The 50 Best Movies on HBO Right Now

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The 50 Best Movies on HBO Right Now

HBO  has lost quite a bit lately, and will lose even more next month, but, to everyone’s surprise, has added some worthwhile compensation, dropping titles surreptitiously into their library: Robocop, Frantic and Out of Sight, as well as more recent fare like The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Similarly appearing in the past month without fanfare: Alien, Aliens, John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, plus two iconic documentaries, Hoop Dreams and When We Were Kings, to name an ever-carousel-ing few. So, to help make sure you get the most out of your subscription, we’ve chosen our 50 favorite movies available on HBO right now, including Jordan Peele’s Us, John Wick: Chapter 3 and Alita: Battle Angel, three of our top picks for the best movies of 2019.

You can also check out our guides, some more updated than others, to what’s on other platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, On Demand, and The Best Movies in Theaters. Visit the Paste Movie Guides for all our recommendations.

Here are the 50 best movies on HBO right now:

godzilla-king-of-the-monsters-movie-poster.jpg 50. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Year: 2019
Director: Michael Dougherty
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is just as impressively stupid as Kong: Skull Island, though, if this burgeoning MonsterVerse takes any cues from the forebears it now remakes steeped in exhausting CGI, increasingly “impressively stupid” is the trajectory this shared universe was bound to follow all along. Loosely remaking 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, pulling pieces from Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla (David Strathairn, one of the few characters from Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot, shows up briefly to say the words “oxygen destroyer” as dead-seriously as possible), Dougherty has compared his film’s relation to Edwards’ like that of Aliens to Alien, a corollary that correctly steers one’s expectations for the sequel but shouldn’t be taken as anything more than that. As Honda’s own Mothra vs. Godzilla was to his first kaiju film—transforming a dire sci-fi tale of post-war trauma into a fantasy smorgasbord of quasi-myths, pop ballads and teensy-weensy twin monster caretakers affectionately referred to as the “Peanuts”—Dougherty’s vision ejects all serious ecological pondering for arch melodrama, eschewing all mystery for immediate spectacle. Within the first minute of the film we get a full glimpse of the giant larval Mothra spewing sticky goo all over a futuristic pseudo-governmental facility; 70 minutes later, Washington DC is under enough water to allow a high-tech battleship to float between its monuments, indulging in a satisfying bit of big budget annihilation porn for those of us fantasizing about just wiping this whole “America” experiment off the map and starting over. Whereas Edwards’ creature feature reveled in the big reveal, shrouding Godzilla in urban and meteorological artifice, Dougherty imagines a world of people no longer phased by the existence of Titans, of civilization accustomed to the apocalypse. His Godzilla 2 swells with too many boring human characters, competently sets up some sequels, thrives solely on its (sometimes awe-inspiring) monster fights and makes no fucking sense. So basically: pretty good Godzilla movie! —Dom Sinacola


detective-pikachu-movie-poster.jpg 49. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Year: 2019
Director: Rob Letterman
Starring Ryan Reynolds as a PG version of Deadpool and wide-eyed baby angel Justice Smith, Pokémon Detective Pikachu tosses together the Pokémon fanbase with lightly grizzled noir cinema, a coming-of-age story and a dash of family drama. While that may seem like a meal with too many ingredients, the result is rather filling. Tim Goodman (Smith) exists at that stage of early adulthood when friends slip away to different corners of the globe, and one’s direction in life must be decided. Tim contents himself with the life he’s built as a junior insurance adjustor. When he learns his policeman father has been killed in the line of duty, he travels to the literal urban jungle of Ryme City, where humans and Pokémon live side by side in adorable harmony. Of course, his father’s death isn’t cut and dry. Soon, with the help of his father’s Pokémon partner, Pikachu, Tim becomes an investigator in his own right, navigating the not-so-mean streets of Ryme City and learning to dream bigger than he ever dared before. Visually the film builds on Pikachu’s love of noir by creating a neon noir world. Instead of relying on shadows and inky blacks to create mystery, cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator) uses the neon glow of city signs to banish nearly all shadows from the frame. Blacks create a nice contrast but only reach a complete lack of light in a car crash scene. Lighting the film’s darker moments with neon makes the transition to the sunnier, more family-focused moments a smooth one. And really: The cute factor of this film cannot be overstated. This film is fantasy, and the results are magical. It completely skips the uncanny valley in favor of a wickedly fun, albeit unnatural look, capturing the spirit of its source material as effectively as a well-aimed Poké Ball. —Joelle Monique


