Usually when movies win Oscars, it gives them a little boost at the box office, but the folks behind the recent Best Documentary winner decided that it was less important to make money than to allow as many people as possible to see Citizenfour, so they made it available to stream, totally free.
It’s essential viewing, but after you see it, you might need some other movies to temporarily get your mind off of it. And so streaming this week we have a selection of classic comedies, movies with dazzling visual designs to take you away, movies to get your heart racing, and one that simply feels like a vacation.
The recent Oscar-winner for Best Documentary, Citizenfour (2014), is a movie that every American needs to see. But since every American probably won’t go searching for it, or be willing to pay for it, the filmmakers and the studio have admirably made the movie available, totally free, on ThoughtMaybe.com. The documentary tells the story of Edward Snowden, a systems administrator who worked for the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and as a contractor inside the NSA, who discovered that the Patriot Act was being used not to find terrorists, but rather to spy on Americans. He decides to leak the proof to the press and contacts journalists Laura Poitras (who directed this film) and Glenn Greenwald.
Nervous, agitated, terrified, but still full of purpose, he agrees to sit for a series of hotel room interviews before going into hiding. The movie itself is gripping, and the information Snowden reveals is terrifying—and infuriating. Citizenfour embraces the idea that Snowden could be either a traitor or a hero, and that only time will tell; this story is not over.
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Michael Keaton’s star was just beginning to rise when he took the title role (“do you know your last name is an adverb?”) in the exceedingly silly gangster spoof Johnny Dangerously (1984). Johnny is generally a good guy who only turned to crime to pay for his poor old mother’s ridiculous medical bills and to put his brother through law school. He tangles with a rival boss called Roman Troy Moronie (Richard Dimitri) as well as a nasty thug named “Vermin” (Joe Piscopo).
The plot is pretty thin, and references to actual gangster films don’t exactly click, but Keaton swaggers in his spiffy suits and delivers his lines with a satisfying snap, and many of the one-liners are almost embarrassingly hilarious, such as Moronie’s mangling of English curse words (“fargin icehole”). The great cast also includes Marilu Henner as Johnny’s girl, Maureen Stapleton as his mother, Griffin Dunne as his brother, and Peter Boyle as the “good” mob boss. Danny DeVito, Dom DeLuise, Alan Hale, Jr., and Ray Walston also appear. It was directed by Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), who was one of the few women behind the camera in Hollywood at the time.
Rachel Talalay directed this movie based on Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s edgy, English comic book. The result was probably too different from its source to please fans, and was likewise generally too odd to please newcomers. But Tank Girl (1995) remains a prime candidate for cult classic status. Lori Petty—also the star of an earlier cult classic, Point Break (1991)—stars as the title character.
In the future, water is scarce, and an evil businessman (Malcolm McDowell) has figured out a way to leverage control of water into power. Tank Girl, along with her pals Jet Girl (Naomi Watts, in an early role) and T-Saint (Ice-T, playing a kangaroo-man), try to stop him. Talalay’s movie blasts through everything at hyper-speed, using wisecracks and comic panels to underline the action. A vintage, 1990s-era alternative soundtrack helps pump things up as well. Iggy Pop also appears, raising the coolness factor even more.
A Summer’s Tale
The late, great French New Wave director Eric Rohmer was known for his talky dramas in which characters fall in love (or think they fall in love) and discuss the ramifications of it all. It sounds like a dull way to spend an evening, but the movies are actually incredibly alive, and cognizant of passing time, location, weather, food, and character dynamics. Even as characters talk, there’s usually something else going on. His A Summer’s Tale (1996) was one of a four-part series called “Tales of the Four Seasons” (don’t worry—you don’t need to see the others to understand it), and had its belated U.S. theatrical release in 2014.
It tells the story of a young musician, who, on his summer holiday, arrives in a seaside town to await the arrival of his girlfriend. While he’s there, he meets two other women, becomes confused as to which one of the three he likes best, and tries running little “tests” to help himself decide. No one is seriously hurt, and we all come away a little wiser. In the end, it feels like a pretty good summer vacation.
