Holy Spirit On High: Nope

In the following piece critics Scout Tafoya and Tucker Johnson take a look at Jordan Peele's Nope.

Scout Tafoya: When you live in a colonizing state, and you look like the people who founded it, everything you say carries with it a kind of privilege, even if you criticize the state. Straight white Americans have a responsibility with which almost none of them are prepared to fully grapple; every word you put out into the world is because of generations of trauma visited on everyone who isn’t like you. It’s easy for me to say I like many of the artifacts of colonialism - like, say, rock and roll music, the clothes I wear, or more to the point, westerns - without either feeling the need to or understanding why there is a need to examine how these things would up so easily accessible in my own life. Whether or not every single white consumer of media should be literate in the ways that power structures and one-way violence paved the way for much of what we consume every day (mostly by reflex at this point; most viewing is a passive experience today, thanks to corporate superstructures making so much of it that it’s almost impossible to imagine not seeing a colonialist narrative just sitting around your house bored, going to a bar, or getting a haircut) is a question I don’t think anyone thinks I should be answering (it's no, though. Everyone should be curious, everyone should research the history of how everything wound up in your house, no one should float through life unawares until we all can), but suffice it to say more than enough people disagree with me that when a movie like Jordan Peele’s third feature Nope hits theaters, there is a certain kind of engagement it demands and I don’t think enough people are prepared to or want to meet it head on. When you and I saw this movie, you said you’d overheard two people leaving the theatre and scowling. “Well that was his worst one!” 

I’ve read reviews dedicated to picking apart the plot holes, which to me seems unfair and hostile unless you're doing that to every real movie, and I’ve read responses that complain in good faith about the thematic coherence of the piece. It’s again, perhaps not the place of a white viewer to ask why people are so skeptical of a black western, but then maybe it is the job of every viewer to examine bias in order to really place a movie like Nope in its historical continuity. All around the set Peele gives us clues what he’s up to, from the posters of Sidney Poitier westerns like Buck and the Preacher to the clip of Eadweard Muybridge’s black cowboy, something like the first photographic subject to move across three brilliant, exciting frames, setting up the film’s anti-capitalist through line. Keke Palmer’s Emerald Haywood introduces the idea of the rider as a man presented to the world in a landmark feat of photographic technology, the first time man was brought to life on a screen, to to speak, but he was made anonymous in service of the technology itself. Much as most of the history of the west is not talked about in body counts but rather in products afforded by slavery and genocide. “Molasses to rum”, as the song goes. 

If you don’t know that one, it’s from 1776, a musical written by Harlem-born white composer Sherman Edwards. Theatre scholar Anne Potter suggests that 1776 is a more vicious attack on the founding fathers than something like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton because of a number like “Molasses to Rum” in which slave owning senator John Rutledge conducts an imaginary slave auction. In his original draft, rather than having a New England delegate demand that Rutledge stop the distasteful display, he actually gets up and puts a bid in. Either way it’s damning, because for all their high flown liberal ideas, slavery wasn’t struck down in the constitution. Everyone profited from it. Sherman Edwards had lived through Hiroshima, the turning back of Jews at Ellis Island fleeing the Holocaust, the end of Jim Crow, and, as the show was getting ready to hit broadway, the Nixon administration, he’d seen white America’s evolved attitudes. Maybe a musical with an all white cast of characters in a room deciding the fate of the world wasn’t what the world needed but it was at least an honest accounting of what happens. I don’t remember anything about 1776 except “Molasses to Rum.” 

The message of hypocrisy, of white men in rooms making the world, unfortunately it doesn’t ever become obsolete, because it’s still happening. There’s a straight line from that song to where we sit right now, in the hottest weather the planet’s ever recorded, unable to leave our houses for more than a few minutes at a time while police budgets skyrocket and the unhoused die on our streets. A tonic then, to see a movie that accepts the truth of the world (a room full of fidgety, obtuse white people making the rules starts the film in three ways - by spooking a horse named Lucky, a chimp named Gordy, and by keeping the Haywood family in thrall to poorly paying jobs), and then sets off in search of something new. It isn’t content, the way a work like Hamilton is, or Ari Aster’s Midsommar to pick a more recent generic offering, to show you what you’ve seen before with new faces. I think now of Ishmael Reed’s Toni Morison-funded rebuttal of Hamilton, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which took both the musical’s author and Charles Dickens and went looking for contemporary language to describe a world completely at odds with its own history. Miranda sought to bring history to a new generation by making the faces of slavery more relatable, to Disney them into palatability. Reed sought to bring centuries of anger into a modern vernacular using a monocultural touchstone as its center. Peele has done the same thing with Nope; taking on a failing Hollywood establishment using its own language (the blockbuster, and its subversive antagonist: the quick cash-in) and made something new out of it. 

So maybe the start of the arguments on a movie like Nope is: is it enough to invert old ideas? Because that seems to be all any directors seems interested in doing (Aster takes The Wicker Man and turns it into a Rorschach blot of modern anxieties, weighted down with an “important” length of three hours to ensure it doesn’t just feel like leftovers) and frequently this isn’t done with the same gusto and talent as someone like Peele. Nope’s genre heritage can be traced back to Jaws, even if its roots go back to Muybridge, Bass Reeves, Herb Jeffries, Spencer Williams, and Sidney Poitier. After all when the camera was invented and reinvented, the American west still looked like it would later in John Ford movies. Black cowboys were in abundance in the old west, even if movies about black cowboys weren’t and still aren’t. Bass Reeves, the black sheriff famous for reading scripture to runaway fugitives and converting most of them in the process, was lately a character in Jeymes Samuel’s similarly revisionist The Harder They Fall, a film literally about the color missing from most Westerns (it’s one of the most visually splendid films from the last few years - a rebuttal to Tarantino's slavery-fixated Django Unchained). Like Nope, and like another new western The Good Lord Bird (based on a book by James McBride and directed by Albert Hughes, Darnell Martin, and Kevin Hooks among others) The Harder They Fall aims, if not to replace traditional western imagery, then to complicate it, to turn it inside out, to hotwire it in the name of making heroes out of black cowboys. To make new images out of the dust of old ones (literally in one of Nope’s stunning final tableaux). Before we get into the particular imagistic victories of Nope, that’s the question I want to ask you: is it enough for a film to just give us new images? While we were making The End of History you politely tolerated me screaming about the need for new images for weeks and weeks and while I think we’re basically on the same page about it, but, I do want to know: what is important for a new work of art to be and to say? New ideas? New cliches? New versions of old cliches? New sights? New sounds? Why did you walk out of Nope as high on it as I did?

Tucker Johnson: I’m really sorry for how I’m going to start. There’s an Aziz Ansari joke (I KNOW) titled "Are White People Psyched All the Time?" In which he tells a story of being interviewed and is asked the question “are you psyched about all this Slumdog Millionaire stuff? Aziz essentially says “yes I may be Indian but believe it or not I had nothing to do with the movie. Wait are white people psyched all the time?! Back to the Future? That’s us! Godfather? That’s us!" The list goes on. Jordan Peele isn’t the first black filmmaker (though the way people talk about him, on some days you could be forgiven for thinking that's how people see him) but I think he appeared in a lightning-in-a-bottle moment in time where movies almost entirely populated by actors of color were (to the surprise of no one who’d been paying attention) getting everyone off the couch and into the theater. These weren't just niche genre films (Set It Off, Barbershop, Blood In Blood Out) or polite dramas (Saving Face, The Joy Luck Club, The Wood, Waiting to Exhale), these were blockbusters with the fullness of studio PR machines behind them (Get Out, Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, Coco). Yes each one of Peele’s films is racially motivated in an allegorical sense and critics and audiences alike love to pat themselves on the back while they publicly recognize that they understand what the films are about. I don’t even want to think about how many dinner parties and barrooms were filled exclusively with white people talking about race in America after Get Out took over the public consciousness for a little while. I also don’t want to condemn that idea though. Getting people talking and thinking about ideas they may not have before is one of art’s most powerful effects.

