: This is the highest-slotted animated feature on this countdown. Of course I lament that several strong titles from around the world missed this cut, and that so much U.S. product, well beyond Pixar, seemed stale and rushed by comparison to TS3, which virtually launched the decade. Japan, as ever, represented strongly, with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) and Your Name (2016) making especially strong impressions on me, in addition to The Wind Rises, listed below. If I were including shorts in the main list, I'd have made room for Don Hertzfeldt's moving and mind-altering World of Tomorrow (2015), which you can and should buy or rent here. In a more commercial register of full-length, studio-backed features, Toy Story 3 felt like the apex but not a total anomaly. The color and mobility of How to Train Your Dragon (2010) put Avatar to shame, as did its sweet, non-pompous story. Big Hero 6 (2014) and Moana (2016) seem weirdly underrated given all of their vitality, maturity, enticing design, and warm emotion, plus their earnest attempts to broaden the cultural horizons of Disney features in thoughtful ways. And though I may kick myself later for granting a Mention to a film I didn't love, I suspect that, Parasite-style, my first and thus far only viewing of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) was at too late an hour on too little sleep, or else it might have jazzed me as much as it did the rest of the world. It's certainly lingered strongly in my memory, and its favoring of high energy, of ensembles over individual heroes, of narrative intricacy at minimal cost to clarity, and of dispersing gifts, resources, narratives, and dreams to as many people as possible feel well-aligned to the Toy Story ethos, in some ways surpassing it. Might even top my list of movies from the 2010s that demand a second shot. You guys agree? They agree.
 

46. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier, 2011)
46. The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr, with Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
 
Next month, when you buy the new issue of Film Comment, you'll find a Best of the Decade section that polled all permanent staff and regular contributors to name the best movies, best directors, and best new filmmakers of the 2010s, while also soliciting from each of us a Film of the Decade, a movie that, as per their guidelines, "embodies for you the decade or some aspect of it (i.e. most artistically groundbreaking, most symptomatic, most radical, most influential, whatever criteria you like) or simply your favorite for whatever reason, accompanied by an explanatory sentence or two." Reader, I would love to have had a decade and I would love for you to have had one, too, that did not immediately conjure these two apocalyptic visions, Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse, as my instinctual responses. How did each presage the spiritual temperatures of our decade's end all the way back at its beginning? (Both films premiered at festivals in 2011.) Score one for art, I guess. These films felt then and feel now like exit polls for our planet, a sense that is only reinforced by both directors' seeming epiphany that they had nothing left to show us after. Tarr, at least, who bills his editor and wife Ágnes Hranitzsky as a co-director, had the resolve to clam up and let this bleak, spooky prevision stand as his final auteurist statement, even as he's continued to produce and mentor other filmmakers (not one of whom has made a jewel-colored musical, I can tell you that). Von Trier, more's the shame, did release three more movies, though he felt pretty checked out of the rote, listless provocations in both installments of 2013's Nymphomaniac, and everything I've read about 2018's The House that Jack Built makes it sound like a deliberate attempt to prevent his ever being hired to make a movie again. That notorious post-Melancholia press conference at Cannes felt exactly the same way. Perhaps the people with the money should listen.

The literal end of the world arrives with straightforward, implacable force in Melancholia, not just in narrative terms but in sonic ones. The most recurrent motif in the soundtrack is the "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde, protracting and postponing its slow crescendo even longer than Wagner does, that famous progession of chords only approaching its resolution in the final minutes, as our round Earth prepares to get brained by another planet hurtling through the galaxy. Even here, though, in one of the most deafening sequences I've ever withstood inside a movie theater (and I, like you, saw Inception and Dunkirk!) the resolution doesn't arrive. The end times wait for no man, woman, or opera, but also there's a distinctly Peggy Lee "Is That All There Is?" sense in which the obliteration of the human story still doesn't satisfy von Trier as a finish. Maybe that's why, in Melancholia's formal terms, annihilation is itself an unstoppable progression that keeps not resolving, keeps repeating over and over. It happens twice, first as a phantasmagoric slow-motion audiovisual overture to the movie, featuring duplications or distortions of scenes we'll witness later, and then again in "real" time over the next two hours. Dwell on that: for von Trier, a sense of one's own extinction, of everybody's and everything's extinction, is beginning and middle, as well as End. It again happens twice, once from the vantage of profoundly depressed bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who won Best Actress at Cannes) and as reprised in the second hour, favoring the perspective of her officious, increasingly terrified sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who merited that prize even more). It again happens twice in the sense that the crashing arrival of the planet Melancholia, as objective astrophysical event, mirrors itself in the crashing return of Justine's psychic melancholia, an internal event that nonetheless repercusses outward through her family, friends, and colleagues, and has clearly done so many times. Thus, in that way, it has clearly happened more than twice.

Melancholia is many other things, too: an extensive, admittedly variable, but surprisingly colorful ensemble film, with Charlotte Rampling machine-gunning everybody as usual with her looks and line-readings, and Kiefer Sutherland standing out in a quiet key; a fitful showcase for von Trier's rarely-glimpsed sense of humor; an ingenious architectural experiment in the constructions of bivalve plot, bivalve perspective, and story-advancing score; a cooler, smarter compensation for the repugnant and gynophobic Antichrist; and an entrée into a different register of surrealism than von Trier has previously tried, like a Buñuel scenario played stone-ass cold. But for me it's mostly this dual portrait of Rock Bottom as abruptly looming before us, the real thing, not "just" the feeling, while also repeating, repeating, repeating as a Sisyphusean loop, or a worldwide traffic jam of affective lockdown, where nobody can budge, back up, or negotiate any turn. And yes, it wasn't until viewings in the last few years, when I found myself liking some aspects of Melancholia a bit less, that these other resonances only seemed to grow in clarity and power.

The Turin Horse also presents apocalypse simultaneously as an ineluctable spiraling down and an eternal return of the same. It, too, uses soundtrack as well as story construction to make that point. Mihály Vig's unforgettable score sounds like someone pulled some coils of steel cable and mangled electrical wiring from a bombed-out building, then played them with a cello's bow while a few minor devils danced on an organ in the background. The first five minutes of this gray-black opus, as an aging and weather-beaten man drives his horse-drawn cart back to his isolated hut in a wind-torn valley, mostly exist to acclimate us to Vig's compositions. They lay the foundation for The Turin Horse as much as Fred Kelemen's pewter-colored photography, amazingly executed in just 30 shots, some static and some quite mobile, over the course of 150 minutes. The images are starkly beautiful, but beauty's not going to save anybody here: not the old man, who's already lost the use of one arm; not the shell-shocked adult daughter who lives with and cares for him; not the one neighbor who, I promise, lives further from these two than your nearest neighbor lives from you; not the roving brigands who show up once to pilfer from the main characters' already-dehydrating well, which in The Turin Horse counts as a major plot crux. Tarr's movie is all about environment: topographic, audiovisual, spiritual, historical. By which I mean, the apparent end of history. It's grander in scale and aesthetic than Michael Haneke's amazing Time of the Wolf but has a related sense of humanity's demise initiating somewhere offscreen, then spreading outward from wherever that is in a series of communal collapses and pitiful whimpers. Nominally constructed as a period piece, and specifically as a speculative narrative about the animal and the vicious human abuser that caused Friedrich Nietzsche such calamitous distress in 1889—the beginning of his own certain but drawn-out end—there is no doubt that The Turin Horse is, as much as Melancholia, about now. And what's just barely around the barest of corners from now. From the standpoints of human history, much less of cosmic time and galactic chaos, there's barely any difference. This kind of thing has happened before, and is probably happening somewhere all the time. But it's about to be our turn, if it isn't already, to gather our toothpick tee-pees and our hand-peeled midnight potatoes, to face the horrifying horizon. To face, as it were, the music.

Honorable Mentions: The decade saw no paucity of long, sloggy, brilliantly produced epics of social breakdown, often in black and white. Even when they were set in pasts or futures, the present reverberations were obvious. Two of the most magisterial, both even harder to take than The Turin Horse or Melancholia, were Aleksey German's Hard to Be a God (2013), where a version of Earth's medieval era seems to transpire on another planet misbegotten enough to ask us for advice about progess; and Václav Marhoul's The Painted Bird (2019), a blistering picaresque about a young Jewish boy in WW2-era Europe whom the universe never stops pummeling. These are tough sits. If you can only stand this kind of thing for five minutes, Under the Skin's Jonathan Glazer distilled a lot of the same diabolical and despondent energy in his short film The Fall (2019), which US residents can watch here, and folks who live elsewhere may find on other URLs. If it helps to have the ameliorating pleasures of shimmering science-fiction, at least until the spaceship gets knocked off course and thousands of people on board realize they'll all die before ever arriving anywhere, try the Solaris-y, sadly overlooked Swedish film Aniara, the only movie I can remember with an epilogue set precisely 5,981,407 years beyond its own futuristic starting-point. Béla Tarr continues to insist that he believes in humanity, and that art embodies that belief, or else nobody would make it. I can't help noticing he's mostly retired. But I do agree with him about art, even at its most...lacerating.
 

47. Summer 1993 (dir. Carla Simón, 2017)
 
Sometimes it's easy devising a hook for these mini-essays so that they aren't just plot recaps or profusions of my most fervent adjectives. (Cue Cher: "Now, I wanna really, I wanna really say something.") Sometimes it's a bit trickier, especially when the film's techniques are brilliant in ways that efface themselves, and neither the story in the movie or the one that grew around it link up to any hot topic, and the circumstances of my own viewing weren't remarkable. What if—and hear me out—a film appeared on a Best of the Decade list because the direction was so impeccably attuned to the needs of the artful script and to the perfectly cast actors, who are equally unconcerned with flaunting the work their creative labor? Or because the narrative captures several layers at once of the experiences of a main character who, for different reasons, is not the easiest person to get to know? What if the storytelling blends universal experiences with highly specific nuances, and manages to evoke a unique and significant moment in time while only seeming to consign history's grander narratives to the margins? Any of these can sound like generic terms of praise, clinging like barnacles to countless reviews written on deadline or at low tides of inspiration. Even if they pose a writing challenge, I'm thrilled at the rare moments when I encounter a movie like this, especially with minimal build-up, and feel it's exactly, positively the creators appeared to intend—so natural-seeming in its plot maneuvers and formal execution that the movie seems to be making itself, amongst characters you believe would see themselves perfectly reflected in the glass of the screen, if only they were real.

Actually, the characters are real. Writer-director Carla Simón bases her first feature on her memories of being raised from age six onward by an aunt and uncle in rural Catalonia, after the death of her mother. Summer 1993 is a quiet 100-minute snapshot of how life goes for young Frida amid this new domesticity, transplanted from Barcelona to Uncle Esteve and Aunt Marga's modest yet glorious hillside home, with livestock and a garden of humongous cabbages and nearby ponds and forests. Hard to say whether Summer 1993 keeps the decibel level low because life is hushed in the cooing, twittering countryside, or because the few folks nearby hold back from pressing Frida on how she's faring, or because this is how many people's lives are: light on chatter or big dramatic scenes, even in the wake of huge, terrible drama. Esteve (David Verdaguer) is a recessive, laissez-faire parent, whether this was always his style or a fallback mode while he mourns his sister. Marga (Bruna Cusí) thus carries most of the load of acclimating Frida, who's not making it easy, without neglecting her and Esteve's younger daughter, Anna (Paula Robles), who perceptibly vacillates between wanting to befriend her cousin-turned-sister and feeling wary or nascently jealous. Other relatives visit, which helps in some ways but not in others. Neighbors express solicitude for Frida but also seem skittish around her, in the way people sometimes act around the recently bereaved, hoping not to divert the Reaper's eye toward themselves. Frida presses her relatives' buttons, intentionally and not, in ways that may release some of the anger and mystification that accompanied her loss, or may express agitation with such a transformed environment. Her flinty, petty, and sometimes careless behavior may reflect her first-ever experience of sibling rivalry, or a six-year-old's ill-informed sense of the line between play and endangerment, or just the state of being six, or an unavoidable curiosity, given recent events, about why and how people die. Sometimes she poses that question, via word or deed, in relation to Anna; surely, if anybody's body gave out, it would be this person even more delicate than Frida, and maybe part of her wishes this to happen. Or maybe "Mom" and "Dad" are at graver risk, as hale as they seem, since the galaxy has just taught her that the grown-ups closest to you are not at all invincible. Frida mostly watches and keeps her own counsel.

Somehow a couple times every year, I read a critic say, "This is one of the all-time great child performances," so I need you to lean in here and really trust me: as Frida, Laia Artigas gives one of the all-time great child performances. I'm positive the quiet, eloquent impact and total affective truth of her acting is largely owed to Simón and to the doting, perceptive cinematographer Santiago Racaj and to the editing of Didac Palou and Ana Pfaff. Indeed, this team surely had a hand in the artful, deep-rooted, but extremely concise, often wordless expressivity of everyone in this cast. But Artigas, however you want to frame or apportion credit, is a wonder. Imagine the downcast yet luminous transparency of Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, but pushed much less often to tears or obvious sympathy claims, and maybe not extra-impressed with the people or the world around her. You want to reach out and hug Frida but you also want to slap her wrist sometimes, and that's a hard balance for any film to achieve, particularly when that balance is the film. Get that wrong, or cast a tiny actress whose face and body language don't hold the camera this way, and Summer 1993 evaporates. As it is, the movie is delicate without being soft, and I remember looking around my audience in the theater, hoping none of us would breathe too loudly or make a sudden movement that disrupted the crystalline precision of scene after scene. In another film, some of those beats would have been dialed way up, as when somebody nearly drowns; others may have felt like flat interludes, as when Esteve takes Frida to work, and through precise timing, framing, and tone, you surmise what else might be going on.

Late in the movie, Frida poses a question about mortality to Aunt Marga, who has to drum up an honest but non-frightening answer for her, the same way Juan does in Moonlight when young Chiron wants to know what a "faggot" is. Again I remember sort of holding my breath, while the characters and the artists negotiated a quotidian challenge with remarkable but believable grace. Then again, I also remember sort of breathing with the film, which has that rarest quality of actually seeming to unfold in a world we all know and inhabit, breathing the oxygen we breathe. (Actually, theirs looks much nicer.) That could be a "hook" for framing the movie as a particular feat: how do you tell a story for 90 minutes so that, in the penultimate scene, an adult-to-child exchange about death can transpire with maximum poignancy and power, but also as if there's no script and no camera, with nobody's voice raising or slowing. Or, how do you build to the last scene, as somebody finally cries, and you realize you've watched an entire, unrepressed, richly compassionate film about grief where nobody has shed one tear of mourning? How do you drip-feed the viewer hints about the dead character's passing, in ways that remind us what 1993 was like and give this story a culturally unique contour, without "expanding" beyond a close-quarters portraiture of one family making it through? Use any of those lines if it stokes your impulse to watch Summer 1993 or to rope in other people. These can be tough movies to exhort even close friends to make time for: "It's just so good. Try not to know anything in advance. It's called Summer 1993, but don't sweat the generic title. It's magic!" Not razzle-dazzle. Not trickery, though I do wonder how Simón and Racaj bent all that natural light to their subtle wills. Just quiet magic. Happysad magic. Human magic.

Honorable Mentions: The tones of Summer 1993, emotional, sonic, and visual, align in some ways with another recent debut by a young Hispanophone writer-director: Dominga Sotomayor's Too Late to Die Young (2018) has a more eccentric eye for framing than Simón's film does, and it makes you work a little harder (occasionally too hard?) to parse narrative and character relations. Still, it's elegant, quiet, and tough in comparable proportions, and equally resourceful in capturing a bucolic environment that seems not the least bit disturbed or falsely glossed. If you're thinking, "Why can't they make movies like this in the US," they occasionally do! Stephen Cone's Princess Cyd (2017) is another character study with perfect 20/20 vision, also about a parentless child taken into another relative's warm fold, and casually but indelibly evocative of a time, place, and communal milieu. It's a gossamer mood piece without being precious, full of real people saying and doing real stuff, with helpful assists from a director-screenwriter who sure knows language and behavior to a fare-thee-well.
 

48. Isle of Dogs (dir. Wes Anderson, 2018)
 
Everybody reading—well, surely not. Everybody responding to this list and these essays has been so fabulously kind about them. Still, somewhere in the Force, I feel some of you asking, "When will we finally get a movie by an Anderson?" I get it. The first one of these Films of the Decade features I personally encountered on the web not only managed to squeeze 216 American movies into its 100 berths but ceded twelve of its top ten spots to films by "Anderson, Paul Thomas," and "Anderson, Wes." #2, #3, #6, and #9 were all just different scenes in Phantom Thread! Okay, my math and memory might be a little off, but that's what it felt like. I'm sure you've seen comparable rosters. My own list has veered in quite different directions, but I don't want you to think I'd just welsh on my contractual obligations to the internet. An Anderson you shall have! Although now that its moment arrives, I've gone and picked the single movie by any Anderson this decade that I would ecstatically look at and listen to all day any day— but also the only one, even if you count those of Paul W.S. Anderson, that seemed to piss the most people off. And here, friends, is where my patronizing intro transitions into a genuine scrutiny of my own limitations, because not only do I love Isle of Dogs, it's the film that finally attached me to "Anderson, Wes," after previous outings that ranged from cold, very cold to sure, whatever to warmer, warmer to alllmost there.

At the same time, Isle of Dogs led me to read some of the decade's most trenchant critiques of a movie I adored, care of some consistently trenchant pop-cultural commentators. I saw not just the sense and care in those arguments but the reasons they felt differently personal for many of their authors. I returned to Isle of Dogs in the theater in part because I was too besotted to avoid it, in part to make a discussion guide for my monthly movie group, but largely because I wanted to reconsider the movie while bearing closely in mind the thoughtful perspectives of Justin Chang, Jen Yamato, Emily Yoshida and her interview subjects, and others on Twitter who had debated or outright denounced the film. Almost all of the charges levied by these writers are persuasive enough to give me ongoing pause. I disagree with several of them about the character of Tracy, whom I think the film clearly diagonses with a garish and overzealous savior complex, but that might be my only point of resistance. And yet, having complied with internet mandates by listing an Anderson film in my retrospective (don't tell anyone, but no more will follow!), I now invite excommunication by floating the least Twittery of sentiments, which is: sometimes you find yourself investing in an art work even when its liabilities, or the dubious grounds of your own excitement, have been convincingly highlighted to you, from standpoints in which you also feel invested. One likes to imagine oneself above such follies; one is not. Very likely, the aspects of Isle of Dogs that prompted so much consternation and occasional disgust are inveterate to my excitement about it, for the precise reason that Anderson's aesthetic and sensibility finally, to my mind, generated an artifact worthy of serious and principled debate. That's major for me. It also marks the occasion for me when his own powers of imagination and his whole teams's virtuosity of craft attained their greatest heights, in a project with huge degrees of difficulty in every direction.

Tensions between rigid and changeable attitudes are at issue throughout Isle of Dogs. The time-honored schism between Dog People and Cat People is just the beginning. (You guys: DOGS!) The ability of Kobayashi, the iron-fist ruler of Megasaki City, to hear and be swayed by popular appeal and reverse his worst edicts is the gratifying culmination, and an increasingly anomalous global practice across the 2010s. The side-by-side study of pure and polluted states of feeling is just as central, with the young aviator Atari's unshakeable devotion to his deported dog Spots making one case for purity, and Tracy's punchy prosecuting of her justice-warrior platforms a more unnerving example. As for pollution, the reluctance of a dog called Chief to lower his barking, biting guard is a weirdly moving instance of adopting and over-indulging a gruff posture in the world, allowing it to alienate comrades and innocents and to muffle your own instincts to evolve. (Chief is handily Bryan Cranston's best contribution to movies this decade, right?) Beyond narrative and character dynamics, the movie's collective images and sounds are a prodigious monument to Admixture as a value, like a mutt so beautiful it wins Westminster. Megasaki City, the epicenter of half the film's action, is a jaw-dropping synthesis of different styles and eras across centuries of "one" culture, making it an essay in itself on self-divisions within an appearance of unity. The percussive, bass-heavy pastiche of Alexandre Desplat's score, perhaps the best of the 3,000 he composed since 2010, is also a strong aesthetic assertion but not at all a monolithic one. The whole production process of the film, even more intricate than it looks, relied heavily on composite shots, or images that looked one way as lit and filmed on set and quite different, sometimes nearly opposite, after digital correction.

I guess the case I'm dancing around, without being sure if it has a cause/effect, coincidental, or simply convenient relation to my own blend of ardor and ambivalence about Isle of Dogs (admittedly more of a 90/10 than a 50/50 "blend"), is that the movie is openly, endlessly preoccupied at all levels with impurity. And it's worth mentioning that Justin Chang's review, the oft-cited Exhibit A in the rapidly spreading case against Isle of Dogs, was itself a document of eloquent ambivalence, not reducible to a flat term like "against," which is part of what made its closing indictments so powerful. The critics who asked that we pause (Justin would insist I say "paws") before bowing down at this stunning altar to mise-en-scène, even those critics whom the movie rankled more, were usually asking us to be tough on an object with plenty to recommend it. This is one of criticism's highest functions, and the one most endangered by its conflation with so-called "cancel culture," sometimes by its own practitioners. Good criticism entails exhaustive and intimate engagement, and maybe that's another reason I relate to Isle of Dogs as laudably self-critical, and why own self-critical relation to it is indistinguishable from my considerable love for it. In a way that I didn't at all detect in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson's previous outing in transcultural exploration (and, sure, appropriation), Isle of Dogs radiates in literally every frame, sound cue, and bespoke object an attachment as researched, contemplative, admiring, and intimate as it is inventive. Sincerity of aim is never a catch-all defense of choices that prompt distress. Still, despite all the stench wafting off the place called Isle of Dogs, the movie called Isle of Dogs—and it's the rare film to name itself after a garbage pile!—passes my own smell-test for cinema that is daring and dazzling from start to finish, opening up so much more than it shuts down, including welcome windows for good-faith disagreement with people who might well be right.

Honorable Mentions: To all the Anderson die-hards: yes, I like The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), even more so every time I returned to it. The story didn't captivate me as fully as Dogs's did, and there are characters and sequences to which I never attached, but its spirit is so interestingly merry-yet-sad, and the design work, music, and lead performance by Ralph Fiennes belong high on any list of the decade's peaks in those departments. To the other Anderson die-hards: yes, The Master (2012) and Phantom Thread (2017) are indispensable. My enthusiasm for the latter stays more consistent throughout, but the peaks of the former, largely care of Joaquin Phoenix, are higher.
 

Holy Motors, © 2012 Pierre Grise Productions/Theo Films/Pandora Film/Arté France Cinéma/WDR Félicité, © 2017 Strand Releasing/Andolfi/Granit Films The Orphanage, © 2019 Adomeit Film/La Fabrica Nocturna Cinéma/Samsa Film/Wolf Pictures/Cinereach Dawson City: Frozen Time, © 2016 Hypnotic Pictures, © 2017 Kino Lorber
49. Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, 2012)
49. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
 
Scarlett Johansson popped by to take questions after Under the Skin's first showing at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, in the huge and lavish Princess of Wales cinema. Here's the first one she got, barely transliterated from its original tongue of sozzled and horny bro-ese, posed in front of 1,938 people: "You have, like, an amazing body and, like, is that weird for you or, like, what is that like?" If it wasn't weird before, it sure was now! But Scarlett came loaded for bro that night, and here's what she threw back to him. This is not word-for-word, but it's very close, since the debatably-spontaneous eloquence of it really stayed with me: "As it became clear that I'm in an industry that would often only value me for my body, I decided a couple years ago it was on me not to suffer that passively but to look for projects that would help me ask that as a question. Like, what does it mean to have a body, or what is a body, or what does it mean to be kind of reduced to your body? So, Jonathan's movie really came along at a perfect time for me to get to reflect on that in a really creatively exciting way." Johansson's other projects of that period, like Her and Lucy, extending to Ghost in the Shell (I know, I know, #problematic) and arguably her Black Widow outings prove that this inquiry really did inform her project choices, but surely the apex remains Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's astounding challenge to what Steven Shaviro famously called "the cinematic body." So many questions we might ask about our fleshy bodies, Under the Skin manages to ask while also posing them in remarkably similar terms to film itself. Must a body or a film be imagined as having a "form," or can bodies and films exceed or escape their own forms? Are they best conceived as bounded, static objects that simply exist, or as cultural codes, as perceptual events, as concentrated yet fluid capacities to provoke, to act, to bother, to arouse, to invite, to evade, to assault? Must bodies or movies be imagined as gendered, or is that a gratuitous labeling, especially as definitions and production processes of bodies, genders, and films keep changing? Do bodies or films necessarily "contain" anything, like a meaning or a soul? Is there some "truth" inside them waiting to be discovered or rendered visible on their surfaces? Or are their internal relations, their growth and decay, their powers and failures, their separate systems that spill and squash and inter-depend so deeply that they barely feel separate or systematic—is that all too messy for the neat dyads of inside/outside, or under/atop?

Under the Skin wonders about all of this and spreads that wondering contagiously to us. The plot, elliptical as it is, could hardly express these preoccupations more forwardly, as an unnamed humanoid played by Johansson cruises the shadowy streets of Glasgow, picking up men who look isolated from any pack, luring them to a strange shed with an inside that in no way matches its outside, drawing these men into some kind of viscous obsidian ocean and...harvesting their skins, while pulverizing the rest of them? Toward some unstated goal? Under the Skin's narrative is tricky to parse or to describe because it doesn't offer quite enough stems to connect all the terrifying/tantalizing dots. Moreover, it often pauses for spectacles that patently stand apart from plot: a reptilian eye in gargantuan close-up, a frothing brook of red offal, a screen's worth of gold leaf in which Johansson's visage is dimly visible. But narrative is not the movie's primary investment. Every body in the film, even the least remarkable ones, appears vaguely or explicitly alien under D.P. Daniel Landin's precise lenses and framings. Mica Levi's entrancing score, which sounds like someone unfamiliar with music trying to invent it, doesn't seem to originate from "within" the images so much as it lays overtop or alongside them, gently or ungently probing each other. The movie's shape would be hard to chart, and at the same time, it's almost punishingly direct, especially by its second half. One gloss: it's the doomed Passion of a precarious subjectivity that, increasingly (mis)recognized as a woman, tries to explore how women live and move and are, before discovering what an inhospitable planet this is for posing that exact question.

Under the Skin is so singular that pairing it with anything seems heretical. But what's that I hear—a lusty accordion blast somewhere in the heart of Paris, leading a pied-piper's romp through the nave of a cathedral? What's that I see? A murderous twin assuming the body of the man he already resembles? A tremendous but not quite tireless acrobat, dotted with mo-cap sensors, his lithe and increasingly indecent movements transmogrified by machine into the undulations of a sex-dragon in a videogame? An ogre stomping out of a sewer and into a cemetery where all the headstones are engraved with URLs, munching on flowers deposited by mourners, abducting the first supermodel he sees? The supermodel, reduced by her industry to one type of body but semi-inertly intrigued by this cretinous leprechaun's very different body, and maybe by the whole question of what is a body, allows herself to be treated however the ogre believes women are treated. It goes neither well nor as badly as it might have. Anyway, it might not even be happening. Nothing in Leos Carax's Holy Motors, an exquisite-corpse cinepoem with nine semi-separate body parts, is "really" happening, except that the actor at its center, Denis Lavant, that balletic bulldog of modern French film, really has to do everything required of his portmanteau of alter egos. That includes sprint as fast as he can, malinger on a deathbed, fire off some machine guns, scuttle around the sewers, writhe around with a catsuited Valkyrie, grieve a dead child with Kylie Minogue, kick a soccer ball on a deserted hotel roof, hug some chimpanzees who are also his relatives, deal none-too-nicely with a tremulous teenage daughter, laze in the back of a limo with a louchely open robe, bend into the upside down U of the world's oldest crone while panhandling on a sidewalk, be a man, be a woman, be neither, do his own makeup, transform his own face, transform his own body, and confront us even more than he did in Beau travail with the question of what even is a body.

Spoiler alert: he doesn't know, or doesn't say. The buxom, sphinxlike, human-passing extra-terrestrial in Under the Skin also never knows—unless the ending is the knowing, which is too awful to accept. What both movies realize full well, what they constantly enact via their own shapeshifting forms, while their protagonists drive or get driven around in search of bodies (including their own), is that whatever we thought a body or a film might be is definitely wrong, or so abjectly narrow that we need to open up to a lot more answers, within and beyond ourselves. Neither Glazer nor Carax is chasing the honor of Most Prolific Filmmaker, and good for them. Good for us, too, though I can't fight my overjoy about both of them being amidst new projects, neither of which augurs any Exile from Gonzoville any time soon. Carax's is some kind of surrealist musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and a two-year-old with what IMDb calls "a prodigious gift." Glazer's I've heard described as a "Holocaust drama," but then other reports insist that nobody knows anything about it, or that everything they "know" is wrong. Which, for both of these mad and priceless visionaries, sounds exactly right.

Honorable Mentions: Brandon Cronenberg's debut feature Antiviral (2012) posed its own inimitable versions of the question "What is a body?" His recent short, titled Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You (2019) is just as absorbed in the question of "What is a mind?" and "What is a film?", to which I would add, in a good way, "What is even happening?" You can view a trailer on YouTube. Switching mediums, maybe my favorite academic article of the last couple years is Cáel Keegan's "Revisitation: A Trans Phenomenology of the Media Image," which engages substantially with Under the Skin as an exemplary work of transgender cinema, in part because it's thinking and working well outside the box of trying to depict transness literally. Please read the article, which all my students also adore, and buy Cáel's revelatory book about the Wachowskis, who've been posing questions about fleshy and filmic bodies for quite some time, however variably I've responded to them. Willow Maclay explored related ideas about Under the Skin from a trans-centered perspective in this post. I even published a chapter about Denis Lavant's heroic work in Holy Motors, in one of two linked volumes edited by Kyle Stevens and Murray Pomerance. They took a while to arrive in paperback, but by golly they got there. Merry Christmas!
 

50. Félicité (dir. Alain Gomis, 2017)
 
One of the damnedest things about non-anglophone movies booked in the US is that song lyrics almost never get subtitled, even when they're crucial to plot and character. In a case like Alain Gomis's majestic Félicité, this longstanding frustration carries especially high costs. At the sheer level of cultural trope, black women already get reduced often enough to figures of transcendent vocality or innate expressivity, with scant attention to what exactly they're saying or singing. How many soundtracks have you heard where soaring mmmmmmms of black female soloists or choirs get deployed as short-cuts to pathos, in moments or great elation or historical trauma? So it strikes me as a bad look for a film about a Congolese singer whose performances are her livelihood, and also important local events where she lives, to translate all of her spoken Lingala dialogue for English-speaking audiences but none of the lines she sings with such musicianship and passion. At the levels of story and persona, I'm curious if the title character of Félicité is choosing songs that overlap with the mounting difficulties of her own life (from a fridge that won't work to an empty wallet to a son in grave medical crisis) or if, when she gets on stage, she's having to table all that and channel someone else's pain. Or maybe she's expected to deny pain altogether and give rousing renditions of love anthems, despite having little evident love in her life, or songs of celebration, when she has so little to celebrate, or odes to community, when she appears so isolated and begrudged. When Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu's Félicité plants herself at that microphone, the ferocity and heart of her singing contrast powerfully with the extreme guardedness and stone-faced resilience she mostly projects in daily life. Maybe the sheer fact of that contrast—not unlike how Aretha Franklin gloriously supercharges her body while singing in Amazing Grace but silently evacuates it between songs—is what's crucial in these sequences, even for fluent Lingala speakers who need no translation.

