The 25 Best Movies On Demand Right Now (September 2021)

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The 25 Best Movies On Demand Right Now (September 2021)

The competition for on-demand movies has grown in recent years beyond cable companies like Time-Warner, Charter, Cox Fios and Xfinity to online video-on-demand companies like FandangoNow and internet giants Amazon, Apple and Google. We searched through the offerings of all of the above to bring you the Best Movies On Demand, though no one service offers them all. We limited it to new VOD movies available to rent for less than $10. Several of these films appear on our list of the Best Movies of 2021. Funnily enough, many of our picks for the top of that yearly list are streaming service exclusives, so don’t be surprised to find some older (yet still incredible) films still lingering. That’s just the way of the distribution world.

Many of the cable companies have branded their Movies on Demand service, so Time-Warner and Charter customers will be looking for Spectrum, Comcast on-demand is branded Xfinity, Verizon goes by Fios and AT&T calls its program U-verse. The selections are up to date as of September 2021, but cable providers change their film on demand offerings regularly.

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

Here are the 25 Best Movies on Demand:


1. Undine

undine-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, GooglePlay
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

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


2. First Cow

first-cow-movie-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay
Year: 2020
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 121 minutes

Kelly Reichardt’s Oregonian ode to the human desire for comfort and friendship takes us back to the territory during the mid-19th century, when the economy of beaver pelts and gold rush hopefuls brought waves of migration to the area. A baker from Maryland, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), finds himself amid a hostile group of fur trappers on the way to Oregon when he runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant fresh on the run from scorned Russians. A fraternal bond between the two quickly materializes, and when a coveted dairy cow is brought to the territory by an English nobleman known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), King Lu immediately recognizes that fresh milk combined with Cookie’s baking expertise could give the duo a unique trade in an area where the predominant sweet is a bland concoction of water and flour crackers. And so, in the dead of night, King Lu and Cookie leave the small shack they share with a metal pail in hand, sneaking through the pasture until they reach the dairy cow. Reichardt makes no moral judgement on them for stealing; the irony is that Cookie and King Lu’s act of theft is so small compared to the pillaging and exploitation that propelled America into an economic superpower in the first place. First Cow takes place when slavery was the main economic drive of the country, when Native Americans were facing genocide, when women were second-class citizens. First Cow will win most viewers over; it is funny in the most earnest way, with the beauty of friendship presented as the foundation of the film. Yet if the film wants to implore us to understand the essence of our species, its portrayal of burgeoning American capitalism is undoubtedly, jarringly, at odds with the nature of mankind. —Natalia Keogan


3. Nomadland

nomadland-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Spectrum
Year: 2020
Director: Chloé Zhao
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

A devastating and profound look at the underside of the American Dream, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland turns Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (and some of its subjects) into a complex folk song about survival, pride and the beauty of getting by on the open road. Focusing on older Americans who’ve somehow either abandoned or been forced from stationary traditional homes into vans and RVs, the film contemplates all that brought them to this point (an ugly, crammed Amazon warehouse looms large over the movie’s otherwise natural landscapes and sweeping vistas) and all that waits for them now that they’re here. Some of Bruder’s sources make appearances in the film, threatening to steal the show from the fictional Fern (Frances McDormand) at every turn—and McDormand turns in one of the best performances of the year. That’s just how honest and compelling Linda May and Swankie are. As the migrating community scatters to the wind and reconvenes wherever the seasonal jobs pop up, Zhao creates a complicated mosaic of barebones freedom. It’s the vast American landscape—a “marvelous backdrop of canyons, open deserts and purple-hued skies” as our critic put it—and that mythological American promise that you can fend for yourself out in it. But you can’t, not really. The bonds between the nomads is a stiff refutation of that individualistic idea, just as Amazon’s financial grip over them is a damnation of the corporation’s dominance. Things are rough—as Fern’s fellow travelers tell campfire tales of suicide, cancer and other woes—but they’re making the best of it. At least they have a little more control out here. The optimism gained from a reclaimed sense of autonomy is lovely to behold (and crushing when it comes into conflict with those angling for a return to the way things were), even if its impermanence is inherent. Nomadland’s majestic portrait puts a country’s ultimate failings, its corrupting poisons and those making the best of their position by blazing their own trail together on full display.—Jacob Oller


