This post was originally published in November 2017. We have updated it with Netflix’s recent offerings through June 2019.
Netflix has spent the last few years and several billions of dollars on a crusade to be taken more seriously. Ever since it began branding its logo on original films in 2015, Netflix’s primary goal has been to divorce itself from the “digital dollar bin” reputation it established upon first pivoting from the snail-mail service, now an unsettlingly faint memory, to streaming. It was not so long ago that the service formerly known as “Netflix Instant” well, sucked; it was a repository for direct-to-DVD sequels, little-seen stand-up specials, and candy-colored kiddie cartoons seemingly plucked from Lisa Frank’s more vivid night terrors. And so Netflix exec Ted Sarandos made a dignified selection for his first narrative go on the silver screen: Beasts of No Nation, a movie about child militias in Africa, with a well-pedigreed creative team (Cary Fukunaga was comin’ in hot off his True Detective stint, Idris Elba was a brand-name star) and their according awards potential. It’s a real movie, and by my count, a pretty good one.
The second film they released was the one where a donkey explosively sharts all over Adam Sandler. Since then, Netflix has bagged an Oscar, elbowed its way into Cannes, and spent more than Panama’s gross national product on content. These days, Netflix is made up of a fair amount of movies that attain mere forgettability instead of outright awfulness. But it’s produced some genuinely good films, as well — as we speak, there is a good shot that Roma will break through in the Oscar Best Picture category. Below, we attempt to rank every single Netflix original movie ever made (excluding documentaries, in the interest of this list remaining … bingeable).
In this cyber-thriller, the commonplace annoyances of working on the Internet — getting back in to a locked account, dealing with trolls, thirsting for numerical affirmations of your output — assume an uncanny existential terror in league with the eldritch fever dreams of David Lynch. Go-getter cam girl Alice (Madeline Brewer, reinforcing the Lynch comparison with a star-making performance that channels both Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) starts to unravel after she sees someone broadcasting from her channel using her name and her face, who is nonetheless not her. Her frantic maneuvers to secure her livelihood and sense of self climax in a semiotically loaded grand finale that can stand up to the most chilling setpieces of the new millennium. Fortified by verisimilitude that writer Isa Mazzei carried over from her days as a sex worker, directed with neon-laced sleekness by Daniel Goldhaber, and credited as “a film by” the two of them, it’s an inventive and cerebral addition to the recent American horror boom. [Ed. note: Due to conflict-of-interest type reasons — the filmmakers are friends of mine — I’ve opted to exclude this entry from the numerical rankings.]
249. Oh, Ramona!
Are there just no rules in Romania? The American studio system has safeguards in place to prevent content this sexist, this repugnant, this hysterically deluded about its own rightness to ever reach the public. No such luck in Eastern Europe, where living boner Andrei (Bogdan Iancu) gives himself a makeover from virginal dork into a self-proclaimed “pussy destroyer” with the pick-up-artist getup to match. His new life as a master of seduction mostly entails treating women with flagrant insensitivity while they moon over him anyway, a nauseating wish-fulfillment fantasy straight from the Men’s Right Activist handbook. But wait, there’s more! Exhortations from Andrei that he’s “not like the other boys,” disgusting nondiegetic insert shots of fingers squelching into ripe produce, and one rousing monologue in which our hero vows to never bed a plus-sized woman ever again all combine to make this a matchlessly rancid piece of work. (Fun fact: the original title was Suck It, Ramona! Wonder why they changed it?)
278. The Do-Over
Let’s start the ranking with the most noxious entry in Sandler’s fruitful collaboration with Netflix. David Spade plays a henpecked beta cuck unsatisfied with his pitiful existence, which makes him receptive to an intriguing offer from old buddy Sandler when they meet up at their high-school reunion. A flimsy scheme to reinvent their lives by pinching a pair of dead guys’ identities goes about as poorly as one could reasonably expect, and mostly just cues up tired gags about being tired. That’s the one faintly redemptive feature of this otherwise barren movie: The Sandler filmography gets a rare flash of self-awareness when Spade’s emasculated loser screams, “I’m so tired of women lying to me and fucking me over!” while in a full-on fist fight with yet another “untrustworthy female.”
277. Rim of the World
The filmmaking entity known as “McG” has to be a government psy-op designed to turn the people of the United States against the moving picture form. Tinfoil hats and red-yarn-covered corkboards aside, I cannot hazard any other guess at how someone who’s made ugliness, stupidity, and taking the easy way out into his directorial signatures could have gotten so far in this industry. With the last-ditch efforts of four unpopular kids (a timid nerd, a mini-greaser, an intense yet largely silent Chinese girl, and an Indian imitation gangsta) to scurry through an alien invasion in progress, McG gets to try his hand at a ‘Diet Amblin’ style cribbed from Stranger Things. All that separates his latest feature from the word-of-mouth hit series is its orange-Fanta color grading, convivially racist jokes about Jackie Chan, dimestore CGI, and bone-deep idiocy. Whenever the official Netflix twitter account goes on a tear about their commitment to progressivism and art appreciation, this film should be held up as an incriminating counterexample.
276. Game Over, Man!
What kind of kompromat does Adam DeVine have on Netflix’s board members? There’s no other way to explain how he keeps getting execrable concept comedies pushed into existence as if through a sphincter. In this putrid Die Hard clone, he reunites with his former Workaholics pals to portray a trio of hotel custodians who must disarm a hit squad holding a weirdly cameo-heavy party hostage. (Spoiler alert: Flying Lotus’s head explodes, Scanners-style. Also: Jillian Bell soils herself.) Slathered in gay-panic gags and reaching its nadir with an anilingus set piece that will leave all those who see it emotionally scarred, it’s a heartening sign that the Sandlerian legacy of, ahem, half-assing it will remain intact for years to come.
275. The Dirt
With the Oscars all given, we thought that Bohemian Rhapsody had done all the harm that it could possibly do, a false sense of security that left the American public totally unprepared for this unholy Spencer’s Gifts version of the paint-by-numbers musician biopic. As Jeff Tremaine’s boorish take on the Mötley Crüe legend would have it, what made the hair-metal superstars such meteoric successes was their ability to be bigger assholes than everybody else. They’ll hoover up every narcotic in sight, they’ll bang anything that moves (including and especially your girlfriend), they’re pathologically narcissistic, and the film loves them for it. Each song is in actuality an ode to douchery in all its forms, and boy does it take many forms: every flavor of misogyny we’ve got, an unforgivable extended metaphor likening heroin addiction to a mind-blowing yet unreliable lover, an even worse bid to mine pathos from the death of a child. This selfsame douchery is in the human form of Pete Davidson, too, as a sniveling record executive that the band scorns for being slightly less of a prick than they are. An embarrassment of douche riches, truly.
274. The Outsider
Maybe you already know this film as “the Jared Leto yakuza Netflix movie.” Maybe you’re friends with one of the critics who were contractually obligated to review it, and consoled them as they rocked back and forth while babbling that they thought The Last Samurai couldn’t get any whiter. Maybe you saw the ads, depicting Leto’s U.S. expat who sets up shop in the Japanese criminal underground and promptly beats them all on their own turf, and maybe you wondered if the full-back koi tattoo wasn’t a little on-the-nose. Maybe you heard the word “SUMO!?” as a distant scream, as thousands impotently begged to understand how such a tone-deaf display of old-school Orientalism could have come to be. When will Jared Leto be stopped, and who among us can do it?
273. You Get Me
An erotic thriller neither thrilling nor erotic, filled out with a cast of post-Disney starlets and Vine stars temporarily separated from their handlers, this poor-man’s Fatal Attraction plays like a rich symphony of bad choices. We all know the drill: Guy steps out on girlfriend, guy breaks things off with side piece, side piece turns psycho and wreaks vengeful havoc on guy. That time-tested formula gets sullied here by awe-inspiringly dumb dialogue (“I love Tumblr,” one character says, in a subtle reminder that we all someday shall die), and an inability to impose the sexual maturity the story calls for onto the teen characters enacting it. Most troubling of all, this film inadvertently makes the argument that the erotic-thriller tradition necessarily can’t survive in the millennial generation. Up until Lohanian — Lohanesque? — star Bella Thorne gets all stabby, the tensest moments see our boy dramatically sending a text message and his sleuthing girlfriend dramatically checking Facebook. The kids have no idea what they’re doing. Get off my sexy, homicidal lawn!
272. True Memoirs of an International Assassin
Q: When is an Adam Sandler movie not an Adam Sandler movie? A: When it’s a showcase for his regular associate Paul “Kevin James” Blart, Mall Cop. Though the Sandman does not show his face in this feature — a dime-store espionage flick that casts Blart as a spy novelist who stumbles into one of his own stories — his authorial fingerprints of passive chauvinism and total stylistic indifference have been smeared all over the frame. More to the point, this film presents a grossly inaccurate depiction of the writer’s creative process. For starters, who deletes a sentence by repeatedly pressing the ‘delete’ key for each individual letter? Highlight and delete, man, or at least hold the key down! Who’s got that kind of time?
271. Malibu Rescue
Critiquing this film, which I assume has been made by a crew of ninth-graders with a budget of thirty-seven dollars, makes me feel like a bad sport, as if I’m kicking the last wobbling knee out from a piteous one-legged puppy. But if democratization of content really was the whole idea of Netflix’s streaming revolution, then we must evaluate the puffs of intestinal air right along with the new Cuarón, so here goes: a cast of Nickelodeon alumni and [shudder] Instagram influencers take to the sand and surf for a slobs-versus-slobs lifeguard comedy so feather-light that it barely exists. At a suspiciously short 69 minutes — truly, the nicest run time of all — it comes and goes without leaving any indentation on your mind or soul, a memory-foam movie if ever there was one. I’m reminded of an old friend’s Alabamian mother, who taught us “bless your heart” as an insult reserved for those too harmlessly dumb to make fun of directly. Bless these people’s hearts, every last one of them.
270. The Kissing Booth
Teens and their mushy, impressionable brains should be kept far away from this putrid rom-com that plays like the most regrettable studio acquisition of 1989. They’ll get all the wrong lessons from the inadvisable courtship between spunky Elle (Joey King) and bad boy Noah (Jacob Elordi), a relationship forbidden due to Elle’s lifelong friendship with Noah’s brother Lee (Joel Courtney). Director Vince Marcello plays off male possessiveness and other manifestations of entitlement — so much fuss gets made over how this poor girl chooses to dress — like the order of the day, hardly batting an eye at Noah’s nagging violent tendencies. The movie works tirelessly to uphold the hollow honor of “dude code,” that unspoken etiquette dictating how men may lay claim to and trade access to the women in their lives. Let it instead die the natural death awaiting it.
269. The Ridiculous 6
Sandler stretched himself a little bit by getting into genre work with this Western. Springing this viciously unfunny John Ford riff on America two weeks before Christmas 2015 like a present nobody especially wanted, Sandler portrays a leathery cowpuncher on a search for his wayward Pa with his legion of half-brothers. Their ramble through the countryside mostly exists to cue up collar-tug-worthy cracks at Native Americans and an inexplicable number of “jokes” revolving around donkey feces.
268. The Silence
Part of me wishes I could simply cut-and-paste my blurb about Bird Box here with a few altered proper nouns and kick my feet up. That’s more or less what the makers of this movie did, so why should I put in any more effort? The militant sameness enforced by this algorithm has never been so perceivable, as it sculpts a 2016 novel into a remora clinging to the underside of A Quiet Place and its sensory-deprived progeny. The monsters hunting by sound are impish bat freaks in this instance, and until the late-in-the-game introduction of an evil priest, shunted in to fill the empty space where a real antagonist should be, each beat syncs up with a corresponding section of its twin. Not even the divergent casting — Stanley Tucci leads his family to safety, while Chilling Adventures of Sabrina star Kiernan Shipka is his daughter by cross-promotional synergy — can provide any sense of individuality. The dead giveaway: It was written by a guy who made his name penning rip-offs.
267. I Am Not An Easy Man
You’ve got to hand it to France — they may be as good at churning out unfathomably ill-conceived studio comedies as Hollywood. Hell, given the country’s more casual relationship to the strictures of political correctness, they’re probably even better. Case in point is I Am Not An Easy Man, a “comedy” that makes I Feel Pretty look like a Betty Friedan book. One afternoon, a chauvinist pig walks into a pole on the street and awakens in a world where the roles of men and women have been completely reversed! The satire just writes itself! Though, in a much more real way, it does not. The script goes for every easy joke, no matter how distasteful; the sight of men running around in Juicy tracksuits with “HOT” on the butt is sub-camp-skit funny, but a scene that faces him with the same sexual harassment he’d previously practiced is nothing but chilling. On the bright side, Bright’s mastery of allegory appears subtle in comparison.
266. A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, as they say. Newly coronated queen Amber (a returning Rose McIver) finds the truth in the statement as she gets settled in the throne to the postcard-scenic kingdom of Aldovia — there’s some embezzling going on in the state kitty, but who cares, really — just as the film itself learns how hard upholding its own reputation can be. This sequel isn’t shy about reproducing what audiences liked in the unaccountably successful original, adding yet another layer of unoriginality to an already-thick casserole of unoriginality. And when you clone a clone, surprising new genetic defects crop up, such as a mincing Indian manservant/stylist character guaranteed to appeal to homophobes and colonialism nostalgists alike. Those who didn’t wrinkle their lips at the sugary taste of this peppermint-flavored confection the first time around, however, can take solace in the same wheelchair-bound cuteness factory (Honor Kneafsey), the same upstairs-downstairs tensions between the classes, the same chaste paperback lovey-dovery.
The predominantly cis-gendered critical corps at the Cannes Film Festival gushed over Lukas Dhont’s study of a trans ballerina wrestling for control of her own body, while actual trans viewers out in the world beyond the Croisette largely condemned it. But even for someone with a little less skin in the game of gender, it’s not hard to see the failings of Dhont’s good intentions. (If we’re willing to give him the benefit of that particular doubt, that is.) He assumes a voyeur’s peering vantage point in the many scenes focusing on the private anatomy of Laura (Victor Polster, who, like Dhont, is not trans); we can nearly hear heavy breathing as she carefully tapes down her penis. To say nothing of the remorselessly exploitative finale, in which the mutilation that Laura inflicts on herself is treated not as rock bottom, but as a happy ending. Dhont and Polster have been working the press circuit, repeating ad nauseam that they’re not out to wrong anyone. The canyon between their words and deeds is pan enough, but for more in-depth criticism, read someone who knows what they’re talking about.
You can’t fault Duncan Jones for believing in himself. This sci-fi epic is an incoherent mess filtered through an intensely personal vision, and the result is something closer to Battlefield Earth than Southland Tales. Jones clearly poured a lot of himself into the outlay of a techno-Berlin in the year 2035, peopled as it is by such oddballs as Silent Amish Bartender Alexander Skarsgard and Flamboyantly Mustachioed Black-Market Surgeon Paul Rudd. The writing confounds the viewer by constantly bursting out into narrative seizures about robot sex or child pornography while remaining steadfastly boring through its two-plus hours. It’s the rare film that’s impossible to describe without making its badness sound more entertaining than it actually is.
263. The Fundamentals of Caring
That this film could actually manage to be worse than its title is a grim sort of accomplishment. Its pathos is so disingenuous and suffocating that not even Human Embodiment of Charm Paul Rudd can salvage it. He plays a depressed writer (red flag No. 1) who’s going through a divorce (red flag No. 2) following the untimely death of his son (red flag No. 3), and coping by taking new work as a live-in caregiver (red flag No. 4) for a smart-aleck teen (red flag No. 5). Together, they set out on a cross-country road trip (red flag No. 6) and pick up a potential love interest for the boy in a streetwise drifter girl (red flag No. 7), who is also Selena Gomez (red flag No. 8). By starting with a premise so rich with potential for overcooked emotional manipulation, the film sets an uphill battle for itself so steep that it can fall right off the mountain.
262. When We First Met
When you’re into someone who’s not into you, it’s hard not to imagine what you could have done differently; if only you had worn this shirt instead of that one, said something smooth instead of something awkward, made a move at just the right moment … The vast majority of us come to accept that sometimes it’s just not meant to be, and move on. In this rom-com of toxic infatuation, however, Adam DeVine’s lovelorn lame-o spends years secretly lusting after his best friend (Alexandra Daddario) only to happen into a time-travel booth that sends him back to their first night together. The film behaves as if his efforts to use his extensive knowledge of her personality to trick her younger self into falling for him are sweet but misguided. In actuality, he’s a moving embodiment of that immortal Onion article “Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested.”
261. The Holiday Calendar
Until you give it a quick Google, this one’s a stumper. It’s a pretty by-the-book Yulesploitation flick — a small-time photographer happens upon an enchanted Advent heirloom and must choose between a hot-jerk doctor or her childhood bestie, who’s thoughtful and a good listener! — except for leading actress Kat Graham. Films like this live and die with the winningness of their leads, and both the script and camera treat Graham like she’s a project-carrying name, despite the fact that her lifeless performance could be easily interchanged with that of any other C-lister. But one online search and, ah, it all becomes clear: Graham has spent years as the star of The Vampire Diaries. Except that this ploy to parley her niche notability onto a broader mainstream platform doesn’t stand a chance unless Graham’s got the chops to back it up. The script doesn’t do her any favors, but it’s not as if she’s ready to meet it halfway, either.
260. Father of the Year
Our world is full of unknowable mysteries: How does the aurora borealis form? What happened to D.B. Cooper? And for the love of all that is holy, what is going on with David Spade’s accent in this half-baked Happy Madison production? His character Wayne seems to hail from the same stretch of the Rust Belt as Spade’s dirtbag extraordinaire Joe Dirt, but his voice places him somewhere in the Little Australia neighborhood of Boston. That’s the sturdiest point of interest in this comedy of beta-male manners that pits Wayne against rival dad Mardy (Nat Faxon, who has an Oscar), much to the chagrin of their college-aged sons (Joey Bragg and Matt Shively). Their idiotic feud to determine the top paterfamilias leads to accidental MDMA-dropping and male breast enhancement, but the mischief does little to perk up an otherwise stultifying family outing. This film is the equal and opposite reaction to the era of the Hot Dad.
259. Good Sam
Kate Melville’s adaptation of an airport paperback with attractive sales figures bills itself as a “feel-good mystery,” naturally posing the question of to whom this all feels good. Only the most warmth-starved hearts would fall for this film’s hokey brand of email-forward optimism as it wins over the jaded one by one. Some incognito do-gooder has been leaving bags of cold hard cash with strangers around New York, but doubtful cub reporter Kate Bradley (Tiya Sircar, better known as The Good Place’s Vicky) wants to find the real story. A street-toughened city gal, she can’t believe someone could possibly be so generous, and only through a saltine-flavored love triangle with a businessman — bad — and a firefighter — good — can she uncover the identity of the anonymous donor. Between the “practice random acts of kindness” hogwash and the DOA romcom hogwash, there’s simply too much hogwash to go around.
258. A Christmas Prince
I’ve got a theory that if you showed this Yuletide rom-com to someone who had never seen a movie before — ideally, someone who had never even heard of movies — it would positively charm them. Few movies cycle through the clichés of their genre with such a rigorous lack of imagination, and if someone hadn’t already grown tired of the klutzy but cute workin’ girl who falls for a debonair, rich Adonis, they’d feel for our gal Amber (Rose McIver). They wouldn’t bat an eye at the ludicrous plot sending this newly minted reporter on her first-ever assignment to report on the royal family of a fictitious European nation, and they wouldn’t think twice about the improbable mix-up that brings Amber closer to the dashing prince under the pretext of mistaken identity. They wouldn’t roll their eyes at Amber’s conniving brunette-haired foil, or the last-minute deus ex machina that brings the leads — who met earlier that week — together in marriage. This theoretical person would take it all at face value and love it. Sadly, we cannot be so naïve.
257. The Babysitter
This ’80s-throwback slasher from notorious Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle director McG is an inexplicable Satanic-panic flick that pits a nail-biting kid against his hottie coed caretaker and the rest of her death cult. Why, when he first catches an eyeful of the group (which also includes Bella Thorne, suddenly everywhere) turning a game of spin the bottle into a bloodbath, do the words “WHAT THE FUCK” suddenly fly onto the screen in giant red text? And then later on, when he uses a handy knife given to him by his good pal Anton Chekov in the first act, why does McG throw the phrase “POCKET KNIFE … BITCHES!” in our faces? Why does the film break up its PG-13 comedy with geysers of gore that John Woo might call “a little much?” Why, after getting shot in the chest, is Bella Thorne unconcerned about her own health and wholly preoccupied with her cans no longer being perfect? Why is there so much trouble in the world?
256. Brij Mohan Amar Rahe
Evidently a satisfactory number of people tuned in for Brahman Naman and Lust Stories, because Netflix has continued their campaign to sew up the Indian sex farce with this comedy that Adam Sandler might describe as “a little on-the-nose.” Not since the days of the Entourage movie has a script’s gender politics so transparently outed itself as being written by men: bra shop proprietor Brij Mohan (Arjun Mathur) can’t stand his humorless shrew of a wife (Nidhi Singh) and wants to begin anew with his 24-year-old girl on the side, so he pulls a move I call the Slimeball Tom Sawyer and fakes his own death. Of course he can’t make a clean getaway, and eventually he (in the guise of his assumed identity, Amar) faces a comeuppance. Seeing someone contemptible get their just desserts should be gratifying, and yet the absence of any character that isn’t a mean-spirited manifestation of male insecurity prohibits that feeling. It is, at least, slightly less unpleasant than The Do-Over, though not for lack of trying.
255. The Last Summer
While I’m steadfast in my belief that “The Summer That Changed Everything” is one of cinema’s most dependable subgenres, William Bindley did his darndest to convince me otherwise with this soulless imitation. The almost-too-telegenic graduates that this film follows for three magical months before college — an ensemble led by K.J. Apa, better known as TV’s Hot Archie Who Fucks, and Maia Mitchell of The Fosters — scarcely register as human. Bindley sends them on Instagram-filtered walk-and-talks down Chicago streets at magic hour, rattling off notable alumni of NYU’s film school (she’s a cineaste-in-training, he has dreams of EDM stardom), and not for one second does it resemble a conversation between members of our species. They’re not even the smart-mouthed comic-strip characters of a Can’t Hardly Wait, a clear influence on the film’s open stock-type-bandying. They’re an adult’s idea of teens, portrayed by twenty-somethings that look thirty, animated by a dope’s idea of wit.
Where did the French get their reputation as masters of romance? July Hygreck’s tone-deaf rom-com could singlehandedly rewrite the national caricature, so repellent is its approach to courtship. Lola (Charlotte Gabris) kicks Jeremy (Syrus Shahidi) to the curb with good reason, and still the film tacitly cheers him on as he goes about whipping up a DIY superhero movie to win her back. Because Lola loves the capes-and-tights set, this gesture is presented as a thoughtful, quirky demonstration of devotion in the vein of Be Kind Rewind (that Lola’s favorite director is explicitly stated to be Michel Gondry, who cameos in the film, should not come as a surprise), instead of an unsavory homage to the guy who wouldn’t stop playing piano. The most baffling aspect of all is that a female director would be behind this blend of toxic male entitlement and high-viscosity corn syrup.
In Europe, gangs of bros raise the bachelor party to the Nth degree with so-called “stag weekends,” non-stop bacchanals of liquor-chugging, cross-dressing, and generally dishonorable behavior. In this aspirationally moronic comedy from (where else!) France, two suit-wearers (Manu Payet and Jonathan Cohen) make a career change into the party industry, arranging such unspeakable getaways under the banner of Crazy Tours. This premise mostly acts as a container for lots of narcotics, pendulous breasts, and other monkey business, all of which is for nothing more than its own sake. The contentious debate over depiction vs. endorsement — whether a film can show men behaving badly without condoning their seductive misbehavior, the question Martin Scorsese must re-answer every five years — ends here, with a film that makes zero effort to interrogate or rise above itself. One-time Hitman director Xavier Gens is simply too accommodating to the men making all the accommodations.
While definitely the most high-profile bad Netflix movie — a budget big enough to lure Suicide Squad director David Ayer and star Will Smith, plentiful CGI, a log line as simple as “orc cop” — this feature-length insult to the concept of allegory is not quite the worst in the library. But credit Ayer for giving it the ol’ college try, rehashing the racial commentary of his breakout script Training Day for an alternate Los Angeles where hulking magical beasties stand in for black folks. From this unsound premise he weaves an incomprehensible story involving a powerful magic wand, Noomi Rapace as a tremulous elf, and latent plot-hole-fixing superpowers revealed at just the right moment. The merciful among you may feel moved to award Ayer some pity points for following an original thought instead of churning through more franchise fare, but the script relinquishes any goodwill with four simple words: “Fairy lives don’t matter.”
The primary utility of this rinky-dink attempt at a superhero movie (I’ll say this but once: Do not produce an effects-driven action film if you do not have the budget to make those effects look good) is to determine Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams’s viability as a big-screen quantity. That’s really the only intriguing question in this unattractive, rote squandering of a neat concept, namely, a crime-fighter with the power to interface with all electrical devices. While some of us might use technopathy to redistribute wealth or expose covert wrongdoing, our hero Tom (Bill Milner) instead goes after neighborhood toughs like a USB-enabled Kick-Ass. Williams, as Tom’s inevitable love interest, is fine.
250. The After Party
WorldStarHipHop, that august online repository of fight clips, uploaded freestyles, and twerk videos, produced this misbegotten rap comedy in their first foray into feature-length entertainment. We know this because of the big honkin’ Worldstar logo that flashes over the screen in the opening seconds, and because of the guy who yells the trademark “WORLDSTAAAAAR!” when grinding MC Owen (up-and-coming rapper Kyle) projectile pukes on Wiz Khalifa in front of a hundred recording iPhones, and because the website makes him a laughingstock in the very industry he’s trying to break into. But even without the name-drops, the Worldstar stamp would still be evident from the long line of rapper cameos, some better than others. (Jadakiss stopping by to drop a little knowledge about Eric B. and Rakim plays a tad better than [checks notes] Desiigner musing on his love for cute animal vids.) Netflix’s attempts to game the numbers have never been as undisguised as when Owen and his best friend/manager Jeff (Harrison Holzer) try to glad-hand for a record deal with living catchphrase machine–slash–animate social-media account DJ Khaled. “Wise up!” is Mr. Khaled’s advice, words the film itself would’ve been smart to heed.
