The 100 Best Movies on Netflix (July 2020)

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The 100 Best Movies on Netflix (July 2020)

The best movies on Netflix can be hard to find, but we’re not likely to run out of great films any time soon. New additions this week include Ben Affleck’s The Town and James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Add in the growing list of Netflix original movies like The Old Guard and Da 5 Bloods, and there’s plenty to choose from, whether you’re looking for the best action movies, the best horror films, the best comedies or the best classic movies on Netflix. We’ve updated the list to remove great films that just left the streaming service, but there are plenty of top movies still streaming.

So, rather than spending your time scrolling through categories, trying to track down the perfect film to watch, we’ve done our best to make it easy for you at Paste by updating our Best Movies to watch on Netflix list each week with new additions and overlooked films alike. We’ve added Rotten Tomatoes scores so you can see which are the highest rated movies on Netflix, as well.

And if you know what kind of movie you’re looking for, go straight to our genre lists to find the best Comedies, Documentaries, Feel-Good Movies, Horror Movies, Thrillers, Kid Movies and Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix.

And when you’re finished exploring the top movies on Netflix right now, check out our extensive guides to the best movies on other platforms like HBO, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Redbox, as well as The Best Movies in Theaters, visit the Paste Movie Guides.

Here are the 100 best movies streaming on Netflix right now:

The Old Guard

the-old-guard-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Stars: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Van Veronico Ngo, Henry Melling, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli
Rating: NR
Runtime: 93 minutes

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Gina Prince-Bythewood, given a budget more than worthy of the best DTV action flick anyone could hope could make it to permanent Netflix browsal, succeeds in towing, and then mildly subverting, the genre line: She proves she can capably steer a high-concept action blockbuster while cobbling together something that feels like the kind of movie “they” just don’t make anymore. All of it amounts to a one-step-forward-one-step-back appraisal: There is much to cull from the travails of Andromache the Scythian (Charlize Theron), an immortal warrior who, thousands of years later, still questions the purpose of her own endlessness, and sequels, given Netflix’s ostensibly unlimited resources, are all but guaranteed—but one wishes for more capably clear action auteurism, even when Prince-Bythewood’s action chops confidently step up. Still: There are countless joys to behold in The Old Guard, most of all the emergence of Kiki Layne—last seen as hyper-dramatic personae #1 in If Beale Street Could Talk—as exceptionally promising action star, executing a one-handed pistol cocking so confident and so unremarked-upon it automatically achieves cinematic canon. Otherwise, trigger-happy editing gets in the way of itself too often, admirable set-pieces sometimes chopped to shit, though plenty of violence—squelching and tendon-splitting—abounds, and the final villain is dispatched with such disregard for the human body that one can’t help but applaud Prince-Bythewood for getting it—for knowing that the key to good action filmmaking is treating people like piles of wet meat. —Dom Sinacola


Da 5 Bloods

da-5-bloods.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Norman Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Lê Y Lan, Johnny Trí Nguy?n
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 156 minutes

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The hunt for buried gold neither ends well nor goes off without a hitch. The long road to reconciliation, whether with one’s trauma, family or national identity, is never without bumps. Glue these truths together with the weathering effects of institutional racism, add myriad references to history—American history, music history, film history—and you get Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a classically styled Vietnam action picture made in his cinematic vision. As in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, Lee connects the dots between past and present, linking the struggle for civil rights couched in conscientious objection and protest to contemporary America’s own struggle against state-sanctioned fascism. After opening with a montage of events comprising and figures speaking out against the Vietnam War, referred to predominantly as the American War throughout the rest of the movie, Lee introduces four of the five bloods: Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), bonded Vietnam vets returned to Ho Chi Minh City ostensibly to find and recover the bones of their fallen squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). There’s more, of course, “more” being around $17 million in gold bars planted in Vietnamese soil, property of the CIA but reappropriated by the Bloods as reparations for their personal suffering as men fighting a war for a country governed by people who don’t care about their rights. Lee’s at the height of his powers when bluntly making the case that for as much time as has passed since the Vietnam War’s conclusion, America’s still stubbornly waging the same wars on its own people and, for that matter, the rest of the world. And Lee is still angry at and discontent with the status quo, being the continued oppression of Black Americans through police brutality, voter suppression and medical neglect. In this context, Da 5 Bloods’ breadth is almost necessary. As Paul would say: Right on. —Andy Crump


Uncut Gems

uncut-gems-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian
Genre: Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 135 minutes

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The proprietor of an exclusive shop in New York’s diamond district, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) does well for himself and his family, though he can’t help but gamble compulsively, owing his brother-in-law Aron (Eric Bogosian, malevolently slimy) a substantial amount. Still, Howard has other risks to balance—his payroll’s comprised of Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a finder of both clients and product, and Julia (Julia Fox, an unexpected beacon amidst the storm in her first feature role), a clerk with whom Howard’s carrying on an affair, “keeping” her comfortable in his New York apartment. Except his wife’s (Idina Menzel, pristinely jaded) obviously sick of his shit, and meanwhile he’s got a special delivery coming from Africa: a black opal, the stone we got to know intimately in the film’s first scene, which Howard estimates is worth millions. Then Demany happens to bring Kevin Garnett (as himself, keyed so completely into the Safdie brothers’ tone) into the shop on the same day the opal arrives, inspiring a once-in-a-lifetime bet for Howard—the kind that’ll square him with Aron and then some—as well as a host of new crap to get straight. It’s all undoubtedly stressful—really relentlessly, achingly stressful—but the Safdies, on their sixth film, seem to thrive in anxiety, capturing the inertia of Howard’s life, and of the innumerable lives colliding with his, in all of its full-bodied beauty. Just before a game, Howard reveals to Garnett his grand plan for a big payday, explaining that Garnett gets it, right? That guys like them are keyed into something greater, working on a higher wavelength than most—that this is how they win. He may be onto something, or he may be pulling everything out of his ass—regardless, we’ve always known Sandler’s had it in him. This may be exactly what we had in mind. —Dom Sinacola


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

spider-man-spider-verse-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Stars: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin
Genre: Superhero, Animation, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Action & Adventure, Kids & Family
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 100 minutes

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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


Lady Bird

lady-bird-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Timothee Chalamet
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%
Rating: R
Runtime: 93 minutes

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Before Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)—Lady Bird is her given name, as in “[she] gave it to [her]self”—auditions for the school musical, she watches a young man belting the final notes to “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. A few moments before, while in a car with her mother, she lays her head on the window wistfully and says with a sigh, “I wish I could just live through something.” Stuck in Sacramento, where she thinks there’s nothing to be offered her while paying acute attention to everything her home does have to offer, Lady Bird—and the film, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, that shares her name—has ambivalence running through her veins. What a perfect match: Stephen Sondheim and Greta Gerwig. Few filmmakers are able to capture the same kind of ambiguity and mixed feelings that involve the refusal to make up one’s mind: look to 35-year-old Bobby impulsively wanting to marry a friend, but never committing to any of his girlfriends, in Company; the “hemming and hawing” of Cinderella on the, ahem, steps of the palace; or Mrs. Lovett’s cause for pause in telling Sweeney her real motives. Lady Bird isn’t as high-concept as many of Sondheim’s works, but there’s a piercing truthfulness to the film, and arguably Gerwig’s work in general, that makes its anxieties and tenderness reverberate in the viewer’s heart with equal frequency. —Kyle Turner


Back to the Future

back-to-the-future.jpg Year: 1985
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells
Genre: Comedy, Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 116 minutes

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Not until Matt Groening/David X. Cohen’s animated TV series Futurama would we again see the lighter side of the grave consequences inherent in time-travel paradoxes. Robert Zemeckis and Michael J. Fox each securely attached their names on the A-list with this sci-fi comedy that ensured Christopher Lloyd would be forever associated with the Crackpot Inventor archetype, and that any DeLorean on the road would eventually be ticketed for speeds in excess of 88 mph. —Scott Wold


Moonlight

moonlight-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes

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What’s remarkable about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is that it’s hardly remarkable at all. It’s actually mundane, though its mundanity can be mitigated—or, really, delineated—via qualifiers: buoyant, bitter, graceful, beautiful, harsh, coltish, doleful, vibrant. More to the point: Moonlight is familiar. If you strip away its exterior particulars, you’ll be left with the bones of a coming-of-age story. Every film has a skeleton to support its musculature. Moonlight’s just happens to look like Boyhood’s and The 400 Blows’. Moonlight is painted with brushstrokes of silence: of Jenkins’ unobtrusive direction, of Chiron’s mute trepidation, of his friends and caregivers, who speak to him in the knowledge that he’ll say little and less to them in return (if he says anything at all). But rather than make Moonlight inaccessible, silence opens it up. In film, silence is neither mortal nor venial sin—it’s actually a virtue. Jenkins is fluent in silence and possesses an innate understanding of how silent moments can communicate more than heaps of dialogue. It’s in glances that pass between Little and his surrogate custodians, Juan (Mahershala Ali, damn near ubiquitous in 2016 and at his best here) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the stillness Chiron responds with when in conversation with his chum-then-crush, Kevin. Moonlight is nothing if not empathetic. But describing the film solely in terms of empathy is a misguided oversimplification: All movies seek out empathy to degrees, after all, and so Moonlight does what any human story on celluloid has to do. Jenkins opts for sensation in favor of the sensational, eschewing flash and bluster while making old hat feel new again. Most of all, he invites our empathy at the cost of our vanity. He leads us away from navel-gazing to see the stunningly constructed drama he and his troupe have laid before us on screen. The film encourages self-reflection, but not at the expense of either its narrative or the viewing experience. That’s the surest sign of a deft cinematic hand. —Andy Crump


The Other Side of the Wind

other-side-of-wind-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Random, Susan Strasberg, Oja Kodar
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Rating: R
Runtime: 122 minutes

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As gaudy and inexplicable as its title, The Other Side of the Wind nonetheless sings with the force of its movement whistling past its constraints. The wind blows: Orson Welles channels it through his studio-inflicted/self-inflicted torpor, in that process finding an organic melody—or rather, jazz. The making-of documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, released by Netflix to go with this film—the streaming giant’s finest moment—shows Welles, enormous and half-baked, describing what he calls “divine accidents.” These accidents were responsible for some of his oeuvre’s best details (wherein God resides), like the breaking of the egg in Touch of Evil; they were something he aimed to chase after (like chasing the wind) with this, his final project, released several decades after its shooting as Netflix opened their coffers to open the coffin in which the raw footage was locked. His former partners on the shoot, Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall, make good on their old oath to their master to complete the film for him, and in finding the spirit of the thing, deliver us a masterpiece we barely deserve. A divine accident. John Huston plays John Huston as Jake Hannaford who is also Orson Welles, trying to finish The Other Side of the Wind much like Welles tried to finish The Other Side of the Wind, over the course of years with no real budget and by the seats-of-everyone’s-pants. In contrast, the film’s scenario is set up over the course of one evening and night, Hannaford surrounded by “disciples” and peers who are invited to a party to screen some of the footage of what the director hopes will be his greatest masterpiece, in what Welles hoped would be his. The film within the film is a riff on art film, with perhaps the strongest winks at Michelangelo Antonioni and Zabriskie Point. Life imitates art: Hannaford’s house is just around the rock corner from the one Zabriskie blew to bits. Aptly, that house is the setting for most of the film about Hannaford, in theory constructed from found footage from the cineaste paparazzi. The density is dizzying, the intellect fierce. In terms of Welles’ filmography, it’s like the last act of Citizen Kane felt up by Touch of Evil, then stripped and gutted by the meta-punk of F for Fake. No art exists in a vacuum, but The Other Side of the Wind, more than most, bleeds its own context. It is about Orson Welles, showing himself. Killing himself. —Chad Betz


The Irishman

irishman-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin
Genre: Crime Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: R
Runtime: 209 minutes

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Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) watches her father, Frank (Robert De Niro), through a door left ajar as he packs his suitcase for a work trip. In go trousers and shirts, each neatly tucked and folded against the luggage’s interior. In goes the snubnose revolver, the ruthless tool of Frank’s trade. He doesn’t know his daughter’s eyes are on him; she’s constitutionally quiet, and remains so throughout most of their interaction as adults. He shuts the case. She disappears behind the door. Her judgment lingers. The scene plays out one third of the way into Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, named for Frank’s mob world sobriquet, and replays in its final shot, as Frank, old, decrepit and utterly, hopelessly alone, abandoned by his family and bereft of his gangster friends through the passage of time, sits on his nursing home bed. Maybe he’s waiting for Death, but most likely he’s waiting for Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), who disowned him and has no intention of forgiving him his sins. Peggy serves as Scorsese’s moral arbiter. She’s a harsh judge: The film takes a dim view of machismo as couched in the realm of mafiosa and mugs. When Scorsese’s principal characters aren’t scheming or paying off schemes in acts of violence, they’re throwing temper tantrums, eating ice cream or in an extreme case slap-fighting in a desperately pathetic throwdown. This scene echoes similarly pitiful scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and Rashomon: brawls between wannabe roughs afraid of brawling, but forced into it by their own bravado. The Irishman spans the 1950s to the early 2000s, the years Frank worked for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell (Joe Pesci, out of retirement and intimidating). “Working” means murdering some people, muscling others, even blowing up a car or a building when the occasion warrants. When disengaged from gangland terrorism, he’s at home reading the paper, watching the news, dragging Peggy to the local grocer to give him a beatdown for shoving her. “I only did what you should,” the poor doomed bastard says before Frank drags him out to the street and crushes his hand on the curb. The Irishman is historical nonfiction, chronicling Sheeran’s life, and through his life the lives of the Bufalinos and their associates, particularly those who died before their time (that being most of them). It’s also a portrait of childhood cast in the shadow of dispassionate brutality, and what a young girl must do to find safety in a world defined by bloodshed. —Andy Crump


The Death of Stalin

death-of-stalin-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Jason Isaacs
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: R
Runtime: 107 minutes

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You can trace that dynamic from The Thick of It, through In the Loop and Veep, and then especially in his new film, The Death of Stalin, whose subject matter can be inferred from a mere glance. The Death of Stalin marks a major temporal departure for Iannucci, known for skewering contemporary political embarrassments and turmoil, by taking us back to 1953 Russia. Years out from the Great Purge, the country remains in the grip of widespread fear fomented by nationalism, public trials, antisemitism, executions, mass deportations and civic uncertainty. Iannucci asks us to laugh at an era not known for being especially funny. That’s the give and take at the film’s core: Iannucci drops a punchline and we guffaw, then moments later we hear a gunshot, accompanied by the sound of a fresh corpse hitting the ground. Finding humor in political violence is a big ask, and yet Iannucci’s dialogue is nimble but unfailingly harsh, replete with chafing castigations. We howl with laughter, though we can’t help feeling bad for every poor bastard caught on the receiving end of trademark Iannucci verbal abuse, which typically means we end up feeling bad for every character in his films. He spares no one from insult or injury, even when they’re lying dead on the floor, soaked in their own piss. A tale of mortal sins as well as venial ones, The Death of Stalin adds modern urgency to his comic storytelling trademarks: As nationalist sentiment rears its ugly head across the globe and macho authoritarian leaders contrive to hoard power at democracy’s expense, a farcical play on the political clusterfuck that followed Stalin’s passing feels shockingly apropos. It takes a deft hand and a rare talent to make tyranny and state sanctioned torture so funny. —Andy Crump


Haywire

haywire-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Gina Carano, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton
Rating: R
Runtime: 93 minutes

