A new year is upon us and your subscription streaming services have added plenty of new movies — though, at first glance, not much outside of the usual churn-and-turn of titles. But we’ve plucked out a few notable exceptions, an eclectic mixture of action thrillers, romantic comedies, thought-provoking documentaries, and much more.
‘Zeros and Ones’ (2021)
Distressingly few major filmmakers took the opportunity to dramatize the particulars of daily life in the Covid-19 pandemic. Abel Ferrara was a notable exception, crafting this lean, mean (less than 90 minutes) story of an American soldier-for-hire (Ethan Hawke) attempting to foil a plot to blow up the Vatican in a locked-down Rome. It sounds like a formula thriller, but Ferrara doesn’t work with formulas; he works with vibes, and the thick sense of paranoia and pandemic-era solitude are palpable and powerful. Plus, Hawke is at the top of his game, portraying not only the leading role but that character’s revolutionary brother, a dual performance that allows the actor to play two types he does especially well: the unhinged wild man and the austere, tightly wound professional.
‘Juliet, Naked’ (2018)
If you like your Hawke a little bit lighter, take a look at this charming romantic comedy, adapted from the author Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel. Hornby is best known for “High Fidelity,” a peerless portrait of how a certain type of young man uses pop music to both idealize women, and carefully cultivate an emotional distance from them. “Juliet” plays like what it is: an older, wiser man’s return to those themes, as a longtime fan (Chris O’Dowd) drives his girlfriend (Rose Byrne) into the arms of the musician (Hawke) he idolizes.
‘The Homesman’ (2014)
There’s no questioning Tommy Lee Jones’s place as one of our last, great grizzled leading men, bringing a sense of gruff gravitas and no-nonsense authority to his acting work. Less noted, but just as worthy of acclaim, are his too-occasional forays into filmmaking, most recently with this masterfully assembled adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s Western novel. Jones knows the genre down in his bones, which is perhaps how he pulls off the miraculous balancing act of both serving and subverting its tropes; what appears, at first, to be a “Rooster Cogburn”-style tale of an old coot and a prim lady’s journey through the Wild West reveals itself to be something quite a bit more eccentric, complicated and (gasp) feminist than that.
‘The Raid 2’ (2014)
If you’re looking for breathless, relentless action, you can’t do much better than Gareth Evans’s sequel to his 2012 cops-and-crooks extravaganza “The Raid: Redemption.” That film isn’t on Netflix, but narrative continuity isn’t exactly front of mind anyway; Evans is a master of the bone-crunching set piece, the more participants and unlikely the location, the better. The highlight is hard to pin down, but this viewer’s vote goes to the extended subway confrontation between our hero, a man with a baseball bat and a woman with two furiously-flying hammers.
The writer and director Aaron Katz was best known, in the late 2000s, as one of the primary practitioners of the so-called “mumblecore” movement, but there’s nary a trace of that aesthetic in this sleek, sharp-edged mixture of neo-noir thriller and Hollywood satire. Lola Kirke is endlessly charismatic and empathetic as Jill, the best friend and personal assistant to Heather, a white-hot young actress (Zoë Kravitz, well on her way to embodying the role herself). But when Heather turns up dead and Jill looks like the best suspect, she has to clear her own name — and, in the process, discovers there was much more to Heather than she ever knew.
‘Appropriate Behavior’ (2015)
Desiree Akhavan writes, directs and stars in this devastatingly funny, breathtakingly candid and unexpectedly sexy comedy-drama, which caused something of a sensation at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to see why; Akhavan is a singular comic voice, and since she’s playing a variation on herself (a bisexual Brooklynite filmmaker, daughter of immigrants), the picture boasts an offhand candor and casual approach to ethnicity, class and identity that makes it distinctive even among the indie set. She followed it up with the 2018 Sundance winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” and remains a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
‘Three Minutes: A Lengthening’ (2022)
The footage plays out in its entirety right at the beginning: a three-plus minute home movie, shot in 1938 by David Kurtz, in the streets of a pleasant-looking Polish village. Seventy-one years later, Kurtz’s grandson Glenn discovered that badly-decomposing film, and became obsessed with unlocking it. It’s a detective story, attempting to piece together the particulars of who and what we see, solely from what’s in the frame; Bianca Stigter’s documentary sticks to those confines, playing and replaying the film, sped up and slowed down, zoomed in, chopped up and reassembled. But this gives way, as it must, to the horrifying details of what happened in this, one of many Jewish communities wiped out by the Holocaust, and ‘Three Minutes’ is ultimately, chillingly haunted by the terrible gulf between the cheerful people in those images, and what became of them in the years that followed.
‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ (2019)
Stanley Nelson’s snapshot of the jazz icon checks all the expected bio-doc boxes: career highlights, archival footage, insights aplenty both from contemporaries and successors. But “Birth of the Cool” gets an extra kick from the words of Davis himself, with the actor Carl Lumbly voicing juicy (and often expletive-laden) quotes from Davis’s autobiography. And though the dates and names are fully accounted for, Nelson devotes particular energy to pinpointing the power of Davis’s music, and what made it so special; in those sections, he carves out a niche somewhere between screen biography and music criticism.