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The 50 masterpieces of the streaming era

Polygon’s latest series, The Masterpieces of Streaming, looks at the new batch of classics that have emerged from an evolving era of entertainment.

The nice thing about streaming video is that there’s a lot of it, forever eliminating the cable TV era’s complaint of nothing being on. The daunting, demoralizing, anxiety-producing thing about streaming video is also that there’s a lot of it.

With major platforms losing waves of new movies and hour-gobbling series at a weekly clip, it’s nearly impossible to even be aware of everything new to the various online libraries, nevermind watching it. Every media outlet under the sun has dedicated columns to surveying the vast swirling oceans of new stuff to watch, but there’s still a shapelessness to the glut of movies that have been rebranded under the Orewllian umbrella term of “content.” With the constant barrage of fresh product, nothing like a canon of essential streaming films has taken shape — until now.

Polygon has assembled a crack squad of streaming-war veterans to compile a list of fifty “streaming masterpieces,” the cream of the straight-to-web crop. These picks don’t just enumerate the best that your Wi-Fi connection has to offer, they also double as a history of a new form of at-home status quo. From the Oscar contenders to the little-seen foreign imports, from the hysterical horror shows to the resurgent romcoms, these are the films dispelling the myth that Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and their cohorts are intrinsically lesser than their theatrical competitors.

One note on criteria: a “streaming movie” was determined to be any streaming platform’s own studio production or an after-the-fact acquisition with a streaming premiere either coinciding with, or in very close proximity to, its theatrical debut. This is why you’ll find, for instance, the independently produced Senegalese film Atlantics (which Netflix snapped up after a splashy opening at Cannes) but not Manchester by the Sea (released by Amazon to theaters, and not added to its own online collection until after a months-long window). The list is also presented in alphabetical order. —Charles Bramesco

Alles ist gut (Netflix)

A peeved woman and a peeved man Image: Netflix

One of the first movies to tackle the issue of sexual assault after the rise of the #MeToo campaign, the first feature from German director Eve Trobisch considers one woman’s victimhood with nuance and complexity that eludes many recent Hollywood efforts. The film follows a young woman named Janne (Aenne Schwarz, metamorphosing from a pillar of trembling composure to a raw, opened nerve) in the aftermath of her rape, which she strives to repress and refuses to report. What unfolds is a startlingly sober portrait of Janne’s inner life, her resignation and defiant pride in the face of traumatic memories that threaten to consume her. —Beatrice Loayza

American Factory (Netflix)

Rob Haerr & Wong He in American Factory Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ian Cook

It’s a tale of two economies when the Chinese manufacturer Fuyao purchases a defunct General Motors plant in Dayton and hires two thousand blue-collar Americans to start cranking out windshields. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary captures the friction between cultures of work seemingly in direct opposition. The supervisors in from Asia find their workers slow and inefficient, while the auto-industry lifers bristle at the management’s steep expectations and unsettling company-over-all spirit. As the directors widen their lens to include the headquarters in Fuqing and the suburban rows of homes in Ohio, a humanistic view of populations united by a struggle under the dictates of capitalism comes into focus. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. —CB

Antiporno (MUBI)

a girl in her underwear crawls over to a girl in a kimono in Antiporno Photo: Mubi

Emboldened by artistic freedom beholden only a nude/sex scene quota, the Nikkatsu Corporation’s reboot of their popular Roman Porno series includes a direct address pontificating to the bigger endeavor, delivered by none other than director and unhinged genius Sion Sono. He regards the Japanese studio’s reinstatement of their softcore blockbuster line as something like a public/pubic good. Part self-reflexive fever dream involving two actresses and their sexual power play on the set of a nudie flick, part critique of the camera’s gaze as exploitative vessel and tool, Sono compresses the erotic and the grotesque into one entrancing package. He explores Japan’s “pink film” genre inside out, spitting his brash revisionism right in the intrepid viewer’s mouth. (Just be sure that’s your thing.) —Kyle Turner

Atlantics (Netflix)

Two figures hold each other close on a dance floor, as neon green lights bounce off of them, in Atlantics Image: Netflix

Mati Diop was perhaps best known as an actress (she made her screen debut in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum at age twenty-six) before her category-defying debut feature riveted Cannes audiences at its 2019 premiere. At once a supernatural thriller, devastating love story, and political screed, the French-Senegalese filmmaker’s mesmerizing tale of migration under capitalism imagines the abused, young workers of modern-day Dakar as vengeful spirits. Simmering with eroticism and uncanny menace, it’s also — through its defiant protagonist, a teenage girl torn between her lost love and an arranged marriage to a wealthy socialite — a feminist coming-of-age tale, one that goes against the odds of rampant economic exploitation to dignify a woman’s search for love and freedom. —BL

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)

tim blake nelson as buster scruggs in the ballad of buster scruggs on netflix Netflix

The Western has long proven fertile ground for the exploration of morals and ethics, and the difficulty of maintaining those codes in an unpredictable, dog-eat-dog world. That said, it’s no surprise that the Coen brothers have repeatedly tackled the genre to thrilling results (see: True Grit and No Country for Old Men), and their 2018 anthology film is no exception. Composed of six separate stories that take place on the American frontier, this collection of dirty, dusty yarns is deceptively fun and childlike at first glance. But it soon settles into something full of complex pathos, far more morbid and despairing than its rollout of singing cowboys and jolly gold-diggers would suggest. It’ll give you emotional whiplash, just in a good way. —BL

Blood Quantum (Shudder)

A masked man holds a knife up to a zombie soldier in Blood Quantum Photo: Shudder

