As what used to be the summer movie season begins, theaters are tentatively reopening in some places, and drive-ins are making a comeback. But with most theaters still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and many people exercising caution in returning to public spaces, plenty of us are watching the buzziest summer movies at home instead.
Film releases have not slowed down just because people aren’t leaving their homes to see them. Each weekend, on streaming services and through “virtual theatrical” releases, new and newly available movies arrive to delight cinephiles of all stripes.
This weekend’s movies span a broad range of genres and topics. There are two new releases from two beloved directors — Spike Lee and Judd Apatow — both of which explore masculinity and the effects of trauma, albeit in very different ways. There’s a quiet drama about ethical choices around pregnancy and surrogacy. One documentary explores the Black Panthers, while another looks at a recent police shooting that rocked several communities in New York City. One of 2019’s most loved comedic mysteries and a cult favorite documentary from 1970 are also newly available to stream. (Most of the films that were newly released in recent weeks are also still available to watch.)
Here are the 7 best movies that premiered this week and are available to watch at home — for a few bucks on digital services, through virtual theatrical engagements, or to subscribers on streaming platforms.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
There’s been more than a few movies about the Black Panthers, some of which are recognized classics (such as Agnes Varda’s half-hour 1970 documentary). But the 2015 documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by the venerable Stanley Nelson Jr., is the first full-length feature about the revolutionary organization. Nelson uses interviews with dozens of people who were Panthers alongside archival footage, much of which had never been publicly broadcast before the film. (Nelson and his producers tried to use FOIA to access wiretaps of the group, but never managed to get access.) The result is an introduction to the Panthers and an argument for their importance, both in the past and in the present.
How to watch it: Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is streaming on PBS.org through July 4. It’s also streaming for Amazon Prime subscribers, available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon, and available for digital purchase only on YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Original Cast Album: Company
In 1970, the legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker showed up at the marathon live album recording session for Company, Stephen Sondheim’s new musical. The result is Original Cast Album: Company, a behind-the-scenes look at the album’s now-famous production, which has been extremely difficult to see outside of occasional film repertory house runs for years. Pennebaker’s scrolling text at the beginning notes it was supposed to be the pilot for a TV show of original cast recordings that got scrapped after all the producers moved to Los Angeles. Instead of that show, though, we got the beloved cult film, which manages to pack into an hour the joys and pains of collaboration and striving for perfection, punctuated by moments of hilarity and, especially, the iconic scene in which Elaine Stritch nearly loses her mind trying to record “Ladies Who Lunch” to Sondheim’s exacting specifications.
How to watch it: Original Cast Album: Company is streaming on the Criterion Channel.
And for a loving, impudent digestif, follow it up with the Documentary Now! spoof, featuring Renée Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind, Alex Bright, Paula Pell, Taran Killam, John Mulaney, and others recording a cast album for a suspiciously familiar-sounding musical called Co-op. It’s on Netflix.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods stars Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and a magnificent Delroy Lindo in a story about four black Vietnam vets who return to the country, decades after their tours of duty, in search of gold and their fallen buddy’s remains. Da 5 Bloods takes on myriad issues, starting with the Vietnam veterans, a sharply disproportionate number of whom are black and who were left to live with the remnants of a pointless war long past when the rest of us had moved on. Lee weaves that strand of history into the broader canvas of the 1960s and ’70s, from the civil rights movement to the moon landing. Then he extends it into today, all the way to the Black Lives Matter movement. Lindo gives a staggering performance as Paul, whose traumas have turned him into a MAGA-hat-sporting spout of paranoia, to the discomfort of both his friends and his son, David (Jonathan Majors), a Morehouse alum who comes looking for his father after he returns to Vietnam. That narrative choice alone means that Da 5 Bloods, while political to the bone, refuses to be stuffed into partisan pigeonholes. What it means to be black in America does not fit into tidy fables.
How to watch it: Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix.
Down a Dark Stairwell
In 2014, Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old black man, was shot in a Brooklyn housing project by Chinese American NYPD officer Peter Liang. In 2016, Liang became the first NYPD officer to be convicted in an officer-involved shooting since 2005; his conviction was eventually downgraded by a judge from manslaughter to criminally negligent homicide. Gurley’s death and Liang’s conviction became a flashpoint of conflict in New York, bringing to the fore a range of issues, from historic discrimination against Asian American communities to the ongoing history of black men shot by police to the way police interact with communities of color in the city. In Down a Dark Stairwell, director Ursula Liang (no relation) chronicles the case as it’s happening, exploring community discussions and protests, mobilization efforts, anger and cries for justice, and the results, which satisfied no one.
How to watch it: Down a Dark Stairwell is playing through June 20 as part of the digital edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, including a Q&A with Ursula Liang on June 17. You can purchase a ticket and get more details on the festival’s website.
One of last year’s most purely entertaining films, Knives Out uses the familiar Agatha Christie-style whodunnit template to tell a twisty murder tale with a bite. Knives Out concerns the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a massively successful, wealthy mystery writer, and the patriarch to a family in which nearly everyone seems to have had some reason to want him dead, even if it’s just to get their inheritance. One detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is leading the investigation, but another (Daniel Craig) is lurking around in no official capacity, and nobody — not even he, really — knows why. Meanwhile, a young woman named Marta (Ana de Armas), who cared for Harlan, may know more than she wishes. Agatha Christie’s stories often hinge on class distinctions and play on English fears of foreigners; Knives Out, set in patrician Massachusetts, takes aim at xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the clueless privilege of the very rich in a way that’s clearly intended to echo contemporary rhetoric. It’s a romping, wicked delight.
How to watch it: Knives Out is newly streaming for Amazon Prime subscribers.
The King of Staten Island
Pete Davidson co-wrote and stars in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, about a young man who’s worked his way into a dead-end life. Scott (Davidson) lives with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and his younger sister Claire (Maud Apatow), and while Claire is heading to college, Scott is a textbook case of failure to launch. Scott and Claire’s father was a firefighter who died in a hotel fire when they were children. (In real life, Davidson’s father, who was named Scott, was a firefighter who died as a first responder in the 9/11 attacks.) But things change when Margie begins dating a firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr). Steve Buscemi, Bel Powley, and Pamela Adlon also star in a sneakily mature movie about growing despite trauma and loving people even when they’re imperfect.
How to watch it: The King of Staten Island is available to digitally rent or purchase on digital and on-demand platforms such as Apple TV and Amazon. For a complete listing of services, see the movie’s website.
The Surrogate, the debut feature from Jeremy Hersh, has a premise that sounds almost like a thought experiment. Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) has offered to be a surrogate and egg donor for her two best friends, Josh (Chris Perfetti) and Aaron (Sullivan Jones). They’re elated when the pregnancy test is positive, but a medical consultation reveals that the fetus likely has Down’s syndrome. Immediately, the situation becomes much more complicated, given the array of options they must suddenly choose from. Will they terminate the pregnancy? Carry the child to term? Who will be responsible? Who would be involved in the child’s life? And whose choice is it to make? Without preaching solutions or offering answers, The Surrogate’s gentle empathy lets us feel the dilemmas each of the characters experience. It recognizes that the sheer array of choices available to us today is part of what makes the situation so difficult.
How to watch it: The Surrogate is in “virtual theatrical” release at theaters around the country — see the film’s website for more details. (You will receive a link after buying a virtual ticket.)