13 Movies Like Strays (2023)

Staff & contributors
Monster is a deceptively simple story about growing up and the many misunderstandings that come with it. It’s told through different points of view, a technique that could easily feel gimmicky in the hands of a lesser director. But with director Hirokazu Kore-eda at the helm, it feels natural and inevitable, as if there was no other way to tell this specific story. It’s a masterful mystery, but Monster is less about suspense and answering the whodunnit question than it is about navigating the murky waters of truth and real life. As corny as it sounds, watching Monster is an experience unto itself: you’ll find yourself believing something one moment and dismantling it the next, learning and unlearning in a span of two hours. But as with past Kore-eda films, it’s the story’s heartwarming sensitivity that trumps everything. You’ll likely come for the mystery but stay for its heart.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Akihiro Kakuta, Ayu Kitaura, Daisuke Kuroda, Eita Nagayama, Hinata Hiiragi, Kayo Noro, Mitsuki Takahata, Moemi Katayama, Pee, Ryu Morioka, Sakura Andô, Shidô Nakamura, Soya Kurokawa, Yûko Tanaka

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Rating: PG-13

The Royal Hotel sees Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) resorting to take up a dire live-in job behind the bar in a remote desert part of Western Australia. Although they're warned that they'd "have to be okay with a little male attention" in the outcast mining town, their financial precarity overrides the potential fear. Curiously enough, the fiction film is based on a real story, already told in the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie by Pete Gleeson, but The Assistant director Kitty Green pulls no punches when representing how suffocating it must feel to be encircled by such unmediated male aggression. The brawls, the spilled beer, the c-word as a greeting all form the unnerving paraphernalia of life then and there. For Australian independent film devotees, there is actor Toby Wallace, who reprises his bad boy role from Babyteeth, and he's joined by the ranks of Herbert Nordrum (The Worst Person in the World) and an utterly terrifying Hugo Weaving (The Matrix).

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alex Malone, Barbara Lowing, Baykali Ganambarr, Bree Bain, Bruce R. Carter, Daniel Henshall, Herbert Nordrum, Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Jessica Henwick, Julia Garner, Kate Cheel, Patrick Frost, Toby Wallace, Ursula Yovich, Valerie Berry

Director: Kitty Green

Rating: R

, 2023

Jules’ wacky premise — an extra-terrestrial crash-lands in eccentric widower Milton’s (Ben Kingsley) flowerbeds — is a bit of a misdirection. While the movie is technically a sci-fi (featuring, as it does, some very out-there alien engineering), it’s really a charming, mostly-human drama about the isolation and surreality of aging. 

Though the mute presence of the alien (nicknamed Jules and played brilliantly by a totally silent Jade Quon) is a constant reminder of the expansiveness of the universe and strange wonders yet to be discovered, the movie keeps its feet firmly on the ground with a sensitive exploration of just how small the worlds of lonely, dementia-struck Milton and two other isolated elderly townspeople (Jane Curtin and Harriet Sansom Harris) are. Rather than expand outwards into a story about the extra-terrestrial itself, Jules focuses on the painful disorientation felt by its lonely trio of protagonists, who all find therapeutic relief and connection by way of the alien and its “understanding eyes.” Though the movie's zany forays into sci-fi territory do sometimes boggle the mind, they never undermine the genuine emotion in Jules’ raw grappling with the experience of aging, as well as give the movie a quirky charm that ensures you won't see anything like this again soon — an increasingly rare experience in itself.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction

Actor: Andy Daly, Anna George, Ben Kingsley, Blair Baker, Brian Wiles, Christopher Kelly, Cody Kostro, Dann Fink, Daphne Gaines, Donald Paul, Edward James Hyland, Eric T. Miller, Eric Tiede, Harriet Sansom Harris, Jade Quon, Jane Curtin, Jeff Kim, Jeffrey Omura, Jessica Keenan Wynn, John Skelley, Laura Jordan, Lee Sellars, Marina Shay, Michael Frederic, Narea Kang, Patrick Noonan, Teddy Cañez, Zoe Winters

Director: Marc Turtletaub

Rating: PG-13

, 2021

Beautifully directed and blessed to be led by the wonderfully gentle and curious dog Zeytin, Stray commits to its unique point of view by reimagining Istanbul as a place made up of cars, torsos, and trash on the street. Such constraints on one's filmmaking might make it seem like director Elizabeth Lo is in the perfect position to manipulate her animal characters in order to get the "story" she wants, but it genuinely never feels that way. If anything, Zeytin is the one who pulls Lo into orbit, and there's a sense that the director is simply recording what the dog is revealing to us about human beings' daily rituals and how they end up creating structure, culture, and (sadly) outcasts from this culture.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Elizabeth Lo

