Friday, June 2, 2017

Under the Streaming Radar: 20 Good Little-Seen Movies You Can Watch Right Now

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis in the underrated "Sleeping with Other People"
Every week, my father and I discuss which new movie(s) we’re going to see in the theater during the upcoming weekend. Last week, however, the conversation didn’t last long, as the two high-profile new releases—the fifth entry in a moribund blockbuster franchise and a big-screen adaptation of a hacky ’90s TV show—barely reached 50% on Rotten Tomatoes combined. Frustrated over the lack of quality options at the multiplex, my father grumbled, “Thank God for Netflix.”

Sarcasm aside, my father’s faux-religious praise for a multimedia company spoke to the behavioral trend that’s been emerging among American adults over the past decade: We don’t like going to the movies anymore. Of course, that isn’t strictly true; though the total number of tickets purchased may have stagnated, we still gave theaters more than $11 billion of our money last year, so let’s not eulogize the communal moviegoing experience just yet. But the appeal of the streaming service—a mode of viewing that combines a broad selection of options with the convenience of never leaving the couch—exerts a strong pull on many grown-ups (particularly those with young children). Why go through the hassle of hiring a sitter when you can just rip through three episodes of Master of None or Thirteen Reasons Why after the kids are in bed?

This impulse typically manifests in terms of television shows—the Manifesto’s most-read post to date remains a piece I wrote six years ago listing 10 great TV series available on Netflix (thanks to the vagaries of the market, six of those shows are now streaming on different services)—but there’s no reason it can’t be redirected toward feature films. And don’t even try arguing that you lack sufficient time to watch a full movie; if you can binge-watch an entire season of Stranger Things in two nights, I’m pretty sure you can find 90 minutes to watch a closed-end thriller.

To that end, the Manifesto has compiled the following list of 20 good movies that are currently available on widely popular streaming services. Now, obviously, this list is by no means comprehensive. First, in an effort to spotlight movies with a limited following, we’re focusing on under-the-radar releases; only two of the 20 titles highlighted below exceeded $5 million and the domestic box office, and none surpassed $15 million. Second, we’re not including any movies that we formally reviewed here over the past few years, as we’ll let those reviews speak for themselves. (I encourage readers to arm themselves with the invaluable JustWatch app and then scan our fully ranked lists of movies from both 2015 and 2016 to locate high-quality streaming titles. Relatedly, The Handmaiden is available on Amazon Prime.) And last, because modern audiences are scared of “old” movies, we’re restricting ourselves to films that came out this decade; just remember that cinema has existed for more than a century, and there are plenty of classic titles available to stream if you’re ever feeling nostalgic for the glory days of Bogart and Bacall.

Let’s get to it (and remember, thanks to the fickle nature of streaming content, availability of these titles is subject to change):


Anomalisa (Amazon Prime, Hulu). Including Anomalisa on this list raises the question of just how one classifies “under the radar”; it appeared on scores of top 10 lists two years ago, so it isn’t exactly a critical sleeper. Still, seeing as how most audiences ignored it, I’m comfortable dubbing it an overlooked gem. Another demented creation from Charlie Kaufman, this stop-motion stunner starts out slowly, dropping you into its alternate reality where every single person—man or woman, adult or child—speaks in the same soothing baritone of the great character actor Tom Noonan. Every person, that is, save two: Michael (David Thewlis), a weary self-help guru, and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the mousy admirer whom he meets at one of his lackluster conventions. The film’s opening act can feel sluggish, but that deliberate pacing helps establish Michael’s severe ennui and isolation, and it explains why he suddenly envisions Lisa as a magical cure to his many problems. Kaufman’s premise is decidedly original, but his message—a poignant meditation on love, relationships, and gnawing discontent—is universal, and all the more bleak because of it. Not that the movie is lacking in enchantment. In particular, Leigh’s gentle rendition of a Cyndi Lauper banger is one of the most powerful musical performances you’ll see on screen.




