Amazon’s Prime Video has been surpassed by the sheer number of Netflix original movies, which seem to come out weekly. While Netflix has caught up in terms of quality, the service still concentrates more on mainstream entertainments. Amazon, on the other hand, is more focused on artful movies and risk-taking.
The streaming service is nurturing great directors: Leos Carax, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Park Chan-wook, Richard Linklater, Steve McQueen, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Lynne Ramsay, and more. Ditto for talent; actors like Joaquin Phoenix, Adam Driver, and Kate Beckinsale all appear in more than one Amazon Studios film. Additionally, Amazon’s library of catalog titles—several examples of which are on this last—is far more vast than Netflix’s, especially when it comes to titles made before 1980.
Here are our top picks:
Blow the Man Down
This fascinating, funny crime film, co-written and co-directed by Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy, is, uniquely for the genre, driven entirely by women. Blow the Man Down (2020) begins with the sound of sea shanties in a small Maine fishing village called Easter Cove. Sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Pris Connolly (Sophie Lowe) have just buried their mother. Mary Beth goes to a bar and lets a man pick her up. He takes her to the docks, and when she tries to get away from him, he winds up pierced with a trident.
Pris dutifully helps dispose of the body with her trusty fillet knife, but then the knife goes missing, and a bag of money turns up. Add to this delicious, subtly funny setup a cabal of older ladies (June Squibb, Anette O’Toole, and Marceline Hugot) that keep a vise-grip control over the town, secretly in charge of everything. But Margo Martindale steals the movie as Enid Nora Devlin, who runs the town brothel and has a mysterious connection to the other ladies. Martindale’s sense of motherly menace, as she lumbers around in huge, black shawls and a black cane, is great fun.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Whether or not it made any impact, or whether or not it will have much of a shelf-life, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) was a most welcome arrival in the sixth month of the pandemic, and the final months of the Trump administration.
This one catches up with Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) after having been imprisoned after the release of the 2006 original. Fourteen years later, he’s called for a new mission in the United States. The USA’s new “premier,” “McDonald” Trump, has befriended many evil, powerful countries (North Korea, Russia, etc.) and Kazakhstan wishes to be one of them. Borat is to bribe “No. 1 Ladies’ Man” and “vice premier” Mike Pence with the gift of a monkey. When the monkey meets an untimely end, Borat gets the idea to present his stowaway daughter (Oscar-nominated Maria Bakalova) as a gift instead. Cohen’s humor, approached from the other side of things, takes aim at sacred cows of all types and manages to uncover stupidity and hypocrisy at every turn, while still making us laugh.
Lanky of frame and with deeply expressive eyes, Lakeith Stanfield gave a breakout performance in the powerful drama Crown Heights (2017), based on a true story about a cruel U.S. prison system that targets Blacks. Stanfield plays Colin Warner, a Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-raised man who was inexplicably arrested for a 1980 murder he had nothing to do with. His alibi is air-tight; he was stealing a car at the time to pick up his mother’s TV from the repair shop.
On the outside, Colin’s best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) works tirelessly to get him out, even training to become a process server. “It could be me in here,” he says of his tireless, and decades-long fight. The movie proceeds in a matter-of-fact way, laying on the details of a system that twists around facts to gain convictions, without ever preaching. What it might lack in storytelling finesse, it makes up for in sheer impact.
Manchester by the Sea
In the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea (2016), playwright, writer, and director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) creates deeply nuanced characters and directs exquisite performances. A sudden death brings Boston handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) north to Manchester. Lee has a vicious temper and does not suffer fools, and he betrays and an overall sense of sadness and regret about his life. He finds he has been made guardian of a teen nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and though their relationship is not exactly easygoing, they wind up spending a great deal of time together, dealing with all the things that must be dealt with after death.