All of this to get around to answering your initial question. No, it isn’t enough to have good images. Movies are stories first and foremost and I think without a good story a movie is doomed to fail. Just as an exercise let’s remove race from Nope’s premise and it becomes "A family that owns a struggling horse stunt and wrangling business that’s been working for Hollywood for decades suddenly sees an opportunity to quell some of their financial troubles when the idea of capturing an alien on camera becomes a possibility." If instead of a trailer for Nope they just read that sentence to you would you want to see it? I can’t answer for you but I would certainly be interested. I like movies with aliens. I like movies about Hollywood and moviemaking. I love pretty much any movie that features horses prominently. In a lot of ways Nope is tailor made for me based on those story beats alone. And I think ultimately that’s where Jordan Peele is on some level a genius. Even though each of his films has a lot to say about being black in America he doesn’t start there. Honestly, because he doesn’t have to. He is black and he is in America. Those details are going to be in his work even if he purposefully worked against their inclusion. He starts with a question I really don’t think too many filmmakers ask themselves or maybe they aren’t allowed to ask themselves anymore: Is this a good story? Does the story stay interesting from scene to scene? Are the characters interesting and believable people? Will general audiences care what happens to them? I firmly believe this is the beginning of Peele’s process. I think that’s why Nope is being viewed by so many critics through Spielberg-tinted glasses. Whether or not a Spielberg film is about more than what’s on the page is irrelevant. Spielberg’s good movies are good because you can answer yes to all the questions I asked above about them. So are Peele's. 

In a class at Emerson that I don’t remember we did an exercise where the professor asked the class the following: in a movie what’s more important, the visuals or the audio? Weird question for sure but the answer morphs the longer you think about it. The knee jerk response would of course be visuals right? Film is, after all, a visual medium. But let me complicate the question – what would you rather watch: a movie with pristine visuals but audio so garbled you can’t make out a single word any character says (and there are no subtitles) or a movie with visuals that are fuzzy but every word spoken is clear? Even then you may still say visuals but I think saying so is assuming the film is directed with enough care that what’s on the screen and the actor’s blocking is enough to convey the film’s meaning and premise. Let’s go a step further. Think about found footage horror. Movies with visuals that are purposefully meant to look muddy or pixelated. At least in the Hollywood produced entries in this genre, you don’t struggle to hear what characters are saying unless a scene or sequence requires it. I’m probably beating a dead horse (maybe one of the ones Jean Jacket, our extra-terrestrial, absorbs in Nope) but I want my answer to your question to be firm. Visuals aren’t enough. Neither is audio. Film is a medium of so many essential parts functioning together in harmony. It’s why most movies aren’t satisfying. Even if one or a few of those parts stop working the whole project falls apart. It’s why even with Sam Raimi’s eye behind the camera (or as much as he was allowed to be) the new Doctor Strange was a mess of gobbledygook. Too much of the action on screen was contingent on knowing hours upon hours of lore presented in other Marvel films and tv shows. I’m not even passing judgement on the movie. That’s just bad storytelling. 

Every story should be able to stand on its own legs without any cliff notes or a works cited page. I think for that to happen movies just need to good dammit. Yes of course there are enormously popular and successful movies and tv series that aren’t actually very good. But I think the works that really do stand the test of time are able to do so because the stories work like fables. They’re exciting, or terrifying or hysterical to anyone who hears them regardless of social class, race or religion. When you boil all that BS away what you have left are human beings and we all want to be entertained. Human’s don’t pass down our history verbally anymore. We do so visually with film and tv and the ones you’re going to have on a shelf in your house, the ones you’re going to watch with friends and loved ones over and over again are the ones that resonate with you on a human level. Jordan Peele’s true skill is his ability to tell you a story about being human. He forces you to engage and empathize with a family that’s having trouble putting food on the table. That’s struggling to keep their loving father’s life’s work afloat. He establishes these ideas early on and we’re hooked. So when the story begins to show us how much their situation has to do with being black in America we (white people, people who may not know what it’s like to run a failing business, people who ride and love horses, people who don’t deal with condescending rich people every day, people who haven’t lost a parent, people who may or may not be interested in the future of filmmaking) are easily able to follow the bouncing ball. We see ourselves in people that might not necessarily look like us and suddenly we understand each other.

ST: I think you’re right that the tension between the dinner party liberals and your typical “release new, no matter who” moviegoer may be why Peele has succeeded as much as he has. Peele’s fans get it (black audiences who likely see in Kaluuya’s frustration with the establishment as it appears in both Get Out and Nope the same reactions they’ve had to ten thousand micro aggressions from whites of every stripe), Peele’s “fans” want to get it (people who, and I mean we have to be willing to admit we fall into this category a little to move forward, want to be able to tell people they loved and understood his work - though frankly as he moves away from the more cleanly allegorical into the more abstruse mythologizing he’s been up to the last two films, the herd might thin), and people who want to be able to say they don’t think this week’s new release and talking point is all it's cracked up to be. And then there are just people who want to think about and talk about movies. Peele’s popularity has only ever made sense, even if it was a little funny to see a cast member from Children’s Hospital become an Oscar winning sensation. He’s giving everybody what they want or what they think they want, and he’s just cagey enough about it that all of us will fill in the blanks about his intentions. Smart and savvy. 

I see (if I obviously have trouble with) what you mean about stories, which I think is why I’m so frequently out of step with modern audiences and a lot of other critics. I usually don’t care what’s happening or why. I don’t listen to music for the lyrics and I don’t watch movies for the screenplay. Having said that, it is worth noting that good filmmakers, confident filmmakers, can make me care. I’m not completely stone faced in front of comedies staring at the visuals or anything. I like laughing! I like being scared! I like jumping up and down in my seat. I mean you and I are like little kids when we see movies that move us (Matrix Resurrections, West Side Story, Ambulance, and now Nope, to name some recent examples). I want to be moved. I love being transformed by a movie, why else would I pay 45 dollars for the privilege. When you spend theatre prices and get betrayed by a movie primarily aiming to outsmart you (like Alex Garland’s unfortunate Men) you’re likely to be mad. I left my house for this? Found and paid for parking, bought a 20 dollar concession in the lobby, put up with a whole theatre not wearing masks? For this confounded horseshit? 

So yes I like to like movies, but I’m also, as I’m sure any casual observer will have noticed, cursed with standards. Not high standards, by any means, just peculiar ones. I want a movie to have imperative images, and I want to react to it. On its face that doesn’t sound hard, but so few movies (released in theaters, I should say) seem interested in provoking those reactions. If I like Nope it's because its rewarding to obsess over but also and importantly it’s because I was scared, I laughed, I was entertained, I punched the air, I jumped up and down in my seat. But it wasn’t until I saw Peele deliberately talking to me, the fed-up genre fan, in the climax that I knew I was watching a new favorite. Our villain is elevated horror. There may be metaphors aplenty, there may be economic hardship and traumas to overcome, but this is a movie about spectacle, about what happens next, about what’s on screen. When I saw that Peele was specifically attacking “elevated horror” of the sort made by Aster, Garland, and a lot of the A24 bench, by having his monster not be an idea but rather simply a big, empty THING in the sky, a literal elevated horror, that’s when I knew I had my answer. A good film, a great film maybe, and made by someone who is aware of an audience’s needs. If indeed what you say is true that a film needs to be a compellingly told story when stripped to bare essentials, Peele has done that as far as I'm concerned. 