4. Pig

pig-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Spectrum
Year: 2021
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
Genre: Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

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. The Paper Tigers

the-paper-tigers-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Spectrum
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

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


6. Sator

sator-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, Google Play
Year: 2021
Director: Jordan Graham
Starring: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson
Genre: Horror
Runtime: 86 minutes

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


7. Bacurau

bacurau-movie-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, Google Play
Year: 2020
Directors: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Starring: Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Sônia Braga
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 132 minutes

Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelle’s Bacurau begins with a woman named Teresa (Bárbara Colen) being driven down a winding mountain road with sweeping swathes of lush greenery below. Suddenly, a splintered wooden casket appears in the middle of the asphalt. After the driver swerves to avoid it, there is another one. And another. Soon, broken caskets litter the entire road. The cause of the coffin calamity is revealed when Teresa sees that an open-back truck transporting caskets has collided into the mountainside, killing its passengers. The scene is oddly pleasant, though, as opportunists have quickly begun selling off the least damaged goods to a line of passersby, both seeming giddy about the exchange. Death is pervasive in the film, but it is often funny, and coincidentally Teresa is on her way to a funeral. Her grandmother—the beloved matriarch of Bacurau, a small Brazilian village where she grew up—has died. The entire town mourns her death, oblivious to the fact that their little village is slowly, literally, being erased from the face of the earth. Here, what has seemed like a horror film morphs into a weird Western that incorporates psychoactive flora, a seemingly benign history museum, and even an apparition or two. That’s not even counting the UFO. Bacurau is wildly creative, and its hilarious, Dadaist aura provides an uncanny comfort despite ample bloodshed. This is not to say that it’s without heart-wrenching loss and tearful contemplation of a world on fire. It’s clear that there is no space for moral ambiguity in this film. In reality, the Amazon is ablaze, rampant inequality festers and indigenous populations are displaced all for the net benefit of the ruling class. Bacurau is a long overdue neo-colonial revenge fantasy. —Natalia Keogan


8. Emma.

emma-2020-movie-poster.jpg Available on: DirecTV, Fandango, U-Verse
Year: 2020
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Miranda Hart
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Rating: PG
Runtime: 132 minutes

Shot as though each frame were a frothy realist painting, scored as though it were a Chaplin-esque silent film and pulled together by a cast of comedically impeccable performances, Autumn de Wilde’s feature-length debut, Emma., is made up almost entirely of thrillingly executed moments. More comedy of manners than straight romance, both Jane Austen’s novel and de Wilde’s film take as their subject a happily single Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), the “handsome, clever, and rich” mistress of an English country estate, as she fills her days as by mounting a series of ego-driven (if well-intentioned) matchmaking schemes. Signaled by the film’s opening in the soft dawn hours of the village’s latest Emma-orchestrated wedding day, these schemes have a history of being remarkably successful—successful enough, at least, that on one side, Emma has her co-dependent, doom-and-gloom father (a charming, if anxious, Bill Nighy) cautioning her not to start any schemes that might take her away from him, while on the other, she has the Woodhouses’ handsome family friend, Mr. Knightley (a refreshingly fiery Johnny Flynn), cautioning her against riding so high on her previous matchmaking coups that she starts an audacious scheme even she can’t pull it off. Beyond creating what would be a solid moviegoing experience in any context, the warm, boisterous sense of community this deep attention to detail works to build is, as Paste’s Andy Crump highlights in his thoughtful interview with de Wilde and Taylor-Joy, exactly what any 2020 take on a 205-year-old comedy of manners needed to cultivate. With our current cultural moment so defined by protracted digital isolation—and its cousin, anonymity-enabled cruelty—the best thing de Wilde’s Emma. could do was lean so hard into the sublimity of Austen’s original that, for the entirety of its gloriously phone-free two-hour runtime, its audience might feel, collectively, transported. —Alexis Gunderson


9. In the Heights

in-the-heights-poster.jpg Available on: DirecTV, Spectrum, U-Verse, Verizon
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

