For all of the at-home movie-watching options available to today’s audiences, none quite compare to the experience of going out to catch a film in a theater. Paste’s monthly guides for Netflix, HBO and Amazon cover the best of what’s out there if you’re an unrepentant couch potato, but we also want to recommend the best of what’s in theaters right now, because for some of these films seeing them on a big screen in public is the best way to support a small film most people wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see.
So try to find the following in a cineplex near you. It’s a beautiful time for movies—many of the following already fell on our best of the 2018 list—and a crucial time to support them by leaving the house. No shame in sneaking in your own snacks.
Check out the 10 best movies in theaters right now:
10. Escape Room
Release Date: January 4, 2019
Director: Adam Robitel
One of the defining features of popular, even mainstream horror cinema in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 was an indulgence in the graphic, gory violence wrought upon seemingly honest, everyday people. From Hostel to James Wan’s Saw (written by Leigh Whannell), post-9/11 horror of this sort, the kind that reveled in broken bones and visible marrow, was lumped together and described as “torture porn” (by David Edelstein). Those who swore an allegiance to these films, and even those who considered themselves detractors of this subgenre, recognized that there was a throughline to the sadism: Flesh was breakable, finite, and the horror movies that permeated the culture until about 2011 thrived on codifying the limits of what could tear skin apart, then transgressing them. Yet, PG-13 horror movie Escape Room, directed by Adam Robitel and written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, suggests a reality that’s far more ambiguous in terms of our relationship to violence and trauma. In several ways, Escape Room is Saw’s mirror image: Besides the obvious similarity in conceits—strangers forced to complete tasks with fatal consequences—the two films are complementary in ideology.
Escape Room takes six strangers and forces them to play a game in an “escape room,” requiring players locked in a confined space to find clues hidden in the details of the decor that will lead to their freedom. Saw suggests two kinds of violence: the more obvious violence of watching the pain of someone fighting for their lives in the immediate moment (with a reverse bear trap fastened to their jaw) and the violence of exploitation, of watching these people fess up their past traumas as a kind of cultural or emotional capital. Escape Room resists this, perhaps even critiques that. While we luxuriate in the film’s production design, the characters are guarded, unwilling to allow their trauma to be exploited. It’s like they’ve been here before.
9. The Mule
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Director: Clint Eastwood
Early in Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial feature—somewhere around his 70th film—shambling Everyman Earl Stone (Eastwood) comments upon the stickers that litter the back window of his equally shambling pickup, decals telling of the everywheres he’s been, man, comparable to the Johnny Cash song we’ll later hear him sing along to in the film. “That’s right, 41 states,” he recalls, then adds, “out of 50.” Most viewers would not need such a clarification—perhaps it’s a subtle nod to Earl’s casual racism, which the film will explicate further farther on, as in this case he’s talking to a Mexican man who will introduce him to the lucrative late-in-life career of drug muling, or perhaps Eastwood simply said that, because he’s acting, and left it in, because why not? Let’s move on, he seems to be saying. Let’s not get hung up on it.
8. Cold War
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War gets especially personal, building a bittersweet romance over the course of the 1950s, a love that first ignites, then smolders, between two people as their lives intersect through the decade. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a musical director touring rural Poland, and young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious enigma posing as a village girl. Her voice bewitches everyone in earshot, Wiktor most of all, and he is captivated by her talent and beauty. Turns out, Wiktor is Pawlikowski’s father, Zula his mother, or at least versions of them. Cold War doesn’t trace the precise steps Mom and Dad took through the title period—the discontent felt between Russia, its foreign allies and its neighboring states, the resultant tension and turmoil that permeated Europe—but he dedicates the film in their memory nonetheless.
This is Pawlikowski’s monument to his parents and to an era. In the camera’s eye, guided by cinematographer Lukasz Zal (collaborating with Pawlikowski anew after 2014’s Ida), time and heritage are inextricably linked to each other. Ennui and the search for reprieve from oppressive institutions weigh down the 1950s, interrupted on brief occasion by bursts of joy expressed through dance, music, culture writ large and lovemaking. All of the things that make life worth living, in other words. Wiktor and Zula aren’t alone in their pursuit of better days: Everyone, whether fleshed out or left to mingle in the movie’s margins, is seeking more for themselves.
