10. Hard to Be a God
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Hard to Be a God is not for everyone. If the three-hour runtime doesn’t scare people away, the macabre images splashed onto a black-and-white canvas might. This film is marketed at a specific crowd, and if you aren’t part of that crowd, your best bet is to move along and find something else.
Hard to Be a God isn’t trying to make friends. Described by Glenn Kenny as “one of the most consistently disgusting films ever made,” this is the kind of film that burrows its way into your mind. It’ll keep you up at night, but that’s only an issue if you allow it to be. Some films are only meant to entertain you until the credits roll. Others, like this one, want you to ruminate for hours upon hours.
Surprisingly, this is less of an exaggeration that you might think. Not everyone will leave the film shaken, but plenty of viewers will try to pick apart every frame. Hard to Be a God is a rough experience that often fails to entertain, but entertainment is never on the top of the to-do list. Viewers will find plenty of value here as long as they’re capable of soaking in such madness.
9. Under the Skin
There was a surprising amount of arthouse mastery on display over the course of the past ten years. In particular, science fiction arthouse cinema has really seen a resurgence following the previously blockbuster-heavy decade. Beyond the Black Rainbow, Upstream Color, and High Life are extraordinary examples of unconventional filmmaking, but they’re not even the best thing the subgenre has to offer.
Under the Skin is the kind of daring arthouse experiment that only comes around once or twice a decade. This horror-tinged acid trip brings to mind Eraserhead and Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Like those films, it’s not content with telling a straightforward narrative. On the contrary, it wants its viewers to dissect it one piece at a time. It’s an occasionally frustrating assortment of puzzle pieces that is bound to divide viewers.
There are straightforward crowd pleasers on this list, but Under the Skin is not one of them. It makes its way onto the list because it’s able to make something grand out of nothing. The subversive storytelling seems unsubstantial at first, but it adds up to something greater in the end. The challenge comes from sitting down and absorbing everything that’s thrown at you.
8. Blade Runner 2049
All the way back in 1982, Ridley Scott was gracious enough to gift us with Blade Runner, a loose adaptation of a popular Philip K. Dick novel. Unfortunately, his extraordinary talent initially felt like a waste when his daring sci-fi masterpiece failed to make an immediate impression. Upon release, critics were polarized and the box office numbers were mediocre at best. Eventually, it developed a cult status and is now regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.
The critical reevaluation is important to note because it shows how high the stakes ended up being when a sequel was eventually announced. Critically acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve had the opportunity of a lifetime; he was in charge of crafting a sequel to a certifiable classic.
The results were miraculously better than anyone could have anticipated. It’s not necessarily better than the original, but it is a very worthy follow-up that follows in its predecessor’s footsteps while also paving its own path. Villeneuve’s vision is awe-inspiring from start to finish.
Considering the pedigree surrounding Lars Von Trier’s work, it’s important to understand just how good Melancholia is. Competition may be stuff, but this might just be his magnum opus. Of course, there’s plenty of competition. Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, and Dogville all make strong cases, but they haven’t united viewers to the same degree.
Perhaps its popularity ties into its accessibility, especially when you consider Von Trier’s previous efforts. This is the work of a polarizing director, but it never feels as though it’s trying to scare viewers away. It’s not a conventional viewing experience by any means, but it’s far from the nightmare fuel provided by Antichrist or The House That Jack Built. It tells a compelling story in a way that feels fresh but never inaccessible. That’s the key to success.
Denis Vileneuve is one of the greatest directors of the modern era. His filmography is borders on flawless. Actually, a number of critics would probably argue that it is flawless. Statistically speaking, they might be onto something. Vileneuve has yet to direct a movie that has been deemed “rotten,” by the Tomatometer. With so many hits coming one after the other, one might assume that previous films are liable to be forgotten, but when you have something as fantastic as Arrival, that’s simply not the case.
Arrival is Vileneuve’s magnum opus. Considering his body of work, that speaks volumes. In a sense, it’s nourishment for the brain. The amount of research that went into linguistics is astounding, and that’s only the beginning. There are so many layers to unravel that the average viewer will likely have to sit through multiple viewings, but that never feels like a problem.
