If you have Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime and HBO, you can see almost every film on this list today. In fact, well over half of these films are already free on some combination of the above networks. Because small indie films no longer have theatrical screens, they end up streaming almost immediately. And the bigger ones … well they deserve to be seen at the theater, so perhaps maybe it’s all working out. I still prefer the focus that a distraction free theater provides, but you can’t always get there. I did miss a few (Green Book, Beale Street, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), but here’s what I saw and loved.
- Leave No Trace – Dir. Debra Granik (Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie)
Like director Debra Granik’s breakthrough “Winter’s Bone,” this small and patient film’s setting (a cold and bleakly beautiful Oregon and Washington) plays as central a character as the other remarkable performances in the film. A damaged, PTSD stricken veteran father, played with excruciating sadness, by Ben Foster, is trying to raise his teenage daughter off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
There is no doubt that this life is not the right life for a child, but the love they share is as believable as almost any you are likely to see this year. Eventually the wonderful Thomasin McKenzie finds the courage to tell her father that his problems are not her problems, and you see a connection as naturalistic as the film itself. The final scene of the film will leave you devastated, but will have you thinking about it long after the credits roll.
- Free Solo – Dir. Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi (Alex Honnold)
A film this big deserves to be seen on a big screen. I was lucky enough to see it on IMAX with an Alex Honnold Q&A afterwards, but even if I had seen it at home on Netflix, it would still be one of the best films of the year, even though you know how it is going to end. Most often predictability is a bore, but here the only outcome you want is the one that you know you’ll get to see. Despite this, the film maintains an almost relentless and gripping sense of suspense. Honnold isn’t so much a character whom you understand as much as he is a person who defies any and all reasonable questions, and exudes a kind of mechanical confidence and precision of thought and mind. Wrap this in some of the most beautiful shots of El Cap and Yosemite, and you have something truly extraordinary.
- The Favourite – Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz)
Following up on two broadly inaccessible works of genius (“Lobster” and “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer”) director Yorgos Lanthimos has finally delivered a more linear historical drama that allows just the right amount of comic modernity to elevate it well beyond the genre. He cast a dream trifecta of female leads, where Coleman, Stone and Weisz are each perfect in their portrayal of a certain kind of person in a certain kind of circumstance.
“The Favourite” intimates that all the cattiness, scheming, self absorption and competition that seems the fabric of today, is a human instinct that has always been there. The film is both laugh out loud funny and tragically real, and deserves this kind of art-house break out status in a age dominated by superheros and sequels!
- Roma – Dir. Alfonso Cuaron (Yalitza Aparicio, Andy Cortes)
There is no doubt that this film is a genuinely unique cinematic milestone. From the exquisite black and white cinematography that helps frame the time and place so effortlessly, to the way the story is more observed than staged and acted. The camera seems almost like a welcome voyeur following an endlessly moving and chaotic naturalistic childhood remembrance.
It is as much about the texture pace and setting as it is about any sort of linear plot line, but the emotional journey of the Cuaron’s childhood nanny is what keeps things tethered. She is both loved and appreciated but also hopelessly anchored to her place in society. Both nothing and quite a lot happen along the way, but in the end the world keeps turning just like the way the camera keeps rolling.
- Sorry to Bother You – Boots Riley (Lakeith Stanfield, Danny Glover, Tessa Thompson)
The first two thirds of this film is a surreal romp through the ironic hipsterism of gentrified America. Set in a kind of alterna-Oakland, the story follows the charmingly sarcastic Cassius “Cash” Green, from unemployment to the top of a bizarre telemarketing scheme selling a “Worry Free” life. If, perhaps, this sounds straightforward, it doesn’t take long before you begin to see director Riley’s vision and politics run wild.
It’s funny, or not, how inevitably success and money often brainwashes people into believing their own bullshit (a not so subtle jab at tech culture). The final third of the film watches like a kind of tripped out “The Shape of Water” complete with bizarre creatures trapped in a world run by humans. In the end the film is really a love story, a story about gentrification, and taking stereotypes and tipping them over until almost nothing makes sense but everything is crystal clear. Make sense? Probably not. See the film.
- The Old Man and the Gun – Dir. (Robert Redfird, Sissy Spacek)
Watching your idol in what could easily be their last film is tricky. On the one hand you might tend to be more forgiving (Clint Eastwood in The Mule), on the other hand you might be too hard on it to overcompensate for the bias. But this film captures Redford at his best, in a role that touches all his best performances in some ways.
The story of a lovable, lifetime bank robber, who charms his way through life, in and out of prison and eventually falls for a widowed rancher played by kindred spirit Sissy Spacek. The film moves patiently and deliberately, like the characters do through small towns during the early 80’s in a time before surveillance cameras and cell phones. Redford is his most perfect self in a most perfect film.
