The first three months of 2021 have proven that independent Hollywood, coming off a wildly successful year, shows no plans of slowing down. Entries from all over the globe—from Taiwan to the United States to Quebec—promise a brand-new slate of everything from pensive horrors and homegrown dramas to heartfelt romance and exclusive documentaries.
Here are the greatest films making waves right now as we settle into spring. While some of these picks enjoyed successful festival runs prior to 2021, they arrived on digital just in time at the top of the new year.
Perhaps it’s the way that writer-director Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie trolls many cohabitating couples in the pandemic that have had just about enough of each other’s nuisances. Or maybe it’s its luscious black-and-white cinematography that helps strip down to the anatomy of the movie’s flailing titular relationship (brought to life by co-producers and stars Zendaya and John David Washington). Or it could be the way the film hits a little too close to home on a variety of topics—from the inequal power dynamics between an egomaniacal older filmmaker and his trophy girlfriend to the way white film critics refuse to see beyond race when analyzing a work of art. From its opening dialogue to its admittedly frustrating ending, Malcolm & Marie is a decidedly uncomfortable watch and yet arresting at the same time.
Filmmaker Michael Gavin Booth’s split-screen drama packs so much compassion and genuine tension that it’s hard to believe it’s just barely more than an hour long. The isolation of a student and janitor (Sarah Booth) sweeping the floors of her school after hours and a grieving father (Daved Wilkins) emotionally confined to the four walls of his apartment draw these two unlikely confidantes together in this remarkable narrative. When Scott (Wilkins) calls a suicide helpline because he feels at risk, to his surprise on the other end is Beth (Booth), a mother struggling to support her sons with a night job at her school. What could have been an ill-advised concept to pair an unqualified person with a man in need, Last Call actually shows the power and necessity of empathy where we least expect it. And it becomes clear that both Sarah and Scott need this conversation, a reminder that someone else—even those we’re not anticipating—is always there.
Few Taiwanese films dive into what it’s really like to be an actress navigating the constant demoralization that is the male-dominated on-set and audition processes. Director Midi Z with star Ke-Xi Wu (who also co-wrote the film inspired by her own experiences) helps show the nuanced challenges of being objectified in countries where women have little to no power at all. After years of unemployment and walk-on roles, the titular Nina (Wu) finally lands an audition for a major spy movie set in the 1960s. After debating with herself about its explicit sexual nature and nudity, she ultimately decides to go for the role. The audition is already horrifying—she must act like a dog and physically fight with other women auditioning for the viewing pleasure of men, and is sexually assaulted—but Nina gets the part and also endures emotional and physical abuse from the director and dangerous production. But Nina Wu doesn’t stay in that morally destitute place. It follows its protagonist as she is haunted by trauma, regret, and guilt she feels that is compounded by the lack of love and control in her personal life. The narrative is at times unsteady, but its impact—and final shot—still steamrolls.
There’s something almost immediately awry in director Kimo Stamboel’s intriguing Indonesian horror. A loose remake of the 1981 film of the same name, the terror of The Queen of Black Horror centers on an old orphanage, where its former atrocities bubble to the surface when families converge for a seemingly innocuous gathering. An insidious presence settles over them as it exacts its vengeance—at best, unsettling each character and, at worst, unbalancing them completely. Soon, they’re forced to unmask nasty truths that have brought them to this odious moment. While obviously not original, The Queen of Black Horror has just the right number of skittish scenes to keep you invested.
Few films can affectionately transport you back to an earlier time in your life just as its youthful characters are navigating the same real-world insecurities, doubts, and fears as directors Michael Fimognari and Gareth Smith’s swan song for the To All the Boys trilogy. Fresh from an exhilarating family trip to Korea, Lara Jean (the effervescent Lana Candor) is on the brink of adulthood when she faces the toughest decision of her life: stay close to home—and boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo)—and attend college in California or follow her heart to New York. Katie Lovejoy’s screenplay is a reminder of how seemingly simple decisions now were gargantuan for a teenage girl who is still determining who she is and wants to be. Lara Jean has no hesitation when it comes to her love for Peter, so is it time to lose her virginity? Is she really ready to leave Oregon, and would that also mean abandoning her relationship? There are so many questions and very little time as her senior year, and simultaneously her childhood, come to an end. Always and Forever is such a delightful, earnest, and nostalgic reflection of first love, youth, and identity.
