Every year, our nation of assholes shells out millions of dollars to see complete crap at the multiplex. If there is anything positive that can be gleaned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it has kept away the annual parade of big budget sequels and mind-numbing action films. Rather than spending our hard-earned cash to see dinosaurs chew up a bunch of morons, we have to pick and choose between streaming indie films if we want to see something new. We hope this list inspires you to watch something tonight that you may have normally skipped out on. Thank you for reading and stay safe.

Bacurau (Dirs.: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau is tastefully old-fashioned, evoking thrillers of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s right from the opening credits and steadily amping up the allusions until the film goes full John Carpenter at its halfway point. The canny balance of violence and social commentary feels even more valuable now than it did when the film was released early this year.

Bacurau is set “a few years from now” and tells the story of an isolated Brazilian town targeted by a mysterious force. The appearance of a UFO-like disc in the sky makes it clear that the directors are not only willing the play with genre conventions, it also means that there is more to the story than the quirky drama that takes up much of the first half. The second-act reveal and ensuing action is absolute bonkers and an utter delight thanks to a clever blend of homage and ingenuity.

Like the best of Carpenter, Dornelles and Mendonça Filho make their scenes effective through craft rather than resources, as the budget is obviously low. They masterfully use tension and surprise to make up for any lack of razzle dazzle. And because they spend their time establishing their characters and what is exactly at stake for the village, the bloodbath is emotionally effective as well. One of the best films of the year, Bacurau has done its homework but also does something new. – Mike McClelland

Birds of Prey (Dir.: Cathy Yan)

Some movies get graded on a different curve, and they usually star women. From its full title to its marketing campaign to the lack of objectifying costumes, a great many pixels have been expended theorizing why Bird of Prey flopped at the box office. Coming to the movie during its lockdown release, the only apparent reason for the animosity is the evergreen bias of ladies playing in spaces where men have erected their masculine flag which is a continued shame.

Comparisons can be unfair, but Harley Quinn and the Joker have been intertwined since the former’s creation as Mr. J’s obsessed former therapist turned love interest on Batman: The Animated Series. That both characters starred in movies months apart only deepens their cultural bond. Birds of Prey is the anti-Joker in every way. The lauded Oscar winner is ultimately a dull, vacuous experience that serves as the perfect container for emasculated rage, art for Joe Rogan listeners who can’t sit through Taxi Driver. Birds of Prey is an inventive blast of pop culture joy that is as close to greatness as a comic book movie comes.

By mashing up bits of Terminator, Batman, Scott Pilgrim and decades of comics, director Cathy Yan makes something vital out of this side adventure that gives us a new look at Gotham City. Margot Robbie reprises the role of Harley Quinn and takes the character through her mourning process after her final breakup with the Joker. Fate assembles a team around her that includes Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett), Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Renee Montoya (the great Rosie Perez) and Huntress (the also great but sadly underutilized Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The film’s peaks are fantastic, its flaws often obscured by the fun and its designation as a cult classic inevitable. In a future where we get to go to the movies again there will be screenings where cosplayers congregate to eat egg sandwiches, drink margaritas and revel in this film’s anarchic, feminist energy. Those who missed it the first time will be welcome to join the party. – Don Kelly

Blow the Man Down (Dirs.: Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy)

The easiest recipe to make a perfectly good crime thriller film is to have a strong sense of place, a bit too much bloodthirst and just a dash of stylish flair. Any competent filmmaker who can combine those elements is well on the way to making a fun, breezy genre movie that audiences will love. Directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy check off all those boxes with Blow the Man Down.

The sleepy seaside town in New England is a quintessential setting, with the blues and grays of sea and sky providing an appropriately murky color palette and the various marine-related buildings and props naturally lending themselves to sinister stories. Generally speaking, crime stories are too violent; just look at Nordic noir, an entire subgenre where often a single work will feature as many murders as all of Sweden has in two years in real life. Blow the Man Down is super saturated with crime, as well, with sexual deviance, drug dealing and other sorts of vice lurking behind every corner (and also simply in plain sight). Finally, Cole and Krudy have style to spare, with the occasional interludes of singing fishermen being only the most ostentatious example. Much like the “Fargo” TV series, this is a film that looks at the unrealistically high level of ocean-adjacent violent crime it features and shrugs, deciding that if reality can be suspended in that regard then why not having the town be full of operatic anglers as well. Blow the Man Down is the ideal thriller for our surreal, eschatological moment. – Ryne Clos

