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All of this week’s best new movies are about anxiety. In a good way.

I hear you saying, “Oh, great! Just what I need.” But trust me!

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A bearded man wearing a hat in a sepia-toned image.
Seth Rogen in An American Pickle, out this week on HBO Max.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Hollywood’s long-held August ritual — dumping all the mediocre movies into theaters to get them off the studios’ slates — has been disrupted this year, for a simple reason: Movie theaters, by and large, aren’t open. Couple that with the ever-evolving release schedule and you get an unusually eclectic month of films, albeit mostly on digital platforms and in drive-in theaters.

There are a whole lot of good films out this weekend, but one worth highlighting is An American Pickle, which stars Seth Rogen and ... Seth Rogen:

It’s a light, sweet comedy, adapted by Simon Rich from his 2013 serialized New Yorker story “Sell Out” (which you can read in four parts) and directed by Brandon Trost. Rogen plays an impoverished Ashkenazi Jew named Herschel Greenbaum, who, in the 1920s, marries a woman named Sarah (Sarah Snook) and immigrates to New York City. He gets a job in a pickle factory and promises Sarah that their descendants will be wealthy and successful.

But unfortunately, Herschel falls into a vat of pickles and wakes up, perfectly preserved, in modern-day New York City, 80 years later. There, he discovers his only living relative is Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), an app developer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The two go searching for the family cemetery plot where Sarah is buried, and they find it. But it’s surrounded by highways.

As you might imagine, this does not please Herschel. Finding the burial plot kicks off the great-grandfather and great-grandson’s series of mishaps, and along the way they learn a lot. An American Pickle is about many things — family, ambition, wondering if your ancestors would be pleased with you — but it’s at its best when illustrating how hard it is, and has always been, to just scratch out a living. Whether you’re a pickle maker or an app coder or anything in between, just affording the rent in 2020 can be a cause for worry, let alone starting a business. And in the midst of that anxiety, your friends and family can be your best support ... or your worst enemy. (You can watch An American Pickle exclusively on HBO Max.)

An American Pickle isn’t the only new movie that centers on anxiety this week. I can hear you saying, Oh, great! Just what I need. But the good news is there’s a film for every way of dealing with whatever it is you’re anxious about.

If you’re worried about the end of democracy ...

Well, A Thousand Cuts won’t exactly comfort you, but it will arm you to fight back by understanding the slip from democracy into autocracy in the Philippines under the violent rule of Rodrigo Duterte. Director Ramona S. Diaz follows the story of journalist Maria Ressa, CEO of the independent press outlet Rappler, who has been jailed, arrested, and harassed by the government, as well as influencers and candidates who support Duterte. It’s a chilling and daring film, and essential viewing. (You can watch it in “virtual cinemas” or on an August 9 live stream; more details at the film’s website.)

If you feel like your life is going nowhere fast ...

Check out I Used to Go Here, starring Gillian Jacobs (best known as Britta Perry from Community) as a Chicago writer named Kate Conklin. Her first novel is coming out, but her life is falling apart: She’s split from her fiancé, her publisher just canceled her book tour, and she’s beginning to worry she’s a fraud. So when a former professor (Jemaine Clement) calls to ask her to give a reading at her alma mater, she jumps at the chance. The film, which was supposed to premiere at South by Southwest before the festival was canceled this year, is a sweet, funny coming-of-age-in-your-30s story from director Kris Rey (Unexpected) and producers Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, better known as the Lonely Island. (You can watch I Used to Go Here on streaming platforms such as Apple TV and Google Play.)

If you’re staring the abyss square in the eye and think you might be losing ...

She Dies Tomorrow is a brilliant, atmospheric drama about a young woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), a recovering alcoholic, who becomes convinced she’s about to die the next day. She’s not suicidal; she just knows it’s going to happen. But her premonition is not hers alone — it starts to spread to her friends. She Dies Tomorrow is designed to infect you, too, at least a little — colored lights, unidentifiable soundscapes, and a heavy pace cast a spell of existential dread. The mood is catching. She Dies Tomorrow challenges both what we pretend to be and what we really are by forcing us to remember that we’re real, living in bodies that won’t last forever. (You can watch She Dies Tomorrow on digital services such as Apple TV and Google Play and at select drive-in theaters.)

If you need to believe in magic again ...

I’m not entirely sure why we needed a new movie version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, but I’m not mad about it. This one is moody and a little mystical. It tells the story mostly through the eyes of Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), who moves into the palatial English manor occupied by her bereaved and cold widower uncle (Colin Firth) after her parents die of cholera in India. Left to her own devices, Mary discovers both a sickly cousin hidden away in a wing of the house and a garden she believes to be magical on the property. It’s a relatively faithful adaptation of the classic book, but even if you’re familiar with the story, it’s a bit bewitching. (You can watch The Secret Garden on digital and on-demand platforms; a full listing is on the film’s website.)

And if you just want to watch a joyously formulaic dance competition movie ...

Look, the cure for any malaise is a dance competition movie. Everyone knows this, including Netflix, and that’s where Work It comes in. Starring Sabrina Carpenter and Liza Koshy (who are both pretty great), the movie follows the saga of high schooler Quinn Ackerman (Carpenter), who “accidentally” tells the admissions offer at Duke that she’s part of her high school’s champion dance team. Quinn is emphatically not a dancer, but she has to figure out a way to become one to get into Duke, and thus the antics begin. So brilliantly does Work It understand the formula for a dance movie that scarcely 10 minutes in, there’s already a wholly unmotivated dance-off. Also, Alicia Keys is one of the producers. (Work It is streaming on Netflix.)

If you’re interested in something that’s not quite as new ...

  • The original Mad Max, from 1979 — starring Mel Gibson, directed by George Miller, and set in an apocalyptic wasteland ruled by societal collapse and motorcycle gangs — is newly streaming on Netflix.
  • Inside Out, Pixar’s 2015 movie about confronting your emotions and allowing yourself to feel them without judgment, is streaming on Disney+ and available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms like Apple TV and Google Play.
  • And Kedi, a 2017 documentary about the street cats of Istanbul — no talking heads, just lots of cats and the people they hang out with — is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms like Apple TV and Google Play. Back when Kedi was released, our own Emily VanDerWerff wrote that the film explores “what it means to live alongside other creatures anywhere you might be able.” (She also interviewed its director.) It’s both a cure for doldrums and a reminder that there’s plenty of good in the world yet.

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