SDG’s top films, 2000 – 2020

A film list 21 years in the making. 21 top films. 21 runners-up. 21 honorable mentions.

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

In 2020, after two decades of writing regularly about movies, I took a semi-sabbatical (coinciding, of course, with the coronavirus pandemic and the shuttering of movie theaters) and focused on other things.

While I saw a lot of films last year (and voted in a number of year-end awards) — and I hope to see, and review, more films this year — I’m still somewhat focused on other things, and I haven’t yet decided when, or whether, to do my traditional year-end best-of list.

Instead, for now at least, I find myself looking back on my two decades of film writing and thinking about the films and the filmmakers that have come to mean the most to me over the last 21 years.

Not necessarily the “best,” most impressive, or most important films, or even necessarily the ones I recommend most strongly to others. The films that have most stayed with me in some particular way — that have haunted, challenged and changed me, or simply beckoned me irresistibly to revisit them time and again. The films that have in some way become a part of me, of my imaginative DNA.

Looking back at my viewing preferences over the years, obvious patterns emerge.

I’ve always had an affinity, naturally, for films with religious and moral themes. The religiously oriented films I find most moving, though, are seldom so-called faith-based films — that is, movies made by believers primarily for believers.

Why is that? In a nutshell, I think it’s because those films tend to tell their intended audience things they and the filmmakers already know and agree on. There’s an element of challenge to any really interesting art and, for art to be challenging to the audience, usually the artists have to be challenging themselves in some way.

I’ve also found myself increasingly drawn to what I’ve come to call “antidote films.” Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, starring Adam Driver, is an antidote film, intentionally and even explicitly so, since the filmmakers described it as “an antidote” to the “heavy action, heavy drama, heavy crisis” of other films. The year before I had similarly written of Brooklyn that “it isn’t just one of the best films of 2015, it’s also in a way the antidote to all the rest.”

Moving treatments of religious themes can come from believers or nonbelievers, but I think believers exploring ambiguity and difficulty and doubt, or nonbelievers grappling with the possibilities of faith, make the best religious art. Films like that can be moving to viewers regardless of their own belief or nonbelief.

I’ve also found myself increasingly drawn to what I’ve come to call “antidote films.” Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, starring Adam Driver, is an antidote film, intentionally and even explicitly so, since the filmmakers described it as “an antidote” to the “heavy action, heavy drama, heavy crisis” of other films. The year before I had similarly written of Brooklyn that “it isn’t just one of the best films of 2015, it’s also in a way the antidote to all the rest.”

Films about “heavy action, heavy drama, heavy crisis” can be great, challenging, even important. Indeed, great and important films are usually more or less “heavy.” But I also want great films that are relatively light — about relatively ordinary, healthy, even uneventful lives. These are harder to come by, making them even more precious.

Finally, I have a big family, and family films — particularly animation — are a big part of our family culture. Our kids have grown up with a relatively wide exposure to film culture, from silent comedies and swashbucklers to musicals and Westerns. Among recent fare, our tastes are pretty typical. (A lot of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, and a bit of the best of everything else. We never got into Harry Potter.)

Two questions I had to resolve for this project were whether to start in 2000 (when I actually started reviewing films) or 2001 (technically the start of the 21st century) and how many films to allow myself. Ten is traditional, but it hardly seems adequate for two decades.

By a happy coincidence, I remembered hearing from a critic friend that 21 is for some reason a kind of “magic” number for internet lists. So that settled it: I would pick 21 films for 21 years; not, of course, my one “top” film from each year. (I took two films from some years, none from others, and three from one, 2016.) To maximize the range of the list, I decided to restrict myself to no more than one film from any director (though, of course, I made a point of mentioning other films in the comments).

And, of course, since I can’t commit to a single list, I added 21 runners-up. And then, just to make extra mad at me anyone whose favorite film of the last 21 years I didn’t list (or possibly even see), I threw in 21 honorable mentions, so that I would be without excuse. (As always, the thresholds are somewhat arbitrary; many of the films in the middle list could be in the first or the third, and vice versa.)

