The 50 Best Movies on HBO Go and HBO Now (March 2019)

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traffic-movie-poster.jpg 25. Traffic
Year: 2000
Director: Steven Soderbergh 
As long as the U.S. keeps demanding copious amounts of drugs, and Latin America keeps providing them, Traffic will remain relevant. Steven Soderbergh’s brutally honest (and therefore grim) ensemble drama about the lucrative-for-some, destructive-for-most drug trade between both halves of our continent plays out like a Cocaine Cowboys version of The Battle of Algiers. As in Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, Soderbergh employs a raw docudrama aesthetic with an even-handed narrative approach to sympathize with and scorn both sides of the issue in equal measure. Catherine Zeta-Jones’s drug kingpin might be a ruthless killer, but Stephen Gaghan’s script, based on a miniseries by Simon Moore, doesn’t shy away from establishing the economic desperation that pushes her to the edge. Michael Douglas’s conservative (and possibly alcoholic) drug czar might talk a good game in public about the U.S.’s no tolerance policy against drugs, but he can’t do anything but witness his daughter’s (Erika Christensen) descent into addiction. Soderbergh shot Traffic himself, and employed a clear blue-vs-yellow color palette between American and Mexican scenes, supporting his themes with clear visual cues. The yellows of Mexico, while warmer and naturalistic, communicate constant danger; the blues of the U.S. convey relative safety, but also moral coldness and emotional distance. Instead of offering any clear answers, Soderbergh and Gaghan stress the immediacy of the issue; their warnings remain unheard to this day. —Oktay Ege Kozak


leaving-neverland-movie-poster.jpg 24. Leaving Neverland
Year: 2019
Director: Dan Reed
It’s all heartbreaking. The damage to the psyches of children, certainly, but everything else is sad as hell, too: the endless voracious need for approval at any cost, the radioactive half-life of a lie, the emptiness at the center of fame, the way child abuse is a perpetual motion machine that infects one generation after another. In an oblique way, HBO’s Leaving Neverland is a reminder that the monstrous people who sexually abuse children do not simply drop out of the skies. They are forged. Created. Usually by abusers of their own. You look at Michael Jackson—his collapsing, bleaching face; his skinny little body; his soft, mealy speaking voice—and you can see a victimizer who was also a victim. If we could hold that perception and really understand it, would it change anything? The desire to withhold forgiveness from such people is deep and tenacious, and it’s more than understandable why that’s the case. No one tests the limits of forgiveness quite like someone who has molested children.

The four hours of Leaving Neverland are characterized by a cavernous sense of aural and visual space. The sound editing is almost uncomfortably intimate; I squirmed at the audible swallowing and breathing sounds in the interview segments. There’s also the way archival photo images are centered deeply in the frames—small, surrounded by black space, static. It’s elliptical, allusive. And effective. The testimony of the two alleged victims (and their mothers and their wives) is uncontested, and they do not affirmatively prove anything, but their stories strike so many of the same chords that you’d have to be awfully spaced out not to notice. The seduction of the boys’ star-struck and ambitious mothers. (Wade Robson’s mom relocated him from Australia to Hollywood, splitting up her family on the promise of Jackson’s mentorship and help.) The extended, extensive grooming process. Manipulative generosity. (A passage where James Safechuck describes Michael taking him to a jeweler to buy him a ring is especially creepy; apparently, Jackson had an elaborate story that James was helping him select something for a woman friend, and the kid’s delicate little fingers were the right size.) Creating a shared secret. We say people who hurt children don’t deserve to be forgiven, but just as it’s a mistake to see Leaving Neverland as a film about Michael Jackson, so is it a distraction to conflate forgiveness with releasing people from accountability. It doesn’t demand that viewers make a call on any of that, which is as it should be. It tells a piercingly sad and highly disturbing story that might or might not change how you feel about Michael Jackson, but will almost certainly draw a haunting, highly detailed sketch of the legacy of damage that ensues when someone violates children. —Amy Glynn


