The 25 Best Movies On Demand Right Now (June 2022)

Movies Lists On Demand
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The 25 Best Movies On Demand Right Now (June 2022)

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, 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. Parallel Mothers

parallel-mothers-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Fios/Verizon, SpectrumRelease Date: December 24, 2021
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Rossy de Palma, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
Rating: R
Runtime: 120 minutes

Set in 2016, Parallel Mothers follows Janice (Penélope Cruz), a professional photographer in her 40s who begins a casual fling with forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde). Nine months after a particularly steamy encounter, she checks herself into a Madrid hospital’s maternity ward, preparing to give birth and raise her child as a single mother. As fate would have it, her roommate is in a similar position, save for the fact that she’s over 20 years Janice’s junior: Ana (newcomer Milena Smit) is also without a partner, her only support during labor being her self-absorbed actress mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). While Janice is thrilled that she’s been given the impromptu opportunity to become a mother, Ana is initially resentful of the circumstances that have led to her pregnancy. Yet the two women quickly bond, taking strolls down the sterile hospital halls in order to help their babies descend down the uterus. Coincidentally, they both give birth to beautiful baby girls, and exchange numbers in order to keep in touch as they embark on the journey of newfound motherhood. Though the film sets itself up as an straightforward examination of the peculiar perils of parenthood—particularly for women who raise children outside of the confines of conventional, heterosexual nuclear families—Pedro Almodóvar instead utilizes multiple generations of matriarchs to bring light to the families irreparably broken by the cruelty of Spain’s not-so-distant fascist regime. The initial reason why Janice approaches Arturo is to inquire if he could use his connections to organize an excavation of a mass grave in her hometown—one of the bodies buried being that of her great-grandfather. In many ways, Parallel Mothers is also an atonement on Almodóvar’s part for his own distancing from this period of Spain’s history, particularly considering that his own film career flourished after Franco’s decline. For a director who has never shied away from portraying society’s most controversial taboos on-screen—incest, rape, suicide attempts, pedophilia and even golden showers—the fact that it has taken him his entire career to explicitly incorporate the effects of the Spanish Civil War into his work demonstrates the country’s relative inability to reckon with it. Though Almodóvar has stated that none of his own family members were victims of fascist brutality, his dedication to the ongoing plight of the families of those who perished infuses the film with an almost uncharacteristic sense of levity and sorrow. While this is certainly a shift in the filmmaker’s melodramatic and outlandish sensibilities (though this has been shifting significantly since his 2019 semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory, followed by the deconstructive short The Human Voice), it never feels mishandled in his grasp, always remaining sensitive even while incorporating shocking twists and revelations. Particularly paired with Cruz’s knockout performance of a woman whose life endures the legacy left by the trauma of her family’s unresolved past, Parallel Mothers is a deeply political example of what is lost when we have forgotten—and what is achieved when we fight to remember.—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. The French Dispatch

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

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


8. The Last Duel

the-last-duel-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV , Verizon, Spectrum, Google Play
Release Date: October 15, 2021
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther
Rating: R
Runtime: 152 minutes