Specialty streaming service Shudder has given a loving home to a good handful of horror films off the bloodied-and-beaten path, including Canada’s most noteworthy zombie flick of recent vintage. Writer-director Jeff Barnaby situates the invasion of the undead around a Mi’kmaq reservation not unlike the one he grew up on, and wrinkles the formula with the hook that the infectious hunger for flesh only affects white people, leaving indigenous communities as safe harbors under siege. The film revitalizes the usual zombie tropes by filtering them through a cultural outlook not often articulated onscreen, an approach bolstered by Barnaby’s nuts-and-bolts proficiency with elaborate, gory set pieces. He taps into a legacy of exploitation cinema and turns it on its head, reversing notions of who’s really the ‘other’ to cleverly subversive effect. —CB

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon)

Sacha Baron Cohen, disguised as a country singer, stands on a stage in overalls and a cowboy hat in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Photo: Amazon Studios

Fourteen years after becoming the most famous Kazakh TV presenter on the global airwaves, Borat Sagdiyev finally returned in Sacha Baron Cohen’s shot-on-the-DL surprise pandemic film. Less slapstick than the first theatrical installment in the beloved fool’s calamitous adventures, the sequel didn’t so much distract from the awfulness of 2020 as it allowed for a cathartic release, laughing at the hypocrisy of the usual suspects: Trump, his voters, and his right-hand man Rudy Giuliani. Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova is a revelation as Borat’s daughter, who makes her way from a cage in her native Kazakhstan to the job of journalist. She can even drive a car in the US and A! (Though not without going through a complete Tomi Lahrenized makeover first.) —Elena Lazic

Boys State (Apple)

A room full of 16-year-old boys wearing identical T-shirts and lanyards in Boys State. Photo: Apple TV Plus

Looking at fully-grown politicians, it can be difficult to imagine them as children (though for some, it doesn’t require much imagination at all). Among the many observations to be gleaned from Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition winner is that most people evidently get into politics for the puerile reasons we’ve feared — namely fame, power, and the ability to shout motivational slogans at your bros. Jesse Moss and Amanda McBain’s film charts the seven intense days of a summer leadership program in Texas, where one thousand 17-year-old boys gather to build a representative government from the ground up, complete with its own two-party system and elections. In focusing on a select few participants, the film offers penetrating portraits of teenagers with ambitions of all kinds, confident while still growing up and finding themselves changed by the experience. Inspiring and sobering, the documentary gives an advance glimpse at the next generation of American politicians, both the idealists and the connivers. —EL

Cam (Netflix)

madeline brewer as a cam girl in netflix’s cam Image: Netflix

As the progressive slogan goes, “sex work is work,” but that phrase has something of a flattening effect. Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei’s psychosexual horror film, which finds cam model Alice’s (Madeline Brewer) career being sabotaged by a doppelgänger, finds terror in the fact that sex is more specifically service work. Her methodically observed job is predicated on the emotional labor of managing and maintaining a persona, conjoined with labor and financial precarity. It isn’t just frightening that there’s a digital double on her channel stealing her face, it’s that this phantom undermines Alice’s hard work reaching a professional standing that’s arduous to achieve. The script’s incisive grotesquerie cuts right to the heart of an entire working mentality where dying on your feet is a feature, not a glitch. —KT

Casting JonBenet (Netflix)

a row of child actresses in casting jonbenet Photo: Netflix

A disconcerting and amusingly self-indicting film for Netflix to put its name on, this documentary (mostly) sidesteps the uncomfortable voyeurism inherent to the subgenre of true crime with its inward-looking spin on the format. Local actors from JonBenet Ramsay’s hometown all audition for parts in a dramatization of the 1996 murder case, and we witness their multiple perspectives in interviews along with the auditions and the final performance. Director Kitty Green leans into the absurdity of the reenactments and interviews, cutting to frequently inane non-sequiturs. (“I love breast torture. Whipping nipples, tits. Doing breast bondage,” says one actor in the midst of talking about the police.) Outside of that, it fascinates in its exploration of the tangible impact of these morbid stories, as the actors speculate about the victims, perpetrators, and bystanders to the event with discomfiting abandon. Netflix’s forays into the tired true crime craze probably should have ended here, with special dispensation for American Vandal. —Kambole Campbell

Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)

a group of men look at an excavation site Photo: Netflix

This Spike Lee joint orients itself around the memory of a person, now forever frozen in time. In this sense, the film unintentionally plays like something of a eulogy for the late great actor Chadwick Boseman. The film builds its present-day, Treasure of the Sierra Madre-style gold-hunt plot outward from Boseman’s character, Stormin’ Norman, a Black soldier and the wise squad leader of the Bloods, felled back in Vietnam. But even without that metatextual element, the mission to retrieve his hidden cache holds plenty of emotional heft through Delroy Lindo’s firebrand performance, through the film’s melancholy, and through its mournful anger at American imperialism. With its collages of photos and documents crossed with blunt messaging about anti-Blackness during wartime, Da 5 Bloods continues the great work of BlacKkKlansman in its film-essayist leanings. Even with that directness and a sprawling-to-unwieldy plot, it’s a poignant reminder of the widespread trauma left behind by armed conflict. —KC

Dead Pigs (Mubi)

Dead Pigs: a woman in hair curlers and a leopard print coat looks around with other people holding umbrellas behind her Photo: Mubi

