Michael Almereyda has tackled science (as a topic of either biopics or dramas) in a fascinating way in “Experimenter” and “Marjorie Prime,” and now he’s bringing that same energy to the inventor biopic with “Tesla” (Shout Factory/IFC), a bold and audacious look at the life of Nikola Tesla. Ethan Hawke, in the title role, is evenly matched by Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan, and they both nail Almereyda’s unique tone, which throws in anachronisms and green-screens to tell the story of someone who stretched the notions of what his peers imagined could be possible.
Also available: Madison Iseman plays a young girl with mental-health issues who can’t convince anyone she’s witnessed a crime in “Fear of Rain” (Lionsgate); 2012 indie “Watching TV with the Red Chinese” (MVD Visual), co-starring Constance Wu and Gillian Jacobs, makes its U.S. DVD debut; Sienna Miller and Diego Luna relive the best and worst of their relationship in “Wander Darkly” (Lionsgate).
A 1980s police-training video goes off the deep-end in the dark comedy “Survival Skills” (GDE/Kino Lorber); Nick Robinson creates “Silk Road” (Lionsgate), a dark-web site for selling illegal drugs, which draws the attention of FBI agent Jason Clarke; a drifter and a pair of siblings (the sister is played by Julia Garner) dreams of a better life in “Tomato Red: Blood Money” (Indican Pictures); reality TV mogul Ken Mok makes his debut as a writer-director with “The Right One” (Lionsgate), about a blocked novelist who finds inspiration from a surprising muse.
Film festival favorite (and award-winner) “The Strong Ones” (Breaking Glass Pictures) continues a new wave of Chilean cinema that forthrightly and empathetically explores LGBTQ themes. In Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo’s smart and sexy debut feature, the romance between grad student Lucas (Samuel González) and fisherman Antonio (Antonio Altamirano) unfolds with ardor and passion, but the film never shies away from exploring the class disparity between the two characters or the assumptions that each might make about the other.
Also available: Shot in Cuba, the based-on-a-true-story drama “Mambo Man” (Corinth Films) features musical performances by several members of the Buena Vista Social Club; when a talented pianist gives birth to a deaf son in “God of the Piano” (Film Movement), it will challenge her relationship with her competitive and musically accomplished family; Chinese animated tale “Jiang Ziya” (Well Go USA Entertainment) is an otherworldly family adventure.
Josh Lucas, Pilou Asbaek, and Rade Serbedzija star in the hypnotic crime thriller “Murderous Trance” (MVD Entertainment); in the trippy French drama “You Go to My Head” (First Run Features), a man tells a beautiful amnesiac that he’s her husband; the Sicilian coming-of-age tale “Alone with Her Dreams” (Corinth Films) explores the life of a young woman growing up in a small town with her grandmother after her parents emigrate to France to find work.
My pick for the best film of 2020, the Romanian documentary “Collective” (Magnolia Home Entertainment) doesn’t just tell a great story; it tells several, from the string of tragedies that exposed layer upon layer of governmental malfeasance to the journalists who uncovered it to the government’s use of media propaganda to change the subject. More than that, though, director Alexander Nanau establishes himself as an exciting voice in non-fiction cinema, combining a Frederick Wiseman-style fly-on-the-wall approach with white-knuckle suspense (with the help of his two co-editors Dana Bunescu and George Cragg). Absolutely vital viewing.
Also available: One of the most essential 1980s pop bands gets their cinematic due with the thorough and thoroughly delightful “The Go-Go’s” (UMe); streaming service Shudder put itself on the map with “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror” (Shudder/RLJE), a much-acclaimed documentary about Black contributions to horror cinema; Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man Leon Vitali gets his close-up in “Filmworker” (Kino Lorber).
The “Mayor” (Film Movement) of Ramallah does his best to govern a city that’s surrounded on all sides by occupied territory; a paralyzed former football player vows to walk the “7 Yards” (Virgil/Kino Lorber) to the altar with his bride; “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” (FilmRise) follows the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death in the Lone Star State all the way to her final appeal; hours of vintage VHS tapes featuring interviews with the lead singer of The Mentors led to the acclaimed documentary “The El Duce Tapes” (Arrow).
