51) The Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray
I like to use the example of Paul Bettany’s character in Master and Commander to express a possibility which no longer exists. To some extent, Maturin knows everything, or at least everything that can be known to an English person in the early 19th Century. It’s not possible for someone to know everything in a similar way in the 21st Century no matter how long you spend on Wikipedia. The Lost City of Z makes a similar point about obsession. In Fawcett’s early years of the 20th Century, it is possible to be really obsessed. Given little more than a couple symbols on trees and some pottery fragments, Fawcett is hooked enough on the jungle to decide that he’s going to make the discovery of Z his life’s work. He took that first surveying trip in stride, but there’s a reason that those first forty-five minutes feel a little slow; it’s because they are Fawcett’s foreplay, the little hints and possibilities that will keep him coming back to South America when his home, so called, is in England with a wife he leaves behind and children he does not see. In the early 20th Century, Fawcett can be so obsessed with something that he can really be forced to give everything else up to have that one thing. It’s not a question of losing a job or family or money; as flippant as one might be about his desire to find this place, we’re not talking about a person who’s hooked on smack. We’re talking about someone who believes and wants something so much that he’s willing to abandon everything else in his life, from the comforts of home to the dignity that being a good husband and father bestows, in order to search for it. It’s clear that the final possession that Fawcett is up to sacrifice is his own life, but it’s hardly the only thing that is wiped out by his mania: we must account for the life of his son as well, who is raised without a father and ends up dying during the most extended period of togetherness they ever have. In Charlie Hunnam’s hands, that obsession is emphatic and engaging; in terms of how relatively little I expected in the performance and how amazed I was after seeing it, Hunnam’s Fawcett is probably the most surprising performance of the entire decade for me. But it’s up to Gray and Robert Pattinson (there’s to much Good Time in the Pattinson reevaluation and not nearly enough Lost City of Z) and cinematographer Darius Khondji to present the foolhardiness of Fawcett’s obsession. When an aging Costin tells an aging Fawcett that he’s not sure he has another Amazonian expedition in him, it’s deeply sad and kind of a relief at the same time; at least Costin, who has been the person Fawcett chose to spend his life with, will get to reap some of the benefits of old age. He knew when to quit.
For a movie where you go into the thing knowing how it’s going to end—I had never heard of Percy Fawcett before I saw this movie, but come on, that dude is as doomed as Hamlet from the jump—and where so much of the runtime is in smudgy footage of the Amazon rainforest, The Lost City of Z is quite thrilling. The middle chapter of this movie, based on Fawcett’s second expedition, is a textbook example of how a movie can pit two characters against each other. Having been given a hard time by the explorer types in London, Fawcett almost has to accept the help of famous polar explorer James Murray, although given Murray’s reputation he seems like an ideal companion. That Murray turns out to be about as useful as an iceberg and twice as heavy a weight on the expedition is slightly unexpected, but it’s also what makes so much of this movie deeply tense. Murray turns into a villain once he’s drenched in the sweat of the New World, and on the basis of his famous name and his experience with Shackleton, he expects to get more deference than he gets. Of course, Fawcett and Costin are not names, but they have the relevant experience that makes them trustworthy. Fawcett and Murray clash for ages, and that clash gets more and more aggravating the longer it goes on. Incredibly, the sniping only serves to make Fawcett seem more logical; it makes the obsessed man feel like the logical one, and that’s a kind of Caqueta complex that the movie puts over on you before you’re even aware it’s happening.