Pawlikowski leaves it to the viewer to determine for themselves the fate of his Cold War proxy parents, and to glean purpose from the film’s gaps in time, its reticence, and even its black-and-white palette. Married with the Academy ratio, the color scheme makes the film feel classic, but Pawlikowski’s desire to plumb his past makes it timeless.
7. If Beale Street Could Talk
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Director: Barry Jenkins
Time for our characters elliptical, and the love story between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) the rhythm we’ll return to over and over. As our narrator, Tish speaks in both curt statements and koans, Barry Jenkins’ screenplay translating James Baldwin’s novel as an oneiric bit of voyeurism: When the two finally consummate their relationship after a lifetime (barely two decades) of friendship between them and their families, the mood is divine and revelatory. Do people actually have sex like that? God no, but maybe we wish we did? And sometimes we convince ourselves we have, with the right person, just two bodies alone, against the world, in a space—maybe the only space—of their own. The couple’s story is simple and not: A cop (Ed Skrein) with a petty score to settle against Fonny connives a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios) who was raped to pick Fonny out of a lineup, even though his alibi and all evidence suggests otherwise. In the film’s first scene, we watch Tish visit Fonny in jail to tell him that she’s pregnant. He’s ecstatic; we immediately recognize that unique alchemy of terror and joy that accompanies any new parent, but we also know that for a young black couple, the world is bent against their love thriving. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says.
Do they hope? James and Layne’s performances, so wondrously in sync, suggest they must, one flesh with no other choice. As Tish’s mother, Regina King perhaps best understands the wickedness of that hope, playing Sharon as a woman who can’t quite get what she wants, but who seems to intuit that such progress may be further than most in her situation. Beleaguered but undaunted, she’s the film’s matriarch, a force of such warmth that, even in our fear watching as Tish’s belly grows and her hope wanes, Sharon’s presence reassures us—not that everything will be alright, but that everything will be. The end of If Beale Street Could Talk is practically a given—unless your ignorance guides you throughout this idiotic world—but there is still love in those final moments, as much love as there was in the film’s symmetrical opening. There’s hope in that, however pathetically little.
Release Date: November 30, 2018 (wide)
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
The Shibatas—Osamu and Nobuyo (Lily Franky and Sakura Ando), daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), son Shota (Kairi Jo) and grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiri)—live in tight quarters together, their flat crowded and disheveled. Space is at a premium, and money’s tight. Osamu and Shota solve the latter problem by palming food from the local market, a delicately choreographed dance we see them perform in the film’s opening sequence: They walk from aisle to aisle, communicating to each other through hand gestures while running interference on market employees, a piano and percussion soundtrack painting a scene out of Ocean’s 11. It’s a heist of humble purpose. Once they finish, Shota having squirreled away sufficient goods in his backpack, father and son head home and stumble upon little Yuri (Miuy Sasaki) huddling in the cold on her parents’ deck. Osamu invites her over for dinner in spite of the Shibata’s meager circumstances. When he and Nobuyo go to return her to her folks later on, they hear sounds of violence from within their apartment and think better of it. So Yuri becomes the new addition to the Shibata household, a move suggesting a compassionate streak in Osamu that slowly crinkles about the edges as Shoplifters unfolds.
