As the temperature drops and the couch again beckons, it’s time to go exploring in the libraries of the subscription streaming services. This month’s recommendations include indie comedy-dramas, genre hybrids and informative documentaries about influential outsiders.
‘Touchy Feely’ (2013)
When the writer and director Lynn Shelton died unexpectedly last year, she left behind a small but distinctive group of films — wise and insightful comedy-dramas, modest in their scope but endless in their emotion. This Sundance selection is one of her most moving, an ensemble family story focusing on siblings (Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais) in personal and spiritual crisis, attempting to open up their minds and hearts to the inexplicable forces around them. Allison Janney, Elliot Page and Scoot McNairy round out the cast.
John Carney followed up the success of the micro-budgeted “Once” on a far grander scale, with such marquee names as Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley and Catherine Keener in major roles. But his sensibility remained intact; this is another bittersweet musical comedy-drama, its songs baked into a story about the people who make music, and why they do it. Ruffalo stars (and charms) as a dissatisfied record executive on the hunt for not only talent but authenticity; he thinks he finds both in Knightley’s uncertain singer-songwriter.
‘Adult Beginners’ (2015)
Sketch artist and stand-up comic Nick Kroll shows his thespian range in this low-key but engaging indie. The narrative strokes are familiar: a young hot shot gets cut down to size, so he moves back home and does some living and learning and growing up. Yet Kroll’s emotional evolution is convincing, as is his relationship with his suburban sister, played with equal parts warmth and exasperation by Rose Byrne; her real-life partner Bobby Cannavale is in top form as her husband.
When the “Back to the Future” star Lea Thompson took the turn from acting to feature filmmaking, she made it a family affair. Her daughters Madelyn Deutch and Zoey Deutch co-star as sisters, Madelyn writes the script and Thompson appears, in a brief but juicy supporting role, as their mother. But this is no vanity project; the screenplay is witty and perceptive, portraying 20s ennui with lacerating self-reflection, the sisterly byplay is unsurprisingly credible and Madelyn has a winning screen presence. Additionally, “Succession” fans will delight at the sight of Cousin Greg himself, Nicholas Braun, as a romantic leading man.
‘Don Jon’ (2013)
When Joseph Gordon-Levitt took the leap from actor to filmmaker, he went in the opposite direction of Lea Thompson, creating a character and situation miles from his own. He stars as the title character, a goofy musclehead with a thick Jersey accent and an omnipresent leather jacket. Jon is addicted to sex and all of its accouterments, and Gordon-Levitt’s stylish direction homes in on the routines and rhythms of his single-minded pursuit. It’s like “Shame” with a sense of humor, a mixture that shouldn’t land, but somehow does.
‘First Date’ (2021)
The filmmaking team of Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp write and direct this cheerfully overstuffed homage to the “one crazy night” action-comedies of the 1980s. Tyson Brown stars as Mike, a shy high school kid who unexpectedly lands a date with his dream girl Kelsey (Shelby Duclos) and, stuck without a car, ends up buying a cheap clunker. But the vehicle is a bargain for a reason, putting him in the sights of trigger-happy drug dealers, killers and cops. There’s a lot going on, but the young stars keep it grounded; he’s endlessly likable, she’s a star in the making (her fight scene is a jaw-dropper), and their vibe and chemistry create genuine stakes amid the lunacy.
Five Movies to Watch This Winter
The modernized 2000 “Hamlet” adaptation from the director Michael Almereyda and the actor Ethan Hawke is both one of the oddest and most successful films in that period’s cycle of Shakespeare updates — so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their reunion is even further out there, considering the source material is one of the Bard’s lesser-known (and thus more freely interpretable) works. What began as a story of warring royalty becomes a gleefully grimy tale of biker gangs and corrupt cops, as influenced by Roger Corman as William Shakespeare, and better for it. Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson and John Leguizamo co-star.
The strangest thing happened in this 21st century: Arnold Schwarzenegger became a wonderful actor. He always had undeniable charisma and presence, but was never (by his own admission) much of a thespian — yet he’s acquired a richness with age and experience, best showcased by his work as a frightened father here. But don’t worry, genre fans, this isn’t some navel-gazing indie drama; he’s a frightened father whose daughter has been bitten by zombies in a post-pandemic hellscape, So, y’know, something for everyone.
‘No No: A Dockumentary’ (2014)
Dock Ellis is best remembered these days for pitching a no-hitter in 1970 while (he claimed) out of his mind on LSD. Jeff Radice’s freewheeling documentary brings that game to vivid life (with the help of trippy music and animation), but “No No” is about much more: Ellis’s career, his struggles with addiction and (most of all) his insistence on speaking his mind at a moment when many Black athletes were reluctant to do so.
‘For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close’ (2021)
Few figures in contemporary comedy are spoken of with the reverence reserved for Del Close, the renowned improvisational comedian and teacher whose methods and students have extended, tentacle-like, into the worlds of the Second City, “Saturday Night Live,” Upright Citizens Brigade and more. Heather Ross’s rowdy, energetic documentary assembles the expected treasure trove of archival clips and testimonials from famous faces, while playfully re-enacting his wilder moments and odder inclinations.