Amazon’s Prime Video has been surpassed by the sheer number of Netflix original movies, which seem to come out weekly. While Netflix has caught up in terms of quality, the service still concentrates more on mainstream entertainments. Amazon, on the other hand, is more focused on artful movies and risk-taking.
The streaming service is nurturing great directors: Leos Carax, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Park Chan-wook, Richard Linklater, Steve McQueen, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Lynne Ramsay, and more. Ditto for talent; actors like Joaquin Phoenix, Adam Driver, and Kate Beckinsale all appear in more than one Amazon Studios film. Additionally, Amazon’s library of catalog titles—several examples of which are on this last—is far more vast than Netflix’s, especially when it comes to titles made before 1980.
Here are our top picks:
Updated September 21, 2021 to add six additional recommendations in alphabetical order, starting with Attack the Block, and to rotate out some older picks. Jeff’s earlier recommendations follow, also in alphabetical order, starting with Annette.
Attack the Block
After seemingly dozens of terrible alien-invasion movies, this fresh, smart, playful film came along, and has already become something of a cult classic. Attack the Block (2011) begins as nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) takes the wrong street on her way home and is mugged by a group of thugs, led by Moses (John Boyega, later cast as Finn in the Star Wars movies). Something strange falls from the sky, and thus begins an alien invasion. Sam finds herself joining forces with her former muggers, as well as a goofball pot dealer (Nick Frost), to try to defend their neighborhood.
This clever movie is really about flawed perceptions, not only in how the humans and aliens view each other, but also in how the different humans view each other. It was the directorial debut of English comedian Joe Cornish, and it was produced by filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead); the two friends also co-wrote The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man.
Following the immense success of his still-essential Halloween (1978)—and a stopover on TV for an Elvis movie—John Carpernter returned to widescreen horror with The Fog (1980), a movie reliant more on its clammy mood than on gore or slashings. When the fog comes into the long frame, Carpenter relishes the way it moves, rolling from back to front, toward the audience.
The movie opens with none other than John Houseman explaining the plot: exactly 100 years ago, a ship sunk off the coast of the town of Antonio Bay, and now a mysterious fog, containing mysterious and vengeful forces, envelops the town, causing death and mayhem. Adrienne Barbeau plays sexy radio DJ Stevie Wayne, whose son finds a plank from the death ship, and Hal Holbrook plays Father Malone, whose church may hold a key to the puzzle. Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, and Nancy Loomis play townspeople who try to survive. Carpenter also composed the masterful, eerie soundtrack music.
Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) wrote the absolutely brilliant original screenplay for this playful, funny, and razor-sharp (no pun intended) murder-mystery with slashes of wry humor. The giant wheel of knives that seems to point toward people’s heads is the visual centerpiece of Knives Out (2019), but the film sustains a specific look and feel throughout, focusing on its airtight whodunit, as well as a string of brilliant performances by an amazing cast.
That cast starts with Daniel Craig as legendary private detective Benoit Blanc, along with Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, and Jaeden Martell playing spoiled, suspicious members of the wealthy Thrombey family (all savoring their spiky dialogue). Christopher Plummer plays patriarch Harlan, a best-selling novelist, and Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan are a detective and a cop, baffled by the strange case. Look for M. Emmet Walsh as a security guy, and listen for the voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a TV movie.
Robert Eggers (The Witch) directs this highly unsettling, disturbing—and yet unforgettable—horror film in sinister black-and-white and in a constricting square-shaped frame. Set somewhere in the 1890s, The Lighthouse (2019) is so vivid that it feels as if Eggers might have time-traveled with his camera. Robert Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, a man with a shadowy past who reports for work as an assistant lighthouse keeper. His new boss is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe, in a ferocious performance), an old sea-poem reciting salt.
While working the unforgiving job, Ephraim finds that he cannot access the top-floor beacon, which Thomas keeps locked for some reason. Ephraim experiences bad omens and nightmarish visions of tentacles and a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman, the only other person seen in the movie). At night, the men drink and descend into madness while a storm wind bashes against the sea-salt bleached house.
Many years after his celebrated samurai films, the septuagenarian Akira Kurosawa directed this awesome, moving, full-color epic, which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. (His earlier 1957 film Throne of Blood had been based on Macbeth.) Performed in an acting style inspired by Noh Theater, the story involves a warlord who wishes to divide his kingdom between his three sons (rather than daughters, as in the play), but rather than a peaceful transition of power, we get betrayal and murder. The story proves the Japanese proverb that a single arrow may be broken easily, but three arrows together may not.
