The 50 Best Movies of 2019, Ranked

The best of the best.

best movies
Danna Windsor/Thrillist
Danna Windsor/Thrillist

In a time of scrolling feeds and streaming content, it's valuable to have a place to go where the outside world simply stops. Whether that location is a movie theater or a crater-like section of a couch remains a subject of passionate debate, but even as traditional film distribution transforms, the fundamental appeal of the movies hasn't changed. What do the best movies do? They transport, challenge, and entertain

Sometimes that means you're zooming across the galaxy to another planet with Thanos, vacationing to a creepy Swedish solstice festival, or barreling down the sidewalk in Manhattan's Diamond District. In giant blockbusters and smaller films, 2019 provided so many opportunities to get lost that I couldn't stop at a conventional top 10 or top 20 list. (We also have genre-specific lists for horror, action, comedy, and science-fiction if the offerings below don't quite scratch the movie itch you have.) These are the 50 best movies of the year.

New year, new movies: check out our list of the Best Movies of 2020Best Action Movies of 2020, and Most Underrated Movies of 2020.

whered you go bernadette
Annapurna Pictures

50. Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Release date: August 16
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig
Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Why it’s great: Back in August, Where'd You Go Bernadette arrived in theaters after months of speculation about its ever-shifting release date in the press and was mostly met with puzzlement by those who saw it. What exactly is this peculiar movie up to? Richard Linklater's adaptation of Maria Semple's comic novel, which centers on a neurotic architect named Bernadette, is perhaps best viewed months later as an intriguing experiment, one of those movies that juggles ideas, tones, and locations, including tech-obsessed Seattle and ice-covered Antarctic, with a rewarding gusto. Much of the energy comes from Cate Blanchett's full-tilt performance in the central role: She attacks the many monologues the script gives her, often delivered as dictated emails into her cell phone, and she never backs away from verbal overload of the dialogue. Even when the jokes don't land, which happens quite a bit in the more satiric sections, she finds the perfect note.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer

hail satan movie
Magnolia Pictures

49. Hail Satan?

Release date: April 19
Director: Penny Lane (Our Nixon)
Why it's great: While Satan has been around for a long time, the Satanic Temple, the primary focus of this sly documentary, was founded in 2013 by Malcolm Jerry and Lucien Greaves. The spokesperson for the group, Greaves speaks with authority and humor about the organization's larger political, social, and theological goals, which center around religious freedom and the separation of church and state. (Justifiably, the Satanic Temple does not like when governments install the Ten Commandments in State Capitals.) Though they wear black and often enjoy heavy metal, these aren't the Satanists of the Satanic Panic in the '80s, which gets a CliffNotes treatment here, or the robe-wearing fanatics from horror films. Using archival material of Sunday school cartoons and news programs, Lane gives the viewer a crash course on Satanism's place in history while also emphasizing the activist nature of modern Satanists. Despite some repetitive interviews, Hail Satan works as a funny, thoughtful primer on a group that only trolls with the best intentions. 
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

alita battle angel
20th Century Fox Film

48. Alita: Battle Angel

Release date: February 14
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali
Director: Robert Rodriguez (Sin City)
Why it's great: The first thing you notice are the large eyes, beckoning like portals to another dimension. Alita, a cyborg discovered in a junkyard by a possibly mad scientist consumed with grief over the death of his daughter, is played by the actress Rosa Salazar, who appeared in two of the Maze Runner YA adaptions and last year's Netflix hit Bird Box, but she's brought to uncanny life via technology Alita producer and co-writer James Cameron developed for his alien environmental opus Avatar. (Cameron was originally going to direct Alita but he got sidetracked by the world of the Na'vi.) Compared to Avatar, or other recent colorful acts of gonzo-world-building like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, Alita: Battle Angel moves in fits and starts, occasionally struggling to merge Cameron's hyper-earnest, ponderous sensibility with Rodriguez's more garrish, ironic approach. Still, when the movie connects, like in the ridiculous and kinetic "motorball" sequence which finds our hero fending off brutish attackers in a violent game of X-Games tag, it's as exhilarating as this type of reality-altering, money-burning sci-fi blockbuster gets. Perhaps fitting for a story about a character's complicated relationship to her own body, the movie takes time to feel comfortable in its own CG skin.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Go; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the hole in the ground

47. The Hole in the Ground

Release date: March 1
Cast: Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Simone Kirby, Steve Wall
Director: Lee Cronin
Why it's great:The Hole in the Ground, an Irish horror film of considerable ferocity, is unafraid of the obvious. As the title promises, there is a large hole in the ground, which ends up being a source of great stress for Sarah (Kerslake) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) who move to the countryside to escape a troubled home life. They want a new start, but their new digs have issues. In addition to the gnarly pit waiting for them in the forest, the duo must also contend with a creepy old woman with a dark past, some creepy bugs, and their own growing suspicion of each other. As a movie about motherhood and parental anxiety, The Hole in the Ground can't touch the unnerving terror of previous Sundance hits The Babadook or Hereditary, which both attacked similar material with total formal control. This is more of a meat-and-potatoes horror film, one where the music pounds away at a punishing volume and the scares arrive like clockwork. Even if it doesn't have the emotional depth of the best horror efforts, it has enough technical prowess to keep you invested. You know what's at the bottom of the hole, but you won't be able to resist digging in.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon; rent on iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

Annapurna Pictures

46. Booksmart

Release date: May 24
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Jason Sudeikis
Director: Olivia Wilde
Why it's great: The college-obsessed, socially challenged honor roll students at the center of Booksmart, Olivia Wilde's dutifully funny and disarmingly sweet high school comedy, are always looking to optimize their experiences. Having spent the last four years of their young lives focused on their education and extracurricular activities, best friends Molly (the uproarious Feldstein) and Amy (the dry-witted Dever) approach a night of partying with a sense of purpose. They don't want to just have a good time; they need this wild evening to stand in for all the hours of drinking, drug-consuming, and making out they missed. Similarly, the movie can't quite shake that overeager check-list mentality as it careens from expositional set-up and comic set-pieces to the inevitable emotional blowup and the triumphant graduation day resolution. (We even get a "wacky" animated sequence thrown in for good measure.) If there's a lack of genuine chaos or scuzzy danger to the proceedings -- the absence of cruelty can feel like a refusal to engage with the dull misery of the teenage experience -- the performers add enough emotional heft and droll irony to keep the festivities going when the story occasionally loses its buzz.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the dead don't die
Focus Features

45. The Dead Don't Die

Release date: June 14
Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez
Director: Jim Jarmusch (Paterson
Why it's great: The Dead Don't Die, Jim Jarmusch's simultaneously forlorn and cheesy horror comedy, isn't quite the low-key Zombieland with Adam Driver genre riff some might have been hoping for when the trailer first dropped online. The apocalyptic action isn't terribly exciting: As a pair of local cops tasked with stopping the rise of the dead, Driver and Murray mostly just trade self-aware banter, chat with locals, and drive aimlessly around their small-town community. Tilda Swinton, playing a samurai-sword swinging Scottish mortician, probably does the most damage to the evil forces on the rise. But, as is often the case with Jarmusch, the repetitive rhythms of the dialogue, always delivered in a deadpan manner, and the goofy small touches, like having Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA pop up sporting a Wu-PS delivery outfit, can be hypnotic if you're susceptible to his self-referential mix of cultural signifiers and political gestures. The bleak downer of an ending, shot with intentionally garish day-for-night lighting, has a startling potency to it. The film might not hit as hard as Jarmusch's Detroit-set vampire experiment Only Lovers Left Alive -- and it's not in the same league as his last collaboration with Driver, the New Jersey character study Paterson -- but the director is hardly cannibalizing his own aesthetic here. He remains committed to carving out new territory on his own terms. 
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

