28 Movies Like Spencer (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

Poignant, delightful, and simply gorgeous, Licorice Pizza just might be Paul Thomas Anderson's best work to date. The period dramedy follows two young people, one in her 20s and one in his teens, as they strike an unlikely but lovely friendship and try to find their place in the world. They may be 10 years apart, but they're stuck in the same swirl of rejection and confusion that trap a lot of ambitious people like them. The premise is far from original, but Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman turn in captivating performances (made even more impressive by the fact that this is both their film debut). There is an ease and naturalism to both their chemistry and onscreen performances that’s hard not to love.

The thick and wistful patina of the ‘70s, the comedic asides, and the colorful supporting cast all also help paint an overall charming picture that shouldn't be missed.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Somner, AJ Carr, Alana Haim, Alex Canter, Alex Herschlag, Allegra Clark, Anna Cordell, Anthony Molinari, Ariel Rechtshaid, Benjamin Barrett, Benny Safdie, Bottara Angele, Bradley Cooper, Cassandra Kulukundis, Charlotte Townsend, Christine Ebersole, Ciara Williamson, Cooper Hoffman, Craig Stark, Dan Anderson, Danielle Haim, Danielle Miller, Delaina Mitchell, Demelza Cronin, Destry Allyn Spielberg, Dick Rudolph, Eloy Perez, Emily Althaus, Emma Dumont, Erica Sullivan, Este Haim, Fatimah Hassan, George DiCaprio, Gerren Hall, Harriet Sansom Harris, Hazel Schaffer, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Isabelle Kusman, Iyana Halley, Jeff Willy, John C. Reilly, John Michael Higgins, Jon Beavers, Jonathan Goetzman, Joseph Cross, Karen Kilgariff, Kat Barnette, Kimiko Kasai, Kirk Saduski, Lakin Valdez, Laura Gary, Laura Louise Richardson, Liz Cackowski, Louis Delavenne, Mark Flanagan, Mark Wolfson, Mary Eileen O'Donnell, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Max Mitchell, Maya Rudolph, Mick Giacchino, Nate Mann, Paige Locke, Patrick Salway, Pearl Minnie Anderson, Ray Chase, Ray Nicholson, Richard B. Larimore, Rogelio Camarillo, Ryan Heffington, Sasha Spielberg, Savannah Ioakimedes, Sean Penn, Skyler Gisondo, Steven Herrera, Tim Conway Jr., Tom Waits, Tyler Young, Waylon Richling, Yumi Mizui, Zoe McLane

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

In Drive My Car, a widowed artist travels to Hiroshima for his latest production. There he meets a young woman enlisted to drive him around the area. They forge an unexpected bond and soon share pithy observations and long-buried secrets, which culminate in a touching scene of catharsis and forgiveness.

Not a lot is said in this three-hour film, but when words (and signals) are shared, they are always underlaid with simple but transcendent truths. Drive My Car is a gripping film that explores love and loss in its own quiet way, at once intense and intimate.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahn Hwi-tae, Ahn Hwitae, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Hiroko Matsuda, Jin Dae-yeon, Masaki Okada, Park Yu-rim, Perry Dizon, Reika Kirishima, Ryo Iwase, Satoko Abe, Shoichiro Tanigawa, Sonia Yuan, Toko Miura, Toshiaki Inomata

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Rating: Unrated

Many films have tried to decipher the indecipherable bond between mothers and daughters. Lady Bird, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Turning Red, to name a few, center on this particular relationship, which to outsiders may seem strange at best and dysfunctional at worst. How can mothers yell at their daughters one second and coddle them the next? How can daughters treat mothers like their best friend and enemy all at once? 

One of the best films to explore this complexity is Petite Maman, a fantasy-like film that brings together mother and daughter in a unique situation, forcing them both to regard the other in otherwise impossible ways. It succeeds where others haven’t precisely because it accepts that this relationship is beyond dissecting, and the only way to honor it is in the poignant, poetic, and otherworldly way that it does. It’s a quiet film that manages to say a lot, not least of which is that it’s okay to feel and love and hurt as much as one does.

