Saturday, January 30, 2021

Best Movies and TV Series Streamed during Covid-19 Pandemic

Here is a highly personal, quirky list of some great streaming entertainment that has distracted us and raised our spirits during this difficult pandemic. This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive!

Feature Films:

 

All Is Bright: If any unsung, offbeat movie should be a cult classic, this is it. Fine performances by Paul Giamatti as an ex-con trying to go straight in a crooked world, by selling Xmas trees, and Sally Hawkins as a…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Amazon.


All Together (Et si on vivait tous ensemble?): 2011 French film that features Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin with an all-star cast of French actors, about a group of aging friends who decide to live communally. Vudu.

 

Ammonite: English drama set in 1840s in Lyme Regis of French Lieutenant’s Woman and Jane Austen Persuasion fame. Based on true story of working-class woman who made major scientific discoveries, unearthing dinosaurs and other fossils. Great performances by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Amazon.


Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite

And Breathe Normally: When was the last time you saw an Icelandic movie? Well, it’s time! A heartbreaking but uplifting drama about those on the margins and refugees in a prosperous country. Moving story, well scripted and acted. Netflix.

 

Another Round: A Danish movie that won the 2020 Oscar for best International Feature Film. The film is about four male teachers trying to break out of a midlife lag by staying a little drunk every day, especially at work. Great performances, thoughtful screenplay. Kanopy and other streaming services.


A Bag of Marbles: Based on the true story of a French Jewish family trying to flee the Nazis and their collaborators during WWII. Surprisingly uplifting, beautiful performances, complex characters. Kanopy.


Barbara: Engrossing story of a woman doctor in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She has been exiled for her political dissent to a small town in the provinces, where she has to make sense of her life again. Strong cast. Kanopy.


Being the Ricardos: Worth seeing for Nicole Kidman’s fantastic one-liners as Lucille Ball. You don’t have to love Lucy to enjoy this. Amazon.


Belfast: Who knew Kenneth Branagh was such a gifted writer and director? This film proves he is, beyond a doubt. And such great supportive performances by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench. Amazon.


Bergman Island: A movie within a movie, all set on the island where the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman lived and shot many of his classic flicks. Well written and acted, thought-provoking. Amazon and Hulu.


A Better Life: Beautiful and understated performance by Demián Bichir as a single dad trying to navigate the world of Los Angeles as an undocumented immigrant. José Julián is also very fine as the son. Amazon.


Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Sacha Baron Cohen is so hilarious, and his crashing of Republican events and leaders is brave and astounding. Amazon Prime.

 

Bridesmaids: Hilarious and heartfelt Kristin Wiig comedy also featuring Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolf. The type of side-splitting humor we need now! YouTube, Amazon, Hulu. 


Broker: An unexpected collection of quirky characters come together in this Korean drama about thieves who steal babies from boxes where teen mothers leave children they cannot raise. Well acted, directed, and filmed. Still in theaters.

 

The Cakemaker: Moving love story of a gay German baker who insinuates himself into the lives of an Israeli family. Netflix.


Captain Fantastic: Viggo Mortensen gives an outstanding performance as a back-to-the-land radical dad raising six children on what they hunt and gather in the wilderness. Gripping complications arise when the family collides with a world that doesn’t share their lifestyle. Kanopy.


Catherine Called Birdy: Don’t be discouraged by this film being based on a young adult novel. It is sophisticated, funny, wise, and beautifully acted and directed. Kudos to Lena Dunham, who directed and adapted the screenplay. Amazon.


The Chorus (Les Choristes): Irresistible French film about a teacher in a Dickensian boarding school and his efforts to win over his delinquent students. Gérard Jugnot is fantastic in the lead role. Vudu.


Coda: Coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who loves to sing, but whose parents and brother are deaf. Terrific performances, a bit predictable, but you’ll definitely need some tissues for this heartwarming tale. Apple TV+.

 

Conviction (Une intime conviction): French courtroom drama based on a true story, with stellar performances by Olivier Gourmet as defense attorney and Marina Foïs as a casual acquaintance of the defendant who gets enmeshed in the case. https://distribfilmsusvirtual.vhx.tv/

 

Crossed Tracks (Roman de gare): French film about a bestselling mystery writer accused of murdering her ghostwriter. Many twists and turns in the plot. Directed by Claude Lelouch. Great cast features Fanny Ardant. Kanopy.


