New Movies to Watch This Week: ‘Happiest Season,’ ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ ‘Superintelligence’

Stuck inside on Black Friday, stuffed with turkey (or else deprived of that feast for the first time in ages, out of an abundance of caution), what are Americans supposed to do to distract themselves? All year, it’s been a battle of the streamers to fill the void left by cinemas, and this week finds nearly all the big brands are stepping up with big titles to serve the stay-at-home set.

Netflix debuts Oscar contender “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in theaters this week — featuring a terrific final performance from Chadwick Boseman. The film won’t be available to subscribers until mid-December, though Netflix will serve up Kurt-and-Goldie holiday special “The Christmas Chronicles 2” — as well as “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.” Plus, “Hillbilly Elegy” hits the service this week, too, following a limited theatrical run.

For family audiences, Disney Plus launches a “Black Beauty” remake. (Those feeling courageous enough to visit theaters can give rival DreamWorks Animation a shot with a sequel to caveman cartoon “The Croods.”)

Originally intended for theatrical release, Melissa McCarthy’s latest (directed by husband Ben Falcone), “Superintelligence” debuts exclusively on HBO Now — where “Wonder Woman 1984” is now destined to drop next month. Amazon builds on its strong November with the release of Sundance hit “Uncle Frank,” from “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball. And Prime Video continues Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” five-film anthology with “Lovers Rock,” which previously opened the New York Film Festival.

Here’s a rundown of those films opening this week that Variety has covered, along with links to where you can watch them. Find more movies and TV shows to stream here.

The Croods: A New Age
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

New Releases in Theaters

The Croods: A New Age (Joel Crawford)
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Where to Find It: In theaters now
In this largely unnecessary sequel, the Guy-and-Eep-sitting-in-a-tree romantic subplot from the first movie gets drawn out for another 90 minutes when Grug stumbles across the Bettermans, a significantly more evolved family with a teenage daughter of their own. Fans of the mile-a-minute original may enjoy, but for those who wish they’d just slow it down and tell a decent story, “The Croods: A New Age” feels like an assault on the cranium, a loud and patently obnoxious 21st-century “Flintstones” with far more sophisticated technology, but nothing new to offer in the script department. — Peter Debruge
Read the full review

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe) CRITIC’S PICK
Distributor: Netflix
Where to Find It: Now in limited release; coming to Netflix on Dec. 18
In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” introductions matter. Whether or not audiences know the real Ma Rainey’s reputation as “mother of the blues,” August Wilson ensures that this musical pioneer is a larger-than-life character even before she steps foot onstage. And because Netflix’s socko feature adaptation marks the final role of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, exits assume a stirring poignancy as well. Nearly every second of Davis’ performance is about power, about who has the upper hand over whom and what it means for a person — much less a people — to be in a subordinate position. — Peter Debruge
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Courtesy of Film Constellation

New Releases on Demand and in Select Theaters

Kill It and Leave This Town (Mariusz Wilczynski)
Distributor: Outsider Pictures
Where to Find It: Available for purchase on Vimeo and Anthology Film Archive virtual cinema
An utterly bizarre, frequently grotesque, occasionally obscene singularity, Polish artist Wilczynski’s abrasive animation exists so far outside the realm of the expected, the acceptable and the neatly comprehensible that it acts as a striking reminder of just how narrow that realm can be. Occupying a conceptual space several universes away from whatever it is we recognize as “reality,” the scratchy, hand-drawn interior epic is alarmingly niche in appeal, but if you can slip into that tiny schism, it certainly rewards with one of the most nightmarishly original dystopian visions you are likely to encounter this year. — Jessica Kiang
Read the full review

Mellow Mud (Renars Vimba)
Distributor: Corinth Films
Where to Find It: Available for rent on iTunes and Amazon
Harsh circumstances force a resourceful and determined Latvian lass to mature beyond her years in “Mellow Mud,” a compelling, bittersweet coming-of-ager from first-time feature helmer-writer Vimba. This evocatively shot realist tale benefits from a spare yet credible script and a knockout performance from big-screen debutant Elina Vaska, who conveys her character’s feelings of anger, abandonment, responsibility and first love with conviction and authenticity. — Alissa Simon
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Stardust (Gabriel Range)
Distributor: IFC Films
Where to Find It: In theaters, on demand and via digital platforms
Directed by Gabriel Range (from a script he co-wrote with Christopher Bell), it’s one of those cusp-of-fame-of-a-rock-star biopics in which necessity becomes the mother of invention, by which I mean that the film’s aesthetic is driven by a threadbare financial calculus. Namely: If you want to make a film about David Bowie and can’t afford to go after the rights to his songs, then you come up with a movie like “Stardust,” which follows Bowie during the year that Ziggy Stardust — the persona, the fashion, the music — was still germinating in his head. — Owen Gleiberman
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Zappa (Alex Winter) CRITIC’S PICK
Distributor: IFC Films
Where to Find It: Available on demand and via digital platforms
“Zappa,” Alex Winter’s haunting documentary about Frank Zappa (it will play in theaters tonight and then drop on streaming services this Friday), is a movie that plunges into the Zappa legend and touches, one way or another, on just about every aspect of his life and career. It’s a multimedia immersion, filled with rare footage of Zappa from his teenage years on and assembled with the loving dexterity we’ve come to expect from Alex Winter as a filmmaker. When Winter takes on a subject like this one, he doesn’t just explore it; he surrounds and penetrates it. — Owen Gleiberman
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Uncle Frank
Brownie Harris

