1. The Neon Demon -At once Nicolas Winding Refn’s most beautiful work to date and his most deliberately off-putting, The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. It’s exquisite trash, the coveted ground where high art meets uncivilized filth. Months later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. It’s tempting to reduce this achievement to descriptions like “the fashion world Suspiria” or “the day-glo Black Swan,” but the truth is that the work is 100% pure, uncut Refn. For better or for worse, this will be the title that solidifies him as an auteur provocateur, likening him to other technically-skilled button pushers like De Palma, Friedkin, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Ken Russell, and, why not, Russ Meyer. Like all the madmen provocation artists that have come before him, Refn stumbles while handling any semblance of nuance in the proudly taboo subjects he gleefully rattles like a curious toddler, but he makes the exercise so beautiful & so callously funny that it’s difficult to sour on the experience as a whole. Instead, you mull over provocations like The Neon Demon for days, months, years on end, wrestling with your own thoughts on what you’ve seen and how, exactly, you’re supposed to feel about it.
2. Tale of Tales – It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. The film is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. Its three tales all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Tale of Tales fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart).
3. Hail, Caesar! – A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. Every classic genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded, so it’s shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with these beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ comedic work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings – Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. Kubo and the Two Stings is an overwhelming triumph in its attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense visual spectacle as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive, though, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for storytelling as a tradition.
5. The Witch – A haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. This movie has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was scary, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying. Depicting the unraveling of a small Puritan family at the edge of the New England wilderness in the 17th Century, The Witch makes it clear very early on that its supernatural threat is not only real, but it’s also really fucked up. It transports the audience to the era, making you feel as if fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” and folklore about wanton women dancing with the devil naked in the moonlight might actually be real threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart & devour the pieces. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horrors about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but it is a significantly more rewarding film than strict genre fare can often be when it too closely plays by modern rules.
6. The Fits – Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature isn’t a standard coming of age drama or a medical thriller or a supernatural horror, so much as a supernatural occurrence of divine transcendence. The Fits sidesteps strict genre classification by aiming more for a loosely menacing art house tone than a traditional A-B story structure. Though, even if The Fits were a more standard coming of age narrative about a young girl deciding between the rigidly gender-divided realms of dance & boxing at her local gym, Royalty Hightower’s stoic lead performance & the camera’s striking sense of symmetry would still make the exercise more than worthwhile. As is, it’s quietly bizarre, seemingly supernatural territory that’s bound to leave a lasting effect on you whether or not you’re on board with its ultimate destination, an act of strange majesty that’s sure to divide audiences in its swing-for-the-fences ambition.
7. High-Rise – Adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard, the madman who penned the source material for Cronenberg’s Crash, High-Rise is a modern reflection of 1970s anxieties about “luxury lifestyle” commodity & spiritually-erosive consumer culture as funneled through an aggressive, vague menace of existential dread. The film posits the modern consumer as a “bio robot,” a soulless machine who cannot function without their various devices of “convenience.” High-Rise’s never-ending consumerist party starts from a seemingly dangerous, chaotic place and gets even more wild & savage from there, expanding the scope of its hedonism & cruelty to a months’ long descent into the darkness of the human soul. I’ve seen plenty movie parties go out of bounds before, but this is the one that most convincingly sets fire to the path back to civilization in the process. It’s an entirely unique obliteration of the thin line that separates the modern consumer from the wild, bloodthirsty beast, a rare nightmare of a good time.
8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Taika Waititi is on a wicked hot streak. His 2007 debut Eagle vs Shark wasn’t half bad as an off-center romantic comedy, but his last three films (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople) are pretty much perfect works. In its best moments, Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Waititi’s best to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of the year (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable). One thing I haven’t heard enough of a fuss over yet, though, is how great the music is, from the novelty of the “Ricky’s Birthday” jingle to the legitimate action movie sounds of tracks like “Ricky Runs.” If it weren’t for The Neon Demon’s surreally intense synth submersions, it’d be an easy pick for soundtrack of the year for me.
9. Midnight Special – Mirroring the best eras of sci-fi cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter, Midnight Special is massive enough in its imagination & awe-inspiring mystery to establish Jeff Nichols as one of the best young talents in the industry today. This may be the director’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. An incredible work with a near-limitless scope, it’s one built on an intricately detailed foundation of grounded, believable worldbuilding & old-fashioned character work. Midnight Special may allow its ideas to outweigh its emotion in a general sense, but you never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation.
10. Nerve – This teeny bopper millennial version of The Running Man is the single most aggressively feminine action thriller I can ever remember seeing. Nerve uses its killer smart phone app technophobia premise to create something really fun & truly memorable without devolving into so-bad-it’s-good schlock. Although the film’s premise of teens competing for social media fame through a hideously self-described “game of truth or dare without the truth” obviously carries a lot of millennial-shaming baggage in its basic DNA, Nerve‘s secret weapon is in how it celebrates teen-specific adventurousness within that digital-age moralizing. The film manages to Trojan horse a surprisingly potent coming of age narrative inside a tawdry action thriller shell, presenting a fantasy world where technology actually makes people more adventurous instead of more insular.
