The 100 Best Movies on Netflix (February 2019)

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three-movie.jpg 75. Three
Year: 2014
Director: Johnnie To
Can you imagine a worse place for cops and robbers to play a game of cat and mouse than a bustling, overstuffed hospital? An orphanage, perhaps, or maybe an elementary school, but houses of convalescence rank pretty high on the list of “least desirable” locations for the police to butt heads with a hardened crook, even when the hardened crook is cuffed to a gurney with a bullet lodged in his brain. But that blatant mismatch of public safety and criminal investigation is part of what makes Johnnie To’s film, Three, so great: The setting gives To a labyrinthine stage to explore, a constrained environment where succor is increasingly tinged by a sense of peril. Three is both a sort-of chamber piece and a lesson in escalating tension. In it, To, per usual, packages stellar filmmaking with a deceptively simple premise. This time around, Dr. Tong (Wei Zhao), a neurosurgeon whose ambition is her greatest vice, is on duty when Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) and his team bring in a wounded suspect (Wallace Chung) for treatment. Just before he goes under the knife, the suspect refuses medical care and begins an elaborate 80-minute battle of wits with his arrester and his provider. Maybe To couldn’t have set Three anywhere but in a hospital. It’s the perfect spot for a conflict of morals, and its cool, maze-like qualities reflect both the mounting complexities of the film’s plot as well as To’s clinical filmmaking style. He orchestrates each sequence with control and precision that feels downright surgical, though the film’s speed-ramped finale reminds us that To has maintained his passion for his craft even after directing movies for over 30 years. In his towering body of work, Three is a satisfyingly minor entry, but minor To is better than major films by most any other contemporary filmmaker you can imagine. —Andy Crump


night-comes-for-us-movie-poster.jpg 74. The Night Comes for Us
Year: 2018
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
While Gareth Evans confounded fans of The Raid movies by giving them a British folk horror film (but a darn good one) this year, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us scratches that Indonesian ultra-violent action itch. Furiously. Then stabs a shard of cow femur through it. Come for the violence, The Night Comes for Us bids you—and, also, stay for the violence. Finally, leave because of the violence. If that sounds grueling, don’t worry, it is. You could say it’s part of the point, but that might be projecting good intentions on a film that seems to care little for what’s paving the highway to hell. It’s got pedal to metal and headed right down the gullet of the abyss.

It’s also got the best choreographed and constructed combat sequences of the year, and plenty of them, and they actually get better as the film goes along. There’s a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a team inside a van, the film using the confines to compress the bone-crushing, like an action compactor. Other scenes are expansive in their controlled chaos and cartoonish blood-letting, like Streets of Rage levels, come to all-too-vivid life: the butcher shop level, the car garage level and a really cool later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a deadly sub-boss duo who have specialized weapons and styles and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. You’ll forget you weren’t playing it, so intensely will you feel a part of its brutality and so tapped out you’ll feel once you beat the final boss, who happens to be The Raid-star Iko Uwais with a box-cutter. It’s exceptionally painful and it goes on forever.

Despite a storyline that’s basically just an excuse for emotional involvement (Taslim’s character is trying to protect a cute little girl from the Triad and has a lost-brotherhood bit with Uwais’s character) and, more than that, an easy way to set up action scenes on top of action scenes, there’s something about the conclusion of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of nerve of pathos, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Take it as a testament to the raw power of the visceral: A certain breed of cinematic action—as if by laws of physics—demands a reaction. —Chad Betz


coraline.jpg 73. Coraline
Year: 2009
Directors: Henry Selick
Director Henry Selick matches the Gothic whimsy of Nightmare Before Christmas and adds even more compelling emotional content with this adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella. An unhappy little girl discovers an alternate reality that seems to offer all the magic and wonder her real home lacks, only to discover the sinister implications behind the candy-colored exteriors. Gaiman’s inventive approach to fairy-tale rules matches Selick’s luminescent colors and blend of everyday emotions and dream-like wonders. Perhaps the greatest stop-motion film ever, it even looks great in 3D. —Curt Holman


