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15 movies you can watch in “virtual theaters” this weekend

A big experiment — and a bid to save independent cinema — is beginning.

The beautiful and critically acclaimed Vitalina Varela is available to watch through virtual theatrical engagements this weekend.
Grasshopper Films

In the wake of theater closings due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, and as turmoil roils in the entertainment industry, many film distributors and theater owners have been scrambling to find ways to keep their businesses alive.

Quickly, art-house theaters began working with distributors to adopt “virtual theater” models. It works like this: Patrons buy a “ticket” to a film through a theater that had originally planned to show it. They receive a link to watch the film, usually within a window of a few days, often with a “marquee” branded by the individual theater. And theaters and distributors share the profits from the ticket sale, which means those businesses have a greater chance of still being viable when the crisis has passed. When the film’s “theatrical” run is over, the tickets will no longer be available (though most films will eventually come to on-demand services weeks or months later).

One silver lining of this virtual theater boom is that people from all over the country — including those who don’t live anywhere near a theater that would have shown the film under normal circumstances — can now see the movie during its “theatrical” run and participate in conversations about it, all while giving business to an independent film distributor somewhere that likely needs the support, as well as a small theater.

Though some “virtual theater” screenings began rolling out around March 20, the weekend of March 27 has the first full crop of movies available to watch, from slick noir to sardonic comedies to repertory titles from the 1970s to Oscar nominees. If you’re looking to see something new and exciting this weekend — and support independent theater at the same time — then here are 15 options available right now.

And Then We Danced

And Then We Danced is a gay love story set in a Georgian dance company. Georgia is a country where a kiss between two men, if observed by the wrong people, can have severe consequences. Swedish-Georgian director Levan Akin debuted the film at Cannes in 2019, and at the Playlist, Carlos Aguilar writes, “Wielding the human body as a captivating artistic tool, Akin permeates his shots with the dynamic force of synchronized rhythm shared by Merab and Irakli or the freeform energy of a club where gays and transgender individuals let loose with total abandon.”

Metacritic score: 69 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for And Then We Danced are available on the Music Box Films website.

Bacurau

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.

Corpus Christi

2020 Best International Feature Oscar nominee Corpus Christi is inspired by true events — and they’re startling. A 20-year-old violent criminal named Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) experiences a spiritual awakening while serving a sentence for second-degree murder in a youth detention center. But because he has a criminal background, he cannot become a priest when he leaves. After being mistaken for a cleric once he’s free, he simply begins to act like one, posing as a recently ordained priest in a small community that’s reeling from a recent tragedy. Corpus Christi (the Latin phrase for “the body of Christ,” part of the Catholic liturgical mass) explores guilt, redemption, grief, and salvation in a somber, hard-hitting drama.

Metacritic score: 78 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Corpus Christi are available on the Film Movement website.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Bruno Barreta’s 1976 sex comedy is set in the Brazilian state of Bahia and stars Sônia Braga as Flor, whose useless husband Vadinho (José Wilker), an objectively bad husband but a phenomenal lover, drops dead. She remarries his polar opposite — staid Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça) — only to realize that she misses Vadinho. In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Chalon Smith writes that Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands “should be seen as liberating, an unpretentious and uncomplicated slant on desire,” and that it represented a step forward in Brazilian filmmaking.

Metacritic score: 52 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands are available on the Film Movement website.

Heimat is a Space in Time

The critically acclaimed, award-winning Heimat is a Space in Time is the story of German director Thomas Heise’s family in three generations, which he tells through their own words. Through the family’s letters and notes, the experience of living through some of the 20th century’s most devastating and formative periods comes alive: World War I, Nazi Germany, life in Communist East Germany, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Variety, Scott Tobias writes that “the overall effect of Heise’s work is mesmeric, persuasive and cumulatively powerful, as each piece of the puzzle falls into place and he lands on overarching insights into a German century and what it portends for the future.”

Metacritic score: 75 out of 100

How to watch it: Heimat is a Space in Time is playing in an exclusive virtual theatrical release with New York’s Anthology Film Archives.

L’Innocente

This lush tragic romance from Italian director Luchino Visconti, first released in 1979, is the tale of an aristocrat with a demanding mistress who becomes interested in his wife again when she begins an affair with a novelist. When the film was first released, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that “it’s a film of effortless command in which the director’s presence is everywhere felt — and nowhere intrudes.”

