The 50 Best Movies on Sundance Now

Movies Lists Sundance Now
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 50 Best Movies on Sundance Now

The best movies on Sundance Now are typically those you could’ve found streaming before on platforms like Netflix or Hulu, outcasts and peripheral classics that Sundance has mixed with undeniable modern masterpieces like Taxi Driver and Hoop Dreams. No other streaming service will have Kelly Reichardt’s debut, River of Grass, smattered amongst a weird Nick Broomfield joint like Biggie & Tupac or Robert Downey Sr.’s (father to that Jr.) midnight staple, Putney Swope. Like Fandor or MUBI, Sundance Now is worth the subscription fee for it’s curatorial gems, not for the glut of its library.

Still, it’s arguable that no other service has so many essential documentaries, many of which you can find on our list of the best documentaries of all time, like the aforementioned Steve James opus, but also Dear Zachary, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners & I, Robert Greene’s Actress and the incomparable Shoah—all ten hours of it.

Genuinely excited by what Sundance has to offer, we’re here to provide you with our prime pickings. And as always, you can check out all of our best movie streaming guides to find the best of what’s available on whatever streaming device you use.

Here are the 50 best movies streaming on Sundance Now:

50. Borgman

Year: 2013
Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Van Warmerdam’s film begins as if it’s midway through a twisted dream-sequence: Several mysterious characters emerge from underground shelters in the woods, having just avoided capture following a vicious manhunt. The man who seems to be the leader of these dodgy characters, Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), ends up in a rich neighborhood and knocks on the door of the home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis), asking for a place to wash up. Richard reacts rather aggressively to the request, but Borgman remains unfazed and simply returns in the evening when Richard is out. Embarrassed by her husband’s behavior, Marina lets Borgman in and then promptly realizes she wants him to stay. Did she just let the devil into her home? Borgman rarely attempts to explain itself, dancing between perception and reality with vaguely political intent, not quite Lynchian but not exactly ordinary either. Either way, it’s a late masterpiece from one of Dutch cinema’s masters. —Roxanne Sancto

49. Taxi to the Dark Side

Year: 2007
Director: Alex Gibney
A shade overshadowed by controversy surrounding the film’s distribution and promotion, Taxi to the Dark Side is still a punishing document of American imperialism—both a product and condemnation of the democratic system that’s failed us for so long. Part post-9/11 discourse on torture and those who facilitate it for a so-called greater good, and part slowly simmering nightmare, Gibney’s film draws out a labyrinth of bureaucracy only slightly less enraging than the feeling of sitting there, watching this documentary, knowing there’s pretty much nothing you can do. This is the way the world ends—not with a bang but with the whimper of a man being tortured to death. —Dom Sinacola

48. The City of Lost Children

Year: 1998
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
Ron Perlman plays the reluctant hero, a circus strongman looking for his adopted little brother, as Marc Caro (Delicatessen) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) together create a wildly imaginative dystopian universe. Mad scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) harvests children’s dreams in order to keep himself young, so One (Perlman) enlists the help of an orphaned street-thief to save the enslaved kids. Fans of Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry will appreciate this surreal masterpiece. —Josh Jackson

47. The Loneliest Planet

Year: 2012
Director: Julia Loktev
A lot happens when you sit down to silently watch a movie where nothing happens. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant immediately comes to mind, a movie that conjured the same dread from recognizable environments and long takes of people just pretty much walking around. That’s what happens in The Loneliest Planet: Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nika (Hani Furstenberg) decide to hike the Caucasus Mountains on some extended hipster holiday, so they hire a native Georgian guide and go walk around for a really fucking long time. Then a sundering something occurs exactly halfway through their trip, irrevocably coming between Alex and Nica, and they continue to walk around for a really fucking long time, only this time full of pain and resentment and hopelessness. Nica and Alex and their guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) comb through an awesome wilderness, and we’re left to watch. Silently. And that’s it. The film shudders with ambiguity. Exalted with it. Planet’s about a relationship; whether that relationship survives is, of course, ambiguous, but at its lowest, when the connection the two people share is barely holding, the characters in this movie are real sad-sacks. And the epic landscape surrounding them grows all the more menacing. —Dom Sinacola

46. Biggie & Tupac

Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola

45. A Christmas Tale

Year: 2008
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
A Christmas Tale is a lively, capricious, mischievous ensemble delight—the kind of movie Noah Baumbach would make if he were French and a little more hopeful about humanity. Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve) have three grown children, two of whom have long been estranged. Now, as Junon needs a dangerous transfusion to survive cancer, everyone convenes in the family home to celebrate Christmas together. Though the film deals with many exceptionally depressing topics (mental illness, hatred, life-threatening disease, lost love, betrayal) director Arnaud Desplechin never veers into maudlin territory. Instead, with a lightly stylized touch, A Christmas Tale avoids taking itself or its characters’ foibles too seriously. Family members might hate each other, but something like love is underneath it all. On top of his story about a hilariously contentious family reunion, Desplechin has heaped cinema itself, spinning up a maelstrom of irises and dissolves, Vertigos and Tenenbaums, Minguses and Herrmanns, to end up with something that feels almost, maybe, strangely, ever so slightly touching. —Alissa Wilkinson

44. 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

43. Daddy Longlegs

Year: 2010
Directors: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Is Lenny Sokol the coolest dad ever? Or is he a walking hazard who exposes his often unruly twin boys to risks most parents would consider unthinkable, if not prosecutable? Both, actually. This autobiographical film by brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie (this year’s Good Time) is a freewheeling, totally bugged-out portrait of a father whose love is inseparable from chaos. Indie director Ron Bronstein (Frownland) plays existential dervish Lenny, a divorced projectionist who only has custody of his boys (Sonic Youth offspring Sage and Frey Ranaldo, in their full seven-year-old glory) for two weeks per year. Emotionally generous and refreshingly real in its restless, handheld whirl, the film veers between tenderness and panic, capturing gritty details of a New York City that barely seems to exist anymore. The wiry Bronstein’s caffeinated pulse gives the film its improvisatory edge, as the story takes unpredictable leaps through the magic and terror of childhood. —Steve Dollar