Like Magnolia, Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan’s debut feature juggles multiple intersecting storylines leading up to a spectacularly absurd conclusion. But instead of raining frogs, Yan envisions a river overwhelmed with pig corpses, a surreal image nevertheless based on a real-life incident in China. Yan’s ambitious black comedy considers the consequences of rapid urbanization by following an uncompromising beauty salon owner, a moody socialite, a provincial pig farmer, and a timid American expat as each one reckons with their place in Chinese society. The result is a farcical, carnivalesque critique of Western-style capitalism bursting in confetti color — a style that anticipates the vibrant anarchy of Yan’s foray into the superhero genre. —BL

Dick Johnson Is Dead (Netflix)

dick johnson in dick johnson is dead Image: Netflix

Kirsten Johnson takes a relaxed, enlightened view of nonfiction filmmaking. Who’s to say that a documentary can’t include highly produced, choreographed segments envisioning your dad’s theories about what the afterlife might look like? She takes her father Dick’s mortality as the subject of a not-so-easily classified film, which explores his anticipation of the great beyond and her preemptive grief through unorthodox means. In some scenes, she braces for the inevitable by staging his death, by falling AC unit or a tumble down the stairs. In others, intimate interviews plumb their shared personal history, and in one show-stopper, Jesus himself presides over a stunning song-and-dance fantasy. Through her multitude of angles, she locates the pathos and levity behind a universal experience, her most radical suggestion being that we have nothing to fear. By the end, the film has attained the wisdom and perspective of Dick himself, concluding that the end of your life is just the beginning of the next adventure. -CB

Divines (Netflix)

Divines: two young girls stand out a car window and shout with the arc de triomphe in the background Photo: Netflix

Winner of the 2016 Camera D’Or award for best first feature in Cannes, Houda Benyamina’s breakout borrows the mold of the French street-level drama known as the banlieue film only to break it and find new avenues of exploration. Centered on Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina’s sister), an outspoken young girl who sees no future in anything the school system has to offer, the film follows her efforts to make money until she earns her own freedom. (She doesn’t live in the kind of low-income housing seen in La Haine, but in a full-on slum.) With her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) supporting her at every turn, she sneaks her way into petty drug dealing, while daydreaming about the beautiful tattooed dancer she’s been watching from the shadows of the local rehearsal room. Having proven herself again most recently in Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears, Amamra is a serious talent with a place in the festival circuit locked down. —EL

A Fortunate Man (Netflix)

A man in a nice suit and a lady in an old dress and hat at a garden party in A Fortunate Man Photo: Netflix

Netflix has gotten a solid foothold in America’s foreign-film import market by snatching up lower-profile award-winners at overseas festivals. Bille August’s epic mounting of an eight-volume Danish novel being one such specimen. The two-time Palme d’Or recipient spares no expense on his nearly-three-hour tracking of one man’s rising and falling fortunes at the end of the 19th century, as the ambitious Peter (Esben Smed) endeavors to bring electricity to his underdeveloped nation. His decades-spanning project is complicated by family, a fraught relationship to God, a love affair, and the regional anti-Semitism making that courtship an impossibility. In another world, it would’ve passed through a single arthouse per major city without making much of an impression. Though Netflix has only made it available, failing to advertise or promote this acquisition has consigned it to about the same fate. —CB

The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix)

Radha Blank spits verses at the mic in an apartment production studio in The Forty-Year-Old Version Photo: Jeong Park / NETFLIX

Radha Blank’s delightfully low-key debut is a welcome reality check for viewers of all ages. Blank plays a version of herself as a reasonably successful playwright who made all the 30-under-30 lists — ten years ago. Now nearing forty, she struggles to feel any passion for her work and is disillusioned by the New York theatre scene; even her best friend and agent Archie (Peter Kim) is encouraging her to compromise and accept notes from the creepy old white producer she despises. But as she touches rock bottom, the self-deprecating artist re-discovers her long forgotten passion and creativity through freestyle rapping. This crucial addition to the New York cinema canon may be classically structured around the Radha stand-in’s journey as an artist and human being, but its loose structure allows Blank and her supporting cast to imbue the film with genuine life and sincerity, as borderline parodic characters sit side by side with the smaller, more delicate moments that make up a life. —EL

Gerald’s Game (Netflix)

gerald’s game stephen king movie: a shirtless man crawls up on his handcuffed-in-bed wife Photo: Netflix

Before Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan adapted another, much kinkier Stephen King novel about a married couple on a remote getaway gone terribly awry. The premise sounds familiar, but don’t expect any backwoods killers or houses built on Native burial grounds. As things heat up in the bedroom, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) suffers a heart attack, leaving Jessie (Carla Gugino) handcuffed to the bed and exposed to hungry stray dogs and her own (potentially dehydration-induced) demons. Flanagan constructs a tense, provocative body horror with a feminist streak that unfolds in a single bedroom, keenly aware of the fact that our truest sources of terror come from within. —BL

Happy as Lazzaro (Netflix)

A boy hides in the leaves in Happy as Lazzaro Photo: Netflix

The simmering erotic charge between guileless tobacco farm worker Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) and the farm owner’s son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) is tragically, necessarily sprouting from an inequity — social, economic, maybe even intellectual. In a certain light, Alice Rohrwacher’s immaculate time-hopping drama about class relations in Italy is like a great torch song, fueled by the passion of longing and devotion, and of desires too delicate to be spoken. The peculiar humanity of tight bonds, despite power discrepancies, informs every frame of Rohrwacher’s odd, shape-shifting film. There’s a tenderness etched across Tardiolo’s paradoxically soft and weathered visage, a young man just waiting to be woken up by his own feelings. —KL

High Flying Bird (Netflix)

