In a normal year, we’d be able to spend a weekend (or even a weeknight) watching The King of Staten Island and Onward in theaters, and then come home to stream buzzy shows like Insecure and Tiger King. But 2020 isn’t a normal year. With the coronavirus pandemic keeping us in our homes and closing down movie theaters — delaying a number of high-profile releases in the process — streaming services have become the default entertainment option. There is (some) good news, though: Those services have provided us with some pretty terrific quarantine diversions. If you’re looking for new recommendations for the July 4th weekend and beyond, here are the 25 best things we’ve streamed in 2020 so far.
It’s been labeled “an indie Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which is as good a description as any for this stylish and intriguing 1950s-set sci-fi drama about a sharp-tongued teen radio DJ (Jake Horowtiz) and the even younger switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) who investigate what could possibly be some extraterrestrial activity while the rest of their tiny desert town attends a high school basketball game. The story is engrossing and rewarding in itself, but the most noteworthy takeaway from Vast has to be the arrival of first-time director Andrew Patterson, whose stunning tracking shots and long takes make this film feel like the Arrival of a young filmmaker poised to make a Deep Impact on this earthly world. — Kevin Polowy
Patrick Stewart’s mere presence is enough to recommend this overdue sequel to The Next Generation. The 10-episode CBS All Access series (the first of at least three seasons coming to the streaming service) finds the retired Jean-Luc Picard still mourning the death of android companion Data, as depicted in the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis. He soon becomes entwined in a mystery that compels him to gather a new ragtag crew for one more voyage into space. It takes Picard some time to get off the ground in every sense, but Stewart commands attention and the twisty story ultimately delivers. Bonus: Each episode contains enough Easter eggs and callbacks to classic shows to keep any good Trekker engaged. — Marcus Errico
One of most acclaimed docs to debut at January’s Sundance Film Festival, James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s inspiring documentary — executive produced by Hollywood newcomers Barack and Michelle Obama under their Higher Ground Productions banner — begins as a sweet and charming look at Camp Jened, a ’70s-era summer camp for disabled teens run by the hippies who weren’t at Woodstock. Ultimately, LeBrecht (an alum of Camp Jened) and Newnham offer a stirring and vital look at how many of the camp’s attendees and counselors, including the unstoppable force that is Judy Heumann, went on to lead the long fight for civil rights for disabled people, culminating with the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which turns 30 this month. — K.P.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is currently streaming on Netflix.
The coronavirus crisis has effectively canceled summer vacation. Fortunately, Starz’s addictive crime drama Hightown has provided a welcome warm weather escape by setting its story against the beachside backdrop of the tourist hot spot that is Provincetown, Mass. Chicago Fire’s Monica Raymund commands the screen as Jackie Quiñones, a hard-living, hard-partying federal Fisheries agent who ventures outside of her jurisdiction when she gets caught up in a murder investigation with ties to P-town’s booming opioid business. The stellar supporting cast — including James Badge Dale, Amaury Nolasco, Riley Voelkel and Dohn Norwood — provides plenty of additional flavor and color. — Ethan Alter
Hightown is currently streaming on Starz.
21. I May Destroy You
The most searing series of the summer is this British export from writer, co-director and lead actress Michaela Coel, best known for the critically acclaimed series Chewing Gum. Coel is captivating as fun-loving Londoner Arabella, a millennial influencer and author who wakes up from a wild night out with flashes of a sexual assault. As Arabella struggles to piece together what happened — and pick up the pieces of her once-carefree life — she and her close-knit group of pals (including the excellent Wereche Opia and Paapa Essiedu) tackle thorny topics like sex, consent, friendship and trauma. The series has already attracted a fierce legion of fans thanks to its raw and relatable vibe, and we can’t wait to see where it goes next. — Erin Donnelly
I May Destroy You is currently streaming on HBO Max.
