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As Netflix pours more of its resources into original content, Amazon Prime Video is picking up the slack, adding new movies for its subscribers each month. Its catalog has grown so impressive, in fact, that it’s a bit overwhelming — and at the same time, movies that are included with a Prime subscription regularly change status, becoming available only for rental or purchase. It’s a lot to sift through, so we’ve plucked out 100 of the absolute best movies included with a Prime subscription right now, to be updated as new information is made available.
Cate Blanchett is Lydia Tár, an acclaimed orchestral conductor, composer and instructor whose precariously balanced life and career begin to collapse around her in this “cruelly elegant, elegantly cruel” character study from the writer and director Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”). Blanchett was nominated for best actress at last year’s Oscars for her electrifying turn as a woman whose genius has long excused her considerable flaws; Nina Hoss is terrific as the longtime partner who can no longer look the other way. Field directs the story of Lydia’s fall from grace with chilly, riveting precision and welcome psychological nuance. (For more Oscar-nominated acting, try “Hotel Rwanda” or “Rabbit Hole.”)
‘The Accused’ (1988)
Jodie Foster won her first Academy Award for her forceful turn as a rape victim in this brutal but essential drama. It’s a hard film to watch, particularly in its relentless dramatizations of the assault, and yet it is not without hope or catharsis, and it prompts poignant questions about responsibility, harassment and victim blaming. Foster’s performance is stunning: Detailed and grounded, her character refuses to pander for sympathy or “likability.” Our critic deemed it “a consistently engrossing melodrama.” (For more Oscar-winning acting, check out “Gaslight” and “King Richard.”)
‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)
This 1976 masterpiece from Alan J. Pakula meticulously details the early days of Watergate — the crime, the cover-up and the scandal that ultimately brought down the Nixon presidency. The reporting of that story was first unpacked by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their 1974 book; aside from casting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman to play the duo, Pakula and the screenwriter William Goldman steadfastly refused to glam up this decidedly un-Hollywood story, focusing not on the dramatic fall of the president but on the grunt work of shoe-leather reporting. And yet, by slogging through the trenches with these reporters and waiting patiently through a seemingly endless series of slammed doors, dead-end leads and “nondenial denials,” the payoff is all the more satisfying. (Hoffman is also outstanding in “Lenny” and “Marathon Man.”)
‘Sound of Metal’ (2020)
Riz Ahmed is devastatingly good as Ruben, a drummer whose entire life — his music, his relationship, his self-image — is upended by a sudden case of extreme hearing loss, in this wrenching drama from the writer and director Darius Marder. Ruben’s sense of solitude, even with others, quickly transforms to self-consciousness, then self-doubt, then self-destruction. “Sound of Metal” is ultimately less about finding a cure than finding the stillness within oneself. Marder works in a quiet, observational style, skillfully avoiding clichés, taking turns both satisfying and moving. Our critic praised the film’s “distinctive style.” (“Love & Mercy” is another heartbreaking portrait of a musician’s journey.)
‘Women Talking’ (2022)
The writer and director Sarah Polley, adapting the novel by Miriam Toews, tells the haunting tale of an insular religious community ripped apart by the actions of its predatory men. Those crimes are seen briefly, in flashback; the primary focus of Polley’s film is a long, difficult debate between several of the women in the community about what will happen next. Assembling a cast of first-rate actors (including Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand and Ben Whishaw), Polley turns what could have been a polemic into an urgent, thoughtful morality play.
‘Sorry to Bother You’ (2018)
The musician and activist Boots Riley makes his feature directing debut with this wildly funny, frequently bizarre mixture of Marxist dogma and Marx Brothers-style silliness. LaKeith Stanfield (later an Oscar nominee for “Judas and the Black Messiah”) stars as Cassius, a telemarketer who discovers the secret to success and must determine how much to exploit it. That sounds like a fairly straightforward setup, but Riley approaches the material with the eye of an experimental filmmaker, and ends up taking Cassius on a journey into the dark heart of extreme wealth and depravity. You may love it or you may hate it, but you’ve certainly never seen anything quite like it. (“The Voices” is similarly strange and bleakly funny.)
