Thanks to film festivals, tiny virtual screenings and the overall COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-2021 movie season has been pretty warped in general. But because of the evolving response of both theaters and awards bodies, it’s been a little hard to know exactly when buzzy movies are actually going to be available to watch for the discerning non-theatergoer. There are reviews and interviews abound, but when exactly can we just plop down on the couch and give these things a look?
For many awards hopefuls that started picking up good word-of-mouth last year—we’re looking at you, Nomadland and Minari—that time is arriving now. Sure, some may still cost you $20 to rent on demand (sorry, premium on demand), but some of these films are now streaming for free. And what we can say for sure is that they’ve got more to offer than most of the other options waiting for you, not to mention that they’re infinitely better than taking your chances at the movie theater. One day we’ll resume our breakdown of the best things at theaters, but that’s a lot of vaccines away from now.
In the meantime, here are five great movies you can finally watch this weekend, including many picks from our Best Movies of 2020 list…and also Monster Hunter.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Watch on Hulu
A devastating and profound look at the underside of the American Dream, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland turns Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (and some of its subjects) into a complex folk song about survival, pride and the beauty of getting by on the open road. Focusing on older Americans who’ve somehow either abandoned or been forced from stationary traditional homes into vans and RVs, the film contemplates all that brought them to this point (an ugly, crammed Amazon warehouse looms large over the movie’s otherwise natural landscapes and sweeping vistas) and all that waits for them now that they’re here.
Some of Bruder’s sources make appearances in the film, threatening to steal the show from the fictional Fern (Frances McDormand) at every turn—and McDormand turns in one of the best performances of the year. That’s just how honest and compelling Linda May and Swankie are. As the migrating community scatters to the wind and reconvenes wherever the seasonal jobs pop up, Zhao creates a complicated mosaic of barebones freedom. It’s the vast American landscape—a “marvelous backdrop of canyons, open deserts and purple-hued skies” as our critic put it—and that mythological American promise that you can fend for yourself out in it. But you can’t, not really. The bonds between the nomads is a stiff refutation of that individualistic idea, just as Amazon’s financial grip over them is a damnation of the corporation’s dominance. Things are rough—as Fern’s fellow travelers tell campfire tales of suicide, cancer and other woes—but they’re making the best of it. At least they have a little more control out here. The optimism gained from a reclaimed sense of autonomy is lovely to behold (and crushing when it comes into conflict with those angling for a return to the way things were), even if its impermanence is inherent. Nomadland’s majestic portrait puts a country’s ultimate failings, its corrupting poisons and those making the best of their position by blazing their own trail together on full display.—Jacob Oller
Director: Lee Isaac Chung, who spoke with us here
Rentable for $19.99 at Amazon, Google Play, iTunes and VUDU.
It’s a peculiar film to emerge as the hot pick out of Sundance—in Lee Isaac Chung’s magnificent Minari, a Korean-American couple with two young children moves to rural Arkansas to try their hand at starting a farm. Eventually the kids’ grandmother comes to live with them as well. Oh, and there’s a prayer-yelling local who helps them. That doesn’t exactly scream “hot Sundance pick,” does it? But Chung’s direction, award-worthy performances from Steven Yuen and Will Patton, and the best kid performance in years from young Alan Kim produce a true masterpiece that will reverberate far beyond Park City. Each line, each movement, each shot contains worlds of meaning. Minari is a wonder, a crucial step forward in Chung’s red-hot career, and a richly deserving recipient of this year’s Audience and Grand Jury awards, both of which it did indeed win. Sometimes everybody gets it right. This was clearly the best film of Sundance 2020, and I doubt I’ll see a better film all year. —Michael Dunaway
3. One Night in Miami
Director: Regina King
Watch on Amazon Prime
A barebones summary of One Night in Miami sounds like a dude’s delight movie: Four men out on the town, no attachments to keep them in line, and a limit to their evening revelry that extends skyward. But the four men are Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and most of all Malcolm X; the town is actually the Magic City; and the specific evening is February 25, 1964, when heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston crossed gloves with Clay and lost his title in an upset. Subjects crossing the characters’ lips include, of course, boxing, and women, and rowdiness, but they’re joined by other, more important subjects like Black American identity, American identity, and how the two interact with one another.