20. Some Good News
2020 has delivered enough bad news for a lifetime. So when John Krasinski flipped on his camera and began filming an impromptu web series titled Some Good News in March, the world seemed to sigh in collective relief. While CBS won the rights to the idea in May (a highly criticized move that Krasinski has defended), for now, you can stream the original episodes on YouTube in all their DIY, quarantine-chic glory. Much like the Office character that shot him to fame, Krasinski is witty, irreverent and full of hope. From Oprah surprising a graduate to the Hamilton cast performing on Zoom, the show delivers exactly what it promises: some (actual) good news. — Abby Haglage
Some Good News is currently streaming on YouTube.
Released quietly on VOD in March, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s debut feature made a lot of noise on social media for offering a serious dose of body horror at a time when mental and physical health was at the top of everyone’s mind. Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a new bride who develops symptoms of pica: an eating disorder that compels the consumption of objects like marbles and thumbtacks. While the eating (and purging) sequences provide plenty of shock value, the reason why Swallow resonates is its portrait of a woman reclaiming control over her own body from the men in her life. — E.A.
18. Little America
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon are two of the creative voices behind Apple TV+’s lovely anthology series, which dramatizes the coming-to-America stories of actual immigrants. A diverse array of talent is on display in front of and behind the camera in these half-hour tales, all laced with humor and insight into the immigrant experience. Standouts from the first season include “The Cowboy,” starring Nigerian actor Conphidance as an African student who lands in Texas; “The Silence,” about a French truth-seeker (Mélanie Laurent) looking for enlightenment at a commune; and “The Rock,” in which a Middle Eastern patriarch (Shaun Toub) won’t let a piece of stone get in the way of building his dream house. — E.A.
Little America is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
17. The King of Staten Island
We’ll admit that a big part of the allure of The King of Staten Island is seeing a semi-autobiographical film about Pete Davidson playing a tattoo-covered pothead coping with the death of his firefighter dad and teetering mental health. He’s in good hands with director Judd Apatow, and great supporting performances, including Bill Burr, Steve Buscemi and Marisa Tomei throwing off serious My Cousin Vinny vibes. The film is filled with funny lines, political jabs and pop culture references. Like Davidson’s appeal in real life, you keep watching through his ups and downs in the hopes that things work out for him. — Suzy Byrne
16. Never Have I Ever
In April 2019, Mindy Kaling put out an open casting call on social media seeking South Asian women to star in her then-untitled Netflix show. Flash forward a year and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan — who beat out 15,000 actors — is the breakout star of 2020 with her portrayal of Devi Vishwakumar, a teenager determined to lose her virginity after regaining the ability to walk following a temporary paralysis brought on by her father’s untimely death. Kaling’s coming-of-age dramedy might be centered around a high school student and her friends, enemies, hookups and potential boyfriends, but it’s how the series handles familial relationships, grief, love, the immigrant experience, sexuality and more that makes it a must-watch for everyone. — Lauren Tuck
Never Have I Ever is currently streaming on Netflix.
The fourth season of Issa Rae’s HBO hit made quarantine a lot less boring with tumultuous friend drama, romantic relationships new and old, and important conversations around identity, race and sexuality. The season also makes a point of diving deeper into the life and trauma of Issa Dee’s best friend, Molly Carter, played by Yvonne Orji. In a perfect piece of timing, HBO dropped Orji’s great comedy special Momma, I Made It! during Insecure’s run, offering a hilarious and heartfelt look into her upbringing as a Nigerian-American. — Kerry Justich
Insecure and Momma, I Made It! are streaming on HBO Max.
14. Circus of Books
When the legendary Los Angeles bookstore Circus of Books opened in 1982, it became a haven for the city’s LGBTQ+ community during a dark time when the Reagan administration was not only ignoring the growing AIDS crisis in America, but also cracking down on the pornography industry. Few would have guessed that the porn emporium was owned and operated by heterosexual, suburban, seemingly conservative married couple, Karen and Barry Mason. Now one of their children, musician/performance artist/filmmaker Rachel Mason, has directed a harrowing yet humorous documentary about her parents’ double-life. Circus of Books serves as both a fascinating account of a unique moment in queer history and a stranger-than-fiction human-interest saga about the Masons’ complicated family dynamic. — Lyndsey Parker
Circus of Books is currently streaming on Netflix.
