53 Movies Like Luca (2021)

Staff & contributors

Wise, superbly acted, and gorgeously put together, all of these apply to Nightmare Alley. In a world where remakes are more in vogue than needed, Guillermo del Toro shows us how it's done. A sumptuous tale of a man's rise and fall guarantees some spectatorial pleasure, but having both Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in the same film (plus unsung genius Toni Collette and all-round-favorite Willem Dafoe) pushes us into talent overload, in the best possible way. In addition to its thrilling plot and studded cast, Nightmare Alley is also psychologically literate enough to make a carnival out of the human soul. It's no surprise that in 2022, it got four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture where it certainly would have had my vote.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bill MacDonald, Bradley Cooper, Caleb Ellsworth-Clark, Calvin Desautels, Cate Blanchett, Catherine McGregor, Charles Langille, Clifton Collins Jr., Clyde Whitham, Dan Lett, Dani Klupsch, Daniel Falk, Danny Waugh, David Hewlett, David Strathairn, Dian Bachar, Holt McCallany, James Collins, Jesse Buck, Jim Beaver, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Lili Connor, Linden Porco, Mark Povinelli, Martin Julien, Mary Steenburgen, Matthew MacCallum, Natalie Brown, Paul Anderson, Perry Mucci, Peter MacNeill, Richard Jenkins, Romina Power, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, Sarah Mennell, Stephen McHattie, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Post, Toni Collette, Troy James, Vikki Ring, Walter Rinaldi, Will Conlon, Willem Dafoe

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rating: R

The apex of Abbas Kiarostami’s monumental filmography, Close-Up is a testament to the late directors’ ingenuity and humanism. Kiarostami documents the real-life trial of a man who impersonated fellow Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and ingratiated himself to a family believing him to be the real deal. The courtroom drama and interviews are fascinating enough, but Kiarostami takes it one step further by having everyone involved reenact the events as they happened.

The result is an unparalleled piece of filmmaking that blurs the boundaries between documentary and narrative while posing vital questions about the exclusivity of cinema and the storytelling process. Despite its sophisticated constructions, Kiarostami’s direction is lucid and direct as it builds to a passionate and unforgettable conclusion.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Drama

Actor: Abbas Kiarostami, Hossain Farazmand, Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Monoochehr Ahankhah

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

, 2022

Vortex, Gaspar Noé’s haunting exploration of death and dementia, begins with a dedication: “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” The statement sets the heartwrenching tone of the film, which follows an elderly couple—one with dementia and the other with a heart ailment—during their last days together. Noé cleverly depicts all this in a split-screen design, which evokes the fractured pattern of old-age thought. 

Noé’s mother struggled with dementia, and Noé’ himself suffered from a brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him, so Vortex is clearly a personal film. But even without knowing this, Vortex feels effortlessly dear and deeply intimate, like it could've only been done by a person with a first-hand experience of this tragedy. At once personal and universal, Vortex is a haunting and inventive ode to love, death, and everything in between.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alex Lutz, Corinne Bruand, Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Nathalie Roubaud, Stephane Derderian

Director: Gaspar Noé

The tragic irony of war — that, if battling soldiers had been born in any other time or place, they may well have been friends with each other — takes center stage in this brilliant drama set in WWII-era Java. It's a theme best encapsulated by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto in his film debut), the bushido code-following commandant of a Japanese POW camp: “How wonderful it would have been if we could have invited all of you to a gathering under our cherry trees,” he muses to the titular British Lieutenant Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of his prisoners.

Lawrence is the camp’s mediator, and not just because he’s fluent in Japanese; in the culture clash microcosm that is the camp, he is uniquely understanding of his captors’ way of life. That earns him special privileges of sorts from the camp’s often brutal enforcer (Takeshi Kitano), but this pales in comparison to the instant partiality with which the charismatic Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enjoys, courtesy of a smitten yet deeply repressed and tormented Yonoi. This psychosexual undercurrent bubbles furiously throughout Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, deepening its (already poignant) lamentations about war’s humanity-stripping effect and the self-imposed prisons that are honor and shame.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alistair Browning, Arthur Ranford, Colin Francis, Daisuke Iijima, David Bowie, Grant Bridger, Hideo Murota, Hiroshi Mikami, Jack Thompson, Johnny Ohkura, Kan Mikami, Rokkō Toura, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ryūnosuke Kaneda, Takashi Naito, Takeshi Kitano, Tamio Ishikura, Tom Conti, Yūji Honma, Yūya Uchida

