30 Under 30 Under 30

30 Under 30 Under 30

I’m turning 30 soon. Barf! In light of the crushing ennui and forced shift in perspective, I’ve decided to make a list. Old people love lists, right?

Here are 30 films under 30 years old to watch before you’re 30. (Say 30 again!)

By no means is this an exhaustive list of The Greatest Films™, or anything like that. They’re not even necessarily my favorites. In fact, a few of these I’d prefer to never see again. They’re just some of the ones that have put me in my place, reminded me of my mortality, and questioned my understanding of the world. Much like turning 30.

In order of their release date, here are a few films that have validated my experience so far:

Before Sunrise
Dir. Richard Linklater
Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
USA, 1995


The walk-and-talk to end all walk-and-talks. Two single, hot, young people meet on a train and spend one night walking around Vienna, talking. That’s all. But for a dialogue-dependent film, it never feels heavy-handed. It’s subtle and honest and just two people dealing in the human experience. It’s romance at its finest and most accessible. Linklater at his very best, buoyed by two natural actors who take the artifice out of dialogue. It’ll make you feel like a teenager, when anything was possible.

Taste of Cherry
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami
Homayoun Ershadi
Iran, 1997


A middle-aged Tehranian man has decided to kill himself, so he spends this entire movie driving around looking for a kind stranger to bury him after he dies. Cheerful! There’s not a whole lot of talking, but the tedium of the atmosphere and the weight that it holds will put you in an existential trance. It’s a film that keeps the audience at an arm’s length in terms of motive and story, but by folding us in on the visual nuances and humanist details, we’re feeling every moment of this man’s last day on earth. The end is a destruction of the lines between fiction and reality, and creates a hyperrealism to the concept of suicide. A film you won’t watch twice, but you need to watch once.

In the Mood for Love
Dir. Wong Kar-Wai
Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung
Hong Kong, 2000


In an apartment building in Hong Kong in the ‘60s, two neighbors find out that their spouses had an affair. What follows is a sexy, secretive portrait of restraint. First of all, nobody has ever used the color red like this movie. Not even in Three Colours: Red by Kieslowski (which almost made the list but it’s part of a trilogy, and I couldn’t make up my mind between the three, and then I spiraled, so I took it off completely). In its cinematography, you’ll recognize the seeds of our modern aesthetic language, including hyper-saturated colors, slow-motion smoke, humid alleyways, neon cities at night … so many entries into the visual dictionary that simply were not there before this film. It’s easy to look back now and judge a thing based solely on today’s viewing, but when taking it in context of the year it came out, this thing was a revolution.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Dir. Michel Gondry
Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet
USA, 2004


A heartbroken boyfriend undergoes a procedure to erase his girlfriend from his memories. But as he watches them fade away, he starts to have regrets. It’s a trip. The film manages to hurl these snippets of life from every angle without losing the viewer. It’s Charlie Kaufman though, so, duh. But it really speaks to the ephemeral nature of our time here and how full-circle it all feels when you take the linearity away. Everything echoes. Shout out to the costumes by Melissa Toth, including that iconic orange sweatshirt that I know you’ve seen. And if you like the Jim Carrey/Michel Gondry collab, check out the criminally underwatched Kidding, a Showtime tragicomedy series which features Carrey as, essentially, a suicidal Mr. Rogers.

Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Nicole Kidman, Danny Huston
USA, 2004

Ten years after her husband’s death, a woman is on the verge of marrying her new boyfriend. On the night of their engagement party, a young boy shows up at the door claiming he’s her dead husband reincarnated. At first, she dismisses him, but the boy has uncanny knowledge of the dead man’s life. I watched this one recently, after discovering Glazer from The Zone of Interest. This movie is unsettling. The camera didn’t have to move for my blood pressure to shoot through the roof. A subtle film like this relies on being watertight in order to keep its viewers on the hook. The suspense is palpable exactly because you can read all of Kidman’s thoughts in the long-held takes of just her face, processing. And you agree. Also, I love films that suggest a different dimension to this world, and Birth scratches that itch.

