The 35 Best New Movies on iTunes Right Now (November 2020)

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The 35 Best New Movies on iTunes Right Now (November 2020)

A quick look at the top movies on iTunes will tell you that popular doesn’t always equal good. What we give you here is a list of the best new movies on iTunes, which is of paramount importance as VOD rentals become our standard moviegoing option and we all settle in for a new normal. There are genre movies like The Invisible Man and The Owners abound, but we’re also recommending excellent indie films like First Cow and brilliant docs like The Painter and the Thief. iTunes has an enormous catalog of movies, but this guide should help you find something brand new to rent or buy that you’ll love.

You can also check out our guides to the best movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Hulu, Showtime, Cinemax, YouTube, on demand, and at Redbox. Or visit all our Paste Movie Guides.

Here are the 35 Best New Movies on iTunes (right now):


35. The Lodge

the-lodge-poster.jpg Release Date: February 7, 2020
Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Starring: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone
Genre: Horror
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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Aidan (Martell) and Mia (McHugh), after losing their mom, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), in the movie’s opening ten minutes, go on a Christmas getaway with their dad, Richard (Richard Armitage), and his girlfriend, Grace (Keough), to the family’s remote lakeside cabin. It’s a tough sell for the kids: Laura shoots herself when Richard decides to finalize their divorce and marry Grace, which means that Aiden and Mia understandably have a few unresolved negative feelings about their dad’s new love. Of course, no sooner do they settle in than Richard is called away to work, and no sooner does he go than a snowstorm rolls in and leaves Aidan, Mia and Grace housebound with mounting anomalies hinting at a sinister presence in their midst.

There’s nothing like a morbid secret to guarantee a horror film’s succulence, as long as the secret isn’t easily revealed by Occam’s razor. In The Lodge, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, back at it six years after Goodnight Mommy, pile secrets upon yet more secrets, but escalating secrecy muddles their story of resentment and psychosis instead of enhancing it. Worse, the answer to The Lodge’s mystery is the obvious one—and its most unsatisfying—thus proving the old Franciscan friar’s problem-solving principle while rendering fear inert. Franz and Fiala share a wonderful eye for composition and spooky imagery, as well as a strong head on their joined shoulders for casting. Riley Keough, their lead, along with co-stars Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh, perform nicely under the genre’s conditions, sustaining their sense of discomfit in The Lodge’s meticulously curated visual design. This is the kind of horror movie that looks so physically, tangibly real that you might feel like reaching through the screen and brushing your fingers on the fireplace mantle, or lying down in the snow to make angels. Lacking the sturdy architecture of equally meticulous storytelling, details like these give The Lodge structure. If nothing else, they make it easier to overlook weird script-level choices.—Andy Crump / Full Review


34. Just Mercy

just-mercy-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: January 24, 2020
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 136 minutes

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Just Mercy, a by-the-numbers inspirational legal drama that decries the American justice system’s imbalance against the poor and people of color, recreates pro bono civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) impassioned speech to the U.S. Senate in 2008. Stevenson outlines a hopeful future, where the American ideal is finally realized, and everyone is actually treated equally under the law. The cynical among us will likely feel a kneejerk rejection of the protagonist’s idealism—Ava DuVernay’s chilling documentary 13th already offers a more sobering and unvarnished examination of the subject—yet it’s hard not to get swept up in Stevenson’s lifelong dedication to defending the oppressed and the defenseless. It’s also easy to appreciate director Destin Daniel Cretton’s loving tribute to a great man who wholeheartedly believes that while the reality is grim, it’s hope that keeps us alive. —Oktay Ege Kozak / Full Review


33. The Owners

33-the-owners-poster-itunes.jpg Release Date: September 9, 2020
Director: Julius Berg
Starring: Maisie Williams, Sylvester McCoy, Rita Tushingham, Ian Kenny, Andrew Ellis
Genre: Horror
Rating: NR
Runtime: 92 minutes

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Maisie Williams may have carved out a niche as the girl-who-takes-no-shit all the way back in the first season of Game of Thrones, but we should not overlook a possibly related talent—her “lord, boys are stupid” face. When did Williams perfect this look? In “Winter is Coming”? Somewhere further down the line? Regardless, her ability to convey with but a glance exactly how much (or little) she thinks of macho intellect comes in handy in Julius Berg’s The Owners. A “home invasion with a twist” thriller, The Owners is a part of that sub-genre in which bad people break into a seemingly harmless person’s abode and find that they’re not so harmless after all. As Mary, Williams gets plenty of chances to use that aforementioned look for her male compatriots—boyfriend Nathan (Ian Kenny), his slovenly sad sack buddy Terry (Andrew Ellis), and their mutual high-strung associate Gaz (Jake Curran). Berg opens on the guys getting baked in their car, which they’ve parked on a hill overlooking the verdant homestead of Richard (Sylvester McCoy) and Ellen Huggins (Rita Tushingham). Terry’s mom cleans the house, and according to his secondhand knowledge, there’s a safe in the basement likely loaded with cash.

Based on Hermann and Yves H.’s graphic novel Une nuit de pleine lune, The Owners runs at a brisk 90 or so minutes, which could’ve been pruned down to an even leaner 80. That’s a small change, certainly, but significant enough to keep the movie’s adrenaline up: Crazy as the narrative gets, there are plenty of moments that weigh down the narrative with unnecessary ballast that doesn’t actually pay off. Still, more of The Owners means more time spent with Williams and especially McCoy, relishing the chance to play a part as affably sinister as Richard, who goes from seemingly timid to visibly pleased with himself as he smoothly misleads his uninvited guests. Together, McCoy and Williams make The Owners stand out. Newness is a big ask for movies visiting territory this familiar. Two outstanding central performances, however, make a much more reasonable expectation. —Andy Crump / Full Review


32. Banana Split

32-banana-split-poster-itunes.jpg Release Date: March 27, 2020
Director: Benjamin Kasulke
Starring: Hannah Marks, Liana Liberato, Dylan Sprouse, Luke Spencer Roberts
Genre: Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 88 minutes

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Working off of a script written by Hannah Marks and Joey Power, Benjamin Kasulke finds a delicate balance between sweet and sour in Banana Split, a teen rom-com with less emphasis on the “rom,” enough on the “com,” and greater emphasis on complicated friendships between its leads, April (Marks) and Clara (Liana Liberato). They come together not over common interests but a common boy.

Watching Marks and Liberato together on screen is a genuine joy to behold; they’re apparently close off screen, which helps, but even with the camera presiding over their chemistry, they’re unfailingly natural. Nothing they do feels forced, or artificial. Whoever Marks and Liberato are when they’re not on a movie set is irrelevant. What matters is how they engage with each other before Kasulke’s lens (manned by Darin Moran). April’s cool in her way. Clara’s cool in hers. Making this a story of the popular girl getting chummy with the outsider wouldn’t suit Banana Split’s purpose, so Marks and Power have made it a story about two young women looking for how they’re alike, not how they’re different, and discovering the ways they complement each other. —Andy Crump / Full Review


31. Come to Daddy

31-come-to-daddy-poster-itunes.jpg Release Date: March 24, 2020
Director: Ant Timpson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Martin Donovan, Michael Smiley
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 93 minutes

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Ant Timpson’s Come to Daddy has a twist built into its first 40 minutes that’s so integral to the plot, calling it a “twist” feels like a trap, such that using it to describe what happens in Come to Daddy’s second act feels like a big old honking spoiler. But it isn’t a spoiler, it’s just plot development. Suffice it to say that when Norval (Elijah Wood), an effete mama’s boy and hyper-successful DJ, hikes out to a secluded and stylish bachelor cabin on a lake in Oregon to meet his dad, Brian (Stephen McHattie), for the first time in actual ages, their reunion is an instant disappointment.