Decision to Leave: Korean film noir about a detective investigating a death that might or might not be accidental. He becomes much too involved with the wife of the deceased, who is a suspect in her husband’s fatal fall. Beautifully done in every respect. Still in theaters.

 

The Dig: Beautifully set in an arts and crafts English country house, this drama with Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, and a great supporting cast is a surprisingly dramatic true story of an archaeological dig in the days right before World War II. Netflix.


Drive My Car: A terrific adaptation of a Haruki Murakami story set in present-day Hiroshima about the struggle to continue in the midst of loss and tragedy. Everything about this movie is original and well done. Oscar-worthy supporting performance by Park Yoo-Rim.


The Fairy: Another delightful romp with Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel. Not as polished as Lost in Paris (see below), but this film has some hilarious and classic comic bits, including the two unforgettable dance sequences and the routines in the hotel and café. Kanopy.


The Father: Deservedly praised portrayal by Anthony Hopkins. This movie puts you right inside the mind of someone losing his memory. Amazon.

 

First Cow: A different take on the Wild West than you’ve ever seen, this indie movie about a friendship is moving, understated, and well-plotted. Skillfully directed by Kelly Reichert. Amazon and Hulu.


First Cow

Free Men (Les Hommes libres): A surprising and true story about the role that Muslims played in the French resistance and the efforts to save Jews during the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II. Well acted, compelling, great music. Kanopy, Tubi.


French Exit: Michelle Pfeiffer has never been better as the eccentric New York socialite who loses everything and goes to camp out in a friend’s apartment in Paris. Bravos to Valerie Mahaffey for creating the strange and fun role of Madame Reynaud. Amazon.


Girlfriends: Claudia Weill’s 1978 low-budget classic rings true today portraying a young woman trying to make it as an artist in New York, and the ups and downs of relationships. Fine performances by 25-year-old Melanie Mayron and supporting roles by Eli Wallach and Christopher Guest. Criterion Collection.


The Good Liar: There’s more than meets the eye in this classic tale of con artists where Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren elegantly spar. YouTube.


The Good Nurse: Outstanding acting by Jessica Chastain Eddie Redmayne highlight this complex and gripping story of a nurse who quietly takes out his deep-seated angers on helpless patients. Unexpected developments, and a strong message about corporate responsibility. Amazon.


The Guard: Brendan Gleason and Don Cheadle play an unlikely law enforcement team trying to break up a drug-smuggling ring on the west coast of Ireland. Funny, moving, well-written. Great supporting performance by Fionnula Flanagan as the police sergeant’s mother.


Half Sister, Full Love (Et ta soeur): This is a switch! A French remake of an American movie. This film is a tight drama with three interconnected people in a beautiful house on the remote island of Ushant, the western-most point in France. Amazon.

 

The Heist of the Century (El robo del siglo): Engaging Argentine bank robbery caper with eccentric characters and great photography. May not be currently streaming, watch for film festival showings.


A Hero: An Iranian flick about a man in debtors’ prison (sounds like out of Dickens, but apparently it exists today) and has 48 hours to raise the funds to get released. Well acted, complex situations. Amazon.

 

Here We Are: Beautifully directed Israeli movie about a father and a grown autistic son who is too old to live at home but too scared to leave. Exceptional performances. Look for film festival screenings.

 

The Incredible Jessica James: Funny and moving romantic comedy about a young black woman trying to make it as a playwright in New York. Dazzling performance by Jessica Williams. Netflix.


I Am Love: Tilda Swinton as a Russian immigrant, and in Italy? Yes, and yes, and what an engaging performance! Such a stylish movie, with music by John Adams, great cinematography by Yorick Le Saux. Set in Milan and San Remo, just a beautiful flick to watch. Mubi.


In for a Murder: If you’re in the mood for a funny and clever whodunnit, check out this Polish flick about a reluctant housewife who is a wannabe detective. Fine acting and plot twists. Not high art, but a lot of fun. Netflix.


King Richard: Sensational performance by Will Smith as the dad of Venus and Serena Williams. Snappy one-liners, and depth to match the humor. Gripping story. Amazon.

 

Lady J: A French 18th century costume drama loosely based on a Diderot story. The plot involves a rake and an aristocratic widow sparring in the ring of love. Netflix.


The Last Laugh: A road movie with Richard Dreyfuss as a stand-up comedian who gave up his career early in life to become a stable family man is is talked into trying to resurrect his act by Chevy Chase, playing his former agent. Funny, moving, and a great vehicle for Dreyfuss to steal the show. Netflix.

