In our increasingly complex world, it seems as if we don’t have the time we once enjoyed to actually go to the movies, and see new movies in theaters. Yes, we still love our big blockbusters, but what about those slightly smaller movies, the ones that don’t get the same kind of advertising push? Well, here are nine movies from the past 18 months, plus one cult classic that slipped through the cracks some decades ago—all of which are available with the convenience of streaming on Netflix. There’s something for everyone here: documentaries, dramas, comedies, some deep thoughts, and a little sex and violence.
Stories We Tell
The actress Sarah Polley made an incredible splash when she became a director, making the highly acclaimed fiction films Away from Her (2007) and Take This Waltz (2012, also available for streaming). But for her third film, she gets even more personal. Stories We Tell (2013) is a brave, shocking documentary about her own family. “Who cares about our family?” her sister asks at one point, but the answer is: anyone who loves a good story. Polley dismantles the documentary format as we know it and lets everything hang out. She shows herself trying to figure out where to go next, doing various takes with her father recording the narration, and even an interview with a film producer who explains why her film just won’t work. How wonderful it is to prove him wrong.
Bettie Page Reveals All
Bettie Page does not exactly reveal all in this documentary, but Bettie Page Reveals All (2013) may be the definitive document on this legendary, one-of-a-kind pinup model of the 1950s. Page herself recorded the movie’s narration before her death in 2008, telling her own story as frankly and as fearlessly as possible. She does not show any images of herself after a certain age, however, preferring to preserve the power of her youthful charisma. And, thankfully, director Mark Mori has plenty of beautiful images and fun film clips to make up for it. Despite the tragic events of her life, she had a magical something that the camera recorded, and that generations of fans can still experience.
The Immigrant (New)
The director James Gray makes literate, thoughtful movies steeped in the sensibilities of the 1970s, so it’s no wonder that audiences don’t usually flock to see them. His latest, The Immigrant (2014), came and went fairly quickly. It features Marion Cotillard in a powerful role as Ewa Cybulska, a Polish immigrant who arrives in the U.S. circa the 1920s. Her sister is held at Ellis Island, and she takes a job with the slightly shady showman Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, in his fourth film with Gray). Bruno initially hires her as a seamstress, but eventually wishes to put her on stage in his erotic show. Enter Bruno’s cousin, a magician called Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who is also struck by Ewa. The movie lacks a certain kind of fire, but Gray brings complex layers to each character and conjures up some potent visuals to support them, notably the powerful final shot.
The Master (New)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature film The Master (2012) impressed many people enough that it was frequently hailed as the best picture of its year, even if most of those people could scarcely agree on what it was they’d actually seen. The movie could be a misunderstood masterpiece that people 50 years from now will fully appreciate, or it could be a misguided folly. Either way, large portions of it are certainly quite awesome. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, an explosive, ex-military misfit, who bonds with a strange religious leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), over some homemade booze. Freddie becomes increasingly involved in the church and its strange activities, as the men’s friendship hits new highs and lows. Amy Adams has little to do as Lancaster’s wife, but still received an Oscar nomination. Hoffman is commanding, and Phoenix’s performance is downright bizarre, often cartoonish, though it was still highly acclaimed. Anderson presented the movie on 70mm film, which will surely be the last of its kind.
Alan Partridge (New)
Steve Coogan has been performing the smarmy, annoying, self-absorbed, half-witted radio personality Alan Partridge for 20 years, but the character finally makes his big screen debut in Alan Partridge (2014). It’s a worthy story for feature length, depicting the inevitable takeover of the radio station by a big corporation. Attempting to save his own job, Alan lobbies to have his longtime colleague Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) fired instead. But Pat returns with firearms, intending to hold the station hostage, and counting on Alan—whose betrayal he does not know about—for support. Meanwhile, Alan becomes the link between the hostages and the authorities, the broadcast continues, and Alan tries to make some moves on a female colleague. The humor is mostly verbal, stopping here and there for some slapstick, and stays on its toes without ever growing lazy or worrying about the plot. Coogan co-wrote the screenplay.