The obvious care the Shibatas, or whoever they are, have for one another forestalls or at least deflects a building dread: Even in squalor, there’s a certain joy present in their situation. It’s not magic, per se—there’s nothing magical about poverty—but comfort, a sense of safety in numbers. But for a few stolen fishing rods, the Shibata clan is content with what it has, and Kore-eda asks us if that’s such a crime in a world both literally and figuratively cold to the plight of the unfortunate. He doesn’t sugarcoat the truth of the Shibatas, aware of the legal ramifications of plucking a kid from her home in the dead of night, even with domestic abuse in the picture. Shoplifters tempts the audience with cozier illusions of life as a Shibata: Kore-eda shoots as if we’re in their apartment with them, cramped in a corner, thirsting for privacy, desperate for shampoo, and yet enjoying a certain snug intimacy regardless of the grunge and grime. Hardship is the price paid to be spared outsiders’ scrutiny. But Shoplifters is held up by the strength of its ensemble and Kore-eda’s gifts as a storyteller, which gain with every movie he makes—even in the same year.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
There are, rarely, films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where ingredients, execution and imagination all come together in a manner that’s engaging, surprising and, most of all, fun. Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, writer-director Rodney Rothman, and writer Phil Lord have made a film that lives up to all the adjectives one associates with Marvel’s iconic wallcrawler. Amazing. Spectacular. Superior. (Even “Friendly” and “Neighborhood” fit.) Along the way, Into the Spider-Verse shoulders the immense Spider-Man mythos like it’s a half-empty backpack on its way to providing Miles Morales with one of the most textured, loving origin stories in the superhero genre. Plenty of action films with much less complicated plots and fewer characters to juggle have failed, but this one spins order from the potential chaos using some comic-inspired narrative devices that seamlessly embed the needed exposition into the story. It also provides simultaneous master classes in genre filmmaking. Have you been wondering how best to intersperse humor into a storyline crowded with action and heavy emotional arcs? Start here. Do you need to bring together a diverse collection of characters, nimbly move them (together and separately) from setting to setting and band them together in a way that the audience doesn’t question? Take notes. Do you have an outlandish, fantastical concept that you need to communicate to the viewers (and characters) without bogging down the rest of the story? This is one way to do it. Would you like to make an instant contemporary animated classic? Look (and listen).
4. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
Release Date: February 8, 2019
Director: Mike Mitchell
Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s original translated the all-access everything of young people’s lives in 2014 into an overstimulated smorgasbord of pop cultural detritus. Everything is awesome when everything is accessible, Ninja Turtles and Batman and Harry Potter and Gandalf ripe for some intermingling, the raw materials of imagination at one’s tiny fingertips. Not romanticizing nostalgia so much as manifesting it, The Lego Movie looks back to one’s childhood with bright, belligerent joy at the simple act of making: of pulling from everything one loves to create new worlds, of trying and seeing what happens, of rebuilding. The guys who rebooted 21 Jump Street as a meta-comment on all art as reassembly then assembled a kids’ movie literally about the process of making that art. It was a revelation. Its sequel? Less so, but in the past half-decade (and two similar Lego movies later) there’s hardly a shred of anything original left that hasn’t been commodified into oblivion. So The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part blasts off into that oblivion, attempting to grow up with the younglings it once courted while, as well as it can given its hyperkinetic guiding koan of “everything is awesome is everything at once,” shooting for unexpected shades of nuance. Written by Lord and Miller, but directed by dependable animated studio hand Mike Mitchell, the second episode in the ongoing saga of Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) and the citizens of Bricksburg starts only minutes after the first film, but feels like a lifetime separated. Lord and Miller seem to get that. They feel it too. Is everything still awesome? Short answer: No. Longer answer: Definitely not. But everything isn’t so bad either. How could it be when everything is everything? Perhaps this is the lesson on which kids can glom amongst this admittedly overlong, overwhelming experience: Yoda was wrong; trying is what matters. It’s a lovely lesson, and a lovely movie. It’s OK to be angry and sad and hurt by the world, because it will hurt, but you shouldn’t give up. You shouldn’t break things when you can build them.
