The powers that be at Amazon Prime Video have been focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to the movies the service offerss for streaming. This is true both in terms of the original productions the company has mounted and the films it licenses from other studios. It hasn’t kept pace with Netflix in this regard–that service seems to launch a new film every week, But Netflix concentrates more on mainstream entertainment, where Amazon has been focused on artful movies and risk-taking.
You’ll find films from some the world’s greatest directors here: Leos Carax, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Park Chan-wook, Richard Linklater, Steve McQueen, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Lynne Ramsay, and more. You can say the same for film talent. Actors like Joaquin Phoenix, Adam Driver, and Kate Beckinsale all appear in more than one Amazon Studios film. Finally, Amazon’s library of catalog titles is far deeper than Netflix’s, especially when it comes to titles made before 1980.
Updated April 12, 2022 to add six new film recommendations. Jeff’s earlier recommendations follow in alphabetical order, starting with Being the Ricardos.
Acclaimed French director Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge, Holy Motors) brings us this strange, beautiful, and devastating musical, entirely written by the cult band Sparks. Even if viewers do know the works of those artists, Annette (2021) is still like nothing you may expect.
A comedian, Henry (Adam Driver), whose shows are more like angry rants, falls in love with an opera singer, Ann (Marion Cotillard). (Henry talks about his audiences in terms of “killing them,” while Ann likes to think she’s “saving” hers.) They marry and have a child, Annette, who is embodied by a series of creepily beautiful marionettes. There’s a murder or two, and it’s discovered that baby Annette can sing, beautifully, when exposed to moonlight, so Henry decides to take her on the road and show her off to the world. What could go wrong?
The songs are (perhaps purposely?) are a bit repetitive and not terribly catchy (at least not right away), but the movie has so many moments of gorgeousness and heartbreak, that adventurous streamers will find it worth a look.
A flop in its day, Blow Out (1981) is now considered one of director Brian De Palma’s greatest films. It takes cues from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, but adds De Palma’s own singular touch.
A soundman working in cheesy “B” horror films, Jack Terry (John Travolta), goes out one night to record some new material. He picks up the sound of a car crash and realizes that the “blow out” sound he hears may be a gunshot—a murder. Running to the scene, he manages to rescue a beautiful woman, Sally (Nancy Allen). Recruiting her to help solve the mystery, he obsessively tries to put the puzzle together, tracking down images to go with his sound, and embarking upon a dangerous cat-and-mouse chase.
De Palma is bold enough to truly see his story through to its logical end, embracing cynicism and irony in a way that the 1980s were usually happy to avoid. John Lithgow and Dennis Franz co-star.
Lucy & Desi
SNL alum Amy Poehler directs this documentary, an essential companion piece to Aaron Sorkin’s biopic Being the Ricardos. Rather than trying to cement Lucille Ball as the legend she already is, Poehler employs her own perspective as a woman in showbiz to make Ball’s story seem both extraordinary, and human, as well as making Desi Arnaz an essential and sympathetic part of that story.
Lucy & Desi (2022) charts both players’ struggle to rise in the industry, until they meet on a movie called Too Many Girls in 1940. Their subsequent show, I Love Lucy, was popular and influential in a way that cannot be understated, and the doc does a great job of putting things in perspective. Even when Lucy and Desi’s marriage begins to crumble, Poehler depicts the situation as realistic, with no heroes or villains. Even if you think you’ve seen everything there is to see on Lucy, this doc might surprise you.
Mariama Diallo’s Master is something of a horror film, with a thesis on Blackness in America; it’s not as expertly realized and as effortlessly terrifying as Get Out, but it’s still very much worth a look. The film cuts back and forth between the stories of two characters: Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), the first-ever Black master of the elite university Ancaster, and Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), a Black freshman. Jasmine is assigned to dorm room 302, which is believed to be haunted; another Black student in the 1960s hanged herself there. Jasmine suffers mysterious attacks (a noose on her door, etc.) and, try as she might, can’t quite get along with her white roommate and her friends.
