The 35 Best New Movies on iTunes Right Now (May 2022)

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The 35 Best New Movies on iTunes Right Now (May 2022)

A quick look at the top movies on iTunes will tell you that popular doesn’t always equal good. What we give you here is a list of the best new movies on iTunes, which is of paramount importance as VOD rentals become our standard moviegoing option and we all settle in for a new normal. There are genre movies like The Green Knight and Sator abound, but we’re also recommending excellent indie films like Pig and brilliant docs like The Painter and the Thief—as well as films that made our Best of 2020 and 2021 lists.

We know iTunes has an enormous catalog of movies, but this guide should help you find something brand new to rent or buy that you’ll love.

You can also check out our guides to the best movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Hulu, Showtime, Cinemax, YouTube, on demand, and at Redbox. Or visit all our Paste Movie Guides.

Here are the 35 Best New Movies on iTunes:


1. The French Dispatch

the-french-dispatch-poster.jpg Release Date: October 22, 2021
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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As was the case with 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch is a story within a story—or, in this case, multiple stories within a story, and there are stories within those stories as well. Wes Anderson remains a creative force to be reckoned with. Frequently rebuked by naysayers for his commitment to his finely-tuned, “quirky” filmmaking style, The French Dispatch proves he is more interested than anything in how to play around with the medium of film and find new ways to tell his stories. Here, he challenges himself to a far more intricate means of storytelling, which is occasionally convoluted but fosters an eagerness to return to the film—to revisit and discover something new. Additionally, he trades previous forays in stop-motion animation for an extended 2D animated chase scene, and even briefly swaps his prototypically stationary, symmetrical camerawork for a dinner table sequence in which the camera slowly revolves around the seated characters, creating a novel and striking dimensionality to his cinematography. Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright and Benicio del Toro, in their respective first collaborations with the director, could not have been more perfectly attuned to Anderson’s highly specified wavelength. Even minor roles from new Anderson inductees like Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Christoph Waltz and Rupert Friend are, as could be expected from a perfectionist like Anderson, a snug fit. The precision with which Anderson once effortlessly deployed anguish, familial strife, love, insecurity and, perhaps above all, loss, within his carefully constructed signature filmmaking is largely absent from his newest endeavor. The various storytelling gimmicks take center stage, while the characters are forced into the back seat. The film becomes a wry showcase for the director’s evolution as a creative who has been refining an unparalleled style for over two decades, with a sharper humor but without the more deeply felt pulse of films like The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox or most recently, and most effectively, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Still, it’s not to say that The French Dispatch’s bones are absent of any meat at all. “What happens next?” ends up a proportional sentiment to that of the film’s titular publication, the disappearing town it’s set in and the overall theme within Wes Anderson’s tenth feature: The eternal battle between art and capital. The question of “What happens next?” is less an inquiry as to the future of a shuttered, fictitious publication than a worrying, real-life prophecy, and The French Dispatch acts as a dialogue with this fear of the future of art. In this respect, it’s hard to argue that this latent dissolution of character depth is a net negative, when Anderson is clearly interested in, more than anything, growing and evolving as an artist.—Brianna Zigler


2. All Light, Everywhere

all-light-everywhere-poster.jpg Release Date: June 6, 2021
Director: Theo Anthony
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
Runtime: 105 minutes

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The camera is a gun according to Theo Anthony, director of All Light, Everywhere, a patchwork documentary which blends interviews, archival footage and even scenes from the film’s cutting room floor in order to dissect the omnipresence of video surveillance—particularly in Black communities which have long been over-policed. Anthony’s filmic medium appears paradoxical considering his vested interest in critiquing the omission of unbiased truth inherent in camera footage—particularly those recorded by police body cams, covert aerial surveillance programs and panopticonic corporate workplaces. But as the director peels back the layers of his methodology, the viewer observes unpolished glimpses of Anthony setting up shots, prepping subjects for interview and divulging research logs—a technique that shatters the illusion of objectivity altogether. Through obliterating the guise of impartial filmmaking, Anthony examines the insidious history of image capturing as a tool of incarceration and its continued weaponization by the state. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Heightened surveillance in minority communities proliferates a high rate of crime—with infinite eyes scanning for crime, more crimes (predominantly minor offenses) are reported and prosecuted. Without the amplification of these invasive practices in affluent white communities, the false narrative of crime-riddled cities—like Anthony’s hometown of Baltimore—is infinitely reinforced. Perhaps the most insidious use of surveillance technology evident in All Light, Everywhere is the intentionally grainy, indeterminate nature of body camera footage itself, the argument being that if the cameras are too perceptive, too unbiased in their ability to document altercations between police and citizens, they might sway courtrooms to see the police’s actions as irresponsible or negligent. After all, if the jury can clearly see that a victim of police brutality was indeed holding a water gun instead of a deadly weapon, how could cops be expected to take accountability for their mistakes? If the premise of authoritarian monitoring isn’t terrifying enough, a scene involving AI-generated faces—composites of would-be individuals (or criminals)—pushes All Light, Everywhere into overt horror. Not just through the uncanny, skin-crawling quality of human non-humans, but by effectively presenting the evil inherent in these technologies when utilized against citizens by corrupt institutions.—Natalia Keogan


3. Minari

minari-poster.jpg Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Stars: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 115 minutes

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It’s a peculiar film to emerge as the hot pick out of Sundance—in Lee Isaac Chung’s magnificent Minari, a Korean-American couple with two young children moves to rural Arkansas to try their hand at starting a farm. Eventually the kids’ grandmother comes to live with them as well. Oh, and there’s a prayer-yelling local who helps them. That doesn’t exactly scream “hot Sundance pick,” does it? But Chung’s direction, award-worthy performances from Steven Yuen and Will Patton, and the best kid performance in years from young Alan Kim produce a true masterpiece that will reverberate far beyond Park City. Each line, each movement, each shot contains worlds of meaning. Minari is a wonder, a crucial step forward in Chung’s red-hot career, and a richly deserving recipient of this year’s Audience and Grand Jury awards, both of which it did indeed win. Sometimes everybody gets it right. This was clearly the best film of Sundance 2020, and I doubt I’ll see a better film all year. —Michael Dunaway


4. Pig

pig-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
Genre: Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

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In the forest outside Portland, a man’s pig is stolen. Rob (Nicolas Cage) is a witchy truffle forager that we learn used to be a chef—a Michelin-starred Baba Yaga, a gastronomical Radagast—who sells his pig’s findings to sustain his isolated life. What follows is not a revenge thriller. This is not a porcine Taken. Pig, the ambitious debut of writer/director Michael Sarnoski, is a blindsiding and measured treatise on the masculine response to loss. Featuring Nicolas Cage in one of his most successful recent permutations, evolving Mandy’s silent force of nature to an extinct volcano of scabbed-over pain, Pig unearths broad themes by thoroughly sniffing out the details of its microcosm. The other component making up this Pacific NW terrarium, aside from Rob and the golden-furred Brandy’s endearingly shorthanded connection, is the guy Rob sells his truffles to, Amir. Alex Wolff’s tiny Succession-esque business jerk is a bundle of jagged inadequacies, and only Rob’s calloused wisdom can handle such prickliness. They’re exceptional foils for one another, classic tonal opposites that share plenty under the surface of age. Together, the pair search for the pignapping victim, which inevitably leads them out of the forest and back into the city. There they collide with the seediest, John Wick’s Kitchen Confidential kind of industry underbelly you can imagine, in a series of standoffs, soliloquies and strange stares. It’s a bit heightened, but in a forgotten and built-over way that feels more secret than fantastic. The sparse and spacious writing allows its actors to fill in the gaps, particularly Cage. Where some of Cage’s most riveting experiments used to be based in manic deliveries and expressionistic faces, what seems to engage him now is the opposite: Silence, stillness, realist hurt and downcast eyes. You can hear Cage scraping the rust off Rob’s voice, grinding the interpersonal gears much like the dilapidated truck he tries (and fails) to take into town. Wolff, along with much of the rest of the cast, projects an intense desperation for validation—a palpable desire to win the rat race and be somebody. It’s clear that Rob was once a part of this world before his self-imposed exile, clear from knowing gazes and social cues as much as the scenarios that lead the pig-seekers through basements and kitchens. Part of Pig’s impactful, moving charm is its restraint. It’s a world only hinted at in 87 minutes, but with a satisfying emotional thoroughness. We watch this world turn only slightly, but the full dramatic arcs of lives are on display. A sad but not unkind movie, and certainly not a pessimistic one, Pig puts its faith in a discerning audience to look past its premise.—Jacob Oller


5. Moffie

moffie-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Stars: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Wynand Ferreira
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 104 minutes

