A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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170/365: Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel, 1975) (Tubi, Fandor, Kanopy, YouTube, Amazon Prime)

This infamous pulp machine makes plain the simple fact that science fiction, when it’s done properly, isn’t about thrills but about ideas, social speculation, and is therefore a far closer cousin to pure satire than to horror films (with which it is usually clumped) — and in this case, the future-fascist-state-ruling-by-televised-homicidal-sport idea, which was at least as old as Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim (1965), hits the big time, 30-odd years before The Hunger Games. (It’s not a notion that could’ve arrived before television, because no one had ever seen social control like TV before.) In Bartel’s outrageously silly take (based on a story by genre maven and filmmaker Ib Melchior), America rules the world and remains entranced and juiced only by a televised cross-country race in which the drivers accumulate points by running over pedestrians. Talk about reality TV. Crudely conceived even by producer Roger Corman’s stanards, the story tracks David Carradine’s mysterious Frankenstein (dressed, provocatively, in B&D zippered leather) and his broad-comedy competition (including Sylvester Stallone when he could be funny) across desert byways in a set of absurd roadsters clearly inspired by Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races. (One of the racers, Pam-Grier-prison-movie vet Roberta Collins, is a Nazi covered in swastikas.) The TV host, The Real Don Steele, a famous LA disc jockey, is practically the film’s lead character, braying hyperbolic announcer baloney directly into the camera in a manner that should make us ashamed of advertising media in general. The cheap gore and glib attitude toward road death is its own kind of commentary, of course — the race’s victims aren’t forgotten, as their widows are trotted out in front of the cameras game-show style and awarded vacation homes. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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163/365: You, the Living (Mubi, Kanopy, Amazon Prime)

Swedish master Andersson has an entirely distinctive way of making movies — shot in wide-angle from a personal-space-respecting distance in a fluorescent-lit world of moldy green pastels and ashen-faced zombie-humans acting out the absurd machinations of modern life, Andersson’s mature films are both dryly funny and scarifyingly ecstatic. In this world, the various characters we meet often speak directly to us, often about their dreams, which are then revealed as well, in real time. All the while, we see these people in entire rooms, and there’s no hurry. A man stuck in a drizzly traffic jam shouts at us from his car, telling us about a dream that we then see, and which ends badly, in the electric chair. Desolate musicians abound, practicing their tuba and bass drum at home and driving their neighbors insane, and they reappear endlessly, playing at funerals and in parades in which other characters participate, before meeting to practice and ripping into a Dixie riff during a hellacious lightning storm. A young waif recounts her daydreamy crush on a local club-band guitarist, and her dream is a show-stopper: the two are newlyweds, and as the hyper-coiffed rocker vamps on his axe, the whole apartment block they’re in motors across the landscape like a train, eventually pulling into a station where a crowd of hundreds congratulates them. All of this in one shot, of course — the film is all set-piece, all the time — it doesn’t tell a story so much as tracks the fissures in everyday life. But Andersson’s single-shot wonders are not just digitized-Steadicam maneuvers, but the results of extraordinary orchestration, as well as fascinating spatial depth and expert comic timing. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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156/365: Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007) (Vudu, YouTube, Kanopy, Amazon Prime)

A renowned Mexican provocateur, Reygadas makes movies that slow your heart rate and raise your anxiety levels at the same time, often via uncomfortably frank sexuality, and in his third film he decided to essentially remake Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, after a fashion, trumping Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves by several whispers, and setting it north Mexico’s extant Mennonite communities — making the film the first ever made in Plautdietsch, or Dutch-inflected Low Prussian. His strategy remains the same: employ non-pro locals (or in this case Mennonites from Canada and Germany as well as Mexico) more or less playing themselves, gaze upon the landscape as if it were Mars, use the waiting time in long shots like a cudgel. The set-up is simple for us, but for Mennonites (or so the film implies) it could portend the end of the world: a farmer and father of six is tortured by a long-standing adulterous affair with an otherwise virtuous neighbor, who’s also plagued with shame. The sense pervades that it is not just a trivial human triangle of misery, but either the act of God or of Satan or, the worse-case scenario, of individual devout man in Godless world. As unlikely as it may seem, Reygadas’s story becomes gripping, and the moral questions at hand are more complex than they seem — indications of blessedness and divinity are everywhere, but the structures of hyper-Protestantism can be seen as both suffocating and bucolic. The film’s visual personality is as fascinating as an Arctic ice crystal, gorgeous and unforgiving and intimidating, and the filmmaker routinely hunts down disarming moments; the film opens and closes with beginning-to-end dolly-portraits of sunrise and sunset, somehow unmanipulated by time-lapse. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

