The 50 Best Movies on Amazon Prime (January 2019)

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The 50 Best Movies on Amazon Prime (January 2019)

Amazon Prime  is an unheralded streaming treasure trove of some of the best movies to come out in the past couple years, though good picks can feel nearly impossible to cull from the sometimes overwhelming glut of weirdly terrible titles buried in Prime’s nether regions. Take, for example, our recent discovery of just how deep Amazon Prime’s stash of martial arts classics goes, with more than a handful of our top picks for the 100 best martial arts movies of all time. Who knows how long they’ve been there.

Plus, January is bursting with great picks, especially considering that Amazon Prime now hosts three of our top 10 movies of 2018, as well as others on the top 50 list, such as Lean on Pete, Zama and Leave No Trace, not to mention one of our favorite documentaries of 2018, McQueen. Amazon Prime is proving to have an eclectic collection of stuff you won’t be able to find anywhere else, even though they recently lost Being There, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Starship Troopers, to name a notable few. (They’ve more than made up for it, adding sci-fi classic Brazil.)

Really, what’s changed on Amazon Prime in January is mostly all good, which can be refreshing in the wake of a service like Netflix taking away everything you know and love every 30 days.

Here are the 50 best movies available to stream with Amazon Prime this month:

neon-demon-movie-poster.jpg 50. The Neon Demon
Year: 2016
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
If Nicolas Winding Refn—anthropomorphic cologne bottle; asexual jaguar—is going to make a horror film, Nicolas Winding Refn will make a horror film about the things that scare Nicolas Winding Refn most: asymmetry, sex, fatherhood. In The Neon Demon, every character is either someone’s daughter or a deranged daddy figure, both thirsty for the kind of flesh only Los Angeles can provide, the roles of predator and prey in constant, unnerving flux. Part cannibal-slasher movie and part endlessly pretty car commercial, Refn’s film about a young model (Elle Fanning) making it in the fashion industry goes exactly where you think it’s going to go, even when it’s trying as hard as it can to be weird as fuck. But despite his best efforts, Refn sustains such an overarching, creeping atmosphere of despair—such a deeply ingrained sense of looming physical imperfection, of death—that it never really matters if The Neon Demon doesn’t add up to much of anything in the end. —Dom Sinacola


mother-movie-poster.jpg 49. mother!
Year: 2017
Director: Darren Aronofsky 
Try as you might to rationalize Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, mother! does not accept rationalization. There’s little reasonable ways to construct a single cohesive interpretation of what the movie tries to tell us. There is no evidence of Aronosfky’s intention beyond what we’ve intuited from watching his films since the ’90s—as well as how often Aronofsky loves to talk about his own work, which is usually worth avoiding, because Aronofsky likes thinking the movie is about everything. The most ironclad comment you can make about mother! is that it’s basically a matryoshka doll layered with batshit insanity. Unpack the first, and you’re met immediately by the next tier of crazy, and then the next, and so on, until you’ve unpacked the whole thing and seen it for what it is: A spiritual rumination on the divine ego, a plea for environmental stewardship, an indictment of entitled invasiveness, an apocalyptic vision of America in 2017, a demonstration of man’s tendency to leech everything from the women they love until they’re nothing but a carbonized husk, a very triggering reenactment of the worst house party you’ve ever thrown. mother! is a kitchen sink movie in the most literal sense: There’s an actual kitchen sink here, Aronofsky’s idea of a joke, perhaps, or just a necessarily transparent warning. mother!, though, is about everything. Maybe the end result is that it’s also about nothing. But it’s really about whatever you can yank out of it, its elasticity the most terrifying thing about it. —Andy Crump


crank-2-movie-poster.jpg 48. Crank 2: High Voltage
Year: 2009
Directors: Neveldine / Taylor
Beginning with cinema’s most obvious dick joke and ending on the its two directors burning everything, including its anti-hero, to the ground, the sequel to Crank is as much of a mindfuck as its predecessor, but beholden to absolutely nothing but the unfiltered expunging of their most loathsome impulses on behalf of directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, two unrepentant dude-bros who, considering the movies they made together, seem to have parted ways, perhaps on bad terms or perhaps because the two grown men who made Gamer and Ghost Rider 2 just had nowhere left to go together. Like any good follow-up, Crank 2 is everything that Crank was, but launched irretrievably down a hellish K-hole, amping up all the public sex, murder, violence, gratuitous nudity, nihilism and genre-bending fuck-all spirit that made the first such a potential point of cult fascination. Here, Jason Statham’s Chev Chelios has transformed into full-on superhero—minus the “hero” connotation—an invulnerable, inhuman cyborg who must regularly pump enough electricity into his body to kill a herd of elephants just to keep his battery-powered heart beating as he chases after the Chinese mobsters who stole his original God-given ticker and (almost) the big ole monster between his legs. There is nothing subtle about Crank 2; there is only submission. —Dom Sinacola