But of course there’s always more to it than that. The pleasures abound. The Jesus Lizard t-shirt, the diegetic Corey Hart remix, the images of Kaluuya, clad in brilliant orange emerging from nowhere to stand in deliberate tableaux evoking and striding past the images we see of the American west (represented by a beautiful shot of Keith David looking like Herb Jeffries in Harlem Rides the Range - also deliberate; it isn’t symmetrical, though it should be, thus we’re alerted to the fact that something is off in this calculous of the cowboy - sitting on a horse with a Stetson in the opening), the frequent anime cribs, and so much more. There are close-ups of Kaluuya here that tell me that Peele has been watching a lot of Khalik Allah, whose own ethnographic work occasionally borders on horror. I also loved that, while yes, it’s clear that he’s making something of a Jaws homage (complete with Quint figure in Michael Wincott, one of the best and most distinct actors on the planet, playing an ornery cinematographer named Antlers; a reference no doubt to Peele’s own Get Out), I like that he seems to be playing as much with the notion of Jaws as a kind of mirror held up to the less auspicious corners of pop culture. Antlers, after all, also evokes The White Buffalo, J. Lee Thompson’s lightly psychedelic Jaws cash-in starring Charles Bronson and Will Sampson. And what is Steven Yuen's wild west rodeo if not a cheap cash-in next to the hand-cranked Imax spectacular the Haywoods cook up on the other side of the canyon? The stark California landscape evokes the stomping ground of The Car, in which a Sataned-up hot rod with no driver stalks its prey on lonely back roads. And what is Jean Jacket but a car with no driver? Every conceivable audience got their own Jaws back in the late 70s…except for, you could argue, audiences looking for a movie with black heroes not speaking the words of white screenwriters. Peele likely noticed that no such film existed. Now it does. 

The idea of a Quint character is a poignant one even now because any man willing to die in pursuit of a trophy has left one long, empty life behind them. And even people who’ve lived full lives can still relate to a Quint character; everyone has once been obsessed by something that got away. Nope is about people who realize they’re on a fast track to oblivion with no help coming, and as Kaluuya says, “I can’t fire me.” People are becoming obsolete, just like animals and old machines. Lucky proves his worth as much as Kaluuya’s wrangler and Wincott’s old hand-cranked camera when the chips are down. Everyone here proves their worth as they would on a John Ford cavalry picture, another connection this has to the old west beyond the equestrian obvious. Nope is a fun film to imagine having been made in other eras because its ideas. Sequences, and characters are so rich, even if the film speaks a 21st century vernacular. Ward Bond or maybe George Macready as Antlers, or later young Mario Van Peebles or Bokeem Woodbine or even Jeffries himself as OJ. It slots itself into American picture history so neatly while providing credible competition to the most exciting of the films of yesterday without ever being purely satisfied with gesturing towards them. Sure the finale is right out of Moby Dick or Jaws, but the build up is one thrilling and mysterious set piece after another. And, thankfully, plenty for the eye. How about you? What really stood out to you about Nope

TJ: I certainly don’t want to walk back everything I said before about the importance of story but your focus on images is honestly where I start as well. If a film’s palette doesn’t agree with me, and I don’t have a set criteria for what that agreement looks like, I find it really hard to engage with. That visual experience begins the moment the movie starts and a lot of the time I have gut reaction before I meet a single character or learn anything about where the story might take me.

I think it’s because a film that takes time and care to make sure its visual language is thoughtful makes me trust the filmmaker (and entire crew). Once I know they are willing to put the technical work in I’m more willing to go for whatever ride they want to take me on narratively.

What specifically stood out to me is how Peele builds a mystique out of familiar imagery by tweaking things just a tad to fit them into his own sensibility. I think Nope’s teaser trailer is a perfect illustration of what I mean. You have Keke Palmer delivering her monologue about Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion, Kaluuya asking “what’s a bad miracle” and “they got a word for that?” and other than Palmer shouting “Run!” that’s all there is for dialogue. All the hype and tension is built on beautiful, sometimes off-kilter images. Gorgeous night and day shots of Kaluuya riding on or near horses. The fields full of inflatable tube people. The horse in the glass case at Yeun’s western show. The TMZ reporter on a motorcycle with the mirror helmet. Change any single detail about these images and they may not have the same mysterious quality to them. The first teaser for The Force Awakens had a similar feel. The trailer left you with almost no knowledge of what the film was going to be about. The difference here, and the genius of Peele and whoever else had a hand in cutting the Nope teaser, is that nearly all of them actually play heavily into the film. We’re getting these gorgeous, strange images with no context and we’re still excited at the prospect of what’s to come because what we’re seeing is so arresting.

Watching the teaser back having now actually seen the film is a whole new experience. Seeing the TMZ reporter’s helmet immediately makes me think of the early scene where they turn a light around right in front of Lucky and it scares the horse. I love that Peele uses the mirror as this symbol of antagonism both by the crew in the opening and by the TMZ reporter.

Yeun pulling the curtain off the glass horse paddock is another incredible image. It’s so strange without context but seeing in now and knowing the case was designed so that the audience could best see the horse doesn’t cheapen the visual at all. Peele could have used any kind of enclosure for the horse but the one he went with is the most attention grabbing. But that case also factors in heavily to the plot. It protects Lucky during that great scene where Kaluuya almost gets swallowed by Jean Jacket.

There’s a brief shot of the woman that Gordy maimed looking up into the sky, the veil that covers her wounded face moving just enough so that we can see it and be alarmed. Without context we wonder what is happening to this woman. Is the alien doing something to her? Knowing what actually happened to her only adds weight to her inclusion in the trailer. Yeun's broken showbiz lifer keeps that woman close and in so doing hinders his own ability to deal with the trauma from his youth. There’s even a shot of the bloody fist bump in the trailer which without context might be an alien’s hand rather than a chimpanzee’s.

Even the most marketed image of the movie, the string of colored flags dangling from the dark maw in the sky makes me weak in the knees. The flags help add scale to the image by connecting something familiar to something otherworldly. We see how big whatever that thing in the sky is and we’re terrified. And we haven’t even seen the movie yet.

I just love that Peele kind of gives us all the answers if we just know where to look. But of course without seeing the movie we have no idea where to begin searching for understanding of what we’re seeing and I think that’s brilliant. It makes me want to rush to the theater and figure out what all of these beautiful images mean. It makes me want to see it again right now.

ST: The teaser is excellent and kind of puts paid to the idea of the early cinema talk in the movie itself. Pretend you only have any given three seconds of an audience’s time, are you using it well? Are you guiding them to the next image? Are you taking your audience seriously? I mean, true nerd that I am, I couldn’t help but be moved by the recreation of a Muybridge three-second Zoopraxograph at the climax, but Peele knows that seconds count. Hence Holst looking at images right out of Jean Painlevé on his Steenbeck, unmoved by a young filmmaker until he sees a way into their story. History will always repeat but it won’t always be interesting. Holst wants to make sure he’s going to see something more than literally what’s right in front of him; the history of images, of one big animal eating another. 