Color Out of Space (Dir.: Richard Stanley)

Legendary director Richard Stanley returned to the big screen this year with Color Out of Space, and it’s a welcome return to form. The film observes a cozy family of five who moves to a farm so that wife/mother Theresa (Joely Richardson) can recover from an operation and husband/father Nathan (Nicolas Cage) can raise alpacas and grow tomatoes. The couple also has three children: Benny (Brendan Meyer) takes to smoking pot with a local mystic (played by Tommy Chong in a great bit of casting), Lavinia has become obsessed with the occult, and Jack (Julian Hilliard) only seems to connect with the family dog. Everything changes for this family and the surrounding area when a meteorite strikes, eliciting a strange and unknown Color. Ward (Elliott Knight), a hydrologist, thinks it may have affected the water, and the remainder of the story is a light-and-sound show.

Stanley, back after an extended period in “movie jail” after a series of financial and critical bombs, stages a series of trippy, kaleidoscopic, increasingly disturbing sequences of Color-centric horrors. Nathan begins to detect an awful smell. Theresa regularly dissociates, to the disfavor of two fingers at one point. Jack begins to hear a stranger’s voice. Eventually it mutates the surrounding flora and fauna, and the climax presents us with some truly bleak imagery, such as a grotesquerie involving two characters who become physically intertwined or the mental deterioration of two others. Stanley and his co-screenwriter Scarlett Amaris refuse to let anyone off easy, but they also thankfully never forget about the fragile humanity of these characters. This one sticks permanently to the brain. – Joel Copling

Da 5 Bloods (Dir.: Spike Lee)

For a director as prolific as Spike Lee, a filmography is bound to have some clunkers. But what is it that sets apart a classic Spike Lee Joint from its overambitious and underperforming brethren? In Da 5 Bloods, easily the best film Lee has crafted since 2002’s 25th Hour, it’s the passion. Lee has always been an intense storyteller, but that zeal often clouds his focus. There’s definitely a fair bit of that on display here, too. Bloods could stand to be a hair shorter on the runtime and a bit less sprawling in its gaze. But it’s still one of the finest movies this odd year has birthed.

Much has been made of how this Vietnam War heist flick sees Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott using their film professor bona fides to metatextually comment on the war movies of yore, transmogrifying those mirrored images through the grinder of black generational trauma. But that corrective, restorative view of reckoning the realities of American history with the fiction of American cinema is only half the picture. It’s in the profound way Lee captures the camaraderie and brotherhood of his core cast, allowing a vulnerability and depth of complexity to the way he presents black masculinity.

Yes, Delroy Lindo is the obvious standout, but it’s the bonds formed between him and the rest of the cast, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors specifically, that fuels the film’s molten core. Perhaps in a more crowded movie release year untouched by Covid-19, Da 5 Bloods might be easier for the mainstream to ignore, so it’s something of a blessing that it’s so prominent in the conversation. – Dom Griffin

Fourteen (Dir: Dan Sallitt)

For all their enriching qualities, long-term friendships are also demanding long-term projects, requiring constant cultivation and care, subject to lulls in interest and flare-ups in irritation. This dynamic is captured masterfully in Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen, a decade-spanning chronicle of the wavering devotion between two women, documenting the changes that occur as a firm bond frays, settling into an obligation for one party and a desperate lifeline for another. A noted cinephile with an acute skill for imposing the finer intricacies of international art cinema onto American indie templates, Sallitt once again refracts classical influences from Ozu, Dreyer and Renoir through a contemporary lens, landing on something that evokes the spirit of old masters but never feels remotely close to replication. What instead emerges is a platonic riff on Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, anchored by standout performances from Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling, each embodying the entwined ambivalence of two people hopelessly enmeshed in each other’s lives, torn between the desire for independence and the fear of letting go. Pointed distinctly toward disaster, the film somehow stays clear of darkness, maintaining a clear-eyed empathetic focus that allows ample affinity toward both sides, even as Medel’s character starts to steer the narrative, growing up while her friend flounders. Rooted in a rare depth of kindness and care, Fourteen incorporates complex ideas of performance and penance into a completely engrossing interpersonal reckoning, making for the type of movie that hits hard on both a cerebral and emotional level. – Jesse Cataldo

