Those of us who get hives at the very idea of being out in crowds and start sweating merely from exerting the force of locking our doors behind us may have a hard time getting too worked up at the prospect of heading out to the multiplex over this holiday weekend — the theaters are bustling, the temperatures are high, and the biggest new attraction is two and a half hours of The Lone Ranger. But fear not, fellow agoraphobes: thanks to the wonders of modern technology, some of the year’s best movies are available at the click of a button. Yes, due to collapsing theatrical-to-home-video windows and the increasing presence of simultaneous theatrical and VOD releases, several of Flavorwire’s best of 2013 thus far are available at this very moment, and for a fraction of that parking/ticket/popcorn price.
Stoker ($4.99 24-hour rental on Amazon Instant Video)
Oldboy director Park Chan-wook makes his English-language debut with this thrillingly funny and chillingly dark riff on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt — with an inverted twist. In that film, a young woman who loves her uncle unlocks his past and is repulsed. In this one, a young woman who loathes her uncle unlocks his past, and responds with a bit more moral ambiguity. On a very basic level, it’s just plain fun to watch — almost perversely so, considering what we’re often looking at. The director is game to go wherever weird place the story takes him (and, to their credit, so is his cast), and the result is a picture with the surrealistic imagery and doomed inevitability of a good nightmare. (Full review here.)
It’s a Disaster ($3.99 7-day rental on Amazon Instant Video)
Kind of a This is the End for the indie-minded, this comedy of manners from writer/director/actor Todd Berger tells the tale of a “couples brunch” gone awry when a disaster cripples their city, an uncorked chemical weapon making death within hours all but certain. And that’s the set-up for the darkest comedy in many in moon, gingerly treading a very fine line between hilarity and panic, the considerable humor provided mostly by the expected but nonetheless inspired juxtaposition of extraordinary catastrophe and the participants’ everyday, even petty responses. (Full review here.)
Eden ($3.99 7-day rental on Amazon Instant Video)
Harrowing, heartbreaking, and hard to watch, this true account of a young Korean girl’s kidnapping and life as a sex slave is honest but not exploitative. Chong Kim (Jamie Chung, very good at showing nothing but telling everything) tries to escape her captors, but quickly learns that her chances at getting away are exponentially better if she makes her way inside the organization. It’s a totally convincing procedural — her training in the workings of the business becomes, by proxy, ours — and director/co-writer Megan Griffiths finds real suspense in the tension between her survival instinct inside the organization and her desire to get out of it. How do you do the “right thing” when you’ve been so wronged?
V/H/S/2 ($9.99 48-hour rental on Amazon Instant Video)
The lo-fi V/H/S was a genuinely scary bit of business somewhat hampered by a couple of less than stellar segments. This follow-up is tighter, shorter (only four segments, plus wraparounds), and more effective — there’s not a bad bit in the lot, all of them creepy and unnerving, with moments of intentional (and gleeful) silliness. The “no one gets out of here alive” nihilism is a bit much, but the filmmakers’ experiments in point-of-view are consistently absorbing, and the best continue to toy with our expectations of how much visual information can be revealed and withheld. Graphic, grim, and bloody, but boy does it get the job done.
Admission ($12.99 purchase on Amazon Instant Video)
This Tina Fey/Paul Rudd team-up disappeared quickly back in March, dismissed by moviegoers presumably due to a wildly ineffective marketing campaign. Contrary to those ads, Admission is neither a broad comedy nor a dopey rom-com; it’s actually, surprisingly enough, a seriocomic drama in something resembling the Alexander Payne mold, a slightly eccentric examination of flawed people doing their very best. It’s less traditionally comic than Baby Mama and Date Night, Fey’s earlier, likable, and utterly forgettable big-screen vehicles, and finds her moving slightly but surely out of her Lemon-esque comfort zone. This is a good thing. (Full review here.)
Somebody Up There Likes Me ($6.99 3-day rental on Amazon Instant Video)
Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman co-stars and co-produces this strange, prickly, and ultimately sublime absurdist comedy from writer/director Bob Byington. The story of an oddball friendship covering 35 years (in five-year increments) over the course of less than 90 minutes, Somebody moves fast, often grabbing moments rather than full scenes. But that’s the right format for Byington’s frisky comic voice; he’s got a dry sense of visual wit, filling his frames with unexplained jokes and little asides to match the non sequiturs of this dialogue. It’s an honest-to-God original, and while the descriptor “quirky” has been cheapened by marketers and junketeers, it’s about the only word that seems appropriate to summarize the weird world glimpsed here.
Shadow Dancer ($6.99 48-hour rental on Amazon Instant Video)
Man on Fire director James Marsh helms this finely crafted, intelligently acted political thriller/drama with a complexity, subtlety, and depth that immediately recalls Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It doesn’t quite have that film’s skill and precision (or that of Marsh’s nonfiction work), but there’s much in it to admire; Marsh keeps creeping in closer to the action, working up a palpable sense of whispered tension and understated suspense. His rhythms take some getting used to, but his direction is concise, forceful even, and actors Owen and Riseborough (most recently seen in Oblivion) turn in performances both controlled and urgent.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks ($6.99 48-hour rental on Amazon Instant Video)
In this riveting documentary, Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) tells two stories: the thriller-like ascendency of the organization and the troubling questions it asks about government transparency, and the crumbling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, which plays like something out of Greek tragedy — the transformation of an admirable idealist to a paranoid propagandist, injecting his own legal woes into the lofty aims of his organization, and conflating them. Gibney’s take on the story has raised the ire of the organization; see it yourself, and draw your own conclusions. (Interview with the filmmaker here.)
Caroline and Jackie ($6.99 7-day rental on Amazon Instant Video)
This portrait of the strained relationship between two adult sisters is a deeply felt and frequently unnerving portrayal of mental illness and sibling rivalry, one that transcends its occasional markers and dreary subject matter to create something sharp and direct. Writer/director Adam Christian Clark is especially skilled at capturing that moment when a stray comment or inappropriate gesture turns a room, when suddenly an agreeable situation becomes weird for everybody. Caroline and Jackie seems to know these situations from the inside out, which gives it an advantage over your standard family melodrama or pedestrian examination of mental illness. It’s easy for a film to make sweeping generalizations and gin up heavy drama. What’s tougher is what this film does, to examine the minute-to-minute feeling of being around that, in it, and unable to escape it.
The End of Love ($3.99 24-hour rental on Amazon Instant Video; free to Prime members)
Mark Webber, a likable young actor you might recognize from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or For a Good Time, Call… writes, directs, and stars in this charmingly personal comedy/drama. He plays Mark, a young actor of some success who is struggling to raise his two-year-old son (played by Webber’s own boy, Isaac) after the unexpected death of the child’s mother. The kid is great, and the film is a disarmingly candid character study, where the character’s proximity to the actor playing him is an open question that keeps the audience both intrigued and uneasy. It is, on occasion, a little bit precious, but there’s an abundance of poignant and powerful moments, and Webber is a writer/director worth watching.