I’ve appreciated how many movie critics this year are pointing out that art is subjective when sharing their top tens. My list may or may not be all the “best” movies of the year, but they are all movies that I thought were well made, well written, and poignant. Something Hollywood studios ALWAYS struggle to understand is that there’s no replacement for a good script and story that’s sincere. Those are my main criteria, and all of these picks check those boxes.
10. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
I’ve lost an older brother, which I think is part of what made Wakanda Forever so resonant. The fact that Ryan Coogler had to completely rewrite the movie, and Letitia Wright had to carry the film in a totally different way, and the rest of the cast had to step up in the midst of their own grief just made this an extra feat of storytelling. This was a powerful exploration of the ways different people process grief differently, the ways losses can compound, and the ways we are required to expand in order to fill gaps left by loved ones. The Marvel-required elements might have been a little clunky, but everything that was core to the story of Wakanda and Talokan worked beautifully. If this is your first time realizing that Wright can act, check out her terrific performance in Mangrove on Amazon Prime. Coming to Disney+ January 20th
9. Hidden Letters
Maybe it’s recency bias but when I watched this documentary a few days ago I was completely blown away. It’s an astounding story about female rebellion and undercover subversion. For centuries in China when women were continuously oppressed and silenced and prevented from receiving education, women created their own secret language called Nushu. They wrote letters, poems and songs to connect with one another in the only ways they could. This is a story about Chinese women and it’s also a universal story about oppression and creative resistance. I’m just saying that if we can learn to speak Elvish and Klingon, Nushu is overdue for its place in the sun. Currently available on demand.
8. Cha Cha Real Smooth
In an age where toxic masculinity is proliferating online at alarming rates, I appreciate any content that can normalize young men living with empathy and being emotionally present with the people around them. And Cooper Raiff is a young filmmaker who is charting an encouraging way forward for men in cinema. This is a warm-hearted coming of age story about the time of life when you’ve graduated from college but you still have no idea what you’re doing. It’s about confusion, aimlessness, trying to figure out what you’re good at, getting too attached, working out shifting family dynamics, and getting a real job. With a great supporting performance from Dakota Johnson, you should definitely slide to the…Apple+ app and give it a watch.
As much as we’ve been in a golden age of documentaries, I’ve still seen some snoozers this year. Which makes Descendant a real stand-out. I had heard some initial news stories about the search for the Clotilda, the last vessel to carry enslaved people to America, but even with a little bit of background knowledge my jaw was on the floor for most of this doc. The story is absolutely bonkers in its hubris and deceit, and still all too relevant. This is a must watch for all Americans as we seek to understand ourselves through our history. Available on Netflix.
6. Turning Red
I am normally such a curmudgeon about animated films of any kind (I am after all not a child) but Turning Red was charming and hilarious. I too was a tween obsessed with boy bands (mine was Hanson) who was overwhelmed and confused by adolescence. Red empathetically understands the experience of girls, the process of both differentiating from and identifying with our mothers, the importance of female friendships, and the stranglehold pop music can have on youth culture. Just give Nobody Like U one listen and it will be never not be on your mind. Available on Disney+
I’ve never seen a Predator movie, but after a quick summary of the Predator’s specs from Ivan, I was ready to jump in. And this movie absolutely slaps. It was such a creative framework for the traditional elements of the franchise applied in a fresh way to a totally different environment and protagonist. The Predator only attacks that which it sees as a threat, which makes a young Native girl a deadly opponent to underestimate. This movie had terrific action sequences as well as a great storyline and character development, a rare combination. If you’re on the hunt for a well-constructed action movie that’s thought-provoking and exhilarating, set your sites on Prey. Available on Hulu
4. She Said
In lesser hands this journalist true crime retelling could have centered abuse and an abuser. But in the capable hands of director Maria Schrader, She Said centers the lives and determination of the survivors and those who fought to tell their stories. It is a remarkable achievement to leave a film about one of Hollywood’s most predatory abusers and have an overwhelming feeling of power and hope. They pull no punches about the reality of the systemic victimization, and yet the strength and courage of countless women is the heart of this story. I walked out of the theater feeling like women can do anything, and I hope you’ll give yourself the chance to experience this inspiring story. Currently available on demand.
