B rightening theaters this weekend is Illumination Entertainment’s take on Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, which features Danny DeVito as the voice of the fuzzy and colorful eco-guardian. DeVito’s Lorax sports one bushy tuft of facial hair, its overgrowth stretching past the width of his waistline. The rest of cinema’s most memorable mustaches can’t boast that same disproportionate bulk, but they’re not to be undervalued. Two are among the most iconic physical traits in film history, four make up one big whiskery package deal, and one is so indelible that its wearer spawned the name for a whole style of ’stache. Popular mustaches.
Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat (2006). Long before he was covering Ryan Seacrest in Kim Jong Il’s “Bisquick ashes,” Sacha Baron Cohen was introducing the world to his ultimately inescapable Kazakh TV personality, whose lack of proper grooming was evident not just in the oversized caterpillar that rested above his lips, but in the private places laid bare thanks to one immortal neon swimsuit.
Groucho Marx in Duck Soup (1933). As history tells it, Groucho’s famed greasepaint mustache and eyebrows stemmed from the star’s 1920s vaudeville work, specifically from a performance for which he didn’t have the time to apply pasted-on facial hair, and opted for an impromptu substitute. So, more than one subsequent work with his trademark look could have qualified here, but 1933’s Duck Soup saw his co-stars mimicking the greasepaint application, thus revealing backstage secrets. Soon after, Groucho grew the real thing.
Cheech Marin in Up in Smoke (1978). A pothead’s hero whose mustache nearly matches the size of his formidable doobies, Cheech Marin’s Pedro de Pacas in Lou Adler’s Up in Smoke outdid co-toker Anthony Stoner (Tommy Chong) in the facial hair department, if only because his savage bushery stood out while Anthony’s was lost amid a full beard. But here’s to both joint-burning champions, who certainly couldn’t be bothered to shave.
Dustin Hoffman in Hook (1991). The only mustache man in the list to have his greased facial adornment match his signature weapon, Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook had curly eyebrows, too, and his mustache even ticked along with the Croc’s clocks at a certain point. Say what you will about this love-to-hate Spielberg swashbuckler, but Hoffman made a great Pan nemesis, thanks in large part to all that twirled hair.
Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Surely the daintiest mustache offered here, Errol Flynn’s wispy facial hair as everyone’s favorite rich-robbing bandit spoke to the actor’s flamboyant offscreen persona, and almost mirrored the ever-present feather in his hat. Pair it with that cute patch of a goatee, and you’ve got one well-groomed man in tights.
Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994). All that gunfire and bible-quoting just wouldn’t have been the same had it come from a clean-shaven criminal. Jules Winnfield wears his unruly ’stache and beard just as well as that Jheri curl, playing a suited thug who proved a fine blend of street philosophy and class.
Christopher Lee in The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). Yes, they should have gotten an actual Chinese actor to play the famed Chinese villain created by novelist Sax Rohmer, but it’s tough to argue with the greatness of Christopher Lee, who rocked a mustache that became forever known as “The Fu Manchu.” The real question for the hair and makeup department, though, is how they got those eyelids to droop so well.
Matt Dillon in There’s Something About Mary (1998). Facial hair doesn’t get much creepier than it did on the stalker mug of Matt Dillon’s Pat Healy in There’s Something About Mary. A douchebag private detective who even changes his teeth to win the ebullient heart of Cameron Diaz’s leading lady, Dillon’s character has the vibes of both a rapist and a molester, much thanks to that thin little mustache his pasty skin accentuates.
Titus Welliver in Gone Baby Gone (2007). As Lionel, a recovering alcoholic who helps orchestrate the kidnapping that drives Ben Affleck’s misguided directorial debut, TV vet Titus Welliver makes as much of an impact with his massive mustache as he does with his thick Beantown accent. When he breaks sobriety while confessing his sins, the shots he downs look all the more painful passing by that carpet of lip pubes.
Max von Sydow in Flash Gordon (1980). Whether he’s flashing hand tattoos or working this look in Mike Hodges’s campy comic book adaptation, Max von Sydow has surely proven himself as dependable for comedy as he is for teary, potent drama. As Emperor Ming the Merciless, he gives Fu Manchu a run for his yen, adding in eyebrows that seem to just keep climbing.
Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Will Ferrell’s most enduring character is his hairy-mouthed mockery of a 1970s newscaster, whose views are as sexist as his wardrobe is tacky. Once again, the sleaze just wouldn’t be the same without the mustache in place, and Ferrell knows just how to work it on a face that’s all adamant ignorance.
Gordon Liu in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004). My personal favorite among these razor-averse gents, Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei is a picture of samurai chic, his snow-white hair flowing pristinely out of every available follicle. In Kill Bill: Vol. 2, this patient master sends Uma Thurman’s Bride to hell and back, but you’re tempted to root for him, if only because he looks so damned cool doing it.
Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002). One of the finest villain’s of the past decade, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s imperfect Gangs of New York steals and then transcends Dustin Hoffman’s well-worn Dalí-esque mustache, making it a part of his fearsome, delectable look. Some would argue the actor’s Daniel Plainview facial hair is more definitive, but let’s stick with the more animated antagonist.
Charlie Chaplin in City Lights (1931). Proving Hitler doesn’t own the petite philturm-covering mustache, Charlie Chaplin boasts facial hair as famous as that of Groucho, the male answer to Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark. Any Chaplin classic would have worked here, but the unendingly loveable City Lights was preferred, if only because it allowed for the use of what might be film history’s most adorable still.
Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton in Tombstone (1993). Clicking through this list, you might have asked, “Where’s Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski? Or Val Kilmer in Tombstone?” Well, how about four whiskered superstars for the price of one? George P. Cosmatos’s excellent ensemble western is the mustach-iest of mustache movies, packed with memorable facial hair greatness from Kilmer, Elliot, Kurt Russell, and Bill Paxton. There seemed no better way to end our collection.
Unlike past years, Slant’s most popular pieces of 2019 skewed cearly and unapologetically negative.
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
U nlike in past years, where many of our most-read articles were middling or even slightly positive takes on franchises whose ardent fans seemed displeased that we didn’t shower their favorites with praise, Slant’s most popular pieces of 2019 skewed clearly and unapologetically negative. Our most-read review of the year, Avengers: Endgame, clocked more than twice as many eyeballs as the runner-up, a testament to the public’s continued interest in all things Marvel as well as the passion of the property’s followers. Of course, it wasn’t all pans: Our review of Madonna’s most daring album in years, Madame X, wasn’t just the site’s most popular music review of the year, but our most-read piece on the queen of pop ever. And you loved our painstakingly compiled lists more than ever, with our 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time and 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time cracking the Top 10. Alexa Camp
10. Film Review: The Lion King
It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment. Pat Brown
9. Game Review: Remnant: From the Ashes
There’s a lot of deadwood, literal and figurative, in Remnant: From the Ashes. The literal kind stems from the plot, which tasks you with sending tree-like creatures known as the Root back into the dimension they were inadvertently, experimentally summoned from. And the figurative kind is just about everything else that stands in the way of this action shooter’s gameplay: three-player co-op with no means of communicating with your teammates; enemies that spawn directly over a downed teammate, keeping you from reviving them; and an as-yet unpatched glitch that may outright prevent you from seeing the ending. Aaron Riccio
8. Film Review: Joker
Todd Phillips’s Joker is a film that might have been dreamed up by one of the cynical bros at the center of the director’s Hangover trilogy during a blacked-out stupor. Not so much part of Warner Bros.’s ongoing Batman series as adjacent to it, Joker imagines a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like Manhattan in the early ‘80s, with crime-ridden streets, movie titles like Blow Out and Zorro, The Gay Blade on marquees, and trash piling up due to a garbage strike. The air is stinking with gloom and decay, and among the morbidly downcast populace is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), our Clown Prince of Crime to Be. Keith Uhlich
7. Album Review: Madonna, Madame X
Madame X plays like a musical memoir, sometimes literally: “I came from the Midwest/Then I went to the Far East/I tried to discover my own identity,” Madonna sings on the Eastern-inflected “Extreme Occident,” referencing her rise to fame and spiritual awakening, famously documented on her 1998 album Ray of Light. A multi-part suite that shifts abruptly from electro-pop dirge to classical ballet and back again, “Dark Ballet” is a Kafkaesque treatise on faith and her lifelong crusade against the patriarchal forces of religion, gender, and celebrity—an existential battle echoed in the Jean-Paul Sartre-quoting closing track “I Rise.” Sal Cinquemani
6. The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time
Our list acknowledges the classics of the genre, the big-budget studio noirs and the cheapest of B noirs made on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system. But we’ve also taken a more expansive view of noir, allowing room for supreme examples of the proto-noirs that anticipated the genre and the neo-noirs that resulted from the genre being rebooted in the midst of the Cold War, seemingly absorbing the world’s darkest and deepest fears. Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke—shrewdly and with the irrepressible passion of the dispossessed—humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption. Derek Smith
Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward.
Photo: Cardboard Computer
C omedian Kumail Nanjiani claimed some years back that video games are the only art form that got better solely because of technology. While that’s arguably been true for much of the medium’s history, it ceased to be the case in the 2010s. The decade in gaming didn’t lack for astounding technical achievements, but its arc was defined less by powerful technology than powerful ideas.
This was the decade that saw tiny studios, lone creators, and crazy concepts reign supreme. This was the decade that saw every platform become a viable place for ideas to sprout and bloom. The limits of the medium are seemingly bound only by the human imagination, and at every level, regardless of the horsepower needed, it now feels like anything is possible.
