In a season of Top 10 lists, here’s one on steroids: We looked through the last 12 months of movie reviews and found 33 films that received 3½ or 4 stars from our critics. Ranging from such mainstream fare as “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Nope” to “You Won’t Be Alone” – a little Macedonian-language art-house horror film about a 19th-century witch – the list is a reminder of all the varied ways in which movies delight us.
Plus, it’s a great watch list to bookmark for those cold winter nights ahead. Some of these gems are still in theaters. A couple have moved on and aren’t available to stream just yet. Most are available now on a variety of streaming platforms.
“The Bob’s Burgers Movie” (PG-13): “The strange appeal of ‘Burgers,’ both the show and the film, is precisely in its mix of the mundane and the pointless (or, to be kinder, the absurd). It is a blend of proprietary seasoning, savory to those who have developed an appetite for it, perhaps sickening to some others, that is preserved lovingly in ‘The Bob’s Burgers Movie.’” (Hulu) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Emergency” (R): “Comedy is best when it occupies that high wire where humor and pain engage in a perilously delicate dance. ‘Emergency’ knows that they exist side by side – and with that in mind, it sticks a perfect landing.” (Prime Video) — Ann Hornaday
“Empire of Light” (R): “In ‘Empire of Light,’ the theater is a great democratizer: a convener for misfits, loners and dreamers of every stripe. With this bittersweet gem of a film, (writer-director Sam) Mendes has given spectators a modest but profound gift: the reminder that, at their best, movies offer us not just a refuge, but a way to join the thrum of life, in all its pain and ungovernable glory.” (In theaters) — Ann Hornaday
“Eo” (Unrated): “Through a donkey’s large and expressive eyes, ‘Eo’ shows us the beauty of the world and the cruelty of humanity. If the wordless title character can’t understand the latter, neither can director and co-writer Jerzy Skolimowski. Yet the esteemed 84-year-old Polish director has made the animal’s story as visually ravishing as it is emotionally devastating.” In Polish, Italian, English and French with subtitles. (In theaters) — Mark Jenkins
“The Fabelmans” (PG-13): “Let the record reflect that ‘The Fabelmans,’ Steven Spielberg’s self-portrait of the artist as a young man, ends with one of the best final scenes in recent memory. That scene – and the wink that follows it – is reason enough to see a movie that, true to its title, lends a gentle fairy-tale sheen to even the most painful memories of the filmmaker’s youth.” (In theaters) — Ann Hornaday
“Fire of Love” (PG): “You think your love life is hot? For French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, their shared passion burned with the heat of a planet on fire. Director Sara Dosa’s documentary ‘Fire of Love’ assembles explosive footage from the Krafft archives to tell the fevered story of a science-minded Romeo and Juliet, so dedicated to each other and their work that they died together, victims of a pyroclastic flow during a 1991 eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan.” In French and English with some subtitles. (Disney+) — Pat Padua
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (R): “Because ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ takes place almost entirely in the same hotel room over the course of several weeks, it could easily feel stagy or monotonous or cramped. But director Sophie Hyde, working from a smart, nuanced script by Katy Brand, provides just enough space and pace for Emma Thompson and (Daryl) McCormack’s chemistry to combust, seemingly in real time.” (Hulu) — Ann Hornaday
“Great Freedom” (Unrated): “The grim setting, regardless of time period, is the seemingly unchanging hell of prison, in which Hans (Franz Rogowski) is shown being thrown into the darkness of solitary confinement in one decade, only to emerge from the shadows in another, in a story whose constants include the fact that Hans, for some reason, has resigned himself to his fate.” In German and some English with subtitles. (Mubi) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Happening” (R): “In ‘Happening,’ a promising young college student named Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) discovers, to her dismay, that she is pregnant, after a sexual encounter that occurred before the events of the French film. Set in 1963, when abortion was still illegal in France – and when vigorous prosecution could result in prison for the patient or the practitioner (often not a doctor) – the story follows, in harrowing detail and without moral judgment, Anne’s efforts to terminate her pregnancy.” In French with subtitles. (AMC+) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Jackass Forever” (R): “’Jackass Forever’ feels like a victory lap of sorts for (Johnny) Knoxville and company, who can rest their broken bones and concussed heads knowing that they have cemented their place in the pantheon of cinematic dumdums. Their message? Pain is universal, and inevitable. All you need are kindred spirits to laugh at the futility of thinking otherwise.” (Paramount+) — Hau Chu
“Lost Illusions” (Unrated): “It’s no stuffy costume drama. Just close your eyes and imagine its characters in modern dress, toiling away in digital publishing, and its wild delusions and deceptions could be happening right now.” In French with subtitles. (Mubi) — Pat Padua
