Welcome to Flavorpill’s streaming movie guide, in which we help you sift through the scores of movies streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and other services to find the best of the recently available, freshly relevant, or soon to expire. This week, we find Netflix purging a bunch of good titles for a giant batch of new ones in early June (must be some sort of mid-year end-of-contract period or something), so our list is mostly — but not entirely — comprised of stuff you’ll have to get on quick, featuring stars like Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Douglas, Billy Bob Thornton, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Woody Harrelson, Tom Cruise, Winona Ryder, and Sylvester Stallone. Check them all out after the jump, and follow the title links to watch them right now.
We haven’t seen much in the way of new releases since our last installment, but Netflix did start streaming one of our favorite films of the ’90s a couple of weeks back: Rob Reiner’s The American President, the first original screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, which basically served as a dry run for The West Wing (with Martin Sheen as chief of staff role instead of commander-in-chief). Wryly funny and smashingly romantic, it features one of Michael Douglas’ finest performances, a wonderful turn by Annette Bening, and a fine piece of counter-intuitive casting for an unbilled Richard Dreyfuss. And, yes, there are lots and lots of walk-and-talks.
The most popular clip in the most recent edition of our “film debuts” video essays was the first, in which a young and hysterically squeaky voiced Tom Cruise peels off his shirt and rolls around on the ground in his jean shorts. It looks like a scene from a gay porn movie, but it was actually pulled from Endless Love, Franco Zeffirelli’s critically reviled 1981 adaptation of Scott Spencer’s bestselling novel of young love. It’s a tough movie to get a hold of, in spite of Mr. Cruise’s later success (or perhaps because of it? I smell conspiracy!); it has never been released on DVD domestically, and we had to get our clip from a somewhat sketchy all-region disc. But the film is legally available on YouTube — and though you’ve seen Mr. Cruise’s role in its entirety, the film itself is still a fascinating early-’80s artifact (and it’s got James Spader, in his second movie role, to boot).
I think we can all agree that we also enjoyed, in the “Threequel” video, the sight of a young and rather silly-looking Kevin Spacey as a subway punk with an eye on Meryl Streep in the 1986 comedy/drama Heartburn. But that’s not the only reason to see Mike Nichols’ film version of Nora Ephron’s novel; it also offers us the opportunity to watch Streep and Jack Nicholson act out a verrrrry thinly veiled dramatization of Ephron’s stormy marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. And Spacey’s not the only great character actor in the supporting cast: Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Joanna Gleason, Richard Masur (suddenly back on our radar with his role as Hannah’s handsy boss on Girls), Maureen Stapelton, and Mercedes Ruehl all pop up as well.
Everything else on our list this week expires this week, so act fast if any of these strike your fancy. Dazed and Confused popped up in our inaugural supercut of film debuts, since it features not only Matthew McConaughey’s first film appearance, but (in a fleeting walk-across) Renee Zellweger’s as well. In fact, Richard Linklater’s 1993 comedy is chock full of people we’d see more of in the coming years: Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Joey Lauren Adams, Nicky Katt, Cole Hauser, and many, many more. But it’s not like you need to use star-sighting as an excuse to watch this one; nearly 20 years after its release, Dazed remains a fresh, smart, consistently funny piece of work. (Expires June 1)
More Linklater, this one a bit less beloved. The filmmaker’s 2005 remake of the crowd-pleasing Walter Matthau comedy was greeted with ho-hum reviews and mediocre box office, but it’s worth seeing for the uproarious work of Billy Bob Thornton, reteamed here with his Bad Santa screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Cranky, shifty, lusty, and half-drunk, Billy Bob Thornton slithers through Bad News Bears like a grumpy cat in a particularly foul mood; it’s a turn that less recalls Matthau than W.C. Fields (who certainly seemed an influence on Matthau’s persona as well). Not an indispensable picture, but it’s an awfully funny one. (Expires June 1)