Dir. Satoshi Kon
Megumi Hayashibara
Japan, 2006


A device that allows psychologists to enter their patients’ dreams is stolen, and the boundaries between the nightmare world and reality are blurred. It’s a Japanese anime and also the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t really describe why it terrifies me so much, except that it looks how my nightmares feel. Structurally, it’s a little psychotic but plot is hardly the point. This film was the inspiration for the movie Inception, even going so far as to rip entire sequences from it; the mirror on the street, the trippy hotel hallway, etc. This was Kon’s fourth and final film before he tragically died of cancer at the age of 46. Somehow that fact makes this watch all the more eerie. Be sure to also check out Kon’s most popular film, Perfect Blue, which was the inspiration for Black Swan, which also ripped entire sequences. If you like modern surrealism, you should know about where they came from—the godfather of the waking nightmare, Satoshi Kon.

Dir. Erick Zonca
Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould
USA/France, 2008


An alcoholic helps a woman from A.A. kidnap a young boy from his wealthy grandfather. It’s a wild ride all down California and into Mexico, and it’s Tilda Swinton at her absolute most talented. I promise you have never seen her like this. Truly, Meryl who? And nobody saw this movie, it’s a sin. In fact, you can’t even watch it anywhere unless you have Kanopy—which you all should have. Kanopy is an online archive of the digital collections of most public libraries in the country, and it’s totally free. All you need’s a library card, and you’ll receive 30 “tickets” a month, a movie usually requiring two; a whole season of show requiring five. Anyway, Julia is a really interesting perspective on self-control, aging, motherhood, and desperation. Really makes you think a little harder about the choices you make. It feels Cassavetes and Safdie Bros and it’s very, very stressful.

Rachel Getting Married
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt
USA, 2008


A young woman gets a weekend pass out of rehab for her sister’s wedding. Hathaway plays the black sheep in such a heartbreaking, suffocating way; may we all never be on the receiving end of such pitiful looks. It’s a movie you experience rather than watch, mostly because Demme does dogma; handheld, on location, naturally lit, with fully diegetic sound. It’s brilliantly scored by the wedding band, who mill about and play music all weekend. It’s a beautiful movie about forgiveness and the unconditional love of family, and you’ll choke up at the sad parts and happy parts in equal measure.

I Killed My Mother (J’ai Tué Ma Mère)
Dir. Xavier Dolan
Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval
Canada, 2009


A 16-year-old boy has a contentious relationship with his mother in suburban Montreal. First of all, Dolan wrote this film at 16, shot it at 19, and won three awards at Cannes for it. And then went on to make eight feature films in his twenties. EIGHT. Who here has made ONE?! Sigh. Anyway, he’s a genius and this movie’s great. Following Dolan’s filmography is like watching the artist grow up. Also, be on the lookout for In the Mood for Love’s visual influence in Dolan’s style, which he himself freely admits. Synergy!

The Tree of Life
Dir. Terrence Malick
Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt
USA, 2011


The entire history of the world through the lens of a 1950s Texas family. It’s impossible to describe this film. This is the film to me. The one that informs all others. If aliens came here and wanted to know what this place was all about, I’d hand them The Tree of Life. It’s the entire symphony of all of our lives playing out on a single instrument. It’s Malick’s magnum opus, and if you’re familiar with his work, you’ll know his films have no traditional plot. They unspool more like visual poems than narrative movies and the effect it has is more akin to poetry. You see it and feel it and accept it. Starting with the Big Bang and ending in heaven. The cosmos and amoebas and dinosaurs and civilization and pastors and brothers playing stickball and the sea and the desert and war. It’s all of it. And it’s not for everyone. But if you find yourself with three free hours and want to cry at Mahler and watch the world be born, see this movie. It’ll remind you why you love it here. Maybe I’ll watch it the night before my 30th.

Dir. Jeff Nichols
Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan
USA, 2012


Two boys in the Mississippi bayou find a fugitive hiding out on an island. They form a pact to help him reunite with his lover and escape. It’s a coming-of-age story with texture. It’s … muddy. You can feel it on you. The vibe is slacker South meets runaway thriller. McConaughey is this guy, and he eats this role up. Also, Tye Sheridan was one of the brothers in The Tree of Life, and this feels like the natural follow up for him. It’s just a traditional three-act film, incredibly well done. Also, Sam Shepard is in it, so you know it’s special.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Dir. Derek Cianfrance
Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes
USA, 2012


A motorcycle stuntman starts robbing banks to provide for his child, when a singular act of violence puts him on a collision course with a cop-turned-politician. This one’s in my top three. It’s near-perfect in scope, pacing, and tone. Set in rainy, woodsy Schenectady, Pines is a triptych about legacy, choice, and the sins of the father. It’s another slap in the face with the circuitousness of life and how nothing ever really resolves—the ripples just come back a little subtler the next time around. Cianfrance is my favorite living director, and I’m obsessed with him—a disciple of Cassavetes and the perfect introduction to realism for any movie newcomer. I’d organize his closet if he asked. Watch Blue Valentine next.