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


10. The Empty Man

the-empty-man-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Spectrum
Year: 2020
Director: David Prior
Stars: James Badge Dale, Owen Teague, Stephen Root, Marin Ireland
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 137 minutes

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


11. Martin Eden

martin-eden-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, GooglePlay
Year: 2020
Director: Pietro Marcello
Stars: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG
Runtime: 129 minutes

Martin Eden, Jack London’s 1909 novel, finally got an adaptation worthy of its author from Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello. The wide-ranging, painterly and dense evolution of a sailor-turned-author (here played in alluring, heart-wrenching, ultra-charismatic form by Luca Marinelli) from his blue collar roots to the upper echelons of the in-vogue is a stunning drama with a lot on its mind. Eden’s infatuation with learning is linked to his equal infatuation with the upper-class Elena (Jessica Cressy), and the combination of the two stop his primal ways (signified by one-night stands and humorously nonchalant fistfights) in their tracks. Marinelli’s earthy confidence and swaggering sex appeal are ogled by everyone—he’s a burly, good-natured sailor after all—but it’s his ideas that shout out London’s railing commentary on class inequality. As the film’s complex politics (made more resonant through the setting change to Italy) debate messily imperfect socialism and the mercenary bootstrapping tactics of individualism, Eden embodies this ideological journey through an impressive physical transformation, turning waxen, weak and washed-up as his literary ambitions find the exact wrong kind of success. Marcello’s Martin Eden is akin to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in its majestic beauty and society-spanning saga of a story, but with a meaner humor and rawer sense of criticism. The ex-documentarian’s penchant for slipping back and forth between old home movie-esque footage and his high art compositions make the dueling philosophies of the film even clearer. Somehow most impressive of all is Martin Eden’s success at making an exciting, engrossing film about a writer in which the writing process is actually fun (and beautiful) to watch. Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci work London’s words into wonders.—Jacob Oller


12. Minari

minari-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Cox, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, U-Verse
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Stars: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 115 minutes

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


13. Mandibles

mandibles-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Optimum, Spectrum, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, DirecTV
Year: 2021
Directors: Quentin Dupieux
Stars: David Marsais, Grégoire Ludig, Adèle Exarchopoulos, India Hair, Roméo Elvis, Dave Chapman
Runtime: 77 minutes

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


14. Tenet

tenet-poster-low.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Spectrum
Year: 2020
Directors: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 150 minutes

A classic Christopher Nolan puzzle box, at first glance Tenet is a lot like Inception. The central conceit that powers it is both cerebral and requires copious on-screen exposition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Nolan’s films always have at least one person trying to get their head around what exactly is going on, and it makes sense the audience would be as confused as the Protagonist (John David Washington), especially early on. Also, as with Inception, Tenet is basically a series of heists—smaller puzzle boxes within the larger one—which means while the viewer may not understand exactly what’s going on big picture, they will find the immediate action briskly paced and compellingly presented. Still, despite a compelling performance from Kenneth Branagh as antagonist Andrei Sator, the cerebral underpinnings and and even as the exact mechanics of this particular puzzle may demand more from the filmmaker than the audience, no amount of painstakingly crafted “time-inverted” action sequences nor Ludwig Göransson’s sweeping score can fill that hole occupied by a sympathetic main character, which Tenet lacks. None of this rests on Washington. Past Nolan protagonists like McConaughey (Interstellar), Pearce (Memento) and DiCaprio (Inception) not only had actual names, they had relatable motives and discernible emotional arcs. And though personal growth and emotional depth are hardly necessary ingredients in a spy thriller—just look at Bond, classic Bond—with so much else about Nolan’s script a mental exercise made real, some emotional stakes would be helpful to bring it alive. That might keep Tenet from the #1 slot on this year’s Best Sci-Fi list, but it shouldn’t keep lovers of the genre from seeing the only big budget science fiction to debut in theaters in 2020. —Michael Burgin


15. The Invisible Man

invisible-man-2020-movie-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, GooglePlay, Xfinity, Uverse, Fios/Verizon
Year: 2020
Director: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge
Genre: Horror
Rating: R
Runtime: 124 minutes