going-clear.jpg 23. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Year: 2015
Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney’s up-close examination of Scientology, its practices and the controversies that surround the religion founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard is also a stirring portrait of eight former adherents, who tell their stories of how they came to practice Scientology and their reasons for leaving the church. While much of the ideological content in Gibney’s film has circulated on the Internet for years, there was still a number of items to be learned from watching the film and hearing from the men who made it. While Going Clear is part exposé and part condemnation of a controversial religion, director Gibney has said that he was most interested in “the journey of the key characters in the film”—and how people got lost in the ‘prison of belief.’” —Christine N. Ziemba


paradise-lost-poster.jpg 22. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Year: 1996
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
If you’ve never heard of the West Memphis Three, do some research before you begin—you’ll want to be prepared. Within only a minute of the film’s opening, as Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” noodles forebodingly over pixelated camcorder videos, intolerable images taken straight from police evidence glance across frame, so quickly and frankly you’ll immediately question if they are, in fact, real. Of course, they are—they are images no person should ever have to see, and yet Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky use them only to expose the unbelievable horror at the heart of the appropriately named Paradise Lost. What unfolds over the following two and a half hours is just as heartbreaking: a trio of teenage boys (one with an IQ of 72) is put on trial for the brutal murders of three prepubescent boys, the only evidence against them a seemingly forced confession by the young kid with the below-average IQ, and laughably circumstantial physical proof. The film explores the context of West Memphis, its blindly devoted Christian population and how the fact that these teenagers dressed in black and listened to Metallica somehow led to their predictable fates at the hands of a comprehensively broken justice system. With surprising access to everyone involved in the trial, as well as a deft eye for the subtle exigencies of any criminal case such as this, Paradise Lost is a thorough, infuriating glimpse of the kind of mundane evil that mounts in some of America’s quietest corners. Welcome home. —Dom Sinacola


being-john-malkovich-movie-poster.jpg 21. Being John Malkovich
Year: 1999
Director: Spike Jonze 
The feature film debut from director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman is a long, absurd joke whose punchline is its final shot: the view of a man whimpering as he’s forced to watch his loved ones forget he’s ever existed. Being John Malkovich admits, with sad clarity, that our lives are totally out of our control. In the film, we follow street puppeteer Craig (John Cusack, looking like a small, humming pile of hair) as he confronts the economic viability of his chosen occupation by getting an admin job on the 7½ floor of a building that also happens to hide a tiny door which leads, if one crawls through cobwebs and puddles, to the inside of John Malkovich’s head, wherein for 15 minutes the brain tourist can vicariously live through famous actor John Malkovich’s eyes before getting spit up into a ditch off the New Jersey Turnpike. Having had his way with marionettes for years, Craig slowly understands how to control Malkovich while inside his head, crouching in the man’s sewer of an unconscious to hide away from the requisite 15-minute limit, but not before falling in love with a coworker (Catherine Keener) who seems to be falling in love with Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), but only via various liaisons through John Malkovich’s manipulable corpus. Throughout, Jonze and Kaufman only afford as much logic as is needed to movie the story from one weird scenario to another, but never letting the bleak heart of the film’s happenings overtake how goofily the plot unfolds. Visual detritus litters Jonze’s shots: A chucked can from a speeding car bounces off Malkovich’s head, the culprit recognizing Malkovich in time enough to call him out by name, though why John Malkovich poorly disguised in a ball cap and covered in ectoplasm would be on the side of the road in Jersey is anyone’s guess; a documentary features Brad Pitt briefly only to ignore him; an alternate universe Charlie Sheen embraces his receding hairline. Ideas pile atop more ideas, until the whole thing collapses in on itself, the film’s centerpiece basically John Malkovich singing his own name to another John Malkovich over and over, attempting to seduce the actor—deeply insecure, just like all of us—into liking himself. —Dom Sinacola