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“Moffie” is an Afrikaans slur, used to describe a gay man. For those of us who haven’t grown up hearing it, the term can read almost affectionate, its soft syllables suggesting a sweetness. In reality, there’s violence in the word, spat out with cruelty. This tension pervades the fourth film from Oliver Hermanus, regarded as one of South Africa’s most prominent queer directors. Moffie tells the story of Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a closeted 18-year-old drafted into his mandatory military service in South Africa in 1981, when the country was still in the throes of apartheid. Adapted from André Carl van de Merwe’s novel, Moffie tells a brutal tale with moments of beautiful respite. Despite the constant barrage of terrorizing drills and frat boy behavior, however, there is tenderness—like Nicholas’ connection with his rebellious squadmate, Dylan Stassen (Ryan De Villiers). An earlier incident makes it abundantly clear how dangerous it is to express any sort of affection. As a result, even the smallest gesture of intimacy is fraught with tension. Although the young men, shown in various forms of dress and undress, are strapping soldiers, there’s also a vulnerability to them. You can’t help but silently cheer, even as your heart breaks a little, when Nicholas and Michael break into a muted rendition of “Sugarman,” giggling as they clean their rifles. Despite the army’s best efforts to break the young men, their spirits seem to survive. Despite the heavy load it carries, Moffie is a masterful film. Hermanus and Jack Sidey have co-written a tight script, with stretches of silences that pull you into the internal struggles of its characters. The cinematography by Jamie D Ramsay ranges from languorous shots of the rugged, dusty landscapes where the recruits carry out drills in the harsh sun to the handheld immediacy of Nicholas and his fellow soldiers’ misery. The cast—made up of a mix of high school students, trained actors and non-professionals—manages to conjure up a chapter of South African history that many would like to forget.—Aparita Bhandari


4. Drive My Car

drive-my-car-poster.jpg Release Date: November 24, 2021
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Stars: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masaki Okada, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Park Yurim, Jin Daeyeon
Rating: NR
Runtime: 179 minutes

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The melodic rotating faces of tire rims and cassette reels keep the time in Drive My Car, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s languorous adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. The film’s meticulous commitment to unhurried emotional introspection might appear to be an overindulgence when considering its three-hour runtime, yet Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe gracefully unfurl Murakami’s original story into a melancholy meditation of pain and performance that remains ever-enthralling. Renowned theater actor-turned-director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) have what seems like a perfect relationship. Apart from sharing considerable marital bliss, they stimulate each other intellectually and sexually—oftentimes simultaneously. Oto will regularly weave narrative webs aloud while mid-coitus with Kafuku, reaching climaxes in literal and figurative senses. Despite the mutual adoration, both harbor a damning secret: Oto sustains a string of lovers as she hops around on productions, while Kafuku silently uncovers his wife’s infidelity without confronting her. Both maintain the facade of a remarkably happy couple that have been together for over 20 years, yet internally struggle with the emotional toll of concealing the extramarital affairs. The situation is only brought to a head years later, after Oto sustains a mortal injury and Kafuku covertly recognizes one of Oto’s past lovers at an audition for his forthcoming multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Simultaneously consumed by jealousy and intrigue, Kafuku casts his wife’s much-younger former paramour Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the titular role. The loneliness inherent in living through guilt-ridden grief is perhaps the most palpable aspect of Hamaguchi’s latest drawn-out feature. However, it is also the open embracing of this desolation that eventually yields the most tender and subtly exuberant results. It is through communal mourning—for lives (and lovers) shared or for the unknowable misfortunes of others—that ultimately binds us as human beings.—Natalia Keogan


7. Playground

playground-poster.jpg Release Date: February 11, 2022
Director: Laura Wandel
Stars: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Karim Leklou, Laura Verlinden
Rating: NR
Runtime: 72 minutes

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There’s a moment when you go from just watching a movie to becoming fully ensnared by it. Sometimes that moment never comes, and you spend the whole runtime at a slight but significant remove. Sometimes it arrives partway through, with the onset of an unexpected revelation, or the introduction of a new character. And sometimes—rarely—it occurs within seconds. The film has barely started, and you’re immediately in its grasp. That’s what happens in Playground, the intense debut feature from Belgian writer/director Laura Wandel. We open straight on a close-up of the weeping face of a young girl, who’s clinging on to her older brother for dear life. She is Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), and it’s her first day of school; Abel (Günter Duret) is a few years ahead. She’s eventually prised off of him, and continues her terrified trip towards those imposing doors while clutching tight onto the hand of her dad (Karim Leklou), until an offscreen voice tells them that parents can’t enter the school with their children. So Nora’s dad crouches down, gives her a hug—he looks just a little less distraught than she does—and sends her off. After one last run back to him for a final embrace, she’s as ready as she’s ever going to be. Wandel makes a host of great decisions throughout the course of Playground, but by far the most effective is to shoot the whole film from Nora’s height. We are placed at her side in a visceral, destabilizing way; although many of the people who watch this movie won’t be able to remember their very first day at school, Wandel plunges us into the utter terror of being ripped from the comfort of home and thrust into a huge building full of strangers who are all taller than us—and a lot louder too. Wandel heightens the discomfort further by shooting in shallow focus, making the other kids into intimidatingly fast and noisy blurs. And for the entire duration, we never venture further from the building than the school gates. Playground’s original French title was Un Monde—literally “A World”—and it does often seem like Nora and Abel’s school is a universe unto itself. Many years removed from the manifold horrors, it’s easy to minimize or resort to cliché when we talk about school days. Memories dull with time, and so does pain, but Playground brings it all flying back into sharp, sharp focus. Wandel’s movie is immersive and bruising, full of empathy for its young characters, and unrelenting in its depiction of the challenges they face. And it makes you wonder, with utmost sincerity—how did any of us ever reach adulthood in one piece?—Chloe Walker


8. Sator

sator-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Jordan Graham
Starring: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson
Genre: Horror
Rating: NR
Runtime: 86 minutes

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There’s something in the forest. But at the same time, there’s nothing much at all. A man, a cabin and maybe—maybe—something more. Sator, a mumblecore horror somewhere between a modern-day The Witch, The Blair Witch Project and Lovecraft, is a striking second feature from Jordan Graham. It’s the kind of horror that trades jump scares for negative space, one that opens with imagery your typical A24 beast saves for its finale. Sator’s dedication to its own nuanced premise, location and tense pace make it the rare horror that’s so aesthetically well-realized you feel like you could crawl inside and live there—if it wasn’t so goddamn scary. Sator is a name, an evocation, an entity. He’s first described, by Nani (the late June Peterson, excellent), as a guardian. Nani’s known Sator (whatever he may be) for a long time. The film represents shifts in time, and the physical transportation to places soaked in memories, with an aspect ratio change and a black-and-white palette. Nani’s lovely longhand script is practiced well from a lifetime of automatic writing, with the words—including some of the opening company credits, which is a great little joke—pouring from her pen and claiming a headwater not of this world. That same paranormal river flows to her grandson Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), that aforementioned man in the woods, whose relationship with the voices in his head is a bit less comfortable. It’s a stark, bold, even compassionate film—which offers imperfectly planted details of a battered and bruised family at its core—with plenty to comprehend (or at least theorize about) for those brave enough to venture back into the forest for a rewatch. As scary as it is, Sator is an experience with enough layers and craftsmanship that its alluring call will rattle in your head long after you’ve turned it off.—Jacob Oller


9. The Empty Man

the-empty-man-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: David Prior
Stars: James Badge Dale, Owen Teague, Stephen Root, Marin Ireland
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 137 minutes

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From the start, everything about The Empty Man is misleading. Its title sounds like the absolutely terrible Bloody Mary-esque The Bye Bye Man or the botched adaptation of Slender Man, where spooky too-long shadow dudes creep up on some doltish teens. Those bad high school urban legend films (that this trailer is cut oh-so-specifically to evoke) don’t usually stray from the 90-minute mark. Even Candyman, maybe the best and most ambitious example of this type of film, is barely 100 minutes. The Empty Man’s 137-minute runtime clearly has more to do than kill off a couple of kids for failing to be superstitious enough. Rather than falling into that traditional type of stock schlock, The Empty Man follows a troubled ex-cop investigating the root causes of an incident that could’ve been the entire plot of one of those movies. “We knew we weren’t making that movie and nobody wanted to make that movie,” writer/director/editor David Prior told Thrillist. “But it turns out, the people who inherited the movie wanted that kind of movie.” It makes sense that the ever-expanding, ever-spiraling photos-and-folders paranoid conspiracy of The Empty Man can feel a bit like getting sucked into the kind of heady, hyper-specific hell that festers in the underbellies of Zodiac, Se7en or Mindhunter. That ‘70s thriller structure, dedicated to the paper trail, merges in The Empty Man with a downright otherworldly horror (used here in the literal sense, as opposed to terror) aesthetic that’s sheer scope makes a mockery of the movie’s shoe-leather detective work. But even The Empty Man’s start is a delightful little horror film all its own, a mythological amuse-bouche set on snowy Bhutan peaks where set design and some solidly naturalistic acting sell the scares. Great! Solid. Sold. And then the movie keeps going, as if to literally push past your expectations. Its narrative evolves into something increasingly strange and engaging. It’s like A Cure for Wellness, another cult favorite, in its dedication to piling on an investigator’s hallucinogenic obsession and repulsion as he finds himself suddenly so deep that climbing back out—or, perhaps, out for the first time—proves impossible. Prior’s grasp of tone and savvy subversion of different modern monster tropes, alongside a staggering and committed James Badge Dale performance, position the film as one that understands and appreciates studio horror movies, but has much bigger things on its mind. In short, it rules.—Jacob Oller


