2021 has arrived in full force and with it, the promise of more fantastic movies to stream. Some wonderfully new and others drunk with nostalgia. Either way, we come out ahead. That is … if we can land on the right one to watch. There’s certainly no shortage of stuff to choose from, but in the sea of streaming libraries finding the next right one can be daunting. Allow me to help.
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.
Austin Powers Trilogy (1999 – 2002)
Remember when everyone’s favorite absurdly chest-haired and rotten toothed secret agent was the biggest pop culture sensation? Believe it or not, once upon a time, summer movie-going reached a whole new level when The International Man of Mystery arrived on the scene. We lived for these flicks. From standing in line an hour early to secure tickets, to renting them from the local video store every weekend, to becoming collection fixtures in the early days of DVDs, Austin Powers was a force of hilarious, horny ridiculousness. Though I haven’t re-visited this trilogy since high school, the quotes are still familiar; the dance number still iconic; and Dr. Evil remains one of the single greatest comedic characters conjured in recent memory.
Thanks to our wonderful friends over at Hulu, we can dive into that oddly hysterical time of late 90s / early 00s studio comedy once again. The Friday night marathon practically plans itself. The hyper-sexual robot combusting hip thrusts; the trio of Elizabeth Hurley, Heather Graham, and Beyonce; the “Get in my belly” of it all; the endless double entendres, all of it so of a time and yet so wonderful in its own way.
To think, Mike Myers gave us endless SNL characters — including Wayne Campbell, So I Married an Axe Murder, Shrek, and the mythical Austin Powers … true modern genius if you ask me. So, yeah, you can bet I’m headed back to the cryogenic chamber to thaw out that early teens nostalgia.
FOR FANS OF: Dumb & Dumber; Wayne’s World; Zoolander
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with August Wilson’s work (seriously, read his plays) that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lends itself to a damn near perfect film treatment. Captured by longtime theatre luminary, George C. Wolf, and anchored by titanic performances from the late Chadwick Boseman (in his career best form) and the incomparable Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is most certainly one of the year’s finest films for both all the reasons you’d expect and for reasons that catch us by surprise.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the lyrical electricity that pops off the screen. The playground of Boseman’s delivery and Wilson’s impeccably grounded yet smooth dialogue curates for us an experience that feels almost as kinetic as it would feel on stage. Davis herself commands the screen in the way that only she can accomplish; shouldering the sense of mythical status within the narrative. And yet, not a single detail is missed. From the tattered floor boards in the band’s practice room; to the era defining costumes that twinged with just enough glamour without sacrificing the “I’ve worn this many times” sort of look; to the greater tragedy of the locked door; to the full scale production design — all of it speaks to a greater atmosphere that feels sizable even though we rarely leave two main rooms.
A tragedy in three parts between Boseman’s Levee swinging for the fences and getting in his own way; Ma Rainey’s calloused heart from years of industry disrespect; and the haunting legacy of genius black talent falling through the cracks of a system designed to screw them out of every opportunity. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a heart-shattering triumph of raw, authentic American storytelling.
And give Mr. Boseman and Ms. Davis all the awards!
FOR FANS OF: Do The Right Thing; Fences; I Am Not Your Negro
The Last of the Mohicans: Director’s Cut (1992)
Has this movie earned “infamous” status? I mean, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis in a Michael Mann helmed sweeping, historical epic. The score, the cinematography, the “Stay alive!” sequence, the electric pairing of DDL and Stowe, the complicated allegiances, it’s all enrapturing to a degree that somehow feels both timeless and utterly 90s at the same time.
The Last of the Mohicans hearkens back to a time when the biggest event movies of the year gave us stunning romance alongside incredible action sequences and the set pieces felt tactile. A testament to the herculean filmmaking days of old but still unapologetically epic. Certainly another bright fixture in the modern-day history of the Hollywood movie star machine. The Last of the Mohicans hits all the expected genre beats. Truth be told, there are no surprises to be had but the journey is as all-encompassing as you’ll find. We re-visit the top-shelf historical epics because they represent some of the greatest movie making magic. Especially from the likes of Mr. White Guy Cinema himself, Michael Mann. This one delivers as much tender emotion as it does the familiar “dude-bro” anger.
Big, bold, and fantastic. The Last of the Mohicans will assuredly bring a spark back to movie night.
FOR FANS OF: Braveheart; Gangs of New York; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Not every coming of age story finds a friendly resolution. That’s precisely why Sofia Coppola’s freshman feature remains disturbingly poignant and shatteringly silent in its lethal cuts. The Virgin Suicides is not your average coming of age narrative simply because the awakening and discovery of self are rendered scandalous, and, ultimately, eradicated from ever finding the light of day. Strict, fundamentalist religion is a hell of a thing.
In the thick of 1970’s suburbia, five attractive teenage sisters struggle under the dreary cloud of overprotective, dangerously naive parents. Told through the eyes of a group of neighborhood boys who have grown fond of the sisters and their stifling situation, we follow the girls through the quietly visceral struggle of simply desiring desire; to be seen; to feel; and to laugh a time or two because, you know, they’re teenagers. What could easily have become a paint-by-numbers loud and pound sort of trope is traded-in, rather, for the subtle touch of Coppola. Through faded, photographic shots, intentional needle drops, quiet devastation, and hollow eyes is a slow-burn of a film that never packs that grand “wallop” or speech or “moment”.
Instead, it guts you in the worst way possible – with utter, boring believability. Kirsten Dunst, post-kid roles but pre-teen sensation era, shows early signs of becoming one of Hollywood’s modern marvels as the titular Lux Lisbon entangled with the young, hunky Josh Hartnett. Also, as the title would suggest, the peak of it all delivers in staggering fashion. The Virgin Suicides isn’t the John Hughes pick, nor does it scratch the stratosphere of raunchy 90s lore. Much more akin to Dazed and Confused, but with a lot more depression, this one is a case-study in tender, but heartbreaking filmmaking. And captures high school life with vivid accuracy.
PLATFORM: Prime Video
FOR FANS OF: Charlie Bartlett; Election; & Lady Bird
Young Adult (2011)
Sure, Jason Reitmen has some misses but when he connects it’s a bonafide homerun. He taps into mundane life zeroing in on the absurdity that is as much entertaining as it is relatable, because, if we’re honest, those moments find us all too often. Toss in the colorful prowess of Dialbo Cody’s pen and an unmatched versatility in Charlize Theron and we’re gifted an unflinching yet uniquely re-watchable dark comedy. And for a director with two Best Picture nominations already under his belt, it is this under-the-radar feast that perhaps makes the strongest case for his finest title.
Nostalgia is a hell of a thing.
Re-hearing a song that transports us to an exact time, moment, and place with our old school adolescent squad; a road trip back to the hometown; hitting up the old favorite dive; all of it speaks to the power of memory — but more importantly, the complicated emotions that lace them. Young Adult examines nostalgia and the tricks it plays on the heart; especially when it comes to the glory days of high school which were, of course, anything but. Through the lens of Mavis Gary, a once successful but now plummeting YA author, we examine the potency of suppressed memories, first love, and the ever elusive pursuit of happiness. But, naturally, packed with sharp one-liners and humor deliciously toeing the line between awkwardness and laugh-ability because, well, what else would we expect from the likes of a Reitmen & Cody pairing?
Riding high on a top-tier performance from Theron and a surprisingly human Patton Oswalt, Young Adult is a treat of truthful yet somehow easily entertaining cinema. A grown-up John Hughes film of sorts but with more nuance, less archetype, and a true leading lady force.
FOR FANS OF: Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Long Shot; Up in the Air
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 Austin Powers 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!