These are the movies that have stayed with me most over the last decade.
- The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Terrence Malick captures the way we actually remember childhood – not in coherent episodes but in intensely apprehended moments, like Jessica Chastain cooling her feet with the garden hose or the older boy’s feeling of envy and exclusion as his brother accompanies Brad Pitt on guitar. The film veers from Texas in the 1950s to the beginning of time, with the obvious insight that we’re pretty small in the scheme of things, but the sheer beauty of the cosmic sections succeeds in inducing a state of awe. It has its longueurs – there’s rather too much of Sean Penn looking glum – but Malick’s film feels as big as life.
- Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
Richard Linklater’s movie opens with a shot of blue skies and Coldplay blasting on the soundtrack; it’s basically a square, sunny presentation of childhood. The Coldplay serves another purpose, however: one of the film’s chief pleasures is the way it serves as a time capsule of 2000s culture, from “Oops! …I Did It Again” to midnight Harry Potter book parties to Obama vs. McCain. It’s a more prosaic Tree of Life, without the cosmic interludes; there are a few decisive moments, but mostly time flows on in an unhurried fashion, its passing marked by haircuts and subtle changes in the actors’ faces. (The philosophy comes in bull sessions with Ethan Hawke as the kids’ father.) The movie’s focus alights – like memory – on commonplace moments that seem to sum up whole eras.
- Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
From the opening sequence, so true to the way children jumble characters and worlds in their play, to the political overtones of the day care centre – the hard slog of the new arrivals underwriting the privileged existence of the few – this is an extraordinarily rich movie, beautifully conceived. It echoes the previous Toy Story, both in its preoccupation with obsolescence and in its constant movement, but I think it goes further: once it reaches the dump we experience the horror of being, literally, junk. It probes the toy/child relationship, too, in a way that makes the second film’s focus on collectors seem clever rather than deep. Facing Andy’s impending adulthood, Woody has arrived at (or is anyway working towards) a love without any expectation of return. Pixar’s greatest film.
- Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)
With the assured, steady way he moves the camera, his zooms, his attention to faces and feet, his gift for fixing images with pop songs, Kleber Mendonça Filho suggests a less hectic Scorsese, in a way that seems related to the rhythms of the Brazilian pop he favours (as opposed to Scorsese’s love of Phil Spector). This is not only a stylistic triumph, however: like Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, this presents a complex portrait of a middle-aged woman (the marvellous Sonia Braga) – her instinctive solitude, her sexuality, her prickly relationships with family. It’s a social panorama of fast-changing Recife: Braga’s Clara is a member of the ruling class, and the movie does not shy away from the way she takes her privilege as her due. It’s also a profound meditation on the way that memory collects in places and things.
- Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
This is both perfect and deeply eccentric: after all, it argues that a little mild poisoning can be good for a marriage. It explores two pathologies: the male artist’s belief that he can only work under certain conditions (and that the people around him are obliged to meet them), and Alma’s belief that her only value is in how necessary she is to him. The richness and exactitude of the writing and acting exposes the relative poverty of so much moviemaking – operating on one level only, straining to express a single idea: the density of each moment here, achieved without the appearance of effort, is nothing short of amazing. In this Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie is, of course, a perfect analogue for Reynolds Woodcock’s gowns. The choices are impeccable, from where Anderson mounts the camera on the tailor’s car to the way Alma’s English breaks down when she is angry to the New Year’s Eve party that teeters between exuberance and chaos. Anderson uses their strange relationship to get at the cost of creating things.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
In the crowd of goons pursuing Charlize Theron there’s an electric guitarist in red velvet and a gimp mask; he swoops in a loose harness, his instrument ejaculating fire. He’s the perfect emblem for this noisy, rococo movie, with its wild appetite for the grotesque. Its most daring quality is the way it forgoes narrative: it’s two hours of continuous action, with only the barest nods to character and motivation, and its onrush has a thrilling, almost abstract force. Even a simple fistfight in the sand is staged with so many elements in play – a hose, a number of guns, and an enormous pair of bolt-cutters – that it becomes a whirling contraption. At times the movie suggests Baz Luhrmann, if Luhrmann employed his pet techniques – the densely packed misc-en-scene, the florid performances in full close-up – not to ingratiate himself with audiences but to knock us flat.
- Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
On one level, this is an actor’s life presented as a glamorous fantasy of mobility and transformation: Denis Lavant cruises the streets of Paris in a white stretch limo, a master of disguise and various styles of performance. He keeps a series of “appointments” across town, each in a different genre. Each time he walks away without consequences, untouched even by death. In some ways Holy Motors recalls Terry Gilliam’s Doctor Parnassus, but unlike that film this is never twee or precious. In large part this is due to Lavant: with his grave manner and grizzled features he’s like one of those fairytale creatures whose magical abilities carry with them a hint of menace. (In one appointment he’s literally a monster who dwells in the sewers.) His transformations are magical, as is the assurance with which director Leos Carax moves from mode to mode, from the urban naturalism of a conversation between father and daughter to an underworld hit to a handsome bit of Henry James. Each mode is expertly achieved; each is provisional in a way that draws attention to its artificiality, to the beautiful tricks Carax is playing.
- Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
From the opening sequence, this is so elegantly framed and shot – a long shot that excludes vital information until someone lunges out of the darkness, a figure placed in the background so that an apparently friendly house tour takes on an air of unease – that a large part of the movie’s pleasure is in Jordan Peele’s command of the medium. It’s packed with references to other horror classics, from a Hallorann figure out of The Shining (not only there to provide a snowmobile this time) to the brief, distracted car ride out of The Haunting. This belongs in their company. There are echoes of Peele’s sketch comedy in the hero’s rapport with his best friend and the highfalutin white monsters at the garden party: another sign of Peele’s mastery (as writer as well as director) is the confident way he combines genres and tones. The way each villain is dispatched is funny and perfect, but the most potent moment of violence is emotional. These white people feel entitled to everything, even the hero’s most personal experiences.
- Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
It’s easy to forgive the moments of Hollywood philosophising (George Clooney’s condescending pep talk is the worst offender) because at its best, this movie is existentialism: human identity asserted by small acts against a background of darkness. I expected it to be impressive – Emmanuel Lubezki’s images have a sober beauty – but I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. Alfonso Cuarón has the confidence in his material that Danny Boyle didn’t, quite, with Sunshine: he trusts that the astronauts’ expertise will hold our interest. Most of the movie’s drama is in their work, in the way they negotiate their environment. Sandra Bullock is perfect here: her very ordinariness encourages us to identify with her on the most basic level, as a human whose panicked breathing is exhausting her oxygen supply, as a body made clumsy by its cumbersome suit.
- Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)
The Paddington films, with their bright colours, their gentleness and their celebration of eccentricity, mount the most delightful argument for Englishness since Wallace and Gromit. (One might object that Englishness does not deserve to be celebrated in quite so uncomplicated a fashion, or that the movies pride themselves on their depiction of London as a melting pot without granting any significant roles to people of colour, but the films mostly banish such cranky thoughts.) Visually they’re splendid, honouring the old-fashioned and the handmade: the gags are elaborate contraptions (my favourite here involves a bucket of soapy water, a pulley, and a flowerpot), and the movies’ elastic sense of reality can dive effortlessly into the pages of a fold-out picture book, or pull out to reveal that a house or prison is an elaborate scale model. It all feels like the work of a keen and gifted hobbyist: director Paul King aims to surprise and delight, and he constantly finds new styles in which to tell his story, new environments to deck with bunting.
- Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
This breaks new ground, not only in the specificity of its black, gay perspective, but in dispensing with the coming out narrative altogether. Both Chiron’s peers and the adults in his life take his sexuality for granted; the film is more interested in the larger question of masculinity – of how to be a man in a culture where any softness is a dangerous weakness. Chiron finds his flawed answer in Juan (Mahershala Ali), whose generosity and gentle self-possession are compromised by his participation in the drug trade; he undermines Chiron’s safety even as he provides him with his only haven. The three-act structure is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs – the same characters confronting the hero across time – but this has the sense of development that film lacked. Partly it’s the skill with which Barry Jenkins inflects settings and gestures – like the way two different characters cradle Chiron’s head on the beach; partly it’s the amazing continuity of spirit of the three Chirons, from skinny kid (Alex R. Hibbert) to stiff teen (Ashton Sanders) to jacked young man (Trevante Rhodes), so that he seems to grow up before your eyes.
- Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
Like Birdman, Oliver Assayas’ movie offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of the place where celebrity and theatre intersect, shot in intimate long takes and replete with topical references to the Marvel era. However, it does so to entirely different effect: where the roving camera in Birdman‘s cramped backstage environs is out to give you the dirty truth about its characters, Assayas prefers to leave his meanings open. He structures his film like a play, complete with acts and long scenes in contained environments; like a playwright, he locates drama in the interactions between his characters. The fact that the movie concerns the rehearsals for a (nonexistent) play could have sent it down a meta-fictional rabbit hole, but the unaffected, intense teamwork of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart imbues it with reality and stakes. In the course of the film their identities become mutable; the dissolution of self is not (as in Birdman) a glamorous apotheosis but a professional hazard to be faced and defied.
- The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
This takes the sharp, specific social observation of Tangerine and inundates it with beauty: shot on 35mm film, environments that might otherwise seem squalid – the purple motel where people live more or less permanently, but without the rights of tenants; the abandoned homes; the outlandish businesses that line the roads – bloom in front of Alexis Zabe’s camera. In this it mirrors the perspective of the movie’s heroine, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, extraordinary) and the feral band of kids who range around with her, bumming cash, spitting on cars, testing the patience of the well-meaning motel manager (Willem Dafoe). This is their neighbourhood, and they know it with loving intimacy. Director Sean Baker captures the way kids move, the exaggerated way they swing their elbows or slouch against a wall, testing out their bodies, looking at their friends to gauge the effect of their postures. At the same time (and this is what distinguishes it from Beasts of the Southern Wild, which attempted something similar), it does not use the kids’ resilience to excuse their neglect: the movie is very clear on how adults let children down.
- Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
For once, Kirsten Dunst’s child-actor thinness – she’s always playing for response – is perfect; her Justine play-acts, giving each person around her what she thinks they want, to mask her numbness and estrangement. The impending catastrophe – the huge blue planet on a collision course with Earth – allows her to drop these pretences, and thus comes as a relief. Melancholia is a lot more sumptuous than Lars von Trier’s previous films – both in its setting in the higher reaches of the bourgeoisie and its luxuriant imagery of the apocalypse; at the same time, his handheld camera continues its restless interrogation of his actors. For once, it doesn’t feel like he’s toying with his audience (or his heroine): it’s heavy going, but it’s probably his most deeply felt movie.
- Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)
This is a textbook example of how a female point of view can transform even very familiar stories. The narrative strategies that writer and director Lorene Scafaria employs – the story’s events recounted to a journalist in flashbacks, the old hand introducing the neophyte (and us) to the world of the club, the good-times montages – are familiar to the point of cliché, but the emphasis is different, chiefly because of the friendship at the film’s centre. The relationship between Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez has complexities – it’s a girl crush, a mother-daughter dynamic and a business partnership, a relationship that’s both warm and calculated – that it’s hard to imagine a male director capturing. The movie inverts the power relationship between men and women: there are no significant male characters, and it is the men who are objectified – first as clients, and then later as marks – the women who are complex protagonists. This objectifying gaze transforms our experience of people: the men become interchangeable white faces, the credit cards tumbling out of their trouser pockets. The movie takes this one step further and suggests that the flattening of other people, the denial of their humanity, is an essential part of capitalism because it allows us to exploit them with a minimum of guilt.
- Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)
The plot outline – a woman attempts to discover the identity of the masked man who raped and continues to stalk her – doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of what Isabelle Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven are up to here. Yes, it’s a thriller with the requisite twists and the heroine alone in her house at night, but it’s also a harsh comedy about sex in middle age, a portrait of her extended family, and a profound meditation on both the roles we play with our sexual partners and how trauma figures in the imagination of survivors. The movie opens formally, the sudden sound of broken glass like a bell announcing the action: it’s both ferocious and controlled. The sex – whether rape, consensual, or somewhere in between – packs real, transgressive heat, disrupting the categories. Huppert’s Michèle insists on her own individual responses; she resists any sort of label.
- Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
Bong Joon-ho makes the relationship of poor to rich a literal ladder, the poor characters ascending into the rich Park family’s rarefied sphere and then returning to their cellars. If anything the spatial metaphor is a little too well thought out; the film is as beautifully designed, the tone as controlled, as the Parks’ perfect house, and at times I found myself missing the wild tonal swings of Bong’s earlier films. At least, that’s what I thought until the climactic birthday party, which packs such an upsetting punch because Bong has managed the tensions to that point so expertly. His judgement as writer and director is exquisite: it would be easy in a story like this to caricature the wealthy characters, turn them into preening monsters, but another reason the climax is so effective is that Bong extends empathy to all of his characters. The house – as much a character as the one in Mon Oncle – though designed, like the movie, to express the relationships between the characters, finally proves itself indifferent to them, its elegant surfaces as inhuman as capital.
- A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
- Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
This technological Bluebeard suggests what A.I. might have been if it weren’t so sentimental about the relationship between robots and humans. It has the simplicity and cruelty of a fairy tale: Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot at its centre, is victim, heroine and destroyer. As Nathan, the Bluebeard who manufactures his wives, Oliver Isaac is a fascinating tech creep, aggressively casual in his bare feet, manipulating social situations like algorithms. Caleb (Domhnall Gleason), the employee Nathan invites into his Bond villain’s lair, is a different kind of geek: ineffectual, mild, hoping this will pass for decency. Writer/director Alex Garland performs a clever moral recalibration over the course of the movie: what at first seems like an experiment in gleaming, glassed-in spaces is shown to be a species of torture. Sympathetic as he is, Caleb participates willingly, secure in his human superiority: he deserves his comeuppance (the movie’s improved by its ending) as richly as does Nathan.
- Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)
Alfonso Cuarón’s film opens with the hypnotic image of soapy water washing over a tiled floor like waves, reflecting the sky in its brief moments of stillness. It turns out that we’re watching the heroine Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) clean the dogshit from her employers’ driveway, and Cuarón walks a careful line throughout the film, finding the beauty in Cleo’s routine without forgetting that it’s work. But it’s not only a portrait of domestic work and of Cleo’s place within the family that treats her like family when it suits them and at other times renders her invisible; it’s a social panorama as well. The film expands in both directions from the bourgeois household at its centre, to include both the very rich (a Jean Renoir-inspired Christmas party at a brother’s country house, brimming with surreal details) and the poor (when Cleo goes looking for a boyfriend who has ghosted her and steps from a bus into a world of mud). Cuarón makes all this vivid not just with his gorgeous, detailed images, but with the immersive sound design, which places the audience in the action, so that waves or gunfire or the frenzied activity in a hospital ward seem to be happening around you.
- Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey and Rothman, 2018)
A good argument for post-human cinema. It turns out my problem with Marvel movies is not their overreliance on CGI but their reliance on people: the actors performing with foolish seriousness in front of green screens hobble them, limiting their visual possibilities and saddling them with their peculiar cheesy earnestness. By jettisoning actors, this Spider-Man frees itself from those problems. It’s able to approximate the dense visual language of comics: the images packed with captions that comment on the action; the way the screen splits at moments of stress, or to tell multiple stories; the way it defies our earthbound human perspective as it follows the hero over the surface of buildings or through trees, turning every which way; the combination of jarringly different styles of drawing. It’s limber and hip, without congratulating itself too much on its meta self-awareness, and it hits its emotional marks harder than any Marvel movie outside Black Panther.
- Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)
This is as stripped-down a quest narrative as Fury Road, and in its emphasis on female pleasure almost as feminist. Where the absence of story in George Miller’s film was about aerodynamics – building a chase with maximum forward momentum – here it’s about approximating the rhythms of friends on a road trip. We hang out with Mike (Channing Tatum) and his fellow dancers as they squabble in their tour van or sit by a beachside campfire. The bogus conflict between dancing and small-business respectability is gone: the spectre of aging hangs over these men, but the emphasis is on their intimacy and rapport. As on any good road trip, there are unexpected digressions, and it’s here that the movie’s different conception of stripping becomes apparent: it’s not self-aggrandising, men taking the stage, but in service of – a sort of tribute to – their female clients. These men are sexiest when pleasing women, and the movie makes the case that it’s a sort of vocation.