10. Benedetta

benedetta-poster.jpg Release Date: December 3, 2021
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson, Daphne Patakia, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Chevillotte
Rating: R
Runtime: 131 minutes

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The power and body of Christ compel the characters of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which ruminates on the raunchy interiority of a lesbian relationship realized inside of the sacred confines of a convent in 17th century Italy. The carnal Catholicism which permeates the film is at this point to be expected from the 83-year-old Dutch filmmaker—but equally so is the film’s ability to utilize eroticism as a vehicle to examine pain, paranoia and power. Based on Judith Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the same-sex relationship between Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is patently portrayed in the film, but it does not restrict them—or any of the other sisters at the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, Tuscany—to the singular roles of martyr or zealot. Instead, Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke refuse to vindicate or validate the intentions of historical figures by today’s secular standards, confronting hierarchies that exist outside of the neat categories of “good” and “evil.” Suggested to possess a mystic ability from a young age, Benedetta first arrives at the convent as an eager servant of the Virgin Mary at just nine years old—her only worldly possession a wooden statuette of the Mother of God. It’s clear that her bright-eyed devotion grates the rigid demeanor of the abbess who runs the nunnery, Sister Felicita (a spectacular Charlotte Rampling), yet an incident on Benedetta’s very first night at the abbey immediately evokes the possible presence of divine intervention (though Sister Felicita wryly insists that miracles are often “more trouble than they’re worth”). It’s not until nearly two decades later that the events which lead to Benedetta’s fall from grace unfold, marked by the arrival of a young woman named Bartolomea, fleeing her father’s abuse. It’s the tension between their two backgrounds—one of life-long devotion sheltered within the abbey’s holy walls, the other motivated by self-preservation in the face of unspeakable sin—that powers the pair’s magnetic pull. Greater than the boundary between blessed and blasphemous is the chasm that exists between the Church and the citizens who follow it. Yet there is a tangible twinge of hopefulness present in the film: Shackles that are either imposed by individuals or institutions can be broken, even if only by way of speculation and imaginative flourish for a nearly forgotten figure.—Natalia Keogan


11. Days

days-poster.jpg Release Date: August 13, 2021
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Stars: Lee Kang-sheng, Anong Houngheuangsy
Rating: UR
Runtime: 127 minutes

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Early in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days—in the second or third shot, in fact, so something like 10-15 minutes into the film—we’re left to ponder Lee Kang-sheng’s third nipple. In a soaking pool, at a bathhouse maybe or somewhere health-care-related, Kang (when he has a name, Tsai often refers to Kang-sheng’s characters as “Kang” or “Hsiao-kang”) silently, nakedly floats, the camera mostly consumed with his torso, our view of that third nipple practically sharpened by the pane of still water between us and his skin. He dozes, not for the last time. The water in which Kang is submerged reflects the essences of what lies outside of frame—reflecting his vulnerability by intimating much more vulnerable flesh just below our view—as much as it reminds us of Days’ opening shot, where Kang sits in a chair staring out a window, the window between us and Kang, watching a rainstorm pick up, the shadows of tropical trees shaking in the drop-littered glass. (Water too, usually flooding urban spaces, makes for a constant motif in Tsai’s films.) The longer we watch him, the more we feel as if he’s outside in the storm, or the storm is inside the room with him, watching itself rage. And the longer we watch this nipple, consider it and everything that lends it context, the more we’re encouraged to think of it within the world of Tsai’s previous feature films (Days his 11th). And the more we reminisce about all the films in which that third nipple was there, under Lee’s shirt or lost to the sumptuous grain of 35mm film, the more we see all of Tsai’s work as a slipstream, in which the “same” people live scores of alternate but intertwined lives, each film a brief but meaningful glimpse into how these lives meet—or don’t meet—skeins in the broad tapestry of loneliness and alienation that increasingly consumes us. The third nipple was there all along. Meanwhile, Days as a title pretty much represents the trajectory and velocity of our course. We look in on the quotidian of Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), sitting with him as he prepares dinner, takes a shower, eats, sleeps, wanders through markets. There is no story to this, only habit and survival and the soothing gestures of ritual. Days marks the point in Tsai’s filmmaking at which he’s reached his most empirical; if for each film, beginning with 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God, the Taiwanese filmmaker has gradually peeled plot from the gnawed bone of simply captured human experience, then in Days functionally nothing is explained. We’re not even afforded subtitles (on purpose, as an opening title card informs us) for the film’s few passing glances of dialogue. We’ll watch from across the street, buses and walkers occasionally obscuring our view, unable to hear if they’re talking, unable to make out if their lips have any purpose. All we know is for that long moment, they’re no longer alone. And after all this time spent in their company, that knowledge is more than enough.—Dom Sinacola


12. The Green Knight

the-green-knight-poster.jpg Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Rating: R
Runtime: 130 minutes

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When Sir Gawain departs Camelot, he rides past a scene of desolation. A once-prosperous forest stripped of its lush greenery by human hands, only splintered wood and dust remain. Through his journey, Gawain (Dev Patel) is greeted by similar, if not entirely equal imagery, constantly evocative of mankind’s awkward, unwanted presence within the natural world. One year prior, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) approached King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his Knights of the Round Table, conjured up by Gawain’s mother, Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), seeking a participant for his Christmas Game. Should one of Arthur’s knights land a blow against him, the knight shall receive his mighty axe, but must seek him out exactly one year later to receive an equal blow in return. When Gawain, reluctant to accept though eager to bring honor to his name, agrees to the Green Knight’s terms, the humanoid creature only drops his axe and lowers his head to reveal an oaken neck, offering it to Gawain freely. Naturally, Gawain succeeds, but at what cost? The Green Knight retrieves his head and rides off into the night. Gawain understands he cannot do the same. Foliage sprouts in the stone cracks on the hall floor where the Green Knight’s blood has been spilt. David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a modern reckoning with a medieval fable. It’s a haunting, confounding, surprisingly erotic fantasy epic; a confrontation between man and nature, nature and religion, man and himself. Adapted from the anonymously authored Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery’s austere yet spellbinding take on the simple 14th century legend evokes the same questions as the original work, interrogating the cost of one’s life for the sake of one’s honor when there is only certainty that they will die. “Greatness? Why is goodness not enough?” pleads Esel (Alicia Vikander), Gawain’s lover, a sex worker, whom he holds at arm’s length. But the film and Gawain’s quest carry a message that stretches far beyond the fantastical world of King Arthur, one about humanity’s inherent frailty in the face of far-reaching environmental destruction and what gods they have foolishly chosen in place of nature. Obscurities are what anchor The Green Knight as Lowery leans into the ambiguity that defines the original text and replaces it with his own equally mystifying visual interpretations. By blending his abstract sensibilities seen in 2017’s A Ghost Story with the grand fantasy of his live-action Pete’s Dragon, Lowery has crafted a breathtaking, titillating adaptation of folklore with a denouement that carries real-world weight.—Brianna Zigler


13. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds

lingui-the-sacred-bonds-poster.jpg Release Date: February 4, 2022
Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Stars: Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Rihane Khalil Alio, Youssouf Djaoro, Briya Gomdigue, Hadjé Fatimé Ngoua
Rating: NR
Runtime: 87 minutes

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The Chadian word “lingui” denotes the invisible social ties that sustain communities of people, especially if they’re connected by a common unifying trait. In Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s film Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, this alliance is forged through the strife and solidarity intrinsic to womanhood. Though much of the Chadian-born, France-residing director’s work has focused on the lives of outsiders and underdogs, Lingui is his most feminine-forward film to date—perhaps save for his acclaimed 1994 breakthrough short film Maral Tanié, which chronicles a teenage girl forced by her family to marry a man in his 50s, a union which she refuses to consummate. Similarly in Lingui, a teenage girl named Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) finds herself maligned by patriarchal society when she discovers she’s pregnant with a child she has no intention of raising. Fortunately, her single mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) understands what it feels like to be shunned for carrying a child out of wedlock, and begins a quest with Maria to secure an abortion—despite the legal and societal ramifications that threaten them if their plot is exposed. The visual splendor of the film is what anchors it in a realm of optimistic rebellion as opposed to depressing observation. Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini (Haroun’s frequent collaborator and allegedly the only white European on the shoot) captures the exquisite beauty of the characters’ every mundane action and intentional idling—whether depicting the strenuous process of Amina fashioning kanoun stoves out of rubber tires to sell in town or the pensive stillness of Maria looking out over the confluence of the Chari and Logone rivers. The effervescent glow of sunlight imbues each shot with a sense of buoyancy that feels apt for conveying the warmth with which these women embrace one another, a constant beacon of hope for sisters in need. Gorgeously realized and bolstered by amazing performances by Souleymane and Alio, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is a prescient portrait of what tribulations afflict—or await—women who are barred from receiving comprehensive reproductive care. Clearly, the tandem legislative and societal injustices imposed by restricting this access are incredibly heinous. However, no matter what regulations are enacted against a woman’s right to choose, there will surely be an enduring, sacred bond that continues to foster solidarity and sisterhood in the name of preserving the ability to shape the circumstances of our own futures. The merits of mutual aid are inherent to the notion of lingui, after all.—Natalia Keogan