demon-movie-poster.jpg 47. Demon
Year: 2016
Director: Marcin Wrona
Demon’s action unfolds around the wedding of Piotr (Itay Tiran in an incredible leading performance) and Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), young, beautiful and madly in love despite a short relationship capped by an even shorter engagement. The brevity of their union concerns her dad (Andrzej Grabowski), but he does his best to warm up to Piotr despite his reservations. He gifts the couple with family property, an old farmhouse, too, though here “gift” is perhaps a term used loosely. Piotr flies to Poland from England to wed Zaneta, settle down, and gussy up the house and the land it rests upon, and so their troubles begin: with a skeleton Piotr uncovers while mucking around with an excavator. Horror snobs may feel inclined to evict Demon from the genre for its absence of scares. Marcin Wrona doesn’t hide in cabinets and jump out at us while screaming “boo” and flailing his arms. He includes no unearned jump beats, nothing to startle us the way that horror cinema has taught us to anticipate throughout its annals. What he pulls off instead is a good deal trickier, thanks in large part to expectation and custom. Demon gets under the skin, distorting perception while corrupting bliss at the same time, and even with a plate that full the film finds room for pitch black humor and a slice of nationalism: Toward the narrative’s climax, one wedding guest, totally blotto, rants aloud about the good old days, when everyone was Polish and no one freaked out when strangers talked to ghosts. —Andy Crump


like-me-poster.jpg 46. Like Me
Year: 2017
Director: Robert Mockler
Like Me is an indictment of a life spent “extremely” online: a thriller in which the thrill is the threat of empty transgression; a body horror flick in which the body horror is the way social media and Tumblr and Reddit and YouTube transform us, make us grotesque, perverting basic physical functions into scary, dysmorphic representations of the flesh sacks we carry around with us whenever we’re not online. Early in the film, writer-director Robert Mockler introduces us to the online world of our main character, Kiya (Addison Timlin, terrifying), via a disturbing barrage of hyperreal, gif-like images—close-ups of sugary cereal and milk chewed sloppily, of a viscous tongue mid-slurp, of Kiya doing weird kinesthetics in a dirty motel room while the camera capsizes and arises around her, this Manic Pixie Dream Girl who embodies each of those words as literally as possible. Though Mockler implies that these are all curated posts Kiya’s put online, we believe that this is how she sees the world. Aided by some seriously heady opioids and hallucinogens, she can’t help but digest her lived experiences without mitigating them digitally. As Kiya moves through Mockler’s pink-ish, neon dystopia, DP James Siewert shooting Timlin as if she’s stranded in the middle of a Michael Mann joint, everything seems on the table. Kiya lures a motel manager, Marshall (Larry Fessenden, better than excellent), to her room—another room, another motel, somewhere on this stupid planet—with the possibility of sex. Instead, he finds Kiya’s redecorated her room like an outtake from The Cell, testing the lonely guy’s willingness to go along with whatever insanity’s in store. Of course, some icky gastrointestinal calamity occurs, but Marshall never flinches, so Kiya kidnaps him and takes him with her. Gorgeous and gross in equal measure, Like Me is a visual feast. Mockler conjures setpieces out of practically nothing, crafting each frame with a meticulous symmetry that belies the chaos at the heart of Kiya’s impulsive odyssey. —Dom Sinacola