André Holland as Ray Burke in High Flying Bird. Peter Andrews/Netflix

In Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot drama, the meeting of the minds between the director and playwright-turned-screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney revolves around the value of Black labor. In back-room dealings between one crafty agent (André Holland) and NBA officials, we’re shown how people get reduced to forms of capital, currency to be traded back and forth between those in economic power. If hotshot baller Erick (Melvin Gregg) walks around looking like a million bucks, that’s just because it’s the price he’s been assigned. Transforming basketball into a question of how bodies become at once valuable and disposable, Soderbergh and McCraney vivisect an industry saddled with the weight of adoration and exploitation in a fresh visual language courtesy of the lightweight, pocket-sized camera. —KT

His House (Netflix)

Sudanese refugees Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) have dinner on the floor of their unfurnished (and very haunted) row house in His House. Photo: Aidan Monaghan / Netflix

The debut feature of Remi Weekes is based on horrors all too real. The film follows asylum seekers Bol Majur (Sope Dirisu), his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), assigned residence on a council estate in England following their flight from war-torn South Sudan and the loss of their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba). It doesn’t take long before the two are confronted by the country’s xenophobia as well as the dehumanizing, debilitating process of immigration and assimilation, haunted by government negligence before the actual ghosts show up. Through his engagement with the couple’s grief and survivor’s guilt, Weekes exorcises the specters of those who came before, though the stigmatization of those in need by the English and their government continues. Weekes made a horror film of rare empathy and emotional power — to turn a phrase, His House hits particularly close to home. —KC

Homecoming (Netflix)

Beyonce stands above a marching band in Homecoming Image: Netflix

The greatest concert movie of the modern era finds Beyoncé at the height of her powers, reminding everyone why she’s in a league of her own among even the uppermost-echelon pop stars. The cross-cutting between her two performances at Coachella in 2018 confirms that she can create spectacle on a level above any other, but there’s more going on here than pure pleasure. The costumes, choreography, song selection, and other elements of the shows meld with the additional material incorporated by the film — inserts of Beyoncé’s spartan behind-the-scenes life, audio samples from an interview with Maya Angelou — for a grander tribute to Black striving and success. Her identity and heritage, channeled through the iconography and style of HBCUs, is as central to the film as any of the show-stopping musical numbers. (You haven’t really seen “Formation” until you’ve seen it done like this.) —CB

Host (Shudder)

A group of frightened people stare at their webcams in a group video chat in Host. Photo: Shudder

Even under normal circumstances, Rob Savage’s Host would have been a fascinating formal experiment. A riff on the new breed of screen-recording horror popularized by Unfriended and Searching, the nightmare takes place entirely within a Zoom call, a sturdy gimmick that proves far more fun than it sounds on paper. The co-ordination and construction under the constraints of lockdown are nothing short of astonishing, with some special effects set up and performed by the actors themselves, out of necessity. As far as digital-age horror plots go, this one may be somewhat unremarkable, but it’s still the first film to capture the absurd claustrophobia of lockdown. One moment in particular plays with our reestablished rule of meeting and greeting each other with their elbows, a harrowing sight that deserves to go in cinema-history textbooks. —KC

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

a group sit around a dinner table Photo: Mary Cybulski/Netflix

Lord knows that filmmaking can be a desperately self-centred act, and yet few filmmakers can observe their navel and indulge in self-pity in a way that engages their audience. Charlie Kaufman is one of the best, and in his latest work of symbolic psychoanalysis, his all-consuming doubt and pessimism cathartically reflect our own deep-seated insecurities. Petty grievances and primal fears once again come to life here, in what’s nearly the most mind-bending entry in Kaufman’s filmography. (It’s trailing Synecdoche, New York by a nose.) Going into any further detail would spoil the — well, not the “fun” of working it all out, but Kaufman devotees know how it goes. Leading man Jesse Plemons’ ability to look both totally blank and almost unbearably miserable at the same time is worth the watch alone, as is Jessie Buckley’s masterful performance as a person navigating unsettling awkwardness and profound confusion. —EL

The Irishman (Netflix)

Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), Hoffa (Pacino), and Sheeran (De Niro) fend off a crowd in The Irishman Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Almost every character in Martin Scorsese’s late-phase crime epic is quite literally stamped with an expiration date. Every time we meet some grandstanding mobster, however big- or small-time, we get their time and cause of death, and the clock continues its ominous ticking. The story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) feels like an immense, sobering coda to Scorsese’s earlier gangster movies, a further rumination on the quick rises and quick collapses of criminal enterprises frequently in direct conversation with such classics as The Godfather and Goodfellas. In the case of DeNiro’s performance and appearance as Sheeran, it’s also the rare instance of de-aging tech that feels like it holds thematic purpose; brief forays into the uncanny valley never truly detract from the weight of time upon Frank, instead underlining it. As funny and kinetic as Steve Zaillian’s script can be, this ranks among Scorsese’s most heartbreaking and melancholic films. —KC

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (Netflix)

john mulaney cackles in a mister rogers sweater while sitting around his sack lunch bunch kids Photo: Jeffrey Neira/Netflix

From his work on the Documentary Now! episode “Original Cast Album: Co-Op” to his masterful impression of Leonard Bernstein, John Mulaney’s inner theatre kid is one of showbiz’s worst-kept secrets. This board-treader streak reaches its apex in his variety special, part children’s musical show, part screwloose meta-meditation on how the kiddie format shapes our relationship to art, desire, and humanity. While the absurdity of its humor is hilarious on its own — one moppet in a movie’s focus group confesses his love of Mandy Patinkin — Mulaney’s commitment to pastiche is the real treat here, with clever sendups of showtune standards like “I Saw a White Lady Standing on the Street Just Sobbing (and I Think About It Once a Week).” There’s something beautiful, demented, and fearless about its balance between winking parody and earnestness. For all the jokes, it still strives to model the kind of television programs that teach us how to be. —KT

