Badlands Terrence Malick, 1973
What it’s about: Barely legal lovers on the run Kit and Holly (Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen) go on a shooting spree across Montana’s expansive landscape.
Why it’s great: The directorial debut of Terrence Malick, whose acclaimed and hiatus driven career has enforced an elusive persona, Badlands is a lusciously photographed and profoundly cinematic crime film that doesn’t much feel like a crime film. It is more reasonable to call it a euphonious take on the beauty of young love, and how its many descents into the self-indulgent and the foolish can lead to trouble both romanticized and bleak.
The Descent Neil Marshall, 2006
What it’s about: A group of friends goes spelunking for a weekend adventure but unwisely chooses a destination that turns out to be crawling with monsters straight out of a child’s overactive imagination.
Why it’s great: With decisive performances and inspired directing, The Descent is a modern horror classic. It taps into one’s inherent fears of claustrophobia and the dark, and doesn’t let up for most of its length. Maybe I’d be more opposed to its bloodcurdling tendencies if more horror movies were as effective as this one just so happens to be.
Citizen Ruth Alexander Payne, 1996
What it’s about: Drug addict Ruth (Laura Dern) gets pregnant for the umpeenth time but is used as a catalyst for the ambitions for both pro-lifers and pro-choicers after she’s intrigued by the idea of abortion.
Why it’s great: With no obvious heroes or villains, we’re absorbed by the extremism of Citizen Ruth's pro-lifers and its pro-choicers, and how they’re so bent on claiming Ruth as being on *their side* that they forget that a woman who can’t do shit will, in the end, never make a dent on the argument as to why having a baby versus aborting a fetus is the *right* thing to do. Most of the film’s humor stems from Ruth’s stupidity, and from the way the vigorous activists around her don’t actually seem to much care about her well-being — they care about their individual missions, which will never really be settled. It’s an endless cycle, and I love the way the ending is exactly what it should be: a flippant cop-out.
Get Shorty Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995
What it’s about: Loan shark Chili Palmer (John Travolta) gets involved with Hollywood bigwigs after striking up a friendship with B-movie Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) and decides that maybe abandoning his shady life for the entertainment industry could be beneficial to his well-being.
Why it’s great: Put everything together and Get Shorty is a smash of a blockbuster, unusually piquantly written and expertly performed. Released during a time where most comedy thrillers set out to be Pulp Fiction, incessantly complicated but also idiosyncratically cool, it continues its tradition of intriguing characters and terrifically funny sequences but stays individualistic. It is sturdy, wonderfully animated mainstream filmmaking, the kind of film we hardly want to end because it is so much a sizzling roller coaster of an experience.
Dazed and Confused Richard Linklater, 1993
What it’s about: The last day of high school for teenagers living in Austin, TX in 1976.
Why it’s great: Sprawling and chaotic it is, but faux it isn’t. Dazed and Confused is a high school movie that doesn’t feel like a high school movie, attentive of the hopes and dreams of the characters with such subtle clearness that I’d even call it better than Flirting (1991). The naturalistic pulse of the film is crisp; we’re watching a classic that didn’t mean to be a classic.
To Die For Gus Van Sant, 1995
What it’s about: Opportunistic wannabe news reporter Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) struggles first and then kills in an attempt to reach the top of a pathetic professional ladder.
Why it’s great: Suzanne is a gold mine of a character, and To Die For, told with mockumentary panache, is a spectacular television satire whose success depends immeasurably on the believability of her sheer ridiculousness. Nicole Kidman’s portrayal, combined with the scathing nature of Buck Henry’s characterization, is enough to make her an iconic figure of Phyllis Dietrichson villainy gone severely wrong.
eXistenZ David Cronenberg, 1999
What it’s about: Video game designer Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and security guard Ted (Jude Law) are transported into the former’s virtual reality creation and find themselves at war with the deciphering of what’s real and what’s fake.
Why it’s great: Though a science fiction leaning thriller, it does not resemble the similar, more easily entertaining (though intrinsically stimulating) The Matrix, released the same year. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, one of film’s most onerous provocateurs, eXistenZ proudly wears outlandish erraticism on its chest, by turns grotesque, darkly comedic, and beguilingly cerebral.
Stop Making Sense Jonathan Demme, 1984
What it’s about: Stop Making Sense is a concert film that captures the Talking Heads at the height of their success.
Why it’s great: As in the tradition of all good concerts, one doesn’t have to be a fan of the Talking Heads to feel their hearts banging in their chests with excitement. Frontman David Byrne and his fellow musicians are masters who also happen to love their job, and their enthusiasm, combined with Stop Making Sense’s visual and aural colors, makes for a rockumentary that manages, against all odds, to come alive.
3 Women Robert Altman, 1977
What it’s about: Roommates Pinky (Sissy Spacek) and Millie (Shelley Duvall) undergo strange metamorphoses and transformations in identity following one too many disagreements with each other.
Why it’s great: 3 Women is certainly one of Altman’s most offbeat films, and is certainly one of the great cinematic wonders of the 1970s. Duvall and Spacek give sensational performances (made all the more difficult due to Altman’s insistence on extensive improv); the atmosphere is unearthly and influential. But I quake in fear when looking at the film from a retrospective eye; there’s something invasive, something personal about it, that chills me. I don’t believe I can ever watch it again. But what an unprecedented, brilliant movie it is.
