Feeling the need for a little escapism this January? The movies hear you, and this weekend two guilty pleasures arrive full of big stars, fabulous scenery and lots of romance. See if either of our critic’s picks tickles your fancy, and don’t miss our insider’s guide to the (now) totally virtual Sundance Film Festival. And put some extra butter on that popcorn — it’s hibernation season!
You want an all-star cast and epic scenery? Have we got a movie for you!
The King’s Daughter, PG
You’d think this historical/fantasy epic about Louis XIV’s quest to gain immortality by killing a magical mermaid would be smart. It’s written by the authors of Brokeback Mountain and Rain Man from the Vonda McIntyre novel that beat Game of Thrones for the Nebula Award, and narrated by dulcet-toned Julie Andrews (like the must-see historical series Bridgerton). But the plot is a dog’s breakfast only partly redeemed by the superb cast: Pierce Brosnan as the arrogantly magnetic Sun King, William Hurt as his wise priest, and Liev Schreiber’s brother Pablo Schreiber as his wicked physician. Still, it has its silly charms and looks sensational, shot partly at Versailles. You may say what someone (unjustly) said of Marilyn Monroe: “Not much upstairs — but what a staircase!” —Tim Appelo (T.A.)
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Miss Downton Abbey? Here’s a movie to scratch that itch
The Laureate, R
In a mostly true tale, famous I, Claudius author Robert Graves (Victoria’s Tom Hughes) invites vivacious but appalling writer Laura Riding (Glee’s Dianna Agron) to live with him and his wife (Downton Abbey: A New Era’s Laura Haddock). Riding’s passion gives Graves, a shell-shocked WWI vet, a jolt of energy. Things get even more Roaring Twenties when Riding adds a hunky fourth member (Fra Fee) to their erotic menage. For a lurid story about bad behavior, suicide, murder charges and literary ambition, it’s all kind of dryly intellectual. We don’t get enough inside Graves’ head to really feel his pain. But it’s interesting, about important figures intelligently portrayed. It might even scratch your Downton Abbey itch a bit. —T.A.
Watch it: The Laureate, coming Jan. 21 to theaters
You can actually attend the Sundance Film Festival from your sofa this year, and it’s all happening now!
For the first time ever, you won’t need an airplane ticket, snow boots or a parka to attend the Sundance Film Festival, the largest domestic independent film festival, traditionally held in Park City, Utah. A last-minute decision to take Sundance from a hybrid model to completely virtual means you can select among the festival’s 82 feature films, Q&As, talent panels and virtual reality programming from the blizzard-free comfort of your couch. The festival runs through Jan. 30, so check out our insider's guide on which packages to buy and top films to look for.
Your Netflix watch of the week is here!
Munich: The Edge of War (2022)
Jeremy Irons plays British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, riskily negotiating with Hitler in 1938, while his secretary confers behind the scenes with an old Oxford chum who’s on the German side now.
Watch it: Munich: The Edge of War, on Netflix
Don’t miss this: The Best Things Coming to (and Leaving) Netflix in January
The AARP 2022 Movies for Grownups nominees are in! Who are your favorites?
Clockwise from top left: Chiabella James/Warner Bros; 20th Century Studios; Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services; Rob Youngson/Focus Features; Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
Did anyone notice the Golden Globes? Well, they came and went, but you know what’s here? AARP’s 2022 Movies for Grownups nominees list, hot off the presses! Get the scoop on who’s on the short list for our top film awards and catch up on your watch list before our awards show March 18!
Get the list: Announcing AARP's Movies for Grownups Awards Nominees
What are the best thrillers on Netflix right now? We’re here with the goods
Winter just seems like the perfect time to curl up on the sofa with a pulse-pounding film, which is what inspired our critics to gather up the 13 very best thrillers currently streaming on platform powerhouse Netflix. From 1982’s Blade Runner (never a bad idea to revisit that classic) to the 2020 Netflix original Tyler Perry’s A Fall From Grace, we’re here to pull you into the rabbit hole of suspense and sweaty palms.
Get the list: The Best Thrillers Playing on Netflix Right Now
Excited for Belfast? We thought you might be
There’s nothing like a director’s personal look at his or her own childhood, which is why Belfast inspired our critics to bring you their favorite films where famous directors from Federico Fellini to Greta Gerwig look back with the kind of artful nostalgia we love. Add one (or more) of these marvelous films streaming now to your week’s watchlist.