swiss-army-man.jpg 72. Swiss Army Man
Year: 2016
Directors: Daniel Scheinert, Dan Kwan
It should be ridiculous, this. A buddy comedy built atop the premise of a man (Paul Dano) lugging around, and bonding with, a flatulent talking corpse (Daniel Radcliffe)—but cinema is a medium in which miracles are possible, and one such miracle occurs in Swiss Army Man. A film with such a seemingly unpalatable concept becomes, against all odds, a near-profound existential meditation. And, for all the increasingly absurd gags about the utilities of that talking corpse’s body—not just as a jet-ski propelled by bodily gas, but as a giver of fresh water through projectile vomiting and even as a compass through its erection—there’s not one iota of distancing irony to be found in the film. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan are absolutely serious in their attempts to not only re-examine some of the most universal of human experiences, but also explore the idea of a life lived without limits, casting off the shackles of societal constraints and realizing one’s best self. It’s a freedom that the Daniels project exuberantly into the film itself: Swiss Army Man is a work that feels positively lawless. Witness with amazement what bizarrely heartfelt splendors its creators will come up with next. —Kenji Fujishima


shirkers-movie-poster.jpg 71. Shirkers
Year: 2018
Director: Sandi Tan
Making sense of one’s past can be both a lifelong undertaking and a thorny proposition. In Shirkers, novelist Sandi Tan accomplishes that trickiest of endeavors, directing a documentary about herself that isn’t cloying or cringe-worthy. Quite the contrary, her movie is refreshingly candid and self-critical: She may be the star of the show, but she has a story to tell and the right perspective to frame it properly. Tan narrates the documentary as a memory piece, recounting her childhood in Singapore with her best friend Jasmine, where they were the two cool kids in their pretty square school, dreaming of being filmmakers and leaving their mark. To further that ambition, they collaborated with another friend, Sophia, on a surreal road movie called Shirkers, which would be directed by Tan’s mentor, an older teacher named Georges who carried himself as someone who knew his way around a movie camera. In her late teens and perhaps smitten with this man who showed her such attention—the documentary is cagey on the subject—Tan was intoxicated by the rush of making a film that she wrote and would be the star of. So how come we’ve never seen it? The documentary traces the strange, mysterious journey of the project, which was waylaid by Georges sneaking off with the reels of film with a vague promise of finishing the work. That never happened, and 20 years later Tan decides to open those old wounds, connecting with her old friends and trying to determine what became of Georges. Scenes from the unfinished film appear in Shirkers, tipping the audience off to the fact that there will be a happy-ish resolution to Tan’s quest. But the documentary ends up being less about tracking down the film canisters than being an exploration of nostalgia, friendship and the allure of mentors. Tan is lively, self-effacing company throughout—her voice has just the right sardonic tinge—but her visits with Jasmine and Sophia are particularly lovely and illuminating, suggesting how lifelong pals can see us in ways that we cannot. —Tim Grierson


moon.jpg 70. Moon
Year: 2009
Director: Duncan Jones
First-time director Duncan Jones is overt about his stylistic appropriations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the sweeping orchestral music that frames the opening shots of the titular satellite and Earth. Yet, where Kubrick tapped into existential fears about human extinction and the future of civilization, Jones hypothesizes the logical conclusion of that dark vision: a world where the need for more energy has rendered humanity a manufactured cog of multinational corporations whose reach now extends beyond the boundaries of Earth. The film’s plot centers on Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the only human on a lunar mining facility that harvests Helium-3, a clean fuel that can meet a near-future Earth’s ballooning energy demands. Base computer system GERTY (Kevin Spacey) is his sole companion on Sam’s three-year caretaking mission, since a supposed satellite failure means he can only send and receive pre-recorded messages. When an accident nearly kills Sam, he’s saved by a clone of himself and begins to unravel the sinister nature of the base, and his existence. Moon cribs heavily from the retro-futuristic look of ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi for its claustrophobic and sanitized depiction of the moon base, but this high-tech eye candy is only the backdrop to a larger morality tale about humanity’s ever-shrinking position within a technologically-saturated society. When the human experience can be synthesized (and thus made disposable), does such a thing as “humanity” even exist? There’s a host of challenging philosophical threads throughout—cloning, masculinity, energy, corporate power—but those individual issues complement rather than engulf the larger narrative. Moon is a superlative example of science fiction that hearkens to the genre’s roots: social commentary on the human condition, without the easy catharsis of overblown special effects and space opera. It’s the ultimate rarity in modern cinema: a mature, engaging and thoughtful sci-fi movie, and proof that there’s life yet left in the genre. —Michael Saba