14. On-Gaku: Our Sound

on-gaku-our-sound-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Stars: Shintarô Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, Kami Hiraiwa, Naoto Takenaka
Genre: Comedy, Musical, Animation
Rating: NR
Runtime: 71 minutes

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Being a teenager in a suburban town can be excruciatingly boring. With no variety in routine, everything feels useless. But then, sometimes, something appears that banishes that monotony and breathes excitement into an otherwise dull existence. That discovery can be revelatory; life can suddenly have purpose. In the case of the trio of delinquents in Kenji Iwaisawa’s incredible debut feature, the animated On-Gaku: Our Sound, they discover the catharsis and power of music. On-Gaku: Our Sound is writer/director Iwaisawa’s love letter both to the power of music and to the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. As the film progresses through its musical numbers, Iwaisawa experiments with form (like expressive rotoscoping) as certain songs evoke different emotions from his characters, whether it is a kindly folk song or a primitive-feeling rocker that reverberates in a listener’s chest. In contrast to the visual style, the phenomenal deadpan comedic delivery is reminiscent of American animated comedies of the ‘90s like Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Kenji in particular embodies that tone, through both line delivery by Japanese rock legend Shintarô Sakamoto and a design that includes an unrelenting stare, thin mustache that zigzags across his upper lip and shiny, bald head. Despite being a high school student, Sakamoto’s grizzled voice gives Kenji the vibe of a tired old man who has seen everything, when really he’s just a bored teenager who smokes too many cigarettes and watches too much TV. Iwaisawa’s own passion fills the chilled-out slacker comedy with a lot of heart and a gorgeous variety of animation styles.—Mary Beth McAndrews


15. Mandibles

mandibles-poster.jpg Release Date: July 23, 2021
Directors: Quentin Dupieux
Stars: David Marsais, Grégoire Ludig, Adèle Exarchopoulos, India Hair, Roméo Elvis, Dave Chapman
Genre: Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 77 minutes

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A scenario of magical realism achieved as if through a scuzzy bong rip, French director Quentin Dupieux’s Mandibles follows two slacker friends (Grégoire Ludig, David Marsais) who scheme to make some quick cash to scrape by with the friendly assistance of an oversized housefly. Though Dupieux’s previous films such as Rubber and Deerskin never shy away bloodshed and suffering, his latest effort is overwhelmingly defined by a sense of joie de vivre despite a typically surreal plot and the undeniable disaster left in its protagonists’ wake. The filmmaker’s absurdist comedy leanings are on full display, rendering Mandibles his most surprisingly exuberant film to date. Bizarre but never confounding, Mandibles is a superbly executed tragicomedy. The pair’s idle reaction to their misfortune only adds another veneer of hilarity to the already farcical plotline. When a case of mistaken identity grants the friends a chance to crash at a bougie vacation house on the coast, their oblivious hosts’ ridiculous insistence on politeness and good manners makes them appear far more deranged than the wannabe grifters and their enormous pet fly. Particularly when it comes to Agnès (marvelously performed by Adèle Exarchopoulos, best known in the U.S. as the star of 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color)—a resident with a volume-control issue stemming from a ski-related incident that shouldn’t be funny, but certainly is—her insistence on adhering to textbook French civility despite a startling, brash tone indicates a certain commentary on an antiquated notion of politeness. Irreverent and heartfelt at once, Mandibles’ comedic duo is part Cookie and King Lu from First Cow, part Dante and Randall from Clerks. They treat the animal which promises them profit with reverence while simultaneously acting in selfish, boorish ways totally unfit for polite society. Though Dupieux’s films have never shied away from violence and destruction, Mandibles preserves the filmmaker’s penchant for perplexity while asserting that life is a glorious thing—even in its distasteful weirdness.—Natalia Keogan


16. Together Together

together-together-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Directors: Nikole Beckwith
Stars: Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Tig Notaro, Fred Melamed, Julio Torres
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 90 minutes

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Together Together is an amiable, successfully awkward surrogacy dramedy that also has the respectable distinction of being a TERF’s worst nightmare. That’s only one of the tiny aspects of writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature, but the gentle tapestry of intimacy among strangers who, for a short time, desperately need each other certainly benefits from the meta-text of comedian and internet terror Patti Harrison’s multi-layered starring performance. Stuffed with bombastic bit parts from a roster of recent television’s greatest comedic talents and casually incisive dialogue that lays waste to media empires and preconceptions of women’s autonomy alike, the film is an unexpected, welcome antidote to emotional isolation and toxic masculinity that meanders in and out of life lessons at a pleasingly inefficient clip. That the tale of fatherhood and friendship is told through the sparkling chemistry of a rising trans star and her entrenched, anxious straight man (an endearing Ed Helms) only adds to Together Together’s slight magic.—Shayna Maci Warner


17. C’mon C’mon

cmon-cmon-poster.jpg Release Date: November 19, 2021
Director: Mike Mills
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy, Jaboukie Young-White, Molly Webster
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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While continuing to mold his protagonists after his immediate family members—in C’mon, C’mon’s case his (and fellow filmmaker Miranda July’s) nine-year-old son—writer/director Mike Mills presents a picture of sincere sentimentality rooted not in previously occupied states of nostalgia or raw lived experience, but rather forward-looking hopefulness for an ostensibly fraught future. A year after the death of their mother, broadcast radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) reaches out to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) to amend a recent lack of communication. While catching up, Viv reveals that her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is in the midst of a bipolar episode in the Bay Area, and she feels compelled to go and convince him to seek inpatient care. Johnny has only one question: Who is going to watch her son Jesse (Woody Norman) while she’s away? Though originally tasked with watching his nephew for only a few days, extenuating circumstances lead to Jesse accompanying Johnny on an extensive city-spanning reporting project. Fittingly, the assignment finds Johnny and his colleagues conducting audio interviews with children across the country, gauging their thoughts on matters of the heart, mind and soul—specifically, what do they think the future will look like? Despite undertaking an intimate story about the oft-overlooked interiority and intelligence of American adolescents, Johnny finds himself wholly unsure about his ability to assume the role of caretaker for his own relative. While it’s true that a slew of films have previously explored the clash between children and impromptu guardians when assimilating to their newfound roles (John Cassavetes’ Gloria, most notably, as well as the Phoenix-starring 2017 Lynne Ramsey film You Were Never Really Here), C’mon C’mon differs from its predecessors by maintaining the innate innocence of the children involved. It’s hard to imagine the film’s success without the dynamic chemistry between Phoenix and Norman, with the two seamlessly playing off one another’s dialogue and an air of childlike spontaneity permeating every interaction. Norman’s performance is a rarity in that it displays obvious talent while preserving a childlike playfulness that never feels over-acted. Though the central radio piece that Johnny and his colleagues gradually construct during the film is initially depressing in its assertion of just how cognizant young people are to the perils of the world that await them in adulthood, it is also heart-wrenching and hopeful in its honesty. Virtually none of the subjects interviewed perceive the future as entirely void of opportunity for improvement—and if at least some children truly believe that things can turn around for their generation, wouldn’t dismissing that tender optimism be the same exact brand of condescension that many of the kids express frustration with? In amplifying the diverse voices of American children through the film’s radio vérité subplot, C’mon C’mon proves that kids have some pretty insightful advice to impart, if only we’d just listen.—Natalia Keogan


18. Candyman

candyman-poster.jpg Release Date: August 27, 2021
Director: Nia DaCosta
Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Tony Todd, Vanessa Estelle Williams
Rating: R
Runtime: 91 minutes

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The problem with writing about Candyman is that you will inevitably have to write “Candyman” five times. What if my monitor suddenly craps out, leaving me to see a paranormal entity rocking a full-length shearling behind my dark reflection? Unlike many of the white Chicagoans in writer/director Nia DaCosta’s slasher sequel, I’m not foolish enough to tempt the Bloody Mary of the Near North Side. I am, however, still drawn to her update of the legend, which manages to pick up the original film’s pieces and put them back together in a compelling, reclamatory collage. Ignoring the rest of the Candyman series in favor of a direct follow-up to Bernard Rose’s allegory-rich 1992 slasher, DaCosta introduces fancy-pants artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to the same urban legend that consumed lookie-loo grad student Helen Lyle. The original story adapted Clive Barker to U.S. racism and wealth inequality—particularly in Chicago, and even more particularly in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects. Now its homes and high-rises have been demolished or abandoned. A massive Target overlooks its northwest border, where you can buy athleisure and grab an in-house Starbucks before heading to Panera Bread. Gentrification may have neatly plastered over history, but that history cannot be so easily erased. “A story like that—a pain like that—lasts forever,” says Colman Domingo’s long-timer laundryman Burke. “That’s Candyman.” DaCosta makes it clear that Anthony’s pulled by the legend, by history, more intimately than Helen ever was, and updates her scares in turn. The nightmarish apartments and putrid bathrooms Helen crawled through and photographed neatly reflected the entity haunting them; but the projects have been paved over, and Candyman persists. DaCosta shoots the city accordingly, either in dividing straight lines, or fully warped: You never notice how Marina City’s towers look like beehives until they’re flipped upside-down. Spurred on by Anthony’s interest, Candyman’s now an inevitability in every reflective surface. You can’t look away from DaCosta’s inspired compositions and layouts, your eyes led from one dark corner to the next with an Invisible Man-like mastery of negative space. One of these days, you think, she’s going to run out of ideas about how to shoot a mirror kill. Not so, especially in her world of omnipresent, physically and psychically painful self-reflection. While the kills, perpetrated by a being mostly just seen in mirrors, are sometimes a bit too obfuscated by their gimmick to be viscerally satisfying, they slot in perfectly with the film’s themes and aesthetic even when they’re not dumping cascades of blood. The power of martyrdom, the cycles of economic exploitation, the blood price expected for progress—even if these ideas are imperfectly engaged with, they’re so compellingly introduced as to solidify Candyman as a must-see horror and a must-discuss tragedy.—Jacob Oller