Magnolia Pictures

44. Aniara

Release date: May 17
Cast: Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini
Director: Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja
Why it’s great: With all its opportunities for disaster and mayhem, space travel never goes smoothly on screen. Aniara, a Swedish science-fiction drama based on a 1956 poem by author Harry Martinson, imagines a trek across the galaxy that's as bleak and punishing as an episode of HBO's The Leftovers. Before the voyage goes awry, the film's resourceful care-giver protagonist MR (Jonsson) helps other passengers aboard the Mars-bound luxury spaceship pass the time by logging hours with the Mima, a form of artificial intelligence as sensory therapy that allows humans to recall images of Earth. When the ship gets knocked off course, the Mima also begins to malfunction. While the basic set-up of Aniara bears a superficial resemblance to a number of lackluster Netflixgenre offerings, the writing, directing, and acting are far stronger than most Hollywood-produced tales of social collapse. At almost every turn, Aniara chooses to push even further into the unknown.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

last black man in san fransisco

43. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Release date: June 7
Cast: Jimmie H. Fails IV, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold
Director: Joe Talbot
Why it's great: "Are y'all paying attention?" asks a street preacher in the dazzling opening sequence of this wildly ambitious portrait of a city in an existential crisis. From its opening shot of a young girl facing off against a man in a Hazmat suit to its moving final image, the feature debut from Talbot, who began raising money for the project through Kickstarter back in 2015, demands your attention and rewards your patience. Gliding down through neighborhoods on his skateboard, Jimmie (Fails, who also shares a writing credit on the film) is a wry, curious presence in the city he calls home. In addition to hanging out with his dapper best friend Montgomery (Majors), Jimmie spends much of his time making repairs to the beautiful Victorian house that used to belong to his grandfather. Now, it's valued at $4 million and belongs to an older white couple who just want Jimmie to leave them alone. Through an odd set of circumstances, Jimmie ends up moving into the house, reclaiming a piece of his family history in the middle of a community that often feels like it's under siege. Funny and tender, The Last Black Man in San Francisco takes big swings, which means you have to put up with the occasional detour that doesn't pay off -- the last third almost grinds to a halt as more plot gets introduced -- but every inch of this oddball epic in miniature is worth exploring.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)  

ford v ferarri
20th Century Fox

42. Ford v Ferrari

Release date: November 15 
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe
Director: James Mangold (Logan)
Why it’s great: With their emphasis on motion and duration, the movies are great at selling the idea of velocity. Ford v Ferrari, an often workmanlike and occasionally wonderful account of the Ford Motor Company's quest to win the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France, is a movie that knows when to slam its foot on the gas, when to hit the brakes, and when to cruise on charm. As you'd expect, a degree of showmanship is necessary. As iconoclastic American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and hot-headed British racer Ken Miles (Bale), the two stars get to play characters that fit them like a pair of racing gloves, teaming up to take on the corporate suits and marketing executives that want to rein in their rugged brilliance. (Smells like a metaphor for something, right?) Even if some scenes flirt with outright hokeyness, playing in spots like the lesser Disney-fied version of the story, director James Mangold is smart enough to trust the natural charisma of his actors and inherent tension of his racing footage down the stretch. Really, at a certain point, you just want to see the machines go vroom vroom
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

first love movie
Well Go USA Entertainment

41. First Love

Release date: September 27
Cast: Masataka Kubota, Nao Ōmori, Shōta Sometani, Sakurako Konishi
Director: Takashi Miike (Audition)
Why it’s great: Leaping from heart-tugging romance to stomach-churning bloodshed, Takashi Miike's crime lark First Love never settles down. That type of stylistic hyperactivity, a reluctance to find a lane and stay in it, can be irritating if improperly executed, but Miike, a prolific filmmaker with over 100 genre-spanning movies under his belt, is a master of controlled chaos. The relationship between despondent young boxer Leo (Kubota) and haunted young prostitute Monca (Konishi) provides a structural backbone for the narrative, which ricochets across a city as Yakuzas, Triads, cops, and underlings scheme away the night. Guns get pulled, swords get drawn, and, in one particularly kinetic moment, the movie switches to brightly colored animation, perhaps to cover for an effect the production couldn't afford. Who knows? First Love's restless energy keeps you swooning even as the bodies pile up. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer

a beautiful day in the Neighborhood
Sony Pictures Releasing

40. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Release date: November 22
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper
Director: Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Why it’s great: In a lesser movie, the casting of Tom Hanks as beloved children's television personality Mr. Rogers would feel like a cynical ploy, an attempt to coast on the rosy public good will that exists for the Saving Private Ryan and Forrest Gump star. Though Hanks doesn't exactly physically resemble Fred Rogers, who hosted Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on public television from 1968 to 2001, he represents similar concepts of decency, kindness, and good-natured curiosity. You want to give the guy a hug the minute he shows up in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood! Director Marielle Heller doesn't puncture the Rogers mystique -- the movie fancifully imitates certain handmade production design choices of the show at crucial points -- but by centering the story around the challenges of an emotionally closed-off journalist (Rhys), it finds a grounded way into a story that could've been overly saccharine. Even if you look past the puppets, sweaters, and songs, Rogers still retains some mystery.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer

avengement movie
Samuel Goldwyn Films

39. Avengement

Release date: May 24
Cast: Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Thomas Turgoose, Nick Moran
Director: Jesse V. Johnson (The Debt Collector)
Why it’s great: DTV action star Scott Adkins knows how to land a punch, but this chronologically fractured fight film, which combines a bloody prison drama with a Guy Ritchie-esque underworld yarn, also lets the absurdly buff actor show off his acting chops. With a metal grill on his teeth and gnarly scars on his face, Adkins plays the Biblically named Cain, a former boxer turned convict who starts the movie by escaping his security detail on a trip to the hospital to visit his dying mother. On the run, Cain ends up at a pub in the middle of the day, where he entertains the assembled goons with his convoluted life story, which involves a betrayal by his older brother and many grueling jailhouse brawls. Johnson, a stuntman-turned-filmmaker who has directed Adkins features like Accident Man and Triple Threat, co-wrote the refreshingly sharp script, which has more on its mind than your average fight-driven revenge film, and he stages the ferocious, bare-knuckle melees with appropriate vigor, allowing Adkins to give one of the best performances of his career. 
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix; rent on AmazoniTunes, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

