This month’s curated picks from the back corners of the subscription streamers offer up a wide range of choices: unjustly forgotten star vehicles, clever genre subversions and a pair of first-rate music documentaries about very different artists.
‘Miss Stevens’ (2016)
A high school English teacher (the marvelous Lily Rabe) chaperones a trio of students on a weekend trip to a dramatics competition in this road movie and character study from the director Julia Hart (“Fast Color,” “I’m Your Woman”). Miss Stevens is vaguely dissatisfied with her life, so questionable choices are made — and more seem possible in the form of a talented but manic student (a pre-fame Timothée Chalamet) with an unmistakable crush on his instructor. Yet little shakes out in the pat, formulaic ways one might predict. Evocative and intimate, “Miss Stevens” has the richness and narrative precision of a particularly good short story.
It seems impossible that a 2019 release combining such buzz-friendly elements as Kristen Stewart, con artists, Laura Dern and literary fraud came and went without making a peep, yet that’s exactly what happened to Justin Kelley’s adaptation of Savannah Koop’s memoir. That story — of how Koop conspired with the writer Laura Albert to embody Albert’s best-selling literary persona JT LeRoy — is compelling stuff to begin with, but Kelly uses it to shade in compelling themes of identity and perception, and (thanks in no small part to his self-aware performers) subtly examines the ethos of acting and characterization as well. Stewart is a good fit for the shy, self-conscious “JT,” while Dern crafts a superb portrait of a consummate hustler, whose mask easily slips to reveal the desperation underneath.
‘Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil’ (2011)
Eli Craig’s debut feature springs from a simple but delectably clever premise: what if one of those “killer hillbillies in the woods” horror movies was told from the perspective of … the hillbillies? And what if it turned out they were actually nice guys, and all that terror and bloodshed was just a big misunderstanding? Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine are uproariously funny as the poor good ol’ boys, working a chemistry and rhythm reminiscent of Abbott & Costello (especially in that team’s comedy-horror mash-ups), while their co-star Katrina Bowden (“30 Rock”) finds the right mixture of fear and bemusement as the story’s “final girl.”
Lauren Anne Miller co-wrote and co-stars as an uptight but desperate young professional who joins her former “frenemy” and current roommate (a game Ari Graynor) in a lucrative phone sex business. This raucous and rowdy comedy from the director Jamie Travis mines the expected laughs from the intricacies and tools of the trade, and the shamelessness of their clientele (seen in cameo appearances from the likes of Kevin Smith, Ken Marino and Miller’s spouse, Seth Rogen). But the picture also has a welcome sweet streak, making genuine emotional investments in the relationship between its protagonists, as well as a kind client (Mark Webber) who wants to be more.
‘Trust Me’ (2014)
Clark Gregg spent decades working as one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, popping up in David Mamet movies, Aaron Sorkin TV shows and (most famously) as Agent Coulson in Marvel’s films and series. When he wrote, directed and starred in this ruthless industry satire, he pulled in collaborators from that entire career, assembling an all-star supporting cast (including Allison Janney, William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell and Felicity Huffman) to tell the story of a desperate talent agent (Gregg) working every angle to land a promising newcomer (Saxon Sharbino). Gregg’s dialogue is snappy and his direction is assured; it’s a movie that knows its subject matter inside and out, and holds nothing back.
‘Z for Zachariah’ (2015)
Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine are the points of a complicated love triangle in this post-apocalyptic drama from the director Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s novel. Robbie stars as a shy preacher’s daughter, tending to a family farm discovered by a curious scientist (Ejiofor). The warmth and then affection that develops between them — understandably, as they’re not exactly the last people on earth, but close enough — is disrupted by the arrival of a handsome stranger (Pine). Zobel loads up a full plate, piling philosophical loggerheads and biblical allegories atop the matters of the heart, yet the pieces fit together seamlessly; it’s both deeply felt and sharply intelligent.
‘I’m So Excited!’ (2013)
Pedro Almodóvar’s recent run of piercingly personal work (culminating in the magnificent “Pain and Glory”) led many to undervalue this delightful 2013 romp, a throwback to unapologetic horniness of his earlier works. Setting his film on a commercial airliner flying from Madrid to Mexico City, the writer and director unleashes a mechanical malfunction that keeps the plane in the air, as the ribald flight attendants attempt to keep the passengers in business class entertained and (ahem) stimulated. It’s all just sexy silliness, and that’s the point — it finds a noted, cheerful hedonist assuring his audience that he hasn’t changed all that much.
‘Sleepless Night’ (2012)
The depressing sameness that’s befallen American crime films in recent years has left European genre filmmakers to pick up the slack. Exhibit A is this breathless action thriller from the French director Frédéric Jardin, in which a dirty cop (Tomer Sisley) crosses a ruthless drug dealer (Serge Riaboukine), and has to right this slight to save the life of his son. A 2017 American remake with Jamie Foxx replicated the story, but that’s the element of littlest note; what it couldn’t replicate is the picture’s considerable style, soaked in neon and sweat and sin.
The actor-turned-director Alex Winter (“Bill” to Keanu Reeves’s “Ted”) crafts this intimate, intricate and quietly innovative documentary portrait of the groundbreaking musician Frank Zappa. Drawing on a treasure trove of materials from Zappa’s personal archive (much of it previously unseen), Winter begins at the end of the artist’s life, then leaps back to explain who he was, why he was unique and what remains misunderstood about his work. Ingeniously assembled and unexpectedly poignant, it offers both an entry point to newbies and rare gems for superfans.
‘Nas: Time is Illmatic’ (2014)
“Zappa” covers the entirety of a career; “Time is Illmatic” adopts an opposite approach, taking a deep dive into a musician’s single most iconic work. But the director One9 finds clever ways for his documentary, released on the 20th anniversary of Nas’s debut album, “Illmatic,” to hit the expected biographical beats, while also benefiting from the laser focus on that influential album and its individual tracks. Ultimately, it does what this kind of documentary should always do: it makes you want to go listen to the whole thing again.