Richard Linklater’s best films dissect how the passage of time shapes our perception of narrative (Dazed and Confused,The Before Trilogy, Slacker); this is arguably more ambitious than all of them, and even more blatantly driven by a gimmick. But the cumulative effect of Boyhood is unprecedented, realizing a new way of seeing and storytelling only possible via the moving image; through his deft use of this structure, Linklater enables us to witness something both so singular and universal.
9. THE MASTER
As innovative as Kubrick and enigmatic as Malick, The Master builds on the sharp turn Paul Thomas Anderson took with There Will Be Blood, scrutinizing post-World War II America while often playing like a fever dream come down to earth. Joaquin Phoenix’s meticulous, intriguing performance is but one of many he gave this decade, so look to one of the last great ones from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—his L. Ron Hubbard-esque figure perhaps the key to this film’s slippery, near-unknowable soul.
As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner about a family of sorts up there with Nobody Knows and Still Walking and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.)
7. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Peter Strickland’s strange, arresting film is not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story. Come for the dizzying homage to Italian horror and soft-core erotica and stay for a fascinating, eloquent exploration of what it means to play a role in a loving, sexual relationship—and how not fulfilling your partner’s expectations throws everything out of whack.
6. OSLO, AUGUST 31
This film follows a man on a one-day leave from rehab. We see him drift through a city (and traces of a former existence) teeming with life and pleasures running the gamut from the mundane to the sublime. And yet, director Joachim Trier never makes light of the conundrum of addiction and how effusively it colors both one’s surroundings and perceptions. Cold and unsentimental, yet affirmative and at times unexpectedly buoyant, Oslo, August 31 is a one-of-a-kind meditation on life itself.
5. STORIES WE TELL
Anyone can make a documentary about one’s own family; for her first nonfiction feature, actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley does just that, but she also explores how such a story can be told, considering differing points of view from each family member, the abundance (or absence) of found documentation available and how all that information is shaped into a narrative (what’s emphasized, what’s left out). As these details accumulate and overlap, Polley crafts a hybrid that does nothing less than open up and redefine what the genre’s capable of.
What more is there to say about Parasite? That it genuinely lives up to all the hype and then some? That it’s so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control? Is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror story? Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that? I won’t be surprised when I revisit this in another five or ten years if it feels more like a definitive record of its time than any documentary.
3. FRANCES HA
At first glance, Frances Ha shouldn’t work. It’s full of precious anachronisms like black-and-white cinematography, deliberately old-fashioned opening titles and a jarring soundtrack. Besides, the world did not need another tale of a single 27-year-old white woman in New York. And yet, for all of its quirks, actor Greta Gerwig (prefiguring her subsequent work as a filmmaker) and director Noah Baumbach’s collaboration is an utter delight—especially whenever Frances/Gerwig is paired with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), transforming the film into a closely observed study of female friendship.
2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Reining in the excess that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches, from a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg to the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score to Armie Hammer’s solid presence to Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough here is iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. Beyond that, however, this film locates something vital and deeply affecting at the core of giving yourself completely over to love, and also loss.
1. CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR
I’ve loved all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films since Tropical Malady, but none have stayed with me like this one. Set in a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers, it’s another magical realist mood piece. He draws connections between psychic mediums, ghosts, mythic sites and dreams, feeling both familiar and otherworldly. The film practically glides from scene to scene, concerned with such ephemera as the light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldiers’ beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s like nothing else I saw this decade.