A few highlights from the occasional movie-content provider Netflix Instant:
9. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (Michel Gondry, 2013)
I haven’t seen Gondry’s documentary about Noam Chomsky – in fact, I’ve regrettably fallen behind on tracking new Gondry films since 2008’s Be Kind Rewind, despite the fact that he’s one of my favorite working filmmakers – but it’s hard to conceive of a world where a collaboration between the brilliantly chaotic-eccentric Gondry and the erudite professor emeritus/activist Chomsky isn’t worthwhile.
8. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003 & 2004)
Now that binge-watching is all the rage, it’s a little easier, and a little more fashionable, to make drinking in the full breadth of Tarantino’s mighty revenge epic, in all its bloody, Morricone-backed glory, into an all-morning or all-afternoon event. My last look at the diptych graded the more lyrical second part well over the ass-kicking first, but a fresh look is overdue.
7. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013)
It’s possible Michael Bay will never make a legitimately great film, but he got close enough for a photo finish for the first time in 2013 with this (relatively) low-budget black comedy about a trio of Florida bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson) who concoct a Fargo-like scheme to ransom a local businessman (Tony Shalhoub) in order to extricate themselves from their mundane, not-the-American-dream lives. With a gallery of great performances – of which Shalhoub and Johnson earn MVP citations – a bracing, surprisingly intelligent script, and Bay employing his usual plus-sized visual style to explode not spacecraft and talking robots but the Great American Delusion, Pain & Gain is a must-see for anyone who thought, yeah, underneath all the White Elephant, maybe Mr. Bay has something termite going on.
6. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)
One of the only pre-1960 titles Netflix has deigned to add to its menu, Anatomy also happens to be one of the all-time great movies: a peak of Preminger’s artistry (yes that’s a deliberate “a” instead of “the”: he redlined more than a few times in his ~40-year career), a popular favorite even among casual film buffs, as well as a strange movie for the “classics” shelf, its strangeness, up to its final frames and notes, compounded rather than diminished by repeat viewings. Enormously entertaining, yet postured against easy digestion; to steal a phrase from another ’50s classic, it’s a cookie full of arsenic.
5. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013)
It’s only fair to note, for some viewers, there may be way, way more explicit gay sex onscreen in Stranger by the Lake than you may be comfortable with. A lot of dicks, and things being done with them. Just saying. This is what we savvy media types call a “trigger warning.”
Still here? Okay. Guiraudie’s twisted dark fantasy is one of the most impeccably directed films of 2013, a Chabrolian compound of gauzy daydream and lucid nightmare. Using a sprawling lake-beach-forest as nothing less than a kind of chessboard for cruising, assignations, and the occasional disappearance, Guiraudie pins the butterfly of his narcotic fantasy against corkboard, and studies its last, vital twitches as a dark shroud descends. Will likely play out differently for gay and straight viewers, but essential for all.
4. Beyond Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, 2012)
To hear it from the rumor mill, or if you attempt to study the entrails of a superstar’s career gone somewhat haywire, Takeshi Kitano ditched his post-Zatoichi experimental kick and returned, with what some say is a broad gesture of sarcastic contempt, to the yakuza bloodletters that made his early career and helped him cross over to international moviegoers. Kind of like Tati humbly bringing home the lesser Trafic after the failure of his all-time masterpiece, Play Time. (Without, and this is key, the masterpiece.) Outrage and Beyond Outrage (or Outrage Beyond, depending) trowel layer upon layer of inscrutable gangster politics and warfare, dropping forgettable names and connections faster than bodies. Despite his alleged best efforts to wave the middle finger in the face of financiers, you’ll have a hard time believing Kitano phoned it in all the way. His contempt for story, in fact, gives the pair of films a kind of freeing energy, different from the “early, funny ones,” more constricted than the weird-ass 2003-2008 phase, but not insubstantial by a long shot.
3. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
In which Coppola erases a decade’s worth of post-Apocalypse Now disappointments and experiments with a surprisingly operatic adaptation of the horror classic. A heady mix of great pre-CGI, practical effects, cinematic swooning, and just plain go-for-broke stylistic flourishes. Top marks in pretty much every department.
2. Fantastic Voyage (Richard Fleischer, 1966)
Fleischer at his worst is a sad affair, indeed, but Fleischer at his best is a force to be reckoned with, and Fantastic Voyage is a neat crossroads between the nimble direction of his early days and the robust visuals of his peak Hollywood integration (see also The Boston Strangler). Also, just one of the great adventure films, serenely dated but kept afloat by sheer razzamatazz.
1. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)
Now past 70, Kiarostami made his 2nd feature outside his native Iran, after a career spanning five decades and, as we often say of artists who’ve reached retirement age – it is the work of a young rascal, still fudging with narrative expectations, duration, and space. A forthcoming (and well-chosen) title from the Criterion Collection, but if you can’t wait, watch it today. Right now.