19. Undine

undine-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zeree, Jacob Matschanz, Anne Ratte-Polle
Genre: Romance, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 91 minutes

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Undine opens as a rom-com might. A lilting piano score, not without a shade of sadness, purrs quietly during the title cards. A tearful break-up presages a quirky meet-cute between industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) and city historian Undine (Paula Beer), our new couple bound by the irrevocable forces of chance—and, in director Christian Petzold’s own mannered way, a bit of physical comedy—as the universe clearly arranges for the pieces of their lives to come together. Squint and you could maybe mistake these opening moments for a Lifetime movie—that is, until the break-up ends with Undine warning her soon-to-be-ex (Jacob Matschenz) that she’s going to have to kill him. He doesn’t take Undine seriously, but the audience can’t be so sure. Beer’s face contains subtle multitudes. She could actually murder this guy. What once felt familiar now feels pregnant with dread. And that’s saying nothing about Christoph’s odds for survival. Anyone remotely familiar with the “Undine” tale knows that she’s not lying to her ex. Undine is a water spirit, making covenants with men on land in order to access a human soul (as well as a tasteful professional wardrobe). Breaking that covenant is fatal. Or so the story goes. When she meets Christoph, she’s revitalized, because she’s heartbroken but especially because he takes such interest in the subjects of her lectures. He too is bound to the evolving bones of Germany, repairing bridges and various underwater infrastructure—he may, in fact, be more intuitively connected to the country than most. He’s the rare person who’s gone beneath it, excavating and reconstructing its depths, entombed in the mech-like coffin of a diving suit he wears when welding below the surface. As in all of Petzold’s films, Undine builds a world of liminal spaces—of lives in transition, always moving—of his characters shifting between realities, never quite sure where one ends and another begins. Like genre, like architecture, like history, like a love affair—at the heart of his work is the push and pull between where we are and where we want to be, between who we are and who we want to be and what we’ve done and what we’ll do, between what we dream and what we make happen. In Undine, Petzold captures this tension with warmth and immediacy. Many, many lives have brought us here, but none are more important than these two, and no time more consequential than now. My god, how romantic.—Dom Sinacola


20. The Father

the-father-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Florian Zeller
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

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The best line reading Anthony Hopkins gives during his monumental performance in Florian Zeller’s The Father comes in the film’s final scene, which is both a blessing and a king bummer. All anyone should want to do is live in that reading, sit awestruck at how Hopkins puts a name to the one thing that can assuage his character’s anguish and stare grief-stricken in the knowledge that the one thing he needs is the one thing he can’t have. The entire movie is an exercise in heartache, but it’s this final piece of dialogue that punctuates the drama preceding it and finally releases the suffering roiling under its surface. Hopkins’ character, also named Anthony, spends most of The Father fighting for his independence like a wolf cornered by hunters, stubbornly refusing to accept his clear mental deterioration and the need for professional help. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) has, as the picture opens, tried and failed several times over to find him a caregiver he’ll take to—and given her announced intention to relocate to Paris, her search has gained in urgency. Anthony isn’t pleased at her news. In fact, as they sit in his well-appointed London flat together, he gives her the business, expressing his opinion of her life plans with his canines bared. He’s not happy. But deep down, in the parts of him that remain self-aware, he’s mostly just afraid. Zeller has adapted The Father from his own award-winning play Le Père, and though he’s left the material of the script untouched, he’s transitioned to his new medium with subtle enhancements: Cinematographer Ben Smithard uses his lens as a screw gun, putting up figurative walls around Zeller’s cast in addition to the literal walls of the set. Visual claustrophobia compliments spatial claustrophobia, trapping the viewer in the flat and, far more importantly, in Anthony’s crumbling psyche. A simple open-concept apartment becomes labyrinthine through his point of view, and that’s before supporting characters begin to wander about its halls and loiter in its doors, in and out of his perception, assuming they were even there to begin with. Similar to how the characters are there to serve Anthony, the supporting cast is there to serve Hopkins. The stage belongs to him. What he does with it is something special, an unmissable performance from an actor with a filmography loaded with them.—Andy Crump


21. In the Heights

in-the-heights-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Jon M. Chu
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Genre: Musical
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 143 minutes

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In 2018, director Jon M. Chu imbued the standard rom-com plot of his Crazy Rich Asians adaptation with classical Hollywood decadence, hanging it all on a framework of well-constructed cultural specificity. It was big, spectacular and embarrassingly novel for an American movie of its kind. Now, in 2021, we’re getting Chu’s version of In the Heights, the musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map (and won him his first Tony). It’s incredible. The exciting electricity of a non-white blockbuster cast becoming superstars before your eyes, the maximalist style of a modern smash updating its influences, the intertwining of hyper-specific and broad themes—Chu’s strengths and his cast soar, bringing In the Heights as high as it’s ever been. It’s the best Hollywood musical in years. Tracking a few sweltering days in New York’s Washington Heights, the film meshes Do the Right Thing’s hot summer tension with School Daze’s teasing affection for its song-slinging genre. It just so happens that the corner we’re on is the collision point for the intersecting lives and romances of two couples—bodega boss Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and recent Stanford dropout Nina (Leslie Grace)—who serve as the neighborhood’s most vocal examples of those that life’s rigged lottery left putting their patience and faith in a daily scratcher. There’s no real pivotal struggle (especially not between Sharks and Jets, though wouldn’t it be incredible if Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story gave 2021 two great NYC musicals?) aside from the ever-present and myriad anxieties of Nth generation Americans living in a racist country. Yes, those familiar with the themes of Miranda’s Hamilton will find a similar rhythm and thematic flavor here—though with the showtunes’ style slipping into a salsa or bolero as easily as the rap bars dip in and out of Spanish—but with a purity of form and meaning that’s lyrical critiques and observations are even sharper than those mired in the phenomenon’s historical metaphor. In fact, almost all the songs are bangers that keep emotions high—you’ll weep, you’ll cheer, you’ll hum the songs to yourself on the way out of the theater—bolstered by orchestration that, while restrained when limited to its lovers, explodes when the choruses finally incorporate the neighborhood at large. Head-bobbing bops and moving melodies match rhythmic editing and a vibrant, fittingly populous background that’s constant choreography sustains the perpetual, organic flow of a community. In the Heights is great, and its greatness is amplified by the joy that it will inspire in theaters full of people for years to come.—Jacob Oller


22. Shiva Baby

shiva-baby-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Emma Seligman
Stars: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron
Genre: Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 77 minutes

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Marvelously uncomfortable and cringe-inducingly hilarious, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby rides a fine line between comedy and horror that perfectly suits its premise—and feels immediately in step with its protagonist, the college-aged Danielle. Played by actress/comedian Rachel Sennott, already messy-millennial royalty by virtue of her extremely online comic sensibility, Danielle is first glimpsed mid-tryst, an unconvincing orgasm closing out her perfunctory dirty talk (“Yeah, daddy”) before she dismounts and collects a wad of cash from the older Max (Danny Deferrari). Though it’s transactional, as any sugar relationship tends to be, Danielle seems open to discussing her nebulous career aspirations with Max, and he gives her an expensive bracelet—suggesting a quasi-intimate familiarity to their dynamic, even if the encounter’s underlying awkwardness keeps either from getting too comfortable. As such, it’s a smart tease of what’s to come, as Danielle schleps from Max’s apartment to meet up with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed, naturally), and sit shiva in the home of a family friend or relative. That Danielle’s unclear on who exactly died is a recurring joke, and a consistently good one, but there’s little time to figure out the details before she’s plunged into the event: A disorienting minefield of small talk, thin smiles and self-serve schmear. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the high anxiety and mortifying comedy of Seligman’s film, though it helps. Underneath all the best Jewish punchlines lies a weary acknowledgement of inevitable suffering; the Coen Brothers knew this in crafting A Serious Man, their riotous retelling of the Book of Job, and Seligman knows it in Shiva Baby. That the climax involves shattered glass, helpless tears and a few humiliations more marks this as one of the most confidently, winningly Jewish comedies in years.—Isaac Feldberg


23. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

were-all-going-to-the-worlds-fair-poster.jpg Release Date: April 15, 2022
Director: Jane Schoenbrun
Stars: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers
Rating: NR
Runtime: 86 minutes

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We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t straightforwardly a “horror” movie—even if the title reads like an invocation chanted by hypnotized cultists doomed to whatever fate awaits them at the fairgrounds. That, of course, is more or less exactly what it is, as evinced in the opening sequence, where young Casey (Anna Cobb) recites the phrase three times while staring wide-eyed at her computer monitor. Innocent enough, if firmly eerie. Then she pricks her finger with a button’s pin about two dozen times in rapid succession and streaks her blood on the screen (though just out of the audience’s line of sight) to conclude the ritual. All that’s left is to wait and see how joining in this online “game” changes her, as if undergoing a Cronenbergian rite of passage. What writer/director Jane Schoenbrun wants viewers to wonder is whether those changes are in earnest, and whether changes documented by other participants in the “World’s Fair challenge” are legit or staged. They’re unreliable narrators. To an extent, so is Casey—insomuch as teens stepping into the world solo for the first time can be relied on for anything resembling objectivity. There’s also the question of exactly where Casey draws the line between truth and macabre make-believe, and of course whether that belief is made up. Maybe there really is a ghost in the machine. Or maybe a life predominantly lived in a virtual space—because physical space is dominated by isolation and bad paternal relationships—naturally inclines people toward delusion at worst and an unerring sensation of disembodiment at best. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair concludes with ambiguity and atmospheric loss, as if we’re meant to consider leaving childhood behind as a form of tragedy. Spoken in Schoenbrun’s language, that process is painful, transformative and—first and foremost—an internal experience regardless of the movie’s stripped-down visual pleasures. Outside forces influence Casey, but Casey ultimately controls the direction those forces take her. In a way, that’s empowering. But Schoenbrun belies the collective dynamic implied in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s title with Casey’s lonesome reality.—Andy Crump


24. The Paper Tigers

the-paper-tigers-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Bao Tran
Stars: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 108 minutes

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When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather. That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s. It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin. Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.—Andy Crump


25. Turning Red

turning-red-poster.jpg Release Date: March 11, 2022
Director: Domee Shi
Stars: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
Rating: PG
Runtime: 100 minutes

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Filmmaker Domee Shi (who delivered the best short Pixar’s ever made in Bao) becomes the first woman to direct a Pixar movie alone, and her floofy red panda’s coming-of-age story stretches the strengths of the company’s legacy. Turning Red is a hyper-cute whirlwind of figurative layers and literal loveliness, dense with meaning and meaningful even to the most dense among us. An exceptional puberty comedy by way of Sanrio-branded Kafka, Turning Red’s truthful transformations are strikingly charming, surprisingly complex and satisfyingly heartfelt. And yes, so cute you might scream until you’re red in the face. Hyperactive 13-year-old overachiever Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) likes to think she runs Toronto with her weirdo friends, partitioning her life into boy-band obsession, extracurricular exceptionalism and deference to intense mom Ming (Sandra Oh) and soft-spoken dad Jin (Orion Lee). She’s got it all balanced, embodying the multiple identities we develop as we become our own people with the overwhelming energy of someone discovering this exciting new freedom for the first time. Chiang’s crackling vocal performance and a blistering visual pace right out the gate make it clear that Mei’s a ridiculous little goober who knows exactly who she is. That is, until she’s “visited by the red panda.” What initially seems like a fairly straightforward allegory for the bodily betrayal and raging emotions of puberty starts scooping up more and more relatable elements into its impressive, finely detailed bear hug. Shi and co-writer Julia Cho weave an ambitious amount of themes into a narrative that’s main plot engine is boy-band concert lust. Its love-hate bout with puberty is obvious, but self-actualization, filial piety and intergenerational trauma keep its romping red wonder from feeling one-note or derivative of underwhelming transformation tales. Turning Red’s oddball characters and well-rooted fantasy inject personality into the common plot device. Not only one of Pixar’s best efforts from the last half-decade, Turning Red is one that overcomes some of the animation giant’s weaknesses. It’s original and human-centric; it’s not particularly beholden to messages more weepy for adults than enjoyable for children. It’s funny without being overly witty and smart without being overly heady. Shi displays a fantastic ability for integrating the specific and personal into the broad beats of a magical cartoon, all done sweetly and endearingly enough to become an instant favorite among modern kids and those who’ll recognize their past selves. —Jacob Oller


26. The Sparks Brothers

the-sparks-brothers-poster.jpg Release Date: June 18, 2021
Director: Edgar Wright
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
Runtime: 135 minutes

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The Sparks Brothers is a thorough and charming assessment and appreciation of an idiosyncratic band, and the highest praise you could give it is that it shares a sensibility with its inimitable musicians. Not an easy task when it comes to Ron and Russell Mael. The Californian brothers have been running Sparks since the late ‘60s (yeah, the ‘60s), blistering through genres as quickly as their lyrics make and discard jokes. Glam rock, disco, electronic pioneering—and even when they dip into the most experimental and orchestral corners of their musical interests, they maintain a steady power-pop genius bolstered by Russell’s fluty pipes and Ron’s catchy keys. It’s here, in Sparks’ incredible range yet solidified personality, that you quickly start to understand that The Sparks Brothers is the marriage of two perfect subjects that share a mission. Experts in one art form that are interested in each others’, Ron and Russell bond with director Edgar Wright over a wry desire to have their fun-poking and make it art too. One made a trilogy of parodies that stands atop its individual genres (zombie, cop, sci-fi movies). The others made subversive songs like “Music That You Can Dance To” that manage to match (and often overtake) the very bops they razz. Their powers combined, The Sparks Brothers becomes a music doc that’s self-aware and deeply earnest. Slapstick, with a wide range of old film clips delivering the punches and pratfalls, and visual gags take the piss out of its impressive talking heads whenever they drop a groaner music doc cliché. “Pushing the envelope?” Expect to see a postal tug-of-war between the Maels. This sense of humor, appreciating the dumbest low-hanging fruit and the highest brow reference, comes from the brothers’ admiration of seriously unserious French filmmakers like Jacques Tati (with whom Sparks almost made a film; remember, they love movies) and of a particularly formative affinity for British music. It doesn’t entirely tear down facades, as even Wright’s most personal works still emote through a protective shell of physical comedy and references, but you get a sense of the Maels as workers, brothers, artists and humans on terms that they’re comfortable with. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour film is an epic, there’s no denying that. You won’t need another Sparks film after this one. Yet it’s less an end-all-be-all biography than an invitation, beckoning newcomers and longtime listeners alike through its complete understanding of and adoration for its subjects.—Jacob Oller


27. Licorice Pizza

licorice-pizza-poster.jpg Release Date: November 26, 2021
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
Rating: R
Runtime: 133 minutes

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Licorice Pizza is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second ode to Los Angeles in the early 1970s: A city freshly under the oppressive shadow of the Manson Family murders and the tail end of the Vietnam War. But while in his first tribute, Inherent Vice, the inquisitive counter-culture affiliate Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) earnestly engages with his surroundings and follows the threads of societal paranoia all the way to vampiric drug smuggling operations and FBI conspiracies, Licorice Pizza’s protagonist, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), refuses to follow any such thread. A bored, directionless photographer’s assistant, Alana nonchalantly rejects any easy plot-point that might help us get a grasp on her character. What are her ambitions? She doesn’t know, she tells successful 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) over dinner at a restaurant called Tail o’ the Cock. What interests and excites her? It’s hard to say. When Gary first approaches Alana while she’s working picture-day at his high school, it’s hard to imagine that Licorice Pizza isn’t going to follow the playful design of a sunny Southern California love story. Alana is instantly strange and striking, and—when Anderson introduces her in a languid dolly-shot with a mini-skirt, kitten-heels, slumped shoulders and a gloriously pissed expression—we are compelled to fall in love with her, just like Gary does, at first sight. Of course, Anderson quickly rejects the notion that Licorice Pizza is going to be a straightforward romance. Anderson knows that this ambling, disjointed structure reflects what it’s like to be young, awkward and in love. Each shot, filled with dreamy pastels, glows with a youthful nostalgia. Anderson and cinematographer Michael Bauman balance out this haziness with a unique control of the camera, implementing long takes, slow dollies, and contemplative pans galore. What is it that Alana gets from being friends with someone ten years younger than her? And why does Gary always return to Alana even when she tries her best to put him down? Like gleefully gliding through the streets of L.A. in the midst of a city-wide crisis, it’s a madness you can only truly understand when you’re living it.—Aurora Amidon