20. Won’t You be My Neighbor?
Year: 2018
Director: Morgan Neville
Morgan Neville’s winning portrait Won’t You Be My Neighbor? withholds darkness. Which makes sense since the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom has turned his attention to Fred Rogers, a kindly TV personality who entertained a couple generations of kids with his benign PBS program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers died in 2003 at the age of 74, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark show, so expect plenty of tributes over the next several months. Appropriately, as an official chronicling of the man’s life and legacy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t remotely innovative. We get polished interviews from colleagues, family members and Rogers’ widow. There are plenty of clips from his show, as well as other archival material. There’s a gimmick-y recurring use of animation to illustrate parts of his story that’s the only truly cloying element of a film that mostly eschews mawkishness. And yet, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a stunningly moving film that also feels just the teensiest bit radical. That word will be used a lot during this golden anniversary for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as his fans remind everyone that, rather than starring a smiling square who couldn’t have looked less manly, the show was actually a pretty progressive program that frankly discussed everything from race relations to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Neville accentuates Rogers’ unembarrassed sweetness as an example of his principled stand against bigotry and injustice, making the case with conviction and gusto.

At my True/False screening, the audience was warned before Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that we ought to have Kleenex in hand to prepare for what we were going to experience. I’m an unashamed movie crier, but I resent being prepped for how I should feel about a movie I’m about to see. And yet, the warning was warranted: The tears elicited from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? are a testament to Neville’s tasteful, loving (but not fawning) depiction of a decent, unassuming man. The movie’s not just a balm in the age of Trump—it’s an opportunity for viewers to reconnect with their own decency, and Neville’s gentle skill at arguing for goodness ends up being a minor miracle. —Tim Grierson


game-night-movie-poster.jpg 19. Game Night
Year: 2018
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
What fuels fury more than fraternal frustration? In John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s dark comedy Game Night, smarmily rich Brooks (Kyle Chandler) gifts his comfortably middle class and ultra-competitive younger brother Max (Jason Bateman) with the kind of immersive gaming experience that will change his life, primarily because it serves as an opportunity for Max to finally best his older bro at something for once. Max and his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) are more than willing to play, as a tiny wedge in their marriage—their inability to conceive due to Max’s low sperm mobility, most likely brought on via anxiety caused by his brother—looms in the back of both of their minds. The comparisons between Game Night and David Fincher’s thriller The Game are apter than you think, not only because of the all-consuming nature of the game: Even if Max is a version of the same kind of petty as his brother is, the film reframes male virility within the context of a series of funny games. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams is positively aces, her comic timing both precise and seemingly effortless, and duo Daley and Goldstein’s filmmaking is slick, allowing a light class critique (affluence is a scam) to sink in via glossy exteriors and shiny domestic spaces. Maintaining who we are and who we think we are is, for these characters, an unending, relentlessly competitive game. —Kyle Turner


bessie.jpg 18. Bessie
Year: 2015
Director: Dee Rees
It may have taken 20 years to make it, but when Bessie finally arrived, she came, she saw and she conquered. The HBO film has garnered 12 well-deserved Emmy nominations, with Queen Latifah, co-stars Michael Kenneth Williams and Mo’Nique, and director Dee Rees all getting the nod. One scene in particular—with the reverse paper bag test—is one of Bessie’s finest moments, as it encompasses all that makes the HBO film so wonderful. There’s Queen Latifah in all her glory, finally setting up her own tour and making sure everyone knows who’s boss. There’s the hilarity when she lets down one of the hopefuls auditioning—“You must be darker than the bag to be in my show!” After all, Bessie is an incredibly funny movie at times. And there’s the whole inversion of the brown paper bag test. Where Bessie Smith grew up in a world that demanded black women performing back-up be lighter than a brown paper bag, Bessie makes up a new rule that gives her back some agency and sets a different tone (literally and figuratively) for her showcase. Bessie was, in no way, your average blues performer and for that reason Lili Fini Zanuck and her husband Richard D. Zanuck knew they couldn’t just deliver your average black-performer-who-grew-up-poor-and-made-it-big biopic. The familiar story of a talented woman done in by a man (or many men), or childhood tragedies, or her own celebrity was not Bessie’s story—she wasn’t lighter than a brown paper bag, and, thankfully, wasn’t presented as such. —Shannon M. Houston


american-splendor.jpg 17. American Splendor
Year: 2003
Directors: Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman
Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” books are fascinating: Pekar believed that even the most mundane and seemingly uncomplicated lives were worth documenting. American Splendor showcases this theory by combining real footage of Pekar, fictionalized versions of characters from his life—maintaining both stylized caricatures and naturalistic drama—and even animated segments pulled from the comics to create a cohesive whole that presents an ordinary life as a fascinating experience. —Ross Bonaime


