The 50 Best Movies on YouTube (Free and Paid) Right Now

YouTube has as deep a selection of new movies as anyone, as long as you’re willing to pay to stream. But the video streaming service also has a great, if hard-to-find, selection of legal free movies. Really! And we’re not talking weirdly uploaded, grainy, sketchy films. Real deal, 100% free (and good) movies are out there alongside viral stars and adorable animal montages.

This treasure trove includes a wide range of classics that are free because they’ve entered the public domain, along with a selection of hidden gems among YouTube’s official selection of free movies (you have to really dig to find them among a lot of straight-to-DVD titles and knock-offs). We’ve divided these movies into two sections: the 25 best free movies on YouTube and the 25 best new movies on YouTube you’ll have to pay for—all updated for July 2021. This month saw a big shift in the movies available to rent, with some of the newer films represented on our Best of 2020 list coming up.

You can also check out our guides to the best movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, Hulu, On Demand, at Redbox and in theaters. Or visit all our Paste Movie Guides.

First, here are the 25 Best Free Movies on YouTube:


1. Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Year: 1928

Director: Buster Keaton and Charles Reisner

Stars: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron

Genre: Silent, Action, Comedy

Rating: NR

Runtime: 77 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Steamboat Bill, Jr.’s climactic cyclone sequence—which is at once great action and great comedy—would on its own earn the film a revered place in the canon of great all time silent film. The iconic shot of a house’s facade falling on Keaton is only one of many great moments in the free-flowing, hard-blowing sequence. But Steamboat Bill, Jr. also showcases some of Keaton’s marvelous intimacy as an actor, such as a scene in which his father tries to find him a more manly hat, or during a painfully hilarious attempt to pantomime a jailbreak plan. —Jeremy Mathews


2. Sunrise

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Year: 1927

Director: F.W. Murnau

Stars: Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien, Margaret Livingston

Genre: Silent, Romance, Thriller

Rating: NR

Runtime: 110 minutes

Watch on YouTube

During the last few years of the 1920s, the excitement was palpable as brilliant filmmakers pushed to unlock the medium’s full potential. Sunrise was born of that ambition, as Fox brought German genius F.W. Murnau to Hollywood, where he and his cameramen used all the resources at their disposal to create some of the most stunning visuals ever put on celluloid. Telling the story of a husband who strays and then tries to redeem himself, Murnau’s camera flies over country fields, gets tangled in the bustle of the city and desperately looms over a lake in a storm, while his actors, George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, radiate with sincerity. —Jeremy Mathews


3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence

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Year: 2001

Director: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 146 minutes

Watch on YouTube

A.I. may be Spielberg’s misunderstood masterpiece, evidenced by the many critics who’ve pointed out its supposed flaws only to come around to a new understanding of its greatness—chief among them Roger Ebert, who eventually included it as one of his Great Movies ten years after giving it a lukewarm first review. A.I. represents the perfect melding of Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s sensibilities—as Kubrick supposedly worked on the story with Spielberg, and Spielberg felt obliged to finish after Kubrick’s death—which allows the film to keep each of their worst instincts in check. It’s not as cold or distant as Kubrick’s films tend to be, but not as maudlin and manipulative as Spielberg’s films can become—and before the ending is brought out as proof of Spielberg’s failure, it should be noted that the film’s dark coda was actually Kubrick’s idea, adamant that the ending not be meddled with moreso than any other scene. A closer inspection of the film’s themes reveal a much bleaker conclusion—and, no, those aren’t “aliens.” —Oktay Ege Kozak


4. Our Hospitality

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Year: 1923

Directors: Buster Keaton, Jack Blystone

Stars: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Keaton

Genre: Silent, Family, Comedy

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%

Rating: NR

Runtime: 74 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Buster Keaton was never one for grandiose social commentary, but he loved observing absurd human behavior. So he had no trouble making Our Hospitality, about a generations-long family feud that comes head-to-head with a southern hospitality code. That code says that you can’t kill someone when they’re a guest in your house, so when Keaton’s character unknowingly stumbles into his enemy family’s home, he can’t leave. Keaton has a great time attempting escapes, with the inside of the house serving as his safe zone if things go wrong. The funniest moment is the dinner prayer, during which everyone is watching everyone else rather than actually praying. A river chase sequence, including a killer waterfall stunt, brings things to a perfect climax. And I didn’t even mention the first act’s use of Stephenson’s Rocket—the historically accurate, ridiculously puny train that transports our hero from New York City. This film also just entered the public domain on Jan. 1. —Jeremy Mathews


5. Pumping Iron

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Year: 1977

Director: Robert Fiore, George Butler

Rating: PG

Runtime: 85 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Behold arrogance anthropomorphized: A 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, competing for his sixth Mr. Olympia title, effortlessly waxes poetic about his overall excellence, his litanies regarding the similarities between orgasming and lifting weights merely fodder between bouts of pumping the titular iron and/or flirting with women he can roll up into his biceps like little flesh burritos. He is both the epitome of the human form and almost tragically inhuman, so corporeally perfect that his physique seems unattainable, his status as a weightlifting wunderkind one of a kind. And yet, in the other corner, a young, nervous Lou Ferrigno primes his equally large body to usurp Arnold’s title, but without the magnanimous bluster and dick-wagging swagger the soon-to-be Hollywood icon makes no attempt to hide. Schwarzenegger understands that weightlifting is a mind game (like in any sport), buttressed best by a healthy sense of vanity and privilege, and directors Fiore and Butler mine Arnold’s past enough to divine where he inherited such self-absorption. Contrast this attitude against Ferrigno’s almost morbid shyness, and Pumping Iron becomes a fascinating glimpse at the kind of sociopathy required of living gods. —Dom Sinacola


6. The General

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Year: 1926

Directors: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckham

Stars: Joseph Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender

Genre: Silent, Comedy, Romance

Rating: NR

Runtime: 79 minutes

Watch on YouTube

When Yankee spies steal his locomotive and kidnap his girlfriend, a Southern railroad engineer (“The Great Stone Face” Buster Keaton) is forced to pursue his two beloveds across enemy lines. While a few Charlie Chaplin pictures give it a run for its money, The General is arguably the finest silent comedy ever made—if not the finest comedy ever made. At the pinnacle of Buster Keaton’s renowned career, the film didn’t receive critical or box-office success when released, but it has aged tremendously. It’s a spectacle of story, mishmashing romance, adventure, action (chases, fires, explosions) and comedy into a seamless silent masterpiece. —David Roark


7. Safety Last

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Year: 1923

Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor

Stars: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother

Genre: Silent, Comedy, Adventure

Runtime: 80 minutes

Watch on YouTube

“I shouldn’t have bothered scoring the last 15 minutes,” Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra told me after accompanying Safety Last at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. He said he and his ensemble couldn’t even hear themselves over the uproarious laughter in the Castro Theatre during Harold Lloyd’s famous building-scaling sequence. The scene, with its famous clock-hanging finale—is such a perfect mix of suspense and comedy that it doesn’t much matter that the rest of the film seems to exist merely as a lead-up to it. This film just entered the public domain recently. —Jeremy Mathews


8. Nosferatu

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Year: 1929

Director: F. W. Murnau

Stars: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Gustav von Wangenheim

Genre: Silent, Horror

Runtime: 63 minutes

Watch on YouTube

F.W. Murnau’s sublimely peculiar riff on Dracula has been a fixture of the genre for so long that to justify its place on this list seems like a waste of time. Magnificent in its freakish, dour mood and visual eccentricities, the movie invented much of modern vampire lore as we know it. It’s once-a-year required viewing of the most rewarding kind. —Sean Gandert


