18 of the Best Streaming-Only Movies That Skipped the Theatres

18 of the Best Streaming-Only Movies That Skipped the Theatres

Let’s talk classic direct-to-video movies for a moment. American Psycho II: All American Girl (with Mila Kunis and Williams Shatner); Dollman vs. Demonic Toys; Bratz: Starrin’ & Stylin’; Hellraiser 5-10; Amityville 5-19(!), The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It; Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation — they’ve not necessarily been all bad.

There’s plenty of decent animated stuff (Barbie movies, a long-running DC superhero series, some OK Disney sequels, Scooby-Doo, etc.), and the form has been a testing ground for low-budget horror creators of all kinds. There’s also, of course, plenty of straight-up porn — all things that are niche, by definition, but that can sell if marketed to the right audience. And had it been released in theatres, audiences might not have flocked to watch the adventures of previously unseen relatives in American Pie Presents: Band Camp, but it did very well on DVD, thanks, and no, I don’t have a copy sitting around somewhere, what are you talking about?

The rise of streaming has had an interesting effect on the market: One might have assumed the increasing demand for content would’ve led to a glut of cheap crap — and it has, to some extent, but it’s also created tremendous competition for viewers. The pandemic has naturally driven business away from movie theatres, but it only accelerated a trend of good movies never going near your local movie theatre. Direct-to-streaming is the most recent evolution of the distribution model that began with VHS tapes way back in the day and then exploded with DVDs. Even if movie theatres survive the next few years, it’ll never again be the case that a movie has to hit the cinema to be considered worthy.

Though they may have seen some film festival screens, or saw limited releases in small venues (just enough to make them eligible for the big awards), the following movies all skipped wide release entirely in favour of going direct to the big streamers. The difference in the kind of stuff we’re seeing now is profound.

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

With its first original film, Beasts of No Nation, Netflix attempted to pioneer a model that fell apart almost immediately. The Idris Elba-led film about a child soldier in West Africa certainly seemed like a movie that could have done well in theatres, so the streamer released the movie simultaneously in theatres and what was then its on-demand service. The problem was: Theatres hated that idea, and the large chains boycotted the film. Nevertheless, it’s a searing portrait of the human cost of war, one that deserved a better thought-out release.

Where to stream: Netflix

His House (2020)

Good horror scares us; great horror stays with us, reminding us that the most frightening stuff lives outside the panels of the TV or movie screen. His House works both as an effective chiller about a house haunted by evil, but also as a potent and disturbing story about survivor’s guilt and the refugee experience more generally.

Where to stream: Netflix

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Based on the August Wilson play, the action of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is largely confined to a couple of rooms at the Paramount Recording Studios during the summer of 1927. That scale suggests the film wouldn’t have done gangbusters business among the action spectaculars that have come to dominate the movie theatre business, so streaming was probably always the way to go, COVID notwithstanding. That hint of staginess doesn’t detract from the film’s sultry brilliance, and only serves to highlight the extraordinary performances from everyone involved, led by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. It got five Academy Award nominations, and deserved a Best Picture nod, as well.

Where to stream: Netflix

Roma (2018)

Despite the fact that some of our most impressive filmmakers of the past few decades have worked in or come from Mexico (Iñárritu, del Toro, Escalante, etc.), Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma remains the only Mexican film to win an International Feature Oscar, and it was the first streaming-original movie to be nominated for Best Picture. Cuarón’s beautifully shot, semi-autobiographical story of life in the Mexico City of the early 1970s manages to blend the deeply personal with the feel of an epic — an impressive combination.

Where to stream: Netflix

Blood Machines (2019)

Blood Machines wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and much of that has to do with the type of 80s/90s-era sci-fi and horror movies that might have, back in the day, made their way direct to video. Narratively, this hour-long film isn’t going to be to every taste, but the Kickstarter-funded movie is as ambitious and inventive as they come.

Where to stream: Shudder

Selah and the Spades (2019)

Debut writer/director Tayarisha Poe’s visually distinctive Selah and the Spades plays out like a Shakespearean (near) tragedy about high school power structures. It’s a conceit that’s been tried before, more than once, but never with quite the style of Selah — the coming-of-age story manages to capture not just the freedom of being a teenager, but also the very real sense of danger and drama that it’s all wrapped up in.

Where to stream: Prime Video

The Vast of Night (2019)

There’s not all that much new narratively in the story of a small town DJ and a switchboard operator who uncover what seems to be an alien invasion in the 1950s. The movie’s nonetheless deeply memorable, with a style and confidence in every single frame of the film that belies its tiny budget. The lead performances, from Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, are similarly revelatory.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Dolemite is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy earned himself a perpetual spot on the A-list decades ago, but his career has always been a roller coaster that’s gone from impressive heights to ill-conceived lows — chasing his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls with Norbit was a choice. Dolemite’s Rudy Ray Moore is a perfect match for Murphy’s talents, allowing him to play the real-life filmmaker’s brash absurdities with tremendous heart. It’s one of our occasional reminders of Murphy’s genius — that he of course followed up with the dorky, disappointing Coming 2 America.

