The year is nearly over, and the holidays often mean extra time for getting cozy on the couch with some eggnog and a pile of cookies, in front of a good movie. Given public health concerns and ongoing widespread theater closings in the US, most of 2020’s best movies are available to watch right now via streaming services and digital rentals.
A few of those movies are still quite new, thanks to a bumper crop of December releases that’s yielded options for all sorts of movie-viewing preferences — from blockbuster-size superhero tales (the long-awaited Wonder Woman 1984) to cheeky comedies (the weird Wild Mountain Time and wonderful Another Round) to family-friendly animated wonderlands (Pixar’s Soul; the gorgeous folktale Wolfwalkers). Many of them are excellent, and even the ones that aren’t are still pretty fun, if you’re in the right mood.
So here are nine movies that have debuted in the past few weeks that are worth checking out, and why each one might suit you; all of them are available to stream or digitally rent or purchase. Happy watching, and I’ll see you in 2021.
Another Round: An exhilarating yet surprisingly deep Danish movie about day drinking
Another Round is fantastic. It’s a movie about four middle-aged Danish men who are much more miserable than they’re willing to admit to themselves or to one another. One night, however, a cordial birthday dinner becomes a weeping confessional, and then a rager — and they realize, with the ancients, that in vino veritas. The men decide to embark on an experiment, reasoning that the human body is naturally 0.05 percent deficient in alcohol and that they can test whether maintaining a low buzz all day will enable them to live a better life. Obviously, things escalate from there.
This sounds like a sophomoric and possibly horrible premise for a film, but instead director Thomas Vinterberg has made a truly wonderful movie about trying to come to grips with life, anchored by terrific performances from Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe. It’s funny, and gutting, and great.
Let Them All Talk: A stylish, deceptively light drama about a famous author on a transatlantic crossing
The cast alone — Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, and Lucas Hedges — makes Let Them All Talk worth watching. But the film also has an interesting idea at its core. Streep plays Alice Hughes, a famous author who is set to receive a prestigious prize in London, and decides to travel there from the US by taking the Queen Mary 2. Two old friends (Wiest and Bergen) accompany Hughes, along with her nephew (Hedges). And an editor from Hughes’s publisher (Gemma Chan) tags along too, desperate to see Hughes’s latest manuscript. The film was written by Deborah Eisenberg and directed by Steven Soderbergh, which is no wonder; it’s the latest in a long line of Soderbergh movies that prod at the ways money and profit shift human relationships. Shot during a regular passage of the Queen Mary 2 in August 2019, it’s both fun and a little subversive.
How to watch it: Let Them All Talk is streaming on HBO Max.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: August Wilson’s play gets a terrific adaptation starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman
Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a devastating stunner of a showcase for its stars, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Davis plays Ma Rainey, the pioneering blues singer, as she heads into the studio to record an album at the height of her fame in 1927. Boseman is Levee, a cocky young trumpet player who’s trying to overcome the cards that life has dealt him. (Boseman died in August at age 43; this was his final role.) Also starring Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, and Taylour Paige, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is really about the too-often illusory nature of power for Black Americans of the era — even for a wealthy icon like Ma.
Set against the backdrop of the Great Migration, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom powerfully illustrates the dead-end world in which its characters live, and the last scene is an unforgettable sucker punch to the gut.
How to watch it: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix.
Small Axe: A five-film collection of masterpieces about West Indians in London
Steve McQueen started developing Small Axe a long time ago, before he became the first Black director of a Best Picture winner at the Oscars. (His film 12 Years a Slave won in 2013.) He wanted to explore the lives of the West Indian community in London. And, as he recently told the New York Times, McQueen — a Brit of Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage — wanted to “understand myself, where I came from.”
The result morphed over time from a TV series into something resembling a set of feature films, each one wholly distinct from the others in casting, plot, time period, and, in some cases, even visual sensibility; they’re shot in a range of formats and feel tonally different. (McQueen worked with two co-writers — Courttia Newland on two of the films, and Alastair Siddons on the other three — but he directed all five.)
And each one is exquisite. Running from just over an hour to well over two in length, each installment of Small Axe centers on part of the West Indian experience in London. The films are all set between the 1960s and the 1980s. Some are fictional. Some are based in fact. And all are brilliantly crafted, with performances that ought to be star-making. (If you have time for just one, watch Lovers Rock, but if you can, start with Mangrove and work your way through.)
How to watch it: All five Small Axe films are streaming on Amazon Prime.
Soul: Pixar’s latest is daring, life-affirming, and full of surprises for all ages
Soul is Pixar’s latest film, the story of a jazz musician who befriends a soul in search of a “spark.” That premise will make a lot more sense once you see the movie, which may be the most philosophically complex of the studio’s work. Director Pete Docter (who also made Inside Out) and co-director Kemp Powers tackle a traditional theme in family-friendly animated movies — finding your unique purpose in life — and turn it on its head, subtly challenging our culture’s focus on “doing what you love” as your occupation.