Riding high off his Oscar win for a Winston Churchill buried under pounds of prosthetic jowl, Gary Oldman estranged himself even further from humanity by voicing the artificially intelligent computer program that gives this dismal sci-fi project its title. Looming over a captive test subject (Maika Monroe), Tau’s twisted creator (Ed Skrein) explains that this A.I. is so advanced that it must be “cut off from the outside world,” which amounts to Tau acting like a complete dumbass all of the time. Left alone with Monroe’s wily prisoner, he peppers her with infantile questions mostly about what different words mean, eventually segueing into a pas de deux most accurately described as “Ex Machina on stupid pills.” What does it mean to live, Tau wonders; this critic found himself wondering the same thing, albeit in a more existentially despairing tenor.
248. Sandy Wexler
This biopic of a fictitious, incompetent, ill-mannered talent manager benefited from the subtle handicap of lowered expectations, exceeding the likes of The Do-Over with a handful of decent one-liners and some amusing celebrity cameos. One gets the impression that Sandler’s actually trying in this train wreck, as opposed to the more passive train wrecks that preceded it. But praising the “best Adam Sandler movie for Netflix” is like choosing your favorite dental procedure. Either way, by the time it’s over, you won’t be able to feel part of your face.
247. The Tribe
How the same laws requiring Lee Daniels to slap his name on The Butler fail to prevent confusion between this stink-bomb and the superlative 2015 film of the same title (also on Netflix as recently as a few months ago!) eludes me. God save any poor soul looking for the latter who lands on the former, another dispatch from French studio comedy hell. [Deep breath, as if bearing the weight of all my past mistakes:] A layoff-happy meanie CEO shrugs off his long-lost birth mother when she accosts him outside his office building, but after a head injury leaves him a little slow on the uptake, he happily joins [second deep breath] her predominantly elderly dance troupe. A film so brazenly lazy and slapdash doesn’t qualify for full sentences, so: Butt jokes. Big-man-dancing jokes. Family! CEO nice. Movie!
One day, Congress will pass a bill rendering hashtag movie titles punishable by law, but until then, we’re stuck with this utterly clueless Clueless wannabe. (Or Easy A. Hell, even The DUFF. This is the saddest kind of bad movie, one that feels like a worse version of so many wonderful movies.) The latest in a long line of films that know teenagers use social media but utterly fail to understand how, this pat after-school special dispenses nuggets of wisdom about being true to yourself and knowing who your friends are that possess all the depth and nuance of a tweet. I pray that today’s teens, for their own sake, will get better nostalgia objects than this one.
245. The Cloverfield Paradox
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the viewership of Super Bowl LII to watch this movie. Turns out all the hubbub over the zero-warning release was all compensation — for a plot cobbled together from no fewer than four classics, for cut-rate production values suggesting the producers set most of their $45 million budget on fire, and perhaps the most cynical, mercenary approach to connected-universe franchising yet. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does her best as an astronaut mourning the death of her children (would you believe that comes up later on in the film?) as she and her colleagues inadvertently shoot themselves into an unpredictable parallel dimension. A handful of nifty set pieces get kneecapped by technical shortcomings, and the big reveal as to what the hell this all has to do with Cloverfield is so cheap, so manipulative, and so nihilistic that it could have come from one of the latter seasons of The Walking Dead.
The dream of the ’90s — when making Pulp Fiction, but dumber and more violent, was the highest station to which an up-and-coming director could aspire — is alive with Jonas Åkerlund’s stylized-to-a-fault translation of a noir-shaded comic series. Hit man Mads Mikkelsen is two weeks out from hanging up his holsters, so he does the safe thing and savors some well-earned R&R over two uneventful weeks. Sike! His boss (Matt Lucas) sends his underlings to kill the much-feared “Black Kaiser” so that the cost of his pension won’t come out of the company kitty. But Åkerlund has no time to get hung up on the vindictive side of human resources, he’s off smacking us across the face with freeze-frame title introduction cards for each bundle of quirks passed off as a character. The constant Ol’ Faithfuls of blood are plenty, the imbecilic non-twist clarifying the purpose of Vanessa Hudgens is just too much, and killing an angelic French bulldog for no other reason than jollies is the final straw.
243. Death Note
After slogging through this American anime adaptation, the best thing a viewer can say about director Adam Wingard is that he’s a master of misdirection. We were all so focused on the question of whitewashing in this originally Asian property that the media narrative almost entirely ignored how defiantly uninteresting this movie is. How could a story that reimagines Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov as a hot genius teen on a lethal mission to cleanse the world of evil and features real-life god of death Willem Dafoe as an apple-munching CGI god of death, possibly turn out so dull? It’s not just the visual flatness that trades the bustle of metropolitan Japan for permanently grey Seattle, but that this morality tale’s moralizing is fundamentally inconsistent. It contradicts itself too many times to make any lucid point.
242. The Week Of
Anything setting up Rachel Dratch to do a long-form Lawng Eyeland accent cannot be all bad. But she’s merely a supporting player on Netflix’s latest two-hour episode of the Adam Sandler show, a hellacious and unending variety program in which the softest-working man in show business alternates between his tiny-man squeaking and his angry-man yelling. (Not all funny voices are created equal.) Dratch and Sandler are the proud parents of the bride in this nuptial culture clash as they struggle to fit in with the black groom’s family, in particular his suave surgeon dad Chris Rock. There’s a bit of Lady Bird–ish insight on the awkwardness of being in the lower half of the middle class, but it’s hard to hear over the sound of Sandler’s strangulated yowling.
241. Happy Anniversary
How can the end product of a team-up between two performers as generously lovable as Noël Wells and Ben Schwartz and a bulldog puppy end up so grating and charmless? Blame writer-director Jared Stern, the guy responsible for The Intern and the short-lived sitcom Dr. Ken, who packs this portrait of a disintegrating romance with unbearable one-liners like, “It’s not called gently reclining in love, it’s called falling in love!” The film traces their slow breakup from fight to fight, forgetting to first give the audience a compelling reason to root for these two self-absorbed platitude factories to stay together. Without that, their separation feels only right and overdue, eons removed from the mournful register Stern’s going for. The film gets to the conclusion that some relationships aren’t worth struggling for about 80 minutes after everyone else.
240. Walk. Ride. Rodeo
Last year, Chloé Zhao spun a heartland tragedy with The Rider, a glowingly received film about an injured rodeo star’s convalescence and eventual return to the ring. Amberley Snyder’s life story clip-clops down the same dusty Wyoming road — the real-life 19-year-old would not let a car crash paralyzing her from the waist down keep her from her purpose — but director Conor Allyn and star Spencer Locke’s interpretation of it reduces her struggle to an outline of itself. Though the facts may be real and the stunts authentic, her pain is all fake. The country-rock soundtrack plays at cookouts in the deepest reaches of Hell, and as Amberley’s mother, Missi Pyle is acting in an entirely different (and likely better) movie. Only the most dedicated horse girls will be able to make it through this rough ride without getting thrown.
Universal had a good reason to ditch this sci-fi genocide allegory with scant days to go before its theatrical release. Somebody high up must have yanked the rip cord after witnessing the dopey plot twist too predictable to conceal here: maintenance worker Michael Peña’s recurring nightmares about alien annihilation have sprung to life, imperiling his dutiful wife Lizzy Caplan and their formidably annoying kids. Or so you thought — the invading “aliens” are actually humans, and the Peña-Caplan family are all artificially intelligent androids! A rogue human comes to learn that the bots can feel, just like flesh-and-blood homo sapiens, cuing up the sagacity that killing people is wrong. A leaden work of Commentary 101 dressed as an action tentpole — more like Bore of the Worlds, am I right? — it is also proof that an effects-driven film can look heavily produced without looking polished.
238. Special Correspondents
While drumming up publicity during postproduction, director-writer-star Ricky Gervais said of this motion picture, “Even though it would certainly be billed as a comedy, it’s not a big, broad, loud, obvious, one … It’s a bit satirical.” One gets the sense Gervais knew, deep down, how dismal his reviews would be, and moreover, the specific nature of that dismalness. For this big, broad, loud, obvious comedy does indeed aspire to satire with its harebrained plot about two thick-skulled news-radio journalists ginning up a bogus Ecuadorian revolution from the safety of a guest room in America. But Gervais cannot muster either the brains or balls to say anything substantive about the anything-goes state of modern media or hectic banana republics in South America. The heroically distasteful Gervais of The Office feels so far away.
237. Murder Mystery
The Sandler-Netflix special relationship bears something close to fruit with this longform Agatha Christie homage nonetheless hobbled by its auteur’s same old peccadilloes. For starters, his loudly stated identification with the blue-collar clock-punchers of America rings hollow as the man himself continues to be devoured by his own wealth. He and Jennifer Aniston portray Nick and Audrey Spitz, a beat cop and a hairdresser — regulah New Yawkahs — and their dynamic continues another unfavorable trend of Sandler’s oeuvre in how little they like each other. It’s a dispiriting view of matrimony, and though it casts a disparaging light on husbands in general, the simple enjoyment of unraveling a mystery largely transcends the film’s overall Sandler-ness. With the noted exception, that is, of Adeel Akhtar’s ‘90s-era wanksta Maharaja, who sucks all the oxygen out of every scene he’s in like a finely-tuned Dyson.
236. The Most Hated Woman in America
This biopic of atheism activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a platform for Melissa Leo that would’ve been an abandoned Oscar horse ten years ago, and barely exists now. Leo gets to chew a whole lot of scenery as she takes the fight to remove prayer from public schools into court, attracts scorn from every corner of society, and eventually gets herself abducted. Melissa Leo diehards will relish the chance to see her don all manner of creative hairpieces and Coke-bottle glasses that I’m pretty sure get a little bit bigger with every passing scene. Regular people will wonder how a film ostensibly dealing with First Amendment rights could possibly generate zero original insight.
235. Christmas Inheritance
Sweet Home Alabama heads north of the Mason-Dixon in this seasonal rom-com that could be most charitably praised as “not A Christmas Prince.” Well-meaning but hopelessly pampered Ellen (Eliza Taylor) grows a conscience while traveling to her provincial hometown of Snow Falls, the quaintest frost-laced village Thomas Kinkade never imagined. If she wants her massive inheritance, she’ll first have to deliver a letter to her father’s former business partner using no more than the $100 in her pocket, a quest that wins her the heart of human mayonnaise jar Jake Lacy and teaches her a valuable lesson about checking her privilege. Will someone start a GoFundMe for Andie MacDowell so she doesn’t have to take paycheck gigs like this ever again?
234. David Brent: Life on the Road
Having successfully alienated his fanbase with a steady stream of smug press appearances and awards-show hosting gigs, perhaps Ricky Gervais figured he’d do well to shut up and play the hits. He took the biggest crowd-pleaser in his repertoire (fatuous boob David Brent of the British Office) out of mothballs for this uninspired spin-off that finds the former middle manager, reduced now to grunt work at a toilet chemical company, touring with his band Foregone Conclusion. Leaving behind the setting of Wernham Hogg and the co-workers that went with it reveals the conceptual limits of the Brent’s constant self-humiliation. The touring band that refuses to be in a room with him even as they empty his life savings, the brutal un-self-awareness — without the hard-earned underlying note of sympathy, it’s all just sadistic.
233. Sara’s Notebook
In case you thought Americans had sole title to the “account of third-world strife through the safe viewpoint of a well-meaning white person” movie, Spain is here to set you straight. Visiting the same morass of violence and political destabilization that plagued Beasts of No Nation’s corner of Africa, this film sends Laura (Bélen Rueda) into the middle of the Congo’s mineral wars to search for her wayward sister, no matter the costs. What’s clearly intended as a tribute to one woman’s bravery amidst inhumanity completely misses the point by leaving the Africans this war actually affects on the sideline. It’s not as catastrophically clueless as Sean Penn’s The Last Face, but this transgression is accentuated by the presence of Beasts of No Nation in Netflix’s streaming library, a film that does correctly everything this film does wrong.
I’m putting my foot down, and ruling that a post-apocalyptic setting shall no longer pass muster as an excuse to skimp out on production design. The nondescript French fields in which Jonathan Helpert shot this sneeze of a movie look more like, well, fields with some crap thrown all over the place than a wasteland made arid by an unbreathable atmosphere. It’s here that survivors Margaret Qualley and Anthony Mackie rendezvous, do a little amateur beekeeping, and toy with the idea of repopulating the Earth. That they seem totally mismatched in terms of temperament and age (Qualley was 21 during filming, to Mackie’s 37) may be the idea, but what an idea to expound upon. Their unendurable trip to a still-standing art museum will make you sympathize with the gaseous cloud.
231. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser
The insidious influence of the almighty algorithm feels more palpable in some movies than others. Everything about Ian Samuels’s riff on Cyrano de Bergerac — its niche as a teen-friendly rom-com, the cast being led by Shannon “Barb from Stranger Things” Purser and Noah “Peter Kavinsky from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” Centineo, a plot oriented around texting — could have been decided by consensus. Though that leaves the question of how one film can be both focus-grouped to death and completely bereft of any self-knowledge regarding tone or character. Sierra Burgess may not be a loser, but she’s still kinda insufferable, the sort of self-pitying nerd who considers it an own to tell a bathroom bully she means Quasimodo, not Bilbo. Her scheme to win the man of her dreams involves deceiving him and intentionally humiliating her one friend. For many viewers, Purser can get away with this because (1) she’s a girl, and (2) doesn’t conform to mainstream body standards, but there’s something rotten just beneath the marching-band uniform.
230. Duck Duck Goose
Children, if your parents have exposed you to this very-bad-no-good cartoon, tell your teacher, religious official, or another responsible adult in your area. They should know better than to subject an innocent child to the volley of poop jokes, age-inappropriate pop-culture references, and pathos-as-afterthought contained in this sub-Minions animated abomination. Jim Gaffigan voices a carefree goose bachelor who ends up in custody of two defenseless baby ducks separated from their flock. (DUCK. DUCK. GOOSE. DO YOU GET IT?!) He has no choice but to take them under his wing and return them from whence they came, learning some threadbare lessons about responsibility along the way. And because this film was produced by the Wanda Media Company as well as Jiangsu Yuandongli Computer Animation Company, and because we are at the mercy of the Chinese entertainment economy, the film is set in China. It’s all very weird and pretty terrible.
Imagine Nashville (the Robert Altman movie, not the TV show where Hayden Panettiere is secretly Taylor Swift), but with EDM instead of country-western music. Now remove that film’s soul-sickness over the fluctuating American character and replace it with a pat star-is-born narrative that was already done to death when We Are Your Friends dropped the beat one year earlier. Throw in a handful of barely identifiable TV players, such as That Cute Girl From Modern Family, Wasn’t He on The Good Wife?, and Chris D’Elia. Then take a tab of MDMA, wait about 40 minutes (30 if it’s pure), and tape a tablet playing the Coachella livestream on a loop to your head. For all intents and purposes, you have now seen the film XOXO.
228. Blood Will Tell
Cops have a saying that when a woman dies under mysterious circumstances, nine times out of ten, the husband did it. This thriller coming to us via Spain poses the question as to whether that might be the case, then expects us to spend the next couple hours stroking our chins about the all-but-assured. Choleric widower Elias (Oscar Marintez) sure seems to be the guilty party, but we’ll have to join his son-in-law Santiago (Diego Velázquez) as he investigates his mother’s quote-unquote “accidental” death to be sure. The truth comes out, as we knew it would, only to conceal a more pointless and vacuous version of the truth within itself. In other words, some twists are best left un-twisted, especially the ones slapped together from convenience and happenstance just to set up a belabored full-circle ending.
I got yer paradox right here: How could a sci-fi–Western featuring Neil Young as a futuristic bandit roving the countryside in search of computer keyboards and Super 8 cameras feel like such a chore, even at 73 minutes? Trace the project’s roots back to director Daryl Hannah’s relationship with Young and this self-indulgent vanity project starts to make a little more sense. More amateurish than Amateur, this dilettante’s dabble plods from one farmland pseudo-koan to another while Hannah and her costume-closet players wander aimlessly through the prairies. Young is, at best, conscious. I’m tempted to liken Hannah’s calamitous approach to The Room, another labor of love from someone with too much money and too little oversight, but at least Tommy Wiseau talks funny. Call me when this gets the Disaster Artist treatment by the mid-2030s.
226. How It Ends
Director David M. Rosenthal takes The Road less traveled by, and unfortunately, it makes all the difference. Will (Theo James) and Tom (Forest Whitaker) blaze a path from Chicago to Seattle after a whopper of an earthquake threatens their mutually beloved Sam (Kat Graham), Will’s fiancée and Tom’s daughter. A lopsided script deals them the usual barriers — roving gangs of ravagers, further weather cataclysms, injury — and when they do finally make it out West, what awaits them there pales in comparison to what they’ve been through. The poor judgment extends to casting as well, with Whitaker acting circles around James. In a film economy besotted with end-times narratives, many of which can be streamed right from Netflix, there’s little cause to bother with a below-average entry such as this.
225. I Am Mother
As with Orbiter 9, this film also toys with the makeup of the Passengers blueprint, only sans the artful CGI that kept the former from total worthlessness. No such luck this time around, as a screamingly heavy-handed script drains all the tension from what’s been designed to compress on itself like a pressure cooker. Distant future, uninhabitable world, hermetically sealed environment, last living girl (Clara Rugaard), android caretaker, you know the drill. A survivor from the outside (Hilary Swank) warns that the robot cannot be trusted; gee willikers, wonder if the Earth’s atmosphere might not be so hostile after all? Not even a voice performance from Rose Byrne as Mother can bust through the thicket of boredom; for all we know, her contribution could have been literally phoned in. I demand to know who loved Passengers enough to have planted the seedling for this emergent trend.
Those in search of English filmmaker Mike Leigh’s stupendous 1993 portrait of one unmoored drifter’s search for meaning in life are in for a big surprise. They are also in for a whole lot of Marlon Wayans’s bare ass. That’s pretty much the whole joke in this Groundhog Day disciple: trapping the funnyman in an hour-long temporal loop that always begins with him waking up, birthday-suited, in an elevator. The tired “immature guy learns to sack up and accept the responsibility of adult love” arc might be forgiven if the movie ensconcing it had the decency to be funnier.
Like a DJ set curated from the refuse bin at a record store condemned by the U.N., a diverse array of bad music forms the soundtrack (and lone distinguishing feature) of this Filipino beat-em-up. Korn-knockoff nu-metal, screamo, idiot-rawk like Andrew W.K. without the ebullient stage presence — all grating noise, from front to back. Submerged beneath the sonic onslaught, a female assassin clearly descended from the Besson lineage of lithe killers loses her husband and son, priming her for a berserker rage that’ll leave a trail of snapped femurs in its wake. Such a baggy setup would suggest a display case for an elevated level of fight choreography or cinematography, but director Pedring Lopez and DP Pao Orendain forgot to come through with that much. They left behind a sluggish film that hustles only in brief spurts, and worst of all, they dropped in a cheeky reference to “fake news” for the amusement of… who, exactly?
222. To Each, Her Own
Another culture-clash comedy to keep the International Collection cluttered, this one by way of France: Simone (Sarah Stern) doesn’t have the brass ovaries to inform her devoutly Jewish family that she’s married to Claire (Julia Piaton), and then starts to question her own identity as a lesbian when she gets the hots for a hunky Senegalese chef (Jean-Christophe Folly). If this came out in America, some PR flack would have known enough to work the “proudly un-PC!” angle, but because it comes from our less optics-conscious Gallic neighbors, it’s just plain old racist. The script busts out every antiquated stereotype in the book, with plenty of unimaginative caricature to go around for the Jews, the Muslims, the LBTQ community, and whoever else might be curious enough to watch this best-forgotten cringefest.
221. The Princess Switch
So, you’ve mainlined both A Christmas Prince movies and your burgeoning addiction to regally themed holiday-specific entertainment has not been fully slaked. Stave off the shakes with this Prince and the Pauper-style trifle that sends Vanessa Hudgens to the Belgravian palace to compete in a reality show that is pointedly not related to The Great British Bake-Off. (Belgravia seems to be in Eastern Europe, though everyone has a crisp British accent, and Belgravia is a real place in the U.K. Just something to consider as you wait for the movie to end.) A swap-’em-up between the lowly baker and her royal look-alike pairs the former with the next in line for the throne and the latter with the commoner’s platonic BFF, and inexorably, the film shambles toward that thing where symmetrical-faced people end up together despite their relationship being founded on a trust-decimating lie. But Hudgens has the juice, and she’d work wonders with a script capable of keeping up with her screwball moxie.
220. Dry Martina
It is with a heavy heart that I must report that the title of this motion picture is indeed a pun, that the main character is a woman named Martina (Antonella Costa) and that she has literally gone dry down there as a result of her recent lack of sexual attention. The once-vivacious singer regains her zest for life when a woman claiming to be her long-lost sister pops up with her Don Juan-ish boyfriend in tow. Martina wastes no time luring the guy to bed, spoken-for as he may be, and setting off on what could be fairly characterized as an erotic rampage. It all sounds much saucier than it ends up being, with too much time frittered away on life-coach-type gum-flapping about finding yourself. More nettlesome still, director Che Sandoval sometimes stoops to gentle mockery of Martina’s more lascivious side, as if there’s something inherently comedic about the pairing of a woman in her fifties with the need to be touched.
219. The Last Laugh
If you’re looking for a Netflix comedy about the enduring homosocial bond between an aging performer and his coot of an agent that isn’t The Kominsky Method, then you’re in luck. (And I’ve got some questions about your way of seeing the world.) Greg Pritikin, director of the criminally underseen Adrien Brody vehicle Dummy, plugs Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfuss into the the machine that takes in geriatric acting legends and spits out toothless jokes about dentures. Dreyfuss is the graying stand-up to Chase’s agent in decline, but they’re both delivering the same old tight five about the mind and body’s slow, undignified breakdown. And as is the case with many comics of a certain age, there’s some uncomfortably behind-the-times material in the mix — in the year 2019, why must we be made to watch a flirtation flower between Chase and Andie Macdowell?
218. Orbiter 9
Only God and Ted Sarandos will ever know why, but Netflix seems to be willing to buy up just about any sci-fi project it can get its licensing contracts on. This Spanish-language beneficiary of that policy has a Passengers thing going on, with another sexy spaceship-dweller manipulated into intercourse under false pretexts with a man she doesn’t realize is her captor. Director Hatem Khraiche sees the putrid foundation of this premise more clearly than Morten Tyldum ever did, but the lack of star power as a serviceable distraction leaves the match-up a wash. Let the record show that Passengers and Visually Lush Spanish Passengers are equally skippable!
217. Bird Box
Netflix trumpeted Susanne Bier’s sense-swapped duplicate of A Quiet Place — the survivors of a post-apocalyptic infestation of … something must now live without sight, instead of speech — as their biggest blockbuster to date. There’s a part of me that refuses to believe this, both because Netflix expects us to unquestioningly accept the veracity of data it has compiled, and because Bird Box is a tangibly stale take on a subgenre that’s already been all but run into the ground. Then there’s another part of me that does believe this, because Bier’s workmanlike direction, Sandra Bullock’s performance (best described as “awake”), and the Blacklist-damning writing are all baseline-digestible enough to make for a hit. “Digestible” emerges as the dominant descriptor for an unnotable film as thin as gruel, and that passes through you just as quickly.
216. The Highwaymen
You may think that Bonnie and Clyde were a pair of sexy, morally ambiguous counterculture types thumbing their nose at John Q. Law and polite society, but that’s only because you’ve been brainwashed by Arthur Penn’s anti-Establishment propaganda film from 1967. At least, that’s the record that this pathetic work of geri-action wants to set straight. The two Texas Rangers (Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, tired) tasked with apprehending the no-goodniks insist that there’s nothing compelling about two of the most fascinating figures in crime history, the corollary being that working as a cop and following the rules is the real bee’s knees. Perhaps the reactionary politics wouldn’t be such an annoyance if the the acting, writing, or photography were anything to write home about. But wooden turnouts from the two stars and a script the recalls the Community scene where Chevy Chase’s Pierce fantasized about young people telling him he’s still relevant are best left in its imagined past.
215. Gnome Alone
Here’s a clarification I cannot believe I have to make: This film is in no way related to competing lawn-ornaments-sprung-to-life cartoon Gnomeo and Juliet, or its sequel, Sherlock Gnomes. (It also bears no relation to Call Me By Your Gnome, Gnomer Pyle U.S.M.C., or Gnome, Open City, which are movies I have made up.) Already, it should be apparent that these movies exist primarily because the “-ome” syllable lends itself to a wide variety of rhymes, and all it takes is one glance at the cast lists to identify who wore the wordplay better. World-renowned puppeteer Jeff Dunham, industry plant Becky G, “Vine star” Nash Grier, Disney Channel grad Olivia Holt, and former Fall Out Boy guitarist Patrick Stump have convened for a rehash of the us-versus-them bedlam of Cats and Dogs or The Boss Baby, pitting the animate dwarves against grape-looking gremlins called Troggs. Love your children, love yourself, and just go with Gnomeo if the offspring insists on diminutive-sized fun.
214. Wine Country
Gene Siskel had a saying about his rubric for evaluating movies, that he’d ask himself, “Is this movie more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch?” Getting sketch luminaries Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, and Emily Spivey on the roster puts director Amy Poehler up against it, but still, she didn’t have to whiff with such uncharacteristic laziness. They’ve convened in Napa for Dratch’s big five-oh, all of them hurtling towards their own equally mundane crises about crappy marriages and workaholism and health scares. For those readers under the impression that the film would be above pitting these adult women against one another in a series of behind-the-back kvetch-a-thons, congratulations, you have given Poehler too much credit. She coasts through the production with the same minimum of giving-a-shit that Adam Sandler brings to his Grown Ups franchise, eating up what must be half an hour with karaoke-singalong scenes sent from the deepest reaches of hell.
213. Suzzanna: Buried Alive
Someone up there (at Netflix HQ) likes Rocky Soraya. His The 3rd Eye and Sabrina must have gone over like gangbusters with the suits, as they’ve now bought another, decidedly lesser, film from the Indonesian genre madman. While those earlier movies lounged atop well-worn haunted-mansion eeriness, this one rests on mythology, specifically the hair-raising sundel bolong: Legend has it that women who die mid-pregnancy will give birth through a hole in their back while inside their grave, then return to intimidate those who wronged them in life until they’re six feet under, too. That sounds like a wholly original horror concept — a commodity now more precious than gold — until Soraya falls back on Western visual language to bring the undead Suzzanna (Luna Maya) back to wheezing, dreadful life. However rooted in regional culture, this looks and moves like the least-attended title playing at your local AMC.
