The 60 Best Netflix Original Movies

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The 60 Best Netflix Original Movies

In the last few years, Netflix has become a major player in original movie distribution, scooping up films at festivals and working directly with filmmakers to make movies for streaming subscribers. While you can decry the company’s effect in keeping some great movies from getting big-screen theatrical runs, it’s harder to fault Netflix for its curatorial ability. Beginning with Beasts of No Nation from True Detective director Cary Fukunaga, Netflix has since partnered with such directorial talent as Ava DuVernay, Noah Baumbach, Bong Joon-ho, Alfonso Cuarón, Jonathan Demme, Christopher Guest, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Orson Welles and Joe Swanberg—not to mention their upcoming work with Martin Scorsese. Though plenty of terrible movies have sprung from Netflix’s seemingly bottomless coffers, and though they continue to encourage Adam Sandler, they’ve compensated by growing into a source for insightful, excellent documentaries, including a few of our all-time favorites like The Square and Casting JonBenet.

Still, only four years into this whole Original Movie enterprise, Netflix’s nearly 300 features radically vary in tone and audience. Not that the streaming giant needs our defense; we just want to be clear that the following represents a grab-bag of genres and quality. For every Okja, the universe must balance itself with a Bright. So be it.

Here are the 60 best Netflix original movies:

60. Roxanne Roxanne

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Year: 2018
Director: Michael Larnell
The importance of a story like Roxanne Roxanne making it to the big (streaming) screen cannot be understated. Roxanne Shanté, born Lolita Shanté Gooden, started rapping when she was just a child. She was a prodigy, going on to become the best battle rapper in Queens, New York. She would go on to suffer through and survive an abusive relationship with a statutory rapist who she fell in love with, just as her talent was beginning to catch the attention of record producers. Clashes with her mother and her absentee father made her life in the Queensbridge housing projects all the more complicated. I love that Roxanne Roxanne exists. I want everyone to see it (and to become familiar with new talent Chanté Adams as Shanté). But I also know that this could have been a much better work of art. There is plenty to enjoy from writer/director Michael Larnell’s presentation of Roxanne Shanté’s story. The ’80s New York vibe is all the way there, and I can’t be mad at some great moments we get to witness: Roxanne Shanté vs. Sparky D; a shy, young boy in Shanté’s projects, named Nasir, who wants to be a rapper; and an unknown Biz Markie beat boxing for Roxanne when her DJ (Marley Marl) bails on her. But as a whole, the film is missing an emotional pulse that was likely sacrificed in an attempt to emphasize the difficulties that Shanté endured as a young girl. Shanté’s personal and artistic experiences are ultimately hijacked by the men in and around her life, whose failures ultimately dominate her story. This should have been a female-centric narrative, weaving personal experiences with the art of rhymes and battle rapping. Instead, Larnell spends much of the time exploring the impact of men in Shanté’s life (men who steal, rape, take and beat), while, unfortunately, eclipsing her incredible accomplishments. The stories yearning to be told—of motherhood, of struggle, and sisterhood, and friendship and first (highly problematic) love for a girl who doesn’t quite know what good love looks like—are all there on the surface of Larnell’s film. We are desperately in need of more movies concerned with women in rap, women from the projects, women in relationships with men like Cross—and women who refuse to be defined by any one of these things—but we also desperately need the writers and directors who take on the stories of such women to push beyond the surface and give us the excellence we deserve. —Shannon M. Houston


59. Irreplaceable You

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Year: 2018
Director: Stephanie Laing
Netflix has gifted us with two Gugu Mbatha-Raw movies in the same month. One of them is a creative disaster and a sign of bad things to come for the streaming giant’s philosophy on original releases. One of them is Irreplaceable You. Upfront, Irreplaceable You is aggressively mushy and cutesy as hell, but Mbatha-Raw is an effortless charmer, and director Stephanie Laing is clearly a wizard because she found a way to scrub Michiel Huisman of his typical stubbly hipster douchiness. He’s still a brooding hottie, but an awkward nerd brooding hottie, and he’s good at playing the part. He and Mbatha-Raw match up well as Sam and Abbie, childhood sweethearts newly engaged and also staring down her terminal cancer diagnosis. In medical terms, she’s a goner. So she does what any type-A person would do in her position and interviews candidates for her replacement after she dies. She loves Sam so much she can’t stand the idea of him being alone. If you’re diabetic this synopsis probably has you reaching for an insulin dose, but for all of its obvious manipulations, watching Irreplaceable You is the equivalent of downing a heart-shaped box of chocolates. You might go into sugar shock and you’ll need to brush your teeth when it’s over, but you won’t regret the indulgence all the same. —Andy Crump


58. Little Evil

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Year: 2017
Director: Eli Craig
Seven years after he gave us Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, one of the best horror comedies in recent memory, director Eli Craig has finally returned with an exclusive for Netflix, Little Evil. An obvious parody of The Omen and other “evil kid” movies, Little Evil wears its influences and references on its sleeve in ways that, while not particularly clever, are at least loving. Adam Scott is the sad-sack father who somehow became swept up in a whirlwind romance and marriage, all while being unfazed by the fact that his new step-son is the kind of kid who dresses like a pint-sized Angus Young and trails catastrophes behind him wherever he goes. Evangeline Lilly is the boy’s foxy mother, whose motivations are suspect throughout. Does she know that her child is the spawn of Satan, or as his mother is she just willfully blind to the obvious evil growing under her nose? The film can boast a pretty impressive supporting cast, from Donald Faison and Chris D’elia as fellow step-dads, to Clancy Brown as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but never does it fully commit toward either its jokes or attempts to frighten. The final 30 minutes are the most interesting, leading the plot in an unexpected direction that redefines the audience’s perception of the demon child, but it still makes for a somewhat uneven execution. Tucker & Dale this is not, but it’s still a serviceable return for Craig. —Jim Vorel


57. Mercury 13

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Year: 2018
Directors: David Sington, Heather Walsh
One of the most gutting facts underscored in Hidden Figures was how much creativity and intellectual excellence a society loses when it lets its prejudices set the limits on its ambition. The United States’ loss to the USSR in getting a man into space, Hidden Figures made clear, was a direct result of the implicitly biased perspectives of the white men in charge of the program. Netflix’s Mercury 13, which tells the story of the 13 female pilots who, following the whizbang excellence of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II (full disclosure, my grandmother was among them), were put through the exact same physical and psychological tests as the first set of male astronauts and matched (and sometimes exceeded!) their results but who were nevertheless shut out by lawmakers from becoming astronauts themselves, takes this clarity a step further: Because of the explicitly biased perspectives of the white men in charge (and in the Hero Astronaut spotlight), the USSR beat the US in getting the first woman into space. Many of the women who made up the Mercury 13 are no longer alive, but the ones who are and who participated in this documentary have lost none of the sharpness of purpose that made them such crackerjack pilots, and that would have made them equally crackerjack astronauts. So while it would be nice if Mercury 13 showed a bit more about the transition from an all-male astronaut program to a co-ed one (it skips straight from the 1962 testimonies before Congress to Eileen Collins in the early 1990s) and addressed the social and political forces that kept the astronaut program so white for so long (Mae Jemison makes a single appearance in archival footage, but otherwise there is no reference is made to the forces that made the both the Mercury 13 and John Glenn’s cohort universally white), the very fact that it is making available to millions of people a part of history that is not well known makes it more than worth your time the next night you feel a hankering to stream a documentary. —Alexis Gunderson