It’s funny you mention the trauma bonding, because I like that the film treats Yuen’s journey as a cautionary tale rather than as the central metaphor. I think a lesser film would have made Yuen’s character the hero, thereby making the conquering of trauma the most important journey in the movie. Yuen does marvelous things (his monologue about SNL is an immediate hall-of-famer piece of writing and acting) with a part written for Jesse Plemons, who had to duck out to make another western, and by putting someone so charismatic in the part and by giving his origin story so much centrality up front Peele is throwing us off the scent of the endgame while laying the groundwork for the film’s most important idea: nature will not act just because you call “action.” Life will not follow a script. Yuen’s character thought he had the magic touch, that because he was the lone survivor of a deadly mishap, he can be the one to tame some other unknowable force. Funny to think we got a sixth interminable Jurassic Park movie this year that has to have Jeff Goldblum say all that out loud every ten minutes because the producers trust their audience like they would a dog to park their car. Peele trusts us, though maybe he shouldn’t, we’re getting dumber and more flamboyantly persnickety all the time. 

People are already complaining that Kaluuya’s mumbling affect in this is un-charismatic, especially when compared to his work in Get Out (which is…I mean, how do you type that/say that out loud and not feel like one of the white characters in Get Out?), but he’s doing a specific character type (leave your house sometime, you’ll meet him) and he’s doing it with perfectly calibrated humor and coiled body language. Even more so than his psychopathic henchmen in the superior Widows, OJ Haywood is one of the great portraits of a kind of wry, modern sarcasm. There’s obviously meant to be a little deconstructed John Wayne (we are in a Western, after all), but there has to be a little of Roy Scheider’s hungover Chief Brody from Jaws in the offing as well. He’s magnetic throughout, but I think you and I both loved the bit where he’s trapped in a truck, aware that he’s being watched from above. It’s a kind of mirror of the scene in The Car where Jennifer Salt is yelling at the demon mobile because she knows it won’t attack her and the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Richard Dreyfuss is trapped in his truck during the first alien visitation (or later when Mel Gibson has an alien in a closet in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, with which Nope shares a few key ideas and chromosomes). Except, just as Salt and Dreyfuss represent modernity as it was being explored in the 1970s, Kaluuya’s wryness reaches back and touches early western pragmatism (“That’ll be the day,”) and links it to contemporary vernacular (“Nope…nah nah nah.”). Everybody looks up and sees god and says "Nope," but can't help but want to meet him anyway. 

Though I also like that though the movie only says so silently (in repeated visual flashbacks), OJ’s quest to break Jean Jacket is not just one thing. It’s a way to make sense of his father’s passing, sure, but more than that it’s proving his worth to himself and to the memory of his father. He’s going to prove that though the universe is taking everything from him, his farm, his job, his family, his home, he won’t let it go without the kind of fight he knows how to put up. But I’ll say this, too, none of this would matter if the film weren’t exciting to watch minute to minute and I was rapt the entire time. Take the climax of Midsommar as a counterpoint. I just don’t see how it’s satisfying or exciting to watch, in silence, as Florence Pugh’s character is given the choice to let her boyfriend live or die, then we watch slowly and painstakingly as they put him in a barn, fill the barn with hay, burn the barn down, and then watch her react to it. That film presumes you’re still paying attention and care after 180 long minutes. Nope, without being cute or cloying about it, continues to earn your attention. And like you, I can’t wait to go back and give it more of mine. 

My Favourite Films of 2021

1. West Side Story
by Steven Spielberg
As good as movies get. The kind of pure-hearted spectacle that cameras get built to capture. Every second of it carries sixty years of planning, of care, of hope. If you weren't whistling the Sondheim and Bernstein tunes, you'd be humming the steadicam and snapping along with the edit. Steven Spielberg fulfilling a destiny I don't think any of us knew was his to chase. 

2. The Matrix: Resurrections 
by Lana Wachowski
Staring into the eyes of God looking for answers, taking a step back, realizing you're looking in a mirror

3. Benediction
by Terence Davies
Davies has endured and evolved as a visual storyteller to fit the times without losing anything except perhaps the need for his most pained memories. Now the world can be filtered through what we know about Davies, the things that bring him joy, the torments he's had to suffer. Here at last is something of a veiled self-portrait after a decade of seeing the world through women on the edge of madness, and he's found a lightness of touch and a biting wit that was hitherto relegated to the parenthetical. The story of Siegfried Sassoon is rendered as a liquid, poetic installation, something like Peter Greenaway struck with a ruler by a nun, maybe the sharpest of Davies' works since his Liverpool diary Of Time and the City, perhaps because in Sassoon and his lovers Davies has found vessels that can speak in a voice he recognizes. The cutting remarks and Algonquin sarcasm buoy the anguished cry of lost time and cracked hearts. 

4. The Card Counter
by Paul Schrader

Letters never sent to grieving mothers, to Judas and to Roman torturers, to god himself. 

5. Petite Maman
by Celine Sciamma
Trying to describe the effect of a movie like this necessarily diminishes it, like plucking a flower to describe its beauty, but suffice to say, the tiniest gestures carry the weight of dying stars. This petite movie has tremendous heft.

6. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
by Radu Jude 
In which antique forms crash into microwaved political hangups. The film truest to life this year, for better and worse. 

7. Labyrinth of Cinema
by Nobuhiko Obayashi 
A trip inside the home of one of cinema's most passionate and open chemists. Here his movie posters, there his yellowing history books with bent pages and footnotes, here the signed LPs from his favourite singers, and there his hard-drives and software with ten thousand edit points. Obayashi was always generous, of spirit, with technique, to his characters, to his audience, and this is truly the kind of gift you could never hope to repay, his whole philosophy of life, his rendering of the history that led to this movie house, a purgatory or a paradise. Cinema is time machine and resort in his hands, it always has been. For every nightmare image or violent outburst there is such love and warmth generated by the hands of this much missed man.  

8. Faya Dayi
by Jessica Beshir
Beshir makes the strongest feature debut this year (though she has been busy the last decade), with her study of labor, narcosis, injustice, and hopelessness, mingling like smoke in dingy dens and forgotten streets. Her silky form and heart-stopping monochrome images captures the khat trade in melting tin types, a document that will never lose its potency because the world will never lose the need to search for oblivion. The drugs numb the pain, harvesting the drugs brings the pain, the world sends nothing but judgment.

9. The Souvenir: Part 2
by Joanna Hogg
Hogg digs deeper than ever, finding the places in her youth where she realized that she couldn't compromise if she was to survive but she needed certainty to know not to. Her unsteady heroine is assailed by opinions and sideways glances that would drown her, because her memory of failure already has one hand on her, pulling her down. Hogg is ready now to see all that she was, what she was hiding, who she had to pretend to be, and even to find crooked beauty in the hurried flings and nights of loneliness. The dutch colors, the Alan Clarke starkness, the post-punk soundtrack, it's a New Order album as pictures reflcted in broken glass. 

