The 50 Best Movies on Disney+ Right Now (December 2021)

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The 50 Best Movies on Disney+ Right Now (December 2021)

Disney+ has quickly risen to the level of “streaming giant,” offering most of Disney’s animated and live-action properties, Marvel movies, Star Wars films, and 21st Century Fox catalog in one streaming service—and for just $7/month. There’s also a lot of weird Disney Channel original movies, straight-to-DVD sequels, and quite a few gaps in what it could be. But it’s not just The Mandalorian and WandaVision! Movies from all areas of Disney’s empire are readily available and when that includes the worlds of Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, Disney animated classics, and even a few from 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight…well, there’s going to be a lot to love.

We dug through the hundreds of live-action and animated movies streaming on the service to bring you the 50 best.

Here are the 50 Best Movies on Disney+:

1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

empire-strikes-back-poster-low.jpg Year: 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Genre: Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 124 minutes

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The Empire Strikes Back is Exhibit A in the category of sequels that surpass the original, taking the wondrous world we were granted in A New Hope and deepening, expanding its purview in every direction. It gives flesh to the idea of the “Rebel Alliance,” showing us how this ragtag band of freedom fighters operates while slowly winning the ideological battle and drawing more support to their cause. Every character undergoes positive growth: Leia (Carrie Fisher) moves from “princess” figurehead to military commander and tireless organizer of a resistance; Han (Harrison Ford) has become a leader of men, completing the transition he began when returning to help destroy the Death Star in A lion New Hope; and Luke (Mark Hamill) finally starts down the path to becoming a Jedi in earnest. His Dagobah scenes with Yoda are heavy with omens and portent; never in the series do the arcane mysteries of the Force feel as compelling as they do while Luke levitates rocks and digests philosophy. The mysticism and wonder of Star Wars are at their zenith in Empire. Elsewhere, the series’ space-piloting scenes have their most goosebump-raising moment when the Falcon dodges asteroids and T.I.E. Fighters. The petty squabbles of the Imperial Navy and its never-ending parade of dead officers give us a glimpse into the structure of the enemy. A colorful array of bounty hunters is assembled. A classic romance blossoms. All builds to what is perhaps the biggest “oh my god!” reveal in cinema history, completely redefining the audience’s perception of all the events that led up to it. It’s hard to imagine that Empire will ever be toppled as the greatest Star Wars film of all time, but if it somehow is, that will indeed be a momentous disturbance in the Force. —Jim Vorel


2. The Incredibles

the-incredibles.jpg Year: 2004
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre: Animation, Superhero
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 115 minutes

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With all the leaps and bounds taken in the genre in the last ten years alone, it should not be possible that the best superhero film ever is an animated film that came about separately from Marvel, DC or any of the companies in the business of making comics. Yet, here we are. Twelve years after Bob (Craig T. Nelson), Helen (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox) dealt with some rather serious Buddy (Jason Lee) issues, The Incredibles remains the gold standard—a deft balance of heart, humor and superheroics. The Pixar film is suffused with wit and wonder, with the oh-so-familiar family dynamic of the Family Parr being just as crucial to the final product as Syndrome’s Bond-worthy supervillain hideout and dastardly plan. In hindsight, The Incredibles deserves an additional accolade—Brad Bird’s film shows just how one can include dark themes in a superhero film yet not jettison all the other things that make the genre fun and awe-inspiring. The Incredibles takes place in a world where superheroes have been banned by the government. Syndrome’s plan has already claimed the lives of at least 15 supers by the time Mr. Incredible becomes involved. (And there’s that little aside from Edna Mode regarding capes and the crusaders undone by them.) And yet, this is still a world where the danger and darkness, as well as the all-too-human traits of our protagonists, can exist side by side with the wonder inherent in a reality where people have super frickin’ powers. Take note, Warner Bros., and anyone else driven by the need to inject a comic book property with “grit” and “realism.” (Please.) —Michael Burgin


3. The Princess Bride

princess-bride.jpg Year: 1987
Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 98 minutes

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Quite possibly the most perfectly executed transformation of a beloved book to a beloved film in the history of the sport. A family-friendly “kissing movie” with pitch-perfect performances by the entire cast—from main character to bit player—The Princess Bride is the most relentlessly quotable film anywhere this side of Monty Python and their Holy Grail. Though regarded warmly enough by critics, its status as comedic fable ensures it is criminally underrated on most lists. Inconceivable? Alas, no. But unfair, nonetheless. —Michael Burgin


4. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

star-wars-new-hope.jpg Year: 1977
Directors: George Lucas
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness
Genre: Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 125 minutes

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Before Star Wars, science fiction inhabited a vastly different cinematic landscape. Outside of a few films like John Carpenter’s Darkstar, these imagined realities tended to be pristine, shiny and generally fantastical. The Star Wars universe, on the other hand, dropped audiences into an already ongoing story, in a setting that felt incredibly thought out, organic and lived-in. Things get dirty. The Millennium Falcon is full of dents and dings, as worn as a real-world vehicle would be. It’s may be strange to use the word “realistic,” to describe the visual side of George Lucas’s space opera, but the setting for Star Wars simply felt more authentic than those that came before, and this is an often overlooked element of what made it a cultural phenomenon—along with, of course, its groundbreaking FX work. The people who really had their work cut out for them were filmmakers who wanted to do sci-fi in a post-Star Wars world. The bar of expectations had been raised to exponential heights. —Jim Vorel


5. Hamilton

hamilton.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Thomas Kail
Stars: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Chris Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry
Genre: Musical, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 160 minutes

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Hamilton opened on Aug. 6, 2015, in Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, where, if it were not for the ongoing pandemic, it would still be showing six nights a week. It went on to win 11 Tony Awards (and the Pulitzer Prize) and proved to be one of the hottest tickets in New York City, as well as nearly every major city in the U.S. during a slew of national tours. It has earned more than $1 billion across all ticket sales and merchandising. Last month, after a dramatically rushed release date, a recording of a Hamilton performance from summer 2016 featuring the original cast landed on Disney+ just before July 4, swiftly thrusting the musical back into the zeitgeist (like it ever left!). Finally, a musical that was once an incomprehensible privilege for most and enjoyed only by the elite is now available for the masses to enjoy. A global audience of fans was thrilled. Meanwhile, think-pieces exploded across the internet, including a few unfavorable ones. These newly-floated criticisms of Hamilton in a new era of Black Lives Matter protests are very valid. Miranda himself agrees. And there’s one glaring one we absolutely cannot overlook: The rapping, shimmying Founding Fathers (and their “Werk!” wives) portrayed in the story owned slaves. Casting people of color in these roles doesn’t change that fact. But may I be so bold as to say that you shouldn’t write off Hamilton altogether simply because of this glossier-than-reality depiction. As Strong Black Legends host Tracy Clayton described on Twitter, we possess the nuanced ability to engage with problematic material and hold it to higher standards than we would have five years ago. We can recognize the issues here as well as the brilliance. —Ellen Johnson