Aided by elemental forces, her exquisitely wealthy boyfriend’s Silicon Valley house blanketed by the deafening crash of ocean waves, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) softly pads her way out of bed, through the high-tech laboratory, escaping over the wall of his compound and into the car of her sister (Harriet Dyer). We wonder: Why would she run like this if she weren’t abused? Why would she have a secret compartment in their closet where she can stow an away bag? Then Cecilia’s boyfriend appears next to the car and punches in its window. His name is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and according to Cecilia, Adrian made a fortune as a leading figure in “optics” (OPTICS!) meeting the self-described “suburban girl” at a party a few years before. Never one to be subtle with his themes, Leigh Whannell has his villain be a genius in the technology of “seeing,” in how we see, to update James Whale’s 1933 Universal Monster film—and H.G. Wells’ story—to embrace digital technology as our primary mode of modern sight. Surveillance cameras limn every inch of Adrian’s home; later he’ll use a simple email to ruin Cecilia’s relationship with her sister. He has the money and resources to peer into any corner of Cecilia’s life. His gaze is unbroken. Cecilia knows that Adrian will always find her, and The Invisible Man is rife with the abject terror of such vulnerability. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio have a knack for letting their frames linger with space, drawing our attention to where we, and Cecilia, know an unseen danger lurks. Of course, we’re always betrayed: Corners of rooms and silhouette-less doorways aren’t empty, aren’t negative, but pregnant with assumption—until they aren’t, the invisible man never precisely where we expect him to be. We begin to doubt ourselves; we’re punished by tension, and we feel like we deserve it. It’s all pretty marvelous stuff, as much a well-oiled genre machine as it is yet another showcase for Elisabeth Moss’s herculean prowess. —Dom Sinacola


16. The Painter and the Thief

the-painter-and-the-thief-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay
Year: 2020
Director: Benjamin Ree
Genre: Documentary
Runtime: 102 minutes

Career criminal and addict Karl-Bertil Nordland lays his eyes on the oil canvas portrait painted by his most recent victim, artist Barbora Kysilkova, 15 minutes into Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, and then experiences a character arc’s worth of emotions in about as many seconds: shock, confusion, bewilderment, horror, awe, then finally gratitude communicated through tears. For the first time in his adult life, maybe in all his life, Nordland feels seen. It’s a stunning portrait, so vivid and detailed that Nordland looks like he’s about to saunter off the frame from his still life loll. Even a subject lacking his baggage would be just as gobsmacked as he is to look on Kysilkova’s work. In another movie, this one of a kind moment of vulnerability might’ve been the end. In The Painter and the Thief, it’s only the beginning of a moving odyssey through friendship, human connection and ultimate expressions of empathy. Ree’s filmmaking is a trust fall from a highrise. Trust is necessary for any documentary, but for Ree, it’s fundamental. The Painter and the Thief isn’t exactly “about” Nordland and Kysilkova the way most documentaries are “about” their subjects, in the sense that the film’s most dramatic reveals come as surprises to the viewer as much as to Nordland and Kysilkova themselves. The sentiment reads as cliché at a glance, but The Painter and the Thief argues that clichés exist for a reason. Think better of art’s power, Ree’s filmmaking tells us, but especially think better of each other, too. —Andy Crump


17. News of the World

news-of-the-world-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, Cox, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, U-Verse
Year: 2020
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 118 minutes

Paul Greengrass and screenwriting partner Luke Davies may have adapted Paulette Jiles’ 2016 Western novel News of the World at least in partial consideration of how far the United States hasn’t come as a nation—around the time of the book’s publication, such cursed phrases as “fake news” and “alternative facts” were inducted into popular language by fascists and crooks attempting to pull a fast one on the American people. Neither of these terms, nor their equally grotesque cousins, make their way into Greengrass’ film, but the spirit that conjured them into being four years ago is alive and well in his recreation of the American frontier. His hero is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Confederate Civil War veteran who, having stood on the losing side of history, moseys across the Lone Star State and reads out-of-town papers to the locals at each stop on his journeys. The movie doesn’t exactly ask the viewer to overlook which side of the war Kidd stood on: In fact, the truth of his old allegiances becomes more unavoidable the less directly they’re spoken of. This is Texas. An erstwhile soldier in Texas could only have fought on one side of the aisle. News of the World damns Kidd without having to say a word. But as soon as the film judges him, it presents him with a chance at redemption in the form of a girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Zengel is a fresh spark in an otherwise old-fashioned production, but old-fashioned here is a compliment. News of the World has no interest in subverting or updating classic Western formulas: It is content with its function as a handsomely-made studio picture, built ostensibly around Hanks but with plenty of room for its young star to make her mark. What modernizes the movie has more to do with context than content. Anyone trapped in indentured servitude to social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or worse, other people’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts—should appreciate this calming two-hour reprieve from the unavoidable din publishers and platforms make in our lives today. There’s such a thing as too much news, whether for better or worse, and News of the World only tries to give us the best. —Andy Crump