Genre: Drama, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Joséphine Sanz, Margot Abascal, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne

Director: Céline Sciamma

, 2019

A beautifully shot movie about a high-schooler who's pushed by his father to always work and exercise the hardest. He aces his exams and always wins at wrestling, but nothing is ever good enough for the father and there is no margin for error. When things with both his body and his relationship start going wrong, his existence comes crashing down. This movie has two parts, and it takes a lot of narrative risks, but the beautiful camera work and believable characters land every single risk. It's an incredible achievement and a movie that should have gotten much more attention than it did.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alexa Demie, Avis-Marie Barnes, Bill Wise, Carter Harcek, Clifton Collins Jr., David Garelik, David Payton, Ellen Marguerite Cullivan, Harlan Drum, Harmony Korine, Joshua Brockington, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Krisha Fairchild, Kristin Wollett, Lucas Hedges, Neal Huff, Nicholas Ryan Hernandez, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Vivi Pineda

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Rating: R

Summer of Soul would already be remarkable if it was just a collection of some of the greatest live performances ever put to film. Boasting a roster that includes Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and Sly and the Family Stone, the nearly-forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the documentary was an all-star catalog of some of the biggest names in popular music, all at pivotal moments in their careers. Seeing them at the height of their powers, in front of a Black audience that meant so much to them, makes for an unexpectedly emotional experience.

But Summer of Soul also expands beyond the actual concert, using the Harlem Cultural Festival to represent a turning point in Black culture and history, especially after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Through the film's pristine, electric editing and gorgeous archival restoration, music becomes a communal act of mourning, a rallying cry to face the uncertain future, and a celebration of a people and a heritage continuing to fight against erasure and persecution.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History, Music

Actor: Abbey Lincoln, B. B. King, Chris Rock, David Ruffin, Fidel Castro, Herbie Mann, Hugh Masekela, Jesse Jackson, John F. Kennedy, John V. Lindsay, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mahalia Jackson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Mavis Staples, Max Roach, Moms Mabley, Nina Simone, Questlove, Redd Foxx, Richard Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Tony Lawrence, Walter Cronkite

Director: Questlove

A young bisexual woman attends a shiva, caught between her parents and their expectations, her ex, and her sugar daddy. Rachel Sennott’s Danielle is yet to find her path in life and everyone is determined to remind her of that. Taking place almost entirely in real-time, the film’s sharp wit is contrasted with constant anxiety, complemented by Ariel Marx’s horror-like score, full of discordant pizzicato that sounds like every last bit of sanity snapping. 

It’s a sex-positive take on 20-something life, treating bisexuality as wholly unremarkable and passing no judgment on Danielle’s sugar daddy income. Its specificities about Jewish customs and traditions are non-exclusionary, while its social claustrophobia is achingly universal. It’s comforting in the way it portrays the social horrors we all face, the feeling that everyone but you has life figured out, and that – ultimately – those who matter will pull through, eventually. One of 2021’s best.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Ariel Eliaz, Cilda Shaur, Danny Deferrari, Deborah Offner, Dianna Agron, Fred Melamed, Glynis Bell, Jackie Hoffman, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Rachel Sennott, Richard Brundage, Rita Gardner, Sondra James, Ted Seligman

Director: Emma Seligman

Rating: Unrated

, 2021

Celebrated Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s latest movie is about Rahim, a man who is in jail because he was unable to repay a debt. He gets a temporary release from prison, and with a big smile on his face, he leaves his confinement with a plan not to come back.

His secret girlfriend hands him a pack of gold coins, which they plan to sell to repay the creditor. But, as is custom with Farhadi’s movies, the center of the story is a moral dilemma that comes from one of the characters trying to be a good person. The gold coins are not Rahim’s or his girlfriend’s, but it's life-changing for both of them. 

Selected as Iran's official submission to the Oscars. 

