A few more gems from 2021 top this month’s out-of-the-box streaming recommendations, along with two charming personal documentary portraits and an explosive narrative of an urgent and timely historical story.
“Ride the Eagle” (2021)
Stream it on Hulu.
Jake Johnson’s shaggy charm is brilliantly showcased in this warm and engaging indie comedy-drama—and that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Johnson co-wrote the screenplay with director Trent O’Donnell. Johnson plays Leif, a slacker in his 30s whose mother (Susan Sarandon) left him when he was 12 to join a cult. She dies, leaving him her cabin near Yosemite as part of a “conditional inheritance” for which he must complete a list of tasks designed to set him on the right path. The humble but rewarding script plays to each actor’s strengths, utilizing the zany energy of Sarandon, the sharp comic timing of D’Arcy Carden (as Leif’s ex-girlfriend) and the cantankerous warmth of JK Simmons (as Mom’s ex-boyfriend) . . Lessons are inevitably learned, but O’Donnell manages to muster seriousness and sincerity without losing poignancy or humor.
This YA-tinged “Time Bounce” comedy-drama name revisits its most famous narrative ancestor, “Groundhog Day,” fairly early on, but it has more in common with “Palm Springs,” another film that fused the time gimmick with the loop the conventions of boy-meets-girl rom-com. In this case, high school student Mark (Kyle Allen) discovers his classmate Margaret (Kathryn Newton) is also stuck and repeating the same day over and over, so they team up to break the pattern, or at least have some fun time together while trying. Newton and Allen generate considerable chemistry, while Lev Grossman’s screenplay thoughtfully delves into the intricate philosophical questions that make these stories so compelling.
‘Bergman Island’ (2021)
Stream it on Hulu.
“I don’t like it when artists I love don’t behave so well in real life.” As noted by Chris (Vicky Krieps), a filmmaker married to another (Tim Roth); They go on a working holiday to the island of Faro, where their mutual hero, Ingmar Bergman, lived and shot his films. It’s an interesting conundrum for writer-director Mia Hansen-Love, who uses Chris’ journey to constantly ask pointed questions about the divide between art and artists. But Hansen-Love’s film is also romantic and playful, especially in the second half when we take a look at the deeply personal script Chris is working on during the journey. Krieps and Roth have their characters and their tingling dynamics under control, because the two love, stimulate and annoy each other at the same time.
We’re so emotionally and psychologically drained with the Covid-19 pandemic that it’s tempting to brush off art that meaningfully deals with it. But this compelling documentary from director Nanfu Wang reminds us of the terrible tactical and political mistakes of the early days of the pandemic and begs us to learn from them. From Wuhan, the initial hotspot of the outbreak, Wang is collecting surveillance videos, secret hospital records, news clips and official government materials to control not only the spread of the virus but also the spread of misinformation around him. Exhaustingly powerful and often harrowing, it’s a non-fiction film that’s built like a white-knuckled thriller and fast-paced.
‘137 Shots’ (2021)
Stream it on Netflix.
In November 2012, a police car chase involving over 60 police cars in Cleveland ended in which 13 officers fired 137 rounds to kill unarmed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Michael Milano’s compelling documentary explores not only the night in question (via impressively intercut testimonies, dashcam videos and expert witnesses) but also the department’s attempt to explain its mistakes as part of the city’s powder keg history of racial inequality and the pattern of the “unreasonable.” cover up and unnecessary use of force” by the police. Milano keeps peeling away layers of bias and corruption before folding in the near-simultaneous murder of Tamir Rice, which ultimately amounts to much more than the story it intends to tell. It becomes less of a true crime documentary and more of an in-depth investigation of the psychological rift that has split this country in two.
Stream it on Amazon.
In one of the most notorious (documented) incidents of police brutality in the 1960s, known as the Algiers Motel Incident, a riot commission that included police officers and National Guardsmen from the states of Detroit and Michigan interrogated, tortured, and murdered several black men along Detroit’s 12th Street Riot 1967. Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization – penned by her Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty collaborator Mark Boal – is a difficult-to-watch film that details the horrifying tactics of these officers in minute detail. But it’s rare that a major Hollywood production (let alone one by a white filmmaker) is willing to address these issues with such unwavering clarity.
Five films you should see this winter
‘The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography’ (2017)
Stream it on Netflix.
Errol Morris’ documentaries tend to deal with serious subjects such as crime (‘The Thin Blue Line’), politics (‘The Fog of War’) and their intersections (‘Standard Operating Procedure’). But he has a lighter side, which is best seen in this short, humble, and endearing bio doc by his friend and neighbor, photographer Elsa Dorfman. Her medium is unusual – large format, oversized portraits – but her camera captures details that a standard photo cannot. And Morris draws a clear line from her work to his, which has always focused on the small details that tell a bigger story.
“Presenting Princess Shaw” (2015)
Stream it on HBO Max.
Samantha Montgomery works as a day nurse and makes a lackluster living for a meager wage. But at night she becomes a superstar – an a cappella singer whose YouTube videos are overwhelming in their emotion. On the surface, Ido Haar’s documentary is the story of how this wondrous but unknown talent is discovered by Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, a composer and producer who gives her a deserved spotlight. But underneath it’s a film about the immortal artistic spirit and how so many gifted dreamers are just a click away from a chance to shine.