5. Zola

zola-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Spectrum, Cox, Uverse
Year: 2021
Director: Janicza Bravo
Stars: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 90 minutes

A’Ziah “Zola” King’s ultra-viral Tweet thread—AKA The Story AKA The Thotessy AKA Dante’s Infern-ho—about stripping, sex trafficking and the dangers of braving the surreal and nearly mythological land of Florida with a white girl you barely know, has it all. It’s hilarious and disturbing, with characters noble, treacherous and pathetic, damning voyeurism while encouraging our participation and spectatorship. The social media saga is also a treatise on storytelling. It’s been embellished, deleted and reposted after the dark comedy inherent in the compelling truth was honed for an audience—an evolving epic poem, technologically modernized. Naturally, writer/director Janicza Bravo had her work cut out for her when turning its garish and nightmarish weekend into a film. But she responds in kind, adding in her own tweaks and retellings to heighten the fable. Zola maintains its source’s compelling magic, transforming us from rubberneckers to spellbound participants along for the wildest cinematic road trip of the year. In less capable hands, Zola could’ve been a movie of morbid fascination. But Bravo, who adapted her sophomore feature alongside Jeremy O. Harris, embraces the secondhand spontaneity of the vibe while immersing us in the humanity of its participants. We’re rarely looking at them, as can happen during the sleazy Floridian spectacle of Spring Breakers, but going through it with them. Sometimes that means empathizing with Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) when they’re feeling themselves, taking selfies in the strip club dressing room. Sometimes that means chuckling sadly when Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun, whose clueless giant schtick gets a Malibu’s Most Wanted coat of paint) brags to a stranger in an empty liquor store that they’re in town “making shmoney.” But the shmoney ain’t for nothin’ and these chicks ain’t free, as the next days spiral from a simple strip trip to a messy collision between culture vultures, warring sex traffickers and an ever-increasing desire to get the hell home. Zola continues the fairy tale evolution of King’s story, passing the rich text on with the same outrageous spirit—a level of respect most adaptations only aspire to.—Jacob Oller


19. Sorry We Missed You

sorry-missed.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, GooglePlay
Year: 2020
Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Sheila Dunkerley
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 102 minutes

Ken Loach’s movies typically force viewers to acknowledge the toll a job can take on both body and spirit. Without fuss or forced moralizing, Sorry We Missed You performs this service for the folks who thanklessly zip about town dropping off parcels ordered yesterday by people who actually needed them a week before. The movie demystifies the browser sorcery of one-click purchases by humanizing, for better and for worse, the mechanics behind this modern-day ministration: Loach starts with Ricky (Kris Hitchen), head of the Turner family, who is first met interviewing Maloney (Ross Brewster), his boss-to-be, for a post as an owner-driver for a third-party delivery outfit nestled in North England. Maloney seems reasonable enough. He hears Ricky’s story, at least, his history as a blue-collar man whose years of hard labor have left him craving for freedom from micromanaging bosses. Ricky wants to be his own boss now, and Maloney’s spiel about choice and self-agency appeals to his wants. It’s all an illusion, of course, and the economy of Laverty’s writing succinctly lays out the tension between Ricky’s ambitions and the crushing realities of the position he’s sought out. The gift of personal determination Maloney offers him is a Trojan horse containing seeds of poverty. The way this job works, every package Ricky hands off is another row sown in his inevitable destitution. It’s sick. It’s barbaric. It’s just one problem among several the Turners deal with as a direct consequence of Ricky’s enterprise. He has to sell off, for instance, the family car, which his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), uses for her own career as a home care nurse, which means she has to use public transportation, which is another stress added to an already stressful job made more stressful by her boss, who like Maloney doesn’t really give a damn about Abbie as a person—only as a hireling. Sorry We Missed You operates on a micro-level with contrastingly astronomical stakes. It’s a movie about one small family—including, apart from Kris and Debbie, their mulish teen son, Seb (Rhys Stone), and younger, sweethearted daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor)—doomed to the streets if either Dad or Mom missteps. They have no safety net. They have no contingency plan. Worst of all, Kris and Debbie both have jobs designed to wring the most out of them with the least compensation or compassion in exchange. The perils of parenthood are enough without having to answer the question of how the lights stay on every day. —Andy Crump


