This second installment of An Occasional But Considered Guide to On Demand Movie Picks is brought to you by the soul-sucking hellhole that is your average onscreen film guide. No one gets off innocent in this: not your cable company (Comcast/Xfinity, in my case), not Amazon Prime, certainly not Netflix, whose website allows for a fair amount of curatorial fine-tuning but whose Roku menu is a slurry of undifferentiated titles, algorithmically keyed off some movie you hate-watched at 1 a.m. two weeks ago.
Most people I know develop work-arounds. Comcast allows you to sort its film lists by “critics’ score” or “audience score,” which brings good stuff right to the top: the former leans toward the art-house, the latter toward the multiplex, but there’s a lot of overlap and the pickings are consistently dog-free. If you have a Netflix subscription, you can drill down on the website and add titles to your watch list before switching to the home screen. You can try to make sense of Netflix or Amazon user reviews. But none of this solves the root problem: Why is it so hard to turn on the TV and find a decent movie on demand? Why does it have to be so much work?
Well, the dirty secret is that none of these companies want to tell you what the good movies are, because then they’d have to tell you what the bad ones are, and you wouldn’t spend your money on them. Too many of the titles on display are digital versions of what used to be called “straight-to-tape” movies (and before that, “drive-in films,” and before that “B movies”). In other words, they run the gamut from inspired junk to toxic swill. But there are too few ways to differentiate B product from B+, let alone A.
Fine. Try this personally curated list of 10 currently available on demand movies. Some of them never made it to Boston-area theaters, some stayed for only a week. Some have been around a bit. All of them are, in my opinion, pretty good to excellent. Plus: five to avoid. (If your particular service isn’t mentioned below, check listings.)
Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall (Showtime, Amazon, Xfinity, iTunes) Spike Lee’s documentaries are some of his finest efforts, and this one casts a spotlight on the years from the Jackson 5 era to the emergence of Michael the mature young artist. Immensely touching, often revelatory, with footage that can’t be believed, like Jackson tap-dancing with the Nicholas brothers.
Short Term 12 (Xfinity, Netflix, iTunes) Brie Larson just won a best actress Oscar for her performance in “Room” but has done mostly supporting work up to now. This drama from 2013 gave her a welcome lead as the manager of a California home for at-risk youth. A terrific little movie, written and performed with real feeling.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix) The biopic “Nina,” opening in April, has already started online brushfires with its casting of the light-skinned Zoe Saldana as the dark-skinned jazz and blues singer. Maybe you should get the facts first, with this Oscar-nominated documentary, which lays out Simone’s career in all its grief and glory.
World of Tomorrow (Netflix) Speaking of Oscar, Don Hertzfeldt’s animated short really shoulda won this year. Not too many 17-minute cartoons have the power to make you cry, but this one might. (If you want more — and you will — “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” is also on Netflix: It packages three earlier Hertzfeldt shorts into one gorgeously bleak 62 minutes.)
Theeb (Amazon, iTunes) Another recent Oscar nominee, this time in the foreign language category. An elemental adventure-drama about a Bedouin boy leading a British soldier across a dangerous desert during World War I. Is this “Lawrence of Arabia” from the other side of the fence, or is it an allegory for more modern discontents?
For Grace (Amazon, Netflix, iTunes) A pretty good foodie documentary that tumbles down the rabbit hole halfway through into something much richer. Curtis Duffy is an ambitious young chef starting a restaurant in Chicago, but what’s in his past that’s driving him?
Miss You Already (Amazon, On Demand, iTunes) This is one of those “best girlfriends coping with cancer” weepies, but the girlfriends are played by Drew Barrymore and Toni Colette — a weird pairing that works — and the latter is great as a selfish, stricken pain in the tuchis.
Crimson Peak (Amazon, Comcast, iTunes) “Jane Eyre” on inhalants. From director Guillermo del Toro (”Pan’s Labyrinth”), a Gothic suspense drama with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain having a high old time as a bedbug-crazy heiress. Quite ridiculous, and better for it.
Dope (Comcast, Amazon, Netflix, iTunes) Three high school nerds in the ’hood end up with a backpack full of drugs and have to out-think the bad guys. An indie pleasure that’s a little shallower than it realizes, but it’s funny and very smartly written.
Best of Enemies (Amazon, Comcast, Netflix, iTunes) A joyfully splenetic documentary about ABC News’s decision in 1968 to hire battling pundits Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. as political commentators. Worth it for the polysyllabic invective alone.
Please do your level best to avoid: “Backtrack” (Adrien Brody as a shrink who sees dead people), “Rock the Kasbah” (possibly Bill Murray’s all-time worst, and, yes, I’m including “Garfield”), “Tumbledown” (Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis go together like Marmite and ham), “Burnt” (Bradley Cooper as a bad-boy chef in a bad-bad movie), “Our Brand Is Crisis” (Sandra Bullock, painfully unfunny, as a political consultant; the 2005 documentary of the same title is brilliant, though.)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.