Back when I worked at a movie theater there was nothing I dreaded more than the eight days between Christmas and New Year’s. Attendance-wise it was like a week of understaffed Saturday nights, with a lot of the year’s most prestigious titles launching, and a trip to the cinema being an activity that families who have been spending far too much time together over the holidays can all enjoy without having to talk to each other. Alas, in 2020 a lot of us will be wishing we had the chance to get annoyed with our loved ones, and the movie theaters have closed once again. But there are still some fine films arriving to close out the year, albeit on smaller screens than initially anticipated. Here are six new titles to stream while you’re staying home over the holidays.
The ever-restless Steven Soderbergh sometimes seems to take on projects just to see if he can conquer complex logistical hurdles. His latest is an improvisational doodle from a scenario by short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, which stars Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen as estranged college friends making amends on an overseas crossing. The film was shot almost entirely aboard an actual voyage of the Queen Mary 2, and the director explores every nook and cranny of the mighty vessel with a boundless curiosity not always germane to the story. Streep gives one of her more quietly amusing performances of recent years, as an acclaimed novelist so inside her own head she’s oblivious to the feelings of others. Weist, a marvelous performer of whom we see far too little these days, is trying to referee a reconciliation between the writer and a bitter Bergen, whose marriage was the thinly-veiled subject of Streep’s most successful novel. One woman won the Pulitzer while the other got divorced, and the dirty laundry doesn’t so much get sorted as finally aired out in dryly acerbic fashion.
Soderbergh has said the dialogue was roughly 70% improvised, and in the capable hands of these grande dames their chats have the loose, sidewinding quality of real-life chatter. (I loved how Bergen tries to talk with a Texas accent for the first few scenes then seemingly said, “The hell with it, I’ll just wear this hat.”) There’s also some fine work by Lucas Hedges as Streep’s achingly sincere nephew and filmmaker Dan Algrant as a mystery writer smitten with our literary lioness. Individual vignettes have purpose and snap while the larger point of it all remains a little fuzzy and out of focus. Still, it’s refreshing to see a movie about senior citizens in which they’re not infantilized and their sex lives aren’t played for horrified laughs. Like its three leading ladies, the film is a class act and even if the destination is a little disappointing this is still a trip worth taking. (Now streaming on HBO Max.)
Christopher Nolan’s trippy, $200 million time-travel blockbuster was supposed to be the movie that saved movie theaters, but the gamble turned into one of the film business’ biggest belly flops when theaters rushed to reopen this past Labor Day and nobody showed. (Sadly ironic that Warner Bros.’s release plan probably ended up doing more harm than good to the industry it was intended to rescue.) Finally available for home viewing, Mr. Nolan’s opus is the kind of grand, goofball folly that only few wildly successful filmmakers are allowed to indulge anymore. John David Washington stars as a secret agent recruited for a “temporal civil war” in which the villains have found a way to invert time and stroll through the ages in reverse, intending to wipe out all of existence for reasons that remain clear as mud. (Nolan’s perverse penchant for inaudible dialogue reaches some sort of apotheosis here, and when a crucial bit of exposition is delivered between two characters wearing oxygen masks standing next to heavy machinery I just assumed he must be having a laugh.) But it’s garbled nonsense of a most entertaining order, with a larcenously puckish performance by Robert Pattinson as Washington’s smart-aleck sidekick and a Russian baddie turn from Kenneth Branagh that could double as your glazed Christmas ham.
The nifty palindrome structure means our characters spend the second half of the movie running backward again through the first, and I’ll confess I gave up on trying to follow what was happening and just grooved on the high style. “Tenet” is practically a Christopher Nolan fetish film, fawning over all the director’s favorite things: temporal loops, bespoke suits, large-format photography, sexless saviors, Michael Caine, dialogue-muffling masks and a curiously stunted way of looking at the world that feels derived almost entirely from James Bond movies of the 1960s and 1970s. Much like Michael Mann’s similarly confounding “Blackhat” from 2015, this is probably a fans-only proposition, but I had a blast. (Now available to purchase via video on demand outlets.)
The death of Chadwick Boseman in August felt like an especially cruel blow during a year defined by almost nothing but. The 43-year-old “Black Panther” star had already established himself as a superhero and an all-purpose historical icon in biopics like “42,” “Marshall” and “Get on Up,” but it’s impossible to watch his prickly performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” without mourning all the more complicated characters Boseman never got a chance to portray. George C. Wolfe’s sturdy, small screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play allows the actor to cut loose with a dangerous, livewire intensity he’d had to keep tamped down in those more conventional crowd pleasers. Set in 1927 Chicago, this is the fictionalized story of an all-day recording session during which real-life blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) bats back the chiseling manipulations and power games being played by unscrupulous record execs. Meanwhile in the rehearsal room, her sidemen squabble and bicker their way into spilling some startling revelations. The most devastating of these come from Boseman’s Levee, a gifted and brashly impolitic horn player who knows what he’s worth even if the rest of the world hasn’t caught on yet.
Wilson’s play is primarily concerned with Black folks asserting their value in inhospitable environments. (You can’t watch Davis’ Rainey and not think of the actress’ “Pay me what I’m worth” clip from 2018 that recently recirculated and went viral.) But where Ma is shrewd enough to maneuver her way around such obstacles, Levee washes up upon the rocks. His self-destruction is shattering, with Boseman delivering at least two monologues that leave a mark. Tony-winning director Wolfe is primarily a theater guy, and he hasn’t made much of an attempt here to reimagine the material as a movie. Which is fine, because when the cast and the material are this strong sometimes it’s preferable to just have a record of the performances. Especially Boseman’s, which feels like the first role in the electrifying second act of a career cut sadly short. What an incalculable loss. (Starts streaming on Netflix Friday, Dec. 18.)