Don’t open Netflix again until you’ve read this
Do you get a little dizzy from all those “recommendations” the streaming giant proposes for you? Our critic took a close look behind the browsing curtain at Netflix and has some uncomfortable truths about how Netflix is manipulating your browsing experience. Get the whole scoop and find out how to take control of your account (and see better stuff).
21 great movies you didn’t even know were on Netflix!
Sure, you know the big-name shows and original series that the streaming giant wants you to browse … but did you know that Netflix has about 3,700 movies you can stream? Our critics sifted through the whole list to uncover 21 fantastic gems that are ready to watch. So what are you waiting for?
Get ready to bookmark this ultimate movie watchlist
Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images; Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Miramax Films/Courtesy Everett Collection
Our critics scanned the entire film catalog from the 1930s to now to handpick just 30 films that you must — must — see. We’re not talking about the best films (everyone does that list) but rather the films that are essential. You want to have seen these movies not just because they’re great (they are), but because they ensure you’re tuned into their cultural moments, the power of their time. So when someone makes a Philadelphia Story reference or deadpans, “the Dude abides,” you know exactly what they mean.
Get the list here: The 30 Movies Every Grownup Should Know
Love rom-coms but tired of watching millennials have all the fun?
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection; James Hamilton/Focus World/Courtesy Everett Collection
We hear you. Which is why our critics found the 13 best romantic comedies that feature older actors! From an all-grown-up Spencer and Tracy in 1957’s Desk Set to Angela Bassett in How Stella Got Her Groove Back in the late ’90s to Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland in 2017’s The Leisure Seeker, these are love stories for folks who know a thing or two about love. Grab your favorite rom-com date and get streaming here: Grown-ups In (and Out) of Love: 13 Great Rom-Coms Starring Older Actors
Feeling overwhelmed with all the streaming services on your TV?
Disney, HBO, Peacock … it seems like every time you turn around (or turn on the TV), another streaming service is vying for your attention (and subscription dollars). Which streaming services out there are really worth the money? How do you decide what to pick? Here’s what you need to know about your options on Apple, BET, CBS, Disney, HBO and NBC: Too Many TV Streaming Service Choices? Here’s What You Need to Know
More of the very best movies online
It’s truly amazing how many incredible movies there are available on mainstream platforms like Amazon, Netflix and others. Our critics round up the very best for you, no matter what your interest. Check out the latest “Best of” lists from AARP critics. There’s never been a better time to catch up on movies you always intended to watch.
Other movies to watch
A Hero, PG-13
Asghar Farhadi, 49, wrote and directed 2011’s A Separation, Iran’s first winner of the foreign film Oscar, then the 2016 Oscar winner, The Salesman. Iran is hoping for another Oscar with this heartrending tale about Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who’s in debtors’ prison for $35 — yes, Iran still has debtors’ prisons — and finds a bag of gold in the street! He decides to return it to its owner, gets a big reward and becomes a media hero — until his little white lies and personal secrets emerge, and society turns against him. Farhadi is brilliant at depicting stories that seem like cinema verité documentaries but whose hero turns out to be caught in a complex web of fate and the mysteries of his own character. —Tim Appelo (T.A.)
The Tragedy of Macbeth, R
"Life is but a walking shadow," says Macbeth, and few films of Shakespeare’s bloody play are more dazzlingly shadowy than this one by Joel Coen. Its stark black-and-white expressionist look is on a par with Dreyer’s Vampyr, Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Denzel Washington (a longtime master of Shakespeare onstage and onscreen) and triple Oscar winner Frances McDormand play the king-killing couple not as young and hungry — the typical take — but as an older couple seizing their last chance at soul-destroying power. Kathryn Hunt is still scarier as all three of the Weird Sister witches who give Macbeth his fatal marching orders. Joel Coen’s first film not codirected by his brother, Ethan, is as good as their collaborations, and superior to Orson Welles’ 1948 Macbeth. —T.A.
