At only age 38 and with 4 major films, Damien Chazelle has solidified himself as one of our time’s most respected, beloved and exciting auteur filmmakers. His flare for grandeur and stories of epic and wondrous proportions shows once again in Babylon, even if the fact that it’s by far his most graphic movie may turn off many viewers, even within the first few minutes. As a matter of fact, there’s barely a moving story, the content is incredibly graphic, the character arcs are sometimes purposely incomplete for you to try and discover, and it doesn’t necessarily teach anything new about old Hollywood — yet something about Babylon is so transfixing and stunning that I was completely invited into the world Chazelle presented to me for 3 hours, and didn’t want it to end. The costumes and sets expertly bring you into the world of 1920s Hollywood glamour and cinema, but it’s the masterful cinematography that elevates the film into a stylistic marvel. The score by Justin Hurwitz is the best of the year, but that’s no surprise when his scores for Chazelle’s last three films were all life-changing, and this one is no exception. Hurwitz’s magnificent jazz themes and blends of instruments create a score that make an already breathtaking world a place you won’t want to leave, which perhaps explains the movie’s title.

Diego Calva is a breakthrough as the film’s lead, a party fixer that starts to work his way into the wonders of picture making. His eyes and spirit create a relatable sense of awe to the glamour he discovers and an undying empathy that sticks with the audience even when he seems to lose his way. Brad Pitt is also great as a movie star who’s devoted to his art, despite a messy home life, but fears losing his fame when silent films are no more, and talkies are suddenly the new big thing in the industry. The real scene-stealer, though, is the captivating Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress whose path to the spotlight is as messy as her potent need for attention, which Robbie conveys in the most lavish of ways. She delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as she creates a tremendous character that will help define her career for years to come, and will resonate even with those who didn’t love the rest of the film. The supporting cast also has their terrific moments, including but not limited to Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Katherine Waterson and Tobey Maguire.

Babylon‘s storytelling sometimes feels like a hangout movie in the way Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was, with extended scenes that build more to a mood than a plot point. It also feels like Damien Chazelle ripped a page out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s book, being a plot-driven character piece where an actual story with an objective, direction or basic structure still takes a back seat. Instead, the story is defined by the characters’ larger than life personalities and the outrageous decisions they make which may or may not play into the later scenes and are often what define their arc, rather than a clear backstory or revelation. My main issue with the film is the ending itself, which takes what could’ve been a more powerful moment and decides to spoon-feed the message to the audience in an incredibly baffling way, and while others may be checked out by its length and self-indulgence by then, the final minute was the only thing I really think didn’t work from a writing and editing perspective. Though it’s an understandably divisive movie for its graphic content, it is for better or worse, one of a kind, and though it isn’t as coherent, sensible or even logical as many viewers would want, it’s more than enough to invite you to discover and dig into the beautifully messy and gargantuan spectacle that is Babylon.

I Wanna Dance with Somebody

Naomi Ackie stuns in this biopic about Whitney Houston, and the movie makes a strong case for why she was the greatest singing voice of her generation. It highlights Whitney’s accomplishments, shortcomings, and struggles with glamour, empathy and care, but the editing seems to occasionally bring Ackie’s performance down and while the characters and performances are strong, the script is so cliche it almost feels like it’s checking off boxes as it goes. The music biopic tropes are almost all there, whether it be the way the movie portrays the sudden rise to fame, abusive marriage, addiction, controlling father — it’s the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect but with a different soundtrack. The way the movie goes through these cliches feels almost like the way the parodical Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story would’ve been written, and the editing often glosses past important story points and doesn’t let the beautiful musical sequences breathe and play out without frequent montage-like editing during the songs. Cinematograper Barry Ackroyd of the Bourne movies, The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips, and Bombshell isn’t enjoying using a tripod too much and often shifts between handheld and still shots mid-scene which occasionally distracts.

