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The best movies of 2020

Most of this year’s best movies are available from the comfort of your own home

Image: Hulu via Polygon

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2020 was a strange year for movies, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters, paused productions, and shifted the entire year’s movie release schedule. Many of the year’s biggest planned releases wound up going straight to VOD, or eked out small theatrical runs in whatever markets they could. Many more were delayed to 2021. It was a year that changed how people watched movies, in ways that may have a vast impact on the future of the industry.

But even so, there have been plenty of great movies this year, and they’re mostly available to watch and stream from home. Here, we sum up the movies that moved us in 2020, when we really needed the temporary break from reality, whether we were falling into a world of garishly colorful superhero comedy, a grim exploration of racist police violence, or a look at how an extremely drunk high-school teacher navigates his days.

a crowd cheers on mads mikkelsen as he drinks from a bottle Photo: Screen International

Another Round

Thomas Vinterberg’s filmography stretches from sprawling romances (Far From the Madding Crowd) to suffocating awkward family dramas (The Celebration — my God, The Celebration). His new film returns him to the latter side of the spectrum, with Mads Mikkelsen starring as a high-school history teacher stuck in a severe funk. This isn’t just a midlife crisis, Mikkelsen’s Martin can barely feel anymore, numbed by a depression he wasn’t aware has embalmed him. He awakens after a fine glass of wine — and then another and another. After hearing a theory on alcohol micro-dosing, the teacher and his coworkers begin to drink at school. The effects are inarguable. Vinterberg and Mikkelsen interrogate the controversial life change with captivating steadiness. The choices uplift and then destroy Martin. Something in his soul is unlocked by the right amount of vodka, but his wife doesn’t see it his way. True to the frankness of Danish cinema, Vinterberg travels with his character down a route that never seems scripted — it just goes. And thankfully, it takes Mikkelsen to places where he can show off his dance moves. —Matt Patches

Another Round will debut on digital platforms on Dec. 18.

a woman on the phone holds her head in her hands Photo: Bleecker Street

The Assistant

Kitty Green’s first foray into narrative features takes place over the course of a single day at a film production office. Julia Garner stars as Jane, an assistant saddled with the most menial and stressful tasks that the other assistants and employees constantly pass off to her. The little insights she gleans about her boss’ sexually predatory nature grow increasingly hard to stomach, especially as a new assistant, a young waitress flown in from Idaho, seems in particular danger. But if everyone else in the office is in on it, how much can Jane do? The Assistant is an intense, stomach-churning experience, and a necessary look at the systems that have abetted sexual misconduct. —Karen Han

The Assistant is streaming on Amazon.

a family sit around a table Photo: IFC Films

Babyteeth

Movies like The Fault in Our Stars and Five Feet Apart have dangerously romanticized stories about teenagers who fall in love while one or both of them are dying, and Babyteeth provides a much-needed breath of fresh air in its straightforward take on how harrowing such illnesses can be. As Milla (Eliza Scanlen), who has been diagnosed with cancer, falls in love, she also struggles with the way her body begins deteriorating, and she wrestles and fights against death rather than demurely accepting her fate. —KH

Babyteeth is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

a sitting hugh jackman surrounded by other adults in bad education Photo: HBO

Bad Education

HBO’s based-on-a-true-story drama mostly serves as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney to do some capital-A acting. They star as public-school superintendents convicted of embezzling millions of dollars from their district, the largest school financial scandal in American history. As Jackman moves away from playing Wolverine, the role that’s defined his career for the last 20 years, he seems eager to remind the public that he’s not just a charming beefcake who can sing — he’s also a talented dramatic actor.

As superintendent Frank Tassone, Jackman’s charisma takes on a dark edge. That charm covers up some deeply held secrets, and the veneer starts to crack as those secrets are uncovered by a dogged young reporter (played by Blockers’ Geraldine Viswanathan.) And Allison Janney is always a treat, of course. She was perfectly cast as Pam Gluckin, a brassy Long Island broad who served as Frank’s assistant superintendent and co-conspirator. Frank and Pam’s slow descent into self-destruction is like a fascinating train wreck. —Emily Heller

Bad Education is streaming on HBO Max; buy on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube

Margot Robbie rests her arms on a deli counter and looks pleadingly at her breakfast sandwich as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey. Image: Warner Bros.