Kurosawa’s 160-minute Ran (1985) has a beautiful, powerful sense of movement with in the frame, and utilizes very close-ups or cuts within scenes. For an imported movie, it was a decent-sized hit in America (in Japan it was considered a disappointment), and it went on to earn four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Director. It won only for Best Costume Design.
The Way Back
The acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, etc.) made this excellent wartime suspenser, The Way Back (2010), focused more on old-fashioned rousing adventure than on realism. A band of soldiers (Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, etc.) escape from a Siberian prison camp and must survive the freezing, snowy woods, even after thwarting the angry guards. Making their way toward the Mongolian border, they discover that they now must likewise survive the baking, brutal flatlands of Mongolia and Tibet.
Saoirse Ronan co-stars as another refugee that the soldiers reluctantly take along. The usual prison movie/survival movie stuff is here (starvation, sickness, etc.), but Weir keeps it watchable with his professional swiftness and confident tone. The cast is great, but Farrell is a standout with his character Valka, a dodgy, but spirited misfit.
The following film recommendations are Jeff’s picks from earlier in September and late August, also presented in alphabetical order, starting with Annette.
Acclaimed French director Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge, Holy Motors) brings us this strange, beautiful, and devastating musical, entirely written by the cult band Sparks. Even if you know the works of those artists, Annette (2021) is still like nothing you might expect. A comedian, Henry (Adam Driver), whose shows are more like angry rants, falls in love with an opera singer, Ann (Marion Cotillard). Henry talks about his audiences in terms of “killing them,” while Ann likes to think she’s “saving” hers. They marry and have a child, Annette, who is embodied by a series of creepily beautiful marionettes.
There’s a murder or two, and it’s discovered that baby Annette can sing, beautifully, when exposed to moonlight, so Henry decides to take her on the road and show her off to the world. What could go wrong? The songs are (perhaps purposely?) a bit repetitive and not terribly catchy (at least not right away), but the movie has so many moments of gorgeousness and heartbreak, that adventurous streamers will find it worth a look.
The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote their extraordinary real-life story into this romantic comedy screenplay and earned an Oscar nomination for their work. The Big Sick (2017) was a critically acclaimed indie success, and yet despite the great behind-the-scenes story, it’s a pretty typical romantic comedy, following most of the same beats. It’s not helped by its full two-hour running time and by the presence of Ray Romano, who, suffice to say, not everybody loves.
Kumail plays a comedian named Kumail, who meets Emily (Zoe Kazan). The movie depicts the awkward beginnings of their relationship with tender realism; there’s a great scene in which she is too shy to use his bathroom. They eventually have a big fight, she gets an infection in her lungs and goes into a coma. Her parents (Romano and a great Holly Hunter) visit, and Kumail finds himself hanging out with them. In another great scene, Hunter absolutely demolishes a brain-dead frat-boy heckler. The final act takes a long time to get itself together, but it is a good movie, likable and entertaining.
Blow the Man Down
This fascinating, funny crime film, co-written and co-directed by Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy, is, uniquely for the genre, driven entirely by women. Blow the Man Down (2020) begins with the sound of sea shanties in a small Maine fishing village called Easter Cove. Sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Pris Connolly (Sophie Lowe) have just buried their mother. Mary Beth goes to a bar and lets a man pick her up. He takes her to the docks, and when she tries to get away from him, he winds up pierced with a trident.
Pris dutifully helps dispose of the body with her trusty fillet knife, but then the knife goes missing, and a bag of money turns up. Add to this delicious, subtly funny setup a cabal of older ladies (June Squibb, Anette O’Toole, and Marceline Hugot) that keep a vise-grip control over the town, secretly in charge of everything. But Margo Martindale steals the movie as Enid Nora Devlin, who runs the town brothel and has a mysterious connection to the other ladies. Martindale’s sense of motherly menace, as she lumbers around in huge, black shawls and a black cane, is great fun.
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.
Lanky of frame and with deeply expressive eyes, Lakeith Stanfield gave a breakout performance in the powerful drama Crown Heights (2017), based on a true story about a cruel U.S. prison system that targets Blacks. Stanfield plays Colin Warner, a Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-raised man who was inexplicably arrested for a 1980 murder he had nothing to do with. His alibi is air-tight; he was stealing a car at the time to pick up his mother’s TV from the repair shop.