6. Toy Story 2

toy-story-2.jpg Year: 2012
Director: John Lasseter
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: G
Runtime: 92 minutes

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Toy Story was a revelation of technology. Its sequel was simply a revelation. When Woody is stolen by Seinfeld’s Newman, it’s Buzz Lightyear’s turn to save the day. The toy store scene with Tour Guide Barbie (“I’m a married spud, I’m a married spud”) and legions of Buzz toys is priceless. Improving on the original in almost every way, Toy Story 2 took the characters we grew to love in the first film and separated them—usually a recipe for disaster. But in this case, with Woody discovering the rest of the round-up gang, the new characters are integrated impeccably, and the larger scale of the story allows the sequel to have more gravity. —Josh Jackson & Jeremy Medina


7. The Avengers

the-avengers.jpg Year: 2012
Directors: Joss Whedon
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 142 minutes

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Nestled amongst the gaudy box office numbers ($1.55 billion) of Joss Whedon’s blockbuster is a much simpler achievement. Yes, The Avengers should evoke a deserved appreciation of Whedon’s directorial skills. And yes, the film’s release and reception make for a natural “And that’s when it was official” moment that the MCU took over Hollywood. But for comic book fans especially, The Avengers represents the first instance of the superhero team dynamic truly captured and sustained on film. Even though the X-Men (four times) and the Fantastic Four (twice) had received big screen treatment, those films were all still pretty static. The interaction between both heroes and villains were slow, separate vignettes rather than two-way, three-way or more-way battles. If Raimi’s Spider-Man showed why comic book superheroes are fun, The Avengers showed why superhero teams are. (The X-Men franchise fared much better at this with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot, not so much.) (See full review.) —Michael Burgin


8. The Lion King

the-lion-king-1994.jpg Year: 1994
Directors: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Moira Kelly
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: G
Runtime: 87 minutes

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Animated films often overreach for gravitas and fail miserably. The Lion King takes a mishmash of the stories of Hamlet, Henry IV, and some African folktales—and pulls it off. Simba&#8217 hearing his father’s ghost tell him “You are more than what you have become” resonates as deeply as anything in Shakespeare’s account of Young Hal. Somehow, even Elton John’s drippy soundtrack sounds majestic. This is a film that ennobles and the only version of it you ever need (except maybe the Broadway production). ——Michael Dunaway


9. Ratatouille

ratatouille.jpg Year: 2007
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: G
Runtime: 110 minutes

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On paper, the story of a French rat who dreams of being a five-star chef sounds ridiculous. On screen, it’s still a little ridiculous. But, that’s part of Ratatouille’s delectable charm. There are some startlingly profound themes within Brad Bird’s Parisian romp—namely, that dreams are tenable no matter who you are or where you come from (and this even applies to rodents, too). Joyful and preternaturally wise, the film remains one of Pixar’s smartest and best-written films. —Jeremy Medina


10. Black Panther

black-panther-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
Genre: Superhero
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 135 minutes

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Black Panther might be the first MCU film that could claim to most clearly be an expression of a particular director’s voice. We shouldn’t go so far as to call it auteurist, because it’s still a Disney movie and (perhaps ironically) a part of that monopolizing Empire—i.e., eat the rich—but Black Panther’s action scenes, especially, feel one with Coogler’s oeuvre. Look only to an early scene in a South Korean casino, in which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurire) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) plan to intercept a deal between Klaue and everyone’s favorite CIA milquetoast, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, lovable) for a vibranium-filled artifact which Klaue stole from some colonizer-run museum with Killmonger’s help. We’re introduced to Klaue through the surprising spryness of his violence—Andy Serkis, too, freed from mocap, is still an amazing presence, even as a gangster shitbag—and Coogler gets on his wavelength, carving out the geography of the casino in long tracking shots, much like he convinced us to love stained, shitty-seeming Philadelphia gyms in Creed by helping us to comprehend the many crevices and corners of each hole in the wall. When the casino brawl breaks out into the streets, morphing into a death-defying car chase (slow motion thankfully kept to a minimum), we feel as if we know exactly what these characters—and this wonderful director—are capable of. His vision for Wakanda—shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison as an Afrofuturist paradise—rightly draws its inspiration from an omnibus of natural sources, just the a casino scene affords Morrison the chance to go full Deakins (James Bond references all over this thing), imagining the world of the MCU as Steven Soderbergh might have scoped out Traffic, developing a fully sensual visual language to define the many locations of this world-hopping adventure without resorting to sterile maps or facile borders. If T’Challa’s whole narrative arc concerns the need for him to realize the importance of bringing Wakanda into our globalized world, of revealing its riches to a world that probably doesn’t deserve them, then the vastness of that world, the many different kinds of people who populate it, must be felt in all of its ungraspable diversity. —Dom Sinacola


11. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

pirates.jpg Year: 2003
Director: Gore Verbinski
Stars: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly
Genre: Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 143 minutes

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Daring to base the central character of a Disney franchise on a notorious junkie-alcoholic walking-corpse rock star like Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was a coup, but even more mind-blowing was how well Depp’s crazy idea worked. Guzzling rum as he bobs and weaves—stumbles, really—through this film delivering hilariously slurred one-liners, he is the consummate goodhearted scoundrel, easily stealing every frame he flamboyantly swaggers across. —Steve LaBate


12. WALL-E

wall-e.jpg Year: 2008
Director: Andrew Stanton
Stars: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin
Genre: Animation, Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: G
Runtime: 97 minutes

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Opening with 45 sublime minutes of almost no dialogue, WALL-E was a significant gamble for Pixar, whose remarkable string of successes to that point fell within a pretty narrow range. WALL-E rests firmly in the realm of children’s fantasy, but writer-director Andrew Stanton shooed the celebrity voices away from the center of the film and was clearly reaching toward something new. In a post-post-apocalyptic world where humans have gone into space and left behind an army of machines to clean up the place, 700 years have passed without much progress, and even the machines have fallen into ruin, except for one, a dilapidated ottoman-sized trash compactor named WALL-E who’s still honoring his directive and pining for a lost world. When WALL-E meets a gleaming white probe named Eve, their tentative relationship, like the rest of the film, evolves with few words. Even as the setting shifts to the ship containing the aforementioned humans and the rhythm shifts to action sequences with hazy goals, he film’s promise reduced to a well-executed but ordinary need for adrenaline, WALL-E is a noble experiment, lingering in the mind long after movies like Cars have faded. —Robert Davis


13. Avengers: Endgame

avengers-endgame-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Pratt, Brie Larson, Elizabeth Olsen
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 182 minutes