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Ali Reza Jahandideh, Amir Jadidi, Ehsan Goodarzi, Farrokh Nourbakht, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee, Maryam Shahdaie, Mohsen Tanabande, Sarina Farhadi

Director: Asghar Farhadi

, 2021

In the first few minutes of Mass, hushed tones, solemn movements, and awkwardly averted eyes hint at an unspoken tragedy that haunts everyone in the film. The four main characters discuss it during a sit-down, but even then it remains unspeakable; such is the dedication of first-time full-length director Fran Kranz in depicting the reality of tragic events. Not much is done in the way of plot twists and shocks, but in place of those, Mass makes clever use of close-up shots and unmoving settings to portray the privacy and paralysis of grief. For this reason, Mass often feels like a masterful play brought to life, but also more than that, a brilliant portrait of healing—or at the very least, coping with the everlasting aftermath of loss. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ann Dowd, Breeda Wool, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Michelle N. Carter, Reed Birney

Director: Fran Kranz

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) is back in full form with this three-hour movie based on a true story. His creation has one of the most beautiful depictions of happiness ever seen in film, portraying the simple yet joyous life of a farmer in the Austrian mountains. You'd have to see it for yourself to understand, but how Malick depicts this character's love for his wife (and her love for him), their children, and even their farming rituals are nothing short of cinematic wizardry. 

This peaceful existence changes when World War 2 intensifies and this farmer is called to serve for the Nazis. He refuses to enroll out of principle and puts himself and his family at great danger and alienation from their village. The question at the center of the film is one that other villagers and the church ask him a lot: what good can his actions do? And the title of the movie is taken from A George Eliot quote: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alexander Fehling, Alexander Radszun, August Diehl, Bernd Hölscher, Bruno Ganz, Chris Theisinger, Dieter Kosslick, Dimo Alexiev, Ermin Sijamija, Franz Rogowski, Joel Basman, Johan Leysen, Johannes Gabl, Johannes Krisch, Johannes Nussbaum, Jürgen Prochnow, Karin Neuhäuser, Karl Markovics, Katja Lechthaler, Leonard Kunz, Maria Simon, Mark Waschke, Martin Wuttke, Matthias Schoenaerts, Max Malatesta, Max Mauff, Michael Nyqvist, Michael Steinocher, Monika Lennartz, Moritz Katzmair, Nicholas Reinke, Sarah Born, Sophie Rois, Thomas Mraz, Tobias Moretti, Ulrich Brandhoff, Ulrich Matthes, Valerie Pachner, Waldemar Kobus, Wolfgang Michael

Director: Terrence Malick

Rating: PG-13

Paul Giamatti, man. Ever watched Win/Win? What a performance. I didn’t think he could do any better than that. But here he did. This movie is now on Netflix. It’s about a couple that is trying to have a kid but can’t. Their frustration grows, but so does their willingness to do whatever it takes to become parents. They try to adopt, go to fertility clinics and ultimately ask their niece to donate her eggs. To really work, such a plot requires well-written, multifaceted characters one can relate to. I did, and it really worked.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alyssa Cheatham, Amaya Press, Caroline Martin, Danny Deferrari, Denis O'Hare, Desmin Borges, Emily Robinson, Fenton Lawless, Francesca Root-Dodson, Gabrielle Reidy, Hettienne Park, John Carroll Lynch, Kathryn Hahn, Katrine Hoyt, Kayli Carter, Kelly Miller, Kerry Flanagan, Lizzy DeClement, Maddie Corman, Molly Shannon, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Buck, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Tracee Chimo

Director: Tamara Jenkins

Rating: R

Belfast stars Outlander’s Caitríona Balfe as the mother of a working-class Northern Irish family during The Troubles. Religious tension and the lack of opportunities put the family in a difficult position: they're the first in many generations to think about leaving the city of Belfast. They all have to navigate so many difficult questions on belonging, religion, and identity.

