It is time once again to address the howling black hole of chaos that is your On Demand movie menu.
Digital streaming was supposed to make our lives more convenient, right? Instead, thumbing through the “new release” screens on Xfinity or Verizon, Amazon Video or iTunes, Hulu or Vudu, is like having a dumptruck back up to your TV room and deposit a mountain of DVDs on the floor. It’s what going to the video store used to be like — too many choices and eyestrain after reading the 10th spine in a row — but now it’s at home and you get to pay for it.
For your money, you get little to no curation aside from vague genre classifications and the bogus “If you liked ‘Jaws’, you’ll like ‘Sharknado XVII’ ” calculus. Most of the new movies are ones you’ve never heard of. Hell, I do this for a living and I haven’t heard of half of them.
What used to be B movies (or worse) became drive-in movies in the 1950s, then turned into direct-to-video movies in the 1980s, and now float like flotsam atop your On Demand choices. Increasingly, such movies get a pro forma release in New York and Los Angeles while showing up the same day in streaming outlets; they rarely see theaters in Boston or elsewhere.
Some of them are good, even excellent. Most of them are average or inhabit some dank region beneath. How do you separate the fish from the chum? Online legwork, mostly, meaning user reviews at sites like the Internet Movie Database, Amazon, or iTunes, or critic aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes or (the preferred option) Metacritic.
Easy enough, then, to shoot over to Metacritic to see if “The Ticket” is worth your time beyond having Dan Stevens in the lead (barely), or whether Bel Powley of “Diary of a Teenage Girl” makes “Carrie Pilby” worth slogging through (not really). But that’s still more work than you may want to do as the post-dinner couch narcolepsy kicks in. One answer, if you’re adventurous, is to subscribe to Fandor, which curates indie movies and foreign films (and a lot of shorts) that never otherwise see the light of day. Another, if you want the cream of the cinematic crop, is to subscribe to Filmstruck, which houses the Criterion Collection of classics from yesterday and today.
Filmstruck’s always topping up their offerings with interesting acquisitions. This month they added “Sherman’s March” and other wry documentaries from locally-based son of the South Ross McElwee, not to mention the roistering ’80s cult fave “Withnail & I” and “The Party,” a defiantly un-PC 1968 comedy from Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther”) that is some kind of lysergic masterpiece.
And, here, let me save you some time: 10 movies currently on demand that I can recommend with occasional reservations. Most are coming off theatrical releases, but in many cases you blinked and you missed them. Unless otherwise noted, they can be found on most streaming platforms.
“The Big Knife”: It’s only on Filmstruck so you have to subscribe, but it’s almost worth it for the surreal pungency of this 1955 poison-pen letter to Hollywood, adapted from a play written by Clifford Odets long after the town had spat him out. Jack Palance plays a tormented star, Rod Steiger is a studio head — a.k.a. Satan — and the script’s full of proto-Coen gems like “There’s only two ways to forget everything: Get drunk or stick a pencil in your eye.”
“The Blackcoat’s Daughter”: One for the horror fans, but director Oz Perkins (Anthony Perkins’s son) brilliantly sustains a taut, creepy atmosphere before the knives come out and everything goes to hell. Kiernan Shipka — little Sally of “Mad Men” — puts her unnerving stare to fresh uses here.
“The Dressmaker”: Australia’s Jocelyn Moorhouse retools the women’s melodrama as a spaghetti western revenge comedy. Starring Kate Winslet and a lot of dressmakers’ mannequins, along with the great Judy Davis and Hugo Weaving, who long ago starred in Moorhouse’s breakthrough film, “Proof” (1991) — also recommended.
“The Founder”:The Weinstein Company tossed this away in theaters, but, trust me, you want to see Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the visionary hustler who took McDonald’s away from the McDonald brothers. The title drips irony the way a Big Mac drips special sauce.
“Julieta”:Late-period Pedro Almodovar, adapted from a trio of Alice Munro short stories, this is a mysteriously moving drama about chance connections and thwarted mother love, made by a filmmaker working at a pitch of supreme confidence. If Hitchcock had made women’s weepies, they might have looked like this.
“I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Any More”: Getting robbed is the last straw for stressed-out nurse Melanie Lynskey, who enlists kooky neighbor Elijah Wood for payback. This one struck me as an unappetizing tonal misfire, but it won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance and Netflix snapped up exclusive rights, so your mileage may vary.
“The Love Witch”: A precise re-creation of a late-’60s soft-core thriller — only with all the sexual politics cheekily inverted — this is a work of demented genius by Anna Biller. It’s all here: High-key lighting, cheesy flute music on the soundtrack, a Renaissance Faire scene, “Adam-12”-level acting, and the occasional human sacrifice.
“A Man Called Ove”: A sweet-natured and only slightly schmaltzy crowd-pleaser about a cranky widower (Rolf Lassgard) who befriends the multi-culti family next door and is brought out of his shell. It’s based on a Swedish novel that has sold a bazillion copies worldwide and was Oscar nominated for its rather strenuous old age make-up. Cute, though.
“Silence”: I know, you didn’t see Martin Scorsese’s most recent film while it was in theaters because, let me guess, it was a 2-hour-and-40-minute movie about persecuted 17th-century priests. Guess what: Attention must still be paid. It’s a work of spiritual passion, profound doubt, and almost painful visual grandeur, so see it on the biggest screen you can find.
“20th Century Women”: I’m going to keep banging on about this movie until every one of you recognizes Annette Bening’s gift for playing frayed, funny, magnificent heroines who seem to have stepped from the real world onto the screen.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.