In addition to Ackie’s breathtaking work, changing Houston’s mannerisms as she takes us from her teen years to the end of her life, Stanley Tucci is excellent as her manager Clive Davis, who in a nice change of pace from most biopics, isn’t the greedy asshole who takes advantage of the star, but a kind counselor and a devoted friend to Whitney. Ashton Sanders does a strong job as her husband Bobby Brown, as well as Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters as her parents. Seeing Whitney’s process in creating her songs is also very satisfying, as well as her struggles with drugs and her music being called “not black enough” by critics of her music. Though it’s easier to follow than this year’s Elvis and has fun sequences for fans of Whitney’s music, with a star-making work from Naomi Ackie, but the script in the latter half could’ve been much stronger, as well as the runtime which drags later on and could’ve trimmed 10-20 minutes.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Puss in Boots discovers that his passion for adventure has taken its toll: he has burnt through eight of his nine lives. With the help of old and new allies — and with some new foes in the way — Puss sets out on an epic journey to find the mythical Last Wish and restore his nine lives.

Eleven years after the first spin-off focusing on Puss in Boots was released, it wasn’t really necessary to continue or dive back into the franchise, but The Last Wish absolutely tops the first movie. Antonio Banderas is having a blast as a role that may at this point be as iconic to his name as Zorro, not to mention the characters bear plenty of similarities. Florence Pugh and John Mulaney also give the film so much with their voice performances, and Olivia Colman and Ray Winstone almost feel like they were born to voice Mama and Papa Bear, not to mention a menacing Wolf voiced by Wagner Moura. Unlike the more realistic animation of the first Puss in Boots, this blend of 3D animation with 2D coloring to create a storybook look feels reminiscent of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Mitchells vs the Machines, and The Bad Guys. Though the frame rate or 2D look of some shots occasionally distracts, the animation ultimately creates for a more colorful and visually impressive experience than the first movie, not to mention the well-paced and engaging action. The movie also pushes Puss to new places as a character — he’s forced to confront his pride, mortality, fears and motives and we feel like we’re watching the animated feline find some genuine growth by the end. But most importantly, its sweet, energetic, and playful intentions definitely translate to the final product, despite some overused jokes or themes that aren’t unfamiliar to animated films. It delivers a reward for families that exceeds expectations, and one of the year’s best animated films alongside films like Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Turning Red.

Avatar: The Way of Water

Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, learn the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.

James Cameron created a monumental landmark in visual entertainment and epic storytelling with Avatar. A sequel so many years later with so much promise to top the first would send too impossible to be real, but The Way of Water manages to deliver that same ambition felt in every shot of the first film and then some. Years were spent to create new technology to film motion-capture scenes underwater, and I’m glad Cameron spent all the time he needed to get it right because the term “out of this world” has never fit more for anything else. The plot beats in the first hour are familiar, but everything from there onwards is breathtaking, grand, and mesmerizing to the eye. The underwater scenes are some of the most visceral visual cinema I’ve ever seen, with the detail and realism allows you to completely suspend disbelief as you feel you’re actually on Pandora. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are great in their roles again, and the script this time beautifully captures the depth of a parent’s love for their child. Sigourney Weaver returns not as the same character but in a different and inventive way. Jake and Neytiri’s children are as complex and poetic characters as their parents who carry across the story’s themes such as empathy, uniqueness, and selflessness.

Cameron manages to somehow expand on the scale of Pandora and this fictional universe that millions of audiences were already in love with, while finding the intimate moments beneath all the colorful CGI that often stick out and resonate. The cast ensemble may not be Lord of the Rings-level of memorable yet, but the world-building and storytelling certainly is. Not to mention, the love Cameron creates between the audience and the oceans of Pandora may hopefully bring attention to the way corporations and human actions deplete our oceans here at home, and the way of water the title refers to is the beauty of nature that our ancestors knew so purely that can give life and consume those who don’t respect it. The overall narrative has familiar beats but the emotion is heartfelt and thrilling, and the atmosphere and aesthetics are a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has to be seen on the biggest screen you can seek out and in 3D — I’d recommend IMAX 3D, which is how I saw it. Avatar: The Way of Water may have the lesser story of the two Avatar films, but it has a sensational awe and grandeur to its fusion of images, score, and weight that invites you to not only enjoy, but experience, behold, and never want to leave the forests and oceans of Pandora.

Strange World

The legendary Clades are a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest and most crucial mission.

