The 35 Best New Movies on iTunes Right Now (July 2021)

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The 35 Best New Movies on iTunes Right Now (July 2021)

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 Freaky and Bacurau abound, but we’re also recommending excellent indie films like First Cow and brilliant docs like The Painter and the Thief—films that made our Best of 2020 lists. As 2021 rolls along, we’re adding in some of the year’s best.

We know 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 as of July 2021:


35. Collective

collective-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Alexander Nanau
Stars: N/A
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
Runtime: 109 minutes

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Alexander Nanau’s documentary unfolds like a procedural so efficiently, his access so surprisingly unfettered, one can’t help but begin to doubt the horrors exposed. Like three seasons of The Wire adulterated into two hours, Collective begins with the aftermath of a nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015, which killed 27 people and wounded nearly 180, as parents of victims—both those who perished that night and (many of) those who died in hospitals soon after—begin to gather and question how the Romanian government, top to bottom, seems to be at the heart of such tragic dysfunction. Nanau shows us startling clear video from that night, unflinching and terrible, and then continues to not look away as a group of journalists begin to uncover the corruption that led to so much suffering. Meanwhile, Nanau follows survivors and activists, and then the newly appointed Health Minister (after the other guy resigned for gross incompetence), young and idealistic, as the system crushes every moral step he tries to make, buffeted on all sides by conservative propaganda and the bourgeois class, who have long profited from so much death and misery. The cruelty and perversion of Romania’s governing class should come as no surprise, nor should the results of the election that closes out the film, but Nanau doesn’t frame his drama around the explication of wrongdoings and the punishment of such wrongdoers. He eschews interviews and talking heads for incisive observation, sometimes so intimate it feels like empathy; he returns over and over to the vulnerable people who must endure—their courage, their fear, and the marginal hope they provide the rest of us by simply doing their jobs. It is a testament not to the power of journalism, but to its necessity, one of the last bastions civilization has against normalizing this nightmare here at the End of History. —Dom Sinacola


34. Monster Hunter

monster-hunter-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Ron Perlman, Tony Jaa
Genre: Action
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 103 minutes

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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


33. Minari

minari-poster.jpg Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Stars: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 115 minutes

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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


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


31. Moffie

moffie-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Stars: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Wynand Ferreira
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 104 minutes

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“Moffie” is an Afrikaans slur, used to describe a gay man. For those of us who haven’t grown up hearing it, the term can read almost affectionate, its soft syllables suggesting a sweetness. In reality, there’s violence in the word, spat out with cruelty. This tension pervades the fourth film from Oliver Hermanus, regarded as one of South Africa’s most prominent queer directors. Moffie tells the story of Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a closeted 18-year-old drafted into his mandatory military service in South Africa in 1981, when the country was still in the throes of apartheid. Adapted from André Carl van de Merwe’s novel, Moffie tells a brutal tale with moments of beautiful respite. Despite the constant barrage of terrorizing drills and frat boy behavior, however, there is tenderness—like Nicholas’ connection with his rebellious squadmate, Dylan Stassen (Ryan De Villiers). An earlier incident makes it abundantly clear how dangerous it is to express any sort of affection. As a result, even the smallest gesture of intimacy is fraught with tension. Although the young men, shown in various forms of dress and undress, are strapping soldiers, there’s also a vulnerability to them. You can’t help but silently cheer, even as your heart breaks a little, when Nicholas and Michael break into a muted rendition of “Sugarman,” giggling as they clean their rifles. Despite the army’s best efforts to break the young men, their spirits seem to survive. Despite the heavy load it carries, Moffie is a masterful film. Hermanus and Jack Sidey have co-written a tight script, with stretches of silences that pull you into the internal struggles of its characters. The cinematography by Jamie D Ramsay ranges from languorous shots of the rugged, dusty landscapes where the recruits carry out drills in the harsh sun to the handheld immediacy of Nicholas and his fellow soldiers’ misery. The cast—made up of a mix of high school students, trained actors and non-professionals—manages to conjure up a chapter of South African history that many would like to forget.—Aparita Bhandari


