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Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

Paramount/Courtesy

Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.

Independent films that need to be seen by more

This past weekend, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 released to unbelievable acclaim. The blockbuster follows the landmark classic sci-fi original. Villeneuve’s last film, Arrival, is a stunning, beautiful science fiction tale, one that received eight Oscar nominations. If one were to think about Villeneuve’s other films, Sicario, a gritty, dark story about drugs on the U.S.-Mexican border, and Prisoners, a harrowing, haunting film about kidnapping, would likely come to mind.

Enemy wouldn’t for most, which is a shame, as it’s one of Villeneuve’s more enthralling and singular pictures, a Kafka-esque, macabre movie about a man who finds his doppelgänger. It’s one that more people should seek out.

Too often are absolutely brilliant, but rather small independent films criminally washed over. These films are always some of the best of the year, but factors outside of the movie’s control — marketing, star-power and so on — hold it back.

So, it is our job, as film critics, to point out these independent films, to give them their fair share of the spotlight and to hopefully bring some more eyes to them. Here are three wonderful gems to consider:

Desierto

STX Entertainment/Courtesy

Desierto was co-written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, who co-wrote Gravity with his father, Alfonso Cuarón. The film has some hefty credentials to it, and it doesn’t disappoint, offering thrills that unnerve throughout the film’s taut, purposeful 88-minute runtime. Desierto follows a group of Mexican migrant workers including Moises (Gael García Bernal) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) as they attempt to cross the border, and it becomes a horror film of sorts when sharpshooting vigilante Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his tracking dog start hunting them down one by one. The film is compulsory viewing for us in 2017, as the reality of the Trump administration’s xenophobia gets projected onto the characters, adding considerable weight to the conflict of the film.

More simply, Desierto also functions as a damn good horror movie — Sam is a Xenomorph while Moises and Adela are Ripley. For a film with a $3 million budget, there are genuinely good set pieces — an initial chase scene involving Sam’s bloodthirsty hound, and the final, desperate confrontation between Sam and Moises. One begins to see how the younger Cuarón might have influenced the thrills of Gravity. By all means, seek out Desierto for its rush of adrenaline, but more importantly, for a chance to walk away with some higher degree of empathy for those being hunted by the Sams currently in office.

— Harrison Tunggal

Neruda

The Orchard/Courtesy

Premiering only a few short months before his critically-acclaimed Natalie Portman vehicle, Jackie, director Pablo Larraín’s mesmerizing love-letter to his native Chilé, Neruda, defines the director’s mastery over the intricacy of the cinematic character study. Although the film wasn’t written by Larraín himself, Neruda is the kind of film wherein a director’s presence, his vision so to speak, can be seen and felt within every shot, line of dialogue and narrative beat throughout the course of the film. Those who have seen Jackie will know that Larraín is no stranger to and can adeptly capture the emotional weight behind a biographical drama, but crafting a cinematic enigma, part biopic, part fantasy, focused about the one and only Pablo Neruda cements the Chilean filmmaker within the annals of directorial history. Neruda is an undoubtedly personal film and it’s that personality that imbues a larger-than-life figure such as Pablo Neruda with an unbridled intimacy which cannot only be seen, but felt as well. While Jackie may have garnered Pablo Larraín the recognition he deserves on the world stage, Neruda will remain a testament to his honed technical skills as a filmmaker, willingness to take risks as a storyteller and unabashed pride as a Chilean.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

Locke

A24/Courtesy

Sometimes the word “cinematic” can be used to describe a massive, sprawling, experiential film such as Mad Max: Fury Road. And sometimes, “cinematic” can be used to describe a film set in one place, about one man. Locke’s 85 minutes play out (almost) entirely in a car, a space we inhabit with Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy alone (as Ivan Locke), and we’re taken on a Shakespearean journey about the mistakes of a man and his attempts to stop the world he knows from crumbling. That epic sense is driven into the viewers’ bones — Locke is surprisingly visual, making use of double exposure to imbue the dark-but-vibrant colors of the highway on top of Locke’s mental state. And Steven Knight’s screenplay is one built with history and scope beyond simply the car; we remain in it, but we feel the past of Locke and the magnitude of his impact. But what truly cements Locke as one of the truly special films of the decade is Tom Hardy’s performance. The British actor is entirely transformed, despite being at his most stripped down. Sporting a Welsh accent, Hardy delivers each line with a tangible, bodily desperation, an anger that can be seen building up to his shoulders and a raw vulnerability as that body shatters inside. On top of that, Hardy offers his most dynamic and engaging use of his eyes. Often, Locke is staring in the rearview mirror, imagining his father in the back seat, and we receive the visceral impact of his piercing gaze. If for Hardy’s performance alone, seek out Locke. You’ll get a tragic and beautiful tale on the ride.

— Kyle Kizu

 

Featured image via A24.

