Four years doesn’t sound like a long enough time to justify updating a list, but as a medium, video games move in bounding strides. Trends come and go, hardware changes, and brand-new games emerge as towering influences on the medium. When we published our initial list of the 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were only a year old. The Nintendo Switch didn’t even exist yet. When people heard “battle royale,” they thought of Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film. As such, where the prospect of keeping up is concerned, four years might as well be forever.
Some games from the 2014 iteration of our list have shifted positions, while others are absent entirely; old favorites have claimed the spots of what we treated as new classics, and vice versa. Those changes speak to the fluidity of an evolving medium as well as to the broadness of experiences to be had within it. How can the same narrow handful of games, the accepted canon that looms large over every games list, hope to represent that diversity? How can a list of the greatest ever be anything but constantly in flux?
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the previous incarnation of our 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time.
100. Firewatch (2016)
The hazy amber skyscapes of Firewatch do much to emphasize the loneliness of the game’s two major characters. Such artistic flourishes are undoubtedly intentional; while most games reduce the bonds between the characters that inhabit them to the purely functional, Firewatch hangs its hat, cloak, and even its boots on the relationship between player-controlled Henry and Delilah, his foul-mouthed co-worker who he never even sees. Both he and Delilah reside in towers that have the express purpose of watching for fires in the game’s fictional national park. And while a partnership based entirely on voice communication might seem a difficult task to pull off, the performances of the two leads elevate the emotional tenor to a level rarely seen in the narrative game genre. Steven Wright
99. Cart Life (2010)
Video games usually de-personalize business management. They shift the perspective upward, letting us look down on workers and customers as they go about the mechanical tasks we designate from on high. Cart Life keeps things street level, building a life sim around its business management. Its monochrome characters barely scrape by, stretching cash as far as they’re able while making time to feed cats or pick daughters up from school. Though the game can easily wear you down, it also gives weight to the small victories, like selling enough to keep going. Video games have considerable power to communicate experiences to the player, and it’s used most often for saving worlds and amassing collectibles and jacking cars. Cart Life is a reminder of the humanity the medium is capable of. Scaife
98. BioShock Infinite (2013)
BioShock Infinite is a visceral experience about an irredeemable psychopath murdering a city of despicable fundamentalists. Booker Dewitt is tasked with saving a reality-tearing woman from a floating white-supremacist paradise, leading to the interactive slaughter of its inhabitants; so much was made of the game’s violence that many overlooked that the repugnant brutality was exactly the point. While most shooters shy away from grue or any consequences to the player’s actions, BioShock Infinite vividly depicts these rippling across universes, where a single choice can carry disastrous results. This is an astonishing game that philosophizes on the human condition—consider that the opponents of Columbia’s segregation aren’t interested in equality, rather suppressing their suppressors—while critiquing its entire genre, concluding that the protagonist of a first-person shooter shouldn’t be allowed to live in any universe. Ryan Aston
97. The Walking Dead (2012)
No one would’ve faulted any developer for slapping The Walking Dead name on a lackluster Left 4 Dead rip-off, and waiting for the cash to roll in—like Activision tried to do with Survival Instinct. But instead, in Telltale Games’s hands, The Walking Dead is going to go down as not only the game that shocked the entire adventure game genre out of atrophy, but as a brutal and brilliant Cormac McCarthian tale of terror and human loss unprecedented in this medium. This is a game where success is almost entirely measured in the structural integrity of a little girl’s soul, and the decisions you’ve made to keep it intact. This is the story the AMC show only dreams it’s built across its many seasons. Justin Clark
96. Star Fox 64 (1997)
The N64 was an awkward era in Nintendo’s history, as the company was getting its sea legs as it was transitioning into 3D gaming. And because of that weird third leg protruding obnoxiously from the center of the system’s controller, it wasn’t exactly easy to play the second title in the Star Fox series. But the controls were responsive, meaning it was at least easy for players to endure Star Fox 64’s steep learning curve. Reminiscent of games like 1985’s Space Harrier and 1995’s Panzer Dragoon, this compelling on-rails space shooter gave us anthropomorphic animals piloting what were ostensibly X-Wing starfighters in a galactic battle against Andross. The game featured local co-op, which made it even more enjoyable because of the multitude of additional explosions on screen. And though it came out toward the end of the 20th century, Star Fox 64 was very clearly inspired by cubist art, making it a perturbing and exciting departure from the vibrant and richly detailed worlds players were exploring in other Nintendo titles. Unsurprisingly, we’re still doing barrel rolls to this day, so we can thank Peppy Hare for the tip all those years ago. Jeremy Winslow
95. Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)
Xenoblade Chronicles, like fellow 2012 JRPG revivalist Final Fantasy XIII-2 (which, like so many other games, owes a debt to the seminal Chrono Trigger), cleverly uses the thematic components of shifting destinies and humankind versus higher powers as manners by which to depict the oscillating mental states of its central characters. You won’t be likely to find a more fleshed-out batch of heroes than 18-year-old sword-swinger Shulk and his ragtag group of Mechon-battlers. Writer-director Tetsuya Takahashi (Xenogears, Xenosaga) has been in this market for quite a while, and clearly understands that a great RPG starts and ends with its cast, and how well players can identify with their specific, often extrinsic, ambitions and dreams. Monolith Soft’s ambitious epic is boundlessly beautiful, challenging, emotionally gripping, and most distinguishably of all, effortlessly transporting. Mike LeChevallier
94. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017)
Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is unusually sensitive as a horror game, rejecting the trend of using mental illness for cheap scares. As disturbing as the contradictory voices in the titular protagonist’s head might be, her fractured psychological state doesn’t exist to leave players feeling frightened, but to serve up a philosophical inquiry with universal resonance. Between fights with scores of mythic beings (the one-versus-all war in the Sea of Corpses is among the most ominous action spectacles in gaming history), the player learns that Senua loathes the voices within her as much as she does anything else—and that self-hatred must be recognized and managed in order for her to attain some form of peace. This dark but life-affirming parable amplifies its emotional power through mesmerizing audiovisuals, where hallucinatory whispers argue over whether you’re ever going the right way and motion-capture graphics ironically seem like reality when juxtaposed against full-motion video. Jed Pressgrove
93. The Witness (2016)
Jonathan Blow’s long-awaited sequel to his 2008 indie megahit Braid is a puzzle game powered by ideology, a series of conundrums designed to inspire real-life note-taking and challenge your geometric savvy. The Witness is all-consuming in its mystery, capable of eating up hours and hours of your time with its demanding and exacting logic. And while this love letter to the power of knowledge and science might come off a tad smug in its hyper-rationalist worldview, the cumulative effect of its swaths of mind-melting riddles ultimately serves as a complete portrait of its creator himself: beguiling and enigmatic but thoroughly appealing nonetheless. Wright
92. Kentucky Route Zero (2013)
Kentucky Route Zero has released only four of its five acts at the time of this list’s publication. But even with the story unfinished, the game still feels like a cohesive whole. This is the strength of its vision, a soulful rendering of the countryside at night perfectly communicated by its lyrical text, minimalist graphics, and incredible sound design. It’s a game meant to wash over you, evocative in a way that’s broadly true and surreal yet also grounded, lived-in. You feel exactly the beauty it means you to feel, as well as the sadness, the desperation, and the desolation of a Rust Belt ravaged by false promises. Though you and the main character, Conway, are ostensibly passing through, the game never makes the mistake of putting players above it all—outsiders simply shaking their heads as they move along and forget. It recognizes struggle, but it’s careful to emphasize above all else the quiet dignity of the lives that are working through it. Scaife
91. The Beatles: Rock Band (2009)
Many a documentary has done a fine job collecting the sheer facts of what the Beatles were and became over that decade, but only Harmonix has managed to do it any sort of artistic justice. Given blessing by both surviving Beatles, George Harrison’s son, as well as Yoko Ono, The Beatles: Rock Band is less the band simulator or karaoke machine of the series’s numbered sequels than a meticulous Technicolor tone poem. It gives players the ability to embody the simple brilliance of the music, to stand awestruck at the band’s achievements, and to bask in the imagery that the music creates. No interview has ever been able to speak truth to the joy of what this band’s music is capable of than to physically play a guitar while the reincarnated vision of John Lennon stands in an elysian field imploring Prudence to come out to play. This is the pinnacle of the music game genre. Clark
90. Streets of Rage 2 (1992)
Streets of Rage 2 is a beat ’em up, not a rhythm game, but you can still get lost in its groove. The electronica- and funk-driven soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro is catchy, startling, and enrapturing. The way the four characters feel as you fight—as you punch, kick, slide, grab, throw, perform backbreakers, counter fools standing directly behind you, and more—mirrors the soul of the music: Everything is tightly constructed but flows like an improvisational avalanche. This game doesn’t hold back on the challenge front either. At times, the screen fills with so many moving bodies that the timing and decision-making required to dispatch the crowd of foes might seem impossible to perform. But when you do manage to come out of a brawl without losing a life, Streets of Rage feels like one of the hippest dances you can nail. Pressgrove
89. Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Far too many people who have never actually played Grand Theft Auto III criticize it as a violent fantasia—for offering up a world in which you boost your health by having sex with prostitutes and recover your money by running them over. Those detractors are missing out on the truly compelling aspect of the game, which is the freedom it allows—and yes, freedom sometimes comes with a moral cost. The story’s mafia tropes never take themselves too seriously, so while it deals with corruption and vice, it also encourages players to focus less on rampaging murder sprees and more on what they can accomplish with, say, the game’s ridiculous physics engine. You could, for instance, steal a tank, drive down a steep hill to build momentum, and use the recoil from the turret to inexplicably propel yourself into flight. You’ll hijack a flatbed, firetruck, taxi, or even an ice-cream van, just to see what’ll happen in a world free of consequences. Riccio
88. Missile Command (1980)
Dave Theurer’s Missile Command is the definitive thinking person’s shooter. With limited counter-missiles at your disposal and multiple cities to protect, you must quickly observe the trajectory of every incoming enemy missile, and your shot placement must account for the radius of every ensuing explosion so as to destroy as many projectiles at once. This anticipatory approach makes the experience unquestionably distinct from other shooters of the time, such as Space Invaders, Combat, Centipede, and Asteroids, all of which featured unlimited ammo and only asked players to aim for one target with each shot. But just as important, Missile Command, released in 1980, is culturally significant in how it reflects the anxiety of the Cold War era. The game envisions a scenario where civilization must be protected from an unpredictable foreign enemy—one that doesn’t come from outer space. The gravity of this theme is amplified by the unique control layout of the game’s arcade cabinet, which gives the illusion that you’re manning a war station rather than merely playing another machine in the arcade. Few games have captured widespread geopolitical paranoia like Missile Command. Pressgrove
87. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)
There’s an old moral lesson in which, after discovering that the perilously recovered treasure chest was empty, the hero realizes that the true reward was the quest itself. There’s no such moral lesson in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, which is both a rewarding adventure in and of itself and an overflowing bounty of innovation, a last-hurrah that throws everything at its fans without ever once feeling derivative. There are daring escapes from Panamanian jails, shootouts at an Italian manor’s gala, car chases through the streets of modern King’s Bay—and that’s hardly scratching the surface. The graphics come uncannily close to the game’s cinematic aspirations, a new grappling hook mechanic enhances the already epic gunfights, and sequences in the Madagascan outback add a much-needed dose of semi-open-world exploration to the series. Despite needing to encompass all of these features, the ambitious story never feels stretched or shoehorned, and delivers an emotional closure to the series as protagonist Nathan Drake must choose between his gilded obsessions and the life of his rogue brother, Sam. Given all that, Uncharted 4 avoids another moral: You can’t have too much of a good thing. Riccio
86. Jackbox Party Pack (2014)
The trivia and party games of the Jackbox Party Pack may be intentionally irreverent, but their execution is anything but. In a forward-thinking move, the Jackbox games divorce themselves from console controllers and even couch co-op, embracing the live audiences of Twitch streamers, making any household a potential game show host. And with that beachhead established, the Jackbox games begin to redefine even further what a game show might be, from the way You Don’t Know Jack 2015’s Wrong Answer of the Game makes players reassess “obvious” answers to the way that Drawful sometimes crafts hard-to-draw categories based on the contestants themselves. Party games often live or die based on the creativity of those assembled, but even here, Jackbox Party Pack manages to provide a steroidal boost of glee to push players over the edge. Riccio
85. Elite Beat Agents (2006)
Ouendan, the Japanese rhythm title Elite Beat Agents is based on, boasted unique, tactile gameplay that felt just as much like drawing elaborate art as it was tapping to a beat. The cherry on top were the visuals, a series of vignettes about Japanese citizens having trouble in their daily lives, and the Ouendan showing up to cheerlead the courage they need. Elite Beat Agents managed to somehow translate all of that to the West but with an extra injection of full-on cartoon-madcap antics, set to some of the most well-known hits ever written. And so, we have a game where a dance troupe dressed like the Men in Black gives an adventurous pug the courage he needs to save a baby who wanders onto a construction site, set to the Jackson 5. We tap along to a lone truck driver’s harrowing night killing zombies with canned nuts to Destiny’s Child. A meteorologist gets her entire city to fight the bad weather off with electric fans so she and her son can have a picnic, while you tap along to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” None of these elements combined should work, and yet, here they all are in Elite Beat Agents, one of the most delightful concoctions ever to grace a portable system. Clark
84. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (2004)