shape-of-water-movie-poster.jpg 16. The Shape of Water
Year: 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro 
If there’s a waiting period filmmakers must abide before they can borrow from their own body of work, Guillermo del Toro either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. His latest, The Shape of Water, an ageless story of true love between a human woman and a fish-man, references his filmography both at and below surface levels: It suggests a riff on Abe Sapien, the psychic ichthyoid sidekick in both Hellboy films (who is himself a riff on Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill-man, fed through a copyright strainer by his creator, Mike Mignola), but directly invokes the structure and fairy tale trappings of his 2006 breakout picture, Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro has us set down in 1960s Baltimore, where Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works the janitorial night shift for the not-at-all-shady Occam Aerospace Research Center. She’s alone, mostly, except for her next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her coworker and friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Giles and Zelda give Elisa a voice she quite literally lacks: She’s mute, and spends most of the film communicating with sign language. Elisa’s clockwork days are disrupted by the arrival of the Asset (Doug Jones, the actor behind Abe Sapiens’ prosthetics), the aforementioned fish-man, in the custody of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), at once the epitome of the del Toro villain and the average Shannon role: He’s abusive, violent, dictatorial to a fault, but mannered, the kind of bastard who thinks his dastardly bastard deeds are right and never thinks twice about his own morality. Elisa, ballsier than Strickland and basically every other man in the film, develops instant kinship with the creature. The success of their relationship hinges on performance as much as on direction. Del Toro cares about the well being of freaks and aberrations more than most people care about the well being of other actual people. Visually, The Shape of Water screams dieselpunk, signifying Bioshock more than the brothers Grimm, but the film bears the indelible stamp of folkloric mythmaking all the same. Del Toro weaves together his influences so finely, so delicately, that the product of his handiwork feels entirely new. That’s the magic of the movies, and, more importantly, the magic of del Toro. —Andy Crump


anchorman-movie-poster.jpg 15. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Year: 2004
Director: Adam McKay 
Will Ferrell was a movie star before 2004, carrying both Old School and Elf, but he is still inseparable from his role as San Diego newscaster Ron Burgundy, a character so closely tied to our perception of Ferrell as cinematic presence that every subsequent role seems to contain shades of him. Now that McKay has an Oscar under his belt, he’s getting more recognition than he did when he was simply the man behind the camera on Ferrell’s best movies. Anchorman upped the ante on Zoolander’s sheer lunacy, and ended up being a better movie for it, but true to McKay’s Chicago improv roots, it is a plane forming itself mid-flight, and Anchorman would be two seconds from falling apart without McKay’s steady hand. Ferrell is a certifiable genius in his own right, and is undoubtedly the center of the universe in each of these films, but the world around Ferrell belongs to McKay, and Anchorman announced his arrival as an uncompromising comedy world-builder. —Graham Techler


tale-hbo-movie-poster.jpg 14. The Tale
Year: 2018
Director: Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox has just done something utterly brilliant, and you need to see it. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable, because The Tale, adapted from her narrative memoir of the same name, will do a number on your head, in the way that a particularly vivid nightmare sometimes can, whether you personally have a childhood sexual abuse story or not. This film was made three years ago. It’s not a response to or the property of any movement, any hashtag; it’s not finally, finally pulling back the veil on the terrible stories no one ever told until now. We have always told these stories. They have always existed and we have always told them. We just didn’t do it with hashtags. To even characterize this film as “a story about sexual abuse” would be a shallow read on a very deep work of art. The Tale is, at a certain level, “about” sexual abuse. But focus on that for too long and you’ll miss the astonishing, courageous, gorgeous mosaic of ways in which it is deliberately, doggedly and totally not. This is a film about the morphing quicksand terrain of human memory and it’s about the stories we tell ourselves in order to stay sane and most of all it’s about the Plinian, volcanic power of emotional honesty. If you want to talk about the spirit of the moment, the guiding spirit of the times, maybe we need to pan back from anything as specific as sexual abuse of girls and women and talk about why being honest is the ultimate act of revolution. Plenty of people make autobiographical films. The Tale is so deeply and specifically autobiographical that it almost becomes something else. Fox as director and writer puts her documentarian’s tools to work to create a meta-textual tapestry depicting the ways in which our memories inform (and misinform) our self-concept. And this beautiful, gripping, disturbing film deserves to be looked at with as much nuance as it offers. It manages to dive so deeply into the personal that it explodes into something universal. —Amy Glynn