56) Train to Busan, directed by Yeon Sang-ho
Even more than the zombies themselves, a tried and true movie plot for many decades now, there’s something very old-fashioned about Train to Busan. It’s about heroism and sacrifice and the duty we have to each other, and I suppose that it’s only the zombies who stop that from being a little corny. All the same, I defy anyone to say that the scene where Sang-hwa gives himself up in order to give his wife and unborn child a chance to live is less than profoundly moving. Of the little group that escaped the train and then the station, he was clearly the leader even though Seok-woo has the better clothes and the fuller bank account; it had everything to do with his belief that he would rather go down with the ship than swim away and watch someone else die. At the station, where zombies are swarming in enormous numbers, Sang-hwa waits until the last possible second to get Seok-hoo through the door before barring it, even at the risk to himself. When that same group is stuck between zombies on one end and a group of fearful, hoity-toity prigs on the other who refuse to let them in, Sang-hwa has the challenge of trying to keep the door between compartments closed while almost everyone else tries to get that door to safety open. It was inevitable that he’d be bitten, but even then his thoughts are of holding off the zombies long enough to give the others better odds of survival, of giving Seong-kyeong a chance to live that is even a tick better than his own. This movie could be co-opted pretty easily, I think, as some statement about gender roles, and it’s true that there are no women who are all out of gum in this picture. But it never feels like a statement of “Man protects, woman cowers” as much as it is “Those who can defend others must do so.” Who should be trying to close the door, the husband or the very pregnant wife? Who should be there hacking away at zombie hands and heads with a baseball bat, the adult or the child? Over and over again, characters from across the spectrum of social class make sacrifices to preserve the most fragile lives who are least able to defend themselves, from a homeless man to a hedge fund parasite. I would say that it’s hard to argue against that kind of principle, but then again, I’m not writing this from South Korea.
With apologies to Snowpiercer, this has to be the best apocalyptic train movie from a South Korean director ever made. The trains are not quite the piece of metaphorical art here that the title vehicle is in Snowpiercer, but Yeon knows that these passenger trains—with their limited escape routes and narrow aisles, the wide seats that trap you in place, the doors that are not strong enough to last more than a few minutes against a wooden bat or a screaming, gnashing horde of braindead bodies—are death traps, and a death trap is thrilling. Train to Busan has plenty of horror movie stuff, especially in the beginning of the train ride where we watch some nice normal people turn into glassy-eyed, neck-chomping freaks. (The fact that the ones who go first are mostly attendants on the train, neatly put together and wearing their bright blue suits, amps up the contrast.) But the movie works best when it’s an action movie with those asides to heartfelt moments, because Yeon’s ability to ramp up tension is spectacular. On one hand, it’s not like there’s much to know besides “get away from the zombies,” but on the other, Yeon knows that it isn’t enough just to let people run away for the length of the movie. In that scene where Sang-hwa is just about the only thing that’s keeping his little band of survivors from being obliterated, Yeon keeps focus on the people who believe they are safe in their part of the train as well, especially the corporate bigwig Yon-suk whose face strains and sneers with the effort of trying to keep our heroes out of his compartment. It’s one thing to be backed into a corner, which is a scenario that unfolds towards the end of the picture. It’s another thing to be squeezed to death, which is what he’s depicting in those incredibly stressful moments. He even make us believe for a few moments at the end of the movie that Seong-kyeong and Su-an, who have survived through the intercessions of others, who have made it to the military perimeter, might be shot down by those soldiers because they are bogies. He doesn’t—and I don’t think the movie would have worked so well if he had—but the threat of that possibility is as much of a horrible rush as just about anything else that happens in the movie.
72) Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols
In the Book of Esther, another story about how the strength of married people reflects itself upon the state, Esther finds out about the planned destruction of the Jews from her cousin, Mordecai. Her first instinct is to comfort him, to send him clothes to replace his sackcloth, but Mordecai refuses them. In a series of messages, Mordecai has to overcome Esther’s unwillingness to risk her life by approaching the king without having been sent for. Mordecai’s response is chilling poetry: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” It’s the last sentence that gets most of the attention, as it’s a call for Esther (and many Judeo-Christian believers in the centuries since) to believe that God has put them in a position of responsibility during a time of trouble because they have the means to fix things. But it’s the one before that gets me: if you don’t risk your life, you’ll die anyway. Mildred Loving understands both. She knows that she and Richard want to live near her family, want to get out of D.C., have seen what city life can do to their family when one of their children is hit by a car. These are, and I say this without sarcasm, country folk. They are happier away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mildred is put in touch with the ACLU because being married to a white man at a time when the Supreme Court might make a precedent from their case to benefit every other mixed-race family in the present and future of the United States; she has come to this position for such a time as this. But it starts because she sees her family, the way of life they want to live, perishing in front of her. Richard follows through because he trusts his wife, even though he is more concerned about the press attention and the potential legal ramifications than she is; he follows through because he too can see the family perishing. Loving does not indulge in a scene about this mess. There are some moments where Richard is agitated, and he does not always smile along with Mildred; that agitation usually comes out against lawyers as opposed to her, anyway. It’s a movie where there’s never a fight, never some hullabaloo for the sake of it.
If Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga had screamed at each other more, this would have been a serious contender for Best Picture. Instead, it’s one of the loveliest movies of the decade. There is so much warmth in the two of them. Negga has this wonderful ability to let us know that she’s smiling without smiling, to be able to express her anxiety purely through the look in her eyes. The movie reserves most of its showcase scenes for her, too, insofar as we’d call them that. She’s the one who’s at home to take the call which lets her know that she and her husband have won their case at the Supreme Court; she’s also very much opposed to being at the building itself, even at the insistence of her lawyer, Bernie Cohen, who tries to make it clear that it’s a tremendous honor just to be in front of the high court. A surprising amount of the joy in this movie comes from Edgerton’s performance, as he goes all the way against type. When he laughs, he makes it all right for us to smile, too; it’s comic relief in the purest sense. When he’s with Mildred’s family, someone asks him how many races he’s won. Richard pretends to be counting on his hands, and after playing up the silence for a while, he says, “A lot.” It’s the right answer, and the timing is good enough that Mildred’s family goes for it. He’s not in favor of getting wrapped up with Life magazine, but when the photographer comes by the house, his amiability wins over Richard, who chuckles through his story of getting a picture of his feet from fifty-five stories up. When Richard laughs, his kids laugh too, and the sense of family is as strong in those moments as it is at any other point. If there is an exuberance in this movie, it’s Nichols’ willingness to recreate that gorgeous photo of the Lovings watching TV, with his head on her lap. Richard is laughing then, too, and it’s the perfect distillation of his character. Out in the world, or with strangers, Richard is tight-lipped and serious. He is one of those old-fashioned men who believes that showing too much of himself in public is as dangerous as giving away his bank information. But at home, we understand what makes this family work. It’s Mildred’s sensible affection and Richard leaning into how much he cares about his wife and kids. Chalk another one up for nominative determinism.
78) Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade
“German comedy” is not quite “gas station sushi,” though I think even for the open-minded, Toni Erdmann requires some bravery. In a genre where two hours can feel like a lot, this movie is a somewhat paunchy 160 minutes, sketch after sketch which basically boils down to the same thing: Ines is very busy and does not have time for her dad’s inanities, so Winfried decides to jack up the inanity to thermonuclear levels. If she does not want her father, then she will not get her father, but that doesn’t mean her father is ready to give up on her. This is an awkward movie, and much of the humor stems from the inherent awkwardness of Ines being forced to pretend in front of her boss and coworkers that he really is a life coach with an unbelievably bad wig and fake teeth named “Toni Erdmann,” and of course not her father at all. The reason this movie is not merely bearable, but really great, is because it’s about them. In America the entire focus would be on the cringe humor, on sight gags, and on some kind of cheesy reunion at the end of the line (and boy howdy am I glad that the moment has passed where it looked like some bemused American studio would remake this). In this movie, we never really do go away from how wrapped up Ines is in this really boring, kind of soulless job that she’s got. (Seriously, her job makes the stuff people do in Office Space look like an amusement park ride.) As much as Peter Simonischek gets to steal most of the scenes, the movie belongs to Sandra Huller, who is so alone until her dad shows up, so removed from everything, and watching this ridiculous man do ridiculous things to warm up her frostbitten life is surprisingly moving. He’s a music teacher, and he manages to manipulate her into performing “Greatest Love of All” with him in front of a bunch of Romanians they don’t really know. He plays the keyboard, lingering a little longer on the intro, playing it back once or twice because she’s obviously not thrilled about this impromptu talent show. He looks up at her through the wig. Eventually she starts singing this song (you never know what people will be off book on until you try), sort of quietly at first, and it’s only a minute or so before she is straight belting this number, off-key and eyes closed, and Winfried wins that round. She bails on the little party immediately, but it’s a strange, slightly lovely moment of connection. It’s a scene which happens to be funny because it’s awkward and weird, but the thrust of it is about watching Ines show us some sliver of emotion beyond vexation.