Indeed, Félicité makes formal, visual, and narrative choices that thematize the opposition of opacity to transparency, centering a character whom everyone around her finds illegible and intractable. This may be Félicité's temperament or may reflect a coping strategy in a world where effusive ingratiation may not benefit her much. She has enough problems making ends meet as a solo mom, apparently for most of her teen son's life. This child, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), having suffered an accident that may require amputating a leg, withdraws so completely in his bed that it's hard to tell if he's suffering a physical trauma or if, in his despondency, he simply prefers to say nothing and acknowledge no one; he thus hyperbolizes his mother's prodigious aloofness. Félicité's appeals to doctors, co-workers, and wealthy neighbors, to Samo's estranged father, and even to another heartsick mother hovering over a nearby hospital cot yield so little reward, maybe anyone in her position would opt for taciturnity. On the other hand, a hard-drinking roustabout and sometime repairman named Tabu (Papi Mpaka, terrific) couldn't be more forward in indicating affection for Félicité. He, too, for opposite reasons, mostly elicits her impressively blank stares. Gomis, a French-born filmmaker of Senegalese descent, filming mostly on location in Kinshasa, repeatedly holds for so long on Mputu's face, whether deflecting some interlocutor or sitting with her own thoughts, that the close-up feels less like a standard unit of film grammar than itself an object of interrogation. Close-ups are where many though hardly all world film cultures, including Hollywood's, have trained us to expect some degree of psychological or at least affective transparency. But Félicité, the film as well as the character, undertake bold experiments in disrupting that whole narrative of "windows to the soul." The challenge is all the more striking in a movie that brims with histrionic potential: kids who may or may not live; mothers, putting themselves in risky situations to try to save those kids; money that may not arrive in time, if it's raised at all; assiduous suitors who still can't be counted on to have eyes for just one woman. So much tension! Such rage, such tears. But can you reimagine a maternal melodrama around a woman whose expression rarely cracks? Can you construct a semi-musical around a woman suspicious of emoting?

All of this would make Félicité unusual and absorbing even without several other facets that compound its eccentricity and value. There's the gently comic subplot articulated through Tabu's serial attempts to fix Félicité's refrigerator, a campaign so protracted you sometimes suspect he's failing on purpose. Compared to what surrounds it, this story feels like a daffodil in a barren yard. Eventually Tabu and Félicité do get closer, but not via a standard arc where she relents to his tireless appeals, or where his own amorous errancy costs him his shot at love. While centralizing the plots and predicaments I've been stressing, Gomis also plays a long game right under our noses that culminates in a fresh, exciting spectacle of two adults negotiating what would please them most from a partner. They wave off issues that couples in many films would holler about. Simultaneously, and with little regard for plot, Félicité's tapestry includes a few non-diegetic threads—Félicité wandering through real or imaginary forests at night, Félicité singing with nobody in the crowd but a zebra, a black conductor leading a symphony and a soprano through some classical oratorio—that embed the main characters' humble reality within several abstract planes of sound and image. (The group in question is "played" by the Symphonic Orchestra of Kinshasa, under the direction of Armand Wabasolele Diangienda.) Sustaining multiple, disparate traditions in West and Central African storytelling where borders between the actual and the mythic are porous at best, these layers in Félicité also refute the reductive, anthropological gaze that audiences outside Africa might be tempted to (mis)apply. Hence, even a viewer who faces no language barrier with Félicité will still have plenty of puzzles to solve. Local/global and authentic/imaginary dualities are just as much on the mind of this inseparably Senegalese, Congolese, and French feature as the contests between readable surfaces and inscrutabilities.

I was delighted, even amazed that a film this committed to mystery was such a hit even where these aesthetics rarely thrive. The Berlin and FESPACO prizes didn't surprise me, even if its reception at the latter was notably divided. By contrast, its survival to the semifinalist shortlist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar was a happy eye-opener. Félicité came this close to becoming, after Timbuktu, only the second feature by a black African or African diasporic director to win a nod. I guess that means the movie was legible to several members of the Academy but not totally so, or not to enough of them. A disappointing miss, but kinda reflective of what the movie's about.
 

51. The Orphanage (dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat, 2019)
 
Having just honored a tribute to incomplete, semi-forgotten, and never-produced Afghan films, it's thrilling to celebrate a new one that's overcome incredible odds to travel so widely, and just to exist. Shahrbanoo Sadat is a 27-year-old woman based in Kabul who has somehow, with resourceful German-Danish producer Katja Adomeit, completed two full-length features that both showed at Cannes, though for my money they might have been better covered. 2016's Wolf and Sheep, at times passes as documentary, killing time with young sheepherding boys and their tussles and trials in the rough Afghan hills. However, it sometimes shifts abruptly into a ghost story or dark fable with the slow-motion promenades through the frame of a voluptuous woman in green, plainly not of this world. You have to keep watching to see where these threads and improbably-joined aesthetics are headed. Sadat's follow-up, The Orphanage, grounded in a different locale, era, style, and narrative circumstance, would be hard to call a sequel to Wolf and Sheep except it has plucked one of that movie's young protagonists, still played by the same actor, and dropped him in the middle of Kabul in the 1980s, where he's scalping Bollywood tickets at an enormous markup to get by. This scheme isn't built to last, and when the cops throw young Qodrat in the titular establishment for wayward boys, The Orphanage blossoms into several unexpected, invigorating things at once. For one, it's an Antoine Doinel-style extension of one boy's ongoing coming-of-age, sustained across films unobsessed with uniformity. For another, despite what I just said, it's a tremendous ensemble film paying keen attentions to around a dozen characters, including some (a young Sikh, a chess whiz, the taciturn head of the orphanage) who register more strongly than you'd think their narrow screen time would allow.

The riskiest qualities of The Orphanage are its tonal variety and pastiche of styles, reflected most obviously in its three or four fanciful Bollywood numbers. Exuberant, charming, and remarkably carried off on an astringent budget, these musical passages don't all serve the same purpose, for Qodrat or for the film. At least one arrives at an optimistic peak. Another follows immediately upon a harrowing death. Given this variety, you fully accept that Indian cinema is Qodrat's internal refuge for a range of mixed emotional states, not a schematic way for Sadat to establish one mood or give herself a marketing hook. In its scrappy but spirited execution of these song-driven fantasias but also in its wise, textured attunement to these boys' lives in a time and place both sheltered and sad, The Orphanage masters something you assume Danny Boyle was seeking in that one Bollywood-influenced movie he made whose title I'm purposefully forgetting; if you remind me I will punish you by making you watch it. Speaking of time and place, and again with amazement at what the director and producer achieve on nickels and dimes, the orphanage itself is a memorable location, full of mementos and subtle indicators of each boy's mood and personality, of the prior life from which he's been plucked, and of popular cultures around the globe that somehow reached a semi-contained corner of Afghanistan. Poking around Sadat's wide shots, lensed by Much Loved's talented D.P., Virginie Surdej, was as fun as poring over Tarantino's magpie sets in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, albeit less aggressively presentational. In another unexpected parallel to that film, the mid-to-late-80s setting of The Orphanage means that the Civil War that's stripping the country for parts probably won't remain offscreen, and the boys' lives will change drastically, for better or worse, just as everything in their stories has been ambiguously better and worse. When that showdown with history finally comes, in the form of encroaching mujahideen militias, Sadat's version is, like Tarantino's (but not really "like" Tarantino's), a grim tallying with reality and a bold parallel universe of possibility, embracing other paths that life might have taken, only if.

I made it impossible this October for followers of my Twitter feed not to know I was in Iceland as a juror at the Reykjavík International Film Festival, where an Icelandic actress, a Polish film distributor, and I had not much trouble arriving at The Orphanage as our pick for the festival's top prize. (This was hardly for lack of choice, given competition as strong as Maternal, Corpus Christi, The Last Autumn, The Lighthouse, and my own personal runner-up, Burning Cane.) For the time being, the website still shows me applauding producer Adomeit as she hoists the Golden Puffin and goes Full Julia Roberts in her award-winning bliss. Adomeit was there for her own well-deserved early-career tribute and as an emissary for Sadat, a vibrant and tough-minded female artist in a beleaguered country, with a government heavily mobilized against vibrancy, tough-mindedness, femininity, and art. She can't easily travel or make public statements. Electricity is fitfully available to her, because of a strained utility grid and because of tactical state antagonism of parts of Kabul known to encompass the freest thinkers, boldest imaginers, and current or potential dissidents. Yet this woman has made two features and has already plotted three more profiles of Qodrat's experiences, based loosely on those of Afghan writer Anwar Hashimi, who appears here as the orphanage supervisor. I have no doubt Sadat will make them, which is kind of an amazing thing to say, given all the material, logistical, creative, and political challenges. Both of her features so far suggest an artist with a joyful and liberated spirit as well as a knack for clearing hurdles. Our task of paying attention to these movies and getting them out there should be so much easier than her ordeals in making them. I consider her a leading light in a global cohort of women writer-directors who indelibly asserted themselves on world stages this year—though still, at present, one of that bunch's better-kept secrets. Let's hope the word is well out by my next decade countdown!

Honorable Mention: The most honorable of mentions goes to Iceland, to Reykjavík, and to that wonderful festival. The movie from this decade that The Orphanage most recalls for me might be Claude Barras's My Life as a Zucchini (2016), an animated drama co-scripted by Portrait of a Lady on Fire's Céline Sciamma, about a French foster home, the up-and-down bonding of its residents, and the difficult stories that landed them there. Because of its particolored, stop-motion mode of production, but also due to those Sciamma trademarks of character insight and compassion, Zucchini is simultaneously warm and cold, sad but endearing, equal parts Babe and Pig in the City. (And man, what an Oscar category that was!) There are trace elements of The Orphanage's warmth in Mehrdad Oskouei's Starless Dreams (2016), though they certainly aren't the predominant note. This handsomely shot, grimly revealing, deeply empathetic documentary about a detention center for young Iranian girls is part of Oskouei's longer project of social and institutional analysis in modern Iran, recently lingering on prisons and correctional facilities for the young. I haven't seen 2007's It's Always Late for Freedom or 2011's The Last Days of Winter, but based on the aesthetic and humanistic rewards of Starless Dreams, however sobering it is, I'm going to keep following him.
 

52. Dawson City: Frozen Time (dir. Bill Morrison, 2016)
52. What We Left Unfinished (dir. Mariam Ghani, 2019)
 
Nearing the halfway point of this countdown, it's well past time to admit the number of structuring elisions in this list. There are huge film cultures in the world—India's, Nigeria's, and China's come most quickly to mind—with which I have woefully under-familiarized myself. Experimental film barely makes a dent. For every Raising Bertie or Valencia, there are countless other independent documentaries, regional productions, and otherwise off-radar titles that I've never come close to. I could name so many more gaps... and then there are the countless films already lost, even within this decade, when there's no money to finish, nobody to insure or distribute, no end to legal battles or clearance issues, no way to know an online platform won't shutter over night, taking all its licensed content with it. Two of my favorite documentaries of the last few years, particular case histories of films time almost forgot, can't help but invoke the unmarked graves of so many more unknown and unknowable movies. Both are also uxorious valentines to cinema and to the adhesive power of making it or watching it or rescuing it together. Dawson City: Frozen Time is like a Pandora's Box fable if everything she'd released had a ghostly but benign power, a blemished yet still resplendent surface. Its tale originates in the late 1970s in Dawson City, up in the Canadian Yukon, when a construction crew breaking ground to build a new recreation center discovered more than 1,000 reels of old celluloid buried in the ground. Not unlike the sublime coincidences and freakishly perfect climatic conditions that saved the famous cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, the Dawson City permafrost operated as an ideal preservative for the very film reels that have burned, warped, melted, or turned to dust everywhere else in the world, when they weren't being melted down for bullets or used to fill potholes. (Sadly, all true!) Decasia's Bill Morrison, the poet laureate of corroded celluloid, was among the first artists to get a look at the whole trove. To nobody's surprise but to universal delight, the film he made in response is replete with bewitching spectacles that, ironically enough, only deterioration can foster.

If Decasia's most iconic image, at least to me, was of a fin-de-siècle pugilist punching away at the black artery of melt and atrophy in the right half of the frame, my favorite coup in Dawson City involves the Edgar Allan Poe-like tableau of a dapper man, alone in a wood-paneled room with head down, as the wintry rivulets of damaged nitrate to his left sprout a pair of pearly, feminine arms, reaching out from the void of history, begging for deliverance or pulling him toward the abyss. A surprising amount of footage is in even better shape than this, surviving in Dawson City from as early as 1903 and as late as the 1920s. What really cinches the film for me, though, is the history of the town itself, which burned down many times only to reconstruct itself. It was the apotheosis of the gold-rush town, peaking at a population of about about 30,000, then suffering an equally archetypal fall as more and more prospectors came up with nothing. The town's ardor for cinema, a blessedly indoor activity through months and months of freeze, is the reason so many reels reached this improbable hamlet, 2° south of the Arctic Circle's current latitude. The movie percolates with metaphors, even when they aren't stated out loud: preservationists as gold-hunters, the dream of cinema as the dream of prosperity, the mortality of nitrate as the mortality of community as the mortality of all of us. They all grow more complex across the film's detailed narration of this gobsmacking case history. Evocatively scored, clip-filled enough to elate the Ritrovato crowd but compact enough to entertain folks who've never heard of an "actuality," Dawson City is both a garden and a graveyard. It blooms with sights nobody expected to see again, while evoking by extension how much remains lost, and how doggedly, if often in vain, we imagine that loss can be beaten. (Meanwhile, whether insufficiently blocked after completion or squeezed by those coiling pythons I built into the pattern, the majestic Dawson City: Frozen Time tribute scarf I knitted in the wake of first seeing the movie has shrunk into a slim tube of pilly alpaca; if that's not perfect synchronicity with the text that inspired it, I can't imagine what is.)

Plenty of movies much younger than Dawson City's romances and newsreels and Lon Chaney vehicles have succumbed much more quickly to censorship, misplacement, storage disasters, or old age. (I recently read that the celluloid prints of Morrison's own Decasia were casualties of Hurricane Sandy!) Rarer, though hardly unprecedented, is when an entire national film culture flares up vibrantly only to get decisively snuffed out. That's basically what happened with Afghan cinema's short, somewhat happy life from 1978, when the insurgent communists embraced filmmaking as a glorifying medium and a useful propaganda tool, until 1991, when a fractious coalition of ex-mujahideen took "control" of post-Soviet Afghanistan, and quickly put the kibosh on an art form they had always regarded, not without reason, as a lavish expenditure of state monies and resources, all in the service of regime-favored narratives. That's a fair but simple gloss on a story that Mariam Ghani's What We Left Unfinished sketches with much more nuance and flair. In just 70 minutes, we learn about plenty of other political tumults that preceded and interrupted this so-called Golden Age of Afghan cinema. The three-month presidency of Hafizullah Amin, who murdered his predecessor to gain power in September 1979 and was himself usurped and murdered in December—but not before starring as himself while president in an epic drama-cum-action thriller about his glorious ascendancy across the 1970s—is just one unforgettable anecdote among many that surviving directors, cinematographers, actors, actresses, film historians, and studio executives pass on to this movie's audience. We've learned so often in the world how art, and cinema in particular, gets pegged as both the nemesis and handmaiden of tyranny, and how artists can speak a valid truth and a convenient prevarication when insisting that their government-funded, military-abetted, anti-rebel movies were actually closet critiques of all those things.

Blessedly woven through an oral history that's a splendid document by itself are extensive clips of several Afghan movies of the post-monarchy, pre-Taliban period. Five, in particular, survived the Taliban's public immolations of nearly 300 such movies. They persist, albeit partially, as proof of an industry, an era, and a colorful human ecology that few people outside Afghanistan would ever conjecture. The April Revolution (1978), Hafizullah Amin's self-mythologizing version of the coup that eventually installed him, was never actually concluded. Downfall (1987), an ambitious thriller exploring a ruinous complicity between international spies and Afghan drug runners, has a middle but no start or finish. The completed passages of Agent (1991), another drug-related thriller, only endure today because director Latif Ahmadi locked the rough cut in a closet before fleeing for Tajikistan and eventually Moscow; returning to Kabul only after the Taliban's overthrow, he found the reels in that same locked closet, but despairs of ever finishing the movie now that the actors are either dead, frail, or "too fat." Black Diamond (1990), yet another heroin-traffic drama, and Wrong Way (1991), a star-crossed ethnic-conflict romance with a marked anti-mujahideen streak, complete Ghani's pentalogy of movies, as notable for the living fragments as for the reels never filmed, as the industry fell into dormancy and disrepute. The sequences we witness vary in all kinds of respects: visual texture, aspect ratio, genre kinship, ideological blatancy. There is no danger of leaving with one flat impression of this barely-known tradition, even if the creators shared certain predicaments in common. What We Left Unfinished is a corker of a yarn and an eye-opening education all at once, and has spent less than a year touring festivals since bowing in Berlin. The superheroic outfit Women Make Movies furnished completion funds, and they don't let films molder in closets or suffocate under hockey rinks for decades if they can do anything about it. So, keep the faith that you might see this soon, but stay vigilant! Movies vanish more often than they resurrect.

Honorable Mention: Sandi Tan's Shirkers (2018), safely ensconced on Netflix for now, has a sprightly, punk-accented, Valencia-esque story to share about two Singaporean grrrls determined to make the country's first cool-ass indie all-female road movie, plus a sadder parable to admit about how one asshole can shatter not just a project but a nascent stab at cultural innovation and a young creator's headstrong confidence. This movie has a mostly happy ending and rockin' spirit, though, so keep it alive!
 

Bisbee '17, © 2018 Grasshopper Film/Impact Partners/4th Row Films Raising Bertie, © 2016 Kartemquin Films/Beti Films The Selfish Giant, © 2013 BFI/Film4/Moonspun Films/Sundance Selects Weekend, © 2011 Sundance Selects/Glendale Picture Company
53. Bisbee '17 (dir. Robert Greene, 2018)
 
Sometimes a movie's timing can be at once exquisite and frustratingly off. A case in point is Bisbee '17, Robert Greene's hard-hitting and vertiginously creative study of a century-old deportation of immigrants, labor organizers, and perceived dissidents in the U.S. Southwest. By the time I, like so many Americans, was marching in "Keep Families Together" protests in mid-2018, amidst mounting disclosures of mass-scale, crowded, even-worse-than-our-worst-guess incarceration of adults and children at the Mexican border, Bisbee '17 was wending its way through some of the world's major nonfiction festivals, including Sundance, True/False, CPH:Dox, Hot Docs, and AFI. Well deserved! Thrilling, even! But how great if the movie had been widely, cheaply accessible during that summer of spreading crisis and pushback about the same issues Bisbee confronts: xenophobia, authoritarianism, rabid capitalism, false news reports, families cleaved. The movie's small theatrical run, yet another noble undertaking by tiny, indefatigable Grasshopper Film, came and went primarily in early fall. By the time of the midterm elections and certainly by Top 10 season, when multiple critics, especially in smaller markets, were still pursuing the movie and might have trumpeted it to wider circumferences of readers, it was totally AWOL. I wrote to two publicists and one of the movie's production companies and was promptly, generously rewarded with two screeners; it was clear people wanted the movie out there, and the channels or contracts to support wider, faster circulation just weren't in place, even amid nationwide hubbub over its exact themes. By now, thank goodness, Bisbee's visibility has hugely improved. You can rent or purchase it directly from Grasshopper, or stream it for free as an Amazon Prime member (or for a bargain-basement $1.99, if you're not a member), or you can find it on Apple TV, which I've no idea how to link to. Bisbee '17 even aired nationwide for free on PBS in July 2019. So, having solved the puzzle of accessing the movie, "all" we're left with are the tantalizing riddles of what exactly it is, what it's about, and, to quote Roger Ebert, how it's about what it's about.

Bisbee '17 explores the shocking deportation of 1917, when extraordinary WWI-era pressures on the local copper mine led to worker complaints and strike threats, which in turn stoked the fires of class oppression, racism, and anti-immigrant scapegoating. This all culminated on July 12 with citizens of Bisbee, deputized for the day by their sheriff, abducting 1,196 neighbors and workers (including some of the perps' own siblings or relatives), packing them onto cattle-cars, and launching them into the far-off New Mexico desert (in July), where presumably most of them died. 100 years later, citizens of present-day Bisbee, working in concert with the filmmakers, want to confess this seldom-discussed sin and maybe exorcise some of its spirit by reenacting the Deportation on a vast scale. Residents will dress on the day of the centennial in period garb, either as specifically implicated individuals (the sheriff, the mine's general manager, a leading but largely forgotten protester against the purge, etc.) or amidst the larger crowds of deporters and targets. Indeed, the reenactment is in many ways the film's principal subject, though it sets aside some expected questions: for example, did it work? Will anyone feel better or learn anything from this elaborate, emotionally volcanic piece of citywide theater? Greene is more interested in all those stirred emotions around Bisbee and the equally restive, deeply conflicted thoughts. What does it mean for brothers Steve and Mel Ray to sign up to role-play, at their mom's behest, their own beloved great-grandfather and the equally beloved great-uncle he dispatched into suffering? How can it possibly feel to be Fernando Serrano, a twentysomething, Latino resident of Bisbee whose mother was deported when he was seven and remained in prison till he was 18? How must it feel to confess that while wearing the costume of a miner soon to be hurtled onto a train, and for his audience to be Mary Ellen Dunlap, the actress-for-a-day playing his terrified Mexican mother, who in real life is the Republican Clerk of the local Superior Court, and in her words the first Hispanic of any gender to win elective office in Bisbee? What goes through the mind of Laurie McKenna every day for hours, as she one by one makess pencil rubbings of 1,196 U.S. pennies on 1,196 index cards emblazoned with the names of the deportees, all for an upcoming gallery exhibit that Bisbee may or may not dignify with a response?

These and many other subjects testify articulately to their own perspectives on Bisbee's past and present, though sometimes they articulate things they may not mean to. Sometimes, as ever, their greatest eloquence comes in silence. Just as articulate, though, is Greene's puzzle-box construction, where the kaleidoscope of generic influences, which turns Bisbee '17 into a nonfiction-drama-horror-thriller with songs, a garden with real toads in it (such toads!), a complicated thought-experiment rather than a simple "Shame on them!" human-interest feature. Much more than that, the confusion of genres captures the hybridity of Bisbee and of America, no matter how many men with clubs and rifles always want to deny that, and of the ultimate impossibility of truly recovering this story or recovering from it, no matter how deep you dig or what lens you apply. Greene doesn't just film the preparations for what's billed publicly as the "Recreation of Roundup in Copper Plaza and Historic March" but stages with aggressive style and formal embellishment the auditions, the rehearsals, the costume-fittings, the small talk, the exhortations and refusals to participate. Musical numbers are not beyond the film's reach. So we're effectively watching a complex staging of a complex staging of a real event, equal parts Errol Morris, John Sayles, Barbara Kopple, and David Lynch, indebted for all its uncanny power to Jarred Alterman's forceful lighting and resourceful camera movements and to Keegan DeWitt's adventurous score, a not-too-distant cousin to Jonny Greenwood's for There Will Be Blood. We're also observing, even at the level of form, a meaningful friction between a display of consummate top-down orchestration and a scene of widely-dispersed, open-ended collaboration with the folks of Bisbee, to include the license to bail if they want to. That meditation on what it would mean to be free, in practical as well as ethical terms, culminates as so much does in Bisbee '17 in the figure of Fernando, whom the film even more than the in situ performance keeps promoting as its icon. You see in Fernando's face (which, arguably, Greene scrutinizes more often and for longer than he needs to) the earnest commitment to this project's goals and motives but also the ambivalence of...participating at all? Participating as this character, with this degree of close-up attention? Meeting some of the people he's thus enjoined to meet, some of whom don't seem to Get It, or going to some places he's forced to go, geographic and otherwise?

Fernando will eventually walk off the set, right in the middle of the pivotal sequence, but the camera tracks him so doggedly as he "leaves," and "finds" him much later on the ghostly edges of a nighttime baseball game, that it's unclear how much his exit was a bug or a feature of the project. Is his walk-off emblematic of how difficult it is to be a semi-willing personification of suffering within local or national dialogues about race, class, and citizenship, or is it a sharp parry of conspiratorial theater, within a larger assemblage of conspiratorial theater, that makes every viewer ponder why someone like Fernando, as much as the camera loves him, as dedicated as he seems to his role, might abandon a movie like this? In that way and others, Bisbee '17 ingeniously registers not just the aspect of modern America (pretty huge for an "aspect") that's such a vertiginous whirligig of direct or systemic complicities, of dark discoveries that haven't been all that hidden, but also the needs in modern America to pare things down to fight-or-flight moral choices. The movie asks us to consider, truly, what ours would have been in Bisbee 1917 or in Bisbee 2017, and to try to understand the choices of others, however we feel about them, which might be strongly. Welcome to Synecdoche, Arizona. By the way, whether or not you admit it, you already live here.

Honorable Mentions: Greene's interviews and larger trove of Bisbee-related materials are all worth exploring, on the Blu-ray or on the web or wherever. I'll recommend this interview with a historian as one example. I'll also flag his documentary Kate Plays Christine (2016), which captures the painstaking work, from seemingly banal errands to soul-shaking discoveries and deep-tissue anxiety, of trying to research another person deeply enough to be her in a film that concludes with her suicide. While their aesthetics aren't the same, Kitty Green is another documentarian who is as interested in stretching as in mastering what we often reductively consider "the form." That gift is on full display in the unavoidably disquieting Casting JonBenet (2017). And for a parallel narrative to Greene's and a somewhat analogous film-within-a-film structure, laboring but failing to understand historical trauma through artistic reenactment—or maybe succeeding too well, in ways that get pretty hot—I'd urge you toward Radu Jude's flinty Romanian metafilm about a 1941 Eastern Front genocide, with the barn-burning title I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018).
 

54. Raising Bertie (dir. Margaret Byrne, 2016)
 
I'm fully aware that each of you runs into the occasional, maybe more than occasional review or grade or tweet on this site that makes you think, "I mean, I liked that movie... but that much?" Sometimes even the filmmakers feel a version of that! I hosted Margaret Byrne on my campus to show her remarkable documentary Raising Bertie, and as I kicked off our post-film Q&A by alluding to our initial meeting over Twitter, where I was proselytizing for her film to anyone who would listen, she cut in to say, "I never really asked you, and I wondered a lot: what exactly did you love so much about it?" Of the reasons I could encapsulate on the spot, one was absolutely contextual. I first saw this film at the Siskel Film Center in November 2016, post-election and, more crucially, after a year of press in which "rural America," "heartland America," and other cognate phrases relentlessly connoted the white working poor, and nobody else. I agree that demo had for years been seldom-polled and ill-understood by our national media outlets, obstinately coastal in location and emphasis, and that this cost us a great deal in our understanding of fellow Americans. But it surely costs us more to erase huge groups of citizens in the very act of pretending to name them. Raising Bertie, named for a rural county in northeastern North Carolina—a state of particular, overdetermined significance in that year's news, usually in relation to bathroom bills and gerrymandering—documents a lifeworld where poor and working-class African Americans predominate. The film attends to the patterns of precarity and divestment that grip this region but attends just as much to the kin groups (biological and not), budding romances, growing and shrinking families, present and absent parents, vibrant and divided micro-communities, and other attributes of Bertie County that make it more than an emblem of "struggle." This, too, is "rural America." A black, twenty-something farmer with his locs tied back to till a sunstruck field is as exemplary of the "heartland" as a depleted, demoralized white guy wearing an Ohio State cap to a Youngstown diner. Surveying the media of the previous year, journalistic and otherwise, you'd never have guessed that any of the people in Raising Bertie even existed, and so the movie, for all the complexity and frequent difficulty of the lives it depicts, was a much-needed oasis in a desert of American self-imagining.

The second reason, related to the first, is that Byrne and her team, who developed the film through years of co-habitation and close collaboration with her subjects, managed to make a film that illuminates locations and life experiences I know nothing about, but without centering me as a viewer, or catering to questions or ideas or curiosities she elected in advance an outsider would have. I'm saying more than just "Raising Bertie is a film about black people that does not appear pre-fixed on imagined white spectators," although I do feel that's mostly true (the unfortunate subtitling of easily audible English being one rare but important misstep). More than that, the movie prioritizes its subjects and their truths over the hypothetical audience, whoever that might be. It keeps contact throughout with the way life is in Bertie County, especially for our three focal characters, Junior, Bud, and Dada. All three are African American men of high-school age, just trying to get to graduation or thrive without graduating, make some money, meet a girl, support the family that raised them, start a family of their own, have fun, have a beer, have a prom, feel less tired, help a friend, rebuild what's broken, stop sweating what can't be fixed, and enjoy their time on the earth. As with any life, but also for reasons specific to Bertie, and to the unique temperaments and circumstances of these three guys, Junior and Bud and Dada all have their up-and-down rotations on the wheel of fortune. Maybe one who strikes you as facing the fewest obstacles at the start encounters more stumbling blocks than you'd guessed. Maybe someone whose life is generally trending upwards nonetheless collides with the greatest individual setback: held back in school, held away from their own child, disappointed again by an absent parent or furtive sibling who recently reemerged with promises to do better. There's no magic recipe for flourishing, and no one way to stall or fail, and the experience of each often overlaps with the others.

Byrne makes clear her acceptance of, indeed her commitment to the unpredictability of life by refusing to structure the film around any mini-narratives that might work as an "A" plot. The closing of a local community center, announced early in the film, grievously affecting student success and neighborly morale, does not become the core event I had expected. Bertie might have doubled down on the heroic effort to re-open the Hive (Loretta Devine made that movie) or on the coerced resilience of making do without a crucial institution. Graduation, a triumphant occasion for one protagonist, a non-event for another who has long since dropped out, is not the teleology of the film, even in the way it is structured. All three men enter relationships with women that seem to accelerate quickly, at different spots in the film. One remains sturdy, one decisively collapses, and another is too close to call by the film's end. Including them all is a way of reiterating that a relationship's firmness or fragility can seldom be guessed in advance, and there's no way to know about love or learn about life without living it, which remains the whole, informing ethos of Raising Bertie. The film tracks all kinds of eddies and currents, keeping them all clear. It refuses in its framing or the balance of its edits to decide on anyone's behalf which protagonist or plotline is of greatest interest to "us," or whether Bertie at root is a sad or inspiring or neutral tale. These are not our issues to decide, either, because Byrne does not position us (or herself) as jurors. Our roles are to watch, non-voyeuristically; to hazard guesses which might be wrong or right; to extend empathy, which is very different from perceiving a "victim"; and to learn, just learn, just pay attention. We acclimate ourselves to the rhythms, the surfaces, and the horizons of expectation that prevail in this community and come away with some sense of life in that environment, whether or not we're newcomers to it, whether or not it reminds us of our own.