drugstore-cowboy-movie-poster.jpg 13. Drugstore Cowboy
Year: 1989
Director: Gus Van Sant 
Gus Van Sant’s sophomore feature film was the filmmaker’s huge breakout, earning him near-universal critical acclaim. And it’s ridiculously easy to understand why: Drugstore Cowboy is a propulsive, gripping slice of cinema. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by James Fogle, Cowboy features an electric lead performance in Matt Dillon as Bob, a junkie who, along with girlfriend Diane (Kelly Lynch), friends Rick (James LeGros) and Nadine (a young Heather Graham), robs pharmacies while getting high on their supply in and around Portland, Ore. in 1971. The film veers wildly between bleak drug-addled hellscape, paranoid delusions and pitch-black comedy. That it does so in a way that is perfectly in service with—even elevating—the story being told is the best testament to the talent and discipline of Van Sant as a writer/director. And, really, who could resist a movie featuring both funny and tragic drug overdoses that actually casts William S. Burroughs as a junkie priest? —Scott Wold


the-prestige.jpg 12. The Prestige
Year: 2006
Director: Christopher Nolan 
In The Prestige, two competing magicians try to outdo each other, but are really trying to achieve a brand of immortality. They are competing for the same audience’s faith, and they need all of it, because it is not something that can be shared (many religious institutions hold similar dogma for similar reasons). Each wants to invoke utter and absolute belief in their audiences, much like Nolan wants to do in his own, as if that achievement grants the doer divinity, whether or not it is built on tricks and illusions. Nolan begins the film with a trick, in fact, a shot of top hats littering the forest floor, with the voice-over asking, “Are you watching closely?” It is a shot out of time and place from the rest of the film, Nolan once again doing as he pleases, manipulating our perception of what we’re seeing and when so as to emulate the pledge, turn and prestige of the “magic” acts the film portrays. Our faith is built on lies we tell ourselves and others, Nolan seems to posit, and it’s a thesis on which he elaborates with his Dark Knight trilogy, insinuating that symbols are sacred not for their truth, but simply for what they inspire. —Chad Betz


capturing-friedmans.jpg 11. Capturing the Friedmans
Year: 2003
Director: Andrew Jarecki
This is the story of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, convicted of multiple counts of child molestation that supposedly took place in the basement of their home in a quiet New York suburb during the ’80s. In Capturing the Friedmans, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki interviews the victims and prosecutors, but never reaches a conclusion as to the veracity of the charges, tacitly acknowledging that guilt and innocence are fluid concepts in such sensational and shameful circumstances. Instead, he documents the implosion of the family and the destruction of an already tenuous marriage. Surely, the details of the abuse are disturbing, but almost as unsettling is the cruelty with which the two older Friedmans reject their mother in blind loyalty to their shamefaced father and numb younger brother, further facilitating the family’s emotional separation. —Emily Reimer


