This year was packed with almost-there movies that didn’t quite make the grade. (Looking at you, Little Women and Uncut Gems.) There were too many political documentaries (like Watergate and Where’s My Roy Cohn?) and musical profiles (Linda Ronstadt and Miles Davis, for two) to properly funnel down the nonfiction flicks. Some features had better supporting players than stories, such as The Irishman’s Joe Pesci, plus Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, and Brad Pitt in that Tarantino thing—all of whom also helped produce. The 10 below had enough firepower to cross the December finish line and/or stay in memory for many months.
Few foreign-language movies make as big a splash as this stylish South Korean winner, which takes a Jordan Peele–ish creepazoid torch to director Bong Joon-ho’s class-stratified country, delivering big laughs and spooky scares along the way.
Dolemite is My Name
Actually, Eddie Murphy’s his name, but in this spectacularly entertaining comeback, the famed comic largely submerges his ego to pay super witty tribute to a rustic forebear, and to an era of cinematic innovation that still holds thrills.
Pain & Glory
Pedro Almodóvar looks back over his long career, and longer life, to reexamine the obsessions that made him a great filmmaker in the first place. Antonio Banderas does some of his most controlled work as the pill-popping alter ego to this glorious director, still feeling his way on-screen.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are up for all the awards as a loving couple sailing blindly toward divorce in Noah Baumbach’s tense, funny, and sometimes self-indulgent exhumation of one modern marriage and the divorce-industrial complex. Densely written and highly theatrical, it also has a sharp sense of cinematic fluidity.
In which comedy-minded Awkwafina (Google the video “My Vagina”) plays it straight as a New York 20-something forced to reexamine her family history, and future, on a visit to China, to spend time with her dying grandmother. That sounds like a downer, but director Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature is clever, heartfelt, and uplifting.
The Art of Self-Defense
A sharp second outing for twist-minded Riley Stearns, this overlooked no-budget gem stars Jesse Eisenberg as a dweeby office worker who signs up for a martial-arts course taught by Alessandro Nivola’s clearly insane sensei. That move is both the mistake and the redemption of his life. Imogen Poots is terrific as the only female intruder in this faux-macho realm.
Ash Is Purest White
There’s been a raft of smart indie movies from relatively young Chinese filmmakers lately, and this one, by Jia Zhangke (who also brought us Still Life and A Touch of Sin), jumps through two decades to follow one woman’s tormented love for a low-rate gangster—all against the background of a fast-changing China.
Wild Nights with Emily
Molly Shannon is not your grandmother’s Emily Dickinson, with the New England poet’s creative struggle and well-documented affair with her sister-in-law reimagined, with deft modern touches, by confidently iconoclastic director Madeleine Olnek. (For context, her previous features were The Foxy Merkins and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.)
Mademoiselle de Joncquières
Also known as Lady J, this instant classic is based on a novel by Denis Diderot, a leading Enlightenment figure who wrote Dangerous Liaisons–type novels and plays about 18th-century mores of the French upper crust. Belgian-born Cecile de France is outstanding as a landed lady who gains her true love and then loses the cad to a mademoiselle who’s not what she seems. Seek it out!
Varda by Agnès
French new-waver Agnès Varda had an unexpected late renaissance with Faces Places. She then managed to cap everything by directing her own clip-happy retrospective of a stunning, six-decade career before dying this year, at age 90. La Bonheur, indeed.