Where to stream: Netflix

Happiest Season (2020)

Hulu’s Happiest Season is, perhaps, not on anyone’s list of cinematic masterpieces. Very few (if any) films of the modern, Hallmark-style coming-home-for-Christmas genre would clear that kind of bar. Still, there’s a reason we love these things, and this one adds a bit of prestige to its charms in both cast (Kristen Stewart, Aubrey Plaza, Victor Garber, etc.) and directing (Clea DuVall). What’s more, the movie served as a high-profile torchbearer for queer representation in 2020, the year seeing a record (i.e., not zero) number of LGBTQ+ -friendly holiday family films.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Blood Quantum (2019)

Inspired, in part, by the 1981 Listuguj raids in Quebec during which hundreds of provincial police officers stormed the First Nations community in order to stop fishing (to preserve stocks for nearby commercial outfits), Blood Quantum depicts a zombie outbreak on the Red Crow Indian Reservation — succeeding, like with all the best horror movies, as, first, a proficiently scary and violent thriller, but also as a story of larger, real-world horrors. The film’s director, cast, and behind-the-scenes creatives are almost entirely made up of First Nations and Native American talents.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Mank (2020)

David Fincher’s look at the making of one of the greatest, and most fraught, films ever made is both a love-letter to classic Hollywood, as well as a warts-and-all look at how the sausage gets made. Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried both earned Oscar nominations for their performances.

Where to stream: Netflix

Host (2020)

It would be easy to overlook this one (I did for quite a while), at least in part because the premise seems so similar to Unfriended, a not-at-all-bad Skype-themed thriller from a few years ago. I’m also generally reluctant to watch anything that deals with COVID too directly, as I get enough of that in real life, thank-you-very-much. Nevertheless, through sheer style and intelligence, Host manages to be one of the most effective horror films of the past couple of years, going in clever directions with its “Zoom seance” concept.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Class Action Park (2020)

Lordy. This one’s absolutely wild. The true story of New Jersey’s Action Park, a fixture for a couple of decades, despite virtually nonexistent safety standards and ride design with a big emphasis on whimsy and no regard for physics. Though it does make for a jarring transition from the “holy shit can you believe this?” feeling in the earlier part of the documentary, it’s to the film’s credit that it ultimately doesn’t shy away from the actual tragedies at the park.

Where to stream: Foxtel Go

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (2020)

Has there ever been a bigger, more flamboyant TV personality than Walter Mercado? For decades, the (self-identified) androgynous Puerto Rican astrologer commanded millions of viewers (and radio listeners) throughout Latin America and the United States via local channels, and then as a fixture on Univision. With his giant capes, colourful outfits, and constant emphasis on the importance of “mucho, mucho amor,” there was just none like him, and the documentary gives him his due — particularly for non-Spanish speakers who might be less familiar with his entertainment empire.

Where to stream: Netflix

The Beach House (2019)

Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Director Jeffrey A. Brown’s debut film kicks off with a pace that could be viewed as either deliberate or a bit lackadaisical, but builds toward something far more cosmically ambitious. By blending 50s-style creature thrills with threads of infection-related body horror, The Beach House feels uncomfortably timely, even if it was made prior to our current crappiness.

Where to stream: Prime Video

The Old Guard (2020)

As A-list as A-list gets, there was absolutely a time when Charlize Theron’s appearance in a theatre-skipping release would have been a major cause for concern. Like, a devastating turn for a career. Instead, the large-ish budget action movie about immortal mercenaries was a big enough hit for Netflix to inspire a coming sequel, and certainly didn’t hurt the careers of anyone involved. As superhero films go, it’s also pretty smart and impressively queer-friendly. Win for everyone.

Where to stream: Netflix

The Square (2013)

Netflix’s first original documentary, The Square, did the festival circuit before landing on the (then) on-demand service. It’s still a powerful piece of filmmaking, chronicling the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 through the lens of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Though time has moved on in Egypt, and the promise of the Arab Spring remains largely unfulfilled, the movie makes clear that heady ideals often give way to political realities, giving it a timeless quality.

Purple Violets (2007)

Though largely forgotten, Purple Violets represents an important moment in direct-to-streaming history: In the direct-to-DVD era, the movie skipped both theatres and DVD (initially) in favour of a release on the iTunes Store — something unheard of back in the day. It’s a good romantic comedy, if not a great one, directed by Ed Burns and with an all-star cast including Selma Blair, Patrick Wilson, Debra Messing, and a wee Bill Hader in his film debut.

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