10. Unclenching the Fists
by Kira Kovalenko
Heartrending admissions of enfeeblement from a family who share scars more keenly than blood

11. Ste. Anne
by Rhayne Vermette
What it looks like when a woman is finally for the love of fucking christ, allowed to speak in a filmic language unfamiliar to colonizers, unfamiliar to sexist authority. Ste. Anne is a movie I have been waiting for most of my life, a non-narrative display of loss, a powerfully non-linear examination of a life lived outside American morality. A somber study of independence's collateral damage. A fierce-some study of possibility in a magnificently off pallet. I'm always excited to see something called Avant-Garde and find nothing but clarity. 

12. Hit the Road
by Panah Panahi
A gift from a son to his father.

13. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)
by C.W. Winter & Anders Edström
Almost a full day of labor, loss, and time. The pure heaviness of time's passing, the exhausting realization that it won't stop. For a season, a small gathering of the world's lost sit at one corner of its massive uncaring expanse and exists. They go to work, they do their part, they mourn, they eat, they gather and drink and take stock of each other. Cinema, at heart, was always so geared and guided, it just lost its way. Be lost and be found at once here. An experiment, sure, but human, recognizable, us. 

14. The French Dispatch
by Wes Anderson
"It's all Simone." On obsession's happy children, the product of caring benefactors. No art without money, but no money without moneymen who see. See that the world is better with the absurd and irregular, that the work of the artist is the point of life. Not money, not any of the rest of it. What is the world without the word, the smear of oil paint, the sculpted figure, the nature of beauty brought right to our senses like a doctor's ministrations. The moneyed have brought us to a dismal moment but there has to be hope as long as we have art so neurotically produced, so meticulous, and yet so oddly shaped; something only this mind could have dreamt. "He brought the world to Kansas." And vice versa, so to speak. 

15. Licorice Pizza
by Paul Thomas Anderson
Just as we lost Peter Bogdanovich, here a film with his rich direction and gleefully problematic human beings front and center. Nostalgic for a valley that wasn't, and for a time before thirty years of American character development. 


16. No Sudden Move
by Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh's crime films are the window to his soul, more so even than the confessional sci-fi with all that fear and doubt. Here is where he wishes he'd been born, allowed to practice his trade. As a studio hand circa-1970 creating the world in grimy bars and cold, trash-strewn alleys. The world turns its nose up at his heroes and his camera stretches wide to hug all of them, 'scope nausea stranding them with their dreams out of reach and happiness around some corner they'll never touch. The greatest cast he's assembled squabbling like siblings as the future squeezes everyone to dust. 

17. Old
by M. Night Shyamalan
Shyamalan's cubist period probably started with his work on Servant but he's really painted his sharpest canvas yet with this. Every angle is like a knife through butter, every cut bisecting the insignificant life of his doomed heroes like separating chopped, bleeding roast at a carving station. His vision has never felt more frighteningly anti-social, so malevolent, and so diamond perfect. 


18. This is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection 
by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
A truly new kind of cinema, the director's eye seeing his people, his beloved culture, ignored by cameras until he found them, as if cinema had just been invented. That's how unique his vision of humanity is, his view of folklore and still moving, breathing life like a vision from a better dimension. 

19. Annette
by Leos Carax
Sparks sing the body mahogany, Leos Carax belts out a sequel to Pola X.


20. C’mon C’mon
by Mike Mills 

Mills keeps writing his manual on how to be a human being and each time he finds some new grace-note, some new shattering instruction learned from being there for others as best as he can be. The monochrome brings out his anthropologist's curiosity and his graphic designer's specificity. The world as a catalog of possible emotional reactions to the unstoppable. People as forces of nature. Nature as the keeper of people. Can we endeavor to be worthy of being held so by the world we inhabit? 

21. Benedetta
by Paul Verhoven
Our sainted pervert master returns for (at least [fingers crossed]) one more bacchanal clad in thorny crown and little else. Draped in rubbery late cinema digital easiness but still stopping to take time and smell the shit, Benedetta's parade of sin is easily the most self-assured good time at the movies this year. Asking a question as old as god himself: if we're made in his image, why can't we fuck him, and why can't we fuck each other however we please? The answer is a bloody slideshow of depraved offenses and smiling trespassers. 


22. Parallel Mothers
by Pedro Almodóvar
Almodóvar finally remakes Magnificent Obsession for a time obsessed with easy answers that bypass science and head straight for mysticism. His question is whether love can transcend betrayal, logically and rationally proven. Should we leave human fate up to numbers? Isn't it more fun to see if they can intermingle like lost, horny people must do? His images, as always, curative. So perfectly shaped, so imaginatively colored and designed. And into them strides a ferocious Penélope Cruz, always at her best for Almodóvar. 


23. 24. Mad God / The Spine of Night
by Phil Tippett / Philip Gelatt & Morgan Galen King
Two of the most inspired movies of the year were deliberate midnight movie throwbacks, one a nightmare in clay courtesy of the Frank Zappa of science fiction special effects Phil Tippet. The other was an unyieldingly gorgeous hand drawn marvel, a Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi cover song that blew my mind out of my skull with every cut. Across a grim hyperborean hellscape directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King paint a fresco of bloody psychedelic discovery, a song in severed heads and "bodies ripped apart like fresh bread" to use an MST3Kism. Displaying more creativity in any given six seconds than most movies muster in 120 minutes, these two films gave me hope that you can fill your new work with love for the old without sacrificing a personality. I was enraptured by their visions of forsaken places and doomed creatures and heartened by the same show of creativity from new voices and decades old veterans at once. 


25. Il Buco
by Michelangelo Frammartino 
The further down scientists go into the earth, the further stuck in the past the people above seem to get. Frammartino's journals of lives ending as nature plods on with bluntness and occasional moments of beauty (usually hidden from cameras) take especial interest in quiet, amiable vulgarity, of the ways in which it can feel as though the natural order of the world is playing a prank on we lonely preoccupied human beings. This will be tough to top for him, because he's perfectly bifurcated his interests. To lose yourself in a hole of discovery, or to die alone above?


26. France
by Bruno Dumont
The worlds of each of Dumont's movies is pressed into the shape and size of a viewmaster slide and his most thorny character just switches between them as her life becomes less and less something in which she wants to participate. The poor, spat up by her people, the foreign, destroyed by her people, the wanton, ignored by her people, they all get their moment alone with France's hollow woman. She's the Statue of Liberty sent to check on everyone whom she didn't protect. 


27. Procession 
by Robert Greene
Film entering the real world through fantasy, only Robert would have done this but fans of Joshua Oppenheimer should get their bibs on too, this is for them. Painful doesn't begin to describe the experience of sitting through these living museums of trauma and therapy, but it is, after every insult, joyous to see men of every background finding common language to describe what they've lived through. They build sets together. That bonds them. They create this world together. 


28. Wrath of Man
by Guy Ritchie
The bell tolls for every stripe of coward, soldier, crook, and conniver. Every mother's son gets his turn in front of the barrel of a gun. 


29. The Power of the Dog 
by Jane Campion
A fifth-hand masculine west is dried like leather and bound in a braid. What is still left to be uncovered? Forgotten passions and unforgiven sins. Women too shy to touch ivory, men too proud to ask forgiveness. Jane Campion's west is a place of sorrow, of land trying to bury you now that you've tamed it. The nightmare begins once you've conquered every beast. What now, Bronco Henry? What now? The world won't have you back once you defect. 


30. A Crime on The Bayou
by Nancy Buirski
Buirski is one of the greatest non-fiction artists in this awful country, one of the few who treats her work with the care of our best fiction artists. So yes she tells the story, but she also makes it into cinema. Here we are told a tale as old as the nation itself, of a gesture misrepresented to make a man feel like an insect. She tells of the aftermath of a hate crime, a wrongful arrest, and an unlikely friendship without giving into the temptations of cliche, even though again, both form and setting would demand it. 