Don’t mistake Come to Daddy as anything less than unbridled, of course, but for such a staunchly bonkers movie, composure rules Timpson’s aesthetic. He maintains an impressive control over a narrative that, at face value, appears to be constantly spiraling out of control, but that’s part of his design. Throughout, his filmmaking remains precise, and his cast remains in the same key of crazy, notably Michael Smiley as Jethro, a leering, crossbow-slinging lunatic. Smiley draws on his background as a comedian and his comfort with grim genre exercises to bridge the gap between escalating insanity and gallows humor. Regardless, it’s the primal fears Come to Daddy confronts—the fear of a life lived in the shadow of male apathy, the fear of being unwanted—that ultimately hold the film steadiest. —Andy Crump / Full Review


30. The Rhythm Section

30-the-rhythm-section-poster-itunes.jpg Release Date: January 31, 2020
Director: Reed Morano
Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey
Genre: Thriller, Action
Rating: R
Runtime: 109 minutes

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A straight genre exercise that mixes revenge fantasy with a globetrotting assassin adventure, The Rhythm Section may not dig deep, but director Reed Morano handles an impressive balance between the genre’s prerequisite set pieces—full of intense hand-to-hand combat and pulse-pounding action—and an honest examination of how hard it truly is to take a life no matter how much we believe that life deserves to be taken. Screenwriter Mark Burnell, who adapted his novel with the same name, wisely skips typical first act, overindulgent exposition, spending time in the protagonist’s happy home before it’s violently taken away. When we meet Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), the trauma has already occurred. Years ago, her entire family died in a plane crash, and, unable to cope with the insurmountable sorrow, Stephanie turned to a dead-eyed existence of addiction and sex work. Lively, always somber, captures the numbing nature of grief.

The Rhythm Section certainly doesn’t rewrite the structure of the revenge movie. The usual plot twists can still be seen coming a mile away. None of which keeps it from being a smart and insightful genre exercise in an already promising director’s young career. —Oktay Ege Kozak / Full Review


29. VHYes

29-vhyes-poster-itunes.jpg Release Date: January 17, 2020
Director: Jack Henry Robbins
Starring: Mason McNulty, Rahm Braslaw, Christian Drerup, Jake Head
Genre: Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 76 minutes

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After claiming seats for a screening of a horror movie they’re definitely not old enough to watch unsupervised, Ralph (Mason McNulty), the protagonist of Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes, and his best pal Josh (Rahm Braslaw), have a pre-show confab about Ralph’s current obsession. Ralph has a mildly unhealthy attachment to the gift his mom (Christian Drerup) and dad (Jake Head) bought him for Christmas: a camcorder, which he apparently brings with him everywhere and uses to record everything, whether late night TV shows, model rocket launches, or conversations with Josh.

Robbins has basically made a fourth entry in the V/H/S horror series, but by way of the Upright Citizens Brigade and Adult Swim: Think of the film as an extended cousin of Too Many Cooks, where parody gives way to weirdness, which gives way to surrealism, which gives way to genuine horror by the end. Bonkers as the combination sounds, and it is unimpeachably bonkers, the effect of their marriage is hypnotic. That’s probably Robbins’ intent. Just as Ralph falls into the abyss of crappy after hours public access television, so too does the viewer fall under the sway of Robbins’ living collage of a bygone era that, frankly, isn’t that bygone after all. —Andy Crump / Full Review


28. Color Out of Space

color-out-of-space-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: January 24, 2020
Director: Richard Stanley
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight, Joely Richardson
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi
Rating: NR
Runtime: 111 minutes

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The ways movies can capture the one-of-a-kind bizarre textures of H.P. Lovecraft’s work are limited. Known first as a great author and second as an enthusiastic Hitler stan, Lovecraft imagined his personal fears—particularly of “the masses”—into wholly unimaginable entities, his work so tethered to his pants-wetting neuroses that adapting it for a visual medium feels like a masochist’s chore. That makes Richard Stanley perfect for translating Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space” into a feature-length film: The last time he tried making a horror movie it was 1994, and the feature was The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Turning Lovecraft’s words into coherent cinema is a comparative walk in the park, and in Color Out of Space, Stanley gaily strolls ahead with a palette sporting every shade of purple, adding splashes of phlox here and smears of thistle there before coating the screen entirely in heliotrope hues by the end. “Color” is the key word of the movie’s title and the most important tool in Stanley’s work belt: The longer the horror Lovecraft describes on the page endures and infects the world around it, the more vivid Stanley’s imagery becomes. The second most important tool, perhaps expectedly, is Nicolas Cage, starting off the 2020s on the right foot with another Cage-ian horror performance after his stellar work in 2018’s Mandy. If there’s an actor better-suited than Cage for conveying the experience of losing one’s sanity under Lovecraftian duress, the industry hasn’t found them yet. —Andy Crump / Full Review


27. I Used to Go Here

27-i-used-to-go-here-poster-itunes.jpg Release Date: Aug 7, 2020
Director: Kris Rey
Starring: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Hannah Marks, Josh Wiggins
Genre: Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 80 minutes

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Kate Conklin (Community’s Gillian Jacobs) is a 35-year-old writer whose breakout novel is performing poorly and receiving tepid reviews, forcing her publisher to cancel her book tour. On top of that, Kate’s still reeling over her fiance breaking things off with her, constantly obsessing over any opportunity to communicate with him. So when she receives a call from her college mentor, Professor Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement), inviting her to speak at her alma mater regarding her novel, Kate doesn’t hesitate to pack her bags.

While Jacob’s performance as a selfish, struggling writer is rife with charm, the slipperiness of her character as she evades any semblance of self-reflection or reckoning leaves a lingering air of second-hand shame. I Used to Go Here betrays its twee sensibility by dancing with a prickly subject matter ill-suited for surface-level examination. Especially when these relationships are framed as imperfect resolutions to crumbling marriages or momentary lapses of judgement, it only serves to normalize these imbalanced affairs as a forever-ingrained reality of the college experience. —Natalia Keogan / Full Review


26. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

portrait-lady-on-fire-movie-poster.jpg Release: February 14, 2020 (wide)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: R
Runtime: 119 minutes