 

Let Them All Talk: Steven Soderbergh mixed together Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges, and Gemma Chan and let them improvise scenes on a voyage of the Queen Mary 2, and voila! the results are entrancing. HBOMax.

 

The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé): Sophia Loren is still terrific at 86. But her performance is at least equaled by the fabulous young actor Ibrahima Guèye, who plays an undocumented pre-teen, orphaned in Italy. Moving, funny. Netflix.

 

Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed: Quirky and beautiful movie about an English teacher in Franco Spain who decides he has to meet John Lennon. The teacher picks up two teenage runaways en route and the trio’s adventures keep surprising. Amazon.


The Lost Daughter: A powerful drama splendidly acted by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley about a woman struggling with the competing pulls of family and career. Well directed and scripted by Maggie Gyllenhall based on a short story by Elena Ferrante. Netflix.

 

Lost in Paris: Great comedy with sophisticated slapstick humor about a small-town Canadian librarian who is hilariously sidetracked while seeking her senile aunt in Paris. Kanopy.com or Amazon.

 

Love Crime (Crime d’amour): French thriller beautifully acted by Kristen Scott-Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier about office politics taken to the ultimate extreme. Great plot twists. Apple TV+ and Google Play.

 

The Lunchbox: From India, comes a charming and deeply moving film about the remarkable system of delivering homemade lunches to workplaces in Mumbai, and two people whose lives accidentally intersect. Netflix.

 

Master Cheng: Finnish movie about a Chinese chef who finds himself in a small town in rural Finland with his young son. Different and fun. Look for film festival screenings.


Minari: This story of an immigrant family struggling to survive in a trailer in Arkansas grabbed my heart. What an amazing depiction of the grandmother by Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Amazon

 

My Dog Stupid (Mon chien stupide): Recent French movie based on a short story by U.S. author John Fante. Great performances by screenplay writer Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are also a couple in real life. https://distribfilmsusvirtual.vhx.tv/

 

My Donkey, My Lover, and I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes): Laure Calamy from Call My Agent is charming as a teacher obsessively in love with the dad of one of her students. She follows his family on a hiking trip to central France. Great scenery, surprising plot twists. Available at certain film festivals.

 

My Piece of the Pie: French movie about factory worker who loses her job and becomes the maid and confidant of a Paris hedge-fund financier. Amazon.


My Policeman: An intriguing love triangle involving a gay man, a straight woman, and the guy they both love, played by pop star Harry Styles. Styles holds his own as part of a strong cast. Amazon.


The Nile Hilton Incident: A film noir set in Cairo, Egypt, during Arab Spring in 2011. Intriguing setting, interesting plot twists, good acting, and a very femme femme fatale. Mubi.


Nomadland: Director Chloé Zhao took a risk by casting many nonprofessional actors to play themselves in this emotional story of senior citizens living in vans and RVs. Thanks to her skilled hands, the risk more than pays off. Hulu.


Number One Fan (Elle l’adore): French mystery about a woman who adores a rock star, and the singer shows up at her door one night. Surprising script by Jeanne Herry, and fine acting by Sandrine Kiberlain and Laurent Lafitte. Not be confused with the U.S. film from 1995 of the same name. Kanopy.


Passing: Rebecca Hall’s stylish and thought-provoking adaptation of Nella Larsen’s rediscovered novel about racial identity in the era of the Harlem Renaissance. Great cast, elegant use of black and white photography. Netflix.

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu): French costume drama with a steamy lesbian romance, set on the coast of Brittany in the late 18th century. Amazon.


One Night in Miami…: Stellar performances by a cast led by Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and the multi-talented Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke (he played Aaron Burr in the original cast of Hamilton). Compelling story, great direction by Regina King. Amazon.


The Power of the Dog: If you don’t believe that actor Benedict Cumberbatch can do anything, this film will change your mind. The English actor plays a frighteningly aggressive cowboy who torments the newest members of the family. Great acting and plot twists. Netflix.

 

The Professor and the Madman: The remarkably dramatic and true story of how a U.S. Army captain in a U.K. insane asylum played a key role in the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Strong performances by Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. Kanopy.


Rams: An Icelandic saga in miniature about two rival sheep farmers whose pastures border each other. Although this film has a very tight focus, it ends up being about a relationship of biblical proportions. Beautifully acted and paced. This is the Icelandic original, not the English-language remake. Mubi.