And they do it with incredible visual imagination. Segments of Soul bend visual conventions that we are used to seeing from Pixar, evoking other dimensions and planes of being with different sorts of art. Even when the characters are just moseying along the streets of New York, the landscape is rendered in such detail, and with such attention to texture, that the specificity feels almost startling. The biggest joy of animation is that it offers more cinematic freedom than live-action, and Pixar pulls out all the stops in crafting Soul’s world.
How to watch it: Soul begins streaming on Disney+ on December 25.
Sylvie’s Love: An old-fashioned romantic melodrama set in Harlem about a summer fling that never fizzles
Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha star in Sylvie’s Love, a romance that’s soaked with music, desire, ambition, and melancholy. The spark is ignited in 1957, when Robert (Asomugha), an up-and-coming jazz musician, takes a part-time job in a record store owned by Herbert (Lance Reddick). Herbert’s daughter Sylvie (Thompson) spends time at the shop so she can watch shows on the store’s TV; she aspires to be a TV producer, though that’s an almost impossible dream for a Black woman in the late 1950s. Robert and Sylvie quickly fall in love.
But when they part after the summer, they move on with their lives. Years later, they reconnect. And then things get tricky. Writer and director Eugene Ashe smartly gives Sylvie a vibrant second storyline — her love of TV and her struggle to decide how it interacts with her romance and her family life. Sylvie’s Love is a satisfying story that both draws on and plays with familiar genre contours, to great effect.
How to watch it: Sylvie’s Love is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Wild Mountain Thyme: A weird and goofy romantic comedy about two Irish neighbors kept apart for mysterious reasons
Every time I reveal the details of this movie to people, they think I’m making it up. But it’s real, directed by John Patrick Shanley and based on his Broadway play Outside Mullingar. Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan star as Rosemary and Anthony, who’ve grown up on neighboring farms in rural Ireland. Anthony’s father Tony (Christopher Walken) is getting up there in years, but he’s hesitant to leave the family farm to his son, and he’s considering giving it to their American cousin Adam (Jon Hamm), a sleek New Yorker with a fanciful dream of being a farmer. And though it’s obvious to everyone that Rosemary and Anthony are made for one another, they just can’t seem to get together, for reasons that are mysterious to everyone except Anthony.
All of that sounds pretty reasonable, but Wild Mountain Thyme has the odd effect of making the audience think they surely must have missed something. The accents are bizarre (Walken’s in particular), the song that the characters keep singing is mysteriously Scottish rather than Irish, and the dramatic situations don’t quite make sense. And there’s a twist that ... well, just see it for yourself. Wild Mountain Thyme is not, in any sense, a good film, but it is a lot of fun to watch if you bring a good sense of humor and a willingness to say wait, what?! a lot.
Wolfwalkers: A gorgeous, lushly animated Irish story of enchantment, love, and revolution
Wolfwalkers is a gorgeously animated Irish folk tale, created by the artists behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. It’s the story of a little English girl named Robyn Goodfellowe, who travels with her father, a hunter, to Ireland. His task is to aid in wiping out the wolves, which the Lord Protector of their village decrees must be destroyed, lest they menace the villagers any further.
But one day, Robyn befriends another girl, Mebh, who lives in the woods and transforms into a wolf at night. Mebh is a wolfwalker. And through the girls’ friendship, Robyn’s view of the world — and her role in it — changes drastically, as her connection with Mebh provides the jolt that challenges the Lord Protector’s destructive rule. It’s a beautiful, rich story with plenty for the whole family to discuss.
How to watch it: Wolfwalkers is streaming on Apple TV+.
Wonder Woman 1984: A sequel that’s stuffed to its cinematic seams
Gal Gadot once again dons Wonder Woman’s trademark breastplate, tiara, and golden lasso to take on not one but two villains, find romance with the love of her life (Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor), and ponder the ills of humanity in a very ambitious sequel. The film made waves by becoming the first of Warner Bros.’ slate of blockbusters to go straight to HBO Max on their theatrical release date — a strategy the studio will continue through 2021 — so the heroine has a lot of weight on her shoulders.
And there’s enough stuff in WW1984 for three Wonder Woman movies, which works to the movie’s favor and detriment. There are more than a few moments of breathtaking spectacle, some outstanding comedic sequences courtesy of Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, and unfortunately too many moments that feel like filler. It’s a prime, worthy sequel for Wonder Woman, but it almost functions better as a rom-com than it does as a superhero blockbuster.
How to watch it: Wonder Woman 1984 begins streaming on HBO Max on December 25.