leaving-neverland-movie-poster.jpg 48. 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


shazam-movie-poster.jpg 47. Shazam!
Year: 2019
Director: David F. Sandberg
The best thing one can say about Shazam! is that, following on the fins of the wonderfully extravagant and amazingly stupid Aquaman, the latest DC movie is one more sign to assure the proletariat that the imprint has permanently dislodged its head from the asshole of Zack Snyder’s Murderverse. While Wonder Woman mused that, hey, maybe a DC movie need not labor over traumatized backstories and hypermasculinized mommy issues, and Aquaman suggested that blockbuster movies can have things like “color” and “humor,” Shazam! synthesizes those mommy issues into a positive treatise on family, doubling down on the jokes and bright primary shininess. The plot, by-the-numbers, floats somewhere between a Spielberg coming-of-age adventure, a Big reboot and a late-’80s horror comedy—think The Monster Squad in that it’s intended for kids but is too old for its ostensible demographic. If only Shazam! were as much a herald as its DCEU forebears, for better or ill, a sign of something new and exciting to come. It’s not. It is, despite its surprisingly gruesome violence, little more than another superhero movie that will make more money than the GDP of a small island nation. Leaning real hard into the jokes about horny teenage boys and meta-skewerings of superhero films, Shazam! can’t help but comment on its genre ad nauseam, though, unlike Deadpool, it never risks arguing against its own existence. It’s, more often than not, a very funny movie, and a superhero film with a budget under $100M is a (sigh—sorry, Mom) refreshing development for the genre. Plus, a diverse cast is always welcome, even if headlined by Zachary Levi, who must realize how goddamn lucky he is to get the one remaining superhero role where it conceptually pays off to be a generically attractive white guy. —Dom Sinacola


happy-death-day-2u-movie-poster.jpg 46. Happy Death Day 2U
Year: 2019
Director: Christopher Landon
Back in 2017, Happy Death Day, Christopher Landon’s delightful horror romp, looked like a closed circuit. Much as its heroine, Tree (Jessica Rothe), found a way to cut off the time loop that caused her, Groundhog Day style, to relive ad infinitum a birthday that ended with violent death at the hands of a masked killer, Landon appeared to have crafted that rarest thing: a franchise-proof slasher. When Happy Death Day wraps up, Tree’s would-be murderer is dead, she has her life figured out, and she doesn’t have to do the time warp again. Fin! But no film’s fully inoculated against the primal drive for more money, so here’s Happy Death Day 2U. The sequel opens on Ryan (Phi Vu), roomie of and pal to Carter (Israel Broussard), Tree’s love interest across timestreams, awakening in his car and running afoul of angry dogs, angry homeless people and angry students on his way back to his dorm. He goes about his day, takes a knife to the chest from a new Babyface killer, then wakes up to relive these mundane events. Turns out he’s responsible for that whole time loop thing. He’s a science nerd! For whatever baffling reason, he and fellow nerds Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin) have access to a crazy sci-fi plot device capable of —wait for it—creating quantum nonsense that births time loops. Ryan screws everything up afresh, forcing Tree to relive the same day again again, with a few key differences, and thus die more times than she has digits to save the day. Happy Death Day 2U makes deliberate moves away from horror, adding both science fiction and comedy to muddle the original mixture for better and also worse. For better: The film is even more of a gas than its predecessor. For worse: It’s not as much of a horror movie. Happy Death Day 2U has been made once before, back in 2013, when Joseph Kahn dropped Detention on the world and blew minds by breaking formula. But Landon’s version is still pretty damn good, further evidence that Rothe is a superstar in the making and that even the most anti-franchise film can produce a surprisingly strong sequel with enough enthusiasm and brash creativity. —Andy Crump


