The Oscars are nearly here (February 26, to be precise), and maybe you’re excited about seeing all the nominated films, or maybe you’re tired of the hubbub and craving something less hyped. Several such excellent-but-underrated movies are now streaming this week.
There’s also a cadre of movies that feature action and violence and even zombies that would never be nominated. And there’s a documentary filled with controversy, and a movie that received several nominations at its time but failed to nab the big prize (to the chagrin of many).
Enjoy the Oscars, or don’t, but enjoy these movies and others regardless!
Imperial Dreams (Netflix)
Though it features Star Wars: The Force Awakens star John Boyega, Imperial Dreams (2014) is not a prequel about his character Finn joining the ranks of the imperial stormtroopers. Rather, this movie was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, yet was sadly left behind as distributors stumbled over how to market it. Thankfully Netflix stepped up and has given it a 2017 streaming release, and it’s very much worth seeing. Like the recent Moonlight, Malik Vitthal’s Imperial Dreams is a heartbreaking, sympathetic urban drama, filled with passages of beautiful sadness. Boyega stars as Bambi, who has just been released from prison and returns to his tough Watts neighborhood. He has published a short story in McSweeney’s magazine, dreams of being a writer, and hopes to get his young son Day (played by twins Justin and Ethan Coach) out of the ‘hood.
His criminal uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) offers Bambi a job, driving a car carrying illegal substances across the border to Portland, but Bambi insists on going straight. Even so, he finds that looking for a job through endless amounts of red tape, and the lack of a computer, make life difficult. He winds up moving into his car, scribbling his beautiful, painful prose into notebooks, and insisting to his son that everything is going to be okay. Director Vitthal doesn’t shy away from crime, but also does not glamorize it; he views the dangerous neighborhoods with a certain kind of vicious poetry. It’s a place where dreams cannot entirely die. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (Netflix)
I finally caught up with Oz Perkins’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)—a Netflix original movie that premiered last Halloween—and it caught me off guard. It’s truly unlike any other thriller or ghost story that I have ever seen, though whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing will be up to each individual viewer. Lily (Ruth Wilson) plays a care provider for an elderly horror fiction author, Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss, a onetime beauty known for Man’s Favorite Sport?; The Parallax View, and The Stepford Wives). The house is eerily quiet and time passes without much seeming to change. Lily isn’t able to read Ms. Blum’s books (she scares too easily), though she is concerned with a patch of mold growing on one wall, and wonders why Ms. Blum insists on calling her “Polly.”
Perkins directs with dreamy softness, with the edges of the frame capable of melting into just about any other image, or space, or time. It’s an ethereal, dreamlike, malleable movie, almost in the experimental vein, unconcerned with a linear explanation of events. Ghosts are in charge here. There are no jerky camera moves, loud noises, or jump-scares, although there are some hair-raising moments of quiet anxiety. Bob Balaban plays the estate manager who provides some useful information, as well as some quietly unsettling line readings. Director Perkins is the son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins, and he clearly picked up a thing or two from his father’s career. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Babe: Pig in the City (Netflix)
The original Babe (1995) was a much-loved movie, pleasing children and parents and moviegoers of other ages, plus critics and even Academy voters (it received seven Oscar nominations). Then, three years later, the sequel Babe: Pig in the City (1998), was met almost as if it had deliberately besmirched the memory of the first. It was a huge flop, and only Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert saw the genius of it; on their TV show they each named it one of the year’s 10 best films. Like some of the greatest children’s literature, it’s dark, but it’s endlessly imaginative and has an impressive kind of energy and daring. It’s time for a re-assessment.
The story begins as Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) is injured, and Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) must try to earn some money for the family. On her way to a new sheepherding competition, she and Babe (voiced by E.G. Daily) are stranded in a massive city, with a landscape constructed from bits and pieces of the world’s great metropolises. They wind up staying in a special hotel sympathetic to animals and filled with all kinds of fascinating, troubled souls. Babe helps save the life of a vicious bulldog and becomes their leader, showing kindness in the face of scorn. Mickey Rooney co-stars as a sad clown. Writer/director George Miller, who recently found great acclaim for his Mad Max: Fury Road, creates a screenplay filled with musical, peculiar dialogue and bold angles; the film feels alive and far more than just its design and effects. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Clouds of Sils Maria (Netflix)
The French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, a former film critic, has made films in many genres: experimental meta-movies (Irma Vep), cyberpunk thrillers (demonlover), addiction dramas (Clean), delicate character roundelays (Summer Hours), and six-hour biopics (Carlos). Yet his Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) may be something of a career topper, an intensely intelligent, self-exploratory drama based on honest characters, and set in the entertainment industry, but with a little puzzler of a twist that will have viewers discussing for days.