Introducing the Smashcut Top Ten of 2020 — which, being a dire year in every respect, left us with fewer options than usual (good and bad), but also assures that the films are already available for streaming. Agree or disagree, our list (assessed and assembled in a rather unilateral fashion by longtime critic and high-handed Smashcut Editorial Director Michael Atkinson) can at the very least be a hierarchal guide for the winter months ahead, when all we can do is stream.

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149/365: (#1) I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

Kaufmaniacs, rejoice — America’s most original screenwriter-turned-bizarro-filmmaker adapts a lean psychocomedy novel for Netflix, and turns it into another signature airburst of pure enigmatic Kaufmania. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons are the young, fraught couple heading to his parents’ house for a wintery visit; from there, in a movie-movie universe somehow haunted by the musical Oklahoma!, time stretches and snaps, and the difference between reality, “reality,” and movie-ness vanishes in a daze. Nobody keeps as many balls in the air as Kaufman, and nobody is quite as funny. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming (the Best Holiday Movies) (A SMASHCUT Reprise for the End of the Worst Year)

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149/365: Remember the Night (1940) (WatchChristmasMoviesOnline, PeacockTV)

An overlooked screwball masterpiece, written by satiric genius Preston Sturges and directed by premier woman’s director Mitchell Leisen, in which whimsical bachelor-DA Fred MacMurray takes sexy shoplifting lowlife Barbara Stanwyck with him to his country homestead for Christmas. Sturges’s dialogue, volleyed by these pros four years before Double Indemnity, is mint, but the idiosyncratic comedy slowly, organically seeps into melancholy. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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142/365: Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961) (Criterion Channel, Kanopy, iTunes, HBO Max, Amazon Prime)

The first crepuscular salvo of the great Swede’s so-called “Silence of God” trilogy (followed by Winter Light and The Silence), this mysterious chamber wail stands superbly on its own, and might be the gnarliest joint of psychodrama in the man’s portfolio. The proverbial Family has, by now, degenerated to three men — a father, a husband, a younger brother — and a single, clinically insane woman, all of them stuck vacationing on the edge of the world together as the sky’s Godless ceiling closes in. It’s a movie-as-primal scream lab, and as the hub of this deeply troubling wheel of interrelationships, Harriet Andersson earned the actor’s Nobel of our dreams with this one film. Grief-crippled father Gunnar Bjornstrand, with a single scene alone in the darkened beach house, stakes a claim for the most heartfelt supporting performance of its decade. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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135/365: WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971) (Criterion Channel, Kanopy, EasternEuropeanMovies)

Yugoslavia in the Cold War days was noted as the only European Communist country stubbornly unaligned with the Soviet Union, but in Makavejev’s gestalty vision Marxism, sex, capitalism, history, repression, freedom and social inhibitions are all crispy kindling for crazed dialectical bonfires. Makavejev’s signature mode was the confrontational schtick-documentary-surrealism-found-footage collage, and this fireball established the wacky, arthouse minigenre in the forebrains of ‘Nam-era college students all over the industrialized globe. (But not, unsurprisingly, in Yugoslavia, where it was banned for years.) The film began as a Ford Foundation-grant-subsidized documentary on Wilhelm Reich, the post-Freudian psychologist and culty sex theorist who was persecuted for his teachings in both Nazi-era Germany and in the U.S.; he died in an American prison, a victim of law-enforcement witchhunting and his own refusal to defend himself in court. Shooting in New York and Belgrade, mixing in copious Reichian footage, hunks of Communist propaganda films, and talking-heads interviews (sex-obsessed artists, Warhol factory star Jackie Curtis, surviving Reich disciples), Makavejev concocts a heady, self-contradicting, irreverent cocktail of collision, a messy paste-it essay on repression and liberation, as the two oppositive quantities are both represented by political power, by Communism, by sexual relations, and by history itself. “Mysteries” is right — Makavejev is no Communist nor is he fond of American values; two polar ideologies is never enough for him, and WR, in his nation’s proudest manner, is a thoroughly unaligned movie. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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128/365: Vivre sa Vie (My Life to Live) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962) (YouTube, Criterion Channel, HBO Max, Kanopy)