42. Always Shine

Year: 2016
Director: Sophia Takal
Sophia Takal punctuates her film with horror movie grammar, whether in setting or in style. It’s always bad news when a movie compels its human beings to attend a cabin in the woods, especially when those humans know of their own accord that the surrounding area lacks cell coverage, so Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) get off to a shaky start that becomes downright wobbly with just a shift in setting. Also troubling are the flashes between the film’s present and what we presume to be its future. Takal occasionally slows down Anna and Beth’s dialogue and plays it in reverse, or flits from their chatter to the sights and sounds of struggle. These aggressive editing choices hint at where Always Shine ends up going, though nothing substantial enough to give away the big reveal. —Andy Crump

41. Dark Days

Year: 2000
Director: Marc Singer
Marc Singer never intended to be a filmmaker when he befriended a few groups from New York’s homeless community; he never intended to move in for a few months with the denizens of the Freedom Tunnel when he became so close them. And he never intended a documentary, crewed by its own subjects, as anything more than a way to financially help those same subjects. Yet, despite Singer’s less-than-artistic origins, Dark Days rings with unmitigated sincerity—so immersive as to be practically claustrophobic, capturing in stark chiaroscuro a world suffocating beneath the City. It’s rare that a documentary feels almost too up close and personal. —Dom Sinacola

40. Marwencol

Year: 2010
Director: Jeff Malmberg
One night in 2000, Mark Hogencamp was beaten close to death by five men outside of a bar he frequented. No one really knew why it happened; after nine days in a coma, Hogencamp awoke with severe brain damage and little memory of life before. Unable to pay for intensive therapy, he slowly devised a world of his own to reconstruct in place of the one he’d lost: Marwencol, a World-War-II-era Belgian town made from 1/6th scale hobby sets and GI Joe/Barbie dolls, He populated the place with characters transposed from his life as he knew it—himself, friends and the men who attacked him. In order to find reason, and one assumes come to some sort of closure, Hogencamp—charmingly chain-smoking—acts out serialized plots in his little town, meticulously positioning tiny hands or dragging action figure vehicles down back country roads, all the while in thrall to every trivial detail within his control. Marwencol explores Hogencamp’s imagination as he attempts to rediscover the identity he lost, following the man to New York when his photos of Marwencol are featured in Esopus magazine and shown in an art gallery. The trip proves to be the first time since the accident that Hogencamp’s left his rigorously controlled, excessively private life, and with that director Jeff Malmberg captures him finally getting a grip on the quietly slumbering truths that may have—somehow—brought him to that point. It’s a story rich in awakenings, about the precarious nature of identity and the surprises of spirit awaiting us, somewhere, out of our control, yet held deeply within. —Dom Sinacola

39. Devil in a Blue Dress

Year: 1995
Director: Carl Franklin
Devil in a Blue Dress perfectly casts Denzel Washington as a down-on-his-luck WWII veteran who relocates to L.A. to start a new career as a private investigator. As tends to happen with PIs in this subgenre, the man inevitably finds himself embroiled in a complicated murder investigation. Adding his own spin to the well-trodden noir plotlines, writer/director Carl Franklin uses his film’s detective story as a launching pad to explore the racial landscape of 1940s America. Philip Marlowe certainly had his share of rough encounters, but he had the benefit of never being instantly judged on the basis of his skin color. Mix in a scene-stealing turn from Don Cheadle and Devil in a Blue Dress makes for one tantalizing riff on the film noir formula. —Mark Rozeman

38. Four Lions

Year: 2010
Director: Chris Morris
Four Lions proves once again that great comedy can be extracted from the dodgiest and most painful subjects, mixing slapstick with dry British humor to tell the story of four would-be radical Islamic terrorists hell-bent on bringing down the evil capitalist heathen of the West. Only one problem (well, a couple of them): They have no real connections, skills, or ability to plan anything, suffering from varying degrees of resolve when it comes to blowing themselves up for their cause. In other words, they are terrible at their dream jobs. As unrelenting as Four Lions can be in the way that it pokes fun of its central four characters, they film never adopts a farcical tone, instead never shying from the dangerous ramifications of their actions, no matter how incompetently they go about them. Deftly executed by co-writer/director Christopher Morris, who should be known States-side as the neurotic boss during the first season of The IT Crowd, and a pre-mopey, pre-The Night Of Riz Ahmed in a hilarious leading turn, Four Lions demonstrates a careful, masterful directorial hand. Plus it contains the best line about suicide bombing in any movie: “His soul will reach heaven before his head hits the ceiling.” —Oktay Ege Kozak

37. 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

36. We Are the Best!

Year: 2014
Director: Lukas Moodysson
“What do you mean, ‘Out of tune’?” says middle-schooler Klara (Mira Grosin), the lead singer and bassist in the self-proclaimed Best Band in the World (even before they’ve learned to play their instruments). It is 1982 in Stockholm, and she and best friend Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are being taught chords by new recruit, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a tall blonde outcast. They’ve asked Hedvig to join their band after realizing that, despite her long hair and shiny crucifix, she has the right attitude for punk. “Why does she keep performing when everyone boos her?” they wonder just before asking her to join. We Are the Best! is, in many ways, a typical and flawless coming-of-age film. What it does best, though, is show the particular arc of the kind of kid whose life is saved by music. Early scenes in which Bobo drowns out the cheesy mainstream music of bland adult life and strife by blasting punk through her headphones are just as thrilling and authentic as scenes during which the girls transition from not knowing how to play at all, to writing lyrics about their annoyances (being called ugly freaks; hating sport and conformity), to finally figuring out the very basic formula of punk rock. It may be the greatest movie ever made about the Riot Grrrl movement—even if it takes place a decade before the movement existed. —Miriam Bale