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French director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire revels in the far-reaching history of women—their relationships, their predicaments, the unrelenting bond that comes with feeling uniquely understood—while also grappling with the patriarchal forces inherent in determining the social mores that ultimately restrict their agency. The film, which takes place sometime before the French Revolution in the late 18th century, introduces us to Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist commissioned to paint the portrait of an aristocratic young woman named Heloïse (Adèle Hannel), which, once completed, will be sent to Milan—where her suitor will covet it until his betrothed arrives. Completely resistant to the idea of marriage, Heloïse has sabotaged previous attempts, leaving Marianne with a difficult assignment. She must not reveal to Heloïse that she has been tasked with painting her, instead posing as a companion for afternoon walks, memorizing the details of Heloïse’s features and toiling on the portrait in secret. The class distinctions between Marianne and Heloïse point to an interesting exploration of the power dynamics at play within the muse/artist dichotomy, but even more beguiling about the relationship is that it is somewhat emblematic of Sciamma’s relationship with Hannel—the two publicly announced their relationship in 2014, amicably separating shortly before the filming of Portrait. Take another recent film that draws from a director’s real-life romantic relationship, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Loosely based on Anderson’s marriage to Maya Rudolph, the film, although subverting many clichés of depicting artist/muse relationships, ultimately concludes with the power dynamic intact. Sciamma has no interest in following the oft-petty conflicts between creative types and their romantic partners, instead opting to present a bigger picture of a relationship forged out of the climactic act of knowing another person, not just feeling inspired by what they mean for one’s art. —Natalia Keogan


25. Saint Frances

saint-frances-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: February 28, 2020
Director: Alex Thompson
Starring: Kelly O’Sullivan, Ramona Edith Williams, Charin Alvarez, Max Lipchitz
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 106 minutes

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Kelly O’Sullivan, author and star of Saint Frances, understands that no judgment falls harder on a mom than the judgment of other moms, whether for breastfeeding in public or falling apart with postpartum depression in private. She understands a good deal more, too, because the movie has much on its mind in addition to the macro- and microaggressions that women perpetrate on other women. For instance: the complications of growing up millennial, of dating a younger man, of how much it hurts, and how it hurts in every way possible, to exercise agency over one’s body. Alex Thompson directs Saint Frances with a frothy touch, adding a kind of breeziness to each frame, even when the narrative takes pit stops in moments of human despair. The relaxed filmmaking could read as casual flippancy for the film’s material, but Thompson’s direction cleverly reflects the informal quality of his protagonist, Bridget (O’Sullivan), a 30-something woman drifting through life without a plan or even a sky chart for navigating adulthood. She’s aimless, listless, inwardly aware that she wants more and that she’s capable of more, but out of touch with what “more” means or how the hell she goes about getting it.

Stringing all of these thoughts and ideas into a coherent whole is the hardest work of all, and O’Sullivan and Thompson succeed with an abundance of charm and, best of all, no judgment. Saint Frances gets specific, stays lighthearted, but hits like a ton of emotional bricks. —Andy Crump


24. Deerskin

24-deerskin-poster-itunes.jpg Release Date: March 20, 2020
Director: Quentin Dupieux
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel
Genre: Comedy, Horror, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 77 minutes

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Christianity counts the following among the signs of the Apocalypse: Death saddling up a pale horse, stars plummeting from the sky, kings hiding under rocks, and seven angels making a racket on their trumpets. “Quentin Dupieux making an accessible film” doesn’t show up in the Book of Revelations, but lo, death abounds all the world over, an asteroid 1.5 miles wide recently hurtled by Earth, and Dupieux’s latest bizarro ode to cinema, Deerskin, is screening virtually while the angelic host’s brass remains silent. John of Patmos got it all wrong.

Out of context, “accessible Dupieux” is oxymoronic, like “jumbo shrimp,” “bittersweet,” and “compassionate conservative,” but Deerskin, though every bit as strange as is to be expected from the Parisian DJ-cum-electronic musician-cum-filmmaker, makes sense without undercutting the qualities that define Dupieux’s body of work. It’s entirely unlike every other movie presently enjoying a last-minute VOD release, being a well-made, proudly weird, genre-agnostic commentary on themes ranging from middle age male vanity to navel-gazing, self-obsessed independent cinema. Unlike Dupieux’s prior work, à la Rubber, Wrong and Reality, Deerskin’s determination to explain itself as little as possible is complemented by its internal logic. The delight the film takes in the script’s eccentricities is inviting rather than alienating.—Andy Crump


23. Sea Fever

sea-fever-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: April 10, 2020
Director: Neasa Hardiman
Starring: Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Connie Nielsen, Ardalan Esmaili
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Rating: NR
Runtime: 89 minutes

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Talk about bad timing. Or good timing? Whether Sea Fever’s release coinciding with the pandemic is to either the film’s benefit or detriment is a question without a concrete answer, but like Nicolas Pesce’s The Grudge, it’s all a matter of strange kismet. How else to take a horror movie about people stuck in tight quarters together, endangered by a heretofore unknown entity that transmits to hosts with but a touch and kills in geysers of blood? And the one person in the cast smart enough to make deductions and offer advisories on how to proceed is routinely ignored by everybody else, especially when that person identifies self-isolation as the safest course of action. Prescient! Sea Fever, however, isn’t about a virus but an undiscovered lifeform that inhabits the photic zone, basically a gargantuan tentacled thing that passes on its spawn to other organisms, which then explode violently from said organisms’ eyeballs. The creature menaces the crew of a fishing trawler off the West coast of Ireland, including Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), the introverted marine life expert brought on board to sort out “anomalies” in the catch. She’s also the only one capable of figuring out what’s happening to the boat, and the crew, in what reads as an amalgam of The Thing and Leviathan, with maybe a bit of The Abyss in there as well. Sea Fever’s gory, claustrophobic paranoia is only part of its pleasure. There’s terror in the depths, but bioluminescent beauty, too, the kind that inspires Irish folklore when it should inspire a moratorium on fishing. Sea Fever didn’t get to pick its moment, but the moment is ripe for movies like it to help put in perspective the matter of quarantine. A great movie at any time, but an unexpectedly thought-provoking movie for the time that we’re in. —Andy Crump


22. Little Joe

little-joe-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: March 10, 2020
Director: Jessica Hausner
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, David Wilmot
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 100 minutes

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Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe may not be as straightforwardly campy as Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, as squirmy as Carter Smith’s The Ruins, or as pants-on-head stupid as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, but in its way it’s equally as weird as each. These movies each work to offset the innate unbelievability of their premises, including Little Joe, a deliberately paced bit of Marxist criticism that’s equally as coy as it is chilling. Botanist Alice (Emily Beecham) has perfected her attempts at fashioning a genetically modified plant, designed to emit a scent to stir feelings of deep contentment in any person who catches a whiff of its bouquet. Alice has denied her creation reproductive capabilites because as movies have taught us, taking sex organs away from sentient beings bred in a lab is never a terrible idea. So it goes in Little Joe, as Alice’s colleagues fall one by one under the crimson plant’s sway and quietly devote themselves to its propagation, like genial, low-key pod persons. Whether viewers find Little Joe frightening or funky depends on where they’re sitting. Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard very clearly don’t intend the film as an outright scary experience on the page. There’s a distance between the characters, and in turn between the characters and the audience, an emotional buffer that keeps everybody at arm’s length from one another. No wonder Alice engineers a house plant to induce chemical happiness—joy is a rare commodity in Little Joe. In a nifty little tweak of the botanical horror niche’s formula, the happier a character is, the more likely it is that they’ve been snared by Little Joe’s intoxicating aura, and honestly: Is that really so bad? —Andy Crump


21. The High Note

the-high-note-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 11, 2020 (Blu-ray)
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Zoe Chao, Eddie Izzard, Bill Pullman, Diplo
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 113 minutes