aquarius.jpg 69. Aquarius
Year: 2016
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Clara (Sonia Braga) is one of the great heroines in contemporary cinema, and her story is one that will endure. By the movie’s climax, one woman’s struggle to hold on to her apartment despite crooked developers’ schemes takes on a dramatic weight found in the most ambitious, large-scale epics—yet Filho’s touch couldn’t be lighter. His direction is elegant and restrained, because he has the confidence not to force his effects. He believes in his ideas, and knows they’ll deepen and expand in the viewer’s mind if he just presents them unadorned. Undoubtedly, part of his confidence comes from the gift he got from Braga, who gives the performance of her career, doing the same thing with her voice, face and body that Filho does with his camera, finding economical gestures that express infinite emotions and ideas. I can’t think of many other roles that so fully encapsulate the human condition in all its humor, tragedy, loss, triumph, eroticism, weariness, fear and hope. —Jim Hemphill


fire-at-sea-poster.jpg 68. Fire at Sea
Year: 2016
DIrector: Gianfranco Rosi
Fire at Sea is an imagistic grasp at a few months on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, 100 miles south of Sicily and the first glimpse of land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East. With no voiceover and little context, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi juxtaposes the lives of men, women and children barely sustaining themselves on the fringes of society, of humanity, with the everyday, mundane existences of the denizens of the island—both those who devote their lives to helping the refugees and those who work or play or eat big mounds of spaghetti without one thought for the deluge of sad souls passing over their home turf. In long takes and cinematography that aches with the need to push beyond the boundaries of the screen, Rosi indulges in the rhythm of that juxtaposition, daring us to move on from one atrocity after another in order to understand what moving on takes: a lot of boring afternoons and silent plates of spaghetti. —Dom Sinacola


5-best-so-far-2015-Ex-Machina.jpg 67. Ex Machina
Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: If given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to HerEx Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast.

The film’s title is a play on the phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), which is a plot device wherein an unexpected event or character seemingly comes out of nowhere to solve a storytelling problem. Garland interprets the phrase literally: Here, that machine is a robot named Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, and that nowhere is where her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), performs his research and experiments. Ava is a heavenly mechanical body of sinewy circuitry topped with a lovely face, reminiscent of a Chris Cunningham creation. Her creator is an alcoholic genius and head of a Google-like search engine called Bluebook which has made him impossibly rich. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is helicoptered in after winning a lottery at work for which the prize is a week at Nathan’s house. Nathan also intends to use Caleb to conduct something of a Turing test on steroids with Ava to determine if she can truly exhibit human behavior. In fact, Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble; it’s an awfully attractive film, appropriately seductive. No doubt it was intended to provoke conversations about the morality inherent in “creating” intelligence—as well as whether it’s cool to have sex with robots or not. —Jonah Flicker


terminator.jpg 66. The Terminator
Year: 1984
Director: James Cameron 
James Cameron’s first Terminator (and second feature) is less of a pure-popcorn action flick than its upscaled sequel, but that makes it all the more terrifying of a movie—dark, somber, replete with a silent villain who calmly plucks bits of his damaged face off to more precisely target its victims. The task in front of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) seems so insurmountable—even with a soldier from the future, going after the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, duh) with modern weapons is so ineffectual, it’s nearly comical. It’s as if Schwarzenegger is playing entropy itself—entropy seemingly a theme of The Terminator series, given the time-hopping do-overs, reboots and retreads since. You can destroy a terminator, but the future (apparently driven by box office receipts) refuses to be changed. —Jim Vorel


