The hook for Jennifer Lopez’s Hustlers is all flash and sex and Cardi B cameos but the heart of this gritty urban drama resides in the heartbreaking, humorous stories of women defying the odds to make it in a “man’s world.” Lopez plays Ramona, a veteran exotic dancer who takes rookie Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing. Together with the help of two fellow strippers (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart doing the most with their screentime) the women craft a delightfully feminist con, drugging Wall Street execs and seducing them into dropping thousands at their club each night. The heist-like feel of this film gives it some needed humor, but it’s Lopez, who feels both maternal and manipulative as the cutthroat, clever Ramona, that really elevates this drama, which is based on a true story detailed for New York Magazine by Jessica Pressler. You can read ahead to learn how it ends or you can simply watch the film and root for these women to keep scamming their johns and getting paid. — Jessica Toomer
Jordan Peele did it again with his sophomore directorial outing, proving that his horror visionary status wasn’t a one-off. Even more than with Get Out, Peele wielded his satirical pen to fashion a genuinely horrifying movie, this time providing powerful allegories and mind-bending commentary on human connection and all the uncomfortable truths that come with it. At times darkly funny and always starkly unnerving, Us serves up a terrifying series of fun-house mirrors, all woven into a layered narrative that peels back more layers of the rotten onion. The family at the center of Peele’s story unravels along with his metaphors, which he’s so adept at fashioning that everything feels frighteningly relatable. A lesser filmmaker would probably struggle while asking an audience to suspend their disbelief with a tale like this, but Peele appears to be completely at ease, toying with his audience and probably laughing merrily all the while, and knowing that sleepless nights are ahead for all who watch. That rascal. – Kimberly Ricci
The Death of Dick Long
If you’re tired of me talking about The Death Of Dick Long at this point… too bad. I will continue screaming about this until everyone sees it. Why? Because The Death of Dick Long is a master class in so many of the things that so many bad movies so often screw up. To name just one, Richard Jewell. That film never would’ve raised an outcry if it had even a tenth the empathy for its characters that Dick Long has. Treating all your characters like real people instead of props for an imposed plot opens up so many story possibilities. It’d be easy to look at this story on paper and think of one, maybe two funny scenes with a couple of kooky characters. Instead, Dick Long does the hard work of asking what drives each individual character and it makes the story so much richer. The paradox of taking people seriously is that it makes them much funnier. The Death of Dick Long is both the comedy and the thriller of the year. it helps that it has one of the finest ensembles of the year. In a world where awards voters weren’t renominating the same five guys from The Irishmen, Andre Hyland and Virginia Newcomb would win Oscars. — Vince Mancini
I wonder what it’s like to be Rian Johnson about right now. For two years he had to weather every internet dust-up about the critically loved, but yet controversial The Last Jedi. As we speak, there’s a new Star Wars in the news that’s taking a critical beating, but this time Johnson can kind of just sit back and watch from afar. Sure, The Last Jedi is still a lightning rod for people but Johnson is under no obligation to respond to any of this (save for one Pokemon related tweet). A big part of this is that Knives Out is such a massive hit, critically and financially. It was the darling of Thanksgiving weekend and one of the surprise hits of the year. And what’s most remarkable, it’s an original idea and not a movie based on any kind of preexisting property. (Though, Johnson has been clear he wants to make more of these movies, so that will all probably change.) So what a difference two years makes, as the accolades pour in for Knives Out while just sits there and look at that Star Wars storm cloud in the distance, knowing it’s not coming anywhere near his way. — Mike Ryan
For those of us who wondered if Ladybird only worked so well because we’d grown up in the same general time period and/or area as its semi-autobiographical author Greta Gerwig, Little Women was the perfect test of her directorial skills without the training wheels of familiarity. The first 15 or 20 minutes certainly had me worried, wondering if I’d erred in thinking that this Reconstruction-era dramedy of hearth, home, and overlapping dialogue among four sisters might be for me (full disclosure: I am a male only child who has never read Louisa May Alcott). Yet the longer I watched, the more invested I became. I was practically bawling by the end. Basically the thing that happens to Jo’s publisher in the film happened to me. The publisher, by the way, is played by Tracy Letts, in one of his rare non-villain roles. It also features Chris Cooper, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Laura Dern — in one of her refreshing, non-imperious roles (did you know she can also do understated? it’s true).