35. Computer Chess

Year: 2013
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Writer-director Andrew Bujalski tells the story of a group of young nerds trying to design a computer program that can outsmart a human at chess. Set in the early ’80s, Computer Chess utilizes camera equipment from the era to recreate not just a period but also a mindset—that of a culture in which technology hadn’t yet invaded every aspect of our lives and the idea of chess-playing computers still seemed the stuff of science fiction and outcasts—which only makes its unexpected ending all the more pointed and lonely. —Tim Grierson

34. Waltz with Bashir

Year: 2008
Director: Ari Folman
As much about memory’s hallucinatory inventions as the facts of the 1982 massacre at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut by the so-called Phalangist Christian militia, Ari Folman’s animated Waltz with Bashir begins with 26 barking dogs rushing through a city—from there, the emotion builds, relentlessly. Though Folman, a veteran Israeli documentarian, calls Bashir a documentary based on the interviews at its core (mostly with fellow soldiers), his cameras go places the handiest cinematographer could never venture: Beams of light bend between branches during a forest battle; and the dream images of men rising naked from the sea—while balls of fire fall from the sky—are just as real as the chasm-like blank spots in Folman’s mind as he reconstructs his mission into Lebanon. Powerful beyond a doubt, especially during a fourth-wall shattering climax, Waltz with Bashir borrows the visually manifest mind games of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly and dances them to the deep end. —Jesse Jarnow

33. El Mariachi

Year: 1992
Director: Robert Rodriguez
A Doberman with aviator sunglasses. A turtle moonlighting for the chicken crossing the road. A traditional mariachi song that sounds suspiciously like Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” Mean guys with dumb mustaches in ugly shirts. Today, Robert Rodriguez’s debut as writer/director reads like a laundry list of interesting curios paraded before the viewer with an aesthetic that lands somewhere between Mexican soap opera and Terry Gilliam. Twenty-five years have passed, and while Rodriguez has helmed a butt-load of genre flicks in that time, from kid-centric fantasy spectacles to adults-only, overblown turd parties, El Mariachi is still a strong reminder that at one point Rodriguez was making fiercely confident action movies that actually wanted to be something more than neon signs pointing to themselves. “Hungry Heart” is right: Rodriguez was ravenous and ready from the get-go. —Dom Sinacola

32. River of Grass

Year: 1994
Director: Kelly Reichardt
When it comes to discussing the films of Kelly Reichardt, most people tend to forget about River of Grass, her debut feature from 1994, a whole 12 years before her sophomore effort, Old Joy, would put her on many critics’ radars. Certainly, anyone expecting the social consciousness of Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves will be thrown for a loop by the purely genre-based leanings of River of Grass. It’s essentially a variation on lovers-on-the-run pictures, with a noirish mystery thread revolving around cop Jimmy Ryder (Dick Russell), the oblivious father of one of the escaped lovers, Cozy (Lisa Bowman). The key to Reichardt’s vision in River of Grass lies in Cozy’s character—her voiceover narration, especially. A 30-year-old housewife who still lives with her father, she frequently gives herself over to her daydreams, imagining a life outside her dead-end environment. Reichardt doesn’t signal this with any fantasy sequences; all one needs to do is hear her dryly delivered faux-poetic musings—“Murder is thicker than water,” she says at one point—and see the cheerleader-like routines she does out of the blue to grasp her essential immaturity (one scene featuring a dreamy slow dance is especially mesmerizing). Though Reichardt maintains a deadpan distance from her and the rest of the characters, Cozy’s desperation and her subsequent excitement at getting caught up in all of this intrigue register with enough force that, toward the end, when the much less glamorous reality of her situation dawns on her, the revelation also hits us with a devastating punch. —Kenji Fujishima

31. Easy Rider

Year: 1969
Director: Dennis Hopper
Perhaps no movie captures the time of hippies—or at least its darker side—than Easy Rider. Denis Hopper’s gritty and twisted film is about chasing freedom, but it flips that concept on its head into a critique of American culture that doesn’t actually cherish those who are free. With a cast that includes Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Hopper himself, this is 1969 counterculture incarnate—plentiful drugs, free love, a commune and a cross-country motorcycle ride. Grossing $60 million at the box office, Easy Rider helped establish the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, influencing a decade of filmmaking. —Josh Jackson

30. It Felt Like Love

Year: 2014
Director: Eliza Hittman
With It Felt Like Love, writer-director Eliza Hittman takes a few routine subjects—the coming-of-age story, sexual awakening, adolescent confusion—and reminds us that a confident director, however experienced, can make material this common appear as fresh, strange and surprising as any good science-fiction story. Hittman has made some well-received short films (2010’s Second Cousins Once Removed, 2011’s Forever Gonna Start Tonight), but this is her debut feature, and her command over everything—performance, style, tone, imagery—announces her as a noteworthy new filmmaker. She invokes Maurice Pialat and Catherine Breillat when describing her genre influences in interviews, but her fascination with skin and bodies also owes a debt to Claire Denis. These inspirations neither overwhelm the material nor lessen Hittman’s achievement—if anything, they highlight the fact that we need voices like Hittman’s who speak with such formal and psychological curiosity. —Danny King