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

Rating: R

It's heartbreaking to realize that Happening, a film set in 1960s France tracking a young woman's journey to dangerously and desperately terminating her pregnancy, is still very much relevant and relatable to this day. Around the world, abortion is still inaccessible, if not completely illegal, and women still struggle to lay full claim to their bodies. A lot of girls grow up with pregnancy statistics meant to instill fear, but Happening brings all that to brilliant life in intimate and unrestrained detail. The fears and wants of our protagonist Anne (played precisely by Anamaria Vartolomei) are palpable throughout. Nothing is held back in this film, and if you find yourself sick in parts, then it has achieved its goal of realistically conveying what it's like to stay alive in a society that fails to recognize your needs. 

 

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Alice de Lencquesaing, Anamaria Vartolomei, Anna Mouglalis, Cyril Metzger, Édouard Sulpice, Fabrizio Rongione, Francois Loriquet, Isabelle Mazin, Julien Frison, Kacey Mottet Klein, Leïla Muse, Leonor Oberson, Louise Chevillotte, Louise Orry-Diquéro, Luàna Bajrami, Madeleine Baudot, Pio Marmaï, Sandrine Bonnaire

Director: Audrey Diwan

Rating: R

This stagelike historical drama is about a meeting between Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Muhammad Ali, the night Ali became world champion and announced he became Muslim.

And here is the thing: Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali have been portrayed many times in film, but never with this much nuance. Their relationship with each other is often frictional and their relationship to their faith is recognizable: they're not always sure about it, and they take breaks.

Ali smuggles alcohol without Malcolm knowing, Malcolm is accused of being obsessed with celebrity (and later of colorism), Jim Brown is insecure about being an actor, and Sam Cooke wishes he wrote a Bob Dylan song.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aaron D. Alexander, Alan Wells, Aldis Hodge, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Beau Bridges, Christian Magby, Christopher Gorham, Derek Roberts, Dustin Lewis, Eli Goree, Emily Bridges, Hunter Burke, Jason Ament, Jeremy Pope, Joaquina Kalukango, John Curran, Kevin Reid, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lance Reddick, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Leslie Odom Jr., Mark Allan Stewart, Matt Fowler, Michael Imperioli, Nathan Siebring, Nicolette Robinson, Nola Epps, Randall Newsome

Director: Regina King

Rating: R

A healthy mix of despair and self-deprecation has always been Bo Burnham's signature, but Inside takes it to the next level. It's a deconstructed film, rather than a simple one-night special; a one-man-show that constantly undercuts itself. Even more so, it sabotages its own immersive qualities and explores the depths of self-loathing by turning oneself into comedy material. Some may say, it's a classic move, but the pandemic reality and Burnham's unkempt look predispose us to embrace all the cringe (YouTube reactions), quirkiness, (the sock puppet), and frightening angst (suicide jokes) he puts forward. Emotional rawness and a polished DIY look fits the Netflix bill, but as far as the content goes, this one goes straight to the world heritage lockdown archives.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Bo Burnham

Director: Bo Burnham

Rating: R

Third World Romance is what it says in the tin– it’s a love story that blooms in the rundown side of the capital of a developing country. The plot is familiar, especially for people familiar with Filipino rom coms, but writer-director Dwein Baltazar approaches this with a grounded approach. With fancy dinner dates substituted with shared packed rice meals and emotional apologies interrupted by their shifts in the grocery, Bree and Alvin carve out a love that still feels passionate, perhaps made even more so, as they navigate a city where they are disenfranchised. Charlie Dizon and Carlo Aquino’s excellent performances keep their characters’ struggles real, but also make their love feel joyful in spite of that.

