With so many movies new and old to choose from on Prime Video, Steve Newall helps you navigate straight to the best.
Robert Zemeckis’s enduring classic sees a teenager struggle with travelling back in time (as well as struggling with the Oedipal complex) after being transported to a confusing era, 30 years in the past—a time gap that suggests if this were made now, Marty McFly’s destination would be the ancient epoch of 1990 rather than 1955. It’s hard to pick favourites between this and its superb first sequel, involving a time leap forward to the distant future of 2015, and relishing its detailed depictions of a timeline in which Biff Tannen channels the grossness of Trump. Still, there’s a joy to the original that’s hard to top.
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The brothers Gibb get the doco treatment here courtesy of Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia), recounting the fascinating and sometimes satin-y career of the Bee Gees. With revealing firsthand insights from sole surviving Bee Gee Barry Gibb, particularly on the difficult relationships between the brothers, and the likes of Mark Ronson, Eric Clapton and Noel “sibling issues” Gallagher, this is a top-drawer music documentary about an enduring band.
While best-known as an outright comedy director thanks to Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, here Adam McKay turns in a brutally succinct takedown of the American greed causing the Global Financial Crisis. McKay distills hugely complex subject matter down to digestible, Oscar-winning form, using every trick in the book—a stacked cast, dramatic heft, the blackest of comedy, Margot Robbie in a bubble bath—to land this true story’s punches, bringing into full view a mix of satirical skills, anti-establishment attitude, and interest in serious issues previously only hinted at on Saturday Night Live.
A staggering cinematic achievement, all the more so in how readily you’ll lose yourself in this broadly sketched tale of a life captured over a twelve-year span of episodic shooting, charting a young chap’s (fictional) life from childhood into adolescence. Director Richard Linklater casts a spell that defies you to not be moved and captures the incredible complexity, richness and emotion of every one of our unique lives in the process.
Supremely watchable entertainment, Catch Me If You Can is more outright amusing than much of the thriller genre, although it’s comfortably at home there. Current appetites for easygoing fare perhaps make this the perfect time to enjoy Steven Spielberg’s breezy tale of a young con man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who posed as a pilot, doctor and more while pursued by a dogged FBI agent (Tom Hanks).
The great Michael Mann pairs everyman taxi driver Jamie Foxx with icy, silver-haired passenger Vincent (Tom Cruise) in a thriller that plays up the vulnerability and odd intimacy of cab-driving. Hurtling around Los Angeles on what turns out to be a contract killing spree, Mann (as expected) brings the darkened streets to the screen with flair as his leads converse and duel with one another in a conversation interrupted by action scenes—their cat and mouse chat somehow managing to be even more thrilling.
An iconic late 90s slice of mainstream debauchery. Bored rich teens Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillipe) enter into a sexual wager which, if he’s successful, will see Kathryn let him “put it anywhere”. Did we mention they’re half-siblings? Controversial. Add a coke crucifix, strong Reece Witherspoon and Selma Blair performances, pashing practice, and a killer period soundtrack and you have something of a classic (Katie Parker has more on Cruel Intentions in this feature).
Spike Lee’s dynamic direction gets the viewing audience up close with David Byrne and his fellow musicians in this cinematic document of his acclaimed Broadway show. The thrilling concert pic captures the performers’ seemingly limitless energy, accompanied by the surreal sort of performance elements Byrne and Talking Heads fans might expect, as well as a political dimension some may not. Find out more in Tony Stamp’s interview with Byrne.
Two all-time Kiwi legends team up for a pitch-black comedy that you shouldn’t be dissuaded from seeing just because it’s Australian. The great Sam Neill plays a chef and the great John Clarke his gravedigger mate, living in dingy 1990 Melbourne, and finding themselves mixed up in a classic wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time comic crime fiasco—involving an accidental death, improper body disposal, gangsters, and pretty much the whole lol-fueled nine yards.
One of Gus Van Sant’s best (if not the best), the director’s second feature is a drama following a group of junkies in the early 70s, living a nomadic lifestyle and robbing pharmacies and hospitals to get their fix. Matt Dillon stars as the group’s leader Bob, Kelly Lynch his wife Dianne, and other members of the traveling prescription drug party include Heather Graham in one of her first roles—fittingly, even William S. Burroughs shows up. So does tragedy, an effort to get clean, and the ever-present threat of arrest in this stylish depiction of addiction and transience.
Trippy indie horror/sci-fi/drama follows two brothers (co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) who make a return to the cult/commune they were part of as children. Discovering the remaining members don’t seem to have aged at all in the time they were away is only the tip of an iceberg of weirdness, which also includes tug-of-war with the sky, talk of “ascension” and other strange phenomena in this impressive low budget feature that wipes the floor with much better-resourced pics.
Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day pics came as revelations—fun, clever comedy horrors riffing on Groundhog Day with both ambition and mainstream appeal, a rare case of still delivering the goods while being teen-friendly (rated M here, PG-13 in the US). Freaky makes the most of its R-rating but otherwise maintains the HDD mix, bolstered by its premise, which sees Freaky Friday (hence Freaky, geddit?) reimagined to body-swap a serial killer and female high school student, and allow Vince Vaughn to go comedically OTT to our delight.