Bone Tomahawk (Amazon Prime). It’s tempting to call Bone Tomahawk a throwback Western, except that it features levels of gore that might have hospitalized the keepers of the Hays Code. But despite its extreme violence, this movie is pure pleasure, with a simple plot—four colorfully mismatched men head off in search of a ruthless murderer—and rich, flavorful dialogue. Released just two months before The Hateful Eight (to a reception so pitiful it didn’t even warrant a page on Box Office Mojo), Bone Tomahawk again showcases the mustachioed charms of Kurt Russell, anchoring a terrific cast that includes straight man Patrick Wilson, scene-stealer Richard Jenkins, and an unrecognizable (and shockingly good) Matthew Fox. Come for their snappy repartee, stay for the climactic butchering that would make David Cronenberg blanch.




Compliance (Hulu). Over the past half-decade, Ann Dowd has emerged as one of television’s most reliable and versatile actors, appearing in acclaimed series such as The Leftovers, Masters of Sex, and Quarry. She’s been working since the early ’90s, but while I’d technically seen her in movies like The Informant! and Flag of Our Fathers, I’d never really noticed her. That all changed with Compliance, where Dowd finally received a leading role and demolished it. It’s best to reveal as little as possible about the plot of Compliance, whose narrative would be utterly maddening—it isn’t technically a horror movie, but you’ll still find yourself hurling obscenities at the characters for their inane behavior—if it weren’t based in actual fact. Directed by Craig Zobel (who went on to make the underrated Z for Zachariah), Compliance may lack the physical brutality of Bone Tomahawk, but it’s far more disturbing, exposing some uncomfortable truths about human nature. I’m telling you to see it, and remember: I’m an authority on these matters.




Force Majeure (Netflix). Part domestic drama, part social satire, Force Majeure is a wickedly funny movie that’s also unbearably tense. It follows a seemingly happy couple and their two children vacationing in the Swiss Alps; they appear to have everything, but their foundation starts cracking in the wake of a near-calamity whose consequences reverberate far more forcefully than the snow tumbling down the mountainside. Director Ruben Östlund, who just won the Palme D’or at Cannes for his follow-up The Square, marries incisive cultural commentary with bona-fide filmmaking chops, turning a holiday in paradise into a descent into upper-crust Hell. With exquisite detachment and precision, the film exposes a number of uncomfortable truths about marriage, masculinity, skiing, smoking, toy helicopters, and the other crucial ingredients that combine to form the illusion we call family. (Capsule review available here.)




The Girl with All the Gifts (Amazon Prime). I would tell you the specific genre to which this gripping picture belongs, but I don’t want to blunt the force of its opening act, which courses with energy and anticipation. (The impatient can try their luck decoding the following phrase: Zesty, Omnivorous Movie Brings Intelligent Entertainment.) Once The Girl with All the Gifts reveals itself as a particular type of movie, it mutates into something more straightforward but no less enjoyable, routinely delivering set pieces with alacrity. Gemma Arterton is marvelously sympathetic, Paddy Considine commensurately poised, while Sennia Nanua acquits herself convincingly as the title character. Yet this bracing film is also a declaration of sorts from Colm McCarthy, the skillful director who announces, with considerable flair, that his heroine is not the only one with talents.




Headhunters (Netflix). Headhunters features Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as a ruthless assassin, which is reason enough to seek it out. But this slick, electric thriller is more than just eye candy for Jaime Lannister fans. Coster-Waldau is predictably terrifying as the villain, but the film’s hero (Aksel Hennie, of The Martian) is marvelously weak, a small-time art-thief who finds himself haplessly over his head. Crisp and fleet, Headhunters channels the noir efforts of the Coen Brothers, with Hennie supplying a guile that parries Coster-Waldau’s delectable brute force. Director Morten Tyldum, who has since made two underrated Hollywood pictures in The Imitation Game and Passengers, ratchets up the tension with one agonizing set piece after the next; a scene where a quarry camouflages himself in an outhouse sets a new standard in nail-biting chase sequences. You’ll hold your nose, but you’ll keep your eyes wide open.




The Immigrant (Netflix). Just last month, we reviewed The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s somber, luxuriant epic of adventure and obsession. It’s a fine film, but The Immigrant remains Gray’s best work. Set in Roaring Twenties New York, it follows Ewa (a heartbreaking Marion Cotillard), a European woman who arrives at America’s shores seeking prosperity, only to discover treachery and despair. The Immigrant is unsparing in its depiction of mankind’s predatory nature, but it is also tender and soulful, particularly in the complex relationship that develops between Ewa and Bruno (a terrific Joaquin Phoenix), the pimp who becomes her suitor. Underlying everything is Gray’s lapidary technique, most notably the golden-hued cinematography that gives every frame a rich and haunting texture. His depiction of squalor is something to see. (Capsule review available here.)




