NOW critics pick the best recent movies, overlooked classics and essential titles available on the streaming platform
The greatest selling point of streaming services – a near-infinite choice of entertainment, instantly available to anyone anywhere – is also its greatest drawback: if you don’t have a clear plan, you can spend an hour or more just scrolling through the various categories before giving up and going to bed. No judgment here, we’ve all done it… and, if we’re being honest, some of us can’t stop doing it. So as a public service (and to get around the algorithm), NOW’s writers have gone deep into the tiles to recommend some recent favourites, overlooked classics and essential titles available to watch right now. And we’ll update this post regularly as titles leave and join Netflix Canada. We’re not monsters.
Update (February 1, 2022): This post was updated with The Sparks Brothers.
The 40-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank wrote, directed and starred in this cringe-comedy about an artist reaching a point in life where the need to make money brushes up against a desire for creative fulfillment. Blank plays a once-buzzy playwright who starts rapping to rekindle her creative spark while selling out on Broadway. Shot in romantic and intimate black-and-white, The 40-Year-Old Version is packed with one-liners and great musical sequences. Though the lead character is highly cynical, the movie takes a refreshingly uncynical view of the generation gap.
Director Mati Diop’s Cannes-winning feature debut is a dystopian gothic romance full of elegant, unforgettable imagery. Mama Sané plays a young, lower-class Senegalese woman whose lover drowns at sea while attempting to migrate to Spain, and her ensuing emotional disarray manifests in a series of strange happenings. A movie about those left behind in the global humanitarian crisis, Atlantics cleverly subverts a realist aesthetic to draw viewers into a supernatural story about class, grief and belief.
The fact that it’s possible to watch Sydney Pollack’s absolutely electrifying documentary of Aretha Franklin recording her gospel album of the same name at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles is a miracle twice over: first, because the footage wasn’t properly synchronized when Pollack and his crew shot it in 1972, and it was assumed that could never be corrected. Digital editing tools finally made it possible, and Amazing Grace was completed years after Pollack’s death by his friend and collaborator Alan Elliott… and it is a wonder to behold: the energy of Franklin and the musicians and singers supporting her builds in waves, their performance reflected back to them by the audience’s response. When Franklin finally gets to her staggering, wrenching, joyous interpretation of the eponymous hymn, it’s impossible not to be moved.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog Of War) spends some time in Boston with his old friend Elsa, who specializes in intimate, vivid large-format Polaroid portraits – and who now sees her specialization threatened by the death of traditional photography. The result is a movie about mortality and impermanence, and the impulse to leave one’s mark on the world while one still can… or, if you’re Elsa Dorfman, the refusal to take all of this so seriously, and take pictures until the film runs out.
Hidden camera comedies are well-worn territory, but director Kitao Sakurai and star/writer Eric Andre give the genre a jolt of energy by transposing the clichéd narratives of Hollywood rom-coms, road trip and buddy comedies into the streets of mostly working-class southern communities. There are plenty of ridiculously raunchy digressions, but Bad Trip manages to give viewers an optimistic and heartening look at America without glossing over issues of race and class. If anything, the movie exposes how inane and out-of-touch idealized stories about “levelling up” in life can be. Also: Tiffany Haddish delivers her funniest performance since Girls Trip.
The Big Short
Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Michael Lewis’s 2010 book about the financial meltdown of 2008 somehow pulls laughs from outrage, laying out the corporate malfeasance and regulatory failures that led the world into disaster through the eyes of a coterie of hedge fund managers and financial analysts (Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and others) who saw the crisis coming and bet on disaster – figuring that if they couldn’t warn the world of the impending collapse, they could at least guarantee their clients wouldn’t be part of it. McKay orchestrates it all so deftly that you might not even notice how angry he is… at least, not right away.