Birds of Prey

Harley Quinn is struggling to find herself now that she isn’t part of a famous tragicomic romance with the Joker, and what better way than to spend some time with her best gal-friends? Sounds like the plot of an wine-and-feels-filled road-trip movie, but instead, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) delivers fast-paced action and stunts. (Okay, there’s lots of emotion too.)

Each member of the Birds of Prey has a backstory harkening back to a different classical genre, reimagined with vibrant colors and modern stunts. Harley’s Looney Tunes antics, Renee Montoya’s “turn in your badge and gun” cop crusade, Huntress’ mafia-revenge flick, and Black Canary’s callback to blaxploitation cinema all weave together into a seamless superhero action movie, a remarkable feat of cinema from director Cathy Yan.

The fight choreography is as expressive as Margot Robbie’s captivating face, the setpieces are unique and lively, and Yan never takes the action too seriously, with sequences like Quinn’s glitter-grenade assault on a police station. In a cinematic landscape full of grimdark vengeance flicks, it’s a relief to see a movie that remembers how heightened fantasy can mean a fun, wacky time. —Jenna Stoeber

Birds of Prey is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube

Two of the subjects from Boys State get excited over the latest news on their phones. Photo: Apple TV Plus

Boys State

Political documentaries these days tend to be grim polemics with massive stakes, but Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State is the exact opposite — it’s a lively, funny, but fascinating look at a process that technically doesn’t matter at all. An inside look at an annual political-training event where a thousand teenage boys create their own government from scratch, Boys State captures the wheeling, dealing, and endless political discoveries and compromises as the participants unwittingly re-create all the flaws of modern politics. The access is unbeatable, as Moss and McBaine get up close with one year’s leadership and follows their campaigns and clashes. It’s a hilarious and mesmerizing movie, but it’s insightful and revealing, too. —Tasha Robinson

Boys State is streaming on Apple TV Plus.

a group of men look at an excavation site Photo: Netflix

Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s latest film, Da 5 Bloods, would be devastating even if its address of racial politics in American history didn’t seem so prescient. As four Vietnam veterans return to the country under the pretext of retrieving the body of their fallen commander, they must wrestle with the ways in which America has consistently failed its Black citizens, and how the resulting resentment can warp a person’s heart. Lee also doesn’t hold back in condemning America’s actions in Vietnam, and though it’s a bloody film, it ultimately ends on a note of hope. —KH

Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix.

byrne and his band perform Photo: HBO

David Byrne’s American Utopia

Translating what is meant to be a live experience into a filmed one is no easy feat, but director Spike Lee manages it with the film version of David Byrne’s Broadway show American Utopia. As Byrne sings songs old and new with the help of an ensemble of dancers and musicians, he builds a message of hope, encouraging the audience to take action to help change the path of the future. Lee’s direction also takes the show to some unexpected places, getting up close and personal with Byrne and his ensemble as well as, during a key number, adding some imagery that wasn’t a part of the original show. —KH

David Byrne’s American Utopia is streaming on HBO Max.

dick johnson not being dead Photo: John Wakayama Carey/Sundance Institute

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Death is inevitable, yet it’s always difficult to face. Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson does her best to tackle it in her new work Dick Johnson Is Dead: as her father Dick battles dementia, the two of them stage and film different versions of his death. The resulting documentary is remarkably tender, especially as Johnson captures very real moments of heartbreak amid these fantasies. It’s not just a tribute to Johnson’s father, it’s a reminder to cherish your loved ones while they’re still alive. —KH

Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.

anya taylor-joy as emma, looking up at a statue Photo: Focus Features

Emma.

Prior to directing Emma., Autumn de Wilde was a photographer who directed commercials and music videos, and her eye for detail — how to set a scene, how to direct actors, how to draw the gaze — is on full display in this film. This relatively faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, and de Wilde seems to derive great pleasure from simply telling the story well. On top of that, it’s simply gorgeous to look at; every costume and set is packed to the brim with color and detail. —KH

Emma. is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

ferrell and mcadams dressed in dramatic costumes and looking deadly serious Photo: Elizabeth Viggiano/Netflix

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga isn’t perfect (and perhaps has the advantage of being a deliriously light film in the middle of a bleak year), but it’s still a delight. As Lars and Sigrit, would-be Eurovision contestants, Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams give it their all. Rather than making fun of the legendarily gaudy competition, the film is a loving homage. A fondness for the real-life contest is tangible throughout, not least in the incredibly catchy songs. The film defies ironic enjoyment, and so it goes on this year’s best-of list without any further quantification, too. —KH

Eurovision Song Contest is streaming on Netflix.