A notion that could be the stuff of great black-box theater turns into a limply mounted The More You Know advert in this single-issue drama imported from India. Seven strangers sit in a doctor’s waiting room, all of them uncomfortable because the results of their HIV tests are on the way and they know there’s one positive in the mix. Their forced, unnatural dialogue gracelessly outs them as hailing from different walks of life, going just short of superimposing the words “it could happen to you, too!” over the frame. Though that could have very well happened, as the film’s not afraid to be as literal as possible; after the final scene, the production team shows up onscreen to fully spell out how serious the spread of AIDS has become in the subcontinent, but by that point, we all know.
211. The 3rd Eye 2
For those wondering if an over-allotment of funds was the issue keeping The 3rd Eye from greatness, this sequel — Netflix’s fourth Rocky Soraya joint, making him the closest thing Indonesia’s got Adam Sandler — answers the question with a definitive “tidak.” That would be “no,” my overall reaction to a chintzy-looking film with zero impetus to push itself past the off-brand-Blumhouse standard that the series set just last year. Offing the little sister of hero Alia (Jessica Mila) at the starter’s pistol hints at a shrewder refining of the material, but to no avail. Whatever isn’t actively dragging down the film is on loan from somewhere else; mostly the previous installment, but one notably eerie illustration has been copied out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. With production values bordering on the derelict, including one earthquake very clearly created by shaking the camera around, Soraya tests just how much coasting he can get away with, and finds that Netflix’s limit does not exist.
210. Sand Castle
After a few cinematic treatments, a sense of character begins to crystallize for America’s major wars: WWII was a noble mission, the brutality of which nobody could anticipate; Vietnam was an anything-goes quagmire of senseless chaos; and the post-9/11 war on terror has been defined by its lack of definition. This account of one American squadron’s FUBAR efforts to repair a water pump in 2003 Iraq parrots back the analysis already put forth by other fictive postmortems: that sketchily defined parameters made this an unwinnable war, an occupation with no clearly demarcated start date, exit strategy, objective, enemy, or battles. Nicholas Hoult, to his credit, plays his reluctant soldier as a bit savvier than the usual bumpkin on a collision course with shell shock. But otherwise, Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Coimbra contributes nothing novel to the conversation.
209. 5 Star Christmas
A proper farce requires stopwatch-precise timing, allowing the manic momentum to mount and crest and subside in regimented beats. When that doesn’t happen, the result looks a lot like this draining goof-about from Italy’s risible Marco Risi. Prime Minister Franco Rispoli (Massimo Ghini) has to spend the holidays in Budapest on work — a perfect cover for a dalliance with his political rival and mistress, Senator Giulia Rossi (Martina Stella). When they discover a corpse in a Santa suit wedged in the window of their luxe hotel room, things get all fine settimana at Bernie’s before going completely off the rails. In the commedia dell’arte tradition, that feeling of naughty anarchy belies a tight-gripped control noticeably absent as Risi drags during lengths of tedium and sprints past one plot device after another to get to the resolution. And on top of all that, the gap in age and attractiveness between PM Rispoli and Senator Rossi is, in a word, noticeable.
208. Someone Great
The Twitter commentariat has already gotten this one dead to rights with the diss juste: It’s as if someone force-fed a computer program millennial slang until it choked to death, and its final croaks formed the dialogue of this script. During a big night-on-the-town send-off for Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) with ride-or-dies Blair (Brittany Snow) and Erin (DeWanda Wise) before she relocates to San Francisco for a choice Rolling Stone gig — please suspend all disbelief at the door — the gal pals talk in a pidgin of buzzwords and catchphrases that vaguely resembles a trending-topics chart. Stuck in their mélange of up-to-the-second references is Lakeith Stanfield as Jenny’s ex, flitting through flashbacks and living rent-free in her head. It’s a classic rom-com switcheroo to reveal that the real romance was with the friends our gal has made, and the overlaid particulars of being young and poor in the New York media scene do little to spiff it up.
207. Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage
As the Coen brothers so wisely opined in the script for Barton Fink, when a screenwriter needs to soften a rough-and-tumble character, he gives them a dog or a kid. This Korean import takes the latter tack, assigning a corrupt officer of the law (Sun Kyun-lee) a distrustful teen (Jeon So-mi) to tag along as he goes on the lam from a sham real estate group’s knuckle-cracking fixer (Park Hae-joon). Doesn’t take a script doctor to predict that the two lone wolves will coax a newfound sense of virtue out of one another, and with that much squared away, there’s little else to engage a viewer. The feats of martial arts never surpass the second-rate, Sun can’t sell his character’s transformation, and an isolated frame would be impossible to differentiate from the rest of Netflix’s recent Korean acquisitions. Without Netflix, it would’ve lived and died in obscurity, bothering nobody and wowing the same.
206. What Happened to Monday
There’s no denying that Noomi Rapace certainly does a lot of acting in this sci-fi dud, playing identical septuplets forced to live underground in a future society under a one-child policy. Each septuplet gets to stray out in the world under a shared identity for one day of the week, though they all have one distinctive character trait, Multiplicity style. A ludicrous conspiracy plot linking government officials and nefarious schemes to control the populace through resource withholding gives the film shape, explained through endless and interminable dumps of exposition and implausible turns of plot. (Of course Glenn Close did it. Glenn Close always did it!) Director Tommy Wirkola’s fatal error was evidently blowing his entire budget on hairpieces; this film’s wig budget makes RuPaul’s Drag Race’s wig budget look like Key & Peele’s wig budget.
205. The 3rd Eye
While the intricacies of Netflix’s acquisition criteria remain a mystery to the public, it outwardly appears that all a genre movie needs is one defining hook to set it apart from the rest of the lot. In the case of this Indonesian selection from Rocky Soraya, the notion that all human beings possess the latent ability to perceive supernatural activity, which only needs to be “activated,” is what sets the film apart from rank-and-file J-horror. Throughout their girlhood, Abel (Bianca Hello) was plagued by visions of unnatural apparitions, while her sister Alia (Jessica Mila) wasn’t sure what to believe. As young adults, they return to the house where they grew up following the death of their parents, and Alia starts to get a much clearer bead on the phantoms her sister once screamed about. Realized with a inadvertently charming lack of technical polish, the film cycles through the usual haunted-house tricks as steadily and as predictably as a carnival ride.
204. Ali’s Wedding
Actor Osamah Sami reworked his own memoir Good Muslim Boy and stars as an outsize version of himself in this unabashedly mawkish comedy of manners set among Australia’s Muslim population. As Ali, Sami faces the same generational frictions as Kumail Nanjiani did in The Big Sick: parents turning up the heat on an arranged marriage when he’s got his eye on someone of his own choosing, additional pressure to achieve in a field of little interest to him. Ali lies to his family about his med school test scores and sets a series of farces in motion, all as he pursues his crush Dianne (Helenna Sawires) in a lunge at personal agency. Though Jeffrey Walker’s film won awards Down Under, an unbothered comfort with the hoariest of clichés — he does the running-to-the-plane bit, and not even in an ironic way — makes a drag of this one.
203. Irreplaceable You
Remember that “Modern Love” column where the woman dying of cancer makes her husband a dating profile so she can find him a suitable replacement? It’s okay if you didn’t, because this isn’t based on that, though it might as well be. (Don’t worry, Universal’s got an authorized adaptation coming down the pipe.) Gugu Mbatha-Raw rejects her own limitations by fixing up love of her waning life Michiel Huisman, though of course she’ll have to face her cold fate eventually. On the way to a banal final moral, director Stephanie Laing indulges in all manner of shameless emotional manipulations, the most egregious of which revolves around a rascally terminal patient portrayed by Christopher Walken. He puts a brave face on while withstanding suffering, both within and without the context of the film.
Alfre Woodard gets her groove back in this menopausal comedy that just so happens to be written by her husband Roderick Spencer. Some may find it a bit strange that a white man would choose to center his first screenplay about mature black womanhood; some more eyebrows will rise when his script introduces Juanita as a self-described “ghetto cliché,” caring for her unmarried daughter’s baby as well as her adult son, who acts like one. She catches a bus to Butte, Montana, presumably a choice vacation spot for the Woodard-Roderick family, then gets her blood pumping by rehabilitating a flagging restaurant and shacking up with its fetching Native chef (Adam Beach). That all of the jokes fall flat is a straightforward enough issue — poor Blair Underwood, reduced to playing a version of himself sub-classified “Sex Fantasy Man” — but passing off a glorified getaway as a work of art or entertainment is a touch more subtle in its insidiousness.
201. The Climb
In 2005, a French-Algerian free spirit who had never set foot on a mountain in his life summited Everest through sheer force of will. Pride for his banlieue motivated him to keep going when the going got tough, holding up a sign marked “93” to shout them out when he reached the peak. In this fictionalized treatment of events, stand-in Samy (Ahmed Sylla) does it all for a girl, his sign now marked “Nadia” at the unearned triumphant ending visible from several snowcapped miles away. Samy believes conquering the tallest mountain on the planet will prove to Nadia that he’s reliable and win her love; as far as I can tell, it proves that he’s impulsive and prone to highly impractical gestures of grandeur. Forcing this story into the mold of a romance negates the inspirational overtones and makes Nadia into a trophy awarded to Samy right on cue.
Maybe I’m getting cynical, but I can’t shake the suspicion that Netflix licensed this Indonesian creepshow for the purpose of conning an unsuspecting user looking for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina into clicking. In my defense, though, there aren’t many other reasons for Netflix to want the third installment of a little-known horror series not even regarded all that highly in its home nation. There’s no need to bone up on the first two, both because the final chapter of Rocky Soraya’s “The Doll” trilogy bears little relation to the other entries, and because after however many Conjurings, American audiences know precisely what to expect from another bloodthirsty-doll movie. My research suggests that some encoded details will make this a richer experience for Indonesians and those familiar with the culture. As for me and my fellow ignoramuses, we can take the murderous plaything’s spine-tingling eyeballs and leave the rest.
Everybody knows therapists are just as unwell as their patients, but Dr. Jane Mathis (Vinessa Shaw) has a little bit more going on upstairs than the usual head-case shrink. She’s still haunted by the memory of a patient she couldn’t save, and in a more literal capacity, by the girl’s ghost. A new patient (Mad Men’s Kevin Rahm, unrecognizable beneath his disfigured-face prosthetics) dredges up these painful remembrances for Jane, and might just create some new ones while he’s at it. The horror elements are about as fearsome as lukewarm tapioca pudding, but the movie earns a couple points for experimenting with an unorthodox parallel structure of storytelling, as Jane’s plot unfolds in tandem with her patient’s recounting of his own tribulations.
I swear, I’m getting closer and closer to solving the riddle of Netflix’s business model. Take this Spanish-language con game transplanting Dirty Rotten Scoundrels from the French Riviera to a luxury cruise liner: The much-touted popularity of Like Father surely compelled Netflix to seek out other vacation-ship-based entertainment, and with scamming currently on-trend, this was a no-brainer buy. Until the day that equations can account for quality, however, we’re stuck with chasms of unfunniness such as this one. The scramble between competing hucksters to rip off a kindly old lottery winner is so base, so broad, so reliant on creaky stereotypes, you’ll forget it’s not French. The scene that strikes one dancer with a severe case of onstage diarrhea represents the film’s lowest point, and yet that passage’s guiding dim-wittedness colors everything that comes before and after.
I was rooting for you, Gattaca director Andrew Niccol, we were all rooting for you! He had proven himself a skilled conceptual alchemist ever since writing The Truman Show, magicking shaky ideas into forward-looking brilliance with nothing but good ol’ scriptwriting. The big innovation of this sci-fi misstep is the Mind’s Eye, a nonstop heads-up display located in the brain that makes everyday life look like a video game. Niccol has been wise about future panic up until now, when he alternately ignores and simplifies the implications of a complete eradication of privacy. He assigns a pat killer-on-the-loose plot to an intriguing hook, casting Clive Owen as the hard-nosed detective hunting a murderer off the universal grid, and Amanda Seyfried goes digital femme fatale as a woman mysteriously exempt from the omnipresent readout. Their individual arcs cannot hope to compete with the fascination of the world containing them, a world we’re never permitted to fully explore. Substitute teachers looking to keep eighth-graders busy for an hour would be better off with another Gattaca rewatch.
Please, the term “bodyguard” is so passé. The preferred nomenclature is “close protection officer,” at least according to the no-nonsense Sam Carlson (an avatar for Jacquie Davis, respected in her field for keeping an eye on the likes of J.K. Rowling and the Royal Family). Noomi Rapace holds up her end of the bargain in the leading role, spitting gasoline as she ferries petulant heiress Zoe (Sophie Nélisse) through a mission gone belly-up in Morocco. Director Vicky Jewson does not, saddling Sam with emotional baggage that turns her own womanhood against her, and succumbing to her own paltry-budget limitations. Like the wall of motion-sensor shotguns, “Noomi Rapace as mainstream action hero” is a thought that should work in practice. But without sufficient funding and off-screen talent, she never stood a chance.
195. In Family I Trust
Light enough to be blown away by a single sneeze, this Spanish-language romcom sends another hapless single lady home to regroup and rediscover her inner goddess, or something. Those not immediately put off by the preceding sentence may have a better time with absolute ding-dong Bea (Clara Lago), who kicks the film off by setting her man up with a foxy newscaster she knows he has a crush on and then flipping her lid when they hook up. This writer, however, genuinely wished ill on the galumphing everygirl and every last member of her twee little family, from her straight-guy-gay-joke of a brother (Carlos Cuevas) to her faith healer mom (Carmen Maura, in a role strangely reminiscent of the “I definitely have breast cancer” lady). Bea finds refuge in the embrace of a widower with a souped-up hot-pink hot rod, the two perfect for one another in their equal proportions of dullardry.
Adult children tend to show their true colors when their parents reach their deathbed. But divvying up possessions with Post-it notes is nothing compared to the lengths four half-brothers are willing to sink to just to get at their deteriorating mama’s money. The “big broken family” subset of drama gets an injection of horror when a gang of masked intruders storm the house, their employer and motivations unclear. They’re obviously in cahoots with one of the brothers, and director-writer Chris Sparling posits which one made the call as the suspense-generating question, but he’s made one fatal miscalculation: For that approach to work, the audience must first be given a reason, any reason at all, to care about what happens to these people. With each brother blander than the next, however, the big reveal wields all the dramatic heft of a balloon.
193. Rock My Heart
Hold the damn phone — another work of hardcore inspiration-porn about a spunky white girl overcoming a debilitating medical condition to attain her equestrian dreams? Didn’t Walk. Ride. Repeat. just come out, like, last month? In fact it did, and if anything, that’s to this German doppelganger’s benefit; by comparison, just about anything looks a touch less sappy. The broken bones have been exchanged for a heart condition and the older mentor has more bite, but aside from the language barrier, this film clip-clops along the exact same hoof tracks as its horsey forefather. (Which was, itself, following the trail of The Rider.) Who will defend this poor creature, so overtaxed as an analog for ornery characters learning discipline and control in bush-league indies? Have some mercy, directors, and cease beating a dead — oh, well, you know.
192. Music Teacher
Not to paint India or its cinema with too broad a brush, but it sure has plenty of movies about developmentally stunted men getting in touch with their feelings because of the efforts of tolerant, accommodating women. Take Beni (Manav Kaul), an educator with a chip on his shoulder and unrealized fantasies of musical superstardom. To make matters more agonizing, his former pupil Jyotsna (Amrita Bagchi) announces a homecoming concert after eight years of making a name for herself at the uppermost pop echelon. Will they find love? Duh-doy, but only after she helps him through the negativity he’s still fostering, which raises the question of why she even bothers. She’s young and famous and gorgeous, and he’s … the main character. This is one of those romances at which a rational viewer can’t help but yell, through a mouth filled with Ben & Jerry’s, “GIRL, YOU CAN DO SO MUCH BETTER.”
191. In the Shadow of Iris
French erotic thrillers are like the beef stew of cinematic genres: Throw all the ingredients together in the pot, let everything get soft and savory, and it’s nearly impossible to foul up. I wish I could explain to you how a film with such magnanimous proportions of asphyxiations and underbutt could still be so lethargic, but I’m stumped myself. My suspects: the film’s sanitized cinematography, which fights the lurid subject matter and comes, fittingly, from a man named Bastard; the dueling male leads, who are both personality vacuums; and the prime suspect, an unsporting attitude toward sexuality of the deviant variety. Erotic-thriller sex should be scary in a hot way, not scary in a 50 Shades of Grey way.
190. Shimmer Lake
Smarter than the average Coen Brothers ripoff (looking at you, Cut Bank), this one has the good sense to also be a Memento ripoff. Moving in reverse for no apparent reason, writer-director Oren Uziel squanders a handful of wonderful character actors (Michael Stuhlbarg has his fun even though his character belongs in a different, more interesting movie; Oliver Platt does a bang-up job with his haughty inspector) and some attractive photography on an ill-fated crime saga that resolves itself before it’s even begun. As Uziel’s clear inspiration Marge Gunderson might say, “And for what? A little bit of money.”
What we have here is an expensive concept for a film (a small platoon of soldiers gets picked off by invisible foes, a conflict dutifully outed by critics as a variation on “Aliens goes Xbox”) that has been granted perhaps half of the budget it needed to succeed. Throwing more money at a production rarely solves problems, but for a premise that wholly orients itself around the near-pornographic gazing upon military weaponry — much of it fantastical, engineered with futuristic technologies explained at length — looking good is everything. Without the required aesthetic polish, all that’s left is a scrawny weakling flexing technical muscles it doesn’t have.
188. Brain on Fire
Susannah Cahalan had it all: a great job writing for the New York Post, a devoted boyfriend, bright prospects. Just as it seemed like life couldn’t get much better, she started acting strangely, blacking out for long spans of time, and behaving in an increasingly erratic manner. Cahalan’s real-life account of frightened confusion at her own brain’s rebellion didn’t require much jazzing up for this dramatization, in which Chloë Grace Moretz portrays the walking medical mystery. As disturbing as the premise could be, director Gerard Barrett can’t translate the internal psychological havoc to the visual medium quite so effectively. And while she certainly gives it her all, Moretz can’t hope to outshine the poor script and listless lensing. A jumbled union of the medical thriller and psycho-terror, it’s a waste of a perfectly good movie title.
187. Candy Jar
He’s a young paragon of black excellence with a pristine sense for matching sweaters to ties. She’s a Type-A flibbertigibbet with an internal monologue that just won’t quit. They don’t see eye-to-eye on anything in this high-school comedy, but can these two master debaters put their differences aside long enough to win the state championship, find friendship, or maybe something more? Let me put it this way: Is there a peppy “gettin’ stuff done!” montage? On both counts, the answer is a confidently intoned yes. It’s as dull as it sounds, and only made worse by the despair of seeing Uzo Aduba and Christina Hendricks roped into this as the leads’ respective moms. And that title? Not a symbol for anything, not even pertinent to the story, simply an object present in a faculty member’s office. The title is an enigma more engrossing than the film containing it.
186. Coin Heist
Coins are amazing — designed using lasers, mass-produced through an elaborate assembly line of casting and forging, inspected down to the tiniest detail for flaws so minute only professionals can see them, and all for something we keep in our pockets only to trade for chewing gum. That said, it is a bad sign indeed when a viewer finds himself more interested in the quiet dignity of coin-making than in the plot of the film he’s currently watching. This caper about a gang of high-schoolers who overcome their clique divisions to save their school by stealing $10 million is so tiresomely familiar — both as a heist movie and a teen movie — that watching it even for the first time already feels like a remote memory.
185. To the Bone
The words “anorexia comedy” rightly set off alarm bells, but a winning performance from Lily Collins nearly salvages this tonal tightrope walk. She’s biting and inviting as a young artist in recovery for an intense eating disorder. Unfortunately, two worthwhile performances have gotten trapped in this otherwise maudlin film: there’s Collins, and an unexpected turn from Keanu Reeves as a tough-love physician with a heart of gold. Ninety minutes of those two shooting sarcastic remarks back and forth would’ve been dandy, but Alex Sharp and his intolerable romantic subplot have other plans.
184. The Motive
They say you’ve got to write what you know, but that poses a problem for Álvaro (Javier Gutiérrez), who has a paralyzing lack of inspiration and no shortage of literary ambition. Eager to prove to his accomplished novelist wife (Maria León) that he’s got the power of the pen, he begins to manipulate the residents of his apartment complex into unwittingly play-acting little domestic dramas he manufactures. The meta angle should open up all sorts of theoretical avenues about authenticity and the gap between real life and what feels like real life in fiction — and then it just, uh, doesn’t. Director Manuel Martín Cuenca lets Álvaro’s misdeeds pile up until he’s in way over his head, but he’s only made to answer for his actions in the most superficial, how-will-he-get-out-of-this-one capacity. He turns what could have been Spain’s reply to Adaptation. into something both Charlie Kaufman and “Charlie Kaufman” would sniff at.
183. Unicorn Store
Netflix’s bestest friend Brie Larson made her directorial debut with this salute to sensitive artists who won’t let a lack of skill or discipline stop them from following their muse. It is, regrettably, an apt pairing of auteur and subject. After auditioning and being rejected for the role years earlier, Larson gets the last laugh by leading as Kit, an art student booted from her program when a professor deems her Lisa Frank–esque paintings insufficiently serious. (Also there’s a unicorn. It’s a metaphor — or is it?) In a film that can’t decide whether it’s for kids or for adults who think like them, that forgets to have an ending, and that would be unfunny if only we knew for certain it was angling toward comedy, that false-dilemma fallacy is the most high-priority issue. Childlike earnestness does not insulate art from criticism, or from being shitty, just as straight-facedness doesn’t guarantee maturity.
182. Bomb Scared
You thought eating disorders were a testy source for laughs? Here’s the terrorism spoof you asked for! This Spanish-language comedy focuses on a dunderheaded gang of Basque-separatist extremists, impatiently awaiting their next mission while Spain makes a run at the World Cup in the background. Director Borja Cobeaga treats their mission to await instruction in a safe house like a tedious office job and the characters like bumbling wage slaves instead of radicalized killers. If that sounds like a trivial approach to a serious topic, the film’s more mature understanding of how cells amass new members and perpetuate themselves saves quite a bit of face.
181. The Lighthouse of the Orcas
Spain’s Gerardo Olivares goes into manual override on the audience’s water works in this tragic bedtime story, forcibly cranking the dials to 11 with facile pathos-bait. A mother (Maribel Verdú) whisks her autistic son (Joaquín Rapalini) away to Patagonia when the unresponsive boy suddenly perks up upon seeing majestic orca whales on the television. Putting down new roots in a rustic village as picturesque as a South American Nancy Meyers set, they fall in with a hunky whale trainer (Joaquín Furriel) and form a surrogate family unit too pure to last in a compromised world. Set aside the fact that Olivares clearly believes the autistic possess the ability to commune with animals on a telepathic level, as well as the throw-up-your-hands-in-futile-frustration ending — what right does he have to play the “sad little kid” card, having done none of the character work to earn it? The boy’s an abstraction, and a crudely drawn one at that.
With the notable exception of Wim Wenders’s Pina, dance movies are never really about dance. They’re usually about something more pedestrian, like “finding yourself” or “sharing common ground” or, in the case of this Norwegian hoof-off, both. From the director’s chair, Katarina Launing upholds the obligatory classical-versus-modern dichotomy with a one-two-step plotline stripping a spoiled ballerina (Lisa Teige, whose presence on internationally known teen soap Skam could explain how this ended up on Netflix’s radar) of Daddy’s wealth and sending her to an inner-city rec center to learn hip-hop. One hopes that top-flight choreography might pick up the slack left by cookie-cutter writing, but alas, these Scandinavian posers have already been served by their American cousins. Skam-heads aside, best moonwalk your way to Step Sisters instead.
Ah, the imaginary friend twist: easily bungled, often unnecessary, pretty much a death wish for anyone not named David Fincher. That won’t stop Laura Alvea and Jose F. Ortuño, the writing-directorial team behind this world-out-of-whack thriller brought to our fair shores from Spain and Belgium. They want us to furrow our brows over the relationship between teenaged abuse survivor Bram (Iván Pellicer) and Álex (Clare Durant), his confidante and support system. When we should be pondering whether Álex may be jealous over Bram’s interest in hot-to-trot Anchi (Chacha Huang), we’re actually wondering why no one else seems to interact with or even be aware of Álex’s basic existence. Until, of course, we figure out the game — at which point all that remains are some eye-catching diversions with pink, green, and yellow, along with a few practical effects shots not worth writing home about. There is only one Tyler Durden.
178. The Resistance Banker
Just when you thought every conceivable angle had been taken on the Holocaust movie, in comes Dutch filmmaker Joram Lürsen to make dramatic hay from the white-knuckle thrills of money-lending. The Netherlands’s choice to represent the nation at the Oscars this year, this period piece digs into the nitty-gritty of how revolutions stay afloat through the story of a banker who dared to fund the anti-Nazi forces. The first half digs deep into the logistics of finance, so deep that those viewers not bringing their A-game may lose sight of the surface, though those who find such talk fascinating will appreciate that Lürsen’s done his homework. Walraven van Hall is no Oskar Schindler — though this biopic wants him to be so very badly — and star Barry Atsma does a commendable job of giving this real-life human being an identity of his own. Still, this film and Schindler’s List share all the same preoccupations and insecurities, making the question of “does activism still count if you profit off of it?” a bit redundant here.
177. White Fang
For students weaseling their way out of reading Jack London’s classic wolfdog bildungsroman for a class assignment, this animated adaptation could be a godsend. For those of us who aren’t prepping a book report: The animation is weird and yet not weird enough to be morbidly captivating, the sketchy Native American spirit-world business is very much of a piece with its turn-of-the-century era, and the live-action Ethan Hawke version from 1991 hasn’t gone anywhere. Even comfort-food vocal performances from Rashida Jones and Nick Offerman in a mini Parks and Rec reunion do little to perk up this neutered take on London’s writing. His White Fang had teeth, speaking to a young-adult audience prepared to reckon with the hazards of the natural world, but this kiddie spin strips the woods of their formidable might. A scene depicting dogfighting feels out of place in a film so mushy.
Aside from having been made in Argentina and cast with Argentine actors, there’s nothing uniquely Argentine about this sub–Gone Girl cold-case thriller. (The title pretty much translates to Lost Girl.) The done-to-death murder investigation plot feels like it’s already been canceled after three weeks on CBS’s Tuesday night lineup, with nothing to set it apart from the glut of identical Stateside works. Ever since Pipa (Luisana Lopilato) lived through her friend’s disappearance as a teen, she’s been haunted by the girl’s memory, joining the local police force’s sex-crimes unit as a form of penance. She restarts the search after the girl’s obituary shows up in a newspaper, convinced that she’s still out there somewhere, undaunted by the 14-year-old case. Director Alejandro Montiel’s only hope of eking one last bit of originality from the all-but-exhausted fake-true-crime mode was a dash of Argentine flavor, but it might as well have been shot in Vancouver.