“A Love Song” (PG): “In a filmmaking universe where Michael Bay and Zack Snyder seem to be in a battle to see who can damage more eardrums, first-time feature writer and director Max Walker-Silverman has taken the opposite tack. There is sound, including an excellent soundtrack and score, but there is no noise. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a deep breath and a cool drink.” (On demand) — Kristen Page-Kirby
“Memoria” (PG): “As they lose their narrative mooring, the various parts of the whole have the effect of rearranging your own consciousness, in a way that leaves your perceptions feeling profoundly altered, perhaps permanently. Is that not the measure of all great art? (‘Memoria’ won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, shared with ‘Ahed’s Knee.’)” In English and Spanish with subtitles. (Not available on demand. Visit memoria.film for updated screening information.) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Nope” (R): “The acting here is quite good, particularly by (Daniel) Kaluuya, who exudes the strong, silent air of a modern Gary Cooper, all shrugs and monosyllables, and (Keke) Palmer, who is his much more expressive foil. But ‘Nope’ ultimately belongs to its director, not its actors. Whether we’re watching some heavy CGI in the sky or flashback scenes featuring a rampaging primate (played by Terry Notary in an impressive motion-capture performance) or simply Kaluuya on horseback – a new kind of western hero in an orange hoodie – (Jordan) Peele tells his story visually, not verbally.” (On demand) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Official Competition” (R): “The ridiculous yet often revered art of make-believe peculiar to the business of moviemaking is somehow simultaneously skewered and held up in admiring regard in ‘Official Competition,’ a sly satire of cinema that also manages to be a showcase for the comedic chops of its stars: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez.” In Spanish with subtitles. (AMC+) — Michael O’Sullivan
“The Outfit” (R): “Set in 1956, it’s a cleverly twisty crime story constructed of many invisible folds and threads, yet it fits (Mark) Rylance like custom-made clothing. (Fun fact: The actor, who immersed himself in the skills of tailoring in preparation for the role, made the suit he wears in the film.)” (Prime Video) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Petite Maman” (PG): “’Petite Maman’ is what every film should be: powerfully, even arrestingly original; grounded in emotional truth; hyper-specific; deeply universal; strange; mesmerizing; and not a minute longer than necessary. It is, in short, a small wonder.” In French with subtitles. (Hulu) — Michael O’Sullivan
“The Phantom of the Open” (R): “Just a glance or two at the trailer for ‘The Phantom of the Open’ – a dramedy loosely based on the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a British crane operator who somehow managed to compete in the 1976 British Open despite never having previously played a round of golf – might lead you to roll your eyes. But just hang on, and give this sly little gem of a film a chance.” (On demand) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical” (PG): “Behold a Broadway musical that sings, dances and bedazzles so magnetically, it feels as if it were ordained for the screen by divine providence. ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical’ certainly is divine, but the inspirational figures are all mortal: a director, Matthew Warchus; a star, Emma Thompson; and a cast of perpetually whirling child wonders who propel the story forward with kinetic enchantment.” (Netflix) — Peter Marks
“She Said” (R): “(Director Maria) Schrader takes a page from the great journalism movies – most notably ‘All the President’s Men’ and, more recently, ‘Spotlight’ – by paring down the narrative to its leanest, most unfussy elements. ‘She Said’ begins with a clever misdirect, with (New York Times reporter Megan) Twohey, played with whippetlike intensity by Carey Mulligan, seeming to be talking about (film producer Harvey) Weinstein when in fact the subject is (Donald) Trump, who as the movie opens is a presidential candidate.” (On demand) — Ann Hornaday
“Tár” (R): “(Writer-director Todd) Field has made a film about exploitation and self-loathing and compulsion, but with an extravagant eye for beauty and surface polish that makes it deeply pleasurable to watch. It would be enjoyable enough simply to behold (Cate) Blanchett have her way with a role that she slips on with the grace and familiarity of one of Lydia’s bespoke suits. But Field has surrounded her with supporting performances that are just as alert.” (In theaters) — Ann Hornaday
“Three Minutes: A Lengthening” (PG): “The shattering climax of ‘Three Minutes: A Lengthening’ is a slow zoom into Nasielsk’s public square (in Poland), set to the testimony of witnesses to the deportation of 1,600 Jews in December 1939. That testimony, as well as the film’s narration, is read by Helena Bonham Carter in an exquisite vocal performance. Her dulcet tones and sensitive line interpretations draw us into a world that, in the film’s relatively brief running time, feels utterly immersive, even life-changing.” (Hulu) — Ann Hornaday