Strange World is incredibly visually vibrant, which is never an aspect Disney misses in, not to mention director Don Hall’s outstanding track record at Disney in the past with Big Hero 6 and Raya and the Last Dragon. The imaginative color palette in the titular world the Clade family journeys through is engaging and surprising, even when the story material feels a little hollow. Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect as the lead role Searcher Clade, and it feels long overdue for him to join the Disney animation family. His voice has an incredible likability and he delivers the balance between “frustrating (but devoted) dad”, “frustrated/traumatized son” and “reluctant adventurer” really well. Dennis Quaid, Jakoubie Young-White, and Gabrielle Union are all having plenty of fun in the recording booths as well as a dysfunctional family that all want to just get along and enjoy each other’s company, though the grandpa and legendary explorer Jaegar Clade (voiced by Quaid) has other priorities and is overly consumed with his duties to his pride and explorations. Though the style is always visually inviting, the substance behind the conflict doesn’t always click until the end, and the characters’ relationships are way more interesting than the action itself. The style believes it’s being very nostalgic, presenting itself as a tribute to pulp magazines, but it actually looks and feels very modern. Though the film is quite heartfelt due to the characters it develops, the actual themes of familial expectations have been done plenty in recent animated films, most notably in Encanto and Turning Red that are still fresh in all our memories. There are instances where it tries to even become self-aware of the cliches its indulging in, which simply makes it even more awkward. On the positive side, the movie has Disney’s most prominent representation of an LGBTQ main character in one of their animated films, which is a celebratory step forward for family films on the big screen. Gyllenhaal’s voice performance is outstanding, backed by heartfelt supporting characters, and the animation gives the film lots of energy, but not enough to rank it among other adventures from the modern era of the studio like Zootopia or Wreck-It Ralph, though it’s still sweet and a decent one-time watch for families.

She Said

She Said follows the true story of New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor as they break one of the most important stories in a generation – a story that helped ignite a movement and shattered decades of silence around the subject of sexual assault in Hollywood. The movie packs with it a lot of weight, as the Harvey Weinstein bombshell was only 5 years ago, leading to the beginning of the #MeToo movement. Director Maria Schrader and writer Rebecca Lenkieweicz choose to highlight the journalists and their integrity, relentlessness and dedication, as well as their victims and their courage to speak out, rather than showing Weinstein himself on screen. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan bring ferocity and empathy to their performances, and the movie highlights their perseverance and strength in their job, but also the importance of this story to them as women, as well as their balancing of their personal lives as mothers and the support of their husbands without it being questioned. Mulligan especially feels very naturally in command of her role, but Kazan also rises to having that same on-screen force. Andre Braugher is also great as Dean Baquet, the chief editor of the New York Times, and Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle are excellent as two women interviewed about their experiences with Weinstein.

The film is an important watch and though the more emotional moments may make viewers uncomfortable, it’s powerful to see Hollywood reckon with such a recent past, doing it with such patience and grabbing your interest even when talky scenes with many journalistic, legal, or industry terms can go on for long. The movie not only resonates because of the terrible things that happened in the film industry, but the silence that was allowed for go on for decades, the many who enabled the wrongdoers and their remaining in power — and whether the accountability still must be held — and the failure of the law to protect victims of sexual abuse, a change that’s only begun mere years ago. It addresses a system that’s allowed men to get away with years of abuse of power, and even get elected president, but at its core, it works because it brings forward the strong voices that helped contribute to the exposure of the broken system, both from the reporting and the survivor side. It’s a film that’s a conversation starter, about change that still needs to be made, and in affinity with the women of its story, whose bravery and determination are front and center.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Famed detective Benoit Blanc travels to Greece, where tech billionaire Miles Bron has invited his friends for a getaway on his private island, but Blanc soon finds himself in the midst of another murder mystery he must solve.

After turning one of the most beloved films of the last few years into a whodunit franchise, Rian Johnson has delivered the rare movie that not only surpasses the original but elevates it and its entire genre. He also proves himself as a modern auteur, completely in control of his creative field and having built credibility and excitement based on his name alone. After reinventing the wheel when it comes to murder mysteries with Knives Out, he decides to reinvent the reinvention, with plot twists and dramatic irony where you’d least expect it — all without becoming unbelievable, overwhelming, or twisty for the sake of it. But credit must also be awarded to Daniel Craig, who, over these two films, has created a new fan favorite character who’s an absolute joy to have on screen, whether he’s actively solving the mystery or simply commenting on the absurdities he observes throughout the film. Speaking of which, is it possible to assemble an ensemble cast as talented and hysterical as in the first film? Well, the cast here rivals that in the original film and every performance is effortless. Janelle Monae proves herself a superstar in a performance too good to spoil, not to mention an extravagant performance from Kate Hudson as a celebrity model/influencer. Edward Norton does a great job as Bron, who’s a spoof of the eccentric billionaires we see today who can’t seem to stop feeding their egos and wallets such as Zuckerberg and Musk. But there really isn’t a weak link in the cast, whether it be Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, or Dave Bautista (the latter of which is absolutely perfect as a parody of today’s “alpha male” YouTubers such as Andrew Tate).