But that doesn’t rob One Night in Miami of the “delight” clause, thanks in no small part to crackling performances by a cast comprising a cadre of exceptional young actors (Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir), and directed with cool confidence by Regina King in her feature debut. Her adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage play is a historical document written to presuppose what conversations these fellows might’ve had in private and away from prying ears, a compelling fiction rooted in reality. It’s also thoroughly entertaining, witty, and exuberant. This isn’t a film about meaningless carousing. It’s about conversations that actually matter. —Andy Crump
4. News of the World
Director: Paul Greengrass
Rentable for $19.99 at Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and VUDU.
Paul Greengrass and screenwriting partner Luke Davies may have adapted Paulette Jiles’ 2016 Western novel News of the World at least in partial consideration of how far the United States hasn’t come as a nation—around the time of the book’s publication, such cursed phrases as “fake news” and “alternative facts” were inducted into popular language by fascists and crooks attempting to pull a fast one on the American people. Neither of these terms, nor their equally grotesque cousins, make their way into Greengrass’ film, but the spirit that conjured them into being four years ago is alive and well in his recreation of the American frontier. His hero is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Confederate Civil War veteran who, having stood on the losing side of history, moseys across the Lone Star State and reads out-of-town papers to the locals at each stop on his journeys. The movie doesn’t exactly ask the viewer to overlook which side of the war Kidd stood on: In fact, the truth of his old allegiances becomes more unavoidable the less directly they’re spoken of. This is Texas. An erstwhile soldier in Texas could only have fought on one side of the aisle. News of the World damns Kidd without having to say a word. But as soon as the film judges him, it presents him with a chance at redemption in the form of a girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Zengel is a fresh spark in an otherwise old-fashioned production, but old-fashioned here is a compliment. News of the World has no interest in subverting or updating classic Western formulas: It is content with its function as a handsomely-made studio picture, built ostensibly around Hanks but with plenty of room for its young star to make her mark. What modernizes the movie has more to do with context than content. Anyone trapped in indentured servitude to social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or worse, other people’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts—should appreciate this calming two-hour reprieve from the unavoidable din publishers and platforms make in our lives today. There’s such a thing as too much news, whether for better or worse, and News of the World only tries to give us the best. —Andy Crump
5. Monster Hunter
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Rentable for $19.99 at Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and VUDU.
From Mortal Kombat to the Resident Evil franchise, writer/director Paul W. S. Anderson has consistently proven himself to be the king of videogame adaptations. He is able to take beloved properties and mold them into entertaining narratives that encapsulate their ethos and are accessible to both franchise fans and novices alike. This is no different with Anderson’s latest film, Monster Hunter, adapted from the popular Capcom franchise. He continues to create larger-than-life narratives that are just plain old fun. Monster Hunter begins with Lieutenant Natalie Artemis (the always badass Milla Jovovich) leading a team of soldiers in the desert, searching for a missing squad that seemingly disappeared without a trace. The group is suddenly transported into another world via an intense lightning storm. This is a relentless place, full of massive monsters who are out for blood. No matter their firepower, nothing seems to stop Diablos, a giant triceratops-like creature, or the Nerscylla, a nasty group of poisonous spiders the size of elephants. The tools of violence of the US military are rendered useless in the face of these titans. Monsters aside, the film ventures into a buddy action-comedy as much of the story focuses on Artemis and the Hunter’s (Thai martial artist Tony Jaa) developing relationship—and how they depend on one another for survival. They laugh, they joke, they make sacrifices for one another. Jovovich and Jaa make a remarkable team: The chemistry between the two actors is an endearing light in the middle of a gritty and violent film where humans are impaled and eaten. Anderson does not just rely on the monsters, but creates strong human relationships to encourage a deeper engagement than expected with a videogame adaptation.—Mary Beth McAndrews