dolemite is my name

38. Dolemite Is My Name

Release date: October 4
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Wesley Snipes
Director: Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow
Why it’s great: Rarely do filmmakers approach the topic of moviemaking with the same combination of unbridled joy and punchy humor as Dolemite Is My Name, an endearingly sweet biopic about multi-talented comedian and independent film producer Rudy Ray Moore. As played by Eddie Murphy, Moore displays a savviness for noticing an opening in the 1970s entertainment market — early on, he exits a screening of The Front Page and observes that it's got "no titties, no funny, and no kung-fu" — and then creating the exact type of product he'd like to see. That means plenty of nudity, jokes, and, yes, some over-the-top kung-fu. In its brisk runtime, Dolemite Is My Name shows Moore solving a series of technical, economic, and artistic challenges: dealing with an egocentric director (a hilarious Wesley Snipes), securing financing to pay an inexperienced crew, and, finally, acquiring a distributor for the project he poured his life into. Like they did with 1994's Hollywood outsider character portrait Ed Wood, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski pack the story with charming period details and fascinating bits of pop culture trivia, which director Craig Brewer's camera carefully glides over, but the movie belongs to Murphy, who moves through each scene with total command of his craft. 
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

ready or not movie
Fox Searchlight

37. Ready or Not

Release date: August 21
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Devil's Due)
Why it’s great: Taking aim at a clan of wealthy ghouls with a playful sense of glee, Ready or Not knows exactly how far to push its hunting-humans-for-sport premise. After the considerably less stuffy Grace (Weaving) marries into the preening Le Domas family, she gets forced into playing a sadistic, ritualistic game of hide and seek. Running through cavernous hallways and cramped secret passageways in a tattered wedding dress, Grace transforms from a hopeful, people-pleasing ingenue into a determined, head-smashing class warrior right before your eyes. Where The Purge series mines similar thematic territory for grisly scares and John Carpenter-ey action movie heroics, Ready or Not is a more unapologetically fanciful affair, like a Whit Stillman comedy of manners rewritten by a loyal Fangoria reader with a taste for splatter-effects. From the moment the game begins, the filmmakers refuse to let up, delivering the rare horror finale that's as satisfying as the set-up.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

shadow movie
Well Go USA Entertainment

36. Shadow

Release date: May 3
Cast: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan
Director: Zhang Yimou (Hero)
Why it’s great: In a city covered in gray clouds and besieged by constant rain, an umbrella can become your last line of defense against the elements. In Shadow, the latest visually stunning action epic from Hero and House of Flying Daggers wuxia master Zhang Yimou, parasols are more than helpful sun-blockers: They can be turned into deadly weapons, shooting boomerang-like blades of steel at oncoming attackers and transforming into protective sleds for traveling through the slick streets. These devices are one of many imaginative leaps made in telling this Shakespearean saga of palace intrigue, vengeance, and secret doppelgangers set in China's Three Kingdoms period. Commander Yu (Deng) serves at the mercy of the cruel King Peiliang (Zheng), who rules like a petty and petulant teenager, but the brave Commander is actually a "shadow," a body double recruited to serve as a potential replacement in a time of crisis. The "real" Commander Yu, also played by Deng, nurses a festering battle wound underground, training his double and scheming to overthrow the king. This is a martial arts epic where the dense plotting is as tricky as the often balletic fight scenes. The narrative does lose steam in stretches, but the brilliantly designed and impeccably edited action sequences are simply on another level. If the battle scenes in Game of Thrones left you frustrated, Shadow provides a thrilling alternative.
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix; rent on AmazoniTunes, Vudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer)

the standoff at sparrow creek
RLJE Films

35. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Release date: January 18
Cast: James Badge Dale, Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Happy Anderson
Director: Henry Dunham
Why it's great:The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a movie that understands the value of restraint. After a mass shooting at a police funeral, a militia group in Michigan assembles at a warehouse to double-check the status of their massive stockpile of deadly weapons, including a batch of AR-15s. Turns out one of the guns is missing -- the radio has confirmed that the shooter used an AR-15 -- and only one of the men in the group could have grabbed it. Quickly, the Reservoir Dogs-like scenario spirals out into a simultaneously chatty and gripping whodunit with James Badge Dale's gruff ex-cop Gannon interrogating his fellow conspiracy-minded associates, mostly played by brilliant character actors given room to flex here, in an effort to find the killer before the shooting can be pinned on the group as a whole. But can any of these shadowy figures be trusted? This isn't an anthropological study of right-wing paranoia under Donald Trump or a treatise on white male rage in the age of InfoWars -- the exact specifics of what all these guys believe and hope to achieve with their considerable firepower are kept vague -- but Dunham, making his feature debut here, does zero in on the personalities and attitudes of the men drawn to these fringe groups. He shows you what makes them tick. Then, he makes them squirm. 
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

gloria bell movie

34. Gloria Bell

Release date: March 8
Cast: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Brad Garrett
Director: Sebastián Lelio (Disobedience)
Why it's great: Gloria Bell (Moore) likes to sing in her car as she drives through Los Angeles on her way to work at an insurance agency. A performer who exudes empathy and generosity, Moore turns these mini karaoke detours into moments of portraiture: Whether she's belting out a song on the freeway or dancing to the beat at the nightclub she frequents, Gloria is most at home when she's swimming in music. She's fundamentally open the adventures, oddities, and occasional pains of life. Fittingly, director Sebastián Lelio's film, a reportedly faithful American-set remake of his own 2013 drama Gloria, is attentive and kind. We follow Gloria's relationship with recently divorced eccentric Arnold (Turturro), who takes her paintballing and readers her poetry, and we meet her two slightly adrift adult children, played with wit by Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius. The scope even widens to include her ex-husband, a gregarious bear of a man played by Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond fame, and an unseen neighbor in her apartment building who keeps her up at night by screaming into the void. Moore anchors the film, finding humor and joy in even the darker sections. She never misses a note.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

IFC Films

33. Non-Fiction

Release date: May 3
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Christa Théret
Director: Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper)
Why it's great: If phrases like "the blogosphere" and lines like "tweets are modern-day haiku" make your skin crawl, perhaps stay away from Olivier Assayas's publishing industry semi-farce Non-Fiction. Attempting to make an accurate and contemporary catalog of modern media woes -- it starts with a tense conversation between a vain literary fiction editor Alain (Canet) and a frustrated provocateur novelist (Macaigne), and then builds out from there -- Assayas's film is especially vulnerable to eye-rolls and accusations of frivolity for its non-stop inside-baseball chatter. The plot has the urgency of overheard office gossip: The author is having an affair with a famous TV actress (Binoche) who happens to be married to the editor, who is also having an affair with a younger co-worker (Théret), and they all speak incessantly of the ways technology has upended their work. Yes, these characters live in tasteful, book-filled bubbles, but Assayas is a curious filmmaker, testing the porous social boundaries of this wealthy milieu and making an effort to situate their discussions in a larger economic system. Compared to his last two films starring Kristen Stewart, the moving meta showbiz drama Clouds of Sils Maria or the haunting existential mystery Personal Shopper, Non-Fiction is both more broadly comedic in its content and slightly stodgier in its form. Instead of loudly proclaiming a thesis, the movie embraces the mess of "reality," leaving the appropriate quotation marks around the word the whole time.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer)

