The Ghost Writer (YouTube Free, Vudu Free, TubiTV)
Decades after Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, director Roman Polanski proved he was still at the top of his game with this thriller, based on a novel by Robert Harris. Ewan McGregor plays the unnamed title character, known only as "The Ghost," who is hired to revise the memoirs of retired British Prime Minster Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The manuscript is top secret, and the Ghost must work at Lang's home, with various aides, and Lang's wife (Olivia Williams) treating him suspiciously.
As he researches, he begins to discover secrets that someone does not want him to know. The material in The Ghost Writer (2010) is pretty standard, but Polanski's handling of it is masterful, brilliantly using small details, sounds, weather, and visual spaces to ramp up a deep, genuine sense of fear and paranoia. Like Hitchcock before him, Polanski elevates pulp to art. Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, and Jon Bernthal co-star.
Good Morning, Vietnam (Roku)
In Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Robin Williams plays the real-life Adrian Cronauer, a military airman and DJ assigned to Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam, who decides to shake up military radio's conservative rules and regulations by telling jokes and playing loud rock 'n' roll. Though the real Cronauer wasn't quite as outrageous, the role was nonetheless crafted for Williams's unique talents, allowing him to riff on any era-appropriate ideas, doing accents and characters, reading forbidden news reports, and anything else that pushed the envelope.
While Williams goes wild, director Barry Levinson keeps the movie around him smoothly and effectively on track. The character's relentless pursuing of a Vietnamese girl (Chintara Sukapatana) seems a little iffy today, and most other actors are easily upstaged or outclassed by Williams's energy, but it's still an earnest, powerful, lovable, and very funny movie. Williams received the first of his four Oscar nominations for his work. Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, J.T. Walsh and Richard Edson also star.
Henry V (Hoopla, Pluto TV)
At age 28, Kenneth Branagh audaciously took on this $9 million production of Shakespeare's Henry V (1989), directed by and starring himself. Purists were offended that anyone would try to out-do Laurence Olivier's beloved wartime version, but Branagh replaced Olivier's rousing, bold colors with a muddier, bloodier, more realistic approach. It also includes "flashbacks" from other plays, illustrating Henry's touching relationship with Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane).
The battle of Agincourt sequence is incredibly striking, including a memorable several-minutes-long take, and Branagh received dual Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actor (the film won a single award for its costume design). It's all quite glorious, although it helps to have a little knowledge of the Bard before going in. The cast includes Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield, and Emma Thompson, plus a young Christian Bale as the "luggage boy." Derek Jacobi narrates, starting things off from a film set.
Lone Star (Vudu Free)
With his intricate, novelistic films, John Sayles has been one of the most consistent, intelligent, and culturally sensitive of American independent filmmakers since 1980; the modern, humanist Western Lone Star (1996) is now widely considered the pinnacle of his impressive career. Set in a small Texas town, sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) investigates a skeleton found in the dirt and works to solve its decades-old mystery.
At the same time, he must reckon with the shadow of his legendary sheriff father (played in flashback by Matthew McConaughey); many of the locals insist on comparing son against father. Sayles creates an entire history and political climate for the town, and a complex, shifting tapestry of ideals among the local races and cultures, but never neglects the characters and their interwoven relationships. Elizabeth Peña plays Sam's lifelong love, the mixed-race Pilar, and Frances McDormand has a memorable scene as "Bunny," Sam's ex-wife. Also with Kris Kristofferson.
Once Upon a Time in the West (Crackle, PopcornFlix)
Many consider this king-sized movie by Sergio Leone to be the greatest Western ever made. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) opens with an astonishing, 10-minute sequence as three sinister-looking men in duster coats wait at a train station. Leone cuts together huge, wide landscape shots and smashes them with close-ups, and similarly slams together dark with light. Finally, a man known only as "Harmonica" (Charles Bronson) arrives and easily dispatches the three would-be killers (two of them played by Woody Strode and Jack Elam).
Then, ex-prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale) attempts to join her new husband and his family but finds them all slaughtered. Trash-talking bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is accused, but the real villain is the cold-blooded low-down dirty dog Frank (Henry Fonda). Ennio Morricone's amazing, startling harmonica-based music score occasionally wails under the action, ramping things up to monumental heights. Two other notable directors, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, worked on the story.
Punch-Drunk Love (Hoopla)
The beautiful, odd thing that is Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is a grab-bag of ideas ranging from plungers to pudding, but it's centered around the director's admiration for Adam Sandler. Anderson proved that Sandler could be a great actor (a notion that was recently confirmed in Uncut Gems).
Clad in a chrome-blue suit, Barry Egan (Sandler) deals with a gaggle of bossy, bullying, overbearing sisters and tries to keep an explosive temper in check. He calls a phone sex line, meekly handing over his personal information, and finds a harmonium in the street. But then he meets and falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), and everything changes. Anderson's prism-color scheme, awkward and distant angles, and use of music and sound (a tribute to his mentor Robert Altman), make the film into something of a dreamy unreality that's funny, prickly, and lovely. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, and Mary Lynn Rajskub co-star.
Raging Bull (Roku, Hoopla, Vudu Free, Pluto TV)
Voted the best film of its decade, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), based on the story of the real-life middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, still feels as powerful as ever. Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jake over the course of decades, aging and putting on weight. He meets the teen blonde goddess Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), pursues her and eventually marries her, but can't understand or relate to her and can't control his violent jealousy.
Joe Pesci co-stars as Jake's brother Joey, in a performance full of devotion, anger, pain, disappointment, and anguish. It's a weirdly enthralling portrait of a self-destructive brute, classical and stylish with its glistening black-and-white cinematography, but raw and explosive in its savage force. Scorsese's fight scenes are extraordinary, with cuts made to the rhythms of punches and photographers' flash-bulbs; editor Thelma Schoonmaker won her first of three Academy Awards for her groundbreaking work.
Stories We Tell (TubiTV)
Canadian actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, the Dawn of the Dead remake) made an incredible splash when she became a director, making the highly acclaimed fiction films Away from Her (2007) and Take This Waltz (2012). But for her third film, she gets even more personal. Stories We Tell (2013) is a brave, shocking documentary about her own family. "Who cares about our family?" her sister asks at one point, but the answer is: anyone who loves a good story.
In searching for long-lost family secrets, Polley discovers that facts are subject to skewed memories, differing viewpoints, and dramatic storytelling. She dismantles the documentary format as we know it and puts everything on display. She shows herself trying to figure out where to go next, doing various takes with her father recording the narration, and even an interview with a film producer who explains why her film just won't work. How wonderful it is to prove him wrong.