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With a needlessly complicated plot and a big enough budget to accommodate it, Steven Soderbergh’s take on DTV action thrillers seems to exist for the sake of refuting most established rules of DTV action-thriller filmmaking. Soderbergh doesn’t just break the 180-degree line, he shatters it repeatedly, but rather than strand the viewer in an amorphous geographic space while two people confusingly beat the pulp from each other, he offers up a singular cinematic language that thrives on both visceral style and astounding clarity. “No you shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a mistake,” slippery government operative Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) advises spy assassin (or assassin spy?) Paul (Michael Fassbender) about Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), our rogue and extremely capable hero. So Haywire proceeds, as Kenneth gets over getting dumped by Mallory by conspiring to kill her. Against the grain of Olivier Megaton’s nauseating Taken movies and Paul Greengrass’s inscrutable Bourne installments, Soderbergh follows Mallory from dingy European hallway to small diner in upstate new York to nice hotel room in Dublin, the empirical nature of the locations and the immediate athleticism of her brawls—typically just Carano and an A-list actor game to get grody—keeping all the action understandable even as it’s endlessly thrilling. Soderbergh trusts his audience to intuit what’s going on, and even if you don’t follow the international espionage plot, the violence tells a story known well enough: Mallory must prove herself at every confrontation, underestimated by every man she pummels her way through, punished for ever trusting them in the first place. It’s bleak, maybe, but it’s also really satisfying to watch her kick the shit out of some cops. —Dom Sinacola


Schindler’s List

schindlers-list.jpg
Year: 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: R
Runtime: 196 minutes

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It’d be hard to find a more inspiring, moving story to tell than that of Oskar Schindler, and in doing so, Spielberg produced one of the most ambitious, wise and moving motion pictures of our lifetime. The acting is superb—a career-making role for big lumbering Liam Neeson, so carefree and cocky at the beginning, so concerned and determined in the middle, and so noble and humble at the end of the film. Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley are perfect in supporting roles. A host of unknowns give everything in their one moment on the screen. John Williams’s haunting score and Janusz Kaminski’s breathtaking black-and-white cinematography sparkle. But the script—oh, Steven Zaillian’s majestic script—is the biggest star. He manages to take a Holocaust tale and turn it into a story of triumph, the story of how much one man can do, and the regret we’ll each someday have that we didn’t do much, much more. Oskar’s “I could have gotten more out” speech is almost too much to bear. —Michael Dunaway


Becoming

becoming.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Stars: Michelle Obama
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 89 minutes

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There seem to be two goals of Netflix’s new Michelle Obama documentary—first, to humanize (or normalize) the former First Lady of the United States as she embarks on a countrywide book tour (for her bestseller of the same name), and second, to reinforce the idea that Michelle Obama is a woman necessarily and eternally concerned with race and racism in America, particularly for Black women. The first goal is achieved, almost as much as it can be, and the personal stories and appearance of family members like her mother and brother are the strongest part of the Becoming experience. The second goal is a little more complicated, largely due to the fact that Michelle Obama occupies a strange space as a figure who is neither a politician, nor an activist—but who often presents like one or the other. Nadia Hallgren’s film is an attempt at a portrait of a lady seemingly on fire, now that she’s “free at last.” In an early scene, Obama and billionaire Oprah Winfrey laugh as they candidly discuss the relief that came with the end of her time in the White House. Becoming is about the “liberation” of Michelle Obama, and it takes care to remind us of all that she endured on the road to the White House. There’s a hollowness sometimes echoed in Obama’s celebrity interviews (on her press tour, she sits down with the likes of Oprah, Stephen Colbert, Gayle King and Reese Witherspoon), but something far more interesting happens when Obama is working as a mentor. In several scenes, she sits down with small groups—groups of Black women, young female students, Native American students in Arizona, and older black women in the church. In one especially compelling scene, we go home with Shayla, a teen in one of the groups, and we get to know the women who are inspired by Obama’s story of becoming. Watching a young black girl, giddy as she imitates the former First Lady’s walk down a hall, we get the sense that the mere experience of being in the same space as Obama will change some of these girls forever. They light up the screen in this documentary; they are the true stars, and they bring the real magic to this story. —Shannon M. Houston


53. Mean Streets

meanstreets.jpg Year: 1973
Director: Martin Scorcese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Richard Romanus, Amy Robinson, Jeanne Bell
Genre: Action & Adventure, War
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: R
Runtime: 112 minutes

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Martin Scorsese’s fourth film begins in voiceover—rising wise guy Charlie (Harvey Keitel) speaks as much to himself as to God, knowing he’s a hypocrite for asking for guidance while working for his crime boss uncle (Cesare Danova)—and ends in a conflagration of voices, the indifferent thrum of New York City blotting out the film’s inevitable tragedy. Despite everything everyone tells him, especially his elders, a chorus of first-generation Italian immigrants, Charlie vouches for his dipshit best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and carries on an affair with Johnny’s cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson), whose struggles with epilepsy Charlie’s uncle relegates to a brain sickness unbecoming of anyone with whom Charlie would ever want to be involved. In between small-time grifts and messy bar fights and thankless errands for heavy-breathing mafia types—in between celebrations for returning Vietnam vets whose personalities are most likely blasted by PTSD, childhood neighborhood friends unequipped to understand anything about that experience on the other side of the world—Charlie spends all effort hiding the life he wants from the life he’s earning, from the life of his culture, his people, his neighborhood. Scorsese, the obvious cinephile, drew much from the French New Wave, especially in this portrait of careless youth beset by an impossible existential weight, but every moment of Mean Streets breathes with the claustrophobic, non-stop energy of New York in the ’70s: dirty, atomized and stubbornly stuck in its ways. Johnny Boy will let Charlie down, Theresa will never settle for being a hidden fling, Charlie’s uncle will never let him, unless he can prove himself to be clean of the sins of his friends, take over that Italian restaurant from the scumbum who owes them too much money—meanwhile, Charlie’s friend Michael (Richard Romanus) has no patience left waiting for the money Johnny owes him, the money Charlie helped Johnny acquire. As Charlie knows too well care of his Catholic upbringing, the sins of the past always catch up to collect. With Mean Streets, Scorsese crafted an indomitable ode to his home, an apologia for the hypocrites on his street that could never outrun their fate, the urban monoliths of their immigrant experience always closing in. —Dom Sinacola


The Florida Project

florida-project-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Sean Baker
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Brooklyn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb landry Jones
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: R
Runtime: 115 minutes

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However useful a surreal approach to reframing paradise may be, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project presents a more acute critique. Baker plunges his audience into his worlds through the lens of social realism, his camera on the same playing field as Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and the manager of the motel they live in, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The camera lives with the characters, watches them haul a bed-bug-infested mattress outside, or sit and eat pancakes by a small creek-ish ditch. Nothing climactic happens in these scenes, we just get to watch and not pass judgment—or pass judgment, whatever, it’s up to us. Baker never interferes; the equality of these scenes under the eye of his camera makes his film’s pointed ideas about survival and joy all the more striking. The film may be buoyed with a sense of humor and, occasionally, wonder, but Halley’s life is framed by an internal struggle over whether humor and wonder can help her retain her autonomy at all in spite of her class status. The Florida Project is spattered with profound sadness, with moments of externalized, violent frustration at presumed helplessness, at practically being born into all this. To what degree you believe Baker to be condescending or patronizing or exploitative is up to you, but the film’s bursts of light, its idea of what caregiving looks like when caregiving is a privilege, is handled with sensitivity. When the film switches from 35mm to digital in its final shots, Baker imbues his camera, now mobile, with freewheeling liberation: No matter what happens after The Florida Project ends, in those last moments, these kids are born to live.


Inglourious Basterds

inglourious_basterds_ver14.jpg Year: 2009
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger
Genre: Action & Adventure, War
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Rating: R
Runtime: 153 minutes

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Quentin Taraninto’s fist-pumping “kill all the Nazis” World War 2 film Inglourious Basterds feels relevant after an interminable decade of rising worldwide fascism aided and abetted by white nationalist political parties comprising hate-mongering loudmouths and cross-eyed dimwits. It folds its admiration for the medium of film into a climax involving a pile of nitrate film, a match and a vengeful Jew bent on burning the Nazi High Command to a crisp. Tarantino sees cinema itself as a weapon for killing tyrants—to right history’s wrongs through violence so over the top that no one can agree on whether said violence is gleeful, shocking or a mixture of the two. Is it a sin to cheer for the good guys when they’re using Hitler’s face for target practice and hitting all their shots, or when they’re torching Susan Atkins with Chekov’s flamethrower? Is it immoral to deny these assorted villains their humanity, such as it is, in exchange for a cathartic rush? Are these serious questions worth asking? Of all of the director’s motley assortment of pictures, Inglourious Basterds endures as the fertile ground where he planted the seed of his historical revenge fantasies, movies which harbor a compelling need to punish past atrocities: racism, antisemitism, the murder of a young woman who died begging for her unborn child’s life. Movies are mutable. They can provide raw material for pastiche, and pastiche can, with proper craftsmanship, be made original. Movies recycle movies all the time. Iconic shots from the classics are recreated in new films over years and decades. But with Inglourious Basterds, the movies are mutable in another way: They’re a literal weapon against a regime committing genocide. The image of Shosanna’s (Mélanie Laurent) face—the face of Jewish vengeance, triumphantly delivering Germany word of its impending demise like an avenging Wizard of Oz—is indelible, a validation of cinema’s power as a means of altering the world and even time itself. The movie is the ultimate expression of Tarantino’s weltanschauung; he’s a filmmaker whose movies are made of movies. This is Tarantino’s masterpiece. —Andy Crump


Raiders of the Lost Ark

raiders-of-the-lost-ark.jpg Year: 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Wolf Kahler, Ronald Lacey
Genre: Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 115 minutes

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A near-perfect distillation of the excitement and fun of the radio and pulp serials of yesteryear, Raiders of the Lost Ark established Harrison Ford’s wookie-free leading man credentials once and for all (with an assist from Blade Runner). The film also raises the question: Has anyone had a more impressive, more industry-transformative five-year run than Spielberg & Lucas did from 1977-1982? —Michael Burgin


E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

e-t-poster.jpg
Year: 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote
Genre: Science-Fiction, Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 114 minutes

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Steven Spielberg’s classic is many things: an ode to friendship which resonates with children and adults alike, one of the top-grossing films of all time and the moment Spielberg’s career, on a scale of 1-10, reached 11. Though the Academy would not award Spielberg the Best Director trophy until there were more Nazis involved, E.T. remains today perhaps the most deft expression of his directorial hand. —Michael Burgin


Despicable Me

despicable-me.jpg Year: 2010
Directors: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Stars: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand
Genre: Animation, Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 95 minutes

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Followed by three more franchise flicks—one of which, 2013’s Despicable Me 2, is so old-timey racist and unabashedly violent and culturally tone-deaf it’s legitimately detrimental to the health of young children—the original Despicable Me shines best by flattening the dichotomy between good guys and bad guys, removing all but the most heart-strings-tugging stakes from what would otherwise be a minefield of superhero and spy thriller movie tropes. In the world of career super villain Gru (Steve Carell, playacting a mouthful of an Eastern European accent), good guys are boring state-subsidized bureaucrats, and bad guys aren’t all that bad, just ambitious pseudo-scientists with big ideas and healthy competitive natures. They don’t actually want to hurt anybody. So, really, once Gru begins unwittingly step-fathering three young orphan girls (the youngest voiced adorably by Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher) he sheds all of his sociopathic tendencies to become an ersatz Good Guy replete with brand new nemesis, Vector (Jason Segal). Though the two sequels and standalone Minions vehicle needlessly complicate the DM mythos, further muddying Gru’s lineage and giving the Minions personalities (the funniest joke in this first film is how Gru talks to each Minion as if they are an individual being, giving them normie names, even though they are impossible to distinguish)—which then means we have to ask questions about how Minions procreate and/or go to the bathroom—the first Despicable Me movie is a pleasantly pure distillation of family-friendly values, slapstick and indifferent character designs, bolstered by a good joke or two. If only it ended there. Instead, we must wonder, in 2019: If a Minion with its pants around its ankles has no genitals, is it really naked? —Dom Sinacola


Total Recall

total-recall-1990.jpg Year: 1990
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone
Genre: Science-Fiction, Action, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
Rating: R
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Very loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (and aren’t all PKD adaptations “very loose”?), Total Recall functions as a construct for Paul Verhoeven to take a high-concept premise about memory implants and lost identity and motivational uncertainty and turn it into an Arnold Schwarzenegger schlock-fest. It should be bad, but it’s not; it should be, at best, cheesy fun—but it’s even more than that. Unlike many of it’s sci-fi action peers, Total Recall never runs out of steam or ideas; it starts with the memory implant stuff, but on the back end gives us a vividly imagined Mars society with an oppressed mutant population (which is, like, the best special make-up effects portfolio ever) and a secret alien reactor that’s a MacGuffin but also a deus ex machina. The plot’s a mess but so is Arnold. It all works. Total Recall’s $60 million production budget was absolutely huge for its time, but unlike similar Hollywood ventures that put money towards glitz (like the 2012 remake, so slick it slips right out of one’s head), Verhoeven uses the loot to give us more dust, more grit, more decrepit sets, more twisted prosthetics and maximum Arnold. Verhoeven, in fact, uses Arnold as much as he uses anything else in the budget to tell this darkly exuberant story, from the contorted confusion of the set-up right on through to the eye-popping finale. It results in a sci-fi screed written in the form of a hundred Ahh-nuld faces, absurd and unforgettable. For as many times as Dick has been adapted, this is perhaps the one time the go-for-broke energy and imagination of his work has made it into the cinema (Blade Runner is something else entirely). Total Recall may have little in common with the actual content of the story it blows up, but it knows the vibe. And PKD vibes are the best kind. —Chad Betz


The Silence of the Lambs

Silence-Lambs-Criterion.jpg Year: 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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The camera hugs her face, maybe trying to protect her though she needs no protection, and maybe just trying to see into her, to see what she sees, to understand why seeing what she sees is so important. Not even 30, Jodie Foster looks so much younger, surrounded in The Silence of the Lambs by men who tower over her, staring at her, flummoxed by her, perhaps wanting to protect her too, but more likely, more ironically, intimidated by a world that would allow such a fragile creature to wander the domain of monsters. As Clarice Starling, FBI agent-in-training, Foster is an innocent who’s seen more than any of us could ever imagine, a warrior who seems unsure of her prowess. That Jonathan Demme—a director who came up under the tutelage of Roger Corman, able to adopt then immediately shed genres at whim—corners Starling within the confines of a “Woman in Peril,” only to watch her shrug off every label thrown at her, is a testament to The Silence of the Lambs as feminist, not because it so thoroughly inhabits a female point of view, but because its violence and fear is the stuff of masculine toxicity. Demme’s film is only the second to adapt Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector novels to the screen, but it’s the first to draw undeniable lines between the way men see Clarice Starling and the way that serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) projects his neuroses onto his victims. Demme (and Harris) links seeing to transformation to one’s need to consume, all pursued through a gendered lens, represented by the seemingly omniscient perspective of Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), a borderline asexual cannibal who literally eats those over whom he holds court. Buffalo Bill is a monster, and so is Lector, but the difference is that Lector does not attempt to possess Clarice Starling, though he sees her, because he is in control of that which he consumes. Buffalo Bill isn’t; as a man he believes that by consuming femininity he can become it, too stupid and too self-absorbed to realize that consumption is deletion, that wanting to protect a woman is only a matter of admitting that the World of Men is a weak and evil failure of the very ideals it strives to preserve. —Dom Sinacola


The Disaster Artist

disaster-artist-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Seth Rogan, Dave Franco, Alison Brie
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 104 minutes

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To tackle the ineffable mystery of Tommy Wiseau’s consciousness is to understand the mind of a crocodile, or of a shark, or of a space alien. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Which is precisely what makes James Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau in The Disaster Artist such an impressive and triumphant one. Franco has physically transformed into Wiseau in the same manner that usually draws praise for an actor such as Daniel Day Lewis: not necessarily via hair or makeup, but in a way that is more primal and intimate. Every odd little tic, every awkward laugh, each inexplicable grimace—the gestures all shine through as genuine to anyone who has seen The Room, or even an interview with Wiseau. The portrayal is a huge part of what makes The Disaster Artist so compelling and just plain fun. You could make a good argument that this is the greatest role of Franco’s career. And even if The Disaster Artist reads like it’s positioning for a shot at year-end honors and the largest possible audience, fans of The Room will ultimately get far more from the experience than the average multiplex dweller. It’s a film to see with an audience familiar with what it’s about to see, with people who can appreciate the dedication with which Franco and co. have recreated so many of the original film’s woeful charm. —Jim Vorel


