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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Ten Best Straight-to-Streaming Films and Specials of 2021 So Far

This year's streaming gems so far include a potent Oscar-nominated drama, a caustic and twisty thriller, and a movie about a killer pair of jeans.
By Sarah Ward
July 01, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
July 01, 2021
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When it comes to one of the easiest pastimes there is — sitting on the couch and staring at a screen — the streaming era has brought about plenty of changes. We all now spend more time than anyone should deciding what to view next, for example, and we tend to know if and where you can watch Friends at any given moment.

Another big shift: movies that bypass cinemas no longer arrive with an asterisk next to their name. That didn't ever quite happen literally, obviously, but skipping the big screen and heading straight to home entertainment wasn't really seen as a great sign. These days, however, streaming platforms are delivering top-notch flicks week in, week out — all ready to be viewed and enjoyed by your ravenous eyeballs while you're wearing your pyjamas.

Across the first half of 2021, everything from potent Oscar-nominated dramas to caustic and twisty thrillers have made their way to audiences solely via streaming services. Also on the list: spirited coming-of-age flicks, engaging documentaries and a deliciously entertaining movie about a killer pair of jeans. From the year's straight-to-streaming haul so far, we've picked the films that deserve your attention — and one must-see comedy special that runs as long as a movie as well.

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ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

Pondering the conversations that might've occurred between four pivotal historical figures on one very real evening they spent in each other's company, One Night in Miami boasts the kind of talk-heavy concept that'd clearly work well on the stage. That's where it first began back in 2013 — but adapting theatre pieces for the cinema doesn't always end in success, especially when they primarily involve large swathes of dialogue exchanged in one setting. If Beale Street Could Talk Oscar-winner and Watchmen Emmy-winner Regina King doesn't make a single wrong move here, however. The actor's feature directorial debut proves a film not only of exceptional power and feeling, but of abundant texture and detail as well. It's a movie about people and ideas, including the role the former can play in both bolstering and counteracting the latter, and the Florida-set picture takes as much care with its quartet of protagonists as it does with the matters of race, politics and oppression they talk about. Given the folks involved, there's much to discuss. The film takes place on February 25, 1964, which has become immortalised in history as the night that Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Riverdale) won his first title fight. Before and after the bout, the future Muhammad Ali hangs out with his equally important pals — activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, High Fidelity), footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man) and musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr, Hamilton) — with this equally meticulous and moving Oscar-nominee ficitionalising their time together.

One Night in Miami is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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I CARE A LOT

She didn't end up with an Oscar for her efforts, but Rosamund Pike's Golden Globe win for I Care a Lot was thoroughly well-deserved. The Radioactive and Gone Girl star is stellar in a tricky part in a thorny film — because this dark comic-thriller isn't here to play nice. Pike plays Marla Grayson, a legal guardian to as many elderly Americans as she can convince the courts to send her way. She's more interested in the cash that comes with the job, however, rather than actually looking after her charges. Indeed, with her girlfriend and business partner Fran (Eiza González, Bloodshot), plus an unscrupulous doctor on her payroll, she specifically targets wealthy senior citizens with no family, gets them committed to her care, packs them off to retirement facilities and plunders their bank accounts. Then one such ploy catches the attention of gangster Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones), who dispatches his minions to nudge Marla in a different direction. She isn't willing to acquiesce, though, sparking both a game of cat and mouse and a showdown. Dinklage makes the most of his role, too, but I Care a Lot is always the icy Pike's movie. Well, hers and writer/director J Blakeson's (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), with the latter crafting a takedown of capitalism that's savagely blunt but also blisteringly entertaining.

I Care a Lot is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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SLAXX

Ask any style guru for their opinion on denim, and they'll all likely give the same answer. Everyone needs a pair of killer jeans, after all — the type that fit perfectly, flatter every inch of your lower half, and that you just don't want to ever take off. In Slaxx, CCC is the store aiming to make all of the above happen. Already priding itself on its eco-friendly, sustainable, sweatshop-free threads, the chain is set to launch a new range of denim that moulds to the wearer's body, with the company's buzzword-spouting CEO (Stephen Bogaert, IT: Chapter Two) certain that they'll change the fashion industry. On the night before the jeans hit the shelves, employees at one store are tasked with making sure everything goes smoothly; however, as new hire Libby (Romane Denis, My Salinger Year), apathetic veteran employee Shruti (Sehar Bhojani, Sex & Ethnicity) and their over-eager boss Craig (Brett Donahue, Private Eyes) soon learn, these are killer jeans in a very literal sense. Quickly, the ravenous pants start stalking and slaying their way through the store. It's a concept that'd do Rubber's Quentin Dupieux proud and, in the hands of Canadian filmmaker Elza Kephart (Go in the Wilderness), the results are highly entertaining. Slaxx wears its equally silly and savage attitude like a second skin, smartly skewers consumerism and retail trends, and possesses stellar special effects that bring its denim to life — and, although never subtle (including in its performances), it's exactly as fun as a film about killer jeans should be.

