Like Netflix, Amazon has begun acting as distributor of its own entertainment, picking up quite a few risky movies and giving them theatrical releases before debuting them as streaming titles, presumably available forever—or at least as long as the service lasts. Perhaps because of their big-screen clout, however, Amazon’s titles seem a little more ambitious than those of Netflix, a little more artistic, and less like titles one might find in a 1980s video store.
There’s a focus on strong directors (Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, et al), and on talent, who turn up in multiple titles (Michael Shannon and Samuel L. Jackson are each represented twice in this top 10). Amazon still does not offer the sheer number of titles that Netflix has, and they don’t seem to come out quite so frequently, but the quality is higher overall. The best Amazon original movie is better than anything on Netflix so far.
This is my personal list of the 10 best and three runners-up; plus, the rest categorized for easy picking.
The top 10
10. Manchester by the Sea
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan won an Oscar for his screenplay for Manchester by the Sea (2016), which is also the third film he directed (after You Can Count on Me and Margaret). Whether his film has any visual flourish or not, there’s no question that he creates deeply nuanced characters and can direct exquisite performances. The story deals with a sudden death that brings Boston handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) north to Manchester. Lee has a vicious temper and does not suffer fools, and he betrays and an overall sense of sadness and regret about his life. He finds he has been made guardian of a teen nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and though their relationship is not exactly easygoing, they wind up spending a great deal of time together, dealing with all the things that must be dealt with after death.
It’s bitter cold, and Lonergan makes the most of this gray, chilly atmosphere as Lee and Patrick argue about the funeral (the winter ground is too hard to bury anyone) and about the family boat (it’s too expensive to keep up the maintenance). Michelle Williams co-stars in a small heartbreaking role as Lee’s ex. Like life, the movie has no easy answers, but it does have lovely moments of connection. (Affleck won an Oscar for his performance, despite some controversy over an accusation of sexual harassment, which was apparently settled.)
Spike Lee’s explosive career proves that there’s hardly anyone quite so talented, prolific, or foolhardy working today. He takes risks and fails quite often. Some of his more recent efforts are close to unwatchable, and certainly some viewers will think that of Chi-Raq (2015), Amazon’s first original film. It’s based on the ancient play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and largely written in a hip-hop rhyme scheme with some musical numbers thrown in, but it’s also set in a modern-day, violence-ridden Chicago, nicknamed “Chi-Raq” to sound like “Iraq.”
Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) is also the name of the leader of a gang, the Spartans, at war with the Trojans, headed by the one-eyed Cyclops (a loony Wesley Snipes). When a woman (Jennifer Hudson) loses her son to a stray bullet, Chi-Raq’s sexy girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) decides to rally all the women and withhold sex from their men until arms are laid down and peace is at hand. Angela Bassett co-stars as an older woman who reads books (gasp!), John Cusack is a preacher, and Samuel L. Jackson is a kind of Greek chorus. It’s messy, over-the-top, and repetitive, but it’s undeniably passionate, and even oddly optimistic.
8. Complete Unknown
The smart, challenging filmmaker Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood, Come Sunday) begins Complete Unknown (2016) almost like a science-fiction movie, with Rachel Weisz appearing as a nurse, or a magician’s assistant, or other things, with different hairstyles and personalities in different parts of the world. Are these alternate realities? No. She’s a woman who once deided to change her identity and start over and became attached to the idea.
In this story, she decides to drop in on Tom (Michael Shannon), a man she once knew, at his birthday party. She entertains the guests with her strange stories—she claims to have discovered a new breed of frog, identified by its unique song—until they sense a put-on. When she leaves, Tom follows her, for a further explanation and a transforming experience of his own. In a way, it’s a movie about actors, but it can be about anyone. Through the film’s many intricate details, such as a misspelled name on a birthday cake, Marston manages to explore just how fragile a thing such as identity is, and, perhaps more complicated, connections between more than one fragile identity.
7. Elvis & Nixon
Kevin Spacey is the elephant in the room here, and you must decide if you can separate Spacey’s offscreen behavior from his onscreen work; it’s a tough question, and perhaps one that can only be answered over time. Meanwhile, Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon (2016) is a strange roll of the dice, an entire feature film built out of a photograph: a 1970 snapshot of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon that became the most requested item in the National Archives.
Michael Shannon makes a loony Elvis, apparently deciding that he’d like to become an agent-at-large for the Narcotics Bureau, and asking for a meeting with the president. After much manipulating by his aides, the president (Spacey), though he has no use for “rock-and-rollers,” reluctantly agrees. And, weirdly, it turns out that the two men have quite a bit in common. Colin Hanks is funny in his role as a Nixon aide, but Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville don’t offer much more than padding in their roles as Elvis’s pals. Overall, this is a trifle, but it’s such an oddball and so enjoyable that it might be worthy of cult status. Of all people, actor Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) co-wrote the screenplay.
6. Love & Friendship
Writer/director Whit Stillman broke into movies with his portraits of hyper-educated, upper-crust, urban youths, painting them as just as flawed and funny as the rest of us, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider him adapting Jane Austen. Love & Friendship (2016) is based on an early manuscript of Austen’s (published posthumously), and it features perhaps her nastiest and funniest character, Lady Susan. And Kate Beckinsale sinks her lovely teeth into the role with great panache and humor.