A Journal for Jordan, PG-13
A very effective, polished, fact-based tearjerker about a single mother, Dana Canedy (Chante Adams), recounting to her preteen son her love affair with his father, Charles (Michael B. Jordan), who died in the Iraq War just months after his birth, and the lessons about manhood he left behind in a journal for the son. She's an intellectual New York Times editor, he's a by-the-book career sergeant; they bond over a shared love of Monet, and bicker over his loyalty to his men and his family. Director Denzel Washington smartly pared down Canedy's book to focus on the love story, and Jordan turns in his usual strong performance as the taciturn sergeant. Adams’s Canedy anchors the film fabulously — she’s a face to watch in Hollywood. —Andy Lewis (A.L.)
Watch it: A Journal for Jordan, in theaters
Parallel Mothers, R
Pedro Almódovar, 71, has created another vibrant, passionate Spanish-language masterpiece, dancing back and forth in time to manifest the power and mystery of motherhood and memory. In contemporary Madrid, a pregnant middle-aged photographer, Janis (an incandescent Penelope Cruz), shares a maternity hospital room with anxious adolescent Ana (rising star Milena Smit). The single mothers bond over their newborns and provide mutual support — until they un-swaddle a shattering betrayal that threatens their emotional connection. Meanwhile, Janis has enlisted her baby daddy, forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), to investigate a rural mass grave created during the Spanish Civil War by Franco’s soldiers, which likely holds the corpse of her Republican great-grandfather and neighboring fathers, sons and brothers. The balance of light and dark, birth and death, and the power of women to create life, and to preserve memory over generations in the face of injustice, melds in a warm, humanistic and politically outspoken drama from the unflinching master. —Thelma M. Adams (T.M.A.)
Watch it: Parallel Mothers, in theaters
The Matrix Resurrections, R
Keanu Reeves’ pop-Byronic kick-ass hero looks so sick and tired of the franchise that we expect him to say, á la Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” His character’s name may still be Neo, but the film’s appeal is strictly retro. Director-cowriter Lana Wachowski facetiously and relentlessly recycles the series’ sci-fi-tinged chopsocky and shoot-’em-ups and its chat-room versions of Philosophy 101 (free will vs. destiny, illusion vs. reality). The impenetrable plot gives Neo one more chance to free unknowing humans, including his adored Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), from the invasive computer program known as the Matrix. Spoiler alert: Love conquers all, except the script. —Michael Sragow (M.S.)
American Underdog, PG
If you liked The Blind Side, try this ridiculously improbable, intensely sentimental, totally true faith-based heartwarmer about Kurt Warner. Can a no-longer-young, $5.50-an-hour Iowa supermarket shelf stocker become an NFL Super Bowl champ and Hall of Fame quarterback, breaking records at an age when most players would pack it in? He did, and it’s uplifting to see him pull it off, with the help of his unsinkable missus Brenda and belief as big as his biceps. Zachary Levi is solid as Warner, Anna Paquin better as Brenda, and Hayden Zaller better yet as her blind son. Dennis Quaid is good as the coach who glimpsed Kurt’s greatness. This one’s a cut above most faith-based films — less preachy and more mainstream. —T.A.
Watch it: American Underdog, in theaters
Nightmare Alley, R
Guillermo del Toro’s spectacularly nasty carnival movie is like a bitter reply to his smash 2017 romance The Shape of Water — as gorgeous, dreamy and visually inventive, only infinitely bleak. A grifter (Bradley Cooper) flees his fiery past into a lurid circus and learns the art of the con from a clairvoyant (Toni Collette) and her drunk, broken mentalist husband (David Strathairn, 72). Will he find true magic with a circus girl (Rooney Mara) who’s as radiant as the heroine in Fellini’s La Strada? Or go bad, helping a terrifying psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett, 52) fleece a sinister plutocrat (Richard Jenkins, 74)? The tale is propulsive yet shapeless, just one darkly dazzling scene after another. But it holds your attention as the killer cast messes with your mind. Blanchett’s sharp, arch looks and darting emotions are a natural for noir, and Strathairn is great as the carnies’ shattered moral conscience. —T.A.