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The entertainment industry is not kind to women over 40. Often movies, including the recent biopic Judy, love to tell the story of an aging star clinging to her (it’s almost always her) last grasps of fame. Oh, let’s all look on her with pity. How sad that she cannot accept her fate and fade gracefully away. Delightfully, The High Note is not that kind of movie. Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a megastar. Yes she’s over 40 with no recent hits, but she still performs to sold-out crowds and is coming off her extremely successful tenth world tour. Caesars Palace wants to lock her in for a decade-long residency. The movie doesn’t necessarily view a Vegas residency as selling out, but it’s definitely not a desired outcome (sorry Mariah, Celine, et. al.), and she is also keenly aware that only five women over the age of 40 have ever had a number one hit. Enter Grace’s assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), or Margaret as Grace insists on calling her: a walking encyclopedia of music trivia, but what Maggie really wants to do is produce and she’s secretly produced an alternate version of Grace’s live album. Happily, a burgeoning romance takes a backseat to the main thrust of the story—the friendship and working rapport between Grace and Maggie. Professional fulfillment for both Grace and Maggie is the crux of the conflict. How often does a movie just allow a woman’s career aspirations to take center stage? Light, fluffy and sugarcoated, The High Note feels like a throwback to another time when studios produced movies with the sole purpose of putting a little spring in viewer’s step. That we would all leave the movie theater (or, as is the case now, the virtual movie theater) smiling. That also makes it seem a little more like a Hallmark movie and less like a major theatrical release, but it still comes close to dependably hitting the right note, even if it doesn’t quite end on the high. —Amy Amatangelo


20. Lucky Grandma

lucky-grandma-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 11, 2020 (Blu-ray)
Director: Sasie Sealy
Starring: Tsai Chin, Corey Ha, Michael Chau
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 87 minutes

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The gag at the center of Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma is all about starting over again. Grandma (Tsai Chin), who smokes like an industrial chimney over the protests of her dutiful son, is widowed after decades of wrapping up her identity in her marriage to her late husband, and decides to find herself by taking a bus trip to a casino. She wins big. She wins bigger. Then her scorching hot streak comes to an end and she forfeits her winning. Bad luck. But the guy next to her on the ride back kicks it and leaves a sack of cash right next to her, so she takes it and runs afoul of his associates, hoodlums belonging to a local gang. Enter Grandma’s new life caught betwixt two rival criminal outfits at war with one another.

Chin doesn’t need to be talked up as a great actress, but her performance in Lucky Grandma is a great turn in her career’s latter day. Grandma doesn’t muck about. She’s grouchy, she’s stubborn and she’s determinedly unconcerned with what people think about either of these qualities. She’s also really, really good at negotiating with thugs, haggling her way to a cheaper price tag on her gangster bodyguard, Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), to protect her from the toughs trying to scare the money out of her. “Old people say the darndest things” is one of indie cinema’s hackiest comic subgenres: Take any workaday vulgarities and put them in the mouths of any septuagenarian or octogenarian actor, and boom, that’s low-hanging fruit for arthouse cinemas patronized by audiences ranking in the same age groups. But Lucky Grandma is better written and directed than most of these movies, demonstrated by the variety in Sealy’s technique and in Grandma’s brief. She isn’t a caricature. She’s a person tangled up in a rough circumstance.

The film doesn’t nudge viewers in the ribs to make sure they’re in on the joke because Sealy’s craftsmanship doesn’t require it. Lucky Grandma has eccentricities, of course, but they speak for themselves without belaboring the point. Instead, they’re hilarious on merit instead of insistence, and unimpeachably human regardless of the noirish absurdities of its plot. That doesn’t take luck to pull off. It takes skill. —Andy Crump


19. She Dies Tomorrow

she-dies-tomorrow-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 7, 2020
Director: Amy Seimetz
Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil, Kentucker Audley, Kate Aselton, Chris Messina, Jennifer Kim
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 84 minutes

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Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), for inexplicable reasons, is infernally convinced that tomorrow’s the day she’s going to meet her maker. Making a bad situation worse, her confidence is catching: Through an eerie, fatalist game of telephone, her friends and family, and even total strangers with whom they interact, come to believe they’re going to die tomorrow, too. It’s almost like they’ve been gaslit, except they’re the ones soaking themselves with lighter fluid, sparking off a chain reaction of macabre determinism in which each person afflicted by the curse of languages sees the end coming for them in 24 hours or less. Whatever force has Amy so assured of her impending doom, whatever entity has lodged in her mind pictures of her passing, director Amy Seimetz keeps its presence minimal. She’s focused on outcomes and not on confrontations. There’s no resisting death, after all. Everybody has to go sometime. Jason (Chris Messina), brother to Jane (Jane Adams), Amy’s bestie, even says as much while washing the dishes with his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), both of them having caught Amy’s bummer pathogens from Jane when she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday dinner party. He glances at the window over the kitchen sink and sees the same sight as Amy just 20 minutes prior: vivid flashing lights, red and blue at first, then yellow, green, violet, each color interspersed with split second jolts of images that to the naked eye are best described as “uterine.” Jason’s going to die tomorrow. Susan’s going to die tomorrow. Seimetz and editor Kate Brokaw cut to Tilly (Jennifer Kim) and Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), Jason and Susan’s dinner guests, smiling and crying as they, too, see the lights. Viewers will gravitate toward their own characters with whom they can identify, whether they’re pissed or petrified. Mercifully, She Dies Tomorrow’s exploration of inevitable human fate expresses more about death than angst and ennui. We’re inclined to put off tomorrow because tomorrow guarantees a new round of soul-crushing devastation. Thinking about tomorrow, however, prepares us to resist the crush. Counting days inflicts only as much anguish as we allow. Maybe we’ll die tomorrow. —Andy Crump


18. Yes, God, Yes

yes-god-yes-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: July 28, 2020
Director: Karen Maine
Starring: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons, Francesca Reale, Wolfgang Novogratz
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 78 minutes

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A Christian’s hypocrisy is accurately measured by their piety: The louder they caterwaul about other people’s sins, the more likely they are to have a closet packed with their own perversions. Karen Maine gets it. Her debut feature, Yes, God, Yes, adapted from her debut short of the same name, is glazed around a big, moist cake of sexual sanctimony. Fart-sniffing Christian holier-than-thou gossipmongers fall on the perceived weakling of their flock, young Alice (Natalia Dyer), accused of tossing salad even though she doesn’t even know what the blue hell that means.