9. The Terminator

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Year: 1984

Director: James Cameron

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen

Rating: R

Runtime: 108 minutes

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James Cameron’s first Terminator (and second feature) is less of a pure-popcorn action flick than its upscaled sequel, but that makes it all the more terrifying of a movie—dark, somber, replete with a silent villain who calmly plucks bits of his damaged face off to more precisely target its victims. The task in front of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) seems so insurmountable—even with a soldier from the future, going after the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, duh) with modern weapons is so ineffectual, it’s nearly comical. It’s as if Schwarzenegger is playing entropy itself—entropy seemingly a theme of The Terminator series, given the time-hopping do-overs, reboots and retreads since. You can destroy a terminator, but the future (apparently driven by box office receipts) refuses to be changed. —Jim Vorel


10. The Navigator

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Year: 1924

Directors: Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp

Stars: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Fred Vroom

Genre: Silent, Comedy

Runtime: 63 minutes

Watch on YouTube



The Navigator mines an ocean liner for every gag imaginable. Keaton plays a clueless rich young man who finds himself stranded on a giant, adrift ship with the clueless rich young woman who rejected him serving as his only company. These two spoiled upper-class twerps don’t know how to open canned food, let alone operate a ship, and have to improvise in hilarious ways to get things under control. The scene where the two characters each suspect someone else is on the boat, but can’t find anyone else, plays out in classic Keaton fashion: with perfectly timed wide shots that make it more believable that the two keep missing each other. The best moment may be a spooky night when the characters let the creepiness of the boat get the best of them. —Jeremy Mathews


11. The Scarecrow

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Year: 1920

Director: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline

Stars: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton

Genre: Silent, Comedy

Runtime: 21 minutes

Watch on YouTube

There are Buster Keaton two-reelers with more ambitious special effects, more epic stunts and more elaborate chase scenes, but in my experience, none get more laughs than The Scarecrow. The film never stops to catch a breath as it moves from place to place, always setting up and paying off new laughs. The best moments include an ingeniously designed one-room house, an appearance from the great Luke the Dog, and some truly divine knockabout between Keaton, Joe Roberts and Keaton’s father, Joe. —Jeremy Mathews


12. Bernie

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Year: 2011

Director: Richard Linklater

Stars: Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 104 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Bernie is as much about the town of Carthage, Texas, as it is about its infamous resident Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the town’s mortician and prime suspect in the murder of one of its most despised citizens, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Unlike Nugent, Bernie is conspicuously loved by all. When he’s not helping direct the high school musical, he’s teaching Sunday school. Like a well-played mystery, Linklater’s excellent, darkly humorous (and true) story is interspersed with tantalizing interviews of the community’s residents. Linklater uses real East Texas folks to play the parts, a device that serves as the perfect balance against the drama that leads up to Bernie’s fatal encounter with the rich bitch of a widow. The comedy is sharp, with some of the film’s best lines coming from those townsfolk. —Tim Basham


13. Blackmail

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Year: 1929

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Anny Ondra, John Longden, Donald Calthrop

Genre: Thriller

Runtime: 86 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film was also his last silent, as Blackmail was made in both formats. While the sound version is known for Hitchcock’s experiments with the new technology (most famously a scene that emphasizes the word “knife”), the silent version flows much smoother. And Donald Calthrop’s performance of the blackmailer feels even creepier with just his face and body language doing the job. —Jeremy Mathews


14. Hunt for the Wilderpeople



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Year: 2016

Director: Taika Waititi

Stars: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Rhys Darby

Runtime: 101 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Bella’s (Rima Te Wiata) first encounter with Ricky (Julian Dennison), the new foster child she’s agreed to take on, doesn’t inspire confidence, especially with her clumsy jokes at the expense of his weight. In turn, with child-services representative Paula (Rachel House) painting Ricky as an unruly wild child, one dreads the prospect of seeing the kid walk all over this possibly in-over-her-head mother. But Bella wears him down with kindness. And Ricky ends up less of a tough cookie than he—with his fondness for gangsta rap and all that implies—initially tried to project. An adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople thrives on upending preconceived notions. The director shows sympathy for Ricky’s innocence, which is reflected in the film’s grand-adventure style. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s sweeping, colorful panoramas and a chapter-based narrative structure gives Hunt for the Wilderpeople the feel of a storybook fable, but thanks to the warm-hearted dynamic between Ricky and Hec (Sam Neill), even the film’s most whimsical moments carry a sense of real underlying pain: Both of these characters are outsiders ultimately looking for a home to call their own. —Kenji Fujishima


15. The Kid

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Year: 1921

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance

Genre: Silent, Comedy

Runtime: 60 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length film and one of his finest achievements, The Kid tells the story of an abandoned child and the life he builds with The Little Tramp. Chaplin went against heavy studio opposition to create a more serious film in contrast to his earlier work. However, The Kid features just as much slapstick humor as his previous shorts, but placed within a broader, more dramatic context. —Wyndham Wyeth


16. Night of the Living Dead

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Year: 1968

Director: George A. Romero

Stars: Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner, Duane Jones

Genre: Horror

Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

Watch on YouTube

It’s not really necessary to delve into how influential George Romero’s first zombie film has been to the genre and horror itself—it’s one of the most important horror movies ever made, and one of the most important independent films as well. The question is more accurately, “how does it hold up today?”, and the answer is “okay.” Unlike, say Dawn of the Dead (not on Shudder), Night is pretty placid most of the time. The story conventions are classic and the black-and-white cinematography still looks excellent, but some of the performances are downright irritating, particularly that of Judith O’Dea as Barbara. Duane Jones more than makes up for that as the heroic Ben, however, in a story that is very self-sufficient and provincial—just one small group of people in a house, with no real thought to the wider world. It’s a horror film that is a MUST SEE for every student of the genre, which is easy, considering that the film actually remains in the public domain. But in terms of entertainment value, Romero would perfect the genre in his next few efforts. Also recommended: The 1990 remake of this film by Tom Savini, which is unfairly derided just for being faithful to its source. —Jim Vorel


17. Troll Hunter

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Year: 2010

Director: André Øvredal

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There’s no denying that at its beginning, Troll Hunter seems like another Blair Witch Project knock-off. The first 20 minutes show us a young camera crew investigating some unexplained bear deaths and a suspicious man who may be poaching them. But rather than drawing out the mystery, it takes a sharp turn and tells us matter-of-factly that of course it was trolls killing the bears, and not only that, here’s one of them ready to bonk you on the head. The titular Troll Hunter extraordinaire is played by the affable comedian Otto Jespersen, who brings the entire monster premise to an entirely different level through his nonchalant attitude. In every sense, Troll Hunter lives up to its ridiculous name and premise. —Sean Gandert


18. The Last Man on Earth

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Year: 1964

Directors: Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow

Stars: Vincent Price, Tony Cerevi, Franca Bettoja

Genre: Horror

Runtime: 86 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend has proven notoriously difficult to adapt while keeping any of its ideas intact, but compared to the later Omega Man or 2007 version of I Am Legend with Will Smith, this is probably the best overall take on the story. Some have called it Vincent Price’s best film, featuring wonderfully gothic settings in Rome where the last human man on Earth wages a nightly war against the “infected,” who have taken on the characteristics of classical vampires. It doesn’t fully commit to the inversion of protagonist/antagonist of the source material, but it makes the use of Price’s magnetic screen presence and ability to monologue. No one ever watches a Vincent Price movie and thinks “I wish there was less Vincent Price in this,” and The Last Man on Earth delivers a showcase for the actor at the height of his powers. Night of the Living Dead director George Romero has stated that without The Last Man on Earth, the modern zombie would never have been conceived. —Jim Vorel


19. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

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Year: 1996

Director: Mike Judge

Stars: Mike Judge, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Robert Stack, Cloris Leachman

