For all of the at-home movie-watching options available to today’s audiences, none quite compare to the experience of going out to catch a film in a theater. Paste’s monthly guides for Netflix, HBO and Amazon cover the best of what’s out there if you’re an unrepentant couch potato, but we also want to recommend the best of what’s in theaters right now, because for some of these films seeing them on a big screen in public is the best way to support a small film most people wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see. And in the case of one of these films below, it may already be available to you at home, but we can’t recommend enough that you see it in a theater while you still can. Chances are, it might even be in 70mm.
So try to find the following in a cineplex near you. It’s a beautiful time for movies—many of the following already fell on our best of the 2018 list—and a crucial time to support them by leaving the house. No shame in sneaking in your own snacks.
Check out the 10 best movies in theaters right now:
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Director: James Wan
Paying environmental catastrophe lip service is an expected thematic conceit for movies in 2018, but no one (hypothetically) wants to pay to sit in a damp two hours and 20 minutes of guilt when every film in this Universe to come before was either suffocatingly grim or unfairly tasked with shouldering the entire weight of Hollywood’s misogyny. All Wan had to do was deliver a blisteringly colorful spectacle. Aquaman is dumb and loud and really dumb and too long and dumb but also wonderfully creative and shameless; it’s both the superhero film we need, and the one we deserve.
The plot, as is the case in almost every DCEU entry, is as bloated as it is messy and predictable, a whale carcass washed up on shore sliced in half by Atlantean plasma lasers during a Two Towers-league battle with an army of crab people. Those action scenes, though. Revolutionary at best, innovative at worst, Wan and his team have taken what Justice League incapably worked around—talking/interacting/fighting/living underwater—and transformed that obstacle into a marvelous strength, using the omnidirectional freedom of subterranean saltwater violence to make up for the “everyone is flying” bullshit of Zack Snyder’s wet dreams while never abandoning the unique physics (limitations) of all that wetness. A late film battle scene between Orm’s hordes and the aforementioned talking crustaceans is astounding: a feat of design and imagination for which James Wan should understand that this is most likely why he’s on this Earth. Likewise, while the surface scenarios featuring Arthur and Mera searching for a lost trident that holds the key to saving the world just add needless fat to an already drowning runtime, one rooftop, wall-obliterating sequence shines, a demonstration of Wan’s formidable grip on action grammar, pushing long takes and swooping crane shots to establish a seamless, real-time geography for Mera (Amber Heard), Arthur (Jason Momoa) and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to just wreck each other’s day. Bell towers explode; the living rooms and privacy of more than two Sicilian grandmothers are violated. Granted, the scene exists for its own sake, devoid of narrative stakes and sense, but that’s hardly ever been a valid argument against any contemporary studio movie anyway. If Justice League was a self-aware course correction, then Aquaman is course correction as business model, a denial of much of what Snyder established, leaning hard into Momoa’s charm and Wan’s old-school fantasy proclivities. May Martha bless us, everyone. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Release Date: December 25, 2018 (select cities)
Director: Karyn Kusama
There’s a superb 90-minute movie woven through Destroyer’s two-hour run time, tight-knit and tense, free of excess flab and much, much meaner by consequence. We don’t have that movie. The movie we do have is a solid expression of Kusama’s talent (if not quite on the level of to her 2016 chiller, The Invitation). In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, an LAPD detective whose undercover placement during her younger years on the force ended in disaster that’s defined not only her career but her personality nearly two decades later. In Destroyer’s present, Erin looks sandblasted and stretched thin, like leather left to tan for 20 years; she’s cracked and peeled on the outside, but her interior’s worse, crumbled and deprived of compassion since her undercover operation. The film sets her on the path to redemption and perhaps revenge, when Silas (Toby Kebbell), the ringleader of the gang she infiltrated with her partner-cum-lover (Sebastian Stan), emerges from hiding to taunt her anew. His return gives her purpose. Kidman’s performance gives her pathos. Destroyer raises questions of identity that Kusama doesn’t satisfy—is Erin really just the opposite side of the coin from Silas?—but Kidman’s work her holds the movie together. —Andy Crump
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Director: Travis Knight
