The July Fourth weekend is usually the biggest movie weekend of the summer, but this year it’s been muted by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. And while drive-ins are having a moment, most movie theaters around the country are still closed.
But there are still new movies coming out. Each weekend since the pandemic began, on streaming services and through “virtual theatrical” releases, new and newly available movies have arrived to delight cinephiles of all stripes.
This weekend, seven movies are well worth your notice. There’s a family drama starring two pillars of French cinema, and a film about a young boy attracted to radicalism. There are four documentaries that cover very different ground: a profile of a civil rights icon, a portrait of a girl in working-class Scotland, a searing exploration of the dangers that Russian LGBTQ+ activists face, and a stranger-than-fiction account of a whole town getting conned. And one of the biggest Broadway musicals of all time is available, at long last, for everyone to see (with a subscription to Disney+).
Or, if none of these pique your interest, check out one of the 28 best films from this year so far.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 musical Hamilton is more than an internet darling — it’s one of the most groundbreaking musicals in Broadway history. And now it’s a film, too. Recorded in June 2016, the month the show broke records at the Tonys, this film version of Hamilton more or less replicates the experience of watching the show in the theater with the original cast, including Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Chris Jackson, Jonathan Groff, Anthony Ramos, and Jasmine Cephas Jones. That’s enough to entice any Hamilton fan, but the movie is a genuinely terrific watch for newbies and old hands alike: Camera close-ups and wide shots offer a better view of the performances than you might have from any one seat in the theater, and the radical effect of casting people of color to play historically white characters is much more clear when you’re watching the actors at work. Hamilton is poised to be the movie of the summer, and feels more vital in 2020 than ever.
How to watch it: Hamilton is streaming on Disney+.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
Civil rights pioneer John Lewis spoke at the March on Washington, marched from Selma to Montgomery, and has served in the House of Representatives since 1987. His three-volume graphic novel memoir, March, has won a bevy of awards, including a National Book Award in 2016 for the third installment. He’s also been attacked by Donald Trump and is being treated for pancreatic cancer. So it’s more than fitting that he’s now the subject of a documentary that traces the broad outlines of his life and career through archival footage, scenes from his tireless trail of campaigning for colleagues like Stacey Abrams, and interviews with Lewis and many of his colleagues.
As documentaries of this sort tend to do, John Lewis: Good Trouble glosses over the details of some of the more interesting and controversial parts of Lewis’s career, like his 1986 run for Congress against Julian Bond, which reveals some important ideological and tactical disagreements among Black voters in Georgia and in the US at large. Lewis is an important enough figure to history to merit a more revealing portrait in the future. But John Lewis: Good Trouble is still a valuable and interesting introduction to how and why people fought in the civil rights movement and are still fighting today, and a noble tribute to a man who’s been there for all of it.
How to watch it: John Lewis: Good Trouble is available to digitally rent or purchase on services including Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu. For a complete listing, see the film’s website.
Narrowsburg is a bizarre true-life con story, one that ended up roiling an entire small town. In upstate New York, the tiny hamlet of Narrowsburg one day discovered the arrival of two glamorous strangers, both of whom had connections in the film business. The strangers launched a film festival (which, they proclaimed, would become the “Sundance of the East”) and shot a movie with the whole town’s involvement. Then things got very, very weird. Director Martha Shane keeps you guessing about what was really going on — Narrowsburg is full of twists — as she crafts a poignant portrait of the allure of show business in American life.
One of the most overlooked documentaries of 2019 is finally available to watch at home. Scheme Birds plays like a coming-of-age story, a vérité portrait of teenaged Gemma, who lives with her grandfather in Scotland. Directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin follow Gemma for three years as she causes trouble with her friends, raises birds with her grandfather, falls in love, has a baby, and tries to decide what her future holds. Gemma narrates her own story, explaining what she thinks, feels, and does. The film is a different sort of study of teenage life than we’re used to, intimate and raw without manufactured drama. (I thought often of the films of Andrea Arnold, especially Fish Tank, while watching it.) And without sentimentality, it draws out the challenges that a girl like Gemma faces in trying to change her life.
The Truth is another quiet family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) — this time, set in France. The great film star Catherine Deneuve plays a great film star named Fabienne, who experiences a lot of friction in her relationship with her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). Lumir is a screenwriter who lives with her actor husband (Ethan Hawke) and daughter in the US; she and her family travel to France to celebrate the release of Fabienne’s memoir, and sparks fly when it turns out Fabienne’s account of the past doesn’t match Lumir’s memories. The tale probes the nature of memory, truth, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in a gently humorous and bittersweet story of love and regret.
How to watch it: The Truth is available for digital rent or purchase on platforms including Amazon, AppleTV, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and more. For a complete listing, see the movie’s website.
Welcome to Chechnya
People who identify as LGBTQ+ experience opposition and difficulty all over the world. But in the Russian republic of Chechnya — and the Vladimir Putin-backed regime led by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — the state is abducting and killing them with impunity. Welcome to Chechnya, which won a prize for editing at Sundance, carefully follows a number of Chechens who are fleeing for their lives and others who try to shelter them and provide passage to countries where they might be safe. Directed by investigative journalist and award-winning documentarian David France, the film digitally obscures the faces of people who are on the run — a technique to obscure the “truth” that becomes all the more powerful when it suddenly becomes part of the story.
In films like The Promise (1996), The Son (2002), and Two Days, One Night (2015), the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have told stories about people on the outskirts of French and Belgian society, exploring the ways that poor people, immigrants, and others left on the margins work to stay afloat. Their latest film, Young Ahmed, is the story of a young boy who becomes radicalized by his imam and tries to kill his teacher, which sounds like a dicey premise. But the Dardennes handle it deftly, subtly critiquing the notion that a young man who has been radicalized simply needs some exposure to a kindly liberal tolerance to “see the light.” Young Ahmed recognizes the complex factors that bring a teenager to that point of embracing dangerous ideologies and the deep-seated reasons someone like Ahmed might respond to men who want to turn him toward hard-line violence.
Where to watch it: Young Ahmed is received its streaming premiere on the Criterion Channel.