Juliette Binoche plays a movie star Maria Enders, who is best known for her early performances in a play and movie called Maloja Snake. A young director decides to remake the movie, with Maria now playing an older character, and a younger starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) playing Maria’s old role. Maria has an assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who helps her run lines and manage her life. The lines from the play begin to mix and cross with real life, and all kinds of pitfalls open up. Then, there’s the actual “Maloja Snake,” a great metaphor, referring to a phenomenon in which fog assembles in a snake-like shape and moves across a valley floor. The themes of being present, or absent, or playing a role, or being oneself, all creep across the movie in a similar way. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008) may hit all the usual beats of a biopic, but it transcends the ordinary with the intensely focused and personal quality of the work. Van Sant is perhaps the most notable and successful of openly gay filmmakers, and his portrait of the gay hero Harvey Milk has an immediacy that’s hard to miss. (The work of Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, of course, also deserves credit.) Not to mention that star Sean Penn, whose intricate performance won an Oscar, was a Bay Area resident at the time; it’s a vivid portrayal of a city and a time as much as it is of a man. (It received eight nominations in all, losing Best Picture to Slumdog Millionaire.)
In the early 1970s, Milk (Penn) impulsively moves to San Francisco and opens a camera shop on Castro Street with his lover Steve (James Franco). When he notices that the neighbors aren’t very friendly toward a gay couple, he leaps into politics to begin to influence the tide. He eventually becomes the first openly gay politician elected to office in California, winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors. One of his fellow freshman is the confused, underconfident Dan White (a remarkable, Oscar-nominated Josh Brolin), and though the two men are rivals, they share some of the movie’s best and most interesting scenes together, working through their complex relationship. Eventually, White becomes the man who, in 1978, shot and killed both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). But before then, the movie paints a picture of an inspiring leader, who truly created change in the world, and who now continues to inspire. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Hulu)
New Zealand-born actor filmmaker Taika Waititi is a talent to watch; he has the ability to mesh a wonderfully dry sense of humor with a little bit of heart. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short in 2005, his coming of age movie Boy (2010) was one of the best of its type I’d seen in some time, his vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014) was delightfully screwy, and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) is lovely, funny, and fresh. It plays a little like a cartoon, with its oddball characters traipsing around in the beautiful, unpredictable New Zealand bush, but it never lets go of genuine human feelings.
Troubled foster child Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), tubby and dressed in glittery, showy “bling,” is taken in by kindly farmer Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband Hec (Sam Neill). A tragedy ensues, and when child services threatens to take the boy back, Hec and Ricky take to the bush, hilariously bickering and hiding there for months while living off the land. Waititi’s rhythms are extremely pleasing, with the singsong dialogue popping pleasantly along with the outdoor backdrops. It became the highest-grossing film in New Zealand history. Waititi himself appears as a weirdly clueless minister, and will be in the spotlight this November when his Avengers film Thor: Ragnarok opens in theaters.
The musical Chicago (2002) won an Oscar for Best Picture in the months immediately following the devastating 9/11 attacks, causing many to speculate that people were more in the mood for something light and entertaining than they were for a masterpiece like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. (It now looks as if La La Land may accomplish the same thing, having cheered up many moviegoers after last fall’s soul-killing presidential election.) The razzle-dazzle Chicago comes close to the previous year’s hit Moulin Rouge! but is more refreshingly old-fashioned, initially based on a play from the 1920s (and, subsequently, a 1927 film version, and then Bob Fosse’s 1975 Broadway update).
Renee Zellweger plays Roxie Hart, a singer/dancer who enhances her fame by committing murder and going to prison. Richard Gere plays her slick lawyer, who sings and dances with gusto, and Catherine Zeta-Jones knocks ‘em dead as Roxie’s prison-mate. (She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.) Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly shine in supporting roles. Choreographer Rob Marshall makes his feature directing debut, toning town the Fosse-ness and keeping things snappy, though perhaps relying a bit too much on fast-cuts. It’s all very spirited and fun, but it tends to fade away fairly quickly. It received 13 Academy Award nominations in all, and won six awards.
The Station Agent (Hulu)
A very fine debut from New Jersey writer/director Tom McCarthy, The Station Agent (2003) also brought the spotlight to future Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, with a lovely and sympathetic lead role. He plays Finbar McBride, a man with dwarfism who loves trains and keeps to himself. He inherits a bit of land with a train station on it, and moves there, hoping to be left alone. Unfortunately, two nosy but lovable neighbors, talky hot dog vendor Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and ditsy artist Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), begin butting into his life and becoming his friends.
All three suffer from deep-rooted sadness that, thankfully, McCarthy never explains. Rather, he carefully and lovingly observes the action, the ways in which the characters fill their time and the ways in which they grow closer. Raven Goodwin and Michelle Williams co-star in wonderful supporting roles that only add to the film’s delicate atmosphere. It was apparently shot quickly, for a low budget, but it feels relaxed and charming, and never forced or rushed. It’s a perfect small movie for a viewing at home. McCarthy went on to direct last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Spotlight.