The story behind the debut film of Darren Aronofsky (Reqiuem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) is nearly as compelling as what is on the screen: how he scraped together $60,000 in 1997 and shot on high-contrast black-and-white reversal film with friends and relatives in Brooklyn (with his mom catering the shoot, of course). It got in to the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where Aronfsky won the Directing Award, and was released later that year to rapturous reviews. But this isn’t one of those cases of festival hype and intoxication with the behind-the-scenes story; Aronofsky’s tale of a young mathematician slowly losing his mind is harrowing, thrilling, and unforgettable. (Expires June 1)
We’ve mentioned this all-but-unknown film version of James Lee Burke’s novel before, but its upcoming removal from Netflix streaming forced us to bring it up again, since it’s exactly the kind of movie that service is great for: a smart, well-made picture that somehow slipped through the cracks, hopefully seen by a few more pairs of eyeballs willing to give it a shot for cheap. Tommy Lee Jones plays Dave Robicheaux, a Bayou ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who encounters a rogue’s gallery of Hollywood types when a film production comes to post-Katrina Louisiana. The great Bertrand Tavernier (Coup De Torchon, Round Midnight) directs the film nimbly, keeping the scenes brisk and efficient while maintaining plenty of thick, swampy atmosphere, and the supporting cast is terrific: Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald, John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mary Steenburgen, musician Buddy Guy, indie director John Sayles, and (in his last movie role) the recently and dearly departed Levon Helm. (Expires June 4)
Owen Moverman’s Oscar-nominated drama is such an arrestingly simple idea for a film that it’s a bit surprising it hadn’t been done yet. We’ve all seen the scene, in countless war pictures, where the mother, the father, the pregnant wife opens the door to see the two soldiers in their dress uniforms standing on the porch, wearing grave expressions. But who are those men? What is their life? Who would want to spend day after day riding, as one character calls it, “a tidal wave of grief”? Ben Foster plays the young soldier new to the job of informing the “NOK” (next of kin); Woody Harrelson is the long-timer showing him the ropes. Moverman, in his feature directing debut (he co-wrote I’m Not There and Jesus’ Son), works in an off-hand, naturalistic style that keeps the film from feeling like the Lifetime movie it could so easily have become. This is a deeply felt and powerful film, and the acting — by Foster, Harrelson, and the great Samantha Morton — is remarkable. (Expires June 2)
The first five Rocky films all drop from Netflix Instant on Friday, and they’re rather peculiar to watch back-to-back—in spite of the fact that they’re the work of only two directors, the style and voice of the pictures varies wildly from one to the next. That may, from our vantage point, be part of why they’re so valuable — not as great cinema (though some of them are), but as a cultural artifact. The Rocky pictures didn’t influence the American zeitgeist. They reacted to it, and reflected it. Few (if any) motion picture series so thoroughly encapsulate where conventional Hollywood picture-making was when each film was released; we can watch the first Rocky film, and it is a perfect representation of the kind of quiet, personal cinema that was all the rage in 1976, just as Rocky IV is exactly the kind of glossy, soundtrack-driven, empty-headed fluff that we all wanted to stick in our eye-holes in 1985. Each Rocky film pretty much tells you everything you need to know about where we were as a movie-going populace at the time it came out — for better or for worse. If you don’t have time to engage in a full-on marathon before Friday, of course, you should stick to the first one, which features a remarkable (Oscar-nominated) performance by Stallone and reflects the style and tone of the character-driven dramas so often seen in the mid-1970s — movies like Fat City, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Mean Streets, from which Rocky director John G. Avildsen lifts much of the picture’s decaying urban aesthetic. If you’re looking for pure corn, though, go with Rocky IV , a 90-minute music video where Rocky wins the Cold War. It’s so reliant on montages that it actually features, at around the halfway point, a montage of clips from all of the movies including the one we’re in the middle of. (Expires June 1)
As Dark Shadows quickly fades from memory, let us all stop for a moment to recall what Johnny Depp and Tim Burton were once capable of accomplishing together. (Expires June 1)