31. Sabaya 
by Hogir Hirori
The unspeakable business of reclaiming the stolen people, the hostages taken in the name of reclamation on behalf of dead gods. There is no thank you waiting for the men who risk everything to save people they've never met. There's no certain future for the women coming back from hell. And there is no plan to help this ecosystem of lost men and women. Impossibly sad and terribly gripping. 


32. Zeros and Ones
by Abel Ferrara
"And now we've made the film. And I just watched it. And you just watched it." Ferrara and Hawke, two mercenaries out here trying to keep the furnaces lit, attacking the idea of the self in the 21st century with their joint ferociousness. Ferrara destroying images by capturing them, Hawke killing men by playing them. There's no way back from this. Dark hallways and screaming Marxists, who will believe us when we tell them every chance we had to pull the reins. The fatalist work of the year. "Not only am I gonna die, everyone I know is gonna die...This is part of the movie, by the way, and now it's over." So is 2021.


33. The Village Detective: A Song Cycle
by Bill Morrison 
Bill Morrison, the nitrate savior, the DJ of prehistory, finds a character worthy of his jocular remixes. This dip into the cool waters of Soviet folly reveals the shape of Mihail Žarov, a man who smiles as broadly as you can imagine Bill smiling when given cans of old film. History is never done with us.


34. 35. Babi Yar. Context / State Funeral
by Sergei Losnitza
Losnitza's deeply untidy histories hit twice, at the start and end of a war. History didn't make heroes. It just filled graves. 


36. The World To Come
by Mona Fastvold
To read someone poetry is to give them the world, and to love them like they love you is to put poetry inside their heart.


37. Oxygen
by Alexandre Aja
A woman's journey to remember herself, her every mistake, is the only thing that may save the race to the future, the human race entirely. And that's true, in so much as a human race without flaws, without affairs and lies and treachery is no human race at all. Aja's sequel to Crawl has a woman also trapped by claustrophobic circumstances and her refusal to meet the past half-way, a marvel of directorial ingenuity and mid-budget charm. 


38. The Novice
by Lauren Haddaway 
Isabelle Furhman is the neo-lib angel of death, the woman born to privilege who wants the world to roll over when she calls it. She's trapped by the limits of her body and doesn't see that she can't make even herself do as she wishes, what hope does she have commanding other bodies and minds. Lauren makes an insanely assured first-timer. Together they make bitter magic. A movie like an itch you scratch til it bleeds. 


39. The Last Thing Mary Saw
by Edoardo Vitaletti 
The other great movie about a dogged Isabelle Fuhrman trying to make fortune in a setting that rejects her. 


40. Blind Body
by Allison Chhorn
Can a camera see what people cannot? it is always riveting to see an artist try to unearth new ways of seeing and not. 


41. El Planeta
by Amalia Ulman
Our Anna Karina (thank god we have one and she found her way to us) navigates the gig economy and COVID-19. Ulman is a beautiful creation (the performer and director make us a meak facsimile of the real thing) seeing every opportunity for the briar patch it is. Can anyone survive now without hideous compromise? Her mother wants to and will until the police stop her. A beautiful bolt from the fringes. 


42. Exterminate All The Brutes
by Raoul Peck
Peck looks back at a life cheated by racism to find the foundation of the myths that keep people from thriving


43. Cry Macho
by Clint Eastwood

At 91 Clint Eastwood gives us one last dusty daydream of chivalry and bruised honor. Regally photographed and expertly underplayed, Eastwood sends himself into eternity with a loving last glance. 


44. In The Earth
by Ben Wheatley
A welcome return to the wild for Britain's beat poet of violent revision.

45. Come Here
by Anocha Suwichakornpong

A daydream of Rivette and Lav Diaz, perfect surfaces protecting lost souls.


46. The Last Duel
by Ridley Scott 
Ridley Scott is always going to shock you when it looks like he's down. His lesser film this year took millions and shaped the zeitgeist, his better film is slowly winning hearts and minds. The Last Duel is obviously the better film, the look back at his years of medieval epics and recognizing that a hero to some is a villain to others waiting for the other shoe to drop. This bloody, uncompromisingly nasty look into yesterday is the kind of thing I expect from a director who's filmed every sight twice and needs to complicate what he's done before. 


47. The North Water
by Andrew Haigh
"Can you eat a bear?" Haigh creates another sumptuous bummer, this one the farthest back in time he's yet looked. Men traipse to eternity looking for dignity and find only blood-stained ice, a dirty mirror. Jack O'Connell does his best work since Starred Up, and fights barbarism with his every bone until he sees that there is no fighting it. You simply use of it what is necessary to not end up in the stomach of a monster, human or not. Somedays the bear will eat you, and some days you'll eat the bear. 


48. 49. The Deep House / Kandisha
by Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo
The reigning champs of 90 minute horror movies got in two delightfully frightening works this year. The first was a study of teen girls adrift in a broken city. The other was the most ingeniously simple little inversion of horror tropes I'm frankly stunned no one's done this before. Their submerged haunted house movie scared me to death with its extra deliberate ghosts and compacted claustrophobia. It's always good to remember how fun it is to be scared of simple things. 


50. Cityscape
by Michael Snow
The king of the structuralists pulls his eye out of storage, dusts it off, and gives it one last spin on the mechanical arm of displacement. You can forget, I feel, what the image is for, if people like Snow don't remind you what it is from time to time. I laughed, I nodded, I tapped my feet. 


51. All Light, Everywhere
by Theo James 
One of those beautiful works about the nature of sight. Who sees you at all times? Who sees them seeing you? Can you stare back? Dare you do so, for fear what you might divine beyond the lens making itself familiar with you? James does away with the obliqueness of Rat Film and doubles down hard on Fuck the Police, realizing there's more at stake than just Baltimore. This whole wretched country will lose itself in the search for safety. A work with one hand on the door of an emergency exit and another gesturing at the whole horrid kingdom before you. 

52. The Harder They Fall
by Jeymes Samuel
"I'm making a classic," Samuel told his cast. Time makes a classic but I'd be willing to call time on this. This beautiful, agile riposte to Tarantino's westerns of privilege is a great hang and a better hanging. Death to the old representation, down with stories of men in chains, no more black characters learning dignity from kindly whites. The future is yours. 


53. 29 Needles
by Philip Scott Goergens
As painful as pictures get. Rest in peace Brooke Berry


54. Wife of a Spy
by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Kurosawa's wartime melodrama splits the difference between the future and the past like nothing since perhaps Avatar or The Hobbit. Frame-rates cutting up action like a stump grinder and men and women trading comfort for the icy comfort of being one step ahead of modernity, and their fellow countrymen. No one is in shadow in this little noir, but no one can be trusted. 

55. Drive My Car
by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Hamaguchi's silent man overseeing a kingdom of self-loathing and uncertainty from out the window of a red Saab. The camera must stay on until every last sin has been confessed. Riveting trips to who knows where pinned to your cortex with the raw power of vulnerability. Everyone knows everything, but nobody knows what to do. A series of tense interactions stretched to three hours of old fashioned theatrical drama. 
Chekhov is the muse but O'Neil and Hong Sang-soo sets the stage for a broken family's secrets informing every taken drink.