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


29. News of the World

news-of-the-world-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 118 minutes

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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


28. Sator

sator-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Jordan Graham
Starring: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson
Genre: Horror
Rating: NR
Runtime: 86 minutes

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There’s something in the forest. But at the same time, there’s nothing much at all. A man, a cabin and maybe—maybe—something more. Sator, a mumblecore horror somewhere between a modern-day The Witch, The Blair Witch Project and Lovecraft, is a striking second feature from Jordan Graham. It’s the kind of horror that trades jump scares for negative space, one that opens with imagery your typical A24 beast saves for its finale. Sator’s dedication to its own nuanced premise, location and tense pace make it the rare horror that’s so aesthetically well-realized you feel like you could crawl inside and live there—if it wasn’t so goddamn scary. Sator is a name, an evocation, an entity. He’s first described, by Nani (the late June Peterson, excellent), as a guardian. Nani’s known Sator (whatever he may be) for a long time. The film represents shifts in time, and the physical transportation to places soaked in memories, with an aspect ratio change and a black-and-white palette. Nani’s lovely longhand script is practiced well from a lifetime of automatic writing, with the words—including some of the opening company credits, which is a great little joke—pouring from her pen and claiming a headwater not of this world. That same paranormal river flows to her grandson Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), that aforementioned man in the woods, whose relationship with the voices in his head is a bit less comfortable. It’s a stark, bold, even compassionate film—which offers imperfectly planted details of a battered and bruised family at its core—with plenty to comprehend (or at least theorize about) for those brave enough to venture back into the forest for a rewatch. As scary as it is, Sator is an experience with enough layers and craftsmanship that its alluring call will rattle in your head long after you’ve turned it off.—Jacob Oller


27. The Empty Man

the-empty-man-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: David Prior
Stars: James Badge Dale, Owen Teague, Stephen Root, Marin Ireland
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 137 minutes

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From the start, everything about The Empty Man is misleading. Its title sounds like the absolutely terrible Bloody Mary-esque The Bye Bye Man or the botched adaptation of Slender Man, where spooky too-long shadow dudes creep up on some doltish teens. Those bad high school urban legend films (that this trailer is cut oh-so-specifically to evoke) don’t usually stray from the 90-minute mark. Even Candyman, maybe the best and most ambitious example of this type of film, is barely 100 minutes. The Empty Man’s 137-minute runtime clearly has more to do than kill off a couple of kids for failing to be superstitious enough. Rather than falling into that traditional type of stock schlock, The Empty Man follows a troubled ex-cop investigating the root causes of an incident that could’ve been the entire plot of one of those movies. “We knew we weren’t making that movie and nobody wanted to make that movie,” writer/director/editor David Prior told Thrillist. “But it turns out, the people who inherited the movie wanted that kind of movie.” It makes sense that the ever-expanding, ever-spiraling photos-and-folders paranoid conspiracy of The Empty Man can feel a bit like getting sucked into the kind of heady, hyper-specific hell that festers in the underbellies of Zodiac, Se7en or Mindhunter. That ‘70s thriller structure, dedicated to the paper trail, merges in The Empty Man with a downright otherworldly horror (used here in the literal sense, as opposed to terror) aesthetic that’s sheer scope makes a mockery of the movie’s shoe-leather detective work. But even The Empty Man’s start is a delightful little horror film all its own, a mythological amuse-bouche set on snowy Bhutan peaks where set design and some solidly naturalistic acting sell the scares. Great! Solid. Sold. And then the movie keeps going, as if to literally push past your expectations. Its narrative evolves into something increasingly strange and engaging. It’s like A Cure for Wellness, another cult favorite, in its dedication to piling on an investigator’s hallucinogenic obsession and repulsion as he finds himself suddenly so deep that climbing back out—or, perhaps, out for the first time—proves impossible. Prior’s grasp of tone and savvy subversion of different modern monster tropes, alongside a staggering and committed James Badge Dale performance, position the film as one that understands and appreciates studio horror movies, but has much bigger things on its mind. In short, it rules.—Jacob Oller