toy story 4
Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar

32. Toy Story 4

Release date: June 21
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale
Director: Josh Cooley
Why it's great: After the emotional brinksmanship of Toy Story 3, a movie that featured the franchise's heroes facing certain death by fire in an incinerator, the creative braintrust at Pixar were smart enough to pull back on the throttle a bit for this elegiac adventure. An adrift Woody (Hanks) tries to prove his loyalty to his new child owner Bonnie by serving as a mentor and life coach for Forky (Hale), a comically suicidal arts-and-crafts project that's newly gained consciousness and wants nothing more than to return to the trash heap he came from. When Forky goes missing on a family road trip, it's again up to Woody to rescue him. The real wrinkle in the story arrives when Woody reunites with his lost love Bo Peep (Potts), who now serves as freelance toy at a carnival with her own gang of misfits, and the old Sheriff begins to question larger purpose and place in the universe. As with most Pixar movies, the film is both loaded up with squishy gestures towards larger existential ideas and piled high with genuinely funny cartoon hijinks. By tricking out Woody's personal journey with emotionally rich reversals and delightfully absurd new characters, like a Canadian daredevil voiced by Keanu Reeves, Cooley keeps the film from feeling ponderous and repetitive. Even though large sections simply remix details and settings from previous Toy Story movies, the passage of time has added another melancholy layer to what was already a nostalgia-obsessed narrative when the series began in 1995. Instead of being suffocated by its own history, Toy Story 4 wears it like an old cowboy hat. Not every franchise can pull it off, but this one does.
Where to watch: Stream on Disney+; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

portrait of a lady on fire

31. Portrait of  Lady on Fire

Release date: December 6
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino 
Director: Céline Sciamma (Girlhood)
Why it’s great: Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens with the simple image of a hand drawing charcoal lines across a blank piece of paper. That's how an artist begins her work: sketching out the outline and making preliminary judgements about what goes where. We soon learn the hand belongs to Marianne (Merlant), a French painter in the 18th century who falls in love with the young woman (Haenel) assigned to her as a subject. (In the early stages of the relationship, Marianne must keep her profession hidden on long walks with her object of obsession, giving the narrative an almost spy-movie like touch.) The fastidiousness of the early scenes helps establish the precise, exacting style of director Céline Sciamma, who tends to favor uncluttered compositions filled with lots of blank space, deliberate movements, and dramatic splashes of color. The flame-kissed title is very literal. As the story builds to its inevitably tragic and bittersweet finale, the movie strikes a powerful emotional chord.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

atlantics movie

30. Atlantics 

Release date: November 15
Cast: Mame Bineta Sane, Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou
Director: Mati Diop
Why it’s great: In Atlantics, the entrancing debut feature from Senegalese-French filmmaker Mati Diop, a debt must be paid. To construct a large glass tower in the coastal city of Dakar, an unscrupulous construction manager leans on his employees and refuses to provide the backpay they are owed. One of the workers, a young man named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), is in love with Ada (Mama Bineta Sané), a young woman engaged to a rich family's obnoxious, preening son. After establishing the tricky dynamics of this relationship, Diop's story takes a number of startling turns, introducing supernatural elements and a noir-like detective subplot. As the events unfold, often in engrossingly shot and exquisitely paced night sequences, the movie retains an ethereal quality that unsettles the imagination. Rather than providing conventional dramatic catharsis, Atlantics mimics the rhythms of the ocean, drawing in the viewer with each new wave of tension.
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

an elephant sitting still

29. An Elephant Sitting Still

Release date: March 8
Cast: Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi
Director: Hu Bo
Why it's great:An Elephant Sitting Still, the first and last feature from writer and director Hu Bo, is a movie that seeks to overwhelm. That becomes apparent early on in the film's gargantuan 234 minute runtime, as Bo holds his camera on the pain and stress in his characters'  faces, allowing scenes to play out in real time through lengthy takes and careful blocking. A simple act, like hiding in a bathroom from a friend or taking a small dog for a walk, takes on an almost unbearable tension under Bo's deliberate direction. The 29-year-old Chinese filmmaker and novelist took his own life before An Elephant Sitting Still was released, adding yet another layer of tragedy to this already despair-filled story, but it's not a narrative completely devoid of hope. The threading of the plotlines, which include a rambunctious teenager-on-the-run and a kind-hearted old man on the verge of being sent to a nursing home, calls to mind the day-in-a-life structure of a small scaled epic like Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. (There's even a touch of animal-related magical realism here, too.) The movie's vision of the world is often cruel and transactional, but moments of beauty can't help but sneak in.
Where to watch: Stream on Criterion Channel; rent on Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

diane movie
IFC Films

28. Diane

Release date: March 29
Cast: Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Deirdre O'Connell, Glynnis O'Connor
Director: Kent Jones (Hitchcock/Truffaut)
Why it’s great: There's a great moment in Diane, the keenly perceptive debut narrative feature from film-critic-turned-filmmaker Kent Jones, when a group of old friends and family members are having a conversation around the kitchen table when the phone rings. The owner of the house tells everyone to avoid the noise and not pick up because, after all, it's just a robo-call. You've probably seen a version of this exchange play our in your own life, but have you ever seen it in a movie? Though it addresses big ideas about guilt, death, addiction, and religion, Diane, which follows Mary Kay Place's widowed title character as she cares for her ailing loved ones, does so in a consistently surprising, human-scaled manner. Ever-diligent, Diane travels back and forth through Upstate New York, making food deliveries and checking in on the people she cares about -- even when it causes her terrible pain and heartache. Jones puts the viewer in the driver's seat, returning to the same image of the horizon fast approaching. As you'd imagine with a movie constructed from such small details, the destination isn't always the point. 
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

crawl movie
Paramount Pictures

27. Crawl

Release date: July 12
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon
Director: Alexandre Aja (Horns)
Why it's great: Stay away from gators. That's the big takeaway from this intelligently calibrated creature-feature about a college swimmer (Scodelario) driving to her childhood house in Florida to rescue her emotionally withholding father (Pepper) from a Category 5 hurricane that quickly turns into an alligator party where humans serve as the snacks. As hungry as the four-legged reptiles get, the main characters match them with brainy ingenuity. Instead of pumping up its B-movie premise with bloated action like last year's tiresome The Meg, Crawl keeps its suspense set-pieces relatively grounded, making it a worthy successor to the similarly rewarding The Shallows. Like the physically draining Blake Lively shark movie, this survival narrative never leans too hard on cheesy humor and rarely uses gore as a punchline. (Aja, who helmed the far grosser Piranha remake, is on his best behavior here.) In addition to serving as a climate change parable, Crawl also works as a study in the pathology of home ownership and a portrait of the parent-coach dynamic. Lots to chew on.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer)

her smell movie
Gunpowder & Sky

26. Her Smell

Release date: April 12
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Amber Heard, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens
Director: Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip)
Why it's great: Becky Something, the lead singer of fictional alt-rock mainstays Something She, is a whirlwind of emotional chaos. As played by Moss, the captivating star of Mad Men, The Handmaid's Tale, and Perry's previous psychological thriller riff Queen of Earth, she's constantly fighting a war on all fronts: against her exasperated bandmates, her watchful manager, her hopeful proteges, her wounded ex-boyfriend, and anyone else who gets in her way. Conflicts fold in on each other; enemies become allies. Divided into distinct sections that each unfold in a single location, Her Smell is a music business recovery story conceptualized and shot by cinematographer Sean Price Williams as a combat film that keeps you locked in on the faces of those involved, flipping the giddy dreams-come-true backstage energy of A Star is Born into a harrowing nightmare of machine-gun-fire put-downs and mortar-like bursts of bad behavior. The roving camera puts you right in the maelstrom, demanding you follow Becky as she slowly, painstakingly battles her way towards higher ground.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Go; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