Alexander Nanau’s methodical, devastating documentary begins with a team of Romanian journalists who uncover a horrific, government-toppling health-care scandal, and then expands to follow the efforts of Vlad Voiculescu, the young patient advocate tasked by the provisional administration to repair that system. Given the sheer amount of information the film has to convey, and the number of subjects whose stories Nanau must juggle, it’s remarkable that Collective feels as clean and precise as it does; the filmmaker and his team organize the complex, frequently unbelievable story into a vivid two-hour narrative, never quite disguising their own outrage at what they – and we – are seeing.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Many stories of 60s radicalism have been told on film, but the Oscar-nominated doc finds an unsung tale in the seeds of the modern-day disability rights movement. Crip Camp traces pivotal civil rights battles in the United States back to Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled teens in the 70s that is fondly remembered as a utopia among attendees who were able to feel a sense of normalcy there. Directors Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht – a Jened alum – use a trove of incredible footage to show how the camp’s free-wheeling attitudes helped foster a protest movement that would lead to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
French director Maïmouna Doucouré’s unsentimental and empathetic debut feature plugs into the fury of an 11-year-old who rebels against her polygamist father’s impending nuptials by secretly joining a hypersexual dance troupe. It’s about a young girl struggling to define her values in the face of social media platforms heavily pushing one-dimensional notions of femininity. The trust the director puts in her audience is like a rebellion in and of itself. A movie about childhood that isn’t afraid to confront the messiness of childhood.
The Dead Don’t Die
Two years ago we said this movie would have a cult following in five years – we’re almost halfway there. A dozy riff on George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead with a dash of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space or whatever other no-budget ghoulapalooza writer/director Jim Jarmusch caught on TV late one night as a kid, The Dead Don’t Die is… really weird. Small-town Pennsylvania cops played by Adam Driver and Bill Murray are confronted with a growing army of walking dead after “polar fracking” knocks the Earth off its axis. What ensues is both a deadpan, laconic deconstruction of the zombie genre and an allegory for the numbing effects of consumerism.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Cinematographer and occasional filmmaker Kirsten Johnson makes a companion piece to 2016’s Cameraperson, focusing on her relationship with her father Dick, who’s recently been diagnosed with dementia – and who enthusiastically helps Kirsten imagine his own death (and afterlife) with little movie shoots as a form of therapy. It’s both a heartening look at a father and daughter facing the end of their lifelong bond, and a cheerful experimental documentary about impending loss. And Dick’s terrible acting is its own wonderful reward.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature exalts a sublime art form without putting artists on a pedestal. Sharad (Aditya Modak) is a devoted student of Hindustani classical music who is skeptical of performing and recording for profit. Through a series of beautifully composed, quietly scathing scenes, Tamhane schools viewers on the particulars of Northern Indian classical music while opening philosophical questions about art and commerce. It’s a classic theme, but the understated approach allows the performance scenes to advance the story on an emotional level. The Disciple grows ever more absorbing as it progresses.
An Easy Girl
Rebecca Zlotowski’s charming coming-of-age drama follows a working-class teen (Mina Farid) on summer break in Cannes whose hedonistic cousin (social media influencer Zahia Dehar) sashays into town and challenges her notions around value and work. Paced with the lightness of a summer vacation, it’s also acerbic and philosophical, giving you eye candy while slyly questioning everything. An Easy Girl is as light or as deep as you need it to be.
Edge Of Tomorrow
Edge Of Tomorrow casts Tom Cruise as a hapless military spokesman thrust into a war against rampaging ETs in France, where he’s immediately killed and then forced to repeat that day over and over again, always dying and always snapping back for a fresh start. When it premiered seven years ago, it was an almost impossible sell, mostly because of the meaningless studio-imposed title and a trailer that didn’t even start to convey how much fun it is to watch Cruise and co-star Emily Blunt spar with one another as she trains him to use his situation to his advantage and maybe also save the human race. Now that every other sci-fi movie has a time-loop plot, Edge Of Tomorrow is a snap to understand and a blast to watch, a mixture of existential comedy and inventive sci-fi action that never takes a wrong step.
Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling followed La La Land with this intimate and expansive drama tracking eight years in the life of Neil Armstrong – the first man to set foot on the moon. The historical re-creations are exhaustively accurate, but even more impressive is how Gosling and Claire Foy match each other’s very specific energy as Neil and Janet Armstrong, two very different people who make perfect sense together. The final sequence loses some impact outside of IMAX theatres, but just focus on Gosling’s face. He’ll get you through it.
The Half Of It
Alice Wu’s charming teenage riff on Cyrano de Bergerac understands the real anguish of Edmond Rostand’s romantic tragedy: it’s not the ache of sending your dream girl into the arms of another, it’s the pain of being unseen by the one you love. That’s the problem facing Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who turns her crush on the alluring Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) into a gig ghost-writing love letters to Aster from her lovesick neighbour Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer). Wu’s queer tweak to Rostand works beautifully, bringing out the closeted aspects of Cyrano that were always there: the outsider protagonist, yearning for a love that isn’t considered possible or proper, shepherding the woman he loves towards a more conventional life even as he knows she deserves better. And making Cyrano a withdrawn Chinese-American teenager who’s sure of her sexuality but unable to act on her feelings snaps the whole thing together beautifully.
Penny Lane’s latest wild trip through America’s culture wars profiles the Satanic Temple, a secularism-worshipping religious organization that uses the First Amendment to fight off attempts by Christian groups to erect theocratic monuments on public property. It’s a hilarious, entertaining and eye-opening film that goes deep into the politicized history of Satanism and the desire to belong to a movement – activist or religious. The theatrical ritual scenes are mind-blowing.
French auteur Claire Denis’s English-language sci-fi horror movie starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche inspired walkouts during its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018. It’s not hard to understand why – High Life is more future camp classic than futuristic. Set in space on a prison ship, Binoche plays an evil, sperm-stealing doctor intent on seducing Pattinson’s celibate convicted murderer as their craft hurtles toward a black hole. There’s birth, death and impeccably designed space fashions.
Writer/director Remi Weekes’s first feature – about two South Sudanese refugees (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Wunmi Mosaku) trapped with one another in a crumbling townhouse in England – is a rare horror film where the supernatural threat is an almost incidental complication to the misery the protagonists are already going through. Which isn’t to say it isn’t scary; in fact, it’s a nail-shredder. It’s also infernally clever about how it uses dark rooms filled with spirits to amplify its protagonists’ very real PTSD, and in holding back a third-act twist that’s truly shocking.
High Flying Bird
A sports picture without any sports, Steven Soderbergh’s run-and-gun drama follows an agent (André Holland) rushing around New York City during an NBA lockout, trying to rep both a rookie (Melvin Gregg) and a white-hot pro (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) while also possibly bringing basketball back to the people. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) and directed, shot and edited by Soderbergh with his usual crackerjack proficiency, it’s a drama about what people will do for money and respect, and – like Holland’s character – it’s really smart about what it does and how it does it.
So there’s this movie where Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Dave Bautista, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Day, Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate and Jeff Goldblum run around a secret hospital for rich criminals in a near-future Los Angeles. How have you never heard of it? Well, thanks to a less-than-optimal distribution deal in Canada, screenwriter Drew Pearce’s gritty, inventive directorial debut was hard to find for a while. Now it’s on Netflix, which means you can enjoy watching “Reservoir Dogs meets John Wick during The Purge” with the tap of a tile.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t have the intimate grandeur that made Moonlight land like a supernova two years earlier; its style is more realistic, its dramatic sensibility more reserved. But with a couple years’ distance, Jenkins’s 2018 adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel feels more and more like a classic on its own terms: a complex portrait of Harlem lovers torn apart by racism and indifference, and the shock waves that reverberate through their families. Stephan James and KiKi Layne are the lovers, with Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Beach and an Oscar-winning Regina King as their people, every last character worthy of his or her own movie.
