It's getting to be Oscar time, and there is a ton of worthy films nominated this year. If you want to catch up on a nominated director's prior work, then there's always streaming.
Flirting With Disaster (1996: Netflix Streaming, Hulu Plus) - People sure love David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, and I won't be surprised if it grabs a couple Oscar awards, but to me it cannot hold a candle to this absolutely bonkers movie that stars Ben Stiller as a man searching for his biological parents so that he can relax about the upcoming birth of his own child. Russell has always been adept at breathing life into quirky characters, and Flirting is loaded with them. Joining Stiller is an awesome cast, including Mary Tyler Moore, Josh Brolin, Patricia Arquette, and Tia Leoni. Everyone shines in this film, especially Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda, who nearly steal the whole third act away from the rest of the actors as a pair of ex hippies.
Near Dark (1987: Amazon Prime VOD) - Way before Kathryn Bigelow went all big time on us gorehounds with movies like Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, she made a small little horror picture about white trash vampires terrorizing the Midwest. Near Dark is a wonderfully moody film with awesome performances from the likes of Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Adrian Pasdar, but it's Lance Henriksen playing the leader of this redneck band of bloodsuckers that steals the show. He has just the right amount of swagger to pull off this very unique entry into the vampire mythos. And if anyone out there is a Tim Thomerson fan (you know who you are), then I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that he's in this, too. Now, to be honest, Near Dark falls apart a bit right at the end, but up to that point, it's a blood and booze- soaked blast.
Funny Games (1998, Netflix Streaming) - I can't remember dreading having to sit through a movie more than Funny Games, and I don't mean that to convey that the film is bad—far from it. Directed by Michael Haneke (this years Oscar nominee for the film Amour), Games is brilliantly disturbing. In this picture, a family has their lives completely upended after they are taken hostage in their vacation home by two sadistic young men who are intent on putting the husband, wife, and their child through a series of sadistic games. It's a tough movie to watch, because Haneke filmed it in such a way that the viewer becomes an accessory to the evil that is taking place on the screen—the villains occasionally address the viewer directly, making them an "accessory" to the crimes being committed. It just keeps ratcheting up the dread till the last second. If you're a true glutton for punishment, feel free to also check out Haneke's nearly shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games that he made in 2007 starring Naomi Watts. It's just as horrifying as this version.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Amazon Prime VOD) While I appreciate the serious films that Steven Spielberg has been focused on making for the last decade and a half, I can't help but long for the days when he had the market cornered on fantastically imaginative moviemaking. His segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, called "Kick the Can", is one of the best examples of the power that Spielberg has as a storyteller. In true Twilight Zone fashion, we get a tale of a group of elderly types living out their last days in an old-age home, content on remembering the past fondly, but not daring to cause a stir at their ages anymore. All that changes when a mysterious stranger (played by the always excellent Scatman Crothers) arrives at the home and offers up a magical game of "kick the can." Spielberg pulls all the right heartstrings with this one and makes audience manipulation look easy. I know, I know: he needed to grow as a filmmaker and make more "adult"-oriented stuff, but I would certainly enjoy him going back, even if just once more, to the "fantastical" type of filmmaking.
The Wedding Banquet (1993, Netflix Streaming, Amazon Prime VOD) Ang Lee, the director of this year's Life of Pi, is no stranger to award-winning flicks: He took home a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. The Wedding Banquet, Lee's second feature film, is the story of Wai-Tung, a gay man living in Manhattan with his beau, Simon. All is hunky dory until Wai's parents, who don't know he's gay, start setting up an arranged marriage for him. This sets off a chain of events where Wai pretends to be already engaged to one of the tenants who lives in a building he owns. Like many of Lee's movies, The Wedding Banquet unwinds like a breeze. Not that it's a light story, not at all. The first half is kind of a slapdash comedy, as Wai pushes the marriage ruse further and further, till he ends up bedding his fake bride. But the second half of the movie is quite serious. What I appreciated about Banquet, though, though was the way in which it handled the subject matter. It seems to me that many of the first waves of gay-themed films of the late '80s and early '90s were all so busy trying to get their ideas across that they forgot to entertain or enlighten. Not that they were bad movies, but they were unfocused by the sheer amount of things they were trying to say in one film. Banquet really avoids this by keeping the story more about the cultural differences between Wai and his parents than the gay thing, giving greater strength to both stories.