What to watch (and skip) in theaters and on Netflix this weekend

January 31, 2020, 5:30 PM UTC
Courtesy of Kino Lorber; Courtesy of Netflix (2)

Whether you’re standing in the theater lobby or curled up in bed, deciding what to watch next is often the most difficult part of any pop-culture junkie’s day. And with dozens of films in theaters on any given weekend, plus virtually endless layers of streaming purgatory to sort through in search of your next binge-watch, there’s more out there—and tougher decisions to make—than ever.

Fortune‘s here to help you navigate the week’s latest offerings, boiling all the entertainment out there down into three distinct recommendations: should you see it, stream it, or skip it? Find out below.

SEE IT: ‘Beanpole’ (N.Y. theaters, expanding through February)

There’s a David Brooks quote that points out post-traumatic stress disorder typically afflicts more survivors of war than it does natural disasters, perhaps due to the moral atrocities one endures and enacts in warfare. “Trauma,” he wrote, “is an expulsive cataclysm of the soul.”

Beanpole, the astonishing new Russian drama by young filmmaker Kantemir Balagov, aligns with that perspective, examining the ghosts of humanity left to haunt Leningrad in 1945, after bombs have stopped falling and snowflakes form a delicate blanket over twisted metal and strewn rubble. Its characters, especially the titular nurse, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) nicknamed for her unusual height, are scarred by years of suffering, their eyes gaunt and bodies frozen as if out of time. They’re all exit wound.

Iya lives a quiet, cold life as a hospital nurse, caring for the wounded and soon-to-be dead; her sole joy in life is a young boy, Sasha (Igor Shirokov), whom she occasionally brings into the soldiers’ ward. In one telling moment, they tell him to bark like a dog, and he falls silent. “Where would he have seen a dog?” one man asks. “They’ve all been eaten.”

The film only truly forms after an unspeakable tragedy takes place. And when Sasha’s mother Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) returns to Leningrad from the battlefront, it becomes the partner dance of two dead trees, hollowed and still standing in a frozen wasteland. As Masha and Iya reconcile their pain and grow to understand the ways in which they may heal and harm one another, Beanpole suggests little sparks of life, latent heat still present beneath all the ice and snow.

Read my full review out of the New York Film Festival.

STREAM IT: ‘Miss Americana’ (Netflix)

Making a documentary about Taylor Swift green-lit at the pop star’s behest and extensively promoted through her social media accounts does not at first seem an entirely sound basis for an objective, insightful work.

But Miss Americana, directed by Lana Wilson (After Tiller), is most surprising in how thoughtfully it dissects Swift’s years in the public eye, focusing on the pop star’s fame as a singular condition and product of our rapidly evolving popular culture. The singer-songwriter, from country roots, shot to fame on the strength of her first two records and has worked—exhaustively, according to Wilson’s documentary—to exactingly retrofit her image to the current, ever-moving trends.

What is it like being Taylor Swift? Miss Americana attempts to show her side of that loaded, unknowable question, predicated on the somewhat arguable premise that the pop star has throughout the years found herself unable to retain control of her own image. As Swift has put forward across more recent albums “Reputation” and “Lover,” she’s often been at the mercy of the Internet mob, shamed for her romantic relationships, critiqued for her seemingly superficial “girl gang,” and more broadly (and damningly) eviscerated for what critics have deemed a proclivity for playing the victim card. This, by contrast, is the self-decidedly necessary corrective.

For Swift and her team (lest it not be forgotten every star is the CEO of a very large company), it’s clear that Miss Americana feels like a reclaiming, a “disarmingly honest” (but nonetheless hagiographic) portrayal of both a pop star at the peak of her powers and a woman coming into her own. Indeed, it’s a little difficult to buy some of the more intimate moments, such as when Swift tenderly plays piano as a kitten tumbles along the keys, given that their presence in the documentary means a camera was present. But there’s a darkness in that implication as well, a fascinating question of just how much of a pop star’s existence is manufactured for public consumption. What does Swift leave for herself? Miss Americana suggests rather forcefully that the musician’s sense of self is inseparable from her public perception, a grim state of being for anyone in today’s vicious 24/7 panopticon.

Wilson does a nimble job of weaving between time periods, from Kanye West’s infamous interruption of Swift at the VMAs to her more recent shift into political advocacy, and swirling them together to craft a kind of thematic sense, even if it’s occasionally irritating to be spirited from one chapter of Swift’s career to another then back again. What Wilson’s after is a treatise on authenticity, and a defense of Swift’s pursuit of it despite the deeply manicured nature of her existence. The fact that the film occasionally feels like a marketing tie-in isn’t a reason not to see it. Miss Americana is an intriguing kind of public statement by Swift, and as innately self-serving as it is in building upon that foundation, the movie ultimately offers a sobering picture of what weird and impossible lives we ask pop stars to live in exchange for the opportunity to keep making their art.

This review was written out of the Sundance Film Festival.

SKIP IT: ‘The Stranger’ (Netflix)

A decent potboiler in need of a little heat, Netflix’s The Stranger is a show defined by its plentiful twists and deceptions, even if its characters and dialogue never rise above the level of cliché.

Another one of these multiple-perspective mysteries in which everyone has seen something but has something more to hide, The Stranger—an eight-episode miniseries based on Harlan Coben’s novel of the same, though reportedly changed quite extensively in this adaptation—at first follows the plight of an everyman (Richard Armitage) whose domestic bliss is turned inside out after a stranger (Hannah John-Kamen, Ant-Man & the Wasp) shows up to reveal a dark secret about his wife.

But from there, the scope just keeps broadening, as a detective (Siobhan Finneran) enters the picture and other characters played by the likes of Stephen Rea, Anthony Stewart Head, and Jennifer Saunders appear to emote repressed Britishness in all forms.

The main issue with The Stranger isn’t that cast, though all but Saunders are playing resolutely to type. Nor is it the direction, which is workmanlike but functional, never elevating the scripts above their genre standing but not stymieing them either. What lies at the heart of this series, however, is a less-than-captivating mystery, the kind of page-turner where the words on each page are perfunctory and simply intended to keep you flipping. The twists come fast and frivolous, so much so that they feel rather like the point, narrative acrobatics intended to mask an emptiness at the center of the characters and overall story. The Stranger, by episode three, has established its shadowy world, in which everyone’s nursing dark secrets and only the enigmatic John-Kamen, always ducking out of sight before anyone can figure out hers, can bring them wriggling into the light. But that’s about it so far as this series is concerned, and more demanding viewers may question at some point how well this Stranger is worth getting to know.

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