For all of the at-home movie-watching options available to today’s audiences, none quite compare to the experience of going out to catch a film in a theater. Paste’s guides for Netflix, HBO and Amazon cover the best of what’s out there if you’re an unrepentant couch potato, but we also want to recommend the best of what’s in theaters right now, ranked according to such objective qualifications as release date, how much the movie really needs our boost, how we’re feeling at the moment, etc. And for some of these films, seeing them on a big screen—in public (gasp)—is the best way to support a small film most people wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see.
Appropriately, many of these movies featured prominently on our Best of 2019 list too.
Check out the 10 best movies in theaters right now:
Release Date: December 25, 2019 (limited)
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Just Mercy, a by-the-numbers inspirational legal drama that decries the American justice system’s imbalance against the poor and people of color, recreates pro bono civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) impassioned speech to the U.S. Senate in 2008. Stevenson outlines a hopeful future, where the American ideal is finally realized, and everyone is actually treated equally under the law. The cynical among us will likely feel a kneejerk rejection of the protagonist’s idealism—Ava DuVernay’s chilling documentary 13th already offers a more sobering and unvarnished examination of the subject—yet it’s hard not to get swept up in Stevenson’s lifelong dedication to defending the oppressed and the defenseless. It’s also easy to appreciate director Destin Daniel Cretton’s loving tribute to a great man who wholeheartedly believes that while the reality is grim, it’s hope that keeps us alive. Adapted from Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy dramatizes Stevenson’s struggle to free an African-American man named Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a young white woman and was sent to death row. After finishing Harvard, Stevenson moves from Delaware to Alabama in order to defend death row inmates for free. Jordan portrays Stevenson as a man who’s never conflicted about his mission, but is unsure about the methods with which to achieve it. It’s this inner struggle that takes a protagonist who could have come across as an infallible martyr and grounds him as a person who just wants to do the right thing. Just Mercy occasionally relies on the expected clichés of the genre, and it doesn’t play many new notes—but it’s rarely off-key. Most importantly, it’s genuinely passionate about telling the tale of a man who sought the truth and applied it to attain true equality under the law. Perfectly executed or not, we need these kinds of stories these days. —Oktay Ege Kozak / Full Review
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Director: Robert Eggers
Sometimes a film is so bizarre, so elegantly shot and masterfully performed, that despite its helter-skelter pace and muddled messaging I can’t help but fall in love with it. So it was with the latest film by Robert Eggers. An exceptional, frightening duet between Robert Pattinson and Willam Dafoe, The Lighthouse sees two sailors push one another to the brink of absolute madness, threatening to take the audience with them. Fresh off the sea, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) arrive at the isolated locale and immediately get to work cleaning, maintaining and fixing up their new home. Everything comes in twos: two cups, two plates, two bowls, two beds. The pair work on the same schedule every day, only deviating when Thomas decides something different needs Ephraim’s attention. Like newlyweds sharing meals across from one another each morning and every evening, the men begin to develop a relationship.
It takes a long time for either of the men to speak. They’re both accustomed to working long days in relative silence. They may not possess the inner peace of a Zen monk, but their thought processes are singular and focused. Only the lighthouse and getting back to the mainland matters. Eggers uses the sound of the wind and the ocean to create a soundscape of harsh conditions and natural quarantine. The first words spoken invoke a well-worn prayer, not for a happy life, or a fast workday, but to stave off death. A visceral ride, The Lighthouse explores man’s relationship to the sea, specifically through the lens of backbreaking labor. Thomas and Ephraim’s relationship is like a Rorschach test. At times they are manager and worker, partners, enemies, father and son, competitors, master and pet, and victim and abuser. In many ways Eggers’ latest reminds of Last Tango in Paris, which explored a similar unhealthy relationship dynamic. Just as captivating, The Lighthouse shines. —Joelle Monique / Full Review
Release Date: November 8, 2019
Director: Alma Har’el
Honey Boy, to the ear, rings of stunt filmmaking, a redemption tale for freeing Shia LaBeouf from actor prison. In his case, “prison” is more a matter of public opinion than actual industry cancellation, but the truth is that Honey Boy is the truth: LaBeouf wrote the film’s screenplay as part of his rehab treatment after flying so far off the rails over the course of the decade, and in turn the screenplay wound up in the hands of Israeli-American filmmaker Alma Har’el. She sees, in LaBeouf’s story, a portrait of tormented American manhood, passed down like a volatile heirloom from father to son. In turn, she approaches the telling delicately, with compassion and even love for James (LaBeouf), the father, and empathy for Otis, the son, alternately played by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as Har’el cuts from past to present and back again.
