New FilmStruck streaming service challenges the competition with quality

These 12 excellent movies prove that point.

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She meets the brunette, who can’t remember anything and adopts the name “Rita” (after a nearby Gilda poster), and the two women embark on solving the mystery of Rita’s identity, discovering what happened to her. But the movie wanders off into several other threads, one involving a film director (Justin Theroux) trying to cast his film, before it suddenly switches places. Now Watts is “Diane,” virtually the opposite of Betty, and Harring is “Camilla.” Does it all make sense? In a way, the main chunk of the movie is solvable, but it’s still a dark labyrinth. It still contains many little nightmares and corners and mysteries that will keep your brain buzzing. It received one single Oscar nomination, for director Lynch, though Watts certainly deserved one for her two-pronged performance. Dan Hedaya and Robert Forster appear in small roles.

Playtime (Criterion) 

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After the end of silent comedy, a few filmmakers managed to keep up the craft, in their own ways, but none were quite as impressive as Jacques Tati. His character was Mr. Hulot, shaped like a blocky chimney with a lumbering walk and a pipe in his lips, jutting out at a perpendicular angle; he was a cipher, not meant to pluck the heartstrings the way Chaplin and Keaton could. But in terms of sets, shots, and editing, Tati was on a plateau by himself. Over time, his films grew more and more complex and his career culminated with Playtime (1967), set in a massive city of glass and steel, where humans are smushed and crushed into strange, modern contortions, fitting into industrial chairs, offices, living spaces, etc.

The movie has no plot, and Hulot does not appear in every scene. A batch of tourists arrives and becomes a kind of collective, secondary character. Hulot gets lost in the corridors of an office building, they all dine at a brand-new restaurant that does not exactly have its kinks worked out, and everything ends in a kind of impromptu circus of cars. Tati shot the movie on 70mm, and its immense blue-gray, right-angle sets and deep-focused shots are still astounding today, even as the movie’s main focus is on dehumanization. (Shots of the “real” Paris, such as the Eiffel Tower, are seen only in reflections.) Likewise, the sound design is like an absurd musical score, with very little dialogue to get in the way. Ultimately, the movie was so expensive that Tati could not pay back his debts and went bankrupt. Nevertheless, his suffering translates to our great pleasure.

The Red Shoes (Criterion) 

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English filmmaking team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were a powerful force during WWII, boosting the morale of moviegoers with their incredible works of fantasy and romance, which were, in turn, grounded in sensible realities. After the war, they made arguably their greatest achievement, The Red Shoes (1948). From the first full-blooded moments, as a batch of students scrambles for the cheap seats at the ballet, it’s clear that this film is something extraordinary. (Yes, even if you hate ballet, this film will still amaze you.) The use of Technicolor has rarely been so powerful, suggesting agony, desire, and longing in surprising ways.

Moira Shearer stars as young ballet dancer Vicky Page, who is discovered by impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and given a shot at fame. But young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) enters the picture, creating a love triangle built on creative jealousies. Vicky is cast in a ballet of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, in which her red shoes never let her stop dancing; her performance is frenetic, heart-stopping. I can’t say how it all comes out, but I will say that this is not your typical Hollywood musical. The memorable character actor Robert Helpmann co-stars as another dancer. Shearer returned in Powell and Pressburger’s equally beautiful opera film The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Martin Scorsese selected The Red Shoes as one of his five all-time favorite films.

Le Samourai (FilmStruck) 

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French director Jean-Pierre Melville is probably not particularly well-known today, despite the fact that he borrowed his last name from one of the greatest authors of all time, and despite the fact that everyone from Jean-Luc Godard (who cast Melville in his debut feature Breathless) to Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Jim Jarmusch, and Walter Hill are fans. He completed only 13 films (and a short) before his death in 1973, a good many of those were crime films, and Le Samourai (1967) is arguably the most impressive. It, too, features an amazing color design, focusing mainly on hard blues, grays, and ugly greens, as well as a minimalist sound design, emphasizing the unrelenting loneliness of this criminal world. The hero, hired killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) barely speaks a dozen words throughout the entire movie, but he keeps a caged bird in his sparsely decorated apartment that tweets like an alarm when danger approaches.

A consummate pro, he spends a large portion of time preparing an alibi for his next job. A beautiful jazz pianist (Caty Rosier) accidentally spots him, but chooses not to rat him out. When his employers refuse to pay him for his work, he must rely on her help while the cops close in. While many other genre films of the time have badly dated thanks to their use of then-current trends (i.e. psychedelic colors, weird music), the stripped-down Le Samourai remains one of the coolest movies ever made, yet is regarded highly by even the snootiest of film scholars. Melville’s next was the very powerful war movie Army of Shadows (1969), which is also very much worth seeing.

Where Is My Friend’s House? (Criterion)

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We lost Iranian-born director Abbas Kiarostami this past July, at age 76, while still in his prime. But he left behind some dozen feature films, as well as various documentaries, shorts, and experimental works. Many of these are still difficult to find in the United States, but happily, FilmStruck and Criterion feature this early masterpiece, which is as yet unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. Where Is My Friend’s House? (1987)—sometimes translated as Where Is the Friend’s Home?—tells an incredibly simple story. A boy, Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpour), discovers that he has accidentally brought home a notebook belonging to a classmate. He realizes that if he does not return it, the classmate will be expelled.

Most of the movie depicts his journey, trying to find his “friend’s house” and speaking to several people along the way, getting either directions or bits of wisdom. Kiarostami had a wonderful touch for tying his characters to their surroundings, and for portraying landscapes that nicely reflected the emotions of the characters. Running only 83 minutes, it is one of his simplest and most beautifully optimistic stories. It became the first part of an accidental trilogy after an earthquake devastated the village in which it was filmed; Kiarostami returned to make Life, and Nothing More... (1991) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), based on his experiences.

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