Love & Friendship (Amazon Prime). Look, a comedy! As this column reveals, my tastes tend to run a bit dark, but movies don’t need to be bruising to be good. Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, is an absolute delight, a dizzying and effervescent comedy of manners and manipulation. Kate Beckinsale gives the performance of her career as a preposterously selfish schemer who’s as charming as she is calculating, while Tom Bennett is revelatory as a wealthy buffoon. And though Stillman’s direction is elegant (and oh, those costumes!), it never feels stuffy or staid, allowing his and Austen’s rich dialogue to zip and zing. Love & Friendship is frothy enough to serve as the perfect palette cleanser, but it’s so packed with clever jokes that it easily functions as a full meal.




Mommy (Amazon Prime, Hulu). This movie is incredible. I mean that in both senses of the word. With its outlandish premise and overwrought tone, Xavier Dolan’s familial epic can be difficult to accept in terms of basic logic. But if you can surrender to Dolan’s extravagant style, you will be overpowered by Mommy’s grand scope and naked sincerity. As a single mother striving to cope with her unhinged teenage son, Anne Dorval is hypnotic, while Suzanne Clément is equally mesmerizing as the lonely neighbor who gets drawn into this family’s corrosive, exhilarating orbit. Stuffed with on-the-nose music cues and playful directorial tricks—including a stunning sequence where a character literally changes the film’s aspect ratio by hand—Mommy is unapologetically excessive. It has to be. How else to evade your defenses and break your heart?




A Most Violent Year (Amazon Prime). There’s an absurd number of extremely talented thespians working today, but Oscar Isaac is on the short list for best actor alive. In A Most Violent Year, he channels a young Al Pacino, playing a smooth-talking oil man named Abel whose crisply tailored suits and urbane demeanor hint at nefarious misdeeds lurking beneath the suave surface. But Isaac has other ideas, painting Abel not as a wolf in shark’s clothing but as a straight-arrow businessman who’s genuinely struggling to slough off the vestiges of criminality. And A Most Violent Year, the third film directed by the chameleonic J.C. Chandor, is equally slippery, charging its mobster elements with unpredictability and deception. It’s a movie that feels like a spiritual sequel to The Godfather, but it’s actually the opposite; instead of chronicling the corruption of a good man’s soul, it explores the futility of Abel’s innocence in a world plagued by dishonesty and venality. Despite his core decency, Abel can’t convince onlookers of his goodness. Isaac, on the other hand, has nothing to worry about. (Capsule review available here.)




Mustang (Netflix). Mustang centers on five sisters, ranging in age from around 12 to 18, living in a small village in Turkey. Their lives seem ordinary and pleasant enough until they run afoul of their uncle, a tyrannical paterfamilias who disapproves of their free-spirited behavior and thus places them all under house arrest. From this foreboding setup, you might expect the film to progress as a dark and accusatory parable, and in a sense, it does; as the sisters are systematically married off to anonymous suitors, Mustang fiercely condemns both Turkish society specifically and the worldwide patriarchy more generally. Yet the movie also possesses a warm, generous sensibility that belies its grim subject matter. It treats its female characters as people rather than objects, in particular Lale, the youngest sister, played with pluck and feeling by first-time actress Günes Sensoy. When this fiery prisoner sneaks away to a local soccer match or learns from a sympathetic stranger how to drive a truck, you’re momentarily unconcerned with the cruelty of a culture that subjugates women and turns young girls into chattel. Instead, when you see her smile as the sun hits her face, you’re reminded of the universality of joy.




Proxy (Hulu). Hoo boy. There are movies that are difficult to watch, and then there are movies like Proxy, a film that punishes you with its unflinching brutality and inexorable trauma. I can’t disclose much about it, except to say that it’s as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Though it opens with a scene of appalling violence, it isn’t an especially gruesome film—it’s the tone that’s truly disturbing. Proxy uses unnerving patience and unpredictable reveals to get its hooks into you, and then it just keeps hold of you, pulling you deeper into its web of twisted savagery. This isn’t a movie that you finish watching so much as escape from. And even after this horrific, hypnotic film is over, you’ll be hard-pressed to shake it off. (Capsule review here.)