56. The Night House
by David Bruckner
In this dreary age of loglines that stop and end with "it's about grief," I like a movie that looks like it's headed for the nearest shore only to lose it in fog and rough seas. Rebecca Hall and her thousand pound screen presence anchor this nifty little haunted house yarn to the floor while symbols and red herrings pile up all around her. Bruckner's formal patience impress mightily, he gets better with every picture. 


57. The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
by Lee Daniels
Lee Daniels is one of the only American directors who knows what it's like to be poor, who understands characters who came from nothing


58. Jungle Cruise
by Jaume Collett-Serra
The great vulgar object of this year's otherwise disturbing and lifeless crop of would-be blockbusters. We won't remember basically of the big budget images or sequences from American movies in years to come but I'll remember Jaume Collett-Serra embracing his inner Gore Verbinski, unleashing a high camp Jesse Plemons as the Kaiser's lapdog on a river of CGI. It's a risky game, doing things their way; I couldn't even find a decent still from this online because the paint smears when shooting moody digital 'scope in a closet for Disney. But I've followd JCS this far and he has yet to let me down so I even forgive him making a movie with true evil on all sides. 


59. A Weave of Light
by Bram Ruiter
Bram rediscovering the simplicity of the image, of two objects in a frame, a hand on a wall, a fire burning on a stove, depth built into physical properties and processes. A hypnotic visit where the price of kodachrome buys you a few beautiful seconds back in time, when we saw the world through film grain, when even the sky looked like man had created it. 


60. Marx Can Wait
by Marco Bellocchio
A brother in mourning not just for the twin he lost, but for the men and women who died to make Italy a more empathetic place, a paradise it never became. Her intellectuals and artists know that that eden is as far away as ever. 


61. Mariner of the Mountains
by Karim Aïnouz

A woozy travelogue from festival staple Aïnouz yields the richness of life that escapes most European eyes. As much an investigation into the existence of past lives as it is a visit to a place responsible for his own birth and the death of his father. Edited like a redacted government report but always open to the truth of life, you'll get homesick for a place you've never been and people you've never met. You'll never want him to return. 


62. Eight for Silver
by Sean Ellis
Somehow this gorgeous little monster got away from distributors, despite its painterly touch and savage implications. A werewolf's blood passes between the ne'er-do-well children of the elites of superstitious village. Not even a professional monster hunter can exorcise the blood of this place, hell-bent on exterminating the unfortunate. What I wouldn't give to see this teeth-marked Rembrandt copy again right now. 


63. Pig 
by Michael Sarnoski

My prince, my patron saint, my everything Nic Cage is back in everyone's good graces after a decade at sea. He's being given parts worthy of his talent and eating them like feast after famine. Here he's a man who's waited his whole life for a friend like his pet pig, and will do anything, debase himself, grovel to cowards, to see her again. He's grieving everything he was, everything he's lost, and first-timer Michael Sarnoski gives him the perfect canvas to paint this picture.


64. Shiva Baby
by Emma Seligman 
I don't know that I laughed harder than at this film's collection of horrid interludes imagined, we presume by the nebbish burning like a dying star at the center of the drama. The prom night recollection in particular broke my funny bone. All around the laughter is a perfectly rehearsed choir of embarrassment, hemmed in by tradition, with an old woman needing to be escorted to the car waiting to save you when you knock over bibles, like she too were in on the joke. What a marvelously uncomfortable debut. My heart will always go out to the religious misfit, especially when surrounded by orthodox judaism, the first real language of cinema in my opinion. 

65. In Place of Monuments
by Naima Ramos-Chapman 
Naima's inches from big things, I know it, she knows it, everyone who knows her knows it. This interlude, a productive response to destructive outside influence, is one hint. Gifted a memory of trauma, she produces a work of reflection and beautiful body language. Her ability to create in the face of harm is what she'll always have on the violent world out to stop her, to stop any young woman too sure of themselves.


66. We’re All Going To The World’s Fare
by Jane Schoenbrun
This year we were flooded with cautionary internet horrors but perhaps none that felt like both a warning and a way forward as this. Jane Schoenbrun looks back to the start of found footage and the end of our lives on screens and finds Casey (Anna Cobb) staring at us, wondering if the world ahead of her, adulthood, could be the violent uncertainty, the IED of aggression and regret, it appears to be. If so, why bother leaving her bedroom? She's safe there, right? A radical work; disorienting and truly frightening. 


67. What We Left Unfinished
by Mariam Ghani
A museum wing of lost possibility, of gorgeous restored footage with no sound, representing a people who for years had no voice. This is the reply to the ending of Rambo III, the forgotten movement, the dead hopes and live fears. We never knew to what we were laying waste, so we never knew what we lost. 


68. Sator
by Jordan Graham
Deep in the woods out of sight of everything but sweet diminished sunlight in small beams, lies family secrets and monstrous histories. But not even sunlight can cure a moldering in the soul.  

69. Taming The Garden
by Salomé Jashi
An accidental work of futurism, imagining a place where nature can still run even though we've destroyed everything else for miles and the air isn't breathable. How do we support some little part of life when we've been so hellbent on destroying the rest of it? A zen-like calm descends on this pre-apocalyptic exercise. What is the way forward?


70. Belle
by Mamuro Hosoda
A gorgeous cautionary tale about leaving yourself behind as you search for an identity that fits you better. You can be yourself, sure, so long as no one asks who you are. Hosoda's imagination soars conjuring worlds of teenaged imagination. We've heard these ideas before, but they've never looked quite like this. 


71. A Glitch in the Matrix
by Rodney Ascher
A gorgeous cautionary tale about leaving yourself behind as you search for an identity that fits you better. No one cares who you are. That's the hard bargain. In this world, no one's reaching out to save you. There is no Trinity to your Neo, no one on the other end of the phone. You're flying blind. If you decide that the world isn't real, no one stops you in time. The world is real, though. That's the problem. 


72. The Beatles: Get Back
by Peter Jackson
Getting the past back just long enough to kiss it goodbye. There goes the greatest band in the western canon, or so the history books say, there goes the reasons we had to be mad because they broke up when it was time, there go the songs we imagined created in some holy fugue. The Beatles were just unshaven men in a room, pushed this way and that, ultimately tired of each other. And yet spending these hours with them feels like an otherworldly gift from the same unholy land of the dead that broke New Zealand's unions. It's too late to wonder if we should have this technology. We do. 


73. The Velvet Underground
by Todd Haynes
One avant-garde school views another. Do the ostrich


74. Les Olympiads
by Jacques Audiard
The year's most electrically erotic film, this triangle overflows with Raymond Carver-style messiness, where everyone's immediate goals are misinterpreted. Identity is left behind every few seconds and from the absence springs fresh, sensual melancholy. You can always lose more, especially with the taste of success still on your tongue. 


75. Seance
by Simon Barrett 

Simon Barrett's pint-sized slasher-keeper is all joyous revision and knowing nods, a Scream for a time when Scream is being remade by pretenders. The knowingly vicious are pitted against each other in this frigid revisionist exercise, exactly the kind of thing I wish more people would do when they have a little money and a little clout. Striking, sexy, and scary. 


76. The Tragedy of Macbeth
by Joel Coen
One of America's great screen novelists goes back to class


77. Moon, 66 Questions
by Jacqueline Lentzou
Jacqueline brings in the wildness of experimentation to the too-normal domestic drama of her past, her own recollection. A young woman pines for the absurdity, the non-linear life of a Harmony Korine character but she's pinioned by responsibility, by her relationship to the real world. She's confessing a desire to be free of all that made her, as Lentzou's heroines always do. But there is no escape until they're all dead. 