Genre: Comedy, Romance

Actor: Ana Abad-Santos, Archie Adamos, Carlo Aquino, Charlie Dizon, Donna Cariaga, Gardo Versoza, Iyah Mina, Jun Jun Quintana

Director: Dwein Ruedas Baltazar

In the sexy, slick, and sharp-witted Out of Sight, a never-better George Clooney plays Jack Foley, a career bank robber who pulls off heists based on pure charm alone. His charisma is so powerful it even turns the cat-and-mouse game he plays with federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) into a seductive dance. Karen is no easy mark, though: she’s a tough agent who’s used to being underestimated by the men she works with. The sizzling connection that sparks between her and Jack is gripping precisely because it threatens to break the basic logic both live their lives by: he a slippery criminal, she a no-nonsense professional. Clooney and Lopez’s naturally electric chemistry is supercharged by the fact that the film never slips into sentimentality, always keeping their will-they-won’t-they amour at a tantalizing distance until the decisive moment. A crime caper with many strings to its bow — among them sizzling romance and brilliant dialogue brought to life by a dazzling supporting ensemble — this is a masterfully entertaining ride from director Steven Soderbergh.

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Romance

Actor: Albert Brooks, Betsy Monroe, Brad Martin, Catherine Keener, Chic Daniel, Connie Sawyer, Deborah Smith Ford, Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Isaiah Washington, James Black, Jennifer Dorogi, Jennifer Lopez, Joe Chrest, Joe Coyle, Joe Hess, Keith Hudson, Keith Loneker, Luis Guzman, Manny Suárez, Mark Brown, Michael Keaton, Mike Gerzevitz, Mike Malone, Nancy Allen, Paul Calderon, Philip Perlman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Ives, Steve Zahn, Thelma Gutiérrez, Ving Rhames, Viola Davis, Wayne Pére, Wayne V. Johnson

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R

An interior designer comes back from Sweden to her birthplace in Thailand where she tries to declutter her family home to make it a minimalist, Marie Kondo-type house. “Minimalism is like a Buddhist philosophy. It’s about letting go,” she tells her mother as she tries to convince her. “Are you nuts?” The woman replies.

Jean insists and she embarks on a journey of touching what hasn’t been touched in decades: traces of an absent father and a past lover among the old Nokias and VHS tape recorders.

Happy Old Year is a contemporary exploration of the age-old resistance to throwing things away. Decluttering is a costly act, one of rejecting and discarding memories. The film was Thailand’s official submission to the Oscars.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Aokbab Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Apasiri Nitibhon, Bhumibhat Thavornsiri, Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Natda Chawawanid, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Neennara Boonnithipaisit, Patcha Kitchaicharoen, Sarika Sartsilpsupa, Sarika Sathsilpsupa, Sunny Suwanmethanon, Sunny Suwanmethanont, Thirawat Ngosawang, Um Apasiri Nitibhon, Wasu Pluemsakulthai

Director: Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit

Rating: N/A

Frybread Face and Me is a little indie gem: though rough around the edges, it’s full of charm and heart. Drawn from its director's own childhood experiences, the movie charts a formative moment in the life of Benny, a city boy of Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo heritage who’s carted off to his grandmother’s ranch on a Navajo reservation for a summer. It's suffused with all the specificity of real memories in a way that never distances us from it, only enfolding us closer into its nostalgic embrace. That effect largely comes from the tender bonds between Benny and his cousin Dawn (unsympathetically nicknamed Frybread Face and played by newcomer Charley Hogan), who acts as translator between him and their non-English-speaking grandmother (Sarah H. Natani, also a non-professional actor). Though he’s constantly berated by male family members for not being “masculine” enough, Benny finds unconditional acceptance from his grandmother and misfit camaraderie with Frybread, who also gives the film a dry comedic edge — a welcome touch in a usually saccharine genre. Ultimately, though, it’s the movie’s soft sweetness and intimate depths that are most distinctive: it’s so gently told, and with such genuine feeling behind it, that it’s impossible not to be swept away by its charms.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Charley Hogan, Jeremiah Bitsui, Kahara Hodges, Keir Tallman, Leilani Taliaferro, Martin Sensmeier, MorningStar Angeline, Nasheen Sleuth, Sarah H. Natani

Director: Billy Luther

Rating: R

You’ll recognize more than a few faces in Uncle Frank. There are no mega-stars but the caliber of acting in this 70s story is truly impressive.

