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The 10 Best Movies That Might Have Been Hits If It Weren’t for COVID

The good news for us is, they’re all streamable right now

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in Respect and Lady Gaga stars as Patrizia Reggiani in House of Gucci

Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM; Fabio Lovino/MGM

Jennifer Hudson (left) in "Respect" and Lady Gaga in "House of Gucci."

En español

COVID damaged virtually every business in America besides Zoom, and one of the hardest hit was the movie industry, whose lifeblood depends on audiences gathering in enclosed spaces. So Hollywood put most of its biggest releases either on the shelf or on streaming services, where folks could watch them in safety at home. It was a boon for Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and HBO Max. But it also caused a lot of sure-fire box-office hits to lose money. Among the many could-have-beens and should-have-beens thwarted by the pandemic, here are the ten best, and where you can stream them.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Lionsgate had originally planned for this raucous and wonderfully dumb comedy starring Kristen Wiig and her Bridesmaids partner Annie Mumolo to open in theaters back in February 2021. But when it quickly became clear that multiplexes would not be reopening anytime soon (or that moviegoers not would be returning if they did reopen), the studio shuffled it off to Video on Demand. It found an audience there, but not the broader one it really deserved. Wiig and Mumolo play middle-aged, Celine Dion-loving BFFs who decide to leave their Podunk Nebraska town and set off on the trip of a lifetime to Florida. Decked out in capri pants, retiree sun visors and some of the most garish floral prints this side of The Golden Girls, their Sunshine State hijinks feel like a great SNL skit at feature length. Barb and Star is a terrifically daffy, dizzy, girl-power buddy comedy that we pray spawns a sequel we can actually see on the big screen.

Watch it: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar on Hulu

Cry Macho

When theaters did finally reopen, it was mostly younger audiences who returned. Which spelled doom for Clint Eastwood’s latest — a poignant, golden-years road drama about a washed-up horse breeder and former rodeo star (Eastwood) who heads south of the border to search for his former boss’ son and bring him home to Texas. Like a lot of Eastwood’s best movies from the past couple of decades, this is a story about connection and redemption and, at age 91, the Hollywood legend proves that he’s still a singular movie star in an era of prepackaged sequels and superhero franchises.

Watch it: Cry Macho on HBO Max

Nightmare Alley

Director Guillermo del Toro’s loose remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power noir classic was my favorite movie of the past year. Sadly, most people caught up with it on their sofas than on the silver screen, where its period, art deco design and circus sets look a million times better. Oh well. It’s still worth your time no matter how you watch it. Bradley Cooper plays a hard-luck drifter and a grifter who joins up with a traveling circus and its carnie denizens. There, he learns how to scam unwitting folks with a mind-reading routine that vaults him to celebrity, easy money and eventually his own doom. Cooper is one of our most underrated actors. And if you don’t believe me, just wait for the last scene of the film. Cate Blanchett is equally great as the shrink who sees through his ruse.  

Watch it: Nightmare Alley on HBO Max


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Respect

Despite some swooning reviews, this biopic of Aretha Franklin came and went from theaters. It more than deserves a retrial in the appeals court of at-home streaming. Jennifer Hudson plays the Queen of Soul to the hilt, emotionally tracing the singer’s rise from local church choir star to international stardom. Despite the music, which is every bit as great as you’d expect it to be, Respect manages to capture Franklin’s essence on stage and off, not to mention her long, hard journey to find her own voice. This too little seen gem has soul.

Watch it: Respect on Amazon Prime

The Last Duel

A two-and-a-half hour drama about sexual assault set in the Middle Ages and told from three different points of view was always going to be a tough sell to a wide audience. But director Ridley Scott’s Rashomon-like telling should have not only been more commercially successful (it tanked), it should have been a player during this past year’s Oscar season. The first screenplay cowritten by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (plus Nicole Holofcener) since their Good Will Hunting triumph nearly 25 years ago, The Last Duel is as powerful as a keg of dynamite thanks to a spot-on cast that includes not just Damon and Affleck, but also Adam Driver and Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer. Is it heavy? Yes. But it’s well worth the lift.

Watch it: The Last Duel on HBO Max

House of Gucci

Poor Ridley Scott. First The Last Duel bombs at the box office thanks to more grownup, serious-minded audiences steering clear of movie theaters. And then, right on its heels, he serves up another box-office underperformer that deserved better. House of Gucci is the kind of movie that everyone says they want Hollywood to start making again, but then fails to turn out to buy the tickets that will lead to more titles like it. Lady Gaga (rightfully) stole most of the headlines surrounding this glamorous true-crime story about murder among one of Italy’s most famous fashion dynasties, but everyone involved goes operatically big, including Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Adam Driver and Al Pacino. If you’re done binging on true-crime miniseries, do yourself a favor and check this one out. The high-end fashions are great and the sinister family scheming is even better. It’s the tiramisu of true-crime movies.

Watch it: House of Gucci on Amazon Prime

West Side Story

As with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s equally infectious In the Heights, most lovers of old-school movie musicals caught up with Steven Spielberg’s update of Hollywood’s most celebrated and inventive song-and-dance epic on the small screen. If they caught up with it at all. Too bad. Because if ever a film was made for the big screen, it’s Spielberg’s West Side Story. Rewritten to hew more closely to modern (read: less racially troubling) sensibilities, this is a sweeping eye-candy spectacle of dazzling choreography, virtuoso camerawork and a forbidden love story as old as time … or at least as old as Romeo and Juliet. It will absolutely transport you.

Watch it: West Side Story on Disney+

The Trip to Greece

OK, so maybe the fourth installment in Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s series of exotic cinematic travelogues might not have been a “hit” were it not for COVID. But certainly more people would have seen it. An early casualty of the pandemic, the two British comedians and passive-aggressive best friends retrace the classic footsteps of The Odyssey, stumbling onto strange encounters, sharing delicious gourmet meals and unpacking a hilarious — and bottomless — grab bag of celebrity impressions along the way, constantly trying to one-up the other. On the surface, Coogan and Brydon's Trip films may seem like light and breezy larks, but if you squint just a little, they have a lot to say about middle age and the meaning of life. 

Watch it: The Trip to Greece on Hulu

Judas and the Black Messiah

Long before Shaka King’s riveting and incendiary drama about the life and death of Black Panther Fred Hampton hit theaters, it was already being tipped as an early Oscar favorite. But when the studio decided that it would probably attract more pandemic eyeballs via streaming, a lot of its buzz seemed to quiet down. Again, a shame. Because, as Hampton, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya proved that he has not only become a bona fide movie star, but he’s also an artist to be reckoned with. Equally impressive is LaKeith Stanfield as the torn African American FBI agent who infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party to keep tabs on Hampton and the threat he poses to the status quo. A terrific and necessary story from start to finish.

Watch it: Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max

Old

Let’s face it, we all indulged in more than our shares of guilty pleasures during those quarantine-at-home months. Two of the most enjoyable hours I spent during that time were spent watching this wonderfully freaky thriller from the gotcha mind of Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan. Ignore its 50 percent score with critics on Rotten Tomatoes because this is exactly the kind of delicious, joy-buzzer junk food audiences eat up on a Saturday night. A group of travelers staying at a deluxe hotel on a gorgeous tropical island are whisked to a deserted and perfect beach for a day trip. But then something very, very strange starts happening to them. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil this one. I had no idea what was coming next and I wouldn’t want to rob you of the same bizarre thrill. Just watch it, check your mind at the door and go with it. You’ll be glad you did.

Watch it: Old on Amazon Prime

Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.