SDG’s Top 21 Films, 2000–2020 (unranked, in alphabetical order)

  • 12 Years a Slave (2013)
    Steve McQueen had a triumphant 2020 with his Small Axe films, about West Indian immigrants in London in the 1960s and 1970s, debuting on Amazon. Watching these films, in which McQueen explores his own cultural roots, helped me to better appreciate the significance for many Black Americans of 12 Years a Slave — incredibly the first (no longer the only) fact-based motion picture I know of about the American slave experience. A breathtaking fact-based dramatization of a dozen stolen years in the life of a Black freeman (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the film filled me with anger and gratitude when I first saw it. If anything, my response to the film is even stronger today. (Mature viewing)
  • Brooklyn (2016)
    I just rewatched John Crowley’s lovely, humane period piece — an adaptation of Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel about a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) who settles in New York with the help of a good priest — a few weeks ago, and it’s still great. I love the first two acts of it, for the way it finds compelling drama in the stuff of ordinary life. And I love the third act for its powerful exploration of questions around how we define and understand ourselves in different social contexts. (Older teens and up)
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
    2000 seems like an eternity ago — the year the then-moribund superhero genre was rejuvenated by X-Men. I’ve always said Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was my favorite big-screen superhero because he was the one who stood for a specific ideal. Yet, if I could have chosen, I would rather have seen sequels to the other 2000 film with a bald mentor with superpowers, Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai. The CGI superheroics of even the better comic-book movies can’t touch the visual poetry of Ang Lee’s wuxia warriors slipping the surly bonds of earth via less polished but more persuasive wirework effects, scored to Wang Wei’s thrilling percussion and Yo-Yo Ma’s ethereal cello. (Adults)
  • Fellowship of the Ring, The (2001)
    In retrospect, Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle-earth remains his most satisfying. Its great strengths include Ian Holm’s effortlessly layered Bilbo, Sean Bean’s magnificent turn as Boromir, Ian McKellen’s slyly humorous Gandalf the Grey (never quite equaled either in Gandalf the White or in the reprised role of the disappointing Hobbit films), and, in the Mines of Moria, a standout action set piece unparalleled for its blend of thrills and emotional impact. (Teens and up)
  • Hidden Life, A (2019)
    In all of Terrence Malick’s contemplative recent works (especially The New World and The Tree of Life) are sequences and elements that leave me awestruck. A Hidden Life — his ecstatic, anguished three-hour cinematic hymn singing the life and death of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter — is the first of his recent films that overwhelms me in its totality. Thematically, it recalls two of my favorite dramas of conscience, A Man for All Seasons and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, yet Malick’s poetic visual and contemplative approach to storytelling is the antithesis of the talky, dialogue-driven approach of those films. (Mature teens and up)
  • Incredibles, The (2005)
    Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, which kicked off Pixar’s adventurous all-too-brief second age, is a gem — but his best film, by my lights, is the crown jewel of Pixar’s first age: an incandescent superhero family film, a dazzling cocktail of social commentary, witty action sequences, and insightful vignettes of family life in all its complexity and mundaneness. Marital tensions and even themes around the possibility of infidelity are broached in ways that are both emotionally sophisticated and accessible to younger viewers. (It was the only Pixar film that really demanded a sequel — and it was almost the last to get one. By then, alas, Pixar was in its third age, and the moment had passed.) (Older kids and up)
  • Into Great Silence (2007)
    This is more than a film to me. Philip Gröning’s austere, immersive, two-and-a-half-hour documentary portrait of life in the head monastery of the Carthusian order, the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps, is a silent retreat and a mystical experience, and a favorite way to begin Lent. “In killing silence, man assassinates God,” wrote Cardinal Robert Sarah, and Kierkegaard wrote, “If I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. … Therefore, create silence.” Here is medicine for what ails us. (Nothing problematic)
  • Kid with a Bike, The (2012)
    “You can hold me, but not so tight.” With those unexpected words, a startled woman offers a child in crisis — a stranger to her — a much-needed ray of grace. In one extraordinary film after another, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have explored social, moral and spiritual themes in the lives of lower- or working-class people. While several of their films (particularly The Son and Two Days, One Night) would be at home on this list, I chose this one for the immediacy of its effect for me. (Teens and up)
  • Minari (2020)
    The one 2020 film that most stayed with me all year, since I first saw it a year ago at Sundance, is Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical pastoral drama about a Korean family moving from California to the Arkansas Ozarks, where the paterfamilias (Steven Yeun) hopes to farm. A sometimes-painful tale of emotional struggle and hardship, it’s scattered with warmth and humor along with devastating insights. Every scene, almost every shot, is fraught with an immediacy that seems like memory rather than construction. (Teens and up)
  • Miracle Maker, The (2000)
    Every Holy Week my family rewatches Stanislav Sokolov and Derek W. Hayes’ adaptation of the story of Jesus, renewing my gratitude and admiration for this quietly miraculous film — accessible enough for children, sophisticated enough for biblical scholars and theologians. Murray Watts’ deceptively simple screenplay is a masterpiece of compression, and the interplay of compelling stop-motion and cel animation is formally inspired. (Kids and up)
  • Monsoon Wedding (2002)