The decade’s best games took full advantage of that new freedom by pushing the envelope in every direction. Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward. Justin Clark
100. BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite is a visceral experience about an irredeemable psychopath murdering a city of despicable fundamentalists. Booker Dewitt is tasked with saving a reality-tearing woman from a floating white-supremacist paradise, leading to the interactive slaughter of its inhabitants; so much was made of the game’s violence that many overlooked that the repugnant brutality was exactly the point. While most shooters shy away from grue or any consequences to the player’s actions, BioShock Infinite vividly depicts these rippling across universes, where a single choice can carry disastrous results. This is an astonishing game that philosophizes on the human condition—consider that the opponents of Columbia’s segregation aren’t interested in equality, only in suppressing their suppressors—while critiquing its entire genre, concluding that the protagonist of a first-person shooter shouldn’t be allowed to live in any universe. Ryan Aston
99. The Norwood Suite
The public is more aware than ever of the infallibilities of well-known artists, and Cosmo D’s The Norwood Suite evokes the discomfort that many of us often feel when the dirty secrets of an icon are put on display. The setting here is a hotel that houses the legacy of a bandleader named Peter Norwood, whose exploitative relationships with other musicians come to the player’s attention via surreal trips down hidden passageways. Yet this building also bears numerous odd pleasures to behold, not least of which is a soundtrack that seamlessly morphs as you move from room to room. The characters are literally riffs in Cosmo D’s stupendous orchestration; different instruments and notes accompany different lines of dialogue as they appear on screen. The more you explore this strange location, the more you see the threat of commercialization in the form of corporate employees aiming to turn the hotel into a greater moneymaking scheme. Cosmo D gives no easy answers on how capitalistic culture can reconcile the sins of artistic giants, and that ambiguity makes The Norwood Suite a complicated and essential illustration of contemporary concerns. Jed Pressgrove
To make it absolutely clear that Overcooked isn’t your traditional cooking game, developer Ghost Town Games opens mid-apocalypse. A giant, ravenous beast—imagine the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made of spaghetti and meatballs—threatens to consume your rooftop kitchen. The Onion King, cheering from the sidelines, implores you to fend him off by hastily preparing a soothing selection of salads; after you’ve failed, he transports you back through time, so that you can be a more seasoned chef next time. The subsequent missions, then, are less about tapping out increasingly complex orders, as with Cooking Dash and its ilk, or the exquisite, Zen-like Cook, Serve, Delicious. Instead, Overcooked keeps the recipes simple and the kitchens about as unconventionally chaotic as they come. At times, the difficulty can make this party game feel like a lot of work, although in fairness, the same can be said for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, another demandingly chaotic, but ultimately enjoyable, couch co-op title. The meat of the title—cooperative, chaotic cooking—is almost perfectly handled, as are the garnishes, from the catchy musical score to the delightful crew of unlockable animal chefs. By keeping the kitchens varied and the action constant, Ghost Town Games avoids the flavorless death known as repetition, and doesn’t overcook its premise. Aaron Riccio
Downwell is a quarter-eater without the quarters, an arcade game from out of time. As your character tumbles down an enclosed space, collecting gems and shooting bullets from his feet, the game feels like something you play as much as you give yourself over to. Each run demands split-second decisions. Do you go back for more gems, as a cabal of monsters closes in behind you? Do you risk a stomp attack that demands more precision but will reward you with a badly needed reload? Do you break the block for gems at risk of losing space to maneuver? Each run showers you in game-changing upgrades that introduce still-more variables to consider at a moment’s notice, while you continue blasting your way into the abyss. Like the very best action games, Downwell becomes its own trance state. Steven Scaife
96. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Prepare to die a lot. The modern gaming landscape is one littered with checkpoints, save states, and wonky AI. 2K Games’s reimagining of the XCOM strategy series harkens back to the cult classic’s unsettling gameplay and punishing difficulty. The rewarding sensation one receives after successfully commanding a squad out of a heated skirmish with strange intergalactic warriors is unparalleled in modern games. These tense battles eventually lead the player to actually form an emotional bond with your team members, which makes their inevitable demise that much more crushing. These interactive elements lend XCOM’s tense action an atmosphere that’s engrossing and wholly addictive. It’s easy to treasure an old-school counter-offensive game that understands the motivating power of fear. Kyle Lemmon
95. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
In the not-so-distant future, large corporations and multinational firms have developed their operations beyond the control of national governments, and human biomechanical augmentation is simultaneously rising in popularity across the world and being demonized for its role in changing humanity. Like the very best sci-fi, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about ethics and consequences; this is a game that asks what it is to be human. The game presents both the rise of biotechnology as a means to advance human ability and the human experience, and the subsequent consequences on the world. Its layered narrative matches its deep multifaceted gameplay, set in a rich and atmospheric universe that feels not too far away from our own. Despite a slow start and occasional missteps (the much maligned boss fights were “fixed” for DLC), Eidos Montreal has created an engaging, compelling experience that does justice to the critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. Aston
94. Death Stranding
Hideo Kojima’s first game away from Konami, Death Stranding, finds him tearing down the familiar structure of the open-world game and building it back up again as something weirder, more deliberate, and more honest about what it is. It transforms basic traversal into the entire conceit rather than more or less a time sink between story missions and side activities. It peels away the artifice of open-world structure, revealing the dressed-up delivery missions underneath while declaring that they’re a worthwhile pursuit in their own right. And once you’ve totally internalized that idea, the tools the game provides become enthralling revelations: You eventually build sprawling highways and ziplines that propel you across arduous terrain. You’ve worked for them. You’ve earned them. Death Stranding is an admirable experiment for big-budget game design, playing like one long, bizarre, and startlingly persuasive argument that the journey is fulfilling in its own right. Scaife
While Iconoclasts ’s bright and imaginative 2D pixelated graphics would look right at home on a 16-bit console of yore, its themes and ideas are very much that of the modern day. The game’s silent protagonist, Robin, is trapped in a fascistic society ruled by fundamentalist dogma, where her skills as a mechanic are outlawed, positioning her as a criminal and counterforce in a setting that opposes scientific advancement and free-thinking. Robin’s journey to escape execution and expose the truth of her society’s dominating political organization aligns her with other well-crafted characters who oppose the tyrannical theocracy both in ideology and ability, and it’s through its characters’ unique facilities that Iconoclasts demonstrates a kind of Ludonarrative harmony, as the gameplay and themes are in lockstep, crafting an experience that tackles important issues of faith, religion, and totalitarianism. Throughout, Iconoclasts ’s varied gameplay mechanics directly serve the narrative. Consider Robin’s special tool, an illegal wrench, and how it not only symbolizes suppression of science and personal freedoms, but is used as a weapon against enemies and a means of controlling technology and traversing obstacles, often directly modifying and rearranging objects in the world. It also pushes Robin toward her ultimate goal of fixing the broken world for good. Aston
92. Yakuza 0
This prequel faced the unenviable task of taking a decades-old abstruse Japanese series and making it accessible for the masses. Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, important underworld figures later in the series, are introduced to us as a low-level recruit and disgraced outcast, respectively, from different organized crime syndicates. They’re pulled into a conspiracy after Kazuma is framed for murder and Goro rejects an assassination job after finding out that the target is a defenseless blind girl. Their captivating narratives come together in a larger plot brimming with sociopolitical intrigue about property development and clan territory. Think of Yakuza 0 as noir through the lens of ‘80s Japan. Its gameplay simplifies the series’s complicated mechanics without limiting the player or compromising the variety in the details. One can take part in any manner of activities throughout the Tokyo and Osaka settings while progressing through the campaign, allowing the game to prove itself both as a compelling prequel to an ongoing series and as its own self-contained story. Aston
Arkane Studios’s Dishonored combines elements of other immersive sims, like BioShock and Thief, to create a mechanically enjoyable first-person stealth game that challenges your awareness and resourcefulness. While its narrative about betrayal and revenge is familiar, the game is enticing for the autonomy it offers players. Dishonored is very much a gamer’s game: It hands you a target—kill High Overseer Campbell, for example—before then turning you lose, giving you the freedom of the world and Corvo’s powers to deal with your target however you see fit. Though the end of every mission may resort to a binary lethal/non-lethal choice, the ways you can approach any mission are bountiful, making each run different enough to warrant multiple playthroughs. Jeremy Winslow
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean.
Hot men with moustache
T his was the year of playwrights saying what they mean. Of writers like Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) putting their own stories, or some version of themselves, right up there on the stage. Of writers like Stephen Adly Guirgis (Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven) and Donja R. Love (one in two) demanding that audiences take note, listen, and do something. Of writers like Jeremy O. Harris ( Slave Play ) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) putting it all out there, all of it, and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces and make sense of what they’ve seen.
Even if that brutal honesty made it all the way to Broadway, it didn’t permeate musicals with the same lucidity yet. The deadly parade of jukebox musicals continues, and most new scores, especially on Broadway, have also been dismayingly shallow. Much of the best—and most honest—theater in New York this season came from playwrights and directors of color, with texts both present and past (with powerful revivals of Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage). Yet, despite the more diverse programming of the city’s leading nonprofits, there are the same number of new plays premiering in the 2019-2020 Broadway season by Tracy Letts, one individual person, as by playwrights of color (it’s just Jeremy O. Harris and Matthew Lopez). (The same goes for female playwrights as only Bess Wohl and Rona Munro have new plays premiering.)
If Slave Play ’s appearance on super-safe, hit-me-baby-with-one-more-jukebox Broadway, in all that play’s harrowing, shocking glory, is the transformative, theatrical event of the year, the persistently white forecast for 2020’s biggest stages is a painful twist worthy of Harris. What’s most promising about New York theater is also what’s most frightening: As Harris himself told Playbill this year, “we’re also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasn’t a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stages—there’s always a renaissance and then it disappears.”
As this list of the best New York theatrical productions of 2019 suggests, it’s up to nonprofits like the Public Theater, the Signature Theatre, the Atlantic Theater Company, and Theatre for a New Audience to ensure that this renaissance leads to an extended enlightenment.
The American Tradition (13th Street Repertory Company)
The other anachronistic “slave play” this year, The American Tradition largely slipped under the radar at the 13th Street Repertory Company, where it ran briefly in February. But Ray Yamanouchi’s biting play, staged with breathless momentum by Axel Avin Jr., was just as caustic and challenging, even if it lacked some of Slave Play ’s haunting ambiguity. Surrounded by language dripping with satire, light-skinned Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander) disguises as a white man to get herself and her husband (Martin K. Lewis) to freedom. Without abandoning its Antebellum setting, The American Tradition makes some of the same deep cuts at 21st-century white wokeness that Slave Play does, with its send-up of an abolitionist who insists he doesn’t see color. Danie Steel’s seething performance as an enslaved woman forced to memorize a speech of praise for her master has especially stuck with me throughout this year. There’s room for more than one play in New York City about the relentless legacies of slavery, and The American Tradition continues that conversation with chaotic clarity.
Buried (New York Musical Festival)
Sometimes extraordinary things come in small packages. Buried, written a few years ago by undergraduates at the University of Sheffield, boasts a darkly gorgeous folk score and a charmingly creepy romance between two serial killers who give up their mutual habit of offing their blind dates once they find each other. It’s a bonkers Bonnie and Clyde-like premise, but Cordelia O’Driscoll’s haunting melodies (bolstered by Olivia Doust’s lovely orchestrations) transform psychopathy into sweet, wry romance. And it’s a nice surprise to encounter smart lyric writing, a collaboration here between O’Driscoll and Tom Williams. Let’s hope Buried, which had a five-performance run at the New York Musical Festival, doesn’t stay underground for long.
Choir Boy (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)
For Tarell Alvin McCraney, Broadway has been a long time coming. An Oscar winner for Moonlight and the author of the acclaimed Brother/Sister Plays, he’s also the chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama (from which Slave Play ’s Jeremy O. Harris just graduated). But Choir Boy, in its at-last Broadway iteration, was an unsettling and playful examination of queerness at a historically black boarding school. Animated by wrenching and exuberant singing (arrangements from Jason Michael Webb) and exhilarating step routines (choreography from Camille A. Brown), Choir Boy may well have had the most effective musical moments of any play or musical this year, including a heartbreaking locker room chorale of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But the story itself—anchored by Jeremy Pope’s defiantly beautiful central performance and Trip Cullman’s intense direction—paints a deeply compelling picture of what it takes to survive.
Coriolanus (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
After reading it a couple times and seeing one burdensome production outside New York last year, I’d all but written Coriolanus off as a Shakespeare play too philosophically knotty to be staged coherently or compellingly. I was proven wrong by Daniel Sullivan’s breathless, crystalline production. Jonathan Cake’s performance in the title role of a would-be consul of Rome who can’t hide his disdain for the common people made psychologically legible each of Coriolanus’s politically incomprehensible choices. Kate Burton made Coriolanus’s mother a ferocious powerhouse of a match for her firebrand son. And as the cunning tribunes, Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham laid bare a hypocrisy that’s all too familiar: Even the politicians who claim to value the voices of the citizens are still manipulating the people they claim to serve every step of the way. One of four Public Theater productions on this list, Coriolanus’s insightful, incisive reifying is a perfect example of the Public’s grippingly relevant output.
Fairview (Theatre for a New Audience)
Perhaps Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, shouldn’t count for a 2019 roundup, since it premiered at the Soho Rep in summer 2018 before transferring to Theatre for a New Audience with the same cast and creative team a year later. But every performance of Fairview—a play as much about the audience as the characters—is a different experience. What seems at first like an undemanding comedy about an African-American family morphs violently, first when we watch the opening scene again from the perspective of four white viewers and then when those white bodies invade the stage, enacting their fantasies of black existence. For the play’s final monologue, the white members of the audience are asked to switch places with the actors of color on stage, to feel themselves being watched and surveyed. In the months since Fairview, I’ve wondered whether participating in that physical act lets white audience members off the hook too easily, especially given how few people of color were left in the seats the night I saw the show: Have the tables really turned or only the angle of observation? But in its provoking structure and its thoughtful transgression of the norms of performing and being an audience member, few shows this year struck as deeply as Fairview.