A teacher, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), starts giving Jasmine bad grades for no discernible reason. Gail, meanwhile, is trying to get Liv tenured, adding some diversity to the all-white staff, and faces maggot trouble in her on-campus housing. The details don’t always flow together, and the horror stuff doesn’t quite tingle, but the overall effect is nonetheless powerful.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Buena Vista Films
Filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have no shortage of great movies on their resumes, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is surely one of their best, or if not, then it at least has the most beloved soundtrack. Inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey (and its title borrowed from Preston Sturges’s 1941 Sullivan’s Travels), and set in Depression-era Mississippi, the story follows three escaped convicts. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and his cohorts Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) seek to recover a buried treasure.
The face many obstacles along the way—ranging from a cyclops and sirens to the KKK—and, teaming up with blues singer Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), they even stop to record a hit song, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” A vivid visual palette combined with incredibly ear-wormy dialogue, as well as great character performances by Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and Charles Durning make for a hilarious, thrilling experience.
Long before he went on to make the most expensive (and most profitable) movies in history, James Cameron made this sci-fi classic on a relatively low budget, with practical FX, and it worked like gangbusters. Images of the rampaging, murderous robot skeleton as it snatches at the escaping heroes’ heels can still make viewers freeze in terror.
The Terminator (1984), of course, tells the story of diner server Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who meets a handsome man from the future, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Reese has been sent back to protect her from the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), so that her baby, a futuristic rebel leader, can eventually be born. It’s a crackling mix of sci-fi ideas and gripping chases and fights that actually makes us care, as well as being shorter and more entertaining than Cameron’s later works. Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, and Dick Miller also appear, and look for Bill Paxton as a punk with a mohawk.
Being the Ricardos
It’s another biopic in a sea of biopics, but writer/director Aaron Sorkin gives Being the Ricardos a kind of bounce, along with a clever structure that makes the film feel more compact and less sprawling. It’s set during a particular week in 1953, as Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are preparing to tape an episode of their smash-hit TV show I Love Lucy, when Lucy is publicly accused of being a Communist.
In-between rehearsals, also attended by the acerbic supporting actors William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), the film flashes back several decades and tells the story of Lucy and Desi, their romance, and their ground-breaking television empire. The performances are the most entertaining thing about it, even as we scrutinize them, looking for sprinkles of the real folks. Kidman manages some dazzling Ball-like comedic bits, and Simmons and Arianda steal the show with their acerbic bickering.
The Best Years of Our Lives
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was a smash hit and a multiple Oscar-winner in its day, and it continues to inspire today. It tells the story of three men coming home from the war: bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and infantry sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March). Fred has trouble finding a meaningful job and can’t relate to the woman (Virginia Mayo) he married just before shipping out. Homer has lost his hands, and has become proficient with his hooks, but doesn’t know how to relate to his family and his fiancée. And Al goes back to a familiar wife (Myrna Loy) and kids but spends most of his time drunk. It’s one of the rare films to truly examine how war affects lives, and not just the people that fight.
It’s a long film, 172 minutes, but it avoids “epic” filmmaking, and uses Gregg Toland’s celebrated deep-focus cinematography to profoundly explore moments of life. It suffers only in that, in 1946, it couldn’t go as far as it might have. Russell was an actual veteran with actual hooks for hands; he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as well as a second, honorary Oscar for “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.”
Based on the great Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) was recently voted in a poll as the greatest Korean film ever made. It’s a mysterious movie, yet entrancing, like a dream that you’ll want to try and remember. It focuses on three characters—the aimless Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), his old classmate Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and the handsome, sportscar-driving Ben (Steven Yeun, a recent Oscar nominee for Minari)—who may or may not have some kind of romantic or sexual connection, but it doesn’t matter.
Ben mentions that he likes to burn down greenhouses, and that he has selected a new one nearby, but that’s not exactly the plot either. The movie is really about its small moments—such as a play of light in a window, or Hae-mi miming the act of eating a tangerine—and the subtle, searching emotions they elicit.
Gus Van Sant’s biopic of cartoonist John Callahan might have fallen into goopy self-importance, but instead it’s loose and rambunctious, and at times exhilarating, and bathed in warm, orange tones. It’s even more irreverent than his Oscar-winning Milk (2008). Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018) begins with Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), abandoned as a child, and now an alcoholic.