Rating: NR

It’s always tricky translating literature to screen. In Shortcomings’ case, it struggles to make its Berkeley and New York settings appear more lived-in than just a few postcard-like frames. You could also tell that the conversations it stirs up about things like representation and mixed-race relationships began in the early aughts, when the novel it was adapted from was first released. But those lapses are small and forgivable in the face of a lovely ensemble cast and a whipsmart script. It also takes a special kind of skill to make a character as fiercely unlikeable as Ben (Min) watchable, to hold up a mirror to the audience and make them stay. Thankfully, it's a skill that Tomine and first-time director Randall Park display with such grace. Ben, Alice (Sherry Cola), and Miko (Ally Maki) are flawed and often pathetic, but they’re also honest reflections of who we become when the demands of self-preservation and romantic openness clash. It’s a little unnerving to hear them verbalize what we've always feared about ourselves, but it’s also exhilarating, not to mention comforting, knowing that we're not alone in feeling this way. Shortcomings works because it doesn't confine itself to genre: it's a character study first, and a romantic comedy second.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Enright, Adrian Tomine, Ally Maki, Boran Anh, Debby Ryan, George Deihl Jr., Jacob Batalon, Jess Nahikian, Justin H. Min, Melanie J. Newby, Mike Cabellon, Nikhaar Kishnani, Randall Park, Ronny Chieng, Scott Seiss, Sheldon Best, Sherry Cola, Sonoya Mizuno, Stephanie Hsu, Tavi Gevinson, Theo Iyer, Timothy Simons

Director: Randall Park

Rating: R

It’s best not to overthink the details of No Hard Feelings, an uproarious comedy that benefits from the lead actors’ physicality. It’s meant to be enjoyed as it happens, at the moment, with Lawrence lighting up every scene with full-bodied commitment and Feldman, a worthy co-lead, delighting at every turn. They’re playing stock characters, and the script doesn’t give much beyond the usual backstories, but Lawrence and Feldman play them with so much heart and gusto, knocking every scene they’re in out of the park. Everything else plays second fiddle to their two-hander show. The cameos are star-studded but forgettable (except for Kyle Mooney, who I wished was onscreen more as Percy’s male nanny), the character development is heartwarming but predictable, and though it bills itself as a sex comedy, the film never really touches past third base. But all that is water under the bridge when you’re watching Maddie and Percy flirt and fumble their way through the film.  

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alaina Surgener, Alysia Joy Powell, Amalia Yoo, Andrew Barth Feldman, Ari Frenkel, Brian Calì, Christina Catechis, Christopher Bailey, Darren Valinotti, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Hasan Minhaj, Jacob Augustin, Jennifer Lawrence, Jordan Mendoza, Kyle Mooney, Laura Benanti, Luca Padovan, Madison McBride, Matt Walton, Matthew Broderick, Matthew Noszka, Melissa Lehman, Natalie Morales, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Scott MacArthur, Sophie Tananbaum, Victor Verhaeghe, Zahn McClarnon

Director: Gene Stupnitsky

Rating: R

So much of Puppy Love is adorable. The title alone promises that, and to be fair, it actually delivers. The movie is filled with romance, pooches, and hijinks that circle back to those two core aspects. I couldn’t be giddier watching this, as a dog lover and romantic comedy aficionado myself, but it’s frustrating how the movie doesn’t go above and beyond its basic premise, even if it easily could’ve done so. It has strong leads in Hale and Gustin, whose chemistry may be lacking but who individually perform well. It has a decent script, “reasonably funny” as it calls itself in the film, delivering amusing and touching lines in equal measure. It even manages to flesh out Nicole and Max with backstories; Max, in particular, gets an interesting characterization as an anxious germaphobe who refuses to go to the office for work. But for whatever reason, every exciting thorn in this premise gets smoothed out by the end. The tension is never realized and loose ends are tied up neatly in a conclusion that feels too simplified for its own good. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Al Miro, Christine Lee, Corey Woods, Grant Gustin, Jane Seymour, Lucy Hale, Michael Hitchcock, Nore Davis, Rachel Risen, Sarah Almonte Peguero

