35. “Black Swan” (2010)
Dario Argento by way of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Black Swan” from Darren Aronofsky (even his name feels like a Dario/Dostoevsky portmanteau) is either his most atypical film, or the one that makes the most sense of his catalogue, depending on how you look at it. The high-tension psychological disintegration of its central character, played to Best Actress-winning effect by Natalie Portman, echoes the paranoid, reality-warping vibe of his earlier films, while its study of a self-destructively obsessive quest for excellence is the culmination of many of his later themes. But as evidenced by its many Oscar nominations as well as its win, it is also the most purely enjoyable and accessible of his films — usually so straight-faced, here Aronofsky lets himself acknowledge the edge of hysteria, even camp that the story demands, and the film really takes flight (sorry) as a result.
34. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2011)
Awarded the first Palme D’Or of the new decade by Tim Burton’s Cannes jury, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” confirmed Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s place at the forefront of world cinema, and deservedly so: it’s a beguiling, melancholy puzzle that, five years on, we’re still working over. The film’s premise is essentially in the title, but it doesn’t really convey the kind of quiet, meditative magic that Weerasethakul’s film contains as he touches on politics, experiments with form, provides unexpected moments of levity (something that some of his slow cinema contemporaries could take a hint from), and creates an entirely singular, metaphysically twilight mood. It’s the closest cinematic equivalent to one of those baffling dreams that you can’t quite describe, but nevertheless haunts you all day, that we’ve experienced, and news that the Thai director should be returning this year is enormously welcome.
33. “12 Years a Slave” (2013)
Steve McQueen’s Best Picture winner, based on the famous 1853 slave narrative by Solomon Northrup is a vivid, beautiful, and profoundly moving piece of work, the more so for eschewing straight-up adaptation to find something a lot more impressionistic, elegant, and evocative. Centered around a rivetingly soulful Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film traces Northrup’s capture and enslavement chronologically, yet without the kind of plodding linearity that can sink literary adaptations. Instead, McQueen selects incidents and events from this 12 year period in an almost curatorial way, so the enslavement portion feels like it unfolds in a nightmarishly unending present tense. Stunningly shot by Sean Bobbit as a quiet, intense meditation on a perverse, degrading, revolting institution, it ultimately also becomes a topical reminder of the brittle, porous, and hypocritical membrane that separates so-called sophistication from outright barbarism.
32. “White Material” (2010)
French filmmaker/genius Claire Denis often returns to themes of African colonialism and expatriate identity in her films, but teaming with the peerless Isabelle Huppert, she has never been more incisive than in “White Material,” the story of a white plantation owner trying to hold onto her ideas about the world within the crumbling social order of an unnamed African country. Gripping, tense, and marked by Denis’ precise cinematic eye for images of almost lyrical horror, “White Material” is a profoundly disturbing film that deals from its opening scenes in a kind of ramping unease that feels claustrophobically pervasive. It’s hard to imagine a better encapsulation of the contradictions of the colonialist experience in its shocking and ultimately brutal examination of how loving and caring ferociously for a place does not make it yours — indeed that is the most insidious form of colonialist privilege there is.
31. “No” (2013)
It’s not hard to make a movie that’s beautiful these days: digital cameras have improved to the point where most YouTube videos appear better shot than most 1990s indie movies. But to make a movie that’s defiantly and anachronistically NOT beautiful, filmed on 1980s-style video, and yet proves enormously satisfying, cinematically brilliant, and even, yes, aesthetically pleasing takes real skill, and it’s clear that Pablo Larrain has real skill in spades. The final and best part of his Pinochet-era trilogy, it sees Gael Garcia Bernal as a slick ad executive lending his skills to the campaign to oust the Chilean dictator in a referendum, and proves to be warm, smart, entertaining, gripping, and one of the very best films ever made about politics. As he just reinforced in Berlin, Larrain’s one of the best in the world right now, and his lo-res look at his nation’s past stands as his first true masterpiece.