Godard owned the 1960s’ generational mojo as no other international filmmaker did, with a run of some 15 masterpieces that rearranged our axons in considering movies not as an alternative to, an escape from, life, but rather life itself, as integral and luscious in the flow of our days as a sexual act or a game of tennis or a dockside lobster or you name it. Of course, history and politics and society are always autopsied as well in the process, even in this relatively small-framed but crystalline classic, a virtual dissertation on gender-exploitation ambivalence, as Anna Karina’s ocean-eyed gamine turns to prostitution to pay her rent, and the film documents her downward trajectory in twelve discreet chapters with a balance of pitiful fascination and icy critique. Sometimes overlooked in reconsiderations of Godard’s belle epoque, the movie is a formal gesture, spare on the surface but resonating with feeling. Sex work became here one of Godard’s ruling metaphors, but more importantly this is his second film with Karina and his first after their marriage, and the beautiful arc of their on-screen romance — thrumming for only a handful of years and a few films before collapsing and dying on the operating table that is 1966’s Made in U.S.A. — is here in its ardent-yet-questioning early stages. The justly famous sequence of Karina crying in the theater dark watching Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc is both a crucial thematic moment and a peerless paean to movie love. …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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121/365: The Weeping Meadow (Theo Angelopoulos, 2004) (Amazon Prime)

Before his untimely death, Angelopoulos explored the vast, bloody arena of Greek and Balkan social upheaval for more than 35 years, in a filmmaking style that takes Tarkovsky-Tarr traveling-shot poetry and ups the ante into the stratosphere. This epic, the first part of a trilogy that was never finished, shares the awed sense of solemn apocalypse with Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players, Landscape in the Mist and Ulysses’ Gaze, but it’s a lighter film than usual, more musical and folktale-ish, more indulgent of old-school melodrama. The story is never fed to us pre-chewed, but instead occurs continuously on- and off-camera, passing before us like the steam engines that incessantly interrupt scenes and divide characters. It’s 1919, and a crowd of emigre Greeks return from Odessa after the Bolshevik Revolution; among them, a family with one son brings with it a young orphan girl, Eleni. Years pass in an unceremonious cut; a near-comatose teenage Eleni is brought home after having given up illegitimate twins. Another cut and the young woman is fleeing her own wedding — married not to the grown son, who loves her and helps her escape, but her aging stepfather. Literally trailing after these scrambling souls as they follow each other into the crossfire of the mid-century — world war, the revolution, the fascist junta, civil war — Angelopoulos’s massive real-time moviemaking keeps the mad tragic-Greek drama at a dreamy distance. Often, the director seems capable of coordinating entire landscapes, and weather, too — how did he manage to flood an entire plain, scores of square miles we’d already seen dry and supporting houses, for a single scene? …


A Cinephile’s Guide to Streaming

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114/365: I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007) (YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes)

Haynes’ film is such a risky, ambitious, passionate conceptual big-brain freak of a movie that, whether you find yourself loving it or hating it or not knowing what in hell to make of it, you can sympathize and even agree with anyone who ends up with the opposite take-away. Ambivalence is an appropriate response, given the subject: Bob Dylan, or, rather, the elusive, chameleonic, deliberately free-associative nature of Dylan’s public personality, and the idealized and sometimes ridiculous ways we’ve conceived it for ourselves, and hence the absurdity of pop culture celebrity in general. Haynes crafs a weave-movie made of strands that only occasionally cross each others’ dreamscape and more often launch out into the ether. There are roughly six threads, each of which playact through or simply comment upon one aspect of Dylan’s arc: Christian Bale as a Dylanesque folk god who goes evangelical; Cate Blanchett in drag as the ’60s acoustic-to-electric, interview-disaster Dylan; Marcus Carl Franklin as a self-legendizing black 12-year-old who hops trains, calls himself Woody Guthrie and visits the “real” dying Guthrie on his deathbed; Heath Ledger as the James Dean-ish movie actor who attained crass fame by playing Bale’s character in a biopic; Ben Whishaw as a talking-head “Arthur Rimbaud,” dispensing cryptic observations straight into a documentary camera; and Richard Gere, as a kind of lost outlaw wandering through a surreal Old West full of circus dwarfs and giraffes. …

About

Michael Atkinson

is the Editorial Director of Smashcut, the author of seven books, a cinema professor for 25 years, and a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.

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