78. Passing
by Rebecca Hall

Rebecca Hall makes quite the showing for herself behind the camera, crafting a film about race and old new york that feels like we've been watching it in private all these years. Her smartest move is letting Ruth Negga loose on a script filled with contradictions that calls for a star. Ruth Negga is a star, no mistake. She's ably supported by Alexander Skarsgård, André Holland, Bill Camp, and Tessa Thompson, but all movies Ruth Negga in them for more than five minutes are Ruth Negga movies. She paralyzes with her Mae West body language, her Bessie Smith delivery, her 
Josephine Baker charisma. This is a performer about to be rock the world. 


79. The Empty Man
by David Prior

A reactionary Grimm's fairy tale, bad luck for yesterday's man with today's fears. As haunting as it is disconcerting.


80. V/H/S/94
by Timo Tjahjanto, Jennifer Reeder, Ryan Prows, Chloe Okuno, and Simon Barrett
The most metal horror film of the year, unvarnished blood letting monstrosity, aimless, nameless anti-gods and Raatma make mockeries of carefully constructed careers in deconstruction. Bodily fluids pour in every direction like loosened beer taps and all the while the cameras seem seconds from giving out. 


81. Bingo Hell
by Gigi Saul Guerrero
Guerrero is the closest thing to early Jonathan Demme we seem likely to inherit anytime soon and I've been deeply satisfied with her dayglo horror shows. Bingo Hell is a rallying cry for the old neighborhoods to reject gentrification and all his works. Richard Brake is the devil (but of course) and he wants to tempt a bevy of weary old souls with chintzy deliverance and a plastic heaven. 


82. The Worst Person in the World
by Joachim Trier
One of those films that's probably technically Trier's best movie, but I miss when he had room to grow, things were mangier. The next one. I'll wait for the next one. This is huge, obviously, an important thing, but important and good don't play so nicely in the rearview mirror. Still, imagine having made something like this?


83. Lisey’s Story
by Pablo Larrain
Though Larrain was lauded for his other tale of a woman driven mad by her husband's royalty and status, he went deeper beneath the surface in Lisey's Story.


84. News from the World
by Paul Greengrass
Greengrass's best film in a decade or more finds him at last channeling his inner John Ford to tell the tale of a fundamentally good man trying to improve the pieces of the earth he can touch. He brings the word to the weary and stranded. It's language his characters seek, the ability to communicate with each other. Because this is Greengrass' world it's firepower that brings his seekers together finally. From there on it's all just diction. 


85. When I get home director’s cut
by Solange Knowles
A dazzling dose of self-mythologizing in minor key, Solange seizes her sister's form, just as it was becoming in-line with Disney house style, and does something daringly abstract with her record company's budget. Solange emerges as would-be cult leader and record spinning fetishist, at the center of a small universe she creates with every cut. Afro-futurism meets the concrete nowness of any given moment. They're only immortal because women like Solange make them so. 


86. The Banishing
by Chris Smith
The same year Neil Marshall said goodbye to his credibility, Chris Smith is back in his wheelhouse, the violent gothic, the graphically upsetting chamber piece in period costume. Like a haunted Merchant-Ivory, if that crew were reared on 16mm grindhouse workhorses. Jessica Brown Findlay, my favourite of the Downton-style heroines of antiquity, is the frustrated wife of a priest who finds herself at the mercy of a haunted house. Sean Harris and John Lynch are the devils on her shoulder. An MR James-style tale of conflicting ideologies and eras seeking revenge on the present. 


87. Mad Woman’s Ball
by Mélanie Laurent
Laurent's project of contextualizing female hysteria as the natural outgrowth of any given historical epoch is an altogether more successful strategy than most of the work done in this direction in American film but her stately grammar withholds her from American audiences so a minor figure in this country she remains, much to my chagrin. She has the solidness and social reasoning of a Sidney Pollack without having yet fallen prey to his lugubriousness. This is perhaps her most proudly enunciated missive yet, a look at the way independent minded women were treated before suffrage. 


88. The American Sector
by Courtney Stephens & Pacho Velez
Why does America still have pieces of the Berlin Wall littering its parks and offices like souvenirs from a bachelorette party? What message are we hoping to send? That your parent's screams will be kept in locket form around the necks of strangers who have never cared if you ever lived or how miserably you died. 


89. May June July
by Kevin Jerome Everson
There's nothing unusual, per se, about where Kevin Jerome Everson chooses to point his camera but he always seems to see the future when he does it. Here a man, free, on the streets, is tied with a plant, which needs water and sunlight to grow but is in darkness. So many dead flowers, so many that never got their chance to become what they were meant to be. 


90. Censor
by Prano Bailey-Bond
The video nasties come back to haunt a woman choking on the fumes of ancient morality in this garish neon nightmare. Much to sink your teeth into from the old formats to the inventive murders, to Niamh Algar's game performance as repression itself finally coming apart at the seams. 


91. Kingdom: Ashin of the North
by Seong-hun Kim
Netflix's great Korean experiment has yielded some of its most popular TV and its most quickly forgotten modern classics. Here, somewhere in no man's land, a film meant as a bridge between seasons of the thoroughly watchable Kingdom. Here a woman abandoned by all life on earth finds her people in the undead after a crucible of horror. Moody and tough, but exciting and exacting. 


92. Prisoners of the Ghost Land
by Sion Sono 
Though Nic Cage ended the year in Oscar conversations, he began it in high vulgar style


93. All the Moons
by Igor Legarreta

A gentle fable about contemplating infinity. For the child afraid of death in all of us. 


94. 95. Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin / The Forever Purge
by William Eubank / Everardo Gout
Two franchises highjacked by directors who know no one's watching them carefully enough to stop them from technical excess. Magnificently choreographed fast-food delivery; bad taste joys, both. Whether it's Dan Lippert as amish livestock or Josh Lucas as a recidivist redneck, you'll get your money's worth. 


96. Cow 
by Andrea Arnold
After a detour having her work maimed in Hollywood, Arnold returns to fundamentals, finding the essential nature of a woman in captivity. Some kind of Kuleshovian affectation at work, a cow can seem sassy when the right song plays under standing still. Her ideal heroine. 


97. Hell Hath No Fury
by Jesse V. Johnson 

Jesse V. Johnson is the sardonic smartass tearing up the rulebook for VOD, the guy you wished for as cinema went out of video stores and into redboxes and segregated streaming services. He cares how low budget movies feel. Here he steps into the exploded crevice left behind by Inglourious Basterds and delivers on that film's promise of non-stop violence and uneasily shifting alliances. Traitors and bastards holding hands with their left and a grenade with their right.  


98. Joy Ride
by Bobcat Goldthwait
A trip to heaven with two guys who've seen the inside of hell and come back. Dana and Bobcat prop each other, give each other strength and purpose, and seeing them together, sharing a stage, a car, or a memory, is as loving an image as documentary gave me last year. 


99. 100. Skyfire / Ice Road
by Simon West / Jonathan Hensleigh
The two polarities of action schlock from many year veterans given newly buoyant CGI canvases on which to paint. One sees fire from the heavens interrupt a nationalist PR display, the other sees desperate men driving to their doom across tundra and asphalt. Both are better than anything with superheroes I saw in the last year.