isle-of-dogs-movie-poster.jpg 10. Isle of Dogs
Year: 2018
Director: Wes Anderson 
Isle of Dogs may be the closest Wes Anderson will ever get to a sci-fi film. Of course he would use stop-motion animation to make it. Set 20 years from now, amidst the ultra-urban monoliths of Megasaki City—a Japanese metropolis that also seems to be Japan, or at least a Westernized idea of the small island nation—the film begins care of a decree by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a boulder of a man with equal ties to an ancient lineage of cat-loving aristocrats and to, based on the elaborate back tattoo we glimpse atop his tight little butt in a quick bath scene, an archetype of organized crime and political corruption. Due to a vaguely described epidemic of "dog flu" (or "snout fever"), Kobayashi bans all dogs to Trash Island, a massive byproduct of technology and futurism, beginning with Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), who also happens to be the Mayor’s ward after Atari’s parents died in a horrible accident. Since Bottle Rocket in 1996, the more manicured Anderson’s films have become—his obsessive control over his frames broadening into grander and grander worlds—the more we may be apt to extol his accomplishments rather than get invested in his stories. And it’s probably never been easier to do that than with Isle of Dogs, so rife with meticulousness and imagination, as is Anderson’s brand, and so unconcerned with steering this ostensible children’s movie towards actual children. For a director who pretty much defined a generation’s cinematic fetishization for symmetry (and quirky hipster nonsense) to then fetishize a country to which Westerners mainly relate through fetishization? So much of this beautiful movie just sort of eats itself. Still, the emotional weight of Isle of Dogs depends on knowing exactly what that bond between dog and human can mean, how deeply and irrationally it can go. At the core of Isle of Dogs is that kind of best-friendship: No matter how far we advance as a civilization, how disastrously we atomize and digitalize our lives, we’ll always have the devoted dependence of a dog, our immutable companion across the vast wasteland of human history. —Dom Sinacola


inherent-vice-movie-poster.jpg 9. Inherent Vice
Year: 2014
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
The fog that envelops Inherent Vice might bring to mind the old expression “thick as pea soup.” But that’s not quite right. Sometimes it’s like cotton candy, at others like ominous smoke. Paul Thomas Anderson’s drug-fueled detective odyssey depicts the end of the 1960s in a way that’s both mournful and madcap; coherency isn’t a priority—or even intended—in this tale of an era of endless possibilities coming to a close. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is both unnervingly surreal and pliably, affably keen to take every detour possible on the road from A to B. While its gags are ingenious and plentiful, heady themes rise from the madness: some good for laughs—the culture war is at the forefront of the story, and Anderson isn’t beneath milking a chocolate-covered banana’s phallic qualities as a hippie-hating authority figure devours it—and some, sometimes the very same themes, conjure up a distinct melancholy in the same breath, as in how the ideal of free love gives way to disturbing sexual dynamics. An attempt to summarize the plot would be just that: an attempt—and even then there’s no guarantee how clear it would be. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a burn-out private investigator trying to locate: 1) a potentially kidnapped billionaire; 2) that billionaire’s missing bodyguard; 3) a missing saxophone player; and 4) Doc’s own ex-girlfriend, who initiated the investigation in the first place. Phoenix plays the part with a mastery of facial manipulation, a breezy and casual physicality that belies his impeccable comic timing. So Phoenix is our guide, our constant, throughout this shifting landscape: Always in flux, Inherent Vice perseveres as a screwball elegy to a lost time, refusing to function solely as a stoner comedy or a serious drama or any one thing for that matter. Anderson is mannered enough to shift from one tone to another organically, making the whole seem part of one larger kaleidoscopic feeling rather than a series of disjointed vignettes, and that alone is a huge accomplishment. That he also characteristically includes a series of unforgettable scenes makes this film one that must be seen again, if not to better understand it, then to remember the sweet feeling of reveling in its haze. —Jeremy Mathews