The movie’s themes about the oddities and shadiness of the top 1% and the toxic effects of wealth networks are anything but subtle, but Rian Johnson lets us laugh at some of the characters and the parallels to today’s pop culture, creating commentary that’s as strong as in the last film, but never annoying and best of all, entertaining to reflect on. The humor comes at you from all cast members and angles, whether it be visual, lines, or moments of performance that will make you laugh out loud. The scale expands from a winter-absorbed mansion in the last movie to a gorgeous luxurious island worth billions, while Nathan Johnson’s score is commanding and memorable. Best of all, the mystery keeps you guessing, feeding you information in the order you’d never expect and not letting go of your attention throughout the entire exuberant ride. Rian Johnson’s made a mystery as grand as it is goofy, as spectacular as it as silly, and as nail-bitingly intense as it is even more stylistically satisfying than the first film. Movies like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery are what sequels and the cinematic experience are just right for, especially when the mystery has evolved into a meta high-stakes extravaganza, the cast is at the top of their game, and only a director like this one could’ve done it so right — who will likely shock and please us many more times again.

The Menu

A couple (Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish menu for the affluent guests, with some shocking surprises.

The Menu is an original, tense, and hilarious time at the movies with Ralph Fiennes’ best work in years. Fiennes absolutely kills it as a man who’s controlling and intimidating yet vulnerable and easily provoked. Anya Taylor-Joy is commanding as possibly the only character you may find likable, but that’s completely intentional from the end of the script. All the other actors, like Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer and John Leguizamo are all integral and sneak up on you with moments that are key to the film’s themes and attitudes. Mark Mylod’s stellar direction alludes to his time on Succession with the themes about the snobby and incredibly rich, caught in their pretentious attitudes that they shove onto everyone. Combined with the suspense and occasional bursts of violence, as well as the lavish production design and structure of the high-end kitchen that parodies itself more and more, this movie has one of the most hysterical screenplays of the year. The style feels modern yet sophisticated, irreverent yet deep, and has something for those looking for an eerie and fresh thriller or a sophisticated dark comedy-drama with something to say about the world of art, as well as artists and critics who take themselves way too damn seriously — which gives it a meta angle that boosts the fun even more, and ultimately makes this one of the year’s best moviegoing experiences.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

As the Wakandans strive to embrace their next chapter in the wake of King T’Challa’s death, Queen Ramonda, Shuri, M’Baku, Okoye and the Dora Milaje must band together with Nakia, T’Challa’s former lover and a War Dog spy, and CIA agent Everett Ross to forge a new path for their beloved kingdom.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had to decide how to face two immense challenges — following up a cultural phenomenon and one of the most popular and resonant movies in recent years, and doing it without its magnificent lead, Chadwick Boseman. The effortless charisma and commanding dignity Boseman brought with him are absolutely missed in this sequel, yet writer-director Ryan Coogler decided to use his loss to give the film a complex gravity and message about grief, legacy and moving forward. Not only does Coogler use the sequel to expand the scale from the first film into a glove-trotting political fantastical battle, but also as a means to explore new stylistic grounds, feeling more director-focused than any Marvel movie in a while.

The visuals and action manage to even outdo the excellent and versatile fights from the first film, and the pace is much more graceful than the tighter pacing of other MCU films from this year. The music by Ludwig Goransson has a language of its own, always surprising, entertaining, and hitting you hard. Goransson uses African, Latin, and electronic bases in order to create a score that builds off the one from the first. The cinematography is more intimate than in the last film, with the camera sometimes closer to the characters or letting the visuals feel more seamless rather than showy. The movie addresses our feelings of sadness about losing Boseman and T’Challa through the characters, but doesn’t linger in it or feel stuck in the past. Speaking of the characters, Letitia Wright is great as Shuri, who is forced to mature quickly after what she’s had to cope with here, but it feels like this entire world of Wakandans, even the lovable side character of M’Baku, is growing and getting wiser with time. Angela Bassett delivers a ferocious performance as Ramonda, and honestly some of the best acting this entire Marvel franchise has seen. Dominique Thorne also shines as a cheerful, lovable presence she conveys through Riri Williams. Lupita Nyong’o also provides warmth and elegance as Nakia, though Martin Freeman’s return isn’t exactly necessary and his role in the plot could’ve been combined with Nyong’o’s character. Now, how does one follow up a villain as resonant and scene-stealing as Michael B. Jordan’s brilliant Killmonger? With Namor, Tenoch Huerta delivers a kindness we haven’t seen in many villains before, while clearly being violent and vengeful in his methods while showing warmth and empathy towards his people. He makes Namor a memorable character whose backstory’s execution isn’t the most hard-hitting but whose developments are always interesting.