Fires in the Mirror (Signature Theatre)
Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman recounting of the 1991 Crown Heights riot, the apex of a conflict between the black and Jewish communities, received its first major New York City revival at the Signature Theatre, 27 years after its debut. In this incarnation of Smith’s verbatim drama, with text taken from dozens of interviews, it wasn’t a one-woman but a one-man play, with Michael Benjamin Washington shape-shifting between the many characters, ranging from a Hasidic mother to Reverend Al Sharpton. Vocally and physically, Washington breathed new and humanizing life into two worlds of strangers staring at each other over a great divide. Smith’s masterful dramaturgy (and extraordinary story-gathering) still stuns, and the sense of these testimonies passing from voice to voice—from their original speakers to Smith and now to Washington—provided the production with an added layer of poignancy.
Gary (Booth Theatre)
From the moment blood started spurting from her neck in the prologue, Julie White stole the show in Taylor Mac’s shocking, delicious Gary, a madcap sequel to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy. Even though Nathan Lane was an amply amusing headliner, White and co-star Kristine Nielsen elevated Mac’s farting-corpse comedy to dizzying slapstick heights. And, somehow, amid the blank verse and zippy zaniness, Mac also unfurled a pointed pacifist message about the meaningless messiness of war. Perhaps Mac, a celebrated performance artist and playwright who uses the pronoun “judy,” asked a lot from absurdism-wary Broadway audiences in judy’s most mainstream outing to date, especially with the deep-cut Shakespearean in-jokes. But Gary, despite its naysayers, achieved its goal of giving gas its own grotesque gravity.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater Company)
One of the year’s saddest plays, and also quite possibly its funniest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a brutal, big-hearted landscape study of a New York City halfway house from Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat, among other attention-getting titles). What’s most impressive about Guirgis’s sprawling play, which also features a cameo by a live goat, is how he gives full life and rich, specific language to each of eighteen characters. His gift for using large-scale ensemble scenes to instantly, meticulously develop characters and shade in relationship histories is unrivaled. And what a cast, with particularly shimmering performances from Elizabeth Rodriguez as the dauntless director of the residence, Liza Colón-Zayas as a hurting, harassing veteran, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (also excellent in New York Theater Workshop’s runboyrun and In Old Age earlier this fall) as a long-forgotten film star. With unafraid humor, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven serves a generous helping of humanity.
King Lear (Cort Theatre)
This was a production more sinned against than sinning. Though I may be in the critical minority for adoring Sam Gold’s abstract, perhaps overly academic King Lear, I found it to be an eye-opening vision for Shakespeare’s most engulfing tragedy. Hard to follow for newcomers to the play itself? For sure (I don’t begrudge the King Lear neophytes sitting near me who left at intermission), but what a collection of performances: Ruth Wilson’s heartbreaking dual portraits of Cordelia and the Fool (a mainstay original casting theory from King Lear scholarship working wonders in action); the sometimes-justified charismatic cruelty of Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan as Goneril and Regan; John Douglas Thompson as a cantankerous, devoted Kent; and the deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, accompanied by an interpreter (Michael Arden). Gold’s casting choices tightened the dramaturgy: When Cornwall killed that servant, he lost his “ears” in the same scene that Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) literally lost her eyes. And, most centrally, having seen Glenda Jackson play Lear in an utterly incoherent production (not directed by Gold) at London’s Old Vic in 2016, I was astonished by the newfound wit, anger, and ferociousness in Jackson’s second look at the role.
Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theater)
Unlike the revisions and reinventions of other musical revivals this year (Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish), Michael Mayer’s giddy production of Little Shop of Horrors is just a really, really good staging of the show that heightens everything you’ve always loved about it. Jonathan Groff gave a delightfully nerdy performance as Seymour Krelborn (he’s soon to be replaced by Gideon Glick) with Tammy Blanchard a tender and tenacious Audrey. Mayer’s direction reveals, much like Seymour’s own transformation, a diamond in the rough: Little Shop of Horrors is a magnificent mixture of ridiculous dark comedy and, somehow beneath the carnivorous leaves and thirst for blood, sweetness. The cast’s superb rendering of Alan Menken’s score (and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics) has also been captured on a recently released recording, and if you can’t make it to the tiny Westside Theater before the show closes in March, it’s worth the listen.
The Michaels (Public Theater)
The eighth play in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama detailing episodes in family’s lives in the Hudson Valley, The Michaels is as gorgeous, subtle, and quietly perfect (or perfectly quiet) as any production staged in New York this year. Calmly riveting, the play takes place basically in real time as the glued-together fragments of a family (plus a visiting friends) cook and eat dinner. On the one hand, it’s a glistening portrait into the world of modern dance: Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) has come home to recreate the legendary choreography of her mother, the ailing Rose Michaels (Brende Wehle), for a tribute performance. Nelson beautifully weaves patches of dining-room dancing into the play. But the play’s tensest conflicts lie between the present and the past, as Rose battles her once-buoyant body, and her girlfriend Kate (an astonishing Maryann Plunkett) contends with the ever-present memories of Rose’s longtime partner. Nelson masterfully delivers the richness of whole lives wrestling with the passage of time, distilled into the duration of a single dinner.
Mojada (Public Theater)
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada migrates the Medea myth to present-day Queens in a terrifying, literarily inevitable unspooling of an undocumented woman’s battle to preserve her family and her dignity. In the Public Theater’s production, Chay Yew’s fluid staging intermingled Mikhail Fiksel’s vital sound design with Alfaro’s poetic text, brought to life especially by Sabina Zúñiga Varela in the title role and Socorro Santiago as a wry Greek chorus of a domestic worker. A flashback sequence to the family’s frightening escape across the border was probably among this year’s most horrifying, tense stretches of drama (along, perhaps, with the final scenes of Slave Play and Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!). In Alfaro’s assured hands, the mythical and the modern meld powerfully, yet another win for the Public’s superb track record of marrying the classic and the contemporary.
Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
Shakespeare’s seldom made this much sense. In Kenny Leon’s glorious production of Much Ado About Nothing, Messina is transformed into 2020 Georgia at the height of Stacey Abrams’s (fictitious) presidential campaign. Leon’s resetting felt so special not just because of its all-black cast or potent use of music throughout, but because each line of Shakespeare’s text blossomed as if dug out and replanted in a brand-new garden. I’ve rarely seen a Shakespeare production that felt as freshly explored, and I’ve also never seen an audience allowed to receive a Shakespeare play with such total comfort and confidence in the language’s accessibility. Leading the phenomenal cast in conversational clarity was Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, a sweet, salty, stunning Beatrice. And the best news for fans of Shakespeare (or strangers to Shakespeare) who missed the show: It was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is available to watch here.
Native Son (The Duke on 42nd Street)
The Acting Company moved into the Duke on 42nd Street this summer, running Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in repertory. While Measure for Measure was uninspired, and the repertorial combination didn’t add much to either play, Native Son triumphed. A tense, taut terror ride, directed with careening force by Seret Scott and centered around two major performances—Galen Ryan Kane, seething and sorrowful as Bigger Thomas, and Jason Bowen as the violent spirit of the Black Rat that Bigger feels society pressuring him toward—this production never let up in momentum. Despite the 1940s setting, this adaptation distills the distancing near-century of racial oppression into a shocking 90-minute thriller that felt, in this fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat staging, bracingly immediate.
one in two (The New Group, Signature Theatre)
Written during the height of Donja R. Love’s struggle with depression as he approached his 10th anniversary of living with HIV, one in two is a work which rends its author’s identity apart into three figures, all queer black men tasked with telling the tragic—but does it have to be?—story of an HIV-positive man. At each performance, audience applause selects which actor will take on which role, bringing to life the lottery of being a queer black man in America, the unimaginable statistic that one in two gay or bisexual black men will contract HIV in their lifetimes. That’s the only chance for applause the audience gets: In an arresting dramaturgical move, there’s no curtain call, just a silent exodus from the theater as the actors stare up at the ever-increasing tally of diagnoses. It’s a riveting, riotous play that pierces with its sense of vital urgency and its unwillingness to follow the rules.
The Rose Tattoo (American Airlines Theater)
For audiences familiar with Tennessee Williams’s best-known classics, Serafina Delle Rose’s happy ending seems hardly likely to happen. But Marisa Tomei’s take on the young widow Serafina refuses to succumb to her loneliness like Tom Wingfield or Brick or Stanley Kowalski, the tragic heroes of other Williams works. If The Rose Tattoo is a tonal rollercoaster, it relies on its central actress to prevent the play from riding off the rails: Tomei delivered, offering a shape-shifting performance oscillating from joy to grief and back to passionate hope. Partnered brilliantly with the Scottish actor Emun Elliott, Tomei transformed The Rose Tattoo into a spirited, deeply funny tour de force. Director Trip Cullman (Choir Boy) decorated this production with healthy dollops of physical comedy and a warm mist of candle-lighting and Italian song.
Slave Play (Golden Theatre)
I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Slave Play since I saw it nearly three months ago. And that’s very definitely the point. More than any play I’ve seen this year—maybe ever—it’s come up in conversation again and again, not just because I want to recommend it (which I do), but because I’m still wrestling with it. Jeremy O. Harris’s unanswered questions have also burrowed deep, unsettling the norms of theatergoing: A viral video of a white audience member screaming at Harris as he calmly hears her out in a post-show talkback pretty much sums up the revelatory detonation this play has become. But what’s most admirable about Slave Play remains that, stripped of all the noise outside and around the play, it’s still a thoughtful, honest story about four interracial couples learning how to listen to their partners and taking terrible risks to be heard.
The Sound Inside (Studio 54)
Though The Sound Inside is a play that doesn’t demand a Broadway-sized house, it certainly deserves one; a mesmerizing miniature, it’s perhaps the best new play on Broadway in 2019. Starring Mary-Louise Parker (in her first of two Broadway lead roles this season), this small-scale gem tells the story of Bella Lee Baird, a Yale professor who asks for a shocking favor from a student. Both teacher and students are novelists and their fiction works blend blurrily into their lives. This is as much a play about writing as a play about people, and I was wholly won over by the sense that Bella is shifting and shaping the story the audience receives. Parker is devastating as an unreliable narrator wrestling with the power she alone has to reveal or conceal the truth.
What the Constitution Means to Me (Helen Hayes Theater)
When the national tour of What the Constitution Means to Me takes off in January, it will be the first time playwright Heidi Schreck hasn’t also performed the central role. It’s hard to imagine the piece without her. After all, this play is her, as Schreck recounts her experience as a teenager entering constitutional debate competitions for college tuition cash and then describes, through scintillating monologue and conversations with onstage companions, how her understanding of the constitution’s impact on women and American identity has evolved. The play peaks with a face-off between Schreck and a real-live NYC high school debater (I saw the brilliant Thursday Williams) before asking each other questions provided by the audience. A moving model of what it looks like to listen deeply to other people’s stories, in a season filled with painful questions, What the Constitution Means to Me was the rare play that softly started to offer answers.
Our top films of the decade offer insights and riches that are inexhaustible.
W hile the increasingly tiresome bubble of online film discourse only seems capable of processing one or two works of art in any given week, the number of films released in North America each year has doubled in the past decade. The story of the next decade is likely to be one studio’s stranglehold on the box office and the theatrical moviegoing experience writ large, but the sheer volume of new voices with fresh ideas and perspectives continues to grow unabated. It’s up to us to grant them the attention they deserve.
Our top films of the decade contain ample proof that much of the most vital art being made today comes from a place beyond the ken of the algorithms attempting to control our attention. They offer insights and riches that are inexhaustible. Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret began the decade spinning a city symphony out of a teenager’s first brush with tragedy; today, its classroom scenes are a harrowing, uproarious omen of the discourse we trudge through each day. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God are twinned in their monochromatic, overwhelming shrugs toward the apocalypse, while other final films (Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames and Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie ) mine the sublime from stillness.