28. Ambulance

ambulance-poster.jpg Release Date: April 8, 2022
Director: Michael Bay
Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza González, Jake Gyllenhaal, Garret Dillahunt, Keir O’Donnell, Olivia Stambouliah, Jackson White, A Martinez, Cedric Sanders
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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If Ambulance, Michael Bay’s 15th feature currently basking in a gleeful critical reappraisal of Bay’s canon, feels as entelechial as Bad Boys II, it can only be because Bay has found himself in the absolute best time to be Bay. Though an ensemble of Angelenos fills out the film as it barrels to pretty much the only conclusion it could have, Ambulance is about as tidy as a Michael Bay film can get. Within ten minutes we’re deep in Ambulance: Strapped for money to pay his wife’s escalating medical bills, let alone care for their infant son, Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) agrees to join his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal, always a joy to behold) on one last big score, a bank heist that goes inevitably wrong. Subsequently, they shoot a cop (Jackson White) and commandeer the cop’s ambulance, also occupied by the “best” EMT in L.A., Cam Thompson (Eiza González)—just one more embittered soul in the grand gray tapestry that is the City of Angels. As Danny loses control and Will more and more accepts his fate as the offspring of a fabled bank-robbing psychopath, their bank robber father spoken of in hushed tones and unbelievable stories, the entire militarized might of the LAPD descends upon the stolen ambulance, led by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), a man who festishizes the police enough that Bay doesn’t have to. Even when FBI Agent Clark (Keir O’Donnell) gets involved, he’s only invited into Monroe’s inner circle because he went to college with Danny. Bad Boys and the fever dream of Bad Boys II are about how Michael Bay thinks that cops must be psychopaths in order to confront a modern psychopathic world. In Ambulance, as much as his vision of the LAPD comprises sophisticated surveillance and world-killing artillery to rival the most elite military power of the U.S. government—making sure it all looks really fucking cool—he also makes sure to interrupt an especially destructive chase sequence (as he once had Martin Lawrence declare the events happening on screen obligatory and nothing else) among so many especially destructive chase sequences, to have Monroe’s left hand, Lieutenant Dhazghig (Olivia Stambouliah), tell him how many tax dollars they’re annihilating. Later, many, many police officers die in explosions and hails of gunfire, bodies indiscriminately everywhere. One detects glee in these scenes, as if Bay’s countering Monroe’s dismissal of so many flagrantly abused tax dollars by blowing up half the LAPD in a spectacle that practically demands applause. Maybe Michael Bay no longer sees the utility in unleashing psychopathic cops on a psychopathic world, but maybe he never did. In Bay’s L.A., there are no sides, no good guys and bad guys, just a person who “saves my life” or doesn’t—just people with holes punched into their bodies and people without. This is Bay’s distinction between the “haves” and “have nots”: People who have mortal trauma and people who don’t. The film’s disposable blue collar Italian lump, Randazzo (Randazzo Marc), puts it simply: “L.A. drivers! They’re all mamalukes.” Behold this urban wasteland of struggling mamalukes—it teems with more style than we’ll ever deserve.—Dom Sinacola


29. Summer of 85

summer-of-85-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: François Ozon
Stars: Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi
Rating: NR
Runtime: 101 minutes

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François Ozon’s Summer of 85 opens on a Sunset Boulevard riff before segueing into a teen movie riff: The Cure’s “In Between Days” plays over the foreground, a crane shot swoops and rises over a sun-splashed beach abutting a seaside town, and the protagonist, Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), bikes into frame, alive, vibrant and very much not in the custody of a solemn gendarme. The stark contrast struck between these moments in Ozon’s introduction almost feels like a constitutionally French punchline, sardonic in execution but not without warmth and sympathy for Alexis and what’s to come for him. Young love is beautiful. Young love is painful. Young love is a first step toward dancing on a grave in the middle of the night. So it goes. Alexis is on the lookout for fun and enjoyment as summer wraps the Normandy coast in its balmy embrace. He’s 16. Might as well have a good time. “Capsize the boat” probably isn’t on his list of “good time” activities, but capsize his boat he does as weather rolls in. Things look bleak. Then, a knight in shining armor arrives to his aid, though in fairness his armor is an unbuttoned shirt and swim trunks: David (Benjamin Voisin), young like Alexis but not quite as young, and inarguably a better sailor. Alexis is rescued. He’s also intrigued, as David is with him. They pal around a bit, trade thoughts on life as one expects French youths to—meaning lots of juvenile philosophizing—and then they fall in love. Or at least Alexis does. Similar to Call Me by Your Name, Summer of 85 suggests that the heartbreak of first love is an unavoidable step through teenhood. The hurt erases neither our feelings for or our memories of those shimmering, golden days of infatuation. In fact the hurt throws those positive sensations into sharp relief and lets us appreciate them more. But Summer of 85 understands the risks of giving your love to another, and plays those risks to a shocking and inevitable conclusion. Ozon’s film grafts aesthetic pleasures with danger, and gets closer to the core of teenage romance as a payoff.—Andy Crump


30. The Worst Person in the World

the-worst-person-in-the-world-poster.jpg Release Date: February 4, 2022
Director: Joachim Trier
Stars: Tanya Chowdary, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
Rating: R
Runtime: 128 minutes

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Millennials were born into a world that no longer demands much of young people, yet somehow expects even more of us. Not as long ago as we might think, it was the norm for adults in their 20s and 30s to have it all figured out. A spouse, a career, a gaggle of children—at least one of these things and even better if all three. Young people now are caught in this strange purgatory between child and adult. We are afforded more time to become who we want to be and there is more pressure than ever to do so. Enter Julie (Renate Reinsve, Dakota Johnson’s long-lost twin), a fickle Norwegian who has never stayed committed to one thing in her entire life. A teenaged overachiever, she dabbled in medicine before she discovered that she was more interested in matters of the soul than the body. So, she cuts and dyes her hair, dumps her med school lover and pivots to psychology pursuits before burning that all down too, shifting once again—this time to photography. But unsurprisingly, photography manages to bore Julie as well, and soon enough she’s off to the next new thing, next new hairstyle, next new guy in the adult coming-of-age film that is Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, the director’s follow-up to the 2017 supernatural thriller Thelma and his fifth film overall. Prior to this breakneck, whimsically-scored narrated montage of Julie’s life so far (edited with precision by Olivier Bugge Coutté and scored by Ola Fløttum), the narrator explains what’s going to happen: This is a film in twelve chapters, complete with a prologue and an epilogue. Thus, The Worst Person in the World functions like a fractured collection of moments in one person’s life as they strive for self-actualization. The chapters are never consistently timed, some lasting only a few minutes and others lasting the length of a television episode, creating an atmosphere in which we never know how much time has passed, and yet time is passing all the same—and quickly—for Julie. When we’ve finally caught up to her present, she’s entered into a long-term relationship with a successful, 44-year-old graphic novelist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), whose prosperous career has given her the stability to work a day job at a bookstore while she decides what she wants to set her sights on next. Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is as indecisive as its endlessly curious heroine, but it is an invigorating, exceedingly kind portrait conveying that the journey is just as—if not more—crucial as the place we end up.—Brianna Zigler


31. Titane

titane-poster.jpg Release Date: October 8, 2021
Director: Julia Ducournau
Stars: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) had an early connection with cars. Her insistence on using her voice to mimic the rev of an engine as a young girl (played by Adèle Guigue) while her irritated father (French director Bertrand Bonello) drove was so undaunted that one day she caused him to lose control of the vehicle. The accident rendered her father mostly unscathed, and Alexia with a titanium plate implanted in her skull. It was a procedure that seemingly strengthened a curious linkage between her and metal and machine, an innate affection for something hot and alive that could never turn away Alexia’s love. As the doctor removes Alexia’s surgical metal headgear, her father looks on with something that can only be described as disdain for his child. Perhaps, it is because he knew what Alexia would become; perhaps, Alexia was just born bad. Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning follow-up to 2016’s Raw crunches, tears and sizzles. Bones break, skin rips, libidos throb—the human body is pushed to impossible limits. It’s something that Ducournau has already proved familiarity with, but the French director takes things to new extremes with her sophomore film. Titane is a convoluted, gender-bending odyssey splattered with gore and motor oil, the heart of which rests on a simple (if exceedingly perverted) story of finding unconditional acceptance. Eighteen years following the childhood incident, Alexia is a dancer and car model, venerated by ravenous male fans aching to get a picture and an autograph with the punky, sharp-featured young woman. She splays her near-naked form atop the hood of an automobile to the beat of music, contorting and touching herself with simmering lust for the inanimate machine adorned with a fiery paint job to match Alexia’s sexuality. Pink and green and neon yellow glistens on every body (chrome or otherwise) in the showroom, but Ruben Impens’ cinematography follows Alexia as she guides us through this space where she feels most at home. Titane persists as a boundary-pushing exploration of the human form, of gender performance, masculinity and isolation; Ducournau’s script is surprising, shocking, titillating at every turn. And despite her cruelty, and the relative distance from and lack of insight into her character, Alexia remains an empathetic protagonist. This is in no small part thanks to Rousselle’s commanding portrayal which astonishingly doubles as her feature debut. Titane is not just 108 bloody minutes of bodily mutilation and perversion, but of blazing chaos inherent in our human need for acceptance. Ducournau has wrapped up this simple conceit in a narrative that only serves to establish her voice as one which demands our attention, even as we feel compelled to look away. Yes, it’s true what they’ve said—love will literally tear us apart.—Brianna Zigler