Director: Nicholas Fabiano, Richard Alan Reid

Producer-turned director Sean King O'Grady has some fresh ideas about what can shake up the dystopia genre, but The Mill needs more than a corporate critique to lift it off the ground. Even with Lil Rel Howery's apt acting skills (you'll probably remember him from Get Out), the film falls flat in its second half, losing the momentum built up by the original idea of the gristmill as an exteriorization of the corporate grind and its meaningless nature. The issue is that, aside from this smart use of symbolism, The Mill plays it rather safe by relating dystopia to capitalism. It's almost like O'Grady hasn't the slightest clue that capitalism and dystopia have been one and the same thing for decades now; if only he would have taken the equation to much, much darker places...

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction

Actor: Allya F. Robinson, Blair Wilson, Getchie Argetsinger, Jaiden K. Brown, Karen Obilom, Lil Rel Howery, Pat Healy, Patrick Fischler

Director: Sean King O'Grady

Rating: R

A Million Miles Away sticks so closely to the Hollywood biopic template that it threatens to be less about José Hernández as a person with his own complexities and more about the idea of him as a one-size-fits-all inspirational figure. This isn't to say the film isn't effective when it really counts; Hernández is worth admiring not necessarily because of his ultimate success, but because how much he failed and got back up again. Director Alejandra Márquez Abella keeps the film's tone light and bouncy, flattening some of its more serious moments, but also helping make Hernández's long, hard road to space more of a process of discovery. It's easy, inspiring viewing that quietly tiptoes past harder questions about poverty and NASA's potentially discriminatory practices.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Ashley Ciarra, Blake Webb, Bobby Soto, Constantino Caso, Dylan Hall, Emma Fassler, Eric Johnson, Francisco Barreiro, Garret Dillahunt, Gerardo Trejoluna, Isaac Arellanes, Isabel Aerenlund, Jordan Dean, Jorge Briseño, Julio Cedillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Marilyn Uribe, Mercedes Hernández, Michael Adler, Michael Peña, Michelle Krusiec, Peter Theis, Rosa Salazar, Sam Harrison, Sarayu Blue, Steve Kisicki, Veronica Falcón, Xochiquetzal Martínez

Director: Alejandra Márquez Abella

Rating: PG

The filmmakers behind this direct sequel to the Indigenous action thriller Sayen clearly learned from the mistakes of that first film: all the emotion that was missing then finds a new home here, as the titular protagonist finally gets to grieve what she's lost, in a way that's touchingly close to her cultural beliefs. Desert Road also ups the action considerably, this time borrowing liberally from desert-set films like Mad Max—the sun-drenched expanses of sand are somehow much more beautiful than the forests of the first movie. And Rallen Montenegro continues to refine this character's emotional depth.

Still, partially as a result of the fact that the first installment gave this sequel little to work with, Desert Road can't help but feel more ordinary and more distant from real-world struggles touched upon previously. The actual thrills in this thriller plot aren't particularly intriguing, as several subplots mash together without as much effect on the main plot as intended. At the end of the day, this still seems like it's been made with the action movie template in mind first, rather than having the story and characters lead the style of the storytelling.

Genre: Action, Thriller

Actor: Alfredo Castro, Álvaro Espinoza, Camilo Arancibia, Claudio Riveros, Claudio Troncoso, Enrique Arce, Eyal Meyer, Felipe Contreras, Francisca Gavilán, Jorge López, Katalina Sanchez, Mario Bustos, Nicolás de Terán, Rallén Montenegro, Roberto García Ruiz, Teresa Ramos, Víctor Varela

Director: Alexander Witt

It's a pretty nifty idea to expand on just one section of Bram Stoker's Dracula that's essentially just a footnote but implies something much more violent and horrific. And to its credit, The Last Voyage of the Demeter takes this sliver of the source material very seriously—with strong, period-specific production design and a cast that brings humanity and morality to their otherwise two-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, the film just doesn't know what to do with itself. As a creature feature, the thrills are uninspired and difficult to see properly on screen; as a supposedly character-driven horror movie, it only ever gestures toward deeper ideas but fails to give the tragic nature of its story any weight. And Dracula himself has none of the terror or the sophistication that has made him such an enduring figure throughout all of fiction. He's just a thing with wings.

Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Adam Shaw, Aisling Franciosi, Chris Walley, Christopher York, Corey Hawkins, David Dastmalchian, Graham Turner, Javier Botet, Jon Jon Briones, Liam Cunningham, Malcolm Galea, Martin Furulund, Nicolo Pasetti, Nikolai Nikolaeff, Noureddine Farihi, Sally Reeve, Stefan Kapičić, Vladimir Cabak, Woody Norman

Director: André Øvredal

Based on the autobiography of real-life evangelical pastor Greg Laurie, Jesus Revolution recounts how a Christian movement in the '60s turned lost hippies into dedicated Christians. It was an interesting moment in time, but instead of delving into the movement's peculiarities and intricacies, Jesus Revolution offers a myopic tale that paints Laurie as a hero and the movement as inspirational when, really, they are anything but. Laurie's story never feels significant enough to justify a feature film and the movement never seems as radical as the film thinks it to be. And even though it’s autobiographical, it never really digs into Laurie's spirituality and interiority deep enough to reveal complex truths. In fact, everyone’s a caricature in this simplistic film that feels more like propaganda as it paints religion as perfect and all-saving while glossing over its many imperfections and questionable rhetoric. It could have worked as commentary, satire, or maybe even a sincere memoir, but as it is, it just feels like a short-sighted attempt at telling history.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Alexia Ioannides, Anna Grace Barlow, Billy Graham, Charlie Morgan Patton, DeVon Franklin, Jackson Robert Scott, Joel Courtney, Jolie Jenkins, Jonathan Roumie, Julia Campbell, Kelsey Grammer, Kevin Downes, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Matthew Montemaro, Mina Sundwall, Nic Bishop, Nicholas Cirillo, Paras Patel, Randall Newsome, Shaun Weiss, Steve Hanks

Director: Brent McCorkle, Jon Erwin

Rating: PG-13

A movie based on a theme park ride is always going to be a marketing exercise, but what’s remarkable about Haunted Mansion is how uninterested it is in even pretending to be anything more. Amazon, Yankee Candle, CVS, Baskin Robbins, Burger King: you could fill a mall with the list of brands shamelessly name-dropped in the movie. Gallingly, the cast are even forced to do double duty as brand ambassadors during some of the movie’s most determined efforts at poignancy — oof.

Not even an ensemble featuring the comedic-dramatic chops of LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, and Chase Dillon (the best of the bunch) can make such naked cash-grabs feel organic. What’s more, though, Haunted Mansion depressingly asks so little of its cast that there aren’t really any opportunities for them to counterbalance these embarrassing moments with anything approaching compelling. Adding to its struggles are the mansion’s sludgy color palette (which renders every scene unremarkable, no matter how moving or spooky it’s supposed to be) and the fact that it somehow feels rushed even at an overlong two hours. Though you can appreciate director Justin Simien’s efforts at elevating the material into something coherent, Haunted Mansion feels as lifeless as the ghosts that fill it.

Genre: Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Horror

Actor: Alisa Harris, Amy Parrish, Andrew Morgado, Anthony Burrell, Arielle Prepetit, Ashley John, Ayane Azevedo, Ben Bladon, Bryan McClure, Chad Crumley, Charity Jordan, Charles Black, Chase W. Dillon, Chenise Johnson, Christopher Winchester, Clarence White III, Creek Wilson, Cruz Abelita, D. Jerome Wells, Dan Levy, Danny DeVito, Derrick James Moss, Don Stallings, Edward Zhu, Elisabeth Lagrande, Erika Coleman, Erion Brandon WIlliams, Fedor Steer, Glendon Ray Hobgood, Gralen Bryant Banks, Hasan Minhaj, Hector Machado, Helene Henry, Ian Covell, J.R. Adduci, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto, Jared Simon, Jo Koy, John Curran, Joseph Miller, Julie Nalibov, Kailie Sanders, Kamran Shaikh, Kat Montes, Kathi Callahan, Kay Galvin, Keiko Bell, Kurt Yue, Lakeith Stanfield, Lindsay Lamb, Lorenzo Beronilla, Lumar Christopher Leblanc III, Manuel Perkins, Marcus Otis Hubbard, Marilu Henner, Mike Benitez, Nico Gomez, Owen Wilson, Paul Michael Robertson, Rachel Pitner, Raianna Brown, Rick Andosca, Rosario Dawson, Rowan Joseph, Sebastien Soudais, Steve Zissis, Terence Mathews, Terence Rosemore, Tiffany Haddish, Tony Paone, Tracy Goode, William Calvert, Winona Ryder

Director: Justin Simien

Rating: PG-13