The 50 Best Movies on HBO Go and HBO Now (November 2018)

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strange-days-movie-poster.jpg 25. Strange Days
Year: 1995
Director: Kathryn Bigelow 
Before she reinvented herself as the director of award-winning docudramas, Kathryn Bigelow made her name directing crazy genre movies like Near Dark and Point Break. With all respect to Point Break, however, Strange Days remains Bigelow’s most compelling pre-War on Terror project. Written by Bigelow’s former husband James Cameron and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jay Cocks, Strange Days is a pulpy, noir-influenced sci-fi pic in the vein of Blade Runner but with more high-octane action and a lot more nudity. Developed during the Rodney King/L.A. Riots era, the film is set in a dystopian Los Angeles where people’s memories and experiences are recorded directly from their brains to sell on the black market. Anyone who has ever wanted to experience criminal activities or perverse sexual encounters can now do so without repercussions. The trouble begins when vice-detective-turned-black-marketer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) discovers a “snuff” disc depicting the brutal murder of an acquaintance. This disc leads him down a rabbit hole into the urban underground. At nearly two and a half hours, the film’s visual pyrotechnics and beautifully stylized performances provide more than enough ammunition to justify such excess. —Mark Rozeman


dolores-claiborne-movie-poster.jpg 24. Dolores Claiborne
Year: 1995
Director: Taylor Hackford
An underrated gem of Stephen King’s non-horror adaptations, Dolores Claiborne probably went under the radar because audiences were bombarded with one low-rent King horror flick after the other at the time. We’re well aware of King’s immense talent when it comes to drama, but he’s not primarily known for writing insightful works from a female perspective. (Check out the simplistic Big Driver for proof of that.) That’s what makes Dolores Claiborne so special. Director Taylor Hackford’s tender and empathetic take on an estranged mother (Kathy Bates) and daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) forced to face their painful pasts as the mother’s accused of murdering an old woman, covers familiar, dark King themes like alcoholism and abuse. The story’s many twists and turns reveal a painful and heartbreaking cycle of trauma, but the strangely hopeful ending lets us know that even the deepest cuts can be mended over time. As far as King adaptations are concerned, Bates will always be immediately associated with her Oscar-winning turn in Misery, but the subtle ways she gives life to the broken woman she portrays here is more than on par with her better-known role. —Oktay Ege Kozak


going-clear.jpg 23. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Year: 2015
Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney’s up-close examination of Scientology, its practices and the controversies that surround the religion founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard is also a stirring portrait of eight former adherents, who tell their stories of how they came to practice Scientology and their reasons for leaving the church. While much of the ideological content in Gibney’s film has circulated on the Internet for years, there was still a number of items to be learned from watching the film and hearing from the men who made it. While Going Clear is part exposé and part condemnation of a controversial religion, director Gibney has said that he was most interested in “the journey of the key characters in the film”—and how people got lost in the ‘prison of belief.’” —Christine N. Ziemba


paradise-lost-poster.jpg 22. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Year: 1996
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
If you’ve never heard of the West Memphis Three, do some research before you begin—you’ll want to be prepared. Within only a minute of the film’s opening, as Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” noodles forebodingly over pixelated camcorder videos, intolerable images taken straight from police evidence glance across frame, so quickly and frankly you’ll immediately question if they are, in fact, real. Of course, they are—they are images no person should ever have to see, and yet Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky use them only to expose the unbelievable horror at the heart of the appropriately named Paradise Lost. What unfolds over the following two and a half hours is just as heartbreaking: a trio of teenage boys (one with an IQ of 72) is put on trial for the brutal murders of three prepubescent boys, the only evidence against them a seemingly forced confession by the young kid with the below-average IQ, and laughably circumstantial physical proof. The film explores the context of West Memphis, its blindly devoted Christian population and how the fact that these teenagers dressed in black and listened to Metallica somehow led to their predictable fates at the hands of a comprehensively broken justice system. With surprising access to everyone involved in the trial, as well as a deft eye for the subtle exigencies of any criminal case such as this, Paradise Lost is a thorough, infuriating glimpse of the kind of mundane evil that mounts in some of America’s quietest corners. Welcome home. —Dom Sinacola