jane-fonda-five-acts-movie-poster.jpg 45. Jane Fonda in Five Acts
Year: 2018
Director: Susan Lacy
In Susan Lacy’s comprehensive new documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, the legendary Hollywood actress and activist opens up for the cameras. Fonda is unnervingly candid with her own narration, talking through her history of eating disorders, her mistakes during her radical period and her childhood, which was privileged but deeply troubled. From her bombshell period during the release of Barbarella to her burgeoning political awakening in the ‘Nam era, the HBO-made doc probes into both the familiar and unfamiliar with an earnest and judicious use of nonfiction resources. The five acts in question are divided cleverly by Lacy into a chronological structure based on the definitive men in Fonda’s life: her father Henry, to start, and several of her husbands. If this might raise a quizzical eyebrow, it is in fact a telling deconstruction of Fonda’s glamorous and cloistered existence. Although her life, image and star persona were forever set to be owned and judged by men, Fonda has spent decades living and working on her own terms. Now 80 years old, seeing Fonda examine her long public life—acknowledging the mistakes she has made along the way—is unmissable. With its many talking heads and archival footage, the film is not exactly groundbreaking, but it is well-crafted, allowing Fonda’s frankness and courage in the face of an industry and an era set to work against her to stand out most of all. —Christina Newland


bridesmaids.jpg 44. Bridesmaids
Year: 2016
Director: Paul Feig 
Unlike The Hangover, which was basically a long comedy sketch, Bridesmaids is actually a movie. This is always the big question when it comes to comedies: Should you aspire to make a full cinematic experience and risk coming up short (Wedding Crashers) or do you simply shoot for non-stop emotionless laughs and achieve wild success at a less transcendent achievement (Anchorman)? Bridesmaids is a thoroughly hilarious, full-bodied story thanks to the brilliance of Kristen Wiig, and it has staying power in the pantheon of less aspirational film comedy. —Ryan Carey


alita-movie-poster.jpg 43. Alita: Battle Angel
Year: 2019
Director: Robert Rodriguez 
Alita: Battle Angel begins with Dyson Ito (Christoph Waltz), doctor to cyborgs, scavenging through a junkyard full of spare parts in order to find anything he can use. What better way to start a film than with a metaphor about itself? Just like Dr. Ito, director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer/co-producer James Cameron sift through the remnants of established sci-fi and cyberpunk properties in order to glue together a recognizable and cohesive narrative within the confines of its genre. Considering the talent involved, it’s not surprising that the finished product is a frequently fun and kinetic, visually pleasing sci-fi/actioner, albeit one that doesn’t have a single new or fresh part embedded in it. Again considering the talent involved, that feels like a lost opportunity. Based on the popular manga, Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel mostly takes its visual cues and narrative structure from a 1993 anime adaptation. That anime is barely an hour long, yet manages to pack in a sprawling cyberpunk universe with a deep and complex lore that supports whatever over-the-top tech fetish cyber action it throws at you. The story follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), whom Dr. Ito finds during his junk hunt and brings back to life. Her brain is human, but the rest of her is artificial. Just like a cyborg version of Jason Bourne, she doesn’t remember her past, but has supreme ass-kicking instincts, leading Ito to suspect some sinister military use in her past. The future world that Battle Angel inhabits is the lovechild of Blade Runner and Mad Max, a grimy post-apocalyptic city that’s also a grand, overpopulated cyberpunk metropolis. Apart from Alita gradually figuring out her ass-kicking skills, there’s another clear reason for giving the character amnesia: So she can be used as an exposition dump to settle the audience into the story’s world and the hodgepodge of various sub-plots that co-screenwriters James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez cram into a two-hour runtime. However, when the fighting finally begins, Battle Angel gets its metallic ass in gear. Rodriguez pushes the confines of the PG-13 rating to create some genre- and source-material-appropriate hack-and-slash gruesomeness with a significant amount of cyborg bodies split in half, decapitated and torn to pieces. For fans of the manga and anime, there isn’t much in the way of new material to be found here, though nor is it likely to grate on one’s fandom to the extent that the Ghost of the Shell live-action adaptation did. For fans of futuristic sci-fi/action, it should provide an engaging experience. —Oktay Ege Kozak


