(Welcome to The Streamer’s Guide, a new monthly feature recommending at-home viewing options from filmmakers with new movies arriving in theaters this month.)
If you’ve seen all the /Film coverage from Sundance and gotten eager to sample the year’s first crop of new movies, you’re in luck! A number of them are hitting theaters almost immediately following their Park City debuts (plus a few on Netflix, including Dee Rees’ supposed bust The Last Thing He Wanted), and that’s on top of what looks like a promising crop of new releases on the studio side of things. If you’re looking to prepare for February’s openings, or perhaps just preparing a double feature with one half at home, here are some viewing options for you.
(Of note: I was not able to include a film for February’s biggest release, Birds of Prey, because director Cathy Yan’s debut feature still does not have U.S. distribution. Dead Pigs somehow got enough attention to get her a gig directing a giant movie for DC Comics, yet no distributor wants to put her prior film out there over two years after it premiered at Sundance. Justice for Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan and female filmmakers of color!)
Downhill (February 14, limited)
Nothing says “Happy Valentine’s Day” quite like a couple pushed to the brink by a traumatic incident, am I right? At least if you’re going to watch potentially unpleasant material, you can do so in the company of comedic luminaries like Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. This English-language remake of 2014 Swedish arthouse hit Force Majeure has drawn skepticism since Fox Searchlight announced it. But our own Chris Evangelista was pleasantly (if modestly) surprised by the film at Sundance, remarking “it is fun to see Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell go head-to-head.” And at a slim 85 minutes, maybe this night at the movies will actually give you time to talk to your valentine!
Want to prep for release? Watch this at home: I know it’s the kind of movie that is shorthand for a particular kind of young teenage white male coming-of-age story that dominated Sundance in the early 2010s. But, in all fairness, co-writers and director Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s 2013 outing The Way Way Back is a truly exemplary version of what’s now a cliché. The film fully understands the frustrations of being an introverted kid, but it’s the adults played by Sam Rockwell and Toni Collette who are the real standouts. As guiding lights for a flailing kid, the movie is clear-eyed about the mistakes they’ve made in the name of self-preservation and fear. (Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)
Ordinary Love (February 14, limited)
What, a story about an aging couple dealing with cancer doesn’t sound like an appetizing moviegoing experience? It’s hard to gin up enthusiasm for a movie that deals with such heavy subject matter, sure. But if you’re going to engage with the full spectrum of human emotion on screen, might as well do it in the company of acting giants Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. As a couple grappling with the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, the film looks both affectionate and devastating. I also cannot help but read into the film’s metatext and wonder whether Neeson brought some of the grief to the performance he felt over the sudden death of his wife Natasha Richardson all those years ago.
Want to prep for release? Watch this at home: I know the obvious choice for a Lesley Manville performance to spotlight is her tremendous (and memeable) work in Phantom Thread. But she’s been such an integral part of Mike Leigh’s stable of actors for many decades that I feel compelled to throw some shine on her tour de force work in 2010’s Another Year. Had Sony Classics known whether to campaign her fully in leading or supporting actress, perhaps she would have scored a deserving Oscar nomination for her riveting turn as a hapless middle-aged woman enduring some punishing tribulations in her personal life. The film ends with a long close-up on Manville, and you feel the weight of the entire film come crushing down on you in just her face. It’s worth watching the movie just to get the cumulative effect of this shot. (Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)
The Photograph (February 14, wide)
After all those years of the Fifty Shades movies dominating the Valentine’s Day weekend, it’s nice to have a real, unabashed romance in theaters. There’s so much to love about The Photograph from the start because it’s a film by and about black people that’s about something beyond just struggle. Universal, thankfully, has resisted marketing this as an “urban” film and treating it as something all audiences should see. And judging from the trailer, it’s not going to be a hard sell. Whether it’s the sparks flying between stars Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield or the mystery at the heart of the story, this looks like a potential early-year studio breakout.
Want to prep for release? Watch this at home: It’s great that writer/director Stella Meghie is getting a crack at studio filmmaking less than two years after her festival breakout The Weekend. I won’t pretend the film is stellar, but at a short 86 minutes, what does it really cost you to see the flashes of promise from a rising star? The weekend getaway of several friends, couples, enemies and exes in the film leads to many memorable moments of both levity (mostly from former SNL cast member Sasheer Zamata) and gravity. Meghie proves herself adept at balancing comedy and drama from a very early stage in her career, which portends good things to come. (Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)
Emma. (February 21, limited)
Was the lesson of The Favourite being a box office and awards success that studios should produce more irreverent period movies? If so, I’m very much down! Emma. (stylized with a period, as publicists have told me many times) takes a much cheekier approach than the usual Jane Austen adaptation if the trailer is any indication. I’m all for directors finding ways to liberate these classic texts from the stodgy Masterpiece Theater-style adaptations they received the last time around. And if it brings a different crowd of people to discover 19th century British literature, I deem that a success.