The Invisible Man (Dir: Leigh Whannell)

Arriving just two weeks before most of the United States began sheltering in place, The Invisible Man hit theaters (remember those?) at a time when Americans had little reason to expect that rhetorical bluster about an “invisible enemy” would soon enter the political lexicon. Achieving critical acclaim and a late-winter box office bonanza on a small budget, Leigh Whannell’s film about an unseen villain succeeds on the dynamite performance by Elisabeth Moss. She plays Cecilia, a battered woman who physically escapes her abusive boyfriend (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a genius in the field of optics, only to be psychologically tortured when he cloaks himself in an invisibility suit of his own design and plays sadistic mind games on her. Whannell uses crisp editing and a creeping sense of dread to create an atmospheric horror film that derives terror from the unseen, from the sense that we, like Cecilia, can’t even rely on what we see with our own eyes. The film may speak to the psychological trauma of abusive relationships, but now, months later, there’s almost an aspect of comfort in watching an eventual triumph against a seemingly omnipresent menace. We’ve entered into a new world since this film’s release, one where it’s even easier to relate to Cecilia’s mental anguish at knowing a sinister threat could lurk anywhere undetected, and at seeing so many people ignore ominous warnings. – Josh Goller

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Dir: Eliza Hittman)

In Eliza Hittman’s searing Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we meet Autumn (Sidney Flanigan in her debut performance), a sad-eyed 17-year-old who is nothing at all like the fast-talking, preternaturally intelligent teens we see in movies such as Booksmart. Autumn is introverted and works a cash register at a supermarket, along with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder) in a small town in central Pennsylvania. It’s an average existence in a depressed town. Autumn soon discovers that she is pregnant. After exhausting all the possibilities in her very Christian small town, she convinces Skylar to travel with her, unbeknownst to their parents, to New York City to get an abortion where parental consent is not required. Hittman films, with excruciating detail, how Autumn’s plan quickly comes together and then unravels as the girls run out of money and must jump through one bureaucratic hoop after another while navigating the streets of New York City. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quiet movie. There are lots of silent stretches as Autumn and Skylar grapple with being utterly lost in a big world without answers. Hittman never goes for cheap melodrama. Real-life struggle is plenty enough without any added conflict. – David Harris

Onward (Dir: Dan Scanlon)

Onward is Pixar’s first non-sequel since 2017’s Coco, and its deep feeling and tight storytelling are on par with the studio’s very best. The story follows a pair of elf brothers, Ian and Barley (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively), on a quest to reanimate their dead father for one last day of togetherness. They live in a suburban world of mushroom-shaped ranch homes and franchise restaurants where magic is a fading memory but pop culture sight gags abound (Burger Shire: “Now serving second breakfast”). The brothers’ quest leads them on a cross-country trip in a groovy van while their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) pursues them along with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer). The heart of the story is a refreshing exploration of brotherly love, deftly engineered to summon tears before the end, but the pathos is leavened by clever twists on Dungeon & Dragons-style magic and adventure. Easter eggs abound—there’s an Infinity Gauntlet in the claw game at the tavern—and D&D fans will recognize many elements inspired by the role-playing game, such as the 20-sided die that Barley wears as a patch or the gelatinous cube that threatens to devour the brothers.

Released in theaters at the beginning of March, Onward didn’t stay long on the big screen before the cinemas shut down due to COVID-19 and Disney made the decision to offer it for digital download. In the new normal of fear and powerlessness, Onward evokes a welcome sense of connection and humanity, with the tantalizing suggestion that there might still be a little magic in the world after all. – A.C. Koch

Shirley (Dir: Josephine Decker)

The prospect of Josephine Decker, who rates with the Safdies as the finest of the emerging next generation of American filmmakers, turning her considerable talents toward the moribund genre of the biopic was admittedly not thrilling. Leave it to Decker, though, to approach the subject of Shirley Jackson not in a dry attempt to show her working process, but rather to craft a psychosexual mindscape that, like all of her work, dances on the line of strangeness and horror. In many ways, Shirley is a Gothic romance between the author and her simultaneously awestruck and resentful husband who attempts to hide the woman from the world while extolling her work. Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson as both Jane Eyre and Bertha, the intellectually stimulating equal and the madwoman locked in the attic. Decker’s woozy shots emphasize the ways that Moss captures the conflicting depression, lust and inspiration that course through an artist whose mental freefall is about to produce its most stunning contributions to the canon. Though never an outright approximation of Jackson’s work, Shirley nonetheless reflects the troubling, insoluble aspects of the author’s horror and humor, a portrait as jagged and debate-inducing as any of Jackson’s own character sketches. – Jake Cole