I told you this movie didn't fuck around.


Sing Street (Netflix). As a coming-of-age story, Sing Street is nothing special. Its arc is familiar: Diffident teenage boy struggles with bullies at school, meets a beautiful girl, gradually gains confidence, and ultimately grows into a man. But because Sing Street is a semi-autobiographical account of the youth of Once scribe John Carney, it has one thing that most such tales lack: music. Blissful, rollicking, glorious music. Desperate to impress his crush, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), Carney surrogate Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) elects to start a band so that he can include her in their videos. (Conveniently, he befriends a number of burgeoning artists, including a peer who’s particularly gifted in music composition.) As he demonstrated in Once (and also in Begin Again, which I didn’t hate), Carney is deeply invested in the process of making music—the nuts-and-bolts of songwriting, the logistical challenges of shooting a video— and whenever Sing Street explores Conor and his gang churning out post-punk hits, it shines. It may not be entirely plausible—and the romance that develops between Conor and Raphina may lack true heat—but it’s genuinely sweet, and authentically evocative of misspent youth. By the time the movie arrives at a fantasy sequence in a dance hall with Conor and his cohorts crooning a raucous anthem, you’ll be pulling out your lighter and pleading for an encore.




Sleeping with Other People (Showtime). Sleeping with Other People may not quite break the romantic-comedy mold, but it does execute the blueprint about as well as a modern rom-com can. To begin with, it features sparkling chemistry between the two leads, Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, playing two emotionally damaged people who resolve not to act upon their mutually recognized attraction. It’s a familiar setup, but writer-director Leslye Headland lends it real wit and charm, both in the protagonists’ sexually charged banter (a detailed analogy involving female anatomy and record-spinning is particularly great) and in their relationships with the titular others, which prove unusually complex. Most importantly, Sleeping with Other People doesn’t condescend to its characters, instead presenting them as intelligent, well-meaning, and horny. (In one of the movie’s most gratifying scenes, when Brie’s character asks Sudeikis if he wants to talk about the thorny nature of their quasi-friendship, he responds, “Yes.”) There are no manufactured contrivances, no artificial impediments, just two flawed people taking the time to realize that they’re perfect for one another. We could have told them that from the beginning, but then we’d have missed the sheer delight on Brie’s face when she says “mousetrap”, a tension-defusing code word that exemplifies this non-couple’s—and this movie’s—unique intimacy.




Sunset Song (Netflix). Bleak yet beautiful, languorous yet lovely, Sunset Song is a contradictory experience, at once buoyant and brutal. Set in a barren Scottish farmland shortly before World War I, it chronicles the life of Chris, played in a searing performance by model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn. Living under the yoke of an unyielding, sadistic father (Peter Mullan, great as usual), Chris’ prospects for happiness are dim, and she suffers perpetually. Yet she is also resolute in her refusal to be conquered, and there is something uplifting in her steadfast determination. What’s more, director Terence Davies capitalizes enormously on the natural beauty of his location, delivering shot after Malickian shot of breathtaking splendor. I didn’t much care for Davies’ prior film, the dull (but critically acclaimed) Terence Rattigan adaptation The Deep Blue Sea, but his deliberate style feels more humane here, watching as Chris constantly asserts her independence, even as she’s consistently repressed. Sunset Song isn’t an especially enjoyable movie, but with its painterly images and swells of deep feeling, it is a rewarding one.




Take This Waltz (Netflix). The poster for Take This Waltz—showing stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen sharing a laugh, and noting the fourth billing of professional funnywoman Sarah Silverman—frames it as a cheery romantic comedy. It isn’t. What it is, exactly, is harder to classify. On one level, it’s an exploration of marriage, questioning whether the love between two people can remain vibrant after passions have cooled. More urgently, it’s a keen and empathetic character study of a woman in existential crisis. After sharing a charged plane ride with a handsome stranger (Luke Kirby, late of Rectify), Williams’ wife finds herself torn between comfort and desire, and the actress plays up the self-loathing she experiences as a result of her emotional affair. (Her line reading, “I’m going home to clean myself up,” is devastating in context.) But while Take This Waltz is a nuanced and insightful piece of storytelling, it would be unremarkable were it not for Sarah Polley’s assertive and at times brazen direction. With bold formal flourishes, she repeatedly heightens the film’s central conflict, culminating in a stunning montage—set to the tune of the title Leonard Cohen song—that’s astonishing in its audacity. It’s Bergman by way of Scorsese. They didn’t put that on the poster.