ornithologist-poster.jpg 65. The Ornithologist
Year: 2016
Director: João Pedro Rodrigues
There are times during João Pedro Rodcrigues’s newest film, The Ornithologist, wherein you can’t tell if it’s all a big sexy joke or if it’s an earnest, religious and intellectual inquiry into the boundaries of spiritual and physical adventure. There’s enough evidence in the film—which follows a strapping studier of birds on his journey to note black storks and the various surreal things that occur to him—to argue that it’s both. Fernando (Paul Hamy), our bird man, is over the course of the film: pissed on, tossed about by river waters in his kayak, badgered by a presumed lover from back home via text, without medicine, has the eyes on his passport photo burnt through, has sex with a twink deaf and mute twink named Jesus, and is tied up St. Sebastian-style by two lost Chinese lesbians on a religious pilgrimage. Rodrigues easily integrates an aesthetic reminiscent of a nature documentary into scenarios that, like a modern Portuguese take on “The Aristocrats,” mount in their ludicrousness. Yet, the oddball adventures that color Fernando’s journey seem embedded logically within the film’s universe, and even better, within Rodrigues’s own screenplay. However strange it may be to watch a Satanic ritual occur on screen, the director has seemingly mapped out precisely how to transition from weird scene to weird scene, making The Ornithologist and effectively coherent fever dream. As Fernando walks down a busy road in the end of the film, literally transformed into Rodrigues (who may also be St. Anthony) and magically transported from the jungle, one can’t help but think of The Ornithologist as a hallucination brought on by heat stroke. In the best way possible. —Kyle Turner


east-of-eden-movie-poster.jpg 64. East of Eden
Year: 1955
Director: Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the Steinbeck novel of the same name might be most famous for being the film that launched the brief but meteoric career of James Dean. A cheery little Cain and Abel story set in the lettuce-farming country of California’s Salinas Valley, the film garnered intense critical acclaim for Kazan’s masterful use of CinemaScope technology to create a beautiful, moody mise en scene. Critical opinion was divided on Dean, whom some found pointlessly histrionic. Others have pronounced his fiery confrontations with his pious father (Raymond Massey) to be compelling and masterful. Whichever way you see it, there’s strong consensus that this film created the persona of disaffected bad-boy Dean, whose iconic rebelliousness defined the generational divide that widened into the 1960s. —Amy Glynn


heathers_poster.jpg 63. Heathers
Year: 1988
Director: Michael Lehmann
As much an homage to ’80s teen romps—care of stalwarts like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe—as it is an attempt to push that genre to its near tasteless extremes, Heathers is a hilarious glimpse into the festering core of the teenage id, all sunglasses and cigarettes and jail bait and misunderstood kitsch. Like any coming-of-age teen soap opera, much of the film’s appeal is in its vaunting of style over substance—coining whole ways of speaking, dressing and posturing for an impressionable generation brought up on Hollywood tropes—but Heathers embraces its style as an essential keystone to filmmaking, recognizing that even the most bloated melodrama can be sold through a well-manicured image. And some of Heathers’ images are indelible: J.D. (Christian Slater) whipping out a gun on some school bullies in the lunch room, or Veronica (Winona Ryder) passively lighting her cigarette with the flames licking from the explosion of her former boyfriend. It makes sense that writer Daniel Waters originally wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct his script: Heathers is a filmmaker’s (teen) film. —Dom Sinacola


look-of-silence.jpg 62. The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Year: 2015
Like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film—the syntactically similar The Look of Silence—asks you to contemplate the literal meaning behind its title. Again returning to Indonesia, a country languishing in the anti-communist genocides of the 1960s, Oppenheimer this time sets his eye on Adi, a middle-aged optician whose brother was murdered by the men who were the focus of the first film, people today treated as local celebrities. Without question, the film is an interrogation of what it means to watch—as those who led the genocides; as those who are loved ones of those who led the genocides; as those who must repress the anger and humiliation of living beside such people every day; and, most palpably of all, as those of us who are distant observers, left with little choice but to witness such horror in the abstract. As in its predecessor, Oppenheimer’s patience and ability to acquaint himself intimately with the film’s subjects make for one gut-scraping scene after another—the sight of Adi’s 100+ year-old father, especially, is harrowing: blind and senile, the man is abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. Yet, moreso than in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer here demands our undivided attention, forcing us to confront his quiet, sad documentary with the notion that seeing is more than believing—to see is to bear responsibility for the lives we watch. —Dom Sinacola