"Surely many documentaries achieve that?" you might be asking. I'm sure that many do. It's hard to know, since the kind of modest-scale, modest-budget film that Raising Bertie embodies faces real uphill battles just to get seen, just to attract basic awareness. My eye was drawn to this one because the Chicago Film Festival booked it and the Siskel gave it a full week run. Both decisions stemmed from Bertie's being produced by Kartemquin Films, the Chicago company that has yielded so many documentaries that actually reflect our country. The people in their movies are an eclectic group, facing conflicts unabashedly shaped by vectors of class, race, and gender. Of course there may be off-grid documentaries out there that are as polished, inquisitive, principled, and shrewdly edited as Raising Bertie, and if one comes to mind I hope you'll recommend it to me, the same way I am urging you to seek this one out on Amazon. But 100%, I am not lionizing Raising Bertie only as an arbitrary stand-in for a wide caste of American nonfiction filmmaking that exists in greater numbers and evinces greater craft than even omnivorous cinephiles often recognize—more, indeed than any one viewer can plausibly keep up with. That's all true, but Bertie is also quite special in itself. It incorporates subtle visual arcs and codes, like the early shot of three delicate shoots in the soil and the late shot of three stalwart mailboxes, tilted and eroded by time; it's impossible not to ponder these shots as figures for our three protagonists, Dada, Bud, and Junior, and for where they start and end the picture, stipulating that it tracks one narrow window of very young lives. (Nobody's an old mailbox yet!) Bertie knows the poignancy of filming a couple's prom, suffusing it with color and excitement without inflating its sublimity, capturing the warm moments and the odd side-eye, and then following the couple home to pajamas and takeout chicken, because in this movie abstracted high-points always get re-situated inside longer, lived routines. I got more from the stop/start, up/down, open/closed, mobile/static sweep of life in Raising Bertie than the similar sweep in Boyhood, and with a greater sense of witnessing something seldom witnessed, except by the folks for whom this is just ordinary life. Maybe "ordinary" is exactly what the film will seem for you. If so, I'll vigorously agree, since this is the exact reason I love it. "Ordinary," especially some places' and some people's "ordinary," is amazingly hard or, at least, amazingly rare for cinema to honor. Here, it does.
 

55. The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Barnard, 2013)
 
I was born too late to discover Kes in cinemas, and in fact only caught up with it this year on Blu-ray. I lived in too small a town when Ratcatcher opened to have a prayer of seeing it on a big screen, though it was plenty powerful on disc. I did see Fish Tank in a theater, though having heard so much about it post-Cannes, and already loving Andrea Arnold's aesthetic after Red Road and Wasp, that movie confirmed my highest hopes, even surpassing some of them. It wasn't, then, until I sat with a packed audience for The Selfish Giant at TIFF in 2013, agog at low little the movie recalled its director's debut, feeling a roomful of eyes glued to a screen, straining to hear a pin drop at one particular moment (anyone who's seen it knows the one), that I got to discover in real time, without warning, an emergent classic of child-focused British naturalism. I'd only booked this matinée because I was so intrigued with what Clio Barnard attempted in her experimental documentary The Arbor, even if that film didn't totally "take" for me. I fully see why it remains her calling card for most cinephiles; I, too, tend to gravitate toward the weirdest stuff an artist ever tries. For me, though, The Selfish Giant felt like a huge leap forward. For thirty seconds afterward, I allowed myself to feel mystified why this was kicked to the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, especially given a Main Competition starved for films directed by women, save for Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi's instantly-forgotten dramedy about a family having to sell their Italian villa (les pauvres!). Rather than dwell, I elected to savor the surely-imminent moment when Barnard would bask in the world's approbation, her career continuing its promising liftoff. I swear if you'd asked anyone else in that auditorium, where applause went notably long and notably loud, we all had the same forecast. That's not quite how things went for The Selfish Giant. Nobody should sneeze at its fistful of citations from English festivals and critics' groups or its BAFTA nomination for Best British Film (a prize it lost to Gravity). In the US, though, about six people saw it when Sundance Selects snuck it into a few theaters around Christmastime.

Happily, unlike a lot of relative obscurities on this list, The Selfish Giant is just one cheap Amazon rental, so you, too, can relish its pleasures and share the struggle, 91 minutes later, of piecing your heart back together. Some viewers will recognize the title as that of a short story for children written by none other than Oscar Wilde, which somehow gets harder rather than simpler to parse once it outs itself as a Jesus parable. If Wilde affords himself an eccentric vantage on Christ's passion, Barnard takes comparable liberties with Wilde. It would take a longer piece than this one to detail how and why her Selfish Giant still works as an "adaptation" of Wilde. Setting that case aside, though, the movie is much more special for how it extrapolates a famous text's animating spirit into a totally new, tangentially acquainted story. Jessica Kiang had a brilliant line about Lee Chang-dong's Burning being "based on a skeletal short story by Haruki Murakami in the same way a spreading oak is based on an acorn." Barnard achieves the same scale of narrative, cultural, and generic transformation, both retaining and refusing the source text's status as a fairy tale. Her closely-bonded school boys, obstreperous Arbor (Conner Chapman, indelible) and more outwardly sensitive Swifty (Shaun Thomas), are horse-riding knights on their own romantic crusade but also rudderless kids, booted from school, willing to look anywhere for excitement or security. They are self-styled Robin Hoods, feeding and heating their poor families with cash they make, albeit through channels that are already ill-gotten, even before they start robbing their own sleazy benefactor (or maybe that's when they finally become Robin Hoods?). They're boys having a lark they might recall one day with a chortle, but also the frail scions of deeply strained households (one too empty, one too full) who have reasons to wonder, or at least we do, if they'll survive long enough to look back on any of this.

Barnard's negotiations between realism and dreamlike hyperbole are rooted in style as well as story. She and D.P. Mike Eley (doing unquestionably his best work) shot in Derbyshire, West Yorkshire, and elsewhere in central England. The geography they've thereby composited, full of rolling hills and grazing horses, has a disconcerting hum, as if the whole place is not-so-secretly sizzling. This is partly a narrative detail, since Arbor and Swifty score money by stealing copper cables anywhere they can find them (train yards, utility trucks, giant electricity towers) and selling them to a remorseless junkyard dog (Sean Gilder). The imaginative sound mix alerts us whenever the boys are near a site a score is possible, though this is also a sonic map of where and when they're in greatest danger. The effect also helps Barnard construct the semi-rural middle of Blighty as storybook pastoral but also despoiled bounty, full of slag heaps, faltering infrastructure, black markets, shady grifters, repo men, overworked animals, put-upon teachers, and teetering families. Anybody could blow, at any time, including the animals. Notably, The Selfish Giant's protagonists— particularly Arbor, who's our real point of focus—are not angels-in-waiting, forced by circumstance to adopt a tough carapace they might easily shed. For the most part, Arbor's a little shit, truculent and indiscriminately cruel, except when his best friend Swifty or, less often, his beleaguered mum requires some sympathy. It's rare for a filmmaker to present a child in ways that demand our impulse toward care, but only gradually so, and cautiously, with little if any sentiment, and with plenty of reasons for us to rebuke or refuse.

When tragedy strikes, its manner is not entirely unpredictable, nor does it suggest that intention. With the certainty of the fairy tale, but a stomach-turning sense of real human fallout, The Selfish Giant poses hugely vexed questions to those who know the Wilde. Who here is the repentant ogre? Who the martyr? What (or who), if anything (or anyone), has managed to flower in this hardscrabble place? And how fair is it to search for moral bloom or spotless conscience in an area that looks so cast-off by the few systems broad and powerful enough to enact a general rescue? The Selfish Giant makes you sad without pitying anyone, since every character is a choice agent even within unwinnable circumstances, and every tactic for staying afloat also seems like a strategy, consciously or not, for drowning someone else. We end with the revelation that The Selfish Giant is not, as it seemed, a linear arrow of implacable fate but a curious circle, starting where it began like a particularly grim(m) bedtime story. Notably, the only child on screen by this point is lying not atop but under his mistress, wailing away at the bedframe above with his fists and his shouts and his perceived helpelessness. As in those other films I listed at the top, and as in the last four years of world headlines, The Selfish Giant's United Kingdom has a "no exit" quality. Only the writer-director seems emancipated, enough to use her mighty gifts to help us see our great good fortune, those of us not born into traps, or foraging for scraps, or treated as scrap. THE END.
 

56. End of the Century (dir. Lucio Castro, 2019)
56. Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh, 2011)
 
Andrew Haigh's Weekend is pronouncedly and gorgeously a miniature, but by the time it reached Chicago, seven months after premiering at South by Southwest—and, strangely, before it ever touched ground in England—the movie already felt major. This effusive swell of preceding reputation reached me not through Gay Film Twitter but through publications and movie sites without any particular orientation toward LGBTQ readers. That would probably appeal very much to Tom Cullen's Russell, who is not ashamed of his gayness but seems happiest when nobody is asking about it or setting him apart for it. Chris New's Glen, by contrast, may have preferred to encounter the film in as queer a context as possible. I can imagine him finding the movie a bit sedate and politically quiet for his tastes, or perhaps proclaiming such critiques while in fact finding Weekend quite tender and impressive, as the rest of the world did. Maybe that sounds like a schematic way of pitching these characters, though part of what's great about Weekend is how it embraces affects, contrasts, and story points that could have felt rather on-the-nose yet presents them as utterly organic to a contemporary lifeworld of many urban queers. Minus the need to extrapolate, these notes, mostly shorn of cliché, are just as inveterate to one quietly, magnificently observant snapshot of two such urban queers crossing paths. The opposition of the bashful nester and the confrontational artist, as nuanced as Weekend makes it, could have felt stale as a structuring opposition. The discovery of a past overlap in Glen's and Russell's sexual histories could have felt more forced than it does, though it also strikes me as endemic to the experience of so many LGBTQ folks in smallish cities. Not to say such webs don't tangle plenty in bigger cities, too, but the smallness of the world, pleasing yet unnerving, is one of many ways that Weekend refreshingly places itself at a distance from New York or London.

Other threads in Weekend could have served as promontories for pronouncement about the Way We Live Now, as gay folks or as, you know, anybody: the interpenetration of devices and recordings into our lives; the sustaining of sexual diary-keeping as a not-unusual practice among many queers for quite some time, and among many men for quite some time, which is part of why Kinsey had a base for those gargantuan reports; the casual flow of drugs through lives and romantic evenings, cut off from any concern or discourse about "addiction," and either fueling unplanned disclosures or offering a catch-all alibi for going off or getting off however you intended to anyway. Once the coke has been snorted in Weekend, the dialing up of conflict and the overt, mutual, armchair psychologizing between Glen and Russell tilts briefly into a zone I might call blunt. It's a slight misgiving on my part but also plausible reportage on how those exchanges and those modes of modern relating and recreating often go. Most persuasively, Russell and Glen's whole circumstance as a proto-proto-proto-couple with a looming, looming, looming separation involves rushing into speedy confidences and guarding against overquick investment. Speaking freely to someone you'll never see again (maybe?) and yearning not to besmirch what feels so suddenly like a precious, unforeseeable interlude nobody could orchestrate if they tried, not Russell or Glen, not their enraptured audience. (I've never heard of an audience for Weekend that wasn't enraptured, though I can only assume that, like compassionate conservatives, or voters who truly admired Oldman more than Chalamet, they must exist.) The ending of Weekend is well-nigh perfect, to the credit of the filmmakers and the characters. Russell and Glen really land that plane, so gently yet honestly, even if landing a plane ineluctably involves boarding a train. It's incredible how much that patronizing catcall from ye olde off-screen homophobe is exactly the right touch for the finale, summoning up unexpected hackles from Russell and atypical quiet from Glen, in ways that show us how much the men have shifted over 48 hours but also how much deeper they always were than their Normie and Dissident stereotypes. It's also a beautiful demonstration of how rigorously Haigh has kept some staples of gay storytelling outside his exquisite frames, visually and narratively, so that even a glancing, modest, or last-minute inclusion really hits you. Everything in Weekend hits you, which is odd, because almost everything is possessed of the softest touch. The movie so patently loves its imagined viewers, and despite giving the movie almost no money in theaters, we have reciprocated.

A Guardian article a year following Weekend's release positioned it alongside Travis Mathews's I Want Your Love and Ira Sachs's Keep the Lights On as avatars of a new gay realism, in marked contrast to the fragmented and fractious New Queer Cinema of the 1990s. I don't think that memorable article is trying (or obligated) to pose a totally convincing overview of a movement; if it were, I'd have plenty of rejoinders. But if you were trying to sustain that thread across the decade, it surely leads to End of the Century, where it promptly ties itself into beguiling, unexpected knots. Perhaps we'd call Barcelona a bit sexier than Nottingham. From the casting of the leads to the lensing of the images, End of the Century seems a few degrees more invested in titillation than Weekend is, but in its slyly circuitous unfolding, it wrestles with the same duality of comfortable self-acceptance and lingering wistfulness. So focused and intimate that the fourth-billed character is called "Passerby," End of the Century puts two men together by semi-coincidence and then it, too, unveils a prior connection between them. This reveal, however, occasions not a tense exchange but a flowering of new perspectives in what seemed like such a tightly-bounded film, and a blooming of metaphysical questions and speculative fictions that Castro handles so delicately I think he must be a glass-blower as a side-hustle. Both films are crucially about time, but Weekend is more about its diurnal passage and its imminent deadlines. End of the Century, which sounds like it would be about imminent deadlines, inquires more into moebius loops, into fine lines between recalling and regretting, into fresh starts amid visible and more-than-literal sunsets, into a question unimprovably posed fifteen years ago by two existential detectives: "How am I not myself?" Jesus, you have one hot, sweet hookup at home or on vacation, or you buy two tickets to two movies about hot, sweet hookups, and suddenly you're pondering the roots of personality and the meanings of life. Big things, small packages. Prior selves, from decades ago or two days ago. Your voice, from two days ago, i.e. another lifetime ago, emerging from a package, speaking back to you. Packages inside packages inside packages, carried to a vanishing point of mature introspection, so complex and yet so crystal-clear.

Honorable Mention: As I advance up this list, I guess I'm going to keep thinking I dropped the Honorable Mentions in the wrong entries. Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) makes as much sense here, maybe more, than with Mr. Turner. That film, too, has lots to say and show about queer intimacy, about ends, about centuries, about brief intervals that last forever. Nothing at all to say about men, though, and isn't that delicious. So, consider its Mention doubly Honorable. I learned from Weekend and from End of the Century that being in two places at once, multiple times at once, is not only possible but where most if not all of us are hanging out, always.
 

How to Survive a Plague, © 2012 Sundance Selects/Public Square Films Blue Valentine, © 2010 The Weinstein Company/Incentive Filmed Entertainment Poetry, © 2010 UniKorea Pictures/Pine House Films, © 2011 Kino International Black Mother, © 2018 CineReach, © 2019 Grasshopper Film
57. How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France, 2012)
 
David France's How to Survive a Plague, probably the best documentary we have about the first generation of anti-AIDS activism, is also among the most potent, best sourced, best edited historical epics of recent years. It debuted at Sundance in 2012 almost two years after President Obama got the Affordable Care Act through Congress. The process that culminated in the ACA's passage, a tremendous expenditure of political capital uniquely personified in one president, replete with compromises in the good and bad senses, reminded me a bit of the four- and five-dimensional chess that Spielberg and Kushner lay out so meticulously in Lincoln. To say that the ACA's approval seemed to unfold decisively inside the highest levels of government is not to erase the many, many people and organizations, in and out of formal office, who'd been pushing for years for democratized access to the very means of survival. But to watch How to Survive a Plague is to experience something else. This was not intra-governmental negotiation but a gate-climbing, cop-baiting, urn-spilling, rabble-rousing electrification of and by an extremely vulnerable people. By 2012, I had rarely if ever witnessed this kind of mass action in my adult life as an American; there have been other examples since. The battle was two-flanked. On one hand, queers' vehement insistence on their existence, with marching mantras I already knew: e.g., "Bringing the dead to your door / We won't take it anymore!" hollered right outside the White House. On the other hand, this same group's autodidactic communal plunge into the esoterica of biochemistry and pharmacology (they colloquially called it "Science Club"), so as to build alliances with sympathetic doctors and make coherent, incontrovertible demands of drug companies that did not expect anyone on the street, much less a bunch of fairies, to speak their languages as if to the clinical trial born.

How to Survive a Plague does not attempt a comprehensive survey of HIV/AIDS activism in the 1980s. It is specifically a study of New York's ACT UP chapter, which has so often passed as the metonym for Reagan-era AIDS work that many people think that's all there was. I'll plug the work of Jennifer Brier at the University of Illinois at Chicago as one shining example among many researchers, curators, and artists who are ensuring we don't forget other, poorer, less coastal, more melanated, more women-led movements against HIV/AIDS. How to Survive a Plague caught some justifiable flak for assuming a focus on ACT-UP that almost inevitably downplays the racial diversity of who lived with and died of AIDS in 80s and 90s New York. That said, I credit the movie with an immanent critique of the exact kinds of disarray that afflict radical-activist institutions when their leadership largely shares one identity narrative, and when men start competing with each other, and when women start calling out their marginalization by those men. There's more to say on these scores. But Plague still tells an invaluable story of a moment when culture's ideological foundations were laid bare in unusually transparent, unusually lethal ways. The engine of revelation in this case was a virus eating everyone in its path, and so the dialectical response of an already-besieged group was to organize, strategize, show up wherever they had to, and force the changes they wanted to see. Woody Richman and Tyler Walk's dynamic editing—among the decade's greatest feats of cutting—perfectly manifests this sense of huge forces at work, of mountains being moved by other mountains that weren't even there till a moment ago. For his very first feature (!), France and his team have gleaned all kinds of archival, first-hand footage of meetings, rallies, speeches, and private confidences, so that history can speak restlessly, angrily, despondently, and optimistically for itself. Talking heads are kept to a fairly stringent minimum. Cuts are often arranged so that movements in one frame slam into opposite-direction movements in the following frames, so you really feel the David/Goliath contests as they happen, blow by blow.

Of course the scale of death is never far from this movie's heart or its mind or its images, with the requisite pans over crowded wards and hospice-style ministrations, with the running and running and running annual tallies of AIDS deaths around the world, inscribed in a kind of radioactive green font that only makes these stats look more sinister. But the dominant leitmotif of How to Survive a Plague is not of people withering but of people fighting, with whatever time they have left. Fighting while dying, or probably dying. Fighting while taking new drugs that may be doing nothing, but who knows? Fighting antagonism, complacency, and galloping homophobia while also fighting with each other. Fighting public indifference, or the desensitizing spectacle of too many identical marches, so you vary it up sometimes with a "die-in" at St. Patrick's Cathedral, or a banner hung guerrilla-style over the edifice of NIH Headquarters, or a giant condom sheathed over the Arlington home of Jesse Helms, the demon Senator. Fighting while groups fracture and recriminations fly. Fighting while Larry Kramer silences detractors and pests (he tends to view the former as implicitly the latter) by screaming "PLAGUE!!!" from the podium. Fighting in ways that David Barr, a lawyer who went all in on this cause near the start of his career, hesitates to call "fulfilling," and yet he has to admit that such ceaseless life-or-death campaigning was fulfilling, to the point where many activists sank into depression when the desperately-needed drugs finally arrived and the demand for daily picketing began to recede. Though, of course, it's never really receded.

The emergence of these retrovirals and protease inhibitors, summoned into being by the shouts and self-shacklings and self-taught expertise and sheer stubbornness of AIDS activists, is what Larry Kramer today, as tendentious as ever, calls on screen "the proudest achievement that the gay population of this world can ever claim." You might agree or disagree (fight! keep fighting!), but you can see what he means, and so can literally millions of people who wouldn't be here today without these drugs, or the efforts of so many people whose energies and idealism persisted even amidst epidemic darkness. The names of many of these people have been lost, whether through factionalization within ACT-UP, or through less thorough record-keeping in other groups, or because it just never happens that every fallen soldier's name in any war gets passed down. Still, as hard as Marvel was trying to seduce me into seeing the first Avengers movie in 2012, thinking that sobriquets like Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and Thor would get me to the cinema, I knew what superheroes were really calling me. Some names were familiar to me, some new. Barbara Starrett, Peter Staley, Jim Eigo, Iris Long, Ann Northrup, Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, Garance Franke-Ruta... The list is long despite being partial, the slants evident, the complications many. That's still quite a list, and in a world where roll-calls were almost always digests of the dead, it means so much to celebrate some who lived, and made sure others lived. People who survived a plague long enough, in a surprising number of cases, to show up and speak and be counted in a churning, devastating, inspiring, stunningly well-made film.

Honorable Mentions: I only recently saw We Were Here (2011), a documentary about the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP and a surrounding community of the still-living and the long-dead who fought this disease and the paranoias surrounding it on the West Coast. It's lovely and indispensable—less formally overpowering, maybe, than How to Survive a Plague, but at least as moving. I'd also urge viewers toward Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss's recent 5B, which overlaps a bit with We Were Here in its time period and Bay Area focus but coaxes out complementary and deeply-felt stories centered in the first hospital devoted entirely to HIV/AIDS care. Finally, hopping over the Atlantic, the French drama BPM (Beats Per Minute), without quite rising to the level of these others for me, contains some individual performances and some scenes of haunted tenderness as well as heated protest that have surely stayed with me.
 

58. Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
 
Often this decade, the phrase "Sundance film" served as something in the neighborhood of an epithet, or at least a yellow flag. In some ways, the event has only itself to blame, given the Happy, Texas-era fever for programming "quirk" that has stuck to its imprimatur. That kind of movie seldom surfaced in recent years, but the smell still lingers. More recently, a couple of bland or grievous or wildly over-adulated prize-winners didn't help. Nor did annual mismatches between rapturous January reviews that later seemed like soused mistakes amid high-altitude vacations. They're also symptomatic consequences of Sundance unfolding during awards season, when every critic's rhetoric about everything gets pitched too high, except when I recently said I would hara kiri myself if Alfre Woodard doesn't get nominated. In any case, "Sundance" as a moniker names far too eclectic a field of filmmaking to invite any generalized assessment, even if you narrow the sample-group considerably to the U.S. Dramatic Competition. I am as guilty as anyone of side-eyeing a film based on Utahn dispatches, though I eat crow with the best of them, which is exactly how I felt about Blue Valentine during the first 20-30 minutes of my first viewing, chastened by an experience so much more muscular, unusual, and emotionally persuasive than I had expected (even from that title, or that ukulele in the trailers). I resumed feeling reflective and contrite about an hour after the movie finished, with that unexpectedly glorious end-credit montage, a pyrotechnic valediction. Between the two moments I have named, I was much too swept up to think about anything but the film.

The script of Blue Valentine assumes manifold degrees of difficulty right from the beginning, presaging the confidence of the whole project. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance launches us into the evident strain of a blue-collar marriage where Mom is carrying disproportionate burdens as both breadwinner and disciplinarian, though the film lands on a day when she's made an innocent mistake that puts the household in turmoil. Soon enough, we are shuttling back to the more hopeful though never quite rosy first meetings of Ryan Gosling's Dean and Michelle Williams's Cindy. Thus, the audience has to engage in repeated compare/contrast work, assessing how each character has evolved over six-to-eight intervening years and how the relations between them have changed, without getting the impression that they become totally different people. Adding to the intricacy, Blue Valentine dives back into Dean's story only, catching us up to his first eye-clap on Cindy, then recapitulates events in her life that brought her to the same juncture. On virtually every film, and certainly those with tiny budgets, actors always shoot out of sequence, so Gosling and Williams—both totally extraordinary throughout—may or may not have faced atypical labors in parsing achronological increments in their tricky rapport, their individual frustrations and dilemmas, and their respective modes of premature aging. All of this reads beautifully in each performance, but even more impressive is how non-convoluted the screenplay feels despite all this shuttling around. Nor does the tactic involve cheap reliance on gasp-inducing Before/After contrasts, harrowing us with a simplified Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience duality. Neither character's all that "innocent" to begin with, anyway, and the eventual storm clouds over this marriage arrive amid relative youth, so the "innocence" of new, restorative love may still arise with different partners. One can hope. In sum, Blue Valentine plays enough with structure to complicate our entrypoints and our process through the narrative, but not so much that the story feels overworked. Gosling and especially Williams live so matter-of-factly inside these characters that even if I did have an impression of fuss at the level of writing, it would've dissipated in the face of their singular chemistry and candor.

This bruised and bruising love story, increasingly absorbed in the peculiar antimatter that's left when love disintegrates, bears plenty of other virtues that a standard review could enumerate. Though Williams and Gosling indisputably propel the movie, plenty of actors make potent impressions in mid-range roles (young Faith Wladyka as their eminently plausible daughter, Mike Vogel as a prior lover with whom things got messy) and in even smaller parts (Jen Jones as Cindy's grandmother, John Doman as her unimpressed dad). Andrij Parekh's cinematography has a stonewashed texture and handheld, actor-focused energy that go far toward earning the Cassavetes comparisons you imagine Cianfrance would relish, and may have actively sought. Still, there are reasons more specific to this film that make me love and admire it, and consider it precious. The chain of events that land Cindy and Dean in an abortion provider's office and the one that leads them back out, albeit into a different kind of high-risk choice, is one of amazingly few times a modern American movie has even approached abortion as a plot point. On this basis alone, I give Blue Valentine points for courage. It also stages that fairly late sequence, in all its complex layers, such that it locks into place as the "eureka!" puzzle piece that makes the whole story compute. I believe that storyline, and more than that, I believe the whole film. This is a subjective but important metric in assessing a narrative drama—perhaps especially the kinds that get called "Sundance films." Some peers in that milieu are even rarer in focus or style and gutsier with craft, even if I don't 100% buy them (Winter's Bone, Take Shelter, Upstream Color, Advantageous). Other Sundance hits are eminently credible character studies I gladly embraced, although it's no knock to say they aren't venturing super-far on formal or narrative limbs (Hello I Must Be Going, Concussion, Camp X-Ray, Lovesong). Blue Valentine, which for some reason I'd expected to feel like a hyperbolic but forgettable exercise in "How Gritty Can We Get?" goes to some genuinely brave places, fully commits to the careful, caustic journey of getting there, and makes me buy everything it's selling. It didn't suffer on second viewing, years later, which I worried it might. Its power doesn't shrink at laptop-size. I believe it, and believe in it. Even the ukulele.

Honorable Mentions: Several other Sundance titles from the U.S. competition testify, in all their splendid difference, to the vitality of that showcase, whatever critiques it might also deserve. And in these cases, I saw aesthetic and narrative risk as well as nuanced, persuasive writing and characterization. Omitting a few other titles that will come up later or have already, a fond hat-tip to Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground (2011), with its all-too-scarce attention to a woman's spiritual quest, untied to any dogma or denomination; Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George (2013), with its intense, culturally specific story elevated by Bradford Young's lapidary lensing; David and Nathan Zellner's Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), expending such eccentric but rigorous care on a bizarro setup that nobody else would devise; Chloé Zhao's Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), with a richer aesthetic and more surprising, collective portrait than in her better-known follow-up, The Rider; and two prizewinners from this year, Chinonye Chukwu's Clemency (2019) and Joe Talbot's Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), each delving into urgent American conversations or, too often, non-conversations around gender, race, generations, gentrification, dispossession, incarceration, idealized pasts, and morally corrosive work.
59. Poetry (dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
 
I would feel worse about finding it so hard to write about Lee Chang-dong's Poetry if its protagonist weren't also finding it so hard to write, and specifically to write beautifully but without cliché about things that are lovely but not at all simple. I also take solace, and perhaps an easy out, in the fact that Lee's work is so invested in the ineffable. His best screenplays launch multiple storylines into play around the same character or small set of characters, turning each into a strong contextual influence on the others. Developed with the patience and architectural sense of a novelist (which Lee also is), these narratives are transfixing even before they announce whichever thread or theme or crisis is actually the binding of the whole book. Once that development arrives, especially in my favorite Lee pictures, Oasis (2002) and this one, I feel surfeited with insights and explanations but also weirdly destitute of both. He's furnished so much deep background, albeit with such a cool tone and a soft touch, that I feel like I should understand everything about these characters and what they ultimately do, or what finally befalls them. But like the prisms they are, you wind up seeing through Lee's films and his soulfully acted protagonists even as you try to see them. If his countryman Bong Joon-ho is best-loved for making films that refuse to enshrine subtlety as a compulsory value in art—telling us in capital letters something we should already know but don't admit, or have yet to perceive in this way—Lee turns character studies that flirt with the edges of crime fiction or detective stories or crisis-of-faith parables or dangerous romances or sociopolitical pronouncements and, while delivering on some of those genre-based pleasures, puts us in touch with something metaphysical and elusive inside them. Poetry.

Here are some things we know about Poetry's lead character, Mija (Yun Jeong-hie), the anchor of almost every shot in the film. She is a woman in her 60s who appears to be losing her memory. She is a woman who seems drawn to beautiful objects, natural or handmade, and seems to view it as a responsibility to look beautiful herself. Thus, she dresses herself in just a few too many beautiful garments and accessories, or articles that ask to be thought beautiful but teeter on the garish, especially in combination. This yearning for beauty seems to prompt her spontaneous enrollment in a poetry class, in which she exhibits more ardor than talent, though her attachment to the utopian promise of artful language is disarming. Sometimes, her gravitation toward the beautiful distracts her from something she ought to be paying more attention to, though maybe it also gives her a retreat from things nobody would want to face or consider. She makes money as a caretaker for a wealthy male stroke victim, about her age, whose erections and leering gazes she ignores while bathing him. She spends a lot of time preparing meals for a teenaged grandson who will hardly look at her, barely grunting in response to many of her questions, and about whom it's easy to believe ungenerous things. Actually, it's much, much worse than that. She is one of several parents and guardians implicated in a local girl's suicide, which apparently was prompted by many months of being raped and otherwise terrorized by six boys in her school, one of them Mija's grandson. The other guardians want to raise a pile of money, fast, in hopes of paying an out-of-court settlement to the dead girl's mother. Mija is the brakes on the speeding train of their mercenary distortion of justice. She's slow to raise money (and has less than any of them), she forgets some of the group's scheduled meetings, she zones out at times when they're speaking, and she has an urge worth debating to meet the girl's mother. When she eventually does make contact, traveling out to an impoverished-looking rural district to do so, she fails to disclose their connection and can't stop talking about the flowers in the nearby field.