13. A Parks and Recreation Special
This virtual check-in from our old friends in Pawnee, Ind., came at a time when we really needed it — the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when most of us were confined to our homes. The reunion of Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Chris Pratt, Retta and the rest of the gang provided a delightful break from a world of bleak headlines and a shortage of masks. The clever set-up of Leslie touching base with her friends over a Zoom-like app even allowed for beloved recurring characters like Jean-Ralphio and Perd Hapley to drop in, and, best of all, there was a group sing-a-long paying tribute to the late, great Li’l Sebastian. Bonus: The special raised $2.8 million for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund. — Raechal Shewfelt
A Parks and Recreation Reunion Special is not currently available to stream.
12. Better Things
This work of comic-drama-parenting genius from the talented Pamela Adlon — who, incidentally, has been working without co-creator Louis C.K. since FX cut ties with him — follows the oft-employed formula of creating a fictionalized drama out of a real star’s real-life story. But the show’s stellar fourth season continued to prove it’s anything but formulaic. In Adlon’s alter ego, Sam Fox, we finally get to see the portrayal of a mother as something that’s rarely shown: a joyous, sexual, struggling, annoying, endearing dichotomy. It’s hard to ever get enough of the Fox family. Luckily, there’s a fifth season on the way. — Beth Greenfield
Better Things is currently streaming on Hulu.
11. The Great
The title says it all. Tony McNamara’s wickedly funny period piece offers a fractured fairy tale account of the life of Russian monarch Catherine the Great, played to comic perfection by Elle Fanning. Showing up at the Russian court expecting to commence a grand love affair with her new husband, Peter III (Nicolas Hoult, doing a grand Hugh Laurie impression), Catherine instead finds herself plotting a coup to rid her adopted nation of its oversexed, undereducated ruler. And unlike many streaming shows, The Great actually gets greater as it goes along, arriving at a season finale that masterfully combines Voltaire, revolution… and a tongue-bubbling lemon hazelnut cake. — E.A.
The Great is currently streaming on Hulu.
10. Onward (Disney+)
Disney-Pixar’s history-making love letter to family — and Dungeons & Dragons — arrived in theaters just as the world was going into lockdown, losing out on hundreds of millions at the box office in what deserved to be a long run in multiplexes. But the Mouse House did us all a solid by quickly releasing the film for digital download and on Disney+, allowing home audiences to connect with the touching voice performances of moonlighting Marvel heroes Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as two elf brothers who bond over an epic quest to resurrect their dead dad. And, this being Pixar, load up on the Kleenex, because you’ll cry. — M.E.
Onward is currently streaming on Disney+.
9. Schitt’s Creek
“Ew, David!” is the only proper reaction to the series finale of Schitt’s Creek, the cult hit created by Dan Levy, and his Canadian comedy legend father, Eugene Levy. After six seasons, the Rose family — brother David, sister Alexis and parents Johnny and Moira — prepared to leave the titular small town and return to the wider world, but not before leaving us with plenty of laughs and tears. Up until the very end, the show asked: “What does love look like when there is no money?” while also exploring tender family ties, pan-sexuality and Moira’s many, many fabulous wigs. — Elise Solé
The first five seasons of Schitt’s Creek are currently streaming on Netflix; the entire series can be streamed on Pop Now.
8. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s second war movie after 2008’s under-appreciated Miracle at St. Anna follows a group of Vietnam War veterans as they return to the Southeast Asian country decades after the conflict on a highly personal mission. As with almost every Lee joint, Da 5 Bloods is a sprawling story that features an eclectic mix of genres and tones, jumping from Apocalypse Now-esque battle scenes to quiet character beats. But it’s all held together by the director’s trademark energy and a top-notch cast that includes Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman and Jonathan Majors. While Lindo has deservedly emerged as an Oscar candidate, don’t sleep on the beautifully subtle work being done by Clarke Peters, whose performance provides the movie’s big, beating heart. — E.A.
Da 5 Bloods is currently streaming on Netflix.