29. Style Wars

Year: 1983
Director: Tony Silver
Affectless and workmanlike, Style Wars takes a surprisingly in-depth snapshot of hip-hop in the early ’80s in New York, just as the form was poised to break from street devotion to commercial acclaim. The film elects to focus on the (relatively) least popular elements of hip-hop—namely breakdancing and, especially, graffiti—joining these burgeoning, and young (my god, so young), artists as they navigate the New York underground, trading jargon and insider’s critiques on the art and lifestyle they love, holding no doubt that the work they were conjuring nightly would someday become the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, director Tony Silver stops by mayor Ed Koch’s office to get his smarmy take on what will or won’t deter such hoodlums, and then visits the head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority to hear a voice of sympathy, only to have that voice devolve by film’s end into yet another disciplinary finger-wagging. Still, Silver’s best accomplishment isn’t in painting authority figures as the artists’ archnemeses, but instead casting as super-villain that of anonymous graffiti “bomber” Cap, who confesses throughout the documentary that, in so many words, the most beautiful pieces (created by, among others, Seen, Kase2, Dondi and Skeme) deserve to be hastily sprayed over with his haphazard tag. Cap may seem like a monumental jackass—and war room meetings between the City’s other prominent burners reveal as much in their opinions—but his actions are laced with respect, bringing to light the competition and fleeting nature of hip-hop’s earliest manifestations. That a climactic scene involves a few artists already showing their work in hoity-toity art galleries only reinforces the already doomed nature of what they were trying to accomplish: They were literally rewriting, in miraculously constructive and non-violent terms, the rules of an urban jungle they felt no longer had room for them. —Dom Sinacola

28. Post Tenebras Lux

Year: 2013
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Carlos Reygadas’s fourth film, Post Tenebras Lux begins with what, in retrospect, appear to be two dreams. They both become nightmares. In the first: Rut, a toddler (played by the director’s daughter), runs around a football pitch with cows, donkeys and her family’s dogs. It is beautiful, verdant. A storm rolls in. She is alone in the dark. She calls for her brother, Eleazor. She calls for her mother. Lightning strikes. In the second: Inside a house. A demon (Satan himself?) enters. His junk dangles between his legs. He carries a toolbox, like he’s just returned home from work. He walks down the hall to find a small boy out of bed, waiting. The demon walks into the boy’s parents’ room and shuts the door behind him. Reygadas has no problem diving off into a new narrative strand, new characters, into the future, into the past, and even into a subconscious or two without notice or cinematic inflection. As the reality of the film settles in—an upperclass Mexican family, the father Juan’s (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) violent outbursts, his pornography addiction, his trip to an Alcoholics Anonymous-type meeting with a worker named Seven—the entire thing still feels like a lucid dream. If greeted with enough openness and interest, Post Tenebras Lux’s seemingly incoherent string of scenes reveals itself as a carefully executed emotional structure that begs for, and rewards, repeated viewings. —Joe Peeler

27. Blue is the Warmest Color

Year: 2013
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Three-hour movies usually are the terrain of Westerns, period epics or sweeping, tragic romances. They don’t tend to be intimate character pieces, but Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2) more than justifies its length. A beautiful, wise, erotic, devastating love story, this tale of a young lesbian couple’s beginning, middle and possible end utilizes its running time to give us a full sense of two individuals growing together and apart over the course of years. It hurts like real life, yet leaves you enraptured by its power. —Tim Grierson

26. Paranoid Park

paranoid park-movie-poster.jpg
Year: 2008
Director: Gus Van Sant
A stylistic masterpiece, Paranoid Park is one part Spike Jonze, one part Wong Kar-wai and one part something only Gus Van Sant himself could’ve imagined. But while the film is unmistakably gorgeous, it’s Gabe Nevins’ untrained lead performance that makes this haunting tale of lost innocence unforgettable. Set in a Portland high school filled with disaffected teenagers (played by non-actors cast via MySpace) against a lush classical soundtrack—and in the hands of cinematographic mastermind Christopher Doyle—Paranoid Park infuses teenage spats, telephone calls and coasting skateboarders with lyricism and dreaminess. Alex (Nevins), a high-school student with divorcing parents, a cheerleader girlfriend he views with ambivalence, and middling skateboarding skills, drifts through life not causing much trouble. When he starts visiting a local skate park frequented by hardcore skaters from rough backgrounds, he accidentally partakes in a grisly murder and is at a loss to deal with the emotional aftermath. In Alex’s wake, Van Sant honestly depicts how an adolescent struggles—not just coping with growing up, but with the foundations of life: grief, loss and guilt. —Alissa Wilkinson

25. Certified Copy

Year: 2008
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Certified Copy is opaque, but accessible. It is marked by distance, and yet it is intimate, warm and brimming with empathy. It’s also playful, not comical or lighthearted, mind you, but tongue-in-cheek. You may surmise as much by the title. Certified Copy: “real fake.” Kiarostami isn’t having a laugh or making a joke, but he is inviting us to keep ourselves open to the experience of his film, at once a tale told in vérité style and a wholly constructed drama made on a personal scale. His two leads, Juliette Binoche and James Shimell, respectively play an innominate antiques dealer and author James Miller, the latter of whom has traveled to Tuscany to talk about his book, titled Certified Copy, which seeks to argue that authenticity is irrelevant to art. Binoche, credited as “elle,” or “she,” and James meet, go for a jaunt together, talk, talk more and continue talking—as they talk, their relationship transforms before our eyes. Are they really strangers? Are they actually husband and wife, as strangers presume? Is the film smirking at us while we scratch our heads in puzzlement? (If yes, is Kiarostami smirking, too?) The joy of Certified Copy is in its mutability. You can watch it ten times and read half as many interpretations out of it. What never changes from one viewing to the next is its sheer beauty, found in Kiarostami’s visual poetry, and in Binoche and Shimell’s wrenching, heartfelt and unequivocally genuine performances. If you don’t know what to believe, believe in the film’s observations about human relationships. They look simple on the outside. On the inside, they’re as mercurial as the movie itself. —Andy Crump

24. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Year: 2010
Director: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the story of humanity’s oldest surviving pieces of artwork: everything they can teach us about ourselves and how we got here. It’s yet another one of those seemingly random yet functionally primordial bits of human minutia that the German director’s imagination so often keys upon, and in this case it yielded one of his most placidly beautiful, intimate films. As Herzog provides minimal narration, drifting with his camera through Chauvet Cave in southern France, the film unfolds rather like an educational movie that one might watch at a museum or informational kiosk at a historical site, except infused with the director’s personal, unflagging sense of wonder. Here, we learn the stories and historical perspective behind the oldest cave paintings on record, estimated at 32,000 years old, the product of some of the first modern human beings in Europe. The walls depict vivid impressions of their surroundings—and in some sense breaches the fabric of their imaginations. The film has that same sleepy, oneiric quality; it’s never in any hurry, and it feels remarkably self-sufficient, thanks to the three-person crew that filmed the entire thing due to French law regarding access to the caves. Herzog himself even worked the lights, in what is also his only 3D film, offering moving, unprecedented, tactile access to a piece of our biological history which the majority of us will never be able to see in even our wildest dreams. —Jim Vorel

23. Museum Hours

Year: 2013
Director: Jem Cohen
Museum Hours, the muted drama from New York filmmaker Jem Cohen, is less about individuals than it is about collective experiences—how we all take part in life’s broad canvas, none of us that remarkable and yet all so meaningful to an overall work of art. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is spending his later years serving as a museum guard in Vienna—he used to work in rock ’n’ roll, happy now to have the quiet—and as the film begins to unspool he befriends Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a middle-aged Canadian woman who doesn’t have much money but has come to Vienna to see a distant female cousin who’s fallen into a coma. Anne doesn’t know the cousin well, and since she’s just lying in a hospital bed motionless, Anne starts spending time with Johann, seeing the museum and the city. That setup in a conventional drama would merely be the prelude to a budding romance between the two lonely souls, but Cohen, who has directed documentary shorts and collaborated on video projects with the likes of R.E.M. and Patti Smith, cares little about plot. Cohen establishes a premise and then subverts our expectations, making us look into the corners of his story. In Museum Hours, Johann and Anne’s conversations travel to different places, but the content of their talks is less memorable than the sense of random lives butting into one another for a brief time and then disconnecting just as easily. It touches on a notion of transience that runs throughout the film: What makes one painting a great work of art and another not? Does it matter if we see the same things in the same painting? And are the things around us—street signs and buildings and leftover swap-meet trinkets—their own kind of art? Cohen isn’t trying to find answers to these questions—he’s merely trying to slow down our rhythms so that we can be meditative enough to stop and ponder such uncertainties in the world around us. —Tim Grierson

22. Meek’s Cutoff

Year: 2011
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Leave it to Kelly Reichardt to reclaim the Western for women. Western movies tend to be seen as “guy” affairs, less so now in 2017 than in years past; they are manly products about manly men doing manly things and pondering manly ideas, though that’s an oversimplified critique that erases the impact women have had on Westerns in front of and behind the camera. What Reichardt does in Meek’s Cutoff is shunt the men to the side and confront the bullshit macho posturing that is such an integral component of the Western’s grammar (the only man here worth his salt is Stephen Meek [Bruce Greenwood], and even he is kind of an incompetent, entitled scumbag). So it’s up to Emily Tetherow, played by the great and luminous Michelle Williams, to challenge his self-appointed authority and take responsibility for the people in the caravan he has led so far astray from their path. Meek’s Cutoff is a stark, minimalist film, which is to say it’s a Kelly Reichardt film. The stripped-down, simmering austerity of her aesthetic pairs perfectly with the sensibilities of Western cinema. —Andy Crump

21. 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

20. Pina

Year: 2011
Director: Wim Wenders
Wenders’ film demonstrates how Pina Bausch’s attitude and vision toward dance and choreography transcended the theater, how she saw dance in everything, and everything as dance. Bausch once said that in order to dance, “Everyone must have the freedom, without inhibitions, to show everything.” Although the audience might not always understand the precise story behind her choreography, the emotions that lie beneath it are palpable and unwavering, whether boundlessly happy or intolerably sad. Ultimately, Bausch’s choreography is relatable because it draws from life, from day-to-day experiences and emotions with which we are all familiar. Seeing this art reintroduced back into the life it mimics and enhances is a breathtaking spectacle: Pina is an effusion of all the emotions, good and bad, that shape our daily lives and make us human, but most of all, it is a haunting and beautiful elegy to a woman who changed the world’s conception of dance. —Emily Kirkpatrick

19. Actress

Director: Robert Greene
Year: 2014
It’s perhaps fitting that for a movie as nakedly personal as Actress, I have a somewhat unusual personal story about it. I interviewed subject Brandy Burre (you may know her best from The Wire) at the Sarasota Film Festival, and we became fast friends. I learned a lot about her in the months that followed, but nothing could have prepared me for the depths to which director Robert Greene plunges in his documentary about his next-door neighbor. In the film, we watch Burre navigate her return to acting after some time off to raise a family, and of course as an actress beyond her teen years, she’s struggling with both the industry’s perception of her and what her new place in it might be—if she even has one. She’s also struggling to make sense of her role in her relationship, as it encounters some rough waters. And this she does all in front of a camera, which raises plenty Heisenbergian questions even she may not be able to answer: How much of her journey of self-discovery is organic, and how much is prompted by the camera? Does it even matter? Those kinds of epistemological questions lie at the heart of Greene’s work here, and it’s to his great credit that rather than give answers or even ask the questions out loud, he’s quite willing to let the situations unfold as they may and encourage us to pose our own inquiries. I’ve never seen a documentary quite like Actress, and now I don’t know if I’ll ever see my friend the same way either. —Michael Dunaway