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Where does one begin? When it comes to Avengers: Endgame, that question is not so much an expression of wanton enthusiasm as a practical challenge in evaluating the destination toward which Kevin Feige and company have been steering story and viewer alike for the past 11 years and 21 films. Though there have been plenty of three-hour-plus movies and even a few 20+ entry movie franchises, there’s really nothing to compare with what Disney and Marvel Studios have pulled off, either in terms of size, quality and consistency of cast (a moment of silence for Edward Norton and Terrence Howard), or in how narrow the chronological window, all things considered, those movies were produced. Though we’ve praised it often, casting remains the cornerstone of the MCU. Whether by pitch-perfect distillations of decades-old comic book characters (Captain American, Thor, Spider-Man) or charisma-fueled reinventions of same (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Star-Lord), the MCU’s batting average in terms of casting is not only practically obscene, it’s a crucial ingredient in ensuring the thematic and emotional payoff (and box office payday) of Endgame. Moviegoers have been living with these actors, as these characters, for over a decade. For many, this version of these characters is the only one they know. This is why the sudden ashification of so many heroes at the end of Infinity War hit even the most cynical comic book veterans right in the feels and left less hardened viewers confused and distraught. It’s also why, as Avengers: Endgame opens (after another swift kick to the stomach just in case we’ve forgotten the toll of that snap), the audience cares about not just what the surviving heroes are going to do, but how they are doing in general. It gives the film an emotional resonance that’s unusual not only in pulpier genre offerings but in films in general. This connection makes the quiet moments as valuable to the viewer as the spectacle, and for all the fireworks in the third act, Avengers: Endgame is very much a film of quiet moments and small yet potent emotional payoffs. Comic book fans know the thrill of following all your favorite characters through a multi-issue storyline that culminates in a “universe at stake” ending. Now, thanks to 21 movies in 11 years and one massive, satisfying three-hour finale, moviegoers do, too. —Michael Burgin


14. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

roger-rabbit.jpg Year: 1988
Directors: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Mystery
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 104 minutes

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Robert Zemeckis sparked a massive animation revival with this part-animated, part-live-action meta-noir, the first such hybrid to win multiple Oscars since 1964’s Mary Poppins. The superbly crafted Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is set in a fantasy 1940s Hollywood where humans coexist with “Toons,” many of whom work in “pictures” (the back lot of Maroon Cartoons is a hilarious collage of references to every classic Disney feature and Saturday morning cartoon). Mostly it’s a peaceful coexistence, but not for morose private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), who’s been in alcoholic down-and-out-ville and an avowed Toon hater since an animated character killed his brother Teddy. Of course, he finds himself tied (sometimes literally) to impulse-control-challenged cartoon star Roger Rabbit, who’s been framed for the murder of gadget magnate Marvin Acme. Roger’s sultry pinup-girl wife Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner) and Valiant’s long-suffering ex Dolores (Joanna Cassidy) team up with the reluctant odd couple to solve the murder, in which a shady, erasure-happy Toon Town magistrate named Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd in perhaps the single best cinematic use of his signature eye-bugging) seems to be implicated. The mosaic of references to both classic film noir and classic animation is the stuff of drinking games, the story is hilarious and, sometimes when you least expect it, genuinely affecting, and the antics of live-action characters in the “Forget it, Jake—it’s Toon Town” universe are a joy to watch. —Amy Glynn


15. The Little Mermaid

little-mermaid.jpg Year: 1989
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Stars: Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Samuel E. Wright
Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Adventure, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: G
Runtime: 85 minutes

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Crucially, The Little Mermaid serves as the exact inflection point in which Disney Princesses’ goals changed from wanting a cute guy to wanting to be her own person—even though a woman who wants that has historically been viewed as somehow deficient. It’s all right there in Mermaid, in a way it absolutely was not in Sleeping Beauty, whose Princess Aurora didn’t have much agency in her own narrative. Besides the story of the mermaid princess Ariel actually being about Ariel and what she wants, it doesn’t hurt that The Little Mermaid is uplifted by some of the best musical numbers the studio had produced in at least a decade. Disney hired composer Alan Menken and playwright Howard Ashman off the back of the success of the Little Shop of Horrors film in 1986, based on their 1982 musical. How on Earth they thought guys who wrote a black comedy about a man-eating plant would be the perfect duo to revive the most kid-friendly of studios is puzzling, but it worked. Those memorable melodies were backed up by Ashman’s lyrics, which chiseled themselves directly into the brain stems of every child who heard them. In the The Little Mermaid, Ariel is indeed mooning over a cute boy. But she made the first move and she had to defy a controlling father and literally win back her voice and her damn legs too. Lots of heroines have followed in those footsteps. —Kenneth Lowe


16. Bambi

bambi.jpg Year: 1942
Directors: David Hand, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Graham Heid, Norman Wright
Stars: Hardie Albright, Stan Alexander, Peter Behn
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Rating: G
Runtime: 69 minutes

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Yeah, Bambi is sad. It’s also funny, and scary, and uplifting, and joyous and mundane. Bambi isn’t about a young deer whose mother is killed by a hunter; it’s about the first year of that deer’s life, and about all our lives in general. Everybody can see a bit of their own experience in Bambi’s growth to young adulthood. There’s so much depth and beauty in this movie, both before and after that fateful scene, and despite starring cute talking animals it’s still the most naturalistic and realistic of all Disney animated features. Its gorgeous, tender art style was driven by lead artist Tyrus Wong, a Chinese immigrant who was fired from Disney shortly after Bambi was completed due to the 1941 artists strike, and who was 106 when he passed away in 2016. Like the movie itself, Wong’s art is heartfelt and sublime. —Garrett Martin


17. Up

up.jpg Year: 2009
Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Stars: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 89 minutes

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The public hadn’t balked at a Wall-E, a film whose first two acts were essentially dialogue-free. How would it react to a film whose protagonist is an elderly widower with a hearing aid, dentures and back pain—who looks like and is voiced by Ed Asner? Thank God for Pixar and good storytelling. Asner’s character, Carl Fredericksen, isn’t just the grumpy, old man we expect, but a kind-hearted and devoted husband adrift after the loss of his wife. His first 78 years are condensed into the film’s beautiful first ten minutes, as we see a young boy with dreams of adventure fall in love with a fellow dreamer. Though childless, the couple live full lives until Carl is left alone. After his wife’s death, he clings on to every memory of her, including a house that stands stubbornly in the way of a high-rise development. He has a single regret (an unfulfilled promise of a trip to Paradise Falls), but even less purpose, and when cornered, he does what any wistful balloon-maker would do: Fly his house to South America. The resulting Andean adventures snap him from his self-pitying funk by providing him with a goal to pursue, but it’s not his childhood dream that provides ultimate fulfillment. In a culture that devalues its elders, tucking them away in nursing homes and occupying their time with leisure pursuits, it’s refreshing to be reminded that, regardless of age, meaning can always be found in both relationships and story—that glorious struggle to overcome adversity in the pursuit of justice. That the reminder comes in the form of a cartoon would be more surprising if not for the depth of Pixar’s track record. Sure, the film has its adorable characters for the kids—the dogs with innovative collars that allow their thoughts to be communicated through speech, the wilderness scout who tags along for the ride, some cute baby birds. But it also offers kids (and grown-ups) hilarious sight gags and dialogue, which my children were quoting all the way home. But what makes Up such a satisfying film is the story of an old man deciding that he still has life left to be lived. And that life is an adventure. —Josh Jackson


18. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

snow-white.jpg Year: 1937
Director: David Hand
Stars: Adriana Caselotti, Harry Stockwell, Lucille La Verne
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: G
Runtime: 83 minutes

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From the very beginning of the era of Disney animated feature films, witches have proven to be handy antagonists. Sleeping Beauty is one of the prime examples, but 22 years earlier, Snow White’s simplistic “Evil Queen” (whose actual name is apparently “Grimhilde”) laid the foundation for so many tropes to come. One gets the sense, watching this film today, that the animators wanted to depict the Queen as a classical, wart-nosed witch all along, but the film’s major plot device—that the queen is a desperate contender for “fairest of them all”—dictates that she can’t take on what might be considered her true form until she comes to Snow in disguise as a hunchbacked old crone. Her scheme to trick Snow into eating a poisoned apple seems appropriately biblical in nature, which only makes sense—given that witches were historically depicted as the consorts of Satan, the metaphor likely still resounded with those 1937 audiences. And indeed, the queen is eventually struck down by nothing short of a bolt of lightning, signifying the hand of God himself. This early in cinema history, you couldn’t exactly separate a witch from her scriptural damnation. —Jim Vorel


19. Finding Nemo

finding-nemo.jpg Year: 2003
Directors: Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton
Stars: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%
Rating: G
Runtime: 100 minutes

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Pixar delivered a gem in Finding Nemo. The film follows the clown fish Marlin’s trek across the ocean to find Nemo, his son who was captured by a diver and deposited in a dentist’s aquarium. The journey takes us from the breathtaking beauty of the Great Barrier Reef through alternatingly perilous and humorous encounters with deep-sea life. Meanwhile, Nemo and his new cohorts scheme to escape the aquarium, throw themselves out the dentist’s window, cross a highway, and jump into the ocean. Visually, Finding Nemo is spectacular. The animators render theses scenes with exquisite detail and vibrant color, reaching beyond mere CGI-wizardry to artistry. The voices of the film, anchored by Albert Brooks as the neurotic Marlin and Ellen DeGeneres as the frantic and forgetful Dory, help bring these characters to life. The script is witty, and the pacing serves to keep the audience engaged. Thematically, the film examines friendship and family, especially the complicated dance of dependence and independence between father and son. Finding Nemo is a thoroughly entertaining classic. —Tim Regan-Porter


20. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

captain-america-winter-soldier.jpg Year: 2014
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Stars: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Hayley Atwell
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 136 minutes

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For the non-comic book fan curious as to how exactly, after decades of missteps and, at best, hit-or-miss efforts, Marvel is on such a roll, let Captain America: The Winter Soldier serve as your primer. The film boasts an array of well-cast leads and supporting characters; a crisply paced, sensible plot; and above-average dialogue. Even more importantly, every scene and every character interaction prove that the movie’s creative team truly understands the core appeal of Cap himself—the tone of not just the character, but the comic book series from which he springs. Directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, The Winter Soldier picks up post Avengers with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in the modern day trying to be that quaint relic from his earlier life during World War Two—the good soldier. But the black-and-white ethical landscape of that time has been displaced by countless shades of gray. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and S.H.I.E.L.D. itself are all embodiments of a more complex present than that to which Cap is accustomed. Lest you worry Captain America: The Winter Soldier consists solely of moral quandaries and Steve Rogers sending discerning or suspicious looks in the direction of those around him, the brothers Russo have made, first and foremost, a thrilling action film. It’s an immensely enjoyable spy-thriller-flavored film with Bond-worthy flair (and orchestral flourishes). But first and foremost, it’s also a great Captain America film.—Michael Burgin


21. Toy Story

toy-story.jpg Year: 1995
Director: John Lasseter
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn
Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: G
Runtime: 80 minutes

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The one that started it all. Still to this day, Toy Story is a remarkable technical achievement (the first computer-animated film) and a flawless blueprint for all of the Pixar films that followed: start with a litany of standout characters (Woody, Buzz, Potato Head, Slinkie, Rex, and more); add a decidedly-sinister villain (in this case, the skull-shirted bully Syd); and top it off with a well-rounded, awe-inspiring adventure, and you’ve got the makings of an enduring classic. Few films can capture the true essence of childhood without featuring a kid as the main character, but that’s just what Pixar did in 1995 with Toy Story. The film’s hilarious (and heartwarming) competition between longtime toy-favorite Woody and flashy newcomer Buzz Lightyear wasn’t only entertaining—it explored themes of friendship, family and ultimately growing up. The film gave us our first peek into the legacy that Pixar solidified with classics like Up and Wall-E, not to mention three fantastic sequels. —Jeremy Medina and Tyler Kane


22. The Sound of Music

sound-music.jpg Year: 1965
Director: Robert Wise
Stars: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker
Genre: Musical, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Rating: G
Runtime: 174 minutes

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I don’t have to tell you that The Sound of Music is a classic. In fact, I have no reservations saying it is one of the best, most moving films in the entire canon of musicals. The 1965 film, starring the young starlet Julie Andrews and a dreamy Christopher Plummer, was adapted from the Broadway music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, respectively, and book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. It has everything you could want in a drama: love, loss, betrayal, humor and curtains that double as playclothes. It’s one of those rare stories (a true one, at that, based on the real-life Maria Von Trapp’s memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers) that brings an intensely personal narrative to the forefront of international conflict. With World War II raging on in their native Austria and across Europe, the Von Trapp family must decide what’s important to them and, ultimately, how to survive. And having one of the best soundtracks of all time doesn’t hurt, either: From the goofy “Maria” to the cutesy “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” to the heartbreaking “Something Good” and prettiest goodbye “So Long, Farewell,” these are songs we’ve been passing down and sharing with our families for decades now, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. —Ellen Johnson


23. Coco

coco-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Alanna Ubach, Jaime Camil, Sofía Espinosa, Selene Luna, Alfonso Arau, Edward James Olmos
Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 109 minutes

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Thanks to its story and, most importantly, its setting, Coco may count as one of Pixar’s clearest successes—and for many who long to see their culture center stage instead of just a flavor sprinkle, the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) as he struggles to pursue his dreams could prove the studio’s most meaningful yet. The implicit contract between films like Coco and the audience is a simple one: Sit back and let us immerse you in a world you haven’t seen before, or one you’ve only imagined. Directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina do just that. Coco’s underworld is richly textured and imagined, but so is the “real world” where we start and end up. Sure, by now it’s what we expect from Pixar, but it’s notable nonetheless. And the lasting accomplishment of Coco lies in the reverence and joy with which it depicts another culture’s celebration. Dia de los Muertos isn’t used as some convenient, exotic setting or explored through the eyes of someone from the United States (though early iterations of the script did just that, apparently). Instead, the film represents a full embrace of a culture and its people, as well as a celebration of family, both present and past. As such, it’s difficult to imagine healthier holiday fare. —Michael Burgin