Paramount actually made a Transformers movie that’s a lovely, exciting and wholly engaging gem of a sci-fi adventure for teenagers. I guess it’s time for me to finally go into my dream business of exporting the newly formed ice from hell using my army of flying pigs. Bumblebee is an ’80s set spin-off/prequel to Michael Bay’s migraine-inducing, often infuriating, and always head-slappingly stupid five Transformers flicks. It wisely scales down Bay’s love of random mayhem in favor of a fairly respectful and inventive throwback to those Spielbergian family sci-fi/adventure movies about the friendship between a nerdy, lonely teenager (Hailee Steinfeld) and a friendly and protective alien/robot/magical being. Their bond teaches the teenager to come out of her shell and face her fears. Of course since we also need an action-heavy third act, the big bad military that’s unfairly threatened by the creature goes after it, forcing the teenager and the creature to defend each other against all odds, learning lessons about the importance of love in the process. Sure, Bumblebee doesn’t really bring much that’s especially new or daring to that formula, but at least all the ingredients really work. It’s hard enough to have a fully CG character as your co-star, and it’s even tougher when an actor is tasked with creating a deep emotional connection with something she can’t even see during production. Steinfeld is up to the challenge, making us believe in Bumblebee’s existence almost as much as the animators who worked on bringing him to life. Just like death and taxes, it’s a certainty of life that we will get a new Transformers in theaters once every few years. If they’re more like Bumblebee going forward, the thought of that doesn’t depress me nowhere near as it used to. —Oktay Ege Kozak / Full Review
7. If Beale Street Could Talk
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Director: Barry Jenkins
Time for our characters elliptical, and the love story between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) the rhythm we’ll return to over and over. As our narrator, Tish speaks in both curt statements and koans, Barry Jenkins’ screenplay translating James Baldwin’s novel as an oneiric bit of voyeurism: When the two finally consummate their relationship after a lifetime (barely two decades) of friendship between them and their families, the mood is divine and revelatory. Do people actually have sex like that? God no, but maybe we wish we did? And sometimes we convince ourselves we have, with the right person, just two bodies alone, against the world, in a space—maybe the only space—of their own. The couple’s story is simple and not: A cop (Ed Skrein) with a petty score to settle against Fonny connives a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios) who was raped to pick Fonny out of a lineup, even though his alibi and all evidence suggests otherwise. In the film’s first scene, we watch Tish visit Fonny in jail to tell him that she’s pregnant. He’s ecstatic; we immediately recognize that unique alchemy of terror and joy that accompanies any new parent, but we also know that for a young black couple, the world is bent against their love thriving. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says.
Do they hope? James and Layne’s performances, so wondrously in sync, suggest they must, one flesh with no other choice. As Tish’s mother, Regina King perhaps best understands the wickedness of that hope, playing Sharon as a woman who can’t quite get what she wants, but who seems to intuit that such progress may be further than most in her situation. Beleaguered but undaunted, she’s the film’s matriarch, a force of such warmth that, even in our fear watching as Tish’s belly grows and her hope wanes, Sharon’s presence reassures us—not that everything will be alright, but that everything will be. The end of If Beale Street Could Talk is practically a given—unless your ignorance guides you throughout this idiotic world—but there is still love in those final moments, as much love as there was in the film’s symmetrical opening. There’s hope in that, however pathetically little. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Release Date: November 30, 2018 (wide)
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
The Shibatas—Osamu and Nobuyo (Lily Franky and Sakura Ando), daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), son Shota (Kairi Jo) and grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiri)—live in tight quarters together, their flat crowded and disheveled. Space is at a premium, and money’s tight. Osamu and Shota solve the latter problem by palming food from the local market, a delicately choreographed dance we see them perform in the film’s opening sequence: They walk from aisle to aisle, communicating to each other through hand gestures while running interference on market employees, a piano and percussion soundtrack painting a scene out of Ocean’s 11. It’s a heist of humble purpose. Once they finish, Shota having squirreled away sufficient goods in his backpack, father and son head home and stumble upon little Yuri (Miuy Sasaki) huddling in the cold on her parents’ deck. Osamu invites her over for dinner in spite of the Shibata’s meager circumstances. When he and Nobuyo go to return her to her folks later on, they hear sounds of violence from within their apartment and think better of it. So Yuri becomes the new addition to the Shibata household, a move suggesting a compassionate streak in Osamu that slowly crinkles about the edges as Shoplifters unfolds.