‘Batman Returns’ (1992)
Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” followed the lead of the graphic novels by Frank Miller, eschewing the fizzy, cartoon-pop sensibility of the ’60s television series (and its film spinoff) and crafting a decidedly darker take on the Dark Knight. It was successful enough for Burton to delve even deeper for his follow-up, which takes Gotham into grimmer territory thanks to Danny DeVito’s freakish take on the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s sizzling turn as Catwoman. Some of its initial audiences found its grimness alienating, but time has been kind to “Batman Returns,” which plays now like an uncommonly personal take on the superhero mythos. (Matt Reeves’s more recent take, “The Batman,” is also on Prime.)
‘The Handmaiden’ (2016)
The filmmaker Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) takes the stylistic trappings of a period romance and gooses them with scorching eroticism and one of the most ingenious con-artist plots this side of “The Sting.” Working from the Sarah Waters novel “Fingersmith,” Park begins with the story of a young Korean woman who, as part of a seemingly straightforward swindle, goes to work as a Japanese heiress’s handmaiden, occasionally pausing the plot to slyly reveal new information, reframing what we’ve seen and where we think he might go next. Our critic called it “amusingly slippery entertainment.” (If you like offbeat romances, try “Ondine.”)
‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009)
This grindhouse take on WWII adventure movies earned Quentin Tarantino an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay — and it’s certainly original, imagining an outcome for the Third Reich that departs gorily (and gleefully) from the historical record. Brad Pitt is the drawling leader of an elite unit of Nazi-hunters; Mélanie Laurent is a Jewish cinema proprietor with an eye on revenge. But the star of the show is Christoph Waltz, who won an Academy Award for his giddy, menacing and unforgettable turn as a particularly ruthless Nazi colonel. (Tarantino’s follow-up “Django Unchained” is also on Prime.)
‘Dear White People’ (2014)
Justin Simien’s “clever campus comedy” is witty, wise and occasionally brutal, taking on the subjects of race, class, privilege and higher education. The dialogue is thoughtful and rich, delving into tricky topics with glee while zigzagging away from didacticism — these sound like real conversations and arguments, rather than just soapboxing. And the characters aren’t mouthpieces; they inhabit recognizable rubrics (campus radical, ingratiating jock, brainy outcast, social climber) without falling into stereotypes. (Fans of character-driven indie fare should also check out “Zebrahead” and “Frank.”)
‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s gripping adaptation of the Michael Crichton best seller is both a terrifying thriller and a thoughtful commentary on the moral challenges of scientific advancement. Richard Attenborough stars as a wealthy industrialist who has figured out how to isolate and reanimate dinosaur DNA; Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum are the scientists he invites to marvel at the fruits of his labor, until a power outage during their tour turns the whole expedition upside down. The special effects are still eerily convincing, the performances are quirky and compelling, and Spielberg mines his big set pieces for maximum tension. A.O. Scott recently deemed it “scary, scrappy and marvelously executed.”
‘Night Comes On’ (2018)
This Sundance sensation is a heart-wrenching story of grief, pain, regret and struggle. The director and co-writer Jordana Spiro tells the story of Angel (Dominique Fishback), released from jail on the eve of her 18th birthday and torn between getting her life together and finishing the crime that put her there. Spiro adopts a no-nonsense approach, digging into the probationary process and the various ways in which the deck is already stacked against her protagonist. In an unforgettable performance, Fishback eschews showy moments for a lived-in authenticity.
‘The Untouchables’ (1987)
This crackling riff on the hit 1959 television series could have been just another in the endless series of color-by-number TV-to-movie adaptations. But the personnel involved made it something special. Directed with stylishness and wit by Brian De Palma, written with toughness by David Mamet and scored with operatic intensity by Ennio Morricone, the film featured memorable performances by Kevin Costner, an Oscar-winning Sean Connery and an appropriately scenery-chewing Robert De Niro. With so much firepower, “The Untouchables” transcended its roots to become one of the snazziest, sharpest crime pictures of the 1980s.
‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)
This indie hit was a horror game changer, popularizing the idea of the “found footage” movie, forging bold new notions of viral online marketing and becoming one of the most profitable movies ever made (grossing nearly $250 million in box offices worldwide on a meager $60,000 budget). Those facts make it historically important; it’s worth seeing because it remains a sturdy, well-made chiller. Ostensibly documenting three student filmmakers’ attempts to investigate a New England legend, the directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez use convincingly off-the-cuff hand-held photography, naturalistic performances and a firm command of spooky moods to craft the most effective kind of horror movie: one that is scary because of what it forces us to imagine, not what it shows us.
‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ (1993)
Leonardo DiCaprio received his first Oscar nomination for his sensitive performance as the younger brother of Johnny Depp’s title character in this 1993 adaptation of the Peter Hedges novel of the same name. Gilbert is a small-town guy who longs for bigger and better things, but he can’t tear himself away from the responsibilities presented by not only his brother, who is intellectually disabled, but also his homebound mother (Darlene Cates). Such material could be presented condescendingly or even exploitatively, but the finely shaded performances and careful touch of the director Lasse Hallstrom — “whose gentle, rueful style,” our critic noted, “can accommodate vast amounts of quirkiness in enchanting ways” — strikes the right tone.
‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974)
Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical release (after the astonishing made-for-TV movie “Duel”) is based on a true story and vibrates with verisimilitude, filling out scenes with authentic locations and colorful supporting characters, often played by local non-actors. But it’s also, essentially, a two-hour chase scene, executed with breathless bravado by a director who was already a master craftsman, choreographing his automotive ballets as large-scale slapstick. “Sugarland” refuses to paint its Texas characters in broad strokes, so the flaws of the antiheroes are weighed equally with the decency of the lawmen. And this may be Goldie Hawn’s finest performance, who funnels her persona (with its unquestionable warmth and charisma) into a genuine and singular character.
‘Sweet Smell of Success’ (1957)
The publicist turned screenwriter Ernest Lehman said he wrote this acidic, darkly comic drama to cleanse himself of the sins of the business, and that much is clear; it’s very much a story told from the inside out, in which there are no good or bad guys, but varying degrees of scoundrels. Tony Curtis is at his career best as a hungry young press agent desperately trying to work his way into the good graces of a powerful newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster), who can make or break a star with a throwaway item. The dialogue (by Lehman and the playwright Clifford Odets) crackles, Alexander Mackendrick’s “brisk direction” moves like a locomotive and James Wong Howe’s black-and-white cinematography captures the sparkle of Broadway by night — and the darkness just under its surface.
‘Nanny McPhee’ (2005)
A decade after winning the Oscar for her adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility,” Emma Thompson returned to the typewriter to pen the film version of a slightly less venerated literary property: the “Nurse Matilda” children’s novels, by the British author Christianna Brand. But it doesn’t feel like slumming; Thompson invests her screenplay with all the winking wit you would expect, and she absolutely goes for broke in her performance of the title role, a kind of warts-and-all Mary Poppins. The director Kirk Jones orchestrates the chaos with a sure hand; our critic praised its “twisted visual imagination.” (For more of Thompson, stream “Dead Again” and “Much Ado About Nothing”; for more family fun, try “Paddington.”)
‘Raging Bull’ (1980)
Robert De Niro won his second Academy Award for his fiercely physical and psychologically punishing performance in this searing adaptation of the autobiography of the middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. The stylish boxing sequences are visceral and overwhelming, shot and cut to approximate the disorientation and violence of the sport. But the most disturbing sequences are those of LaMotta in his home, terrorizing his wife (Cathy Moriarty, in an electrifying debut) and terrifying his brother and manager, Joey (Joe Pesci, also remarkable). It’s a relentlessly downbeat piece of work, but the force of De Niro’s performance and the energy of Martin Scorsese’s direction are hard to overstate, or to forget. At the time, our critic called it Scorsese’s “most ambitious film as well as his finest.” (If you love gritty N.Y.C. cinema, “Saturday Night Fever” and “King of New York” are also on Prime.)
‘Catherine Called Birdy’ (2022)
The “Girls” creator and star Lena Dunham is about the last person you’d imagine to direct a film adaptation of a children’s book set in 13th-century England. (Perhaps that’s why she did it.) What she accomplishes is a minor miracle: a delightful film that inserts a modern comic sensibility into the past, without resorting to anachronism or satire. She gets a big assist from the star (and “Game of Thrones” alum) Bella Ramsey, who brings the title character to vivid, playful life, involving us in her tribulations and frustrations, as her oft-drunken father (Andrew Scott, the “hot priest” of “Fleabag”) desperately attempts to marry her off. Our critic called it a “winning,” “headstrong comedy.” (For more female-fronted comedy, check out “Earth Girls Are Easy” or “10 Things I Hate About You.”)
