This post was originally published in November 2017. We have updated it with Netflix’s recent offerings through February 14, 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 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.]
215. 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.”
214. 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.
213. 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?
212. 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!
211. 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?
210. 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.
209. 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.
208. 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.
207. 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.
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.
205. 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.
204. 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.”
203. 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.
202. 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.
201. 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.
200. 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?
199. 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.
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.
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.
195. 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.
193. 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.
192. 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.
190. 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. Hitman 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.
188. 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.
187. 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.
186. 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.
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.
184. 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.
183. 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.
182. 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?
181. 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.
180. 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.
178. 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.
177. 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.
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-2030’s.
174. 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 judgement 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.
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.
172. 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.
171. 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 lookalike 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 towards 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.
170. 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 greying 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?
169. 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!
168. 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 they’ve compiled themselves, 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 un-notable film as thin as gruel, and that passes through you just as quickly.
167. 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.
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.
165. 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.
164. 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.
163. 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 and Peele’s wig budget.
162. 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.
161. Ali’s Wedding
Actor Osamah Sami reworked his own memoir Good Muslim Boy and stars as an outsized 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.
160. 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.
159. 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 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.
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.
153. 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.
152. 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.
150. 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.
149. 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.
148. 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.
147. 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.
146. 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.
145. 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.
144. 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’ 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.
141. 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’ 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.
140. 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 Argentinian 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 35mm 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.
136. 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.
135. 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 non-entity 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.
134. 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.
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.
131. 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.
130. 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.
129. 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.
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.
126. 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?
124. 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.
123. 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.
122. 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.
118. 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.
117. 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.
116. 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.
115. 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.
114. 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.
112. 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.
111. 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.
110. 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.
109. 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.
108. 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.
107. 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!
106. 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.
105. 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.
104. 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.
103. 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.
102. 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.
Alright, 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.
100. 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.
99. 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.
97. 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.
96. 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.
94. 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 emigré 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.
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.
92. 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 16mm 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.
91. 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.
90. 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.
89. 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.
87. 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!
85. 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.
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?
82. 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.
81. 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.
80. 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.
79. 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.
78. 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.
77. 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.
76. 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.)
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.
73. 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.
72. 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.
71. 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.
70. 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’ ill-advised but laudable choice to go all in on the callous state of nature; children will never recover.
69. 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.
68. 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.
67. 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-grey 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.
66. 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.
65. 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 towards 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.
64. 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.
63. El Potro: Unstoppable
I have gone on record that the problem with 75% 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.
62. 7 Años
The bad news is that this drama engages in the cardinal sin of chess metaphors, my number-one 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.
61. 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.
60. 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.
59. 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.
58. 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.
57. 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.
56. 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.
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.
54. 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 slow-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.
51. 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.
50. 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% lean and 20% 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.
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!
48. 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 re-married 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.
47. 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.
46. 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 towards 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 five 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.
45. 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.
43. 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.
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.
41. 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.
37. 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.
35. 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.
34. 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.
33. 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.
32. 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.
31. 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.
29. 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.
28. 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.
27. 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.
26. 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 …
25. 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.
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.
23. 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.
22. 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.
20. 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.
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.
18. 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.
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.
15. 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.
14. 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.
13. 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.
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.