32. Nine Days

nine-days-poster.jpg Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: Edson Oda
Stars: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Rating: R
Runtime: 124 minutes

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In a small house, alone in the desert, Will (Winston Duke) watches. Nine Days, the wrenching feature debut from writer/director Edson Oda, understands that we are an existence of voyeurism. We’re only truly living to our fullest when we can see, share, feel the experiences of others. Will is a sort of hiring manager for life itself. As painful as it is for him to accept (he’s obviously grown fond of his previous picks), there is a new vacancy, and there are a few candidates. Over a nine-day process, almost like an audition for a reality show—especially fitting considering that the plane they would leave behind houses a watcher carefully and compassionately taking in a televised wall of literal life-streams—Will and his friend/co-worker Kyo (Benedict Wong) whittle down the applicants to find the best person suited for the gift of worldly existence. Oda’s compact, stirring, metaphysical sci-fi stageplay about the ends and beginnings of life—and all the wonder ripe for the sharing contained between—is as moving a debut as you’ll see all year. First, it takes some real creative brass to try to tackle such an ambitious, heady and easily trite topic. Second, it takes some major storytelling talent—both in the crafting of the script and the handling of its actors—to overcome those obstacles while keeping the dignity of all involved intact. Nine Days has quiet confidence, written in the way that some of the best sci-fi is, where it feels like a massive text that’s been erased down to the barest elements necessary for a perception imagination to piece together—a painting of overwhelming sentiment depicted with the simplest strokes possible. Oda’s script has been visualized with a similar restraint, nearly contained to Will’s home and its screens before it slowly pushes at these boundaries. But, at first at least, Will’s hopefuls—including Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and a last-minute Zazie Beetz—are roped into routine. As the would-be humans continue to prove themselves through a series of psychological tests, their growth or stagnation metered out in compellingly restrained segments overseen by Duke’s stoic yet compassionate shepherd, we become as invested as Will in their prospects. The gravity of what they’re after hits us. The ultra-sincere Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze-esque premise (Jonze executive produced the film) moves beyond its high concept and starts digging into its emotional implications. Scene after scene of appreciation for the magical moments of life hammer our hearts. Rarely do movies so tenderly tenderize you. It can be shatteringly bittersweet even without the soaring strings of Antonio Pinto’s score, and when they come in, it’s not even fair. Admirably ambitious and bracingly sincere, Nine Days leaves you raw and refreshed. Nine Days marks Oda as one of our most exciting new directors, a filmmaker possessing an innovative cinematic mind with a heart to match.—Jacob Oller


33. West Side Story

west-side-story-2021-poster.jpg Release Date: December 10, 2021
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 156 minutes

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Shoot it loud and there’s music playing; shoot it soft and it’s almost like praying: Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story pumps the classic for exactly that, classicism, by milking the musical’s dynamics for maximum expressiveness. Its romance? At its most tender. Its dance? At its most invigorating and desperate. Its songs? As if “Maria” or “Tonight” needed another reason to stick in your head, they’re catchier than ever. Even if you don’t know the lyrics, you know the snaps. And you won’t even need that level of familiarity to get swept up. Spielberg’s been working up to a full-throated musical for decades and he comes at this movie like he’s got something to prove: If there was ever any doubt that he’s a cinematic peer to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story sets it firmly aside. It’s a stunning, loving spectacle that confidently scales the fence right to the top of the movie-musical pack. Justin Peck, choreographer of the New York City Ballet, highlights the characters’ simmering physical threat and sexual power (not mutually exclusive among the charged dancers) by making the most of his performers’ long limbs and extravagant costumes. Bright dress ruffles and beefy arms twirl in magical, powerful symmetry. Spielberg, in turn, stages the numbers to fully explore the space (when sparring in the salt warehouse or on the dance floor) or lack thereof (when melting hearts in Tony and Maria’s fire-escape rendezvous). Nearly every shot is foregrounded with impediments, be they chain-link fences keeping the boys trapped in their circumstances, onlookers framing spotlit dancers, or wrought iron grating separating lovers. It’s a city, after all. Cluttered. Messy. Full of people, things—and potential. Attraction. Camaraderie. Respect. Encapsulated in stand-offs and close-up faces. These are shots that already look like classics, not because they mimic the 1961 film (though Spielberg’s clearly a fan and nods its way in a few key moments), but because they look like they were dreamed, planned and pulled off. You can feel the achievement, yet there’s nothing stagey here: The film’s two-and-a-half hours either zip along or linger so closely around the campfire glow of its couple’s radiating affection that you’d happily stay with them all night. With Rachel Zegler as Maria, surrounded by other scene-stealers performing some of Broadway’s best, it also feels like a sure-fire hit. If you’ve never been a musical person, here’s your way in. If you’re already a convert, Steven Spielberg will make you love West Side Story all over again.—Jacob Oller


34. The Beta Test

the-beta-test-poster.jpg Release Date: November 5, 2021
Director: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Stars: Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Olivia Grace Applegate, Wilky Lau, Kevin Changaris, Jacqueline Doke
Rating: NR
Runtime: 94 minutes

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Jim Cummings tends to play men who refuse to lose control. His characters feel similar, but then so do many white, cisgender, heterosexual, elder millennial men—unable to wield power over their domain, they flail belligerently through these, their End Times. They find closure in slapping around a corpse (Thunder Road), or they turn to folklore and cryptozoology to explain a world they no longer understand at all (The Wolf of Snow Hollow). Everything is terrifying, everyone is watching, and the least noble thing any of them can do as the teeth rot from their mouths is rage against a universe that no longer wants them. So that’s what they do. In The Beta Test, his first feature with co-director/-writer PJ McCabe, Cummings is Jordan Hines, a Hollywood agent facing extinction. As talent agencies battle the Writers Guild of America over “packaging deals” and his whole career’s culture shifts out from under him, Jordan receives a handsome purple invitation in the mail promising a “no-strings attached sexual encounter with an admirer at The Royal Hotel.” His marriage to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) looms—as do all things in the white millennial man’s life—and, as he’s fit and attractive and not uncommonly met by temptation in public, he can’t help but fantasize about whatever validation the purple letter offers. Are his fantasies even “OK” anymore? Why does no one seem to care when Raymond (Wilky Lau), a potential big international client, aggressively grabs Jordan’s crotch at a party? A white millennial man cornered by obsolescence—or worse, an obsolescence no one gives much of a shit about—will scratch and whine for scraps of satisfaction. Just any iota that someone gives about what he wants—that he matters. As an excoriation of masculinity, there isn’t much to The Beta Test that Cummings hasn’t explored before, and the long takes and bravura monologues that initially defined his voice as a filmmaker appear here, though more sublimated into the fabric of the film than in any previous feature. And his handle on genre remains deft but slippery. The Beta Test is an erotic thriller as devotedly as it’s a satire and an upsetting glimpse of a very specific dying breed of tinseltown phony. Which is much funnier than it sounds. Because everyone is watching and everything is terrifying. The Beta Test never attempts to refute how lame Jordan is, how ineffectually he inhabits this plane of existence, how much of a baby he is, how unhelpful he will be as the planet devolves into the kind of chaos where violence and oblivion just occur in the background. The film just celebrates Jordan’s delusions as exactly what they are: The only way to cope with a universe that no longer wants people like him around anymore.—Dom Sinacola


35. The Novice

the-novice-poster.jpg Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Lauren Hadaway
Stars: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth
Rating: R
Runtime: 94 minutes

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Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice didn’t just surprise me, it ran wild over the rest of the movies I saw at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, trampling over my memories of them until it was certain that all I could think about was Hadaway’s full-throttle style and her film’s blistering performances. Only fitting for a movie about the consequences of toxic overachievement—of what happens when quasi-liberal education is a money-making machine, burning kids like coal. A movie that puts the “extra” in “extracurricular.” The Novice’s anxious and obsessive hustle culture horror wants to be #1 or nothing. No participation ribbons. And none will be necessary: Hadaway’s work signals a leap straight to the top of the podium as one of the year’s best debuts. Writer/director/editor Hadaway has worked most extensively up until now as an ADR and dialogue supervisor and sound editor for movies like Whiplash, and the precision with which she deploys brutal mental and physical obstacles in The Novice—manifested as everything from sound effects to harsh cuts to scribbled credits font—reflects her expertise. And that’s not even mentioning the heart of the film: A ferocious Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex Dall. Dall is a hardcore college freshman, intense in every facet of her life as she rechecks and overthinks physics tests, hooks up with a frat boy simply to get that experience out of the way, and decides to become a varsity rower…despite lacking any experience, y’know, rowing. You’ve probably heard that some filmmakers make cities into “characters.” Hadaway makes the open water into one of life’s only soothing, nearly sexual comforts; the brutalist concrete basement cell housing the team’s rowing machines into its seductive, enabling villain. The latter offers success, records—quantitative proof that Dall isn’t just good, but better than—while also being a sacrificial altar. The Novice’s unrelenting and self-assured neurosis requires some pitch-black punchlines, keyed-in dialogue and aesthetic chutzpah—which Hadaway displays in spades. Keep an eye on her, as The Novice may have just revealed an up-and-coming master.—Jacob Oller