Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary about a former GM truck factory that becomes a Chinese-owned automotive glass manufacturer could not be more of the moment. It summarizes issues of deindustrialization, wealth inequality, immigration and cultural assimilation in a way that is compassionate, observant and emotionally resonant. Pristine in its production values, unfailingly empathic in its approach, populated by unforgettable characters, “American Factory” might be categorized under “nonfiction,” but no film this year was more dramatically compelling.
How do you make a biopic about Mister Rogers that isn’t sticky sweet or sanctimoniously maudlin? Let Marielle Heller — working from a smart script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster — show you. Tom Hanks brings quiet authority to his role as an American icon who isn’t portrayed as a monument, but as a man whose deep faith and a gift for ministry change the life of a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys). Elevated by well-judged performances, clever structure and an ingenious production design, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” sticks the landing with grace worthy of its gifted protagonist.
Awkwafina proved her big-screen comic bona fides last year in the caper flick “Oceans 8,” but in this seriocomic drama, she exposes subtler layers. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical portrait of family ties, dislocation, loss and the tricky ethical dynamics of deception isn’t just touching and entertaining; it takes viewers to another world — Changchun, a sprawling industrial city in China whose generic architecture and smoggy atmospherics are characters just as vivid as their human counterparts.
True to its title, this film ebbs and crests with elemental force; in the ambitious hands of writer-director Trey Edward Shults, the intimate story of a prosperous American family becomes the kind of big-canvas melodrama that in another era might have been made by Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk. Big and unruly, bursting with love, grief and agonizing lessons about intimacy and forgiveness, “Waves” joyfully communicates that a new generation of filmmakers can see the epic scale of everyday domestic life.
This lovers-on-the-lam crime drama injects energy, political acumen and soulful life into a well-worn genre, recalling such classics as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Thelma & Louise” but cutting a swath all its own. Music video maestra Melina Matsoukas makes a promising directorial debut visualizing Lena Waithe’s script, which takes a mismatched couple from an awkward first date through an alternately troubled and languidly beautiful tour of the American South, as they confront the most fatal contradictions of vestigial racism, unequal justice, dysfunctional legacies and romantic longing. Pulpy one moment and poetic the next, “Queen & Slim” reflects the patina of a familiar form as well as the flash of something urgent and new.
6. ‘Little Women’
It’s been said that every generation gets the “Little Women” adaptation it needs. Greta Gerwig has given viewers a lush, rambunctious, free-spirited rendition that features a note-perfect cast (Saoirse Ronan as Jo; Florence Pugh as Amy; Laura Dern as Marmee and a tartly fabulous Meryl Streep as Aunt March) and a judicious balance of cozy period touches and themes that speak to our times. Toggling back and forth across seven years, Gerwig accentuates the economic forces that shaped her heroines’ lives, whether in the form of “marrying up,” making their own money, or making do with what they had. The result is a vibrant portrayal of historical custom, but also the paradoxes that condition the eternal search for self.
This time of year, it’s easy to forget the good movies that came out long before awards season kicked in. “The Mustang,” about a prisoner who undergoes a powerful transformation while rehabilitating a wild horse, deserves revisiting. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s assured, understated directorial debut features a quietly commanding central performance by Matthias Schoenaerts. Even better are the supporting players — many of them graduates of real-life programs in correctional institutions throughout the American West — who give the production deeper layers of authenticity and emotion.
A feel-good movie about cancer? Against all odds, Bill Haney’s documentary about Jim Allison — who last year received the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work using immunology to treat cancer — might be the most cheering film of the year. That’s because, at a time when scientific research is being dismissed or disrespected by people who should know better, Allison personifies the thrill of empirical research and discovery. What’s more, Haney includes the captivating stories of a patient, a heroic pharmaceutical executive (yes, they do exist) and Allison himself. Bonus points for having not just one but two swoon-worthy love stories.
This might be the best movie of the year that didn’t get the audience it deserved. Get with it, people! Adapted by Sarfraz Manzoor from his memoir about finding his distinctively Pakistani-British voice through Bruce Springsteen’s music, this delightful coming-of-age story — directed with wit and boldness by Gurinder Chadha — transcends the trap of boomer nostalgia to become a timely meditation on identity, maturity and freedom. With its visually striking musical numbers, “Blinded by the Light” isn’t content simply to exploit Springsteen’s most beloved anthems; instead, it captures how art can spur the thrilling journey of self-discovery.
10. ‘Give Me Liberty’
This quirky little movie played at the Avalon for a week in September, when I was otherwise engaged at the Toronto International Film Festival. Unfairly overlooked then, it deserves pride of place now as one of the most revelatory cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. The chronicle of a young van driver’s anarchic, cacophonous, hilarious, goofily affecting journey through the bumpy streets of Milwaukee, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s vivid portrait of community at its most inclusive and vibrant also happens to feature two breathtaking breakout performances from lead players Lauren “Lolo” Spencer and Chris Galust. If you see just one man’s hectic race against time within a crowded American city this year, make it this one.