1. The Wild Boys (2018) – Adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical-realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing a wet dream, and it has the nightmare logic of erotica written on an early 20th Century mushroom trip. Both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.
2. 20th Century Women (2016) – An ensemble drama anchored by small, intimate performances that somehow covers topics as wide-ranging as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a “good” man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe.
3. The Duke of Burgundy (2015) – The least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Although prone to cheeky pranksterism & confounding repetition, it excels both as an intentionally obfuscated art film and as a tender drama about negotiating the balance between romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship.
4. The Lure (2017) – A mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story.
5. The Neon Demon (2016) – This neon-lit fairy tale of a young fashion model being swallowed up by The Industry is exquisite trash, the coveted ground where high art meets id-driven filth. It skips around an amoral minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power, but Nicolas Winding Refn makes the exercise so beautiful and so callously funny that those thematic discomforts amount to a joyful playground for intoxicatingly ill-advised ideas.
6. We Are the Flesh (2017) – A Buñuelian nightmare in which doomed siblings seek shelter from a post-Apocalyptic cityscape in a forbidden man-made cave of their own design. Disorients the eye by making grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to thematically pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time.
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – Tilda Swinton & Ezra Miller square off as a combative mother-son duo in a cerebral chiller about the scariest, least noble crises of parenting. Now that I’ve seen each of Lynne Ramsay’s features at least twice, I believe that a convincing argument could be made that any one of them are her career-best, but this remains the clear stand-out for me. One of the great works about the horrors of motherhood.
8. Upstream Color (2013) – Shane Carruth’s mind-control whatsit is the most impressively edited film of the decade, considering how it communicates an exponentially complex sci-fi narrative through a jumble of disjointed imagery and yet its basic outline is crystal clear for every minute you afford it your full attention. Its closed loop of human connection & subhuman exploitation is a deeply weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell.
9. Midsommar (2019) – A humorously traumatic nightmare comedy about a Swedish cult’s destruction of a toxic romance that’s far outstayed its welcome. Its morbid humor, detailed costume & production design, and dread-inducing continuation of Wicker Man-style folk horror improved a lot of things I liked but didn’t love about Hereditary, quickly converting me into an Ari Aster devotee.
10. Double Lover (2018) – This erotic thriller’s doppelganger premise relies on a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness there’s no bounds to its prurient mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of sexual indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings,” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety.
11. Mandy (2018) – Less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare; a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory boundaries of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief. Nic Cage may slay biker demons & religious acid freaks with a self-forged axe in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but this is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal.
12. The Witch (2016) – A haunting, beautifully shot, unfathomably well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. It immerses its audience in 17th Century paranoia, making you feel as if fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” and folklore about wanton women dancing with the Devil naked in the moonlight are warnings of genuine threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart and devour the pieces.
13. Black Swan (2010) – Darren Aronofsky amplifies the supernatural horror undertones of the classic ballet industry melodrama The Red Shoes to a giallo-esque fever pitch. A terrifying (even if familiar) tale of a woman who’s controlled & infantilized in every aspect of her life to the point of a total psychological break, confusing what’s “real” and what’s fantasy onscreen in the most unsettling way.
14. Your Name. (2017) – A post-Miyazaki anime that resurrects the 1980s body swap comedy template for a new, transcendent purpose. From its tale of star-crossed, long distance romantics to its mildly crude sexual humor, bottom of the heart earnestness, supernatural mindfuckery, and pop punk soundtrack, this was the distilled ideal of a teen fantasy film in the 2010s.
15. Dirty Computer (2018) – A feature-length anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. It’s defiantly blunt in its tale of a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position, to the point where a tyrannical government facility is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion.
16. Knife+Heart (2019) – A cheeky giallo throwback set against a gay porno shoot in late 1970s Paris. Picture Dario Argento’s Cruising. And it only improves on repeat viewings, as the disjointed imagery from the protagonist’s psychic visions gradually start to mean something once you know how they’re connected, and not being distracted by piecing together the mystery of its slasher plot allows you to soak in its intoxicating sensory pleasures.
17. Us (2019) – A surreal reimagining of C.H.U.D. that reflects & refracts ugly, discomforting truths about modern American class divides. Both of Jordan Peele’s feature films are self-evidently great, but I slightly prefer the nightmare logic looseness of this one to the meticulously calibrated machinery of Get Out – if not only because it leans more heavily into The Uncanny. It’s like getting twenty extra minutes to poke around in The Sunken Place.
18. Stranger By the Lake (2014) – An explicit tale of a heavenly public beach’s gay cruising culture being disrupted by the world’s most gorgeous serial killer. Equally a despairing drama & an erotic thriller, conveying a melancholic dynamic between physical desire & intimate connection. Haunting in its exploration of how we’re subservient to our own lusts & erotic obsessions.
19. The Florida Project (2017) – Captures a rebellious punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks. Doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.
20. Boy (2012) – Taika Waititi’s best work to date is a deeply personal coming-of-age film. Perfectly captures the fantasy-prone imagination of young children’s minds in a way that feels wholly authentic & endearing. Also pulls off the neat trick of starting as a hilarious knee-slapper of a childhood-centered comedy, but then gradually laying on a series of escalating emotional wallops that leave you wrecked.
21. Wetlands (2014) – Most likely the cutest movie about an anal fissure you’ll ever see, this plays as if Marquis de Sade had written a formulaic 90s romcom. If there’s a particular bodily fluid, sexual act, or unsanitary pizza topping that you absolutely cannot handle this may not be the movie for you. However, like its 18-year-old protagonist Helen (expertly played by Carla Juri), the film’s hardened shock-value exterior is only a front for a big old softie lurking just under the surface.
22. Unfriended (2015) – This laptop-framed live chat horror flick is so ludicrously invested in its gimmickry that it comes off as a joke, but its commitment to the bit leads to genuinely chilling moments that remind the audience a little too much of our own digital experiences online. As a dumb horror flick filmed entirely from the first-person POV of a gossipy teen operating a laptop, it’s both more fun and way creepier than it has any right to be.
23. Girl Walk//All Day (2011) – Stealing its soundtrack & candid reactions from outside sources and operating around permitless film shoots, this Girl Talk fan video & modern dance showcase has an inherent sense of danger at its center, forfeiting its right to officially exist. Yet, its star dancer Anne Marsen broadcasts a childlike exuberance that overpowers its earthquake-shaky legal ground and should earn it the right to be officially exhibited out in the open—uncleared music samples or no—instead of suffering its current state of being periodically removed from sites like Vimeo & YouTube.
24. The Future (2011) – With the benefit of retrospect, Miranda July’s time-obsessed breakup drama feels like the official, miserable on-screen death of Twee Whimsy – which I mean as a compliment. It’s that hard post-youth stare in the mirror when you realize you’re not special and life is largely pointless & devoid of magic, a painful but necessary rite of passage.
25. Local Legends (2013) – Backyard filmmaker Matt Farley’s crowning achievement is essentially an infomercial for his own back catalog – tripling as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community.