After a couple of very dry weeks, we’ve got so many noteworthy new releases streaming and on shelves today that we had to add another slot to our customary five. Two of last year’s best movies finally hit disc, along with a wonderful documentary from one of the greats, a pair of forgotten flicks from the ‘80s, and a powerful drama that’s finally off the festival circuit.
Babygirl : Writer/director Macdara Vallely’s intimate story of a 16-year-old girl from the Bronx has an authenticity and aesthetic reminiscent of early-‘90s low-budget, coming-of-age New York movies like Just Another Girl on the IRT and Straight Out of Brooklyn. Probing her protagonist’s sexual (and moral) awakening with a sense of nuance and perception that pushes beyond the normally simplistic emotions and motivations of such pictures, Babygirl gets close to a confused and perhaps ill-advised young woman, without judging or explaining. This one’s been knocking around the festival circuit for a while — I first saw it at Tribeca all the way back in 2012 — so it’s good to see it finally reach an audience, with the particular hope that leading player Yainis Ynoa (a young actress of astonishing gifts) will find another starring vehicle, and soon.
Two Days, One Night : The Dardenne brothers’ heart-wrenching Oscar nominee (new from Criterion, also streaming on Netflix) doesn’t exactly have the cheeriest of premises; it concerns a depressed mother who’s downsized out of her menial job, so in desperation, she seeks out her co-workers and asks them to turn down the bonus that her dismissal allowed. But cinema (here or elsewhere) seldom dares to dramatize such a ground-level portrayal of living paycheck to paycheck, and the Dardennes’ micro-storytelling style creates a surprising amount of suspense and tension. Marion Cotillard is just plain astonishing in the leading role; she’s breathing and bleeding up there, and you’re with her every step of the way. (Includes interviews, location tour, video essay, trailers, and a 1979 documentary by the Dardennes).
Citizenfour : In a style that’s unassuming yet pulsing with urgency and immediacy, director Laura Poitras tells the story of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA documents, from the closest possible vantage point — her camera was with him, in a Hong Kong hotel room, as Glenn Greenwald broke the story. That middle hour or so is astonishingly intimate, but it’s not all there is to the movie; this is a procedural, methodically tracking the assembly of a game-changing story, in a disarming vérité style that reminds us documentaries can be more than talking heads and animated graphics. (Includes deleted scenes, NY Times Talk, Film Society of Lincoln Center Q&A, and a Times “Op-Doc” by Poitras.)
Iris : The great Albert Maysles’ penultimate documentary feature is a loose, funky, engaging profile of Iris Apfel, a charming, brassy clotheshorse who became an unlikely style icon. The 93-year-old sparkplug has a fascinating biography — how she went from textiles to clothes, how she accumulated her massive collection, her decades-long marriage to husband Carl — but, as per his usual style of cinematic conversation, Maysles is more interested in just hanging out with these interesting people, soaking up their lives, tagging along as she shops and chats and haggles. Charming, stylish, and a lot of fun. (Includes additional interview and deleted scenes).
Student Bodies : This 1981 comedy (making its Blu-ray debut) attempted to do for slasher movies what Airplane! had done for disaster pictures the year before, sending up the fad with a shotgun-blast approach combining specific satire, broad sight gags, running jokes, self-awareness, and general silliness. It’s by no means a classic of that order — or of the Mel Brooks spoofs it feels similarly inspired by — but it’s got some big laughs and clever meta-commentary devices, including a running on-screen body count score card, flashing text messages (“Suspect!” “Door unlocked!” “Big mistake!”), and an interlude in which a nice man in a suit says “fuck” so the movie can get the much-desired R rating. Time has mostly been kind to the movie (slightly racist moment or two aside), which now feels as aged and faded as the stuff it’s sending up, and while it runs out of steam and ingenuity in the back half, it’s still a reasonably entertaining throwaway. (No extras.)
Daniel : Also new on Blu, this 1983 drama from director Sidney Lumet and writer E.L. Doctorow (adapting his novel) was a commercial failure — surprising, since it came off their respective hits The Verdict and Ragtime, but this was the early 1980s, and this is a challenging, complex, and morally ambiguous film. A fictional story inspired by the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel follows the politically agnostic son of “the Isaacsons,” inspired by his sister’s activism to reopen an old wound. The narrative shifts between Daniel’s adulthood and childhood, situating his search and his memories in such a way that the past interrogates the present. Yet Daniel captures not just the politics, but the liveliness and camaraderie of leftist activism, accumulating into an essential dramatization of the Red Scare — and its human toll. (No extras)