A man stands amidst ferns in a forest. Photo: Allyson Riggs/A24

First Cow

The best word to describe Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is “sublime.” The film’s plot — two men in 1820 Oregon steal milk from a cow in order to make and sell cakes — may seem slight, but Reichardt packs it full of tenderness. Small moments such as a character sweeping a floor clean or a prolonged glance strike straight to the heart, and the tale of connection between two men in the middle of the American West becomes a bigger tale about the American Dream as a whole. It’s a marvel, and perhaps the very best of what 2020 has to offer. —KH

First Cow is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

lafayette, hercules mulligan, john laurens, and hamilton in the broadway cast of hamilton Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Hamilton

The release of Thomas Kail’s recorded version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical smash Hamilton prompted the usual hand-wringing over how it should be classified — is it technically a movie? Is there enough artistry and creativity in the direction to justify calling it a film? To which we say, does it matter? It’s filmed entertainment that tells a story, and it’s a thrill to watch. It’s also a document of a performance by an enormously talented cast (including Miranda himself, plus Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, and Jonathan Groff) who’ve largely gone on to other things. This hip-hop retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton is musically complex, catchy, winning, and full of unforgettable performances. Let’s not quibble about categorization, let’s just all watch Groff smarm his way through “You’ll Be Back” one more time. —TR

Hamilton is available to stream on Disney Plus.

A determined-looking blonde woman in a simple light-blue blouse clutches a bloody hunting knife and stands with her back to an open car trunk with a body barely visible inside the trunk. Photo: Universal Pictures

The Hunt

Besides being one of 2020’s most wickedly funny movies, Craig Zobel’s violent satire The Hunt also has the year’s worst timing: turns out that a movie lampooning performative social-media extremism wasn’t what most people wanted in March, as COVID-19 swept the nation and the Trump administration only cranked up the trolling. But watching it now, it’s apparent that Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof’s script has a very specific target: the loudest people on Twitter. Imagining what would happen if the RT dunks turned physical, Cuse and Lindelof follow an authentic, fierce blue-collar worker (Betty Gilpin) trying to survive a conflict she has no interest in participating in. In the hands of Zobel, it’s a slick action escapade with all the prickly commentary of movies like Great World of Sound and Compliance. The Hunt isn’t cheap provocation, it’s just vicious. And Gilpin brings it all together, cracking skulls in a mode that’s best described as Full Nic Cage. —MP

The Hunt is available for digital rental on Redbox, Google Play, and other platforms.

a group sit around a dinner table Photo: Mary Cybulski/Netflix

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, an adaptation of a novel by Iain Reed, is just as strange as we’ve come to expect Charlie Kaufman’s movies to be. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons star as a young woman and her boyfriend who head to his parents’ remote rural house for dinner. She’s thinking of ending their relationship, but as the night wears on, stranger and stranger things start to happen. Can he hear what she’s thinking? Why do his parents seem to change in age every time they leave and re-enter the room? The questions only multiply. —KH

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is streaming on Netflix.

a korean-american father and son stand in a field with a wood pole in their hands Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Minari

In the 1980s, Jacob (Steven Yeun) relocates his family from California to Arkansas to find prosperity in the farming business. They’re Korean immigrants, and no one within miles looks like them, but Minari isn’t the obvious Green Book-ish tale Hollywood would spin out of the culture clash. Instead, Lee Isaac Chung (Abigail Harm) concentrates on the family’s dynamic, the sacrifices of the endless farmer life, the tiny moments of joy in their new trailer home, the mundanity of their day jobs at a chicken-sexer factory, and the characters who embrace them as part of the community.

