If there’s a theme to this week’s collection of newly streaming movies it would have to be “not quite fitting in.” Either the movies are about outcasts, or the movies themselves occupy the fringes in some way.
We have an early, largely unsung film by Fritz Lang, one of cinema’s greatest masters, as well as a later entry by the great director Billy Wilder.
We have a movie that looks like a slapstick comedy but is actually a thoughtful, touching story, and a movie that could have been a preachy Oscar-mongering work, but is actually a brilliant, observant crime film.
There’s a 1980s crime drama that was probably too bleak for its squeaky-clean decade, a modern comedy that’s definitely too bleak for our current decade, and a B-movie that looks dumb, but is actually lots of fun.
Finally, we have two of this year’s most successful films, both about characters trying to fit in, and sometimes going head-to-head with the people we trust.
Though he passed away in 1976, Fritz Lang is still known the world over for his silent-era sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis (1927), which still influences movies to this day, as well as his vicious, squirmy crime classic M (1931). It might appear that there’s not much connection between these two movies, but now we have the missing link. This year, one of Lang’s earliest surviving feature films, Destiny (1921), has been painstakingly restored, from many different sources, and fitted with a beautiful orchestral score for modern-day viewing pleasure. It features astoundingly beautiful visual design and even some early visual effects in the form of a magician’s tricks.
Originally titled Der müde Tod (The Weary Death), it’s an incredible work, focusing on a battle between Death (Bernhard Goetzke) and a woman (Lil Dagover, also in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Lang’s The Spiders) whose lover has just been taken away. Standing in a room full of tall candles, representing the ever-shortening lives of men, Death offers her a deal: If she can save the lives of three doomed men in three different times and places (Persia, Venice, and China), she can have her lover back. Death appears in all the segments, watching, and hoping that she’ll actually win; he admits that he’s tired of this thankless job, and he’s a weirdly sympathetic character, perhaps the most sympathetic villain in all of Lang’s work. Destiny is not yet ranked with Lang’s best, but perhaps, after this restoration, it will be.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (Netflix)
To recap, there were these kids who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in a Mississippi theater in 1981 and decided to make their own a shot-for-shot remake. Eric Zala directed, Jayson Lamb provided effects, camerawork, and other technical skills, and Chris Strompolos played Indiana Jones. Their work took seven whole summers and resulted in a VHS videotape. Years later, that tape was passed around and became a fan favorite. This wonderful documentary tells the story of those boys, their film, and their attempts—as grownups in 2014—to film the final elusive scene, the “airplane” scene.
Because of rights issues with the music and other myriad legal issues, their film can never be officially released, but the new documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016) offers plenty of footage from it, as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes stuff. The new interviews, by directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, are remarkably insightful and even moving, as the filmmakers’ friendships flame up, fade out, and reignite. In the end, the doc captures that magical way that movies can speak to us and transport us, and how, for some, that feeling becomes a way of life. Filmmaker Eli Roth and critic Harry Knowles, who both had a hand in the remake’s film festival success, are interviewed, and actor John Rhys-Davies (Sallah from the original Raiders) provides some onscreen narration.
3 Days to Kill (Netflix)
I really like this crackerjack little B-level thriller, as ridiculous as it is. The French-born filmmaker Luc Besson has really become like a modern-day Roger Corman figure, dreaming up and producing dozens of not-too-expensive, action-oriented movies with an international appeal, and this was one of his zippy creations. Directed by McG—whose films are generally slick and without substance—3 Days to Kill (2014) keeps up a good pace, has some interesting flourishes, and generates some sympathetic characters that I enjoyed following. Best of all, it does not take itself too seriously.
Kevin Costner stars as a CIA agent on the trail of an international arms dealer called “The Wolf,” when he passes out. It turns out he has terminal cancer. He goes on leave to spend time in Paris with his teen daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), and maybe patch things up with his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen). Fellow agent Vivi (Amber Heard) contacts him with a deal: If he helps identify The Wolf, she can get him a new, experimental cancer treatment. The catch is that he has been trusted to look after Zoey for three days, and Zoey doesn’t yet know the nature of his job. A little weathered now, Costner is terrific here; the look on his face when his daughter’s ringtone interrupts an important work-related moment is priceless.
The 55th feature-length animated Disney film has all of the good stuff you’d come to expect from an animated Disney film. It has cute characters, dazzling colors, laughs, chases, a catchy song (Shakira’s “Try Everything”), and moments of sweetness. But it’s also perhaps the canniest exploration of bigotry to emerge from Hollywood in the last several years, woven expertly and subtly into the narrative so as not to feel too preachy. By transposing biases from skin color to animal species, Zootopia (2016) calls out the irrational fear behind it all. In the story, farm girl bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) dreams of joining the police in the big city of Zootopia, where animals live together in peace and dreams can come true.
There, she meets a shady con artist, fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman). The pair form an alliance on a case involving “predators” mysteriously going savage and attacking “prey.” This situation exacerbates the already-existing fear that’s prevalent, even though they share a city together. Even Judy finds that she’s unable to see past Nick’s potential predator status. The filmmakers weave all this into the beautiful storyline, where reconsidering and understanding are key. Oh, and don’t miss the scene at the DMV, where the desk is manned by slow-moving sloths. Idris Elba voices the police chief, and J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Jenny Slate, and Alan Tudyk provide other memorable voices. (And Kristen Bell has a cameo as a sloth.)
