Spring is in full-force and with it comes the start of a new cinematic season. Or if you’re like me, it marks an opportunity to find some “new-to-me” gems. So, if your movie nights needs an upgrade but aren’t sure where to land, let this list provide some fun, helpful guidance. Because there’s certainly no shortage of stuff to choose from, and the sea of streaming libraries can be daunting.
Each month, I compile a short-list of worthwhile movies waiting to be unearthed from the algorithms of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and the like. Because life’s too short to watch the wrong stuff.
Here are a few entertaining films of that will upgrade your “To-Watch” list for the month.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
You need more show tunes in your life. What better way to swim in the ocean of singable cinema than to (re)visit the golden age of movie musicals?
Fiddler on the Roof is a sweeping epic in that classic sense. Familiar melodies; rich heritage that both speaks to a unique time and place while remaining evergreen; an iconic lead performance (long live Topol!); faith and family; and lush cinematography. This is the sort of three hour investment that brings as many smiles to the face as it does moments of introspection. Whether you’ve history or not with the infamous stage production from Bock, Harnick, and Stein, Fiddler has rightfully earned its placement in the pantheon of greats; ones that remain in our social consciousness, becoming a household name.
Truth be told, Norman Jewison’s cinematic treatment of the beloved musical remains a master class in Broadway-to-cinema pursuits. Bold in scope, personal in character, and rich with all the classic notes. It highlights the universality we’ve come to love and quibble with when encountering Fiddler: Family is everything, but so is faith.
Not to mention that closing shot of Tevye, angry and heartbroken at the sight of Russian officials ransacking his daughter’s wedding, remains singularly devastating.
Fiddler on the Roof is a precious gift.
FOR FANS OF: Les Miserables; The Sound of Music; West Side Story
Lady Bird (2017)
One of my biggest pet peeves is the overuse of concepts stating films require more than one viewing, or claiming a film gets better w/ additional watches. Not to say they aren’t true–but are used FAR too often. More times than not, it’s a cop-out.
That said, Lady Bird breaks that rule.
Honestly, the first time since 2007 I found a deeper love for a film I already loved. Lady Bird may in fact be a title that subtly grows, and grows, and grows as you live with it. One of those rare “fine wine films”.
The level of character nuance in the narrative and hysterical yet bruising authenticity finds me marveling at the simultaneous freshness and already-lived-in-world Gerwig captured. Clocking-in at a tight 94 mins is remarkable when considering the breadth of the covered material and Gerwig’s ability to make every moment feel earned and natural.
For a coming-of-age dramedy–this film has layers. And it’s impeccable.
Also, can we talk about how Laurie Metcalf got straight shafted at every single award show? Look, I’m as big an Alison Janney fan as the next person–but nowhere in the free-thinking universe does her work in I,Tonya touch Metcalf’s perfection. Just sayin’.
FOR FANS OF: Call Me By Your Name; Captain Fantastic; Slums of Beverly Hills
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Listen, I’m not about to claim this film has universal mass appeal. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s even worthwhile to do the whole, “Just give it a chance!”, routine. Because Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t stand for anything … and that’s its genius.
Is it a movie of a generation? I’m not sure. But as far as random, quirky, indie comedies go, it certainly had a moment. For a super specific group of folks that were in high school from 2002 – 2006, Napoleon, Pedro, Deb, and Kip were our squad of beloved misfits. And in many ways, they still are.
So, no, if this flick didn’t already exist in your orbit and you don’t look back on it with absurd, nostalgic fondness, this one isn’t for you. But if you’re like me and you rocked that “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt in the halls of you small-town, MidWest high school and can still quote all the great lines and karaoke the hell out of, “Yes I love technology…” than fire-up Hulu and relive the glory days. Napoleon Dynamite is back in our lives and all is right in the world.
Oh, and don’t forget the tots.
FOR FANS OF: Blades of Glory; Nacho Libre; Office Space
The Rider (2017)
Chloé Zhao is likely going to win Best Director at the Oscars this month. If so, it would complete a clean sweep for her at the major award ceremonies this year. And you know what? She deserves it. Nomadland, as I shared last month, is a stunning visual journey to the finest degree.
All that being said, if Nomadland spoke to you then The Rider is the perfect follow-up. Or at least perfect in the sense journeying alongside a deeply broken but earnestly beautiful character in wide open spaces.
It’s clear to see, in this earlier installment, Zhao mastered her craft. Perhaps not quite as polished from a production design perspective, The Rider is every bit as emotionally honest, empathetic, and unflinching in its rendering of modern life in the prairie; in the open corners of the upper MidWest and the staggering lifestyles that are far too overlooked by the Hollywood machine. We wander, we struggle, we ruminate, we observe, we wince, and we hope Brady. Because not only is his story authentic but Zhao’s treatment of such is deeply sensitive.
After suffering a traumatic head injury at the hands of bronco riding, Brady is vaulted into a life of stillness, bitter consequences, and difficult decisions as he struggles to find an identity as a damaged cowboy. Swelling, subtle yet visceral, The Rider is not a character study as much as it is tender appreciation for the wounded and for those that live their lives dedicated to their land, flawed family and animals.
The best films are the ones that display the stunning yet tragic truths of our humanity. In that light, The Rider delivers beautifully.
PLATFORM: Pluto TV (free) or Prime Video (rent)
FOR FANS OF: Lucky; Nomadland; Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal (2020)
One of the best films of the year by any measure … and it’s deeply uncomfortable in the best way possible which is reason enough to give it a watch.
Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben; a heavy-metal summer who doesn’t have much. Low on money; a less than pristine RV; and suffering from hearing loss. What follows is a slow, gripping descent into deafness and a desperate desire to belong.
On the surface it’s easy to see this title as another indie character study. From the first frame to the breathtaking closing shot, there’s no doubt who the film belongs to. Riz Ahmed anchors the narrative with such raw, tender humanity it teeters on the edge of being too fragile, but never loses focus. A role that’d be too showy and too shallow in the hands of many others. His venture, however, is a masterclass.
But what breaks the viewer is the loss of community. Underneath the gritty moments of unhinged emotion, the grainy camera tones, and the hefty silence rests an unyielding search for communal connection. In true devastating fashion, Ruben loses his footing just as he’s awakened to a new, profound identity. And that moment of shattering discovery; the moment of irreparable loss, not of the hearing but of losing his people and newfound sense of self, delivers a hell of a blow. Not with a shout, mind you; but with a subtle look of bitter defeat and the silent sounds of a saddened mentor signing “goodbye”.
Sound of Metal is a textbook experience in one sense and a stunning display of honest filmmaking in another. Either way, it’s one that, for all the right reasons, won’t leave you easily.
PLATFORM: Prime Video
FOR FANS OF: Crazy Heart; The Rider; Whiplash
Hopefully this will breathe new life into your movie selections, or—if nothing else—add a few more solid titles to that endless queue. Either way, you don’t have to settle for something mediocre when Napoleon Dynamite is right there. Now, go watch something!
What’s the best hidden gem you’ve streamed recently? Share in the comments and help me expand the list!