20. The Whistlers

whistlers-movie-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay
Year: 2020
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Stars: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Sabin Tambrea, Rodica Lazar, Agusti Villaronga
Rating: R
Runtime: 97 minutes

Director Corneliu Porumboiu is no stranger to procedures or regulations, nor insensitive to the ways in which the strictures we impose on ourselves and others end up wrapping us up from within. His previous film, the documentary Infinite Football, allows his friend Laurentiu Ginghina time and cinematic space to explain the many modifications and new rules to enact in order to, he believes, completely revitalize the sport of football—all while exorcising the trauma of post-Communist Romania. The crime drama, then, is a genre particularly suited to Porumboiu’s concerns, and his latest, The Whistlers, appears as much a pulp exercise as a stylish deconstruction of social order in all its forms, from the institutions of justice to the basic tenets of language. In it, laconic, mild-mannered cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) navigates an elaborate schema of criminal enterprise and double-crossing police to walk away with a life-changing amount of stolen drug money. The key to much of the film’s convolution can be found on La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, where Cristi learns a native whistling language called El Silbo in order to clandestinely communicate with archetypal folks like Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), the girlfriend of Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) who owns a mattress warehouse through which he’ll abscond with money stolen from mob boss Paco (Augusti Villaronga), all while avoiding Police Chief Magda (Rodica Lazar), Cristi’s boss and another remnant of Communist Romania left to her own self-serving motivations. Though Porumboiu recalibrates a typical neo-noir plot by playing with chronologies and perspectives, adding a dose of pitch-black humor to leaven the film’s ostensible bleakness—and cinematographer Tudor Mircea’s shots of the Spanish coast are something to behold—rather than amounting to placeholders lost in a twisty plot twisted for the sake of it, Porumboiu’s many players survive the chaos. They are defined by it. We understand who these people are through the ways in which they struggle to escape the system. And by the time we’ve untangled the film’s plot, we’re offered a final moment of catharsis, a sense—after 90 minutes of state-sanctioned violence and depravity—of what freedom feels like. —Dom Sinacola


21. The Assistant

the-assistant-movie-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Cox, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Optimum
Year: 2020
Director: Kitty Green
Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfayden, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 87 minutes

The nameless, faceless boss hiding behind closed doors in Kitty Green’s exceptional The Assistant can be easily read as a Harvey Weinstein stand-in. The truth is that Harvey Weinstein isn’t or, now that he’s in prison, wasn’t the only man in the film industry with a habit of abusing his position and privilege by preying on women in his office, either through coercion or through brute force, he is, or was, the most notorious of them. So yes, The Assistant can be thought of as “the Harvey Weinstein movie,” but it really should be thought of as the best contemporary movie to act out patriarchal rape culture dynamics on screen. Regardless, take Weinstein out of your interpretation of The Assistant and the film will still throttle you slowly, packing suffocating pressure into each of its 87 minutes. Green’s primary tool here is stillness: Static shots dominate the production, stifled frame after stifled frame, with the camera, manned by Michael Latham, often left hovering above Green’s star, Julia Garner, as if he means to leave space for her unanswered silent prayers to hang over her head. She plays the title’s long-suffering assistant, silent witness to her boss’s bullying and wanton lasciviousness, helpless to stop it. She spends the film unraveling over the course of a day, confronting her complicity in his sexual predation with no tangible hope of ending the cycle. Because there is no hope in The Assistant, no chance the film’s central evil will meet his punishment, or that the system built to facilitate his evil will collapse. What Green has done here is brutal and unsparing, but it’s also flawlessly made and necessary. —Andy Crump