56. The Babysitter

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Year: 2017
Director: McG
The Babysitter is a little guileless in its overt desire to be lovingly described as an ‘80s slasher homage, but simultaneously effective enough to earn a good measure of that approval it craves. With twists of Fright Night and Night of the Demons, it’s at its best not when trying to slavishly recreate a past decade, but when letting its hyper-charismatic teenage characters run wild. Stylish, gory and profane to a fault, The Babysitter features a handful of bang-up performances, like Judah Lewis as a late-blooming 12-year-old, Robbie Amell as a nigh-invincible football jock and Samara Weaving as the title character, the girl of Lewis’ dreams—right up until she tries to sacrifice him to the devil. Fast-moving (only 85 minutes!) and frequently hilarious, it’s probably the best unit of popcorn horror entertainment that Netflix has managed to put out so far. The Babysitter’s character chemistry actually justifies a second go-round, which I’d be happy to watch. —Jim Vorel


55. The Battered Bastards of Baseball

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Year: 2013
Directors: Chapman Way, Maclain Way
There’s always been something romantic about independent minor league baseball teams, but that romance has never been quite in full bloom like the story of the Portland Mavericks, a team with no major league affiliation. Owned by actor Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad), Maverickdom spread from Oregon to the nation, beginning with Joe Garagiola’s NBC special. With characters like blackballed Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, the first woman general manager in baseball (age 24) and the first Asian-American (at 22), the inventor of Big League Chew, batboy Todd Field (Oscar-nominated screenwriter for In the Bedroom), and a ball dog, the antics of the team were as entertaining as the game itself. And yet the team’s run from 1973-1977 was one of the best in the minor leagues. Bing’s goal was to bring back the joy and fun of the minor league teams of the first half of the 20th century, to embody that baseball cliché: For the love of the game. As Bouton says of his fellow $400-a-month teammates, “Our motivation was simple: revenge. We loved whomping fuzzy-cheeked college-bonus babies owned by the Dodgers and Phillies.” It’s an underdog story made for a documentary, and Chapman and Maclain Way have given the story the doc it deserves. —Josh Jackson


54. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

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Year: 2016
Director: Osgood Perkins
This somewhat labored ghost story premiered at the Toronto International Film Fest before being picked up by Netflix for distribution, but the festival circuit is really its natural home. A staid, extremely patient haunted house yarn with some intriguing performances, it’s likely to be too slow to be appreciated by bingers on the streaming service. A woman (Ruth Wilson) moves into a creaky old home to serve as live-in nurse for an elderly horror author with dementia (Paula Prentiss), but soon finds herself sucked into the ghost story that makes up the author’s most famous book. Which sounds like a fairly conventional horror movie premise, but it’s the delivery that sets this film apart rather than the summation. Every shot lingers. We glide through the house with minimal, whispered dialog and occasional narration, and although it does build a palpable sense of unease, the payoffs are few and far between. I couldn’t help but be reminded of H.P. Mendoza’s similarly experimental 2012 film I Am A Ghost, which is equally laconic but more visually arresting. I Am the Pretty Thing has grand artistic aspirations of some kind behind it, but has trouble giving them vibrancy. This is a horror film for audiences with solid attention spans. —Jim Vorel


53. Unicorn Store

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Year: 2019
Director: Brie Larson
There’s a category of stories that college English professors like to call “fluffy bunny stories.” Break it down like this: There are bunnies. They’re fluffy. They’re cute and happy. End of story. That’s Brie Larson’s shaggy Unicorn Store, her first film as a director, precious to a fault, but nonetheless possessed of winning charm and a surplus of spirit. This movie means well. In particular areas, it actually does well, too, harnessing for the second time this year the chemistry Larson, playing failed artist and unmoored millennial Kit, shares with Samuel L. Jackson, playing the eccentric, pink-suited proprietor of the title’s fantasy creature boutique. (It makes great use of the goofy dad energy Bradley Whitford’s accrued in the current stage of his career, too.) Much as Larson’s workmanship shows at the film’s edges—Unicorn Store is very much the product of a newcomer to the director’s chair—it does drive home thoughtful observations about millennial languor. Dreams are what we’re weaned on by our parents. When we carry those dreams into the future, and when those dreams don’t pan out, the effect is stifling, catching us in a holding pattern right at the line between emerging and actual adulthood. There’s enough truth to Kit’s ennui to carry Unicorn Store above its twee characteristics. —Andy Crump


52. Psychokinesis

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Year: 2018
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Following up Train to Busan, his adroit add-on to the endlessly alive zombie genre, Yeon Sang-ho offers another interpretation of the zeitgeist with Psychokinesis, building a deft, vaguely political room of South Korea’s own in the cinematic superhero universe. Ryu Seung-ryong plays everyman nobody Shin Seok-heon, a dopey security guard estranged from his family, brought back into daughter Roo-mi’s (Shim Eun-kyung) life after a gang of unionized construction workers accidentally kill her mother while attempting to evict the young fried chicken entrepreneur from their small storefront. Also: Seok-heon has burgeoning superpowers of the titular variety, contracted when he drinks from a public spring polluted with an alien substance recently released into the earth via crashed space rock. Though Yeon (who also wrote the film) typically confuses comic book sensibility with a total lack of deeply written characters struggling under actually interesting motivations and backstories, Yeon isn’t particularly driven by the same forces as the MCU or the DCEU: Psychokinesis has an unfettered heart, an unfussy melodrama, in ways films of those brands don’t, not burdened by the same economic pressure—while also declaring very clearly that the police are bad. It’s all pretty refreshing in the wake of an Infinity War. —Dom Sinacola


51. The Incredible Jessica James

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Year: 2017
Director: Jim Strouse
Jessica Williams plays Jessica James, twenty-something theatre fanatic trying to get one of her plays produced while simultaneously dealing with a breakup. The ex? Damon, played by the equally wonderful Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Short Term 12), who can’t manage to stay out of Jessica’s dreams. When she meets a new fling, played by the comically refreshing Chris O’Dowd, she begins to re-evaluate her love life while clinging to her goals. When do you know you’ve made it? As lighthearted as the film can be, it’s rooted in an exploration of the deeper questions with which any artist, or person for that matter, grapples. Williams is hilarious, which we all know from her time on The Daily Show. She’s also incredibly powerful, showcasing a feminine strength that’s so crucial to a passion for her craft that’s the opposite of the indifference often associated with millennials. —Meredith Alloway


50. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

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Year: 2017
Director: Chris Smith
The porous boundaries between storytellers and their stories are the linchpin of Netflix’s Chris Smith-directed, Spike Jonze-produced Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a fragmentary, yet compelling look at the extreme lengths to which Jim Carrey went to portray his idol, singular entertainer Andy Kaufman, in the late Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. The film’s narrative hook is immediate: Jim & Andy draws from hours of behind-the-scenes footage that Universal had mothballed so viewers wouldn’t think Carrey, then one of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars, was “an asshole.” As we see some 18 years later, Carrey embodied Kaufman both on camera and off, his method acting antics begging meaningful questions about what drives performers to give themselves over to fantasy as well as how warped reality can get with such immersion. Jim & Andy is as moving as it is thought-provoking, a reminder that often in art there is no great joy without great pain. —Scott Russell


49. Win It All

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Year: 2017
Director: Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg, bless his unfailing tenacity, appears to get behind the camera and hope everything works out for the best. His style is chancy, but it’s hard not to admire his unabashed love of spontaneity. This is especially true when it does work out for the best, as it does in Win it All. Swanberg co-wrote the film with your underachieving dream boyfriend, New Girl’s Jake Johnson, ostensibly a direct result of their actor-director collaborations in Drinking Buddies and Digging for Fire; Johnson, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the star here, too, playing that aforementioned scruffy gambler, Eddie, a career loser who takes any wager-earning gig he can get by day before flinging his earnings down the crapper playing games of chance at incalculably grimy casinos by night. There is, in grand Swanberg tradition, a looseness to Win it All that remains for the duration of the film, hanging off of Johnson’s central performance. Whether because of his contributions on the page or on the screen, Johnson feels like a key component to Win it All’s success as a narrative: The story hangs off of him, off of his work, his emoting, the physical quality to his self-presentation before a lens. It means a lot that Swanberg and Johnson both care on a profoundly human level for Eddie. Who couldn’t? You probably have an Eddie figure in your life, whether you know it or not: The gregarious, amiable rascal, the kind of dude who just can’t slam the brakes when he’s careening toward trouble, and knows it. He’s a lovable schmuck, his own worst enemy. The people in his life care about him, his creators care about him, and so of course we care about him, too, even at his worst, even as he invites troubles and hazards into his life against all fair warnings given him by his support system. Win it All, in other words, is a Joe Swanberg movie, a domestically-focused tale about a slacker in conflict with his demons washed in the texture of 1960s and 1970s cinema. —Andy Crump.


48. The Ritual

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Year: 2017
Director: David Bruckner
Where The Ritual excels is technically, in both its imagery and sound design. Cinematographer Andrew Shulkind’s crisp images and deep focus are a welcome respite from the overly dark, muddy look of so many modern horror films with similar settings (such as Bryan Bertino’s The Monster), and the forested location shots, regardless of where they may have been filmed, are uniformly stunning. Numerous shots of tree clusters evoke Celtic knot-like imagery, these dense puzzles of foliage clearly hiding dire secrets, and we are shown just enough through the film’s first two thirds to keep the mystery palpable and engaging. Director David Bruckner, who is best known for directing well-regarded segments of horror anthologies such as V/H/S, The Signal and Southbound, demonstrates a talent here for suggestion and subtlety, aided by some excellent sound design that emphasizes every rustling leaf and creaking tree branch. Unfortunately, the characters are a bit thin for what is meant to be a character-driven film, and the big payoff can’t quite maintain the atmosphere of the film’s first two acts. Still, The Ritual is a great-looking film, and one that features one of the more memorably “WTF!” monster designs in recent memory. It’s worth a look for that alone. —Jim Vorel


47. Tramps

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Year: 2017
Director: Adam Leon
For a guy who trades in intimate, small-scale narratives, Adam Leon sure does love working with distance. Wide shots pepper his films, his camera an eye in the heavens tracking the movements of his protagonists through busy open spaces. Leon never lets these characters out of his, or our, sights, and he never lets the words they exchange with one another drown in the noisome urban bustle they wade through from scene to scene. Both feats are impressive on their own merit, but more impressive than that is Leon’s knack for making us feel like we’re right there in the frame with his actors, no matter how great the gap separating them from his lens. He can hover over an active street corner teeming with hubbub and still keep us focused on a pair of arguing teens. You don’t pull off that kind of stunt without caring, or without making your viewers care, and so we get down to what makes Leon special as a storyteller: He’s compassionate. Tramps, then, is all about the tug between kindness and unkindness: Leon doesn’t pile ignominies on his characters more than he must because the world he constructs around them does that well enough on its own. Tramps introduces us to Danny (Callum Turner) first, Ellie (Grace Van Patten) second, setting them on a collision course with each other, third. They’re both involved in the same small-time crime scheme: the swapping of a suitcase. Danny is cajoled into the caper by his imprisoned brother, Darren (Michal Vondel), while Ellie is in turn persuaded by Scott (Mike Birbiglia) to play getaway driver for a cash payout she desperately needs. She’s a cool-headed pro. Danny’s a sweet-natured, reluctant lunkhead. Naturally, the whole plan goes busto when Danny grabs the wrong suitcase. So Ellie and Danny spend a couple days together, trying to find Tramps’ plot-driving MacGuffin, and wouldn’t you know it, the kids bond and grow close in the process. Trite and treacly stuff in theory, but Leon is skilled in refining sugary goodness and balancing it out with human ballast. It’s a minor effort loaded with small pleasures, but tallied together, those small pleasures add up to a great movie. —Andy Crump


46. 1922

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Year: 2017
Director: Zak Hilditch
A chameleonic performance from Thomas Jane anchors this understated, gothic story set in Depression-era Middle America, told in the style of a confession by the husband who we can tell right from the get-go is haunted by some horrible crime. When his wife insists on selling the land she’s inherited rather than work it, Jane’s unsophisticated field hand harangues their son into becoming an accomplice in her grisly murder. As with every Grand Guignol tale, though, we already know that the worst part isn’t the act of killing, but the endless paranoia of living with it. In the case of the movie’s guilty narrator, that means a vengeful and inevitable haunting filled with all the foreboding and creepy imagery you came to see. Stephen King adaptations have their hits and their misses, but this is a solid, straightforward story that gets by on the power of a dread-steeped plot and some compelling performances by good character actors you’ll most likely always be happy to see get screen time. —Ken Lowe


45. The Little Prince

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Year: 2016
Director: Mark Osborne
The film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s seminal novella The Little Prince is a strange film—and not just because it finishes the entire story set out by the original source material before the first hour is over. But even as it struggles to not undermine its own messages in its second half, Mark Osborne’s adaptation bursts with life, and serves as an overly blunt but effective story about growing up without losing why childhood mattered. Or as the film succinctly puts it: It’s the difference between growing up and becoming a grown-up. Osborne creates a new framing device for Saint-Exupéry’s story of allegorical power—a little girl (Mackenzie Foy) who’s living a painfully practical existence. She lives with her single mother in the house next to the narrator, The Aviator (a madcap Jeff Bridges), her mom (Rachel McAdams) planning out every minute of her day, as represented by a comically detailed wall tableau. A friendship develops, and soon the little girl hungers to hear more of the Aviator’s story and The Little Prince’s adventures that he’s written over many years. Cutting between Bridges’ folksy narration and the internal world of the story he’s telling, the film flashes between computer-generated animation with photorealistic environments and stunning stop-motion. The storybook world is presented as a sprawling diorama fantasia with The Little Prince (Riley Osborne), made up of malted wood and meticulous tissue paper placement, and the world around him layered in fine fabric, construction paper and purposely artificial details like stars hanging from a string off the top of the frame. Admirable for its gentle hand when it comes to difficult subjects like the ephemeral nature of life, and for its bold visual style, The Little Prince is also a film whose final reel seems unwilling to recognize the realities of its own story. —Michael Snydel


44. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

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Year: 2016
Director: Joe Berlinger
There are oh so many interesting documentaries that could have been made about Tony Robbins. You can just imagine Alex Gibney mercilessly burrowing into the brains of Robbins’ associates to find nuggets of implicating evidence, or Michael Moore chasing down former seminar attendees to ask if all their problems have been solved, or Ondi Timoner adding to her collection of masterpieces about tortured geniuses. Instead, Joe Berlinger chooses to take us inside one of those exclusive multi-day seminars, showing us the team that makes it happen, the attendees that provide the grist for the mill and, most fascinating, Robbins himself. It’s enough: Robbins is so easy to stereotype and caricature that it takes a bit of direct contact with him (through the lens of course) to begin taking him on his own terms. Who wouldn’t want to experience a couple of days of walking around behind the scenes at an event, speaking with Robbins and his team while witnessing his work with the people who have come (and paid quite a bit of money) to hear him? This direct approach failed to impress critics who may’ve wanted a more polemical piece, but Berlinger falls directly in the tradition of the Maysles brothers and D.A Pennebaker by asking us, first, to simply see the man and his work for exactly what they are. —Michael Dunaway


43. The Polka King

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Year: 2016
Director: Maya Forbes
Now is the winter of our Jack Black content: First Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a wind-down from the year-end awards contender rush, and then Maya Forbes’ The Polka King, a screwball biopic based on the 2009 Jan Lewan documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King. If Lewan’s name doesn’t call to mind a blaring chorus of accordions and trumpets, a primer: Lewan went to prison in the early 2000s for orchestrating a Ponzi scheme around his Pennsylvania-based polka band and through his various subsidiary business ventures, defrauding elderly patrons of his music to the tune of millions of dollars. And if Black’s involvement in the project strikes you as unexpected, then a primer on Richard Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie is in order, too, another true-crime story structured as a comedy, where Black cuts a charming, whimsical figure. The Polka King is made accessible by its accidental timeliness, being the saga of a relentless, bloviating self-promoter with too many businesses to his name who succeeds in each of them by cheating every system put before him. As far as post-2016 election movies go, though, The Polka King works precisely because it isn’t about politics whatsoever. Instead, Maya Forbes has crafted a zippy comedy about a charismatic charlatan and the disastrous impact his fakery has on the rubes gullible enough to fall for his schtick. As such, The Polka King is a superb American movie that takes direct aim at long-held myths of American life. —Andy Crump


42. Virunga

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Year: 2014
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
At Camden International Film Fest, I figured going into Virunga, Orlando von Einsiedel’s excellent documentary about the fight to save a huge national park in Congo, that I was going to get majestically beautiful nature porn, and an impassioned call to action to save a site that is truly a world treasure. Plus cool shots of apes doing cool stuff. And I did indeed get all that. But I got so much more. Virunga is also part history lesson, part investigative thriller, part war movie and part character study. It’s exceptionally engaging, exceptionally moving, exceptionally convincing. And those nature shots? Spectacular, too. —Michael Dunaway


41. 6 Balloons

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Year: 2018
Director: Marja-Lewis Ryan
Addiction being an ugly and tragic thing, it’s a mercy that Marja-Lewis Ryan’s bleak portrait of the shockwave effects of chemical dependence is only about an hour and ten minutes long. Length doesn’t have more than a fleeting relationship to quality, mind you, but a little goes a long way, and 6 Balloons, like heroin addict Seth (Dave Franco), needs just a little to drive an audience into a state of excruciating suspense. Seth is brother to Katie (Abbi Jacobson), who is forced to drop everything while putting together a surprise party for her boyfriend (Dawan Owens) when she learns that Seth has relapsed and started injecting again after being clean for a minute. The film orbits Franco and Jacobson almost exclusively, their constant third wheel being Charlotte and Madeline Carel, twin sisters cast in the single role of Ella, Seth’s daughter. Seth and Katie bicker, when Seth is lucid enough to make an argument, though mostly he breaks her heart (along with ours). Occasionally, he makes her laugh, but the laughter is a bittersweet reminder of 6 Balloons’ cycle of enabling. —Andy Crump


40. Mascots

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Year: 2016
Director: Christopher Guest
“Diminishing returns” might apply to Christopher Guest mockumentaries more than anything else on earth, but when you start from the unparalleled heights of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, there’s a long way to plummet. To wit: Mascots, his latest film, is full of great performances and good jokes. Much of his stock company returns for the Netflix exclusive (Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr. are still standouts), and although the absence of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara is palpable, the ensemble is stocked with capable improvisers. The satire isn’t as sharp as his earlier films, but there’s an endearing, enduring goofiness to Mascots’ heart. —Garrett Martin


39. Deidra & Laney Rob a Train

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Year: 2017
Director: Sydney Freeland
Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is a heart-melter. The film, like its two title characters, like its handful of supporting characters and like its director, has spunk, personality, a spark of vitality keeping its narrative humming from start to finish, but it takes its material as seriously as it needs to at the precise times when it needs to, as well. There’s a certain level of amorality here, as you might expect from a film about locomotive larceny, but submerged beneath the murky ethics of theft are currents of empathy: Freeland has constructed a judgment-free zone for telling the tale of sisters Deidra (Ashley Murray) and Laney Tanner (Rachel Crow), inspired toward criminal enterprise all in the name of family. It’s a caper, alright, but a caper that refuses to make light of the premise-shaping predicaments that shape its premise, a feat Freeland pulls off with casual brio. You get the feeling that there are lots of Deidras and Laneys out there who are constantly denied the chance to escape their circumstances, whether in backwater America or elsewhere, by the very institutions that are supposed to help them achieve. Deidra & Laney Rob a Train manages to address these ideas, without focusing on them. They remain in the background for the whole of the film, self-reinforced by the flow of Freeland’s plotting. This is appropriate for the sort of picture that Deidra & Laney Rob a Train wants to be: a romp, but a romp of substance and heart. —Andy Crump


