A movie about liberal-minded, literary-bohemian heterosexual New Yorkers that finds something new to say surely counts as a minor miracle. A comedy that is sharp but not cruel, a drama that is poignant but not sentimental, an informative and unflinching look at fertility treatments — “Private Life” is all those things. And, maybe most of all, it is a wonder cabinet of incisive, unshowy performances, from Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Kayli Carter, Paul Giamatti and above all the splendid and fearless Kathryn Hahn. (Stream it on Netflix.)
5. ‘Roma’ (Alfonso Cuarón)
You could almost live inside Cuarón’s intricate, pulsing wide-screen compositions, borne along on the movements of his sweeping, swooping camera. A lot of people do live here, in a world conjured from the director’s own memories of growing up in the wealthy Mexico City neighborhood that gives the film its name. In no great hurry to make a point or advance a plot, he takes in Mexican politics, changing family dynamics and, above all, the dreams and disappointments of a young housekeeper named Cleo, played with heart-stopping candor and sly elegance by Yalitza Aparicio. (Stream it on Netflix beginning Dec. 14.)
The first time I saw this piquant, episodic chronicle of a middle-aged artist’s bad romances, I was puzzled and a little irritated. Juliette Binoche’s character was so abrasive! The men she was with were so awful! But I still couldn’t look away. A second viewing knocked me out, and I kept coming back with new questions. How can something so true to the rhythms of real life and the zigzags of an individual temperament still hold together as a movie? How can a movie be so artful and seem so artless? How can a film about such thoroughly tiresome people be one that I can’t imagine ever getting tired of watching? (Stream it on Hulu; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.)
Casting Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as witty, cynical partners in crime in early ’90s Manhattan is pretty much foolproof. They would be fun to watch if all they did was insult each other over drinks. They do a lot of that, and this movie — based on the real-life escapades of literary forger Lee Israel and her accomplice, Jack Hock — is admirably modest and specific in scale. It doesn’t preach or pose, but in the fine grain of its characters and the skill of its performers (including Dolly Wells as a sweet and credulous bookseller), it achieves a kind of perfection.
Ebullient and indignant, Lee’s best nondocumentary feature in quite some time delves into some ugly American history — including film history — to remind us that it’s still being written. Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the ’70s, the film is a wild mash-up of genres and styles. It’s an interracial buddy picture (with John David Washington and Adam Driver), a blaxploitation action-romance (with Washington and Laura Harrier) and a real-life horror movie. The last scenes, which trace the continuity of racism from “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 to Charlottesville to 2017 is a tour de force of political filmmaking and blunt, brilliant Spike Lee dialectics. (Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube and Vudu.)