    With all the attention that Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit is getting, I hope some viewers may discover Mira Nair’s sadly overlooked Queen of Katwe, a fact-based story in which a teacher (David Oyelowo) discovers a chess prodigy in the slums of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Nair’s best film in the last two decades, and perhaps her most beloved, is this domestic comedy-drama about romantic and logistical complications around an extravagant Delhi wedding. With gravity-defying, almost Lubitsch-like deftness, she somehow weaves thoughtful social criticism and a restrained treatment of painful themes around incestuous sexual abuse and infidelity into a dominant mood of exuberant, crowd-pleasing humor and a joyous, life-affirming depiction of family and community. (Adults)
  • Of Gods and Men (2011)
    I don’t have a favorite film, but there is one film that speaks to me more directly than any other regarding my faith, my worldview, what I think is important. While no film can completely answer such a question, Xavier Beauvois’ fact-based drama of conscience about nine French Trappist monks in Algeria, living harmoniously with their Muslim neighbors but threatened by various radical factions, is the film about which I would most readily say, to anyone who asked me: “Do you want to know what I believe? Do you want to know what the Christian ideal is all about? Watch this film.” (Teens and up)
  • Paterson (2016)
    Jim Jarmusch’s gently rapturous slice-of-life portrait of a week in the life of a routine-bound bus driver with a poetic soul (Adam Driver) and his free-spirited wife (Golshifteh Farahani) is the kind of film that doesn’t just beckon me to rewatch it, but almost invites me to inhabit it. Partly, perhaps, this is for personal reasons — grade-school memories of Paterson, New Jersey, evoked by the film — but it’s also because it’s about one of my favorite movie couples. (Teens and up)
  • Selma (2014)
    Christian actor David Oyelowo’s rich, complex interpretation of Martin Luther King Jr. is central to the achievement of Ava DuVernay’s vibrant, enduring historical drama, which not only liberates perhaps the 20th century’s most iconic American figure from his own mythology, but also captures a lively sense of the civil-rights movement as a cause of many players with varying points of view. (Teens and up)
  • Silence (2016)
    There are things harder to endure than martyrdom. I learned that from Martin Scorsese’s visually stunning, emotionally crushing, existentially haunting adaptation of Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo’s novel about the persecution of 17th-century Jesuit missionaries and their converts by Japanese authorities who devise a nearly perfect machine for destroying Christian witness. I believe the voice of Jesus speaks in this story. I’m still not sure where. (Might be fine for mature teens.)
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
    “You’re like me.” Among all their other achievements — rollicking superhero action, a strikingly novel animation style, potent father-son themes, and a witty screenplay deftly sifting sedimentary layers of comic-book lore into a fresh, propulsive narrative — mad visionaries Phil Miller and Chris Lord have crafted a moving tale of connection and friendship across differences of race, sex, culture, dimension of origin, etc. It’s my single favorite animated film of the last decade — and my favorite superhero movie of all time. (Older kids and up)
  • Spirited Away (2002)
    Most of my favorite films by legendary Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki are from the last century, and so ineligible for this list — but in any case, the one film of his that I find rises above all the others (even My Neighbor Tororo, its nearest competitor) is this grand culmination of themes and ideas from all his past work. It’s a variation on Alice in Wonderland, with a fretful young girl turning a wrong corner and winding up in an ominous, incalculable world of spirits and monsters: a world seemingly devoid of grace (or so it seemed to me on my first viewing), but masking an underlying benevolence. Rife with mythic power, its most potent moments have an elusive dreamlike power, a surreal sense of opaque mystery charged with ineffable significance. (Older kids and up)
  • Station Agent, The (2003)
    Tom McCarthy’s best film of the last decade is Spotlight, a searing fact-based drama about the ecclesiastical sex-abuse cover-up scandal (see also By the Grace of God). His most enduring achievement, though, may be his debut, a deeply empathic ensemble comedy-drama about very different loners finding uneasy communion with one another in rural New Jersey. Anchored by an extraordinary Peter Dinklage, it’s a quiet, slow-motion epiphany, a revelation of the characters’ hearts to one another as well as to viewers. (Mature teens and up)
  • Timbuktu (2015)
    I think not a week goes by that I don’t think in some way of Abderrahmane Sissako’s movingly humanistic, furious cri de coeur about an oppressive jihadist occupying force’s encroachments on relatively moderate Sunni and Sufi communities in Mali — and the variously covert or open forms of resistance. Sometimes I think of it when praying for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities, including Muslim minorities, suffering around the world; other times simply hearing music makes me think of people living in societies where music or singing is haram (forbidden). (Teens and up)
  • Wall-E (2008)
    Post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Chaplinesque slapstick, Swiftian satire, swoony romanticism — this improbable Pixar masterpiece from Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, also brilliant) somehow combines all of these, along with a precious quality vanishingly rare in U.S. animation: existential awe and wonder. If all this weren’t enough, since 2015 I can’t watch it without being struck by the environmental, economic and spiritual resonances with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. (Kids and up)
  • Witch, The (2016)
    The horror film from the last two decades I’ve pondered more than any other is Robert Eggers’ meticulously persuasive evocation of the nightmares of colonial Puritan society, which turns for me on a theological question: Where is God while the powers of darkness prey upon a family living on the outskirts of a witch-haunted wood? Why do their prayers seem to go unanswered? The characters’ Calvinism invites one answer; is there a better one? (Mature viewing)