How much of all this behavior entails a fugue-state denial of the enormity of her grandson's crime and of the dead girl's suffering—or the enormity, now that she might be considering it, of her endless, self-abnegating, nearly perverse solicitude of a young man with a weak moral claim on such studious care, even before he emerged as monstrous? How much of it reflects the not quite compos of her mentis, which is difficult to diagnose, impolite to discuss, and inconvenient for Mija herself to admit? How much indicates a head-in-the-clouds disposition that Mija may always have possessed to some extent, and may now be harder to parse from medical deterioration? How exhausted is she, of growing old, alone, or from the particular stressors of what has not been and is not now the world's easiest life, even as there are clearly people worse-off in the world. Does her sudden fervor for poetry, if "fervor" is not too strong a word for Mija's fawnlike demeanor and mode of self-expression, constitute a desire to make contact with the world or an eagerness to beautify it, abstract it, or escape it? Lee's meticulous script, which won an award in Cannes, and Yun's quietly astounding performance, which earned plenty of prizes but merited even more, keep all these factors and questions in play, in ways that make Poetry seem wise, intricated beveled, and attentive to everyday human complexity...although some of what Mija faces is hardly "everyday" business. When the character does start showing some mettle, the revelation is surprising but doesn't seem to come from nowhere: proof of the layering that Lee and Yun have sustained together, even while emphasizing Mija's fragility. You realize they've been doing this without teetering into pity or simple pathos, which is truly impressive given these circumstances. And you could say the same of the film's images, which even at their most tender, bucolic, or "poetic" maintain a certain edge, or at least a capacity for edge. Sometimes a pretty shot suddenly clouds over, whether a fact of shooting under natural conditions or, more likely, a sign of inspired manipulation. Sometimes the glare of the overhead sun is just a little too harsh, which is ironic in a movie where so much remains figuratively and literally unilluminated, even by the powerful finish. But of course much else has been illuminated, particularly the life of a woman who may be losing touch with herself, and whom most films and filmmakers would never come close to imagining, much less grapsing.

Honorable Mentions: Ann Hui's A Simple Life (2011) is another profound story about an aging woman facing the loss of her memory, and another glorious vehicle for an esteemed actress who'd been missing for a while. Poetry was Yun Jeong-hie's first movie in 16 years, and A Simple Life was Deanie Ip's first in 11. Based on these two projects alone, they'd have earned their place in film history, though I wish more of their past work were accessible here in the States. If I hadn't mentioned Kent Jones's Diane (2018) in my write-up of Radiator and Ray & Liz, it would have made even more sense here. You could almost, almost imagine it as someone's American remake of Poetry. Nadav Lapid's The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), impressively remade in the U.S. last year with Maggie Gyllenhaal, poses tough questions in its mercurial story of how a craving for poetry can coexist with or, in this case, even catalyze a life of moral compromise. In a somewhat gentler register, Philippe Faucon's Fatima (2015) is a gently played, beautifully directed, César-winning miniature about a Moroccan woman who's relocated to France with her two teenage daughters, whom the neighbors tend to regard as the Good One and the Bad One (though they have lots to say about both). Superb at capturing the difficulties faced by Middle Eastern women in French culture but obdurate about not reducing these women and their conflicts to a simple diagram of sexism and racism, Fatima is also the origin story of Fatima Elayoubi, the mother in this story, who eventually became a highly esteemed writer in her adopted country. In the period the film covers, she's just trying to learn the language, and there is no intimation of what or who she'll become. Which goes to show, as Poetry does in a mostly darker way, that you just never know what people are capable of.
 

60. Black Mother (dir. Khalik Allah, 2018)
 
A serious risk in discussing a film like Black Mother is to praise a movie this devoted to a rare, autonomous aesthetic mostly in terms of what it rejects. Revolution is more than a reaction formation; there's a deadnaming quality to hauling back into discourse exactly those terms and templates that an art work banishes from the drop. Having said that, the number and scale of traditions from which Black Mother decisively breaks are so great that I find it important to flag them. But having said that, if you rent the movie (which, at last, you can easily and cheaply do from the Grasshopper Film site) or if you peruse stills and clips from Black Mother or from Allah's other film work, the chromatic and compositional boldness of his portraiture stake heady claims on "purely aesthetic grounds," if one could possibly define those apart from content or culture. The constant misalignment of sound and image—such that any given speaker is rarely whom we're seeing while we listen, and often the topic of their speech contrasts with what's on screen—has been preserved with remarkable rigor across the film. We often hear at least two stories simultaneously about Jamaica, the film's subject. One or both would often rankle your Sunday School teacher, even as we hear that Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any country in the world. We leave the 77-minute movie feeling we've absorbed impressions of at least 100 island stories, none confirming or effacing the others. These formal and rhetorical commitments make immediately clear that Black Mother will blaze a free trail for itself, a promise reiterated by Allah's wild array of footage (from Super 8, 16mm, Mini DV, high-def video, and other sources), which he nonetheless shapes as a coherent experience. To be clear, you're not meant to not notice variations in colors, resolutions, and grains. There's nothing in Black Mother you're asked not to notice, or to assimilate into a broadly "unified vision," whether of Jamaica or its people or the film itself. The collective portrait Allah offers is about expansiveness, even dispute, and definitely not condensation. Thus, the stylistic commandments of most films in the world—thou shalt homogenize the visual texutres, thou shalt "source" what we hear to someone or something we see, thou shalt issue or at least imply moral judgments—are ramparts that Black Mother storms early and often. Whether Allah pledged to fuck with standard operating procedure, or these modes just feel organic to him, or both, he surely stakes his own ground.

Since Black Mother's fearless gestures are indivisible from each other, the delinking of sound from image and the flaunting of internal variation have everything to do with the movie's refusal of colonization as a geopolitical or an artistic practice. Black Mother doesn't do anything because it's "what films do," any more than it seeks out speakers who will parrot each other's viewpoints or decline to rock any boats. If you'll permit a gesture to my scholarly work, Gilles Deleuze, the theorist and philosopher I wrote about at length, co-authored three criteria for what he called "minor" art, but which we might refer to colloquially as subversive, decolonial, or genuinely new. One was that it express itself through a dominant tradition's languages and forms yet rework them so intensively as to suggest alien potential "inside" a tongue we thought we knew. A second was that the work "speak" from amidst a collective, not an isolated individual, even or especially from within a group that has not attained broad cultural recognition. And third, the content and effect of such expression must have a political character, irreducible to what's often called "art for art's sake." As with many manifestos, these rules are meant for breaking and bending. Candidly, plenty of attempts at such "minor" art avow these precepts without feeling all that rousing or revealing, yet Black Mother, very likely without trying, reflects them magnificently. The language of the film is unmistakably cinematic yet refuses how "cinema" typically works. Jamaicans as a fractious, complicated collective appear to be speak through the film, with director-coproducer-editor-cinematographer Allah as their vessel, rather than the other way around. How the people and the film speak, and what they speak about, indicate histories, spirits, practices, and provocations totally at odds with the values of empire that went by that name, and with the modern-day empires of the profitable, the picturesque, the politely respectable. It doesn't get much more political than that.

Another way to summarize, without linking to a book or seeming to float "above" the images and sounds, is to say that Black Mother is the furthest thing from a typical, usually white-authored ethnographic film. This isn't the kind of movie "about" Jamaica that escorts you through a stable narrative of its past and teaches you who lives there now. Black Mother is constantly pulling away at itself, opening up seams and disagreements that persuasively arise from the place and people so vividly filmed and recorded. The fact that Allah's aesthetic, beautiful but not pretty (or not for long), is so emphatic and yet he still appears to serve his subjects rather than mold them to his plan is all the more remarkable. By calling itself Black Mother, invoking a figure so chronically demonized or idealized all over world culture, much more often rendered iconic (and thus mute) than engaged on credible, curious terms, Allah's film may seem to stumble backward into exactly the terms of romantic or fetishistic projection he purports to escape. Early and recurrent images of black women's naked bodies, plus the voiceover's conceit of breaking the film into "trimesters" rather than chapters, appear at first to liberate our ideas of Jamaica precisely by re-concretizing an image of docile women as eroticized and yet essentialized as maternal. It's a risk, and Allah is patently unbashful about risks. But I think that critique collapses if we admit that, taking in more than ten minutes of Black Mother, you can't perceive it as trying to define or personify anything; it constantly escapes, undermines, and explodes its own provisional models. I do sense the film seeks an ecstatic mode (cinematically, spiritually, culturally) that might give "birth" to entirely new worlds of being and perception than those in which most of us have been indoctrinated. But still, the phrase "black mother" is not literal, or not just. Her invocation is a metonym (a material symbol, not an abstraction) of everything and everyone the planet tries hardest to classify, possess, subjugate, and diminish—exactly the impulses that the confrontational euphoria of Allah's work refuses. You savor Black Mother without doing anything so arrogant or lazy as consuming it. Try to swallow these images and sounds, and you'll feel millions of bones, buried over centuries, sticking in your throat.

Honorable Mentions: RaMell Ross's Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) insisted, like Black Mother, on its own mode of what the late Richard Iton conceptualized as "the black fantastic." I admire very much that film's unruliness and vividness, and several tiles in its wild mosaic have lingered potently in the year since I saw it. Black Mother also reminded me, not least in its nervy snapshots and sound clips of Jamaican sex workers, of Leilah Weinraub's Shakedown, a low-fi but highest-of-high-impact grassroots record of a black lesbian strip club that shifted locations a few times around greater Los Angeles before eventually shutting down. There is nothing that Shakedown won't show about these profoundly uninhibited spaces; whatever makes you blush, if you're the type, get ready to see it eight or ten more times. But, like Black Mother, it's less interested in "recouping" denigrated figures than in restarting images, discussions, and responses on entirely different terms, brazenly uninterested in anybody's approval, least of all the authors of your film-school textbook. Not even a booking at the Berlin Film Festival or a glowing New Yorker piece about its "radical cinema of privacy" could get this one into release or onto DVD, but this is hardly a film that waits to get invited through your front door, and asked to take off its shoes. I saw it at a festival, but I bet there are other ways of catching it, and I seriously doubt the makers will judge you.
 

The Wonders, © 2014 Match Factory/Rai Cinema/Tempesta Gravity, © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures Fire at Sea, © 2016 Kino Lorber/Doc & Film International/21Uno Film/Stemal Entertainment
61. Happy as Lazzaro (dir. Alice Rohrwacher, 2018)
61. The Wonders (dir. Alice Rohrwacher, 2014)
 
To paraphrase Parker Posey in my beloved Best in Show, we are so lucky to have been born amongst Alice Rohrwacher. Like her French contemporary Katell Quillévéré, she commenced this decade with a quietly beguiling female coming-of-age study as a more-than-promising debut. And as strong as Corpo Celeste is, Rohrwacher's two follow-ups have been even more distinctive, adventurous in writing and structure, almost tangible in their physical environments, and impressively different from each other. The Wonders, currently gracing the Criterion Channel, won a major prize at Cannes, as did Happy as Lazzaro. Both are transporting in the moment but really show their power in the ways they linger and expand retrospectively, their flavors complex and durable.

After a vaguely spooky prologue of headlamps and whispered conversations in the pitch black of night, The Wonders immediately places us among a Tuscan family so tightly knit and, more to the point, so closely cooped together that when one of four daughters wakes to go to the bathroom, suddenly everyone's up together, hugging on Mom (Alba Rohrwacher, who had quite a decade) and imagining things to eat. Dad misses all this, because he's sleeping down on the couch, and then out in the yard—one sign, more of which soon accumulate, that every family member is working through some stuff, internally or with each other. Even before Rohrwacher furnishes more detail about those conflicts, we sense right away that her investments are not in the Life-Loving Italian Clan™, that staple of sentimental narrative, but in a totally recognizable domestic unit where most feelings are not pure bliss, most problems are not crises, and where devotion, irritation, solidarity, and loneliness are currents in the same stream. Right away, the moonish face of teenage daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) emerges as our touchstone; the unfolding narrative is simultaneously everybody's and hers alone. Under the naturally sourced, bright but feathery lighting of Hélène Louvart (Rohrwacher's constant accomplice, and a huge gift to Beach Rats and Pina), a great deal will happen to Gelsomina. Some of it transpires in the subtly precarious outside world, and some remains her daydream or secret, unvoiced even to us. A few examples: her father will nurture her as an apprentice but also patronize her as, basically, a girl. A boy of ill repute is placed in this family's care, provided he helps with the labors of beekeeping and livestock-raising. The next-oldest sister, Marinella (Agnese Graziani) will chronically get on Gelso's nerves, then has a slightly suspicious accident while the girls' parents are away. Most of the main characters harbor fantasies of what would pull the family closer and onto surer footing. For Dad, that would involve more comradeship among nearby farmers, so they can fight The Capitalists. At the very least, maybe his neighbors could stop spraying their fields with shit that poisons his bees. Also, he wants to buy a camel? Why not. Mom thinks what everybody needs is for Dad to rein in his temper and his spending. Gelsomina thinks, because of a random film crew she encounters on a beach, that the solution to everybody's problems is to appear on Countryside Wonders (Il paese delle Meraviglie), a kitschy "reality" competition on TV where Monica Bellucci's white-wigged goddess/hostess stages competitions among rural families who raise hogs or crops or, as the case may be, bees.

The Wonders reprises this subplot—intoxicating to Gelsomina, repellent to her father—exactly when the family most needs it to, without guaranteeing a perfect outcome. What's most enchanting than where this storyline culminates is how it starts. A passel of girls minding their own business, feeling their distance from centers of culture, and then suddenly, around a bend, there it is: Cinema. Television. The lure of representation. Too strong to say that everything transforms in that instant, even from Gelsomina's perspective, but the moorings of what seems like a stubborn, limiting reality suddenly get shifted. Rohrwacher pulls off a related trick in Happy as Lazzaro (hanging out on Netflix, awaiting you!), where it's not a character but the audience who experience a tremor in reality, a metaphysical warp after which what seemed most certain may well be negotiable. The first half of Lazzaro, while different in premise and spirit from The Wonders, sustains a few of its qualities: a rural setting, a rustic but not idyllic scene of labor, a concern about corporate takeover, an elopement between friends whose curiosity about each other stops short of what we usually mean by "desire." In any event, that's how I was reading the bond between Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a preternaturally sweet-natured farm worker, and Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), the brattish and angular son of the farm's exploitative, aristocratic owner. Tancredi fakes his own kidnapping and has daily rendezvous with the gleaming but evidently asexual Lazzaro, the only person who knows where this unreliable scion is hiding. Suffice it to say Lazzaro has an accident and eventually rebounds enough to re-join the movie... ... ...only now it's a different movie, amid a more urban milieu, beset by the economic and spiritual fallout that's so recognizable across our world. But what happened to the last few decades, during which Lazzaro didn't age? As he starts to meet the now-grown versions of some former intimates, we're unsure to what extent they recognize him, or how they are rationalizing his uncanny reappearance, or whether they have too much else to worry about to get bogged down in the odd magical-realist twist. Lazzaro and, in different ways, The Wonders are right-brain/left-brain enough to contemplate the cruel linearities of time and decay under capital, for most people a series of arrows pointing quickly or gradually downward, but also to wrap that arrow in garlands of speculation, and to bend those arrows in unanticipated directions. The Wonders, for me, has the more traditional shape but the more indelible images and relationships. Lazzaro is more slippery in memory, precisely because it pulls off such nifty tricks, without quite giving you language to say what the tricks are. What is clear is that Rohrwacher's surely got more tricks. Anticipating what's next for her is one glimmer of hope for the years ahead.

Honorable Mention: I don't place Corpo Celeste (2011) on quite the same plane of achievement as these two but it's still a poetic, insinuating piece of work, centering on a young girl's advancement toward her Confirmation ceremony. While preparing, she's starting to piece together some troubling impressions of her church and her community, and discovering that life offers fewer safeguards or reliable answers than she might have hoped or guessed. And if Honeyland (2019) hadn't already cropped up as an Honorable Mention alongside El Bella Vista, it would be a perfect complement to the tough and tender Lazzaro.
 

62. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
 
That space debris in Gravity that circles around every 90 minutes in narrative time, every 20 in movie time, to attack our girl Sandy and smash up her various rides, detaching her giant space-arm from the rest of the shuttle so she's hurtling out here in the void, impaling Sharif in the face (way too soon, Sharif, you seemed sweet!), knocking out the comms, pulverizing all those solar panels into the worst-ever explosions of glitter, summoning back the scariest passages of Steven Price's score... That space debris best hope we never cross paths in a dark alley or a Chicago bar. I am known where I am known as an even-tempered, peace-loving fellow, but I will whale away on that shit. Hate the space debris. Easily the Villain of the Decade, Galactic Division, though I also have some sharp words for a few circuit-board manufacturers at NASA, and with whoever makes those copper-colored suspension lines for the parachutes, because there are too many, and they can too easily turn into a giant squid of disastrous enmeshment if you've already been menaced, and are still being menaced, by a flotilla of fucking space debris! Sometimes I sit on the subway thinking of how angry I still feel towards all that flying detritus, and wondering what the damn Russians were even doing missile-striking their own satellite while Sandy was just trying to fight her gag reflex and initialize her board. (Gravity is a period piece from earlier in this 90-year decade, when satellite detonation was the worst crime of the Russians.) You guys, I hate it.

"Life is impossible in space," the opening cards remind us, but life is also next-to-impossible while watching Gravity. It's one of the few movies I can think of that genuinely count as immersive, but what you're immersed in is so tense, so huis clos, so assaultive in its diabolical logic and with its wild, indifferent chaos. (The space debris!) All of this is true, but it's just one of those ironies of life that Gravity is also the single movie, maybe, of which I am incapable of watching one scene at a time. I just went to pull a still-frame from the Blu-ray for this feature, and there went 84 minutes, for a movie I long ago memorized. Yes, I have some notes. I do believe filmmakers should have to pay a high tariff for every Dead Child they devise, so as to encourage the postulating, just occasionally, of different kinds of past trauma or psychic conflict. Yes, the fetal imagery can get pretty blunt. Yes, there must have been ways, if I may spoil a six-year-old movie that hundreds of millions of people already watched, to land Sandy back on Earth in ways less iconographic of Columbian arrival, complete with abstract ululating as the soundtrack of white re-empowerment, while this gal stands up in forced-perspective wide angle to go kick life's ass. Ryan Stone seems like a good person, but one still fears a bit for the local ululators. This is a small part of what I think about when I watch Gravity. I also had a whole allegorical thing going in the hours after my first viewing about how the movie opens with a spectacular vaporizing of an American experiment, forcing a grim return to an artifact of superpowers past (the Russian Soyuz), and ending on a desperate move toward Chinese resources (the Tiangong-1, accessed via fire extinguisher!) as the last resort for getting anybody anywhere, as the vastness of space, like the deceptively pretty planet below, is getting all torn up. You know by what.

Mostly, though, I think about the mind-altering cinematography: not just the long takes and sure-looks-cold palette and startling control of the frame no matter what's exploding or pinwheeling inside it, but the precise, spatially orienting choreography of the very few low- and high-glare light sources available 600km above the Earth. I think about the meticulous production design of every station and craft, humbling the audience with what an impossible task Ryan's got before her but still making everything just legible enough that you can sort of imagine figuring it out, if you were as smart as Ryan and had a comparable commitment to survival (which I, in the same situation, would quickly abandon). I think about the prodigious brain of Alfonso Cuarón, without any hope of ever understanding it; I hope it's massively insured. I think how lucky we are that Warner Bros. poured its piles at cash into easily its best superhero film and unquestionably its best Wonder Woman movie of the decade, and that some cabal inside that studio keeps pushing for Fury Roads and Edge of Tomorrows and Interstellars. Shout-out, too, to Heyday Films, the House that Harry Potter Built, for putting all those Hogwarts quid to ambitious, superlative use. And of course, I'm often not "thinking" about Gravity but feeling it in my still-shaky legs, my still-quivering tissues. I remember my dad confessing to me he didn't actually find the experience all that "immersive" and frankly couldn't grasp everyone's enthusiasm. "Did you see it in 3D?" I asked. "I don't think that was an option on the plane," he replied. Oh. Well, I have never watched a movie on a plane, at least not via the in-flight menu, but if I ever did feel like seeing my favorite things ever invented censored for "mature content" and shrunk to index-card size on the backs of plastic chairs inside an antiseptic biodome, I think I would still get swept up in Gravity. While nonetheless glancing nervously out the window for any visual on goddamn space debris.
 

63. Fire at Sea (dir. Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)
 
The best movies always entail coherent conversations between form and content, though documentaries often reap praise for the latter alone, especially if there's nothing aggressively "novel" about how they have been shaped. And granted, Gianfranco Rosi's subject in Fire at Sea is plenty compelling on its own. The film focuses on the surge of African migrants arriving on the rocky shores of Lampedusa, an island governed by Italy that, for many southern refugees, is the most geographically proximate point of Europe and therefore their nearest and best hope for seeking asylum. Though these patterns in human movement have been in place for some time, and Rosi's opening captions tell us that as many as 400,000 refugees have arrived on or near Lampedusa over the prior 20 years, worsening conflicts and exacerbated climate crises were increasing the flow of desperate citizens and of mass-media attention to their plights around the time Fire at Sea premiered. The movie contains plenty of sights and sounds that drive home the life-or-death panic of people packed into boats and rafts. One craft that looks like it would struggle to accommodate more than a few dozen was, we learn, the precarious transport for 840 people, paying anywhere from $800 to $1500 to board. From an early point in the film, we start hearing radio dispatches from floating communities begging for help, often as their vessels start to sink. Sometimes we hang on long enough that we see them retrieved by Italian Coast Guard officers; sometimes when the ships come shine their enormous floodlights, there's already nothing left but waves upon waves. Rosi's camera is also alert to the sympathetic bewilderment of adult Lampedusans, straining to imagine what weeks of dehydration, malnutrition, chemical burns, and horrific exposure must feel like but also to deduce how many of these migrants could be incorporated on this island, and where else the bulk of them will go.

At only 20 km², Lampedusa's compact size is crucial to the formal puzzle Rosi builds into his movie, which weaves among three principal storylines according to logics it's our job to tease out, and in ways that might surprise viewers expecting "just" a focus on stranded boats and emergency rescues. A second strand concerns Pietro Bartolo, the most senior physician on this island of 6,000 homegrown citizens (and elected in subsequent years to the European Parliament). Bartolo must perform medical tests on every incoming refugee, to contain communicable diseases and to assess the often-acute bodily tolls of their voyages—including, as we meet him, the stress-induced depletion of amniotic fluid in the womb of a woman carrying twins. To what extent Bartolo's care should be seen as part and parcel of a larger Refugee Response apparatus, and whether his tender solicitude can be understood as indicative of how the Coast Guard officers act and feel, and whether the migrants sense they are being kindly tended or instantly medicalized as "specimens" or disease vectors: these are all questions Rosi does not address in any expository manner but expects us to ponder by closely observing and empathetically inhabiting his scenes, noting prevalent patterns and glimpses of often-guarded affect. Meanwhile, the person we accompany by far the most often across Fire at Sea is young Samuele Pucillo, a fisherman's son of about 10 or 12, obsessed with his slingshot, firing off rocks at the local cacti and, in one early scene, trying to electric-tape their leaves back together when he and his friend have shot them up. When the kids aren't doing that, they can be found miming machine-gun noises as if they are patroling the island. Do they imagine approaching boats as their targets, and are they thinking about specific bodies on those boats? Or are they playacting at warfare like so many boys all over the planet, bearing for better or worse no thought or specific image in their heads? Samuele's existence, increasingly consumed by an incipient problem with his vision, somehow seems like a world apart from all the tumult of rescues, intakes, barracking, and "processing" of all the new arrivals from Libya and Tunisia (who often began their journeys in Nigeria or Somalia or elsewhere).

Can it really be the case that in a place as tiny as Lampedusa, Samuele is virtually unaware of the monumental pressure on his homeland and its unwitting importance to so many people? Are the depictions of his young life—seemingly bare of responsibility, and fairly stable even amid a modest household income and a major medical event—an image of that freedom from worry one wishes for the migrant children, and indeed for migrant adults? Is Samuele's self-absorption, whether the natural state of youth or a reflection of a kid who seems none too curious or compassionate, a figure for concentric inattention at the scales of country, continent, and planet, at least in proportion to the magnitude of what's being ignored or under-reported? How small can an island be and still encompass realities that seem almost totally unshared, and in what way is the compassionate Doctor Bartolo, eventually a consulting physician an Samuele's eye problem, a linking figure? Rosi's prior film, 2013's Sacro GRA, a mosaic study of lives in and around Rome, reflected much more of the slice-of-life feel of Samuele's passages in Fire at Sea than the grander historical-political vantage that the migrancy scenes demand. There's a sense that Rosi's own aesthetic—marked by casually astonishing photography, and a total trust in montage to evoke life rhythms and subliminal arguments—has been challenged by prevailing events, forced to pay new kinds of attention and place modern routines into much more complicated contexts, even for a filmmaker who's just as happy to commemorate, piquantly, how the world feels for a pre-adolescent kid in a somewhat bounded space. I'm not saying Rosi has ever been an apolitical artist. Still, in its topical focus and its form, and in the way it demands the viewer "complete" the film by connecting narrative and ethical dots for ourselves, Fire at Sea is not just a profile of a formidable global dilemma but an evocation of a palpable tipping-point when earlier, more blinkered ways of living and seeing must evolve, must grow up a little faster even in regions that seem "remote," in response to epochal shifts that affect more people every single day.

Honorable Mentions: An angel gets its wings every time a documentary gets chosen for the main competition at a preeminent world festival, much less when it wins. By that standard, Rosi's triumph at Venice with Sacro GRA (2013) and then in Berlin with Fire at Sea represents a modern miracle. I like the earlier documentary a lot, even if it's not quite as trenchant or memorable as Fire at Sea. It is certainly as powerful a showcase of Rosi's eye and his sophisticated editing. Meanwhile, one of the most promising new directors to emerge on the world stage over the last decade was Jonas Carpignano, dually hailing from Rome and New York, who in his late 20s and early 30s produced two studies of life in contemporary Italy with the powerful formal command and the fine grasp of character that we value in directors like Jacques Audiard and Andrea Arnold. Mediterranea (2015) centers even more the experience of recent African immigrants, while A Ciambra (2017), already more advanced in photography and sound, is propelled by a scrappy Italian-born kid trying to put over a few schemes on the local patriarchy, and quickly ending up over his head. The two movies share several characters in common and work as a provocative diptych or as freestanding films. The mercurial relations between them and their bivalve study of two new Italian generations—one defined by young age and the other by recent arrival—feel exactly in sync with Rosi's perspectives and points of focus in Fire at Sea.
 

64. Just 6.5 (dir. Saeed Roustayi, 2019)
 
All a festival has to do to sell me a ticket is say "Iran." Throw in Peyman Moaadi and Navid Mohammadzadeh, two of the best screen actors in that country, i.e. two of the best screen actors in the world, and I might buy a row of seats. Folks will thank me later! Eager to preserve my cognitive virginity on my way into a highly anticipated title, I skipped reading the short synopsis of Just 6.5 in the Chicago Film Festival program and assumed the movie was about an earthquake. You know, a Richter Scale situation. And in a way it is, at least sociologically. Just 6.5 is a fucking crackerjack police thriller about the wildfire spread of drug addiction in Iran, its systemic abetment by loosely and tightly organized crime, and the Sisyphean struggles of Iranian police to fight these trends, not least because they're trickily implicated in both. The title refers to Iran's estimated 6.5 million users, an exponential surge over recent years despite (because of?) a putative "war on drugs," and one that the onscreen cops attempt to rationalize as paltry (hence the "just") compared to what it would be without their stern interventions. They like to say things like this amidst recurring attempts to cook up damning stories about each other and to toss each other behind bars on false premises.

Shit's a mess in every direction except the filmmaking, which is consummate in every department. That's true from the opening frames, as a small clutch of police press themselves against a building at high noon, hoping they won't be spotted by the criminal skulking on the roof above them, his shadow on the sidewalk giving him away. This quickly, potently evoked tension soon gives way to a chase scene to rival that mad, parkour-y appetizer course in Casino Royale, ending on its own mini-plot twist that's the most perfectly executed coup of writing, editing, sound, and image that I saw in any movie this year. If they just released these first four and a half minutes as a trailer, the marketing would go viral and the film could be a huge hit in the U.S., as it has been in Iran—all the more remarkable given the current economic asphyxiation of that country, which is one reason its justly legendary film culture is flailing. Instead... well, you guessed it. No U.S. buyer as of yet, which is why Just 6.5 was #2 on my Film Comment ballot for the year's best undistributed movies. At least, that's why it was eligible for my list. The reasons it ranked so high included its breathtaking multitude of jaw-dropping set-pieces, including the abrupt, sirens-blaring evacuation of a Hooverville of addicted squatters, the vastness of which only grows clear as they're scattered to the winds; a tense confrontation at airport security, as a group of cops get distracted from their intended quarry by the suspicious number of obese men passing consecutively through the metal detector; the quiet arrival of a SWAT team in an elusive suspect's swish penthouse, unprepared for what they'll find; and a fleet of officers' arrival at a rumored drug house in such a barren, literally deserted area that it seems to pose no threat. This is only a partial list of the film's greatest displays of formal bravura, leaving aside the transitions you don't even recognize in medias res, when it turns out this city-spanning epic has just shifted perspective to a totally different character. Or the heartbreaking and totally plausible interrogation scenes of various relatives, henchmen, and petty criminals, who are not quite "innocent" but whose moral and emotional anguish seems real. Or the ferocious acting of Moaadi and Mohammadzadeh in roles that capitalize on proven strengths but also take each performer in atypical directions.

I know how y'all feel about Heat. I'm even clearer how you feel about The Wire. I know it sounds like I'm just scoring a simplified rhetorical point, or sipping from my perceived pitcher of TV hateration (the rumors are exaggerated...), when I say that Just 6.5 demonstrates the virtuosity of the first with a modicum of the budget, plus the journalistic density, ethical complexity, and velocity of entertainment you welcome in the latter. And in just two hours! It's strange how the kinds of films from abroad that do finagle U.S. distribution often resemble movies or series made in the U.S. that the heavy majority of consumers lampoon or ignore; meanwhile, barnburning action films, high-tension mysteries, and other crowd-pleasing blockbusters from elsewhere rarely make a dent in our multiplexes or our festivals, which cleave to branded auteurs and introspective styles nine times out of ten. You can tell from my list that I'm all in on those kinds of movies, too. Still, the spuriousness of the art/commerce divide causes all kinds of problems, of which the false esotericizing and consequent neglect of a movie (not just a film, a movie!) like Just 6.5 is one. That said, the picture is not yet a year old, so its global-circulation fortunes could still change. So, you know the drill. Write your Senator! Tell them you are keen to experience a cinematic study of hard drugs, mass incarceration, toxic masculinity, and police corruption, which you demand to have imported from Iran. There is no way this doesn't go well for you!

Honorable Mentions: Another Iranian film that couldn't parlay great festival reviews into wider visibility was Mohammad Rasoulof's amped-up, noir-adjacent A Man of Integrity (2017), which won the Un Certain Regard award in Cannes. With prior features like The White Meadows and Manuscripts Don't Burn, Rasoulof has at least made inroads with Stateside DVD companies and streaing services like Amazon Prime. His aesthetic, especially in this movie, is also quasi-recognizable from the vantage point of, say, Asghar Farhadi's, so the lack of room at the inn is all the stranger. Well outside Iran, another movie that made me rethink the way cops and drug offenders encounter each other, and how to define "justice" or "fair treatment" in that context, was the suspenseful Filipino drama and character study Ma' Rosa (2016). Most infamous as the surprise victor of the Cannes Best Actress prize over instant-classic competition like Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Sônia Braga in Aquarius, the film deserves to be as widely seen as sniped at, though I understand its domestic reception in the Philippines was divisive. Jaclyn José is indeed marvelous, but she's just a worthy headline on a hypnotic and complicated story.
 