the-mule-movie-poster.jpg 42. The Mule
Year: 2018
Director: Clint Eastwood 
Early in Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial feature—somewhere around his 70th film—shambling Everyman Earl Stone (Eastwood) explains to a young person he’s just met the stickers that litter the back window of his equally shambling pickup, decals telling of the everywheres he’s been, man, comparable to the Johnny Cash song we’ll later hear him sing along to in the film. “That’s right, 41 states,” he recalls, then adds, “out of 50.” Most viewers would not need such a clarification—perhaps it’s a subtle nod to Earl’s casual racism, which the film will explicate further farther on, as in this case he’s talking to a Mexican man who will introduce him to the lucrative late-in-life career of drug muling, or perhaps Eastwood simply said that, because he’s acting, and left it in, because why not? Let’s move on, he seems to be saying. Let’s not get hung up on it.

2018 was an odd year for the 88-year-old director, mostly because of The 15:17 to Paris, in which Eastwood followed Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos as they played themselves reenacting their thwarting of the 2015 Thalys train attack, though Eastwood mostly seemed to want to tag along as they reenacted the European trip which led up to the heroic event. Their knowledge of Hitler’s suicide is questioned, their selfies are documented, their ordering of gelato detailed for much longer than any director, any viewer, would expect. And The Mule beautifully throws its much weirder predecessor into focus: In the twilight of his career, Clint Eastwood celebrates the things he loves about life, which happens to be driving, and pulled pork, and the American Southwest, and flowers, and big round butts, and the industriousness of working hard in order to enjoy the aforementioned everything, without judgment. Because Earl Stone, estranged from his family and definitely a bad father/husband, can somehow get an erection at such an advanced age, which Eastwood implies by having Stone engage in at least two threesomes. We’re not supposed to wonder how, but instead not get hung up on it—sex is good, and sex with more than one person, especially with more than one person who has a big round butt, is better. That doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you a person who enjoys life before it’s gone. Ordering gelato, driving through the desert listening to Johnny Cash, making millions off of the illegal drug trade—that’s part of the mundane wonder of life, a life which must thrive against the forces of an American economy that in the past decade or so no longer leaves room for such pleasures, or understands that when a man is casually racist, it’s not because he’s actually racist, it’s because even at 88 he has so much more to learn, and that’s why life is worth pushing long past the point at which pushing seems futile. Does that make sense? Let’s move on. —Dom Sinacola


rescue-dawn-movie-poster.jpg 41. Rescue Dawn
Year: 2006
Director: Werner Herzog 
As PG-13 as a war movie can get, Werner Herzog’s cinematic re-creation of his own documentary (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) feels as if, like any Herzog film can, it was re-created on the fly. Rescue Dawn avoids a strict adherence to the truth of Dieter Dengler’s ordeal, in which he served as a pilot for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, shot down over Laos then captured and tortured for months before escaping. It’s also historically inaccurate, as only any Herzog film can be, for the benefit of the more “ecstatic” truth the director was attempting to reach, ignoring the complaints of Dengler’s fellow prisoners’ accounts, which mostly have to do with how heroically Herzog portrays Dengler (Christian Bale) and how pathetically he imagines the others. Herzog saw himself in the real Dengler anyway—they were both born poor in Hitler’s Germany—and Bale seems to intuit the director’s projection, playing Dengler as an endlessly fascinating hybrid of wide-eyed innocent and arrogant American, fully committed to the freedom and opportunities for self-aggrandizement that being an American affords. And yet, Rescue Dawn doesn’t defend Dengler’s patriotism, or really have anything poignant to offer about American’s checkered military past. Instead, Herzog is concerned as ever with the tyranny of Nature and all powers like it, which happen to include war, America, the ambition of Man, whatever—an idealistic guy like Dieter Dengler can only suffer, survive and then tell his story later to a director who will warp its facts to keep the true extent of the man’s suffering from the cold, calculating judgment of the MPAA. —Dom Sinacola


