Peacock has taken wing, and NBCUniversal’s streaming service distinguishes itself from fellow newcomers Disney+ and HBO Max by offering 15,000 hours of film and TV for free, if viewers are willing to tolerate ad breaks. With enough entertainment to stretch to March 2022 without sleeping, where to begin? The Universal monsters, like the Mummy and the Wolf Man, are an obvious start. Other self-celebratory categories on the home page include movies starring “S.N.L.” alums and a salute to Alfred Hitchcock, who was loyal to the studio for 43 years.
Build your own double feature of the 1957 sci-fi movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and Lily Tomlin’s 1981 rejoinder, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” or pair two fast-paced flicks set amid the chaos of a daily newspaper: “The Front Page” (1974), starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and Ron Howard’s “The Paper” (1994), in which Michael Keaton and Glenn Close battle for control of a story that could send two Black teenagers to jail. Eclectic to a fault, the service has a film for every mood. Here are nine of our favorites.
When Fab 5 Freddy spray-painted soup cans on a subway train, it was an announcement that the guardians of fine art had to shove over for a generation of kids from Brooklyn and the South Bronx. The director Charlie Ahearn grabbed his camera to capture the scene, and his loose-limbed, ad-libbed feature would become hip-hop’s first (and arguably, best) film. “Wild Style” is as authentic in sound — in one scene, Grandmaster Flash D.J.s in his own kitchen — as it is in spirit. The climactic concert at the East River Park Amphitheater was shot without a permit, twice. As the star Lee Quiñones, whose bright pieces are now in the Whitney’s permanent collection, once scribbled, “Graffiti is art and if art is a crime, please God, forgive me.”
At the height of ’90s heroin chic, Lisa Cholodenko wowed Sundance with this erotic drama about an ambitious young magazine editor named Syd (Radha Mitchell) and her neighbor, Lucy, a dissolute photographer (a phenomenal Ally Sheedy). Lucy is the grande dame of the upstairs drug den where her German girlfriend (Patricia Clarkson), hair in a slovenly Bardot bouffant, glowers at her love rival in a haze. Mesmerizing and intelligent, Cholodenko’s debut is about the need to see and be seen, from Syd’s power struggle against her demeaning male boss to Lucy’s efforts to sober up and shoot her comeback cover story.
‘Hold Back the Dawn’
Consider the screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s criminally underseen picture a hard-luck counterpart to “Casablanca.” While Bogey and Bergman cooled their heels in a swanky nightclub, other European war refugees assembled on the Mexican border, where Charles Boyer’s Romanian gigolo lucks into a room at the crowded Hotel Esperanza only because its occupant committed suicide that morning. When an immigration agent who misquotes the text on the Statue of Liberty predicts a five- to eight-year wait, the playboy schemes to marry an American. Once he slides a borrowed ring on the finger of an innocent tourist (Olivia de Havilland, luminous as ever), the callous groom is caught in his own squeeze. Can he cross legally into the States before the ring’s rightful owner, a showgirl played by Paulette Goddard, exposes his ruse?
Sick of staring at the same walls? Find catharsis in the claustrophobic infatuation between a lonely hearts barmaid, Agnes (Ashley Judd), and the conspiracy theorist (Michael Shannon) who moves into her motel room and promptly plasters it in tinfoil. “Bug” has the lean energy of a debut feature. Yet the director William Friedkin, in his 70s at the time, and the screenwriter Tracy Letts, adapting his own play, had nothing to prove except the thrill of a small story viciously told. Shannon, who originated the role onstage, turns in a barnstorming performance.
The first-time filmmaker Bill Watterson scrounged 30,000 feet of cardboard to build this microbudget monument to practical effects. Over a lost weekend, the flighty artist Dave (Nick Thune) builds a living room play fort that, once entered by his girlfriend and a documentary crew, unfolds into a labyrinth complete with a deadly Minotaur. Here, sliced necks spurt red confetti, and when survivors crawl through hole-punched hexagonal tunnels that harken to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and flee origami cranes in a homage to the trash compactor scene in “Star Wars,” the effect feels both recycled — literally — and ingenious.
‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’
The culture wars were never fought with more cheer than in this 1982 musical in which a tinpot TV moralizer (Dom DeLuise) crusades to close down the Chicken Ranch, a brothel headed by Mona Stangley (Dolly Parton), a madam who makes entertaining the A&M football team seem as wholesome as pouring lemonade at the library. (She’s even dating the sheriff, played by Burt Reynolds.) DeLuise lampoons a now-familiar cable news type, a hypocrite who rages about liars and sinners in a phony Texan accent. At the same time, the lily-livered governor (Charles Durning, who scored an Oscar nomination for the part) is beholden only to polls. The director Colin Higgins’s take on the Broadway hit is a charm offensive — perhaps offensively so for those doing a double-take at its ecstatically content prostitutes. Still, no one can resist Parton serenading Reynolds with her showstopping hit, “I Will Always Love You.”
Six years after their clench in “Morocco,” the oil-and-vinegar combo of a slithery Marlene Dietrich and a straight-shooting Gary Cooper was revived for a fizzy caper flick about a scammer who slips purloined pearls into a stranger’s pocket and stalks him through Spain conniving how to swipe them back. “The only film I need not be ashamed of is ‘Desire,’” declared Dietrich, who slinks through the movie outlined in feathers and furs. As for Cooper, he speaks for her fans when he swoons, “First you throw mud in my face, then you want me to kiss your hand. Continental.”
Fans of Lee Daniels’s Southern-fried gothic are committed, in the sense that the gatekeepers of good taste might pinion them in a straitjacket. As pulpy as its title, “The Paperboy” is a sweathouse of pheromones set in the Florida swamps where the death-row convict Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) has lured two reporters (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo), one besotted pen pal (Nicole Kidman) and a college kid (Zac Efron) who lusts after Kidman’s character while the camera drools over him. Little that follows is suitable for print, which is part of the fun. Kidman’s bravura performance makes audiences feel like they pressed play on a fugue state and, afterward, can’t quite believe certain scenes were real until someone else watches the film and confirms that, yes, Kidman did straddle Efron and bellow, “If anyone’s going to pee on him, it’s going to be me!” Tag, you’re it.
It’s October 1962 in Key West and the brothers Gene and Dennis are scared of everything. The Cuban Missile Crisis is unfolding 90 miles away and, closer to home, the gleeful schlockmeister Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) has rolled into town to promote his new chiller, “Mant!” The boys can’t tell which is their more immediate threat: a classmate warning that duck and cover won’t save them from the atomic bomb, or the local bully wearing a promotional rubber ant suit. “It takes a lot more to scare people these days,” sighs Woolsey. “Too much competition.” But when Woolsey traces his line of work back to the first cave man chased by a mammoth, this nostalgic comedy blooms into the director Joe Dante’s love letter to the movies in all their mutations.