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 80 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Mike Judge was at the top of his powers in the mid to late ‘90s, when he was juggling Beavis and Butt-Head with King of the Hill and also developing Office Space. Although it lacks the music video commentary that was often the funniest part of the MTV series, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is the rare feature-length adaptation of a TV show that’s actually better than the source material. A higher budget resulted in the best animation ever associated with Beavis and Butt-Head, while the extra length of a movie let Judge and his co-writer Joe Stillman take the cultural satire the show was known for in deeper and wider ranging directions. It also features Robert Stack’s best animated performance since that time he got to cuss in the Transformers movie.—Garrett Martin


20. Sita Sings the Blues

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Year: 2010

Director: Nina Paley

Stars: Deepti Gupta, Pooja Kumar, Annette Hanshaw

Genre: Family, Animation, Music, Romance

Runtime: 82 minutes

Watch on YouTube


Sita Sings the Blues is a study in cinematic obsession and a triumph of individual achievement for its creator, artist and animator Nina Paley. This is a feature animated film entirely undertaken by one determined woman, featuring four distinctly different styles of animation and storytelling, to wrap together the narrative of her own life with the millennia-old Hindu myth cycle The Ramayana after she noted the similarities between her own story and that of the myth’s heroine, Sita. A meditation on relationships and duty, it’s also set to the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Henshaw, whose songs essentially become the soundtrack to animated music videos. It’s a beautiful, incredibly imaginative film that is equal parts funny, sobering and jaw-dropping as a technical achievement. It’s one of the most impressive animated features ever made by a single person. —Jim Vorel


21. The Lady Vanishes

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Year: 1938

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG

Runtime: 99 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Pretty much predating every trope you’ve ever come to expect out of a genre that gets its name from keeping the audience keyed-up, The Lady Vanishes is both hilariously dated and a by-the-numbers primer on how to make a near-perfect thriller. Far from Hitchcock’s first foray into suspense, the film follows a soon-to-be-married woman, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), who becomes tangled in the mysterious circumstances surrounding the titular lady’s disappearance aboard a packed train. No shot in the film is extraneous, no piece of dialogue pointless—even the ancillary characters, who serve little ostensible part besides lending complexity to Iris’s search for the truth, are crucial to building the tension necessary to making said lady’s vanishing believable. The film is a testament to how, even by 1938, Hitchcock was shaving each of his films down to their most empirical parts, ready to create some of the most vital genre pictures of the 1950s. —Dom Sinacola


22. Detour

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Year: 1945

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Stars: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald

Genre: Drama, Thriller, Mystery & Suspense

Runtime: 68 minutes

Watch on YouTube

A Poverty Row staple with an unknown cast peering into the post-war dark night of the soul, Detour has come to embody the best film noir has to offer—namely, that budget and schedule concerns indirectly enriched the artistic product, paring down a weightier script and even more bloated source novel into a precise, exquisitely sharp bit of storytelling economy. Trapped within the sweaty mind of always-broke jazz pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) as he heads West from New York to settle down with his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), a symbol of stable life for Roberts who absconded with his heart to try to “make it” in Hollywood, we’re stuck with only the unlucky guy’s version of events throughout his increasingly desperate trip. After all, his hitchhiking journey seems doomed to fail from the start, but it grows damn near bleak with the accidental cadaver-ing of a gregarious Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) following a whirlwind buddy meet-cute, and then completely hopeless with the introduction of Vera (Ann Savage), an iconic femme fatale who doesn’t have to try hard to ensnare Roberts, by that point so far out of his league he’s got his pants pulled up well past his nipples. As much an efficient encapsulation of its genre as it is a noir drowning entirely within its own hell-bent nightmare, Detour is most impressive for how gracefully Ulmer can get the most out of so little. —Dom Sinacola


23. Priceless

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Year: 2008

Director: Pierre Salvadori

Stars: Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Marie-Christine Adam

Genre: Comedy, Romance

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 104 minutes

Watch on YouTube

In Priceless (often compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Audrey Tautou plays Irène—the most beautiful, dangerous and unapologetic gold digger in the French Riviera. Her best-laid plans begin to go awry as she develops feelings for a man of average means. Rather than date him, she trains him to become an “opportunist” instead. In true rom-com fashion, a series of ridiculous scenes unfold with an important lesson in how-to-get-what-you-want-from-the-opposite-sex: “Not finishing your sentences—as if it pains you too much to go on,” she firmly advises, “is extremely effective.” Irène has little depth, and the same could be said about the film, but it’s pretty obvious that that’s the point. Tautou is such an authentic, Gucci-wearing, femme fatale that it’s difficult to simply loathe her. She is, as usual, sincere in her delivery—even when she is delivering a sincerely superficial character. She also plays an amazingly convincing drunk, which some of the best actresses of our day (ahem, Kate Winslet, ahem) have been unable to accomplish. —Shannon M. Houston


24. Super Size Me

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Year: 2004

Director: Morgan Spurlock

Stars: Morgan Spurlock

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 98 minutes

Watch on YouTube

Super Size Me is a lively and accessible account of director Morgan Spurlock’s attempt to spend 30 days eating nothing but McDonald’s food—for breakfast, lunch and dinner—while doctors monitor the changes in his vital statistics. It’s an increasingly important topic. As a society, we’ve built a machine that saves us dollars at the cash register but requires us to pay them back in health bills down the road. The movie accomplishes some of its more modest goals: it makes fast food look disgusting, makes the serving sizes seem outrageous and, perhaps most importantly, makes the food programs at many schools seem alarmingly poor at both providing nutritious meals and developing healthy eating habits. Since the film’s premiere at Sundance, he has modified its closing titles to take credit for McDonald’s decision to eliminate the “super sized” option from its menu. —Robert Davis


25. My Scientology Movie

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Year: 2016

Director: John Dower and Louis Theroux

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG

Runtime: 99 minutes

Watch on YouTube

John Dower and Louis Theroux’s hilarious documentary—almost mockumentary—is almost less a film than it is a direct provocation of the church. Since Theroux was categorically denied any access in order to make a straight documentary, the filmmakers chose to instead film actors “auditioning” for scenes of alleged church scandals and capture the ensuing chaos of Scientology officials’ reactions, including filming the church’s agents filming the filmmakers in some kind of demented visual evidence-gathering standoff. Look no further than My Scientology Movie for a take on the subject that’s more absurdist fun than it is seriously alarming.—Scott Wold


And here are the 25 Best New Paid Movies on YouTube:

Prices range from 99 cents to $8.99.

1. Undine

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Year: 2021

Director: Christian Petzold

Stars: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zeree, Jacob Matschanz, Anne Ratte-Polle

Genre: Romance, Drama

Rating: NR

Runtime: 91 minutes

Rent at YouTube

Undine opens as a rom-com might. A lilting piano score, not without a shade of sadness, purrs quietly during the title cards. A tearful break-up presages a quirky meet-cute between industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) and city historian Undine (Paula Beer), our new couple bound by the irrevocable forces of chance—and, in director Christian Petzold’s own mannered way, a bit of physical comedy—as the universe clearly arranges for the pieces of their lives to come together. Squint and you could maybe mistake these opening moments for a Lifetime movie—that is, until the break-up ends with Undine warning her soon-to-be-ex (Jacob Matschenz) that she’s going to have to kill him. He doesn’t take Undine seriously, but the audience can’t be so sure. Beer’s face contains subtle multitudes. She could actually murder this guy. What once felt familiar now feels pregnant with dread. And that’s saying nothing about Christoph’s odds for survival. Anyone remotely familiar with the “Undine” tale knows that she’s not lying to her ex. Undine is a water spirit, making covenants with men on land in order to access a human soul (as well as a tasteful professional wardrobe). Breaking that covenant is fatal. Or so the story goes. When she meets Christoph, she’s revitalized, because she’s heartbroken but especially because he takes such interest in the subjects of her lectures. He too is bound to the evolving bones of Germany, repairing bridges and various underwater infrastructure—he may, in fact, be more intuitively connected to the country than most. He’s the rare person who’s gone beneath it, excavating and reconstructing its depths, entombed in the mech-like coffin of a diving suit he wears when welding below the surface. As in all of Petzold’s films, Undine builds a world of liminal spaces—of lives in transition, always moving—of his characters shifting between realities, never quite sure where one ends and another begins. Like genre, like architecture, like history, like a love affair—at the heart of his work is the push and pull between where we are and where we want to be, between who we are and who we want to be and what we’ve done and what we’ll do, between what we dream and what we make happen. In Undine, Petzold captures this tension with warmth and immediacy. Many, many lives have brought us here, but none are more important than these two, and no time more consequential than now. My god, how romantic.—Dom Sinacola


