This part of the list counts down from 30 to 21. I also include a number of alternate choices that didn’t quite squeeze onto this list of 40, but that would make a solid double-feature with the chosen film, something else by the same director or adjacent in the genre. Click on the titles to read my original reviews, where they exist on the blog.
A Most Violent Year An exceptional character and crime drama, with the hallmarks of many of the gritty American movies that were made in the years leading up to the one in which this is set: 1981. While it wears the suit of a gangster picture, a movie about desperate men, power, and guns, it’s really an anti-gangster picture, about someone working hard to be honest in his business and his life as he wrestles with the law, regulators, his competition, and his partner, who may as well be Lady Macbeth. This is the third film I’ve chosen for this list that stars Jessica Chastain, and there’ll be more. Alternate: Another creative reimagining of crime genre material by British auteur Steve McQueen, Widows
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – Him, Her Ned Benson’s crushing romantic drama, a heartbreak Rashomon told in two parts, floored me when I first saw it. Somehow it got buried, maybe by Weinstein, who released it (barely) as one recut film, Them. Now that’s the only way you can see it on disc. It’s still great, but I can’t help but feel it’s missing some of the potency of Benson’s original binary achievement, told from the perspectives of the two characters (played by James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, her again). Alternate: Maybe try and find the actual two-movie version if you can. Toronto film critic Norm Wilner says you can online.
Parasite It took me two watches to fully appreciate Bong Joon Ho’s achievement with this film. The first time I got the electric class satire, the surprising plot twists, and the universal relevance. The second time I really cared for these characters, the emotional impact of a system where an underclass is completely walled off, hidden away from the quality of life of the people above. Alternate: Bong Joon Ho’s sci-fi actioner, also about class disparities, Snowpiercer
Sicario A thriller with horror DNA. When Denis Villeneuve envisions the military and paramilitary forces at odds along the Mexican American border, it’s mythical and Shakespearean. He explores a place where whatever rules once existed, they’ve been swept away by subterranean power struggles and furious retaliation, and only the individual in the story’s centre (a remarkable Emily Blunt) has any memory of what’s right and wrong, and in this place even she’s not entirely certain. Alternate: Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s Hell Or High Water
Drive The wonderfully weird Nicolas Winding Refn has only gotten stranger since this film spun up a cult, mixing up elements of ’80s action cinema with a touch of existential dread. Though it’s a story of violent men (variously played by Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Oscar Isaac), what really gives it flavour is the exemplary work from Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks, and Winding Refn’s fondness for epic slo-mo visuals. Alternates: The deeply fucked-up NWR joint Neon Demon, or the nighttime-in-LA-thriller, Nightcrawler
Cold War Pawel Pawlikowski’s brief but potent story of obsession, wrapped in stunning and black and white cinematography. It’s both funny and moving thanks to the script and uber-cool performances, from Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. If I was giving kudos to the sexiest screen couple of the decade, they’d be on the podium. Alternate: Pawlikowski’s devastating Ida, or Colette, for a Paris movie night.
Spotlight One of those moments when I thrilled at the Academy’s choice of Best Picture, because it was pretty much my own that year. The decade’s best procedural, Tom McCarthy’s telling of the measures a group of Boston Globe reporters, through years of diligent research, brought to light the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child abuse by its priests, over and over again. Alternate: While whistleblower thrillers are having a moment in 2019, I’d direct you to the dry, Indian courtroom satire, Court
Booksmart It isn’t often I leave the cinema wanting to cheer while I wipe away tears of joy, but this picture did it, a uniquely poised coming-of-age comedy that while cleaving to a lot of the tropes of the we’ve-got-one-night-to-party model, entirely upends the genre by flipping the script, having our lead be the Mean Girl who doesn’t piece it together until late in the running. Bring together a perfect cast, a soundtrack that’s been in my ears for six months, Olivia Wilde’s confidence out of the blocks as a first time feature filmmaker, and I’ll be watching this picture the rest of my life. Alternate: The wildly and deservedly popular comedy, Bridesmaids
The Avengers This was the moment that really changed Hollywood, with Joss Whedon’s perfectly toned, massively satisfying assemblage of the costumed heroes we’d met already in previous, individual films. This was the sixth in the series, and even if they’d chosen to stop there, Avengers would’ve still made this list as the best example of the Marvel experiment to date. I’ve said it before, in 30 years people will be talking about these movies the way we do now about Star Wars and the best of Spielberg, Lucas, Carpenter, and Cameron, except what they’ve done with the Marvel movies will be a lot harder to duplicate. Alternate: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Tree of Life Terrence Malick has been dragged over the critical coals for the direction his films have gone since this career peak, but I think he’s getting a raw deal. Yes, the newer movies—To The Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song—live in the shadow of this film’s grandeur, but I’ve always described these films as cinematic poetry, when most movies are prose. The Tree of Life connects pre-history and dinosaurs with family life in small-town Texas to a vision of beachfront heaven—it sets a tonal template for his subsequent work. Full marks to Malick after years of rarely making feature films to up his output and committing to his own personal vision. We should get one more this year, A Hidden Life, and the reviews, for the first time in ages, are good. Alternate: Knight of Cups
Check back in the days to come on Flaw In The Iris for more of this list.