In theory, video on demand viewing democratizes the at-home movie going experience; in practice, Netflix, and to a lesser extent Hulu, dominate the home viewing market, and while their libraries are sprawling, smaller, off-radar films are often lost in a sea of content.
There’s little accounting for quality in algorithms, which is really a shame: There’s a whole world of terrific cinema available on demand waiting to be discovered and enjoyed from the comfort of your couch, from intimate dramas to nauseating horror movies, scuzzy cop flicks to uncomfortable comedies, and even a few uncategorizable genre-mélanges. To help you get started, we’ve put together a selection of 10 movies worth seeking out, from off the radar to way off the radar.
When your best friend’s dead and the world’s coming to an end, all there is to do is hole up and ring in the apocalypse with a mixtape.
A.T. White’s Starfish is a pleasing, inscrutable blend of equal parts sci-fi, horror, and melancholic mind-screw. Aubrey, played by Virginia Gardner (Halloween) returns home for the funeral of her dear friend Grace. Overnight, eldritch monsters appear out of nowhere and start wrecking the place, and at least partial responsibility for their presence appears to fall on Grace. She’s left Aubrey a series of mixtapes, and playing them in the right order may undo Armageddon. But Aubrey doesn’t care. She’s too burdened by bereavement.
White’s resistance to formula impresses. Another film might’ve tread the beaten path of monster mashes, but Aubrey wrestles through the lingering weight of her grief before answering the call. Starfish cares more about suffering loss, and the way assorted junk invokes hollow echoes of the person it belonged to, than monsters. It’s a film of endless heartache. It’s also weird, cut with animation sequences and unexpected fourth-wall breaks, the meaning of which is never clear, but never matters. If only returning to happier times was as easy as playing a mixtape.
Viewers with unmixed feelings on Mel Gibson won’t dare go near Dragged Across Concrete, the latest from slow-burn master S. Craig Zahler, and that’s fair. But couched in Zahler’s penchant for stifling, amoral nastiness, the pairing works: Gibson casts the movie in the shadow of his massive screen presence, a slag heap of a man whose casual ambivalence toward police brutality rightly taints Zahler’s knotty heist plot. Disgraced police detective Ridgeman (Gibson) convinces his partner, Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), to use their criminal connections to make a little extra cash after Ridgeman cripples a suspect and earns them both a suspension. Meanwhile, Henry (Tory Kittles), an ex-con just out of prison, joins a heist scheme run by soulless murderers, inevitably intertwining his life with Ridgeman’s and Lurasetti’s.
The mechanics forcing them together are exhaustingly complex, but Zahler’s complications smooth out under Dragged Across Concrete’s pacing. The movie is driven by dialogue, the stomach-churning sound of entitled white cops espousing ignorance while chewing egg salad for what feels like an eternity. Gibson holds Dragged Across Concrete’s center, a callous fixture in a movie about bad men, and men who do bad things, getting what they deserve.
Under the Silver Lake
For the average unmoored, privileged white guy, assured from birth that the world is his oyster and he’s owed nothing but pearls, making acquaintance with failure in adulthood is a catastrophic life event. Slacker skeezeball Sam (Andrew Garfield), the protagonist of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, allays the pain of growing up through delusion: He submerges himself in a shadowy world of cryptids, urban legends, and conspiracies lurking beneath the placid surface of Silver Lake, L.A., and distracts himself by stalking women who want nothing to do with him. He’s the unkempt, sweat-sheened hero of his own gumshoe narrative. Mitchell asks the audience not to sympathize with Sam but empathize with him; the film is so rooted in his viewpoint that we only experience its events through his entitled gaze. The goal is to understand where he’s coming from, not to acquit him of his awfulness.
Under the Silver Lake is a shimmering paranoiac fever dream, where Sam’s quest for the truth (of why girls don’t like him) is told in the languages of hard-boiled detective noir as well as surrealist horror; at times it’s freakier than most full-bore horror movies out this year, but only because Mitchell’s filmmaking reinforces Sam’s insistence that he’s been robbed of his rock star birthright by some cosmic injustice, and not his lack of ambition.
Bob and the Trees
In Diego Ongaro’s Bob and the Trees, art imitates life: Bob (Bob Tarasuk), a logger in the great state of Massachusetts, endures the escalating burden of his calling throughout 2014’s polar vortex, and that’s it. That’s the film. Tarasuk plays himself as Ongaro blurs the line separating reality from fiction, photographing Tarasuk in action chopping down trees and managing his livestock, or enjoying a bit of leisure à la good craft beer, golf, or gangsta rap.
The pieces of Bob, at least according to stereotypes of what guys like him are supposed to be, don’t fit, and that’s for the better. Bob’s peculiarities make him compelling, human, and over time just a smidge intimidating, the living, breathing embodiment of blue collar stoicism and artful idiosyncrasy. Bob and the Trees dramatizes his struggles through a neorealist lens, à la Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women), painting a hauntingly honest portrait of the impact that social isolation and the vagaries of climate change have on a working man’s psyche.