Alice actually is innocent, unlike her peers. Her only wrongdoing isn’t wrong at all: She stumbles onto an AOL chat room, catches a glimpse of some hardcore porn sans context, and then decides to start discovering her own body just before she’s sent off on a retreat run by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons), a man with a necessarily wide smile, stretched so far that his face is primed to split but in danger of collapsing should he stop. Yes, God, Yes stitches Alice’s coming of age to a culture where talking about coming is verboten; Maine looks for humor in her experiential screenplay and finds it, but it’s a bleak kind of humor punctuated by hopelessness. If the authority figures in a society break the rules they set out for everyone else to follow, then navigating that society as a reasonable person is impossible. But Dyer’s spirited work as Alice gives the film a plucky heart. Maybe she can’t affect actual change here, but she can, at least, do right by herself. Dyer’s star has risen in the last half decade or so, and Yes, God, Yes further validates her gifts as an actress. Maine lets the camera linger on Dyer’s face when she’s confronted with obscenity, and Dyer lets her eyes and mouth and cheeks perform hilarious, expressive gymnastics. At the same time, she conveys fear—the fear of realizing that the adults of Alice’s life are all bullshit artists, the fear of having no one to confide in about her natural curiosities and urges—with wounded brilliance. She’s the perfect actress to realize Maine’s deft critique of religious sexual duplicity. —Andy Crump


17. Shirley

shirley-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: June 5, 2020
Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 107 minutes

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The opening scene of Shirley sets the stage for the kind of women we can expect to take us on this strange, seductive journey. And even in a time where I’m pretty sure we need to abolish both the police and white people as a whole, I found myself excited by a young white woman named Rose, sometimes called Rosie (Odessa Young). Riding the train. Engrossed in a New Yorker story called “The Lottery.” She gets to the ending, and breathlessly tells her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) how it went down. How a woman was stoned to death by an entire town—and her own children, too. Her husband is repulsed, and because Rose is a gorgeous white woman with a stunning red lip, and those sweet, wavy 1950s curls, we expect her to be repulsed as well. But she’s not. She’s fascinated, thrilled, horrified…and turned on. ‘Okay,’ I thought to myself, as Rosie, high off Shirley Jackson’s haunting story, fucks her husband in the train bathroom. “You got me. I’m in.” And I was still in, as I’m sure you were, when we, along with Rose and her husband, make it to the home of horror author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), where Jackson and her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbargh, incredible as always), are holding court and celebrating the author’s latest work.

Moss’s performance doesn’t always land perfectly in Shirley, but as a duo, she and Stuhlbarg are engaging to watch. It’s even more true for the duo of Shirley and Rose, who meet at the party, where Rose introduces herself as the wife of Stanley’s new assistant. Shirley, a curmudgeon disinterested in all manner of small talk, and seemingly unimpressed with anyone in her fanbase, tries to wave her off. But Rose won’t have it; she’s not like the other girls, the other casual fans of Shirley’s work. (And after that opening scene, we believe her.) She’s different, she promises Shirley. It’s a promise made by the film, too. And it’s a promise that isn’t completely honored. —Shannon M. Houston


16. Judy & Punch

jusy-and-punch-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: June 5, 2020
Director: Mirrah Foulkes
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Lucy Honigman, Benedict Hardie
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 106 minutes

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There’s a texture in Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch suggesting Guillermo del Toro, an off-kilter whimsy suggesting Terry Gilliam and a throughline of feminine vengeance suggesting a majority of the work Mia Wasikowska has done throughout her career. Flipping the old English marionette play Punch & Judy about, the film lays its eyes on Judy (Wasikowska), the dutiful but long-suffering wife and partner to her drunkard husband, Punch (Damon Herriman), proclaimed a genius by his audience and by himself. He is, as first introduced, not the worst, but over time makes the decision to become the worst through indulgence of his own reputation, not to mention too much alcohol. His ego and stupidity leads to the death of his and Judy’s baby, which is a warning to parents: Don’t watch this movie if that kind of thing gives you the queasies.

Punch also beats Judy within an inch of her life, and after being nursed back to health by exiles from the town of Seaside, which is nowhere near a sea, she sets out for blood. The set-up is more satisfying than the climax, which is, disappointingly, mostly bloodless, but what a deliciously grim time Foulkes has until then. Judy & Punch has a lived-in sense of identity, as if its author shot on location at a shitty old renaissance-era English hamlet, where mob rule is law and people are generally awful out of habituation. The way Foulkes uses subversion to both pick apart the cultural value of the old stage show, and also to explore the horror and tragedy of Punch’s misogyny, is darkly pleasing, though the film doesn’t quite stick the landing.Regardless, what she achieves beforehand is compelling enough to make a good case for Foulkes’ future. —Andy Crump


15. You Don’t Nomi

you-dont-nomi-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: July 21, 2020
Director: Jeffrey McHale
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
Runtime: 92 minutes

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For those of us culturally conscious during Showgirls’ release in 1995—who understood the inherently jarring nature of witnessing Jessie Spano rebuke her Valedictorian ways and succumb to the seedy world of adult exploitation—Jeffrey McHale’s witty and endlessly fascinating film essay, You Don’t Nomi, is a welcome codification of the film’s cult status. Loosely divided into sections addressing the film’s most notorious criticisms, as well as how it stands up to assessments as a misunderstood masterpiece and operates in conversation with Paul Verhoeven’s other films, McHale’s documentary eschews talking heads for voice overs from critics and programmers (David Schmader, Adam Nayman, Haley Mlotek), as well as the star of the Showgirls musical (April Kidwell), to wax both academically and emotionally about what the movie means to them. Some are obsessed, some disgusted; in some cases, McHale uses images to contradict the critics, often cuing up clips from Basic Instinct or Black Book or Elle or Verhoeven’s pre-Hollywood films to demonstrate that the issues he explores in Showgirls have never been far from his mind. Such is the fate of a film like Showgirls, one whose reputation (which McHale examines too) thrives on being considered in a vacuum, rather than as a piece of an auteur’s much broader oeuvre. As affectionately hyper-focused as he is on explication—on symbols and subtext and the director’s own (probably purposely) obtuse comments—and as much room as he gives to, in some ways, revitalizing and reconsidering Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as the titular and extremely weird Nomi, McHale never loses sight of that important context. Or that even more important love. —Dom Sinacola


14. The King of Staten Island

king-staten-island.jpg Release Date: June 12, 2020
Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Pete Davidson, Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei, Bel Powley, Ricky Velez
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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It’s hard to pull off a cohesive tone with dramedies about mental illness. The comedy part demands a quippy protagonist who masks their inner pain with killer comebacks. The drama part comes with the obligatory scenes of emotional purge, the defensive walls tumbling down and our protagonist exposing their fragile state. The tonal shift can be sudden enough to give you whiplash. Pete Davidson co-wrote and stars in The King of Staten Island, a messy but honest exploration of a millennial stoner’s journey to finding purpose in life despite living with grief and depression. Davidson is sometimes uncomfortably open about his own struggles with mental health in his stand-up act; his no-fucks-given vibe, combined with co-writer/director Judd Apatow’s brand of R-rated wholesomeness, culminates in a series of beautifully raw moments. The loose character-study structure, or lack thereof, can be both refreshing and frustrating. The weed-infused banter between Scott and his BFFs (Ricky Velez, Moises Arias and Lou Wilson), culminating in a bittersweet confession about Scott’s shitty tattoo work, crackles with the energy that’s expected from Apatow’s reputation as a stalwart of bromance humor. And Bill Burr was born to play the quintessential “cranky working class middle-aged dad with a heart of gold” archetype; he fit the part even when he was an up-and-coming comic in his 20s. The grayscale, docu-drama depiction of Staten Island by P.T. Anderson’s regular DP Robert Elswit mirrors Scott’s depression, and subtly lightens up as Scott discovers his worth. Scott’s growth was always going to be tied to his toxic relationship with Ray, and it’s in this dynamic The King of Staten Island shines. The movie is indulgent and unfocused, but it’s also gripping and full of life. Kind of like its protagonist. —Oktay Ege Kozak


13. Becky

becky.jpg Release Date: June 5, 2020
Directors: Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion
Starring: Lulu Wilson, Kevin James, Robert Maillet, Joel McHale, Amanda Brugel
Genre: Action, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 94 minutes