Novelistic and warmly rendered, Minari is a drama about everyday life, and remembering to see the gifts of what’s right in front of you. And the perspective comes from a top-tier cast: Along with Yeun, playing a piercing patriarch, Han Yeri delivers a touching performance as a mother holding fast to her wayward loved ones, newcomers Noel Cho and Alan S. Kim buck every bad trope to play goofy and lovable kids, and renowned Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn solidifies her legacy in a film that is wholly American. —MP

Minari had an awards-qualifying limited release starting on Dec. 11, and is currently scheduled for release on Feb. 12, 2021.

Jude Law hugs Carrie Coon from behind in The Nest Photo: IFC

The Nest

While most directors might leverage an indie breakout hit to get themselves a high-paying gig directing, I don’t know, a Clash of the Titans remake, Sean Durkin decided to follow 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene with an actual clash of the titans. In one corner, Jude Law as a pompous English trader who relocates his family from Reagan’s America to Thatcher’s U.K. in hopes of striking it rich. In the other, Carrie Coon as his wife, who’d like to spend her days training horses, but winds up playing arm candy in her husband’s grand charade. Though they buy an English manor and hobnob with the British elite, each day finds their savings — and their family — wasting away. In a chilly indictment of societal dreams and a playful exercise in misery, Durkin pressurizes the once-happy couple until they shatter into a million pieces. The situation demands all the bravado, which Law and Coon deliver. —MP

The Nest is available for rental on Amazon.

a young woman sits on the floor of penn station Photo: Focus Features

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The title Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t initially roll off the tongue, but Eliza Hittman’s film is powerful enough to counteract that. What makes the movie difficult to stomach is its realistic depiction of how far out of reach proper medical care can be for young women, especially those raised in more conservative environments. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenager with an unwanted pregnancy, has to travel from her hometown in Pennsylvania to New York City to obtain an abortion, and even then, she has to jump through more hoops. Luckily, she’s accompanied by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who proves to be an invaluable support. —KH

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

mcdormand smiles into the camera Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland

Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland has all of the thoughtfulness and realism that the director became known for with her films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider. Frances McDormand stars as one of just two recognizable famous faces in the film, which focuses on a community of middle-aged people who travel and live in their vehicles and call themselves nomads. Slowly, Zhao teases out what led McDormand’s character to adopt the nomad lifestyle, using her as a window into an often-overlooked part of America.

Nomadland had an awards-qualifying limited release starting on Dec. 4, and is currently scheduled for digital release on Feb. 19, 2021.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti sit on the side of the road in handcuffs in Hulu’s Palm Springs. Photo: Hulu

Palm Springs

Time-loops — better known as “a Groundhog Day thing” — have been thoroughly explored since the 1993 Bill Murray film. But somehow, filmmakers keep finding new angles for the stuck-in-a-single-day format. Palm Springs is the latest film to tackle the sci-fi concept, and it’s an exceptionally sweet and optimistic interpretation. It’s also just really freaking funny.

Palm Springs stars Cristin Milioti as Sarah, a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking misanthrope just trying to get through her maid-of-honor duties at her sister’s wedding in — you guessed it — Palm Springs. She hits it off with a wedding guest, Nyles (Andy Samberg), but before they can hook up in the desert, a series of events pulls Sarah into the same time-loop Nyles has been stuck in for an eternity.

That’s a clever way to skip the whole explanation to the time-loop concept that the audience doesn’t really need, but it also sets up a fun dynamic between Sarah and Nyles. He’s given up on finding a way out, but she’s convinced she can. She thinks there must be a reason that they’re stuck, and tries to break the cycle by trying to improve her behavior every day. Ultimately, though, it’s a story about personal responsibility and the terrifying but exhilarating risk of committing to something or someone, so the solution isn’t quite so magical. —EH

Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu.

An elderly man clutching a nasty-looking knife and reading a book sits on his bed in a dimly lit concrete cell in The Platform. Photo: Netflix

The Platform

Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s debut feature The Platform is a shocker: a horror-inflected, gory, heavily symbolic movie perfectly designed for 2020, given its themes of claustrophobia, wealth inequity, and people holding onto selfishness, paranoia, and prejudice, no matter how many lives are on the line. But it’s also a tremendously entertaining and well-acted character piece, and an unpredictable thriller that changes up the game every time viewers start to feel like they know where things are going. Set in a dystopian future prison where everyone is fed via a platform full of food descending from one floor to the next, so the highest floors get a feast and the lowest ones get picked-over plates, it’s a graphic illustration of the gap between the rich and the poor. As the protagonist learns the rules of the place, he inevitably learns a lot about human nature, in all its humor and ugliness. There’s a lot going on in this story, but it’s still a sleek, propulsive fable. —TR

The Platform is streaming on Netflix.