being-john-malkovich-movie-poster.jpg 21. Being John Malkovich
Year: 1999
Director: Spike Jonze 
The feature film debut from director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman is a long, absurd joke whose punchline is its final shot: the view of a man whimpering as he’s forced to watch his loved ones forget he’s ever existed. Being John Malkovich admits, with sad clarity, that our lives are totally out of our control. In the film, we follow street puppeteer Craig (John Cusack, looking like a small, humming pile of hair) as he confronts the economic viability of his chosen occupation by getting an admin job on the 7½ floor of a building that also happens to hide a tiny door which leads, if one crawls through cobwebs and puddles, to the inside of John Malkovich’s head, wherein for 15 minutes the brain tourist can vicariously live through famous actor John Malkovich’s eyes before getting spit up into a ditch off the New Jersey Turnpike. Having had his way with marionettes for years, Craig slowly understands how to control Malkovich while inside his head, crouching in the man’s sewer of an unconscious to hide away from the requisite 15-minute limit, but not before falling in love with a coworker (Catherine Keener) who seems to be falling in love with Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), but only via various liaisons through John Malkovich’s manipulable corpus. Throughout, Jonze and Kaufman only afford as much logic as is needed to movie the story from one weird scenario to another, but never letting the bleak heart of the film’s happenings overtake how goofily the plot unfolds. Visual detritus litters Jonze’s shots: A chucked can from a speeding car bounces off Malkovich’s head, the culprit recognizing Malkovich in time enough to call him out by name, though why John Malkovich poorly disguised in a ball cap and covered in ectoplasm would be on the side of the road in Jersey is anyone’s guess; a documentary features Brad Pitt briefly only to ignore him; an alternate universe Charlie Sheen embraces his receding hairline. Ideas pile atop more ideas, until the whole thing collapses in on itself, the film’s centerpiece basically John Malkovich singing his own name to another John Malkovich over and over, attempting to seduce the actor—deeply insecure, just like all of us—into liking himself. —Dom Sinacola


i-heart-huckabees-movie-poster.jpg 20. I Heart Huckabees
Year: 2004
Director: David O. Russell
There are a few films whose second or third viewing is as likely to “set the hook” as the first, and David O. Russell’s 2004 existential screwball comedy is one of them. I Heart Huckabees features an amazing cast either at the top of their respective games (Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin), in a game they aren’t typically thought of as playing (Isabelle Huppert) or, well, Mark Wahlberg in the best role he’s ever had. On first viewing, the jargon can overwhelm viewers less philosophically inclined, but in his efforts to find meaning in a series of coincidences, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is engaged in the same comedy as the film’s viewers—desperately trying to find order and meaning in a chaotic world. Whether you deem that particular comedy of the human condition dark, breezy, inscrutable or just “what it is,” will depend on your state of mind. I Heart Huckabees just knows it’s pretty damn funny, regardless. —Michael Burgin


game-night-movie-poster.jpg 19. Game Night
Year: 2018
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
What fuels fury more than fraternal frustration? In John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s dark comedy Game Night, smarmily rich Brooks (Kyle Chandler) gifts his comfortably middle class and ultra-competitive younger brother Max (Jason Bateman) with the kind of immersive gaming experience that will change his life, primarily because it serves as an opportunity for Max to finally best his older bro at something for once. Max and his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) are more than willing to play, as a tiny wedge in their marriage—their inability to conceive due to Max’s low sperm mobility, most likely brought on via anxiety caused by his brother—looms in the back of both of their minds. The comparisons between Game Night and David Fincher’s thriller The Game are apter than you think, not only because of the all-consuming nature of the game: Even if Max is a version of the same kind of petty as his brother is, the film reframes male virility within the context of a series of funny games. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams is positively aces, her comic timing both precise and seemingly effortless, and duo Daley and Goldstein’s filmmaking is slick, allowing a light class critique (affluence is a scam) to sink in via glossy exteriors and shiny domestic spaces. Maintaining who we are and who we think we are is, for these characters, an unending, relentlessly competitive game. —Kyle Turner


