After a brief hiatus, we return with your weekly look at the must-watch titles for your Netflix queue and Blu-ray shelf. This week, we’ve got an ambitious and unpredictable Kristen Wiig comedy/drama, a brilliant and bizarre Best Foreign Film nominee, a terrific music documentary, one of last year’s most acclaimed movies, and one that sadly got away.
Nightcrawler: When this sharp, stinging drama from writer and (first-time) director Dan Gilroy unspooled last fall, critics and movie-goers seemed to have trouble pinpointing exactly what it was. It’s a trenchant media satire! It’s a psychological thriller! It’s a character study! Ultimately, it’s all of those things, and none of them; what it’s about is right there in its title. It’s about the things that go creepy-crawling out from under the rocks, after the sun goes down. Sometimes funny and sometimes thrilling, with yet another Jake Gyllenhaal performance that colors daringly outside the lines, Nightcrawler left this viewer feeling much the way Taxi Driver did: like there are some awfully scary creatures out there in the middle of the night.
Life of Crime: More and more, it feels like the story of modern movies isn’t told by the record-breaking opening weekends and the sequel-ization of the marketplace; it’s by great little B-movies like this one, that no longer get the time or opportunity to find an audience that’s probably given up on finding pictures like them anyway. Promising writer/director Daniel Schechter (whose Supporting Characters is also on Netflix, and is also very good) adroitly adapts Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch — the story of two characters Leonard would bring back in 1992’s Rum Punch, a book which became Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. But Yaasin Bey (aka Mos Def) and John Hawkes aren’t just doing some kind of Ordell and Louis origin story, and Schechter wisely doesn’t approach his film as a Jackie prequel; he revels not just in the music and clothing of the ‘70s setting, but in the filmmaking style, crafting a quick-witted, snazzy gem of a movie.
Welcome to Me: Over the past few years, several filmmakers have pushed past the notion of “comedy of awkwardness” into examinations of real discomfort and pain. And few have done so with the success of writer Eliot Laurence, director Shira Piven, and star Kristen Wiig, who craft a remarkable character piece that’s funny and weird without soft-soaping the instability of the woman at its center. Wiig’s Alice wins the lottery and stops her medication and treatment for borderline personality disorder, using her millions to finance an Oprah-style TV show where she spins her life and pain into bizarrely compelling viewing. It’s often very funny — Wiig’s stiff recitations and hilarious use of her hands captures something perfect about how people try to be natural on television — but there’s a disarming anything-goes logic to its storytelling, and Wiig is stunningly good in a role that (like Sandler in Punch Drunk Love) mines the neurosis at the center of her comic persona.
Wild Tales: Writer/director Damián Szifron tales six stories, each a bit longer and more ambitious than the last, connected only by vague themes of revenge and the delight the filmmaker takes in dramatizing people pushed to their limit, and then just past it. It’s a darkly funny and deliciously twisty movie propelled mostly by its formal elegance and screwy logic, to such a degree that by the second half, we’re wincing in advance and bracing for impact. Both disturbing and hilarious, it announces Szifron as uniquely oddball voice and a filmmaker of real skill — and its opening, a nutso eight-minute bit unpeeled at exactly the right speed, is one of my favorite single sequences of the movie year. (Includes featurettes and trailer.)
The Wrecking Crew: In the 1960s, a loose group of Los Angeles session musicians dominated the charts — they were the most prolific background players of the era, appearing predominately on rock records from The Beach Boys and the Monkees and Phil Spector, but also hits by Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Sam Cooke, the Chipmunks, and everything in between. They were grinders, workers, pros, coming of age at the same time as the music, part of a generational shift from the “blue blazer” pop and jazz instrumentalists who thought rock was beneath them, and paid dearly for it. This documentary valentine to those unsung rock stars from director Denny Tedesco (son of one of the group’s key members) was in the works so long, most of the talking-head interviews are in TV-friendly 4×3 — and if the filmmaking is pedestrian at best, it’s forgivable in light of the love and affection that clearly drove its director. Plus, there are more candid interviews and great stories than you can shake a stick at. (Includes deleted scenes.)