The two women hold each other close on the beach. Photo: Neon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma weaves a remarkable love story in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which focuses on Marianne, a painter (Noémie Merlant), and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young woman whose portrait Marianne has been commissioned to paint. Héloïse is initially resistant, as the portrait will be sent to the man she has been arranged to marry, but as the two women grow closer, she agrees to sit for a painting. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice’s doomed love affair surfaces again and again as the two women, who know their affair must end, fall in love. It’s a gorgeous, bittersweet romance, and all the more singular for the fact that there are no men on screen in the film. —KH

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) bathed in red light in Possessor Photo: Courtesy of Sundance

Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg may never escape the shadow of his father David, but only because his horror films are inching toward the greatness of films like Videodrome, The Brood, and The Fly. His latest — released right off the bat with an “uncut” version in order to set the tone — centers on Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin who implants her consciousness inside her victims’ heads to perpetrate contract kills under the guise of murder-suicides. It’s a living! When we pick up with Tasya, the gig is taking its toll on her mental health, so she prepares for “one final job.” But Colin (Christopher Abbott) isn’t a pushover for possession, and the results of their psychic tango is bloody mayhem. Cronenberg constructs his story like the anti-Inception, leaving most of the rules and world-building unspoken, and replacing them with gory, retro surrealism. Themes of gender, class, and economic warfare are all on the table in Possessor, but so are the nightmares. It’s techno-exploitation horror at its finest. —MP

Possessor is available to rent or buy on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.

Kate Lyn Sheil in close-up purple light in She Dies Tomorrow Photo: Neon

She Dies Tomorrow

What would you do if you knew without a doubt that you were going to die tomorrow? That’s the central question of She Dies Tomorrow, an experimental horror film written and directed by Amy Seimetz. Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a woman who’s convinced that it’s her last day on earth. Her friend Jane (Jane Adams) tries to convince her that she couldn’t possibly know that, but Jane can’t stop thinking about what Amy said, and is soon convinced that she, too, will soon die. That conviction spreads like a virus to character after character, including people played by Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, and Josh Lucas. There isn’t much plot after that. Seimetz just follows these characters as they deal with the grief, fear, and sadness of knowing they’re about to die.

She Dies Tomorrow would be harrowing at any time, but the fact that it dropped in the middle of a devastating global pandemic just exacerbated the fear. That anxiety is familiar to all of us living through the COVID-19 crisis, and Seimetz nails the feeling of isolation that it breeds, even if its characters aren’t literally quarantining. —EH

She Dies Tomorrow is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

michael stuhlbarg and elisabeth moss as shirley Photo: Neon

Shirley

If you’re looking for a straightforward Shirley Jackson biopic, Shirley isn’t for you. Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, which itself takes significant liberties with the events of the famed horror writer’s life, director Josephine Decker uses Jackson’s allure to paint a messy, moving portrait of the ways lonely women find each other, love each other, and eventually, leave each other behind.

Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson as depressed, volatile, and deeply vulnerable. Her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), treats her with a mixture of contempt and pity. When one of Stanley’s former students, Fred (Logan Lerman), comes to stay at the Hyman house while he’s serving as Stanley’s teaching assistant, Fred’s wife Rose is stuck at home with Shirley all day. These two women start off as foils — Rose is a good “little wifey,” as Stanley calls her, while Shirley is a self-proclaimed witch — but as their initial hostility toward each other gives way to curiosity and then to intimacy, Decker allows them to start intertwining. That relationship is the heart of the film, and turns what could seem at first glance like a weird, trippy play on a biopic into a much more universal story of intense female friendship and desire. —EH

Shirley is streaming on Hulu; buy or rent on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff laugh together outdoors at night in Shithouse Photo: IFC Films