21 Runners-Up (unranked)

  • Arrival (2016)
    No 21st-century science-fiction film speaks to me more powerfully than Denis Villeneuve’s first-contact scenario, starring a formidable Amy Adams, of the genre’s possibilities for illuminating the human experience by imaginatively expanding the world around us. Hope, communication, bridging worlds, transcending time, and the unrepeatable preciousness of every life — this is why I watch movies, or a big part of it. (Teens and up)
  • Calvary (2014)
    I’m still not sure what I think of the ending of John Michael McDonough’s pitch-black, semi-comic tale about a flinty priest (Brendan Gleeson) trying and mostly failing to minister to an apathetic flock in an Irish village. But I’m of no two minds about Father James Lavelle himself, my favorite movie priest. (Not the most saintly — though he’s certainly a good, if not unflawed, man — but my favorite clerical character.) His crisis may evoke those of the clerical protagonists of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Louis Buñuel’s Nazarín and, of course, Diary of a Country Priest, but he cuts a more formidable figure than any of them. (Mature viewing)
  • Cameraperson (2016)
    Like many writers, when I’m forced to cut bits of writing that I like but don’t serve the present piece, I save the snippets to a digital scrapbook, telling myself I might repurpose them someday. In this singular nonfiction film, documentary cinematographer Kristen Johnson (whose Dick Johnson Is Dead was a 2020 standout) has done just that with unused footage from two decades of work, a revelatory compilation that is part memoir, part examination of conscience and confession. (Mature teens and up)
  • Chef (2014)
    What a joy this little film from Jon Favreau is. It makes me want to work in a food truck. It makes me want to do something special with my kids they’ll always remember. It makes me want to eat a good Cuban sandwich and listen to music. In its exploration of the sometimes-antagonistic relationship between creativity and criticism, it both echoes and goes beyond Ratatouille. It has also become, in an odd way, inseparable in my mind both from Favreau’s rousing photorealistic reworking of The Jungle Book and his disappointing mounting of The Lion King. (Teens and up)
  • Coraline (2009)
    My oldest son says he has watched a lot of horror films, but “Coraline is still one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.” After Spirited Away, Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy-horror novella is my favorite cinematic variation on Alice in Wonderland and my favorite immersion in an animated world of dream logic and semi-lucid nightmare imagery. Where Spirited Away is a myth-dream, Coraline is a fairytale-dream, with one of the most haunting fairytale villains — and best animal sidekicks! — in all of animation. (Older kids and up)
  • Death of Mr. Lazarescu, The (2005)
    The world of corruption, malaise and indifference revealed in the scalding 2020 Romanian documentary Collective — about a horrific nightclub fire and the preventable deaths that followed — is a world long familiar from the trenchant films of the Romanian New Wave. (Outstanding examples include the nightmare illegal-abortion scenario 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the test-fixing drama Graduation, my favorite film of 2017.) For many viewers, including me, the doorway into this world was Cristi Puiu’s crushing, mordantly funny tale about a belligerent old drunkard undergoing a medical emergency and the dreadfully banal bureaucratic morass that follows. Playing out almost in real time, it’s as simple as a parable and unfolds like a joke without a punchline. (Mature teens and up)
  • Emperor’s New Groove, The (2000)
    After the 1990s Renaissance, Disney floundered until John Lasseter helped the studio find a new groove with the likes of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Bolt and Ralph Breaks the Internet (all of which I like a lot, as well as Frozen, which I … don’t). Better than any of those for me, though, are two films from the floundering era: Lilo and Stitch and, of course, this creative Hail Mary, a redemption-centered morality tale with a frenetic Chuck Jones verbal/slapstick vibe and endlessly quotable dialogue. “This is me” narration, later overused, has a moral significance here, highlighting the threadbare self-deception of David Spade’s Kuzco. And among the stellar cast, Patrick Warburton’s Kronk nearly steals the show, above all in a diner set piece that feels like a classic routine from the Marx Brothers. (Kids and up)
  • Fruitvale Station (2013)