Burning

burning-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Stars: Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jeon, Steven Yeun
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 148 minutes

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Eight years after critical hit Poetry, Korean director Lee Chang-dong 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 Lee Chang-dong. 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. 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 Lee Chang-dong’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


The Half of It

half-of-it.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Alice Wu
Stars: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 105 minutes

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Netflix’s The Half of It begins somewhat deceptively, with a highly stylized animated retelling of an old Greek myth in which the four-armed, four-legged, two-headed humans of ancient times are sundered by the gods and wander about forever in search of the other half of their single heart. It ends with a scene between a boy and a girl, something that normally would come right out of a dopey rom-com, but in a way that subverts the trope on every level, from the inversion of its meaning to the quiet, intimate naturalism with which it is filmed. It’s a fitting juxtaposition because the film sandwiched between the two moments is about the fallacies that drive our neat and tidy narratives about love. Love is messy is the point, one called out aloud by main character Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) in Alice Wu’s short little film about a Chinese-American high schooler whose incredible writing skills find her hired to help her classmate, the kindhearted but far less charming Paul (Daniel Diemer), woo another girl. Paul does not realize that Ellie shares his unrequited desire for Aster (Alexxis Lemire), and that every sweet late-night text and smoldering note passed in class is tearing Ellie apart. If the story borrows its central conceit from Cyrano de Bergerac, it at least puts a few interesting spins on it: Ellie is an outsider in unique ways. She is the only Asian student at her school, an immigrant whose underemployed and linguistically challenged father struggles to run her household. She is the student who is so good at writing that she runs a side hustle writing papers for her entire class. And then there’s the other little matter of her feeling same-sex attraction in a stiflingly small, overwhelmlingly Christian town. It’s a unique twist on a familiar story in a film that universalizes feelings of otherness for the audience, whether they come from being the runt of the litter or the child of an immigrant struggling to make it in America. —Kenneth Lowe


Airplane!

airplane_netflix_poster.jpg Year: 1980
Director: Jim Abrahams
Stars: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 88 minutes

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The writing trio of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (ZAZ) defined a genre with their disaster-movie spoof in 1980. The jokes fly fast and furious, from the “Who’s on First” confusion of a crew that includes Roger and Captain Oveur (“Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”) to Oveur (Peter Graves) asking a kid in the cockpit, “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” to an old lady translating jive (“Jive-ass dude don’t got no brains anyhow! Shiiiiit!”) to “stop calling me Shirley!” Ridiculous and ridiculously quotable, it’s the funniest spoof film of all time. —Josh Jackson


I Am Not Your Negro

not-your-negro-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Raoul Peck
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 93 minutes

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Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston


The Social Network

the-social-network.jpg Year: 2010
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 120 minutes

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The Social Network follows the evolution of one of the most financially successful and problematic institutions of the 21st century. The film opens with a break-up scene between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man completely devoid of social skills, and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). Zuckerberg confuses Erica with his literal, machine-like translations of her every word while occasionally throwing in a sarcastic witticism. Throughout the film this sort of wordplay ebbs and flows with comedy and tragedy. After Erica walks out on him, an inebriated Mark goes back to his Harvard dorm room and disses Erica with aspersions to her character and bra size on the school’s social page for everyone to see while also creating a new social website which, with help from a few friends, eventually becomes Facebook. Most of the film takes place as a series of flashbacks based on testimony in two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg. The first is from a trio of Harvard upperclassmen who claim to have contracted Zuckerberg to create the network, and who also belong to an elite club that Mark wishes to be a part of. The other suit comes from his best friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) whose story in the film is as central as that of Zuckerberg’s. The disintegration of their relationship begins when the creator of Napster, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) takes a bandwagon seat on the rising company while creating a wedge between the co-founders. Garfield is wonderful as the unsure Saverin who wants to carefully guide Facebook into its future while Zuckerberg and Parker are full steam ahead. Like Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, greed is still king and the wolves are at the door. —Tim Basham


Monty Python’s Life of Brian

life-of-brian-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1979
Director: Terry Jones
Stars: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Genre: Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

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Pretty much made on George Harrison’s dime and considered, even if apocryphally, by the legendary comedy troupe to be their best film (probably because it’s the closest they’ve come to a three-act narrative with obvious “thematic concerns”), Life of Brian got banned by a lot of countries at the butt-end of the ’70s. As a Christ story, the telling of how squealy mama’s boy Brian (Graham Chapman) mistakenly finds himself as one of many messiah figures rising in Judea under the shadow of Roman occupation (around 33 AD, on a Saturday afternoon-ish), Monty Python’s follow-up to Holy Grail may be the most political film of its ilk. As such, the British group stripped all romanticism and nobility from the story’s bones, lampooning everything from radical revolutionaries to religious institutions to government bureaucracy while never stooping to pick on the figure of Jesus or his empathetic teachings. Of course, Life of Brian isn’t the first film about Jesus (or: Jesus adjacent) to focus on the human side of the so-called savior—Martin Scorsese’s take popularly did so less than a decade later—but it feels like the first to leverage human weakness against the absurdity of the Divine’s expectations. Steeped in satire fixing on everything from Spartacus to Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, and buttressed by as many iconic lines as there are crucifixes holding up the film’s frames (as Brian’s equally squealy mother hollers to the swarming masses, “He’s not the messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!”), the film explores Jesus’s life by obsessing over the context around it. Maybe a “virgin birth” was really just called that to cover up a Roman centurion’s sexual crimes. Maybe coincidence (and also class struggle) is reality’s only guiding force. Maybe the standard of what makes a miracle should be a little higher. And maybe the one true through line of history is that stupid people will always follow stupid people, whistling all the way to our meaningless, futile deaths. —Dom Sinacola


Taxi Driver

taxi-driver.jpg Year: 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Harvery Keitel
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: R
Runtime: 112 minutes

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Taxi Driver was Scorsese’s breakthrough: a seething condemnation of alienation—not to mention New York’s descent in the 1970s into a crime-ridden hellscape—delivered with such clinical coldness that when Scorsese’s star (and longtime collaborator) Robert De Niro finally explodes, it’s unspeakably upsetting. If Taxi Driver now feels slightly overrated, it’s only because the movie’s DNA has crept into so many subsequent filmmakers’ efforts. Scorsese grew up loving Westerns, and Taxi Driver could be his version of The Searchers—except his man-out-of-time finds no redemption. —Tim Grierson


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

good-bad-ugly-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1966
Director: Sergio Leone
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Genre: Western, Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: R
Runtime: 161 minutes

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Arguably the greatest of the Italian Westerns, but also one of the finest Westerns ever made. Leone’s penchant for turning the genre’s sacred themes and obsessions inside out goes full tilt here. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are back for this third Dollars movie, but the addition of Eli Wallach adds a significant amount of caustic humor and even more cynicism to the mix. Set during the Civil War, though in a dry, barren landscape resembling the surreal panels of a Krazy Kat cartoon more than historical reality, Leone’s epic is the sublime, gloriously cinematic creation that he was always gunning for. Composer Ennio Morricone’s score ties it all together, particularly in the orgasmic “Ecstasy of Gold” finale. The director may have gone even more baroque with his subsequent Once Upon a Time in the West, but this is still his greatest achievement. Pop culture and the genre were never the same. —Derek Hill


Frost/Nixon

frost-nixon.jpg Year: 2008
Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Sam Rockwell
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: R
Runtime: 123 minutes

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A small-scale film with a large purview, Frost/Nixon strategically captures the interview as journalistic art, as we watch David Frost (Michael Sheen) attempt to destabilize the most difficult of subjects, Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon (Frank Langella, in a captivating performance). The film doesn’t much dig into David Frost personally, other than to indicate that he’s an entertainer above all, used to coasting on his natural charisma and not quite prepared for the potentially career-ruining interview he’s signed himself up for. There are some fun, awkward scenes with Frost and his research team (featuring the always-enjoyable Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt), meeting and greeting the former president, too. But most of Frost/Nixon’s running time is dedicated to what Nixon dubs a “duel,” and it is exhilarating to watch Frost, initially pummeled by the pro opposite him, come back to life in the final round. —Maura McAndrew


Mud

mud.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 131 minutes

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The title character of Jeff Nichols’s Mud is the kind of romanticized outlaw one finds in adventure books. With a magnetic personality and a star-crossed love story, he was born to be an enigmatic presence on an uninhabited island. Matthew McConaughey plays this man who comes from out of nowhere, yet appears to be in his natural habitat, with gritty cheerfulness, creating a character who seems good-natured even when he’s obfuscating. For a 14-year-old in search of a hero, he’s an ideal candidate. Mud combines the poignance of a boy coming to terms with life’s realities with the excitement of top-notch suspense. Nichols works within the coming-of-age genre, mixes in elements of a crime thriller, and elevates it all with a supreme sense of character, place and detail. Tye Sheridan stars as Ellis, a 14-year-old who senses his world changing. Ellis lives in an Arkansas river community that’s a relic from another time. He and his neighbors live in makeshift bankside houses that would no longer legal without already being grandfathered in. His mother (Sarah Paulson) has had enough of the life and of her husband, and is leaving. His father (Ray McKinnon) wants to stay and continue to make his living on the river, but the house was passed down on his wife’s side, meaning that when she leaves, they all have to leave.
Realizing that his parents have failed in their own relationship, Ellis desperately searches for something he can believe in. That’s where Mud (McConaughey) comes in. Ellis and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), head to an island on the Mississippi River, where they found a boat dramatically stranded in a tree, washed up there after a flood. Their plan is to turn the boat into a secret project, but they soon discover that they aren’t the only ones who have been inside it. Despite a plot that exists entirely in the realm of the possible, Nichols gives Mud a fantastical air. It’s like a childhood memory with embellishments and holes that have been filled in. Mud himself is a symbol of the romantic and the unlikely. He first appears in a classically mysterious manner—unseen one moment, standing casually by the water’s edge the next. —Jeremy Mathews


Under the Skin

under-the-skin-poster.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Krystof Hádek
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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Under the Skin is unified in purpose and in drive. It is a biting examination of sexual politics and a dissertation on the bodies we inhabit—how those bodies create a paradigm of ownership. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien avatar, the predator, the cipher whose weakness is her awakening humanity. When she looks in a mirror, lost in a gaze at her own body, it’s a reminder to us to find some remove from our weary familiarity with ourselves, to think, “Golly, what strange things we are.” The film’s tragic conclusion is an assertion that we achieve some positive ideal of what it is to be human when we accept a state of vulnerability, when we forsake the power position in our sexual communication. When we allow for the reality of our frailty, we can care for the frailty in all around us—and this is a very dangerous thing to do. Especially in a world riddled with corruption and malice that seeks to press its advantage. Under the Skin shows us these truths with images that are impossibly beautiful, terrifying and ultimately haunting. There is no exposition, only voids which suspended shells of victims float in, laser sharp lights piercing darkness, menacingly stoic bikers, snowflakes falling into lenses. There is a scene on a beach that plays out like a Bergman or Haneke set-piece and is just as heartbreaking as that would entail. Under the Skin is a soul-crushing work and yet, somehow, the film reiterates that we must continue working towards finding our souls. An artful cascade of multiple exposures of random people, about midway through the film, would seem to symbolize the birth of empathy in Johansson’s femme fatale, and while this is the beginning of the end for her, it can’t help but resonate in Under the Skin with all the radiance of beatitude. These are scenes, statements, questions that are only possible within the framework that the film’s science fiction aspect provides, for these are not the thought processes bound by what is real, but what could be. —Chad Betz


Mirai

mirai.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Stars: Haru Kuroki, Moka Kamishiraishi, Gen Hoshino
Genre: Anime
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 98 minutes

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Most, if not all, of Mamoru Hosoda’s original films produced in the past decade function, to some degree or another, as exercises in autobiography. Summer War, apart from a premise more or less recycled from Hosoda’s 2000 directorial debut Digimon Adventure: Our War Game!, was the many-times-removed story of Hosoda meeting his wife’s family for the first time. 2012’s Wolf Children was inspired by the passing of Hosoda’s mother, animated in part by the anxieties and aspirations at the prospect of his own impending parenthood. 2015’s The Boy and the Beast was completed just after the birth of Hosoda’s first child, the product of his own questions as to what role a father should play in the life of his son. Mirai, the director’s seventh film, is not from Hosoda’s own experience, but filtered through the experiences of his first-born son meeting his baby sibling for the first time. Told care of the perspective of Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi), a toddler who feels displaced and insecure in the wake of his sister Mirai’s birth, Mirai is a beautiful adventure fantasy drama that whisks the viewer on a dazzling odyssey across Kun’s entire family tree, culminating in a poignant conclusion that emphasizes the beauty of what it means to love and to be loved. Mirai is Hosoda’s most accomplished film, the recipient of the first Academy Award nomination for an anime film not produced by Studio Ghibli, and an experience as edifying as it is a joy to behold. —Toussaint Egan


The Lobster

the-lobster.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Comedy, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos starts The Lobster with the familiar, leading man visage of Colin Farrell, gone full dad-bod for a role that is debatably the actor’s best example for his still unheralded genius. With a remarkable dearth of charm, Farrell inhabits David, a man who, upon learning that his wife has cheated on him and so must end their relationship, is legally required to check in to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new mate, lest he be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David easily settles upon the titular namesake, the lobster, which he explains he picks because of their seemingly-immortal lifespans, the creatures like human ears growing and growing without end until their supposed deaths. At the hotel, David tries his best to warm to a beautifully soul-less woman, knowing his remaining days are numbered, but the depths to which she subjects his resolve eventually encourages him to plan an escape, through which he matriculates into an off-the-grid conglomerate of single folk, led by Léa Seydoux. There, of course, against all rules he has a meet-cute with another outsider (Rachel Weisz) involving elaborately designed sign language (a metaphor maybe, like much in Lanthimos’s world, for the odd ritual of dating), and they fall in love. The world of The Lobster isn’t a dystopian future, more like a sort of mundane, suburban Everywhere in an allegorical alternate universe. Regardless, Lanthimos and Filippou find no pleasure in explaining the foundations of their film, busier building an absurdly funny edifice over which they can drape the tension and anxieties of modern romance. In that sense, The Lobster is an oddly feminist film, obsessed with time and how much pressure that puts on people, especially women, to root down and find someone, no matter the cost. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a significant other concerned about the increasing dangers of becoming pregnant in one’s late 30s, then The Lobster—and its ambiguous but no less arresting final shot—will strike uncomfortably close to the home you’re told you should have by now but probably can’t afford. —Dom Sinacola


The Naked Gun

movie poster naked gun.jpg Year: 1988
Director: David Zucker
Stars: Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 85 minutes

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The final hoorah from the comedy trio David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker—ZAZ for short—The Naked Gun is so stupid it’s hilarious. This, of course, was ZAZ’s secret weapon in films like Airplane!, and in Leslie Nielsen’s stone-faced imbecility they found their muse. A former dramatic actor, Nielsen rejuvenated his career by playing Frank Drebin, a hapless L.A. police detective trying to prevent the assassination of Queen Elizabeth. (And in his courting of possible femme fatale Priscilla Presley, he taught us the importance of wearing full-body condoms.) A wonder of slapstick and deadpan silliness, The Naked Gun makes jokes about terrorists, gay panic, boobs, even “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There’s a character named Pahpshmir. Good lord, it’s all so gloriously idiotic. —Tim Grierson


The Master

the-master-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Rating: R
Runtime: 138 minutes