Possession Andrzej Żuławski, 1981
What it’s about: A young housewife (Isabelle Adjani) begins to exhibit extremely odd behavior after her husband (Sam Neill) discovers her infidelity.
Why it’s great: 1981’s Possession is a tightrope walk of a movie — one step in the wrong direction and it’d be the most freakishly overwrought psychological thriller to exist within the art-house sphere. It’s a divorce movie without expected tenderness or melancholy, instead a filmed nightmare in which all locked up emotional turmoil is amplified and where otherworldly terror supplements erotic angst. And Adjani, at her peak, gives one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.
Brooklyn John Crowley, 2015
What it’s about: Irish immigrant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) comes to Brooklyn in hopes of making a name for herself and falls in love with a humble Italian plumber (Emory Cohen) that’d rather die than live without her.
Why it’s great: Warm and storybook earnest in ways reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Brooklyn sees the value in straightforward, emotively tuned escapism. With so much pervasive cynicism in the film industry, especially so in the realm of the critically acclaimed, it’s wonderful to soak up the glory of a movie that works for its characters, seeing the poetry in young love and capturing the majesty in finding one’s place in the world.
Room Lenny Abrahamson, 2015
What it’s about: Kidnapped young woman Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), raised in captivity, have to adjust to normal life following a successful escape from their captor. The results are stormy.
Why it’s great: Room never provides easy answers, stripping away tabloid filler and analyzing the intricacies of Jack and Joy’s relationship, and the hardships that befall them once they have to move on from imprisonment and into normality. The film itself is an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name (unread by me), and a balancing act it is. Already delicate is the way Room so grittily portrays a crime story without a hint of melodrama, so it’s all the more impressive that it, more or less, is told from Jack’s perspective.
Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight Richard Linklater, 1995-2013
What it’s about: The relationship between American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Frenchwoman Céline (Julie Delpy) and how it develops in the course of nearly twenty years.
Why it’s great: Richard Linklater’s nonchalant walking-and-talking method of getting to knowing the lovebirds at the center of the Before … trilogy has proven to be extremely powerful: the setup is simple, but our caring for these people is not. The original Before Sunrise (1995) is the introduction, the honeymoon period. Its sequel, Before Sunset (2004), is the reunion movie taking place after years of living apart. But the finale, the visceral Before Midnight (2013), finds Jesse and Céline together and in the midst of a relationship that’s lasted and is, unfortunately, in the face of turmoil. Each film overwhelmingly moving, it’s the only would-be franchise we continue to want to revisit.
Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, 2009
What it’s about: Teenage outsider Mia (Katie Jarvis) searches for self-actualization through countless misguided endeavors that promise no happy ending.
Why it’s great: Fish Tank is a searing portrait of a teenager so unconcerned with optimism that it’d seem wrong if there ever were a moment of unrestrained joy to be had. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold in a fashion reminiscent of the British “kitchen sink” film movement of the 1960s, the film is comprehensively bleak but also comprehensively investing. Success, or, even sadder, happiness, is never going to become a part of Mia’s awful life, and yet we’re so drawn to watching her spiral down further than the rock bottom that she’s already at because we’re so naively confident that something good will happen to her.
Giant George Stevens, 1956
What it’s about: The familial melodrama that underscores the successes and tragedies of the wealthy Benedicts, stretching thirty years.
Why it’s great: 1956’s Giant really is giant. It spans three decades, critiques the societal misgivings of aristocracy, gender inequality, and racial injustice with an emotional cry, and clocks at an astonishing 197 minutes. It also stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, giants themselves, and is superlatively directed by George Stevens, a titan of a filmmaker with such American classics as 1951’s A Place in the Sun: and 1953’s Shane serving as heavyweights within his extensive, impressive filmography. The budget is big and the scope is great — the stakes are high and the drive is even higher. Giant is not just a movie: it’s also a sweltering statement of an epic, lavish, intellectual, challenging, and, best of all, extraordinarily entertaining.
The Phantom of Liberty Luis Buñuel, 1974
What it’s about: The various hypocrisies of the European bourgeoisie, relayed through diverse, supremely clever vignettes.
Why it’s great: Taken separately and The Phantom of Liberty’s individual storylines might be seen as inconceivable, perhaps grotesque. But when threaded together by Luis Buñuel’s razor sharp penning, the lampooning is rigorous and cohesive. His jabs are so repetitiously dotty that they catch us off guard in the way they so discerningly bite. What could easily be categorized as phantasmagorical oftentimes proves to be so suitable for the topic at hand that the pointedness could draw blood.
45 Years Andrew Haigh, 2015
What it’s about: After the body of the woman he would have married had she not died is discovered, Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), close to reaching his forty-fifth year of marriage to the lovely Kate (Charlotte Rampling), is stricken by ponderings as to what his life might have been like had the cruel hands of fate not taken away his original romantic interest.
Why it’s great: Necessary is both the convincing portrayal of a lived-in marriage and also the tidal wave of disquiet that comes along with throwing a stick of metaphorical dynamite onto that marriage. Andrew Haigh gorgeously gives weight to the Mercers’ affinity not through standalone, bombastically memorable scenes but by observing them as they interact in the same ways that they have for years. As Kate and Geoff, Rampling and Courtenay are burdened with the strenuous task of persuading us that they’ve been in love since 1970. They do so not through orthodox performance but through unflashy embodiment. To say that they’re stupendous is an understatement. One of the best movies of the decade.