after-the-storm-movie-poster.jpg 45. After the Storm
Year: 2017
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Depending on the filmmaker, After the Storm’s storyline could be grist for a dark comedy, a tear-jerking melodrama or a bilious character study. But because it springs from the mind of Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, this look at a middle-aged man who’s only slowly coming to the realization that he’s a right bastard is gentle, wistful—serene even. The film stars Hiroshi Abe (who previously appeared in Kore-eda’s I Wish) as Ryota. Years ago, he was a novelist of some acclaim—he even won a prestigious literary prize—but lately, the muse has run dry, leaving Ryota busily tending to his gambling addiction while taking a job as a private detective. And that’s when Ryota is not snooping on his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) to see who she’s dating now, even cajoling his 11-year-old son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) to question her about how serious this new relationship is. If a melancholy, troubled tone is endemic in Kore-eda’s work, so is his close chronicling of family dynamics. While Ryota fears turning into the same terminal disappointment as his father—or, perhaps, the disappointment he perceived him to be—he tries to win Shingo’s affection, buying him gifts to assert his supremacy over his ex’s new boyfriend. In Ryota’s mind, it’s how to be close to his boy in a way his father never was with him, but After the Storm knows better, recognizing all the ways that he’s failing his kid—and also how, like its own kind of genetic gravity, Ryota is becoming his old man, unable to correct the mistakes of the past. But there’s no scorn in Kore-eda’s depiction of Ryota’s transformation, the director’s patience towards Ryota is both touching and despairing. After the Storm shows this man more kindness than perhaps he deserves, but the film has no illusions: Only Ryota can pull himself out of his own hole. But that’s the thing about having faith in people—it makes it that much easier for them to keep breaking your heart. —Tim Grierson


swiss-army-man.jpg 44. 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


what we do in the shadows-movie-poster.jpg 43. What We Do in the Shadows
Year: 2015
Directors: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
 Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement co-stars in and co-directs this clever mockumentary about the banal bummers of the afterlife, when vampires stop being polite and start getting real. As “documented” by a camera crew, Clement and collaborator Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok) share a flat with fellow bloodsuckers who, when they aren’t bickering over dish duty and rent, are schooling a green new vamp—who in turn brings the centuries-old creatures into the technology age. The New Zealand-made horror-comedy is deeply self-aware, reveling in its silly practicalities: It’s tough to go clubbing when your undead identity requires that you be invited inside. When you’ve got nothing but time, the mundane becomes even more ridiculous, and Shadows’ way with the absurd is spot-on. (And that’s before we meet a pack of smug rivals who refuse to lower themselves to “swearwolves.”) What the genre- and cliché-bending film lacks in plot it more than makes up for in tongue-in-cheek charm. Who would’ve thought vampires were such dorks? —Amanda Schurr


nosferatu-herzog-movie-poster.jpg 42. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
Year: 1979
Director: Werner Herzog 
Werner Herzog  recreates the cornerstone of vampire cinema (and German expressionist filmmaking, for that matter) through an ever-mounting nightmare of unsettling, disjointed vignettes. Which isn’t anything new for the German director, but his methods and sensibility do lend themselves naturally to the language of phantasmagoria, as he tells a well-known story via one subconscious-upending image after another. As in any Herzog film, the story is never intended to hold together flawlessly—only barely logically—but to imprint indelibly upon the insides of the viewers’ eyelids the stark silhouette of evil borne absurdly from the primeval fear in all of us. That Klaus Kinski also plays Count Dracula means that madness bristles at the edge of every manicured line of chiaroscuro: Nosferatu revels in the beauty of horror. In fact, Roger Ebert said, “Here is a film that does honor to the seriousness of vampires. No, I don’t believe in them. But if they were real, here is how they must look.” —Dom Sinacola


quiet-place-movie-poster black.jpg 41. Buzz One Four
Year: 2017
Director: Matt McCormick
Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick begins his very personal documentary with an astounding shot of a nuclear mushroom cloud from high above the Earth, a droning ambient soundtrack roaring to a fever pitch as the explosion takes explicit shape. From there, McCormick narrates the story of his grandfather, one of the U.S.’s select B-52 bomber pilots burdened with flying world-clearing, 4-megaton nuclear weapons on marathon missions over North America, staying ever-ready to drop them on Russia should the Cold War come to a disastrous head. The film’s strength is its wordless, practically impressionistic sense of gravity when pouring over so much found footage and assorted documents from the time, detailing just how much of the world’s destiny was shaped by human beings as susceptible to error—to the failings of the human body—as any one of us. Scored by Portland ambient artist Eluvium (Matthew Cooper), Buzz One Four stays so compelling in its powerfully non-verbal wandering, one wishes McCormick got rid of narration altogether. —Dom Sinacola