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The Master is deeply troubling; you won’t realize why you have such a problem with it until you realize why it is so damn good. At first, it seems a relatively straightforward if unique set-up: Adrift after World War II, Freddie Quell (a primal Joaquin Phoenix) gets sucked into a sort of pseudo-psychological cult led by charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Amy Adams is also present and also great, of course. The first part of the film is spent relishing in its performances and its craft (luminous 65mm photography and fastidious period detail)—what you’d expect from Paul Thomas Anderson, really—and you’ll find Dodd’s cult suspect and you’ll think you’ll predict the path the story will take. Then you get to the “processing” scenes and realize that you’re not ready for what PTA wants to say: that everything is far more complex and far more simple than we make it to be; that we can never really be what we want; that evolution is pain folded in on itself and multiplied, over and over. As the film progresses you’ll probably find yourself wanting something specific or maybe generously ambiguous from its resolution. Whichever, The Master will absolutely refuse to give you what you want. Instead, it will give you wisdom. Now, wisdom can be a terrible gift—an amorphous yet heavy thing that’s difficult to grasp even as it hurts and burdens, all while offering little hope for practical change. That’s the kind of wisdom that The Master wants to share with you. Yes, terrible, but take it. Take it so that you too can know your master. —Chad Betz


There Will Be Blood

there-will-be-blood.jpg Year: 2007
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 158 minutes

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There’s an odor of Citizen Kane about There Will Be Blood. Both Charles Foster Kane, the center of Orson Welles’ 1941 masterwork, and Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 gem, are Shakespearean in their contradictions—too creative and too wounded to be fully condemned, too ruthless to be fully admired. Like Welles, writer/director Anderson fashioned an original cinematic language to reveal Plainview’s strange mix of genius and monstrosity. Long stretches are virtually dialogue-free, punctuated by close-ups of Daniel Day-Lewis’ glowering face—splattered with blood, sweat and petroleum—and the long shots of rickety derricks and shacks perched precariously on a savage landscape say more than words ever could. —Geoffrey Himes


To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

to-all-the-boys-ive-loved-before-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Susan Johnson
Stars: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 100 minutes

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To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the teen scene’s newest runaway hit, is a flat-out excellent film. It is not excellent “for a teen flick.” It is not excellent “for a romantic comedy.” It is excellent for a film. TATBILB fully inverts the 80/20 ratio: Within the first 20 minutes, all five of the deeply private love letters our daydreamy, emotionally buttoned-up protagonist Lara Jean (Lana Condor) has written to her childhood crushes over the years have been stolen and mailed out—including the one to her neighbor and best friend, Josh (Israel Broussard), who just happens to also be her older sister’s just barely ex-boyfriend. This swift puncturing of any protracted emotional dishonesty Lara Jean might have hoped to indulge in, well, forever, leaves the film’s final eighty minutes free for her to embrace some really radical emotional honesty. That TATBILB allows Lara Jean to accomplish this not in spite of but through the fanfic-favorite trope of “fake dating” another, less-risky letter recipient (Noah Centineo’s ridiculously charming Peter Kavinsky) is a story strength. Of course, all the emotional honesty in the world wouldn’t matter if TATBILB’s leads didn’t burn with chemistry. Fortunately, Lana Condor and Noah Centineo can get it. Condor and Centineo are undeniably the stars of the show, but TATBILB doesn’t rest on their charismatic laurels: Mahoro as Lucas is a foxy ball of friendliness; Madeleine Arthur as Lara Jean’s best (girl) friend, Chris, is just the wide-eyed punk weirdo she needs to be; Janel Parrish plays against type as the sweet and steel-spined Margot; Anna Cathcart steals every scene as Lara Jean’s meddling little sis, Kitty; and John Corbett plays the healthily engaged version of Kat Stratford’s single OBGYN dad with a discernible glee. The importance of Lara Jean and her sisters being half-Korean, and the majority of the cast (along with Mahoro) non-white, is hard to overstate, but it isn’t the most impressive thing about the cast by a long shot. In a genre that can so often see its characters lean too far into caricature, Lara Jean’s world is instead populated with teens—and through them, love—you can believe in. —Alexis Gunderson


The Killing of a Sacred Deer

sacred-deer-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp
Rating: R
Runtime: 121 minutes

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In the uncanny valley of a Yorgos Lanthimos film, characters resemble human beings…but not entirely. In movies such as Dogtooth and The Lobster, the Greek writer-director has become a maestro of the queasy/funny horror-comedy, turning our universal anxieties into psychologically rich satires in which life’s mundane surfaces give way to dark, often bloody realities we don’t want to acknowledge. His movies are funny because they’re so shocking and disturbing because they’re so true. But for them to really soar, their provocations need to be grounded in recognizable behavior, which gives Lanthimos a foundation to then stretch his extreme stories past their breaking point. With his latest, we see what happens when his underlying ideas are not as complex as the intricacies of his execution. The Killing of a Sacred Deer reunites Lanthimos with his Lobster star Colin Farrell, who plays Steven, a cardiologist, who’s married to an ophthalmologist, Anna (Nicole Kidman). They have two children, teen Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and her younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic). It would be hard to describe their personalities because, in typical Lanthimos fashion, they don’t really have any. Quickly, Sacred Deer introduces us to the fly in this particular ointment. His name is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a moody teen who seems as lobotomized as the other characters. There’s one crucial difference, though: He has befriended Steven for reasons that feel sinister but will only eventually become clear, and he keeps insinuating himself into the man’s world. It wouldn’t be much fun to reveal where Sacred Deer goes from there, but Sacred Deer may be Lanthimos’s most visually and sonically ambitious work—technically, it’s pristine—clever without ever quite deciding precisely what it’s about. —Tim Grierson


Snowpiercer

snowpiercer.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt
Genre: Science-Fiction, Action
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: R
Runtime: 126 minutes

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There is a sequence midway through Snowpiercer that perfectly articulates what makes Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho among the most dynamic filmmakers currently working. Two armies engage in a no-holds-barred, slow motion-heavy action set piece. Metal clashes against metal, and characters slash through their opponents as if their bodies were made of butter. It’s gory, imaginative, horrifying, beautiful, visceral and utterly glorious. Adapted from a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. Nearly two decades prior, in an ill-advised attempt to halt global warning, the government inundated the atmosphere with an experimental chemical that left our planet a barren, ice-covered wasteland. Now, the last of humanity resides on “Snowpiercer,” a vast train powered via a perpetual-motion engine. Needless to say, this scenario hasn’t exactly brought out the best of humanity. Bong’s bleak and brutal film may very well be playing a song that we’ve all heard before, but he does it with such gusto and dexterous skill you can’t help but be caught up the flurry. —Mark Rozeman


Green Room

green-room.jpg Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner
Genre: Thriller, Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 94 minutes

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What’s perhaps most refreshing in Green Room is writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s lack of interest in the kind of moralizing that made his last film, Blue Ruin, ultimately seem conventional. Instead, Saulnier simply presents us this nutty scenario without feeling the need to lard it up with anything as cumbersome as topical commentary or moral ambiguity. He proceeds to wring as much tension and suspense from its pulpy retro plot as possible, adding a few entertaining grace notes along the way, which can best be seen in its performances. In the ensemble-based Green Room, Saulnier revels in the contrasts of personalities and styles: band bassist Pat’s (Anton Yelchin) Bill Paxton-like desperation, for instance, set alongside the weary, near-drugged-out deadpan of Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of the woman whose murder sets off the film’s violent chain of events; or the imperial calm of Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the ruthless leader of the band of white supremacists who attempt to kill Pat, Amber and the rest. It’d be a stretch to call these characters three-dimensional, but nevertheless, under Saulnier’s writing and direction, they all manage to stand out just enough as individuals for us to become emotionally involved in their fates. Meanwhile, Saulnier supports these characters and plot turns with filmmaking that is remarkable for its economy and patience. D.P. Sean Porter gets a lot of mileage out of the cramped quarters and grimy lighting of the bar, lending its wide (2.35:1) frames an appropriately nightmarish feel amidst many suspenseful set pieces. In those ways, the lean, mean Green Room stands as one of the best B-movie genre exercises in many years. —Kenji Fujishima


Lagaan

lagaan.jpg Year: 2001
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Stars: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne, Kulbhushan Kharbanda
Genre: Bollywood, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 225 minutes

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For newcomers, Lagaan may be one of the most easy entryways into Bollywood. (The film famously received India’s third-ever Academy Award nomination in 2001.) Rooted in a rich entanglement of high-stakes sports gaming and forbidden romance, Lagaan is an epic drama based in colonial India, the story of a group of Indian villagers who challenge their British colonizers to a game of cricket in exchange for the removal of their increasingly burdensome taxes. We get recruiting and training montages, conflict amongst teammates, an intercultural flirtation and a bangin’ soundtrack from the legend A.R. Rahman. Lagaan has been rightfully hailed as one of India’s most entertaining and thoughtful productions, and it seems to only get better with age. —Radhika Menon


Good Time

good-time-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Directors: Josh and Benny Safdie
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Buddy Duress, Peter Verby, Barkhad Abdi, Taliah Webster
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 100 minutes

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The hero of Good Time is one of the canniest individuals in recent cinema, which might seem like an odd thing to say about a scummy lowlife who screws up a bank heist in the film’s opening reels. But don’t underestimate Connie: Several of the people who cross his path make that mistake, and he gets the better of them every time. Connie is played by Robert Pattinson in a performance so locked-in from the first second that it shoots off an electric spark from the actor to the audience: Just sit back, he seems to be telling us. I’ve got this under control. The financially strapped character lives in Queens, unhappy that his mentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie) is cooped up in a facility that, Connie believes, doesn’t do enough to help him. Impulsively, Connie strong-arms Nick into helping him rob a bank. They make off with thousands of dollars, but what they don’t realize is that they live in the real world, not a movie. A paint bomb goes off in their bag, staining the money and the criminals’ clothes. Shaken and trying not to panic, Connie and Nick abandon their getaway car, quickly raising the suspicion of some nearby cops, who chase down Nick. Connie escapes, determined to get his brother out of jail—either through bail money or other means. As Connie, Pattinson is shockingly vital and present, unabashedly throwing himself into any situation. Following their star’s lead, the filmmakers deliver a jet-fueled variation on their usual intricate exploration of New York’s marginalized citizens. Good Time features no shootouts or car chases—there isn’t a single explosion in the whole film. The Safdies and Pattinson don’t need any of that. Like Connie, they thrive on their wits and endless inventiveness—the thrill comes in marveling at how far it can take them. —Tim Grierson


Atlantics

atlantics-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Mati Diop
Stars: Mame Bineta Sane, Amadou Mbow, Nicole Sougou, Aminate Kane
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 104 minutes

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Atlantics is quite the announcement for writer-drector Mati Diop. She takes the magic realism of a peer like Alice Rohrwacher and carries it to the world’s margins, examining class struggle in a Senegalese city by the Atlantic. Through the gritty, blustery opening images shot as artful document of the Dakar shore (outstanding work by cinematographer Claire Mathon) and the hypnotic electronic score by Fatima Al Qadiri, Diop is able to evoke an incomparable mood and sense of place. That it might look and sound so alien to an American watching this film on Netflix is perhaps a sharp enough indictment of the ways in which we intellectually seclude ourselves from realities beyond our own. Atlantics is about that and it’s about the breaking of that. It’s about the mystery of identity and how one can find identity by taking on the identity of something other, or can find it when looking in a mirror—not for the physical self but for the spirit. Congruously, it’s also about losing the identities that are culturally prescribed, that we may have been born with, nurtured and/or limited by. Love, the film posits, is a catalyst; love helps reform identities in transgressive and transcendent ways. And the film is at its best when it avoids being programmatic, lets its visuals pulse before you. It is yet another sad ghost story amongst many, but where it differs is finely drawing the distinction that sometimes the things that haunt the living most are not the things that were but the things that should have been. The film’s protagonist embraces that haunting as a form of hope; she loses something important and fills the hole by expanding her own self with the self that was touched by others. Though Atlantics feels elliptical in many ways, Diop has the bravery to end her film with a pretty resounding period. It’s a statement, both for itself and for its creator, and it’s a convincing one. —Chad Betz


Her

her.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 126 minutes

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Spike Jonze’s colossal talent was far too great to remain trapped in MTV’s orbit; that became immediately clear when his breakout feature-length debut, Being John Malkovich, earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. Following that minor postmodern masterpiece, he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman continued their journey into solipsism with the hilariously unhinged Adaptation. As challenging, yet fun and accessible as Kaufman’s screenplays are, Jonze’s Her answers any lingering questions of whether those two movies’ (well-deserved) acclaim sprang solely from the power of Kaufman’s words. Retaining the sweetest bits of the empathetically quirky characters, psycho-sexuality and hard-wrung pathos of Malkovich, Her successfully realizes a tremendously difficult stunt in filmmaking: a beautifully mature, penetrating romance dressed in sci-fi clothes. Eye-popping sets and cinematography, as well as clever dialogue delivered by a subtly powerful Joaquin Phoenix, make Jonze’s latest feature one of the best films of 2013. It also serves as confirmation that—much like Her—the director is the complete package. —Scott Wold


Roma

roma-movie-poster.jpg Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 135 minutes

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Alfonso Cuarón’s most intimate film is also his most distancing. The camera sits back, black-and-white, focused not on the bourgeois children that represent the cinematographer-writer-director and his siblings growing up in Mexico City several decades ago, but moreso on the indigenous woman (Yalitza Aparicio) that cares for them and the household. Not even entirely focused on her, perhaps more focused on its classicist compositions of a place that no longer exists in the way Cuarón remembers it. The camera gazes and moves in trans-plane sequencing, giving us foreground, mid-ground and background elements in stark digital clarity. The sound mix is Dolby Atmos and enveloping. But the base aesthetic and narrative is Fellini, or long-lost Mexican neorealism, or Tati’s Playtime but with sight gags replaced by social concern and personal reverie. Reserved and immersive, introspective and outward-looking, old and new—some have accused Roma of being too calculated in what it tries to do, the balancing act it tries to pull off. Perhaps they’re not wrong, but it is to Cuarón’s immense credit as a thoughtful technician and storyteller that he does, in fact, pull it off. The result is a singular film experience, one that recreates something that was lost and then navigates it in such a way as to find the emergent story, then from that to find the emotional impact. So that when we come to that point late in Roma, we don’t even realize the slow, organic process by which we’ve been invested fully into the film; we’re not ready to be hit as hard as we are when the wallops come and the waves crash. It’s almost unbearable, but we bear it because we care about these people we’ve become involved with. And such is life. —Chad Betz


Boy & the World

boy-world.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Alê Abreu
Stars: Vinícius Garcia, Lu Horta, Marco Aurélio Campos
Genre: Animation
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 81 minutes

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Boy & the World, like any should-be classic of kids’ cinema, is laced with images of pure, incomprehensible terror. Nearly wordless, it’s also a subcutaneous wonder: heartbreaking and sumptuous and sometimes so gorgeous you feel like you should weep in appreciation, at near microscopic levels Boy & the World excels. As Cuca, our eponymous boy—defined mostly by his Charlie Brown head and infectious giggle—is literally swept up on a hallucinogenic journey, political iconography and economic devastation gradually devour the vibrant, weird colors that define his idyllic home. Your kids probably won’t recognize the fascistic implications of Abreu’s designs—which culminate in an actual battle between the pitch-black Reichsadler and a rainbow phoenix (birthed, of course, from the music of the oppressed lower classes)—but the feeling he wants to give them is easy enough to understand. The World may be a big and scary place, he admits, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less worth exploring. —Dom Sinacola


Always Be My Maybe

always-be-my-maybe-210.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Nahnatchka Khan
Stars: Ali Wong, Randall Park, Keanu Reeves, Michelle Buteau, Vivian Bang, Karan Soni
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 102 minutes

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A film written by and starring Ali Wong and Randall Park was always guaranteed to be a home run, but the endlessly funny and charming Always Be My Maybe truly exceeds all romcom expectations. The duo (who penned the script with Michael Golamco) play childhood friends who lose touch after an impulsive teenage romance ends badly. From there, Wong’s Sasha becomes a celebrity chef as Park’s Marcus continues to live at home and work for his father’s blue collar business after his mother’s tragic passing. They each have things to learn from one another, sure, but Always Be My Maybe doesn’t just end when romance blossoms; it leans into the complications of two adults with independent lives choosing to be together and figuring out how to make it all work. Part of that, crucially, includes both Marcus and Sasha playing supportive roles in one another’s careers rather than compromising and giving up their passions to be together. Director Nahnatchka Khan keeps the stylish film moving at a pleasant comedic clip throughout, and there’s a killer cameo appearance you will not want spoiled before you see the movie. Seriously, you should watch it right now. —Allison Keene


