The 10 Best Movies I've Seen This Year

Over parental leave, I was able to indulge my inner cinephile. I watched 61 movies in 56 days - mostly while feeding my new infant. That’s ~1.08 movies/day, for a total of approximately 130 hours of film. If you think that sounds like a lot of time feeding an infant, it is.

I’ve included the full list of movies that I watched at the end of this post, but below you’ll find the top 10. For anyone not familiar with my taste in movies, these are pretty much all what my friends have euphemistically labeled “depressing indie dramas.” Look elsewhere for lighthearted comedies!


#10 - Burning

I loved the understated, ambiguous storytelling in this thriller. On the surface it’s the story of the wealth and opportunity divide in South Korea, but under the straightforward plot points there are layers of meaning that peel back and imply different interpretations. These additional layers keep interested viewers second-guessing assumptions beyond the ending credits. I consider myself a fairly sophisticated movie viewer, but I missed some major metaphors and allegories and had a satisfying time reading the Wikipedia summary afterwards only to realize that fact. Another big plus for this one: although it deals with explicit, violent themes, it’s not visually explicit. Like all good taut, psychological thrillers, the violence is left out of the frame for the viewer to imagine.

#9 - You Were Never Really Here

Like Burning, this one deals with heavy, violent, uncomfortable themes, but is more explicit in their depiction. I was initially turned off by the slow start to the story, but it’s ending can best be described as a subtle and beautiful conclusion to a nightmare. The thing I loved most about the film was the mixing of the real and the unreal to explain the character’s mental states. Unlike other films that have similar storylines (8MM for instance), the focus here is less about what happens in the real world and more about what happens inside the heads of the protagonists.

#8 - Wild Tales

This one was a blast and shares a great deal with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (see below). The “film” is actually a collection of shorts that meditate on the theme of revenge. Most are pretty short (<20 minutes) and are darkly funny. If you like early Cohen brothers movies, comedies of the absurd, or if a towing company has ever caused you to boil over with anger, you’ll enjoy this movie.

#7 - Shoplifters

Shoplifters tells the story of a group of petty thieves eking out a living at the margin of modern Japanese society. Although they aren’t related by blood, they function as a family and the film encourages the viewer to question what really defines a family. Other movies have told a similar yarn, but they either devolve into 2D characters spouting syrupy truisms (“family are the people you choose!”) or they become absurdly dark or overly complex (think Oceans 11 but in melodrama form). Shoplifters threads the needle and tells a story that feels real every step of the way, warming your heart without sliding into postmodern cynicism.

#6 - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Like Wild Tales, this one is a collection of short films and it follows a similar trajectory: starting with the lightest and funniest of the bunch and ending with the most profound and touching. As someone who loves western films as a genre and aesthetic, I couldn’t get enough of these short films. They were schlocky, flawed, serious, devastating, and profound at all the right times. My favorite of the bunch was the last one, so if you’re struggling with some of the humor and gallows humor that comes first, stick around until the end.

#5 - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This was the first movie I finished after starting leave and it was incredible. Normally I don’t go in for movies that have extensive narrative voice-over. If you have to outright tell me what’s going on in the movie, then it’s failing to tell the story itself. But here, the interstitial narration made everything more poignant and added what felt like genuine attempts to understand the historical truth of the story. Sure, it was glamorized and sure there were large portions of fiction interspersed to fill in the holes of the real story. Yet it managed to take an event whose meaning is largely lost to modern viewers and contextualize, humanize, and dramatize it. That’s no small feat.

#4 - Winter’s Bone

Boy, did the director nail the depiction of rural, rustbelt America. I grew up in Appalachia, which isn’t quite the Ozarks, but this felt a bit like a documentary in several parts. It’s always tempting for Hollywood writers to depict poor rural people like the murders in Deliverance, and what struck me most about this movie was how nuanced and dignified the characters are. They are real humans with foibles and weakness, but also dignity and strength. I always love a movie in which “the good guys” commit transgressions and “the bad guys” partially redeem themselves, because that’s the way I perceive life: there’s a lot more grey than there is black and white. If you’re wondering whether the world of this film is accurate to reality, the answer is “yes.”