Shithouse

Written, directed, co-edited by, and starring 22-year-old Cooper Raiff, Shithouse is the kind of talky indie that became easy to parody throughout the 2000s. But it’s impossible to be cynical about a film with such a complete understanding of a microcosm like college. When Alex (Raiff) arrives at his dorm, it’s the first time he’s ever stepped outside the comforts of life with his mom and sister, a relationship bound tight since his father’s death. Shithouse picks up a few months into freshman year, when Alex still doesn’t have friends, and his existence becomes increasingly perilous. When he’s forced to interact with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a social, sexual, anti-magic-pixie-dream-girl, life takes a swerve — but only in his mind. When it comes to turning impressionable, early-life moments into high-stakes drama, teen movies often talk the talk without walking the walk. Raiff, only a few years out from his own college experience, sets a new bar with Shithouse, which conjures the magic of early Linklater on a budget. —MP

Shithouse is available to rent or purchase at Amazon.

A large group of Black protestors carry a Black Panther banner in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series movie Mangrove Photo: Amazon Studios

The Small Axe series

The five Small Axe installments, directed by 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen, have launched a lively debate over whether they should be classified as movies or TV episodes. Just to throw a wrench in the works, here’s a different take: they work best when taken as one long feature. Mangrove, Alex Wheatle, Lovers Rock, Education, and Red, White and Blue are set in London over the course of decades, among a thriving subculture of West Indian immigrants navigating work, romance, community-building, and especially the racism of the white establishment. The individual installments (which range from about an hour long to over two hours) each leave something to be desired, whether it’s a more complete story or tighter editing in the case of the ramblier segments. But taken as a whole, they feel like one staggeringly ambitious narrative, a generational look at a community striving for peace, equality, self-determination, and freedom in what for some is a hostile new home, and for others is a native land that still insists on treating them like foreigners. —TR

The first four installments of the Small Axe series are streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The fifth, Education, debuts on Dec. 18.

Protagonist Joe sits at a piano while jazz saxophonist Dorothea speaks to him approvingly in Soul Image: Pixar Animation Studios

Soul

Pixar’s first movie to center on a Black character leads hard into the details of Black life and community, which gives it a texture and specificity the studio’s more fantasy-oriented films have never had. It’s funny, thanks to a slapstick middle act and a lot of quick-moving visual gags, but its story about a music teacher who dies just before realizing his lifelong dream is also resonant and emotional in the best and most memorable Pixar ways. It’s an astonishingly visually creative film, with afterlife (and before-life) sequences that don’t look like any previous Pixar movie. But its biggest impact comes in the way it addresses the experiences that give life meaning. —TR

Soul premieres on Disney Plus on Dec 25.

haley bennett in swallow Photo: IFC Films

Swallow

The lush, gorgeous cinematography in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ solo directorial debut is a smart counterpoint to its ugly emotions and grotesque behaviors. Squashed under the expectations of her perfect husband and perfect life, Hunter (Haley Bennett) gives in to a psychological syndrome that pushes her to eat inedible and increasingly dangerous objects. The more her husband and in-laws try to control her behavior, the more of their abuse and expectations she has to swallow, the more she symbolically swallows thumbtacks and batteries as well. It’s a wide-eyed, placid kind of horror film about asserting different forms of control, and it turns into a vicious defense of female bodily autonomy, without ever losing its poisonous visual beauty. —TR

Swallow is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

A group of protestors in Chicago, with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin at the front, are framed by rifle-wielding Chicago policemen in the extreme foreground in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Photo: Niko Tavernise / Netflix

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin fills his historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 with all the expected Sorkin hallmarks: walk-and-talks, bantery dialogue built around punchlines, a dismissive attitude toward the truth, wherever creative license and theme-building will have more impact. But using those tools, he builds a ridiculously entertaining courtroom drama full of larger-than-life personalities and surprisingly up-to-the-moment relevance. Released not long after a wave of nationwide protests once again brought into question how police escalate violence around peaceful demonstrations, the film makes it clear that police brutality isn’t remotely a new or recent problem, and that every loud media circus around a protest has a thousand relevant stories behind it. Sorkin uses a stellar cast (including Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Frank Langella, among so many others) to tell those stories, and make them angry, funny, entertaining, and enlightening. —TR