“Paris Is Burning” gets a Mancunian twist with “Deep in Vogue” (FilmRise), a look at Manchester’s thriving vogue scene; just in time for “The United States vs. Billie Holliday” comes the DVD release of “Billie” (Greenwich/Kino Lorber), about the legendary singer; filmmaker Alan Govenar explores the “Myth of a Color-Blind France” (First Run Features) in a provocative new documentary; a lost interview with an American literary legend inspired “You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski” (Kino Lorber).
Quite a bumper crop of vintage documentaries making their DVD and/or Blu-ray debut this month, including 1927’s “Travels in the Congo” (Icarus Films Home Video), a new edition of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental classic “Man with a Movie Camera” (Kino Classics), William Greaves’ 1972 “Nationtime” (Kino Classics), the all-star 1959 “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” (Kino Classics), and the relatively recent “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) from 2002.
Even if “Freaky” (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment) doesn’t achieve being the horror-movie “Freaky Friday” as much as the “Happy Death Day” (from the same director) films succeed at turning “Groundhog Day” into something scary, the body-swap saga throws in some effective slasher kills and fun comic banter (thanks mostly to Kathryn Newton and second bananas Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich) for audiences who like some laughs alongside their screams (or vice versa). The Blu-ray and DVD include deleted scenes, some new featurettes, and a director commentary from Christopher Landon.
Also available: Jang Hyuk stars as “The Swordsman” (Well Go USA Entertainment), called out of retirement when his daughter is captured; Jay Baruchel directed and co-wrote the comics-set
“Random Acts of Violence” (Shudder/RLJE), based on the popular graphic novel; in the history of cinema, there are few titles as fun to say (to whisper, really) as “Slithis” (Code Red/Kino Lorber), the 1978 sea-monster tale making its Blu-ray debut; two half-sisters fight for survival underwater in the intense Swedish import “Breaking Surface” (Doppelganger Releasing).
The title says it all in “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” (Arrow), an anthology film featuring three shocking tales; speaking of titles that say it all, “Santo in The Treasure of Dracula: The Sexy Vampire Version” (VCI Entertainment) makes its color and Blu-ray debut with a 4K restoration; Joe Manganiello is a drunk — or is he a superhero? — in “Archenemy” (RLJE Films), from director Adam Egypt Mortimer (“Daniel Isn’t Real”) and co-starring Paul Scheer and Amy Seimetz; The Mary Millington Movie Collection (Screenbound Entertainment) pays tribute to the popular UK adult-film star, with a box set that includes some of her most beloved movies alongside documentaries and an exclusive book.
Bruce Willis does Bruce Willis things in space in “Breach” (Saban/Paramount); the pulpy “The Unseen” (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) puts a trio of female reporters (one played by Barbara Bach) in a house with something awful in the basement; “Host” (Shudder/RLJE) brilliantly makes lemonade out of lemons by effectively staging a suspenseful horror movie inside of a COVID-19 Zoom call.
With Ramin Bahrani’s acclaimed “The White Tiger” racking up awards nominations, it’s a perfect time for moviegoers to catch up on his brilliant filmography. What perfect timing, then, that The Criterion Collection has released his early features “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop.” While these scrappy films don’t have the budget, name actors, or lavish locations of his Netflix movie, they demonstrate his storytelling skills, his empathetic understanding of his characters, and his concerns over poverty and opportunity. While championed by critics, both of these films received fairly small initial releases, so if you’ve never seen either of these movies, you’re in for a treat.
Also available: John Hughes 5-Movie Collection (Paramount Home Entertainment) combines the end of the auteur’s teen era (“Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”) and some of his efforts at more adult storytelling “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “She’s Having a Baby”); a decidedly post-Hughes brand of teenage movie was 1990’s “Pump Up the Volume” (Warner Archive Collection), starring Christian Slater as an anti-authoritarian pirate-radio DJ; a much more British style of high-school comedy is the 1950s classic “The Belles of St. Trinian’s” (Film Movement Classics), about a training ground for larcenous young ladies.
Warner Archive Collection has a song in its heart, with two early Doris Day vehicles, “My Dream Is Yours” and “On Moonlight Bay,” along with 1951’s “Show Boat,” Hollywood’s second (or third, if you count the mostly-silent 1929 version) crack at the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical; finally making its Blu-ray debut is 1985’s “Smooth Talk” (The Criterion Collection), Joyce Chopra’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ unsettling coming-of-age tale, featuring a standout performance by a young Laura Dern and a smoothly creepy Treat Williams.