It’s bitter cold, and Lonergan makes the most of this gray, chilly atmosphere as Lee and Patrick argue about the funeral (the winter ground is too hard to bury anyone) and about the family boat (it’s too expensive to keep, etc.). Michelle Williams co-stars in a heartbreaking small role as Lee’s ex. Like life, the movie has no easy answers, but it does have many lovely moments of connection.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s very best films, and arguably his most meticulously constructed and thoroughly entertaining as well, Rear Window (1954) is an incredible ride of a film that never leaves its apartment setting. Photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is recovering from a broken leg.
He’s bored and has taken to watching the neighbors across the courtyard, spying on their daily lives. He’s regularly visited by nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter)—he must have amazing health care! and his gorgeous socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), and he shares with them his suspicions that one neighbor, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), may have murdered his wife and disposed of her corpse. Taken from a story by Cornell Woolrich, Hitchcock films it like panels in a comic book, or a series of frames, using the space and light with gripping mastery.
This glossy, intelligent love story is happily absent of soap-opera crescendos, focusing instead matter-of-factly on all those bits of bad timing and inconvenience that can throw an otherwise made-in-heaven romance off-track. Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the movie has the vibe of a classic 1950s-era Douglas Sirk drama, with its beautiful colors and polished use of spaces.
The wonderful Tessa Thompson plays Sylvie, who is engaged, but falls in love with jazz saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha). They drift apart and come back together. She achieves her dream of being a television producer, while Robert finds his jazz dreams interrupted by the rise of Motown music. Their love must survive all of these almost mundane ups and downs, and it’s deeply touching. Written and directed by Eugene Ashe, Sylvie’s Love (2020) is also remarkable for being a story almost entirely made up of Black folks, who finally get to enjoy the kind of ordinary story that whites have made for decades.
This powerful, moving documentary from director Garrett Bradley tells the story of Fox Rich (full name: Sibil Fox Richardson), who spends 18 years fighting for the release of her husband Rob from prison. The film contains home video footage dating back to the beginning of the story, which director Garrett Bradley then converted to black-and-white and assembled around her own, modern-day, black-and-white footage, as Fox—who is also raising six children by herself—turns her fight into a full-time profession.
The kids grow up without a present father, but with the fight in their blood; they have names like “Freedom” and “Justus.” It’s a gripping story, all about the power of love and the pieces that make up a family. But, as the bold title indicates, it’s also heartbreakingly symbolic of a larger issue: Black men targeted, captured, and trapped in a justice system that cares nothing about them.
Regarded by many as Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo (1958) is arguably his most deeply, darkly personal work, exploring obsession and manipulation in a way that seems alarmingly matter-of-fact. John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is a retired detective who suffers from the title condition. An old friend hires him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has taken to wandering around San Francisco while in a strange mental state. She leaps into the bay and Scottie rescues her, and they begin to fall in love, but then she inexplicably jumps from a high bell tower.
Some time later, a destroyed Scottie spots another woman, Judy, who looks oddly like Madeleine once did, and he becomes obsessed with shaping her into his dream girl. The movie could almost have been cruel, but Hitchcock combines the glorious San Francisco locations—great places for sinister activity and Bernard Herrmann’s full-blooded music score with Stewart’s feverish performance to achieve a movie that’s both riveting and revealing.
Todd Haynes’s brilliant, underrated Wonderstruck (2017) is, like his best work (Safe, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, etc.), an involving story and, simultaneously, a thoughtful commentary on that story. Based on a book by Brian Selznick (Hugo), it takes place in two time periods. In the 1920s, a deaf girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds, also in A Quiet Place) searches for a connection with her mother (Julianne Moore), an actress in silent films. Fittingly, this segment is presented as a black-and-white silent film.
Then, in the 1970s, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is struck by lightning and loses his hearing. His mother (Michelle Williams) refuses to tell him anything about his real father, so when he discovers a book with a clue in it, he hits the road to New York. As Haynes switches back and forth between sequences with brilliantly intuitive visual and aural rhyming, a kind of passionate magic emerges, involving history, books, movies, cities, and changing times. Carter Burwell’s gorgeous music score, amazingly, also emphasizes quietness.
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