Movie theaters are closed for the foreseeable future, so film lovers have to look toward streaming services and “virtual theatrical” releases to see what’s new.
Thankfully, there are a lot of choices. Some of this weekend’s new releases or newly available films are among the best films ever made, or feel newly prescient in our time. Others are already vying to be among the year’s best new movies. There’s a satirical take on history and an unconventional ghost story, a lush melodrama and a documentary about being imprisoned in your own home. There’s even an inspirational documentary about ... gerrymandering?
Here are 11 of the best movies, from all kinds of genres, that have become newly available to watch at home during the weekend of April 3 — some for the cost of a virtual ticket, some for a digital-rental fee, and some on subscription-based streaming services.
The Death of Stalin
The Death of Stalin, from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, tamps down the unrelenting joke delivery of Iannucci’s earlier work (like 2009’s In the Loop). Instead, it serves up a more complex, almost nihilistic rendering of politics as the work of bumbling and weak-minded people who lack any real conviction other than a desire for power and position.
The film (which is entirely in English, with no dubious, fake Russian accents) is based on the true events following the Soviet leader’s death and subsequent scuffle over his succession. Most of its comedy is situational rather than textual, which is to say that it’s funny because it’s true. Once you’ve climbed the ladder to kiss the ring of power, you can’t go back down — but you’ve placed a big target squarely on your forehead.
The Hottest August
For The Hottest August, director Brett Story spent August 2017 — a month of extraordinary heat, both literally (US temperatures hit all-time highs) and metaphorically (social and political tensions roiled in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere) — exploring Americans’ anxieties about the future and, in particular, the effects of climate change.
The Hottest August consists largely of on-the-spot interviews with New Yorkers, mostly in places where cinema rarely ventures — non-hipster Brooklyn, beach communities on the city’s fringes that are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, cop bars on Staten Island. They talk about their hopes and fears for their future and their children’s futures. In the background, white nationalists march in Charlottesville, hurricanes hit Houston, and a total solar eclipse happens. Optimism, pessimism, and realism mix. And the film leaves us to draw our own conclusions about life on a planet and in a country where things seem uncertain, and hotter than ever.
How to watch it: The Hottest August is opening in virtual theaters this week, and a list of participating theaters is available on the Grasshopper Films website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and profits help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
Karim Aïnouz’s lush melodrama won awards at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was highly lauded by critics, who praised its emotional storytelling and striking images. Based on a novel by Martha Batalha, the Portuguese-language film tells the story of two sisters who are separated by their cruel father in mid-century Rio de Janeiro. They spend their lives yearning for one another and struggling against a toxic patriarchy.
Old-fashioned and moving, Invisible Life is a tale of longing, melancholy, and bonds of love. “It’s a drama of resilient women, thoughtless men, and crushingly unrealized dreams, told with supple grace, deep feeling, and an empathy that extends in every direction,” Justin Chang writes at the Los Angeles Times.
How to watch it: Invisible Life is newly streaming on Amazon Prime.
Light from Light
It’s extraordinarily tricky to describe Light from Light, which is about ghosts and is occasionally creepy, while definitely not being a horror film. Instead, it’s a meditative and moving drama about loss, grief, and love.
Directed by Paul Harrill, Light from Light is the story of Shelia (Marin Ireland), a single mom and skeptic who lives in Tennessee — who, oddly enough, is a ghost hunter, even though she’s not really sure how to feel about the supernatural. She meets Richard (Jim Gaffigan), who thinks his late wife’s spirit may still be in his house, and agrees to help him figure out what’s going on. It’s an unusual, thought-provoking film for skeptics and believers alike.
How to watch it: Light from Light is newly available on iTunes.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a 17-year-old who decides to terminate her pregnancy. But because she’s a minor, she can’t do it in her home state due to Pennsylvania law. So she buys a bus ticket to New York City, where she can legally get an abortion, and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) comes along. Writer and director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats, It Felt Like Love) tells the story sparingly, favoring naturalism rather than polemics and recalling bleak dramas like the 2007 Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
But Hittman’s view feels more in tune with what young women face in the world, with the fear and difficulty inherent in navigating the labyrinthine medical system. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which won a prize for “auteur filmmaking” at Sundance in January, focuses on the many obstacles and menaces the girls encounter — mostly from men who feel far more comfortable and safe in the world than they do — and never lets us breathe too easy.
How to watch it: After a brief theatrical run cut short by pandemic-related theater shutdowns, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is newly available as a 48-hour rental via on-demand services including iTunes and Amazon.
Onward is the charming tale of two brothers on a quest to spend time with their late father, set in a world that was once ruled by magic but is now pretty normal, even boring. The movie’s plot cleverly employs the structure of the sort of campaign you might see in a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons.