Want to prep for release? Watch this at home: Since you’ve probably seen all the major films of star Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Thoroughbreds, Split and Glass) and there’s not quite as much to survey from debut feature director Autumn de Wilde (though she has an extensive portfolio page), allow me to gush about one of the film’s supporting actors. Maybe you already know him from his role as Prince Charles on The Crown, but let me just say, Josh O’Connor is the real deal. God’s Own Country is an absolute star-making performance, and I’m embarrassed to say I’m only just catching up with it. Watching him play a young man struggling with his sexuality in rural England and turn his expression of that conflict from violence to tenderness when a farmhand arrives is a gutting journey. O’Connor is physically and emotionally raw in a startlingly vulnerable way, and I cannot wait to see what else has to show us in Emma. and beyond. (Available to stream for free to subscribers of Netflix, Hoopla and Kanopy)
The Last Thing He Wanted (February 21, Netflix)
As I type this out, Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted sits at a whopping 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not the kind of thing you want to see for a film that many assumed might factor into the Oscar conversation had Netflix released in 2019! A part of me thinks I must be including it here as an act of willful denial to accept the inevitable. Especially given how little effort I have to exert to watch the film, I’ll probably end up watching it, negative reviews be damned. Rees adapted a less-trumpeted Didion text here – at least one that’s not going to show up in many coffee shop or beachside Instagram posts – about political intrigue and romance against the background of the Iran-Contra affair. And if it gives star Anne Hathaway another reason to remind a skeptical audience that she’s a great actress, then the entire effort cannot be for naught.
Want to prep for release? Watch this at home: Look, if The Last Thing He Wanted is really that bad, just flip back to the Netflix menu and find Dee Rees’ last film, Mudbound. This is an absolutely magisterial film that I truly believe future generations will study. (They’ll also wonder how it didn’t get Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but that’s a conversation for another day.) The way Rees handles narration and perspective in an ensemble drama full of rich characters is nothing short of stunning. Add to that the fact that the film provides a moving, challenging take on American race and class relations in the mid-20th century, and you’ve got yourself a film for the books. Whether you’re watching or rewatching Mudbound, I promise there is something to gain from spending two hours with it. (Available for free to Netflix subscribers)
Saint Frances (February 28, limited)
I didn’t even need to make it to the quote from /Film’s review of Saint Frances to be sold on the trailer for the film. “It deserves all the attention in the world,” wrote our own Amelia Emberwing, and honestly, this movie had mine for two minutes. This film looks genuinely disarming and sincere, a rarity among our irony-addled indie scene of late. I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that the film’s star, Kelly O’Sullivan, also wrote the script. All the festival laurels the film boasts can’t be lying. We deserve a real scrappy indie breakout, and one that tells a deeply human story of a young woman’s accidental pregnancy, abortion and life-affirming relationship with the child she nannies fits the bill.
Want to prep for release? Watch this at home: Director Alex Thompson might be making his feature debut with Saint Frances, but he’s got plenty of shorts under his belt – and with some big names to boot. Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis stars in his 2015 short Irene & Marie, a charming short about two older Greek-American women avoiding a confrontation with their age. But the short of his that really destroyed me was 2014’s Calumet, starring theater legend Austin Pendleton. It’s a quietly devastating look at how dementia weighs on an elderly married couple as they try to accomplish a simple kitchen task. Thompson feels like a rising Brett Haley (I’ll See You In My Dreams, The Hero) – that is to say, a young filmmaker with a keen interest in people much older than he is. There’s already a palpable compassion and sensitivity in Thompson’s work that I’m excited to see him continue exploring. (Available to stream for free to Amazon Prime subscribers)
Wendy (February 28, limited)
Benh is back! (I’ll show myself out for that pun.) Eight long years after his debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild charmed Sundance and rolled all the way to surprising Best Picture and Director nominations at the Oscars, Benh Zeitlin returns with another earthy magical realist tale. This time, it’s a take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Honestly, glad Zeitlin gets a crack at it before the inevitable Disney animated remake. Our own Chris Evangelista caught Wendy at Sundance and was admittedly a little mixed, although he did reserve some praise for the film’s technical elements.
Want to prep for release? Watch this at home: I hadn’t seen Zeitlin’s breakout debut Beasts of the Southern Wild since its release in 2012, not because I didn’t like it – it’s just not the kind of project that screams “rewatchable.” While I’ll admit that the filmmaking bravura has lost a little bit of its luster without the novelty factor, this is still an incredibly impressive film. How Zeitlin made something simultaneously so “out there” and so grounded still stuns me. And the assured, confident performance he got out of young Quvenzhané Wallis is still nothing short of miraculous. The film’s depiction of climate’s dangers, too, feels eerily prescient and ahead of its time. (Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)
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