bessie.jpg 18. Bessie
Year: 2015
Director: Dee Rees
It may have taken 20 years to make it, but when Bessie finally arrived, she came, she saw and she conquered. The HBO film has garnered 12 well-deserved Emmy nominations, with Queen Latifah, co-stars Michael Kenneth Williams and Mo’Nique, and director Dee Rees all getting the nod. One scene in particular—with the reverse paper bag test—is one of Bessie’s finest moments, as it encompasses all that makes the HBO film so wonderful. There’s Queen Latifah in all her glory, finally setting up her own tour and making sure everyone knows who’s boss. There’s the hilarity when she lets down one of the hopefuls auditioning—“You must be darker than the bag to be in my show!” After all, Bessie is an incredibly funny movie at times. And there’s the whole inversion of the brown paper bag test. Where Bessie Smith grew up in a world that demanded black women performing back-up be lighter than a brown paper bag, Bessie makes up a new rule that gives her back some agency and sets a different tone (literally and figuratively) for her showcase. Bessie was, in no way, your average blues performer and for that reason Lili Fini Zanuck and her husband Richard D. Zanuck knew they couldn’t just deliver your average black-performer-who-grew-up-poor-and-made-it-big biopic. The familiar story of a talented woman done in by a man (or many men), or childhood tragedies, or her own celebrity was not Bessie’s story—she wasn’t lighter than a brown paper bag, and, thankfully, wasn’t presented as such. —Shannon M. Houston


drag-me-to-hell-poster.jpg 17. Drag Me to Hell
Year: 2009
Director: Sam Raimi 
Drag Me to Hell may be a delirious horror film, but it’s no trifle: Not since 1993’s Army of Darkness has director Sam Raimi’s creativity seemed so reinvigorated, in that it’s bound by no other template than his own, totally unhinged. Each action sequence is a model of wit, the sound of Raimi laughing practically accompanying loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman) when she discovers that her assailant is standing conveniently beneath an anvil hung from the ceiling by a rope, or when a fierce fight in the interior of a car manages to incorporate both staples and dentures as weapons, or when a creature tries unsuccessfully to gum its victim’s face off because said dentures are at large, or when a possessed goat calls Christine a “bitch” in exactly the way one might expect a goat to call a person a bitch. Blood-squirting noses, murdered kittens and oozing body juices spackle this ragged thing together. The impetus is clear: This is Raimi going back to his roots, an overdue corrective to the limp contemporary horror flicks of a decade ago. We, the audience, nod in grateful reverence. —Robert Davis and Jeffrey Bloomer


american-splendor.jpg 16. American Splendor
Year: 2003
Directors: Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman
Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” books are fascinating: Pekar believed that even the most mundane and seemingly uncomplicated lives were worth documenting. American Splendor showcases this theory by combining real footage of Pekar, fictionalized versions of characters from his life—maintaining both stylized caricatures and naturalistic drama—and even animated segments pulled from the comics to create a cohesive whole that presents an ordinary life as a fascinating experience. —Ross Bonaime


shape-of-water-movie-poster.jpg 15. The Shape of Water
Year: 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro 
If there’s a waiting period filmmakers must abide before they can borrow from their own body of work, Guillermo del Toro either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. His latest, The Shape of Water, an ageless story of true love between a human woman and a fish-man, references his filmography both at and below surface levels: It suggests a riff on Abe Sapien, the psychic ichthyoid sidekick in both Hellboy films (who is himself a riff on Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill-man, fed through a copyright strainer by his creator, Mike Mignola), but directly invokes the structure and fairy tale trappings of his 2006 breakout picture, Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro has us set down in 1960s Baltimore, where Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works the janitorial night shift for the not-at-all-shady Occam Aerospace Research Center. She’s alone, mostly, except for her next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her coworker and friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Giles and Zelda give Elisa a voice she quite literally lacks: She’s mute, and spends most of the film communicating with sign language. Elisa’s clockwork days are disrupted by the arrival of the Asset (Doug Jones, the actor behind Abe Sapiens’ prosthetics), the aforementioned fish-man, in the custody of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), at once the epitome of the del Toro villain and the average Shannon role: He’s abusive, violent, dictatorial to a fault, but mannered, the kind of bastard who thinks his dastardly bastard deeds are right and never thinks twice about his own morality. Elisa, ballsier than Strickland and basically every other man in the film, develops instant kinship with the creature. The success of their relationship hinges on performance as much as on direction. Del Toro cares about the well being of freaks and aberrations more than most people care about the well being of other actual people. Visually, The Shape of Water screams dieselpunk, signifying Bioshock more than the brothers Grimm, but the film bears the indelible stamp of folkloric mythmaking all the same. Del Toro weaves together his influences so finely, so delicately, that the product of his handiwork feels entirely new. That’s the magic of the movies, and, more importantly, the magic of del Toro. —Andy Crump