Most Black Mirror episodes end badly, with their protagonists utterly undone by either technology imagined or technology based on real world gadgetry: “VR, but it kills you!”, or “nanobots, but they kill you!” In Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, an adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s play of the same name, technology preserves you as a hologram for all your days, providing a projected vessel of your memory for your loved ones to kibbitz with, or perhaps ignore.
Where Alzheimer’s patient Marjorie (Lois Smith) takes comfort in talking to her late husband Walter’s (Jon Hamm) holographic simulacrum, Tess (Geena Davis), their daughter, finds the idea sordid and disturbing. But the film, which unfolds in a limited space where its actors truly shine, argues in technology’s favor. Almereyda’s bittersweet optimism offers a low-key tonic to wash away the taste of science fiction’s contemporary doom and gloom futurism. People die. That’s an inevitability of life. In Marjorie Prime, however, software triumphs over death, reminding the characters of the ones they loved who loved them in return.
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is another slow burn torture chamber of a film designed to make the audience lose their lunch along with their marbles. By the time the film ends, you’ll either need a shower, a priest, or a hug — or possibly all three. Oftentimes “slow burn” can be translated as “nothing happens until the last ten minutes,” but writer-director Lukas Feigelfeld doesn’t skimp on happenings. He just paces them diligently, maximizing their impact and allowing them time to fully sink in.
In the Alps in the 15th century, a young woman, attainted from her birth and ostracized from her community on account of her dead mother’s unseemly spiritual practices, gets by while raising her daughter alone. Things begin to change as she’s seduced by the promise of false companionship, and cruelly abused by her supposed new friend. From there, Hagazussa takes a turn for the hallucinatory. Feigelfeld appreciates good composition and a stationary camera, crafting tableaus as chilling as they are beautiful while holding focus on them just up to the point where the viewer’s nerves might shatter. “Slow” is just a tool in his belt, another way to make people squirm in terror at intensifying madness.
Fun fact: The average rat can leap 32 inches into the air. Another fun fact: Baltimore’s trash cans stand 34 inches high. It’s bad luck being a rat in Baltimore, or anywhere else on the planet, really — except, perhaps, for present day New York City — but being black is arguably worse thanks to white America’s staunch, longstanding efforts at redlining and urban renewal, which have effectively left generations of Baltimore’s minority populace in a state of perpetual poverty. Filmmaker Theo Anthony draws parallels between the city’s stymied efforts at exterminating rats and its far more successful efforts at keeping black Baltimoreans from receiving their piece of the American dream. To him, perhaps, these connections are obvious, but as they’re doled out over the course of Rat Film’s duration, they feel downright revelatory. By the time the movie ends, they’re simply damning.
Band of Robbers
If Dragged Across Concrete and Under the Silver Lake collided at the crossroads of quirky and sentimental, the aftermath would look something like Aaron and Adam Nee’s Band of Robbers. What does a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn story look like in a modern setting? What happens when Tom and Huck come of age and realize that life’s a drag and their youthful idyll was all a fantasy that’s come to a disappointing end? Huck becomes a convict. Tom becomes a cop. Reunited, they become an odd couple, a pair of would-be thieves out to reclaim a touch of their glory days with one ill-conceived heist. Mark Twain took care to warn his readers away from finding motive, moral, and plot in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn back in 1884, so approaching Band of Robbers with the same spirit makes good sense. The Nees have a healthy knowledge of Twain’s work, but they’ve made a movie that doesn’t demand the same of their viewers. All anybody needs to enjoy Band of Robbers is an open mind, good humor, and an appreciation for childlike magic.
“Motherhood” has a strict and frankly unexciting dictionary definition, but to everyone who considers themselves under that umbrella, motherhood is a complex, multifaceted idea — less of an identity than an aesthetic or a philosophy. Marianna Palka’s Egg tones down the satire of her last film, Bitch, in which a woman overburdened by motherly duties snaps and begins acting like a dog. Here, her storytelling and filmmaking is gentle, barbed but not to such an extent that characters bleed out on screen.
Two couples — Karen (Christina Hendricks) and Don (David Alan Basche), and Tina (Alysia Reiner) and Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe) — have a dinner party at Tina’s Brooklyn loft and art studio, where she has overtaken the second floor for staging her latest installation, an ode to motherhood. The party itself is less a social occasion and more of a powder keg, where everyone — Tina and Karen especially — trades judgments and jabs, and the appellation of “mom” is treated to thorough litigation. What the hell does motherhood even mean when surrogacy is an option? Egg cuts deep to finds answers, both profound and compassionate, through the cringiest comedy.
One person visits Columbus, Indiana, and decides to remain. Another lives in Columbus, Indiana, and decides to leave. Columbus, the debut film from video essayist Kogonada, cares much more about the journey than the destination, so this isn’t a spoiler as much as the unavoidable conclusion to a film about two people from different worlds bonding over the suffocating grip of obligation.
Jin (John Cho), an American who lives in South Korea and spends his days translating literature, flies to the Hoosier State to watch over his estranged, comatose father; Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a Columbus native, has big dreams of leaving her hometown behind for an architect’s life, but feels conflicted at the thought of abandoning not only the town, but her addict mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes). Together, they each function as a sounding board for the other’s fears and resentments, wandering about Columbus while Kogonada coolly photographs their surroundings with humble grace.