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. July brought some great new titles on Netflix, and almost all of this week’s titles come from that batch — including films from Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Mark Wahlberg, Holly Hunter, and Woody Allen, plus documentaries, foreign oddities, and more. Check them all out after the jump, and follow the title links to watch them right now.
Terry Gilliam’s cockeyed vision of a dystopian future and a present careening towards insanity is that rarest of cinematic beasts: a science fiction film of ideas, where plotting and logic and characterization are more important than special effects and production design. Which is not to say that the film is free of those elements — it has a distinctive look and style, and effectively uses both CGI and traditional opticals to bring that world seamlessly to life. But it’s not about that stuff; it’s about an ordinary man and his desperate journey, his encounters with madness, and his (perhaps futile) attempts to prevent a catastrophe. And it is about the paradoxes of time travel, which continue to provide fruitful stories for thoughtful filmmakers. Riveting, essential viewing, with career-best work from Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.
The late, great Sidney Lumet capped off his distinguished career with this dirty bomb of a flick, a movie that feels less like the final film of an 83-year-old legend than the first effort of an exciting young upstart. This tale of a family robbery gone horribly awry is bleak, brutal, gripping stuff, and while you might initially have some trouble buying Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers, they create an oily, uncomfortable dynamic that indicates an altogether recognizable form of sibling rivalry. (Also, Marisa Tomei spends, like, most of the movie naked, for those interested in that kind of thing.)
Lest we spend too much energy slamming Robert De Niro, it’s worth remembering that he was doing tough, terrific, no-nonsense work as recently as ’98, when he fronted this outstanding ensemble action caper for the great John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate). It is best remembered for its harrowing — and CG-free — car chase through Paris, but it’s not just empty action; the screenplay by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (writing under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) is full of clever scenes and wonderfully sparse dialogue (“You’re scared.” “Of course I’m scared — you think I’m reluctant because I’m happy?”).
Just in time for The Dark Knight Rises, Netflix has brought back director Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film, so there goes another 113 minutes of our day. This gloriously intelligent wind-up toy of a movie pulses with the excitement of a filmmaker getting away with something, and knowing it; the acting is tricky but terrific, the screenplay is giddily smart, and Nolan’s direction gives the movie the feel of modern noir without any of the obvious visual cues (most of the film is in color — and bright daylight, for that matter). His first film, Following , and his Memento follow-up Insomnia are also on Instant — go have yourself a little festival, and get even more worked up for TDKR.
PBS was good enough to stream Robert Weide’s exceptional two-part documentary as soon as it aired on the American Masters series; it’s no longer on their site, but you can now see it on Netflix. Director Weide got the normally interview-shy Allen to sit down for lengthy chats on his entire body of work, and even joined him on the set of his 2007 film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, capturing a rare glimpse of the filmmaker at work. But Woody Allen: A Documentary isn’t just about access; Weide and his editors move nimbly through Allen’s 40-plus films and 50 years in show business, and tell the story of his evolving style and burgeoning influence with grace and ease. A must-see for film fans.
When GasLand was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar back in 2011, we gave it a cursory mention in our nominations round-up. That simple act, the mere non-editorial acknowledgment of the movie, prompted this comment: “Claims in the film Gasland have been widely documented to be untrue. See the investigative documents for yourself here:” followed by a link. The commenter gave the name “ANGA,” aka America’s Natural Gas Alliance, and the fact that a mention of the film on a pop-culture blog raised a flag that they chased down gives you some idea of the kind of money and power filmmaker Josh Fox is up against in GasLand, which makes a persuasive and worrisome case that natural gas extraction (“fracking”) is contaminating our water, among other concerns. His film has a homemade (frankly, sometimes amateurish) feel, but it is compelling and exhaustive and worth your time; now let’s wait and see if this recommendation prompts more input from his targets.
This 1997 film is one of only two directorial efforts to date by the prolific cinematographer Jack N. Green (who shot, among other things, all of Clint Eastwood’s ’90s films) — and that’s a shame, because it’s a low-key treat with an enjoyably relaxed style and a first-rate performance by star Bill Paxton. He plays Bokky, a smooth-talking grifter working short cons in North Carolina. Mark Wahlberg — very good in one of his first major roles — plays his cousin, Pat, who Bokky takes under his wing and teaches the ropes. New on Netflix and likely not on your radar, but well worth a look.
Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman’s powerful documentary has come and gone from Netflix Instant before; it’s back this month, and if it still hasn’t made it to the top of your queue, move it there. The subjects are teacher Wilma Stephenson and three of her Culinary Arts students at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School; the trio of students are seniors, vying for scholarship money at the district’s yearly competitive cooking competition. Becker and Grausman track those students through her difficult gourmet boot camp, and follows them home as well, creating a closeness with these kids that moves past engagement and into investment — they’re so likable and so warm that you want them to win, and the extraordinary closing scenes are as emotionally overwhelming as any documentary since Hoop Dreams or (in a very different way) Dear Zachary.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 Cannes Palm d’Or winner expires on Netflix tomorrow, and I think we’re all close enough that I can make a rather embarrassing confession: I was engrossed, and aesthetically amazed, and did not get it, not even a little bit. But hey, maybe you will!
For years now, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made their show on a grueling schedule that smashes the entire production schedule — conception, writing, voicing, animating, editing, and delivery — into the week before each program airs, with the final product often arriving mere moments before broadcast. It has frequently allowed them to delivery timely commentary on current events; it also means that every week, that clock starts over, and starts ticking. Arthur Bradford’s fascinating documentary tracks a typical episode through that punishing process, and offers an illuminating peek behind the scenes of the long-running show.
That’s what we’re watching online this week — what about you?