18. The Wind Will Carry Us

Year: 1999
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
On one level, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 masterpiece is a mystery tale of sorts: What exactly is Behzad (Behzad Mourani) and his two-man crew doing hanging around in this remote Kurdish village, and why is he so concerned about when one particular elderly woman is going to die? Their purpose is revealed only gradually, through elliptical dialogue exchanges and behavioral details, as is the case with most mystery stories. On another level, it’s an extremely deadpan comedy, with its most amusing recurring gag revolving around the lengths Behzad has to go to reach higher ground just to get cell phone reception—cell phones being exactly the kind of modern technology that seems foreign in this particular out-of-time settlement. But The Wind Will Carry Us is perhaps best seen as the closest Kiarostami came to making his 8 ½ without the documentary hybridization of Close-Up. Far from being the engineer the village residents take him for, Behzad is, in fact, a journalist, one so devoted to his craft that he’s apparently willing—as is revealed in one of his phone calls—to blow off a family funeral just for the sake of getting a few perfect shots of a mourning ritual in this village. With his previous experience making documentaries, and with his fiction works often featuring nonfiction elements, one could possibly see Behzad as a reflection of Kiarostami himself. If so, though, then the film sees Kiarostami in a self-critical mode, willing to make Behzad, and by extension himself, occasionally selfish and insensitive in exploiting these poor folk in pursuit of whatever truth he seeks to capture. And yet, the overwhelming impression this film leaves is of compassion. Like his 1992 film Life, and Nothing More…, The Wind Will Carry Us adopts a loose structure bound less by narrative concerns than by close observation of landscapes and the human figures within them, with events seemingly caught on the wing, sprouting up suddenly as they might in real life, and The Wind Will Carry Us remains one of Kiarostami’s richest expressions of his deeply humane perspective. —Kenji Fujishima


17. Holy Motors

Year: 2012
Director: Leos Carax
Leos Carax’s latest film follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he travels through a series of work appointments in the back of a limousine. However, as the viewer quickly discovers, Monsieur Oscar is no normal businessman, or even a normal man for that matter. In the back of the limo between appointments, Oscar transforms himself into a series of characters who range from the banal (a father driving his daughter home, an elderly man on his death bed, a titan of industry) to the completely bizarre (both the killer and the killed, a mad man who carries a supermodel down into the sewers, and the accordionist leader of a rogue musical band). Monsieur Oscar doesn’t just physically alter his appearance; he actually steps into that character’s life, thinks their thoughts, does what has been pre-scripted for him in a series of mysterious folders, and attempts to convince others to believe in the veracity of his character’s existence. This is all part of some sort of shady job Oscar has been doing for the past 20 years, playing a string of never-ending characters, permitted to be his real self, whatever that may be, only in the moments between appointments. Lately, though, Oscar has grown weary of his lonely profession, and the people “watching” aren’t buying the act like they used to. As the film progresses, whenever it reaches a fever pitch of weirdness or despondency, a well-timed joke will pull the audience back in and keep them firmly on Monsieur Oscar’s side. This tension between the dramatic and comedic helps make Holy Motors a fascinating and heartbreaking study of the infinite roles humanity hides behind. —Emily Kirkpatrick

16. Violent Cop

Year: 1989
Director: Takeshi Kitano
There’s something comforting about getting what you pay for. Take Violent Cop, for instance, the very first movie directed by the great Takeshi Kitano: It is not about a cop who does his job by the book, dots his “i”s and crosses his “t”s, helps little old ladies cross the street with their groceries, and generally treats other human beings with a basic sense of decency. It is about a violent cop. Azuma (Kitano) is the kind of amoral asshole lawman we’ve been making movies about since the 1940s, a man who has no use for the mores of his society and the ethics code of his profession. If beating a suspect helps him solve a crime, he’s going to beat a suspect. His behavior only worsens as the film goes on, and if we can understand and even empathize with the “why”—his sister has been kidnapped by yakuza thugs—we still don’t much like him. This is Kitano at his most nihilistic, more so than late-stage films of his career like Outrage. Violent Cop is bleak as hell, the film that makes flourishes of humanity in Kitano’s other work, like Zatoichi and Kikujiro, feel like the product of another filmmaker entirely, but it’s no less watchable for its overwhelming barbarity. —Andy Crump

15. Antichrist

Year: 2009
Director: Lars von Trier
Von Trier’s oeuvre has seemingly always concerned the victimized woman, and discerning what that even means, from Breaking the Waves and Dancer In The Dark to more recent efforts like the Nymphomaniac duo. In Antichrist, he zigzags curiously between painting Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character (credited only as “She”) as a grief-stricken mother and as a force of Evil preying on her husband, played by Willem Dafoe (“He”). The film opens on a slow-mo scene of graphic shower sex, a coupling that distracts the two from their toddler son’s fall out of a window to his death. For the rest of the film, the two struggle to alleviate this grief, as if it ever could simply be talked away. A psychoanalyst, He decides that She needs some exposure therapy out in nature, spiriting the now smaller family away to a secluded cabin in the woods where portentously surreal wildlife become the least of their problems. Antichrist staggers under its grand symbolism and atmospheric dread, teetering between stating saying all women are horrible misandrists before seemingly memorializing the faceless millions of women killed by male dominance and violence. Regardless, it’s a visceral, upsetting viewing experience like no other, as controlled a response to the chaos of nature as any iconic horror film to come before it. —Kenneth Lowe

14. The Triplets of Belleville

Year: 2003
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Hearkening back to the glory days of silent cinema with a story that’s both brilliant and wickedly funny, The Triplets of Belleville is an inventive and enchanting animated film, capturing the spirit of Jacques Tati (embodied by the jokes that spring up out of the simplest of modern devices) and conveying the lived-in wonder of a beloved children’s picture book (exaggerated characters and striking colors), complete with a pitch-perfect sense of timing (finding that elusive pause that precipitates the release of a fantastic belly laugh), with the few bits of the film’s dialogue in French, so unimportant they’re not even subtitled. Of course, the movie pokes fun at Americans’ obsession with bigness (and big food), but it taunts the French in equal measure. The overall effect—of so many influences finding perfect representation here—isn’t so much nostalgic as absolutely captivating. —J. Robert Parks