Top ten films premiered at Telluride Film Festival since 2010

Amid the swaths of festivals, Telluride, taking place between September 1-4, stands out as an unpretentious yet incredibly prestigious venue for some of the most honest films of the year. Like the town in which it takes place, Telluride is small and intimate. It evokes the best of what a film community can be, in genuine artistry, but also in just being fans of movies and of movie-makers; it was a key moment in the great friendship between the La La Land and Moonlight creative teams, which maintained despite the audience split that sprouted during the awards season. And while many of the Oscar hopefuls look to the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival for their starts, the quieter premieres at Telluride often have the grander impact. Since 2010, the best of the best from Telluride Film Festival are breathtaking. From Oscar winners to profound independents to landmark documentaries, the top ten Telluride films of the last seven years show the best of what cinema can be.

10. Wild

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

While many may point to Dallas Buyers Club and Big Little Lies when thinking of Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, it would be a shame to ignore the gem that is Wild. First and foremost, any film that features the sublime, timeless, astounding Laura Dern in even just a slightly weighty role is one to adore. But Wild crafts not only its character, Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl, so instinctively, but it also crafts the journey of Cheryl so tenderly and affectingly. Cheryl confronts the wild in her long walk from the top of the U.S. to the bottom, and the film follows suit, embracing a sort of vulnerable physicality in its color palette, in its subtle sound and intimate cinematography. Wild may not be the most jaw-dropping or impressive film, but it’s one that finds its way underneath one’s skin and into one’s bones because it is so human.

— Kyle Kizu

9. Frances Ha

IFC Films/Courtesy

Frances Ha is director Noah Baumbach’s ebullient tribute to the cinema of the French New Wave. We follow the titular Frances (the incredible Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach) as she meets friends, moves from apartment to apartment and tries to reconcile her dreams of dancing with the possibility that they’ll remain dreams and nothing more. Though the film is in black and white, the spread of emotions that Frances endures is hardly so — the film pinwheels from her trademark levity to crushing lows, before rising to a strained melancholy and finally settling on a relieved contentedness. That such dichotomies coexist in the film isn’t jarring, but rather endearing. We’ve all had nights that started out perfectly, but then take a hard left into awfulness that only seems to get worse, and that’s a sentiment that the film understands and addresses with humor and sensitivity. Befittingly, the film isn’t reliant on plot, but that’s okay — we’re happy to have known Frances, if but for an hour and a half.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. The Descendants

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

Against all odds, Alexander Payne’s 2011 film The Descendants pairs adultery, comatose spouses and Hawaiian real estate in a simultaneously heartwrenching and hilarious examination of what family really means. The film follows Matt King (George Clooney) as his wife is injured in a jetskiing accident and he is forced to decide whether or not to leave his now comatose wife on life support — a decision made more difficult by the realization that she had been having an affair. Clooney and Shailene Woodley, in arguably both their finest work to date, carry the film on their transparently expressive faces, captured lovingly in close-up by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. True to the book on which it is based, The Descendants almost veers too far into cruel, biting satire at times, but no one is better suited to walk the balance between bleak humanity and the humor found in everyday life than Alexander Payne. While certain scenes stand out as all-timers (Clooney’s famous hospital monologue, Woodley’s character revealing her mother’s affair), The Descendants in its entirety is a hard look at dealing with the past, managing the present and confronting the future.

— Kate Halliwell

7. Steve Jobs

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Steve Jobs had such a dramatic journey to the big screen — an intensely buzzed-about Aaron Sorkin script originally connected to David Fincher and with Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale rumored to star. But the creative team it ended up with was a perfect match. Danny Boyle’s high-energy direction scores Jobs with an electric edge and Michael Fassbender transforms subtly yet entirely, embodying the icon with a domineering physicality, especially in vocal tone, while deconstructing his problematic persona and humanizing his core — not necessarily sacrificing one for the other. The film has massive ambitions, with a story structure similar to a play and carrying a character in light of Citizen Kane. It might not reach all of its goals, but it finds a place in contemporary cinema that so many films have tried for but failed.

— KK

6. Under the Skin

A24/Courtesy

On very simple terms, Under the Skin is an astonishing vehicle for the auric, subtle physicality that Scarlett Johansson can take hold of in a performance, as well as for the viscerally invasive work of composer Mica Levi — many critics still cite her score as one of the best of the 21st century. But, quite obviously, Under the Skin is anything but simple. Delving deep into the avant garde, as well as other more visually focused traditions, Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi picture, about an alluring woman, is oftentimes terrifying without us even realizing how intensely so until afterward, or until the pop of a body contorted by forces beyond its control. As viewers, we oftentimes feel like a victim trapped beneath — a purposeful effect that produces a pure sense of the image, oftentimes simple in color and composition but wildly unnerving in context, that only cinema could. Of course, this leaves little easy explanation and few paths for traditional absorption, making Under the Skin difficult to encounter. But if we surrender ourselves to visual language, the film will prove deeply human, without much of the sentimentality, and gendered in its experience, deconstructivist in its angle and, honestly, just fucking weird — in a good way.

