Indoor movie theaters stayed shuttered, like museums of fun times past. All the summer blockbusters we’d been looking forward to, from “Black Widow” to “Wonder Woman 1984” to “Top Gun: Maverick,” fled the calendar. What movie fans have been left with is streaming fare new and old (or trusty DVDs, for whoever still has those).
But even as we combed back through decades of cinema favorites, some new movies arrived on our respective TV sets. Were they all gems? Er, no. But some new movies of this Pandemic Summer were quite good, great even.
Here are 10 of our favorites:
1. ‘Black Is King’
The countdown was real as the date approached for Disney+ to release Beyoncé’s “Black Is King,” her visual album that followed 2019’s soundtrack “The Lion King: The Gift.” As a lifelong fan (who is not Black) I continue to grow with Beyonce. Few outwork her: This summer I found myself continuously discovering new layers of nuance and intention in “Black Is King” – a visually rich, nuanced study of identity and the beauty of Blackness, dedicated to her son and delivered in a moment when our nation is forcing itself to confront its inherent racism and brutality toward Black people. I devoured every think piece, all the praise, every critique about “Black Is King” after watching it. Her adult work pushes my own education; it inspires me to do more work. – Andrea Mandell
2. ‘Boys State’
After so much political tumult on social media and cable news, seeking it out in your entertainment might not be a first or even second choice. But this insanely fascinating documentary about 1,100 teenage Texas boys in conservative Texas who mount their own democratic government for one week of summer shows both the worst of us – kids using fake news and racist imagery to help themselves politically – but also the best, and how a next generation could leads us out of this quagmire. – Brian Truitt
3. ‘Da 5 Bloods’
While next year’s Oscars continue to be the award-season equivalent of a shrug emoji, director Spike Lee unleashed the first real, important contender with his gripping and thoughtful war movie that follows Black veterans returning to Vietnam to find treasure and bury a fallen comrade. It’s the outstanding cast, though, that makes it, with an absolutely exceptional turn from Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman’s best role since “Black Panther,” and a chance to see Jonathan Majors (who’s also in TV’s “Lovecraft Country”) before he becomes a Hollywood superstar. – B.T.
Tom Hanks being infected with coronavirus in March was arguably the first thing to make the pandemic feel real for most of us. He got better (hallelujah!) plus gave us this summer’s ultimate “dad” movie: a tense, white-knuckle military thriller with Hanks as a World War II naval captain playing cat-and-mouse with a pack of Germans submarines. Only Hanks could battle Nazis in the Atlantic Ocean wearing slippers and with gumption to spare. – B.T.
During a summer when all Broadway shows were canceled, Disney+ gifted us with the most memorable one in recent memory. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical examines the triumphs and trials of our Founding Fathers with a diverse troupe that looks more like the America of 2020, with a bevy of earworming songs crossing all genres. It’s become a Saturday afternoon tradition for my 7-year-old, a little “Weird Al” Yankovic who now mashes up “Hamilton” with lyrics based on Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” (“Animalton Crossing,” of course). If that’s not proof of its universal, genius appeal, I don’t know what is. – B.T.
6. ‘The King of Staten Island’
Is Pete Davidson low-key one of our finest actors right now? The “Saturday Night Live” funnyman and tabloid fixture stars in two of our favorite movies this year: Hulu’s “Big Time Adolescence” and Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island.” The premise sounds like a thousand other dude-bro comedies you’ve already seen, following an oafish slacker named Scott (Davidson). But there’s a bruised, almost feral side to Davidson’s performance that makes him instantly sympathetic, as Scott quietly grieves the dad he hardly knew. (Davidson’s own firefighter father died on 9/11.) The rest of the cast is aces, featuring Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Steve Buscemi and Bel Powley as endearing New Yawkers you want to grab a beer with. – Patrick Ryan
7. ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado’
Millions of Latin American fans know Walter Mercado as the flamboyant TV personality who spent years telling viewers their horoscopes while dressed in his sequined capes, gesturing with his graceful hands and proclaiming his loving “Mucho, mucho amor!” outro. But you don’t need to have any relationship with the psychic before watching the documentary about the man who, even in his 80s, drew energy from the lens of a camera pointed his way. – Carly Mallenbaum
8. ‘Palm Springs’
The dance scene with lovable leads Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in denim outfits and red bandannas that ends in them spinning and flipping the bird is reason enough to watch quirky rom-com “Palm Springs.” But, really, the whole movie about being stuck in a “Groundhog Day”-esque time loop is more charming, fresh and sweet than you think it possibly could be. A 90 minutes very well spent. – C.M.
In filmmaker Natalie Erika James’ unnerving spin on a haunted-house flick, a mother (Emily Mortimer) and daughter (Bella Heathcote) go home to search for their missing matriarch (Robyn Nevin), who they believe suffers from dementia. The old woman soon returns with mysterious bruises and no recollection of where she went, and gradually turns angry and violent against her family as her mind deteriorates. “Relic” is a poignant allegory for grief that is often legitimately frightening, but finds most of its terror in what it means to lose a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease. – P.R.
10. ‘She Dies Tomorrow’
No film captures the relentless dread and anxiety of 2020 better than “She Dies Tomorrow,” written and directed by actress Amy Seimetz. More creeping existential comedy than straight-up horror thriller, the movie surreally examines the contagiousness of fear, as the forlorn Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) tells her friend Jane (Jane Adams) she’s going to die soon. Worried that Amy is suicidal, Jane quickly becomes consumed by her own imminent mortality, and plants similar seeds of panic in everyone she encounters. It’s the exact opposite of escapist entertainment, although the sight of Sheil drinking and gardening in a sequined ballgown is a whole quarantine mood. – P.R.
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