The launch of HBO Max into a crowded streaming arena is well-timed for a moment when people have grown accustomed—or is it resigned?—to clicking around online for something to watch. But HBO Max’s offerings aren’t just mindless time-wasters—the streamer’s playlist has plenty of high-end/deep-cut prestige, pulling from Warner Bros.’ massive back catalogue and including a generous sampling of titles from Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. There’s great opportunity for exploration there, though it can also be a bit daunting without the carefully curated, contextualizing supplements provided by The Criterion Channel. With that in mind, here’s a list of ten superb movies that aren’t necessarily obscure by cinephile standards but still rate as wonderful discoveries in the context of a populist, mainstream-facing platform.
Dead Man (1996)
“Why do you have this?” the man asks his lover after discovering a gun by her bedside. “Because this is America,” she replies. Ask a simple question, get a simple answer. Jim Jarmusch’s acid Western, set in an industrial town called Machine and populated by weirdos ranging from Billy Bob Thornton to Crispin Glover and Iggy Pop, is filled with such moments of pithy patriotism. Although the film is set in the 19th century, its pessimism about the poisonous contents of the U.S. melting pot feels eternal. In the lead role, Johnny Depp is basically a walking corpse, guided through a revenge plot by a Native American man named Nobody played with deadpan brilliance by Gary Farmer, who undermines genre stereotypes from the outside in; the punishment of white exceptionalism is Dead Man’s punch line, and Nobody is in on the joke. Almost hallucinatory in its beauty and as violent as any of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist frontier sagas—most of which owe Jarmusch a debt—Dead Man also features a squalling guitar score by Neil Young that ranks with Leonard Cohen’s anachronistic soundtrack for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with riffs that sting like a cornered scorpion.
As sad as movies get, and as scary, too: When Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer walks upstairs to her bedroom only to come face-to-face with the contorted, screaming features of Killer BOB, it’s the stuff that nightmares are made of. In Fire Walk With Me, it’s as if David Lynch—returning to the scene of his greatest mainstream triumph (and most frustrating creative experience as the series slowly drifted away from his original vision)—was trying to confront the show’s cult of loving fans with the kind of unfiltered vision that would have been untenable for ABC. Not only does this weirdly structured prequel fill in certain blanks about Laura’s past and peril, but it takes things the audience already knows (and dreads) and rubs them in their faces to—and arguably past—an emotional breaking point. Stark and abject, perverse and cruel, largely drained of comedy and almost entirely without Dale Cooper, Fire Walk With Me is spiritually transcendent in a way that many more overtly religious filmmakers could only dream—its finale juxtaposes suffering with redemption and relief to the point where you’re genuinely grateful that the whole brilliant, terrible thing is over.
Black Girl (1966)
Shot in gleaming, high-contrast black-and-white and running a tight 55 minutes long, Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène’s debut has the vivid brevity of a great novella; it’s a masterpiece of narrative compression and visceral symbolism that doubles as an expansive commentary on social class, postcolonial politics, and racial identity beyond the cozy fantasy of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Newly embedded in French society as a domestic servant in the seaside resort town of Antibes—a backdrop of conspicuous consumption—20-something Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) remembers her village upbringing in Dakar and flight toward Europe. As the film progresses, Sembène unsentimentally illustrates the price of his heroine’s ostensible upward European mobility—her migration from one trap to another. The way that Diouana’s white employers devolve from protectiveness to condescension to outright exploitation carries a powerful allegorical charge, while Diop’s superbly natural, believably internalized performance generates the kind of empathy and identification that not only completely collapses the distance between actor and character, but also between the character and the audience. Even if the film’s tragic trajectory is retrospectively inevitable, it has the power to destroy the viewer on a first viewing, and again and again afterward.
The Earrings of Madame De… (1954)
The contemporary masters of muscular camera movement all bow to German maestro Max Ophuls’s 1954 melodrama; the DVD edition of The Earrings of Madame De… features a video intro by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson. Fans of the fashion-conscious Phantom Thread might be on the right wavelength for a movie whose story line pivots on a glittering accessory: Its protagonist is a narcissistic aristocrat (Danielle Darrieux) navigating a passionless marriage, but the plot follows a pair of heart-shaped earrings whose ever-shifting ownership describes a complex network of romantic and social entanglements. In formal terms, the film could be said to be perfect, a procession of sequences as finely cut and multifaceted as the diamond items driving the plot forward. And yet the emotions it describes are as messy and unsatisfying as it gets (Darrieux’s achingly sad performance as a woman whose beauty doesn’t so much mask privileged callowness as expose it for all to see is, as they say, A Mood). Time and again, the film’s well-heeled, “weak-hearted” characters plunge into the depths of shame, rage, cowardice, and jealousy without losing our sympathies; in the end, all are humbled by fate and made equal before Ophuls’s mobile, relentlessly mesmerizing filmic gaze.