“Till” (PG-13): “The implication of the violence visited upon (Emmett Till) by two White men – (Carolyn) Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother J.W. Milam, who both confessed to the killing in a 1956 magazine profile but were never convicted of any crime – was more hideous than anything captured on film. That is the story told, with unflinching honesty and to devastating effect, by the movie ‘Till,’ which begins with (Emmett’s mother) Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler, in an Oscar-worthy performance of maternal grief turned resolve) setting Emmett (Jalyn Hall) on a train from Chicago to visit his cousins in Mississippi.” (In theaters; available Jan. 17 to rent on demand) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Top Gun: Maverick” (PG-13): “In the film’s most affecting sequence, Pete (Tom Cruise) goes to see his old frenemy Iceman (Val Kilmer), who may be physically diminished but is no less distinguished; it’s a get-out-your-mankerchiefs moment played with taste, restraint and sincerity that’s as disarming as it is quietly authentic.” (Paramount+) — Ann Hornaday
“Triangle of Sadness” (R): “With ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ (Swedish writer-director Ruben) Östlund is returning to form, with all the strengths and flaws his now-distinctive narrative style entails. There are few filmmakers working today who are as eager to tackle life as we know it – without benefit of superheroes, pseudo-medieval mythologies or lockstep genre conventions – and give it a swift satirical kick where it hurts.” (On demand) — Ann Hornaday
“Turning Red” (PG): “’Turning Red’ delivers a bigger, and in some ways more universal message: It’s okay to not always be in control, to let your freak flag fly. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a red panda is just a red panda. And sometimes it’s a metaphor for that inner spark of creativity, the flame of originality that is to be cherished, not extinguished. With ‘Turning Red,’ (director and co-writer Domee) Shi demonstrates that she’s got it, in spades.” (Disney+) — Michael O’Sullivan
“The Velvet Queen” (Unrated): “If the idea of a movie about two men perched on a cold mountain ridge in Tibet, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elusive snow leopard – and, at least for much of the film, failing to do so – sounds appealing, then consider ‘The Velvet Queen.’ There I go, making this ‘nature documentary’ (one that never needs air quotes around it more desperately) sound boring. I apologize: Even if the idea of this film does not appeal to you, please consider it anyway.” In French and Tibetan with subtitles. (On demand) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Vengeance” (R): “The movie ‘Vengeance’ – a black comedy about cultural arrogance, the opioid crisis, guns, storytelling and the need to, well, get even – marks the feature debut of writer-director-producer B.J. Novak (best known as a writer, director, producer and ensemble cast member of ‘The Office’). To call Novak’s first feature auspicious would not be wrong, but it’s more than that. ‘Vengeance’ is an arrestingly smart, funny and affecting take on a slice of the American zeitgeist, one in which both the divisions between and connections with our fellow citizens are brought into sharp relief.” (On demand) — Michael O’Sullivan
“Vortex” (R): “With his latest film, ‘Vortex,’ the 58-year-old provocateur (Gaspar Noé) pulls off perhaps his most subversive move yet: creating a quiet, compassionate and ultimately devastating film about the twilight days of an elderly couple.” In French with subtitles. (Mubi) — Hau Chu
“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (PG-13): “At the top of the excellent documentary ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,’ we hear a solicitation, put to a 2018 audience at New York City’s Town Hall theater by the evening’s host, attorney Jeffery Robinson (former ACLU deputy legal director): ‘If you have ever owned a slave, please raise your hand.’ And then, when no hands go up, Robinson, who since 2011 has been delivering some version of this talk – akin to a PowerPoint presentation on racism, complete with audiovisual clips – explains the point of asking what sounds like a rhetorical question, but isn’t.” (On demand) — Michael O’Sullivan
“The Woman King” (PG-13): “’The Woman King’ proves to be an opulent addition to a form of filmmaking that has long been searching for a refresh. What’s more, it knows that the real spectacle doesn’t reside in special effects or brutality for its own sake, but in the woman who holds the center of the narrative through her singular brand of charisma, aching transparency and sheer indomitable will. ‘The Woman King’ may be a fable, but its power is real: Her name is Viola Davis, and she’s nothing less than magnificent.” (In theaters; available Jan. 17 to rent on demand) — Ann Hornaday
“You Won’t Be Alone” (R): “The international folk horror renaissance, marked by such shivery recent treats as the Icelandic ‘Lamb’ and the Irish ‘You Are Not My Mother,’ continues with ‘You Won’t be Alone,’ a creepy yet hauntingly beautiful fable of a witch who yearns to be human. The assured feature debut of Macedonian-born, Australia-based Goran Stolevski (one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch for 2022) is set in rural 19th-century Macedonia, and opens with the visit of a hideously burn-scarred witch (Anamaria Marinca) – known to villagers as both Old Maid Maria and the Wolf-Eateress, or Volkojatka – to a peasant woman and her infant daughter, Nevena.” In Macedonian with subtitles. (On demand) — Michael O’Sullivan
“You Resemble Me” (Unrated): “’You Resemble Me’ would be a vivid, beautifully acted reflection of dispossession and cultural dislocation if it stayed one thing. But, like its mercurial protagonist, it changes shape to become a deeply meaningful meditation on narrative itself, blending fact and fiction into a seamlessly poetic whole.” In French and Arabic with subtitles. (Not yet available on demand) — Ann Hornaday
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