No, the digital de-aging doesn’t work, but that’s only an issue in the first hour or so of Martin Scorsese’s epic American crime story, which stretches over 60 years in the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the mob hit man who claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s another of Scorsese’s insider epics, per GoodFellas and Casino, but with one crucial difference: there’s no pleasure to be had in any of it. Sheeran does his thing and ends up decrepit and alone, and neither Scorsese nor De Niro let us off the hook about that. He wasn’t a good guy. He has it coming.
Kubo And The Two Strings
Looking for something delicate and fantastical? Consider this 2016 adventure from the stop-motion specialists at Laika, the animation house behind such challenging, beautifully crafted works as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. This film, directed by studio founder Travis Knight, is just as exquisitely designed, with its tale of a young hero (voiced by Art Parkinson) who must evade the hostile Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) with the help of a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). The mythology is a mash-up of a few different legends, and the animators conjure a vivid reality with an exquisite crumpled-paper aesthetic and a sense of endless possibility. Just let it flow over you.
Before he was making massive entertainments like The Last Jedi and the Knives Out movies, writer/director Rian Johnson was playing with genre in a more intimate way. His 2012 take on time-travel thrillers casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as younger and older versions of the same assassin, who find themselves chasing each other around 2044 when Old Joe jumps back to Young Joe’s present on a mission to rewrite the future – and sending Young Joe on the run from his own people, hiding out on a farm with a woman (Emily Blunt) and her very special son. This is first-rate, head-fizzing entertainment, with exceptional performances by Gordon-Levitt, Blunt and Willis, and equally engaging work from Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan and Garret Dillahunt in supporting roles.
Noah Baumbach’s devastating study of a dissolving couple may not be as powerful when you’re able to pause it and go for a walk to shake off the emotional weight; if you’re trapped in a theatre with it, it’s utterly shattering. But Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s fully committed performances will pull you along just the same; and the streaming format allows us to immediately revisit key scenes and marvel at the incredible work Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and a never-better, Oscar-winning Laura Dern are doing in the margins.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
Can a bickering nuclear family (and their weird pug) put their conflicts aside and save the world from a machine apocalypse? What if their conflicts are the thing that gives them a fighting chance? That’s the ingenious engine that powers The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, about a family on a cross-country road trip during a machine uprising. Director Michael Rianda and co-director/co-writer Jeff Rowe have delivered a delirious entertainment where the comedy and the dramatic stakes escalate in perfect harmony, each joke setting up an emotional payoff, and vice-versa.
Darren Aronofsky’s dizzying, deviously clever allegorical movie is the director’s most ambitious since The Fountain. Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman trying to keep her house in order as her poet husband (Javier Bardem) keeps welcoming more and more chaos into their home during a bout of writer’s block. Some have argued this film was just a hand-wringer about how difficult it is to be the partner of a self-absorbed creator… and sure, that’s a valid take. But it’s about everything else, too.
No Country For Old Men
Cormac McCarthy’s novel about three men in 80s Texas whose destinies are tied to a large bag of money feels almost tailor-made for the Coen Brothers, whose filmography – regardless of genre – constitutes a decades-long meditation on the futility of looking for meaning in a chaotic universe. But the Coens’ love of character detail and cinematic texture led to an adaptation even better than its source, with a frantic Josh Brolin, a weary Tommy Lee Jones and a blank Javier Bardem moving through this dusty, sad world on a collision course with one another. It won four Oscars – including picture and director – which doesn’t feel like enough.
After making The Wrestler and Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky was in a position to make anything he wanted. So he swung for the fences with a biblical epic that tells the story of Noah and the ark from the perspective of its hero, a family man tormented by the demands god has placed upon him. Russell Crowe is Noah, with his Beautiful Mind co-star Jennifer Connelly as his wife; Emma Watson turns up as a young woman taken in by their family. And though it’s crammed with elaborate visual effects – including a rock monster voiced by Liam Neeson – the movie’s real power is contained in Crowe’s compelling performance as a man living with the knowledge that his world is coming to an end.