24. Thor: Ragnarok

thor-ragnarok-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 130 minutes

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Sixteen films and nearly a decade into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)—and in the midst of renaissance/deluge of superhero movies in general—it’s not unusual to encounter some grumbling about both the genre and the MCU. You’ll find plenty of folks who bemoan its formulaic approach to plotlines, the overall weakness of its villains and lack of female heroes getting their due. Starting with Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man, there was also the rapidly accepted conventional wisdom that Marvel Studios was not the place for any director wishing to put his or her stamp on a franchise. Then along comes Thor: Ragnarok. The third film in the arguably least-loved franchise of Kevin Feige and company’s box office-melting enterprise, it’s also the liveliest, funniest and “loosest” film of the bunch (and that includes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). Much, if not all of this can be credited to director Taika Waititi, who seems determined to mine every ounce of comedy—be it physical, situational or conversational—from a tale that’s both rollicking buddy movie and retelling of the least uplifting tale in all of Norse mythos. Given the source material and the director’s track record, I’m not surprised there was plenty of ammo for Waititi or how well he used it—I’m just shocked and delighted he was allowed to use it in the first place. —Michael Burgin


25. The Nightmare Before Christmas

nightmare-christmas.jpg Year: 1993
Director: Henry Selick
Stars: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 76 minutes

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On simply a shot-by-shot basis, The Nightmare Before Christmas ranks as one of the most visually splendid films ever made. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, becomes obsessed with Christmas and decides to hijack the holiday. Often presented under the title Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, the film echoes many of the hit director’s pet themes, with Jack being one of Burton’s many brooding artistic protagonists. The film’s actual director was Henry Selick, who oversees an ingenious design and a cast of endearing monsters. The film doesn’t quite have the narrative fuel and graceful song lyrics to match Disney’s best animated musicals, but every year the film looks better and better. —Curt Holman


26. Beauty and the Beast

beauty-beast.jpg Year: 1991
Directors: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Stars: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Angela Lansbury
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: G
Runtime: 85 minutes

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The first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Beauty and the Beast, along with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and The Lion King in 1994, composed the last push of classic hand-drawn cartoons before Toy Story tipped the form definitively toward computer animation. As with so many Disney princesses, the role of Beauty (voiced by Paige O’Hara) is to find her prince, but she’s got a little feminist kick to her, constantly burying her nose in a book, dreaming of escaping her provincial life and rejecting the advances of the handsome oaf Gaston (Richard White). When her father, an idiosyncratic inventor whose character design smacks of Albert Einstein, gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon an enchanted castle, its inhabitant—a horrible Beast (Robby Benson)—takes him prisoner. Belle discovers her father’s captivity and offers to take his place. Her arrival is fortuitous, as time is running out to reverse the curse that has rendered Beast so, well, beastly and his staff a raft of household items, including a candelabra named Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), a mantel clock named Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), and a teapot named Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury). These charmed servants conspire to tame the Beast so that he’ll fall in love with Belle, and she with him, thus breaking the spell that has trapped them in bric-a-brac. The film’s major set pieces are thrilling, especially the Broadway-infused “Be Our Guest” number by Howard Ashman, whose jaunty lyrics seem as familiar today as they did in 1991, and Alan Menken, whose score won an Academy Award. If you like your rom-coms animated and musically inclined, the House of Mouse provides. —Annlee Ellingson


27. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star-wars-force.jpg Year: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Genre: Science-Fiction
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 136 minutes

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The Force Awakens provided a remedy for the near-terminal Prequel-itis of fans. J.J. Abrams and company accomplished this act of restorative cinema primarily through a return to the “dirty future” aesthetic that made the Original Trilogy feel so real (no matter how absurd the dialogue being delivered by the characters). That’s not to say CGI is lacking, but whereas budget and technology constraints helped the first three films and an overabundance hurt the next three, the balance between practical and special effects in The Force Awakens feels near perfect. I say “primarily” not to take away from other factors, such as casting. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are all solid, and Oscar Isaac brings a palpable vigor to his role. Ultimately, The Force Awakens just feels right in ways the Prequels never did. —Michael Burgin


28. Inside Out

inside-out.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Pete Docter
Stars: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rating: PG
Runtime: 94 minutes

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When Pixar is at its best, the studio’s films aren’t just massively entertaining and wonderfully funny—they’re almost piercingly emotional, touching on universal sentiments with such clarity, such honesty you feel they’re speaking directly to you, and you alone. (This may be why people’s favorite Pixar films are so fiercely defended: We take these movies personally.) Inside Out may be the best Pixar has released in a while, especially after a string of disappointing and underwhelming efforts, but what’s most cheering about the film—and most like Pixar’s celebrated classics—is that it’s so emotionally astute. You cry because it makes you happy, and you cry because it makes you sad, and you cry because it’s all true. —Tim Grierson


29. Guardians of the Galaxy

guardians-galaxy.jpg Year: 2014
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 121 minutes

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Director (and co-writer) James Gunn took the somewhat obscure team (to non-comic-book fans, at least) and kept the source material’s tone, attitude and bombastic settings intact. As the self-named Star-Lord, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) presents viewers with a pretty irresistible amalgam of Han Solo, Mal Reynolds and Captain Kirk. (Pratt owns this role.) The scene-stealing duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) also provides the latest reminder of how convincing mo-cap-aided CGI has become. (Within moments after being introduced to them, I was yearning for a Rocket and Groot buddy picture.) Frankly, it’s hard to compete with Quill, Rocket and Groot, but Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) don’t need to shine as brightly—unlike The Avengers, one doesn’t get the sense each team member’s time center stage is being meticulously measured. (One other important thing to note about Groot—he is Groot.) Marvel’s rambunctious entry into the space-opera genre—and the cornerstone of its “Cosmic Marvel” roster of characters and storylines—so perfectly embodies what the preceding months of hype and hope foretold that even its weak points feel almost like unavoidable imperfections—broken eggs for a pretty satisfying omelet. —Michael Burgin


30. Pinocchio

pinocchio.jpg Year: 1940
Directors: Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen, Wilfred Jackson, Norm Ferguson, Jack Kinney, T. Hee, Bill Roberts
Stars: Don Brodie, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro, Mel Blanc
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: G
Runtime: 88 minutes

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In 2014 a panel of animators, filmmakers, critics and historians voted on the greatest animated film of all time. Pinocchio won. That shouldn’t be a surprise: Disney’s second feature set a bar for artistry and storytelling that animators have been chasing ever since. It’s not just a gorgeous film with some of the best songs in movie history, but one with legitimate depth and emotion and a lesson that every person should learn. Disney still had its best roster of animators, before some of the best left or were fired after the 1941 strike, and the studio was still spending lavishly on production, before the war and the underperformance of Bambi and, uh, Pinocchio led to tighter budgets. Animated movies haven’t gotten better than this. —Garrett Martin


