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The summer movie season is dead! Long live the summer movie season! Sure, you can take the announcement this week that Tenet will be delayed indefinitely as a sign that the 2020 summer movie calendar is officially cancelled ... or you could take that news as something of a relief. Finally! We can stop worrying about how to save the big-screen season and just focus on the many non-blockbuster gems available to stream.
To that end, let’s take this theatrical dry spell to catch up on the 10 most underrated, barely promoted, easy-to-miss movies of 2020 – indie efforts, foreign-language discoveries, genre-busting documentaries – that can be watched at home right now, no mask required.
Co-directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles open their new film by zooming in on the tiny Brazilian village of Bacurau from the vast emptiness of outer space – a fitting introduction, given that the hamlet is about to be literally wiped off the map by a group of mercenaries who’ve paid for the privilege. Or something like that – the exact plot mechanics of the film and its villains, led by a delightfully weird Udo Kier, are muddy, though the filmmakers also never pretend to be interested in spelling out every beat and twist. Part siege movie, part rural drama, part psychedelic freak-out, Bacurau is a movie where it’s the destination, not the journey, that matters. And if that end point right now happens to be your living room, then so be it. (Available for digital rental or purchase at kinonow.com)
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
A lovely and imaginative ode to the dive bar – a.k.a. that one place most of us won’t be able to enjoy any time soon – Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is being marketed as a documentary. But sibling filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross’s production isn’t a doc, in the strictest sense. And I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that. Yet if you have any curiosity about the nature of performance, the importance of community or the unique way cinema can be sliced and diced and reconfigured into whatever form its creators desire, then you owe it to yourself to watch this heartbreaking, head-spinning work. (Available to stream on hotdocs.ca)
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is not just one thing. A heist thriller, a war movie, an intense character study, a political polemic, a morality tale and a deeply funny comedy, Lee’s latest film never pretends to stand still in any single genre’s waters. It is messy, it is incendiary, and it is frustrating. It may not be what you wanted or were promised by the slick and smooth marketing materials provided by Netflix, the streaming giant that is partnering with Lee here for the first time. But Da 5 Bloods is what you need. (Available to stream on Netflix)
Opening in mid-March, Kelly Reichardt’s 19th-century period drama First Cow was all set to introduce more curious audiences to the brilliant, quiet-minded U.S. auteur ... but once the pandemic hit, it found only shuttered cinemas. Based on Reichardt’s long-time collaborator Jonathan Raymond’s novel, First Cow is a film about themes that have long anchored the director’s work, from 2008′s Wendy and Lucy to 2013′s Night Moves: economic struggle, the anxiety that is living on the fringe of society and America’s default urge to exploit. But it is also a charming tale of friendship, and one that deserves as much exposure as can be afforded these days. And yes: there is a titular cow. She is magnificent. (Available on digital.tiff.net)
When filmmaker Dan Sallitt introduces us to Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), the friends seem well-matched – the stable and career-minded writer/daycare worker Mara leans on the carefree impulsivity of social-worker Jo to offset the anxiety of being a young adult in New York. Jo, meanwhile, finds a sympathetic shoulder in Mara to lean against when her own struggles become too much (which is often). The two women commiserate, gossip, cycle through suitors, and then come up against their own, and each other’s, limitations – with Sallitt capturing it all in a beguilingly elliptical fashion, sometimes jumping months or years with a single cut. Sallitt is grasping for something profound here – a portrait of friendship seen both up-close and from a distance. Fourteen may ultimately be just that – a grasp – but it is worth reaching out for all the same. (Available digitally via grasshopperfilm.com)
The King of Staten Island
Judd Apatow’s latest film, after a five-year absence from moviemaking, isn’t going to quell many of the typical knocks against him. It is longer than necessary, filled with tee-hee sex jokes and slots in Saturday Night Live star/social-media obsession Pete Davidson in the Steve Carell/Seth Rogen/Amy Schumer role. But, mostly, it works. The characters are compelling, the sense of place conjured genuine, the performances charming. And unless you are made of stone – to say nothing of being actually stoned – it is pretty damn funny. (Available digitally on-demand)
The Painter and the Thief
Benjamin Ree’s film is a mesmerizing investigation into just how far the documentary form can be torn apart and put back together – and whether the audience should accept such a wild reconfiguration. Initially, it seems that the director has made a docu-thriller, chronicling the real-life theft of two works by Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova from an Oslo art gallery. But quickly, Ree finds another layer to the story, with the curious Kysilkova seeking out one of the thieves, struggling drug addict Karl-Bertil Nordland, to hear how he fell into a life of crime. This is sleight-of-hand cinema, a magic trick of character, narrative and style. (Available digitally on-demand)
Natalie Erika James’s feature directorial debut comes with a handful of easy hooks: It’s an Australian Hereditary! A slower-burn Babadook! Both those sells might be accurate, but they also underplay how carefully James pulls apart the tropes of the domestic-horror genre to create something terrifyingly her own. Focusing on three generations of the same family and their battle to escape one very disturbing country home, Relic takes its time building its tension and layering its characters. But once James is satisfied that she’s explored every dark nook and cranny of the family and their creaky, creepy home, the director delivers a haunting for the ages. (Available digitally on-demand)
Chronicling the early-1990s science-experiment-writ-large known as Biosphere 2, director Matt Wolf’s expertly assembled film is half inquisitive history lesson, half character study of the men and women who sealed themselves off from the rest of humanity for two long, lonely, weird years. (The fact that this was released at the height of a different sort of self-isolation is a case of charmingly accidental timing.) The story of the project’s rise and fall would be compelling in the hands of the most amateur of filmmakers, but luckily Wolf is working near the top of the documentary game, letting the past speak for itself while at the same time never getting lost in the fog of history. (Available digitally on-demand)
The Vast of Night
It is 1950-something in the small New Mexico town of Cayuga and everyone is crammed into the high-school gym watching the Statesmen basketball team open the season. Everyone except for Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who work part-time as a radio DJ and switchboard operator, respectively. And wouldn’t you know, the one night Cayuga is distracted en masse is the same night that a strange audio frequency pops up, with the two wise-beyond-their-years teens left to face an unknown force that could change Cayuga, and the world, as they know it. What might seem like a familiar kids-against-aliens tale on paper is elevated by director Andrew Patterson’s ingenious technical skill and the script’s rat-a-tat-tat wit. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video)