- Blindspotting – Carlos Lopez Estrada (Daveed Diggs, Carlos Lopez Estrada)
Combining the themes of hip-hop culture, police brutality, and gentrification might seem like just another scroll through Twitter on any given Sunday, but this is a film that comes as close as possible to channeling the spirit of “Do the Right thing” as almost anything since.
The film stars Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs and childhood friend and chief writer Rafeal Casal, who both work for a moving company which allows them to witness the gentrification of their hometown up close and personal. Diggs just has to make it a few more days to make it through his probation but of course the racial blindspotting that’s rampant here creates the perfect kind of tension to help offset the infuriating reality. It had me from the first frame.
- Vice – Dir. Adam McKay (Christian Bale, Amy Adams)
Like “The Big Short” before it, director Adam McKay has developed a very distinctive dramedic style that allows this otherwise disturbing examination of power, corruption and lies to flow like Wyoming rivers he uses to help humanize an utterly hard to understand subject.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams are transformative as the elusive power couple who appear to have willed their fate into action as much as earned it in a high stakes game of chess. As hard as it is to watch how much our democracy hasn’t changed in 20 years, this film gives us room to laugh, unlike today’s current theater.
- Three Identical Strangers – Dir. Tim Wardle (the Triplets)
Life is almost always more interesting than art, except when the art is derived curiously from life. Like so many of the best docs, “Three Identical Strangers” is a film within a film within a film, The starting point is a bizarre coincidence that reunites three triplets separated at birth. That story could almost be enough unto itself, but then things get even weirder.
The joy of finding each other gives way to the story of what happened to them followed by why they were separated in the first place. In the end the film watches like a thriller, with an ominous texture looming almost from the start. This is first rate piece of sleuthing on top of being one of the finest documentaries in years.
10. Hereditary – Dir. Ari Aster (Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne)
In a year filled with some great and harrowing films, this one is easily the most chilling and impeccably acted of the bunch. After the death of her mother, the always incredible Toni Collette watches as her family literally begins to fall apart as some sort of dark force takes hold.
Like the offspring of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there is a relentless horror and fear that rages through the eyes of the each character as they deal with an escalating series of unknowable events. Although like most films in the genre usually focuses on the “who” and “why” things are happening, but here it almost doesn’t matter because it is the masterfully sustained state of frenzy and horror that distinguishes everything. Enter at your own risk.
11. Zama – Dir. Lucretia Martel (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lola Duenas)
Zama is that rare period piece that manages to appear deadly accurate in its attention to detail, while adding just enough believable contemporary moments and exchanges to elevate it way beyond almost any film of its kind since “Barry Lyndon.” In it Zama, a Spanish magistrate, is stationed on a nameless coastal colony who becomes increasingly desperate to return to his family.
There is a kind of surreal haze that hangs over every glorious shot, and as we watch Zama’s pleas for transfer rebuffed by a series of buffoonish superiors, his portrayal of a man losing hope is about as intricate as anything you can imagine. I suppose it’s safe to call the film a kind of morbid comedy, but you won’t likely find yourself laughing out loud.
12. Won’t You Be My Neighbor – Dir. Morgan Neville (Fred Rogers)
Like many people my age, Mr. Rogers was a central component of my childhood. I’m not even sure if I ever really liked the show, but back then it was one of the only four options I had for television viewing- the others being Sesame Street, Electric Company and Big Blue Marble. But after watching this film, whether I knew it at the time, I do believe that he helped to instill many of the values that now seem lost in this modern age.
It is impossible to think of another “celebrity” whose morals and ethics were genuinely as pure and uncompromised than Fred Rogers. In addition to single handedly saving Public Television fifty years ago, his commitment to children and education generally seems so sadly unrealistic today in this age of media capitalism. Watching this film makes one long for a simpler time when the world seemed easier to fix.
13. Searching – Dir. Aneesh Chaganty (Jon Cho, Debra Messing)
You could easily dismiss this film as way more style than substance, but I found both the plot and the gimmick completely enthralling. Each shot, in what is ultimately a thriller where a father desperately looks for his daughter, takes place within the rectangular window of a computer screen (maps, home videos, Facetime, texts, etc.).
With a plotline that you’d think would be unnecessarily constrained by this screen dynamic, it moves at a breakneck speed piling on tension effortlessly. Quietly behind it all, it has you considering technology both as miracle and perhaps our inevitable demise. It is a creative masterpiece nonetheless.