Some people had never heard of Bong Joon-ho before Parasite broke out in 2019. But that film was just the latest in a long line of remarkable genre hybrids, one of which was briefly the jewel in Netflix’s crown: Okja, the 2016 sci-fi satire about a Korean farm girl (Ahn Seo Hyun) and her eponymous best friend, a super-pig created by a shady global corporation. That summary doesn’t even come close to capturing either the complexity of the movie’s narrative – written by Bong and Jon Ronson – or the dexterity with which that narrative is realized, from its remarkably expressive CG super-pig to the range of emotions contained within Okja’s human co-stars, among them Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton. As with all of Bong’s features, the tone switches from idyllic to madcap at the drop of a hat – or the twitch of a giant super-pig’s ear. If you’ve been meaning to catch up to it but find the premise too weird… well, it is weird. Really weird. But it’s also remarkable.
Everybody needs a little joy in their lives, and that’s where the Paddington movies come in. In two movies – only one of which is currently available on Netflix – director Paul King spun Michael Bond’s beloved children’s books into thoughtful, charming fantasies that play just as well for grown-ups as they do for kids. The first movie works as a surprisingly powerful metaphor for the immigrant experience, and also gives Nicole Kidman the chance to be very, very silly as the villain… though she’s not having nearly as much fun as Hugh Grant will in Paddington 2.
Overshadowed by Parasite on the festival circuit at the time – even though it won the Midnight Madness People’s Choice award at TIFF – Galder Gaztelu-Urritia’s amazing high-concept horror movie, which moves the premise of Cube into a merciless vertical structure, still packs one hell of a punch especially now that we’re all spending so much time in isolation. Watch it knowing as little as possible. And brace yourself.
Japanese writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy about environmental stewardship was a global hit in the late 90s and remains a classic to this day thanks to its iconic forest creatures and morally ambiguous characters whose motivations don’t fall into a rote hero-villain dichotomy. It’s the perfect movie for younger viewers ready for more complex subject matter, but this film transcends age and genre to rightfully claim its masterpiece mantle.
With Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino showed the world a new approach to crime dramas; Pulp Fiction demonstrated that he was more than a one-trick pony, reshuffling the B-movies on which he grew up into a complex, overlapping narrative about chatty gangsters, vengeful crime bosses, punch-drunk prizefighters and a couple of genuine miracles. You can enjoy the way it all fits together, or you can just bliss out on the exquisite back-and-forths in the dialogue: John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about hamburgers, Travolta and Uma Thurman flirting at a theme restaurant, Bruce Willis and Maria de Medeiros’s pillow talk, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer’s lovely-dovey booth chat. Pretty much anything Ving Rhames says is gold, too.
The black-and-white shocker about murders at a run-down hotel might not be Alfred Hitchcock’s best picture – that’s either Rear Window or Vertigo, depending on the day of the week – but it’s the one that made the biggest cultural impact, shocking audiences in 1960 with a shower scene so brutal and horrifying that it changed movies forever. (Seriously, there’s a whole documentary dedicated to its importance.) But Psycho is more than just that one scene; it’s a taut, ingeniously constructed thriller featuring complex performances from Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins and lively supporting turns from Vera Miles and Martin Balsam. It’s also a master class in storytelling that forces the viewer’s sympathies to shift from scene to scene, as motivations get cloudy and new information is revealed. You probably haven’t revisited Psycho in a while. It still has a bite.
