December is upon us, prompting a glut of year-end best-of lists from film critics, awards-giving bodies and various experts. Most of those feature titles you might not have seen, and some you haven’t even heard of. In that year-end wrap-up spirit, this month’s guide to the hidden gems of your subscription streaming services consists solely of films released in the United States during the past calendar year. Check out some obscurities, and impress your friends and colleagues at holiday parties.
‘Stars at Noon’
Stream it on Hulu.
Claire Denis’s erotic drama is immersed in the worlds of journalism, espionage and geopolitics, but the real subject is one of her standbys: the sexual dynamics between men and women, and the transactional nature therein. The participants here are Trish (Margaret Qualley), an underemployed American journalist in Nicaragua who’s doing a bit of sex work as a side hustle, and Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a British businessman who’s both buying and selling. Denis keenly observes how the power shifts between them, and rarely without a struggle; their dialogue scenes have a cockeyed unpredictability, particularly since one or both is always in a state of desperation. Alwyn is fine, good even, but Qualley is a revelation; she is, by turns, funny, sexy, savvy and broken.
The extremist Argentine-French filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s most recent effort is his gentlest, though only because he’s best known for provocations like “Irreversible,” “Enter the Void” and “Climax.” Here, he tells the story of a long-married couple (played by the Italian filmmaker Dario Argento and the French actress Françoise Lebrun) and how their idyllic retirement is ripped apart by her increasingly debilitating dementia. It sounds not unlike Michael Haneke’s devastating “Amour,” a similarly dour tale of aging and mortality, but Noé inserts an additional visual dimension: He plays out the events in split-screen, with her separative frame a devastating visualization of her mental isolation — a stylistic flourish that makes this harrowing drama all the more affecting.
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Stream it on HBO Max.
Once upon a time, a Barry Levinson-directed feature based on a true story, with an all-star cast and successful debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, would have been a shoo-in for Oscar consideration. In today’s peculiar marketplace, it’s bought up by HBO only to never be seen again. But this is a stellar historical drama, with Ben Foster in fine form (both dramatically and athletically) as Harry Haft, an Auschwitz captive who survived his time there by boxing, and later used those skills to make a career as a boxer in America. The fight scenes are brutal, the dramatic stretches wrenching, and Levinson orchestrates his first-rate cast with aplomb.
‘Elesin Olba: The King’s Horseman’
Stream it on Netflix.
In 1943, in the region of Africa now known as Nigeria, the longstanding tradition of the tribal king’s horseman committing ritual suicide after the death of the king (and thus following him into the afterlife) was prevented by British colonialists. That true event inspired Wole Soyinka’s venerable play “Death and the King’s Horseman,” which was adapted into this absorbing feature film by the Nigerian novelist, playwright and filmmaker Biyi Bandele (who died just before its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival). The portraiture of customs and rituals is fascinating, and the Brits are properly villainous. But the film truly comes alive in its closing scenes, a thought-provoking and thoughtful contemplation of mortality and responsibility.
Stream it on HBO Max.
Between interviews for Daniel Roher’s documentary, but on a hot mic, the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny tells a friend, “He’s filming it all for the movie he’s gonna release if I get whacked.” That candor and fearlessness was part of what made Navalny a thorn in the side of Putin’s Kremlin, and as such, he was the target of a likely assassination attempt by poisoning in 2020. Roher’s cameras follow Navalny as he recovers, prepares to return to Russia and participates in an independent investigation of the poisoning, resulting in an explosive, accidental confession by one of the perpetrators. Roher carefully avoids outright hagiography (via evenhanded discussion of Navalny’s image and ethics), using his access and materials to assemble a first-rate, though nonfiction, political thriller.
‘My Old School’
Stream it on Hulu.
The story of a supposedly 17-year-old secondary school student who was revealed, after over a year in classes, to be a 32-year-old former student caused a sensation in Scotland (where it occurred) and across Europe — so much so that it was slated to be adapted into a feature film, with the actor Alan Cumming in the leading role. That film was never made, but now the story has become a documentary, and since the film’s subject would consent only to an audio interview, Cumming appears on camera to lip-sync the man’s words. (Got that?) The rest of the tall tale is told via animation, archival footage and alternately funny and contemplative contemporary interviews with the classmates of “Brandon Lee,” who attempt to puzzle out why they were so easily fooled, and (in the stellar closing sections) how well they remember the entire affair. The director Jono McLeod tells the story straight, as they all heard it and as “Lee” told it, which makes for a wild, twisty ride indeed.
‘Free Chol Soo Lee’
Stream it on Mubi.
Everybody loves the story of an innocent man, wrongfully accused and then rightfully freed, and it’s been a standby of documentary cinema since (at least) “The Thin Blue Line.” Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s film begins as that movie, relating how Chol Soo Lee was convicted and imprisoned for a murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1973, based on scant evidence and flimsy eyewitness testimony, only to become a common cause for the Korean American community until he was finally freed more than a decade later. But that’s only part of the story. With sensitivity and nuance, the filmmakers follow Lee’s troubled post-prison journey, reminding us that happy endings are often temporary. A riveting and often heartbreaking tale.