38. Chasing Coral

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Year: 2017
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Folks, I don’t care what you happen to believe. Sure, global climate change events happened in the past, before the Industrial Revolution. We refer to them as the “Great Extinctions.” You might not believe we’re experiencing one now. Coral begs to differ with you. You might say, “OK, it’s happening, but it’s not being generated or accelerated by humans.” Coral begs to differ with you. Coral would like you to know it is time to be terrified. So would the folks who made Chasing Coral. The film tracks a crew of dedicated coral-nerds who are trying to capture a “coral bleaching” event (mass death from overheated water) so they can start making the public pay attention to what’s going on beneath the ocean’s surface. There’s some beautiful underwater photography, both still and moving, of corals—healthy coral reefs look like they were drawn by a Finding Nemo animator at Pixar, and they are stunning. On the whole, the documentary is not a blazing artistic groundbreaker. And it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to get you tuned in to the fact that while everyone’s talking about the impact of global warming as if it were something still in the future, ocean temperatures are now regularly experiencing what used to be extremely exceptional random events—namely, “fever” temps that cause coral to die. And corals are the foundation species of insanely diverse symbiotic ecosystems, ranking only with rainforests for sheer species diversity. Chasing Coral is not intended to be an artwork, though elements of it are artful enough. It is explicitly a public service announcement, and a call to action. We tend not to spend much time thinking about things like corals, because they live in a place we don’t usually see (unless we’re lucky enough to live near a reef). What goes on under the surface of the ocean might not seem that connected to what’s going on here on land, but that’s an illusion. Corals would like you to know that you and they are connected far more directly than you imagine, and that without them, you face a radically destabilized environment. —Amy Glynn


37. Mindhorn

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Year: 2016
Director: Sean Foley
Julian Barratt gives a charismatic lead performance, using those chiseled cheekbones and glorious mustache in concert with uncommonly sad eyes to make his washed-up actor Richard Thorncroft both recognizable and worthy of empathy, despite his arrogance and stupidity. The rest of the cast is also strong, though largely overshadowed by Barratt’s magnetism. If Steve Coogan, who also produced, wants to continue spending large chunks of his time in very small, brutally funny roles in comedy movies (see: The Other Guys, In the Loop and technically Hot Fuzz), that’s fine by me. Kenneth Branagh, shockingly, cameos as himself in one early scene where he auditions Richard for a Hamlet adaption—it’s nice to see he has a sense of humor about still being the go-to Shakespeare guy. It’s clear, in any case, that Mindhorn is a labor of love for the cast and crew. —Deborah Krieger


36. Wheelman

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Year: 2017
Director: Jeremy Rush
2017’s Netflix exclusive Wheelman is a brilliant case-study in cinematic minimalism. The barely 80-minutes long action/thriller hybrid stars Frank Grillo, one of the most underrated genre actors, as Wheelman—your everyday getaway driver with a heart of gold. Story counts for little here as the plot is nothing more than a mere vessel to usher Grillo’s Wheelman from stunt to stunt. Someone is double-crossed, someone is blamed and Wheelman’s family gets mixed up in some shady business. In turn, he sets off in his car to get to the bottom of it and save the ones he loves. From then on out, the film is in near constant motion as the camera almost never leaves the confines of Wheelman’s BMW. It is almost a one-man show for Grillo—think Locke but with a higher body count—and director/screenwriter Jeremy Rush’s decision to have the camera rarely leave the car really puts the viewer in the headspace of Grillo’s character, and the employment of medium and extreme close-ups always keeps the viewer in the metaphorical and physical action. Thus, every scene is filled with an underlying tension built from Grillo’s quiet, but strained performance paired with the genuine claustrophobic nature of remaining in the car’s interior. The car chase and action scenes are breathlessly intense due to the camerawork and practicality of the stunts themselves. The viewer sees, quite literally, what driver input goes into making a car drift and every impact on the car feels chunky and tangible as the camera bobs and shakes with every clash. Yet, Rush’s camera remains beautifully steady until it can’t be steady anymore. There is one moment that sold me on the film: Grillo’s Wheelman is idling in his BMW, revving the engine every now and then to keep it warm, and in a matter of seconds a gunfight erupts, blood sprays, bodies crash and fall and Grillo’s Wheelman puts his gun away as he catches his breath. The camera never leaves the car and the action is over in seconds. It is blunt, abrupt with no lead-up as the film employs a naturalistic soundscape and I quite literally jumped when the first random shot cracked the BMW’s windshield. Wheelman nearly falls apart in the end once plot reasons for Grillo out of his car and into a seemingly different, more generic film, but, overall, it is worth the ride. —Cole Henry


35. Amanda Knox

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Year: 2016
Directors: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
With the Amanda Knox saga (seemingly) done for good, Netflix recently released a definitive documentary covering it from beginning to end—the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent arrest, trials and appeals of Knox and Raffaele Sollecito; the ensuing media frenzy; the quiet, fast-track trial of Rudy Guede, the only party upon whose guilt everyone seems to agree. The film relies mainly on talking head interviews with Knox, Sollecito and two highly entertaining “villains”: boorish prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and smarmy Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa, the latter wearing a Hugh-Grant-caddishness and a shit-eating grin. While Knox herself is probably the least interesting interview in the film—more fascinating by half are pre-arrest home recordings depicting her as a naïve, giggly teen—Blackhurst and McGinn are clear about where their sympathies lie, and contrasted with the ghastly Mignini and Pisa, it’s hard not to side with these two kids. But still the film feels thoughtful and relatively well-balanced: The media is its true target, and the filmmakers nail the insidious ways that its sensationalism and greed can derail justice and irrevocably ruin lives. —Maura McAndrew


34. Between Two Ferns: The Movie

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Year: 2019
Director: Scott Aukerman
Netflix originals are routinely criticized for their general low stakes vibe, like they’re the modern equivalent of old primetime made-for-TV movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s. You can’t really say that about Between Two Ferns: The Movie, because “low stakes” has been the entire point of Zach Galifianakis’s web series all along. This Funny or Die production sends Galifianakis and his public access crew (including Lauren Lapkus) on a cross-country jaunt to save their show and help Zach realize his dreams of being a legitimate late-night talk show host. Along the way they interview people like David Letterman, John Legend, Chance the Rapper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson, and more. (And for some reason Phoebe Bridgers and that guy from The National show up for a musical number.) Scott Aukerman’s screenplay is as absurd and hilarious as you’d expect, and a game cast keeps it running smoothly throughout. Between Two Ferns: The Movie is basically the Citizen Kane of entirely unnecessary feature-length adaptations of one-joke web shows.—Garrett Martin


33. Into the Inferno

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Year: 2016
Director: Werner Herzog
Drawing lines from current events or public moods to the documentaries of Werner Herzog wouldn’t make for a constructive use of time. The only lines Herzog draws are carefully through his own work, the people he’s met and spectacles he’s witnessed and subjects he’s buried deep within him on-call should the spirit move him. In the case of Into the Inferno, Herzog enlists the help of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer—met while in Antarctica for Encounters at the End of the World—to visit and then gaze into the violent hearts of active volcanoes, a subject he once broached 30 years before in La Soufrière. Shot with the same intensity for long takes he once brought to bear on the Amazon River of Aguirre, the camera in awe of the lava flows, Into the Inferno, like most Herzog documentaries, can’t help but follow symbolic hunches down unexpected tangents. This is how Herzog ends up in North Korea, waxing rhapsodically via voice over about autonomy and artificiality, the mythic spectre of a volcano god hovering in the film’s periphery. As was the case with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams before it, and Grizzly Man before that, Into the Inferno works as moving, majestic, mind-boggling primer on a director who always has one more movie left in him. —Dom Sinacola