We live in such times that I think I see that “(nervous laughter} What the fuck?” screenshot from Veep at least twice a week, and I think the only time I’ve ever literally done that in my life was watching the scene late in the movie where Winfried shows up for Ines’ birthday party. Everyone else, see, is already naked. Ines has given up. Her shoes are wrong, the dress is broken, she’s just not going to even bother with clothes any more at this party. A surprising number of other people from work just kind of go with it; we’ve seen them at the club already, and we know that they are just the kind of people who want to seem like they’re game for anything even when that makes them profoundly uncomfortable. Having more than adequately shifted the discomfort from herself to everyone else, a totally nude Ines greets her father as he arrives. He is not dressed like Toni Erdmann. He is dressed like some enormous hairy thing, with a tall, almost cylindrical head(?) that must be the same length as his body. I do not know how anyone can see out of it, nor do I understand how anyone could not sweat to death in it, but there is Winfried, silent and furry in a room where everyone else is nervous and exposed. It’s unforgettable, and it happens to lead to the movie’s most tender and unexpected moment. Finally wearing something, Ines goes out into the park, where her father is still wearing this remarkable get-up. They hug. It’s so strange to watch, and yet that strangeness is what keeps the movie from feeling like someone’s put too much sugar on our strawberries. Ade’s command of tone in that moment is nothing less than superhuman.
91) Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt
It wasn’t until sometime late in Certain Women that I was sure I was seeing a masterpiece, and when it happened it was because of the person I least expected would convince me of it. There is no fanfare in Lily Gladstone’s performance as a ranch hand who is absolutely thunderstruck by Kristen Stewart. Her solitude at the ranch, with just the horses and the snow and a view of mountains that thrills the heart, is a world that she seems entirely natural in. Chore after chore is completed without comment, and it seems like Jamie could probably do this indefinitely; there’s no sign that she needs to branch out other than the odd drive into town. Yet the facts show that there’s a longing in her that she may not even have known she had: she does drive into town, does blunder into a class about educational law, does fall for Beth instantly, does take her out to the diner. There is such fulfillment on her face while she talks to Beth, even though Beth is a nervous kind of person who seems a little frazzled anyway. She comes out twice a week to teach this class at night, which means she’s driving eight hours after doing her day job and getting back for it at some dumb hour. The two of them don’t talk about anything particularly interesting at the diner. It’s mostly just Beth being occupied with the drive she’s going to have to make and Jamie asking square one questions; Beth is in such a hurry that she doesn’t even break the knife and fork out of the napkin to get at it; she just wipes her face with the cutlery still inside after taking a bite out of half of a burger that’s the same size as her face. All the while, Jamie wears a look that suggests that she’s on a beach somewhere as opposed to this podunk diner in Montana, of all places. Within two weeks from this day, Beth will have bailed on this job—is it the drive? the horseback ride that Jamie takes her on to the diner the week after this first meeting?—and Jamie will have to face up to what we’ve already seen Laura and Gina face up to. Certain Women is about this language barrier that takes over when you’re trying to tell someone that you want something, what forces us to hold back and play our cards tighter to the vest, as Laura does, or makes us express ourselves all the more vehemently at the frustration of not being taken seriously enough, as Gina does. Jamie is the only one of our protagonists in this movie who has this communication problem with another woman, and it makes that gap especially sad. It’s impossible to know if she knows that her face is saying everything, but even if her face is doing it, or her horse is doing it the week after, it’s a message that leaves too much up to Beth.
