Like New Year’s resolutions, Best and Worst lists are a year-end tradition I’d just as soon skip. Whatever I resolve to do or not do rarely endures past mid-January, and judging the greatest or most awful films of any year often relies upon the test of time. But for this Best list, I tried to focus on movies that kept me thinking about them, as well as the films released at the end of the year that I suspect I’ll keep thinking about in the future.
And because my initial list of favorites rounded out at 30, there’s a list of runners-up that I like to call 20 Films I’m Glad I Saw This Year (in alphabetical order): “Benedetta,” “C’mon C’mon” (pictured), “Days,” “Drive My Car,” “Fever Dream,” “Holler,” “I Carry You With Me,” “Labyrinth of Cinema,” “Locked Down,” “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” “The Novice,” “Pig,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Red Rocket,” “Riders of Justice,” “Spencer,” “Titane” and “Together Together.”
10. “Swan Song”
One of two films this year bearing this title, writer-director Todd Stephens’ comedy-drama stars Udo Kier as a retired Ohio hairdresser called back into service for one last coif when a wealthy client’s will stipulates he do her up for her open-casket viewing. Kier gives one of the year’s most indelible performances, and this moving character piece tells the too-rarely-told story of the generation of gay men who survived both AIDS and decades of anti-queer discrimination.
9. “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar”
Like many of the greatest comedies, this buddy saga starring and written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo isn’t to all tastes, but if you were on its weirdo wavelength, you rode it all the way to the Florida resort where its heroines go to kickstart their cozy lives. It’s a movie that could accommodate musical numbers — and seriously, Academy music branch, how did you pass over Jamie Dornan’s love song? — a super-villain with a diabolical plot and the deep, satisfying powers of friendship and of women named “Trish.”
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes movies that seems to bypass the conscious mind entirely and seep right into audiences’ dream space, and his first film featuring a major international star — Tilda Swinton, performing much of her role in Spanish — is no exception. A British woman living in Colombia begins hearing phantom sounds that might or might not be connected to collective traumatic memory, and she’s helped along the way by people who may or may not exist and events that might nor might not have happened. Just go with it.
Pixar strikes again, with a gorgeous tale of friendship and vintage Vespas that also delves into the inner selves that we hold secret from the world until they can no longer be contained. There are countless ways to interpret the metaphors on hand here, but the messaging is never sledgehammered, nestling in among a colorful and picturesque coming-of-age tale for two sea monsters who learn to live among the human residents of a coastal Italian village.
6. “Petite Maman”
Céline Sciamma follows “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” with another tale of the inner life of women. A young girl discovers that her new friend is actually the child version of her own mother, and the relationship they form helps the girl cope with her grandmother’s death and her mother’s complicated emotional behavior. It’s a smaller scale production than “Lady on Fire,” but no less emotionally intuitive and resonant.
5. “The Worst Person in the World”
Writer-director Joachim Trier’s merciless, incisive exploration of humanity continues with his latest, but he’s able to find the best and the worst of us all in his surgically precise portrait of Julie (the captivating Renate Reinsve), a young woman desperate to figure out what she wants to do with her life, and with whom she wants to spend it. Trier’s skill at isolating seemingly quotidian moments that are nonetheless loaded with life-changing impact makes him one of this generation’s most meticulous storytellers.
In his extraordinary sophomore feature, writer-director Ben Sharrock crafts a tale that’s equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. A group of displaced men from various global combat zones find themselves stuck on an island off the Scottish coast, waiting to see if they can find a new home and restart their lives. In the meantime, they take mordantly funny English lessons, watch “Friends” reruns and wait. And wait. And wait.
3. “West Side Story”
It’s always risky to remake a beloved classic, but director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner more than rise to the challenge, taking the musical-theater staple and creating a screen revival that’s both true to its roots but open to innovation and experimentation. The Hollywood master shows the kids what a musical is supposed to look like, to move like and to feel like, and Ariana DeBose’s electrifying turn as Anita heralds the arrival of a major new talent.
2. “Parallel Mothers”: The title and the logline — Penélope Cruz and newcomer Milena Smit play women who become friends when they give birth on the same day at the same hospital — might lead you to expect another richly satisfying, Douglas Sirk–esque melodrama from modern master Pedro Almodóvar, but that’s only part of the impact this film delivers, as it also explores how Spain’s troubled past continues to inform its present, and how every birth, every life and every death becomes an immutable part of our shared history.
1. “Licorice Pizza”: Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the San Fernando Valley of his youth with this picaresque tale of an aging kid actor (Cooper Hoffman) in 1973 and his complicated relationship and business partnership with an older woman (Alana Haim) trying to figure out her own life. It’s a richly evocative period piece that captures both the delights and the down sides of the era, one that ignores the usual screenwriting beats to create its own wonderfully unpredictable path.