This movie is the most sophisticated work Marvel’s done in a while, distancing itself from reminders of the bigger universe and allowing Coogler and crew’s creativity run free and deliver spectacle that feels consequential and really sinks in. It’s refreshing to feel like a Marvel movie isn’t constantly working to check off boxes to set up a bigger universe and pander to the widest action movie fanbase possible — after all, the first Black Panther was all about making stories about POCs no longer niche. While the messages may not be as revelatory as in its predecessor, it’s a film that rivals the first in ambition and weight. Perhaps it resonates so well because we all feel like a world with Wakanda is an infinitely better one, and a world without its late hero is one that’s infinitely worse. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever demands your eyes on the big screen and an open heart, with the performances and style creating an action adventure with gripping and soulful humanity.

The Fabelmans

Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, a young man named Sammy Fabelman discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.

Inspired by his own childhood and infatuation with cinema and filmmaking, The Fabelmans feels like everything Steven Spielberg’s career has been leading up to until now. But not only is it personal and revealing, it’s a masterpiece in its own right that earns its spot amongst other Spielberg classics. Michelle Williams somehow tops her remarkable work in Blue Valentine and Manchester by the Sea in one of the most powerful performances in Spielberg’s recent films. Williams makes the role and everything it demands hers. Along with his co-writer Tony Kushner, who also worked with the director on Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story, Spielberg paints an empathetic look at his mother through Williams’ character, Mitzi Fabelman, but also doesn’t shy away from her flaws and shortcomings, though never quite judging her. As the family’s patriarch Burt, Paul Dano delivers his most restrained but possibly most impactful performance yet, as the logos to Mitzi’s pathos, who does everything, even if it’s spending lots of time with his work or being firm with his kids, out of love and pride for his family. Seth Rogen is also excellent as Sammy’s surrogate uncle, portraying the most endearing and complex role of his career — not to mention Judd Hirsch in a hilarious few minutes of screentime. But Gabrille LaBelle as Sammy himself is a breakout to behold. He rips into your heart as a young man who embodies the aspiration and underdog not just in Spielberg but in all of us, as he works through familial conflicts, (sometimes anti-Semitic) bullying, and adolescence through empathy and, as sappy yet poetic as it sounds, film.

Along with his frequent collaborator behind the camera, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg makes basic settings such as a camping site or a high school hallway feel like a fairy tale. The production value along with the colors of the scenery make the simplest 1950s and 60s settings look grand, and makes film and cameras look like a weapon that spews greatness and wonder wherever it goes, because to the legendary filmmaker, that’s exactly what it is, and he makes you feel it in every frame. Even if you’re a cinema buff, it’s the most human coming-of-age story about family in a long time that juxtaposes innocence with the mistakes people, especially parental figures, can make — but the importance their humanity has on their children — and the uncertainty yet optimism of the world that is to come for Sammy Fabelman. Spielberg also manages to tell entire stories about certain characters’ backgrounds without ever directly addressing them, simply through their reactions and decisions. It’s incredible that about 50 years and 40 movies into his career, he still manages to surprise us and make us in awe, but don’t worry, there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud humor as well, so much effectively for a movie that isn’t ever quite a comedy. Knowing where the director’s story ends makes this journey with him, which is 2-and-a-half hours but earns every minute of it, even more gratifying. This movie especially resonated with me for its striking depiction of how movies and filmmaking can make you feel less lonely, as Spielberg’s films have for around half a century now. It’ll entertain, inspire and touch all ages, feeling like the culmination of his creative career yet unlike almost anything he’s ever made before. By the end you’d want to thank him for the opportunity to peer into his world.