32. First They Killed My Father

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Year: 2017
Director: Angelina Jolie
We may tease or scorn actors for stepping out of the frame to hunker down behind the camera, because for whatever reason we’re only cool with artists when they stay in their lane. Think of Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father as a democratic response, or, if you like, a defiant flip of the bird. It’s fitting that Jolie should be the actor to produce a film this accomplished. Recall the volume of shit shoveled on her for the release of 2014’s Unbroken, her Louis Zamperini biopic, and 2015’s By the Sea, the romantic drama she made with Brad Pitt: These were works met with deserved and undeserved response, both middling at best, but neither could be mistaken for being too vain. Whatever promise was found in her earlier movies is fully realized in First They Killed My Father, a brutal movie with a human heart. Jolie doesn’t gloss over the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She knows honesty is the best way to face history and honor the dead, but she doesn’t find any nobility in the suffering of Loung Ung’s family as they flee from state-sanctioned genocide. First They Killed My Father’s emphasis falls on Loung, on the violence paraded before her young eyes, Jolie mining tragedy not for a misguided sense of importance but for an experiential scope and for, most of all, empathy. —Andy Crump


31. What Happened, Miss Simone?

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Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? probably errs too far towards a thesis that Nina Simone’s mental health was the cause of her genius, rather than a factor that complicated it. But what saves the film, and what makes it engaging, is that I’m not sure Garbus wholly believes that thesis, because many moments in the film betray it. So even though there are times where Garbus elides aspects of Simone’s life and career to represent her decline as inevitable and linear (and even though she problematically chooses to use interviews with Simone’s abusive ex-husband to narrate Simone’s life), the parts of the film where Simone is allowed to speak for herself—from her diary, from interviews, while performing onstage—are utterly compelling. They portray an artist in the late-1960s at the height of her powers and skill, in complete control of her piano and her voice, and brashly embracing radical politics and Black Power in a way that most contemporary popular musicians were far too scared to do. Sure they also portray an artist who was clearly struggling with fame, responsibility, politics, anger, and self-worth—but, especially in performance, the sheer scope of Simone’s technical skill and artistic sensibilities often escape the imposed rise-and-fall narrative. Even footage from late in Simone’s career provides evidence of her insane musical skill: her reinterpretation of early hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” over a piano arrangement that sounds like one of Bach’s Inventions is astounding in about 30 different ways at once. Though I can only recommend this film with the caveat that it feels overly storyboarded to exploit a tired old idea of the tortured artist in order to answer its titular question—as in, “Q. What happened?; A. The very qualities that made her great also haunted her”—the concert footage alone makes this documentary worth digging into. —Mark Abraham


30. Blame!

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Year: 2017
Director: Hiroyuki Seshita
When it comes to dark industrial sci-fi, Tsutomu Nihei is a visionary. Trained as an architect before pursuing a career as a manga author, Nihei’s art is simultaneously sparse and labyrinthine, his body of work defined by a unifying obsession with invented spaces. Byzantine factories with gothic accents spanning across impossible chasms, populated by bow-legged synthoids and ghoulish predators touting serrated bone-swords and pulsating gristle-guns. His first and most famous series, Blame!, is considered the key text in Nihei’s aesthetic legacy, going so far as to inspire everything from videogames, to music, and even art and fashion. Past attempts have been made to adapt the series into an anime, though none have been able to materialize successfully. That is, until now. With the support of Netflix, Hiroyuki Seshita of Polygon Pictures has delivered that long-awaited Blame! film. Set on a far-future Earth consumed by a massive, self-replicating superstructure known as ‘The City’, Blame! follows Killy, a taciturn loner, wandering the layers of the planet in search of a human possessing the ‘net terminal gene,’ an elusive trait thought to be the only means of halting the city’s perpetual hostile expansion. Boasting a screenplay penned by Sadayuki Murai, famed for his writing on such series as Cowboy Bebop and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, and supervised by Nihei himself, Seshita’s film abbreviates much of the manga’s early chapters and streamlines the story into an altogether more narrative and action-driven affair. Art director Hiroshi Takiguchi deftly replicates Nihei’s distinctive aesthetic, achieving in color what was before only monochromatic, while Yuki Moriyama capably improves on the uniform character designs of the original, imparting its casts with distinct, easily identifiable traits and silhouettes that greatly improve the story’s parsability. Blame! is as faithful an adaptation as is possible and as fitting an introduction to the series as the manga itself. Blame! builds a strong case for being not only one of the most conceptually entertaining anime films of late, but also for being one of, if not the best original anime film to grace Netflix in a long time. —Toussaint Egan


29. Knock Down the House

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Year: 2019
Director: Rachel Lears
For viewers expecting comprehensive policy platforms and detailed breakdowns of the candidates’ positions on the issues of the day, Knock Down the House is about as valuable as the Joe Crowley flyer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holds under harsh scrutiny partway through the film: All flash, no substance, nothing to inform the audience of the subjects’ politics beneath the surface. But Rachel Lears is more interested in character and profile than she is in ideology, so the unintended hypocrisy is forgivable. Knock Down the House is accidental history in the making, a movie about four progressive Democratic campaigns leading into the 2018 midterms—those of Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin—and the factors driving them to take American governance into their own hands. Truthfully, this is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Movie. Lears couldn’t have known it at the time—AOC wasn’t AOC then—but Vilela, Bush and Swearengin aren’t household names. They are, bluntly put, losers, and culture tends to remember the winners. Ocasio-Cortez’s presence sets the movie aflame. Even if Lears avoids talking about policy, there’s value in learning about this unexpected Bronx superhero, her origins, her humanity, her success. (Watching footage of Ocasio-Cortez walking into a bar to find that she won her election is a rare, astounding gift.) But even the defeated candidates tell a greater story about increased political action in the late 2010s, as Republican rule increasingly chokes out huge swaths of the country, even swaths that their voters call home. Some people get into politics because of legacy or because they believe in service. Others get into politics because the political is personal. Knock Down the House might not strike the right balance between all of its participants, but it understands that philosophy well. —Andy Crump


28. I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

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Year: 2017
Director: Macon Blair
Winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance, writer-director Macon Blair’s debut feature is a tonally audacious genre outing unafraid to slip for a moment or two into the sweet relief of magical realism. Blair’s premise is simple—Ruth (Melanie Lynskey, cast to perfection), a quiet loner, comes home to find her house robbed, and when the police won’t help, she seeks vigilante justice with equally socially inept neighbor, Tony (Elijah Wood)—but his ever-increasingly sprawling plot is fueled by a myopic moral perspective rendered in black and white. Ruth wonders aloud why everyone is an asshole (moreso, why assholes so easily get away with being assholes), and Blair seemingly wonders the same thing, punctuating his mundane neo-noir with gruesome violence and unexpected physical comedy (a projectile vomit scene, in particular, rivals the classic back-alley puke-fest from Team America). Blair’s worked extensively with his friend Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room), so the two share a startling sense of pace and a knack for making even the most sloppy action sequences feel precise, but Saulnier is so much bleaker, whereas Blair allows each of his film’s supposed assholes a chance to redeem, or at least explain, themselves. A crappy cop is going through a messy divorce; a delinquent son acts out against the specter of an absentee father; a guy whose dog craps on your lawn just wasn’t really paying attention—as Ruth struggles to confront the callousness of her cold world, she realizes that we’re all pretty much doing the same thing too: We’re struggling. —Dom Sinacola