cop-car-movie-poster.jpg 8. Cop Car
Year: 2015
Director: Jon Watts
A lean, rugged neo-noir that tweaks genre conventions by putting two young boys at the center of its attention, Cop Car opens with credits shimmering like police lights. Cut to snapshots of writer-director Jon Watts’ rural Colorado milieu, a place defined by barren storefronts, abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated trailer parks, and flat, dusty plains. Across the vast, barren land walk 10-year-olds Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford): Travis utters curse words that Harrison dutifully echoes in a kind of casual call-and-repeat bonding ritual, and from the first sight of the duo—orchestrated by Watts as one gorgeous, unbroken tracking shot which captures them dwarfed by the country’s big sky, even when they make their away through a barbed wire fence—it’s clear that the boys are on an odyssey of some sort, albeit one of initially undefined purpose. And it’s clear that Watts (co-scripting with Christopher Ford) wants Cop Car to serve as a downbeat commentary about the futility of escape. Coming upon a tree-shrouded area, the two are surprised to discover a county sheriff’s cruiser. They decide that the car has been abandoned. Up to no good, finding the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys inside, Travis and Harrison opt to take a joy ride. Apparently having both run away from home, the two speed around the cow-populated landscape like juvenile delinquents unconcerned about the potentially serious consequences of their actions. Such uninhibited, devil-may-care recklessness gives the material an immediate jolt of peril, even before Watts rewinds his tale to reveal the origins of the car and its owner. As it turns out, the car was left in this out-of-the-way locale by Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), its remote parking spot chosen so that the officer wouldn’t be seen hauling a body out of its trunk and onto a tarp, and then dragging it to a hole to be unceremoniously dumped. That corpse’s identity is left as vague as Kretzer’s reason for committing this apparent murder. Suffice it to say, when the sun does finally set on these characters, what’s left is a bleak portrait of the hopelessness of trying to change one’s circumstances, and the often-brutal punishment doled out by fate to those foolish enough to think they can alter who they are, where they come from, or where they’re going—even when those in question are just a couple of ne’er-do-well runaways looking for some mischievous kicks. —Nick Schager


paddington-2-movie-poster.jpg 7. Paddington 2
Year: 2018
Director: Paul King
A sequel to 2014’s Paddington, Paddington 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, with Paddington Brown (né Bear and voiced by Ben Whishaw) living contentedly with his human family, including Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) and a newly name-recognizable Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), joined by that British A-Lister of yore Hugh Grant, dramatic heavyweight Brendan Gleeson, and many others. (In fact, one of the simple joys for parents watching the film lies in recognizing this or that British actor.) A simple, commendable desire to find a good gift for his Aunt Lucy (currently spending her days in a nice retirement home for bears in Lima, Peru, natch) leads Paddington to set his eyes on a certain antique pop-up book as the perfect present. When that scoundrel and fading thespian Phoenix Buchanan (Grant) also sets his sights on the same book, well, hijinks, misunderstandings and adventure ensue. Paddington 2 reminds us how difficult it can be to pull off a sweetly tempered, gently moving children’s movie by doing exactly that, and doing it so well. —Michael Burgin


ronin-movie-poster.jpg 6. Ronin
Year: 1998
Director: John Frankenheimer
A bone-dry spy thriller with a loudly beating heart of melodrama—more Hitchcock than Melville, both directors to whom this movie’s deeply indebted—Ronin wraps a marginal plot around endless espionage-etched intrigue between cold-as-ice, badass sociopaths, inhuman car chases and labyrinthine shoot-outs serving as intimacy amongst thieves. Director John Frankenheimer is breathlessly economical, except for when he isn’t: We gather whatever we need to of mercenaries Sam (Robert DeNiro) and Vincent (Jean Reno), two members of a team (counting in their numbers Stellan Skarsgård and Sean Bean) hired by IRA project manager Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to retrieve a MacGuffin from a heavily armed convoy protecting a bald man—then we also make a too-long sojourn to the manse of mysterious rich model-builder (Michael Lonsdale), who puts way too fine a point on the whole “ronin” metaphor. Whatever Frankenheimer has to say about the lengths to which someone will go for “loyalty” and “honor”—whatever those words mean in the face of love or life in the late ’90s—pales compared to the kinetic language he wields with an Audi on the streets of Nice. —Dom Sinacola


when-the-levees.jpg 5. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Director:   Spike Lee  
Year: 2006
Part indictment of FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, part celebration of the unfailingly resilient spirit of New Orleans, Spike Lee’s four-hour-long look at “The City That Care Forgot” a year after the near-obliteration of Hurricane Katrina is an exhausting, comprehensive, worthwhile experience. There’s a reason so many residents refer to the catastrophe as the “Federal flood” and not Katrina itself—Lee’s Peabody-winning doc examines the systemic failure at all levels of government to maintain the storm barriers and deal with the consequences of their negligence. It’s political, it’s racial, it’s accusatory and it’s utterly compelling viewing. It’s also inspiring, thanks to the resolute locals shown struggling to survive and rebuild in the disaster’s aftermath. This is very much a Spike Lee joint; don’t expect anyone in the Dubya administration to come away without a tongue-lashing. But the heart and soul of the doc is the people of New Orleans, and they won’t let you down—on the contrary. —Amanda Schurr