True facts: In 2010, the humble processing house of Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, ceased their development of Kodachrome film, the final facility in the country to do so. The preceding weeks saw an influx of photo enthusiasts streaming in from across the country to get their exposures while they still could, and this drama follows once such road trip between cancer-stricken snapshotter Ben (Ed Harris), his good-natured assistant–nurse Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen), and his adult son Matt (Jason Sudeikis). From the 35-mm. cinematography to the adoring close-ups of vinyl records, all the analog fetishism is endearing, albeit a touch ironic when expressed using Netflix’s money and platform. Even so, the homespun pathos fueling this road-trip movie isn’t premium-grade.
Florence Pugh deserves better than Olaf de Fleur Johannesson’s lumbering attempt to climb up on the shoulders of Poltergeist, The Conjuring, and Paranormal Activity. The preternaturally adept English actress dully cowers and trembles her way through this unexceptional beneficiary of the current spike in interest for ghost-hunter pictures, as if she’s mostly frightened by the thought of having to read such droopy dialogue. She and fellow Brit Ben Lloyd-Hughes get a con going as a sibling team of “investigators” fleecing those saps who want to believe, only to encounter the genuine article at a cobwebby Scottish keep. A good villain could have made up for the scripting, but the trio of little undead girls only serves to add The Shining to the laundry list of superior films from which this one has leeched. Free Pugh.
173. Take the 10
For those viewers in search of a scattershot, fitfully funny crime caper in which Tony Revolori spends one long day scrambling around the outskirts of L.A. trying not to get killed after a reckless friend pilfers a cache of expensive drugs from an unstable dealer, might I recommend the 2015 film Dope. At least that one had a more charming leading man in Shameik Moore than this one gets in Josh Peck, playing a sleazebag with the pretty face of a former child TV star. That movie had some entry-level commentary on race, too, and a nifty soundtrack from Pharrell. All this dime-store knockoff has is a Pulp Fiction–lite nonchronological structure, a closeted coke baron, and one great Danny Brown needle drop it unloads in the first 15 minutes. The most a critic can say is that its pop-culture references are very of-the-moment.
172. Burn Out
This action potboiler about a speed-demon motorcyclist (François Civil) moonlighting as a courier for gangsters is stuck in a rut, spinning its wheels and going nowhere. We’ve seen moral relativism like this, as a man convinces himself he’s only assisting the bad guys and not a bad guy himself until he must face facts. We’ve seen the leather-jacketed criminal types who chuckle when our man says that he’ll only do one more job, shoving their guns in his face and reminding him of who calls the shots. We’ve seen the tortured romance with the featureless girlfriend, who is at most a quarter of an entire person. While the film gets far on the sheer propulsive energy of shots following François as he darts through traffic, it runs out of fuel in the tank and fails to pull away from the pack of identical pictures.
171. The Open House
Here’s an unusual defect: Directors Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote don’t realize that they’ve simply extended the first act of what could be a solid horror movie to feature length and called it a day. A mother and her teenage son regroup in her sister’s vacant second home after the breadwinner’s car-crash death leaves them with a dried-up cash flow — what better location to be stalked and dispatched by a faceless killer? Angel and Coote have forgotten all the rules that hold slasher movies together: The baddie’s gotta be worth investing in (and preferably not, like, just some guy), so that his eventual defeat creates catharsis. If the killer is a nonentity and it all ends with him getting away with it while our surrogates die, what’s the point of this rigamarole? If we’re just here to watch people get their fingers snapped like pretzel sticks, the darker corners of YouTube won’t take nearly as much time.
170. When Angels Sleep
There’s this horror-comedy called Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, about a pair of convivial rednecks who, through a series of unfortunate accidents and coincidences, present as bloodthirsty lunatics to a gaggle of nubile vacationers. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only reluctant” is a precarious premise, and I still can’t quite figure out how the whole thing doesn’t fall apart, but this Spanish misfire offers a few hints. Gonzalo Bendala tries something similar, making Germán (Julián Villagrán) out to be a motorpsycho after he inadvertently strikes a pair of party girls. Germán wants to make amends and repeatedly shouts he’s a “good guy,” but he comes to inhabit the malevolence the women see in him, and it’s there that the film caves in. As a collection of happenings linked by causality, it barely holds together; as a wink to the curdled male psyche convincing itself of its rightness even in error, it’s even wobblier.
169. The Perfect Date
There’s a morsel of genius at the center of this otherwise nothing-special rom-com. Noah Centineo, a name doodled in diaries worldwide, plays a lower-middle-class high-school senior putting together cash for college by posing as an escort for girls in need of some arm candy. The app through which he conducts this business scans as “Uber, for dating,” but he’s really providing a no-touch boyfriend experience — he specializes in remaking himself in the image of their desire. He’s portraying the concept of “Noah Centineo,” a palimpsest on which lonely people can inscribe their fantasies. What could’ve been a layered film ends up being more interesting to think about than to watch, as any ideas about artifice and constructed personae sink beneath the all-the-feels gloppiness. Docked a point for wasting Camila Mendes — so good at picking apart the daughter-of-privilege type on Riverdale — on the sort of richie-rich she’s a pro at not being.
From the opening narration in which the culprit introduces himself and confesses to his crime, this comedy purports to be a different breed of murder mystery. And with a well-stocked cast — Jeff Garlin’s a lovable lout as the title detective, his sidekicks Natasha Lyonne and Chris Redd both consistently amuse, and Ricky Sargulesh himself, Steven Weber, portrays the prime suspect — it should be. The most pressing mystery of all, then, is why this film isn’t funnier. A game ensemble gets undermined by lackluster writing that halfheartedly teases noir clichés but never really does anything all that clever with them.
In the abattoir of lowest-common-denominator kiddie entertainment, a viewer can sometimes read between the lines and see the grown-up writers starting to crack under their own madness. I credit this cut-rate French-Canadian co-production with offering the most glimpses into the frustration that comes alongside making a cartoon about the desert adventures of a scorpion and a cobra. One day, little Quebecois children will return to this staple of their youth and be shocked to find allusions to Tod Browning and Wild at Heart, off-color gags winking about anorexia and water sports, and one psychedelic montage in which snakes wiggle like spermatozoa into the sun’s mighty ovum. While this film is not “better” than Minions, its incompetence takes the shape of a quiet desperation rather than high-pitched screeching, which makes it slightly more compelling.
166. Munafik 2
Another drop in the South Pacific horror bucket, this time a Malay follow-up to an exorcism picture matching a Muslim healer with those possessed by Satanists and their dark magic referred to as “jin.” Ustaz Adam (Syamsul Yusof, who also directed the film) gets right back to work purging his land of malevolent spirits, requiring no catch-up of those viewers who decide to skip the first installment after noticing it’s not in Netflix’s library. His shamanic exploits don’t add up to all that much, aside from backyard-quality SFX and a teal-orange color scheme exhausted two Bourne installments ago. Syamsul directs like he was raised on the nuttier genre fare of the ‘80s, but he transposes the flying-head weirdness of something like Boxer’s Omen into an overly sanitary medium. Shamefully so for a film passing itself off as steeped in arcana and lore, it’s lacking in magic.
165. Little Evil
It’s a parody of The Omen where Adam Scott is convinced his new stepson is a vessel for the malicious spirit of Satan; to quote Barton Fink, “Whaddaya need, a road map?” The primary problem is that this has already been done sans Scott, in 2014’s thoroughly middling send-up Hell Baby. The other problem is that that film also happens to be funnier, going all-in on the demonic possession gags, where this film tries to mine its laughs from the lingering possibility that this could all be in Scott’s imagination. A strategic reserve of winning supporting performances (Bridget Everett playing a trans man is a questionable move, but damn if she isn’t hilarious) can’t enliven a diluted form of a solution that wasn’t all that strong to begin with.
164. Lucid Dream
Among the curiously large backlog of East Asian sci-fi projects that Netflix has imported, this does not rank among the more memorable. The hook has been done to death — to locate his missing son, a journalist (Go Soo) must use a device enabling him to enter the plane of dreams — and the film’s visual representation of this dream world is thoroughly unimaginative. (What if it’s like the regular world, but with a thin sheen of dehydrated urine over it?) Though nothing I can write about this ordinary, undistinguished investigative procedural will be as savagely cutting as the review from Korean critic Sun-ah Shim, which labels the film an “unsalvageable mediocrity.” Gotta keep that one in the pocket for future use.
163. Nappily Ever After
Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa al-Mansour flouted social convention to make her outstanding feature debut Wadjda and become the first female director in the country’s history. She then squandered part of that goodwill on limp-noodle biopic Mary Shelley, and now threatens to completely deplete it on this rom-com lacking both volume and a lustrous aesthetic shine. I’d apologize for the forced, awkward hair puns, but they’re nowhere near as forced or awkward as this film’s many playful nods to the complicated culture surrounding black hair, from cutesy chapter headings to the groaner title to the big fat symbol at the core of the script. Uptight advertising exec Violet (Sanaa Lathan) keeps her life as rigorously controlled as her elaborately treated do, but she must forsake the picture-perfect fakery to go natural up top and find herself. “Getting a new haircut as personal transformation” is one step below “post-traumatic cleansing shower” in terms of triteness, and al-Mansour goes for it three times.
It’s not hard to see the movie on which producer Priyanka Chopra thought she had given her seal of approval, via her India-based shingle Purple Pebble. Sunanda (Usha Jadhav) is precisely the sort of character that Chopra and other outspoken advocates for women in the entertainment industry have called for. A lawyer ardently arguing for abused women against their alcoholic husbands, she has a feminist yen for justice at war with an inner turmoil that still haunts her. (Take a wild guess at what happened in her past to make her pursue this particular line of work.) For a while, the character is more fully-developed than the film around her, until the final twenty minutes take some shall-we-say-unanticipated turns that seriously undercut its progressive messaging. Slightly coercive sex and cuckolding: the cure to a flagging marriage?
The seventh art started going downhill the day that CGI blood was ruled more cost-effective than squib packs and karo syrup. It’s always the wrong shade of red, never drips with the right consistency, and sticks out like a phony sore thumb in a film that allocates so much attention to getting the martial arts right. This Korean punch-a-palooza about a rule-breaking cop sequestered on an island penal colony mimics The Raid (it was advertised as “a global cinema project from the makers of The Raid,” though I cannot figure out the actual connection between the films) in its “fight first, worry about the details later” credo. But Lee Seung-won forgets about the second half of that doctrine, leaving all the corners he’s cut fully visible. Hopefully, powerhouse star Bruce Khan will find more sure-handed tutelage elsewhere, and soon.
A lenient viewer can cut plenty of breaks for this coming-of-age film about teen skate punk Samuele (Ludovico Tersigni) manning up to handle his girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy. If the dialogue is a bit flat or disjointed, chalk it up to the toil of first preserving Nick Hornby’s Brit witticisms in the Italian language, and then converting that all back into English. If the visual filters make some scenes look like they’re from single cheapest wide release of 1997, consider that director Andrea Molaioli may have been aping the cruddy skate videos that Tony Hawk disciple Samuele worships as holy. But the final shot, which contrasts three different definitions of the word “slam” to dimly comment on Samuele’s unremarkable life, is indefensible on a “today, we call them computers” level.
PASKAL is short for “Pasukan Khas Laut,” Malay for “naval special warfare forces” — their highly trained equivalent of the Navy SEALs. The most costly production in Malay film history often feels like an extended recruitment video, showing how PASKAL soldiers save lives and assist the U.N. in keeping the peace without pushing back against the undercurrent of jingoism. Leader of men Commander Anwar (Hairul Azreen) entertains the notion that he may not be able to serve his country and his family at the same time, a nagging doubt typical of the war film, but the film settles that with the conclusion that country and family are one and the same. Though the three tactical operations around which the script has been molded are executed with the precision and efficiency expected of the military, the shut-up-and-put-up thinking leaves its topic only half-covered.
158. The Incredible Jessica James
Perhaps the Sundanciest of all Sundance movies, James Strouse’s pedestal for former Daily Show truth-bomber Jessica Williams ticks all the requisite boxes on the “indie breakout” checklist: a comic talent from TV trying their hand with a little drama, the quarter-life-crisis getting-your-shit-together arc, the adoring photography of the Brooklyn setting, music that’s cool but not so cool that the score sounds like it’s trying too hard or anything. While Insecure and Issa Rae hold the game down on the opposite coast, Williams explores the travails of Tindering while young, black, and fabulous — but as she grows weary of the deadening repetition of dating, so too does her film follow a schematic that’s a little too familiar.
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as Girls Trip, which came out last year: Ground down by their day-to-day, running on nothing but the nourishment of friendship, a group of BFFs jet off to a glam locale for an interlude of romance, misadventures, and picturesque B-roll. While the besties all hold their own — Phoebe Robinson may be playing Phoebe Robinson, but Gillian Jacobs can handle a leading role and Vanessa Bayer’s mere presence eventually becomes hilarious — their environment fails to meet them halfway. Never mind that the dreamy Calvin Harris doppelgänger that Jacobs falls for is a waste of carbon, never mind all the easy jokes about Spaniards’ incorrigible lothario tendencies, never mind the abrupt non-ending. You’re telling me a movie about the EDM wonderland hidden on the Balearic islands had to shoot in Croatia?
156. Always Be My Maybe
For a film based on the actual meet-cute between stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, this reeks of algorithmic meddling. Though they’re credited as co-writers on this rom-com (with Michael Golamco, last seen writing the screenplay for the inexcusable Please Stand By, in which Dakota Fanning plays an autistic Star Trek superfan), their own experiences hew closely to click-harvesting analytica along the lines of “Based on Your Interest in Asian Cooking Shows and ‘90s Nostalgia…” Their characters share an apprehensive first love as teens, grow apart — she’s a celebrity chef, he’s doing A/C repair and living with his dad — and reunite years later to find that the old flame hasn’t quite been extinguished. Within this uncomplicated setup, director Nahnatchka Khan stuffs rap-rock musical numbers that might be bad on purpose, conflict that feels forced under by the genre’s cockeyed standard, and a central relationship built around Park finding Wong’s constant dunking on him cute instead of mean. The online Keanumania sparked by the episode in the middle featuring Reeves as a funhouse-mirror version of himself, however, has been well-founded.
155. Bad Seeds
Oh, Catherine Deneuve, what’s become of you? Co-signing that letter shrugging off sexual harassment as no biggie wasn’t a great look for the venerable French actress, and now she’s gotten herself tied up in some youth-at-risk claptrap with the emotional consistency of corn mush. She plays adoptive mother and assistant in purse-snatching to Wael, a ne’er-do-well with his heart in the right place, portrayed by the comedian turned writer-director known only as Kheiron. Trying to run game on the wrong guy (André Dussollier) gets them both conscripted into his program for rehabilitating problem children — which a quotation early on reminds us are just “children with problems.” Such nothing-isms work wonders on Wael, still haunted by corpse-filled flashbacks to his younger days in war-torn Lebanon, and on the kids, who both stand and deliver. Nowhere outside Pinterest have canned aphorisms ever carried this much clout.
154. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Best-case scenario, this would be for the post–John Hughes teen flick what Set It Up was for the mainstream rom-com: not a reinvention of the wheel, but a skillfully assembled and fully functional wheel nonetheless. If only it was funnier. Sure, fan favorite Peter (Noah Centineo) is plenty heartthrob-y and smitten teen Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is oh-so-#relatable, but they’re stuck with a cloying script that accepts being derivative as a workable substitute for an identity of its own. All of the tropes that keep devotees of the genre coming back — the well-meaning parent who doesn’t understand, the annoying kid sibling, the breathless encounters with the crush — lose their power when they’re recited without the requisite measure of wit. On the other hand, there is something slightly risky and revisionist about placing a half-Korean character in a role so historically steeped in whiteness. If nothing else, the specter of Long Duk Dong will have been forever dispelled.
153. The 101-Year-Old-Man Who Skipped Out on the Bill and Disappeared
Cantankerous centenarian Allan Karlsson (played by middle-aged comedian Robert Gustafsson) made his screen debut a few years ago in The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, which crushed the box office in Gustafsson’s native Sweden, and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup to boot. The character’s somewhat perplexing popularity — his first film follows Karlsson through history as he rubs elbows with Great Men, like Forrest Gump with a dollop of gallows humor — has earned him this sequel, which sends Allan on a quest to ascertain the formula to a tasty Soviet-era soft drink called Folksoda. It’s business as usual, from the Social Studies 101 cameos (the Nixon impersonator they got isn’t even all that convincing) to enough dirty-grandpa gags to rival Dirty Grandpa, and it’s all a stitch less funny the second time around. How do you say “diminishing returns” in Swedish?
It’s started to feel like Paul Greengrass gets his kicks staging painstakingly detailed recreations of nation-shattering massacres with a shaky-hand camera that plops the viewer right in the thick of tragedy. He purports to do it all with honorable intentions, and yet there’s something troublingly voyeuristic about his diligent diorama-style treatment of a terrorist spree in Norway that claimed 77 lives. From a city-block bombing to a shooting spree at a campground, Greengrass treats discretion like weakness as he shows and shows and shows. The film gets its act together in the back half, as trials and hearings underscore the gravity of these monstrous deeds, but the leering camerawork doesn’t gibe with that stated position of remorse. Plus, Greengrass does that wack thing of casting foreign actors in a film set in a foreign country and then making them speak English so that Americans won’t be scared off by subtitles. We’re all literate here!
The Great Louisiana Tax Break Production Boom has attracted many stars to the oak-lined streets of New Orleans over the past decade, and the latest addition to the list is the hottest star on four legs, wonder dog Benji. The best that can be said for this neutered reboot of the musty mutt franchise is that it makes active use of its surroundings where so many have attempted to obscure them. (The Lucky Dogs hot dog carts scattered across the Crescent City are a favorite of good ol’ Benji.) And yet nu-Benji lacks a certain canine charisma present in his doggy forebears, and weirder still, this film plays up the element of Christian dogma — thank you, thank you — traditionally constrained to the subtextual level. Woof.
The first rule of this anti-corporate psychological thriller is do not talk about Fight Club. Otherwise viewers might start to notice how much DNA this peculiar cult film (and that’s in the literal sense, not the Rocky Horror sense) shares with David Fincher’s satire on the drudgeries of middle-class office-drone lifestyles. Joss Whedon utility player Fran Kranz steps in for the unstimulated desk-jockey role, and for his Tyler Durden, we’ve got a tattooed Adam Goldberg and his twitchy, coke-ranty energy. Goldberg breaks his pal out of a funk by inviting him to join a new movement of self-actualization he recently discovered, where instead of therapeutically punching the bologna out of one another, members chant creepy affirmations about accessing inner truth. There’s some bizarre, steamy fun to be had on the way to the revelation of what’s really going on here — if you’re gonna join a cult, at least you’re getting laid — but the destination can’t deliver the intrigue to justify the journey.
Adriana Ugarte, so hardened with regret in Pedro Almodóvar’s rapturous Julieta, brings that same urgency from the Croisette to fly-by-night sci-fi in Oriol Paulo’s controlled trial with multiple timelines. Ugarte slowly comes undone as a nurse capable of communicating via haunted VHS tape with a boy who died 25 years earlier. She feels that the onus to save the boy’s life is on her, but once she does, she creates a splinter-universe ruining her marriage and erasing her daughter. Paulo has a week-one-freshman grasp on chaos theory, and succeeds only in dumbing the concepts down while falling into the same grandfather paradox facing any time-travel movie. He’s even worse when pulling back the curtain on his big twists, which are unsurprising on the rare occasion that they actually add up. Not even the broad shoulders of Ugarte can carry a film so poorly thought-through.
148. Hold the Dark
The cast of rising genre star Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller must have spent their weeks shooting on location in Alaska locked in a fierce game wherein the first one to emote loses. How else to account for the absolute absence of any signs of life whatsoever in each and every performance? As a mother grieving her young son recently nabbed by wolves, Riley Keough never breaks her heart-monitor monotone, and Jeffrey Wright matches her mumble-for-mumble as the nature expert who comes to find the missing boy. When her husband comes home from the war to find his family in disarray, Alexander Skarsgård plays the man’s break from sanity as full-on detachment. The cumulative effect of all this solemnity is a laughable overseriousness far removed from the wry, morbid humor that earned the director’s earlier films Blue Ruin and Green Room raves. That Saulnier’s turn to po-faced statements about the American Condition™ would coincide with his decision to make the longest film of his career does not bode well.
147. El Camino Christmas
At a regular ol’ convenience store in a regular ol’ Nevadan town on a regular ol’ Christmas Eve, something highly irregular happens: A troubled young man (Luke Grimes) searching for his father pulls a gun and takes five hostages. Director David E. Talbert uses this pressure cooker as a breeding ground for a black comedy of schemers and bumblers, brought to life by a cast seemingly picked at random from a hat. (Tim Allen! Jessica Alba! Vincent D’Onofrio?!) A viewer gets the impression that nobody in this motley troupe was in contact with one another during shooting. The cartoonishly inept lawmen plotting to resolve the situation have a Keystone Kops thing going on, the news team broadcasting the events occupy a more cynical atmosphere, and on the scene indoors, the shooter and his bargaining chips are doing Coen brothers cosplay. As Yuletide counter-programming goes, it ain’t Tangerine.
146. Been So Long
I am of the steadfast belief that any bad movie can be improved at least slightly with the addition of musical numbers, a principle supported by this adaptation of a London stage smash. Without the occasional ditty to spice things up, this would be a standard-issue guy-meets-gal romance about a single mother trying to get back out there. With them, it’s … still pretty much that, but at least we’ve got a setlist of silky soul tracks to help pass the time. Michaela Coel sheds the naïveté of her Chewing Gum ingenue as the durable Simone, a whip-smart go-getter who won’t let her daughter’s absent father slow her down. Various obligations make her think twice about sparking a new fling with the seemingly perfect Raymond (Arinzé Kene), but of course she comes to grips with the fact that there’s no room for hesitation when you’re in love. While the music suffers from Repo! The Genetic Opera syndrome — the songs are lovely but immensely forgettable, hardly toe-tappers — it’s preferable to a theoretical edit played straight.
145. Burning Sands
Yet another clone movie, this one retreading the stomach-churning account of hazing gone too far undertaken by Goat the previous year. In their condemnation of the Greek system’s culture of complicit silence around the physical and emotional abuse heaped upon new pledges, both films hit a lot of the same beats, fingering an uncaring school administration and the toxic mentality of compulsory masculinity. The racial aspect (the film takes place at fictitious HBCU Frederick Douglass University) sets this picture apart, complicating the portrayal of fraternities by rightly noting that they’ve been spaces of solidarity, support, and pride for the black community. Ethical rot has tainted this structure designed for empowerment, but it’s still too valuable to write off entirely.
144. Brahman Naman
The societal mores of India collide with a distinctly American strain of adolescent horniness in this English-language throwback to such seminal raunchfests as Porky’s. During the ’80s (when else?), a gaggle of gangly nerds drool over hot ladies and scheme about how to lose their respective V-cards. But instead of tiptoeing around the jocks, prevailing attitudes of mandated prudence mean that our boys must tiptoe around their parents, their nation, and their own guilt. Even a fresh, culturally specific angle can’t totally revitalize the long-in-the-tooth genre of the libidinous-teen-com though.
“Jefe” is Spanish for “boss,” a position that’s more of a lifestyle than a job in machismo-heavy Spain. César (Luis Callejo), the executive heading up this comedy of upheaval from Sergio Barrejón, has gone all in on the bit: power ties at power lunches, spousal neglect, close proximity to a nervous breakdown. The sword of Damocles finally drops when his partners turn against him, his wife sends a messenger boy to announce her request for a divorce, and his substance-based hobbies threaten to worsen into habits, all on the same Monday. He starts over and gets his life back on track with the help of a custodial worker (Juana Acosta) so beautiful that she’d strain credibility even if her character wasn’t written as thinly as a cardboard cutout. In America, it feels like the Sundance-industrial complex gives us another one of these every couple of years. Language and setting notwithstanding, it’s just another day at the office.
142. Outlaw King
With Starred Up and Hell or High Water, Scotland’s David Mackenzie had staked out a nice beat as a critical assessor of manhood. A pricey period epic about national hero Robert the Bruce could have been the director’s break into the uppermost tier of the big leagues, if not for lumpy dialogue, dense-headed macho posturing, a monumentally bad turn from Aaron-Taylor Johnson, some still-pixelated CGI gore, and a long-windedness even in its abbreviated edit. Chris Pine has the right stuff to take on Robert, a scruffier successor to Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart, and I’m not just talking about the much-discussed river bath scene. He casts a bold silhouette as the image of gallantry, oftentimes to disbelief-testing extents. (Did he really wait to deflower his teen bride, played by a poorly utilized Florence Pugh, until she was ready to give her consent?) Mackenzie wants us to gawp at his lengthy tracking shots and flaming catapult, but the bouquet of loose screw-ups has a way of holding the attention.
141. Come Sunday
The instant you see that “produced by Ira Glass” credit, you know things are about to get buckwild. From the files of “This American Life” comes the true story of a Tulsa priest (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who up and declared one day that there is no Hell, God’s mercy is infinite, and every last son of a bitch on Earth is saved. The resulting uproar destroyed treasured relationships and put him through a great test of faith in line with Christian lore, and director Joshua Marston chooses to relate this with all the dramatic nuance of a Lifetime Original Movie. Marston steamrolls one man’s complete reorienting of his own beliefs, and with it, his view on everything from sexuality to mortality, into two dimensions. Not even a sensitive turn as an AIDS-positive organist from the unerring Lakeith Stanfield can earn this film salvation.
140. The Killer
And now for something completely different: a Western by way of Brazil, where a scar-faced killer (those excited for a film about Spanish bullfighters are in for a rude awakening) plays the cowboy liberating a dusty village from a ruthless capitalist. Diogo Morgado cuts a commanding figure as our man Shaggy, a couple notches closer to feral than the usual gunslinger. His closest ancestor would probably be the Chilean Zen prophet in black, El Topo — both men have a haunted expression liable to turn cold at a moment’s notice, capable of terrible violence and deep introspection. The novelty only gets this film so far, however, when the production values could be best described as “lesser AMC drama.” Squarely shot and color-graded into next week under no discernible organized aesthetic code, it’s an unattractive film propped up by good bones.