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Becky delivers Nazi-killing action in what’s essentially a mash-up of Home Alone and The Aggression Scale, with a sprinkle of I Spit on Your Grave on top. Becky is about, well, Becky (Lulu Wilson), a deeply troubled teen with a cornball single dad (Joel McHale), a dead mother and breathtaking anger management issues. Becky and dad don’t get on very well, no matter how hard he tries, because if teenage boys are mollusks, teenage girls are Venus flytraps. Nothing the poor putz does to cheer her up is met by a half-smile, much less gratitude and a hug, so he goes for broke and plans a weekend away at their lake house for just the two of them, plus his new fiancée, Kayla (Amanda Brugel), and her young son, Ty (Isaiah Rockcliffe). Naturally, Becky feels betrayed and angered by the surprise, but the feelings dissipate when they’re joined by more unwelcome visitors: a gang of white supremacists led by Dominick (Kevin James), on the run after escaping from prison and making a pit stop at the house to retrieve a McGuffin hid there prior to incarceration. James is surprisingly good in the role, a quiet, menacing and, thanks to the persona he’s cultivated over years playing hapless dopes, totally unassuming. Don’t confuse Becky for a smart movie. It won’t teach audiences anything valuable, or even new, about the disease of white supremacist ideology. It won’t leave folks holding hands in solidarity against racism and prejudice at a time when solidarity is like oxygen. It will, however, provide a brief burst of catharsis through the brutal slaughter of white supremacist ideologues, for whatever that catharsis is worth. —Andy Crump


12. Gretel & Hansel

gretel-hansel-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: January 30, 2020
Director: Oz Perkins
Starring: Sophia Lillis, Samuel Leakey, Alice Krige
Genre: Horror
Rating: PG-13

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Director Oz Perkins’ first two features, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, are meticulously constructed examples of slow burn horror, favoring ever-building, chilling atmosphere over quick scares. He begins Gretel & Hansel with a traditional fairy tale structure, only for it to degenerate into an otherworldly, hopeless tone, Perkins liberally playing with space and time. Accordingly, production and costume designs borrow from multiple time periods—slightly resembling medieval Europe—while characters speak in Shakespearean prose, their body language still distinctly modern. Instead of the usual sea of white faces for such a tale, different races that seem to have equal social standing populate this world. Perkins purposefully juxtaposes Galo Olivares’s classically picturesque cinematography, imbued with the illusion of natural light, against Robin Coudert’s synth-heavy score that resembles Wendy Carlos’s work for Stanley Kubrick. The film thrives within a dream-logic vibe, especially in Olivares’ cinematography, with its heavy emphasis on symmetrical framing, stark contast and lush use of yellows and blues, evoking subliminal terror. Gretel & Hansel continues the director’s streak as a unique voice in modern horror filmmaking. —Oktay Ege Kozak


11. We Summon the Darkness

we-summon.jpg
Release Date: April 10, 2020
Director: Marc Meyers
Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Amy Forsyth, Maddie Hasson, Johnny Knoxville
Genre: Horror
Rating: R
Runtime: 91 minutes

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Roughly 30 minutes into Marc Meyers’ We Summon the Darkness, the tables turn. The twist isn’t telegraphed. Paranoid viewers might catch the scent of something “off,” the way people with hyperosmia know the milk’s gone bad before opening up the carton, but noticing the clues that Meyers, screenwriter Alan Trezza and the film’s main cast—Alexandra Daddario, Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth—leave on the screen takes a little deductive reasoning and a lot of psychological study. No one gives anything away. Instead, Meyers carefully pulls the truth from the set-up, and in the process hints at not a small amount of relish on his part. He’s having fun. A good twist should be fun, and We Summon the Darkness does indeed have a good twist, but Meyers, Trezza and especially Daddario appear to realize that the pleasure of a twist isn’t the reveal, it’s figuring out how to hide the twist in plain sight. This is, at first, a horror story about teenagers uniting under the banner of heavy metal in 1980s America, a time when God-fearing Christian bedwetters saw proof of devil worship everywhere they gawked and blamed the rise of Satanism on objectively awesome things like Dungeons & Dragons and Dio. Half an hour in, We Summon the Darkness still is that story, but told from the perspective of religious vultures who happily exploit the fears of the flock to profit the church. It’s a ferocious joy to watch, particularly in light of how well We Summon the Darkness holds back on secrets. Tipping the hand too much would be easy; the tells only become clear after the fact, couched in a choice of words here, a moment of hesitation there, a dose of forced enthusiasm there. For as unrestrained as things get, it’s the initial restraint that’s most memorable. —Andy Crump


10. Zombi Child

zombi-child-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: January 24, 2020
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Starring: Louise Lebeque, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Wislanda Louimat
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 103 minutes

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What does and doesn’t constitute cultural appropriation? Tracking down your classmate’s mambo aunt and begging her, in between offering her wads of money, to cast a voodoo spell on your pretty boy ex? French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s latest picture, Zombi Child, is half historical account, half racial reckoning—entirely ambitious, and equally as ambiguous. Bonello is white, just like Fanny (Louise Labeque), his bratty, lovesick protagonist, a student at the Légion d’honneur boarding school, which Napoleon established for the purposes of educating the daughters of men awarded the, well, the Légion d’honneur, and where entry remains a hereditary right. To her, voodoo is a means to an end, that end being that Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), her beau, has his soul bound to hers. To Katy (Katiana Milfort), a Haitian voodoo priestess, and to Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), Katy’s niece and Fanny’s literary sorority sister, it’s a spiritual discipline, an aesthetic and a way of life, rich with beauty but carefully marked by caution signs to keep practitioners from making decisions they’ll regret. Zombi Child treats voodoo as a character in its own right, a living organism to be revered and not screwed around with. Naturally, Fanny’s first instinct upon hearing of Mélissa’s ancestry and her connection to voodoo is to try and screw around with it, as if voodoo is a class of magic in D&D rather than a set of syncretic religions practiced in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Louisiana and Brazil. Mélissa tries educating Fanny and her friends on what voodoo means to her as the granddaughter of Clairvius Narcisse, on whose life Zombi Child is based: In 1962, Narcisse (played here by Mackenson Bijou), died, was buried, then returned to life as a zombie, meaning he was actually mickeyed with a melange that made him seem dead, buried alive, then dug up by plantation owners who forced him to harvest sugar cane as their stupefied thrall. Zombi Child isn’t a horror movie. It does, however, take notes from horror grammar, and the audacity of Bonello’s filmmaking is enough to inspire madness. But the heart that drives Zombi Child forward beats in the pursuit of cultural justice. The film wrestles with identity, and with whiteness especially, and with France’s reputation as an icon of revolution alongside its unflattering reputation as a colonial power guilty of inhuman atrocities. The conclusions Bonello draws are inevitably vague, but the most important message is obvious: That’s cultural appropriation. —Andy Crump


9. The Whistlers

whistlers-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: April 3, 2020 (US)
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Stars: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Sabin Tambrea, Rodica Lazar, Agusti Villaronga
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 97 minutes

