Welcome to Flavorwire’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. Netflix has dropped a ton of new and catalog titles over the past couple of weeks, so we’ve got movies from George Clooney, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Lopez, Rachel Weisz, Steve Buscemi, Paul Greengrass, Steven Soderbergh, and the Coen Brothers, plus the most recent Best Picture winner and one of our favorite documentaries of the year. Check them all out after the jump, and follow the title links to watch them right now.
One of the most enjoyable too-good-to-be-true-stories of recent years, this black comedy from director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) is a clever hybrid of documentary and docudrama, telling the story of an East Texas funeral home director (a wonderfully henpecked Jack Black) who murdered an elderly widow, to the secret delight of their small town. The town denizens play themselves in talking head interviews, while Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey turn in ace supporting performances. Warm, funny, strange, and delightful.
Steven Soderbergh’s first film, 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, was an indie sensation, winning the Cannes Film Festival and becoming a sleeper theatrical hit in an era where indies never cracked the multiplex. The peculiar (but fascinating) films he followed it with were making him look like a one-hit wonder, until he roared back into the mainstream with this 1998 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s knockout novel, a playful, sexy, wickedly funny crime picture with a healthy dose of taboo romance tossed in. It also marked a turning point for star George Clooney — it was his first film after the debacle of Batman and Robin, and marked the beginning of his real career as a genuine leading to man with impeccable taste in projects. And dig the supporting cast: Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Luis Guzman, Dennis Farina, Viola Davis, Nancy Allen… hell, even Jennifer Lopez is great in it, and we all know how rare that is.
These days, most of us know director Paul Greengrass from the last two Bourne movies, his Matt-Damon-but-not-as-Bourne vehicle Green Zone, or his harrowing, documentary-style dramatization of the last flight of United 93. But his breakout picture — the one that first showcased his intense, you-are-there immediacy as a filmmaker — was this 2002 reenactment of the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” shootings in Derry, Northern Ireland. Greengrass parachutes the viewer into the political firestorm, alternating between the ground-level scuffles and the desperate attempts by Ivan Cooper (the brilliant James Nesbitt), organizer of the march that set off the shootings, to keep the event under control. Originally produced for British television but given an international theatrical release, it’s a tough, uncompromising, and powerful piece of work.
The Coen Brothers’ fourth film may very well be their most peculiar — and that’s no minor achievement. This poison pen letter to Hollywood concerns an idealistic playwright (John Turturro) who goes Out West to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery, and ends up immersed in some very strange doings indeed at his eerie hotel. Part Tinseltown satire, part horror movie, part black comedy, and all the way weird, it pulled a rare sweep at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, landing the Palme d’Or (Best Picture), Best Director, and Best Actor for Turturro. But its only non-design Oscar nomination was for Michael Lerner as the gruff-talking, cigar-chomping studio boss, a role that was similarly well played last year…
…by Barton Fink co-star John Goodman in Michel Hazanavicus’s Best Picture winner. We weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the film as the Academy was; it’s a great gimmick, and the attentiveness to detail is astonishing, but it doesn’t quite know where to go once the novelty wears off. That said, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable charmer, the performances are just wonderful, and it makes a great double feature with Fink.
Another Fink co-star (and Coen favorite), Steve Buscemi, made his feature directorial debut with this laid-back comedy/drama from 1996. Buscemi also wrote the script, and stars as Tommy, a good-for-nothing bar rat who floats from one dead-end job and unfortunate situation to the next. It has the street smarts and uncompromising tone of the best of Cassavetes — with Seymour Cassel on hand to connect the dots. Chloe Sevigny, Carol Kane, Anthony LaPaglia, Samuel L. Jackson, and Buscemi’s future Sopranos co-stars Michael Imperioli and John Ventimiglia also shine in supporting roles.
Michael Winterbottom is, like Danny Boyle, one of those directors who seems endlessly able to bend himself into different genres: improvised comedy (The Trip), film noir (The Killer Inside Me), documentary (The Shock Doctrine), drama (A Mighty Heart), music (24 Hour Party People). He’s adapted the works of Thomas Hardy before (in Jude and The Claim), but never with quite this spirit; Trishna is a modern-day retelling of Tess set in India, with Hardy’s story cleverly updated and given a jolt of decidedly contemporary energy. But he also doesn’t compromise the story, which is as emotionally complicated and eventually tragic as expected, and Freida Pinto… good heavens.
Larysa Kondracki’s drama stars Rachel Weisz, which is reason enough to see it, and it is (we are told in the opening title) “inspired by actual events,” which is reason enough to hesitate. But it’s a satisfying and potent investigative thriller, with Weisz getting a rare opportunity to shine in a solo leading role; Vanessa Redgrave hustles into the movie and just gets right to it (in that wonderful way that few actors do), and David Straithairn, though somewhat underused, gives another of those wonderful performances where he tells you everything and nothing, simultaneously. Not exactly a subtle picture, but an effective one, and a welcome showcase for one of our most intriguing actors.
A surprise nominee for last year’s Best Animated Film Oscar, this delightful little French animated caper is a lovely, artisan effort in a style where films look increasingly the same. There is (as best we can tell) no computer-generation on display here; it’s a hand-drawn film, and the personal touch of that style gives it a welcome and loving children’s book quality. It’s a high-spirited, cool-as-a-cucumber adventure with charm and wit to spare.
Netflix didn’t unleash this one in time for our scary-movie round-up; it started streaming on Halloween day, but never fear, it loses nothing in a November viewing. Child-actor-turned-documentarian Michael Stephenson (who made the delightful Best Worst Movie) turns his cameras to the town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and a quartet of “home haunters” — men who expend an entire year’s worth of energy towards creating elaborate haunted houses for trick-or-treaters. It takes you into their weird world, gives a taste of the subculture and jargon (it’s never “the haunted house,” always simply “the haunt”), and revels in their peculiarity (the father-and-son team are like characters from a Christopher Guest movie). But — and this is crucial — it doesn’t make fun of them. Stephenson gets a sense of why this is so important to them, and when the big night comes, he shares their enthusiasm for the fruits of their labor. The American Scream is a loving tribute to small-town oddballs, genuinely affectionate both to them, and to what they do.
That’s what we’re watching this week — what about you? Let us know in the comments!