The Kindergarten Teacher (Netflix)

Maggie Gyllenhaal opposite a young boy in an auditorium in The Kindergarten Teacher Image: Netflix

Ever since her turn opposite king of kink James Spader in Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal has reigned as the queen of normalizing even the strangest behaviors. Here, she brings this subtle game to the role of a woman desperately clinging to the only form of hope in her life, a young boy in her kindergarten class who appears to possess a genius-level, easily exploited talent for poetry. A remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 film in Israel, this American remake directed by Sara Colangelo exemplifies character portraiture at its most delicate and compassionate: luminous and patient while unflinching in its observation of a woman who knows she is doing wrong, but either cannot help herself, or sees no real reason not to jeopardize her whole life and career. With nothing to lose, it’s easy to throw away everything left. —EL

Lingua Franca (Netflix)

Lingua Franca: A woman sits in a see-through dress in a drab home Image: Netflix

Writer-director Isabel Sandoval’s voice is as clear as one of the cloudless Brooklyn nights through which our ravishing protagonist Olivia (Sandoval, a triple threat) drifts. A trans Fillipina navigating the kafkaesque maze of immigration, she glows in the amber light of streetlamps, the dim bulb from behind the bar, the diffused haze from a car’s headlights clashing with the cool beams from the stars. Sandoval leads us through Olivia’s life with the confident touch of a leading dancer — steamy, electrifying, and close to the heart. Featuring an expertly deployed needle drop of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters, a classic made new again through an unfamiliar articulation of love, Sandoval’s breakthrough is beguiling like few other modern romances. —KT

Lovers Rock (Amazon)

young black women and men dance at a house party in lovers rock Photo: Amazon Prime Video

The most relaxed, freewheeling work of Steve McQueen’s career, the first installment in his multi-part film cycle, Small Axe feels like a massive stylistic departure for the filmmaker. While the series as a whole focuses on London’s West Indian community, Lovers Rock zooms in even further to the Blues party culture of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and beyond. It’s impressionistic and unbound, placing its acute focus on the sensations of sound and touch at the Notting Hill party which takes up the majority of its running time. To match the sweaty, close-quarters visuals, McQueen lets the gorgeous soundtrack play at length as he observes a rooms full of people singing at the top of their lungs to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” or stomping and bringing down the house to The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte.” There is a satisfyingly simple love story at its heart, but for the most part, the joy lies in the moment-to-moment pleasures. —KC

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

a musician lounging on a bench in ma rainey’s black bottom Photo: David Lee/Netflix

Set during one afternoon’s long, hot recording session of the title album (itself named for a popular 1920s dance), this film adapts August Wilson’s play from the canonized Pittsburgh Cycle with straightforward fidelity. As well as a troubled and simmering study of how Black talent is commodified and exploited, the film features the last onscreen performance of Chadwick Boseman, who plays the ambitious horn player Levee and provides the axis around which the film revolves. In terms of form, George C. Wolfe’s direction is stripped-back and unobtrusive, leaving its actors in stuffy rooms while letting dialogue and impassioned performance do the heavy lifting. Boseman commands the most attention of the cast, not just for the tragic sense of circumstance, but for his raw powers of captivation, easily holding his own along a top-form Viola Davis. Along with Da 5 Bloods, it’s a powerhouse showcase for his talents, displaying a more provocative volatility over the steadfast charm he’d made his signature. —KC

Mank (Netflix)

Mank in close-ups with dizzying clock numbers around him Image: Netflix

On the Netflix dime, David Fincher transports us to a meticulously revived ‘30s Hollywood, where one Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, garnering one of the film’s ten Oscar nominations) may or may not have authored the screenplay of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. He definitely did, as the script credited to Fincher’s late father Jack would have it, the disputed creative parentage a pretext for a more complicated and partisan discussion of showbiz politicking. The man called ‘Mank’ torpedoes his own career in a booze-soaked haze, taking on moneyed magnate William Hearst (Charles Dance) out of the guilt and frustration he felt watching the studio system railroad a progressive gubernatorial candidate in extensive flashbacks. The film industry has a conservative streak belied by its proudly espoused liberalism, a contradiction exposed here in glorious digital black-and-white, complete with the scratches and pops of the vintage film reels Fincher’s emulating. -CB

The Meyerowitz Stories / Marriage Story (Netflix)

Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler in The Meyerowitz Stories. Image: Netflix
Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) exchanging gifts. Photo: Netflix

Noah Baumbach’s relationship with Netflix has been more functional than any of the ones he’s splayed on screen. With the streamer, he churned out two stone-cold stunners on the complex dynamics of familial resentment, the battle to become yourself after having your identity shaped by someone else for so long, and the correct use of Stephen Sondheim music in a film. In The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), he gives Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Dustin Hoffman ample opportunity to verbally and physically skirmish through their issues, while Marriage Story takes a swing at Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson trying to keep it together as divorce court tries to tear them apart. Baumbach continues to evolve in how he pairs his biting observations about close relations and isolation with a more softened (yet no less intense) emotionality, no longer making work defined chiefly by its caustic prickliness. To paraphrase the climatic song from Driver’s karaoke fav Company, Baumbach will never be a kid again, the kiddo, and he knows it. —KT

Minding the Gap (Hulu)

a young black man smiles while his friend holds a skateboard in the background in minding the gap Image: Hulu

