Even with all the extra time we had on our hands courtesy of the nearly year-long coronavirus quarantine, it was still impossible to catch up with all of the entertainment options that streamed into our homes in 2020. As this unprecedented year winds to a close (at last), here’s your chance to catch up with some of our favorite under-the-radar titles that didn’t get the attention of, say, Tiger King or Wonder Woman 1984.
The Amber Ruffin Show
Peacock has only been around since July, but NBC Universal’s new streaming service already found the next great late-night host. Fresh out of the Late Night With Seth Meyers writers’ room, comedian Amber Ruffin holds court in a corner of Meyers’s stage every Friday night, serving up her hot takes on the biggest news and pop culture stories around. On any given week, Ruffin will bounce between riffing on politics to remembering that time that Angela Basset was robbed of an Oscar for What’s Love Got to Do With It while Tarik Davis — the Ed to her Johnny, Paul to her David and Andy to her Conan — plays along. Saturday Night Live may own Saturdays, and Last Week Tonight has Sundays on lock... but Friday night is Amber’s night.
The Amber Ruffin Show is currently streaming on Peacock.
Released in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein trial, Kitty Green’s razor-sharp drama shines a spotlight into a Miramax-like workplace. Green pointedly declined to put the film’s Weinstein-inspired abuser on camera, and his absence allows her to direct our attention where it really belongs: on the major and micro workplace aggressions directed at an ambitious female employee, played by Ozark’s Julia Garner. Each carefully composed frame isolates Garner from her co-workers and boss, emphasizing her place in this toxic environment. There are no easy answers presented in The Assistant’s enigmatic final moments — just a pervading sense that we all need to do better.
The Assistant is currently streaming on Hulu.
City So Real
If you’re looking for the ideal Windy City cinematic tour guide, Steve James is your guy. Through acclaimed documentaries like Hoops Dreams, The Interrupters and Life Itself, the filmmaker has captured the people, neighborhoods and causes that define contemporary Chicago. James’s 5-part docuseries, City So Real, is another intimate, yet expansive, portrait of the city, one that challenges the perception — one popularized by national news and certain Washington D.C. politicians — that it’s a perpetual hotbed of urban violence. Filmed over the course of Chicago’s 2019 mayoral campaign, City So Real investigates the complex web of social and political forces that shape its identity. You might say it’s James’s crowning achievement... although he’s almost certainly got a number of Chicago stories left to tell.
City So Real is currently streaming on Hulu.
The coronavirus crisis effectively canceled summer vacation. Fortunately, Starz’s addictive crime drama, created by Rebecca Cutter, provided a welcome warm weather escape by setting its story against the beachside backdrop of the tourist hot spot that is Provincetown, Mass. Chicago Fire’s Monica Raymund commands the screen as Jackie Quiñones, a hard-living, hard-partying federal Fisheries agent who ventures outside of her jurisdiction when she gets caught up in a murder investigation with ties to P-town’s booming opioid business. The stellar supporting cast includes James Badge Dale, Amaury Nolasco, Riley Voelkel, Atkins Estimond and Dohn Norwood, who will all be returning for Season 2 next year.
Hightown is currrently streaming on Starz.
A decade from now, if you were going to show people one movie that captured what life was like in 2020, Rob Savage’s quarantine-era frightfest, Host, is the perfect candidate. Produced during England’s coronavirus pandemic-mandated lockdown, the hour-long film unfolds over a Zoom call that’s invaded by a malevolent spirit. Without making COVID-19 the overt subject of the movie, Savage captures the rhythms of quarantine living — like masks, elbow bumps and personal bubbles — that may seem scarier to future generations than a killer ghost.