- The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Jennifer Kent’s movie uses subjectivity brilliantly. It begins with Essie Davis floating in a blank, dream space, broken glass drifting past her like diamonds, and it never settles into a stable relationship with reality. At first our sympathies are all with Davis’ embattled mum, alone with a disturbed child (Noah Wiseman) who acts out violently one moment and clamours for her attention the next. He seems almost demonic, and as he screams and screams there’s nothing she can do to pacify him. The people around them – teachers, Davis’ sister, a supervisor at work – seem like unhelpful caricatures, but as Davis becomes increasingly disturbed, we realise that her perceptions may well be distortions. Suddenly, we fear for the boy more than the mother, while staying inside her point of view, inhabiting her madness. The movie may banalise the monster by relating it so explicitly to Davis’ bereavement – it’s too pat an explanation – but Kent denies us the out of believing it’s all in her mind, or even that it can be destroyed.
- Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2018)
- Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2015)
The great thing about Werner Herzog’s documentaries is their discursive freedom: a film ostensibly about volcanos might take in a sudden side trip to a team of scientists sweeping up bones in the Ethiopian desert or a state-sanctioned tour of North Korea, and why not? His films have the restless, lateral quality of thought. Actually, the North Korean excursion makes perfect sense: the movie is as much about the belief systems various societies construct around volcanos’ naked power as it is the spectacular footage of that power in action. The geological processes volcanos expose and their destructive potential make our lives on the crust seem provisional, and Herzog zeroes in on the ways that people live with that knowledge. It’s as much a philosophical enquiry as a nature documentary, delivered with Herzog’s deadpan sense of humour.
- Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
The movie uses its extreme situation to explore basic questions of identity – how our sense of reality is shaped by the stories we’re told, the way we invest our environment with emotion. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) misses his place of captivity when he escapes it, and it’s no wonder: in that tiny space he can endow each object with cosmic significance (director Lenny Abrahamson makes the shabby furniture seem totemic), meanings that are lost in the wider world’s jumble of places and things. You could argue that the movie oversimplifies the impact of trauma: Jack’s recovery is depicted as fairly straightforward, a matter of being surrounded by kindly adults. It doesn’t sentimentalise the central mother-son relationship, though: it is to some degree (even if unavoidably) unhealthy, and Brie Larson puts plenty of sour notes into her performance – her impatience with their unbroken intimacy, her readiness to use her son as a prop, her mania for control.
- Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
What sets this apart from other coming-of-age stories is its specificity, taste and kindness. Greta Gerwig has a gift for selecting telling moments – the ones that lodge in the memory – and her movie proceeds cleanly from one moment to the next, rarely lingering, cutting them free from the flab of reality. The American rites of passage familiar from a hundred other high school stories – college applications, homecoming, the heroine ditching her friends for the cool kids – feel fresh because of this rhythm, and the small ways Gerwig subverts your expectations, foregrounding an unexpected character’s emotions in a situation. She’s especially good at registering the abrupt shifts in the relationship between mother and daughter: the interactions between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are a maze of love and recrimination that both actors navigate with total precision. Both women have to reckon with Marion’s sense of disappointment, with the difference that her daughter can imagine a way out of it.
- The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)
There’s plenty of the nasty fun promised by the trailer, but Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is also kinder than I expected, and more generous. Every interaction in Queen Anne’s palace, from the scullery maids up, is determined by (and, at crucial moments, determines) status, but this does not preclude real affection between the characters. Anne may be pathetically unequal to her duties as head of state (the political issue of the moment is whether to continue a war with France, and these people become grotesque when you perceive what a plaything that question is to them), but her suffering is real, and Olivia Colman movingly captures the derangement of chronic pain, how it can render someone querulous and dependent on their carers. As the rivals for her favour, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have never been better: Weisz with her marvellous composure, Stone scrambling and regrouping. Like the Queen, the film’s ambit is limited – much of it takes place in two rooms, Anne’s bedchamber and the corridor outside – and Robbie Ryan’s wide lens cinematography turns these spaces into a chessboard where the characters’ moves play out, cold light streaming in from outside.
- Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga, 2011)
Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, based on a memoir by Carolyn Briggs, is a wonderfully nuanced depiction of Christian life. It captures the warmth, the musicality, the habits of thoughtfulness and gratitude in her community even as it makes clear the way it keeps the women in it subservient, the way it cannot tolerate ambivalence. The movie has a gratifying looseness as it traces the evolution of Corrine’s life and thought – gently, over the course of her life.
- The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)
- Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)
With its preoccupation with parallel worlds and the exceptional children who can perceive them, Jeff Nichols’ movie resembles both Tomorrowland and Stranger Things, but I think it’s better than either. It has its own beautiful nighttime look, the lights of motels and highways and cars barely asserting themselves against the enclosing darkness. It’s a model, too, of integrating special effects into a realistic world: as in Close Encounters, the supernatural events occur to regular people in a small-town context, and have a special freshness and wonder for that reason. Perhaps Michael Shannon’s particular brand of intensity is a little too familiar in Nichols’ distinctive South: Nichols could do with a change of personnel, with a lead actor less closemouthed and dour. But this has a warm spirituality that’s new in his work, and it’s enough to sustain the characters through the bittersweet ending.
- Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)
The design of this film is very simple: its heroine Sandra (Marion Cotillard) goes door to door, asking to be readmitted to her former life after a prolonged mental illness. It’s grounded by Cotillard’s unshowy, precisely rendered portrayal of a woman trying to pull herself out of depression: the terrible vulnerability to setbacks, the raw nerves, the refuge in sleep. “I don’t exist,” she tells her husband early on; in the course of her odyssey through the ugly Belgian suburbs, seeking out her colleagues one by one, she rediscovers her personhood. The Dardennes honour the working-class characters by depicting them as individuals: each colleague, though encountered only briefly, inhabits a space that has the richness of lived experience, and the sense of a story that abuts the heroine’s own. It’s the best kind of naturalism.
- The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
Scorsese’s latest is the masculine mirror image of Hustlers: an ex-con recalls their crimes, revelling in the details of how they were planned and committed; the crimes are intimately connected with United States history, perhaps a metaphor for the nation. Where in Hustlers the men are interchangeable marks, the most eloquent contribution a woman makes here is her refusal to engage. De Niro’s Frank Sheeran claims to do what he does for his family, but his real intimacy is with his bosses. Sheeran’s monologue is appropriately slippery: at the outset it seems his private thoughts, then a brag to us in the audience and later a confession to a priest; all that’s left to him is an insider’s empty pride in knowing how it went down. The movie never drags: it has the feeling of a fat nineteenth century novel, where the apparent digressions create a sense of abundant detail, of life that continues outside the frame of the story. The end-of-life framing promises something bereft, a sense of diminution, but Sheeran’s spiritual poverty, the thinness of his feelings, and how little the things he killed for matter still hit pretty hard after living with him for three hours. Playing with gangster imagery (often his own), as he has throughout the film, Scorsese leaves him in an inversion of the final image of The Godfather, sitting behind a half-open door in a room no one wants to enter.
- Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)
A pure, glittering toy of a movie, from its delight in – and personification of – gadgets (my favourite was the perverse little glove that taunts Tom Cruise as he scales the outside of a building) to its casual globe-trotting (the movie takes in Budapest, Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai) and the director’s virtuoso use of both silence (the sequence in the Kremlin basement) and ironic detail (the Dean Martin that provides the soundtrack for a prison break). Brad Bird piles on the elements in each of his set pieces so that you laugh at his audacity even as you’re perched on the edge of your seat.
- Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, 2012)
- Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
Forty years ago, All the President’s Men set the tone for most subsequent conspiracy stories: phone taps and telephoto lenses, inscrutable office buildings, late-night meetings in parking garages. Tom McCarthy’s film breaks with those paranoid atmospherics and in some ways is scarier for it: this conspiracy lays in plain sight, a sort of social compact in Catholic Boston, and the people responsible are not shady functionaries but pillars of the community. The tone is so straightforward that Mark Ruffalo’s big moment of outrage (he reprises his choked Larry Kramer from The Normal Heart) feels like grandstanding. McCarthy achieves something like the clarity of good journalism; he and the (uniformly excellent) players subordinate themselves, as reporters do, to the story.
- Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)
Diablo Cody (who also wrote Juno) keeps the millennial mannerisms to a minimum this time. We (and Mavis, the YA writer played by Charlize Theron) overhear teenage conversation in snatches; Mavis plunders their argot for her latest novel. Returning home, Mavis nurses a hopeless crush on her high-school boyfriend – an emblem of a lost past – even as she savages their small-town surroundings. Theron delivers a startling, funny portrait of disappointment: her contempt and boredom have real, sour force. She’s the best rom-com antiheroine since Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. The movie is smart about the gravitational pull of home and the way our adolescent selves – the roles assigned us at school – can continue to define us.
- Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
The elderly couple at the centre of this film (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are civilised, private people, and though Michael Haneke does not spare us the unpleasant details of Riva’s decline, he respects that reticence – he doesn’t touch us for sympathy. The people stay remote: Haneke de-emphasises them at the outset by making us locate them in a crowded theatre. After Riva suffers a series of strokes, it’s left to Trintignant to demonstrate his devotion to her by performing the duties of a nurse. We experience, with him, the crushing routine of wheelchairs and spoon-feeding and wet beds – all without any chance of reprieve, while his wife steadily becomes less herself. Haneke sends you out of the theatre in silence, with a numbing sense of loss: it’s an unsparing depiction of the end of life.
- Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2011)
- Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)
Christopher Nolan takes the celebrated opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan and extends it to feature length: there are some sops to the audience, like the unlikely survival of most of the people we follow through the action, but Nolan shows a bracing indifference to Hollywood characterisation, the way we’re usually made to care about people in movies. In fact, personality is mostly irrelevant in this situation where life or death often depends on the accident of where you happen to be standing, and our identification with the young man (Fionn Whitehead) who scrambles from deathtrap to deathtrap is very basic, based more on his scraped knuckles or the way he tears into a piece of jam and bread than any sense of who he is. The different time scales allow Nolan to orchestrate different perspectives on the evacuation, imbuing each with a similar sense of urgency, and he modulates visually too, taking us from the terror of open, exposed spaces to terrible claustrophobia and back again.
- Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
In which Pete Docter combines the emotional punch of his celebrated life-spanning montage in Up with the multiple worlds of Wreck-It Ralph. It combines emotional acuity with a headlong sense of invention: once Joy (Amy Poehler, in what is basically a reprise of her Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation) and Sadness set off on their journey around the brain, the movie rarely covers the same ground twice but finds new ways to represent (among other things) dreams, the selectivity of memory and monsters dwelling in the subconscious. It’s a meditation on the processes of thought that’s also a crowd-pleaser; the movie’s ingenuity pays off emotionally as its conceits play across the face of a plainly distressed 11 year-old girl. My only reservation is that it’s more exciting conceptually than it is visually: the brain’s surfaces are plasticky, generic – like some mass-produced toy – and the emotions’ command centre looks like the dashboard of a car. Still, this belongs in the upper reaches of the Pixar canon.
- Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011)
The film’s way with cute detail reminded me of Amelie – with the crucial difference that Mike Mills’ little slideshows do not attempt to sum people up, but rather reach back to an irrecoverable past. The past – in the form of Ewan McGregor’s father and mother – paradoxically keeps insisting itself, his memories of them butting in to his romance with Mélanie Laurent. The movie wears its quirks (McGregor and Laurent meet at a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud and a street urchin; there’s a dog that talks with the aid of subtitles) lightly, in part because the characters’ playfulness is only just keeping a larger sense of sadness at bay. As McGregor’s father, Christopher Plummer is wonderful – in his seventies and just out of the closet, he’s full of surprise and delight at his new capacity for pleasure.
- 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)
Like François Ozon’s Under the Sand, this is a gay director’s tribute to a great actress; like Ozon, Andrew Haigh is fascinated with Charlotte Rampling’s economy, her reserve, her face. The camera looks on as Rampling’s character tries to process her husband’s mounting obsession with a long-dead girlfriend, as she seeks refuge in their cosy routine. Rampling’s native elegance comes under increasing stress, and Haigh watches fascinated as that mask flickers – at what she can communicate with small movements of her eyes and mouth. The film is likewise economical: it’s a week in the life of a long-married couple, shopping trips and walking the dog and conversations at the kitchen table. The green English landscapes have a slight blue chill. Haigh places nothing between his star and us, and Rampling convinces us that this week has changed her forever.
- Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014)
Putting aside its princess formula, Disney makes its best film since Tangled – perhaps even Beauty and the Beast. A large part of its success comes from the simple expedient of putting the sidekick – always the most entertaining part of a Disney movie – centre stage. Baymax is a classic movie robot – up there with R2-D2 and WALL-E – and directors Don Hall and Chris Williams mine his counterintuitive design (he’s not metallic but soft and pillowy, like an airbag) and the inexorable logic of his programming (he sees everything in terms of his healing function) for humour and pathos. In its emphasis on physical comedy the movie recalls the classic animated shorts of the 1930s and 40s; its nuanced storytelling is worthy of The Incredibles.
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
This has its own stubborn rhythm – we watch the passing scenery on a road trip, hobble with an old woman through a tamarind plantation. The rhythm is expressive two ways: it’s how the country feels to the farmer Boonmee’s relatives, newly arrived from Bangkok, and it’s the pace forced on Boonmee and his sister-in-law by their physical ailments. When the supernatural begins to intrude, it’s unlike other ghost stories because it seems part of this rhythm: the living characters accept the appearance of their dead relatives with matter-of-fact courtesy. Apichatpong Weerasethakul presents a world where people can walk calmly out of life when their time has come, into the jungle. The city characters turn their back on this world, but it leaves their spirits restless (and when their spirits go wandering, they end up sitting in a karaoke bar). It’s a strange, mesmerising film – interrupting the action at one point to give us a fairy tale about a princess – a beautiful meditation on tradition and modernity, life and death.
- Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)
In outline – a superhero from a hermetic culture must decide how to engage with the wider world – this is very similar to Wonder Woman, but this is much better executed. Partly it’s the way the movie spends most of its running length in Wakanda, so that its customs and tribal politics have time to signify, rather than hustling us, as Wonder Woman did, into the world we know. (It also means we can enjoy the costumes and production design at leisure.) The screenplay (by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) takes the kingdom seriously and trusts it to hold our interest; where Wonder Woman‘s last third was marred by reveals and context-free CGI that undermined the storytelling to that point, this remains a contest of personalities and ideas to the end, with a climactic battle that meaningfully involves all the major characters. The actors are uniformly strong (except for Andy Serkis, who rivals Sharlto Copley in Elysium for Afrikaans unpleasantness); one of the movie’s pleasant surprises is that, apart from the central pair of Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, most of the significant characters are women, from Danai Gurira’s palace guard to Letitia Wright’s techie kid sister. The generational stuff lands too; this story of royal succession is a family story too, and Boseman and Jordan’s scenes with their ancestors are particularly powerful. If more Marvel movies were like this I would go to see them more often.
- Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)
Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt retain some of the hard-boiled affectations of their earlier collaboration, Brick: Gordon-Levitt’s assassin is a hard man in a hard town, with a stripper who won’t agree to be his girlfriend and anachronistic taste in clothes. Fortunately, this time there’s much more going on. It’s an unexpectedly intense bit of time-travel fiction, a sort of Terminator in reverse: it turns on the slaying of a child who will grow up to be an evil dictator. There are bravura sequences like a time traveller from the future registering the wounds inflicted on his younger self (the healed scars of amputations replace limbs until there is almost nothing left of him). Much of the movie is set out in the Kansas cornfields: like Firefly, it connects past and future worlds in a way that feels satisfyingly original.
- Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)
Luc Besson packs more metaphysics into 90 minutes than Interstellar did in three hours, and more entertainingly to boot. At first the regular intrusion of wildlife footage seems like weird padding, but it anticipates the extension of the heroine’s consciousness: as she accesses more of her brain capacity, the traditional boundaries between human and environment collapse. Not to overstate the movie’s seriousness: it starts out like a backpacker’s nightmare (an amusingly trashy Scarlett Johansson runs afoul of a drug cartel in Taiwan) and Besson delivers regular gunfights and chases. But its brainpower conceit lifts it out of predictability: soon it’s less a revenge fantasy than a little Tree of Life. Johansson is terrific as the superior being – whether waving away baddies or rattling off profundities.
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)