70. “Pariah” (Dee Rees, 2011)
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This Brooklyn-set coming out film arrived ahead of its time, but as director Dee Rees’ career has flourished, her remarkable debut has been given its rightful due. Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality finally unbridled, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) on a journey toward queerness and masculine gender expression. We witness Alike quietly change out of her baseball hat and t-shirt on the train home to Brooklyn, donning a girly sweater in order to calm her parents’ suspicions (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). We melt alongside her as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself as desirable for the first time through the sparkling eyes of Bina (Aasha Davis). Dripping in rich, saturated jewel tones that became de rigueur in the years that followed, “Pariah” pulses with the rhythm of first love and the cost of self-discovery. —JD
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69. “Portrait of Jason” (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
A landmark non-fiction achievement, Shirley Clarke’s portrait centers on Jason Holliday (real name: Aaron Payne) – a flamboyant gay cabaret performer. Filmed over the course of one night at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, Holliday dished on a myriad of topics — racism, homophobia, parental abuse, show business, drugs, sex, prostitution, the law, and more — as he told the story of his life. With each passing minute, he becomes increasingly intoxicated, and his revelations become increasingly raw, culminating in an emotionally vulnerable state. The result is a mesmerizing portrait of a complex man, who weaves tales that are collectively hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s a riveting, must-see “confessional” that the late great Ingmar Bergman called “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.” The transgressive work was restored and re-released in 2012. —TO
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68. “Cameraperson” (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
Kirsten Johnson opens “Cameraperson” with a note describing the project as “my memoir,” but it’s safe to say there’s never been a memoir quite like this one. Cobbling together footage from her 25 years of experience as a documentary cinematographer, “Cameraperson” offers a freewheeling overview of the people and places Johnson has captured over the course of a diverse career. More than that, the two dozen projects showcased here alongside original footage confront the process of creation.
This is a collage-like guide to a life of looking. And she has seen a lot: a birthing center in Nigeria, a detainment center for Al Qaeda prisoners, Michael Moore antics, and so much more. “Cameraperson” would be a riveting embodiment of life itself even if the filmmaker didn’t take the next step and personalize the material, but the footage of her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother gives the movie an additional poignance. “Cameraperson” is as much about the complexity of the world around us as it is an illustration of its universal fragility. —EK
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67. “Morvern Callar” (Lynne Ramsey, 2002)
Picking a favorite Lynne Ramsay film is exceedingly difficult, even when accounting for the fact that she’s only made four features, but “Morvern Callar” stands out even among a one-of-a-kind filmography that began with “Ratcatcher” and took on new dimensions in last year’s “You Were Never Really Here.”
A never-better Samantha Morton (and that’s saying something) plays the title character, a young Scottish woman dealing with the aftermath of her boyfriend’s suicide — a transformative event that brings out a heretofore unseen side of herself as she passes off his unpublished novel as her own and goes on holiday in Spain. Ramsay and Morton ensure that it’s nowhere near as glamorous as that description might make it sound, of course, but “Morvern Callar” remains as intoxicating now as it was in 2002.—MN
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66. “Girlfight” (Karyn Kusama, 2000)
Karyn Kusama’s 2000 debut would be worthy of celebration if its main accomplishment was presenting Michelle Rodriguez to the world for the first time, but this tough-as-nails depiction of a Brooklyn teen boxer matches her hardened screen presence with extraordinary energy and attitude.
A neorealist “Rocky,” the movie follows moody Diana Guzman from her high school skirmishes to the new outlet for her rage that she discovers at the gym. Forced to argue her way into the ring, Diana fights through an uneasy relationship with Adrian (Santiago Douglas), who also becomes her opponent in a climactic battle. Kusama’s jittery, naturalistic filmmaking style gets into the center of these showdowns with visceral intensity, and presents the battle of a young woman in a man’s world as the ultimate success story. Its ferocity still resonates nearly 20 years later. —EK
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65. “A New Leaf” (Elaine May, 1971)
Elaine May’s directorial debut should be frustrating and maybe even reprehensible. Instead, it’s charming and life-affirming. Walter Matthau plays a gentleman in the Old World Continental sense – he has money, so he doesn’t want to work. He wants to spend his life driving his sports car, ordering around his butler, and completely avoiding real-world practicalities. When it becomes clear he’s lost all his money, he decides to take a wealthy bride. He finds the perfect sap in a millionaire horticulturalist played by May.