139. The Warning
Spanish filmmaker Daniel Calparsoro could have a long career ahead of him in Hollywood, where they crank out ambitious but imperfect conceptual thrillers like this one by the bushel. He’s cherrypicked his favorite plot devices from the past decade of respectable psycho-horror and stewed them together in a flawed package that nevertheless suggests potential down the road. An unstable man (Raúl Arévalo) develops an obsession with an inexplicably specific pattern of murders on the same day in the same spot, the intervals separating them being determined by a complex formula involving dates and witnesses present. As he slips deeper into mania, he realizes that only he can disrupt the pattern and save the next victim’s life, from which point the script somehow gets both stranger and blander. The Timecrimes swag-jacking begs for a “next Nacho Vigalondo” descriptor, but Calparsoro’s left plenty for himself to prove.
138. Forgive Us Our Debts
When Guido (Claudio Santamaria) has run out of money and pawned all his assets and gone completely bankrupt and still has no way to square up with his creditors, there’s only one option remaining. To work off his debt, Gudio joins the shadowy league of collectors and rapidly learns the ropes of a dishonest yet highly seductive profession where all rules have a bit of wiggle room. If it sounds like a Mafia movie, that’s almost certainly what Antonia Morabito was going for, as he reexamines the same conflict between self-interest and morality that comes with any life outside the law. The trouble is that Morabito either can’t or just doesn’t execute the cathartic this-is-cinema moments — hits, betrayals, shootouts with rival gangs — that Mob movies thrive on. While not a Fredo, this one’s still as flawed as a Sonny, and far from a Michael.
137. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
That this sequel to Ang Lee’s award-festooned wuxia masterwork is written in the English language instead of the original Chinese tells you all you need to know. It’s the most glaring of a handful of artistic compromises made by director Yuen Woo-ping, who proves unable to replicate the delicate grace that made the original a sleeper hit even in subtitle-unfriendly America. The painterly photography has been supplanted by the flatness of prestige TV, and the long, pensive gaps in which viewers were once free to appreciate the rustling of tree branches or distant chiming of bells are now filled with meaningless exposition. The brisk fight choreography elevates Yuen’s film to a level of basic competency, but there are approximately 500 better martial-arts films a person could be watching — and a few of them are on Netflix!
136. The Crew
I’ve seen enough movies about self-sabotaging criminals to convince me that I could probably pull off a job myself. All you’ve got to do is not hire anyone addicted to drugs, hotheads with a short fuse and something to prove, softies letting an inner goodness dull their killer instincts, or idiots. And yet this anti-all-star team of archetypes has yet again joined forces, now for a French thriller that flips the usual “how could it go wrong?” tension on its head by asking instead, “how could it possibly go right?” Rashness often engenders mishaps when knocking over an armored truck or a comparable do-or-die situation, and of course they get themselves in hotter water than anyone’s prepared for. Formulaic as his handiwork may be, director Julien Leclerq has his head on straighter than his characters, moving his 81-minute run time at a swift clip with a few Mannly action sequences.
135. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
Look, you’re lying if you say you wouldn’t second-guess murder charges while getting lost in the pools of Arctic ice water that are Zac Efron’s eyes, simple as that. Efron’s conspicuous beefcake-ness is very much part of the point in this dramatized look at Ted Bundy’s post-apprehension trial years, and its Achilles’ heel as well. An old hand at the true-crime documentary game, director Joe Berlinger places his focus on Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Liz (Lily Collins) to illustrate how easily a person falls for a broad set of shoulders with a sociopath’s interpersonal skills. As they break up and the film follows Bundy on his amusement park of outrageous court hearings, Liz’s presence gets cut down to sporadic check-ins and calls into question whether Berlinger hasn’t fallen for his subject just like she did. The preponderance of kickin’ ‘70s soundtrack cuts make what the final act sells as a memorial to the memory of Bundy’s victims into a crass misuse of the same.
134. First Match
For the white people who enjoyed feeling bad while gawking at poverty in Precious comes this drama that thrusts hardy teenager Monique (Elvire Emanuelle, who seems better than this even as an unknown quantity) into the white-knuckle world of Brooklyn’s underground fight circuit. Her recently paroled father ushers her into a career as a glorified pit bull, but the trouble is that Monique never comes off as a character with a life beyond this abusive relationship and the psychological dysfunction it’s caused. Trauma is often woven into the very fabric of a person’s identity, or at least it feels that way, but in Monique’s case, it’s the whole skein. Director Olivia Newman bolstered her script with up-close study of New York’s female fighters, but what she does with this information is a glaring contrivance.
133. Lust Stories
Down in India, the times they are a-changin’. A national cinema once limited by censorship and old-fashioned ideas about propriety is now exploring new sexual frontiers, this romantic anthology being a bracingly blunt case in point. (Behold, the first onscreen appearance of a vibrator in the history of Indian film!) Four separate stories revolve around women in various states of dissatisfaction — carnal, sure, but more frequently emotional. One cheater can’t bring herself to let go of her subpar husband, another summons the strength to give her marriage one more shot, a side piece patiently waits for the married man she’s seeing to come around, and a soft-spoken fiancée asserts herself in bed. A lot of the comedy errs on the side of the sophomoric, with one randy set piece taking cues from the risible The Ugly Truth, but what this effort represents still counts for quite a bit.
I can’t shake the image of some bloodless analyst pointing to a big chart at Netflix HQ and saying, “Police officers murdering unarmed teenagers of color — so hot right now.” The lamentable refrain repeated across innumerable headlines crops up once again (just last month, it was See You Yesterday) as a plot point in this streetwise character piece. Witnessing one such distressing occurrence claim the life of his sister stays with August (Khalil Everage) permanently, afflicting him with agoraphobia well-suited to his fledgling career as a bedroom beatmaker. Getting overheard by hard-living manager (Anthony Anderson) gives both of them a second chance to make good on their potential, and director Chris Robinson visualizes their twinned struggle with rap-video brio; August’s panic attacks vibrate and shake the shot as if the frame might be hyperventilating, a whip-smart technique. An original score from Chicago’s proudest son Young Chop doesn’t hurt, either. 808s and heartbreak, in equal measure.
131. Imperial Dreams
A curious specimen, this film was made and released in two dramatically different worlds. When the picture first premiered at Sundance in 2014, John Boyega was another handsome young Brit with a lot of promise and a stare capable of cutting metal. By the time Netflix unveiled it in 2017, he was an A-lister with a leading role in the biggest blockbuster franchise on the planet. Boyega stars here in the sort of small-scaled indie he’s now too expensive to appear in, as a recently freed gangster returning to L.A.’s volatile Watts neighborhood and learning how tough it can be to stay out of the game. Best-case scenario, this could have turned out to be a visual equivalent of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Boyega’s definitely capable of playing that ambivalence toward the city that raised and subsequently tried to kill him. But hackneyed dialogue and predictable plotting get in the way of this film’s bid for true excellence.
30 Rock parodied the Lee Daniels film Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire as Hard to Watch: Based on the Novel ‘Stone Cold Bummer’ by Manipulate, an epithet also applicable to this work of coal-black miserablism. And as it just so happens, this film also features a character named Precious; she (Precious Mariam Sanusi) and Joy (Joy Anwulika Alphonsus) have been shipped from their home of Nigeria to Austria, where they’ll earn money as unwilling sex workers to pay off debts their families have incurred. Not an easy sit by any measure, but director Sudabeh Mortezai maximizes the pain to unclear ends, drawing all the dread out from an upsetting rape scene early on until it feels like horror cinema (and not in the good way). Mortezai went the extra mile by incorporating real women and their real scars into her process, but even with her mind set on doing right by her subjects, she can’t help ogling.
129. The Angel
By 1972, tensions along the Egyptian-Israeli border had escalated to powder-keg levels, and a violent engagement was all but imminent. When the Egyptian president’s son-in-law Ashraf Marwan (Marwan Kenzari) called Mossad with information on an upcoming attack, was he doing his part to save innocent lives, or was the profligate gambler just hoping to squeeze a little bit of money out of the international intelligence community? This true-to-life thriller contemplates the answer and settles somewhere between the two in a conflicted character study that resists simple heroism. Though he did a lot of good, it was often in spite of himself; Marwan’s first priority often seems to be covering his own hindquarters, whether from loan sharks or the Mossad agents warning that if he chooses to stop cooperating, things could get very difficult for him. If only director Ariel Vromen had put a little more oomph in the scenes where things happen and sunk less time into scenes in which people talk about things happening. What could have been an amoral romp in the vein of American Made lands in a more subdued, inert mode, never quite reveling in its own misdeeds.
All right, cards on the table, Netflix. Solo: A Star Wars Story appeared in the streaming service’s digital library of titles on January 9 of this year. Two days later, this Spanish tribute to real-life perseverance popped up under a nearly identical title. Something’s afoot. Click-bait gamesmanship aside, I regret using up my 127 Hours comparison on the entry for Gerald’s Game; Hugo Stuven’s account of two taxing days wounded surfer Álvaro Vizcaíno (Alain Hernández) spent on a secluded stretch of Canary Island beach might as well be a shot-for-shot remake, though Stuven gets his money’s worth from the drone camera. Álvaro, too, takes his brush with death as a chance to reflect on his mistakes and failings, focusing on a relationship he torpedoed with a past girlfriend. But subtract the finesse of 127 Hours or the genre hook of Gerald’s Game, and there’s not much left.
127. The Siege of Jadotville
Ever see a movie featuring a well-known actor with goofy facial hair and get the impression they’re trying more to hide from the audience than to blend in with the other characters? Fifty Shades of Grey todger-waggler Jamie Dornan dons a robust ’stache in this down-and-dirty war picture and fools exactly no one; we all know it’s you, Jamie Dornan. At any rate, this one’s pretty sharp about the geopolitical dimension of conflict, and overwrought when it comes to the personal. The retelling of one Irish U.N. peacekeeping force’s efforts to intervene in a Central African powder keg keenly understands how contradictory national interests must be resolved to foster a ceasefire, but cannot grasp the details of basic human behavior. That results in a weird dissonance, where the film works as a discrete whole but fails on a scene-by-scene basis.
126. Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil
An outré take on Basque mythology featuring a guy-in-a-rubber-suit demon who might as well be the scrawny unloved stepson of Tim Curry’s Satan from Legend? On paper, this spruced-up wives’ tale from Spanish native Paul Urkijo Alijo should be a blast and a half, but it lacks a certain outrageous oomph that sets the midnight-circuit favorites apart from the also-rans. The film sends a mischievous little girl into a forest of terminal greyness, where a metalworker’s shop houses a cunning evil she can’t not release. The ensuing dash to get the sinewy hellion back in his container drably shuffles through its action sequences and has a, shall we say, utilitarian relationship to language. Alijo diverts some of his attention towards Spanish-history political commentary that leaves on the back burner until it chars; if the best that can be said of a movie is that it’s more satisfying to think about than watch, that’s still underhanded praise.
Former Orange Is the New Black writer Sian Heder tries her hand behind the camera for this study in contrasts about three women all chafing under the demands of motherhood in their own way. In the title role, Ellen Page is a street urchin feeling lost after her good-for-nothing boyfriend abandons her, but finds new meaning in life when fate puts a helpless infant in her custody. With her own mother out of the picture, “Lu” goes to her ex’s mother (Allison Janney) for help, though she’s got plenty of regrets left over from her time with her son. (As the wayward baby’s thoroughly unfit original guardian, Tammy Blanchard completes the triumvirate of bad moms.) Well-measured restraint improves the acting across the board, which in turn keeps this film away from the treacly sentiment that occasionally rears its weepy head. Janney takes it in a walk, naturally.
124. The Ritual
There’s an argument to be made that all horror films are metaphors, their supernatural frights assisting an audience in their confrontation of death back in the real world, but some really lean into it. David Bruckner, a stalwart contributor to the recent rash of scary-shorts anthology projects, dresses up his feature debut with a lot of novel accouterments — four blokes on a hiking holiday through Sweden wander through uncharted woods and into an arcane Norse sacrifice to a freakish aberration — but can’t push his intelligence past the surface. He wrings every last drop of fear from the ominous trees and the chilling glimpse of the monster’s true face, all for a script that wields its subtext about coping with survivor’s guilt with all the subtlety of an antler to the gut. Tamp down the prosaic character development right from the script-writing textbook, give the nuckelavee (dare you to Google it) more screen time, and then maybe we’re getting somewhere.
123. The Photographer of Mauthausen
Spanish native Mar Targarona’s film about war prisoner and photographer Francesc Boix (played by a winnowed-down Mario Casas) doesn’t really sensationalize the Holocaust, but it doesn’t not sensationalize the Holocaust, either. Targarona has a perceptible admiration for Boix and the bravery required to surreptitiously document some of the most heinous crimes against humanity that history has ever seen. But she can’t resist the temptation to play the more eventful days of his life for thrills going against the grain of the film’s sobering subject matter. She shoots the daring operation to smuggle his filmstrips out of the concentration camps like a dialed-back Ocean’s 11 remake, and in the most off-putting montage, she cheekily cross-cuts between a tap dance routine and a hard-to-watch curb-stomping. There’s a faint scent of insecurity about the film, like Targarona was worried she’d lose her audience if she didn’t reel them back in with a little something grabby every now and then. Targarona, a veteran of the Spanish film industry, has earned the right to have a little more faith in herself.
122. The Titan
Sam Worthington is one of those actors whose blank expression and generically handsome features make him the perfect candidate to portray a robot. (See also: Emily Ratajkowski, Jamie Dornan.) Forestalling the inevitable, this sci-fi thought exercise gets near the mark by casting Worthington as something other than human — in this case, the next stage in evolution. He unwittingly plays guinea pig for scientists forcing the homo sapien to pre-adapt to the conditions of the Jupiter moon designated as humanity’s next home, and when he gets wise to what’s going on, it’s rampage time. There’s quite a bit going on in here, from flirtations with futuro-philosophy to a sly narrative shift positioning Taylor Schilling’s dutiful wife–researcher as the real protagonist of the story. The film lacks focus, however, glancing past a number of thoughtful paths in an effort to simultaneously take all of them.
Those small-time hoodlums rationalizing theft as a victimless crime often tend to not realize that after long enough, they will become the real victims. That’s the pearl of wisdom at the center of this street-level thriller, wherein a makeshift family of grifters land in ever-hotter water as they strive to carve out a dishonest living in Bogotá, Colombia. A sense of coiled-spring energy and an emphasis on the fascinating nuts and bolts of ripping strangers off can make a hundred-dollar job feel as exciting as a bank heist, both for us and the purloiners onscreen, who steal for the sheer rush as much as the money. Director Peter Webber is never better than when exalting in the kinetic glory of petty larceny, his camera as weightless and carefree as its subjects, but the need to impose an arc on their lifestyle mucks up the merrymaking. The arrival of an elder mentor in misdemeanors steers the younger leads to betrayal, jealousy, and internal conflict, all of which makes for adequate drama at the price of the poetry-in-motion exhilaration of their earlier cooperation.
120. A Message From the King
Roger Ebert once theorized that no film featuring a performance from Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh could be altogether bad. I’d add to that list Alfred Molina, who appears here in a typically stellar supporting turn as a rage-choked elder gangster. Casting’s really all that Fabrice Du Welz’s revenge thriller has going for it; Black Panther–to-be Chadwick Boseman busts out his South Afreekahn accent as a émigré who’s come to America from Cape Town in search of his lost sister. When he learns she’s recently been offed by some mobbed-up types, the rampage of vengeance begins, and as rampages go, it’s not half-bad. Boseman’s an endlessly watchable performer, and Luke Evans holds his own as the primary baddie. Still, the script arrives at the same inevitable endpoint as any other movie about someone avenging a loved one. You know the old saying — before you embark upon a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
119. 15 August
On the 15th of August, India’s observed day of independence from the British colonial oppressors, anything can happen. The late Garry Marshall’s belief in holiday magic that comes but once a year powers this 24-hour romance from Swapnaneel Jaykar. Its components are unremarkable — the comely Jui (Mrunmayee Deshpande) wants to elope with penniless artist Raju (Rahul Pethe), despite her parents’ arrangement for her to wed a well-heeled American — but there’s a wrinkle in their preparation. Schlemiel that he is, Raju drops the ring he’s going to give to Jui in a hole, and the street kids playing marbles can’t quite fit their hands into it. A simple problem with a convoluted solution kills the rest of a swollen two-hour run time (it’s the Indian way!), pitting our lovers against circumference and basic physics as well as cultural stumbling blocks. The hole acts as a statement bangle for the film, a pop of difference standing out from the sameness.
Such is the nature of work that the employer reaps far more reward from labor than the employee, but enough athletes are rich that this isn’t always evident in the world of professional sports. At the tender age of 14, Terron Forte (Michael Rainey Jr.) learns this the hard way as he nearly succeeds himself into indentured servitude. Terron leaves his fellow middle-schoolers in the dust on the basketball court, and before long, a coach (Josh Charles) from an elite private academy headhunts him for their team. All that glitters is not gold, however; Coach works Terron to the bone for zero pay while breeding him as an NCAA prospect, so much so that Terron can’t take advantage of the tuition-free classes that convinced him to attend in the first place. Writer-director Ryan Koo’s scrupulously researched defense of player’s rights — that is, the rights of the working class — scores more reliably than the boilerplate sports-saga bits, however. Koo misses the three, but sinks the layup.
117. Win It All
A degenerate gambler (Jake Johnson) agrees to do one of his shadier buddies a simple favor: hold on to a sealed bag for the nine months the guy’s going to spend in prison, in exchange for a cool ten grand once he gets back. The rest of the movie writes itself: Of course he looks in the bag, of course it’s money, of course he uses that money to gamble, of course he loses it and gets himself into dangerous debt just as his pal’s come to collect, and of course he can only square himself up with one last big score. The grainy 16-mm. photography of the grittier streets of Chicago is a pleasure unto itself and Johnson plays the hangdog down-on-his-luck type with a lived-in believability, but still, you’ve all but seen the whole thing in the first ten minutes.
116. The Christmas Chronicles
I’ve taken to referring to this Yuletide romp as DILF Santa, a nickname both reductive and not. DILF Santa is all that this film is and all that it has — but that’s plenty, as it turns out. Kurt Russell portrays an ol’ Saint Nick with a slimmer waistline, a more well-manicured beard, and a with-it single dad’s awareness of modern pop-culture coupled with the refusal to participate in it. He’s not a regular Santa, in other words, he’s a cool Santa, and Russell summons all of his bulldoggish gruff-cuddliness to pull it off. He gives a much better showing than the rest of the movie deserves, the room-temperature casserole of saccharine little-kid antics and uncanny-valley-plumbing CGI elves that it is. DILF Santa’s impromptu Elvis number with accompaniment from Little Steven Van Zandt and the E Street Band is sublime; a sequel frontloading more of that could be the seasonal delicacy this isn’t.
115. On My Skin
Though we’ve got no shortage of headlines on the matter, the epidemic of police brutality isn’t constrained to America. The Italian case of Stefano Cucchi, dramatized in this work of righteous outrage by Alessio Cremonini, sounds all too familiar: After getting apprehended by the feared martial peacekeeping force known as the Carabinieri on a minor drug-possession charge and held in custody, the young infrastructure worker was winnowed down to a malnourished husk of himself, beaten, and ultimately killed. The nation cried foul, none more piercingly than Cucchi’s family, who fill most of the film’s back half with their dogged pursuit of justice for their beloved Stefano. Cremonini’s presentation of these reprehensible events plays as a little matter-of-fact, but for an American audience with no familiarity of the chapter of Italian history dramatized here, that doesn’t present the problem it does for similar, more well-known reenactments.
114. El Arbol de la Sangre
Writing about Happy As Lazzaro, I called for Netflix to continue its practice of licensing fabulistic foreign films, so I guess this one’s on me. This Spanish buy exists on the same sliding scale of figurative opacity as Sunday’s Illness and the like, pushed all the way to the farthest polarity. Which, full disclosure, is this critic’s dignified way of admitting that he has no idea what’s going on here. I’d love to write off my lack of comprehension as a forgivable result of unfamiliarity with the Basque-Catalan tensions rumbling in the subtext. But between the cows falling out of trees, the low-key organ theft, and a cornucopia of other non sequiturs, I didn’t fare much better with the regular text, either. I sincerely wish the best of luck to open-minded viewers making heads or tails of this, but anyone put off by obtuseness may wind up wanting their 130 minutes back.
113. Steel Rain
Japanese anxiety over the devastation of the atomic bomb gave us Godzilla, and now the ongoing nuclear tensions between North and South Korea have yielded this jittery, paranoid missile thriller. Evidently unconcerned about provoking an international incident, Yang Woo-seok extrapolates a near future in which a political destabilization triggers a back-and-forth in bombs rendered with an orgy of computer-generated ’splosions. A sick thrill it may be, but the devil-may-care subject material can’t support the proselytizing about the spirit of unity that concludes the film, especially not when Yang takes a smugly condescending attitude to North Koreans and their plight. You can extend a bridge to the survivors of dictatorship or make fun of their janky cell phones, but it’s poor form to do both at the same time.
It feels like every movie can contain a message in step with the developments of Me Too if one elects to look for it, but this Indian purchase won’t make a viewer squint too hard. There’s a whole lot of now in Delhi cops Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and Kalpana (Saloni Batra) as they wage a two-woman war on misogyny in their city. Their task force has been formed for the purpose of striking a blow against the ingrained culture of street harassment and sexual assault widely going un-investigated by a police force that couldn’t care less. We end up with something in the ballpark of the recent, disappointing Destroyer, a XX-chromosome spin on the Loose Cannon Cop on the Edge Who Doesn’t Play by the Rules. Except where Karyn Kusama’s film failed to fully integrate the female dimension into its script, director Ivan Ayr fixes his gaze on the subject at hand.
111. The Discovery
In the vast gulf between conception and execution, we have this down-tempo thought experiment from Charlie McDowell. In a world where Robert Redford has conclusively proven the existence of an idyllic afterlife, the suicide rate has mushroomed. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara are strangers with a mysterious attraction and conflicting opinions about what to do with this frightening new frontier. The kernel of an idea at the center of this film is sound, but it’s buried under several layers of metaphysical b.s. and hackneyed twists. The most compelling philosophical query posed by this film is whether Rooney Mara can make bleach-blonde hair work for her, to which the answer is of course “yes.”
Who doesn’t love Dolly Parton, a southern belle so adept at self-effacement that she can make you the butt of any joke about her? Director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Kristin Hahn placed themselves in an advantageous position by building their adaptation of a YA smash around the music and philosophy of Her Dollyness, an idol to plus-size Willowdean (Danielle MacDonald). She wants to teach her negligent mother (Jennifer Aniston, bringing it) a lesson by winning the beauty pageant that occupies her every waking moment, and the baldly stated moral of body acceptance is all well and good. Except that the film’s messaging never gets more sage than the Dolly-coined “find out who you are, and do it on purpose,” and the fun tops out early on, when Willowdean belts “9 to 5” in the car. And that’s not even as enjoyable or as liberating as actually belting “9 to 5” in the car yourself!
109. The Laws of Thermodynamics
Screenwriters are always trying to impose reason on the thorny tangle of contradictions that is love, but Spanish genre tinkerer Mateo Gil does so with more studied rigor. His script proposes that the laws of physics governing the chaotic movement of subatomic particles and the delicate space-time continuum can also be applied to the bonds between people. What starts as a clever concept gets bogged down by its own execution, as the ongoing explanation of scientific terminology from a panel of nonactor scientists leaves the stories illustrating these ideas insufficient room to tug on the viewer’s heartstrings. Gil brings a zingy, Gondry-esque energy to his experiment in bridging the gap between the mind and the soul, but his characters nonetheless possess all the pathos of a textbook word problem.
108. Despite Everything
Gabriela Tagliavini multiplies Mamma Mia! by four, subtracts the ABBA tunes, and ships the whole thing off to Spain for a family comedy with a greater emphasis on sexual liberation than most. It starts with mommy dearest (Marisa Paredes) dying, and her four daughters convening for the first time in a long time. Apparently, disastrous liaisons run in the family; one’s a divorcée numbing herself with pills and liquor, one’s a commitmentphobe, one’s a jilted job addict, and one’s a wanderer passively drifting through threesomes with unnamed, faceless dudes. Their late mom informs the adult sisters that the man they know as father did not personally sire them, setting off a search for the five men responsible for their conceptions. Guiding one another on this paternity quest nudges each woman towards getting their shit together, and jam-packs this film’s slim 78-minute run time with bawdy ribaldries. The family that divulges hair-curlingly frank erotic specifics together, stays together.
During the ’80s, actor Richard Thorncroft protected the Isle of Man during his multi-season tenure as Mindhorn, a TV detective with a bionic eye that enabled him to “see the truth” via infrared lie-detection. In this daft laugher from across the pond, Julian Barratt plays the washed-up Thorncroft in the present day, as he shills his way through middle-age in humbling commercial spots. He gets a shot at redemption when a homicidal maniac demands the police put him in contact with the real Mindhorn, and much to the displeasure of his real-cop partners, Thorncroft gets back into character. The heavy ratio of jokes-per-minute means that even those that fall flat don’t necessarily kill the film, and most of them do work. (Steve Coogan is an egotistic treat as Thorncroft’s old castmate.) All the same, there’s a problem when a viewer would rather watch an episode of the ersatz Mindhorn than the movie itself.
Barack Obama is the coolest commander-in-chief to have ever graced the Oval Office — this is fact. Vikram Gandhi’s chronicle of Obama’s swingin’ college years at Columbia confirms that much, showing the man who would be president as he plays basketball, smokes the occasional joint, and charms a politically engaged coed (Anya Taylor-Joy). Gandhi doesn’t go quite as hard on the prophetic rise-of-a-leader portentousness as rival Obama biopic Southside With You, instead focusing on the young man’s feeling of placelessness. A Chicagoan in New York, a mixed-race kid in Harlem, a street-smart student among the academic elites, Obama’s shown to wrestle with insecurity and self-consciousness. Remember back when those were qualities the president had?