To tell a story that’s been told before, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel does something a little familiar, and a little different. His medieval epic based on the book of the same name by Eric Jager—concerning the last judicial duel of France—is conveyed across three chapters. In a narrative device easily comparable to Rashomon, another film which details the conflicting accounts surrounding a rape, the script (co-penned by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck alongside Nicole Holofcener), sends us back to the beginning three times. The Last Duel retreads the path already taken, but each occasion with a different guide. In some instances, diplomatic actions become violent ones, off-handed glances become indicative of deceit, relationships drastically change, words take on different meanings, and the world is suddenly observed as if we were seeing it for the very first time. Which is why, when we are introduced to the knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon), we come face-to-face with a grizzled, esteemed war hero. He charges into a brutal battle and valiantly hacks away at the enemy forces. Spears enter chests, viscera is sliced, blood sprays to near-comical effect. The squelching of flesh, cracking of bones and clanging of metal is amplified by the film’s impeccable sound design, battle sequences defined by the kineticism of Dariusz Wolski’s camerawork. In this first chapter, we see the world as Carrouges sees it, and it’s a world where he is a respected fighter and dutiful husband who has been wronged by his former friend, and who expresses compassion and swift wrath against the man who committed the sin of rape against his young wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). But as the narrative shifts over, we understand that this is not entirely true. Carrouges is perceived as something of a dimwitted blowhard in the eyes of Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), former friend to Carrouges on the battlefield and squire to Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). Pierre d’Alençon and his squire are infamous womanizers, engaging in orgies and gossiping about how much they hate Jean de Carrouges (which is often funny just by sheer virtue of Affleck and Damon’s real-life friendship). Of course, Marguerite’s chapter provides the most conclusive account of the story, articulating a life lived only at the whims of men. And in the eyes of Marguerite, Carrouges is nothing but a brute she was forced to love, and le Gris is a lustful freak to whom she is only superficially attracted. The character is handled elegantly by Comer, who carries Marguerite with composure masking the ubiquitous glint of terror in her eyes; the quivering yet entirely routine fear of a person whose personhood has been rendered negligible from birth. It is simple to dub Scott’s film a medieval take on #MeToo, and, well, OK, it is. It’s an easily applicable, overtly modern allegory about the implications of coming forward on charges of sexual assault—how women can be just as complicit in the pervasion of rape culture as men are in perpetrating it, and how the costs of saying anything at all can be so dire that it is not worth saying anything at all. But these are things we already know. Such commentary has been done to death at this point, and frequently in ways which come across as tone-deaf and trite. Instead, Damon, Affleck and Holofcener have penned a skilled illustration of how men see the world differently, and how rape culture is born out of these lived-in blind spots. The decision to tell the 150-minute story through three separate ones not only begets a stunningly compelling narrative that allows for multi-layered characters, but it’s a gimmick that gets to the very heart of what the film is trying to say: When men fundamentally see the world in opposition to women, and when that world is then attuned to their whims, there can be only one truth. Ridley Scott directing a grand, riveting medieval epic that doubles as an analysis of gender dynamics might be unexpected, but The Last Duel manages to effortlessly combine Scott’s action sensibilities with an empathetic thread between the past and present.—Brianna Zigler


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. West Side Story

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

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


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. X

x-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, Spectrum, DirecTV, Fios/Verizon, DirecTV
Release Date: March 18, 2022
Director: Ti West
Stars: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, Scott Mescudi
Rating: R
Runtime: 106 minutes

X is a remarkable and unexpected return to form for director Ti West, a decade removed from an earlier life as an “up and coming,” would-be horror auteur who has primarily worked as a mercenary TV director for the last 10 years. To return in such a splashy, way, via an A24 reenvisioning of the classic slasher film, intended as the first film of a new trilogy or even more, is about the most impressive resurrection we’ve seen in the horror genre in recent memory. X is a scintillating combination of the comfortably familiar and the grossly exotic, instantly recognizable in structure but deeper in theme, richness and satisfaction than almost all of its peers. How many attempts at throwback slasher stylings have we seen in the last five years? The answer would be “countless,” but few scratch the surface of the tension, suspense or even pathos that X crams into any one of a dozen or more scenes. It’s a film that unexpectedly makes us yearn alongside its characters, exposes us (graphically) to their vulnerabilities, and even establishes deeply sympathetic “villains,” for reasons that steadily become clear as we realize this is just the first chapter of a broader story of horror films offering a wry commentary on how society is shaped by cinema. Featuring engrossing cinematography, excellent sound design and characters deeper than the broad archetypes they initially register as to an inured horror audience, X offers a modern meditation on the bloody savagery of Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci, making old hits feel fresh, timely and gross once again. In 2022, this film is quite a gift to the concept of slasher cinema. —Jim Vorel


15. The Sparks Brothers

the-sparks-brothers-poster.jpg Available on: Amazon, DirecTV, Cox, Fios/Verizon, GooglePlay, Spectrum
Year: 2021
Director: Edgar Wright
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
Runtime: 135 minutes

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


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


18. 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. The Suicide Squad

the-suicide-squad-poster.jpg Available on: DirecTV, Cox, Fios/Verizon, Spectrum
Year: 2021
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, Steve Agee, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis
Rating: R
Runtime: 132 minutes

