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15 Best Streaming-Only Movies that Didn’t Go to Cinemas

black flat screen tv turned on displaying man in black suit

Let’s take a look at classic direct-to video movies for a second. There are plenty of animated films that are decent (Barbie movies and a long-running DC series featuring superheroes), as well as some OK Disney sequels, Scooby-Doo and other good stuff. The form has served as a test ground for horror creators from all budgets. There are also plenty of straight-up porn. These are all niche-based, but can still sell if they are marketed to the right audiences. It might have been less popular in theaters. But it did well on DVD.

The market has seen interesting changes due to streaming. One might assume that the increased demand for content would have led to an increase in cheap crap. However, it’s also created tremendous competition. While the pandemic naturally drove business away from theaters, it only increased the trend that good movies are not being shown in your local theater. Direct-to-streaming represents the latest evolution of the distribution model, which began with VHS tapes back in the early days and exploded with DVDs. Even if the movie theaters survive, it won’t be the same as before.

Although they may have seen a few film festivals screens or limited releases at small venues (just enough for them to be eligible for the big award), these movies were all released directly to the big streaming sites.

  • Host (2020)

This one is easy to overlook, in part because it seems very similar to Unfriended which was a good Skype-themed thriller from years ago. As we can’t get enough of COVID in real life, we don’t want to watch any that directly deals with it. Host is a great horror film, and it’s a masterpiece of style and intelligence. It also uses the “Zoom Seance” concept to go in some very clever directions.

Where to watch: Shudder

  • Class Action Park (2020)

Lordy. This one is wild. This is the true story of New Jersey’s Action Park. It has been a fixture for decades despite almost nonexistent safety standards. The ride design was based on whimsy with little regard for physics. Although it makes for a confusing transition from the “holy sh*t can you believe that?” feeling in the first part of the documentary it is credited to the film for not shying away from the real tragedies at the park.

Where to watch: Max

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

Walter Mercado is the most famous TV personality. The self-identified androgynous Puerto Rican Astrologer was a household name for decades. He was viewed by millions of radio listeners and viewers across Latin America, as well as the United States via local channels and later on Univision. His colorful costumes, giant caps, and emphasis on “mucho mucho amor” were unmatched. The documentary pays tribute to him, especially for those who are not native Spanish speakers.

Where to watch: Netflix

  • The Beach House (2019)

It sounds very pleasant, doesn’t it? The debut film of Jeffrey A. Brown is a slow-moving, deliberate movie that builds to something much more ambitious. The Beach House blends 50s-style creature thrills and threads of infection-related bodily horror. It feels uncomfortably timely, even though it was made before our current crappiness.

Where to watch: Shudder

  • Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Netflix tried to create a new model with its first original film, Beasts of No Nation. It was a failure almost immediately. Idris Elba’s film about a child soldier fighting in West Africa seemed like it could have been a hit in theaters. The streamer released the movie simultaneously in theaters as well as its on-demand service. Problem was that theaters hated the idea and large chains boycotted it. It’s an honest portrait of war’s human cost, and one that deserves a better release.

Where to watch: Netflix

  • His House (2020)

We are scared by good horror for long time after. Great horror is something that stays with us. It reminds us that there are worse things than what we see on the television or in movies. His House is both a chiller about a haunted house and a disturbing story about the survivor’s guilt as well as about refugee experiences.

Where to watch: Netflix

  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

According to the August Wilson play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in a few rooms at Paramount Recording Studios in the summer 1927. This scale suggests that the film would not have been a big hit among the action-packed films that dominate the theater industry. Streaming was the only way to go because of COVID and all. The film’s sublime brilliance is not diminished by the slight staginess, but it only highlights the exceptional performances of all involved, including Viola Davis and Chadwick. It received five Academy Award nominations and was nominated for a Best Picture award.

Where to watch: Netflix

  • Roma (2018)

Some of our greatest filmmakers have come from Mexico, including Inarritu del Toro and Escalante. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is the only Mexican film that has won an International Feature Oscar. It was also the first streaming-original movie nominated as Best Picture. Cuaron’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 watch: Netflix

  • Blood Machines (2019)

Blood Machines has its inspirations up its sleeves. This is largely due to the 80s/90s-era horror and sci-fi movies that may have made it to video. Although the film’s hour-long length is not for everyone, it is a Kickstarter-funded masterpiece that is ambitious and as inventive as it gets.

Where to watch: Shudder

  • Selah and the Spades (2019)

Tayarisha, a debut writer/director, plays Selah and the Spades like a Shakespearean (or near) tragedy about high school power structures. This is a concept that has been tried before. But never in the same style as Selah. The coming-of-age story captures not only the freedom of being teenager but also the real danger and drama.

Where to watch: Prime Video

  • The Vast of Night (2019)

The story of a small-town DJ and a switchboard operator discovers that there is an alien invasion in 1950s America. There aren’t many new plot points. It’s still a memorable movie with a style that is confident and believable despite its small budget. Similar revelations can be found in the lead performances of Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz and Jake Horowitz.

Where to watch: Prime Video

  • Dolemite is my Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy was an A-list star for decades, but his career has been a rollercoaster ride that took him from remarkable heights to disappointing lows. Trying to chase his Oscar-nominated performance as Dreamgirls with Norbit wasn’t an option. Dolemite’s Rudy Ray Moore, is the perfect match for Murphy’s talents. He plays the real-life filmmakers’ absurdities with great heart. We are reminded of Murphy’s genius every now and again by this scene. He also followed it up with the disappointing, dorky Coming 2 America.

Where to watch: Netflix

  • Happy Season (2020)

Hulu’s Happiest Season may not be on everyone’s list. Very few (if any) films of the modern, Hallmark-style coming-home-for-Christmas genre would clear that kind of bar. These films are loved for a reason, and this film adds a little prestige to its charms with its cast (Kristen Stewart, Aubrey Plaza and Victor Garber, among others). Clea DuVall directed. The movie was also a prominent torchbearer for queer representation in 2020. It saw a record number of LGBTQ+-friendly holiday family films.

Where to watch: Hulu

  • 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. Nearly all of the film’s cast and directors are Native American and First Nations talent.

Where to watch: Shudder

  • Mank (2020)

David Fincher’s documentary on the making of one the most important and difficult films of all time is both a love letter to Hollywood classics as well as an in-depth look at the process of making the sausage. Both Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried and John Travolta were nominated for Oscars for their performances.

Where to watch: Netflix

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