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for L’Innocente are available on the Film Movement website.

No Data Plan

The young director Miko Revereza was brought to the US from the Philippines by his parents when he was 5 years old and has lived in the country as an undocumented immigrant for more than 20 years. While contemplating leaving, he took a trip from Los Angeles to New York via Amtrak, and discovered once aboard the train that it didn’t have any wifi available. And he didn’t have a data plan on his phone, either. Unable to use the internet, he started filming what he saw with the camera he had brought along. The result is No Data Plan, a documentary that marries observational cinema with Revereza’s narration in voiceover about his own family’s experiences and, eventually, his frightening encounter with border patrol officers on the train. It’s a beautiful, meditative, and jarring film.

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for No Data Plan are available on the movie’s website.

Once Were Brothers

Once Were Brothers is a warm and loving portrait of The Band, which broke onto the music scene in the mid-1960s while touring with Bob Dylan and spent years as both an heir to and counterpoint to the music of the time. It’s also a portrait of the way that friendships and community can lead to great art. At the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday writes that “Once Were Brothers is enormously valuable, if only as a reminder of what an extraordinary run this extraordinary convergence of talents enjoyed until their final show on Thanksgiving Day in 1976.”

Metacritic score: 62 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Once Were Brothers are available on Magnolia Pictures’ website.

Phoenix, Oregon

Phoenix, Oregon, written and directed by Gary Lundgren, is an indie comedy about a graphic novelist and a chef who, presented with the opportunity to change their lives, quit their jobs to restore a bowling alley that will serve the “world’s greatest pizza.” In Variety, Joe Leydon calls it “the sort of movie a lot of us need right now,” saying it’s “too playfully spiky and unaffectedly down-to-earth to come across as bland pablum.”

Metacritic score: 43 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Phoenix, Oregon are available on the movie’s website.

Saint Frances

Kelly O’Sullivan (also the film’s writer) stars as Bridget, an adrift 30-something who lands a gig nannying for a six-year-old named Frances while navigating a relationship with a new maybe-boyfriend named Jace. Directed by Alex Thompson, the film has a lived-in wisdom that sees characters for all their messy complexity. “It’s truly refreshing to watch a film where nobody has anything figured out, where life proceeds messily and imperfectly,” Sheila O’Malley writes at RogerEbert.com. “Saint Frances is unpredictable in a very human way.”

Metacritic score: 79 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Saint Frances are available on Oscilloscope’s website.

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 within a system of short-term contracts and gig work. Ostensibly, employees get to be the “masters of their own destiny” (to paraphrase an employer in the film), but in truth, companies are just trying to remove any responsibility the employers might bear. It premiered at Cannes in summer 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.

Vitalina Varela

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 Films’ website.

The Whistlers

The Whistlers is a quirky, sly Romanian crime comedy with noir overtones, in which a crooked cop caught in a scheme goes to a remote island to learn a “whistling” language, the better to communicate with his cronies. At the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes, “Playing with genre cryptograms of gangster villas, opera-loving killers, and glamorously lit cigarette smoke, the film never takes itself too seriously, even if its characters never seem to smile.”

Metacritic score: 76 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for The Whistlers are available on Magnolia Pictures’ website.

The Wild Goose Lake

Diao Yinan’s noir thriller is a twisty, dark dive into China’s underbelly — violent and unconventional, a story of mobsters, cops, and revenge. The Wild Goose Lake announces Diao as a major new force in Chinese cinema. Jessica Kiang writes in Variety that “The Wild Goose Lake is like an organic feature of the Chinese cinematic landscape, as though it pooled onto the screen in all its oily, murky glory, having welled up from deep inside the ground. Suddenly, China feels like the noirest place on Earth.”

Metacritic score: 76 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for The Wild Goose Lake are available on Film Movement’s website.

Zombi Child

Zombi Child runs along two timelines. One follows the happenings in 1960s Haiti after a man is buried — and then seems not to be dead at all. The other, set in the present day, follows a teenaged Haitian girl named Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) , who begins attending an elite boarding school in Paris and becomes close friends with a set of girls. “Zombi Child is the kind of lithe and lucid dream that gets its tendrils round your brain stem, so that when all hell finally breaks loose, you can’t jolt yourself awake from its grip,” Robbie Collin writes in the Telegraph.

Metacritic score: 75 out of 100

How to watch it: Virtual theater listings for Zombi Child are available on Film Movement’s website.