7. Normal People
Yes, there is a lot of sexy time, and yes there are some shades of S&M. But the comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey — which this tearjerking Hulu series seemed to draw at an unfair rate — start and stop there. Based on the novel by Sally Rooney and directed by Oscar nominee Lenny Abramson and Hettie Macdonald, the story follows the complicated relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), Irish teens from rural County Sligo, as it evolves from a secret social outcast/popular guy high school romance to even more tortured territory at a Dublin college and beyond. It’s sweet, sexy and tender, and the fact that they are both so… well, normal, gives the story a deep resonance. — K.P.
Normal People is streaming on Hulu.
6. The Assistant
Released in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein trial, Kitty Green’s razor-sharp drama shines a spotlight into a Miramax-like workplace. Green pointedly declined to put the film’s Weinstein-inspired abuser on camera, and his absence allows her to direct our attention where it really belongs: on the major and micro workplace aggressions directed at an ambitious female employee, played by Ozark’s Julia Garner. Each carefully composed frame isolates Garner from her co-workers and boss, emphasizing her place in this toxic environment. There are no easy answers presented in The Assistant’s enigmatic final moments — just a pervading sense that we all need to do better. — E.A.
5. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
When we look back on 2020 years from now, it’s very likely that the things that will stand out are the COVID-19 pandemic, the nationwide protests against racial injustice and their results… and Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Seemingly everyone was watching and breaking down the hit docuseries, which debuted on Netflix as many of us were holing up at home, and introduced viewers to Joe Exotic and the rival he’s been convicted of attempting to hire a hitman to kill. And a murder-for-hire plot was just part of the juicy story, which also included wild animals in backyards, cheesy music videos (courtesy of Exotic) and some seriously colorful characters like Carole Baskin. — R.S.
Tiger King is currently streaming on Netflix.
4. The Invisible Man
Leigh Whannell’s thrilling spin on the classic yarn pivots its focus from the mad scientist to the woman he torments, as Elisabeth Moss flees an abusive marriage to a tech scion (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), only to be haunted by him after his “suicide.” The fact that Moss is constantly thought to be crazy gives the film some extra vitality as an allegory about believing women. Between 2018’s underrated Upgrade and The Invisible Man, writer-turned-director Whannell is becoming one of the most exciting filmmakers working in the horror genre. And considering the dearth of major film releases caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we might just have to call The Invisible Man a serious Oscar contender. — K.P.
3. The Last Dance
For much of the 1990s, Michael Jordan was the biggest star on Earth. From his mesmerizing dunks to his iconic Nike Airs to his beloved Bugs Bunny team-up in Space Jam, M.J. owned pop culture just as his Chicago Bulls owned the NBA. His Airness soars anew in The Last Dance, which features unprecedented access into Jordan’s final go-around with that 1997 Bulls team — the b-ball Beatles with M.J. and sidekicks Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and Zen master coach Phil Jackson. The 10-part ESPN docuseries chronicles the high drama that went down both on and off the court, making for must-see viewing at a time when live sports are sidelined. — M.E.
The Last Dance comes to Netflix on July 19.
2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Escapist entertainment this ain’t. Eliza Hittman’s devastating drama had its brief theatrical run cut short by the coronavirus, but then became one of the first noteworthy films to hit streaming services — a small reward for a nation quarantined. The story follows a rural Pennsylvania teen (Sidney Flanigan) who, upon discovering she’s pregnant and with the help of her cousin (Talia Ryder), embarks on a desperate odyssey to New York City to have an abortion. Like the anti-Juno in both its tone and resolution (but certainly not quality), it’s one of those quietly potent films that’s driven not but dialogue but story, emotion and superbly understated performances by its two leads. This one can haunt you for days. — K.P.
1. Hamilton (Disney+)
King George III called it: Hamilton is back. Lin-Manuel Miranda provides all the fireworks this Fourth of July weekend needs with his hit musical inspired by the Founding Father. The filmed version of the Broadway sensation features footage shot in 2016 across multiple live performances starring much of the show’s original cast. It’s a fittingly democratic treat for those who were shut out by Hamilton’s eye-wateringly expensive, ultra-exclusive seats the first time round. And frankly, what better time than this for an unflinching, spirited and altogether rocking look at patriotism? Don’t throw away your shot to watch Hamilton over and over again. — E.D.
Hamilton is streaming on Disney+.
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