‘Drinking Buddies’ (2013)
In Joe Swanberg’s “nimble, knowing and altogether excellent” hangout flick, Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde), pals and co-workers at a Chicago brewery, wonder if they’ve chosen the right romantic partners — just as those partners (Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston) are asking themselves the same question. The film’s casual style, which emphasizes improvisation and naturalistic performance, nicely balances the story; it’s the kind of rom-com for which you’re pretty sure how it’s going to turn out, but it’s fun to get there anyway. (Rom-com fans can also stream “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “Barefoot in the Park.”)
A struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone became a worldwide superstar when he wrote himself the plum role of a C-list boxer who gets a shot at the championship. And it’s a star-making performance, with a vulnerability that the actor shed far too quickly. (This work is closer to Brando than Rambo.) John G. Avildsen directs in a modest, unaffected style that underlines the palooka’s solitude. The supporting cast is stunning, particularly Talia Shire, heartbreaking as the painfully shy object of Rocky’s affection. (Sports film fans will also enjoy “Air.”)
‘Guys and Dolls’ (1955)
The classic gangster movie gets a snazzy musical makeover in this bouncy film adaptation of the Broadway hit, itself based on the colorful New York characters of Damon Runyon’s fiction. Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”) directs with energy and pizazz, coaxing cheerful, engaged performances out of Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine and that most unlikely of crooners, Marlon Brando. Our critic called it “as tinny and tawny and terrific as any hot-cha musical film you’ll ever see.” (For more classic musical fun, stream “That’s Entertainment!” and “Holiday Inn”; for more Brando, try “One-Eyed Jacks.”)
‘Killing Them Softly’ (2012)
Brad Pitt teamed up again with Andrew Dominik, the writer and director of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” for this “grisly little crime movie,” adapted from the novel “Cogan’s Trade.” Pitt and James Gandolfini (in one of his final roles) star as two contract killers sent by their mob bosses to take out a group of small-timers who robbed the wrong poker game. But “Softly” is neither a traditional gangster movie nor a Tarantino-style hit-man flick. Dominik sets the film during the 2008 financial crisis and presidential election, the better to situate his central thesis: that capitalism and organized crime aren’t as far apart as we might like to think.
‘The Vast of Night’ (2020)
This debut film from the director Andrew Patterson wears its “Twilight Zone” influence right on its sleeve, opening (on a vintage television, no less) with the spooky intro to an anthology series called “Paradox Theater,” and presenting this story as “tonight’s episode.” This is a film that bursts with affection for analog, with the look, feel and (above all) sound of black-and-white tube TVs, reel-to-reel tape recorders, telephone switchboards and the distant voices of a radio disc jockey and his mysterious callers. Patterson orchestrates it all with the grinning giddiness of a campfire storyteller — he’s having a great time freaking us out. Our critic called it “a small-scale movie that flexes plenty of filmmaking muscle.”
Clint Eastwood began as a star of a television western, made the transition to film with spaghetti westerns and starred in (and often directed) some of the most memorable westerns of the 1970s and ’80s. His farewell to the genre had to be special — and it was. This best picture Oscar winner is both an elegy to the form and a reckoning with it, as its characters (and its makers) wrestle with the implications of killing and dying. Eastwood’s brutal but lyrical direction nabbed him an Oscar for best director, while Gene Hackman picked up a best supporting actor statuette for his unforgettable turn as the casually sadistic villain, the standout in a cast that also includes Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris and Eastwood. (For more Western action, try “Breakheart Pass”; for more of Hackman in villain mode, stream “No Way Out.”)
‘The Report’ (2019)
In the mid-2000s, an analyst named Daniel J. Jones (portrayed by an excellent Adam Driver) pored through 6.3 million pages of documents to write the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program. This taut, angry film from Scott Z. Burns dramatizes that investigative process and what Jones discovered — and the steady growth of his righteous indignation. Burns, in what our critic deemed a “smart, layered screenplay,” deftly translates the story’s intellectual urgency into emotional agency, making the political into something decidedly personal. (Driver is also in fine form in “Paterson.”)
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s towering masterpiece has thrilled, baffled and stimulated audiences since its initial release. Adapting the work of Arthur C. Clarke, and ostensibly telling the story of a journey into deepest space and the sentient computer that takes it over, Kubrick spent untold amounts of money and time to create the most realistic and convincing images of outer space ever put to celluloid (our critic called the special effects “the best I have ever seen”). But “2001” is no mere space opera; it is a visual tone poem, a “multisensory ode to cosmic mystery, fate and the future.”
