I wanted to review one of Netflix’s new, original movies this week, but after checking out The Discovery, Sandy Wexler, and Win It All, I was uninspired. (Perhaps they’ll all be candidates someday for Netflix’s very welcome reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000.) In any case, I dug into some other, much brighter gems to highlight.
How about an underrated Steven Spielberg movie? (Yes, one exists.) How about a couple of Oscar-winners for Best Screenplay? How about a couple of horror movies that wouldn’t be out of place at a 1970s grindhouse? How about a couple of sci-fi movies that are based on actual ideas rather than explosions? How about a couple of smart, funny comedies starring Jack Black? (Yes, there are at least two.)
I could go on, but don’t just take it from me. Peep the whole curated list of 13 movies below—and then start streaming. Enjoy!
The BFG (Netflix)
Apparently, The BFG (2016) is officially the biggest flop of Steven Spielberg’s storied career, but although he has perhaps made some movies that deserved to flop, this one is a puzzler. It’s actually a sweet, delightful movie that deserves another chance. It’s based on a novel by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.) and maybe that’s part of the problem. Many critics complained that Spielberg took quite a bit of the darkness out of the book, which is a common, and not very profound complaint. (It’s not like the book because it’s not a book. It’s a movie.) Or, it could be that the weird, three-letter title threw people off. (What, exactly, is a “BFG”?)
Or, it could be that actor Mark Rylance, an Oscar-winner from Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, simply looked weird in the promo materials, all distorted and expanded, when, during the actual movie, he’s quite appealing and funny. Nonetheless, this is the story of a little English orphan girl, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, also delightful), who spots the giant and is taken back to the enchanted world of giants, where she learns that her captor is a good fellow at odds with his neighbors, the nasty, meat-eaters. To stop their rampaging, she eventually enlists the aid of the Queen herself (and, yes, the Queen’s corgis are here too). Melissa Mathison, who wrote E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for Spielberg, and who died of cancer in 2015, is credited with this screenplay.
Tropic Thunder (Netflix)
Ben Stiller has made some awful movies, but perhaps he learned something in the process, because he eventually directed and starred in Tropic Thunder (2008), which is one of the funniest, sharpest, and cleverest of all show biz satires. With a Vietnam War epic going into production, the author of the original memoir (Nick Nolte), suggests that the actors be dropped into the jungle, on their own, to learn a thing or two about what it was really like. They are: farting comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), washed-up action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller)—who is still recovering from a pathetic attempt at Oscar gold, playing a developmentally disabled character—and five-time Oscar-winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.).
Lazarus is an Australian now playing a black man, and has had his skin surgically darkened, speaking in character all the time. It’s a brilliant performance in a parody of a brilliant performance, and Downey received an actual Oscar nomination for his work. Written by another actor, Justin Theroux (Mulholland Drive), the film is a balance of over-the-top comic action sequences and sharp, snappy dialogue, skewering the business and all its bizarre trappings. Don’t miss the three fake trailers at the film’s start, showcasing the three stars doing what they do best. Otherwise, Tom Cruise is incredible, covered in makeup, as a barking, diet-Coke chugging film producer. Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel share the spotlight with the three stars, and Steve Coogan plays the out-of-his-depth director of the Vietnam epic.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Netflix)
Wes Craven had already established himself as one of the premier directors of horror with his legendary drive-in/grindhouse hits The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, but then he came up with a nefarious idea for a slasher movie. How about a killer who could attack you in your dreams? It was simple and yet so wonderfully, horribly primal, an attack on the most private and protected of human spaces. (You can stay awake only so long….) And his creation, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), with his striped sweater and finger blades, entered the annals of horror forever.
Heather Langenkamp stars as “final girl” Nancy Thompson, the one who is not promiscuous and who fights back. Johnny Depp has an early role as her boyfriend Glen, and John Saxon—a veteran of many horror and drive-in films—plays her father, a cop. Lin Shaye, who recently became a star for her role in the Insidious films, plays a teacher. Credit must be given to Charles Bernstein’s powerful, chilling synthesizer score—the chords of Freddy’s theme still capable of inducing nightmares. The film generated huge profits, and inspired eight more movies (including an ill-conceived 2010 remake). And, if you’re so inclined, there are also toys, books, games, and Halloween costumes.