Swiss Army Man

swiss-army-man.jpg Year: 2016
Directors: Daniel Scheinert, Dan Kwan
Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%
Rating: R
Runtime: 95 minutes

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Known for the “Turn Down for What” music video, and for the short film (“Interesting Ball”) in which one director is sucked up into the butt of the other director (among other anomalies), and now for the farting boner-corpse movie, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are filmmakers in complete mastery of the absurdity at the heart of everything they do. Swiss Army Man, their feature length debut about a man (Paul Dano) who, while stranded on a deserted island, discovers a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) with extraordinary physical abilities (involving farts and boners), is both a testament to their childish imaginations and a relentlessly creative exploration of mental illness, nostalgia and the ways in which movies define (usually to our detriment) our expectations for love and happiness. Swiss Army Man is cobbled together from Spielbergian hope and Cronenbergian body horror, from the white people romance of Nancy Meyers and the white people fantasy of John Williams’ Jurassic Park score or the melody of “Cotton Eye Joe,” cherished cultural touchstone and so much more mysterious than anyone would ever give it credit for and whatever else the heart desires. It haunts the subconscious; it ends on a note so antithetical to the plot machinations of a rom-com that it both is and isn’t one; it draws logic like ethereal cobwebs from the minds of every viewer to assemble somehow a magnificent tessellation of pop culture and poop joke as emotionally wrenching as it is ridiculous. Assembling somehow the many multilayered voices and neuroses of so many different people with so many different loves. It’s beautiful, and I love it. —Dom Sinacola


The Grandmaster

grandmaster.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Kar Wai Wong
Stars: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Cung Le, Hye-Kyo Song
Genre: Martial Arts, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 130 minutes

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Kar Wai Wong will indefatigably make anything elegant, and so it’s a given that The Grandmaster is a gorgeously paced historical epic told in patient piecemeal. A loose chronicle of the nascent legend of Yip Man, the film skirts the line between noir-ish tragedy and chiaroscuro thriller, rarely leaving room to discern the difference. From an opening set-piece that will leave you wondering why any other director since would ever bother capturing rain droplets in slo-motion, to one masterfully orchestrated balsa-wood-tower of martial arts prowess after another, there is little left to say about Wong’s directing other than hyperbole: This is heartfelt and beautiful action filmmaking, but never so far removed from the savagery of the action at hand that it romanticizes the pummeling of so many hapless foes. There are penalties to these punches and consequences to these kicks—there should be little doubt that The Grandmaster is not just a masterpiece of its genre but one of Kar Wai Wong’s best. —Dom Sinacola


Monty Python and the Holy Grail

monty-python-holy-grail-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1975
Directors: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
Stars: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Connie Booth
Genre: Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 92 minutes

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It sucks that some of the shine has been taken off Holy Grail by its own overwhelming ubiquity. Nowadays, when we hear a “flesh wound,” a “ni!” or a “huge tracts of land,” our first thoughts are often of having full scenes repeated to us by clueless, obsessive nerds. Or, in my case, of repeating full scenes to people as a clueless, obsessive nerd. But, if you try and distance yourself from the over-saturation factor, and revisit the film after a few years, you’ll find new jokes that feel as fresh and hysterical as the ones we all know. Holy Grail is, indeed, the most densely packed comedy in the Python canon. There are so many jokes in this movie, and it’s surprising how easily we forget that, considering its reputation. If you’re truly and irreversibly burnt out from this movie, watch it again with commentary, and discover the second level of appreciation that comes from the inventiveness with which it was made. It certainly doesn’t look like a $400,000 movie, and it’s delightful to discover which of the gags (like the coconut halves) were born from a need for low-budget workarounds. The first-time co-direction from onscreen performer Terry Jones (who only sporadically directed after Python broke up) and lone American Terry Gilliam (who prolifically bent Python’s cinematic style into his own unique brand of nightmarish fantasy) moves with a surreal efficiency. —Graham Techler


Happy as Lazzaro

happy-as-lazzaro-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Stars: Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Chikovani
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 137 minutes

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It’s very difficult to get into too many details about Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro without spoiling it—which seems a ridiculous thing to say about a film that starts off as a rural Italian take on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, but you’ve got no idea until you’re watching it. Rohrwacher’s The Wonders was a more intimate, personal film that had moments of magic realism peeking through, just barely. Happy as Lazzaro similarly keeps the magic in check (though a scene with whispers in a field will start to invoke Fellini) until it no longer can—and then the magic explodes, blowing up the narrative and sending what’s left in an insanely bold direction. We can only be applaud its daring. If Dostoevsky was re-framing the Christ narrative, Happy as Lazzaro re-frames the very idea of a Christ narrative until it is something else entirely. Here, Christ is a mythic wolf and our kind idiot Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a touched Lazarus; the difference between them is a matter of substance, time and place. Lazzaro’s goodness, like all earthly goodness, is simultaneously transcendent and doomed, but the wolf continues on beyond any mortal coil, against the flow of humanity. Lazzaro tries to follow, perhaps foolishly, perhaps blindly…but happily, nonetheless. —Chad Betz


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

ballad-buster-scruggs-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, Bill Heck, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson
Genre: Western, Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 132 minutes

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As much an anthology of post-bellum adventure stories as it is a retrospective of the many kinds of films the Coen brothers have made—not to mention a scathing bit of fantasy curbed against the stories we’ve used to water down the tragedy of our country’s growth—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs tells six tales of greed, murder, mercy and the harsh mistress of blind chance, the only through line being the bleakness of the horizon America trampled to stake its imperial claim. A musty traveling showman (Liam Neeson) weighs the burden of his limbless performer (Harry Melling) against each night’s measly cash-out; a lone prospector (Tom Waits) patiently divines the vein of gold he refers to respectfully as “Mr. Pocket”; a cocky outlaw (James Franco) swings between the two sides of fate, his whole life leading to a semi-decent punchline; a disparate collection of travelers argue about the vicissitudes of faith while a bounty hunted corpse sits atop their carriage, all five heading towards some ambiguous symbolism; and the titular mellifluous gunslinger finally meets his match, making for one of the strangest sights the Coens have ever conjured. With the downhome nihilism of No Country for Old Men and Fargo, the mythological whimsy of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the back-breaking metaphysical weight of A Serious Man or the cutting capers of Raising Arizona, the whole of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—shot as a series of awe-inspiring vistas by DP Bruno Delbonnel punctuated by the porous mugs of the pioneers who populate them—sings to an unparalleled canon of genres and tones. That its centerpiece is a sweet romance, between a quiet young woman (Zoe Kazan) and a noble cowboy (Bill Heck) leading her wagon train along the Oregon Trail, proves that the Coens still have beautiful surprises in store more than three decades deep into their career-long odyssey of American life. —Dom Sinacola


57. Clueless

clueless.jpg
Year: 1995
Director: Amy Heckerling
Stars: Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

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A combination of comedy, romance and high-school spunk, Clueless is a story with true ’90s flair. Alicia Silverstone stars as the pretty and popular Cher, a privileged valley girl with a penchant for matchmaking. While she cruises potential boyfriends for her girlfriends, she struggles to figure out her relationships. The film is a charming, modern take on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, and with performances by a youthful Paul Rudd and Brittany Murphy, it’s anything but an airhead. Could we love this film anymore? As if! —Megan Farokhmanesh


Private Life

private-life-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: R
Runtime: 123 minutes

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A rich film with the confidence to take its time, allowing its characters to unfurl and its themes to grow and develop, Private Life is a quietly remarkable comedy-drama about family, marriage and getting older. To accomplish all that, writer-director Tamara Jenkins uses as her entryway a familiar scenario: a 40-something couple struggling to have a baby. Led by terrific, tricky performances from Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, Private Life keeps shifting and surprising, never offering anything dramatically monumental but speaking precisely about the bonds between people—how they can be threatened but also renewed. Giamatti and Hahn play Richard and Rachel, who have been married for quite some time, each of them enjoying a satisfying creative life in New York City. But in recent years, they’ve struggled to conceive, a process that no amount of fertility treatments has been able to remedy. Private Life devotes a significant amount of its early running time to showing how couples such as Richard and Rachel undergo IVF, which has its comic moments but is largely depressingly clinical. (Adding to the despair are the long lines of other expectant couples Richard and Rachel see in the waiting rooms sitting alongside them.) But Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, The Savages) uses the couple’s struggles to discuss far more intriguing subject matter. It’s not simply the inability to have a child that eats at these two people. Their failure to conceive hints that they’re not young anymore and, with that, exacerbates the feelings of regret they have about the career decisions they made. Did they focus on their art at the expense of parenthood? Now that the shine is off their early creative success, is their barrenness another indication of their growing irrelevance? Perhaps most pressingly, are they obsessing about having a child because, deep down, they know their marriage has troubles? The inability to conceive bothers Richard, but for Rachel, it’s a deeper wound—one that goes far beyond being deprived of motherhood. Hahn and Jenkins make the woman’s pain palpable, layered and also a bit ineffable, illustrating how people reach middle age not entirely sure how they got there or where they’re headed next. —Tim Grierson


Drive

drive-nwr-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 100 minutes

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Drive is the movie that makes me think I’m a Nicolas Winding Refn fan: all of the director’s appetites sublimated into something that indulges the viewer as much as it indulges its maker. I’ve watched Refn’s other stuff on Drive’s merit and liked none of it. Nonetheless, I’m a Refn fan, because the things that drive me crazy about his other work (stylistic posturing, stilted dialogue, general wankery, etc.) are things that click into the gear teeth of Drive so that it can idle, hum, rev and roar to life. Besides that, the set-pieces are simple and perfectly realized, as are the characters, with textured supporting turns from Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. Most of Refn’s stuff is about repression, his protagonists like aliens to the societies with which they’re forced to engage. Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver is pure archetype, but unlike Gosling’s parody of his Drive performance in the subsequent Only God Forgives, there is something about his Driver that resonates, that makes us want to believe in him even as he’s established as a pawn for dangerous men. We crave “a real hero,” as the soundtrack at one point highlights with neon marker; Drive kens what we long to see in human nature. It knows that to love is to sacrifice; it’s also one of the more affecting depictions of a good person finding out that he’s good by virtue of human connection—while at the same time understanding that process alienates him even further from the world. The Driver seems inert on his surface but the action of the film speaks very much otherwise. For once in his oeuvre, Refn finds a way to bring his protagonist’s repression and catharsis together in a final grace note. And if there’s one thing we need more of in our entertainment and in our lives, it’s grace. —Chad Betz


The Witch

the-witch.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Ralph Ineson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Genre: Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

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From its first moments, The Witch strands us in a hostile land. We watch (because that’s all we can do, helplessly) as puritan patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) argues stubbornly with a small council, thereby causing his family’s banishment from their “New England” community. We watch, and writer-director Robert Eggers holds our gaze while a score of strings and assorted prickly detritus—much like the dialogue-less beginning to There Will be Blood —rise to a climax that never comes. It’s a long shot, breathing dread: The wagon lurches ever-on into the wilderness, piling the frontier of this New World upon the literal frontier of an unexplored forest. It’s 1620, and William claims, “We will conquer this wilderness.” Eggers’ “New England Folk Tale” is a horror film swollen with the allure of the unknown. To say that it’s reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, which take place 70 years after the events in the film, would be an understatement—the inevitable consequences of such historic mania looms heavily over The Witch. All of this Eggers frames with a subconscious knack for creating tension within each shot, rarely relying on jump scares or gore, instead mounting suspense through one masterful edit after another. The effect, then, is that of a building fever dream in which primeval forces—lust, defiance, hunger, greed—simmer at the edges of experience, avoided but never quite conquered. But what’s most convincing is the burden of puritanical spirituality which blankets the film’s every single moment, a pall through which every character—especially teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy)—struggles to be, simply, a regular person. There is no joy in their worship, there is only gravitas: prayers, fasting, penitence and fear. And it’s that fear which drives the film’s horror, which eventually makes even us viewers believe that, at the fringes of civilization, at the border of the unknown, God has surely abandoned these people. —Dom Sinacola


The Five Venoms

five-venoms-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1978
Director: Chang Cheh
Stars: Chang Cheh, Chien Sun, Pai Wei, Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Kuo Chue
Genre: Action & Adventure, Martial Arts
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
Rating: R
Runtime: 102 minutes

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This is what vintage kung fu—and martial arts cinema—is all about. The mythology alone is exquisite: The Five Venoms (aka Five Deadly Venoms) is the first Venom Mob film, and gave each of them a name for the rest of their careers. There’s the blinding speed of the Centipede (Lu Feng), the trickery and guile of the Snake (Wei Pei), the stinging kicks of the Scorpion (Sun Chien), the wall-climbing and gravity-defying acrobatics of the Lizard Kuo Chui), and the nigh-invincibility of the Toad (Lo Mang), along with the so-called “hybrid venom” protagonist, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), who is a novice in all of the styles. It’s a film typical of both Chang Cheh and the Shaw Brothers: high budget, great costumes, beautiful sets and stylish action. Is it on the cheesy side? Sure, but how many great martial arts films are completely dour? It’s emblematic of an entire era of Hong Kong cinema and the joy taken in delivering beautiful choreography and timeless stories of good vs. evil. —Jim Vorel


Okja

okja-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Action
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chad Betz


Frances Ha

frances-ha.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 86 minutes

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In a single gesture from actor/writer/Baumbachian collaborator Greta Gerwig, there is an entire universe. She makes a sort of “trespassing” buzz when Lev (Adam Driver) reaches out to touch her shoulder, then, taking a deep sigh of resignation, her body once tense in obligatory “Am I into this guy?” reservation, she relaxes. They might as well be friends. Nothing really goes the way Frances plans; not when she’s asked to move in with her then-boyfriend at the start, not her prospects as a dancer, not her relationship with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). But she’s a dancer, right? Her body awkwardly tries to roll with the punches life throws her way—maybe not with the wherewithal of actually trying to figure out what the next thing should be. Even as she continually loses stability after effectively losing her constant (Sophie), Frances has an irrepressible exuberance, running all about Chinatown to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” scouring the Lower East Side for an ATM and hiding her whole body as she serves as university benefactor’s wine pourer/ward. There is a gracefulness to Gerwig’s gangly gracelessness, as if all of her warmth, fear, pain and joy cobbles itself together in beautiful unwieldy movements. It’s in these moments, and in the shared body language between Frances and Sophie, that Baumbach and Gerwig find the tenderest moments in their career. And in digital black and white, the movie shimmers, recalling not just the buoyancy of the French New Wave, but the economic and social uncertainty of young New Yorkers (perhaps of a particular social subset) who want everything—with the heart, body and soul—except to grow up. —Kyle Turner


Kung Fu Hustle

KungFuHustleHKposter.jpg Year: 2004
Director: Stephen Chow
Stars: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Shengyi Huang, Kwok-Kwan Chan
Genre: Action & Adventure, Martial Arts
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Rating: R
Runtime: 95 minutes

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Stephen Chow is probably the biggest name in martial arts comedy since the days of Sammo Hung, and Kung Fu Hustle will likely remain one of his most well-regarded films—both as director and performer. Gleefully kooky, the film combines occasional song and dance with expectedly extremely exaggerated kung fu parody in telling the tale of a young man who ends up overthrowing a large criminal organization, the “Deadly Axe Gang.” This is nothing complex—rather, Kung Fu Hustle is unadulterated absurdity: The action has no basis in reality, reveling in Looney Tunes physics, while characters are broad pastiches and/or references to famous actors from the genre’s history. With gags teetering decidedly on the juvenile (or inscrutable, for Americans at least) side, the film is a testament to Chow’s style—entertain first, make sense later. That’s what he does, and he does it better than anyone else. —Jim Vorel