Exclusive to Amazon Prime

Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
Where to Find It: Prime Video
“Lovers Rock” is a reverie that’s also a raw slice of culturally observant drama. This is the only one of the five “Small Axe” entries that’s not based on a true story, but the way McQueen has staged it, it’s a vibrantly detailed, idiosyncratic, at times nearly voyeuristic dub reggae mood piece that casts a spell of time-machine reality. It moves and breathes like a real party, with lots of lounging and a crowd of not so many people, the whole thing shot through with a documentary randomness that generates its own drama, because it lets us know that anything might happen. — Owen Gleiberman
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Uncle Frank (Alan Ball)
Where to Find It: Prime Video
Compared to “Towelhead,” the somewhat autobiographically inspired “Uncle Frank” hits a more successful balance between ensemble seriocomedy, Big Issues and a somewhat pressure-cooked plot. Set in the early ’70s, it casts the reliably deft Paul Bettany as a gay man forced to confront the Southern family to whom he’s stayed closeted — though they’ve managed to communicate tacit disapproval of his being “different” anyhow. Well-cast and gracefully handled, this is a nuanced plea for loving acceptance that should appeal to a fairly broad audience, even if it does lay on the tearful melodramatics pretty thick in the last lap. — Dennis Harvey
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Exclusive to Disney Plus

Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (Andrew Barker)
Where to Find It: Disney Plus
Working remotely with veteran collaborator Jack Antonoff and new producer/co-writer Aaron Dessner, Taylor Swift used “Folklore” to cast off the spectacle, the commercial calculations, and the meta-framing of her last few albums and focus instead on the fine-tuned intimacy and incisive turns of phrase that made her such a singular voice to begin with. The one thing that album was missing, however, was the immediacy of a studio setting, and so for this Disney Plus release, she’s assembled Dessner and Antonoff in person to play through each song live. — Andrew Barker
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Hopper Stone

Exclusive to HBO Now

Superintelligence (Ben Falcone)
Where to Find It: HBO Now
HBO Max is arguably is the natural habitat for a lightweight, undemandingly engaging comedy that can be enjoyed either entirely in one sitting, or sporadically in bite-sized chunks. The screenplay by Steve Mallory is a sometimes clever, sometimes contrived mix of romantic comedy and sci-fi elements, with a premise that suggests an updated remake of some innocuous ’70s-era Walt Disney comedy starring Dean Jones or Kurt Russell. But some of the funny business is very funny indeed, and the movie overall is more enjoyable than not. Which, again, makes it perfect for streaming. — Joe Leydon
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Exclusive to Hulu

Happiest Season (Clea Duvall) CRITIC’S PICK
Where to Find It: Hulu
“Happiest Season” is a home-for-the-holidays movie that serves up what you expect, along with something you don’t. It’s cheeky and blithe and situational, suffused with enough upscale Christmas froth to get the audience high on spiced-cocktail fumes. You’re not likely to confuse a movie like this one with art, yet “Happiest Season” is formula done with feeling; you can believe in the people you’re watching. The movie is a true romance … about two people already in love navigating the minefield of what love is. That all adds up to a Christmas movie that lifts your spirit in just the right ways. — Owen Gleiberman
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The Christmas Chronicles 2

Exclusive to Netflix

The Christmas Chronicles 2 (Chris Columbus)
Where to Find It: Netflix
Not so long ago, there were three or four new Christmas movies a year. Now it seems like there are 30 or 40, and if you’re wondering how that assembly line of holiday product gets filled, the answer is: by recycling endless variations on the same yuletide fairy-tale kitsch. Take “The Christmas Chronicles 2.” It’s a movie in which Santa Claus, played with winning macho bluster by Kurt Russell, has to save Christmas from the depredations of an angry fallen elf. But it’s also a family-therapy movie and a comedy bauble that’s so snarky about the second-handedness of its holiday tropes that it somehow turns cynicism into sentimentality. — Owen Gleiberman
Read the full review

Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square
(Debbie Allen)
Where to Find It: Netflix

Mosul (Matthew Michael Carnahan)
Where to Find It: Netflix
In June 2014, the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to ISIS. A joint-forces campaign to reclaim it began two years later and ended with the re-establishment of Iraqi control of the devastated, decimated city in July 2017. Carnahan picks through the debris of that campaign of barely two years ago for his directorial debut, “Mosul,” a well-made but troublingly generic war-is-hell pulse-pounder that inevitably prompts the question: How recent is too recent when it comes to turning a theater of war into pure theater, pure Hollywood spectacle? The past is supposed to be another country, but 2017 feels barely an exploding city block behind us. — Jessica Kiang
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Shawn Mendes: In Wonder (Grant Singer)
Where to Find It: Netflix

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