3. Dragon Ball Super: Broly
Release Date: January 16, 2019
Director: Tatsuya Nagamine
What can be said of Dragon Ball now that hasn’t already been said several times over in the past three decades? An a shonen adventure classic-turned-international phenomenon from the moment the series made landfall in West during the ’80s, the enduring significance and popularity of Akira Toriyama’s magnum opus is beyond reproach. Acknowledged as one of the preeminent and influential works of Japanese animation of its era, Dragon Ball and its protagonist, the spikey-haired, gi-wearing silhouette of Son Goku, has become all but a universal shorthand for anime as a whole to not only a generation of anime enthusiasts and earnest neophytes, but even among that of the most disinterested of befuddled onlookers. The conclusion of Dragon Ball Super—the latest installment in the Dragon Ball series—in March of last year saw its heroes triumphant in the wake of a deadly contest of multiversal proportions. Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the direct follow-up to Super’s final episode and the first Dragon Ball film to carry the series’ name, follows Goku, Vegeta and co. faced with yet another existential threat, this time in the form of a mysterious Saiyan warrior with an unprecedented level of destructive potential. Yet, Dragon Ball Super: Broly is a retcon not only of its namesake origins, but that of some of the earliest, formative and significant events of the Dragon Ball universe. Because of this, Dragon Ball Super: Broly might in fact be one of the approachable entry points into the series for newcomers, short of watching the entire 450-some episodes of the anime itself. That Dragon Ball Super: Broly manages to toe such a fine line between gratifying the expectations of long-time fans and rendering the film accessible enough for those new to the series is worthy of both mention and celebration.
2. The Kid Who Would Be King
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Director: Joe Cornish
What better time to retell the King Arthur origin story as a witty, charming and rousing family fantasy/adventure? The Kid Who Would Be King reminds its core audience—and perhaps even some adults—that we might still find hope in our future leaders if passé values like compassion, chivalry, compromise, virtue and honor are remixed back into society. Any creative tasked with reinvigorating a public domain myth would do well to take notes from writer-director Joe Cornish’s thrillingly fresh take on the Arthurian legend. The legend tells, in the form of boisterous opening narration accompanied by some colorful children’s textbook animation, that Arthur and his brave knights were able to defeat Arthur’s evil sister, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), and cast her into the bowels of hell. However, Morgana vowed to come back and cover the land in darkness when the land is once again bitterly divided the way it was before Arthur’s time. Cut to post-Brexit England, where half the country despises the other half, which Morgana understandably takes as an invitation to unleash her army of minions to take back the land. Will a hero of Arthurian stature show up to challenge her once again? That hero, in true ’80s-style children’s fantasy fashion, comes in the form of a meek but pure-of-heart 12-year-old named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, an 11 on the instant adorability meter), who not only has to contend with the surrounding culture and media constantly reminding him how his country’s about to implode, but has to defend himself and his even nerdier best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), against school bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Those familiar with the Arthurian legend might predict where this story’s going simply by looking at the character names, but Cornish’s specialty, as evidenced by his terrific London alien invasion adventure Attack the Block, lies is in applying sci-fi/fantasy tropes to invigorating new settings. The Kid Who Would Be Kid hits the family classic trifecta: Spectacular fun for kids and adults, full of important themes and a rebellious attitude in regard to the wide range of things grownups are messing up.
1. Tito and the Birds
Date Released: January 25, 2019
Directors: Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, Andre Catoto
Fairy tales and fables play an important role in teaching children how to navigate and survive (and eventually become part of) the adult world. Of course, the best ones have plenty to offer adults, as well. Tito and the Birds, a stunningly beautiful animated gem from Brazil, deftly and lovingly constructs such a universally relatable parable about how fear, especially fear of the “other,” can paralyze the community, prevent it from enjoying the most basic aspects of life even as those in power who spread that fear thrive. At a time when fascism and authoritarianism are on the rise, I can’t think of a better and more relevant theme for such a modern cautionary tale. That doesn’t mean that Tito and the Birds is just a dry, didactic feature-length lesson on how people should cope with their fears for a better society. (That’s the cherry on top.) Our hero is the brave and rebellious science nerd, Tito, who wholeheartedly supports his scientist father’s controversial invention, a machine that allows humans to once again communicate with birds. With its giddy and hypnotic mix of oil painting backgrounds and digital animation in service of a wonderfully inventive story surrounded by kooky, immediately lovable characters, Tito and the Birds is one of the most original animated works of the past year.