2. Freaky

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Year: 2020

Director: Christopher Landon

Stars: Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Alan Ruck

Genre: Horror/Comedy

Rating: R

Runtime: 102 minutes

Rent at YouTube

On its face, the prospect of resurrecting two franchise IPs which have been endlessly re-made decade after decade teeters on the banal and unimaginative. Yet director Christopher Landon’s Freaky effortlessly weaves together the conventions of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th, eschewing the confines of “remake,” instead creating a unique genre hybrid that’s slick and endlessly entertaining—all the while maintaining a clever self-awareness which enlivens the film’s jump-scares and punchlines without descending into the horror-comedy pitfall of self-referential metaness. What follows is a binary-bending comic exercise in sexual fluidity and gender expression which juxtaposes Vince Vaughn’s hefty stature with Kathryn Newton’s petite frame in order to prod at the horror genre’s previously held notion of who is perceived as weak, both in attitude and appearance. Vaughn and Newton give stellar performances, channeling the other’s mannerisms while poking fun at their own corporeal limitations and their immediate (dis)comfort within their new vessels. It’s heartening to see that the horror genre—still undeniably male-dominated—persists in its commitment to pushing boundaries. Whether those boundaries demarcate what we are able to stomach in terms of violence or what we are able to unpack within our own internal concepts of gender and sexuality, Freaky joins these tenets in order to craft a horror story rife with unexpected, imaginative kills all while subverting societal expectations of who we should really be afraid of—and why.—Natalia Keogan


3. The Empty Man

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Year: 2020

Director: David Prior

Stars: James Badge Dale, Owen Teague, Stephen Root, Marin Ireland

Genre: Horror/Thriller

Rating: R

Runtime: 137 minutes

Rent at YouTube

From the start, everything about The Empty Man is misleading. Its title sounds like the absolutely terrible Bloody Mary-esque The Bye Bye Man or the botched adaptation of Slender Man, where spooky too-long shadow dudes creep up on some doltish teens. Those bad high school urban legend films (that this trailer is cut oh-so-specifically to evoke) don’t usually stray from the 90-minute mark. Even Candyman, maybe the best and most ambitious example of this type of film, is barely 100 minutes. The Empty Man’s 137-minute runtime clearly has more to do than kill off a couple of kids for failing to be superstitious enough. Rather than falling into that traditional type of stock schlock, The Empty Man follows a troubled ex-cop investigating the root causes of an incident that could’ve been the entire plot of one of those movies. “We knew we weren’t making that movie and nobody wanted to make that movie,” writer/director/editor David Prior told Thrillist. “But it turns out, the people who inherited the movie wanted that kind of movie.” It makes sense that the ever-expanding, ever-spiraling photos-and-folders paranoid conspiracy of The Empty Man can feel a bit like getting sucked into the kind of heady, hyper-specific hell that festers in the underbellies of Zodiac, Se7en or Mindhunter. That ‘70s thriller structure, dedicated to the paper trail, merges in The Empty Man with a downright otherworldly horror (used here in the literal sense, as opposed to terror) aesthetic that’s sheer scope makes a mockery of the movie’s shoe-leather detective work. But even The Empty Man’s start is a delightful little horror film all its own, a mythological amuse-bouche set on snowy Bhutan peaks where set design and some solidly naturalistic acting sell the scares. Great! Solid. Sold. And then the movie keeps going, as if to literally push past your expectations. Its narrative evolves into something increasingly strange and engaging. It’s like A Cure for Wellness, another cult favorite, in its dedication to piling on an investigator’s hallucinogenic obsession and repulsion as he finds himself suddenly so deep that climbing back out—or, perhaps, out for the first time—proves impossible. Prior’s grasp of tone and savvy subversion of different modern monster tropes, alongside a staggering and committed James Badge Dale performance, position the film as one that understands and appreciates studio horror movies, but has much bigger things on its mind. In short, it rules.—Jacob Oller


4. News of the World

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Year: 2020

Director: Paul Greengrass

Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 118 minutes

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Paul Greengrass and screenwriting partner Luke Davies may have adapted Paulette Jiles’ 2016 Western novel News of the World at least in partial consideration of how far the United States hasn’t come as a nation—around the time of the book’s publication, such cursed phrases as “fake news” and “alternative facts” were inducted into popular language by fascists and crooks attempting to pull a fast one on the American people. Neither of these terms, nor their equally grotesque cousins, make their way into Greengrass’ film, but the spirit that conjured them into being four years ago is alive and well in his recreation of the American frontier. His hero is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Confederate Civil War veteran who, having stood on the losing side of history, moseys across the Lone Star State and reads out-of-town papers to the locals at each stop on his journeys. The movie doesn’t exactly ask the viewer to overlook which side of the war Kidd stood on: In fact, the truth of his old allegiances becomes more unavoidable the less directly they’re spoken of. This is Texas. An erstwhile soldier in Texas could only have fought on one side of the aisle. News of the World damns Kidd without having to say a word. But as soon as the film judges him, it presents him with a chance at redemption in the form of a girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Zengel is a fresh spark in an otherwise old-fashioned production, but old-fashioned here is a compliment. News of the World has no interest in subverting or updating classic Western formulas: It is content with its function as a handsomely-made studio picture, built ostensibly around Hanks but with plenty of room for its young star to make her mark. What modernizes the movie has more to do with context than content. Anyone trapped in indentured servitude to social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or worse, other people’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts—should appreciate this calming two-hour reprieve from the unavoidable din publishers and platforms make in our lives today. There’s such a thing as too much news, whether for better or worse, and News of the World only tries to give us the best. —Andy Crump


5. Minari

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Year: 2021

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Stars: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 115 minutes

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It’s a peculiar film to emerge as the hot pick out of Sundance—in Lee Isaac Chung’s magnificent Minari, a Korean-American couple with two young children moves to rural Arkansas to try their hand at starting a farm. Eventually the kids’ grandmother comes to live with them as well. Oh, and there’s a prayer-yelling local who helps them. That doesn’t exactly scream “hot Sundance pick,” does it? But Chung’s direction, award-worthy performances from Steven Yuen and Will Patton, and the best kid performance in years from young Alan Kim produce a true masterpiece that will reverberate far beyond Park City. Each line, each movement, each shot contains worlds of meaning. Minari is a wonder, a crucial step forward in Chung’s red-hot career, and a richly deserving recipient of this year’s Audience and Grand Jury awards, both of which it did indeed win. Sometimes everybody gets it right. This was clearly the best film of Sundance 2020, and I doubt I’ll see a better film all year. —Michael Dunaway