richard jewell
Warner Brothers Pictures

25. Richard Jewell

Release date: December 13
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm 
Director: Clint Eastwood (The Mule)
Why it’s great: During a concert in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, 1996, security guard Richard Jewell noticed a suspicious unattended backpack beneath a bench near a crowd. While that discovery is dramatized in Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood's docudrama about the bombing starring I Tonya breakout Paul Walter Hauser as the title character, the film is more interested in what came before and after this inflection point in Jewell's otherwise mostly unremarkable life. That means showing mundane moments from Jewell's career as an overzealous campus cop, quiet scenes from his domestic life with his mother (Kathy Bates), and surreal confrontations with the FBI agents who come to suspect him of planting the bomb. (When the story strays from Jewell, like it does in its sexist portrayal of journalist Kathy Scruggs, it loses its focus.) Eastwood's prickly, idiosyncratic films about unlikely heroes often embody the ambiguities and contradictions that his most strident critics accuse him of avoiding; the tone is often more melancholy and funny, aware of the surface-level absurdities, than bombastic or didactic. Along with 2016's gripping Sully and last year's even more peculiar The 15:17 to Paris, Richard Jewell caps off an inscrutable trilogy of movies about valor in modern American life.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

us movie
Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

24. Us

Release date: March 22
Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Director: Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Why it's great: The double, the doppelgänger with questionable intentions and mysterious origins, is a potent concept for both horror and comedy. Fittingly, writer and director Jordan Peele uses the device to elicit scares and laughs in Us, his sophomore feature about a family, led by intrepid parents Adelaide (Nyong'o) and Gabe (Duke), facing off against their jumpsuit-wearing, scissor-wielding counterparts in the middle of a leisurely vacation. What begins as an unsettling home invasion thriller with socio-political undertones in the vein of Michel Haneke's Funny Games gives way to a more frenzied, twist-filled science-fiction brain-teaser that tunnels deep into feelings of paranoia like an episode of Lost or The Twilight Zone. Peele's theme-park ride sense of pacing, particularly in a mid-movie sequence scored to the music of the Beach Boys and N.W.A., keeps you from questioning some of the leaps in narrative logic. (The ending, which goes to great lengths to explain certain aspects of the world and avoids others, might be a deal-breaker for some viewers.)  Less elegant than the conceptually air-tight Get Out, Us explodes in a million directions and raises questions that simply can't be answered. Untethering the ideas becomes half the fun.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Go; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

pain and glory
Sony Pictures Classics

23. Pain and Glory

Release date: October 4 
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Asier Etxeandia 
Director: Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her)
Why it’s great: Though it's filled with bright colors and moments of passion, Pain and Glory isn't a snappy movie. Playing Salvador Mallo, an aging film director facing a range of severe health problems, Antonio Banderas brings a soft-spoken warmth and calming stillness to a role that other less confident actors might have found bitterness or resentment in. Mallo is an artist who has achieved a great deal, allowing him to live a life of great comfort and economic stability, but he's still floundering: Probing the mistakes of his past, turning away from creative opportunities, and using heroin to dull the physical discomfort of his various conditions. Almodóvar treats this quasi-autobiographical material, including some flashbacks to Mallo's childhood, with an alternatingly arch and gentle touch, leaving plenty of room for Banderas to hold the camera's attention with his adroitly modulated performance. You can't take your eyes off him. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer)

dark waters
Focus Features

22. Dark Waters

Release date: November 22
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp
Director: Todd Haynes (Carol)
Why it’s great: The dangerous, mass-produced chemicals that Mark Ruffalo's dogged attorney Robert Bilott fights against can be found in seemingly boring objects like non-stick pots and pans. There's a startling mundanity to the real-life horrors explored in Dark Waters, the ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a lawyer waging a decade-spanning legal war against DuPont, one of the most powerful corporations in the world. The kitchen table, where families gather to break bread and discuss their day, becomes the scene of the crime. To tell the often dispiriting story, which mostly plays out in Ohio and West Virginia, director Todd Haynes emphasizes the domestic and social aspects of the legal thriller, shooting a stiff corporate holiday party and a conversation outside a Benihana with All the President's Men levels of tension and his own sense of melodrama. As the years pass, the script by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan resists many of the triumphant, fist-pumping moments typically associated with the genre, where cleverness is often enough to expose hypocrisy and topple evil. Instead, Dark Waters suggests the pursuit of justice is a grind that slowly submerges crusaders in manilla folders and file cabinets, leaving little room to breathe. 
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

marriage story

21. Marriage Story

Release date: November 6
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda
Director: Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories)
Why it’s great: Returning to the topic of 2005's caustic comedy The Squid and the Whale, which tracked the fallout of a divorce from the perspective of children, writer and director Noah Baumbach again finds laughter and pain in the often excruciating personal details of ending a relationship. This time, the bickering couple -- a Brooklyn-dwelling actress and a theater director played with tenderness and anger by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver -- takes center stage. Instead of watching the two fall in and out of love, the story opens with the separation already in motion, allowing Baumbach to focus on the soul-sucking, money-draining legal shitstorm that follows. While Driver and Johansson are both excellent in tricky, emotionally demanding roles, some of the sharpest moments come courtesy of their attorneys, collaborators, and extended families. (Laura Dern and Alan Alda have rightfully earned praise for their parts, but I'd watch Ray Liotta's gruff divorce expert in his own spin-off.) In showing how divorce ripples outward, Marriage Story complicates its own simple premise as it progresses.
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

STX Entertainment

20. Hustlers

Release date: September 13
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer 
Director: Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler)
Why it’s great: Both flashy in its presentation and meticulous in its construction, Hustlers, a true-crime docudrama about a group of strippers ripping off their oblivious Wall Street customers, understands the intricacies of its setting. Constance Wu's Destiny, new to the occupation, takes in every detail along the way. Yes, there's the light-strewn stage with the pole where Jennifer Lopez's ringleader Ramona makes her on-screen debut to a Fiona Apple song while money piles up around her, but there's also the chilly rooftop where employees go for smoke breaks, the cramped dressing room where inside jokes get shared, the cavernous bar where overpriced drinks get mixed, and the foreboding office where tips get distributed. In the simultaneously seedy and glamorous world of Hustlers, all these places matter. With empathy and humor, writer and director Lorene Scafaria maps out the terrain, using voiceover narration, poignant time-jumps, and the occasional whip-pan reveal to tell a story of ambition, greed, and friendship. Cash rules everything, but the women of Hustlers find ways to make money work for them. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer)

american factory

19. American Factory

Release date: August 21
Directors: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (A Lion in the House)
Why it's great: When the Chinese company Fuyao Glass opened a new factory in Dayton, Ohio, there was so much hope in the air. Billionaire Chairman Cao Dewang arrived at his new facility with the intention of writing a bold new chapter in the expansion of global capitalism, delivering prosperity to a struggling area while getting rich in the process. That was the plan, at least. Over the course of two hours, American Factory follows the slow depletion of that hope as the corporate culture of the Chinese managements butts heads with the customs, attitudes, and economic priorities of the American workforce. Directors Reichert and Bognar put their cameras everywhere: terse board meetings, raucous union organizing sessions, casual break-room conversations, and, in one revealing sequence, a business trip to a Fuyao factory in China. Despite sounding tremendously bleak, American Factory has more humor and humanity than your average magazine article about the challenges facing Middle America. For a movie about the complexities of mechanical manufacturing, it feels refreshingly handmade. 
Where to watch: Stream it on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