nocturama-poster.jpg 61. Nocturama
Year: 2016
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Nocturama trusts its audience—more, even, than its audience may want to be trusted. Throughout, director Betrand Bonello folds timelines, indulges in flashbacks and replays moments from different perspectives, rarely with any warning but hardly without precision or consistency, investigating the comparatively small world of his film from every angle while implying that a much bigger, much more complicated world exists outside of its admittedly limited view. Bonello’s tact offers no explanations; his story follows a gaggle of beautiful Parisian teens, seemingly representing a broad swath of life, participating in a terrorist act, from planning through meticulous execution, and then, in the aftermath of the explosions, to the high-end department store where the teens hide out to watch the City respond. Bonello never allows these kids a monologue or conversation or anecdote to explain why they’ve gone to such extremes—their political understanding is about as sophisticated as that of a college student who’s only recently discovered Noam Chomsky, and even these beliefs they mumble to one another without much dedication. Instead, Nocturama is all surface, all watching: the faces of these innocents as they silently go about their terror, the tension that arises from knowing there is so much obscured behind those faces but also seeing so much so clearly in those faces, and then knowing that we will never know. Because these teens seem fine, even existentially so. They seem middle class, comfortable, unburdened by the wiles of puberty, free to do what they want, be with whom they want, say what they want—and only in the department store, amongst designer clothes and expensive, pointless home goods, do they yearn for more, potentially blowing up Paris not to protest anything, but to beg to be a part of the elite who define it. This is terrorism not against capitalism, but for it. Bonello trusts his audience to know the difference. —Dom Sinacola


apostle-movie-poster.jpg 60. Apostle
Year: 2018
Director: Gareth Evans
After the first two entries of The Raid made him a monolithic figure among action movie junkies, Apostle functions as the wider world’s introduction to the visceral filmmaking stylings of Welsh director Gareth Evans. Where his first films almost had the aesthetic of a videogame come to life—they’re about as close to a big screen adaptation of Streets of Rage as you’re ever going to find—Apostle might as well represent Evans’ desire to be taken seriously as a visual director and auteur. To do so, he’s explored some well-trodden ground in the form of the rural “cult infiltration movie,” making comparisons to the likes of The Wicker Man (or even Ti West’s The Sacrament) inevitable. However, Apostle forces its way into the year-end conversation of 2018’s best horror cinema through sheer style and verve. Every frame is beautifully composed, from the foreboding arrival of Dan Stevens’ smoldering character at the island cult compound, to the fantastically icky Grand Guignol of the third act, in which viscera flows with hedonistic abandon. Evans knows exactly how long to needle the audience with a slow-burning mystery before letting the blood dams burst; his conclusion both embraces supernatural craziness and uncomfortably realistic human violence. Gone is the precision of combat of The Raid, replaced by a clumsier brand of wanton savagery that is empowered not by honor but by desperate faith. Evans correctly concludes that this form of violence is far more frightening. —Jim Vorel


frances-ha.jpg 59. Frances Ha
Year: 2012
Director: Noah Baumbach 
Frances Ha is endearing, kind and, in many ways, Noah Baumbach’s best movie since the one to come before it. One could trace his films, from his debut (Kicking and Screaming) to the one before Frances Ha (Greenberg) and see a slow but increasingly steady focus on the individual, as well as his abandonment of an ironic, sometimes caustic stance against the very characters he writes. It is as if Baumbach could only write a certain type of person—the privileged, socially crippled intellectual with either too much self-awareness or none at all—and for a while it seemed like even the writer himself couldn’t stand to be in the same room with such characters. This anger faded, and what has emerged over the course of the films he’s made with Greta Gerwig (who here plays the titular Frances) is an embrace of both the flaws of his characters, and those as a filmmaker. He has settled down and created a film imbued with love, fun and melancholy. It’s a simple joy to watch. —Joe Peeler