The death in April of Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi drew a hard—and at times, nasty—line on social media between those who revered him for his entire playful, experimental body of work over 50-plus years, and those who knew him only for the 1977 cult horror-comedy House. To be fair to the latter group, if it’s possible to fall in love with a director based on a single work, House—the title refers to the haunted abode visited one fateful summer by teenage dreamer Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and six gal pals—is a valid source of infatuation. It does Obayashi’s wild, fertile imagination a disservice to say that the film—which features, among other things, monstrous animated cats, possessed household appliances, and characters swallowed up by blobs of blood—is “batshit.” Like all great fables, including The Shining, House mixes sincerity and ridiculousness, exulting in genre-movie clichés and stylization to tackle the same coming-of-age themes as the director’s other films. House is wild, but it’s also controlled and hilarious in a way that goes well beyond gawky, giggly camp. It’s as fun as movies get.
Irma Vep (1996)
No actress has ever played herself better than Maggie Cheung in Olivier Assayas’s ingenious and inventive showbiz satire. Decamping to Paris from Hong Kong to star in a remake of an ancient French serial about a cat-suited criminal queen, Cheung is forced to keep up an offscreen performance as an iconic movie star while the production and its unstable director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) crumble around her. Assayas was married to Cheung at the time of filming, and if you didn’t know he was in love with her, you could tell by the way he films her. But he’s also terrified, because through no fault of her own, Cheung’s status as a ’90s-style ringer coming in to hotwire a dying French art cinema suggests a film culture—and a larger world—in a state of globalist flux whose outcome is far from certain. And even though Irma Vep is perfectly entertaining as a behind-the-scenes comedy featuring lecherous actors, unscrupulous producers, and moronic entertainment journalists bigging up Arnold Schwarzenegger as a state-of-the-art auteur and taking John Woo’s name in vain, it’s also a movie about movies, where homage blends with critique and a cry of alarm—call it Once Upon a Time … in Paris.
Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Mikey (Peter Falk) is Nicky’s (John Cassavetes) oldest friend; Nicky is in big trouble. That means Mikey is in big trouble too, enlisted as chaperone and sounding board for a guy who owes debts all over town—including to his ostensible best pal, who deserves hazard pay for getting him out of his apartment. Elaine May’s peerless pitch-black comedy—a stealth choice for the mythical “Best American Movie of the ’70s” mantle usually handed to The Godfather series—digs as deep into machismo and violence as Francis Ford Coppola’s epics, except its portraiture is pocket sized; these are small-time crooks whose lives don’t mean anything, except to each other. The highest compliment you can pay Cassavetes as the low-life, high-strung Nicky is that he’s unafraid to make him genuinely annoying and even hateful, including to the audience; the highest compliment you can pay to Falk is that you believe that Mikey really loves him. While it obviously stands on its own merits, Mikey and Nicky would make a great double bill with the Safdies’ frenetic crime sagas Good Time or Uncut Gems, which radiate with a similarly squirrelly energy. Among her other virtues as a comic genius, May understood losers—and that’s how she wins.
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
You may recognize this nearly 90-year-old thriller as a footnote in David Fincher’s exhaustively annotated Zodiac; early in the film, Jake Gyllenhaal’s amateur codebreaker identifies it as a likely source for the titular killer’s predatory rhetoric and ominous moniker via the villainous Count Zaroff (“With a Z?” cracks Robert Downey Jr., helpfully). The Most Dangerous Game is an example of swift, nasty Pre-Code entertainment that doubles as one of the most influential genre movies ever made—any story about a rich asshole hunting people for sport is in its debt, from Hard Target to this year’s The Hunt. Filmed at night on the same sets as the original King Kong—whose star, Fay Wray, is on hand as a much pluckier damsel in distress—The Most Dangerous Game is mercilessly mean right down the finale, which literalizes the idea of a dog-eat-dog world with viciously satisfying humor.
The gawky, long-legged pranksters of the outrageous—and eventually government-suppressed—Czech comedy Daisies are two young women named Marie. In lieu of a plot, the film sits back and watches them get seriously debauched in Prague, vandalizing property, toying with prosperous men, and egging each other on in scenes that split the difference between subversive social critique and juvenile pantomime. In a very serious and subversive way, the film’s theme can be boiled down to: Girls Just Want to Have Fun. As the first major female filmmaker of the Czech New Wave, director Vera Chytilová was working against her country’s drab tradition of cinematic realism, as well as deeper artistic conventions that Daisies demolishes without breaking a sweat. Whether dressed-up or stripped down, stars Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová are like a two-girl wrecking crew, and their mutually gluttonous appetites for destruction render them unforgettable.
Police Story (1985)
“Make ’em laugh,” insisted Donald O’Connor while nearly destroying his body for our entertainment in Singin’ in the Rain; Jackie Chan agrees. As an undercover cop in crime-ridden Hong Kong, Chan is a leaping, diving, high-kicking virtuoso, but the genius of 1985’s Police Story—which he also directed and cowrote—is that “Inspector Chan” is anything but indestructible. Rather, he gets the shit kicked out of him in an art-imitates-life fashion that uses the star’s real, on-set daredevilry as the stuff of onscreen excitement. More than even his predecessor Bruce Lee, Chan used his body as a special effect, and while there are a lot of things to enjoy about Police Story, from its twisty, over-the-top plot to its slapstick comedy to—yes, again—Maggie Cheung, it’s Chan’s uncanny ability to inhabit the twin roles of supercop and punching bag that rises above the rest. True global stardom—and big-money Hollywood paydays—would come in time; in the history of DIY action icons writing the kind of checks that only their bruised, battered asses can cash, Police Story stands as a landmark.