Film critics are not authorities, least of all me: What the heck do I know? I didn’t even like Aquaman. So a list like this is not a guide to how you should think. It’s more like a diary entry. Movies that stay with us are the ones that reach deep inside and connect with us on a molecular level.
So, er, welcome to my molecules.
10. Her (2013). A funny and melancholy parable about social anomie in an age of technological miracles, writer-director Spike Jonze’s film won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and features unforgettable performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as a boy and girl carrying on a very 21st-century love affair. Has Johansson ever been more beautiful?
9. Patriots Day (2016). The ongoing global conflict with Islamist terror, frequently derided as some sort of race-based folly, comes home to Boston in director Peter Berg’s story of two dopey but malevolent white guys who in 2013 decided to blow up some random Americans with a pressure cooker loaded with nails. The banality of evil, the resourcefulness of law-enforcement professionals, and the resilience of Americans are in the background; in the foreground is a fiercely exciting manhunt.
8. Gravity (2013). A journalist, in all earnestness, once asked director Alfonso Cuarón what it was like to shoot this movie on location in outer space. (Cuarón replied, deadpan, that it was difficult being away from his family for so long.) Anyone who has seen this gobsmacking adventure on the big screen can relate: from the opening seconds, you are right there in orbit with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to fight her way through chaos and get back home. A technological marvel needs a heart at its core, though, and Cuarón and Bullock deliver in a clever and resonant way.
7. They Shall Not Grow Old (2019). Those who loudly proclaim, “I am bored by blockbusters” such as the ones directed by Peter Jackson should take into account that the skills (and profits) accumulated by Jackson and his team yielded this magnificent feat of cinematic restoration — digital expertise used as a kind of excavation tool to unearth buried secrets. Gathering bits and pieces of low-quality film and sound, Jackson used his Gandalf magic to make an impossibly evocative document of life among the Tommies in the foul trenches of the Great War.
6. American Sniper (2014). We’re just a few minutes into Clint Eastwood’s deeply patriotic film when Jason Hall’s screenplay explains an indelible metaphor about humanity’s unfortunate capacity for violence and how we respond to it: we divide ourselves into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The movie starts out wonderfully, gets even better, and concludes in a dizzying display of gratitude for the sheepdogs, such as the late Chris Kyle, portrayed with great compassion and humility by Bradley Cooper.
5. 127 Hours (2010). People who will chuckle and toss Junior Mints in their mouths while watching slasher movies could not be persuaded to watch director Danny Boyle’s story of a hiker named Aron Ralston. Sensitively portrayed by James Franco, Ralston went out for some exercise, jumped into a canyon and got his right hand stuck under an 800-pound rock. This extraordinarily uplifting film should make you rejoice, not squirm: Ralston is a man who walked out of his own grave.
4. First Man (2018). What really motivated Neil Armstrong to go off on such a dangerous, even foolhardy, adventure? Director Damien Chazelle has a theory, but he slyly withholds it until the very end. Instead, he constructs a kind of rebuttal to Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff that frames the mission to the moon in starkly different terms than what we’ve seen before, turning its gaze to a taciturn, interior-directed figure and the triumph of the nerds he represented.
3. The Tree of Life (2011). Director Terrence Malick long ago slipped the bonds of ordinary filmmaking and created his own genre of reflective, dreamlike, haunting films that are less interested in storytelling than in carving out some space in a character’s consciousness. Rooted in Malick’s own Texas boyhood, his Christian faith, and his difficult relationship with his harsh father, The Tree of Life transcends the medium of cinema and plays chords in the soul.
2. Arrival (2016). The tissue connecting the three outer-space movies on this list will be apparent to anyone who has seen them, and they’d make a superb triple feature. Arrival is an ingeniously plotted double mystery within a sci-fi form. Via inquiries into language and time, the director Denis Villeneuve finds an amazingly original and elegant way to braid the vast unnameable with the specific and individual, leading up to a devastating and perfect final act that explains the whole movie.
1. Never Look Away (2019). Some of the most talented of filmmakers — the Coen brothers, Yorgos Lanthimos, Paul Thomas Anderson — tend to conclude their films with a cosmic shrug. Lots of top directors prove unwilling or unable to provide what we go to the movies for — true feeling. But Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s fictionalization of the life of painter Gerhard Richter sprinkles emotional high points all the way through this lush, moving, frequently tragic movie. It’s not only the best German film I’ve ever seen, it makes previous films about Germany’s horrible 20th century look petty and reductive. And it makes the case for art and artists as well as any film ever made on the topic.
National Review Institute (NRI) is the nonprofit 501(c)(3) journalistic think tank that supports the NR mission and 14 NRI fellows (including this author!), allowing them to do what they do best: Advance principled and practical conservative journalism. NRI is currently in the midst of its End-of-Year Fund Appeal and seeks to raise over $200,000 to support the work of the NRI fellows. Please consider giving a generous end-of-year tax-deductible contribution to NRI. Your gift, along with all those from the NR Nation, will provide the essential fuel for our mission to defend those consequential principles for which National Review has fought since 1955, and for which, with your support, it will carry the fight far into the future. Thank you for your consideration.