Black Venus, © 2010 MK2 Productions/France 2 Cinéma/CinéCinéma National Gallery, © 2014 Zipporah Films Iraqi Odyssey, © 2014 Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion AG/Coin Film Whose Streets?, © 2017 Magnolia Pictures
65. Angelo (dir. Markus Schleinzer, 2018)
65. Black Venus (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2010)
 
Sometimes you can't feign total bewilderment about a great movie's failure to secure distribution, even as you wish its rebarbative qualities could be publicly and selectively debated, rather than totally closeted. In a decade rich with commentary and activism against antiblackness, for the obvious reason that antiblack systems and behaviors remained epidemic, Markus Schleinzer's Angelo and Abdellatif Kechiche's Black Venus would surely strike some viewers as repugnant artifacts and others as admirable attempts at confronting repugnant histories, refusing to elide notorious victims of antiblack racism. In the 18th century, a West African child named Mmadi Make was abducted from his homeland (the exact location is disputed), rechristened Angelo Soliman, and brought to Austria, where he occupied a legally ambiguous status: technically free, able to marry and join the Freemasons and inhabit his own home, yet entirely subject to the whims and de facto ownership of various white aristocrats. They paraded him like a jester, dependent, or "exotic" pet, all the way to the royal court. Not quite a century later, a teenaged Khoisan orphan named Saartjie Baartman, from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, was conscripted into a carnivalesque traveling show that traversed England and mainland Europe. Billed as the "Hottentot Venus," she was forced to parade her thinly-stockinged body and baited into a range of demeaning postures, sounds, and movements for the paying pleasure of northern whites.

Racist violence is not a "standard" that invites relative measurement, implicating as it does manifold actions and structures and innumerable named, renamed, and unnamed people of color. Suffice it to say that Soliman's and Baartman's cases remain infamous even in the context of global antiblackness. Making films about these subjects not only means broaching biographies of bottomless pain but re-mounting their lives as spectacle—exactly the crucible thrust upon them in the first place. Even to read, for the first time or the fiftieth, the basic outline of these people's lives, even to imagine what movies about them might be like (and by nonblack directors, at that) may spark ire, despair, or both. I don't personally believe that these obvious, wounding risks should preclude any attempt at respectful, serious-minded representation, but I would not contest anyone who did feel that way. I also recognize that my own whiteness insulates me from the potential violence of such representations, and also limits the value of my assessment of the virtues, demerits, or evident motives of films like Angelo and Black Venus. I can understand why the exhibition marketplace in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere declined to engage, even after these works' prestigious appearances and broadly admiring reviews in the Toronto, Venice, and New York Film Festivals. I still think this is a shame since, in my view, Angelo and Black Venus intrepidly honor the horrifying facts of Soliman's and Baartman's lives but also their flouted humanity and individual resilience, however eroded over time. Each film is formally brave in ways that serve its grievous story, rather than using these histories as stages for auteurist grandstanding.

Angelo's stiff framings, static and distant camera, and boxy 4:3 aspect ratio evoke the variegated constraints operating on Soliman's life. They also stress the rigid, "theatrical" aspect of life among white European aristocrats, as well as the performances of "self," of happiness, and of gratitude into which Soliman was constantly coerced. Schleinzer, a white Austrian filmmaker and longtime associate of countryman Michael Haneke, works from a style guide of denaturalized, monumental, Kubrickian image-making that is totally apropos of Soliman's existence, carved out tyrannical terms he did not choose, and framed as spectacle for outsiders, though Schleinzer is not so invested in that principle to avoid some level of intimacy and a well-earned poignancy with him. The movie, including in its form, is about more than putting this man back through the wringer. A few well-timed and well-executed creative anachronisms, like the Guantánamo-style, fluorescent-lit chamber in which Angelo gets auctioned off post-abdution, reinforce the point that historical violations and vulnerabilities continue among contemporary people of color. By the end of Angelo, the aristocrats who have taken the greatest (read: the blithest, most invasive, most trivializing) pride and pleasure in Angelo's "rise" have induced his dire reversal of fortune. Further degradation and objectification prove possible in a life degraded and objectified since pre-adolescence, whatever its harlequin veneers of "freedom" and proximity to largesse. The fiery end of Angelo is unforgettable, as indeed, for better or worse, is the whole film, which complicates and refines the severe directorial style that Schleinzer—no coward when it comes to subjects—first showed in Michael, his astringent dramatization of a pedophile bachelor and his ten-year-old captive. That film still reached U.S. cinemas and worldwide DVDs, whereas Angelo, limited to one non-subtitled German disc, has nearly vanished. I don't want to conflate that outcome with what befell the real Soliman (that is, the real Mmadi Make), but I do feel a window for thoughtful, articulate recognition—of Soliman, and of the false binary of freedom and captivity in so many black lives over so many centuries—has instead become a scene of re-burial.

Black Venus is an even tougher case, because of the unavoidably blurry line between Saartjie Baartman's hyperexploitative performances and the ineluctable dynamics of restaging them for the camera. Furthermore, in the last decade, director Kechiche (Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Secret of the Grain, the widely loathed diptych called Mektoub, My Love) has been credibly charged with everything from extreme nonprofessionalism to outright sexual assault. Now more than ever, he is not the person you want supervising a story on these themes, requiring such an agile balance of admitting what happened and avoiding a retraumatization, either of the audience or of actress Yahima Torres. The latter, rendering Saartjie with astounding conviction, incrementally indicating outward and internal decline with barely any dialogue, noted publicly after Venice that journalists seldom engaged her as having shaped a performance, writing about her instead as a sort of naïve vessel for Kechiche's vision. We can (must!) admit the craftsmanship Torres exhibits in the role while equally admitting the titanic toll a role like this must have entailed. I shudder to think what the costume fittings, the makeup chair, or the set as a whole must have been like, and I'm honestly not sure I've ever seen a movie where a lead actor puts more of themselves on the line, with no way to know the finished product would repay their own risk. Even Emily Watson would be humbled. Against all odds, I would now say, I do not find Kechiche's camera licentious. The meticulous density of the mise-en-scène also facilitates an indictment of an entire, fully evoked world, not just an abstracted scene of Baartman's subjection. Through angle, depth of field, and other devices, Black Venus meticulously reprises period "dance" performances and the milieus in which they transpired, from public squalor to private parties, without naturalizing the evident perversity of everyone but Bartmann. Her granite-hard expression is the leitmotif of the film as much as her body, if not more so; beyond the specifics of just this woman's story, though they are formidable, Black Venus commemorates so many personal narratives in the world, now or then, about people who broke completely under the terms of their own subjugation and still had to answer questions, before and after death, about why they didn't fight or how they so "let themselves go." Like Angelo, Black Venus includes an epilogue that shows how the Western world proved as luridly attached to their corpses as to their living bodies, though Kechiche does include some closing text about the crazily belated restoration of her remains to South Africa in 2002. That's one form of honoring the dead, even when all the honoring in the world cannot amount to a decimal's worth of reparation. The same, I think, is true of these honest, audacious, and fearsomely well-crafted films.
 

66. National Gallery (dir. Frederick Wiseman, 2014)
 
There's a moment around two-thirds of the way into Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery when maybe the 10th or 12th docent we've met, a young woman with a Scottish brogue, is glossing Michelangelo's unfinished canvas The Entombment for a small cohort of boomers and seniors. To make the point that everyone notices different details in any canvas, this cheerful guide admits she can't help but notice the woman who appears to be texting on her phone in the lower-left corner of this 500-year old work. Wiseman obligingly cuts to close-up. This was the moment I knew I cherished the film, after two hours of "just" loving it. Unexpected notes of comedy are always welcome in a Wiseman epic, as are the constant parades of human peccadilloes. Why does this docent think this quip will delight an audience this age, who look at best coolly bemused? Would it land better with the tour-group of kids we met earlier, to whom another docent, sitting cross-legged under a rendering of Moses, described the prophetic leader of the Exodus as "an amazing and fantastic person"? One may or may not share the allergy of National Gallery director Nicholas Penny to an early pitch from a PR consultant that it's high time the institution branded itself and its publicity with broader appeal for everyday Londoners. But can this admirably earnest ambassador of culture really maintain an anti-pandering stance when his tour guides (a group that sometimes includes Penny himself) are hawking laugh-lines and presentist arguments to proclaim the ingenuity of the exhibited works? Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Frederick Wiseman, nobody's idea of a cuddly soul or a compromising artist, surely takes the gallery director's side in this dispute between what one party calls "looking at the end-users' needs" and the other labels "chasing the lowest common denominator." Wiseman never met a low denominator he was willing to chase, yet National Gallery is exemplary of how approachable, engrossing, and indeed entertaining his films frequently are. His total refusal of onscreen captions, straight-to-camera testimony, spoon-fed exposition, editorial lighting, or emotionally prescriptive scores probably temper his movies' appeal to someone like the PR executive pleading with Penny. It's easy, if possibly unfair, to imagine her pining for a more burnished, lushly orchestrated promo film, proclaiming succulent data-points about the Gallery's age, extensive holdings, and tally of annual visitors. I think Wiseman trusts his spectators to be interested in life "as lived" (with all the requisite scare quotes), rather than an aggressive pre-packaging of how we ought to feel about life, what judgments to hold, what to notice and what to pass over. Granted, he may be wrong about this! National Gallery teems about equally with patrons who confront canvases directly and those who prefer to have a headset or a live chaperone feed them interpretations. Lots of people prefer to trust someone else's expertise than their own, though this in itself is not a weakness, just as wandering an exhibit hall on one's own reconnaissance does not guarantee more truthful or valuable encounters with art. And you wouldn't be wrong to argue that, for all Wiseman's reserve, National Gallery does foreground certain issues and questions. It does, for example, centralize that dialectic by which people want to revere art for its intrinsic power but also be reassured externally of what they're revering. Several scenes and transitions underline how artistic integrity, including a healthy advocacy for the new or the overlooked, ultimately requires access to massive cash influxes when needed; hence, the Leonardo da Vinci show that is clearly paying for most of the season Wiseman profiles at the National Gallery, and thus absorbs a proportional ratio of the runtime. You might note the high variation of ages, nationalities, and personal fashions among the Gallery's multitude of visitors, while also noting what communities rarely seem to appear. You could certainly, as in most Wisemans, extract the moral that institutions are as much the fruit and reflection of menial labor and unglamorous administrative haggling as they are of sublimity, leadership, and storied legacies.

You could take all that from National Gallery, and nobody would challenge you. But you could just as well approach the film as a three-hour canvas for idiosyncratic contemplation, veering far from whatever one might read on the imagined wall-text (in this case, I suppose, the festival capsule, printed review, or DVD jacket). Maybe you're mostly registering the subtle but audible contrasts between professional speakers still in awe of their subjects vs. those who've settled into slightly more desensitized, connoisseurial respect. Maybe you're most gripped by proof of what has reliably fascinated centuries of artists across radically asymmetrical styles: profiles, gazes, nakedness, myth, religion. Maybe you're drawn to what's shared and what's disparate between the thousands of faces committed to canvas and the thousands of faces ogling them each day, as still as statues. Maybe your jones is for the microscopic detail-work of restoration or the massive weight of the stone edifice, for the handiwork of frame-repair and light-calibration or the numinous magic of chiaroscuro and pentimento, for the quiddities of a given painting, held for four seconds on screen, or the dizzying scope of the whole collection, somehow even grander than what Wiseman needs three hours to show us. Maybe you can't hear the tour guide's lecture about Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, stressing how much he and his subjects would have negotiated over mise-en-scène and composition, and not think about Wiseman and his crew (but especially Wiseman) navigating those same choices, knowing he'll still be read by many viewers as someone who basically shows up somewhere and starts pointing the camera. National Gallery is not unusually invested in proclaiming its self-reflexivity, any more than it advances other preferred inroads or readings. Still, as a film so committed to portraiture and to the typically-invisible labors of curating, mounting, comparing, repairing, protecting, explaining, and paying for portraiture, while simultaneously preserving the auratic mystique and timeless appeal of portraits, National Gallery can't help but be about itself, and who made it, and who's watching.

Honorable Mentions: The year after National Gallery, the seemingly tireless, 85-year-old Wiseman released In Jackson Heights (2015), his stereoscopic survey of one of New York's and therefore one of the U.S.'s most diverse neighborhoods. It's many people's favorite recent Wiseman, capturing a range of populations and energies, and serving as an evocative microcosm of modern vitalities and tensions writ large. Ex Libris (2017), Wiseman's study of the sprawling New York public library system, didn't shift or deepen my perception of that institution or its patrons and workers as much as National Gallery did; still, it's a stirring avatar of his consistent, observant methodologies and their equally consistent payoffs. As for gallery-based films, Aleksandr Sokurov's remarkably peculiar Francofonia (2015), a sober meditation and also a shape-shifting jape about the Louvre, has never engrossed or impressed me as much as it did on first contact. By design, it's no Russian Ark, but it's absolutely worth a try. Ruben Östlund's Cannes winner The Square (2017), by contrast, has only improved for me, especially after a few go-rounds in different classes I've taught. The satiric pokes at the modern art world are its most accessible but also least ambitious element. Its dissection of the overconfidence, needy loneliness, recklessness, and nascent self-rebuke of a particular genus of white Western male, ca. 2017, is more valuable, I think, and linked to visual patterns and formal choices I didn't initially notice.
 

67. Iraqi Odyssey (dir. Samir, 2014)
 
After Pina's restoration of depth to famous choreographies and its mingling with the dancers' movements, and then Goodbye to Language 3D's revolutionary bending of shots into wraparound space, Iraqi Odyssey is the third film on this countdown to find new uses and payoffs for 3D technology. Across Samir's 165-minute chronicle of his extended family's long diaspora out of Iraq and into every corner of the world—and sometimes back into Iraq, though for most this remains a speculative fiction—he uses 3D so that family members can recite personal and national memories while keepsake photographs or historical stock-footage floats over, alongside, behind, or way behind them. Sometimes there's nobody in the shot, just a palimpsest of photos over other photos. Converted into 2D, which is how iTunes and Amazon Prime allow you to see the film, you of course lose some detail from any given image when another hovers over it. By contrast, theatrical 3D projection enabled an uncanny plethora of domestic mementos and national artifacts to constellate around each other, almost every inch perceptible to the eye yet almost too copious to perceive at once. That sense of onscreen bounty, so succinctly but powerfully achieved that it's amazing nobody thought of it before (maybe someone did?), was an intoxicating but ironic feat for a film so necessarily focused on the losses of history. So much family legacy and so much national culture have not survived a century full of Iraqi crises. In a "normal" documentary, whatever that is, a cut from an interview subject to some image or material object is a universal shorthand for illustrating whatever's being verbally invoked. In Iraqi Odyssey, where the staging-ground of the screen has been so expanded and interleaved, any one image can accommodate a lot, so you don't have to take your eye off any speaker to also absorb whatever they've called to mind. At the same time, there's palpable melancholy in the way people glide almost fantasmatically among their own memories, their joint pasts, amongst them but not quite making contact.

Even the protocols of subtitling get brilliantly rethought in ways that echo Iraqi Odyssey's twin senses of cultural density and intractable distance. When I saw the film projected at TIFF, translated captions in Arabic and in English were co-present at all times, since 3D could keep both languages ubiquitous but uncluttered, and non-competitive with each other; there was plenty of real estate even at the bottom of the frame, where sometimes French or German or another language got added as well. A remarkable stroke of defamiliarizing usual habits, making viewers realize how much more the defaults of shooting and exhibiting film could be interrogated, these nested chirons in multiple tongues amplified Samir's point that his Iraqi family is now or has recently been a Swiss, a Russian, a Saudi, an Aussie, a Kiwi, a French, an English, an Egyptian, and an American family, too. Given Iraq's frequent portrayal, especially in US discourse, as a kingdom on antidemocratic lockdown and an endless site of intramural and outward-facing battle, it's nourishing to see a film that captures Iraqi people and culture as part of the whole planet's blood system, touching every continent. We also, via the movie's deep dives into collective Iraqi pasts, learn (if we didn't know already) about the remarkable cosmopolitanism of that country and especially of Baghdad before relatively recent arrivals of dictatorship, fundamentalism, and enforced uniformity. The annals of language, of media, of gender, of worship, of prosperity, and of public space in Iraq are nothing like what many people would guess from today's evidence, even for families less financially privileged than the one we're following here. Samir's clan—all except for him still use their surname, Jamal Aldin—is conspicuously global in the way they live now. They also share a globally inflected past, given how much transcultural syncretism Iraq once invited and typified. But the long-ago sense of centripetally magnetizing mixed cultural energies into a dazzling capital is nothing like the present-day centrifuge of siblings, uncles, aunts, parents, and children forced outward into non-negotiable exile. Iraqi Odyssey furnishes an encyclopedic but easy-to-follow account of the milestones, for better and worse, in Iraq's 20th- and 21st-century changes. It also plots the changing circumstances of Samir's family members, some of whom begged off from participating in the film: too risky, or too sad, or too intrusive on long-cultivated privacies. But in addition to teaching much to a viewer as green as myself, and presumably stoking recognitions, fond or otherwise, for a spectator who knows plenty, Iraqi Odyssey distills the mood of cultural displacement in a way that's enormously moving, even for those of us who know little of that sensation first-hand.

At least, that's how the movie felt to me, in its intended conditions of projection. Sustaining the theme of sacrifice and dilution over time, Iraqi Odyssey will rarely again be seen that way. At least if you watch online, you'll glean some sense of which images and text would have leapt out of the 3D frame, and which would have receded furthest back. Of course I can't help being curious what it's like to see this as a displaced Iraqi, much less in Iraq itself, where I imagine Samir's movie is all but invisible, for multiple reasons of ideologies, economics, and civic infrastructure. Conversely, Samir's adoptive homeland of Switzerland quite embraced the film, submitting it as their official entry for Academy Awards consideration the year after its festival premieres. Oscar didn't nominate it. Still, coming so soon after a chilling 2014 referendum in Switzerland that imposed new quotas on immigration—one of those nativist votes we've gotten to know so well, where 50.3% of a country rebuffs the pleas for inclusion from the other 49.7%—I appreciated this highly visible acknowledgment that Switzerland, like Iraq, especially the Iraq of yore, contains and embraces multitudes. So many countries' self-conceptions and openness to difference have collapsed from 3D into 2D during the decade now closing, so it's urgent to remind ourselves it hasn't always been this way, and needn't be now. It's worth fighting for the kind of world where group portraits proudly flaunt internal variation, and where families at least have the option of staying together.
 

68. Do Not Resist (dir. Craig Atkinson, 2016)
68. Whose Streets? (dir. Sabaah Folayan, 2017)
 
Craig Atkinson's Do Not Resist and Sabaah Folayan's Whose Streets? are very different documentaries from the one I just profiled, and different from the next few approaching on this countdown, and, despite some shared events, outrages, and anxieties, different from each other as well. Both fit comfortably within the rubric of the "activist documentary" and specifically address the civic protests and police crackdowns in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr., in 2014 and the subsequent grand-jury exoneration of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed him. Whose Streets? devotes itself almost entirely to this social and political crisis and to the grassroots activism, especially by young people of color, that arose or escalated in response. Do Not Resist, by semi-contrast, stages the events in Ferguson as an exemplary instance of the mounting threat to neighborhoods and communities posed by a militarized police force, newly flush with battle-grade armor, vehicles, weapons, tools, and training and, not surprisingly, showing quicker and wider impulses to deploy them. Atkinson takes himself all across the country, from rural counties to swollen jails to Capitol Hill, trying to understand where all this armament is coming from and the different ways it manifests. The latter range from surreal, American Gladiator-style SWAT competitions in Florida to heavy-duty BEARCAT vehicles roaming the picket-fenced streets of Concord, New Hampshire, which has witnessed all of two murders since 2004. Whose Streets? stays put mostly around Ferguson, tracking a few key activist figures (Brittany Ferrell, Alexis Templeton, David Whitt, Tef Poe, etc.) and famous faces of grief (including Lezley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., parents of the young man notoriously slain in Ferguson). From this base of operations, it chronicles widely distributed forms of protest and insurgent leadership, and studies the San Andreas-style tensions between citizens and the police who putatively "serve" them.

Do Not Resist and Whose Streets? set redoubtable challenges for themselves by trying to get an immanent handle on volatile problems and unfolding patterns, without the benefit of spatial or temporal distance. Their strategies and textures differ markedly, even beyond the contrast I have indicated between concentrated focus vs. lateral surveying. When I first saw Do Not Resist, the film it called instantly to mind was James Longley's contemporary nonfiction classic Iraq in Fragments, which similarly offers a a rich analysis of national zeitgeists via local manifestations while also sporting production values of image, sound, and steel-cut montage that a fiction film with 100 times the budget would be proud to claim. Trained as a d.p., notably on Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's Detropia, Atkinson shoots with an incredible eye for color and composition, without the film ever seeming to aestheticize trauma or distract itself from the journalistic heart of a real-time event. The sound mix, however much doctoring it requires from Atkinson's in-the-field recordings, bespeaks similar levels of drama and care, and feels totally overwhelming in the environment of a cinema, especially if you came expecting a more conventional, talking-head exposition about all the heavy-duty infantry rifles and troop transports popping up everywhere from Los Angeles to South Carolina to all northern latitudes of the U.S. I realize, now that we have a President who dubs parts of our own country "worse than Afghanistan," that this may sound like the hub of my allusion to Longley's work (which expanded this year to include a good-not-great study of current life in that country, called Angels Are Made of Light). And in truth, it's not for nothing that one peaceful protester holds up a sign that reads, MORE MAYBERRY, LESS FALLUJAH in a town-hall meeting where police request millions of dollars' worth of cast-off military supplies, despite zero warrant for such deadly stockpiling. In only 72 minutes, Atkinson documents the pervasiveness of a problem that takes many shapes and creeps up and down every ladder of power, yielding everything from Zero Dark Thirty-style drug busts on barely-standing private homes (which turn out to hold no drugs!) to nightmarish facial-recognition surveillance systems operating on most of us most of the time. (One proof of being well past a tipping-point, as I observed with a grim laugh today on Twitter, is that officers can't even walk down their own sidewalks with all this overkill tech on their hands. Whose streets, indeed?)

Whose Streets? is at no loss for its own indelible images of the costly fallout of hyperaggressive police with out-of-control capacities for violence, engaging in dialectic standoffs with pushed-to-the-limit protesters. However, these potent tableaus are just as likely to be caught on cellphones or other grassroots devices as on high-grade cameras with deeply-schooled operators. Like a lot of recent documentaries, but with more power and coherence than most, Whose Streets? interpolates tweets and Facebook posts, bystander videos, and other artifacts of a populace whose best weapon against a sprawling and mechanized police force is a parallel web of information-sharing and counter-surveillance. Documenting oppressions and infractions that are habitual for some Americans and still unknown to others (or outright disputed by them), almost everyone in Whose Streets? is a kind of co-director. To say so is not to undermine Folayan's artistic dexterity in constructing her sequences, framing her shots, organizing through-lines around a few key figures, and personalizing Brown's death and his family so that we don't forget the most intimate human hurt inside this massive story. Either movie, brief as they are, is a full night's work to watch; they horrify, inspire, and linger, as their makers surely intended. But they would also complement each other well as a double-feature, the amazing craft of helmer-editor-producer-director Atkinson's artisanal object and the kaleidoscope of faces, vantages, platforms, and aspect ratios in Folayan's democratized communal cri de coeur. I was lucky to see both in theaters, which feels less likely in the coming decade, as more and more media arrives to us on home screens. Then again, the whole point of both projects is, as they say, to hit us where we live. So let that happen. Stream one or both tonight.

Honorable Mention: Kimberly Reed's Dark Money (2018) isn't directly tied to the problems Folayan and Atkinson are trying to haul into the light, although the drowning of U.S. politics inside endless rivers of ill-gotten, undisclosed cash is part of why pernicious spirals related to policing, violence, and communal unraveling are so hard to halt. Reed, less stylistically prodigious than Atkinson but maybe even craftier at shaping complex problems into legible, graspable narratives, manages to tell her necessarily disconsoling tale but also, at the same time, an inspiring one about local journalism and a productively surprising one about where in the country progressive resistance to fat-cat interference has recently panned out. I bet you won't have guessed. And speaking of stalwart pushback in deeply "red" areas of the country, and inspiring examples of nonfiction filmmaking as grassroots activism, Dawn Porter's Trapped (2016) was the best of several documentaries I saw about the intensifying war on women's health in general and abortion in particular...but it's a war with its own heroes, fighting as hard as they can. You won't soon forget these folks.
 

The Last of the Unjust, © 2013 Synecdoche/Le Pacte/Dor Film/Les Films Aleph, © 2014 Cohen Media Group Parasite, © 2019 Neon/CJ Entertainment/Barunson E&A Rags and Tatters, © 2013 Film Clinic/Mashrou Get Out, © 2017 Universal Pictures/QC Entertainment/Blumhouse
69. The Last of the Unjust (dir. Claude Lanzmann, 2013)
 
Imagine performing an enormously daunting task with such... no, that's not nearly strong enough. Imagine creating, after many years of extremely difficult labor, one of the most valuable and influential documents in any medium about a global-historical cataclysm whose grotesque reverberations will never cease, and whose tally of lucid survivors dwindles every year. Imagine performing this artistic, empirical, and moral undertaking with such care, force, and distinction that your film and your name become inseparable from many people's memory of these devastating events, and semi-synonymous with the very act of maintaining a people's archive of their own sufferings, and with a needful but unenviable mode of wringing testimonies even from those too aged or ashamed or traumatized to offer them freely. Imagine achieving all this, as Claude Lanzmann did with his prodigious 1985 documentary Shoah, only to find that your subsequent extensions of that inquiry get chronically taken for granted, casually overlooked as somehow "more of the same" by most people except those most directly impacted by the legacies of the Holocaust. Thus, when a new film arrives, such as 2013's The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann's painstaking, heroically nuanced, 3½-hour probe of the Theresienstadt ghetto, founded on but significantly expanded beyond his archival interviews with the last of three Jewish men forced to direct this benighted institution, the release is tiny and reviews are few. This is simultaneously way down the list of heavy affronts to the way genocidal histories get forgotten or ignored and a sign of movie culture really needing to get its act together.

I doubt I'd ever say that even a lengthy, meticulous documentary like The Last of the Unjust can replace the need to read more on the topic, and yet Lanzmann's work, yet again, has the texture of something definitive. Certainly it's hard to imagine a surviving record of more thorough, incisive, immediate engagement with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Viennese rabbi appointed to govern Theresienstadt from late 1944 until the end of the war, after the two previous presiding Elders had both been executed by the dissatisfied Nazis. As ever, Lanzmann is a redoubtable interviewer, disinclined to abandon Murmelstein to what he persuasively considers to be simplified notions of his evil or his innocence. He approaches this reflective, self-searching, only occasionally defensive man on good-faith terms while issuing plenty of rhetorical challenges. This footage, all shot in 1975, was the first material filmed for what eventually became Shoah, but even within that project's scope of 9+ hours, Lanzmann could not figure how to confront adequately the abysmal complexities of Theresienstadt—the notorious "model" ghetto in the present Czech Republic, which the Nazis constructed, coordinated, and frequently filmed as propagandistic proof of the well-treatment of relocated Jews. Most of its residents, of course, were assassinated, quickly or after a long tenure in this false theater of happy living. Whether Murmelstein managed to keep more people alive (or at least for longer) than another director might have managed, whether he was a lackey to his direct supervisor Adolf Eichmann or a wily manipulator of edicts handed down to him, whether there is anything ethically coherent to say about about a life thus lived or about any existence in Theresienstadt, are all questions of deep import to The Last of the Unjust. Lanzmann spends its first two hours just laying the necessary historical and interpersonal groundwork to help us comprehend, as best as we possibly could, the bottomless questions and horrors raised by this history. And of course, this first half is no mere precursor but itself a shocking annal, coolly retold, of rationalized evil and bureaucratized murder.

The Last of the Unjust includes some period footage, unmistakably stamped as Nazi-produced and therefore polluted in its evidentiary value. Much more recurrent are scenes of Lanzmann in the present, revisiting the former grounds of the ghetto and of other important sites in the grim networks chain-linked to Theresienstadt. It's humbling to observe the sheer stamina of Lanzmann, already in his mid-80s as he treads these haunted grounds, often reading from historical documents but pausing always to face and absorb what survives of these spaces, sometimes disconcertingly green with overgrowth. Repeating a tactic from his astonishing and much shorter documentary A Visitor from the Living (1999), about the Red Cross inspector who toured Theresienstadt and totally fell for its simulacrum of health and bonhomie, Lanzmann only gradually allows himself to be seen in Unjust's archival interviews with Murmelstein. The latter speaks almost entirely in tight close-up in the documentary's first two hours. Later shots at last admit the back of Lanzmann's head and, eventually, the two men seated quite closely in mirrored profile. The framing shift may be necessary to capture how the conversation evolves as Lanzmann, having teased out Murmelstein enough to gain his trust, starts pressing the older man's claims and memories a bit more, against the disorientingly picturesque skyline of Rome, where Murmelstein lived in self-imposed exile until his death in 1989. Perhaps more importantly, the gradual opting for two-shots makes clear that The Last of the Unjust is finally, in scenes of talk or in snapshots of solitude, a conversation between two specific men at a particular place and time. It cannot, despite my earlier phrasing and my utter admiration for its tremendous depth and scope, stand as an objective account or a final word. That, to me, is one exemplary model of a great documentarian, or a great filmmaker in general: studied, subtle, and inquisitive enough to pass as a formidable expert, but invested enough to insist that there never be a final word, especially on topics like this; mature enough to admit the partiality of their own vision; exhortative, implicitly or overtly, that the viewer must keep learning.
 

70. mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2017)
70. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
 
DARREN ARONOFSKY: Parasite, right?? Fuckin' hell, what a movie! That guy can do anything. I don't mean to sound like a dick when I say, "Even I bow down," but seriously, man, props to that dude. (INTERVIEWER nods in agreement.) What's interesting, though—well, it's interesting to me, anyway, is that not that long ago, I also made a kind of horror-adjacent allegory that was a pretty fuckin' take-no-prisoners kind of deal. It was actually called mother!, and I convinced a studio not only to fund the thing but to book it into all kinds of huge multiplexes. Just a totally punk, guerrilla, épater la bourgeoisie kind of move, for something like that to be dropped on the masses. And I have to say, I feel like Paramount really had my back, the way Neon clearly has Bong's back on Parasite, which is everywhere right now, everywhere. But two years ago? People were not ready, lemme tell you! Like, walkouts. I think we got an "F" from opening-night audiences on whatever that thing is, CinemaScore. I kinda loved that, to be honest. But I wish more people had seen it. I mean, it's not about me, but the actors and crew just worked so hard, and the logistics of that film were a nightmare. So again, just so much respect to Bong, because he clearly has some Special Sauce that I could've used to build that machine of interlocking allegories that touch on, like, everything, everything out there—the planet, and money, all of it—but to do it in a way that still gets asses in seats. More of 'em every week, it feels like! I don't know how he pulled it off, but I'm amazed.