Host is currently streaming on Shudder.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Only Charlie Kaufman could find a way to fuse psychological horror with... Oklahoma! The Being John Malkovich mastermind’s latest directorial effort adapts the bestselling book by Iain Reid, but takes the narrative in its own strange directions. What begins as a “meet the parents” night for a young woman (Jessie Buckley), her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) and his folks (David Thewlis and Toni Collette) quickly morphs into something darker and stranger as reality bends and shifts around them. But the movie is also filled with Kaufman’s uniquely morbid wit, which makes room for, among other things, a third-act dream ballet and a hilarious joke at Robert Zemeckis’s expense. Twenty-one years after John Cusack entered John Malkovich’s head, we’d never think about ending things with Charlie Kaufman.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is currently streaming on Netflix.
Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future already established Miranda July as one of contemporary cinema’s most unique voices, but her third feature, Kajillionaire, represents a bold leap forward. Part heist movie, part social commentary and part coming-of-age comedy, the film follows the Dyne clan — parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), and their grown child, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) — as they pursue an off-the-grid Los Angeles lifestyle maintained by mail fraud and other light crimes. Enter Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, playing a version of Matt Damon’s Ocean’s Eleven character), who forms a special bond with Old Dolio that drives the movie towards its surprising climax. Kajillionaire is filled with multiple sequences that stir the heart and activate the tear ducts, including a surreal stay in a gas station restroom that suddenly becomes the gateway to the entire universe. If you’re on the movie’s unique wavelength, you’re in for an out of this world experience.
Kajillionaire is available on Amazon.
Now that Schitt’s Creek is over, here’s your chance to get hip to Canada’s other great family comedy. Season 4 of Kim’s Convenience premiered on Netflix in April, giving its dedicated American fanbase the chance to see several long-running storylines — including the “will they or won’t they — oh wait they totally will” romance between Jung (Simu Liu) and Shannon (Nicole Power) — come to fruition, and setting the stage for some serious dramatic and romantic tension in Seasons 5 and 6. With both Liu and his onscreen dad, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, recently joining the Marvel and Star Wars cinematic universes respectively, you should seriously consider catching up on their origin story.
Kim’s Convenience is currently streaming on Netflix.
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon are two of the creative voices behind Apple TV+’s lovely anthology series, which dramatizes the coming-to-America stories of actual immigrants. A diverse array of talent is on display in front of and behind the camera in these half-hour tales, all laced with humor and insight into the immigrant experience. Standouts from the first season include “The Cowboy,” starring Nigerian actor Conphidance as an African student who lands in Texas; “The Silence,” about a French truth-seeker (Mélanie Laurent) looking for enlightenment at a commune; and “The Rock,” in which a Middle Eastern patriarch (Shaun Toub) won’t let a piece of stone get in the way of building his dream house.
Little America is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
On paper, Marvel’s 616 may sound like little more than an extended commercial for Marvel Comics. But in execution it’s actually the Disney+ version of ESPN’s beloved 30 for 30 franchise of sports documentaries. Each episode features a different director — including Paul Scheer, Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie — taking a deep dive into a particular corner of Marvel’s extensive back catalogue, exploring everything from the amazingly bizarre Japanese Spider-Man TV series from the 1970s to the origins of next-gen heroes like Kamala Khan. It’s the ideal opportunity for Marvel Zombies to celebrate the universe they know and love, and for newcomers to get a crash course in the Marvel Method.
Marvel’s 616 is streaming on Disney+.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January and later released on Juneteenth, Channing Godfrey Peoples’s debut feature provides a stirring showcase for much-loved Sleepy Hollow star Nicole Beharie. The actress plays a former beauty queen whose grand ambitions ran headlong into the harsh realities of life in her corner of Texas. Those old wounds reopen when her teenage daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) seeks to follow in her mom’s footsteps by competing in the local Miss Juneteenth pageant. If you’ve missed Beharie’s screen presence since her time on Sleepy Hollow came to a contentious end, Miss Juneteenth promises the start of an even better second act.
Miss Juneteenth is currently streaming on Sling TV.