11. The Dressmaker – There’s so much to love about The Dressmaker, but its most admirable quality is its minute-to-minute unpredictability. The film has obvious fun with the general structure of a Western & plays with the campy tones of an absurdist comedy, but it zigs where you expect those genres’ tropes to zag and much of its third act is an anything-goes free-for-all where the only thing that’s certain is that Kate Winslet is a badass and you’d be a fool to vex her. At once a violent camp comedy and a heartfelt melodrama, the film plays like 90s-era John Waters remaking Strictly Ballroom as a revenge tale Western where lives are destroyed by pretty dresses instead of bullets. If I were ever going to fall in love with a movie that could even vaguely be considered a Western, this formula would be my personal ideal. It’s violent, it’s campy, it’s unpredictable, it’s commanded by the female gaze; The Dressmaker is everything I love about cinema at large crammed into the mold of a genre that usually puts me to sleep.
12. The Nice Guys – If I had to assign The Nice Guys an exact genre I’d be tempted to classify it as “sleaze noir.” A miracle of Frankensteined movie science, the film’s general aesthetic lies somewhere between Lethal Weapon & Boogie Nights, an unlikely tonal mashup resulting from its cartoonishly violent detective work set against a 1970s California porn industry backdrop. Alternating between slapstick cruelty & genuinely devastating displays of brutality, The Nice Guys finds a dangerously fun & wicked mode of entertainment that I’m not sure Shane Black has ever topped before. It’s a solid, accessible base that even leaves room for more surreal inclusions like unicorns, mermaids, and gigantic insects among its more straightforward gags. Black understands exactly what genre toys he’s playing with, but retools them all to create his own distinct work with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic comedic voice. This is a movie made by a passionate nerd who loves watching movies and that affection is immediately obvious in every scene. The call is coming from inside the audience.
13. Zootopia – This animated Disney film isn’t exactly about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. Zootopia instead addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined, all-purpose dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the talking animals that populate its CG concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. The attention to detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film.
14. Moonlight – Besides functioning as a queer narrative about how homosexual desire violently clashes with traditional ideas of black masculinity in the modern world, Moonlight also works as a coming of age & self-acceptance story for a single man who’s forced to navigate & survive that clash. A large part of what saves the film from dramatic banality is its basic structure as a triptych. We see our protagonist as a child, a teenager, and an adult man. Narrowing down Chiron’s life to these temporal snapshots allows us to dive deep into the character instead of casually empathizing from the surface. Director Barry Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make this meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on its visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively. What could have been a potentially middling, by the books queer drama avoids woe & despair mediocrity to instead find an ultimately life-affirming adoption of Under the Skin levels of visual & aural abstraction. It’s nothing short of mesmerizing.
15. The Handmaiden – An erotic lesbian crime thriller with meticulous dedication to craft and a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, The Handmaiden is a gleefully tawdry art piece. Park Chan-Wook’s latest takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. A cherry blossom tree, an octopus, a coiled rope, an ink-stained tongue; The Handmaiden is first & foremost an achievement in intense costume & set design, which allows for plenty of room to accommodate its deliberately twisty crime story in which the audience is continually conned into believing half-truths depending on the minute-to-minute revelations of its various narrators, anxiously awaiting the next rug pull to knock us on our ass. If it were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. Fortunately, it’s carefully calibrated to be too fun & too beautiful to resist.
16. 10 Cloverfield Lane – A tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture, 10 Cloverfield Lane locks its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors collectively suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It not only clouds the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings, but also introduces a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique, but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicate that narrative allows it to crawl under your skin in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs.
17. Shin Godzilla – The latest entry in the longest-running film series of all time is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. The film barrels through its ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the inventive framing & mixed medium experimentation of a modern indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow. This is Godzilla done exactly right.
18. Arrival – To convey its story about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages, Arrival similarly has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Once you learn the film’s language, though, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.
19. Swiss Army Man –At once an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner, Swiss Army Man is loaded with feel-good scatological bleakness & divine absurdity. The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. A teary-eyed journey featuring a farting corpse & an unlikely budding romance, the Daniels’ long-form cinematic prank is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies.
20. Girl Asleep – Romantic awkwardness, papier-mâché costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape. Personally, I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being this intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. Often, when movies choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama, filtering the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm. The results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged.
HM. Lemonade – Beyoncé has been going through a spiritual growth spurt in the last few years where she’s struggling to break away from her long-established persona of top-of-the-world pop idol to reveal a more creative, vulnerable persona underneath. Her recent “visual album” Lemonade feels like a culmination of this momentum, a grand personal statement that cuts through her usual “flawless” visage to expose a galaxy of emotional conflicts & spiritual second-guessings the world was previously not privy to. It’s at times a deeply uncomfortable experience, as if you’re reading someone’s diary entries or poetry as they stare you down. However, it can also be an empowering & triumphant one, particularly when it aims at giving a voice to the underserved POV of being a young black woman in modern America.