He plans to marry her, then kill her and keep her money. He’s abominable — but, though still committed to his plan, he ends up defending her from all the parasitic individuals in her life who are bleeding her finances dry. At first it’s just so he can have the money for himself, but as he keeps protecting her from the villains in her life, he ends up, in fact, falling for her. She’s even more incapable of dealing with life than him, and in learning to defend her he’s developed the skills to actually deal with the world. It’s romance as self-actualization, the most romantic kind of film. Hilarious, sweet, and a little sad, it’s vintage Elaine May. —CB
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64. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Marielle Heller, 2018)
Three years after breaking out with her indelible “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Marielle Heller returned to the big screen with the utterly charming true story “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (co-written by fellow female filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, no less). The dramedy, based on the insane real-life exploits of author and forger Lee Israel, stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee and Richard E. Grant as her unlikely best pal (and literal partner in crime) Jack Hock.
The film is many things: a love letter to a bygone New York City, a story of a truly complex female character, a heist thriller, and a tale about the corrosive power of loneliness and failure. The stakes are both low-scale and of the utmost importance, because the only thing on the line is Lee’s livelihood — but Heller makes the case that it’s not just her job and finances on the line, it’s her very sense of self. What could possibly be more important? Bittersweet and funny and even a bit scary, it’s also true. —KE
Stream on Hulu via Cinemax; stream on Amazon via Cinemax; rent, or buy on Amazon.
63. “Real Women Have Curves” (Patricia Cardoso, 2002)
Patricia Cardoso’s Sundance-winning “Real Women Have Curves” is a crowd pleaser in the best sense of the word. The film stars then-discovery America Ferrera as an 18 year old caught in the middle of tradition (staying in Los Angeles to work at a sewing factory and provide for her family) and her own personal ambitions (leaving Los Angeles for college in New York City). Cardoso’s relaxed directing style invites the viewer to explore the film’s Latin American culture and themes with open arms, and its messages of family and self-love are never handled in didactic terms. Every character rings true (especially Lupe Ontiveros as the family matriarch) and makes a traditional narrative pop with irresistible authenticity. —ZS
Stream on Hulu via HBO Max; stream on Amazon via HBO; buy on Amazon.
62. “Bend It Like Beckham” (Gurinder Chadha, 2003)
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David Beckham is no longer the soccer star du jour, having long since been eclipsed by Messi and Ronaldo, but “Bend It Like Beckham” remains as warm and uplifting as it was when Becks was scoring goals at Old Trafford. Directed by Gurinder Chadha (whose earlier “Bhaji on the Beach” is also worth seeking out and who just scored a huge Sundance hit with “Blinded by the Light”), it goes beyond the pitch as it delves into the plight of Punjabi Sikhs in England and other issues of the day — all while maintaining a loose spirit that keeps it firmly in the feel-good realm. Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley are great teammates and even better castmates, keeping things fleet of foot even as they and their director ensure that “Bend It Like Beckham” is never a mere trifle. Chadha, who grew up in London as part of the Indian diaspora, finds both pain and beauty in her heroine’s attempt to please her traditional parents while forging her own duel identity.—MN
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.
61. “Reassemblage” (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1983)
Trinh T. Minh-ha
Trinh T. Minh-ha’s first film is a thorny visual essay on women of rural Senegal. Shunning more conventional ethnographic documentary tropes, the film captures scenes about the daily life of its subjects, waiving the use of an expected narration, as the women themselves tell their own stories. Additionally, the filmmaker foregoes the long takes typical of observational style filmmaking, and at times completely extricates sound from image, for what, as its title suggests, is a more disjointed construction.
For Trinh, who is Vietnamese, it was important to avoid the othering and exoticization that often plagues ethnographic cinema. In that sense, playing with the attributes of a certain kind of filmmaking, “Reassemblage” doubly functions as a work of film criticism itself, critiquing both western biases and documentary convention. Audiences are also challenged by what is ultimately a rather stimulating experiment that demands multiple viewings. —TO