The obvious care the Shibatas, or whoever they are, have for one another forestalls or at least deflects a building dread: Even in squalor, there’s a certain joy present in their situation. It’s not magic, per se—there’s nothing magical about poverty—but comfort, a sense of safety in numbers. But for a few stolen fishing rods, the Shibata clan is content with what it has, and Kore-eda asks us if that’s such a crime in a world both literally and figuratively cold to the plight of the unfortunate. He doesn’t sugarcoat the truth of the Shibatas, aware of the legal ramifications of plucking a kid from her home in the dead of night, even with domestic abuse in the picture. Shoplifters tempts the audience with cozier illusions of life as a Shibata: Kore-eda shoots as if we’re in their apartment with them, cramped in a corner, thirsting for privacy, desperate for shampoo, and yet enjoying a certain snug intimacy regardless of the grunge and grime. Hardship is the price paid to be spared outsiders’ scrutiny. But Shoplifters is held up by the strength of its ensemble and Kore-eda’s gifts as a storyteller, which gain with every movie he makes—even in the same year. —Andy Crump / Full Review
5. The Favourite
Release Date: November 23, 2018
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Love is a battlefield, as Pat Benatar once opined—a cliche that can also convey how love and sex, though not necessarily mutually inclusive, are never neutral. Those acts and feelings are political. A kiss is never just a kiss, and in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, massaging someone’s leg, one person standing and the other on their knees, is not just a massage. From a fiendishly barbed screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (this is the first film of Lanthimos’s not co-written by him), The Favourite is about ailing, naïve, fussy Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)—ruler of Great Britain from 1702 to 1707—who acts like a wanton child (or is she treated like a child?) and submits most of her power and leadership duties to her “favourite,” Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). This is convenient for Lady Sarah, who uses this opportunity for political strategy, swaying the Queen’s Tory-like politics to her own Whiggian politics, despite the battles she must carry on in court regularly (particularly against Robert Harley, a Tory, played by Nicholas Hoult). Her role as the Queen’s right-hand woman is as emotionally exhausting as it is politically fulfilling; while pushing for higher land taxes in order to finance an ongoing war with France, she is expected to quell the Queen’s many insecurities and neuroses. When Sarah’s distant cousin, and former lady herself, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) lands on the steps of the palace, Abigail realizes she, too, can strategize to climb her way back to the top, even if it means pushing Sarah aside at all costs.
Weisz and Stone are well-equipped as foils, and it is within their precision in comic timing, calculation (the film features the best hand job scene since The Master) and volleying passions that the film is able to ground their presences in the same kind of melancholy resignation as Anne’s. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses fisheye and wide angle lenses, bending the interior architecture like the women’s allegiances and truths, to unsettling effect. Arguably, Queen Anne is, at heart, an optimist, living in a world in which affection and vulnerability can be depoliticized, not tied to class or royalty or nationhood. This detachment from the reality of the varying power dynamics and spectacles around her and her court—and her forced confrontation with the nature of the quasi-love triangle—gives The Favourite its beating broken heart. Rather than being concerned with historical authenticity (Sandy Powell’s costumes are gorgeously anachronistic), Lanthimos gestures towards an emotional reality that posits the lover and the loved as soldiers, capable of being a casualty in what each party believes is a greater cause. What a blazing and burning feat of melodrama. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
Release Date: December 14, 2018 (on Netflix and in select theaters)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón’s film tells many stories, but at the center of the frame is the story of his childhood maid, Libo, translated into Roma as Cleo and played by acting novice Yalitza Aparicio, who auditioned for the film almost on accident. Casting her seems a neo-realist move for authenticity, and for the most part it plays out like that: Cleo is quiet, reserved and submissive when in her servant role, somewhat more expressive when interacting with her fellow servants or with her aloof lover—but those revealing moments are fleeting. The film is composed primarily of wide shots, so each medium frame of Cleo’s face is its own gift wherein you go looking for an interior life that you—like Cuarón, knowingly—can’t quite reach. Still, Roma has some weighty demands on Cleo in its final act, and Aparicio’s performance extends, reaching without ever breaking. Tasked with playing both a real woman and a figure of memory, someone disenfranchised but also cherished (to a certain limit) by the family she served, Aparicio finds a perfect balance. One scene demonstrates just that: A multitude of others flounder as Cleo’s spirit points straight up and unwavering. The clarity of her love and kindness holds her, and the many stories surrounding her, in place. —Chad Betz
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Director: Steve McQueen
Beyond all its other attributes, what’s perhaps most remarkable about Widows is the man who made it. An Oscar-winning filmmaker and, before that, an acclaimed visual artist known for his arresting video installations, Steve McQueen has long focused on the suffering of the human soul, again and again exploring the anguish within our spirit. There hasn’t been much indication that the thrills of pulp fiction have been part of his DNA, and so it might be easy to assume that McQueen, while adapting the 1980s British crime series created by Lynda La Plante, would either condescend to the audience or drain the material of its vibrancy. Incredibly, his Widows does neither: This is a mature, exciting, utterly engrossing heist film that proves to be far more than just a crime drama. Set in Chicago, the film stars Viola Davis as Veronica, who’s in the midst of mourning. Her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) has just died in a shootout with the police—although she doesn’t quite want to acknowledge it, Harry was a professional bank robber, and his most recent haul ended up killing him and his partners. But Veronica’s grief has to be put on hold after a dangerous man named Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for political office, approaches her with an urgent message. He was the target of Harry’s last heist, and now he wants his money back—even though it burned up in the fire that claimed Harry and his team. If Veronica doesn’t come up with a couple million dollars, she’ll end up like her husband. Veronica is terrified—she works for the city’s teachers union and doesn’t have the resources or the means to grant Jamal’s request—which is when she hits upon an idea. Harry left behind a journal with detailed plans for his next heist. Veronica recruits the widows of Harry’s team to pull off that robbery. These women—working-class Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and sheltered, spoiled Alice (Elizabeth Debicki)—don’t seem like the bank-robbing types. But what other option do they have?