13-Netflix-Docs_2015-paris-burning.jpg 58. Paris is Burning
Year: 1991
Director: Jennie Livingston
Madonna’s “voguing” phase has nothing on—that is, took everything from—the drag scene of 1980s New York City chronicled in this vibrant doc. Delving into the subculture of fierce, catwalk-styled posing and the clubs in which it thrived, Jennie Livingston depicts the less-than-glamorous realities of life as a drag queen before RuPaul was mainstream: issues of gender and sexual identity, race, bigotry and hate, HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime—theft is a commonplace means by which these would-be “Legends&#8221 seek a desired end: transformation. Named after one of the underground balls in which its subjects find a sense of family—in “houses,” no less—Paris is Burning is a joyous affair, and a curiously meta celebration of what it means “to be real.” —Amanda Schurr


hot-fuzz.jpg 57. Hot Fuzz
Year: 2007
Director: Edgar Wright 
The second chapter in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (before there was ever such a thing), Hot Fuzz is clear evidence that Edgar Wright is capable of anything. A blockbuster action flick, a thriller, a pulp plot, a winking noir, a commentary on classism in an increasingly urbanized society—the movie is all of these things, down to the marrow of its very existence. Moreso than Shaun of the Dead or The World’s End, Hot Fuzz inhabits its influences with the kind of aplomb to which any cinephile can relate: Somewhere between fascination, revulsion and pure visceral joy there walks the Michael Bays, the Don Simpsons, the John Woos, the Jerry Bruckheimers, and Wright gives each stalwart his due. Plus, he does so with total respect, showing that he understands their films inside and out. And in that intimate knowledge he knows even better that filmmaking is a conflagration: Best to burn it all down and see what remains than build it from the ground up. —Dom Sinacola


clouds-of-sils-maria.jpg 56. Clouds of Sils Maria
Year: 2015
Director: Olivier Assayas
Clouds of Sils Maria is a lyrical catch-all for the many half-notions that accompany getting older—especially if you’re a celebrity. Decay, loss of memory, insecurity, arrogance: Assayas boils these monolithic themes down to a near-pyrrhic partnership between an aging French actress (Juliette Binoche) and her American assistant (Kristen Stewart), following their commingling of generations (and cultural heritages) as they traipse through one fiction after another. With a younger figure of stardom flitting throughout the mix—Chloe Grace Moretz as the undoubtedly talented but disastrous representative of the Internet Age—playing the foil to Binoche’s ideas of relevance, the film rarely adheres to a consistent structure or confident reality. Instead, the core of Clouds of Sils Maria is a single feeling, encompassed within a single image. In the titular clouds, which are only observable at certain times, under certain conditions, there is the intuition that there is so much else in this world to see. And the film aches with this sentiment, that no matter what we accomplish, we will always miss out on something equally worth accomplishing: some other part to play, some other life to live. Such, Assayas claims, is the bitter sweetness of life. —Dom Sinacola


a-dark-song-movie-poster.jpg 55. A Dark Song
Year: 2016
Director: Liam Gavin
In Liam Gavin’s black magic genre oddity, Sophia (Catherine Walker), a grief-stricken mother, and the schlubby, no-nonsense occultist (Steve Oram) she hires devote themselves to a long, meticulous, painstaking ritual in order to (they hope) communicate with her dead son. Gavin lays out the ritual specifically and physically—over the course of months of isolation, Sophia undergoes tests of endurance and humiliation, never quite sure if she’s participating in an elaborate hoax or if she can take her spiritual guide seriously when he promises her he’s succeeded in the past. Paced to near perfection, A Dark Song is ostensibly a horror film but operates as a dread-laden procedural, mounting tension while translating the process of bereavement as patient, excruciating manual labor. In the end, something definitely happens, but its implications are so steeped in the blurry lines between Christianity and the occult that I still wonder what kind of alternate realms of existence Gavin is getting at. But A Dark Song thrives in that uncertainty, feeding off of monotony. Sophia may hear phantasmagorical noise coming from beneath the floorboards, but then substantial spans of time pass without anything else happening, and we begin to question, as she does, whether it was something she did wrong (maybe, when tasked with not moving from inside a small chalk circle for days at a time, she screwed up that portion of the ritual by allowing her urine to dribble outside of the boundary) or whether her grief has blinded her to an expensive con. Regardless, that “not knowing” is the scary stuff of everyday life, and by portraying Sophia’s profound emotional journey as a humdrum trial of physical mettle, Gavin reveals just how much pointless, even terrifying work it can be anymore to not only live the most ordinary of days, but to make it to the next. —Dom Sinacola


