Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on-demand, vintage, and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalog titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This weekly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.
After last week’s backbreaker, we’ve got a lighter load of must-buys and must-streams – unless you count every title in this week’s big box set as an individual recommendation, in which case, well, we’re back up to ten or so. But seriously, what else is there to do?
“The Assistant”: Kitty Green’s dramatization of a day in the life of the assistant to a film executive who’s also a monstrous sexual predator is clearly inspired by Harvey Weinstein (and the legends of his bad behavior that vibrated through Hollywood and New York for decades before his fall), but it’s also not specifically about him. Green’s perceptive screenplay and stylishly alienated direction capture all the little intimidations, humiliations, and power plays of a toxic workplace, and of how men like this one charm, humiliate, and manipulate those around them (“I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great”). Julia Garner is terrific in the title role, subdued but ravage, her expressive eyes betraying the calm of her words.
ON BLU-RAY / NETFLIX:
“Marriage Story”: Noah Baumbach typically keeps his movies to a tight 90-or-so minutes; his latest (new on disc from Criterion, still streaming on Netflix) runs a loose, shambling 135, as clear a sign as any of a filmmaker letting it go and leaving it all in. But it’s less a matter of self-indulgence than necessity; Baumbach must allow these characters space to live and breathe, to let each tell their own story, so that both can be, by turns, equally admirable and flawed. So the scenes that another filmmaker might have cut – like Scarlett Johansson‘s long, searching, scorching explanation of how it all went awry, or Adam Driver‘s already famous, late-night rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” which becomes just as painful and confessional – are what give this picture its beating heart, and its bleeding soul. (Includes interviews, featurettes, trailer, and notes by novelist Linn Ullmann.)
“Taste of Cherry”: Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 Palme d’Or winner (also new on Blu from Criterion) is a film that asks for – demands, really – patience and attention from the viewer. But he rewards it, with a thoughtful and challenging rumination on the lives we live and the morality of ending them. The premise is deceptively simple: a man (Homayoun Ershadi) drives through Teran looking to hire someone to do a job. At first, we believe he could be cruising for a prostitute, before his true intention is revealed – he plans to commit suicide and wished to hire someone to bury him after the fact. The style is straightforward and the photography is bare-bones; the draw here are the torrents of talk, searching and questioning, doubting and affirming. It’s an extraordinary film, and its closing scenes (a moment of unimaginable vulnerability, followed by an exhilaratingly risky epilogue) are gasp-worthy. (Includes the short film “Project,” new and archival interviews, landscape, trailer, and essay by A.S. Hamrah.)
“Airplane! 40th Anniversary Edition”: Zucker-Abrahams- Zucker’s template-setting 1980 spoof smash isn’t exactly hard to track down on Blu-ray, but what the hell, it’s the 40th anniversary, and there’s a steelbook if you want it, go crazy. The point is, “Airplane!” is the rare topical comedy that hasn’t aged a day; its targets are the disaster movies of the 1970s, often satirized with pinpoint specificity (and accuracy), but ZAZ’s cockeyed worldview and inviting silliness has aged so well, it doesn’t even matter that most audiences will no longer get the original references. And they don’t need to – it’s so fast-paced, funny, and quotable (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing airplane glue”) that it stands on its own. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, isolated music score, and new Q&A.)
“Mephisto”: A tricky exploration of a genuinely complex character, István Szabó’s 1981 German drama concerns a Nazi-era stage actor (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who finds his professional life far more secure if he can put aside his concerns about the Reich’s rise (shades of Emil Jannings). He ultimately does so without hesitation – “We must cultivate connections and friendships,” he insists, “that’s the essence of the system” – and though watching this man sell his soul is unsettling, Szabó’s film amounts to a powerful and penetrating indictment of complicity in evil. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, trailer, and essay by Bilge Ebiri.)
“Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits”: Criterion’s latest exhaustive box set is yet another beaut, devoted to the five classic starring vehicles (well, four plus “Game of Death”) of martial arts and action cinema innovator Bruce Lee. Shout Factory released a similar set a few years back, but it was sorely missing Lee’s Warner Brothers smash “Enter the Dragon”; the Criterion set includes that film (and a boatload of extras besides). But this reviewer was more attracted to the earlier pictures, “The Big Boss” and “Fist of Fury,” helmed by the great Lo Wei, which (like his later Jackie Chan efforts) are elevated by inventive camerawork and startling compositions. But wherever you land on his oeuvre, it’s a must-have set, treating these genre classics with the reverence and respect they deserve. (Includes audio commentaries, alternate version of “Enter the Dragon,” Lee’s original “Game of Death” footage, full feature “Game of Death II,” interviews, featurettes, documentaries, promotional materials, and essay by Jeff Chang.)