anchorman-movie-poster.jpg 14. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Year: 2004
Director: Adam McKay 
Will Ferrell was a movie star before 2004, carrying both Old School and Elf, but he is still inseparable from his role as San Diego newscaster Ron Burgundy, a character so closely tied to our perception of Ferrell as cinematic presence that every subsequent role seems to contain shades of him. Now that McKay has an Oscar under his belt, he’s getting more recognition than he did when he was simply the man behind the camera on Ferrell’s best movies. Anchorman upped the ante on Zoolander’s sheer lunacy, and ended up being a better movie for it, but true to McKay’s Chicago improv roots, it is a plane forming itself mid-flight, and Anchorman would be two seconds from falling apart without McKay’s steady hand. Ferrell is a certifiable genius in his own right, and is undoubtedly the center of the universe in each of these films, but the world around Ferrell belongs to McKay, and Anchorman announced his arrival as an uncompromising comedy world-builder. —Graham Techler


tale-hbo-movie-poster.jpg 13. The Tale
Year: 2018
Director: Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox has just done something utterly brilliant, and you need to see it. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable, because The Tale, adapted from her narrative memoir of the same name, will do a number on your head, in the way that a particularly vivid nightmare sometimes can, whether you personally have a childhood sexual abuse story or not. This film was made three years ago. It’s not a response to or the property of any movement, any hashtag; it’s not finally, finally pulling back the veil on the terrible stories no one ever told until now. We have always told these stories. They have always existed and we have always told them. We just didn’t do it with hashtags. To even characterize this film as “a story about sexual abuse” would be a shallow read on a very deep work of art. The Tale is, at a certain level, “about” sexual abuse. But focus on that for too long and you’ll miss the astonishing, courageous, gorgeous mosaic of ways in which it is deliberately, doggedly and totally not. This is a film about the morphing quicksand terrain of human memory and it’s about the stories we tell ourselves in order to stay sane and most of all it’s about the Plinian, volcanic power of emotional honesty. If you want to talk about the spirit of the moment, the guiding spirit of the times, maybe we need to pan back from anything as specific as sexual abuse of girls and women and talk about why being honest is the ultimate act of revolution. Plenty of people make autobiographical films. The Tale is so deeply and specifically autobiographical that it almost becomes something else. Fox as director and writer puts her documentarian’s tools to work to create a meta-textual tapestry depicting the ways in which our memories inform (and misinform) our self-concept. And this beautiful, gripping, disturbing film deserves to be looked at with as much nuance as it offers. It manages to dive so deeply into the personal that it explodes into something universal. —Amy Glynn


inherent-vice-movie-poster.jpg 12. Inherent Vice
Year: 2014
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
The fog that envelops Inherent Vice might bring to mind the old expression “thick as pea soup.” But that’s not quite right. Sometimes it’s like cotton candy, at others like ominous smoke. Paul Thomas Anderson’s drug-fueled detective odyssey depicts the end of the 1960s in a way that’s both mournful and madcap; coherency isn’t a priority—or even intended—in this tale of an era of endless possibilities coming to a close. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is both unnervingly surreal and pliably, affably keen to take every detour possible on the road from A to B. While its gags are ingenious and plentiful, heady themes rise from the madness: some good for laughs—the culture war is at the forefront of the story, and Anderson isn’t beneath milking a chocolate-covered banana’s phallic qualities as a hippie-hating authority figure devours it—and some, sometimes the very same themes, conjure up a distinct melancholy in the same breath, as in how the ideal of free love gives way to disturbing sexual dynamics. An attempt to summarize the plot would be just that: an attempt—and even then there’s no guarantee how clear it would be. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a burn-out private investigator trying to locate: 1) a potentially kidnapped billionaire; 2) that billionaire’s missing bodyguard; 3) a missing saxophone player; and 4) Doc’s own ex-girlfriend, who initiated the investigation in the first place. Phoenix plays the part with a mastery of facial manipulation, a breezy and casual physicality that belies his impeccable comic timing. So Phoenix is our guide, our constant, throughout this shifting landscape: Always in flux, Inherent Vice perseveres as a screwball elegy to a lost time, refusing to function solely as a stoner comedy or a serious drama or any one thing for that matter. Anderson is mannered enough to shift from one tone to another organically, making the whole seem part of one larger kaleidoscopic feeling rather than a series of disjointed vignettes, and that alone is a huge accomplishment. That he also characteristically includes a series of unforgettable scenes makes this film one that must be seen again, if not to better understand it, then to remember the sweet feeling of reveling in its haze. —Jeremy Mathews