By a weird twist of fate, this movie is up one spot on the other anthology movie on this list, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is also made up of stories taking place out west. (Holy Motors I suppose might lay a claim to that if it wants to, but given that they’ve got Denis Lavant in the whole thing I don’t think it counts. Anyway.) Certain Women has the more narrow focus of the two, keeping itself to a single time and a single state, and although I certainly enjoy the range the Coens cover more, there’s something about the way Reichardt makes a case, unifying these three women who despite their locations really have very little in common. The locations aren’t nothing, though, and few directors in this country know better than Reichardt what that means. Even when Montana is not beautiful or picturesque—in other words, in the Gina section where it’s kind of brown—it’s remote. Laura’s section is the one which is centered on living in town, and then there’s something a little quaint about her law office, something low-rent and old-fashioned about the way her bugged out client decides to network her into not giving him up to the cops. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine someone in a ’40s movie trying to do to get out of a jam (“We’re pals, ain’t we?”) where the biggest concern is the local constabulary and you didn’t need your photo ID for everything. And as ridiculous as Will’s plan is to get Laura to cover for him while he sneaks out of a different door, the place is still small enough that it seems like he might have been able to pull it off if Laura had been a total moron. There’s a romance in his plan to sneak out and disappear, I guess, in the mountains of Montana. But the landscapes, it turns out, dissemble just as much as any of the characters in the picture.
98) The Salesman, directed by Asghar Farhadi
A Separation is the one that everyone’s going to remember Farhadi for, though The Salesman is the one I like more. Maybe it’s the fact that it has the ambition to begin with absolute boldness. At first, the quiet setup of a beautifully arranged stage, a Death of a Salesman set which, as originally written, contains all in one. And then the cut, a shout of “The building is collapsing!” The thud of people going down the stairs, a disquieting rumble, the last part of the scene played out in front of a cracked window. The meaning is unmistakable, and it’s so bold that it demands respect. We don’t know anyone yet, but we know that they’ve watched the world end. Or maybe what makes me like it more are the obvious tie-ins to American literature, which I can’t help but enjoy. The connections to Death of a Salesman are about as subtle as the building coming apart, down to the fact that the main characters of the film are performing in a (pretty censored) version of the play. As far as adapting Miller goes, the most interesting thing that Farhadi does in The Salesman is to make his Willy Loman a supporting character, and a supporting character without the flashbacks which might humanize him. The old man (someone’s father-in-law) is old, and like Willy seems a little less than coherent. This is a pitiable man, an old man who went to a prostitute and got so comfortable with the idea that he didn’t ever stop to think that she might move out and be replaced by a respectable married woman who would not be so receptive to his advances. Unlike Death of a Salesman, the scene does not disillusion a child who believed he was on the upswing; it horrifies the woman’s husband, who in response to the beating that Rana takes from this mysterious Loman descendant becomes something of a Hoffman in Straw Dogs descendant. (In fairness, Emad’s first reaction is to essentially go the Biff route, holding the old man hostage in order to force his family to confront his ugliness. It’s a plan which shows that the actor only has the lines in front of him planned out, and that his improv, no matter how pointed it is on stage, is not quite as good in person.)
Shaheb Hosseini gives one of the really tremendous performances of the decade here, mostly because he’s also got this wonderful ability to cook us like frogs. When I first wrote about The Salesman, I thought that the right story from American letters to compare the movie to was less Death of a Salesman and more The Scarlet Letter. Despite Rana’s insistence to let the matter pass, Emad does not let it pass. The confession from the old man is not forthcoming. Rana does not want to press further into an incident which has terrified her. Only Emad is left to get the result he wants, which is not Loman but Chillingworth. What matters is not forgiveness, but punishment, and although Emad’s first plan fails and he is forced to back down a little, he ultimately gets his with a slap that resonates long after the sound of it has passed. Yet, like Chillingworth’s vengeance, it is only ever a meager one, and the great cathartic triumph that the actor hopes for turns out to be something of a dud compared to what all has actually happened. It’s a terrific scene, but the scene that I think about most as a calling card for him in this movie is one where he so easily goes from calm to livid. Hosseini’s singing, crooning a little bit, goofing around with a kid, talking up a spaghetti dinner. When Rana mentions that she used some money she found that he knows he didn’t leave for her, everything changes in an instant. Hosseini’s eyes narrow, and the switch has been flipped. The suspicion and the anger have appeared out of nowhere, and it’s in that mode that you can’t take your eyes off of him.