city-ghosts-poster.jpg 40. City of Ghosts
Year: 2017
Director: Matthew Heineman
There need not be a documentary about the Syrian catastrophe to rally the world around its cause—just as, in Matthew Heineman’s previous film, Cartel Land, there was no need to vilify the world of Mexican cartels or the DEA or the paramilitaristic nationalists patrolling our Southern borders to confirm that murder and drug trafficking are bad. The threats are known and the stakes understood, at least conceptually. And yet, by offering dedicated, deeply intimate portraits of the people caught up in these crises, Heineman complicates them beyond all repair, placing himself in undoubtedly death-defying situations to offer a perspective whose only bias is instinctual. So it is with City of Ghosts, in which he follows members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group committed to using citizen-based journalism to expose the otherwise covered-up atrocities committed by ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria. In hiding, in Turkey and Germany and at an event for journalists in the U.S.—in exile—these men, who Heineman characterizes as a very young and even more reluctant resistance, tell of both the increasingly sophisticated multimedia methods of ISIS and their hopes for feeling safe enough to settle and start a family with equal trepidation about what they’ve conditioned themselves to never believe: That perhaps they’ll never be safe. Heineman could have easily bore witness to the atrocities himself, watching these men as they watch, over and over, videos of their loved ones executed by ISIS, a piquant punishment for their crimes of resistance. There is much to be said about the responsibility of seeing in our world today, after all. Instead, while City of Ghosts shares plenty of horrifying images, the director more often that not shields the audience from the graphic details, choosing to focus his up-close camera work on the faces of these men as they take on the responsibility of bearing witness, steeling themselves for a potential lifetime of horror in which everything they know and love will be taken from them. By the time Heineman joins these men as they receive the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for their work, the clapping, beaming journalists in the audience practically indict themselves, unable to see how these Syrian men want to be doing anything but what they feel they must, reinforcing the notion that what seems to count as international reportage anymore is the exact kind of lack of nuance that Heineman so beautifully, empathetically wants to call out. —Dom Sinacola


society-movie-poster.jpg 39. Society
Year: 1989
Director: Brian Yuzna
Society is perhaps what you would have ended up with in the earlier ’80s if David Cronenberg had a more robust sense of humor. Rather, this bizarre deconstruction of Reagan-era yuppiehood came from Brian Yuzna, well-known to horror fans for his partnership with Stuart Gordon, which produced the likes of Re-Animator and From Beyond…and eventually Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, believe it or not. Society is a weird film on every level, a feverish descent into what may or may not be paranoia when a popular high school guy begins questioning whether his family members (and indeed, the entire town) are involved in some sinister, sexual, exceedingly icky business. Plot takes a backseat to dark comedy and a creepily foreboding sense that we’re building to a revelatory conclusion, which absolutely does not disappoint. The effects work, suffice it to say, produces some of the most batshit crazy visuals in the history of film—there are disgusting sights here that you won’t see anywhere else, outside of perhaps an early Peter Jackson movie, a la Dead Alive. But Society’s ambitions are considerably grander than that Jackson’s gross-out classic: It takes aim at its own title and the tendency of insular communities to prey upon the outside world to create social satire of the highest (and grossest) order. —Jim Vorel


crippled-avengers-movie-poster.jpg 38. Crippled Avengers
Year: 1978
Director: Chang Cheh
In a time when exploitation cinema seemed the standard for cheap movie houses the world over, no martial arts flick got much better than this Shaw Brothers staple, which eventually adopted the much more PC title, Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms. The blind one, the deaf mute, the one without legs and the brain-damaged “idiot”: Together, they make an unstoppable force of vengeance against the local martial arts master who crippled them, as well as his son, who ironically lost his arms at a young age, and so sports dart-shooting cast-iron facsimiles. In other words, Crippled Avengers plays it cool, allowing our disfigured heroes few but important victories for most of the film, building up to its final 25-minute series of fight scenes, in which a blind man, a deaf mute, a man with iron prosthetic legs and an acrobatic “idiot” combine their individual strengths to defeat a kung fu master with, basically, robot arms. Movies like this give us reasons to get up in the morning. —Dom Sinacola