    A number of notorious incidents in my town in the early 2010s of police officers beating men in custody, in some cases covering it up, loom in my mind as I watch Ryan Coogler’s infuriating, fact-based BLM-themed drama starring Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant III, who was lying face down on an Oakland, California, train platform when he was shot to death in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. I value the film, among other things, for how it highlights the guard rails that help to protect the majority and how easily something can go seriously wrong when those guard rails aren’t there. It’s a film that has only gotten more urgent with passing years. (Mature viewing)
  • Inside Out (2015)
    Soul director Pete Docter is the last standing member of Pixar’s original brain trust that has yet to disappoint creatively. His best film, about a young girl’s emotional and psychological inner world, is also the one great film of Pixar’s third age. While I’m watching it, I become convinced that it’s Pixar’s best film overall, combining the emotional and thematic range of the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo and adding powerful insights about the bittersweet realities of growing up both for kids and for their parents. Like Soul, Inside Out highlights Docter’s whimsical sense of metaphor. (Kids and up)
  • Let the Right One In (2008)
    My favorite vampire movie — really the only vampire movie that completely works for me — is Tomas Alfredson’s unusual Swedish horror film about bullying, loneliness, youthful romantic attraction, and (in a sneaky way) the essentially parasitic, consuming nature of evil. The first time I watched it, the film sprang like a trap on me, because it wasn’t until the end credits were rolling that I finally recognized a crucial parallel in two central relationships and what it means for the title. (Mature viewing)
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
    In a better world, there would have been one Pirates of the Caribbean movie (and, yo ho, I really like Curse of the Black Pearl) and Peter Weir would have helmed an ongoing Master and Commander franchise. Of 2003’s two Captain Jacks, Russell Crowe’s “Lucky Jack” Aubrey is the one with dramatic and psychological possibilities unexplored, and his friendship with Paul Bettany’s Dr. Stephen Maturin held more promise than anything in the Disney swashbuckler. (Mature teens and up)
  • Mill & the Cross, The (2011)
    Two films, more than any others, have affected the way I experience art, especially sacred art: Andrei Tarkovsky’s transcendent Andrei Rublev and this unique cinematic experiment from Polish artist and filmmaker Lech Majewski. The film immerses us in a visualization of the world of a painting — the Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary — which, mirroring Brueghel’s method, is somehow also Brueghel’s world and the painting’s own story. In different ways, both films question, affirm and stunningly exemplify the power of art, especially sacred art, to respond to the enormity of human suffering and depravity, to make present, like a prayer, the eternal in the hugger-mugger of time. (Adults)
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)
    I’d be lying if I said the last three entries (the non-ordinal installments, after M:I-III) of Tom Cruise’s most successful franchise, driven by Cruise’s extreme commitment to creating ever more mind-blowing stunt-driven set pieces, weren’t among the films I most enjoy rewatching. Although I esteem all three almost equally, Rogue Nation might just be the best of the lot. The first act in particular is flawless: a brilliant opening, a terrific hand-to-hand combat introducing Rebecca Ferguson’s mysterious Ilsa Faust, a gorgeous and elaborate sequence at the Vienna State Opera during Puccini’s Turandot — what’s not to love? (Teens and up)
  • Mudbound (2017)
    When I think about the disconnect between the idea of America and the American reality, Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s historical novel looms large in my thoughts. Focusing on two families, one Black and one white, in 1940s Mississippi, and the post-World War II friendship of two veteran sons, the film somehow gestures nearly a century of American history, from antebellum slavery to the dawn of the civil-rights era. (Adults)
  • Noah (2014)
    I know, you hate the rock monsters and Noah’s murderous rage, right? But this is my list, and Darren Aronofsky’s very Jewish, bold midrashic reimagining of the story of the Flood — from its visionary, synthetic presentation of the biblical creation account(s) in scientific perspective to its insistent vision of divine revelation unfolding in the present tense, with no sense of how much longer the book will eventually be — fires my theological imagination like few other films. I wrote about Noah over and over and over, and there’s still much more to say. (Teens and up)
  • Passion of the Christ, The (2004)
