The way we watch movies is in the midst of a paradigm shift, with the increasing prominence and prolificacy of Netflix and its counterparts rewriting the rules of cinematic engagement before our eyes.
But even the most die-hard theatrical purists would have to admit that the changing winds of the business do not mean fewer significant works are being made. If anything, the opposite may be the case. The top two films on this list of one film critic’s picks for the year’s best arrive courtesy of Netflix and Hulu and stand as definitive proof that greatness knows no platform.
Alfonso Cuarón crafts a sprawling masterpiece that fuses social currents with intimate details, all rendered in sumptuous black and white. Inspired by his Mexico City childhood, the picture is both an epic depiction of the city at a tumultuous inflection point in 1971 and a visual poem that incorporates long takes, wide shots and an abundance of reflective imagery to conjure up a tribute to the sacrifices made by those that raise us.
"Minding the Gap"
This documentary is nothing short of a miracle: Bing Liu makes a movie about his friends and fellow skateboarders in the struggling town of Rockford, Illinois, that becomes a devastatingly affecting portrait of the trauma and confusion of growing to manhood in an America where deep emotional wounds fester as the proverbial dream becomes an increasingly impossible fantasy.
Filmmaker Chloé Zhao casts an extraordinary ensemble of nonactors — including real rodeo professional Brady Jandreau — in a movie that’s awash in resplendent South Dakota frontier imagery but relentlessly gritty and uncompromising in the ways it considers its protagonist’s profound agony as an injury threatens his future on the circuit. It is very much attuned to fundamental questions about the risks that must be taken to give life purpose.
Movies do not get more breathtakingly awkward, in all the best ways, than Bo Burnham’s smart and funny portrayal of a young teenage girl (breakout star Elsie Fisher) as she navigates the extremely uncomfortable realities of puberty. The swimming party scene is one of the year’s best, so attuned to social stresses that it will have anyone who has ever felt out of place doubled over with discomfort.
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse"
Here is the first of two unabashed superhero movie successes this year: A phantasmagoric descent down the multiverse rabbit hole that boldly animates the comic book aesthetic while reinvigorating a tired character and opening up new possibilities for diversifying the genre.
"The Old Man & the Gun"
Whether this is Robert Redford’s farewell to movie stardom or not, David Lowery’s adaptation of a New Yorker short story about a kindhearted bank robber and the cop chasing him across the middle of the country offers the year’s most subtly off-kilter experience, consistently defying a host of expectations when it comes to this sort of tale.
"The Hate U Give"
Roger Ebert said movies at their best could serve as "machines of empathy," inspiring audiences to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of our common humanity. The realities in this story of a black teen girl (Amandla Stenberg) torn between her home life in an inner city neighborhood and her existence at a rich private school, are rendered so clearly and powerfully that it’s easy to believe in this film’s potential to open eyes and hearts.
Ryan Coogler’s resounding, thrilling success offers a pageant of powerful African imagery, an ensemble of genuinely compelling characters and the sort of nuanced perspective when it comes to Michael B. Jordan’s villain and his motivations that’s so often missing not just from superhero movies, but from movies period.
The Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda — a specialist in understated, neo-realistic movies that slowly amass awesome, devastating power — crafts a career highlight with this picture, which considers and then questions the very definition of family itself through its story of a close-knit clan of outcasts and criminals, living in cramped quarters in Tokyo.
"Leave No Trace"
This two-hander from Debra Granik ("Winter’s Bone") follows a father and daughter who live off the grid in a Portland, Oregon, public park and find their bond tested as society infringes on their existence. This is very much an actor’s movie, concerned primarily with the small moments that define the father-daughter relationship at its center. The characters are played so beautifully by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, who achingly craft moments of devastating isolation and others of genuine, abiding love, that your heart breaks from start to finish.
You could make an equally excellent top 10 with these movies (in no particular order) "Black KkKlansman," "A Star is Born," "If Beale Street Could Talk," "Happy as Lazzaro," "Private Life," "Hale County This Morning, This Evening," "Mission Impossible — Fallout," "Burning," "Hereditary," "Cold War"
Worst movie of the year
"Gotti," a jaw-dropping disaster in every possible way.