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix.

the two men stand among a set of columns Photo: IFC Films

The Trip to Greece

The final installment of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip series serves as a fitting end to their journey. Over the course of four films, the comedians have traveled the world, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, with each new movie honing in a little more closely on the anxieties and crises that come with age. This time, they travel through Greece, retracing Odysseus’ steps as they ponder what it means to leave a legacy behind. It’s a touching tale, and one left open-ended so viewers can reach their own conclusions, too. —KH

The Trip to Greece is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

A young man and woman, both in heavy 1950s glasses, sit at a counter in front of an old-school heavy radio mic in The Vast of Night. Image: Amazon Studios

The Vast of Night

Andrew Patterson styles his directorial debut, The Vast of Night, as a late-night episode of a Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-esque science-fiction TV show, but his film is both more expansive and more character-intensive than those shows ever were. As leads Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick investigate a mysterious signal striking their small, rural 1950s town, Patterson treats the material more like a campfire ghost story than an SF story, lulling viewers into a hypnotic wonder with long, quiet storytelling segments. It’s unconventional and idiosyncratic, but the terrific sound design is immersive, and the leads are charismatic and sparky enough to carry the story directly from playful banter to awed fear. —TR

The Vast of Night is included on Amazon Prime Video.

Hina (Nana Mori) floats through the air. Image: GKIDS

Weathering with You

Makoto Shinkai’s anime followup to his international hit Your Name is strikingly beautiful, both on a visual level and an emotional one. Weathering With You centers on a “sunshine girl” named Hina, a teenager touched by the weather gods and given the gift to dispel the clouds and bring the sun back. But she’s also marked by fate, which doesn’t sit well with teen runaway and proto-journalist Hodaka, who falls for her. It’s a film intensely concerned with climate change and the consequences adult behavior and rules have on young people who just want their freedom, but it’s also a lush sensual experience, full of sunlight so bright that the audience can feel the warmth, and gorgeously rendered storms that make the whole world feel sodden. It’s immersive and absorbing in the best ways. —TR

Weathering With You is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

heidi schreck holds up a copy of the constitution Photo: Joan Marcus/Amazon

What the Constitution Means to Me

Heidi Schreck is a force of nature in What the Constitution Means to Me, the play she wrote and has been starring in on and off for the last three years. In it, she revisits the Constitutional debates she participated in as a teenager, and uses that framing to revisit her family’s fraught history. The experiences of the women in her family all underline the Constitution’s failings — namely, that it wasn’t created with the rights of anyone but straight, white, cis men in mind. The play, now in film form courtesy of director Marielle Heller, confronts those failings as well as what the future may hold. —KH

What the Constitution Means to Me is streaming on Amazon.

A group of colorfully dressed people stand in a warehouse. Photo: Vlad Cioplea/Magnolia Pictures

The Whistlers

Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is a masterclass in mixing seemingly incompatible elements. The film’s plot is that of a hardboiled thriller — a corrupt detective becomes involved in a money-laundering scheme after falling for a mysterious woman — but its central device is a (real) whistling language, and colorful interstitial cards break up the action with a more Wes Anderson-esque flourish. Improbably, it all works, resulting in one of the most inventive thrillers in recent memory. —KH

The Whistlers is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.

A wolf-spirit made of fine, glowing golden lines hovers over the body of a sleeping girl in Wolfwalkers Image: Cartoon Saloon

Wolfwalkers

The latest staggeringly beautiful feature from Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner), Wolfwalkers takes place in 17th-century Ireland, where an English girl and her harried widowed father (voiced by Honor Kneafsey and Sean Bean) have come to a strained wilderness settlement dealing with a local pack of wolves — including a girl and her mother who become wolves by night. Drawing on Irish folklore about shape-changing animal-people, and tapping into an entirely Studio Ghibli-esque mentality about the cautious relationship between humanity and the wild, Wolfwalkers is a powerfully emotional adventure, but it’s also just a hearty feast for the eyes, with rich colors and phenomenally detailed images worth studying on their own. Good stuff for a catharsis cry or for teaching kids everywhere to embrace their inner wolf, but also for art lovers to salivate over on a frame-by-frame basis. —TR

Wolfwalkers is streaming on Apple TV Plus.