There’s harsh, guiding realism in Honey Boy, no better articulated than in one key moment where Jupe plays interpreter for James and his mother (voiced by Natasha Lyonne) in a shouting match staged by phone. Caught between James in person and mom in his ear, young Otis does what he does best—performing—as he dictates his parents’ words to one another. The scene cuts deep. Imagining boys and girls like Otis, forced to play referee between squabbling guardians, is made easy by the frankness of Har’el’s filmmaking. But she uses actual realism as a path toward magical realism, the aesthetic in which she resolves the movie, and in so doing resolves Otis’s (and LaBeouf’s) complicated feelings toward dad. Honey Boy is undoubtedly a redemptive film, but it isn’t redemptive at the expense of honesty and accountability. This is perhaps the best apology for bad behavior any celebrity captured in headlines has ever offered, and an extraordinary act of self-examination. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Release Date: January 10, 2020 (wide)
Director: Sam Mendes
One suspects that Sam Mendes’ latest film might have made a bigger splash at the box office with slightly different timing. Like most cinematic sub-genres that have experienced robust popularity and saturation during a decade or two, the war movie benefits from “lying fallow.” (Someday, the same will be true for superhero films, as well.) With Dunkirk, another artfully shot and presented war film—albeit a different World War—still “fresh” in movie-goers’ minds, and another type of Wars movies dominating discussion, it seems unlikely many from those most sought-after demographics are going to say, “Hey, you know what I want to see? A film set during World War I!” No matter that both its director and cinematographer have Oscar statuettes, or that the latter is the Roger Deakins (no slight to Mendes—but just check out Deakins’ resumé). Nonetheless, 1917 is one of the most technically challenging and visually satisfying movies of the year. The “continuous shot” approach, so often a gimmick in lesser films, is executed here with such deftness that it’s fascinating to observe in and of itself—it’s like watching a juggler or tightrope walker pull off a routine …for two straight hours. In this case, the approach meshes perfectly with the setting and story, pulling the viewer into the tension of trench warfare and the overall horror of a prolonged stay in a place where the enemy is always trying to kill you, while also achieving a certain character-centric intensity that may feel familiar to anyone who has logged many hours in videogames. (It may sound strange to praise a film in those terms, but “viewer immersion” is one quality to which all great art—from brows low to high—aspires.) As a result, if you give 1917 an inch of attention, it will drag you along for miles. —Michael Burgin
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Marielle Heller
One of the best things about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is how stubbornly it resists what you think it is going to be. Sure, this isn’t an exposé of Fred Rogers: In this telling, he’s kindly and pure—but the film never lets that be the end of it. The easy piety of the public perception of Mr. Rogers, the idea that you can simply Be Kind and stick to that platitude and that will be enough, is one the movie roundly rejects. Rogers himself is elusive, mysterious, but he’s also palpable and tangible: He exists in our physical realm and runs into the same challenges the rest of us do, sees the same pain and strife as everyone else. In fact, Mr. Rogers is not the main character of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The protagonist is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, playing a fictionalized version of writer Tom Junod), a highly successful magazine journalist and new father who is cynical about the world and crippled with rage at his alcoholic father (Chris Cooper) for leaving his mother when she was dying of cancer. His editor (a charming, much-missed Christine Lahti) assigns him a short 400-word profile for the magazine’s “Heroes” edition of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, of course), and the two men meet and talk. You think the film is going to go in a familiar direction from then on, with the cynic journalist having his heart warmed by the human kindness (that word again) of this American hero. And it does, a little. But the movie is more willing to get its hands dirty than that. It wants to put in the work. The film is anchored in Hanks’ inherent goodness and likability as Rogers: He might be too big and too urgent to truly capture Rogers, but he captures the calmness of Rogers, that sense of total presence in the moment. The movie argues not that we should all be like Mr. Rogers, but that when tragedy hits us, and anger envelopes us, we must strive for grace wherever we can find it. The movie is tougher, and more rigorous, and more interested in the hard work of healing than empty slogans. It is true to the spirit of Mr. Rogers without every deifying him. I bet he would have loved it. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Release Date: November 27, 2019
Director: Rian Johnson