To call Widows merely a heist film would be to shortchange it. And yet, when it comes time for the robbery, McQueen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker deliver an exhilarating one that’s steeped in our knowledge of these characters and their personal stakes. (Hans Zimmer has created a marvelously driving score that’s especially electric near the end.) If thrillers are meant to be escapist, nobody told this cast and crew. Sure, Widows is a dynamite entertainment, but it’s also more mournful, thought-provoking and intelligent than that. Adults often complain there aren’t good mainstream movies for them—ones that can engage them, entertain them and leave them with something to chew on as they leave the theater. Widows is here waiting for you. —Tim Grierson / Full Review
Release Date: October 26, 2018 (limited)
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Eight years after critical hit Poetry, Korean director Chang-dong Lee translates a very brief and quarter-century old story by Japanese master novelist Haruki Murakami into something distinctly Korean, distinctly contemporary (spoiler warning: there’s a news clip of Trump) and distinctly Chang-dong Lee. But also: into something that utterly captures the essence of Murakami. Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is an aspiring young writer who quits his menial job to tend to his incarcerated father’s farm (a storyline the film takes from William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning,” after which Murakami—as referential as ever—named his own story). Jong-su encounters a childhood acquaintance, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Joon), who apparently he interacted with just once as a kid by calling her “ugly.” Anyways, Hae-mi’s all grown up and claims to have had plastic surgery; she and Jong-su strike up a relationship. It’s unusual and unnerving: Hae-mi is erratic and inscrutable, possibly a compulsive liar, while Jong-su can barely do more than gape and breathe. Nonetheless, Lee couches this set-up in exquisite details and rich observation. Spontaneously (as is her wont), Hae-mi asks Jong-su to watch her perhaps imaginary cat while she takes a trip to Africa to learn about physical (“small”) hunger and existential (”great”) hunger. That’s not critical embellishment, that’s an actual plot-point. When Hae-mi returns to Korea, she—to Jong-su’s suppressed chagrin—has a rich new boyfriend in tow. His name is Ben, and he’s played as a bored but semi-cheerful sociopath by Steven Yeun (who has never been better).
The way the film’s story flows into uncharted terrain is part of its spell. Something of a love triangle develops, some disturbing idiosyncrasies are revealed (not just about Ben) and some bad stuff happens. Murakami writes about that which he cannot grasp; he embraces the ineffable, inhaling and exhaling a cloud of unknowing. So, too, does Burning, while also managing to give us Chang-dong Lee’s signatures: visual lucidity and artful morality. It’s the rare symbiotic triumph between singular source material and singular cinematic vision. And while the film is a slow-burn, it expands the meaning of the term: You might never quench the flames it sparks within you, flames that send fumes up and away to a thundering, obscuring cloud. —Chad Betz / Full Review
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
There are, rarely, films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where ingredients, execution and imagination all come together in a manner that’s engaging, surprising and, most of all, fun. Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, writer-director Rodney Rothman, and writer Phil Lord have made a film that lives up to all the adjectives one associates with Marvel’s iconic wallcrawler. Amazing. Spectacular. Superior. (Even “Friendly” and “Neighborhood” fit.) Along the way, Into the Spider-Verse shoulders the immense Spider-Man mythos like it’s a half-empty backpack on its way to providing Miles Morales with one of the most textured, loving origin stories in the superhero genre. Plenty of action films with much less complicated plots and fewer characters to juggle have failed, but this one spins order from the potential chaos using some comic-inspired narrative devices that seamlessly embed the needed exposition into the story. It also provides simultaneous master classes in genre filmmaking. Have you been wondering how best to intersperse humor into a storyline crowded with action and heavy emotional arcs? Start here. Do you need to bring together a diverse collection of characters, nimbly move them (together and separately) from setting to setting and band them together in a way that the audience doesn’t question? Take notes. Do you have an outlandish, fantastical concept that you need to communicate to the viewers (and characters) without bogging down the rest of the story? This is one way to do it. Would you like to make an instant contemporary animated classic? Look (and listen). —Michael Burgin / Full Review