A member of the so-called “mumblecore” movement, director Joe Swanberg takes the best aspects of the genre and combines it with the best aspects of comfortable, accessible Hollywood filmmaking and comes up with Drinking Buddies (2013). Here the cast members are allowed to stretch beyond their usual limitations: funnyman Jake Johnson plays an ordinary guy, and beauty Olivia Wilde plays an ordinary girl. They’re best friends and work together at a Chicago craft brewery. They’re each dating someone else, (played by Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston), and when this foursome takes a weekend getaway, it kicks off some serious emotional repercussions. In Swanberg’s movie, conflict is generally avoided and humor is used as a defense mechanism, and so things tend to squirm just beneath an amiable surface. But the movie moves swiftly and feels just right.
Out of the Furnace (New)
With the Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper showed that he’s better with actors and moods than he is with storytelling. His follow-up, Out of the Furnace (2013), does not dispute this. It tells the story of two down-and-out brothers, Russell (Christian Bale), who works in a steel mill, and Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq War veteran who bare-knuckle boxes for money. Rodney becomes involved with a dangerous gambler and drug dealer (Woody Harrelson), who lives in the lawless Appalachian Mountains. Of course, Russell is required to enter this dangerous territory, with deadly results. Cooper keeps a dark, grim tone going throughout, even if the movie tends to wobble a bit too unevenly and to drag on a bit too long. But the performances, ranging from Harrelson’s hot-button baddie, to Zoe Saldana as a lost girlfriend, are excellent.
Park Chan-wook’s original Korean Oldboy (2003, also available streaming) has a strong cult following; it’s considered in some circles to be one of the greatest films ever made. So it’s not surprising that Spike Lee’s American remake of Oldboy (2013) was treated with out-and-out rage and disdain, earning only a small fraction of its production budget. However, if we can accept the possibility that even though a remake might not be as good as the original, it might still have some good things to offer, then Lee’s Oldboy becomes worth seeing. It tells the story of a drunken, abrasive businessman (Josh Brolin) who, without explanation, is kidnapped and kept in a room for 20 years before finally escaping. He then must work to solve the mystery of his ordeal. Lee’s movie doesn’t mess with the outline of the original story much, but it does add some unwanted information about the character that taints the mystery. However, his hard, energetic direction serves the story well.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Jonathan Levine’s directorial debut All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) was shelved for seven years due to tangled rights issues and distributors going out of business. In the meantime, Levine went on to make The Wackness, 50/50, and Warm Bodies, before his first film finally saw the light of day in 2013. Amber Heard brings her considerable screen presence to the title character, a virginal high schooler who refuses to drink, smoke, or indulge in unseemly behavior, though this quality only makes her more mysterious and alluring to the boys. Mandy decides to go to a big weekend party at a ranch with some friends, and before long, dead bodies begin turning up. It’s a horror/slasher film made by a guy who clearly loves horror/slasher films, though it’s not cutesy. It knows enough to stay a jump or two ahead of the viewer.
This early Michael Mann feature is a cult classic, a crime film, a slasher film, and also a masterpiece. Manhunter (1986) is based on Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon; hence it’s the first Hannibal Lecter film, although he’s only a minor character. He’s played by Brian Cox rather than Anthony Hopkins, and his name spelled “Lecktor.” William Petersen stars as FBI specialist Will Graham, who catches serial killers by trying to understand how they think. Tall, creepy Tom Noonan is the killer, and Joan Allen plays a pretty blind woman, the object of the bad guy’s affections. Moving at a late night hearse’s pace, Mann creates a neon-drenched widescreen space with deliberately arranged frames and high style; a sedated tiger is one of the movie’s standout moments. The title was changed to avoid sounding like a martial arts film. Brett Ratner made an official version of the same novel in 2002, earning ten times the money with one-tenth of the quality.
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