26. Freaky

freaky-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Christopher Landon
Stars: Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Alan Ruck
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 102 minutes

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On its face, the prospect of resurrecting two franchise IPs which have been endlessly re-made decade after decade teeters on the banal and unimaginative. Yet director Christopher Landon’s Freaky effortlessly weaves together the conventions of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th, eschewing the confines of “remake,” instead creating a unique genre hybrid that’s slick and endlessly entertaining—all the while maintaining a clever self-awareness which enlivens the film’s jump-scares and punchlines without descending into the horror-comedy pitfall of self-referential metaness. What follows is a binary-bending comic exercise in sexual fluidity and gender expression which juxtaposes Vince Vaughn’s hefty stature with Kathryn Newton’s petite frame in order to prod at the horror genre’s previously held notion of who is perceived as weak, both in attitude and appearance. Vaughn and Newton give stellar performances, channeling the other’s mannerisms while poking fun at their own corporeal limitations and their immediate (dis)comfort within their new vessels. It’s heartening to see that the horror genre—still undeniably male-dominated—persists in its commitment to pushing boundaries. Whether those boundaries demarcate what we are able to stomach in terms of violence or what we are able to unpack within our own internal concepts of gender and sexuality, Freaky joins these tenets in order to craft a horror story rife with unexpected, imaginative kills all while subverting societal expectations of who we should really be afraid of—and why.—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. Nomadland

nomadland-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Chloé Zhao
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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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


22. On-Gaku: Our Sound

on-gaku-our-sound-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Stars: Shintarô Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, Kami Hiraiwa, Naoto Takenaka
Genre: Comedy, Musical, Animation
Rating: NR
Runtime: 71 minutes

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Being a teenager in a suburban town can be excruciatingly boring. With no variety in routine, everything feels useless. But then, sometimes, something appears that banishes that monotony and breathes excitement into an otherwise dull existence. That discovery can be revelatory; life can suddenly have purpose. In the case of the trio of delinquents in Kenji Iwaisawa’s incredible debut feature, the animated On-Gaku: Our Sound, they discover the catharsis and power of music. On-Gaku: Our Sound is writer/director Iwaisawa’s love letter both to the power of music and to the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. As the film progresses through its musical numbers, Iwaisawa experiments with form (like expressive rotoscoping) as certain songs evoke different emotions from his characters, whether it is a kindly folk song or a primitive-feeling rocker that reverberates in a listener’s chest. In contrast to the visual style, the phenomenal deadpan comedic delivery is reminiscent of American animated comedies of the ‘90s like Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Kenji in particular embodies that tone, through both line delivery by Japanese rock legend Shintarô Sakamoto and a design that includes an unrelenting stare, thin mustache that zigzags across his upper lip and shiny, bald head. Despite being a high school student, Sakamoto’s grizzled voice gives Kenji the vibe of a tired old man who has seen everything, when really he’s just a bored teenager who smokes too many cigarettes and watches too much TV. Iwaisawa’s own passion fills the chilled-out slacker comedy with a lot of heart and a gorgeous variety of animation styles.—Mary Beth McAndrews


21. The High Note

the-high-note-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 11, 2020
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. Together Together

together-together-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Directors: Nikole Beckwith
Stars: Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Tig Notaro, Fred Melamed, Julio Torres
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 90 minutes

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Together Together is an amiable, successfully awkward surrogacy dramedy that also has the respectable distinction of being a TERF’s worst nightmare. That’s only one of the tiny aspects of writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature, but the gentle tapestry of intimacy among strangers who, for a short time, desperately need each other certainly benefits from the meta-text of comedian and internet terror Patti Harrison’s multi-layered starring performance. Stuffed with bombastic bit parts from a roster of recent television’s greatest comedic talents and casually incisive dialogue that lays waste to media empires and preconceptions of women’s autonomy alike, the film is an unexpected, welcome antidote to emotional isolation and toxic masculinity that meanders in and out of life lessons at a pleasingly inefficient clip. That the tale of fatherhood and friendship is told through the sparkling chemistry of a rising trans star and her entrenched, anxious straight man (an endearing Ed Helms) only adds to Together Together’s slight magic.—Shayna Maci Warner


