What is it: An Islamic fundamentalist group takes over the titular city and a thousand acts of quiet resistance bloom in the West African desert.
MVP: Cinematographer Sofian El Fani, envisioning original sins next to modern ones.
Why it's here: Despotic governments reorient what is and isn't acceptable based on their own arbitrary needs, turning the everyday into a daring political act. Timbuktu understands this and finds the poetry in everything from singing in one's home to playing a game of soccer without a ball.
What is it: A talking Peruvian bear whose made a home in London is wrongfully accused of a crime.
MVP: Paul King, filing every nook and cranny of his world with earnestness.
Why it's here: If you're kind and polite, the world will be right. If you think that's corny, I've got a hard stare for you.
Leave No Trace
What is it: A homeless but capable father and daughter pair get rousted from their national park squatter's home and have to adapt to civilization.
MVP: Debra Granik, spreading her love for rural people over all of the Pacific Northwest whether they're a clueless bureaucrat or teenage rabbit enthusiast.
Why it's here: It's a tenderly observed film about parents and children, psychic war wounds, and community, all played at a low but resonant volume.
What is it: A toe-curling monument to teen awkwardness and anxiety with the added wrinkle of social media's constant pull of presenting anything but that.
MVP: Bo Burnham, adding in all the equivocations and fumfuring his characters stumble on down to the last um.
Why it's here: It's going to last forever as a crystal clear evocation of a specific time.
What is it: A marriage thriller as twisty as the folds of a spouse's unknowable brain.
MVP: Rosamund Pike, seducing her way to sympathy for a self-evidently awful person.
Why it's here: I wrestled with Gone Girl for what felt like weeks after I first watched it, and it still resonates with discomfort and the occasional kernel of truth spilling out of unreliable narrators.
Lean on Pete
What is it: A teenager already on the edge has things taken away from him until it's just him and a horse on the prairie.
MVP: Charlie Plummer, the mountain, the tall tree, the swift wind sweepin' the country.
Why it's here: Because it contains the invaluable lesson that one should always be kind to servers, and ends with one of the decades' great closers.
What is it: Believed to be dead, an astronaut is left on the surface of Mars and must devise a way to stay alive.
MVP: Matt Damon, sciencing the shit out of Mars.
Why it's here: Competence porn at its finest, the film is a walking advertisement for science and engineering and ends with an inspiring call to technological arms.
What is it: A pair of down-on-their-luck brothers organize a heist of the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
MVP: Steven Soderbergh, respecting the intelligence of his characters despite the shorthand of their heavy Southern accents.
Why it's here: I've never been in a sing-along during a heist movie, or any movie for that matter, but the theater I saw this in broke out into Country Roads at a key moment, so here we are.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
What is it: Quentin Tarantino envisions the movie and TV business at a turning point through two created characters and one real one.
MVP: Margot Robbie, grounding an otherwise very funny film in a real life tragedy.
Why it's here: Languid and luxurious, the film finds what was valuable in this late-60's period and what needed to be disposed of.
What is it: Characters are cornered in Marseille ahead of the encroaching Nazi horde, desperate for the papers that will allow them to leave a crumbling Europe.
MVP: Christian Petzold, conceiving brilliantly of a period film that contains contemporary casting and technology and thus bridging the gap between the horrors of the past and a potential future.
Why it's here: Casablanca for a new age, Transit envisions a scarily plausible world, probably because versions of it have happened so frequently and because they continue to happen right now.
What is it: A Puritan family too strident for Puritans is cast out into the New England forest, where their worst fears await them.
MVP: Robert Eggers, sticking to a 17th century interpretation of the world down to the tools, clothes, language, and philosophy.
Why it's here: Because compared to the grim lifestyle Eggers depicts, who wouldn't want that taste of butter, that pretty dress, that delicious life?
Son of Saul
What is it: A ghastly tour through Auschwitz, led by a sonderkommando who thinks he finds the body of his son and needs to find a way to give him a proper burial.
MVP: Geza Rohrig, shambling through this vision of hell with a look as dazed as the kid at the end of Come and See.
Why it's here: The first, but not last, unrecommendable film on this list plumbs the depths of the human experience. No last minute reprieves like in Schindler's List, Son of Saul gives a deeply-researched and deeply-felt work about finding purpose in purposelessness, and even that not being enough.
What is it: A high-powered video game executive is raped in her home, and instead of calling the police, she searches for the culprit herself.
MVP: Isabelle Huppert, giving one of the decade's best performances as a prickly dynamo unwilling to be thought of as a victim.
Why it's here: Provocative from scene one, Elle is endlessly fascinating in what it's trying to convey and how it goes about doing so. One would expect nothing less from director Paul Verhoeven, vital well into his 70's.
What is it: A young Irish woman immigrates to New York, grappling with the nausea of the sea voyage, the homesickness of her first few months, and the pull of returning to her family.
MVP: Yves Belanger, capturing the pastel-colored wonder of the world.
Why it's here: A film you could take your grandma to and both love. A patriotic story of America at its best.
What is it: A talentless hack falls in with an experimental band led by a guy who never takes a papier-mache head off.
MVP: Michael Fassbender, giving a physical performance so expressive that one can see his face behind an all-encompassing mask.
Why it's here: A naturally absurd story takes a surprisingly affecting turn in its third act, all amidst the evergreen message of the deep unlikelihood of willing oneself to creative success.
What is it: An overstressed mother of three is convinced to hire a night nanny.
MVP: Diablo Cody, translating details from her own life into a penetrating depiction of the highs and mostly lows of motherhood.
Why it's here: I'm inclined to view parenthood as more honest when it's depicted as difficult and joyless, not all the time necessarily but most of the time. Tully, therefore, is honest.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
What is it: The ecstatic highs and the devastating lows of a Belgian musical couple.
MVP: Nico Luenen, stitching together the segments of the characters' lives for maximum emotional effect.
Why it's here: There's something romantic about Europeans having an interest in America, like the couple here does. They bond over folk music, a genre laden with misfortune of the kind they suffer in this alternately painful and joyful film.