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
Those champions of indie cinema, Mark and Jay Duplass, wrote and directed this wonderfully funny, soulful, and yet somehow profound, movie. It’s not unreasonable to expect that a movie with Ed Helms, Judy Greer, and Jason Segel might be a little, well, broader, but Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012) has something to say. Segel plays Jeff, living in his mother’s basement. His mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), calls him from her job to ask him to pick up some wood glue. That sounds simple, but Jeff (as well as partaking of the cannabis), is a great believer in signs (he explains how much the Mel Gibson movie Signs inspires him).
Just before he leaves the house, he gets a phone call, a wrong number, asking for “Kevin.” It’s not long before he spots a guy with “Kevin” on his jersey, and thus begins a kind of hazy, weirdly funny, yet life-changing odyssey, in which Jeff follows whatever “signs” he feels are planted for him to see. He runs into his brother (Helms), and a situation involving his brother’s wife (Greer), and even his mother begins to experience her life tugging in a new direction. It wouldn’t do to give away any details if you haven’t already seen this little gem, but I can say that, while the filmmakers could have ridiculed the idea of “interconnectedness” in the universe, they allow for the prospect of wonder. Rae Dawn Chong co-stars.
The Secret of N.I.M.H. (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
In the early 1980s, animator Don Bluth did something unheard of: He quit the Disney company and began making his own animated feature films. For a while, he was actually a major competitor, and, looking at this beautiful feature directorial debut, it’s easy to see why. Adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the movie tells the story of a kindly rat named Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman). She lives on a farm with her children, and must soon move before plowing season starts, but cannot because her son is ill.
Looking for a solution, she comes across a group of rats with hyper-intelligence; they were former lab rats who knew the late Mr. Brisby, and they agree to help. Together, they must avoid the plow, as well as the farm’s nasty cat Dragon. The voice cast in The Secret of NIMH (1982) is impressive, and well-chosen. Dom DeLuise provides the voice of a helpful crow, and John Carradine is The Great Owl, while Derek Jacobi plays the leader of the rats, Nicodemus. The hand-drawn animation may feel like a relic from the 1980s, but it’s inescapably gorgeous, smooth, and gentle—with just a shade of darkness. Bluth’s next project was the groundbreaking laserdisc-based videogame Dragon’s Lair.
Young Adult (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
This was the second collaboration between Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, after their massive breakout hit Juno (2007). The downbeat, acerbic Young Adult (2011) didn’t really catch on, mainly because it leaves off with an unsatisfying bitterness. But at the same time, it’s a fascinating and fearless movie, and it’s not easy to forget or get out of one’s system. Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, who writes—more or less anonymously—for a young adult book series; the series has been successful, but it’s popularity is waning. (Nothing is certain or attainable in this movie.)
After a divorce, she returns to her small hometown in Minnesota, perhaps hoping to scoop up her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who is happily married with a new baby. While she psychotically stalks him, and mistakes his friendly interactions as proof of his undying passion for her, she drinks a great deal and talks with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Oswalt is excellent, and heartbreaking, as a guy who was severely bullied in high school and left with a limp. Frankly, no one learns anything here, and there’s a general, simmering disdain for all the small town denizens, although Mavis is proof that big city life isn’t all that much more impressive. But the courage to paint such deeply flawed characters is a rare and admirable one, and the actors take it and go for broke.
Sicario (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
One of last year’s best movies did not get much attention during the Oscar race, but it’s definitely one of those movies that audiences will continue to discover over the years. Directed by the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, Sicario (2015) is ostensibly about the drug trade, but it’s not a preachy, annoying, award-mongering work. Rather, it’s quietly intelligent and observant, taking time to revel in uncertainty, and to find a fresh kind of suspense in that space. Emily Blunt stars as FBI agent Kate Macer, who helped discover a dangerous drug lord’s hideout in Arizona, and has now been recruited to join a kind of secret task force; its leader, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) promises that she will actually be able to do some good.
From there, we follow Kate, as on the first day of a new job. She never quite knows what’s going on, and even when explanations come, they seem worryingly incomplete. (Blunt is amazing, keeping it all in check and remaining stoic while standing among males twice her size.) She also meets the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), wise and sad and silent, who seems to be waiting for something. Taylor Sheridan’s script takes many unexpected detours, and is constantly smart, surprising, and satisfying. Celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins received his 13th Oscar nomination for this, but has still never won; his work here is exemplary, hanging back, with the action liable to happen at any time, at any place, within his large frames.
Billy Wilder is one of the most celebrated and championed of all filmmakers, with revivals going on yearly, and new books coming out all the time. A double Oscar-winner for Best Director, and a triple winner for his screenplays, he racked up 21 nominations in all, not counting his 1988 Irving Thalberg Award. He rarely had a moment of struggle or doubt in his five-decade career, and yet, somehow, there are still underrated or unsung films among his output. Avanti! (1972) is one of them, perhaps because of its Italian title (it means “enter”). But, though it starts with much fussing and frantic energy, it eventually becomes one of Wilder’s most relaxed movies.