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. Undine

undine-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zeree, Jacob Matschanz, Anne Ratte-Polle
Genre: Romance, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 91 minutes

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Undine opens as a rom-com might. A lilting piano score, not without a shade of sadness, purrs quietly during the title cards. A tearful break-up presages a quirky meet-cute between industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) and city historian Undine (Paula Beer), our new couple bound by the irrevocable forces of chance—and, in director Christian Petzold’s own mannered way, a bit of physical comedy—as the universe clearly arranges for the pieces of their lives to come together. Squint and you could maybe mistake these opening moments for a Lifetime movie—that is, until the break-up ends with Undine warning her soon-to-be-ex (Jacob Matschenz) that she’s going to have to kill him. He doesn’t take Undine seriously, but the audience can’t be so sure. Beer’s face contains subtle multitudes. She could actually murder this guy. What once felt familiar now feels pregnant with dread. And that’s saying nothing about Christoph’s odds for survival. Anyone remotely familiar with the “Undine” tale knows that she’s not lying to her ex. Undine is a water spirit, making covenants with men on land in order to access a human soul (as well as a tasteful professional wardrobe). Breaking that covenant is fatal. Or so the story goes. When she meets Christoph, she’s revitalized, because she’s heartbroken but especially because he takes such interest in the subjects of her lectures. He too is bound to the evolving bones of Germany, repairing bridges and various underwater infrastructure—he may, in fact, be more intuitively connected to the country than most. He’s the rare person who’s gone beneath it, excavating and reconstructing its depths, entombed in the mech-like coffin of a diving suit he wears when welding below the surface. As in all of Petzold’s films, Undine builds a world of liminal spaces—of lives in transition, always moving—of his characters shifting between realities, never quite sure where one ends and another begins. Like genre, like architecture, like history, like a love affair—at the heart of his work is the push and pull between where we are and where we want to be, between who we are and who we want to be and what we’ve done and what we’ll do, between what we dream and what we make happen. In Undine, Petzold captures this tension with warmth and immediacy. Many, many lives have brought us here, but none are more important than these two, and no time more consequential than now. My god, how romantic.—Dom Sinacola


16. The Father

the-father-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Florian Zeller
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

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The best line reading Anthony Hopkins gives during his monumental performance in Florian Zeller’s The Father comes in the film’s final scene, which is both a blessing and a king bummer. All anyone should want to do is live in that reading, sit awestruck at how Hopkins puts a name to the one thing that can assuage his character’s anguish and stare grief-stricken in the knowledge that the one thing he needs is the one thing he can’t have. The entire movie is an exercise in heartache, but it’s this final piece of dialogue that punctuates the drama preceding it and finally releases the suffering roiling under its surface. Hopkins’ character, also named Anthony, spends most of The Father fighting for his independence like a wolf cornered by hunters, stubbornly refusing to accept his clear mental deterioration and the need for professional help. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) has, as the picture opens, tried and failed several times over to find him a caregiver he’ll take to—and given her announced intention to relocate to Paris, her search has gained in urgency. Anthony isn’t pleased at her news. In fact, as they sit in his well-appointed London flat together, he gives her the business, expressing his opinion of her life plans with his canines bared. He’s not happy. But deep down, in the parts of him that remain self-aware, he’s mostly just afraid. Zeller has adapted The Father from his own award-winning play Le Père, and though he’s left the material of the script untouched, he’s transitioned to his new medium with subtle enhancements: Cinematographer Ben Smithard uses his lens as a screw gun, putting up figurative walls around Zeller’s cast in addition to the literal walls of the set. Visual claustrophobia compliments spatial claustrophobia, trapping the viewer in the flat and, far more importantly, in Anthony’s crumbling psyche. A simple open-concept apartment becomes labyrinthine through his point of view, and that’s before supporting characters begin to wander about its halls and loiter in its doors, in and out of his perception, assuming they were even there to begin with. Similar to how the characters are there to serve Anthony, the supporting cast is there to serve Hopkins. The stage belongs to him. What he does with it is something special, an unmissable performance from an actor with a filmography loaded with them.—Andy Crump