INTERVIEWER: Maybe the reason is that he's so savvy about using the home-invasion infrastructure as a crowd-pleasing blueprint that can accommodate all the critical messaging that he's built into the script. Not to be cheesy with the architecture metaphors.

DARREN ARONOFSKY: Well, that's honestly kind of the amazing thing, because mother!, the movie I made, was also an expansion of the home-invasion trope. These strangers show up, and you think it's just one or two, but then it's their sons, so you've got an Old Testament thing. And then more and more people. So on that score, Bong and I were totally tracking. I mean, it's like— (ARONOFSKY points back and forth to his head and the INTERVIEWER's, miming a principle of mental synergy.) And I mean, I'm not making this like a competition or whatever, but in mother!, these people's home isn't just invaded by another family, it's like, I mean literally the entire world shows up. We pulled off this huge, crazy thing. I'm so proud of it, which is the only reason I bring up that I wish more people had seen it, or if they did see it, had done the work to understand it. Really grapple with it themselves, instead of asking me to, like, break it down for them in interviews, when I've already—I mean, I've made the art, you know?

INTERVIEWER: I wouldn't feel bad about it. I think Parasite, as brilliant as it is, is also an extraordinary case of catching an entire global zeitgeist, partly through an anti-capitalist class critique that applies almost anywhere. But there's also this wave he's caught of more and more people focusing on the climate crisi—

DARREN ARONOFSKY: Aw, man, but mother!'s totally about that, too!! I mean, like I said, I don't want to instantiate myself as "explaining" the movie, which absolutely says what it says to whoever's watching it, but if you do ask me, the rape and murder of the planet by just the hordes and hordes of people, greedily trying to get theirs is what... I mean, it sounds so facile to say it's what the movie's "about," but I would say that's more of a commonality with Parasite than a divergence, and not really an explanation of why one is just reverberating so incredibly with its audiences, whereas mother!—... I mean, I think the film came and did what we all intended for it to do, so that's incredible. And my hope, on behalf of the crew and Jen and Javi, everybody, Ed, Matty, is that more folks start rediscovering it in the next few years and maybe seeing more in there.

INTERVIEWER: I totally feel that is already happening. I have to admit, I'm even more blown away by mother! every time I look at it again.

DARREN ARONOFSKY: Aw, so you've seen it! Oh, that's cool, man, that's cool. I wasn't sure, 'cause you sounded surprised about, like, the home invasion and the climate stuff. So you know what I'm talking about, with the kind of rotating, mutually prismatic allegories somehow carrying similar weight. Though I guess I have my own sense of which ones predominate, or at least which ones propelled the conception of the piece. I mean, for Parasite, that's clearly the class critique, which isn't maybe as frontal in mother!, although I definitely think class is in there as part of the whole kind of literal and figurative conflagration of issues we're trying to look at. But, look, I'm truly thrilled you've seen it and that it's grown on you. And I feel like I'm straying so far from your original questions, which were about Parasite! Is there anything else you want to ask?

INTERVIEWER: I guess just how you, as a filmmaker, reacted to that completely extraordinary house they built for Parasite. Just as a feat of engineering and production design, I don't think I've ever seen anything like it anywhere in cinema. What were your thoughts on that?


While DARREN ARONOFSKY tries to rebound from the tense silence into which he has sunk, I will interject a few things. First, mother! and Parasite share a tremendous gift for staging strong, step-by-step thematic arguments even as the mounting violence and jaw-dropping technical bravura of both films induce such borderline delirium; with everything else going on, from floods to flames, baby necks snapping and basements begetting basements, it's amazing half your brain can still track the intellectual claims. Second, both are films I admired on first pass but didn't fully unlock until second viewings, when they emerged as the masterpieces that other spectators pegged immediately. That's not the reason I'm listing them together, but a link they'll always share for me. Third, if there's anything I mistrust a little about Parasite, it's the sheer blatancy with which it states its ideas and flaunts its own ingenious devices, whereas if anything chafes a bit about mother!, it's the sense of Aronofsky letting everything spill into everyone, and getting a little high on his own supply of anarchic destruction. So in that way, my qualms are kind of complementary, but I'll take these reservations over most movies' greatest virtues. Finally, if there's one thing I find especially rare and thrilling about mother! and Parasite, besides the audacity and Olympic skillfulness that I hope are obvious (if not to this INTERVIEWER), it's that both writer-directors allow themselves to work straight from their healthy fund of anger at the world and the people in it. We often demand, even amidst our pleas for truth in art, that creators temper their fury or imagine a cosmetic way out of it. mother! reaped some of that whirlwind, eliciting charges of seeming to loathe its audience. I don't agree or disagree, but my point is that there's every reason to be enraged right now—and, yes, on a smaller scale, for cerebral artists to resent the limited, clickbait terms on which we coerce them into discussing their most protean, ambitious visions. And I say this as someone who thought Noah was out-and-out bollocks. So rage away, filmmakers, if the psychoplasmic products of your wrath and indignation can be as innovative, expert, unabashed, and (I see you!) subtly compassionate as these two time-capsules of the mad world we currently inhabit, and of another world just around a wet and/or fiery corner.
 

71. Rags and Tatters (dir. Ahmad Abdalla, 2013)
 
Imagine being dropped into the middle of Children of Men without any of the exposition from the first third or so of the movie. Imagine being sucked into the craft and energy of the filmmaking, but also the terror and uncertainty surrounding Clive Owen's Theo, all the more bewildering because we know nothing he doesn't know about what's going on, whom to trust, what assault might arrive at any second from any side of the frame. Recall how Children of Men only grows more technically virtuosic and grander in scope as it grows more infernal, with that long, ballistics-heavy siege on Bexhill. By that point, we can still barely glean the broader logic behind all the violence—we may even grasp it less than we have in previous sequences—but we, like the characters, are simply hoping that Theo and Kee and her baby will make it to Human Project boat. These feelings of amazement, of spiking anxiety, of sensory and contextual disorientation, of investment in a mysterious stranger who's become a figure of identification, closely mirror what I felt throughout Ahmad Abdalla's Rags and Tatters a tremendously gripping, formally audacious drama-cum-thriller set amidst the eruption of the Arab Spring uprisings in Cairo. It's crucial in this film that we never broach Tahrir Square are get near anything that feels like an epicenter or origin of the action. Instead, we're lashed to a nameless protagonist, played by Asser Yassin, who finds himself sprung from a jail just outside the city when all the guards abruptly vanish and the security systems unlock. How or why has this happened? Who has time to ask? This man, whose reason for incarceration we never fully glean, makes his break with the rest of the inmates. He thus heads back into a city that still comprises unresolved personal conflicts (including some folks who still want his hide) but also newer, intense convulsions on multiple fronts, which are turning the whole metropolis into a high-risk, high-stakes obstacle course for everyone.

Sometimes executed in eye-popping tracking shots, sometimes captured on cellphones (including some real footage, shot during the nights in question), Rags and Tatters seizes the events of February 2011 as a canvas for a social study in extremis and a near-apocalyptic picaresque. The goal is not to exploit events of political magnitude as a springboard for pop thrills. Much more than that, I see Abdalla as showing us that especially for an event whose narratives were quickly simplified and circulated for global consumption, on-the-ground realities are much more complicated, to the point of vertigo. Even from its agitated, half-blinkered vantage, Rags and Tatters captures forms of conflict, unrest, inequality, vulnerability, and bullying authority that clearly pre-existed and probably helped to spark the Arab Spring events. That doesn't make them easier to comprehend, even for a resident insider like the lead character. Historians, amateur and professional, often wonder what they might learn about an event or what they might rescue from webs of countervailing retroactive accounts if only they could have been there. But Rags and Tatters, no less than a film like Son of Saul, shows how "actually being there" can yield its own stubborn impediments to real insight. This isn't to say you don't learn plenty about Cairo's neighborhoods, about internecine tensions around religion and class, or about the oscillating loyalties of police and of soldiers vis-à-vis the citizens they ostensibly protect. You can trust your eyes and ears in some ways, especially whent they're being stimulated this vividly. But for the lead character and for us, trying to decode what's actually transpiring or why (questions, granted, that haven't proved much simpler with the passage of time), is like trying to learn about an ammunitions factory by studying the bullet headed for your head.

One major difference, of course, from Children of Men's dystopian hyperbolizing of present social conflicts and looming conditions of scarcity, or from Son of Saul's restaging of the Shoah from a radically delimited point of view, is that Rags and Tatters's peripheral but powerful conjuration of the Arab Spring did not make its way to US theaters or digital platforms. I'm sure you're tired of hearing me bemoan the remarkable work that gets weeded out early and often from the candidate-pool of our cinematic imports. I promise I get just as tired of seeing aesthetically staggering films that audiences anywhere would find accessible, maybe even electrifying, but which nonetheless evaporates into thin air immediately after (if not during) the festivals designed to showcase them and aid their path toward wider markets. Finding no such takers, Rags and Tatters has started to recede as a memory, no less than my in medias res impressions of the events it describes. If it weren't such a galvanizing spectacle, I might have forgotten about it by now. Masterworks aren't the only films we should be working to protect and to circulate, but like all other alleged meritocracies, you wish the best cinema really did rise to the top, so its expressive capacities but also its valuable characterizations and resonant political ideas could reach as many people as possible.

Honorable Mentions: For the reasons I've just sketched, the most consequential new acquaintance I made in a whole decade of watching movies was probably Rasha Salti, who during her extraordinary tenure as the Middle East and African cinema programmer for TIFF not only curated amazing work year after year but coaxed the filmmakers into the most revealing post-screening discussions I've ever heard. The consistently high quality of Rasha's selections and of her Q&A's, combined with the dawning realization that virtually none of this work ever re-emerged outside the TIFF context, made me devote myself to cinema from these regions anytime and everywhere they're on offer. This has been an ongoing boon to both my cinematic pleasures and to my political and cultural awareness. For this I thank Rasha, with whom I conspired to write some articles that honored the extraordinary but evanescent films she brought to Toronto audiences. You've already seen her imprint on this Best of the Decade list via Much Loved, the Honorable Mention to As I Open My Eyes, and the rare breakout hit Timbuktu. More films I encountered through her will appear higher on this list, but here I'll throw out some more messages in some more bottles, hoping someone might read this and somehow, someway, recover movies as strong as Mai Masri's 3000 Nights (2015), a drama every bit as potent as A Prophet, concerning a young Palestinian mother-to-be locked away in an Israeli jail; Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's Story of Judas (2015), a brazen rethinking of one of the Bible's most famous episodes, very much concerned with how winners, even lawless ones, write the histories we take as literal gospel; and Mohamed Malas's Ladder to Damascus (2013), a heady, lightly mystical, metacinematic Syrian ensemble drama filmed during the onset of the still-ongoing, unspeakably devastating Civil War.
 

72. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017)
 
I walked out of Us this winter with my friend Miriam Petty, whose book you need to have read by now, and at some point in our attempts to parse it, she said, "It's definitely a mess in some ways, but I kind of appreciate how Jordan Peele was like, 'Okay, white people, my last allegory was a little too legible to you. Try your hand at this one!'" As the white person in this exchange, I loved the joke and took the point, and I've been waiting to return to Us until I've forgotten more of it and can separate it further from Get Out comparisons. (That was my big takeaway: as someone who's written one book and is stuck assembling another, I appreciate anybody who gets back on any horse that fast and shares what they've been thinking, even if it's not all worked out yet.) I must say, though, that one thing I love about Get Out is how it threads a very tricky needle of legibility and its opposites. The film is boldface af in hitting its most blatant targets—sometimes really hitting them, like with a bocce ball or a set of antlers—but also being slippery enough that you really must scrutinize any summary or reading you offer to ask, "Is [whatever] really as simple as that?" The movie's genre hybridity in general, as horror-comedy-satire-tragedy, does not emanate from a mixed collection of scenes that individually serve clear purposes, albeit divergent ones. I think that hybridity reflects a bounty of moments and Rorschach elements that are each hard to distill in and of themselves.

For example, how would you describe the tone of the moments when Daniel Kaluuya's Chris, sneaking a late-night smoke, suddenly sees Walter sprinting toward him and then Betty Gabriel's uncannily well-played Georgina rebooting in the window? Where does the movie place these characters along a spectrum of sympathy, suspicion, and jump-scare device, or is "spectrum" the wrong metaphysic for frameworks this layered and perspectives this vexed? How would you articulate the way Erika Alexander's exhausted and skeptical detective shifts the tone and argument of Get Out, to include its stance on policing? What do you do with TSA Rod, the most gloriously-arriving cavalry officer in the history of last-minute rescues, working for one of the USA's most dubious enterprises in selective profiling and opaque securitization? What happens to your sense of Get Out if you approach this entire, intricate, genuinely unforgettable text as an apparatus engineered to make TSA Rod, in all his bawdy and regular-folks refusals of Respectability, into a hero cheered by a country's worth of packed auditoriums, "mixed" in every way? Is that easier or harder than accepting Allison Williams's Froot Loop-munching Rose as a newly enshrined avatar of national mendacity and supremacy—and for whom is it easier or harder, unique or familiar? Is she just the gal from Dutchman all over again, or a novel update within her shady lineage? By the way, how do you square Chris being in this relationship to begin with? How do you understand his own, early-glimpsed, never-reprised aesthetic of sepia-toned, subjective-vantage street photography in relation to Get Out's more depersonalized, Caché-style, monumentalizing approach to framing? How has he staked a nascent career on powers of observation that fail him so totally in his most intimate relationship?

The answers to these and other questions are both refreshingly clear and conducive to hours of debate. I was the Program Chair of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies annual conference a year after Get Out debuted; probably not surprisingly, no text, not even Twin Peaks: The Return, was more copiously represented among the thousands of abstracts I read, or from a wider diversity of interpretive standpoints. I've noticed in recent conversations, where Get Out still percolates, what an anomaly it remains to hear anyone outright disparage it, but also how qualified and incomplete statements of enthusiasm have frequently become ("I mean, I love Get Out, it's amazing, even if, like—I mean, there are some issues there"). It's as though non-asterisked endorsement from any spectator, across racial lines though for different reasons, might sound too much like "I would have voted twice for Get Out at the Oscars if I could have." The movie is a formidable manufacturing plant for astonished recognitions, hearty applause, hot takes, and inchoate ambivalences, everywhere from the slumber party to the scholarly symposium. Though that's not automatic proof of artistic achievement, it's sure nothing to sneeze at, and I'm not sure what film this decade, especially based on an original script, managed that trick nearly as well...and not only because of its plot or the cultural nerves it jangled but for how, specifically, it was written, directed, lensed, and edited, broadly and moment-by-moment. There's a great, split-second beat when Chris tours the backyard with Mr. Armitage, around the time of the notorious Obama line, when Chris spots that spectral handyman Walter for the first time. We can't see Walter yet, because the angle hasn't reversed, so it's fair to deduce from the vantage of the camera that Chris is looking directly at "us," a term more fraught than ever now that Peele's put his bloody thumbprint on it. Who are "we," and what does Chris think of us, need from us, or imagine he's sharing with us, seeming to wink without moving his eyelid? Different people watching will draw different conclusions, for sure. All of "us" can screen Get Out as often as we like, and not one of "us" can absolutely know.

Honorable Mention: Especially if Get Out was your one, atypical detour into horror this decade, and the reverberant social critique is what led you there, I'd heartily recommend David Robert Mitchell's It Follows as your next rendezvous. The only movie this decade I saw four times in a theater, It Follows is devilishly clever and so well-made, based on a complex system of rules and macabre transmission procedures that its own characters may or may not be reading correctly. Besides, like Get Out's body-swapping mechanics, these sinister protocols are more important for what they connote than how precisely they work. Every aspect of music, sound, production design, writing, and tone is a marvel in It Follows, and the prologue hooks you as surely as Get Out's does. Its status as thinkpiece may not be as obvious, but if you're alert at all to how chronically Detroit gets positioned as an old, abandoned shed in the haunted backyard of American prosperity, and you note the final strategy the white suburban kids of It Follows ultimately devise to rid themselves of a contagious problem (they hope), you'll have plenty to ponder once you're done screaming.
 

Ghost Tropic, © 2019 10.80 Films/Minds Meet/Quetzalcoatl The Other Side, © 2015 Agat Films & Cie/Okta Film, © 2016 Film Movement 24 Weeks, © 2016 Zero One Film/ZDF/Das kleine Fernsehspiel/Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg Suzanne, © 2013 Move Movie/Mars Films
73. Ghost Tropic (dir. Bas Devos, 2019)
 
A woman walks home alone at night. Sounds like a sequel to Ana Lily Amanpour's sleek-ass horror pastiche from just a few years ago, right? But no, it's just the scenario of Bas Devos's tender haiku to Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb), a middle-aged cleaning woman who labors all day in Brussels, oversleeps on her commute home, winds up at the end of the line past midnight, and has to traverse the whole, chilly city back to her apartment. She has no cash for a taxi or Uber. Her kids aren't answering the phone that late, nor is anyone else. Whatever you're imagining as a way for her to wriggle out of this story, it can't happen—or, anyway, it doesn't. She has to walk. A woman goes home. That's it, that's the whole tweet. From the same country that brought you A Woman Makes Meatloaf Three Times, though Ghost Tropic (a beautiful but unlikely name for the movie we wind up watching) is a stylistic contrast to Chantal Akerman's wide-angle, rectilinear, agoraphobic domestic monument in almost every way. Ghost Tropic, as fragile as a soap bubble, as hypnotic to observe, is urban portraiture after nearly all the lights go out. Its nighttime photography has been lovingly calibrated for in-cinema projection, where it glisters with a strange warmth for such a wintry and shadow-heavy film. Still frames on the web look splotchy, like inkjet printouts or bad color Xeroxes, or a picture someone tried to take of something on their TV. But when screened, the movie looks like dark gray pearl, and so Ghost Tropic demands to be seen in a theater, as much as a film like Jeanne Dielman does, but for almost opposite reasons. It's the only place this dream will feel properly dreamy.

Khadija finds a homeless man on the sidewalk, sleeping beside a dog. She is rightly worried for them both, exposed like this. We guess she might be one of those women who's too worried, but that's wrong; the police agree he needs to go to a hospital. Later, he dies. Nobody knows what to do about the dog. By the standards of Ghost Tropic, this counts as a dense narrative event, but the bareness of story content is part of what makes the film so charming and touching. Khadija persuades a security guard to let her inside a locked mall to call some savior or other, but she's too embarrassed to admit she has no change, so she leaves without solving her problem. Khadija catches the last night bus, but the bus breaks down. Khadija, mistaken for a prowler outside a home where she once worked, spots an actual prowler squatting inside the now-vacant house; feeling some elliptical solidarity, she declines to report him. Khadija stops to warm herself in a convenience mart, where the kind young night-shift worker offers to drive her home. Khadija spies her daughter from this woman's car and thus asks to exit the vehicle, despite having pined for one all night; she follows her daughter for a while, curious what she's like when she's with friends, who she is when mom's not around. Not above a punitive overreaction, Khadija sics the cops on a shop-owner, a fellow immigrant by the looks of things, who sells alcohol to these teens.

Ghost Tropic is a gentle antidote to the film I just described, Roberto Minervini's harrowing The Other Side, and also its strange complement, a base to its acid, a quiet koan to its rumbling howl, an inversion of its techniques. Minervini's film is a documentary that marshals some techniques of scripted fiction (or the veneer of them) to give his film its strange, potent shape. For Ghost Tropic, Devos constructs a fictional story built around a professional actress, but Brussels plays itself, with few if any adjustments. Time that passes in the film feels like time passing in life. You notice sounds you normally wouldn't in a movie, in the same way you'd notice them on a late stroll through empty blocks, neither afraid nor perfectly at ease. Both films evoke a real world that boggles the mind, but in Ghost Tropic's case, what beggars belief are the non-ironic kindness of strangers; the way a movie truly doesn't need a plot to have a story; the way a stranded Muslim woman in a white western capital needn't suffer to generate a narrative, needn't cross paths with anyone who objects to the fact or the idea of her; the way a city after dark can feel less like a danger zone than a protective caul around its citizens. Minervini films a world that most of us who live outside it would prefer not to confront; Devos films one that the same viewers, this false "us" I keep proposing, might actually inhabit but no longer trust that we do. Safety, delicacy, patience, good nights, destinations reached, dawning tomorrows: these are still possible, in life and in movies. Ghost Tropic isn't simplistic. Its featherweight touch does not mean it's somehow a pure and pre-given form, captured like a snowflake on a tongue, requiring less expert management than flashier displays of Direction. I get all that. But watching the movie feels like saying "thank goodness," really thanking goodness, not as a clichéd idiom but as a devotional act. It's not embarrassing to write this way because it's the middle of the night, and everyone else is sleeping. I soon will be, too, and I'm not editing my thoughts. I'm just recalling how long I wanted to live in that movie's world as it unfurled, even though its brevity is crucial to its spell. And I'm looking out my own urban apartment window, a smidge after 3am, hoping people out there on the sidewalks are being taken care of or, better yet, are taking care of each other.
 

74. The Other Side (dir. Roberto Minervini, 2015)
 
Ffffuuucccckkkkk. That's the bulk of what I want to say about Roberto Minervini's The Other Side, a movie that scared the shit out of me on the last day of TIFF in 2015. Certainly didn't help that it was the last spectacle I absorbed before flying back to the nation that The Other Side demonstrates to be so ailing, addicted, and dangerously enraged. Maybe not the whole country, but enough of it, and more acutely ill, dependent, and furious than I had allowed myself to know. The friends I saw it with—like me, seldom at a loss for conversation—were similarly astonished, almost literally. We said a very dazed goodbye. Given the election that transpired almost one year later, this film also felt like a premonitory, grotesquely unwelcome, but informative and necessary hello: This is the first day of the rest of your country. I should be wary of framing this in terms of epiphany, or at the very least I should own my naïveté as a specific, combustible element in relation to Minervini's incendiary film. The day after Trump's election, one of my best students—it's important to the story that he's African American and came up in an environment that was plenty supportive but not what you'd call privileged—said one of the most helpfully honest things a student ever said to me: "I'm not going to pretend that I predicted this result yesterday. But I'm not shocked, and a lot of my faculty—and I have to say, Nick, you're one of them—y'all seem shocked. Where I'm from, we see shit go this way way more often than not." So, I did need to check myself and wake up. But still: Ffffuuucccckkkkk.

I don't have to tell any of you reading, whatever your identities or positions, how much of the necessary work for white liberal Americans post-2016, even or especially those who imagine ourselves as attentive, has involved facing how symptomatic Trumpism is of forces that are older, nastier, and much more pervasive than most of us had admitted. I don't want to displace all that recognition onto the Gothic scenes and frankly nightmarish figures that The Other Side introduces; the labor I'm describing is just as much about discomfiting self-review as about locating far-off people or places to serve as abject scapegoats. Watching The Other Side, first before the election and later after it, was the reddest possible flag, hoisted from an America I had certainly contemplated but never at such high resolution, or so unblinkingly. The sheer infinitude of hard drugs, cooked, smoked, injected on camera, including into the arm of a heavily pregnant stripper. The crazy abundance of nakedness: either a back-to-nature libertarian "Don't Tread on Me" thing or the sign of folks who love all of their whiteness so much they can't stop flaunting it. Or else they're so high they don't care, or don't know. (Mark, the Wuornos-eyed, woods-dwelling junkie we track for the first hour, is hardly ever clothed, baring a penis that looks like it died a while ago.) And then there's the mind-boggling proliferation of automatic rifles. I knew there were millions out there, but I'd never seen them aggregated in one place, like ants in a farm. I surely hadn't seen a band of heavily ammo'd brothers park an old car in a field, load it with an effigy of their most hated president, spray-paint "Obama Sucks Ass" across it, shoot the car up with thousands of bullet holes, then light the car on fire, then throw tree stumps at it, then kick and pry off the doors while it burned. And this doesn't feel like an event staged for the crew. It feels like...Saturday. Someone flies a plane overhead dragging a banner that says, "LEGALIZE FREEDOM." They all cheer.

I won't enumerate other spectacles unearthed by the Italian-born Minervini. You'll decide what you're prepared to know about. But it's important that for all its sensational content, The Other Side has not been styled for maximum shock value. The lens is relatively dispassionate, the sound even more so. I don't mean that European art-cinema template where the icy sterility of the camera contrasts whatever lewd outrages play out before it. Minervini shoots more like a backwoods Nan Goldin, dialing up color and shadow, finding haunting angles on his scenes, but suggesting throughout that this isn't staged, this really is how people live. Then again, there's a script credit, which isn't uncommon for a documentary, as well as a cast list, which is uncommon, even as it suggests that most folks appeared as some version of themselves. The indeterminate levels of vérité, embellished reality, and poetically "true" fabrication we're observing in The Other Side (and I'd surmise it's mostly a blend of the first and second) is a salient feature of the text. One reason is that any measure of complicity from the subjects—and there's always some, even in allowing oneself to be filmed for a documentary—means that these are not innocents or zoo animals, but to some degree informed co-participants. They bore some role in wanting to show the world this, wanting to be seen like so. What can that mean, even regarding passages more peculiar than horrific? Another implication is that the veneer of "scriptedness" opens up the eXistenZ defense should law enforcement come calling: "I didn't do that! It was my game character!" Such cover probably licenses Minervini's subjects to reveal more, with impunity. Then again, everyone's shameless these days, at least about their own practices and beliefs; it's only the pastimes and mantras of "the other side," whoever that is, that makes people gasp. Which raises another question I'm afraid to answer. Given how much oil has been added to every conceivable fire in the six years since Minervini filmed The Other Side and the four since it premiered, what would the same people and same locations look like now? Is anyone still alive? Are we? Will we be for long?

Honorable Mentions: Not nearly as affronting as The Other Side, Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands's Uncertain (2015) is a contemporaneous revelation, sweeter-spirited but not always comfy, of Americas rarely imagined beyond their own borders. "Uncertain" is the name of a 94-citizen town in the back of the backwoods in Texas, one state over from The Other Side's Louisiana, even if both movies feel like planets unto themselves. If you need a kinder, gentler, queerer tonic to what The Other Side puts you through, the Arkansas-set The Gospel of Eureka (2018), by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, explores another idiosyncratic American enclave. This one entails the unexpected coexistence of drag bars and evangelical pageants in the same tiny hamlet. There are so many "United States," so many more than fifty! And if you think reading about them might be more productive than watching more movies, especially once you've reached the other side of The Other Side, Jonathan Metzl's Dying of Whiteness (2019) and Arlie Russell Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land are apt places to begin.
 

75. 24 Weeks (dir. Anne Zohra Berrached, 2016)
 
Making yet another appearance in this Best of the Decade countdown is...the incurious, risk-averse, and gender-biased world of U.S. film distribution! Of course, if I'm going to keep chastising them, we must admit at some point that a) the fact that any stimulating movie not spun off a pre-existing brand ever makes it into cinemas anymore is a miracle, with an endpoint increasingly in sight, and b) distributors would be more adventurous if U.S. filmgoers actually patronized the nourishing, adult dramas, including those made by women and underrepresented minorities, at nearly the levels they claim they do when protesting their purported absence. So, be the change you want to see, people! Still: it drives me crazy what can't get a hearing even in our alleged "art houses." When I saw Anne Zohra Berrached's 24 Weeks at the Chicago Film Festival, lead actor Bjarne Mädel told the audience about Meryl Streep's conversation with the creative team right as the lights came up at its Berlin premiere. Normally, a jury president avoids the artists competing, but Meryl apparently clapped robustly, crossed the room to congratulate Berrached, and quickly confided, "You know this movie will never be seen in America, right?"

Awful to be the bearer of good and bad news at once, but as in so many things, Meryl was right. 24 Weeks, after all, is about a married couple, but especially pregnant comedian Astrid Lorenz (Julia Jentsch), discovering that the child she is carrying will likely be born with Down Syndrome. As the couple begins embracing this prospect, almost feeling guilty at having construed it as a decision, they learn that their baby will also have a serious heart defect, which might be rectified by an immediate surgical intervention or else might cause an early death. 24 weeks into the pregnancy, the couple—but, again, the prospective mother in particular—must not only decide whether to abort but achieve lucidity about how much so-called "imperfection" (read: break from expectation) she is or was ready to tolerate in a child and how much she isn't or wasn't. And by the way, because of her popular comedy career, the media has already publicized the pregnancy...so this extraordinarily sensitive decision will unfold before the whole country. You think America is ready to deal with that premise?

Frankly, many of us were. Indeed, we are hungry for stories about the private and public dilemmas of women's lives, and about the de-idealized conundrums and bouts with conscience that inevitably come with parenthood, whether imminent, attempted, achieved, or refused. 24 Weeks offers all this and a good deal more. An exacting portrait of two well-matched lovers who may not agree about everything they assumed they did, it's also a rare snapshot of how a couple priding itself on closeness and respect deals with a decision that ultimately belongs more to one party. It is a compelling diorama of all the relatives (including but not limited to mothers), friends, doctors, acquaintances, and strangers who find ways to register opinions on matters they know are not theirs to weigh, even when they swear they're not getting involved. It is also a bracing example of a movie whose principal plot vector involves a woman making a decision, and whose predominating image is of that same woman thinking through a fearsome ethical, emotional, and intellectual problem. When I met Berrached, I joked with her that this is just as much the reason U.S. distribution was always unlikely. I personally believe that U.S. Americans keep a very strict quota on how many portraits of adult women thinking we are willing to accept. I'm not sure I was really joking.

24 Weeks builds with precision, compassion, and heavy-hearted momentum toward whichever decision Astrid will make, with or without her husband Markus. Working from a nervy, ambitious, even-handed, and impressively researched script she wrote with Carl Gerber, Berrached's direction only further guarantees that we can't fully predict what Astrid will finally do. Nor are we cued which (if any) election the film regards as best for her, or for anyone. The movie admits the impossibility of decisions like these but gives the characters no artificial way out. The detailed performances of Jentsch and Mädel, as separate individuals and as a fully believbale, palpably soulsick couple, are great achievements. That's especially true since since Jentsch, at least early on, plays a funnier, more off-the-cuff character than she almost ever does, while Mädel, best known as a cut-up in German comedies, expertly negotiates a dramatic role. As much as I'm emphasizing the script, Berrached's images are elegant, occasionally estranging (the sheer alienness of any pregnancy is stressed a few times), and thematically informed. Note, for example, how the clinical lighting and sterile design typical of the hospital occasionally recur in Astrid and Markus's home or work environments, or how the high fluorescent glare and total exposure of live-performance spaces sometimes bleed into the hospital scenes, where Astrid surely feels as vulnerable and scrutinized as she does on stage.