In the hands of director Bing Liu, skateboarding has a newfound urgency to it. It’s not just about the visceral rush of speeding down a rail, or the pleasure of hearing the harsh snap of wheels landing a jump; Liu’s dizzying physical highs and lows, created with his childhood friends in Rockford, IL, are an attempt to create an escapist teen utopia. The makeshift community they build around shredding may not be stable in its construction, but it offers solace from abuse, addiction, trauma, and financial hardships, all of them informed by the troubling social structures they can’t escape. The rough-hewn formal qualities, blending trappings of cinéma vérité with DIY skate videos, give it a directness and a bracing sense of rawness. There’s an unnameable thrill to feeling like there’s no escape from your life, and discovering the things you can do to create one anyways. —KT

My Happy Family (Netflix)

my happy family 2017 Image: Netflix

It’s not easy for a woman in her 50s to leave her family and uproot her life in order to seize control of it, and that goes double in the nation of Georgia, where a highly religious society regards domestic duty as all but compulsory. But with a teaching job to depend on, the long-suffering Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) can get a little place of her own along with the independence and freedom it symbolizes for her. This bid to go her own way can only take her so far, however, as the influence of her brother and husband persists as she tries to carve out some semblance of privacy for herself. Co-directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß refrain from the histrionics this story of familial strife might naturally invite, instead favoring long takes that demand our focus. It’s a proud rejoinder to the notion of streaming entertainment as background ambience. -CB

The Night Comes for Us (Netflix)

the night comes for us Netflix

To be quite frank, Timo Tjahjanto’s crossover action bonanza makes its Indonesian relative, The Raid 2, look tame by comparison. The inciting incident is simple enough: Ito (Joe Taslim), a Triad assassin, decides to spare a young girl’s life during a massacre, killing his former comrades in the process. Now, his employers would like some revenge. After a surprisingly meticulous setup sculpted by labyrinthine gang politics, Tjahjanto unleashes relentless, spectacular torrents of bloody action, characterized by delightfully morbid creativity in its breaking, smashing, slicing, exploding and crushing of bodies (enhanced by impressively gruesome foley sounds). Raid 2 co-stars Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim set the screen ablaze in their individual fights and their brutal final standoff, but the rest of the cast doesn’t slouch either, with some of the most jaw-dropping battles occurring between the supporting characters — shout out to White Boy Bobby. You’d be hard-pressed to find another action film as savage. —KC

Okja (Netflix)

Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Okja, her giant super-pig. Image: Netflix

In the wake of his Western breakout Snowpiercer, (now-Oscar-winning!) director Bong Joon-ho continued his string of anti-capitalist genre fiction in the sleazy underworld of mass-produced food. Free Willy meets E.T. as a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) risks everything to prevent a powerful multinational conglomerate from kidnapping her best friend, a massive “super-pig” named Okja. The film’s first half is a near-perfect mix of riotous Spielbergian adventure, unsubtle anti-establishment commentary, and a whole lot of porcine mayhem. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton calibrate their performances accordingly, both mad, walking indictments of US corporatism, countering Ahn’s more compassionate and down-to-earth performance. The second half hooks into a more somber register as we get into the squelching, bloody unpleasantries of mass-produced meat, and makes a pretty compelling argument to go vegetarian. And yet in spite of that visceral final act, no one could accuse Bong of leaving a bad taste in the mouth. —KC

The Other Side of the Wind (Netflix)

Peter Bogdanovich watches John Huston smoke a cigar in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind  Image: Netflix

It’s still up for debate whether this is really a movie by Orson Welles, considering the number of collaborators involved in finalizing the film well after its director’s death, and yet it still somehow feels like a journey through the darkest, most unknowable corners of the legend’s brain. The plot doesn’t really matter, but it involves a Welles doppelgänger (John Huston) celebrating his 70th birthday and screening an unfinished cut of his latest opus to a crowd of friends and potential producers, among which we have the filmmaker’s protégé (Peter Bogdanovich). There’s also a film-within-the-film that spoofs racy European arthouse movies, one more element of the meta contained in this puzzle box. A psychotic monument to a generation, it offers Welles’ final word on death, art, and failure, all of it haunted by the ghosts of cinematic history. Should you be willing to open yourself up to the madness, it’s a singular experience. —BL

Palm Springs (Hulu)

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti sit on the side of the road in handcuffs in Hulu’s Palm Springs. Photo: Hulu

Since Groundhog Day, the time-loop movie has pretty much become a yearly staple. But this romantic comedy condemning its two heroes to relive a wedding day ad nauseam manages to go above and beyond the shtick. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play a couple of anti-romantics forced to reckon with the question of happily-ever-after in horrifically literal terms. Dosed with absurd, snappy humor, and featuring a scene-stealing turn from J.K. Simmons as a murderous psychopath, Max Barbakow’s sleeper hit runs a mile a minute while thoughtfully parsing questions of romantic fulfillment and millennial burnout. And then there’s the great Millioti, who grounds the whole thing with a manic, aching performance that wonderfully complements Samberg’s loony nihilism. —BL

The Perfection (Netflix)

Lizzie (Browning) and Charlotte (Williams) perform a cello duet. Image: Netflix

Nightmarish hallucinatory drugs. A trip through the Chinese countryside gone wrong in violent fashion. Lesbian classical music prodigies trapped in an abusive sex cult. Richard Shepard’s erotic thriller has everything you could want out of a bonkers B-movie, and it spews bug-infested vomit on the self-serious trappings of so-called “elevated horror.” Instead, he goes knowingly absurd and over-the-top, keeping us on our toes with gruesome body horror and constant twists that loosen our grip on reality. It’s a preposterously trashy joyride, one that graces us with knife fights, sexy cello duets, and scream queen-in-the-making Allison Williams. It’s ideal for your very own living-room midnight screenings. -BL