cop-car-movie-poster.jpg 11. Cop Car
Year: 2015
Director: Jon Watts
A lean, rugged neo-noir that tweaks genre conventions by putting two young boys at the center of its attention, Cop Car opens with credits shimmering like police lights. Cut to snapshots of writer-director Jon Watts’ rural Colorado milieu, a place defined by barren storefronts, abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated trailer parks, and flat, dusty plains. Across the vast, barren land walk 10-year-olds Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford): Travis utters curse words that Harrison dutifully echoes in a kind of casual call-and-repeat bonding ritual, and from the first sight of the duo—orchestrated by Watts as one gorgeous, unbroken tracking shot which captures them dwarfed by the country’s big sky, even when they make their away through a barbed wire fence—it’s clear that the boys are on an odyssey of some sort, albeit one of initially undefined purpose. And it’s clear that Watts (co-scripting with Christopher Ford) wants Cop Car to serve as a downbeat commentary about the futility of escape. Coming upon a tree-shrouded area, the two are surprised to discover a county sheriff’s cruiser. They decide that the car has been abandoned. Up to no good, finding the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys inside, Travis and Harrison opt to take a joy ride. Apparently having both run away from home, the two speed around the cow-populated landscape like juvenile delinquents unconcerned about the potentially serious consequences of their actions. Such uninhibited, devil-may-care recklessness gives the material an immediate jolt of peril, even before Watts rewinds his tale to reveal the origins of the car and its owner. As it turns out, the car was left in this out-of-the-way locale by Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), its remote parking spot chosen so that the officer wouldn’t be seen hauling a body out of its trunk and onto a tarp, and then dragging it to a hole to be unceremoniously dumped. That corpse’s identity is left as vague as Kretzer’s reason for committing this apparent murder. Suffice it to say, when the sun does finally set on these characters, what’s left is a bleak portrait of the hopelessness of trying to change one’s circumstances, and the often-brutal punishment doled out by fate to those foolish enough to think they can alter who they are, where they come from, or where they’re going—even when those in question are just a couple of ne’er-do-well runaways looking for some mischievous kicks. —Nick Schager


butch-cassidy-sundance-kid-poster.jpg 10. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Year: 1969
Director: George Roy Hill
The top-grossing film of 1969 and four-time Oscar winner was an anachronistic wonder that poked at the stoic bravura of the traditional Western: Consider the broad buddy humor between its pitch-perfect leads, Paul Newman and Robert Redford; the poppy, Burt Bacharach-Hal David-penned score and that theme song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”; and William Goldman’s wry, self-aware script. From the first sepia-saturated moments of George Roy Hill’s take on the Old West, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rewrote history, literally: Author Goldman famously wanted to tell the story of the titular outlaws’ flight to South America but didn’t want to do sufficient research for a novel-length treatment. And thus, “Most of what follows is true,” the film winks at its start. Gorgeously shot by Conrad Hall, the film is a deftly balanced mix of reverential genre elegy and sometimes deadpan, sometimes slapstick comedy. At its heart is then box office superstar Newman and comparatively small-potatoes actor Redford, the latter taking over after Steve McQueen backed out, balking over whose name would be billed first in the credits. As the Kid’s girlfriend, Katharine Ross complicates the duo’s relationship and lends nuance to what is essentially a love story. Curiously, Butch and Sundance’s posse, the Hole in the Wall Gang, was known as the Wild Bunch in real life but was changed for the screen to avoid confusion with another Western set for release a few months prior to its own premiere. —Amanda Schurr