99) Everybody Wants Some!!, directed by Richard Linklater
When I was finalizing this list in the beginning of June, I had three movies left for two spots. One was The Farewell, and the other two were both Richard Linklater movies. I could choose Boyhood, the top-rated movie of the decade on Metacritic, multiple Oscar nominee, a movie many years in the making with few precedents in movie history. Or I could choose Everybody Wants Some!!, a lighter movie about a bunch of guys on a college baseball team which is usually compared unfavorably to Dazed and Confused. Obviously, here we are. I just can’t help but think there’s something so much more interesting going on inside Everybody Wants Some, which has no scintillating origin story to fall back on the way Boyhood has, but which is focused on ideas which feel more precious for their rarity. Coming of age is hard, growing up with divorced parents is hard, and we’ve all come across stories in movies and books of a wonderful mother who cannot carry over the wisdom she has in her children’s lives to her dating life. Everybody Wants Some is a movie about purpose. There’s a bizarre sense of destiny that these baseball playing college students all seem to have, and although baseball happens to be a way into the movie’s story, it’s not as if baseball is the only way that they have to channel that sense. For McReynolds, having a preternatural ability to hit the ball a mile, where and when he says so is a kind of destiny. So is Finn’s belief that he’ll be the same kind of successful pickup artist forever, or that there will always be someone to look up to him for wisdom and guidance. Those two are living entirely in the present, and as great a ballplayer as McReynolds is or as charming as Finn is despite himself, at the time the movie was released both men would have been in their mid-late fifties. It’s why the two of them, the plain leaders of this college baseball team, are able to hold court the way they do. On the field, no one crosses McReynolds; off it, everyone admires Finn’s way with the gentler sex, although as the movie goes on it’s clear that he’s not immune from some ragging himself. The two of them are the princes of their fiefdom, but the court’s philosophers have different purposes in mind. There’s Willoughby, who is deep into his twenties, well past his eligibility, passing himself off as another transfer just to keep playing college baseball. His philosophy is simple, but it is radically different from the tacit beliefs that McReynolds and Finn share. “We came for a good time, not a long time,” Willoughby says, perhaps understanding because of his transfer-hopping ways that nothing lasts forever, or maybe it’s from the weed, or the tapes on tapes of The Twilight Zone. But he gets what McReynolds and Finn, so hyper-focused on the now or the tonight, don’t fully understand; they aren’t going to have this forever. Jake, who is one of the new guys too but also a freshman, doesn’t really get to have an opinion. But we find out late in the movie, as he talks to a freshman girl from the relative sanctity of some inner tubes in a swimming hole, that he’s got some ideas himself. He has, as far as I can tell, a basically original take on the Myth of Sisyphus: at least the guy has a job to do. As a take I don’t know that I find it all that compelling, but it’s the fact that he can share an idea with a cute girl without using it as a prelude to sex—something Finn is basically incapable of doing—that makes him different.
Some fraction of why this movie ended up on the list is because it does something which I didn’t think was possible. These people are likable. They belong to two of the most insufferable groups of human beings on the planet (college guys and baseball players), and yet they are likable. I would chalk that up to witchcraft, but it’s simpler than that. I doubt that Everybody Wants Some!! will contribute quite as many names to the pop culture roll of honor as Dazed and Confused did, but what made Dazed and Confused work was not that it had Matthew McConaughey or Ben Affleck or Parker Posey in it before they got really big, but that Jason London and Sasha Jenson and Michelle Burke were so right for the parts they played. Blake Jenner’s fame is probably in better hands than Jason London’s ever was, but he also plays that all-star athlete with enough of a brain to know that being an all-star athlete is fleeting, and does so with enough charisma to make us like someone who is passably well-rounded. Glen Powell’s campaign to be the next Matthew McConaughey is a little off the rails right now (which bums me out!), but Finn only works as a character because Powell is so good at playing the big brother all of us would like to have. He’s hardly infallible, but he’s also not a snob about what he knows, and he is so willing to share the good time that it erases any number of sins. In short, good casting, no matter whether or not these people will end up becoming great stars, is essential, and in the end how well people can insert themselves into a car sing-along of “Rapper’s Delight,” as someone like Ryan Guzman does, is more important than whether or not he’ll pick up the Oscar.