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.
As the last of the spring theatrical releases finish the cycle to home video, we now get the Should’ve Beens – films that were all set to knock your socks off at the art houses after dazzling audiences at Sundance et. al., and will now go the streaming and/or VOD route instead. The week’s biggest title is one of those; also this week, recent indies of note on the streamers and two time capsules of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s make their belated Blu-ray debuts.
ON HULU / VOD:
“Shirley”: Elisabeth Moss is astonishing as author Shirley Jackson in Josephine Decker’s adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel – a fictional account, but inspired by the period in which Jackson wrote her second book, “Hangsaman,” which was itself inspired by the real-life disappearance of a Bennington student. (These are the kinds of interlocking levels of reality and storytelling we’re dealing with here.) It’s hard to think of a more ideal director to capture Shirley’s fragile state of mind than Decker, whose “Madeline’s Madeline” was an overwhelmingly visceral and astonishingly empathetic portrait of mental illness. Again, she gets us into her characters’ heads via smeary, discombobulated compositions and complex soundscapes, while juggling a quartet of complicated characters into an arrangement reminiscent of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” It’s a spellbinding picture, and another fine vehicle for the strange and beautiful way this singular artist sees the world. (Also available on demand.)
“Lady Bird”: The further we get from the release of Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut (which just flipped from Prime to Netflix), the more it feels like a miracle: a coming-of-age narrative told time and again, but told this time with a freshness, humanity, and attentiveness to detail that’s absolutely startling. In her decade or so of acting, writing, and observing, Gerwig fine-tuned an unmistakable voice, and the way she sees these days in the life of her protagonist – with a combination of nostalgia, sympathy, and tough love – remains astonishing in both its specificity and universality. Also, Laurie Metcalf wuz robbed.
ON THE CRITERION CHANNEL:
“Synonyms”: Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid’s third feature (after “Policeman” and the original “Kindergarten Teacher”) brings an absurdist sensibility and dry visual wit to a story of an Israeli ex-pat settling in Paris and trying to puzzle out an identity, all the while taking full advantage of the kindness of strangers; in some ways, it’s like Lapid decided to take “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” back to France. The balancing act between slapstick and social commentary seems impossible, and the potentially incendiary political content often feels like watching someone play with a loaded gun. Yet Lapid somehow makes it all work, deftly hopscotching between tones and styles, and Tom Mercier is a revelation as the figure at the story’s center, who turns out to be less simple than he seems.
ON BLU-RAY / NETFLIX / AMAZON PRIME / HULU:
“Urban Cowboy”: In 1980, Paramount Pictures nakedly attempted to replicate the success of “Saturday Night Fever” by again starring John Travolta in an adaptation of a magazine piece about a nightclub subculture – but instead of discotheques, the setting was the newly fashionable country scene. With that much calculation at work, it’s hard to come up with something particularly fresh, but the result has its virtues: naturalistic direction by James Bridges, a cast full of terrific, authentic character actors (including Scott Glenn, Barry Corbin, and James Gammon), and sharply choreographed dance numbers. Travolta is much more “urban” than “cowboy,” but he generates real heat with Debra Winger, flat-out terrific in her breakthrough role. The film didn’t match “Fever,” commercially or critically (though they got another bestselling soundtrack album out of the deal), but it works as a time capsule, capturing a moment when country music, rodeos, and mechanical bulls worked their way into the cultural mainstream. (Also streaming on Netflix and Prime.) (Includes deleted scenes, outtakes, rehearsal footage, and a featurette.)
“An Unmarried Woman”: One of the great movies of the 1970s gets a long-overdue Blu-ray upgrade thanks to the fine folks at the Criterion Collection. Jill Clayburgh is a New York woman whose unexpected divorce prompts a voyage of self-discovery, with some help from lithium, sex, and therapy; the latter is treated seriously, as valuable and difficult treatment, one way in which writer/director Paul Mazursky distinguishes himself from the kind of films Woody Allen was making on the Upper East Side in the same period. A rich, complicated movie, thankfully bereft of easy answers and pat conclusions, and Clayburgh is absolutely magnificent.