On the Record
Oprah Winfrey’s loss is HBO Max’s gain. Abandoned by Winfrey just before its Sundance premiere, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s beyond timely documentary reached audiences with the launch of WarnerMedia’s streaming service. The filmmakers pass the mic to pioneering music producer Drew Dixon, who uses it to speak her truth about the powerful men — including Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid — whose alleged misdeeds pushed her out of the recording industry at the height of her career. It’s a #MeToo anthem that demands to be heard.
On the Record is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Think you’ve had Airbnb horror stories? Those are nothing compared to what the two couples in Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, experience. Looking for a weekend escape from the big city, Michelle and Charlie (Alison Brie and Dan Stevens) and Josh and Mina (Jeremy Allen White and Sheila Vand) book a tricked-out cabin in the woods. But simmering tensions between the four conspire to put a damper on the fun, and it doesn’t help that there’s a creepy housekeeper (Toby Huss) who keeps a too-close eye on the place. Co-written by Franco and mumblecore master, Joe Swanberg, The Rental studiously tightens the tension for the first hour before going on a serious third-act rampage. While the movie sometimes put the “slow” in “slow burn,” Franco gets strong performances from the central quartet — including his real-life wife, Brie — and the closing moments will have you checking the closets at your next Airbnb stay.
The Rental is available on Amazon.
Americans have watched in real time how COVID-19 has devastated our hospitals and communities. The gripping documentary 76 Days rewinds the clock to the virus’s initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, in January, offering a remarkable glimpse at what happened in the city’s hospital wards as doctors raced to save patients while trying to understand the deadly new disease in their midst. It’s a prequel, of sorts, to our global new normal, and a stark reminder of the pandemic’s ongoing toll.
76 Days is available on Google Play.
She Dies Tomorrow
Shot well before the coronavirus pandemic, She Dies Tomorrow is perfectly timed to our current moment. The second feature film written and directed by actress Amy Seimetz is a unique spin on a viral thriller where an idea — rather than a disease — infects a small community. Patient Zero in this case is Amy (Kate Lyn Shell), a troubled young woman who is absolutely convinced that she has one day left to live. That irrational fear soon jumps from Amy to her friend Jane (Jane Adams), who in turn passes it along to her brother and sister-in-law (Chris Messina and Katie Aselton) and it continues to spread outward from there. Seimetz and her editor, Kate Brokaw, create a mesmerizing visual collage that incorporates flashbacks, hallucinatory sequences and moments of deadpan comedy. It’s the kind of movie you’ll find yourself wanting to watch multiple times to crack the emotional mystery at its core.
She Dies Tomorrow is currently streaming on Hulu.
Showbiz Kids and Zappa
When he’s not rocking out alongside Wyld Stallyns bandmate, Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter is building a legacy as a most excellent documentary filmmaker. The former child actor drew on his own youthful experiences in show business for Showbiz Kids, a clear-eyed account of the highs and lows of growing up on film and TV sets. Without dumpster diving for the most salacious stories, the film draws out some remarkable, and sometimes troubling, memories from the likes of Milla Jovovoich, Todd Bridges and Cameron Boyce, who died suddenly in the summer of 2019. Winter then moved on to Zappa, a rock doc that profiles the iconoclastic singer and songwriter with empathy for his achievements and honesty about his failings. Both movies are the opposite of bogus.
Yes, God, Yes
If you loved Mandy Moore in Saved!, you’ll flip for Stranger Things star Natalia Dyer’s new role as a religiously-minded teen whose faith is put to the test... by her hormones. Writer/director Karen Maine offers an ultra-sharp, ultra-witty critique of the typical fundamentalist fears of sexuality, while also avoiding painting her characters with a cartoonishly broad brush. The movie’s supporting cast is filled with comic ringers like Veep’s Timothy Simons and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Donna Lynn Champlin, while Dyer’s terrific star turn shows that there’s life for her beyond the Upside Down.
Yes, God, Yes is currently streaming on Netflix.
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