Here is a partial list of movies that were supposed to be out by now: A Quiet Place Part II, Mulan, The New Mutants (lol), No Time to Die, Promising Young Woman, Antebellum, Black Widow, F9, Wonder Woman 1984, Candyman, Soul, Top Gun: Maverick, In the Heights, Free Guy, and Minions: The Rise of Gru. It’s not all bad, though, at least we got Money Plane. The minions wish they were baddest mother fu*kers on the planet.
Those films, as well as Tenet, The French Dispatch, and Morbius, among many, many others, all had their release dates pushed back due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, making this an empty summer of blockbusters. But just because theaters are closed doesn’t mean that movies stopped coming out. On the contrary, it’s been a strong couple of months for new films. Here are eight of the best to come out via digital in the quarantine-era (a.k.a. since Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson went public with their coronavirus results on March 11, with one exception), arranged in alphabetical order.
This is the exception (by a few days, so whatever).
Bacurau is a wild, wild movie. It’s a Western, but it’s also a thriller, and there’s some horror and science-fiction elements in there, too, including a mysterious UFO; it’s also grotesquely funny and sometimes straight-up grotesque. The plot summary — “Bacurau, a small town in the Brazilian sertão, mourns the loss of its matriarch, Carmelita, who lived to be 94. Days later, its inhabitants notice that their community has vanished from most maps” — does not do justice to this bonkers should-be cult classic about colonialism and ugly Americans and this guy in a Wu-Tang shirt. It’s a sweaty fever-dream Seven Samurai, but with Udo Kier being his typical batshit self. Bacurau rules.
Da 5 Bloods
Do the Right Thing remains Spike Lee’s definitive movie, his mission statement as a filmmaker. But Da 5 Bloods isn’t far behind.
The Netflix film follows the titular bloods (minus one) as they travel back to Vietnam, where they once fought as soldiers, to both recover the remains of their fallen squadron leader and dig up buried treasure. If that intoxicating hook doesn’t grab you, then maybe Delroy Lindo’s Oscar-lock performance will. This is a powerful (if overstuffed) movie, full of rage and fear and humor and passion, about how Black people are continuously written out of history — but no one will forget what Lee accomplished with Da 5 Bloods.
After watching A24’s latest masterpiece, I tweeted (what an obnoxious way to start a sentence, I’m sorry), “First Cow is the best depiction of male friendship since Magic Mike XXL.” It was meant as a joke (shout out to the three people who gave my nonsense a Like; zero retweets), but in the days since, I’ve convinced myself that it’s true. The two films couldn’t be more different — one, set in the 2010s, has Joe Manganiello grinding against a Pepsi machine to “I Want It That Way,” the other, which takes places in the 19th century, features indie-rock legend Stephen Malkmus as a fiddler; guess which one is which! — but both share a refreshing depiction of male friendships. First Cow‘s King-Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro) live and work together, just as the platonic Magic Mike guys share a bed without anyone making a gay panic joke. Straight men can have affection for each other, too. Save for the lust for the fine-looking oily cakes.
House of Hummingbird
Written and directed by Kim Bora, House of Hummingbird is a keenly observed coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl growing up in Seoul in the mid-1990s. Eunhee (Park Ji-hoo) is emotionally ignored by her parents and physically abused by her brother at home, she has a rocky relationship with her best friend, and she discovers a threatening lump on her neck, all told through the backdrop of a real-life bridge collapse — if that sounds like A Lot, it is, but so is being a teen. However, House of Hummingbird never drowns in its misery. It’s a tender film about small moments of happiness when surrounded by sadness, like when Eunhee asks her teacher if she ever hates herself; the adult responds yes, often, but whenever the self-loathing creeps in, “I just try to look within.” She also tells Eunhee that it “takes some time to learn like yourself,” but it won’t take any time for you to like House of Hummingbird. The connection is instant.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The title, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, refers to a series of questions asked to 17-year-old Autumn (played by the impressively composed Sidney Flanigan) at an abortion clinic. “In the past year, your partner has refused to wear a condom — never, rarely, sometimes, always.” “Your partner has threatened or frightened find you — never, rarely, sometimes, always.” Nearly the entire scene, from director Eliza Hittman, is a tightly-framed close-up of Autumn. One-shot takes are usually associated with fast-paced physically-demanding scenes, like the car sequence in Children of Men, but they can also be used to show a character’s emotional journey. As she’s being asked the most personal of personal questions, Autumn barely moves, yet it’s as gripping as anything in war epic 1917. Never Rarely Sometimes Always belongs in the teen movie canon.
I like what Vince Mancini wrote about “damn near perfect” Palm Springs: “Palm Springs‘ twists will inevitably become over-emphasized, because talking about Palm Springs’ twists is a way of talking about the film without revealing too much, and Palm Springs truly is best experienced cold. Yet presenting Palm Springs as a movie about twists does it a disservice. It’s a film full of surprises whose appeal doesn’t rest on surprise.”
The Lonely Island-produced Palm Springs cannily understands that the gimmick isn’t what makes Groundhog Day (the film it’s frequently been compared to) great; it’s the characters, and how they react to being placed in “one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about.” Without Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti’s chaotic evil chemistry, the comedy would fall flat, even with a stirring premise. In that sense, it reminds me of the toxic-yet-lovable You’re the Worst, the best romantic-comedy of the 2010s. Palm Spring may end up in the discussion for the best of the 2020s.
Elisabeth Moss gives one of her best career-best performances in Josephine Decker’s beguiling and dream-like Shirley, where the Mad Men star plays author and “half witch” Shirley Jackson. It would have been nice to see Moss and the equally-wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg, as a college professor and Shirley’s contemptible husband, torment a young couple staying in their home, and each other, on the big screen, but the nervy gothic drama works on TV, too. Just make sure you’re not eating anything with mushrooms in it.
The Vast of Night / Miss Juneteenth
I’m grouping these two movies together, as they’re both promising debuts from filmmakers to watch: Andrew Patterson for The Vast of Night and Channing Godfrey Peoples for Miss Juneteenth. The former, which takes place over one night in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s, is a showcase for blockbuster effects on an indie budget, while the latter, about a former-Miss Juneteenth winner grooming her daughter for the same pageant, “rings with the kind of authenticity you only get from a filmmaker who knows their subject. It has a sense of detail, a cultural richness that can’t be faked.” Both films have their faults, but they suggest a promising future for Patterson and Peoples (which would also be a good name for a law firm, if the directing thing doesn’t work out).