 

Roman Holiday: Audrey Hepburn at her most charming paired with Gregory Peck in this classic romantic tale set in Italy. YouTube, Amazon.


Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

Saving Mr. Banks: A surprisingly sophisticated and well-acted movie about P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of the movie Mary Poppins. Sympathetic performances by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. Netflix.

 

School of Life (École buissonnière): French movie about an orphan who is taken in by a servant couple at a manor house and learns about life from an eccentric free spirit who lives off the land. A bit of a fairytale, but an engaging one. Amazon. https://distribfilmsusvirtual.vhx.tv/


Sol: The premise of this film is unbelievable, the plot predictable, and the whole idea of a French flick related to Argentine tango doesn’t hold much water, but…this is a beautiful movie. Exquisitely directed by Jézabel Marques, with deeply moving performances by Chantal Lauby and Camille Chamoux. https://distribfilmsusvirtual.vhx.tv/

 

Someone, Somewhere (Deux Moi): In this social satire, two young Parisians face lifelong personal issues in parallel. Written and directed by Cédric Klapisch of L’Auberge Espagnol fame. Amazon and https://distribfilmsusvirtual.vhx.tv/.

 

Sound of Metal: A drummer in a heavy metal band loses his hearing and has to remake his entire world. Fantastic performance by Riz Ahmed, and strong supporting actors. You don’t have to like heavy metal. Amazon.

 

The Student and Mr. Henri: Bittersweet French comedy/drama based on a play, with tight plotting, complex characters, and great performances. Kanopy.


Summer of Soul: Danceable documentary on the Harlem music festival in 1969 that almost got forgotten until the film footage was rescued. Great performances by David Ruffin (of The Temptations), Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, and so many others. Hulu.


Supernova: Strong acting by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in this intimate drama of an older couple on vacation dealing with wrenching and complex life decisions. Amazon, Apple TV+, Vudu, FandangoNow.

 

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire): Classic French comedy, parody on spy thrillers, cool 70s fashions. Laugh-out-loud humor. Kanopy.


tick, tick…BOOM! Musical with the pre-Rent songs of composer Jonathan Larson that has much to say about Larson’s struggles and the glories and torments of the creative life. Brilliantly brought to the screen by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Netflix.

 

Tigertail: Moving story of two generations of a Taiwanese-American family focused on the differences between an immigrant father and his U.S.-born daughter. Secrets emerge. Netflix.


Together: Beautifully written by Dennis Kelly, directed by Stephen Daldry, and acted by Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy, this film is about a couple struggling during the Covid-19 lockdown and pandemic. Trigger warning: some really rough language between the couple, but also great humor. Hulu.

 

The Trial of the Chicago Seven: Excellent performances from Sacha Baron-Cohen, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne and the rest of the cast in this thought-provoking recreation of one of the key moments in the 1960s in the U.S. Netflix.

 

The Trip to Italy: British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves traveling in the footsteps of Byron and Shelley along the Italian coast. They eat photogenic food, perform hilarious impersonations, and have wacky escapades. Amazon.

 

The Truth (La Vérité): Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in a brilliant mother-daughter drama about a celebrated actress who is publishing her autobiography, bringing up all of the family’s conflicts and connections. YouTube.

 

Uncle Frank: A fine ensemble piece about family divisions. The film takes place mostly in the 1970s, but resonates deeply with the current divide between the educated urban class and conservative rural areas. Funny at the same time it’s tearfully moving. Amazon.


The Unknown Saint: A Moroccan movie about a thief who gets out of prison and looks for his buried loot only to find it has now become the shrine of an unknown saint. Funny, quirky, thought-inspiring. Netflix.


Where the Crawdads Sing: Several people have told me they didn’t like the book this is based on, but the movie is worth seeing. This is a dark, surprising, and sympathetic look at an abandoned female child making her way in a brutal but scenic world. Netflix.

 

The Whistlers: Elegant heist movie set in Canary Islands and Bucharest about police inspector entangled with ruthless thieves, sexy woman accomplice, and demanding police supervisor. Unexpected plot twists and a mysterious whistling language of the Canary Islands. BAMPFA streaming, Amazon, or YouTube.


The Worst Person in the World: For some reason this movie is being marketed as a romantic comedy, but it is a thought-provoking and haunting tale that is originally written, acted, and photographed. Outstanding performance by Anders Danielsen Lie.