land-before-time-movie-poster.jpg 40. The Land Before Time
Year: 1988
Director: Don Bluth
It’s hard to overstate what a major development it was for Don Bluth to leave Disney in 1979 to form his own studio. Working during the actual reign of Walt Disney, starting as an in-betweener—the crucial artist whose job it is to fill in the frames of animation that add detail to the movement between poses—in 1955, he chafed under the cutbacks that hit the company in the ’70s just as he was about to direct films of his own. Ultimately he, Gary Goldman and 14 other animators jumped ship to start Don Bluth Productions. An American Tail (1986), the heartbreakingly true and important story of an immigrant family coming to America, was an incredible success from the standpoint of animation and storytelling. The company marketed the hell out of it and, for an animated film, it pulled decent numbers. It set the stage for The Land Before Time two years later in 1988, but already, the studio was struggling: Tail may have reached eyeballs and won acclaim, but it didn’t turn the studio a profit. Setting any story in the age of the dinosaurs is asking for tragedy, but you can still tell some tales of that era without focusing on the unavoidable fact that all their hopes and dreams and everything that they ever were is destined to be washed clean by nature. So what did Bluth and his team decide to do? Set the story during the end of days, of course.

Beginning with a wonder-filled tour of the prehistoric landscape through which we’ll be roaming, The Land Before Time introduces our hero, a baby dino named Littlefoot (voiced by Gabriel Damon), paired with narration that tells us his herd is dying and the plants are shriveling. Bluth’s creative team and their financiers fought over the tone of the movie, and it’s easy to see why the money men were alarmed. Who wants a light-hearted kid’s movie to grapple with childhood orphaning and abandonment, all set while the inevitable end of the world plays out? Littlefoot is orphaned in the first few minutes of the film when a T-Rex violently kills his mother, then is joined on his journey by other orphaned or abandoned dino babies with their own neuroses. Littlefoot struggles at the head of his little band to keep the faith and continue plodding onward toward the legendary Great Valley when every circumstance along the way taunts them with doubt. The Land Before Time clearly wanted to be a movie that was about coping with loss, being changed by it, but it ended up an adventure movie with a happy ending that leaves most of that solemnity as weighty subtext. It’s debatably one of Bluth’s best movies, and I’d even argue one of the best animated movies of the ’80s. It was also one of the last bright spots of Don Bluth’s film catalogue. —Ken Lowe


hitcher-movie-poster.jpg 39. The Hitcher
Year: 1986
Director: Robert Harmon
In horror films, there’s something alluring to a relentless and unstoppable killer whose motivation is only to destroy innocent life with nihilistic, almost supernatural fervor. Part of the reason the original Halloween is still so frightening lies in its chillingly effortless ability to present Michael Myers as a figure of death itself: no reason, no rhyme, he won’t stop until you stop breathing. The original The Hitcher operates on many of the same levels, as the simplicity of its premise about a couple (C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who takes on a dual role, as the top and bottom halves of her body) hounded by a murderous maniac hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) takes full advantage of the unresolved mystery surrounding the killer’s motivations. (Transform the truck from Duel into Rutger Hauer, and you get The Hitcher.) Director Robert Harmon’s film casts an appropriately icky, low-grade aura, perfectly fitting the killer’s philosophical point-of-view, an aesthetic approach that eludes the makers of the ill-fated 2007 remake, which looks too glossy to work on a visceral level. Also, with all due respect to Sean Bean, he’s no Rutger Hauer. —Oktay Ege Kozak