31. Avengers: Infinity War

avengers-infinity-war-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olson, Tom Holland, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 156 minutes

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Avengers: Infinity War is epic in a way that has been often aspired to but never fully grasped when it comes to the translation from comic book panel to the Big Screen. It’s what happens when moviemakers take their source material seriously, eschewing unnecessary melodrama even as they fully embrace the grandeur, the sheer spectacle, of it all. (And if there’s one lesson Disney has learned, it’s that if you focus on the viewer experience, the product lines will take care of themselves.) For every frenetic fight scene in Avengers: Infinity War—and there are plenty of them—there are myriad character interactions and emotional beats the audience has been prepped for by the previous films (okay, maybe not 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). As a result, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have ample room to riff and play as characters meet for the first time or see each other again. Some of the interactions are easy to anticipate (if no less enjoyable)—the immediate ego clash between Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, for example—but our familiarity with these characters adds resonance to nearly every scene and every line, as the vestiges and ripples of emotional arcs laid down in the last decade’s worth of movies bolster even the smallest moment. —Michael Burgin


32. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

return-jedi.jpg
Year: 1983
Director: Richard Marquand
Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew
Genre: Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 133 minutes

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Look, I’m not here to defend Ewoks. Really, I’m not. But there’s a certain subset of Star Wars fans who go really profoundly overboard on their Ewok hang-up. Yes, the little fuzzballs probably could have been phased out of Episode VI altogether, but outside of them, the film offers the most incredible action sequences and epic conclusion of the entire series. So please, forget about the Ewoks for one moment and appraise the film on the rest of its merits. It’s all here: Incredibly varied settings, from the grime of Jabba’s palace to the overgrowth of Endor and the cold, steely sparseness of Imperial command ships. A fully matured Luke (Mark Hamill) proves that his powers have grown considerably, that he’s not simply chasing “delusions of grandeur” in the rescue of Han (Harrison Ford). And then there’s the true introduction of Palpatine as the face of ultimate evil—is there any more badass way to introduce a character for the first time than for Darth Vader, who we’ve personally witnessed choke numerous officers to death for trivial offenses, to say, “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”? The space battle above Endor is the greatest that the series has ever produced, and probably ever will produce (the only thing that comes close is the conclusion of Rogue One); the sheer scale and dizzying choreography that ILM managed to pull off with practical effects in 1983 is still one of the most amazing VFX feats in cinema history. And the ultimate confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor is the tipping point of the entire trilogy’s arc: Luke’s final test—both of his Jedi resolve and his deep-seated belief in the spark of Anakin Skywalker left burning deep within Vader. The moment when Luke casts his lightsaber down and declares himself to be “a Jedi, like my father before me,” bringing a bitter scowl to the Emperor’s crestfallen face, is an emotional triumph. —Jim Vorel


33. Cinderella

cinderella.jpg Year: 1950
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Stars: Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton
Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: G
Runtime: 74 minutes

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Disney Studios was $4M in debt when they made this adaptation of the well-known fairy tale “Cendrillon” by Charles Perrault. I know, hard to believe, but they’d had a string of costly flops, including Fantasia and had lost their European market to the war. The film opened in 1950 to thunderous critical applause and put the studio well on its way back to being in the pink—by which I mean health, though it’s worth noting that this film is a direct ancestor of the Pink Sparkly Princess Syndrome that has become pandemic in three-to-seven-year-olds. While there might be no excuse for the merch-floods for which Disney is famous, this film is the real deal, one of the best animated features ever made. Disney pioneered the use of overdubbed vocals for the song “Sing, Sweet Nightingale,” creating the effect of the character singing harmony with herself. Salvador Dali and Christian Dior are said to have been direct influences on the clothes worn by the characters. The plot’s been with us for centuries, so I’ll forego the recap and say that the film takes full advantage of Disney’s fathomless imagination, mixing fantasy and humor and music in a way that captivates children more than sixty years later. And even though adults know “happily ever after” is a mixed bag at best, this film will probably still make you believe in it too. At least for a couple of hours. —Amy Glynn


34. Iron Man

iron-man.jpg Year: 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard
Genre: Superhero, Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 126 minutes

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There are plenty of important moments in the development of the superhero film, but the first Iron Man film boasts a few: It’s the first entry in Phase 1 of the MCU, and thus the easy-to-define dawn of the Marvel Age. But more interestingly, it showed that an actor could so overshadow the hero he portrays that he supplants that character, and it be a good. Before Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Iron Man was a great suit of armor with a pretty boring alter ego. Stark’s personal story arcs involved heart trouble, alcohol abuse and intellectual property disputes. Downey Jr. brought the quips and the irreverence, and made Tony Stark on film much more fascinating than he had ever been in the comics. And comic book fan and neophyte alike loved the result. Iron Man had what all the initial MCU brand launches have had thus far: a first-time-on-film freshness as an invigorating expression of the core character that had 40+ years under its belt yet not one good film to show for it. Add the increasing ability of CGI to handle the “super” of it all, and it’s pretty easy to overlook some of the film’s weaker plot points (e.g., the rushed “Wait, how does Jeff Bridges know how to operate that armor?” ending). As a result, the debut of the Downey Jr. show still ranks among the MCU’s best efforts. —Michael Burgin


35. Fantastic Mr. Fox

fantastic-mr-fox-movie-poster.jpg
Year: 2009
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 87 minutes

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A match made in heaven? Wes Anderson’s trademark ironic eccentricity and Roald Dahl’s vaguely menacing but entirely lighthearted surrealism combine to form Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s first animated effort, which uses the same maddeningly traditional stop-motion techniques as Isle of Dogs. It’s ostensibly a children’s film (Mr. Fox and his family and friends try to outrun the mean farmers), but rather transparently aimed at their parents, who likely read Dahl’s books in grade school, remember stop-motion when it didn’t feel vintage, and have followed Anderson’s work for years. But while earlier Anderson films may have turned off some audiences—and will most likely continue to—with their self-conscious quirk, Fantastic Mr. Fox is broader and more straightforward, trading some of the hipster-ness for cuteness. The tale has been greatly expanded from the Dahl original to cover familiar Anderson themes of family, rivalry and feeling different, and with its lush autumnal palette and hijinks worthy of Max Fischer or Dignan, the result is a film that only Wes Anderson could have made. —Alissa Wilkinson


36. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

last-jedi-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher
Genre: Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 152 minutes

