With all the focus on whether movie theaters can survive the pandemic and when we’re finally going to get to see all those postponed blockbusters, it would be easy to overlook the many worthwhile movies that were, in fact, released during the summer of 2020. Audiences may not have enjoyed them in the kind of collective experience so many of us love about the cinema, but in their own way they negate the claim that this year has been entirely bad for the movies.

From a documentary about the ACLU to a horror movie about Zoom, a reimagining of the Joan of Arc story to a comedy about a sexual awakening in Catholic school, here are 17 excellent movies released this summer (or, in a few cases, in the spring after theaters began to shut down) and where you can stream them now.

Lucky Grandma

Lucky Grandma follows one of the most unlikely heist leaders in recent memory: a frail, chain-smoking 80-year-old widow from New York’s Chinatown. But she’s a lot feistier and more resourceful than she appears, when she finds herself on the run from local gangsters after swiping an unattended bag of money that belongs to them. Writer-director Sasie Sealy stuffs the movie with big laughs and chaotic action sequences—and Tsai Chin, half a century removed from playing a Bond girl in You Only Live Twice, is electric and unpredictable as the titular octogenarian.—Andrew R. Chow

Rent it on Amazon or YouTube

The Cuban

Luis Garcia is a renowned Cuban jazz musician, but he doesn’t know it: he has dementia and has been abandoned by his family in a nursing home. But when a young nurse begins playing his old songs for him, he slowly begins to regain his memories and joie de vivre. This patient and thoughtful movie is by no means a thriller, but Louis Gossett Jr. and Ana Golja pour themselves into their respective roles, and the music is sublime.—Andrew R. Chow

Watch it in virtual cinemas

Ema

Jackie director Pablo Larraín invites us into the captivating world of a dancer named Ema in the colorful port city of Valparaiso, Chile. The titular character, played in a stunning performance by Mariana di Girolamo, is enduring (and sometimes fueling) a fiery split from her partner and choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal). Less a picture of domestic bliss and more a collage of mutual torment, the couple is eventually revealed to have adopted a son, Polo, and given the boy up after a nasty incident that irrevocably harmed a family member. Larraín deliberately delays the introduction of Polo, but it is Ema who commands the attention throughout, the camera trained on her striking blonde mullet and streetwear uniform, as Nicolas Jaar’s mesmerizing reggaeton-inspired soundtrack pulses on.—Suyin Haynes

Watch it on MUBI in select countries

The Last Tree

The second feature from British writer-director Shola Amoo, The Last Tree is a sensitive exploration of what it means to navigate unfamiliar cultures, and how an uprooted childhood can transform a life. Set in the early 2000s and drawing from Amoo’s own experiences, the film follows Femi, a young British boy of Nigerian descent, as he moves in with a white foster mother in rural Lincolnshire, in the country’s north. His idyllic childhood in the countryside comes to an abrupt end as his mother comes to take him back to London, and we follow him through adolescence in his struggle to find and settle into his identity, eventually arriving in Lagos in search of his family. The beautiful cinematography and soundtrack balance the anguish in Femi’s story with tenderness, making this a profoundly affecting watch.—Suyin Haynes

Watch it in virtual cinemas

La Llorona

Based on the real-life court case of Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for the genocide of indigenous Mayans, La Llorona presents a new take on an ancient Hispanic horror legend. As hordes of protesters surround the home of aging general Enrique Monteverde and his family demanding punishment for his crimes, a mysterious indigenous maid named Alma arrives, and the family is forced to reckon with political ghosts of the past while supernatural activity ensues. As the echoes of the weeping woman mingle with the thrum of rage from the crowd outside, the legacy of war and torture is laid bare. Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú makes a cameo in the film, and Parasite director Bong Joon-ho recently selected Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente as one of 20 emerging directors whose work will be pivotal in the next 20 years.—Suyin Haynes

Watch it on Shudder

Babyteeth

Starring Little Women‘s Eliza Scanlen as terminally ill teenager Milla, Babyteeth is a fresh take on a familiar coming-of-age love story by Australian director Shannon Murphy. When Moses (Toby Wallace) quite literally bursts into Milla’s life with chaotic energy, she’s immediately captivated. Her parents, not so much—although they begrudgingly recognize the vitality he brings to their dying daughter’s life. While parents Anna and Henry are quick to judge Moses for his messy life and drug addiction, they too have their own complex relationships with prescription drugs and other problems obscured by the veneer of suburban bliss. Originally a stage play by Rita Kalnejais, who also wrote the screenplay, Murphy’s debut portrays the tumult of adolescence with intimacy and tenderness. —Suyin Haynes