Pan’s Labyrinth

pans-labyrinth.jpg Year: 2006
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Ivana Baquero, Sergí Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Alex Angulo, Doug Jones
Genre: Horror, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 115 minutes

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One of the most imaginative films of the 21st century, Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish fable is a triumph of storytelling and nothing short of a work of art. Simultaneously a war saga and a fairy tale, it traces the journey of a young girl and her scavenger hunt through another world to save her mother’s life, set in the midst of the Spanish civil war. Pan’s Labyrinth oozes atmosphere with its stunning cinematography and production values, all guided by del Toro’s keen artistic vision. With this out-and-out masterpiece, del Toro cemented his position as one of this generation’s most exciting and talented visionaries. —Jeremy Medina


High Flying Bird

high-flying-bird-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

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Members of the “keep your politics outta my sportsball” crowd will probably hate High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh’s basketball drama, his latest experimentation with iPhone and his first collaboration with imminent playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (of Moonlight fame and success). The film forces audiences to confront the implicit and innate racial biases woven throughout American sports culture, settling specifically in the NBA’s court. Granted, the apolitical type probably wouldn’t give High Flying Bird a second thought browsing their Netflix queues anyway, and that’s just fine. Soderbergh’s filmmaking and McCraney’s writing gel together with up tempo pacing and nearly lyrical dialogue exchanged between its tight cast of characters, chiefly Ray Burke (André Holland), a sports agent doing his best to serve his client, star prospect Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), while navigating a fictionalized lockout. The lockout’s not that fictionalized (recall events that impacted the NBA through 2011, for instance), it’s just that Soderbergh and McCraney aren’t referencing anyone or anything in particular here, beyond systemic biases, both casual and fully intentional, woven into basketball’s DNA. The film makes a surgically precise study of how governance over the game, wrested from the hands of its players and bequeathed to their owners, leads to grim power dynamics recalling the days of slave trades and auction blocks. In regards to material, it’s merciless. In regards to craftsmanship, it’s unforgiving. But curious viewers will be rewarded with one of the year’s most economical bits of closed-circuit storytelling, anchored by Holland’s towering lead performance—so long as they can keep up. —Andy Crump


The Artist

the-artist.jpg Year: 2011
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Stars: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 100 minutes

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In his black-and-white ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Gallic writer-director Michael Hazanavicius honors form as well as content, packaging his romantic melodrama about the rise of a new ingénue and the fall of a silent movie star in 1920s and ’30s Los Angeles in luxurious black, white, and shades of shimmering silver. It’s a beautiful, ambitious, nostalgic endeavor that demonstrates its makers are, indeed, artists. —Annlee Ellingson


The Breadwinner

breadwinner-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Nora Twomey
Stars: Saara Chaudry, Soma Bhatia, Kawa Ada, Ali Badshah, Shaista Latif
Genre: Animation, Drama, Kids & Family
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 93 minutes

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Having worked on both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Nora Twomey has taken a different tack than her Cartoon Saloon cohort, Tomm Moore, departing the mythology-rich shores of Ireland for the mountains of Afghanistan, focusing on the region’s own folklore against the backdrop of Taliban rule. The film is based on Deborah Ellis’s 2000 novel of the same name, the story of a young girl named Parvana who disguises herself as a boy to provide for her family after her father is seized by the Taliban. Being a woman in public is bad for your health in Kabul. So is educating women. Parvana (Saara Chaudry) understands the dire circumstances her father’s arrest forces upon her family, and recognizes the danger of hiding in plain sight to feed them. Need outweighs risk. So she adopts a pseudonym on advice from her friend, Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), who is in the very same position as Parvana, and goes about the business of learning how to play-act as a dude in a world curated by dudes. Meanwhile, Parvana’s embrace of familial duty is narrated concurrently with a story she tells to her infant brother, about a young boy who vows to reclaim his village’s stolen crop seeds from the Elephant King and his demonic minions in the Hindu Kush mountain range. If there’s a link that ties The Breadwinner to Moore’s films, besides appreciation for fables, it’s artistry: Like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner is absolutely gorgeous, a cel-shaded stunner that blends animation’s most traditional form with interspersed cut out animation. The result mixes the fluid intangibility of the former with the tactile quality of the latter, layering the film’s visual scheme with color and texture. Twomey gives The Breadwinner ballast, binding it to the real-world history that serves as its basis, and elevates it to realms of imagination at the same time. It’s a collision of truth and fantasy. —Andy Crump


Ex Machina

5-best-so-far-2015-Ex-Machina.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: If given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to HerEx Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast. The film’s title is a play on the phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), which is a plot device wherein an unexpected event or character seemingly comes out of nowhere to solve a storytelling problem. Garland interprets the phrase literally: Here, that machine is a robot named Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, and that nowhere is where her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), performs his research and experiments. Ava is a heavenly mechanical body of sinewy circuitry topped with a lovely face, reminiscent of a Chris Cunningham creation. Her creator is an alcoholic genius and head of a Google-like search engine called Bluebook which has made him impossibly rich. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is helicoptered in after winning a lottery at work for which the prize is a week at Nathan’s house. Nathan also intends to use Caleb to conduct something of a Turing test on steroids with Ava to determine if she can truly exhibit human behavior. In fact, Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble; it’s an awfully attractive film, appropriately seductive. No doubt it was intended to provoke conversations about the morality inherent in “creating” intelligence—as well as whether it’s cool to have sex with robots or not. —Jonah Flicker


My Happy Family

my-happy-family-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß
Stars: Ia Shugliashvili, Merab Ninidze, Berta Khapava
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 119 minutes

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It’s a shame Netflix felt like Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s My Happy Family deserved a burial, that the company didn’t bother pushing the film for awards season and neglected to give it a boost in visibility for the average consumer. Because Ekvtimishvili and Groß’s latest collaboration in a long line of collaborations is superb, timely and altogether unexpected in its unwavering grace. Compared to the year’s other films centered on dysfunctional families, whether hammy (I, Tonya) or naturalist (Lady Bird), My Happy Family is a gentle tribute to dignity: Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) is never less than noble in her constant dedication to her family, even as she determines that to preserve her sanity she must move out of the apartment she shares with them and lay down roots in a pad of her own. My Happy Family doesn’t judge Manana—it validates her. It illustrates a woman’s liberation from social and familial expectations, allowing Manana to discover who she is, what she wants and where she’s going without looking down on her. But My Happy Family is a small film with grand artistic ambitions, and both Ekvtimishvili and Groß know that Manana’s bliss has its limit. They know that eventually the matters of her husband and children, plus their extended family, must be reconciled. Still, My Happy Family shows a benevolent kind of restraint by ending on a note of uncertainty, sparing us the lion’s share of that work, its ultimate lingering ambiguity a thing of honorable beauty. —Andy Crump


Hail, Caesar!

hail-caesar.jpg Year: 2016
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Alden Ehrenreich, Christopher Lambert, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson
Genre: Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 106 minutes

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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


Lu Over the Wall

lu-over-wall-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Stars: Kanon Tani, Shota Shimoda, Christine Marie Cabanos, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh
Genre: Animated, Comedy, Kids & Family, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%
Rating: G
Runtime: 107 minutes

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Distributor GKids sells Lu Over the Wall as “family friendly,” which it is, an innocuous, offbeat alternative to the conventional computer animated joints typically found in modern multiplexes. But there’s “whimsical” and there’s “weird,” and Lu Over the Wall ventures well past the former and into the latter before director Masaaki Yuasa gets through the opening credits. Barely a moment goes by where we come close to touching base with reality: Even its most human beats, those precious hints of relatable qualities that encourage our empathy, are elongated, distorted, rendered nigh unrecognizable by exaggeration. Lu Over the Wall isn’t a movie that takes itself seriously, and for the average moviegoer, that’s very much a trait worth embracing. The plot is both simple and not: Teenager Kai (voiced by Michael Sinterniklaas in the English dub), recently relocated from Tokyo to the quiet fishing village of Hinashi, spends his days doing what most teenage boys do, sullenly hunkering down in his room and shutting out the world. As Kai struggles with his self-imposed isolation, he befriends Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), a manic pixie dream mermaid wrought in miniature. What’s a solitary emo boy to do in a literal and figurative fish-out-of-water plot that’s buttressed by xenophobic overtones? Lu Over the Wall blends joy with political allegory with vibrant color palettes with storytelling magic, plus some actual magic, plus too many upbeat musical interludes to count. Describing the film merely as “creative” feels like an insult to its inspired madness. —Andy Crump


Y Tu Mama Tambien

y-tu-mama.jpg Year: 2001
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Maribel Verdu
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 106 minutes

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A road trip along the coast of Mexico turns out to be one of sexual discovery for two punk teenagers (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna), as well as a bittersweet final adventure for their older female companion (Maribel Verdu) struggling with a life full of regret and roads not yet traveled. Y Tu Mama Tambien is at times playful and seductive, but slowly reveals itself to be a substantive story following on parallel grooves: both coming-of-age and coming-to-terms. —Jeremy Medina


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

walk-hard-poster.jpg
Year: 2007
Director: Jake Kasdan
Stars: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%
Rating: R
Runtime: 96 minutes

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Although Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story claims to be a spoof of biopics and their extreme depictions of artists—especially musicians—biopics’ exaggerations are a reflection of the frailties and eccentricities of the artists which they profile, so it’s hard to distinguish a satire about biopics from a satire about musicians. Regardless of what category the film falls into, Walk Hard does not really tow the fine line of being clever so much as it provides a fun and absurd romp with heaps of laughs. John C. Reilly, who plays rising and troubled music star Dewey Cox, skillfully presents a dopey-yet-conniving and shallow-but-sincere character with a heart of fool’s gold. Looking something like Johnny Cash crossed with Tom Waits, Cox has multiple addictions, wives and musical phases. Aspiring to a level beyond greatness after he accidentally kills his brother by splitting him in half with a machete when they are young boys growing up in Alabama, Cox is compelled to compensate for the loss of his brother, leading to a life of excess and indulgence. But Reilly isn’t the only star of the film. Kristen Wiig shines as Cox’s frustrated wife and the mother of their seemingly infinite amount of children; as Cox’s other frustrated wife and duet partner, Jenna Fischer is superb. Tim Meadows is hysterical with a stand out performance as Cox’s bandmate who can’t seem to stop doing or introducing Cox to increasingly heavy drugs. Additionally, cameos from Jack White (Elvis Presley), Jack Black (Paul McCartney), Paul Rudd (John Lennon), Jason Schwartzman (Ringo Starr), Justin Long (George Harrison), Eddie Vedder, Jackson Browne and Lyle Lovett make the film even more ridiculous. Like most films of its ilk, Walk Hard may go too over-the-top to prove itself, but there is something charming about it, underscored by its genuine love of music and affinity for musicians. It is also obvious from one of the first lines in the film (“Guys, I need Cox!”) that this project neither takes itself too seriously nor asks the same of its viewers. —Pamela Chelin


Shirkers

shirkers-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Sandi Tan
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 96 minutes

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Making sense of one’s past can be both a lifelong undertaking and a thorny proposition. In Shirkers, novelist Sandi Tan accomplishes that trickiest of endeavors, directing a documentary about herself that isn’t cloying or cringe-worthy. Quite the contrary, her movie is refreshingly candid and self-critical: She may be the star of the show, but she has a story to tell and the right perspective to frame it properly. Tan narrates the documentary as a memory piece, recounting her childhood in Singapore with her best friend Jasmine, where they were the two cool kids in their pretty square school, dreaming of being filmmakers and leaving their mark. To further that ambition, they collaborated with another friend, Sophia, on a surreal road movie called Shirkers, which would be directed by Tan’s mentor, an older teacher named Georges who carried himself as someone who knew his way around a movie camera. In her late teens and perhaps smitten with this man who showed her such attention—the documentary is cagey on the subject—Tan was intoxicated by the rush of making a film that she wrote and would be the star of. So how come we’ve never seen it? The documentary traces the strange, mysterious journey of the project, which was waylaid by Georges sneaking off with the reels of film with a vague promise of finishing the work. That never happened, and 20 years later Tan decides to open those old wounds, connecting with her old friends and trying to determine what became of Georges. Scenes from the unfinished film appear in Shirkers, tipping the audience off to the fact that there will be a happy-ish resolution to Tan’s quest. But the documentary ends up being less about tracking down the film canisters than being an exploration of nostalgia, friendship and the allure of mentors. Tan is lively, self-effacing company throughout—her voice has just the right sardonic tinge—but her visits with Jasmine and Sophia are particularly lovely and illuminating, suggesting how lifelong pals can see us in ways that we cannot. —Tim Grierson


Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

rolling-thunder-revue-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Documentary, Musical
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 142 minutes

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Bob Dylan’s life and career are so encased in myth that it can be hard to untangle the romanticism from the reality. As much a symbol as he is a man, Dylan has spent most of his adulthood resisting being labeled the voice of his generation while slyly welcoming fans’ desire to dissect his every utterance, devoting much of the last couple decades opening up the vaults to release a series of official “bootleg” recordings associated with his most iconic albums and tours. He invites us to look deeper and listen harder, as if the answers can be gleaned from closer study. Long before David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna or Lady Gaga dabbled in persona play, Robert Zimmerman made us ponder masks in popular music. He’s both there and not there, which can be frustrating and fascinating. Both sensations are on display in Rolling Thunder Revue, the oft-spectacular, sometimes shtick-y chronicle of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. As is typical when depicting anything in the Dylan universe, this concert film/documentary simultaneously oversells its subject’s genius and provides overwhelming evidence of what a brilliant artist he is. The documentary’s full title should also be a disclaimer: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Early on, the movie features a contemporary interview from Dylan confessing that he doesn’t quite remember what prompted Rolling Thunder or what his ambitions were. “I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing,” he says, another example of obscuration and seduction. The movie is a “story,” which means some parts might be invented or exaggerated, and because it’s “by Martin Scorsese,” the whole film is filtered through one artist’s perspective on another. Scorsese is after something grander than mere documentation—more layers of myth are applied while trying to present an honest account of a tour and a performer. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Rolling Thunder Revue is overlong but also overpowering, inconclusive yet undeniably stirring. It left me exhausted, but I kinda want to see it again. —Tim Grierson


I Am Divine

i-am-divine.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Stars: Divine, John Waters, Michael Musto, Ricki Lake
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

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Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine covers the life of Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) from his early childhood in conservative Baltimore through his rise to fame as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” As I watched the documentary unfold, all my opinions and preconceived notions about Divine slowly vanished. What Schwarz uncovers in his movie—or at least, what he illuminates—is how kind, quiet and generous Milstead was, despite his outrageous alter ego. Through a series of interviews with former collaborators, friends and family, Schwarz helps paint a picture of an extraordinary boy who lived so far outside what was considered “normal,” he had no choice but to blaze his own trail. The story of Divine is intertwined with the story of the Dreamlanders—Divine’s adopted family. This was a group of people who, like Divine, joined forces to create a safe space to express who they were without fear of judgement from the rest of the world. I Am Divine leaves one with was a sense that all things are possible. After all, John Waters and Divine—without experience, without contacts, without money—accomplished what Hollywood continually fails to do. They created iconic, timeless movies that are as powerful now as they were in the 1970s. —Leland Montgomery


The Stranger

the-stranger-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1946
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating: NR
Runtime: 94 minutes