The Jewish tradition of shemira, keeping vigil over a dead body until its buried, is so ripe for an excellent horror that it’s surprising there isn’t a genre film about this every year. Writer-director Keith Thomas humanizes the unnerving custom with the story of Yakov (Dave Davis), a young man recently separated from his Orthodox Jewish community, who is compelled to keep overnight watch of a deceased member in order to make a few extra bucks to keep his rent paid. Of course, it starts off suspicious (looking after the corpses in the dead of night already sounds frightening), but the graduating sense of unease—and sheer horror—that occurs within these dark hours is utterly paralyzing to watch. Will Yakov survive the night? And what will he discover about himself or his faith by dawn?
It’s always a little more unnerving to see horror find protagonists who are just minding their own business. In director Kourosh Ahari’s haunting feature, The Night, Neda (Niousha Noor) and Babak (Shahab Hosseini), an Iranian-American married couple, are only trying to get a good night’s rest in a hotel before heading back home with their baby. They’re coming from a get-together where Babak had a little too much booze. So, with his wife’s encouragement, they do the responsible thing and get off the road. But swerving away from potential danger on a highway leads them right into an actually perilous path at the hotel where they’re preyed upon by everyone from a suspicious police officer to the shady concierge and, most frighteningly, their own doppelgangers. The strange occurrences are enough to unhinge them—as well as the audience—as both husband and wife’s long-buried secrets are exposed. Ahari, with co-screenwriter Milad Jarmooz, create a genuinely spine-tingling film you’ll soon not forget.
One would think that as personal as the lyrics of Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.) were, there would be nothing entirely to add to his story that he didn’t already tell us when he was alive. But somehow, director Emmett Malloy and writer Sam Sweet present an entirely fresh perspective on the late rapper’s life and career in I Got a Story to Tell. Amplified by childhood friend Damion Butler’s dilettante home videos highlighting his confidante’s everyday life—busting a rhyme on the street, going on tour, and even his rare self-reflective moments—the documentary humanizes a man who was often described as “larger than life.” It gets into his years as a drug dealer, growing up in Brooklyn with a single mother from Jamaica (whose maternal perspective is threaded throughout the film), his conflicting path to superstardom, and, ultimately, his murder without sensationalizing any part of his journey. Featuring interviews with those who knew him best—his mom, Voletta; producer Sean Combs; Butler; and many of his friends from the Brooklyn avenues—I Got a Story to Tell is a deft and unflinching alternative to the celebrity profile.
Writer-director Ray Yeung’s portrait of two aging fathers (Tai-Bo and Ben Yuen) in Hong Kong who fall in love with each other is so crushingly tender—from its beautiful score to its central performances—it’s impossible not to admire it. Pak (Tai-Bo), a taxi driver, has found himself stuck in a marriage with a woman whom he may have adored years prior but no longer has a romantic connection. Meanwhile, Hoi (Yuen) is a retired widow who spends a lot of his time reflecting and connecting with other (mostly closeted) gay men in a social group that plans to request that the government create senior housing exclusively for gay men. The trouble is, few feel comfortable with drawing that kind of attention to themselves. Gently steering away from being a piece that rests entirely on politics, Leung instead grounds his story on the romance between Pak and Hoi, two men in their twilight years who are for different reasons struggling with a sense of belonging. When they’re alone together, tangled in each other’s embrace, they are each other’s homes. But for how long?
Director Myriam Verreault’s Innu drama following a pair of childhood friends (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine and Yamie Grégoire) whose friendship is tested as their lives evolve in very different ways gives new meaning to the idea that what is specific can be universal. Verreault and co-screenwriter Naomi Fontaine draw audiences into the story of two girls who share the same promise of many their age: to be there for each other forever. Using their tightknit First Nations community as a backdrop to highlight the prevalence of love and familial protection, as well as a proliferation of drugs and abuse, the filmmakers focus on the complex relationship between the young women whose lives—and desires—send them in opposite directions as they grow up. The ardent Shaniss (Grégoire) becomes a mother early in her life and often leans on Mikuan (Fontaine) and her family for support. Meanwhile, Mikuan takes an interest in poetry and falls for a white boy whose mere presence suggests to Shaniss that Mikuan is abandoning her Innu roots. It all leads to a question of loyalty and belonging as the central friendship is tested. It’s not a matter of who’s right or wrong. Kuessipan is more so challenging the ideals of female friendship and adulthood, and whether the physicality and struggles of home are the only things securing their bond.