Most of the directors cited here more than once (including Lonergan, Kiarostami, and Kelly Reichardt) are firmly ensconced in the canon of contemporary auteurs, while a few have more stealthily entered the conversation. Maren Ade’s Everyone Else and Toni Erdmann are scabrous examinations of moneyed classes that are nonetheless immensely heartfelt. Robert Greene has developed a remarkable body of work scrutinizing the nature of performance, but this phrase does nothing to explain how one filmmaker could produce films of such disparate conceits and ideas as Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee ‘17. Don Hertzfeld, conversely, puts his inimitable tragicomic stamp on two distinctly expansive animated visions.
Surrounding the dozen-plus filmmakers making numerous appearances here are a string of works by both established and emerging artists that point to the continued innovation of both studio and independent film. Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat is a marvel of contradictions, diffusing a boisterous family drama into a patchwork of discrete asides. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana are sumptuously designed documentaries that reorient our sense of the cinema as spectacle, a word that must be associated with George Miller ( Mad Max: Fury Road ) and Leos Carax’s ( Holy Motors ) lone outings this decade. And works as unalike as Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour, and Mariano Llinás’s La Flor reminded us that seemingly any manner of story can be worthy of a length most audiences reserve for a season of television.
The difference between the two mediums is becoming increasingly slippery, and for some unearthly reason a noisy portion of the internet never seems to tire of pedantic debates about which creators and which works belong in which canon. A few entries on our list aired as TV miniseries here or in Europe ( Li’l Quinquin and Olivier Assayas’s Carlos ) but were released theatrically in North America. Some of us saw most of these one hundred films in theaters, but they made their way to us in many different scenarios, on screens that were inches, feet, or stories high. They’ll endure on any format. Christopher Gray
The Voters: Chuck Bowen, Pat Brown, Jake Cole, Clayton Dillard, Ed Gonzalez, Christopher Gray, Wes Greene, Glenn Heath Jr., Eric Henderson, Rob Humanick, Oleg Ivanov, Joshua Kim, Carson Lund, Sam C. Mac, Niles Schwartz, Diego Semerene, Derek Smith.
100. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
If the modern franchise product is Lebron James, pummeling opponents and raking in billions through sheer might, then Creed is its Steph Curry, infusing a familiar formula with an uncanny and seemingly effortless grace. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti has been rightly hailed for Creed ’s mid-film, single-take fight scene, but hasn’t received enough credit for realizing one of the decade’s most complex and indelible shots, literally projecting the legacy of deceased fighter Apollo Creed onto his illegitimate son, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). As Adonis shadowboxes with the ghost of his father, Alberti, Johnson, and director Ryan Coogler set up both the film’s primary plot and its meta-textual thesis: A legacy is both a burden and a privilege. This is one of many clichés that Creed infuses with an earnest, timeworn vibrancy. Bolstered by charismatic performers and a patient sensibility that allows dramatic scenes to last a few self-questioning beats longer than expected, Coogler has transformed a very white franchise into one pointedly concerned with black lives and traditions. The triumphant result is, like Adonis running through the streets of Philadelphia with a crew of dirt bikers and updated version of Bill Conti’s iconic score, at once unapologetically schmaltzy, supremely self-conscious, and resoundingly progressive. Gray
99. Bastards (Claire Denis)
Bastards is to the classic American noir what director Claire Denis’s prior Trouble Every Day is to the biological horror film: A beautiful essay on the potential moral perversions of intense human hunger that’s structured around genre trappings that are, in turn, refreshed and shaken free of the cobwebs of stale irrelevancy. The self-consciously derivative plot is a classic tale of a man lured into trouble, partially by his penis, who discovers a world of nearly primordial rot that far exceeds his comprehension. But, typical of Denis’s films, it’s the movement of bodies and faces you remember, particularly Vincent Lindon’s poignant, commandingly gruffy and weathered cheeks and weary eyes, as well as Chiara Mastroianni’s gorgeous body and deceptively tentative gestures. The love scenes are marvels typical of Denis: trysts that honor both the super-charged eroticism of genre tropes and the revealing physical vulnerability of sex as some of us might actually have it (perhaps, if we’re lucky). Chuck Bowen
98. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)
“I will help you, because you will make sure that nothing will change,” says a plantation owner and rubber baron (Franco Nero) dressed in a fine white suit and fanned by a native slave, to Major Percival “Percy” Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). The baron assumes that Fawcett’s mapmaking expedition in the Amazon is meant to maintain the constancy of early 20th-century colonialism—of occupations that mitigate conflict through control. But in actuality, like Marion Cotillard’s Ewa Cybulska in James Gray’s earlier The Immigrant, Fawcett exists outside of the strictures of his time—a deliberate anachronism. The man’s break from the era’s accepted social norms, his belief in exploration as more than a means of exploitation, and his dreams of the future as a corrective for the past reflect both his repentance for an “unfortunate” ancestry (his father was a gambler and a drunk) and broadly represent emergent 20th-century modernism. Gray’s opulent formalism channels Fawcett’s delusions of grandeur, making for an intoxicating adventure film. And the director’s typically bracing intelligence—employed here to examine the psychological toll of obsession, and the philosophical weight of understanding, and accepting, change—lends the narrative the scope and detail of a classical epic. Like The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z is about ideologies out of step from the present moment of the world they exist in, and is itself a film out of its own time. Sam C. Mac
97. In the Family (Patrick Wang)
The decade saw the release of many impressive debut films, but they all feel weightless compared to Patrick Wang’s ambitious, compassionate, and devastating three-hour masterpiece. The story may seem small and contained on the surface: interior designer Joey (Wang) loses his partner Cody (Trevor St. John) in a car accident, which upends his paternal relationship with Cody’s young son and isolates him further from a surrogate family who were once so close. But there’s nothing minor about the brilliant way In the Family handles regional identity and societal contradictions, themes that are explored during dialogue-driven set pieces where humility and understanding can be found in every pause. With an Ozu-like attention to detail and silence, Wang establishes a palpable sincerity toward Joey’s disintegrating sense of family that never trivializes or moralizes his suffering or scorn. Instead, the film values conversation, the impact of waiting, and the power of optimism. Unlike most sentimental Hollywood schmaltz, In the Family earns its tears by spending long amounts of time with characters we care about, those who speak to each other and not at each other. Most notably, in Wang we have found a major talent, a chronicler of complex emotional collisions and reflections who expresses himself profoundly without resorting to theatrics. Glenn Heath Jr.
96. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
A uniquely crafted hybrid film, incorporating narrative, travelogue, and art-essay conceits, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours saliently channels the excitement and alienation of traveling. Charting the fledgling friendship between a charitable museum guard and a middle-class Canadian woman who’s visiting her hospitalized cousin in Vienna and passes time by wandering the galleries of the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the film insightfully cherishes the act of observation and a peculiar curiosity about life. Exceedingly proving the richness that patience yields, the audience—like the characters themselves—becomes acquainted with backstories and interests of the unassuming protagonists. At once pensive and playful, the film’s most brilliant stroke comes from Cohen’s ability to organically link the characters with the art that surrounds them to illuminate the power of observation and various existential inquiries inherent in art, leading to an understated personal investigation into the lives of these people we’re asked to consider. With a keen eye for detail, Cohen offers the viewer a lens that shapes, and discovers, new ways to view both cinema and the world. Nick McCarthy
95. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Drug addiction is by now overly familiar cinematic terrain, and yet Joachim Trier finds new ways to investigate the struggle to manage dependency with Oslo, August 31st, a piercing snapshot of one man’s struggle to survive a day-long trip out of rehab for a job interview. Along that journey, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) also visits an old party buddy and attempts to reunite with his estranged sister, and Trier’s camera sticks to Anders with an intensity that’s matched by Lie, whose inner turmoil bubbles with increasing volatility beneath his placid, haunted exterior. Lie radiates wrenching confusion and aimlessness, lending Anders the quality of being on the constant precipice of either transcendence or doom. Throughout, the film never operates as a straight melodrama, instead assuming a tranquil, compassionately observant stance on its lost, ambiguous protagonist, who seems potentially incapable of not just big-picture change, but of making the daily transitions—in attitude, in emotion, in reaction—required by life. It’s a tragedy of personal proportions, imbued with greater dimension through Lie’s magnificent performance and Trier’s affectionate portrait of the titular Norway capital as a place of both perpetual change and of unforgettable, and inescapable, memories. Nick Schager
94. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)
A (literal) excavation of Romanian history, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure explores a single, unremarkable plot of land (it had previously served as a kindergarten, steelworks, brickworks, and bar, but now lies empty and abandoned) as a microcosm of a nation’s variegated past and desultory present. With meticulous pacing and rigorously composed long shots, Porumboiu develops an ever-so-subtle suspense as we observe a trio of down-on-their-luck men equipped with metal detectors comb the land for loot supposedly buried there by a wealthy ancestor before the country’s communist takeover. The meticulousness of Porumboiu’s form provides ironic contrast to the hapless bumbling of his characters, creating an abiding air of melancholy deadpan that’s relieved only by the film’s jarringly triumphalist final image, a swooping crane shot that soars up to the heavens. After so long staring at the ground, simply looking up can feel like liberation. Keith Watson
93. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a modern exploration of the role of feminine certitude within the context of the dyed-in-the-wool codes and attitudes of the American West. Three strivers embodying gradients of progressive womanhood—a headstrong lawyer (Laura Dern), an eco-conscious homebuilder (Michelle Williams) managing her own husband, and a solitary rancher (Lily Gladstone, in a breakout performance) harboring inchoate lesbian longings—all carry the titular quality, and yet the film dramatizes, in Reichardt’s characteristically sobering manner, the clash of that conviction against obstacles that invariably thwart the fulfillment of desire. The film is thus a delicate rejoinder to the all-American bromide of self-sufficiency and will power as routes to fulfillment, the defining thematic constellation of the western in its classical form. That Reichardt emulates the genre’s components just cannily enough (expansive landscape photography, a climactic horse ride) while also subtly defamiliarizing them (plentiful dead air, unnervingly detuned ambient sound) makes her persuasions—her certainty—that much more revelatory. Carson Lund
92. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Much like Fritz Lang’s M, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty begins with violent death that’s aurally suggested rather than seen, and concludes with a woman’s ambiguously symbolic tears. These disorienting overloads of affect bookend a deceptively rational police-procedural thriller, cataloguing the steps taken by a steely C.I.A. operative (Jessica Chastain) to hunt down Osama bin Laden through a political decade defined by torture and mishap. Hyperkinetic drama trumps context throughout; discussion of Operation Cyclone and even Islam is riskily absent, as though Bigelow were writing history with lightning. The code-named characters meanwhile behave like they’re auditioning for HBO; Chastain’s self-proclaimed “motherfucker” of an agent, who scrawls angry notes on her male superior’s office window (a.k.a. “the glass ceiling”), has an anemically sketched inner life. Yet all of these vernacular tropes form a shrewd, daring rouse. In a move worthy not only of Lang but of Brecht, Bigelow has politicized her pop aesthetics. Her compulsively watchable film brings a global exchange of unthinkable pain down to earth while still retaining the essence of its ineffability. Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately about unknowable cost—not only the cost of keeping a worldwide hegemony afloat with grisly violence, but the cost of maintaining a worldwide entertainment industry with facsimiles of the same. Joseph Jon Lanthier
91. La Flor (Mariano Llinás)
Mariano Llinás slyly constructs La Flor as a series of loosely interlocking labyrinths with no clear resolutions, presupposing cinema as being solely about the journey rather than the destination. Across its exuberant 14-plus hours and six episodes, several of which add digressions within digressions, Llinás upends expectations and stretches his formal muscles as his film traverses an array of genres, styles, and spoken languages and playfully dismantles and toys with the very notion of storytelling itself. As its production lasted for a full decade, Llinás’s sprawling magnum opus inevitably sees its four main actresses, who star in all but one of the six episodes, gracefully age as they shapeshift from musicians and scientists to spies, assassins, actors, and, ultimately, themselves. As a structural gambit, La Flor is as ambitious as anything released in the past decade, let alone year, and the symbiotic relationship between Llinás and his magnificently malleable performers—particularly Pilar Gamboa, whose brooding intensity reaches its height during the emotionally wrenching song which concludes episode two—lend the film’s wildly inventive metafictions an unmistakable warmth. Derek Smith
The music of the past 10 years has felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.