blade-runner-2049-movie-poster.jpg 9. Blade Runner 2049
Year: 2017
Director: Denis Villeneuve
 Blade Runner 2049 is undoubtedly the most gorgeous thing to come out of a major studio in some time. Roger Deakins has inculcated Jordan Cronenweth’s lived-in sense of a future on the brink of obsolescence, leaning into the overpowering unease that permeates the monolithic Los Angeles Ridley Scott built. The scale of the film is only matched by the constant dread of obscurity—illumination shifts endlessly, dust and smog both magnifying and drowning the sense-shattering corporate edifices and hyper-stylized rooms in which humanity retreats from the moribund natural world they’ve created. There is a massive world, a solar system, orbiting this wretched city—so overblown that San Diego is now a literal giant dump for New L.A.’s garbage—but so much of it lies in shadow and opacity, forever out of reach. What Scott and Cronenweth accomplished with the original film, placing a potboiler within a magnificently conceived alternative reality, Villeneuve and Deakins have respected as they prod at its boundaries. There’s no other way to describe what they’ve done other than to offer faint praise: They get it. —Dom Sinacola


princess-bride.jpg 8. The Princess Bride
Year: 1987
Director: Rob Reiner
Quite possibly the most perfectly executed transformation of a beloved book to a beloved film in the history of the sport. A family-friendly “kissing movie” with pitch-perfect performances by the entire cast—from main character to bit player—The Princess Bride is the most relentlessly quotable film anywhere this side of Monty Python and their Holy Grail. Though regarded warmly enough by critics, its status as comedic fable ensures it is criminally underrated on most lists. Inconceivable? Alas, no. But unfair, nonetheless. —Michael Burgin


ronin-movie-poster.jpg 7. Ronin
Year: 1998
Director: John Frankenheimer
A bone-dry spy thriller with a loudly beating heart of melodrama—more Hitchcock than Melville, both directors to whom this movie’s deeply indebted—Ronin wraps a marginal plot around endless espionage-etched intrigue between cold-as-ice, badass sociopaths, inhuman car chases and labyrinthine shoot-outs serving as intimacy amongst thieves. Director John Frankenheimer is breathlessly economical, except for when he isn’t: We gather whatever we need to of mercenaries Sam (Robert DeNiro) and Vincent (Jean Reno), two members of a team (counting in their numbers Stellan Skarsgård and Sean Bean) hired by IRA project manager Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to retrieve a MacGuffin from a heavily armed convoy protecting a bald man—then we also make a too-long sojourn to the manse of mysterious rich model-builder (Michael Lonsdale), who puts way too fine a point on the whole “ronin” metaphor. Whatever Frankenheimer has to say about the lengths to which someone will go for “loyalty” and “honor”—whatever those words mean in the face of love or life in the late ’90s—pales compared to the kinetic language he wields with an Audi on the streets of Nice. —Dom Sinacola


when-the-levees.jpg 6. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Director:   Spike Lee  
Year: 2006
Part indictment of FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, part celebration of the unfailingly resilient spirit of New Orleans, Spike Lee’s four-hour-long look at “The City That Care Forgot” a year after the near-obliteration of Hurricane Katrina is an exhausting, comprehensive, worthwhile experience. There’s a reason so many residents refer to the catastrophe as the “Federal flood” and not Katrina itself—Lee’s Peabody-winning doc examines the systemic failure at all levels of government to maintain the storm barriers and deal with the consequences of their negligence. It’s political, it’s racial, it’s accusatory and it’s utterly compelling viewing. It’s also inspiring, thanks to the resolute locals shown struggling to survive and rebuild in the disaster’s aftermath. This is very much a Spike Lee joint; don’t expect anyone in the Dubya administration to come away without a tongue-lashing. But the heart and soul of the doc is the people of New Orleans, and they won’t let you down—on the contrary. —Amanda Schurr


dunkirk-poster.jpg 5. Dunkirk
Year: 2017
Director: Christopher Nolan 
Christopher Nolan has always been a filmmaker of contradictory impulses. He wants to awe you with spectacle but also capture the restlessness of the soul, to twist every emotion for all its worth but also stand outside and objectively observe, to be plain and direct and earnest but also leave you locked in puzzle-boxes to take apart and put back together again. He is ambitious but reserved; pop but art; loud but quiet. He has been wrestling with all these impulses for years, sometimes resulting in the greatest popcorn blockbuster of this century (The Dark Knight) and sometimes resulting in an awkward, overly complicated mishmash of corn and kitsch (Interstellar). He has a filmmaking instrument of almost overwhelming power, but has, especially recently, had an increasingly difficult time reigning in that power. Which is why Dunkirk is such a staggering, almost fantastical achievement. It takes everything Nolan does well and everything he doesn’t, everything he fights against and everything he embraces, everything great and terrible about him, and streamlines it, focuses it, until it’s pure Nolan, straight into your veins. It’s the most Christopher Nolan film imaginable. It also might just be his best one. —Will Leitch