The Prestige (Netflix)
The Prestige (2006) is Christopher Nolan’s fifth feature, and his first after garnering millions of fans with his reboot of the Batman franchise, and it has quite a bit to do with the generally held opinion that he is an unalloyed genius. Whether you agree, this is a clever, layered movie, with a few great tricks up its sleeve; above all, it’s smart entertainment. After an accident, two magicians, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), become bitter rivals, attempting to both one-up each other as well as sabotage each other’s tricks. Specifically, they each try to master the famous “Transported Man” trick better than the other. But of course, there’s more than meets the eye.
Nolan’s brother Jonathan Nolan co-wrote the story—as he did with the great Memento—and, after the chaotic explosions of Batman Begins, this feels like a return to form. At 128 minutes, it takes a little too long to wrap up, but overall it’s remarkably clear, exciting, and intriguing filmmaking. The incredible cast also includes Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, David Bowie in a small role as Nikola Tesla, and real-life magician Ricky Jay, who also served as a technical advisor. The same year, another magic-related film was released, The Illusionist (2006), but while that film used obvious CG effects to depict its magic, The Prestige actually feels magical.
Thelma and Louise (Hulu)
Best known for two sci-fi classics (Alien and Blade Runner), Ridley Scott may have seemed like an odd choice to direct this female-centered crime drama, but he gave it just the right touch, and the right amount of respect, and it emerged as one of that year’s most talked-about films, and remains an extremely effective, exhilarating, and powerful work. Thelma and Louise (1991) begins as Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) depart for a short road trip, Thelma getting away from her no-good husband, and Louise from her job as a diner waitress. It’s not long before a man attempts to force himself upon Thelma, and Louise winds up shooting him. Rather than going to the police, they decide to go on the run.
They have some great adventures, and a taste of freedom, but also find they must continue their new lives of crime. Scott and cinematographer Adrian Biddle provide plenty of bold, sunlight-dappled colors and wide-open midwest spaces, ironically serving to show how “trapped” our heroines are, both by their new circumstances, as well as by the mere fact that they are women (they don’t have many choices). The film’s memorable ending is, all at the same time, amazing, crazy, and tragic. Brad Pitt has a memorable early role, and Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen appear in strong supporting roles. With her debut screenplay, writer Callie Khouri won an Oscar, and the film’s directing, editing, and cinematography received nominations. Both Davis and Sarandon were nominated for Best Actress, but theoretically “canceled each other out;” the winner was Jodie Foster for The Silence of the Lambs. Scott went on to make another feminist movie, G.I. Jane, that did not fare quite as well.
The Warriors (Hulu)
Though it’s more of an exploitation film than an acknowledged masterpiece, Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) is one of my favorite films of the 1970s, despite the fact that it was said to have inspired gang-related violence at some early showings. It’s based on an amazingly simple idea, but treated with a kind of timeless, cosmic sweep, as if these were the only events going on anywhere in the world. The Warriors are a street gang from Coney Island. An ambitious gang member named Cyrus calls a meeting—no weapons allowed—of all the New York gangs in the Bronx, proposing a kind of alliance to help them control the city. Unfortunately, Cyrus is killed, and the Warriors are blamed. Now they must get back home across the city with every other gang after their heads.
In this world, which feels futuristic, but is sort of “out of time,” the gangs have various themes, such as the “Baseball Furies,” whose members dress in pinstripes, wear face makeup, and carry bats; the all-girl gang “The Lizzies;” or the denim overalls-wearing “Punks.” Meanwhile, a sultry-voiced lady radio DJ (Lynne Thigpen) more or less narrates the events of the long night, playing the occasional tune. (Joe Walsh’s “In the City” is a key song.) Michael Beck and James Remar star, with the explosive, trigger-happy David Patrick Kelly as a rival gang member. Fans love to quote the screenplay’s spoken gems, like “Warrrrriors… come out to plaaaayyeee!” and “Caaaaann youuuu dig it?” Remarkably, Hulu offers the original theatrical cut rather than Hill’s “Ultimate Director’s Cut,” which many fans seem to hate.