Photo: Kendrick Lamar/Interscope Records
T here’s a popular meme—shared most often by Gen Xers and tech-capable boomers—that self-deprecatingly laments the perception that the 1990s were just a few years ago. The absence of a generally recognized way to demarcate the first two decades of the 21st century (aughts? Teens? ‘10s?) has, perhaps, rendered the “decade” as a measure of time more arbitrary than ever before, resulting in one nebulous blur. The music of the past 10 years has likewise felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.
Of course, a lack of obvious trends—like synth-pop and hair metal in the ‘80s, and alternative rock and R&B in the ‘90s—doesn’t mean there weren’t important milestones in music. Bolstered by albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hip-hop continued to rediscover both its conscience and its voice in the 2010s, while artists like Robyn and Katy B proved that even when dance-pop is pushed to the margins, as it was after the EDM explosion of the late aughts, it will always find its groove.
As is often the case with pop music, whose wiles aren’t often immediately apparent, some of the titles on this list of the greatest albums of the decade took their sweet time taking root. Taylor Swift’s 1989, for example, sits at a lofty perch here but failed to garner a mention on our list of the Best Albums of 2014. Others, like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, were released just days after we published our list that same year. And yet another 2014 album, Bright Light Bright Light’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, came to our attention a year after its initial release.
Some of the artists with multiple entries on this list, like Kanye West, began the 2010s at their creative and commercial zenith but floundered on both counts by decade’s end. Others, like Lana Del Rey, started out with great but uncertain promise and ultimately fulfilled it as the decade came to a close. Holdovers from the ‘90s like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as artists whose legacies stretch even further back, like the dearly departed David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, released some of their most compelling work to date in the last 10 years, making the task of clearly defining the decade even more of a fool’s errand. What these 100 albums do have in common is quite simple: They moved us. Sal Cinquemani
100. Bright Light Bright Light, Life Is Easy
At a time when pop music is defined foremost by cynicism, Bright Light Bright Light, né Rod Thomas, offers a refreshingly sincere voice, unafraid to be poignant or vulnerable. Though the melodies on the Welsh singer-songwriter’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, are often uncomplicated, they’re also instantly familiar and accessible. The album’s opening synths nod to Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, as Thomas paints vivid, cinematic scenes of love lost and imagined, drenched in retro-minded synth-pop reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. The album is littered with tales of disintegrating love (“Everything I Ever Wanted,” “I Wish We Were Leaving,” featuring Elton John) but also the wide-eyed optimism of a hopeless romantic (“An Open Heart,” “I Believe”). It makes life—and love—sound easy. Cinquemani
99. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
The first of two stellar albums Big Thief released in 2019, U.F.O.F. is less immediate and rhythmic than the subsequent Two Hands. It’s all ambience and texture, unfolding like a reverie, with chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios and cooing melodies so natural and easy that they sound like they sprung up from the ground or out of the trees. Singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s songs don’t so much progress as they circle mesmerizingly around themselves, and the best of them—“Cattails,” “Century,” “From”—seize on sing-songy melodic motifs with repetitious snake-like structures that become almost like mantras. Lenker and Buck Meek’s guitar work is sparkling throughout, with every pluck and strum sounding sonically optimized. This is an album as difficult to categorize as it is easy to listen to. Jeremy Winograd
98. Pet Shop Boys, Electric
Electric found the Pet Shop Boys taking an easy and well-earned career victory lap. This isn’t a nostalgia cruise through the sounds of its creators’ lost youth, but rather a daringly foolhardy effort to communicate with the kids in their own blissed-out lexicon. For this task, Electric brought in the man most perfectly suited to marrying ‘80s electro-pop classicism with genre-straddling EDM modernism, Stuart Price. More importantly, the duo brought a collection of wry and wonderful earworms that are every bit as huge as Price’s canyon-sized sound. A reminder that classic songs don’t have to arrive already frozen in amber. Blue Sullivan
95. Lindstrom, Real Life Is No Cool
Norwegian DJ Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and vocalist Christabelle’s Real Life Is No Cool is a pop-funk odyssey that draws on early Massive Attack, Prince, and especially the space-disco of Giorgio Moroder. The album is, perhaps, Lindstrøm’s most accessible work to date (the single “Lovesick” appeared in a car commercial and the U.S. version of the album is even more polished than the original Rough Trade incarnation), but despite clear standout tracks and copious pop hooks, it’s a testament to the strength of Lindstrøm’s singular vision that the album plays best as one whole piece, no small feat considering that it was at least seven years in the making. Cinquemani
96. James Blake, James Blake
A friend recently played me James Blake through his new subwoofer with the dial turned to about 5, an experience that nearly made our heads explode. It served as a reminder of how amazingly rumbly, strange, and unique of an album it is, a fact that may have been forgotten in the nine months since its release. Cloaked in a cloud of mystery, it defies the usual bedroom-recording template, with an expansive sound that ranges from creeping, percussively stripped-down R&B to eerie MIDI-inflected dirges, with textures that provide padding for one of the most uniquely smooth voices to come around in years. Jesse Cataldo
95. Aphex Twin, Syro
Few artists could record an album as downright adventurous as Syro. It jumps from eerily funky trip-hop (“produk 29”) to disjointed, robotic acid house (“CIRCLONT6A [141.98]”) and then concludes with a solo piano piece that wouldn’t feel out of place on a recital program alongside Chopin and Satie. But only Aphex Twin could record something this outlandish and appear to be toning down the experimentalism. Syro is a refinement of everything that Aphex Twin has accomplished in his career of genre invention and deconstruction. As a complete work, it’s enveloping, with moments of virtuosic composition (the prog-rock-on-ecstasy of “syro u473t8+e [141.98]”) balanced out by larger, propulsive gestures like rave banger “180db_.” While the rest of the electronic music world has been trying to catch up, Aphex Twin is finally taking a breath and, in turn, had released his most accessible—though still profoundly idiosyncratic—album to date. James Rainis
94. Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy
Tyler, the Creator’s obvious talent has always been undercut by an insistent immaturity, with callow, prankish antagonism proving a continued obstacle to his artistic development. With Flower Boy, rap’s resident enfant terrible has finally found a way to channel his hostility, on an album that still retains his inherent unruliness and intensity. Tyler taps into the internal reservoir of insecurity and doubt motivating his anger, expanding his range and revealing new creative layers in the process. Building on the glimmers of tuneful sweetness found on 2015’s Cherry Bomb, the album finds existing horrorcore inclinations mixing freely with polished electro jazz, hard-edged psychedelia, and hazy R&B. Surprisingly smooth but still never easily digestible, its diverse palette provides insight into the wide variety of sources influencing a mounting wave of paradigm-fracturing rappers, helping to spearhead the genre’s fervent push into new modes of expression. Cataldo
93. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
As everyone who’s caught his sprawling live show already knows, jazz bandleader Kamasi Washington’s maximalism will not be contained, and that, ludicrous as it may sound, even a three-hour label debut broken down into three volumes titled “The Plan,” “The Glorious Tale,” and “The Historic Repetition” and given the title The Epic still ever so faintly suggests the tip of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic. “Change of the Guard”? That might be an overstatement, but there’s something undeniably thrilling about an artist who doesn’t seem to dislike a single reference point. Washington, better known as Kendrick Lamar’s go-to arranger, pulls not a single punch as he draws from big band, fusion, swing, and bebop traditions, pays homage to Malcolm X, Ray Noble, and Claude Debussy, and overlays heavenly choral and string arrangements to send the entire enterprise into orbit. Eric Henderson
92. Katy B, On a Mission
As the coolly altered colors of the cover art indicate, Katy B’s On a Mission is euphoric without aggression. It’s awash in the newness of discovery, and represents the perfect confluence of elements that all but transcends any single camp. This isn’t merely a house album, a pop album, a dubstep album, or an R&B album. It’s a bright, cheerfully mainstream-friendly record that’s almost completely built from the ingredients of much darker, grimier dance music subcultures in a way that recalls the sunnier moments of Basement Jaxx, or Kathy Diamond’s Maurice Fulton-guided retro jaunt through the Loft on Miss Diamond to You. But softer still. On a Mission is a glowstick Alice in Wonderland, a tour of sensations as narrated by an emotionally reserved young girl whose “curiouser and curiouser” reactions ultimately wind up giving in to the moment, hungry for the next chapter. Henderson
91. Mariah Carey, Caution
“Caution” is an apt warning for those about to consume Mariah Carey’s first album in over four years. While her voice may be a reedy version of what it once was, she makes it abundantly clear on Caution that she isn’t to be fucked with in this or any other decade. She wisely relies on the rap-inflected R&B sounds that have been her bread and butter since Butterfly, while bringing in unexpected collaborators like Skrillex and Blood Orange. She also switches up the message: In the aftermath of a highly public breakup, a sense of inevitable heartache hangs over the whole thing, from the delightfully salty lead single “GTFO” (“I ain’t tryna be rude, but you’re lucky I ain’t kick your ass out last weekend,” she quips) to the even more savage “A No No,” in which she summons her verbally gymnastic falsetto for a Gilligan’s Island-related diss. The adoption of patois and clearly intentional use of “irregardless” suggest Mimi (still) has no time for notions of cultural appropriation or grammar, and appearances by Slick Rick and Biggie (via sample) let us know that her heart will always lie in hip-hop. Where it belongs. Paul Schrodt
90. Destroyer, Kaputt
With the lone exception of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” no music this year has better captured the glitzy, breezy, unaware charm of ‘80s air pop better than Destroyer’s Kaputt. There’s an almost stark obliviousness to the album’s caricatural, glossy atmosphere, obtuse lyricism, and plethora of jazzy brass, but therein lies its allure: Dan Bejar exists in his own little bubble, making songs for himself as much as others, and leaving us narrative riddles that perhaps only he can ultimately decipher. Yet as confoundingly esoteric as Kaputt can often be, it’s still a joy to listen to: Luxurious and blissful and playful in a way that conjures up the psychedelic pop storytelling of Al Stewart. From the bouncy hotel lobby ballad “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and the delicate melancholy of “Chinatown” to the almost ridiculous, full-on saxophone and vibes explosion that is the title track, Kaputt is the consummate balancing act of the cerebral and the irreverent. Kevin Liedel
89. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 braintrust Anthony Gonzalez reportedly aimed to combine the aesthetics of the decidedly more shoegazey Before the Dawn Heals Us with the all-out, sparkling post-punk of Saturdays=Youth, with synth-pop tracks like “Claudia Lewis” and “Reunion” alongside ambient throwbacks like “Echoes of Mine.” As always, Gonzalez goes grand, aiming for the bright lights and saturated echoes of stadium anthems. One need look no further than the opening blast of “Intro” for evidence, where Gonzalez masterfully stacks buzzing circularity and distant choir strains with the seagull synths of “Kim & Jessie,” over which Zola Jesus delivers her muscular vocals. Liedel
88. Taylor Swift, Reputation