13. Laurence Anyways

Year: 2013
Director: Xavier Dolan
During a lecture, the titular character of Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways asks his high school students, “Can one’s writing be great enough to exempt one from the rejection and ostracism that affects people who are different?” It sounds like a challenge Dolan makes to himself, to see how well he can make his film and how deeply he can write his characters—characters who are certainly “people who are different.” Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), born a man, was a biological mistake. He knows in his heart he should have been a woman. After a two-year relationship with his girlfriend, Frederique (Suzanne Clément), he comes out to her with his desire for a sex change. He wants to hit the play button on his life, which he says has been on pause for 30 years. Fred must either ride the wave of this sea change or abandon ship. The human heart is a lot to take on, and it is maybe even more difficult a thing to believe in. Dolan does both. He sees something unattainably beautiful inside Laurence and Fred, and tries to expose their depths with every cinematic tool at hand. Around them he builds an extremely romantic melodrama that cascades over ten years of their lives, and the result is wonderful. Laurence Anyways feels like a high-five for the soul. —Joe Peeler

12. The Gleaners & I

Year: 2000
Director: Agnès Varda
There’s an argument that the explicit subject of The Gleaners & I—gleaners, their habits and practices—isn’t nearly as important as the woman at the center of the film, director Agnès Varda. Her place is deliberate—in telling the story of French gleaners, rural and urban scavengers protected by a series of hilariously specific but often debated French laws, Varda frames herself as a gleaner, a fellow traveller in a world of thrift-minded men and women who survive on what others throw away. As Varda follows gleaners who comb farmer’s fields for leftover produce and urban landscapes for food and other curiosities, the story mutates into a semi-autobiographical narrative about Varda herself, and the simple pleasures of finding. I love the film because it pings several intellectual currents in the late 1990s and early 2000s related to the sharing of information and memory thanks to the Internet. The Gleaners & I becomes a lo-fi take on memory, curating, nostalgia and the reframing of discarded cultural detritus, which itself becomes a metaphor for the film’s argument: that the world of poverty might also be reframed, because her exhaustive studies show the spirit of gleaning is strong among people of all walks of life. Varda’s wonderful presence at the center of these discussions makes the film deeply personal and brimming with optimism, but also far more profound than its subject matter might suggest. —Mark Abraham

11. Synecdoche, New York

Year: 2008
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is a sprawling, fantastical examination of love, death and the wildness of art. Although the film spans an unspecified period of time, it stays mostly focused on Caden Cotard (played with striking intensity by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 40-year-old regional theater director with encroaching fantasies/nightmares of his own death, and whose fears tend to manifest as unappetizing skin conditions and/or cleaning binges. His marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener) is deeply strained, and when Cotard is awarded a MacArthur grant, he purchases a massive hangar in New York City, determined to stage his life story, to scale. Mostly, Synecdoche is an exercise in semiotic theory, with a script that relentlessly prods the link between language and truth, representation and reality: words with double-meanings (stool, pipe) are heard correctly but misunderstood. Symbols and their subjects trade places; fake tears function as real tears, leads and extras are interchangeable, actors playing actors stand in for real people who are actually characters conceived by Kaufman, re-conceived by Cotard, and re-re-conceived by the actor Cotard casts to play himself. Even the film’s title—which nods to the actual brick-and-blood town of Schenectady, NY (where the first act of the movie takes place)—is a high-minded ruse, intended to send critics scuttling off to their dictionaries. Merriam-Webster defines synecdoche as a “figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole, the whole for a part, the species for the genus, the genus for the species, or the name of the material for the thing made.” For Kaufman, perception is fluid—fodder for jokes and tragedies—and nothing exists solely as itself. —Amanda Petrusich

10. Stand By Me

Year: 1986
Director: Rob Reiner
Stephen King has referred to Stand By Me as one of the best-adapted films, which is curious, because it’s such a sincere film, hitting only some of the author’s signature themes. Still, it really captures some of the mythological aspects of childhood—the way the junkyard dog’s fearsome reputation can’t possibly stand up to reality, or how friendship can be a source of healing or how friendships change after innocence is lost. Gordie Lachance’s (Wil Wheaton) group of friends are the kinds of pals one has as a child: They come from very different worlds, but haven’t yet learned that they’re not supposed to hang out together. Would that real-life friendships could persist and reflect these ones more often. —Jim Vorel

9. Still Walking

Year: 2008
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
In every sense of the word except one, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking is a classic. The film elegantly covers the one-day reunion of the Yokoyama family on the 15th anniversary of the death of the family’s oldest son. As is the tradition in this sort of picture, the reunion is bittersweet, everyone attempting to play the affectionate roles they’re supposed to, but unable to get past the anger and difficulties of the past. Small words and gestures mean a lot to Kore-eda, so he conveys them simply, broad with meaning. What Kore-eda does with this carefully drawn world—where tradition bucks against contemporary society—is speak candidly about time and loss and what he thinks is important about life. Death may hang over the film, but so does a profound sense of hope in change. —Sean Gandert

8. Los Angeles Plays Itself

Year: 2003
Director: Thom Andersen
Finally, officially released in 2014, Los Angeles Plays Itself is all at once a graceful document, a lyrical portrait and a hilarious condemnation of the titular city so often represented in, and serving as the origin of, American film in the 20th century. Consisting entirely of footage from other films, from Xanadu to Chinatown and every neighborhood in between, one watches this documentary and wishes Thom Andersen had similar personal stakes in one’s own hometown. So insightful, and so excruciatingly thorough, are his analyses—of everything from the City’s architecture to its bureaucratic reputation—that LA comes to represent the ideal of a fictionalized metropolis that American cinema has sought since its beginning. And, at nearly three hours, the documentary seems almost too short, a fervent grasp at something that is practically ungraspable: the character of one of the U.S.’s biggest, most mindboggling urban centers, a portrait of American ingenuity, corruption and aesthetic brilliance rolled into one seething, relentlessly philosophical whole. Behold, America: this is the mask you die to wear. —Dom Sinacola

