This is an intervention.
Far too many of you are watching TV series, talking about TV series, recommending TV series. The nerve! I was on a Zoom call with relatives recently and it was “Queen’s Gambit” this, “The Crown” that. When the family film critic discreetly asked if anyone had seen any good movies lately, the question drew a blank. Everyone knew such things were out there on the various on-demand platforms, but no one really knew what or where the good ones were. Why has the social-recommendation engine that builds buzz around an ongoing dramatic narrative like “Lovecraft County” or “The Good Lord Bird” ceased to function for stand-alone two-hour entertainments?
Two obvious reasons spring to mind. First, in a year of panic and pandemic, lockdowns and lunacy, a great, involving series functions as a sort of psychological towrope, pulling us from one week into the next. (Or even just from one episode to the next.) When a movie’s over, it’s over, and that’s a little too final in these uneasy days.
The other reason is that the film industry is still predicated on a business model in which theatrical releases lead the train, even if that has made less sense in recent years and none at all in 2020. With the studios off-loading their big-ticket blockbusters to 2021 and beyond and no way to separate the indie-movie wheat from the B-movie chaff among the weekly streaming releases, quality control has ceased to exist and with it the word of mouth that can create a must-see pop-culture experience. The movie grapevine has disappeared.
But movies haven’t. As I’ve adjusted to this year’s release upheavals, I’ve come across plenty of good films. Here are 10, some from 2019, most from 2020. A few will be on my year-end Top Ten list; the others are just engrossing stories with satisfying payoffs. That is why we watch, isn’t it?
“Boys State” A documentary about the Texas version of the one-week civics program where high school kids divide into parties and run for office. After election year 2020, why on earth would you want to watch this? Because here’s the next generation of politicians and they are fascinatingly complex. And in Steven Garza we meet a young man whose political skills are second to his open-mindedness and decency. In short, there’s hope. Available on Apple TV+
“Bull” A lovely little heartland drama about an angry 14-year-old girl (Amber Havard) whose dead end life opens up when she befriends a rider on the Black rodeo circuit. Character actor Rob Morgan (“Stranger Things”) gets a rare and deserved lead in the latter role. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, YouTube
“Clemency” Tough stuff featuring two outstanding actors: Alfre Woodard as a prison warden whose execution duties are chipping away at her stoic exterior and Aldis Hodge as a death-row prisoner coming to terms with his annihilation. A powerful screen presence, Hodge plays football great Jim Brown in the upcoming “One Night in Miami.” He is one to watch, and so’s this movie. Available on Amazon Prime, DirecTV, Google Play, Hulu, YouTube
“First Cow” One of my favorites of the year: a shaggy-dog frontier picaresque, circa 1820, about a lonely cook (John Magaro), a scalawag Chinese laborer (Orion Lee), and the local nabob’s prize heifer. Reminiscent of classic Robert Altman, it’s a low-key comedy about friendship, American ingenuity, doughnuts, and, yes, two visions of this country’s future. The ending haunts. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, DirecTV, Google Play, Showtime, YouTube
“A Hidden Life” Terrence Malick’s strongest work in years tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who took a principled spiritual stand against the Third Reich at the cost of his life. It’s a martyr’s tale that’s gorgeously shot and sinewy with purpose, and if you’re paying attention, it speaks to one’s own moral choices in terrible times. Available on Amazon Prime, DirecTV, GooglePlay, HBO, HBO Max, YouTube
“Maiden” A stand-up-and-cheer documentary about the first all-female team to enter the Whitbread Round the World boating race, in 1989. The star is British skipper Tracy Edwards, a one-time lost soul who finds her mission in piloting the Maiden through an iceberg-studded Southern Ocean with a fractious but dedicated crew. The best part is the looks on the faces of the men in the other boats. Available on DirecTV, Starz
“Miss Juneteenth” Nicole Beharie (“42,” TV’s “Sleepy Hollow”) has an overdue breakout role as a one-time beauty queen, now a working single mother, hell-bent on getting her daughter (Alexis Chikaezie) to repeat history. No surprise, the daughter has other ideas. A solid debut for writer-director Godfrey Channing Peoples, it’s a simple but resonant story with a real feel for Fort Worth and its Black community. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Kanopy, YouTube
“The Painter and the Thief” This Norwegian documentary about an artist who befriends the heroin addict who stole two of her paintings is more absorbing — more hopeful — than almost any feature I’ve seen this year, with director Benjamin Ree playing subtle games with perspective to draw us into the story. You’ll never see the film’s final shot coming, and it’ll knock you for a loop. Available on Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Hulu, YouTube
“Palm Springs” How frustrating that the year’s funniest, most mind-bending romantic comedy is available on a single streaming platform. What starts as a wedding farce takes a left turn into metaphysics when a bridesmaid’s boyfriend (Andy Samberg) and the bride’s black-sheep sister (Cristin Milioti) become unstuck in time. Samberg is as winning as he’s ever been and Milioti is a revelation. Available on Hulu
“The Vast of Night” Also on just one platform (for now), Andrew Patterson’s first film is a crowd-sourced labor of love about two high school kids discovering strange doings in the skies over 1950s New Mexico. It’s an example of the most movie that can be squeezed from the least amount of resources, with beguiling performances from Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in the leads. Available on Amazon Prime