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This year the Better-Than List is more necessary than ever, given film criticism’s decline alongside corporate media’s ethical failure. Good movies received bad notices, little attention, and scarce distribution and exhibition. Visually effective storytelling, emotional exploration, and political scrutiny have been so obstructed by Marvel–Star Wars inanity and TV distraction (through the novelty of streaming services) that critics have lost sight of cinema aesthetics. Good movies still get made but languish for worthy audiences. Critical thinking has been lost to fake mythology. Here’s proof:
Dragged across Concrete > The Irishman
Craig Zahler made the best movie of the year by examining the contemporary American nightmare with both horror and compassion. Lawmen Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, and lawless Tory Kittles test private conviction and social desire — unlike Scorsese’s mob-fetishizing, morality manqué tale. Personal filmmaking vs. decadent commercialism.
Sorry Angel > Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Christophe Honoré’s AIDS-era morality tale confronted still-current ironies of desire minus the special pleading that fouled up Céline Sciamma’s misguided lesbian/abortion historical romance. Sorry Angel’s range of masculine behaviors bested simplistic feminist standard-bearing, Plus, Honoré transcended sexual politics through the single most powerful — leveling — movie-lover’s image this decade.
Pain and Glory > Uncut Gems
Pedro Almodóvar’s gorgeous emotional autobiography showed wisdom while the Safdie Brothers’ ethnic carnival was callow. Antonio Banderas’s expressive regret and grace-filled recollections went deeper than Adam Sandler’s deliberately ugly, unfunny self-reproach.
Domino > Knives Out
Brian De Palma reexamines his Millennial politics — depicting the War on Terror in a swift, effective genre exercise. Rian Johnson’s crass, pseudopolitical whodunit can’t tell where citizenship or humanity begins.
Richard Jewell > The Irishman
Clint Eastwood’s account of an actual American tragedy (initiated by irresponsible media and rogue government) shames Scorsese’s distorted labor-union history. Respect for life vs. the love of crime. Simple fluency vs. baroque dishonesty.
The Image Book >Netflix
Jean-Luc Godard recalls the political complexity of our cinematic heritage. Images of beauty and doom reflect on the artistic expression of mortality — an increasingly forgotten goal. Godard shows us everything missing from the inundation of Netflix’s reckless film-production excess. Through a climactic scene from Max Ophuls’s Le Plaisir, Godard challenged Netflix (Scorsese’s and Obama’s boss) as the enemy of cinema.
Sauvage/Wild > Marriage Story
Camille Vidal-Naquet’s extraordinarily intimate debut is more candid than Noah Baumbach’s latest act of pampered social-climbing. The tough story of a social outcast (Félix Maritaud) looking for love (without conventional definition) contrasts with the flimsy narcissism that our media elite share and defend. Homo sensitivity vs. Hetero superficiality.
Tattoo of Revenge > Little Women
Julián Hernandez’s film noir turns male–female empathy into a constantly inventive spectacle while Greta Gerwig’s literary adaptation sentimentalizes bourgeois privilege as a woman’s right.
John Wick 3: Parabellum > Joker
Chad Stahelski’s slapstick violence wittily satirizes Millennial desperation (imagine if John Woo had Fred Astaire’s aplomb). But Todd Phillips’s Batman spin-off, featuring Joaquin Phoenix’s bonkers Heath Ledger re-do, is a grim, sarcastic appeal to nihilism (imagine a Scorsese sellout with no craft).
Shadow > The Souvenir
Zhang Yimou combines Chinese lore and pure cinematic dazzle, in a royal court’s battle of wills imbued with Shakespearean richness. Joanna Hogg’s vapid film-school heroine (Honor Swinton Byrne) epitomizes a generation’s cultural ignorance and foolish pride.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians > Parasite
Radu Jude provides an ingenious perspective on Romania’s cultural and political legacy while Bong Joon-ho flirts with creeping fascism. Anti-Communist wisdom vs. cancel-culture terrorism. An Adam Schiff alarm vs. an Adam Schiff sitcom.
Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood > The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino recalls the Manson Sixties but with social perspective, while Scorsese brings back that ’90s malady: denial. It’s QT’s best-ever film — vividly acted and emotionally satisfying — a bulwark against film culture’s moral decay.
By the Grace of God >The Two Popes
François Ozon addresses the Catholic Church sex scandal without the defamation seen in Fernando Meirelles’s progressive calling-card movie. Ozon revives the astute reverence of Hollywood’s I’d Climb the Highest Mountain and A Man Called Peter. Meirelles is just smug.
Brian Banks and The Best of Enemies > Us, Clemency, and Queen & Slim
In this year’s race-movie genre, Tom Shadyac and Robin Bissell empathize with real-life civil-rights struggles. Their decent films rise above the insulting exploitation of Jordan Peele, Chinonye Chukwu, and Lena Waithe’s superstitious thrillers.
Peterloo > 1917
Before Mike Leigh succumbs to Marxist sentiment and secular skepticism, he gives us fine moments of common-people sacrifice and brilliant instances of British political rhetoric putting opposing sides of history at cross-purposes. Leigh senses contemporary national crisis, but Sam Mendes ignores it with a mawkish, tedious WWI pictorial stunt.