Slaxx is available to stream via Shudder.

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AND TOMORROW THE ENTIRE WORLD

Submitted as Germany's entry for Best International Feature at this year's Oscars, And Tomorrow the Entire World mightn't have ultimately earned a nomination or the prized gong itself, but it's still a compelling and confronting — and timely — film. And, an impassioned one as well, with filmmaker Julia von Heinz (I'm Off Then) leaving zero doubt about her feelings on the re-emergence of right-wing extremist views in general, and specifically in a country that'll never escape the shadow of the Holocaust. University law student Luisa (Mala Emde, Shadowplay) swiftly shares her director's horror and anger. Brought up in comfortable middle-class surroundings, and in a family where taking a weekend hunting trip is commonplace, she has her eyes opened at school when she joins an anti-fascist group. They're soon doing whatever it takes to combat hate-filled ideologies, including letting their actions speak louder than words; however, the stakes are raised when they endeavour to thwart an upcoming attack. Aesthetically, von Heinz opts for edge-of-your seat immersion. Feeling like you're in Luisa's shoes as she steps into a topical conflict is part of the experience, as is feeling her struggles as she grapples with the reality of counteracting abhorrent views by violent means. Emde is exceptional in the lead role, pulsating with urgency in even the quietest of scenes — as does everything in the film.

And Tomorrow the Entire World is available to stream via Netflix.

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HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY: THE REN & STIMPY STORY

When August 2021 rolls around, it'll mark 30 years since a psychotic chihuahua and a kindly cat first brought their chaos to the small screen and changed the way people think about Nickelodeon's animated shows. At the time, there was simply nothing like The Ren & Stimpy Show — and that applies to its dark humour, willingness to shock and often grotesquely detailed visuals, as well as its characters, storylines and jokes. The 52-episode show also proved immensely influential. Without it, SpongeBob SquarePants probably wouldn't exist, in fact. But the history of Ren & Stimpy is filled with both highs and lows, as documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story explores. More than just a nostalgic look back, this chronicle by first-time directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood covers the series' origins, evolution and success, as well as its behind-the-scenes struggles and eventual demise. It chats with the folks who made it happen to examine why it struck such a chord, and to also make plain the reality of making such a hit. And, it doesn't shy away from the accusations levelled at John Kricfalusi, Ren & Stimpy's creator and the voice of Ren, including not only the difficult working environment that sprang under his watch, but the allegations of sexual abuse and grooming that came to light in 2018. Indeed, the latter could fuel its documentary, but here it adds another layer to the tale of a TV show unlike anything else, and the ego that both made it happen and caused its downfall.

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is available to stream via Docplay.

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VIOLATION

The rape-revenge genre isn't new, but two of the most powerful films to reach Australian audiences this year step into it with unflinching confidence. They do more than that, though. They savagely dissect society's willingness to accept that sexual assault is part of our culture — and misogyny, too. They demand that their audience not only spend almost two hours thinking about a subject so many would rather avoid, but that they have a visceral reaction. The movies: Promising Young Woman and Violation. Both are the product of first-time feature directors. Both include women among their filmmakers, either solely or as half of a duo. Both are anchored by blistering lead performances as well, and neither fades quickly (or at all) from memory. They'd make a stellar double bill; however, tonally, they each march to their own beat. In Violation's case, co-writer and co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer (Operation Avalanche) stars as Miriam. As she visits her sister Greta (Anna Maguire, The Hummingbird Project) and brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe, Murdoch Mysteries), it soon becomes obvious that more than just a happy reunion is on the cards. Playing a traumatised woman soon grappling the reality of vengeance in a primal and tangible way, Sims-Fewer puts in a performance that it's impossible to look away from, but that's just one of the savvy steps that the actor/filmmaker and her co-director Dusty Mancinelli take.

Violation is available to stream via Shudder.