This debut feature by music video director Ninan Doff (whose vids include Run the Jewels and The Chemical Brothers) is a black comedy set in the Scottish Highlands, following three problem students (and a nerdy fourth) trying to complete the Duke of Edinburgh award by navigating the wilderness as a team. The DoE award is better known here as the Hillary Award, but I’m not sure what Sir Ed’s opinion would be about either these hip hop-obsessed profane slackers or the landed gentry (led by a masked Eddie Izzard) who begin hunting them for sport. Plenty of laughs to be had as the mayhem piles up, especially from the local cops hunting this gang of “hip hop terrorists”.
More Michael Mann? Sure! Pacino and De Niro duel as a detective and bank robber who have more in common with one another than any of the civilians in their lives. Sharing just a few minutes of screen time together across the nearly three-hour running time, watching the pair orbit each other is a delight and when they collide, riveting. A complex thriller that’s proven highly influential since its 1995 release, not least of all its adrenaline-charged heist scene, the standard by which other action set-pieces have been judged since.
Meaner than Mean Girls, high school satire with a bit of John Waters’ view of white middle-class America, the biting Heathers is anchored by a Winona Ryder performance that balances the film’s bleak nihilism with genuine likability—tougher than it sounds. Opposite Ryder is Christian Slater’s OTT Jack Nicholson impersonation, the cast rounded out with spot-on supporting performances. Plot-wise, it’s a surprise some of this stuff ever made it to the screen, but Heathers is all the better for it. Rewatching (and re-quoting) ASAP.
Pete Gleeson’s camera is one of many flies on the walls of the remote Australian mining town two Finnish tourists arrive in, sight unseen, to tend bar for a few months. After the shock of seeing them treated as “fresh meat” by the leering drunk male population subsides, the doco goes on to revel in a bit more than just showing wasted people in less than flattering moments. Not that the culture shock for either the film’s main subjects or the viewer ever truly wears off in the face of Aussie males’ consistently punishing levels of intoxication and sleaze. Their vernacular too, oh boy. “Fuck me dead” indeed.
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the 1868 novel features a great acting ensemble—Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, even Bob Odenkirk—introducing the classic post-Civil War coming-of-age tale to a new generation. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Little Women had to settle for just winning Best Costume Design.
While fashions and lingo may change, this Tina Fey-written satire of high school feels timeless nearly two decades after its release, proving how astutely Fey observed the truths of teen life. Lindsay Lohan is pretty great as fish-out-of-water Cady Heron, and the clique she tries to fit in with is a perfectly-balanced comic trio—Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Charbet, and a delightfully horrible Rachel McAdams. Pop culture really could’ve done with a match-up between Mean Girls’s The Plastics and the Heathers (from, y’know, Heathers).
Superb and devastating drama (#4 on our list of the best movies of 2020) follows teenager Autumn who, lacking options in her home state, travels to New York City to get an abortion. Accompanied by her cousin, and with little resources, the two attempt to navigate the unfamiliar Big Apple and an unjust healthcare system, an experience that tests their relationship. Impressionist and anxious, we’re right there with Autumn in the confusion and complexity of her unintended pregnancy and the lengths she needs to go to in order to secure self-determination.
Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg play two strangers who hook up at a wedding only to somehow be stuck reliving the same day in this rom-com that flips the time-loop genre on its head. With little hope of breaking the loop, the pair start to embrace the nihilistic idea that nothing really matters—in what’s an enjoyable mix of silliness and seriousness, aided by two leads whose self-improvement we keep rooting for, even through their lowest ebbs.
Oliver Stone makes weird “documentaries” praising dictators these days, but once upon a time, he won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture with this Vietnam War pic. Joining the fray, an army volunteer Charlie Sheen finds himself caught between the contrasting morals and approaches of his Platoon Sergeant (Tom Berenger) and Squad Leader (Willem Dafoe)—all while trying to survive the war itself.
A drama that doubles as a horror movie for musicians or those who spend too much time listening to them up loud, Oscar winner Sound of Metal is the gripping tale of a DIY scene drummer who loses his hearing. Riz Ahmed is phenomenal as a man dependent on music for his life, relationship, and the stability needed to stave off substance abuse—and as the Academy Awards recognised, it’s a success across the board, with six noms and deserved wins for Best Sound and Best Film Editing.
Utterly ridiculous with completely committed performances, this comes as significantly lighter viewing than some of the other entries on this list. Ferrell and Reilly are a joy to behold as squabbling man-babies forced to get along when their respective parents get together, while Adam Scott is great as an asshole (and shines leading an a cappella rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine remade by boxer Joseph Parker).
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is less a remake than a completely fresh take on Argento’s ballet-academy-run-by-witches premise. Deeply unsettling, with a grim Cold War backdrop, the 2018 version relishes sitting in unease, punctuated with stabs of bizarre choreography and body horror. Anchored capably by Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, Guadagnino’s pic exits stage left in pulse-pounding fashion.
Trey Edward Shults’s drama for A24 is a gripping study on the weights of expectation, pressure and grief upon an upper middle-class Black family in Florida. Sterling K. Brown delivers an intense performance as a father striving for the best for his kids, two teenagers who the film revolves around and themselves adeptly convey the intense emotions of addiction, guilt and love that they experience throughout. Stunning cinematography, great music (a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score and songs by Kanye West, Animal Collective etc) round out the experience.