The story,  based on the director’s own childhood, is packaged in a noise-canceling black and white format. Also stars Judi Dench.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Bríd Brennan, Caitriona Balfe, Chris McCurry, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Conor MacNeill, Drew Dillon, Elly Condron, Gerard Horan, Gerard McCarthy, James O'Donnell, Jamie Dornan, John Sessions, Josie Walker, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Kit Rakusen, Lara McDonnell, Leonard Buckley, Mairéad Tyers, Mark Hadfield, Michael Maloney, Olive Tennant, Oliver Savell, Orla McDonagh, Sid Sagar, Turlough Convery, Vanessa Ifediora, Victor Alli

Director: Kenneth Branagh

If Steven Spielberg had just decided to do a straightforward cover version of West Side Story, it still would have been a wonder of music, movement, and color. But more than the lush camerawork and impassioned performances from Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, and Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, this adaptation is most memorable for its renewed focus on the senselessness of its central turf war. Here, New York City exercises absolute power over the Jets and the Sharks, rendering all this gang violence as a futile attempt to hold on to outdated values in the face of economic desolation. Spielberg might not be able to do much about the story's weaker Romeo and Juliet-inspired parts, but he still finds a way to let this often ridiculed tragic romance serve a greater purpose.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Music, Romance

Actor: Ana Isabelle, Andrea Burns, Andy Powers, Annelise Cepero, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Ben Cook, Bert Michaels, Brian d'Arcy James, Chryssie Whitehead, Corey Stoll, Curtiss Cook, David Alvarez, David Guzman, Denia Brache, Doreen Montalvo, Feiga Martinez, Gaby Diaz, Harrison Coll, Ilda Mason, iris menas, Jamie Harris, Jamila Velazquez, Jeff Ward, Jess LeProtto, Joe Lanza, José Ramón Rosario, Josh Andrés Rivera, Kevin Csolak, Kyle Allen, Kyle Coffman, Maddie Ziegler, Mike Faist, Mike Iveson, Mike Massimino, Myles Erlick, Nadia Quinn, Natalie Toro, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Patrick Noonan, Paul Niebanck, Rachel Zegler, Reginald L. Barnes, Rene Ojeda, Ricardo Zayas, Ricky Garcia, Rita Moreno, Ryan Woodle, Sean Harrison Jones, Shade Rupe, Skye Mattox, Talia Ryder, Tanairi Sade Vazquez, Victor Cruz, Yassmin Alers

Director: Steven Spielberg

, 2021

This offbeat drama is about a Syrian refugee who gets sent to a remote island in northern Scotland. “There was a better signal in the middle of the Mediterranean,” another refugee tells him when he arrives. Omar is as the title suggests stuck: until his asylum request is processed he can't work or continue his journey onwards. His situation is frustrating and difficult, but it's also full of absurdities, as Omar is stuck around some very weird people.

Limbo perfectly portrays the duality between sad and nonsensical in the refugee experience. In the entrance to the isolated and rundown facility that houses Omar, a handmade sign said "refugees welcome". The next day a "not" is added between "refugees" and "welcome", in the exact same paint. 

If you like Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's work, this has a similar brand of dark humor to his also refugee-themed 2017 drama The Other Side of Hope.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Amir El-Masry, Amir ElMasry, Cameron Fulton, Ellie Haddington, Grace Chilton, Kais Nashif, Kenneth Collard, Kwabena Ansah, Lewis Gribben, Ola Orebiyi, Qais Nashif, Raymond Mearns, Sanjeev Kohli, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Sodienye Ojewuyi, Vikash Bhai

Director: Ben Sharrock

Rating: R

Happy-Go-Lucky is a Mike Leigh feel-good movie tells the story of Poppy, a North London teacher, whose story we follow through a number of different situations: driving lessons, solving work issues, having fun with friends, all while trying not to lose her optimism. The acting is superb, Sally Hawkins is a gem as Poppy, and one cannot describe it, one simply has to see it and enjoy it, because it leaves you smiling :)

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Caroline Martin, Eddie Marsan, Elliot Cowan, Joseph Kloska, Karina Fernandez, Kate OFlynn, Nonso Anozie, Oliver Maltman, Philip Arditti, Rebekah Staton, Sally Hawkins, Samuel Roukin, Sarah Niles, Sinéad Matthews, Stanley Townsend, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Trevor Cooper, Viss Elliot Safavi

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R