*Meaning, these films are thrown in here and ordered from a gut feeling- all of which could change or be reordered after I wake up and have my morning coffee tomorrow. But here I am, documenting it on this day. Enjoy!
25. The 40 Year Old Virgin (Dir. Judd Apatow, 2005)
This film was like a comedy atom bomb for me in 2005. I had never seen a movie that so thoroughly emptied out my insides from laughing so hard at things that were profoundly relateable, and recognizable. The total awkwardness of sex with someone you don’t really know, the brutal insecurities of 21st century masculinity, as well as the pure toxicity of our culture’s relationship with sex. In the way that it shaped our culture, this may be one of the more important films on the list.
24. Manchester By The Sea (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
The most recent film on this list, that has the greatest chance of climbing higher and higher as the years go on. I wouldn’t be surprised if, ten years from now, it found its way to the top ten of this very list. Grief is our most guaranteed of human experiences, and the one that we are most biologically destined to try and avoid at all costs. Casey Affleck, Kenneth Lonergan, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams were determined to look it straight in the eye, with a brave and daring combination of devastating honesty and gut busting humor.
23. Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
In an interview I saw of his, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn described Drive as “really good coke.” I’ve never gone near the drug, but I suppose if it’s like this movie, it must be pure bliss, cool detachment, stylistic mastery, teenage feelings, shocking bits of artistic violence and all of the power of a pure, innocent love that you would give up everything for. Complete with one of my favorite soundtracks on this list, movies don’t get much cooler than this.
22. Into The Wild (Dir. Sean Penn, 2007)
Having traveled around the country camping extensively in my childhood, I was already bound to love this gorgeous movie. But this film came with the added layers of alienation, disillusionment, depression and life stresses that made disappearing into the woods sometimes seem like a good idea. The film shows us the logical resolution of such a perfectly false fantasy, while still never putting down its hurting, dreaming protagonist Christopher McCandless.
21. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2014)
Boyhood is an impossibly perfect kind of movie- perhaps never in movie history has form fit so well with function. Linklater proved himself to be perhaps our greatest Cinematic poet of the moment. Boyhood should inspire everyone to look at the small bits of their lives with as great a value as the big ones.
20. The Village (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising film on this list, and one I couldn’t bear to leave off. M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 mystery horror film turned him into an instant punchline, with a twist ending that plays almost like a parody of a twist ending. I can tell you that I was completely bowled over by it and did not see it coming- the rug was pulled out from under me with greater force than perhaps any film I have ever seen. I probably didn’t see the signs because I was so swept up in this beautiful film, thanks in large part to the contributions of DP Roger Deakins and composer James Newton Howard.
19. A.I.- Artificial Intelligence (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2001)
When Stanley Kubrick died at the far too young age of 70, he left many unrealized projects. One of them was A.I., which Steven Spielberg brought to life in 2001, with the blessing of Kubrick just before his death. Kubrick said that the story, a futuristic riff on the tale of Pinocchio, was more appropriate for Spielberg’s sensibilities, and he wasn’t wrong. A true master at regulating his audience’s emotional experience, Spielberg ended up making the film a sort of eulogy to his departed friend- a kind of loving gesture to our modern master of pessimism, one that he would never have made for himself.
18. Zero Dark Thirty (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
Like Zodiac, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film about the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden appeared to use the potboiler procedural tension of All The President’s Men as a template. In doing so she put politics mostly aside, anchoring the film with an incredible performance by Jessica Chastain. She plays a woman CIA agent endlessly doubted by her male peers, but who was still basically right all along about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. It all leads up to the final Navy SEAL raid, a masterfully done depiction of expert military precision.
17. It Follows (Dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015)
Using the familiar structure of 80’s classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street, or the pals banning together to solve a mystery style of The Goonies, It Follows is probably the best horror film of recent memory. It manages to package genuine fear, real emotion, technical wizardry and thematic relevance together into a movie that was my favorite of 2015. The transition to adulthood from your adolescence is like no other transition in life- and It Follows imbues it with appropriately terrifying weight.
16. 28 Days Later… (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2002)
There would likely be no The Walking Dead without 28 Days Later, a riff on George A. Romero’s famous Dead trilogy, and a movie that revitalized zombie obsession in a way unseen since the 1970’s. Its vision of an empty and ravaged London covered in missing posters brought to mind 9/11- while now these images could echo Brexit or the European refugee crisis. Its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, may be even better- but this remains the iconic beginning of our modern zombie craze.
15. A History Of Violence (Dir. David Cronenberg, 2005)
With every rewatch, this feels more and more like David Cronenberg’s best movie. At first look, this crime drama seems to be an outlier of the Canadian body horror auter’s filmography. But like all of his films, this one is about the way that violence and horror can burrow its way into our biological makeup. Not to mention Cronenberg’s gift for bringing out some of his actor’s best performances. As the mild mannered diner owner somehow capable of skillful murder, Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen has never been better.
14. Oslo, August 31st (Dir. Joachim Trier, 2011)
Addiction is given the heartbreaking kind of realism that it deserves here- without being exploited. Anders Danielsen Lie plays a recovering addict released from a rehab facility for one day to attend a job interview, in this 2011 indie from Norwegian master Joachim Trier. The film spans this one day in Anders’ life- as he deals with the complete fallout from the life choices that led him to this moment. Despite such heavy content- the film finds plenty of room for poetic moments. Anyone who has found themselves at a dramatic crossroads in their life can find something to grab onto this movie.
13. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin, 2011)
I have an eerie fascination for anything cult-related. So this haunting portrait of a young woman’s shattered mind after escaping a cult in upstate New York had my ticket punched already. Released three years after the 2008 crisis destroyed the economy, to me this is the definitive examination of millennial malaise; simply taken to its logical extreme.
12. Selma (Dir. Ava DuVernay, 2014)
While America has justly given Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a holiday of his own, and virtual sainthood status, there had surprisingly never really been a cinematic portrayal of him. Selma was the perfect re-introduction to an often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and even manipulated civil rights leader. It couldn’t have come at a better time- the year after Ferguson brought Black Lives Matter into the national limelight.
11. Let The Fire Burn (Dir. Jason Osder, 2013)
The lone documentary on this list, because it’s a film that challenges what can be done with the form. Using only archival footage and text for the necessary exposition, Let The Fire Burn brings us back to live through one of the most egregious and horrifying American events of the late 20th century; when the police ended a siege on the black liberationist MOVE house in far west Philadelphia by dropping a bomb on it, killing 11 men, women and children inside. Somehow, the vast majority of Americans don’t know it ever happened.
10. 25th Hour (Dir. Spike Lee, 2002)
Spike Lee’s 2002 movie acutely captured the trauma of post 9/11 New York City. What at the time felt to me like a solid but by the numbers redemption drama, blew me away upon a recent re-watch. Monty (Edward Norton) is the stand in for those of us privileged enough to remain in blissful ignorance- all of which came crashing down along with the twin towers. 9/11 is perhaps the defining before and after moment in modern history, and 25th Hour is the first crime scene photograph in movie form.
9. Children Of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
Ten years after its 2006 release, the futuristic dystopia of Children Of Men looks eerily, horrifyingly more realistic. While its depiction of a world tearing itself apart after an infertility epidemic connected at the time with the chaos of the Iraq War, in 2016 that chaos had spread all over the world, culminating in Trumps’ election. In the film, England thought it could soldier ahead with a comforting fascism and unlimited surveillance. Much like we thought our homeland would never be touched again after 9/11- only to find that the new horror was coming from inside the house.
8. The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
Since Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson has stopped making big ensemble films- but he still makes big, big movies about America; ones that work so well because they’re only about one or two people. The Master may in many ways be his best, thanks in part to Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman turning in two all time performances. As traumatized, perverted WWII vet Freddie Quell (Phoenix) and the alluring leader of a new cult like religion Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the two men engage in a battle for the soul of post-war America. For a country that was prosperous and basking in glory days on the surface- Freddie and Lancaster were the porous wounds underneath.
7. No Country For Old Men (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)
The Coen Brothers have at least 10 or 12 incredible movies to their name, but only one perfect movie. This is it. It may not be their best, but what can really compete with the id, ego and superego performances of Javier Bardem (as the ruthlessly calm psychopath Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (as the classic Coen fool Llewelyn Moss), and Tommy Lee Jones (as the ineffective martyr Sheriff Bell)? All are archetypes often used within the Coen universe- but never to this level of flawless movie making.
6. Munich (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2005)
One of Spielberg’s best, grounded by a powerful Tony Kushner script. It’s a uniquely Jewish film, capturing the mourning of a traumatized state and its people, who can’t seem to admit that their thirst for revenge has led them down a dark path. Few other films portray our current conflict between East and West so well- and why that war isn’t going to end any time soon.
5. The Tree Of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
Terrence Malick was never one for a typical narrative, but this 2011 film was his first to really abandon all common signposts of one. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the random movie goer who wanted to see the new Brad Pitt. I’ve only seen this film twice, but countless images and moments are forever etched in my mind. Somehow, someway, Malick managed to capture the scope of human existence on earth in one film, pushing the potential of the medium far past its limits in the process.
4. Milk (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008)
As much as Milk is a perfect example of biopic done right, it’s also the best film about the election of Barack Obama. After eight years of Bush, people needed some hope- and they voted on it. Hope is exactly what Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the country, ran on. To me, it’s perhaps the least cynical film about politics I can think of- while also managing to be grimly realistic. It’s a guaranteed cryfest, and probably Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece.
3. Mysterious Skin (Dir. Gregg Arraki, 2004)
Mysterious Skin follows a young Joseph Gordon Levitt and Brady Corbet as teenage Kansas boys who share a horrible past, but deal with its impact in profoundly different ways. As a therapist, I can say that this film is dead on in its depiction of childhood trauma. Despite being one of the hardest watches on this list, it’s also a beautiful portrait of adolescent friendships, and the magical healing powers of relationships. It also has a musical score for the ages, by Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins) and Harold Budd, one that is never far from my earbuds.
2. Brokeback Mountain (Dir. Ang Lee, 2005)
Not only did Brokeback Mountain seem to dramatically effect representation of gay narratives onscreen, it changed the entire culture as well. When the film was released in 2005, I would have never thought we were less than a decade away from the SCOTUS decision to legalize gay marriage. Beyond that, it’s a deeply felt and heartbreaking love story, with some of the most gorgeous imagery ever presented in movie form. It’s Ang Lee’s ode to the American west, and portrait of the fears of humankind; lying in stark contrast to the beauty of nature.
1. Zodiac (Dir. David Fincher, 2007)
David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece is an expertly paced procedural, and an unbearably tense journey into the dark night of a few obsessive minds- those who took it upon themselves to unmask the true identity of the Bay Area’s Zodiac killer. Spanning the late 1960s til the late 80’s, Zodiac examines this case of an unsolvable string of murders, making us detectives in the process. All the while in the background, the optimism of mid-century American society is sinking into cynical disillusionment. It’s David Fincher’s best film, and the best film of the century so far.