upgrade-movie-poster.jpg 38. Upgrade
Year: 2018
Director: Leigh Whannell
Lovers of high-concept, low-budget sci-fi cinema would have been perfectly content were Upgrade not much more than a narratively streamlined, giddily hyper-violent vigilante revenge fantasy, sort of a Death Wish: Cyberpunk Edition. Turns out it’s also sophisticated enough to leave the audience with some intriguing questions about how much power we can give artificial intelligence before it decides that we’re a nuisance, taking full control. Of course, the premise of AI as existential threat is the bedrock for plenty of science fiction, with the most recent example in Alex Garland’s great Ex Machina. With Upgrade, we get a Cliff’s Notes version of this concept, examined in an understandably superficial but original way, and we get to watch a bad guy’s head split in half. That’s the textbook definition of a win-win. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has proven to be an efficient genre storyteller, having been the Bernie Taupin to James Wan’s Elton John, writing for Wan’s Saw and Insidious franchises, even directing the third Insidious. Here, he pushes the limits of his hard-R confines when it comes to painting the walls with the gooey crimson stuff. As the writer of three Saw movies, Whannell spent a good chunk of his professional life coming up with increasingly messed up ways to off people, and he demonstrates that expertise here. It’s always fun to see an action flick with full-blown horror gore, especially when said gore is achieved through practical effects and top-notch choreography. With Upgrade, he confirms he’s a formidable voice in modern b-movies. —Oktay Ege Kozak


hail-caesar.jpg 37. Hail, Caesar!
Year: 2016
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
The period zaniness of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! is an ode to old Hollywood—and much more—as only they can do, tracing the efforts of James Brolin’s studio scandal fixer through a parade of 1950s soundstages, back lots and actors. His latest potential headline concerns the abduction of a Biblically epic movie star—George Clooney having a helluva good time doing his best Chuck Heston/Kirk Douglas amalgam—by what turns out to be a tea sandwich-serving think tank of communists. Other subplots have Scarlett Johansson’s starlet plotting out her unwed motherhood in the public eye and the screen makeover of an unsophisticated cowboy by Ralph Fiennes’ debonairly enunciating director, Laurence Laurentz. There are dueling gossip columnist twins (Tilda Swinton pulling double duty), a hapless film editor (Frances McDormand) and scattered movies-within-the-movie, which even pauses midway through for a thoroughly enchanting—and cheeky—Gene Kelly-styled song-and-dance number starring Channing Tatum as a heavily made-up matinee star with controversial extracurricular activities. Most of the main characters/performances take blatant inspiration from Hollywood legends of yore, and the cast seems to have as much fun as the Coens. Hail, Caesar! is by no means their best work, but it’s characteristically gorgeous, spiritedly acted and rife with political, religious and creative (sub)text for moviegoers as thoughtful and dorky as Joel and Ethan themselves. —Amanda Schurr