les diaboliques poster (Custom).jpg 37. Les Diaboliques
Year: 1955
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques through the lens of the modern horror film, especially the slasher flick—replete with un-killable villain (check); ever-looming jump scares (check); and a “final girl” of sorts (check?)—one would not have to squint too hard to see a new genre coming into being. You could even make a case for Clouzot’s canonization in horror, but to take the film on only those terms would miss just how masterfully the iconic French director could wield tension. Nothing about Les Diaboliques dips into the scummy waters of cheap thrills: The tightly wound tale of two women, a fragile wife (Véra Clouzot) and severe mistress (Simone Signoret) to the same abusive man (Paul Meurisse), who conspire to kill him in order to both reel in the money rightfully owed the wife, and to rid the world of another asshole, Diaboliques may not end with a surprise outcome for those of us long inured to every modern thriller’s perfunctory twist, but it’s still a heart-squeezing two hours, a murder mystery executed flawlessly. That Clouzot preceded this film with The Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau seems as surprising as the film’s outcome: By the time he’d gotten to Les Diaboliques, the director’s grasp over pulpy crime stories and hard-nosed drama had become pretty much his brand. That the film ends with a warning to audiences to not give away the ending for others—perhaps Clouzot also helped invent the spoiler alert?—seems to make it clear that even the director knew he had something devilishly special on his hands. —Dom Sinacola


mcqueen-movie-poster.jpg 36. McQueen
Year: 2018
Directors: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui
The first fashion collection from Lee Alexander McQueen, titled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” announced an artist who wasn’t going to play around. Models walked down the runway, horror on their faces, sometimes stumbling out onto the catwalk, the garments as provocative as textiles as the shows were transgressive. This was McQueen’s MA graduation collection from 1992, and he was 23. More than 25 years later, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui have achieved the nearly impossible, crafting a documentary almost as stunning as the artist it profiles. While McQueen, structured around the fashion “bad boy”’s five most important shows in his career, could be argued (rather reductively) to follow a “tortured genius” narrative, perhaps what makes it such ravishing filmmaking—biographical documentary filmmaking, at that—is not only its ability to embody and manifest the same kind of indenciary qualities as the works of McQueen, but that it actively probes at the ways in which mental illness and addiction shaped his life and work, without resorting to cheap sentimentality. McQueen is a moving testament to a once-in-a-lifetime artist, and, even moreso, an examination of just how human his art was. —Kyle Turner


zodiac.jpg 35. Zodiac
Year: 2007
Director: David Fincher 
I hate to use the word “meandering,” because it sounds like an insult, but David Fincher’s 2007 thriller is meandering in the best possible way—it’s a detective story about a hunt for a serial killer that weaves its way into and out of seemingly hundreds of different milieus, ratcheting up the tension all the while. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as Robert Graysmith, an amateur sleuth and the film’s through line, while the story is content to release its clues and theories to him slowly, leaving the viewer, like Graysmith, in ambiguity for long stretches, yet still feeling like a fast-paced burner. It’s not Fincher’s most famous film, but it’s absolutely one of the most underrated thrillers since 2000. There are few scenes in modern cinema more taut than when investigators first question unheralded character actor John Carroll Lynch, portraying prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, as his facade slowly begins to erode—or so we think. The film is a testament to the sorrow and frustration of trying to solve an ephemeral mystery that often seems to be just out of your grasp. —Shane Ryan


arrival.jpg 34. Arrival
Year: 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Your appreciation of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival will hinge on how well you like being led astray. It’s both the full embodiment of Villeneuve’s approach to cinema and a marvelous, absorptive piece of science fiction, a two hour sleight-of-hand stunt that’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge of its plot as possible. Fundamentally, it’s about the day aliens make landfall on Earth, and all the days that come after—which, to sum up the collective human response in a word, are mayhem. You can engage with Arrival for its text, which is powerful, striking, emotive and, most of all, abidingly compassionate. You can also engage with it for its subtext, should you actually look for it. This is a robust but delicate work captured in stunning, calculated detail by cinematographer Bradford Young, and guided by Amy Adams’ stellar work as Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist commissioned by the U.S. Army to figure out how the hell to communicate with our alien visitors. Adams is a chameleonic actress of immense talent, and Arrival lets her wear each of her various camouflages over the course of its duration. She sweats, she cries, she bleeds, she struggles, and so much more that can’t be said here without giving away the film’s most awesome treasures. She also represents humankind with more dignity and grace than any other modern actor possibly could. If aliens do ever land on Earth, maybe we should just send her to greet them. —Andy Crump