At a party, he meets Dexter (Jack Black), and decide to head to an even better party. But, driving drunk together, they get into an accident that leaves Callahan a quadriplegic, with only some limited mobility in his hands. He begins drawing his infamous, near-blasphemous cartoons, often with disability as a subject, but even after becoming published, he still has demons that need wrestling. Rooney Mara plays a physical therapist, a sadly underwritten role, but Black and Jonah Hill, as an AA sponsor, are both top-notch.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
After playing such real-life figures as Julian Assange, Alan Turing, and Thomas Edison, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on a loopier role as Louis Wain (1860-1939), who wanted to be an inventor and a musician, but wound up famous for his series of cat paintings (which changed the way people viewed cats and turned them into household pets). Directed by Will Sharpe, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) can’t help becoming dire and mushy from time to time, as Wain’s misfortunes pile up and his mental health deteriorates, but, like many artist biopics, this one has its delightfully kooky, imaginative sequences as well.
Unsurprisingly, Cumberbatch is skilled enough to provide a sturdy bridge between both extremes. Claire Foy plays Wain’s wife Emily, Andrea Riseborough is his stern sister Caroline, who runs their household full of women, and Toby Jones is Wain’s employer, and editor of the The Illustrated London News. Look fast for Taika Waititi as writer Max Kase.
Korean director Park Chan-wook is best known for his twisted cult classic Oldboy (2003), and cinema buffs know him for his other, equally subversive work. So it’s no surprise that this 2.5-hour costume drama is far from the stodgy, stuffy thing it could have been. Based on a novel by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden (2016) takes place in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A young Korean pickpocket, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), is chosen by a con artist who poses as a Japanese count (Ha Jung-woo), to assist in a new scam. Sookee is to become a new handmaiden for a beautiful Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), while the Count swoops in to win her hand in marriage. Together they will try to drive her insane.
Meanwhile, Lady Hideko lives with her uncle (Cho Jin-woong, with an ink-blackened tongue), who keeps a collection of rare erotic books and forces her to read to guests on a regular basis. Eventually Sookee upsets the plan when she begins falling in love with Lady Hideko. Director Park commands complete control over his ornate frames and opulent decorations, using them to suggest various layers of deceit and desire.
Hotel Transylvania: Transformania
Sony Pictures Animation
This fourth entry in the Hotel Transylvania computer-animated series of kids’ films is a passably silly entertainment with some fun animation and a few chuckles, even if it lacks Adam Sandler’s voice in the role of Drac. In Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg) wishes to appease his father-in-law Drac (voiced by Brian Hull), and arranges to use a ray in the possession of Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) to turn himself into a monster. After a series of accidents, the ray is destroyed, but not before it manages to turn Drac into a human, which he finds most disturbing.
The two of them must travel to the jungles of South America to find a rare gemstone to get the ray working again. Meanwhile, Jonny continues to mutate. It’s often loud and twitchy, but it also manages to slip through some genuinely sweet, funny moments. Other voice actors include Selena Gomez, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, and Fran Drescher. Released exclusively to Prime, it’s a welcome addition to the library for families.
In a Lonely Place
Director Nicholas Ray would gain fame for making Rebel Without a Cause, but his In a Lonely Place (1950) was an early masterpiece; both films make striking use of physical space to underline a character’s tormented psychological state. Humphrey Bogart stars as screenwriter Dixon Steele; he’s offered a chance to adapt a novel, but rather than reading it himself, he invites a coat check girl—who has read it—to his apartment to tell him the story. When she turns up murdered, he becomes a suspect.
Meanwhile, he falls in love with a neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), who stays by his side as he feverishly begins writing again. Unfortunately, he is also prone to strange, violent explosions, which doesn’t help his case. (Bogart is terrifying in these rages.) The apartment complex setting, with its unifying courtyard, becomes a major character in this tense, powerful noir.
Inside Llewyn Davis
For Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen echoed their earlier films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man, and came up with one of their most nuanced and grounded works. Oscar Isaac plays the title character, an exasperated, angry folk singer in 1961 who used to be part of a duo and now ekes out a living at little clubs, while crashing on the couches of fans and friends. These are running out, however: Jean (Carey Mulligan) is particularly furious at him for getting her pregnant.
Llewyn accepts a session job on a novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and takes a road trip with a nasty jazz musician (John Goodman) and his silent driver (Garrett Hedlund) in search of a career-saving job. Meanwhile, he’s stuck with a cat he was supposed to be watching (long story). Davis’ music is not easily marketed, simultaneously sad and angry and beautiful, much like this movie. A key scene is Davis’s audition, singing a powerful tune called “The Death of Queen Jane” (Isaac did his masterful own singing), met with a diffusing response. Justin Timberlake also sings a few tunes (including the aforementioned novelty song), and Adam Driver and F. Murray Abraham co-star.