Restored a few years ago just as mainstream media started embracing and recognizing drag and ball culture in a big way, Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary takes viewers behind the scenes at the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest in New York City. It’s a fascinating time capsule, capturing queer subculture that was the genesis for so much that feels ubiquitous today. It’s also a cult favourite thanks to the screen presence of Crystal LaBeija – founder of the House of LaBeija – who delivers a mic-drop moment at the end.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark
One of the most purely entertaining adventure movies ever made, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s 1981 salute to the serials they grew up watching as children is a masterwork of cinematic craft: although the pacing, energy and visual effects hold up beautifully 40 years later, the performances, production design and John Williams’s rousing score feel so satisfyingly old-school. (The one thing that’s dated badly – very badly – is the implication that Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood was underage when she first fell for Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, which, ick.)
Merawi Gerima’s haunting and lyrical debut is about a filmmaker (Obinna Nwachukwu) returning to his old home in a gentrifying Washington DC neighbourhood. He searches desperately for old friends in a Black community whose scars, history and kinship are spackled over by the new resident yuppies. Emotional memories from the community come at you like a flood – as do the influences of Spike Lee, Charles Burnett and the young filmmaker’s own father, Sankofa director Haile Gerima.
Sarah Gavron’s coming-of-age drama about an abandoned teen caring for her little brother escapes the trauma-porn trap by focusing on the hopes, strength and sisterhood among her diverse characters. Bukky Bakray and Kosar Ali are unbelievably charming and infectious in the lead roles. In a just world, these rockstars would become household names.
Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographically tinged study of a young woman (Yalitza Aparicio) working as a maid for an affluent Mexico City family in the early 70s might be his best movie, which is really saying something about the director of Children Of Men (also on Netflix Canada). Photographed in large-format 65mm and mixed in multichannel Dolby Atmos for an immersive experience that deploys emotional intensity in waves, Roma is like a sea tide slowly overtaking sand on a beach. Sure, you can watch it on your phone. But please don’t.
Rose Glass’s first feature reformulates a certain kind of horror movie into an intense character study about devotion and belief, carried by a tremendous performance from Morfydd Clark as Maud, a young English palliative-care nurse convinced that her latest patient, dying American choreographer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), is a lost soul in need of salvation. Which isn’t to say Ehle’s work is lacking; it’s just that the movie starts out as a two-hander but soon becomes a riveting one-woman show, with writer/director Glass pushing us further and further into Maud’s head as pressures build from without and within. Impressionistic and brutal in its depiction of whatever its protagonist is going through, Saint Maud creates a sort of ecstatic tension and holds it to the bitter end.
Saving Private Ryan
The first 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 war movie is some of the finest filmmaking of the director’s career, re-creating the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day with a sustained, visceral intensity he’s rarely attempted. The rest of the film, while not as intense, is just as well-made, taking characters straight from central casting – Tom Hanks’s world-weary captain, Jeremy Davies’s nervous intellectual, Barry Pepper’s sniper with nerves of steel, Vin Diesel’s New York loudmouth, Adam Goldberg’s angry Jewish enlistee – and taking the time to flesh them out. Yes, the denouement is a little much. You can work through it.
Sandy Tan takes the influences from her formative years as a movie- and- pop-culture-obsessed teen growing up in late 80s/early 90s Singapore and distills them into a wildly entertaining mystery-memoir. Ostensibly the story of unearthing a lost classic of Singaporean cinema (a stunning document of a long-gone cityscape), Shirkers gradually evolves into a nuanced examination of teen friendship and how artistic endeavours often hinge on very specific chemistry between collaborators.
Sorry To Bother You
Boots Riley’s late-capitalist comedy about a telemarketer from Oakland (Lakeith Stanfield) who exploits white privilege to succeed at life is a sharp satire of the interconnectedness of class, race and labour. The comedy grows increasingly bizarre (and low-brow), but the politics wouldn’t fly if the jokes didn’t land. Standouts in the memorable supporting cast include Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun and Kate Berlant.
