Another month, another batch of recommendations for everyone out there who’s currently adrift in the sea that is the Netflix Watch Instantly menu without a good flick to float on. Click on the films’ titles in order to be taken to their Netflix page and to add them to your queue.
Or—sorry—to your “My List.”
Pick of the Month:
Critics have been talking about Short Term 12 pretty incessantly ever since it started making the festival rounds last year. To the point where some of you who read about movies a lot may be getting sick of hearing about it. There’s a reason why the film keeps getting brought up, though, and that’s because it’s really that good. It’s also the kind of micro-budget movie that absolutely depends on word of mouth in order to get seen. This is the sort of small release that couldn’t even afford to launch an Oscar campaign that would have brought it to the attention of Academy voters, so it wasn’t able to earn buzz through the winning of little golden men, which it arguably deserved a handful of.
The movie, which is from a relatively new filmmaker named Destin Cretton, is set in the world of a residential treatment facility for troubled youth, which means that it’s full of characters whose lives can be mined for quite a bit of drama—and mine them Cretton does. This is one of the rare films that manages to dig way deep into themes of abuse and mental illness without ever taking the tone of schlock or melodrama.
A lot of that has to do with the authenticity of the performances given by its cast—especially the lead, Brie Larson. Even more than that, Short Term 12 is a movie that manages to push dramatic boundaries while still being wildly entertaining. To quote the tag line of Wayne’s World, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl.” If you’ve been putting off taking a chance on this unknown commodity, you now have no further excuses, because watching it has just become as close to free as movies get.
We all like to complain about the amount of good movies on Netflix Streaming, but when movies get added from legendary directors like Steven Spielberg, it kind of makes one consider closing their yap. It’s true that Amistad isn’t top tier Spielberg, and that it suffers a bit from the man’s tendency to get heavy-handed (especially evident in the handful of moments where the John Williams score loses all subtlety), but it’s still Spielberg, which means it’s still full of great filmmaking (especially in the way the man moves his camera, which is always on point). There are a handful of moments that are legit affecting here, too. Case in point, the scenes where the Africans who set our story into motion are loaded onto a slave ship like cargo, and eventually thrown overboard like dead weight. Chilling.
If you want to watch a Spielberg movie about race and the workings of the political machine, Lincoln is a little bit better, but Amistad is definitely worth checking out as well. It’s not every day you get to see Matthew McConaughey look as dorky as he does here.
Barton Fink is one of the more impenetrable Coen Brothers movies, but one shouldn’t let that scare them off from watching it. It’s still a Coen Brothers movie, after all, and few make movies more interesting than they. Plus, there’s just so much delightful mystery that springs out of all that vagueness. What’s clear is that the film is about Hollywood, it’s about the trials and tribulations that come from trying to write a good wrestling picture, and it also likely has something to do with hell.
John Turturro works his unique brand of magic as the lead, John Goodman generously taps into his endless supply of charisma in a featured role, and there’s a whole host of Coen-chosen character actors lending just as much weird charisma to the film as there is in everything they make, including Steve Buscemi as Chet the bellboy. There’s maybe no movie I can think of that’s more fun to decode and that offers up as many rewards for the effort as Barton Fink.
Somewhere in between the time when Mel Gibson was a famous movie star and the time when he was an infamous hate monger, he tried his hand at being a director. I can’t say that I remember much about his first effort, The Man Without a Face, but everybody remembers his second film, Braveheart. When you look at it on its surface, Braveheart seems like it should blend in with all of the other historical war epics out there, but there’s just something about it that makes it a step above the rest of the pack and has caused people to come back to it.
The stirring speeches are a step more stirring, the music is a good piece more invigorating, the battles a smidge more brutal, and the downtime of the film significantly more entertaining than most war epics, and all of that combines to make Braveheart a movie that’s going to get remembered as a classic, even if its director gets remembered as having one of the biggest falls from grace in the history of the entertainment industry.
Most people consider Chinatown to be one of the quintessential neo-noirs, and considering its pedigree, it’s not hard to understand why. The film was directed by Roman Polanski back when he was in his prime, it stars Jack Nicholson from back when he was in his prime, and it’s made just as well and features performances just as engaging as that bit of name-dropping would have you believe.
The movie gets a little bogged down in plot, but it’s great at establishing a place and a mood, it does quite a bit to re-conceptualize the tropes of the classic noir films of the 40s, and it culminates in that killer, hard-boiled line that everyone still quotes to this day. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” If you’ve yet to actually watch the movie in order to find out what’s so bad about Chinatown, then now is your chance. Turns out things get pretty dark there.