15. In the Heights

in-the-heights-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Jon M. Chu
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Genre: Musical
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 143 minutes

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In 2018, director Jon M. Chu imbued the standard rom-com plot of his Crazy Rich Asians adaptation with classical Hollywood decadence, hanging it all on a framework of well-constructed cultural specificity. It was big, spectacular and embarrassingly novel for an American movie of its kind. Now, in 2021, we’re getting Chu’s version of In the Heights, the musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map (and won him his first Tony). It’s incredible. The exciting electricity of a non-white blockbuster cast becoming superstars before your eyes, the maximalist style of a modern smash updating its influences, the intertwining of hyper-specific and broad themes—Chu’s strengths and his cast soar, bringing In the Heights as high as it’s ever been. It’s the best Hollywood musical in years. Tracking a few sweltering days in New York’s Washington Heights, the film meshes Do the Right Thing’s hot summer tension with School Daze’s teasing affection for its song-slinging genre. It just so happens that the corner we’re on is the collision point for the intersecting lives and romances of two couples—bodega boss Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and recent Stanford dropout Nina (Leslie Grace)—who serve as the neighborhood’s most vocal examples of those that life’s rigged lottery left putting their patience and faith in a daily scratcher. There’s no real pivotal struggle (especially not between Sharks and Jets, though wouldn’t it be incredible if Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story gave 2021 two great NYC musicals?) aside from the ever-present and myriad anxieties of Nth generation Americans living in a racist country. Yes, those familiar with the themes of Miranda’s Hamilton will find a similar rhythm and thematic flavor here—though with the showtunes’ style slipping into a salsa or bolero as easily as the rap bars dip in and out of Spanish—but with a purity of form and meaning that’s lyrical critiques and observations are even sharper than those mired in the phenomenon’s historical metaphor. In fact, almost all the songs are bangers that keep emotions high—you’ll weep, you’ll cheer, you’ll hum the songs to yourself on the way out of the theater—bolstered by orchestration that, while restrained when limited to its lovers, explodes when the choruses finally incorporate the neighborhood at large. Head-bobbing bops and moving melodies match rhythmic editing and a vibrant, fittingly populous background that’s constant choreography sustains the perpetual, organic flow of a community. In the Heights is great, and its greatness is amplified by the joy that it will inspire in theaters full of people for years to come.—Jacob Oller


14. Shiva Baby

shiva-baby-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Emma Seligman
Stars: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron
Genre: Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 77 minutes

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Marvelously uncomfortable and cringe-inducingly hilarious, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby rides a fine line between comedy and horror that perfectly suits its premise—and feels immediately in step with its protagonist, the college-aged Danielle. Played by actress/comedian Rachel Sennott, already messy-millennial royalty by virtue of her extremely online comic sensibility, Danielle is first glimpsed mid-tryst, an unconvincing orgasm closing out her perfunctory dirty talk (“Yeah, daddy”) before she dismounts and collects a wad of cash from the older Max (Danny Deferrari). Though it’s transactional, as any sugar relationship tends to be, Danielle seems open to discussing her nebulous career aspirations with Max, and he gives her an expensive bracelet—suggesting a quasi-intimate familiarity to their dynamic, even if the encounter’s underlying awkwardness keeps either from getting too comfortable. As such, it’s a smart tease of what’s to come, as Danielle schleps from Max’s apartment to meet up with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed, naturally), and sit shiva in the home of a family friend or relative. That Danielle’s unclear on who exactly died is a recurring joke, and a consistently good one, but there’s little time to figure out the details before she’s plunged into the event: A disorienting minefield of small talk, thin smiles and self-serve schmear. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the high anxiety and mortifying comedy of Seligman’s film, though it helps. Underneath all the best Jewish punchlines lies a weary acknowledgement of inevitable suffering; the Coen Brothers knew this in crafting A Serious Man, their riotous retelling of the Book of Job, and Seligman knows it in Shiva Baby. That the climax involves shattered glass, helpless tears and a few humiliations more marks this as one of the most confidently, winningly Jewish comedies in years.—Isaac Feldberg