Knives Out is the type of movie that’s not so much a dying breed as one that just occurs uncommonly “in the wild.” Hollywood seems to release a new take on the classic (i.e., Agatha Christie-imprinted) murder mystery “who dunnit”—where an eccentrically mannered detective attempts to figure out who amongst a roomful of suspects has committed murder most foul—every five-to-10 years. For most viewers, the pleasures of such movies go beyond trying to figure out the killer before the detective does—there’s also typically a star-studded cast chewing up the scenery. Beyond dependable Christie fare like Death on the Nile (1978) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017), there’s Clue (1985), Gosford Park (2001) and now Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Johnson’s latest starts out in classic who-dunnit fashion—acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide the night after gathering his family together and delivering a series of unpopular messages. Enter the local police (led by Lakeith Stansfield’s Det. Lt. Elliott) and eccentrically mannered (there we go!) private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Suspects are interrogated. Secrets are revealed. Then, right as the viewer is gearing up to lay some Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot/Encyclopedia Brown-level discernment on all this, Johnson reveals what happened to the elder Thrombey. This flips the entire experience for the viewer, as they go from trying to figure out what happened to wondering if the truth will be discovered. Much as he did with Dashiell Hammett-style noir in his debut, Brick, Johnson shows both a reverence for and a willingness to tinker with the tropes and formula underpinning his story. It’s all delightful to watch. If, ultimately, Knives Out accomplishes what it sets out to do—which might sound like faint or even damning praise with another film or in another genre—here it’s meant as the sincerest of plaudits. —Michael Burgin / Full Review
Release Date: November 27, 2019
Director: Todd Haynes
In Dark Waters, we follow corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), whose primary job is, for all intents and purposes, to find legal loopholes and excuses to protect large chemical companies, such as potential client DuPont. With a city job in Ohio, he has a nice home and burgeoning family. But a farmer (Bill Camp) in Parkersburg, West Virginia whose stock has been mysteriously dying comes knocking to ask Robert to turn away from the big corporate institution that provides him such personal security (two cars, private school tuition for the kids) so that he can return to the part of his past he usually sweeps beneath the rug. Through the tedium of paperwork and a case that lasts over a decade, Bilott pieces together a scandal about unregulated forever chemicals and Teflon and the illusion of safety—the American Dream—that’s been sold to us since the 1960s. For Haynes, the systems and institutions at play present themselves in multiple scales: as small as the pan in your dishwasher and as gigantic as an international company. It recalls Haynes’ relationship to the legacy of AIDS, which informs nearly all of his films in some way, notably [Safe] and Poison. Here Dark Waters conjures the ghosts of corrupt pharmaceutical companies in the late ’80s and ’90s, reminds of their fraught relationship with patient testing and the safety of such drugs as AZT. The trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the people with the power to stop who didn’t, haunts the film. Those same companies with beloved slogans (“Better Living Through Chemistry”) embed themselves deeply into public consciousness, into communities, parasitically, tricking them into believing their success and sustainability is predicated on the success and sustainability of the company. If Haynes’ career-long project is to situate the United States as a kind of “house,” one with rules and systems, one that keeps a watchful eye on its inhabitants, one that operates like an institution filled with other powerful institutions, then that house has the stench of secrets. Not just of how willfully chemical companies put people at risk, particularly those of Parkersburg, WV—the stench is the American Dream itself. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Director: Bong Joon-ho
“That’s so metaphorical,” exclaims the son of the Kim family, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), holding with childlike reverie a large rock sculpture, a wooden base solidifying its aesthetic and cultural value. The pointedly nice object stands apart from the basic keepsakes in the Kims’ fairly dingy and cramped home, inhabited by unemployed driver father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), unemployed mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and not-in-art-school daughter, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Brought to them by Ki-woo’s wealthy friend, the rock is supposed to foretell great financial wealth to whatever family keeps it in their home. Irritated at their own situation, at the lack of space, at the lack of immediate value the rock has, Chung-sook mutters, “Could’ve brought us food.” In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, those that live with a stark awareness of inequality operate with a sense of cognitive dissonance. It’s this paradox of thought that allows Ki-woo to be both naively worshipful towards what a rock sculpture could bring them, but also understand, at other times, that wandering around isn’t how one ascends into power. At the behest of said wealthy friend, he becomes the English tutor for the daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), of the grotesquely affluent Park family: astute patriarch (Lee Sun-kyun), dim matriarch (Cho Yeo-jeong), manic artsy son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), and severely loyal housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun). But as the Kim and Park families grow increasingly closer, both the differences and similarities between them blur beyond discernment.
