Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya

An Oscar-winning writer-director. An A-list cast—and not just magazine cover A-list, but awards season staples A-list. A city upended by generations of class division and corruption, made all the more volatile by a contentious political election. A black wife grieving her late white husband, unsure of who she is without him or where she goes next. Once I told you that the co-writer/director was the guy who won a statue for 12 Years a Slave, you’d assume this was more dour awards-bait, the kind of film snobs wax poetic about, the kind that’s dubbed “important” before all else.

What if I also told you the movie features approximately two car chases, two shootouts, two heists, Liam Neeson barking orders and brandishing assault rifles, and the Cool Kids cameo’ing just to get murdered by Daniel Kaluuya? Taut, intelligent, funny, thrilling, suspenseful, thought-provoking, Widows is everything at once, a hybrid of ornate, Oscars-attuned craftsmanship married with blockbuster, crowd-pleasing sensibilities. 

The premise: When a band of thieves is murdered, the responsibility to carry out their next job falls to their wives. Crime bosses, corrupt politicians, and Kaluuya flexing his range as a sociopathic, well-read, uber-violent enforcer loom on the sidelines. In lesser hands, this could’ve been a campy, new in-flight entertainment classic. In more pretentious hands, it could’ve been boring. Instead, Widows is either the smartest popcorn movie of the year or the most action-packed smart movie. It’s a throwback to the days when the industry’s greatest talents didn’t have to choose between awards bait or franchise fare. The blockbusters were the stacked-cast intelligent thrillers whose existence didn’t depend on IP or box office. Widows’ middling box-office returns imply both audiences and the marketing departments aren’t sure what to do with that anymore, yet. Hopefully the Oscars do better than the Globes and give it the attention it deserves.

Viola Davis, a restrained torrent of fury and rage, is as great as ever. Colin Farrell oozes white privilege magnificently. Elizabeth Debicki shines in a true-blue breakout role. Brian Tyree Henry proves why he’s one of the greatest thespians out in a mere handful of scenes. McQueen, alongside co-writer Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl/Sharp Objects fame) are show-offs with their gifts for pacing (the opening introduces us to every character, the inciting incident, and the premise all in five minutes), playing with audience expectation (an interracial marriage is, refreshingly, a matter-of-fact scenario until it suddenly isn’t, because race rearing its head is inevitable), and technical innovation (a tracking shot on the hood of a car says everything you need to know about the movie’s class themes with one camera swivel).

Widows isn’t just the best movie of the year. Hopefully it’s a blueprint for the future. —Frazier Tharpe