    The imagery of Mel Gibson’s magnum opus haunts the weekly cycle of my praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary as well as my reflections on historic Catholic spirituality, Catholic traditionalism and Catholic-Jewish relations. While my appreciation of the film has not been uncolored by Gibson’s subsequent personal problems (not to mention an awkward personal encounter with the director) — and my caveats around it have been sharpened by many rewatchings and cogent analysis from others — I am still in awe of its achievement. (Mature viewing)
  • Rider, The (2018)
    Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, starring Francis McDormand, is one of the best films of 2020. I thought a lot more in 2020 about her last film, though, after my 19-year-old son fell something like 40 feet out of a tree. In addition to breaking his arm, he was knocked out cold. Recovering from a concussion, he was told to spend as much time as possible resting quietly in the dark, trying not even to think too hard — tough medicine for a chess buff. He was lucky compared to the lead in Zhao’s semi-fictionalized docudrama about American Indians who are also cowboys. Brady Jandreau’s career as a rodeo star was ended by a bad accident resulting in brain injury. The film is about struggling to redefine yourself when the activity you see as your reason for existing is taken away. (Teens and up)
  • Separation, A (2011)
    I’ve seen many films since 2011 in some way about failing marriages and divorce, some quite good. Yet Asghar Farhadi’s deeply persuasive portrait of apparently irreconcilable differences among sympathetic characters continues to stand out, partly for its moral and psychological precision, and partly for the unforgiving, intrusive circumstances amid which it plays out. The film is unpredictable in the way that life is unpredictable, but few films are. And that painful, unresolved final shot: both necessary and perfect. (Teens and up)
  • Song of the Sea (2014)
    I’ve said more than once on Twitter, only half-jokingly, that Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is the better version of both The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Ponyo (both from Studio Ghibli). That’s a fair indication, not only of the esteem in which I hold the middle film in Cartoon Saloon’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” (starting with The Secret of Kells and concluding with the lovely 2020 film Wolfwalkers), but also of the film’s ethereal, Ghibli-esque magic. Like Princess Kaguya, it is about a woman from another world who falls in love with a human but can’t stay with him forever; it’s also, like Ponyo, about a human boy and a magical, shape-changing girl of the sea. All three films end with transcendent revelations of otherworldly powers, but for me Song of the Sea, with its 20th-century Irish setting combining Catholic and faerie elements, casts the most potent spell. (Kids and up)
  • This Is Martin Bonner (2013)
    I know Martin Bonner. In an alternate version of my life, I might easily have become Martin Bonner. He’s a church-based program coordinator who has lost his faith, a loner whose marriage to the mother of his two children ended when, by his own account, he “woke up selfish” one day and just didn’t feel like carrying on the life he had chosen. Within the scope of the choices he has made and all that he has lost or given up, Martin is trying to be, in some way, a good person — as is everyone else in the story, in his or her own way. The world of faith in some way impacts most of these characters, from the prisoner whom Martin, through the program he works for, tries to help reenter the world to the devout couple who take the prisoner in. Chad Hartigan’s unerring little character study, centered on Paul Eenhoorn’s magnificently assured, understated performance, finds hope, empathy and spiritual thoughtfulness in contemplating the enigma of faith in a postmodern world. (Adults)
  • True Grit (2010)
    In a sense every Coen brothers film feels perfect, inasmuch as it feels exactly like the film they wanted to make; if they make movies for themselves, though, they must contain multitudes, judging by how powerfully people connect with certain works of theirs and very much not with others. I like a lot about a lot of their works (among their recent films, I like Hail, Caesar! a lot, and some episodes of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs better than others), but over the last 21 years the one film of theirs that works for me most consistently from start to finish is their gorgeous take on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, with its archaically florid language and scriptural allusions. In a solid cast, Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges are particularly great, and the Coens’ religious curiosity is at its most delicately ambiguous. (Teens and up)

21 Honorable Mentions (unranked)

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