Watch it: Nightmare Alley, in theaters
The Lost Daughter, R
Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a bold writer-director debut unpacking Elena Ferrante’s slim, scorching novel. Among 2021’s best, the vibrant drama centers on Leda (a glorious Olivia Colman, 47), an academic pushing 50. She travels solo to a Greek island for summer sun and self-care but, curious, can’t resist getting entangled in the traumas of glistening young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson). As Leda becomes obsessed with Nina, her clingy young daughter and the extended family swirling around them, the encounter triggers sharp, undigested personal memories — and reveals the past choice that, even now, defines Leda. Enter the brilliant Jessie Buckley in flashback as the younger Leda, raising daughters while pursuing an ambitious intellectual career, struggling with domesticity’s crushing demands and seduced at an academic conference by Professor Hardy (Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard, 50). An original character study that spirals like a thriller, The Lost Daughter is an exhilarating, unsparing examination of modern motherhood — its joys and discontents. —T.M.A.
The King’s Man, R
This eye-popping crazy quilt of pulp historical fiction introduces an unlikely espionage team — the sometime pacifist Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), his butler/chauffeur (Djimon Hounsou) and his son’s nanny (Gemma Arterton). They battle an evil Anglophobic Scottish genius who enlists world-class rogues like Mata Hari and Rasputin to ignite World War I and bury Britain. In a seriocomic prequel to his hit Kingsman action comedies, director Matthew Vaughn celebrates manly ideals of sacrifice and service — and Fiennes embodies them with gusto. He holds the film together as it careens from camp episodes with the deranged Russian mystic to harrowing depictions of our hero’s son fighting in the trenches. All in all, it’s a ripping yarn. —M.S.
Watch it: The King’s Man, in theaters
The Tender Bar, R
Former young hunk Ben Affleck, 49, plays an avuncular grownup in a sweet, gentle adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer’s memoir about his childhood in a Long Island bar in the ’70s. J.R.’s dad (Max Martini, 52), a DJ and a jerk, left his mom (Lily Rabe), so she and J.R. move in with her kind but flatulent father (Christopher Lloyd, 83). J.R. poignantly listens to his AWOL dad’s radio show. But who needs him, anyway? J.R.’s Uncle Charlie (Affleck) is better than a dad, introducing J.R. to the novels that line his bar The Dickens, to the entertaining barflies who become his surrogate family, and to “the male sciences”: drinking, respecting women, forging a professional identity. Director George Clooney, 60, gets an A in the male sciences but flubs the subplot about J.R.’s college romance with a richer girl (Brianna Middleton). The plot ambles and wanders. But Affleck’s warm intelligence rescues it, as Charlie does J.R. —T.A.
Don’t miss this: George Clooney is starting to feel his age
Spider-Man: No Way Home, PG-13
In the latest Spider-Man — part monster mash, part superhero souffle, and the first smash hit of the COVID era — Benedict Cumberbatch is at his wryest as that master of mystic arts, Dr. Strange. His exasperated omniscience conjures ominous hilarity out of clichés like “Be careful what you wish for.” Tom Holland’s exuberant Spider-Man wishes Strange would make people forget that his alter ego is Peter Parker. The resulting botched spell opens portals for super-villains from across the multiverse. The film transcends a hectic, wearying first half when Holland meets two spider-suited allies who empathize with him completely. Holland attains maximum poignance and amiability and the franchise soars into fan heaven while making believers of us all. —M.S.
Watch it: Spider-Man: No Way Home, in theaters
Cyrano is a great, big whirligig of a musical. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, The Darkest Hour), 49, with luscious costumes and exuberant production design, it stars Peter Dinklage, 52. The Game of Thrones standout embodies the title character, Cyrano de Bergerac, a man with physical disabilities leavened by a silver tongue. (Sound familiar, Tyrion Lannister fans?) Cyrano lends his vocal gifts to a lovestruck but tongue-tied soldier, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), to woo the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett), the blushing object of Cyrano’s unrequited affection. This awkward triangle propels an energetic if overlong songfest with an original score from twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the band The National. The production provides Dinklage with a showcase for his mad acting and singing skills — and a platform for a Best Actor nomination. —T.M.A.
Watch it: Cyrano, in theaters
Swan Song, R
I can never get enough of double Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, 47 (Moonlight, The Green Book) — and here there are two of him: the original and his clone. In writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s existential sci-fi romance set in a near future of driverless cars and dramatic AI advances, Ali plays Cameron. The terminally ill father and husband confronts extinction and the end of his love before his time. His doctor (Glenn Close, 74) recommends he take a radical new course: bid his beloved Poppy (Naomie Harris, 45) and son goodbye, transfer his memories to the clone, and enter an idyllic hospice for his final days while another flesh-and-blood being stuffed with Cameron’s personal memories takes over. That’s going to take some serious adjusting. Ali excels at delivering a man undergoing all five stages of grief until he achieves acceptance, and Harris connects as his wife, but the overall narrative unfolds with all the forward drive of passive voice. —T.M.A.