We’ve already established that getting a Steven Spielberg movie added to your subscription service of choice is a reason for celebration, but even more so when it’s something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was one of the earlier films that really launched his career into the stratosphere, and which is really well loved.
This movie has so much iconic stuff crammed into it. The jaunty tune that we use to communicate to the aliens, that sequence where the UFO approaches the house and the orange light shines through the keyhole, Bob Balaban sporting an epic beard… it’s legendary. Sure, the third act is a bit underwhelming and dated to modern eyes, and some people have complaints about how thoroughly Richard Dreyfuss’ character is willing to ditch his family in order to go questing, but let’s be honest, Dreyfuss’ family was pretty terrible, and that signature Spielbergian filmmaking makes up for any little kids dressed up as janky-looking aliens. This one is a classic.
In the grand scheme of things, 2000 wasn’t a very good year for movies, but right before the calendar turned over to 2001, director Ang Lee dropped a martial arts epic on us called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it ended up being so good that it makes the rest of the year look better in retrospect. The success of the film doesn’t just stem from the fact that the fighting is so stylized and entertaining, which it is, or that the film’s photography is so gorgeous to look at, which it is, it also, in typical Lee fashion, manages to tell a story that’s much more about character and relationships than it is about period-era politics or the stolen sword that acts as the film’s MacGuffin.
The acting in support of that character focus is universally strong here, but Michelle Yeoh should get special mention. She’s just so great. Plus, all of the flying around and the magical kung fu is just so fun. If your martial arts movie doesn’t have people launching themselves up to rooftops and running around on tree branches, then you’re just not trying.
Everyone knows that they love Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor, but how we felt about him as a filmmaker was still a mystery, until he put out Don Jon last year and proved to everyone that he has just as much promise as a writer and director as he does as an onscreen performer. This movie does pretty much the impossible—it makes you care about a jacked up New Jersey guido who spends all of his time clubbing, working out, and watching porn on his laptop.
It’s smart, too. You expect all of the stuff about loud Italian families and ridiculous drunk behavior at the dance club to be entertaining, which it is, but once the character starts to go through a bit of a change, Don Jon actually has a lot to say about the nature of human relationships, and how modern technology somehow manages to build more barriers between people, all while it also works to make communication easier. Plus, it uses Scarlett Johansson’s ass better than any other movie has yet, and basically every movie she’s been in tries to use it in some way. Great work, JGL. Truly great work.
In addition to being one of the more popular documentaries that has come out over the last decade or so, Exit Through the Gift Shop is also one of the more interesting documentaries that has come out over the last decade or so. It starts off as a look at the phenomenon of street art as shot by an eccentric French filmmaker named Thierry Guetta, but eventually the film decides that its filmmaker is more interesting than its subject, mysterious street artist Banksy takes over the filmmaking duties, and then it becomes a look at Guetta, who eventually becomes an artist who works under the name Mr. Brainwash.
That’s all a bit complicated, but it’s fascinating to watch play out. By its end, the film explores questions about authorship and how a work changes when its put into other hands, it explores art and whether or not the artist’s intentions in creating a piece should have anything to do with whether or not said piece is considered worthy of being viewed and discussed. Plus, it gives you the chance to look at some interesting art, as well as the chance to be introduced to a total weirdo. Was this movie really directed by Banksy? Is it really a documentary? Doesn’t matter. It’s good whatever the case may be.
If there’s one sci-fi trope that really blows my hair back, it’s future cities that are so sprawling and dense that they represent an endless sea of humanity and construction haphazardly piled up as far as the eye can see, and The Fifth Element has one of the most detailed and interesting future cities ever created for film—so it basically rules.
Also, it involves Leeloo Dallas Multipass, but you have to sit down and take this weird movie in to appreciate what that means. Which shouldn’t be hard to convince anyone to do, seeing as this is a film from Luc Besson back when he was red hot from coming off of Léon, it’s an action-oriented starring role from Bruce Willis back when he was maybe the biggest action star on the planet, and it’s got that one sequence where Milla Jovovich wears an outfit made out of bandages. It’s all enough to make one forget about how obnoxious Chris Tucker is playing a fast-talking radio show host. Oh, also there’s Gary Oldman. We haven’t even gotten into what this thing is about yet. What a fun movie.