On the outside, Colin’s best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) works tirelessly to get him out, even training to become a process server. “It could be me in here,” he says of his tireless, and decades-long fight. The movie proceeds in a matter-of-fact way, laying on the details of a system that twists around facts to gain convictions, without ever preaching. What it might lack in storytelling finesse, it makes up for in sheer impact.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Gus Van Sant’s biopic of cartoonist John Callahan might have fallen into goopy self-importance, but instead it’s loose and rambunctious, and at times exhilarating, and bathed in warm, orange tones. It’s even more irreverent than his Oscar-winning Milk (2008). Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018) begins with Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), abandoned as a child, and now an alcoholic.
At a party, he meets Dexter (Jack Black), and decide to head to an even better party. But, driving drunk together, they get into an accident that leaves Callahan a quadriplegic, with only some limited mobility in his hands. He begins drawing his infamous, near-blasphemous cartoons, often with disability as a subject, but even after becoming published, he still has demons that need wrestling. Rooney Mara plays a physical therapist, a sadly underwritten role, but Black and Jonah Hill, as an AA sponsor, are both top-notch.
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 and forces her to read to guests on a regular basis. Eventually Sookee upsets the plan 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.
Directed by the extraordinarily creative 24 year-old Steven Spielberg, Jaws (1975) still stands among his finest films. Adapted by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley from Benchley’s best-selling novel, the movie simply tells the story of a shark attack at a summer resort, and the attempts of Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and salty captain Quint (Robert Shaw) to catch it. But what really makes this movie stand out from any other monster movie is the astounding level of confidence that the young director seems to have; he chooses amazingly unique angles for maximum suspense, and the editing by Verna Fields is never less than superb.
The movie spends time deepening the relationships between the characters—the scar-comparing scene is as essential as any of the shark scenes—and the scare scenes are actually scary. Even the ending is more concise and click-perfect than in most of the more mature Spielberg’s output. Best of all is John Williams’ essential music score, which not only invented that unforgettable “da-nuh” theme, but also knew when to pipe down and let the shark make some noise.
Last Flag Flying
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 and wishes 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—provides not only big laughs but also easily makes 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.
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)—never before adapted to the screen—and 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 attentions. 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); it’s 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.
Part of Steve McQueen’s five-film “Small Axe” series, the 70-minute Lovers Rock might be the best and most purely watchable of all his films. Normally a brainy and sober filmmaker, McQueen usually focuses on social issues, but with one of his films, Shame, he took a sharp turn and explored human sexuality. Here he turns to human sensuality as he depicts the events of a house party in West London in the 1980s.
It begins as DJs set up their equipment as food is prepared, and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaks out to get dressed at a friend’s house. Much of the evening is spent on the dance floor, grooving to reggae music, as the DJ chats and raps over the beats, the bodies bobbing and swaying and singing in the increasingly sweaty, sultry atmosphere. There’s some flirting and sexual advances, and even a possible threat of violence. It feels like the other shoe may drop at any point—McQueen is not exactly a feel-good filmmaker—and that things may turn sour or explode. Miraculously, Lovers Rock is more about a mood, being a community, and letting go, at least for a little while.
Manchester by the Sea
In the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea (2016), playwright, writer, and director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) creates deeply nuanced characters and directs exquisite performances. A sudden death 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, etc.). Michelle Williams co-stars in a heartbreaking small role as Lee’s ex. Like life, the movie has no easy answers, but it does have many lovely moments of connection.
One Night in Miami
Oscar-winning performer Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) makes her feature directing debut with this impressive drama, which plays like a stargazing Lollapalooza of amazing Black Americans. The idea of Cassius Clay (Eli Goree)—the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali—meeting up with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in a Miami hotel room on one night packs enough star power to inspire awed silence.
It takes place the night Ali beat Sonny Liston in 1964, and rather than celebrating, he meets with his friends. (Malcolm, who arranges the meeting, doesn’t provide any adult beverages, but at least he brought ice cream!) It’s based on a play by Kemp Powers (who also wrote and co-directed Pixar’s Soul), and it still feels like a play; i.e., fairly talky. But the talk—about many topics, but mainly about the responsibility these men, as Black Americans, have to help make the world a better place—is incredibly powerful, and undeniably timely. The four performances are superb, and King keeps up a perfect pace, never letting things turn into a slog, but also leaving enough time to digest the rich themes.