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Director Corneliu Porumboiu is no stranger to procedures or regulations, nor insensitive to the ways in which the strictures we impose on ourselves and others end up wrapping us up from within. His previous film, the documentary Infinite Football, allows his friend Laurentiu Ginghina time and cinematic space to explain the many modifications and new rules to enact in order to, he believes, completely revitalize the sport of football—all while exorcising the trauma of post-Communist Romania. The crime drama, then, is a genre particularly suited to Porumboiu’s concerns, and his latest, The Whistlers, appears as much a pulp exercise as a stylish deconstruction of social order in all its forms, from the institutions of justice to the basic tenets of language. In it, laconic, mild-mannered cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) navigates an elaborate schema of criminal enterprise and double-crossing police to walk away with a life-changing amount of stolen drug money. The key to much of the film’s convolution can be found on La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, where Cristi learns a native whistling language called El Silbo in order to clandestinely communicate with archetypal folks like Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), the girlfriend of Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) who owns a mattress warehouse through which he’ll abscond with money stolen from mob boss Paco (Augusti Villaronga), all while avoiding Police Chief Magda (Rodica Lazar), Cristi’s boss and another remnant of Communist Romania left to her own self-serving motivations. Though Porumboiu recalibrates a typical neo-noir plot by playing with chronologies and perspectives, adding a dose of pitch-black humor to leaven the film’s ostensible bleakness—and cinematographer Tudor Mircea’s shots of the Spanish coast are something to behold—rather than amounting to placeholders lost in a twisty plot twisted for the sake of it, Porumboiu’s many players survive the chaos. They are defined by it. We understand who these people are through the ways in which they struggle to escape the system. And by the time we’ve untangled the film’s plot, we’re offered a final moment of catharsis, a sense—after 90 minutes of state-sanctioned violence and depravity—of what freedom feels like. —Dom Sinacola


8. The Painter and the Thief

painter-and-the-thief-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: May 22, 2020
Director: Benjamin Ree
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
Runtime: 107 minutes

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Career criminal and addict Karl-Bertil Nordland lays his eyes on the oil canvas portrait painted by his most recent victim, artist Barbora Kysilkova, 15 minutes into Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, and then experiences a character arc’s worth of emotions in about as many seconds: shock, confusion, bewilderment, horror, awe, then finally gratitude communicated through tears. For the first time in his adult life, maybe in all his life, Nordland feels seen. It’s a stunning portrait, so vivid and detailed that Nordland looks like he’s about to saunter off the frame from his still life loll. Even a subject lacking his baggage would be just as gobsmacked as he is to look on Kysilkova’s work. In another movie, this one of a kind moment of vulnerability might’ve been the end. In The Painter and the Thief, it’s only the beginning of a moving odyssey through friendship, human connection and ultimate expressions of empathy. Ree’s filmmaking is a trust fall from a highrise. Trust is necessary for any documentary, but for Ree, it’s fundamental. The Painter and the Thief isn’t exactly “about” Nordland and Kysilkova the way most documentaries are “about” their subjects, in the sense that the film’s most dramatic reveals come as surprises to the viewer as much as to Nordland and Kysilkova themselves. The sentiment reads as cliché at a glance, but The Painter and the Thief argues that clichés exist for a reason. Think better of art’s power, Ree’s filmmaking tells us, but especially think better of each other, too. —Andy Crump


7. The Other Lamb

other-lamb-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: April 3, 2020
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
Starring: Michiel Huisman, Raffey Cassidy, Denise Gough
Genre: Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 94 minutes

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The so-called “Shepherd” sends Selah (Raffey Cassidy) to the hills to deliver a newborn lamb. Instead, she returns with blood-stained hands and the wrath of an almost anthropomorphic ram, who—for the rest of The Other Lamb—follows her around, breathing heavily, angry horns in her face and stony eyes challenging hers. The horror of The Other Lamb accrues slowly. Director Malgorzata Szumowska is a master of world building; the film is told through cult member Selah’s perspective, with the cult leader, the “Shepherd” (Michiel Huisman), existing as a more-or-less silent and cruel specter. Initially, the followers believe that only the male leader has the right to tell stories, but The Other Lamb skewers the male gaze. In the film, to see is to know—and to surveil. The leader organizes his all-women cult into two horrifying categories: Those who wear red frocks are forced to be his “wives” and the ones wearing blue are his “daughters,” many of whom, if not all, are his biological daughters (Szumowska obscures some of these details). He knows everyone’s menstrual cycles, and he seems to always be lurking, trying to pluck the next daughter from childhood and make her his wife as soon as she begins her period. His favorite daughter, the pious Selah, however, begins to perceive his insidiousness and grows fearsome of the impending arrival of her period. As in Ari Aster’s cult thriller Midsommar, viewers can find allusions to fascism and religious extremism in The Other Lamb, but the film is less interested in exploring the leader’s obvious cruelty at length than it is concerned with Selah’s inevitably gory pilgrimage. It’s a resonant tale of a young woman who learns to reject the deeply patriarchal system in which she was raised, to carve out a narrative outside of the one she has been forced to believe. —Isabella Bridie DeLeo


6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

never-rarely-sometimes-always-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: March 13, 2020
Director: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Sharon Van Etten, Ryan Eggold
Genre: Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 95 minutes

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I keep thinking about the suitcase: Skylar (Talia Ryder) packs sweaters and a pair of jeans into an oversized travel bag (oversized, at least, for what is supposed to be a day-long trip). The next morning, Skylar and her cousin Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) board a bus from their hometown in rural Pennsylvania to New York City. When they get to Manhattan, the cousins take turns carrying the large bag, guarding it, rolling it on the sidewalk, lugging it up and down steep subway stairs. The pair has carefully planned a trip to New York so that Autumn can get an abortion without her mom (Sharon Van Etten) and stepdad (Ryan Eggold) knowing, since Pennsylvania requires parental consent for the procedure. The bag is the burden they carry; Never Rarely Sometimes Always—in emotive close ups, creating intimacy as if the viewer gets a chance to see the world through Autumn’s often solemn, stoic gaze—chronicles Autumn’s tortuous and convoluted path just to take agency over her body, studying the patience and perseverance that women often need to navigate the world. It’s a film punctuated by waiting, for one appointment or the other, or for the promise of safety. There are, however, brief moments that remind audiences that Autumn and Skylar are just kids—playing arcade games, or enjoying the thrill of an unfamiliar city—and these scenes, provide, at least, glimmers of respite or perhaps windows into what life could be if like if they didn’t have to work so hard for bodily autonomy. —Isabella Bridie DeLeo


5. The Invisible Man

invisible-man-2020-movie-poster.jpg Release: February 28, 2020
Director: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman
Genre: Horror, Mystery & Suspense, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes

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Aided by elemental forces, her exquisitely wealthy boyfriend’s Silicon Valley house blanketed by the deafening crash of ocean waves, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) softly pads her way out of bed, through the high-tech laboratory, escaping over the wall of his compound and into the car of her sister (Harriet Dyer). We wonder: Why would she run like this if she weren’t abused? Why would she have a secret compartment in their closet where she can stow an away bag? Then Cecilia’s boyfriend appears next to the car and punches in its window. His name is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and according to Cecilia, Adrian made a fortune as a leading figure in “optics” (OPTICS!) meeting the self-described “suburban girl” at a party a few years before. Never one to be subtle with his themes, Leigh Whannell has his villain be a genius in the technology of “seeing,” in how we see, to update James Whale’s 1933 Universal Monster film—and H.G. Wells’ story—to embrace digital technology as our primary mode of modern sight. Surveillance cameras limn every inch of Adrian’s home; later he’ll use a simple email to ruin Cecilia’s relationship with her sister. He has the money and resources to peer into any corner of Cecilia’s life. His gaze is unbroken. Cecilia knows that Adrian will always find her, and The Invisible Man is rife with the abject terror of such vulnerability. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio have a knack for letting their frames linger with space, drawing our attention to where we, and Cecilia, know an unseen danger lurks. Of course, we’re always betrayed: Corners of rooms and silhouette-less doorways aren’t empty, aren’t negative, but pregnant with assumption—until they aren’t, the invisible man never precisely where we expect him to be. We begin to doubt ourselves; we’re punished by tension, and we feel like we deserve it. It’s all pretty marvelous stuff, as much a well-oiled genre machine as it is yet another showcase for Elisabeth Moss’s herculean prowess. —Dom Sinacola