13. Tenet

tenet-poster-low.jpg Release Date: August 12, 2020
Directors: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 150 minutes

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A classic Christopher Nolan puzzle box, at first glance Tenet is a lot like Inception. The central conceit that powers it is both cerebral and requires copious on-screen exposition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Nolan’s films always have at least one person trying to get their head around what exactly is going on, and it makes sense the audience would be as confused as the Protagonist (John David Washington), especially early on. Also, as with Inception, Tenet is basically a series of heists—smaller puzzle boxes within the larger one—which means while the viewer may not understand exactly what’s going on big picture, they will find the immediate action briskly paced and compellingly presented. Still, despite a compelling performance from Kenneth Branagh as antagonist Andrei Sator, the cerebral underpinnings and and even as the exact mechanics of this particular puzzle may demand more from the filmmaker than the audience, no amount of painstakingly crafted “time-inverted” action sequences nor Ludwig Göransson’s sweeping score can fill that hole occupied by a sympathetic main character, which Tenet lacks. None of this rests on Washington. Past Nolan protagonists like McConaughey (Interstellar), Pearce (Memento) and DiCaprio (Inception) not only had actual names, they had relatable motives and discernible emotional arcs. And though personal growth and emotional depth are hardly necessary ingredients in a spy thriller—just look at Bond, classic Bond—with so much else about Nolan’s script a mental exercise made real, some emotional stakes would be helpful to bring it alive. That might keep Tenet from the #1 slot on this year’s Best Sci-Fi list, but it shouldn’t keep lovers of the genre from seeing the only big budget science fiction to debut in theaters in 2020. —Michael Burgin


12. The Paper Tigers

the-paper-tigers-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Bao Tran
Stars: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 108 minutes

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When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather. That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s. It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin. Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.—Andy Crump


11. Another Round

another-round-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang
Genre: Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 115 minutes

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In Thomas Vinterberg’s new film Another Round, camaraderie starts out as emotional support before dissolving into male foolishness cleverly disguised as scientific study: A drinking contest where nobody competes and everybody wins until they lose. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a teacher in Copenhagen, bobs lazily through his professional and personal lives: When he’s at school he’s indifferent and when he’s at home he’s practically alone. Martin’s closest connections are with his friends and fellow teachers, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) and Peter (Lars Ranthe), who like many dudes of a certain age share his glum sentiments. To cure their malaise, Nikolaj proposes putting Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s blood alcohol content theory to the test: Skårderud maintains that hovering at a cool 0.05% BAC helps people stay relaxed and loose, thus increasing their faculty for living to the fullest. As one of the day’s preeminent screen actors, Mikkelsen finds the sweet spot between regret and rejoicing, where his revelries are honest and true while still serving as covers for deeper misgivings and emotional rifts. Sorrow hangs around the edges of his eyes as surely as bliss spreads across his face with each occasion for drinking. That balancing act culminates in an explosive burst of anger and, ultimately, mourning. Good times are had and good times always end. What Another Round demonstrates right up to its ecstatic final moments, where Mikkelsen’s sudden and dazzling acrobatics remind the audience that before he was an actor he was a dancer and gymnast, is that good times are all part of our life cycle: They come and go, then come back again, and that’s better than living in the good times all the time. Without a pause we lose perspective on all else life has to offer, especially self-reflection. —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: 2020
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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