10. Annette (dir. Leos Carax)
“So may we start?”
This rock opera from Leos Carax and Sparks never quite reaches the heights of its opening number. (Then again, no movie this year could.) But its bold vision, catchy songs and singularly unlikable protagonist (played by Adam Driver, who had a hell of a year) will stick with me, even in a year chock full of musicals.
9. The Card Counter (dir. Paul Schrader)
America, fuck no! Schrader’s latest tale of “God’s Lonely Man” features very little card counting but a lot of feeble attempts at absolving a man’s (and a nation’s) sins. But of course leave it to Schrader to drop a completely sincere romantic scene in the middle of such grim business.
8. Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Were it not for two unnecessary and uncomfortable scenes with John Michael Higgins, this would sit much higher on my list. Even so, this journey through young love(?) in the Valley in the ’70s is a total delight. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim deliver star-making debuts and feature the kind of chemistry other actors would take years to develop. But that’s not all! There’s a bevy of cameos, each more hilarious than the last. Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters has hogged all the attention, but there are marvelous one-offs with Christine Ebersole (as Lucille Ball), Tom Waits (as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking director) and Harriet Sansom Harris (as a clueless agent). It also features the year’s best soundtrack.
7. The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson)
Slight? Hardly. Once again, he’s made the most West Anderson movie ever. Inspired by The New Yorker and the many American writers who hung out in Paris after World War II, The French Dispatch has great admiration for journalism and storytelling. Each segment, whether bite-size or lengthy, has a moment or image to make you smile, laugh or tear up. Usually all three.
6. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
The first hour of this film is appropriately uncomfortable. “Is it just going to be this asshole saying hurtful things to people the whole time?” And then the second hour approaches and it all starts coming into focus. Everyone here is giving career-best performances as a quartet of broken people forced together; contents under pressure. It’s a lot of volatility managed beautifully by Campion, making her return to feature films for the first time since 2009.
5. West Side Story (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Like many of you, I wondered what the benefit of remaking such a beloved musical would be (even one with so many obvious flaws). But there was no reason to doubt Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner. Together, they make an even more vibrant version of the Romeo & Juliet story, recontextualizing nearly every element so the emotional blows land even harder. And what marvelous arrivals for Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose and star Rachel Zegler, whose performances dazzle.
4. Nine Days (dir. Edson Oda)
Oda’s spiritual sci-fi epic premiered at Sundance 2020 and then, well, the world turned upside down. Sony Pictures Classics dumped it in theaters this summer, where nothing original broke through. Despite the circumstances, this remains the most moving, thought-provoking thing I’ve seen all year. A perfect movie for someone like me, who’s still trying to figure out his place here and beyond.
3. Flee (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
This absolutely essential documentary tells the story of Amin Nawabi, who recalls his difficult journey from Afghanistan to Denmark, and all the painful and joyous detours along the way. It would be wrong, of course, to say there’s nothing like it when Waltz with Bashir exists. But it’s just as daring and moving as that film.
2. Mass (dir. Fran Kranz)
The very definition of a “tough sit,” Fran Kranz’s directorial debut is all raw emotion, delivered by four actors giving a masterclass in acting. It’s the best movie of the year that I never want to experience again.
- Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
I made sure to go to the theater to see this three-hour meditation on grief and performance. I could have watched it at home, but I know have too many bad viewing habits to let it envelop me the way it needed to. I was mesmerized then, but nearly every day since I have thought about some other moment, like the shot above. The movie’s deliberate pace – the title card drops about 40 minutes in, after we’ve already experienced some heavy emotions and major plot beats – isn’t a challenge because every moment, every glance, every action matters. Unlike some other movies on this list, I can’t wait to experience this one again.
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (dir. Josh Greenbaum)
Belfast (dir. Kenneth Branagh)
Benedetta (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
C’mon C’mon (dir. Mike Mills)
The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)
In the Heights (dir. Jon M. Chu)
The Last Duel (dir. Ridley Scott)
Limbo (dir. Ben Sharrock)
The Matrix Resurrections (dir. Lana Wachowski)
Memoria (dir. Apichatpong Weersethakul)
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (dirs. Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe)
Nightmare Alley (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
No Sudden Move (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Old (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
Parallel Mothers (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Petite Maman (dir. Céline Sciamma)
The Sparks Brothers (dir. Edgar Wright)
Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau)
The Velvet Underground (dir. Todd Haynes)
The Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier)
FILMS OUT OF TIME
The Amusement Park (dir. George A. Romero)
In 1973, the local Lutheran church hired Romero to make an educational film about elder abuse. While nothing on that topic would be pleasant, they certainly didn’t expect this deeply unsettling horror allegory. Long considered lost, Romero’s estate and IndieCollect restored the film in 4K, and Shudder finally let a wide audience experience this nightmare for themselves.
The Empty Man (dir. David Prior)
One of the many casualties of the Fox/Disney merger, this astonishing debut from writer-director David Prior got dumped in theaters around Halloween 2020, when most people still weren’t going out, at least not to movie theaters. But it instantly developed a cult once it hit VOD, which then exploded thanks to word-of-mouth and a streaming debut on HBO Max. Now if we could just get Disney to license the film to Scream Factory for a proper home video release.
The Kid Detective (dir. Evan Morgan)
Another festival title that got dumped by a major studio in October 2020, this noir riff has plenty of charm and laughs. But it has more in common with The Long Goodbye than Mystery Team, to name two favorites. Adam Brody is absolutely perfect in the role of a kid detective-turned-private investigator who gets in over his head on a new case that has a dark connection to the case that haunted him for most of his life. It’s currently streaming on Starz.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (dir. Zack Snyder)
I’ll be honest. I absolutely hated the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut discourse for the last four-plus years. The unholy Frankenstein’s monster that was unleashed in 2017 was terrible. But the fandom around Snyder was absolutely toxic, and he didn’t mind stoking the fire from time to time. But Warner Bros. finally let them have their way, giving an ungodly sum to let Snyder finish the movie his way. It was an improvement, but I wasn’t counting on one quite this big. A four-hour epic split into six chapters, it’s far more cohesive, even if it still has some of the flaws of his previous two DC adaptations. Everything works except for a newly shot post-credits scene envisioning an alternate reality/teaser for a possible sequel. While most are forgettable, that was downright wretched. Unfortunately, even after fans got their way, they’re still bombarding social media, demanding even more of the #Snyderverse. But as this maximalist entry proves, that’s enough of that.
DIDN’T WATCH BUT PROBABLY WOULD HAVE LOVED
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
The Lost Daughter
Riders of Justice
Swan Song (dir. Benjamin Cleary)
THE WORST MOVIES
Behemoth (dir. Peter Szewczyk)
Dear Evan Hansen (dir. Stephen Chbosky)
Finding You (dir. Brian Baugh)
Locked Down (dir. Doug Liman)
Red Notice (dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber)