We are currently at the breaking point when it comes to video streaming services. Netflix was one thing, but this is another entirely. This pandemic alone has given us three different services of varying quality: Quibi (more a competitor to YouTube than Netflix, with its “quick bite” content intended for “on the go” consumption), HBO Max (with a deep and invaluable library of content that has nevertheless been marred by a botch launch lacking crucial support across all platforms) and now Peacock TV (with its romanticized recreation of linear cable television, right down to its commercial interruptions and anemic library of titles to choose from). All this is, of course, in addition to the glut of options already available to viewers of all stripes: not just the aforementioned services, but Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, Shudder, Kanopy, the Criterion Channel, Mubi, Apple TV+, Crunchy Roll, Twitch and even more besides).
Truth be told, I can’t imagine myself returning to PeacockTV after this first month has expired and the world keeps on going. The library of content is thin and shallowed, the service is cut to ribbons with an unclear tier subscription model and the base service is riddled with the kind of commercial interruptions that feel like the aftershock of an antiquated entertainment model (at least Hulu has grace enough to relegate them to the start of movies and sparingly during TV series). Normally, I like to keep my recommendations to one per decade, and with notable titles standing in for larger kinds of filmmaking available on the service (such as how I only named the first Godzilla, Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub movies for the Criterion Channel, or how HBO Max’s Superman could represent its larger commitment to Warner Bros’ DC titles and Princess Mononoke could stand in for their access to Myazaki’s gorgeous filmography). PeacockTV offers so little that I had to double up on 30s, 40s and 90s titles and was pretty much forced to put three different Hitchcocks in a row.
Maybe PeacockTV is worth it for the first month (after which you’ll have long since run out of “new” things to watch). Maybe there’s somebody out there that feels bad about ditching Cable and wants to turn the clock back to an earlier and less convenient time (but also not sign up for YouTube TV for some reason). All I know is that PeacockTV is not worth the asking price and does literally nothing better than any number of other, better streaming services that are already on the market. Mark my words, this product is not long for the world at hand.
Frankenstein (1931) – Lord knows I love a scary movie, and the old-school Universal Monster movies are among the best there ever was. Nothing quite says “Halloween” to me as much as a grainy, black-and-white, gothic horror movie with mad scientists, misunderstood monsters and irate mobs of pitchfork-wielding villagers. Depending on exactly what you consider Universal Horror, the start date traces as far back as Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera in the early 1920s and stretches as far into the present as the later Creature from the Black Lagoon sequels in the late 1950s. Most, but by no means all, based on classic works of genre fiction, the films combined the stylish flourish of the late silent era with the increasingly sophisticated technology and filmic techniques of the budding sound era that was just starting to come into its own in the early 1930s. And although it deviates significantly from its iconic source material, the best of these was undoubtedly James Whale’s Frankenstein, a sensational reimagining of Mary Shelley’s infamous spine-tingler that introduced the world to the singular talents of Boris Karloff and gave us the most endearing image of Victor Frankenstein’s misbegotten creature.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – Whereas Frankenstein was the best of the Universal monster movies, it was James Whale’s follow-up to it, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), that proved to be the most interesting of the series. Coming in on the wrong side of the Hays Production Code meant that Whale was no longer able to be as explicit about the heresies of the good doctor and his godless creation, the film more than makes up to its oblique storytelling with imaginative fantasy sequences that toe the line between the magical and the monstrous in ways that Guillermo del Toro fans will instantly recognize from that director’s more recent body of work. And by saving all of the stranger parts of its bizarre story for the second film (a trait which it shares with the more recent It movies), it succeeds at both having its cake and eating it to: showing off Karloff’s domineeringly physical performance in the first film while completing his character arc as a mistreated and deeply noble soul in the second.
Double Indemnity (1944) – For as much love as cinephiles heap on the Hollywood studio era, I must confess that, by and large, I simply can’t stand America’s cinematic output between mid-1934 and 1969. There are exceptions throughout this period that I am boundlessly fond of, to be sure, but, as ever, the exception proves the rule and the Hays Code’s stranglehold of American moviemaking for its three and one half decade tenure is a wasteland of melodramatic tripe and utter pablum. In fact, the only consistently bright spot in this dark period, ironically, is Film Noire: the thematically dark and narratively grim B-pictures that showed all the crime and depravity that the Code typically kept out of American movie theaters during this time. From the neo-Victorian trappings of early Noire in the late 1930s to the hardboiled urban thrillers of the 1940s to the desolate and isolating landscapes of late Noire in through the 1950s and even 60s, this pitch-black movement of American nihilism proved to be the most fertile creative ground in an otherwise hopelessly stifled industry. And of the innumerable bottom-shelf masterpieces that this produced, the best was probably Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, a twisted tale of love, lust and the infinite capacity for human greed. Featuring all of the unmistakable hallmarks of classic Noire (flashbacks, voiceovers, femme fetales and good old-fashioned murder), it gave us perhaps the purest example of what exactly, it meant to be an American in the mid-twentieth century.
Rope (1948) – From his arrival in America in 1940 to his departure from the world in 1980, British emigre Alfred Hitchcock produced most of his best films for Hollywood studios. PeacockTV, whatever other failings it might have, provides an excellent deep-dive into many of the director’s most iconic films. Frequently overlooked among his four-decade output in America is Rope, a seemingly one-take thriller based off of the infamous Leopold and Loeb killings. With a riveting performance by the great Jimmy Stewart and one of the director’s most striking use of color photography, Rope is an exciting piece of filmmaking that shows off just how different Hitchcock could be behind the camera when fully allowed to cut loose from studio meddling.
Vertigo (1958) – Generally the best regarded of Hitchcock’s filmography by critics and fellow filmmakers, Vertigo is often a pretty hard sell to actual movie-goers. It’s not as compelling as the director’s early output in Britain and is decidedly not as exciting as his later output in America. It’s a mysterious, contemplative drama about obsession and abuse that closely mirrors the director’s own, well-documented history of obsessing and abusing those nearest to him. It is, in essence, a deconstruction of what it’s actually like to be Hitchcock, and is filmed in his mesmeric but often impenetrable gaze that can’t help but make you feel like you, the viewer, are the real villain of the piece (and, in a way, you pretty much are). Not my favorite of his films by any means (that part comes a little later), and certainly one that I had to take some time to come around on even liking on the most basic level, it nevertheless stands as one of the Master of Suspense’s most rewarding features. If you give Vertigo some time and come to it with an open mind, it becomes inescapably clear why the most recent Sight & Sound decennial movie poll named it as the single best movie ever made (unseating the perennial favorite, Citizen Kane, from its top perch for the first time in decades).
Psycho (1960) – Rope might be one of his most interesting films and Vertigo might be the agreed-upon “best,” but Psycho is and always shall be my favorite of Hitchcock’s output. The bedrock for every thriller, giallo and slasher which followed it, Psycho is as acutely tuned as any one of of Yasujiro Ozu’s dramas and as finely polished as anything from notorious perfectionist David Fincher. Drawing on a combination of Freudian psychoanalysis, compelling psychosexual attraction and a then-modern understanding of the criminal mind, Psycho sketches a dark portrait of the American psyche that never fails to scare me in its final moments at the nightmarish Bates Motel.
The Deer Hunter (1978) – In the annals of American moviemaking, The Deer Hunter holds a rather dubious distinction: it is not only the film that is the reason why we have the awards seasoning campaigning that we do today, but it’s the reason why critics’ and audiences’ tastes are so polarized between arthouse and blockbusters. You see, although The Deer Hunter was beloved by critics from the moment it arrived on the scene, the studio that owned it had zero idea whatsoever as to how it could market, sell and release something this hopelessly dark. Their solution, as it turns out, was insidiously simple: release it in as limited of a capacity as possible and as late into the year as possible so as to still qualify for the Academy Awards, and then when the nominations came out in January, expand its release as wide as possible so as to capitalize on the increased attention it was bound to receive. This strategy proved to be so boundlessly successful that the “late December Release, mid-January Expansion” strategy soon became the modus operandi for movies with Oscar aspirations. And whereas the “best” and “most popular” movies were previously one-and-the-same and dispersed evenly throughout the year, The Deer Hunter’s strategy soon remade the movie landscape so that the early months were destitute of anything of value, the summers were for “popular” movies that drew the teen-dominated blockbuster crowd and the late fall-into-winter was increasingly galvanized towards artistically-minded cineastes with a mind for something more than a sizable box office take (which was obviously helped along by the complimentary release strategies of Jaws, Star Wars and Superman in 1975, 77 and 78 respectively). And it seems so very strange that a movie this foundationally important to the way that movies are made, released and consumed today – to say nothing of a movie that’s this admittedly good and endlessly watchable – is so little throughout of by so many moviegoers of all stripes, lowbrow, highbrow or otherwise.
Do the Right Thing (1989) – Black Lives Matter may have come back with a vengeance in 2020, and may have originated in police brutality protests in 2013, but its roots trace so much further back than most people are willing to give it credit for. Ground Zero for this cultural nearsightedness is Spike Lee’s ascendant Do the Right Thing (1989), a thirty-plus year old movie that feels like it could have come out last week and been just as clearly tapped into the modern cultural zeitgeist of Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite (in fact, the film famously wasn’t nominated against that year’s eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy, which uncomfortably recalls BlacKkKlansman’s recent Oscar loss to the downright embarrassing Green Book). Like Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Do the Right Thing clearly depicts the various Urban-based racial tensions in the United States in the immediate leadup to events like the Rodney King protests. But here, Lee jettisons his obsessive contextualization for our current state of affairs for raw, unbridled rage and the emotional needs of a community reeling from looming acts of brutality against them. From its pulsating opening credit sequence to its oft-blasted ballad “Fight the Power,” Do the Right Thing is the fresh wound of American race “politics” of the last three decades and is an empathic beacon to White Americans about how the unprivileged other half of the population actually lives in the country.
Jurassic Park (1993) – It is endlessly strange to me how little credit certain segments of the moviegoing population wants to give to Steven Spielberg for being quite possibly our best living director. In the pantheon of the medium, the top of the pyramid is occupied pretty much just by Kurosawa, Ozu, Hitchcock and the man who gave us Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980), ET (1982), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012) over a career spanning nearly fifty years. Not only did he give us Minority Report (2002) and Catch Me If You Can (2002) in the same year, but he pulled the same trick a decade prior by giving us Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List (1993) in the span of mere months. And whereas Jurassic Park would easily be the best film in most other directors’ entire filmographies, it is merely a second (or maybe even third) tier Spielberg movie. His talents are as broad as they are deep, adeptly shifting between high-octane thriller to family friendly comedy to starkly realized drama to utterly enchanting sci-fi or fantasy film, setting a new bar of excellence for each one. Plus he has a West Side Story remake coming out later this year? We owe the man far more credit than we’re giving him these days
The Mummy (1999) – What I never understood about remakes is why they always try to just repackage the same old movies to us time and time again. Remaking should mean reinventing: either by taking a second pass at a good idea that simply didn’t work out the first time around or taking a radical new approach to a time-tested classic that we’re more familiar looking like something else entirely. The Mummy – or, rather, this Mummy – takes the latter approach and is infinitely better for it. Rather than the same, straight-laced horror movie that we’ve already seen before (one of the many myriad of mistakes made by the recent Tom Cruise movie), we get an action-fantasy romp starring a familiar cast fronted by the constantly underrated Brendan Frasier. Sure, the film slips into a more typical “horror mode” when the story calls for it, but it is best remembered for vanishing “lost city” that houses its chief antagonist, the Aladdin-esuqe treasure trove beneath its sinking pyramids, its stakes-raising rendition of the Ten Plagues and its cresting waves of sand reshaped into the titular Mummy’s face as it eats a World War I era biplane in the middle of the desert. All in all, it’s a winning combination, and a timely reminder of how much fun movies can be when you’re not just rehashing the same, dusty versions of the same, worn-to-pieces stories time and time again. Even if we’ve seen something like it before, it always pays to add a new twist to the equation.