amazing grace

18. Amazing Grace

Release date: April 5
Directors: Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack
Why it's great: Aretha Franklin's voice has the power to transport the listener through time. In Amazing Grace, a captivating concert film made of footage shot in 1972 during the live recording sessions of her beloved album of the same name, she turns Los Angeles's New Temple Missionary Baptist Church into a musical flashback to her own childhood spent singing gospel music. As a performer and musician, she re-arranges old songs, passed down through generations of preachers and singers, into invigorating new texts. Similarly, this movie, once considered a "lost" document of her artistic prowess, now emerges in the present, reconfigured from footage shot by the filmmaker Sydney Pollack, and the act of watching it can turn your humble, local movie theater into a rollicking, sacred house of worship. While Franklin is undoubtedly the star here, commanding attention with her every move and utterance, the film itself is also an archive of other less well known faces from the past. We see the expert session musicians working to compliment her soulful vocals, the backup singers swaying in their seats as they accompany her, and the adoring fans stationed in the pews, bearing witness to her genius. There are so many layers of memory and artifice to untangle, adding poignancy and complexity to an already powerful performance. 
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer

transit movie
Music Box Films

17. Transit

Release date: March 1
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Maryam Zaree
Director: Christian Petzold (Phoenix)
Why it's great: Everything is slippery in Petzold's meticulously strange psychological thriller. Like in his last film, the transfixing Hitchcock-ian World War II era genre riff Phoenix, there's an element of mistaken identity at play: On-the-run German refugee Georg (Rogowski) arrives in Marseille with the documents of a celebrated author and soon finds himself pretending to be the famous man in exchange for safe passage to Mexico. Meanwhile, the writer's wife (Beer) searches the city for her husband, crossing paths with his double in bars and on the streets. The thorny, complicated story is adapted from a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers, which was set during the 1940s, but Petzold strips the set-up of most period-specific signifiers and stages the intrigue-filled drama in a slightly askew, destabilizing version of the present. (For example, no one has cell phones but the fascist troops carry large assault rifles and dress in SWAT gear.) As a conceptual gambit, the question of "when" we are creates compelling moments of discomfort and asymmetry; on an emotional level, it can make the twists and turns in the plot feel slightly removed, like a mathematical proof for an unknown (potentially unsolvable) problem. Petzold's sure-handed direction, clean and economical in spite of the narrative knots, evokes the romance of the past and prods at the contradictions of the present. Being unstuck in time has rarely felt so uniquely pleasurable.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

ad astra
20th Century Fox

16. Ad Astra

Release date: September 20 
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler
Director: James Gray (The Lost City of Z)
Why it’s great: Despite the galaxy-spanning, mankind-saving mission at its center, James Gray's ruminative adventure Ad Astra feels spare, like a rocket stripped of all its inessential parts. There are thrilling moments of suspense you'd expect from a blockbuster -- like a buggy-chase on the surface of the moon, a zero-gravity brawl, and a jump-scare involving a wild animal -- but there's a concision and grace to how even these pulpier science-fiction elements are presented. As a filmmaker, Gray isn't interested in ambiguity, instead choosing to explore his timeless existential themes with a startling sense of purpose; individual scenes vibrate like the director struck a tuning fork right before each shot. Brad Pitt's buttoned-up, goal-oriented astronaut Roy McBride is constantly performing acts of self-assessment, engaging in corporate-mandated personal inventories and more melodramatic musings delivered in voiceover. To use some psychobabble, he's "doing the work." With his square jaw and calm eyes, Pitt turns that inner struggle into a deeply poetic, agonizingly physical journey of self-discovery. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

high flying bird

15. High Flying Bird

Release date: February 8
Cast: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Bill Duke, Jeryl Prescott
Director: Steven Soderbergh (Traffic)
Why it's great: The "game on top of the game" is the true subject of this dazzling, head-scratching inversion of the sports movie from the stylistically restless director Soderbergh and Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. Instead of locker-room huddles and buzzer-beater shots, this is a story of modern athletics stripped of all the highlight footage: Ray Burke (Holland) is a sports agent representing a young basketball client in the midst of a league lockdown. A weary maverick with an eye for the bigger picture, Burke needs to save his job, serve his client, and possibly "disrupt" an organization with a history of mistreating its clients. A hybrid of Jerry MaGuire-like behind the scenes drama and Moneyball-esque wonkery, High Flying Bird will be an odd hang for some -- characters trade lengthy monologues, real-life NBA players show up for documentary interludes, and, like Soderbergh's recent health care thriller Unsane, the whole movie was shot on an iPhone -- but it's worth putting the time in and thinking your way through. Few filmmakers are playing the game at this level.
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer

little women
Sony Pictures

14. Little Women 

Release date: December 25
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern
Director: Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
Why it’s great: Greta Gerwig's sure-footed adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women opens with a negotiation, carried out in a brisk manner between a writer and an editor, and remains fixated on questions of ownership, authorship, and independence for much of its runtime. Like 2017's Lady Bird, which also starred Saoirse Ronan as a restless young woman with creative ambitions, Little Women displays an acute sensitivity to matters of money: the four March sisters chart different paths from their Massachusetts home by pursuing personal happiness without losing sight of where they stand in the larger social order of 1860s America. At the same time, the movie has a lightness and a glow to it, a jolly familial rowdiness that's captured in all the inter-sibling squabbles. (Despite the period piece trappings, the filmmaking is proudly un-stuffy, jostling with activity and Altman-esque layered dialogue.) By chopping up the chronology of the book so expertly and sprinkling bits of meta commentary in at key points, Gerwig gives new life to a tale that's proven to be resilient to the whims of the market.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer

the nightingale
IFC Films

13. The Nightingale 

Release date: August 2
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman
Director:Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)
Why it's great: Revenge is a distressingly common theme in Hollywood movies, often used as a way to provide the threadbare motivation of a gunslinging protagonist on a path of violent destruction. On the surface, The Nightingale, director Jennifer Kent's unceasingly brutal follow-up to her breakout horror hit The Babadook, is another familiar tale of vengeance and bloodshed. Claire, a 21-year-old Irish convict played by newcomer Aisling Franciosi, faces incredible hardships at the hands of cruel, merciless British officers in 1825 Tasmania. After being raped multiple times and seeing her family killed in front of her eyes, she's left for dead. But she survives, tailing her attackers across the harsh Australian landscape with the help of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Ganambarr), who she initially treats with contempt and condescension. Shooting in a box-like aspect ratio, Kent zeroes in on the hypocrisies of colonialism with a startling sense of purpose. Her camera often locks in on the faces of the characters, refusing to look away and encouraging the viewer to confront truths that most films would prefer to keep hidden.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