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Orson Welles’ third film follows a UN War Crimes Commission agent, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), who’s hunting down fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Kindler has moved to a small New England town and married the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, teaches at a prep school, essentially erasing every possible trace of his former identity, save one: a longtime obsession with clocks. As Wilson finds more and more proof of Kindler’s identity, Kindler goes to greater and greater lengths to conceal it. Though John Huston was originally supposed to direct The Stranger, Welles got the job because of an ill-timed military tour that took Huston (literally and figuratively) out of the picture. Because he hadn’t directed a film in four years, Welles was so eager for the work he took a contract stipulating that if he went over budget he’d be paying the studio out of pocket. In turn, it’s possible that Welles’ inventiveness was partially forged by the constraints under which he found himself working on all of his early films. Dogged by cut-happy producers (it’s not even clear how much footage was removed but Welles was relieved of the first 16 pages of his script before principal photography even started) and contrarian casting/location choices—Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the investigator, but the studio cast Robinson; likewise he got a budget-driven “no” on filming the prep school scenes at The Todd School in Illinois, his own alma mater—Welles’ desire to personalize this film despite so many interventions were probably fundamental to the development of The Stranger’s nightmare-like tone. Perhaps most striking is Welles’ use of actual footage from concentration camps, which are still shocking today but exceedingly potent in the 1940s when large numbers of Americans still did not understand that the camps really existed. In typical Welles-versus-studio fashion, the producers backed out at the last minute on the promise of a four-picture deal to follow this film. They had become convinced it would run at a loss and Welles was incapable of directing a mainstream hit movie. As it turned out, it was Welles’ only significant box office success, and remains a canonized film noir. —Amy Glynn


Cop Car

cop-car-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Jon Watts
Stars: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Wigham
Genre: Thriller, Mystery & Suspense
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
Rating: R
Runtime: 86 minutes

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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


Dolemite Is My Name

dolemite-is-my-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Craig Brewer
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Kodi Smit-Mcphee, Snoop Dogg, Ron Cephas Jones, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tip “TI” Harris, Luenell, Tasha Smith, Wesley Snipes
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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“I want the world to know I exist,” Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) declares in Dolemite Is My Name. Awareness on a grand scale is an ambitious goal—but it didn’t stop Moore from trying. Rudy Ray Moore is a multi-hyphenate performer looking to propel his comedy career. After seeing Rico (Ron Cephas Jones), the local homeless man that visits where Rudy works, do stand-up, Moore decides to steal and refine Rico’s material. He assumes the character of Dolemite, a sharp, vulgar pimp who oozes confidence, and the “new” material kills in local clubs. Eventually, Moore signs a comedy record deal and charts on Billboard. Emboldened, he sets a new goal: to make a Dolemite film, exhausting all his personal expenses to do so. At the heart of Dolemite Is My Name is the smooth-talking man himself, played by Eddie Murphy. The actor has, since 2012, been quiet in the public eye, taking years-long breaks between films. In 2016, he resurfaced for the drama Mr. Church, his performance praised but the film critically panned. Being hailed as his “comeback” role, Dolemite finds Murphy in fit comedy shape, tackling this lead part with gusto. He embraces Moore’s slightly goofy enthusiasm and can-do attitude without a hint of mocking. For a character like Dolemite, so deeply rooted in the Blaxploitation era of the ’70s and frankly riddled with so many stereotypical elements, Murphy succeeds by being earnest, even when delivering Dolemite’s raunchiest lines. He reminds us he’s one of the best at balancing drama and comedy. A figure who could have been an offensive caricature in the wrong hands, Dolemite, in Craig Brewer’s film, is so much more; we go beyond the surface of the character, exploring one man’s quest for stardom and the entrepreneurial risks he took to be the talk of the town. We get a film befitting of Moore’s legacy while simultaneously reminding audiences the star power of Eddie Murphy. —Joi Childs


9. Song of the Sea

song-sea.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Tomm Moore
Stars: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 94 minutes

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Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is an absolutely visceral stunner: you may find yourself wishing you could interact with its characters, live in its vividly realized world, participate in its defining ancestral conflicts. The alluring magic of its storytelling is buoyed by the textured, deceptively simple aesthetics of its 2D animation and a deep appreciation for national mythology; Moore saturates his film with enough references to Irish folklore to make Neil Gaiman blush. Song of the Sea begins with a trope familiar to many children’s movies—the death of a parent—and from there transitions into a yarn about sibling resentment. As a child, Ben (David Rawles) happily lives with his father, Conor (Brendan Gleeson), and his mother, Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan), until, spurred on for no immediately obvious reason, she seemingly abandons them; on that same night, she gives birth to a daughter, Saoirse, who all these years later still hasn’t learned to speak. Ben blames Saoirse for his mother’s death, and has diligently maintained a grudge against his sister ever since that fateful, stormy eve. But then Saoirse gets her tiny hands on a shell flute Bronagh bequeathed to Ben, and each tune she plays the instrument it slowly but surely reveals a hidden, enchanted world full of fae inhabitants. Thus, adventure commences. Bright and vibrant, fresh but wholly lived-in, Song of the Sea, like Moore’s previous film, 2009’s The Secret of Kells, is a beautiful tour through the legends that color his country’s proud history of narrative tradition. You will want to repeatedly revisit Ben’s and Saoirse’s world, peppered with whimsy and awe, sharing in the sort of lore-soaked fiction that most authors and directors wish they could come up with, creating something so effortlessly timeless. —Andy Crump


Apostle

apostle-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Gareth Evans
Stars: Dan Stevens, Lucy Boynton, Michael Sheen
Genre: Horror, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 129 minutes

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After the first two entries of The Raid made him a monolithic figure among action movie junkies, Apostle functions as the wider world’s introduction to the visceral filmmaking stylings of Welsh director Gareth Evans. Where his first films almost had the aesthetic of a videogame come to life—they’re about as close to a big screen adaptation of Streets of Rage as you’re ever going to find—Apostle might as well represent Evans’ desire to be taken seriously as a visual director and auteur. To do so, he’s explored some well-trodden ground in the form of the rural “cult infiltration movie,” making comparisons to the likes of The Wicker Man (or even Ti West’s The Sacrament) inevitable. However, Apostle forces its way into the year-end conversation of 2018’s best horror cinema through sheer style and verve. Every frame is beautifully composed, from the foreboding arrival of Dan Stevens’ smoldering character at the island cult compound, to the fantastically icky Grand Guignol of the third act, in which viscera flows with hedonistic abandon. Evans knows exactly how long to needle the audience with a slow-burning mystery before letting the blood dams burst; his conclusion both embraces supernatural craziness and uncomfortably realistic human violence. Gone is the precision of combat of The Raid, replaced by a clumsier brand of wanton savagery that is empowered not by honor but by desperate faith. Evans correctly concludes that this form of violence is far more frightening. —Jim Vorel


The Wicker Man

the wicker man poster (Custom).jpg Year: 1973
Director: Robin Hardy
Stars: Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento
Genre: Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Rating: R
Runtime: 87 minutes

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The original Wicker Man, a British film released in 1973, was a uniquely new kind of horror tale, using haunting cinematography and a deeply creepy soundtrack to explore gender politics and sexuality, combining eroticism with violence to titillate and horrify viewers. The acting is top-notch, with Edward Woodward’s protagonist Sergeant Howie and Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle stealing the screen. Woodward manages to portray a virginal, overly righteous character in a way that is both sympathetic and thought-provoking, and it all builds to a conclusion that should be regarded as among the most shocking of its era. —Danielle Ryan


Krisha

krisha.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Stars: Krisha Fairchild, Trey Edward Shults
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 83 minutes

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You’ve seen the plot of Krisha before: self-destructive woman with a drinking problem goes to a family gathering supposedly having made strides in putting her life back together, but finds the tensions that arise testing her resolve to not go back to the bottle. Jonathan Demme explored similar territory in his 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, and Trey Edward Shults’s debut film does have a similar looseness to it, a feeling that anything can happen at any time. That, however, is where the similarities end. Whereas Demme’s film was warmly observational, Shults’ film aims for an expressionism that imaginatively uses formal elements to invite us into the titular main character’s fractured psyche. Krisha could be seen as cinematic family therapy: Shults’s way of dealing with what was apparently a troubled home life. But you don’t need to know all that to appreciate the passion he brought to this project. One can sense it in the film’s long takes and still setups, in the alternation between montages of unnerving chaos and lengthy scenes of shattering solitude. Krisha does more than announce a potentially major new talent; it shakes new, and tragically devastating, energy into the dysfunctional family drama. —Kenji Fujishima


American Honey

american-honey-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Andrea Arnold
Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%
Rating: R
Runtime: 162 minutes

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Utterly absorbing and intensely moving, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is one of those big, bold, swing-for-the-fences societal portraits that few filmmakers dare attempt. There’s good reason: Try for a definitive snapshot of a country or a generation, and you risk overreaching or succumbing to pretension. Running nearly three hours, American Honey doesn’t let those concerns get in its way, and the result is the sort of electric audacity that paves over the movie’s occasional wobbles. With Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold has looked closely at poverty, youth and desperation in her native England. With American Honey, she turns her attention to the United States, and what she finds is a vibrant, troubled, mesmerizing land. The film stars newcomer Sasha Lane as Star, who is caring for two young children (her boyfriend’s, not hers), somewhere in the South. Dumpster diving, Star radiates the sort of scrappy, raw energy that marks her as someone who’s never had much money and always had to fight for everything she’s gotten. So, it’s fairly obvious why she takes a liking to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who drives by in a van with a group of young kids. Catching her eye, Jake is a fellow charming survivor, explaining that he’s part of a group that travels cross-country selling magazines door-to-door. Star can’t believe such an operation exists in the 21st century, but Jake swears there’s decent money to be made. Impulsively, she abandons her makeshift family—her boyfriend seems like a redneck cretin, anyway—and runs off to join another. Lane steals the movie, this newbie projecting an almost feral vibrancy which makes her character’s next move consistently unpredictable, looking for something indescribable on this odyssey. The heartbreaking beauty of American Honey is in its insistence that such a dream is anyone’s right. The United States has often promoted itself as a place for second chances. All Star wants is any chance at all. —Tim Grierson


The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

body-remembers-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Directors: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn
Stars: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Violet Nelson, Barbara Eve Harris
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 105 minutes

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Nothing pays off in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. Every narrative detail, demanding resolution, goes mostly unnoticed: When Rosie (Violet Nelson) takes money from Áila’s (co-director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) purse, for example, we expect that the ensuing time they spend together, the 90 minutes or so, will teach Rosie a lesson, will encourage her to return the bills. That doesn’t happen. Instead, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open tells of a chance meeting between two First Nations women, divided by socioeconomic stability but united in having both just experienced violations—Rosie’s is the latest in a string of domestic abuse incidents, while Áila’s had an IUD inserted amidst a cold, impersonal procedure, shot by cinematographer Norm Li on 16mm with a commitment to capturing Áila’s every near-traumatized grimace and wince. Li follows Áila from the office, into the street, where she spots Rosie barefoot in the rain, maybe in shock, and from there the two escape Rosie’s infuriated boyfriend to Áila’s dry, airy loft apartment. Li is always just behind, the rest of the film edited together into one, continuous shot as Áila tries to figure out what to do to help Rosie, and Rosie tries to figure out how to keep from being victimized by virtue signalling outsiders. That Áila is also a FIrst Nations woman hardly matters to Rosie; she barely even looks the part. Of course, when they do part, Rosie swallows whatever guilt she may have developed over stealing from Áila, and the caretakers at the safe house remind Áila when Rosie doesn’t want to stay that it sometimes takes people seven or eight times to relent and leave their abusive situation. We wait for resolution, for a sign that things will get better. When they don’t, we look for other signs, and we wait, left only with patience—to watch, and to never stop watching, and to sit with the weight of that, to afford the cost of empathy. —Dom Sinacola


The Evil Dead

evil-dead.jpg Year: 1982
Director: Sam Raimi
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker
Genre: Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 85 minutes

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Infamously pieced together from $350,000 and an exceptional amount of goodwill, The Evil Dead, when looking back at it, seems to have created a kind of horror unto itself. Sam Raimi’s debut, of course, is notable for so much more than that: like how it was edited by Joel Coen; or how Stephen King’s rabid interest caught the attention of a major studio, giving Raimi and close bud Bruce Campbell the chance to pour everything they knew about slashers, slapstick, camp, pulp and fantasy into Evil Dead II, a kind of sequel/reboot hybrid. But the real gauge of The Evil Dead’s tenor is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that its 2013 remake was something of a sickening feast for gore-hounds. For those familiar with Evil Dead II and the even sillier Army of Darkness, the fact that the original film was more of a straightforward genre affair feels somehow off; behold cognitive dissonance in full effect. And yet, somehow this rudimentary story of five Michigan State students who unwittingly unleash ancient demons in a cabin in the woods is still surprisingly, mercilessly skin-crawling. Leave it to Sam Raimi to stretch a dollar so far the sound of it snapping has the same effect on our stomachs as a classic bump in the night. —Dom Sinacola


Marriage Story

marriage-story-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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The way that Adam Driver ends “Being Alive,” which his character in Marriage Story has just sung in full (including dialogue asides from Company’s lead’s friends), is like watching him drain what’s left of his spirit out onto the floor, in front of his small audience (which includes us). The performance starts off kind of goofy, the uninvited theater kid taking the reins to sing one of Broadway’s greatest showstoppers, but then, in another aside, he says, “Want something… want something…” He begins to get it. He begins to understand the weight of life, the dissatisfaction of squandered intimacy and what it might mean to finally become an adult: to embrace all those contradictions, all that alienation and loneliness. He takes a deep exhalation after the final notes, after the final belt; he finally realizes he’s got to grow up, take down his old life, make something new. It’s a lot like living on the Internet these days; the impossibility of crafting an “authentic self,” negligible the term may be, is compounded by a cultural landscape that refuses to admit that “authenticity” is as inauthentic a performance as anything else. Working through identities is painful and ugly. Arguably, we’re all working through how to be ourselves in relation to those around us. And that’s what Bobby, the 35-year-old at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, is doing. The scene forces the viewer to make connections about their humanity, the art they’re experiencing, and the ever deadening world in which it all exists. Charlie grabs the microphone, drained, realizing that he has to figure out what he has to do next, to re-put his life together again. All of us, we’re putting it together too. Or trying, at least. That counts for something. —Kyle Turner


Incredibles 2

incredibles-2-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Bird, Sophia Bush, Brad Bird
Genre: Superhero, Animation, Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Incredibles 2 starts right where the first film ended, with the costumed Family Parr reacting to the arrival of the Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Their scuffle with the villain gains the attention of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk)—or more precisely, allows Deavor and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), to gain the attention of the Parrs. The siblings want to bring supers back into the light, using Winston’s salesmanship and Evelyn’s tech to sway public opinion back to the pro-super side. To do so, they want to enlist Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as the tip of the spear in their charm offensive, leaving Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) on the sidelines for now. (She tends to fight crime in a manner that results in less property damage than her husband, after all.) This sets up a second act that’s firmly by the numbers in terms of story development—watch the husband try to succeed as a stay-at-home dad!—yet no less enjoyable. Bob’s attempts to handle teen romance, Jack-Jack’s manifestation of powers and, horror of horrors, “new” math will strike a chord with any mom or dad who has ever felt overwhelmed by the simple, devastating challenges of parenthood. (The family interactions, one strength among many with the first film, remain a delight in the sequel.) Meanwhile, we get to watch Elastigirl in action, as she encounters, foils and matches wits with the film’s mysterious villain, Screenslaver. As in the first film, watching Helen Parr do the hero thing is also quite the delight—she’s resourceful, tough and, above all, a professional. Watching Elastigirl operate almost makes one feel sorry for the criminals. Delving more into the plot would do the film a disservice—suffice to say both villainous and family challenges are faced, and it takes a village, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and Edna Mode (Bird) to emerge victorious. Whether you enjoy Incredibles 2 as much as the original will likely depend on your opinion of the latter, but regardless, you’ll be happy both exist. And in today’s sequel-saturated environment, that is practically a superheroic achievement in itself. —Michael Burgin