Dir. Richard Linklater
Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette
USA, 2014


A 6-year-old boy grows over 12 years until he leaves for college. And we watch in real time. First of all, it’s an incredible logistical feat that stretches the limits of the medium. Budgeting, crewing up, the risk of a child protagonist who could’ve very easily dipped out at any point … it’s a miracle of teamwork, and that fact alone makes me emotional. But this movie has always made me emotional, as evidenced by this article I wrote a decade ago. Life is made sweeter by all the small stuff and how lucky are we to have Richard Linklater to document it?

Dir. Xavier Dolan
Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon
Canada, 2014

A neighbor steps in to help a widow with her violent, ADHD son. It’s an emotional rollercoaster about the unconditional love of a mother and son. An incredibly heartfelt movie that is Dolan at his stylistic best. He plays with aspect ratio in, potentially, the most effective manner I’ve ever seen. And he built a contemporarily soundtrack featuring Counting Crows, Oasis, and Simple Plan; the music alone will sate your nostalgia. It was shot on a gorgeously graded 35mm by Dolan’s oft-collaborator André Turpin (who you should follow on Instagram immediately. Thank me later.) The 1:1 aspect ratio creates a photo-like quality which, along with the diffused look of the camera, puts us right into childhood melancholy. Watching this and his debut I Killed My Mother as a double feature would be an interesting exercise, as Mommy is widely regarded to be Dolan’s best film. It won him the Special Jury Prize at Cannes where he received a 13-minute standing ovation ... at 25-years-old for his fourth film, just once again for context.

"Over the Garden Wall"
Dir. Patrick McHale
Elijah Wood, Collin Dean
USA, 2014


An animated miniseries about two brothers who get lost in a strange forest, Wonderland-style, and encounter whimsical characters and obstacles on their journey home. Patrick McHale was the creative director for a few seasons of "Adventure Time" and some of the animation has that feel. It’s kind of an old-timey, ragtime fairytale that feels pulled out of time. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. It’s heartwarming and tender and a satisfying little adventure. And I know it’s not a movie, but I’m throwing it in here anyway. Couldn’t love it more.

Dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Michael Caine, Harvey KeitelItaly, 2015


Two lifelong friends vacation in a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps and ponder retirement. There’s a stacked cast—Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and Jane Fonda all have significant roles. For this being Sorrentino’s first English-language film, he probably made that choice to be accessible for audiences, and I think it works. Especially since the film is structured mainly around conversations that happen with and around these people. The surrealist imagery and the musings on time create a safe, European bubble for the audience to relax and ponder in. It’s a commentary on old age and the poignancy and horror that come with it. Sorrentino plays the maestro in his directing here; we sweep along from one person’s place in time to the next. It does feel a little long, and could definitely be tighter, but the memorable scenes more than make up for a few squirmy moments. Particularly one shot towards the end that took me by such surprise, I thought I was having a heart attack. It was horrifying and beautiful and in that split second, I learned something about myself. And isn’t that why we go to the movies?

Dir. Kirsten Johnson
USA, 2016


A visual memoir from a documentarian about her life and works solely captured in front of the camera. We get to see the between-takes, the setting up, the breaking down. The experience of watching this is like breaking the fourth wall of your own perception. There is a direct and palpable relationship between subject and photographer. What we look at reflects ourselves back. It’s also a remarkable study in editing—reminiscent of La Jetée in its reliance on juxtaposition and on the simple, true fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Blue Jay
Dir. Alexandre Lehmann
Sarah Paulson, Mark Duplass
USA, 2016


Two high-school sweethearts reunite for the day in their small town. The brilliance of this film is the chemistry between its leads. These two are charming anyhow, but when put together, in front of a roving black-and-white camera, something like magic happens. The movie was shot without a script, over just seven days, in true Duplass Brothers-style. The effect is that it feels raw and tangible, and gives the actors a weighty unsteadiness to play with. It’s lovely and melancholic and only 80-minutes, which we love for a piece like this. At times the story may feel trite, but the performances are true and wonderful, so all is forgiven. And because it’s about regrets and the passing of time, Blue Jay easily makes this list.