The Tribe (Netflix). A number of entries on this list are foreign-language films, but The Tribe earns the rare distinction of featuring no spoken language at all. Instead, because all of its characters are deaf, it takes place entirely in sign language. The catch? No subtitles. This automatically distinguishes The Tribe as a fascinating effort, requiring you to infer the characters’ thoughts and motives purely from their actions and expressions. It’s a process that can prove tedious in its early going, but shortly before its halfway mark—the precise point is a sex scene that’s both startlingly frank and surprisingly emotional—the movie begins to gather force, both thematically and personally. From there, its power only continues to accumulate, gradually turning into a monstrously compelling thriller of violence and revenge. The Tribe is worth seeing for its conceptual bravura alone, but don’t get comfortable; just because you can’t hear anything doesn’t mean you can’t be shaken.




We Need to Talk About Kevin (Netflix). This list is perhaps overpopulated with movies that are intentionally unpleasant, but We Need to Talk About Kevin presents a particular kind of challenge. Lynne Ramsay, whose follow-up just earned multiple prizes and rave reviews at Cannes, favors an arrhythmic style, jumping around in time and cutting frequently and unexpectedly. It’s an approach that’s deliberately disorienting and occasionally irritating, but as We Need to Talk About Kevin proceeds, Ramsay’s fractured images start to cohere, revealing a portrait of a damaged and distraught protagonist. Of course, it helps that said protagonist is played by Tilda Swinton, delivering a characteristically fearless performance as a stricken, self-loathing mother who may have birthed the devil. That makes the film sound lurid, but while Ramsay is pitiless in her execution—a late scene in a backyard scored only by the sound of sprinklers will leave you aghast—she and Swinton together locate slivers of humanity in this frightening, terrible tale. And so, while the movie’s climax is pure, ruthlessly calibrated agony, its denouement is something stranger, and strangely hopeful. If you can brave this journey into the heart of darkness, you’ll discover light on the other side.




What If (Amazon Prime). What If is probably the most conventional movie on this list. It’s a fairly predictable romantic comedy about a twentysomething post-grad (Daniel Radcliffe) who gets a crush on a girl (Zoe Kazan), only to subsequently discover that she has a boyfriend, placing him squarely in the friend zone. (The movie was actually titled The F Word in its native Canada, but in its infinite wisdom, the MPAA objected to the title’s implied profanity. The lesson, as always: Fuck the MPAA.) It succeeds solely by being pleasant and charming. But boy is it charming. Radcliffe and Kazan are perfect together, all awkward glances and unforced laughter, while Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis are equally great as an adjoining couple with no such restrictions on physicality. What If doesn’t break down any walls, but it affirms that there’s genuine pleasure in watching two people grow closer against their will. Much like Kazan’s character, you may tell yourself that you shouldn’t grow too attached to this sweet, simple movie. You’ll develop feelings for it all the same. (Capsule review available here.)




White God (Netflix). A festival sensation, the pièce de résistance of White God is a thrilling sequence in which hundreds of unleashed dogs chase a teenage girl on her bicycle through the streets of Budapest. It’s a tremendous scene, not least because the dogs are flesh-and-blood canines and not CGI creations, but it’s far from the only memorable moment in White God. A distaff variation on the boy-and-his-dog trope, the movie functions in part as a powerful allegory of nationalism and marginalization. (The engine of the plot is a governmental policy requiring high ownership fees for certain “mongrel” breeds, which the girl’s father can’t afford to pay.) But while White God is politically meaningful, it’s also pretty terrific on its own terms, especially when it follows Hagen, the mixed-breed pooch who finds himself shunted from one ugly accommodation to the next. By the time Hagen gains a pack of loyal followers, the movie has acquired a breathless energy, leading to a climax of pure cinematic poetry. The message is clear: Let the dogs out.

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