22. Vitalina Varela

vitalina-varela-movie-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon
Year: 2020
Director: Pedro Costa
Stars: Vitalina Varela, Ventura, Manuel Tavares Aplmeida
Runtime: 124 minutes

If black defines the visual tone in Vitalina Varela, stillness provides the picture’s structure. Portuguese master Pedro Costa shot Vitalina Varela using an aspect ratio close to the Academy ratio (1.33:1 instead of 1.37:1); the result is a movie almost squarely framed, and from that comes the feeling of being hemmed in. There’s very little room to breathe, much less move around; the images do move, but so slowly and so haltingly that they practically read as still anyways. Life in Lisbon’s utterly devastated Fontainhas shantytown is a parade of smothered humanity. Residents march, shamble and occasionally lie prone on the ground, faith depleted, energy drained. Why anyone would return here after spending decades away is a question Costa answers within its first 10 minutes, when the title character, named for the actress who plays her, touches down on the tarmac and is immediately met with bad news. “Vitalina, you arrived too late,” one of the airport workers serving as the welcome wagon tells her. “Your husband was buried days ago. There is nothing in Portugal for you.” Vitalina’s angry. She’s heartbroken. For 40 years, she lived alone in Cape Verde, her husband, Joaquim, having abandoned her. Now, at long last able to reunite with him, she finds that she’s inherited the mess—worldly and spiritual—he left with his passing: the house he built for them, but also the demons he collected over the course of their separation. Each person who comes to Vitalina’s door has demons of their own, too, and no one the audience meets is free from grief, the emotion for which the movie’s pervading darkness functions as an avatar: There’s nothing here for Vitalina other than the task of reconciliation. Withstanding the procession of Vitalina Varela’s suffering requires patience and endurance, but maybe the way Costa and Varela explore grief’s every nook and cranny will yield unexpected relief from our own. —Andy Crump


23. On-Gaku: Our Sound

on-gaku-our-sound-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Google Play, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, YouTube
Year: 2021
Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Stars: Shintarô Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, Kami Hiraiwa, Naoto Takenaka
Genre: Comedy, Musical, Animation
Runtime: 71 minutes

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


24. Another Round

another-round-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango, Fios/Verizon, Google Play
Year: 2020
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang
Rating: NR
Runtime: 115 minutes

In Thomas Vinterberg’s new film Another Round, camaraderie starts out as emotional support before dissolving into male foolishness cleverly disguised as scientific study: A drinking contest where nobody competes and everybody wins until they lose. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a teacher in Copenhagen, bobs lazily through his professional and personal lives: When he’s at school he’s indifferent and when he’s at home he’s practically alone. Martin’s closest connections are with his friends and fellow teachers, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) and Peter (Lars Ranthe), who like many dudes of a certain age share his glum sentiments. To cure their malaise, Nikolaj proposes putting Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s blood alcohol content theory to the test: Skårderud maintains that hovering at a cool 0.05% BAC helps people stay relaxed and loose, thus increasing their faculty for living to the fullest. As one of the day’s preeminent screen actors, Mikkelsen finds the sweet spot between regret and rejoicing, where his revelries are honest and true while still serving as covers for deeper misgivings and emotional rifts. Sorrow hangs around the edges of his eyes as surely as bliss spreads across his face with each occasion for drinking. That balancing act culminates in an explosive burst of anger and, ultimately, mourning. Good times are had and good times always end. What Another Round demonstrates right up to its ecstatic final moments, where Mikkelsen’s sudden and dazzling acrobatics remind the audience that before he was an actor he was a dancer and gymnast, is that good times are all part of our life cycle: They come and go, then come back again, and that’s better than living in the good times all the time. Without a pause we lose perspective on all else life has to offer, especially self-reflection. —Andy Crump


25. Shiva Baby

shiva-baby-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Fandango, DirecTV, Google Play, Spectrum
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

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