Beth is an 18-year-old in rural South Carolina who grew up admiring the family member she could relate to the most: her uncle, a college professor living in New York.

When she finishes high-school, she makes the move to the city her beloved uncle told her so much about. Once there, she discovers that he has been living a double life which he kept a secret from the family.

This is the perfect holiday movie for those looking for a story that’s not about the actual holidays. It’s sweet, often funny, and packs a heartfelt and genuine story without being too predictable.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Banks Repeta, Britt Rentschler, Burgess Jenkins, Caity Brewer, Christopher Speed, Cole Doman, Colton Ryan, Hannah Black, Jane McNeill, Judy Greer, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Michael Banks Repeta, Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, Sophia Lillis, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn

Director: Alan Ball

Rating: R

This mortifying stop-motion fairy-tale is inspired by the very real horrors of Chile’s Colonia Dignidad: a cult colony turned torture camp under the Pinochet regime. Presented as colony propaganda, the tale tells the story of Maria, a girl who runs away from the safety of the colony into the forest and takes refuge in a house with two pigs. What transpires is a gut-wrenching allegory for the rise of fascism, colonialism, and white supremacy. 

The staggering animation which seamlessly shifts mediums from paper mâché to painted walls is a bewildering sight to witness. But it’s the synthesis of this boundary-pushing art and the underlying horrors it depicts, that make this stand as an unmissable cinematic event.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy, Horror

Actor: Amalia Kassai, Natalia Geisse

Director: Cristóbal León, Joaquín Cociña

Only a writer of Albert Brooks’ comedic and perceptive talents could turn the premise of an insecure middle-aged man having romantic trouble into something genuinely funny and poignant. Brooks appears as his signature brand of self-loathing boomer here: he plays John Henderson, a middling novelist who's recently gone through a second divorce. When he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to start afresh in his forties, John first decides he needs to get to the bottom of his recurring failures with women. In keeping with the neurotic preoccupations of his characters, Brooks has John take the psychoanalytic approach by going back to the source: his mother. 

To better get to the root of his hang-ups, John temporarily moves back in with Mrs Henderson, whom Debbie Reynolds plays as a hilariously blithe foil to her manic, insecure son. Brooks and Reynolds’ fractious rapport is tortuously true to life: John finds her petty habits maddening, while she doesn’t seem to understand his life or his work — an obliviousness that, it turns out, might run the other way, too. Cleverly turning the self-obsessions of its lead character on its head, Mother is a wry comedy full of insight and unexpected sweetness.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Albert Brooks, Anne Haney, Billye Ree Wallace, Debbie Reynolds, Ernie Brown, Greg Bronson, Harry Hutchinson, Isabel Glasser, James Gleason, Joey Naber, John C. McGinley, Kimiko Gelman, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Nolan, Michael Moertl, Paul Collins, Peter White, Richard Assad, Rob Morrow, Rosalind Allen, Spencer Klein, Vanessa Williams

Director: Albert Brooks

Rating: PG-13

Even if you aren't familiar with the original, Tony Award-winning Broadway production from Lin-Manuel Miranda, this adaptation of In the Heights is still infused with the same infectious energy and loaded with many of the same eclectic songs. This is musical theater at its most fundamental (cheesy, us-against-the-world romance; unstoppable optimism) and also at some of its most unique—with old-school Broadway numbers mixing seamlessly with hip hop, Latin dance, and cheery 2000s pop. But beyond its music, In the Heights offers a gorgeous tapestry of stories about life in a proud immigrant community and the challenges of staying rooted to home while reaching for the stars.

Genre: Drama, Family, Music, Romance

Actor: Anthony Ramos, Ariana Greenblatt, Christopher Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Dascha Polanco, Dean Scott Vazquez, Gregory Diaz IV, Javier Muñoz, Jimmy Smits, Leslie Grace, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony, Mateo Gómez, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Olivia Perez, Patrick Page, Ryan Woodle, Seth Stewart, Stephanie Beatriz, Susan Pourfar, The Kid Mero, Valentina

Director: Jon M. Chu