4. Heimat Is a Space in Time

heimat-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: September 2019 (TIFF)
Director: Thomas Heise
Rating: NR
Runtime: 218 minutes

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Sites of acknowledged historical significance—battlefields, museums or specific locations of importance—hardly seem to exist in the present tense; they live as cordoned-off spaces of reflection and contemplation, where a peaceful Now blankets a turbulent Then. Visitors who pass through know that the history that has happened in this space is so consequential it has caused time to stop, that nothing else can happen atop what has already taken place. The present cannot look forward. It must look back.

Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, a three-and-a-half-hour first-person opus tracing his family’s march through the troubled course of 20th century German and Austrian history, takes on the very sort of sensation described above, itself an isolated space for reflection on the past and an individual’s power in a flawed society. Heise presents passions and tribulations of yesteryear matter-of-factly, as if they are evidence of a deterministic perspective suggesting, with ample evidence, that our lives and our choices are dictated by the systems that organize our societies. When Heise reads a correspondence between his mother, Rosemarie, and one of her first lovers, Udo—the couple separated by the East/West Berlin split—he presents their discussions dryly, as if he did not know either party. Heise emphasizes how these bureaucratic limitations exist ideologically and spatially, quite literally shaping the opportunities available to us: The world imposes rules at the whims of those in power, and suddenly people who were together are apart even while living in the same city. This is a history specific to Berlin, but Heimat also views this trajectory as universal, just another rise and fall and rise of governments and systems. Yet the personal stories of Heise’s family, who remained in East Germany under the German Democratic Republic, inform this entire perspective, and its toll on the individual is never far from sight. The film, then, works as its own cordoned-off historical site: a plane of reflection on a past composed of stories specific and broad. In Heimat Is a Space in Time, the imprint of the past is so dense and enduring that its spectral qualities drift beyond the battlefields, beyond the monuments, barracks and documents, to dissolve into daily life. —Daniel Christian


3. First Cow

first-cow-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: March 6, 2020
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner
Genre: Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 121 minutes

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Kelly Reichardt’s Oregonian ode to the human desire for comfort and friendship takes us back to the territory during the mid-19th century, when the economy of beaver pelts and gold rush hopefuls brought waves of migration to the area. A baker from Maryland, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), finds himself amid a hostile group of fur trappers on the way to Oregon when he runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant fresh on the run from scorned Russians. A fraternal bond between the two quickly materializes, and when a coveted dairy cow is brought to the territory by an English nobleman known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), King Lu immediately recognizes that fresh milk combined with Cookie’s baking expertise could give the duo a unique trade in an area where the predominant sweet is a bland concoction of water and flour crackers. And so, in the dead of night, King Lu and Cookie leave the small shack they share with a metal pail in hand, sneaking through the pasture until they reach the dairy cow. Reichardt makes no moral judgement on them for stealing; the irony is that Cookie and King Lu’s act of theft is so small compared to the pillaging and exploitation that propelled America into an economic superpower in the first place. First Cow takes place when slavery was the main economic drive of the country, when Native Americans were facing genocide, when women were second-class citizens. First Cow will win most viewers over; it is funny in the most earnest way, with the beauty of friendship presented as the foundation of the film. Yet if the film wants to implore us to understand the essence of our species, its portrayal of burgeoning American capitalism is undoubtedly, jarringly, at odds with the nature of mankind. —Natalia Keogan


2. Bacurau

bacurau-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: March 6, 2020
Directors: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Starring: Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Sônia Braga
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 132 minutes

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Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelle’s Bacurau begins with a woman named Teresa (Bárbara Colen) being driven down a winding mountain road with sweeping swathes of lush greenery below. Suddenly, a splintered wooden casket appears in the middle of the asphalt. After the driver swerves to avoid it, there is another one. And another. Soon, broken caskets litter the entire road. The cause of the coffin calamity is revealed when Teresa sees that an open-back truck transporting caskets has collided into the mountainside, killing its passengers. The scene is oddly pleasant, though, as opportunists have quickly begun selling off the least damaged goods to a line of passersby, both seeming giddy about the exchange. Death is pervasive in the film, but it is often funny, and coincidentally Teresa is on her way to a funeral. Her grandmother—the beloved matriarch of Bacurau, a small Brazilian village where she grew up—has died. The entire town mourns her death, oblivious to the fact that their little village is slowly, literally, being erased from the face of the earth. Here, what has seemed like a horror film morphs into a weird Western that incorporates psychoactive flora, a seemingly benign history museum, and even an apparition or two. That’s not even counting the UFO. Bacurau is wildly creative, and its hilarious, Dadaist aura provides an uncanny comfort despite ample bloodshed. This is not to say that it’s without heart-wrenching loss and tearful contemplation of a world on fire. It’s clear that there is no space for moral ambiguity in this film. In reality, the Amazon is ablaze, rampant inequality festers and indigenous populations are displaced all for the net benefit of the ruling class. Bacurau is a long overdue neo-colonial revenge fantasy. —Natalia Keogan


1. The Assistant

the-assistant-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: January 31, 2020
Director: Kitty Green
Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfayden, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 87 minutes

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The nameless, faceless boss hiding behind closed doors in Kitty Green’s exceptional The Assistant can be easily read as a Harvey Weinstein stand-in. The truth is that Harvey Weinstein isn’t or, now that he’s in prison, wasn’t the only man in the film industry with a habit of abusing his position and privilege by preying on women in his office, either through coercion or through brute force, he is, or was, the most notorious of them. So yes, The Assistant can be thought of as “the Harvey Weinstein movie,” but it really should be thought of as the best contemporary movie to act out patriarchal rape culture dynamics on screen.

Regardless, take Weinstein out of your interpretation of The Assistant and the film will still throttle you slowly, packing suffocating pressure into each of its 87 minutes. Green’s primary tool here is stillness: Static shots dominate the production, stifled frame after stifled frame, with the camera, manned by Michael Latham, often left hovering above Green’s star, Julia Garner, as if he means to leave space for her unanswered silent prayers to hang over her head. She plays the title’s long-suffering assistant, silent witness to her boss’s bullying and wanton lasciviousness, helpless to stop it. She spends the film unraveling over the course of a day, confronting her complicity in his sexual predation with no tangible hope of ending the cycle. Because there is no hope in The Assistant, no chance the film’s central evil will meet his punishment, or that the system built to facilitate his evil will collapse. What Green has done here is brutal and unsparing, but it’s also flawlessly made and necessary. —Andy Crump

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