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MOXIE

When Amy Poehler made her feature directorial debut with 2019's Wine Country, movie magic wasn't splashed across the small screen. But thankfully Moxie is now here to wipe that underwhelming comedy out of viewers' minds — and to demonstrate Poehler's knack at helming a high school-set tale of blossoming feminist activism. Adapted from the 2015 novel of the same name, the film follows 16-year-old Vivian (Hadley Robinson, I'm Thinking of Ending Things). Quiet, studious and happy hanging out with her similarly introverted best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai, Legion), she has always known that her male classmates have an attitude problem, and that their teachers and the general status quo both enable it. But, until newcomer Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena, Saved by the Bell) arrives, she's never been willing to rock the boat and fight for change. Inspired by her mother's (Poehler) crusading teen years, she starts a zine that calls out the toxic behaviour around her. That's where the film gets its title, and her school is scandalised by the homemade publication's pages. Story-wise, Moxie isn't big on surprises, especially if you've seen more than a couple of teen flicks in your time, as everyone has. Nonetheless, it's always as impassioned about its tale and as angry about the way the world treats anyone who isn't a white male as it is engaging and hopeful. And, as it follows the quest for equality being passed from one generation to another, it boasts a stellar soundtrack — including Bikini KIll's 'Rebel Girl', of course.

Moxie is available to stream via Netflix.

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OXYGEN

When Elizabeth Hansen (Mélanie Laurent, 6 Underground) awakens in a cryogenic chamber, she doesn't know who she is, where she is or why she's there. She's strapped in via an array of invasive tubes and restrictive belts, the pod's oxygen levels are rapidly depleting and, in trying to work out what's going on and how to survive, she only has the unit's artificial intelligence program, called MILO (voiced by Sound of Metal's Mathieu Amalric), on hand. That's how Oxygen starts, taking cues from everything from Buried to Locke. But each engaging single-setting, talk-driven thriller lives or dies on the strength of its story, dialogue and cast, all of which hit their marks here. It helps having Laurent at the film's centre, as tends to happen when the French Inglourious Basterds star is pushed into the spotlight. Also pivotal: director Alexandre Aja's horror background, which includes the remake of The Hills Have Eyes and 2019's Crawl. As he demonstrated with the latter, he's particularly skilled at not merely working with familiar tropes and conventions, but at getting the most out of them. Accordingly, even as Oxygen nods to a wealth of one-location and survival flicks — and a hefty number of closed-in sci-fi movies as well — it still grippingly wrings every ounce of tension it can out of its nightmarish scenario.

Oxygen is available to stream via Netflix.

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THE AMUSEMENT PARK

In 1968, George A Romero changed cinema forever. Night of the Living Dead, his first film, was famously made on a tiny budget — but it swiftly became the zombie movie that's influenced every single other zombie movie that's ever followed. His resume from there is filled with other highlights, including further Dead films and the astonishing Martin, but one of his intriguing features didn't actually see the light of day until recently. It was also commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania to preach the evils of elder abuse, which isn't the type of thing that can be said about any other flick. The Amusement Park is incredibly effective in getting that message across, actually. As star Lincoln Maazel explains in the introduction, it aims to make its statement by putting the audience in its ageing characters' shoes, conveying their ill-treatment just for their advancing years and showing the chaos they feel as a result. That's the exact outcome as Maazel plays an older man who spends a day wandering around the titular setting, only to be constantly disregarded, denigrated, laughed at and pushed aside as hellishness greets him at every turn. Romero's film is grim, obvious and absurd all at once, and it's a powerful and winning combination in his hands.

The Amusement Park is available to stream via Shudder.cp-line

BO BURNHAM: INSIDE

Watching Bo Burnham: Inside, a stunning fact becomes evident. A life-changing realisation, really. During a period when most people tried to make sourdough, pieced together jigsaws and spent too much time on Zoom, Bo Burnham created a comedy masterpiece. How does he ever top a special this raw, insightful, funny, clever and of the moment? How did he make it to begin with? How does anyone ever manage to capture every emotion that we've all felt about lockdowns — and about the world's general chaos, spending too much time on the internet, capitalism's exploitation and just the general hellscape that is our modern lives, too — in one 90-minute musical-comedy whirlwind? Filmed in one room of his house over several months (and with his hair and beard growth helping mark the time), Inside unfurls via songs about being stuck indoors, video chats, today's performative society, sexting, ageing and mental health. Burnham sings and acts, and also wrote, directed, shot, edited and produced the whole thing, and there's not a moment, image or line that goes to waste. Being trapped in that room with the Promising Young Woman star and Eighth Grade filmmaker, and therefore being stuck inside the closest thing he can find to manifesting his mind outside his skull, becomes the best kind of rollercoaster ride. Just try getting Burnham's tunes out of your head afterwards, too, because this is an oh-so-relatable and insightful special that lingers. It's also the best thing that's been made about this pandemic yet, hands down.

Bo Burnham: Inside is available to stream via Netflix.

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Looking for more viewing highlights? Check out our list of film and TV streaming recommendations, which is updated monthly.

Published on July 01, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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