Watch it: Swan Song, on Apple TV+
West Side Story, PG-13
Steven Spielberg, 74, directs a thundering adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical by Tony Kushner, 65. Like the 1961 original, it’s set in 1957. As the wrecking ball levels a Manhattan slum, rival ethnic gangs the Jets and the Sharks rumble. Meanwhile, Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Shark little sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) fall in love at first sight, catalyzing the turf wars. Elgort hits the right notes but doesn’t sizzle. Shiny newcomer Zegler sings angelically. Rita Moreno, 89, who won an Oscar for playing the spunky Anita in 1962, still twinkles.
Watch it: West Side Story, in theaters
Being the Ricardos, R
Nicole Kidman, 54, grows on the audience as a brittle version of Lucille Ball, the flame-haired comedienne whose show I Love Lucy ruled 1950s TV. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin, 60 (The Social Network, The West Wing), makes the love-and-loathe story between Ball and her onscreen-and-actual Cuban American husband Desi Arnaz (a loose and engaged Javier Bardem, 52) a workplace dramedy unfolding in a single crisis-plagued week. Public accusations that the controlling leading lady has a communist past — and private indications of Arnaz’s sexual infidelity — threaten both the sitcom and their marriage. The dialog’s pungent, the pace fast, and J.K. Simmons, 66, steals the show as William Frawley, delivering some of Sorkin’s sharpest lines as the sardonic, hard-drinking actor who played the Ricardos’ neighbor Fred.
The Power of the Dog, R
Jane Campion’s glorious, sweeping and intimate Oscar-bound Western is set at the volatile crossroads of horse culture and the horseless carriage in 1925 Montana, on the ranch of the bachelor Burbank brothers, menacing Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and temperate George (rock-solid Jesse Plemons). Phil, rangy of build and cunning of eye, is a charismatic and cutting alpha dog. Beneath his bullying hide, he has repressed his authentic, vulnerable self. His secrets erupt when George weds the widow Rose Gordon (a finely wrought Kirsten Dunst), who triangulates their relationship, threatening Phil’s fierce frontier facade. A compelling, visceral tale that sticks its devastating landing.
Watch it: The Power of the Dog, on Netflix
Don’t Look Up, R
In an amazingly star-studded comedy that’s kind of fun but seldom funny, nerdy Leonardo DiCaprio and punky, nose-ringed Jennifer Lawrence are astronomers who warn America that a comet is about to pulverize Earth. The president (Meryl Streep) and her horrid son and adviser (Jonah Hill) fear the news will hurt their polls. She tells the nation, “They want you to be afraid! They want you to look up so they can look down on you!” Then she lets a tech zillionaire nut (superbly weird Mark Rylance) and a Dr. Strangelove-ish general (Ron Perlman) run the calamitous U.S. comet response for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which really exists). It won’t make you laugh much, but it’s good for a smile. —T.A.
Watch it: Don’t Look Up, on Netflix
The Humans, R
I love a holiday movie that centers on a family imploding around the turkey. The Blakes have a skeleton in every closet. Patriarch Erik Blake (played from merely uptight to operatic mania by possible Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, 74) drives wife (Jayne Houdyshell, 68), mother (June Squibb, 92), and older daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) from Pennsylvania to Manhattan for the big meal. A collision of horror and humor that’s as human as it is cringeworthy. —T.M.A.
Watch it: The Humans, on Showtime
Halle Berry, 55, doesn’t play nice in her gritty feature directorial debut. In a cross between Million Dollar Baby and Raging Bull, she stars as hard-drinking MMA vet Jackie Justice. The fighter’s spectacular flameout in the cage left the Newark, New Jersey, native in a spiral of booze, abuse and bad choices. When the 6-year-old son Jackie abandoned as an infant suddenly shows up, mute and damaged, it puts her at a crossroads: Can she regain her dignity and find her inner dragon mom? You betcha. Kick butt, break rules, and direct your first feature after 50? Maybe Berry could be the next Bond. —T.M.A.
