Best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now
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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.
Updated August 27, 2021 to add 10 additional recommendations, which we’ve listed first. Our previous recommendations follow, starting with Annette.
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:
The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote their extraordinary real-life story into this romantic comedy screenplay and earned an Oscar nomination for their work. The Big Sick (2017) was a critically acclaimed indie success, and yet despite the great behind-the-scenes story, it’s a pretty typical romantic comedy, following most of the same beats. It’s not helped by its full two-hour running time and by the presence of Ray Romano, who, suffice to say, not everybody loves.
Kumail plays a comedian named Kumail, who meets Emily (Zoe Kazan). The movie depicts the awkward beginnings of their relationship with tender realism; there’s a great scene in which she is too shy to use his bathroom. They eventually have a big fight, she gets an infection in her lungs and goes into a coma. Her parents (Romano and a great Holly Hunter) visit, and Kumail finds himself hanging out with them. In another great scene, Hunter absolutely demolishes a brain-dead frat-boy heckler. The final act takes a long time to get itself together, but it is a good movie, likable and entertaining.
One of the greatest films of the 1970s, Chinatown (1974) barely seems to age. It’s a crisp, classic detective story, but with nasty, curdled twists that go beyond a simple “whodunit.” Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, who is hired to take some simple photographs of a cheating spouse. He soon finds out that he has been set up and that the case goes much, much deeper. He becomes entangled with devious Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), in a plot that involves dirty political dealings and twisted family secrets.
Roman Polanski directs, giving Los Angeles a distinct personality, from orange groves to seedy city streets. (Polanski also appears as the thug who slices Jake’s nose with a switchblade.) The eerie, sleepy score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of the greats, and Robert Towne’s masterful screenplay won an Oscar.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
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.
I Am Not Your Negro
At the end of 2016, this was one of a trio of extraordinary documentaries about racism in America (along with Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America and Ava Duvernay’s 13th), which seemed to arrive just when they were needed most. The acclaimed Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck (Lumumba) based his film on an unfinished manuscript by the writer James Baldwin, discussing Baldwin’s relationships with Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically, but in the service of describing a bigger picture of America.
Although, dealing largely in the 1960s, I Am Not Your Negro (2016) is an essential piece of history, it’s also shamefully relevant today. Samuel L. Jackson provides the measured, sincere narration, reflecting Baldwin’s own beautiful, intelligent speaking manner, and the documentary offers a series of powerful photographs and archival footage. Baldwin speaks about race with a clarity that was shocking at the time, and still quite bracing. He is captured not only outraged and defiant, but also in moments of weariness and sadness, as the deaths of his friends affect him in a most ordinary, human way.
Love & Friendship
Writer/director Whit Stillman broke into movies with his portraits of hyper-educated, upper-crust, urban youths, painting them as just as flawed and funny as the rest of us, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider him adapting Jane Austen. Love & Friendship (2016) is based on an early manuscript of Austen’s (published posthumously)—never before adapted to the screen—and features perhaps her nastiest and funniest character, Lady Susan. And Kate Beckinsale sinks her lovely teeth into the role with great panache and humor.
It’s the usual bit of husband hunting, with Susan coveting the well-off, younger Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), but competing with her own daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) for his attentions. Susan tries to throw Frederica off the trail by setting her up with the doltish, jabbering Sir James (a hilarious Tom Bennett). Occasionally Susan brings updates of her scheme to her equally cynical American pal Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny); it’s a welcome reunion after the two starred together 18 years earlier in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. It’s all viciously funny, but kept as light and airy as a spring day at a country estate.
One Night in Miami
Oscar-winning performer Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) makes her feature directing debut with this impressive drama, which plays like a stargazing Lollapalooza of amazing Black Americans. The idea of Cassius Clay (Eli Goree)—the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali—meeting up with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in a Miami hotel room on one night packs enough star power to inspire awed silence.
It takes place the night Ali beat Sonny Liston in 1964, and rather than celebrating, he meets with his friends. (Malcolm, who arranges the meeting, doesn’t provide any adult beverages, but at least he brought ice cream!) It’s based on a play by Kemp Powers (who also wrote and co-directed Pixar’s Soul), and it still feels like a play; i.e., fairly talky. But the talk—about many topics, but mainly about the responsibility these men, as Black Americans, have to help make the world a better place—is incredibly powerful, and undeniably timely. The four performances are superb, and King keeps up a perfect pace, never letting things turn into a slog, but also leaving enough time to digest the rich themes.
Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin wrote, and Martin Scorsese directed, this masterpiece based on the life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. Raging Bull (1980) stars Robert De Niro, who famously got into shape, and then gained some 66 pounds, to portray both the young, savage Jake, and the older, overweight one (De Niro, of course, won an Oscar). He portrays Jake as a brute, who covets the beautiful young Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), and then treats her savagely, either with jealousy or contempt. Joe Pesci is also brilliant as Joey, Jake’s brother, who acts as his handler, but who also pays the price of Jake’s uncontrollable furies.
