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 21, 2021 to add 10 additional recommendations, which we’ve listed first. Our previous list of recommendations follow, starting with Blow the Man Down.
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:
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.
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