The Whip and the Body Mario Bava, 1963
What it’s about: The sadomasochistic love affair between the ghost of a nobleman (Christopher Lee) and his former fiancée (Daliah Lavi).
Why it’s so great: Released in the middle of horror auteur Mario Bava’s busy 1963 – preceding was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a black-and-white, Gothically stylized slasher; succeeding was the Boris Karloff-hosted omnibus creepshow Black Sabbath – The Whip and the Body is a visually splendid, neon-assisted detour into the macabre. As sensorially stimulating as it is terrifying, it encapsulates the Bava brand – and would set the stage for the masterpieces he’d go on to make.
What it’s about: A deaf-mute’s (Alan Arkin) friendship with an out-of-place, brilliant teenage girl (Sondra Locke) and the connection it has to other individuals living in the small southern town in which the film’s set.
Why it’s so great: One of the many American attempts to recreate the kitchen-sink aesthetic popularized in Britain in the early 1960s, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a thoroughly heartbreaking slice-of-life ensemble drama committed to its own teary-eyed brand of realism. All leads to a shattering ending that haunts you long after the closing credits start rolling.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Robert Ellis Miller, 1968
What it’s about: The tense relationship between a band of criminals holding the inhabitants of a subway car hostage and a wearied Transit Authority police lieutenant (Walter Matthau) who’s too old for this shit.
Why it’s so great: Made for just $5 million, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a terse race-against-time thriller that feels as though it were happening in real time. This sensation is enhanced by Matthau’s cynical performance, which subverts action hero clichés and epitomizes the everyday hero.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Joseph Sargent, 1974
What it’s about: A wounded Union soldier’s (Clint Eastwood) integration into an all-girls school in rural, 1863 Mississippi, and how the sexual tension that comes about eventually lethally boils over.
Why it’s so great: A deviation from the other collaborations between Eastwood and the director Don Siegel, The Beguiled is a harrowing slow burn of a psychological thriller that has much to say about gender politics, oddly still feeling relevant with the passing years. Though the story (which comes from Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Devil) was competently taken on by Sofia Coppola earlier this year, nothing can top the boiling intensity so perfected in this 1971 adaptation.
The Beguiled Don Siegel, 1971
What it’s about: A teenage rebel’s (Matt Dillon) coming of age amid small-time criminality and a stylized, German Expressionism-esque atmosphere.
Why it’s so great: Often overlooked in part to its being released so closely to The Outsiders (also 1983), the Francis Ford Coppola-helmed Rumble Fish is as much a swooning exercise in style as it is a moving account of one at-a-crossroads teen’s coming into his own.
Rumble Fish Francis Ford Coppola, 1983
What it’s about: The fraught relationship between a frazzled mother (Tilda Swinton) and her devious, school-shooter son (Ezra Miller).
Why it’s so great: Spanning almost two decades, climaxing with in a disturbing depiction of an all-too-common real-life horror, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an unnerving portrayal of motherhood, made increasingly disconcerting by writer/director Lynne Ramsay’s carefully sparse use of dialogue.
We Need to Talk About Kevin Lynne Ramsay, 2011
What it’s about: The melodramatic lives of young secretaries (Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, and Diane Baker) navigating complicated personal and professional pursuits in 1950s New York City.
Why it’s so great: Though numerous plot points are dated in their representations of gender politics, The Best of Everything nonetheless remains a topical illustration of the sexism and classism faced by young women attempting to make a name for themselves in the working world. It also happens to be an immensely entertaining soap opera. Plus, a 55-year-old Joan Crawford’s lurking about the premises makes for one of her last great roles.
The Best of Everything Jean Negulesco, 1959
What it’s about: A young housewife’s (Katharine Ross) realization that the town to which she’s moved with her family, Stepford, may be forcing women into passive domesticity through sinister means.
Why it’s so great: Given a new sort of relevance as a result of the release of the similarly themed Get Out, The Stepford Wives is a sharp satire that successfully allegorizes the fucked gender inequalities of 40 years ago. It’s a compelling cultural artifact that somehow becomes more ominous the further removed our society is from the omnipresence of the hausfraus.
The Stepford Wives Bryan Forbes, 1975
What it’s about: A couple of ne’er-do-wells’ (Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter) misguided decision to kidnap the baby of a furniture giant (Trey Wilson) and the mania that ensues.