6. Martin Eden

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Year: 2020

Director: Pietro Marcello

Stars: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG

Runtime: 129 minutes

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Martin Eden, Jack London’s 1909 novel, finally got an adaptation worthy of its author from Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello. The wide-ranging, painterly and dense evolution of a sailor-turned-author (here played in alluring, heart-wrenching, ultra-charismatic form by Luca Marinelli) from his blue collar roots to the upper echelons of the in-vogue is a stunning drama with a lot on its mind. Eden’s infatuation with learning is linked to his equal infatuation with the upper-class Elena (Jessica Cressy), and the combination of the two stop his primal ways (signified by one-night stands and humorously nonchalant fistfights) in their tracks. Marinelli’s earthy confidence and swaggering sex appeal are ogled by everyone—he’s a burly, good-natured sailor after all—but it’s his ideas that shout out London’s railing commentary on class inequality. As the film’s complex politics (made more resonant through the setting change to Italy) debate messily imperfect socialism and the mercenary bootstrapping tactics of individualism, Eden embodies this ideological journey through an impressive physical transformation, turning waxen, weak and washed-up as his literary ambitions find the exact wrong kind of success. Marcello’s Martin Eden is akin to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in its majestic beauty and society-spanning saga of a story, but with a meaner humor and rawer sense of criticism. The ex-documentarian’s penchant for slipping back and forth between old home movie-esque footage and his high art compositions make the dueling philosophies of the film even clearer. Somehow most impressive of all is Martin Eden’s success at making an exciting, engrossing film about a writer in which the writing process is actually fun (and beautiful) to watch. Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci work London’s words into wonders.—Jacob Oller


7. Midsommar

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Year: 2019

Director: Ari Aster

Stars: Florence Pugh, Liv Mjönes, Jack Reynor

Genre: Horror

Rating: R

Runtime: 140 minutes

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Christian (Jack Reynor) cannot give Dani (Florence Pugh) the emotional ballast she needs to survive. This was probably the case even before the family tragedy that occurs in Midsommar’s literal cold open, in which flurries of snow limn the dissolution of Dani’s family. We’re dropped into her trauma, introduced to her only through her trauma and her need for support she can’t get. This is all we know about her: She is traumatized, and her boyfriend is barely decent enough to hold her, to stay with her because of a begrudging obligation to her fragile psyche. His long, deep sighs when they talk on the phone mirror the moaning, retching gasps Pugh so often returns to in panic and pain. Her performance is visceral. Midsommar is visceral. There is viscera, just, everywhere. As in his debut, Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster casts Midsommar as a conflagration of grief—as in Hereditary, people burst into flames in Midsommar’s climactic moments—and no ounce of nuance will keep his characters from gasping, choking and hollering all the way to their bleakly inevitable ends. Moreso than in Hereditary, what one assumes will happen to our American 20-somethings does happen, prescribed both by decades of horror movie precedent and by the exigencies of Aster’s ideas about how human beings process tragedy. Aster births his worlds in pain and loss; chances are it’ll only get worse. One gets the sense watching Midsommar that Aster’s got everything assembled rigorously, that he’s the kind of guy who can’t let anything go—from the meticulously thought-out belief system and ritual behind his fictional rural community, to the composition of each and every shot. Aster and his DP Pawel Pogorzelski find the soft menace inherent to their often beautiful setting, unafraid of just how ghastly and unnatural such brightly colored flora can appear—especially when melting or dilating, breathing to match Dani’s huffs and the creaking, wailing goth-folk of The Haxan Cloak. Among Midsommar’s most unsettling pleasures are its subtle digital effects, warping its reality ever so slightly (the pulsing of wood grain, the fish-eye lensing of a grinning person’s eye sockets) so that once noticed, you’ll want it to stop. Like a particularly bad trip, the film bristles with the subcutaneous need to escape, with the dread that one is trapped. In this community in the middle of nowhere, in this strange culture, in this life, in your body and its existential pain: Aster imprisons us so that when the release comes, it’s as if one’s insides are emptying cataclysmically. In the moment, it’s an assault. It’s astounding. —Dom Sinacola


8. The Paper Tigers

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Year: 2021

Director: Bao Tran

Stars: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 108 minutes

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When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather. That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s. It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin. Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.—Andy Crump


9. Bill & Ted Face the Music

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Year: 2020

Director: Dean Parisot

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Kristen Schaal, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, William Sadler

Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 91 minutes

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Our enjoyment of Bill & Ted Face the Music may only be the direct result of living with a kind of background-grade dread for what feels like the whole of our adult lives. Those of us who will seek out and watch this third movie in the Most Excellent Adventures of Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted (Theodore) Logan (Keanu Reeves) are bound by nostalgia as much as a desire to suss out whatever scraps of joy can be found buried in our grim, harrowing reality. Sometimes, death and pain is unavoidable. Sometimes it just feels nice to lounge for 90 minutes in a universe where when you die you and all your loved ones just go to Hell and all the demons there are basically polite service industry workers so everything is pretty much OK. Cold comfort and mild praise, maybe, but the strength of Dean Parisot’s go at the Bill & Ted saga is its laid-back, low-stakes nature, wherein even the murder robot (Anthony Carrigan, the film’s luminous guiding light) sent to lazer Bill and Ted to death quickly becomes their friend while Kid Cudi is the duo’s primary source on quantum physics. Because why? It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. There may be some symbolic heft to Bill and Ted reconciling with Death (William Sadler) in Hell; there may be infinite universes beyond our own, entangled infinitely. Cudi’s game for whatever. A sequel of rare sincerity, Bill & Ted Face the Music avoids feeling like a craven reviving of a hollowed-out IP or a cynical reboot, mostly because its ambition is the stuff of affection—for what the filmmakers are doing, made with sympathy for their audience and a genuine desire to explore these characters in a new context. Maybe that’s the despair talking. Or maybe it’s just the relief of for once confronting the past and finding that it’s aged considerably well. —Dom Sinacola


10. The Father

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Year: 2021

Director: Florian Zeller

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 97 minutes

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The best line reading Anthony Hopkins gives during his monumental performance in Florian Zeller’s The Father comes in the film’s final scene, which is both a blessing and a king bummer. All anyone should want to do is live in that reading, sit awestruck at how Hopkins puts a name to the one thing that can assuage his character’s anguish and stare grief-stricken in the knowledge that the one thing he needs is the one thing he can’t have. The entire movie is an exercise in heartache, but it’s this final piece of dialogue that punctuates the drama preceding it and finally releases the suffering roiling under its surface. Hopkins’ character, also named Anthony, spends most of The Father fighting for his independence like a wolf cornered by hunters, stubbornly refusing to accept his clear mental deterioration and the need for professional help. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) has, as the picture opens, tried and failed several times over to find him a caregiver he’ll take to—and given her announced intention to relocate to Paris, her search has gained in urgency. Anthony isn’t pleased at her news. In fact, as they sit in his well-appointed London flat together, he gives her the business, expressing his opinion of her life plans with his canines bared. He’s not happy. But deep down, in the parts of him that remain self-aware, he’s mostly just afraid. Zeller has adapted The Father from his own award-winning play Le Père, and though he’s left the material of the script untouched, he’s transitioned to his new medium with subtle enhancements: Cinematographer Ben Smithard uses his lens as a screw gun, putting up figurative walls around Zeller’s cast in addition to the literal walls of the set. Visual claustrophobia compliments spatial claustrophobia, trapping the viewer in the flat and, far more importantly, in Anthony’s crumbling psyche. A simple open-concept apartment becomes labyrinthine through his point of view, and that’s before supporting characters begin to wander about its halls and loiter in its doors, in and out of his perception, assuming they were even there to begin with. Similar to how the characters are there to serve Anthony, the supporting cast is there to serve Hopkins. The stage belongs to him. What he does with it is something special, an unmissable performance from an actor with a filmography loaded with them.—Andy Crump