27. Gerald’s Game

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Year: 2017
Director: Mike Flanagan
Director Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game trims fat, condenses and slims, stripping away some of the odder quirks of Stephen King’s novel to get at the heart of themes underneath. The result is a tense, effective thriller that goes out of its way to highlight two strong actors in an unfettered celebration of their craft. This is nothing new for Flanagan, whose recent output in the horror genre has been commendable. It’s hard to overlook some of the recurring themes in his work, beginning with 2011’s Absentia and all the way through the wildly imaginative Oculus, Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Every one of these films centers around a strong-willed female lead, as does Gerald’s Game. Is this coincidence? Or is the director drawn to stories that reflect the struggle of women to claim independence in their lives by shedding old scars or ghosts, be they literal or figurative? Either way, it made Flanagan an obvious fit for Gerald’s Game, an unassuming, overachieving little thriller that is blessed by two performers capable of handling the lion’s share of the dramatic challenges it presents. —Jim Vorel


26. Mudbound

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Year: 2017
Director: Dee Rees
Director Dee Rees uses the uneasy partnership between a white family and a black family in postwar Mississippi as a bruising metaphor for modern-day America. In Mudbound, Jason Clarke is the patriarch of a recently relocated Tennessee clan that must work together with the Jacksons (led by Mary J. Blige) to cultivate farmland, but the poisonous economic, racial and social atmosphere surrounding them constantly threatens the crops they’re trying to sow. This somber, despairing film sees the world plainly: War veterans aren’t given the care they need when they return, bigotry runs rampant, and good people are outnumbered by the small-minded. And the performances are stellar—especially Garrett Hedlund, as a bomber pilot who’s a shell of himself now that he’s home, and Jason Mitchell as a black soldier who finds that America still won’t accept him, even though he fought valiantly for his country. —Tim Grierson


25. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

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Year: 2017
Director: Noah Baumbach
In maybe his most well-tuned chamber drama (let’s use this phrase loosely) since Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach takes time to observe the ways in which his characters run, their ambulatory gifts (or lack thereof) representing both their struggles to express their innermost selves and the ways in which they can’t escape the parents who must pass themselves—their failures, their quirks, their anger—to their offspring. One gets the sense that Baumbach wants to literalize the act of “running from” one’s deepest problems, but such tracking shots are largely played for laughs: Family patriarch Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor seeking acknowledgement in his old age, shuffles dopily down New York’s streets; Matt Meyerowitz (Ben Stiller) possesses the grace of a well-used corporate gym membership; Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler, deserving of an Oscar) hobbles around denying that he’s got a major medical problem; and Jean Meyerowitz (Elizabeth Marvel) just seems like she shouldn’t be running, Matt and Danny at one point consorting about how they’ve never actually seen her run before. In these moments, Baumbach allows the cerebral to awkwardly take on corporeal life, wondering aloud how the many themes and ideas we conceptualize (and thus internalize) break free in some sort of physical melee. It’s his tennis scene in The Squid and the Whale made feature length—and it may be the most viscerally moving film he’s ever made. —Dom Sinacola


24. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids

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Year: 2016
Director: Jonathan Demme
It becomes clear after only one song that Jonathan Demme was the perfect person to direct this ebullient performance doc. In Stop Making Sense Demme iconized David Byrne in the Big Suit and demonstrated that the best performances of all time are simply a matter of precision, and he seems to understand not only what kind of performer Justin Timberlake is, but why. Filmed over the final two nights of Timberlake’s 20/20 tour in Las Vegas, JT + the Tennessee Kids is so finely tuned, one might be hard pressed to pinch an ounce of fat on this thing, Demme obviously knowing that Timberlake depends on his enormous tour ensemble (introduced briefly at the beginning of the film) to make sure the whole show is a seamless, clockwork-like amalgam of moving parts. Consummate professionals in thrall to consummate professionals: Each frame, whether it hugs Timberlake’s glowing face close or expands to display the intimidating breadth of the band, breathes with love—for the music, for the audience, for each other. But that doesn’t even touch how flawlessly Demme can capture the essence of each section/song, how during “My Love” the camera is positioned at stage level, condensing our perspective so that the whole stage is layered like a two-dimensional side-scrolling videogame or a diorama of paper dolls, emphasizing the celestial geometry of Timberlake and his pop-and-locking dancers. Later, during “Only When I Walk Away,” Demme has the camera behind the band, facing the audience lit with lasers and lighters, shooting Timberlake as an opaque silhouette, like dark matter amidst a flurry of constellations. Even later, a macroscopic view of the whole stage, set against some retro computer graphics, pans slightly down to reveal a piano, and next to that emerges a much larger Timberlake, perspectives skewed but steered with aplomb and purpose. Just like every single minute of this wonderful film. —Dom Sinacola


23. City of Joy

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Year: 2018
Director: Madeleine Gavin
Madeleine Gavin’s documentary, City of Joy, which follows activist Christine Schuler Deschryver and OB-GYN Dr. Denis Mukwege on a journey to help victims of sexual violence in the Congo reclaim and rebuild lives that are often utterly shattered by it, is a piercing little film, by turns appalling and uplifting. It manages to go straight to the heart of a complex issue and contend with it eloquently, bravely, and concisely. It’s firmly in the “you need to know about this” category. Both at a geopolitical level, because it is not a crisis you’re going to find getting a lot of play in U.S. news media and it really is shocking to see what’s going on behind the scenes—your corporate and government corruption conspiracy theories will be calmly, coolly and thoroughly validated—and at a much more personal level, because it is crucial to understand how much can be done to heal people who have endured horrific experiences. This film will show you a deeply needed example of the power of compassion and support even in the face of the unimaginable. —Amy Glynn


22. Beasts of No Nation

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Year: 2015
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Netflix’s debut venture into filmmaking tackles the dark reality of child soldiers. Beasts of No Nation stars Idris Elba as a nameless Commandant recruiting children for war in an unnamed country in Africa. A civil war has left many children without a family, and the Commandant takes full advantage of the young boys’ vulnerabilities, particularly little Agu (Abraham Attah). By the end, the children form a full-fledged army under the Commandant, mercilessly killing and conquering as a group. Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) directs. —Alice Barsky


21. The Square

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Year: 2013
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Bringing calm insight to an impassioned, still-developing historic event, The Square looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the frontlines from the very beginning, personalizing the dramatic developments without losing a sense of greater stakes. Director Jehane Noujaim, who previously helmed Control Room and co-directed Startup.com, has delivered a snapshot of a grassroots political movement over its bumpy two-year history, embracing the emotional complexity and logistical obstacles that have made Egyptians’ road to democracy so difficult. Using no voiceover narration and only a handful of intertitles that inform the viewer about the exact time period of events, The Square seeks to create an urgent, immediate experience that tells its story through the reactions of its main participants. In the West, the scenes of peaceful, joyous protest at Tahrir Square were warmly greeted as hopeful signs of a new Middle East. The Square doesn’t throw cold water on those hopes as much as it meticulously demonstrates that systemic change does not come easily. That’s why you care so deeply about the people you see in this movie—it’s not that their quest is easy but that it’s so very hard. —Tim Grierson