Straight Up (Dir: James Sweeney)

With sharp-tongued, rapid-fire dialogue akin to classic screwballs and a sweet-hearted center that wraps around you like a nice blanket, James Sweeney’s debut romantic comedy Straight Up is one of this year’s unsung gems in the wake of COVID-19. Having to navigate a new distribution route of digital screening rooms, the independent film may not have gathered the audience it would’ve in a traditional theatrical release, but it’s now on Netflix and there’s no excuse not to visit this wise, witty and warm work.
Straight Up follows a presumably gay man named Todd (Sweeney, who also writes and directs), who begins to question his sexual identity and explore relationships with women. In doing such, he meets Rory (Katie Findlay) and the two begin a ravishingly romantic friendship—sans the sex. These compelling characters are fully realized by the two leads, and the aforementioned screwball dialogue between them fires back and forth with a Hawksian flair that’s downright infectious. The thematic issues of intimacy, romance and sexuality are explored with genuine care and deep observation by Sweeney, and the film is generous in its honesty—from the awkwardness of parties to the sheer terror of a panic attack. Straight Up is not only the best romantic comedy of this year, it sets the bar high for the next decade. – Greg Vellante

The Whistlers (Dir: Corneliu Porumboiu)

One of the most stylish, sexy thrillers of this or any year is an entertaining romp from [checks notes] Corneliu Porumboiu? The Romanian new wave auteur is best known for dryly paced arthouse fare like the 2006 political satire 12:08 East of Bucharest, and his previous film was the molasses-slow documentary Infinite Football. Nobody expected him to make something this commercial, and that slickness alienated some fans expecting the usual grim Romanian deadpan. With a bigger budget, his frequent cinematographer Tudor Mircea sweetens the visuals for a twist-laden plot full of sex and violence, which makes this sound like a dime-a-dozen post-Tarantino joint. But Porumboiu is up to something here, brilliantly commenting on action movie tropes as he revels in them. And the casting of stoic lead Vlad Ivanov subtly echoes with the actor’s law enforcement role in Porumboiu’s 2009 film Police, Adjective, while in that crime drama Ivanov’s chief of police issues a strict warning against corruption to Christian, one of his detectives. Here, as a character named Christian, he directly refers to a case that sounds suspiciously like the central drug sting in the previous film; an arbiter of morality has given in to temptation. The Whistlers is a wild and complicated ride that’s a lot of fun on the surface, but underneath the eye candy is a chilling indictment of a tainted justice system. – Pat Padua

The Wild Goose Lake (Dir: Yi’nan Diao)

Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake is nothing if not neo-noir. Lit by glaring pools of neon, drenched in falling rain and rippling with the musculature of hard-nosed detectives and killers, it tells a paranoia-wrought tale of a gangster on the lam amid Wuhan’s urban sprawl. The story unfolds in a world where crime is pervasive, suspicion more so. In Diao’s intricately cluttered compositions, glances are exchanged across alternate ends of half-wet alleyways and figures converge in the blink of an eye then just as quickly disappear.

If this sounds like a tired retread of generic tropes, be prepared instead for a film that sets itself apart by engaging—in terms of narrative and style—with brutality as an everyday practice on both sides of the law. One side competes in do-or-die games of survival, such as a bike-stealing competition early in the film that leaves one character decapitated and another, our protagonist, in a position so desperate and disoriented that he shoots and kills a police patrolman. The other side represents a Chinese legal system so desperate to clamp down on a symbol of disrespect that they, for instance, insist on prying answers from a man as he falls into a deathly state of shock on a hospital bed and firing their weapons into an open market. Meanwhile, money flutters to the muddy water’s surface, amphetamines huddle in a palm like candy, animals gaze at a handgun’s flash and paying customers consume a meal with the voracity of thieves. The lurid crispness of such images seems all that remains for the bruised ones left behind, barely with a moment to spare in search of beauty. – Jeff Heinzl

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