phantom-thread-movie-poster.jpg 4. Phantom Thread
Year: 2017
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 
Phantom Thread is a movie that is so wonderfully made, so meticulous in its construction, so deeply felt in execution, that you can almost overlook how prickly and scabrous it is. This has to be the most luscious-to-watch film, ever, that is in large part about how self-centered and inflexible the world of relationships can be, how we can only give up so much of ourselves and it’s up to our partner to figure out how to deal with that, if they want to at all. This is an uncompromising movie about two uncompromising people who try to live with one another without losing too large a part of themselves, and the sometimes extreme lengths they will go to get their way. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a world-famous dressmaker who clothes celebrities, royalty and, sometimes to his chagrin, déclassé wealthy vulgarians. Almost everything that doesn’t meet his exacting standards is vulgarian, until one day while in the English countryside, Reynolds comes across a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who both meets Reynolds’ physical requirements (specifically so he can make dresses for her) and has a certain pluck that he instantly finds fascinating. Both of the principals of Phantom Thread are absurd and insane in their own ways, and one of the many thrills of the film is watching them bounce off each other, and then collide again. It’s the oddest little love story, so odd that I’m not even sure it’s about love at all. My colleague Tim Grierson said this first, but it’s too good an observation to ignore: This movie is in large part about the absolute unknowability of other people’s relationships. From the outside, it makes no sense that Reynolds and Alma would have this sort of connection with each other; it’s difficult to tell what either person is getting out of it. But what’s unfathomable about it is also what makes it so powerful. —Will Leitch


goodfellas-poster.jpg 3. GoodFellas
Year: 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Far from a typical shoot-em-up gangster flick, GoodFellas is in the details: the carefully chosen close-ups; the nuances in each character’s personality, plying at and defying stereotypes. Even scenes that involve murder and violence, though grotesque, aren’t flatly black-and-white—someone cracks a joke and then weirdly, somehow in that moment, you can still laugh. Those despicable situations are suddenly grayer, and a viewer can see past the monstrous things they commit to something that amounts to empathy for monsters. All of the small details come together, GoodFellas humanizing the gory story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his fellow made men, immersively making it much too difficult to distance oneself from him and his friends, casting the biopic’s protagonist and its villain as the same guy to kind of convince you to like him despite himself. —Anita George


thin-red-line-poster.jpg 2. The Thin Red Line
Year: 1998
Director: Terrence Malick 
It seems unbelievable now that even an auteur as legendary as Terrence Malick actually secured financing to make poetry on the scale of The Thin Red Line. Pitched up on lush location in Australia and armed with a cast bursting with talent, Malick returned from moviemaking hibernation in 1998 with author James Jones’ story of a company of GIs battling Japanese forces in the paradise of Guadalcanal, all refracted through his own glorious lens. The result was an abstract and relentlessly contemplative epic, awash with gorgeous cutaways to jungle and beast, and—atypically for a filmmaker whose main fixation has always been the environment his characters reside in—chock-full of great acting. (The performances are faultless to a man, but a terrifically zen Jim Caviezel and a perpetually enraged Nick Nolte take the prize.) Hardly ever can a film sustain that aching feeling of raw emotion across its entire running time; this almost three-hour masterpiece does. —Brogan Morris


fargo.jpg 1. Fargo
Year: 1996
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
In exploring the unsavory implications of “Minnesota nice,” the Coen Brothers created one of the most beloved, acclaimed and quotable films of all time. Fargo explores the tension that accompanies polite social norms and the quiet desperations they often mask, setting up one scene after another so awkward it’ll make your skin crawl. The emotional restraint displayed by such characters as Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) is a thin and disingenuous veil over yearnings for money or companionship, while their foil, obviously, is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who really is that nice and hardworking and downright normal. The Coens strike a careful balance between gentleness and a stark gruesomeness underneath a typical all-American veneer, making you appreciate the art behind postage stamps as deeply as they make you cringe at the sound of a wood chipper. —Allie Conti

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