January is always a strange time for new movie releases, which are usually eclipsed by the crush of awards season. Although the Oscars aren’t planned for several more months, it’s still a slow month for new movies, especially after the flurry of qualifying runs and best-of-the-year lists that come out in December, not to mention the holiday viewing that has become a huge part of the Christmas season.
If you’re wondering what came out in 2020 that was worth watching and want to catch up, thankfully, many of these films are available to stream or rent. Here’s a selection of the best of the best.
British director Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology “Small Axe,” streaming on Amazon Prime, has confounded many a critic, pundit and entertainment reporter. Is “Small Axe” television or film? A miniseries? The auteur has asserted it’s a film series, though the anthology does, in some ways, defy definition, with Amazon is putting it up for Emmys and the LA Film Critics Association naming it best film. It’s rather apt for a very strange year, when moviegoing became a small-screen event, and “Small Axe” is a remarkable achievement by McQueen.
The five discrete films of “Small Axe” explore the same subject: the culture and experiences of West Indians living in England in the 1970s and ’80s. Three of the films, “Mangrove,” “Red, White, and Blue” and “Alex Wheatle” are based on true stories and real lives, while “Lovers Rock” and “Education” are inspired by the events of the era, centering on an all-night reggae dance party and the education system, respectively. The films are not serialized and don’t share characters, so feel free to watch in any order, though there’s some internal logic with regard to mood and tone in terms of the order in which they are presented.
Also on Amazon Prime, the moving “Sound of Metal,” featuring a bravura performance by Riz Ahmed as a heavy-metal drummer who loses his hearing. Directed and co-written by Darius Marder, the film is a sensitive study of addiction, loss and deaf culture, and it’s a powerful assertion that what seems like a handicap is not something to be fixed, but merely a new way of experiencing the world. Ahmed is riveting, but he doesn’t carry the film alone, playing beautifully off Olivia Cooke as his girlfriend and bandmate, and a stunning Paul Raci as one of his deaf mentors (the actor, who grew up with deaf parents, has scooped up several critics awards for his performance).
On Netflix, be sure to catch Radha Blank’s joyous celebration of the late-bloomer, “The Forty-Year Old Version.” The autobiographical tale finds Radha’s character, a struggling playwright, learning to find her voice as a rapper in her 40th year of life. What a voice it is: Blank’s film is fresh, funny and utterly original. Also on Netflix, documentarian Kristen Johnson’s quirky, ebullient celebration of life (and death), “Dick Johnson Is Dead.” This deeply personal film finds Johnson staging different accidents with her father, Dick, as a way of grappling with his inevitable end of life. You’ll laugh, cry and laugh while crying, and the film is the perfect tonic to face the realities of death, which has, in many ways, defined the strange and terrible year of 2020.
On Kanopy, the streaming site you can access for free with your library card (if your local library participates), two of the best international films of the year are now streaming. Kantemir Balagov’s bleak, beautiful, darkly hypnotic “Beanpole” follows two female veterans in Leningrad just after World War II, grappling with the physical and mental aftereffects of war. Also on Kanopy, Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Brazilian neo-Western “Bacurau.” This examination of Brazilian politics in a remote village becomes a gleeful anti-colonialist splatterfest.
Finally, for rent on Amazon, iTunes and elsewhere ($4.99), Kelly Reichardt’s beautiful “First Cow” is a must-see. The story of the first milk cow to land in a rough Oregon pioneer town during the heyday of the Gold Rush isn’t just a rumination on civilization, capitalism and emerging markets, but also, a touching tale of friendship and doughnuts.