Cinema is an art of collaborative effort that speaks implicitly and often explicitly of the values of community, which often seemed in short supply this year. We live in an age in which articles are written daily on the need for “checking out” of online culture, so that we may disconnect from the bombardment of grotesqueries that keep us in an emotional tailspin. Both coincidentally and by pop-cultural osmosis, many of the year’s best films ask how deeply we may be permitted to check out and how far we should risk and extend ourselves for the prospect of personal and social rehabilitation.
The break-out horror film of the year suggests that outwardly tolerant sections of white America are driven by a hideous hypocrisy, confirming the worst nightmares that many African-Americans have about venturing outside their designated “places.” These nightmares are also elucidated by one of the year’s best documentaries, which merges personal poetry with a brief history of social atrocity. An indie sensation shows the impoverished hell—overseen by a man of astonishing kindness—that neighbors a global fantasy land right across the road, while a Portuguese mind-bender utilizes religious iconography to tell the story of a man who’s essentially alone, requiring direct authorial intervention to achieve transcendence.
Three of the year’s greatest films are neurotically charged chamber dramas in which artists struggle with their self-absorption and self-loathing to salve their fear and loneliness—a salve which is more readily available to them via their art. Many of these films dramatize a struggle to connect while elaborating on the realms existing within one’s mind, riffing on the at once freeing and imprisoning temptation to write off the outside world.
With this context in mind, French filmmaking legend Agnès Varda and street artist JR offered one of the most resonant metaphors in this year’s cinema. Emphasizing images of people’s faces, they turned their art into a rallying cry for unity between the self and the best and worst of society. With cinema, we can be alone together, but fulfillment is tethered to risk, which is reliant on submission to the chaos of unmediated life and the evolving curiosity, empathy, and courtesy that it requires. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.
The Meyerowitz Stories
Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories is a rich conglomeration of autobiography, screwball comedy, and existentialist ennui. Think of the filmmaker’s latest as a spiritual sequel to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale if the principal characters of that film were 30 years older, with the grumbling patriarch (played here by Dustin Hoffman) still unsatisfied and unsuccessful in his artistic ambitions. Caught amid his stifling tyranny as an artist and father are his three grown children, whose festering resentments, which stem from a history of complex interpersonal relationships, rise to the surface with each new confrontation in the wake of their old man’s hospitalization. The film’s defining sequence involves Jean’s (Elizabeth Marvel) late revelation that she was sexually harassed by one of her father’s friends as a child, which prompts brothers Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller) to retaliate by vandalizing the now senile perpetrator’s car. Despite their satisfaction, Jean tells them: “I’m glad you guys feel better. Unfortunately, I’m still fucked up.” As in The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach’s work is most insightful when characters perform an ugly tightrope walk between fashioning themselves as triumphant rebels and having to confront their own abject state of being. Clayton Dillard
Like Hillary Jordan’s source novel, Dee Rees’s Mudbound feels like a summoning of William Faulkner, given how intensely focused it is on the generational legacy of hate. Its focal points are two families, one white and the other black, the McAllans arriving through hard luck and bad faith on the dismal land that the Jacksons had to struggle to earn. Split perspectives between and within the families illustrate mounting tensions as the McAllans treat the Jacksons as the help, if not unwelcome intruders. Rees deftly teases out various strains of white rage, from the freely aired bigotry of the decrepit grandfather (Jonathan Banks) to the subtler hostility of the patriarch (Jason Clarke), who has a habit of telling, not asking, the Jackson family to help out whenever he needs it. The filmmaker also pays careful attention to a white sharecropper who cannot psychologically cope with the thought of being on equal economic terms with black farmers and is driven to terrifying, violent madness. Only a cataclysmic event like World War II hints at the possibility of sparking change, but the system’s deeply entrenched protocols ensure that no bonds can be forged without vicious conflict. Jake Cole
No orgy is complete without the participation of at least one person for whom the word “prophylactic” means “pocket protector.” João Pedro Rodrigues isn’t the only filmmaker contributing to our current and unmistakably pink-sploitation renaissance. But with all due deference to this, the year of the peach, Rodrigues is arguably the only one who consistently makes films without a safe word. Such is his dogged pursuit of culturally hyperconscious pleasure that he even inverts what would be typically thought of as text and subtext in arty rough trade. Rugged naturalist Fernando’s (Paul Hamy) picaresque river trip bears surface comparisons to the life of St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of missed connections. But, long before the director himself emerges to add meta to his money shot, The Ornithologist is cruising the nooks and crannies of its creator-protagonist’s amygdala, from the rope burns of bondage to covert, subterranean piss play. If Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake transmogrified into Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World,” that would only begin to suggest the ways that The Ornithologist’s survivalism playfully distorts the earlier film’s death impulse. Eric Henderson
Song to Song
The shift of Terrence Malick’s stories toward more contemporary settings and his aesthetics toward increasingly experimental directions reaches new heights with Song to Song, a romantic drama of such spatial and temporal fluidity that it could accurately be described as Joycean. Career ambitions, romantic longing, and self-doubt—all common elements of the romantic drama—are fragmented and reconfigured in radical ways, filtered through a stream of consciousness where desires and feelings are in constant flux. Lovers crisscross the screen with fleeting intensity, leaving vapor trails of sense memories as markers of their presence. Guided by an erratic breadcrumb trail of such moments, Song to Song is a pointillist study of the interactions that shape its characters’ lives. There’s so much to process here, a reflection of the impossibility of understanding the significance of any given event or relationship as it happens in real time. As such, what wisdom and clarity there is to offer comes from the older rock stars who litter the film’s periphery, as in a scene of Iggy Pop speaking soberly about his experiences as the camera scans the latticework of scars on his chest that testify to a hard road taken toward peace of mind, or Patti Smith’s heart-wrenching odes to her late husband. This is Malick’s most radical feature to date and, as a nearly one-to-one match between image and feeling, the purest expression of the style he’s been chasing for more than a decade. Cole
Ostensibly a nonfiction tour through the seamy underbelly of contemporary China’s flagrant economic excesses, Zhao Liang’s staggering exposé gets extra juice from a few poetic touches threaded through its otherwise rigorous realism. With opening imagery paralleling that of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Behemoth introduces its nameless, Dante-quoting narrator prone and naked at the edge of a strip-mined wasteland, his pale body glimmering amid the dun-colored carnage of the quarry site. Where Rand’s farcical libertarian fantasy cast hero architect Howard Roark as a figure of pure predestination, his towering creations conceived as outgrowths of his perfectly sculpted form, here the human vessel is the canvas, a surface upon which the traumas of environmental abuse are painfully revivified. Mostly migrant laborers flung by the vagaries of modern economics from one side of the country to another, the workers who construct and inhabit these expressively conveyed nightmare zones are presented with empathetic reverence, some suffering so badly from black lung disease that they can only survive hooked up to breathing machines. As blast furnaces roar and the desolate, dystopian landscapes of vacant planned cities silently unspool, the film returns again and again to people, rendered tiny and irrelevant by comparison. Those profiled here never speak, but their deformed postures, soot-smeared faces, and framed photos of deceased relatives communicate the toll—the quiet horror of bodies broken to form the foundation for a luxurious modern lifestyle. Jesse Cataldo