23. Horse Money
Pedro Costa, Portugal
Blurring the line between documentary film and fiction, Pedro Costa’s nocturnal nightmare of chiaroscuro apartment blocks and hazy, half-remembered hospital wards makes for an alternately troubling and dazzling cinematic experience.
Set in present day Lisbon, we meet a man named Ventura – in his fifth film with Costa – a retired immigrant and Cape Verdean survivor. Now a laborer in his fifties and confined to a hospital bed – though it often intentionally looks more like a prison – Ventura’s not alone.
Horse Money is a hypnotic, deliberate, and dirge-like journey that doubles as vivid portraiture and Joycean nighttime transmigration. Haunting.
22. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino, USA
A grisly and gratifying ensemble film that doubles as chamber piece set in the Wild West, The Hateful Eight is the kind of blood-mottled, pitch-dark comedy that Quentin Tarantino does best. Unfolding in the years following the Civil War, with race relations and gender politicking ever present, QT rounds up eight rogues, each with their own agenda, and isolates them in a stagecoach chalet in the Wyoming mountains, just as a blizzard touches down.
Patchy, uneven, and charming to a fault, The Hateful Eight is custom built for film lovers as it metes out destruction, endless n-bombs, and, perhaps most surprisingly, polemic connected to misconstrued ideas of culture, race, and gender. This is the American Dream with decorum set aside, and the unseemly truth left glistening, astonishingly exposed by QT’s foul-mouthed raconteurs.
Jason Lei Howden, New Zealand
Kiwi writer/director Jason Lei Howden’s hilariously resurrects the splatter comedy with Deathgasm. If combining the crude fanboy nobility of Bill and Ted with the stomach-churning carnage of Dead Alive sounds delectable, then this indelicate midnight movie masterpiece is your main course.
Brodie (Milo Cawthorne), a serious heavy metal fan, along with bad-boy bff Zakk (James Blake) front a band, the titular Deathgasm, who up their street cred and Satanic celebrity by incorporating demonic lyrics from an ancient text into their music. It turns out that doing so summons an assortment of teeth-gnashing nasties that only they can stand up to.
Deathgasm’s fluid-spewing violence is a morbid revelry with rapid-fire quotable quips that are laugh-out-loud funny, this is a movie meant for repeat viewings. A new cult classic is born, kicking and screaming, of course.
Sarah Gavron, UK
Carey Mulligan mesmerizes as Maud Watts, a fictional working-class mother and laundress in London’s East End, who in 1912 finds herself swept up in the women’s suffrage movement. Director Sarah Gavron vividly portrays Maud’s political awakening amidst real-life events in the struggle for electoral equality at the dawn of the 20th-century women’s rights movement and the resulting film is as revelatory as it is terrible, serving as a look backward at the slow climb to equality.
Smartly, Suffragette is an eloquent intimation of the still flourishing and ever-evolving feminist movement. On the surface it’s about a brave workaday woman with a destiny no more heroic and clement than yours or mine. It’s also about something deeper, more declarative, and empowering than that, too. It has more authenticity and amity than almost any film in recent memory. Its heart is unequalled, and is bigger than all of us.
19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
J.J. Abrams, USA
From the first fusillade of John Williams’ robust and instantly recognizable score partnered with the retreating opening titles, we are back en masse to the long ago galaxy, and any fears of rickety science fiction pinned on platitudes are soon dashed. The Force Awakens restores the Star Wars tradition, introduces new characters while honoring and headlining the old, reworks the mythology we once cherished and offers the ultimate trip on the blockbuster ladder.
The characters are compelling, charismatic, and memorable, the visuals are imaginative and incredibly realized, and the story cues, while unsophisticated, contain astonishment and awe at nearly every turn. Abrams wisely eschews any of his lens-flare fuelled emblems in favor of a more methodical sweep that carries the brilliantly executed special effects and action sequences with verve, validity, and nostalgia flecked excitement.
There’s a childish and sprightly sense of exhibition and pop imagination at play here that is foolish to resist, making The Force Awakens a pure cinematic joy.
18. Clouds of Sils Maria
Olivier Assayas, Germany/France/Switzerland
Easily one of Olivier Assayas’ most intelligent and mystifying masterpieces (right up there with Irma Vep and Summer Hours), Clouds of Sils Maria acquires and earns a correlation to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart are pitch-perfect in this finely inflected psychodrama that proves them both to be amongst the best actors of their respective generations.
Maria Enders (Binoche) is an aging A-list actress and Valentine (Stewart) is her ravishing young assistant, and they spend the better part of the film in seclusion in the remote Swiss canyons as Maria prepares for what could be her comeback performance. There’s more to her role preparation then she anticipates, and the two women walk a precipice that’s often unclear and ever shifting, like the titular Majola Snake cloud formations in their midst. Magnificent.
17. Songs My Brothers Taught Me
Chloé Zhao, USA
Piercingly sad yet stunningly beautiful, Chloé Zhao’s debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me offers an authentic and elegiac portrait of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Told from the perspective of 11-year-old Jashawn Winters (Jashaun St. John), and a handful of her foolhardy older brothers, Zhao’s film is somewhat indebted to the tradition of neorealism.
The intensity of caprice and character makes for a beautiful and sustained poetic melancholy. It’s so rare that marginalized characters such as these get their own film, let alone one that’s such a shimmering prize. Zhao’s a strong voice and a director to watch.
Denis Villeneuve, USA
Prolific Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Sicario, is a tightly drawn thriller that’s gritty and provocative with the hard-edged and high-minded seriousness of his previous storied works, Prisoners and Enemy (both from 2013).
Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) runs a kidnap response team that’s suddenly sucked into a vortex of viciously warring Mexican drug cartels when a raid in an Arizona suburb uncovers 42 dead bodies and a baited-trap explosive that kills two officers. Soon Kate’s the new recruit in a CIA Special Activities Division black ops overseen by the mussed and macho Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).
Not at all the sort of film that outright offers redemption for its broken characters, instead they come to understand their own deception and an unfeigned truthfulness results. Sicario is compelling cinema, formidable and ferocious, its moral and political squeam is sure to fuel endless debate. Stormy and refined, Sicario is out-and-out unmissable.