Bong’s interest in income inequality and class has spanned the majority of his career, examining the ways it impacts the justice system (Memories of Murder, Mother), the environment (Okja) and the institutions responsible for both the exacerbation of wealth inequality and failing to protect those most marginalized by that inequality (Snowpiercer, The Host). For Parasite, Bong takes a slightly different angle—he’s no less interested in inequality’s consequences, but here he sees how class as performance manifests, particularly when people are plucked from one echelon of society and put in another. As we watch both families act in different, but intersecting, pieces of social/anthropological theatre, Bong cuts through their mutual hunger, and what ultimately and tragically separates them, with a jaundiced eye and an acidic sense of humor. Laughing during Parasite feels like choking on rust. (Cho, especially, finds the perfect amount of absurdity as the somewhat doltish mother, truly a testament to rich ladies being easily knocked over by a feather.) But Bong is not interested in metaphor, and not the kind written on rocks. Even through its absurdist, bleakly satirical lens, Bong understands that social inequity is not just theatre, but lived experience. Sometimes the rock is just a shit-stained rock. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
Date Released: December 25, 2019 (wide)
Director: Greta Gerwig
Problems with plot lines and coinciding facts have been points of contention among scholars, critics and fans of the cherished book for the better part of 150 years. Little Women has been adapted for TV, film, radio and the stage dozens of times, the most notable version (until now, arguably) being Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film starring Winona Ryder as an especially hot-headed Jo. But even that down-to-earth rendition—one that introduced Little Women to a whole new generation of bookish girls who were raised on American Girl, I might add—doesn’t approach these inconsistencies and questionable romances with as much rhythm and vibrance as Greta Gerwig’s spunky, magical Little Women. Like Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, (which also starred Saoirse Ronan as its lead), it has an uninhibited appreciation for life. Jo (a wisecracking, wonderful Ronan), like any good Jo, is fiercely independent, except when it comes to her sisters: She dotes on sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen, who puts a wise spin on the doomed girl), reveres the poised Meg (an accurately cast Emma Watson) and brawls with feisty Amy (played by Florence Pugh, who breathes new life into the oft-detested character). Marmee (the earnest Laura Dern) is the whole family’s moral compass, constantly encouraging her children to do the most good. I can’t say I’ve seen every single Little Women adaptation ever made, but Gerwig, who also wrote the script, weaves the women’s storylines together in a more clever and effective manner than that of any of those I have seen. She doesn’t just flip Little Women’s narrative arc on its head—she cracks it open and scrambles it. It’s such an engrossing experience that looking back at the film’s events in the rearview feels more like remembering a mood rather than recalling a sequence of scenes. Each actress brought such color to her role that all the moments have since swarmed together in my mind, leaving me with a content glow. Gerwig has a way of making her audiences feel something different at every beat. Maybe Little Women isn’t the radical feminist pamphlet we all want it to be; maybe it was never progressive and never will be. But its triumphs are the little ones: a gust of sandy wind covering Jo and Beth as they cling to each other on the beach, Marmee taking the scarf off her neck to give to a weary father who has lost his sons to the war, the poor John Brooke (James Norton) giving up a new suit so his wife Beth can have a fancy dress. These moments of compassion relay new meaning in Gerwig’s film, even if we’ve seen them 100 times before. —Ellen Johnson / Full Review
Release Date: December 25, 2019 (wide)
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Uncut Gems begins far from Adam Sandler. In Ethiopia, an injured miner’s carried by a group of his fellow workers. We glimpse the miner’s nauseating leg break, though seeing it draws little sympathy from the mine’s non-native foremen, further infuriating the already collecting group of laborers, looking ready to riot. A fracas breaks out—chaos begets more chaos, as is the Safdie brothers’ way—while two workers slip away to head deep into the mine and chip out their own discovery. They seem to know where to find it: a huge gem, which they hold up for the audience. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s camera moves closer to the gem to inspect, to create a tactile connection with the rock maybe, only to move in so close we plunge beneath its surface—caves within caves—and emerge, amidst a cosmos of particles, from Adam Sandler’s butthole. It’s 2012, the Celtics are in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and we meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy. He’ll spend the majority of Uncut Gems waiting for the procedure’s findings, but any worries about what the doctor may find up his ass is quickly subsumed by the clusterfuck of Howard’s quotidian.
The proprietor of an exclusive shop in New York’s diamond district, Howard does well for himself and his family, though he can’t help but gamble compulsively, owing his brother-in-law Aron (Eric Bogosian, malevolently slimy) a substantial amount. Still, Howard has other risks to balance—his payroll’s comprised of Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a finder of both clients and product, and Julia (Julia Fox, an unexpected beacon amidst the storm in her first feature role), a clerk with whom Howard’s carrying on an affair, “keeping” her comfortable in his New York apartment. Except his wife’s (Idina Menzel, pristinely jaded) obviously sick of his shit, and meanwhile he’s got a special delivery coming from Africa: a black opal, the stone we got to know intimately in the film’s first scene, which Howard estimates is worth millions. Then Demany happens to bring Kevin Garnett (as himself, keyed so completely into the Safdie brothers’ tone) into the shop on the same day the opal arrives, inspiring a once-in-a-lifetime bet for Howard—the kind that’ll square him with Aron and then some—as well as a host of new crap to get straight. It’s all undoubtedly stressful—really relentlessly, achingly stressful—but the Safdies, on their sixth film, seem to thrive in anxiety, capturing the inertia of Howard’s life, and of the innumerable lives colliding with his, in all of its full-bodied beauty. Just before a game, Howard reveals to Garnett his grand plan for a big payday, explaining that Garnett gets it, right? That guys like them are keyed into something greater, working on a higher wavelength than most—that this is how they win. He may be onto something, or he may be pulling everything out of his ass—regardless, we’ve always known Sandler’s had it in him. This may be exactly what we had in mind. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review