105. Paris Is Us
The conditions of Elisabeth Vogler’s film may very well overshadow the work itself, but she’s had no reservations about getting them out there. A Kickstarter campaign to drum up a budget outlined a daring plan to shoot guerrilla-style inside of real moments as they unfold: a bustling EDM music festival, protests and riots in the wake of the Parisian terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan. But she folds these admittedly galvanizing snatches of real life and political unrest into a mild soup of philosophy that can’t withstand their heaviness. The relationship between space cadets Anna (Noémie Schmidt) and Greg (Grégoire Isvarine) and her path out from its dissolution occasions much dorm-room musing that accomplishes little more than taking up oxygen. When Vogler can’t borrow from the Sturm und Drang of the France that already exists, when she’s left only to her own devices, her greenness is apparent.
104. 6 Balloons
Drug addicts tend to compartmentalize when they first get started, keeping their life and their vice as separate as possible. This two-hander drama is situated at the inevitable point where sickness bleeds over into the more meaningfully personal — friends, romantic relationships, family. Abbi Jacobson puts on a serious face as Katie, feeling conflicted about her brother Seth (Dave Franco) when it starts to look like he’s relapsed. Over the course of one evening, grueling even at a brief 71 minutes, she goes from tough-love counselor to enabler as she helps Seth score to keep him from dying of withdrawal. Both Jacobson and Franco are up to the task, never coming off as tourists in the genre like so many comedic actors stretching their range, and the ending is a lot darker than they play it. All the more frustrating, then, that the script would hamstring their work with such missteps as easy symbolism, voice-over overload, and crucial lines that ring false.
103. And Breathe Normally
Ísold Uggadóttir wants us to give her the benefit of the doubt. Because the Icelandic native’s film contains humane polemics about immigration, refugees, and the empathy required to think about either, we’re inclined to give her a pass on the gargantuan lapses in realism that her would-be social-realist drama expects us to forgive. Perhaps those swept up in the spirit of our shared fraternity as human beings won’t pay much mind to a plot that shunts a border control officer (Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir) into poverty, only for her to end up dependent on a traveler (Babetida Sadjo) she previously snitched out. Maybe they won’t find it tough to stomach the coincidence that both women harbor sapphic desires that cannot be freely expressed in their neck of Reykjavik. But all movies are first and foremost a movie, and if it can’t succeed on those terms, then the ideology it exists to uphold will crumble.
102. See You Yesterday
The girls-in-STEM fever currently sweeping Hollywood has trickled down to the indies, as proven by this time-travel thriller extolling a juvenile’s intelligence like The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind before it. Bespectacled young C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and her day-one pal Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) fashion a crude form of chrono-portation through the Primer technique, a trial-and-error process tweaking individual mathematical variables. An early emphasis on jargon-speak and clinical testing gives way to a fumbling attempt at weightier importance as they apply their science know-how to go back one day and prevent her brother’s death by a cop’s smoking gun. Virtuous intent can only get a film so far, however, and the hoary kinks in the plot along with feigned naturalism of the patter between the kids stop the film dead in its tracks. The refreshingly ambiguous ending only feels so refreshing because it’s capping off a movie simpler than the equations it speaks in like a native tongue.
101. Our Souls at Night
I showed my grandmother Brooklyn in 2015, after which she smiled and said, “That’s the best kind of movie — I call them ‘nice’ movies.” Here’s another “nice” movie, and that’s not a diss, either. Anyone over the age of 60 will most likely be charmed by this softly told romance between seniors-who-still-got-it Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, but everyone can share in the warmth this sweet-natured, if mild, film radiates. Adult children Judy Greer and Matthias Schoenaerts bring trouble into their geriatric Eden, but the prevailing tone is that of comfort.
100. May the Devil Take You
The Night Comes for Us, the other Netflix Original from Indonesian trash aficionado Timo Tjahjanto, went all in on the guts while slacking in terms of directorial discipline. Any hopes that he’d tighten up the screws this time around have been misplaced, as he plays it even faster and looser while tearing a page out of the Sam Raimi playbook. It’s hard not to do at least a little Evil Dead when you’ve stuck a cranky apparition in the basement, but everything that works in Tjahjanto’s film (in order: some ripe prosthetic boils, passages of frenetic handheld photography, the many instances of blood getting projectile-upchucked into someone’s mouth) originated elsewhere. As a cinematic pole-vaulter, he’s still peerless in the agility with which he goes over the top. Even so, he still needs to formulate a sense of artistic self (in terms of both originality and control) before he can join the ranks of the proud troublemakers he so clearly idolizes.
99. Who Would You Take to a Deserted Island?
Fresh from Netflix’s Spanish production hub, this drama opens on a sweltering night in Madrid, but the vibe is decidedly Big Chill. A quartet of friends brace for a parting of the ways (one’s moving to Oviedo for a medical residency, another’s heading to London for film school) with drinks, drugs, and dancing, but the mood takes a belligerent turn as they wind down with an idle game. One cross word leads to another, and in no time they’re outing each other’s darkest secrets. They all tunnel through their own hang-ups in a holistic navel gaze driven by character and dialogue, its restricted scale and basis in the frailty of self-identity nodding to the film’s origins as a stage play. But that doesn’t hang the visual component out to dry, either, as smartly selected tight shots get us up close and personal with their angst in a way no proscenium could.
98. The Package
For a movie about a kid who cuts his own dick off while drinking and camping, it could be a lot worse! Not a high bar to clear, admittedly, but Geraldine Viswanathan makes it look easy. Brassy and quick with a cutting aside, the Blockers scene-stealer acts circles around the rest of the cast (particularly lead Daniel Doheny, as forgettably handsome here as in Alex Strangelove) as they go on a mad dash through the woods to return the recovered member to its owner after their pal gets airlifted to the nearest hospital. The movie formerly known as Eggplant Emoji does a bang-up job of stretching this thin premise to feature length, throwing obstacles at the characters and mining laughs from the solutions they have to gin up on the fly. (Hand to God, memories of Speed crossed this critic’s mind.) It’s pretty dumb, but everyone’s got that one dumb — yet no less beloved — friend, and they can always be relied on for a good time.
97. Next Gen
Netflix ponied up a staggering $30 million at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for a Chinese-Canadian animated co-production pairing the friendly robo-pals of WALL-E with the existential bent of Isaac Asimov. In the future metropolis of Grainland (creators Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander, former collaborators on the stitchpunk epic 9, call it “Happy Blade Runner”), android helpers have supplanted humans in pretty much every facet of life, including parenting, much to the chagrin of Mai Su (voice of Charlyne Yi). Her mom Molly (Constance Wu) spends all her time fiddling with the family bots, leading Mai Su to wander off on an adventure where she becomes acquainted with a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art model labeled 7723. Her assignment to have him eliminate his mechanical brethren is only the first unexpected move in a series of zags-over-zigs, culminating in poignant scenes featuring the inspired concept of artificial amnesia. Emotionally and ideologically, it’s a few notches left of the Pixar dial, but it has that same narrative sophistication.
96. Step Sisters
The Bring It On series, the clear antecedent to this dance flick (which is, mercifully, far superior to Dance Flick), kept considerations of class and race in the mix through its many installments. But Charles Stone III’s film foregrounds the matter, challenging a black step expert (Megalyn Echikunwoke) to whip a white sorority into shape before a big competition so our girl can make it into Harvard Law, which, sure. The choreography cuts the mustard and then some — Stone’s an old pro in the music-video world, and it shows — but the film takes more interest in decoding the tangled implications of cultural appropriation, sometimes laboriously so. If a movie’s going to be obvious and didactic, the least it can do is be obvious and didactic in the service of a positive ideology, and everybody’s down to get woke at Westcott University. (Note: A supporting performance from Matt McGorry as a semi-self-aware, even more intolerable version of his already intolerable self instantly validates the casting.)
Indian director Sachin Yardi understands that a romance film can only function if the audience wants to see the leads attain happiness, a principle lost on the many human irritants populating Netflix’s romcom library. He gives us someone to cheer for in Nirma (Mithila Palkar), a motivational-tape-listening eager beaver out to get hers. She wants more for herself than lying to Chinese tourist groups about taking them through Slumdog Millionaire shooting locations — Danny Boyle gets dissed in one of the pointier wisecracks — and gets a new lease on life after a conman absconds with her car. She must team with a safecracker who knows the city’s seedier side to track it down, and who knows, maybe they’ll fall in love along the way. The film leans on the presumed comic potential of goats a bit too hard, but Nirma’s dauntless hunger for something more sees the film through. We’d watch her do pretty much whatever, the true marker of a good romcom heroine.
The forbidding Scottish highlands provide a spooky backdrop for a back-to-basics horror movie — of sorts. A pair of lads working the classic yin and yang of manliness (one rips lines of coke and chases skirt, the other is a dutiful husband to a pregnant wife) go out for a hunting holiday in the untamed U.K. wilds and have a tragic accident. They then stack a few bad choices on top of an honest mistake, until they’ve trapped themselves in an iron maiden of lies calling to mind Poe’s tell-tale heart. Shame runs both men through a wringer of remorse, accentuated by the disconnect between their city manners and the decency of their country-folk hosts. This adventure isn’t all that adventurous, but strong acting and a setting that a viewer can get lost in (cue ominous pipe organ chord) prop up the rest of the film.
Make no mistake, this conceptual sci-fi picture is made mostly out of pure mumbo jumbo, but it’s still an exceptionally high grade of mumbo jumbo. In the opening moments, a scientist wakes up beside his ex-lover. Masked men storm into their room a moment later, drag them into the basement, demand a huge payoff, and kill our man when he tries to escape. He then reawakens and begins the cycle anew, setting off a twisty logic puzzle tricked out with killer robots, glowing insignia tattoos, and a perpetual-motion machine capable of resetting time. (But only within highly specific parameters.) (And the time loops group together into larger loop clusters that then also loop themselves, but only if — you know what, just don’t worry about it.) It is a Groundhog Day–Primer bastardization full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It has its fun with the sound and fury, though.
92. Alex Strangelove
The Skeleton Twins director Craig Johnson summons the ghost of John Hughes for this sweet if anodyne lark about a high-schooler grappling with big questions about his sexual identity. Pretty-faced Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) likes his girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein, who runs away with the movie) just fine, but for some reason, he can’t find the motivation to deflower her. Compounding this confusion is Elliott (Antonio Marziale), a soulful college freshman that Alex can’t stop thinking about. Everyone ends up right where they belong, a millennial happily-ever-after of free tolerance and self-discovery without torment. Whether a viewer finds this a pleasing change of pace from a queer cinema steeped in the tragic or an overly slight sanitizing of an emotionally intense process will be a matter of personal preference.
91. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
From the producers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel comes another verbosely titled “nice movie” (see: the entry on Our Souls at Night) shamelessly pandering to Anglophiles, the elderly, and the wide overlap between the two. Though anyone can at least see the appeal in a hit of escapism this potent: In post-WWII England, a novelist (Lily James) unsatisfied with her white-bread fiancé and her beat writing fluff for housewives finds a life-altering assignment when she comes into contact with a book group established as a bastion of civility and community during the occupation. Even though she’s spoken for, she can’t resist the vibe she feels with its leader (Michiel Huisman), a fellow bibliophile and the mid-century version of Your L.L. Bean Boyfriend. So long as you don’t find rose-tinted yearning for the good ol’ days — when men were men, ladies were ladies, and people actually read — misplaced or bothersome, it’s a heaping helping of starchy, tummy-filling coziness.
90. War Machine
So many films on this list faltered due to bad ideas, but David Michôd’s war picture is the only entry that overcommits to too many good ones. Hiding in the story of General Stanley McChrystal’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan (fictionalized here as Glen McMahon by Brad Pitt, with the proud chin, slick hairdo, and can-do attitude of a Global War on Terror Ken doll), there’s a stirring meditation on America’s quagmire in the Middle East, a riotous satire about American exceptionalism coming to a bitter end, and a character study about one incompetent man on a tragic mission to prove himself. Michôd attempts to do all three at once and overextends himself, resulting in distracting gear shifts between scenes that could easily be ironed out into a fine picture.
89. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
To employ an age-old critical parlance: a lot going on here. It sounded like a can’t-fail proposition, giving motion-capture pioneer Andy Serkis free rein as director on a Kipling computerization that was supposed to put Jon Favreau’s Disney-approved juggernaut to shame. But somewhere in post-production, Serkis must have clicked the wrong buttons, because all of the animals have the disquietingly humanoid faces of an anthropomorphized furry. If that wasn’t enough to give your kid therapy bills for life, then they’ll definitely be upset by the teeth-gnashing violence that equates the imperative for a more “mature” interpretation of Kipling’s text with an unsparing view of the food chain’s undomesticated barbarism. Adults with a yen for the unfamiliar may find something of value in Serkis’s ill-advised but laudable choice to go all in on the callous state of nature; children will never recover.
88. Fullmetal Alchemist
It is my understanding that if a viewer sits down to watch this CGI-heavy live-action movie having even the slightest affinity for the original anime series, they’ll be intimately disappointed. But because this critic had zero outside knowledge going in, he was largely pleased to find an off-the-wall pre-viz extravaganza of inspired computerized nonsense. In the future, Europe will be populated by Asians dressed like they’re on their way to a particularly prestigious fan convention, some of whom possess the ability to convert matter at will. Two such “alchemists” — our hero Ed (Ryosuke Yamada) and his brother (Atomu Mizuishi), whose soul has been placed in a gigantic robot for safe-keeping — go searching for the Macguffin from the first Harry Potter, besting a menagerie of vivid fantasy beasties as they go. I will not deny that it’s pretty dumb, but at long last, my wish for a feature conducting its entire self at the fever pitch of Geoffrey Rush battling a slug made of clouds in Gods of Egypt has come true.
87. Love Per Square Foot
Quarters are cramped in India, exponentially more so in metropolitan areas. Karina and Sanjay (Angira Dhar and Vicky Kaushal) are more than ready to get out of their respective parents’ houses, and decide to jointly enter a lottery for a 500-square-foot flat in Mumbai — only catch is, they’ve got to pretend to be married if they want to be considered. Brace for hijinks! A fizzy takeoff on The Proposal trading immigration difficulties for real-estate woes, it’s an inoffensive and upbeat way to spend [checks watch] two hours and 15 minutes?! Bloated run time aside, this film’s simple joys will make an American audience wonder why Hollywood has all but stopped making this profoundly comforting kind of movie: the unhip, un-improvised, un-self-aware rom-com.
86. Triple Frontier
Alas, J.C. Chandor showed such promise. The director of Margin Call, All Is Lost, and A Most Violent Year was shaping up to be a major talent for the national arthouse circuit, but this film’s rah-rah dialogue, bilious color-grading, and overall Call of Duty feel cast unwelcome aspersions on his rep. A crack team of veterans — a lineup of heavyweights including Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Garett Hedlund, Charlie Hunnam, and Pedro Pascal — set a course for South America to nab a fortune in dirty money from a drug lord. Of course it goes awry, and credit’s owed to Chandor’s screenplay with frequent Kathryn Bigelow collaborator Mark Boal that it’s not in the most obvious way. They’ve fully thought through the logistical challenges of transporting such a large quantity of money, expanding on Widows’ Tupperware-of-soil time trials. But the film’s blinkered ideas about honor and masculinity are unevolved by the standard that Chandor has set for himself.
85. Crossroads: One Two Jaga
Namron thinks like a neorealist and directs like he’s the Malay Antoine Fuqua, a combination of IQ and brawn that lends a stick-to-your-ribs quality to what would have otherwise been another “gritty” (read: color-graded either cigar-ash-gray or regurgitated-kale-green) cop drama. Kuala Lumpur PD Hussein and Hassan (Zahiril Adzim and Rosdeen Suboh) do selections from Training Day as the lifer indoctrinates the rookie in the ways of bribe-taking, but they’re framed more like functionaries in the life of true protagonist Sugiman (Ario Bayu). He’s on the wrong side of the law not for power, but to raise enough money to get his sister out of the slums, in just one expression of the hopelessness that many of the nation’s impoverished have accepted as status quo. Some convenient dovetail-shaped plotting and pushy hot-pursuit sequences only partially obstruct a document of hardship largely unknown in the States.
84. Small Crimes
After buying one man’s self-debasement with the deranged Cheap Thrills in 2013, director E.L. Katz came back meaner than ever with another black comedy pushing a well-intentioned guy’s moral fiber to the breaking point. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau mounts a convincing argument for himself as a bona fide movie star with his turn as former corrupt policeman Joe Denton, struggling to stay on the straight and narrow while reentering society following a prison stint. The mere presence of Macon Blair (who also co-wrote the film) signals an enticing mix of gallows laughs and somber small-town crime drama, not too far removed from the films of Jeremy Saulnier and Blair’s own directorial debut — see below. But where those films were well served by simple, leaner scripts, this one spirals out in its many knots of plot. With so many diverting characters, such as Gary Cole as a cop on the take who sees murder as a first and second resort, this could’ve thrived with a more minimal slice-of-life approach.
83. Angela’s Christmas
Building off an Irish children’s book by Frank McCourt — yes, the eponymous Angela is she of the Pulitzer-winning Ashes — this retelling of one girl’s well-intended plan to “rescue” her local nativity scene’s Baby Jesus by bringing him in from the cold would seem on-trend for Netflix in several respects. But while the rudimentary animation style is devoid of any spark of life (as in Duck Duck Goose or Sahara), McCourt’s attitude toward Christmas is less twinkly-eyed and edgeless than usual, and what’s more, this title runs for a total of 30 minutes. I almost surprised myself with how willing I am to look more leniently on a film that knows how to skedaddle before it’s worn out its welcome. Brevity can be a virtue, and not just in Roger Ebert’s deliciously catty “a bad movie is never short enough” sense. It’s a salve, to see a children’s film that doesn’t feel the need to pad in order to hit the 80-minute mark.
82. Girlfriend’s Day
Bob Odenkirk does some damn fine work in this black comedy as Ray, an out-of-work greeting-card writer so numbed by depression that he has to watch bum-fight DVDs just to feel something. Odenkirk skillfully navigates through an obstacle course of genres and tones, as his Garden State–ish melancholia mercifully gives way to a noir-inflected mystery that links skinheads, Stacy Keach, a ring of jailhouse murders, and a newly contrived holiday with suitable ridiculousness. The desaturated color scheme used to telegraph Ray’s bummed-out state of mind wears on the nerves after a few scenes, but that’s the sort of misstep a viewer forgives when the rest of the film — deft casting, writing that knows when to pull back — functions as it should.
81. El Potro: Unstoppable
I have gone on record that the problem with 75 percent of all American cinema is that the director clearly hasn’t watched Walk Hard, though this Argentine import suggests that this issue extends beyond American borders. Like so many other musical-genius biopics, the story of singer Rodrigo (Rodrigo Romero) takes us through an early period of finding himself, the fast track to FM radio, a giddy plunge into vice, and a premature death. We know all the words to this song, but at least director Lorena Muñoz make singing it fun, imbuing her sex-and-drugs scenes with more actual sex and drugs than Bohemian Rhapsody or its namby-pamby American cousins. She’s also got something all of Dewey Cox’s descendants don’t in the breakneck cuarteto genre that Rodrigo popularized, a frenzied fusion of klezmer, merengue, and salsa that could carry the film all on its own.
80. 7 Años
The bad news is that this drama engages in the cardinal sin of chess metaphors, my No. 1 writerly pet peeve. The good news is that the rest of it is smart enough that we can fairly expect more. The Dardenne brothers would nod in approval at this black-box piece’s doozy of a premise: Four friends, all partners in a business facing some nasty tax-fraud charges, must agree on who among them shall take the fall for the crime. Their bitter deliberations over who’s to play scapegoat unearth longer-simmering resentments and tease out the personal dynamics between these sparingly traced characters with rigorous economy. (At a svelte 77 minutes and limited to a single room, it’s begging to be mounted as a play.) Incidentally, this Spanish-language import marked Netflix’s first foreign purchase, a key step on the road to complete global domination.
79. Elisa & Marcela
Viewers still riding the high from Roma’s ravishing monochrome photography and stanzas of trembling sexual intimacy will likely coast directly into this Spanish production featuring much of the same. Those same subscribers will be crestfallen to experience a precipitous drop in the quality of tonal and stylistic control exerted over the aforementioned components, which is a roundabout way of saying Isabel Coixet ain’t Alfonso Cuarón. Though not for lack of trying; the historical factoid of Spain’s first same-sex marriage — Marcela (Greta Fernández) and Elisa (Natalia de Molina) posed as a hetero couple, Elisa donning male drag — provides ample fodder for heaving, sweat-beaded lovemaking that tends to over-smolder. For Coixet’s inability to rein in the passion and invigorate the rest, her film deviates from the footsteps of its betters and stands out mainly as the Netflix release with the most toe-sucking.
78. Deidra and Laney Rob a Train
There’s a good deal to like about this plucky crime comedy, even if director Sydney Freeland never ties it together into a fully satisfying, cohesive package. A pair of young sisters (Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow) need money for legal fees when their mother lands in the big house, Dad’s nowhere to be found, and they don’t have a whole lot of options. So when a train all but rolls up and begs to be plundered, what are Deirdra and Laney supposed to do? Freeland’s still getting her sea legs as a director, but she has a keen understanding of American poverty and how it forces those affected by it into undesirable situations out of necessity. It is, first and foremost, an empathetic film.
77. Roxanne Roxanne
It all should’ve gone down like this: After Chanté Adams won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her ferocious portrayal of proto-hip-hop teen queen Roxanne Shanté, then this serviceable biopic should’ve gotten a summer release and launched the career of a new star. By now, Adams would be slated for a Marvel movie in 2021 and an Oscar nomination by 2025. But a quiet online release from Netflix over a year later buried the film, and with it, a star-making turn fraught with the kind of vulnerability and dynamic confidence that can’t be taught. While the film is a mixed bag altogether — Mahershala Ali does fine work as Roxanne’s older, abusive boyfriend, though his oily charms have to counteract the dully direct dialogue — the leading performance can stand up to independent scrutiny.
76. Like Father
There’s a “mid-’90s Jim Carrey vehicle” tang to the premise of this dramedy, in which a workaholic (Kristen Bell) winds up stuck on a Royal Caribbean™ cruise ship — drink every time the camera slowly pans across their logo — with her estranged father (Kelsey Grammer) following a runaway-groom situation at the altar and the full-blown bender she uses to take the edge off. The film arrives at the same realization as Liar Liar, carrying on as if it’s the first to consider that family might be more important than a demanding, nebulously defined job. But even though she took the gig in part as a free vacation, both Bell and Grammer refrain from phoning it in, spitting some real vitriol in the screaming matches that punctuate interludes of flatteringly photographed island leisure. It may be a glorified commercial for an ocean liner, but it’s surely the only advertorial campaign in which a broken man is made to answer for his failure to guide his daughter through her sexual maturation.
75. Godzilla: The Planet Eater
Best of luck to the uninitiated in making sense of the byzantine diegesis that’s been erected around the king of the kaiju over five decades of writing. For the record, this one has nothing to do with the original Japanese series, the Roland Emmerich movie, the Gareth Edwards franchise, or Toho Studios’ current string of live-action productions. It concludes a trilogy of anime features for only the most hardcore fans, those acolytes more invested in the physiological makeup of King Ghidorah’s corporeal form than the refinement of the animation. The mythos has never been so dense, and while that may come at the expense of palatability for the general public making these releases into hits on American soil, those fluent in this particular dialect of technobabble will be in heaven.
74. The Polka King
In 2004, a Polish immigrant by the name of Jan Lewan was arrested for masterminding a Ponzi scheme with receipts that ran into the millions. The bizarre account of his road to that moment lays a strong foundation for this zippy comedy about a lunge at the American dream that ends in a belly flop. Jack Black sinks his incisors into the role of the perpetually upbeat Lewan as an opportunity to do what he does best — namely, a funny voice and rock star-lite strutting during the whirlwind polka numbers. Diverting supporting turns from Jenny Slate as Jan’s homegrown beauty-queen wife and Jason Schwartzman as his harried right-hand man very nearly compensate for the often-clumsy application of commentary on National Themes.
The wind-swept tundras of Finland envelope Miguel (Luis Gerardo Méndez) inside and out, his interior state as frigid as the subzero setting. The boxing great fled his home of Mexico after a punch left his opponent down for much more than the count; stunned by his own capacity to do harm, he resolved to live a monastic life of humble pacifism among the Finns. His reluctant emergence from retirement fails to land a blow, but the film takes on a second life as a close examination of emigration and assimilation. Miguel wants to disappear in his adopted nation, putting a paperback-ish inflection on an immigrant’s battle to adapt to their terrain without being subsumed by it. Méndez puts in the work of making repression look engaging instead of sedate, and with a rewrite or two, this thing could be in fighting shape.
72. Illang: The Wolf Brigade
Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon possesses a knack for finding a back route into the usual trappings of genre, having refreshed the ghost story, serial killer thriller, and spy picture over the course of his eclectic career. Choosing to remake a 1999 anime smash in live-action should have added not-so-distant-future sci-fi to the list, but the finished product is bereft of both the intricate formal ploys and cliché-outwitting plotting that brought him international recognition on the festival circuit. The Korean peninsula has reunified by 2029, and to ensure that the terrorist cell known as the Sect doesn’t ruin this hard-won peace, a team of black-ops mega-police straight out of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell enforce martial law. Kim signals plans for so much while seeing so little of it through to completion, wantonly picking up subplots and casting them aside before anything can be done with them.
Just the sort of out-of-the-way treat that Netflix has zero interest in promoting, preferring instead to leave it buried under a never-ending avalanche of new content, this animated curio carries toddlers-and-older away to the ancient Andes. There, the villagers worship Earth goddess Pachamama, much to the disapproval of the hawkish neighboring Inca culture and the even more menacing conquistadors coming up behind them. Their only hope for survival rests with rambunctious young Tepulpaï, who leads a mission to return their sacred idol to its proper resting place and restore the favor of their deity. The edifying look into a little-explored culture (the Incas could be real pricks to non-believers, we learn, even as the Spaniards wiped them out), paired with beautiful cut-paper art in the style of Dayle Ann Dodds’ The Color Box, promises a marvelous afternoon with the little ones in a trim 72-minute package.
A brush with death has a way of putting the zap on a guy. Partners-in-crime Chuma and Steve (Israeli comedy duo Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon) resolve to change their gangster ways after pure coincidence leaves them the sole survivors of a terrorist attack at a restaurant, but getting out of the game is never that simple. They want a second act as “guardian angels” granting the wishes wary souls write on scraps of paper and jam in the Wailing Wall. Their associates, naturally, have other notions. Israel provides fertile ground for crime-comedy in a film that tussles with moral queries while working the same wry vibe as HBO’s Barry. Amir and Savyon get away with their dicier hot-button writing on merit of their well-honed rapport, keeping everyone too busy laughing to tell whether or not the film is blithely problematic.