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The Last Jedi, unlike its predecessor, has the freedom to be daring, and perhaps the most thrilling thing about it—and there are many, many thrilling things—is how abundantly it takes advantage of that freedom. If The Force Awakens was basically just Star Wars told again in a new, but familiar way, The Last Jedi challenges the audience, challenges the Star Wars mythos, even challenges the whole damned series itself. It blows the universe up to rebuild it; it is a continuation and a new beginning. And more than anything else, it goes places no Star Wars film has ever dreamed of going. In a way, the success J.J. Abrams had with The Force Awakens, particularly how decidedly fan-servicey it was, laid the groundwork for what The Last Jedi is able to pull off. That movie reminded you how much power and primal force this series still had. This movie is an even more impressive magic trick: It uses that power and force to connect you to something larger. Not everything in The Last Jedi works perfectly, but even its few missteps are all founded in the desire for something new, to take risks, to push an American myth into uncomfortable new directions. —Will Leitch


37. Aladdin

aladdin-1992.jpg Year: 1992
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Stars: Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: G
Runtime: 90 minutes

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Aladdin, along with The Lion King following it in immediate succession, certainly feels like the zenith of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, pushing the company’s animated features to daring new heights of artistic achievement and box office dominance. It was, in many ways, a genesis point for the structure of modern animated features, beginning a period of increased reliance on recognizable voice actors (in this case, a heavily promoted Robin Williams) as an audience selling point, rather than the casts of unknowns that had previously been the norm. Genie, on the other hand, became a character almost bigger and more valuable than Aladdin itself; a pop-cultural watershed moment that also served to make Williams beloved to an entire generation of 1990s kids who hadn’t exactly been the target audience for the likes of Mork & Mindy or Good Morning, Vietnam. More than anything, though, Aladdin thrives on a witty, rapid-fire screenplay, earworm musical numbers and lush animation that expertly mined the deep well of captivating mythology already present in One Thousand and One Nights, so rarely brought to life in the western world. —Jim Vorel


38. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-210.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Gareth Edwards
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Wen Jiang
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 133 minutes

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Gareth Edwards’ venture into a galaxy far, far away is the Star Wars film we never knew we needed. It’s a triumphantly thrilling, serious-minded war movie that is incalculably stronger for the fact that it’s NOT the first chapter in a new franchise. Rogue One is a complete film in a way that no other Star Wars movie other than A New Hope is capable of being. It doesn’t “set the stage” for an inevitable next installment, and its characters are all the realer for the fact that they’re not perpetually sheathed in blasterproof Franchise Armor. It is, so help me, a satisfyingly complete story, and I had no idea until I watched the film how refreshing that concept would be. Our protagonist is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a plucky young woman whose brilliant scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) has been controlled throughout her life by the Empire and coerced into designing superweapons of the moon-sized, planet-killing variety. Forced into a young adulthood on the fringes of the Rebel Alliance, she’s assembled a Jack Sparrow-esque rap sheet and, as the film begins, finds herself in Imperial prison on various petty charges. What Rogue One is, most accurately, is what it was sold as all along: a legitimate war movie/commando story, albeit with some familial entanglements. —Jim Vorel


39. Toy Story 4

toy-story-4-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Josh Cooley
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michal Key, Jordan Peele
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Rating: G
Runtime: 90 minutes

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We were all concerned about Toy Story 4. How could we not be? This is perhaps the most beloved animated franchise of the last 50 years, and, in the eyes of many, each movie has been a little better than the last one. That final one, Toy Story 3, ended in such a perfect, emotionally devastating fashion that trying to follow it up felt like the ultimate fool’s errand. And in the nine years since that installment, Pixar, as a company, has changed, becoming more corporate, more sequel-focused, more …Disney. What a relief it is, then, that Toy Story 4 is such an immense joy. It might not reach the heights of Toy Story 3—which manages to be a prison escape movie that also happens to be a profound dissertation on grief and death and features a surrealist tortilla—but it is a more than worthy member of the Toy Story family. Like its protagonist, it’s less concerned with trying to do something revolutionary just because it’s done it in the past and instead worries about what comes next …what the next logical progression is. It finds the next step, for Woody (voiced as ever by Tom Hanks in what honestly has always been one of his best roles), and the franchise, while still being as hellzapoppin’ and wildly entertaining as you have come to expect from this franchise. The overarching theme in Toy Story 4 isn’t as much death as it is loss—loss of purpose, loss of meaning, loss of value. What do you do with yourself when the best thing you’ll ever be a part of is already over? How do you find drive in life when your lifelong goal has been accomplished? How do you handle getting old and not being needed anymore? If these seem like heady concepts for a Toy Story movie …you’ve never seen a Toy Story movie. —Will Leitch


40. Muppets Most Wanted

muppets-most-wanted.jpg Year: 2014
Director: James Bobin
Stars: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson
Genre: Comedy, Adventure
Rating: PG
Runtime: 107 minutes

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This time around, they’re paying specific tribute to Kermit, the beloved amphibian behind the Muppets’ longevity; the film shows us what the crew might look like without his guiding influence, and it’s a pretty anarchic picture. But unlike The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t overtly pay homage to its subjects, and instead quite contently filters its bounty of heist caper tropes through a felt-tinted lens. By doing so, the film ends up being just as much of an ode to the Muppets’ brand of unbridled delight without having to wax sentimental; in the end, James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller cleverly get to have their cake and eat it, too. And so do we. —Andy Crump


41. Monsters, Inc.

monsters-inc.jpg Year: 2001
Director: Pete Docter
Stars: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 92 minutes

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Monsters, Inc. may very well be the most lovable film in the illustrious Pixar canon. And, based on everything from the exhilarating door-chase sequence to the brilliant decision of naming its colorful monsters run-of-the-mill things like Mike Wazowski, it might be its most inventive, encapsulating the spirit of childhood unlike any other of the company’s singular creations. Billy Crystal and John Goodman make an endearing and iconic odd couple. And that ending? Perfection. —Jeremy Medina


42. Mary Poppins

mary-poppins.jpg Year: 1964
Directors: Robert Stevenson
Stars: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Glynis Johns
Genre: Fantasy, Musical
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: G
Runtime: 139 minutes

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As portrayed by the iconic and formidable Julie Andrew, Mary Poppins has never met a problem a song can’t solve. She whips the Banks children into shape while helping their father understand that what children need most from their parents is their time and attention. There are so many delightful musical numbers but I have a soft spot for Dick Van Dyke’s Bert and his fellow chimney sweepers tap dancing on the roof tops of London in “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” Released over 55 years ago, songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Super-cali-fragil-istic” still feel fresh and new. There’s a joy to this movie that is infectious. I would say they don’t make movies like this anymore but 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns came very close to capturing the spirit of the original. Would that we all had a nanny like Mary Poppins. —Amy Amatangelo


43. Incredibles 2

incredibles-2-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Bird, Sophia Bush
Rating: PG
Runtime: 118 minutes

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


44. Finding Dory

finding-dory.jpg Year: 2016
Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Stars: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Hayden Rolence
Rating: PG
Runtime: 100 minutes