Elsewhere in 24 Weeks, there's plenty of natural light and intimate close-ups. However, far from affording the characters a "genuine" opening to express their "real" feelings, circumstantial tensions and moral uncertainty force almost every character to perform at least a little bit all the time. What does the person I'm talking to want to hear? What idea am I hoping I'll accept if I act as though I've already gotten there? In one subtly but especially brilliant shot near the end, Astrid has checked into a hospital ward—it's probably too late to change her mind, but she's clearly still agonizing—and as she leans against a low glass barrier, it reflects her image from the abdomen down. You might say this reflection reduces a woman only to her reproductive capacities, as contrasted with the actual woman—who has, after all, a mind and is consumed in endless cogitation. This is kind of a false reading, though, because 24 Weeks should convince anybody who still needs convincing that the mind itself is a reproductive organ, indispensable to how and why each of us does or doesn't bring forth generations, and how we feel about that. I so wish I could tell you where to find 24 Weeks. Maybe it's time to follow some other advice Meryl famously gave us once and contact your favorite streaming service to ask why you can't see this film. After all, and I quote, "It's amazing how much you can get if you quietly, clearly, and authoritatively demand it."

Honorable Mentions: As a drama of a woman expanding her family, via an arrangement that gets more troubling all the time, and where the privacy of her own choices is increasingly denied her, I would also recommend the Argentinian drama A Sort of Family (2017). Headlined by the great Madrid-born actress Bárbara Lennie, that movie accumulates so many layers of dread, suspense, and moral vertigo that it's practically a thriller. Once again, U.S. theatrical distribution proved elusive, but at least Netflix bit! And it gives me extra joy to list alongside 24 Weeks because Anne Zohra Berrached and I served together on a festival jury one year after I saw her film (with my own mother, no less!), and we awarded A Sort of Family our top prize. Furthermore, given everything I've said about America's resistance to honest inquiries into all the anxieties, projections, and ubiquitous critiques (including self-critiques) that accompany having or wanting or not having or not wanting a child, it's even more amazing that a story as structurally intricate, psychologically curious, and constantly surprising as Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's Tully (2018) got released into nearly every mall in the country. Only briefly, though. Most of you didn't show up! Wtf??? At least you can find it everywhere. Even if you resist the overall picture (many critics did), can we agree about the magnificent, dizzyingly complex acting duet of Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis? Magic.
 

76. Suzanne (dir. Katell Quillévéré, 2013)
 
Your movie's doing a lot right when it reminds me of my favorite film of the 1990s and my favorite film of the 2000s, without closely resembling either in plot or in style. The Piano is the more tangential connection, though Katell Quillévéré's Suzanne shares Jane Campion's fascination with someone, specifically a woman, who repeatedly places her ankle inside nooses of desire, because she cannot help it (or feels she can't) or because she's curious what will happen. Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar is a closer parallel, though hardly a twin, in that both movies place a woman front and center whose face remains a lunar mask throughout, transmitting signals that a rich and complex inner life exists but absolutely blocking us from broaching it. Suzanne's task, like Morvern's, not just through writing and acting but through all the other expressive and connotative capacities of cinema, is to make us imagine with at least a little confidence what's going on inside an endlessly charismatic protagonist who, in real life or in a different auteur's hands, might appear distant, dull, or utterly unremarkable. If that's the most ambitious, persistent challenge Quillévéré sets herself in her second feature, it's hardly the only one. You could imagine Suzanne arising from other dares she and co-writer Mariette Désert might have issued themselves. Can you tell an entire story in/as a long aftermath of filial grief, without ever furnishing backstory around the deceased parent or allowing a single line or scene to postulate traumatic loss and motherless childhoods as causing the daughters' current problems? Can you retain an audience's sympathy for a twentysomething single mom who straight-up abandons her child more than once, simultaneously disappearing on the entire rest of her family, especially when the mother and the script refuse to rationalize these decisions? Can you portray a young woman just out of jail who actually feels like she just got out of jail, and without officiously probing the extent to which she's been "rehabilitated" or not?

Suzanne is an astoundingly nonjudgmental film, observing a life that gets caught in a series of whirlpools—in part, though not exclusively, by swimming directly into some whirlpools. It refuses either to moralize or to pursue the kind of fine-grained psychologizing that might "explain" a character's actions. I offer this as praise, even as someone who doesn't consider judgment such a bad thing. Frankly, I think we've swerved too far away from it, and refuse it at our peril. I personally don't want friends, lovers, coworkers, or relatives who don't judge me, despite constant idealizations of that idea; I want these people to judge fairly, and I want to earn their positive judgment as much as possible. Art is in some ways a different story, though, especially when it steers into multiple story beats that would seem to invite a range of instant or unedifying judgments. These include criminal behavior, capricious entry into parenthood, headlong and sustained infatuation with someone who's patently bad news, dependence for shelter and child support on a heroically patient sister... the list goes on. To capture a life thusly punctuated, neither idealizing the choices involved nor gratuitously editorializing against them, is a feat of tremendous directorial self-control. It certainly helps to be abetted by actors as magnetic but unfussy as Sara Forestier, a major French star and two-time César winner who's never had that big global crossover, and Adèle Haenel, a bracingly no-nonsense screen presence who's finally experiencing such a breakout with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Both women are extraordinary here, enjoying the privilege but also managing the pressure of just being in front of Quillévéré's lens. Forestier, especially, excels to an inexplicable degree at simultaneously transfixing the camera, sending the spectator the subtlest cues of what Suzanne might be thinking, and seeming to evade the camera's gazes as well as our own, even when she's in the middle of the frame. She's there yet not there. She's an enigma and also perfectly legible, if you focus on who she apparently is, what she's like, and what she's chosen to prioritize, and don't get hung up on dead ends of why or how dare she. Do I need to specify that this compact, delicate, yet tight-as-a-drum film about tight-lipped women making extreme, unsentimental choices without apologizing, including to each other, and directed so boldly yet thoughtfully by a 33-year-old female, never even came out in the States? I bet you guessed.

Honorable Mentions: Quillévéré's previous feature, a rustic coming-of-age parable called Love Like Poison (2010), also distinguishes itself for close attention to female characters without voyeuristically prying into their thoughts or pumping them for information or reassurance. The plot, especially in the young heroine's interactions with an ailing grandfather and a kind, handsome priest, veers in directions that might have gotten sensational or invited an artist's condemnatory outrage. Quillévéré, however, is more interested in considering how these things happen, or almost happen, and delving into communal, developmental, and interpersonal contexts that can lead people right to the edge of transgression, or past it. This film, too, went unreleased in the States, though someone got wind of the spooky youth-choir rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" that she marshals so perfectly near the end, repurposing it famously for the Social Network trailer. Love Like Poison and Suzanne are at least available on UK DVDs, which I'd urge American cinephiles to invest in. Finally, a few plot points in Suzanne have near-ish parallels in Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's tonally cool but subtly provoking Asako I & II. I'm not as fully in the tank for that one as its greatest admirers, but I see why the ardor exists, and I'd certainly recommend trying it.
 

La Jaula de oro, © 2013 Animal de Luz/Machete Producciones, © 2015 Kino Lorber Films Radiator, © 2014 Turnchapel Films Goodbye to Language 3D, © 2014 Wild Bunch/Canal+/Kino Lorber Films A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, © 2019 Sony Pictures Releasing/TriStar Pictures
77. La Jaula de oro (dir. Diego Quemada-Díez, 2013)
 
What craven meeting resulted in La Jaula de oro, Diego Quemada-Díez's heartrending story of Guatemalan teens and their desperate northward migration, being retitled The Golden Dream for its US release? And why did that release take two full years after its festival bows? Jaula means "cage" in Spanish, which is obviously more appropriate to the pitch and content of the film. It's also an important nod to Los Tigres del Norte's song "La Jaula de oro," released in 1983, expressing the deep sorrows of a Mexican migrant whose journey ostensibly panned out, and released the same year as Gregory Nava's film El Norte. That movie is indisputably a masterwork, but there's something regrettable about its longevity as the text that still gets assigned at schools and booked for "public awareness" screenings about the perils and tragedies of trying to reach the U.S. from its southern neighbors. Several strong expansions and updates of this story have been filmed since, of which La Jaula de oro is the strongest I've seen. Still, they remain fairly low-profile among most audiences, despite the urgency of the topic and the excellence of the filmmaking. Lensed mostly under existing light and on pertinent locations when possible, Jaula is not the sound-mixing or cinematography showcase that Cary Joji Fukunaga's Sin Nombre was but favors, just as powerfully, a documentary-adjacent naturalism that reminds me of Robert M. Young's revolutionary ¡Alambrista!. The script sketches some quasi-romantic, racially inflected rivalries and complications that arise among the two young men and one young woman at the center of its quest—all the more complicated since the woman, Sara, must conceal her gender to avoid gender violence during the dangerous trek. Balancing those interpersonal tensions with the larger-scale and more important story of the odyssey is one thing Jaula does very well. Another is mapping out the various legs of the journey in dramatically clear, visually distinct beats, even when the protagonists are detained, thwarted, or forced to restart on yet another grid of similar-looking trains and similar-looking tunnels in austerely pretty, diversely threatening, similar-looking landscapes.

Jaula understands that the paths and choices risked by these refugees involve tremendous cruelty even when they lead "successfully" to a new life in the Obama-era U.S. Which is also to say, the film remains a valuable document of chronic violence and locked-down borders existing well before the current U.S. regime, which has so ramped up both factors that La Jaula de oro is already a period piece. As you'll guess, arriving to the States is nobody's idea of a panacea, and not every major character makes it this far. The abruptness with which various figures are blocked, kidnapped, or killed is part of the movie's riveting and devastating drama, all the more affecting for not leaning too far into individual pathos or sentimental pietàs. The Spanish-born Quemada-Díez trained for this extraordinary debut through twenty years making shorts, working as a d.p., and operating the camera on films by everyone from Ken Loach to Oliver Stone to Spike Lee to Tony Scott to Alejandro González Iñárritu. His style and sensibility differ from all those guys (with the semi-exception of Loach), but there's something measured in the movie's technique and confident in its power that reflects those decades of on-the-job experience. He's released nothing since, which I hope reflects the years of observation and planning that clearly went into this feature, and not the after-effect of how inadequately film culture and critical discourse elevated this special and much-needed movie above the usual din. I hope we see more work under his name, and that North American migration stories grow more copious and more attentively received as the associated traumas continue to escalate—or even if, by some miracle, they eventually subside. Now there's a golden dream.

Honorable Mention: It's not as consistent or all-around accomplished as La Jaula de oro but Lucy Molloy's Una noche (2012), about young Cubans trying to reach Miami via the water, is vividly shot and plenty striking. Speaking of Mexican films that got less than their due, Amat Escalante's harrowing cartel drama Heli (2013) was unable to capitalize commercially on the Best Director prize it won from one helluva Cannes jury (Spielberg, Ramsay, Mungiu, Kidman, Kawase, Ang Lee, et al.), and reviewers didn't get behind it as much as they might have. Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala got kneecapped in this country by the seemingly hapless distribution arm called Fox International. Columbia remade it, mostly in English, with Naranjo as a credited executive producer, but the unbelievably intense, stunningly-crafted original, distinguished especially by its sound mix and a frightful supporting performance from the reliable Noé Hernández, is clearly the one to seek out.
 

78. Radiator (dir. Tom Browne, 2014)
78. Ray & Liz (dir. Richard Billingham, 2018)
 
Many landmark films made before the 1960s are currently absent from streaming platforms. Most movies that play at prominent world festivals prove elusive on DVD or the (legal) web. These axioms of accessibility are familiar in the film world, but what about the even stranger cases of excellent movies that reap plenty of juried prizes, win distribution in their home markets, but seem to get actively disappeared, as though they'd fallen afoul of some vicious regime? What, for example, happened to Radiator, one of England's standout films of the 2010s? Why was it never released in the United States, in cinemas or on streaming or in any physical format? Why isn't there even a British DVD? Radiator earned positive notices in several big UK papers but only a meager release there, and nowhere else. By these standards, Richard Billingham's feature debut Ray & Liz was a juggernaut, earning mentions and a couple gongs from the BAFTAs and BIFAs (both of which blanked Radiator) and securing a Stateside run from KimStim films, a Brooklyn-based distributor with exquisite taste. In the US, where Downton Abbey remains many people's idea of a great British film, even my movie-mad friends mostly go blank when I mention either title. I hope this changes when Ray & Liz drops on DVD this February, and mabye it's not too late for Netflix or MUBI or Criterion Channel to take a chance on Radiator. For now, though, let me tell you how much you've missed.

Radiator's handful of nature shots are so elegantly framed, so rich with Lake District color and texture, that you'd gladly watch a film made entirely of those. But the movie's crucial topographies are domestic: the rockslides of clutter and filth that have overtaken an aging couple's home, the drafty cottage rooms with peeling wallpaper, the kitchen full of every mismatched utensil ever forged, except the one you're seeking. The film unfolds as a cross between Michael Haneke's Amour and Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, with aging, recumbent, yet fiery Leonard (Richard Johnson, sort of Michael Gambon without the jambon) barking orders at his wife Maria (Gemma Jones, always welcome) and at their adult son Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira), who's making a rare stopover from his life as a reading teacher in urban schools. Cerqueira, the taller of those lovely gay chaps who host Garland for dinner in Judy, also co-wrote the script with Browne. Their scene ideas and Browne's detailed, inventive eye suggest up-close familiarity with the menial labors of caretaking; with the loose moraines of outdated, disorganized crap that alarm every visitor but seem invisible to the residents; and with the way some spouses, parents, and children keep managing their needs and disdains for each other, well into middle and advanced age. The movie doesn't necessarily break with realist templates, and indeed Browne used his own late parents' cottage, swamped with their own detritus, as his location. Still, his compositions are so unique and the dishevelment so extreme that you feel you're watching something heightened beyond daily life. Browne and cinematographer David Johnson frame every room, even the most rectilinear, as a minefield of slumping shelves and diagonal lines. Objects that initially blend into the clutter (is that a tin can on a string? is that a sailboat?) sometimes reveal specific dramatic meanings, which makes this house into more than Marie Kondo's worst nightmare. It's a living figure for this family's past, differently remembered by each of them, quite painfully by some, occasionally yielding up an object or a memory that forces a long-gestating question or disclosure. As strong as the images and the script are, the actors especially make Radiator indelible, infusing it with humor but honoring the tough, sad core. Absolutely plausible as a unit, and full of shadings and surprises in every case, they're as vocally and physically resourceful as stage performers while keying their work perfectly for the camera.

Ray & Liz, also rooted in personal memories its makers will never shake, and similarly auspicious as a first feature, is unmistakably the work of a trained still photographer. Billingham has the kind of up-close, color-rich, frame-sensitive eye you can't teach to somebody who lacks it. He conjures the general environment of dissolution and thwarted mobility but also the specific props, light sources, upholsteries, physical postures, and degrees of closeness and distance between bodies that provide us with core samples of information (or, at least, strong implication) from one family's life in the West Midlands. The film traverses multiple eras in these characters' lives, requiring the audience to do a little who's-who, what's-when calculation as we go. Still, there's nothing "difficult" about Ray & Liz, which feels visually and emotionally immediate at every stage, starting with a nearly self-contained half-hour about a man named Lol (a heartbreaking Tony Way), related to the title figures, who lacks the will or the sense to save himself from the obvious, humiliating way he's being framed by a mercenary acquaintance. Time structures and narrative trajectories get looser and more surprising as Ray & Liz continues, which protects the film from the kind of rote, static miserabilism that can paralyze movies like this. The whole thing feels like one of Lynne Ramsay's early-career shorts, Gasman or Small Deaths. Ray and Liz are based closely on Billingham's actual parents, who shared those same names and appeared in several of his preceding shorts. But for all that they exercise (and maybe exorcise) chapters of personal history, Radiator and Ray & Liz do not feel hemmed in by obligations to real-life precedent. They're fact-derived fictions of the highest order, and the kind of photographically risky, intricately scripted studies of working-class spaces, affects, and micro-communities that viewers in England and the rest of the world deserve to see more easily.

Honorable Mentions: Andrew Haigh's 45 Years (2015), flawlessly acted by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, has a totally different style and perspective than Radiator. Still, each belongs in the highest echelon of dramas that explore aging, as well as the strange, less-than-purely-blissful processes by which couples stay joined over time. Kent Jones's Diane (2018) is a kind of spiritual cousin to both films in some respects, shining its non-idealized light on mostly older members of a working-class New England enclave that rarely occupies American film screens. Mary Kay Place wholly deserved her citation as Best Actress from the Los Angeles critics last weekend, but in truth the entire ensemble is perfectly chosen and directed. Francis Lee's pro-immigrant, Yorkshire-set queer romance God's Own Country (2017), another tale of hardscrabble, regionally specific English lives, shares with Radiator the actress Gemma Jones as well as Browne's and Cerqueira's premium on expertly acted tales, compassionately conveyed. That film means more to me as years pass. The only dishonorable mention I have to extend is to everyone who voted Tory in today's disastrous UK elections, which will make life harder for so many Brits for so many years to come. It was hard to write about working-class English movies tonight of all nights, without wishing that the UK's tailspinning government could show more of the generosity, insight, and empathy for struggling folks that are hallmarks of all the movies I've named.
 

79. Goodbye to Language 3D (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
 
"Not our lived experiences but the silent tenacity we affront them with." This is among the earliest of the gnomic aphorisms, excerpted and manipulated but not cited or marked as partial, that issue across Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language 3D. I read online that the phrasing hails from Faulkner, but I'm not sure what text; I think the point, to whatever extent there is one, is not to fret about provenance but to extrapolate meanings that feel plausible within the film's splintered and striking audiovisual environment, and within the shattered world it reflects. What I take this truncated missive to mean is that our lives and choices, regrettably, are shaped less by credible information we glean from direct contact with the world than by our "tenacious" insistence on acting in direct, affronting contrast to those observations and to what common sense might instruct. My interpretation, debatable already, is also out of step with the longer original, which the internet (surely correct!) reports to be, "It is not our feelings or emotions that make us beautiful, but the silent tenacity we affront them with." But Godard, a poet laureate of linguistic and sensuous shrapnel, is precisely interested in what happens to "sense" when the vessels that carry have long ago shriveled or exploded, and the stabler paths by which ideas or truths once traveled have eroded to near-nothing. Maybe the clearest utterance anywhere in Goodbye to Language is its title, bidding adieu to the fantasy of communication, and given a petulant little sting by the 3D at the end. I take that as both a literal descriptor of how the film was shot and projected but also, I think, a jab at the way faddish marketing lingo has attached itself, barnacle-like, to even our loftiest attempts at speech. (Goodbye to Language 3D sounds a little bit to me like Night and Fog, ATMOS, 48FPS.)

If Godard's deployment of the latest (old) trend in movie technology comes wrapped in coils of barb-wire cynicism, the kicker is that he's also ingenious with 3D. More often than during Avatar, I heard my audience exclaim with delight at one of Godard's gambits. In one, two characters in conflict exit the frame, only to walk back into another plane of vision behind a third person now stranded in the foreground. Thus, two scenes of action—an attempted murder and its willful denial, by a man who refuses to witness it—are superimposed as one. In another case, two lovers parting after a morning of sex have their bodies re-fused by the magic of 3D, even after physically separating. This is a major reason why I go see Godard's mystifying collages, teeming though they often are with atrabilious words and moods. They remind us of the under-exploited possibilities of livid color, adventurous montage, and manipulated perspectives, which make their own points separate from narrative, or even in the absence of narrative. These films are also harbingers of tricks like these 3D ingenuities, for which we have all the tools, but nobody's yet deployed them. Meanwhile, floating traces of former wisdom, now detached from original contexts and moorings, reminds us how much thought the world has amassed, ignored, and allowed to sink into the hyperlinked and disconnected chaos of our present. There's plenty to question or reject here, including piecemeal provocations about Hitler and Africa, a set of noir-ish entanglements that don't quite rise to a level of plot (but what are they?), and a surprising number of loud bathroom sounds. Still, I find if you don't defibrillate your eyes, ears, and mind occasionally with such aggressive audiovisual stimuli—and Godard's stimuli are as potent as any, with more legible threads than may appear—you can complacently forget all the things "cinema" could be but rarely is, as most of the world's directors order the same narrow diet from the same page of the same menu.

Honorable Mention: Godard's dog (well, I assume it's Godard's) gets quite a showcase across Goodbye to Language, often appearing as the only animate survivor in a looming world without humans. By contrast, Laurie Anderson's rat terrier Lolabelle figures in Heart of a Dog (2015) as the late dedicatee, an object of fond, aching, ongoing grief. She's also the star of a touching, hilarious arichive of footage: Lolabelle painting, Lolabelle sculpting, Lolabelle recording a Christmas album for charity. And she's an emissary to parallel worlds, afterlife dimensions that Buddhist study has taught Anderson to expect, and which Lolabelle already inhabits. Heart of a Dog is sweet, strange, intimate, and modestly funny, anchored in Anderson's wry yet mellifluous narration. It offers real insights and rare candor about some of life's profoundest challenges and dilemmas, from surviving sadness to understanding your parents, or admitting you don't love them. Anderson proves that, despite their reputation, experimental essay films need not be spiky, semi-opaque assaults like Godard's usually are... but if they're more your speed, The Image Book (2018) is also quite electric.
 

80. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (dir. Marielle Heller, 2019)
80. Beginners (dir. Mike Mills, 2010)
 
One rung up from The Irishman, here's another current release that I wasn't convinced the world needed, auguring a retread of well-known and, in this case, very recent material. The co-presence of director Marielle Heller, who'd knocked her first two films out of very different parks, and Tom Hanks, who challenged himself more than once this decade, should perhaps have reassured me. Nothing could have prepared me, though, for what a stylistically peculiar experiment A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood turned out to be, full of rich surprises and slippery feelings. The three films it called most to mind were Dottie Gets Spanked, Babe, and Synecdoche, New York, somehow pulling together all the direct, sidelong, simple, juvenile, and intensely adult affective claims that this bizarre constellation suggests. And we're talking about a movie that could so easily have been a cuddly, standard-issue holiday-season biopic! If you saw Beautiful Day right after The Irishman, you might get a little bounce back in your step, except you'd also have spent two more hours with melancholic men who are ambiguously allies and permanent strangers, and with fathers attempting unlikely reconciliations with their children or else reconciling themselves to polite distances.

Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? seemed intended to stoke the questions, "Why can't we have nice people and nice things anymore? Why can't we all just get along?" A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't uninterested in those questions, but it's extremely mindful of just how difficult it is to drop one's guard (or whether anyone, not least Mr. Rogers, ever truly does that), how hard to accept oneself or to accept others. Matthew Rhys's deftly played journalist is predictably disarmed by how his famous subject's discourse, accessible enough for any child, is so exactly what he needs to hear. At the same time, he seems irritated and aggrieved by that very simplicity, even after he's opened himself to it. Lloyd appears to learn that he has made emotional arithmetic and straightforward obligations ("Just call him," "You need to be here," "You can't abandon me like that," et al.) more complicated than they needed to be. Nonetheless, he and his movie seem less than fully consoled, even amidst the sweet conclusion. For all its decency, humor, tenderness, and aplomb, and Beautiful Day abounds with all those things, the movie never stipulates whether it's a truth worth accepting or a problem worth lamenting (or both) that a life guided by Fred Rogers's counsel and spirit remains a difficult, lonely life, touched by mourning and regret. Our resident angel, after all, ends the movie banging and BRAAAAHHHMMMBBBBBBing the lowest, harshest notes on the piano, his own inchoate frustration and his evasion of crucial questions still hovering in the air after all the lights go dark. Heller amplifies the movie's restive emotional energies through that eccentric visual and tonal idiom she sustains throughout—no simple, spoofy pastiche of the style of Mr. Rogers's show but a sophisticated dilation, and a gently unnerving one, of that hushed, halting, warm but chilly, out-of-body ambiance of public TV broadcasts. The movie is full of human sympathy and people doing their best, but also of dead air and awkward silences. The intent is not at all to defile Mr. Rogers or work against the grain of his paragonal reputation, but to acknowledge that the private man and the public figure were always more complex than his reappropriation as America's Great Uncle and Teddy Bear (something Neville's movie also acknowledged, but less intricately). We, his audiences, are also more complicated than grown-up children waiting to be fixed by a hug and a wise homily, and Beautiful Day, huggy though it is, respects that as well.

As for Beginners, I've recently made my case in a long review published at the top of 2019, when I started revisiting the decade's movies and tracking down some I missed, as early but erratic prep for this very feature. I've paired it with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood because they acknowledge with such maturity and layering why a range of interpersonal relations are difficult and quicksilver even in the absence of hostility. That's true for lovers and spouses, for parents and children, for sympathetic strangers. Plenty of codes remain uncracked no matter how long these bonds persist, and certainly after death. Ewan McGregor's cartoonist, like Matthew Rhys's reporter, is earnestly passionate about his avocation but also recognizes what an out it gives him from truly facing his feelings. Both men are flummoxed at almost philosophically levels by the riddle of a father figure (or, in Beginners, an actual father) who radiates contentment, even though he's obviously faced hardship, some aspects of which he keeps doggedly to himself. Sadness is a foundational element, maybe the foundational element of both movies, yet they're alive with color, brimming with humor, thrillingly observant of personality, and directed with so much more ingenuity and ambition than most films of their ilk. I'm wildly, goofily in love with both movies, even the one that opened less than a month ago. Simultaneously, from another vantage, they feel like good teachers or therapists: kind, mature, tactful, articulate, totally aware that I'm liable to adulate and overinvest in them, but intractably private. They've taught me plenty, but bless their hearts, they're never going to tell me everything I want to know.

Honorable Mention: This is the second of Marielle Heller's three features so far to appear on this countdown. The one I've omitted, last year's acerbic and deeply bruised Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), made a strong case for inclusion as well, and is yet a different beast than either of Heller's other films. The phantom threads across them are her laser-sighted sense of story, psychology, and character; her precise gauging of visual and tonal environments to suit her narratives, each of which encompasses plenty of variation and admixture by itself; and her three-for-three success in getting all members of each filmmaking team, on and off screen, so demonstrably on the same frequency. Kyle Stevens published a compelling brief on Heller's gifts and why they went relatively unsung during last year's awards run—a trend that continues this year with Beautiful Day. Let his be the first of many probing studies of this unusually exciting narrative film artist.
 

The Irishman, © 2019 Netflix/Tribeca Productions/Winkler Films Certified Copy, © 2010 MK2/Bibi Film, © 2011 Sundance Selects Much Loved, © 2015 Celluloid Dreams/Les Films du Nouveau Monde/New District Timbuktu, © 2014 Les Films du Worso/Dune Vision/Arches Film/ARTE France Cinéma/Orange Studio, © 2015 Cohen Media Group
81. The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2019)
 
I, too, had such doubts. Reuniting Scorsese's old gang was not a proposition that thrilled me, especially if it mandated a return to the mobster milieu that runs neck and neck with serial killers and English royals as the species of human being in which I am least interested, especially by proportion to how much I'm forced to take in. Even the title, which I still don't totally understand (and not just because there seem to be two titles), sounded like an invitation to gawp at some masculine archetype whose alleged charisma might strike me as generic. I had never seen Mean Streets by the time The Irishman got announced (but have now—!!), had never liked Casino, and consistently fail to remember more than four or five faces and four or five events from the impressive Goodfellas despite four or five viewings over 25 years. Trying to recall it, despite or because of the self-conscious floridity of camera, cutting, and mood, feels like trying to reconstruct a roller-coaster ride beat by beat. I expected more of this from The Irishman, but as I've said before, one of the under-reported joys of cinephilia is being proved wrong.

It's remarkable how much The Irishman asks you to live right inside it, rather than cruise deliriously atop slick surfaces; Scorsese's effusive style often invites the latter form of engagement, which is not a criticism. I like a lot of movies like that. But The Irishman immersed me differently, for reasons well beyond its super-sized runtime. You wouldn't call the lensing, the editing, or the mise-en-scène restrained, exactly, but they avoid taking on showy lives of their own. Story clearly dictates mode of expression, and maybe it must, given the plot's many complexities, which gratuitous flamboyance might only confuse. De Niro's tremendous work, like his director's, inhabits an atypically modest key, maintaining the carapace of a wary, undemonstrative guy but sending us finely shaded transmissions from within that reserve. I know some people find him cipherish, at least until the final acts, when we hopefully all recognize the profound, succinctly conjured pathos of acquiring belated self-knowledge while trying to resist its implications and to forget the most unforgettable sins. The Irishman in general has one of those personalities you'd struggle to label as extroverted or introverted. Pacino/Pesci is an apt Janus face for the temperament of the whole piece, a unique blend of splashy century-spanning pageant and muffled requiem for wasted lives. He also, with lifelong accomplice Thelma Schoonmaker, manages to keep in balance the temporalities of day-to-day living, of gradual diminishment, of imminent and sometimes abrupt demise, and of creeping disorientation. The latter manifests in abrupt flashes forward and back, in sporadic epitaphs spelling various characters' ultimate ends, and in the totally non-diegetic non-place from which De Niro's Frank narrates the film, possibly to no one at all. Little if any of this did I expect. How could I? Modern American movies rarely strive for this wide angle of vision or this trenchancy of characterization and ethical stock-taking. Even less often, of course, do they attain them.

I also did not anticipate what we'd fight about regarding The Irishman—setting aside, for crying out loud, the shocking disclosure that Scorsese may not stan Ragnarok. I predicted plenty more rounds of "Is he really censuring all this violence, or isn't he kind of glorifying it?" That point is moot in The Irishman, which even at its grandest eschews real glamour, especially regarding death. I thought we might bicker about length, but the movie feels shorter than plenty of Scorsese films with lesser runtimes. I did not expect we'd all clash over Anna Paquin's near-silence, a bold and pointed narrative gambit but hardly a total anomaly in a movie where few people not named "Hoffa" indulge in excess verbiage. And let's stop acting like that late, incredible Marin Ireland scene isn't there, ballasting Peggy's refusal to engage and reminding us that the critiques one family member performs most conspicuously are rarely theirs alone. I thought the anti-aging effects would prompt more hue and cry, and here I would sympathize. They do take a while to get used to, especially on De Niro. So do the 62 different shades of blue his eyes reflect at different times. Key moments like the curb job he administers to the grocery employee, inducing a permanent break with his daughter, are weakened by De Niro's physical limitations (though I like Michael Koresky's persuasive account of why the face/body mismatches are apropos and interesting). Anyway, it's a bit rich for a film starring De Niro—the man who won his first Oscar by retroactively furnishing a younger self for one of US cinema's most iconic characters—to allege there's no actor anywhere in the world who could step in and contribute a greener Frank, flowing harmoniously into De Niro's older one(s). But I also haven't rewatched The Irishman yet, and I suspect this will all matter even less to me on second pass. I just want to reabsorb this American tragedy that plays a breathtaking long game while nailing innumerable scene-specific grace notes. I also think it's a better Unforgiven than Unforgiven. Like all the 2019 releases on this list, the placement of The Irishman is especially subject to change over time, but in a reversal of Frank's slow seepage into the river Styx, the only way I see this one going is up.