20. First Match

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Year: 2018
Director: Olivia Newman
Describing Olivia Newman’s film in terms of the contrast it strikes between emotional and physical pain does it a disservice. It’s true that Newman affixes that contrast to her story’s core, and that her protagonist, Monique (Elvire Emanuelle), endures plentiful suffering in both categories, being both lonely—by her own choosing and also as a consequence of the shit hand life has dealt her—and frequently subject to bodily duress. If she isn’t taking on girls in her high school’s hallways, she’s taking down boys on wrestling mats. Eventually she’s taking shots to the face, which brings us back to the subject of her dad, Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and uneasy questions about his parental suitability resting at the film’s core. Maybe Monique was better off without him around. First Match is a consistently great film, but it’s at its best when Emanuelle gets to share the screen with Abdul-Mateen, just the two of them. Like Emanuelle, he’s an open book written in a language that’s difficult to translate. One moment he’s indifferent to her. Another, worse than that, he’s actively chafed by her, as if she’s an inconvenience to him. Then they’re play wrestling together, dad teaching daughter the ropes of the discipline. Turns out Darrel used to be a wrestler, a great one, too, and First Match wrings drama out of that dynamic: He, the former star, training his daughter, the newcomer, coaxing her toward victory. Newman has pretty serious filmmaking chops: She shoots action cleanly, coherently, with an eye for the poetry of a well-executed suplex and the brutality of a back alley brawl. Her strongest work, though, is seen in her characters and in her lead. Violence on the flesh is stomach churning, but it doesn’t quite compare to violence on the spirit. —Andy Crump


19. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

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Year: 2018
Director: Susan Johnson
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


18. 13th

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Year: 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
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


17. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

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Year: 2019
Director: Vince Gilligan
Like many (though not all) TV shows that are able to plan their series finales, Breaking Bad’s “Felina” was pitch-perfect. It was the end of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), as it needed to be, but it allowed us to have some hope in a future for Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as he sped off into the unknown. Viewers have hoped for and imagined a happy ending for Jesse since “Felina,” that he might actually make it to Alaska and find a life for himself that was his own. And that, essentially, is what El Camino gives us. It starts the moment that Jesse drives away from that compound, but for the rest of its runtime it goes back and forth through time, as Jesse works on getting Ed the Extractor (the late Robert Forster) to find him a way out of the chaos that Walt created around them. In some ways, the plot is like an RPG quest line, wherein Jesse must do a variety of tasks before he is allowed to go to the next stage. And in true Breaking Bad fashion, it’s also full of anxiety-inducing moments where Jesse seems cornered and done for. As he realized in a past conversation with Mike, he has a chance to start fresh, even though he can never make things right. Too much has happened; too many people have died. “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life. It’s better to make those decisions for yourself,” Jane (Krysten Ritter) tells Jesse in the past. It’s time for Jesse to start living for himself. He’s ready, bitch! And I’m glad we got to see it. —Allison Keene


16. Homecoming

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Year: 2019
Directors: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
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


15. Strong Island

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Year: 2017
Director: Yance Ford
African American filmmaker Yance Ford’s Strong Island is a paean to his brother William, who was shot dead in 1992 by a white mechanic during an argument. The shooter never faced trial—it was ruled self-defense—and in the ensuing decades Ford and his family have wrestled with the injustice. Strong Island is Ford’s way of working through the pain and anger that still consume him, mixing interviews with direct addresses to the camera. It’s a slightly unfocused work (Can anyone fault Ford for being unable to marshal his grief into a completely organized treatise?) but its rawness fuels its astounding strength. —Tim Grierson


14. The Night Comes for Us

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Year: 2018
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
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


13. American Factory

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Year: 2019
Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
The plight of the American Rust Belt in the era of globalization, mechanized labor and outsourced jobs is real but, also, a media construct that’s been simplified into a talking point. For those not experiencing that reality on a daily basis, it can very easily become an abstraction. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory sympathetically illustrates what those everyday pains look like, bringing us into the world of an Ohio automotive plant laid low by the 2008 recession. Several years after the factory closed, a Chinese company called Fuyao moved in, hiring back many of the employees of the old plant and offering hope to an economically depressed community. The American workers would help build windshields for cars and, ideally, along the way discover that Chinese and American employees can live together in harmony. Bognar and Reichert’s film chronicles how that wishful thinking collapsed, but this is not a simpleminded story in which we can grasp onto an easy rooting interest. While American Factory is certainly told more from the perspective of the Americans, there’s an evenhandedness to the filmmaking, which gives the material the sobering weight of grim inevitability. American Factory doesn’t suggest that China is the future—or that America is in decline—but, rather, just how much power corporations have in shaping society and dictating our fates. One of this film’s most crushing ironies is that its true villain is a faceless, insatiable desire for higher and higher profits. Every person we meet in American Factory is at that monster’s mercy. —Tim Grierson


12. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

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Year: 2018
Director: Morgan Neville
The making-of documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, released by Netflix to go with the Orson Welles’ finally finished The Other Side of the Wind—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. It’s no wonder Netflix released a lengthy documentary about that whole ordeal; “troubled production” doesn’t quite do justice to the haphazard strife of it all. —Chad Betz


11. Shirkers

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Year: 2018
Director: Sandi Tan
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


10. Casting JonBenet

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Year: 2017
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity also populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, finding parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson


9. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

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Year: 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
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


8. Happy as Lazzaro

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Year: 2018
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
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


7. My Happy Family

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Year: 2017
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß
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


6. High Flying Bird

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Year: 2019
Director: Steven Soderbergh
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


5. Okja

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Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
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


4. Private Life

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Year: 2018
Director: Tamara Jenkins
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


3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Year: 2018
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
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


2. Roma

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Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón’s film tells many stories, but at the center of the frame is the story of his childhood maid, Libo, translated into Roma as Cleo and played by acting novice Yalitza Aparicio, who auditioned for the film almost on accident. Casting her seems a neo-realist move for authenticity, and for the most part it plays out like that: Cleo is quiet, reserved and submissive when in her servant role, somewhat more expressive when interacting with her fellow servants or with her aloof lover—but those revealing moments are fleeting. The film is composed primarily of wide shots, so each medium frame of Cleo’s face is its own gift wherein you go looking for an interior life that you—like Cuarón, knowingly—can’t quite reach. Still, Roma has some weighty demands on Cleo in its final act, and Aparicio’s performance extends, reaching without ever breaking. Tasked with playing both a real woman and a figure of memory, someone disenfranchised but also cherished (to a certain limit) by the family she served, Aparicio finds a perfect balance. One scene demonstrates just that: A multitude of others flounder as Cleo’s spirit points straight up and unwavering. The clarity of her love and kindness holds her, and the many stories surrounding her, in place. —Chad Betz


1. The Other Side of the Wind

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Year: 2018
Director: Orson Welles
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

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