phantom-thread-movie-poster.jpg 4. Phantom Thread
Year: 2017
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
Phantom Thread is a movie that is so wonderfully made, so meticulous in its construction, so deeply felt in execution, that you can almost overlook how prickly and scabrous it is. This has to be the most luscious-to-watch film, ever, that is in large part about how self-centered and inflexible the world of relationships can be, how we can only give up so much of ourselves and it’s up to our partner to figure out how to deal with that, if they want to at all. This is an uncompromising movie about two uncompromising people who try to live with one another without losing too large a part of themselves, and the sometimes extreme lengths they will go to get their way. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a world-famous dressmaker who clothes celebrities, royalty and, sometimes to his chagrin, déclassé wealthy vulgarians. Almost everything that doesn’t meet his exacting standards is vulgarian, until one day while in the English countryside, Reynolds comes across a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who both meets Reynolds’ physical requirements (specifically so he can make dresses for her) and has a certain pluck that he instantly finds fascinating. Both of the principals of Phantom Thread are absurd and insane in their own ways, and one of the many thrills of the film is watching them bounce off each other, and then collide again. It’s the oddest little love story, so odd that I’m not even sure it’s about love at all. My colleague Tim Grierson said this first, but it’s too good an observation to ignore: This movie is in large part about the absolute unknowability of other people’s relationships. From the outside, it makes no sense that Reynolds and Alma would have this sort of connection with each other; it’s difficult to tell what either person is getting out of it. But what’s unfathomable about it is also what makes it so powerful. —Will Leitch


goodfellas-poster.jpg 3. GoodFellas
Year: 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Far from a typical shoot-em-up gangster flick, GoodFellas is in the details: the carefully chosen close-ups; the nuances in each character’s personality, plying at and defying stereotypes. Even scenes that involve murder and violence, though grotesque, aren’t flatly black-and-white—someone cracks a joke and then weirdly, somehow in that moment, you can still laugh. Those despicable situations are suddenly grayer, and a viewer can see past the monstrous things they commit to something that amounts to empathy for monsters. All of the small details come together, GoodFellas humanizing the gory story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his fellow made men, immersively making it much too difficult to distance oneself from him and his friends, casting the biopic’s protagonist and its villain as the same guy to kind of convince you to like him despite himself. —Anita George


thin-red-line-poster.jpg 2. The Thin Red Line
Year: 1998
Director: Terrence Malick 
It seems unbelievable now that even an auteur as legendary as Terrence Malick actually secured financing to make poetry on the scale of The Thin Red Line. Pitched up on lush location in Australia and armed with a cast bursting with talent, Malick returned from moviemaking hibernation in 1998 with author James Jones’ story of a company of GIs battling Japanese forces in the paradise of Guadalcanal, all refracted through his own glorious lens. The result was an abstract and relentlessly contemplative epic, awash with gorgeous cutaways to jungle and beast, and—atypically for a filmmaker whose main fixation has always been the environment his characters reside in—chock-full of great acting. (The performances are faultless to a man, but a terrifically zen Jim Caviezel and a perpetually enraged Nick Nolte take the prize.) Hardly ever can a film sustain that aching feeling of raw emotion across its entire running time; this almost three-hour masterpiece does. —Brogan Morris


fargo.jpg 1. Fargo
Year: 1996
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
In exploring the unsavory implications of “Minnesota nice,” the Coen Brothers created one of the most beloved, acclaimed and quotable films of all time. Fargo explores the tension that accompanies polite social norms and the quiet desperations they often mask, setting up one scene after another so awkward it’ll make your skin crawl. The emotional restraint displayed by such characters as Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) is a thin and disingenuous veil over yearnings for money or companionship, while their foil, obviously, is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who really is that nice and hardworking and downright normal. The Coens strike a careful balance between gentleness and a stark gruesomeness underneath a typical all-American veneer, making you appreciate the art behind postage stamps as deeply as they make you cringe at the sound of a wood chipper. —Allie Conti

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