In the run-up to the release of her sixth album, Reputation, Taylor Swift was excoriated by fans and foes alike for too often playing the victim. The album’s lyrics only serve to bolster that perception: Swift comes off like a frazzled stay-at-home mom scolding her disobedient children on “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” But it’s her willingness to portray herself not as a victim, but the villain of her own story that makes Reputation such a fascinatingly thorny glimpse inside the mind of pop’s reigning princess. Swift has proven herself capable of laughing at herself, thereby defusing the criticisms often levied at her, but with Reputation she’s created a larger-than-life caricature of the petty, vindictive snake she’s been made out to be. By album’s end, Swift assesses her crumbling empire and tattered reputation, discovering redemption in love—only Reputation isn’t so much a rebirth as it is a retreat inward. It marks a shift from the retro-minded pop-rock of 2014’s 1989 toward a harder, more urban aesthetic, and Swift wears the stiff, clattering beats of songs like “…Ready for It?” like body armor. Cinquemani
87. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
Righteous anger is potent fuel for art, and in a year that desperately beckoned for protest music that could stand up to systematic economic and racial oppression, Killer Mike and El-P drew on just that to create Run the Jewels 2. It’s not a political treatise (there are too many absurdist threats and flights of linguistic fancy to qualify), but tracks like the drug-dealer’s lament “Crown” and the accusatory “Lie, Cheat, Steal” hold a mirror up to society’s blemishes and implore you to get fucking pissed about it to El-P’s punishing, Bomb Squad-reminiscent production. Decades after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the sonic revolution is still being fought, with brothers-in-arms Killer Mike and El-P as the new ringleaders. Rainis
86. DJ Koze, Knock Knock
DJ Koze’s eclectic third effort, Knock Knock, tones down the psychedelic flourishes of 2013’s Amygdala for a more accessible album that’s inviting and soothing while also, at times, preserving a plaintive sense of yearning. “Music on My Teeth” opens with a sample of Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts intoning that “time is a social institution and not a physical reality.” Whether it’s a Gladys Knight & the Pips sample on “Pick Up” or a guest spot by an Auto-Tune-drenched Kurt Wagner from Lambchop on “Muddy Funster,” Koze seamlessly melds eras and genres to fashion shape-shifting sonic textures. He plays to his guests’ strengths, giving the music the semblance of a mixtape at times, but overall the sound nevertheless remains cohesive. Seamless shifts from trip-hop to R&B to deep house create a multidimensional aesthetic that runs the gamut from retro to futuristic, from analog to digital, all while exuding Koze’s mastery of making the uncanny feel oddly familiar. Josh Goller
85. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love
“I hate ‘love’ in my own language,” Jenny Hval says on the title track of her seventh album, a spoken-word exchange between herself and Lasse Marhaug about the notion of reproduction and its impact on humanity. Although Hval has admitted to feeling some anxiety about dealing with love as a theme when she’s spent so much of her career focusing on anything but, on The Practice of Love she explores the concept with closely observed specificity. Over propulsive, trance-influenced musical backdrops that lend a disarming sheen to its raw lyrics, Hval analyses the presence—and lack—of love in nature (“Lions feat Vivian Wang”), in pregnancy and childlessness (“Accident”), and in communion with the dead (“Six Red Cannas”). Her lyrical style, equal parts allusive and up-front, makes for an exposing, raw album, as disquieting as it is dazzling. Anna Richmond
84. The Weeknd, House of Balloons
The collaboration of producer Doc McKinney and singer Abel Tesfaye, House of Balloons is entirely without precedent in R&B. The gothic production aesthetic is influenced as much by industrial, trip-hop, and downtempo as it is by urban radio, while Tesfaye’s tortured falsetto conveys both vulnerability and predatory intent. It’s a lurid exercise in subterranean world-building, its depictions of dependency and desperation soundtracked by some of the catchiest, sexiest R&B jams you’ll never hear in the club. Matthew Cole
83. Wild Beasts, Smother
True to their name, Wild Beasts builds on and fully inhabits an undomesticated musical world far removed from the familiar grounds of their indie peers. The band’s experimentation in flaky, embellished baroque pop is ultimately a reward for its loyal audience: The weirder they get, the better Wild Beasts become. For those who stuck with them through Two Dancers, Smother is another masterful step in that surreal journey, albeit a quiet, sensuous one. Largely shouldered by the band’s two lead vocalists (a libertine cooer in Hayden Thorpe and the earthier, huskier Tom Fleming), Smother is both alluring and purposeful, not to mention full of beautiful surprises. What other group could achieve something like “Invisible,” an undisguised hat tip to the kind of soft, safe ballads one would expect from Phil Collins circa 1985, and still manage to infuse it with their own brand of unpredictable artistry? Liedel
82. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir
The knock against Stephin Merritt and company’s latest long-sit is the lack of “company” in the equation: Where 1999’s 69 Love Songs varied its three-CD sprawl with rotating vocalists, Merritt’s sad-sack monotone is all we get for five discs on 50 Song Memoir. But, then, per the title, this is Stephin’s story: The songs each correspond to a year in the prickly 50-year-old songwriter’s life, and it wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to tell it. Merritt the aesthete understands this, and so he indulges in songs that wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to sing: It’s hard to imagine “A Cat Called Dionysus” being such a laugh riot without his deadpan pivot from “He hated me” to “I loved him,” and only Merritt could find musicality amid the drolly listed maladies on “Weird Diseases.” What 50 Song Memoir has in common with 69 Love Songs is that it’s one of the Magnetic Fields’s most consistent albums. Merritt’s lyrical concepts hold together as albums better than his aesthetic ones—and duration only helps the charm of his offbeat writing to sink in. Sam C. Mac
81. Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe
With her punk-yelp drawl, Santigold at first seems to be trying to affect Karen O’s style on her second album’s first single, “GO!,” but then the beat drops out and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman herself takes the mic, all elongated syllables and spliced-up vocals, and it’s clear Santi isn’t just playing dress-up, but skillfully, reverently co-inhabiting Karen’s world. Santi is a shapeshifter, and the beats and arrangements of each track are likewise perfectly tailored to their lyrics. “Don’t look ahead, there’s stormy weather,” Santi warns just as guitar licks crackle like electricity on “Disparate Youth,” an expertly layered piece of dub-pop, while her cavernous background vocals reverberate beneath the mechanical rhythm section of “God from the Machine.” Even if hip-hop-leaning tracks like “Freak Like Me” and “Look at These Hoes” feel more derivative than the album’s copious nods to new wave and synth-pop, Master of My Make-Believe is still a genre-defying exercise in exerting one’s mastery over all. Cinquemani
It was an incredible year for acting, as it saw the superstar in ultimate communion with the auteur.
T his year offered a cornucopia of brilliance in film acting, and it seemed in particular to be the year of the communion between auteur and superstar, in which many icons stretched the boundaries of their images to hit new and startling emotional notes. Looking back on many of these performances, two commonalities emerged: stars either going far bigger, far bolder than ever before, or, with equal audaciousness, reigning themselves in and daring the audience to follow. Chuck Bowen
Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig, Knives Out
In a film brimming with big stars and even bigger personalities, none were more dynamic than Daniel Craig, whose Benoit Blanc offered a hilarious Southern-fried twist on Sherlock Holmes. Craig’s hammy delivery often verges on parody, but one gets the clear sense that Benoit’s excessive gentility barely obscures a cunning mind that’s spinning at all times. Ana de Armas, on the other hand, is tasked with the far less showy role of the earnest, comedic straight woman, but her carefully calibrated performance slyly and poignantly conveys the difficult-to-soothe anxieties that immigrants feel when forced to hide in plain sight in a society ready to dispose of them once their usefulness wears out. Derek Smith
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
There has always been gentleness and vulnerability underneath Antonio Banderas’s playful stylishness, and these qualities rise to the fore in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. Playing a stand-in for his greatest director, a middle-aged filmmaker facing the emotional wreckage of past projects and relationships, Banderas turns frailty and heartbreak into a fashion statement. There’s some wish fulfillment at play here: If only midlife crises looked like this for the rest of us. But Banderas isn’t coasting. There’s a hunch to his physicality, a halt to his speech that communicates a terror of being touched. In this context, the character’s deep kiss with an ex-lover is both ennobling and tragic—a brief taste of the irretrievable. Bowen
Emily Beecham, Little Joe
Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is a sci-fi character study that’s fixated on exteriors, with symmetrical images and coordinated outfits that embody a corporate stifling of souls. As Alice, a scientist who breeds a plant that enables complacency, Emily Beecham communicates a wealth of reactions in the rigidity of her stance and the fleeting pain in her eyes, risking obliqueness so as to honor the emotional claustrophobia of Hausner’s environment as well as the innate privacy of her character. We feel as if we’ve never entirely known Alice, and that’s precisely the point: Obsessed with her work, she doesn’t wish to be known. Beecham maintains a mysterious, haunting gap between Alice and the audience. Bowen
Tom Burke, The Souvenir
As the troubled lover to Julie, the aspiring filmmaker from The Souvenir played by Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke’s Anthony is quietly the most extravagantly costumed character of the year. Beneath his smoking jackets and striped socks, Burke reinvents the “bad boyfriend” with a frumpy, slouched demeanor that belies the acid in his haughtiest proclamations. In a film structured around ellipses, Anthony is the most detailed and complex portrait of an addict in recent cinema. Christopher Gray
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Few performers this year went for broke as relentlessly as Willem Dafoe as a surly, salty sailor in Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse. His remarkable command of 19th-century New England vernacular and cadence was as responsible as anything else in the film for setting its strange, mesmerizing tone. Complain about his accent, but don’t say ye don’t like his cooking. Smith
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
If Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson are the wounded heart of Noah Baumbach’s pseudo-autobiographical divorce drama, Laura Dern is the film’s vengeful wraith—a dream of women and nightmare of men in an era wracked by redefinitions of gender roles. As Nora Fanshaw, the bulldog attorney representing Johannson’s character, Dern gives a performance of sexy, crackling intensity, suggesting what might’ve happened if a 1930s comedy heroine had been updated to the nihilistic present day. Dern’s ferocity leads to a resonant friction: She often steals scenes out from under Johannson, as Nora’s allowed to have the stature of which her client can so far only dream. This idea is most unforgettably broached by a brilliant monologue about the social differences between struggling fathers and mothers, which Dern delivers as a reckoning, a verbal parting of the seas. Bowen
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
As Rick Dalton in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio has never been so vulnerable and melancholic. It’s as if the actor’s bravado, alongside that of his character’s, were being tempered by the cruel mistresses of time and show business. Whether Dalton is baring his soul to a young, up-and-coming actress or flubbing his lines on set, DiCaprio becomes inexorably tied to the aging actor he plays, eloquently and humorously unearthing the inner torment and insecurities that plague many a Hollywood star as they sense the limelight beginning to fade. Smith
The year’s most compelling videos looked outside our realm of reality to reflect what’s going on inside.