The Sparks Brothers
Embodied by the unquantifiable voice of Russell Mael crooning his keyboardist brother Ron’s looping, complex lyrics about relationships, nature, commerce and existence itself, Sparks has released 25 studio albums over half a century without ever sustaining mainstream success, though they’ve influenced generations of musicians. Of course Edgar Wright loves them, and with this documentary the filmmaker crafts a rhapsody for them, taking us through the Maels’ careers album by album and letting famous fans like Flea, Patton Oswalt and Weird Al Yankovic tell us how much Sparks means to them. At two hours and 20 minutes it risks being as exhausting as it is exhaustive, but you can’t really argue against Wright packing in everything he can; he’s telling us how much Sparks means to him, too.
Yance Ford’s feature debut mixes together a variety of documentary storytelling techniques to explore a familiar subject – institutionalized racism in the U.S. justice system – in a new way. Ford recounts the story of how his middle-class Long Island family was devastated by the 1992 murder of his brother, and then how a grand jury failed to indict the killer. Using only minimal archival footage, Strong Island weaves together a complex narrative, often from still imagery, to show the deep and long-lasting emotional impact of the events. It’s personal and stylistically risk-taking filmmaking.
Adam Sandler plays a desperate man running around New York City making one terrible decision after another in Uncut Gems. Josh and Benny Safdie made a version of this movie two years ago, as Good Time – also on Netflix Canada – but with Uncut Gems they level up the queasy anxiety and their casting: it’s genuinely shocking to see Sandler scurrying around Manhattan’s diamond district in a state of sweaty, adrenalized panic. It’s as if the Safdies found a new gear for him, and jammed the throttle.
Josh Ruben followed his dazzling no-budget Scare Me with this equally eccentric horror-comedy – very loosely based on the Ubisoft videogame – about a handful of weirdos, isolated in a B&B during a snowstorm, trying to figure out if there’s werewolf in their midst – and if so, who it is. Veep’s Sam Richardson and Other Space’s Milana Vayntrub are a delight as the ostensible authority figures, a timid but kind-hearted park ranger and a more free-spirited letter carrier who serves as his guide to the community. Michaela Watkins, Sarah Burns, Cheyenne Jackson, Harvey Guíllen and Catherine Curtin are among the colourful locals. Mishna Wolff’s script mashes up the 70s shut-in classic The Beast Must Die with the goofy spirit of Clue and Knives Out, mining the absurd conflicts that result when outsized personalities start pointing fingers (and firearms) at each other, and Ruben orchestrates the various discoveries and betrayals with a genuine admiration for the clichés of this particular sub-genre.
Yes, God, Yes
Karen Maine’s first feature is a deadpan comedy about a Catholic teenager named Alice (Natalia Dyer) whose developing curiosity about the pleasures of the flesh leads her panicked parents to ship her off to a woodland retreat where she’ll be taught to repress her sexuality like a good girl. At least that’s the theory. In practice, it’s a little more complicated, as Alice discovers her urges are pretty vanilla compared to the things everyone else is into. If you’ve only seen Dyer running away from monsters on Stranger Things, you have no idea how good an actor she really is; Yes, God, Yes reveals her as an amazing comic talent, getting big laughs with tiny squints, frowns and hesitations, and Maine makes sure we have every opportunity to appreciate her.
Zodiac may not be David Fincher’s best movie – Fight Club, The Social Network and Gone Girl would all like a word – but it’s the one that best sums up his intentions as a filmmaker. An expansive study of obsession and mortality centered on the hunt for the mysterious serial killer who terrorized San Francisco and its environs in the 70s, Zodiac collapses years of research into a riveting two-and-a-half-hour narrative, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal as newspapermen whose lives are overtaken by the hunt for the Zodiac and Mark Ruffalo as the cop who’s just as determined to crack the case – and just as frustrated by his inability to grasp the truth. James Vanderbilt’s script teases out every thread to build a pretty convincing theory of the killer’s identity, but Fincher’s directorial choices keep suggesting alternatives, ultimately leaving us in the same uncertain place as the movie’s heroes, seeing the shape of a truth but not quite able to grasp it. It’s a hell of a thing.