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Finding Dory picks up a year after the events of the 2003 Disney-Pixar blockbuster Finding Nemo. The adorably bumbling blue tang Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is still best friends and the third wheel to clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence), testing their patience on a daily basis. But this is fully Dory’s tale, as she searches for her parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) and finds herself in the process. Finding Dory is the rare sequel that repurposes the original as a character foundation rather than as a cheap form of fan service. What could have been an easy cash-in becomes something surprising—a follow-up that reaches new emotional depths. —Michael Snydel


45. Black Is King

black-is-king.jpg Year: 2012
Director:
Stars: Béyonce
Genre: Musical
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Runtime: 85 minutes

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Beyoncé’s latest visual feat might be her best yet. Black Is King is a bonanza of incredible choreography, stunning visuals and unbelievably beautiful costumes. Beyoncé is no stranger to the director’s chair. Her other visual album, 2016’s Lemonade, was a striking companion to the album of the same name. She also co-directed Homecoming, last year’s Netflix documentary and concert film documenting the long road to and the final product of Beyoncé’s now-legendary 2018 Coachella performance. The vibrant Black Is King, which took more than a year to complete, is symbolically and visually just as striking as the two aforementioned projects, but it’s more colorful and maybe even stronger scene-by-scene. The movie is based on Beyoncé’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, which she released in honor of the live action Disney movie starring herself and Donald Glover in the roles of Nala and Simba respectively. Black Is King is also based on The Lion King story. She continues her exploration of Black greatness with rare guest spots from Jay-Z and their children Blue Ivy, Rumi and Sir Carter, as well as Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles-Lawson, her Destiny’s Child sister Kelly Rowland, Pharrell Williams, Lupita Nyong’o and a host of African musicians and creators from around the world. In this movie, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are, as usual, concerned with the legacy they’ll one day leave behind. There’s absolutely no denying what that legacy will be: They spent their careers reminding the world how special Blackness really is. The film ends with a mantra confirming this goal: “We need to show black men and women are emotional, strong and intuitive.” —Ellen Johnson


46. Mulan

mulan.jpg Year: 1998
Director: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
Stars: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, Lea Salonga, B.D. Wong, George Takei
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Rating: G
Runtime: 88 minutes

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It seems like all of Eddie Murphy’s best comedic performances since Coming to America are animated. His little dragon Mushu is a sharp source of humor in this otherwise touching retelling of a Chinese folktale—a wonderful move by Disney to give its target market a strong heroine, whose bravery and sense of duty is admirable. Gorgeously animated with rich, saturated colors, the 2-D film is populated by three-dimensional characters, and in a story about honor, the studio brings just the right Eastern touches to pay due respect to China’s history. —Josh Jackson


47. Fantasia

fantasia.jpg Year: 1940
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley
Stars: Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor, Walt Disney
Genre: Animation, Musical, Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: G
Runtime: 116 minutes

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The first commercial film—animated or live-action—ever to be shown in stereophonic sound and a collection of eight short pieces intercut with live-action intros by Deems Taylor, Fantasia is set to classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski, mostly with the Philadelphia Orchestra. While the origin of the film’s concept was fairly mundane (Walt Disney wanted a star vehicle for Mickey Mouse, whose ratings were flagging), what ended up happening, though, was a really interesting investigation into how music could be represented visually in the animated medium. Rather than writing storyboards and creating a soundtrack, the production team sat in meetings listening to Paganini and Stravinsky and Mussorgsky until Disney connected the sounds with images and built on it from there. Disney, who wasn’t much of a classical music buff, found his famously boundless curiosity piqued by the concept of using animation to support music rather than the other way around, and plunged into the project with enthusiasm, believing it would open people’s ears (like his own) to classical music they had previously ignored. An amazing collection of experts and performers were assembled to consult on science, animal movement and different types of dance. (Disney scrapped a portion of the Rite of Spring sequence that showed the discovery of fire out of concern that it would provoke angry Creationists; but biologists, paleontologists and astronomers, for example, were consulted.) Similarly, animators were given tickets to the Ballet Russe, and reptiles were brought into the studio to be studied. Fantasia ran at New York’s Broadway Theatre for 49 consecutive weeks, the longest film run ever at the time. Shows sold out across the country, yet Fantasia initially ran at a loss due to the expense of the state-of-the-art Fantasound systems along with theater lease and other production costs. RKO cut the film from two hours, five minutes to one hour, twenty minutes and showed it in mono to trim costs. It was restored partially in 1946 and to its original condition in 1990. Weird, beautiful, orgiastic, abstracted, wildly colored and meticulously recorded, the film was a critical darling and considered to be an incredibly bold move on Disney’s part, though many in the classical music community nitpicked Stokowski’s arrangements. (Everyone’s a critic.) Overall, the film is more a distance runner than a sprinter and a brilliant example of Disney’s strange, maverick, expansive imagination. —Amy Glynn


48. Isle of Dogs

isle-of-dogs-movie-poster.jpg
Year: 2018
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray
Genre: Comedy, Animated, Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

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


49. Avatar

avatar.jpg Year: 2009
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Genre: Science-Fiction
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 162 minutes

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It makes sense that Avatar is still the highest grossing movie ever made: Irony and insincerity have no place in its extended universe. Whether or not James Cameron intended to crib the world of Pandora and its futuristic inhabitants from practically every fantastical ur-text ever conceived, it hardly matters, because Avatar is modern mythmaking at its most foundational. Cameron still seems to believe that “the movies” can give audiences a transformative experience, so every sinew of his film bears the Herculean effort of truly genius worldbuilding, telling the simple story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his Dances with Wolves-like saving of the Na’vi, natives to the planet of Pandora, from the destructive forces of colonialism. Cameron wants us to care about this world as much as Jake Sully, and by extension James Cameron, does, crafting flora and fauna with borderline sociopathic obsessiveness, at the time pushing 3-D technology to its brink to bring his inhuman imagination alive. It worked; “unobtanium” is actually a real thing. Four sequels feels like a disgusting gambit for a man whose ambition may have long ago outpaced his sense of storytelling, or sense of reason, or sense of what our oversaturated, over-franchised culture can even stomach anymore. But Cameron’s proven us wrong countless times before. —Dom Sinacola


50. Doctor Strange

doctor-strange.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 130 minutes

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When the folks at Marvel Studios truly realized, likely via The Avengers in 2012, that these films were comedies just as much as they were action-adventure stories, it crystallized the format in ways both positive and somewhat limiting. The result is that one can never quite take seriously claims that a new film is going to “break the mold” of the MCU, but at the same time it’s hardly something to complain about, when that mold is fundamentally solid and entertaining. To that end, Doctor Strange is crowd-pleasing and exciting—funny when it should be, sober when it has to be and crackling with a magical mystique that adds a veiled layer of depth to the inner workings of the Marvel universe. Even without too many overt references to the rest of the MCU, everything in Doctor Strange makes one wonder how the revelation of the Marvel Multiverse will affect the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and others.—Jim Vorel

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