3. Everything, Everywhere, All At Once
Listen, I’m always skeptical of hype-beast movies that everyone says changed their lives and did something cinema has never done before and you’ve never seen anything like it, blah blah blah. So I was skeptical of Everything to say the least. But the creativity, insight and emotion could not be denied. Beyond the obvious artistry required for building a multiverse, what really made this movie stand apart was the timely exploration of the pull towards nihilism so pervasive in young people today. With unprecedented amounts of information and experiences available at all times comes a sense of overwhelming meaninglessness and despondency. And Everything considers what it can look like for older generations to join and journey with our youth in their search for meaning and significance, and in so doing to answer those questions for ourselves as well. Plus it’s a heart wrenchingly accurate depiction of parent/child relationships and humanity’s cosmic search for love and affirmation from family. This movie will not be for everyone, the absurdist sexual content may be a dealbreaker for some. But if you can hang in there, Everything is a wild ride through existentialism and the search for meaning. Currently available on demand.
2. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
As mentioned previously, animated films activate my inner curmudgeon. But Marcel took my heart by storm. Somehow this movie is both melancholic and hopeful, bringing to life what it means to experience profound loss while still remaining emotionally present to the world around you. Filled with delicate observations, wistful exploration and sly humor, Marcel had me laughing and crying. After multiple years as a society of experiencing collective loss and disappointment, Marcel invites us to keep our hearts open and to never stop pursuing meaningful connection. Currently available on demand.
For the first 30 minutes I wasn’t sure where this movie was going, it’s a subtle and slow burn. But by the time the credits rolled I was in tears. This is fundamentally a story about growing up with an unstable parent and in adulthood looking back and piecing together your memories and retrospective meaning-making. With terrific lead performances and a structure that relives the story through the eyes of an 11 year old, this was the most singular and poignant film of the year for me. It has stuck with me and I continue to think about it months later. A powerful debut from first time filmmaker Charlotte Wells, it was also produced by Barry Jenkins and makes an interesting companion piece to his Moonlight. Currently available on demand.
Honorable mentions: These all made a strong impression on me and are worth your time!
Breaking – Unfortunately this movie didn’t get any attention beyond its premiere at Sundance, but it features a compelling true story and a mesmerizing performance from John Boyega. It draws crucial attention to the struggles of military veterans and the damaging disarray endemic to the VA. Highly recommend. Currently available on demand.
The Swimmers – The only reason this didn’t make my top ten is that it felt overlong at times and would have benefited from a tighter run time. But this true story of young female Syrian refugees who were also professional swimmers was compelling and important. It very much immerses you in the experience of a refugee in this time period and is an engaging and important watch. Available on Netflix.
Nope – Jordan Peele always comes through with something creative and thought-provoking. Maybe a little too obtuse but overall I’m always excited about writers/directors taking big swings and creating brand new material. Currently streaming on Peacock.
Bodies, Bodies, Bodies – A Gen Z horror/suspense movie that doesn’t feel mocking but is able to be fun, unpredictable and sincere. Currently available on demand.
Glass Onion – I liked this one significantly better than Knives Out. Taut, witty, insightful. A fantastic screenplay backed up by an unstoppable ensemble cast. Available on Netflix.
Tar – Objectively one of the best movies of the year with top two best performances of the year. I didn’t personally resonate with it as much as others which is why it’s not higher for me, but it’s a great film. Currently available on demand.
Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story – I am the target audience for this movie. A parody biopic about biopics about Weird Al, it is hilariously meta and self-aware. There were scenes in the first act that made me laugh out loud, and Daniel Radcliffe fully commits from start to finish. The third act is messy and goes off the rails, but overall turning the story of a notoriously kind and well-behaved polka satirist into a stereotypical rock and roll biopic deserves a watch. Available for free on Roku.
RRR – This movie is absolutely bonkers and implausible in all the best ways. A 3 hour epic about the fictional meeting and friendship between two real life Indian revolutionaries is historical fan fiction at its best. Be ready to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. Available on Netflix.