It’s the usual bit of husband hunting, with Susan coveting the well-off, younger Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), but competing with her own daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) for his attention. Susan tries to throw Frederica off the trail by setting her up with the doltish, jabbering Sir James (a hilarious Tom Bennett). Occasionally Susan brings updates of her scheme to her equally cynical American pal Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny). This is a welcome reunion after the two starred together 18 years earlier in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. It’s all viciously funny, but kept as light and airy as a spring day at a country estate.
5. I Am Not Your Negro
At the end of 2016, this was one of a trio of extraordinary documentaries about racism in America (along with Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America and Ava Duvernay’s 13th), which seemed to arrive just when they were needed most. The acclaimed Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck (Lumumba) based his film on an unfinished manuscript by the writer James Baldwin, discussing Baldwin’s relationships with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically, but in the service of describing a bigger picture of America.
While dealing largely in the 1960s, I Am Not Your Negro is an essential piece of history, it’s also shamefully relevant today. Samuel L. Jackson provides the measured, sincere narration, reflecting Baldwin’s own beautiful, intelligent speaking manner, and the documentary offers a series of powerful photographs and archival footage. Baldwin speaks about race with a clarity that was shocking at the time, and still quite bracing. He is captured not only outraged and defiant, but also in moments of weariness and sadness, as the deaths of his friends affect him in a most ordinary, human way.
4. The Handmaiden
Korean director Park Chan-wook is best known for his twisted cult classic Oldboy (2003), and cinema buffs know him for his other, equally subversive work. So it’s no surprise that this 2.5-hour costume drama is far from the stodgy, stuffy thing it could have been. Based on a novel by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden (2016) takes place in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A young Korean pickpocket, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), is chosen by a con artist who poses as a Japanese count (Ha Jung-woo), to assist in a new scam. Sookee is to become a new handmaiden for a beautiful Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), while the Count swoops in to win her hand in marriage. Together they will try to drive her insane.
Meanwhile, Lady Hideko lives with her uncle (Cho Jin-woong, with an ink-blackened tongue), who keeps a collection of rare erotic books he forces her to read to guests on a regular basis. Eventually Sookee finds the plan upset when she begins falling in love with Lady Hideko. Director Park commands complete control over his ornate frames and opulent decorations, using them to suggest various layers of deceit and desire.
3. Last Flag Flying
This one doesn’t arrive on Amazon Prime until May 4, so it’s a bit of a cheat ranking it this high, but it’s good enough to wait for. Directed by Richard Linklater, the seriously underrated Last Flag Flying (2017) is a worthy companion piece to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1974), both based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan. It involves a road trip taken by three former military men, all of whom served together in Vietnam: ex-Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and ex-Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell).
It’s 2003, and Doc has lost his son in the current war in the Middle East. He asks his old friends to accompany him to claim the body. Sal is a lovable loudmouth while Mueller is now a reverend at his local church; Doc is simply quietly processing his grief. Their charismatic combo—and three outstanding performances—provide not only big laughs but also easily make the tear-ducts flow. Linklater guides them through the story with his usual easygoing flow and a frozen, wintertime rural-ness, with amusingly out-of-place Christmas decorations.
One of the best—and most underrated—movies of its year, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (2017), is like the director’s best work (Safe, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There), an involving story and, simultaneously, a thoughtful commentary on that story. Based on a book by Brian Selznick (Hugo), it takes place in two time periods: In the 1920s, a deaf girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds, also in A Quiet Place) searches for a connection with her mother (Julianne Moore), an actress in silent films. Fittingly, this segment is presented as a black-and-white silent film. Then, in the 1970s, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is struck by lightning and loses his hearing. His mother (Michelle Williams) refuses to tell him anything about his real father, so when he discovers a book with a clue in it, he hits the road to New York.
As Haynes switches back and forth between sequences with brilliantly intuitive visual and aural rhyming, a kind of passionate magic emerges, involving history, books, movies, cities, and changing times. Carter Burwell’s gorgeous music score, amazingly, also emphasizes quietness. The movie is also perfectly kid-friendly, though it requires a little more patience than the average YouTube video.
A flat-out masterpiece, Paterson (2016) easily ranks with director Jim Jarmusch’s best, which includes Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), and Dead Man (1996). It’s a poetic film about poets and poetry, about black-and-white and color, and about a place in the world, both stationary and ever-shifting. But it’s also very funny and totally adorable.
Adam Driver is the title character, unironically named Paterson, living in Paterson, New Jersey. He writes poetry and drives the city bus, and that’s about it. At home, he lives with his significant other Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their bulldog Marvin. She creates artistic designs on everything from curtains to cupcakes and learns to play guitar, constantly searching, but frequently happy and grateful in her life.
The movie takes place over the course of the week; Paterson takes Marvin for a nightly walk to a bar where he nurses a beer and observes people in their natural habitat. The weekend brings big changes, both sad and beautiful. As it ends, the movie casts a spell that makes you wish you could live in this world, or at least just hang out from time to time and think about life. Note: This is Jarmusch’s second Amazon film after Gimme Danger. Make it a double-feature!
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