paterson-movie-poster.jpg 33. Paterson
Year: 2016
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Like Chantal Akerman’s ascetic classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson concerns itself with routine. The film conditions you to jive with its particular rhythm, in part so you might feel the impact experienced by our hero when the unexpected punctuates what’s regular in this average person’s life. Only, where Jeanne Dielman depicted the day-in-day-out of working-class life as a monotonous horror show, Paterson takes an altogether different tack. To Jarmusch, the everyday existence of blue-collar individuals like bus driver-poet Paterson (Adam Driver)—whom we observe across a single week—is so simple as to be near transcendent. Paterson’s a classic nice guy, but Driver helps us realize there’s more going on beneath that exterior that’s so cautious to offend. It’s a turn of minor gestures that lacks the obvious Best Actor grandstanding to, say, win an Oscar, but rest assured Driver’s performance is one of the most impressive of its year. As with Jarmusch’s beguiling film on the whole, once acclimated, you continue to feel it long after you’ve left the cinema. —Brogan Morris


dear-zachary-cover.jpg 32. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Year: 2008
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Kurt Kuenne was childhood friends with a man named Andrew Bagby, who, in late 2001, was murdered by ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. Relieved he’d finally put an end to a turbulent relationship, he had no idea Turner was pregnant. So she killed him, then fled to Newfoundland, where she gave birth to Bagby’s son, Zachary. This is how Dear Zachary begins: a visual testament to both Andrew Bagby’s life, as well as the enduring hearts of his parents, who, as Kuenne chronicles, moved to Newfoundland after their son’s murder to begin proceedings to gain custody of Zachary. Kuenne only meant the film to be a gift, a love letter to his friend postmarked to Zachary, to allow the baby to one day get to know his father via the many, many people who loved him most. Told in interviews, photos, phone calls, seemingly every piece of detritus from one man’s life, Kuenne’s eulogy is an achingly sad portrait of someone who, in only 28 years, deeply affected the lives of so many people around him. And then Dear Zachary transforms into something profoundly else. It begins to take on the visual language and tone of an infuriating true-crime account, painstakingly detailing the process by which Bagby’s parents gained custody and then—just as they were beginning to find some semblance of consolation—faced their worst nightmares. The film at times becomes exquisitely painful, but Kuenne has a natural gift for tension and pacing that neither exploits the material nor drags the audience through melodramatic mud. In retrospect, Dear Zachary’s expositional approach may seem a bit cloying, but that’s only because Kuenne is willing to tell a story with all the disconsolate surprise of the tragedy itself. You’re gonna bawl your guts out. —Dom Sinacola


brawl-cell-block-99-poster.jpg 31. Brawl in Cell Block 99
Year: 2017
Director: S. Craig Zahler
In which we bask in Vince Vaughn’s hugeness, witnessing S. Craig Zahler’s pitch-perfect ode to grindhouse cinema draw the best of extremes out of an actor who’s had a rough couple years crawling out from under the parody of himself. This is not Vince Vaughn playing Bradley Thomas, stolid brute willing to do whatever it takes to protect his family, it is the silhouette of Vince Vaughn, silent and bigger than everyone else in the room, a spectre of bruised flesh—so much flesh—descending circle by circle into Hades, his odyssey heralded by the likes of Don Johnson and Udo Kier (both seemingly born to be in this endlessly compelling, awfully fucked-up movie) and soundtracked by soul/RnB icons like the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. It confirms that Zahler—along with Bone Tomahawk—is on some Tarantino levels of modern genre filmmaking—which could honestly be a pejorative, were Brawl in Cell Block 99 less finely tuned, less patient and less breathlessly violent. By the time Bradley lurches into irrevocable action, foreshadowed by an opening scene in which he rips apart a car with his bare hands, which is exactly as that sounds, every life force he snuffs out with maximum barbarity also comes with pure satisfaction, the Id of anyone who’s into this kind of thing stroked to completion. —Dom Sinacola