Get out your handkerchiefs for some classic 1970s tear-jerkers: “Love Story” (Paramount Presents) gets a (gasp) 50th anniversary Blu-ray, packed with extras and a new 4K restoration, and the one-two punch of “The Other Side of the Mountain”/”The Other Side of the Mountain, Part 2” (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) comes to Blu-ray for the first time; I would not have guessed there was an audience out there for a collectible edition of “Elizabethtown” (Paramount Presents) — the movie that famously inspired Nathan Rabin to coin the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” — but here we are; in the dawn of the French New Wave, the anthology “Six in Paris” (Icarus Films Home Video) provided an early glimpse at works by Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jean Rouch, among others.
Yippie-ki-yay, Western fans: There’s a new 3D Blu-ray of “Wings of the Hawk” (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), a 4K restoration of the serial “Wild West Days” (VCI Entertainment), and new Blu-rays of “Man of the East,” “The Hills Run Red,” and the Anthony Quinn double-feature “The Ride Back”/”Man From Del Rio” (all Kino Lorber Studio Classics).
Sammy Davis, Jr. stars opposite Eartha Kitt in the provocative “Anna Lucasta” and alongside Louis Armstrong and the late Cicely Tyson in the jazz drama “A Man Called Adam” (both Kino Lorber Studio Classics); 1944’s “Port of Freedom” (Kino Classics) is one of the rare German productions from late in World War II that manages to circumvent the propaganda expectations of the Nazi period.
You never known how it’s going to go when pop stars apply their talents to being movie stars: Diana Ross scored an Oscar nomination for her big-screen debut in “Lady Sings the Blues” (Paramount Home Entertainment) as the tortured Billie Holliday (see the new documentary “Billie,” above), but Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles and hit-generator and soap stud Rick Springfield went back to their day jobs after, respectively, “The Allnighter” and “Hard to Hold” (both Kino Lorber Studio Classics).
If you’re playing Cinephile, and you have to list Steven Soderbergh movies, hang onto “The Underneath” (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) for as long as you can — it’s a cool little neo-noir, but it’s the one no one remembers; the Clark Gable-Jeannette McDonald-Spencer Tracy love triangle in “San Francisco” (Warner Archive Collection) gives way to literally groundbreaking special effects when the earthquake starts; Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll” (Warner Archive Collection) once confounded the censors, but Tennessee Williams’ tale still exerts a queasy fascination; it’s the best of times and the worst of times in 1935’s “A Tale of Two Cities” (Warner Archive Collection), one of Golden Age Hollywood’s better Charles Dickens adaptations.
Rather than do a standard “and-then-he-wrote” documentary, HBO’s “Six by Sondheim” (HBO/WB) commissioned a half-dozen filmmakers to craft short vignettes around some of the legendary theater music created by the great Stephen Sondheim. Interspersed with interviews and archival footage, the results run the gamut from the straightforward (James Lapine gives us “Opening Doors” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” performed by an ebullient Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera, and Laura Osnes) to the unexpected (Jarvis Cocker sings the venerable “I’m Still Here” from “Follies” for Todd Haynes).
Also available: Before she learned to cook on her Emmy-nominated Food Network show, “Inside Amy Schumer”: The Complete Series (Comedy Central/Paramount) was a groundbreaking and hilarious sketch show; “Lovecraft Country”: The Complete First Season (HBO/WB) brilliantly plays with genre and boasts one of TV’s best ensemble cast; in her 1971 talk show “Betty White’s Pet Set”: The Complete Series (MPI Home Video), the TV legend sat down with the likes of Carol Burnett, Doris Day, Mary Tyler Moore, and many more to discuss their furry friends.
While we’re waiting for a “Birds of Prey” sequel, the animated “Harley Quinn”: The Complete First and Second Seasons (DC/WB) brings the laughs and the mayhem; more intrigue on the Finnish-Russian dividing line on “Border Town”: Season 2 (Kino Lorber); for the kids who love him and the parents who can tolerate him, there’s “Sesame Street” – Elmo’s World: Things Elmo Loves (Shout Kids/ Sesame Workshop).