M usic videos offer a succinct, often easily digestible vehicle for big ideas—both political and technological. The opportunity for quick turn-around means that the medium, even more so than film and TV, can provide an almost real-time commentary on society. If last year’s best videos were a direct response to systemic racism and other forms of oppression, 2019 was the year artists and directors opted to seek refuge or remedy in the world of fantasy. Whether it was playful clips for EDM songs like the Chemical Brothers’s “We’ve Got to Try” and Hot Chip’s “Hungry Child,” which used humor to satirize relationships, FKA twigs’s “Cellophane,” which turned heartbreak into a wrenching visual representation of self-love, or Lana Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time,” which tonally falls somewhere in the middle, 2019’s most compelling videos looked outside our realm of reality to reflect what’s going on inside. Sal Cinquemani
20. Normani, “Motivation”
The video for Normani’s “Motivation” hearkens back to the imagery of early-aughts pop, complete with streetside dance breaks and a head-turning strut from Normani that nods to Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” But Normani proves she’s a force in her own right, incorporating gravity-defying tumbles and a basketball booty bounce. The latest generation of young pop stars—Billie Eilish, Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes—seems to lack a superstar with the proverbial “full package,” with a commanding stage presense and capable of both jaw-dropping choreography and powerhouse vocals. “Motivation” captures the potential Normani has to become the next unstoppable female entertainer, emulating the showmanship of such pop icons as Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Queen B. Sophia Ordaz
What mustache is right for me
19. Purple Mountains, “Darkness and Cold”
Purple Mountains is a lot of things, foremost among them the best confessional divorce album since Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. On “Darkness and Cold,” David Berman directly confronts the dissolution of his marriage: “Light of my life is going out tonight without a flicker of regret.” At first glance, the song’s video is a literal rendering of the story, with Berman sulking around an apartment while he watches a woman get ready to go out. But they never interact directly. It’s as if Berman is sitting lonely in his room, torturing himself with thoughts of what she’s doing now. The clip’s editing heightens the misery: The action is interspersed with real pictures of Berman and his estranged wife, and the look on his face in the first shot is pure, uncut sorrow. But this wouldn’t be a David Berman song if that crushing, overwhelming sadness didn’t sit alongside gut-bustingly funny moments. His lip-synching into the microphone (and later flashlight) is comically exaggerated, and the video ends with a 10-second clip of rainbow-colored text wishing us all a happy summer from the Bermans as a pop song blares. “Darkness and Cold” is the last video we’ll ever get from Berman, but it perfectly captures the essence of his art: Life is unbearably terrible and unspeakably funny, and it’s usually both at the same time. Seth Wilson
18. Flying Lotus featuring Denzel Curry, “Black Balloons Reprise”
Darkness settles over L.A. as black balloons float skyward in the opening shot of Jack Begert’s video for Flying Lotus’s “Black Balloon Reprise,” and it only gets darker from there. Denzel Curry cuts a lonely figure throughout, whether he’s drawing a chalk box to lock himself in, writing messages in his own blood, or standing still, his shadow growing horns on the wall behind him. The track itself tackles the ugliness of life, the degradation of society, and our impending doom. “The day the black balloon explodes, we all die,” Curry raps just as huge balloons burst, strikingly and hopelessly, all around him. Anna Richmond
17. Brittany Howard, “Stay High”
The difference between weepy treacle and powerful melodrama is emotional honesty. Brittany Howard’s “Stay High” video is shot through with the latter, and not just because it so clearly reflects her working-class Alabama childhood. The day-in-the-life narrative follows a factory worker played by Terry Crews, dexterous at using his lumbering body for both humor and stone-faced realism, on his way home. He’s surrounded at different moments by people whose various shades of black, brown, and white skin reflect America as it actually is. They go about grocery shopping, playing games, and tributizing the deceased with an infectious optimism that isn’t blind to struggle or oppression—rather, it’s resolute. Schrodt
16. Doja Cat, “Juicy”
The cleverest postmodern image of 2019 shows Doja Cat in a skintight latex watermelon one-piece sensually splayed out on the floor, looking up at the camera, tantalizing the viewer with the possibilities of her body. Only thing is, she’s been literally sliced in half, her juice entrails exposed. The singer already proved herself as an eminent viral-video trickster who takes long-standing hip-hop tropes and current emoji-laden sexual communication and flips the script. Here she pares her art down to an elemental statement. She simultaneously wants you to lust after her, laugh at her lustiness, and question why the hell you’re lusting in the first place. Schrodt
More than ever, there’s a necessity for the acquisition of physical media.
Photo: The Criterion Collection
E ndlessly proliferating streaming platforms deliver more content each year, successfully tapping heretofore unexpected niche markets and serving an astounding variety of target demographics. (And that’s only the companies that Disney doesn’t own.) What subscribers don’t always realize, however, is that they’re at best leasing that content, even when they appear to have purchased a title outright. Films, in other words, are provisionally available merely at the caprice of our corporate overlords.
All of this is to state what might seem—to legions of devoted cinephiles and collectors alike—a glaringly obvious truth: that there’s a continuing necessity for the acquisition of physical media. Fortunately for us, every year there’s a veritable embarrassment of riches to select from, a bounty of art-house and cult titles dropping each and every Tuesday. They’re supplied by home-video stalwarts like the Criterion Collection and Arrow Video, as well as smaller boutique labels like Vinegar Syndrome, Film Movement, Flicker Alley, and Arbelos—all of whom have released titles that appear on our annual best-of list.
It’s the curatorial expertise these companies lavish on their releases that both renders them eminently collectible and sets them apart from the typically barebones and context-free content available on most streaming services. These companies’ discernment and attention to detail extends not only to the aesthetics of their packaging—replete with often reversible cover art, informative booklets, foldout posters, soundtrack CDs, and other booty—but also to well-chosen supplemental features, which provide a historical and formal framework for developing a deeper appreciation of the films and their makers. Our roundup of the best home-video titles of 2019 cherry-picks those releases that best exemplify these tendencies. Budd Wilkins
American Horror Project Vol. 2, Arrow Video
With American Horror Project: Volume Two, Arrow Video and curators Ewan Cant and Stephen Thrower continue the endeavor they started in 2016 with American Horror Project: Volume One, restoring obscure horror films and according them the respect and prominence of a lush box set with all the trimmings. The existence of such sets is aesthetically and historically symbolic, correctly suggesting that certain films relegated to drive-ins and video stores are worthy of the respect and consideration of tonier productions that are preserved by, say, the Criterion Collection. At the forefront of this project’s concerns are complementary notions of preservation and cultivation. These sets reacquaint us with low-budget films that can be made around and about a small rural area and still potentially attract national attention, while also reminding us of an analogue era, when such films, denied the slickness that can now come at the touch of an iPhone button, practically convulsed with the efforts of their strapped and scrappy creators. These films (Dream No Evil, Dark August, and The Child) are urgent testaments to the cliché of necessity being the mother of invention, as their scarce resources and naïveté beget explorations of madness and alienation that are stripped of the implicit assurances of luxurious, self-effacing studio-style production values. Chuck Bowen
An American Werewolf in London, Arrow Video
Arrow’s new 4K restoration improves considerably on Universal’s previous editions of the film, with colors in low-light and nighttime scenes really coming across. And the studio has ported over practically every available bonus feature from all those earlier Universal home-video releases and added some impressive new ones. The best of the older material is far and away Paul Davis’s 2009 making-of documentary Beware the Moon, which runs slightly longer than An American Werewolf in London itself. Davis covers every detail and aspect of the film’s production from its conception in 1969 to its release and reception in 1981. The new audio commentary from filmmaker Paul Davis miraculously contains little in the way of overlap with his making-of documentary, culling new anecdotes that were uncovered during research for his book on the film, including some fascinating information about deleted and extended scenes whose original elements have been lost. Elsewhere, the terrific feature-length documentary Mark of the Beast is a deep-dive into the figure of the wolf man from a well-selected roster of film historians and technicians, beginning with the ubiquity of the lycanthrope or shapeshifter archetype across human cultures, laying out how screenwriter Curt Siodmak singlehandedly concocted the “lore” of the werewolf (pentagrams, silver bullets, wolf’s bane) for The Wolf Man. Wilkins
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Just as Lionsgate’s last Blu-ray edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now boasted reference-quality audio and video, so, too, were its extras exhaustive. This six-disc release includes everything from the previous release, including Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which as become as legendary at this point as the film its documents. There are too many extras to enumerate, with featurettes on every single aspect of the film’s production, from its casting to its sound mixing. There are deleted scenes, including an entire alternate ending where Kurtz’s compound is napalmed, as well as audio from a 1938 Mercury Theatre radio production of Joseph Conrad’s novella. Astonishingly, there are even more extras this time around, with the final disc containing the documentary and a wealth of new, retrospective features that detail Apocalypse Now ’s latest audio and visual restoration. There’s also additional behind-the-scenes footage, as well as a Q&A between Coppola and Steven Soderbergh. Jake Cole
The Blob, Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory gives fans and collectors a Blu-ray that will stand as the definitive edition of Chuck Russell’s undervalued gem for many years to come. For starters, the disc comes with three feature-length commentary tracks, two of which are newly recorded. In the first of those, Russell, special effects artist Tony Gardner, and cinematographer Mark Irwin get into The Blob ’s botched theatrical release, the influence of Hitchcock’s Psycho on the film’s narrative misdirects, and the challenges of location shooting and working on a tight budget. The second and other new track, with lead actress Shawnee Smith, offers little more than aimless reminiscing and admiration for how well the film holds up. And the third track is a previously recorded one with Russell and producer Ryan Turek, and as such has a bit of crossover with Russell’s newly recorded one. But their rapport is engaging, and Russell’s passion for his work and that of others is unmistakable, especially as he discusses his personal feelings for Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s original The Blob and how he tried to strike new ground with his remake, while remaining respectful of its forebearer. The disc also comes with a staggering 11 interviews, covering virtually every aspect of the film’s production and post-production processes. Derek Smith
Blue Velvet, The Criterion Collection
Per the disc’s liner notes, this new transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm A/B negative and was supervised by David Lynch. The results are spectacular, with radiant colors and a purposefully soft grittiness that intensifies the film’s luridly dreamy feeling. Most important, though, is the profound weight and materiality of surface textures in this image, which is important to Lynch’s fetishistic aesthetic. All of Lynch’s pet obsessions—lamps, drapes, lipstick, food, smokestacks—practically pop off the screen. The most notable supplement on the release is a 54-minute collection of deleted scenes, which have been assembled by Lynch more or less in chronological order, suggesting an entire omitted opening act of Blue Velvet. The cut footage fleshes out Jeffrey’s reasons for returning to his hometown from college, and offers many more scenes of his aunt and mother (played by Frances Bay and Priscilla Pointer, respectively). Also essential is “ Blue Velvet Revisited,” an 89-minute documentary by director Peter Braatz that uses free-associative editing to offer a one-of-kind portrait of the film’s production. Braatz includes stock footage, intimate still photos, such as of Lynch taping the word “Lumberton” onto an ice truck, and uses interviews as a form of narration. Bowen
The BRD Trilogy, The Criterion Collection
The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy pull off a difficult magic trick, feeling timeless and viscerally in the moment. With his supernatural ability to crank out productions at a rapid clip, Fassbinder achieved what Kent Jones describes as a “direct correlation between living and fiction-making”—a quality that’s also evident in Jean-Luc Godard’s early films. These directors worked so fast as to annihilate the distance between inspiration and realization that often governs studio filmmaking. As a result, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola are works of many astonishing contradictions, symmetries, parallels, and political and personal reverberations. They are expressions of macro concerns that are wrested from a singular soul. And the pristine restorations available in this set are visual and aural marvels that underscore the profound aesthetic difference between each film in the trilogy. As for the supplements, they have been ported over from Criterion’s 2003 DVD edition with no updates, though this package is so rich and exhaustive it hardly matters, offering a couple of semesters’ worth of context pertaining to German film history, German social upheavals, and the multifaceted life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Bowen
Charley Varrick, Kino Lorber
Kino’s 4K restoration of Charley Varrick is a revelation. Grain looks well-resolved and suitably cinematic, without any distracting artifacts visible, while black levels are deep and uncrushed. The Master Audio mono mix puts the dialogue and few ambient effects front and center, as well as Lalo Schifrin’s relentlessly propulsive score. On the extras front, we get a commentary track from film historian Toby Roan that delves informatively into all the usual suspects, like shooting locations and cast and crew filmographies. Film historian Howard S. Berger’s visual essay “Refracted Personae: Iconography and Abstraction in Don Siegel’s American Purgatory” may possess an imposing title, but it astutely and articulately analyzes Siegel’s formal techniques and thematic concerns in Charley Varrick, with a particular emphasis on those of a spiritual or religious bent. Rounding things out: a feature-length documentary with contributions from Kristoffer Tabori (Don Siegel’s son), actors Andy Robinson and Jacqueline Scott, stunt driver and actor Craig R. Baxley, composer Lalo Schifrin, and Howard A. Rodman (son of screenwriter Howard Rodman); an episode of “Trailers from Hell” for Charley Varrick with comments from screenwriters John Olson and Howard A. Rodman; and a characteristically incisive essay from film critic Nick Pinkerton. Wilkins
Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Grasshopper Film
In the first of its many paradoxes, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s best-known film, is both insistently severe and intensely pleasurable. The nominal subject here is the life of Johann Sebastian Bach as told by his wife, Anna Magdalena, though, and as befits a card-carrying member of the ‘60s modernist movement that encompassed Godard, Rohmer, Warhol, and late Rossellini, the real one is the relationship between sights and sounds, artifice and reality, the medium and the world. Grasshopper’s Blu-ray is sourced from a detail-rich 2K restoration and the extras include Straub’s introduction of the film at a 2013 screening and author Alicia Malone’s intro to Straub-Huillet’s work for Filmstruck. But the highlights of this disc are two short films from Straub-Huillet’s back catalog. The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp, starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder and several members of his acting coterie, is an experimental work of black-box theater that takes on the political and structural underpinnings of love and incorporates numerous cinematic styles. And The Mother, made by Straub in 2011, tells the story of a murdered hunter whose remorseful reflections suggest the director’s own attempts to cope with Danièle Huillet’s death. Cole
The Complete Sartana, Arrow Video
What unites the wildly unpredictable and unabashedly entertaining Sartana films—despite the disparate contributions of two directors, a bevy of screenwriters, and two very different leading men—are the iconographic elements of the eponymous character himself: There’s the red-and-black magician’s cape, pepperbox pistol, and other baroque gadgets, not to mention the ubiquitous smoke-billowing cigarillo. The storylines, often structured as a mystery, are ingenious Rube Goldberg devices for delivering sudden reversals of fortune, typically emphasizing the perils of deceptive appearances. There’s loads of violence and gunplay throughout, with occasionally astronomical body counts, yet little in the way of graphic blood and guts, which lends the films an aura of old-school charm. Apart from the first transfer, which exhibits some pesky vertical scratching, the 2K restorations look uniformly outstanding, with vivid colors, lifelike flesh tones, properly filmic grain levels, and largely uncrushed blacks. Each film has a dynamic Master Audio mix, which really punch up the idiosyncratic scores from the likes of Piero Piccioni and Bruno Nicolai. There’s a satisfying bumper crop of extras here as well: Three commentary tracks, a visual essay identifying many of the genre stalwarts who turn up in the films, and numerous interviews with cast and crew members. Wilkins
Cruising, Arrow Video
Normally, cruisers would scoff at returning to the same well twice, but since the deluxe edition DVD’s choice extras were so well-done the first time around, it’s not quite a faux pas for Arrow to have licensed the lot of them. On the one hand, a newly recorded commentary track with William Friedkin and Mark Kermode all but renders the old solo commentary track by Friedkin redundant. Friedkin repeats a lot of the same observations and anecdotes in the new track, but Kermode smartly steers the conversation in new directions. Among some of the most eye-opening tidbits, Cruising was at one time earlier in the ‘70s earmarked as a project for Steven Spielberg. Talk about close encounters. Equally delicious is Friedkin referring to Al Pacino as the “least prepared actor” he’s ever worked with. Does Friedkin’s explanation of why he inserted subliminal shots of anal sex among the film’s murder sequences come off as hopelessly clueless? Intensely. But one comes away from these commentary tracks understanding just how the final product ended up so confused and contradictory. Eric Henderson
A memorable scene lingers within our subconscious like a half-remembered dream.
W hether cleverly articulating a thesis or offering a straight shot of pure aesthetic bliss, a memorable scene lingers within our subconscious like a half-remembered dream, reminding us of a film’s greatness—or, in some cases, lack thereof. Be it through a unique blend of empathy and playful self-reflexivity (Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood ), by evoking a palpable sense of wonder and awe (James Gray’s Ad Astra and the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems ), or cutting to our very cores with startling emotional rawness (Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still and Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? ), our favorite scenes of 2019 are snapshots of the best cinema offered us this year, in its innumerable forms. Derek Smith
Ad Astra, Lunar Rover Battle
James Gray’s existential space odyssey Ad Astra imagines a future where the only constant, beyond the might of a globalized capitalized order, is the expression on Brad Pitt’s visage. Throughout, set pieces spring up unexpectedly, testing the resolve of Pitt’s Roy McBride and dazzling us with Gray’s flair for textural detail. When Roy’s three lunar rovers come under attack on the moon, light barely gleaming on the surface of things, it’s as if every visual and aural element of the frame is biochemically working to key us into the torpor of the man’s mind. The sequence is an unbelievable mix of languor and coolness. Ed Gonzalez
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, One Minute of Silence
In one of many self-reflexive nods to the structure and aesthetics of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Tom Hanks’s Fred Rogers asks Matthew Rhys’s cynical reporter, Lloyd Vogel, for one minute of silence where they think about the people that have “loved us into being.” It’s a tactic Rogers used on his show, yet in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, director Marielle Heller gives it a life of its own as the hustle and bustle of the Chinese restaurant calms and the camera swings around until it lands on Hanks quietly, compassionately eyeing the audience straight down the lens. Heller, like Rogers, understands that in a world of constant cacophony, extended silence can be a radical act. Smith
Climax, Kiddy Smile vs. Thomas Bangalter
Throughout Climax, the camera feels as if it’s slowly experiencing the effects of a drug. Early on, Gaspar Noé happily cedes the stage to his characters, shooting them from above as they take turns plying their signature moves before capping the spectacle with a montage of the names of the dancers, as well as the musicians on the soundtrack. The moment constitutes a spectacular calm before an even more spectacular storm, and the ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world. Gonzalez
An Elephant Sitting Still, The Suicide
The film’s elaborate, gracefully interlocking narrative is well paced, sustaining itself durably over the course of a daunting runtime. Though the action remains almost unrelentingly bleak, Hu Bo’s protagonists become richer as their lives become enmeshed. They find themselves in moments of decision for different reasons: a murder, a viral video leak, an eviction, and, most hauntingly, a suicide. Hu’s camera movements are surely inspired by Béla Tarr—a champion of An Elephant Sitting Still who helped to ensure it exists in its current cut after Hu committed suicide shortly after wrapping the film—but Hu’s rhythms are itchier, more curious, and less magisterial. Christopher Gray
End of the Century, “Space Age Love Song”
Director Lucio Castro depicts an entire tryst in the span of a pop song: While a Flock of Seagulls’s “Space Age Love Song” spins on a turntable, Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramon Pujol) flirt, dance, kiss, and have sex before Javi leaves the scene. Shot in one take, the compressed depiction of the encounter is wholly in line with End of the Century ’s playful approach to the passage of time. Greene
The year’s best documenaries found the monstrous in the mundane, the epic in the everyday.
L est we forget, 2019 saw the release of Avengers: Endgame, the bloated culmination of a franchise marked by needlessly convoluted storylines and an almost perverse overreliance on computer-generated spectacle. On the extreme opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, some of the best documentaries of the year were small-scale, intimate, articulate snapshots, often adventurous in form, of actual human perspectives and dilemmas—qualities that at least partly explain why the films are so easy to love.
Look no further than Chinese Portrait, which in any one of its brief observational shots of people living their everyday lives raises more thought-provoking ideas about the passage of time than Avengers: Endgame does in three hours. And Xiaoshuai Wang’s film wasn’t the only documentary this year to offer a hugely empathetic account of people’s relationship to their community. Both Khalik Allah’s Black Mother and Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka rejected portraying their subjects solely as victims of marginalization, presenting whirlwind celebrations of multifaceted people and their culture. And Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? powerfully expressed the profound levels of kindness and strength people display when fighting to make a difference in the civic life of their communities.
It wasn’t just the everyman who was the star of 2019’s best documentaries, but also influential cultural icons in singular late-career works. In the captivating and bittersweet career self-evaluation Varda by Agnès, the late, great Agnès Varda did something few filmmakers do: cap off a robust oeuvre on her own terms. And Rolling Thunder Revue, by rockumentarian extraordinaire Martin Scorsese, is notable not only for its playful mash-up of pop history and myth, but also for showing Bob Dylan, in both archival footage and present-day interviews, like we’ve never seen him before: loose, buoyant, and, believe it or not, actually looking like he’s having fun. As a gaudy new box-office king became anointed, 2019’s documentaries proved that the genre is more vital than ever for not just homing in on the monstrous in the mundane, but also the epic in the everyday. Wes Greene
10. The Silence of Others
Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s The Silence of Others is monumental for its clamorous sounding of an alarm. It reminds us, and we do need reminding, that the acts of horror committed by nation states are often followed by a convenient amnesia—a whitewashing of man’s brutality—where everyone agrees to be good citizens moving forward. But beyond its pedagogical function, the film helps us posit more philosophical questions of justice versus revenge, along with the endless transmission of trauma. From generation to generation, the ravages of Spain’s dictatorship are passed on like a cursed heirloom. The sadism of yesterday’s jackals becomes palpable through the accounts of their deeds, but their victims’ progeny, now close to death themselves, have rather modest wishes. Namely, getting official confirmation that their loved ones were murdered by the state. Or seeing what’s left of the bodies, even if from a distance. Diego Semerene
9. Rolling Thunder Revue
Throughout Rolling Thunder Revue, Martin Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. The film gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the Rolling Thunder Revue into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds. The true shock of the documentary, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. Chuck Bowen
8. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Roberto Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant. Bowen
7. Varda by Agnès
In Varda by Agnès, cinema is a form of thinking out loud that follows the trajectory of a spiderweb, unimpressed by the benefits of control and linearity. Detours, accidents, asides, footnotes, and marginalia are the core of Agnès Varda’s modus operandi. Hers is the zigzagging ethos of the flâneur, or the glaneur, re-signifying the mundane without calculation, surrendering control to life itself, as she wonders around various worlds—some inhabited by Godard, Birkin, and Deneuve, others by the anonymous folk who were Varda’s real muses. In her pedagogical scene we trace a genealogy of her oeuvre, but the filmography that serves as her PowerPoint slides, as it were, are more like rabbit holes than historical markers. They take us on a dreamlike expedition that reminds us of cinema’s political duty. That is, its ability to extract poetry from everyday life, to affect communities and restitute the value of rejected people and things. Most importantly, cinema for Varda was always a matter of mutual contamination, with the filmed object architecting the camera’s gaze too. Could there be a more urgent panacea for a culture steeped in overproduced imagery, synthetic drama and concept-less drivel? Semerene
Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland pulses with vividly observed detail, offering a patient, intimate, and complex portrait of a disappearing way of life. Its subject is Atidze, an old Macedonian woman who lives with her even older mother in a remote village without paved roads, electricity, or running water. When we first see her, in a series of breathtaking landscape shots that open the film, she calmly ambles across a vast field, climbs up a hill, and then carefully edges across a narrow ridge before stopping in front of an unassuming rock face. There, she gingerly pulls away some of the stone to reveal the most vibrant, sumptuous honeycomb you’ve ever seen. Without straining to make a grand environmentalist statement, Honeyland manages to dramatize—simply, directly, and without sentimentalism or condescension—the importance of a holistic approach to agriculture. As the world continues to suffer ever-increasing mass die-offs of honeybee colonies, Stefanov and Kotevska’s film reminds us that there’s indeed a better way to interact with our planet—one rooted in patience, tradition, and a true respect for our surroundings. Keith Watson