The search for authentic experiences in our over-mediated age can be an elusive one, almost as slippery as this provocative mood piece from writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Atsuko Maeda stars as Yoko, the chipper host of an international travel program who we first meet in Uzbekistan dealing with a brusque producer and deadlines that keep creeping up on them. She puts on her game face while being hustled through a series of contrived events packaged for televised consumption, smiling while she’s eating a plate of uncooked rice for the cameras or being berated by a boorish fisherman at a human-made lake. Kurosawa nails the phoniness of such shows and their slick attempts to create a false verisimilitude for would-be travelers who don’t want to leave their living room couches, most agonizingly when Yoko’s forced to endure a dangerous, vertigo-inducing amusement park ride multiple times in the quest for more compelling camera angles.
There’s a bit of “Lost in Translation” to the loneliness of our weary traveler, and in the film’s quieter moments we feel Yoko’s yearning for real connections in a modern world where everything, to some degree or another, is a performance being staged. (I mean jeez, even that lake is an unnatural construct.) Yoko’s fumbling attempts to discover something genuine for herself backfire drastically, and Kurosawa’s camera feels like it’s stalking her sometimes. His choice of angles makes you constantly aware of how vulnerable this young woman is and how indifferent her employers are to her safety, leading to an often uneasy viewing experience. The director got his start as a pioneer of the J-horror genre, so it’s apt that one of his scariest movies is about being female in the workplace. The movie moves in some unexpected directions, building to a finale that is both cryptic and cathartic. I’m still going back and forth myself about the ending, which depending on how you look at it can be an enormous emotional breakthrough or another in the movie’s fleet of fabrications. (Starts streaming at the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room on Friday, Dec. 18.)
The holiday season’s coziest throwback, this Sundance sensation from writer-director Eugene Ashe is exactly the kind of film you want to cuddle up with in front of a fire on a snowy night. Defiantly, deliriously old-fashioned, it’s a four-hanky tear-jerker starring Tessa Thompson as the Sylvie of the title, an ambitious, headstrong young woman who falls for Nnamdi Asomugha’s dapper jazz musician in a gorgeously recreated Harlem of the late 1950s. They meet when he takes a job at her dad’s record store, the itinerant sax player striking unlikely sparks with this Miss Prim and Proper. Sylvie’s mother teaches etiquette classes and she’s engaged to a rich young man of fine breeding currently stationed in Korea, so their forbidden romance must take place in secret, at late-night after-hours clubs and rooftop beach parties. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and their relationship spans a decade or so of changing times and social mores along with enough secrets and revelations for a whole season of soap operas.
Ashe has moved the entire aesthetic of the Technicolor melodrama uptown, giving a Black cast the chance to shine in the kind of roles for which they would never have been considered 60 years ago. For such a square movie it feels wonderfully subversive watching the radiant Thompson in a performance that perfectly mimics the crisp diction of bygone ingenues, and my goodness, can she wear these outfits! (One quibble is that the handsome and adequate Asomugha sometimes gets swallowed up by her sheer star power.) The plot permutations couldn’t possibly be more predictable, complete with hidden pregnancies and deathbed confessions, but that’s all part of the pleasure. These perfectly painted sets and impeccably pressed clothes aren’t attempting to replicate real life, but rather a dream life in the movies to which people who look like the cast of “Sylvie’s Love” have always been excluded. Until now. (Starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video Wednesday, Dec. 23.)
George Clooney hasn’t starred in a movie since Barack Obama was president, which feels so much longer than four years ago. According to the tabloids, he’s been staying home to take care of the twins, and that wouldn’t be any of our business except to note that his curious new sci-fi hybrid is exactly the kind of movie somebody makes right after they become a dad. Directed by Clooney and boasting one of his best performances, it’s an improbably optimistic dystopian adventure about life after the end of the world. Based on the book “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton, the film elides any details about how Clooney’s crusty, terminally ill scientist became the last man on Earth, stuck at an Arctic outpost and the only person left to warn away a returning space shuttle full of astronauts that there’s no home to come back to. Or at least he thought he was alone, but then this mute little moppet (Caoilinn Springall) turned up in his kitchen. The story is split, often inelegantly, between the desolate, on-the-ground survivalist exploits of Clooney and the kid versus the gung-ho camaraderie of the astronaut crew led by Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir and Kyle Chandler.
It’s an ungainly film but not ineffective, particularly in the largely silent scenes with a gruff Clooney hidden behind a large David Letterman beard, his haunted eyes filling in the missing dialogue. The outer space mishaps can’t help but feel derivative of Clooney’s exploits in “Gravity,” with a little of Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars” thrown in for good measure. It’s familiar but in a friendly way, offering us the belated revelation that Kyle Chandler was apparently put on Earth to play a spaceship pilot. The movie has its problems but an unexpected spirit of can-do positivity carries it through. “The Midnight Sky” builds to a revelation you can easily see coming a thousand lightyears away, yet made me cry all the same. Look, it’s been a long year. (Starts streaming on Netflix Wednesday, Dec. 23.)