69. Rajma Chawal
Widower Raj (the great Hindi cinema idol Rishi Kapoor) wants to reconnect to his closed-off son Kabir (Anirudh Tanwar), so he does the only rational thing and catfishes the fruit of his loins. Director Leena Yadav has no shortage of rather conventional complications up her sleeve, as the woman (Amyra Dastur) whose selfie Raj used for his faux-profile shows up and the truth inexorably comes out. Even so, this is what the Bollywood entertainment economy firing on all cylinders looks like: the production value, the humor, the chemistry, it’s all managed with the capability exclusive to big-league operations such as this. Though its chiefest rewards often tend to be smaller and more human than that; dare we invoke the name of Lubitsch in describing this madcap cat’s-cradle tangle of mistaken identities, furtive attraction, and buoyant comedy? Call it the Yadav touch.
John Woo, he of the doves and indoor sunglasses and brain-melting gun fu spectaculars, came to Netflix to peddle his latest bullet-strewn dance of death. The master plays the hits with a crime opus harkening back his more widely beloved work from the ’90s, with all the slo-mo insanity that that assessment implies. He brings his usual hyperkinetic style to the pursuit between a fugitive and the monomaniacally driven man on his trail, the action sequences as likely to inspire whiplash as the wild, out-of-nowhere vacillations to comedy and romance. But even if a viewer with an affinity for Woo’s work sees his technique here as a refreshing return to form instead of an artistic regression, the director falls back on his bad habits as well, losing interest in the story he’s telling once the bodies go flying.
They’re a different breed, Los Angeles high-schoolers — even the upstanding students cut class, cross items off the ol’ sexual bucket list, and habitually get high. (Sometimes even with parental consent!) Four such specimens (Awkwafina, Lucy Hale, Kathryn Prescott, and Alexandra Shipp, all well into their 20s) make the emotional odyssey through the end of their senior year in this chill-sesh of a film, trading allusion-heavy quips between hits from a bong in the shape of a gorilla’s head. Updating Clueless for the age of normalized vaping, the girls handle the hurdles of boys, parental units, and their inevitable separation with a distinctly modern candor. On a few different occasions, this film actually puts the horniness-money of Blockers where its mouth is.
66. A Futile and Stupid Gesture
Having already turned the tired tropes of the summer camp flick and the rom-com inside out, it looked like virtuoso parodist David Wain was set to lay waste to the biopic with his treatment of the life and times of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney (Will Forte). While Wain and his merry band of comedy geeks have their fun paying tribute to the preceding generation, in particular Thomas Lennon as living time bomb Michael O’Donoghue, it all melts into the same old sentimentalism by the end. Forte plays Kenney as a figure of self-destructive tragedy and Domhnall Gleeson provides the superego to his id as co-founder Henry Beard, but the script forces both men to be stock figures in a hidebound rise-and-fall routine.
65. The Night Comes for Us
Indonesia’s Timo Tjahjanto made this relentless pressurized stream of beatdowns for anyone who’s ever complained that an action film had too much talking. The butcher whose shop sets the scene for one particularly excruciating mano-a-mano would describe this as 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat, almost all good stuff — to the point of getting stultifying. While The Raid franchise stars Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais remain the ne plus ultra of professional bruise-givers, they can’t help but provide an object lesson in why even movies oriented around spectacle need to have a story to give it shape. The film rushes through some tossed-off horse pucky about Triad gangs and an innocent little girl caught in their crossfire, but so quickly and carelessly that the punches eventually lose all meaning, like a physical version of semantic satiation. For those who see the onscreen lancing of guts as a challenge in the same way that leather-mouthed mavericks take on punishing hot sauces, this poses a demanding test of endurance.
64. Lady J
Americans love to watch the frocks-and-petticoats set behaving badly, so the same costume-drama fetishists that made The Favourite an unlikely hit may flock to this salacious retelling of an 18th-century French novel from Denis Diderot. The aristocratic Madame de la Pommeraye (Cécile de France) wants a piece of the womanizing Marquis des Arcis (Edouard Baer), who dutifully cheats on her the first chance he gets. Eager to get back at him, Pommeraye enlists the help of a bewitching brothel worker (Alice Isaaz) to give the Marquis a taste of his own sour medicine, remaking her as the well-bred Lady J. Her wicked games have wicked ends, as her moral imperative to belittle the Mauqis is eclipsed by the pleasure she takes in puppeteering her “Lady J,” but the plaything may have a mind to sever her strings. Rarely has sin been so delicious.
63. Svaha: The Sixth Finger
From South Korea comes a splendid hodgepodge of New Extremism a lá Kim Ki-duk, religious-cult exploitation gristle, and investigative procedural completely ill-equipped for how depraved the film surrounding it is. Jang Jae-hyun mounts a barrage-style offensive on the audience’s sensibilities as if trying to shock them into submission, and on a platform as clogged with the milquetoast as Netflix, it’s an effective strategy. Our hero is the all-powerful Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae), a specialist known for detecting and disbanding pseudo-Buddhist orders fronting for more odious enterprises. He looks into one such operation and pools wits with a cop convinced a young girl’s murder has something to do with the Pastor’s target; it does, as does a cow-tipping sorcerer, an elephant, a couple ghosts of dead kids, and a few deformed critters that may be hybrids of multiple species. It all congeals into a thick, sludgy, and yet commendably out-there oddity.
Killing is easy; it’s the living with it afterward that’s hard. The same truth that informed Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart takes on grimy new life in this solid adaptation of a Stephen King novella, the gnawing corrosion of guilt an eternal constant whether in the present, Poe’s era, or the pre–Dust Bowl plains. It’s there that a proud, stubborn farmer (Thomas Jane) hatches a plot with his semi-willing son (Dylan Schmid) to murder his wife (Molly Parker) when she makes plans to divorce him and sell her half of the family farm. The horrifying visions that then plague him amount to a sumptuous buffet of terror (trigger warning: so many rats), but the original text simply doesn’t provide enough story material to sustain a 101-minute feature without padding. Director Zak Hilditch puts the text he has through its paces, but a viewer still walks away with that haute cuisine dissatisfaction: It was great and everything, but such small portions!
Alex Lehmann has managed the impossible, and found a new variant to the fatalist romance of The Fault in Our Stars. All he had to do was swap out Ansel Elgort for Ray Romano, recast the Shailene Woodley role with Mark Duplass (who I’ve always considered the Shailene Woodley of the mumblecore world anyway), and downshift the head-over-heels love into a guarded homosocial relationship. What remains is realer, sadder, and in the final scenes that watch as Duplass’s cancer patient Michael slips into the beyond, more intimate. The men may not smooch or anything, but because the kindred loners only feel fully understood by one another, they need each other as desperately as any husband needs their wife. Though he only wrote the script, some of the Duplassian glibness endemic to his directorial projects seeps through. When it counts, however, Lehmann’s respectful direction (which favors long takes, and patterns of wide shots punctuated by a disarming closeup) befits the weight of its content.
60. The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter
From psycho mall cops to deluded martial arts instructors, director Jody Hill has an unending fascination with men imprisoned by their own fragile masculinity. As homemade hunting-video star Buck Ferguson, Josh Brolin is a bit more dialed back than the testosterone-fueled nutjobs usually portrayed for Hill by Danny McBride (appearing here as Buck’s cameraman/whipping boy), but he still buries his tender little heart under several layers of leather and sheet-rock. He’s stung when his young son reveals that Mama’s getting remarried following her divorce from Buck, and kicks the forced parent-kid bonding into high gear in an attempt to win back his boy and, symbolically, his balls. Hill fans may be disappointed to find that his latest feature lacks the maniacal edge of Observe and Report and his small-screen work, but neophytes may appreciate the down-the-middle palatability in the father-son bond.
59. A Twelve-Year Night
Through the ’80s and ’90s, Uruguay’s despotic military leaders imprisoned scads of dissidents, most notable among them future President José Mujica. He (played in this dramatization by Antonio de la Torre) and eight other guerrillas known as the Tupamaros lived for over a decade in abject captivity, holding fast to their tenets even as they were used as bargaining chips in the conflict raging outside. Those in the know have noted some questionable liberties taken with the facts, leaving viewers going in with minimal background knowledge to take the film as a monument to man’s willpower. Better still, director Álvaro Brechner focuses on the sensory experience of deprivation and mental decay, and dispenses with the usual yawn-inducing spiels about holding out hope, yadda, and et cetera.
58. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
For his first feature behind the camera, Chiwetel Ejiofor had no intention of making one of those glossy, solipsistic projects primarily serving to stroke its creator’s ego. (You know, like Paradox.) Instead, he took the Angelina Jolie route (you know, like First They Killed My Father) and put in the work. In the memoir of William Kamkwamba, a resourceful Malawian boy who saved his drought-stricken village with a water pump of his own amateur engineering, he found a worthy story and underlying cause. He gave the effort required to tell someone else’s story, shooting with a ragtag crew in Malawi and collaborating with locals to fine-tune the script. It all shows in the end, Ejiofor having successfully reconciled the global political significance of Kamkwamba’s great deeds with the personal details of his home.
57. Gun City
The title refers to Barcelona during the 1920s, a period of social turbulence on several fronts: women had just put their foot down in a more organized capacity in their fight for rights, an overdrawn working class drifted toward the anarchist movement combatting the industrial fatcats, the military junta would soon drop pretenses and pledge allegiance to fascism, and civil war was on the horizon. Dani de la Torre spreads his Spanish-language crime epic across this Catalonian fracas, with veteran turned cop Uriarte (Luis Tosar) on one side and corrupt officials, mercenaries, gangsters, and ill-tempered pornographers on the other. The reported budget of 5 million euros shows in the production design that dwarfs the opulence of your average prestige streaming series. (Your Babylon Berlins, your Man in the High Castles, what-have-you.) In both narrative and style, there’s an agreeably unrestrained muchness to de la Torre’s filmmaking.
56. The Wolf’s Call
The most important person on the French submarine that houses much of this undersea claustro-thriller is the oreille d’or, translating back as “golden ear,” the technical term for the sonar specialist. His expert parsing of pings identical to the untrained cochlea — this particular whirr comes from one type of enemy seacraft, that rumble comes from another — means the difference between life and death for the crew of the L’Effroyable, a cast flush with Francophone stars (Omar Sy, Mathieu Kassovitz, Reda Kateb, to name a few). Positing this film as an unusually obscure occupational study pays dividends when the film has to assume a heroic stance more in line with the usual global blockbuster, as sonar whisperer Chanteraide (fresh-faced Francois Civil) uses his low-grade superpower to beat back the tide of nuclear conflict. Like the recent Black Sea, another close-quarters nail-biter set within the briny deep, the film spins its lack of space from a flaw into a feature.
55. The Land of Steady Habits
Nicole Holofcener, America’s great poet of the upper-middle-class midlife-crisis picture, breaks new ground by placing her focus on a man and exploring the masculine side of 50-something foibles. A broken-down Ben Mendelsohn slips into the role of Anders Hill, a man taking a shot at reinvention. He’s wriggled out of his marriage to Helene (Edie Falco), ditched his finance job, moved into a bachelor pad he neither knows how to decorate nor afford, and started seeing a fellow single adult (Connie Britton). Surprise surprise, he still feels as if he’s missing something — perhaps it has to do with the rehabbing son (Thomas Mann) he sees every now and then. Though the tidy ending belongs in a lesser movie, the sort of barely existent chaff filling out the Competition lineup every year at Sundance, the rest of the film and particularly Mendelsohn’s hangdog performance have the Holofcener shine of maturity.
Credit where it’s due: Netflix has done a lot to foster a global awareness of international film, case in point being this Nigerian selection opening up a perfect point of entry to Nollywood cinema for the not-so-well-versed. Adaeze Obiagu (Genevieve Nnaji, a pillar of Nigeria’s industry who also directed this film) and her efforts to steer her family’s company through her CEO father’s heart attack as well as the unsteady stewardship of her uncle Godswill (Nkem Owoh) wouldn’t be out of place in a domestic indie. But Nnaji stays mindful of the social currents and customs specific to her home, and uses them to construct an identity all her own, both as a sui generis filmmaker — her humor is ebullient, but grounded — and as a representative of her national cinema on the world stage.
53. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Oz Perkins established himself as an important new name in horror filmmaking when this staid ghost story and his girls’-school-set chiller The Blackcoat’s Daughter got releases within five months of one another last year. You won’t find the superior film on Netflix, but that’s not to denigrate what’s still a delectable exercise in atmospheric terror. Accomplishing a good deal with very little — keep your buckets of blood, monsters, and jump scares, thanks — Perkins conjures fear from thin air. Be forewarned, however: Those viewers who complained that “nothing happened” in The Witch (which is a crazy thing to think) will start to fidget after about ten minutes of slow-burn suspense building.
52. Your Son
First things first: the exquisite saxophone score to this film could be packaged and sold on its own, and if there’s any justice left in this madhouse called humanity, it would make more money than the movie. Unassailable film noir saxophone aside, we’ve still got a more accomplished take on the revenge-dad narrative, closer in its arty-pulp stylings to You Were Never Really Here than Taken. Distinguished surgeon Jaime (Jose Coronado, a more tacit, brutal stand-in for Liam Neeson) loses it when his son Marcos (Pol Monen) gets beaten to smithereens outside a club, and vows to bring the hurt to those behind the attack. One can surmise where things go from there, but director Miguel Angel Vivas channels Jaime’s alienation into arresting images that legitimize his dark work. Who could watch the slow, pitiless death of a police horse and not feel its pain?
There must have been 50 ways to go awry when adapting this popular manga series for a feature film; losing basic coherence while condensing ten volumes of writing into a 90-minute package, sacrificing the essence of the art by making kinetic what was once stationary, hiring annoying voice actors. Director Hiroyuki Seshita does the Charleston around these many pitfalls, safely emerging on the other side with a beautiful dark twisted cyberpunk fantasy. Skittering android-spider abominations and hyperspeed gun-toting rebels populate this desolate post-industrial hellscape, where a band of rebels must beat back the advance of an approaching death-bot (storytelling often takes a way back seat to immersive set dressing) with a mix of futuristic weaponry and courage. A bit typical in its band-of-heroes narrative, but never in the stylistic means employed to tell it.
50. Us and Them
The chunyun period refers to the days of unusually high-density travel in China surrounding the Lunar New Year, where circumstances squeeze strangers up against one another in quarters too close for comfort. Not quite the case for Jianqing and Xiaoxiao (Jing Boran and Zhou Dongyu, respectively), who hit it off during this mad dash and begin a decade-long love affair. This soapy drama retells the story of their relationship through a series of flashbacks interwoven with visions of their joyless post-breakup present, riding the ecstatic highs of infatuation and the bleak lows of a drag-down fight. While the dialogue used to express this trajectory often leans to the trite, the outsized extremes of feeling — full-body sobs, declarations of undying devotion — shine through undeterred.
Collateral on the phone, Locke but with crime — we’ve no shortage of comparison points for this innovative action B-flick, but that’s not to detract from director Jeremy Rush’s own bright ideas. His first and best was tapping macho man Frank Grillo for the lead, a getaway driver taken hostage via phone and forced to run a series of increasingly hazardous jobs during one unending night. The second was constraining the camera to our man’s car for the entirety of the film, trapping the audience in the predicament right next to him. It’s a supremely unsettling effect, putting us close enough to the violence to see it clearly, even close enough to feel threatened by it, but not quite close enough to intervene. Like Grillo, we’re powerless, but at least he’s got the brass balls and five o’clock shadow to take a shot at reclaiming his life. Grillo’s in top form here, leveling up and acting as the major-league name-taker we all knew he could be.
At long last, a superhero movie that doesn’t take itself so gosh-darn seriously. Korea’s Yeon Sang-ho (who recently compressed a full-scale zombie invasion into the length of a locomotive with the high-grade pandemonium of Train to Busan) sees the inherent silliness in an ordinary schmo spontaneously developing powers, and embraces a broad slapstick sensibility in a wholly atypical entry for the genre. Our man Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) is more of a Paul Blart than a Bruce Wayne, lacking in playboy billionaire status, a rippling physique, and even a sound moral code. He mostly uses his telekinetic skills to get back in his estranged daughter’s good graces and upend capitalism — my hero! — and even then, Yeon refuses to grant his character any stony-faced gravitas. Not everything has to be the end of the universe.
Ten years after his last foray into long-form mockumentary, Christopher Guest returns to his wheelhouse with another inspection of a peculiar subculture as likely to induce squirms of discomfort as laughter. A collection of weirdos played by Guest’s usual gang of goofballs (Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, you know the lot) convene for a world-class mascot tomfoolery competition, cue magnificently uncomfortable improv. While not as conceptually involved as the constantly shifting For Your Consideration, it’s sure to delight those who were delighted by Guest’s past shenanigans, a camp of which this critic is a proud member. Newcomer Zach Woods, by the by, walks away with the MVP honors. There’s a gentle quiver in his voice when he mutters, “Do you prescribe antidepressants?” That quiver is art.
46. Velvet Buzzsaw
Jake Gyllenhaal has transitioned smoothly into the “Just Do Whatever” phase of his career; see Okja, Nocturnal Animals, The Sisters Brothers, and Nightcrawler, the last team-up between the eccentric star and director Dan Gilroy. He dons blocky haute couture spectacles as Morf Vanderwalt, a preening critic scribbling hit jobs on the pretentious frauds of Los Angeles’ art scene. He and a colorful coterie of artists, buyers, and curators (Toni Collette in a chopped wig, John Malkovich as an embittered Jeff Koons avatar, Daveed Diggs as the nouveau-Basquiat taking his place) duel via posturing and bons mots full of hot air in what should be a hoot. Gilroy offsets all the art biz inside-baseball with a horror subplot that comes to eclipse the main plot as a dead man’s painting kill their rights-holders in coarse, beginner’s-CGI fashion. Perhaps Morf himself would find it ever so droll that a movie about people obsessed with exteriors has little going on beneath the outermost shell.
Blame, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Death Note must have racked up some impressive numbers, because Netflix has gotten back in the live-action anime game yet again, and the good news is that this one’s the best of the lot. Director Shinsuke Sato simulates the vibrancy of the original medium instead of going with the dull gloom currently in vogue Stateside, and keeps his head all the way through a wondrously strange story that could’ve easily collapsed into gobbledygook. Dreamboat teen Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi) can see dead people, but in more of a SFX-behemoth sense and less of a Sixth Sense sense. He dispatches these skeletal specters with the aid of “soul reaper” Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki, just as hard-core as the title makes her sound) and one big honkin’ longsword, defending the people of this world from the next. Following the examples of Edgar Wright and the Wachowski sisters, Sato has synthesized everything fun about manga, Western superhero comics, and video games into one gratuitous-in-the-best-way package.
44. Time Share
The gnarled heart of capitalism beats somewhere inside the timeshares-for-sale industry, a tarnished business that simultaneously strips the self-respect from both the pitchman and the customer. Pedro and Eva (Luis Gerardo Mendez and Cassandra Ciangherotti) don’t feel any better about foisting bum rentals on the suckers who visit the Everfields resort than the suckers feel about getting duped. And then, to really drive home just how little their employer cares for them, they get double-booked when trying to enjoy a little R&R around their own “paradise.” Office-culture flim-flammery pushes Pedro to the brink of a complete mental implosion in this potent tonal coupling of staring-contest austerity and ironic absurdity. The CGI flamingo, former Breaking Bad star RJ Mitte as the knowingly generic face of Everfields, the potato sack race that triggers a complete existential vortex of hopelessness — it all fits right in with a shiny twilight zone of prefab relaxation.
43. Layla M.
If you’re looking for a finely shaded perspective on the spread of terrorism in the Middle East with a functional understanding of intersectionality, you’re going to have to leave America. From the Netherlands comes this politically minded character piece about a young woman (Nora El Koussour) chafing under Islamophobia while living among the Dutch, and how that tension drives her to radical extremes. But when Layla relocates to Jordan with her Jihadist husband, she’s disappointed to find that a rigid patriarchy still won’t allow for her to enjoy a fuller extent of freedom. Lending her fellow woman an empathetic ear, director Mijke de Jong organically contrasts these two strains of oppression to expose the difficulty that women of color have in finding a place of their own wedged between white and male violence.
42. The Skin of the Wolf
Samu Fuentes’ Spanish-language folktale moves with a raw, primal energy that puts it closer to a violent Old World creation myth than a child’s fable. Fur trapper Martinon (Mario Casas) lives alone in the woods; press notes clarify that it’s the early 19th century, but judging by what little Fuentes shows of civilization, the story could very well take place when the Earth was young. (That the film passes with only a handful of words spoken aloud reinforces this elemental mood.) He decides to take a wife to assuage some of the self-imposed loneliness, though the union they form more closely resembles animalistic pack mentality than matrimony. There’s not much more to it than that, told at a glacial pace with eye-wideningly gorgeous photography of the natural vistas of Spain. While not the most instantly pleasurable sit, this modern silent film succeeds where The Light Between Oceans most recently failed, linking the birth of a family unit to something deeper and older than its composite members.
41. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
This is how it’s done, Shimmer Lake. Macon Blair works from a decidedly Coen-esque template in his directorial debut, but invests enough of his own idiosyncrasies into the story of two oddballs (a fed-up Melanie Lynskey and slightly unhinged, nunchuck-brandishing Elijah Wood) on the ineptly charted warpath for this to feel like a beast all its own. There’s a rickety punk energy to Blair’s indie-scaled production style and, moreover, the fuck-the-world frustration that drives Lynskey’s character to the edge after her house gets plundered. Blair more than earned the top prize he picked up at Sundance — though you’d never learn that from Netflix, which unceremoniously released the picture weeks after it was deemed the toast of America’s biggest independent film festival.
40. Gerald’s Game
A premise so simple and brilliant, you wonder why no one’s ever tried it before: A couple retreats to a secluded cabin, hoping to give their flagging marriage a shot in the arm with a sexy weekend excursion. But when he handcuffs her to the bed and promptly dies of a heart attack, she has to draw on all her ingenuity and confront some personal demons to take one last grasp at life. (The 127 Hours comparison is hard not to make, though Stephen King wrote the novel on which this is based long beforehand.) Maybe Hollywood was waiting for two actors as game as Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood, put through their paces and then some in a hallucinatory night of the soul that dislodges some dark repressed memories and reorients their present. At least for performers, this all-in two-hander is worthy of study like Scripture.
Directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke have done their zombie homework, drawing smartly from a long cinematic heritage while introducing a sufficient number of new innovations to distinguish themselves from their flesh-hungry forebears. Chief among them is a move away from the survival-story template common to the genre; our man Martin Freeman has been infected, he’s going to die, and he’s got 48 hours left to find some measure of safety for the infant (and, later, Aboriginal foundling) in his charge. Far from diminishing the tension, the plot’s inevitability adds a sort of tragic poetry to a final, futile grasp at hope for the next generation following an acceptance that the current one is doomed. And there’s the true hallmark of the good zombie flick — a subtext that can be projected onto whatever timely concern a viewer chooses.
38. River’s Edge
Unlike the majority of the anime properties that Netflix has brought into our live-action world, this one doesn’t feature any monsters or robots or superpowers. There’s a waterlogged carcass washed ashore by the banks of a local river, but it’s more of a Stand By Me-type body, the sort that jump-starts the metamorphosis from youth to maturity. It’s the linchpin of a agitated-youth story closer to the neorealism that flourished in Eastern Asian cinema during the ‘90s, during which the film is set. To put it in Spring Awakening terms, everyone’s got their junk: a gay teen shoulders constant bullying, his only friend has an unfaithful boyfriend with a taste for drugs, the class beauty queen binges and purges when no one’s looking. Their restless ennui joins to form a constellation of Gen-X disillusionment, a generation short on hope regardless of which side of the Pacific we’re on.
37. A Land Imagined
In the defining image of this Singaporean mystery, liquid cement courses like a mighty river through yards of industrial chuting. It’s an ugly, inorganic perversion of nature’s way and a sign of how irrevocably the island nation’s lower class has been broken. While director Yeo Siew Hua pieces together his film by sending a police inspector (Peter Yu) to look into a pair of disappearances from one of Singapore’s many construction sites, the answer to this whodunit would have to be capitalism or society. As in Hu Bo’s excellent An Elephant Sitting Still, the unwavering misery and demoralizing absence of hope are part and parcel of life in Asiatic commerce centers for anyone outside of the crazy-rich set. Captains of industry extract as much labor as humanly possible from the chattel they draft in droves to do the dirty work and then leave them to die once they’re spent. Yeo puts this exacting toll in interpersonal terms instead of institutional ones, using each character as a representative of his or her class for a wider assessment of the state’s policy to turn its back on those who need it most.
36. Sand Storm
Hormones a-raging, a girl crushes hard on a boy and they strike up a secret relationship away from the disapproving eye of her traditionalist father. In Elite Zexer’s volatile feature debut, this tale as old as time is heightened by a new resonance when imposed onto a Bedouin community living in Israel’s Negev Desert. “Melodrama” doesn’t have to be a naughty word with emotional displays this fiery — between our gal Layla (Lamis Ammar) and her mother (Ruba Blal-Asfour) when the cat gets out of the bag, between Mom and Dad (Hitham Omari) when he humiliates her by taking a younger second wife, to say nothing of the figurative war of words between Layla and the harshly repressive society frowning on her unchecked energy. Parents, as ever, just don’t understand.
35. Dear Ex
It’s an open family secret that patriarch Zheng Yuan (Spark Chen) has a visibly younger male lover by the name of Jay (Roy Chiu) on the down-low. His wife San Lian (Hsieh Ying-hsuan) knows, their son Chengxi (Joseph Huang) knows, but regardless, they’re blindsided when Zheng Yuan dies and leaves everything in his will to Jay. That San Lian must sign off on the document before Jay receives one thin Taiwanese dime is the catch on which this medley of mixed-up feelings hinges. Chengxi thinks he hates Jay for his homewrecking, but can’t help gravitating towards the same mercurial, beguiling personality that his father fell in love with. San Lian never held her late husband’s sexuality against him, and yet she can’t let go of the animosity she still feels. In the lacuna between what we know we should feel and what we actually feel, directors Hsu Mag and Hsu Chih-yen find a great big reason-impervious mess. Their smartest move? Refraining from imposing order.