Why it’s so great: A fine screwball comedy with an unexpected amount of heart, the Coen brothers’ second film demonstrates the filmmaking duo's comic and artistic idiosyncrasy all the while showcasing terrific performances from Cage, Hunter, and a supporting cast that includes Frances McDormand and Randall “Tex” Cobb. It’s irresistible.
Raising Arizona Joel & Ethan Coen, 1987
What it’s about: A perfectly planned and executed jewel heist that nevertheless has tragic repercussions for the men responsible for the crime (Yves Montand, Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volontè).
Why it’s great: While writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville’s specialty always had and always will be the gangster-driven crime thriller, he would make his masterpiece with 1970’s Le Cercle Rouge, which is as comprehensively tense as it is sympathetic toward its not-so-easily sympathizable characters. He would make one more film, 1972’s Un Flic, before his death in 1973. Hell of a way to go, if you ask me.
Le Cercle Rouge Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970
What it’s about: An ennui-stricken, B-list actor’s (Stephen Dorff) relationship with his young, hopeful daughter (Elle Fanning).
Why it’s so great: While many have decried this Sofia Coppola project for supposedly being a reductive version of her 2003 masterpiece Lost in Translation, I look at it as something of an underappreciated opus. Though it could be argued that its central character’s plight isn’t so sympathetic given his privilege, I think his early onset midlife crisis is universal and smartly rendered. Coppola’s writing and direction is immaculate here, and the father-daughter chemistry between Dorff and Fanning is totally convincing.
Somewhere Sofia Coppola, 2010
What it’s about: A chauffeur (Robert Mitchum) unwittingly gets romantically involved with a femme fatale (Jean Simmons) who arranges for the death of her stepmother (Barbara O’Neil). All ends, er, explosively.
Why it’s great: The femme fatale-led film noir was nothing new by 1952, so kudos to Otto Preminger for outdoing the antecedents of 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven and 1947’s Out of Past and showcasing a deadly female far more layered than her villainous counterparts. The black-and-white cinematography's extraordinary, too; you’d swear you were watching a Gothic ghost movie if not for all the true crime-imitating commotion.
Angel Face Otto Preminger, 1952
What it’s about: A broke alcoholic named Julia (Tilda Swinton) agrees to “rescue” a supposedly kidnapped young boy from his wealthy grandfather. But the situation’s more nuanced than meets the eye, and it is up to the eponymous Julia to get her shit together and attempt to navigate this far-from-simplistic would-be crime.
Why it’s great: Consider Julia to be something of a soul sister to John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980); in both, a flawed woman’s forced to make the most of a thorny life-or-death situation that requires her to often be in the company of a little kid to whom she slowly grows closer. Swinton’s a knockout here, but it is director Erick Zonka who shines – the film’s such a knockabout, wild roller coaster of a character study that we can’t help but be amazed by the fact that he makes these 144 character-driven minutes go by so quickly.
Julia Erick Zonka, 2008
What it’s about: The swindling of a mafioso (Joe Pantoliano) by his lover (Jennifer Tilly) and her new girlfriend (Gina Gershon).
Why it’s great: Akin to Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) or Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), Bound, which rarely changes setting, is a claustrophobic, character-driven piece of pulp fiction that essentially finds a pair of apt femmes scheming and bluffing for 108 minutes. Could it get any better? If you aren’t already sold, this was the debut film of the Wachowski sisters, who’d go on to make The Matrix (1999) and Sense8 (2015-present).
Bound The Wachowskis, 1996
What it’s about: High-powered drug dealer (Al Pacino) is released from prison and returns to his life of crime, only to rethink things when he falls in love with a kindly exotic dancer who seems to understand him (Penelope Ann Miller).
Why it’s great: Something of a spiritual sequel to 1983’s Scarface, Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way is an unusually sensitive gangster drama propelled by a multidimensional star turn from a terrific Al Pacino. Though long, the protracted running time allows for effective characterizations that feel curiously sincere.
Carlito's Way Brian De Palma, 1993
1 2 >>
Year in Review
FAVORITE DISCOVERIES OF 2017
A look back at some of the best films I saw this year that were not released in 2017.