Watch it: Bruised, on Netflix
The Beatles: Get Back
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson turns 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of unheard 50-year-old audio of the Beatles in the studio creating 14 songs (and doing their last public performance) into a spanking-new docuseries with scenes you’ve never seen before. It’s a fascinating, gloriously long documentary, with songs they wrote as teenagers — you wish they’d finished them all, but the bits they do sparkle — and tunes that wound up on Let It Be, Abbey Road and solo albums. This documentary will make you feel like it’s 1969 again — in a good way. —T.A.
Watch it: The Beatles: Get Back, on Disney+
Don’t Miss This: Giles Martin, son of the band’s first producer, George Martin, tells AARP about his new, five-disc Let It Be album and the new documentary from Peter Jackson. Read it all here: Beatles Fans, Rejoice: New Documentary and Album Set the ‘Get Back’ Record Straight
Licorice Pizza, R
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) returns to his Boogie Nights/Magnolia home turf, the San Fernando Valley, for a nostalgic charmer about the relationship between a self-confident teenage boy (Cooper Hoffman) and an acerbic 20-something woman (Alana Haim). The movie, set during the polyester ’70s, is more anecdotal than plot-driven, but the anecdotes are often wonderful — Bradley Cooper is a scream as hairstylist-producer Jon Peters — and the whole thing has an ingratiating summer vibe hanging over it. Plus, it’s a family affair: Hoffman is the son of the late Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman and Haim’s sisters (and bandmates in the rock group Haim) play her sisters. —Ty Burr (T.B.)
Watch it: Licorice Pizza, in theaters
House of Gucci, R
Directed by maestro Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator), 83, this long, bouncy tale of the Italian luxury designers’ fall never met a fast car it didn’t slow down to capture. And it loves actors! Jeremy Irons, 73, cast as Rodolfo Gucci, the more effete of the two founding brothers, has played his share of Borgias and corrupt popes. Here, with a John Waters mustache, he’s a deliciously toothless lion in winter. As his craftier sibling Aldo, Al Pacino, 81, roars and roars. And the sons! Adam Driver excels as Rodolfo’s socially awkward, intellectual Maurizio. As Aldo’s Paolo, Jared Leto’s smothered in prosthetics yet emotionally present. OK: So where’s Lady Gaga? She’s Patrizia Reggiani, the outrageous outsider who weds Maurizio and eventually Jengas the entire clan. —T.M.A.
Watch it: House of Gucci, in theaters
The Unforgivable, R
Sandra Bullock plays dour ex-con Ruth Slater, who gets out of prison following a violent crime and still takes a licking in the unforgiving civilian world. Viola Davis, 56, and Vincent D’Onofrio, 62, are strong in supporting roles, while Bullock gives Ruth her all. We root for this battered woman, but we’re rooting for the star — she doesn’t disappear into the role the way Winslet does as Mare of Easttown. —T.M.A.
Watch it: The Unforgivable, on Netflix
King Richard, R
In the real story of tennis immortals Venus and Serena Williams, the kids (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) are all right. They hit all the notes of a sport biopic with a satisfying thwack. But the grownups steal the show. Will Smith (53) outdoes himself as their dad/coach Richard, who survived KKK thugs in youth, protects them from Compton thugs, vows they won’t always have to share a bedroom with three other extremely talented sisters in poverty and shamelessly promotes them to the rich, lily-white tennis establishment. Smith conveys the bizarre drive that made his preposterous plan come true in a performance as impressive as anything he’s done, perhaps more, and entirely new. Remarkably, Aunjanue Ellis (52) is even better in the smaller role of Richard’s wife, Oracene, who stands up to his iron will and coaches just as well. A total feel-good movie. —T.A.
Watch it: King Richard, on HBO Max
Don’t miss this: The 7 things Aunjanue Ellis suggests doing now
And this!: The ultimate tennis lover’s movie watchlist
C’mon C’mon, R
Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Johnny, a charming, disheveled radio journalist who interviews (apparently actual) kids about how they see the future. Suddenly, his estranged L.A. sister (an excellent Gaby Hoffmann) asks him to look after her 8-year-old, Jesse (Woody Norman). She’s got to tend to her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy). So Jesse joins Johnny in New York and on the road. He’s a whirlwind of cute-free, extreme eccentricity, and peppers him with questions — “Why aren’t you married?” and “Will I wind up like my dad?” — and scares him witless by wandering off in crowds. Their bond grows, as does Johnny, a bit like Hugh Grant in About a Boy but with infinite naturalism. Some will loathe the movie’s looseness, and the real-kid interview scenes make it like two movies. But go with its shagginess — it will warm you. Norman is one fine child actor, on par with Phoenix at his best. And the black-and-white cinematography is as good as Belfast’s. —T.A.