But in Onward, the fantastical, Tolkien-lite elements are mixed with more banal workaday realities. Yet its true strength is in how it portrays the love between brothers, which brings its own kind of magic. One of Pixar’s most profound abilities has always been confronting the bittersweet along with the purely sweet and funny, in stories that kids and parents can watch together — and Onward delivers on that promise.
How to watch it: Onward has just begun streaming on Disney+. It is also available to digitally rent or buy on a wide variety of on-demand services, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and FandangoNow.
The Other Lamb
The Other Lamb (from director Małgorzata Szumowska) is eerie and starkly beautiful. The film melds two familiar territories for horror — cults and women’s bodies — into one dread-soaked Bildungsroman, centered on teenaged Selah (Raffey Cassidy). She lives with an all-women cult in the woods, where they raise sheep and live off the grid and serve a man called Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) as their adored, unquestioningly obeyed leader. Selah has been raised in this strange family, but now her beliefs are beginning to shift.
The Other Lamb recalls everything from The Witch and The Handmaid’s Tale to Rosemary’s Baby and Carrie. But what makes The Other Lamb feel fresh is how Szumowska renders her world — in vivid colors and inky blacks, with slow zooms that turn their placid, pastoral lives into something uncanny. Chilly, precisely designed scenes make for a sharp juxtaposition with images of blood, violence, and birth. And the feeling that something very wrong is going on here is inscribed into every exacting, unnerving shot.
Slay the Dragon
Gerrymandering (explained in this helpful Vox video) is the practice in which state legislatures draw and redraw voting districts in order to maximize their party’s chances of retaining power. Most of this map-drawing happens in strict secrecy, behind closed, barred, nondisclosure-agreement-protected doors — not exactly promising for those who believe in an open and free society.
Gerrymandering isn’t a particularly sexy topic, and it involves a lot of numbers and weirdly drawn lines on maps, which doesn’t make it an obvious candidate for a gripping film. But Slay the Dragon expertly and methodically makes it thrilling, first by explaining the origins of the practice and then by telling the story of a grassroots movement that fought against the odds to eradicate gerrymandering — and won. It’s inspiring, hopeful, and vital viewing for anyone who cares about democracy.
How to watch it: Slay the Dragon was released this week on a variety of cable and on-demand services; check the film’s website for more information.
The Social Network
First released a decade ago, The Social Network was a prescient and smart white-knuckler, maybe the best Aaron Sorkin has written to this day. With David Fincher at the helm, it took on the dark, glossy eeriness of a thriller, and kind of a sexy one, which isn’t something you would probably expect from a movie about a social networking site like Facebook — or, really, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg.
Ten years later, especially with a world working, learning, and socializing through our screens, it’s clear that the movie was practically prophetic, even though it feels fixed in a very particular moment in time. The Social Network is not just about Facebook’s origin story. It’s a movie about a generation (mine and Eisenberg’s and Zuckerberg’s, the so-called “elder millennials”) who would learn to port our offline lives online. Within a decade, looking for a date and buying a mattress and getting dinner and doing your job and tracking your emotional health would all be matters conducted in the cloud rather than in stores, bars, supermarkets, and paper notebooks. Today, sometimes that virtual life seems like all we have left.
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is one of the paradigmatic films of American cinema, a touchpoint for filmmakers since its highly lauded 1976 release. (One of last year’s most successful films, Todd Phillips’ Joker, explicitly draws on Taxi Driver both in style and content.) Robert De Niro plays delusional self-styled vigilante Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet and violent misanthrope who becomes obsessed with first a campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd), then an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster), and then, ultimately, his own sordid heroic fantasies.
The film was the first collaboration between Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who said in an interview that writing the screenplay was “self-therapy”: “I felt I had to write [Bickle] so I wouldn’t become him.” The rage of young, angry men certainly simmers under Bickle’s surface. But it’s also a story of a man trying, in all of the wrong ways, to find redemption from himself — a violent descent into a hell of his own making, and one that has never lost its relevance.
This Is Not a Film
Jafar Panahi’s ironically titled 2012 documentary This Is Not a Film would be notable if only for the fact that it was smuggled out of Iran in a cake — while Panahi was under house arrest there — so that it could premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Panahi, who had been charged by Iran with making propaganda against the government and banned from making movies, has been restricted from moving freely for much of the 2010s.
But that hasn’t slowed him down. In This Is Not a Film, he documents his life under house arrest. It’s a radical act of protest, one that shows what it’s like to live in a country that views you as the enemy. In a time when many of us are confined to our homes, living apart from one another and concerned about our futures, it feels relevant in an entirely different way.
How to watch it: This Is Not a Film is newly streaming on the Criterion Channel.