A Ghost Story

ghost-story-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 87 minutes

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Turns out the perfect opportunity for an existential dilemma is when you no longer exist. With a cheeky title like A Ghost Story, it’s no surprise that David Lowery’s movie isn’t a typical tale of paranormal activity—but even that won’t prepare you for the film’s unpredictable, emotional odyssey through love, death, longing and time. It might even be one of the most epic sub-90-minute movies ever made. In it, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as a couple, perhaps married, identified in the credits as C and M, respectively. They live in a simple, old house. He’s attached to it, she wants to move. We get a sense of friction because of that conflict, but we’re also offered genuine affection, especially when the two cuddle after a startling bang on C’s piano wakes them in the middle of the night. Then, just as we’re getting to know them via mumbled dialogue and C’s songwriting, he dies unexpectedly in a car accident. In the aftermath, the movie takes its time to reveal its bold intentions. Writer/director Lowery is already comfortable with both indie projects (Ain’t Them Body Saints) and high-profile Disney joints (2016’s Pete’s Dragon). Perhaps this success has given him the freedom to do a small, low-budget film and not worry about whether people will call it pretentious or boring. A Ghost Story’s dialogue is quiet and sometimes hard to make out, takes are long and deliberate, and the cinematography is muted, not to mention in the out-of-favor (albeit still used) 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio. With these elements, Lowery captures time in its vastness and loneliness—because it is, after all, the most dramatic difference between the living’s and the dead’s points of view, something that’s taken for granted in most movies (pacing problems and flashbacks aside). C, of course, “wakes up” from death as a sheet-festooned ghost, for whom time becomes more and more significant as he lingers, and as the camera lingers along with him. A Ghost Story isn’t a haunting so much as a witnessing. —Jeremy Mathews


Aquarius

aquarius.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Stars: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Humberto Carrao, Irandhir Santos, Julia Bernat
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 142 minutes

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Clara (Sonia Braga) is one of the great heroines in contemporary cinema, and her story is one that will endure. By the movie’s climax, one woman’s struggle to hold on to her apartment despite crooked developers’ schemes takes on a dramatic weight found in the most ambitious, large-scale epics—yet Filho’s touch couldn’t be lighter. His direction is elegant and restrained, because he has the confidence not to force his effects. He believes in his ideas, and knows they’ll deepen and expand in the viewer’s mind if he just presents them unadorned. Undoubtedly, part of his confidence comes from the gift he got from Braga, who gives the performance of her career, doing the same thing with her voice, face and body that Filho does with his camera, finding economical gestures that express infinite emotions and ideas. I can’t think of many other roles that so fully encapsulate the human condition in all its humor, tragedy, loss, triumph, eroticism, weariness, fear and hope. —Jim Hemphill


Groundhog Day

Groundhog1212.jpg Year: 1993
Director: Harold Ramis
Stars: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky
Genre: Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 102 minutes

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Bill Murray, director/co-writer Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin take a Twilight Zone-esque comedic premise—a self-centered weatherman gets stuck experiencing February 2 again and again—and find unexpected profundity. A more conventional film would have love resolve the chronological predicament, but instead, it falls to TV personality Phil (Murray) to become the best version of himself he can possibly be. Whether it’s a Hollywood comedy challenging middle-class Americans to shake themselves from their middle-class torpor, or a meditation on our unattainable ideas of perfection, Groundhog Day doesn’t just elicit laughs, but leaves audiences more deeply moved than they ever expected—even inspiring some obsessive fans, including one fellow who calculated, down to the day, the number of decades Murray spent in February 2. —Curt Holman


The Night Comes for Us

night-comes-for-us-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Stars: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Sonny Pang
Genre: Martial Arts, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 121 minutes

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While Gareth Evans confounded fans of The Raid movies by giving them a British folk horror film (but a darn good one) this year, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us scratches that Indonesian ultra-violent action itch. Furiously. Then stabs a shard of cow femur through it. Come for the violence, The Night Comes for Us bids you—and, also, stay for the violence. Finally, leave because of the violence. If that sounds grueling, don’t worry, it is. You could say it’s part of the point, but that might be projecting good intentions on a film that seems to care little for what’s paving the highway to hell. It’s got pedal to metal and headed right down the gullet of the abyss. It’s also got the best choreographed and constructed combat sequences of the year, and plenty of them, and they actually get better as the film goes along. There’s a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a team inside a van, the film using the confines to compress the bone-crushing, like an action compactor. Other scenes are expansive in their controlled chaos and cartoonish blood-letting, like Streets of Rage levels, come to all-too-vivid life: the butcher shop level, the car garage level and a really cool later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a deadly sub-boss duo who have specialized weapons and styles and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. You’ll forget you weren’t playing it, so intensely will you feel a part of its brutality and so tapped out you’ll feel once you beat the final boss, who happens to be The Raid-star Iko Uwais with a box-cutter. It’s exceptionally painful and it goes on forever. Despite a storyline that’s basically just an excuse for emotional involvement (Taslim’s character is trying to protect a cute little girl from the Triad and has a lost-brotherhood bit with Uwais’s character) and, more than that, an easy way to set up action scenes on top of action scenes, there’s something about the conclusion of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of nerve of pathos, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Take it as a testament to the raw power of the visceral: A certain breed of cinematic action—as if by laws of physics—demands a reaction. —Chad Betz


The Town

the-town.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Ben Affleck
Stars: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively
Genre: Action, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: R
Runtime: 151 minutes

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Ben Affleck’s The Town is a spellbinding thriller that hits all the right notes of suspense, romance, and heartbreak. “The Town” is Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood that may as well be a prison sentence: lives of crime are passed down from generation to generation like family Bibles, and Affleck’s character, Doug, can’t shake the weight of his inheritance, as much as he wants to. The movie opens with an electrifying scene—Doug and his crew of derelict friends pulling off yet another robbery—only this time, they take the bank manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage. From there, things unravel in ways Doug, the mastermind of the operation, couldn’t ever anticipate. Boy falls for girl, girl falls for boy, FBI hunts boy while boy’s best friend, played by Jeremy Renner, becomes one step closer to psychopath. The cast has no weak link. Jon Hamm commands the screen as the FBI agent hell bent on bringing in Doug’s crew; Hall is both feisty and shattered as the bank manager who falls for Doug and tests him to be a better man; and Chris Cooper, as Doug’s imprisoned, murderous father, is haunting in his weighty scene that give the audience everything they need to know about who Doug is, where he came from, and the scars that may never be healed. Renner is menacing and authentic and mesmerizing. Even Blake Lively holds her own as a used-up junkie who’s disposable to everyone but her daughter. It’s surely not a coincidence that Affleck has gone home to Boston to film a movie about a guy who desperately wants out, who desperately wants to reinvent himself. And he’s succeeded on all fronts, including the metaphorical one. —Allison Winn Scotch


Shadow

shadow-yimou-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Zhang Yimou
Stars: Chao Deng, Sun Li, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Xiaotong Guan, Wang Jingchung
Genre: Martial Arts, Action & Adventure, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 115 minutes

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Zhang Yimou’s latest is Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together into one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of a city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the intricacies never overwhelm. Instead, the stylization does. —Andy Crump


20th Century Women

20th-century-women.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Mike Mills
Stars: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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The feeling of watching writer-director Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is akin to that of witnessing a mind working through the twisted byways of his characters’ psyches and his themes as if digesting his thoughts right in front of us. He’s unafraid of breaking away from the film’s major arcs for the sake of digressions that fill us in on both historical context and characters’ backstories. That embrace of irresolution extends to the characters themselves, all of whom show many different sides to us, with Mills showing no interest in neatly explaining away their contradictions. 20th Century Women almost feels like a dialectical essay disguised as a comedy-drama—a late-period Jean-Luc Godard movie except with actual flesh-and-blood human beings instead of glorified mouthpieces for his philosophical aphorisms. The patchwork narrative style vividly expresses the confusion at the heart of these characters and of the time period in U.S. history it evokes: a country hinging on the precipice between the relative selfless idealism of the 1970s and the rampant materialistic self-interest of the 1980s. It’s a large subject for any movie to tackle, but the beauty of 20th Century Women is that the warmly empathetic Mills never loses track of the characters’ anguished beating hearts. —Kenji Fujishima


Mississippi Grind

mississippi-grind.jpg Year: 2015
Directors: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Robin Weigert
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden don’t work within genres as much as they wander around inside them. Their Half Nelson took on the inspirational-teacher film, while Sugar had a darker, more realistic perspective on the prototypical sports movie. Repeatedly, the filmmaking duo utilize the tenets of a genre but mostly focus on their characters’ specific desires, opening themselves up to criticism that their movies are too meandering for their own good. But oftentimes, those laid-back, intimate observations are where the most interesting things happen. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Fleck and Boden finally got around to making a Robert Altman film (before taking on the MCU with Captain Marvel). Altman, of course, was the king of the revisionist genre movie, and Fleck and Boden have taken his underrated 1974 gem California Split as their guide for Mississippi Grind, a low-key but affecting story about two gamblers (played by unexpected companions Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn) on a car trip. To be sure, this terrain—addiction, the road movie, the buildup to the big competition—has been explored plenty by other filmmakers. And, yet, moment to moment, Mississippi Grind digs into you. —Tim Grierson


Enemy

enemy-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent, Isabella Rossellini
Genre: Mystery & Suspense, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%
Rating: R
Runtime: 90 minutes

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The chance to portray twins or at-odds characters in a single film is catnip for actors of a certain level of ambition, though not without potential pitfalls. The impulse to chew scenery or present grand differentiation is often difficult to resist. Enemy, though, which reteams Jake Gyllenhaal with Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve (though it was actually shot before that film), finds the actor trading in similarly subdued and thoughtful tones as he did in that kidnapping drama. Adapted from the late Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago’s 2004 novel, The Double, the film offers up more than just a meaty pair of roles for Gyllenhaal. A woozy, danger-infused rumination on identity that triggers tripwires of personal panic and awakened sexual compulsion, Enemy is like a cold glass of water to the face of cinematic formalism. Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) is a glum and distracted history professor at a small-time Canadian college whose relationship with his girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), seems to be winding down, locked as he is in the throes of dark proclivities he can’t express. Watching a movie recommended by a coworker, he spots a bit-part actor named Anthony Clair (Gyllenhaal again) who looks exactly like him. At once confused and oddly bewitched, Adam goes to great lengths to track down Anthony, who lives in another city with his pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), and seems to have quit acting. Then he contacts him. A complex psychosexual game ensues that has consequences for all. Through it all, Villeneuve exudes a masterful sense of control and purpose. The sound design, by Oriol Tarragó, luxuriates in quiet expanses, giving plenty of eerie space to original music from composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, which incorporates throbbing drops of bass mixed with icy piano notes. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, meanwhile, embraces a desaturated visual palette that at times feels splashed with brown mustard, which in turn complements austere production design by Patrice Vermette. Of course, none of this would much matter if Enemy was hung on the peg of an actor with less command of his craft than Gyllenhaal. As fantastical as Enemy is at certain moments, Gyllenhaal, along with Villeneuve, brings the stark horror of this psychological grappling match to life. And it’s utterly absorbing. —Brent Simon


Homecoming

homecoming-beyonce-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Directors: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
Genre: Documentary, Musical
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 137 minutes

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Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala: None of those performers, or any of the others at Coachella 2019, were able to match the grandiosity of Beychella, Beyoncé’s epic pair of sets at last year’s festival. Netflix’s Homecoming, a documentary written, produced and directed by Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, features stunning footage of each weekend’s set and dives deep into the symbolism, production and eight-month rehearsal process behind Beychella. The film also arrived with a surprise live album encompassing the entire Coachella set as well as new music. It’s all just The Carters’ latest in a long line of masterpieces, a colossal, visually stunning spectacle that not only summarized Beyoncé’s 20-year career, but also Historic Black Colleges in an entirely new way. We see clips from football games at schools like Howard University and Alabama A&M interspersed with Beychella rehearsal footage, the entire performance and film a celebration of those institutions, perhaps even an antithesis to what most people would consider a primarily white experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to consider canceling your plans tonight: Bey deserves your full attention. —Ellen Johnson


She’s Gotta Have It

shes-gotta-have-it-poster.jpg Year: 1986
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Tracy Camila Johns, Spike Lee, John Canada Terrell, Tommy Redmond Hicks
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 85 minutes

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An explosively frank feature debut that immediately announced Lee’s brave, fresh new voice in American cinema, She’s Gotta Have It, shot like a documentary, is a levelheaded exploration of a young black woman named Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) trying to decide between her three male lovers, while also flirting with her apparent bisexuality, in order to, first and foremost, figure out what makes her happy. What’s refreshing about the film is that Lee always brings up the possibility that “none of the above” is a perfectly viable answer for both Nola and for single women—a game changer in 1986. The DIY indie grainy black-and-white cinematography boosts the film’s in-your-face realism. —Oktay Ege Kozak


Django Unchained

django-unchained.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Genre: Drama, Western
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
Rating: R
Runtime: 165 minutes

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The best thing about Quentin Tarantino is also the worst thing about Quentin Tarantino—he believes, wholeheartedly, in whatever he’s doing. Most of the time, what he’s doing consists of overly referential homage mashups with dialogue that would give most screenwriters carpal tunnel. The old video store clerk is sublime at saying important things through mediums that don’t usually convey them—Kung Fu films, revenge fantasies and spaghetti Westerns, for starters. He is an artist dressed as a Philistine, splattering the screen with cartoonish violence when what he’s really blowing is our minds. Although Tarantino’s latest effort isn’t his best, it is his most ambitious, and for someone capable of so much, that means quite a lot.—Tyler Chase


Ralph Breaks the Internet

ralph-breaks-internet-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Directors: Phil Johnston, Rich Moore
Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jack McBrayer, Taraji P. Henson
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Kids & Family
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 114 minutes

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When it was released in 2012, Wreck-It Ralph hit theatergoers over the head with its incredible animation, videogame call backs and moving story. Its success made a sequel inevitable, and Ralph Breaks the Internet picks up where the original film left off. Ralph (John C. Reilly) has come to terms with playing the villain in his “home” videogame, Fix-It Felix Jr., during the day, in large part because he gets to spend time with his best friend, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), during their off-hours. Their lives together are routine, which is just how Ralph likes it. Vanellope, on the other hand, is itching for something more. Like any princess, she longs to escape her gilded tower. It’s hard to blame her—Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush, only has three race tracks. Having memorized every twist and turn, she’s grown bored of the predictability—a real problem given racing is Vanellope’s passion. To his credit, Ralph tries to remedy her discontent, surprising his friend with an addition to one of the tracks. But when the arcade owner adds wifi, Miss Von Schweetz gets a taste of the freedom she desires. Bigger race tracks, new friends and the endless expanse of options offered on the ’net bring the kind of wish fulfillment Vanellope has been seeking. (Ralph just wants to go home.) As the title suggests, and as sequels tend to do, Ralph Breaks the Internet greatly expands the Wreck-It Ralph universe even as it further develops the tensions inherent in the relationship status quo present when the film begins. And instead of being just another manifestation of the “girl power/you can be anything” trope, it populates the screen with women in powerful positions—as an actual CEO, as the leader of a dope car crew, and as a little girl trying to find her place in the world. It’s a reminder that girl power exists naturally; it does not need to be forced. That’s a message worth building a franchise around. —Joelle Monique


13th

13th.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 100 minutes

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Director Ava DuVernay has successfully made a documentary that challenges and even dismantles our collective understanding of one of the most dangerous notions of our time: “progress.” How do we define progress, and who precisely gets to define it? 13th is a captivating argument against those who measure progress with laws that pretend to protect American citizens and amendments, and even to uphold the Constitution. It is a deftly woven and defiant look at how clauses within those amendments (specifically the lauded 13th) and the language of our political system both veil and reveal a profound and devastating truth about America: Slavery was never abolished here, DuVernay and the participants in the film argue. It was simply amended, and it continues to be amended in 2016, with the constant evolution of the criminal justice system. It’s a bold and terrifying statement to make, but in using a documentary instead of, say, a narrative film, DuVernay is able to point directly to that history and to those people who have defined “progress” for black Americans. In doing so, she draws a line directly from the 13th amendment, to today’s America, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Like some of the best documentaries of our time, 13th is not just a film, but a demand; it’s a call to reject dangerous reiterations, specifically newer and newer Jim Crows. DuVernay’s work doesn’t expressly name what we might build in their place, but it demands that those of us watching resist the seduction of sameness disguised as slow progress, and imagine something greater: actual freedom. —Shannon M. Houston

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