11. She Dies Tomorrow

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Year: 2020

Director: Amy Seimetz

Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley

Genre: Drama

Rating: R

Runtime: 84 minutes

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Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), for inexplicable reasons, is infernally convinced that tomorrow’s the day she’s going to meet her maker. Making a bad situation worse, her confidence is catching: Through an eerie, fatalist game of telephone, her friends and family, and even total strangers with whom they interact, come to believe they’re going to die tomorrow, too. It’s almost like they’ve been gaslit, except they’re the ones soaking themselves with lighter fluid, sparking off a chain reaction of macabre determinism in which each person afflicted by the curse of languages sees the end coming for them in 24 hours or less. She Dies Tomorrow is both the perfect film for this moment and also the worst viewing choice possible considering the circumstances: Everyone’s at home, contending with varied combinations of dread, grief, rage of either the defiant or impotent persuasion, boredom and, in the absolute best case scenario, a numbing calm. Amy Seimetz, writing and directing her sophomore follow-up to her superb 2012 feature debut Sun Don’t Shine, captures the same pandemic fears as movies like Sea Fever and The Beach House, but enhances them with existential currents. Seimetz straddles the line dividing terror from malaise delicately, her balancing act being She Dies Tomorrow’s greatest strength. Instead of shoehorning all of her ideas and textures into one genre, she keeps the film fluid.—Andy Crump


12. Together Together

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Year: 2021

Directors: Nikole Beckwith

Stars: Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Tig Notaro, Fred Melamed, Julio Torres

Genre: Drama, Comedy

Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

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Together Together is an amiable, successfully awkward surrogacy dramedy that also has the respectable distinction of being a TERF’s worst nightmare. That’s only one of the tiny aspects of writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature, but the gentle tapestry of intimacy among strangers who, for a short time, desperately need each other certainly benefits from the meta-text of comedian and internet terror Patti Harrison’s multi-layered starring performance. Stuffed with bombastic bit parts from a roster of recent television’s greatest comedic talents and casually incisive dialogue that lays waste to media empires and preconceptions of women’s autonomy alike, the film is an unexpected, welcome antidote to emotional isolation and toxic masculinity that meanders in and out of life lessons at a pleasingly inefficient clip. That the tale of fatherhood and friendship is told through the sparkling chemistry of a rising trans star and her entrenched, anxious straight man (an endearing Ed Helms) only adds to Together Together’s slight magic.—Shayna Maci Warner


13. Driveways

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Year: 2020

Director: Andrew Ahn

Starring: Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy, Lucas Jaye, Christine Ebersole, Jeter Rivera, Sophia DiStefano, Robyn Payne, Jerry Adler

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

Runtime: 83 minutes

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Loneliness looks different for the lonely depending on their circumstances, and Andrew Ahn’s sophomore feature, Driveways, captures that spectrum through character. For single mom Kathy (Hong Chau), loneliness means sitting amongst the clutter of her dead sister’s house, dwarfed by junk crammed into every corner and piled to the ceiling. For widower Del (Brian Dennehy), loneliness is literal: He lives alone in the house he shared with his wife for decades before her death, their only daughter having relocated to Seattle years prior. For Kathy’s son Cody (Lucas Jaye), loneliness is a weird blessing: Social anxiety makes him hurl; he’s happier reading or playing videogames. Still, Cody wants to play with other kids, or at least he wants to want to, and Kathy, being a concerned mom, knows that even pleasant self-imposed isolation has adverse effects on children. Fortunately for both of them, Del is eager for company, though, as a man of a certain disposition, he’s not exactly the type to appear eager. Regardless, while Kathy cleans out her sister’s place, Del and Cody slowly bond, though their chummy and charming friendship has an expiration date: Kathy and Cody are out of towners staying in the unnamed New York hamlet where Del dwells only for as long as it takes to get the house settled and up for sale. As their time is short, so too is Driveways, a brisk, breezy 80 minutes where conflict is minimal and compassion prevails. Driveways is a simple picture about simple acts of human kindness; Ahn shot Driveways several years ago, and he premiered the film a hundred years ago at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, so neither he nor writers Hannah Bos nor Paul Thureen mean to make any comment on what gets airplay on the daily news, but American antipathy is a real thing and Driveways is the accidental salve the rest of us need for our current era of callous stupidity. —Andy Crump


14. Nomadland

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Year: 2020

Director: Chloé Zhao

Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells

Rating: R

Runtime: 108 minutes

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A devastating and profound look at the underside of the American Dream, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland turns Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (and some of its subjects) into a complex folk song about survival, pride and the beauty of getting by on the open road. Focusing on older Americans who’ve somehow either abandoned or been forced from stationary traditional homes into vans and RVs, the film contemplates all that brought them to this point (an ugly, crammed Amazon warehouse looms large over the movie’s otherwise natural landscapes and sweeping vistas) and all that waits for them now that they’re here. Some of Bruder’s sources make appearances in the film, threatening to steal the show from the fictional Fern (Frances McDormand) at every turn—and McDormand turns in one of the best performances of the year. That’s just how honest and compelling Linda May and Swankie are. As the migrating community scatters to the wind and reconvenes wherever the seasonal jobs pop up, Zhao creates a complicated mosaic of barebones freedom. It’s the vast American landscape—a “marvelous backdrop of canyons, open deserts and purple-hued skies” as our critic put it—and that mythological American promise that you can fend for yourself out in it. But you can’t, not really. The bonds between the nomads is a stiff refutation of that individualistic idea, just as Amazon’s financial grip over them is a damnation of the corporation’s dominance. Things are rough—as Fern’s fellow travelers tell campfire tales of suicide, cancer and other woes—but they’re making the best of it. At least they have a little more control out here. The optimism gained from a reclaimed sense of autonomy is lovely to behold (and crushing when it comes into conflict with those angling for a return to the way things were), even if its impermanence is inherent. Nomadland’s majestic portrait puts a country’s ultimate failings, its corrupting poisons and those making the best of their position by blazing their own trail together on full display.—Jacob Oller


15. Shiva Baby

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Year: 2021

Director: Emma Seligman

Stars: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 77 minutes

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Marvelously uncomfortable and cringe-inducingly hilarious, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby rides a fine line between comedy and horror that perfectly suits its premise—and feels immediately in step with its protagonist, the college-aged Danielle. Played by actress/comedian Rachel Sennott, already messy-millennial royalty by virtue of her extremely online comic sensibility, Danielle is first glimpsed mid-tryst, an unconvincing orgasm closing out her perfunctory dirty talk (“Yeah, daddy”) before she dismounts and collects a wad of cash from the older Max (Danny Deferrari). Though it’s transactional, as any sugar relationship tends to be, Danielle seems open to discussing her nebulous career aspirations with Max, and he gives her an expensive bracelet—suggesting a quasi-intimate familiarity to their dynamic, even if the encounter’s underlying awkwardness keeps either from getting too comfortable. As such, it’s a smart tease of what’s to come, as Danielle schleps from Max’s apartment to meet up with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed, naturally), and sit shiva in the home of a family friend or relative. That Danielle’s unclear on who exactly died is a recurring joke, and a consistently good one, but there’s little time to figure out the details before she’s plunged into the event: A disorienting minefield of small talk, thin smiles and self-serve schmear. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the high anxiety and mortifying comedy of Seligman’s film, though it helps. Underneath all the best Jewish punchlines lies a weary acknowledgement of inevitable suffering; the Coen Brothers knew this in crafting A Serious Man, their riotous retelling of the Book of Job, and Seligman knows it in Shiva Baby. That the climax involves shattered glass, helpless tears and a few humiliations more marks this as one of the most confidently, winningly Jewish comedies in years.—Isaac Feldberg


16. On-Gaku: Our Sound

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Year: 2021

Director: Kenji Iwaisawa

Stars: Shintarô Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, Kami Hiraiwa, Naoto Takenaka