when-the-levees.jpg 36. 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


kid-who-would-be-king-movie-poster.jpg 35. The Kid Who Would Be King
Year: 2019
Director: Joe Cornish
What better time to retell the King Arthur origin story as a witty, charming and rousing family fantasy/adventure? The Kid Who Would Be King reminds its core audience—and perhaps even some adults—that we might still find hope in our future leaders if passé values like compassion, chivalry, compromise, virtue and honor are remixed back into society. Any creative tasked with reinvigorating a public domain myth would do well to take notes from writer-director Joe Cornish’s thrillingly fresh take on the Arthurian legend. The legend tells, in the form of boisterous opening narration accompanied by some colorful children’s textbook animation, that Arthur and his brave knights were able to defeat Arthur’s evil sister, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), and cast her into the bowels of hell. However, Morgana vowed to come back and cover the land in darkness when the land is once again bitterly divided the way it was before Arthur’s time. Cut to post-Brexit England, where half the country despises the other half, which Morgana understandably takes as an invitation to unleash her army of minions to take back the land. Will a hero of Arthurian stature show up to challenge her once again? That hero, in true ’80s-style children’s fantasy fashion, comes in the form of a meek but pure-of-heart 12-year-old named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, an 11 on the instant adorability meter), who not only has to contend with the surrounding culture and media constantly reminding him how his country’s about to implode, but has to defend himself and his even nerdier best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), against school bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Those familiar with the Arthurian legend might predict where this story’s going simply by looking at the character names, but Cornish’s specialty, as evidenced by his terrific London alien invasion adventure Attack the Block, lies is in applying sci-fi/fantasy tropes to invigorating new settings. The Kid Who Would Be Kid hits the family classic trifecta: Spectacular fun for kids and adults, full of important themes and a rebellious attitude in regard to the wide range of things grownups are messing up. —Oktay Ege Kozak


aquaman-movie-poster.jpg 34. Aquaman
Year: 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


33. 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


grosse-pointe-blank-movie-poster.jpg 32. Grosse Pointe Blank
Year: 1997
Director: George Armitage
In the role that probably set the foundation for High Fidelity’s Rob, John Cusack plays Martin Q. Blank as a vaguely charming, vaguely confident, vaguely organic hitman—the kind of guy one would never suspect is good at killing people for a living. Except: Blank is from the vaguely wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, which means that he’s one of many formless Michigander schlubs who go one to do things no one has ever expected of them. Before the 2008 Recession, Oakland County, one of Detroit’s surrounding counties, a very popular member of the Metro Detroit family, was among the absolute richest counties in the country. Like Orange County rich. And still no one seems to really remember that—back in even 1997, when the car companies were slaying, no one expected much from a Michigander. Grosse Pointe Blank epitomizes that befuddling state-wide middle child complex in John Cusack’s thoroughly, anxiously casual performance. —Dom Sinacola


her-smell-movie-poster.jpg 31. Her Smell
Year: 2019
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Her Smell chronicles the fall and rise of Elisabeth Moss’s Becky Something, a Courtney Love surrogate and frontwoman of the punk rock band Something She; Becky talks like a Wonderland character but acts like an uncaged animal. Moss being an actress whose greatest asset is her eyes, and Perry being a filmmaker who fixates on the human gaze, Becky spends the movie staring either at other characters or into the camera. Her eyes burn like toxic twin moons. The movie’s first three quarters light the match of her self-immolation. In the punk rock world there’s little more stultifying than commercial success; add in a poisonous personality and an enthusiastic drug habit and Becky’s unmaking—by her own hand—is assured. Yet, the film’s final act redeems her, such as Perry’s movies redeem anyone. In contrast to his other work, Her Smell is compassionate, even tender; Becky, later seen sober, washed up and repentant for her years as a monster fed on abusing her ex-husband (Dan Stevens), her bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin) and her mother (Virginia Madsen), sings a devastatingly moving cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to her daughter in a moment equally as gentle as it is painful. Even in the recovery phase, Her Smell delicately walks a perilous tightrope and arrives on the other side as the masterpiece of Perry’s career. —Andy Crump