#3 - 1945

This one came completely out of left field and left me speechless. It’s a story from World War 2 that I’ve never heard told: we open on a rural village in Hungary after WW2 has ended. Two Jews get off a train and start walking from the depot into the village center. Advance notice reaches the village, where a prominent couple is preparing to be married. The villager elders don’t know whether the Jews are returning to reclaim property that was taken during the Holocaust. The uncertainty causes tensions to rise and secrets to be revealed. I loved the black and white photography, slow and deliberate pacing, and the (somewhat) twist ending.


#2 - The Handmaiden

Fair disclosure: this one was pretty twisted. That said, it was also beautifully filmed, directed, and acted, and I think that somewhat makes up for the sadism. For me, there were two elements of this film that really made it shine: the cinematography and the twists. The cinematography was so deft as to be initially invisible. The story is moved forward as much by the way the film is constructed as the dialogue and acting, and that’s always a pleasure to behold. The twists are baked in from the first few scenes: you know that you are going to be guided through the plot by an unreliable narrator, yet the hints as to what’s really going on are provided to the astute so that you don’t end the movie with a big reveal and artificial “gotcha” moment.

#1 - Roma

Roma is the story of a housemaid working for an upper-middle class Mexican family in the 1970s. It’s a simple story, but the film is tremendously nuanced and beautiful. Like Shoplifters, you end the story feeling simultaneously repulsed by some of things you’ve witnessed, but at the same time, a tremendous urge to hug the very same characters. Unlike most arthouse films, there’s enough reality and narrative to make this compelling without sacrificing the breath-taking visual meditations on daily struggles. Most of the other films on this list are too dark, too artsy, or too weird for most people to appreciate, but Roma is the rare gem that is simultaneously accessible and exquisite.

The Full List

Below is the full list of films that I watched, along with my subjective 1-10 rating:

  1. Roma 9

  2. The Handmaiden 9

  3. 1945 9

  4. Winter's Bone 9

  5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford 9

  6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 8

  7. Shoplifters 8

  8. Wild Tales 8

  9. You Were Never Really Here 8

  10. Burning 8

  11. Mid90s 8

  12. Ida 8

  13. Tucker & Dale vs Evil 8

  14. The Florida Project 8

  15. The Last Black Man in San Francisco 8

  16. A Separation 7

  17. So Sorry to Bother You 7

  18. A Most Violent Year 7

  19. Searching 7

  20. Nocturnal Animals 7

  21. Leave No Trace 7

  22. Room 7

  23. Changeling 6

  24. Prisoners 6

  25. The Guilty 6

  26. First Man 6

  27. The Mule 6

  28. Bad Times at the El Royal 6

  29. Gone Girl 6

  30. Can You Ever Forgive Me? 6

  31. Green Book 6

  32. Vice 6

  33. The Old Man and the Gun 6

  34. Hail Caesar! 6

  35. Becoming Bond 6

  36. The Secret In their Eyes 6

  37. The Square 6

  38. Fyre 5

  39. Beasts of No Nation 5

  40. Incendies 5

  41. Up In the Air 5

  42. Papillon 5

  43. Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse 5

  44. The Favourite 5

  45. Suburbicon 5

  46. They Shall Not Grow Old 5

  47. Tully 5

  48. Hacksaw Ridge 4

  49. Her 4

  50. The Post 4

  51. Three Identical Strangers 4

  52. The Sisters Brothers 4

  53. Infernal Affairs 4

  54. A Prayer Before Dawn 4

  55. A Simple Favor 4

  56. Bone Tomahawk 4

  57. Upgrade 3

  58. Won't You Be My Neighbor? 3

  59. Dangal 3

  60. Game Night 3