Rent it on Amazon or YouTube

Joan of Arc

If there’s such a thing as a perfect film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent 1928 biopic The Passion of Joan of Arc—featuring an indelible, once-in-a-lifetime performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti—is it. But that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from putting their own spin on France’s patron saint. The latest version comes from provocateur Bruno Dumont, who followed up his 2017 metal musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc with this relatively spare, haunting and sometimes darkly comic account of the teenage Joan’s trial. Whereas Falconetti, in her 30s when she shot The Passion, expressed operatic emotion without uttering a word, preteen Lise Leplat Prudhomme plays the martyr as introspective, self-possessed and resolute. The hypocritical bloviating of the men who try Joan for heresy aside, Dumont’s sequel feels meditative more than reverent, its lyrical silences acknowledging that some parts of this remarkable biography will remain forever unknowable.—Judy Berman

Watch it in virtual cinemas

Selah and the Spades

On paper, writer and director Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature sounds like a typical teenage mean-girl story: beautiful, manipulative Selah (Lovie Simone) leads a cadre of drug dealers called the Spades at a boarding school where the student underworld is split into factions, and must find a successor before she graduates. A talented photographer named Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) emerges as a promising, then potentially threatening, contender. If only she knew what Selah’s deputy Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) knows about her new mentor. The uniqueness comes from a slick, purposeful visual style in which every frame is a meticulously constructed tableau; a poetic structure that refuses to spoon-feed plot points; and three Black central characters who presence in this rarefied world requires no explanation. (Poe has cited influences as diverse as Wes Anderson, Rihanna, The Godfather and Huey P. Newton.) “What I am trying to do with Selah… is just writing stories so that they exist,” Poe explained in an interview with Essence. “I aim to tell stories so that this vision of a world rarely seen or experienced exists in the future. For me, that is what freedom means.”—Judy Berman

Watch it on Amazon Prime Video

Spaceship Earth

Biosphere 2, the closed-system research facility in the Arizona desert that housed an unprecedented experiment in sustainability during the early 1990s, traces its roots to a radical ’60s theater group that made its home in a Santa Fe ecovillage called Synergia Ranch. The common element is John P. Allen, a creative and scientific polymath whose combination of charisma and hubris anticipated the brilliant, mercurial tech founders of today. His is the kind of only-in-America story that begs to be told, as director Matt Wolf (Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project) does in this Hulu original that combines archival footage with old and new interviews to elucidate what happened behind the sealed doors of Biosphere 2. There’s nothing especially innovative about Wolf’s style—but any tale that begins in Haight-Ashbury and ends with, why not, the arrival of Steve Bannon probably doesn’t need much embellishment.—Judy Berman

Watch it on Hulu

The Go-Gos

Pop-rockers The Go-Go’s have two big claims to fame: in the early ’80s, they became the first all-female band who wrote their own music and played their own instruments to have a No.1 album—and they had a whole lot of debaucherous fun in the process. But there’s a whole lot more to their story than hard partying and “We Got the Beat.” Director Allison Ellwood excavates it all in her Showtime documentary The Go-Go’s, which follows Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin and the rest on a journey from their origins in the late-’70s Los Angeles punk scene to the top of the Billboard charts through addiction, discord, breakup and reunion. This may sound like a boilerplate rock doc, and its structure certainly owes something to Behind the Music. But even if you’re not a Go-Go’s superfan, it’s worth watching both for the abundance of electrifying pre-fame archival footage and for the openness of bandmates who’ve clearly done some serious introspection over the past three decades.—Judy Berman

Watch it on Showtime

Yes, God, Yes

High school can be confusing, and grappling with one’s burgeoning sexuality, even more so. But trying to make sense of all these new desires against the backdrop of a Catholic education that preaches abstinence and purity, at least for the protagonist of writer-director Karen Maine’s raunchy but heartfelt semi-autobiographical comedy Yes, God, Yes, really takes the wafer. Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer plays Alice, a teenager who attends a Catholic school retreat where she confronts her own feelings of lust, and the shame she’s made to feel about them. Along the way, she collects some valuable life lessons about the secrets and hypocrisy of even the most apparently righteous among us, who are, after all, still only human.—Eliza Berman

Rent it on YouTube or Amazon

The Fight

The American Civil Liberties Union has unfalteringly stood up for civil rights over the course of the Trump Administration, implementing legal challenge after legal challenge to several of the president’s executive orders. Against a relentless, whiplash-inducing news cycle, the lawsuits that come from the century-old organization stack up quickly and span issues from voting rights to immigration policies. The Fight, a documentary from the filmmakers behind Weiner, bears witness to the ACLU in action by focusing on the dogged lawyers behind four legal efforts brought forth by the organization since 2016. The doc follows them as they build cases to battle the Administration’s stringent immigration policies, demand abortion rights for an undocumented teenager, fight against a proposed citizenship question on the census and take on Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military.—Mahita Gajanan

