A few more gems from 2021 make their way to the front of this month’s out-of-the-box streaming recommendations, along with a pair of charmingly personal documentary portraits and an explosive telling of a pressing and timely historical story.
‘Ride the Eagle’ (2021)
The shaggy-dog charms of Jake Johnson receive a prime showcase in this warm and winning indie comedy-drama — and that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Johnson co-wrote the script with the director Trent O’Donnell. Johnson stars as Leif, a 30-something slacker whose mother (Susan Sarandon) abandoned him at age 12 to join a cult. She dies, leaving him her cabin near Yosemite as part of a “conditional inheritance,” for which he must complete a list of tasks intended to put him on the right path. The modest but rewarding screenplay plays to each actor’s strengths, taking advantage of the kooky energy of Sarandon, the sharp comic timing of D’Arcy Carden (as Leif’s ex-girlfriend) and the cantankerous warmth of J.K. Simmons (as mom’s ex-boyfriend). Lessons are learned, inevitably, but O’Donnell manages to muster up earnestness and sincerity without losing any edge or humor.
This Y.A.-tinged “time bounce” comedy-drama name-checks its most noted narrative ancestor, “Groundhog Day,” fairly early on, but it has more in common with “Palm Springs,” another film that merged the gimmick of the time loop with the conventions of the boy-meets-girl rom-com. In this case, the high schooler Mark (Kyle Allen) discovers that his classmate Margaret (Kathryn Newton) is also stuck repeating the same day over and over, so they join up to break the pattern or, at the very least, have a good time together while trying. Newton and Allen generate considerable chemistry, while Lev Grossman’s screenplay thoughtfully dips into the complicated philosophical questions that make these stories so irresistible.
‘Bergman Island’ (2021)
“I don’t like it when artists I love don’t behave so well in real life.” So notes Chris (Vicky Krieps), a filmmaker, married to another one (Tim Roth); they’re taking a working vacation on the island of Faro, where their shared hero Ingmar Bergman both lived and made his films. It’s a conundrum of interest to the writer and director Mia Hansen-Love, who uses Chris’s journey to ask perpetually pointed questions about separating art from artists. But Hansen-Love’s film is also romantic and playful, particularly in its second half, when we get a glimpse at the deeply personal screenplay Chris is drafting while on the trip. Krieps and Roth have exactly the right handle on their characters and their prickly dynamic, as the two of them love, stimulate and annoy each other, all at once.
We’re so emotionally and psychologically done with the Covid-19 pandemic that it’s tempting to wave off art that deals with it in a meaningful way. But this gripping documentary from the director Nanfu Wang reminds us of the horrifying tactical and political errors of the pandemic’s earliest days and all but begs us to learn from them. Working from Wuhan, the initial flash point of the outbreak, Wang gathers surveillance videos, secret recordings inside hospitals, news clips and official government footage to ticktock not only the spread of the virus, but the spread of misinformation around it. Exhaustingly powerful and frequently harrowing, it’s a nonfiction film that’s pitched and paced like a white-knuckle thriller.
’137 Shots’ (2021)
In Cleveland in November 2012, a 60-plus police car chase ended with 13 officers firing 137 rounds to kill Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were unarmed. Michael Milano’s riveting documentary investigates not only the night in question (via powerfully intercut testimony, dashcam videos and expert witnesses) but the department’s attempt to cover up their mistakes as part of the city’s powder-keg history of racial inequality and the pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” by its police. Milano keeps peeling back layers of bias and corruption before folding in the near-concurrent murder of Tamir Rice, ultimately amounting to much more than the story he sets out to tell; it becomes less a true-crime documentary than an in-depth exploration of the psychic divide that has split this country in two.
In one of the most notorious (documented) occurrences of police brutality of the 1960s, known as the Algiers Motel incident, a riot task force, which included Detroit and Michigan-state policemen and National Guardsmen, interrogated, tortured and murdered several Black men during Detroit’s 1967 12th Street Riot. Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization — penned by her “Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” collaborator Mark Boal — is a difficult film to watch, detailing the horrifying tactics of those officers in wrenching detail. But it’s rare to see a major Hollywood production (much less one from a white filmmaker) willing to address these issues with such unblinking clarity.
Five Movies to Watch This Winter
‘The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography’ (2017)
Errol Morris’s documentaries tend to delve into serious matters like crime (“The Thin Blue Line”), politics (“The Fog of War”) and their intersections (“Standard Operating Procedure”). But he has a lighter side, best glimpsed in this short, modest and lovely bio-doc of his friend and neighbor, the photographer Elsa Dorfman. Her medium is an unusual one — large-scale, oversize portraits — but her camera catches details that a standard photograph doesn’t. And Morris draws a clear line from her work to his, which has always focused on the tiny details that tell a larger story.
‘Presenting Princess Shaw’ (2015)
Samantha Montgomery works as a nurse by day, grinding out an unglamorous living for meager pay. But at night she becomes a superstar — an a cappella vocalist whose YouTube videos are overwhelming in their emotion. Ido Haar’s documentary is, on its surface, the story of how this miraculous but unknown talent is discovered by Ophir Kutiel, a.k.a. Kutiman, a composer and producer who gives her a deserved spotlight. But underneath, it’s a film about the undying artistic spirit and how so many gifted dreamers are just one click from the chance to shine.