It would seem impossible to craft an entertaining film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s dense nonfiction account of number-crunching in baseball — much less to make one as breezy and “exuberant” as this one. But the screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin finds the proper balance of egghead theory and character development, Bennett Miller’s direction is fleet-footed without being lightweight, Brad Pitt’s restless charisma has rarely found a more appropriate showcase, and the supporting cast (including Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Chris Pratt) is, well, an all-star team.
‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (1988)
John Cleese writes and stars in this uproariously funny satire of ugly Americans, British politeness and caper movies. Jamie Lee Curtis is Wanda, the femme fatale of a criminal crew who sets her sights on Cleese’s uptight barrister; Kevin Kline is her partner, who is very jealous and very stupid (but don’t call him that); Cleese’s fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin is a criminal of a much meeker sort. The director Charles Crichton, who helmed many of England’s classic Ealing Studios comedies, orchestrates the insanity with verve. (For more wild comedy, stream “A Shot in the Dark” or “Bubba Ho-Tep.”)
Christopher Nolan made his first big splash with this, his second feature film, a stylish film noir riff that tells its familiar story in an exuberantly inventive way: In order to mirror the disorientation of its protagonist, Leonard (Guy Pearce), who has lost his ability to create new memories, Nolan tells the story by ordering its scenes in reverse chronology. As Leonard pursues an investigation of his wife’s murder, revelations fold back on themselves and betrayals become clear to the audience before they’re known to him. Yet even without that narrative flourish, “Memento” would be a scorching piece of work, loaded with sharp performances, moody cinematography and a noir-inspired sense of doom. (Nolan’s “Interstellar” is also on Prime.)
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (2022)
Tom Cruise’s long-awaited sequel to his 1986 smash was a shockingly successful attempt to have it both ways. The filmmakers updated its events and characters for contemporary audiences, but it’s not an outright subversion, either. “Maverick” checks the boxes of the original — there’s thrilling action, sunglasses and leather jackets aplenty, and Cruise at his coolest — and its audience-pleasing conclusion feels like an honest-to-God throwback. (For more ’80s-style adventure, check out “The Lost City” on Prime.)
‘Rain Man’ (1988)
Dustin Hoffman won his second Oscar for his meticulously wrought performance as Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant who meets his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) for the first time after the death of their father. But “Rain Man” is not a heartfelt, tear-jerking family drama; it’s “a becomingly modest, decently thought-out, sometimes funny film” in which Charlie, a small-time hustler, has to drag his brother on a cross-country road trip to fight what he feels is an unfair inheritance. In retrospect, though Hoffman collected all the awards and accolades, this is Cruise’s film, and it’s a marvelous performance, expertly revealing and exploring the psychological cracks in the gleaming golden-boy persona he spent the ’80s perfecting. (“A Family Thing” is a similarly affecting story of a long-estranged family reconnecting.)
‘V for Vendetta’ (2005)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s acclaimed British graphic novel “V for Vendetta” got the big-screen treatment in 2005, with a screenplay by Lana and Lilly Wachowski — their first project after the “Matrix” trilogy. And it feels as connected to their worldview as to Moore and Lloyd’s, set in a landscape removed (but not entirely distant) from ours, in which authoritarian governments and fascism have taken hold. This is no easy piece of work, particularly in its dramatization of acts of terror, which challenge the audience to consider whether such acts are ever justified. The director James McTeigue stages the action both to thrill and to unnerve, and Natalie Portman is fiercely effective as a young woman awakened.
‘The Birdcage’ (1996)
Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are warm, winning and hilarious in this clever riff on the classic French comedy “La Cage Aux Folles.” The screenwriter Elaine May and the director Mike Nichols smoothly reconfigure the material for the Clinton-era culture wars, with Williams and Lane as a longtime gay couple who attempt to hide their sexuality for the strait-laced conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) of their son’s fiancée. It’s the kind of farce in which each half-truth and outright deception leads to another, creating a precarious house of cards. Our critic praised its “giddy ingenuity.”