Genre: Comedy, Musical, Animation

Rating: NR

Runtime: 71 minutes

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Being a teenager in a suburban town can be excruciatingly boring. With no variety in routine, everything feels useless. But then, sometimes, something appears that banishes that monotony and breathes excitement into an otherwise dull existence. That discovery can be revelatory; life can suddenly have purpose. In the case of the trio of delinquents in Kenji Iwaisawa’s incredible debut feature, the animated On-Gaku: Our Sound, they discover the catharsis and power of music. On-Gaku: Our Sound is writer/director Iwaisawa’s love letter both to the power of music and to the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. As the film progresses through its musical numbers, Iwaisawa experiments with form (like expressive rotoscoping) as certain songs evoke different emotions from his characters, whether it is a kindly folk song or a primitive-feeling rocker that reverberates in a listener’s chest. In contrast to the visual style, the phenomenal deadpan comedic delivery is reminiscent of American animated comedies of the ‘90s like Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Kenji in particular embodies that tone, through both line delivery by Japanese rock legend Shintarô Sakamoto and a design that includes an unrelenting stare, thin mustache that zigzags across his upper lip and shiny, bald head. Despite being a high school student, Sakamoto’s grizzled voice gives Kenji the vibe of a tired old man who has seen everything, when really he’s just a bored teenager who smokes too many cigarettes and watches too much TV. Iwaisawa’s own passion fills the chilled-out slacker comedy with a lot of heart and a gorgeous variety of animation styles.—Mary Beth McAndrews


17. Moffie

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Year: 2021

Director: Oliver Hermanus

Stars: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Wynand Ferreira

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 104 minutes

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“Moffie” is an Afrikaans slur, used to describe a gay man. For those of us who haven’t grown up hearing it, the term can read almost affectionate, its soft syllables suggesting a sweetness. In reality, there’s violence in the word, spat out with cruelty. This tension pervades the fourth film from Oliver Hermanus, regarded as one of South Africa’s most prominent queer directors. Moffie tells the story of Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a closeted 18-year-old drafted into his mandatory military service in South Africa in 1981, when the country was still in the throes of apartheid. Adapted from André Carl van de Merwe’s novel, Moffie tells a brutal tale with moments of beautiful respite. Despite the constant barrage of terrorizing drills and frat boy behavior, however, there is tenderness—like Nicholas’ connection with his rebellious squadmate, Dylan Stassen (Ryan De Villiers). An earlier incident makes it abundantly clear how dangerous it is to express any sort of affection. As a result, even the smallest gesture of intimacy is fraught with tension. Although the young men, shown in various forms of dress and undress, are strapping soldiers, there’s also a vulnerability to them. You can’t help but silently cheer, even as your heart breaks a little, when Nicholas and Michael break into a muted rendition of “Sugarman,” giggling as they clean their rifles. Despite the army’s best efforts to break the young men, their spirits seem to survive. Despite the heavy load it carries, Moffie is a masterful film. Hermanus and Jack Sidey have co-written a tight script, with stretches of silences that pull you into the internal struggles of its characters. The cinematography by Jamie D Ramsay ranges from languorous shots of the rugged, dusty landscapes where the recruits carry out drills in the harsh sun to the handheld immediacy of Nicholas and his fellow soldiers’ misery. The cast—made up of a mix of high school students, trained actors and non-professionals—manages to conjure up a chapter of South African history that many would like to forget.—Aparita Bhandari


18. Sator

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Year: 2021

Director: Jordan Graham

Starring: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson

Genre: Horror

Runtime: 86 minutes

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There’s something in the forest. But at the same time, there’s nothing much at all. A man, a cabin and maybe—maybe—something more. Sator, a mumblecore horror somewhere between a modern-day The Witch, The Blair Witch Project and Lovecraft, is a striking second feature from Jordan Graham. It’s the kind of horror that trades jump scares for negative space, one that opens with imagery your typical A24 beast saves for its finale. Sator’s dedication to its own nuanced premise, location and tense pace make it the rare horror that’s so aesthetically well-realized you feel like you could crawl inside and live there—if it wasn’t so goddamn scary. Sator is a name, an evocation, an entity. He’s first described, by Nani (the late June Peterson, excellent), as a guardian. Nani’s known Sator (whatever he may be) for a long time. The film represents shifts in time, and the physical transportation to places soaked in memories, with an aspect ratio change and a black-and-white palette. Nani’s lovely longhand script is practiced well from a lifetime of automatic writing, with the words—including some of the opening company credits, which is a great little joke—pouring from her pen and claiming a headwater not of this world. That same paranormal river flows to her grandson Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), that aforementioned man in the woods, whose relationship with the voices in his head is a bit less comfortable. It’s a stark, bold, even compassionate film—which offers imperfectly planted details of a battered and bruised family at its core—with plenty to comprehend (or at least theorize about) for those brave enough to venture back into the forest for a rewatch. As scary as it is, Sator is an experience with enough layers and craftsmanship that its alluring call will rattle in your head long after you’ve turned it off.—Jacob Oller


19. Sorry We Missed You

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Year: 2020

Director: Ken Loach

Starring: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Sheila Dunkerley

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 102 minutes

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Ken Loach’s movies typically force viewers to acknowledge the toll a job can take on both body and spirit. Without fuss or forced moralizing, Sorry We Missed You performs this service for the folks who thanklessly zip about town dropping off parcels ordered yesterday by people who actually needed them a week before. The movie demystifies the browser sorcery of one-click purchases by humanizing, for better and for worse, the mechanics behind this modern-day ministration: Loach starts with Ricky (Kris Hitchen), head of the Turner family, who is first met interviewing Maloney (Ross Brewster), his boss-to-be, for a post as an owner-driver for a third-party delivery outfit nestled in North England. Maloney seems reasonable enough. He hears Ricky’s story, at least, his history as a blue-collar man whose years of hard labor have left him craving for freedom from micromanaging bosses. Ricky wants to be his own boss now, and Maloney’s spiel about choice and self-agency appeals to his wants. It’s all an illusion, of course, and the economy of Laverty’s writing succinctly lays out the tension between Ricky’s ambitions and the crushing realities of the position he’s sought out. The gift of personal determination Maloney offers him is a Trojan horse containing seeds of poverty. The way this job works, every package Ricky hands off is another row sown in his inevitable destitution. It’s sick. It’s barbaric. It’s just one problem among several the Turners deal with as a direct consequence of Ricky’s enterprise. He has to sell off, for instance, the family car, which his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), uses for her own career as a home care nurse, which means she has to use public transportation, which is another stress added to an already stressful job made more stressful by her boss, who like Maloney doesn’t really give a damn about Abbie as a person—only as a hireling. Sorry We Missed You operates on a micro-level with contrastingly astronomical stakes. It’s a movie about one small family—including, apart from Kris and Debbie, their mulish teen son, Seb (Rhys Stone), and younger, sweethearted daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor)—doomed to the streets if either Dad or Mom missteps. They have no safety net. They have no contingency plan. Worst of all, Kris and Debbie both have jobs designed to wring the most out of them with the least compensation or compassion in exchange. The perils of parenthood are enough without having to answer the question of how the lights stay on every day. —Andy Crump


20. Vivarium

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Year: 2020

Director: Lorcan Finnegan

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots

Rating: R

Runtime: 97 minutes

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A quirky real estate story, where first-time homeowners Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) get a lot more than they bargained for, Vivarium is a low-key sci-fi nightmare of the mundane in the vein of early David Cronenberg. Director Lorcan Finnegan’s film also functions as a relationship allegory, where Tom and Gemma find themselves stuck in a trendy neighborhood of cookie-cutter homes where starting a family isn’t just an expectation but something foisted upon them. It isn’t as grisly as something like Shivers, but more affecting in its surreal design and hopelessness. Eisenberg and Poots own the screen as a disintegrating couple coping in distinct ways to their newfound terrarium where they are observed, manipulated, and—perhaps most disturbingly of all—objectively provided for by unseen and undefinable forces. Its 2020 release feels especially fitting as repetition and hopelessness become permanent residents of the couple’s home. Genre elements seep into the film, accelerating in hiccups and starts that are as arresting as the film’s intentionally artificial design. Startling sound dubbing, odd colorizing, and a few genuine “Oh shit” moments make Vivarium a tight, nasty fable that would fit in with the best Twilight Zone episodes. —Jacob Oller


21. The Whistlers

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Year: 2020

Director: Corneliu Porumboiu

Stars: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Sabin Tambrea, Rodica Lazar, Agusti Villaronga