Private Life (Netflix)

Private Life: Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti spying at another couple at a diner Photo: Jojo Whilden / Netflix

There are few things more quietly excruciating than repeatedly trying to get pregnant — except, perhaps, repeatedly trying to navigate the alternatives to traditional pregnancy, i.e. adoption, fertility therapy, and egg donation. Tamara Jenkins’ personal portrait of a middle-aged couple trapped in this very hellscape approaches its tender subject matter with empathy and unexpected humor. It helps, of course, that bonafide funny-people Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play the writerly Brooklynites so desperate to conceive that they turn to a rudderless niece (Kayli Carter) in search of purpose. Graceful and witty, Private Life also tackles the nitty-gritty of female anatomy (and the various intrusive procedures that combat infertility) with unflinching aplomb. —BL

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (Netflix)

Bob Dylan singing during the Rolling Thunder Revue Image: Netflix

To the question, “Who is Bob Dylan?” Martin Scorsese replies “Who cares?” and then proves that that’s as close as we can get to a correct answer. This pleasantly rambling doc is another building block in the mythology of the legendary singer-songwriter, chronicling his exceptional 1975 tour through smallish American venues with his gang of talented musicians. The act was already a self-aware work of prestidigitation, with costumes and make-up helping to conjure the atmosphere of a timeless traveling folk show in an era where folk music was deemed dead and buried. Scorsese continues Dylan’s mystification by juxtaposing real testimonies and gorgeous concert footage with actors playing people who do not exist, discussing things that never happened. Dylan fans already know that beyond his protest songs rooted in real-world issues, the artist usually relies on complete artifice to offer us a glimpse at a higher truth. Scorsese’s semi-mockumentary presents the rare chance to see Dylan at work, and to be hypnotized all over again. —EL

Roma (Netflix)

The family huddles around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix

All Netflix had to do to get their foot in the Oscar door was hand over $15 million and near-total creative control to one of the most ambitious auteurs currently working for the least commercial concept he’s undertaken in almost two decades. Alfonso Cuarón drew from his own childhood as a upper-middle class kid in ‘70s Mexico City for this shattering drama, which divides its attentions between the privileged yet mistreated mother of the house (Marina de Tavira) and the family’s quiet, steadfast live-in maid Cleo (indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio, a major discovery) they love from arm’s length. Between massively-scaled spectacles earning comparison to the visions of Fellini — a magnificent karate demonstration, a riot spilling out from the street, a birth and death viewed with harrowing clarity — an image of a household and nation divided among lines of class and race takes shape. For its achievements, Netflix would never be underestimated by industry pundits again. —CB

Set It Up (Netflix)

set it up - zoey deutch and glenn powell Photo: Netflix

This old-school romcom, one of the few of its kind in a contemporary Hollywood that’s mostly let the genre go to seed, isn’t just froth — it’s the whole cappuccino, both light and airy, yet flavorful and energetic. Its Cyrano-lite premise, in which two beleaguered personal assistants (Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell) pacify their aggressive a-hole bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs, respectively) by pairing them up, nods to the high-concept setups of screwball classics. At the same time, it’s a clever and spritely consideration of the difficulties inherent to making a romantic comedy in an age where their gender politics and generic predictability have rendered them somewhat passe. Director Claire Scanlon has whipped up a delightful film about the struggle of hitting that delightful note, keeping it fresh and forward-thinking while acknowledging its debt to a legacy much older than itself. —KT

Shirkers (Netflix)

Sophia Siddique and Sandi Tan, and a clapboard. Image: Netflix

Sandi Tan’s work of experimental autobiography is an obsession, a demonstration of hunger and yearning that’s far more frightening, intoxicating, and sexually charged than one might expect from a quasi-documentary about Singaporean teens messing with their camcorder. As she attempts to track down the footage of the self-funded thriller she made with her friends in the early ‘90s with the aid of a mysterious, charming mentor named who then stole it, she unlocks her own craving for completion and closure, swept up in a past she’s never completely let go of. Part mystery, part adventure, and part look into the dark heart of artistic passion, this unclassifiable whatsit gives equal meaning to all the sides of a woman as multifaceted as her own body of work. —KT

Spaceship Earth (Hulu)

seven men and women in red suits in the Biosphere 2 in a still from the documentary Spaceship Earth Photo: Philippe Plailly/Sundance Institute/Hulu

Boutique distributor Neon signed an exclusive streaming deal with Hulu back in 2017, which came in handy once the quarantine leveled theatrical releasing as we knew it. They had an instant home for titles they wanted to get out into the world, such as Matt Wolf’s oddball environmentalism documentary chronicling the idealistic construction and quixotic failure of the Biosphere II. A self-contained, self-sustaining dome designed to foster human lives for a course of years, the experiment was intended as a test run for terraforming in outer space, but it grew into a controversial media spectacle that painted the volunteers as kooks suckered into a green-minded cult. From this little-known footnote in recent history, Wolf makes a bigger statement about the evolution of the conservation movement, from its hopeful origins to its compromised outcomes. We can’t save the planet if we can’t save ourselves first. —CB

Strong Island (Netflix)

Strong Island: a Black man’s hands hold old photos of a woman in a green dress and three young boys Image: Netflix