How is James Gunn one of the only people that actually seems to know how to make a comic book movie feel like it was built out of a comic book? Sure, the excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did it, but it took making one of the most impressive animated movies in years. Writer/director Gunn, who’s hopped over to DC after making a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel, achieves some of the same delirious multimedia fidelity in live-action with The Suicide Squad, his bombastic, silly and self-aware revisionist take on the super-group of screw-ups coerced into jobs too tough, dangerous and/or undesirable for the conventional wetworkers of our humble government. Gunn’s action has such a clear and confident tone that it can pepper in filmmaking winks—like quick Bourne-like zooms when Task Force X director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plays God with the lives of costumed crooks from the safety of her command center—to add a little more visual flavor to its already over-the-top, R-rated, downright enjoyable adaptation. Part of the joke is the sheer quantity of goofball Legion of Doom rejects shoved into the mix. Sure, you’ve got the familiarly chaotic clown-about-town Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who’s by now thoroughly made the role her own), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and straight-laced military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) alongside the new A-listers (John Cena’s Captain America pastiche, Peacemaker; Idris Elba’s gruff sharpshooter Bloodsport). But there’s a Golden Corral buffet of questionable riffraff introduced as well, including but not limited to: King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, channeling a dumber and hungrier Groot), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Blackguard (Pete Davidson) and a human-sized weasel (Sean Gunn). They’re all distinct and most of them are distinctly, joyfully hateable. And over the course of The Suicide Squad’s solid tropical island action movie—one that’s politics are almost as sharply cynical as its true-to-source treatment of its protagonistic supervillains—Gunn isn’t afraid to dole out the kind of consequences that have mostly been relegated to the fun-poking, franchise-flouting realms of TV superhero meta-critiques like The Boys and Invincible. These aren’t unfamiliar to Suicide Squad readers, but they’re increasingly shocking, strange and bracing (not to mention fun!) to find in AAA studio movies. As the team moves from FUBAR beach operations on Corto Maltese to sabotaging its local lab’s super-science, actual tension develops—a rarity among The Suicide Squad’s contemporaries. Whatever power its additional The gave it couldn’t completely divorce it from some expected genre limitations, but it’s helped continue and solidify the way Warner Bros. is responding to Marvel’s utter dominance of the form: Not by getting more serious, but by seriously investing in the idiosyncrasies of its comics.—Jacob Oller


20. Ambulance

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

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


21. Dune

dune-poster.jpg Available on: DirecTV, Fios/Verizon, SpectrumRelease Date: October 22, 2021
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 155 minutes

Both technologically innovative and narratively faithful to the original text, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is bolstered by its seamless special effects and starpower above all else. Considering the director’s previous work in these arenas—namely Enemy, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049—he should be totally adept for the challenge. Yet there exists a nagging query that begs to be quelled: How much of this film is predicated on the sheer fact that cinematic advancements have finally rendered Dune an attainable possibility? Though it remains true to the first part of the text’s unhurried pace and detailed world building, Villeneuve’s adaptation feels overlong and void of subtext. It’s important to note that the film only adapts the first part of Herbert’s novel, which is notoriously kind of a slog. Much of the plot is focused on worldbuilding and creating an incremental immersion into the immaterial political hierarchies that shape this unknown yet familiar world. Admittedly, Villeneuve evokes and embraces this unhurriedness—a choice that just might predicate Dune’s future fortune. By limiting the scope to Part I, Villeneuve’s Dune maintains a consistent tone and sense of time—though it invariably drags over the course of two and a half hours. However, the meandering pace may perfectly suit fans of the original novel, which captures a certain pensive density indicative of the text. To be fair, there is a plain reason as to why Villeneuve opts for a subdued and sedated Dune. With so many failed attempts at adapting Herbert’s novel preceding it, how could the project ever fully embrace auteur-driven artistic risk? It translates as Villeneuve playing it safe, expending all of his energy on ensuring that his remake can’t possibly flop. Though Dune is faithful and fantastical in vision, its existence is merely proof that the enduringly popular novel can, in fact, be adapted into a box office hit.—Natalia Keogan


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. Electric Jesus

electric-jesus.jpg Available on: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
Year: 2021
Director: Chris White
Stars: Andrew Eakle, Brian Baumgartner, Shannon Hutchinson, Judd Nelson, Wyatt Lenhart, Shawn Parsons
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Runtime: 107 minutes

As someone who spent my music-obsessed teenage years in the ’80s alternating between the Christian music concerts encouraged by my youth group and the “secular” rock shows I loved, Chris White’s funny and warm coming-of-age film Electric Jesus hits all too close to home. Devout teen Erik (Andrew Eakle) wants nothing more than to “make Jesus famous” by running sound for the upstart Christian hair-metal band 316 in the summer of 1986. Encouraged by the band’s skeevy manager Skip Wick (The Office’s Brian Baumgartner), conservative Pastor Wember (Judd Nelson) and Wember’s runaway daughter Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson), the band hits the road in a beat-up van, playing a mix of churches, youth camps and—gasp—a bar. With original music from Danielson Famile’s Daniel Smith, the indie movie avoids any hint of preachiness as it captures the earnestness and naivety of youth and the struggles that slowly and thoroughly strip them away. It’s a loving and open-eyed lampoon of an often bizarre subculture that shaped so many of us, especially in the South. And the performances of its young actors help Electric Jesus connect with whatever constraints you had to push back against in those formative teen years. —Josh Jackson


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