Rent it on Amazon

Boys State

Disturbing, fascinating and a little bit sad, the documentary Boys State is an apt encapsulation of the current state of American democracy. Centering on a program from the American Legion for teenagers interested in pursuing careers in government (there is also a Girls State), the film follows more than a thousand boys who come together in Texas to sharpen their political chops and build a mock government over the course of a week. Amid the hundreds of 17-year-olds, the filmmakers train their cameras on a few key figures: Steven, the progressive son of Mexican immigrants who finds himself at odds with his more conservative peers; the precocious René, who wows everyone with a groundbreaking speech; and Ben, a conservative and Ronald Reagan fan. Much like witnessing an actual election cycle, watching the boys organize political parties and campaign for the top office of governorwhich involves a fair amount of political undermininginspires both hope and dread for the future.—Mahita Gajanan

Watch it on Apple TV+

Host

As pandemic lockdowns set in across the world, some hoped that the long isolation would spark creative endeavors that would define the era. Writer-director Rob Savage not only found that spark, but decided to use the lockdown as a film set all its own. The result, co-written with Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, is Host, which is not only one of the best horror movies of the year, but also an intimate look at creativity, film production and a shared global culture in the throes of a rampaging virus. Clocking in at an extraordinarily tight 57 minutes, Host is completely set within a Zoom call between a group of friends who decide to hold a remote seance with the help of a professional medium. Whether through technological limitations, misplaced intentions or some other demonic plans, the botched seance lets something evil into their world and things take a socially distant turn for the worse. Like Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity before it, Host reflects the world that brought it into being. It’s a technological milestone, a historical record and a spotlight for the pervasive fears triggered by isolation.—Peter Allen Clark

Watch it on Shudder

First Cow

For the past 25 years, Kelly Reichardt has left her mark on cinema by crafting very small, very quiet movies that contain profound depths of emotional resonance. Her latest release, First Cow, received a very small, very quiet release in early March as theaters began shutting down due to the coronavirus, but the movie’s July VOD release allowed many to catch up with one of her strongest films. As trappers, traders and merchants tried to survive the wild Oregon Territory of the 1820s, two unlikely friends hatch a plan involving a local settlement’s very first cow. An awkward cook from the East Coast and a wanted explorer from China find themselves not only supporting each other’s dreams, but crafting a deep friendship as the West’s many dangers creep ever closer. In some ways, First Cow can be seen as a hybrid of two of Reichardt’s most successful films: Meek’s Cutoff, which followed a group of desperate pioneers trying to find their way through the Oregon Trail, and Old Joy, which tracks two old friends slowly realizing that life has led them on very separate paths. But First Cow takes a softer view of its main characters, pitted not against each other, but against a cruel, unjust world, relying only on each other for survival and support. It’s primarily concerned with the kindness of strangers and the importance of friendship, a welcome balm during a time of isolation and fear.—Peter Allen Clark

Rent it on Amazon

The Vast of Night

The small but stellar Vast of Night uses its quiet, unassuming energy to deliver a very special sci-fi movie that subverts all expectations with a riveting story. Set in the 1950s in a romanticized small town, where the local high school basketball game is enough to empty the town’s few streets, The Vast of Night follows two young characters as they slowly unravel the mystery of a bizarre radio signal. A teenage girl, working the town’s telephone exchange, and a teenage boy, manning a radio station’s evening shift, discover that the signal has jogged the memory of several nearby residents, leading down a path that changes everything about their lives. The script is whip-smart, with patter that’s equally charming and relatable. Its two main actors, Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, nail the roles, showing chemistry with the camera and each other. And the direction knows exactly when to get flashy and when to sit still, letting the viewer stew in the film’s more meditative moments. Patterson brought The Vast of Night into being after years of writing, shooting and editing. And he left us with not only one of the best indie movies of 2020, but also a glimpse at what this budding talent may deliver next.—Peter Allen Clark

Watch it on Amazon Prime Video

The High Note

Starring Dakota Johnson as an aspiring music producer and Tracee Ellis Ross as an R&B megastar who tours on her old hits but has not released new music in ages, Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is about two women at very different points in their careers who have unfulfilled dreams in common. Maggie (Johnson) spends her days running errands as a personal assistant to Grace (Ross) and mixes music in her limited spare time. And Grace, who has built a rich life through performing, finds she doesn’t have real freedom in her work. The magic comes when they finally work together, realizing they each hold a key to the other’s happiness.—Mahita Gajanan

Rent it on YouTube or Amazon

Write to Mahita Gajanan at [email protected] and Eliza Berman at [email protected].



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