14. Suspiria – Dir. Luca Guadagnino (Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton)
Not unlike the beautifully perverse insanity of last year’s “mother,” Guadagnino’s remake of the 70’s Italian horror classic is a strange and wonderful piece of nostalgic kitsch. Every stitch of the film seems authentic yet still fresh despite it’s dreary setting,
But if you like films that burrow under your skin like a cuddly tick, where you find yourself half lost in a kind of waking dream, this is one to grind out. The film, which is either a thinly veiled mediation on climate change, a more biblically derived narrative, or just a contrived but madly creative piece of pop art, it is an infuriating masterpiece that hangs around your head much longer than you’d expect.
15. Widows – Dir. Steve McQueen (Liam Nesson, Viola Davis )
There will never be enough good heist films. Even though the best are riddled with cliches, that’s what makes them so appealing – like cinematic comfort food. “Widows” turns the standard plotline upside down and buries the twists inside the turns. Unlike the goofy “Oceans 8,” this movie stays as gritty and occasionally gory as you want it to.
It focuses on four widows whose husbands died on a botched job, and are forced to do one last job to even the score. Led by an icy Viola Davis, the large cast features a dozen fully formed characters who help elevate the story line well beyond just a new twist on an old story. McQueen is a master of mood and character, able to mix entertainment with revulsion in the most compelling way possible.
And a few other goodies …
16. Bohemian Rhapsody – Dir. Bryan Singer (Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton) Aside from the slightly over-the-top teeth, Rami Malek becomes Freddie Mercury and reminds us how great Queen really was, confirming that music bio pics can actually be as amazing as you want them to be.
17. BlacKkKlansman – Dir. Spike Lee (John David Washington, Adam Driver) Spike Lee’s finest effort since the “24th Hour” is a powerhouse of pitch perfect retro filmmaking jam packed with the kind of trademark anger and hilarity that makes him a national treasure.
18. A Star Is Born – Dir. Bradley Cooper (Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper) I wanted to not like this film, but despite moments of cheese, and the rise and fall of the characters that both happen too quickly, when it’s this easy to just brush that off and enjoy, you know it must be good.
19. Shirkers – Dir. Sandi Tan (Sandi Tan) The plotline of this small but effective mystery is simple enough: a 1992 Singaporean indie road film disappears in 1992. The documentary catches up with the characters 25 years later and the relationships and circumstances that lead up to the disappearance
20. A Quiet Place – Dir. John Krasinski (John Krasinski, Emily Blunt) Yeah, this movie was scary. Scarier than “Bird Box” and much better acted. I think I’d rather be quiet than blind.
21. Private Life – Dir. Tamara Jenkins (Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti) Lately some TV shows feel like long indie films, but “Private Life” feels like a short episodic show in some ways. Regardless Hahn and Giamatti and both brilliant in this sad story of midlife malaise and disappointment as they struggle mightily to conceive.
22. Eighth Grade – Bo Burnham (Josh Hamilton, Elsie Fisher) There is a kind of simple and honest truth that spills from every scene in a film whose subject matter almost always drowns itself in cliches. Elsie Fisher vanishes into a character who all of us have been at one point or another.
23. First Reformed – Dir. Paul Schrader (Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke) This is a bleak and brutally brilliant piece of filmmaking that explores the depths of faith and personal martyrdom through the lens of a solemn cast of characters led by Hawke and Seyfriend. Not for everyone.
24. Happy as Lazzaro – Dir. Alice Rohrwacher (Adriano Tardiolo, Agnes Graziani) This is the kind of strange, allegorical, European art film I used to force myself to see at the Angelika theater in the 90’s that is both beautiful and sad and extremely hard to fully understand. But I’m glad I did.
25. Minding the Gap – Dir. Bing Liu (Kiere Johnson, Zack Mulligan) Shot over 12 years, this tiny slice of life looks at a childhood skateboarding crew, starts and ends up in an entirely different place. More than almost any film this year it asks us to confront the state of American youth.
26. Juliet, Naked – Dir. Jesse Peretz (Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke) Somehow I rarely tire of watching Ethan Hawke’s lovable manchild personna, especially when it’s in a film adapted from my favorite perpetual manchild author Nick Hornby.
27. Boy Erased– Dir. Joel Edgerton (Luke Hedges, Nicole Kidman) It’s hard to believe we still live in a society where people believe in gay deprogramming. In what could have been a sappy and obvious film, a great cast and delicate directing made it winner.
28. Beautiful Boy – Dir. (Timothee Chalamet, Steve Carrell) This was a devastating book to read, and although the film was easier to watch, Chalamet is wonderful here as every parent’s nightmare, that beautiful boy who somehow gets addicted to drugs and almost can’t get off them.
29. Annihilation – Dir. Alex Garland (Natalie Portman, Oscar Issac) The follow up to Alex Garland’s brilliant directorial debut “Ex Machina” is one the best looking and most curious sci-fi films of the year. Although the title makes it seem more like a distant cousin of “Predator,” it plays more like “Inception” – which is a good thing.