In April 1992, a young Black man named William Ford was killed by a mechanic, who was then cut loose on grounds of self-defense by a Suffolk County jury made up entirely of his fellow white people. This documentary from William’s brother Yance (an Oscar nominee, the first openly trans filmmaker to attain the distinction) fuses the investigative procedural elements of the true-crime genre to an unbearably personal act of reflection — on the injustice, on the lingering anger it still provokes, on the absence it’s created. It’s not just that Ford recognizes the inherent raw pain of the story he’s come to tell, but that he understands the how of the telling shapes the story itself. Building blocks like interviews, recreations, and reportage lure viewers into interrogating their own assumptions, not just about this tragic, infuriating case, but about nonfiction cinema itself. —CB

A Sun (Netflix)

A Sun: a man stands in front of a sports car with light glistening on the hood Photo: Netflix

Beginning with a violent attack that wouldn’t be out of place in a gangster thriller — a young man cuts another’s hand with a machete — this sweeping Taiwanese family drama initially seems to embrace a kind of tragic determinism wherein all its characters are doomed from the start, either by circumstance or psychology. In the first few minutes of the film, the accomplice of the machete-wielding small-time gangster is incarcerated, forcing his parents and brother to deal with both great trauma and new responsibilities. But soon, Chung Mong-hong’s film reveals itself to be a much more humane and potent exploration of what it really takes to be a good person. In dealing with devastating events and learning to make amends for past mistakes, four disparate yet intimately connected lives knot themselves together along philosophical threads. —EL

Time (Amazon)

Fox and Rob Richardson in a still from the documentary Time. Photo: Amazon Studios

Filmed over two decades, Garrett Bradley’s moving black-and-white documentary follows Fox Rich, a Black mother, entrepreneur, and prison abolitionist from Louisiana. For Rich, the fight against the country’s unjust prison system is deeply personal; her husband is serving an outrageous 60-year prison sentence for his participation in an armed robbery, while efforts to secure his early release are constantly thwarted by an unresponsive bureaucracy. But what’s so thrilling about Bradley’s feature debut is the way it builds out what feels like an epic, larger-than-life love story from the smallest, most intimate fragments of Rich’s everyday life. In less than 90 minutes, we experience her deep frustration and heartbreak with palpable force, along with her extraordinary resilience in the face of so many obstacles, the passage of time itself being the greatest challenge. —BL

The Vast of Night (Amazon)

A young man and woman, both in heavy 1950s glasses, sit at a counter in front of an old-school heavy radio mic in The Vast of Night. Image: Amazon Studios

A viewer hears “alien invasion, rural New Mexico, 1950s,” and thinks that they’ve got Andrew Patterson’s cunning debut feature figured out. Far from it, and not because he’s got some rug-pulling twists up his sleeve, either. He employs well-placed formal trickery to make a narrative done dozens of times feel new again, all the mystery and fear of the B-movies emulated here ratcheted back up to their original levels. A radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and plucky switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick, biting off a lot to chew and then swallowing it whole) intercept some enigmatic audio that may or may not come from extraterrestrial activity, a hunch they investigate over the course of one long night. This Twilight Zone-type setup — a reference point the film calls out before we can — distinguishes itself through complex sound design, interludes of total blackness, and intricate dolly shots in, around and out of buildings. Goes to show, there’s no substitute for old-fashioned know-how. —CB

Wolfwalkers (Apple)

A wolf-spirit made of fine, glowing golden lines hovers over the body of a sleeping girl in Wolfwalkers Image: Cartoon Saloon

The third in an unofficial trilogy of folklore films from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, this fantasy is a ravishing environmentalist, anti-colonialist, coming-of age parable that stands among the greatest animated features in recent years. Told through the eyes of the young girl Robyn (often literally, in stretches of first-person vantage), directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart revise the history of Cartoon Saloon’s home Kilkenny, depicting a battle to tame the wild with the barbaric onslaught of ‘civilization’, represented by a villainous “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell. The film’s aesthetic heritage ranges from the spiralling, vividly colourful shadowplays and fables of Hungarian director Marcell Jankovics, to Who Framed Roger Rabbit brains-of-the-operation Richard Williams, to the unassailable canon of frequent comparison point Studio Ghibli. With its story of deforestation and its links to imperialist powers — with some children who talk to wolves in the mix, for good measure — Moore and Stewart’s work evokes Princess Mononoke most closely. But between the gentle tone and astounding visual innovations, Wolfwalkers is fully its own beast. —KC

The World Is Yours (Netflix)

The World Is Yours: A gang of men rides away from a burning boat while brandishing an AK-47 Image: Netflix

Best known for his music video work, French-Greek filmmaker Romain Gavras delivers a rollicking and unexpectedly sweet banlieue film more informed by France’s cinéma du look and Harmony Korine than by social realism. The title is somewhat ironic — unlike quote source Tony Montana and everyone else in the film, our hero Farès (Karim Leklou) wants only to get out of the world of drugs. His real dream? To become the official distributor of Mr. Freeze ice pops in the Maghreb region. Gavras affectionately contrasts the corny reality of French pop culture with the lofty expectations of his extravagant cast, from Isabelle Adjani as a glamorous but unscrupulous lioness knowingly pushing her son towards the more lucrative business of narcotics, to Vincent Cassel as Farès’ dim-witted, barely-intelligible-advice-dispensing father. What starts as a Gallic take on the typical gangster caper turns into a bittersweet meditation on what we owe our parents, and when to cut the cord. —EL

TCL 85” Class XL Collection
| Photo: TCL

TCL 85” Class XL Collection

  • $2,999

Prices taken at time of publishing.

The XL Collection is designed to deliver larger-than-life home entertainment. Loaded with entertainment viewing features these TVs will make you feel like you are in the theater from the comfort of your own home.

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