‘Night Moves’ (2014)
Many of Kelly Reichardt’s acolytes consider this eco-thriller to be among the director’s lesser efforts, and when placed against “Wendy and Lucy” or “First Cow,” perhaps that’s true. But Reichardt on her worst day surpasses most of her contemporaries on their best, and there’s much to recommend in this morally thorny story of a trio of radical environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) as they meticulously plot and execute a dangerous act of protest. Reichardt hits the thriller beats, but casually and modestly; her emphasis, as ever, is on character, and she finds as much suspense in interactions as in the action itself. (Sarsgaard is also excellent in “Experimenter.”)
The director John Ford made a major star out of a B-movie cowboy named John Wayne — and began a collaboration that would continue through decades of fine films — with this masterfully crafted ensemble western. Wayne stars as the Ringo Kid, an outlaw who finds himself helping out the passengers of a stagecoach on a risky route. John Carradine, Andy Devine, Claire Trevor and an Oscar-winning Thomas Mitchell all get a chance to shine, but this is Wayne’s show, and he deftly displays the danger and charisma that made him a screen icon. Our critic called it “a movie of the grand old school, a genuine rib-thumper and a beautiful sight to see.” (Wayne is also in fine form in Howard Hawks’s “Red River” and “El Dorado.”)
Ava DuVernay directs this “bold and bracingly self-assured” dramatization of the events surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 marches for voting rights in Selma, Ala. DuVernay is telling the story not of a man but of a movement; the picture bursts with the urgency of promises unkept. David Oyelowo is astonishing as King, capturing the unmistakable cadences but also the man — uncertain, jocular, determined. The stellar ensemble cast includes Dylan Baker, Carmen Ejogo, André Holland, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Tim Roth, Tessa Thompson, Lorraine Toussaint, Tom Wilkinson and Oprah Winfrey.
‘Dances With Wolves’ (1990)
The popularity of “Yellowstone” has renewed interest in this Oscar-winning movie by Kevin Costner, filmed in South Dakota, which similarly explored the complicated relationship between Native Americans and white settlers, albeit through a more explicitly historical lens. Costner also stars, as John J. Dunbar, a lieutenant with the Union Army at a remote outpost, who comes to sympathize with — and then essentially join — the Lakota people. The cinematography is gorgeous, the set pieces are big and thrilling, and Costner finds just the right note of resigned rebellion in the leading role.
Oliver Stone’s best picture win for “Platoon” propelled him to the ranks of leading American filmmakers, but his other 1986 feature is an equally impressive achievement. Here, he tells the story of Richard Boyle (who wrote the script with Stone), a freewheeling, freeloading photojournalist who travels to El Salvador in the early 1980s looking to take some pictures and ends up taking up a crusade. James Woods stars; our critic praised his “nervous energy and self-mocking wit.”
‘The Limey’ (1999)
The director Steven Soderbergh adroitly fused art-house experimentation and genre storytelling in this tale of a revenge-seeking ex-con (Terence Stamp, in a career-best performance). Soderbergh complicates the straight-ahead narrative by combining fractured timelines, stream-of-consciousness editing and even clips from an earlier Stamp performance (in Ken Loach’s “Poor Cow”). In doing so, he turns what could’ve been a “Death Wish” remake into a thoughtful, mournful, elegiac meditation — on family, on forgiveness, on the past in general and the ’60s in particular. (Indie thriller fans should also check out William Friedkin’s “Bug.”)
‘Appropriate Behavior’ (2015)
Desiree Akhavan writes, directs and stars in this devastatingly funny, breathtakingly candid and unexpectedly sexy comedy-drama. She’s is a singular comic voice, and since she’s playing a variation on herself (a bisexual Brooklynite filmmaker and 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. Our critic praised the picture’s “clever and unpredictable turns of phrase.”
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946)
The director Frank Capra and the actor Jimmy Stewart took a marvelously simple premise — a suicidal man is given the opportunity to see what his world would have been like without him — and turned it into a holiday perennial. But “It’s a Wonderful Life” is too rich and complex to brand with a label as simple as “Christmas movie”; it is ultimately a story about overcoming darkness and finding light around you, a tricky transition achieved primarily through the peerless work of Stewart as a good man with big dreams who can’t walk away from the place where he’s needed most. Our critic called it a “quaint and engaging modern parable.” (For more holiday cheer, stream “Miracle on 34th Street”; for more Stewart, try “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”)
‘Three Days of the Condor’ (1975)
The scandals of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, coupled with a general post-’60s distrust of authority and institution, led to a miniboom of taut, paranoid conspiracy thrillers (“The Conversation,” “The Parallax View” and “Winter Kills” among them). One of the best is this spy scorcher from the director Sydney Pollack, inspired by the James Grady novel; Robert Redford stars as Joseph Turner, a mild-mannered researcher at a low-profile C.I.A. outpost in New York City, whose entire office is executed while he’s out to lunch. On the run, Turner must transform himself from an analyst into an agent and figure out who is trying to kill him (and why). (For more ’70s action, check out “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy.”)