casting-jonbenet.jpg 54. Casting JonBenet
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity also populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, finding parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson


mustang.jpg 53. Mustang
Year: 2016
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Imagine the unimaginable: One moment you’re out enjoying a beautiful, sunny day with your friends and your sisters, and the next, your grandmother is slapping you silly for having inappropriate contact with boys. Everything else snowballs from there: You’re whisked off to the doctor for a virginity test, your personal possessions are shut up in a cupboard (along with the telephones), the doors are kept locked and contractors come to reinforce the house you live in with your family, turning it into an improvised prison-cum-wife factory for you and your untamed siblings. Such is the stuff of Mustang, the debut film of Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, her neorealist chronicle of femininity bound against its will to draconian gender politics. From start to finish, the film crackles with gelid fury, though Ergüven doesn’t tip the outrage scale into histrionics, because she doesn’t need to. We can sense exactly how pissed off she is behind the lens. —Andy Crump


happy-as-lazzaro-movie-poster.jpg 52. Happy as Lazzaro
Year: 2018
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
It’s very difficult to get into too many details about Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro without spoiling it—which seems a ridiculous thing to say about a film that starts off as a rural Italian take on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, but you’ve got no idea until you’re watching it. Rohrwacher’s The Wonders was a more intimate, personal film that had moments of magic realism peeking through, just barely. Happy as Lazzaro similarly keeps the magic in check (though a scene with whispers in a field will start to invoke Fellini) until it no longer can—and then the magic explodes, blowing up the narrative and sending what’s left in an insanely bold direction. We can only be applaud its daring. If Dostoevsky was re-framing the Christ narrative, Happy as Lazzaro re-frames the very idea of a Christ narrative until it is something else entirely. Here, Christ is a mythic wolf and our kind idiot Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a touched Lazarus; the difference between them is a matter of substance, time and place. Lazzaro’s goodness, like all earthly goodness, is simultaneously transcendent and doomed, but the wolf continues on beyond any mortal coil, against the flow of humanity. Lazzaro tries to follow, perhaps foolishly, perhaps blindly…but happily, nonetheless. —Chad Betz


my-happy-family-movie-poster.jpg 51. My Happy Family
Year: 2017
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß
It’s a shame Netflix felt like Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s My Happy Family deserved a burial, that the company didn’t bother pushing the film for awards season and neglected to give it a boost in visibility for the average consumer. Because Ekvtimishvili and Groß’s latest collaboration in a long line of collaborations is superb, timely and altogether unexpected in its unwavering grace. Compared to the year’s other films centered on dysfunctional families, whether hammy (I, Tonya) or naturalist (Lady Bird), My Happy Family is a gentle tribute to dignity: Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) is never less than noble in her constant dedication to her family, even as she determines that to preserve her sanity she must move out of the apartment she shares with them and lay down roots in a pad of her own. My Happy Family doesn’t judge Manana—it validates her. It illustrates a woman’s liberation from social and familial expectations, allowing Manana to discover who she is, what she wants and where she’s going without looking down on her. But My Happy Family is a small film with grand artistic ambitions, and both Ekvtimishvili and Groß know that Manana’s bliss has its limit. They know that eventually the matters of her husband and children, plus their extended family, must be reconciled. Still, My Happy Family shows a benevolent kind of restraint by ending on a note of uncertainty, sparing us the lion’s share of that work, its ultimate lingering ambiguity a thing of honorable beauty. —Andy Crump

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