Theaters are mostly closed. Blockbusters are delayed. Drive-ins are having a moment. And with the Covid-19 pandemic still a clear threat to Americans, most people are choosing to watch films at home.
Luckily, there’s a regular influx of new movies to choose from. Five engrossing films are premiering this week on streaming services and in virtual theaters. There’s a documentary that follows a military family for 10 years. There’s a light comedic drama about finding yourself in the mountains of Norway. A critically acclaimed drama tells of a prison warden illuminates the injustice of our system of capital punishment. An iconic American writer’s legacy is explored in a new documentary. And the friendships and creative collaborations that would transform American theater — and lead to the creation of shows like Hamilton — are now on display to audiences in a new film.
All five movies are nourishing to watch. But if none of them pique your interest, you can always check out one of the 28 best films from this year so far, and last week’s extraordinary slate of new releases are also available.
Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) has spent years working as a warden at a maximum-security prison, and it’s clearly been wearing on her health, her marriage, and her soul. She sees the most important part of her work as caring for the inmates and quietly supporting them as they approach their execution dates. But then a lethal injection goes awry, and as the date for the next one approaches, she finds herself reaching a breaking point.
With Clemency, director Chinonye Chukwu has crafted a heavy, deliberate film, with rich, widely framed shots and dark colors that make the emotional toll on not just Williams but also her coworkers, their families, the inmates, and the inmates’ loved ones extra clear. Anchored by an absolutely stunning performance from Woodard, it’s an unusual way to expose the injustices of the capital punishment system without forgetting the individuals who are stuck in its gears.
In light of the US’s resumption of federal executions, Clemency has been made available to stream for free (through July 31) on a variety of digital platforms.
How to watch it: Clemency is newly available to stream for free on Apple TV, Amazon, and Fandango Now, Redbox On Demand, Spectrum, Xfinity, Verizon FIOS, Dish, Cox, and Altice. It’s also streaming on Hulu and available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Father Soldier Son
Movies have often explored the effects of war on families, but Father Soldier Son takes a different tack. The documentary (a co-production between Netflix and the New York Times) follows Master Sgt. Brian Eisch and his two young sons through 10 years of their lives, from deployment to the effects of war on the home front to the question of whether the boys will follow in their father’s footsteps. It’s an observational documentary that doesn’t push any one perspective too heavily; it’s possible to watch it as a straightforward tribute to American soldiers and their families. But there often seems to be something darker lurking beneath the film: a quiet examination of the ways the narratives that are pushed on Americans, particularly men, about the glories of combat and the soldiers’ life, have long-term effects that extend far past one generation.
How to watch it: Father Soldier Son is streaming on Netflix.
There are more than a few documentaries about the lives of famous authors and public figures. I’ve been disappointed by most of them, because they often function more as 101-level introductions than interesting analyses of a person’s life and legacy. Flannery is an exception. Though conventional in form, the documentary brings a number of voices — ranging from celebrities like Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O’Brien to writers like Mary Karr and Alice Walker to scholars of American literature — to its exploration of one of the pivotal figures in American literature. O’Connor’s relationship to the racism of her hometown in the South (as well as her own racism) is explored by writers of color who often address issues of race, including Richard Rodriguez and Hilton Als. And that’s framed by a broader exploration of her persona, faith, class, experiences with lupus, and scalpel-sharp needling of the hypocrisies she saw around her. For those who’ve read O’Connor and those who haven’t alike, it’s a strong entry point.
How to watch it: Flannery is in virtual theaters this week, and a list of participating theaters is available on the film’s website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and profits help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
The Sunlit Night
The story is familiar: A young woman tries to escape her disappointing life by running away to a foreign land. But The Sunlit Night has a few things going for it. It stars the always-delightful Jenny Slate as Frances, an aspiring painter who takes off to Norway for the summer to assist a gruff artist in his work, only to discover she has a lot to learn, too. That means the film also feels like an escape to remote Norway. There’s enough charm and whimsy for the story to escape coming across as too predictable; Frances sees the world through art, and she frequently narrates her thoughts to us while comparing people, colors, and experiences to paintings she loves. The Sunlit Night is a light and occasionally messy story of discovery, and Slate’s performance anchors it all.
How to watch it: The Sunlit Night is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes and Amazon.
We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Andrew Fried started filming the performers of Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv hip-hop group, in the summer of 2005. Nobody knew then that members of the group — like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Anthony Veneziale, and Christopher Jackson — would go on to help shape the future of American theater with shows like In the Heights and Hamilton, or that their own show would end up on Broadway. We Are Freestyle Love Supreme recounts the group’s early days via footage of performances and interviews with the group’s members, and shows how friendship can sometimes turn into world-changing collaboration. It’s a light movie, best for Hamilton and In the Heights fans or those who enjoyed the stage show and want to figure out how it came about, or even just for aspiring freestylers. While the film itself may not be groundbreaking, its subjects certainly are.
How to watch it: We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is streaming on Hulu.