Honorable Mention: In his characteristically eloquent account of his 20 favorite U.S. releases of 2019, Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang pairs The Irishman with Jia Zhangke's long, stylish, shapeshifting, and sad gangster epic-turned-national dirge Ash Is Purest White (2018), with its rotating film stocks and unforgettable turns from Zhao Tao and Liao Fan. Perfect match. In his equally great profile of Scorsese's recent output, including an articulate defense of the director's dim view of Marvel, Chang proposes Marty's last feature, the harrowing and singular Silence (2016), as an ideal double-feature with The Irishman. Ash and Silence are both tremendous, and I'm long overdue a second date with each. The other moral here is that Justin Chang is a national treasure, and if you don't read his reviews, I have no idea why not.
 

82. Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
82. Like Someone in Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)
 
I've surely shared this before, but Abbas Kiarostami played a huge role in my becoming such a film nut, a film writer, a film teacher. I took a gamble on Taste of Cherry in college, at Boston's Coolidge Corner Theater, because I knew it had just won the Palme d'or, I knew the topic of suicide had roused controversy in Iran, and I knew nothing I read about the movie or the whole legacy of Iranian cinema—utterly unfamiliar to me, even in concept—matched nothing I had ever been told about Iran in U.S. media. "Let's try," I thought, and across that movie's 95 minutes, all three times I saw Taste of Cherry in three different Boston cinemas, my respect for film but also my outlook on the world and my commitment to thinking critically all kicked up about 40 notches. Those are the first and biggest debts I'll always owe to Kiarostami, whose work I followed ardently ever afterward, until we lost him three and a half years ago. (It still feels like yesterday.) He was one of few directors who sparked no skepticism in me when I read he was planning a film far outside his home country, and then another one in yet a new, far-flung locale.

I doubt I have to convince you that the gamble of Certified Copy paid off. If anything, I should explain why it's not many rungs higher on this list. I'll admit I sometimes imagine a different D.P. than Luca Bigazzi, best-known for the grandiloquent bacchanalia he's filmed for Paolo Sorrentino; his light sometimes looks overexposed to me here, and the colors pushed a little hard, as in Binoche's famous scene of applying makeup straight to camera. I suspect it wouldn't have hurt the movie to cast opposite Binoche a more agile screen performer than opera tenor William Shimell, someone who could offer either honed technique or the total nonprofessional's latitude to "just be"; in my view, he often falls in a strange zone somewhere between. Probably my biggest grouse is that I find the movie a little relentless in naming its ideas about originals and copies, flagging verbally what is already tangible, sometimes delicately so, in aspects of imagery and scenario. Is that even a surprise, though? The auteur behind Through the Olive Trees was never bashful about his zeal for metaphysics and for probing the relations among authenticity, artifice, anti-artifice, and repetition. And honestly, I'm of two minds about all my own qualms. E.g., maybe Copy's plot works better because Binoche and Shimell appear mismatched, hailing from blatantly different worlds, but seeking common ground? Much, much more importantly, what's special and unsolvable in Certified Copy feels distinct from anything else that's ever been out there (which is nuts, because these are hardly new themes). The movie is all about alchemical shifts, mercurial transitions. One of these involves my occasional disgruntlement transmogrifying back into fascination, without me really noticing. The uncanniness of Certified Copy, the way it winds up living what at first it's only saying about the nondistinction between truths and ruses, ontology and performance, is an amazing trick. So are subtler elements in the film, like how intellectual engagement becomes, suddenly, emotional entanglement, or the way a quiet parent appears to muse on whether or how much she truly likes her child. I admire Kiarostami's feel for the peculiar, testy sorrow that follows an avidly-planned excursion that goes bust; this seemingly happens to Binoche after leading Shimell to Original Copy, an old painting she's too positive he'll love. These are fragile moods and nearly ineffable states; surely it's fair that to form something so friable and hold it in place, one needs a couple of stiff devices, like the pipe and the punty required to blow glass. I can't even pry into Binoche's case here, except to say her ability to play simultaneously an abstraction, a platonic state of emotion, and a real woman with a specific gravity is an enigma I don't care to hear explained, like the aurora borealis.

Like Someone in Love is a brittler work, more coolly photographed, utterly evasive in terms of basic relationships and story events, arguably missing an end. I sometimes think I prefer it, because it is even more reflective of a genius working without struts or templates, crafting an entire sculpture or walk-through installation out of zags that for any other artist would have been zigs. The "Like" in the title transfixes me, because the whole film has the air of a simile between redacted objects: X is like Y, without specifying what X or Y is. It's as if, having made one film that risks labeling its themes too bluntly, Like Someone in Love attempts to name none at all, as a kind of metastory experiment (which isn't to say it lacks a plot, or that the plot is has lacks resonance). Anyway, I want to walk back the word "genius" and its enshrined notion of the individual-as-origin. The real lesson of these films, for me, is of Kiarostami becoming even more collaborator. Like Someone in Love looks almost nothing like Certified Copy, and neither looks like his Iranian films. The films clearly bent to the energy emitted by their actors and crews; these are not conceptions Kiarostami could have devised independently and conscripted outsiders into. Both films exist in thrall to faces, to locations, to frames within frames, to the movie screen itself as both a window and an obdurate surface. Both films are puzzles I love to keep playing, even when they frustrate or confound me. I still can't conceive the blueprint for either, and if someone offered to show me, I might not look. The last scripted features in a storied career ought to feel like full-stops, but Kiarostami ended with two ellipses that won't ever get resolved.

Honorable Mentions: I'm not sure I'd rate Kiarostami's last credited film, 24 Frames, as an Honorable Mention on its own merits, by which I mean on the strength of whatever I grasped from that lovely but strange gallery of (barely) moving images. I will say that Elisabeth Hodges's writing about 24 Frames beautifully unlocked the experience for me, so I'm eager for the published version of the talk I heard and urge Kiarostami fans to follow her work. Meanwhile, fellow Iranian Asghar Farhadi has such a different sensibility and filmmaking style from Kiarostami's, but The Salesman, with its metatheatrical conceits, its philosophical questions about acting and performance, and its probing of gender and knowledge in relation to power all feel relevant to the trains of thought Kiarostami engineers in Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love. Farhadi shapes them into a more conventionally structured (melo)drama, but it's quite a satisfying one, and leaves some gaps tantalizingly unfilled. That movie won two Cannes prizes and an Oscar, yet I still feel it's somehow undervalued? Watching and teaching it repeatedly, especially alongside Arthur Miller's play, has only convinced me further of its nuances and depths.
 

83. Much Loved (dir. Nabil Ayouch, 2015)
 
If you loved Hustlers, have I g—actually, let me pause there. If you didn't love Hustlers, please don't tell me, please dont involve me in whatever your damage is. Moment of grateful, hearts-in-my-eyes silence for the spunk, craft, and ideas in Hustlers. But as I was saying, if that was your jam, have I got another movie for you, and the only discreet thing about it is how it's been hanging out on Netflix for years without much (any?) fanfare from US critics. Much Loved is the story of three, later four Moroccan prostitutes in Marrakech who form deep if frequently combative solidarity with each other while sharing a pimp/"protector" and a dangerous, tenuous, unenviable job. Each woman operates under her own individual stresses, along with the systemic ones exerting themselves on the whole group, and yet the movie is shockingly full of vitality and pleasure. Not in that tiresome "happy hooker" way but because of the filmmakers' extraordinary energy and ardor in filming these women, savoring their personalities and their frequently feisty attitudes even more than their bodies; that said, it's not a prudish movie, especially given where it was filmed. Noha (Loubna Adair, especially entrancing), Soukaina (Halima Karaouane), Randa (Asmaa Lazrak), and to some extent Hlima (Sara Elhamdi Elalaoui, impressively pugnacious) find plenty of power and joy in the work they do. They shake their shit in some of the decade's best clubbing scenes. They mostly look out for each other, even as they often eye-roll each other. They get away with quite a bit under the noses or around the sleeping bodies of the very men who imagine these gals as subservient vessels and/or objects of mawkish pity. Noha gets a particular kick out of defrauding Saudi millionaires and Wolf of Wall Street types who cruise over to the other end of the Arab world to indulge themselves and are so coked up or tired out or unobservant to notice when they're being bilked. She loves when that happens. She's several steps ahead of these deep-pocketed bozos, though occasionally over-confident of her own safety, which is the sort of detail that makes Much Loved a daring characterization as well as full, rich, and empathetic one.

Much Loved, directed by Nabil Ayouch, is one of those cases where you feel the intensity and generosity of collaboration with the cast. Most of the actresses were first-timers on film and/or nonprofessionals. Several were threatened or outright assaulted for participating in a film that Moroccan authorities denounced, immediately after its strong Cannes reception, as debauched, obscene, and pornographic. They banned the movie from exhibition; rather than rally other national markets to the cause of Much Loved, it mostly seemed to scare them off, which really saddened me. In any case, the fact that everyone on camera took such tremendous risks by appearing at all, much less by performing with such freedom and candor, makes Much Loved all the more special. Ayouch also recruited women as close consultants and in crucial on-set positions, including the very talented cinematographer Virginie Surdej (who had a great year in 2019) and first AD Camélia Montaserre. Much Loved radiates a feeling of collective authorship, a sense that it's by and for these women, not simply about them; you don't need the backstory about its production process to detect those energies. So, stipulating that this color-rich, tonally complex, fully absorbing movie is the joint achievement of a diverse, thoughtfully constructed team, all of them taking risks well beyond the creative, I will put in a word for Ayouch. Recently, I included him in a list Film Comment requested from all its contributors of the decade's top 20 directors; I'm sure he's the least well-known name on my roster, which is obviously because Middle Eastern directors (even those raised mostly outside Paris) get so little traction in our critical communities, much less among U.S. production companies or distributors. His whole body of work is distinguished and bold, delving into women's intimacy and quests for autonomy, problematics of class and ethnicity in the Arab world, queer desire among men and among women, the routes of fundamentalist recruiting, and a plethora of other challenging subjects. He treats these topics thoughtfully in his scripts and his direction, and he presents them handsomely, fluidly, and memorably on screen. I think Much Loved is not only his best but, because of Netflix, his easiest to find. I hope you look, and if you like what you find, keep on looking!

Honorable Mentions: Well, Hustlers (2019). Did I mention? For Ayouch, my next-favorite is Horses of God (2012) about boyhood friends who, without quite seeing eye to eye, and despite (or because of) different traumas and obstacles in their pasts, end up joining the same cadre of violent radicals. As a sobering but compassionate tale of contemporary sex work, opening up a range of female perspectives within the same text, Sudabeh Mortezai's Joy is a formal and narrative stunner about West African migrants hoping that working the streets in Europe is just a stopover on the way to a happier, stabler life. The movie is currently famous for being belatedly disqualified as Austria's Oscar submission; hopefully its reputation can soon re-center on its sheer artistic excellence. Lastly, I remain confused what happened with Mathieu Amalric's On Tour (Tournée) (2010), a delicious, good-humored, Cassavetes-adjacent ensemble piece about French burlesque dancers, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes during year when neo-burlesque was suddenly all the rage. Indeed, the same year that Christina Aguilera, born in a corn silo somewhere, moved to Los Angeles to hook up with Cher and E-X-P-R-E-S-S. All that and it never got released here, even on DVD? Worth tracking down if you can find it.
 

84. Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
84. We Come As Friends (dir. Hupert Sauper, 2014)
 
I saw Timbuktu on September 9, 2014, the same day Apple announced the release of the iPhone 6. Director Abderrahmane Sissako was there, declining to gloss or take questions about the film, imploring people to confront and interpret on the strength of their own morality and intelligence. He did, however, mention that morning's media announcement, pointedly eschewing the exact name of the product or the company, because he recalled all too well how the inciting events that inspired his film, Ansar Dine's March 2012 incursion into Mali, got drowned out of most world news outlets due to ongoing frenzy about the rollouts of Apple TV and the iPad 3. This was not a case of generational scorn for technology, which itself figures into Timbuktu's plot in interesting if ambivalent ways: the main family's beloved, doomed cow is named GPS, and a key cellphone call, its reception stymied by Saharan wind, fails to arrive in time. Sissako was instead exhorting our capacities for attention, even as the world changes and distractions proliferate. Surely we can watch a movie and grasp its form and message without needing them explained by its chief maker, who already defined what he wanted us to know and hear. Surely we can witness and decry outrages in the world before they, too, proliferate and before they inspire despondent films.

Timbuktu is simultaneously blunt and elusive, enraged and often poker-faced (with crucial exceptions), forward in its indictments but often denying us a beginning, middle, and/or end of the multiple mini-narratives aggregated into the script. Most of the project's money and formal support came from France, but in style the movie clearly owes more to storytelling traditions and cultural legacies of Mali, where it is set, and Mauritania, where it was filmed, and to the legacy of Soviet montage, which Sissako imbibed during four years of film school in Russia. The collision of pastoral family life, which Sissako stops just short of idealizing, with political crisis, embodied in key figures but clearly too large and complex a force to personify, is straight-up Pudovkin. So is the audience's task of thinking through the logic behind some elliptical edits and narrative withholdings, even as other cuts, trends, and exchanges could not be blunter. Amid the many tableaus of social and physical violence that accompany the jihadists' arrival in Timbuktu, which grow in number and extremity as the movie unfolds (and are left unhalted by its final fade to black), the crime that carries the most narrative weight and receives the most indelible photographic expression has virtually nothing to do with those events, at least until it goes to trial, or what passes for trial. Sissako, like so many West African filmmakers, including some he has championed as producer or as state-appointed culture minister, has a remarkable ability to make films of extraordinary visual polish, even tempo, and fairly reserved affect, which nonetheless abound in ironies, tragedies, paradoxes, and asymmetries, begging to be contemplated.

Whereas Timbuktu disguises some of its complexities beneath an uncommonly elegant surface, Hupert Sauper's South Sudan documentary We Come As Friends repeatedly flaunts its own crisis of representation. Filmed on everyday cameras, sometimes quite modest ones, subject to formal constraints and chilling rumors about who or what could be filmed, it's amazing what a detailed, expansive sense Sauper nonetheless provides of the traumatic birth of what rhetoricians and opportunists keep sentimentally calling "the youngest country in the world." South Sudan is simultaneously a new republic, a seceding region, a frequently raided compound, an enticing mineral field, a dream for Western missionaries, a battlefield for economic supremacy between US and Chinese "investors," a scene of seemingly intractable poverty, and the utopian name for a fantasy of noncolonial African autonomy that you cannot begrudge even as you doubt its possibility. It is also a home to about 12 million Sudanese people, a fact of fitful interest to most players in this drama, even the ones who think they care. Because South Sudan's identities are in such constant flux and misalignment, Sauper's rough montage and the limits on his explorations don't much harm the film. Quite the opposite, though this is not to omit the detailed testimonies he does solicit from several South Sudanese women and men, or the blithely damning statements he cajoles without half-trying from oil prospectors, landmine removers, and Christian missionaries (one of whom refers to South Sudan as "New Texas"). Sauper's evocative photographic eye pays its own constant rewards, in villages, on lightning-struck airfields, around bodies of poisoned water. He's worked hard enough and immersed himself so fully that We Come As Friends never feels touristic, and certainly doesn't look it. I'm mostly pairing it with Timbuktu because they both capture the extreme fragility of African nation-states, albeit hugely disparate and geographically distant ones, in the long aftermath of empire, and despite the intents of various saviors who profess various faiths and ideologies. The story of South Sudan also somewhat begs the question of Sissako's pleas for attention, because white Westerners, several of them high-placed, actually did focus on the gestation and infancy of this allegedly sovereign state, now heading into its seveth year of civil war, food scarcity, and civic despair. So a lot depends not just on our attention but on what kind we pay. Films like these are not an answer by themselves, but they're a start.

Honorable Mention: Monika Grassl's Girls Don't Fry entails, like We Come As Friends, an Austrian's documentary eye on African predicaments, with shrewd attention to how colonialism is not just an intractable ghost but a still-dominant system of practices and values. The subject here is a philanthropic aviation academy for young Ghanaian women which slowly (if not too surprisingly) reveals itself as a get-rich scheme by some English charlatans who love to feed girls' dreams almost as much as they love to yank them away. I'm not sure if it exists anywhere for screening these days, but I won't forget it.
 

Our People Will Be Healed, © 2017 National Film Board of Canada Lincoln, © 2012 DreamWorks/Twentieth Century Fox/Reliance Entertainment Valencia, © 2013 Radar Productions Pina, © 2011 Sundance Selects/IFC Films/HanWay Films/Neue Road Films
85. Our People Will Be Healed (dir. Alanis Obomsawin, 2017)
 
My memories of seeing Our People Will Be Healed are inseparable from seeing its maker, the tireless Abenaki documentarian Alanis Obomsawin, appearing alongside it. Rightly programmed under the Masters section at the Toronto Film Festival, she was celebrated on the occasion of screening her 50th feature (50th!), and at 85 years of age (85!). She was demonstrably touched at the short tribute, but of course what she really wanted to talk about was the work. I don't think you need to know Obomsawin's career to be moved, taught, and absorbed by Our People Will Be Healed, but it might help to know what a milestone but also a quasi-anomaly it is within this storied and singular career. "I'm so happy I've lived long enough to be able to tell a true story of First Nations flourishing!" she said. The phrasing may be inexact, but it's close. And truly, after decades of invaluable chronicles of the ongoing, multi-frontier, perennially thwarted campaigns for indigenous people's rights and communities (1993's Harlan County-ish Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance is a good place to start), it's immensely gratifying, cinematically and politically, to enter Our People Will Be Healed's portrait of a First Nations, mostly Cree K-12 school where student learning and graduation rates are up, and teachers feel supported, including the 50% of them who are themselves indigenous. Cultural and linguistic traditions are being sustained, and the school and its community feel positively enmeshed. If part of what we value in, say, The Irishman is the stamina of Scorsese's career and the temerity to lament figures whose charisma he previously honored, there's a related though tonally opposite thrill in context to seeing Obomsawin amidst an act of optimistic elevation, when she has so often been forced to grieve and denounce.

Inevitably, given this history and this filmmaker, Our People Will Be Healed is not without mourning. As you move through the documentary, you'll get a succinct but pointed backstory about the Gothic pasts of First Nations "education" in white schools; one might substitute "incarceration," "indoctrination," or "immiseration." And, as much on the evidence of what we see in backgrounds as what we hear and observe upfront, the indigenous community around Norway House in Manitoba, like any indigenous community, still faces plenty of local and systemic struggle. Our People's enthusiasm means more by framing and historicizing it honestly, admitting the many hauntings and qualifiers. But it's still a thrill, not least if you're an educator, to see and hear how policy shifts, expanded and well-spent funds, revised hiring and retention practices, arts and humanities instruction, professional linkage opportunities, full incorporation of special-needs students in every class, and a host of other strategies have turned a once-struggling school into a model begging to be emulated, and not just in First Nations schools.

Since Obomsawin is a filmmaker and not just a reporter, I want to single out her frequently mobile camera. Its serial, fluid tracks through the open, light-filled space of the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre are one stylistic reason why Our People feels so liberated and liberating as a movie. There's a specifically indigenous connection here, given the leitmotifs of nature that permeate the picture: moving clouds, blowing leaves, clear and rushing streams whose motion the camera amplifies by tracking with the current. When the same camera moves with similar dynamism through the classrooms and corridors of the Norway House school, the young students to whom that space is devoted are similarly framed as a natural resource. The processes of teaching and learning, like those of blooming, growing, and riparian flow, are natural processes, only halted by the false and punishing fiats of men. Our People Will Be Healed is a proud, rich, well-crafted, and forward-thinking ode to the public good. And speaking of public goods, at least for now, at least in North America, you can stream it for free. (And yes, in the two years since, Obomsawin's already made at least one more movie.)
 

86. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2012)
 
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which is just as much Tony Kushner's Lincoln, and in no small part Daniel Day-Lewis's Lincoln, commences in a swampy Civil War battlefield of rain and kicked-up mud, where fighters on both sides, including several black Union soldiers, are stabbing, drowning, and throttling each other. The color palette, persisting through most of the opening sequence (indeed, through most of the picture), is a kind of heavy, blended matte of dark blues and dull grays, swallowing much of what meager light there is. This chromatic environment suggests a nightmare even more sad than scary, but recall, too, what Blue and Gray mean in this context, especially in frames where neither hue seems to be winning. The first voice we hear and then the first face we see belong to an African American man, Private Harold Green, played by the great Colman Domingo. He holds his close-up, visibly and audibly proud to share his personal story with the President of the not-so-United States, though we don't know that right away. The second face we see and voice we hear are Corporal Ira Clark's. He too is an African American soldier for the Union and is testier than Green about the paltry lot of underpaid, under-promoted black troops, much less of disenfranchised black citizens. Clark, played by David Oyelowo, one of Lincoln's inexhaustible storehouse of first-class actors impeccably filling smallish, sometimes single-scene parts, flexes his neck three times before speaking, either summoning the will to challenge the Commander in Chief or swallowing some franker, tougher phrasing he might have risked. By now, Lincoln has entered the frame, albeit still seen only from behind. A zoom-out facilitates his inclusion, not a cut to a new shot; this moment, grammatically and interpersonally, is about expansion and togetherness, even amid a somewhat uneasy exchange, not about division or interruption.

At least, not yet. The first cut in the scene (i.e., the first symptom of breakage) also entails the first reverse on Lincoln, and it lands right when Clark speaks the word "vote." At this moment in the story and in history, that word splits these men apart, no matter how loyal or fond they feel. Lincoln, as he will do many times in the film, tries to use humor to reestablish a now-threatened camaraderie. His teasing confidences about his "springy," hard-to-cut hair delights Harold Green, elated to sense an affinity, but perturbs Ira Clark, who clocks the deflection. Black men won't have too many speaking roles once this drama of legislative toil and political trigonometry gets going, but in its opening beats, Lincoln cedes rhetorical pride of place to these two African Americans, making clear that their temperaments, perspectives, and priorities are not the same, despite near-identical uniforms. (Congressmen and others will talk collectively or metonymically about "the Negro" or "Negro voting" or "Negro farmers" throughout this script, but the screenplay strikes an immediate blow against monolithic conception.) Lincoln sees clearly that Clark is his tougher audience—indeed, a partner capable of real sparring. No wonder Clark, but not Green, still looms in the foreground of reverse shots on the President, letting us know whom Lincoln is hearing, trying to impress or maybe just to placate.

Tellingly, when two awkward, not obviously impressive white soldiers played by Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan intrude into this chat, the framing all but abandons their African American colleagues, Green and Clark, even though they haven't gone anywhere. Lincoln gets slightly antsy, partly because he's a bit fatigued, though touched, to hear yet another recitation of his already-famous Gettysburg Address. (The movie shares his allergy toward hagiography; the first public speech Kushner puts in Lincoln's mouth is two lines long; its audience is amazed it's already over.) The Army suddenly decamps, and the background of the shot, crowded till now with men in pilling wool coats under blue rain and blue darkness, empties. The newly decluttered frame reveals that Lincoln's been sitting under a makeshift structure of thin beams and floorboards: a resonant image of this would-be savior of the Union marooned inside a bare and fragile structure, and an eerie twin of the stage set that's the last thing he'll ever see. As Lincoln rises, his only remaining audience is steadfast Corporal Clark, restored into view, finishing the Gettysburg Address as the night air freezes his breath. He shows poetic feeling for the prose but also a clear command of its promises, and a skepticism that they will be kept. His noble face shades suddenly into nonplussed disillusion; he's already turned on his heel and taken leave of the President before he's finished reciting. The last shot of this prologue is a tight close-up on Lincoln's famous, beardy profile: red meat for the audience who came for august statuary, but the entire scene has fully demystified this icon. Behind that furrowed brow, Lincoln's felt the sting of Clark's ...is "rebuke" too strong a word? And long before this night ever happened, we soon realize, this President knew exactly what business remained undone. The film will entail him doing it.

Folks, this is what "classical" filmmaking is. Not blank direction, not direction you didn't notice because it wasn't flamboyant. Not Ford v. Ferrari, with its 200 hideous focus-pulls, its redundant dialogues, its 400 gratuitous cuts to men's inarticulate reactions to each other, its meat-and-potatoes-and-carburetors vibe that gets called "classical" when someone wants a dignifying word for something simple and straightforward that they enjoyed. Sorry to be petty, but this, Lincoln, is what it's like when you direct a movie as classic Hollywood masters did, and as many of its worker-bee, non-canon helmers often managed: with thoughtful intention and legible detail embedded in every edit, or lack of an edit; every nuance of color and angle and texture; every tactic of whom to introduce and in what orders and groupings; every choice about what we should hear when, and how loudly or quietly; every consideration for what is or isn't included in the foreground, middle-ground, and background of each shot, and why; every micron of character an actor can reveal through physical gesture, or via their spin on a line; details of when and under what conditions to reveal your star; care with when to drop a joke that's more than just a laugh-line. Lincoln is a 2½-hour movie of which the first six minutes are dense enough with relevant detail that I'm already well over the length I intended here. Suffice to say, Lincoln is a modern miracle not just because it's a couldn't-be-timelier drama of government as noble, needful calling and messy bog of compromises but because it has been so artisanally wrought, without squeezing the life out of itself. Indeed, it's quite fun! As entertaining as it is edifying, maybe more so. Spielberg makes consummate choices in interpreting a script—the best nominee for Adapted Screenplay of the last 20 years—that is itself a jam-packed, meticulous, but lively canvas of astute decisions and humbling articulation, in structure as well as language. Like everyone, I've been learning about Lincoln my whole life. This was the first time I met him, and sensed the entire era he occupied, oversaw, lamented, redeemed, fought with, chuckled at, exemplified, and too quickly left.

Honorable Mentions: Ava DuVernay Selma isn't quite the moment-to-moment gallery of intricate virtuosities that Lincoln is, but it's really, really close. And for someone's third feature, only five years into a full-on directing career? That's amazing. So are Oyelowo's performance (Corporal Ira Clark, reborn and already leading!), the screenplay's meticulous and research-supported dramaturgy, the memorable textures of light and color (Bradford!), the dozens of indelible cameos and supporting parts, the respectful and welcome scaling-down of King to human size, the march itself, and the final, impassioned crescendo. Also, War Horse got treated as minor Spielberg and a compulsory nominee, but it's as carefully crafted as Lincoln. Fight me, civilly!
 

87. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller, 2015)
87. Valencia (dirs. Clement Hil Goldberg, et al., 2013)
 
For the true cinephile, blasts of in-theater excitement and surprise often come limned with anxiety. For example, as the euphoria of seeing great work from a new voice starts to mellow, two questions I often catch myself asking are, "Will this person have the chance to make more films?" and "Will anybody else get to see this?" Both worries obviously get exacerbated when the filmmaker in question is not a white guy. That's why I felt the first concern so acutely while floating out of a Landmark theater showing The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the debut feature of Marielle Heller. I was even more intensely flooded by the second concern amidst the otherwise-delicious afterglow of an LGBTQ film festival screening of Valencia, a collective endeavor of 20 lesbian, trans, queer, and/or nonbinary directors, including a few you might know (Cheryl Dunye, Jill Soloway, Silas Howard) and many you probably don't. Happily, things have worked out well for both projects, whose creative, cultural, and communal origins lie in the rich terrain of Bay Area women's, womyn's, and womxn's underground art.

Diary started as a mixed-media novel/memoir by Phoebe Gloeckner, which Heller adapted first into a play and then into a film you also might describe as "mixed-media." From the opening sequence, joining impetuous Minnie Goetz (the astounding Bel Powley) on a blissful post-coital promenade through a park, Diary's conventionally lensed images often cut to short animated interludes or erupt with hand-drawn embellishments, inviting us into the sly, smart, salacious, and reckless streams of Minnie's consciousness as her hormones and her creative engines fire away. Such inventive, milieu-specific visuals make Diary a heady and joyful entertainment throughout, even as it confronts a narrative that many movies would moralize into tragedy or pure cautionary tale. Minnie, not yet out of high school, is sleeping with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the 30ish boyfriend of her 40ish single mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig, devout handmaiden of weird indies). This central narrative is braided to another in which Minnie, an adolescent of the Watergate era, gets into comics and punk and the dream of making her own art; she crosses paths with Aline Kominsky at a book-signing and acts like she's spotted Obi-Wan Kenobi, except cooler. Diary makes these plots inextricable: Minnie's quests to learn her desires and lunge for what she wants, asking questions later, if at all, are authorial and erotic maneuvers. To say the least, they make for one raucous and inflammatory coming-of-age, especially since you know Charlotte will learn everything, and even more especially because Monroe is not just mom's man but twice Minnie's age. You would understand any woman with these memories who perceived them, immediately or later, as a chronicle of assault and manipulation, just as any artist might fairly frame such a story in those terms. Heller, though, and the ensemble she perfectly directs, mostly refuse this tack, adopting a different lens on the complicated web of curiosities, risks, lusts, vulnerabilities, and power dynamics that enabled this scenario. Usually, you'd have to live such events directly to convey them in such frank, nuanced ways—completely lucid, yet wary of labels or judgments. Heller, in a persistent hallmark of what is currently (already!) a three-movie portfolio, has burrowed so deep into these experiences that we feel completely inside the protagonist's point of view, and those of the secondary characters, too, which is just as uncanny and rare.

If Diary tests conventional modes of production and typical screen storytelling, Valencia full-on detonates them. You can hear the filmmakers laughing as they light the TNT. Kaleidoscopic in its joys and pains, its mix of genres and styles, its infinite colors and unstarry faces, Valencia parceled out separate chapters of Michelle Tea's insightful and hilarious memoir to nearly two-dozen directors, each adapting their portion in a style of their own choosing, from comic to cutting, documentary to high camp, found-footage collage to body-positive, vagina-filled Barbara Hammer homage. Michelle is played by a different performer in each segment, varying markedly in size, gender, skin color, and personal aesthetic; so, too, are the handful of lovers, exes, and other characters who recur across episodes. I'd probably love this punk approach to many stories but it especially clicks here, partly because Tea's book is so candid about her serial, sometimes extreme self-reinventions, her deep ambivalences, her total unconcern with stabilizing a sexuality, a personality, a "self." Moreover, this profusion of faces, bodies, and moods across Valencia (often booked at festivals under the title Valencia: The Movie/s) is a perfect way to document Tea's work as the shared object of an expansive, highly variegated queer community. Tea, who also executive-produced, is the kind of writer whose devotees frequently feel she speaks for them, or at least from a vantage so adjacent to theirs or so recognizable within their niche worlds that the author/audience distinction starts to collapse. Valencia's multi-auteur, multi-genre, whatisgender pastiche expresses that perfectly, and all the more so because the installments are so good: funny, randy, sassy, sad, sometimes introspective to the point of self-absorption, sometimes outward-facing valentines to a whole, populous lifeworld. The only real problem is that commercial distributors rarely touch such calico, protocol-flouting texts, even without the added problem that studi*s like C*lumbia probably d*n't kn*w about the sequence where Ang*lina J*lie plays "Michelle" in overdubbed fragments of G*rl, Interr*pted and other movies, whose r*ghts were probably too pr*cy to cle*r. Don't tell them!! Just rent Valencia on Vimeo (please! support independent artists!) and have a g*ddamn blast.

Honorable Mention: Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best! is a funky, funny, incredibly touching adapta