The Usual Suspects (Hulu)
In the wake of Pulp Fiction, clever crime films were just about a dime a dozen, but this one, from writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer, quickly earned a stellar reputation in its own right. In the sneaky, twisty story, the palsied “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) is one of only two survivors on a ship that appears docked in Southern California. (The other is a burnt-to-a-crisp Hungarian gangster.) Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) questions Verbal, and he spins a complicated, almost preposterous story that begins when he was arrested along with four other criminals. They are: Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Fenster (Benicio del Toro, with a hilarious and bizarre accent), Hockney (Kevin Pollak), and McManus (Stephen Baldwin).
The five decide to rob some jewels from some corrupt police, and this leads to another job that unexpectedly turns from jewels to drugs. The mysterious, legendary, and deadly crime lord Keyser Soze ties into the scheme; each of the five men is connected to him via some previous job. The filmmakers handle this crazy plot and the myriad of flashbacks with astounding agility, rendering everything not only understandable, but also tense, electrifying, and often amusing. Anyone that has seen it remembers the creeping, prickly shock that comes with the film’s denouement, but watching it again is just as pleasurable. The film won two Oscars, for McQuarrie’s screenplay and for Spacey’s supporting performance.
The Handmaiden (Amazon Prime)
This latest film by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook—best known for his mad masterpiece Oldboy—is something of a costume epic, but it’s far from dull or frigid. Under the impeccable, decorated surfaces, there squirms all-too-human behaviors. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the movie offers helpful yellow subtitles for the Japanese language, and white for Korean. A young orphaned Korean woman, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) has become a skilled pickpocket. She is enlisted by a Korean con artist (Ha Jung-woo) to help in a new scam. She is to become a new handmaiden for a beautiful Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), while he poses as a Japanese count and swoops in to win lady’s hand in marriage. Sookee’s job is to try to talk Lady Hideko into falling for the count, but instead Sookee finds herself falling for the elegant lady.
Meanwhile, the Lady’s uncle (Cho Jin-woong, with an ink-blackened tongue), keeps a collection of rare erotic books and forces her to read to guests on a regular basis. The Handmaiden (2016) does not shy away from the subversive and erotic, nor is it afraid of full-blooded plot gimmicks like characters trying to drive other characters insane. The movie may appear ornate and static, but Park’s expert, immaculate framing constantly uses spaces, lines, and shapes to enhance and build upon his story. Among the movie’s many other accolades, my group, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, awarded it Best Foreign Language Picture and Best Production Design.
A History of Violence (Amazon Prime)
Though David Cronenberg is known for his intense, intelligent 1970s and 1980s horror films, he received his most enthusiastic critical praise for A History of Violence (2005). Based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, it begins with a shocker. A couple of tough-looking thugs check out of a small motel; a sly tracking shot slowly and startlingly reveals that they have casually murdered everyone in the place. Then we meet Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who runs a small town diner, is the father of two teens, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes), and tries to spice up his relationship with his wife Edie (Maria Bello).
When the killers inevitably show up at his diner, some long-dormant training kicks in and he dispatches them swiftly and without mercy. He becomes a town hero, but at the same time, some even tougher-looking thugs learn of his actions and are coming to see him. Cronenberg’s camera is meticulous, and surgically precise, either gazing unblinkingly at the events, or striving to find the most unexpected place to cut. The ingenious screenplay creates mirrored situations to the main plot; the teen son deals with a bully at school, and William Hurt turns up—in an Oscar-nominated, scenery-chewing performance—as Tom’s own brother, carrying secrets from a past life. Despite its acclaim, the movie only received one other Oscar nomination, for its screenplay; it could be that the title itself turned off viewers, but the movie is far from gratuitous. Rather, it’s a masterful exploration of flesh-and-blood humans, and what they may be capable of.
In 2009, sci-fi fans went nuts for a whole bunch of needlessly cluttered, explosion-filled movies—things like Avatar, District 9, and Star Trek—that had more in the way of visual effects than ideas. Those three movies combined made some $1.1 billion at the box office. But at the other end of the spectrum, Moon (2009) pulled in just $5 million and was smarter, more entertaining, and more enduring than all of them. Directed by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones (his debut), Moon features mostly one actor, Sam Rockwell, plus the voice of Kevin Spacey as a robot called GERTY. (Other actors appear via a video monitor.) Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who works overseeing a kind of mining operation on the moon. It’s the year 2035; machines dig up powerful gasses, and Sam bottles them up in rockets and ships them to earth.