Genre: Drama, Thriller, Comedy

Rating: R

Runtime: 97 minutes

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Director Corneliu Porumboiu is no stranger to procedures or regulations, nor insensitive to the ways in which the strictures we impose on ourselves and others end up wrapping us up from within. His previous film, the documentary Infinite Football, allows his friend Laurentiu Ginghina time and cinematic space to explain the many modifications and new rules to enact in order to, he believes, completely revitalize the sport of football—all while exorcising the trauma of post-Communist Romania. The crime drama, then, is a genre particularly suited to Porumboiu’s concerns, and his latest, The Whistlers, appears as much a pulp exercise as a stylish deconstruction of social order in all its forms, from the institutions of justice to the basic tenets of language. In it, laconic, mild-mannered cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) navigates an elaborate schema of criminal enterprise and double-crossing police to walk away with a life-changing amount of stolen drug money. The key to much of the film’s convolution can be found on La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, where Cristi learns a native whistling language called El Silbo in order to clandestinely communicate with archetypal folks like Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), the girlfriend of Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) who owns a mattress warehouse through which he’ll abscond with money stolen from mob boss Paco (Augusti Villaronga), all while avoiding Police Chief Magda (Rodica Lazar), Cristi’s boss and another remnant of Communist Romania left to her own self-serving motivations. Though Porumboiu recalibrates a typical neo-noir plot by playing with chronologies and perspectives, adding a dose of pitch-black humor to leaven the film’s ostensible bleakness—and cinematographer Tudor Mircea’s shots of the Spanish coast are something to behold—rather than amounting to placeholders lost in a twisty plot twisted for the sake of it, Porumboiu’s many players survive the chaos. They are defined by it. We understand who these people are through the ways in which they struggle to escape the system. And by the time we’ve untangled the film’s plot, we’re offered a final moment of catharsis, a sense—after 90 minutes of state-sanctioned violence and depravity—of what freedom feels like. —Dom Sinacola


22. Gretel & Hansel

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Year: 2020

Director: Oz Perkins

Stars: Sophia Lillis, Samuel Leakey, Alice Krige

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13

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Director Oz Perkins’ first two features, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, are meticulously constructed examples of slow burn horror, favoring ever-building, chilling atmosphere over quick scares. He begins Gretel & Hansel with a traditional fairy tale structure, only for it to degenerate into an otherworldly, hopeless tone, Perkins liberally playing with space and time. Accordingly, production and costume designs borrow from multiple time periods—slightly resembling medieval Europe—while characters speak in Shakespearean prose, their body language still distinctly modern. Instead of the usual sea of white faces for such a tale, different races that seem to have equal social standing populate this world. Perkins purposefully juxtaposes Galo Olivares’s classically picturesque cinematography, imbued with the illusion of natural light, against Robin Coudert’s synth-heavy score that resembles Wendy Carlos’s work for Stanley Kubrick. The film thrives within a dream-logic vibe, especially in Olivares’ cinematography, with its heavy emphasis on symmetrical framing, stark contrast and lush use of yellows and blues, evoking subliminal terror. Gretel & Hansel continues the director’s streak as a unique voice in modern horror filmmaking. —Oktay Ege Kozak


23. The Assistant

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Year: 2020

Director: Kitty Green

Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfayden, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Rating: R

Runtime: 87 minutes

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The nameless, faceless boss hiding behind closed doors in Kitty Green’s exceptional The Assistant can be easily read as a Harvey Weinstein stand-in. The truth is that Harvey Weinstein isn’t or, now that he’s in prison, wasn’t the only man in the film industry with a habit of abusing his position and privilege by preying on women in his office, either through coercion or through brute force, he is, or was, the most notorious of them. So yes, The Assistant can be thought of as “the Harvey Weinstein movie,” but it really should be thought of as the best contemporary movie to act out patriarchal rape culture dynamics on screen. Regardless, take Weinstein out of your interpretation of The Assistant and the film will still throttle you slowly, packing suffocating pressure into each of its 87 minutes. Green’s primary tool here is stillness: Static shots dominate the production, stifled frame after stifled frame, with the camera, manned by Michael Latham, often left hovering above Green’s star, Julia Garner, as if he means to leave space for her unanswered silent prayers to hang over her head. She plays the title’s long-suffering assistant, silent witness to her boss’s bullying and wanton lasciviousness, helpless to stop it. She spends the film unraveling over the course of a day, confronting her complicity in his sexual predation with no tangible hope of ending the cycle. Because there is no hope in The Assistant, no chance the film’s central evil will meet his punishment, or that the system built to facilitate his evil will collapse. What Green has done here is brutal and unsparing, but it’s also flawlessly made and necessary. —Andy Crump


24. Collective

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Year: 2020

Director: Alexander Nanau

Stars: N/A

Genre: Documentary

Runtime: 109 minutes

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Alexander Nanau’s documentary unfolds like a procedural so efficiently, his access so surprisingly unfettered, one can’t help but begin to doubt the horrors exposed. Like three seasons of The Wire adulterated into two hours, Collective begins with the aftermath of a nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015, which killed 27 people and wounded nearly 180, as parents of victims—both those who perished that night and (many of) those who died in hospitals soon after—begin to gather and question how the Romanian government, top to bottom, seems to be at the heart of such tragic dysfunction. Nanau shows us startling clear video from that night, unflinching and terrible, and then continues to not look away as a group of journalists begin to uncover the corruption that led to so much suffering. Meanwhile, Nanau follows survivors and activists, and then the newly appointed Health Minister (after the other guy resigned for gross incompetence), young and idealistic, as the system crushes every moral step he tries to make, buffeted on all sides by conservative propaganda and the bourgeois class, who have long profited from so much death and misery. The cruelty and perversion of Romania’s governing class should come as no surprise, nor should the results of the election that closes out the film, but Nanau doesn’t frame his drama around the explication of wrongdoings and the punishment of such wrongdoers. He eschews interviews and talking heads for incisive observation, sometimes so intimate it feels like empathy; he returns over and over to the vulnerable people who must endure—their courage, their fear, and the marginal hope they provide the rest of us by simply doing their jobs. It is a testament not to the power of journalism, but to its necessity, one of the last bastions civilization has against normalizing this nightmare here at the End of History. —Dom Sinacola


25. Scare Me

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Year: 2020

Director: Josh Ruben

Stars: Josh Ruben, Aya Cash, Rebecca Drysdale, Chris Redd

Genre: Comedy, Horror

Runtime: 104 minutes

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For many, scary movies are fun. Watching scary movies is fun. Boil that down further: Telling scary stories is fun, no matter the setting, as long as you’re in proper company. Shudder’s Scare Me toasts that dynamic via a contest of wills between two horror authors trying to out-terrify each other before the second-best possible stage for telling scary stories: a crackling fireplace. (The very best is a campfire, but beggars can’t be choosers.) The authors are Fred (Josh Ruben) and Fanny (Aya Cash). Fanny is the best-selling writer behind the popular critical smash Venus, a zombie novel that, based on what little the audience hears about it, sounds like elevated horror nonsense (which is exactly the kind of thing that scored points on screens and shelves in the mid-2010s horror boom). Josh is a loser. He hasn’t written a damn thing or a thing worth a damn, and he’s secluded himself in a cabin at a Catskills resort to do Serious Work, which he doesn’t, because again, he’s a loser. Fanny’s staying in a nearby cabin, and when the power goes out across the area, she walks in on Fred and challenges him to scare her with his best shot. The pace of Scare Me slows a tad more than ideal as Ruben takes the plot to its inevitable conclusion, but it’s still a joyful, satisfyingly eerie experience. There are reasons we enjoy the adrenaline blast horror movies give us. Scare Me, which should be essential viewing each Halloween season, understands those reasons well and celebrates them with enough laughs and gasps to leave viewers choking.—Andy Crump

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