— KK

5. Prisoners

Warner Bros./Courtesy

The sense of mounting dread that director Denis Villeneuve builds in Prisoners is staggering to behold. Drenched in darkness and shadow by the master himself, Roger Deakins, this film transports the viewer into a world of ubiquitous horror, one where corpses fill basements, families descend into violence and even moments of reprieve contort into the realization that we’re all shackled to those we love, for better or worse. This is a film where your heart keep sinking to depths you didn’t know existed, right to its final shot. Prisoners also sports a stellar cast firing on all cylinders — Hugh Jackman’s intensity makes his performance in this film one of his finest, Jake Gyllenhaal showcases the cold determination he would later dial to eleven in Nightcrawler and Paul Dano ratchets up the tension by keeping the audience on its toes. Additionally, Viola Davis brings her eminent gravitas while Terrence Howard matches Jackman’s fear and desperation as they search for their missing daughters. Prisoners is arguably Denis Villeneuve’s best film, and we can’t wait to see how his sensibilities translate to Blade Runner 2049 and other future projects.

— HT

4. Anomalisa

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

This stop-motion picture is difficult to confront, venturing into the abstract in many areas. But, as one should expect with Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa, a film without actual humans, is filled with a humanity unlike most other films. It is, in large part, because of the voice work. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh provide an affectingly raw basis within this world, conveying vulnerability and the weight of the human condition through tiny inflections. And Tom Noonan, literally voicing every other figure, is shockingly hilarious and horrifyingly scary at the same time. Yet, the voices become that profound because of the imagery within which they inhabit. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson frame each shot with a deep understanding of theme, that everything so blandly and terrifyingly blends together, that the world is unrewarding and depressing, that finding someone within the void is miraculous and losing them to the blend is a nightmare. The amalgamation brings about an intimacy that only a masterful film could build.

— KK

3. Room

A24/Courtesy

Book-to-movie adaptations, as a rule, are difficult to pull off, and that challenge increases exponentially when the source material in question is narrated in entirety by a five year old boy with a limited understanding of the world. It gets even harder when that world consists of a tiny one-room shed, and the boy’s mother — the room’s only other occupant — chooses to raise him as if that one room really is the entire universe. So begins Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Room, starring Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson as a mother and son held in captivity until their eventual escape. Room is effectively split in two halves, which places the duo’s plotting and escape at odds with their tentative transition back into the outside world. The film would go on to win Larson her first Oscar and cement Tremblay’s place as Hollywood’s cutest kid, but it served as far more than a vehicle for its stars-to-be. Bleak, hard-to-watch moments combine with an enduring sense of childlike curiosity in what is already deservedly considered to be one of the best book adaptations of all time.

— KH

2. The Act of Killing

Final Cut for Real/Courtesy

The Act of Killing is a difficult film to watch, and if you’re at all connected to the killings that took place in Indonesia from 1965-1966, then Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is downright excruciating. The film’s two main subjects, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, belonged to a government death squad that extorted from and killed more than one million communists and Chinese Indonesians. They gloat about the lives they took and how they took them, going to obscene lengths to reenact their methods. It’s a sick parody of cinephilia — Congo and Koto claim to be inspired by the violence in the films they idolized, and some of the reenactments are draped in the trappings of their favorite genres. And these are just barely the reasons why The Act of Killing is a disturbing watch — ultimately, we’re left wondering if there’s redemption in remorse. After seeing the utter impunity of the murderers, such a question becomes disturbingly difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Unpleasant as it may be, The Act of Killing is truly an essential film, reminding us that the soul is at stake when blind nationalism supersedes morality.

— HT

1. Moonlight

David Bornfriend/A24/Courtesy

With a rare 99 on Metacritic, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is cinematic perfection. For anyone who’s seen the film, such a statement stands on its own, though additional validation comes from its historic Best Picture win at the 89th Academy Awards. But forget the craziness surrounding the moment of its victory — such things are much too loud for a film like Moonlight. It is a film predicated on an intimate viewing experience, one in which quiet subtleties in the performances of its all black cast and precise details in the filmmaking precipitate an immense significance. From the close-ups of Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland as their characters reunite, we see heartbreak and hope at the same time, and years of toxic, performative masculinity erode with just one look. From the final embrace of these two men, we see a moment of LGBTQ+ representation that is executed with the utmost sensitivity and tenderness. Then there’s James Laxton’s cinematography, where a shallow depth of field puts us with the characters, exacting a sense of empathy that lends the film its total hold over our emotions. It is impossible to overstate the significance of Moonlight, especially when empathy and sensitivity are becoming ever rarer, but with Barry Jenkins behind the camera, there’s hope that such qualities will persevere, at least on the big screen.

— HT

Featured image (modified) via Ken Lund.