‘Inherit the Wind’ (1960)
Our critic deemed Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play (based on the notorious Scopes “monkey trial”) to be “triumphant,” its climax “one of the most brilliant and engrossing displays of acting ever witnessed on the screen.” The actors in question are Fredric March and Spencer Tracy, in career-best form as a Bible-pounding orator and an agnostic defense attorney on opposite theological and philosophical sides of the evolution debate. Kramer cranks up the carnival atmosphere, to great effect, and pulls a rare (and entertaining) nonmusical supporting turn from Gene Kelly as an H.L. Mencken-esque reporter. (Fans of classic cinema will also enjoy “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”)
‘The Cheap Detective’ (1978)
Columbo wasn’t the only famous detective brought to life by the one and only Peter Falk; he also brought back Humphrey Bogart (albeit as the private eye Lou Peckinpaugh) in this “funny, affectionate” spoof of Bogart’s classics “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep,” and any number of others. Neil Simon penned the script, but this is a far cry from the character-driven, relationship-heavy likes of “The Odd Couple” or “Barefoot in the Park,” veering closer to the rapid-fire farce of Simon’s “Your Show of Shows” collaborator Mel Brooks. But he does it well, Falk is admirably game, and the talented supporting players (including Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Ann-Margret, Marsha Mason and Paul Williams) do their jobs with pizzaz. (Brennan and Kahn reunited for the similarly silly “Clue.”)
‘Train to Busan’ (2016)
This white-knuckle zombie-apocalypse thriller from the South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho, set onboard train hurtling toward possible safety, is a fantastic entry in the “relentless action in a confined space” subgenre (recalling “Snowpiercer,” “The Raid,” “Dredd” and the granddaddy of them all, “Die Hard”). The set pieces are energetic, the makeup effects are convincing, and the storytelling is ruthless. (Don’t get too attached to anyone.) But it’s not all blood and bluster; there’s a patient, deliberate setup before the orgy of gore and mayhem, leading to a surprising outpouring of emotion at the story’s conclusion. Our critic deemed it “often chaotic but never disorienting,” and praised its “spirited set pieces.”
‘Licorice Pizza’ (2021)
The writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson picked up nominations for best director, best original screenplay and best picture for this richly textured, quietly bittersweet and frequently funny story of growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s. The actor Cooper Hoffman is charismatic and charming as a young would-be entrepreneur; the musician Alana Haim, in a star-making performance of astonishing depth, is the perpetually out-of-reach object of his affections. It’s the kind of movie that sneaks up on you with its warmth and insight. Manohla Dargis called it “a shaggy, fitfully brilliant romp.” (“Armageddon Time” and “Cooley High” are similarly nuanced coming-of-age stories.)
‘California Split’ (1974)
The director Robert Altman teamed up with his frequent collaborator Elliott Gould, and paired him up with George Segal, for this “fascinating, vivid” snapshot of two lovable losers. Gould and Segal play a pair of Los Angeles gamblers, floating from card table to racetrack to casino, in constant search of that one big score. Such a payday presents itself at the end of their journey, but Altman is too unconventional a filmmaker to put much stock in that destination. He’s more interested in the journey, and his film is propelled by the rowdy hum of those rooms and the colorful personalities of the people who inhabit them. (“Husbands” works a similarly shaggy vibe.)
‘Afternoon Delight’ (2013)
This “meticulously acted” serio-comic drama was the feature filmmaking debut of Joey Soloway, the creator of “Transparent” and “I Love Dick.” Kathryn Hahn is astonishing in the leading role, clearly conveying her dissatisfied housewife’s longings and nerves but keeping her intentions enigmatic, and Juno Temple is electrifying as a young woman who’s learned how to use her sexuality as a weapon without fully considering the carnage left in its wake. Their byplay is vibrant, and it gets messy in fascinating ways; this is a sly, smart sex comedy that plumbs unexpected depths of sadness and despair.