Watch it: C’mon C’mon, available on demand
Not since John Boorman’s 1987 WWII masterpiece Hope and Glory has there been such an inspiring film about a director’s childhood in a war zone — in this case, Kenneth Branagh, now 60, growing up amid the 1969 Protestant-Catholic riots in Ireland. Jude Hill is brilliant as a sensitive kid troubled by the Troubles, playing war with a wooden sword and a trash-can-lid shield as grownups battle for real. Not just a coming-of-age film, it’s an absorbing family portrait: Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan are wonderful as his movie-star-beautiful parents, and Ciarán Hinds, 68, and Judi Dench, 86, still better as the warmly waggish grandparents they live with. It evokes a time and place through a child’s eyes, and makes you feel part of the torn town and the unbreakable family. It’s shot in luminous black and white, except for the color that lights up their lives when they’re at the cinema gasping at fur-bikini’d Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s flying auto. You feel their urgent need to escape the drama erupting in the streets outside, and why they can’t bear to leave, and the way Belfast will always be with them wherever they roam. Expect Branagh to roam down that Oscar red carpet soon. —T.A.
Watch it: Belfast, in theaters
Bet on Kristen Stewart to win the Oscar as Diana Spencer, better known as Princess Diana. She captures some of what made Di famous: the downcast eyes, shy half-smile, vulnerability, whimsicality, bulimia, motherly love and ghastly oppression by her faithless husband’s old, cold family. She’s not as smart, lively and effectively rebellious as the real Di, because this is billed as a fable, not a fact-based tale like The Crown. Captive in a royal mansion at Christmas as she ponders divorce, Di lives in a fugue state, dreading a beheading like Anne Boleyn’s — when Anne’s shade confronts her in a haunted house, it’s hard to say which is the ghostlier girl. Writer Steven Knight (the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? creator whose Eastern Promises is a must-see) turns Di’s life into a silly, dumb fairy tale made stylish by director Pablo Larraín. Stewart’s moving performance redeems the caricature, as do Sally Hawkins as Di’s beloved dresser and Timothy Spall as her malevolent royal handler. —T.A.
Watch it: Spencer, available on demand
A cross between Wall-E, I Am Legend, The Martian and his own Castaway, Tom Hanks, 65, stars as Finch, a terminally ill robotics engineer scrounging for survival in post-apocalyptic St. Louis, accompanied by an adopted pooch. The sci-fi drama showcases a stringy solo Hanks as we may have never seen him before: licking a dog food spoon clean, naked in profile like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, and snapping at the latter-day C-3PO he has created to care for the dog should Finch pass. When the weather becomes intolerable, the flawed-but-sincere nomad, his dog and their robot head for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in an RV on a road trip where life lessons are thicker than dust storms, secrets parceled out like the last can of peaches, and a bond grows between man, machine and canine. —T.M.A.
Watch it: Finch, on Apple TV+
Award-winning actress Rebecca Hall steps behind the camera to direct her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s gripping 1929 novella. Her sharp, closely observed, emotional black-and-white debut gives Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson the riveting leads they deserve — and the time and close-ups to let their characters unfurl in all their complexity and contradictions. Negga and Thompson excel as two old Harlem friends who reconnect after many years — bottle-blonde Clare is passing as white and wed to a Caucasian racist (Alexander Skarsgard), while Irene remains in the old neighborhood, married to a Black doctor (Andre Holland). The pair’s joyful yet fraught reunion stirs up jealousy, dissatisfaction, and issues of identity and betrayal. While the narrative is short on drive, the stellar performances and Hall’s blinding intelligence make this a stunning and sensitive directorial debut. —T.M.A.
Watch it: Passing, on Netflix
Last Night in Soho, R
Gonzo stylist Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) gets his Swinging London freak on in a suspense thriller that goes from exhilarating to sinister to bloody hell. A mousy modern-day fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace) bonds across time with a Carnaby Street dollybird (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit). It’s swellegantly directed but pads out the scream time before an effective twist. Viewers who were there can revel in the soundtrack (Cilla Black, Petula Clark, The Kinks) and appearances by '60s legends Rita Tushingham, 79, Terence Stamp, 83, and — in her final role, and a meaty one, too — the late, great Diana Rigg. —T.B.