A Ghost Story
Dir. David Lowery
Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
USA, 2017


Yes, this is the one with the guy under a white sheet the whole time, and, yes, Rooney Mara eats a cake for five minutes straight, but trust me, it’s an incredible little film. You just gotta get over the sheet thing, and you’ll definitely be affected. It’s short, an hour-and-a-half long, and the pacing is perfectly measured for a film all about time. You’re watching the passage of time from the ghost’s perspective, where minutes feel like hours and years feel like seconds. It’s gorgeous and affecting, and has a 20-minute monologue by a frat bro in the middle that half of you will love and half will hate. So, that’s fun.

The Florida Project
Dir. Sean Baker
Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite
USA, 2017


Six-year-old girl, Moonee, and her single mother try to make ends meet while living in a budget motel in Kissimmee Florida, in the outskirts of Walt Disney World. It’s a surreal juxtaposition of near-homelessness and childhood wonder. The beauty of kids is that they inherently know how to make the best of their situation, and this little girl’s performance is astonishing in its honesty. Because it was shot with mainly non-actors (and a fine performance by Willem Dafoe), the audience truly feels the unease of living paycheck to paycheck. Psychologically, because we’re not watching celebrities on the screen, we’re not convinced they’re going to be okay. Moonee and her ragtag friends will break your heart and bring you right back to sweet, melancholy summer vacation.

Eighth Grade
Dir. Bo Burnham
Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton
USA, 2018


13-year-old Kayla endures her last week of middle school in the disastrous turmoil of adolescence. This one is brutal, you guys. I cried like four times when I first watched this. Keep in mind, it’s a contemporary project set in 2018. Being a middle-school girl is horrific to begin with, and then add social media on top … I truly don’t know how kids survive it. For those who don’t know, Burnham was an original YouTuber, making videos from his parents’ attic back in 2006 at 16 years old. He, in many ways, is the personification of this film; a scared, confused little kid who’s forced into this digital hellscape and then told to “grow up.” He was 28 years old and able to completely get inside the chaotic psyche of an eighth-grade girl. The movie isn’t cynical; it’s curious and honest. It’s a beautiful experiment that made me confront my youth and also provided me with grace for these damn kids these days.

The Souvenir
Dir. Joanna Hogg
Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke
UK, 2019


A film student falls in love with an abusive older man, and her work and life get tangled. The film is led by a first-time actor (and daughter of Tilda Swinton) as a surrogate for the director herself. The film is autobiographical, with much of the actual film, photographs, costumes, and recordings pulled from Hogg’s younger years. The whole thing is a stew of art and remembrance, with the main character equally feeling as splintered and fragmented as the audience does. Her naivete, and ours, gets chipped away, moment by moment. There’s a Part II to this film, as well, and I could have easily picked that as the favorite. But something about the earnestness of the endeavor here rings so true and heartbreaking to me. Tilda is also in it, by the way, as the mother of her actual daughter, and it’s wonderful to see their biological shorthand play out on screen.

The Painter and the Thief
Dir. Benjamin Ree
Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland
Norway, 2020


After a famous painter’s art is stolen from a gallery in Oslo, the painter strikes up a friendship with the thief which, over the course of three years, turns into psychological interdependency. This is a documentary, first of all, and some of the scenes in this film had my jaw on the floor. I could not believe that they captured such human moments on screen. It’s about the power of redemption, what the point of art ultimately is, and how we’re all worthy of a friend. Something about me—I’m a sucker for an unlikely friendship. Also, you’re gonna laugh when you see how wholesome Norwegian prisons are.

My Octopus Teacher
Dir. Philippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Craig Foster, an octopusSouth Africa, 2020


A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. Another documentary about the power of taking the time to learn about another. Even if it’s an octopus. I cried through the whole goddamn thing, no lie, and was blown away by the intelligence of this creature. Also, shout out to the filmmaker’s wife and kid for letting him cheat on them with an octopus for like a year.