34. Before I Wake
Images lodge themselves in our memories during the tender developmental years, twisting and warping and growing in size to ghastly proportions as they lurk in the subconscious. This bedtime-story chiller from Mike Flanagan demonstrates a deeper understanding of this concept than most horror films fishing in the shallow waters of pop-psych. A well-meaning couple (Tom Jane and Kate Bosworth) take in an adorable 8-year-old foster son (Jacob Tremblay) after their child drowns in the bathtub. Little do they know that the new tot’s dreams spring to life as he slumbers, which is a lot more fun when rainbow butterflies stream out of his brain than when he unleashes a gaunt ghoul known as “the Cankerman.” It’s an inverted Nightmare on Elm Street, with a script more intellectually curious about how dreams transmute fear.
33. Catching Feelings
Ah, yes, here’s the South African takeoff on Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash that you were waiting for. Both films disrupt a stagnating relationship with the introduction of a high-living interloper, and to director-writer-star Kagiso Lediga’s credit, he has a slightly better go at weaving in uncomfortable racial politics to an acerbic anti-romance. He plays a touchy professor whose marriage gets a shot in the arm when a literary celebrity (Andrew Buckland, exuding a lust for life) comes to town and riles everything — and everyone — up. Bourgeois pretension and middle-aged fretting over virility follows as Lediga picks apart a man torn between his solidarity with a people in poverty and the comfortable existence of an academic. While not all that quotable, the one-liners still work as the mortar holding this grown-up movie about grown-ups together.
32. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday
Eternal man-boy Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) stages his comeback in a more welcoming world, where the internet and its bolstering of cult fandoms has freed Reubens to go cheekier and weirder. The homoerotic undertones nearly broach the surface like a majestic humpback whale when Pee-Wee befriends Joe Manganiello and sets out on a cross-country odyssey to attend the ruggedly handsome actor’s birthday party. Reubens tosses in more winks to the kitsch-heads than ever, peaking with an interlude in which Pee-Wee crosses paths with a girl gang right out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! that includes Alia Shawkat and Stephanie Beatriz. And to think they put this in the Kids & Family section …
31. Journey to Greenland
It’s treacherous narrative territory, the micro-genre of “white person(s) go to a foreign land and have a transformative experience with the kindly locals,” but Sébastien Betbeder traverses it with respect and delicacy. A pair of slacker actors both named Thomas (Thomas Blanchard and Thomas Scimeca) make a trek to the icy expanses of the Inuit village Kullorsuaq, where the indigenous residents welcome them with open arms. Instead of treating the hospitality as an invitation to get their Eat Pray Love on, Thomas and Thomas have the presence of mind to shut up and do more listening than talking. While their experiences sometimes touch on hidebound clichés about native peoples’ fabled connection to the spiritual plane, Betbeder doesn’t force any contrived epiphanies, and what’s more, he works the breathtaking Greenlandian scenery for all it’s worth.
30. The Breaker Upperers
Do you want out of your relationship? Are you hesitant to cause pain to someone you still are about? Alternately, is your fundamental cowardice preventing you from having the difficult conversation? Makes no difference to Jen and Mel (writer-directors Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami), they’ll concoct a playacted scenario enabling you to wriggle out — for a nominal fee. Discord arises when Mel starts thinking a little too hard about the ethical grey area between the two aforementioned rationales, while Jen remains fully focused on their work and the total lack of attachment it requires. A rare never-been done concept, along with a comfort between the two leads that only comes from years of close comic collaboration, instill the same revelatory glow that emanated from fellow New Zealand export What We Do in the Shadows. And look at that — executive produced by Taika Waititi.
Getting out of his father’s shadow will be a lifelong battle for Aleksei German, and not just because they share the same name. As the son to one of the most respected directors of the Russian canon, Li’l German must work that much harder to build his own reputation, but a few more features like this one will get him there. To memorialize the great writer Sergei Dovlatov (played by the handsome-faced Milan Marić), he narrows his focus to one particularly eventful week in ‘70s Leningrad, where our hero prepared to bid farewell to a lifelong friend and enter the family-man period of his adulthood. German’s idea of the biopic bears little resemblance to the aggressive sameness of the Bohemian Rhapsody set, toying with overlapping ambient dialogue and loping tracking shots to serve a secondary objective of crystallizing a time and place, even as it situates one man inside it. It’s salvage ethnography in the finery of character study.
28. Beasts of No Nation
Netflix started strong with their first release, a muscular and intense coming-of-age narrative that doubles as a uniquely brutal war film. Though Idris Elba was the presumed award horse for his layered turn as an African warlord (snubbed by the Oscars in the year that precipitated the #OscarsSoWhite pushback), newcomer Abraham Attah racked up the most hardware for his harrowing lead performance. Weathering the slaughter of his family, forced enrollment in a child army, constant drugging, and a host of other traumas, Attah fights with all he’s got to maintain one last semblance of humanity. In this way, it’s almost a story of anti-maturation; As Elba grooms him to be a ruthless killing machine, Attah desperately clings to his remaining scraps of childhood. Shot in immersive yet never ostentatious long takes by director Cary Fukunaga, the film heralded a future for Netflix that hasn’t quite come to pass. Films like this were supposed to be the norm — instead, they ended up the glaring exception.
27. The Little Prince
Director Mark Osborne has devised a rather brilliant method of communicating the transportive quality of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s poignant fantasy novella. A frame story featuring an aged aviator and an inquisitive little moppet has been rendered in 3D computer-animation, and the pilot’s memories of his past with the melancholic prince are all stop-motion. Otherwise, Osborne plays it smart (if a bit safe) and sticks with the source material, relaying all the pocket profundities about compassion for our fellow homo sapiens and the unstoppable passage of time. I’d highly recommend it for parents unsure how to go about teaching their children the ABC’s of decency, and for adults, it’s pretty amusing that these philosophical fables occasionally come out of the mouths of Paul Rudd or James Franco.
On the grand spectrum of movies about kids falling in love over the course of one long day spent scrambling around New York, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist sits at one pole of quality and this superior indie from Adam Leon occupies the other. Danny and Elle (Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten, the latter the clear standout) first cross paths as accomplices on a cut-and-dried bag-drop-off job with a big payout. There’s no movie if it goes according to plan, so naturally Danny leaves the asset with a perfect stranger, and they embark on a quirky but not too quirky odyssey to get it back. Leon hits an elusive sweet spot, giving us all the things audiences love about small-scale romances — clever leads, hip street cred, offbeat dialogue — without ever overplaying that hand. It makes you want to get on a train and return a cute stranger’s smile.
25. Sunday’s Illness
There’s a ghostly poeticism to this Spanish-language symbolist tale of a difficult reunion between mother and child: chilly long takes composed to within an inch of their life, stanzas that float by without a word spoken aloud, a plot that hinges almost entirely on what goes unsaid and unshown. Wealthy, content Anabel (Susi Sanchez) starts to fall through the cracks in her seemingly ideal life when Chiara (Barbara Lennie) appears during a dinner party and claims to be the daughter she abandoned at the ripe age of eight. Chiara wants only to spend ten days bonding with the mother she never knew, a peculiar request made even more suspicious by Chiara’s insistence on signing contracts with legal counsel present. The eventual revelation of her game would be shocking on its own, but it’s all the more impactful thanks to the meticulously assembled waking dreams preceding it.
24. The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone excel when permitted to follow their most esoteric muses, whether that’s the Borg-McEnroe rivalry, Tour de France doping scandals, or in this case, the reign of Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco as the Oakland Athletics’ league-leading sluggers. This compact special makes a Lemonade-styled “visual poem” — whispery perfume-commercial voiceover, fake-deep sojourns through the woods, visual rebirth metaphors submerging fetal figures in CGI water — out of a sporting-world footnote, with Samberg and Schaffer playing the roided-out home run champs. In true Lonely Island fashion, they begin this series of music videos relatively on-message and spiral out with off-the-rocker comic tangents. (“IHOP Parking Lot,” a groupie jam featuring cameos from the Haim sisters and Maya Rudolph, turns the command to shake your butt into a mesmeric mantra.) May the entertainment industry continue to bankroll whatever minutiae-obsessed pet project these guys come up with next.
Canada puts its maple-leaf-emblazoned national stamp on the zombie thriller, and for a movie about the walking dead, it’s got a lot of brains. A plague of the undead descends on a Quebecois suburb, but the attackers are a bit more developed than the supercharged people-eaters of 28 Days Later or George Romero’s lethargic saunterers. They follow strange and inexplicable patterns, gathering and obsessively placing household objects in towering stacks that they then worship when not gnawing the flesh off of shinbones. Filmmaker Robin Aubert has stated that he conceived their behavior and spread as an allegory for the stormy political climate of rural French-Canada, defined by cultural vacuity and separatist dissent. As a Canadian New Wave gains momentum, Aubert does right by his countrymen with an auto-critical polemic that succeeds on the terms of its sensationalist genre as well.
22. First They Killed My Father
The reports of director Angelina Jolie’s unorthodox casting methods raised concerns that the vocal activist might not grasp the big picture of her sensitive topic — the Cambodian genocides under Khmer Rouge during the ’70s — despite her noble intentions. But what a relief to find that she has indeed done right by her subject and co-writer Loung Ung, the citizens she’s come to love and protect, and the terrible burden of history’s weight. Jolie goes all-in, working almost exclusively with locals from a script in the Khmer language, steeping the account of Loung’s gutting stint in the child militias in Cambodia’s native culture. She shows admirable self-awareness in her treatment of these shattering events, refusing to shy away from the most grueling details while steering clear of exploitation. She’s erected a tribute to suffering that doesn’t wallow or look for hope where there was none. It soldiers on, survives, and leaves us the pain.
21. The Perfection
The title comes as something of a misnomer for a movie that so emphatically lives within its own flaws, of reason and character logistics and exploitation politics. But damn, with Richard Shepard whipping through rug-pull twists fast enough to fit three features’ worth into one, who can even notice? Things start off in a Hitchcockian key, with Allison Williams serving crazy-white-lady eyes as a semi-retired concert cellist looking to end her hiatus by removing her younger rival (Logan Browning). That they hook up won’t surprise anyone who’s seen a De Palma movie before, but the second act’s hurtle into Grand Guignol grotesquerie isn’t so easy to see coming. Same goes for the mode-shifts that follow, sending the film first towards junior psycho-biddy territory and finally into “feminist rape-revenge” territory, all of it in the lacerated vein of I Spit on Your Grave. Shepard’s raw chutzpah alone will be sufficient to ensorcel garbage connoisseurs.
Behold, the rare example of the film industry functioning properly as a meritocracy. Dee Rees showed promise with her 2011 narrative feature debut Pariah, proved herself ready for a bigger platform after marshaling HBO’s resources on Bessie in 2015, and then when Hollywood gave her a bigger budget, she crushed it. This adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s sprawling novel about two families — one black, one white — locked in a racially charged culture clash in ‘40s Mississippi attempts a lot, and astonishingly enough, pulls it all off. Replicating the narrative structure of the source text, Rees freely drifts between voice-overs from six different characters. The story spans years and traffics in huge swells of emotion that never spill over into melodrama, not to mention the stunning visual set pieces in the World War II passages. The sizable ensemble interlocks perfectly, with special considerations to Mary J. Blige as a long-suffering matriarch and Garrett Hedlund as a shell-shocked veteran, but Rees is the real star of the show. This is the coronation of a vital new voice in American filmmaking.
This turn-of-the-century period piece from Gareth Evans, that maestro of martial arts mayhem, spends about an hour on dialed-back cult horror in the same sect as the fanatics from The Wicker Man. Then, as soon as he can sense the audience getting nice and comfy in this particular subgenre, Evans pops open a trap door and sends the viewer tumbling down a chute that spits them out in hostile, exotic territory. Wealthy wastrel Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) goes to retrieve his sister from the religious order’s island stronghold at the behest of their benefactor parents, and even as he blends in, he can’t quite put his finger on what crazed prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) is up to. Several skin-shredding set pieces later, much has been divulged and little clarified, with Thomas launched into a torrent of torture and mysticism that bewilders as frequently as it dazzles. Evans charges a high price of admission to his plane of untethered lunacy, but intrepid viewers simpatico to his bloody maximalism will attain enlightenment.
18. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
“But you said you weren’t doing documentaries!” I can already hear you saying, your voice nasal with pedantry. Joke’s on you, because this is no mere concert movie, it’s a lesson in prestidigitation and trickery picking up where Orson Welles’ crafty F For Fake left off. Marty raised some eyebrows for massaging the truth in the supplemental material between recorded excerpts of Bob Dylan’s legendary 1975 tour. In some instances, he doesn’t so much “massage” as he tosses the truth in the garbage, freely inventing fictitious figures and digitally altering details to keep us on our toes. The disorienting effect has a slippery synchronicity with the canon of Dylan, who’s always gotten his kicks messing with the press and the public, often issuing contradicting quotes in different interviews. Scorsese finds more truth in his own lies than he possibly could’ve in our puny reality.
17. On Body and Soul
At a dreary workplace, an office crush can get you through the day. Endre (Géza Morcsányi) and Mária (Alexandra Borbély) make their daily wage at a slaughterhouse where the unyielding stench of death in the air is enough to make you vomit, and accordingly, the bond between them runs deeper than petty romance. At night, they meet in dreams as a buck and a deer, neither fully aware of what this surreal communion means. Hungary’s pride and joy Ildikó Enyedi took home the top prize at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival along with a slew of other awards (including an Oscar nomination) for her lyrical, penetratingly sad look at the indomitable power of love to sustain us through even the harshest trials. The first kernel of an idea would’ve been an overly precious MFA short story reject in the hands of a more literal-minded artist, but Ildikó leaves enough interpretive fog around the edges of her work to pull the gambit off.
16. Set It Up
Could it be true? The most generously enjoyable romcom of the past decade is hiding on Netflix? Not that there’s a whole lot of competition, but TV veteran Claire Scanlon’s first foray into feature directing is still an effervescent reminder of why Hollywood used to crank out, like, five of these things per year. Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell have atomic-level chemistry as the beleaguered assistants to a pair of horrible bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs, having a ball), Tituss Burgess plays a character named “Creepy Tim,” there’s a cutaway joke involving a Magic Mike XXL-themed science project, and it successfully resurrects the tired old “it’s almost like New York City is a character in the film!” thing. As with all of the genre’s best entries, Scanlon makes it all look so easy, and makes us wonder why the irony-free romantic comedy has fallen into such disrepair.
15. The Kindergarten Teacher
Fiction favors the arc: we’re shown that a character is one way, a series of events exerts an influence on them, and then we’re shown that they’re a different way. This adaptation of an acclaimed 2014 Israeli film does the opposite, submitting a character who defiantly resists change and instead altering how the audience sees her. The viewer feels a twinge of sympathy for Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal, nimbly handling a role most actors wouldn’t dare touch) when she’s introduced as a malcontent without the natural talent to make it as a poet, then contempt when she passes off a gifted student’s verse as her own. She complicates that antipathy by making the valid point that the boy needs someone in his corner and positioning herself as his impresario, then alienates us again before she’s through. Continuously readjusting assumptions about Lisa can spur introspection in the viewer, and correspondingly readjust our assumptions about white saviors, imperiled kids and self-interest vs. altruism. We’re the ones on the arc, not her.
14. Alles ist gut
There are one hundred ways to mishandle a script concerned with a plainly depicted rape and its inner fallout on the woman subjected to it, but first-time German filmmaker Eva Trobisch evades them by banning all histrionics. Janne (Aenne Schwarz, made of limestone) refuses to let her ordeal affect anyone else in her life, and refrains from informing her boyfriend (Andreas Döhler) about what she’s gone through. She carries on as if pretending that everything’s fine will instantaneously make everything fine, and the film finds crushing, hushed drama in her inability to make it so. At every turn, Trobisch makes the withdrawn choice; the rape scene, for one, plays out in a cold wide shot conjuring feelings of dissociation that will persist for the rest of the film. Janne lives through an assault, but as long as its aftershocks pulse through her, she must continue surviving it.
13. A Fortunate Man
At a time when superhero tentpoles pad themselves to Béla Tarr-esque run times, a 167-minute movie that’s actually justified in its hulking length comes as a tonic. Just as Gone With the Wind couldn’t possibly have been shorter than four hours, this adaptation of a foundational eight-volume Danish novel (the country’s Les Miserables, its Tale of Two Cities) earns every second of magisterial sweep. Bille August directs with the steady hand of a guy who has two Palmes d’Or on his trophy shelf, pushing a romance caught in the vicissitudes of history to a splendor befitting its literary origins. The world is an oyster to Peter Sidenius (Esben Smed Jensen), an engineer with big plans to install electricity nationwide, but his love for the Jewish beauty Jakobe (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) threatens to unlace both his work and his social standing, leading to a life-spanning affair with a fittingly unhappy ending. This is classicist filmmaking at its modern best, a work that aspires to nothing less than greatness on a platform content with the passable.
French-Moroccan first-timer Houda Benyamina only needed to scale her family tree to find a magnetic leading actress, tapping younger sister Oulaya Amamra for the reckless, hungry hooligan Dounia. Anyone can tap into Dounia’s claustrophobia in her dead-end Romani community as well as her first exhilarating taste of life beyond it, which makes her tailspin into turpitude so disarmingly personal. Determined to make more money than the chumps on her block, Dounia and her right-hand gal Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) get their feet in the door of the neighborhood drug trade, only to be crushed at the ankle. The girls go through the customary tests and failures of adolescence, but they live in a climate where a young woman can’t always afford to fail. Benyamina’s closely attuned to both her actresses as well as their characters — a discernibly female perspective with a gaze that adores and occasionally objectifies the male body, and that looks toward the future with an honest world-weariness.
Singapore, 1992: with the help of her friends and her filmmaking teacher Georges Cardona, a young troublemaker named Sandi Tan completes a feature that she titles Shirkers. This Shirkers is the story of that Shirkers, the only print of which was stolen by Cardona and not to be seen again for twenty years. Tan used the recovered footage to create an expressionistic making-of documentary that simultaneously succeeds in so many separate and yet interrelated pursuits. She’s bottled the experience of being a junior punk itching to make your mark on culture; given a searing indictment of mediocre men and a paean to the women that they rely on to prop up their egos; carved a gripping mystery out of self-involvement; and fabricated a shrine to the act of moviemaking as a source of life-giving sustenance. May the phrase “we gotta be the Coen sisters” be doodled in notebook margins for years to come.
10. The World Is Yours
Already infamous for the ginger-genocide clip accompanying M.I.A.’s “Born Free” single, Romain Gavras exemplifies the music-video-veteran-as-tableau-maker, synthesizing motion and music for shots that command admiration free of context. In this instance, he puts his eye to good use on a crime comedy in which knowing glorification of the Scarface lifestyle alluded to by the title is very much the point. Mama’s boy François (Karim Leklou) would rather run a freeze pop company with squeaky clean books than move heroin for Mom (Isabelle Adjani) and the other domineering figures in his life. He finds hustling to be a menial lot, and only by leveraging a thug’s precocious daughter, a gang of towheaded Zairians, and the rampant anti-Muslim sentiments festering in France can he clear a way out for himself. Forget the deftly deployed Jamie xx soundtrack cuts, forget the elated karaoke routine to Toto’s “Africa,” forget the sly auto-critique of hip-hop excess — as the account of a meek adult’s shot to get one over on the bullies in his life, dayenu.
9. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Just when the words “new Netflix movie starring Adam Sandler” had assumed synonymity with low quality, Noah Baumbach swooped out of his Brooklyn brownstone to redeem them. Sandler’s rage-choked man-child schtick takes on new depth and poignancy in the context of one big, fractious, dysfunctional New York family. After a lifetime of getting underestimated and ignored by his esteemed sculptor dad (Dustin Hoffman), Sandler and half-siblings portrayed by Elizabeth Marvel (an office drone for Xerox) and Ben Stiller (a successful business manager out in L.A., still a disappointment to Pops for following the money) act out in aggravated fits as a maladjusted assertion of independence. They laugh and fight and eke out a grain of self-actualization by the end credits, survivors of an oppressive household regime built on passive-aggression and guilt.
8. My Happy Family
Having a steady job as a teacher and an income to go with it, 52-year-old Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) can afford to abdicate her duties as a mother and wife to go live alone, where she’s beholden only to herself. The social and psychological costs of her effort to engineer a late-in-life new beginning, however, total out to a much higher sum. In this superb drama co-directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, long takes rolling on for minutes at a time give Manana and the people in her immediate orbit space to reveal their inner workings through the naturalistic, sometimes awkward language of gestures and implication. Manana communicates with her husband and children on the specialized, nonverbal frequency that families develop over time, and with a little distance, she realizes that they all wrestle with their own struggles. It’s one of those films that rightly earns a phrase so overused it now verges on meaninglessness, but all the same — it’s a movie about what it means to be human.
7. High Flying Bird
Through a boardroom-set talk-a-thon following one talent agent’s quixotic mission to shift the balance of power from the NBA to the players bringing in the money, director Steven Soderbergh sounds a thunderous personal statement about commercial institutions and the trailblazers daring to think outside that box. The director has spent the past decade and change figuring out workarounds to the barriers Hollywood studios set up for the artists on their payroll, making quick thinker Ray Burke (André Holland) his perfect avatar as the negotiator plays both sides — rising star Erick Scott (American Vandal breakout Melvin Gregg), as well as his corporate overlord in the league (Kyle MacLachlan) — against the middle with the help of his not-assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz). For those able to keep pace with the walls of inside-baseball basketball talk, here’s a practical guide to overthrowing the system with a winsome penchant for showing off.
6. Happy as Lazzaro
In Spanish class, we learned about Lazarillo de Tormes, a quick-witted peasant of picaresco literature who was always tripping into some allegorically significant mischief. He’s never specified as the protagonist’s namesake in Alice Rohrwacher’s sublime Cannes sensation, but they’re linked by their predilection for symbolic mishaps as well as their indefatigable joviality. That mellow positivity is defining trait of the wan Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), getting him through a hopeless sharecropping grind that falls away around a pivotal midpoint. An incident I’ll leave unspoiled lifts the film to a more oneiric octave, dotting Rohrwacher’s Italian-neorealist presentation with bursts of arresting reverie. In a time outside of time, in a place made ethereal through grainy 16mm photography, Lazzaro glides past injustice and atrocity with a serenity we would all do well to emulate. Whatever quirk of the algorithm compelled Netflix to pick up this one, On Body and Soul, and Sunday’s Illness, may they continue to obey it.
5. Private Life
Tamara Jenkins does all that she does perceptively. The writer-director keeps an eye on the little things that make her characters and the New York they populate feel plausible and recognizable — knowing the books they’d read, the movie theaters they’d visit, the things they would and wouldn’t find funny. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn have accordingly classified Richard and Rachel as a precise species of overeducated metropolitan intelligentsia, wry literate types unable to ignore all the bleak humor of their Sisyphean struggle to conceive. (An acutely unromantic masturbation session at the fertility clinic is sterile, uncomfortable, and side-splitting.) Bolstered by highbrow minute detail, the distraught campaign to have a child pokes at human frailties by equating the ability to create life with what it means to be a person at all. Even as Rachel reaches her wits’ end forcing herself to accept that that’s not true, the film acknowledges that our bodies and minds nonetheless con us into believing it. Liberal sensibilities, as Jenkins ultimately rules, cannot overwrite biology.
4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Though this Western anthology was initially announced as a miniseries, the Coen brothers are now adamant that it was always meant to be a single entity and never broken into discrete parts. They’d be just as full-of-it as any director passing their small-screen work off as “more like an X-hour movie” — if not for the fact that they’re the Coen brothers, and jointly laser-focused on a single unified style and weltanschauung. Six sepia-toned snatches of goings-on beyond the Mississippi (their first picture shot digitally looks mighty purty!) get poked by the fickle fingers of death, but the grim humor and casual cruelty doesn’t come from the smarty-pants remove of which the Coens’ noisiest detractors accuse them. There’s sorrow as far as the eye can see across the flatland, for the decent folks squandered by indifferent fate as well as the no-good varmints getting off scot-free. Tarnation!
In which Netflix and Brad Pitt’s production house Plan B jointly pony up $50 million to produce two solid hours of furious anti-capitalist agitprop from radicalized hippie Bong Joon-ho. In the most satisfying reappropriation of establishment funds since Snowpiercer, Bong pulled off an E.T. homage that takes a hard left turn into corporate animal slaughter that makes PETA shock pamphlets look like the WeRateDogs account. A young girl in South Korea (Ahn Seo-hyun) forms a deep-seated bond with a hippo-pig-rabbit creature known as a “super-pig,” and when the nefarious Mirando conglomerate comes to take dear sweet Okja away, the sum total of a profit-driven culture’s evil comes into focus. Bong’s not subtle, but he has no inclination to be, not in a situation he feels is this urgent. Warhol said art is whatever you can get away with; Bong’s films feel seriously, substantively subversive in a way that nothing currently coming out of the studio system does. If films freely unencumbered by hegemony are the yield of Netflix’s famously permissive attitude toward its filmmakers, I suppose I’ll renew my subscription.
Props to Alfonso Cuarón for leveraging his industry firepower to wrangle the money for a titanically-scaled, Fellini-esque, black-and-white, Spanish/Mixtec-language fever dream of class conflict and ruptured relationships. And for doing it all with complete unknown Yalitza Aparicio in the lead, playing housekeeper Cleo as a figure of resilience and humility. There’s something awe-inspiring about seeing so much capital diverted to such an unprofitable cause, and it’s just a whole ocean of gravy that Cuarón also happens to have assembled a startlingly beautiful and mercilessly poignant film along the way. The iniquities between the Spanish Mexican family Cuarón based on his own and the indigenous Mexican staff they employ seep into every interaction, pulling them apart while larger forces on a near-cosmic wavelength drive them back to one another. Equal parts personal, political, and universal (as in imbued with the characteristics of the universe), it’s another groundbreaker from a filmmaker of limitless faculties.
1. The Other Side of the Wind
It’s a new movie from Orson Welles. Like, an entire feature-length movie. Directed by Orson Welles. And it’s new. Is this real life? At any rate, maybe this will be the thing to at long last banish his reputation as the boy genius who never re-attained his early success, a patent falsehood to anyone who’s seen his later work. There’s so much unchecked genius overflowing from Welles’ unfinished (until now!) swan song that it borders on arrogance, as an unimpeachable master chases his every artistic whim, no matter how far-out. He invests a whole lot of himself in Jake Hannaford, the freewheeling auteur portrayed by John Huston in a dual celebration and mockery of the so-called New Hollywood that put Welles’ contemporaries out to pasture. Hannaford spends his final day on Earth coasting through a fog of booze, lust, and other assorted off-the-wall excesses suffused with the hedonism and underlying sadness of the ‘70s. It’s a historical artifact with a restless avant-garde streak permanently placing it in the present.