The film world is adjusting to new paradigms. Here’s what’s worth your time.
You can watch most anything at home right now.
Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are already flooded with movies. Big-budget studio releases are getting pushed to on-demand rental ahead of schedule in an effort to recoup the costs associated with mass Covid-19-related theater closings. Filmmakers are releasing their movies for free or lifting rental costs so cooped-up people can watch at home. And theaters are experimenting with “virtual theatrical” releases in which patrons buy “tickets” through an independent theater, which splits the profits with the film’s distributor.
Among the crop of newly available films are hotly anticipated art-house releases and festival winners. Some stand out as the best films of the last year or even the last decade. There are comedies and dramas, documentaries and sci-fi, animation and inspiration, horror and romance, and a lot more.
So how on Earth do you pick what to watch? That’s what I’m here for.
Here are 10 of the best movies, from all kinds of genres, that were produced outside the big-budget studio system and have become newly available to watch at home this weekend — some for the cost of a virtual ticket, some for a digital rental fee, some on subscription-based streaming services, and some just for free.
It’s unusually challenging to describe the frenetic, confounding Brazilian film Bacurau, which plays out like a particularly wild episode of Black Mirror crossed with a Western. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film veers from action to horror to dystopian sci-fi to gallows comedy. Centering on a tiny Brazilian village named Bacurau, the film sees a mysterious threat endangering the lives of the residents — who then decide they have had just about enough of being exploited by that threat.
Metacritic score: 80 out of 100
How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Bacurau are available on the Kino Lorber website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and the profits will help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Crip Camp starts out as a movie about a place: Camp Jened, an almost magical-seeming “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as the film’s co-director (and former camper) Jim Lebrecht explains early on. But soon, it becomes a chronicle of a movement, sparked by the young people whose lives were changed by their experience in that place. Crip Camp shows how the vision that young Jened attendees experienced at camp — that the world could be open to them, too — led them to become activists and community organizers. It’s buoyant and inspiring, a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.
Metacritic score: 86 out of 100
How to watch it: Crip Camp is streaming on Netflix.
Documentarian Albert Maysles died in 2015; he was best known for rocking the documentary landscape with his brother David (who passed away in 1987) with films like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. Maysles’s final work, In Transit — one of the best documentaries of the past decade — profiles our long-haul train transportation system as Maysles travels on it, through the stories of people who are headed to one place or another and willing to talk about their lives. It’s meditative and generous to its subjects, a snapshot of mundane experience and a rumination on the meaning of living in a community.
Metacritic score: 88 out of 100
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an unusual masterpiece that’s beautiful, macabre, sad, and hilarious. It’s a 2012 cult classic from Oscar-nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt, who’s built a ravenous fan following for his weird stick-figure films. This one, in the space of an hour, takes the audience on a whole existential journey, the tale of a man called Bill for whom life seems to suddenly start imploding, his mind spinning off into a million different directions. Yet it’s not a film without hope; there’s some comfort in staring into the void. Which makes it perfect, and strangely soothing, at-home isolation watching.
Metacritic score: 90 out of 100
How to watch it: Normally It’s Such a Beautiful Day can be rented or purchased on Vimeo, but Hertzfeldt has made it available to stream for free at this link.
The Pain of Others
The Pain of Others is an eerie, unsettling documentary that keeps shifting beneath your feet. Director Penny Lane crafted the film entirely from YouTube footage uploaded by people who believe they have Morgellons disease, a self-diagnosed condition (which the medical community disputes) in which people break out in sores they believe contain threads or fibers and who turn to a flourishing YouTube community for support. Rather than being a point-and-gawk movie, The Pain of Others challenges viewers to consider how they perceive the subjects and why they’re watching them in the first place. In a time where people are seeing one another almost entirely through screens, it feels especially poignant.
How to watch it: Lane has made the film available to stream for free on Vimeo, though you can still rent or purchase it as well. (She’s also streaming her films Nuts! and Our Nixon, both of which are fascinating and provocative.)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of a young painter (Noémie Merlant) near the end of the 18th century. The painter has been commissioned to make a portrait of a woman named Marianne (Adèle Haenel) who’s being pressured by her mother to get married. The artist and her subject become close, and when Marianne’s mother leaves home for a while, desire flames to life. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a restrained film until it isn’t, and it’s exquisite in its rendering of both the women’s relationship and the period it’s set in. It’s not just a romance ruled by the female gaze; it’s centered in a world where men rarely intrude and thus the full gamut of female emotion and desire is on display.
Metacritic score: 95 out of 100
How to watch it: Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s theatrical run was cut short by the pandemic, but it just began streaming on Hulu.
The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
Brett Story’s documentary about the way prison systems reshape the landscapes around them is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is the simple fact that we don’t see a prison until the end of the film. Instead, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes — one of the best documentaries in recent memory — captures a series of vignettes in communities that are shaped in some way by a nearby prison, from conversations with people at historical societies to narration from prisoners who fight fires for a few bucks a day. It’s both poetry and a negative-space portrait, and what’s left unsaid is just as important as what’s said out loud.
Metacritic score: 86 out of 100
How to watch it: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is usually available to digitally rent or purchase from Amazon or watch with a subscription at Topic, but Story has made it available to stream on Vimeo for free.
Sorry We Missed You
Sorry We Missed You is an angrily searing piece of social realism set in modern-day Britain’s gig economy. Director Ken Loach specializes in realistic dramas built atop roiling class-based anger, movies about the ways ordinary people’s lives are disrupted and upended by systems that leave them powerless to change even as they try everything in their power to change. Sorry We Missed You is the story of a working-class English family trying to scratch out a living any way possible and of the indignities they experience while trying to navigate within a system of short-term contracts and gig work that ostensibly makes employees the “masters of their own destiny” (to paraphrase an employer in the film) but actually just removes any responsibility the employers might bear. It premiered at Cannes in the summer of 2019, but it feels even more devastatingly, bitingly urgent now.
Metacritic score: 83 out of 100
How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Sorry We Missed You are available on Zeitgeist Films’ website.(You’ll receive a rental link, and the profits will help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
Vitalina Varela landed on a number of critics’ lists of the best movies of 2019, praised for its astoundingly beautiful images and deeply human sensibility. Directed by Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela tells the story of a woman headed from Cape Verde to Lisbon following the death of her husband, who abandoned her for that city years earlier. In Cinevue, Christopher Machell called it “a work of astonishing aesthetic beauty, made up of static compositions and use of chiaroscuro that recalls the Dutch masters.”
Metacritic score: 83 out of 100
How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Vitalina Varela are available at Grasshopper Film’s website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and the profits will help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
Talk about being trapped: Vivarium is a creepy, stylized film about a young couple (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) who go to look at a house to buy, then suddenly realize they can’t seem to get away. They seem to be alone in their new neighborhood, filled with look-alike, rubber-stamp homes and then one day a baby shows up in a box. Eerie and surprising, Vivarium takes a common cinematic theme — “the suburbs will eat your soul” — and turns it into high-concept horror, anchored by great performances. It’s dirty, sinister, hair-raising, and thoroughly entertaining.
Metacritic score: 64 out of 100
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