By Stephanie Zacharek
January 18, 2018

When it comes to smaller, independent films–including labors of love, pictures whose makers have fought for years to bring to life–January could go down as a mini golden age of cinema. The range of extraordinary new films you can see right now in theaters, or even on Netflix, is unusually vast. Unlike last year at this time, when the two awards front runners leading the conversation were Moonlight and La La Land, with little in between, the field this year is wide open and multitextured. What’s more, many of these films address–in either subtle or direct ways, and nearly always with a dose of humor–the social and cultural issues that have come to preoccupy so many of us in this flash-point era of anxiety and uncertainty.

Many of these titles opened in limited release in the fall, when you could catch them only in a few markets; now, in the fallow season of January, when studios often dump their least promising films, the fall’s best films are finally at the multiplex. Yet these aren’t eat-your-spinach movies–drab, dutiful pictures that you know you ought to see but find every excuse to avoid. Dramatically rich, gracefully crafted and either profoundly or joyously moving, these are all movies worthy not just of awards but of your hard-earned free time.

Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy The Shape of Water was born of the director’s lifelong love of misunderstood movie creatures. “Since childhood I’ve been faithful to monsters,” he said as he accepted the Golden Globe for Best Director earlier this month. “I’ve been saved and absolved by them.” That goes for this movie’s lead character too: Sally Hawkins gives a lustrous, affecting performance as a young woman who is unable to speak, who makes a living as a cleaning lady at a top-secret government facility in 1960s Baltimore. It’s there that she meets the man who will become the love of her life–except he’s not exactly a man, but an elegant aquatic being, sort of an amphibious Fred Astaire, played with shimmery grace by del Toro regular (and former contortionist) Doug Jones. The Shape of Water isn’t exactly kids’ stuff: parents who are wondering if it’s O.K. to take their children should know that it features an interspecies sex scene. The particulars are handled discreetly, and if you’re ready to explain the fanciful mechanics at work here, then go for it. But grownups are probably the ones most in need of this sort of fairy tale. The Shape of Water is erotic and tender, a story of two outsiders who find their way to each other even in a restrictive, unforgiving world.

Hawkins in The Shape of Water, a sensuous fairy tale for adults
20th Century Fox

Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is a different sort of romantic idyll, a bittersweet first-love story in which a precocious 17-year-old (played by the dazzling Timothée Chalamet) falls in love with the rakish, freewheeling interloper (Armie Hammer, in a performance of dashing, charismatic complexity) who comes to spend the summer at his family’s Italian villa circa the mid-1980s. Working from André Aciman’s gorgeously detailed novel–the script was adapted by veteran filmmaker James Ivory–Guadagnino performs a kind of leisurely hypnotism: this love story is a meeting of spiritual ardor and tender physicality. And the movie’s final shot, a languorous take that maps the totality of what it means to love and to let go, is one of the year’s most striking cinematic moments. Be sure to remain seated through the final credits, or you’ll miss a significant part of this film’s subtle, seductive magic.

There is love, but little romance, in Dee Rees’ extraordinary Mudbound. This intimate epic, now streaming on Netflix, follows two American families, one black and one white, working the land in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel and featuring a superb ensemble cast including Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan, Mudbound offers a thumbnail picture of midcentury American racism and injustice. Perceptively shot by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, it’s one of the most gorgeous films of the year, a portrait of hardscrabble lives that are bound tight with the unforgiving beauty of the land they call home. This is a deeply thoughtful and at times harrowing picture, one that’s unjustly at risk of being overlooked for big awards this year. It’s also a reminder of how slowly things change in this country.

It’s difficult to make movies about American class divisions that don’t devolve into ponderous civics lessons. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project–set in and around a purple budget motel on the outskirts of Orlando, home to families who pay by week and live hand to mouth–has too much energy, and too much heart, for that. Newcomer Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee, who lives at that motel with her loving but rough-around-the-edges mom (Bria Vinaite). Moonee is both a troublemaker and an effervescent sprite: her hijinks cause headaches for the motel’s beleaguered manager (played, wonderfully, by Willem Dafoe), but in the end, his fierce protectiveness of her is a mirror of what we feel for her too. We’ve all seen stories about families making the most of what little they have, but Baker’s lightness of touch makes this one special. Radiant and unsentimental, it’s a classic American story that feels buoyant but cuts deep.

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a classic American story of another sort. This account of real-life champion skater Tonya Harding’s rise to fame and fall from grace is both funny and piercing, mordantly honest in the way it deals with one young woman’s dreams of earning the world’s adoration and respect. Margot Robbie is terrific as Harding, tough on the outside but as fragile as a wisp of tulle beneath. Gillespie traces her story from her beginnings as a talented tyke to a fierce competitor hampered by low self-esteem and insecurity–and he revisits the Tonya Harding–Nancy Kerrigan scandal with a point of view that’s sure to make you rethink your perception of what really happened. Most significant, the movie’s frankness in the way it deals with domestic violence is a rare thing in current American movies. This is a daring picture, one that faces uncomfortable truths head-on.

If you haven’t yet seen Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s exuberant yet delicately textured film about a young woman (a resplendent Saoirse Ronan) growing up in–and yearning to escape–early 2000s Sacramento, why wait? Every supporting performance here is lovely, from Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson as a wonderfully benevolent Catholic-school nun and priest to Beanie Feldstein’s turn as Lady Bird‘s sunnily equanimous best friend Julie. And as Lady Bird‘s complicated, seemingly intractable mother Marion, Laurie Metcalf gives one of the finest, prickliest performances of the season. The picture is poised to be an Oscar front runner, but that’s not the chief reason to see it: Lady Bird is so generous in spirit–even within its forthrightness about class issues, not to mention complex mother-daughter relationships–that it’s likely to make you feel better about everything. In a season like this, everyone can use a little of that.

This appears in the January 29, 2018 issue of TIME.

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