Watch it: Last Night in Soho, available on demand
The Harder They Fall, R
Like a Tarantino romp only faster-paced, Jeymes Samuel’s Black Western is a sort-of historical hoot and a holler. It really is history-inspired: Blacks were a quarter of America’s cowboys, and the movie’s stampede of stars play wildly fictionalized actual people: Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo, 68), the West’s first Black deputy U.S. marshal; outlaws Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and Nat Love (Jonathan Majors); and Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), the first Black U.S. mail carrier. Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King, 50) is a gas but not real. The shaggy-dog plot involves the Love gang’s vendetta against Buck’s, but it’s just an excuse for tongue-in-cheek genre pastiche, high-noon showdowns and saloon shootouts, shot with flippant style and a killer soundtrack by everyone from Fela Kuti to Jay-Z (a coproducer). It’s overstuffed with terrific actors having a blast, and the fun’s infectious. —T.A.
Watch it: The Harder They Fall, on Netflix
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Few movies justify the word spectacular as amply as this bladder-challenging 155-minute sci-fi epic set on Arrakis, a more impressive desert world than Luke Skywalker ever saw. Its massive dunes look like Lawrence of Arabia’s, only patrolled by giant, lamprey-like sandworms, with eight-winged dragonfly-like helicopters buzzing overhead. There’s a nice intergenerational vibe between the planet’s steward, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), and his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), ambiguously blessed with supernatural gifts. The fat-as-Jabba-the-Hutt bad guy Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, 70) gets an entrance resembling Brando’s in Apocalypse Now. As the ruthless truthsayer Reverend Mother Mohiam, who tests Paul’s mystical mettle, Charlotte Rampling, 75, is icy coolness itself. The brooding tale takes its own sweet time, and you sometimes wish it would cut to the chase and have Paul lead the desert tribe of Stigar (Javier Bardem, 52) against the bad guy, already. But it’s brooding, somber, deliberate as a funeral march, haunting. You wonder if it’ll ever end, then get peeved you can’t see the sequel immediately. —T.A.
No Time to Die, PG-13
Just when he thought he was out, James Bond (leathery but lethally sexy Daniel Craig, 53) gets pulled back into his old mess of international intrigue and MI6 office politics. Assuredly directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), the film dashes from Italy to Cuba to London in one switchback after another with stunning scenes of escalating danger, stolen kisses, and fast cars. The action sequences, particularly in the thriller’s first two thirds, are seamless and giddy. The plot? It has something to do with bitter orphan Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek veering toward Peter Lorre) and his – mwahaha – scheme to unleash a genocidal DNA-driven bio weapon. Meanwhile, the band’s come back together – Lea Seydoux as the love interest; CIA pal Jeffrey Wright, 55; Ralph Fiennes, 58; Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris as Bond’s office pod; and Lashana Lynch as his 007 replacement. On a stealth mission to Cuba, Bond joins newcomer Paloma (Ana de Armas), who kicks butt in a plunging evening gown. —T.M.A.
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Yes, it’s formulaic, with foreseeable TV-like beats, but there’s a reason this winsome indie film broke all Sundance Festival sales records. The most feel-good Sundance hit since Little Miss Sunshine, it’s an irresistible coming-of-age tale of a CODA, a Child Of Deaf Adults (Emilia Jones). Ruby helps her irascible hearing-impaired folks (Marlee Matlin, 55, and The Mandalorian’s Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) with the family fishing business in a salty Massachusetts town. She joins the school choir — there’s a cute boy — and proves to be a Glee-level singer with a shot at Berklee College of Music. When Ruby sings “Both Sides Now,” her parents can’t hear it, but they can feel it, bridging the gaps of both generation and hearing. Unsurprisingly, Matlin’s acting is just as good when she’s signing (with subtitles), not speaking. —T.A.
Watch it: CODA, on Apple TV+
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Tim Appelo is AARP’s film and TV critic. Previously, he was Amazon’s entertainment editor, Entertainment Weekly’s video critic, and a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, LA Weekly and The Village Voice.