20. MINDING THE GAP
A documentary rife with all the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in between) of day-to-day life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois; one of them is director Bing Liu, whose editing and cinematography are both exceptional for a film of this scale and budget. Building to a powerful finale without calculation, this could serve as a definitive portrait of its time and place in the decades ahead.
19. STAYING VERTICAL
A drifter stumbles into a variety of not-so-pithy (and sometimes life-altering) situations, among them cruising, fatherhood, screenwriting and holistic medicine. Destitution, sheepherding and loud, vintage progressive rock also play into it, along with a birth, a death and a whole lot of sex (after those three things, what more could one want?) Like an Antonioni film scripted by Hal Hartley, it’s quirky for sure, but also hypnotic and transformative.
Concerning a middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo, this draws heavily from director Alfonso Cuaron’s own life. Although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they lead towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. When Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph.
In following three life stages (child, teen and adult) of a black man from a rough Miami neighborhood, Moonlight could have easily succumbed to its potentially gimmicky structure or turned out an Issue Picture about how an outsider never truly escapes his confining environment. Instead, the end result is uncommonly lyrical in its fluid pace (and camera movement), often gorgeous imagery and narrative/structural leaps—not to mention the rare intimacy it also achieves.
We go to movies for the seductive thrill of entering a world that, no matter how relatable, exists apart from reality; Drive not only does this but proudly, blatantly references other films to a degree that would shame even Quentin Tarantino. And yet, it never seems derivative or empty because it’s so gleefully, compellingly drunk on its own allure, crafting a Los Angeles tableau full of gripping chase sequences, brutal (but rarely gratuitous) violence and magnetic, minimalist cool.
15. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Celine Sciamma’s exquisite 18th century romance gains so much from the barest essentials, deploying all of its accoutrements sparingly, letting the connection between its two leads develop organically so that when it reaches a crescendo in the astonishing feast scene midway through, one can’t help but be fully engaged in their fate. One feels and absorbs the mad rush of emotions practically emanating from the screen that culminates in a simple but profound final shot.
14. THE ACT OF KILLING / THE LOOK OF SILENCE
This two-pronged examination of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of over two million Communist citizens focuses on the perpetrators (The Act of Killing) and their victims (The Look of Silence). The first film’s somewhat more effective as cinema, swerving fluidly between riotous absurdity and appalling horror as these men are asked to recreate the various ways in which they committed their acts. However, the second film is nearly as essential in its attempt to start a necessary dialogue about something that’s still verboten in this culture.
13. KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER
Built around a reference to Fargo (the movie, not the TV series), this wondrous mash-up of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch traverses from Tokyo to Minnesota and features a singularly odd protagonist who has a noodle-eating pet rabbit named Bunzo. Rinko Kikuchi, best known for Babel and The Brothers Bloom, brilliantly portrays the stubbornly insular misfit while filmmaking team the Zellner Brothers survey a structure that allows for both rigid symmetry and inspired surrealism.
12. HOLY MOTORS
Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) mysteriously travels in his stretch limo around Paris to a series of appointments where he slips from one role to the next, ranging from a heavily-costumed actor on a motion-capture soundstage to a foul, gibberish-sprouting sewer creature. Writer/director Leos Carax offers no explanation or rationale for why Mr. Oscar is hired to do what he does, only exploring to absurd heights what it means to inhabit a role and assume an identity.
A masterful illustration of art-as-therapy but also a riveting profile of Mark Hogenkamp, who deals with his trauma by constructing an ever-more elaborate facsimile of a World War II Belgian village populated with dolls he then photographs. Serious and contemplative rather than kitschy and flippant, he creates great art—as does director Jeff Malmberg, who carefully reveals the hidden layers of Hogenkamp’s story one by one without any exploitative slant.