Author: The JT Leroy Story (Amazon Prime)
A troubling yet fascinating documentary, Author: The JT Leroy Story (2016) interviews Laura Albert, who published books under the pen-name JT Leroy, and then invented an entire, false persona to go with it. Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop portrayed Leroy during personal appearances, fabricating an entire history of having been raised by a prostitute and sexually abused, as well as being HIV-positive and transgender. Albert herself began to portray an Englishwoman called Speedy, who hung around with Leroy. All of these things were false, and when Albert was unmasked, the fans and the literary world were outraged. Many still feel betrayed, including the LGBT community, which had seen Leroy as a role model.
Hearing Albert’s story it’s easier to see how it all happened, perhaps innocently at first, and then quickly spiraling out of hand. Albert herself was severely depressed and suffered from low self-esteem. She turned to writing as a way to cope, and found it more cathartic to write from a male point of view. The trouble begins when it becomes clear that director Jeff Feuerzeig does not interview many of the other players in this story, and only gets one point of view, Albert’s. Then, it turns out that recordings Albert made without permission were used in this film. Regardless, the movie raises questions about celebrity that deserve to be considered; the books are still there, did fans like them because of their words, or because of the celebrity who wrote them?
The Last Boy Scout (Crackle)
After writing the hit Lethal Weapon, screenwriter Shane Black became a hot property, and his next script caused a bidding war. The result was that he was paid $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout (1991); out of the gate, critics judged it on whether it was worth that much, found it wanting, and dismissed it. But we know today that Black is a very clever writer, with a touch for subverting, satirizing, and exposing the action genre in fresh ways. It’s not clear whether The Last Boy Scout director Tony Scott quite knew what Black was up to, but nonetheless, the movie contains enough witty banter, chases, escapes, explosions, surprises (see the opening football game scene), and fun to make it worth a watch.
Bruce Willis stars as burnt-out detective Joe Hallenbeck, hired to protect a stripper/prostitute (Halle Berry). Unfortunately, he fails, and her boyfriend, former football star Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) comes to Joe for help in solving the murder. Thus, they soon find themselves involved with dangerous crime lords and dirty politicians. Future cult favorite and scream queen Danielle Harris plays Joe’s young daughter. Quentin Tarantino listed this as one of his all-time “coolest” movies; director Scott’s next film was True Romance, based on Tarantino’s screenplay (this one and that one would make a great double-bill).
Take Shelter (Shudder)
Jeff Nichols’s two newest films, Midnight Special and Loving, were both among the best films of 2016, and now his second film, the terrific Take Shelter (2011) is streaming on Shudder. It’s not exactly a horror film, but it does have some very creepy elements, and some unforgettable, nightmare-fuel moments. Michael Shannon gives an exemplary performance as Curtis LaForche, a family man, who works for a drilling company in a small town in Ohio. He’s happy with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), the latter of whom is deaf, although his insurance may cover a cochlear implant. Things are good, until the dreams come. At first, Curtis dreams of their dog biting his arm, and the next day, his arm hurts. The dreams become scarier and more apocalyptic, and Curtis can’t shake the feeling that they’re going to come true.
Visions of an immense storm cause Curtis to panic and spend tons of money on an elaborate shelter. But director Nichols isn’t interested in any kind of plot mechanics, or driving the story to an exciting conclusion. He’s more interested in seeing just what this kind of situation can do to a man, can do to a family. The movie unfolds as a series of days to be lived through, just as time might unfold. Meanwhile, Curtis goes to a therapist at the free clinic, but can’t bring himself to talk to his wife about anything; he just doesn’t know how. In her role, Chastain is every bit as good as Shannon; by the end of the year, she was a star, having appeared in several key films besides this one, including The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, and Coriolanus.
Train to Busan (Hoopla)
Often it’s the simplest ideas that are the most ingenious. Get this one: zombies... on a train. That’s it. Ingenious. And, amazingly, the South Korean film (presented with English subtitles) Train to Busan gets just about everything right with this scenario. It begins with a busy businessman (Gong Yoo), who reluctantly takes time from work to take his daughter (Kim Su-an) to see her mother on her birthday. The train ride starts weirdly when people are attacked just outside the windows on the platform. Eventually zombies take over the train, and it’s up to a cross section of people—a tough guy, his pregnant wife, a crazy homeless guy, a baseball player, and a cheerleader—to help each other survive.
Director Yeon Sang-ho—a veteran of animated films—makes the most of his scenario, using the speed of the train, its long, cramped corridors, and a clever sound design, to hugely entertaining effect. There are tunnels that plunge everything into darkness, train crashes, and tons of other nifty moments, such as hordes of attacking zombies tumbling over each other like frantic beetles. Sure, the movie borrows from tons of other films, notably Snowpiercer, made by another South Korean director, and there’s even a nasty Karl Hardman-type businessman character (whose extreme selfishness leads to the deaths of others), borrowed from the original Night of the Living Dead. But many great genre films stand on the shoulders of giants, so long as, like this one, they add something to the pile. [The film is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.]