His stint is supposed to last three years, and he’s looking forward to going home. But when he accidentally crashes his moon buggy, he makes a rather astonishing discovery about his job. Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nathan Parker, creates an effective world of sterile life-support instruments and computers, some a little grimy from years of repeated touching in the same places. He’s also unafraid of shying away from darkness and even cruelty, but that only makes the movie more memorable. It’s also one of those movies that benefits from—and holds up to—more than one viewing. Clint Mansell composed the haunting score.
School of Rock (TubiTV)
While Richard Linklater has proven himself one of American’s best filmmakers with recent outings like Boyhood and Before Midnight, he has also proven that he’s capable of making fresh comedies out of formulaic ideas. His School of Rock (2003) starts with a fairly shaky, sitcom-worthy idea, but takes it and runs with it, giving it a huge, warm heart, a great many laughs, and some awesome tunes. Dewey Finn (Jack Black) is thrown out of his band and is seriously behind on his rent; he intercepts a call about a substitute teaching job meant for his roommate Ned Schneebly (Mike White, who also wrote the screenplay) and takes the job for himself.
He doesn’t know what to do until he discovers that many of his class can play instruments, but are learning about classical music (gasp!), so he begins teaching them about rock ‘n’ roll and its history. Eventually, he goes about forming a band that can compete in the upcoming Battle of the Bands and save the day. Of course, he winds up becoming involved in the kids’ lives—getting to know them as people—and learning how to be more responsible while the kids learn how not to be so uptight. Yet somehow Linklater keeps all this from being hokey, focusing on small moments, moments of creation, rather than big, dumb plot twists. As a bonus, Sarah Silverman co-stars as Ned’s smart, snappy girlfriend. The movie was a big hit and even inspired a Broadway show!
The Midnight Meat Train (Shudder)
In the 1980s, Clive Barker sprang, teeth bared, upon the horror scene with a triple-threat collection of horror stories entitled the Books of Blood. (“Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red,” warned the splash page.) Of these original chilling, mind-blowing stories, The Midnight Meat Train (2008) became arguably the most interesting cinematic adaptation. Bradley Cooper stars—in a role unlike anything else he has played since—as New York photographer Leon. After some encouragement from his girlfriend (Leslie Bibb), he meets with gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). She encourages him to go further with his art, so he descends into the subways to find something new.
There, he discovers a butcher, called “Mahogany” for horror fans, and played by Vinnie Jones, who chops up subway passengers and hauls their remains away. In an ordinary film, Leon would solve the crime and foil the bad guy, but this is Barker, and The Midnight Meat Train goes somewhere quite a bit darker and more bizarre. Screenwriter Jeff Buhler and director Ryuhei Kitamura expand the details of the story a bit, adding more characters and character development, but this does not detract from anything, and indeed adds some welcome drama to the horror. Distributor Lionsgate only released this in “dollar” theaters across the U.S., perhaps escalating its mystique. Character actor Ted Raimi (Sam’s brother) appears as a victim.
42 (Vudu) (Rental, $2.99-$3.99)
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) tells a slightly compressed and watered-down story of the great, groundbreaking ballplayer’s career, but it’s worth seeing because Jackie himself plays the lead role (with Ruby Dee as his wife), and, as it’s in the public domain, it’s available just about everywhere. But in honor of baseball season, here’s Brian Helgeland more in-depth, more culturally sensitive 42 (2013). It’s also unabashedly sentimental and larger-than-life, but deservedly so. As if anyone didn’t know by now, Robinson was the player that, in 1947, broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and gave hope to generations. This was not as easy as it looked, and Robinson was, and is, inarguably a hero.
Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie, and if the movie has a flaw it’s that this character is difficult to create as a relatable human being (he’s more like Superman). And many of the supporting characters, including Nicole Beharie as Rae and Andre Holland as black baseball journalist Wendell Smith, are a tad underwritten, relating only to the legend, and without their own inner lives. But Harrison Ford is truly magnificent as Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, delivering his lines in a rumbling drawl, half-smoked cigar forever perched in his hand. He’s a complex character; he knows he’s doing something important by signing Robinson, but he also knows that he’ll sell lots of tickets. Helgeland—who won an Oscar for writing L.A. Confidential—handles the period detail exquisitely, and his baseball footage is never less than exciting.