Robert Eggers (The Witch) directs this highly unsettling, disturbing—and yet unforgettable—horror film in sinister black-and-white and in a constricting square-shaped frame. Set somewhere in the 1890s, The Lighthouse (2019) is so vivid that it feels as if Eggers might have time-traveled with his camera. Robert Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, a man with a shadowy past who reports for work as an assistant lighthouse keeper. His new boss is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe, in a ferocious performance), an old sea-poem reciting salt.
While working the unforgiving job, Ephraim finds that he cannot access the top-floor beacon, which Thomas keeps locked for some reason. Ephraim experiences bad omens and nightmarish visions of tentacles and a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman, the only other person seen in the movie). At night, the men drink and descend into madness while a storm wind bashes against the sea-salt bleached house.
Documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss (The Overnighters, Boys State) was granted access to former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg as he hit the campaign trail to run for President of the United States, the first openly gay man to do so. The resulting film, Mayor Pete (2021), has dramatic highlights such as Pete unexpectedly winning the Iowa caucus, or having to return home when a South Bend police officer shot and killed a Black man, Eric J. Logan. But the length of the shoot allows Moss to include many small, intimate moments, and to explore the movie’s emerging theme.
Pete gained popularity by being authentic and honest, but as the stakes are raised, he finds that his attempts to be authentic are becoming more… calculated. This struggle, and his struggle to connect his own “outsider” status with the “outsider” status of so many other Americans, create more powerful conflict than even the election itself. Even though the outcome is now known, the film leaves off with the sense that we have not heard the last of Pete.
In the powerful, disquieting Sound of Metal (2020), Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) plays thundering drums for a metal band called Blackgammon. His girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke)—her eyebrows bleached ghostly white—plays clamorous guitar and shrieks unintelligible lyrics. One day while assembling the merch table, Ruben experiences a drop in his hearing. The Oscar-winning sound design tells us what it’s like; everything is muffled and distant. A doctor informs Ruben that he’s already lost most of his hearing. He winds up at a camp for deaf and hearing-compromised individuals, run with tough love by Joe (Paul Raci).
Ruben is determined to raise the money for cochlear implants and resume his music career, but Joe argues that deafness is not something that needs to be “fixed.” It’s a fascinating conundrum, and the movie makes it fully universal and touchingly human, all the way up to its shattering climax. In their roles, both Ahmed and Raci (who, in real life, is the child of deaf parents and a rock musician who performs in ASL) are extraordinary.
The Tender Bar
George Clooney directed this adaptation of a memoir by J. R. Moehringer, and while The Tender Bar (2021) is nothing groundbreaking, it’s lively enough and smart enough to make it worth seeing. It’s a pretty standard coming-of-age story centered around J.R. (played by Daniel Ranieri as a kid, Tye Sheridan as a young adult, and narrated by Ron Livingston as the grown-up version). His mother (Lily Rabe) splits from his father, and they move back in with her family, including the vulgar Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and sweet Grandma (Sondra James).
Best of all is Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie, who also lives in the big house and runs a nearby bar called The Dickens. He’s a reader, and booksmart, but also streetwise, yet bound to his neighborhood and ruler of the roost. Every nugget of wisdom that tumbles from his mouth sounds life-changing, and he makes you want to hang around with him. It’s a delightful feat of scenery-chewing at its best, and it pushes the movie in the right direction.
Actor Val Kilmer, who became a star in Top Gun and is also known for films such as Willow, The Doors, Tombstone, Batman Forever, Heat, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, amassed some 800 hours of footage of his life, in the form of family home movies, and his own VHS footage, shot throughout the various stages of his career. After being diagnosed with throat cancer, and his voice so distorted that it’s difficult to understand, he decided to allow his story to be told.
Assembled by filmmakers Leo Scott and Ting Poo, Val (2021) features new footage of the actor, palling around with his son Jack (also an actor); Jack narrates the film, reading his father’s words, in a voice that sounds remarkably like his father’s. The footage charts Kilmer’s rise through movies, his brushes with other famous people, and his tough times, with wonderful honesty. There’s a sneaking suspicion sometimes that Kilmer isn’t quite telling us everything, but what’s here is surprisingly touching.
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