a hidden life
Fox Searchlight

12. A Hidden Life

Release date: December 13
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow
Director: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
Why it’s great: Terrence Malick movies confront some of the most challenging moral questions with a directness that can be alienating to some viewers. His latest project A Hidden Life, which was inspired by the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his refusal to fight for the Nazis in World War II, is predominantly shot in the lyrical, late career style most closely associated with 2011's The Tree of Life: the camera roves across images of natural beauty, tilts up towards the sky, and pushes right up to the actors' light-strewn faces; the characters whisper in simultaneously intimate, quizzical, and philosophical voice-over; the events unfold in carefully edited, symbolically weighted montages that rummage through time. He uses this approach to delve into the motivations of a consciousness objector, dramatizing an internal struggle that becomes a physical test and a family crisis as the war intensifies. It's overwhelming at times -- themes reoccur in a manner that can be repetitive, numbing even -- but in its best sections A Hidden Life recalls Malick's masterpieces like The New World, The Thin Red Line, and Days of Heaven
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

birds of passage
The Orchard

11. Birds of Passage

Release date: February 13
Cast: Carmiña Martínez, Natalia Reyes, José Acosta, Jhon Narváez
Directors: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent)
Why it's great: The sprawling gangster epic, complete with harrowing gun battles and bracing double-crosses, gets a thoughtful reimagining in this chronicle of an indigenous Wayúu family in northern Colombia who get swept up in the marijuana trade of the late 60s and 70s. (It all starts with some long-haired American Peace Corps volunteers looking to get high.) As is often the case in these stories, the influx of cash and uptick in violence within the community has destabilizing effects: historic traditions, codes of honor, and familial ties get abandoned in pursuit of empire building. We follow Rafayet (Acosta) as he attempts to hold onto his soul in the midst of unchecked, unflinching free-market chaos. What sets this tale of greed and betrayal apart from every Goodfellas knock-off you've ever seen? The filmmakers have an expert control of pacing and style, letting the story unfold through long chapters and nail-biting sequences of suspense. By the end, you're fully immersed in the world.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Go; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

john wick chapter 3

10. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Release date: May 17
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos
Director:Chad Stahelski (John Wick: Chapter 2)
Why it’s great: Whether he's slamming an enemy in the face with a book in a library or dodging stray bullets while galloping down a Manhattan street on horseback, John Wick remains calm. The always-on-the-run assassin, returning for the third entry in this surprisingly resilient series, shows weakness, pain, and even vulnerability, but no weapon can puncture the armor of stillness Reeves brings to the role, and his performance is what makes these movies so gripping. The story is mostly silly -- Wick has been declared "excommunicado" by the order of assassins he used to belong to and must seek out old allies across the globe -- but Reeves and his collaborators, including series director Stahelski and the top-notch stunt team, never lose sight of the core elements that make Wick tick. Even as the mythology grows more complicated, the cast expands to introduce comically named characters like The Adjudicator (Billions break-out Asia Kate Dillon) or The Director (Angelica Huston), and the fights become even more elaborate, Reeves floats through the film. Even if some of the original's underworld grit has been shined away, replaced with scuff-free comic-book opulence and whiskey commercial ambiance, the series stays committed to simple pleasures. Alongside Tom Cruise's more outwardly stressed Ethan Hunt, Wick remains the best action hero Hollywood has to offer.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Go; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the farewell

9. The Farewell

Release date: July 12
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen 
Director:Lulu Wang (Posthumous)
Why it's great: Based on a "true lie" that writer-director Wang previously told on NPR's This American Life, The Farewell is the rare family "dramedy" that doesn't skimp on either side of that always squishy, often lame neologism. The comedy that comes from watching Awkwafina's New York City-dwelling Billi travel to China, where she cares for her cancer-stricken grandmother (Shuzhen) without revealing the nature of her illness, is just as well-observed as the more conventionally dramatic moments that arrive later in the film as her relatives attempt to untangle the farcical, tragic moral situation they find themselves in. There's an impressive degree of balance to Wang's style, an openness to finding impactful images in quiet moments and discovering visual grace notes in more chaotic sequences. Similarly, Awkwafina, so brash and explosive in movies like Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, gives a sure-footed performance that disrupts the delicate equilibrium of the story. Melancholy without veering into schmaltz and insightful without feeling didactic, The Farewell explores intergenerational family conflict with a deft, mindful touch.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

Amazon Studios

8. Peterloo

Release date: April 5
Cast: Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Rory Kinnear, David Moorst
Director: Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner)
Why it's great:Peterloo, Mike Leigh's politically daring and immensely moving historical drama about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, is a film that takes the nitty-gritty process of coalition-building seriously. The amount of time Leigh devotes to lengthy speeches made in cramped kitchens, crowded taverns, and bucolic open fields might strike some as superfluous or just plain dull, but the fiery rhetoric, mostly delivered by working-class English men and women seeking reforms to Parliament and an extension of voting rights, is more varied than it might appear. Some characters call for bloody revolution, others for careful adjustments to the system, and a few are simply tired of all the talk, skeptical it can accomplish anything. (The powerful bureaucrats in charge of the oppressive system are also tied up with their own legalistic, darkly funny babble.) The effectiveness of language in the face of brutal state violence is put on display in the film's tragic final section, which dramatizes a harrowing attack on peaceful protesters by saber-wielding soldiers in St Peter’s Fields. Equally concerned with tactics and rhetoric, Leigh's movie is the rare cinematic portrayal of the past that refuses to focus on a single "great" individual; instead, it shows how radical change can be pursued by groups coming together in pursuit of common goals. Climbing on a soapbox, potentially exposing yourself as a blabbering fool or as a galvanizing leader, requires its own type of bravery. Peterloo's brilliance lies in its ability to examine that courage and the quieter moments in between. 
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon; rent on iTunes and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

ash is purest white
Cohen Media Group

7. Ash Is Purest White

Release date: March 15
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Feng Xiaogang, Xu Zheng
Director: Jia Zhangke (Mountains May Depart)
Why it's great: It's not uncommon for a grand romance to unfold over the years against a fraught, ever-evolving historical backdrop. At first glance, Ash Is Purest White, the new film from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, looks like a familiar epic, a sweeping tale of sex and violence between a gangster and his lover, grafted onto the tricky dynamics of 21st century China. When we first meet Qiao (Tao) and Bin (Fan), they are fellow travelers in a seedy, small-time criminal underworld, one where "YMCA" dances can break out at crowded clubs and thrilling fist-fights can erupt in city streets, like in a Hong Kong action movie from the '90s. But as the two grow apart, both geographically and emotionally, Ash Is Purest White more fully becomes Qiao's story and the movie takes on its own haunted, discursive tone. While examining matters of loyalty, sacrifice, and disillusionment, Zhangke arrives at emotional truths that aren't always spoken by the characters. Instead, he allows his actors, particularly the incredible Tao, to embody these ideas with the smallest movements and the subtlest gestures. The tensions and complications of history weigh them down, but that never prevents the film from taking flight.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the irishman

