In addition to providing you, my constant readers, with a safe bit of indoor entertainment to keep to when we’re all supposed to be sheltering in place as much as possible during the ongoing, lethal, global (but increasingly American) Caronavirus pandemic, part of the reason why I have started this series of Quarantine & Chill articles is to show just how many older, foreign and all-around excellent movies there are on various streaming platforms than whatever the latest programmer made available on Netflix this month is. And to that end, I think it has been an overwhelming success, with the necessary deep-dives I take into this or that streaming library to pick 5 must-stream movies to highlight for the month being remarkable learning experiences, even for me. I’ve learned what a treasure Kanopy is, what a uniquely curated experience Mubi is and how everything from Hulu to Amazon Prime are so much better than we give them credit for on a day-to-day basis.
And yet, there is no denying the fact that the streaming landscape as a whole is overwhelmingly concentrated on the latest movies coming out of Hollywood, and that the more well-rounded offerings that stretch beyond that are buried in a sea of content on the larger services or largely relegated to smaller and more niche services that simply do not have the market penetration of the heavyweights in the room. Just the other day, an infographic came out showing just how few movies being offered were made before 2000, let alone the single-digit doldrums of the 1960s and earlier crowd. So, needless to say, these are rare and wonderful gems of movies that you generally can’t find on other streaming services (and even the one, more-recent inclusion in this month’s list is foreign, niche and decidedly unlike anything available to stream otherwise). Count your blessings, in other words, since the likes of these movies don’t come along with every streaming service out there.
A Woman of Paris (1923) – While not exactly my favorite Charlie Chaplin movie – and certainly not the typical Tramp-starring comedy that moviegoers are more familiar with him making – I have always had a soft spot in my heart for A Woman of Paris. A heady melodrama about a woman emigre to the city of lights, the films brings Chaplin’s piercing eye for social plight and intimate familiarity with European class politics to a story uniquely suited to his talents, and his directorial talents are well-lent to a tale decidedly lacking in pie-fights, physical comedy and his iconic Tramp’s usual antics. Of his more popular features, A Woman in Paris is closest to The Kid (1921), although decidedly lacking that film’s cherubic costar, comedic undercurrent, fantastical digressions and straight-forward sentimentality. This is a hard drama of a decidedly serious character, and yet Chaplin continues to shine through in every frame of a film that is unmistakably his, if, perhaps, infinitely more sober than we’ve come to expect from him.
Stagecoach (1939) – 1939 is often cited as one of the great years for movies. It is, after all, the year when we got the sweeping and melodramatic Civil War epic Gone with the Wind (although, if we’re being really honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that it varyingly plays out as a flawed or outright failed production held aloft by one great performance from Hatty McDaniel and a truly riveting scene where Atlanta burns to the ground). It’s the year when we got The Wizard of Oz, which undeniably holds up on its own today and continues to delight entire families well into the twenty-first century. My favorite film of the year, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, remains damn near the finest piece of film ever produced on the comings and goings and procedural complications of Congress. On balance, though, it’s hard to argue with those who put Stagecoach head and shoulders above any of those other features. While hardly the first psychologically complex or otherwise “adult” entry into the genre, John Ford’s lean drama is as class-conscious as any of the proceedings of the equally excellent The Rules of the Game and elevates the Western to previously unseen heights. It formed the bedrock of the so-called “classic” Western and represents just about everything that later filmmakers (including, ironically, Ford himself) would build on, react against, strip down or comment on.
Blood on the Moon (1948) – Speaking of Westerns, following the departure of their Columbia Noir offerings, the Criterion Channel put together an entire collection dedicated to a distinctive hybrid of Westerns and Film Noir that bridges Westerns of the pre-War Classic period and the late Studio Era Revisionist Westerns. Uniquely blending together the pitch black aesthetic, psychological interiority and claustrophobic feel of the typically Urban-set Noir with the isolated vistas and lawless criminality of the Old West, these films add even greater complexity and the beginnings of a demythologized lens through which to view the classic characters and narratives of the often rosily-presented frontier times. A perfect segue into the collection and one of the better entries into this inimitable strain of American filmmaking, Blood on the Moon offers one of the darkest and least sentimental looks at the classic Western from a time when that classic mode was still very much in vogue. And with plenty of more time to go before we get out of this virus-induced lockdown – a time in which we are already reexamining our statue-esque heroes and canonized histories – the sterner look at our mythologized past offered by this Western Noir collection seems to be just what the doctor ordered.
Rashamon (1950) – One of the great pleasures that the Criterion Collection has offered up since the lockdowns began in March (going on six months ago at this point) has been the collection Toshiro Mifune Turns 100, an expansive retrospective on the great samurai of Japanese cinema himself that takes the legendary actor out of Kurosawa’s shadow and shows us so much of the breadth and depth of his talent that has so often been overlooked in favor of his Warring States affectation that he was admittedly so singularly suited to portray on screen. And while there are other partnerships that Mifune became known for (as with director Hiroshi Inagaki) and other roles that took him out of the history books into the battered streets of post-war Japan (the most interesting of which being the internationally produced Red Sun, an unlikely Western that places him firmly alongside the American Charles Bronson, the French Alain Delon and the Swiss Ursula Andress), his most jaw-droppingly astounding work of acting undoubtedly comes from Rashomon: a relatively early Kurosawa film that made Mifune an unquestionable star and forced the rest of the world to consider Japanese cinema as something other than an “oriental oddity.” Here, Mifune offers us four wildly different takes on the exact same character, each as wonderfully drawn-out and realized as the last: a true tour-de-force that has never quite been done as well by another performer.
Antichrist (2009) – What can I say, Antichrist has been inescapably on my mind as of late. The subject of my ongoing Master’s Thesis (alongside other recent witch films The Witch and The Autopsy of Jane Doe), I have come to the insurmountable conclusion that it is one of this century’s unquestionable masterpieces: an intimate work of astounding genius that combines the longstanding past and topic present of female persecution, wrapped up in a narrative of such outward misogyny that the graphic extremes of its violent story (and, make no mistake, this is one of the most stomach-churning pieces of cinema you will ever experience) that its unflinching gaze into the abyss of human depravity is unavoidably the very point that it is trying to make. Not satisfied to simply present the film as-is, though, the Criterion Channel has couched it (un)comfortably in its Marriage Stories collection: an intimate portrait of marital discord that evokes those fabled first words of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”