bad-lieutenant-new-orleans-poster.jpg 30. The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans
Year: 2009
Director: Werner Herzog 
Two men on the cusp of utter meme-ification craft one last masterpiece together before they let go, fizzling into the dying light. An elegy, perhaps—for America, maybe, or for the concept of law and order within an America that’s long abandoned both concepts—Werner Herzog’s predictably singular vision for a loose sequel (reboot) to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant hangs Nicolas Cage from an imaginary hook, the actor’s baggy suit and wincing, glazy visage seemingly draped uncomfortably over every crime scene, line of coke and hallucinated iguana he comes across. New Orleans lieutenant Terence McDonagh is in a lot of pain, due mostly to a back injury he suffered saving an inmate from a flooding jail cell in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, exacerbated by all the extra drugs he consumes, plus the long horrible hours he maintains navigating the surreal wasteland of a city that’s seemingly made no progress since the natural disaster. Herzog makes no apologies about the obvious ties between McDonagh’s degradation and that of New Orleans’, concerned less with his plot’s procedural aspects (McDonagh’s trying to solve the murders of a family involved with low level drug dealing) and more with the oneiric geography of a once-thriving city lost to time. McDonagh, then, is our addled Virgil, guiding us through the Hell that made him, the Hell from which he can’t escape, the Hell he’ll never save despite his best efforts. Suffused with absurdity, and hilariously bleak as fuck, The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans serves as the last of Herzog’s fiction films able to withstand the director’s hardheaded anti-narrative inclinations, as well as the last of Cage’s films in which his unhinged weirdness isn’t so obviously performative. Together, the two men offer no hope for those whom America’s abandoned. Instead they offer a moving, odd bit of comfort: At least some of us are still trying. —Dom Sinacola


36th-chamber-movie-poster.jpg 29. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-leung
This is why any kung fu fan will always love Gordon Liu. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets: the definitive Shaolin movie, without a doubt, and the source of Liu’s nickname, “Master Killer.” He plays San Te, a young student wounded when his school is culled by the Manchu government, so he flees to the refuge of the Shaolin temple. After toiling as a laborer, he finally earns the right to learn kung fu, which begins the film’s famous training sequences. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the rare film where those training sequences actually outshine its traditional fights, because they’re just so beautiful, fluid and inventive. In each of the 36 chambers, San Te must toil to discipline his body, mind, reflexes and will. They make up the whole center of the film, and are unforgettable, bearing an iconic gravitas, imbuing kung fu with a great dignity. Because true kung fu can only be attained through the greatest of sacrifice. —Jim Vorel


stagecoach-poster.jpg 28. Stagecoach
Year: 1939
Director: John Ford
And just like that, with one swift zoom shot, John Ford gave John Wayne his breakthrough role, reintroducing American audiences to the man who would become one of their most lasting movie icons. Two Johns, making it happen. Still,Stagecoach isn’t exactly a John Wayne movie despite the fact that John Wayne is in it; this was before the days of The Searchers, of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, of The Quiet Man, even of Hondo, movies that each helped shape Wayne’s persona and forge his screen legend bit by bit. In Stagecoach, he’s just a man with a rifle, a mission of vengeance and a soft spot for a prostitute named Dallas. Rather than the tradition of Wayne, the film belongs to the tradition of strangers on a journey, about an unlikely and incongruous grouping of humans banding together to make it to a common destination. They ride a dangerous road, but Ford’s great gift as a filmmaker is his knack for making peril buoyant and entertaining, and in Stagecoach he does both effortlessly. —Andy Crump


not-your-negro-poster.jpg 27. I Am Not Your Negro
Year: 2017
Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston


it-comes-at-night-poster.jpg 26. It Comes at Night
Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
It Comes at Night is ostensibly a horror movie, moreso than Shults’s debut, Krisha, but even Krisha was more of a horror movie than most measured family dramas typically are. Perhaps knowing this, Shults calls It Comes at Night an atypical horror movie, but—it’s already obvious after only two of these—Shults makes horror movies to the extent that everything in them is laced with dread, and every situation suffocated with inevitability. For his sophomore film, adorned with a much larger budget than Krisha and cast with some real indie star power compared to his previous cast (of family members doing him a solid), Shults imagines a near future as could be expected from a somber flick like this. A “sickness” has ravaged the world and survival is all that matters for those still left. In order to keep their shit together enough to keep living, the small group of people in Shults’s film have to accept the same things the audience does: That important characters will die, tragedy will happen and the horror of life is about the pointlessness of resisting the tide of either. So it makes sense that It Comes at Night is such an open wound of a watch, pained with regret and loss and the mundane ache of simply existing: It’s trauma as tone poem, bittersweet down to its bones, a triumph of empathetic, soul-shaking movie-making. —Dom Sinacola

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