a-star-is-born-movie-poster.jpg 30. A Star is Born
Year: 2018
Director: Bradley Cooper 
Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born reminds us that clichés exist for a reason: They embody a whiff of universal truth that can hit us right between the eyes when it becomes our reality. This latest remake of a perennial Hollywood story doesn’t offer many new insights, but it reaffirms what we know—or what we think we know—about relationships, artistry, the trappings of fame and the demands of the entertainment industry. Its comforting familiarity is both its greatest limitation and its appeal—there are certain songs we love hearing over and over again, and A Star Is Born’s tale of “making it” is one we apparently never tire of. Cooper, who makes his directorial debut and also co-wrote the adaptation, stars as Jackson Maine, a roots-rocker of considerable popularity. But not all is right with the man: Tinnitus is robbing him of his hearing, and his addiction to drink and drugs is becoming worrying to those around him. One night after a show, he goes looking for a bar, stumbling upon a performance from Ally (Lady Gaga), who belts out an impassioned rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” Jackson is captivated by this aspiring singer-songwriter. She tells him she’s been told she’s not pretty enough to make it in the music business. He tells her she’s beautiful. A Star Is Born quickly throws these two mismatched souls together, as Jackson brings her onstage at his next sold-out show to duet with him on an arrangement he’s put together of one of her songs. The performance goes viral. Ally suddenly is in huge demand. The two become lovers. You know every word by heart. His Cooper acknowledges the clichés of his setup while asserting that there’s something eternal and cyclical about their underlying tenets. Yes, we’ve seen all manner of stories about fading stars, rising stars, the toxicity of ego and the struggle to balance career and romance—as you watch this new movie, you feel like you’ve known its contours all your life—but the predictability is part of these characters’ tragedy. —Tim Grierson


buean-vista-social-club-movie-poster.jpg 29. Buena Vista Social Club
Year: 1999
Director: Wim Wenders
A good 15 years before Obama moved to lift the embargo, Wim Wenders helmed this exuberant introduction to a members club in Havana that closed in the 1940s, only to find worldwide popularity in the 1990s. Wenders’ camera follows his friend, American musician Ry Cooder, as he gets the band of legendary Cuban talents back together for an album and a few transcontinental performances. The soundtrack is, unsurprisingly, exceptional. So too are the individual players and their stories: Take Ibrahim Ferrer, a soft-spoken septuagenarian with a dulcet falsetto, or Omara Portuondo, a soulful chanteuse and dancer who once performed with Nat King Cole. Wenders’ film is more than just a journey of discovery for Cooder and his accompanying son Joachim, or for the group’s members, many of whom had never been to the U.S. (where they sold out Carnegie Hall); it’s the viewer’s passport to an indigenous African-Spanish sound theretofore blockaded by politics. Back in the studio, back in front of a crowd, back with each other, the Club’s members are positively radiant. It’s damned near impossible for audiences to not bask in that warmth. —Amanda Schurr


teen-titans-go-movie-poster.jpg 28. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
Year: 2018
Directors: Aaron Horvath, Peter Rida Michail
With Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, the long-running Cartoon Network series joins the ranks of still-running animated series that were deemed popular enough to get a movie of their very own. Much like The Simpsons Movie and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the show’s creators use the opportunity to distill and put on display what has made the show so popular in the first place. The result is one of the funniest “superhero” films of the year, and one that allows Robin and company to join Deadpool—Statler and Waldorf style—on the balcony poking fun at the clichés, blindspots and foibles of the current Big Genre on Campus. When Teen Titans Go! debuted on Cartoon Network in 2013, its chibi design, juvenile humor and overall zany approach drew mixed reactions from fans of the source material. For some, it stemmed from the disappointment of not getting a renewed “serious” series. (The original Teen Titans animated series had ended seven years earlier.) For others, the succession of booty jokes—or any joke hammered at relentlessly for 10-11 minutes—quickly grew tiresome. In Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, creators Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath pull off what we’ll call a “reverse-Hobbit,” showing how the characters from those 11-minute bursts of mayhem stand up just fine to the “rigor” of an 88-minute theatrical release. (Granted, they have more than 200 episodes to draw from and no dearth of tired tropes to target.) The premise of “Robin wants his own movie. What must he do to get one?” is all the framework directors Horvath and Peter Rida Michail need to support a sustained skewering of the current frenzy of superhero moviemaking. —Michael Burgin


tale-hbo-movie-poster.jpg 27. 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


bessie.jpg 26. 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

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