For as memorable as the classic Super Mario worlds have been, they feel every inch the platforming gauntlets they’re designed to be. You never really picture them as places where people live. The great triumph of the Mario RPGs is how effortlessly they build that world outward and fills in its blanks, and no game reveals Mario’s world to be such a wonderful, bizarre place as well as Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It’s the sort of game where our hero infiltrates a secret society’s equally secret moon base. He enlists the local Pianta mafia to get him to a big arena in the sky, wherein he fights alongside a punk infant Yoshi as a sort of amateur wrestler called “The Great Gonzales.” The timing-based battle system is relocated to a stage in front of an audience that grows as Mario levels up, letting you play to the crowd for power-ups. More than just a Mushroom Kingdom coat of paint over a well-worn template, this is one of the most inspired RPGs ever made and the reason people still clamor for Paper Mario to return to its roots nearly 15 years later. Scaife
83. Ico (2001)
Single-player video games are lonely. Ico made loneliness feel magical by giving you a companion, even as it constantly reminded you how alien her mind must be. Just like Princess Yorda’s gnomic utterances imply a story that she just can’t share with you, so does the game’s environment imply a vast narrative of which this story is only a part, creating a potent illusion of context by withholding backstory. While the gameplay itself is basic puzzle-solving and crude combat, it’s the mood that makes it special, the constant sense that there’s something vast just outside the frame. Daniel McKleinfeld
82. The Talos Principle (2014)
In The Talos Principle, a kind of Garden of Eden story, writers Jonas Kyratzes and Tom Jubert articulate the conflict between skepticism and the order of God. This juxtaposition comes in the context of a series of puzzles, implying that human and deity have a natural interest in making sense out of chaos. The religious reference doesn’t moralize about sin or cater to secularist values, instead implying that inquisitiveness mechanically binds humanity to a common fate. This conflicted but life-affirming perspective trumps the adolescent nihilism that oversimplifies player choice as an illusion. Even if the philosophical angle in The Talos Principle didn’t exist, the game would still register as outstanding. The world design allows you to bounce between puzzles while also requiring a certain degree of completion to try higher challenges. Developer Croteam’s gradual integration of several puzzle types is as accessible as it is brain-twisting. If nothing else, The Talos Principle celebrates its genre with shrewdness. Pressgrove
81. Half-Life (1998)
Half-Life is many things: headcrabs, crowbars, unfulfilled cliffhangers, lamba logos. But what ties it all together, and what the first game in the series excels at most of all, is momentum. Instead of breaking itself off into mission-sized chunks, Half-Life is a constant push forward as Gordon Freeman escapes from a research facility attacked by extra-dimensional invaders. Freeman never speaks, and to call his character anything beyond a hand attached to a gun or a crowbar is highly charitable, but spending so long in his highly mobile perspective breeds a very real sense of desperation. It’s a feeling most prominent in the lulls, when Half-Life gives itself the breathing room to reflect and build suspense for the peril that’s yet to come. Rather than immediately leaping between climaxes, you’re allowed a moment to feel the weight of the journey and the collision of the different forces in your way, and then you press forward once more. Scaife
Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China
Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.
Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.
Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.
In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.
The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?
Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].
The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.
Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.
The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.
Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.
Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.
You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?
Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.
The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.
It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.
I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.
You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?
When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.
I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.
Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,
And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.
Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.
Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?
I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.
I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.
Translation by Vincent Cheng
Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.
You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.
19. The Son’s Room (2001)
Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
17. Amour (2012)
There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
15. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
19. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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