Shot largely in black-and-white, the movie has a grim beauty, especially in the boxing scenes, which are cut by Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker to the beat of reporters’ flashbulbs. It’s dark stuff, and yet the movie has a vibrancy, a sense of raw, pure emotion, that effortlessly draws us in, time after time.
Writer/director Billy Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett came up with one of their most brilliant, wicked movies with Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film that couldn’t have been made at any other time. It opens brilliantly, with a dead body floating in a swimming pool, narrating his own story! Then, a struggling, in-debt screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) ducks some repo men by turning into the driveway of a crumbling Hollywood mansion.
Inside lives aging actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a faded star of the silent era. She hopes for a comeback in a movie of Salome, and she hires Joe to help re-write her script; he takes the job and winds up becoming something of a “kept boy” for her. Erich von Stroheim co-stars as Max Von Mayerling, a former film director of Norma’s, now serving as her butler. In real life, Stroheim had directed Swanson in an unfinished film called Queen Kelly; Wilder uses clips of it to illustrate Gloria/Norma in her prime. This one is unmissable.
The Vast of Night
Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger and directed by Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night (2020) is arguably one of the best debut films of the past several decades. It’s a mind-blowing, whirlwind sci-fi movie that is ostensibly about an alien visit, though it’s also about much more. It’s the 1950s in a small town in New Mexico, and fast-talking nerd Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) helps set up the sound equipment for the big high-school basketball game before beginning his shift as a radio DJ. Fellow student Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick)—who works as a telephone switchboard operator—walks a bit with him, enlisting his help in operating her new tape recorder.
At work, Fay hears a strange sound on the line and sends it over to Everett, who plays it on the air. He receives a call from an ex-military man named Billy (Bruce Davis), who claims he heard the same sound once before. And thus begins a strange and exhilarating night, captured with astonishing, long-take camerawork, mesmerizing close-ups, rapid-patter dialogue, and moments of eerie silence.
You Were Never Really Here
Taken from a novel by Jonathan Ames and directed by the formidable Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), the incredible neo-noir You Were Never Really Here (2018) is painted in a woozy, daydream fabric, with rational thoughts coming in-between impulse and intuition. Stabbing flashbacks and unreal horror, combined with Jonny Greenwood’s eerie music score heighten the one-of-a-kind mood.
Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his greatest performances—massive and lumpen, but strong, moving like a trapped animal—as Joe, a kind of hitman/problem solver. His latest task is to rescue a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who is likely being used as a sex slave. Getting her back is no problem, but the fallout is something else entirely. It’s a classic noir plot, but Ramsay makes it feel new and bracing, like something essential for our times.
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 you know the works of those artists, Annette (2021) is still like nothing you might 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?) 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.
Spike Lee’s explosive career proves that there’s hardly anyone quite so talented, prolific, or foolhardy working today. He takes risks and fails quite often; some of his more recent efforts are close to unwatchable, and certainly some viewers will think that of Chi-Raq (2015), Amazon’s first original film. It’s based on the ancient play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and largely written in a hip-hop rhyme scheme with some musical numbers thrown in, but it’s also set in a modern-day, violence-ridden Chicago, nicknamed “Chi-Raq” to sound like “Iraq.” Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) is also the name of the leader of a gang, the Spartans, at war with the Trojans, headed by the one-eyed Cyclops (a loony Wesley Snipes).
When a woman (Jennifer Hudson) loses her son to a stray bullet, Chi-Raq’s sexy girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) decides to rally all the women and withhold sex from their men until arms are laid down and peace is at hand. Angela Bassett co-stars as an older woman who reads books (gasp!), John Cusack is a preacher, and Samuel L. Jackson is a kind of Greek chorus. It’s messy, over-the-top, and repetitive, but it’s undeniably passionate, and even oddly optimistic.
A masterpiece from Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World (2001) was his feature filmmaking debut after the great documentary Crumb (1995) and his debut documentary Louie Bluie (1985). Zwigoff and Dan Clowes adapted Clowes’ comic book, freely expanding the characters and situations in a personal way, reflecting Zwigoff’s sensibilities as well as Clowes’s. It’s a cynical movie that doesn’t rest on cynicism. It’s brave enough to explore what might be lurking underneath cynicism, finding loneliness, restlessness, and other all-too human attributes.
Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson star as Enid and Rebecca, best friends who have just graduated high school, coasting on a trail of withering commentary about everything around them. Eschewing college, they agree to get jobs and an apartment together, but Enid must make up for a flunked art class. She also becomes involved with the source of a practical joke, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a shy collector of old 78 records. The movie’s flat, suburban landscape contains many layers, from the pair of pants (“still there”), to Illeana Douglas’ short-sighted art teacher, who—ironically—prefers art with a message to anything personal.
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.
Directed by the extraordinarily creative 24 year-old Steven Spielberg, Jaws (1975) still stands among his finest films. Adapted by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley from Benchley’s best-selling novel, the movie simply tells the story of a shark attack at a summer resort, and the attempts of Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and salty captain Quint (Robert Shaw) to catch it. But what really makes this movie stand out from any other monster movie is the astounding level of confidence that the young director seems to have; he chooses amazingly unique angles for maximum suspense, and the editing by Verna Fields is never less than superb.
The movie spends time deepening the relationships between the characters—the scar-comparing scene is as essential as any of the shark scenes—and the scare scenes are actually scary. Even the ending is more concise and click-perfect than in most of the more mature Spielberg’s output. Best of all is John Williams’ essential music score, which not only invented that unforgettable “da-nuh” theme, but also knew when to pipe down and let the shark make some noise.
Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film, The Killing (1956), was the one that showed him as a fully-formed talent, capable of making masterpieces. It’s a low-budget film noir, but it’s so brilliantly complex, so perfectly executed, and so intensely gripping, that it feels like a high art classic. Written by Kubrick and legendary pulp novelist Jim Thompson (based on a novel by Lionel White), the movie concerns a race-track robbery, planned by a large team of criminals, each with a specific job to do at a specific time.
The brilliantly cast performers are all character types, and we know everything we need to know about them at a glance. Sterling Hayden is Johnny Clay, the mastermind; Elisha Cook Jr. is a meek teller who has access to the back room; Marie Windsor is his bitter, poisonous wife; Timothy Carey is a quasi-psychopathic sniper, and so on. The various pieces click together viciously and most satisfyingly in an impossible 84 minutes.
Last Flag Flying
Directed by Richard Linklater, the seriously underrated Last Flag Flying (2017) is a worthy companion piece to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1974), both based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan. It involves a road trip taken by three former military men, all of whom served together in Vietnam: ex-Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and ex-Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell).
It’s 2003, and Doc has lost his son in the current war in the Middle East and wishes his old friends to accompany him to claim the body. Sal is a lovable loudmouth while Mueller is now a reverend at his local church; Doc is simply quietly processing his grief. Their charismatic combo—and three outstanding performances—provides not only big laughs but also easily makes the tear-ducts flow. Linklater guides them through the story with his usual easygoing flow and a frozen, wintertime rural-ness, with amusingly out-of-place Christmas decorations.
Part of Steve McQueen’s five-film “Small Axe” series, the 70-minute Lovers Rock might be the best and most purely watchable of all his films. Normally a brainy and sober filmmaker, McQueen usually focuses on social issues, but with one of his films, Shame, he took a sharp turn and explored human sexuality. Here he turns to human sensuality as he depicts the events of a house party in West London in the 1980s.
It begins as DJs set up their equipment as food is prepared, and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaks out to get dressed at a friend’s house. Much of the evening is spent on the dance floor, grooving to reggae music, as the DJ chats and raps over the beats, the bodies bobbing and swaying and singing in the increasingly sweaty, sultry atmosphere. There’s some flirting and sexual advances, and even a possible threat of violence. It feels like the other shoe may drop at any point—McQueen is not exactly a feel-good filmmaker—and that things may turn sour or explode. Miraculously, Lovers Rock is more about a mood, being a community, and letting go, at least for a little while.
A flat-out masterpiece, Paterson (2016) easily ranks with director Jim Jarmusch’s best (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man, etc.). It’s a poetic film about poets and poetry, about black-and-white and color, and about a place in the world. But it’s also very funny and totally lovable. In Paterson, NJ, a man called Paterson (Adam Driver) drives a bus by day and writes poetry when he can. (The gorgeous poems, which are shown printed on the screen as they’re scribbled, are by Ron Padgett.)
In the evenings, he walks their bulldog Marvin to a favorite bar, where he nurses a beer and watches the locals. Paterson’s significant other is Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who decorates (lots of circles) and cooks (cheddar cheese and Brussels-sprouts pie!) as well as making cupcakes for a bake sale. She also orders a guitar and learns a song. The movie takes place over the course of the week; the weekend brings a game-changer, which is both sad and beautiful. It’s ultimately a beautiful movie about observing, finding the circular, Zen-like flow of life, and getting back on the bus again.
Sound of Metal
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.
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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Jeffrey has been a working film critic for more than 14 years. He first fell in love with the movies at age six while watching “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and served as staff critic for the San Francisco Examiner from 2000 through 2003.