Something that I’ve had to come to terms with in the age of movie streaming is the fact that not only are some streaming services only good for certain niches (the Criterion Channel for old and foreign movies, for instance), some services are really only good at certain times of the year. Sometimes it’s obvious, like Shudder for around Halloween or HBO Max when Dune finally releases. Other times, however, it’s a bit more subtle than that; sometimes, it’s that their incredibly high-quality library of movies and TV series just isn’t quite enough to sustain continuous reinvestment in their subscription. You catch up with everything you wanted to see, binged that one must-watch show and are just bereft of anything to watch for the next couple of months (when the next deluge of “content” arrives and you’re good for the next couple of months after that). Sometimes, your streaming service is Hulu.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Hulu’s great. They have a rich library of offerings, their exclusive partnership with Neon and their majority stockholder Disney means that some of the best movies coming out each year can only be found on their platform (such as back-to-back Best Picture winners Parasite and Nomadland). They have The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Rick and Morty and more great movies than you can shake a stick at. There’s at least something there – several somethings actually – for everybody, and that’s not changing anytime soon. And yet, constantly in search of something new to watch, it took until Nomadland hit the service for me to go back to them after a period away, and it feels like it’s getting to that point again with the service. But for the average moviegoer looking for something a little different (but not too different) from all the movies you know and love, you could hardly do better than Hulu beaming into your living room week after week.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
Last month I admitted to harboring less-than-kind feelings for Studio Era Hollywood (the so-called Golden Age of American moviemaking), and not an insubstantial reason why was that I could never get into the “good old fashioned American Western.” The uncritical, rose-tinted reminiscence of the “settling” of the American West, the grievous violence done against the indigenous peoples, non-White settlers and women alike, as well as the often less-than-thrilling climaxes to the stories in question. Their popularity at the time certainly didn’t help; between 1930 and 1954, American filmmakers produced an estimated 2700 Western movies, representing about a fifth of the total film production in the country. That means that, on average, 9 Westerns were coming out in theaters every month (more than 2 every week). Something I’ve always had a soft spot for, however, have been Spaghetti Westerns – English-language Italian movies from the 1960s that used them more as period action movies than the standard John Wayne star vehicle – and nobody ever served up a better Spaghetti Western than Sergio Leone. Although better known for his Dollars trilogy with Clint Eastwood, this one-off capstone to his foray into the genre is a masterpiece of dramatic and action cinema, with a gripping Ennio Morricone score and one of the most memorable cast of sun-baked cow-polks ever committed to film.
The Conversation (1974)
At the height of his creative output in the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola was a cinematic titan than virtually nobody was able to touch. Within a single decade, he gave us the first two Godfathers, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, an increasingly little-remembered thriller about the dangers of the surveillance state and the volatile ways in which communication dominates our lives. In fact, The Conversation was released in the same exact year as The Godfather Part II and won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Seeming to predict much today’s obsessive, cyber-stalking, social media environment (see also: The Social Network) the film has never felt more prescient or powerful than it does into the digital landscape of the 2020a.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Given the long stretch of increasingly inaccessible films that have dominated his post-The Tree of Life (2011) career, it’s easy to forget just what an interesting and powerful filmmaker Terrance Malick is. His elliptical, dreamlike mode of storytelling is a one-of-a-kind retrospective on the half-remembered truths of the Human experience, and his films are almost always counted among the best of their years (if not decades) when all is said and done. Badlands (1973), for instance, was a gripping Bonnie and Clyde-alike about a teenaged killing spree across his native Texas, while Days of Heaven (1978) was an ephemeral fever dream of American economics and class mobility. The Thin Red Line was a hazy recollection of World War II (fittingly, released the exact same year as Saving Private Ryan) that, while certainly less accessible than Spielberg’s oftentimes rousing depiction of heroic (if devastating) martial conflict, nonetheless speaks to a more deeply personal and subjectively honest wartime experience.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Doubtless by now you have already taken it upon yourself to see Bong Joon-ho’s monumental Parasite – which proved to be as much of a surprise hit with audiences as it was an unprecedented success with Oscar voters, who honored the film with the Best Picture award for that year) – the Korean auteur is far from a newcomer to the scene, and boasts an impressive filmography that stretches back to the turn of the century. Although everybody has their favorite – from the star-studded Snowpiercer to the darkly comedic The Host to the Netflix exclusive Okja – my favorite (other than Parasite, that is) has always been Memories of Murder. Fitting comfortably between other, equally ambiguous true crime narratives like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Memories of Murder tells the story of Korea’s first serial killer and the decade-spanning search to find him amid both panicked public outcry and rampant police incompetence.
The Assistant (2020)
With the rise of the #MeToo movement in response to the rampant sexual abuses committed by men in Hollywood and elsewhere, it was only a matter of time before somebody made a dramatic, ripped-from-the-headline, Weinstein-adjacent film to speak to the seeping wound left in the public psyche. And while it may share of surface familiarity with that kind of cash-in, film-of-the-week movie, The Assistant thankfully proves itself to be something much quieter and far more deeply unsettling. Depicting a day in the life of a production assistant in a Miramax-alike production company, the film wrestles with the systemic abuses such men in power got away with for decades, the negligent people in power who turned a blind eye to these grievous improprieties and those forced to play silent witnesses to the ongoing transgressions that they were ultimately powerless to stop. It is a powerful piece of understated filmmaking that doesn’t so much offer a solution to the problem as much as it does shine a spotlight on those forced to endure their continued existence in the workplace.