Dir. Chloé Zhao
Frances McDorman, David Strathairn
USA, 2020


After losing everything in the 2008 recession, a woman decides to live the van life and travel across the American West as a modern nomad. First of all, it’s gorgeous. The natural lighting, the scenery … mmm. It also touches on something very true about our desire for freedom, and how the package in which it comes is rarely our choice. My growing disillusion with the America I learned about in school and the America of today is personified in the gorgeous but scarce photography of this post-recession West.

Dir. Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham
USA, 2020


A completely self-made look into the creative process during 2020’s COVID lockdown. You watch Burnham’s mental collapse in real time as he sets out to “create content” in his little room by himself. Bo Burnham has long been a kind of filtration system for millennials in this messy, new, interconnected world. He has the unique, omnipotent perspective of being completely inside and outside the social media machine. I actually cannot stress enough how I wasn’t really a Bo Burnham fan as a kid. I didn’t necessarily grow up with him, but I do understand his influence on our post-meta sensibilities. And while I understand that many people did not have the luxury of the experience shown in Inside, many people did. And regardless, Burnham is able to touch on something indescribable here—that we are all just trying to connect. And that the loneliest, most foolish acts of self-reflection often end up being the most universal.

The Worst Person in the World
Dir. Joachim Trier
Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie
Norway, 2021


Four years in the life of a woman who doesn’t really know herself as she struggles through relationships and career changes. On the surface, definitely not high concept or, frankly, descript in any way. But my god, this film … It is a confrontation on “figuring it out” when you’re young and the ripple effects on the people around you. It feels romcom-y at first, but quickly evolves into a sincere, cutting reflection on yourself and your choices. I left it feeling like I got slapped across the face and told I was a piece of shit and then immediately hugged because everyone is, and we all deserve to love and be loved anyway! If you like reading Sally Rooney, you’ll like this film.

Drive My Car
Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura
Japan, 2021


A stage director, still reeling from the loss of his wife years earlier, agrees to direct Uncle Vanya at a theater festival in another town. Production hires him a driver; a young, introverted woman, and the film follows their quiet friendship in between rides. This was an unexpected tearjerker. And not out of sadness. Out of the quiet humanity of two people thrust together by circumstance who fill some void for the other. I’m a big believer in timing and that some people come into your life for a while to teach you something and then they go away. This movie captures that feeling of Fate. It’s a powerful yet subtle statement on humanity, and what we really mean to each other. Also, it’s based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, so it’s got that inherent, ethereal gauze draped all over it.

Past Lives
Dir. Celine Song
Greta Lee, Teo Yoo
USA, 2023


Two Korean childhood friends reunite as adults for one fateful week and revisit their past.

It’s the million little papercuts of a missed glance or an unanswered Skype. It’s the loneliness of all the tech that gets in the way of our human connection. It’s that we can be happy and content in two separate realities, but which is the real one? Is a marriage more important than a childhood crush, just because you’ve labeled it so? And yet, the Korean concept of in-yun—the ties between people that exist over all their lives, in every iteration—is the theme of this entire film, rooting us in the metaphysical. People are gentle with one another and each relationship is specific to the two people within it. Ugh, it’s just beautiful and you should watch it.

Anatomy of a Fall
Dir. Justine Triet
Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud
France, 2023


A woman is suspected of pushing her husband out the window to his death, and the only witness is the couple’s blind son. What follows is the pursuit of truth and objectivity. From a certain perspective, anything could have killed this man. Life exists in ambiguity, and only by seeing through the hue of our own biases can we hope to find answers. This is definitely European cinema though, you guys—it does not have the Hollywood structure we’re used to. If you like watching movies scrolling through TikTok (no judgment), skip this one. The beauty is in the details. Also, shout out to the dog with the best performance of 2023.

Every once in a while, it’s good to turn around and see yourself in context. Movies have always served as mile markers for me, gauging how far I’ve come. If put to the task, no two people would curate the same list. We’re all made of and moved by our own singular stuff.

Isn’t that a beautiful thing?

*Feature image by Cristina Conti (Adobe)

Writer and local menace. Currently working in costume shops around New York. For press and inquiries, reach me at my couch.
More posts by Sommer Rusinski.
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