7. Stop Making Sense

Year: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Lester Bangs once wrote an essay about “Heaven,” the Talking Heads song that kicks off Jonathan Demme’s concert film. In it, Bangs fixated on one of David Byrne’s iconic lines: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever really happens.” Heaven, he explained, is—to Byrne’s coke-addled mind—a way of life where all of the stimuli of modern society couldn’t reach him. Couldn’t affect him. Couldn’t whip him up into a frenzy. This, according to both Bangs and Byrne, is truly Nirvana. Stop Making Sense happened over two nights at the Pantages Theater in 1983, and the second song on the setlist is “Heaven,” set against a bare stage on the cusp of a drastic remodel. From there, the set, as well as the band, builds itself—instruments and writhing bodies and elaborately weird backdrops are added, one upon another, until the stage is absolutely seething with life. And so, not only was Stop Making Sense a document of a legendary band at the height of their powers, but it even today seems like an unheralded synergy of movement and sound, of image and artist—so much so that the band allows us to watch as they destroy, and then re-do, their own idea of Heaven. —Dom Sinacola

6. Putney Swope

Year: 1969
Director: Robert Downey Sr.
Supposedly inspired by director Robert Downey’s experiences in advertising, Putney Swope would be a bleakly cynical expectoration of the bile inherent to the machinations of capitalism—that is, were it not so funny. In Downey’s most popular film, life means nothing next to the rhythms of language and the poetry of farce, telling the story of an agency in thrall to a complete overhaul care of the new democratically chosen Chairman of the Board, token African American Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, with Downey dubbing in his comical voice, adding an extra shade of cartoon chaos to an already surreal scenario). Swope purges the company of most of its “lilys,” replacing them with Black Panther acolytes and Five Percenters and assorted blue collar black workers to resist the tide of empty corporatism taking over America. In turn, Swope takes on the personas of various revolutionaries—sometimes dressing in NOGE garb, sometimes suiting up like a Castro impersonator—navigating the many strains, violent and not, of anti-establishment thinking at the tail end of the ’60s, but ultimately unable to escape the lure of capitalist power. Swope is a bad leader, in other words, stealing ideas from his underlings and generally embracing every hypocritical behavior he can, but the genius of Downey’s vision is that his idea of corruption corrupts absolutely, no regards for race or inequality. A sort of pre-Zucker Brothers bounty of slapstick and absurdity, Putney Swope portrays people floundering through these many layers of power (and, therefore, oppression), unsure of how best to get what they want from society—and if that’s even possible. Replete with a series of offensive, uncomfortable and super-weird commercial spots seemingly tapped into America’s horrifying Id, Putney Swope has a lot to say, but doesn’t really seem all that concerned with being heard. —Dom Sinacola

5. Bottle Rocket

Year: 1996
Director: Wes Anderson
Bottle Rocket introduced us both to the singular world of Wes Anderson and the unique charm of the Wilson brothers. Anderson’s films have their critics, of course, but it’s hard to deny that Anderson’s sophisticated but clueless humor and joy in a world of stylistic quirks felt refreshing at the time, and still feels refreshing all these movies later. Most adults who’ve forgotten to grow up are either repulsive in their adolescent behavior or the butt of the joke, but Owen Wilson’s Dignan retains a certain boyish likability for all his crazy scheming. —Josh Jackson

4. Shoah

Year: 1985
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Describing this 10-hour landmark of documentary filmmaking—of filmmaking in general, really—is, ostensibly, an easy task: Director Claude Lanzmann foregoes using any archival or historical footage to allow only the testimonials of survivors and historians to tell, in breathtaking detail that is both sweeping and deeply intimate, the story of the Holocaust. We are given hours to reflect as we join these beleaguered people: They walk us through Treblinka, through Auschwitz, through the Warsaw ghettos, through Chelmno, where the first mobile gas chambers were used—through the night and fog of memory. And though the film has been greeted with controversy, especially by Poles who feel that the film in many ways indicts them in the atrocities committed, there is no other cinematic experience like it. —Dom Sinacola

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Year: 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry’s debut feature, Human Nature, may’ve been a whimsical dud, but his follow-up suggests a quick maturity into disciplined director who still keeps his playful side intact. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind traffics in Gondry’s signature sleights of hand, which serve two touching and tragic love stories: between red-haired Kate Winslet and a supremely sad Jim Carrey, and between headstrong Kirsten Dunst and a pining Mark Ruffalo. All of their performances—including Gondry’s—stay in your memory long after the credits have rolled. —Stephen Deusner

2. Hoop Dreams

Year: 1994
Director: Steve James
The documentary labeled by none other than Roger Ebert as the single best film of the 1990s is alternatingly beautiful and crushing, an intense profile of life in inner city Chicago and dreams of escape through basketball—of all things. The story of two young men recruited by a wealthy, predominantly white high school to play basketball, it raised serious questions about modern education, race and socioeconomic status, all of which we’re still asking today. Shot over the course of five years and condensed from 250 hours of footage, it’s a sprawling story that leaves out absolutely nothing in its realistic portrayal of multiple families, yet was snubbed from a nomination in the Academy’s best documentary category, leading to public and critical outcry. It just doesn’t get any more real than this, in ways both illuminating and heartbreaking. (Both of the young men profiled had older brothers gunned down in Chicago street violence in the years that followed the film’s release, one in 1994 and another in 2001.) —Jim Vorel

1. Taxi Driver

Year: 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Taxi Driver was Scorsese’s breakthrough: a seething condemnation of alienation—not to mention New York’s descent in the 1970s into a crime-ridden hellscape—delivered with such clinical coldness that when Scorsese’s star (and longtime collaborator) Robert De Niro finally explodes, it’s unspeakably upsetting. If Taxi Driver now feels slightly overrated, it’s only because the movie’s DNA has crept into so many subsequent filmmakers’ efforts. Scorsese grew up loving Westerns, and Taxi Driver could be his version of The Searchers—except his man-out-of-time finds no redemption. —Tim Grierson

Also in Movies