Martin Scorsese stepped up his game in an already impressive career with this American masterpiece, which still stands among his greatest films. Like Mean Streets before it, Taxi Driver (1976) is a gritty, hardcore, urban film, but it’s also a bizarre, slightly off-kilter, slightly nightmarish odyssey into the night. Robert De Niro, of course, is Travis Bickle, whose famous “You talkin’ to me?” speech is much imitated. He works nights as a taxi driver, becomes interested in a political campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd), is rebuffed, and then turns his attentions to rescuing a young prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her quietly scary pimp (Harvey Keitel).
The final showdown, and its aftermath (shown in an overhead shot) is still one of the most shocking things ever filmed in American cinema. Scorsese made brilliant use of things like the steam escaping from the city sewer grates and a thick, jazzy score by the brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann. Paul Schrader wrote the Dostoyevsky-influenced screenplay. Albert Brooks and Peter Boyle co-star. Scorsese himself plays an especially creepy passenger in Travis’s cab.
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Ghost in the Shell
Along with Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995) is one of the major landmarks of Japanese animation, or anime, and it still holds up well today as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. (The edition on HuluPlus is for the 25th anniversary, which refers to the first publishing of the manga upon which it is based.) Set in 2029, the plot is very complex, but contains enough astounding moments to wrap you up.
It concerns a super-cool cyborg agent, Major Motoko Kusanagi (voiced by Mimi Woods in the American version), on the hunt for a mysterious hacker called the Puppet Master, who has the power to enter human forms, implant false memories and steal real ones. With an astounding visual design and adult themes (it’s not for kids), the movie anticipates the effects of the World Wide Web, as well as debates over artificial intelligence.
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Damien Chazelle’s impressive feature writing and directing debut, Whiplash (2014) recently won three Oscars, two for its astounding editing and sound mixing, and one more for Best Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons as a sadistic music teacher named Fletcher. Miles Teller stars, in an equally outstanding but un-nominated performance, as Andrew, a young jazz drummer who gets into a prestigious New York music school and finds a spot as an alternate on the prize-winning school band.
He quickly tangles with Fletcher, who believes that abuse is more effective than praise in achieving greatness. Aside from a brief romance (with Melissa Benoist) for Andrew—and some scenes with Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad—Chazelle’s movie is stripped free of fat, and is tightly focused on the two main characters, in their black-walled, windowless practice room. The music is masterful, and the drumming is frenetic and heart-pounding. It’s no wonder that Andrew’s own blood dribbles down his sticks and onto the drums.
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Tootsie (1982) could easily have been a disaster of a romantic comedy. All of its key ingredients are formula. It has a man dressing up as a woman, caught in a “lie plot” as he falls in love and can’t tell anyone what’s really going on, and it even has the “goofy best friend” character. But the movie, from a screenplay co-written by Larry Gelbart and directed by Sydney Pollack, became a massive hit—the second biggest of the year, after E.T.—and earned 10 Oscar nominations.
Dustin Hoffman is amazing, spoofing his own reputation as a fussy actor and transforming his unemployable Michael Dorsey into the totally credible “Dorothy Michaels” in order to land a job on a soap opera. Bill Murray is perfect as the roommate, Teri Garr is very funny and touching, and Jessica Lange won the movie’s only Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) as the object of Michael’s affections. Also very good are Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman, a young Geena Davis, and Pollock himself. The theme song “It Might Be You” was also a big hit. And, whereas most romantic comedies are scrubbed and sterile looking, this one even looks good (it received nominations for Cinematography and Editing).
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Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
In September of 2004, comedian Dave Chappelle decided to throw a block party, not to raise funds or awareness of anything, but just for fun. The party took place in New York, but Chappelle traveled to his home state of Ohio to invite the partygoers. Acclaimed music video director Michel Gondry documents the creation of the party as well as the party itself, constructing the film non-chronologically, so that behind-the-scenes moments are dropped in-between live performances.
Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Roots, and a reunited Fugees were the headliners, with showstoppers by the hip-hop group Dead Prez, and a performance by recent Oscar-winner Common. Chapelle’s on-stage scripted jokes, and his ingenious improvised backstage humor, keeps the energy up between songs. Running 103 minutes, it still loses momentum from time to time, but overall it’s quite lively and funny. (This one expires on April 1, 2015, so join the party while you can.)