Sound of Metal
In the powerful, disquieting Sound of Metal (2020), Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) plays thundering drums for a metal band called Blackgammon. His girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke)—her eyebrows bleached ghostly white—plays clamorous guitar and shrieks unintelligible lyrics. One day while assembling the merch table, Ruben experiences a drop in his hearing. The Oscar-winning sound design tells us what it’s like; everything is muffled and distant. A doctor informs Ruben that he’s already lost most of his hearing. He winds up at a camp for deaf and hearing-compromised individuals, run with tough love by Joe (Paul Raci).
Ruben is determined to raise the money for cochlear implants and resume his music career, but Joe argues that deafness is not something that needs to be “fixed.” It’s a fascinating conundrum, and the movie makes it fully universal and touchingly human, all the way up to its shattering climax. In their roles, both Ahmed and Raci (who, in real life, is the child of deaf parents and a rock musician who performs in ASL) are extraordinary.
Writer/director Billy Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett came up with one of their most brilliant, wicked movies with Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film that couldn’t have been made at any other time. It opens brilliantly, with a dead body floating in a swimming pool, narrating his own story! Then, a struggling, in-debt screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) ducks some repo men by turning into the driveway of a crumbling Hollywood mansion.
Inside lives aging actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a faded star of the silent era. She hopes for a comeback in a movie of Salome, and she hires Joe to help re-write her script; he takes the job and winds up becoming something of a “kept boy” for her. Erich von Stroheim co-stars as Max Von Mayerling, a former film director of Norma’s, now serving as her butler. In real life, Stroheim had directed Swanson in an unfinished film called Queen Kelly; Wilder uses clips of it to illustrate Gloria/Norma in her prime. This one is unmissable.
This glossy, intelligent love story is happily absent of soap-opera crescendos, focusing instead matter-of-factly on all those bits of bad timing and inconvenience that can throw an otherwise made-in-heaven romance off-track. Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the movie has the vibe of a classic 1950s-era Douglas Sirk drama, with its beautiful colors and polished use of spaces.
The wonderful Tessa Thompson plays Sylvie, who is engaged, but falls in love with jazz saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha). They drift apart and come back together. She achieves her dream of being a television producer, while Robert finds his jazz dreams interrupted by the rise of Motown music. Their love must survive all of these almost mundane ups and downs, and it’s deeply touching. Written and directed by Eugene Ashe, Sylvie’s Love (2020) is also remarkable for being a story almost entirely made up of Black folks, who finally get to enjoy the kind of ordinary story that whites have made for decades.
This powerful, moving documentary from director Garrett Bradley tells the story of Fox Rich (full name: Sibil Fox Richardson), who spends 18 years fighting for the release of her husband Rob from prison. The film contains home video footage dating back to the beginning of the story, which director Garrett Bradley then converted to black-and-white and assembled around her own, modern-day, black-and-white footage, as Fox—who is also raising six children by herself—turns her fight into a full-time profession.
The kids grow up without a present father, but with the fight in their blood; they have names like “Freedom” and “Justus.” It’s a gripping story, all about the power of love and the pieces that make up a family. But, as the bold title indicates, it’s also heartbreakingly symbolic of a larger issue: Black men targeted, captured, and trapped in a justice system that cares nothing about them.
The Vast of Night
Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger and directed by Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night (2020) is arguably one of the best debut films of the past several decades. It’s a mind-blowing, whirlwind sci-fi movie that is ostensibly about an alien visit, though it’s also about much more. It’s the 1950s in a small town in New Mexico, and fast-talking nerd Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) helps set up the sound equipment for the big high-school basketball game before beginning his shift as a radio DJ. Fellow student Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick)—who works as a telephone switchboard operator—walks a bit with him, enlisting his help in operating her new tape recorder.
At work, Fay hears a strange sound on the line and sends it over to Everett, who plays it on the air. He receives a call from an ex-military man named Billy (Bruce Davis), who claims he heard the same sound once before. And thus begins a strange and exhilarating night, captured with astonishing, long-take camerawork, mesmerizing close-ups, rapid-patter dialogue, and moments of eerie silence.