6. The Irishman

Release date: November 1
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano
Director: Martin Scorsese (Silence)
Why it’s great: Opening with a tracking shot through the halls of a drab nursing home, where we meet a feeble old man telling tall tales from his wheelchair, The Irishman delights in undercutting its own grandiosity. All the pageantry a $150 million check from Netflix can buy -- the digital de-aging effects, the massive crowd scenes, the shiny rings passed between men -- is on full display. Everything looks tremendous. But, like with 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, the characters can't escape the fundamental spiritual emptiness of their pursuits. In telling the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran and truck driver turned mob enforcer and friend to labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian construct an underworld-set counter-narrative of late 20th century American life. With an eye on the clock and a foot in the grave, the movie is profoundly fixated on death, even introducing select side characters with onscreen text that notes the circumstances of their eventual demise. (The Irishman can be darkly, wickedly funny when it's not devastatingly sad.) That stark awareness of mortality, an understanding that's cleverly reflected in the film's quasi-road-movie flashback structure, distinguishes it from Scorsese's more outwardly frenetic gangster epics like Goodfellas and Casino, which also starred De Niro and Pesci, who gives the movie's most surprising performance here. Even with a 209 minute runtime, every second counts.
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

once upon a time in hollywood
Sony Pictures

5. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Release date: July 26
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch 
Director: Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight)
Why it's great: Both riotously funny and achingly melancholy, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a movie about an industry in a difficult transition period. Similarly, the film, which combines the laid-back hang-out vibe of Jackie Brown with the more outwardly ambitious grandiosity of Inglourious Basterds, signals a shift in style for Tarantino, a Generation X icon approaching his self-proclaimed creative twilight years. While Robbie's Sharon Tate and the Manson Family provide the historical heft to the material, the friendship between DiCaprio's fictional actor Rick Dalton and Pitt's made-up stuntman Cliff Booth is the core of this dazzling, beguiling epic in miniature, which unfolds over a couple lazy afternoons in 1969. Ever the fanboy, the director relishes the chance to recreate the Western TV shows, dime store novels, corny commercials, and booze-fueled shoptalk of late '60s Los Angeles, but he also captures the more timeless pleasures of sharing those cultural commodities with the other people in your life. Tarantino isn't necessarily declaring that the power of cinema can cure loneliness, raise the dead, or change the tragedies of the past. He's merely suggesting it can alleviate the pain. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunes, Vudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer)

The Souvenir

4. The Souvenir

Release date: May 17
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen
Director: Joanna Hogg (Exhibition)
Why it's great: What do we owe to the people we love? That's one of the many unanswerable questions driving this achingly beautiful, tenderly observed portrait of a toxic relationship between young film student Julie (Byrne) and cagey heroin addict Anthony (Burke). Against the backdrop of a specific slice of wealthy early '80s London, the movie -- which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival -- follows the couple's early awkward courtship, defined by brittle exchanges of ideas and emotions, while also keeping a watchful eye on Julie's tentative development as an artist. She wants to make movies and has a curiosity about the larger world around her; Anthony, with his cynicism and his anger, cannot help but put himself on a path to destruction. Like in many stories of young love, ruin is inevitable. On a premise level, the movie sounds almost comically bleak, like a parody of an art film from an episode of Seinfeld, but Hogg's scene-by-scene execution, finding moments and images that vibrate with specificity and life, is stunning. It's a movie that breaks your heart with studied precision.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

high life

3. High Life

Release date: April 5
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth
Director: Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In)
Why it's great: French filmmaker Claire Denis makes movies that claw at the brain and activate the senses. For her latest project, the ambitious and lyrical space drama High Life starring Robert Pattinson, she's crafted a story that's equal parts heady prison thriller, psycho-sexual medical mystery, and bong-rip journey through the cosmos. Bouncing backwards and forwards in chronology, the story tracks quiet inmate Monte (Pattinson) as he raises a baby in a cavernous, dorm-like shuttle in one timeline and attempts to thwart the secretive plans of an oddball scientist (Binoche) in another thread. Exactly how Monte ends up alone with the baby, playing the role of single parent in the stars, would be the central question of a more conventional sci-fi narrative, and there are surprising plot twists and shocking violent acts committed here. But Denis fills the movie with curious images and wild ideas that complicate the dystopian set-up. The ship has both a Eden-like garden, where Outkast's Benjamin waxes philosophical about his work, and a Cronenbergian machine Denis has called "the fuckbox," where Binoche unfurls her long hair and experiences moments of erotic ecstasy. They aren't set up as polarities or opposing ideas; instead Denis weaves all these elements together using the elliptical methods she's developed over a long career. Like Jonathan Glazer's equally haunting genre experiment Under The Skin, High Life resists the solutions of puzzle-box filmmaking, choosing instead to explore its own perilous terrain of desire.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on AmazoniTunes, Vudu, and YouTube  (Watch the trailer)

parasite movie

2. Parasite

Release date: October 11
Cast: Song Kang Ho, Jang Hye Jin, Choi Woo Shik, Park So Dam 
Director:Bong Joon Ho (Okja)
Why it’s great: Another collision of whiz-bang genre pyrotechnics and nudge-nudge class critiques, Parasite finds South Korean director Bong Joon Ho working in a similar mode as his previous two features, the dystopian train thriller Snowpiercer and environmental love story Okja. There's an allegorical threading of ideas going on, an exploration of the small and large humiliations inherent to contemporary global inequality, but he still keeps ratcheting up the suspense and sharpening the comedy with each movie. Somehow, they keep getting even more precise in their execution. (His camera often pushes forward, prodding the viewer to the next shocking discovery.) Parasite, which follows a poor family that infiltrates the blemish-free modernist home of a wealthy family, threatens to become too schematic at points, particularly once you sense the various pieces of the plot locking into place, but the filmmaking, especially in the bursts of violent physical comedy, displays a winning verve and a disarming mischievousness that keeps it from devolving into Nolan-like brick-building. Despite the insect-referencing title, the movie doesn't treat its characters like bugs scurrying beneath the director's punishing magnifying glass. Both families have their moments of humanity; at the same time, judgement is still doled out. By the end, Bong achieves a yearning ache that's unlike anything you'll likely feel at the movies this year.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

uncut gems

1. Uncut Gems

Release date: December 13
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield
Directors: Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie (Good Time)
Why it’s great: In Uncut Gems, the immersive crime film from sibling director duo Josh and Benny Safdie, gambling is a matter of faith. Whether he's placing a bet on the Boston Celtics, attempting to rig an auction, or outrunning debt-collecting goons at his daughter's high school play, the movie's jeweler protagonist Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) believes in his ability to beat the odds. Does that mean he always succeeds? No, that would be absurd, undercutting the character's Job-like status, which Sandler imbues with an endearing weariness that holds the story together. But every financial setback, emotional humbling, and spiritual humiliation he suffers gets interpreted by Howard as a sign that his circumstances might be turning around. After all, a big score could be right around the corner. He's both trapped in a circumstantial vice, which closes in around him as the film progresses, and addicted to the powerful sensation of being squeezed, which is reflected in the movie's synth-splashed, crosstalk-filled audio mix. Expanding on the jittery, run-and-gun propulsion of 2017's Good Time, the Safdie Brothers outfit the movie with quasi-novelistic flourishes like an Ethiopia-set prologue and a surprisingly warm, funny detour to a Passover seder. Every piece, from the performances to the costume design, feels deliberate and considered while also retaining the jagged, surreal texture of day-to-day life as lived in 2012 New York. That balance between the cosmic and the chaotic -- the sacred and the profane -- makes Uncut Gems the best movie of the year.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.