 

Documentaries:

 

Honeyland: Just in case you are in the mood for a good Macedonian documentary, this is the one you should see. A deeply moving story about the last woman in Europe who collects and lives on honey harvested in the wild and her encounters with the changing world. Kanopy.

 

The Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. Terrific flick about the long and storied history of Jewish athletes who have played the great American pastime. YouTube.

 

My Octopus Teacher: Gorgeously filmed documentary that takes place in Cape Province, South Africa, about a filmmaker who develops an amazing friendship with an octopus. Netflix.

 

The Painter and the Thief: Surprising Norwegian documentary with intriguing characters about a promising young Czech artist whose two masterpieces are stolen by a thief. Their lives become linked in unforeseen ways. Roxie Theater San Francisco streaming. Amazon.

 

TV Series:


As We See It: Three adults in their twenties on the autism spectrum share an apartment and learn the hard way how to navigate the world. Funny, moving, beautifully performed by actors who are themselves neuro-atypical. Amazon.

Collateral: Four-part detective series set in London and scripted by acclaimed film and theater writer David Hare. Features a pregnant detective, an engaging story line, and refugee issues. Netflix.


The Crown: I had zero interest in the UK royal family before I started watching this series, but it has grabbed me. Somehow the writers, director, and marvelous cast have found the moments that are most universal in the lives of the royals. You will also learn some surprising history. Netflix.


Genius: Aretha: An eight-part series about the life and music of Aretha Franklin, with a strong lead performance by Cynthia Erivo and an excellent team of writers led by Suzan-Lori Parks. It goes on a couple of episode too long, but very worthwhile. Hulu and National Geographic.

 

The Hour: BBC series about a 1956 news program that breaks all the rules to present daring journalism. Fantastic cast that features Romola Garai, Juliet Stevenson, Dominic West, Ben Whishaw, Oona Chaplin, and more. Amazon.

 

Lupin: French series based on classic French novels about a gentleman burgler, re-set in contemporary Paris. Beautiful performance by Omar Sy. Fast-paced, exciting, fun. Netflix.


Modern Love: Recommending certain episodes: Episode 1: “When the Doorman is Your Mainman;” Episode 7: “Hers Was a World of One.” Amazon.

 

My Brilliant Friend (L'amica geniale): HBO series based on the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante. Excellent cast, strong adaptation, great views of Ischia and Pisa.

 

Our Planet: Stylishly narrated by David Attenborough. Eight episodes on nature with amazing photography that brings you right into the wolves’ den and the humpback whale pod. Netflix.


The Plot against America: Strong adaptation of the Philip Roth novel about a highly resonant alternate reality where a fascist sympathizer becomes U.S. president. Super performances by Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, and the whole cast. HBOMax.


Pretend It’s a City: Fran Lebowitz is incredibly funny and brilliant as she holds forth on topics from mass transit to cell phones. Netflix.


Schmigadoon: Fun parody of the golden era of Hollywood musicals with great songs and dancing, and a contemporary update in themes. If you like musicals, you will love this! AppleTV+.


Standing Up (Drôle): A French series about stand-up comedians that shows the new, diverse Paris. Excellent script, and terrific performances by Younes Boucif, Mariama Guèye, Elsa Guedj, and Jean Siuen. Netflix.

 

A Suitable Boy: Excellent six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth’s epic novel of India shortly after independence. Superb cast, exquisite settings and costumes, smart screenplay. Acorn TV, one-week free subscription available through Amazon.


Ted Lasso: Hilarious and moving series about a U.S. football coach who is brought to the U.K. to turn around a failing soccer team. Fast-paced, great script. Apple TV+.


The Trial (Il processo): Italian detective series about a woman prosecutor/police detective trying to uncover the murderer of a teenage girl. A plot with many layers, great setting in Mantua, good cast. Netflix.

 

Unorthodox: Four-part series about a young Hasidic woman who flees her claustrophobic life and marriage and seeks her future in Berlin. Brush up on your Yiddish. There are subtitles! Netflix.

White Lotus: A series about a fancy resort in Hawai’i that shows the class and color lines between the staff and the guests in insightful ways. Absorbing characters. You will want to know what happens next, and the show will keep you guessing. HBOMax.

Short Films:

Affairs of the Art: A terrific and hilarious adult animated movie about an eccentric family and where their obsessions take them. Gotta see it! Joanna Quinn is the creator. Available to subscribers to The New Yorker.

The Phone Call: Sally Hawkins is as usual, amazing in this moving live-action short about a suicide prevention hotline. Kanopy.