It’s been months since I rounded up a group of recommended streaming films, and in that short time I’ve become more convinced than ever that this is how 95 percent of people watch movies now, aside from the “must-see” franchise properties or art-house hits (depending on your preference) you choose to see in theaters. As yet, though, no reliable guide exists to the perplexity of on-demand choices — no way of separating the wheat of theatrical releases just arriving on streaming platforms from the chaff of Netflix and Amazon “Originals” (with Apple soon to join). It’s all one big pile of digital slurry, and reviews pegged to a theatrical release weeks or months in the past aren’t much help, even when aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes or metacritic.com. Something needs to change. The way critics and entertainment journalists cover movies needs to change, if only to match the way audiences increasingly watch the films they’re writing about.
I recently met a woman who stumbled on — and then recoiled from — the dreadful Diane Keaton/Jane Fonda “comedy” “Book Club” on Amazon. She wasn’t paying attention when the first-run reviewers panned it in May 2018; all she knew was that here it was in her queue and it had reliable stars. No one was there to warn her. That needs to change, too.
Here are 10 good movie-type things currently streaming. All are better than “Book Club.”
Rolling Thunder Revue Who can resist “A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese”? Well, maybe those expecting a straightforward documentary accounting of the singer’s 1975 floating musical circus. Scorsese invents talking heads who were never there and amps up the shaggy-dog vibe, but the performances from Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and others are galvanizing. To quote Baez: “Oh, Bob.” (Netflix)
Apollo 11 There are a lot of space documentaries out there, but as the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap rolls around, this 2019 CNN production is the one to see. Correction: It’s the one to be visually overwhelmed by, so find the biggest screen to wrap around your head and put yourself in 1969 via a brilliantly edited use of archival footage and sound — much of it never seen before. (Amazon, iTunes)
Gloria Bell Rare is the case of a foreign filmmaker successfully remaking his breakthrough movie for an American audience, but that’s what Chile’s Sebastian Lelio has done here, and handed Julianne Moore one of her richest roles, as a middle-aged lonelyhearts coping with, among other things, a delightfully insecure John Turturro as an aging Lothario. (Amazon, iTunes)
Everybody Knows Critics labeled this a melodramatic step down for double-Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation,” “The Salesman”), but, damn, what’s wrong with a little melodrama, especially when it comes packaged with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz? They play ex-lovers thrown together in dusty Spanish wine country after her daughter is kidnapped; it’s simmering, sorrowful stuff. (Amazon, Netflix, iTunes)
Blaze Blaze Foley was a musician’s musician and a total screwup, memorialized after his 1989 Good Samaritan murder in Lucinda Williams’s “Drunken Angel.” This biopic, directed by actor Ethan Hawke, is rambling in a good way — much like Blaze’s songs — and it features a fine, bearlike performance by Ben Dickey in the lead and a terrific turn by rocker Charlie Sexton as Foley’s fellow doomed Austin, Texas, outlaw Townes Van Zandt. (Amazon)
Stan and Ollie I swear to God, John C. Reilly is the most underrated talent in American movies. This late-life bio about the legendary comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy piddles along in the plot department, but it showcases a performance by Reilly as Oliver Hardy that is so familiar yet beguilingly new that it becomes otherworldly — you can’t take your eyes off the actor. Which is too bad, because Steve Coogan is doing a pretty good job as Stan Laurel. (Amazon, iTunes)
Knock Down the House A Netflix “original” that the service actually picked up at Sundance, where it slayed. Rachel Lears’s documentary follows four women candidates during the 2018 mid-term elections. All are inspiring, one is named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and it’s a chance to see New York’s political phenom before (and as) she became “AOC.” She’s quite winning, in more ways than one. Show it to the haters. (Netflix)
Woman at War A mild-mannered middle-aged choir director (Halldora Geirhardsdottir) moonlights as an ecological monkey-wrencher in this droll and thought-provoking comedy-drama. As directed by Benedikt Erlingsson with a whimsical surface and a heart of steel, this is probably Iceland’s idea of a superhero movie. Should be ours as well. (Amazon, iTunes)
Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse You don’t need to be a kid or even a comics fan to have a blast with this exuberantly surreal men-in-tights adventure-comedy, the most delightful animated films in years and a movie that rebottles the slapstick energy of a vintage Warner Bros. Looney Tune. It’s been available as a streaming rental for a while, but now it comes to Netflix. (Amazon, Netflix, iTunes)
Performance Ooh, look: The Criterion Channel just uploaded this fantastically weird 1970 gangster/identity-swap/trip movie, with Mick Jagger’s finest onscreen hour as a dissolute rock star (I know — big reach) who takes in a fleeing hit man (James Fox) only to steal his soul. “Memo From Turner,” a mini-music video jammed in the middle, is as mean as anything Jagger ever did. Directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell. (Criterion Channel)
Note to Criterion subscribers: It’s your last chance before the end of the month to see In a Lonely Place (Humphrey Bogart’s single best performance, IMO, and a prescient psycho-boyfriend drama) and all of the service’s estimable “Columbia Noir” collection, of which “Place” is a part. Nine movies! You still have time! Go!