See, Arrival is entertaining enough to warrant multiple viewings. Sure, you’ll want to look out for blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, but that’s not the only thing that will convince people to come back. There’s so much to see and appreciate. One viewing just seems so barebones.
The decade started on a high note with Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This trippy blockbuster was Nolan’s first real stab at science fiction. You could argue that he touched on the genre in previous releases, but this was the first time he went all in, and it worked out in his favor.
Inception brought an unconventional premise and pushed it onto the mainstream. Although this isn’t the first film to look into the nature of dreams, it was one of the first to be marketed to such a wide audience. Even with its wide release, Nolan refused to dumb down his story for anyone.
That’s the beauty of Inception. It’s aimed at the masses, but it’s just experimental enough to appeal to the arthouse crowd. This perfect balance is hard to achieve. If you lean too far in one direction, you get Passengers. If you lean too far in the other direction, you get Future World. Nolan trusts his audience enough to deliver something that seriously appeals to all sorts of movie lovers.
Divisive political message aside, Snowpiercer is incredible. Bong Joon-Ho took a lesser-known graphic novel and made it a mainstream success. His filmmaking skills are evident early on. Snowpiercer is a gorgeous film about class warfare that features sharp writing and exhilarating action. It’s popcorn entertainment with a side of thematic depth.
Fans of the director who haven’t seen it should know what to expect. It has all the Bong Joon-Ho staples, including pitch black comedy, offbeat dialogue, and genre-blending. Those who haven’t given this director a chance may want to start here, especially since it often feels targeted at a wide audience. Regardless of your knowledge of his directorial efforts, this is a must-see.
Spike Jonze is a genius. It’s probably been said before, but it needs to be repeated. At this point, he had already directed Being John Malcovish, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are. In theory, we should have known what he was capable of, but nothing really prepared us for this.
Her does Black Mirror better than Black Mirror. It’s not the first of its kind and it’s certainly not the last, but it’s one of the best. It helps us understand that sci-fi movies don’t need incredible visuals or pulse pounding action. Sometimes, they just need to tell a story that can resonate.
That’s why this film works so well. At its most basic, it’s a love story, but there’s so much more to it. It’s an innovative look into the mind of a lonely introvert who is able to find a connection in an unconventional way. Through Joaquin Phoenix’s sublime performance and a shockingly dense script, we are able to learn about love, isolation, and the impact of technology.
Jonze tells a small story in a big way. It’s not just a “man loves computer” story. There is so much to digest in 126-minutes. As such, this should leave a lasting impression on viewers.
2. Ex Machina
Introducing the most extraordinary sleeper hit of 2015. Ex Machina came out of nowhere and became a hit. It stunned critics, casual moviegoers, and awards season voters, and just about everyone who managed to watch it, but what made it so great?
To put it simply, it’s just the best of its kind. Movies about artificial intelligence have been around for generations, but Ex Machina does it better than the rest. It’s smarter, prettier, and more refined than the competition. This is all the more impressive when you consider Garland’s limited experience as a director.
Still, Ex Machina just works. There’s no other way to put it. It does what it’s supposed to and it does it well. It clearly comes from a team of passionate filmmakers. As a result, it’s a rewarding experience that entertains, surprises, and impresses even the most stubborn of film critics.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
After two decades of directing family films like Happy Feet and Babe, George Miller returned to his old stomping ground. Although Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome left a sour taste in the mouths of its viewers, Fury Road is a completely different story. Miller gave folks an exhilarating thrillride that continues to leave people short of breath until the credits roll.
This isn’t exactly a hot take. Upon its release, Fury Road was hailed as one of the greatest films of 2015 and one of the greatest action films of all time. The critics immediately fell in love with it, and it’s easy to see why. Miller proves that, in some cases, bigger really is better. The grandiose scale provides an experience that demands every once of a viewer’s attention. Missing a moment would be detrimental.
Of course, there will continue to be viewers who claim that the film is light on plot, but that’s just because it’s deceptively simple. Fury Road is heavy on epic setpieces and lavish visual effects, but the story never takes a backseat. On the contrary, it tells a surprisingly complex story that’s rich with mature themes and motifs. Miller’s brilliant direction only adds to the experience. As the cliché goes, this is the whole package.